Q&A with Axel Merckx: Team’s exclusion from California is ‘unfortunate for development of US cycling’

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During his 15-year professional career, Axel Merckx experienced cycling’s disappointments as much as any rider. But as a team owner and director, he says he’s now facing his biggest setback.

Merckx, in his ninth season as owner and director of Axeon Hagens Berman, was recently informed by Amgen Tour of California organizers AEG that his squad wasn’t selected to compete in this year’s race. The team announcement is scheduled later this week.

The May 14-20 event will be the first in 12 editions as a UCI WorldTour race, meaning fewer Pro Continental squads — and potentially no Continental squads — will attend.

Axeon Hagen Berman, under current and former title sponsors, has participated the past five years. American Neilson Powless — an emerging star from Roseville, a neighboring city to this year’s start in Sacramento — finished ninth overall last year after starting the final stage in fifth; he also claimed the best young rider classification. The team finished ninth among 17 squads, and two of its sponsors, Specialized and California Giant, are based in California.

“It was a hard blow for us,” Merckx told CyclingTips. “It’s tough; it’s not easy to face that. It is what it is, I guess. I tried to ask for the reason. The only answer I was given is that it was a tough decision, but they didn’t tell me the basis of the decision.”

Merckx, 44, retired a decade ago after winning his last race. The son of cycling icon Eddy Merckx, he  still rides regularly. He may ride with his wife in the Canadian countryside near his home in Kelowna, British Columbia, or he might go for a spin with his daughters Axana and Athina, versatile and skilled young athletes who are interested in cycling as well as other endurance sports.

Merckx still looks fit, but on his 6-foot-3 frame he carries 15 pounds (seven kilos) more than his racing weight. He laughs at himself with an easy resonance when discussing the sport that’s permeated his entire life. The transition from professional to a recreational rider is different for different riders. For Merckx it’s particularly unique, a maturity of sorts considering he was raised in Belgium where embracing inclement weather isn’t negotiable. It’s a way of life.

“I’m a fair-weather rider; I love riding my bike,” Merckx said, chuckling. “I’ve ridden enough in the rain and the cold, so I only ride when it’s decent weather. Living in Canada, the fall and the winter are pretty harsh. But when the temperature is getting a bit milder and it’s dry outside, I will take my bike and go out. Otherwise, I like cross country skiing.”

“When I go for a run or something like, the recovery is not the same. But that’s OK. I’m not a competitor anymore. I’m just doing it realistically to stay fit. And for me, it’s a good stress relief. You’re busy with everything in life, your family and the team and stuff like that. It’s always good to do something distracting and to clear your mind.”

When not riding with his family, he enjoys solo treks for stress relief — such as resolving his team being left out of the Amgen Tour of California.

“The sad part is that is that this is one year where we had a really good shot as a whole team for the overall — and for the future of cycling in the U.S.” he said. “I know we have two of the biggest talents the U.S. has ever produced with (Adrien) Costa and (Neilson) Powless. To deny that to the fans, and to us, and to those guys? It’s denying an opportunity to prove themselves at such as young age. It’s very unfortunate for the development for the future of cycling in the U.S., really.”

Merckx may have left one competitive peloton, but he’s fully immersed in another. Twenty-one of the squad’s riders have advanced to the WorldTour; most recently, that list includes Greg Daniel and Ruben Guerreiro, to Trek-Segafredo, and Teo Geoghegan Hart, to Team Sky. This season, eight riders return and eight are newcomers.

Over the course of a few conversations with CyclingTips this spring, Merckx has had plenty more say, presented below.

Since the team’s inception in 2009, Axel Merckx’s program has advanced 21 riders onto the WorldTour ranks. Photo: Davey Wilson.

CyclingTips: In terms of the non-invite to the Tour of California, what do you think happened?

Axel Merckx: I can accept a non-invitation if we had a fair shot to sit down and present our case. But really we never did, and that’s the hard part. It’s a hard pill to swallow and the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in the last eight years is to explain to my riders that we weren’t invited and I’m not sure why.

