Commentary: The kids are all right at Bontrager-Livestrong

Joe Dombrowski and company are forging their way in the pro peloton, learning and having a lot of fun doing it

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — They’re young. They sit in lawn chairs rather than RVs or fancy team buses in race-start parking lots. To be perfectly honest, they look like a very skinny high school basketball team. (Junior varsity, if we’re specific).

But make no mistake, the kids from Bontrager-Livestrong are all right. Much better than that, in fact. From California to Colorado (with Utah in between) the development team proved it belonged next to the WorldTour teams this summer in major American races.

One of the moments it was clear Bontrager belonged in elite company came on a hot day in Utah, with two of its riders attacking one of the best American cyclists of all time on one of the country’s hardest stage racing days.

Near the top of the Little Cottonwood Canyon climb in Utah, on a day that saw 10,000 feet of climbing, one went, and then another. Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) found himself in the middle, hoping for a stage win with the help of the younger riders.

The Bontrager guys didn’t help him, and it was shocking to hear why: “Levi wanted us to pull, because obviously he’s going for the stage and he knows we’re in for GC,” Joe Dombrowski said at the time. “I thought it would be good to be a bit more conservative… we didn’t get the win, but I think this sets us up nice for GC.”

To be fair, Leipheimer found himself hamstrung by a poor team time trial earlier in the week and was looking for redemption, but the poise and calculated aggression of the Bontrager riders was something to behold.

Ian Boswell attacked first, hoping to dedicate a stage win to a late friend that had passed just two months earlier, and Dombrowski chased a later move up the road that included Leipheimer. They finished third and fourth on the day.

Boswell tried to come over the top of Leipheimer with 1 kilometer to go to Snowbird. He later scolded himself for the move, calling it a “rookie mistake.”

“But that’s why we’re here. We’re learning. We’re definitely strong enough to win these races. It’s just a matter of figuring out the tactics,” said Boswell, 21.

It was the team’s goal to put a rider in the top 10 at the 2012 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. They ended up blowing the doors off that, and put two in the top five; Dombrowski finished fourth, 58 seconds behind winner Johann Tschopp (BMC Racing) and Boswell was just behind, in fifth at 1:03 back. Dombrowski locked up the best young rider jersey as well. Connor O’Leary, another Bontrager rider, wore the best Utah rider jersey after stage 1, while in remission from the testicular cancer with which he was diagnosed in 2010.

Just a week later, Dombrowski, 21, and his Bontrager boys found themselves lining up in Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge, alongside Leipheimer, Tom Danielson and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC). Dombrowski rose to the occasion, finishing 10th overall and seventh on Flagstaff Mountain, a jam-packed climb above Boulder. The kid can climb, of that there is no doubt. For further validation, see his Baby Giro overall win or the 2012 Amgen Tour of California queen stage results sheet, where Dombrowski finished third on the day on Mount Baldy.

It was a bit of a dream tour, a dream summer, for that matter, for the boys in black.

“We knew he was good, but that good? I didn’t know,” said Omega Pharma’s director in Utah, Brian Holm, of Dombrowski. “I like the team a lot. I like Axel, I like the team. It’s a very good young team.”

Axel of course is Axel Merckx, the team director. He’s always in the parking lot in the mornings, looking over the cars, talking to his riders a bit more than the other directors. Merckx is as much a coach as he is a boss. He knows his program can open doors for these young racers, but he stresses it’s not a golden ticket. He wears a shirt that declares, “Riding with us isn’t about talent. It’s about what you do with it.”

“It’s not a guarantee for success,” he said earlier this summer. “Nothing is guaranteed for success. You put the hours and work in. We’re here to provide them all the tools to make it. It’s up to them to make it.

“It’s up to them to do the hard work. I can’t go train for them. I can only tell them the best schedule possible and try to guide them the best way I can and give them my judgment and experience and from there on they have to do the hard work.”

It just so happens his “experience and judgment” is excellent. Over a career that spanned 1995 to 2007, Merckx won a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic road race in Athens, and competed in eight Tours de France. He’s also a former Belgian national champion (2000). He’s crafty (the peloton probably remembers that much) and his team reflects it — they jump into moves and are unafraid to attack the big guns.

Michael Sayers, director of the men’s U.S. National Team and a BMC Racing assistant director, took notice of the Bontrager program as well.

“I’ve said it several times in the last couple of months — American cycling is in a real golden age with young guys” he said. “And I think that Axel has an excellent program there at Livestrong, and he’s proven it, because he’s pushed a lot of guys forward.”

BMC is starting its own development program as well, Sayers said. They’ll aspire to the Bontrager model. And they should, because there is something special at work here.

Merckx is cool as can be in the director’s seat. He awards little axe stickers for jobs well done, which the riders then put on their bikes (like the buckeyes found on Ohio State University football helmets). They have people asking for t-shirts just because the team is so… cool. They dress in all black (it isn’t too much hotter, Dombrowski noted).

Most of all, they aren’t afraid to be young. They aren’t afraid to say they’re learning. And they aren’t afraid to talk about what goes through their heads when they ride their bikes. On the day of the team time trial in Utah, one of the team’s riders stood in the sweltering heat, chatting with a few fans. Things like that don’t happen down the line.

They’re starting to believe they belong. It’s clear some of the Bontrager riders are capable of winning; once they believe it, it could spell trouble for the old guard.

“It’s really exciting for us to get invites to these big professional races,” Dombrowski said. “Regardless of the stage, whether it was flat or a mountaintop finish, we could be up there at the end.”

Yes, the kids are all right. And Sayers thinks as much.

“I think that cycling for the USA is in maybe the best era that we’ve ever seen, with the most guys with the most talent,” he said.