USA CRITS team profile: A relaxed atmosphere with immense ambitions at Holowesko-Citadel

by Michael Better

In just six years, under close guidance from brothers George and Rich Hincapie, the Holowesko-Citadel team has grown from a junior development program, to a feeder for the BMC Racing Team, to its current iteration as Pro Continental producer of WorldTour talent.

The team has won stages at the Amgen Tour of California, Tour of the Gila, Tour of Alberta, and the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, as well as the two Colorado UCI stage races, the USA Pro Challenge and the Colorado Classic. Graduates from the program include Latvian Toms Skujins, now with Trek-Segafredo, and American Joey Rosskopf, of BMC Racing.

The team’s success is such that head director Thomas Craven is consistently playing musical chairs during transfer season. The Hincapie brothers take pride in seeing their riders advance and grow in the sport of cycling, but they also have hefty ambitions of their own. They don’t want to be the team losing riders to bigger and more prestigious programs — they aspire to be in the WorldTour one day.

“We have come a long way since the early stages of being just a regional junior team to where we are now,” George Hincapie told CyclingTips at the Colorado Classic in August. “My goal is to one day have the team racing in Europe full time, and we’re actually racing in Europe right now. We’re at our first ASO race, the Arctic Race of Norway, which is a big deal for us.”

In Colorado, Australian sprinter Joe Lewis — who is in his seventh year with the Hincapie program — finished on the podium twice in four days, winning the points classification.

Despite the team’s continuous growth and ambition to compete with the best in the world, there are still strong ties to its American roots. In 2018 the team sent a full squad to a handful of USA CRITS events. The criterium races helped fill a void in the schedule for the squad in the early spring, but Hincapie also acknowledges that criterium racing is the backbone of what American bike racing is all about.

Living up to expectations

In April, at the Athens Twilight — the most prestigious criterium race in America — Holowesko-Citadel was viewed by most as the most powerful squad on the start list. But putting that strength to the test for the win is another matter. Many teams on the USA CRITS circuit are not UCI registered, comprised of riders who maintain day jobs and fit training in when they can; for a Pro Continental team, anything less than a win is below expectations and considered an upset.

At the Athens Twilight, the stars aligned. The neon yellow kits swarmed the front of the bunch and the team’s perennial sprinter John Murphy comfortably took the win for the second consecutive year. An Athens native, Murphy won the race that got him hooked on the sport at age 12.

Murphy and George Hincapie were teammates at BMC Racing in 2011, the first year BMC Racing was a WorldTour squad; Murphy was 26 and Hincapie was 38. The two raced a few of the Spring Classics together as well that year. The following season Murphy dropped down to the Kenda-5 Hour Energy Continental squad, but in a matter of years, he would join forces again with his former teammate — this time as an employee.

The Holowesko-Citadel team is known to be aggressive, always ready to race. But they also know when to step away from the bike and recharge. It’s not often you see pro riders throwing around a football in the parking lot before the start of race, but it’s something Holowesko riders do regularly. The relaxed pre-race vibe is something the Hincapie brothers and Craven have instilled in the team from the start.

“The mentality is very family-oriented,” George Hincapie said. “We obviously don’t want to put a ton of pressure on the guys. You want them to put the pressure on themselves, and to try to win, and to win amongst the biggest teams in the world with giving them that sort of freedom, and I think we do a good job with that.

“We are able to mentor along a lot of unknown talent that comes through our ranks and becomes successful — riders like Toms Skujins and Joey Rosskopf, and Dion Smith have all come through our program, so I think we’ve done a great job in bringing a lot of these new talents up.”

Bigger Aspirations

When it comes to racing the USA CRITS series, and how it fits into his team’s goals and aspirations, George Hincapie is a straight shooter. In the grand scheme of professional bike racing, USA CRITS is relatively small; but that doesn’t mean it is less important. He recognizes that a large percentage of American bike racers enter the sport through local crits.

“Being an American team, it’s an important part of our program,” he explained. “I’d like to see crit racing grow in America, because it’s exciting, but it’s one part of it. It’s not our focus by any means, but we have some of the best crit racers in the world, who are super excited about racing the biggest crits, and we want to put the support behind them when our resources are available.”

Resources are a critical component of the successful execution of the team’s goals, and sometimes they are stretched, which explains why the team is looking to expand and land additional sponsors. Fielding squads in both Europe and the United States, as they did in August, means maintaining not only more riders, but also the staff and equipment to support that team.

The Holowesko-Citadel team has grown slowly over the years, but it’s evident the pace is quickening following the move to Pro Continental in 2018.

“We have taken an organic approach to the growth of the team, not by choice, but by circumstance, more or less,” Hincapie said. “We have sponsors who are engaged in helping us get to the next level, but at the same time they’ve tasked us with finding corporate sponsors that want to be racing in Europe and they’ve given us the time to find those partners.”

The time to find those sponsors is now. Hincapie hopes to have his team riding a Grand Tour within three years.

As the team looks forward to 2019, they will have a plethora of riders to choose from, with multiple U.S. teams folding at the end of the season. UnitedHealthcare is closing its doors and with longstanding sponsor Jelly Belly not renewing its contract for next season, that program looks to be on the brink as well. It’s a difficult environment for landing additional sponsors, but if the Hincapie brothers can continue growing, the team can be one of the bright spots in the American racing.

CyclingTips is the official media partner of the 2018 USA CRITS series. Race coverage of the series included pre- and post-race stories on each event and feature stories on each D1 Team.

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