The Slipstream Sports project has never been accused of being insufficiently ambitious. Arising from the TIAA-CREF/5280 development team in 2007, the squad became the second American-born presence on the Pro Tour, shortly before the demise of pioneering Discovery/USPostal/Motorola/7-Eleven. Within a year or so they were winning the opening stage of their first grand tour, getting invited to the Tour de France, and nabbing a top-five place on GC. Subsequent seasons saw Jonathan Vaughters' project take on a stable title sponsor in Garmin, ambush the Tour GC a couple more times, and start making waves elsewhere in the sport. But at no point were they as ambitious as last fall/winter, when the squad entered into a semi-merger with the feisty Cervélo Test Team guys, resulting in another major sponsorship and a large injection of classics chops. And a rainbow jersey. And yeah, they sort of fell into each other's arms during the Vuelta as CTT unraveled, but Vaughters was ready to take on major stars, after exploring names like Cancellara and Contador. One way or another, it was Business Time.
What We Thought Coming In
By the end of the transfer season the squad had taken on the two biggest stars of the cobbles season after Cancellara and Boonen, Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler. They also added stalwart spring riders Roger Hammond and Andreas Klier, as well as Sep Vanmarcke, a classics star-in-development. This to a roster already containing Tyler Farrar (5th in de Ronde), Martijn Maaskant (4th in P-R and Ronde) and Johan Van Summeren (two Paris-Roubaix top tens). Vaughters made it clear that the team was setting out to hunt down the most dangerous animal:
man Fabian Cancellara. Opinion as to their chances was pretty mixed, but one thing is for sure, everybody had one. The English-speaking media lauded the team as a new Classics juggernaut. My own record (IIRC) was more like "holy jeebus! It might just be crazy enough to work." Many more of you were unconvinced that such a dramatic move could happen overnight, or with the personnel on hand. Nobody was bored.
And that's all I have to say. What? Oh, wait, to the flip...
What We Got In the End
Garmin-Cervélo achieved things it had never achieved before. Yes, they had won Classics -- Farrar took sprints in Vattenfalls and the Scheldeprijs, but not til 2011 had they won a Monument. And while they had picked up a variety of stage wins in grand tours, not til 2011 did they win a stage (or four) of the Tour de France. They also notched their customary shock-top ten on Tour GC and took the team classification. Anybody viewing the team with realistic expectations would say "Chapeau!"
But the furor of the offseason didn't create very reasonable expectations, and the makeup of the team turned out to be more sum-of-its-parts on the Cobbles. The full team strategy hinged on Haussler
retaining his 2010 form reviving his 2009 form, and when that didn't quite happen (missed some time in winter/spring; 7th in E3 before slumping at de Ronde and dropping out of P-R), the squad was left without an attacking threat in a tactical Flanders race. Van Summeren filled that role to perfection (and glory) in Paris-Roubaix, his native habitat, but even this came with additional headaches, mainly in the form of a disappointed Hushovd complaining about team tactics that worked for the squad but deprived him (in his opinion) of the chance to win his most cherished race clad in Rainbow.
Hushovd continued his ways, however, honoring his deal and his status with two outstanding stage wins in France before signing with BMC. It's hard to say that anyone lost out in the deal: Hushovd's season was a success in the end, even if you think he had a chance to drop Cancellara in the Hell of the North, and Garmin-Cervélo got better palmares and more camera time in April and July than it had enjoyed in perhaps the past three years combined.
Top Three Highlights
- Van Summeren wins Paris-Roubaix. In some books a Tour stage rates higher -- reasonable minds, etc. -- but not mine. Plus, add in the team tactics (no matter what Hushovd thought of them) and the unbeatable human side of a hard worker like Summie winning the biggest prize and proposing to his girlfriend on the spot, and you have one of the top three moments of the year in all of cycling.
- Winning the TTT at the Tour. Lost in this stage discussion will be Farrar breaking his own duck of Tour sprints, but it simply doesn't compare to a team win in a marquee stage like the TTT, with the Garmin-HTC rivalry thrown in for good measure. The first win is often the sweetest, especially here.
