The Axeon Way
For almost a decade Axel Merckx’s team has developed a culture where young cyclists thrive. Here’s how they do it.
All photos © Wil Matthews Photo, video © Sam Smith
Edward Anderson was with his high school English class at a Shakespeare comedy last year when he got some seriously awesome news. Just after the performance of “Twelfth Night,” his phone buzzed with the triumphant text:
“Axel made an offer.”
That’s Axel Merckx of Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team, the world’s top U23 development squad. An invitation from Merckx has become the most sought after opportunity for top young cyclists across the world. Axeon Hagens Berman’s recipe for success is a team-centered atmosphere that emphasizes fun and accountability, personal development and aggressive racing tactics.
That culture of passion and hard work permeates the team from its popular #PROVEIT hashtag to the prized crossed ax stickers (like those U.S. college football players put on their helmets) riders receive for great results or efforts. To paraphrase “Twelfth Night,” Axeon Hagens Berman is all about helping cyclists achieve greatness, or to be ready when it’s thrust upon them. Since its inaugural season in 2009, 21 team riders have earned contracts with WorldTour teams. Last year Axeon Hagens Berman won a team record 36 races, including eight national titles and three team classifications. The team also regularly achieves top results and animates races against seasoned pros at the Amgen Tour of California and Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
With its ever evolving collection of young riders, Axeon Hagens Berman is guided by a culture that emphasizes progress, accountability, and fun. The crossed axes and #PROVEIT hashtag capture the team's aggressive approach to racing.
Just as importantly, riders strive for greatness off the bike. A fun, family-like atmosphere helps temper the intense stresses and ups and downs of pro cycling. Within that comfort zone, riders learn to interact with the media. They learn the importance of being on time. Riders also do laundry or other chores, especially if they’re late.
Axeon Hagens Berman rookies pick up on the team culture right away. “It already feels like a tight-knit community,” said team rookie Edward Anderson, 18, of Richmond, Va.
Burritos, pancakes, laughter
The 2017 season is one of transition. Eight of the 16 riders are newcomers. Seven of the eight riders moving on will continue to pursue pro cycling careers including three WorldTour riders: U.S. Pro Road Champion Greg Daniel (Trek-Segafredo) Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Sky), and Ruben Guerreiro (Trek-Segafredo). Having Axeon Hagens Berman “graduates” land on top teams acts as a recruiting tool. Jonny Brown of Tenneesee follows his brother Nathan Brown (now on Cannondale-Drapac) onto the team. Sprinter Chris Lawless was recruited by follow Brit Geoghegan Hart. “Tao has been saying, ‘Come to Axeon, come to Axeon!’ the past two years,” Lawless said.
Much like a college team, Axeon Hagens Berman is in perpetual rebuilding mode. “We do have some assets and some major pillars of the team that stayed with us,” said general manager Axel Merckx, citing team standouts Neilson Powless, Adrien Costa and Logan Owen. “Although we have half of a new team, I still feel like we can fall back on a good base of what our accomplishments were in 2016. Therefore I feel pretty confident that the results will be pretty positive this year.”
Axel Merckx (top) leads a 2017 squad that includes standouts Neilson Powless (middle), and Adrien Costa.
Axeon Hagens Berman is as diverse as some UCI ProContinental or WorldTour teams. Its 2017 roster is comprised of 16 riders from six nations (four continents) including climber Jhonatan Narvaez of Ecuador and the team’s first set of twins, track standouts Ivo and Rui Oliveira of Portugal.
The season starts in January at training camp in Calabasas, Calif. The location offers challenging rides in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains and fulfilling homemade meals (pre-ride breakfast burritos and pancakes with plump chocolate chips) from the bike-themed Pedalers Fork restaurant. Riders chat or check their phones. Another social time occurs as riders make their way to the team trailer before the daily ride to find their perfectly clean SRAM RED eTap and Zipp-equipped bikes waiting.
“It’s a lot of getting to know each guy and what their preferences with the bike are and how they like their bikes set up, where they want the brakes,” Axeon Hagens Berman head mechanic Eric Fostvedt said of team camp. “I just try to sort out the personalities so you know how to communicate with them in a positive manner. There’s a lot of paying attention to what each rider wants and needs and making sure they have what they need so they feel like they’re getting the support they need. Guys are different. Some guys, you hand them a bike and everything is great. Some guys do change the bike day-to-day, saddle height. Bar rotation.”
Mechanics Eric Fostvedt, top, and Tre Wideman dial in each rider's bike down to details including bar rotation and stem lenth and model. Max, Wideman's dog, is in charge of keeping the mood light around the team trailer.
Showing Off for Axel
When it comes to bike tech, Axeon Hagens Berman culture intertwines with SRAM culture. With SRAM as one of the team’s founding sponsors, this cross influence has grown over the years. Merckx often talks about his team as having a focus on development of equipment as well as riders. Axeon Hagens Berman athletes were key test riders of SRAM RED eTap and Zipp NSW Carbon Clinchers. In 2014, the team recorded the first pro victory aboard eTap when Nicholai Brochner sprinted to victory in Stage 2 of Silver City’s Tour of Gila. Having professionally-maintained, cutting-edge bikes is novel to many of the team’s new riders. Such interaction with SRAM teaches valuable lessons on how athletes can work with sponsors in productive ways.
