Merckx ready for ninth year behind wheel of development team

Axeon Hagens Berman has sent 21 riders to the WorldTour under Axel Merckx's guidance

For Axeon Hagens Berman General Manager Axel Merckx, every new season means a large turnover of riders. This year his UCI Continental development team has eight new names on its 16-rider roster. Such is the nature of running a U23 development team.

Despite losing half his 2016 riders, the 2017 roster could be one of the Merckx's strongest to date. Three of his returning riders, Adrien Costa, Nielson Powless and Logan Owen, scored some of the team's biggest results last year.

Costa was runner-up at the Tour of Utah among his other impressive results, while Powless won the Joe Martin Stage Race and was ninth at the Tour of California, winning the jersey for best young rider. Owen, the oldest of the trio at 22 this year, won the Liège-Bastogne-Liège U23 race. Nevertheless, Merckx told Cyclingnews it could be hard to top a 2016 season in which Axeon won a team-record 36 races, including eight national titles and three team classifications. All 16 riders took to the top step of the podium while contributing to a team-high 84 top-three placings overall.

"That's hard to say after the season we had last year," Merckx said when asked if this is the strongest squad he's put together.

"Yes those guys stayed with us for one more year, but we lost Greg [Daniel to Trek-Segafredo], Ruben [Guerreiro to Trek-Segafredo], Teo [Geoghegan Hart to Team Sky], Colin [Joyce to Rally Cycling], Tyler [Williams to Cycling Academy]. All those guys are strong riders; they won races for themselves, but they also contributed to the other guys.

"It's kind of hard to compare both, but I feel pretty good about it," Merckx said. "I'm confident because we have some of those guys back from last year, but it's going to be a different approach for them. They'll have to confirm what they did last year over and above, and they'll have to have some leadership toward the new guys coming into the team, guiding them the way we race and try to make the team spirit the same as it was last year. I'm not saying that's only on the riders, it's one the staff and and us also, but that's the challenge and the work that we want to do.”

Of the new riders Merckx has brought on board this year, Chris Lawless from Great Britain is the most accomplished. The 21-year-old, who ride with Team Wiggins in 2015 and JT Condor last year, signed with ONE Pro Cycling for this season, but he moved to Merckx squad when ONE Pro dropped from the Pro Continental level and altered its schedule to focus more on local criteriums in England.

"With Chris Lawless, who came over from ONE Pro, he's got some great results already last year at a very high level, and we're hopeful that a guy like that will be a great asset and a great add-on to the quality and the power of the team,” Merckx said. “But we have other guys that may not be as well known but also add great value. Micheal Rice won a stage at Beauce, and we'll see how he keeps going in his development. He's done some great things last season, so hopefully he can continue and get some great results for us also."

Merckx also added two new Portuguese riders after having success with Guerreiro. Bothers Rui and Ivo Oliveira come from a track background but are looking to improve on the road with Axeon.

"Two for the price of one, I guess," Merckx joked. "They are for sure some talented riders. Rui had a very bad accident last year, so he's on his way to recovery, but everything is going really well on that side of things. He's a really talented track rider, and to transfer that to the road side of things and slowly get results ... We're not expecting huge results necessarily, but just to get a progression for those guys from one year to another."

The team will focus on a similar program to last year, starting out in Europe before returning to the US for UCI and national calendar races. Merckx added Koos Moerenhout, a Dutch former pro who most recently directed Rabo-Liv women's team, to be on the ground in Europe to help organise and direct the team's overseas trips.

The big question for the team's 2017 program is whether Axeon will be eligible for the Tour of California, which jumped to the WorldTour level this year. As the rules currently stand, Continental teams are not allowed to race WorldTour events. It could be a big blow for the team, which counts on entry into big races like the Tour of California to please its sponsors and give more exposure to the riders.

"For them, it is a chance to race against riders who are at the level they wish to go to and measure themselves at something that is over and above the level they have been used to so far," Merckx said. "It's a chance to prove to everybody else that they have the talent to make it in the [WorldTour], and that's one of their opportunities to show that, to showcase that. In years past we've proven that as a team and that as a program we've always been a value add to the race itself, and I don't think anyone can deny that."

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