When the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah begins on Tuesday, Australian Joe Lewis, who rides for the Hincapie Sportswear Development Team, will have come full circle. But for the 24-year-old, it's not a case of having unfinished business with the event known as 'America's Toughest Stage Race'.
Two years ago, Lewis was riding for the Trek-Livestrong team when the UCI enforced a ruling which meant that due to the squad's ties with RadioShack, the development team could not enter some of the biggest races on their schedule, including the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Lewis then returned to Australia, racing on the domestic circuit as well as doing the odd stint in Belgium. Twelve months where he was left questioning whether to turn his back on racing on more than one occasion finally came to a close late last year when a deal with the Hincapie Sportswear Development Team emerged and fresh life was breathed into the career of the former Tour of the Gila stage winner.
Taking this into account, Lewis has had more time to think about the Tour of Utah than most, but he told Cyclingnews that it's not about having a score to settle with the race.
"I'm just coming into it fresh and considering it as a new, big race that I'd really like to do well in," Lewis said.
A contract for 2014 is "in the works" for Lewis with the USA Crits Final and the Bucks County Classic left on his schedule. At the moment, he's weighing up whether to enter the iconic Melbourne to Warrnambool or have an early break before a build up for the Cycling Australia Road National Championships, where in 2011 he finished on the podium in the under-23 race behind Ben Dyball and Garmin Sharp recruit Nathan Haas.
"I really like this team and I'd really like to come back," Lewis told Cyclingnews. "It's a good fit.
"Bar some freak result in the next couple of weeks and a WorldTour offer, there's nowhere I'd rather be. It's nice to have a little bit of continuity and stability from a group that you trust and guys that you get along with after the last couple of years."
Lewis has been using Osymetric chainrings for several years and through the company's distributor in the USA, Thomas Craven who is also the team's sports director, landed his ride with Hincapie Sportswear.
"He has treated me differently to a lot of people that I've dealt with in the past," Lewis said. "He didn't promise me anything until he could deliver. Up until November last year he was saying: 'I'm working on it, I can't give you an offer yet, you should still keep looking around,' which I did. But then one day I had an email from him saying 'it was all good, let's do it'. I had the contract signed in a couple of days. He was open, honest and I've never found this team to be anything but. You know what you're getting, you know what you're getting selected for – everything's out on the table and it's a lot better."
This season the team has so far collected wins at the Joe Martin Stage Race, Flèche du Sud, Belsele – Puivelde, Paris - Arras Tour, Tour de Beauce and at the Cascade Cycle Classic with Joey Rosskopf leading the way while Ty Magner claimed the USA under 23 Criterium Championship. With 10 American teams on the start list in Utah, the six-stage event promises a high stakes battle where Hincapie Development is focused on the tougher days that will finish in a sprint.
"I don't think we've really got the riders to contest the big summit finishes but I definitely think that in a group of 40 or so that comes to the finish as I've seen happen in the past, if we get a few of our guys there, there's no reason that we couldn't do something and get a result," said Lewis.
"We've got a couple of fast guys, a couple of strong guys – everyone's super-motivated," with the team having nearly two weeks in Utah before the race gets underway to acclimatise to the conditions at altitude following Cascade in Oregon.
For Lewis, who earned a top-10 performance at the Philadelphia Cycle Classic in June, he's also hoping the odd opportunity comes his way where there is a long descent coming into the finish.
"We can get three or four guys in that group which goes to the line and if Ty Magner's there then I'll lead him out but if he doesn't make it over then I'll take every chance for myself," he explained. "If Joey or Oscar [Clark] get in a breakaway and get almost to the top of the climb before getting caught by a smaller group then there's no reason why they couldn't hang on and beat a bunch of climbers in a sprint."
The other development team in the race, Bontrager, tasted success with two riders in the top-10 on general classification – Joe Dombrowski and Ian Boswell. Hincapie Sportswear is hoping they too can make an impact.
"We're a little bit older because we're not purely under-23 but we like to think that development doesn't stop just because you turn 23," Lewis explained. "I definitely think that everyone across the two teams will be involved in the race somehow. No one's coming here to get their arse kicked."