While Eddy Merckx is unquestionably the greatest bike rider the world has seen, in terms of quality, wins and versatility, the Belgian legend’s son Axel is quickly making a name for himself as one of the greatest developers of talent in cycling. Way back in 2009, he started a development team to help riders cope with the rigorous demands of being a WorldTour pro.
Axel put the following international riders into the WorldTour (and I am just counting riders that are still in the sport’s top tier, and missing riders who joined a ProContinental team then jumped to WorldTour: Sam Bewley (Orica-Scott), Alex Dowsett (Movistar), George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Tao Geoghegan Hart (Sky), Jasper Stuyven and Ruben Guerreiro (Trek-Segafredo) and Clement Chevrier (AG2R). Two more riders, Chris Lawless (Sky) and Jhonatan Narvaez (QuickStep) will go pro in 2018.
However, Axel set his team up in the USA and thus, his team has always had a US feel, sending the likes of Ben King (Dimension Data), Taylor Phinney, Joe Dombrowski, Nate Brown, Lawson Craddock (Cannondale-Drapac), Ian Boswell (Sky) and Greg Daniel (Trek-Segafredo) to the WorldTour. They have sent a few more to ProConti and a few that were WorldTour no longer ride at that level. From the 2017 roster, Logan Owen (Cannondale-Drapac) and Neilson Powless (LottoNL-Jumbo) are set to go pro on January 1st.
One of the Americans that impressed in 2017 was Will Barta, a rider who has been with Merckx since 2015, meaning no one is in a better place to comment on just how good this team is than Barta. He took some time out of his busy schedule (which is already filled with training for the 2018 season) to exclusively answer a few questions for U23 Cycling Zone.
“I had a good 2017 season but, like everyone, I always want more. I had a good first half of the season but I did want more from the second half. I really want to be more consistent, especially with l’Avenir and Worlds being big races that are found in the second half of the calendar.”
Barta was a real force to be reckoned with in the opening U23 races of 2017, with 9th overall in Triptyque de Monts et Chateaux (as well as fourth in the TT) and tenth overall in the Tour of Britanny and Fleche du Sud. Barta also took second in the U23 National TT and fourth in the pro edition too. However, his big result came in the U23 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a race that American pros have often stated as being the race they wish to win most.
Barta was aggressive all race and made the winning move along with the eventual podium finishers (in order) Bjorg Lambrecht, James Knox and Lucas Hamilton. Of the quarter, Barta is the only one not going pro in 2018.
“There was only four of us from Team USA there that day (all three were Aeon teammates and two, Powless and Adrien Costa, finished in the second chase group in 6th and 15th) but we really made the race by being aggressive. To be honest, that race brought me a lot of confidence as I was able to make the race hard, rather than just follow wheels. I really feel now I can do something like that again. It’s a dream to go pro so racing like that against guys who are turning pros really makes my dream feel achievable.”
Despite his strong results, things were not great off the bike for Barta and his teammates, as one of their own, Chad Young, sadly lost his life in a crash at the Tour of the Gila. Not long after that, with the team still in shock, beloved press officer Sean Weide also tragically passed away. Barta spoke about the difficult time he and his teammates, still young men aged between 18 and 22, faced this season.
“When Chad passed away, that was the first time I’d really ever experienced something like that. I’d known him since I was 14 from races. To be honest, I was racing in Brittany so I didn’t really take in what had happened. It was once that race was done that things really hit me. And then we lost Sean so soon after too. The whole season I think really brought the team together as we all wanted to race even harder for those guys, to honour both of their memories.”
From the outside, the team has always seemed really playful and more like a family than a group of friends, something Barta agreed upon.
“Everyone is close, especially the American guys. We all pretty much grew up together at races, so we know each other really well. However, the foreign riders all fit in really well and bond with us. I think it helps we are all of a similar age and at the same stage in our lives, as well as sharing the same goals and dreams on the bike. It does have to be said that the family bond isn’t just with the riders, it’s extended to the staff too, who help create the great atmosphere within the team.”
It was great that Barta brought up the staff of the team. Merckx has such a great track record with developing youngsters and soigneur Reed McCalvin is one of the most affable and interesting people in the sport. With names like that, is it really a surprise Axeon-Hagens Berman (whose two sponsors will swap positions in 2018 to become Hagens Berman-Axeon) are so good at what they do?
“The thing about our team isn’t just that we have a great bond, everyone on the roster is so talented too. I know that if there is a race I want to target, there are a number of other guys on the team who could do well in that same race, so it forces each rider to work harder in order to ensure they get their chance. The staff, with Axel, Reed, Eric (Fostvedt, head mechanic), Jim (Anderson, logistics manager), Koos (Moerenhout, former pro and current team DS) and Jeff (Louder, race director) and everyone else are just great at what they do. They make things easier for us and they are great at developing riders and getting the best from us.”
Turning our attention to the 2018 season, Barta said he isn’t sure where he will race in terms of a calendar, but he has one clear goal in his head: win his first race at U23 level.
“I don’t have a program yet in terms of where I will be racing, but I have one goal in mind: I want to win a race at U23 level, something I am yet to do in my three years at the level. I really just want to be more consistent and try and turn a few of my podiums and top tens into wins. I especially want to be more consistent in the second half of the season, unlike this year, so I can be good for l’Avenir and Worlds.”
Barta, who bases himself in Nice during the season but was visiting his girlfriend in Norway when we caught up with him, spoke about what attracted him to cycling, a sport which has a growing fanbase in America, but is still a minority sport in the country.
“There’s a variety of reasons why I chose cycling. I was a cross-country skier growing up and the two sports go really well together. I also just loved watching the racing on TV. It always seemed a real hardman’s sport and came across as a sport where if you put in the work, you could see the results, which is cool and something that doesn’t always ring true about other, more typical sports in the USA, like baseball. I also liked the team aspect of it too.”
Barta mentioned on the Axeon-Hagens Berman website at the start of 2017 season that Liege-Bastogne-Liege was the one pro race he would love to win. Unsurprisingly, almost a year later and a top result in the U23 version, he hasn’t changed his tune at all.
“Liege is the one for me. The type of racing with the punchy climbs really suits me. There is just so much history in the race with epic weather, great riders and the fact it’s just always raced full gas. I’d love to win Liege.”