Charleville-Mézières, France - At one moment Sunday at Circuit des Ardennes International, things were not looking so good for Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team's Jhonatan Narvaez.
The 20-year-old from Ecuador - who was leading a stage race for the first time in his life - lay in a heap on the ground amidst a tangled pile of bikes and riders. He and teammate Adrien Costa were among more than a dozen competitors who crashed less than halfway through the final stage of the 103-kilometer race in northern France.
"It was a hard part of the stage at that time, so the race was going very fast," Axeon Hagens Berman Sport Director Koos Moerenhout said. "Both Jhonatan and Adrien also had to change bikes, so that took awhile. Fortunately, their teammates Michael Rice and Rui Oliveira were able to go back and eventually bring them back to the main bunch."
The successful pursuit of the peloton and a second hard chase to close a nearly three-minute gap to solo leader and eventual stage winner Riccardo Zoidl (Team Felbermayr-Simplon Wels) led to impressive results. Narvaez won the overall title and best young rider jersey while Axeon Hagens Berman also captured the team classification.
"I am very happy to have won," Narvaez said. "This is a big success for me and for the team and a great victory. I must thank my teammates for all the work they did for me every day. After the crash, it was a tough time for us to manage. We were far back from the peloton, but our sport director (Moerenhout) insisted we take our time to get back. So that is what we did."
The success in France added to a weekend that began with Axeon Hagens Berman's Eddie Dunbar soloing to victory Saturday in the Under 23 edition of Ronde van Vlaanderen. Riding for the Irish national team, the 20-year-old from Cork soloed the last 15 kilometers to become the first rider from Ireland to win the Belgian race and Nations Cup event.
Axeon Hagens Berman General Manager Axel Merckx said those performances are proof that the team's catchphrase of "Prove It" is more than just a slogan.
"What is really special about this weekend is that whether one guy was on form or not, all of them were still sacrificing themselves for the good of the team," Merckx said. "Jonathan's overall win is definitely a product of good teamwork. When you you see the guys that are there and how they - who are all winners themselves - were all sacrificing themselves, it is something very exceptional. And it is not only the riders, but also the staff, who did an amazing job."
The job done by Oliveira and Rice to help Narvaez and Costa to get back to the pack was only half the battle in Sunday's final stage. American Will Barta, the fifth Axeon Hagens Berman rider in the race and next best-placed after Narvaez, also contributed to the chase of Zoidl. The Austrian, who won this race overall in 2013, had become the virtual leader on the road after attacking out of a breakaway group of nine. But Costa said the team never panicked while delivering Narvaez to a 16th-place finish on the last stage.
"I think we rode really well throughout the race as a team, keeping our cards close to our chest, communicating well, and using our strengths when it mattered most," the 19-year-old American said. "It is also a bummer to crash, but it is important to remember that it could have been a lot worse. Luckily, I was able to make it back into the race after a long time behind the caravan, and contribute a bit to the team defense of yellow. Our team's first GC (general classification) win of the year is a really nice reward, as well as yet another team title."
Axeon Hagens Berman bested Team Felbermayr-Simplon Wels of Austria to earn the team title by a 59-second advantage. Team Joker Icopal of Norway was third, 73 seconds back. Axeon Hagens Berman's other two team classification victories have come at the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal in February and last month at Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux in Belgium.
On Stage 3 Sunday morning, Narvaez finished runner-up to Maxime Vantomme (WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect) in a 76.1 km road race to become race leader by 20 seconds ahead of Vantomme, who would eventually finished runner-up overall. On Stage 2 on Saturday, Narvaez also finished second to pull within four seconds of the overall lead. The first-year Axeon Hagens Berman rider was only 134th on Stage 1 Friday, but in the same time as the stage winner after half the peloton was directed off course in the last two kilometers.
Merckx said he saw the potential in this year's team as early as training camp in January. Last season's 16-rider squad won a team-record 36 races and eight national titles in the eighth year of the program. Sunday's win by Narvaez was the American team's fourth in UCI races - by four different riders - and the 14th on the season overall.
"We have a great group of guys who have clicked right away," Merckx said. "You can really sense the pride from these riders who want to prove that we are more than just a development team. We are a really solid continental team on the international level and clearly one of the best development teams in the world. We want to keep the success coming and make this program last for a very, very long time."
Header photo by Jim Anderson.