Plenty of cycling team managers have entered the sport with big dreams. "Wouldn't it be awesome to build a team from scratch and win the Tour de France someday?" Why yes, it would. And best of luck with that. Now move along...
BMC are one of the small-teams-gone-big in the present peloton, not unlike, say, Garmin or Vacansoleil, in that one respect at least. But if the team's direct lineage is not extensive, the experience of its principles is. President Jim Ochowicz's well-chronicled history dates back to Team 7-Eleven and Lance, while co-owner Andy Rihs took his Phonak hearing systems fortune and made his own splash in the sport half a decade ago, albeit with unfortunate results. Directeur Sportif John Lelangue came from Phonak as well. In other words, these guys have been around big-time cycling. If BMC are a mighty oak, there is more to their origins than a tiny acorn.
Everyone knows the headliner here: Cadel Evans won the Tour de France. But there is more to BMC's success in 2011 than that bottom line. There is a team graduating from a collection of athletes to something more coherent and successful. There is depth in various places. There is a future almost too bright to comprehend. In other words, plenty to unpack here.
To the flip!
What We Thought Coming In
To be honest, not much. Nobody graded Evans as a major threat to actually win the Tour a full year ago, following two straight years out of the top 20, although as the Contador situation unfolded and spring sprung I know we (the collective cycling universe) started giving this some serious thought. In last year's capsule I muttered a bit about upgrading the classics squad, but little else. Clearly they were going for numbers adding Van Avermaet to the Hincapie/Burghardt/Ballan/Kroon (etc.) setup. Everyone was curious about Taylor Phinney's rookie season, but even there, media blitz aside, expectations were held in check.
Personally, my outlook on the team changed a bit when I interviewed Lelangue in February. True, I am highly suggestible, but Lelangue made some pretty convincing points about how their wild card status in 2010 forced them to front-load their activities in order to merit a Tour de France invitation, and generally created uncertainty in the year-long planning for the team's major riders. Evans rode a cracking Giro, but that bill came due later. By contrast, 2011 was shaping up very differently, with automatic invites and a clear pathway to going all-in for the Tour. In other words, BMC at least had a chance at ideal preparation. That alone suggested better things. Moreover, cycling history is chock-a-bloc with examples of teams that look far more fluid and balanced in year two than in their debut run. Whatever you thought of their personnel, we were likely to see them closer to their best in 2011.
What We Got
We got Evans putting together the Tour of his life. I suppose you could argue he was as good or better in 2007-8, but there are two things I loved about Evans' ride that I don't remember much of back then: his patience and his responsibility. The dramatic stuff, I dunno, maybe the best guy wins in the end no matter what, but Evans rode with a steady, steely resolve, and he didn't have any trouble whatsoever taking the entire freaking race in his hands to launch the decisive chase of Schleck on the Galibier. So yeah, that plus the sense of him biding his time and seizing his moment added up to yellow. And having the role of Contador (ca. 2007) played by Andy Schleck or CSC (ca. 2008) played by Leopard-Trek.
I'm not sure what else to chalk up Evans' late-career results to aside from these intangible things. Better legs? He was strong enough in 2007. Cleaner opponents? Better team? Maybe all of the above which translates into calmer approach which results in wins. All I know for sure is that Cadel has gone from one of the sport's forlorn tales of woe to the stratosphere, virtually from the moment he signed with BMC.
As for the team at the Tour, Evans was not blessed with one (or more) of those climby lieutenants who shepherds him to victory and shuts down the rest of the race. He had guys around: Bookwalter, Hincapie, Morabito and Moinard were guys I recall seeing from time to time. They all finished the entire Tour, which suggests that every day he had plenty of guys available to do stuff away from the cameras, which is mostly what teamwork is about if you can't just Postal the field. He had their clear support, psychologically, and I am definitely not overlooking that. Stellar? I dunno, close enough.
Outside of the Tour the team got mixed results. Alessandro Ballan got distracted by more Mantova investigation business, which cost him a start at the Giro, but by then he'd put together a very strong spring campaign, with second on le Strade Bianche, fourth in MSR, 12th in Flanders and 6th in Paris-Roubaix. In every case he was at the front of the race in its final stages, and his "worst" result was a positively awesome ride in Flanders, when he and his mates chased down Cancellara and Chavanel, Ballan himself launched after Philippe Gilbert on the Bosberg, and after a few digs of his own he labored to set up George Hincapie in the sprint. I don't know what to say about the Mantova stuff, but if he puts that behind him, Ballan looks set up for a couple more prime classics years.
