Confession: I'd love to do a complete offseason review using Gone with the Wind as a recurring theme. The American cinema classic is an enduring cultural checkpoint, capturing (for some) the essence of the Old South amidst its "heroic" fall. The story is full of love, romance (e.g., patriotism, nostalgia, etc.), violence, treachery, sin, virtue, and fabulous clothing. If you can't use all that to weave a story about the 2011 cycling season, you just aren't trying. But there are two reasons I refuse to do this:
- I don't want to draw in the GoneWithTheWindologists, lest I set myself up for a point-by-point thrashing. I have enough problems without that headache; and
- I've never made it through more than 15 minutes of the soap-opera plot. I mean, apart from the money quote, what's a memorable line? "Never mind about loving me, you're a woman sending a soldier to his death with a beautiful memory. Scarlett! Kiss me! Kiss..." zzzzzzzzzz...*
So I will just steal the one single, memorable moment from the movie, referenced in the headline above, as a way to start discussion of today's Offseason Capsule: Rabobank. To the flip!
Matti Breschel. There, I said it. [If you had "first sentence after the jump" in the "how long before Chris talks about Breschel" pool, congratulations. And if you picked the under, you should have known better when the o/u was set at the headline.]
Now back to our story. "Tomorrow is another day," said Scarlet O'Hara, while claiming she would return to her antebellum homestead and figure out how to win back her dashing scoundrel of a husband. This encapsulates Rabobank perfectly: true and hopeful on its face, and don't spoil the mood by questioning any of the tarnished past, the suspect future, and the lack of any clear strategy for moving forward beyond continuing what got them all there in the first place.
Rabobank are several years into the Master Plan to home-grow a top cycling team by culling the athletic cream from the youth of the Netherlands. It's a pretty awesome plan: serving as a youth project gives the team and its backers a strong identity and grounding that could (fingers crossed) result in one of the longest sponsorship deals the modern sport has seen. Plus, the Netherlands is a decent-sized country, hasn't lost everyone to soccer/voetbal, and makes for a nice foil to its cycling-mad neighbor to the south.
And it works too. At least half the team consists of Rabo Continental Team graduates, including all of their biggest stars of the past season: Robert Gesink, Lars Boom, Theo Bos, Bauke Mollema, Steven Kruijswijk, and so forth. Face it, what Dutch kid with the right body type and sustainable power is gonna say no to dropping out of school to do winter training in Spain? They're not fools. And the lure of the World Tour team is a strong motivator, as both a carrot and stick. Yes, if you do well you will get a good look, and no, if you don't measure up we will buy some more foreign studs.
Rabo are deep, talented, and loaded for every kind of race you can name. So where are the results? Where's that hegemony we once spoke of? Dagnammit... let's do this.
What We Thought Coming In
A more pertinent question might be, what did Dutch fans think coming in? We called it a "potentially huge year," an encouragement wrapped in a cloak of plausible deniability. Hometown fans might have a little more perspective on expectations the team faces. Clearly there are expectations -- this is a well-funded project stocked with athletes who were considered budding stars. But it remains fairly young and a tad fragile. Leadership vests (partly) in Boom and Gesink, both 25, while the stable includes winners like Paul Martens (27), Breschel (27), Luis Leon Sanchez (27), Bauke Mollema (24), Kruijswijk (24) and Michael Matthews (21). The fragile part consists of the ages of these guys and their relative lack of mileage -- not an asset in July -- as well as Breschel's knee and Gesink's untimely crashes. The sky was the limit for 2011, but the floor was pretty low too.
What We Got
Early excitement, followed by heartache and disappointment. Sebastian Langeveld (headed to GreenEdge) gave the team a much-needed palmare on the cobbles with a riveting win in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, pipping Juan Antonio Flecha at the post to deny the more heralded Spaniard of a second straight win in Gent. This was the squad's first cobbled win of any consequence since Oscar Freire's Gent-Wevelgem victory in 2008 (or Graeme Brown's '09 K-B-K win, if you prefer). Considering the talent and investment Rabo has in its classics squad, they needed this. It failed to unleash Hell on the peloton for the rest of spring, as their next one-day win came in late April at the Rund Um Koln, but Boom had a decent spring, coming in with the Farrar-led chase group at Flanders and the Hushovd group in Roubaix. He even sprinted for the line in Gent-Wevelgem, albeit without much more hope of a win than he experienced in the Monuments. But in the topsy-turvy world of the Classics, where young riders need three or four tries before being taken seriously, Boom is about where you'd expect to find him.
