Horner, Airgas will compete in Tour d'Azerbaïdjan in May

A recent invitation to the Tour d'Azerbaïdjan in May will fill the hole left in Airgas-Safeway's race calendar that opened when the US Continental team missed out on an invitation to the Tour of California.

Team principle Chris Johnson told Cyclingnews this week that team leader Chris Horner will target the general classification at the five-day UCI 2.1 race scheduled for May 6-10.

"Most definitely, Horner will be leading the team," Johnson said. "I think the overall fits him and Luis [Lemus] very well. We're bringing a team of six riders, with Luis and Horner leading the team and then four support riders who will be looking for some stage finishes."

The team will compete at the Tour of the Gila the week before - April 29 through May 3 - and then leave directly from the New Mexico race for Azerbaijan. Johnson said the race will provide proper training for the team ahead of the US National Championships.

"The race fits perfectly in our schedule to prepare the riders for nationals," he said. "With Redlands, basically we're going to start a series of five races in a row."

Tour d'Azerbaïdjan starts May 6 with a 154km stage from Baku to Sumgayit. It concludes May 10 with a 144km race in Baku on the same circuit that will be used for the European Games in June. The stage race also includes a summit finish on stage 3, a 180km route around Gabala.

"There's a mountaintop finish and the course looks pretty challenging," Johnson said. “The organisers are really, really organised with everything. We've already got course maps with finish-line turns and that kind of stuff. And the riders are really getting excited watching all these races on EuroSport, and they're advertising for the Azerbaidjan race."

EuroSport will broadcast the third, fourth and fifth stages of this year's tour live. Highlights of the first and second stages will also be shown.

Other teams competing in the race include Adroni Giacattoli, RusVelo, An Post-Chainreaction and Novo Nordisk.

"Novo Nordisk and Airgas-Safeway are going to be the first American teams that will actually be competing in the tour," Johnson said. "But once we started looking at the schedule and we saw a real quality 2.1 event – and it was perfect timing leading up to nationals – it was an opportunity that we wanted to jump on.

"Last year we had the opportunity to go to South Africa, and it was not only a good racing experience, it was a good team-building experience as well. It really brought the team together. I'm hoping that the trip to Azerbaidjan will serve the same kind of purpose."

Airgas-Safeway's season encountered a tough break in the early going when the team found out it would not be invited to the California race, and then its plan to start the season at the Tour of Mexico fell through when that race was cancelled.

Riders have been competing in regional races to prepare for the Redlands Bicycle Classic, which Horner has won four times. The five-day race in Southern California takes place April 8-9 and is the first event on USA Cycling's 2015 National Racing Calendar.

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