Let's start this one with a little diversion, shall we?
How do you see BMC? What image do they evoke in your mind?
I'm curious. A lot of teams have a story -- OPQS is "the classics team" and Garmin are the Americans doing more with less, etc. What's BMC's story? The team with a lot of money? To us, that's surely part of it. To less jaded American fans, they're the team of the future, if you're hooked on the potential for Taylor Phinney and Tejay van Garderen to go places where few to none of their countrymen have gone before. To date, I'm pretty sure Jimbo is the only American to raise a cobble over his head, and he had to buy it first. So if and when Phinney tops Jimbo and hoists a cobblestone he didn't have to buy, or van Garderen pulls on a yellow jersey -- perhaps in Paris? -- BMC will be the team that brought American cycling to a new place.
To Belgians, they are the team of Superstar Philippe Gilbert -- except that all of his legendary wins came in Silence-Lotto or national team colors. So maybe BMC are the team who paid Gilbert for all of his great success, while asking so little in return. That's good right? This isn't Roger Clemens signing with the Blue Jays and embarrassing the Red Sox for the next two years. He never really left. He just stopped winning. As opposed to Greg Van Avermaet, who's as awesome as ever, and surely there are a few supporters clubs in Flanders with his name signed on that BMC jersey on the wall. Oh, by the way, have you checked out our store in Eke?
To Aussies, one would think there's some warmer appreciation. Shouldn't BMC forevermore be the team that finally gave Cadel Evans some help? And of course, in Switzerland they're the team with most of the Swiss stars, except of course THE Swiss star.
From what I can tell, and I'm anxious to hear from you, BMC is a team with several identities, depending on whom you ask, and no one overarching identity at all. They're of three countries -- the US, Switzerland, and Belgium. [Check out the non-rider staff roster. Keep scrolling. Mostly Belgians.]
And I'm just not seeing how that connects with fans. Of course, they face another significant obstacle as far as connecting with fans is concerned, the familiar elephant in the room. Starting with general manager Jim Ochowicz, the team contains its share of ties to the Motorola/Postal/Discovery regime, which fans worldwide are running from as fast as possible. Linking the BMC riders to its management's past is quite unfair -- doesn't practically every team's management have connections to the 1990s? -- but it's an obstacle, a source of continued conversation, and all of this is made worse by the ever-lingering status of Alessandro Ballan. To be clear, there is no evidence of BMC being a source of cheating; all the links come from people's pasts with other teams. Even Mauro Santambrogio had the good sense to wait til he left to get popped. Meanwhile, their failures tend to paint a clean picture; your young, popular GC hope almost certainly doesn't chunk 35 minutes in the Pyrenees if he's on a program. Eliminating the jour sans is why PEDs were all the rage to begin with. Garmin, the clean team by reputation, has had four of its most popular and successful riders confess to doping at some point. How is that better?
The problem isn't really that BMC are doing anything terribly wrong. It's that they don't have a way to start a more positive conversation. The only conversation we've ever had about them is the well-financed SuperTeam, and that's just a conversation about expectations, sometime met, sometimes not. Until they start winning big races again, or better still they forge a more tangible identity, there simply isn't enough else to say.
What We Thought Coming In
If you sense a baseball theme at some point, forgive me. It's been an interesting year. Also, hello? American team? Taylor Phinney, apple pie, Colorado, BMC. I digress...
Put simply, they go back to work. The big name guys figure to return to form, except maybe Evans, though I'd be surprised if he doesn't try one more all-in-for-the-Tour campaign, despite closing in on his 36th birthday. van Garderen probably gets a co-leadership role at the Tour, where he can threaten the podium. The classics team will be as loaded as ever, where an emerging Phinney and a healthy Hushovd can perhaps team up to deliver the Norwegian's biggest remaining career goal, while Gilbert and Van Avermaet can get back to terrorizing the fields in Belgium.
It's hard, these days, to flip the script on a doping taint, and while BMC can distance itself from the infractions to which Hincapie confessed, fans who see guilt by association -- justifiably, after the USADA report -- won't care for subtle distinctions. And yet, it is tempting to just airbrush Hincapie out of the picture and look forward with no regrets. Phinney and van Garderen are exactly the kind of riders BMC fans should get excited about: young, homegrown, talented, and managing to exceed expectations. They're gamers both, and watching them will be great fun for years to come. BMC may need to get away from its past, but they will, because like the Yankees BMC know how to invest in their future too.
