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Team Grades: Rabobank

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One of the reasons I went casting about for statistics sites yesterday is that we intend to incorporate them more into the site. Not sure how yet. But another reason is that I've been meaning to start looking at how certain teams performed this year.

A quick word about stats. Statistics themselves are a little hard to get a handle on in Cycling, if only because there's no general agreement on valuation. In most team sports you have wins and losses, and you have the points used to calculate a win or loss (runs, goals, points, etc.)... all very easy to track and value. Not so in Cycling: typically we consider winning paramount, but wins alone aren't a good barometer. 35 wins in minor races doesn't compare to, say, winning the maillot jaune and nothing else. On the other hand, finishing fifth in a big race may garner the same season points as winning a smaller one... but do they really have the same impact on the team, sponsor, rider? In the end, points are a starting place, but subjective assessments matter too.

Case in point: Rabobank have finished seventh in Pro Tour points again this year, after finishing seventh last year and second the year before. Yet I would argue this was their finest season in ages. First off, their second-placing two years ago is misleading, in that for whatever reason 8800 points was good for a distant second to CSC, whereas 8700 this year placed them seventh. If you believe the raw point totals, they haven't changed much overall. Moreover, in 2005 several of their top riders -- Freire, Boogerd, Wauters, Erik Dekker -- slipped significantly in the rankings. Only Denis Menchov's post-hoc Vuelta title and a slew of minor placings bolstered their rank.

By contrast, this year saw nearly all of the key riders, save the retiring Michael Boogerd, improve. Freire and Menchov are now 7th and 8th in the world; Thomas Dekker is taking his place at 21st. Graeme Brown and Thomas Gesink vaulted into the top 70. Only Boogerd and Juan Antonio Flecha showed any slippage among top riders... not something I'd attribute much significance to. So if Rabo failed to climb the ranks, it has more to do with garnering fewer minor placings among their rank-and-file. Fewer forgettable points. By contrast, they pulled off the following rather unforgettable moments this year:

  • Menchov won the Vuelta a Espana for the second time, this one on the road, with no doubt of its merits: one stage win, two seconds, two fourths, first in the mountains classification, second in the points.
  • Menchov won a stage and the points classification of the Volta a Catalunya.
  • Freire won Milan-San Remo for the second time, Rabo's only Monument wins since Rolf Sørensen's Flanders win in 1997.
  • Freire won two stages and the overall at the Vuelta a Andalucia (a/k/a Ruta del Sol); Brabantse Pijl in March, a famous cobbles tuneup; and three Vuelta stages.
  • Dekker won the Tour de Romandie by blitzing the final time trial, taking the stage, the overall and the points jersey.
  • Dekker also won the Trofeo Pollença, the 3-Länder-Tour (including two stages), and a Tour de Suisse mountain stage.
  • Graeme Brown won sprint stages in the Tour of California, Vuelta a Murcia, and Tour of Poland, along with near misses in a dozen other races.
  • Gesink, in only his second Pro Tour campaign, won a stage of the Tour of Belgium, finished second overall at the Tour of Poland and fifth at the DeutschlandTour, and cracked the top 10 at Flèche Wallonne.

All of this sets aside what might have been at the Tour de France, where Michael Rasmussen either nearly stole the race, or was unfairly deprived of the sport's biggest prize. Until that fateful day, he'd racked up two stage wins and a second, while his faithful teammates controlled the race day after day.

Really, even if you never bought the whole Chicken-as-Tour-winner, you'd still have trouble arguing that Rabo missed out on much this year. They got off to a roaring start with result-after-result in March, won a Grand Tour, numerous stages, a monument, a cobbled race, and a few Pro Tour events. They showed their hallmark depth across all disciplines by winning time trials (Dekker and Menchov (almost)), sprints (Freire and Brown), mountain stages (Dekker and Menchov), Classics (Freire), stage races (Dekker, Menchov, Freire) and minor jerseys (Menchov, Freire, Dekker).

For the past several years they've staffed themselves with individual riders capable of all manner of wins, but all too often they were outgunned by teams who focused more resources on fewer objectives. For once, Rabo's everywhere/all the time approach paid dividends except in the April Classics, where Flecha was boxed out and Dekker a work in progress. Flecha may finally have turned his odometer over too far, but Gesink and Freire could offer more results next April, and Dekker is a likely Ardennes threat for years to come. There's little this team can't do, and next year they'll likely be the same eponymous outfit. Hard to believe they can get as many results, but then there's nothing stopping them.