- Hushovd's Tour stage win in Gap. Both of Hushovd's stage victories were classic Thor: heroic escapes over terrain thought too challenging for an alleged sprinter. But the second one was just a tad more significant. First, it was a tougher day, and seeing him sprint against his countryman Edvald Boasson Hagen was just Tour fan deliciousness. Secondly, it sealed his Rainbow defense case as one of the best of the last decade, elevating him from a decent world champion to a truly worthy one.
Bottom Three Lowlights
Let's stick to on-bike stuff, as opposed to the Giro tragedy.
- Milano-Sanremo. The first sign that the master plan wasn't guaranteed success appeared in Milano-Sanremo, a good race for Hushovd (one podium, several top-tens) and Haussler (2nd in 2009), if not Farrar who struggles over the climbs. But Haussler's poor spring caught up to him just when he was primed to make his move on the Poggio, and Hushovd's day was a two-crash disaster.
- Ronde van Vlaanderen "Don't Work"-Gate. While this was a tad overblown at the time -- neither Hushovd nor Farrar had the legs to do much more -- Vaughters' unlucky caught-on-camera comment that his two leaders should follow wheels while Cancellara and Chavanel were seemingly riding away with the race painted the team in an unflattering light and dashed a lot of (possibly not so realistic) hopes for an American-led domination on the cobbles.
- Martijn Maaskant's lost season. He crashed in Paris-Nice, fracturing seven ribs, and missed out on his beloved classics season. Coming into 2012 the Dutch rider will be three years removed from his excellent fourth in de Ronde. While he is still a very useful guy in the grand tours, Maaskant is struggling to stay on track for his own chance at glory. With riders departing, they'll need him back next year.
Where Do They Go From Here?
The transfer season was a pretty mixed bag. Hushovd left, as expected, and that may not be such a bad thing considering his uncomfortable fit in the team. But they got heavily raided by Aussie start-up GreenEdge, including potential future star Jack Bobridge and leadout man Julian Dean. This led to a re-tooling of both the Classics and sprinting squads.
On the Classics side, the lack of a clear leader may play into Vaughters' preferred strategy of holding several cards to play depending on how the race goes. Hushovd wanted to be The Man, but the results in Roubaix speak better of Vaughters' plan. In Thor's place they've added Seb Rosseler and Robbie Hunter from Radio Shack and Alex Rasmussen (confirmed?) from HTC. Rosseler does everything pretty well in April, notching wins in Driedaagse de Panne last year and Brabantse Pijl the year before. Stylistically he's more suited to the uphill attacks that Farrar doesn't do, so perhaps he can play into the tactics of de Ronde better. Rasmussen and Hunter have good teamworking histories, and fitter turns by Haussler, Klier and Maaskant could put them right back into play next spring. Ray Kreder could emerge as a threat before long. Oh, and SepVanmarckeBreakoutWatch is already well underway.
For sprinters, Farrar can now trade off duties with Hunter (back after a year away) and incoming Koldo Fernandez, while counting on Hunter and others (Murilo Fischer, Ramunas Navardauskas??) for some leadout support. How Farrar responds to losing Dean is one of their bigger offseason projects, particularly with Farrar coming off a leaner year in 2011 than his previous two campaigns. He took one step forward with a Tour stage win, but a run at the Maillot Vert seems pretty distant still.
After that, the climbing squad is not much different than previous ones: stocked with veterans who can still make things happen, and younger guys with solid if uncertain potential. Thomas Dekker is lurking on the development squad as a potential wildcard. Peter Stetina and Andrew Talansky showed their stage race potential this year. Dan Martin made progress by finishing the Vuelta in good shape, and Christophe Le Mevel was a solid addition. It'll take another lightning-in-a-bottle event for vets like Ryder Hesjedal, Christian VandeVelde and Tom Danielson to climb up on a grand tour podium, but the Tour squad will be full of solid support and interesting potential.
Photo by Doug Pensinger, Getty Images Sport