Over the past eight years, Axel Merckx has built perhaps the finest development team in the world, having sent 21 riders to the UCI WorldTour. His has competed in the past five editions of the Amgen Tour of California and, in three of those races, it was the best placed Continental team. Last year, his team leader Neilson Powless placed ninth overall and won the Best Young Rider award; but, Peloton understands, his Axeon Hagens Berman team will not be one of the invited teams announced this Thursday by race organizer AEG Sports.

Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Davey Wilson

“We just got told that we’re not invited.” Merckx told Peloton on Tuesday. “So it’s very disappointing and a little frustrating at the same time, because we’ve been waiting for a very long time and tried to be very professional about it and tried to engage different channels about how we could get a part of the race entry. And we’ve never really had an answer. First, the UCI hadn’t told us that Continental teams can race and now I just got a notice that we didn’t make the cut.”

Last year, Axeon Hagens Berman was one of five Continental teams that took part in the Tour of California, along with three Pro Continental squads and 10 WorldTour teams. But when the race was named last fall as one of the new events to be included in the UCI WorldTour there was doubt that any Continental teams would participate. Under UCI regulations, just WorldTour teams, Pro Continental teams and the national team of the home country are permitted to compete in a WorldTour stage race. But because a new WorldTour event doesn’t have to invite all 18 WorldTour teams, just a minimum of 10, there was speculation that some domestic Continental teams would be allowed to compete in the leading American stage race.

It’s understood that when AEG Sports announces the 2017 team lineup on Thursday that two Continental teams will be named. But not Axeon Hagens Berman, even though its credentials are stronger if not better than any other U.S. Continental squad.

(Photo © Davey Wilson)

Commenting on his team’s non-selection, Merckx said: “I can accept it if I get a real reason why we didn’t get invited, and then I can work towards it for next year—such as, how can I do things better? Basically, what I’m trying to say is, I never got a seat at the table to try to make it work this year. And that is the very frustrating part for me.

“In Adrien Costa and Powless, I think we’ve got the biggest talents in stage races for the future, and not to want to have those guys, at least not to give me a chance to try to get those guys to the start, is an eye-opener. It kind-of raised my eyebrows. Again, if it was equal chance and equal choice and I can make it work, I can accept it.”

Asked whether Costa, Powless and the best Americans on his team might possible form a U.S. National Team for the Amgen Tour, Merckx said, “That would not be fair to our sponsors, they’ve invested a lot of money….”

The results from the last five Tours of California back up Merckx’ claim to be included in this year’s race. In 2016, Axeon Hagens Berman was second overall in the team race, well ahead of the four other Continental teams. In 2015, it was sixth overall, ahead of five others. In 2014, Merckx’ team was second best of the Continental teams behind Jamis-Hagens Berman. It was also second best in 2013, one place overall behind 5-Hour Energy. And in 2012, it was the best of four Continental teams.

In the Amgen Tour’s general classification rankings, Merckx riders have placed eighth (Lawson Craddock in 2013), ninth (Neilson Powless last year), 12th (Joe Dombrowski in 2012), 13th (Tao Geoghegan Hart in 2015) and 24th (Clément Chevrier in 2014).