Faces of the future: Aussie sprinter Michael Rice and his rise through the ranks of U.S. racing
When Michael Rice crossed the finish line on stage 3 of the Redlands Cycle Classic earlier this month, his arms held proudly aloft, he’d done more than win the stage. He’d provided a moment of joy at a time of great sadness for his Axeon Hagens Berman team.
Just a week earlier, Rice’s friend and teammate Chad Young had succumbed to injuries sustained in a crash at the Tour of the Gila. No one would have blamed the team had they decided not to race Redlands. But in the end, riders and staff agreed: they should go to the Californian race as planned.
They didn’t just go — they went to win, and win they did, courtesy of their 21-year-old sprinter from Canberra. Rice dashed to victory on the tough uphill finish, before dedicating the win to his fallen mate.
His words were the mark of a thoughtful, sensitive young man; his win a moment of great joy for a team saddened by such a tragic, recent loss.
And for Rice, the win was also significant in its sporting context — the Australian had taken another big step forward on his journey through the ranks.
The story so far
Michael Rice first caught the attention of those outside Canberra when he won the Under 19 national road title as a first-year in the category. He spent two years racing with the Search2retain team in Australia’s National Road Series, following his coach, mentor and fellow Canberran Stu Shaw to the domestic outfit. And then, in 2016, he took another big step forward, signing with the Canadian Continental squad, Garneau – Québecor. His friend Jason Lowndes had raced with the team a year earlier and put in a good word.
Rice looks back at that move as an important one, for the opportunities it provided both on and off the bike.
“That team specifically, they’ve had a few Australian and New Zealand riders in the past and they seemed like they ran a good program,” Rice told CyclingTips from his American base in Boulder, Colorado. “[They were based] in Quebec City itself which seemed like quite a good place to live, given the French influence. Part of it was also a bit of a life experience as well, to leave home and develop as a person as well as a bike rider.
“I think it was very beneficial to myself,” he says of the time he spent in Canada. “[I was] able to get more race days and show my strengths as a cyclist but I also have that independence and maturity as a person.”
Rice had a solid start to his time racing in North America, taking several top-five finishes, including a stage win at the Tour de Beauce in June (see video below).
In mid-2015, while discussing plans for Rice’s future, the young sprinter and his coach Shaw had identified a clear goal: to secure a contract with the American U23 development team, Axeon (now Axeon Hagens Berman). More than a year later, with his win at the Tour de Beauce, Rice earned himself that contract (one team manager told CyclingTips that, after Beauce, hiring Rice was a “no-brainer”.)
After a strong pre-season spent training and racing in Canberra, Rice opted not to take part in the Australian nationals in January 2017. Instead he headed to California to join his new team for a training camp. His strategy seemed to work.
— Axeon Hagens Berman (@axeonhb) January 12, 2017
A solid start to 2017
Rice wasted no time in hitting the winners’ list in 2017, snagging a win in his first race with Axeon Hagens Berman. In the stage 3 criterium at the San Dimas Stage Race in California, Rice got himself in the break and then outsprinted his seven companions to take the victory (see tweet below). It was an impressive start to his tenure with the team.
“I worked hard through the offseason and really picked some goals that I knew were achievable,” Rice says. “When it comes together it’s always nice — a bit of reward for the hard work.”
It was also a clear sign that he’d taken that next step up as a rider.
“Physically and mentally as well. Just taking that leap to be a full-time professional, that’s been the biggest thing,” he says. “Last year was good for me as well — it was a much smaller team. But I think being away from home and racing in North America, learning a different style, really set me up to hit the ground running this year.”
— Axeon Hagens Berman (@axeonhb) March 27, 2017
Rice’s success at San Dimas saw him selected in the Axeon squad that was heading to Europe to take part in the Circuit des Ardennes, a four-day UCI 2.2 stage race in France. Rice left the race with a ninth-place finish on the race’s penultimate stage.
Back in the States, the 21-year-old lined up at the Tour of the Gila where he scored a couple top-10s, including fourth on stage 2. But his performances there, and indeed the stage win claimed by his teammate Jhonatan Narvaez on the final stage, were overshadowed by Chad Young’s crash and tragic passing.
“It’s been a really tough couple of weeks for everyone in the team and I think just in cycling in general,” Rice says, three weeks after Young’s passing. “It really hits close to home.
“Personally I first met Chad on our training camp in January and we’ve become quite good friends since then. So it was a really heavy time and quite emotional but you know, looking forward … cycling is what brought us together. It’s good to keep doing that and just ride with him in head and heart.”
The team did exactly that when they decided to start the Redlands Cycling Classic. But it wasn’t easy.
“Just going to Redlands itself was a challenge given how recent … [it was] such a short turnaround from Chad’s death,” Rice says. “I think it was a decision both from the riders and the staff to attend and personally in the end there was … it was quite good just to be there in the support of each other.
“We were there and were ready to race and you know, honour on Chad in that way.”
With his win on stage 3, Rice did just that.
“To take something away from the week was, it was huge,” he says. “That one was dedicated to Chad, for sure.”
Michael Rice’s victories in 2017 — one in a breakaway sprint, one in a field sprint — suggest a rider with a fast finish. But how does the young Canberran view himself?
“I see myself more as a sprinter with that opportunistic flair; more of a rouleur-type rider,” he explained. “The slower uphill sprints [are] better suited to me, like we saw in Redlands. An uphill finish is what I like the most.”
