Offseason Capsule: Dominant OmegaPharma, still hungry

Bryn Lennon

Doing writeups on the Lefevere team used to be so easy. Just watch the races from Omloop through Roubaix, sum up the wins , more than 4 was a vintage year, less than two was a dud. Then politely ignore their mid- to late-season slumber and call it a day. Now we have this World Tour thingy and it turns out you have to pay attention to the whole year. The whole year! January to October. Crazy. Turns out Omega Pharma can handle this new thing too.

All jokes aside, the OPQS makeover has been ongoing for a few seasons now, with Lefevere having seen the writing on the wall long ago. This years big shift was the addition of a big name sprinter in Mark Cavendish to make them relevant just about everywhere, including in the Grand Tours. This seemed a better strategy than the eternally crappy attempts Lef has made to bring in GC riders, that list is long and undistinguished. Salvaging an unhappy Cav from Sky + a management team already in place with strong roots in the old HTC setup that served Cav so well seemed like it couldn't go wrong.

What we thought coming in:

Cavendish to rack up stage GT stage wins, Tony Martin to trade punches with Cancellara and come out on top more often than not. Boonen to follow up his dream season with a solid cobble run and perhaps even provide dream support to Cav. A whole string of second line riders, with Chavanel most of all, strong enough to pick up wins all over the calendar. 
Frankly, almost all the pre-season speculation was about how Cav would do, I suppose we all assumed they would do their usual thing to put their mark on the spring classics too. They have too much firepower not to.

What we got instead:

Omega Pharma went and dominated the wins table with 55 wins, 17  more than second placed Belkin. That's an impressive stat even though they had a similar stat in 2012 with 51 wins. This year 11 riders contributed wins compared to 16 last year , a fairly predictable turn of events with a more Cavendish-focused strategy. In all aspects except the spring classics their season has to be viewed as a resounding success. Cavendish didn't get as much out of the year as he had hoped, faced with more and better competition and a leadout team that never really fired consistently on all cylinders. He might not have had one of his most brilliant Tours (although his win on the mad crosswinds stage was the stuff of legends) but it was a respectable season by any standards. Martin was winning like clockwork throughout the year including double Worlds titles.

Spring never amounted to much by OPQS standards. Bad luck and injuries for Tombo made it a complete wash for him and the other did their level best but merely a win for Chavanel in De Panne isn't enough to keep Lefevere fat and tanned in the manner he has grown accustomed to. Vandenbergh, Terpstra  and Maes put in solid rides and Kwiatkowski was a revelation but the bottom line was a sub-standard cobbles year results-wise for the flemish juggernaut.

Elsewhere Matteo Trentin took a massive stagewin in the TdF and new recruit Gianni Meersman had a breakthrough season, winning all kinds of challenging sprintstages in spectacular fashion.

Top Three Highlights:

1. Kwiatkowski's & Stybar's Arrival
Besides Sagan, it's hard to think of a more versatile rider in the pro peloton today than the Michal Kwiatkowski that emerged in 2013. He looked promising already last year but this year was something else. When you can be a factor in both the Tour of Flanders and the Tour of France then you are a special kind of bikerider. Lefevere unsurprisingly wasted no time in extending the pole's contract after his classics rampage.

Even if the day ended with bad luck it's hard to see Stybar's Roubaix the breakthrough-performance of the year. The former cross world champion followed up with a string of other results to kill any doubt that he is the real deal. A crosser with a talent for the cobbled classics, Stybar is going to have more grown men on this site weeping with joy than anyone since Lars Boom back when Boom looked like he would crush anything but VDSers hopes and dreams.

2. Crosswind stage - Tour de France
Cav and his Omegas were the driving force behind the mayhem that turned into one of the best GT stages of the year. They created the first splits and when Saxo gave it their go, and Froome was desperately consulting his stem and his earpiece on whether to go or not, Cav showed the advantage of true racing instincts and used his helper Kwiatkowski ruthlessly before closing the gap himself to be the last one in the winning leadgroup. It gave him and the team a brilliant win.

