In the years since HTC put an end to its winning ways, only the Quick Step franchise seemed capable of filling the Team-That-Just-Wins void, putting up as many as 62 victories in a season. Columbia - HTC topped out at consecutive seasons of 77 and 85, and nobody has quite been in that class since, though in fairness to Team Lefevre they've been north of 50 wins since 2012, the first year following HTC's dissolution (which concluded with another 64 wins). So yeah, Quick Step knew how to build a roster that could win a lot. Question was, could or would anyone else?
It's not exactly rocket science -- just buy up some top sprinters and sprinkle in enough veteran leadership to turn that potential into reality. Then top it off with a few time triallists who can hold it together for one-week stage races... and watch the wins come streaming in. Exactly how to do that is where it gets complicated, but step one is spend, spend, spend.
So when Team Giant-Shimano ended 2014 with a cool 41 victories, mostly by guys in their early-to-mid-20s, the buzz began to form. Newly-Germanified for 2015, it seemed like a squad of at least three top sprinters and some of the northern Europe's top young climbing talent was poised to do something huge for General Manager Iwan Spekenbrink. They were young, cool, and very, very good. But taking the next step in cycling is hard, and places tons of stress on a team. This was among the hard lessons learned by Giant-Alpecin in 2015.
What We Thought Coming In
We were bullish. And we actually wrote something about that...
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.
Emphasis added for self-aggrandizement and congratulation.
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.
So there you have it. It's funny, I write a fistful of these every year, and it seems like the teams I'm interested in, I skipped writing about in the past. But these guys? We cover them every year. And now is no time to stop.
What We Got (Instead?)
We got a season of Kittel lost to illness and poor form... but some really awesome stuff happened anyway! Well, except wins, although even there a dramatic decline in quantity got a healthy does of quality to prop it up. Oh, and general overall quality. OK, actually it was kind of a disappointing year, but the highs were dizzying.
Kittel's absence left a void that kinda sorta fell to Luka Mezgec and John Degenkolb, neither of whom was quite up to the task, strictly speaking. Degenkolb became the team's Tour de France sprinter but could never quite overcome either Andre Greipel or, on one occasion, Mark Cavendish. Mezgec, who had hoovered up victories in smaller races in 2014, suffered through a poor spring and never quite recovered, at least not enough to win on the World Tour/Grand Tour stage.
A lot of the young talent, the team's focus (it's tough to be over 30 in cycling), experienced growing pains, from Lawson Craddock's nasty early-season crash that limited his form for much of the year, to the adventures of Tobias Ludvigsson, Nikias Arndt and Zico Waeytens, each of whom learned the ropes without a ton of glittering palmares. Mind you, that's not a criticism, that's life in the peloton. Waeytens sandwiched himself between Cavendish and Sagan in a Tour of California sprint and was 11th in the Geraardsbergen ENECO stage, in a group with Tim Wellens and Niki Terpstra. You don't end up in such places without some real quality. Arndt beat Bling Matthews in a sprint in Canada, and was in among the world's top sprinters in places like Qatar and the Munsterland Giro. Ludvigsson was ninth in the 60km Valdobbiadene Giro d'Italia ITT, continuing his development against the watch, which was already notable.
Then there were the young stage racing hopes. Tom Dumoulin fell one day short of an all-time tenacious Vuelta a Espana victory, following a riveting battle with Fabio Aru of Astana, one of the year's best cyclists, and ending a year-long run of excellent form if not luck. Where might he have ended up at the Tour if he hadn't gone down in the horror-crash on stage 3? I guess we'll find out next year. But ITT victories put him in contention for both the Vuelta and the Tour de Suisse (where he ended up third overall), and by the time he turned 25 (a month ago) Dumoulin had put himself firmly among the world's best at the one-week stage race discipline. What he can do over three weeks remains to be seen, considering his climbing (a negative), his time trialling (positive), and his mental strength (a huge asset).
