American Evan Huffman will move to the UCI Continental SmartStop team next year after Astana did not renew his contract. The 24-year-old has ridden with Kazakhstan's WorldTour team the past two seasons.
"I was originally hoping to stay with Astana or another WorldTour team, but once I found out that wasn't going to happen I started to reaching out to US teams I really wanted to ride for," Huffman told Cyclingnews. "I had offers from a couple of other Continental teams, but I really thought that SmartStop would be the best fit for me."
Huffman, the 2012 US under 23 time trial champion, said his skills in the race against the clock should fit well with SmartStop, which currently has several fast finishers, strong roleurs and swift climbers. The opportunity to work with second-year team director Mike Creed also appealed to Huffman.
"I really would like to work with Creed, just because he has a lot of experience and understands where I'm coming from," Huffman said. "He's raced in Europe himself and domestically, so he understands the whole situation of wanting to get back."
Huffman, from Elk Grove, California, shot straight from the amateur ranks to Astana's WorldTour team in 2013 following a breakout season in 2012. Riding with the California Giant-Specialized domestic elite amateur team, he started the 2012 season with an individual time trial stage win at the Merco Cycling Classic, then followed it with another time trial win at the Tour of the Gila in front of Rory Sutherland and Joe Dombrowski. He won the 2012 U23 time trial championship in front of Lawson Craddock and Nathan Brown.
Huffman signed a two-year deal with Astana for 2013 and 2014, and he spent the majority of that time learning the trade in Europe and fitting in as a domestique. He's hoping two years of experience racing in Europe with a WorldTour team will have prepared him well for success in the North American domestic circuit.
"I've definitely gotten stronger physiologically," Huffman said of the past two years. "But I guess I didn't show it at races as well as I could have or should have. I'm obviously two years older, and two years is a long time when you're 24. I'm more experienced and have a different perspective, having raced in Europe so much. Before I hadn't raced much in Europe at all."
Huffman isn't the only rider returning to the US from Europe next season. Phil Gaimon recently announced that after one year with Garmin-Sharp, he'll return to the US domestic circuit next year with Optum Pro Cycling. Gaimon got squeezed out when Garmin chose to merge with Cannondale for next year.
"I was actually really surprised that they didn't keep him," Huffman said of Gaimon. "Because from what I could tell he had a really good year and improved a ton from what he's done in the past. But it's obvious with every team, you have a lot of Pro Continental teams signing riders from bigger teams. It's just a tough year; for the second year in a row a big team has folded, and it hurts everyone."
Getting back to Europe on a WorldTour team is Huffman's big-picture goal, but he knows he'll need to earn some results with his Continental team if he wants to make that happen. He'll target top 10 finishes in North America's UCI 2.HC races, California, Utah and Colorado, although he admits Utah's lack of a time trial steep climbs might not favor his general-classification hopes.
"But also I think winning smaller races goes a long way as well, like Gila or Tour of Alberta later on in the year," Huffman said. "People see those results as well."
The two major objectives on Huffman's calendar will be the Tour of California and the US pro championships, neither of which he's done over the past two years while racing for Astana.
"California will be a really big objective because it's kind of my home race," he said. "I've been looking forward to doing California for a long, long time. So it will be cool to finally, hopefully, be on the start line there."
Smartstop didn't receive an invitation to the California race last year, but the team did finish the season at Utah, Colorado and Alberta. Along the way, Jure Kocjan won the season-long UCI America Tour, Travis McCabe finished atop USA Cycling's National Racing Calendar standings, and Eric Marcotte won the US Professional Road Race Championship. All three will be back next season, and Huffman said he's looking forward to joining them on the team.
"It will be a good team," he said. "I think there's very little turnaround, and it's good for everyone to kind of keep that same core group. From what Michael has told me so far, everyone is really nice and they work well together, which showed in their results this year."