Pursuing a career in pro cycling means tough training and racing in all conditions. General manager Axel Merckx said his riders typically have high expections for themselves, so he tries to create a family-like atmosphere that helps temper that internal pressure.
Most Axeon Hagens Berman riders list the training rides as their favorite part of camp. It’s where they chat and compete. Each camp includes mammoth rides, some with upward of 10,000 feet of climbing. The 20-minute FTP (Functional Threshold Power) test gets intense. “Everyone wants to show off and see who’s the best sometimes, especially to try to impress Axel and the other sport directors,” said Eddie Dunbar of Ireland. “It can be hard sometimes, but it’s good fun.”
When the pace is easier, training rides provide a relaxed backdrop for team chemistry to jell. “Maybe on the bike it’s a little easier to talk with someone. If you have a moment of silence, it’s not like that awkward moment of silence if you’re riding. It’s a good way to meet everyone,” said Will Barta, a third-year team member from Idaho.
‘Actions have consequences. You teach them that now.’
In addition to Merckx and sports directors Jeff Louder and Koos Moerenhout, riders soon realize one of the central figures in their lives is Reed McCalvin, team assistant manager and head soigneur. McCalvin is involved with most every aspect of the team, from recruiting riders to massaging them. He holds them accountable to one another, listens to their concerns, and keeps them laughing with humorous lines or social media posts.
Just a bunch of guys who love riding bikes...
“The kids need someone to believe in them, someone to listen to them, someone not to talk down with them,” McCalvin said. “You talk to them like adults because 18, 19, 20 year olds are adults, as much as we don’t think it because now we’re older. But when we were 20 we weren’t like, (insert ‘Leave it to Beaver’ high voice) ‘Oh, gosh golly gee!’
“We were like, oh, ‘I know everything. This guy over here, this 28 year old, doesn’t know what’s going on.’ You talk to these kids like they’re adults, but you still try to guide them and give them choices. That’s what I do. I try to offer them choices, like ‘Is that a good choice? Is being late a good choice? Because what happens when we’re late? If you’re late then these seven guys who are here on time are late, the two of us are late, then Axel is late. So who does that ultimately affect? It affects your boss, the guy who decides your career and life output… If you’re late with me, I make you do laundry or clean the car. Actions have consequences. You teach them that now.”
“It goes back to our no (stronger word than jerk) policy ... That’s a big thing with our team,” McCalvin said.
Axeon Hagens Berman’s expectation of collaboration runs back to the early years of the team with examples set by high-profile riders including American Taylor Phinney, a past U23 world champion and multi-time Olympian.
“Taylor Phinney was here when I first started out, and he has a big personality as we all know.… One of his big pros is, if it’s his day it’s his day. If it’s not his day, he’ll do anything for anybody. So if there’s a GC (general classification) guy whose best chance was to get 27th overall, Taylor would work for him, even though on a lot of teams that’s not how it would work. But then on his day, that guy would work hard for him.
“That sort of went through that first generation of guys, ‘oh, he wants to help me, and he’s a big rider,”’ McCalvin said.
Getting bottles, striving for victory
A dedicated U23 development team must balance roles where riders often race in support of others but also have opportunities so shine on their own. Will Barta estimates he’s had as many as seven or eight water bottles stuffed under his jersey performing domestique duty, a role he enjoys. Yet U23 racers face enormous pressure, much of it from their own high expectations. “I know to get to the next level I need to go for myself a little bit more and try to pick up some results,” he said.
For team veteran Logan Owen, the 2015 Tour of Utah was an intense teachable moment.
For Logan Owen of Washington State, in his fourth year on the team, that big result came in a mass sprint on Stage 2 of the 2015 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
“I was up there fighting with those guys. I wasn’t backing down,” Owen said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, I can actually fight with these guys and race with them.’”
He finished sixth. Owen won Stage 3 the next day.
Californian Geoffrey Curran, with sport director Jeff Louder and Axel Merckx, is a fourth-year team member known for his infectious drive. "When you race with guys, you get to know each other very fast,” he said.
Merckx, an accomplished pro himself, has learned much from his lifelong immersion in cycling. He loves aggressive team-oriented racing. He also knows riders need a comfort zone to fall back on to perform their best in those intense moments.
“The real strength of this team is not Adrien. It’s not Neilson. It’s not Logan. It’s really the team itself. It’s complimentary between all of the elements and all of the riders on the team,” Merckx said. “On any given day, on any given stage race, there is an opportunity for everyone to have results, to get in the breakaway. Sometimes the breakaway sticks and gets to the finish. For us, it’s very important to be present as a team, to work with each other as a team and results will come as a team also.”
That’s the essence of the Axeon Way. From the team, individuals achieve greatness.