The A.R. Monex under-23 squads.

The Mexican team that developed Isaac del Toro has WorldTour dreams

Amid troubling times for Mexican cycling, A.R. Monex is hoping to turn increased investment into more success.

The A.R. Monex under-23 squads. Photo: A.R. Monex.

Dane Cash
by Dane Cash 20.05.2024 Photography by
A. R. Monex and Cor Vos
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All over the world of cycling, national federations are closely involved in developing their countries’ next big thing in bike racing – but the most recent winner of the Tour de l’Avenir hails from well outside the sport’s traditional powerhouses. In fact, Isaac del Toro emerged from a place whose national federation has been suspended by the UCI since 2021 for “serious infringements of the obligations it is subject to under the UCI Constitution, in particular when it comes to governance and electoral processes.”

That Mexico would have fielded a team at all in the sport’s premier event for under-23 riders might come as a surprise, let alone that Del Toro would take Mexico’s first ever win there. He has since gone on to sign with UAE Team Emirates and enjoyed immediate success in his very first race with the team, winning a stage and landing on the overall podium at the Tour Down Under.

For all the things wrong with Mexico’s federation, something is also going right on the rider development pathway. Del Toro himself deserves the lion’s share of the credit for his own emergence as a rising star, but some credit should also go to to the organization that supported him during his time as a junior and under-23 racer: A.R. Monex, the club-level Mexican development team based in San Marino.

“They got me used to this lifestyle in which I’m more accustomed to doing the job,” Del Toro told Escape Collective of A.R. Monex. “To have a bit of routine, of what you want in professional cycling, helped me very much, a similar routine and just needing to expand on your approach to get to the top level as best as possible.”

A.R. Monex helped produce a glowing success story amid what would seem to be very tumultuous times for Mexican cycling, with its federation suspended and with no riders at the WorldTour level since erstwhile “next big thing” Luis Villalobos received a doping ban in 2021.

That success story is one that took years of gradual progress behind the scenes even as Mexico’s federation descended into dysfunction. Despite that dysfunction after a long period of near anonymity for Mexican riders in the wider road racing scene internationally, A.R. Monex has high hopes for the future. Escape Collective spoke to co-founder Luis Rodríguez to learn more about what’s behind the project, where it could be going, and what impact that is having on the bike racing scene in Mexico.

Isaac del Toro at the Tour Down Under.
Isaac del Toro wasted no time in winning at the WorldTour level, taking stage 2 of January’s Tour Down Under.

Luis and his brother Alejandro Rodríguez, both avid cyclists themselves, were businessmen before they decided more than a decade ago to launch a bike racing team.

“We had an import and export business, so, we were working, and it was going well, but we needed to do something for our country,” Rodríguez told Escape. “We knew we wanted to do something about sports.”

The two brothers founded a European-based team in 2015 focusing on mountain bike racing. Very gradually, the project found success around a then up-and-coming Gerardo Ulloa.

“We didn’t win anything in 2015 or 2016, but in 2017, we started winning, winning, winning, winning. And the team started to grow. Now, we were six mountain bikers. And in 2020, we won the first World Cup [in Nové Mesto – Ed.] with Gerardo Ulloa in the short track,” Rodríguez said. “That was very good. Because at that time, a group of companies in Mexico decided to financially support our project. And they proposed us to make the road team.”

It was there that the project really started to take shape. Del Toro had already signed in 2019, and he began focusing more and more on the road as the organization did as well, bringing on several youngsters for junior and under-23 squads and giving them opportunities to race abroad. Meanwhile, Ulloa left at the end of 2020. Some three years after his departure, he was suspended by the UCI for missing three doping tests in a 12-month period; more on anti-doping in a bit.

The early iterations of the A.R. Monex team benefitted from tax laws that allowed sponsors to use their support of the team as a tax writeoff before the organization shifted to drawing funding from more traditional marketing budgets as sponsors deemed the project worthy of continued support. Still, development remained gradual – at least until everything fell into place in 2023, at a time when it seemed like Mexican cycling was at a nadir.

