Axeon Hagens Berman jumping to Pro Continental ranks

US Continental development team Axeon Hagens Berman will apply for Pro Continental status for the 2018 season, the team announced Friday. Increased sponsorship from Steve W. Berman and the Hagens Berman law firm will allow the team to make the move.

"The additional sponsorship investment will allow the team to continue its tradition of nurturing and advancing young, talented riders from the amateur ranks to the highest level of the sport," said team director and owner Axel Merckx. "In the past nine seasons, we have sent 22 riders to the WorldTour. Getting riders to this level will continue to remain our focus. We believe that this program is unique and important for the future of the sport."

The U23 development team was originally founded in 2009 as Trek-Livestrong with the goal of developing young talent for a career in the professional peloton. Riders the team has sent to the WorldTour include Taylor Phinney, Lawson Craddock, Joe Dombrowski, Ben King, Jasper Stuyven, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Greg Daniel, among others.

The team was originally intended as a feeder program for the Trek-owned WorldTour team, but the development team split from Trek after the 2011 season when a dispute over the number of teams any single management company could have in a race kept Slipstream's Chipotle development team and Trek-Livestrong out of the major UCI races in Utah and Colorado.

The team raced as Bontrager-Livestrong in 2012 and 2013, then brought on sponsor Bissell for the 2014 season, racing as the Bissell Development Team. Neon Adventures came on board in 2015 as the team morphed once again into the Axeon Cycling Team. Axeon added Hagens Berman and Specialized as sponsors in 2016, when the program grew to its current size and scope.

"This is another natural progression and move for Hagens Berman in our support of promising young talent in their rise to compete at the highest levels of cycling and forge the skills to succeed both on and off the bike,” Berman said.

Axeon Hagens Berman missed out on a Tour of California invitation this year as the race jumped to WorldTour status. The UCI granted an exception to the first-year WorldTour race that allowed two Continental teams in the race this year, but Axeon didn't get one of those invitations. Both current US-registered Pro Continental teams, which don't need a special exception to be eligible for WorldTour races, received invitations to the race. Moving to the Pro Continental level would increase the likelihood that the team would get into America's biggest race next year, just one of the perks of Pro Continental status.

Merckx said the team name will shift slightly next year to the the Hagens Berman Axeon Cycling Team, but it will continue to be registered in the US and have a majority US roster. Hagens Berman Axeon would join current US teams UnitedHealthcare and Novo Nordisk on the Pro Continental level, while current Continental team Rally Cycling is also hoping to make the jump next year. 

Axeon Hagens Berman, which includes riders from the US, Great Britain, Ireland, Portugal, Ecuador and Australia this year, is currently competing in the Colorado Classic, a four-day UCI 2.HC event that opened with stage 1 in Colorado Springs on Thursday. Logan Owen was third in the opener behind John Murphy (Holowesko-Citadel) and Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare).

Earlier this month, Neilson Powless finished fourth overall - as well as earning the 'best young rider' classification - at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Among the team's victories this year are Powless winning the U23 US road race championship, Jhonatan Narvaez winning Stage 5 at Tour of the Gila and Owen's Stage 4 victory at Volta ao Alentejo.

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