The other big story is the development of Greg Van Avermaet. In 2008, with Silence-Lotto, this guy was a stud. He won the Vuelta points jersey and a stage, came third in E3 and 8th in de Ronde, and scored oodles of points in non-Pro Tour stuff, fittingly enough for a guy in his age 24 season. Two years later he was back in Spain, not having won a single race since... and making a move to BMC. Sure, he found himself in support of Philippe Gilbert (more on that in a moment) while with the OPL guys, and that limited his chances in some key races. But he wasn't winning on the side, in places like the Tour of Belgium or Tour de l'Ain. A change of scenery could only do him good. But... this much good? Van Avermaet was competitive in the hillier classics like never before, taking 7th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and just missing the glory of a brilliant attack at MSR, chased down in the closing moments by Cancellara and co. Then he up and wins Paris-Tours and is competitive to the bitter end in Lombardia. Fantastic season, and like Evans' Tour win, if you saw it coming, you're in the minority.
I should also mention a few other performances. George Hincapie finished his 16th Tour de France, nabbed a win in the exciting Aspen stage of the USAPCC, and rode perhaps his best Flanders (6th) in a few years. Paris-Roubaix got away from him, in part due to punctures IIRC, but he certainly didn't go home empty-handed. Mauro Santambrogio got hot in June, narrowly missing wins in Toscana and the Italian Nats but was sent off to slog away at the Vuelta and missed out on his customary fall run. Taylor Phinney found the senior circuit rough going, as minor injuries robbed him of a cobbles debut and the pace of the Vuelta led to some very candid blog entries. But he has a year under his belt, and even got a nice result at ENECO, finishing fourth thanks to his prologue win. Growing pains...
Top Three Highlights
- Cadel Evans wins the Tour. Bet you didn't see this pick coming. I guess you can tuck in his stage win on the Mur de Bretagne here too. On top of his strong spring, the guy looked solid throughout July.
- Van Avermaet wins Paris-Tours. Like I said above, this guy is reborn. And he's good at climbing on cobbles. What's not to like?
- Tour of Flanders. Cycling at its tactical, grinta best.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Mantova headaches. For the second year in a row Ballan and Santambrogio got temporarily shelved. For a team with a really solid image, this has been a depressing distraction. For us fans who await the machinations of the Italian justice system, well... who knows what to think? All we know is that the team has twice now been forced to act, out of precaution at a minimum. And either something could happen. Or not. Kind of a nightmare.
- Phinney misses Paris-Roubaix. When a really young kid's minor knee issue is one of your lowlights, you've had a fantastic year.
- Podium Cafe gives new kit mixed reviews. Frankly, I could do with a little less red. Oh, I suppose you could put Hincapie's loss to Matt Busche in the US nats here too. But getting pipped at the post, that's cycling.
Where Do They Go From Here?
This is where things go from really interesting to through the roof. Departing are several solid pros but nobody who will be tough to replace. Incoming is a juggernaut of quality, experience and palmares. The rainbow collection increases to three with the addition of Thor Hushovd. Adam Blythe and Klaas Lodewyck become the team's ace sprinters-in-training, something they could use before too long. Tejay Van Garderen joins his buddy Phinney to form the dynamic duo of American kids on the hunt for future stardom (and a never-ending stream of Twitter hijinks). Steve Cummings and Marco Pinotti add some all-round experience and class.
And then there's the ultimate transfer season prize: Philippe Gilbert. This will be the subject of extensive analysis before the Omloop, mark my words. For now, though, Gilbert brings a massive presence to a team that maybe didn't get quite the attention it deserved. He also joins Hushovd in turning a stocked Classics cupboard into a living trophy case. Can they sweep the podium at de Ronde? Hm, maybe a better question is whether all those stars can be coherently managed in pursuit of all their ambitions. LIke I said, that's a story for later and, if you were to ask Ochowicz, a challenge he and BMC will delight in tackling next season.
Photo by Doug Pensinger, Getty Images Sport