After two seasons at Professional Continental level, Hagens Berman Axeon will return to the Continental level for 2020, but team owner Axel Merckx told Cyclingnews he doesn’t believe it will have a major effect on his U23 development program.
"So far, that's the way things are looking," Merckx said before the final stage at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. "The investment was quite substantial to go Pro Conti, and it was very difficult. The UCI announced the reforms – not confirmed yet – but it would require 20-rider rosters, and if that's the case that's another $200,000, and you haven't even started racing yet.
"It's not realistic for us to do that, so we will regroup and continue our mission, continue what we are doing. Just a couple of races probably are not going to be the same, but that's OK because we can maybe increase some racing somewhere else."
The team began in 2009 as Trek-Livestrong and has morphed throughout the years into its current configuration, sponsored by Seattle Law firm Hagens Berman and investment firm Neon Adventures. The program jumped to the Professional Continental level in 2017 when Hagens Berman took over title sponsorship.
The team has emerged as one of the most productive development programs in men's cycling, sending a steady stream of riders to the WorldTour, from George Bennett, Alex Dowsett and Taylor Phinney in the early years, to Mikkel Bjerg (UAE Team Emirates) and João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) this season.
"There's probably going to be an announcement in the next little while, which I won't be able to tell you yet, unfortunately," Merckx said of another potential move to the WorldTour for one of his 2019 riders. "And then there are still some guys in the mix, so it's another three this year. We're kind of keeping our three-streak for every year, which is exciting.
"That's our strength: we have the guys, and we have the young guys. You see how Sean Quinn has raced this year and also Kevin Vermaerke. To be the first year in the program, and get some results should be inspiring to the juniors who might consider taking a step to our program that it can be done the first year if you're in the right environment and get in the right program. But it doesn't have to be the first year. That's the key," he said.
"The program that we offer is very special. You can't compare it to a European programme. You can't compare it to an American programme. It's really the best of both worlds, so we'll keep doing it."
More than just a team
Merckx maintains that he's building more than just a group of cyclists with his programme, and he says the close-knit nature of the riders, staff and management are key to the programme's success.
"This is more than just a team," he said. "This is more than just the brand. It's a family of guys who enjoy riding together and sacrificing for each other and give great opportunities to young guys.
"It's thanks to Steve Berman. He's the main driver behind this, and without him this programme wouldn't be here. He's been a huge supporter of the programme the last few years and he keeps doing it. He's the main guy, really, so if you ever want to thank anyone, thank him."
Merckx raced professionally for 14 years, taking stage wins at the Giro d'Italia and Critérium du Dauphiné, as well as a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics road race in Athens. But as the son of Eddy Merckx, considered by most to be the greatest cyclist of all time, he understands that his own legacy will be focused on what he's accomplished with his young riders rather than on his own racing results.
"For me, to be honest with you, I'm really proud of my career as a cyclist," he said. "I'm really proud of it, but I think I'm more proud of this, because we really started from the ground up, and I didn't know it was possible. When I started I got this opportunity put in front of me and I grabbed it, and I try to continue it as long as I can.
"I've said it all along, my dad has such a legacy in cycling, if I can just leave a little bit behind myself and be remembered for a great supporter of youth and young cyclists for years to come, that really means a lot to me."
Merckx said he continues to dream of expanding the programme's reach.
"Women's cycling is another side of cycling that it would be cool to add to the programme, but that's probably a question for later," he said. "It does require money, but I think that's a part of the sport that is developing and blooming, and it would be good to have something similar."
Most importantly, Merckx said, he views the crop of young riders he's helped guide to the top of the sport as his most lasting impact on the sport that has been integral to his own family.
"It's fun to see Lawson [Craddock], it's fun to see Joe [Dombrowski] and Gavin [Mannion] and so many guys that you have so many memories with," he said.
"They look back, and I still have messages from alumni saying this was the best time of their lives. We had a great group and they're still friends, even though they may race against each other and compete against each other. They remain friends and have created bonds for a long time.
"That, to me, is almost more valuable than a race or a victory or anything like that."