The Amgen Tour of California will welcome two new teams this year when it rolls out of Escondido on May 12 for its eighth run on the North American calendar. Dutch ProTour team Vacansoleil-DCM will join Chinese Pro Continental squad Champion System as the newcomers among 16 squads invited earlier this month.
Although Champion System raced in the US previously during last year's USA Pro Challenge, the California invitation marks the first time Vacansoleil has competed in the States.
"I think it's a wonderful race to be in, and it fits in our schedule, so we are really proud to be invited," said Vacansoleil Directeur Général Daan Luijkx. "We heard there are good roads, good hotels and everything is well organized, so we are really happy with it."
Luijkx said the US market is not a major focus for his team's title sponsors - a European vacation campsite chain and a plant food manufacturer - but the California race provides what Luijkx believes is the best preparation for Vacansoleil's Tour de France goals.
"We are coming with a couple of guys who are going to do the Tour de France, so we are going to be there with a very good team," he said. "We are considering maybe an altitude training camp over there before California, but we are not sure yet."
Thomas De Gendt, Vacansoleil's likely hope for the Tour de France general classification, could be on the team's California roster, Luijkx said, but no matter which riders the team brings, he expects them to race aggressively, seeking out breakaway opportunities and stage wins while remaining in the overall hunt.
Champion System General Manager Ed Beamon shared his colleague's enthusiasm and excitement about the California opportunity, but unlike Vacansoleil's director, he said his team's title sponsor will get a huge boost from the invitation, which comes in addition to the custom clothing company's sponsorship and production of the race's leaders jerseys.
"For both Champion System and our bike brand, Fuji, the US market really drives their business, so they are both very excited," Beamon said.
US riders Craig Lewis, Chad Beyer and Chris Butler will likely join Canadian road champion Ryan Roth on the California roster, along with several of the team's European and Asian riders, Beamon said.
"I think the next week or two will really show which guys are riding best and climbing best from the Asian group," he said. "But I would normally expect that Chinese national champion Xu Gang would be there as well as Jiao Pengda, another Chinese rider. Both of those guys did Colorado last year and were able to handle it pretty well."
Champion System will also ride the race aggressively while trying for a good overall result, Beamon said, but the team will zero in on the most attainable goals.
"I think to win the overall is not a realistic goal for a team at this level given the level of competition," he said. "But I think creating some drama and action in the race and playing for a special jersey as well as stage opportunities is realistic. With that said, we'll have GC ambitions, but you have to be realistic as well and understand the level of competition."
No pre-race altitude camp is in the works for Champion System, but Beamon said the team has had a productive season so far and will arrive in California early enough to give the riders plenty of time to check out a few of the most important stages.
"We just finished Oman, Qatar and Langkawi in Asia, so that was a good block of high-level racing," he said. "The European calendar was promising, but with all the cancellations and crazy weather over there we've lost a few days of racing, but we'll continue to stack some racing on top of the guys before we come over."
Beamon said that after an early season in which the team has endured the Middle East's desert winds, the brutal heat and humidity at the Tour of Langkawi and then the rain, snow and cancellations in Europe, Champion System should be more than ready to start racing in Southern California on May 12.
"I think the San Diego weather should be pretty desirable," he mused.
Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake before studying English and journalism at the University of Oregon. He has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon.
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