From its beginnings in 2007 the Garmin franchise's identity has been almost indistinguishable from its founder and director's mission. After a professional career, during which he used performance enhancing drugs occasionally and with public regret, Jonathan Vaughters sought to prove that cycling could be cleanly competed at the highest levels. Beginning as a junior development team in Colorado in 2003, the organization became a Professional Continental level team in 2007 and immediately began making its name as an unusually vocal proponent of a new approach to racing. The team was among the first to have stricter internal testing protocols than the governing bodies of the sport applied to the sport writ large and Vaughters has been a leading voice in the call for reform of both testing and sanctioning of doping offenses. Garmin has been a second chance home for repentant dopers, most vocally David Miller but also including Thomas Dekker for the past two seasons.
But, to reduce Garmin's identity to an anti-doping crusader would be too reductionist. While the team branded itself as such early on, it has also been a place for nurturing American talent. The program does have its roots in a development team and, for a while, there was a U-23 team with the same sponsors racing in Europe. Nate Brown (age 22), Andrew Talansky (25), and Alex Howes (26) are a few of the young talents Vaughters has been nurturing over the past season(s) and a long list of young Americans precede them. There is stiff competition with BMC for the honor of developing young talent, but each year a few promising individuals opt for the quirky atmosphere of Garmin over the more star-studded roster of BMC.
Finally, Garmin has always been a home for the oddballs. Vaughters, for all his intellect, has a goofy side evidenced in the team's persistent love affair with argyle. Team presentations have been replete with argyle sweaters, sweater vests, and socks; each iteration of the kit stubbornly contains the crosshatched pattern in varying degrees of prominence. The team has a proclivity for attracting characters like David Miller, Alex Howes, and Phil Gaimon, but it's less the off-the-bike personalities that have come to define the team. In the past I have likened Garmin to the Little Engine That Could, using its limited budget to pick up young or second-tier talents and then throwing the kitchen sink at races to see if anything works. The team sometimes races with the eagerness of a bunch of juniors, constantly attacking, attacking, attacking and hoping something sticks or sets up their captain. The approach works on occasion, as evidenced by Dan Martin's Stage 9 win in the 2013 Tour de France and Johan Van Summeran's 2011 Paris-Roubaix victory. Though the team has been drifting towards a more concentrated approach, picking riders who can win and supporting them more fully, the "let's see what happens" mentality - and the riders who thrive under it - have never really left.
What We Thought Coming In
2014 is a big leap for Garmin as they abandon their path over the past few years and put most of their focus behind their younger GC and Ardennes classics talents. The turnover on the squad is notable as Vaughters reshapes the team. Out are Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie (retirement), Slipstream veteran Peter Stetina (BMC), and Jacob Rathe (Jelly Belly) among a host of others, and pouring in are a lot of guys who like to go up hills fast. Most notable are a host of promising riders at various points in their careers who have been racing in the United States the past years - youngster Nate Brown, stage racer Phil Gaimon, and Janier Acevedo, who climbed his way to third in the Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Also joining is Tom Jelle Slagter, who exudes promise in both the Ardennes and shorter, punchier stage races like the Tour of the Basque Country. Vaughter's expressed goal is to support Talansky, Martin, and Hesjedal more fully, and also to provide opportunities for riders in the mold of Morton and Slagter to develop.
It would not be a year at Garmin without a budget cobbles signing, and this year that comes in the form of Sebastian Langeveld. This should strengthen their hand from February to April where they seem content to stick with the buckshot method rather than the more expensive focused approach. With such promising youngsters and guys nearing the peaks of their careers, one cannot blame them. Tyler Farrar is back at long last after contract negotiations dragged out (or happened) very late and hopefully can get back to his old self. Signs this year were that he may be on the upswing finally and if that is true then he can offer the stream of wins and valuable WorldTour points the team needs to comfortably invest in the future.
2014 is a big investment for Garmin and odds are it will pay off, though likely only modestly this year. Talansky is still developing and Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal need the right conditions to strike to hit near the podium in Grand Tours more than a deep support crew.
What We Got Instead
But for a spate of untimely injuries and crashes, we might have gotten our prediction spot on (for once?). Modest return on investment was indeed what we got. New signings brought some good results and showed development from prior seasons and the core leaders of the team grew stronger, for the most part. Even though the team's season seemed defined by injuries, a number of strong results shone through and things continue to look promising.
Tom Jelle Slagter notched two stage wins at Paris-Nice, continuing his development nicely. Likewise, Phil Gaimon delivered a stage win and second overall in the Tour de San Luis over the winter before going on domestique duty for the rest of the year. And though he failed to reach the heights he has seen in the past in North American stage races, Janier Acevedo's 8th place at the Tour de Suisse was promising.
But, the real story of Garmin's year relies not on its new signings but the ones it lined up support for prior to last season. Talansky seemed to falter in the early stages of the Critérium du Dauphiné, but he came back swinging in the last stage and took an audacious victory. Things never really got started in the Tour de France, though. Talansky crashed numerous times in the early rainy stages and never truly recovered, withdrawing after riding to the finish of Stage 11 with the broom wagon visible behind him. Similarly, Dan Martin had victory seized from his fingers with a freak crash at Liége-Bastogné-Liegé and then left the Giro d'Italia with a broken collarbone on Stage 1. But, Martin returned to form in the last part of the season, taking a career-best 7th at the Vuelta a España before adding a second monument victory to his palmares with a Giro di Lombardia win. Add in a second place at La Flèche Walloon and the season is a best yet for the Irishman, even with the what-ifs of Liége and the Giro. Of the trio Vaughters sought to support, Hesjedal was the only one who failed to deliver any bigger results, but a 9th at the Giro and a stage win at the Vuelta were a strong showing for the lanky Canadian.
