A Bit of Background
What's in a name? In the case of Lampre, only the least-celebrated product on the World Tour top-line sponsorship. Ladies and gentlemen, Dames en herren, say hello to... painted steel! Yes, painted steel, the same product you might find outside a Frank Gehry installation or ... I dunno? Look around, do you see any steel sheeting that's nicely painted? Could be Lampre!
The cycling team probably doesn't ride much steel nowadays, and hasn't in some time, though it may have back in the day. The team was created in 1991, possibly out of whole cloth, though they got a Giro invite that year, so it may have roots in a lower-level team prior to the inception of Team Colnago-Lampre. Anyway, the team has a long history, lending perhaps a greater stature to it than its place in our current consciousness would suggest. And yeah, they probably rode some steel. Maybe aluminum too, and eventually carbon, but in 1991 none of those materials were at all ubiquitous on the racing scene.
After only one season, Lampre became the first name, switching places with Colnago, and year later the Italian bicycle maker dropped off the jersey entirely, giving way to Lampre-[Your Name Here], the latter taking such names as Polti (makers of steam cleaners), Panaria (makers of tiling), Daikin (air conditioners), Caffita (espresso) and Fondital (radiators). Since 2013 bike maker Merida has filled the secondary sponsor role as well as putting wheels under the team. Here's a little bike porn if you're curious. They've come a loooooong way from steel Colnago's. Haven't we all?
What We Thought Coming In
Take a wild guess...
Yep. We haven't felt too motivated to cover the Italian teams when there has been little to say. I probably set a record for fewest mentions of "Lampre" last season. And what would I have said in such a preview? We are talking about a team which had made room for a second grand tour contender, along with mainstay Damiano Cunego, by hiring Chris Horner. Actually their big signing was world champion-to-be Rui Costa, who I love, but who was obviously about to enter his Rainbow Curse year [not really accurate]. So mostly I would have gushed about Diego Ulissi [ugh]. You can see the dilemma.
What We Got
In his first year in the driver's seat, new manager Brent Copeland had about the sort of season you could hope for from his roster, with a few hiccups. You might issue an "I told you so" regarding Horner if you simply look at the number of race days, but bad luck was (once again) the culprit, not Father Time. You might complain that they were never built to chase grand tour general classifications, and you'd be right. But beyond that, they filled out their scorecard rather smashingly, generating 26 wins (including four grand tour stages), on the backs of a young-ish and well-rounded roster.
Rui Costa -- the biggest international signing in ages for a team not known for such investments -- led the way to a respectable ranking (15th at CQ, 14th World Tour) and rode more than respectably despite carrying the world's heaviest jersey on his shoulders. Costa won the Tour de Suisse, a sort of pet race for him now after three consecutive titles, with a last-day attack that showed his usual intelligence and aggression, dropping Matti Frank and Bauke Mollema for the stage and the title. That was the only time Costa raised his hands in victory while wearing the arc-en-ciel, and his campaign plunged into disappointment when he left the Tour de France with pneumonia. He recovered enough to lose the GP Montreal and Lombardia in sprint finishes, and could not defend his title in Ponferrada, though even there by only 7 seconds. So if you want to measure him against the image of a "world champion" or the ludicrous notion of him making the Tour de France podium, then it wasn't a great season. But if you see him for what he is, a clever, versatile classics rider whom nobody should ever take their eye off of in the last half hour of a race, it was the sort of year you can expect him to have several of, where his luck is merely average.
That's the good news: that the guy they signed to build around is exactly what they thought. The flip side of that plan is Diego Ulissi, who was poised to become the alternate star and probable big winner for the team until he got popped for excessive salbutamol related to an inhaler for which he had a TUE. After two Giro stage wins, he was sidelined and shunned from the sport, culminating in a back-dated nine-month ban announced early this week. Lampre, a team which adheres to the mouvement pour un cyclisme credible, left him hanging until the ban was announced, but since he was found guilty of negligence, not intent to enhance his performance, the team is welcoming him back when his ban ends March 28. So is he Ricardo Ricco, with his shared nationality and flamboyant climbing wins, and a profligate scofflaw? Or is he (yet another) guy who overdid it with the inhaler, for whatever foolish reason, and we can all just accept him back? Studies conflict as to whether salbutamol does anything for performance, so for me, if we call him Ricco 2.0, we're mostly punishing success rather than any evidence of cheating. But everyone has their opinion. Still, 23-year-old Ulissi was one of the world's best short-range climbers with a sprint, and 24-year-old Ulissi took his game to new heights with the Giro stage wins (which were not expunged, dear FSA DS combatants).
