British riders wanting to develop their cycling career, but who want an alternative to the British Cycling Academy system, can find refuge in the USA with Axel Merckx.
Merckx’s Under-23 team helped British riders Alex Dowsett and Tao Geoghegan Hart become professionals, and is now doing so with Chris Lawless.
Merckx’s Axeon Hagens Berman is the USA’s top development team. Its 2016 alumni includes Geoghegan Hart, now with Team Sky, and Gregory Daniel and Ruben Guerreiro, both now with team Trek-Segafredo this year.
“I am not naturally trying to look for British talents, but we’ve been lucky enough to have those guys,” Merckx told Cycling Weekly.
“Those guys want to explore something else and not necessarily stay attached to British Cycling. I don’t think it fit their personalities 100 per cent and they take the opportunity to ride for us.”
Merckx, the son of cycling great Eddy Merckx, raced through 2007. He lives in Canada with his wife and manages the Colorado-based team.
It began as Trek-Livestrong and included Sam Bewley (now with Orica-Scott) and Taylor Phinney (Cannondale-Drapac) in 2009. Dowsett raced for one year in 2010.
Dowsett said at the time that he did not have a chance racing for Sky in its debut year and turned down an offer with Rapha Condor Sharp for 2010 when Merckx came along.
That year, Merckx’s team took him to the Tour of Qatar, the Tour of Oman and to the Tour de l’Avenir. He turned professional with Sky in 2011 and after two years, switched to Movistar.
Geoghegan Hart raced from 2014 with Merckx. He liked it so much, he decided to stay another year in 2016 instead of turning professional one year earlier.
Others Brits found other routes. Daniel Martin struggled to fit into a track-focused academy and took out an Irish racing licence. Simon Yates went through the Academy, but his twin brother Adam took another path with amateur teams France, including CC Etupes.
“Lawless is a different story because he had a contract with One Pro, but then they lost their [second division] licence and so he contacted us and asked if there was an opportunity,” Merckx continued.
“He will have a better opportunity for a WorldTour contract next year. Tao naturally recommended this team to Chris. That’s an example of how our alumni help us recruit.”
For US cyclists like Adrien Costa or in the past, Ian Boswell and Joe Dombrowski, Merckx’s team meshes well with the national federation. They may race some events with Axeon Hagens Berman and some with USA Cycling, depending on the event.
The combination allows them more race days and allows the team to share expenses. Boswell explained, “Otherwise it’s hard to get 50 race days for an U23 rider.”
“It’s also the strength of the programme that we’ve had with USA Cycling,” Merckx added. “Not every cycling federation has been open to this environment.
“We share the same goals. We try to make them the best possible athletes in the long run, neither of us is trying to take the credit for it. It’s better for USA Cycling, they know where the rider came from.
“Other federations and academies are different because they don’t like to share, they want to have all the credit for the talent that’s out there. They are stuck into one way of working.
“I think the more a cyclist is exposed to different environments the easier it is for him to adapt to the professional environment.”