Axel Merckx's new Bissell development team will feature a mix of European and North American riders among its 14-man 2014 roster, the team owner told Cyclingnews this week. Merckx is also bringing former Bissell Pro Cycling director Omer Kem on board to help run the program.
"I'm still working on finalizing some of the sponsorship and stuff like that," said Merckx, who is now outright owner of the development team after managing Trek-sponsored outfits since 2009. "Hopefully we'll be able to work on the clothing soon, and the guys will get their bikes very soon, so we're working with Trek on that. Things take time to make sure that we're set up the right way and we're comfortable. But it's exciting. It's challenging, but it's exciting at the same time."
The newly formed team will compete at the UCI Continental level and will be registered in the US, meaning at least 60 percent of the riders will be American. It will also maintain its U23 framework, featuring 10 Continental riders and four "club" riders who are in their first year out of the junior ranks.
Returning from the 2013 squad are gifted kiwi climber James Oram, US U23 road champion Tanner Putt and his countryman Ryan Eastman. Greg Daniel and Alex Darville, US riders who competed at the club level last year, will move to the Continental ranks for 2014.
Other new Continental riders on the team next season include Clement Chevrier, a climber from France; Nicholai Brochner, a Danish sprinter; German Ruben Zepuntke from the Rabobank development team; Christopher Putt, Tanner's younger brother; and Keegan Swirbul, who famously beat Lance Armstrong during a 2012 mountain bike race in Aspen, Colorado, when he was just 17.
The four 2014 club riders will be Tao Geoghegan Hart of Great Britain, Belgian junior cyclist of the year Nathan Van Hooydonck, eight-time US Junior national cyclo-cross champion Logan Owen and Geoffrey Curran from the Get Crackin' development squad.
"There is quite a bit of change because so many guys were aging up and so many guys moved up," Merckx said of the roster differences between his 2013 Bontrager team and next year's Bissell squad.
Four of the 2013 Bontrager riders – Gavin Mannion, Connor O'Leary, Andz Flaksis and Nate Wilson – aged out of the U23 program. Merckx's 2013 team had three riders graduate to the WorldTour ranks: Lawson Craddock moved to Argos-Shimano, Nathan Brown went to Garmin-Sharp and Jasper Stuyven signed with Trek.
"Three a year is a lot. That's pretty exceptional," Merckx said. "As long as I do one or two a year, it's good. Especially with the year that we're building on now, with a lot of young guys. We kind of refilled the younger-aged athletes, and hopefully we'll be able to work with them for two or three years and have one of those successful years like we had this year. And then maybe we'll be able to graduate three riders."
The Merckx-managed development teams started in 2009 as Trek-Livestrong and morphed into Bontrager [a Trek subsidiary] after the 2011 season. With Trek taking ownership of the former Radioshack WorldTour team next season, Merckx was left looking for a new title sponsor, although Trek and Bontrager will remain on board as technical partners.
Bissell, a floor-care products company, had been title sponsor of the Bissell Pro Cycling Team since 2008, but it pulled the plug on that UCI Continental program at the end of this season and took over title sponsorship of Merckx's new venture.
Fourteen former Merckx development riders have advanced to the UCI WorldTour ranks, including Olympian Taylor Phinney, former US champion Ben King, British national time trial champion Alex Dowsett, George Bennett, Ian Boswell, Joe Dombrowski and Jesse Sergent. The Merckx U23 program has sent riders to 8 different UCI WorldTour squads.
Merckx said his new outfit will continue with the same race program it has in the past, including a steady diet of the top US races along with several European trips throughout the season.
"The idea is to really continue the program that Bontrager Cycling was doing and then hopefully add on [Tour of ] Alberta, which we weren't able to do this year," Merckx said.
The addition of Kem to Merckx's staff will help the new team owner get a grip on the increased management responsibilities while keeping a hand in rider development, Merckx said.
"It's good that I also have Omer coming on board to work with me on the races and the roster so that I can really follow everybody," Merckx said. "I can't follow everyone all of the time, but he is going to be able to help me out so I can divide myself between those young riders and the more experienced ones.
"I'll work on the sponsorship relationships also," Merckx continued. "It's a one-year deal, so I want to make sure that there's a future in there without losing track of what is really our main goal, which is developing those guys the best way possible and sharing my experience with them."
2014 Bissell Development Team Roster:
James Oram, Tanner Putt, Ryan Eastman, Alex Darville, Greg Daniel, Christopher Putt, Nicholai Brochner, Ruben Zepuntke, Clement Chevrier, Geoffrey Curran, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Nathan Van Hooydonck, Logan Owen, Keegan Swirbul
Owner/manager: Axel Merckx Director: Omer Kem