Mannion completes his transformation to become a climber

After a painful day's racing in the French Alps at the Tour de l'Avenir, Gavin Mannion, the leader of the US National Team at the French stage race, decided the best cure for his wounds was a full box of maple syrup ice cream with caramelised pecans and a caramel swirl.

Training this week in Nice, on the Côte d'Azur, the Massachusetts born rider still has red marks on his right side and the impression he could have got a better result in the Tour de l'Avenir. However he has the consolation of knowing that he is ending his season with a significant achievement: he finally showed himself as a climber and so perhaps is the next American talent for hills and the professional ranks.

Discovering his ability to climb has been quite a journey for Mannion. In 2011 he missed out on a placed for the Tour de l'Avenir, he was considered as a "domestique" and a "sprinter". After his climbing metamorphosis, in 2013 he lead the US national squad in the mountains in France, while Nathan Wilson and Lawson Craddock, his teammates at Bontrager Cycling Team, were racing in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

The day before his crash he was fourth in the general classification the Tour de l'Avenir. He dropped four places and finished eighth, 3:03 behind winner Ruben Fernandes Andujar of Spain.

Becoming a climber

"The story of me becoming a climber is quite funny," he told Cyclingnews.

"Before, I loved criteriums in the US and kermesses in Belgium. I loved the speed and the fight to keep my position. I went to cycling because it gave me more rush and adrenaline than soccer or any other sport."

Axel Merckx, his sport director, thought Mannion was too bulky and not successful enough. "Why don't you lose some weight?" he suggested. At first, the rider was reluctant. He was enjoying his sprinter's life and his food - not maple syrup ice creams but familial dishes that climbers normally don't eat.

Yet after losing six kilogrammes last year, Mannion finished fourth on stage three of the USA Pro Challenge, two seconds behind the winner Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) and ahead of some big names like Janez Brajkovic (Astana) and Andreas Klöden (RadioShack-Nissan).

His conversion came late and gradually.

"I wanted to take my time because you can become sick if you lose too much weight too fast. In fact, I accepted to try to be a climber because we can't avoid mountains in races. And you suffer less as a climber than as a sprinter."

With Mannion only becoming into a climber in his last season as Under 23 rider, he could perhaps be accused of wasting his time at Trek-Livestrong and Bontrager. He spent much of his time supporting Taylor Phinney on the flat and Jo Dombrowski in the feet of mountains.

Merckx disagrees: "Gavin didn't lose his time in our team, he maximized it! You can see he succeeded in finding his way. For some riders this process just takes time. Not everyone can develop as fast as a Phinney!"

The Bontrager team manager insists his rider, who started with the team four years ago, has always been taken seriously.

"He was not a domestique because our team is not structured like that," Merckx said.

"This year, Gavin could have had an exceptional season without his crashes: He could have taken a top 5 at the Tour de l'Avenir if he hadn't crashed. But If wishes were horses..."

Mannion broke his collarbone in June at the Tour de Beauce and needed 30 stitches in a cut in early August at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.

"I really had bad luck this year”, he said. “But fortunately I perhaps have an ability to suffer more than most of the guys in the peloton. In Canada I finished the stage with my broken collarbone. It comes from my father. He always told me to keep fighting and never to quit."

Tommy Mannion is an Irish rider who finished third in his national Tour in 1980 before migrating to Boston with his wife to find a job. In 2000 he was hit by a car a few hundred meters from his house and almost lost his legs.

Gavin witnessed the accident: "I had fallen off my BMX bike and an ambulance was driving past so by law they have to stop. A car, driven by a drunk driver in his 70's, hit my dad from behind at over 40 miles an hour and crush his legs between the ambulance," he recalled.

Mannion father spent several weeks in the hospital and underwent several months of physiotherapy. Today he still rides and races his bike.

"I think I learned there that the human body is capable of incredible things!" Gavin said. "And the message was also 'Never stop riding!'"

Huge potential for the future

Although his future and hopes for 2014 are still uncertain, Merckx believes his protégé has huge potential.

"He can win stages at the Dauphiné or Paris-Nice in about four-five years. He certainly won't win at the top of the Alpe d'Huez but his climbing skills combined with his burst of speed can help him to capture medium mountain stages," he said.

Michael Sayers, who managed the US Team at the Tour de l'Avenir, praised Mannion too.

"He is smart, he has a solid European experience because he’s been based in Belgium since he was a Junior. He is a climber with a sprinter mentality, a bit in the style of Alejandro Valverde," he told Cyclingnews.

Mannion says he is inspired by Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha). He doesn't want to compare himself to any of his former team mates, especially not to Dombrowski, "a super talented climber" he says.

Mannion knows that a good result at the road world championships in Tuscany would finally give him the recognition he perhaps deserves. The tough course in Florence, suits him now he's more of a climber. And he's ready to fight if the race is decided by a sprint.

"Now I miss the sprints a bit. It's cool to ride for GC but sometimes, when the bunch is close with the finish line, I would like to go..."

However Mannion is now happier to be a climber.

"In the mountains, there is more pain but less risks..." he said.


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