These offseason capsules tend to be pretty reality-based, as opposed to dwelling on image, but with the Slipstream project it’s always been a little hard to stay on message. Now called the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team, it’s still tempting to think of them as the Little Engine That Could (take on a dirty sport and win clean). Except a lot has changed since, oh, 2010, including their fortunes. Mostly it’s good news in that the sport is no longer quite so dirty and in such need of taking on. But Cannondale-Drapac remain one of the “little guys,” and still seek to harvest youth on the rise, or even the odd vet on the way down, in hopes of turning things around and back to the dreamy place the squad found itself a few times over the years. There is reason to hope that they can capture imaginations again sometime soon, after becoming the worst thing of all — an afterthought. Sure, imagination and reality are always tricky things to pair up, but at least going forward it will be fun to try.
What We Thought Coming In
Addict wrote last year’s Slipstream capsule, and had this to say about the immediate future of the team:
Tough to tell. The remaining kids – Dombrowski, Talansky, Slagter et al - may break out. Uran will give them a focus for at least one and possibly more GTs, but is a rider not a reason. Pierre Rolland will continue to be the French housewife’s favourite, though whether that role is actually worth paying for is an open question. Phil Gaimon will remain engaging on Twitter. Beyond that, the team will continue its reversion to the mean, stuck on the treadmill of annual refitting, lacking a true rationale beyond simple existence. The squad that was once a story, a mission embodied, a crusade in lycra, will drag itself onwards as just one amongst many mid tiered, just reasonably financed, hoping to exceed, ordinary teams.
But what he was really getting at was this:
For north of half a decade, Team Garmin-X were, to me, the most iconic team in the peloton – one with a story to tell, and a philosophy, place in the world, and knowledge of itself that was unusual in its clarity and relevance*. When you saw the blue shirts adorned with varying degrees of that hideous manifestation of Vaughters’ hideous sartorial taste, you not only knew who they were, but why they were. That team, to be clear, is dead, killed by a myriad of incremental decisions. What is left is a completely generic, low to mid level World Tour squad, kept alive by the two twin forces in sport: inertia and momentum.
In other words, the team had lost its way, or at least the way it started out on, and given in to a more muddled, less interesting path forward. Really, you should read Addict’s eloquent case in its entirety. Go here.
What We Got Instead
Uh, well I definitely agree that the team isn’t a singular anti-doping standard-bearer anymore. As with other sports, in cycling once one team figures out a competitive advantage, others will try to borrow or steal it, and in Slipstream’s case, with more money — now that, as Addict said, plenty of teams trumpet their commitment to clean sport (with varying sincerity and results). So now, it’s Cannondale-Drapac doing what other teams do, putting together the best team it has with the available resources. As to those resources, one estimate would put them tied for 17th at €10million, less than a third of top dog Sky. What can you buy for €10m?
Very few sure things. Yeah, you could theoretically afford a big-name star, but very little in the way of help for that star, which means he ain’t coming on board. In some ways, such as this, the FSA Directeur Sportif differs meaningfully from life as an actual one. I know, that’s hard for a lot of people to hear. Anyway, team boss Jonathan Vaughters shops mainly in the “hope” aisle, which consists of riders either on the way up or down — both of which can be very valuable if they can be applied properly.
Take Rigoberto Uran. Approaching his 30th birthday, Uran has ridden for the three of the richest teams from the past decade in Sky, Quick Step and Movistar. He’s moved on from each, in part because his ceiling is below “grand tour champion” by all evidence, but he’s still a strong veteran rider who you can credibly call your captain in the two non-French three-week events. Uran bounced back from 14th to 7th in his beloved Giro d’Italia, so assuming he was paid like a guy who could finish 14th in the Giro, then there’s some value recaptured. How much? And what does an American(ish) team gain from having a Colombian finish 7th in the Giro? Points, which enable it to keep going, which enables the sponsorship. Which keeps the hope alive. But overall Uran scored half of what he did the year before, even with a strong finish in the fall, thanks to a slow start and no classics victories, so for him to really pay off his contract as a team captain, he will need a more complete performance in 2017.
Cannondale relied on other veterans like Matti Breschel and Sebastian Langeveld in the classics or Tom-Jelte Slagter and Moreno Moser and Pierre Rolland elsewhere, to little effect. Illness scuttled the team’s classics plans beyond young Dylan van Baarle (more there in a moment). Rolland was 10th in the Dauphine and 16th in the Tour, which almost exactly mirrors the team’s place in the (alleged) financial pecking order, so even there, maybe this is good value?
Sure, but Vaughters’ history is swinging for the fences, particularly with young talent, and back in the early years, with riders who needed a new situation for one reason or another. Be they North Americans looking for a comfortable fit or guys fleeing the pressure of doping. Now that the market for those types have gone up, it’s harder to pull off. Still, you can see traces of the old blueprint.
