Jan. 24, 2015 — The winner of the 2011 Amgen Tour of California, American Chris Horner, says he is “disappointed” and “couldn’t believe” that his Airgas-Safeway team did not receive an invitation to compete in the 2015 edition of the race.

Words: Daniel McMahon // Image: Yuzuru Sunada

“I couldn’t believe it,” Horner told peloton in a phone interview Friday. “I don’t know what the promoters are thinking. They’ve obviously done harm to the race by not bringing me. You left the only current rider with a grand-tour résumé who was going to show up, and I’m a past champion there.”

The Tour of California, which on Friday announced the 18 invited teams, does not publish or make public the specific criteria it uses to decide which teams it invites and which teams it does not invite.

“I figured we were already in,” he said. “Clearly they didn’t have to bring us, because we’re not a WorldTour team or anything like that. We needed the invite and it wasn’t a sure thing, but when you’re putting on one of the biggest races in the US, you’d think you’d want the biggest US rider to go, so I figured it was a given.

“It was disappointing,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest races in the US and one I’ve won before, so I was ready to go there and I think we could have put on a big show. I don’t think they’ve ever had a domestic team win California, and I think we could have won it. It would have been something special to do it with a purely domestic team.”

When peloton asked the race organization why a team with a former race winner, who is also a recent winner of the Vuelta a España, failed to receive an invite, it said it would not comment on the matter specifically.

“It’s our policy not to comment on individual teams in terms of what made us select them or what made us not select them,” Michael Roth, vice president of communications for the Amgen Tour of California and a spokesman for the race, told peloton on Friday.

“But I can tell you, overall, the criteria is based on a number of factors, including their overall ranking this year [or] in previous years, and its history with our race — Airgas has never been in our race — and the number of riders in their worldwide rank,” Roth said.

“It’s always very tough,” Roth added. “We also try to have a very good mix between UCI ProTeams, UCI Pro Continental Teams, and the Continental Teams. And it always comes down to several teams that just didn’t make the cut that we feel very badly for. Because our fans like to see new riders. Our fans like to see returning champions. And this team certainly had both. But at the end of the day our choices were teams that maybe would have been a little more obvious.”

Some people took to the race’s Facebook page to voice their disappointment with Airgas-Safeway’s nonselection:

horner nonselection fb

Some pointed out the team’s and sponsors’ close ties to California, and Horner’s status as a popular fan favorite:

horner FB

Horner owns a home in San Diego; it’s where he grew up and where he still spends a number of months training each year. He calls the Tour of California his “home tour.”

Chris Johnson, manager of Airgas-Safeway, told peloton that the team’s main objective was the Tour of California.

“Chris was 100% focused on winning the Tour of California this season,” Johnson said. “We talked about it the first time we sat down in November, and the whole team has been working toward that goal ever since. I’m not just saying that loosely: We have literally been studying the average wind speeds and directions in Big Bear during early May in hopes of building the TT bikes out to best perform in those conditions.”

When asked if the race organizers could be more transparent about its selection criteria, Roth said, “There are numerous factors. It’s the team’s history, both in our race and on the national and international tour. The most recent results, the makeup of the team, how the team will be able to adapt to our course, the popularity. There are just a number of factors. Those are just among the most important.

“It comes down to what we think will make this the most competitive racing,” he added. “I think the field we have is our strongest ever.”

Asked if he thought his team’s nonselection might have had to with its results, politics, or other criteria, Horner said he did not know.

“Honestly, it looks like it could be a political agenda, but I don’t have the answers to that,” he said. “It’s the biggest US race, and I’m the best US rider, period. Nobody’s résumé looks as good as mine [among US riders], so I figured it was a given.

“Politics isn’t something I’m good at,” Horner added. “Clearly I’m old enough to know that politics exists and that it’s a possibility. I’m not saying it’s there or not there, but I’m the No. 1 rider in the US and certainly the strongest and have the best résumé for stage racing.

“And I think the fans will be disappointed not to have me there, so more than anything the organizers just let down the fans,” he added. “I mean, clearly I’m going to show up and clearly I’m going to show up with the best form possible, and do whatever I could to make the young kids ready. The fans are not going to see the best-quality racing they could have seen. In the end it’s just a little bit sad.”

