The Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team's roster for its next European stage race includes three reigning national champions, last year's winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège Espoirs and a pair of stage winners from the Tour de l'Avenir.
The star-studded line-up of Will Barta, Adrien Costa, Eddie Dunbar, Neilson Powless, Chris Lawless, Ivo Oliveira and Logan Owen will be put to the test at the three-day, four-stage race of Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux when it begins Friday in Belgium.
It is the shortest race of the four – Sunday's 10.3-kilometer individual time trial – that is expected to be most decisive, Axeon Hagens Berman Sport Director Koos Moerenhout said.
"We have a very strong lineup," Moerenhout said. "It is important not to lose any time in the opening stages and then, normally, the individual time trial will be decisive. Along the way, there are time bonus sprints, so that will also be something to aim for."
Dunbar, the Irish Under 23 national time trial champion, said he enters the race feeling refreshed and ready. The 20-year-old enjoyed some time off earlier this month before returning to action last weekend at the Under 23 edition of Gent-Wevelgem, where he finished 16th for the Irish national team.
"I am looking forward to racing this weekend," Dunbar said. "As always, we have a strong team lining up for it and there are stages that suit all of us, which is good. The time trial stage will be an interesting one as it will be the first one this year for most people."
Joining Dunbar will be 2016 Tour de l'Avenir stage winners Costa and Powless, British national criterium champion Chris Lawless, Portugese national track champion Ivo Oliveira and Owen, who won a stage of Volta ao Alentejo in February and the "King of the Mountains" title earlier this month at another Portuguese race, Clássica da Arrábida.
A 166.5 km road race leads off the UCI Europe Tour event. Saturday is a 148.9 km road race. Sunday's double-stage day begins with the time trial, followed by a 97.7 km road race.
Powless, who will be racing a European stage race for the first time this season, said he is most excited about the chance to put himself to the test in the time trial.
"I think that will be the day I can stand out the most and really put my early season form to the test," he said. "Gent-Wevelgem gave me quite a bit of confidence last weekend and I think a race like that is the perfect preparation for Triptyque. I have been riding my time trial bike a lot in anticipation for the time trial.
"I am also particularly excited about the fact that we are bringing such a diverse team into the weekend. We have a really good sprinter with Lawless, so if any of the days come down to a field sprint – which I am sure they will – we have a really strong card to play there. Along with that, pretty much everyone else who is coming is strong enough to really do something late in the race on any of the days. I think we will be able to play off of each other really well and have a good bit of fun while doing it."
Owen is in his fourth year with team, but only racing Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux for the second time. The 22-year-old from Bremerton, Washington, said he hopes to play more of a contributing role while recovering from injury.
"I am currently coming back from a hip/leg injury, so I am not sure if I will be back on great form yet," he said. "My main goal for the week will be to help the guys as much as possible and if I am feeling strong again, to go for a stage on one of the days."
Moerenhout said he sees Axeon Hagens Berman's overall objectives in the 22-team race as two-fold.
"Stage wins are important and we have a couple of riders for that, as well as for the time trial," he said. "If we perform up to expectations, we will have more than one rider who could contend for the GC (general classification)."
Taylor Phinney (2010) and Lawson Craddock (2011 and 2013) – both former riders in Axel Merckx's development program – are the last Americans to win stages at Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux, which is now in its 22nd year. Past overall winners include other current WorldTour riders Tom Dumoulin (2011), Lars Boom (2006) and Stijn Devolder (2000).
Riders: Will Barta (USA), Adrien Costa (USA), Eddie Dunbar (IRE), Neilson Powless (USA), Chris Lawless (GBR), Ivo Oliveira (POR), Logan Owen (USA). Sport Director: Koos Moerenhout (NED).
Header photo of Will Barta (left) and Neilson Powless by Davey Wilson.