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)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

2015 Team Preview: Zalf Euromobil Desiree Fior

After their 2nd hugely successful season in a row, it might be back to the drawing board for the pinstriped Venetian team. After a 57 win season, they are shipping off 7 riders to the pro ranks including Simone Andretta (Bardiani-CSF), Giacomo Berlato (Vini Fantini-Nippo), Daniele Casavin (Team GM), Nicolas Marini (Vini Fantini-Nippo), Alessandro Tonelli (Bardiani-CSF), Eugert Zhupa (Neri Sottoli-Alé) and Federico Zurlo (UnitedHealthcare). With other riders leaving the team, Luciano Rui and Gianni Faresin will only be left with 8 riders from their 2014 squad that accounted for 16 wins. They are losing a massive chunk of their sprint train as well as 72% of their wins. They will need to re-invent themselves and they need to be prepared for a "down" season.

Let's focus on who they have returning to the squad. The bigger names returning include Gianni Moscon, Simone Velasco and Andrea Toniatti. Moscon was an emerging star last year that truly blossomed at the end of last year by winning the Piccolo Giro di Lombardia in a two-up sprint ahead of Dylan Teuns. He is a great one-day racer and with more defined leadership, he could pick off some more wins next year. I'm looking for him to break through in more UCI races and in the mountains. Velasco was heralded coming out of the junior ranks and for a first year U23, he put up some nice results including 2 wins and a close 2nd place in the 1.2 Trofeo Edil C. Velasco found his legs in 2014 but next year, I expect him to bloom in the mountains. Toniatti has a down year by my accounts simply because he failed to match his 2013 results that included 2 UCI wins in the Ruota d'Oro and a stage in Valle d'Aosta. He could be one of the big winners for Zalf this year after 17 top 5 finishes in '14; he will just need to make that step from podium filler to consistent winner.

The other riders returning include Gianluca Milani, Nicola Rossi, Enrico Salvador, Nicola Toffali and Giacomo Zilio. Milani is good on a variety of courses and like Toniatti, he could break through for a handful of wins. Toffali won 4 races this year but they were all small regional races.

In all, their returning riders are...a bit lacking. The new riders are also a bit light on experience but there are certainly bright spots.

14 new riders join the team and they are as follows: Pietro Andreoletti, Nicola Bagioli, Gianmarco Begnoni, Andrea Borso, Marco Gaggia, Marco Maronese, Daniel Pearson, Filippo Rocchetti, Niccolo Rocchi, Daniel Rupiani, Mirco Sartori, Alessandro Savignano, Gianluca Vecchio and Andrea Vendrame.

The first name that will jump out to most is an English name. Daniel Pearson rode British, Italian-based Zappi's Pro Cycling run by strong anti-doper and former professional Flavio Zappi. Pearson was the British junior champion in 2011 in a solo move that saw him stave off a chasing pack. Pearson jumped to Italy with Zappi in 2013 and this last year, he had some strong results including 2nd in the UCI 1.2 Coppa della Pace as well as 8th in the Giro della Valle d'Aosta and 9th in the Peaches & Nectarines. Pearson has a fighting spirit to him that isn't hard to like and his move to an established Italian team should do him even better than the shoestring budget Zappi's was run on.

Andreoletti had a quiet year in his first U23 season but he is a strong attacking rider in the hills and is good friends with Simone Velasco.

Luciano Rui seemed to tout Vecchio and Vendrame as two that the team would build around. Vecchio...not too sure about since his results are quite lean since his junior days. Vendrame on the other hand seems to be up and coming with some promising results last year in sprints and some more selective racing.

Bagioli had a good first U23 season and even won a race. He showed some climbing promise in a few races but like most young riders, he needs to focus on getting through races. Another first year U23 coming to Zalf is Daniele Rupiani, who was a strong junior in 2013 with 5 wins and rode well with General Store in the early season with two top 25 placings in Palio del Recioto and Piva Banca plus he finished Valle d'Aosta fairly well. Borso is another younger rider that could be an addition to a sprint train after some decent rides for Team Friuli last year. Rupiani got nice results as a junior in 2013 while 2014 was a learning curve with General Store. He should be up to speed in 2015 and he should be ready to add to Zalf's climbing power.

Zalf got a big score with Gianmarco Begnoni, who was one of the most successful Italian juniors in 2014. He won 7 races including sprint wins in the 1st stage of the Junior Peace Race and the 2nd stage of the GP Rüebliland. This isn't including his win in the Italian Junior Omnium championship ahead of Attilio Viviani, the younger brother of Elia. Harness this right and Zalf has themselves a huge talent. Another junior they got was Filippo Rocchetti, who won a stage in the UCI Le Tropheé Centre Morbihan and was 2nd in the GP dell'Arno. Seems strong as a climber and in the breakaways. The other junior coming on is Saroti, who was 2nd in the Italian junior points race and has a pretty good kick on him, it seems like.

To counteract the influx of young riders, the team is brining in an older rider to be the general on the road. Marco Gaggia has been kicking around the Italian amateur scene for the last half decade and has put up some decent results throughout the years. He lacks a signature win but has a handful of 3rd-10th placings to his name in good races. He is going to be 25 through next year and will be someone that the younger riders look to for some guidance. Another non-U23 who has some experience is Niccoló Rocchi. Rocchi rode with Roth-Felt last year and comes from a track background but has turned into a rider that can make selections in difficult one-day races.

