Saturday, December 13, 2014

2015 Team Preview: Axeon Cycling

I'm struggling to come up with words about my feelings about Axeon Cycling. I am a big supporter of development teams and taking riders on the right way from juniors to riders ready for the professional ranks. While I support this strongly, there is the other side of the story where the vast majority of the backers, sponsors and directors of these teams were involved in institutional doping throughout their career or at least were apart of the the deafening Omerta that still is ongoing.

Let us look at Axel Merckx, who is a prime example of this. Merckx rode through the muck of the 90s and early 00s with teams that have had buckets of riders either test positive, confess or be announced in big dossiers as clients of doping doctors. Merckx rode for teams like Telekom, Motorola, Polti, Mapei, Domo-Farm Frites & Phonak and was a client of Michele Ferrari, the Italian "preparer" who had a full rolodex full of clients. His re-tested sample from the '99 Tour came back as suspicious for EPO use. Has there been any kind of confession? No. Any penalty? No. Merckx has gotten off essentially scot free in his retirement from racing by keeping his mouth shut and not owning up to his past wrongs. And what did he do after his racing years? Take impressionable young riders and develop them into professional cyclists. It is just good to always remember that in all of this talk about cleaning up cycling and a "new generation" that many of the people behind the scenes were in the muck and the mire of the dirty times. It isn't an indictment that Merckx is doping his young charges by any stretch of the imagination but it seems like the vast majority of people go with the "that was then, this is now" line when it comes to Merckx and his peers.

But I digress.

What was known as Bissell Development in 2014 is now know under the name of Axeon Cycling. Pronounced "Ak-shun" (directly from their press release), the team will once again be an independent development team that is focused mainly on developing American riders however not exclusively. The team is moving away from Trek Bikes and their loose affiliation with Trek Factory Racing and picking up MCipollini as their bike sponsor with SRAM as their component supplier. Need I remind that Cipollini was swirled into many doping rumors during and after his career and now he will be sponsoring (and making money) off the backs of young, clean racers.

But again, I digress.

The team lost a nice chunk of their core from 2014 with arguably their 2 strongest riders in Tanner Putt and Ruben Zepuntke both getting pro contracts with Putt going to United Healthcare and Zepuntke heading to Cannondale-Garmin. Both Nicolai Brøchner and Nathan Van Hooydonck are heading back to Europe as they head to Riwal and BMC Development, respectively. Alex Darville is focusing more on the track side of things it seems like and will be moving over to Airgas-Safeway for next year. Clement Chevrier will move to IAM Cycling for 2015 while Ryan Eastman is stepping away from cycling, at least for the mean time.

While this is a pretty big loss for the team, they are keeping a solid chunk of their 2014 roster that should garner results. James Oram will be entering his 4th year with the squad and it is a big year for him. Oram was a standout junior who won the Tour de l'Abitibi overall in 2011 as well as a 2nd place in the Junior Worlds TT. Oram has gotten more consistent as the years have gone on but he doesn't have a standout result to hang his hat on. He had some success in America with a stage win in San Dimas and 2nd overall in Redlands and managed a 10th place overall in the Tour of Alberta. He was 10th overall in the U23 Worlds TT in Ponferrada but I'm thinking he will step up in 2015 to become a top 5 hopeful. Oram has the skills and has shown them. It is just filling the shoes as one of the team's senior riders and going out there and doing it that remains to be seen.

Joining Oram as the old men of the team are Daniel Eaton and Chris Putt, both '93 products and holdovers from last year's team.

Eaton was a big surprise in 2014 as he started the season with Utah-based Canyon Bicyles-Shimano and went on a rampage on the US domestic squad in the early spring to bulldog his way on the USA National Team. While he didn't officially finish a race in Europe (he got through most of the way in the Olympia's Tour), he showed promise and Bissell signed him up in August. After finishing his home Tour of Utah with some aggressive moves, he went to the USA Cycling Gods Pro Challenge Race For The Cure: Colorado Edition, got into the breakaway on stage 5 to Breckenridge and finished 6th. He finished the season off well with a 14th overall in Alberta, one of 3 Bissells in the top 15 overall.

Chris Putt is the younger brother of Tanner Putt and another Utah native. Riding for Canyon Bicycles-Shimano in 2013, Putt put in a strong ride in the National U23 RR in Madison with 9th in the U23 RR, which his brother won. Chris got a contract with Bissell for 2014 and split time with them and the USA National Team. Putt finished 11th in the Ronde de l'Isard, which features some big time mountains, and finished Fleche du Sud well in 27th. I like Putt because he doesn't DNF a lot and seems to be fairly consistent in stage race so I'm expecting big things for 2015.

