Xining, CHINA — Airgas-Safeway may have been snubbed by the Amgen Tour of California, but the U.S.-registered UCI Continental cycling team is wasting little time moving on.
In just its second year of existence, Airgas-Safeway currently finds itself at the start of a grueling two-race stretch beginning with the pinnacle of the UCI Asia Tour as one of 22 teams competing in the 14th Tour of Qinghai Lake (2.HC) in China.
Known as the “highest” pro cycling race in the world with an elevation averaging more than 9,840 feet, the 13-day, 2,027-kilometer stage race has attracted teams from around the globe, including Italian WorldTour team Lampre-Merida, as well as Italian Pro Continental teams Nippo-Vini Fantini and Southeast Pro Cycling.
“As a coach and a director, this is a perfect stepping stone for us,” Airgas-Safeway sport director Bart Bowen told VeloNews prior to the start of the opening stage circuit in Xining. “I talked to the team last night and told them it’s going to be a whole new world you are going into, and after seven days of racing it’s going to get real.”
With a wide-open field, Qinghai Lake is anybody’s race, and Bowen believes, while his team is looking forward to racing the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah in August, his team is not overlooking its chances this month in Asia.
“We have three or four guys that are climbing really well,” said Bowen. “Obviously, Luis Lemus and Gerardo Medina come from altitude so this is a nice race for them.
“The rest,” he continued. “Like Griffin Easter, Connor McCutcheon, and Kevin Gottlieb are our engines, and 20-year-old Justin Mauch can climb, and he’s on form.
“Overall, we have a strong group that can excel in this kind of race.”
Bowen considered American Matt Rodrigues his “secret weapon” heading into Qinghai Lake, but the 31-year-old suffered a broken rib and scapula in a crash-marred stage 2.
Of the original seven-man roster, Bowen is most leaning toward Lemus when the race takes a turn for the sky.
“Luis is our most-experienced rider,” explained Bowen. “He’s done this race before, as well as the Tour of Utah, Tour of Colorado [USA Pro Challenge] and has the most racing days in his legs. In my mind he has the most ability already just doing those type of races and knows what to expect.”
The 23-year-old, two-time Mexican road race champion (2012, 2013), who finished eighth last week at nationals, raced Qinghai Lake three years ago while riding for Jelly Belly-Maxxis at the time and admits the race is not one to take lightly.
“I expect it to be at least as hard as the last time I did it in terms of altitude and distance,” said Lemus, who lives in Aguascalientes at more than 5,900 feet above sea level. “I regularly train at more than 2,200 meters [7,218 feet], but I will still feel the altitude when the race kicks up over 3,000 meters. If you are a rider that lives closer to sea level, you are in for a tough week.
“This is also the longest race I’ve ever done, but I told the team it’s just a bike race and to take it day by day,” he added. “We are expecting the whole team to finish as that’s our first main goal, because this is the group that will race Utah, which is a shorter race — but not easier.”
Lemus’ 21-year-old compatriot is looking forward to the opportunity.
“I’m happy to be here, and I think we can get some results and motivation for Utah,” said Medina, who was recently named to his second national under-23 world championships team. “I think this race is where we can take the most out of our director Bart Bowen, as well as Luis [Lemus] and his experience because if we use too much energy in the first week, we will pay for it in the second week.”
Following Qinghai Lake, the team will join 43-year-old veteran cyclist and 2013 Vuelta a España winner Chris Horner in Utah and 23-year-old Gottlieb could not be happier.
“I still get goosebumps riding with Horner,” Gottlieb admits. “Utah is a huge goal of ours because it’s an American race, and we’ve been trying to get into California and Colorado and we finally got our foot into one, so Qinghai Lake is perfect race prep for Utah.
“But this race comes first,” he continued. “Altitude concerns me because I’m bigger and I’m pretty nervous about it — especially the climbs.
“The good thing is that a few of my teammates have spent some time at altitude and they will be all right.
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.