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Axel Merckx: “Bissell has an unique programme”

Trek-Livestrong started in 2009, changed its name and riders over the years, but one thing remained certain: the ability of the team to nurture young talents and launch them on the big stage of cycling. This being said, in the past five years Axel Merckx’s team sent to the World Tour no less than 14 riders, among those being Taylor Phinney, Alex Dowsett, Jesse Sergent, Joe Dombrowski, Ian Boswell, Lawson Craddock or Jasper Stuyven.

In the second half of 2013, question marks were being raised concerning the continuity of the US team, after Trek decided to focus on the World Tour team, but Axel Merckx managed to secure the future of his project by convincing Bissell to come aboard for 2014 as the main sponsor. Next season, the Continental team will have 14 riders – Nicolai Brøchner, Clément Chevrier, Geoffrey Curran, Gregory Daniel, Alex Darville, Ryan Eastman, Tao Geoghegan Hart, James Oram, Logan Owen, Christopher Putt, Tanner Putt, Keegan Swirbul, Nathan Van Hooydonck and Ruben Zepuntke – and Axel Merckx, the manager of the team, hopes for a new series of great results.

– Mister Merckx, what does the Bissell project mean to you?

To me it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing for the last five years. Working with the young U23 riders is something I’ve really enjoyed doing, and thankfully Mark Bissell was willing to invest in youth. Because of the project it has with the World Tour team, Trek couldn’t continue as our sponsor, but they are still supporting us and that’s very good.

– How difficult was to secure a future for the team in the last couple of months?

It was not very easy. Unfortunately, the  economy and the cycling industry economy had a hard time and it’s always difficult finding sponsorship. Many teams are disappearing and you have to persuade the sponsors to invest in the youth, were they have a great amount of exposure, but at a different level then that of a World Tour team. In the same time, it’s true that there’s a lesser investment than that of a World Tour team, so it depends on what the sponsors are looking for.

– The contract with Bissell is for just one year?

It is, yes.

– And is there an option to sign for more years after the 2014 season?

There is an option for Bissell to continue up until August, but my ambition and my will is to secure the future of the team with Bissell for a longer time, but that will depend on many factors and the job we’re doing.

– I presume the main objectives of the team remain the same for next year: California, Colorado and Utah.

Indeed. It’s going to be roughly the same schedule that we had in the past two years and I hope we are going to be successful.

– If you look back at the past five years, what were the best moments of the team?

That’s a very difficult question. It’s hard to talk about just one moment, because I’ve had many satisfactions over the years and we’ve had great results with Taylor Phinney, Alex Dowsett, George Bennett, Ian Boswell or Joe Dombrowski. That’s why this project is so amazing, you can’t really say a moment was the best, more important is the consistency we’ve had over the years in getting results with these riders.

– Who will this rider be in 2014?

I don’t know, is as I said before, that’s the beauty. I hope there will be many successful stories like the ones I’ve had this year, but there’s always a question mark. I know I have many good talents for next season, but there’s a question: will they have a breakthrough next season or later in their career? You can’t know this ahead of time. You can see there’s a stable progression, look at Tanner Putt, he is a well-established rider in the team, was national champion this year, he still has room to improve, and I hope that he can be one of those guys for next season.

– You’ve made a couple of interesting transfers, bringing to the team talented riders like Tao Geoghegan Hart, Nathan Van Hooydonck or Clément Chevrier.

I try to get anybody on board that I think my programme is going be beneficial for them, to give them a great amount of exposure internationally, not only in Europe, but also in big races. There aren’t a lot of programmes like mine, as a matter of fact I can’t see another programme like mine, where these kids are able to ride in big races, like California or Colorado, where there are also teams we see in the Tour of France. This is very important, it pushes them and it tells them how much work they have to do in order to get there.

– I know you are happy for them when they leave to World Tour teams, but isn’t there also some regret?

The only regret I have is that I don’t get to work anymore with them personally. Throughout the years, you develop a relationship with those riders and you create a certain bound between those riders and you. I’m sad when they leave, but at the same time I’m excited to see them developing and how they are going to do in the big teams.

– You worked with many young American riders in the last couple of years, so I want to ask you what does the future look like for this country?

USA Cycling is doing a very good job at developing riders and this year we had a very good relationship with them. They have the same project and the same final goal that I do, and that is to prepare those guys in the best way to make them really good World Tour riders. As long as we all understand that, then we have a common goal and the success will come by itself. They are investing a lot in youth, in juniors, and automatically they give those guys opportunities to race in Europe and in the United States. If we can keep going like this, we can really have some great results in the future.

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