When asked to compare himself to a well-known WorldTour professional, Rice names a rider he’s very familiar with; a fellow rider from the Australian capital.
“Someone like Michael Matthews,” he says. “I mean I grew up watching him both from Canberra and yeah definitely — there’s some similar traits.”
Rice’s coach Stu Shaw mentions another Australian WorldTour rider, Nathan Haas, when asked to describe his mentee’s characteristics. And it’s no coincide that Haas too is from Canberra. The tough nature of the local bunch rides in the Australian capital, many of which are lumpy with challenging uphill finishes, seems to develop riders who are more resilient in the hills than regular sprinters, yet very strong when a fast finish is required.
Rice will be hoping he can match the achievements of his fellow Canberrans in the years ahead. His results on the bike suggest he’s on the right path but, just as importantly, so too do his off-the-bike traits.
On the phone, a quietly confident Rice thinks carefully before each answer, giving responses that suggest a focused young rider with maturity well beyond his years. His coach Stu Shaw describes him as “very accountable” — someone who’s always willing to take responsibility for his actions and learn from his mistakes. And this maturity hasn’t gone unnoticed at Axeon Hagens Berman.
“Michael quickly took on a leadership role within the team, something that is not often seen in the development ranks,” one team manager told CyclingTips. “He clearly knows what he hopes to achieve in the sport and has very distinct objectives to get there.”
An unusual path
For most aspiring pro cyclists, the goal is similar, if not the same: get a ride with a WorldTour team and base yourself in Europe. While programs exist to streamline that difficult journey for a handful of young riders — not least Australia’s WorldTour Academy based in northern Italy — there aren’t enough places for every young rider with promise to follow that path.
Some are lucky enough (and good enough) to jump straight from the Australian Continental ranks to the WorldTour — see Nathan Haas, Richie Porte and others from the Praties/Avanti/IsoWhey stable — while others, like Rice, opt for North America as a stepping stone. It’s an option that seems to be increasingly common among young Australian riders.
“I think part of that is the lifestyle,” Rice says. “It seems more achievable to be doing races and the crit series are great for young riders [who] can gain a lot of experience in a short amount of time.
“I raced a little bit in Europe as an under 19 and that was a real eye-opening experience just coming from junior Australian racing. But I always had the opinion that it would be easy to get lost in the crowd in European racing so I thought [I’d come] to North America and use that as a real stepping stone to jump into Europe and hit the ground running.”
For Rice, as with many riders his age, the “big-picture goal” is to perform strongly enough at the U23 level that WorldTour teams will come knocking. The Canberran knows it won’t be easy, but he has time on his side.
“Right now I’m just really concentrating on the process,” he says. “Being a third-year U23 I still have one more season left in the category. For me it’s important just to gain that experience and get a little bit stronger while the racing’s there as a subcategory.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a little taste of Europe — I raced the Circuit des Ardennes in April, which was a really good opportunity for me there and valuable experience. And then looking forward, this June I’ll be going over with the team to the “Baby Giro”, the U23 Giro [d’Italia].
“I think that’s a really important race and a really good stepping stone into the European scene. It’s all a progression but the way I say it is my dream is to one day be racing in the WorldTour so [I’ll] just keep keep chipping away. You need a bit of good luck as well I guess.”
So how realistic is a spot on the WorldTour for Rice, given his recent progression? His team certainly seems to think he’s on the right track.
“While he is certainly not the first Australian to come through Axel Merckx’s program, he is definitely one of the [most] promising to advance directly to the WorldTour ranks,” one team manager said. “His attention to detail – preparing for a particular stage in a multi-day race, for instance – and professionalism in transitioning from team leader to team helper on a non-sprinter day shows his versatility and strong sense of teamwork.”
It’s the Baby Giro, the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia, that’s Rice’s biggest focus for now, but there are no shortage of other big, international races he could take part in this year. Rice can’t say exactly which races he’ll do from here on out, but with the team set to race the Cascade Cycling Classic, Tour of Utah, the Colorado Classic and the Tour of Alberta, it seems likely he’ll get the chance to show his wares on the international stage in the coming months.
With good results to his name, and an even better attitude, things seem to be heading in the right direction for Michael Rice.
Addendum: Off the bike
So how does Michael Rice like to his spend his time when he’s not racing?
“Growing up I always had an interest in music. I taught myself how to play the guitar in high school and now it’s a great way to chill out and relax especially when I’m on the road.
“When I’m home and not riding you can normally find me in the back shed tinkering, countless summer afternoons spent restoring old bicycles and exercising my creative side screen-printing T-shirts.”
Addendum: On Axeon Hagens Berman
Rice is full of praise for the Axeon Hagens Berman setup and those behind it.
“The team is coming up to being 10 years old … always as an Under 23 development program. And now being owned by Axel Merckx is wonderful. He’s a really great guy and works well with the young guys. He’s a good motivator, good people person and a really caring gentleman.”
Rice describes his sports directors, Jeff Louder and Koos Moerenhout, as “the two best directors I’ve ever had”, and is similarly positive when speaking about other team staff and his fellow riders.
“The team has a really good culture and [we’re] not afraid to have fun,” he says. “Everyone’s super-motivated on race day to do the best. There’s no egos in the team either, it’s very much about doing best for the team and teamwork will win races at the end of the day.
“So I think we do that really well and then we have excellent support — [our] soigneurs and mechanics are world class. Really makes our job a lot easier.”