By Gregor Brown
Axel Merckx is thankful for the many successful amateurs who he helped become professionals because they are giving back to his U.S. team Axeon Hagens Berman.
Merckx, son of cycling great Eddy Merckx, has been managing the team for nine years turning it into something of a talent factory, producing recent professionals Taylor Phinney (Cannondale-Drapac), Alex Dowsett (Movistar), and Ian Boswell and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Sky).
"The programme has proven so many things over the last years where now guys really want to come to us because they believe it's the best path to make it to the professional ranks," Merckx told Cycling Weekly.
"That's all thanks to our previous riders that have made the results. In the beginning, we were trying to persuade riders to join our team, and now it's a little bit easier. It's not a given because we don't get all the riders that I want, but for sure it's easier than a few years ago."
The team began as Trek-Livestrong and through the years continued as Bontrager and Bissell. The tall blond Belgian, who raced as a professional until 2007, has sent 21 cyclists to WorldTour teams.
"The riders want to come because they have friends that have written them to talk about it, explain what the team has done for them. And of course, we also have agents offering riders to us, we have riders of sending CVs, and my staff is actively looking for looking and giving me their opinions,” explained Merckx.
"I can't really say that it's one channel but numerous channels. The team is widely known. The top guys want to ride on your team because they see what the others have done and how they made it to the professionals."
Watch: 2017 season preview with Team Sky's Tao Geoghegan Hart
Some of the 2016 alumni include Brit Tao Geoghegan Hart, who joined team Sky, Americans Justin Oien (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and Gregory Daniel (Trek-Segafredo), and Portuguese Ruben Guerreiro (Trek-Segafredo). Guerreiro, 22, has already picked up two top-10 finishes at the Tour Down Under.
"Jeff Louder was working for us last year riders. Jeff saw [Michael Rice] race the Tour de Beauce and Joe Martin. I never saw him, but then we talked and that's how it began," added Merckx.
"Ruben Guerreiro, no one knew about him but I get to know him through an agent. I took a chance on him, he had a great attitude and good potential, and that made it exciting for me. I was excited when I saw him flourish and get results.
“Ruben Guerreiro put me in touch with the two Portuguese guys that we have this year... that's how it works. He wants to see those guys have the same opportunities that he had."
WorldTour team managers respect his word, knowing he will not sugar-coat his riders’ abilities.
One advantage he has is that his Colorado-based team is not tied to any professional team, so they can work with any of the top ones. He also works along with the USA Cycling.
The American cyclists will spend part the season racing for the federation, at races like the Tour de l'Avenir, and part of it with Merckx.
His talent factory should produce more neo-professionals for 2018. The 2017 roster includes 16 cyclists ages 18 to 21. Many insiders speak of 19-year-old American Adrien Costa, who placed second overall in the Tour of Utah, third in L'Avenir and won the Tour de Bretagne.
"We also have Neilson Powless who did a great job in the Tour of California. Logan Owen won the Under 23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year. Even Chris Lawless, who is the British criterium champion," Merckx said.
"We have riders with many different with different qualities. I hate to put one name in front of the other."
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