New sponsorship and team kits may be the most notable changes for Axel Merckx's Bissell Development Team this year, but the squad is also bringing in nine new riders to the 14-man Continental team roster that will compete in North America and Europe during the upcoming season.
After directing the team since 2009, Merckx took over ownership in the off-season, and along with the new sponsor, he brought former Bissell Pro Cycling manager Glen Mitchell and director Omer Kem on board. Of the nine new riders lining up with the team this year, five are in their first year out of the junior ranks.
"I think we have probably the most talented group that has moved up from the junior ranks," Merckx told Cyclingnews during team camp last week in Santa Rosa.
"Tao Geoghegan Hart, Nate Van Hooydonk, Geoffrey Curran and Logan Owen - we do have the best in the world," he said. "At least top of the world in the junior rankings, and we are hoping from here on that their development will continue to move. It doesn't have to move fast, but just keep going."
Mountain biker Keegan Swirbul is the fifth rider Merckx signed this year from the junior ranks, and he's hoping the climber who beat Lance Armstrong in a mountain bike race when he was just 17 will be able to transfer his considerable talent to the road.
Despite what is obviously a rebuilding year for the team, Merckx is hoping several key returning riders will provide the team leadership and results that have been hallmarks of his program. Twenty-one-year-old Kiwi James Oram is one of the riders who appears ready to step into that role this year.
"I've seen him progressing over the years, and I know that he's riding well," Merckx said. "He's been consistently getting stronger and stronger. What range he's going to reach, I don't know, but I think he has all the qualities to be a good and successful stage race rider. He can time trial. He can climb. He can find his way in the peloton. So I think he's one of those guys. But it doesn't exclude that other riders might step up to the plate and do the same thing."
Returning riders Tanner Putt and Ryan Eastman will be joined by French climber Clement Chevrier as the oldest riders on the team at 22, while the remaining riders on the roster are all either 20 or 21.
Merckx said having two pure sprinters on this team this year will be another change from years past. Denmark's Nicholai Brochner, 20, finished fifth last year in the bunch sprint of the final stage at the Tour of Alberta while riding as a guest with Bissell Pro Cycling, and 19-year-old Alex Darville will move from the club ranks to the Continental level this year. But the team owner said having riders who specialize in bunch kicks will likely not change how they approach races.
"I'm not saying that we might not take our responsibility to try and bring a break back," he said. "But at the same time, I never start a race with a leader, specifically. Because you should be able to give those guys their chance - everybody an equal chance. I understand that in stage races if you have the Best Young Rider jersey or circumstances like an uphill finish, they should help each other, because they'll be able to hep the other guy back later in the week. That's something they can do at the development stage."
The team will maintain a schedule similar to previous years, focusing on a handful of National Race Calendar events along with North America's biggest stage races. The team will also head to Europe in April for U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and again in June for the U23 Paris-Roubaix, which former team rider Taylor Phinney won in 2009 and 2010.
"It's a great race and a great experience for those riders," Merckx said. "Some of those kids have been dreaming of doing Roubaix, and finally they get to do it and at least try it out. It has a great reputation and it's a good showcase. They know that a lot of top teams look at those results, especially Liege and Roubaix, and so it's important for us to be there."
The team has already been invited to the Amgen Tour of California in May, and Merckx is hopeful that the squad will also receive invitations to the late-season UCI races in Utah, Colorado and Alberta.
"It's important for our program," he said. "And I think it's important for cycling in the US, too, to see those best US riders race against the [WorldTour] guys. I think it's important for cycling fans in general. Think abut how important it was for Joe Dombrowski to be able to do a race like that. I don't think that Sky would have ever picked him up if he wasn't in California racing the way he raced that day or that week. It put him on the map. And that's the opportunity that races like California, Colorado, Utah, Alberta, and all those big races provide to those young riders."
Merckx has his own goals for the season as well, including securing long-term sponsorship beyond his current one-year deal.
"I want to prove to the sponsors that this program should be around," he said. "And it shouldn't be around for just one year at a time. It should be around for at least three years to work and to develop those riders."