Axel Merckx and the Bontrager team, the u23 development program behind riders like Taylor Phinney, Ben King, Joe Dombrowski, Ian Boswell, and Briton Alex Dowsett will continue with technical partners Trek and Bontrager, under the Bissell banner, in 2014.
The team was left searching for a new title sponsor after Waterloo, Wisconsin-based Trek purchased the WorldTour license of the RadioShack-Leopard team earlier this year. The UCI, cycling’s world governing body, prohibits Trek and its subsidiaries like Bontrager from acting as title sponsor for two teams competing in a single race — effectively barring Bontrager from the Amgen Tour of California and other major U.S. dates in 2014.
“We have always felt that working with Axel’s development team is one of the most exciting projects we’re involved with,” Trek VP Joe Vadeboncoeur said in a press release. “Trek’s new WorldTour team license prohibits us from continuing as the title sponsor of the Bontrager U23 development program, as UCI rules would disqualify the team from participating in the biggest races, where they receive the best experience. We are really excited to continue to support Axel’s efforts to develop world-class riders ready to compete at the highest level.”
Merckx began a title sponsor search late in the 2013 season, but made quick progress in attracting one of the longest tenured sponsored in the domestic peloton in Bissell. The Michigan-based maker of vacuum cleaners has served as title sponsor of the Glen Mitchell-run UCI Continental team that was directed by Eric Wohlberg and then Omer Kem since 2008. Merckx’s team will continue to partner with Trek and Bontrager for equipment.
“I am extremely thrilled to continue my relationship with Trek in helping to develop the next generation of pro cyclists,” Merckx said in a press release. “Thanks to Trek, over the last five years we have built what I consider one of the strongest development programs in the world. I can’t thank Trek enough for continuing their investment in my program.”
For Kem, who’s been with Bissell since 2006 and was most recently the team’s director, the move didn’t come as a shock. Sponsors want to be part of development, and for good reason: those are the riders who will define racing in the years to come.
“I think development cycling is the most important thing that’s happening domestically,” he said. “You look at young riders being successful, and you can take that to Lachlan Morton on Garmin all the way to Lawson Craddock, or any other rider who was on the Bontrager cycling team this year. That’s really the future of the sport. … And Bissell wants to invest in that. I think that’s a hugely positive thing for cycling in general.”
But what it means for those who’ve been with Bissell isn’t exactly clear.
“To be honest, I’m not 100-percent sure. I know that in terms of the team structure of Bissell Pro Cycling as an entity, it’s going away,” Kem said. “You’re seeing a lot of riders who are going to be put out of work. There’s going to be one less team.”
VeloNews reporter Matthew Beaudin contributed to this report.