Despite only having one U23 rider on their roster for 2018, Team Illuminate certainly know a thing or two abut developing good riders. BMC pro Miles Scotson spent a season with the team in 2016 before securing a stagiaire contract with Wanty Groupe-Gobert, and he raced with the team along with younger brother (and U23 Cycling Zone’s rider of the month for January) Callum, who races now with the Mitchelton-BikeExchange development team. Team manager Chris Johnson and his staff also helped produce Lance Haidet, now starring on the Aevolo development team. Furthermore, the US outfit launched Colombian former national road champion Edwin Avila back to the Pro Continental level with Israel Cycling Academy after he won five UCI races with Illuminate in 2017. So when Chris made U23 Cycling Zone aware of his U23 rider, we went away and did our research on him, and, based on some of the talents Chris has had on his team in the past, we were not disappointed.
Looking to continue the tradition of Team Illuminate’s young talents is Connor Brown, a 21-year-old American rider who joined the team in the offseason and is already off to a flying start, following a successful race in the Tour de Taiwan, but more on that later. Connor spoke exclusively with U23 Cycling Zone both before and after the Asian race to let us get to know more about him.
First, with a boatload of sports on offer in the US, and with cycling not really being at the top of the list of options for kids in the States, we asked Connor why he got into road cycling and a little more on his background.
“I was born in Kansas in 1996, but I was raised in Missouri my whole life. I grew up around my Dad who raced criteriums and road races here in the States. The Tour De France always played in my house in the summer and eventually I found my way into the sport when I was 16.”
Connor was fortunate enough that his previous employers, Elevate-KHS Pro Cycling, have a pretty good US race program and allowed Connor to ride a lot of the top races on the continent over the two seasons he spent racing with the team. However, forays into Europe were just not possible, which was something Connor really desired having raced across the pond with the US National Team as a junior. Therefore, he made the bold decision to swap Elevate for Illuminate for 2018.
“I have been racing the big US races almost every year of my career. They always play out the same and they had just gotten down right boring to me. I needed to make a change because it was draining me of the fun that I could have in the sport. When I looked at the teams I could join, Illuminate looked like a fun and exciting option. They travelled the world, something that I had always aspired to do, and they looked like they were always having a hell of a time on the bike. The sport in the US is slowing dying out and more and more of the U23 riders who I raced with as juniors are leaving the sport, with the most recent case of Adrien Costa in the US. So, for me, it was all about keeping it interesting and finding new motivation.”
Connor is a confident rider and was open to questions outwith those concerning eiter himself or his team. Like he mentioned above, the sport in the US is suffering, with the recent departure of the USA Pro Challenge from the calendar (although it has come back now as the Colorado Classic) and, in the weeks prior to this interview, news broke that the Tour of Alberta in Canada would not be on the 2018 calendar due to financial issues. With the Philadelphia Internationa Cycling Classic no longer being open to European squads and the Tour of California now only being available to WorldTour and Pro Conti squads, there is a real dearth of races available in the US. Despite the domestic calendar still featuring great races like Reading 120, Joe Martin Stage Race, Tour of the Gila and Redlands Bicycle Classic, Connor believes the lack of international races in the US is at fault for the lack of top US juniors becoming great U23 riders.
“I think less and less kids are making the gap from being successful juniors to adequate U23 riders. I had been given the opportunity to race in Europe one year with the junior national team, and I absolutely loved it. It was incredible to go to a kermesse and race for 5 euros and have the opportunity to win hundreds of euros, and get a hard race out of it. I just don’t think the US is doing a good job at supporting its young talent. Not to point fingers but the facts are the facts, and as cool as Hagens Berman Axeon is for the US riders, with its creation we saw the destruction of two of the other major U23 development teams in the states at the time, that of Calgaint and Hagens Berman which each covered about 16 U23 American riders. Then we see a change in the U23 national team structure where they are no longer taking any chances on kids like me and other decent U23s (Most of the US U23 rosters are made up solely of Hagens Berman Axeon riders and a few other outlier riders -ed.). These problems make it a rough and murky water for the already disadvantaged American U23 rider to navigate. We have been lucky that we are starting to see a few new teams rise to the occasion to try and help fill the void that was left, but the damage has been done and it may already be too late.”
Connor’s opinion may be strong, but there are more than enough facts to prove what he is saying is right. Former Junior World ITT champion Brandon McNulty opted to ride for Rally, who were then a Continental team but did not specialise in U23s, rather than join a U23 team. Furthermore, of the US riders to have gone pro in recent seasons, every single one bar Sepp Kuss of LottoNL-Jumbo has come through some iteration of Hagens Berman Axeon, and Kuss, like McNulty, is a Rally product. Is there simply too much dominance from one US U23 team?
