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Back Pocket Previews '09: Team Milram

Back-pocket-2_mediumEasily my least favorite team of the Pro Tour era, Milram came into existence in 2006 with the intent of inheriting the leftovers from Fassa Bortolo, German-ifying it slightly by tacking on Erik Zabel to Alessandro Petacchi and calling itself a sprinting superpower. On its face this was doomed to fail: Zabel was 34 and had just slipped out of the top ten (season points) for the first time since the Clinton Administration. Petacchi was 32, and while arguably on top of his game, his high-maintenance approach meant that a bunch sprint train would suck up most of the oxygen on the team bus. It didn't take long for the wheels to fall off: Pippo Pozzato stole Milano-Sanremo, and Petacchi crashed out of the Giro (after heroically soldiering on with a broken kneecap), leaving Zabel in charge and a string of second place stage finishes ensued.

Now, Zabel and Petacchi are respected warriors, and starting off a team by cashing in on their talents for some short-term credit is, er, defensible. But when Milram stuck by this outmoded plan in 2007 and 2008, plummeting from 12th to 15th to 19th, behind Garmin and Barloworld, well, let's just say the veneer of respectability was hard to maintain. I wrote a lot of stuff like this:

Analysis: It's no secret this team does absolutely nothing for me. Their season went to hell when Petacchi... well, when they decided to stand pat with a team built around two aging sprinters, the faster of whom had a potential doping case hanging over him. When the shoe dropped on Petacchi's season, they were done. Then Nikki Terpstra started showing his future prowess in Belgium, and Christian Knees rescued them in Bayern, and suddenly things weren't quite as dismal.

Looking Ahead: To what? Next spring maybe. I guess you could say Milram are primed to rebuild around Terpstra and Knees, but another thought would be to blow up the team and set Terpstra and Knees (and Grivko and the Velits brothers) free to find a real team.

Team Vibe: Dazed and confused.

But it wasn't just me. Here's Milram manager Gerry van Gerwen in April of last year, after yet another disaster at Amstel Gold: "When riders present themselves in a race as part of our team did Saturday in the Netherlands, then they need to re-think not only their own performance but also their whole attitude toward their profession." Yikes.

Now, I generally don't like to hate on teams (if they're clean), and if anything I'm dangerously close to rooting for 75% of the peloton at any given moment. So it is with some pleasure and relief that I see Milram evolving into something like a normal team. Honestly, this had to happen: with T-Mobile and Gerolsteiner off the scene and Milram ditching its part-Italian identity, the Milk Boys have inherited something akin to National Team status in Germany. Their timing couldn't be better too, since political and other forces seem to be trying to purge the sport from a country that's squarely in the second tier of great cycling nations. German Cycling needs a comeback, and suddenly Milram look poised to do the job. As long as their sponsor doesn't cut and run... but that's for a later day.

Attributes: Young talent... a captive audience... an historic opportunity to make its mark. The last two items are covered above, at least in part. Germany needs a hero in the sport, and Milram are the home squad. But consider who they've brought on board: Gerald Ciolek, the 22-year-old heir to Zabel's sprints/classics mantle, a guy who's already won a world U23 title, a German championship, and a slew of sprint stages not involving Mark Cavendish. Linus Gerdemann, all of 26 and with a Tour mountain stage plus a dominant D-Tour victory in his palmares. A deep bench of homegrown talent in guys like Christian Knees, Robert Forster, Fabian Wegmann, and the Fothen brothers to pitch in or snare a stage. And if German fans don't mind an occasional foreigner, they should keep a close watch on 24-y.o. cobbles ace Nikki Terpstra, charter member of the coming Dutch Hegemony.

Problems: Novelty. Few ongoing Pro Tour teams have experienced anything like the turnover at Milram. This has been a friendlier purge than the T-Mobile bloodbath of 2005, or the conversion of disgraced teams like Saunier Duval. But the long-awaited restructuring cost Milram more than half its roster, and as we saw with Columbia these newly remade teams don't always gel overnight. On the bright side, eight of the new guys came from Gerolsteiner, and three more from Columbia. Ten more Germans brings the total to 17, plus three Dutchmen, the Velits brothers and two other außlanders, so it's not like these guys aren't familiar with each other.

Roster aside, the new Milram isn't a sprint train; it's a versatile classics and stage-racing squad, pretty well designed for everything north of the Italian border. When is the last time Milram seriously -- as a team -- contested a cobbled classic or a major stage race? OK, they're active in the D-Tour, but that no longer exists. So Milram 2.0 will have a lot of lessons to absorb this year.

Key Rider: Gerdemann. Thanks to his inspiring win on Le Grand Bournand in the 2007 Tour and day in the maillot jaune, Gerdemann is the best-known guy on the roster to German fans. But he fits the "key rider" profile for other reasons: his high talent ceiling and his fragile status. It's virtually impossible to predict how he'll fare this season: more frustrating health issues? Top ten at the Tour de France? Something in between? He's at the age where you'd expect the results to start coming, but he's only ridden one Tour, no Giros, and a single Vuelta way back in 2005.

Key Moment(s):  August 16, Hamburg. It'd be nice to keep expectations tamped down and not put much pressure on the Milk Boys in 2009, but if Ciolek doesn't win the Vattenfall Cyclassic soon, I'll be shocked. Somehow he got shoved back to 14th last year, but he went 5th and 3rd in his first two tries. Also, he's lightning fast, and ridiculously young. So although he's still learning, don't be shocked if he wins the first of a half-dozen crowns in Hamburg as early as this year. By August Milram should know how to set him up.

Passing Thought: I know my Columbia post spent this bloc ridiculing the notion of a team's national identity, and undoubtedly Milram's roster includes plenty of riders who've been around enough to not get caught up in the idea of being Germany's Team. But in this case it comes in handy. It's not hard to imagine Milram marketing execs who secretly don't regard nationality as an element of the team nonetheless marketing it heavily to a receptive audience. You might see Gerdemann suppressing a smirk while talking about winning for German cycling. In other words, national identity in an international sport like Cycling may be a farce, but in the case of Milram or its skittish sponsor (or perhaps its next sponsor), this may be a distinctly useful farce.