Axeon Cycling today announced the U23 development team will have a new sponsor for 2016 with the addition of Hagens Berman, a Seattle law firm that has been secondary sponsor since 2013 with the Jamis Continental team.
The Axel Merckx run team will also add California Giant Strawberries, which has been a longtime sponsor of a California domestic elite program, and Velofix, North America's largest fleet of franchised Mobile Bike Shops.
Merckx said the new sponsorship program will allow the re-branded "Axeon Hagens Berman" team to continue its tradition of nurturing and advancing young, talented riders from the amateur ranks to the highest level of the sport.
The Axeon Cycling Team will continue to be registered in the United States, Merckx said, meaning 60 percent of the 2016 roster will be Americans. This year's roster includes riders from Great Britain, New Zealand, and Portugal.
For Merckx, the longtime director and manager, running a development program is a little like coaching a college football or basketball team. The former pro is always recruiting and building his teams, only to watch them “graduate” to the next level, leaving him to start the process all over again.
“That’s really the feeling that I have when I see the other sports over here like college football or basketball,” he said. “I’m OK with that right now; I love what I do and I love working with the kids.”
Merckx is currently in the midst of a rebuilding year, but you’d never guess judging by the results Axeon riders piled up last week at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
The team featured riders in the breakaway nearly every stage, and 20-year-old Logan Owen sprinted to the team’s biggest-ever win during the stage 3 finish in Bountiful.
“It’s amazing to see a 20-year-old kid pulling that off. To believe and put himself in that situation is what we do it for, really,” Merckx said.
“This is an HC level race in North America,” Merckx told Cyclingnews last week in Utah. “And for us as a development team it’s pretty cool. To do it with him is pretty cool, not because of the team particularly, but because he’s so young. We all know how talented he is and what kind of finish he has, but I wasn’t thinking him capable of doing it that fast.”
Logan’s teammate Greg Daniel was a regular rider in the breakaways, earning the final mountains jersey for his efforts. In all, the week in Utah provided a perfect launching pad for Axeon’s entry into this week’s USA Pro Challenge, where the team is hoping to keep its momentum.
Merckx said a big part of the team’s ongoing success has been its working relationship with USA Cycling. It coordinates with Merckx and Axeon to provide a full international calendar of racing as the riders move through the system.
“We both realize that we really compliment each other really well,” he said. “The main goal for both of us is making those kids better and to help them make themselves better.
“It’s not about getting the results for ourselves. This win is not only our result, it’s also [USA Cycling’s] result, because they’ve been helping us out all along. …Because at the end of the day our main goal is to make those guys ready to move up. Their goal is that and my goal is that. So it’s more powerful to do it together than to just work against each other.”
Owen said the cooperation between programs is a big part of his success.
“To have a full schedule all year and have it all run smoothly, they have to work together really well,” Own said. “They’ve done that, and I’ve had a great schedule this year. It’s helped me develop really well.
A big part of the USA Cycling program is sending young riders to Europe to get experience in the narrow roads and the European riders they’ll face in the future, hopefully at cycling’s highest level. Owen said learning about positioning and the finer points of racing have prepped him well for the big North American races he competes in with Axeon.
“It’s a big part of me being able to be up there in the finishes, knowing how to fight and be up there and not take no for an answer, and to fight with the big guys,” he said. “They’re a little intimidating, but racing in Europe, it’s everybody for themselves.”
Nineteen-year-old Keegan Swirbul, the US under-23 champion, is another success story for Merckx’s program. The former mountain biker, who is most famous for beating Lance Armstrong in a mountain bike race when Swirbul was only 15, had no road racing experience before he came to the program last year.
“The improvement he’s done so far is amazing,” Merckx said. “The kid couldn’t ride in a group last year. Now he’s comfortable, and he’s the US under-23 champion, but he’s got a long ways to go and he knows that too. He acknowledged that already last week in Europe, and so that’s why USA Cycling brought him over there, to give him that first experience.”
Swirbul got a rough introduction to European racing when he crashed, suffered a concussion, costing him starts in Utah and Colorado this year, but as Merckx said, he’s still got a long way to go.
“Between our program and USA Cycling I think in the next couple of years he’ll be somebody like Joe Dombrowski, who came out of our ranks also,” Merckx said.
Despite the setback, Swirbul’s future looks bright, and like any good college football or basketball coach, Merkcx is looking forward to the team he’s built coming of age in the next few years. His current crop of youngsters has the potential to be on of his best groups yet.
“If we have guys like that, with Ruben [Guerreiro], Logan [Owen] and hopefully Tao [Geoghegan Hart] will stay but we don’t know about that yet, but we’ll really have a solid team,” he said.
“We could have one of those years again where that generation is kind of maturing together and moving forward. Then I have to start my job over and start all over again, but that’s just the beauty of the program. I’m really looking forward to those guys having another year with us.”