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Spotlight '08: High Road - Columbia

OK, on with the team reviews. After reviewing Quick Step, perhaps the least fascinating team in Europe, today we're moving on to Columbia, a team as intriguing as they come. As usual, this is based on my back pocket preview from last March.

Attributes: Young, immensely talented roster that could own Cycling in 2012. Fabulous depth for one-day races. Lots of guys you (OK, I) want to root for. America's only Pro Tour team. Marcus Burghardt. Sport's leading anti-doping program.

On Further Review: Pretty hit-and-miss there, but the young-deep-talented theme was the story of the year, once they defied the skeptics and knitted it all into a cohesive unit. That latter part, the cohesion, isn't easy for us outsiders to clearly identify, but when a team vaults from tenth overall to being pipped by CSC for the most points in a single year, without major roster changes, something must be going right behind the scenes. And before you go anywhere with that, remember, this is one of the clean teams.

Problems: Lack of future sponsor after depressing fallout with T-Mobile. Leading anti-doping program undermined by Patrik Sinkewitz. Hideous uniforms. Lack of leadership on the road and a clear Grand Tour plan. Need several kids to grow up fast. Also, does anyone besides Stapleton really think of them as an American team?

On Further Review: That's a pretty long checklist. Obviously a good year and new title sponsor has done wonders for the perception stuff (and the kits). Leadership and kids growing up: like I said above, you don't win 76 races without something like that taking hold. The grand tour plan is the only real problem with this unit. Linus Gerdemann and Mick Rogers were plan A, but neither stayed healthy, and now Gerdemann has fled. Maxime Monfort may be the long-term answer, but for 2009 they're still hoping against hope from Rogers.

Key Rider: Kim Kirchen. Sandwiched between the young guns (Cavendish, Ciolek, Lovkvist, Burghardt) and the aging warriors (Hincapie, Hammond, Pinotti) is a guy hitting his prime, with a legit shot at all the Ardennes races and a puncher's chance at the Flemish calendar as well. Not that winning will be easy anyplace, but an early, high profile palmare would be a huge boost for this young and traditionally unfocused squad. Oh, and he was 7th in the Tour last year.

On Further Review: Hm, how do you pick one name among a team that scored 76 wins? I'll go with Mark Cavendish. Kirchen and Greipel both scored more points, but the Manx Express led all of cycling in victories, starting in April at Dreidaagse de Panne and continuing across Europe: Belgium (Scheldeprijs), Italy (2 Giro stages), Switzerland (Romandie prologue) and France (four Tour stages). Winning does a lot for a team's psyche, they say, and Cavendish did more than win -- he won convincingly, four times, in the Tour de France, as his teammates were ambushing the front of the race over the first two weeks. By the time they reached Paris the jerseys were gone, but the team was certifiably world class.

Key Moment(s): The Roubaix Velodrome. Or the Cauberg. Or Via Roma. The latter could see a surprise from Ciolek or Cavendish. The first two offer a last chance for Hincapie and a fabulous chance for Kirchen.

On Further Review: Ah... nope. Those Tour stages really did it. Kirchen's victory at La Fleche Wallonne is arguably the most prestigious win of the season, though Gerdemann and Lovkvist's dominance at the DeutschlandTour was equally impressive. Yet it was not just the four Cavendish sprints, but how they were won, that made their season. By #4, his opponents were openly admitting they couldn't stop him. I suppose by this token his outsprinting Boonen in the Scheldeprijs could get points for key moment too. The symbolism is one we might be living with for a while.

Passing Thought: Few teams will be as intriguing to watch in 2008. ...By the end of this season, they need leaders to emerge from the talented masses, so they can sell the next sponsor the promise of a fabulous, star-studded generation of racing. [snip]

On Further Review: Nobody has a tougher act to follow than Columbia. Only CSC arguably had a better season, but that kind of dominance is old hat for Riis Cycling. For Stapleton's charges, keeping this half-German juggernaut together will be tricky. Already Gerald Ciolek and Linus Gerdemann have repatriated themselves with Milram, while underutilized Andreas Klier joins Cervelo. As great as Cavendish is, Columbia can't afford to build around a bunch-sprinter. They still need to keep Kirchen happily plugging away at the Classics (and some tours), build a cobbles team around Hincapie and Burghardt, and somehow channel Lovkvist, Rogers and Monfort into a grand tour threat... all while grooming Martin, Boasson Hagen, Rabon, Siutsou, maybe Craig Lewis, for future success. If they have bought into a team program where, nourished by stage wins and other results, everyone stays happy with their roles, then 2009 can be as bright as '08 was. If the talent continues to gel, someday they'll have too many winners to manage. Nice problem to have though.