With 10 UCI Continental teams registered in the US this year and a full calendar of road races and criteriums lying ahead, cycling in the States appears to be moving forward at quite a nice clip.
The addition of three new men's US Continental teams has mitigated the impact somewhat of losing the longtime Bissell Pro Cycling program, while the downward pressure on the rider market caused by folding WorldTour and Pro Continental teams has created a US domestic peloton that may be deeper and more talented than it's been in years.
Even so, there should be plenty of room on the circuit for the peloton to sort things out. The absence of three-time National Race Calendar overall winner Francisco "Paco" Mancebo, along with other key off-season transfers, could lead to a style of racing that is more wide open than the domestic circuit has been used to. Overall, the US domestic circuit is shaping up to be a barn-burner this year, and things will begin to shake out this week at the NRC-opening Redlands Bicycle Classic.
Following is a brief look at the some of the men's domestic Continental teams as they head into the 2014 season.
Mancebo's former team will have to establish a new identity this season after it backed the talented Spanish all-rounder almost exclusively last year. The addition of Jake Keough from UnitedHealthcare and a returning cast of talented rouleurs could change the team's focus from runs at the general classification to setting up Keough in bunch sprints or looking for opportunistic strikes from breakaways.
Director Frankie Andreu has put his general classification hopes on former Champion System rider Chad Beyer and Gavin Mannion, who rode with Bontrager the last four years. But until those two can prove themselves as GC threats in NRC races, the team will have to look to Keough and stage wins for results.
"With Paco gone it's not as one dimensional," Andreu said of his team's new approach to races. "And it will give the other guys opportunities to be able to ride for themselves and be able to look for some opportunities for themselves."
Bobby Sweeting may be the best of Andreu's roleurs. He finished sixth last year at the Tour of Alberta - the first non-WorldTour rider - and he also won the opening time trial at the NRC Cascade Cycling Classic. But Andreu will also look for Jim Stemper, Bruno Langlois, Taylor Shelden and David Williams to take their shots. The relatively small 11-rider roster could spread the team pretty thin this year.
Airgas Pro Cycling
Racing as D3 Devo-Airgas in its debut season last year, the Philadelphia-based Airgas Pro Cycling team competed on the domestic elite level in the USA Crits Championship Series, the Sea Otter Classic, the Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic, the Cascade Cycling Classic and other national events.
Airgas is one of only two US Continental teams not toeing the line in the Redlands Bicycle Classic this week, choosing instead to start its season next week in South Africa at the Mzansi Tour (UCI 2.2).
The team's 12-rider 2014 roster is comprised of athletes who are all new to the Continental level, and director Chris Johnson previously told Cyclingnews the team will continue with a development focus but will not be restricted to U23 riders. The team's major domestic targets for 2014 will likely include the hometown race in Philly and the US national championships.
Astellas Cycling Team
Mid-West based Astellas Cycling Team will also be in its first season as a UCI Continental program, and as such is still a bit of an unknown. The team started in 2012 as Astellas Oncology and has raced a full calendar of domestic and National Race Calendar events over the past two years. Astellas has also competed at the Tour de Beauce in Canada and the An Post Ras in Ireland. Team liaison Matt Currin told Cyclingnews previously that Astellas will race a 2014 program similar to what it has done in the past, including many of the NRC and National Criterium Calendar events.
The majority of the team's riders are from the US, but the international roster also includes riders from Canada, Belgium, Great Britain and Australia. The first-year Continental team includes five riders with previous UCI experience, including Andrew Baker, Thomas Brown, Max Korus, Clay Murfet and Chris Uberti. The team had six riders from its 16-man roster at the recent San Dimas Stage Race and should have a full squad for this week's Redlands Bicycle Classic.
Bissell Development Team
On paper, this should be a rebuilding year for the program that Axel Merckx has run since 2009. Four riders from last year's squad moved up to the WorldTour, while five others aged-out of the U23 program. The 14-rider 2014 roster features nine new riders, five of whom are in their first year racing out of the junior ranks. Aside from the major roster turnover and young team, Merckx took over ownership of the program in the off-season, bringing Bissell on board as the title sponsor and creating a new management team.
But if early season results are any indication, the development team formerly known as Bontrager appears to have weathered last season's graduations and transfers quite well; the off-season distractions don't appear to have dampened the new owner's ability to spot and recruit talent.
