The 2016 season could prove to be the most successful yet for Axel Merckx's development team, which will compete this year as Axeon Hagens Berman after adding the Seattle law firm as a co-primary sponsor with Neon Adventures.
The addition of sponsors Hagens Berman and California Giant Berry Farms has allowed the team to grow in both size and scope, but the US Continental team's mission of preparing riders for the next level remains the same.
The team will officially start the season Saturday at the two-day GP Liberty Seguros in Portugal, where Rubien Guerreiro took a stage and the overall win last year. Two of Axeon's 2016 riders, Colin Joyce and Krists Nielands, also finished in the top 10 there last year while riding with other teams.
After Liberty Seguros the team will compete in the five-day Volta ao Alentejo from March 16-20. James Oram, who jumped to the Pro Continental level with One Pro Cycling this year, won a stage and was third overall there for Axeon in 2015.
"We'll do the two stage races in Portugal and then three one-day races in Italy," Merckx said of the upcoming European trip.
Axeon Hagens Berman will continue the 2016 season in France, Belgium and Canada through the first few months of the year while returning to the US for the Amgen Tour of California in May. The team will also target other major domestic events throughout the season.
The larger roster – 16 riders this year compared with 12 in 2015 – allows the team a split schedule, with some riders competing overseas and others tackling events on the newly formatted USA Cycling Pro Road Tour.
"Last year we did the same thing, but now we'll have a team that will go to Redlands also," Merckx said of the early European campaign. "We have more riders and we're able to do more races. It's better for the riders, better for us, better for everybody. We'll be busy this year, that's for sure."
To help with the added workload, Merckx has brought aboard former pro Jeff Louder as an assistant director and manager. Louder, a Utah native, raced for 14 season before retiring from UnitedHealthcare following the 2014 season. Louder also spent four years with BMC Racing as the team moved up to the WorldTour in 2011.
"Jeff worked for us last year a little bit, but we have more staff now," Merckx said. "Jeff did the races in the US, and actually he's going to Portugal for me now. He'll help with the local travel at the domestic races and then help me at the big races also.
"He's great. The guys love him and he's got a lot of knowledge of the domestic races, but also internationally because he was part of big international teams also," Merckx said. "He's a trainer at the same time, so he's got a lot of knowledge about training and nutrition and all that kind of stuff. I think it's a great fit for him and for us, so it's looking good. He's a good guy. He's a great guy for the young riders."
The nature of a development team means riders come and go as they mature, develop and then move on to bigger teams at higher levels. But 2016 could be a banner year for Merckx's roster as the team returns a core group of riders who have been with the program for several season. Eight riders will return as Axeon veterans this season, including Guerreiro, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Logan Owen, Greg Daniel, Will Barta, Geoffrey Curran, Phil O'Donnel and Justin Oien.
"We have a couple of guys who probably could have made the jump last year and decided to stay one more year because they didn't think that they were 100 per cent ready. So they decided to stay one more year," Merckx said.
"If they keep going on their natural progression, they should be able to do even more than last year and get even better results. But I know that cycling is not a perfect equation and stuff happens, but we'll be there to support them and help them out with anything they need help with and at least give the riders the racing opportunities to improve and get better and then to move on eventually."
One of those opportunities for the riders will be another shot at the Tour of California, where they will go up against riders like world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins (Team Wiggins), top sprinter Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and 2015 Tour of Flanders winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha). Merckx's riders have consistently found success in California, including Geoghegan Hart's 13th overall there last year.
"Tour of California has a pretty high level of teams there this year, and it's gong to be very competitive," Merckx said. "It will be a hard race to be at, but I feel pretty good about the fact that we can be active and be as active as we've been in the past and hopefully do some great results at the end of the stages, and who knows, maybe somebody can get into the top 15 in GC, like Tao or anybody that steps up to the plate and wants to do that. I think that's our goal for the week."
Axeon Hagens Berman 2016 roster: William Barta, Jonathan Brown, Adrien Costa, Geoffrey Curran, Greg Daniel, Edward Dunbar, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Ruben Guerreiro, Colin Joyce, Krists Nielands, Justin Oien, Logan Owen, Philip O’Donnell, Nielson Powless, Tyler Williams, Chad Young.
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