Holowesko-Citadel's first European race as a newly minted Pro Continental outfit provided plenty of silver linings for the US team, with 2018 recruit Fabian Lienhard winning the opening stage at the Tour de Normandie in France and wearing the leader's yellow jersey for four days.
Lienhard eventually slipped to 11th overall in the sprint-friendly race, but the team's John Murphy finished ninth in the general classification. Nicolai Brochner, who earned five top-10 stage finishes in the seven-day UCI 2.2 race, was 13th overall.
Lienhard made it into a small breakaway near the end of the opening stage and then dominated the sprint to take the win and earn the first yellow jersey along with leading the points and best young rider classifications.
"Fabian took over in the last kilometer because the field was charging hard, and then he just destroyed them in the sprint," Holowesko-Citadel director Thomas Craven told Cyclingnews Sunday after the final stage.
Lienhard held the jersey the next day when Brochner took third, and he finished second on stage 3 to maintain his lead. Brochner finished second on stage 4, snatching up time bonuses to help protect Lienhard's lead, while the Swiss rider continued his grasp on the points and youth classifications.
Things went a little south for the team on stage 5, when a group of six got away and Holowesko missed the boat. Lienhard finished in the field 49 seconds back and lost his overall lead, while Murphy led a small chase group to the line 16 seconds back. Brochner was third again on stage 6, with Lienhard coming in a few places back in fifth. The final stage saw the team's Miguel Bryon crack the top 10 in seventh.
"We had some misses, some near misses and some fails," Craven said of the race. "Just getting everybody on the same page can be difficult, but I think we made some good headway here."
The team currently in Europe includes Lienhard, Brochner, Murphy, Bryon, Andzs Flaksis and Andre Krasilnikau. Andrew Dalheim also made the trip but did not race in Normandie.
"A lot of the races are six riders, but some of them are seven so I've got Andrew Dalheim here as well," Craven said. "He unfortunately had to hang out for the week. We brought him over in case anybody got sick or crashed prior the start. He's been training and motivating himself."
Both Lienhard and Brochner are new to the team this year, but Brochner has previous experience with US teams when he raced on the Continental level for Bissell Pro Cycling in 2013 and then Axel Merckx's development team in 2014. The 24-year-old Dane raced for Danish Continental team Riwal Platform the following three years but jumped to Holowesko in the offseason after a referral from Holowesko Performance Director Bobby Julich.
"The director at Riwal was teammates with Bobby at CSC, and so he lobbied for him, and Bobby got to choose a guy he sort of wanted to mentor and bring over," Craven said.
Lienhard raced with Team Vorarlberg last year after several seasons with the BMC Development Team, where he was teammates with Eisenhart. They both raced as trainees with the WorldTour team in 2016 and went their separate ways last year. Eisenhart gave Lienhard a big recommendation with Craven.
"TJ lobbied heavily for him to be on the team," Craven said. "I'm going to always choose personality over talent, and having TJ vouch for someone works for me always.
"Fabian is a solid racer and fits in well. He speaks good English, so he's easy to communicate with. It's just a matter of fitting those guys into our team system with the staff and myself and how we all do stuff because they're coming from different backgrounds than the rest of the guys."
Dipping their toes in the European pond
Although Holowesko-Citadel has established itself as one of the top Domestic teams on the US circuit, the team has relatively little European experience. The team's last trip to Europe was during its second season as a Continental program in 2013 when Craven took a group to Luxembourg for Flèche du Sud and to France for Paris-Arras Tour.
Since then the team has travelled to Asia and South America, but unlike fellow first-year US Pro Continental teams Rally Cycling and Hagens Berman Axeon, Holowesko hasn't made many forays into the European scene. This first trip is all about getting the team's feet wet and learning how things are done, what's expected and what the team can expect from race organisers, competitors and European race officials. Craven gave the team's first outing rave reviews.
"Everything was exactly like you think bike racing would be when you watch the Tour de France and you want to work your way up to be in it," he said. "This is what you think bike racing should be. You're cruising through these old towns on super cool roads. Everybody is out there standing there waving. It's a pretty freakin' romantic version of what cycling should be, really. It was phenomenal. Twenty-five teams with six guys on each team. It was a massive load of people out there."
Team co-owner Rich Hincapie made the trip to Europe about halfway through the week to support the team and check out the scene as Holowesko riders and staff set themselves up for future trips.
"The Conti teams over here are like they are in the states," Craven said. "They've got all the vehicles and buses. We were driving around in a sprinter and a black car. We looked like the outcasts flopping in here like the Bad News Bears, whereas in the States we roll up in all our stuff.
"The goal is to continue to stay over here for longer and longer trips, so that means putting down some actual roots and having vehicles and a service course and all those things. So one of the reasons Rich came over was to check the lay of the land and see what the standards are."
Next up for the team will be a couple of one-day races: the Route Adelie on Friday and the La Roue Tourangelle Région Centre Val de Loire on Sunday.
"Then I've got TJ [Eisenhart] coming over and we send home Dalheim and we do Tour of Ardennes, which is a little bit hillier," Craven said.
The team will take on Paris-Camembert a few days after the Ardennes on April 6-8, then make their way to Croatia for the Tour of Croatia April 17-22. The aim of the trip, aside from gaining valuable European experience, is to set the team up for a successful return to the US for races like the Tour of California, which the team is hoping to race but has not yet received an invitation for from organisers.
"The real mission is to get the guys firing on all cylinders so that when we do come back to the US we're in full race mode," Craven said. "It's been a blast and the racing is great. It's a new experience for us racing on those skinny roads. I can imagine that when we get back to the States it will be like slowing down.
"We crashed all the time and broke stuff," Craven continued. "We got skinned up and got muddy and stuff like that. Again, it's training for the later races, and I couldn't be happier that we came through the first seven-day race basically with a few bumps and bruises and a stage win and the yellow jersey for a while. So mission completed."