Elsewhere, the cobbled roads of March and early April were a little kinder than last year and Garmin did okay for their continued reliance on throwing a host of riders at the classics season and seeing what sticks. Sebastian Langeveld was essentially on par with last year, getting an 8th in Roubaix and a 10th in Flanders in his first year racing in Garmin colors. The Dutch rider has progressed some since his win in Het Nieuwsblad four years ago - including a national road race title won with a well-timed and long-range solo attack - but it seems like he might be reaching his limits and settling into a role of a black horse threat rather than a true podium contender. Vansummeren was quiet like last year, but Tyler Farrar notched a noteworthy second in Dwars Van Vlaanderen and an 8th at E3, signaling he's nearly returned to the happy place that saw him perform well in Belgium early in his career. However, most of us didn't expect too much from Garmin's classics campaign (and kept wondering why on earth they don't throw Ramunas Navarduaskas at Paris-Roubaix...).
Top 3 Highlights
- Andrew Talansky wins the Critérium du Dauphiné: When Stage 8 of the Dauphiné began, everyone was expecting a battle royale between a Chris Froome who was struggling with injury and a seemingly less-on-form Alberto Contador. But, as the final stage played out, Talansky made what could be the coup of the season, infiltrating the early breakaway and then powering it to the line over the final two climbs as Contador and Froome watched each other minutes down the road. It was less a display of pure power than the tenacity that has earned Talansky the nickname "pitbull," but when it wins races of this caliber it counts equally.
- Alex Howes wins Stage 7 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge: It doesn't get much better than a hometown kid and product of your nurturing wins a stage at your home race.
- Dan Martin's victory in the Giro di Lombardia: After a spring riddled with crashes at the worst possible time, taking victory in a monument was probably exactly what Martin needed to get the monkey off his back and enter his off-season in a positive state of mind.
Bottom 3 Lowlights
- Liége - Bastogné - Liége: As Dan Martin entered the final corner in Ans, he seemed poised for victory. He had dispatched Daniel Moreno on the ramp inside the final kilometer and had ample lead over the chasers who were poised to open their sprints. But then the inexplicable happened: his rear wheel slid out from underneath him on a seemingly innocuous wide corner and a repeat win in the monument classic eluded him.
- Dan Martin's Giro d'Italia: As if having a crash strip away a title in Liége wasn't enough, Martin lost his front wheel to a wet manhole cover in the opening team time trial in his native Ireland, fracturing his collarbone as he hit the pavement and taking out several teammates in the process. It was another freak accident that robbed the climber of what seemed his best shot yet at a podium in a Grand Tour.
- Andrew Talansky withdraws from the Tour with injury: After such a promising Dauphiné, Talansky entered le Tour as an outside candidate for a podium in Paris, or at the least a solid top ten placing. But, he was forced out following Stage 11 after a series of crashes in the first week of the Tour proved too much to recover from.
What Happens Next?
The biggest news about Garmin is their merger with the old Cannondale squad. What was Garmin-Sharp will take on Cannondale's license and become Cannondale-Slipstream. Cannonade will replace Cérvelo as bike sponsor for the team and eight riders with 2015 contracts under Cannondale will move to the team. While the merger makes sense - the American bike manufacturer will now the a co-sponsor of an American team - the move has had a number of casualties as Garmin made room to absorb six former Cannonade riders. Phil Gaimon is back to the North American ranks with Optum this year and a few stalwarts of the Garmin franchise - Tyler Farrar and Johan Vansummeren - are on their way out.
Among the riders coming over from Cannonade are Davide Formolo - seventh in the Tour de Suisse this year at the age of 21 - and Moreno Moser. Both of these riders should fit the Slipstream goals of developing young talents well. Formolo will pair up with Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky to form a formidable group of stage race challengers while Moser's promise as a hilly classics racer should juxtapose nicely with Dan Martin's talents. Also joining is Joe Dombroski, arguably the team's biggest signing for 2015. The 23 year old climbing phenom turned pro with Team Sky but is leaving the side of Chris Froome to pursue his own chances on an American team. Dombroski's 2014 season was quiet, in large part because he underwent surgery to fix a constriction of his iliac artery that prevented him from riding at full power in the early months of the season. Under Vaughters wing, he should pick up where he left off in 2013, swapping some of his domestique duties for chasing results of his own.
With some veterans quietly headed off to other teams and an influx of young talent, Garmin looks set to continue the evolution we have seen over the past two years, supporting Talansky and Martin as they move into the peak years of their careers and bringing up a few promising youngsters. Langeveld's support on the cobbles will be lacking relative to last year, but he has always raced more as a freelancer in the spring than the head of a coordinated operation and this won't impede him much. If Martin and Talansky can avoid crashes next year, then, all systems look go for more greatness.