Since the team's inception in 2009, Axel Merckx's program has advanced 18 riders on to the WorldTour ranks. (Photo by Davey Wilson.)

Merckx University: Axel’s Class of 2016

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As the field hurtled through the small town of Bountiful, Axeon’s Logan Owen steadily surfed his way through the field. It was stage 3 of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. One day earlier, Owen had finished sixth in a bunch sprint. This day, he was aiming higher.

Into the final corner, Owen came rushing up the outside, counting down the positions as he passed rider after rider. At 200 meters to go, he thought he might make the podium. At the line, Owen, 20, crossed first, ahead of BMC Racing’s Brent Bookwalter, and secured his Axeon team one of its biggest results of 2015.

Directed by Axel Merckx, the squad returns in 2016 with a new sponsor, the Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman, and hopes to continue that same legacy of success that saw Owen celebrate a career-best UCI victory. (California Giant Berry and Specialized are also new sponsors for the Axeon program in 2016.)

“We never expected to be winning a stage at Utah,” said Merckx at the team’s California training camp, in January. “But that’s what makes it so nice. You know, you hope for the best, but then when it comes, you’re overwhelmed. That’s the beauty of a development team — you never know what you’re going to get.”

Owen, fresh off his first elite podium finish at cyclocross nationals after years of consecutive junior and U23 titles, is among the riders who return to Axeon Hagens Berman this year. Both Greg Daniel and Tao Geoghegan Hart are also back, purposefully delaying their jump to the pro ranks to round out their talents with one more year at Axeon.

“If you move up faster, you might not have the same opportunity to learn, because you’re going to have to go get bottles, or rain jackets, or pull all day,” said Merckx. “You don’t really learn exactly how to win if you make the move too fast.”

Last year Daniel won the the KOM at the Tour of Utah, and became famous for his long-bomb breakaways, one of which netted him second in a stage of the 2013 Amgen Tour of California.

An all-rounder with an affinity for the hilly classics like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Geoghegan Hart won the best young rider jersey at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge last year. He was courted by Team Sky, but opted to stick with Merckx’s program for one more year.

“I felt like there was areas I really could still make big leaps on, and smaller things I could make before I went to a really big team and a change of environment,” Geoghegan Hart said. “For me, it was just about taking another year to keep developing, and improving both in the saddle, but also away from the bike and as a person.”

Other returning riders include Will Barta, Geoffrey Curran, Ruben Guerreiro, Phil O’Donnell, and Justin Oien.

Among Axeon Hagens Berman’s newcomers is American standout Adrien Costa. Costa finished at the junior world time trial championship in 2014 and 2015, and is a two-time winner of the Tour de l’Abitibi. The Californian, who recently moved to Bend, Oregon, is riding his first year in the U23 ranks. “For me, the goal is to gain experience and do as many race days as possible,” said Costa. “It’s a huge step up.”

Other new signings include Jonny Brown, Eddie Dunbar, Colin Joyce, Krists Neiland, Neilson Powless, Tyler Williams, and Chad Young. Merckx says he has a network of coaches and junior team managers who send him riders and he relies on his current riders to help identify new talent for the team.

Axeon Hagens Berman will race a U.S. schedule this year with America’s big three stage races — Amgen Tour of California, USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and the Tour of Utah — as their principal objectives. The team races as an ensemble cast, because Merckx wants to give all his riders a chance to shine. “We don’t have an agenda when we go to a race,” said Merckx. “We don’t say, ‘everyone has to ride for that guy.’” Of course, if they have a jersey to defend, as they did last year in Utah when Daniel won the KOM, it’ll be a full team effort.

This year marks the eighth season Merckx has directed the Axeon team, under its various guises. The program began in 2009 as Trek-Livestrong, with help from Lance Armstrong, as a vehicle to help talented Americans like Taylor Phinney and Ben King make the jump from juniors to the pro ranks. Phinney joined BMC Racing in 2011, while King joined RadioShack-Nissan the same year.

Those successes inspired Merckx to continue the team as he realized there was an untapped talent pool, especially in the U.S. “When Taylor left, I realized there was a void in the market on the development side in the U.S.,” said Merckx. “USA Cycling has done a great job, but they can’t take everyone.” The jump from juniors means longer races, more racing days, and higher intensity, and Merckx works hard to ease that transition.

Though Merckx’s own racing career is over, he still feels a similar drive as a team director to challenge himself. He tries to continually grow the team and improve the experiences of his riders.

“You know you have a great program, you know you have a great thing going on, but everyone else is trying to do the same thing,” said Merckx, who was new to the management side of cycling when he started working with Phinney. He continually checks in with the riders to see what they think could be better about the team.

Merckx compares his program to a top-level college football team whose alumni remain loyal and connected. “It’s almost a legacy,” he said. “Our past riders are still cheering us, they still are fans of us. Even if it’s a different sponsor, it’s part of that family we created years ago.”

Since the program began, 18 riders have passed through Merckx’s cycling university and graduated to the WorldTour ranks, including Lawson Craddock, Nathan Brown, and Joe Dombrowski (all at Cannondale), Ian Boswell (Sky), Alex Dowsett (Movistar), and Jasper Stuyven (Trek Factory Racing).

Riders also contact Merckx for advice long after they leave the team whether they have a tough decision to make, or they need help sorting out a team situation.

“It’s not only the guys who’ve moved up to the WorldTour. It’s also the guys who didn’t make it, who have a job, they’re still in touch with us,” said Merckx. “We’re one big family.”

The Axeon Hagens Berman team isn’t about to let anyone go up the road without a fight, but Merckx loves to see his former protégées win big races. “When I saw Taylor winning a stage in California… I have goosebumps even thinking about it!” For Merckx, each victory extends a history that links the riders he’s training with his own storied family name.

“It’s really hard that, my dad left such a big legacy in the sport of cycling,” said Merckx. “And you’re the son. I had my career. But obviously, I never tried to be the same as him. But you always try to leave something behind, no matter what kind of cyclist you are.”

Merckx sees his development riders, deeply schooled in tactics and training, as his lasting contribution to the sport. “This is the legacy I can leave as part of the Merckx family, that I can leave behind as the years go by.”

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