Young rid­ers el­e­vate cy­cling

Amer­i­cans take place in world

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Ja­son Blevins

BRECKENRIDGE» Atop the bru­tally steep Moon­stone Road af­ter four laps, 21-year-old Sara Poidevin leaned into her han­dle­bars and at­tacked. It was a bold move for the young Cana­dian, who ham­mered her fi­nal lap at the Colorado Clas­sic with such vigor, she fin­ished more than two min­utes ahead of the next rider.

An hour later on Fri­day, 23year-old TJ Eisen­hart dropped the ham­mer early and led a starstud­ded pelo­ton for the en­tire race, crush­ing the steep­est course in Amer­i­can rac­ing this sea­son to notch one of the big­gest days of his ca­reer with a down-to-the-fin­ish-line sprint af­ter 64 miles of rac­ing.

At the Colorado Clas­sic, a thick-thighed swarm of young ath­letes like Eisen­hart and Poidevin are promis­ing a bright new era for pro­fes­sional cy­cling. Es­pe­cially in the U.S., where a swell of young rid­ers could el­e­vate U.S. cy­cling in an in­ter­na­tional sport that has long lacked a strong Amer­i­can pres­ence.

“I think we have the strong­est crop of young up-and-com­ing dudes in the last decade, for sure,” said the Roar­ing Fork Val­ley’s Kee­gan Swirl­bul, a 21-yearold, four-year pro with the Jelly Belly P/B Maxxis team.

Swirl­bul ex­ploded on the cy­cling scene in 2012 when, as a gan­gling teenager, he beat Lance Arm­strong in Aspen’s Power of Four moun­tain bike race, prod­ding one magazine to pro­claim him “the next Arm­strong.” Now, af­ter two years of de­bil­i­tat­ing over-use in­juries in his knees, Swirl­bul is poised to el­e­vate Amer­i­can cy­cling on the in­ter­na­tional stage.

“We have a lot of dif­fer­ent types of rid­ers com­ing up, whereas in the past we have had mostly just climbers,” said Swirl­bul, who still wears a fad­ing yel­low Live­strong bracelet. “In the next five, six years, I think we will have Amer­i­can guys do­ing well on the World Tour and clas­sics and the Grand Tours.”

The un­der-23 ath­letes with the Ax­eon Ha­gens Ber­man team are go­ing to play a big role in that re­vival of Amer­i­can prow­ess in in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion long dom­i­nated by Euro­peans. Rid­ers such as Du­rango phe­nom Christo­pher Blevins, Lo­gan Owen and Jonathan Brown are gain­ing race ex­pe­ri­ence while de­vel­op­ing the strength needed to win the big races. Founded in 2009 as a feeder for Team Ra­dioshack, Ax­eon has pushed 22 rid­ers onto the big­gest stage of the World Tour, in­clud­ing Tay­lor Phin­ney, Nate Brown and Joe Dom­browski.

“It has such a rich his­tory,” said Brown, a 20-year-old from Austin, Texas, who this month pushed team­mate Neilson Pow­less to a fourth-place fin­ish in the

Tour of Utah. “We have shown we can race with the big­gest teams. We are just as much a part of the race as ev­ery­one else. It doesn’t mat­ter our age. The whole point of this team is learn­ing and pro­gres­sion … and to give us that key race ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The pit­falls for young rid­ers are plen­ti­ful. Swirl­bul can at­test to that. Af­ter get­ting picked up by the pres­ti­gious BMC De­vel­op­ment team in 2016, he went hard on the train­ing. Too hard. He spent most of the last year re­cov­er­ing from in­juries that flared as he over­trained.

He is hop­ing his strug­gle can help the kids com­ing up be­hind him.

“Take it slow and try to keep it con­sis­tent. That’s some­thing I re­ally screwed up with, is try­ing to do too much. Too much train­ing. Too much di­et­ing,” Swirl­bul said. “Try to keep it con­sis­tent and build your strength and don’t get too stressed be­cause you’ve got a long ways to go.”

Eisen­hart, from Utah, of­fers sim­i­lar ad­vice. The five-year pro with the Holowesko Ci­tadel Rac­ing team is an un­com­mon pres­ence on cy­cling tours. Where other rid­ers stay on point with out­wardly in­tense fo­cus and drive, Eisen­hart masks his prow­ess in a dis­tinctly re­laxed aura. He’s a sort of Spic­coli of bike rac­ing. At the news con­fer­ence kick­ing off the in­au­gu­ral Colorado Clas­sic, he roiled the room with this line: “It doesn’t mat­ter if you won or lost … we have a righ­teous af­ter-party.”

“Don’t take it so se­ri­ously. A lot of times, this sport can eat you alive,” said Eisen­hart, who got his first race bike at age 11 and turned pro at 18 when he signed a four-year deal with BMC Rac­ing.

“You get 100 per­cent fo­cused on the bike and you stop fo­cus­ing on other things. You need to have that good bal­ance in your life to con­tinue to have a long ca­reer. I’ve seen it tons of times where a lot of young guys way more ta­lented than me just burn out be­cause they put too much pres­sure on them­selves. I’m blessed to be able to find this bal­ance in my life and just en­joy it. It’s been pretty righ­teous.”

Lynne An­der­son doesn’t want to hear all this age talk. She is the old­est com­peti­tor in the Colorado Clas­sic — rac­ing, at age 59, for ski rac­ing leg­end Ali­son Pow­ers’ Boul­der-based ALP Cy­cles. In a field of 80 women, there are 15 ath­letes who won “best young rider” awards in pre­vi­ous races. The 95-racer men’s field in­cludes 18 “best young rider” win­ners.

“I don’t think about my age. I just go out there and race. But when I do line up and they look at me like, ‘Hey, that’s my mother,’ well, then I think about it a lit­tle bit,” An­der­son said as she pre­pared for Stage 2 of the Colorado Clas­sic in Breckenridge. “This race is a whole new level. But I’m bring­ing my ex­per­tise. I love to climb and I’m not afraid to go deep into the pain cave. Maybe some of the younger kids aren’t that fa­mil­iar with that. Maybe that’s an edge for me.”

Ja­son Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@den­ver­post.com or @ja­son­blevins

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

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