Comes now Team Giant-Shimano, which by the time you read this will have changed its name to Giant-Alpecin, beginning in 2015.
A Wee Bit of Backdrop...
I suppose every team has a unique story to tell, and Giant-Alpecin is no exception. They came up the ranks as Skil-Shimano, riding in kits that hearkened back to the French Skil-Sem teams of the mid-80s featuring Sean Kelly and Eric Caritoux, and managed by Le Vicomte, Jean de Gribaldy, an ex-pro who helped modernize the sport during Kelly's time. That part was mostly nostalgia (as opposed to a more tangible cycling connection) on the part of sponsor Skil; in reality the new team had its roots in the Shimano Memory Corp development squad based (like Skil Corp) in the Netherlands.
To outgrow the development ranks, Skil came aboard with Shimano in 2006, creating a Pro-Conti team which enjoyed a single Tour de France invitation in 2009. But little else was going on until Skil disappeared, briefly replaced by the philosophical name 1t4i, representing a single T (team) and four I's (Inspiration, Integrity, Improvement and Innovation). Manager Iwan Spekenbrink eventually replaced Skil (and the 1t4i thing) with Argos, an oil company, and moved the team's base to southern France, marking the transition to an international squad. Things really got interesting when, in 2012, John Degenkolb joined Marcel Kittel, the team's flashy 2011 recruit, to set a course for the team involving actual race wins. The victory totals went from 15 in 2010 to a very healthy 30 the next two seasons and a high of 41 in 2014.
Of those 41 wins, 25 came from German riders, mostly Kittel and Degs, and so when Shimano announced they would drop out of sponsorship and the German company Alpecin stepped in for next season (and three more after that), it made sense for the team to register as a German squad. Germany had not officially fielded a World Tour team despite being the largest country in western Europe and producing a regular slate of top athletes. Of course, the story of German disinterest in the sport due to the excesses of Jan Ullrich and his contemporaries is well known. But there comes a time for moving on, and that time is known as Marjohn Kittenkolb. Their excellence, smiling likability, and presence within a team known for its anti-doping stance created the opportunity for German Cycling to be a thing again. How this is resonating in the Fatherland is not known to me (and all the usual caveats about how teams are basically international blah blah blah), but it promises to be an interesting year.
Strange side note: Alpecin has a history in cycling, as so often happens. They used Ullrich as a sponsor with the tagline "doping for the hair." We are several stops past Irony Station on the Lookingglass Line now. Speaking of oddities, here's their teaser video for next year. What's with the threatening music?
What We Thought Coming In
Huzzah! We covered Team Giant-Shimano last year!
Question is really if the ????-Shimano guys will continue to be the slightly bland Mr NiceGuys of the peloton or will they develop a bit more attitude? We know they will be taking over the Giant material sponsorship from Belkin and deep down I think a lot of us are hoping for a German sponsor to see the value in the German superstars on the team and step into the title sponsor role. I haven't really heard any rumors on who the new sponsor is though and hoping for a re-awakening German interest is probably too optimistic. A pity because a little German edge to the general niceness of this team would probably be a good thing. Or they could just keep winning races while making really poor hair-choices. Which is nice.
If that's the question, then I think that creepy video is your answer.
What We Got Instead
A Very Good Year... but let's not get carried away.
Going by the numbers, being ranked sixth in the world was a high point for this team, cementing their status as one to watch and maybe get excited over. But in a larger sense, they're a lot like the young riders we here are forever getting excited over, prematurely. That sixth ranking is the CQ Ranking, and it's a bit thin. They were eighth in the World Tour and outside the top ten in the Podium Cafe World Rankings... meaning their status was driven too much by big results in smaller races.
Still, it's hard not to get excited. No great GC placements in the Giro or Tour? Fine, but Warren Barguil's 8th in the Vuelta was very impressive for a young kid, and the team scored eleven stage wins across the Grand Tours, including Luka Mezgec's victory in the final Giro stage. Light on contenders in the sport's iconic uphill arenas? OK, but the team was awfully good everywhere else. The German stars won cobbled classics (Gent-Wevelgem and Scheldeprijs), and Degenkolb came within one terpstra of Paris-Roubaix glory. Speaking of, his victory in Paris-Tours capped off one of the best seasons by a cyclist anywhere, as Degenkolb scored his second Vuelta points title, his first major classic (G-W) and near-misses in two Tour stages, the German nats, and even finished a solid ninth in the Worlds. Arrived, much?
