Janez Brajkovic will make the move to ProContinental level in 2015 after signing a two-year contract with the UnitedHealthcare team. Brajkovic has spent the past three seasons with Astana, but expressed his interest in returning to an American team – he has ridden for both Discovery Channel and RadioShack – and the Slovenian is more than happy to finally be getting a chance to race stateside.
Brajkovic has been a part of the WorldTour since he turned professional with Discovery Channel in 2005, and has showed potential as a serious Grand Tour contender, but he doesn't see his move to ProContinental level as a step back in his career.
"On the contrary, I think it is a leap forward. It is a place that I will be able to grow and improve and hopefully win races. It's a place where I will be treated like part of a family and I think I will enjoy every minute with the team."
This season has been a challenging one for Brajkovic and a combination of injuries and illness has left the Slovenian without a single victory for the first time in his career. Allergies put paid to his early season ambitions and a horrific crash at the Giro d'Italia, during stage 6 to Montecassino, left him with a shattered left elbow and left lingering problems in his hand. A further crash saw him abandon the Tour de Pologne on the opening stage, but Brajkovic did show some signs of his former self when he finished third at the Vuelta a Burgos behind Nairo Quintana and Daniel Moreno.
Despite the difficulties he's had throughout 2014, Brajkovic sees a silver lining to his season. "I don't really want to look back," he said to Cyclingnews. "It was a very tough year, but I learned a lot from it. I got to know who my real friends are, so that's a positive thing. In the end, I got onto a team that I really wanted to and it ended really well."
Brajkovic's career has stalled over the past two seasons. He returned to Astana in 2012 – he previously rode for the Kazakh team for the 2008-09 seasons. He made his career best result in a Grand Tour that same year, with ninth place at the Tour de France. However, his performances have tailed off as the team brought in the likes of Vincenzo Nibali. As the team has increasingly revolved around the Italian and Kazakh riders, Brajkovic has found it harder to fit in; something he says contributed to his decision to leave.
"I can't say anything bad about the team, nothing at all. I think we just weren't compatible," he said. "What happened to me, I can't blame anybody. I couldn't really perform how I wanted and I couldn't improve the way I wanted. I think it wasn't the best fit for me.
"I think I just couldn't show what I was capable of. It's not that they didn't give me opportunities, I was just used to working with the American mentality."
UnitedHealthcare have been targeting a spot in their first Grand Tour at the 2015 Giro d'Italia, and sent directeur sportif Roberto Damiani and other new signings Marco Canola and Daniele Ratto to the route presentation earlier this month. The addition of Brajkovic as a general classification contender will only strengthen their position.
In addition to his Tour de France top ten, Brajkovic has taken victories at the Critérium du Dauphiné and his home race the Tour of Slovenia. The 30-year-old is confident that he can do more than match his past performances.
"I will be better than ever next year. I'm pretty confident with that statement," Brajkovic said emphatically. "In the past I showed that I can win races. I won the Dauphiné in 2010. It wasn't that I got lucky. I beat Alberto [Contador] fair and square. I think that I can do that again."
Tamayo adds experience
UnitedHealthCare have had success in the US weeklong races in the past and team manager Mike Tamayo believes that Brajkovic adds calibre and leadership to the team. It was the rider and his agent, Baden Cooke, who initially reached out to Tamayo and since then the team boss has been impressed with the rider's attitude.
"We've been a team that for the past several years have had riders capable of winning stages at weeklong races but with Janez we now have the opportunity to look at overall ambitions in a few different races," Tamayo told Cyclingnews.
"Janez comes in with a lot of experience and Grand Tour ability and while he has been top ten in the Tour de France in the past he directly gives us podium potential in weeklong races like Utah, Colorado, and California."
"The timing seemed right when we got the call from him and Baden and I've been really impressed with Janez's attitude. We had a conference call with directors and him about goal setting and that went really well. It's clicked from our end and his and we're looking to starting his race programme next year."