Taking the top two spots in today's stage of the Giro d'Italia, combined with a nearly simultaneous win in the opening stage of the Bayern Rundfahrt, was more than just another day at the office. At least by Cycling Quotient's tabulation, the day's haul of points (125) vaulted them over CSC and into the position of the World's Number One Team. This is just one point in time, and CSC will soon unleash its army of flying monkeys to take over the world again in all likelihood. But for a few days or weeks, Stapleton and Co. can savor the accomplishment.
Today's ranking represents a return from the wilderness in what's been a long, Homeric journey. Predecessors T-Mobile had locked down the top ranking for 2004, on the backs of its greatest juggernaut of the new millenium, a team led by usual suspects Zabel and Ullrich, followed closely by wave after wave of talent and class: Vinokourov, Savoldelli, Kloden, Wesemann, Kessler, Evans, Klier, and some kids named Burghardt, Haussler, Iglinsky, etc. From there, things went downhill quickly. Ullrich sucked in 2005; Kloden disappeared; Wesemann and Zabel started feeling their ages a bit; Evans and Savoldelli fled for saner pastures, and Vinokourov began openly rebelling against the team on the road. Despite adding more talent, the team slipped to 7th... which became 9th in 2006, as Operacion Puerto snuffed the hopes of Ullrich and Sevilla, and let to later revelations that the T-Mobile team of the early 2000s was something of a dope factory.
In these dark hours, however, the groundwork was laid for a resurgence. By 2006, the team was beginning its transition to a younger squad, adding Mark Cavendish, Mick Rogers, Andre Greipel, Linus Gerdemann and Frantisek Rabon to the handful of existing hopefuls like Burghardt and Bernhard Kohl. Vet Kim Kirchen came over quietly from Fassa Bortolo. By year's end the newcomers included surprise German national champ Gerald Ciolek; in 2007 Bernhard Eisel joined on; followed by Thomas Lovkvist, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Kanstantin Sioutsou this past winter. Meanwhile, T-Mobile fired Rudy Pevenage, Walter Godefroot, and almost everyone associated with the Ullrich era -- though not, unfortunately, Patrik Sinkewitz and Serhiy Honchar, whose doping transgressions in '07 undermined the otherwise remarkable housecleaning and rebuilding efforts going on in the squad. This chaotic transition, along with the team's more customary inability to focus around certain riders and races, saw T-Mobile sag to tenth place.
While losing a title sponsor is usually considered a disaster, Team High Road's reincarnation is proving instead to be the fresh start the team desperately needed. While the lines were drawn in early 2007, it wasn't until this offseason that the team fully broke with its sordid past. Now, the roster bears virtually no resemblance to the Ullrich years, save for Mick Rogers, Andreas Klier, and the still-young Burghardt. New management is entering its second season; the team has officially moved to California, and the young fastmen have largely taken over. Apart from a few still-competitive mentors in Hammond, Hincapie and Pinotti, this team projects the vigor of talent and youth. While Kim Kirchen is the most prolific all-rounder, it is Greipel and Cavendish who have led the way much of the year, and along with Kirchen it will likely be Rogers, Gerdemann, Burghardt and Ciolek who add in the next wave of big contributions to the team's surging fortunes.
They still don't have an obvious leader to coalesce around, and we've spent plenty of bits here wondering whether so many baby-faced sprinters can coexist on a single team. Their Tour de France team looks like a mix of GC top 10s and sprinters. So far, however, the results and pictures speak volumes. Cavendish, a ruthless finisher, seemed all too happy to let his leadout man take a stage of a grand tour today... not by any grand plan but merely instinct. This after one of the Giro's few intact teams spent the whole day on the front, working to set up Cavendish. That's a terrific show of strength and teamwork. The days of Ullrich and Kloden chasing after Vinokourov seem awfully long ago.
It may be that the names which excite us insiders don't do much for attracting a top sponsor, particularly from a country (the US) where anything less than a yellow jersey is greeted with dismissal. But anyone with the foresight to look closer will see a team loaded with potential, already reaching the top rung of the ladder. As Cycling sponsorship investments go, can it get any better than this?