Time to check out the ever-evolving Belkins...
A Little Background
The identity of Dutch cycling has been perhaps the most entertaining such subject of any nation's collective efforts at the top level of road cycling, over the last decade or so. The "identity" of Italian and French cycling is always spread over a few top teams. American cycling even more so, despite our relatively small contributions to the sport. Belgium is forever a two-team blood feud. The Spanish? Project Unzue has taken full control, so much so that "interesting" doesn't describe matters.
The Netherlands has sported one flagship project, Rabobank (nee Kwantum), with only the rare challenge from a second top-flite team in the new millennium. Kwantum began as half of the remainders from Ti-Raleigh, the other half forming the powerful Panasonic team of Peter Post and co. After Panasonic disbanded in 1993 and Kwantum evolved into Rabobank, the Oranje had their quasi-national team, orange kit and all. There were others, like the nearly unpronounceable Bankgiroloterij, but nothing much, even when the iconic 80s cycling brand Skil-Shimano revived itself in 2005.
Except that little team grew into Giant-Shimano, and began kicking Rabobank's ass very soundly over the last two seasons, just as that brand was disintegrating into "Your Name Here" and of course Belkin. The ass-kicking was long overdue for a project that probably suffered from both expectations and comfortably enjoying their exalted position, along with whatever sins of management and of course doping you want to sprinkle in. However you assign blame, when Giant-Shimano rounded into ass-kicking form following an explosion of roster-building genius that dates back to 2011, Rabo/Blanco/Belkin made for a prime target.
So who's the powerhouse Dutch team in 2015? None other than LottoNL-Jumbo, the reborn Kwantum/Rabo squad now entering its ninth life in cycling, with a whole new sponsorship, new roster, and hopefully a new purpose. Wait, what? Yes, these guys. If for no other reason than because Giant-Shimano, now Giant-Alpecin, have registered in Germany. Hooray for the rebirth of German Cycling! [Marcel Kittel says "guten tag".]
It pains me not at all to pause momentarily and look at the other top Dutch teams. I start, of course, with Team Baby Dump, a very young squad competing at the continental level. I hope they're good enough to out-run the jokes about their name. [Which, just as inexplicably, comes from a baby gear store. And yes, I'm pretty sure "dump" has the same official meaning in both languages, if not all of the unfortunate euphemisms.] Teams De Rijke, Parkhotel and Jo Piels are among the many continental teams, grooming the next generation of World Tour aspirants. So too is the Rabobank Development Project, keeping the jersey alive. Team Roompot comes on line as a Pro-Conti squad, a slightly more experienced version of the rest. Standing alone in the spotlight, then, is Team LottoNL-Jumbo.
De-Fault. The two sweetest words in the English language.
What We Thought Coming In
We've been a bit spotty in our capsule coverage the last two winters, but with our idea being blatantly stolen by the big media it's time we caught up. Rabo was one of those teams we'd covered a lot so we passed on them in 2014. Previously Jens had the following to offer:
Suddenly the Blanco team will be out from day one in search of new sponsorship and results are hard currency. Gesink has already motivated his choice to focus on the Giro with wanting to get on the scoreboard early to help secure the teams future. Logically the spring classics will also be vital in establishing a winning trend for the team.... With new additions like Vanmarcke and LP Nordhaug you could easily see them racking up results all through April if they manage to integrate their ambitions with guys like Boom and Mollema. Boom already sounds a lot less abrasive when it comes to Sep than he did with Breschel so that's a good sign. A double threat on the cobbles is always going to be in his favor even if he doesn't necessarily recognize it himself.... As for tactics, let's just say they're starting with a blanco sheet and leave it at that. Far be it from us to get into a discussion about the lack of a certain je ne sais quoi in their decision-making in the past. Anyway I think we are all hoping the Blanco boys and their management manage to pull off a strong season and secure a new sponsor. Dutch cycling, and cycling as a whole would be poorer for it if they didn't.
The situation with sponsorship carried over into a second season, with Belkin playing savior, and then pulling the plug, in a fit of fickle and schizophrenia that sums up the sport of cycling rather perfectly. So for a second season we saw a tenuously positioned Dutch powerhouse going begging for results, as soon and as often as possible, to save their skins.
What We Got
The usual mix of potential and frustration, right? Eh, not really. Both of those are fan perceptions, subjectivities hurled at the athletes rather than anything they experience more directly. Why do we expect more from them and get mad when they do less? Riders are paid to train hard and go to their limit on race day, using various tactics along the way to turn all that into results. Tactics have often been something to criticize with Rabo over the years, but the new management didn't seem to stand out from the field in either a good or bad way. So yeah, expectations.
Exhibit A is Lars Boom, a man who long ago cursed himself with the highest expectations possible. Boom had another iffy season, but only within the confines of the ZOMG Lars Boom!!! world which some people continue to construct for him. Yes, he took a step back in the Classics, but considering he broke his elbow in Paris-Nice and didn't race for most of March, 37th at Paris-Roubaix is almost super-human. By summer, he was back to full health, and his win on the cobbles in the Tour de France's most exciting day was a memorable one. He missed out at ENECO glory, but honestly, who cares?
