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Merckx, the driving force behind the Hagens Berman Axeon development team, has watched in awe as graduates from his program have lit up the Giro. João Almeida, a 2019 graduate of his program, has held the pink jersey now for 13 stages. Tao Geoghegan Hart, a 2016 grad, has a stage win and a fourth-place spot on GC. And then there are team graduates Jhonatan Narváez (2017) and Ruben Guerreiro (2016), both of whom have won stages at this year’s Giro.
The triumphs have come at a good moment for Merckx, who is searching for sponsors to fill a $300,000 funding gap to allow his squad to continue. We caught up with Merckx to discuss the Giro and his sponsorship hunt.
VeloNews: How does it feel to see your alumni having such great rides at the Giro?
Axel Merckx: It feels really good. It’s beyond all expectations, but very selfishly it feels really good. It feels like we’ve done some really good work with some riders over the past 12 years and it’s paying off for the riders, in a way that legitimizes all of the work over the past years. We also can’t forget all of the people who have supported us in this quest with sponsorship. There are so many to mention, and most of all our current supporter Steve Berman. He’s invested so much into this program, and we couldn’t have started without the support of Trek as a company, and Lance [Armstrong] who started the team originally, and that can’t be forgotten. That’s where it all started. This team has evolved so much since the beginning, and now we’ve made a big mark in current cycling. I kept saying over the past few years that I wanted to leave a mark in the future of cycling, and it’s really cool to see. Some different riders who are scoring big time in the Giro, and that is very fun to see.
VN: Did you expect such high futures for guys like João and Tao?
AM: They are all so different. If you go from João, to Tao, to Ruben, to Jhonatan, they all had great futures. The one that is the most unknown was Ruben, because nobody knew about him and I got to talk to him and talk about him. I took a chance on him — I’ll be straightforward about that. You don’t know when you get those guys what you’re going to get, especially when you don’t know him. Coming from a Portugal that doesn’t have the support. It’s very different when you get a guy like Tao, who was there as a junior and was successful and had the opportunity to go wherever he wanted to go, but decided to follow his intuition and come to us and develop on his own path. They are all very different in a way, but it comes down to the same thing. They all have great talent and decide to do something very important with it. More than that they are great people and great ambassadors for cycling. It’s one thing that I recognize with all of the interviews I’ve read over the last 10 years with our alumni — they represent themselves very well and they are great ambassadors for cycling, and they are aspiring for athletes in the future.
When I’ve spoken to Mikkel [Bjerg] and João, they were both quick to point out that riding with the team sets them up for the WorldTour. They [mature] mentally and as much as physically — they learn how to race at the top level. You develop the maturity.
VN: What is it — beyond the racing — that you try to bring to them?
AM: It’s hard to say. We’ve always had great staff and support who understand the idea of what we’re trying to create. When these guys come to the team they are basically kids — 18 years old to me is still a kid. By the time they leave most of them are full-grown adults and have life experiences. More than anything we put them in front of their responsibility. It’s give-and-take. We take a lot of information from the riders themselves. Generations change and new riders bring new ideas to the approach to cycling. One of the major factors I’ve learned is you have to be able to listen to the riders before you judge and make them better. You share experiences from past riders and your own as an athlete. Having guys like Jeff Louder and Koes Moerhout on the staff, who have been WorldTour riders on staff, they know what it takes to be there and also to stay there is important. To have that support around, and to have guys like that who are enthusiastic to work with young riders, that makes a big difference. You have to be strict, and sometimes you have to tell the riders things that they don’t want to hear. I hate to say it, but it’s no different than with a kid. You have to guide them and encourage them. You lead them in the right direction, and then they have to do the work to continue on that path.
VN: Can João can hold the lead at the Giro?
AM: Yeah. It’s going to be a long week, I think. There’s a lot of pressure coming along with the pink jersey and I think today this is day. Kelderman looks very good, but at the same time, there is still one week to go. He can take the rest day and regroup and reload the batteries and hopefully finish strong in the Giro. His Giro is already a success. I hope he can stay up there. Tao winning today and setting himself in fourth position in the classification is going to be interesting. It’s going to be interesting with two alumni still in contention for the Giro podium. I hope everybody stays healthy and safe. May the best rider win. Obviously, I want one of my alumni to win, but the most important thing is we see a great race with the best rider winning. You know I’ll be cheering for Tao and João all along, that’s for sure.
VN: Do you have any updates on the sponsor situation? Has there been any progress?
AM: Progress is a big word. Basically, it’s still pretty tight, and we’re still holding on by a thread, which is not super exciting. We’d like to continue on a path and make it good and make things positive for the next generation. The results at the Giro hopefully will help. We’re not out of the woods yet. Hopefully, people will realize by watching the Giro that it is worth investing in youth and investing in our program because we have done a great job. We’re definitely not out of the woods yet.