» News Competitive Cycling News, Race Results and Bike Reviews Thu, 05 May 2016 01:30:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Landa, the newest grand tour leader Wed, 04 May 2016 19:30:08 +0000

The Giro's long time trial may give Mikel Landa fits, but his climbing talents still have him in with a shout for the overall. Photo: Tim De Waele |

As a grand tour leader, Mikel Landa is an unknown quantity, but rivals fear his climbing talents and his formidable Sky team.

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The Giro's long time trial may give Mikel Landa fits, but his climbing talents still have him in with a shout for the overall. Photo: Tim De Waele |

APELDOORN, The Netherlands (VN) — Of all the Giro d’Italia favorites, Mikel Landa has never before led a team in pursuit of a grand tour win. Over the next three weeks, from the race’s Dutch start Friday to Turin on May 29, he will be on trial. Landa says he is hungry for the win.

He won the warm-up tour, the Giro del Trentino two weeks ago and placed third last year, riding in support of Astana teammate Fabio Aru. This time, the 26-year-old has British super-team Sky backing him in his quest to become a bonafide grand tour star.

“Last year, I said I was hungry before the Giro,” Landa said to listening journalists in Apeldoorn. “I’m good one year on. I had a good opportunity to lead a great team like Sky in the Giro del Trentino, and I won. I had good results. I’m hungry again this time around.”

The Basque was a bit of an unknown both this year and last. No one really expected him to light up the Giro as he did in 2015. At several times, like on the steep Mortirolo, south of the Bormio ski village, he looked ready to leave his leader Aru behind and upset grand tour great Contador.

“He was always seen as a talent,” Astana team manager Giuseppe Martinelli told VeloNews at the time. “He was a good rider, but this year … He surprised everyone, even us. He began the season slowly, and then caught us all off-guard. Now it’s all possible.”

Sky quickly snapped him up in search of a Giro team leader after two attempts by Richie Porte failed to bring it the famous spiral trophy. All hopes for the Giro, however, appeared lost when Landa fell sick at the start of the season and delayed his debut. Landa, as quick as a mountain attack, turned around opinions.

He won a day in the País Vasco stage race and then, with the help of American Ian Boswell, the overall in the Giro del Trentino.

“I started racing later in the season, so I think I’ll still have plenty of form for the third week’s mountains,” Landa explained.

“What’s different this year? New riders. I had a chance to get to know them, to help decide the Giro team, but the rest is the same: making sure I am in form for the appointment.”

Landa’s Achilles’ heel could be the 40.5-kilometer time trial in Chianti midway in the race. He lost four minutes to Contador in the long time trial last year. However, Sky will have given him the same secrets that helped Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome win in an effort to improve the Spaniard’s chances.

“He entered into the picture last year and became a player for the GC. He became one of the main adversaries,” Nibali explained in a press conference after Landa’s.

“The time trial is in my favor, clearly. I’ve been better than him in the time trials, and it’s been a weak point for him. I’m not only racing against Landa, also against Alejandro Valverde, Tom Dumoulin, and the others.”

Landa is so secure of his climbing, though, that he feels that he can make up for any loss in the high Alpine passes of the third week. And that worries Nibali’s Astana camp. “He’s races strongly in the climbs and improved so much, we saw that in Trentino,” teammate Michele Scarponi explained. “We fear him in the mountains.”

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Abbott, Morton win Tour of the Gila opener Wed, 04 May 2016 19:05:21 +0000

Mara Abbott rode away from the women's peloton on the lower slopes of the Mogollon climb.
Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

Defending champion Mara Abbott wins stage 1 of the Tour of the Gila, and Lachlan Morton claims his first career win at the race.

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Mara Abbott rode away from the women's peloton on the lower slopes of the Mogollon climb. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

Defending champion Mara Abbott picked up where she left off winning stage 1 of the Tour of the Gila, a 114.3km day that finished with a steep 10.8km climb to the finish in Mogollon, New Mexico Wednesday. UnitedHealthcare’s Katie Hall was second behind Abbott, who is riding this race with the Amy D. Foundation team. Twenty16 – Sho-Air’s Kristen Armstrong rounded out the podium in third.

In the 148-kilometer men’s race Jelly Belly’s Lachlan Morton claimed his first career win at the Gila. Rob Britton, winner in 2015 was not far behind in second on the same finishing climb that the women faced. UnitedHealthcare’s Daniel Jaramillo was third behind Rally’s Canadian leader, Britton.

“It’s always a tough week, it comes down to the final day on the Gila Monster,” Morton said. “I’m pretty confident. We have a strong team here.”

On Thursday, stage 2 will run on the Inner Loop course, a 122.6km race for the men and a 119.3km route for the women, starting and finishing in Fort Bayard.

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Sprinters seek proof and pink at Giro Wed, 04 May 2016 18:47:30 +0000

André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) was in control of the awards ceremony at stage 6 of the 2015 Giro. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media |

Greipel, Kittel, and Ewan each head to the Giro d'Italia with something to prove, and the early flat stages are pregnant with opportunity.

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André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) was in control of the awards ceremony at stage 6 of the 2015 Giro. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media |

APELDOORN, Netherlands (VN) — The proof is on the podium. Or perhaps: If you ain’t first, you’re last. Whatever the guiding principle, three of the world’s best sprinters enter the Giro d’Italia with something to prove, and the only way to do it is to win.

Marcel Kittel, sprint king of 2014, needs to back up his return to form at the classics with wins in a grand tour, his old stomping ground. Caleb Ewan can cement his rise with a win against the sport’s very best. André Greipel wants to prove that last season’s sublime summer was no fluke, after a spring to forget.

The first opportunity to settle any doubts arrives with a pair of flat, undoubtedly windy sprint stages in the Netherlands on Saturday and Sunday. If any sprinter puts in a particularly good opening time trial, the pink jersey may be attainable.

“The first three days will be very difficult. If you look at the roadbook, you see just flat roads, but what it doesn’t show you are the strong winds in the Netherlands, which can make the race explode when you expect it the least, and that means you have to keep your focus at all times,” said Etixx – Quick-Step director Davide Bramati.

Ewan, just 21, already has a grand tour stage win to his name from last fall’s Vuelta a España. But he has infrequently confronted the likes of Kittel and Greipel, as his Orica – GreenEdge team has worked to slowly develop his talent. This Giro will be a test, but not a final grade, for the young Australian sprinter. If he can out-kick Kittel even once it will be a massive accomplishment.

Ewan ended off a long, race-free stint at the Tour de Yorkshire last weekend. He was second in the first stage there, more as a result of a positioning error than sprint speed.

“I’m here just to get my legs used to racing again,” he said in Yorkshire. “I like the look of the first week of the Giro. I will try for a result there.”

Greipel is coming off an early season he described as “the worst since I started racing” in a pre-race press conference. Four broken ribs suffered at Volta Algarve (three of which he was unaware of until he started Paris-Nice) set him on the back foot, and his usual run at the flatter spring classics was scrapped.

The German they call “Gorilla” is seeking to recreate his incredible 2015 season, which saw him take 16 wins across 90 race days, including four at the Tour de France. Last year, he rode two weeks of the Giro, taking a single win, and then dominated the Tour. He wants to do so again.

“The goal here is to win a stage, then see day by day how I feel. Particularly in the last week, which is really hard,” he said. “We have to take every chance that we can.”

Kittel has had the best spring of the three. Following the well-known troubles of 2015, he proved he’s back on world-beating form with eight wins thus far, including one at the Scheldeprijs semi-classic.

He can finalize his return at this Giro. The classics have been dispatched; now on to the grand tours.

“We’re not making any secret of the fact that we’re coming here motivated to help Marcel get a stage victory and I think we have the potential to do that,” said Etixx director Davide Bramati.

The three will see a healthy challenge from Italian fast men Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek – Segafredo), Elia Viviani (Sky), and Sacha Modolo (Lampre – Merida). They’ll face off for the first time on Saturday, the first of two flat, undoubtedly windy sprint stages in the Netherlands.

Grabbing the pink jersey while the Giro is still in the Netherlands is far from impossible. The opening time trial is short, just 9.8 kilometers, and features hard corners that will force riders to accelerate back to speed (an advantage for the fast-twitch types). A fit sprinter could stay within 20 seconds of the day’s winner on such a course.

Each of the next two stages provides 10, 8, and 6 seconds to first through third place. Two wins, then, equals a 20-second bump. Taking pink before the race heads to Italy will be difficult, but not unreasonably so.

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Formolo earning his doctorate in the peloton Wed, 04 May 2016 17:17:38 +0000

Davide Formolo will take his second run at the Giro d'Italia after winning a stage in his 2015 debut. Photo: Graham Watson | Cannondale Pro Cycling

Davide Formolo has immersed himself in the sport, learning from pros like Basso and Hesjedal, with a promising future ahead.

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Davide Formolo will take his second run at the Giro d'Italia after winning a stage in his 2015 debut. Photo: Graham Watson | Cannondale Pro Cycling

Cannondale’s Davide Formolo never went to university, but he’s getting a doctorate in professional racing. Now in his third year as a pro, and with his second career grand tour on tap at the Giro d’Italia on Friday, the 23-year-old Italian is proving to be a quick learner.

“I didn’t study a lot when I was child. I was always outside, riding my bike,” Formolo told VeloNews. “Now I am a good student. I learned a lot of Ivan [Basso], last year from Ryder [Hesjedal], and now I am learning from Rigoberto [Urán]. In the future, this experience will help me.”

For this year’s Giro, Cannondale’s “here and now” is all about Urán, who hopes to win the Italian grand tour after two times finishing runner-up, but the team’s Giro future lies in Formolo. Still only 23, the team sees big things for the 6-foot-1 climber.

“He’s like a sponge. He keeps absorbing everything,” said Cannondale sport director Bingen Fernández. “He’s a rider who is doing everything that needs to be done to be at a top level in the peloton. He’s young, but very mature for his age, and he has a clear vision of what he wants, and that’s to be a top professional, and he’s doing everything the right way.”

You notice that attitude when you watch Formolo interact with his teammates and staff. When VeloNews visited Cannondale on the Teide volcano in January, Formolo was going through the paces on sprinting drills on a 2km climb. Naturally inquisitive, he doesn’t sit back and wait to be told what to do. After Liquigas merged with Slipstream in 2015, he quickly taught himself English. He engages and asks questions. For Formolo, racing alongside such riders as Basso, Hejsedal, and Urán is an opportunity to learn.

“From Ivan, he taught me how to be very professional. When I saw him and raced with him, I realized I was not even close to being a real professional,” Formolo said. “From Ryder, I learned that it’s important to be relaxed in the head. He never felt pressure. Last year in the Giro, he lost time, but he was patient, and he never gave up, and he was almost on the podium. This can give you one gear more. If you stress your head too much, you can lose it in the legs.”

