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The Mapei Threshold

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With seven (!) wins in the last five days, and with an array of winners from left field (Albasini) to the team's sweet spot (Kirchen, Cavendish), Team Columbia are threatening a level of dominance that has other similarly constituted teams a tad worried, I would suspect. We delved into this topic a couple months ago, when I labeled their 2008 success (71 wins) potentially "a curious hot streak." That was 24 wins ago. Incidentally, 24 is the number of wins it would take to rank #1 in the world for all teams not named Columbia.

While we all know that they will not take home Yellow next month, it's time to hone in a bit more on how to assess what Bob Stapleton's Everyday Boys are accomplishing. For me, there is a perfect, and rather obvious, measuring stick: Girgio Squinzi's Mapei Cycling. [Shortened from about seven different iterations of the Mapei name (Mapei-Clas, Mapei-Quick Step, etc.).] Mapei were renowned for dominating the monuments of springtime, which isn't exactly how I see Columbia, but without getting pointlessly nitpicky there are two major similarities: Mapei racked up horrifying win totals, and they did so without the benefit of a major grand tour champion. Let's drill down some... on the flip.

Numbers Don't Lie

While I am sure somewhere in the annals of cycling someone else did more, Mapei set the modern standard for win totals, topping out at a mind-halting 95 victories in 1997. Even more scary is that this was no mere aberration:

  • 1994: 58 wins
  • 1995: 81
  • 1996: 82
  • 1997: 95
  • 1998: 68
  • 1999: 51
  • 2000: 78
  • 2001: 45
  • 2002: 94

Now, these were different times, literally soaked in EPO, but since victories are a relative measure either Mapei were better at cheating (not likely) or they simply knew how to win. That low of 45 victories would have placed them second overall in 2003, had they continued on. In their worst years, they rocked. In their best, they went Babe Ruth on cycling.

I don't know if Columbia can top the Mapei Standard for victories. Without actually counting, I would estimate we are pretty close to the halfway point of the 2009 season, and Columbia's impressive record of 44 wins puts them comfortably ahead of last year's pace. But they will need to step it up to catch the Mapei Standard, and must do so over two more grand tours and a fall season in which they have little history of success. I'll take a wild guess and say they end up with 86 wins.

Quantity or Quality?

The only obvious criticism of Columbia is their grand tour performance. But even there Mapei is a good measuring stick for them. Like any good Belgio-Italian team, Mapei were criticized for not making a serious challenge in the Tour de France. Tony Rominger was their grand tour guy, and with Mapei his best Tour finish was 8th (he ran second in 1993 for Clas-Cajastur, a Mapei precursor). However, he arrived as a double-Vuelta winner, and for Mapei he won a third Vuelta and a Giro to boot. Squinzi also signed a blossoming Abraham Olano, and the 1995 World Champion delivered several top grand tour placings, the best being second at the 1995 Vuelta, third in the 1996 Giro, and fourth in the 1997 Tour.

To date, Columbia have nowhere near the grand tour profile that Mapei did, though it's only Year Three of the Stapleton regime (and Year Two of Columbia-High Road), so it's worth speculating whether Columbia can equal Mapei in this respect. To wit:

* Kim Kirchen -- Twice in a row he's bagged seventh place in the Tour de France. At 31, this is probably a good indicator of where he stands in le Grand Boucle. Kirchen does everything well except climbing to the highest summits. He ran second in the final ITT of the Tour last year, a great performance for him, but lost six minutes on Alpe d'Huez, among other deficits. Kirchen could conceivably win one of the other grand tours, in a year where time trialing matters above all else. Last year's Vuelta would have been perfect for him had he not shut it down after the Olympics. He is running out of time to be the new Rominger, but I wouldn't rule out a podium someplace.

* Michael Rogers -- Plain and simply, Mick Rogers is a very good grand tour rider. Unfortunately, you tend not to win unless you can upgrade to "great," and as he approaches his 30th birthday it's becoming unreasonable to expect him to make that sudden shift. His best Tour performance dates back to 2006, when he ended in 9th. I personally will never forget the storming ride he was putting in in 2007, a wide-open race, as he sped away from the pack on stage 8 in the Alps, only to get schlecked out of the race by David Arroyo, who lost control in a descending switchback. Compounding his misfortune was the mononucleosis that scuttled his 2008 Tour, after a careful spring of Tour prep. Rogers is all the way back, finishing 8th in the Giro d'Italia, but it's hard to know what to expect of him at the moment. Again, he might catch up to Rominger's record before he's done -- like Kirchen he can crank out a solid ITT, even if he doesn't often resemble the three-time world chrono champion he actually is. Rogers is a solid all-rounder, but one hesitates to say much more.

* Maxime Monfort -- Just a kid, in grand tour terms (26), so I am reluctant to project much. We do know, however, that he can ride against the watch (15th in a Tour ITT, 9th in a Vuelta one), and he's had some nice climbing results in the Pyrenees and Spain (e.g., 5th to Bagneres-de-Bigorre in St. 9 last year). Until he starts acing the Alps we will keep expectations in check, but he's showing an emerging profile that would get him to the podium in the Giro or Vuelta, especially the latter.

So for now, as compared to Mapei, Columbia exude more quantity than quality. But in one respect they are at least Mapei's equal: depth. So far this season, fourteen different riders have tasted the champagne (or dairy products or whatever celebratory matter was on hand) , from Cavendish (13 wins) and Andre Greipel (8) to guys like Eisel, Rabon, Siutsou and Lovkvist chipping in single victories. Oh, and they've won two team time trials as well. These are stunning figures. Mapei, I dunno how they spread the spoils around, though if it's any indication their Wikipedia entry lists 25 guys of note, so the odds of 14 of them notching wins in a single season aren't great. For variety and depth, Columbia may be more of a standard than Mapei. Those words on the collar ("squadra", "die mannschaft", etc.) aren't just empty words. This is one hell of a team, a true team, (almost) every day.