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After two days of racing at Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge, it is the field’s youngest riders who have made the biggest impression. Indeed, three of the race’s current top five — race leader Lachlan Morton of Garmin-Sharp, Tour de France green jersey winner Peter Sagan (Cannondale), and Bontrager’s Lawson Craddock — are all 23 or younger.
Tuesday’s stage winner Mathias Frank (BMC Racing) and teammate Tejay van Garderen round out the current top five, at 26 and 25, respectively.
Are we seeing a changing of the guard in cycling?
“For sure,” said Craddock, who currently stands fifth in the GC after a stellar afternoon in which he escaped the pack with Morton and Frank.
“You’ve got three of the top five GC guys also in the best young rider competition. It shows there’s a big, bright future for our sport,” said Craddock, who also took fifth on Tuesday’s stage 2.
Craddock’s team director, Axel Merckx, says there’s something special about the opportunity for his under-23 development riders, in particular, to race against the sport’s biggest names.
“The younger guys are always motivated when they get a chance to race against their elders,” Merckx told VeloNews. “Races like this are opportunity for them to show off their talents and show how good they really are.”
“It was cool to be up there trading blows with a former Tour de France winner [RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who fished the stage 41st] and even better that I was able to get the better of him,” Craddock said. (Sky’s Chris Froome, winner of the 2013 Tour de France, finished the stage in 76th place, 11:12 off the day’s winning pace.)
“When you’re racing against the top guys in the sport you’re definitely motivated to show them you deserve to be here,” added Craddock. “I don’t always get to race with them, but to put them in the hurt locker is a really good feeling — and something I like to capitalize on when I can.”
Morton, 21, ended the day in yellow despite narrowly missing the stage win in Breckenridge to Frank.
“For me, in my first year as a pro, already [wearing the race leader’s jersey] is an achievement in itself,” Morton said.
Asked whether Garmin would work to defend his leadership, the talented neo-pro struck a practical chord.
“I think that with the team we have, there are some stronger guys here,” he said. “For myself, the goal is to have someone from our team on the podium, whichever way we can facilitate that. But in the end, I don’t think we’ll burn a lot of matches to defend [my current position].”
Merckx’s U23 development team — which has produced a number of the sport’s brightest young talents, including BMC’s Taylor Phinney, RadioShack-Leopard’s Ben King, and Sky’s Alex Dowsett and Joe Dombrowski — is currently in search of a title sponsor for 2014 after bicycle manufacturer Trek (which owns the Bontrager imprint) announced its purchase of the current RadioShack-Leopard license from owner Flavio Becca.
“If Trek owns a ProTeam then we can’t also have Trek as our title sponsor next year,” Merckx explained. (A Trek spokesman confirms that UCI rules prevent the concurrent ownership and title sponsorship of competing teams.)
“But they are still supporting us and still willing to invest in development, so it’s basically up to me to find new partners to help support our team next year. Hopefully it’s going to turn out well,” Merckx told VeloNews.
“Today was one of those days where for me, as a sport director, I feel very satisfied that our team is working and finding a lot of great riders. It would be really sad to see this go away.”
Still, Merckx says the team’s future looks promising — and could be further bolstered by his young team’s results this week.
“I do feel confident, especially after a day like today that our potential sponsors can be convinced this a great program where a small investment brings much exposure,” he said.
For his part, Craddock — whom sources suggest will be advancing to the WorldTour level in 2014 — confirms that the chance to race for a prominent development team has been a blessing.
“It’s an incredible opportunity that Trek and Axel have given us,” Craddock said. “I’ve made some lifelong friends and had some experiences I’ll never forget. It shows that there’s plenty of young talent out there.”