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Charles Wegelius is scheduled to kick off his season under the new colors of UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling team at the UCI 2.1 Tour de San Luis held from January 17-23 in San Luis, Argentina. Coming from Europe's harsh winter climate, the Englishman is realistic about his ambitions during the mountainous seven-stage race.
"The race is a chance for me to meet my new colleagues and get some good racing miles done, in hopefully warm weather," Wegelius told Cyclingnews. "The winter has been particularly tough in Europe, and the race comes early in the season, so I do not have specific ambitions for the race. For our team it is a chance to start working together and for our two time trial specialists there is a chance to try their new bikes and positions in a race situation. For the team it is also a chance to show the cycling community that we are a quality team and work towards the future."
UnitedHealthcare's six-man roster includes time trial specialists Rory Sutherland and Scott Zwizanksi who arrive to the first stage race of the season after a visit to the A2 wind tunnel for bike positioning and testing with English time trial legend Chris Boardman in Mooresville, North Carolina. Joining the trio in the week-long race are teammates Davide Frattini, Andrew Pinfold and Christian Meier.
"I have met Chris Boardman on a couple of occasions, but wouldn't say I know him well," Wegelius said. "When I was beginning to race, around 1994 and '95, he was performing at the top level, and was a real inspiration. He always had a reputation for diligence and innovation when it came to equipment, science and bike position. If he brings only a part of that knowledge to the team, it will be a massive advantage to us."
The Tour de San Luis is staged in the southern hemisphere's scorching summer climate at the base of the Andes Mountain Range. Race organizers traditionally offer the peloton an opening series of fast sprinter-friendly stages mixed with three notorious mountaintop finishes and one decisive time trial.
"Pro Tour teams historically have attended this race and this year is no different," said directeur sportiff Mike Tamayo. "The organizers of the Tour de San Luis have put together a great event and we are eager to compete in it next month. Argentina also offers three of the key elements that make a race of this magnitude so great – great weather, great country and great racing."
In top form, Wegelius is known as a strong mountain climber having competed in many of the world's prestigious event. His results include victories in team time trials at the Giro d' Italia, Settimana Ciclista Bergamasca and Settimana Internazionale de Coppi e Bartali. He has provided valuable domestique work for teams as esteemed as Mapei-Quick Step, De Nardi, Liquigas-Bianchi and Omega-Pharma-Lotto.
"Experience, climbing expertise, and teamwork are my strengths," Wegelius said. "I think that they are my main strengths. I know how to work as part of a team on the road, especially in the hills. From what I have seen so far, there is already a very good team spirit at UnitedHealthcare, so I hope I fit in, and that they will tolerate my terrible taste in music and crap jokes."
Following a strong performance at the Giro d' Italia last May, Wegelius struggled with poor health and subsequently a poor performance at the Tour de France and he did not receive a contract renewal from Omega-Pharma-Lotto. After a decade of competing for European based teams, he was forced to include overseas programs in his search for a new position. He found a leading-type role with the Professional Continental US team UntedHealthcare.
"The truth is that I would not have taken that decision if it wasn't forced upon me, but now, a couple of months after signing, I am glad I did it," Wegelius said. "Everyone wants to race at the highest level. The Tour is a race that can make you, but also break you. It is all that people remember of a season, and a bad Tour can have dramatic effects. An already complicated situation was worsened by uncertainty on the marketplace, and I quickly found my back against the wall. But often you find positive outcomes in situations that only seem negative, and I now have new motivations and enthusiasm in a new, growing team."
"I didn't want to sit out the last years of my career in a traditional, conservative team," he added. "In that case it would have been better to stop racing. Riding on a US team is a whole new way of thinking for me, one that will also allow me to grow and develop with a view to my life after cycling. They say the USA is the land of opportunity, and I hope that I can learn and broaden my horizons whilst also helping the team to grow, on and off the bike. UnitedHealthcare has taken the decision to grow slowly, with the aim of becoming a top team. Although this approach may grab less headlines in the short run, I think it is the best way to end up with a truly viable, long lasting team. That is just the kind of project I want to be involved with, both short and long term."
Following the Tour de San Luis, Wegelius will join his teammates at the official UnitedHealthcare training camp held in from February 2-9 in Thousand Oaks, California. The first two months of his schedule will include the Volta ao Algarve, Clasica de Almeria, Vuelta Ciclista a la Region de Murcia and Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali.
"Our racing program will be split into two blocks of racing in Europe to prepare for our two major goals of the season, the Tour of California and the Quiznos Challenge," Wegelius said. "It is essential to race at the highest level possible to prepare for events of that calibre, and I think that exposure to hard European racing, although tough, will help the team make a step forward."
His US-based racing targets include the Amgen Tour of California and the Quiznos Pro Challenge. Wegelius was looking forward to competing in the Tour of the Gila, however, the event's downgrade from UCI-sanctioning to the National Racing Calendar (NRC) level could prevent the team from participating.
"I will race in Europe to prepare for these US events and spend some time training, or even racing in the US before these events," Wegelius said. "The Tour of California looks set to be very hard this year, and should suit me. The same goes for Quiznos, although I have never raced at high altitude."