What do 2020 Giro d'Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart, former leader João Almeida, mountains classification and stage winner Ruben Guerreiro, and stage winners Jhonatan Narváez and Alex Dowsett all have in common? They all came up through Axel Merckx's development team.
But even as the programme's alumni enjoy these high-profile victories, sponsor woes are shrinking the team. Geoghegan Hart said he was thinking about Merckx before the crucial final time trial to win the Giro d'Italia and thanked him for his guidance and all of the team's former riders are hoping the Hagens Berman Axeon team can find more support.
Merckx tells Cyclingnews that he has started his 2021 registration of the team with a limited budget, with just enough resources to keep a team of 10 riders. He has still been working to find extra funding to expand the program to continue to provide a solid foundation for possible future Grand Tour champions.
"At least we will be registered and capable of continuing because we have the support of Steve Berman and Hagens Berman for another year," Merckx said. "To be able to race and to perform in the year 2021 - it's pretty amazing that we have that luxury. We're just trying to attract more funding besides them so we can make it better and broader.
"I'm still trying to do it the right way and to get the right funding so we can continue working the way we've been working. That's the key and the factor. It's one thing to have a team that you want and (another) to have a team that is actually doing something in a positive way. And I think that you know, we've proven that we've done that over the last two years. So now it's up to me to find the funding to be able to continue to do that, which is not always easy."
Keys to success
Hagens Berman Axeon began in 2009 as Trek-Livestrong and will continue another year in 2021 as Hagens Berman Axeon. Even though Merckx has been responsible for more WorldTour riders than arguably any other single development programme, he is struggling to secure the future of the programme.
The list of alumni from Merckx's program in the current WorldTour is an impressive one: Ben King (NTT), Sam Bewley (Mitchelton-Scott), Guerreiro, Sean Bennett, Logan Owen, Lawson Craddock and Neilson Powless (EF Pro Cycling), Mikkel Bjerg, Jasper Philipsen, Joe Dombrowski, Ivo and Rui Oliveira (UAE Team Emirates), Jasper De Buyst (Lotto Soudal), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Antoine Duchesne (Groupama-FDJ), Clément Chevrier (AG2R La Mondiale), Will Barta and Nathan Van Hooydonck (CCC Team), Dowsett and Krists Neilands (Israel Start-Up Nation), Geoghegan Hart, Narváez, Eddie Dunbar and Chris Lawless (Ineos Grenadiers), Almeida and Ian Garrison (Deceuninck-Quickstep).
That doesn't include already retired professionals like Taylor Phinney, Jesse Sergent, Ian Boswell or a slew of riders still coming up through the Continental and Pro Continental levels.
What is Merckx's secret to success? Unlike some teams that let neo-pros get their teeth kicked in during their first years in the big leagues, Merckx says he tries to keep a balance of confidence-building success in U23 races with stretch goals like bigger UCI 2.1 races, where riders will compete against some WorldTour teams, to develop them into capable, confident and humble professionals.
"We try to diversify as much as we can in the program. This is the age where, once in a while, you have to throw them outside of their comfort zone. That's a mix between U23 races but also races that are a little bit too high for them, where they can really get in trouble and suffer just to finish the race - just try to make it better.
"At the same time, we don't want to miss the vision and the tactical sense of the racing - they still have to be competitive at some races during the year. Otherwise, you lose the feel of racing and winning. If you only go up and you struggle and you just basically go get bottles every day, you're not going to get better, you're not to learn a whole lot except getting your butt kicked and getting rain jackets. We try to do a bit of both and I think it's it works really well because you keep their confidence high when they go to races, but then at the same time, it keeps them humble to know how far they still have to go in their development. And before they move up they think twice about it and make sure that a hundred per cent ready for it."
Geoghegan Hart is a prime example of this winning formula. He came to Merckx's programme in 2014 when it was the Bissell Development team. He showed his potential in numerous races - third in the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, winning the best young rider classification in the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado in 2015 before racing as a trainee for Team Sky in 2015. David Brailsford was eager to bring him into the WorldTour squad but Merckx said he advised him against it.
"I’m always honest with my riders so I said: 'Yes, this is a huge opportunity and Sky is hard to turn down but if you ask me I think it’s one year too soon," Merckx wrote in a blog on The Guardian on Monday.
"'You’re a good rider, you’ve had some good results, but you haven’t really won anything yet. You haven’t proven to yourself that you can be a true leader. If you move up to a team like that you want to go as a potential leader.'
"He took that, considered it and turned down the offer from Sky and told them he wanted to wait a year. I was pretty shocked but I think Dave was very understanding. I think he got Tao’s point and respected it. Then a year later, he joined them," Merckx said. "Tao’s got a mature head on young shoulders."
His bonus year with Hagens Berman Axeon in 2016 brought ample success in 2.2 and U23 races - a top 10 in the Volta ao Alentejo, a victory in the Trofeo Piva, second overall in the Course de la Paix and Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc, and sixth overall in the Tour de l'Avenir in 2016.
He also had strong rides in tougher races, taking 12th overall in the Tour of California and Tour of Utah, including a second-place in a bunch sprint in Bountiful.
Merckx said he always knew Geoghegan Hart would make a great stage racer, but Sky were careful to wait a year before putting him into a Grand Tour. He raced the Vuelta a España in 2018 and made it halfway through the 2019 Giro d'Italia before breaking his collarbone in a crash. Then, without a dedicated team leader in the Vuelta, Geoghegan Hart ended up 20th overall.
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Geoghegan Hart and Guerreiro took more measured approaches in their paths to the WorldTour.
