Confession time... I've been half expecting this team to go away for a while. Not that I would ever wish that on any (innocent) riders or employees, or even on the sport of cycling, which could use stability in its teams. But I think I've never had a good sense of who they were in their latest incarnation.
Maybe I was associating the Trek Factory Racing team with Team Radio Shack -- the Keep Lance's Career Alive Project -- and its more legitimate roots as the Layopard vanity team built around the Schlecks and whoever else was sick of Bjarne Riis. I probably wasn't as sick of Riis as I should have been, but at the same time, I was a little sick of people being sick of Riis, sick of the Schlecks and their project (getting emails asking me to write the name in all caps didn't help), and sick to death of any trace of the Lance Years, which can't fully be denied. I mean, Johan Bruyneel was their DS in 2012. Enough said.
The narrative for Layopard-Nissan needed to change, and the quickest way to do so would have been to fold the team, or re-label it. Trek has accomplished the former, and with the passage of time, without any further incidents to reinforce the old image, has TFR flipped the script at last? I guess it's in the eye of the beholder, and it's not like they don't have ties to the old days remaining (they still employ 100% of the Schlecks who remain in cycling). But a lot has changed, even before you start to soften your views of Andy, now that he's retired.
What We Thought Coming In
I meant to cover all the American(ish) teams last year, and TFR still fly the star-spangled banner next to their UCI registration number, but I ran out of time before I could come up with anything interesting to say. I guess that's why I'm interested to say something now. Is there something to say, and is it interesting since it's been so long since I had something to say?
I'm confused. Let's just go on.
What We Got Instead
Statistically speaking, TFR have had a couple of similar seasons in a row, and for a change in their pattern you have to look back at 2013. That year the team's points and victories were heavily tied to Fabian Cancellara and his E3/Flanders/Roubaix triple, as well as Chris Horner's surprising Vuelta a Espana win. Young Bob Jungels chipped in a few smaller wins, as did Jan Bakelands and Giacomo Nizzolo. Stijn Devolder even bagged another Belgian road title. That's how long ago all that was.
A year later, Horner was off to Lampre with Father Time sitting comfortably in his slipstream, while Cancellara was ceding one of this monuments (Paris-Roubaix) to rivals and not making much of a dent in any other major event... even getting dropped by Vincenzo Nibali on the cobbles of northern France. Its 19 wins were spread out across the roster, with Julian Arredondo and Kristof Vandewalle leading the way with three victories each. Their top two Tour de France finishers -- Haimar Zubeldia in 8th and Frank Schleck in 12th -- generated a lot of whatever the opposite of buzz is.
But by fall the winds of change began to blow. Bauke Mollema came over from Belkin to take Andy Schleck's spot as the Tour leader, only Mollema tends to show up in other places, scoring points, and not leaving people shaking their heads. He also brought something the team utterly lacked -- an elite, reliable stage racer in his prime -- and delivered exactly the type of season you'd expect from him in 2015. Mollema wrapped up seventh at the Tour, not headline material but close to it, plus wins in Alberta and the Japan Cup as well as more impressive results like sixth in San Sebastian and second in the Vuelta a Murcia and Tirreno-Adriatico.
Elsewhere in 2015, with Cancellara unfit it was more catch as you can, with top contributions from Fabio Felline and Giacomo Nizzolo, and a strong season from Danny van Poppel... which led him to get the call-up from Team Sky. Frank won a Vuelta stage. Jungels won the Étoile de Besseges in winter. It wasn't exciting. No Cancellara No Party, I guess.
Top Three Highlights
Tirreno-Adriatico Stage 7
For a team lacking in headlines, the day Cancellara won the stage and Mollema came close to taking the overall counts as an exciting one, at the very least.
Yellow in Zeeland
For a lot of teams wearing the maillot jaune would feel like a huge thing, but in this case I'm not so sure. First, it went to Cancellara for finishing third on the day -- a disorganized, wind-blasted sprint stage. Well, Cancellara has a lot of yellow jerseys hanging in his closet and has given away enough stuffed lions to put the entire stuffed zebra population of France in peril. Each of those jerseys represents a fleeting triumph, which for a proud champion like Cancellara must be a bit of a mixed blessing. Moreover, Cancellara's MO for taking yellow is usually grabbing it with both fists, e.g. through a stage win, not backing into the lead. And this stage sprint will be remembered as much for Mark Cavendish prematurely giving up, rather than finishing his sprint for third and denying Cancellara the time bonus he used to vault over Tony Martin into the lead. But hey, there were still another 20 or so teams who'd have gladly traded places.
Busche Wins US Nats
First, this is a "top three" list, not necessarily in their absolute order of awesomeness. You could debate this one up or down the ranking. The US Nats isn't exactly the Tour of Flanders, and since Busche won this race on his own, it doesn't say much about the team. But it says plenty about Busche, who triumphed with his head, heart and legs, despite the bull's eye on his back as a former US Champ. And it has to have felt really good for the sponsor, which is good for everyone.
Bottom Three Lowlights
Be it E3 Prijs or the Tour de France, the Swiss Bear just could not stop breaking his vertebrae.
Busche Crashes out of Utah
What good is having the US Champs jersey if you can't wear it well in Utah and Colorado? Busche was OK after his high-speed fall, but struggled to get through the USA Pro Challenge -- a race he could have been a factor in.
Van Poppel wins, then leaves
I'll say more about Transfer Season in a sec, but losing Danny van Poppel had to hurt.
Who's coming and going?
In: Julien Bernard, a young climber, had already arrived as a trainee. Add Niccolo Bonifazio to the list of Italian sprinters; Jack Bobridge to the TTT squad, Edward Theuns to the cobbles team, and Ryder Hesjedal, Peter Stetina and rediscovered veteran Kiel Reijnen to the all-round set.
Out: Van Poppel, Busche, Jungels, the two Kiwis, Gert Steegmans and Vandewalle.
Verdict: Did they have the power to keep van Poppel? Did they confuse him with Boy, his older brother who is now more of a leadout train guy? Probably not. Probably Sky money won. It often does.
Otherwise TFR look like a team plugging holes, trying to shore up its whole game. Nothing wrong with that. I'm particularly curious to see how they use Reijnen, who was sensational in Utah and won a USAPCC stage. Bonifazio is less accomplished than Danny vP but can scoop up some sprint points when Nizzolo is busy.
What Happens Next?
So, do we notice them more this time around? Probably, at least in the spring. Theuns and Jasper Stuyven can form a young hand of cards for Cancellara to play, if healthy. The usual suspects -- Arredondo, Frank, Yaro-Pop, Zubeldia -- can shepherd Mollema around France one last time. I suppose it could all fall into place. I'm not terribly bullish on the team's chances in a crowded field, but I have no doubt they will be in the middle of things, maybe even the top 8 if Cancellara delivers in the classics.
As to who they are, maybe they're a harbinger of team identities to come. We've talked for years about how teams are mostly international in nature, and fewer and fewer can be mistaken for having a theme of national identity. Or anything else, for that matter. Sure, Patrick Lefevre will continue prioritizing the classics above all else, but nearly everyone has a credible stage race threat along with someone for the cobbles. With the Lance people long gone and the Schlecks reduced to a footnote, there is no distinct theme with this team, other than their director Luca Guercilena trying to assemble the strongest bunch of guys possible. He's got a tall order, with powerful opponents like Sky, Movistar, Katusha and Quick Step dead set on maintaining control, but as Trek Factory Racing get younger and further from their roots, they're a team with everything to gain.
[P.s., now that he's retired I wish I had rooted for Andy more than I did.]