The "Blue Train" of UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling will make a switch to the cyclo-cross tracks this season as Momentum Sports Group, owners of the Professional Continental road team, will field a US cyclo-cross program for the first time.
The Maxxis-Shimano Professional Cyclocross Team will debut at the CrossVegas World Cup on September 16 before tackling a 2015-16 schedule of top North American races.
The team's four-rider roster will include Danny Summerhill, Luke Keough, Erica Zaveta and Cari Higgins.
The Summerhill-Keough pairing on the men's side will reunite two UHC road teammates in the discipline where each got his start, Keough as part of a New England 'cross dynasty and Summerhill as an upstart westerner from Colorado.
"It's funny," said Summerhill, 26. "It's a really small world. He and I started out years and years ago on the kind of pilot run for the [USA Cycling] development program, where they took us over to Belgium to live and do 'cross with the national team. They took two U23s and a Junior, and I guess he was the Junior. It was Bjorn Sealander, Luke and myself."
After the Belgium experience ended and the young 'cross racers returned to their respective sides of the US, Summerhill figured he'd never see Keough again. Then they turned up as road teammates on UHC several years later.
"Now it's come full circle and we're teammates in 'cross, too," Summerhill said.
Summerhill brings impressive cyclo-cross palmares to the new program, including a U23 national championship in 2010 and multiple UCI victories last year.
Keough comes from a long line of 'cross racers in New England, where the 24-year-old was a five-time winner at Cyclesmart International. Most recently, Keough has eased away from 'cross and forged a reputation with UHC's criterium squad as a dangerous sprinter. With his background in BMX and 10 years of cyclo-cross experience, Keough could be a force again on the US circuit.
"He obviously knows what he's doing," Summerhill said. "Just like me, he's got a background in 'cross and eventually moved to the road. We're similar in a lot of ways in that we are roadies who can still hack it in the dirt. He's a great bike handler, obviously, being a crit superstar. The way that 'cross races in America generally tend to go, it's going to be well suited for him in a lot of races this year."
Of the four riders on Maxxis-Shimano's roster, Zaveta is the only one who isn't currently employed with the UHC road squad. The 25-year-old comes to the team from BMW-Happy Tooth, but she had a breakthrough cyclo-cross season last year with the Amy D Foundation, scoring her first major UCI win at the 2014 Gateway Cup.
Higgins, 38, is probably best known as a track racer and lead-out specialist for UnitedHealthcare, but she brings a strong work ethic and a powerful sprint to the cyclo-cross team.
The Maxxis-Shimano Pro Cyclocross Team marks another growth spurt for Momentum Sports Group, which added a women's road team to its stable in 2014. In a statement released by the team, owner Thierry Attias said the group is always looking for ways to grow within the sport, and cyclo-cross was a logical next step.
"We feel that cyclo-cross in the United States is in a place of healthy growth and expansion right now, and we are excited to become a part of that," Attias said.
While Summerhill has been steadily employed with UnitedHealthcare's road team since 2012, his ‘cross sponsorships have varied. He said he's looking forward to transitioning from one discipline to another while keeping it all in the family.
"It's awesome to be at a point where we have the support from the road team and the road family that they can make his happen," he said. "It makes my life easier and will make for I hope a really fun season."
The cyclo-cross riders and staff will be able to draw from the road team's background and experience, Summerhill said, and that should help ease some of the inevitable hiccups that come with a wholly new set up.
"There's a deeper net to kind of fall back on, if you will," he said. "I've wanted to have something like this for years, and it's finally happening. So I'm really looking forward to getting to work with some of the same people I work with all year."
UnitedHealthcare director Rachel Heal will manage the new cyclo-cross team. Riders will compete on Parlee Z-Zero XD cyclo-cross-specific frames, outfitted with Shimano Di2 electronic drivetrains, hydraulic disc braking systems and Dura-Ace Carbon wheelsets. Maxxis, of course, will supply the tires.
Maxxis-Shimano Pro Cyclocross Team 2015-16 race schedule:
September 16 – Cross Vegas UCI World Cup; Las Vegas, NV
September 26-27 – Gran Prix of Gloucester; Gloucester, MA
October 3-4 – KKMC Cyclo-cross Festival; Providence, RI
October 17-18 – US Open of Cyclocross; Boulder, CO
October 31 – Cincy/Kings CX After Dark; Mason, OH
November 1 – Pan Am Continental CX Championships; Covington, KY
November 7-8 – Derby City Cup; Louisville, KY
December 12-13 – North Carolina Grand Prix; Hendersonville, NC
January 10 – USA Cycling National Championship; Asheville, NC
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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and 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, with his imaginary dog Rusty.