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Gallery: Axeon ramps up for U23 Classics, Tour of California

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This will be Axel Merckx's sixth year running the program.

This will be Axel Merckx's sixth year running the program.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Tao Geoghegan Hart expects a big season in his second year with the team.

Tao Geoghegan Hart expects a big season in his second year with the team.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Phil O'Donnell and Logan Owen preparing for a ride.

Phil O'Donnell and Logan Owen preparing for a ride.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Chris Putt hopes to join his brother, Tanner, on cycling's next level.

Chris Putt hopes to join his brother, Tanner, on cycling's next level.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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The team visits Serious Cycling.

The team visits Serious Cycling.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Axel Merckx joins the team on a ride.

Axel Merckx joins the team on a ride.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Daniel Eaton checking the route for the next ride.

Daniel Eaton checking the route for the next ride.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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The team trains in the Southern California sun.

The team trains in the Southern California sun.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Tao Geoghegan Hart on a ride.

Tao Geoghegan Hart on a ride.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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New rider Phil O'Donnel.

New rider Phil O'Donnel.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Tao Geoghegan Hart and mechanic Eric Fostvedt.

Tao Geoghegan Hart and mechanic Eric Fostvedt.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Phill O'Donnell cools down after a long ride.

Phill O'Donnell cools down after a long ride.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Merckx addresses the team before a training ride.

Merckx addresses the team before a training ride.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Th e team trains in Agoura Hills.

Th e team trains in Agoura Hills.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Logan Owen relaxes after a ride.

Logan Owen relaxes after a ride.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Tao Geoghegan Hart

Tao Geoghegan Hart
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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The riders get some yoga training.

The riders get some yoga training.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Axeon Cycling Team.

Axeon Cycling Team.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Riders take a break during a ride along the Pacific.

Riders take a break during a ride along the Pacific.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Axeon Cycling Team.

Axeon Cycling Team.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)
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Keegan Swirbul looking relaxed at camp.

Keegan Swirbul looking relaxed at camp.
(Image credit: Davey Wilson)

Axel Merck's Axeon Cycling Team will see its first action this weekend in Portugal at the two-day Alentejano e Costa Vicentina.

The newly branded development team is back this year with a 12-rider roster that has once again reloaded with talent after graduating three riders to the WorldTour and Pro Continental ranks. Ruben Zepuntke and Clement Chevrier moved on to Cannondale-Garmin and IAM Cycling, respectively, while Tanner Putt has signed with UnitedHealhcare.

“Every cycle you've got to go through a bunch of new riders, but the main thing is that we have riders like Logan [Owen] and Geoffery [Curran] who are in their second year,” Merckx told Cyclingnews last week from team camp in California. “They spent their first year with us developing, and now they're ready to step up with us and do some of the big races.”

In fact, Merckx's team has a solid bunch of riders in the 20-year-old group, including Tao Geoghegan Hart - who showed himself in the big races last year - Curran, Owen, Will Barta, Keegan Swirbul and Justin Oien. Phillip O'Donnel is the team's lone 19-year-old this year. The 2015 team features just three 22-year-olds in James Oram, Chris Putt and Daniel Eaton. Greg Daniel and newcomer Ruben Guerreiro are are 21.

The block of young riders will give Merckx an opportunity to build a core group over the next several years.

“I can see some guys like Geoffrey, Logan, Will Barta, Phil O'Donnel, who are four guys who are really young right now, and I expect to have them around for a little bit,” Merckx said. “We try to replenish the younger ones every year and to create the rollover from year to year. Now with the new re-branding and everything we're hoping that we can build support for the next two or three years.”

The team also can rely on veteran leadership from some of the older riders who proved themselves last year.

“We have riders like James and Greg Daniel, who have already done the big races with us, but then we have the guys who are new to the team like Ruben,” Merckx said. “Tao is pretty young, but he is really talented and he's shown that already last year.”

Oram is the senior rider on the team and has taken well to the role, Merckx said. The director is hoping the Kiwi can put it all together this year after having his 2014 season interrupted by injuries suffered in a crash at the Tour of California.

“This is his last year as U23, so there's a bit more pressure,” Merckx said. “But we all know how good he is and how talented he is. He just needs to have a little better luck this year. He had a good winter over in New Zealand and had some great results. He won the time trial nationals over there, and he's been looking good at camp here.”

After Costa Vicentina, the team will compete in the Volta ao Alentejo from March 25-29, then head to Italy for the Trofeo PIVA on April 5 and Giro Belvedere di Villa di Cordignano on April 6.

“After that, on April 18 is Liege U23, and then we'll come back for the Gila and then California,” Merckx said. “Before you know it you're at the start of California already. After California we have U23 Roubaix a couple weeks later, and then after that we're looking at our options. We'll probably go back to [Tour de] Beauce or maybe go back to Europe. It's still far away.

“Our main goals for the year are April and May with the Nations Cup with the national team, then California and Roubaix,” he said. “It's a full program. We're racing more than last year. We've got a bigger budget, so we're able to provide those guys with a better program.”

Merckx said that with the team's re-branding and its move away from long-time sponsor Trek, there have been a lot of changes over the past year, but he believes the development program will continue with the same success it has enjoyed in the past.

“It could be a really successful season for us with a nice 20-year-old based team, with all the pros and cons that go along with such a young team,” he said. “But it's exciting.”