Team director Axel Merckx rejected the idea Thursday that his Bontrager-Livestrong team would be working for the interests of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek at this year's Amgen Tour of California, saying the U23 development team had done everything it could to become independent, and would be focused on its own ambitions during the May 13-20 tour.
Race organiser AEG's decision to invite Bontrager-Livestrong to this year's race raised some eyebrows among people wondering if remaining allegiances to the RadioShack squad, its former WorldTour parent team, would give defending champion Chris Horner a leg up by essentially putting two teams in his corner.
Despite having taken steps to legally separate itself from Radioshack-Nissan this season after that team merged with Leopard-Trek, questions remained about the young American squad's allegiance to the Luxembourg WorldTour team's remaining RadioShack staff or to riders like Horner and former Livestrong teammate Ben King.
"I don't know what more we can do and say," Merckx said from Belgium, where he's preparing half the Bontrager-Livestrong team for the Tour of Normandy in France March 19-25. "But you know what, the facts will be the facts, and let's just wait for the race and I'll show everybody that they're wrong. We took a different path this year, and RadioShack took a different path by developing a Continental team in Luxembourg, which is totally fine. We're competitors. The only thing we have in common is that we ride Trek bikes."
Merckx likened the current relationship with his former parent team to that of many others in the peloton between past teammates and staff who now ride or work for different organizations.
"I have as many friends on QuickStep as I have with the RadioShack people," he said. "I've raced with those teams. I've raced 14 years. It's normal that I have friends in the peloton, it doesn't mean that I'm going to help them out in the race. I am the director of the Bontrager-Livestrong team, and I am doing my best job to form and develop those riders.
"My mission is to promote those guys and to teach them to race a certain way and to teach them to race for their own benefit. So we're going to the Tour of California to try and do the best we can and to expose those guys to a huge level and give them a huge opportunity to race at such a level."
Bontrager-Livestrong has 12 riders on the roster this year, but only 10 of those riders are licensed at the UCI Continental level necessary to race in California. Of the remaining nine, Merckx said, one rider, Jasper De Buyst of Belgium, is still a bit too new to compete in Tour of California. So that leaves nine riders competing for eight open spots.
"I have my ideas, but I want to see how the races go over the next few weeks before I make a decision about that eighth rider," Merckx said, adding that one of the favorable aspects of directing a development team is that all of the riders are young and will get plenty of opportunities through the duration of the team's three-year sponsorship deal. And the riders who do get picked for the Tour of California squad this year will have a clear mission from the boss.
"We are going out there to race, to learn and to get the best possible results that we can," Merckx said. "Obviously we're not going to go for GC, because that's a little bit beyond us. But what we want to do is show up there and be part of the race and be active. We want to be that team or rider that those big teams, no matter what team it is – Quick-Step, Liquigas, or any of those teams – we want them to look at the sheet and say, 'Hmmm, that team's got some good talent. Maybe I should give him a shot next year.'"