The nonselection is a blow to the fledgling US team. It has two major sponsors that are outside the sport, Safeway and Airgas, and the team is riding Marin bikes, a popular California brand. Safeway has 1,300 stores in California alone.

“Literally they signed me to do California — let’s face it,” Horner told peloton. “There’s no doubt about that. The team wants to do the big races in the US, and they knew if they signed me they’d have a rider who could win Utah, who could win California and Colorado, and we would be riding for some of the biggest sponsors in the sport, Safeway and Airgas.

“There are not a lot of teams that have sponsors that are outside of cycling that are this big,” Horner said. “So when you turn on the bike races and you see Safeway, no one needs to guess what that is. It’s a big-name sponsor that’s coming into the sport that’s going to help the sport out and help it continue to grow.

“So that’s a big thing that the Tour of California is going to be missing, having a big name-brand sponsor that is outside of the sport. That’s a big snub on a big company coming into the sport and putting their faith in.”

(Photo: Airgas-Safeway)
Kevin Gottlieb, left, and Chris Horner. (Photo: Airgas-Safeway)

While Airgas-Safeway is a fairly unknown team, Horner points out that he’s been in this situation before. “It’s a new team, sure, but this isn’t the first time I’ve gone on to a team that was small budget and with guys who weren’t what you consider veteran pros. I did this with Webcor and still won everything in the US — Webcor had guys with 9-to-5 jobs. I expected nothing less from Airgas-Safeway.”

While he has spoken with Johnson, Horner has yet to speak with his teammates individually, he said. He’ll do that, and discuss a new focus for the team, at a training camp in February now that California won’t be an objective.

“We’ll go into the season and try to win as many races as we can of course,” Horner said. “When California starts, fans will just have to hope for the best when it comes to action.”

Here’s the statement from Johnson, of Airgas-Safeway, sent to peloton on Friday:

I’m extremely disappointed that my team did not receive an invitation to compete in the 2015 Amgen Tour of California.

Having to explain to Chris Horner that we were not going to be invited to the race was not an easy thing to do. I have had to tell young riders on the team before that they’re not being selected for a certain roster, but to tell a former Grand Tour champion that he is not invited to do a race he has previously won, that was challenging.

Chris was 100% focused on winning the Tour of California this season. We talked about it the first time we sat down in November and the whole team has been working toward that goal ever since. I’m not just saying that loosely, we have literally been studying the average wind speeds and directions in Big Bear during early May in hopes of building the TT bikes out to best perform in those conditions.

National brands like Safeway and Airgas are good for the sport of cycling and help to attract other national sponsors. Some of the companies that sponsor the continental teams that were invited to race the Amgen Tour of California have hundreds of employees and thousands of customers. In contrast, a company like Safeway has well over 100,000 employees and millions of customers. Bringing brands like Safeway into the sport opens up cycling to non-traditional audiences and the Amgen Tour of California is loosing out on this opportunity by not including the Airgas-SAFEWAY team in the race.

I have worked hard to create an interesting story about a group of young riders being lead by a Grand Tour champion. I have one rider who is the current collegiate national road champion, another rider who is a high school senior and only 18 years old, another young athlete who is a student at Stanford and an award winning photographer. The story of my team is unique and it is a shame the Amgen Tour of California didn’t recognize what we had to offer.

My team is based out of San Francisco, California. Our co-sponsor Safeway is based out of Pleasanton, California. Airgas has branches throughout the state of California. Our bike sponsor, Marin Bikes is based out of Novato, California. Our eyewear sponsor (Spy), our helmet sponsor (Giro) and our nutrition sponsor (Clif Bar) are also all based out of California. To say we have a lot of California connections would be a huge understatement and it’s a big loss to our fans and partners that the team will not be competing in the 2015 Amgen Tour of California.

The organizers did a huge favor to the World Tour and Pro Continental teams by not inviting Airgas-SAFEWAY. I firmly believe that Chris Horner would have challenged for the win in May and it is a loss for the both the fans and racers that the best possible riders are not competing in the 2015 Amgen Tour of California. When the race goes up Mt. Baldy and the peloton completely blows apart, who is not going to wonder where Horner would have finished?

Related: Horner: ‘I’m Back for Round 3 in the US’