Exhibit B is Bauke Mollema, who has assumed the team's grand tour leadership from Robert Gesink when heart trouble sidelined the team's natural captain. Mollema made the most of his opportunity in 2013, finishing sixth in a very competitive Tour de France last podium step fight, but wasn't able to replicate his good form or fortune this time around. Cycling is fickle, a point proven every time a climber goes down in a pileup of riders on the flat roads of northern France early on in the Tour. For Mollema, this happened the day before the Cobbles, where he lost three minutes. Ultimately his tenth place in Paris saw him 21' back, so who cares? But that's when his form stumbled, and he wasn't great again until the Pyrenees. The reality is that Mollema was as good as ever this year -- fourth in La Fleche Wallonne, second in San Sebastian, after never really doing much in any classics. With a little more luck in France, 2014 would probably have gone down as his best year.
Exhibit C is Sep Vanmarcke. Expectations play a different role for De Sep -- because he keeps confronting them, disputing the nice things people say about him, and then exceeding predictions... beginning the cycle anew. Knowing how driven he is, I would guess that no victories on the World Tour and his third-fourth performance in Flanders and Roubaix is probably deeply dissatisfying, even as he tells the world that he hasn't quite earned the right to place himself in the class of Boonen and Cancellara. To a more neutral eye (yeah, I know), Sep has provided even more evidence of his eventual classics breakthrough. As unpredictable as these races are, Vanmarcke's consistency is truly remarkable, and barring ill fortune he is sure to get his before long. But before we leave 2014, it's fair to say that he helped his team out more than ever, by a longshot. The book on Vanmarcke was supposed to say "classics guy only," in the great Belgian tradition of riders whose season began and ended with the Cobbled races. But he scored wins in places like Norway and Alberta, not exactly glamour duty, and pitched in to the Tour squad -- but for a flat tire, stage 5 could have been his day. As late as October he was scoring points in Binche-Chimay-Binche. Solid stuff.
Other performances of note begin with the return of Gesink from surgery to correct a heart arrhythmia, a condition which (understandably) freaked him out more than it inhibited his performance. Along similar lines, he left the Vuelta, where he was starting to look like his old self, to attend to his girlfriend Daisy and the premature birth of their child (who I think turned out OK? can't find any news to the contrary). I swear, this guy has lived half a dozen lives already. Theo Bos continued to win sprints in lesser but still important events, like the World Ports Classic and a Tour de Pologne stage. The most pleasant surprise was the performance of Moreno Hofland, who hit the ground running and reeled off six victories, highlighted by a Paris-Nice stage. And the progression of Wilco Kelderman took a great leap forward, with seventh in the Giro and an excellent Dauphine performance. The talent may be beguiling at times, to put it politely, but it never stops coming with this team.
Top Three Highlights
- Boom wins Stage 5 of the Tour. Mostly we remember Nibali dropping Cancellara, but Boom dropped him too. Also, this was the first Dutch stage victory in nine Tours, which I blame on Theo Bos.
- Hofland wins Paris-Nice stage 2. It was the start (sorta) of a big year, which the team desperately needed. Also? He beat Degenkolb, Bouhanni, and Kristoff in that finishing kick. Respect.
- Kelderman third in Dauphine stage 2. You could put any number of results here, and I am tempted to slot in Sep's third in Flanders, coming in the same time as Cancellara. But Kelderman beat a pretty star-studded group of climbers up the hill that day, just barely off the pace of Contador and Froome at the end. Yes, it's the Dauphine and people's form and effort are unpredictable, but still.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Belkin drops sponsorship. A month later, LottoNL stepped into the breach. But that was one depressing month, and the fallout of high-level departures will be felt for a while.
- Boom crashes in Paris-Nice. The classics season might have looked different had Sep ridden with the confidence of knowing his teammate was a threat to win.
- Mollema crashes in the Tour. Again, I don't know how much difference it would have made, but it wasn't optimal at all. [Also, missing from this list is the "Rabo/Blanco do something stupid" entry that was a regular feature in the past. Progress!]
Where Do They Go From Here?
In a very different direction, I think. Boom and Mollema both fled during the uncertainty that took hold when Belkin ditched the team. [Technically they announced in August, when LottoNL had come in, but obviously the ground was laid earlier.] The depth of the team was eviscerated when useful guys like Bobridge, Clement, Bos and Nordhaug also left town.
The classics team now sports Vanmarcke as its veteran leader, though youthful support may be on the way. Mike Teunissen, whom cyclocross fans will remember from his U23 world title in Louisville, brings a cobbles pedigree that includes winning the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs event and fourth at the U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Whether that translates on the big stage remains to be seen. But "espoir" means hope. So yeah. Hope. Maarten Tjallingii, Maarten Wynants and Bram Tankink are all good for the occasional surprise, particularly in northern France.
The team can also hope for Gesink to return to his very best. With his arrhythmia corrected, maybe the extra aggression comes back and at long last we see the brilliant cyclist so long promised. He is, remarkably, only 28 and well within his prime, should the pieces fall into place. And Gesink will still be able to count on Steven Kruijswijk and Laurens ten Dam for veteran support.
Whether the team can overcome the massive turnover will depend a lot on where Kelderman and Hofland go from here. With the Tour beginning in Utrecht, they can both be expected to focus on July, meaning the LottoNL colors won't be seen much at the Giro. Strong seasons from the two, at the Tour and elsewhere, could translate into a bright future and the opportunity to beef up the squad for 2016 -- something that was impossible this year amidst the sponsorship chaos. Struggles could make the team look like Sep, Bobo and little else. That ninth life... hopefully cycling teams are more resilient than cats.