Eastman and Putt take on leadership roles at Bissell Development team

As the oldest returning riders on Axel Merckx's newly reformulated Bissell Development Team, Ryan Eastman and US under 23 national road champion Tanner Putt are the squad's seasoned veterans this season - at just 21 years old.

Although both California residents will turn 22 before year's end and are joined in the ranks of team elder statesmen by newcomer Clement Chevrier, they'll be heading up a young squad that this year includes five 19-year-old riders, all of whom are currently just 18. It's a big change from the previous year, when Merckx's Bontrager team had six 22-year-olds and only two riders in their first year out of the junior age group.

With just five returning riders on a 14-man roster, Merckx is counting on Eastman, who is starting his fourth year with the team, and Putt, in just his second, to step up and provide the leadership the young team will need as it reloads its roster and rebuilds as a cohesive unit.

"Me and Axel have had a few talks about that over the winter months," Eastman told Cyclingnews last week from the team's training camp in Santa Rosa, where both he and Putt live. "The last few years I've been getting bottles and riding in the wind a lot. So I'm excited to have a little bit different role on the team, and I think I'm ready for it. I'm mature enough for it now.

"I mean I'm not that much older, but I think between 18 and 22 there is quite a bit of growth," Eastman said. "They can still go up climbs fast, but just like mentally and where you're at in your life, a lot of things change in those years."

Putt, despite being on the team just two years, feels himself moving into that role as well.

"We have a lot of young guys this year," he said. "So I'm definitely feeling my age now. I know what it's like to be the young guy on a new team, so I've been trying to help them out as much as I can. But everyone seems like they know what they're doing and are really good riders already."

Both Putt and Eastman are also hoping that their age and experience will translate into the results that will help them make the next step in their careers. The two US riders will start their seasons with the US national team on a European trip that starts in Portugal at the Vuelta a Alentejo before hitting the early season Nations Cup races. Then they'll meet up with their Bissell teammates for the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

"That's what's on my mind right now," Eastman said. "I'd love to race a really good under 23 Liege, and then also the other Nations Cups like Flanders and [la Cote] Picarde. I'd like to go well there and then come back to America and go good for Gila and California."

Putt also mentions the U23 versions of Flanders and Liege when he talks about his early season targets, and he's especially hoping for an attention-grabbing ride in California.

"I was looking at the courses a few days ago, and I think there will be some good stages for me there," Putt said. "So I'm really looking forward to that. There's one that finishes in Monterey, I believe, that looks like it could be hilly and have some cross winds. That would be good. And then there's another one that finishes in Santa Barbara, and I know the climb going into that. After four or five days of racing, people could be tired, and it's a tough climb. So that could be a good one as well."

While Putt sees himself as a strong overall rider who can climb near the front and also packs a good finishing kick, Eastman was less certain of where his strengths and weaknesses lie.

"I've always kind of wondered that myself," he said. "That's why I'm still on a development team rather than some big team; I'm still figuring that out. I'm not one of those super-freak talents that can just ride up a climb like crazy or just ride a time trial amazingly, and I'm not a big sprinter guy. I'm more of an opportunistic rider. I'm still trying to figure that out what I am, but I think that's natural in a development team."

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