MADRID (VN) — Argos-Shimano has built a successful foundation by forgoing big-ticket stars and established pros, instead mining for undiscovered talent.
Rather than hire expensive and sometimes demanding big-name riders, the Dutch team has tapped the under-23 ranks for seams of talent, and molded those men into major players.
Look no further than Marcel Kittel, a winner of four stages in this year’s Tour de France, or Frenchman Warren Barguil, who at the ripe age of 22 won two stages in his grand tour debut at the Vuelta a España.
Fitting perfectly into that modus operandi of the Netherlands-based team are American talents Lawson Craddock and Chad Haga.
“In cycling, you depend on true talent, and we believe those kids have true talent,” Argos manager Iwan Spekenbrink told VeloNews. “Lawson is one of the biggest talents of his age. It doesn’t matter if he’s American or from any country. He’s a big talent, period. While Chad hasn’t followed the traditional path to cycling, we see big room for improvement for him.”
The fact that the pair sidestepped other top programs to join Argos in the big leagues is testament to how serious young riders are taking the team’s program. Craddock’s arrival to Argos surprised some after he came up through the Bontrager development team, and many expected him to sign with a major U.S. squad.
Spekenbrink said the team had the 21-year-old Craddock on its radar as far back as last year.
“We saw him doing very well at U23. If you’re good at U23, you can be a good pro in five years. We have to make those steps carefully,” Spekenbrink said of Craddock. “He will have a chance to experience all kinds of racing, then together we can discover his potential.”
Both Craddock and Haga will have plenty of chances to race with Argos. The team’s grand tour focus will be on the sprints with Kittel and John Degenkolb, so that means there will be plenty of second-tier opportunities for both riders at smaller, but still very important races.
While it’s too early to say if either will race a three-week tour in 2014, Spekenbrink said the priority will be allowing the young new arrivals a chance to stretch their legs without too much pressure, especially in their rookie season.
“It’s important that young pros have the chance to experience many things. Then they can slowly begin to specialize,” he said. “There are many new things for a first-year pro. It’s important to give them space to learn about what it also means to be a pro on the bike and off.”
While Craddock comes to Europe following a successful, high-profile junior and espoirs career, and in many ways, he’s the most highly touted U.S. rookie since Taylor Phinney, Haga flew under the radar into the WorldTour.
Now 25, Haga came to cycling late, only picking up serious racing in college. Riding for Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies since signing a mid-season deal in 2011, he scored some big rides in Europe and the United States this year.
“We know Chad did not have a normal route to the sport, but we were watching him. We always follow young talent,” said Spekenbrink. “He won some races in Europe, and he did very well at California, at Alberta. We see big potential in him.”
Like Craddock, Haga will have plenty of race days, not only to cut his teeth on European roads and learn the ropes, but also to have a few opportunities to ride for his own chances.
“These guys represent our philosophy. We find the best young talent, then we get them involved, and we try to support them the best possible way,” said Spekenbrink. “We are seeing these young riders taking interest in our team. They have heard how we work with young riders. We believe they have great talent and we are looking forward to working with them.”
The arrival of the two young Americans brings the number of U.S. riders on the team to three. Tom Peterson, who joined from Garmin-Sharp for the 2013 season, will stay on.
“It was a difficult transition year for Tom. He got some injuries and he had to get used to this team,” said Spekenbrink. “He was so long on Garmin, there were a lot of new things for him. He got sick, and then he got behind, and he had to fight and fight. It was not a lucky season for him. We hope he has a good winter, because we want him to be a solid force for the team in 2014.”
Does the presence of three Americans — in sharp contrast to Trek Factory Team, which only has one with Matthew Busche — hint that the new title sponsor set to take over in 2014 has strong American links? Spekenbrink was coy.
“It all goes hand in hand,” he said. “It’s a combination. We are always looking for talent, and Lawson and Chad are very talented. And America is a nice market for us as well.”
He denied the team signs riders based on nationality.
“We sign talent, we don’t sign riders because of their passport,” he said. “Our sponsors have interests in Europe, in America, in Asia, but we never sign a rider based on their nationality. We want talented riders, and we want riders who have the personality to fit into our way of working.”