From Urán? Formolo just laughs, and said that the Colombian is very professional and very funny at the same time.

“It is easy to work for Rigoberto,” he said. “In the Giro, we will be riding for Rigoberto, and my first focus will be to help him. If I can have a chance, I will take it. I am still young. I am not always consistent. Sometimes I am one day good, one day not so good. I have no problem to help.”

Formolo’s path the big leagues came thanks to the former Liquigas team. He hails from the Verona region of northern Italy, and was a top junior in the thriving amateur scene there. Some strong results drew the attention of the Italian outfit, and after a try-out period, when he trained alongside Basso and others in 2013, the team gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“Roberto Amadeo saw me, and he said to me to come to the team training camp, so I could learn, and they could look at me, to see how I handled myself, my character, and they took my blood tests and checked my levels,” Formolo remembered. “Then they offered me a two-year neo-pro contract. I said, ‘sure!’”

Formolo put aside his book studies, and dedicated himself to peloton. Cycling was always part of his DNA, and the chance to turn pro was too good to pass up.

“My father was a fan of cycling, and he rode his bike, but he was never a racer. My brother was a biker, too, and I grew up on a bike,” he said. “Maybe I learned to pedal before I learned to walk.”

Everything is coming quickly to Formolo. In his Giro debut last year, he won a stage in the first week when he attacked out of a breakaway group to win stage 4. For this year’s Giro, Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters said Formolo will get his chances as well as serving as Urán’s helper in the mountains.

“He rode the Giro last year, but I’m expecting a much different Davide this time around,” Vaughters said. “He’s got a shot at the young rider jersey, sure, but that’s a byproduct of riding well. He’ll be a super-domestique for Rigo, but I’d look for him to take some chances, too. The Giro’s an exciting race for a young Italian rider like Davide. He’ll ride accordingly.”

If Formolo has his way, it will be another big three weeks, perhaps with Urán on the podium in Torino and another stage victory for himself. It’s all part of the process of learning to race with the best in the world. Like a good student, he’s been taking notes ahead of the final exam.

“To win the Giro someday? Sure, why not?!” he said with a laugh. “I was not a good student as a child because I was always on the bike. Now I am studying now a lot. Maybe this experience can help me win the Giro someday.”

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Race Preview: What to expect from the Giro d’Italia Wed, 04 May 2016 16:43:42 +0000

This year's Giro offers a balanced route, an outright favorite in Nibali, and a host of sprinters, such as Greipel, Kittel, and Ewan.

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Boswell on training with Froome and the ‘Flaming Baguette’ Tue, 03 May 2016 13:57:35 +0000

Ian Boswell (Sky) rode to third place in the Vuelta's queen stage. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media |

The 25-year-old Oregon native has been living in Europe since 2013 when he signed on with Team Sky. He'll start the Giro this week.

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Ian Boswell (Sky) rode to third place in the Vuelta's queen stage. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media |

It was called the Flaming Baguette, because of the actual baguettes Ian Boswell and his friends put in the roof rack, and because flames seemed the car’s most likely end. The 1992 Volvo station wagon was loud, but it ran. Three of its tires were the same size; the fourth, a victim of an alpine rockslide and poor inventory at the mountainside tire shop, was a bit bigger. That was fine. It hit the wheel well only over speed bumps, and it harmonized nicely with the loose power-steering belt. Rain would knock the CD player — always loaded with country music — out of commission for days at a time. That was fine, too. Pretty little French plants loved the moisture and took hold in the dash.

Boswell bought the Baguette 21 years after it was born, for $800. He’d just landed in Nice, France, with a fresh Team Sky contract but no French visa, so he never registered it. The Baguette took Boswell and his friend and teammate, Joe Dombrowski, around their new city. It was banged into parking garage walls for fun and parked on the street until it gathered so many parking tickets it was given away online to avoid inevitable entanglement with the French legal system.

In its resolute ruin, it became a rolling metaphor for the plight of a 23-year-old pro cyclist plunked down in France and expected to thrive. It was, like Boswell himself, injured and out of place yet full of heart and ambition.

In August 2012, two weeks after Bradley Wiggins became the UK’s first Tour de France winner, then-Team Sky coach Bobby Julich turned his attention to the West. There he spotted a 21-year old-riding in the top five at the Tour of Utah, a rider whose potential would be confirmed weeks later with a fifth overall at the Tour de l’Avenir, the under-23 Tour de France. Boswell was a freckly kid from Oregon, a fisherman and a hunter, a high school basketball and football player who came up in America’s by-the-bootstraps cycling development system. With Sky, he was about to take the greatest mental, physical, and emotional step a young pro could.

Despite his meteoric rise, Boswell remains largely unknown in the U.S. And those who have heard of him often assume he’s from the U.K. Perhaps it’s the vaguely British-sounding name, or the British team. Yet to his teammates, he is very much American. For every time an American makes fun of his British phrasing, Geraint Thomas and Pete Kennaugh mock him for playing country music in the team bus.

Boswell is stuck in the middle, a man between cultures, an American in France surrounded by Brits. But he’s happy there. And he’s thriving.

“IT’S REFRESHING, ACTUALLY, not to have to talk about myself,” Chris Froome says over speakerphone from somewhere in South Africa. It’s the last day of his late February training camp, the end of two weeks spent on the country’s rural back roads with only one other rider: Ian Boswell.

“You get to know someone in two weeks of riding and eating together,” Froome says. “It’s not easy riding out here, and because it’s just the two of us, he’s never really recovering in the wheels. It’s always in the wind, always pushing. He’s riding well.”

Even one year ago, riding a pre-season training camp with Sky’s Tour champion would have been unthinkable for Boswell. His transition into Sky, and into the WorldTour, was anything but smooth.

He and Dombrowski arrived at Sky with the assertiveness of youth, thinking they were ready for anything, carrying solid under-23 results — Utah and l’Avenir for Boswell and a win at the Baby Giro for Dombrowski — to back up that claim. But Sky has a wildly different feel from the sort of teams the two came from, and the system they grew up in. Boswell and Dombrowski were among the first neo-pros to come into Sky from anywhere other than Team GB. For the first time, the team had young riders who didn’t already know its systems and policies, or how it controlled its athletes. They were used to long, stress-free off seasons; Sky’s are short and full of training camps. The Americans had their own coaches, now coaches were provided for them.

“Both Joe and I came into Sky with really high aspirations and goals, and one of the first races with the team was Paris-Nice, with Richie [Porte]. I think Joe was scheduled to do the Giro with Wiggins,” Boswell says. “The team thought we would make the transition really easily — that, because of our U23 results, we would be ready.”

They weren’t. As compatriots Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen fought Porte for the overall win, Boswell finished at the back of the pack for five straight days and then withdrew on the sixth.

Dombrowski had a similarly difficult time at Tirreno. On a team full of Sky’s heavy hitters, he took just a single pull in the opening team time trial before he was dropped, left behind with a radio crackling in his ear. “Joe’s gone,” the director said. “But keep going.”

The team pulled Boswell out of the top-tier stage race calendar and put him back into a series of smaller races like the Tour of Austria and Tour of Norway. Dombrowski never raced the Giro.

“Both Sky and I would attest to the failures in the first year that I was on the team,” Boswell says. “[Joe and I] weren’t ready for the level of racing we were put in. Looking back, Sky kind of admitted that they threw us in the deep end. I think Sky learned a lot from our experience.”

Racing disappointment was just the start. Boswell arrived in Nice without a social circle to rely on. He had the Flaming Baguette and Dombrowski, and supportive parents and a girlfriend a few thousand miles away, but little help with the everyday stresses of living abroad.

“When we first came here, the first half of the year, there wasn’t really much down here besides Joe and me. Now, the team has a huge operation here, with riders and support staff, training rides, team dinners, massage. It’s come a long way,” Boswell says.

Changes in the way Sky handled new, young riders came too late for Dombrowski. He bounced out of Sky when his two-year contract was up, signing with Jonathan Vaughters’ Cannondale squad, a smaller American team with a more libertarian, live-and-let-live attitude toward its athletes. It was a better fit for him.

“If you’re the neo-pro at Sky, then you’re the last guy they’re looking at in terms of what is an ideal schedule for you,” Dombrowski says. “There’s nothing malicious about it, but if others get hurt or sick, being lower in that pecking order, you’re one of the first guys they’re going to call. Sometimes it’s not ideal. You’re in the middle of a hard training block and get a call that you have to go to some stage race. It’s analogous to being a valedictorian at your high school and then going to an Ivy League school. You’re on top of your class, and now all of a sudden everyone is on top of their class. And it’s super competitive.”

Dombrowski had a two-year contract, and Boswell’s was for three years. Perhaps that made all the difference.

“By the third year, [Ian] was finding his feet and riding well,” Dombrowski says. “Maybe it was just that he had that extra time to mature. I guess I wasn’t super keen on staying, even though I had an offer to.”

Boswell, on the other hand, says he’s come to appreciate Sky’s regimented lifestyle. (There’s a reason the bus has been nicknamed the Death Star: The team seems almost martial at times.) “We had support through Axel’s team, and through USA Cycling, but the biggest difference between Sky and Garmin or Trek or BMC is that American riders come up in a system where you’re self made,” Boswell says. “You have your own coach, your own training plan, you figure out how to get there yourself.

“The kids that come up through the British program, they’re trained to be followers rather than do things on their own. If someone says ‘You only drink one cup of coffee,’ then you do that.”

CRADLE-TO-GRAVE STYLE development systems are common in Europe, but the best American racers often approach the sport differently. Through high school in Bend, Oregon, Boswell was a basketball player (he’s almost 6-foot 3), a Nordic skier, and occasional cross-country runner. He’d get off skis and onto his bike in late March or early April, race all summer, then jump back into ball sports. “Living the way I do now, as a pro athlete, one of the things I miss the most is being a more versatile athlete,” he says. The scattered approach didn’t seem to hold him back. He won his first national time trial title when he was 14, and he says the variety kept him fresh, mentally and physically.

“Looking back at the kids I was racing with when I was 15, 16, the kids that were fully immersed, going to Arizona in the winter to train, I don’t think any of those kids are still racing today. It’s easy to get into it too quick,” Boswell says.

He raced with the Hot Tubes development team for a year, then when the time came to make cycling a profession, he signed with Bissell. A third place overall at the Tour of Utah in 2010 led to two years with Axel Merckx’s Trek – Livestrong team (now Axeon Hagens Berman), the premier American pipeline for riders with WorldTour ambitions.

