• Rice riding for his Hagens Berman Axeon squad (Hagen Bermans Axeon)Source: Hagen Bermans Axeon
For Michael Rice, blazing a trail across North America has been an unorthodox but successful way to build a cycling career.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Source:
Cycling Central
29 Jan 2018 - 11:31 AM  UPDATED 29 Jan 2018 - 1:55 PM

Most Australian riders pursue their cycling dream through locally based projects. A select few get picked up by national teams or bigger, private teams, often in Asia or Europe. 

But for Canberran Michael Rice, blazing a trail across North America has been his unorthodox approach to building a cycling career. 

Last year, the 22-year-old scored a spot on one of the world's best development teams, Hagens Berman Axeon, which sent four riders to the World Tour in 2017, and three the year before.

Watch daily highlights of the Herald Sun Tour at 1630 - 1730 AEDT from Wednesday 31 January on SBS and On Demand at Cycling Central.

LIVE: watch the final stage live on SBS Viceland and streaming at Cycling Central from 1300 - 1600 AEDT, Sunday 4 February.

Racing in a rare home appearance for the KordaMentha Real Estate-Australia team at last Sunday's Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (part of the UCI World Tour) and this week's Herald Sun Tour, Rice spoke to me about racing away from the traditional Aussie cycling support networks.

“I think there’s more than one way to skin a cat. My journey is a little unorthodox but it’s the pathway that worked for me and I gathered a lot of life experience along the way as well.”

“I like to make my own decisions a little bit, which has probably helped me in the long run, making those big decisions when you’re far away from home. It is hard the first few times you go away, you need the right people guiding you so you can land on your feet.”

The initial move for Rice was to take up a spot with a Quebec-based team in Canada.

“I wanted to push my comfort zone and take every opportunity that I could. I’d done a little racing in Australia on NRS teams (Search2retain and Olivers Real Food), then I crossed over and was part of Garneau-Quebecor.

“So we raced across Canada but also in the US, which was good exposure to the teams in North America. Following that season I was picked up by Axel (Merckx, team principal for Hagens Berman Axeon) and did the last year on his team.”

“I think there’s more than one way to skin a cat. My journey is a little unorthodox but it’s the pathway that worked for me and I gathered a lot of life experience along the way as well.”

The US scene is far from alien to a rider from Australia, its criteriums in particular attracting a number of them.  The road racing calendar is less well populated by Antipodeans, with some exceptions like the Morton brothers.

“It’s a bit similar to Australia,” said Rice, “newer, wider roads - rather than the narrow roads you see in Europe. There’s a bit more depth in America and the teams have more money which attracts riders from all around the world.

“We’re quite lucky, the team run a split program between the US and Europe it’s about 50-50 but we call ourselves an American team with American sponsors, staff and riders.”

Hagens Berman Axeon has a rich history in helping riders grow, including past graduates George Bennett (Lotto NL-Jumbo) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo). But it will also grow itself to Pro Continental status in 2018.

“Upgrading to Pro Continental status gives us the chance to do some bigger races,” said Rice who was awarded with a second year contract with the team.

"Hopefully I'll get a start in the Tour of California this year, it’ll be the biggest race for us on the calendar.”

One of Rice's big victories came at the Redlands Cycling Classic last May, just days after the death of teammate and friend Chad Young. He dedicated the emotional win to Young, and told me about the impact of his death and that of team press officer Sean Weide in the same month. 

"It was a tough year, losing a rider and a member of staff. It brought us closer together as a team, we're stronger now... it's tight-knit, almost a family."

The positive team culture is evidenced in their results, something Rice was quick to attribute to team director Axel Merckx.

“It starts from the top. Axel has a great approach to how he builds the team in the first place and establishing team culture and picking the right riders for the list. It’s quite educational, learning how to be a bike rider and after you have that foundation the results will follow.”

It’s an approach that has worked well for Rice.   

“I was able to get a couple of wins last year with the team. Moving forward I’d like to get over to Europe and do some more high-tier races.”

Helping and guiding Rice along the way is his coach Stuart Shaw, former stalwart of the Drapac teams and now the high performance director with the Australian Cycling Academy.

“Stu and I raced together for a few years on the same team and obviously being a Canberra local means I got to know him well,” said Rice. “He’s been a great mentor and now a coach as well. We have a very good relationship.”

For Shaw, the chance to see one of his charges succeed outweighed the instinct to encourage the young rider to follow the normal development path.  

“We work super close,” said Shaw, “we’ve planned every step of his development always focused on what’s best for his career and not being swayed by the norm. He’s really coachable and able to step up and deliver when it counts.”

Rice was a late call-up to KordaMentha, only getting a few weeks notice after Cycling Australia encountered problems with finding riders which met the criteria of UCI’s Registered Testing Pool.

UniSA-Australia loads up on veteran talent for TDU after CA misstep
Cycling Australia today named the seven riders who will make up the UniSA-Australia squad for the Santos Tour Down Under with some missing the cut due to miscommunication over a change to the UCI anti-doping rules.

“We weren’t planning on racing this early in the season but focused on Axeon’s season goals like Tour of California,” said Shaw. “But a chance to race in the World Tour was worth a slight detour for the past few weeks to be prepared."

The appearance in a national squad will be a first for Rice, a rare chance for the Canberran to be a part of top-level racing in Australia.

“It means a lot to him for Cycling Australia to pick him for these races as he’s been completely autonomous from any national support or backing,” said Shaw.

Before Sunday’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, Rice was quietly confident despite the challenge of coming off little form early in the season. 

“I’ve been working hard in training and I’ve just finished a full pre-season with no interruptions. That’s always a positive. The body is feeling good and I haven’t had any injuries so I’m looking forward to it. 

“You never know, that first race of the year but I’m confident in what I’ve done. I’ve set some goals for later in the year, so I don’t want to leave my best form in January but I’m ready to get amongst it.”

Watch daily highlights of the Herald Sun Tour at 1630 - 1730 AEDT from Wednesday 31 January on SBS and On Demand at Cycling Central.

LIVE: watch the final stage live on SBS Viceland and streaming at Cycling Central from 1300 - 1600 AEDT, Sunday 4 February. 

2018 Jayco Herald Sun Tour Preview

You might also like:
Cadel Evans hails McCarthy's big win
Cadel Evans hopes Sunday's win in his namesake race proves a career turning point for fellow Australian Jay McCarthy.
Star-studded Aussie team ready to tackle first women's Herald Sun Tour
A star-studded Korda Mentha - Australia women's team is set to take on the first women's Jayco Herald Sun Tour this Tuesday (30 January).
Hosking wins Deakins Women's Race and Comm Games slot
Chloe Hosking has secured Commonwealth Games selection with her win in the Deakins Women's Race.