Over the past nine years, Hagens Berman Axeon has earned a reputation as the sport’s top development team. Since its debut in 2009, the program has advanced 25 riders to the WorldTour ranks, including Taylor Phinney, Joe Dombrowski, George Bennett, Alex Dowsett, Jasper Stuyven, Ian Boswell, Greg Daniel, and Tao Geoghegan Hart.
Four riders from the 2017 squad graduated to WorldTour teams: British rider Chris Lawless, to Team Sky; Ecuador’s Johnatan Narvaez, to Quick-Step Floors; American Logan Owen, to EF Education First-Drapac; and American Neilson Powless, to LottoNL-Jumbo. Ireland’s Eddie Dunbar transferred to the Pro Continental Aqua Blue Sport squad, while talented American Adrien Costa’s future is uncertain after the 2016 Tour de Bretagne winner announced he would not be racing in 2018.
Those spots opened the door for seven new riders: German Jasper Philipsen; Dutch rider Maikel Zijlaard; Danish rider (and 2017 U23 world time trial champion) from Giant-Castelli Mikkel Bjerg; Portuguese rider João Almeida (from Unieuro Trevigiani); and Americans Zeke Mostov (from Aevolo), Sean Bennett (from CCB Velotooler), Cole Davis, and Thomas Revard.
The team also endured tragedy in the spring of 2017, as American rider Chad Young and media officer Sean Weide died 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.
Team manager Axel Merckx told CyclingTips last summer he’d gone through “a tough patch” after the deaths, adding, “I don’t want to ever experience that again in my life.”
“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.”
Eight riders return to the squad in 2018: Portuguese twin brothers Rui and Ivo Oliveira, Australian Michael Rice, and Americans Edward Anderson, Will Barta, Chris Blevins, Jonathan Brown, and Ian Garrison. Belvins, the multi-talented winner of the 2017 US Cup national mountain-bike series, won the U23 national cyclocross championship last month.
Sponsored by Hagens Berman, a Seattle-based national law firm, and London-based technology partner NEON Adventure, the team will ride Specialized Allez aluminum framesets, SRAM RED eTap and eTap HRD components, and Zipp NSW and Firecrest rim and disc brake wheels.
Though the team has stepped up to Pro Continental level in 2018, Merckx says the program remains focused on preparing young riders for professional careers. The move will certainly help with invitations to races like the Amgen Tour of California, which the Continental team missed in 2017 after the event moved to UCI WorldTour status.
“The DNA of the team is not going to change [with a Pro Continental license],” 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.”
The Hagens Berman Axeon team recently held its annual winter training camp in Calabasas, California, and provided a few images of its new kit, new riders, and new equipment for the 2018 season.