Last month’s Tour Colombia 2.1 provided the perfect training ground for two American development teams who kicked off their 2019 season mixing it with the best of the WorldTour in front of impressive roadside crowds.
It may have been the first time either Hagens Berman Axeon or Aevolo Pro Cycling had taken part in Colombia’s premier stage race but, given both the opportunity and the state of the road scene in their home country, it probably won’t be their last.
The disparity of racing in the United States has forced teams this season to diversify.
Many are jumping into mountain and gravel events, while others are looking abroad for other opportunities.
Both teams received their invitations in December, jumping at the opportunity to race against the best in the world.
“I put it out there, requested it, but we didn’t really expect to be accepted,” Aevolo director Mike Creed said about the invitation.
“Especially, now with Colorado going away, it was a chance for our guys to race against the high-end WorldTour riders.
“Maybe if we really wanted to give them a completely fair chance to go for the moon, we’d pick the race for August so those World Tour guys are tired from the Tour de France, and our guys are rearing to go!”
Both teams brought riders that were 18 years of age, in their first race of the season at altitude, and against grand tour contenders.
Gabriel Rojas had never competed in a professional time trial before the team time trial opening for stage 1. His teammate, Cade Bickmore, had never competed at a stage race before having signed with Aevolo for his first professional season this year.
Sean Quinn, and Karel Vacek of Axeon are also 18, Quinn finished 81st on GC.
Axel Merckx was in attendance, along with Jeff Louder directing Hagens Berman Axeon. It was the first time in Colombia for both.
The invitation meant moving dates for their early season team camp in Arkansas, something they were more than happy to do. The race became one of survival for both squads, viewing the week as one to learn and grow from.
“We knew coming to Colombia would be very hard. It surprised us all how difficult it really was. The whole race was very well prepared, and obviously this is a very big race for the Colombian teams and Colombian riders,” Louder said.
“It’s been a great experience for the guys. I think everyone would have hoped to have a little more but the experience isn’t always about winning. It’s a great learning chance for the guys, and growing.”
The team had Jonny Brown in attendance, the current US National Road Champion. 2019 is his final season with Axeon before he ages out of the program.
Brown had roomed with Rojas when the Costa Rican first arrived in the United States last year. His older brother Nate was also in Colombia, racing with EF Education First.
“It’s my first time to Colombia, the crowds have been unbelievable,” Brown said at the start of stage 3 in La Ceja. “It’s awesome racing with Gabriel and my brother, to have familiar faces at the race here. I’m excited to start my season.
“It’s an honor for me to have the jersey (stars and stripes) for the rest of this year, and to be racing on Axel’s team the last four years. We all came from sea level so it was a bit of a shock for all of us. So preparation wasn’t the best and so we’re all happy with it.”
The days for the sprinters that were expected to be easy, were not that easy. One of the riders described it as if they were sprinting full gas from kilometer zero.
The racing was riveting to watch, with the contenders racing with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
After winning stage 4, Bob Jungles (Deceunuinck – Quick-Step) joked that flat stages did not exist in Colombia.
“The intensity of the race has been 100% the whole way. There has been very little chance for the guys to relax,” Louder said before the start of the final stage in Las Palmas.
“As a development team we want exposure to the hardest races in the world, and we want the guys to not always be successful, because that’s part of learning as well.
“Of course that’s putting a positive spin on it, and of course we wish we would have been in the front of the race more but in the end, it’s been a good development for us.”
Axeon had four of their six riders finish, with Quinn being their top finisher in 81st place.
Five riders between the two teams were not able to continue after stage 5.
An early crash caught several them, including Chris Froome, far behind a peloton that was going full-gas for the penultimate stage. Aevolo’s best climber, Luis Villalobos, crashed on stage 3 and was forced to abandon.
Alex Hoehn (Aevolo) finished 41st on GC after finishing 26th on the final stage.
“All week has been amazing. Some of these guys I’m almost in their wheelhouse, obviously there are guys that are father ahead but knowing that I’m making first and second groups all week is a confidence booster. For the team, we had a few unlucky crashes,” Hoehn said.
“Being the first race, this is definitely something that we’ll be able to carry into the rest of the season. Being such a high level race will prepare us for anything that comes at us.”