For the second consecutive year, Axel Merckx's Bontrager development team has made the most of its coveted invitation to the Amgen Tour of California, with Lawson Craddock winning the Best Young Rider competition followed by teammates Gavin Mannion and Tanner Putt. The team also flew the Bontrager colors in four day-long breakaways and earned four top-10 stage finishes.
"I think we just missed one or two of them all week," Merckx said of his riders' breakaway efforts. "With Lawson's performance and the whole team in general - we finished sixth on team GC overall - that's pretty impressive. And we got the best young rider; actually we got the first three spots, so it's been a good week. It's been a really good week."
Belgian big man Jasper Stuyven, 21, finished fifth, ninth and 12th in the sprint finishes against WorldTour competition, and Craddock, 21, climbed his way to ninth on the extremely difficult ascent of the Tramway climb in Palm Springs. He backed that up with a seventh-place finish atop Mt. Diablo after attacking a select group of general classification favorites.
"I just recently found some climbing legs in me," Craddock said. "So I'm not used to climbing with guys like Tejay [van Garderen]. Going into the last kilometer I was surprised that I was still there, for one, but I was even more surprised that my legs felt really good. So I thought why not try a move. So I did, but I didn't realize it got so steep in the end. That's racing. It was just incredibly cool to attack that group."
With its success at the race over the past two years, Craddock said, the team has earned the respect of the other competitors, the race organizers and the fans.
"A year ago at this race no one knew who we were and people were doubting us," the young Texan said. "So to come here and prove them all wrong, get to know some of the older guys and more experienced guys in the peloton, is a really cool experience. And not only that, but you start to build relationships, too. And so it's cool that we are being treated with respect, and we've done a lot to deserve it."
Aside from the top-10 finishes, team GC and Best Young Rider results, the Bontrager riders also grabbed some spotlight by infiltrating breakaways on a regular basis. Gavin Mannion joined an escape in the stage 2 romp to Santa Clarita; the next day it was Nathan Brown's turn to try his luck off the front. Brown escaped again during the stage to Mt. Diablo, and Antoine Duchesne joined Vacansoleil's Thomas De Gendt and Bissell's Jason McCartney on a final-day adventure.
It was a good week in general for the team, but Craddock's performance on Mt. Diablo was a real head-turner.
"It was cool to see," Merckx said of Craddock's effort up the 17km final climb. "That's where they have to measure themselves. They have to try stuff out and give it a shot. He blew up a little bit at the end, but that's just part of the learning curve. At least he's there to show himself and to challenge himself and everybody out there. It was really cool. It was really good to see."
Former Bontrager rider Joe Dombrowski put in a similar ride during the Queen stage in California last year, and now Dombrowski is riding for Team Sky. Craddock said he's hoping he can follow Dombrowski's route to the big show.
"I've been dreaming about this my entire life," he said. "I've been racing bikes since I was 10. I've always wanted to make it to the WorldTour, so to have a result that has a good shot of getting me there is awesome. I love racing my bike, I love being competitive and I love to suffer. I think that all the hard work that I've put in the past 10 years of my life is really starting to pay off."
Merckx also believes the hard work could pay off for a couple of his riders at the end of the season. The team director tagged Craddock and Stuyven as two riders with a good chance of getting a WorldTour contract at the end of this season.
"So far I can see Jasper Stuyven going, and Lawson is probably well on his way," Merckx said. "We have strong riders with Nate Brown and Gavin Mannion, who've had some good results this year, and we're not even half way. So there are some good races to come and good challenges for everybody else to show themselves. It's just more work for me next year to refill the development team. I have to start all over again.
"As soon as they move on my job is done," Merckx continued. "And then I'll start fresh and focus on next year. Hopefully we'll have confirmation of that very soon. We're looking forward to it, and hopefully we're going to be to doing this for many more years."