The pair of fifth-place finishes at the 2012 Tour of Utah and then the Tour de l’Avenir earned Boswell a contract with Sky. He moved to Nice with new Sky teammate Dombrowski, two young Americans dumped into a foreign land and into the beating heart of the British cycling system.

THERE IS TEAM BUS music, and then there is Ian Boswell’s music. The two not only come from different continents but from different centuries. There are certain things that even three years in Europe haven’t squeezed out of him.

“When I can grab the Bluetooth on the bus, I love it. But I get revoked quickly in favor of Euro pop,” says Boswell, who is a big fan of country and Americana. He sounds a bit crestfallen. It’s clearly a battle he’s lost with some frequency. So what would he force his teammates to listen to if he could get away with it? Townes Van Zandt, “Waiting Around to Die,” he says. It’s fitting, for a pro bike racer. Sometimes I don’t know where / This dirty road is taking me / Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why / I guess I keep a-gamblin’ / Lots of booze and lots of ramblin’/ It’s easier than just waitin’ around to die.

For a guy who spent hours of his childhood in duck blinds in the Oregon wilderness, music like that is an audible tie to home. So is his slightly twangy accent, though that’s starting to change, as Britishisms creep into the vocabulary of a man who has, after all, now spent 10 percent of his life on a British team. When he first described the Flaming Baguette, he called it a Volvo “estate” — the British word for station wagon. But he’s fighting to hold onto his roots.

“I refuse to use the word ‘mate,’ for example,” he explains. “I use ‘dude,’ ‘man,’ and ‘buddy.’”

“The guys on the team think I’m super American because I hunt and fish and listen to country music. And the Americans think I speak with a British accent,” he says. “And I started phrasing everything I said as a question. ‘Oh this is a good interview, isn’t it? Oh that was a good ride, wasn’t it?’ I guess it’s something that [Pete] Kennaugh does a lot. I picked it up. Tejay just started tearing into me for it. ‘That was a good pizza, wasn’t it?’”

Regardless of how well he’s assimilated, Boswell isn’t surprised to hear that a lot of American cycling fans assume he’s British. Nor does it bother him that Dombrowski, his former partner in parking garage car crashing, has seen so much media attention since moving back to an American team.

“It doesn’t surprise me. I’ve done it to myself,” he says. “I came to a British team, we rarely race in the U.S. I live full time in Europe. I’ve gotten lost in the shuffle.

“There are some marquee riders in the U.S., even away from stage races, guys like [Alex] Howes and [Brent] Bookwalter, who are big names there. That’s just because they have more of a presence in the U.S. Doesn’t bug me at all, I have a very comfortable life over here, I really enjoy this team. The first year, two years, were a bit of a struggle, but it’s my team now. I had offers at the end of last season, but I wanted to stay here.”

That fact speaks volumes, and his father agrees. “He loves it over there,” Grant Boswell says. “He’s not coming back any time soon.”

Perhaps the reason Boswell has thrived somewhere so different from his natural habitat is simply because he’d thrive anywhere. He’s something of a socialite, particularly now, hosting popular barbecues in Nice. He had over 30 people at one last year. Orica’s sprint phenom Caleb Ewan was there; van Garderen was there; Kennaugh was there. I ask him if he’s a talker or a listener, and the response is immediate and unequivocal: “Talker.”

“He’s pretty outgoing, up for something new,” Froome says. “I mean he’s only been a pro for a few years, but he’s already traveled to most of the exotic races that a lot of seasoned professionals haven’t gone to. He put his hand up for them, he wanted to go there and see the place for himself. That says a lot about him.”

SPEAKING BY PHONE A few days before heading to Paris-Nice (the race would prove much more successful than his previous attempt, as he pulled up the final, decisive Madone d’Utelle climb for eventual winner and teammate Geraint Thomas) and less than 24 hours after his return from South Africa. He’s in the kitchen of his apartment making an early dinner. “Just cooking to alleviate boredom,” he says. The two-week training camp still stinging in his legs consisted of 951 miles with 85,000 feet of climbing, all ridden with Froome. So a few extra calories probably won’t hurt.

“I like having Nice as home,” he says. “I got back last night, late, woke up this morning and made some juice. I made a coffee in the espresso machine that was a present to myself when I got a WorldTour contract. I like that routine.”

Boswell is settled, happy, comfortable. That’s important for a professional athlete. It means that he no longer has to worry about getting his Internet to work, or which random Monday is going to be a French holiday that closes all nearby grocery stores. It’s the difference between those early years and more recent success. Now he can concentrate on work, and improving as a rider.

He wants to be like his teammate Thomas, he says. He’s a bit big to be a pure climber, as is Thomas. “I’m not as enthusiastic about cobbles as him, but I want to be a rider who can be there on the climbs, but also be there on the flats and crosswinds,” he says. “Maybe like Nico Roche, who can pick up a stage — a well-rounded rider.”

After two weeks in South Africa, Froome sees a bright future for his young teammate. “I think he’s showing himself more and more in the stage races now. I see him developing that even further, becoming an even stronger stage racer in the future, hopefully the kind of rider who can focus on something like the Tour de France, the grand tours,” he says.

Good enough to join Sky’s tight-knit group of Tour de France riders, who train and race together through much of the season?

“I definitely don’t see why not,” Froome says. “He’s already going to the Giro, most of the Tour team are training together already, and he’s training with us. He fits well in the group; he’s easy to get along with. I think given a bit more experience and a few more races, a few more grand tours under his belt, he could be in the Tour lineup.”

That’s always the ambition — the Tour. It has to be. But making the final selection of nine on Sky, earning the privilege of lining up next to a Tour champion, may be more difficult there than at almost any other team. Three years ago, when Boswell came home to an empty apartment after getting his face kicked in at Paris-Nice, that goal seemed impossible. But now the Flaming Baguette, and the difficult times it drove Boswell through, are distant memories.

In September, Boswell very nearly won a massive, mountainous stage of the Vuelta a España. In February, he spent two weeks training with Chris Froome in South Africa. In May, he will start his first Giro d’Italia. He is on track to join the A-team of the best grand tour outfit in the world. It seems only a matter of time before country music and the man who loves it make their way onto the Death Star in July.

He even has a new car, a Volkswagen Polo 1.2 diesel. All four tires are exactly the same size.

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2016 Giro d’Italia start list Tue, 03 May 2016 13:45:59 +0000

Alberto Contador won the 2015 Giro d'Italia; the 2016 route is coming into focus. Photo: Tim De Waele |

The 2016 Giro d'Italia kicks off on May 6 in the Netherlands — here's a list of the teams and their anticipated racers.

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Alberto Contador won the 2015 Giro d'Italia; the 2016 route is coming into focus. Photo: Tim De Waele |

The 198 starters of the Giro d’Italia will set off from Apeldoorn, Netherlands on May 6. Here is the complete list of teams and their rosters for the season’s first grand tour.

AG2R La Mondiale
PERAUD Jean Christophe
Director: KASPUTIS Arturas

Astana Pro Team
NIBALI Vincenzo
AGNOLI Valerio
ZEITS Andrey
Director: SHEFER Alexandr

Bardiani – CSF
BOEM Nicola
BONGIORNO Francesco Manuel
Director: ZANATTA Stefano

BMC Racing
DE MARCHI Alessandro
KUNG Stefan
OSS Daniel
SENNI Manuel
Director: PIVA Valerio

Cannondale Pro Cycling
URAN URAN Rigoberto
CARDOSO Andre Fernando S.M.
MOSER Moreno
Director: GUIDI Fabrizio

Dimension Data
JIM Songezo
SIUTSOU Kanstantsin
THOMSON Jay Robert
VAN ZYL Johann
VENTER Jacobus
Director: HAMMOND Roger

Etixx – Quick-Step
SERRY Pieter
Director: BRAMATI Davide

DELAGE Mickael
FISCHER Murilo Antonio
GENIEZ Alexandre
LE GAC Olivier
Director: GUESDON Frederic

Gazprom – Rusvelo
SEROV Alexander
Director: DEVOTI Michele

Giant – Alpecin
ARNDT Nikias
JI Cheng
Director: REEF Marc

IAM Cycling
BRANDLE Matthias
WYSS Marcel
LAENGEN Vegard Stake
Director: CHIESA Mario

KUZNETSOV Viacheslav
PORSEV Alexander
Director: AZEVEDO Jose

Lampre – Merida
CONTI Valerio
MORI Manuele
NIEMIEC Przemyslaw
Director: SCIREA Mario

Lotto – Soudal
BAK Lars Ytting
Director: LEYSEN Bart

LottoNL – Jumbo
KEIZER Martijn
Director: BOVEN Jan

ROJAS GIL Jose Joaquin
Director: GARCIA ACOSTA Jose Vicente

Nippo – Vini Fanitini
CUNEGO Damiano
BISOLTI Alessandro
BOLE Grega
GROSU Eduard Michael
ZILIOLI Gianfranco
Director: GIULIANI Stefano

Orica – GreenEdge
CHAVES RUBIO Johan Esteban
EWAN Caleb
TUFT Svein
Director: WHITE Matthew

Wilier – Southeast
ZHUPA Eugert
Director: SCINTO Luca

Team Sky
KNEES Christian
ROCHE Nicholas
Director: CIONI Dario

BOARO Manuele
Director: CENGHIALTA Bruno

Trek – Segafredo
DIDIER Laurent
ZOIDL Riccardo
Director: BAFFI Adriano

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No surprises as Vuelta confirms wildcard teams Tue, 03 May 2016 13:03:55 +0000

Spanish team Caja Rural rode in the Tirreno-Adriatico this year. Photo: Tim De Waele |

The four Pro Continental teams that will race the Vuelta a Espana were announced Tuesday by race owner ASO.

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Spanish team Caja Rural rode in the Tirreno-Adriatico this year. Photo: Tim De Waele |

There were no major surprises Tuesday as the Vuelta a España confirmed four wildcards for the 2016 Spanish grand tour. Direct Energie, Cofidis, Bora – Argon 18, and Caja Rural – Seguros RGA received invitations to join 18 WorldTour teams for the Vuelta, August 20-September 11.

Caja Rural is Spain’s lone Pro Continental squad, and its return to the Vuelta comes following a strong 2015 edition, with Omar Fraile (now on Orica – GreenEdge) winning the best climber’s jersey. The team’s had a strong run in May, with Hugh Carthy winning the Vuelta a Asturias and two stages plus the overall at the Tour of Turkey. Caja Rural will be going on the attack as it tries to win its first Vuelta stage in franchise history.

Bora – Argon 18 is also set to start the Tour de France this summer. The German-based team is seeing big support from Vuelta owner ASO, especially with the Tour starting in Germany in 2017. Sprinter Sam Bennett and Jan Barta will give the team chances for stage wins.

