How Lux Cycling came to dominate U.S. junior road racing
At first glance, the above photo tells you everything you need to know about the Lux Cycling junior development team.
Four Lux riders coast across the finish line together, arms raised, to claim the first through fourth spots at the U.S. junior men’s 17-18 national championship road race in Hagerstown, Maryland. The Lux foursome were so far ahead of the competition that they could decide who crossed the line first. In his final junior race, Gianni Lamperti was given that honor.
What the photo doesn’t tell you, however, is that placing four riders into the winning move was not Lux’s priority.
“The breakaway was a setup for [defending champion] Quinn Simmons to come across,” says Roy Knickman, Lux’s manager, and a member of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame. “It turns out he never needed to come.”
Sending four riders into the winning move was actually Lux’s backup plan. Now, that should tell you everything you need to know about Lux Cycling.
In recent years the Southern California-based squad has become the Team Ineos of the U.S. junior cycling scene. Lux so thoroughly dominates junior races that it regularly sweeps the podium. In February the team swept the top three spots at Arizona’s Valley of the Sun Stage Race. The following month, Lux again dominated at Georgia’s Tour of the Southern Highlands—its riders finished first through seventh in the overall standings.
Lux’s crushing victories perpetuate the team’s strength. The country’s best juniors now reach out to Knickman to join the squad.
“I saw the Lux guys always riding at the front in the 17-18 races and I knew that was the team I wanted to join,” says Nolan Jenkins, one of Lux’s current riders. “After I won a few races when I was 16 I reached out to Roy and asked him what I needed to do to contribute and be a good teammate.”
Lux’s success has also generated grumbling from other junior teams. In the lead up to U.S. nationals, Knickman says rivals asked USA Cycling to limit Lux’s team size to just seven riders (from the allowed nine). The federation disagreed, and allowed Lux to bring a full squad. Knickman says critics overlook his team’s broader mission, which is not to simply overpower the U.S. junior peloton.
Lux wants to develop the next generation of American WorldTour heroes.
“There’s a bigger picture that we’re after, and that’s developing U.S. racers,” Knickman says. “Every year we learn more about the process and we get better, and yes, it has created this chasm between us and everyone else. Some people think that’s unhealthy, but we think the final [goal] is more important.”
Lux is hardly the first junior team to have ambitions on this scale. The Massachusetts-based Hot Tubes squad has helped shepherd talented youngsters to the elite ranks for nearly 20 years. Before that, the New York City-based Mengoni squad had a similar role.
Lux’s ambitions has intertwined it with USA Cycling’s junior national program. This year six of seven riders on USA Cycling’s junior squad come from Lux, the result of Lux winning the qualification races for the U.S. junior national team. Lux riders have performed admirably overseas: Simmons became the first U.S. rider to win the junior version of Gent-Wevelgem, and Michael Garrison finished fourth at the junior version of Paris-Roubaix.
Lux also pays for its own riders to race overseas on separate trips. This summer the team will send a squad to race in Ireland and then France from July into the middle of August. The riders Knickman plans to send are those riders who were not invited onto USA Cycling’s junior European racing team.
“I’m trying to fill the gaps for [USA Cycling] because they can’t do it all,” Knickman says. “Okay, you’re going to pass over this guy [for the U.S. team], then I will make sure he gets a full race load.”
Lux’s place within the American development system took years to achieve. The team was founded in 2012 as a regional junior team for riders in Southern California. Knickman, who operated the U.S. junior national team in the 1990s, joined the squad two seasons later after his son, Bo, began racing on it. During his 20-year professional career, Knickman raced the Tour de France and the Olympics, and he also helped manage domestic U.S. teams.
In 2015 Knickman first took the riders overseas to race; many of the Lux riders struggled to even stay in the European events, Knickman says. The team’s newest rider, Brandon McNulty, blossomed that season into an international star, and in 2016 McNulty claimed the world title in the junior time trial after racing all season with Lux.
The next season, new rider Kevin Vermaerke kept Lux’s success going, winning the U.S. junior national criterium and finishing second in the road race. Vermaerke then joined Hagens Berman Axeon in 2019.
The team’s international scope and success attracted riders from across the country, Knickman says. Over the course of three seasons the team widened its scope from Southern California, to the Western U.S., and then nationwide.
— Park Tool (@parktool) January 29, 2016
Behind the scenes, Lux is similar to many junior programs, which scrape together funding and equipment. Knickman works as a firefighter, and the team’s other director, George Chester, volunteers. The team is funded by sponsorships, and through donations from Sideshow Collectibles, a company that produces action figures. Lux’s founder, Dave Feldman, works for the collectibles company.
The funds help pay for travel and equipment, and Knickman says he stretches every dollar.
“I bought our team trailer at a pawn shop for $2,000,” Knickman says. “I’m always having to put new sheet metal screws into it.”
Knickman says Lux’s success has sprung from a simple mantra: race hard and race often. While other teams focus on training for the races, Knickman encourages his riders to race constantly, be it in junior events or even in national-level Cat. 1 races.
“The four guys who were off the front at nationals were all at the [Cascade Classic] getting their butts handed to them in the pro category,” Knickman says. “The same guys raced in the Cat. 1 [race] at the Tour of the Gila against really strong elite riders.”
The constant racing has also generated criticism from coaches and other junior teams, who worry that so many race days at the 17-18 year old level could lead to burnout. One coach told VeloNews that Lux’s aggressive racing schedule overlooks the primary purpose of junior cycling programs, which is to help young riders grow into well-rounded adults.
Knickman shrugs off the criticism. Five years ago, he would agree with the sentiment. And now? Knickman believes that racing constantly gives his riders a leg up on the competition. The racing program also prepares them for what they will see in the professional ranks, should they someday graduate to the pros.
“Would they rather be racing hard for five days at a stage race, or sitting at home staring at a power meter for four hours a day?” Knickman says. “Bike racing should be fun, and right now these kids are loving what they’re doing.”
“Racing is a lot more fun than training,” Knickman says.
Racing, and winning, may be the most fun of all, it seems.