Bontrager squad racing for their futures at Tour of California

The Bontrager development team returns to the Amgen Tour of California this year with a reloaded roster and plenty of motivation.

"Those guys are here basically to try get a contract for next year," team director Axel Merckx told Cyclingnews this week. "At the end of the day, they want those managers and ProTour teams to take a look at them and see what their capabilities are and what their potential is. So they have to be aggressive and be smart about it also."

The team quickly quieted murmurs last year when the young squad got invited to the race in front of other more experienced teams. Joe Dombrowski's fourth-place finish on Mt. Baldy and a handful of top-10 finishes throughout the race easily justified the team's presence.

"There's always talk, and there are always teams that don't get selected," Merckx said. "But I think we've proved over the last five years, actually, that we are a really strong and competitive development team. So as a US domestic Continental team we have our spot here, and I think the organization recognizes that, too, and I think it's good for the future of cycling to have a development team at the start of a race like this."

The team is also coming off another successful run at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico, where 21-year-old Gavin Mannion finished fifth on the difficult Gila Monster stage and ended up sixth overall, the best young rider in the race. Merckx said he hopes two weeks of altitude training before Gila, which is also at altitude, will have prepared his riders well for this week.

"That was the main goal and focus for the spring season," Merckx said. "So we'll see where that's going to bring us."

The Bontrager director tagged Mannion as a rider who could bring home a good result this year during some of the climbing stages, and he said Lawson Craddock and Nate Brown could perform well in the time trial. Look for Belgian Jasper Stuyven, who won the overall and points jersey at the Volta ae Alentejo earlier this year in Portugal, to be mixing it up in the bunch sprints.

"And then the other guys will really be looking for the opportunity to slip into breaks and get a result like that," Merckx said. With a tough day expected during stage 2, Merckx said, it's likely the GC will be well-established early in the week, providing potential escapees with plenty of opportunities during the intermediary stages.

"I think the first stage is going to be a little bit of a feeler about where they are in the peloton," Merckx said of his young riders. "It's going to be a hard race right away in the first two days, so they're going to find their spot right away and then later on in the week maybe try to slip into breakaways if the gaps are big enough to have potential to go for a stage win.

"I'm not going to tell my guys not to go in a break - I can tell you that," Merckx said. "That's the experience they should learn. They should learn their limits and learn what they need to improve and what they're good at also."

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.