Developing future cycling stars is harder than ever, admits Merckx

ONTARIO, CA - MAY 16:  Axel Merckx (C) director of the Axeon Cycling Team talks with his father Eddy Merckx (R) as Tao Geoghegan Hart (L) of Great Britain riding for Axeon Cycling warms up prior to the start of stage seven of the 2015 Amgen Tour of California from Ontario to Mt. Baldy on May 16, 2015 in Ontario, California.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Axel Merckx, director of the Axeon Cycling Team, talks with father Eddy Merckx as new Giro d'Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart warms up at the 2015 Tour of California

By Andrew Greaves

Axel Merckx admits watching his alumni light up this year's Giro d'Italia was a 'beautiful' moment.

The Belgian former rider – son of the legendary Eddy – not only helped guide the early career of overall winner Tao Geoghegan Hart but also that of 15-day race leader Joao Almeida, king of the mountains Ruben Guerreiro and stage winners Alex Dowsett and Jhonatan Narváez.

All those riders, plus another 21 pros plying their trade at World Tour level this season, came through the ranks of his Hagens Berman Axeon development team in the US.

But watching the phenomenal success those riders have enjoyed this month is also bittersweet for Merckx. His team is feeling the pinch financially and will start the 2021 season with a much-reduced roster of young talent.

Such is cycling's ecosystem, development teams can't command big money for the riders they develop – in the same way as football clubs do for their young stars – and despite moves by the sport's governing body the UCI to try and get World Tour teams to support both development and women's teams, Merckx doesn't believe it's working.

He said: "We've had some rocky times financially. The team almost collapsed one year after Tao was on it and luckily we had Neil Hutchinson and the Neon Adventure who basically stepped in and saved us and they're still on board.

"It's not just support needed for teams like ours but also for the junior ranks. It should trickle down. We need less budget than a World Tour team and junior teams need less than we do so it should come down from the top.

"The problem we have is that cycling has no revenue. If there's no revenue then the transfer fees are limited and World Tour teams are struggling themselves to get their budget together, let alone trying to cover the transfer or fees for development going forward.

"The UCI is implementing a rule that every WT team has to have a development team or a women's team or they pay a fee to the World Cycling Centre in Aigle in Switzerland. It's a great idea but it doesn't help us or any junior team down below.

"It doesn't help anyone other than the UCI itself."

A budget of $2.2million two years ago became $1.2million for this season and, as it stands, that will drop to $950,000 for 2021.

Despite budget cuts – and the added expense of having to bring riders over to race in Europe given the depressed nature of the US domestic scene – the team continues to produce impressive results.

Next year, two more riders, the American Kevin Vermaerke and Portuguese Andre Carvalho – will make the step up to the World Tour taking the total number of graduates to make he grade in cycling's top division to 38.

And Merckx is confident even more will follow the likes of Geoghegan Hart to success – as long as they buy into his philosophy of patience.

He said: "My goal is to make them cyclists for many years to come and it's not just a two-

year get up there and get your butt kicked before coming back down and struggling to find a team.

"I've had stories where a rider didn't follow my advice and just went up, barely survived the two years and then couldn't find a contract and was done. The hardest part for those guys is not the first contract they sign, it's the second one.

"Most of the time you get a two-year contract and if you spend six months to a year adjusting to the World Tour then that's half of your time that you have wasted if you haven't got the results right away."

It is clear Merckx still shares a strong bond with the riders who have graduated from his programme, including Geoghegan Hart with who he stays in regular contact.

Merckx says his alumni are his best talent scouts and their belief in the Hagens Berman Axeon project was clear to see during the Giro, with riders from across the World Tour quick to point out where the success stemmed from.

Whether that leads to greater financial backing remains to be seen but Merckx is like a proud father when talking about the level his former protégés have reached.

And for Geoghegan Hart, Merckx proved a useful muse as he rode himself into contention for the pink jersey.

Merckx said: "Before the Giro we were chatting about what he was doing, what his goal was and then as it progressed we messaged back and forth and he was super happy with the stage win for Alex (Dowsett) and he thought it was great for the programme (to get the recognition).

"Then Jhonatan (Narváez) won a stage and I said 'you're going to be the next one', jokingly, and we had a laugh about it and then a couple of days later he won the stage.

"He looked very comfortable and I messaged him that night and said 'you are my curveball, you are the rider that they will never see coming and then in the last week you'll get there' and I said that genuinely because he said he was feeling good, never feeling he could win the Giro but knowing that he could make a difference in the race.

"He put himself in that situation. Tactically they did a great job, they were excellent. Rohan Dennis was unbelievably strong, he made a world of difference in the end. All those factors meant that he went into the last time-trial with the same time as Jai Hindley and from then it was just about being the best he could be."