Cofidis and Direct Energie, two French teams, also got the nod from the Paris-based ASO. Cofidis is a co-sponsor of the Vuelta, so it’s no surprise to see both of the French Pro Continental teams invited.

Once again, there are no Italian teams invited to the Spanish grand tour. Also locked out of the grand tour sweepstakes this season are such teams as Roompot – Oranje, Stölting Service Group, and CCC – Sprandi, which raced the Giro last year.

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Handicapping the Giro favorites: Three-man race for pink Tue, 03 May 2016 12:42:23 +0000

Mikel Landa recently won the Giro del Trentino and is aiming to wear the Giro's pink jersey. Photo: Tim De Waele |

The year's first grand tour kicks off May 6, and three riders stand above the rest of the field as favorites to win the overall.

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Mikel Landa recently won the Giro del Trentino and is aiming to wear the Giro's pink jersey. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Three riders line up Friday as the overwhelming favorites to battle for the final podium when the Giro d’Italia ends in Torino on May 29.

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Mikel Landa (Sky) are generating the most pre-race buzz, and rightly so. Nibali and Valverde know what it takes to win a grand tour, while Landa seems anxious to continue his impressive Giro trajectory that went into overdrive with two stage victories and third place in 2015.

This year’s Giro is perhaps its deepest and most competitive in recent years. Though defending champion Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), 2014 winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Chris Froome (Sky) are focusing on the Tour de France, the corsa rosa won’t be without favorites. Behind the top three, there are nearly a dozen riders who pack legitimate top-10 credentials, including Rafal Majka (Tinkoff), Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale), Esteban Chaves (Orica – GreenEdge), Rein Taaramae and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal (Trek – Segafredo), and Jean-Christophe Péraud and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale).

While those teams and riders will be aiming to disrupt the race, the tone of the Giro should evolve around the three strongest riders who bring the three strongest teams.

Unlike the Tour de France, which is typically a much more controlled grand tour with a stronger, deeper field, the Giro favors the audacious. Erratic weather, the steep and varied terrain across Italy’s boot, and the day-in, day-out stresses of racing in Italy all add up to make the Giro one of the most unpredictable and chaotic races of the season. The top favorites bring Tour-quality teams to the Giro with hopes of imposing more control on the chaos. If they can impose their collective will, outsiders will have a harder time breaking out.

Here’s our look at the Giro favorites:

Nibali: The race will pivot around his form

Among the GC favorites, Nibali is perhaps the most enigmatic ahead of Friday’s start. While Valverde, Landa, and others confirmed their Giro credentials with substantial early season results, Nibali didn’t do much to impress, at least not in Europe. A stage win at Green Mountain set him up for the overall at the Tour of Oman, but that was back in February. Since then, Nibali has been discreet to the point of almost being invisible. Sixth at Tirreno-Adriatico and fourth at the Giro del Trentino hardly engenders much optimism ahead of a race as difficult and challenging at the Giro.

That’s just fine for “The Shark,” who is the master of hitting his peak when it counts, managing a race, and delivering a big hit when his rivals might not be expecting it. After an up-and-down 2015 — he fell short of the Tour podium and was ejected from the Vuelta a España for an embarrassing tow, but also won the Giro di Lombardia as well as a stage in the Tour — Nibali will have something to prove in what’s a contract season.

Now 31, he’s returning to his Italian roots and will line up with every intention of winning his second pink jersey. Backed by a very strong and deep Astana team, with former winner Michele Scarponi, Jakob Fuglsang, and Tanel Kangert helping him in the mountains, Nibali will set the tone in the peloton. If he’s on top of his game, he will be very hard to beat. If he’s not, then we’ll have a race on our hands.

Valverde: Learning to wait

Throughout the first half of his career, Valverde was the master of pulling defeat out of the hands of victory. Arguably one of the most versatile riders in the peloton, the Spaniard bungled early attempts at GC, finally winning the Vuelta in 2009 in what was his 10th grand tour start up to that point. Valverde’s since learned that patience and consistency is key to grand tours, and that experience has paid off.

After riding to 20th in the 2012 Tour, his first grand tour following his two-year racing ban, Valverde scored four podiums in the next seven grand tours, never finishing worse than eighth. It will be interesting to see how Valverde handles the Giro, which he starts for the first time of his career after racing 10 Vueltas and eight Tours. Many laud Valverde for his attacking style, but he barely attacked at all last summer en route to his first Tour podium (third place overall).

Following wheels and measuring efforts might work in July, but the Giro is a different kind of race that often awards aggression and risk-taking more than the Tour. Now 36, an experienced and more mature Valverde will be supported by a strong and deep Movistar, with Carlos Betancur, Andrey Amador (fourth last year), Rory Sutherland, and Giovanni Visconti, so expect the blue jerseys to be keeping Valverde out of trouble. If he goes on the attack, he could well blow the race wide open. If he plays the waiting game like he did at the Tour, he might find the Giro train has already left the station.

Landa: Ready to surprise again

At the start of last year’s Giro, few beyond Spain’s Basque Country knew much about Landa. That quickly changed over the ensuing three weeks as he emerged as the strongest climber in the race, challenging eventual winner Contador and his then-Astana teammate Fabio Aru. Until last year’s Giro breakout, Landa had never finished better than 28th in four previous grand tour starts, but he returns to the Giro this year a very different man.

With two stage wins and third place overall last year, Landa revealed a fiery character and fierce competitiveness that landed him a fat contract with Team Sky. The British juggernaut won its first monument with Wout Poels at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and now it’s hoping Landa can deliver the franchise a pink jersey following a couple of false starts over the past few years. The 26-year-old has the resolve and climbing chops to put him at the top of the favorites’ list, and a recent overall victory at the Giro del Trentino confirmed he’s on form despite an early-season illness that delayed his 2016 debut until March.

Landa’s big question mark remains time trialing. Last year, he was terrible against the clock, bleeding time to Contador to eliminate himself as a genuine GC threat. Despite working on his TT position, he was equally unimpressive in his lone individual time trial so far this season with 28th (granted, in the rain and still lacking top form), but if Landa wants to truly challenge for the pink jersey, he is going to have to limit his losses against Nibali and Valverde, both of whom can put down good times. Landa will see excellent support from Sky, with Nicolas Roche, Ian Boswell, Phil Deignan and David Lopez (though without Sergio Henao, who is sidelined for a review of his biological passport numbers), so it will be up to him the deliver. Landa was the big surprise last year. With all eyes on him this time around, he will need to be even better.

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UCI: Thermal cameras unreliable to catch motor cheats Mon, 02 May 2016 18:16:16 +0000

Photo: Joolze Dymond

The UCI contends that thermal cameras are not the most effective way to catch motor cheaters, despite recent news expose.

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Photo: Joolze Dymond

In April, Italian and French media outlets released video from both Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali races that supposedly demonstrated evidence of motorized cheating. The footage, taken with thermal imagery, seemed to confirm the cringeworthy reality of cheating in cycling, but the UCI contends that this type of thermal imaging is unreliable and that the heat patterns detected at the two March races are consistent with normal heat from moving parts.

The UCI initially tested thermal imaging at the beginning of its research into motor detection. It found that, while in certain circumstances thermal imaging can indeed detect a motor, it was only reliable when the motor was in use or just been used and is still warm. This makes pre- or post-race checks ineffective. But thermal imaging also picks up heat signals from other sources, including the rider’s body, bearing friction, and heat from warm tires.

So the heat signatures from the thermal imaging at Strade Bianche and Coppi e Bartali could have been caused by friction in wheel bearings (lit area around the hub) or heat transfer from the tires (lit area at the base of the seat tube).

UCI President Brian Cookson said, “Over the past two years we have made a considerable investment of UCI resources to find a method of testing bikes for technological fraud which is flexible, reliable, effective, fast, and easy to deploy. We have consulted experts from a wide variety of professional backgrounds — universities, mechanical, electronic and software engineers, physicists — and worked with the best technology available.”

This research led to the development of the UCI’s current scanning method that uses a tablet, case, adapter, and custom-made software that enable the operator to test a complete bike, wheels, frame, group, and components in less than a minute. The scanner creates a magnetic field and the tablet then detects any interruptions to this magnetic field, which can come from a motor, magnet, or solid object such as a battery concealed in a frame or components.

If the scan picks up anything unusual, the bike or components are then dismantled for inspection. The UCI says that the current scanning method is highly effective in detecting hidden motors or any components that could contribute to power assistance.

At the Tour de Romandie, the UCI carried out an unannounced comprehensive bike check on stage 3 and found no evidence of technical fraud. In one day, the UCI tested 347 bikes from all 20 teams, which brought the total bikes tested at the Tour de Romandie up to 507.

The UCI has also been testing bikes at many races throughout the season, including 274 bikes at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in London, 164 at the women’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda, 216 at the Tour of Flanders, 232 at Paris-Roubaix, and 173 at the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The UCI will continue testing in all disciplines throughout the remainder of the year.

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Americans Abroad: Tejay’s strong showing in Romandie Mon, 02 May 2016 17:59:12 +0000

Tejay van Garderen had a strong showing at Tour de Romandie thanks to good time trial efforts in the prologue and stage 3. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Tejay Van Garderen has a strong showing in Romandie and American teenager Adrien Costa wins the Tour de Bretagne.

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Tejay van Garderen had a strong showing at Tour de Romandie thanks to good time trial efforts in the prologue and stage 3. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Welcome to Americans Abroad, our weekly check-in with the American pros in the European peloton. VeloNews will publish these updates every Monday throughout the season.

Tejay van Garderen raced against some of the top Tour favorites last week in the Tour of Romandie, a race that defending Tour champion Chris Froome (Sky) has won on two occasions (2013 and 2014). This year, however, was Nairo Quintana’s turn to shine. BMC’s leader was 10th overall, 1:21 behind the Movistar winner and beat Froome, who came in 38th.

Van Garderen showed his time-trialling prowess throughout the week, coming in ninth in both the prologue and stage 3’s individual time trial. He also showed his climbing form, finishing fifth in the king of the mountains competition.

Brent Bookwalter (BMC)

Bookwalter was one of Van Garderen’s main helpers in Switzerland throughout the week. He came in 35th overall, 19:17 behind Quintana, and BMC’s second-best finisher. His best finish was stage 3’s ITT, where he came in 26th.

Nate Brown (Cannondale)

Brown was also in Switzerland last week. He was Cannondale’s second-best finisher in 29th, 17:18 behind Quintana. Riding in support of new teammate Rigoberto Uran (who did not start stage 5), Brown’s best finish was also in the stage 3 time trial, where he came in 36th.

Adrien Costa (Axeon Hagens Berman)

The 18-year-old Costa became the first American to win the seven-stage Tour de Bretagne in France. After a solo victory on stage 4, the queen stage, he was able to hold onto the overall lead and seal the victory.

Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale)

Dombrowski was the second of three American helpers for Uran in Romandie. He finished 44th overall.

Caleb Fairly (Giant – Alpecin)

Fairly was one of the riders with John Degenkolb in his first race back from injury following the training crash in January. Both Fairly and Degenkolb abandoned the Eschborn-Frankfurt race in Germany Sunday.

Chad Haga (Giant – Alpecin)

Haga was the lone American riding for GC hopeful Tom Dumoulin in the Tour of Romandie. While helping his team leader come in fifth overall, Haga was 69th.

Sara Headley (Podium Ambition)

Headley finished 20th in the women’s Tour de Yorkshire one-day race on Saturday.

Carter Jones (Giant – Alpecin)

Jones was one of two Americans racing the Tour de Yorkshire in England this week. He finished the race in 77th, 24:04 behind the winner Thomas Voeckler (Direct Energie).

Joey Rosskopf (BMC)

Rosskopf was the second American in England, racing Yorkshire. He finished 20th overall after finishing stage 3 in 20th place.

Peter Stetina (Trek – Segafredo)

Stetina was Trek – Segafredo’s lone American helping Bauke Mollema in Romandie. He was 46th overall and his team’s Dutch leader ended the six-day race in ninth place.

Carmen Small (Cervelo – Bigla)

Small raced Elsy Jacobs in Luxembourg over the weekend. She won the mountains competition and finished 17th overall.

Andrew Talansky (Cannondale)

Talansky was the final American helper for Uran at Romandie. He came in 105th overall, and Talansky’s best stage was the individual time trial, where he came in 40th.

Team USA

The American national team raced the Festival Elsy Jacobs race in Luxembourg from Friday through Sunday. The team consisted of Holly Breck, Gretchen Stumhofer, Alya Trafiacnte, Madeleine Boutet, and Laurel Rathbun. Only Stumhofer finished the whole race, coming in 67th overall. Her best result was 48th in stage 1.

Alison Tetrick (Cylance)

Tetrick was the second of two women at the Yorkshire race and finished 36th.

Alexey Vermeulen (LottoNL – Jumbo)

Vermeulen rounded out the crew of Ameicans in Romandie. The 21 year-old was ninth in the young rider competition and 65th overall. His best stage was stage 4, the difficult mountain stage, where he came in 54th. Up next, the 21-year-old returns stateside for the Tour of California.

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Giro: 22 teams analyzed and ranked Mon, 02 May 2016 16:52:13 +0000

Here are the 22 Giro squads, ranked by potential for stage wins, GC position, and TV time.

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The fall — and rise — of Italian cycling Mon, 02 May 2016 14:43:47 +0000

Italian fans cheered on Fabio Aru as he made his way up a climb in the 2015 Giro. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Italian cycling used to be dominant. Now, after doping scandals and economic problems, it's starting to come back, slowly but surely.

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Italian fans cheered on Fabio Aru as he made his way up a climb in the 2015 Giro. Photo: Tim De Waele |

At the start of the Giro d’Italia this week, everything will appear as it should in the home of Coppi and Campagnolo. The underpinnings of Italian cycling — the Dolomites, the glamorous podium girls, the frenzied tifosi at the roadside — will all be hitting their marks like actors in a gorgeous Fellini film. Scratch below the surface, however, and the reality is dramatically different.

While the Giro might be experiencing an unprecedented boom, Italian cycling has been on life support for much of the past decade. A searing economic crisis, legacy of doping scandals, and lack of charismatic stars have left Italy’s formerly thriving peloton withering on the vine. Once home to four WorldTour-level teams and stars like Marco Pantani and Mario Cipollini, today Italy can claim only Lampre – Merida as its own — and half of that title sponsorship hails from Taiwan. Races are struggling, too, with tours in Sicily, Sardinia, and mainland Italy having shuttered in the past decade.

The Italians call it “la crisi” — the crisis — and it’s ripped the guts out of Italy’s once proud and vibrant peloton.

“The crisis hurts a lot,” says ex-pro and Cannondale sport director Fabrizio Guidi. “We still have a great culture of cycling, but we miss the top right now. We still have a good base and foundation, but if things do not change, it will be more and more difficult.”

Despite the economic malaise, or perhaps because of it, Italy is quietly showing signs of life at the grassroots level. A new generation is picking up the baton, with young stars like Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo asserting themselves in a pro peloton that is brash, chaotic, and full of contradiction.

And Italy still boasts more riders in the elite peloton than any other nation. La crisi hasn’t changed that. But most of them now race for teams based elsewhere. It is the dawn of an Italian cycling diaspora.

Paolo Bettini, the rambunctious, two-time world champion, still cuts a lean figure at 41. Nicknamed “Grillo” (meaning “cricket,” an ode to the manner in which he would bounce around the peloton), Bettini is always smiling, except when you ask him about the current state of cycling in Italy.

“Why is Italian cycling struggling? Taxes are too high,” Bettini explains with a shake of his head. “To find a sponsor in Italy, they must pay too much to the government. So if a sponsor pays $10 million, less than half goes to the team after the government takes its share. We have a joke in Italy: ‘You work eight months for the country, and four months for your family.’ And it’s like that in cycling.”

Bettini has firsthand knowledge of how challenging it can be. In late 2013, he quit his job as Italy’s national coach to partner with Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso in an ill-fated effort to launch a new WorldTour team. When that idea fizzled, he began sniffing around Italy for new sponsors, but without luck.

“La crisi,” Bettini says, cursing the crisis in Italian. “It’s killing Italian cycling.”

Much like in neighboring Spain, Italy’s ongoing economic crisis has ripped the legs out from underneath the Italian peloton. The Great Recession hit the Italian economy very hard, with a more than seven percent decline in GDP. Unemployment for people under 30 is north of 40 percent. Corruption runs deep, and the nearly decade-long economic stagnation led to deep budget cuts that have devastated Italy’s once thriving professional scene. There’s no money for races or teams.

“Things have changed a lot,” explains ex-pro and Trek – Segafredo sport director Andrea Baffi. “We have a rich cycling culture, but the money is not there any more, and the government is not supporting cycling. Italy is in danger of losing this big cycling culture.”

Here’s a sampling of the races that have closed: Settimana Lombarda, Giro del Veneto, Coppi Piacci, Giro di Padania, and Roma Maxima. And it’s even worse for teams, long backed by regional governments and Italian-based companies. The Fassa Bortolo, Liquigas, Mapei, and Saeco teams all shut down.

“It’s almost impossible to find one big title sponsor in Italy right now,” says longtime Italian manager Gianni Savio, who’s been in the game for nearly three decades. His Androni Giocattoli – Sidermec team is supported by a patchwork of small, low-budget sponsors, something the charismatic Savio is proud of.

“My team jersey is a like a newspaper,” he says. “Since I do not rely on one big sponsor, I have been able to survive the crisis. I have seen many who have not.”

Italy’s private sector is steering wide of cycling. Major homegrown industries that once backed cycling, including flooring (Mapei), heating gas (Liquigas), construction products (Fassa Bortolo), super markets (Mercatone Uno), and vacation properties (Domina Vacanze), have all walked away. Italian cycling brands are not stepping up, either. Trek, BMC, Cannondale, Giant, and Specialized all support teams in major ways, but in Italy, bike companies are content to remain in the background as suppliers. None has put forth the financial commitment to become a title sponsor.

Any tale of Italy’s cycling decline would be incomplete without delving into its lurid doping past. Italy had more than its fair share, from the Sanremo raids in the 2001 Giro d’Italia to “Oil for Drugs” in 2003 to Pantani’s tragic decline and death in 2004. An entire generation was stained, including Danilo Di Luca, Stefano Garzelli, Ivan Basso, Gilberto Simoni, and Riccardo Riccò. In a sport rife with salacious fables, Italy holds an infamous place.

The nation is the birthplace of modern doping, and Francesco Conconi was the godfather. In the 1980s, he started blending sophisticated doping practices with modern science and training methods. By the late 1980s, he also started adding EPO to the recipe, with pyrotechnic results. His disciples, Michele Ferrari and Luigi Cecchini, pushed the envelope during the 1990s, adding blood transfusions. The debauchery eventually led to a string of doping scandals, from the Festina Affair in 1998 to Operación Puerto in 2006 and finally the USADA case against Lance Armstrong in 2012. High-profile raids involving Italy’s carabinieri revealed a deep rot inside Italian cycling. Lurid media headlines scared off sponsors and fans in droves.

“All of our big stories are in the past, so we need to start to build new stories,” Baffi says with a weary shrug of his shoulders. “We are in a better place now than we were before. There is a new generation, with a new story.”

It was during those darkest days that Italian cycling started to reinvent itself. Dr. Aldo Sassi, who died of a brain tumor in 2010, was a pioneer of clean training, founding the Mapei Training Center (backed by ex-Mapei sponsor Giorgio Squinzi). His earliest proponents and students included 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans and a reformed Basso, who came back from a ban to win the 2010 Giro. Others have followed, including Paolo Slongo, who works closely with Nibali, and Luca Guercilena, now team manager at Trek – Segafredo, who coaches Fabian Cancellara and the Swiss national team.

Italian cycling was brought to its knees, but the sport didn’t die. Instead, it found a new home. Just like the emigrants who escaped Italy a century ago, many members of today’s Italian peloton were forced out.

“The problem isn’t that Italian cycling is falling down, it’s that the rest of the world is coming up,” explains Etixx – Quick-Step rider Matteo Trentin, one of three Italians on the Belgian team. “It’s not harder to find a team, it’s just different, because instead of going to an Italian team, you go to an international team. If you’re a good rider, you can still find a place in the peloton.”

Filling the void created by the lack of Italian teams are outfits from cycling’s new establishment. Russia, the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, Australia, South Africa, and the United States, with three WorldTour-registered teams, are all part of a reshaping of the modern peloton.

“The situation now in Italy is not so good. We only have Lampre, and it’s more difficult for the young riders to find a place,” says Oscar Gatto, one of four Italians at Tinkoff. “The peloton is more international, but each sponsor wants to have a few places to help out their young riders. Look at Etixx or Lotto — they bring along their own Belgian riders. That’s what we’re missing in Italy.”

The dispersion also extends to staffers. Without Italian teams to work for, sport directors and managers have migrated to other teams, spreading the Italian DNA across the peloton. Astana, Trek – Segafredo, Katusha, BMC Racing, and Tinkoff all boast very strong Italian influences. That cross-pollination helps Italian riders to find a home away from home. BMC, for example, has four Italian sport directors and five Italian riders.

All is not grim. And how could it be, in a country as effervescent and optimistic as Italy? The nation that brought us Coppi and Bartali, a country that has a shrine atop a hill devoted to the patron saint of professional cyclists, breathes cycling like no other.

