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Axel’s army: A pathway to the pro peloton

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of Velo magazine.

It’s approaching 85 degrees in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, on the eve of the 2015 USA Pro Challenge, but Axel Merckx has goose bumps. He’s getting emotional.

“I’m almost more happy now when they win than when I won,” he says, looking at the bumps on his forearms as he settles into an Adirondack chair in the Colorado sun. “I don’t now why. It’s just the way I am.”

“They” are the riders for Axeon Cycling Team, the youth-development program Merckx has been running for seven years. Several of them are walking back and forth behind Merckx, 43, on their way to and from massage sessions and other obligations as they prepare for their biggest race of the year. They’re young, all between 18 and 23. Most are American, but this year’s squad also includes a Kiwi, a Brit, and a rider from Portugal. They come to work, ride, and grow, to prepare themselves for the big jump to a WorldTour team.

“I wanted to create a team that I wish I was on,” Merckx says. “I tried to take all the positive experiences I had on all the different teams that I raced on, remove the pressure, and keep the attitude, the personality, the spirit of it. It’s been an amazing journey so far. I feel really lucky. I’ve encountered some great riders and some great athletes. This is the good I want to do for cycling. It’s what I want to give back.”

Since retiring in 2007, Merckx — a former Belgian national champ, Olympic bronze medalist, son of Eddy — has embarked on a surprising second life as a gifted developer of young cycling talent. Axeon (pronounced the same as “action”) is the latest iteration of an under-23 cycling project that has become perhaps the best launching pad for aspiring pros in North America. A third of the 54 riders who have passed through the team’s ranks since its inception have moved onto the WorldTour, including Taylor Phinney (BMC); Ian Boswell (Sky); Alex Dowsett (Movistar); Jasper Stuyven and Jesse Sergent (Trek Factory Racing); Carter Jones and Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin); and Joe Dombrowski, Ben King, Nate Brown, and Ruben Zepuntke (Garmin-Cannondale).

In many ways — and especially in the more emotional, goose-bump-inducing ones that have to do with using the crucible of sport to turn boys into men—Merckx is possibly the closest thing American cycling has to a Mike Kryzewski, the longtime basketball coach of the Duke Blue Devils. With a budget that wouldn’t cover Team Sky’s bus-cleaning bills, Merckx recruits, mentors, and develops young riders who, by design, will age out of his program within four years. In the best case, he loses them with their glory years still to come. Worst case, they’ve spent four years chasing a dream and now have to figure out a post-cycling life. In either case, Merckx can only hope his lessons have stuck.

“To me, the success of this team is not the results, or the number of riders we move up,” Merckx says. “It’s that all the riders who have been in this program, wherever they are, as soon as we’re at the same race they come to see us. They stop by, give us hugs; they come and say, ‘We miss you guys. We had a great time with you. It was awesome.’

“That’s the success of the program — that they all come back.”

For college-age riders hoping to make a go of it in the pro ranks, there are only a few options. USA Cycling runs its own development program, which identifies junior and U23 riders and provides European acclimation for those looking to turn pro. But the national squad doesn’t race a full calendar, so riders are best off picking a development-oriented trade team as well.

There are other excellent development programs in North America, teams such as California Giant Berry Farms-Specialized (which will fold into Axeon in 2016) and Hincapie Racing, which take riders up to the age of 25. There are plenty in Europe, too, like French-based VC La Pomme, which has turned out top riders (Dan Martin, Alex Howes, Fumi Beppu, Maxime Bouet) for decades.

A growing collegiate racing scene is an option as well, but juggling racing with classwork takes particular dedication. Ted King (Cannondale-Garmin) graduated from Middlebury College before turning to a pro career, and Coryn Rivera (UnitedHealthcare) continues to win at the highest levels of women’s cycling despite a course load at Marian University. But for most, school and a top-tier professional lifestyle don’t mix well. Nonetheless, Merckx says he never dissuades a rider from trying to balance both.

“I know as much as anybody that after cycling you still have a long life,” he says. “Some guys have gone to school and made it. But this team, it’s kind of like going to university. That’s the idea of it. You come out ready for one job.”

