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Bobby & Jens: Axel Merckx never yells

A conversation with North America’s leading developer of youth cycling talent.

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For decades, the Merckx name has been synonymous with winning. And it still is — except the mantle has shifted from father to son, and the storyline has more to do with team success than individual glory. That’s the central theme of this week’s “Bobby & Jens” podcast, which features Axel, the son of Belgian legend Eddy and a successful former WorldTour rider in his own right.

As you’ll hear in this episode, the new Merckxian legacy is a reflection of Axel’s incredible run as a developer of young talent. It started with his early work as the founder of the Livestrong team (with Lance Armstong and Trek) and has continued in his current role as owner and director sportif of Hagens Berman Axeon, a U.S.-based UCI continental team composed entirely of U23 riders.

Axel talks about his approach to talent-spotting and recruiting, but assigns most of the credit for his teams’ success to the creation of a team-first culture and even-handed coaching style. “I never yell,” he tells Bobby and Jens, “because there’s no need if you’re communicating well.” His style seems to be working, considering the long list of current and former pros who graduated to the World Tour following his tutelage, including Taylor Phinney, 2021 Giro d’Italia stage winner Joe Dombrowski, and 2020 Giro winner Tao Geoghegan Hart.

Of course, there have been challenges. Axel shares what it was like to be saddled with unrealistic expectations as a neo-pro, not to mention the way other riders targeted him, racing extra-hard to shave a little glory out of beating a famous name. He managed to create his own space and career, but it took time. Even though he won the Belgian national championship in 2000, finished eight Tours, and took the bronze medal in the road race at 2004 Olympics in Athens, he says, his father’s shadow didn’t fully lift until he retired, moved to British Columbia, and jumped into coaching. More than a decade later, though, he’s living his own dream, working every day to help others find their way in his favorite sport.

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Today’s episode also features analysis of a wild and weather-wracked week of racing at the Giro d’Italia, plus the winner of this week’s “Shut Up, Legs!” contest (and your chance to vote on next week’s contenders).

“Bobby & Jens” is a weekly podcast from VeloNews starring former pros Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt, and featuring conversations with top athletes, coaches, emerging stars, and other newsmakers from the wide world of cycling. A new episode drops every Friday. Subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts.

Send your questions and “Shut Up, Legs!” votes to BobbyandJens@VeloNews.com or @bobbyandjens.