American Colin Joyce has been winning bike races for nearly a decade, but the UCI 2.1 Tour of Alberta is a far different animal than junior age-group time trial and road race titles in minuscule fields at the Utah state championship.
No one knows the difference more than Joyce. The just-turned 22-year-old from Pocatello, Idaho, claimed his first pro win in a two-rider sprint on the opening stage of the Tour of Alberta. Suddenly, he expanded his wardrobe with the leader’s jersey, the points jersey, and the best young rider’s jersey,
“For sure, I was surprised,” said Joyce, the first-year rider on the Axeon Hagens Berman team, competing in its final race of the 2016 season. “Of course, we all think we are something special. But I am definitely surprised I had the yellow jersey.”
After edging out Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac) and nine other breakaway riders in the kick for the line of Stage 1, Joyce finished fifth on stage 2, preserving his race lead. However he faltered on Stage 3, finishing 18th, to move to 11 seconds behind Stage 3 winner and new race leader Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling).
After the Stage 4 time trial, where he finished 11th, Joyce moved to fourth overall, 22 seconds behind new race leader Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel), 21 seconds behind Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), and 15 seconds behind Huffman, while remaining the leader in the “best young rider” standings.
“I lost a spot on the general classification but I can’t let it bother me,” Joyce said. “All the guys who are in front of me are really respected and really good riders. So I am pretty happy with my result, actually.”
Regardless of whether or not he finishes on the podium after Monday’s final stage, a hilly 11-lap circuit through Edmonton, Joyce’s performance further solidifies his full return to the sport after suffering a broken leg and wrist at the 2014 Volta ao Alentejo, in Portugal. After a consistent 2015 season with the U.S. national team, Axel Merckx, the team’s owner and manager, felt Joyce would be a good fit for his squad this season.
“He (Joyce) has a really good punch at the finish line, so he’s really fast,” said Merckx. “He’s fast in a bunch sprint, but he’s also fast in a small group. He has managed himself and defended himself well in the short climbs.
“I try to follow the rankings in the U23 junior racing. We raced against him, then there was an opportunity to bring him in this year and we just grabbed it. I asked him if he was interesting in coming to us because I think he had great potential and we could use a guy like him. I was seeing him at other races and could see how he was developing.”
Joyce was the tenth rider on the Axeon Hagens Berman squad to win a race this season, which now has 33 victories in 2016. Joyce’s win expanded a still-young career that first accelerated in 2009 with a series of age 15-16 junior titles, the same year that Merckx initiated the U23 team that began as a feeder program for team RadioShack.
“Colin had a bit of bad luck at the beginning of the season with a few crashes and some illnesses,” Merckx said. “At one point, it seemed that he was not going to come out of it. But I told him that things can change so quickly and I think we saw that with this win. It really puts him in the spotlight and makes his season. It is great to see a guy like that accomplish so much with a great result on this level.”
WorldTour riders such Ben King, Taylor Phinney, Jesse Sergent, Alex Dowsett, Lawson Craddock, George Bennett, and Joe Dombrowski are among those who first excelled on the Axeon squad and under its previous sponsor names. From this year’s squad, Greg Daniel, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Ruben Guerreiro have secured WorldTour contracts for next season. In total, Merckx has now helped cultivate 21 riders from his squads to the sport’s top level since 2009.
“You teach them the job and you guide them a little bit,” said Merckx of his low-key approach. “(Joyce) is 22 so he has a little bit of experience already, and you have to be respectful because it’s bike racing. Every inch is important, especially when it comes to the finish line. You don’t want be careless, so just want to do your job the best way possible.
“The riders have to be independent because at the end of the day when they leave the program they have to be able to function without us. You have to guide them, you have to correct the mistakes that they’ve done or that they still do, and you try to help them. We all still learn. Racing is not a perfect science. Circumstances change every day. The weather changes every day. Your competition changes everyday. It’s a moving target.”
Despite his team’s success, Joyce’s emergence in Alberta was the surprise of the race, now in its fourth year. The five-day stage race includes only two WorldTour teams but features several of the sport’s more prominent riders, retiring Trek Segafredo teammates Frank Schleck and Ryder Hesjedal as well as defending champ Bauke Mollema, who was running second overall in the final week of the Tour de France six weeks earlier.
“It’s a bit intimidating,” said Joyce, whose previous top result was second last month at the opening stage of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. “You respect those guys and you also know at the same time it’s a bike race. You are all doing the same thing. You can’t let it affect how you are racing and let it scare you. You have to use it as motivation, to push forward and push yourself to different limits than you have before.”
Like previous and current Axeon Hagens Berman riders, Joyce appreciates Merckx’s low-key style.
“He’s amazing, super smart,” said Joyce. “He doesn’t really have a particular leader for the team. He realizes we are all developing riders. He wants to give everyone a fair chance. It’s great to see his input on races and how he determines the right things to do times.”
And like his departing teammates, Joyce’s name will join the list of former Axeon Hagens Berman riders. Prior to the Tour of Alberta, he had signed with a new team for the 2017 season, although the details haven’t been announced.
“I think success creates success and once one guy wins, his teammates realize, ‘We’ll, if he can do it, I can do it.'” said Merckx of his enduring development program. “Guys aren’t hiding behind their responsibilities, and basically we are riding as a team. It doesn’t really matter who wins as long as we are riding as a team. The results are always better when you show up as a team.”
About the author
James Raia has reported on cycling for more than 30 years and is co-author of Tour de France For Dummies. In addition to writing about cycling and other sports, he contributes business and lifestyle content to several publications, and has been the editor and publisher of the automotive website theweeklydriver.com since 2004. James lives with his wife Gretchen and two cats in Sacramento, California.