That last sentence may be the worst thing I've written in eight years of doing this site. The Yankees have the most wretched farm system in baseball, either on its face or -- more drastically -- per dollar spent. BMC at least has a development team, and with The Sheriff's kid Ignazio Moser signed up for next year too. Top that, Hank and Hal. The lesson of the Yankees, which we learn and unlearn about every twenty years, is that just because you have endless amounts of money doesn't mean you can't misspend it. In sports, nobody is too big to fail. True in cycling too.
What We Got Instead
Did BMC fail? At their kickoff celebration for 2014 last month, manager Allen Peiper seemed to acknowledge the dismal state of their 2013 record when he did what he's paid to do, putting a positive face on things and emphasizing their 30 wins. Not too shabby, unless you look up what those wins were and compare them against the goals of a team like BMC. Apart from four national titles, all of BMC's victories were stages of stage races, and a couple overall wins delivered by van Garderen. No classics. No mark left on the Tour de France. One grand tour stage win, by Gilbert, at the Vuelta, and one which drew attention more for the fact that Gilbert had narrowly escaped a completely winless year in the Rainbow Jersey. For a team of this stature and budget, this was a meager haul.
Tejay van Garderen's season is a fair encapsulation of the entire team's year. He won the two biggest stage races in America, his first stage race victories since his Rabobank Development Team days, using time trial victories and surviving stern tests on the climbs en route to victory. For both races, the final margin of victory was double the largest gap in the history of either the Tour of California or the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Both were races he'd targeted before, stuck just on or just off the podium. The resounding wins represented a meaningful step forward for a guy who turned 25 between the two events.
And yet, it's hard not to wonder what the hell happened in France. Van Garderen was as baffled as the rest of us as to why his power disappeared in the first mountain phase of the Tour de France, shipping a full 35 minutes to the overall leaders in a short span. "Sometimes that shit just happens," he was left to say. It does, and in van Garderen's case, not very often. Yet the expectations of fame and fortune set up Tejay for a season where too much is said about his bad days and too little about his good one. Maybe it's his own damn fault for finishing 5th in the 2012 Tour.
Phinney remains an emerging legend, albeit in quirky ways. The headlines about his bloodlines have long since given way to tales of his unrelentingly humorous ways, in social media and interviews, as well as his slowly building prowess on the cobblestones. This year we were also treated to his emotional side -- his desperate and courageous Milano-Sanremo effort following his emotional disqualification from Tirreno-Adriatico, which prompted fan outcries and calls for the time cuts to be re-examined. Oh, and he was supposedly in talks with Dolce e Gabbana regarding a line of men's fashions. Are we sure he's not Italian? Anyway, it's on the bike where he pays the bills, and while his classics season wasn't as triumphant as could be expected -- knee pain kept him out of Flanders and he got as far as Mons-en-Pevele before his Paris-Roubaix ambitions deserted him -- there was no particular reason to see his season and his progress in a negative light.
Nor should BMC's classics season be completely dismissed, Greg Van Avermaet, who makes his living plugging leaks in his teams' classics reputations, turned in a solid season, with third in Gent-Wevelgem, seventh in Flanders and fourth in Paris-Roubaix, the latter after staying away for a couple seasons. Daniel Oss chimed in with third in E3 Harelbeke, hanging with the chase group in pursuit of Fabian Cancellara. Gilbert was second in Brabantse Pijl and seventh in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Close doesn't count much outside of horseshoes, but it does serve as evidence, in this case, that they still have plenty of quality.
Top Three Highlights
- Van Garderen wins Amgen Tour of California. Being pipped in the USA PCC the previous year, van Garderen demonstrates his closing abilities. Big time. Winning the USA PCC later in the season is on the same level. Coin-flip, really. But I'll go with the first one.
- Phinney Seventh in MSR. I'm not sure a seventh place in a "sprinters' classic" could be any more memorable than this. Days after his emotional elimination in Tirreno-Adriatico, Phinney braves the snow and the climbs, coming a few hundred meters from a win for the ages. Instead, he settles for one of the year's more inspiring defeats.
- Hushovd wins overall in Arctic Race of Norway. 2012 was a pretty disastrous BMC debut for the former World Champion, so winning early (Haut Var) and often (eight wins) was a nice rebound for the re-crowned Norwegian Champion. And before you point out the lack of quality, don't forget about Poland (two stages).
