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Craddock looks for stage race success in move to Cannondale

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Lawson Craddock is only 23. It seems like the Texan has been around longer than his two years in the UCI WorldTour ranks. Considered one of America’s most promising young riders, Craddock makes a big move in 2016 to Cannondale Pro Cycling Team.

Craddock’s transfer from Giant-Alpecin to Jonathan Vaughters’ Cannondale squad offers new challenges and new opportunities for the still-improving all-rounder. And that’s just what he was looking for.

“I had two good years with Giant-Alpecin, and I really enjoyed the team, but there comes a time when you want to take that next step,” Craddock told VeloNews in a telephone interview. “When I looked at what would be the best place to progress, that was Cannondale.”

At Giant-Alpecin, Craddock got a taste of everything that WorldTour racing offers. In his two-year, neo-pro contract, he was in the trenches to set up John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel in the sprints, and in the mountains to help GC riders like Warren Barguil and Tom Dumoulin. Now Craddock is asking for new opportunities, and Cannondale offered to open the door for him.

Craddock is among 11 new faces on the Cannondale squad in 2016, as the U.S.-registered team makes a major makeover for the coming season. Gone are such franchise riders as Ryder Hesjedal and Daniel Martin, and the likes of Rigoberto Urán, Pierre Rolland, Simon Clarke, and Matti Breschel are filling those shoes.

While those experienced riders will take leadership roles in major races, Craddock will also get occasions to lead at a few choice points.

“I’d love to progress into a stage racer,” Craddock continued. “The next step is to get more results. I will be there to help the team when I can and when they need me, but I hope to start to target the one-week stage races. I want to try to get some results the next few years, and if that’s successful, start to focus on the grand tours. I am 24 [in February], so I’ve got some more time ahead of me.”

Craddock will debut at the Tour de San Luis in January before heading to Europe for what will be his third season at the WorldTour level. Here’s what Craddock had to say about his new opportunities with Cannondale:

VeloNews: How did the move to Cannondale come together?
Lawson Craddock: I’ve talked a lot with Jonathan [Vaughters] over the years. Every contract year there was always something going on, and it never worked out at the time. Cannondale had a program that I was interested in since I was a junior. We got on the phone in the mid-to-late part of the season, and it seemed like it would be a good fit for me, for 2016 and beyond.

VN: How would you sum up your first two years in the WorldTour with Giant?
LC: It was incredible being on the team. There couldn’t have been a better place coming into the pro ranks, to soak up as much as I could, and learn about WorldTour racing as best I could. To be up there in the final kilometer of a sprint, or be the last man in the mountains. The team let me gain so much more experience there than I could have in a lot of other places. It will help me for going to that next level, to start looking for results.

VN: You turned pro quite young at 21. What was the hardest part of racing at the WorldTour level?
LC: Just being in Europe most of the year, full-on living there, being on my own, that was a challenge. I’ve been there a lot since I was 16, so I was used to the lifestyle, but it’s different than living there for nine months out of the year. That was a big adjustment, but I had a good support system around me — my family, friends, and a great fiancée — who were always there to help me through it.

VN: Was your third place at the 2014 Amgen Tour of California the highlight, or was it something else?
LC: I think toward the end of 2015, when I went up to altitude to train with the entire team, I got some good form there and could show it. I was third at a stage at the Tour of Poland [stage 6 behind winner Sergio Henao], and I could carry that into the Vuelta. To be there for Tom [Dumoulin], to be his last man in the mountains and almost winning the thing, all that was very special. Riding strong in the whole Vuelta, and finishing my first grand tour, that was a big step. And then racing in the world championships on home roads as an American in front of American fans, that was great.

VN: Dumoulin had a great Vuelta. Does his performance inspire you at all about what might be possible for you in the future?
LC: We laid it all out there with Dumoulin, so we have to be proud of what we accomplished. For a sprinter’s team almost winning the Vuelta, that was amazing. You look at Dumoulin, how he started his career as a great time trialist, but he put the work in and dedicated himself and stayed focused, and he was able to progress pretty consistently. That gives me motivation. That showed me if you put the hard work in, you can achieve things.

VN: What were the low points? Was there ever a moment you thought, “whoa, this is too much?”
LC: I had a really rough time at the 2014 Vuelta [he abandoned on stage 14]. Ending the season on a bad note really gave me a lot motivation in the off-season to come back stronger to show everyone that wasn’t who I was. That was sitting in the back of my mind all last winter. I put a lot into the Vuelta, but I got sick, and I couldn’t make it through. That was a little rough on me. I was glad I was able to get through the Vuelta this year. That was a big weight off my shoulders.

VN: You had that bad crash at the Santos Tour Down Under in January to start 2015. Have you completely recovered from that?
LC: Yes, I have fully recovered, but it took a lot longer than I expected. I didn’t realize how much those miles in January and February count until they got taken away from me. It took me until July until I was really going well again. It was a rough start to the year, but I bounced back as well as I could and I was able to get a solid season in me.

VN: After two seasons in the pro ranks, you’ve ridden to set up sprinters and help the GC leaders. What kind of rider do you see yourself becoming?
LC: I’d love to progress into a stage racer. The next step is to get more results. I will be there to help the team when I can and when they need me, but I hope to start to target the one-week stage races and focus on them. I want to try to get some results the next few years and if that’s successful, start to focus on the grand tours. I am 24, so I’ve got some more time ahead of me.

VN: Did Cannondale offer you the chance to take the leadership role in some of those races?
LC: Cannondale is a unique opportunity where I could target some of these other races. There are some good guys ahead of me who’ve been successful in grand tours, and I can learn from them and get that opportunity to try to make the next step. In this sport, there is no hiding. If you put the work in, you can progress as far as you want to go. I realized that when I crashed. You can sit on the couch, or you can buckle down. It’s a big challenge, but I am motivated to take that next step.

VN: How is the 2016 calendar shaping up?
LC: I will start at the Tour de San Luis and then head to Europe. I will race at Haut Var and the Provence Tour, and then some week-long WorldTour stage races like Paris-Nice and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country). I have a pretty good schedule for the first half of the season. California is on the schedule, and it’s always fun to head back to race on home roads. I love racing in America, and Cali was the race that got me on the map. I’d love to have some success there.

VN: Any chance of starting the Tour de France this year?
LC: I’d love to do another grand tour this year. We’ll see which one it is. I’ve dreamed of racing the Tour ever since I started riding the bike. If I put the work in and I can show I am riding well, I really hope to have a shot at it. The team’s had a really great off-season in terms of transfers, and we’ve got a really strong and solid team, so by no means will it be easy to line up in July.