There was good news this winter when coffeemaker Segafredo announced a three-year contract to link up with Trek. Team manager Guercilena engineered the deal. The news of the first major Italian company entering the sport in nearly a decade hit the Italian peloton like a jolt of espresso.

“The arrival of Segafredo is very big for Italian cycling, and Luca did all the work on that one,” says Trek sport director Dirk Demol. “And coffee and bikes, it’s a nice combination.”

Some are hopeful the arrival of Segafredo will spark a revival of Italian fortunes. Despite the high tax burden, there is quiet optimism that Italian racing is pedaling out of its unease. Doping stories no longer dominate the headlines. There’s a sense of hope and optimism inside the Italian peloton.

“We are seeing big Italian companies show new interest in the Giro,” race director Mauro Vegni said last year. “None are confirmed yet, but we hope to have some significant new sponsors soon. We are very healthy, and companies see the Giro as a way to promote their companies. Maybe soon we will see a major Italian team. I am optimistic about Italian cycling.”

While the sport is starting to show signs of life, it desperately needs a high-profile star to energize the media and public. Pantani and Cipollini entertained a generation, but today’s tifosi are waiting for someone like ski racer Alberto Tomba or Moto GP superstar Valentino Rossi, figures with charisma and success who transcend the sport and reach beyond the devotee.

Nibali could have become that star after he won the 2014 Tour, but he’s naturally shy and doesn’t actively seek out the spotlight. Instead, it could be 25-year-old Fabio Aru who draws in younger fans. He is comfortable in front of the TV cameras and has the racing chops to back it up. Hot off his first career grand tour victory at the Vuelta a España, Aru will make his Tour debut this summer.

“I believe he can be Italy’s next great rider,” said Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli, who led Pantani and Nibali to Tour victories. “He has all the skills, and he’s confident in himself. He knows what he wants without being arrogant.”

Aru grew up in a modest household in San Gavino Monreale, on the west coast of Sardinia. Far from the cycling hotbeds of Tuscany or Veneto, Aru didn’t start cycling at a serious level until he was 15, relatively late by Italian standards. After some remarkable results in mountain bike and cyclocross events, Aru gained a benefactor from a wealthy family in Bologna who would provide him accommodation and transportation to races each weekend. Unlike the traditional route to the top, through the Italian cycling federation or a development team linked to a top pro team, Aru employed pure Italian passion (with a dose of good fortune and generosity) to get his start.

“This family in Bologna helped my family pay for the plane tickets,” Aru explains. “I would race Sunday, then fly home that night to return to my studies at school. It wasn’t until I reached the under-23 level that I even dreamed of becoming a professional.”

It’s that dirt-under-your-fingernails passion that keeps feeding Italian cycling from below, and is saving the sport from the excesses of the EPO era. Even as the upper echelon of Italian cycling continues to face serious headwinds, the grassroots keeps churning out top-level talent. Aru’s arrival is proof that Italian cycling is alive and well. After more than a decade of poor harvests, there’s a new varietal for the Italian aficionado to get behind. Gran fondos draw thousands. The Giro d’Italia is enjoying an unprecedented boom. Cycling is cool again among Italy’s hipsters and youth.

“When I was a young boy, I was the only one riding a bike at my school,” says Cannondale’s Davide Formolo, just 22, and another one of Italy’s bright lights. “Now cycling is growing fast. There are 150 very serious amateurs just in my city of Verona. There are 2,000 top amateurs in Italy. You can sense that things are building up again.”

Cycling’s not dead in Italy; it’s simply reinventing itself.

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Valverde doesn’t fear return to Italy despite Puerto ban Mon, 02 May 2016 14:12:25 +0000

Alejandro Valverde said he holds nothing against Italy despite the nation's role in his two-year doping ban. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Italian authorities played a crucial role in Alejandro Valverde's two-year racing ban, but the Spaniard insists he's over the past.

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Alejandro Valverde said he holds nothing against Italy despite the nation's role in his two-year doping ban. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Alejandro Valverde insists he isn’t afraid to race the Giro d’Italia despite the role Italian authorities played in his two-year racing ban in 2010.

Italian anti-doping officials linked him to blood bag evidence as part of the Operación Puerto doping scandal, but in an interview with the Spanish daily MARCA, the Spanish star insists he’s put it all behind him.

“What happened, happened, but that doesn’t mean I have anything against Italy or Italians at all,” the Movistar rider told MARCA. “That’s all over now. And the Italians don’t have anything against me, either. When I raced at Tirreno-Adriatico or Milano-Sanremo, I feel very supported and loved. It’s been a pleasure.”

Valverde rarely speaks about the ban, and told MARCA he’s simply turned the page. The Spanish star lines up Friday as a favorite for the pink jersey as he starts the Giro for the first time of his career.

“I am a person who tries to forget bad things and remember the good things,” Valverde continued. “Right now, any time I have to head to Italy to race, I don’t dwell on any of that stuff. I don’t have any problem with it at all.”

Italy played a key role in Valverde’s Puerto ban. Nearly 60 riders from several teams were linked to the Puerto scandal, but Valverde is only one of six riders who have served a racing ban for connections to the international blood doping ring organized by Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.

Despite being identified as a Puerto client with the nickname “Piti” via a list of codenames confiscated in police raids, Valverde denied working with Fuentes. While others, such as Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, were kicked out of the 2006 Tour de France for alleged links to Fuentes, Valverde continued to race.

Things changed in 2008 when the Tour route dipped into Italy. That night after the stage to Prato Nevoso, Italian anti-doping authorities drew samples of Valverde’s blood. Using the broad powers of Italy’s anti-doping laws, prosecutors secured a court order to have access to evidence held by Spanish authorities, and used DNA testing to connect Valverde to one of the Fuentes blood bags. In 2009, Italians imposed a racing ban within its borders, but Valverde went on to win that year’s Vuelta a España. After losing an appeal, a back-dated, two-year ban was handed down from January 2010, sidelining Valverde from all international competition until 2012.

In fact, he said the Puerto ban might have helped prolong his career. Now 36, Valverde only seems to have improved since his return to racing in 2012, with a third place at the 2015 Tour de France, several victories at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as well as winning the UCI WorldTour title in 2014 and 2015.

“This ‘stop’ allowed me to be fresher now. I was a year and a half without racing, so it was like a break time for my body,” Valverde said. “Even though I kept training during that time and took care of myself, all that helped me to feel even better now. Of course, I would have preferred to have kept racing, but I did not feel bitter or torture myself about what happened. I enjoyed my life just as I do now, with my family, it was like as if I was on holiday.”

Despite the Italian drama, an optimistic Valverde lines up Friday as one of the five-star favorites for the 99th Giro d’Italia.

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Nibali likes his chances at Giro after two-year absence Mon, 02 May 2016 13:27:19 +0000

Vincenzo Nibali is returning to the Giro d'Italia after winning in 2013. Photo: Tim De Waele |

The Italian won the race in 2013 and said he's excited to compete for the pink jersey in his home grand tour.

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Vincenzo Nibali is returning to the Giro d'Italia after winning in 2013. Photo: Tim De Waele |

MILAN (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali is returning home and racing the Giro d’Italia this year for the first time since 2013, the year he won. He said after sitting out two years and going to the Tour de France last year instead, he had to return to Italy’s grand tour.

Astana’s Sicilian rider already won the Vuelta a España in 2010 and the Tour de France in 2014. He tried to win the Tour again last year, but he left with only a stage win and fourth-place overall – and a desire to return to the Giro.

“Because I miss the Giro d’Italia,” Nibali told Italian magazine Sport Week. “After two years away, I felt the desire to return.

“To return to the race where I made my name. I raced the first year in 2007, my third year as a professional, and finished 19th. I was a helper in team Liquigas for Danilo Di Luca, who won.”

Nibali helped Ivan Basso win in 2010, placed third in 2011 — which later became second with Alberto Contador’s disqualification — and returned to win in 2013.

In 2012, Nibali stood on the Tour’s podium for the first time behind Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. It was enough for him to decide to change course and try to win in the coming years. But 2014’s victory took its toll.

“Afterwards, there was too much. Parties, distractions, too much weight,” Nibali explained. “At the first team camp, I saw that my teammates were further along than I was.”

Nibali ate some humble pie in 2015 and had time to think about 2016. He and his trainer Paolo Slongo decided it was best for him to come out fighting and not ease up until the Giro ends May 29 in Turin.

With Nibali’s experience and his Tour of Oman win in February, insiders mark the 31-year-old as a favorite. There are some question marks, however, because Sky’s Mikel Landa rode away from him in the Giro del Trentino last week. But even Landa said, “When [Nibali] prepares for something, he doesn’t make a mistake.”

“Landa was my teammate last year and he pulled off some numbers in the Giro,”Nibali added. Linda was third in the race behind winner Alberto Contador. “Alejandro Valverde is hard-headed and never gives up. But then there are young rivals like Esteban Chaves.”

The Giro starts with a time trial in Apeldoorn, and continues on Dutch roads through Sunday. On Tuesday, the race restarts at home in Calabria and makes its way north through Tuscany, where the cyclists face a 40.5-kilometer time trial through the Chianti hills. Like always, the high Alpine passes mark the third and final week.

“I like this Giro because it’s similar to the one I won in 2013,” Nibali said. “Nervous stages at the start and then obviously, it will all be decided in the last week.”

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Axel’s army: A pathway to the pro peloton Mon, 02 May 2016 13:00:51 +0000

Former members of Axel's teams (from left) Gavin Mannion, Joe Dombrowski, Taylor Phinney, Tim Roe, Tanner Putt, Julian Kyer, Ruben Zepuntke, and Ben King stand with some of this year's squad. Photo: Davey Wilson

Axel Merckx is cultivating some of the most talented young riders in cycling through his Axeon Hagens Berman cycling Team.

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Former members of Axel's teams (from left) Gavin Mannion, Joe Dombrowski, Taylor Phinney, Tim Roe, Tanner Putt, Julian Kyer, Ruben Zepuntke, and Ben King stand with some of this year's squad. Photo: Davey Wilson

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the October issue of Velo magazine.

It’s approaching 85 degrees in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, on the eve of the 2015 USA Pro Challenge, but Axel Merckx has goose bumps. He’s getting emotional.

“I’m almost more happy now when they win than when I won,” he says, looking at the bumps on his forearms as he settles into an Adirondack chair in the Colorado sun. “I don’t now why. It’s just the way I am.”

