Breaking new ground: Introducing AR Monex, Mexico’s first cyclocross team

This November seven young Mexicans took part in some of the world's most difficult cyclocross races.

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When we think of the biggest nations in cycling, Mexico doesn’t tend to make the list. But that hasn’t stopped a group of young riders from the North American nation from plying their trade in the dirt and sand of Europe.

This season, AR Monex registered as the very first Mexican cyclocross team. They rode eight cyclocross races including the UCI World Cups in Tábor and Koksijde. Their ultimate goal: deliver a Mexican rider to road cycling’s WorldTour. Team manager Alejandro Rodriguez sees the value of cyclocross in this quest, for the development of his riders.

“The story of the team is that we [Rodriguez and his two brothers] started in 2015 with a mountain bike team in the Czech Republic,” he says. “We understood that cycling didn’t happen, or not enough, in Mexico to develop further so we saw the necessity to come to Europe. After a few years we started [trying] our luck in road racing. I have also wanted to do cyclocross with these guys and this year we finally managed to do it.

“We combined three disciplines. MTB is our baseline but we did many road races in Italy and then thanks to the UCI we formed a cyclocross team.” 

The AR Monex team travelled to the small state of San Marino in February of this year with six boys of 17, 18 and 19 years old. San Marino supported them with housing and schooling. From their base they raced across Europe with an emphasis on junior races in Italy. In total the season counted 71 race days.

“Our boys were doing online schooling this year,” Rodriguez explains. “So next to that we could focus fulltime on cycling. It’s a very costly project for us to be in Europe for almost 300 days but we know it’s here that the riders learn the trade. Due to COVID we couldn’t do much in 2020 and after a brief period in Andorra we travelled back to Mexico in March that year. This year we had more time and could offer them a great program in Italy.” 

Warming up before the classic race at Koksijde.

The team was founded by three brothers with a passion for the sport. Due to the fact that the Mexican federation is currently suspended by the UCI for violations in governance and the election process of its new chairman, the team had to figure out many things themselves including their first steps in the cyclocross world.

“We did a lot of mountain biking and we also enjoyed great success with a World Cup short track win by Gerardo Ulloa in Nove Mesto in October 2020,” Rodriguez says. “Cyclocross is of course a different discipline but we took many of our experiences from mountain biking to the pits at the cyclocross races. The switch from MTB to cyclocross is not as big as the switch from road to cyclocross. The biggest difference and difficulty was getting cyclocross bikes in time. Unfortunately, our sponsor couldn’t provide them so we had to buy bikes.” 

The short cyclocross schedule was added after a busy road and mountain bike season. The young riders were all tired but equally excited and anxious about the new challenges. Lots of preparation went into the eight races the team did.

“With the riders we focused so much on technique,” Rodriguez says. “If they are not able to jump an obstacle or run in the sand, they won’t be competitive. I am not saying we are competitive now but we are learning fast though. I am happy with these races because I saw they are able as first-year U23 riders. We wanted to give them a different experience and emphasized the fun of it.

“They were very tired after a long season but did it anyways. That makes me proud.”

Bruno Camerena de Leon at Koksijde.

Cyclocross and Mexico is not a combination that comes to mind instantly. Many heads turned when the team lined up for the Superprestige race at Merksplas and the World Cup on the classic sand dunes course of Koksijde in Belgium.

“At home people did wonder why we would ride road bikes in the sand or the mud in the cold when it’s warm and sunny at home,” Rodriguez says with a smile. “’You have mountain bikes for that’, they said. Many people are curious about what we are doing and think it’s like gravel because gravel is much more popular and well-known back home due to the proximity of that scene in the United States.

“I have been a fan of cyclocross and its long history for a long time and wanted to give our riders this experience. It’s an introduction.”

Carlos García Trejo at Tábor.

UCI consultant Simon Burney is happy to see a Mexican team and was eager to help the riders on their way. 

“They had so much trouble registering riders and teams [with the Mexican federation being suspended],” Burney says. “It was great to have a Latin American team in Europe. We did it once with Zimbabwe, I remember. If we hear about teams or federations showing interest in the sport of cyclocross, we support them where we can. Mountain bike is much more international so when we can help a new nation [jump] into the sport of cyclocross, we will.”

So why cyclocross, when the team’s ultimate goal is to get riders to road cycling’s WorldTour?

“You see with riders like Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Tom Pidcock how important cyclocross has become and how they developed into the world’s best road racers,” Rodriguez says. “That’s why it’s also part of our development strategy. Despite the fact they [the young Mexican riders] already raced over 70 days this season at their young age they were very brave to take on the challenge.”

Isaac del Toro at Koksijde.

Isaac del Toro is one of the youngest members of the team. He was only 17 when he lined up for his first World Cup race at Tábor. Juniors join the cyclocross elite ranks or U23 category when races are available in the season they turn 18 which made Del Toro the youngest rider on the start line. He managed to finish the race in Tábor. In Merskplas he was only taken out in the last lap by the commissaires. The World Cup in Koksijde was a bit harder for the entire team. Del Toro was the last one to be taken out by the jury with three laps to go.

“These races were all very hard and very technical,” the now-18-year-old Del Toro says, looking back at his cyclocross debut. “It was an experience racing against the best of the world and something I won’t ever forget. Despite the fact we all suffered in the cold it was great to actually be at the start line.

“What I take away from these races is how to race full-gas for an hour. I need to learn how to balance the effort over the hour and not leave full gas and pay for it later. Of course, I also need to improve on my technical skills and how to move through the peloton towards the front of the race. I do hope to come to northern Europe next season to experience some more high-level races.”

Leonardo Zavala in action.

“Our expectations were realistic,” Rodriguez says. “We had to know where we stand at the moment compared to the others, to get a baseline. That’s why we enrolled them in elite and not the U23 race. That sounded nuts to others in the sport but we wanted a baseline and we needed to see how much we need to grow. We were successful in Tábor. That was our main race we focused on. We learned from all the races and now we will make a program to develop further.” 

Rodriguez is an optimistic man and sees the progress his riders are making during the season. Born in 2003, 2004, and 2005 the seven boys are still very young and have potential for many years to come.

“We see from teams like Alpecin-Fenix how they scout and work multi-disciplinary,” he says. “Mexico may be disadvantaged compared to Europe geographically, economically and logistically but we have a huge human capital of 125 million people. There must be a champion somewhere and we try to find that person.

“It’s mainly about the mental talent above the physical talent. We spend a lot of time educating our riders. They can learn different languages and countries where many would have never left Mexico otherwise. In Mexico this age group is vulnerable to the drug cartels that roam the streets. We want them to become role models too.

“That’s why it’s not only about the technical and physical capabilities when we go to youth races to scout but we also need riders with the right mentality. That’s maybe even more important than just having the talent.”

Leonardo Zavala
Leonardo Zavala on the Herijgers dune in Koksijde.

This week the riders travelled back home to Mexico but after their first full year of experience under their belts the AR Monex team looks towards the future.

“Our short-term goal is the World Championships in Fayetteville at the end of January,” Rodriguez says. “We hope to send two of our guys to race there. Not everyone can adapt so fast but we are looking for a good representation of Mexico. 

“Our long-term goals are the Paris Olympics mountain bike race and eventually getting our riders on the radar of the WorldTour teams. We want them to be role models for the people at home and get one rider to the WorldTour in four years.

“Mexico is like a virgin in road cycling. Mexican juniors competed and won against someone like Egan Bernal in the past. We really want to make it happen this time. Maybe I am naïve but sometimes you have to be a bit naïve to face new challenges.”

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