It's not at all uncommon for teams to undergo major changes year after year. True, some teams look more or less the same year after year -- Europcar comes to mind. Rabobank, rider roster at least. Garmin have had the same veteran core for a while. But for most teams and riders, two year contracts mean that both sides get to ask themselves constantly, is this working?
For the BMC Racing Team, the answer -- let's go bigger and bigger -- has made for interesting times. Like the New York Yankees, BMC have had the purchasing power to assemble a"dream roster," but the trick is making it work. Three years ago, the team solidified its American identity -- it was always US-registered and never more than half-Swiss -- and vaulted itself into the big time by bringing George Hincapie in as a road captain and head of a hastily assembled classics team with Alessandro Ballan, Karsten Kroon and Marcus Burghardt. Oh, and world champion Cadel Evans, for a shot at the Tour de France.
By year's end, they had moved up to Pro Tour status, bought low on underutilized classics ace Greg Van Avermaet, kick-started their youth development with prodigy Taylor Phinney and Yannick Eijssen, and deepened the bench/Tour squad with Johan Tschopp and Manuel Quinziato. All that paid off huge with a Tour de France victory in 2011 and a fantastic season from Van Avermaet, which BMC celebrated by scooping up two more huge stars, Gilbert and Hushovd, and local mega-talent Tejay van Garderen, for 2012. Like the Yankees, it's better to be rich and good than just rich.
But that's where things went awry. I'm not sure how to describe their 2012 season, one where they seemed loaded to win practically anything they chose, besides "weird." Star riders went pedaling squares; scandal crept up on the squad; disappointment gripped the team as they failed to live up to the stratospheric expectations they'd purchased with all those big contracts. Karma and luck had it in for this team... or most of it. But there were some incredibly hopeful developments happening as well, a bit further down the food chain, developments which make them once again a favorite for substantial success very soon. I'm not sure this is how Jim Ochowicz and John Lelangue planned things, but credit them for having more than one plan.
What We Thought Coming In
This is where things go from really interesting to through the roof... Incoming is a juggernaut of quality, experience and palmares. The rainbow collection increases to three with the addition of Thor Hushovd. Adam Blythe and Klaas Lodewyck become the team's ace sprinters-in-training, something they could use before too long. Tejay van Garderen joins his buddy Phinney to form the dynamic duo of American kids on the hunt for future stardom (and a never-ending stream of Twitter hijinks)...
And then there's the ultimate transfer season prize: Philippe Gilbert. This will be the subject of extensive analysis before the Omloop, mark my words. For now, though, Gilbert brings a massive presence to a team that maybe didn't get quite the attention it deserved. He also joins Hushovd in turning a stocked Classics cupboard into a living trophy case. Can they sweep the podium at de Ronde? Hm, maybe a better question is whether all those stars can be coherently managed in pursuit of all their ambitions.
I wasn't the only one either. You never want to act too sure about the outcome of a slew of bike races, but with that caveat they looked like a seriously strong bet.
What We Got
Gilbert's spring season was an unmitigated flop, at least by his standards. Mere mortals would feel great about sixth in Amstel and third in La Fleche Wallonne, but not Gilbert, who didn't have nearly the legs he enjoyed a year earlier in his historic Ardennes Triple-plus-one (Brabantse Pijl). Not til September 7 did he win something in BMC colors -- a stage of the Vuelta -- and even his redemptive World Championship victory was in Belgian blue, not BMC red.
Evans slipped dramatically too, not coming close to defending his Tour title, being outperformed by his rivals -- and eventually van Garderen -- on every major stage. No injury, no illness; like Gilbert he just didn't have what he had twelve months earlier. Van Avermaet crashed in spring, setting him back during the classics, and his juxtaposition on the roster with Gilbert was a reprise of the system he fled at Lotto. Are there enough wins to go around? Sure, but there's no question the ambitious Van Avermaet has designs on a number of races where Gilbert is the guy.
