Axel Merckx on team tragedies: ‘I don’t want to ever experience this again’

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With the recent application for a UCI Pro Continental license, there is a clear path forward for the successful Axeon Hagens Berman program run by Axel Merckx.

That comes as welcome news for the team’s riders and supporters after a difficult season that saw rider Chad Young and media officer Sean Weide die within five weeks of one another.

Young succumbed to head injuries sustained in a crash at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico in April; he was 21 years old. A month later, Weide was found dead in his apartment in Omaha, Nebraska; he was 49 years old.

Last month, Young’s parents announced that a foundation had been established to fund research into the prevention of traumatic brain injuries in cycling as well as compassionate hospital care, and two merit-based scholarships at schools he attended — St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover, New Hampshire, and the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.

The Axeon Hagens Berman team also created a badge in Young’s memory, which contains his initials, C.W.Y., as well as the team logo of Axel’s axes and a lightning bolt to represent Young’s energy as well as his love for engineering. The 16 tick marks on the badge represent the 16 team members of the Axeon Hagens Berman team, including Young.

Speaking with CyclingTips at the Colorado Classic, Merckx admitted that he’d been through some dark moments over the past few months. Asked how he’s held up through it, the 45-year-old son of cycling legend Eddy Merckx admitted that he’d been through “a tough patch.”

“You know, it’s been a tough year on so many different levels. Honestly I went through a tough patch. But I have to say really what got me through it, and going, is the people around me,” Merckx said. “I have a great family and the riders, they’ve led the way. They’ve shown us how to step it up in the hard times and you know, right after our bad period there, it was terrible, but they went to Redlands and they won races, and they race hard and they train hard. How can we as staff and management just let those guys down?

“Also, you know, Chad and Sean would’ve been very disappointed in us if we would have just let it go and been destroyed by it,” he continued. “Not that it made us stronger, because I don’t want to ever experience that again in my life, but those two people are a full part of this program and they will always be, and we are here to make them proud as much as we have before. And hopefully somewhere they can watch down on us and be proud of us.”

The team, which launched in 2009, has consistently developed young riders who have graduated to the WorldTour. Among them are Taylor Phinney, Joe Dombrowski, George Bennett, Alex Dowsett, Jasper Stuyven, Ian Boswell, Greg Daniel, and Tao Geoghegan Hart.

In 2017, seven riders from the Axeon Hagens Berman team have won UCI races. And while they didn’t take any wins at the Colorado Classic, Colombian Jhonatan Narvaez, who recently signed with Quick-Step Floors, finished as the race’s best young rider.

Three riders from Axeon Hagens Berman will make up the U.S. national team at the Tour de l’Avenir, which begins August 18 — Neilson Powless, Will Barta, and Ian Garrison. Sprinter Chris Lawless will also be at l’Avenir, with the British national team.

Asked how he juggles managing a UCI Continental team with his young riders’ other interests — 19-year-old Chris Blevins won the national Pro XCT mountain-bike series, for example — Merckx said the team is more focused on experience than expectations.

“First of all, most important is you have to do whatever is best for the riders,” he said. “Whether it’s better for them to go to l’Avenir or not, that’s a decision that we make together. We want to give every rider an opportunity during the year, and when some riders want to go with the national team, it gives other riders an opportunity to big race, so, like this one [Colorado Classic].”

“As you can see here, we have a very young team, a team that’s very green that has to learn a lot, with some experienced riders add onto it, which makes a really nice combination for the race itself. Any result is a good result. We don’t expect anything, we are here and we race hard, and it’s just basically the motto that the team has had for the last nine years.”

Merckx said the move to Pro Continental in 2018 will help his riders push their limits. It will also certainly help with invitations to races like the Amgen Tour of California, which the team missed this year after the event moved to UCI WorldTour status.

“The DNA of the team is not going to change whether we get a Pro Continental license or not,” he said. “It’s just going to give us more opportunities to race bigger races and to make those riders stronger. By racing locally and racing smaller races, we’re not making those guys stronger. They have to suffer. They have to go over their limits and their barriers, and only like that will they become stronger. If we can’t do the bigger races, and if we don’t have more opportunities in Europe to do bigger races, it’s gonna be difficult.

“With everything in cycling evolving, we have to evolve with the system, and luckily we have great partners that believe in this program, and they continue to believe in it.”

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