RICHFIELD, Utah (VN) — Neilson Powless. Adrien Costa. Greg Daniel. The 2016 Axeon Hagens Berman squad is a murderer’s row of cycling’s next great riders. The roster is also a testament to Axel Merckx’s ability to identify talent.
Every year, Merckx, 42, scours the junior ranks and U.S. national team for the next Axeon riders. His process for evaluating talent is equal parts science and art. He weighs each rider’s physical talent, personality, and attitude toward fellow racers, before making a choice.
“At the end of the day, when I narrow it down, I need to have a good feeling about the rider,” Merckx says. “More than anything it’s about whether [the rider] is going to fit with the teammates.”
Merckx has been on the hunt for young talent since 2009. His squad was originally called Trek – Livestrong, and it was launched as a development squad for Lance Armstrong’s Radioshack pro team. It’s star rider was Taylor Phinney, and its roster included Ben King and Sam Bewley, both of whom now compete in the WorldTour.
In 2011 Radioshack folded and Phinney left to join Team BMC. Merckx decided to continue his program.
Over the years, Merckx has adjusted his process for identifying talent. In the early days, he attended lots of junior races. He approached riders directly, asking them if they were interested in his team.
“I had to go to the riders. I reached out to them,” Merckx says. “Nobody knew about team and what I was going to do for them.”
These days, it’s a different story. Every week Merckx receives resumes, inquiries, and pitches regarding young riders. The outreach comes from agents, parents, coaches and even friends.
“I could build three teams if I wanted to, that’s how many good kids there are,” Merckx says. “It would be three successful teams.”
Most of the inquiries do not result in a team contract. So how does he whittle down the field? Merckx starts with a rider’s race results. He wants to see meaningful finishes at either a national-level races, or top finishes against a strong field. Did the rider finish inside the top 10 at junior nationals? Does the rider have European experience? Does he place highly against adult racers at competitive regional events?
The emphasis on results helped Merckx identify Axeon sprinter Logan Owen. Owen, 21, competed on a small team in rural Oregon. But in his races with the U.S. junior team, Owen was a star. From 2012-13 he scored top-3 finishes at multiple hard international junior races.
“It’s not like I was from Boulder [Colorado] with a huge junior selection and a bunch of kids who are into it,” Owen said. “Where I’m from there were not many juniors or races for [juniors].”
Next, Merckx asks to see power files. A rider’s watts-per-kilo ratio and VO2 max are simply a reference point for gauging a rider’s physical potential, he says. Those metrics are probably the least important information Merckx wants to know.
“I’m not a huge numbers guy,” Merckx says. “If a guy has never done anything in a race, then [strong numbers] can’t be taken into consideration.”
Merckx then reaches out to his network of coaches and junior team contacts regarding a potential hire. He also asks his current riders to weigh in. After all, the young men often times know the prospective hires personally, or have raced against them.
Axeon’s climber Adrien Costa said the close-knit world of junior cycling means the best young riders get to see how riders function as teammates and friends.
“I got to know most of the other [junior] guys before I even raced with them — you become friends,” Costa said. “You race against each other and with each other and get to know who they are.”
Finally, Merckx calls the rider for a formal interview. This is the most important step in Merckx’s process, he says. He wants to know about a rider’s temperament, work ethic, and teamwork.
“I want to know how they can behave with the public and other riders and even sponsors,” Merckx says. “I want to know that they will be caring about the team.”