Chris Butler and Craig Lewis will make up the American contingent in Ed Beamon’s new Champion System team. The young Americans told VeloNews they were relieved after injuries hurt them in the job market and that they were motivated to step into a diverse, new situation away from the WorldTour.
Butler and Lewis will be the lone Americans on the China-registered Pro Continental team. The squad’s American manager Ed Beamon targeted each rider early in his roster development.
“They’re young, and in Chris’ case, particularly young, but they come with a level of experience and expectations for themselves,” Beamon told VeloNews. “I think they know what to expect and I think they’re confident they know what they’re getting themselves into and embrace it.”
What they’re “getting into,” is a new China-registered team, Asia’s first Pro Continental program. The squad will race extensively in Asia and target the major U.S. tours and a number of UCI Europe Tour events. With riders like 42-year-old Estonian Tour de France stage winner Jaan Kirsipuu and Hong Kong’s Kin San Wu, the team is diverse and Southeast Asian riders comprise almost half of the roster.
Lewis comes from the ultra cohesive HTC-Highroad squad and said the new environment would motivate him after a serious leg injury cut short his 2011 campaign.
“It’s nice to mix it up and have uncertainties,” he told VeloNews. “That’s what motivates me; not to prove people wrong but to keep reconfirming to myself that this is right and I’m doing a good job.”
Another consideration is that both riders have spent the last few years on the WorldTour and the new squad is a step back, which will give each of them an opportunity to step forward individually.
Beamon said he expected Lewis to take on a leadership role, something the 26-year-old said took a change in perspective to embrace. At HTC, he developed into a key asset in the mountains and rode two Giros d’Italia in that role.
“As a support rider there’s some stress involved, but it’s relatively low compared to guys winning grand tours. It was a good role for me and I filled it well,” Lewis told VeloNews. “It’s a risk and you have to change your mindset. What I’ve done in the past is a formula. Plug in the numbers and pull back the breakaway. It takes time to adapt, but I’m ready for it.”
With a Tour of Romandie stage win, 11th in the Tour of Lombardy and a narrow miss at the Giro in 2010 on his palmarès, Lewis has the pedigree to shine on his own.
Beamon said Butler, who describes himself as “that kid that looks 17, going back to the BMC car for bottles,” came to the team based largely on recommendations from a number of contacts, including USA Cycling’s Jim Miller. Beamon said Butler would get his own chances at results in 2012.
“He definitely has some skills in the vertical department. He can go uphill pretty good; he’s young and there is a lot of room to work with him,” said Beamon. “I’m excited to have a younger American who’s maybe not in the crosshairs yet.”
Butler and Lewis were left without contracts earlier this fall. Butler said he learned late in the year that he would not return to BMC Racing, for whom he turned neo-pro last year. Lewis, on the other hand, hoped to spend 2012 with his HTC-Highroad squad, but the team disbanded when their title sponsor search fell short.
“From a cycling standpoint I was pretty calm about it. I’m American; I’m young. I showed that I had talent and I’m not demanding a lot of money,” Bulter told VeloNews. “I had some good vibes from WorldTour teams and I always had a strong backup.”
Butler and Lewis certainly weren’t helped by their health in 2011; both of them suffered serious injuries during the Giro d’Italia and missed two months of the season. Butler suffered a fractured pelvis in a stage 3 crash, but continued until the ninth stage when team medical staff urged him to abandon.
Lewis suffered a broken femur after he rode full-speed into an obscured road sign en route to the base of the final climb on stage 19. He was three days from finishing his second Giro in a row and had played a key role for HTC in their three stage wins. Complications during his stay in a Hamburg, Germany, hospital endangered his right leg, but Lewis aimed for a return in August.
Butler made his first start back at the Tour of Utah. He was in full-on contract hunting mode and rode to an impressive eighth-place on the final stage to Snowbird. Lewis was looking for work — in and outside of cycling — as well, and gingerly made his return two weeks later at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, deciding four days before the prologue that he would start in Colorado Springs and try to finish the first stage in Crested Butte.
“I wasn’t there to race,” Lewis told VeloNews. “I didn’t want to put myself in any jeopardy. At that point my leg was still broken. Anything causing me to come off the bike would be a tremendous setback. But I made a big effort to get my name out there and it worked.”
Lodged safely three feet behind the peloton at almost all times, Lewis finished the entire race on what he called “one leg.” He limped severely off the bike and Lewis said if he’d been forced to leave the sport, he would have been ok with it.
“I wasn’t too worried. I was kind of looking for something I would enjoy or looking to find that in a different job market,” he said. “Cycling isn’t life or death for me. I’ve done what I wanted to do and could move on. I needed respect from a team to get motivation and with Ed I got that.”
Beamon said Lewis was his first call when news broke that HTC would discontinue.
“It would have been a shame for Craig to look seriously at retirement. He has real potential, but hasn’t had an opportunity to really explore it,” said Beamon. “It was a no-brainer. He was the first guy I looked for when I heard HTC was not going to renew.”
With Champion System, Lewis won’t face early retirement yet. His limp is diminishing and he is focused on a full return by the spring. Butler and he will report to the team’s first camp in Asia in February, ahead of the Tour of Langkawi. They’ll carry the confidence of Beamon into uncharted territory this spring, something they’re both looking forward to.
“I feel fortunate just to be chased after because I’ve never really been in that position,” said Lewis. “I liked the fact that Ed went after the riders he wanted and didn’t try to play the waiting game with people.”
Beamon said he has contracts out for each of the team’s roster spots and expects to announce the full squad soon.