Back Pocket Previews '09: Team Columbia

Back-pocket-2_medium Nobody made a bigger impression on the sport last year than Team Kumbay... er Columbia. Reasonable metrics may differ, but the grand-nephews of the T-Mobile juggernaut rode a wave of harmony and talent to a jaw-dropping 76 wins. What does that number mean? Second-placed CSC scored 47 wins. And in the seven years in which CQRanking has kept score, the next-best total is 52. So 76 wins is as close as you'll ever see a pro cycling team come to running the table.

The question now, of course, is what do you do for an encore? The ramifications of this question are perhaps more critical than mere statistics suggest. Bob Stapleton is in his third year of running the team, and nobody admires his handiwork more than me. Yet, Columbia own a ton of young talent, ranging from blossoming (Edvald Boasson Hagen) to exploding (Mark Cavendish). Virtually all of this talent comes from Europe, and though Columbia spends most of its time there, they are still an American outfit. So the challenge to Stapleton will be convincing the world and his own guys that they will not be better off riding closer to home, as Linus Gerdemann and Gerald Ciolek concluded this fall. Another season like last year may be out of the question, but if they can come close, Stapleton's sales pitch may work.

Attributes: Diversity and cohesion. I'll stop harping on and on about how they like each other; just know that their results come from good cohesion. More than that, though, Columbia bring a lot of weapons to each day's start line. On any given day they have a nearly unbeatable bunch sprinter (Cav), a plan B in Greipel, classics studs like Hincapie and Burghardt, climbers like Kirchen and Lovkvist and Monfort, and enough chronomen to sweep the top ten.

Problems: Stage racers. Losing Gerdemann is probably more painful than Ciolek's loss, since the latter makes more space for Edvald Boasson Hagen, while Der Linus looked like a guy about to make the leap in the D-Tour. Right now the stable includes Kirchen, Siutsou, Mick Rogers, Lovkvist and Monfort. All of these guys can make a case for some stage racing responsibility, and when Monfort came on board there was talk here at the Cafe that he might be a Grand Tour threat someday. And hey, Rogers is off to a great start with his Aussie TT title. But for now, if I had to bet, I'd say they rack up mostly top-tens and little more.

Key Rider: Marcus Burghardt. At age 23, he looked like the next great cobbles stud, and a lost season last year shouldn't make us think anything has changed. If he comes back healthy, he could be the guy who jump-starts the year the way early wins by Greipel and Eisel and Boasson Hagen did last winter/spring.

Key Moment(s):  Via Roma, San Remo, IT, March 21. Winning the first Monument of the season is pure gold to a sprints-and-classics team like Columbia, and if they can somehow get Cavendish over the Poggio with the leaders, this will be a glorious, glorious moment. Another key... the mega-time trial at the Giro, with Marco Pinotti and (hopefully) world Time Trial Champion Bert Grabsch among Stapleton's chrono aces looking to stack the top ten. I don't know what Columbia's Giro plans are, but Pinotti was there to win the Milan time trial last year, and the spoils this year are greater than ever.

Passing Thought: Nowhere is the subject of national identity more vague than at Team Columbia. Teams like Lampre, Rabo, Quick Step, Caisse d'Epargne, Euskaltel and every last French team wear their nationality on their sleeve. Others, like Astana or CSC, are more international, but in a pan-European way, or at least with the European base that Americans and Aussies are accustomed to by now. Garmin are an American team that acts like one. Columbia... I don't get much of a vibe that they want to challenge Garmin for the title of "America's Team." If so, it's understandable: they have a great roster of European riders and don't want to chase them off by going Yank. But at the same time, they are putting down significant roots here in the US, making Stapleton walk a fine line. A third possibility is that Columbia is simply post-national, and they aim to prove that the subject of nationality in top-end cycling is all nonsense. Everyone trains in either Girona, Monaco, Tuscany or Belgium, and all that really matters is that the guys get along well. If I get a chance to sit down with Stapleton sometime, I'd love to hear his perspective on this. Reason number... (I've lost count) why this is such an interesting team.

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