“They” are the riders for Axeon Cycling Team, the youth-development program Merckx has been running for seven years. Several of them are walking back and forth behind Merckx, 43, on their way to and from massage sessions and other obligations as they prepare for their biggest race of the year. They’re young, all between 18 and 23. Most are American, but this year’s squad also includes a Kiwi, a Brit, and a rider from Portugal. They come to work, ride, and grow, to prepare themselves for the big jump to a WorldTour team.

“I wanted to create a team that I wish I was on,” Merckx says. “I tried to take all the positive experiences I had on all the different teams that I raced on, remove the pressure, and keep the attitude, the personality, the spirit of it. It’s been an amazing journey so far. I feel really lucky. I’ve encountered some great riders and some great athletes. This is the good I want to do for cycling. It’s what I want to give back.”

Since retiring in 2007, Merckx — a former Belgian national champ, Olympic bronze medalist, son of Eddy — has embarked on a surprising second life as a gifted developer of young cycling talent. Axeon (pronounced the same as “action”) is the latest iteration of an under-23 cycling project that has become perhaps the best launching pad for aspiring pros in North America. A third of the 54 riders who have passed through the team’s ranks since its inception have moved onto the WorldTour, including Taylor Phinney (BMC); Ian Boswell (Sky); Alex Dowsett (Movistar); Jasper Stuyven and Jesse Sergent (Trek Factory Racing); Carter Jones and Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin); and Joe Dombrowski, Ben King, Nate Brown, and Ruben Zepuntke (Garmin-Cannondale).

In many ways — and especially in the more emotional, goose-bump-inducing ones that have to do with using the crucible of sport to turn boys into men—Merckx is possibly the closest thing American cycling has to a Mike Kryzewski, the longtime basketball coach of the Duke Blue Devils. With a budget that wouldn’t cover Team Sky’s bus-cleaning bills, Merckx recruits, mentors, and develops young riders who, by design, will age out of his program within four years. In the best case, he loses them with their glory years still to come. Worst case, they’ve spent four years chasing a dream and now have to figure out a post-cycling life. In either case, Merckx can only hope his lessons have stuck.

“To me, the success of this team is not the results, or the number of riders we move up,” Merckx says. “It’s that all the riders who have been in this program, wherever they are, as soon as we’re at the same race they come to see us. They stop by, give us hugs; they come and say, ‘We miss you guys. We had a great time with you. It was awesome.’

“That’s the success of the program — that they all come back.”

For college-age riders hoping to make a go of it in the pro ranks, there are only a few options. USA Cycling runs its own development program, which identifies junior and U23 riders and provides European acclimation for those looking to turn pro. But the national squad doesn’t race a full calendar, so riders are best off picking a development-oriented trade team as well.

There are other excellent development programs in North America, teams such as California Giant Berry Farms-Specialized (which will fold into Axeon in 2016) and Hincapie Racing, which take riders up to the age of 25. There are plenty in Europe, too, like French-based VC La Pomme, which has turned out top riders (Dan Martin, Alex Howes, Fumi Beppu, Maxime Bouet) for decades.

A growing collegiate racing scene is an option as well, but juggling racing with classwork takes particular dedication. Ted King (Cannondale-Garmin) graduated from Middlebury College before turning to a pro career, and Coryn Rivera (UnitedHealthcare) continues to win at the highest levels of women’s cycling despite a course load at Marian University. But for most, school and a top-tier professional lifestyle don’t mix well. Nonetheless, Merckx says he never dissuades a rider from trying to balance both.

“I know as much as anybody that after cycling you still have a long life,” he says. “Some guys have gone to school and made it. But this team, it’s kind of like going to university. That’s the idea of it. You come out ready for one job.”

Among the options a young rider has, Axeon is unique in the U.S. both for sticking so strictly to the U23 ranks and for the success of its riders. That was perhaps never on better display than at this year’s U23 national championships. The team completely dominated proceedings as the 167km course rolled through the foothills west of Lake Tahoe, California, and then shed all but a handful of riders on the long climb up to the Northstar ski resort. Axeon took first and second, with Keegan Swirbul, 19, and Gregory Daniel, 20, respectively, and placed five riders in the top-25 overall.

Swirbul’s win marked the 20th national championship earned under Merckx since 2009.

Axeon began life in 2009 as Trek-Livestrong. The team, a project between Lance Armstrong and his long-time sponsor Trek, was built primarily as a development vehicle for Taylor Phinney, the then-19-year-old American phenom whom Trek hoped to tie to its brand the way Armstrong had been. Armstrong brought in the newly retired Merckx — his former teammate on Motorola — to run things.

Those first years remain some of Merckx’s finest. Phinney proved worthy, taking the team’s first major victory at U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2009. “That was really our first big win, that was very big. That was something special,” Merckx says. The young American would repeat at Roubaix in 2010.

Spun throughout Phinney’s success in 2009 and 2010 was something less expected. The cast of young riders brought in to support Phinney turned out to be stars in their own right. Along with Phinney, Ben King, Alex Dowsett, Jesse Sergent, and Tim Roe all jumped up to the WorldTour in 2010. Their success convinced Merckx that he could turn what was supposed to be a short-lived project into something both lasting and more effective.

As he set out to rebuild his roster for the following season, Merckx abandoned the single-star model and started thinking about ways to replicate the surprise success of his first group of riders. “I wanted to bring in the best talents we could and make a team out of it,” he says, “and turn them into the best pros they could be.”

The team dropped Livestrong from its jerseys in 2013, in the wake of the USADA case against Lance Armstrong. But Trek stayed on as a sponsor, either directly or through its Bontrager subsidiary, until 2014, when it pulled out to concentrate on the Trek Factory Racing WorldTour team. Merckx brought in Bissell, which had been sponsoring a Continental squad, to fill the gap, and the team raced as Bissell Development Team for the 2014 season. For 2015, Merckx brought on an assortment of sponsors. None are title sponsors, however, so the team rebranded as Axeon — a portmanteau of Merckx’s first name and Neon Adventures, an investment group that has provided the lion’s share of the funding.

With an annual budget of roughly $1 million—more or less, depending on the year—Axeon is very much a minor-league operation. Peter Sagan alone makes $4 million per year. Even the poorest of WorldTour teams have budgets over $10 million. Team Sky has a reported $40 million to play with annually.

Of course, Axeon is a much smaller operation. There are currently just 12 riders on the team, each earning enough to cover expenses (Merckx declined to provide an exact figure). There is no official base for the team. Merckx works out of his home in Kelowna, British Columbia, and is one of only three full-time staffers. The others are head mechanic Eric Fostvedt, who has been with the team since 2009, and head soigneur Reed McCalvin, who spent the 2014 season working for Phinney in Europe but has otherwise also been around since the beginning.

Merckx checks in with his riders often, and a few have coalesced around training bases in Colorado and California. But it’s the team’s training camps, both in the early season and in between races like the Tour of Utah and the Pro Challenge, that make the disparate squad into a single unit. “Camp is crucial,” Merckx says. “We set the mold, set the cement, and then hope it comes together nicely.”

“We cook a lot together, hang out and play pool, sit in a hot tub, have a lot of fun,” says Tao Geoghegan Hart, a product of British Cycling now in his second year racing for Axeon.

In any professional team sport, recruiting is tricky. But the constant churn that comes with Axeon’s U23 model makes things especially complicated. Recruitment is even more difficult within Axeon’s age bracket, as the physical development of riders often occurs in stops and starts through their junior years, making it challenging to tell which are truly talented and which simply developed a year or two earlier than the rest. Gauging personality at this age is difficult, too. A four-year stint for these riders amounts to nearly 20 percent of the time they’ve been alive. Who they are when Merckx signs them is not necessarily who they will be in two or three years.

“My best allies are my riders,” Merckx says.

“The ones on the team now or who were on the team before are the ones that can say, ‘That guy would fit the team. He’d fit the mold.’ I get riders offered to me, really talented riders, but I don’t pursue all of them. First of all, I can’t, but also because I want to keep the right spirit.”

“We have 12 guys and 12 different personality types,” Merckx says. “There are guys I have to slow down, because they want it so bad that they will do harm. And then some guys, yeah, you gotta kick their asses. If they don’t want it, that’s fine. There are many kids that want it. There are a lot of kids who want to do this, so don’t waste somebody else’s chance by not doing the work.”

One key to the team’s success is what McCalvin calls the “no-asshole policy.”

“Reed and Axel pride themselves a little bit on looking at people for more than just results,” says Geoghegan Hart. “It’s a bit of a cliché. A lot of teams will tell you that, but they actually do it. Reed’s all about that. At the end of the day, he has to work with the bike riders all year, and if someone is a pain in his ass, he has to deal with it all year.”

Though Merckx ultimately calls the shots, McCalvin, 39, a fast-talking ex-Army paratrooper and sniper with a degree in business from Duke, is the day-to-day guy. “If Axel is the handsome politician, I’m the guy behind the scenes, doing lots of the heavy lifting,” he says. That means he’s the one helping riders who may have never lived away from their parents before — or who may still live with their parents — deal with the sudden pressures of professional sports. He has to be a recruiter and manager but also a friend and surrogate father who can help his charges make sense of the new world they’re entering.

“The number one thing [Reed] taught me was to have fun,” says Nate Brown, Cannondale-Garmin’s leader at the USA Pro Challenge and a 2013 graduate of the team. “Still do your job, but have fun doing it. The moment you purely focus, you lose who you are. I took that to heart. The further you get into the sport, you have to focus more and watch what you do, but as a U23 that was the best advice.”

One of the benefits of Axeon for aspiring pros is that, unlike riders on feeder squads associated with pro teams, Merckx’s riders can enter the pro ranks unencumbered by sponsorship or team obligations. They’re free to go where their talent and opportunities take them.

“They’re not linked to a brand,” Merckx says. “They’re free agents. They go wherever they want. And then those big teams, if they really want them, they have to persuade the rider that they’re the right choice. It’s supply and demand.”

Sitting out in the Colorado sun, Merckx doesn’t know that his 20-year-old GC phenom Geoghegan Hart will finish the USA Pro Challenge in seventh place overall and win the best young rider competition, or that Daniel Eaton will place fourth in the Breckenridge time trial, or that Logan Owen will come away with three top-10s in the sprints. Another set of Axeon pups likely headed for bigger things.

Merckx will soon have more roster holes to fill, if not this year then the next. But the never-ending, Sisyphean cycle just seems to motivate him. In fact, he says he has turned down offers from WorldTour teams for the chance to keep working with the kids. And he’s doubling down for 2016. Axeon is set for a dramatic makeover next season. It will be bigger, broader, and quite a bit richer. During the Pro Challenge, Merckx announced the addition of California Giant Berry Farms, Specialized, and Hagens Berman as sponsors. SRAM returns, as it has every year since the team’s inception. Merckx will have a bigger budget, “not to pay the guys more but to give them more tools, more information, more opportunities to race not only here but in Europe,” he says.

