Team SmartStop director Michael Creed told Cyclingnews on Monday that the US-registered Continental team would not return next year, but owner Jamie Bennett insists he's still hoping to hunt down the so-far elusive title sponsor that will allow the team to go on.
Team owner Premiere Sports Group announced earlier this year that SmartStop Self Storage had changed ownership and the company would not return next year as a title sponsor. Management had hoped to find a replacement to keep the team afloat, but Creed indicated to Cyclingnews before stage 6 at the Tour of Alberta the search has not been successful.
"The search for sponsors is tough, and with SmartStop being bought out by Extra Space, that was our title sponsor," Creed said. "There is an outside chance, and I’m still working on things, but I think that it’s only fair for the riders and the staff to let them know that there is nothing.
"If the team continues it won’t be in its current form," Creed said. "It will be on another racing licence, and I don’t think it’s fair to string people along. While I am hopeful, it’s better to say that this team as we know it is over."
Creed tweeted earlier in the day that Monday's final stage at the Tour of Alberta would be Team SmartStop's last.
Premiere Sports Group co-owner Jamie Bennett says the group is not ready to throw in the towel, however.
"I'm very interested in having a program next year," Bennett said. "I've been out there beating the bushes to put something together. I'd like to be able to announce a title sponsor in the coming weeks, but I can't do that right now."
Bennett admitted that the team had been "cash strapped" throughout the second half of the season, but he is hoping to regroup for next year.
"I don't think Creed and I are interested in getting out of the sport by any means, but it is the end of Team SmartStop," Bennett said. "We know that they are out of the sport, and we know that the team as it sits right now, we can't make any commitments to the riders yet because we don't have a title sponsor."
While Bennett said his intention is to have a team next year, he admitted it would not be the same group of people, and it would not ride under the same colours or the same branding. Bennett told Cyclingnews that Premiere Sports Group has many partners who are interested in continuing, and he intimated that he is close to signing sponsors for a 2016 team.
"I don't want them to get scared off by any means by sending out a team email that says, 'We're down, we're out, we're never showing back up.' But we all know we're running out of time, too. So it's touch and go, but we still have a lot of fight left in us to put together a program for next year."
Nonetheless, Bennett said this year's riders should start looking for a new team for next season.
"The riders that we've brought along for the ride, I doubt that we'll get them back," he said. "We've got some really good guys, but we don't have the depth to be able to retain them now financially. So if they get another offer they should take it."
Team SmartStop climbed to the top of the US domestic peloton in 2014, its first year as a serious stage racing outfit after many years on the criterium circuit. Eric Marcottte claimed the US pro road race championship in 2014 ahead of teammate Travis McCabe to pull off an impressive SmartStop one-two. McCabe went on to win the National Racing Calendar series that year.
Other highlights for Team SmartStop over the past two seasons include stage wins and several days in yellow at the Tour of Utah; overall victory and stage wins at the Grand Prix Saguenay; wins at one-day races Bucks County Classic and Winston-Salem Classic; and an overall win this year at the Tour of the Gila by Rob Britton, who recently placed third overall at the USA Pro Challenge. The team quickly became a force at NRC races and the riders were known for their aggressive, attacking style.
Premiere Sports Group ventured into women's cycling this season, adding the BMW-Happy Tooth Dental UCI women's team to its line up. It's unclear how the demise of the men's team will affect the women's program.
Bennett said his focus is currently on making a men's team happen for 2016, while Omer Kem, who was manager of both men's and women's teams this year, is going to focus on the 2016 women's team. Kem was not available for comment.
Eric Marcotte, who won the US pro road race for SmartStop in 2014 and the US pro criterium championship this year, also reacted to the news before the start today in Alberta.
"It is a bit of a bummer – because we have a good crew and a good structure behind the scenes – to see everyone disband, because we’ve been with each other for two years in a row," he said. "The riders can only do what we can on the course. We try to perform, and when we have the shots we take them and try to do something with them."
Marcotte, a licensed chiropractor in Arizona, indicated his future with cycling is unclear.
"I’ve tried with a couple of teams for next year," he said, "but I also have a business at home. I’ll be racing again, but maybe a little less as each year go on."
Creed said he has had some offers for different directing jobs, but there are other things he'd like to do as well, like race commenting and play-by-play.
"I really like the role that I had here," he said. "But if you think about how many teams there are and how many professional riders there are, and divide that by 12, that’s how many directing jobs there are. It’s not a lot. I’m not hopeful that I will ever be in charge of a team like this again. This is my dream job, but…"
The team began racing as the Time Factory Development Team in 2007 with former racers Pat Raines, Erik Saunders and Bennett at the helm. Time, which focused heavily on criteriums, stepped up to the UCI Continental level in 2008 and added Mt. Khakis as the title sponsor the next year. They raced as Team Mountain Khakis p/b Jittery Joe’s in 2010, then stepped down from the Continental level the next season.
The team added SmartStop as a secondary sponsor in 2012 and returned to the Continental level, where it continued to be a force in the criterium circuits.
An invitation to the Tour of Alberta at the end of the 2012 season piqued Raines' and Bennett's interest in the more high-profile North American UCI stage races, and Premiere Sports Group shifted the team's focus toward stage racing the following year, bringing former racer Creed on board with instructions to develop a new roster.
In the end, Creed was philosophical about his team's apparent demise after just two seasons.
"It’s beautiful because it’s temporary," he said. "If it was taken for granted and inherent, like an intrinsic right we had to have it, then it wouldn’t be great."