Matt McNamara has been lucky enough to see the workings of Team Axeon at their recent Californian training camp and get the word on this year’s riders from the main man Axel Merckx. The project has brought some big names to the pro peloton in its seven years and there’s much more to come.
Team Axeon rolls in from another day in the saddle. The sun is bright, the riders tired and hungry. They have one more task before they can descend on the food. A quick round of marketing shots. Head on. A couple of passes each for the press guides. The riders move through the responsibility efficiently and depart for showers and the coveted food, secure in the knowledge that they are one day closer to racing.
Meet The Team
Team Axeon, an amalgam of the team owner’s own “Axel Merckx Project” and primary team sponsor Neon Adventures, is entering its seventh year upsetting the status quo in the pro peloton. Over that time they have consistently shaken impressive results from the tree in both the U.S. and Europe. Taylor Phinney, Lawson Craddock, Ian Boswell, Joe Dombrowski, Gavin Mannion, and others… all have matured here and moved up.
A few weeks back I spent a couple of days with the team at the end of their camp. This year’s squad, twelve riders averaging just 20.2 years in age, is one of the youngest they’ve fielded. And while the prestige of the new group is largely yet to be determined, history speaks well for the riders making up the team. That isn’t to say they don’t have experience. Indeed, this team is fairly stuffed with talent and experience, however, in speaking with both the riders and Axel himself, it is clear that the goal of having a true developmental program is fundamental.
Axel summarized: “I’m just looking for talent and a commitment to a program like ours, to a learning experience. It‘s a young group. They don’t really know where they are at yet. Some guys have started as sprinters and end up as climbers. Gavin Mannion is a perfect example. He came to the team as a ‘classics’ guy and ended up as one of our best climbers in the group.”
To a man, each embraced their education as simple fact. They are here to learn about racing, see how far they can push themselves and help each other. As long as a rider shows progression and commitment, they will have a spot in the rotation, and the chance to continue their development.
Justin Oien, in his first year with Axeon after stepping up from U.S. domestic squad Cal-Giant last year, is representative of that ethos. Well spoken and thoughtful beyond his 19 years, Justin looks at the opportunity in his lap with a measured view: “ride your bike, have fun, and the results will come.” He is the antithesis of a power geek, although working with Coach Corey Hart he has adopted a stronger work ethic coming into the season, embracing the structure and volume now demanded.
Geoffrey Curran carries a similar disposition. Twenty years old and a second year team member, he is an Orange County native and describes himself as “just a bike rider” while still working to define his niche in the sport. When speaking of one’s niche, Curran sagely comments “what you thought you were is probably not what you are now.” He then went on to label himself a “former climber trying to get back to that bird status.”
Curran, along with team veterans like twenty-two year old James Oram, entering his fourth season, third year rider Greg Daniel (22), and a slew of second year riders including Logan Owen, 21, Chris Putt (21), and Tao Geohagen Hart (20), form a solid first line of this largely Stage Race (nee GC) based group.
Keegan Swirbul, also 20, who was 2nd at U23 Nationals last year and renowned for his off bike parcours adventures (search you tube), is actually most proud of his cross country skiing National Championship. He earned it in the 10 kilometer. Took about 25 minutes. He lives by the idea of “never stress over cycling.” His calendar takes him to Europe in May after Tour of the Gila. The kid from Aspen, Colorado has yet to climb a Fourteen’er on foot. Dude?
Dan Eaton (Axel’s One Word: “Strong”) rode as a stagiaire for 1/2 of the 2014 season before jumping to the full team this year. On this year’s squad Will Barta (Axel’s One Word: “Neo”) and Phillip O’Donnell (Axel’s One Word: Grounded) are filling a similar role. Each is racing with the National Team for a large swath of the season, and will pick up races with Axeon to fill out the schedule.
