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BUTTRIO, Italy (VN) – If you had to take a bet on which team would have held the Giro d’Italia’s pink jersey for 13 days and won three stages with three different riders, you likely wouldn’t have said Hagens Berman Axeon.
Sunday saw alumni from Axel Merckx’s U.S.-based development team step onto the podium twice, first with Tao Geoghegan Hart for winning the stage, and minutes later, João Almeida, who was presented his 13th pink jersey of the race. In the past week, two more of Merckx’s alumni, Ruben Guerreiro and Jhonatan Narvaez, also took breakout stage wins.
Graduates of America’s top development squad are leaving their mark on the 2020 Giro.
“It’s beyond all expectations, but very selfishly, it feels really good,” Merckx told VeloNews shortly after the Giro’s 15th stage wrapped up Sunday night. “It feels like we’ve done some really good work with riders over the last 12 years. It’s paying off for the riders, and it’s paying off in a way that will legitimize all the work we’ve done over the last years.”
Almeida only stepped up from Hagens Berman Axeon at the start of this season to turn pro with Deceuninck-Quick-Step. Mikkel Bjerg is another 2019 graduate. The Danish triple U23 time trial world champion has so far taken two third-places for UAE-Team Emirates at this Giro as he rides out his first grand tour.
“It’s a super special feeling having so many from the team here, both my teammates and the generations before,” Bjerg told VeloNews at the Rivolto airfield Sunday morning. “It just shows that Axeon gives a really good basis for being a professional cyclist.”
American duo Joe Dombrowski and Lawson Craddock are among other alumni of the team that started the Giro in Sicily. Hagens Berman Axeon’s footprint is wide in this Giro.
“I don’t think I’d be a WorldTour rider now if it weren’t for Axel’s team,” said Dombrowski, who rode with then-named Bontrager-Livestrong in 2012, having focused on mountain biking as a kid. “Axel took me when I was relatively new to road racing having not raced much as a junior. He made an opportunity for me that was a huge step to where I am now. I don’t know if I’d be here without it.”
Exposure and experience on the team opens doors for young riders to race at the highest level and develop their physical prowess as they gain access to a top race schedule. Almeida showed his potential through 2019 with a fourth-place overall at the Larry Miller Tour of Utah, was one of the promising riders at the Tour of California, and also the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. However, like Bjerg, the 22-year-old grand tour leader pointed out how time on the team builds equally important skills and confidence off the bike.
“Axeon was really important for me,” Almeida said after defending his pink jersey through an attritional stage in and out of Cesenatico last week. “I learned a lot with them, with Axel, with everyone. In the end, you have to be strong, and for sure you get stronger in the team. But not just physically, your knowledge, mindset you learn about it all in that team. They prepare you really well for the WorldTour.”
Almeida’s run in the pink jersey has taken the race by surprise.
Fresh out of the nurturing home of Hagens Berman Axeon and straight into his first grand tour, many thought the Portuguese rider’s pink jersey defense wouldn’t last far beyond last Monday’s rest day after he moved to the top of the classification on the Giro’s third stage to Mount Etna.
After limiting his losses on the tough summit finish to Rocarasso last weekend and then regaining time on Saturday’s time trial, the 22-year-old again managed to hang on under an onslaught from Team Sunweb on the climb to Piancavallo on Sunday. He now holds a slim, 15-second advantage in the GC battle.
Rather than emptying himself in pursuit of the trio that went on to take the top three places on the stage, Almeida had the astuteness to conserve with an eye to the brutal third week in the Alps. “I know my body and my limits, so I had to drop back,” he explained.
“Riding with the team helps the guys make less mistakes,” Bjerg said of Hagens Berman Axeon’s crop of WorldTour racers. “That’s the reason why João show is so good in GC. Okay, he has a good team, but he’s not making any of the stupid mistakes as you would normally see a neo-pro like me and him do. The team helped a lot – it helped us develop in lots of ways. João shows what the Axeon can do for young guys.”
Merckx and his coaching staff, which includes former WorldTour riders Jeff Lauder and Koos Mourenhout, places an emphasis on turning high-school kids into riders set for racing at the highest level. Their use of a collaborative approach involving both fresh ideas from riders themselves and the accumulated wisdom of the support staff teaches skills necessary for success both on and off the bike.
“You can’t forget those guys when they come to the team they’re basically kids, 18 years old,” Merckx said. “But by the time they leave, most of them are full-grown adults and, and have had a bit of experience.
“Sometimes you have to be strict, you know, sometimes you have to tell them stuff that they don’t like to hear,” Merckx said. “I hate to say it like this, but it’s no different than with a kid; you have to guide them, to encourage them, but at the same time, you have to lead them in the right direction. And then they have to do the work to continue on that path.”
The results from this year’s Giro make apparent that Hagens Berman Axeon’s graduates have taken the foundations laid by Merckx and built on them when stepping up to the WorldTour. And so the news that the team is in the midst of a financial crisis is all the more worrying. While title sponsor Hagens Berman is staying on in 2021, partners from within the industry are backing down and lowering contributions, leaving Merckx’s team with a potentially disastrous budgetary gap.
“We’re still pretty tight,” Merkx said Sunday. “And we’re still only hanging on by a thread, which is not super-exciting. But we would like to continue on a path and make it good and make it positive for the next generation.”
The passion that riders show when speaking about their time on Hagens Berman Axeon makes it evident how important the team was to them and continues to be years later. Dombrowski, who left the team eight years ago, said that that he still has contact with Merckx, who continues to play a semi-mentoring role.
More than a mere career stepping stone, past membership on the squad is entry into a lifelong club that evokes familial fondness and a shared pride.
“It’s really shit to hear,” Bjerg said of the sponsor crisis. “I think many of the smaller teams this year are struggling a lot, but it means more because it was my previous team. It’s personal for me also, they did so much for me and it feels bigger than just a team.”
Almeida was equally heartfelt when talking about his former team and their financial situation.
“I heard the team is struggling for next year,” he said. “That’s a real big mistake and I hope there’s some sponsors out there to put the team on the road so they can keep doing what they’ve been doing so long. When you look at how many riders they’ve put in the WorldTour and the results they do, everyone will miss them.”
The consistency of Merckx’s program is a standout. Jasper Philipsen and Will Barta left the team to turn pro in 2018. The year before them, Neilson Powless and Logan Owen stepped up. And it goes all the way back to Dombrowski and now retired pro Taylor Phinney.
“The team is so prolific in the number of riders that come through,” Dombrowski said. “I feel that to lose that pipeline would close the door for a lot of young guys. It would be a big loss for under-23 cycling in general, but for Americans in particular it’s been a big leg-up through the years as a career springboard.”
With the 2021 season looming ever-closer, the performances of Almeida, Geoghegan Hart, Guerreiro, and Narvaez have put the team in the spotlight at a crucial time. Merckx hopes the world is watching the racing in Italy as he continues to work the phones in the quest to bridge his funding gap.
“The results in the Giro hopefully will help but we’re not out of the woods, for sure. Not yet,” he said. “Hopefully some people, some companies will realize by watching the Giro that it is worth investing in youth and investing in our program because we’ve done a great job.”