Bontrager-Livestrong team director Axel Merckx said Tuesday that the development squad's recent success at the SRAM Tour of the Gila in New Mexico should provide his stable of young riders with a nice confidence boost as they rev up for next week's Amgen Tour of California.
"It's for sure good for the morale, and we are excited," Merckx said. "But we are going to California really humble. We are, after all, a young team. We are there to learn and show our talent around. That's what we are going to try and do there. It's a huge opportunity for our riders to showcase themselves and to give them an introduction to a high level of cycling, the place where they actually want to get to. So it's a huge opportunity."
Bontrager-Livestrong took the team GC prize at Gila, while Joe Dombrowski took home the Best Young Rider jersey with a third-place overall finish behind Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) and Chad Beyer (Competitive Cyclist). Dombrowski's teammates Lawson Craddock and Ian Boswell finished one-two on the final stage, approaching the finish line of the "Gila Monster" with their clasped hands lifted skyward like LeMond and Hinault in the '86 Tour.
"I'm obviously very pleased by the results at Gila," Merckx said. "I think we've really put together a good roster, and those guys are really tight together and are really helping each other out. You mention three names, but this is the work of the whole team. Some guys had been protecting Joe all week and defending his jersey and his GC spot. Those three guys for sure have the results and have shown themselves to do more, but the other guys have put in a lot of work also for this team, and that's really reassuring and exciting for me as a team director coming into California."
Despite the overall success at last week's UCI race in new Mexico, Merckx said the Tour of California is a much bigger race and his squad would not likely be in the GC hunt.
"I was there last year and saw the race," he said. "California, Utah, Colorado, those are the top races in the United States; those are the ProTour guys. The Tour guys are going to be there, and they have huge interest sponsor-wise also. Those guys have a lot of pressure from their sponsors to perform and do well, so it's not a preparation race, it's a full-on ProTour race at the highest level."
But just like any other stage race, the various teams will have differing agendas, and smaller teams not in the GC battle will find their own opportunities on the road.
"If you're not in the GC," Merckx said, "it opens up opportunities to go in breaks – especially when the GC is more settled – and try and make it to the finish. Some teams have different interests, and ours is to take it day by day and try to showcase at least on one stage. I'm sure we're going to race it with full heart and do the best we can, and hopefully we can manage to do one or two nice things during the Tour of California. "
Merckx added that the prominent ascents on this year's route could provide an opportunity for some of his up-and-coming riders.
"If we can aim for one or the other stage, I'm sure that Joe [Dombrowski and Ian [Boswell] are really eager to do well in Big Bear with the uphill finish," Merckx said. "But then you see Lawson [Craddock] can pull a nice ride in the climbs, too, and we still have lots of talent."
Despite his desire for one or two "nice" things to happen next week, Merckx emphasized that the team's main goal is to gain experience for his riders and to showcase their talents to some of the bigger squads they might hope to ride for one day.
"When I was amateur, which is what they used to call it, with the Tour DuPont there was always one or two development teams at the start," he said. "That was a great experience to have there. So I'm glad they give these young teams an opportunity to show themselves. And I think we've shown over the last week in Gila that out of the American teams we do deserve our spot at the Tour of California."
Bontrager-Livestrong California roster: Joshua Atkins (NZl), Ian Boswell (USA), Nathan Brown (USA), Lawson Craddock (USA), Joe Dombrowski (USA), Ryan Eastman (USA), Gavin Mannion (USA), Jasper Stuyven (Bel).