Andrew Talansky remains the homegrown guy around whom much of the team is built, and even if he didn’t trend right to the top of “America’s Next Tour de France Hero,” he’s still building a nice career as his peak years play out, with fifth in the Vuelta and Tour de Suisse, fourth in California and third in Utah. All of this comes after a tumultuous season for the 27-year-old, who claims he hit rock-bottom in spring with fading confidence after a couple years of unmet expectations, only to put the pressures aside and rediscover his love for what he does. Maybe an unburdened Talansky takes things even farther from here. In any event, his second half of the season was vital to the team’s case for continued World Tour status.
Joe Dombrowski, who has sort of inherited the American Climbing Sensation mantle from Talansky, broke through at Utah last year before turning in a year that lacked victories in 2016, but should do little to dim the excitement for what comes next. Dombro did his first Giro (and second Vuelta), stretching his young frame beyond where it had gone before, and while he couldn’t match the guy he beat in the GiroBio back in 2012 — Fabio Aru, second overall in 2015 and off to France this past year — his eighth in the uphill ITT and third in the final mountain stage (albeit from the break) show that the progress to grand tour climber continues apace. What do we want? More dramatic improvement in the grand tour general classifications! When do we want it? NOW! But alas, we will have to be patient.
A few more kids might look more like home run signings based on what we saw in 2016. Dylan van Baarle extended his early-career classics excellence with sixth in Flanders — in with the first bunch — and 16th in Paris-Roubaix, on the back end of the second chase group. He also took fifth in the Tour of Britain, with top tens almost every day, to cap a strong showing. Alberto Bettiol went on a late-summer points scoring binge by coming in third in the Tour de Pologne overall (winning the points comp), second in Plouay, fourth and seventh in the two Quebecois classics, and 11th in Gran Piemonte.
Over on the climby classics side, Davide Villella ground out some decent showings until a fall explosion that saw him fifth in Lombardia and victorious in the Japan Cup. Those two races have almost nothing in common, so maybe it was more notable that he finished tied with Diego Ulissi in the Giro dell’Emilia (9th overall), as Villella’s classics campaign suggests that Ulissi might be a better comp for him than, say, Aru or Nibali. At 25, he really isn’t turning into a grand tour GC guy, but that doesn’t stop him from being a useful points scorer or a guy who you can get excited about in some big moments.
As for the rest, Lawson Craddock did his first Tour de France, making this more of a building year than a scoring one, though ninth in Pais Vasco (and 5th in Cali and 6th in Criterium Int’l) showed that there might be something to build toward. Michael Woods came close to a surprise win in Milano-Torino. Young sprinters Wouter Wippert and Tom-Jelte Slagter struggled for points, Breschel looked cooked, and Moser and Navardauskas exited the team on relatively forgettable notes. Nobody stepped up in a huge way for the team, and memorable results were almost nonexistent. But don’t confuse that with hopelessness.
Top Three Highlights
- Uran Resurgent in Lombardia. You can already tell that this isn’t going to be the most triumphant list of highlights. Uran lost the three-up sprint by a bike length, but grinding it for victory out down the home stretch of a monument was about as close as the team came from a lasting memory. Villella taking fifth on the day was also a sweetener. Uran remains a legitimate team captain, and even if he doesn’t have much left for the Giro, a couple years of leadership on a young team would be a great contribution.
- Bettiol pipped in Bretagne Classic. Another highlight that other teams might consider a lowlight, here the young Bettiol shows his chops at the business end of a very hard 248km classic. The tough Tuscan couldn’t lock down Oliver Naessens in the last km, the pair launched a 10km attack to the line just ahead of a star-studded peloton led home by Alexander Kristoff. The result came after an impressive third place in the Tour de Pologne (where Villella was fourth), and was followed by his equally impressive trip to Canada.
- Ben King’s ATOC Stage 2 win. A victory? How novel! Actually Cannondale bagged two stages of the race, which would have looked even better if Talansky and Craddock hadn’t finished just off the final podium, but forced to pick between this and Toms Skujins’ win three days later, I’ll go with King. His sprint over Evan Huffman capped off a long, several-hours breakaway, where they whittled a four-man group down to a final two on the day’s climb, then worked all the way to the line to take the stage just seconds ahead of the peloton. [You could put Villella’s Japan Cup win on the list too I guess, but the opposition wasn’t anything special.]
Bottom Three Lowlights
- TTT crash in Tirreno-Adriatico. How far have they fallen? Cannondale were once contenders for all the most impactful TTT events, lo those many years ago. Now they’re hitting the deck on a straightaway and killing off Uran’s chances at a GC result.
- No Finishers in Gent-Wevelgem. All eight starters for Cannondale took the DNF at the race, thanks to a flu bug that was making its way around the squad. Breschel and Langeveld were among the hardest hit (though van Baarle fought it off). Pretty much the opposite of how you want to prepare for the Tour of Flanders.
- Talansky yields overall lead on last Utah stage. Lachlan Morton, lying 22 seconds back, saved it all for the last climb and dropped Talansky, who’d joined an early attack but been reeled in before the race’s final ascent. The Bulldog insisted later that the attack hadn’t sapped him of any strength, and he would know better than me. But it obviously didn’t help either. But even in defeat, things were starting to look up after the American hit rock bottom early in the year.
