In an unusual deal worked out between Luis Villalobos, his U23 development team and EF Education First-Drapac, the 20-year-old Mexican time trial champion will jump to the WorldTour team next summer following a spring of racing with his current Continental team Aevolo.
The three-year deal with EF Education First-Drapac covers the 2019, 2020 and 2021 seasons, but Villalobos will continue to ride with Aevolo through the spring of next year, likely joining the WorldTour team in June, according to Aevolo Director Michael Creed.
Villalobos, who signed with Aevolo in 2017, won the Mexican time trial championship in June, then in August claimed the Best Young Rider's jersey and finished eighth overall at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, won by LottoNL-Jumbo's Sepp Kuss.
Villalobos rode consistently well though the week and climbed with the best in the race. He was fourth on the stage 2 climb up and over Mount Nebo, where Kuss won and took the overall lead. Villalobos followed that performance with eighth on the Queen stage to Snowbird Resort and eighth again on the final day over Empire Pass into Park City.
"[EF-Drapac General Manager Jonathan Vaughters] started texting me during Tour of Utah after Luis' first big ride," Creed told Cyclingnews. "Then, when he backed it up with his ride to Snowbird, JV and I were talking more."
Before the final stage in Utah, Villalobos told Cyclingnews he was only focused on the rest of the season with Aevolo and hadn't yet considered his options for next year. But it wasn't long before the offers started rolling in.
Creed told Cyclingnews both he and Vaughters came up with the plan of allowing Villalobos to make the jump next summer rather than immediately in the spring. The idea is to have Villalobos avoid what can be the hardest part of a neo-pro's indoctrination into the division-one ranks.
"For a neo-pro, the hardest time of the season is always that first spring," Creed said. "You're away from home, you're integrating into a new team and this is a jump up to a much higher level. It's colder, more aggressive racing. It kind of beats you up."
Villalobos will race a typical US domestic schedule with Aevolo next spring, hitting USA Cycling's Pro Road Tour races and likely targeting a GC result at the Tour of the Gila in April. Creed said a brief European trip could be in the cards for Aevolo next spring if the trip makes sense financially and works well with the team's goals in the US races.
"Basically, the idea is just to shelter him a little bit more and let go of that pressure of trying to sign for a WorldTour team immediately and give him that stability," Creed said of the plan to integrate Villalobos into the WorldTour later in the season.
The signing marks the first WorldTour graduate for Creed's Aevolo program, which the former pro started from scratch last season. The team backed up the Utah performance the following week in Colorado, where Gage Hecht won the opening stage of the Colorado Classic in Vail and led the race for a day. Aevolo also swept all the disciplines at the U23 Road Championships in August.
For Creed, Villalobos and his rise to the WorldTour encapsulate Aevolo's mission. The rider's uncle reached out to Creed after he won the Mexican junior road title and the time trial at the Tour l'Abitibi, and Aevolo gave him the chance to race on some of the biggest stages in the US. The young rider made the most of his opportunity.
"That's what's cool about this level," Creed said. "You can be a small link in the chain and not try to be more than that. And hopefully be a useful link and we'll see where he goes from there."