Team HTC's youth movement didn't stop in 2010, even after watching most of their cobbles team and one of their biggest stars, Edvald Boasson Hagen, walk out the door last winter. With the cycling world eager to bring down the curtain on their two-year run of near-total dominance (fancy jerseys aside), HTC simply reloaded and picked up where they left off, winning early and often. After his victory in Gent-Wevelgem I asked Bernhard Eisel what it meant to get a big win for a team in transition, and he dismissed the entire concept of "transition" with polite prejudice. As far as the guys on the bus were concerned, nothing had changed.
What We Thought Coming In
By redeveloping more with young climbers, HTC-Columbia are taking a step back and embarking on a much slower-baking project. So not only might 2010 be a little less joyful, 2011 might not be much different. The rest of the pack will be glad to see them again... and won't show them much pity, just as Columbia offered little quarter to the peloton for the last two seasons.
Oh, and I called Peter Velits my rider to watch:
Toiling at Milram with minimal assistance save for his twin brother Martin (also jumping to HTC), the former U23 World Champion showed across-the-board improvement in sort of the Kim Kirchen role: posing as a stage racer but really looking at his best in the classics or in stage attacks.
What We Got In the End
A lot more continuity in the victory department than expected. If you didn't look too closely, you could say that nothing really changed. Sure, victories dropped from a mind-arresting 85 to a mere 64... which is the difference between lapping the field and just soloing home. Whatever. HTC have long preached The System, which means fielding deep teams which share the spoils, and early wins by guys like Frantisek Rabon (Murcia overall and a stage), Leigh Howard (Oman stage) and Bernhard Eisel (Gent-Wevelgem) vindicated the System and its patient members. Mark Cavendish got a late start, but he and Andre Greipel racked up plenty of palmares en route to another points title.
There were some important differences, however. Gone was the dominant leadout train, which Cavendish seemed to function decently without. Arguably the team lost some quality in the win department: in 2009 the team fared slightly better in the quality-vs-quantity debate that has dogged their dominant run with big wins at Monte Paschi Eroica (Lofqvist), Milano-Sanremo (Cavendish), and Tony Martin's awesome Tour de Suisse challenge (2nd overall). In 2010, the grand tour stage wins kept pouring in and the team repeated important victories in Gent-Wevelgem and Eneco with new faces, but the early portion of the year was less dramatic and the team's grand tour plans seemed even more focused on stage wins than ever. Using points, which is supposedly the true measure of team performances, HTC barely clung to the top spot in CQ's rankings and lost out to Saxo Bank in the Podium Cafe system, which didn't recognize their winter winnings.
But even if you thought they got taken down a peg while they continued kicking ass, the longer range plan got a couple huge boosts when Velits emerged as a grand tour threat with his Vuelta second (assuming Mosquera's removal) and with Tejay Van Garderen's rapid development toward becoming the next American Tour threat. With Martin also making strides, HTC are chipping away at the one goal that's eluded them -- big stage race wins. So in a sense the team was off the front of the pack and coming up in hot pursuit at the same time.
Top Three Highlights
- Mark Cavendish's Tour Stage 5 win. The previous day's dismal sprint, where he simply didn't have it, left people openly questioning whether the Manx Missile's lost spring would continue through the summer. But Cavendish responded powerfully and five wins later nobody was asking uncomfortable questions anymore.
- Peter Velits' win in the Penafiel ITT. Sometimes riders win time trials that don't mean much, but here are the guys Velits beat on a 46-km flat course en route to his Vuelta podium place: Menchov, Cancellara, Larsson, Sanchez, Zabriskie and Millar. Sure, the wind might have hampered the earlier starters but he still beat Menchov head to head. The same Menchov who's won two Vueltas and a Giro on the strength of time trials.
- Mick Rogers' GC win in the Tour of California. As a fan this didn't do much for me, but think about HTC's identity. They're the California-based juggernaut that American fans who only show up in July know nothing about. I don't have the stomach for this, but if you polled, say, ESPN readers on which team between Radio Shack and HTC were "better," the results probably wouldn't speak too well of perceptions [the Shack trailed Vacansoleil in both wins and points]. So until HTC is ready to compete for the yellow jersey, hopefully in a year or two, winning the Tour of California is critical exposure to hometown fans... and sponsors.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Cobbles Performance -- After Eisel's win in G-W, there wasn't much to speak of.
- Cav's Dental Dilemma -- Cyclists are forever dancing with health dilemmas, so this wasn't so shocking. But it did kill the team's chances in MSR.
- The "Small Shit Races" -- So much for team harmony.
Where Do They Go From Here?
The youth movement continues on. Velits, Martin, Van Garderen, and Matt Goss all have something to build on for next year. Jan Ghyselinck and incoming John Degenkolb will be eager to join them. And in the meantime Cav can keep the team in the headlines.
Photo by Jasper Juinen, Getty Images Sport