The Bontrager-Livestrong development team has made the most so far of its invitation to the Amgen Tour of California, scoring multiple top-10 stage results and placing New Zealander Josh Atkins, who currently sits 10th overall, in the Best Young Rider's jersey.
"We try to be present everyday on the front," said team director Axel Merckx. "And we try to be active and throw ourselves into the mix of things. Now [stage 4] is a long day leading into the time trial, and then there are two really big hard days. Like I said in the beginning, we'll take it one day at a time. We have our goals everyday and we try to accomplish them, and then we turn the page and look at tomorrow."
Texan Lawson Craddock, currently 15th overall, has twice found his way to the front of the big bunch finishes, placing ninth on stage 1 and seventh on stage 2. The young Texan said the results have surprised even himself.
"The first stage was one of the first times I've actually been up there trying to duke it out in the sprint," Craddock said. "I've never thought of myself as a sprinter, and being up there throwing elbows with guys like Sagan and Haussler, it's insane, so I've definitely surprised myself, for sure. I'm doing a lot better than I thought I would in this race."
But the race is far from over, and Thursday's time trial in Bakersfield, followed by two tough mountain stages, will certainly shake up the general classification, but Merckx said the overall has never been a team goal.
"The GC right now is not really the GC that's going to be at the end of the week, we all know that," Merckx said. "There's a long TT
tomorrow and then two hard stages, so it's going to be turned upside down tomorrow, I know that. We'll see how it goes and see how the guys respond and how they perform in the time trial. I'm hoping to have a couple guys do a good time trial and then maybe a couple of guys doing good mountain stages."
One of the hopes for the mountain stages will no doubt be Joe Dombrowski, who recently finished third overall at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico, where he also scored a third-place result in that race's time trial.
"Joe has done well, but this is not the same time trial as Gila," Merckx said. "Gila is more hilly, and it suits him better. I know he has improved a lot on the time trial and I hope he's going to pull a good time trial, but Lawson Craddock and and Nate Brown are the main time trialists on our team. And Joe – we'll see how he does tomorrow."
And where else in the race will the young riders of the Bontrager squad look to prove themselves against some of the best riders in the world?
"We'll have to see after the time trial and then the first mountain stage," Merckx said. "And then we can see where we are and what the gaps are and look for our opportunities."