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Hagens Berman Axeon buckles up for ‘absolutely insane’ Baby Giro made of 35 teams

American team heads to prestigious Italian race with high ambitions for its talented roster.

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Hagens Berman Axeon heads into the start of the Giro d’Italia Giovani Under 23 with their intentions set on trying to win stages, and potentially take aim on the overall standings.

The race, dubbed the “Baby Giro”, is once again made up of 35 teams, each consisting of five riders, and team boss Axel Merckx is expecting a fraught and chaotic challenge for his young team of international riders.

“I think that we’ve got a good team for the race,” Merckx told VeloNews on the eve of Saturday’s first stage.

“We’ve got a bit of everything considering it’s five rider teams. That makes things really complicated. It’s going to be hectic and hard to control but we’ve tried to put together a team that has a bit of everything. We’ll hunt for stages and then see where we can get through the week.”

Listen: Axel Merckx talks to Bobby & Jens

The American squad had a strong start to the 2022 season with a string of impressive placings and a win in the U23 version of Strade Bianche.

The Baby Giro is a much sterner test, however, and previous winners include Juan Ayuso, Tom Pidcock, and Joe Dombrowski.

Last year Hagens Berman Axeon was hit by illness and two of its three-man team left the race on the same day. This time around the team is looking to compete on all terrains.

“We’ve had good results coming into the race so we’ll be in contention. For GC it’s hard to say ahead of time but on paper our best prospect is probably Matthew Riccitello,” Merckx said.

Riccitello, 20, is already gaining interest from WorldTour teams having won the Istarsko Proljeće-Istrian Spring Trophy earlier this year.

“He’s probably the best climber on paper but we’ll have to assess things after the first three days. I’ve learned that in the Giro that lots of bad luck can happen in one day. With 35 teams of five riders, everyone is told that they need to be at the front and that makes it really complicated. Five riders, 35 teams, it’s absolutely insane. It’s very difficult but it is what it is,” added Merckx.

“The first key stage is probably the third one with the riders climbing a side of the Mortirolo. Then we can reassess. We also have Leo Hayter. He’s had some health issues at the start of the year, with catching COVID, and struggling with it for a while but he’s riding well again and he finished second last week. I think he can grow during the week and there are chances for stages later on.”

Darren Rafferty, from Ireland, is another rider worth watching over the coming days. The 18-year-old won the Strade Bianche di Romagna at the end of May and is a two-time junior national time trial champion.

“Darren, for a first-year, he’s doing really well. He’s aggressive and he’s there when he needs to be there. His form is really good and he was rewarded with a nice win the other day. The main aim for me is that the riders race as a team and cover for each other, even when it’s not always on the easiest terrain.”