“I’m proud of what I’ve created after my career”: Axel Merckx on how his work off the bike has created a stepping stone to the World Tour for young riders

“Not all roads lead to Rome,” says Axel Merckx as he ponders the success of some of the cyclists he has helped to nurture over the last decade through his US-based development team.

Some British cycling fans got a first look at the Hagens Berman Axeon team when they debuted at this year’s Tour de Yorkshire, but their impact on these shores has already been considerable.

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The race in the white rose county is a prime example: Chris Lawless became its first ever British winner, while Irishman Eddie Dunbar was third – both men having graduated from Merckx’s team.

Another of Team Ineos’ rising British stars, Tao Geoghegan Hart, also spent his formative years with Axeon, while Alex Dowsett was among Merckx’s first major graduates.

It is not the conventional route to the top – the British Cycling Academy programme continues to churn out the majority of the country’s leading riders.

But Merckx – who also counts WorldTour stars like Taylor Phinney, George Bennett and Jasper Stuyven among his former tutees – has built an impressive legacy.

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“I’m not saying the Academy doesn’t do a good job – I think it does an exceptional job – but it’s a compliment to see riders going down a different route and still making it,” Merckx says of the British graduates.

Son of The Cannibal, Merckx might be better known to many for his famous father, but spent his entire career promising to make his own mark.

While his career, including a Giro d’Italia stage win, national road race title and Olympic bronze medal, may have been more modest, he has since done that with his work off the bike.

Founded as a feeder team for Team RadioShack in 2009, they did not have to wait long to make a mark as 19-year-old Phinney won the first of his back-to-back Paris-Roubaix Espoirs titles.

Phinney earned more success the following year, including the national time trial title, while Ben King won the national road race and Dowsett caught the eye before graduating to Team Sky.

After Dowsett and Phinney moved up to the top tier of professional cycling, meanwhile, the path from Merckx’s team to the top has been well-trodden.

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Bennett has gone onto become a Grand Tour top-ten finisher; Stuyven is a Classics contender; Jasper de Buyst has enjoyed track and one-day success; and that is without even looking at their vast array of American successes.

Joe Dombrowski, Ian Boswell, Nate Brown, Lawson Craddock, Will Barta, Sam Bewley, Ben King and Logan Owen are among those to have cut their teeth with the team.

Merckx says he remains the ‘first fan’ of his former protegees – including Lawless and Dunbar in Yorkshire, despite them technically being opponents.

“We’re really proud,” he says. “It’s so great and it’s so fun to see them carrying on and continuing to develop and being on top of their sport with the best in the world. It’s more people to cheer for.

“I’m really proud of what we created and how far we’ve gone. I’m proud of my career but I’m almost prouder of what I created after my career.

“It’s something we’ve built from the ground. Bearing the name means a lot of responsibility, and I’m recognised for my work both as an athlete and for what I’ve done after my career and that’s something I’m very proud of.”

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As well as Yorkshire, Hagens Berman Axeon’s current crop of young stars – which include Liege-Bastogne-Liege under-23 winner Kevin Vermaerke and UCI Hour Record hopeful Mikkel Bjerg – raced the Amgen Tour of California.

The latter has been a key fixture in the team’s calendar throughout their history, but the WorldTour’s expansion in 2017 to include the race has forced changes upon them.

Axeon now races at UCI ProContinental level, having taken the step-up last year, and with the enhanced status come additional challenges off the bike not just on it.

Merckx explains: “We have the ProConti status but we don’t have the budget for it.

“We do have more budget than we did – because otherwise we couldn’t do California and that was the main reason [for stepping up] – but with the current state of affairs it’s becoming more and more difficult to stay ProConti.

“The UCI reforms next year require 20 riders [per team] at ProConti level so that’s requiring more money for salary, biological passports and all the other things that come into the equation.”

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But the Belgian is keen to continue to his legacy if he can, admitting the long-term support of partners like Steve Berman and, in the UK, investment group Neon Adventures keeps him motivated.

“We’ve done really good work over the last 11 years and it’s been a lot of fun,” Merckx says.

“It’s just finding the people that are motivated to still invest in development and that’s the key – those people are not necessarily easy to find.

“I’ve been lucky to find something that inspires me and in which I can really share my passion and experience with those athletes.

“Once you find something you really care for and that you can build off and that carries your legacy, it’s something you are proud of so you want to keep it going for as long as possible.

“At the same time, you want to try to keep it as successful as possible also – it’s catch 22.”

Success so far is clear to see, however, and Merckx insists the gap from the top of the sport to the lower levels – which he is helping athletes’ bridge – remains a vast one.

Opportunities such as the Hagens Berman Axeon team, married with increasing success in academies worldwide, means there are more chances to make it.

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But the field from which the top teams can choose their riders has also widened, which means Merckx takes pride in his focus on developing his protegees off the bike too.

“It’s a pretty competitive world out there,” he says. “Cycling has developed in such a way that there are more and more opportunities to be racing internationally for all levels.

“It is great, but it makes the top way wider in that [elite] riders are coming from all different nations.

“But we are trying to maintain that connection, and what we are trying to do is develop riders in a way that they’re professional on the bike and off the bike – so sponsor relationships, behaviour with staff, being respectful of the code of ethics and things like that.

“I’m not saying other teams don’t do that, but we really push on that to ensure the riders can represent any brand out there for as long as they have a contract and also beyond.”

Of the current crop, Vermaerke and Bjerg are already making headlines, suggesting there is plenty more to come, but Merckx admits such success is the easier side of the job.

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“The most important part of my job is to be there when things are down,” he states. “When they win races and they are successful, they don’t need more than that.

“When they are struggling or have a lack of form, that’s when I need to step in and try and find a solution.”

There is also the continuing battle behind the scenes to attract sponsors and investors – and the ever-present risk of funding being cut.

In Britain, the demise of JLT-Condor, for example – despite their own track record of developing young riders – is a stark reminder of cycling’s fickle nature.

Merckx admits he is forever ‘cautiously pessimistic’ about the future, and knows the challenge remains to keep investors as motivated as he is.

“It’s hard to find investment,” he confesses. “Ideally you need to find a partner that believes in your programme and also has a financial interest in it, where they can see what the return is on their investment.

“As much as I respect Steve Berman for what he does – and I hope he will stay with us a long time – [Hagens Berman] remain a law firm.

“You have to be cautious because one day he might feel it’s time for something else. That’s the equation with most teams up there.

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“We have also Neil Hutchinson from Britain [Neon Adventures], who has invested in the team for many, many years and still believes in the programme.

“They might not be as visual as Berman, but the Neon group have been with us and actually saved the team a couple of years ago when we were struggling.

“You need to find those people and you need to be able to motivate them to keep investing their money.”

So far, however, Merckx’s team has done exactly that. From Phinney to Vermaerke, the team’s legacy in the cycling world is plain to see.

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On British and Irish shores, Dowsett, Geoghegan Hart, Lawless and Dunbar continue to fly the flag.

As he admits, bearing his family name given his father’s unmatched success brings a level of responsibility.

But Axel Merckx has ensured his cycling legacy will be a lasting one in its own way too.

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