Among the options a young rider has, Axeon is unique in the U.S. both for sticking so strictly to the U23 ranks and for the success of its riders. That was perhaps never on better display than at this year’s U23 national championships. The team completely dominated proceedings as the 167km course rolled through the foothills west of Lake Tahoe, California, and then shed all but a handful of riders on the long climb up to the Northstar ski resort. Axeon took first and second, with Keegan Swirbul, 19, and Gregory Daniel, 20, respectively, and placed five riders in the top-25 overall.

Swirbul’s win marked the 20th national championship earned under Merckx since 2009.

Axeon began life in 2009 as Trek-Livestrong. The team, a project between Lance Armstrong and his long-time sponsor Trek, was built primarily as a development vehicle for Taylor Phinney, the then-19-year-old American phenom whom Trek hoped to tie to its brand the way Armstrong had been. Armstrong brought in the newly retired Merckx — his former teammate on Motorola — to run things.

Those first years remain some of Merckx’s finest. Phinney proved worthy, taking the team’s first major victory at U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2009. “That was really our first big win, that was very big. That was something special,” Merckx says. The young American would repeat at Roubaix in 2010.

Spun throughout Phinney’s success in 2009 and 2010 was something less expected. The cast of young riders brought in to support Phinney turned out to be stars in their own right. Along with Phinney, Ben King, Alex Dowsett, Jesse Sergent, and Tim Roe all jumped up to the WorldTour in 2010. Their success convinced Merckx that he could turn what was supposed to be a short-lived project into something both lasting and more effective.

As he set out to rebuild his roster for the following season, Merckx abandoned the single-star model and started thinking about ways to replicate the surprise success of his first group of riders. “I wanted to bring in the best talents we could and make a team out of it,” he says, “and turn them into the best pros they could be.”

The team dropped Livestrong from its jerseys in 2013, in the wake of the USADA case against Lance Armstrong. But Trek stayed on as a sponsor, either directly or through its Bontrager subsidiary, until 2014, when it pulled out to concentrate on the Trek Factory Racing WorldTour team. Merckx brought in Bissell, which had been sponsoring a Continental squad, to fill the gap, and the team raced as Bissell Development Team for the 2014 season. For 2015, Merckx brought on an assortment of sponsors. None are title sponsors, however, so the team rebranded as Axeon — a portmanteau of Merckx’s first name and Neon Adventures, an investment group that has provided the lion’s share of the funding.

With an annual budget of roughly $1 million—more or less, depending on the year—Axeon is very much a minor-league operation. Peter Sagan alone makes $4 million per year. Even the poorest of WorldTour teams have budgets over $10 million. Team Sky has a reported $40 million to play with annually.

Of course, Axeon is a much smaller operation. There are currently just 12 riders on the team, each earning enough to cover expenses (Merckx declined to provide an exact figure). There is no official base for the team. Merckx works out of his home in Kelowna, British Columbia, and is one of only three full-time staffers. The others are head mechanic Eric Fostvedt, who has been with the team since 2009, and head soigneur Reed McCalvin, who spent the 2014 season working for Phinney in Europe but has otherwise also been around since the beginning.

Merckx checks in with his riders often, and a few have coalesced around training bases in Colorado and California. But it’s the team’s training camps, both in the early season and in between races like the Tour of Utah and the Pro Challenge, that make the disparate squad into a single unit. “Camp is crucial,” Merckx says. “We set the mold, set the cement, and then hope it comes together nicely.”

“We cook a lot together, hang out and play pool, sit in a hot tub, have a lot of fun,” says Tao Geoghegan Hart, a product of British Cycling now in his second year racing for Axeon.

In any professional team sport, recruiting is tricky. But the constant churn that comes with Axeon’s U23 model makes things especially complicated. Recruitment is even more difficult within Axeon’s age bracket, as the physical development of riders often occurs in stops and starts through their junior years, making it challenging to tell which are truly talented and which simply developed a year or two earlier than the rest. Gauging personality at this age is difficult, too. A four-year stint for these riders amounts to nearly 20 percent of the time they’ve been alive. Who they are when Merckx signs them is not necessarily who they will be in two or three years.

