SAN DIEGO (VN) — Four years ago at the Attleboro Criterium in Massachusetts, Gavin Mannion launched into in a break with teammates Ian Boswell, Stuart Knight, and Lawson Craddock. Then 18 and riding for the Hot Tubes junior squad, Mannion’s band of teenagers lapped the pro 1/2 field and delivered him to victory.
Three years later, Mannion was in a higher-level mix, but still at the tip of the field. Riding for the Bontrager development team, he placed fourth at the USA Pro Challenge stage 3 into Aspen, within a pebble-toss of stage winner Tom Danielson and sandwiched among Euro heavies like Astana’s Janez Brajkovic and RadioShack-Nissan’s Jakob Fuglsang and Andreas Kloden.
Mannion, now 22, also placed in the top-20 in three stages of the 2012 Amgen Tour of California, took third at Under-23 road nationals, wore the best young rider jersey at the USA Pro Challenge, and went on to place sixth at other stages in Colorado and the Tour of Utah.
VeloNews spoke with Mannion during a recent stretch of California training camps with his trade team and the U.S. national team. Mannion pointed out that because he ages out of the U23 division next year, this is a critical season for his career. “It’s an important year, especially trying making the jump from a development team to a pro tour or pro continental team,” he said.
Mannion has raced in Europe every year since he was 16, and he said those experiences give him race-reading knowledge that will hopefully get him results to impress a ProTeam or Pro Continental team. “Every year you go over, everything is just a little bit easier,” he said. “Even the stuff off the bike, you are just more comfortable living in a foreign country. You know the roads and how to train and all the other stuff that just make a difference on race day.”
As an example, Mannion cited going on a ride with a credit card “and you just expect to be able to fill up on Gatorade or something halfway through and you realize that your card doesn’t work in Europe and you spend 30 minutes riding through towns trying to find some water.” While they are small things, repeated disruptions to the smooth operation of an athlete’s training program can take a negative toll. Mannion said understanding how to work around little cultural differences like these “really make a difference.”
On racing the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Challenge with Bontrager, Mannion said: “it was our first time racing with that caliber of riders, and it was really nice to be able to compete with those guys. Especially at California, we had no idea what to expect.”
Of the differences he noticed in his first experience racing alongside seasoned veterans like Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan) and Robbie McEwen (Orica GreenEdge), Mannion said that while the racing was stressful, it was also smoother because the ProTeams control the race more tightly than the typical European U23 free-for-all.
“The racing was of course really hard, but it was also kind of a lot more controlled. We were a little bit surprised that we were able to even mix it up in some of the field sprints,” Mannion said. Citing his then-teammate Joe Dombrowski’s fourth place on the California stage to Mount Baldy, Mannion added, “it was kind of inspiring to be able to race at that level with those guys; it’s fun when you are riding and you know you are with the best guys in the world.”
Mannion said he appreciates that both his Bontrager director Axel Merckx and his national team boss Mike Sayers treat their riders like adults. Mannion has worked under Merckx since 2011, and said the Belgian “is a little bit more hands-off. He kind of just lets you figure out your own way, but definitely gives us the guidance we need.”
Merckx told VeloNews Mannion went through a physical transformation over the last year. While Mannion started out 2012 in good shape, Merckx said he still had a bit of the beefy sprinter physique that saw him winning crits as an 18-year old. Mannion started 2012 “a bit on the heavier side,” Merckx said. “He started gradually losing a little bit of that extra weight and by Colorado he was really, really impressive.”
Merckx, who raced the Tour de France eight times during his own career, added that the transformation he sees in Mannion is a critical passage to the WorldTour ranks. “It’s the difference between being a teenager and an adult,” Merckx said. “When you come into the development team at 18, 19 years old, it’s really time to step it up. We are a professional team, so you have to start eating like a professional, sleeping like a professional, and training like a professional.”
That change in both mindset and physique does not happen in a matter of two months Merckx said, but is a gradual progression, and one development teams like his are responsible for guiding.
“When they go to a [ProTeam] you don’t want to start that process, you want to be ready before you go there,” Merckx said. Now that Mannion has turned that corner, and is registering results like his forth-place finish in Aspen last year, Merckx feels he has great potential as a climber: “I think he is one of those guys that can survive a really hard mountain stage where there is a little bit of a smaller group at the finish and I think he can be winning some races like that.”
Mannion said his target events for 2013 feature plenty of uphill — Colorado and California, Liège-Bastogne-Liège Espoirs, and if he makes the team, U23 worlds, which will take place in the hills of Tuscany.
In 2012, Mannion’s Bontrager teammate Ian Boswell (now at Sky ProCycling) placed second at Liège, while fellow American Joshua Berry (Chipotle-First Solar) took third. Mannion said he loves racing in the Belgian Ardennes, especially at Liège, which follows the craggy final 100 kilometers of the WorldTour classic.
“It was hard. It didn’t go so well, but it was a really cool race and it’s one I would like to do well at,” Mannion said of the 2012 race. He added that Liège, with its “constant five to 15-minute climbs, just wears on you. That’s a good race for me. I can get over those shorter climbs pretty well.”
After watching Mannion at a 10-day February training camp in the Santa Barbara area, Merckx agrees with the rider’s self-assessment. “Now he looks like a professional rider,” Merckx said. “I think that he’s going to be turning some heads this year.”