March means European racing for two first-year US Pro Continental teams that are ready to kick their 2018 seasons into high gear.
Hagens Berman Axeon started the season this week at Dorpenomloop Ruchpen, a Dutch UCI 1.2 race won by the team's U23 time trial world champion Mikkel Bjerg. Three days later the team tackled Nokere Koerse, the Belgian 1.HC race where Ivo Oliveira animated the early going in the breakaway.
Hagens Berman Axeon will continue their first European trip of the year Friday at the Handzame Classic in Belgium and then line up March 21 at Driedaagse de Panne-Koksjde.
"We start with some tough ones," team owner Axel Merckx told Cyclingnews. "It will give the guys a chance to warm up a little bit. Those are all big races. It's good for the riders to be exposed and see what they got into."
Merckx's team, now in its 10th year, had hoped to start the season in Portugal, but when the expected invitation didn't arrive, Merckx contacted some race organisers in his native country and quickly had his team on several start lists.
"We contacted the organisers in Belgium and asked if we could race in those races and we got four entries right away. So that's pretty cool. It's pretty fun," Merckx said.
Hagens Berman Axeon will also field a squad for smaller US races like the upcoming San Dimas Stage Race starting March 23, the Tour of the Gila in April and the Redlands Bicycle Classic in May.
The team is obviously angling for an invitation to the Amgen Tour of California May 13-19, the only WorldTour race on their proposed calendar. The proposed schedule also includes the U23 editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix, as well as Tour de Bretagne, Circuit des Ardennes and the Baby Giro, among others. The team annually seeks invitations to the August US races in Utah and Colorado. In all, it's a good mix of UCI .2, .1 and .HC races for the team's inaugural Pro Continental year.
"It might be a little hard at times, but that's all part of the development," Merckx said. "It's up to us to keep some races on our radar that are reachable and where we can get some results for the guys, but at the same time mix them into races that are a little bit more exposed and maybe a higher level and see what happens.
"The program has always mixed bigger races with smaller races with pretty good success," Merckx said. "We'll see what happens, but at the same time our philosophy is not to rush them. We'll take what we can take, and we'll try to help them to improve and get stronger."
Holowesko will make European debut in Normandie
While fellow US Pro Continental teams Hagens Berman Axeon, Rally Cycling, UnitedHealthcare and Novo Nordisk have all been traveling to Europe for several years, the trip across the Atlantic is a first for Holowesko-Citadel, which will start the 2018 European campaign March 19 at the Tour de Normandie in France.
The team, which is owned by Hincapie brothers George and Rich, started the inaugural Pro Continental year in January at the Colombia Oro y Paz, where Miguel Byron and John Murphy scored top-10 finishes in bunch sprints, and TJ Eisehart was 22nd overall after finishing 13h on the Queen stage.
Since Colombia, the riders have been training and competing in local events to keep the legs fresh, then they boarded planes for France this week.
"Clearly it's a growing year for us with the riders and the races, but we'll take it all in stride," team director Thomas Craven told Cyclingnews. "With George's connections we got some invitations to some real races, and we had to pump the brakes a little bit and say, 'Look, we're not really ready for all of that.'
"Rally's been going over to Europe, trickling over there for the last three years; their organisation has been around for 13-14 years, something like that. We've only been around for six, so we haven't been able to build all the infrastructure that those guys already have, but I think we're doing pretty well."
After Normandie, which ends March 25, Holowesko will line up for Route Adelie on March 30, Trophée Harmonie Mutuelle on April 1, Circuit Des Ardennes April 6-8 and Paris-Camembert April 10. The ream will field a full squad at the Joe Martin Stage Race in the US on April 12, starting a block of North American races that will take the team through June and then a possible return to Europe in July.
"It's an adventure," Craven said. "We're looking to go over to Europe and have some adventures over there with the drop in the schedule, and it looks like July is open as well.
"We're skipping Gila this year simply because of the time - just three days between there and Joe Martin - and we'll have one team in Europe, so it just doesn't work out. So we're skipping that race and going straight to Redlands."
Holowesko-Citadel will field a team for the Tour of Croatia April 17-22 and the team is hoping for an invitation to the Tour of California May 13-19. From there, a steady diet of US races in the latter half of the season, including the Tour of Utah and Colorado Classic, lead into the Tour of Britain September 2-9.