CT: Without the Tour of California, where will the team race in May?

AM: We’re scrambling. We said no to race organizers of other May events because of the Tour of California, and to be fair to other teams. Now we can’t go back to them after we didn’t get in. It’s too late. But we are looking at some other races in Europe.

CT: You’re beginning your ninth season. How has being a team owner and director changed for you?

AM: The main thing that’s changed is that I have eight years of experience running a team. We’ve established a special program that’s proven to be working very well. We’ve had some incredible results and I’m proud of what we’ve created. When I started the team I never thought it would be that big and that important or that it would make that much difference for so many riders’ lives. That’s something I’m very proud of. I’m almost more proud of this part of my life than anything I’ve done before. It’s really been making a difference in the lives of these riders.

CT: I read somewhere that you said there’s enough young talent out there that you could start three teams. When you interview riders, what are you looking for?

AM: It’s a combination of everything. Most of the times, there’s a referral. It’s not only from agents or trainers but from our current riders and past riders interacting with the younger generation. They know the riders and have competed against them, so I listen to the riders.

CT: We all know about the sport’s dark side. You raced during what was perhaps the sport’s darkest era. [During the 1990s, Merckx was a client of Michele Ferrari’s, the Italian doctor who worked with Lance Armstrong during his Tour de France victories.] Do you sit down with your riders and talk about the “elephant in the room?” And if so, what do you tell them?

AM: Well, there’s no taboo subject in any conversation I have with those guys. History has proven that we as a sport have evolved. We’ve set some rules and examples that set a precedent, the past is not to be repeated. The most important thing is that they are the new generation that makes a difference from what happened in the past. They can make a difference. They can set the example for the generation to come. That’s a very valuable thing to have. I am open to have any conversation with them. We are trying to make a new image of cycling. Learning from the past is the most important thing you can do to move forward. To be honest with you, it’s never been brought up with any of the riders as a team or with a rider in public. We all know what’s happened, but it’s in the past. We’re really looking at just moving ahead.

CT: Observing you at races, you seem very even-keeled. I’ve never seen you get emotional with riders. You pretty much let them ride their bikes. Is that accurate?

AM: Especially in public. I don’t say a lot. If I have to say something to a rider those conversations have to remain between me and the athlete. I’m there to help the guys when things are not going so well. When they’re down, that’s when they need me or whoever is in charge of them at that race. The winner of the race or a guy going to the podium barely needs anybody. They’re winning and have the motivation to be there. The guys who have shitty days, those are the guys you need to help the most.

CT: You’ve had a lot of riders progress through the team with many going on to WorldTour teams. This year looks particularly strong with really young guys like Powless and Costa. How do you assess them as riders? What are their skills and weaknesses?

AM: Neilson had a breakthrough season last year, there’s no doubt about it. For me, it was beyond expectations. To be honest with you, I never expected him to be that good, that fast. But having said that, we know and he knows there are still some areas like positioning in the peloton and dealing with team tactics and striking at the right time. That’s something that just takes more racing and racing at a high level. Neilson and Adrien are similar, the only difference is that Adrien already had success as a junior. He was a known talent. He came from the road straight, but Neilson was more of a mountain biker. His body just has to get stronger. That’s what it takes to go to the WorldTour.

CT: Knowing that your wife was a competitive athlete, and given your background, are your two daughters good athletes? Are they on the bike?

AM: Yes, my younger one is riding the bike a little bit. My oldest daughter, for sure, but not on the bike. She’s a pretty high-level competitive swimmer. She’s 15, and, so for sure, the genetics come from somewhere. She’s very passionate; she’s very dedicated and she’s a good student. We are lucky to have daughters like that.

About the author

James Raia has reported on cycling for more than 30 years and is co-author of Tour de France For Dummies. In addition to writing about cycling and other sports, he contributes business and lifestyle content to several publications, and has been the editor and publisher of the automotive website theweeklydriver.com since 2004. James lives with his wife Gretchen and two cats in Sacramento, California.

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