Guerreiro had three solid WorldTour seasons - two with Trek-Segafredo and one with Katusha in 2019 where he banked his first Grand Tour in his legs during the Vuelta - he only found success at age 26 with EF Pro Cycling, taking second to Mathieu van der Poel in a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico before soloing to victory in the Giro d'Italia at Roccaraso on stage 9 and then going on to win the mountains classification.
Almeida, however, jumped right into his first WorldTour season after signing with Deceuninck-Quickstep from Axeon Hagens Berman and, amid a pandemic, with half the season crammed into a few months, racked up a podium in the Vuelta a Burgos, a top 10 in Tour de l'Ain, second in the Giro dell'Emilia, third overall in the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali. After taking the pink jersey on stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia, he held it for 15 stages and ended the race fourth overall with a determined fight back during the final stages.
"I was super excited already the first day when he was second in the time trial, I thought it was it was pretty cool," Merckx said of Almeida.
"I know him a little bit. I know he's a decent climber, but he was able to stay relatively close to the best in one of the first stages in Etna. Then he was able to maintain it. It's pretty cool to see that he could keep his calm, he's pretty laid back and pressure doesn't seem to get him. It's quite amazing as a first-year."
Almeida came to the team courtesy of Merckx's former teammate Marco Milesi, who was managing the Unieuro Trevigiani team the Portuguese rider raced for in 2017.
"He was looking for a program that has delivered more International [racing] than just Italian. He thought it would be good for himself to develop and to grow in a more international program and team. I took him on and he came to the team and did a few races in Belgium, Flanders and then obviously Liege and the Giro and just you know, you saw that he was moving very fast, and he was some incredible talent."
Almeida's first win with the Axeon team came in the 2018 U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and then a second overall and best young rider at the Baby Giro and seventh in the Tour de l'Avenir proved his stage racing abilities. In 2019, Almeida continued his rapid upward trajectory with fourth overall and best young rider in the Tour of Utah before his impressive 2020 season.
"He's getting stronger and stronger every year and this year he stepped it up even higher than I ever expected him to do the first year," Merckx says.
Young riders in the pandemic
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The coronavirus-hit season threw off the usual pattern for the seasoned professionals, with two early months of racing before the season screeched to a stop after Paris-Nice because of COVID-19.
The re-start of racing after four months out of competition seemed to have favoured younger riders. Classics winners Wout van Aert (Milan-San Remo), Mathieu van der Poel (Tour of Flanders), Marc Hirschi (Liège-Bastogne-Liège), and Mads Pedersen (Gent-Wevelgem), Vuelta Burgos and Tour de Pologne winner Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quickstep), Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Dani Martinez (EF Pro Cycling) are all 26 or under.
"Young Riders they get in shape much faster than riders from a certain age in the thirties or mid-30s," Merckx says.
"[Older riders] are used to getting the engine going and it takes a long time for the engines to get going after you shut them down for four, five, six months. Everybody kept training but racing is different and as a young rider, I think you get back to your best much faster than maybe more of a veteran. I think you can really see that this year in the Tour also in the Giro and the Vuelta."
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For most of the Axeon team's history, the squad has been 16 riders and a mix of European and North American races. Merckx had only 12 riders this season but, with most of the programme cancelled because of the pandemic, his contacts came in handy as the only races that went on this summer were in Europe.
While many teams struggled to race even a single day, Axeon Hagens Berman secured invitations to Tour de l'Ain - where many of the Tour de France contenders tested their legs - Tour de Wallonie, the Baby Giro, and one-day races the GP d'Isbergues, Piccolo Lombardia and Paris-Tours Espoirs.
Even with the reduced season, Andre Carvalho signed with Cofidis and Kevin Vermaerke with Sunweb - keeping the team's record putting at least one rider in a WorldTour team every year. Merckx is hoping to keep the momentum going in 2021, but with the budget limited, the team will be reduced to 10 riders and the programme a bit smaller.
"Not a lot of development teams can say that they've done all those big races and U23 races in a year where some guys didn't even race one race at all. We are in a good position because we have good contacts in Europe to be able to race - 2021 will be a challenge for sure, but I still feel confident that at some point in 2021 we will be racing and our team will be able to race in Europe a decent amount of races."
Merckx is currently finalising contracts, with Matthew Riccitello, Sean Quinn and Michael Garrison remaining with the team and six as yet unnamed signings.
"The idea so far is to have a team of 10 and then wait and see if we can get some extra funding and maybe add some riders later in the winter.
"We are pretty close to being done. I signed Matthew Riccitello early in the year. I really believe that he has a lot of potential and keeps growing and developing in his progress becoming a very strong rider in the future. We have riders like Michael Garrison also Sean Quinn that were here for a couple of years getting better, they should get their chances to eventually move up."
He hopes to get some more funding to be able to expand the roster, especially since the market is tough with the CCC Team most likely folding and NTT under threat after losing their title sponsor. There might be more than a few very talented riders who will disappear from the sport if they can't find an opportunity for the coming season.
"A lot of riders are in a very difficult situation where they, you know, they haven't been races, they haven't been really exposed and there's limited spots in every team. So I'm just afraid that we might lose some of those potential riders moving forward, but we can only do the best with what we have and that's where the funding of the team is so important. 10 riders is not a lot - I wish I could have more money so I can hire more riders and do a bigger program but that's just the situation we're in right now and I can only do as much as I can with this budget money that I have."
The next Tao Geoghegan Hart or João Almeida could be out there and Merckx says his roster is not quite complete.
"Unless there is more funding coming and I might be able to add more riders. But up until now. I think I still have one spot left maybe in the team and that will be it for now."