The next biggest name on the roster would be Warren Barguil whom Spekenbrink has brought along smartly considering the young Frenchman's talent and the weight of expectations accompanying it. His points were down a bit from his promising 2014, but that's what happens when you trade in the Vuelta (8th last year) for the Tour (14th in 2015) -- a major step forward in his early development. This includes a teachable moment where Barguil knocked Geraint Thomas off the road on the descent into Gap, as well as top ten finishes in San Sebastian, Quebec City, and the prestigious Rio Olympic preview, plus third on a stage of the Tour de Suisse. Seems like 2015 was put to good use for Wawa. [Can we get him a better nickname?]
Finally, the team might have fallen into a pit of despair without Kittel had it not been for Degenkolb, who didn't win often (by Kittel standards) but delivered the two biggest victories in squad history, winning monuments Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix. There was always room for the two German stars, being so different in style -- Degenkolb admitted to having wilted under the pressure of sprinting at the Tour de France, where Kittel had transformed his career. So if 2015 was a glimpse of a Kittel-less future, it isn't an ideal one. But Degs kept it respectable in the bunch finishes (including a sprint win in Madrid), and brought something special in the much harder one-day events (he was seventh in Flanders too). He forms a new cadre of young classic stars with Sagan and Kristoff whose battles might even allow us to forget Boonen and Cancellara in the coming years.
Top Three Highlights
- Degenkolb wins Paris-Roubaix. With all due respect to MSR, this was the result people won't soon forget. We had our biggest bunch sprint in the velodrome in quite a while, and Degs wasn't merely the fastest, but the strongest as well.
- Geschke wins in the Alps. The Tour was kind of a bummer for a team accustomed to Kittel's stage winning ways, but when he survived from an early break and an attack to win at Pra Loup (below), it was a big relief to the squad.
- Dumoulin's Heroic Vuelta. Maybe it belongs in lowlights too, but Doom earned himself a lot of fans and respect for his against-all-odds campaign against the superior climber Aru, even winning a mountain stage and an ITT that launched him into the chase. However it ended, it was incredible while it was happening.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Kittel's illness, mehness, Tour demotion and departure. You can put a positive spin on the team moving forward and not breaking the bank for a single rider, but losing a dozen or so wins, including Tour de France sprints, was a big hit.
- Dumoulin's Tour Exit. For both violence and the loss of still more stage wins (final ITT, for example).
- Craddock's lost season. Is it just me? Because I sure wanted to see where he could go this year. Hope springs eternal... but at Cannondale.
Comings and Goings
Big losses -- Kittel, Craddock and Mezgec, plus Thierry Hupond. But Spekenbrink reloaded with some of the world's top incoming young talent: Soren Kragh Andersen (U23 worlds favorite), Sam Oomen (Paris-Tours and Rhone Alps Isere winner) and sprinter Maximilian Walscheid, plus Laurens ten Dam and youngster Sindre Lunke of Norway.
What to Expect in 2016
If 2014 was the breakout season, then 2015 was the pressure-laden letdown, right? Considering what happened, and considering the loss of Kittel and Mezgec, it's hard to see how this team is under much pressure in 2016, beyond the ever-present helping that comes with a World Tour license. Whether they break back out again or not, however, depends on some of the last wave of young talent continuing to make progress. The team has its stars Degs and Doom, and a good core of complementary pieces like Geschke, Tom Veelers, and veteran Dutch and Belgians galore. They have Ramon Sinkeldam capable of winning smaller classic races of many types. And yeah, Lars van der Haar for some winter fun. They know Degenkolb has arrived on the spring classics stage in the biggest way, and that Dumoulin gives them a bulldog in every fight.
What they could use is for Barguil to crack the Tour top ten, for Arndt and Waeytens and Ludvigsson to snag a few more wins, for Chad Haga and Carter Jones to make a splash in the American events (assuming they attend them again). They need their stars not to feel like they have to do it all themselves, and they need to be getting results on a steady basis to keep the pressure manageable in the world tour events. This is not a team capable of dominating, and with their success Doom and Degs will have a harder time going unnoticed ever again. But with youth, depth and cohesion, they can fly high this season, and maybe stay up there for a while.