Dutch cycling suffered through yet another tough week, as the Rabobank legacy squad may have finally seen its ninth life expire. Belkin announced that they would excuse themselves from the sport after a single year, saying that they've taken what they can from the sport and couldn't care less about cycling as anything more than a billboard. Their CEO basically said he was shocked (shocked!) to discover that cycling was more of a European sport than a global one. Cross them off from the list of companies whose products I'll ever buy.
The current squad, ditched by Rabobank two years ago and racing under the "blanco" nickname for part of last season, are optimistic that something can still happen. "There are discussions" says Richard Plugge, the manager, which is what one must say whether there are discussions or not. Passive voice is possibly a translation issue, or maybe it's an indication of how uninspiring the prospects are. So close to the Tour, which is basically the last, biggest moment in the yearlong cycling contract bazaar, there had better be very productive discussions, or you can kiss your riders top goodbye.
Why? Almost all of their contracts are expiring anyway. The list of riders signed beyond this year includes only Sep Vanmarcke, Moreno Hofland, Tom Leezer, Paul Martens, Laurens ten Dam, and Nick van der Lijke (which gnomes to Nick van der Administration, because we could use a laugh at this point). Rumors began circulating quickly around Bauke Mollema and Wilco Kelderman, who quickly become two of the hottest prospects still on the market (most of the big names seeking a new contract would have secret deals by now).
Can they find someone in time? Bianchi, a secondary sponsor, has pledged to stay with them, but they have shied away from title sponsorship roles of late. World Tour licenses are valuable, of course, and as long as Plugge has one, he is in the game, but the real danger is rider desertions. Once the roster begins to whither, so does the chance of going forward. Crowd-sourcing their problems won't solve them.
For me, there is one reason to save them -- for the jobs of the many staffers, managers, trainers and cyclists at the lower rungs who could well be out of work if a new sponsor doesn't turn up. But from a sporting perspective, it's probably more natural for the Rabobank brand legacy to finally die. The staleness and toxicity of the Rabobank saga provides nothing but dead weight and an entitlement to be *the* Dutch team. The reality is that national teams aren't much of a thing in the sport, and in the Netherlands such an honor should be earned. A new project, with new roots and a new hunger, would be better positioned to earn this place.
Which, of course, has already happened.
Across the virtual landscape of Dutch cycling, another top team is headed in the opposite direction. Giant-Shimano announced this week that their is no place in their Tour de France squad for Warren Barguil, an up-and-coming French climber who has excited the folks back home beyond all reason. His Tour exclusion is a bit surprising; Barguil is currently at the Tour de Suisse honing his form, and he's presumably a better climber than anyone on their provisional squad, which is focused on sprint stages and the points competition.
Personally, I read manager Iwan Spekenbrink's comments in a positive light. He basically said that Barguil needs to focus on building consistency so that, in two or three years' time, he can mount a credible GC campaign. My guess is that he gets to the Tour before then, but at a time when the gap between expectations and reality will have closed up some. This sort of planning for the future at the expense of the present is what good cycling managers do. The temptation to send Barguil home, where cameras would follow him and earn Giant-Shimano plenty of publicity, would be too much for a lot of managers (and frankly for their sponsors) to resist. Spekenbrink is sticking to his guns, and doing it the right way.
And besides, he has plenty of self-interest behind him. Giant-Shimano are chasing stage wins at the Tour because they're really good at winning stages. Marcel Kittel is almost certainly the world's fastest man (we'll give a healthy Cavendish a couple more shots at retaining his title before we say for sure). John Degenkolb is emerging as the more versatile threat, taking second at Paris-Roubaix and victories in Vattenfall, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Tours and Paris-Bourges. He's an ideal secondary threat in sprints that winnow out some of the sprinters, such as the cobbled fifth stage of the Tour to Arenberg, or some of the later stages which include nettlesome minor climbs. They even have a third man in Luka Mezgec who can't even make the first Tour cut in this crowd. [He went to the Giro instead and won the closing stage in Trieste.]
Statistics say that Belkin were superior in 2013, with 39 wins to 29 for Giant-Shimano, but statistics are bullshit sometimes. Belkin won almost nothing of consequence -- just Quebec and two stages (ENECO, Suisse) for their World Tour account and zero grand tour events. Obviously there's more to it than wins, such as Vanmarcke's remarkable challenge to Cancellara in the 2013 Paris-Roubaix, but by contrast then-Argos-Shimano won seven grand tour stages, including Kittel's four Tour sprints, plus four World Tour stages and other notables like Paris-Tours.
Billed as underdogs because of their shallower roots in the sport, Giant-Shimano have quickly built up from the Skil squad to hanging in the balance as 1T4i before Argos, an oil company, floated them 18 months' sponsorship. Lacking the stench of a 1990s/2000s squad, the team secured an ideal partner in Giant, a huge bike-maker with roots in Taiwan and the Netherlands. [Bike companies still make the best sponsors, IMHO.] Their roster is young and exciting: Kittel is just 25, as is Mezgec and American Chad Haga. Degenkolb and fellow budding talents Ramon Sinkeldam and Reinhard Janse van Rensberg are 24. Jonas Ahlstrand and Tom Dumoulin are 23, Barguil, Nikias Arndt and Tobias Ludvigsson a mere 22, Lawson Craddock and Daan Olivier just 21. If this team sticks together for six years, they could be a dominant force.
Already Giant-Shimano rank second in the world in victories for 2014: 25, thick with quality, and trailing only Omega Pharma-Quick Step and their traditionally massive spring campaign. To even be mentioned in the same breath as OPQS, a great team looking especially bright this year, is remarkable. They are level with Orica-GreenEdge, themselves off to a strong start to the season. They've more than doubled the win total of Belkin, which is once again heavy on Theo Bos sprints far from the concern of cycling fans. Giant-Shimano are shaping up as one of the sport's biggest success stories, and slot in as one of the most likable teams to boot. Things could not be more different from Belkin.
If Belkin do indeed disappear, and I am guessing they will, Dutch cycling will be left in a healthy place, with a single major team doing extraordinarily well on the basis of an international roster. Dutch riders, still heavy on talent and promise, will be seeking glory on behalf of any number of trade teams -- another healthy development after so many years of a "national squad" that never met its promise. Ideally those Belkin employees will all find new ventures, perhaps in a second Dutch project sprouting up from new roots. There is more than enough talent and money in this storied little nation to support two top-level teams. Two really good ones. At least.