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Anything with the word "Ballan" in it. Last week BMC had to respond, once again, that it was taking no action with respect to Alessandro Ballan's exposure in the Mantova doping investigation, even though the Italian authorities moved to recommend a two-year expulsion for the former Ronde winner and world champion. I've been a big fan of Ballan's since 2007, and he's earned his place in cobbles lore if you can believe in his performances. But this particular dark cloud has hung over Ballan and BMC since 2010, and the dragged-out proceedings have been painful to watch. On the plus side, he doesn't have any results to nullify from this year.
- Van Garderen's Tour Ends Early: Stage 8: +12.15. Game Over. But in case you held out hope? Stage 9: +22.43.
- The Near Misses: They tried, fairly often, bless their souls. I'll go with Van Avermaet's effort in GP Plouay. Right guy, right race, wrong timing. But you could single out a dozen Gilbert maneuvers just as easily.
What Happens Next?
Maybe 2013 is just one of those years. BMC have been assembling various pieces which have value individually, but it simply hasn't all come together. This is an old sports story, because teams are usually much more than the sum of their parts. Cycling is a bit of a hybrid venture: teams most assuredly do matter, but only as vehicles to enable individual success. Not unlike baseball. It's great that Jon Lester is popular in the Red Sox clubhouse, for example, but he still has to walk out to the mound, pick up the ball, and execute his pitches, or the whole thing falls apart.
And that's the good news: that there's nothing systematically wrong with BMC's roster that can't be fixed, if riders work hard, stay healthy and execute their plans. The numbers show that riders were doing their jobs, mounting serious but unsuccessful challenges on a pretty regular basis. OK, there apparently was something systematically wrong on the management side, with the people who are supposed to mold that talent into results-machines, and the mid-season departure of John Lelangue at least confirmed this (solving it is tbd). And maybe the team bus is full of malcontents who don't like each other, but I've never heard anything to that effect.
No, BMC remain a talented, dangerous team. And after things went against them all year, and they still won 30 races, you have to wonder what they'll do for an encore.
Reload, for one. The climbing team has brought in Peter Stetina, Peter Velits and Darwin Atapuma to help shepherd Cadel Evans and van Garderen around the big mountain passes of Europe. Evans seems set on trying to win the Giro d'Italia next year, after taking third in his triumphant return to the corsa rosa this past spring. Atapuma has had a few nice days in the climby classics and should give the team some depth, plus an occasional card to play. Colombian riders have been too good for the last few years for BMC to miss out on the trend. Mathias Frank is the only rider headed out whom BMC may miss, but he's not quite irreplaceable.
As for Tejay and Taylor, 2014 should be the year BMC becomes their team. For starters, It's almost impossible to see them repeating 2013. Maybe Allen Peiper's goals of 40 wins, a classic and a grand tour are a stretch, but Phinney and van Garderen are as likely to rebound as anyone in the sport -- where anything can happen, but I like their chances. The classics team remains stacked, and if Phinney's knees will comply (something to watch for, knees have felled many a budding star) then something big will happen in 2014. Or 2015, or 16... eventually. As fickle as the classics are, guys as strong as Phinney usually get one or more before too long.
Van Garderen, meanwhile, isn't ticketed for obvious Tour de France greatness, but he's shown all of the qualities you need to get into and stay in the conversation. Time trialling is his foundation, but the climbing is usually there, the tactical sense is a work in progress but most days this year he got it right, and the ability to seal the deal became one more tool for his toolbox this summer.
And in the long run this is what BMC's image needs more than anything else: an identity that grows up around the two young Americans. Sure, they will be an international team like nearly everyone else, but the American imprint is strong enough that having Phinney and van Garderen as your standard bearers makes logical sense. It also would put two fresher faces on the label, guys with no meaningful connections to the bad old days. They won't be THE American team, with Garmin around and other teams with significant links States-side, and they won't cherry-pick top American talent unless they're the highest bidder, and maybe not even then. But like HTC of Cav and George, or Sky of Wiggo and Froome, or better still Garmin of Dave Z, Millar and Farrar, BMC would do well to have Tejay and Taylor as the faces of the franchise. They're pretty good faces, and it's still a very strong franchise.