Bontrager-Livestrong director and former Lance Armstrong teammate Axel Merckx said Friday that he stands behind his friend and doesn't expect Armstrong's decision to not contest USADA allegations of doping to affect the development team the Texan partially owns.
"All I can say is that in my eyes, and I think I can speak in the name of my family, when I say that we respect him immensely as an athlete," Merckx said. "He's an exceptional athlete, and that will stay forever, no matter what everybody says. He's a friend and he remains my friend, and he's always going to be my friend. I've known Lance forever. I stood by him when he was battling cancer, and I'll stand by him when he's being bashed around."
Merckx, who rode with Armstrong on the Motorola squad in the mid-1990s, said he does not believe Armstrong's decision to accept the USADA ruling is an admission of guilt, but rather a result of being worn down by the constant allegations that he used performance enhancing drugs on his way to winning seven Tour de France titles.
"He's giving up because it's enough," Merckx said. "It's damaging his image, it's damaging his foundation, and I can see where he's coming from. I'm really grateful for his commitment to cycling and his development of young riders in the US. And I think that everybody should recognize that, too."
Merckx, who turned 40 during the Tour of Utah earlier this month, also said he doesn't see why this week's events between Armstrong and USADA should affect the Bontrager-Livestrong development team.
"We are doing our job," Merckx said. "The guys are developing, and we are doing great things for cycling in the US. Everybody recognizes that here in the US and worldwide, and the attention that we get as a team and the presence of us and the results that we've had over the last years proves that this program works and it's something really cool.
"I think it would be a big mistake to stop this, especially for next year and long term," Merckx continued. "I think we need this development cycling like that. Especially a team like this. Having a commitment from a sponsor like Trek is unbelievable."
Merckx said Bontrager-Livestrong is one of the few development teams that is not a feeder program for a UCI Pro Team, and because of that serves a unique and valuable role in US cycling.
"The thing is also, we are a team that doesn't limit the riders after they leave the program," he said. "We let them go wherever they want, whether they race on Cannondale or a BMC or whatever bike it is. We're just committed to developing riders in the US. That's the goal of this team, and I can't see why that would change."