The Axeon Hagens Berman team may be the only under-23 squad at the Amgen Tour of California but they do not let age, or relative experience, intimidate them. Team manager Axel Merckx prepares his team carefully for each rendition of the race and his riders arrived prepared and ready to compete with some of cycling's biggest names.
Axeon's performance this week is indicative of the passion and energy the team is known for. Ruben Guerreio sprinted to seventh place in San Diego while William Barta jumped into stage 2's breakaway. Barta's effort earned him the Most Courageous Rider jersey, valuable TV time, and Cyclingnews' rider of the day. Merckx was pleased with the team's performance despite a late-race mechanical, which may have cost Barta a chance to finish with the leaders.
"Will had bad luck because he had a mechanical at the end and that kind of cost him a chance to make it to the end with the front two guys, but overall it was a strong performance from the whole team," Merckx said after stage 2. "I think after the first climb we had all eight guys still in the main group and there were guys everywhere. That was pretty impressive."
The team has brought several Tour of California 'veterans' like Logan Owen and Tao Geoghegan Hart, and a few new recruits like William Barta and Neilson Powless. Powless did not think he was originally slotted for California but earned a spot on the roster after a strong early season that included his breakout win at the Joe Martin stage race.
"Everybody on this team has definitely earned their spot," Powless said. "I think everybody here has had their eye on the Tour of California since December honestly. Everybody has been racing really hard to get the result to put them here."
Logan Owen, who won the under-23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege earlier this season, felt the team was well suited to the later stages of the race.
"Our team is kind of better for the harder hillier days that will come down to a smaller group sprints which myself, Ruben, and a couple of the other guys can really mix it up in those finishes," Owen said after the first stage in San Diego.
Development teams like Axeon Hagens Berman are an important piece of the professional ecosystem, and have helped churn out many American, Australian and British riders in the peloton. Stage 2 winner Ben King was an early member of Axeon's predecessor, Trek-Livestrong, and articulated the importance of under-23 programs.
"I think if you look at some of the talent from my generation, and after like William Barta who is riding for the team that got me started along with Taylor Phinney and so many other good riders in this race, it really goes to show how valuable it is for the next generation," King said. "It gives them the opportunities and experience and mentorship to do things correctly and also have a really good time because it's a fun team."
With several more riders eager to make an impact, including Geoghegan Hart and Logan Owen, Merckx is holding his cards close to his chest on what the team might try to unleash.
"We have had a really solid season since the beginning of the year, and that's really exciting," Merckx said after the finish in Santa Clarita. "We'll take it day by day here. Today was a good day, we'll see what tomorrow gives us."