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Safeway to sponsor Continental team

American grocer Safeway recently stepped into the pro cycling arena, announcing its sponsorship of a UCI Continental team, to be called the Airgas-Safeway Cycling Team. The team will be made up of 16 riders — the roster is not yet finalized — and focus on development, though it does not bill itself as a development team.

“2014 was our first year as a UCI team and we were able to compete in over 20 states throughout the U.S. and in South Africa. In 2015 we will concentrate on a number of high-level events and are very grateful to add Safeway as co-sponsor,” said team principal Chris Johnson in a press release.

Johnson later said in an interview that the team wasn’t ready to nail down a calendar but did hope to compete in the major races in the U.S., such as the USA Pro Challenge and Amgen Tour of California.

“It’s a really big deal,” Johnson said of the Safeway sponsorship. “They’ve been involved in a masters team for more than 10 years … it’s great news for everybody. Us having national sponsors is going to help everyone get national sponsors.”

The team, formerly Airgas, is focused on developing younger riders and will return five riders from last year’s UCI squad, and three development riders. “We’ve signed a number of riders from other Continental teams,” Johnson said, though he would not elaborate.

Bart Bowen will be the director for next season and the squad will have riders from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

“Having companies like Airgas and Safeway come in to support professional cycling in the U.S. is a very big deal. Most of the UCI-level teams in the U.S. are supported by wealthy individuals or an industry partner whose marketing goals fall in line with what a certain team might be doing in a given season,” Johnson wrote in an email. “By going outside the industry for support, we’re able to choose our industry partners and create a solid foundation that will let us tackle the largest races in the U.S.”

Team members were excited about the news as well.

“When I heard Safeway was going to be our co-sponsor next season, I think I yelled out loud,” said the current USA Cycling collegiate national champion Griffin Easter in a team release.

Safeway operates 1,331 stores in the United States and had annual sales of $35.1 billion in 2013. Airgas is a company that provides gases, welding and safety products.