“My best allies are my riders,” Merckx says.

“The ones on the team now or who were on the team before are the ones that can say, ‘That guy would fit the team. He’d fit the mold.’ I get riders offered to me, really talented riders, but I don’t pursue all of them. First of all, I can’t, but also because I want to keep the right spirit.”

“We have 12 guys and 12 different personality types,” Merckx says. “There are guys I have to slow down, because they want it so bad that they will do harm. And then some guys, yeah, you gotta kick their asses. If they don’t want it, that’s fine. There are many kids that want it. There are a lot of kids who want to do this, so don’t waste somebody else’s chance by not doing the work.”

One key to the team’s success is what McCalvin calls the “no-asshole policy.”

“Reed and Axel pride themselves a little bit on looking at people for more than just results,” says Geoghegan Hart. “It’s a bit of a cliché. A lot of teams will tell you that, but they actually do it. Reed’s all about that. At the end of the day, he has to work with the bike riders all year, and if someone is a pain in his ass, he has to deal with it all year.”

Though Merckx ultimately calls the shots, McCalvin, 39, a fast-talking ex-Army paratrooper and sniper with a degree in business from Duke, is the day-to-day guy. “If Axel is the handsome politician, I’m the guy behind the scenes, doing lots of the heavy lifting,” he says. That means he’s the one helping riders who may have never lived away from their parents before — or who may still live with their parents — deal with the sudden pressures of professional sports. He has to be a recruiter and manager but also a friend and surrogate father who can help his charges make sense of the new world they’re entering.

“The number one thing [Reed] taught me was to have fun,” says Nate Brown, Cannondale-Garmin’s leader at the USA Pro Challenge and a 2013 graduate of the team. “Still do your job, but have fun doing it. The moment you purely focus, you lose who you are. I took that to heart. The further you get into the sport, you have to focus more and watch what you do, but as a U23 that was the best advice.”

One of the benefits of Axeon for aspiring pros is that, unlike riders on feeder squads associated with pro teams, Merckx’s riders can enter the pro ranks unencumbered by sponsorship or team obligations. They’re free to go where their talent and opportunities take them.

“They’re not linked to a brand,” Merckx says. “They’re free agents. They go wherever they want. And then those big teams, if they really want them, they have to persuade the rider that they’re the right choice. It’s supply and demand.”

Sitting out in the Colorado sun, Merckx doesn’t know that his 20-year-old GC phenom Geoghegan Hart will finish the USA Pro Challenge in seventh place overall and win the best young rider competition, or that Daniel Eaton will place fourth in the Breckenridge time trial, or that Logan Owen will come away with three top-10s in the sprints. Another set of Axeon pups likely headed for bigger things.

Merckx will soon have more roster holes to fill, if not this year then the next. But the never-ending, Sisyphean cycle just seems to motivate him. In fact, he says he has turned down offers from WorldTour teams for the chance to keep working with the kids. And he’s doubling down for 2016. Axeon is set for a dramatic makeover next season. It will be bigger, broader, and quite a bit richer. During the Pro Challenge, Merckx announced the addition of California Giant Berry Farms, Specialized, and Hagens Berman as sponsors. SRAM returns, as it has every year since the team’s inception. Merckx will have a bigger budget, “not to pay the guys more but to give them more tools, more information, more opportunities to race not only here but in Europe,” he says.

Across seven years, four major sponsors, and the tumult of the Armstrong affair, one out of every three Axeon riders has stepped into a top professional team. While you’re pondering that, consider the possibilities that lie ahead. With the expansion of his squad on the horizon, Merckx will take even more chances; he’ll sign more riders that are still unproven. Perhaps that rate of success will be sustainable with a bigger program, perhaps it won’t be. Regardless, there is no denying the ability of this team to shape the future of American racing.

“Here, we do everything we can to push them forward, to make them ready,” Merckx says, opening his hands wide as if he’s offering something. “When they are ready, whoever wants them can grab them.”

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