After poaching Mark Renshaw and Mark Cavendish from Quickstep in the autumn of 2015, Dimension Data, previously a team perhaps lacking focus, seemed to be making an effort to become another HTC-Highroad. The gang (or the part of the gang that had not moved on to stardom) was back together, Cavendish had some speed in his legs, so why couldn't it be done. With the new sponsor, the World Tour license, and dropping the charity from the team name, there was a sense of added professionalism going into the 2016 season.
What We Expected
The team to evolve into world-class stage hunters, with Cavendish there to poach as many sprints as he can, as one of the top three sprinters in the world. Chris did this capsule last year, so he talked about Tyler Farrar a lot. He was supposed to [consults post] challenge on the cobbles. Oh, and [checks it again] be an integral part of Cav's leadout train.
What We Got
Tyler Farrar did...exactly none of that, but it didn't matter much to the team's two stars of the season, Mark Cavendish and Steve Cummings. Cummings has always been a recognisable name, most notably poaching stage 14 of the 2014 Tour from Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, but this was truly his banner season. He slipped away for a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico. Then, a few weeks later he did the same team in the Vuelta al País Vasco. In June he won the mountainous final stage of the Criterium du Dauphiné as a warmup for his solo win over the Col d'Aspin in the Tour de France, forcing his way into the British Olympic team. While nothing was waiting for him in Rio, he was back again in September to win the Tour of Britain.
Mark Cavendish started off his season well with the yellow jersey in Qatar, but an anonymous two weeks in Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo, followed by a loss (both literal and psychological) to Marcel Kittel in Scheldeprijs, left us wondering if he could stick with the pace at the Tour de France. Before the Tour, he didn't face his main rivals at the Giro, instead racing in Croatia and California, winning a stage of each before not finishing the Tour of Slovenia and losing out to Adam Blythe at his national championships. At the Tour, however, he was in a class of his own. He showed his speed at the very first opportunity to take the yellow jersey he had missed out on in 2013 and 2014, and backed that victory up with wins on stages 3, 6 and 14. He passed up a chance on stage 4, and a mechanical problem put him out of contention for stage 11. He left the Tour de France on the second rest day to focus on [sigh] track racing at the Olympics, where he was beaten into second by Elia Viviani. That unpleasantness over with, Cavendish focused on regaining the rainbow jersey, riding the Tour of Britain, some Italian autumn races and Paris-Tours to prepare, winning nothing. After doing all the hard work to keep himself in the front group in the early stages of the race, a positioning error made him unable to come around Peter Sagan. He took home silver.
While Cavendish and Cummings took up most of the team's time on camera and on podiums, there were a few more successes for the team in white, most provided by Edvald Boasson Hagen. He won three stages in the Middle East at the start of the season, before snagging the fourth stage of the Dauphiné and some races in Norway, including his national championships. Speaking of which, Dimension Data were very prolific in those races, taking home Norwegian, Eritrean and Belorussian jerseys in the road race and the time-trial, along with the Rwandan and South African road race jerseys. Omar Fraile also fought his way to a Vuelta KOM jersey.
So was it a successful season for the team? Well it depends on how you count. It's difficult to be unreservedly happy with a season performance that puts you comfortably last in the World Team Rankings, but four Tour de France stage wins are pretty bloody high on the list of things that count more than World Tour Points. In any case, Cannondale would trade their eighth place for those stage wins before you can say "Argyle," especially since Dimension Data were recently assured their place in the World Tour for 2017, despite threats that they would lose it. It's clear to see why they are struggling for consistent points. Cavendish's wins are enough for the team to stay competitive, but the team will be struggling badly next year if he can't match his 2016 performance. Less than a third of their riders won a race this season, and not all of those (looking at you, Tours of Rwanda and Langkawi) were in the biggest races.
Top 3 Highlights
- Cavendish, obviously: Cavendish is this team's big name, the only one recognisable worldwide, and he needed to deliver. His four stage wins were exactly what were needed for a team dedicated to him.
- Staying up: I don't know if anyone actually expected them to have to drop down to Pro Conti, but according to the rules set down, they seemed set to until a needed (and widely expected) reprieve was given.
- A British first week: The combined efforts of Cavendish and Cummings to deliver four British, Dimension Data stage wins out of seven meant a year's work coming to fruition.
Bottom 3 Lowlights
- Scheldeprijs: It wasn't a huge deal, but Cavendish losing to Kittel in the race said to give the name of the world's best sprinter has to hurt.
- No fireworks: Cavendish was always going to leave the Tour early, but he gave away a chance for another win on the Champs-Élysées.
- Lack of depth: As I mentioned earlier, there wasn't much to back up Cavendish.
The new arrivals are Ben King, Lachlan Morton, Scott Thwaites, Ryan Gibbons and Ben O'Connor. The team lose the services of Theo Bos, Songezo Jim, Matt Brammeier, Cam Meyer and Kanstantin Siutsou. They will wear this kit next year.
Introducing Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka v.2017...— Dimension Data Sport (@DiDataSport) November 24, 2016
Here's a closer look at @TeamDiData's brand new kit!#DDDCamp #AfricasTeam pic.twitter.com/Uin4wuo1Ku
Overall it seems like a net gain for the team - Siutsou is a good domestique, but he's not in his natural habitat at Dimension Data, Bos isn't in his natural habitat out of doors, and Brammeier and Jim aren't exactly core riders. King is a solid rider, Thwaites has threatened in some smaller classics, and Gibbons and O'Connor are young guys on their first professional team. Lachlan Morton is the big move. Hugely talented, but equally inconsistent, he had a few years at World Tour level, but delivered nothing because of a lack of motivation. After a storming Tour of Utah, he's back, and if he can ride the same way, he'll be a huge gain for Dimension Data.
Dimension Data become less and less the plucky underdogs, and more and more a big team that results are expected of, and those results will be expected of no one more than Mark Cavendish, still their star rider. He's been racing on the track recently, and successfully, teaming up with Bradley Wiggins to win the Gent Six. It is believed that a winter racing track in preparation for his 2016 season was what gave him an edge in the Tour de France, his positioning being much more on point than any of his rivals.
Can he keep up his speed? How much longer can his fast-twitch muscles keep up with the strain of winning Tour de France stages, especially against such new competition as Fernando Gaviria and Caleb Ewan, in addition to his old rivals Kittel and Greipel? It would shock nobody to see Cavendish continue at the very top level, but there is always a chance he will decline.
In terms of GC hopes, Lachlan Morton is the extent of Dimension Data's, unless you count Mr 13th on GC That One Time, Serge Pauwels, which you really mustn't feel obliged to. Morton's a totally unknown quantity. He's capable of blowing such talent as Andrew Talansky away on climbs as tough as Empire Pass, but he's regressed once at this level. We all hope he doesn't do it again. As for Steve Cummings, the raider's successes are more erratic than any other sort of rider. Yes, he could have as successful a season as this one again, but there's an equal chance that he returns nothing from a season of trying. In the rest of the roster, there's a whole load of talent, from Nathan Haas to Merhawi Kudus, Kristian Sbaragli and Daniel Teklehaimanot, all capable of winning on the big stage.