2008 was another sleepy season for the Netherlands' biggest, fanciest cycling squad, more fodder for fans who see a completely loaded team that consistently delivers a little less than promised. After a hot start and a good win haul in 2007, the Orangemen cut their win total in exactly half (to 16) in 2008. This wasn't merely uninspiring, it was a full 22 fewer wins than their continental squad. Same old same old, right?
Perhaps not. First, Rabobank were somewhat devastated by the Rasmussen debacle at the Tour. Sure, it was a scandal of their own making, or their management's, but it's hard not to take some pity on the blameless riders. So when storm clouds gathered again in 2008 -- the Flecha infighting in April, Dekker's strange alienation -- well, I'll take a wild guess that there were happier teams in the peloton. But Flecha has soldiered on gamely, while Dekker has taken his problems elsewhere. And meanwhile, the seeds of a future great team continue to sprout.
Attributes: From a distance, it seems like Rabo have at least one rider who can win every time they line up. They have classics riders, for cobbles and hills. They have sprinters and grand tour threats. They even have the minor classifications covered, all of them. The fact that they don't cash in every time shouldn't diminish the fact that they have actually won a Monument (Freire, '07 MSR), a grand tour (Menchov, '07 Vuelta), a green jersey (Freire, '08 Tour), and a couple polka dot jerseys (the Chicken, '05-'06) in very recent times.
But that's largely in the past. Their true attribute going forward is hope, in the form of an immense wave of young Dutch talent stalking the peloton. Much of this talent is at Rabobank already: Gesink, Ten Dam, Mollema, Langeveld, Boom, Stamsnijder, etc.; with names like Bos, Van Poppel, and others waiting in the wings. Gesink and Ten Dam are already polished enough to compete in the grand tours. If Rabobank want to build a dynamic, exciting young team, the toolbox is loaded.
Problems: Management competence is a long-standing question. I feel a little sheepish about trying to say what goes on in their strategy sessions, but the team consistently races like one without a strategy, 25 guys hunting around for an opportunity to shine. So if Erik Breukink is a master strategist, it's news to us. In fairness, 2008 was Breukink's first year at the helm; Bob Stapleton's first year at T-Mob was no great shakes either. Perhaps another year of patience is in order.
Still, the offseason didn't signal much change. Why on Earth would they sign Nick Nuyens to the classics squad, when Nuyens himself struggled at Cofidis and Rabobank already had trouble pairing Langeveld and Flecha, with Boom and Clement coming along? Maybe, just maybe, Nuyens is coming on to glue the squad together, selflessly promoting the chances of veteran Flecha while showing Langeveld the ropes. A more tempting explanation, however, is that Rabo are up to their old tricks, piling on the big names and hoping something works out.
Key Rider: Gesink. I don't see how he can win the Tour de France against the Astana Armada, but if he schedules a second grand tour, he might rack up the big win Rabo so need. A fallback position: he can win some big Tour stages, maybe a grand tour podium someplace. Another possibility: he can show his age and fail to make an impression anywhere. In the first two cases, a great season by Gesink would likely help shape the team and give it a purpose and structure for the next 5-10 years, presumably with massive home support. In the latter case, a quiet year will likely open the team to more chaos and disappointment. Unlike Andy Schleck at Saxo Bank, I'm not sure Rabo have a solid Plan B.
Key Moment(s): Here are two, one for Rabo of old and one for the future. Oscar Freire on the Champs-Elysees. If he has a green jersey on his back, it will mean a lot more than the one in his closet, won almost by default over Thor Hushovd and Erik Zabel. This year, Boonen, Bennati and Cavendish will provide the ultimate challenge, but Freire's all-round skills make him a solid contender regardless. And Gesink on Mont Ventoux. I doubt his time trialing will keep him close enough to Contador for the maillot jaune, but an iconic win would mean a great deal to him and Rabo.
Passing Thought: Can the sprinters save the season? Rabo must be approaching the 2009 season with a lot of questions, but like High Road/Columbia last year, a fast start would do wonders for the ever-critical morale. Graeme Browne has already won the Jayco Bay Series and is a threat at next week's Tour Down Under. A hot start by Oscar Freire -- say, another MSR -- would be a big boost. There are a lot of ways for Rabo to start off on the right foot, and if the team's biggest obstacle is feeling good about itself, some early wins might pay big dividends later.