CALABASAS, California (VN) — An atmosphere of ambition characterizes the Axeon Hagens Berman team. Ask any of the team’s riders what they want to accomplish and the answer comes quickly: a contract at a WorldTour team. With only so many roster slots available in the pro ranks, it would be easy for the team atmosphere to devolve into something like the “Hunger Games.”
But Axel Merckx believes that shifting from leadership to supporting roles is an essential skill for his riders to learn and practice. “If you go to a WorldTour team, all 25-30 riders that are in the WorldTour have some luggage behind them with some results,” said Merckx. “If you can’t handle that as an athlete already, you have a big problem.”
The 2016 U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège was an example of how this philosophy played out in the team’s practices. “There’s six of us who can win this race,” Merckx recalled telling the team. “If we play it smart, if we race as a team, this is how we can do it.” Logan Owen joined an early breakaway, while Axeon riders behind covered counter-moves throughout the race. After a long day out, Owen won from the early move. Merckx credits the team for controlling the race behind Owen, helping ensure the breakaway stayed clear.
Nowhere is Merckx’s balance act more evident and necessary than with Adrien Costa and Neilson Powless. Costa and Powless have great promise, as well as closely overlapping skills and results. They are both talented stage racers with a penchant for climbing. Costa won a stage and finished third overall at the Tour de l’Avenir last year; Powless made headlines with a third-place finish on the Gibraltar stage and a ninth overall at the Amgen Tour of California.
At the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, Powless rode for Costa. “I think I’m real with the fact that whoever is the stronger rider is who the team should be riding for,” said Powless. “Adrien was stronger than me coming into Avenir and he was stronger than me at Utah.” Though well-known for his talent before Tour of Utah, Costa’s second overall behind Lachlan Morton was an eye-opening result for a young rider. But he does not consider it his most significant of 2016, instead calling his overall victory at the Tour de Bretagne his most important result.
At Tour de l’Avenir, Costa and Powless again raced together with potentially conflicting ambitions. Costa was quick to dispel the idea that there were tensions between them. “By the end of the week, we found a really good working relationship where he was able to get his results, but he was also able to help me in huge, huge ways,” he said.
Powless sees the race as evidence of what a strong team can accomplish. “I think he and I complimented each other well, because we both climb well,” he said. “I think a lot of guys toward the end were starting to watch Adrien a lot and that kind of opened the door for me.” With Powless mixing it up in the breakaways, Costa had a free ride back in the field.
Throughout last year, Powless believed Costa was the stronger of the two — what happens if that changes? They both appear optimistic that they can continue to work together. “I think there’s room for both of us in all these races and you know, with the length of the season,” said Costa. It helps that the two riders have known one another since they raced as juniors. “We get along, so we’re both fine,” said Powless.
The fluid team structure at Axeon Hagens Berman also helps defuse potential rivalries. “The races are hard, and we’re not choosing leaders and winning at will yet,” said Costa. “So if you’re not able to win yourself, it’s stupid to try to win, so you always help whoever’s most suited.” Owen and national U23 road and time trial champion Geoffrey Curran said much the same thing, suggesting that the team had absorbed Merckx’s teachings “I’m willing to do the work for the other guys when I’m not feeling good,” said Owen.
Powless allows that sometimes he will eye his teammates’ results, but the rivalries are more friendly than team-shattering. “There’s always a sense of rivalry among teammates,” said Powless. “It just pushes everyone to want to be the strongest rider on the team. We were kind of joking about it, but we were also like, ‘Shit, he beat me today.’” Powless and Curran battled over their time trial results last season but viewed their season-long competition as a good thing. “It was a great time, and I think it kept us both accountable,” Powless added.
The team’s station in the sport, an underdog relative to big-budget WorldTour and Pro Continental teams, sets it up for a different tactical approach to races. Axeon Hagens Berman would not, for example, enter a race like Amgen Tour of California or the Tour of Utah as favorites to win.
That reality relieves its riders of riding long kilometers on the front like bigger teams do and allows for more fresh legs when the big moments come. “No one is going to ask a 20-year-old to ride from kilometer zero of a stage race,” said Merckx. “That’s just not really possible.” It also makes their tactically fluid approach possible. They can wait for the race to unfold before committing to a specific rider. “We never go into races like that,” Costa said. “We never go into stage 1, all for one guy.”
Costa expects to continue the collaborative relationship he began with Powless last season at l’Avenir and Utah. He believes they give the team a potent double-threat at stage races. “It’s all about learning to feed off each other and use each other as our secret weapons,” he said. Costa’s rapid progress also takes the edge off for him: “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but what I did this year  for myself is more or less enough to guarantee my contract at the next level.”
For 2017, Costa said his goal is less to pad his own resumé than it is to offer what wisdom he can to younger teammates. Nearly half his team is new this year. “I’m really motivated to race with these young guys and to try to help them and lift them up.” Costa’s relaxed attitude suggests there will be room for Powless and others to show their talents at the front. He does not come across as a rider who needs to be the center of the team’s universe, but rather one who is seeking balance.
“There’s a lot more to life than cycling,” said Costa. “As young riders, it’s easy to get caught up in [it all], because it’s like, what’s the magic key? We’re always looking for that. The truth is, there is no magic key, and you know, you have to find what works best for you.”
When he talks of his career so far and what’s to come, Costa sounds grounded and confident. Of the two, Powless comes across as hungrier for a big result, though he’s quick to say that he still has much to learn. Merckx will guide them from the team car but knows the limit of his influence.
“At the end of the day, I can’t decide for them,” Merckx said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be up to them to see how good they are and how well they prepare and how they are compared to that race, if they can get a result.”