After five years of preparing young riders for the WorldTour, the US-based Bontrager development team is searching for a new sponsor to take over the title role from the Trek Bicycles subsidiary.
Team director Axel Merckx told Cyclingnews Thursday that he has commitments for about half of the team's $1 million budget for next year, but he's still searching for a title sponsor after the Wisconsin-based bike company decided to move more resources into its sponsorship of the 2014 WorldTour Trek Leopard team.
“With the acquisition of the ProTour license they have to invest a lot of money into that team,” Merckx said. “Also, the biggest problem that we have is in order for me to keep the team at the same level that it is right now, I want to make sure that we're able to do Tour of California, Utah, Colorado, Alberta and all those big races. If Trek is the title sponsor of my team, both of us can't compete in with the same races.”
Merckx's UCI Continental team ran into that problem in 2012, when it was restricted from competing in races with the RadioShack WorldTour team that shared the same management company, and for which Merckx's team served as the official feeder program. Re-branded as the Bontrager Pro Cycling Team – and with its own independent management – the squad continued its success in the States and internationally.
Merckx said this week that for the program to continue he needs to land a 2014 title sponsor by the end of the month, when he wants to let his riders know whether they have a team for next year or if they need to start looking for a new place to ride.
“I don't want to hold onto the riders and say, 'Oh, yeah, I'll find something. I'll find something,' and then it's October and all of the spots are taken, then they struggle to find a team,” Merckx said. “My goal stays the same, I want to do what's best for them, and in order to do that I need to let them know something by the end of August.”
The development team came into existence in 2009 as Trek-Livestrong and featured a 12-rider international lineup that included Taylor Phinney, Jesse Sergent, Ben King, Sam Brewley, Julian Kyer and Bjorn Selander. Since then the U23 program has sent a steady stream of riders to division-one squads in Europe.
Among the program alumni are King, Sergent and George Bennett, currently riding for Radioshack Leopard; Phinney and Tom Roe of BMC; Ian Boswell and Joe Dombrowski of Team Sky; Alex Dowsett of Movistar; Brewley of Orica-GreenEdge; and Bissell's Carter Jones, winner of California's mountains jersey this year.
The 2013 team features 13 riders, including nine from the US and one rider each from Canada, Belgium, Latvia and New Zealand. The team started the early season with a successful run at the Volta ae Alentejo in Portugal, where Belgian strongman Jasper Stuyven took the overall win. Craddock followed that with a stage win at la Triptyque while riding for the US national team.
At the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Nate Brown and Stuyven hit the podium in second and third. Gavin Mannion climbed with the best for ninth overall and the Best Young Rider jersey at the Tour of the Gila in April, while Craddock did the same at the Tour of California, finishing eighth and wearing white home. At the Tour de Beauce in June, Stuyven took a stage win while Brown claimed the overall. The team also has national champions in Andz Flaksis, the latvian time trial and road champion; Antoine Duchesne, the Canadian time trial champion. Tanner Putt won the US U23 road race, while Brown claimed the time trial.
But the results are secondary to the mission of developing riders for the next step of their career, and the tradition of sending riders to the big leagues is continuing this season. Stuyven, 21, has already signed with Trek Leopard for 2014, and 21-year-old Craddock, a climbing specialist from Texas, has been linked to Argos-Shimano, the Dutch WorldTour team of four-time Tour de France stage winner Marcel Kittel.
“There have been a lot of positive outcomes for the boys over the last five years,” Merckx said of the development program. “So I would be really sad to see it go. That's why I'll do everything I can to keep it going and then see at the end of [USA Pro Challenge in] Colorado if we have anything more concrete moving forward.”