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.”