According to Lance Armstrong's longtime business associate, Capitol Sports & Entertainment co-founder Bart Knaggs, one of the key components of returning to professional racing was creating an Under 23 development team.
As a lifetime Trek athlete, it was a given that the Wisconsin-based bicycle maker would be involved, but Armstrong took it one step further by reaching out to retired road pro (and former Motorola teammate) Axel Merckx, son of the great Belgian racer Eddy Merckx, to lead the squad. From the beginning, it was clear that Armstrong's cancer charity, the Livestrong Foundation, would play a major role in the team.
BikeRadar chatted with Knaggs and Merckx as the team of 10 riders, including 18-year-old prodigy Taylor Phinney, descended on Mellow Johnny's bike shop, co-owned by Knaggs and Armstrong, in Austin, Texas, for a mini training camp. One of the main objectives was to get the riders dialed in on their new Trek Madone 6.9 Pro bikes, as well as having Armstrong's former teammate Kevin Livingston perform threshold and lactate tests on them in his Pedal Hard Training Center.
BikeRadar: Bart, tell us about the genesis of Lance's decision to form the team; I know Lance has been involved with a junior development program through USA Cycling for years ...
While running USPS and Discovery Channel, we supported the USA Cycling Development team, as well as the Marco Polo Team that was developing Asian-based racers and introducing them to European racing. So, over the past five years we had been trying to figure out a way to build our own pipeline of talent and broaden the reach of cycling geographically.
Lance had personally funded junior development for years, and it was a topic we talked about a lot – how to bridge a gap between 18-year-old kids with promise and get them to where they were ready to be, as European-based professionals. When he decided to come back, this was one of the key legs of the stool to what he wanted to accomplish.
Trek president John Burke (R) chats with Mellow Johnny's general manager Craig Staley in May 2008
Lance made one call to (company president) John Burke at Trek and the next day I’m working on details with (director of marketing) Dean Gore and the guys in Waterloo, Wisconsin. They grabbed the ball and ran with it. From their support and commitment to the project it feels just like the Discovery days.
The team is based out of Mellow Johnny's bike shop in Austin, Texas. Bart, what is your role, and how does your Tailwind Sports experience play a part in the U23 team?
We’ve got a mini-camp going on right now at Mellow Johnny’s. We’re able to build a service course there and have all the back-up parts and pieces to outfit the team from the get go.
While at Disco, we really only ran a service course out of Belgium, and had built that up over years and years. We’re able to do things with these guys we couldn’t do before with Discovery – we can perform motion-capture fits in the shop, and through Kevin Livingston and his Pedal Hard Training Center we can do complete power and lactate testing on the riders. This alone gives us a common baseline for every rider on the team, which we weren't able to do before. And, with development, it’s important to have guys with the Tour de France experience of Kevin and Axel guiding their training and racing.
Longtime friends and business partners Bart Knaggs (C) and Lance Armstrong at the Mellow Johnny's grand opening
Having run a ProTour team in the past, this is an operation at a different scale and with different races, but for me it feels pretty similar – we know the equipment and people from Trek, and we’ve had our pick of the best-of-the-best for our sponsors and suppliers. In that way, it feels very fortunate, and very similar.
While it’s younger riders and smaller races, we approach with the same expectations and professionalism. Working with Axel was something I really looked forward to. That was another key contribution of Lance’s – knowing who would be the perfect fit for the job. So far, Axel seems a lot like Johan Bruyneel 10 years ago. I expect if he likes this line of work, he’ll become one of the best at it.
Axel, how does it feel to be in a director role after being a world-class athlete for so many years? What do your days include?
It feels good to be a director of a team like ours with young kids. I always enjoyed sharing my experience with the younger riders back when I was racing, and this feels the same, except I'm not on the bike. I'm really fortunate to have the support of great sponsors and Capitol Sports & Entertainment. I'm having a lot of fun running the programme with them and think we can contribute to their development. I'm keeping in touch with the riders on regular basis and will guide them at the races.
Armstrong's former USPS teammate Kevin Livingston (R) tests one of the new U23 riders in Austin, Texas
How have things changed in the 17 or so years since you became a professional cyclist?
Cycling changes as much or more than any other sport. More and more riders are preparing for the races at home and no longer race to train.
What was your U23 development like? Who were you riding for?
In terms of U23, Europe has always been ahead [of the US]. I was part of a U23 team named ASLK-Merckx, led by Ferdi Van den Houte. We didn't race pro but amateur. In Belgium, Topsport Vlanderen has had a young development programme for years now.
What are your thoughts on today's equipment versus the stuff you used as a neo pro?
We were on steel and titanium bikes then; now everything is carbon (Merckx rode Merckx bikes nearly every year of his pro career – Ed). It's lighter, faster but not always as stiff. Things change most of the time for the better. I was racing on the best equipment then, and we are providing the guys on the team with the best of today's equipment.
What are your expectations for 2009? What do you guys hope to achieve, and what's the race schedule looking like?
The main expectation we have is helping them grow as pros who eventually will fit in a ProTour team without too much adaptation time. We'll bring them to Europe to race some races and focus on doing one stage race a month with some guided training in the meantime. We aren't here to put pressure on them but to put them in the right direction for their cycling career.
The Trek-Livestrong U23 roster
Staff: Bart Knaggs (general manager); Axel Merckx (team director); Bill McPherson (team mechanic). Sponsors: Trek Bicycle Corp, Livestrong, SRAM, Bontrager, Speedplay, Mellow Johnny's and Clear20. Riders: Ryan Baumann (21), Sam Bewley (21), Cody Campbell (18), Guy East (21), Ben King (19), Ryohei Komoroi (20), Taylor Kuphaldt (18), Taylor Phinney (18), Jesse Sergent (20) and Bjorn Selander (20).
Bikes/equipment: Trek Madone 6.9 Pro with SRAM Red gruppo; Speedplay Zero pedals; Bontrager saddles, tyres, stems, seatposts, wheels (with PowerTap 2.4 SL rear hubs) and shoes; Nike Livestrong clothing; Giro helmets and Oakley eyewear.