Even with the shadow of a positive hanging over the team, there was still plenty to enjoy. Przemyslaw Niemiec finally finished off one of his long breakaways with a win at, of all places, Lagos de Covadonga. This was a week after Winner Anacona had more or less done the same. Damiano Cunego rode decently on his way out the door after a decade of team leadership. Sacha Modolo got the team off to a fine start with a blistering spring, or pre-spring (a/k/a winter if you want to get technical), that eventually extended to Belgium.
And most hopeful of all, the youth movement that blends so well with their relatively clean image is ramping up impressively. The star is Niccolo Bonifazio, whose quintet of sprint victories aided the team's point haul immeasurably. Sure, he achieved something of note by withdrawing from every cobbled classic, but at age 20 he would surely have pointed out that he was there just to learn (he'd said as much beforehand). Valerio Conti, equally green, matched his teammate's Coppa Agostini win with a victory on the tougher GP Beghelli circuit, and may evolve into something more versatile. [Though Bonifazio just finished in the bunch at Stirling Hill yesterday.] Jan Polanc, all of 22, hung in with the Contadors and Quintanas on occasion in places like Catalunya and the Giro, and with a Piccolo Lombardia win in his past, he might round out the next wave of versatile Lampre stage winners quite nicely.
So there you have it. Lots of people doing lots of... oh, wait. Pippo. Saronni. Ferrari. Look, I can't say what to believe -- if Filippo Pozzato only spoke to Ferrari about non-doping subjects, then great (though at this point it's foolish to do even that). Pozzato stands by his frank admission and lack of biological passport evidence suggesting he's done anything wrong. I've always liked the guy, a quirky person on and off the bike, who maybe should win more but that's cycling. Former champion Giuseppe Saronni left the leadership of the team in the wake of Mantova, which is good for the team but a bummer he was involved to begin with. Do we look askance at them and consign them to meaningless placings in Italy, where it's all still a little sketchy? Or do we compartmentalize and say that there's actually quite a lot to work with here?
Top Three Highlights
- Costa wins in Switzerland. Just Costa doing Costa things, squeezing out a narrow win from a tough field. They had a dozen wins under their belt already, including Modolo on a stage days earlier, but this was their expensive star in Rainbow showing the world who he was. Lampre needed it. Needed their world champion to be legit. Needed to see their investment looking good. Needed the WT points.
- Niemiec wins at Lagos de Covadonga. Big victory for a guy who was owed a moment in the spotlight by the Cycling Gods.
- Ulissi wins on Montecopiolo. Yeah, I know, but at the time this was their highest profile victory of the season, it said a shit-ton about Ulissi's potential, and if you don't equate inhalers with real PEDs, it still looks pretty great.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Ulissi gets DQ'd for Salbutamol. No matter how you compartmentalize this, or Saronni, or Pippo, it was a dark day for a team whose creed is no more dark days.
- Horner hit-and-run. From the team's perspective signing Horner was never more than a lottery ticket, but he does appear to be a strong rider still, and this was a horrible thing to happen to anyone.
- Costa retires from Tour. His fancy outfit (and maybe another crafty win) was the team's only realistic hope of getting noticed on the World's biggest stage. That curse don't fool around.
What's Coming Next
Bright days. Wait, what? Why do I always talk myself into believing in teams when I write these capsules? I guess I can't avoid the idea that I have limited information about their inner processes, and on the surface I see a bunch of people turning themselves inside out to be good at the world's hardest sport. Sure, some teams have a more sinister air to them (rhymes with "pastana") but Lampre aren't cut from that cloth. For the most part these are elite athletes squaring off and trying to build on last year.
In Lampre I see a team with the capability to pile up middling wins, and maybe a few bigger ones too when things break in their favor. Do they have a plan for any grand tour GC? Nope. But with Cunego's salary off the books, maybe that's something they can begin recruiting for this spring. After that, the team is stacked with guys who can win stuff, led by one of the sport's more charismatic riders in Costa and supported by dangerous fast-men. Ulissi is a good bet to come back smoking, with a chip on his shoulder. The kids undoubtedly have more growing to do, but swapping out Anacona for veteran Ruben Plaza may help some. I just like the way this team is put together -- sort of an Italian version of the early HTC teams or something. If they get hot, we might spend a lot more time discussing painted metal sheeting this year.