Jeff Louder exits Hagens Berman Axeon to nurture new gravel race in Utah

Hagens Berman Axeon team directors Axel Merckx (left) and Jeff Louder (right)
Hagens Berman Axeon team directors Axel Merckx (left) and Jeff Louder (right) (Image credit: Hagens Berman Axeon)

After five years as a team director with Hagens Berman Axeon, Jeff Louder bows out of a role to develop young riders to focus on a new role as race director for The Wasatch All-Road gravel race.

The US-based continental squad had been in existence since 2009, spending two seasons at Professional Continental (now ProTeam) level before moving back down in 2020. While team owner Axel Merckx provided an abundance of racing opportunities in Europe, Louder was in place to guide the development squad on its domestic programme. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic shriveling the road racing calendar to only a handful of UCI one-day or stage races in the past two seasons, Louder decided it was time for change.

“The scale and scope of the team has been changing and it makes sense for me to move on this year. I loved being a part of such an important program and will miss the riders and staff. I will always be a supporter of HBA and hope to be involved again in the future. But, for now, I look forward to shifting my focus towards things closer to home,“ Louder told Cyclingnews in a recent conversation near his home in Utah. 

He said the timing was right to move on and focus on his training business, Train Louder, and his gravel event, The Wasatch All-Road, which has a price increase for registration on Sunday, January 16 for its second edition, August 27 in Heber, Utah. 

Timing is indeed everything, as the Tour of Utah, was cancelled for a second consecutive year with a sound of permanent departure.

“It’s a shame to see that the TOU will not happen in 2022. It’s absence leaves yet another hole in the US calendar and it will be sorely missed by the riders, spectators, and teams alike,” Louder said about the final curtain on an event where he left his mark as winner in 2008 while riding for BMC Racing Team. 

“As a former winner and a Utahn I know first hand how important it was not only to the local community but for the pros that got to race it. It was an honor to have been involved with it for so many years and I mourn its loss.

“The Tour of Utah was super important because it was the last holdout as far as international bike racing in the US, that at least has some history. I’d love to see California and Colorado and Georgia and all these other events come back. Hopefully Gila and Redlands can hang on. Those events may not have made it to the point as Tour of Utah, but they’re still important.”

Louder was proud to have been part of Hagen Berman Axeon’s respected organisation that helped under-23 riders from the US and abroad. Among the parade of graduates to WorldTour success in recent years have been U23 time trial World Champion Mikkel Bjerg (UAE Team Emirates), 2020 Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), 2021 Donostia San Sebastian winner Neilson Powless (EF Education-Easypost), 2021 Tour de Pologne GC titlist João Almeida (now UAE Team Emirates), and three-time stage winner at the Vuelta a España Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix).

“There were quite a few [riders] that were no surprise, like Tao [Geoghegan Hart]. Obviously, I don’t think I expected him to win the Giro at such a young age, but it was right in there with his character that he would do that. He has that pedigree, so it wasn’t that surprising,” Louder said about some of his talented trainees. 

“I think the biggest surprise for me, mostly because I didn’t know much about him to start with, was Neilson Powless, and it was immediately like ‘holy shit’,” Louder added about the rider who finished fifth in the road race at the 2021 World Championships. 

“When Axel hired him and he started working with us, he was super young, hadn’t really done a lot results-wise on the road. He was staying back and racing in the US and then he won the very first race he did for us: Joe Martin. And he did it in a classy way, it wasn’t a gimme, he had to fight for it and make it happen. That was immediately a surprise. After that it wasn’t surprising that he continued on that trajectory, that was fun. His talent was there and it was fun to be a part of.”

Louder said he would miss his time with the team but was cautious about a very slow return to domestic racing, especially stage racing, in the US.

“It’s an honour to me to have been involved in some way with their progression. Hopefully I passed something on to them that helped them keep improving. It’s fun to touch greatness and be a part of that. Mostly it’s just fun to see anyone I’ve worked with succeed. I’m happy for them to fulfill their dreams, it’s not about me,” he reflected.