Two of the team's senior riders, 22-year-olds Tanner Putt and Ryan Eastman, found success last week with the US U23 national team at the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal. Putt, a strong overall rider who can climb and sprint, finished 10th overall and was the Best Young Rider at the race. Eastman, a demon on the descents, grabbed three top-10 finishes. Back in the states, a trio of Bissell riders made good at the San Dimas Stage Race, with James Oram winning the opening time trial and Clement Chevrier taking the overall.
While quite a bit younger than last year's squad, Merckx appears to have assembled another top-notch development program that has weapons not only for both one-day races and stage wins, but also GC riders like Oram and Chevrier, who can be competitive in the high mountains as well.
Champion System-Stan's No Tubes
Champion System-Stan's No Tubes started in New York in 2012 and will be racing at the Continental level for the first time this year. Aside from a shared title sponsor, it is not connected with the former Pro Continental team that was licensed in China.
The team joins Airgas as the only two US continental teams not racing this week at Redlands, but manager Igor Volshteyn previosuly told Cyclingnews his squad will be "100 percent" focused on criteriums in 2014, with a few one-day UCI races also on the schedule.
The team will return four riders from the 2013 roster, and it has signed former Smart Stop-Mountain Khakis sprinter Isaac Howe to help bring home the results in the NCC and USA Crits Championship Series. The team also signed Andres Alzate, younger brother of UnitedHealthcare speedster Carlos.
Conor Mulervy started the team's season with a win at the Old Pueblo Grand Prix, and with Team SmartStop moving to a stage racing focus this year, Champion System-Stan's would be a likely candidate to pick up the banner of the underdog trying to slay the UnitedHealthcare dragon on the US national criterium circuit.
Hincapie Sportswear Development Team
In its third year as a Continental team, Hincapie Sportswear returns with the 2013 NRC runner-up in Joey Rosskopf and one of the country's best up-and-coming sprinters in Ty Magner.
Rosskopf won a stage and the overall last year at the Paris-Arras (2.2) in France, and he finished third overall in Fleche du Sud. The 24-year-old was third at the Philadelphia Cycling Classic and took the individual time trial at Tour de Beauce (2.2). He also won the final stage of the Cascade Cycling Classic on the way to finishing second overall.
Magner, the reigning U23 criterium champion, pocketed a handful of races last year along with finishing third on the first stage of the Tour of Utah behind winner Greg Van Avermaet of BMC. Oscar Clark, first on stage 5 of Fleche du Sud last year, and Robin Clark, a stage winner at Joe Martin, will also return with the team.
Director Thomas Craven should get a major boost in firepower and a better chance for results in the high mountains from former WorldTour rider Chris Butler. The 26-year-old rode for BMC in 2010 and 2011 and at the Pro Continental level with Champion System the past two years. He was 12th overall last year at the Tour of Utah and 18th at the Giro del Trentino. He has top-10 results in mountain-top finishes of the tours of Austria, Utah and Langkawi, and he's been in the top 20 of every past edition of the USA pro Challenge and Tour of Utah.
Incycle-Predator Components (Puerto Rico)
Based out of Southern California, InCycle-Predator Components could be a real wildcard on this year's domestic circuit. The first-year Continental team specialized in criterium racing during its debut last year, focusing on the NCC and USA Crits Championship Series. Riders also found some success in a few NRC stage races. Current US pro road champion Freddie Rodriguez started the 2013 season with the team before moving to Jelly Belly and winning his fourth national road title.
The team stepped up to the Continental level this year, registering in Puerto Rico and featuring an international roster that also includes riders from the US, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and Australia. Six of the team's 16 riders have previous Continental experience, including former US Elite and Masters national champion Mike Olheiser. Team owner Micah Cloteaux said the ultimate goal is to build a competitive stage-racing team that can compete in North and South America.
Although the team lost its star rider last year when UCI Americas Tour winner Janier Acevedo moved on to Garmin-Sharp, Jamis-Hagens Berman director Sebastian Alaxandre believes he's built an even stronger, deeper squad this year.
The addition of climbing talents Gregory Brenes, Daniel Jaramillo and Rob Squire will give the team a three-pronged general classification attack, and a core group of returning veterans should be able to supply ample firepower to challenge in both one-day races and stages while also supporting any overall hopes. Former Vuelta a Espana stage winner Juan Jose Haedo should be a powerful weapon in the sprint finishes for the team again this year once he recovers from nagging knee pain that was bothering him during team camp last month.