3. Paris-Roubaix before Carrefour de l'Arbre
They had lost Tommeke in de Ronde but it still looked so good. Always present at the front, Stybar, Terpstra and Vandenbergh looked well on their way to save the classics season. It looked fantastic for Lef's boys.

Bottom Three Lowlights:

1. Paris-Roubaix after Carrefour de l'Arbre
Vandenberg plows into some french grandma and takes a nosedive. Stybar is following Cancellara (Cancellara!!) with seeming ease deep in the Roubaix finale and the dream of something Magical and Spectacular start to look close to coming true........ until he too seeks out some other french granny poking her nose out into the road. Curtain.

2. Champs Elysées
Cavendish left Sky to get back to dominating the Tour de France sprints and in the end he got soundly beaten on his "own" signature stage. I don't think he enjoyed it.

3. Tom Boonen goes AWOL
I suppose we should be expecting off-seasons for riders who's window to perform is as narrow as it is for the cobbles specialists but it's still disappointing. There might have been, and I'm not naming any names here, someone who was going to make "Boonen-Cancellara: Duel of the Greats" the whole theme of the spring coverage but had to scrap the whole thing almost immediately and that person might theoretically have been very pissed off. And for good reason. The window for one more faceoff between these two when they are both healthy and at their best is closing.Then to top off a disappointing season, Boonen never showed much enthusiasm in becoming Cavendish's super-leadout with the sad result that OPQS brought in old dinosaur Ale-Jet to keep the Manxman happy.

What happens next?

What's the difference between the Cavendish that won all the sprintstages he wanted in the Tour and the Cavendish of the last two years? There is a decent case to be made that the one piece of the puzzle that has been missing is the lead out-duties of Mark Renshaw, the man who managed to get Cav in the place he wanted to be when he wanted to be there. With his two year experiment to try and become a superstar sprinter in his own right now over, Renshaw has now been recruited back for leadouts again and Lefevere is hoping that with him and Petacchi, Cav will once again become invincible. There is that whole "you can never go home again" thing though so you have to wonder if just getting the old band back together is going to bring the fabulous results everyone is expecting? Especially with the new level of competition Cav is facing.

New names
Overall OPQS has had a big turnover in riders but Renshaw aside it looks like a bit of a zero sum game. Gone are Chava, Devenyns and Peter Velits, in are Rigoberto Uran, Bakelants and Wout Poels. They've lost a few workhorses and gained a bit more young talent, Julien Alaphillippe most notably but Poels might be the best pickup of all if he can get back on his pre-injury-trajectory.All in all, while it may be zero sum in quality, the new names do look a bit more interesting than the old ones. The big loss of course is Chava but from a fans perspective, seeing what he can do without being subservient to his Flandrian Masters might be one of the highlights of the season

There are a few big questions. Can Boonen bounce back and maybe even find motivation to perform beyond April? Will Thomas de Gendt re-discover his awesomeness or was 2012 merely a fluke? What path will Kwiatkowski take? Sometimes the curse of being good at everything means you never find that one huge specialty (aka EBH-syndrome). Personally I can't wait to see where his first huge win will come. I have no idea, I just know  it can't be far away.

And last but not least, signing Rigoberto Uran - what the hell where they thinking? I dunno what the opposite of "a match made in heaven" is but if you do, please say so because I'd like to use it about this transfer. Uran is pretty good at cobbling together a decent GT without much help, which is presumably why he was interesting in the first place, but I have full faith in Lefevere's ability to screw up the Colombian's previous strengths. And then there is Tony Martin who is apparently giving general classification riding another go. It's an intriguing idea but I don't know who has much faith in him actually getting over any HC climbs within minutes of what he would need to to be a top 10 rider?

Nah, the quality of 2014 will probably come down to the performance in March-April. With Boonen and Stybar backed up by the likes of Vandenbergh and Terpstra and guys like Maes and van Keirsbulck who are coming into their prime they should be hot to bounce back from the mediocre 2013. Should Kwiatkowski be doing the cobbles again in 2014 they will look insanely strong. Just like 3-4 other teams...... And Sagan.

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