Across seven years, four major sponsors, and the tumult of the Armstrong affair, one out of every three Axeon riders has stepped into a top professional team. While you’re pondering that, consider the possibilities that lie ahead. With the expansion of his squad on the horizon, Merckx will take even more chances; he’ll sign more riders that are still unproven. Perhaps that rate of success will be sustainable with a bigger program, perhaps it won’t be. Regardless, there is no denying the ability of this team to shape the future of American racing.

“Here, we do everything we can to push them forward, to make them ready,” Merckx says, opening his hands wide as if he’s offering something. “When they are ready, whoever wants them can grab them.”

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Does Quintana’s Romandie win clear path to yellow? Mon, 02 May 2016 12:42:24 +0000

Nairo Quintana rode to the overall victory at the Tour de Romandie, his second of the season. Photo: Tim De Waele |

If recent history is any indicator, Nairo Quintana's Tour de Romandie victory bodes well for his chances of winning in France this summer.

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Nairo Quintana rode to the overall victory at the Tour de Romandie, his second of the season. Photo: Tim De Waele |

A victory at the six-day Tour de Romandie bodes well for Tour de France. Of course, a lot can happen between May and the end of July, but three recent Romandie winners — Cadel Evans in 2011, Bradley Wiggins in 2012, and Chris Froome in 2013 — went on to win the Tour two months later.

Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, who won a Romandie stage and the overall in impressive manner, hopes history repeats itself this summer.

“At least we start with the yellow,” Quintana said of the Romandie victory. “So let’s hope the myth is true, and that the dream of the Tour can come true.”

Now 26, Quintana won Romandie in just his second try (he was eighth last year), and rode with renewed confidence and astuteness against key rivals he will face off against at the Tour de France this summer.

“We know we’re going well, and now we will continue to prepare for the Tour,” he said. “I came here with my training plan, and I can see that it’s working well for me, and I am not paying too much at the others. I know how to arrive in top condition for the Tour.”

Backed by a strong Movistar, Quintana controlled the race from start to finish with determined maturity. With surgical precision, he delivered where he was expected, taking the yellow jersey — and a controversial stage victory after Ilnur Zakarin of Katusha was relegated for an irregular sprint — in the mountaintop finale to Morgins. Even more encouraging for his prospects in July was his strong time trial on the 15-kilometer course Friday. The route included a moderate climb, but he finished on the same time as Froome, and took time on Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Bauke Mollema (Trek – Segafredo), Geraint Thomas (Sky), and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), all names he will be facing down in July.

“We controlled the race pretty well, without problems,” Quintana said. “The time trial went as well as hoped, perhaps even better, and we didn’t have any more complications. The team took care of the rest.”

The highly anticipated showdown with Froome fizzled when the two-time Tour winner punctured just before the penultimate climb in the queen stage Thursday to lose all hope of the GC. He didn’t bother to go into the red to chase back, but saved face with a stage victory Saturday. Froome didn’t seem too worried, and even won the most combative prize Sunday for riding into a breakaway.

“Obviously, my big goal is to be ready for July,” Froome said. “I needed some good racing this week to set that up.”

FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot also confirmed his credentials for July with a surprise time trial victory Friday against the heavily favored Tom Dumoulin of Giant – Alpecin to secure second overall.

Quintana’s 11 stage race victories

2016 Tour de Romandie
2016 Volta Catalunya
2015 Tirreno-Adriático
2014 Tour de San Luís
2014 Giro d’Italia

2013, 2014 Vuelta a Burgos

2013 Vuelta al País Vasco

2012 Route du Sud

2012 Vuelta Murcia

2010 Tour de l’Avenir

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Gallery: 2016 Tour de Romandie, stage 5 Mon, 02 May 2016 01:48:27 +0000

Cycling: 70th Tour de Romandie 2016 / Stage 5
Arrival Sprint/ ALBASINI Michael (SUI)/ AMADOR Andrey (CRC)/ KELDERMAN Wilco (NED)/
Ollon - Geneve (177,4 Km)/
Etape Rit TDR / © Tim De Waele

Michael Albasini wins the final stage of Switzerland's always scenic Tour de Romandie

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Cycling: 70th Tour de Romandie 2016 / Stage 5 Arrival Sprint/ ALBASINI Michael (SUI)/ AMADOR Andrey (CRC)/ KELDERMAN Wilco (NED)/ Ollon - Geneve (177,4 Km)/ Etape Rit TDR / © Tim De Waele

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Dombrowski primed for Giro debut Sun, 01 May 2016 20:18:41 +0000

Joe Dombrowski is hoping he can put the skills that won him last year's Tour of Utah to work in support of Rigoberto Urán at the Giro d'Italia. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Joe Dombrowski's professional career started slower than he wanted, but he's hoping to change that this May.

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Joe Dombrowski is hoping he can put the skills that won him last year's Tour of Utah to work in support of Rigoberto Urán at the Giro d'Italia. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Joe Dombrowski’s story is one of unrealized potential. He hopes to change that in May.

It’s been said by none other than his Cannondale team’s manager Jonathan Vaughters, that if the Tour de France were performed on spin bikes, his young charge would be in with a shot at yellow. But the bright light that shone on Dombrowski’s early years, including a win at the so-called Baby Giro over one Fabio Aru (Astana), has never sparkled on the world’s stage.

His short career has been full of setbacks. There were two disastrous years at Team Sky, then a diagnosis of iliac artery endofibrosis, leading to a lack of blood flow that caused dramatic power loss in his left leg. Surgery in August 2014 made 2015 a rebuilding year, capped off with his first pro stage race victory at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.

“Coming off an injury, you just don’t know what’s next. To see that I could be back racing at a high level and winning races was good,” he said. “It put me in a good mindset coming into this year.”

That dominant Utah win was a glimpse of Dombrowski’s talent, but he’s capable of much more. He knows it. And so he heads to Italy in May with the potential to show the world what he’s really made of. His primary mission: learn what it means to race at the front on the world stage.

Dombrowski, 24, won’t lead the Cannondale team; that’s a responsibility too heavy for him now. He’ll ride in support of Rigoberto Urán, who has twice finished second at the Giro. He’ll focus on being Urán’s last man, helping him late in Italy’s mountain stages. It’s not an easy job, particularly since Dombrowski’s difficulties lie on the stretches between the climbs, in fights for position and through crosswinds. He’s tall and not particularly aerodynamic. He isn’t a fighter, yet. But with Urán as his guide, the team is hoping he’ll learn quickly. To do his job, he’ll have to.

“My aerobic power output for 20, 30, 50 minutes is probably among the highest out there,” Dombrowski said, as matter-of-factly as if he were describing the weather outside his window. “That’s definitely not the limiter for me. That pure power to weight, it’s not the problem. But all the other factors can be. The goal is to get where I’m not dropped before we get to the climb, so I can do my thing when I get to the climbs.”

His thing, of course, is climbing faster than just about anyone else in the world. Now he just needs to learn the skills to unleash the motor. The Giro, thankfully, is an excellent teacher.

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American Adrien Costa wins Tour de Bretagne Sun, 01 May 2016 19:29:29 +0000

Adrien Costa is the first American to celebrate an overall Tour de Bretagne victory in the event's 50-year history. Photo: Tour de Bretagne

18-year-old American Adrien Costa claims the overall title at the seven-day Tour de Bretagne

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Adrien Costa is the first American to celebrate an overall Tour de Bretagne victory in the event's 50-year history. Photo: Tour de Bretagne

Adrien Costa wrapped up a victory in the 50th Tour de Bretagne Sunday, marking the first time an American has ever won the race.

The 18-year-old from Bend, Oregon, competing for the USA Cycling under-23 squad, took a solo win Thursday in stage 4, the queen stage, and grabbed hold of the lead along the way. He held on at the top through Sunday’s stage 7 to close out the race as the winner.

“It hasn’t really sunk in because I wasn’t thinking about the overall win as a true possibility,” said Costa, among many promising up-and-comers riding for the developmental Axeon Hagens Berman squad.

“After I won that stage, I tried to enjoy that victory as much as possible. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself for the overall win. Just being a first-year under-23 rider, I was already happy to have won a stage. So that kind of helped me stay relaxed. I just can’t believe it.”

A 2.2-rated UCI event, the Tour de Bretagne does allow professional riders, but it has long been a popular showcase for cycling’s top prospects.

For Costa, sealing up the GC victory was made even more difficult by the absence of several teammates in the final stage. Two of the American squad’s riders missed the time cut Saturday and a third was a DNS Sunday, leaving only Sean Bennett and Greg Daniel (also an Axeon Hagens Berman teammate of Costa’s) to ride in support of the GC leader.

“Before the stage, we had Sean and Greg set their finish line at 120 kilometers, which was the entrance of the circuits,” Costa said. “We got pretty lucky today because the breakaway that went off did not have any big teams. So their gap never got huge. Sean and Greg did a fantastic job for 60 or 70 kilometers on the front, keeping me out of trouble and keeping the gap manageable. So I had a really relaxed ride into the circuit.”

Once on the circuit, Costa was able to handle things on his own.

“Thankfully it was a hard circuit which suits me,” he said. “On the climb, I was able to keep everyone marked. Then it was pretty technical the rest of the way, which made it easier to keep things together. At the end of the day, today’s stage was a lot less stressful mentally and physically than the last two days. Especially yesterday, when the breakaway had an eight-minute lead and I thought we had lost the race. So in that respect, today was a lot easier.”

Costa finished stage 7 in fourth place, four seconds back of stage winner Nick Schultz (SEG Racing Academy). That was a strong enough performance to wrap up the GC win by seven seconds over runner-up Frantisek Sisr (Klein Constantia). Lennard Hofstede (Rabobank Development Team) finished the race in third place overall, 13 seconds back.

The victory will undoubtedly come as a big confidence boost for Costa, who has already racked up a pair of silver medals in the juniors time trial at the road world championships, but Axeon Hagens Berman manager Axel Merckx is hoping to keep things in perspective in the interest of Costa’s continued development.

“This is a huge win — as much for him and for USA Cycling’s program as it is for us,” Merckx said. “We are very excited about this. But you have to keep in mind Adrien is still very young and that puts a lot of pressure and stress on him. We don’t want to burn him out.

“It is easy for us to go and put him in every single race because he is the next big talent. But we could burn him out like that. So we have to be careful and very particular. Riders like that still need to recover and still need their rest and to be able to grow physically and emotionally.”

Costa has certainly earned a recovery period given the strong spring he has had so far. In addition to his stage victory, overall title, and young riders’ classification win in the Tour de Bretagne, he landed seventh in the under-23 Tour of Flanders last month and also nabbed the youth classification at the Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux stage race, finishing fifth overall.

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