Hushovd's disappearance can be explained, at least. Well, now; for months it was unclear why he had nothing in the tank, but by September doctors determined he had some sort of muscle inflammation resulting from a virus. The fact that he got 14th at Roubaix in his condition is actually pretty impressive.
That's the bad news. Then there's the worse news. George Hincapie, on-road captain and a rider with a foot in team organization (his clothing company outfits the Pro Tour team and sponsors the development squad), confessed to doping in the USADA's investigation of Lance Armstrong, the consequence of which was the nullification of all of his biggest career achievements, including records for most Tours of Flanders and France completed, as well as some big results, like podiums in Roubaix and a stage win at the Tour. The entire Armstrong mess ratcheted up the pressure on anyone with a doping history, or even a suspected one. Meanwhile, in Mantova, a prosecution creeps closer to fruition, and while I'm not prejudging the outcome or saying whether Alessandro Ballan is in trouble, history tells us his name is highly likely to come up again. This after the former Ronde winner had a spring campaign only second to Tom Boonen's.
Thing is, despite all that, it's hard not to feel good about the team. Nothing excites like young talent, and BMC's two well-known American hopefuls, Phinney and Van Garderen, just turned in a pair of fantastic seasons, meeting or even exceeding the ridiculous expectations they've carried with them from the day they arrived in the Pro Tour. Phinney showed his classics and time trialling pedigrees, taking the crono silver at the Worlds and finishing fourth in both Olympic events, to go along with a sparkling Paris-Roubaix debut in his age-22 season. Van Garderen, meanwhile, showed far more polish in his age-24 season, turning in solid results all year long, including fifth overall at the Tour de France.
Top Three Highlights
- Van Garderen wins Stage 2 of USAPCC. A month after his surprising Tour de France, where he looked great and rocketed up to fifth despite working for Evans, van Garderen won the first uphill stage in Colorado, setting off a week-long slugfest with Garmin. Tons of class shown by young Tejay this summer.
- Gilbert becomes world champion. Yeah, it was for Team Belgium, but it's a sign that their star rider is back. Or at least, it increases the sponsor's exposure by a good 10% or so for 2013. That's three rainbows on the roster. Four if Ballan sticks around.
- Ballan wins ENECO stage in Geraardsbergen. We might forget this eventually but for now, let's say BMC must be pleased that their patience with Ballan's status and fitness finally paid off with a strong cobbled campaign. This later effort was more nostalgic than anything else, but ten times more memorable than finishing third.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Hincapie confesses to doping earlier in his career, with US Postal. This guy was a central figure in the team, and his entire career turned sour overnight. Is there anything Lance can't ruin?
- Gilbert drops out of E3 Prijs Harelbeke. Alarm bells started sounding after this disappointing day, which correctly foretold of bummers to come.
- Evans drops 1.43 in first Tour time trial. If he couldn't stay close to Wiggins or Froome in the crono, where was he gonna make up that time?
Where Do They Go From Here?
Put simply, they go back to work. The big name guys figure to return to form, except maybe Evans, though I'd be surprised if he doesn't try one more all-in-for-the-Tour campaign, despite closing in on his 36th birthday. van Garderen probably gets a co-leadership role at the Tour, where he can threaten the podium. The classics team will be as loaded as ever, where an emerging Phinney and a healthy Hushovd can perhaps team up to deliver the Norwegian's biggest remaining career goal, while Gilbert and Van Avermaet can get back to terrorizing the fields in Belgium.
It's hard, these days, to flip the script on a doping taint, and while BMC can distance itself from the infractions to which Hincapie confessed, fans who see guilt by association -- justifiably, after the USADA report -- won't care for subtle distinctions. And yet, it is tempting to just airbrush Hincapie out of the picture and look forward with no regrets. Phinney and van Garderen are exactly the kind of riders BMC fans should get excited about: young, homegrown, talented, and managing to exceed expectations. They're gamers both, and watching them will be great fun for years to come. BMC may need to get away from its past, but they will, because like the Yankees BMC know how to invest in their future too.