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US Conti team switches focus from crits to stage races
With an eye toward securing invitations to North America's biggest races, an almost entirely revamped Team SmartStop will change its focus from criteriums to stage racing next season, team co-owner Jamie Bennett recently told Cyclingnews.
New signings for the UCI Continental team next season include Canadian national road race champion Zach Bell, who won stages at the Tour of Korea and Tour of Taiwan in 2013 while riding for Champion System, and former Bissell rider Mike Torckler, who won the mountains classification at the 2013 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
"We're trying to make the commitment and fill some bigger shoes," Bennett said. "We've been doing this for nine years now. It's been a long journey and a lot of fun, and we've always tried to set our targets at something we could achieve. We've been getting a lot of traction and support from our existing sponsors, whether it be industry sponsors or financial sponsors, and everybody is excited to see where we can go with it."
Freshly retired rider Michael Creed will direct a roster that will return just two riders who started the 2013 season with SmartStop. Longtime road captain and de facto director/manager Adam Myerson will return for 2014 with the freedom to focus on racing, Creed said. Sprinter Shane Kline, the only rider to crack UnitedHealthcare's dominance in the USA Crits series last year, will also return.
Four riders who joined the team late in the season and competed at the inaugural Tour of Alberta with SmartStop will be back on the 2014 squad. Former Elbowz riders Eric Marcotte and Travis McCabe, the reigning elite criterium national champion, will join Flavio De Luna and Kristof Dahl again in the 2014 SmartStop kits.
Canadian rider Rob Britton, former Bissell rider Julien Kyer, 2013 Mt. Hood Cycling Classic winner Cameron Cogburn, and Shane Haga – younger brother of Argos-Shimano's Chad Haga – will join Bell and Torckler in filling out the roster so far. Creed said there is more room on the roster, and one other rider has agreed to join the team if it gets invited to any of the North American UCI 2.1 or 2.HC events.
Mountain Khakis, the previous title sponsor and presenting sponsor that has been with the team since 2008, will be stepping down from either of those roles next season but will continue as Team SmartStop's casual clothing sponsor, Bennett said, adding that SmartStop had decided to greatly increase its sponsorship.
The onslaught of changes herald the team's switch in focus from USA Cycling's criterium calendars to the stage-race heavy National Race Calendar and a desire to compete in the major North American UCI races in California, Utah, Colorado and Alberta. The team competed in its first-ever UCI 2.1 event at the inaugural Tour of Alberta at the end of the 2013 season, Bennett said, and the experience wet everyone's appetite for more.
"Going to Alberta really gave me the bug again," said Bennett, a Canadian citizen. "I said, 'Man, I want to compete at this level. This is where I want this program to go.' So we kind of buckled down and really figured out a way to build the roster and, you know, work the politics of it as well.
"It was an honor to be invited to [Alberta], but we realize there's a certain courtship necessary to get into these events," Bennett said. "We have to prove ourselves as an organization, not just a flash-in-the-pan team. We have to let the promoters and other people know we're taking this seriously and we're ready to race at that level. We've been trying to send that message here in the off-season as well."
The roster the first-year director has assembled in the off-season looks ready-made for stage racing.
Bell, 30, is an Olympian who finished second in the men's omnium at the 2012 track cycling world championships in Melbourne, Australia. He has 10 wins on the road, including the stages in Taiwain and Korea and this year's Canadian road championship. Bell started racing at the Continental level in 2005 and moved to the Pro Continental level with Spidertech for the 2011 and 2012 seasons. He rode for Champion System in 2013.
"I have the feeling he'll be the leader on the road in a lot of instances," Creed said. "He can time trial well and sprint well. I know he wants to get in a position where he's making 20-30 man groups and he's the fastest guy out of a small group. So we'll help him there."
Torckler, a 26-year-old from New Zealand, found success in 2013 after two encounters with severe bad luck stalled his progress. He turned professional in 2011 with the UCI Continental Pure Black Racing team, but a freak off-the-bike accident on a muddy stairway during a pre-season training camp broke his kneecap in two. His return from that injury took a setback when a hit-and run driver struck him head-on while he was training in Santa Rosa, California. Torckler capped his most recent comeback with a gutsy fight for the climber's jersey in Utah, which featured multiple ascents topping 3,000 meters.
"He had a quiet start to last year," Creed said. "So we'll be asking him to be a little more pronounced at the beginning of the year. With a team like this we have a lot to prove, so we want to come out swinging."
The former Elbowz racers, Marcotte and McCabe, are similar riders at different ends of their careers. Marcotte, 33, is a veteran all-arounder with a strong finishing kick. McCabe, 24, won his first NRC stage race in 2013 to go along with his elite criterium title.
"I have a lot of faith in those guys and how strong they are, especially a guy like McCabe who is still so young," Creed said. "He did a threshold test two or three weeks ago in the middle of his off-season, and it was pretty freaking impressive. So I have a lot of hope for that guy."
De Luna came to the team by way of Spidertech in 2012 and then SmartStop through July of this year. Dahl earned his way onto the squad for the 2013 Tour of Alberta in September as part of a prize for being the first U23 rider to finish a selected race in Canada.
"He got on the team in an innovative way last year," Creed said. "He's really natural on the bike and is comfortable on the bike. He's got an athletic body. There were times when you could see his inexperience, but why not go along with him and see where you can go."
Kyer and Britton both previously rode for Bissell. Britton was with Bissell for two years and moved to Team Raleigh in 2013. Kyer rode with Trek-Livestrong in 2009-10, Kelly Benefit Strategies in 2011 and Bissell the past two years.
Cogburn, a two-time winner of the Mt. Washington Hillclimb in New Hampshire, will get his first shot with a Continental team after also winning the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic overall this season. Creed is hoping Shane Haga can replicate or better the results of his older brother Chad, who earned a trip to the WorldTour with Argos-Shimano next year.
"By all accounts he is physically more talented than Chad," Creed said. "He just finished college, so we'll give him an opportunity and see if he steps up to the plate."
SmartStop Self Storage is one of the fastest growing self-storage companies in North America, according to the company website. Next season will mark the eighth year that Bennett and co-owner Patrick Raines have run a team through their Premier Sports Group company.
2014 Team SmartStop roster:
Returning: Kristofer Dahl, Flavio De Luna, Shane Kline, Eric Marcotte, Travis McCabe, Adam Myerson
Additions: Zach Bell, Rob Britton, Cameron Cogburn, Shane Haga, Julien Kyer, Mike Torckler
Not Returning: Thomas Brown, Ben Chaddock, Jon Hamblen, Isaac Howe, Travis Livermon, Bobby Lea, Chris Monteleone, Clay Murfet, Daniel Patten, Jackie Simes, Frank Travieso, Chris Uberti, Curtis Winsor