This was Argos' first year as a fully fledged World Tour team. Last season they felt very close in the schedule they rode but they only got the license to do the whole schedule in 2013. After a few years of gradual buildup the team came well prepared for the World Tour. It's a special team in that they have embraced the fact that they have limited resources compared to others, Argos haven't been trying to do well at everything at once. They have the greatest quality in sprinters and they have accepted that and committed the resources to becoming one of the top teams in that area, leaving GC riding and to some extent classics races on the backburner. It may not be the best strategy long-term in the World Tour but it has served them very well in the startup phase. Still, they're fairly anonymous and harmless, it's hard to put your finger on what their ambitions really are. In some sense they have found themselves a niche as the dutch counterbalance to the flashy mega-team Rabo/Belkin and the boisterously inept Vacansoleil (who btw are the WT eqiuvalent of the guy who did the unspeakable thing in the toilet at 3 AM), but they don't have a really strong identity just yet.
What we thought coming in:
Everyone was hoping to see what Marcel Kittel could do against the other top sprinters after the 2012 Tour de France proved a disappointment as illness made him below par. Degenkolb had a big Vuelta to live up to and we wondered if he could out-zabel Zabel in the spring classics, races he seems born to master. Beyond the two superstars and the development of their support-crews the story of Argos is almost all about how well the young talents would do. Guys like Janse van Rensburg, Barguil and Ludvigson all looked like promising prospects but how many results could they really put on the board at such a young age?
What we got instead:
Ultimate Tour de France Bonanza! From day one the TdF was a mirror-image of the year before, everything that went wrong in 2012 went right this year. When everyone else had a horror start on Corsica , Argos sailed through all the brouhaha and launched Kittel perfectly for the stagewin and yellow-jersey on stage 1 and from there on it was a near perfect race. Four stages in total including Champs Elysées. Doesn't get any better than that unless you are a diminutive egomaniac from the UK. Degenkolb racked up wins in the fall and Warren Barguil stunned everyone by picking up two big stagewins in the Vuelta, his GT debut. The classics were slim-ish but Kittel saved the day with a Scheldeprijs win.
Top Three Highlights:
1. Kittel TDF
Like it or not, three weeks in July matter as much as much of the rest of the season put together. At least for the sponsors. And Kittel gave the sponsors their money's worth. Plus, his hair alone would have granted him hero-status in July.
2. Barguil breaks through at the Vuelta
He was heralded as a french climbing supertalent and he had solid results to back it up from the U23 ranks. But I don't think anyone expected to see the quality that we did in the mountains of the Vuelta. The cool finale as he outsmarted and outsprinted Uran to take stage 16 was the best memory of that race for me.
3. Degenkolb fall classics
There's a special quality to bringing the heat in the fall when much of the peloton is struggling to get their motivation and form up to the required level. Degenkolb managed to take both the big sprinters classics, Vattenfall and Paris-Tours to confirm that 2012 was no fluke.
Bottom Three Lowlights:
1. Reinard Janse van Rensburg didn't dominate the world
Honestly, finding lowlights isn't that easy. Partly because expectations weren't sky-high to begin with, no one was really counting on the Tom Stamsnijders and Bert De Backers of this world to dominate the World Tour and stand on the podium in Paris after the Tour de France. So it's going to take some digging. The South African Reinard Janse van Rensburg was one of the most successful riders in 2012 and hopes were high for his World Tour debut but he has had a fairly anonymous year with a steep learning-curve. I don't think anyone is that worried though, the wins will come and in fact it already did as he won Binche-Tournai-Binche late in the season. All suspicions that I simply chose this topic as an excuse to write Reinard Janse van Rensburg, the coolest name in cycling, several extra times are totally unfounded and completely unfair to Reinard Janse van Rensburg's talents
2. Still no slam-dunk for Degenkolb
While Reinard Janse van Rensburg is still a bit of an unwritten card, Degenkolb introduced himself already in the spring of his debut-season on HTC by being conspicuously present late in the finales of some of the cobbled classics. Ever since then we've been expecting him to be a major factor on the cobbles. Unfortunately that hasn't really been the case so far. A ninth from the big chase group in Flanders is fine but he wasn't really a factor in any of the races this year. Perhaps he is similar to Boasson Hagen, a rider who's form naturally tends to peak around late summer, and will therefore have a hard time doing himself justice in April? Or it's just bad luck that he hasn't hit a hot streak so far. Either way, if he is going to be the superstar we hope he is going to have to figure it out. Maybe try to mix up his preparation some? He is still young and it might be worth it to do some experimenting. His market value is still going to be sky-high even if he has a mediocre season.
3. They developed another big sprinter
Dammit! Argos-Shimano already has Kittel and Degenkolb and now this season reveals that 25 yo Slovenian Luka Mezgec is another top level sprinter. Gaining confidence over the season, Mezgec went from placing admirably to winning by the end of 2013. What a bummer. Too many sprinters. Pleasant problem of riches for the managers in 2014.
What happens next?
The team formerly known as Argos ( a yet unnamed new sponsor is taking over in 2014) are basically continuing building on what they have. On the sprint side that is an embarrassment of riches to begin with. Behind Kittel and Degenkolb there's Mezgec and a support team of young fastmen like Arndt, Ahlstrand and Janse van Rensburg to keep them relevant. Even with OPQS beefing up their support for Cav it seems likely that he will have his hands full of the now confident Kittel & Co. The main re-enforcement for 2014 is Dries Devenyns, the strong allrounder from OmegaPharma. With him, Tom Dumoulin and Simon Geschke they should actually have a pretty credible trio of semi-favorites for the hilly classics. Geschke was an impressive dark horse all this year and a new partner in crime could serve him well.
And then there is temptation. With a talent like Barguil onboard it almost forces the team to pay more attention the general classification side. He's still young and green enough that it won't require the sort of commitment that would come in conflict with their main focus, not yet at least. For the coming future though it will be interesting to see how much they work to accommodate the guy. If they hope to keep him in house long enough to really reap the benefits they will probably need to give it some thought pretty soon if he continues to develop like he did in 2013. Of course we haven't seen that the kid is a GC threat just yet, we know he can climb but we know little of his TT and ability to be consistent in a stagerace, but there are clearly the makings of something great there. You don't win mountainstages 16 stages into a GT at his age if you don't have what it takes.
Perhaps most intriguing for next year will be their spring campaign. We're waiting for Degenkolb but he isn't alone. With Sinkeldam, Dumoulin, Devenyns, De Kort and perhaps even Reinard Janse van Rensburg , if he gets warmed up,they could really put their mark on the classics. So they probably won't be the team that dominates the monuments but with a good run we could see them on a few podiums in the semiclassics and even grabbing a win. Winning Scheldeprijs is fine and dandy but until you are killing it in Dwars door Vlaanderen you can't really be taken seriously.
Question is really if the ????-Shimano guys will continue to be the slightly bland Mr NiceGuys of the peloton or will they develop a bit more attitude? We know they will be taking over the Giant material sponsorship from Belkin and deep down I think a lot of us are hoping for a German sponsor to see the value in the German superstars on the team and step into the title sponsor role. I haven't really heard any rumors on who the new sponsor is though and hoping for a re-awakening German interest is probably too optimistic. A pity because a little German edge to the general niceness of this team would probably be a good thing. Or they could just keep winning races while making really poor hair-choices. Which is nice.