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Hagens Berman Axeon faces uncertain future amid sponsorship squeeze

Development squad Hagens Berman Axeon faces a sizable sponsorship shortfall for 2021, which could spell the end of the team. Losing the squad would have a major impact on the U.S. pipeline to the WorldTour.

The clock is ticking for the country’s best elite development cycling team.

Hagens Berman Axeon, the Under-23 team that shepherded Taylor Phinney, Lawson Craddock, Neilson Powless, and other top Americans to the WorldTour, faces a major funding gap for 2021 that threatens the team’s survival.

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“I’m not going to sugarcoat it — it’s pretty bad,” Axel Merckx, the team’s founder, told VeloNews. “It’s a bit of a heartbreaker right now, but at the same time we are resilient.”

The team has retained its longtime title sponsor for 2021, attorney Steve Berman of the Seattle-based Hagens Berman law firm. But the team’s bike industry sponsors recently informed Merckx that they were significantly cutting back on financial contributions, which has led to a serious budget shortfall.

Merckx must secure approximately $300,000 in backing in order to keep the squad competing at its normal level for 2021 and beyond. The team currently supports 12 riders ages 19-22, and its racing program includes pro races in North America and Europe.

“We could lower the program, which would entail cutting riders and doing [fewer] races,” Merckx said. “If we can’t do it the right way, then you have to ask what is the point in doing it? It’s not necessarily going to help these guys develop.”

The squad was founded 2009 as the Trek-Livestrong team, and its debut class included future WorldTour riders Phinney, Ben King, Jesse Sergeant, and Sam Bewley.

In subsequent years the team worked with a top-class of burgeoning young riders: Justin Williams, Alex Dowsett, Gavin Mannion, George Bennett, Ian Boswell, Joe Dombrowski, Jasper Stuyven, Nathan, Jonathan Brown, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Will Barta, Ruben Guerreiro, Adrien Costa, Eddie Dunbar, Christopher Blevins, Jhonatan Narvaez, and Mikkel Bjerg, among many others.

The team’s split focus between Europe and the U.S. is what has allowed Hagens Berman Axeon to advance so many riders to the sport’s highest echelon, Merckx said. In recent years its riders have scored multiple victories on the European continent, and those results have grabbed the attention of WorldTour directors.

American Logan Owen won the Under-23 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2016 for the team before joining WorldTour squad EF Pro Cycling. In 2017 the squad won the event again with Portuguese rider João Almeida, who now rides for Deceuninck-Quick-Step.

Last year American Kevin Vermaercke won the race. Vermaercke recently inked a deal to race for Team Sunweb in 2021.

Experiences like these help riders grab the attention of WorldTour team directors. The European focus also helps riders to develop their confidence and skills in the topsy-turvy world of European racing.

“We do top-level races, especially for Under-23 guys, and it’s a good mix between high-level racing where they get their teeth kicked in, and a level where they can be contenders to win,” Merckx said. “They need to race [in Europe]. They need to be on the radar and prove their talent.”

The squad recently completed the Tour de l’Ain and Tour de Wallonie, where it raced alongside top WorldTour riders, including top stars from the Tour de France. At the Tour of Wallonie, Vermaerke finished 14th place overall.

Next up for the squad is the Under-23 version of the Giro d’Italia.

The team has always maintained an international roster with a focus on American riders — more than half of the lineup comes from the U.S. In recent years this American focus has played an important role in the country’s pathway to pro cycling’s top ranks. USA Cycling has scaled back its funding of the Under-23 national team, and in 2019 it canceled its traditional springtime and summer racing blocks in Europe.

As the federation has cut back, Hagens Berman Axeon has become one of the only options for young Americans to compete in top European races at the Under-23 level. Should the team fold, Merckx said, the U.S. development pipeline to the WorldTour would take a major step back.

“We fill that gap between racing in the USA and racing on the international level,” Mercxk said. “There aren’t a lot of programs right now that can do that.”