Tom Dumoulin is moving up the crono rankings and stands to deliver a hell of a lot of points in one-week stage races without too much climbing. He ranked 11th in the world at the Cafe tally. Pretty impressive for a skinny Dutch kid who just celebrated his 24th birthday. Barguil certainly gives the team reason to hope for some future grand tour success, albeit tempered. Eighth at the Vuelta is a lovely result, and his best performances coming later in the race portends well for his development. But at the same age Nairo Quintana was finishing second in the Tour de France, so there's that.
The young talent skews toward sprints and power. Fredrik might be the better of the Ludvigsson brothers, though at 20 we should probably give him some time. Nikias Arndt is another power sprinter, as evidenced by his time trialling (second at German Nats). Lawson Craddock and Ramon Sinkeldam have some classics success, though Craddock's third in the Amgen Tour of Cali speaks to his all-round ability. Oh, and a kid by the name of Lars van der Haar joined the squad this year for a few races as well.
Top Three Highlights
- Degs wins Gent-Wevelgem. Number three in our cobbled hearts, and a much-needed victory for a team that was everywhere except at the front of the world's biggest races. I guess for posterity's sake I'll bundle in that second in Paris-Roubaix, since it says more about the future than anything else.
- Barguil finishes eighth at Lagos de Covadonga. Or you could cite his sixth at Ancares five days later. I like this one better because at +44" he was literally within sight of the giants of cycling, albeit with more company, on one of the sport's iconic climbs.
- Kittel wins on Champs-Elysees. As great as Dumoulin's performances were, I don't know how you can top this performance, even if everyone on the planet saw it coming.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Mezgec crashes out of Poland Tour. Hey, it's hard to find lowlights for a young, exciting team, OK? But Mezgec merits a mention, in the midst of a breakout season and with some nice juicy World Tour points on the table, ripe for the taking. That's cycling.
- Dumoulin dumped on La Redoute. Tim Wellens was stronger on this day. That's cycling.
- Nobody chases down Niki Terpstra in Paris-Roubaix. You never know what might have happened...
What Happens Next?
More of the same, but given the maturation process, there are reasons to hope for bigger and better breakthrough moments. Degenkolb in particular seems ready to do something big, since he basically already has, and with the young studs growing up around him he might have a chance at Paris-Roubaix this time. I don't see him as a Ronde threat but Degs clearly feels comfortable on a lot of the hardest one-day courses. Kittel, a pure sprinter, seems less likely to do something interesting and unprecedented, with the green jersey his stated (but probably unattainable) goal. Dumoulin will have trouble topping his 2014 campaign, but his career is headed in the right direction.
Spekenbrink has done a smart job of resisting temptation to unleash Barguil on the Tour de France, and all the media hype that would entail, though he'll get his shot in 2015. The hype machine will be in full cry, probably, but after three seasons Barguil might be ready to deal with it and do his ride. He's one of the more fascinating people to watch in 2015.
As to the kids, the bench is deep... but it's mostly deep with the same sort of riders they already have. Personally I am very curious about Arndt and Ludvigsson the Younger. I don't see the youth movement transforming Giant-Alpecin into a climbing juggernaut; if anything the team may be five-deep in top sprinters before long. But transfers will sort that out. Also, Sinkeldam should help Degenkolb this year in the hunt for a cobbled monument, with a 25th in 2013 and a win in the U23 version of Hell in his palmares. But he's entering his prime years already, so he should get going now.
In a way Giant-Alpecin seem like the true successors to Columbia-High Road-HTC, a team built around sprinting for victories but with only modest designs on stage races, compared to the company they keep. It's a good model, but one that leads to restlessness in a sport still so dominated by the ability to climb. Spekenbrink should deliver the goods again this year, but his long term outlook has to involve some major transfer market activity if they're going to make a serious run at the grand tours. Barguil and Dumoulin are a nice duo at the head of any team, but they could use some veteran support -- not to mention experience -- before we start seeing a possible new world's best team. The sky is the limit, though, and the energy is very positive. It's a good day for German cycling after all.