Maronese seems to be a pretty decent rouleur. Also he is a Christmas baby. Also, I can't find much to say about Savignano as he doesn't have a lot of results to go on. Fingers crossed with him?

So while Zalf lost a lot after 2 huge seasons in a row, it seems like they won't be half bad for 2015. They will of course stack their win column with low quality regional races but they could take a few big races this year.

Prediction: 1 UCI win (37 wins overall)

Monday, December 1, 2014

2015 Team Obituaries: Laying to rest those that won't be joining us in the new year

And lo, it is the time of year that teams are locking up the service course doors for the last time and trying to sell the remainder of their team bikes on eBay. In the current state of cycling, teams come and go every year with some going just anonymously as they came. Others demises are emotional, involve last-minute saves that do not come to be and riders scrambling to keep the dream alive. Let us go through the development teams whose jerseys will not be seen in the peloton come January.

4-72 Colombia
One of the most tragic stories from the transfer season has to be the demise of 4-72 Colombia. A couple of months ago, there was talk that 4-72 Colombia was going to go Pro Continental. In September, it was announced they would stay as a continental team for '15 but they would be making their move to the Pro Conti ranks in '16. Okay, fine. Two months later, there is the announcement that their potential sponsor deal fell through in the 11th hour and they didn't have enough money to pay the UCI bank guarantee, which meant that the team was forced to move to an amateur setup for 2015.

4-72 Colombia was a beacon in Colombia cycling because of their internal bio-passport program and transparent approach to racing in a country that still suffers from doping problems. The team itself has seen criticism from some in Colombia because of their staunch clean position and has had multiple issues from the Colombian federation.

They have produced big results (especially if you include their predecessor Colombia Es Pasion) including 2 Tour de l'Avenir winners in Nairo Quintana and Estaban Chaves, Tour de l'Avenir podium finisher Juan Chamorro and others including Heiner Parra, Jarlinson Pantano, Juan Villegas, Diego Ochoa and Giro della Valle d'Aosta winner Bernardo Suaza.

What happens from here is still to be decided. Many riders, even without the funding, are pledging their allegiance to the team because of the values they stand on. Big riders like Suaza seem to be looking around a bit with the climber being linked to the new GM Cycling team in Italy.

I hope the team isn't dead. This project was a true glimmer of hope and was cycling done the right way. Anyone who isn't saddened, at least in cycling terms, needs to get their priorities straight.

Development Team Giant-Shimano

Development Team Giant-Shimano, we hardly knew ye. While the World Tour team was able to get a new sponsor and live on as Giant-Alpecin, the development team that was new in 2014 is being stopped after only 1 season.

The project was originally driven by Aike Visbeek, who is a coach with the World Tour team. He had been involved in the People4You-Unaas Cycling until the end of 2013, when the team had a rough breakup. Visbeek brought with him Swedish talent Frederik Ludvigsson, the brother of pro Tobias, along with Robert Pölder, whose father is buddies with Visbeek, and Christopher Bertilsson. The big signing was that of Lars van der Haar, the cyclocross sensation who would be riding in the team's colors on the dirt and on the road.

They assembled a pretty good team of U23 and younger non-U23 talents but it wasn't exactly the season they were hoping for. They ended up with 2 wins and some high placings courtesy of Kristian Haugaard but they were dealt with big blows when Mathias Rask suffered knee problems that saw him compete in just 1 race while Ludvigsson had iliac artery issues that bothered him all season and he ended up going under the knife early in the the off season.

To say the team was successful would be...ehhh. Max Schachmann and Jan Brockhoff did themselves favors by getting some strong results and getting off the AWT-Greenway for 2015. Van der Haar showed to everyone that watched that while he could potentially do well on the road, he is certainly home in the dirt. He and Ludvigsson will be moving up to the Giant-Alpecin team for 2015 with the former still concentrating on cyclocross full-time. The team's demise wasn't great for all as Haugaard, Pölder, Bertilsson and Kiwi Alex Frame are all without confirmed rides for 2015.

The team is moving away from a direct development team in favor of testing riders multiple time during the season and if they check out along with getting some results, they will be offered a ride. It does cut down on the huge expense of running another team but it take away a personal connection. I mean, the way that the World Tour is currently is set up, a direct World Tour feeder team doesn't make too much sense simply because only a couple of riders can graduate to the pro team at a time and in many cases, there are more riders ready than riders needed.


This one is only a partial death. The passion of Miguel Madarriaga will live on with the Euskadi team but, at least for 2015, the team well be reverting to amateur status. The year after Euskaltel-Euskadi finally kicked the bucket, Madariagga ran out of money after the Vuelta a Burgos and the team more or less ceased to exist after that. I got a lot of my grieving out last year about the demise of Basque cycling and I have a feeling that it won't be too long before we see some sort of Euskadi-like team in the future. Even for 2015, there is a new Spanish continental team called Murias Taldea that is essentially Basque with nearly all of their riders coming from the Basque Country or Navarre.

Also, if anyone could procure me a Euskadi jersey, I would be indebted to you. Love the jersey. Size Large, please and thank you.

Other continental teams that are stopping include: Koga (Netherlands), BDC-Marcpol (Poland), Christina Watches (Denmark), EPIC Janom Greenway (Slovakia), Firefighters Uppsala CK (Sweden), Gebruder Weiss (Austria), Josan-ToWin (Belgium), SP Tableware (Greece)