The Other Specialized Superteam
Most British cycling superstars are cultivated in a velodrome where they learn the way of marginal gains, sports psychology and gold medals until they are deemed fully grown, ready to be released into the wild world of road racing. Alternatively, some come by way of public funding and some even grow organically in a free-range, home-grown environment. Once in a while, one is plucked from the African savannah, stringy, ungainly and far from the traditional mould. One final path for the cycling young is by way of a development team, of which there are several, operating largely under the radar and drip feeding the professional peloton with exciting raw talent.
Built on legacy
Eddie Merckx’s cycling legacy is obvious, but his son Axel’s career was pretty modest in comparison. The 47-year-old Belgian completed eleven Grand Tours between 1993 and 2007, gathering three pro wins in total: one stage at the Giro d’Italia and the Criterium du Dauphiné, and the 2000 Belgian National Championship road title. He was never under any illusion that he could live up to the career of his father, but it is the contribution Axel is making to the future of cycling with Axeon Hagens Berman that is his own legacy for the sport.
In 2009, his development team project began, with such riders as Sam Bewley (Orica-Scott), Ben King (Dimension Data) and Taylor Phinney (Cannondale-Drapac) under his wing. Phinney won the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs U23 race in the first year and that was just the start of a long and exciting journey for Merckx Junior and his riders. Since 2009, 21 riders have passed through the Axel Merckx academy and graduated to the WorldTour ranks, including Alex Dowsett (Movistar), Ian Boswell and current US National Champion Gregory Daniel (Trek-Segafredo).
For the 2016 season, Specialized got on board as a kit supplier and provides the team of spectacular young talent with the best of equipment to supplement their success. The team ride the S-Works Tarmac frame on the road, equipped with only the best components including SRAM Red eTAP, Quarq Power Meter, and Zipp carbon wheels wrapped in S-Works Turbo tyres. The Specialized Shiv, similarly tricked out with top components, is the team’s chosen machine for time trials – and the riders also benefit from all the advantages that come with Specialized helmets and road shoes.
Alongside Specialized, another newcomer to the Axeon Hagens Berman for 2016 was young Irish climbing power house Eddie Dunbar. Before even signing with Merckx’s team, he had already marked himself out as an aggressive rider with a mature tactical head on his shoulders, and he proved this with aplomb at Ronde Van Vlaanderen Beloften. At the Under-23 edition of the iconic classic, Dunbar launched a blistering attack, shattering the three-man breakaway to cross the finish line solo, 49 seconds ahead of the field.
Also tasting success at the weekend was new signing from Ecuador, Jhonatan Narvaez, who successfully defended the general classification jersey at the Circuit des Ardennes. But the team’s winning weekend didn’t stop there, as young American multi-disciplinarian Christopher Blevins took up the gauntlet and triumphed on the mountain bike. BMX rider, turned MTB racer, turned road warrior, Blevins took what he has learned on the road to the cross-country MTB track to take a convincing win at the MTB US Cup at Bonelli Park. Thus, rounding out a sensational weekend for Merckx’s American-registered, multi-national development team.
Though the team’s friendly, family atmosphere is never in doubt, no one expects to stick around for very long. Neither is a contract under Axel Merckx a free pass into the World Tour. That said, purposefully delaying the jump to professional is a common trend at Axeon Hagens-Berman, and for smart and sensible reasons over a lack of interest from top teams. Both Greg Daniel and Tao Geoghegan Hart had contracts presented to them at the end of 2015, but the two promising young climbers chose to stick with Axel Merckx, putting off domestique duties at WorldTour level for one more year. Merckx explains, “If you move up faster, you might not have the same opportunity to learn, because you’re going to have to go get bottles, or rain jackets, or pull all day. You don’t really learn exactly how to win if you make the move too fast.”
And learn to win they certainly do. Just take a look through the names who have gone to the top of the sport and you will see that the Merckx effect is a powerful one.
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