The season is just unfolding and these guys are clearly chomping at the bit. The team will run a similar schedule to previous seasons: Spring racing in Portugal, Italy, Belgium, and the U23 classics. Head back to the U.S. for the week long tours and some of the best one day races on offer. There are lots of opportunities to create havoc and earn a result if the team executes well.
They certainly hit the ground running this year with a stage and overall GC win from new rider Ruben Guerreiro (20) at the GP Liberty Seguros that wrapped up on March 22nd.
On March 25th James Oram took out the win in the 33rd Volta al Alentejo with Ruben Guerreiro second. Guerreiro, a twenty year-old first year rider from Portugal earned Axel’s One Word: “Interesting”
Oram turned pro at 18. 2nd in Worlds TT, L’Abitibi winner and aspiring pack sprinter (ok, not really) he’s looking forward to a big season in some of the most demanding stage races in the World including the full slate of rides in Utah, Colorado and California. This season, his fourth with the team, he’s a grizzled veteran and de facto road captain when the situation arises. Coached by former FDJ rider Tim Gunsal, neither are servants to numbers and train based on how he’s feeling and responding to the load. He feels he’s on a good track to a coveted World Tour spot by the end of the season. The win sure didn’t hurt! Axel’s One Word: “Calm”
Greg Daniel (20), also has a strong calendar as he’ll once again be racing all of the big US stage races. After last year’s success (2nd stage 4 at California, 2nd stage one in Colorado), stage results are a focus as he looks to burnish the palmares in anticipation of stepping up to a Pro Tour team after his two remaining years at Axeon are done. “I’m as strong now as at California last year…so big improvements for sure.” He then fairly beams: “I’d rather get a stage result than be 18th on GC.” Axel’s One Word: “Aggressive”
Chris Putt, 21, second year on the team, legit climber. Five years of racing savvy in tow he heads to Ronde de L’Isard in France May 21-24 looking for a stage result, perhaps on the famed Plateau de Beille of Stage 2. He was 11th on GC last year. A Park City native, the Tour of Utah is high on his radar for later in the season. Scotty Nydam is coaching him this year and volume is a growing friend. A semi power nerd, he can talk numbers, but is also one of the more outspoken and boisterous of the group. He’s the kid who might just pull off an April Fools’ joke. Axel’s One Word: “Climber”
Dedication, determination, and passion are the key elements to success according to Merckx, who’s done a consistently impressive job of bringing athletes forward to World Tour/Professional status, towards their own true potential. Through the team they also develop a variety of skills and responsibilities; shuttling bottles, talking to press, recovery. The building blocks for success in the pro peloton, ready made.
A large part of that success is built on the camaraderie of the team. Year to year the riders are reinforcing success with each other and have an environment where progress is measured on a largely different scale than a pro tour team might foster. Merckx noted “As a US team we are 80% US riders… to get the chance to do Tour of California is a huge bonus for those riders.” Only 18 or 20 teams get invites, including a wide swath of the Pro Tour, so that experience is priceless. The same with Utah and Colorado.
Phil O’Donnell, Pays du Vaud and Athens Twilight are his favorites so far. New to the team, he’s quick witted. Phil is doing a long stint on the National Team this year including U23 Flanders. It’s the kind of dream season for a young racer who likes most everything. Axel’s One Word: “Grounded”
The team is astride Cipollini Bikes this year, the RB800. Sleek, with an integrated seat mast and classically massive front fork, the bikes are an across the board hit with the team. They are outfitted head to toe with a full complement of SRAM components including Zipp’s top of the line “Firecrest” wheels, “Service Course” bars and stems, and Quarq power meters. Training bikes carry primarily Force level components, a great bombproof choice on a not-quite-pro-tour budget, while race bikes are all outfitted in Red 22. The riders use Zipp 404’s at home and have the full complement of sizes available for racing.