Although allegations of corruption within Mexican cycling go way back, it was only in 2021 that the UCI suspended the federation’s license amid allegations of improprieties in the organization’s elections process. Fortunately for youngsters like Del Toro, A.R. Monex was ready to step into the void.

The UCI transferred various responsibilities, including the selection of Mexican national squads in races like the Tour de l’Avenir, from the national federation to the Mexican Olympic Committee (COM). The COM, for its part, turned to A.R. Monex – which had by then made a name for itself developing young Mexican talents abroad – to help pick the Avenir team.

“It was our team, with one or two reinforcements from other teams, from other Mexicans who also compete in Europe,” Rodríguez said.

And so, despite its national federation being suspended, Mexico fielded a more-than-capable team at the 2023 Tour de l’Avenir right at a time when Del Toro was truly coming into his own as a young talent. He went on to become Mexico’s first ever winner of the race that previously propelled Tadej Pogačar and countless others to fame. After signing with Pogačar’s team and enjoying rapid success in the 2024 season, Del Toro has since signed a contract that will take him all the way through 2029.

Del Toro’s success has helped spur additional investment in the team that helped get him to where he is today. Rodríguez said that the team’s main sponsor, Banco Monex, has “injected four times more money” than its initial sponsorship. He also noted that other sponsors have come aboard, including a Mexican sports investment group that owns baseball and basketball teams, mining company Grupo México, a hotel chain, an airport group, and many of the team’s equipment brand partners.

The team has also now launched a women’s under-23 squad as well as a racing series within Mexico to help identify young talents even without a UCI-approved federation running those sorts of events.

Romina Hinojosa.
Romina Hinojosa is among the more promising riders on the A.R. Monex under-23 women’s team.

“All this is thanks to the result that Isaac Del Toro had with us,” Rodríguez said.

That huge boost in funding will hopefully brighten the future for those even younger riders who are just getting their feet wet internationally with the organization. Rodríguez is confident that there are already athletes within the team structure who can follow up on Del Toro’s success, and that stretches across the men’s and women’s under-23 squads and the junior development squad, more than 40 riders strong, as well.

In short, there are reasons to be optimistic after a tough few years. That said, Mexican cycling won’t suddenly emerge from the doldrums into being an international road racing powerhouse overnight. A suspended federation, lawsuits around Olympic selections, and the doping ban handed to Villalobos, Mexico’s most recent up-and-coming star before Del Toro, remain the major headlines surrounding the Mexican racing scene in recent years. There is a lot of work yet to be done. Del Toro is still new to the WorldTour scene and even if he becomes all that he is expected to become, he is only just one rider.

A true turnaround can only come over time, with consistent, widespread success – and a consistently clean anti-doping record.

For Rodríguez’s part, he says that A.R. Monex has a “zero tolerance” policy on doping and that the team is committed to keeping its young riders from going down that path.

“When they are in the pre-season, we do anti-doping, and also when they are in the season, we internally have the sponsorship of a laboratory that is with us, and we are constantly doing anti-doping so that they know that it is something that we do not tolerate,” he said.

Insofar as a team’s public stance and internal policy can stand as an indicator of the culture within the organization, it’s a good start, but again, only by compiling an unimpeachable anti-doping track record over time will A.R. Monex and Mexican cycling more generally start to change the narrative.

As he looks ahead to a future where that narrative has (hopefully) started to change, Rodríguez has bold aspirations for building the A.R. Monex organization into something even bigger than it already is.

“In the medium-term, it’s the ProTeam [level], and in the long-term, the WorldTour [level],” Rodriguez said.

That’s quite a jump up from the Club level at which the team is currently registered, but Rodríguez is eyeing a move to the third-division (the Continental level) soon, and given the massive increase in sponsor support that has come since Del Toro burst onto the scene last year, it’s realistic to imagine more investment rolling in en route to fund a step up to the second division.

In any case, the building blocks are there for Rodríguez, his brother, and the rest of the team to continue growing both their own organization and Mexico’s profile on the international road racing scene.

Time will tell whether the project can find another Isaac del Toro in their ranks.

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