Bissell's Paddy Bevin may have turned a few heads with an impressive performance at the recent Merco Cycling Classic in California, where he won the opening road race, ran second in the next day's time trial, took the stage 3 criterium in a chaotic field sprint and then defended his leader's jersey from multiple attacks on the final day. The recently turned 21-year-old from New Zealand walked away with the overall prize, the sprinter's jersey and the jersey for best young rider.
But it's not the first time team director Omer Kem has seen that kind of dominant performance from his third-year rider. During Kem's last year racing for Bissell in 2009, he ventured to team manager Glenn Mitchell’s home country to compete in New Zealand's Tour of Southland, a race in which 18-year-old Bevin repeatedly pummeled the older competition.
"I think he won two or three stages, the sprint jersey and was top five overall," Kem said. "It's one thing to read it. It's another thing to witness it. He made it look easy then, and we knew that he would continue to improve. So if he surprises people or they are shocked, fantastic, good for him."
Cycling New Zealand named Bevin its 2009 U19 rider of the year after he piled up a long list of local wins then topped it off with a hat trick of victories at the New Zealand, Australia and Oceania U19 national road races.
"I had a good run," Bevin succinctly described his final junior season.
Following his stellar 2009/2010 results at home, Bevin headed to Oregon to ride the US season with the Portland-based Rubicon-Orbea squad, a now-defunct elite amateur team that had been home to a handful of Kiwi riders over the years. Bevin quickly went on a tear through Pacific Northwest races, piling up enough results to convince Bissell to step in and scoop up the then-19-year-old rider. Kem had by then moved into a part-time director role with Bissell and was convinced the UCI Continental team wanted him on board.
Bevin rewarded his new squad's confidence that July with a courageous solo win in front of the team's sponsor and hometown crowd at the NRC Grand Cycling Classic in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He went on a 40-minute solo flier and held off a charging field led by Jake Keough and Hilton Clarke of United Healthcare, and Fly V Australia's Bernard Sulzberger and Jonathan Cantwell. It was a high point just months into his professional career.
"That wasn't a special day at all," Bevin wryly observed of the showy win in front of the title sponsor's corporate headquarters. He hit the podium three more times for Bissell in 2010 and also notched top-10 results at Tour of Gila, Tour of Elk Grove and the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic. It was a pretty solid resume for a first-year pro.
Bevin returned to New Zealand to train and race through the Southern Hemisphere summer, winning a stage and the overall at the Tour de Vineyards. He returned to the United States in February of 2011, moving to the cycling hub of Boulder, Colorado, where he hoped to continue his upward trajectory in cycling. But something had changed. His normally long list of yearly results, which usually included wins, podium spots and top 10 placings, was replaced in 2011 with just a handful of notations, and most conspicuously, an absence of any wins.
"Last year he just struggled," Kem said. "I think there were two issues: He tried to move to Boulder, and it was his first time trying to live at altitude so he struggled with training; he also got an eye infection the week before the Philadelphia International Classic in early June. It knocked him down, and he kind of had a hard time coming back. So he had a little bit of a letdown of a season."
Bevin concedes that the previous US season was not up to his usual standards.
"I struggled during my time in the states and didn't get it together for a couple of different reasons," he said. "With Bissell as strong as it was last year, we had 16 guys and if you weren't on top form you didn't get a foot in the door. It was just one of those things. It's just bike racing. I got sick early on and then a couple of unfortunate crashes and just stuff like that, it just adds up when you aren't 100 percent."
With Bissell cutting its roster from 16 riders to just 11, it was a dangerous time to have an off year, and Bevin might have been cut loose if not for Kem's personal memories of the young Kiwi's potential.
"We never had a doubt in our mind that we wanted to keep him for 2012," Kem said. "He showed that he was a classy bike racer in 2010. I've signed these guys who maybe had a rough year and feel like they have something to prove, because in my mind they're the ones who will be the most motivated to get back to where they were or better."
Once again, Bevin rewarded the team's confidence by resolving to learn from the disappointment and come back stronger than ever. He went home at the end of last season and focused on returning to the states this spring in top condition.
"It's a tough lesson to learn at the time, when you're getting the stuffing beat out of you on a weekly basis," he said. "You want to take stuff away from that and build. So while I wasn't successful I learned more than I have in any other period racing my bike. It's the sort of stuff you just can't be told, a lot of it, and I just learned a lot about my body, learned a lot about my training. I took that home and had a great summer back home."
Bevin grabbed podium spots at the NZ Cycle Classic and at the national championship road races, all while aiming his training at the US schedule. In February he moved back to the states to prepare for his 2012 run, passing up on Boulder this time and setting instead in Santa Rosa, California, where he's close to several teammates and team manager Mitchell. He has also dropped about 10 pounds coming into the season, although he says the weight loss is not intentional but rather the natural product of training hard and eating right. Kem described the transition as Bevin simply "losing his puppy fat" and continuing to develop.
"He trained hard over the winter, which is the New Zealand summer, and the results showed there. He was winning sprints, he was climbing, he was winning stage races. So I think this year is going to be a great year for him. When we went into training camp we were thinking he could be a guy who could win a race for us here and there and be a fantastic support rider and lead-out man, but now he's shown he's capable of more."
Bevin, who concedes he's developing a reputation as a sprinter, hopes to show he's also capable of finding more ways to win.
"I have got a good sprint, and it's the way I've won most bike races," he said. "But over the last 12 months I've improved both my climbing and time trialing a lot. And that goes back to the whole trajectory thing; if you want to make it to the top level of the sport you've got to be pretty good all around. So, yeah, I do have a good sprint, but it's not the only thing I have, and it has been a goal over a period of time to build into a more overall rider."
Kem agreed with Bevin’s assessment, adding that he believes the rider has World Tour potential.
"He can sprint, and that's going to win him a lot of races," Kem said. "But the fact that he can get to the end of a really hard race and then sprint is probably what is going to define him as a rider. We're really excited to take him and see what he can do, but I think that that's the direction he'll develop, into a very complete rider."
Bevin will hit the San Dimas Stage Race this week and then the Redland Bicycle Classic for the NRC opener. After that he'll head to Europe with the New Zealand national team to race in several Nations Cup events. He is also focused on the U23 world championship road race at the end of the season. In between, Kem is hoping to throw Bevin into some of this country's biggest races.
"Paddy will get a shot at the big races, the Tour of California this year, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, all that stuff," Kem said. "He can ride a breakaway, and for these sprint stages we want to see if we can get up there. We've never really tried that before, and I think Paddy could be up there. Sure, head-to-head with Mark Cavendish might be a little hard, but a top 10 at that race or a fifth place, that would be amazing."
It would certainly be an incredible journey for a rider who experienced a tough haul just the season before.
"I feel I've come a long way, really," Bevin concluded. "Now I've got a good year and a bad year under the belt. It certainly toughens you up a bit."