Mannion inching closer to big result

23-year-old Jelly Belly recruit earns spot among top US Continental riders

If Gavin Mannion's cycling career needed a theme song, Little Richard's 1957 classic “Keep on knocking (but you can't come in)” would be a good candidate.

The 23-year-old Jelly Belly-Maxxis rider has been knocking at the door of a big win since he was still in his teens, putting in some impressive rides along the way but never cracking the podium's top step in any UCI or major US domestic races.

This year, however, Mannion's knocking has grown more frequent and a lot louder. His most recent attempt came on Memorial Day at the US Professional Road Race in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he fought to the bitter end but dropped out of the final lead trio in the closing kilometres and eventually faded to sixth.

The effort is just the latest in a string of early season results that have established Mannion as one of the top riders in the US Continental peloton.

Mannion has been plying his trade since he was a junior, signing with Bontrager-Livestrong in 2010 when he was just 18 and continuing with Axel Merckx's development program through 2013.

During his last season with Bontrager, Mannion finished second in a stage at the Tour de l'Avenir and was eighth overall there. He finished second in the young rider competition behind then-teammate Lawson Craddock at Tour of California and at the Tour of Utah behind Lachlan Morton, who was riding for Garmin-Sharp at the time. He wore the best young rider jersey at the USA Pro Challenge, and he was sixth overall at the Tour of the Gila after finishing fifth during the Gila Monster stage.

In 20102, Mannion wore the best young rider jersey at the USA Pro Challenge after coming in fourth during the stage 3 finish in Aspen, just two seconds behind winner Tom Danielson and surrounded by Damiano Caruso (Liquigas), Jakob Fugslang (RadioShack) Janez Brajkovic (Astana) and Andreas Kloden (RadioShack).

Despite those results, Mannion aged-out of Merckx's U-23 program in 2014 without a contract at the next level. He rode with 5-hour Energy for most of last year, and despite an early season that was delayed by illness and injuries suffered in a massive crash at Tour of the Gila, he signed as a trainee with Garmin-Sharp beginning in August.

His tenure with the US WorldTour team went well, but when the Slipstream-managed program merged with the Italian Cannondale outfit, Mannion was one of several riders left without a WorldTour contract for the next year, once again finding himself knocking on the door but not getting it open. He's obviously hoping to change that trend this year, and he's off to a good start.

Mannion's inaugural season with Jelly Belly began at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, the opening event of the National Racing Calendar and the official start of the US Continental road season. The sprinter-turned climber rode with the best during the GC-deciding mountaintop finish in Oak Glen, again making it into the final trio before eventual overall winner Phil Gaimon (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) soloed away from teammate Mike Woods and Mannion to take the win.

Mannion held on for third on the stage, finishing ahead of a handful of pre-race favourites and eventually parlaying the result into second overall. Mannion backed his Redlands performance with another top result at the Tour of the Gila, where was seventh in the difficult individual time trial, 11th on the infamous Gila Monster stage and third overall.

Mannion went into the Tour of California with big ambitions, and he finished the Mt. Baldy stage as the top US Continental rider, claiming 14th place ahead of WorldTour riders like Carter Jones (Giant-Alpecin), Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Danilo Wyss (BMC). Tour of the Gila overall winner Rob Britton (Team SmartStop), a Canadian who finished 11th on Baldy, was the only North American Continental rider in front of Mannion.

“I've been pretty consistent through the first half of this year with Redlands and Gila,” Mannion said on Tuesday while traveling with his team to North Carolina for the upcoming Winston-Salem Cycling Classic.

“I was a couple hundred metres from being able to win the stage at Redlands and a kilometre too short of being on the podium yesterday [at US pro], so I've been knocking on the door, but hopefully I'll catch a break or get a little bit lucky one of these days."

On Memorial Day in Chattanooga, Mannion rode an intelligent race and placed himself within striking distance of winning a stars-and-stripes jersey. With less than 10km to go on final circuits in downtown Chattanooga, Mannion was in a select group of nine survivors after a day of hard racing. As rain poured down on the 20 or so riders left on the course, Mannion and the leaders approached the final lap with everything on the line.

Cannondale-Garmin's Joe Dombrowski, who had teammates Alex Howes and Andrew Talansky in the group, attacked on a false-flat section. Only Matthew Busche (Trek Factory Racing) and Mannion could follow before Busche launched a counter attack that dislodged Mannion from the group.

The duo rode away from Mannion and went on to battle for the win, with Busche, the 2011 winner, eventually dropping Dombrowski in the final few hundred metres and soloing across the line for a second US pro title.

Mannion finished sixth behind UnitedHealthcare's Kiel Reijnen, Cannondale's Howes and Airgas-Safeway's Chris Horner.

It was obviously disappointing to come so close to a top result one more time and then leave empty handed, but Mannion said the previous season – with it's injuries and illness – helped provide him with an improved perspective about cycling.

“I learned a lot last year, you know, things don't go so well and you have to mentally readjust,” he said. “So I think that's helped me out a lot this year with a better outlook on things and being able to handle the ups and downs a little more.

“It would have been great to finish on the podium with those guys, but I can't really say that I could have done much more,” he said. “I rode the race as well as I could have. I followed all of the right attacks and did what I could the last time up Lookout Mountain. So I don't really have any regrets as to how it played out.”

Mannion's only regret from the race might have been a snub from one of his competitors; in a post-race interview, Horner, who is 43, referred to Mannion as “a little Jelly Belly kid” who "would come through and do some work." Asked for a response on Tuesday, Mannion brushed it off – almost.

“I think we've pretty much finished in the same group at every race we've done this year,” he said. “I don't know, maybe he's getting kinda old. Maybe if I beat him or get one big result that'll help him remember me a little bit. We'll see.”

Mannion should have plenty more opportunities to build his name recognition with Horner. After Winston-Salem, he'll take a short break in Boston before getting ready for the Tour de Beauce, a challenging 2.2 race in Quebec next month.

“After Beauce I'll kind of take a break and go out to Colorado for some altitude for the later races,” he said.

Mannion would like to shine this August at the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. He rode both races last year in the Garmin colours, assisting Tom Danielson in a successful quest for his second overall title in Utah and then again in Colorado, where Garmin tried in vain to unseat Tejay van Garderen (BMC).

“Myself and Lachlan [Morton] will be trying to keep up with those guys on those longer climbs,” Mannion said of the former Garmin rider who is now his Jelly Belly teammate. “He's won a stage at Utah and wore the leader's jersey, and he's done pretty good in Colorado. So that's Lachlan's turf, and together I think we can give each other some help.”

For now, Mannion will continue preparing himself for the next chance to burst onto the podium's top step and the opportunities that lie beyond.

“There are a lot of variables that go into a bike race but my fitness is there,” he said. “And if I just keep doing what I'm doing, at one of these races it will all come together and hopefully I'll be able to win or podium or something that will get me noticed.”

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