Apparently this is not the moot exercise I engaged in with my Discovery Channel review: at least Team High Road is by all reports a going concern. So let's take a look at exactly where they're going.
If there's a hidden reason Deutsche Telekom wanted out of the Pro Tour, it could be the Cycling Quotient team rankings, where Team T-Mobile ranks tenth in 2007... down from ninth last year, which was down from seventh, which was down from first. This is a bottom-line business after all, right?
Of course, such statistics fall somewhere between "lies" and "damn lies" with regard to the Mob, who bear almost no resemblance (under the kits that is) to their pre-2007 forebears. This is a team which chucked out its old druggy nucleus and replaced it with fresh faces (with one horribly stupid exception), all in the name of clean sport. That plus a cushy budget saw the Mob pretty much maintain its respectable placing, even amidst the youth movement, which sounds like success to me. Let's break it down.
Patrik Sinkewitz not only cost the team its two lead sponsors (Adidas too), but his performance drop pretty much represented the difference between the team's 2006 and 2007 numbers (about 450 points). Getting himself booted meant missing two-thirds of the season, including the homeland races; hence the lack of points. Not that anyone cares, but he was actually having a decent season with a win in the Rund Um Henninger Term and second in the Nats. But, well, fuck him.
A less publicized but similar fiasco involved former maillot jaune Serhiy Honchar, who could usually be counted on for a few hundred points' worth of time trialling. Honchar was axed in June after his April classics blood samples looked suspicious. But nobody seemed all that troubled -- being an older, Eastern-bloc rider isn't exactly the picture of innocence.
Mick Rogers is a different story: the team's purported Tour leader was quietly racking up some points over a modest schedule (Catalunya, Coppi e Bartali, etc), then going on attack at Le Tour, before infamously being taken down and out for the race. Assuming Rogers had a place in the top ten at the Tour, he was looking at improving his ranking from 79 down to maybe 50 or so (was he a podium contender?!?). Instead, he fell out of the top 100.
Finally, Bernhard Eisel's new start with the Mob can only be considered disappointing. He won a stage of the Algarve and two races in the US, but that's a meager haul for a guy coming off a season that included near-victory at Dreidaagse de Panne and fifth in Paris-Roubaix, plus some showings in Tour stage sprints. I can't recall his health history; maybe this is more about finding his role in the team. Anyway, you can't dislike a guy who flies falcons, even if he cost you your VDS strategy. He's still a rider to watch, especially in spring.
This is where the real T-Mob/High Road story begins to unfold. While Rogers remains plan A in July, the heart of the team is in the youth movement that includes the following riders (and Eisel):
- Marcus Burghardt: the next great German classics star gave hint of his form finishing third in E3 Prijs-Vlaanderen, before notching a respectable 13th in his third Tour of Flanders. He then memorably won Gent-Wevelgem with a blistering attack inside 2km, aided greatly by Roger Hammond who took second. From there he road Paris-Roubaix and Amstel before resting up for the Tour, where he showed himself in some flatter stages. He also scored two wins in the 3-Lander Tour late in the season, moving from Palookaville to 81st on the world scene in his breakout year. It's tempting to see him succeeding over all sorts of terrain, but for now one hopes High Road will point him to the Cobbles.
- Mark Cavendish: Another national heartthrob type, though from across the Channel, Cavendish rocketed into prominence at the ripe old age of 21 with wins in Belgium, France, Spain, Holland, Denmark and the UK. Among his twelve victories (and several seconds) were the prestigious Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen, Pro Tour wins in Catalunya (2 stages) and Eneco (1 stage and points jersey), and notably a time trial in Britain. Cavendish is labeled a sprinter, but there's ample time for him to develop into much more.
- Gerald Ciolek: Another great story, the surprise national champion at age 19, who skipped his factory job to beat Erik Zabel and co. for the tricolor jersey, which he then traded in for rainbow as the U23 World Champ in 2006. In his first Pro Tour season he proved himself no fluke, rocketing all the way to 46th overall on the strength of eight wins, including three in four days at the prestigious DeutschlandTour... good for second in the points classification to that Zabel dude. He also took third at the Vattenfalls Classic, along with the overall win at the Rheinland-Pfalz stage race. Ciolek came on strong after a quiet beginning, signs that he may emerge as the team's true force on the flats.
- Kim Kirchen: the team's best rider in 2007, vaulting all the way from 170th to 17th in the world. Not only did he rack up points, but where he scored tells just what an elite rider he has suddenly become: seventh overall in the Tour de France. Second on GC in Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Suisse. Essentially the winner of Tour stage 15 (once you subtract Vinokourov). Fourth in the flat, windy Autun stage. 14th at Amstel and 10th at Liege... as well as a few points at De Ronde, making him one of the few riders to register on the Cobbles and in the Ardennes. He didn't score a huge, headline grabbing win along the way, but surely that's coming.
And I don't even have space for Linus Gerdemann. This team, assuming they don't get derailed by today's sponsor bombshell, is going to be incredibly exciting to watch next year. Germany may be full of fans anxious to demonize the sport, but one of Cycling's most enjoyable developments is actually taking place right under their noses. Which was the plan for the new, new T-Mobile all along. I hope someone thinks to interview Deutsche Telekom execs in a year or two and asks them about the timing of their decision to depart Cycling. Jan Ullrich's complete disgrace wasn't enough to drive them away, but just as a fabulous new team began to emerge, that's when they got cold feet? Honestly, to any potential title sponsors out there, this is a serious buy-low opportunity. "Team Podium Cafe-High Road"... who wants to take up a collection?