The 'tweener child that returns is Greg Daniel. Daniel was another American that was a force as a junior (must be the hormones in the food or something) who won the junior National TT championship and finished 11th in the Juniors Worlds TT in Valkenburg. After a good first year, he took on the team helper role many times. Daniel got one of the results of the year for Bissell when he got into the breakaway with 6 others on the way to Cambria. He was pulling a little too much but fuck he looked strong. Will Routley timed a move very well in the last 500 meters and Daniel had to settle for 2nd but he looked so good. Daniel can put out a ton of power but the consistency is what needs to be worked on. If he can get that T'ed up on just a few more days in 2015, then everyone watch out.

The majority of the team's returning starters were 1st years in 2014 including Tao Geoghegan Hart, Logan Owen, Keegan Swirbul and Geoffrey Curran. Axeon has more talent than they know what to do with.

Let us start with the Hackney born and bred Hart. This kid's talent level is off the charts. Like a fine diamond, time and pressure will procure something magical. As a lithe climber, he made the front group in the Ronde van Vlaanderen U23 and was top 20 in La Côte Picarde. With a depleted Bissell squad, he made a late breakaway and fearful of getting caught, he lead out the sprint and still hung on for 3rd place. He got through the Tour of California but injured himself along the way and had to take time off the bike, thus stunting his impressive spring. Hart bounced back for a strong comeback at the Tour of Utah, which was used as a springboard to a 10th overall at the Tour de l'Avenir and 15th in the Tour of Britain. The latter would be a top 10 overall performance if it wasn't for a ass over tea kettle moment into Brighton. If he keeps it up, there is a GC win in his near future.

While Owen has made a name for himself in the mud in cyclocross, he rode quite well as a rookie U23 with Bissell and the USA National Team.For a first year rider, Owen rode a quite packed schedule with over 50 racing days on the road when you include his domestic races that he did. Owen's season was consistent with flashes of brilliance. He was 6th in a stage of the Tour de Bretagne and was 8th in the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs. He rarely DNFed and was active in breakaways...there isn't much more to say. If he keeps this up, he could be just as much of a road star as he is on the dirt.

One of the sensations of the year was Keegan Swirbul. I questioned his signing at the beginning of the year because I only remembered him from when he was a 16-year old that beat a retired Lance Armstrong in a mountain bike race. Before this year, Swirbul never raced on the road other than a handful of times and was a junior national XC skiing champion. Swirbul started out...slowly. After getting some racing in his legs, he showed himself pretty well at Tour of Gila with a decent ride in the TT, especially for an 18-year old. He won 2 hill climbs in Colorado, the Sunshine Hill Climb and the Guanella Pass Hill Climb, which showed his pure climber skills. At nationals, he peaked in the RR when he flew up the steep climbs on the Blue Mound circuit and broke away with teammate Tanner Putt to take a 1-2 (Swirbul in 2nd) in the race. Perhaps his best race of the year was the Tour of Utah as he was getting into the top 20 on some brutal mountain days and if it wasn't for knee tendonitis before the final stage, he might have been Bissell's highest finisher. If he can continue to develop and not turn into a one-trick mountain pony like converted MTBers before him then you better start putting your money down for a big pro stage race win within 5 years time.

Geoff Curran raced like once this year with Bissell. Besides the National U23 RR, he was almost exclusively racing in Europe with the U23 National Team. He was the best young rider in Triptyque Monts et Chateaux (16th overall) and finished every race in Europe this year. He was a fantastic junior and with a year under his belt, we'll see what happens.

4 riders join the team with 3 Americans, including 2 juniors, and Portugal's 2nd best U23 rider.

Justin Oien rode this year with the US National Team and had  a fabulous sprint including 8th in the ZLM Tour Nations Cup as well as finishing Monts et Chateaux and Tour de Bretagne in strong position. One of America's best classics hopes going forward with Owen and BMC Devo's Tyler Williams.

The two juniors joining the team as "club" riders (usually meaning they will be "signed" to the team sometime during the season) are Phillip O'Donnell and Will Barta. O'Donnell is the more unheralded of the two but he was 4th in the Pays du Vaud and won the KOM classification and won the Sea Otter RR while racing with Hot Tubes. Barta is one of the strongest American juniors coming up for 2015. He liked getting 2nd in TTs is seems because he was 2nd place a stunning 6 times. Thanks to his TT skills and consistent riding, he was top 6 overall in stage races 5 times including 4 UCI races. I bet he joins the 'A' team in the first half of the season or gets to ride some European races with the national team.

The most interesting signing is of Ruben Guerreiro, the 2nd best U23 rider from Portugal. First, if you are going to sign a Portuguese rider, they should have signed Joaquim Silva because he is better. Second, this signing seems a bit random. Guerreiro won the Volta a Portugal do Futuro (along with the queen stage) and was 14th in the Tour de l'Avenir. He is a good rider (no Joaquim Silva) but how will he handle the culture shock? He has mainly raced in Iberia and coming out of there to a mainly American schedule will be a big change of pace.

Prediction: 2 UCI Wins (11 wins overall)

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