Back to Connor, who explained that he did take advantage of what America had to offer him as a kid, as he partook in a number of sports. It is from this diverse sporting upbringing that Connor developed his winning mentality, and rather than think like most cyclists and targeting only days that suit his skillset, Connor wants to win all the time. He likens his mentality to that of a certain future first ballot Hall of Famer from the New England Patriots, whose insatiable desire to win has been well documented in recent months…
“As far as my strengths I would say that I am a player, I grew up playing all kinds of sports and I developed that passion for winning. When I show up to a race my goal is to be as dominant as I can be, like a Tom Brady type of guy. I always want to race with all my heart and have a lot of fun with my boys. My weaknesses would be that I lack the strength that I need in some of the steeper mountain stages. However, I am really trying my best with my coach at the wheel to close this gap. I am seeing lots of improvements every year, but it is hard to get better in the mountains when you have limited access to mountains here in Missouri!” Connor laughs.
Team Illuminate were able to give Connor the perfect start to his career with the team, sending him to the inaugural edition of the Colombia Oro y Paz race. If Connor wanted to travel the world with his bike, there is no better place to race than in Colombia, where the sport’s heroes, like Lucho Herrera in the past and the likes of Uran, Quintana, Henao and Bernal in the present, are viewed as gods. Connor spoke about his amazing experience in Colombia and what he took from seeing how the Colombian stars at the race were treated by their adoring fans.
“It was an incredible experience to witness first-hand what it is like to be the best in the world and as a young rider it really makes me hungry to go after them and at the same time it is a very humbling experience. What can I say about Colombia, it’s one of the coolest places you could ever go for cycling. The people are incredibly passionate about the sport of cycling and it would be great to see the US take after them in that aspect.”
After Colombia, Connor headed to Taiwan, and made the decisive break on stage two to elevate himself into GC contention. Things did go a little pear shaped further on in the race, but Brown dug deep and finished 13th, and was a key component of a strong Illuminate squad at the race.
“This was my first time doing the Tour De Taiwan and it was a great experience. I had many successes and a lot of lessons that I took home with me back to the States. However, overall, I was really satisfied with my results. It was the first time that I had really felt like I was one of the top contenders in a UCI 2.1 stage race and that was something that I had been working to achieve for a long time. My best move of the race came on stage two when I followed the second move, that caught the peloton sleeping, and bridged up to the breakaway which contained my teammate Felix Baron. Felix is a strong rider overall and he was able to ride his way into the KOM jersey after winning some of the points. I felt pretty good on the final climb and helped keep the pace high so that we would make it into the finish with our time gaps. The next day I learned my biggest lesson of the race. My teammate Cam Piper told me to be careful on the tricky descent as there could possibly be a split after the climb. I rode the first climb in great position up until about 1 km to the top. That’s when a late attack surged the group forward and I got caught in the back of the group for the descent. Sure enough, there was a gap that had formed and by the time I had bridged back onto the group in the flat section, the second short but steep climb had come and the pure climbers were attacking. I found myself out of the group and chasing thirty seconds behind the leaders for the next 10km. I was fortunate enough to have Simon Pellaud and Felix, who had suffered a puncture on the descent, bridge up to me. We then worked together, after Simon had motivated me a fair bit, for the next 20km to bring ourselves to what we thought was the lead group. However, once we had gotten back to that group, we were then informed that there was a move of 14 riders that had 2 minutes on us. I rolled in for a 16th place finish and was now sitting 15th in GC. That morning I had been fifth overall and dropped ten places. I was really sad about that and really wanted to claw my way back into the top ten, but I finished the race 13th overall and it left me hungry for more.”
Connor and his team informed us tat they were not allowed to divulge information about the team’s race calendar, although they are a good bet to line up at Tour of Thailand, Azerbaijan Tour and Sibiu Tour if you believe the team’s page on Pro Cycling Stats. Connor was already close to winning in Taiwan, so it is no surprise that he is targeting a stage race GC this year. He ended the interview on a cliff hanger, saying there was one race in particular he is looking to win this season, but couldn’t divulge which race it was.
“My goals for this year are to earn 75 UCI points this year and to win a yellow jersey at a 2.1 race and win two stages of a 2.1 stage race. I’ve been told to keep quiet about the races we are doing this year, but there is definitely one in particular that I would like to win.”
So there you have it. You now know the rider who races with the Tom Brady mentality and is always looking for an opportunity to win. Look out for Connor wherever Team Illuminate line up this year, as he has big goals to achieve this season, and has all the talent and confidence to achieve them. With the help of Chris Johnson and the rest of his staff, who spot young talent so well, there is no reason why Connor can’t have a monster season and, potentially, even break the dominance of Hagens Berman Axeon riders going pro. Stay tuned, Connor Brown is just getting started.
U23 Cycling Zone wishes to thank Connor for taking time out both before and after a big race to speak with us and for putting such effort into his answers. Furthermore, we wish to thank Team Illuminate manager Chris Johnson for putting us in contact with Connor. We wish both Connor and the team the best of luck in achieving their goals this season. You can follow the team on Twitter at @Illuminatebike. Connor is not a frequent Tweeter by any stretch of the imagination, but he tells me he is a regular on Instagram, where his handle is @conn0rbrown, should you wish to follow him there, which we highly recommend.