There are two types of team in the UCI America Tour peloton: those who seek victory as an absolute priority and those who use the races for the ridersâ€™ development. The distinguishing feature of these types of teams is often the riders' average age. Of the eight UCI Continental (third division) teams registered in the USA, two are clearly playing the youth card: Bontrager Cycling Team and Hincapie Sportswear Development Team. Success for these two squads will not be assessed next week at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, but rather in a few years, in UCI WorldTour events, when these teamsâ€™ riders are reaching their maturity.
Taylor Phinney is an excellent example of the benefits of the Bontrager system. The American development team helped Phinney, now a professional with BMC Racing Team, to win the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs (twice) and the UCI Under-23 Time Trial World Championships. The achievements of this young rider, a rising star in the media, have highlighted the development work undertaken by Bontrager since it was founded in 2009. For a while, the team was the official feeder team for Team RadioShack. Once more an independent entity, it has retained its ethos.
"Bontrager Cycling Team reduces the time it takes riders to adapt when they join a UCI WorldTour team," explains Axel Merckx, directeur sportif. "We recruit young riders, straight from the Junior category and up to the age of 22, and we help their development. They learn to become professionals and many of them go on to sign contracts with the world's biggest teams. We have worked with Jesse Sergent (RadioShack-Trek), Alex Dowsett (Movistar), Joe Dombrowski (Team Sky) and many others! This year, five of our young riders are ready to join first and second division teams."
Launched in 2012, the Hincapie Sportswear Development Team shares this development credo. The team's members are aged 19 to 26. All want to follow in the footsteps of Larry Warbasse, the best of the bunch last year and now a neo-pro with BMC Racing Team.
"Taking the riders' recovery into account"
Paradoxically, the young riders of Hincapie Sportswear have not featured in many UCI America Tour events. Up to now, they have competed in just two races: the Tour de Beauce and the Philadelphia Cycling Classic (with Joey Rosskopf climbing onto the podium each time). The team's race programme includes US national races and expeditions to the UCI Europe Tour. This season Joey Rosskopf won the Paris-Arras Tour in France, while Oscar Clark took a stage of the FlÃ¨che du Sud in Luxembourg.
"The UCI America Tour is not actually an objective," acknowledges Thomas Craven, the Hincapie Sportswear directeur sportif. "We put together a race programme that is most suitable to the development of our young riders and staff. The degree of difficulty varies depending on the goals. A bigger event allows our riders to learn and toughen up. A more accessible event allows us to win, build self-confidence and progress in this way."
Bontrager Cycling Team, for its part, targeted the two most prestigious races on the UCI America Tour in the USA: the Tour of California and the US Pro Challenge-Tour of Colorado. This has been especially important to the team since acquiring its independent status after previously having been linked to a UCI WorldTour team. "There is no point in overloading the schedule, we have to take our riders' recovery into account," says Axel Merckx. The team's racing programme also involves the UCI Europe Tour and, depending on national team selections, the UCI Under-23 Nations' Cup.
This means that both of these talent-nurturing teams have aims other than the UCI America Tour team ranking. Bontrager Cycling Team lies seventh on the ranking with 145 points, while Hincapie Sportswear Development Team is 24th with 26 points, far behind the team classification leader, Funvic Brasilinvest-SÃ£o JosÃ© dos Campos on 335 points.
"There is no pressure on us to get results," both teams emphasise.
"Our team is a question of lifestyle"
Developing talented young riders and winning races can sometimes be compatible however. At Bontrager, Jasper Stuyven has won four races since the start of the season and Nathan Brown won the Tour de Beauce. Under-23 National Championships are naturally a major target, with success in the United States in the time trial (Brown again) and road race (Tanner Putt) as well as the time trial titles of Latvia (AndÅ¾s Flaksis) and New Zealand (James Oram).
Axel Merckx smiles: "We have had so much success that we always ask ourselves whether it will be possible repeat it the following year. But our results are like a big advertising board and the best young riders want to join us to develop their careers."
The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, a UCI America Tour event scheduled for 6-11 August, will be the next sporting showcase for the spirited young riders from Bontrager and Hincapie Sportwear. Bontrager will hope to be as successful as last year when Joe Dombrowski and Ian Boswell finished in the top five of the general classification. Meanwhile, Hincapie Sportwear will just "try to win something" but emphasises that the race will be mostly "a learning experience alongside some UCI WorldTour teams".
There are clear differences between these two teams of young riders and competing teams that have recruited their squads with the sole objective of securing wins. Perhaps what is evident is the different atmosphere within the teams. Thomas Craven describes the unique environment that is a source of inspiration to his riders. "They want to race, they want to win, but they also like to learn something about cycling and they are happy to be together," confides the Hincapie Sportwear directeur sportif. "Our team is a question of lifestyle."
Blending relaxation and expectation, the Hincapie Sportwear team travels to each event two or three days before the start instead of just the night before. After the finish, the team will not hurry to the airport but stay on for up to 48 hours. According to Craven, this approach offers two advantages: "We want our riders to study the course and talk about all the tactical possibilities. Then, with extra days on site, they can take care of themselves and have a good recovery. We live like a real team. Sometimes I even cook for them!"
Photo: Bontrager and Hincapie Sportwear's young talents (courtesy Hincapie Sportswear Development Team)