Bissell signs as title sponsor for Axel Merckx's new U23 team

After nine years on the US domestic circuit, Bissell Pro Cycling will not continue past this season and will instead sign on as the title sponsor with Axel Merckx's new U23 development team.

"This is a fantastic opportunity to continue building on all the success we have had over the years," Merckx said in a statement Wednesday. "I'm extremely excited about next year, and I'm looking forward to helping to develop the next generation of pro cyclists."

The Michigan-based company is North America's largest manufacturer of floor-care products like vacuums and other clean-up items. It was founded in 1883 by Melville Bissell and is run today by company president Mark Bissell.

The UCI Continental cycling team, which is run by Glen Mitchell of New Zealand, started in 2005 as Advantage Benefits-Endeavor and then competed as Priority Health in 2006 and 2007. Bissell came on board as a presenting sponsor in 2007 and then moved into the title-sponsor role in 2008 when it took over ownership of the team. Bissell Pro Cycling raced in different versions of its familiar red-and-black kits for six years through the end of this season.

WorldTour riders Brent Bookwalter (BMC), Ted King (Cannondale) and Ian Boswell (Sky) formerly rode for the team, along with current national time trial champion Tom Zirbel, Crusher in the Tushar promoter Burke Swindlehurst, Scott Zwizanski, Karl Menzies and the Jacques-Maynes brothers, Ben and Andy. Team riders earned two national championships, including Eric Young's criterium title in 2011 and Bookwalter's 2006 U23 time trial championship.

This year's roster included 13 riders, three of whom won KOM jerseys at UCI races: Carter Jones in May's Tour of California, Pat McCarty at Tour de Beauce in June and Mike Torckler during August's Tour of Utah. The 2013 roster also included Jeremy Vennell, Frank Pipp, Tommy Nankervis, Jason McCartney, Julian Kyer, Andrew Dalheim, Mac Brennan, Paddy Bevin, Chris Baldwin and Phil Gaimon, who has already signed with Garmin for next year.

Merckx's team 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 Leopard WorldTour team next season, Merckx was left looking for a new title sponsor, although Trek and Bontrager will remain on board as technical partners.

Fourteen former Merckx development riders have advanced to the UCI WorldTour ranks, including Olympian and five-time world champion Taylor Phinney; former American champion Ben King; British national time trial champion Alex Dowsett; George Bennett; Ian Boswell; Joe Dombrowski; Jesse Sergent; and more. The Merckx U23 program has sent a steady stream of riders to 8 different UCI WorldTour squads. This year's team had three riders graduate to the WorldTour ranks with Lawson Craddock, Nathan Brown, and Jasper Stuyven.

While the news is good for Merckx and his development team, the loss of Bissell Pro Cycling from the peloton will be a major blow. Former team director Omer Kem said it wasn't at all unexpected.

"We didn't secure a co-sponsor, like a 'presented-by sponsor,' this season, and moving forward, the financial investment just needed to go down and be less than what it was," Kem told Cyclingnews. "So [Bissell CEO Mark Bissell] made the decision to shut down Bissell Pro Cycling as a corporation. So Tour of Alberta was the last race for the team."

Kem said several of the older riders in the former Bissell team will be retiring, while some of the younger riders will likely find spots on other teams.

"I feel confident that the guys who are deserving of contracts are definitely going to get contracts," Kem said. "Sadly, that doesn't necessarily mean every rider, but at the same time, we've really tried in the last month, two months of the season, to make sure everyone was given at least an opportunity to show what they can do – whether it was just to other Continental teams or Pro Continental and ProTour teams."

The change is bittersweet for Kem and other who have been with the program for nearly a decade, but the former director said they are going out on a good note.

"We've had out best season ever in terms of our results," he said. "Especially at the big UCI stage races in North America, so let's go out on a high."

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