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Is Team Columbia Number One?

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Last year Team Columbia-High Road put the Deutsche Telekom label and the memories of Pevenage, Godefroot and Ullrich behind itself once and for all. They got rolling on the first day of 2008 racing, the Tour Down Under, and never stopped, pocketing 77 wins in every kind of race imaginable. The held all four jerseys of the Tour for a while. And in the end they displaced CSC from every team ranking. All they needed was one grand tour overall victory and we might be calling it the greatest season in the modern era.

Since this great run was somewhat unexpected, nobody quibbled with exactly what kinds of wins the team had bagged. There are only so many monuments and grand tours to go around, and if other teams specialized in these big races, then Columbia's secondary placings and slew of lesser wins were solid results. Inevitably, however, when it comes time to repeat that run, we start asking harder questions. We can see that Columbia is again on top of the CQ Rankings, holding a narrow lead over a Quick Step team about to go back in storage for a while, and a pretty hefty lead over everyone else. We can see that they are tied with Serramenti for the victory lead, with 18 wins -- well off last year's pace, but still quite good. So we are convinced they are again the World's Best Team, right?

Right? [On the flip...]

My answer is yes, for now, and only to the extent we measure success broadly and not in signature races. And that last part is a big sticking point.

Columbia are renowned for their young megatalents and smattering of solid guys for every discipline, so it stands to reason that this season could be summed up so far in a word: evolution. Over the last year they have become quite clear about -- and proficient at -- getting Mark Cavendish in position to win. Excepting that dusty, confusing Modesto ATOC stage the Manx Express is nearly-perfect, eight-for-nine, at sealing the deal, and has become so dominant in bunch sprints that I personally give credit to Columbia for not chucking out the playbook and simply featuring Cavendish everywhere.

The rest of the team is less certain, however. Surely both sides of the classics squad are in varying stages of transition. George Hincapie will continue to get his shot, but Edvald Boasson Hagen's brilliant win in Gent-Wevelgem heralds his place as a future classics captain. Marcus Burghardt rode exceptionally well from Dwars to Gent, before running traps all day in Paris-Roubaix, so while his chances as a future winner in Flanders or Roubaix are uncertain, he at least looks like a contender for the next several years. The fact that he and Boasson Hagen primarily rode for Hincapie shows that the team has some tough decisions coming, because in the biggest Classics Team Columbia was thoroughly outplayed by Quick Step and Cervelo Test Team. And that's after catching the usually excellent Team Saxo Bank squad nursing injuries. With all that talent, no way do you win Gent-Wevelgem and call the whole thing a success.

Next up is the Ardennes squad, where Kim Kirchen is struggling to find his form and make a run at some serious points. Here the news is actually OK: while Kirchen probably won't win anything this week in his hasty return, there are several positive stories to tell. First, the team is in good hands with Michael Albasini tomorrow (and maybe Tony Martin or Thomas Lovkvist or Maxime Monfort or Mick Rogers) and with the full squad at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Secondly, Kirchen is only 30, so even were he to cede team control to Lovkvist Sunday, it will just strengthen their hand for a few more years. This style of racing suits the somewhat cautious Columbia boys better than the Cobbles, where the races are harder to control, even if you're Quick Step. Finally, a delay in his form means Kirchen might be particularly fresh during the Giro or Tour, where he can go stage-hunting and look for a high GC spot again.

Then it's grand tour season... and here is where this year probably won't look like the last. Columbia controlled the first ten days of the Tour de France -- an unlikely strategy this time around. Cavendish's hold on the green jersey is probably the top priority, along with seeing if they can get Rogers up the GC ladder a ways. In the Giro, Morris Possoni's (respectable) 44th place was the team's top result last year, and unless they have altered their priorities, it's more stage hunting for Columbia until Possoni develops for the Giro and someone else (Monfort?) for the Tour.

And that is how this season will be remembered for them, the world's best stage hunters. Yes, Cavendish's win in Milano-Sanremo was one of those signature events, but it's an odd race and not a great signature for anyone besides Fassa Bortolo circa 2005. They won two nice stages in the Pais Vasco, can time trial with anyone, and can pick off one-day wins in the mid-priority one-day races like Eroica and G-W, where they come out day after day in waves. But they also look like a team that is alternately too young or too old to control the biggest races at the moment, something you don't like being able to say about the Number One Team in the World. 2008 was a great sneak preview of what's to come, but Columbia is not ready to make the leap to truly elite status.

Ultimately the team needs a grand tour contender. Kim Kirchen is not a true podium threat. Rogers slips in and out of contention, and the thought of him putting it all together is maddeningly enticing... I dunno. He's 30, so don't count him out yet. Purely from a racing perspective (as opposed to sponsor-oriented team goals), they should probably think seriously about staffing the Giro and the Vuelta, two races where less dominant GC guys can still show well. Hell, if Menchov can win two Vueltas, then Kirchen and Rogers can make a run at the podium. I don't see how you can be a great team and not be a powerful presence in the grand tours. Absent such showings, it's too easy to look at their classics calendar and see them as a good team with an inflated record from sprint wins and smaller races.

I like Columbia now, they have been my favorite team for over a year, but if they don't keep evolving in the next couple years, 2008 will be remembered as a curious hot streak.