Axel Merckx is in the process of rebuilding his Continental under 23 Trek-Livestrong team with a fresh crop of young riders in 2011. The former Belgian pro scoured the international junior ranks and found 11 promising new cyclists eager to develop into the next Lance Armstrong, including American Lawson Craddock.
"Our team is going to be pretty young next year," Merckx said. "We had three riders coming back and all the rest moved up. It is not a total rebuild but we are starting over again with young riders. We want to develop them and in the next two years have the same success that we had last year."
The loss of riders like Taylor Phinney, two-time 4,000m individual pursuit world champion on the track and U23 time trial world champion on the road, and US professional road champion Ben King, who have graduated to ProTour teams, opened space for hiring the next generation of international riders from the junior and under 23 categories. There are only three returning riders from the previous year: Gavin Mannion, Nathan Brown and Charlie Avis.
The new signings include Americans Craddock, Ian Boswell, Ryan Eastman, Joe Dombrowski, Carter Jones and Robin Eckmann. New Zealand riders include Michael Vink, Josh Atkins and George Bennett plus one Australian Joe Lewis. Merckx will hire one additional rider to be announced at a later date.
"I spent a lot of time researching the junior and U23 races and did a lot of networking with people I know all over the world," Merckx said. "I also saw some of the European races when we go and race over there and saw the riders racing.
"I know these riders' results and I have spoken to them but we have not done any testing yet," he said. "From the junior ranks, Lawson Craddock stands out with some good results from last year. But I think we have a wide range of great talents on the team. If they have the right program and mind set they will make it. I'm confident that within the next couple of years we will be able to produce some big talents."
The team scored some major success in the US last season that included wins at the Tour of the Gila, Cascade Cycling Classic and the Tour of Utah along with a sweep of the USA Cycling Pro Championships with Taylor Phinney winning the time trial and Ben King taking a dramatic solo victory in the road race. time trial won by Phinney and the road race won by Ben King in September.
King secured a contract with its big brother team RadioShack while Phinney has joined the BMC Racing team for next year. Other notable riders to move up the ranks include U23 European and UK time trial champion Alex Dowsett and New Zealand's Jesse Sergent.
Trek-Livestrong joined the Continental ranks in its inaugural season in 2009. The team will starts its third season in 2011 at the National Racing Calendar (NRC) Redlands Bicycle Classic and will compete in many of the top US events. Its international schedule is still under wraps but will include the U23 Paris-Roubaix, won by Taylor Phinney in 2009 and 2010.
"We have a few more climbers this year and so we have not defined some of the races we will do over in Europe," Merckx said. "Racing in the US is the best transition for our riders before they go to Europe. They need to have some results within their category of under 23 and they need to be able to be able to stand on their own in US races because the level of racing in Europe is higher and the level of talent is wider. It is critical for them to have some results in the US before they move up."
The development riders will have a unique opportunity to ride alongside Eddy Merckx in the inaugural GranFondo Axel Merckx Okanagan on July 10 in British Columbia, Canada.