The UnitedHealthcare UCI Pro Continental team is hoping to garner its first-ever WorldTour invitations in 2014, possibly even a Grand Tour, team general manager Mike Tamayo recently told Cyclingnews.
Team representatives attended route presentations for both the 2014 Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in October and have had individual meetings with Giro owner RCS Sport and Tour owner ASO. Both companies also own several other one-day and multi-day WorldTour events.
"We threw our name in the hat, if you will," Tamayo said. "We definitely want to be included, we want to be considered. We've been growing for years in order to be able to request an invitation, and it's not an invitation that we request lightly."
Next season will mark the US-based team's fourth year in the Pro Continental ranks. Not counting its dominant run through the 2013 US criterium calendars, the team scored eight wins in UCI races last season in Europe, Asia and the US, and UHC riders hit the podium a total of 22 times. Tamayo said he believes the team has reached the point where it can handle competing in a Grand Tour, prompting the meetings with the race organizers.
"It's one of those things where two years ago I wouldn't have gone and had the meeting with them, but now as the team has grown and we've shown our strength in Europe and we're not just prepared not just as riders, but as management structure, to take on something like a Grand Tour," he said. "Now we feel confident we can do it, versus two years ago when we weren't ready for it. We were willing to admit that to ourselves and prepare accordingly."
The team recently added experienced Italian director Roberto Damiani to its staff. Damiani worked with three-year UHC director Hendrik Redant previously at Lotto when the team competed in all three Grand Tours. Damiani also worked at Mapei, FassaBortolo, Liquigas, Lpr, Lotto and was general manager for Lampre.
And to sweeten the pot just a bit for organizers of the Giro, which will start in Ireland on May 9, the team roster includes Irish world champion Martin Irvine, who won rainbow stripes on the track last year in the scratch race. The team roster also includes Italians Allessandro Bazzana and Davide Fratini.
"We're excited and we are hopeful about it," Tamayo said of the potential WorldTour invitations. "At the same time, there's so much racing now that we're just staying the course, staying the course and doing the right thing. And it seems if you do that some of those around you start to crumble – the ones that didn't do the right thing – and you find yourself in the right place. So we're excited about that."
NCC changes mean fewer US opportunities for UHC men
While doors may be opening in Europe, UnitedHealthcare's dominant "Blue train" criterium team will likely find itself with less opportunities in the US next season when USA Cycling's National Criterium Calendar shrinks by nearly half. As a Pro Continental outfit, UnitedHealthcare is limited to competing in UCI-sanctioned races, and the NCC events are the only stand-alone US criteriums to meet that requirement.
The USA Crits Championship Series took place within the overall NCC umbrella in 2013, and UnitedHealthcare dominated both USA Crits and the NCC. But in 2014 many of the USA Crits events will no longer be part of the NCC. A statement released last month by USA Crits said some criterium promoters do not see the benefit or value of paying USA Cycling to list their product on the NCC "with one primary benefit being the ability to allow entry of a handful of continental pro riders that may or may not attend their listed event."
The change means the number of race days on the NCC will drop from more than 40 to just over 20. Despite the lost opportunities for his team, Tamayo said, the change is welcome.
"I'm a firm believer in quality versus quantity," he said. "I think it's important. We participated in almost every NCC race last year. I think we maybe missed one or two. It was a tall order for us as a team to be able to go to all of them. It's a big financial undertaking, and it's a big undertaking for the riders as well."
The final USA Crits 2014 calendar has not yet been released, but series organizers have announced that the Championship Series will change to a two-circuit series, with one circuit in the west and another in the east. Approximately half of each regions' events will also be on NCC, allowing participation by UCI WorldTour and Pro Continental teams such as UnitedHealthcare.
Although UnitedHealthcare dominated both US criterium series last year, Tamayo said the focus has always been and always will be on winning individual races. The team will go to as many US races as possible next season and not worry about series outcomes.
"When you're lined up at the criterium in Charlotte, and I've got 100 VIP tents of sponsors and supporters and fans on site, they don't care about a series," he said. "What they care about is us winning the bike race. That's what they're focused on that day in that moment. And it's the same for the riders, too. We focus on winning bike races, and if we win the series that way then we win the series.
"So if we can only do three of the USA Crits races and there's 10 of them let's say – I don't know the exact numbers – then so be it," Tamayo said. "We'll go to races to win and that is what it is. And if somebody else ends up winning the series because we're not able to compete in all of them, well then we're not going to fight it. It is what it is. I know that we can do all of the races that are in the NCC, so it doesn't take rocket scientist to figure out that if USA Crits is excluding us out of some of the races by electing not to be in the NCC, then we focus our time and energy to support the races that support Pro Continental and WorldTour teams."
UnitedHealthcare competed in 160 days of racing in 2013, Tamayo said, leaving no shortage of opportunities for his 23-man roster.
Women can race where men can't
The new UnitedHealthcare women's team won't face the same UCI restrictions in the US as the men, providing an opportunity for the team to have a presence at races where the men's team is excluded, Tamayo said, including many US criteriums and National Race Calendar events. The women's calendar will be a mix US stage races and criteriums as well as international events.
"Redlands is a perfect example where the men's team is not allowed to go, but it's one of the key events in the US," Tamayo said. "It's been on the calendar for ages, everybody knows the race, everybody talks about it and it gets good media coverage. Our women will be there full gas to win Redlands, as an example.
"So in some cases I can see where we might opt to not do the NCC race and instead have the women focus on a stage race," he continued. "But there are definitely some NCC races that they will be competing in, not just because it's part of the NCC, but because it's a good race in general, Charlotte being an example. We're going to it regardless of whatever series is on."
And reigning US Pro criterium champion Alison Powers will be one of the team's top riders in 2014, providing even more incentive for criterium racing.
"It's always nice to be able to put stars and stripes on your back when you go to a bike race," Tamayo said. "So we are definitely going to show that off when we can."