What is disappointing is the lack of more threatening riding in the classics. Rabo either did or should have had strength in numbers, with Tjallingii in Paris-Roubaix, Langeveld everywhere. Tjallingii's podium place in Roubaix was magnificent, and Langeveld hung around the winning break at the end of Flanders. There was no dominant team to checkmate the Oranje boys. But the lack of a true threat to win was evident in the lack of end-of-race action. They never had anyone strong enough to really make the race, or put fear in their rivals. Because Breschel was hurt.
Matti Breschel, hired away from Saxo Bank, was damaged goods from the get-go. Hopefully Rabo have some insurance on their contract the way they do in baseball and other megasports, because that money simply disappeared in 2011. The good news is that Breschel did return, albeit too late to do much more than reminding everyone how badly Rabo missed him. And, well, tomorrow is another day.
On the stage racing scene, the present continued to leave fans lusting for the future. Gesink focused laser-like on the Tour, but could not improve over his 5th place from 2010 after crashing and joining the legions of wounded Dutch riders simply soldiering on toward Paris. But Mollema was the (other) revelation of the Vuelta, taking fourth and spending a day in the lead, even after having completed his first Tour de France. Kruijswijk finished ninth in a beastly Giro d'Italia, then took a stage and a podium spot in the Tour de Suisse. Both out-performed pricey import Sanchez (although not before LuLu bagged a Tour stage), though neither one would have an easy time getting admitted to a bar in the States. See? Even when writing a paragraph about the present, it's hard to stay on message and not drift into discussing the future.
One last tidbit: Mollema showed some chops in the classics too, taking second in Emilia on behalf of the absent Gesink (who finished his season with a second in Quebec). And it was a master stroke pulling Martens from the cobbles squad in favor of a Brabant-Adrennes run, two weeks when he was constantly near the front.
Top Three Highlights
- Langeveld's win in the Omloop. Debatable for sure, but it was a riveting win and at the time the team were riding high everywhere.
- Kruijswijk's breakout. Mollema got a few more results, but I'll give the nod to Cruise Ship for the element of surprise and degree of difficulty. Just finishing the Giro this year was probably a bigger achievement than getting a result in the Vuelta. But matching pedal strokes with Contador over the least forgiving parcours of the year? Before his 24th birthday?
- Hm... OK, I will go with Boom's Tour of Britain win. Other candidates: Mathews beats Greipel in Australia and Kittel in Koln. But Boom won a tough race convincingly, bagging a pair of stage wins, which should boost his confidence heading into the next round of Classics.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Gesink's Tour de France crash. Day after day he labored on, hoping against hope that his body could respond before he lost too much time. It never happened.
- Breschel's knee. Totally f'd up their classics plan from day 1.
- Freire's quiet departure. Oscarito, their winningest rider ever, left the team on a dull note, no wins after February and no fondness in their farewell. Just an uncomfortable silence as no offer came through.
Where Do They Go From Here?
Upward. I am more convinced than ever that Rabobank are on the verge of something far greater than poor, miserable Scarlett could have accomplished, tedious sequel or no. Maybe Gesink has a bike handling issue and he's bound to crash again, but 2010's results say that it's far from assured. Sure, the next Tour de France won't favor the pure climbers at all, especially these ones, but stage wins and high overall finishes will do for now. As for the classics, Breschel is as likely as Gesink to rebound from his health woes -- not assured, but he should be fine. If so, supplementing the existing Rabo squad with a rampaging Dane, precisely what they need, should take them from "deep and strong" to "dangerous." If this happens, it enables Martens and the pure climbers to focus on Amstel Gold, a race they dearly need to win, for a long list of reasons... including the confidence they'll need to produce a home challenger for the World Championships next fall.
[* Surely there is a way to use "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," but I am saving that for the Lotto capsule.]
Photo by Michael Steele, Getty Images Sport