Comings and Goings
Headed out the door are a mini-peloton of riders who weren’t scoring much for the team, though that’s not to suggest they didn’t do their jobs. Navardauskas was one of the more appreciated all-round support riders who would occasionally get off the leash, and Moser, while not a Sheriff, was still a competent guy. He joins Breschel at Astana next season, while Navardauskas heads to Bahrain-Merida. Jack Bauer takes his sprinting/support game to Quick Step. Those are the notable losses among the ten departees.
Coming in... this is where the team gets truly interesting again, more so than it’s been in a while. Taylor Phinney is maybe the biggest name, but he’s looking for a much-needed fresh start as he struggles to regain his old promise. Joining him in the classics will be a real headliner, Belgian Sep Vanmarcke, who returns to the fold after a couple forgettable turns with LottoNL-Jumbo.
And most exciting of all is the capture of Hugh Carthy’s signature, giving the team a young climbing sensation of the top pedigree. Carthy isn’t merely a fantasy though; he’s already got a win at the Vuelta a Asturias — land of the Picos de Europa — by his name, and battled head to head with Nairo Quintana at the Route du Sud. I don’t know who else was in the mix for signing Carthy, but he came from outside of the standard British Cycling progression and might like a shot at riding for himself sooner rather than later, which would suggest possible reasons to take Cannondale over, say, Team Sky. Charlie Wegelius’ influence as Cannondale manager didn’t hurt either.
Prognosis for 2017
Vaughters has to be feeling better about his team-building efforts than he has in a few years. I have no access to his feelings, now or in the past (apart from the ones he expresses relentlessly on Twitter and in print), but still. This is a fun-looking team, even if not a top one and done on the cheap.
After leaning on aging minor threats at the Cobbled Classics, Cannondale-Drapac can now turn to Vanmarcke, easily its best threat to win a Monument since... Vanmarcke, who won the Omloop back in 2012 but then went to Belkin/Lotto and upped his performances to the 250km level, landing on the podium of both Flanders (twice, including last year) and Roubaix (2013), plus second in Gent-Wevelgem this past season. Vanmarcke is strong, aggressive, instinctive, and probably a little sick of losing to megastars like Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan. The former is retired but the latter is the bete noir now. At Lotto Vanmarcke got nice help from Tom Van Asbroucke — who joins him at Cannondale — but now he can also join forces with an emerging van Baarle, Phinney, Langeveld (still around), and some of the youngsters like Toms Skujins or Tom Scully. This might be Vaughters’ best-ever hope for a classic win, at least since the days of Hushovd and Van Summeren.
In the grand tours, things won’t change too much on the surface, unless Dombrowski can take it to another level. Expecting Talansky to win a big stage race is not absurd to anyone who remembers his Dauphine shocker a couple years ago, and his fifth at the Vuelta was a pleasant surprise after his season seemed to be falling apart. But he would need some luck and a great run of form to bust his way through the upper crust of the sport, while Dombrowski would need to make some gains in strength and consistency to stretch his stage-racing chops to the three-week format. Worth keeping an eye on.
Probably more attention will be paid to Carthy, and to a lesser degree Craddock. The latter hasn’t been around long enough to say exactly where his ceiling is, but shorter stage races look like decent bets for him as soon as now. However, in Carthy the team might be more likely to strike gold. Sure, 22-year-old gold is usually more shine than substance, so hopefully someone will wave their magic expectations wand over the English-speaking fandom and give the kid room to grow. Yeah, that’s totally a thing that happens.
The biggest challenge for the team will be consistency, not going long periods of time without wins or memorable threats to win something big. Vanmarcke and van Baarle should be on a few podiums in spring, barring bad luck, and that depth allows the team to target less likely classics guys (e.g. Slagter) toward the earlier races. Or later ones. But the lack of sprinting chops can limit their chances, and the odd sprint win is always good for team confidence. That’s the problem with having talent clustered around the classics — including the hilly classics for guys like Uran and Villella: winning is ALWAYS hard, never assured, and palmares can dry up in a hurry.
And then there’s Bettiol. I can’t wait to see what his program looks like, because I honestly have no idea. He has mixed it up enough with the top sprinters to perhaps have a shot in that role, while also showing some ability in the classics, including the ‘tweener-style Quebec races, where climbers and sprinters join in battle. Barely 23, he’s yet another rider whose results suggest a really intriguing future, but like so much of the Cannondale-Drapac roster, whether the future is now or not is the big question.
So they soldier on, these Men of Argyle, united behind a small budget and a bit of an underdog mentality, and with no other significant advantages to leverage against the bigger teams. The World Tour consists of 18 teams, meaning at least eight of which have to finish outside the top ten, so when one of the smallest outfits has trouble scraping together any iconic moments, it shouldn’t rate as a tragedy, even with the team’s past history of punching above its weight class. But if the new structure of the team, largely assembled in the last two years, leads to the kind of success we saw in the past, or even something bigger, then they will have done much more than muddle through with a small budget. Cannondale-Drapac won’t be flying the white flag of clean riding like in the old days, taking pride in their ethics. But if they can take pride in their wins, in an era of improved ethics, the very thing the project insisted on at the start... well, wouldn’t that be as good as it gets?