I particularly liked the service course handlebars. I saw two of the three bends on offer via an SL-70 Ergo and SL-88 traditional geometry. I immediately liked the drop and configuration of both options. The SL-70 series offers a short reach and somewhat short drop of 128mm, offering more room for the knees and body when sprinting. Longer reach and deeper drop, up to 130mm, gives the SL-88 a more traditional look.
Short Reach, Ergo Grip, Short Lower Longer reach, Longer lower
The Bikes Stand Out
The equipment sponsors work hand in hand with the team on many occasions. SRAM is a great example. It was last year’s team that had the prototype SRAM Wireless system (they went so far as to insert dummy cables and wiring to throw off other teams and press), and actually pulled the first ever win for the still unreleased prototype with Nicolai Brochner’s stage win at Gila.
Staff Makes The Difference
That it is a small staff is a starting point. The depth chart goes from manager/director Axel Merckx, to head soigneur Reed McCalvin (think of him as the team’s drill sergeant/USO Manager) and mechanics Eric Fostvedt and Zack Foley, then we get really deep with Marketing/Communications guy Nick Shuley. Yep, five staff. Pretty sure job descriptions are starting points. These are the guys living that thing you think you’d like to do.
“Staff was the hardest part in the beginning. Slowly I met some people. Reed was with us since year 2, but with Taylor (Phinney) in Europe last year, he’s back this year, he’s for sure a key element to this team. He’s the glue; they are all the glue between me and the riders.”
Head mechanic Eric Fostvedt, according to Axel “has been with us for four years, I knew we would be working together eventually”, so when the situation came up “I hired him right away ” Eric is in charge of the roughly 50 team bikes and related equipment. Zack Foley is the newest addition, also a mechanic he is an essential second in the bike wars and comes with high quality work experience in shops and on the road.
Nick has been with the program from the beginning and is responsible for all aspects of off the bike presentation, sponsor relations and is a master of moving lots of work in support of the 60-70 days of racing on the schedule each year. That it takes all twelve months to accomplish those days is not lost on anyone familiar with the racing lifestyle.
This close knit group fosters a true family atmosphere and a general attitude of calm professionalism permeates. Zack and Erik, are perfect examples. Low key, diligent, and easy going, they’re exactly what you want in a mechanic, unflappable. Erik took my last minute pre ride requests for a pump, etc in stride and Zack walked and talked with me for forty minutes as I got some additional shots of the bike well after his normal closing time. All no worries.
Want to ride U23 level? The Monday ride consisted of “a bit of team time trial work before a 20 minute threshold climb with surges…” then onto another climb or two, something in the four hour range. After 9 days and nearly 30 hours, today is an “intensity day”. Tomorrow is endurance.
Tao Geohagan Hart (Axel’s One Word: “Talent”) thought the day’s workout was great, “brilliant”, and he’s impressed with the overall riding quality at the camp. A Londoner starting his second season on the team at 19 years old, he sees it as a fresh page in the book. He’s focused on goals like consistency throughout the season and getting better results, but reserved in sharing too much information or specifics in a public forum, preferring to keep things close to the vest. He is more open about his love of the sport and progression through the British system. Appreciative of his track background, he sees it as an important component for a road racer. Inspired by classics and grand tours, California ranks as his favorite race so far.
Most of the riders were headed to Europe within the next two weeks or so, as our conversations wrapped up and they headed off to rest for tomorrow’s anticipated five plus hours on the bike. The last full day of camp.
Axel Merckx has built a giant killer of a program. Twelve riders will bring fitness and audacity to races around the World, and it is reasonable to expect they will continue to pull results. The mix of sponsors is committed for the long term and there is still room for new partners to help a program that ranks right at the top of the U23 hierarchy. The mix and personality of the team is very upbeat and focused, while still laced with those U23 moments that you’d expect with a dozen guys in a van. They are also dead set serious on racing their butts off and it should be fun to watch. While there is much to dismay in the pro peloton still, in looking to the future through teams like Axeon, rather than lamenting the past, there are still plenty of reasons to love bike racing.