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Axeon Hagens Berman: The American hit factory

Joe Robinson
27 Sep 2017

Cyclist spoke to Axel Merckx about the highs and lows of cycling's most successful development team, Axeon Hagens Berman

In their first ever season in 2009, back when they were called Trek-Livestrong, Taylor Phinney took the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs. He would be one of the team's first graduates to the WorldTour.

Three years later and he would be in pink at the Giro d'Italia after winning the opening time trial for BMC Racing. Start as you mean to go on I guess. 

Axel Merckx founded the team, now named Axeon Hagens Berman, to supply riders to cycling's biggest league. Eight years on and it is the American Continental team that can boast the best success record when feeding riders to the WorldTour.

Look at their list of alumni and it presents a who's who of young talent currently riding in the pro peloton. Jasper Stuyven, Alex Dowsett and Tao Geoghegan Hart are amongst a long list of graduates who once rode for Merckx's team.

This year will again see another hoard of riders look to make their name in the highest ranks. Chris Lawless has signed for Team Sky whilst Jhonatan Narvaez will move on to Quick-Step Floors.

It's this constant stream of riders managing to step up from the U23 rank to the WorldTour that makes Merckx's men stand out. 

Like no other development squad, Merckx and his team have managed to nurture talent, produce big results and move their riders onto bigger and better things. 

Alumnus 

'Whenever we see our former riders at the parking lots of races they come and hang out. They like to be part of the team again even if it's for five minutes,' Merckx proudly said.

'To them, it feels like it's home.'

It's this connection to former riders that keeps the team alive. When a rider leaves the team, they don't stop becoming an Axeon rider, rather they fly the team flag internationally at their new team.

It probably helps that there is no pressure put on these young talents. It would be easy to think that the team are driven by results, like so many others, but in actual fact it's all about making the riders better people. 

'This has been the biggest year for me maturing on and off the bike and Axeon helped massively with that,' Lawless claimed to be his biggest takeaway from his year with the team.

'The the only pressure the rider will feel in the team is coming from themselves.'

It may sound clichéd, but the less pressure you put on talented riders, the more results they seem to get. When riders are getting more results, they are happier and feel more connected to the team and so on. 

It's this bond that helps the team continue. Cycling doesn't have the same system as other sports when it comes to spotting young talent. 

It's rare that a team will send a scout out to races to tap up and find the next big thing. Instead, the word of mouth, reputation and the help of former riders do the trick for Merckx. 

'We rely on referrals from ex riders. They say "Oh watch that kid is good" or "keep an eye on him."' 

'This is really cool because it's as if they have a sense of ownership in the team.'

Fighting through adversity

This year has probably been the toughest the team has ever experienced. Not in racing terms, but emotionally after the loss of two of their team. 

Earlier this year, the team saw young talent Chad Young succumb to injuries from a crash at the Tour of the Gila, dying at the age of 21.

Fast forward a month and the team was grieving again as press officer Sean Weide passed away unexpectedly. This made for a tough few months for the young American team. 

'It was rough with Chad and Sean passing in a matter of a few weeks. It's a tough variety of emotions and I never want to experience it again,' said Merckx. 

'It's difficult to handle but riders respond the best. They were willing to push through and honour them on the bike.'

Riding to honour the loss of Young and Weide was something that Merckx kept mentioning. It would have been easy for a line to have been drawn under the season and for them start again next year, once it was put to the back of their minds. 

Yet, it was clear that this option was never on the table and that the only option was to ride on.

'It was so tough but you talk to riders and staff and you begin to see the positives,' he said, before adding, 'We were a big part of Chad's life and we wouldn't do him justice by quitting.

'We are determined to give young riders opportunities and if anything, this really reinforced what we are doing.'

Moving on up

For the American Continental squads, the Tour of California is their Tour de France. It's without doubt the biggest race of the year and the number one chance to test yourself against some of the world's very best bike racers.

Yet with the race moving to the WorldTour, there is less and less space for the small, US-based teams to be invited to race. Despite their pedigree, Axeon Hagens Berman did not quite make the cut. 

This, and only this, has spurred the team's ambitions of stepping up a level to Pro-Continental. With a promise of more financial backing, entry into America's biggest stage race is a must. 

'The sponsor wants us there next year and thanks to him we can afford the step up to Pro-Conti level,' Merckx revealed.

'We want to give our riders the chance to be at the start line in California.'

Besides this one race, a move to Pro-Continental racing usually means more racing in Europe for American-based sides. With this, however, comes financial burden that is not always worth its cost. 

Racing has improved stateside, yet still lacks the fierce intensity found in Belgium during March or April. Riders learn to sink or swim on the Continent, but for Axeon the jump isn't something that's high on their agenda. 

'It's a potential but needs so much money to do. Our programme will remain the same if we move up to Pro-Conti just with Tour of California which for us is the most important race,' Merckx added.

With a similar race schedule, the team also plans for its riders to remain the same. Whilst the temptation to import some experienced heads may be tempting, Merckx is keen to stick with his tested formula of under 23 riders. 

'With the three-year contracts we will have some riders older than 23 in the team but hopefully we can move them o the WorldTour before then.'

'We want to keep the same team with it  being under 23 as much as possible giving young riders better opportunities.'

Out of the shadows

When your dad is Eddy Merckx, paving your own identity in professional cycling is going to be an uphill battle from day one.

Regardless of what you do personally, people will always refer to Axel as son of Eddy, the greatest cyclist of all time. 

Yet, look at the project Axel has built over in America, and the success that Axeon Hagens Berman has had in its first eight years, then it could be seen as an injustice that people fail to recognise this Merckx on his own.

The model of developing young talent established by the younger Merckx is now the precedent for any team trying to replicate the same success. 

It goes without saying that Eddy will always be the first name that pops into your head when someone says Merckx, but we should take time to tip our hat to what Axel has managed in his time as a team sports director. 

As for the team, the move up to the Pro-Continental ranks is vital. Without this, there is no invite to the Tour of California which is what the team rely on for their existence.

With any luck, the powers that be will recognise the importance of Axeon in the development of young talent and give them the green light to move up to Pro-Continental level.

In a year of adversity, the team's big results have proved what they are made of and have proven their worth as the top development team in the world. 

Lead Image: Davey Wilson

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