Jamis-Hagens Berman got off to a rough start at both the Tour de San Luis and Vuelta Mexico, with Brenes, Jaramillo and fellow new rider Eloy Teruel crashing. A stomach bug that lingered into team camp also slowed the team's early preparation, but Alexandre told Cyclingnews he expects his talented roster to rise to the occasion for the domestic season.
Alexandre also said key departures from the US peloton mean the domestic circuit will likely be wide open this year, especially for riders hoping to win the NRC overall. Alexandre said he has as many as six riders who could contend for USA Cycling's season-long road racing crown.
Entering its 15th season in the US peloton, Jelly Belly-Maxxis may be fielding its strongest team ever. Longtime manager Danny Van Haute certainly thinks so. Four-time and current US Pro road champion Freddie Rodriguez headlines a 2014 roster that also includes fellow former WorldTour riders Matthew Lloyd, who won a stage and the mountains classification of the Giro d'Italia in 2010, and 23-year-old Jacob Rathe, who rode for Garmin-Sharp for two years.
Rodriguez is a fast finisher who took his fourth stars-and stripes jersey jersey last year by making his way over the final climb in Chattanooga near the front group and then beating BMC's Brent Bookwalter across the line. Rathe is a strong roleur with classics experience and a hunger to get back to the WorldTour. Lloyd will be the team's man for the general classification when races hit the high mountains. He'll race officially with the team for the first time this year at Silver City's Tour of the Gila.
Two-time Moldovan time trial champion and 2013 Cascade Cycling Classic overall winner Serghei Tvetcov is back for 2014, hoping to continue getting the kinds of results that moved him to the top of NRC contenders. Kirk Carlsen, formerly of the Garmin WorldTour squad and the Bissell Pro Cycling team last year, has been riding well at several early season Southern California races this year and could have a break-out season.
Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies
Optum Pro Cycling director Jonas Carney has built another well-rounded and deep team for 2014. The Minnesota-based outfit will field 17 riders on its roster, including some key new additions after losing Chad Haga and sprinter Ken Hanson to transfers in the off-season. Carney brought in GC hopefuls Will Routley and Carter Jones to bolster the team's stage racing prowess and Brad Huff to help with the fast finishes.
Routley is coming from the Pro Continental ranks, where he raced previously for Spidertech in 2012 and Belgium's Accent Jobs-Wanty last year. His combination of climbing and time trialing skills should make him a big threat in the US. Jones is coming off a year with Bissell Pro Cycling in which he won the mountains classification at the Amgen Tour of California, was eighth overall at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and 11th overall at the USA Pro Challenge. The 25-year-old is hoping to turn the heat up another notch this year.
Huff should be able to provide welcome leadout help for Eric Young, the current US Pro Criterium champion who already took a sprint finish win this year at the Vuelta Mexico. Relatively new to the sport, Young continues to improve after going pro following college, and he should be a favorite in any bunch kick this year.
The team's core of veteran returning riders, which includes US pro time trial champion Tom Zirbel, 2012 Nature Valley Grand Prix overall winner Mike Friedman, Jesse Anthony, Alex Candelario and Scott Zwizanksi, are all also capable winning, so expect to see the team's now-familiar orange helmets at the front of most races and the team's jersey on top of a few podiums.
Team SmartStop-Mountain Khakis
First-year director Mike Creed was tasked by owners to transition the team from a criterium-hunting squad into a stage racing outfit. Creed appears to have done quite well on his first try, leading SmartStop to three UCI wins already this season at the Vuelta Independencia Nacional in the Dominican Republic.
Jure Kocjan, who rode with Euskatel-Euskadi last year, took two of those wins and should be good for races that are very difficult but don't have any high mountains or extended climbs. Creed says a race like the Philly Cycling Classic will be perfect for his Slovenian strongman. Mike Torckler, Tour of Utah mountains classification winner last year, will likely be the team's man for the high mountains and general classification runs, although 2012 US elite time trial and road champion Julian Kyer is hoping to step up into that kind of role this year as well.
Where it may lack a proven GC rider for races in the high mountains, the team appears well suited to collect wins from breakaways or selective bunch kicks. Canadian road champion Zach Bell, who won a stage of the UCI. 2.1 Tour of Taiwan last year while riding for the former Pro Continental Champion System team, he finished second this year on the final stage of the Dominican Republic after making it into breakaway group of eight. Eric Marcotte took his first UCI win at the Vuelta Independencia Nacional by shredding a five-rider breakaway in the closing kilometers and soloing in for the win. First-year Continental rider Travis McCabe scored his first NRC stage win last year in similar fashion and is continuing to improve .