Wasatch All-Road

2021 was the inaugural year for The Wasatch All-Road in Utah

2021 was the inaugural year for The Wasatch All-Road in Utah (Image credit: Ian Matteson)

The Utah native got his first taste of back country, multi-surface racing at Crusher in the Tushar in 2011, where he finished fourth in the pro division. That race was started by “T-Bird” Burke Swindlehurst, another Utahn who found road success at the Tour of Utah, winning the mountains classification in 2005 as a teammate with Louder.

“I’ve done a lot of things since I retired, besides directing, like personal coaching and trying to focus more on my family, and started this race, The Wasatch All-Road, with some partners. We got it off the ground last year and it was a huge success, I think,” Louder, who retired as a rider in 2014, said about changing gears in his career again. 

“I came out of cycling as a pro and started throwing darts at the board to see what would stick, and I was fortunate to wind up with a lot of great opportunities. The coaching I do is pretty involved. And putting the bike race together takes quite a bit of bandwidth. I’m always interested in what’s next. I’ve got a few more darts in my hand, for sure.”

For now, the bullseye on the board is in the Heber Valley, nestled in the Wasatch Range of the western Rocky Mountains, where last year more than 650 riders took on two rides at the inaugural Wasatch All-Road. Louder deemed it a success since, “what we promised, happened. They were all happy, they were all tired and satisfied.”

The Full Yeti is back for 100 miles, 75 per cent on gravel, across 12,000 feet of vertical gain, and a $10,000 prize purse with equal payouts for pro women and men. A new Mid Yeti has been added for 2022 with 65 miles, and the Mini Yeti returns with 35 miles and a challenging 4,000 feet of climbing. All rides begin and end at the headquarters for event host Ventum, which designs and sells gravel, road, and triathlon bicycles.

The name Yeti used for the routes refers to “a mythical beast that’s out there and is scary and unknown” and it has also been used by state tourism as a mascot for Ski Utah. 

There are “plenty of bailouts” on the course, he noted, as it is not an out-and-back design. He said they also take a lot of care to make sure riders are safe between points, as the location begins at high elevation, 5,600 feet, and it was supposed to be “super hard, an Everest event”. 

“I think with gravel and what makes it so attractive to me is that it’s open to everyone and everyone is able to participate in the same event, start at the same time, at least that was the format of our event. And you finish together and you get to compare yourself. Not many people got to go play on the same court as Michael Jordan, but in cycling you can ride the route that the champions race on. That makes cycling in general special,” Louder said. 

“I like the inclusiveness of gravel. That’s what was fun about the Crusher way back in the day, you raced against all these random people you didn’t know and it was super competitive and fun. It was a challenge and it was different and it was an adventure.  It wasn’t a ‘thing’ then, it wasn’t called gravel it was just a weird race.”

Putting on a bike race is really hard, Louder said, but he’s up for the challenge. 

“Nothing in sport is guaranteed. What got me hungry to promote a bike race is what I will fight to maintain in my bike race - it’s a small, community-oriented, inclusive environment where the emphasis is on a great challenge that is open to everyone. 

“Accessibility of gravel is what makes it really appealing to so many people. There aren’t a lot of hoops. You don’t have to worry about how tall your socks are.”

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Jackie Tyson
North American Production editor

Jackie has been involved in professional sports for more than 30 years in news reporting, sports marketing and public relations. She founded Peloton Sports in 1998, a sports marketing and public relations agency, which managed projects for Tour de Georgia, Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and USA Cycling. She also founded Bike Alpharetta Inc, a Georgia non-profit to promote safe cycling. She is proud to have worked in professional baseball for six years - from selling advertising to pulling the tarp for several minor league teams. She has climbed l'Alpe d'Huez three times (not fast). Her favorite road and gravel rides are around horse farms in north Georgia (USA) and around lavender fields in Provence (France), and some mtb rides in Park City, Utah (USA).