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Offseason Capsule: Bora-Hansgrohe Bring the Circus to Town

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Sagan leads German squad into a new era

CYCLING-ESP-GER-BORA-HANSGROHE Photo credit should read JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images

We’ve checked in on the Next German Cycling Project from time to time, but there’s never been a time like this since the NetApp-Endura team came into existence, loaded up on talented German (and other) kids and declared their intention of being a Germany-based World Tour team. NetApp, now Bora-Hansgrohe, are Germany’s latest, possibly greatest, cycling project... and they’ve got some fancy new names to help them make a splash in 2017.

This moment is the culmination of manager Ralph Denk’s plan hatched quietly back in 2010, well after the demise of T-Mobile (which had gone American before going under completely), and long after 2006, when the German media and much of the country’s cycling fandom tuned out cycling in the wake of Operacion Puerto and Jan Ullrich’s final fall, this time from grace. As Denk told us three years ago, German fans have an appetite for the sport and this team is out to serve that yearning.

As NetApp-Endura, the team made slow progress, reaching the Giro d’Italia in 2012 and the Tour de France in 2014 (and since) as wildcards. Once that happened, sponsors like Bora (who make stylish stove surfaces) and Argon 18 (Canadian bikes) came along, cementing the team’s place in line for an eventual World Tour spot. They got mildly upstaged in their “next German team” quest by Giant-Alpecin, who suddenly stopped being Dutch after a decade, but kept their eyes on the big prize.

And boy, did they land it.

As of 2017, Old NetApp have snagged the World Tour license they were always angling for. They’re at the party, whether for national pride or more conventional visions of athletic glory. They’ve got a new set of sponsors, a long-term outlook, and… hey! It’s the biggest star in the entire sport, Peter Sagan!

That last part is truly the icing on the cake, if you like cakes that are made out of mostly icing. Not that the team is lacking in good ol’ cakey substance, but the sweet taste of Saganicity will likely overwhelm the senses of anyone interfacing with the team in 2017. Without further ado...

What We Said Last Year

[Crickets.]

We hardly ever bother with continental teams in our capsules. If this were a full-time job I’d be delighted to write them up, even travel to their winter training camps in places like “anywhere in Spain” and “meet at the coffee shop outside of Nerz’ house.” But alas, it’s not in the life budget at the moment.

What We Got in 2016

Your basic pro-conti team, a mix of decent results. Honestly, I don’t spend enough time looking at pro-conti teams to know how to judge what a good season is. But I do know that Jan Barta spent a lot of time on camera in the Tour de France, joining escapes. That Sam Bennett and the sublimely named Phil Bauhaus pipped some sprints, including Paris-Borges and a Crit-Int stage. That Scott Thwaites had a thing or two to say about the smaller cobbled classics. That’s a pretty good haul, right? Top five among pro-conti teams?

Top Highlights

I guess the Paris-Borges win by Bennett. Emanuel Buchmann narrowly missed out on top 20 at the Tour, but for his age that was impressive. Veteran Paul Voss capped off his career with a win in the Rad am Ring.

Bottom Lowlights

Barta burned a lot of matches and didn’t get anything big in return. Crashes limited Bennett’s Tour, leaving him the Lanterne Rouge. But the most trying time had to be Dominik Nerz, who retired after so many crashes left him experiencing dizziness and other concussive-like symptoms.

Comings and Goings for 2017

Outgoing include the retirees Nerz and Bartosz Huzarski, Voss (in limbo), Bauhaus (to Sunweb, the former Giant-[]), and Thwaites to Dimension Data. The last one hurts, what with Sagan being a cobbles guy, but incoming are no fewer than seven of Sagan’s Tinkoff teammates, including brother Juraj and GC rider Rafal Majka, as well as Marcus Burghardt, Leopold Konig, Matteo Pelucchi and Alexsejs Saramotins.

Of course the Sagan hire is the main news for incoming riders, in part because it brought about a change in the entire structure of the team. He came from Tinkoff, of course, where he and Alberto Contador had a very healthy relationship with the Specialized corporation and its bikes, helmets, wheels, etc. Specialized is a huge player on the inside of the World Tour, and having Sagan ride their bikes mattered a lot to them. With Tinkoff folding and Contador exiting to Trek-Segafredo (note the equipment change there), that left Specialized with plenty of its ongoing budget to allocate to Sagan and whatever team he could find for his next chapter. Frankly, it took a little while for Sagan to land on the correct team, since the obvious larger squads weren’t in a position to reconfigure their roster for the rider and his salary.

But Bora were free to separate from the Canadian bike-maker Argon18 who had sponsored the team at the Pro-Conti level to make room for Specialized and its star, who in turn would give them a clear shot (since realized) at a World Tour ticket, which in turn would then allow them to put together a World-Tour-level roster, mostly by assuming contracts from the deleted Tinkoff and IAM squads. It’s the biggest makeover of any team in the World Tour.

So What Happens Next?

Quite simply, they sit back and watch Sagan drive Bora-Hansgrohe into the cycling world’s collective consciousness. OK, not literally, there is a lot of work to do every step of the way, and there will certainly be other elements to the team, other objectives and so on. But Sagan seems about as well-supported as he had been at Tinkoff — which is to say not spectacularly well supported but good enough. Burghardt is a veteran helper to big Cobbles teams, and Saramotins is coming off a rather heroic eighth in Paris-Roubaix after years of hammering away at that event. Presumably his first job in Hell will be to shepherd Sagan over the infernal pavé, but chasing his own result will be a fallback option as well.

When it comes to the Tour de France, Sagan will have Konig and Majka as the climbers, probable stage hunters more than anything else, which should leave Bora free to construct a team around the World Champion’s usual drive for Green and sprint wins. Bennett will head to the Giro d’Italia for the first time, presumably with Pelucchi, though the distribution of sprinters is not public yet. Erik Baska and Michael Kolar are two more budding fastman who will probably go hunting for wins in smaller-profile events. And then there’s 22-year-old Pascal Ackerman, second in the U23 Worlds, who may be the biggest talent of them all in the sprinter-development merry-go-round.

Other points could come from Jay McCarthy, who seems to show up in a variety of finishes — I’m looking forward to seeing how he carves out a niche this year. Barta will be free to seek smaller goals as a secondary leader and veteran presence when he’s not helping out Majka, a big change from years of trying to captain a small ship through rough seas. His time trialling alone should allow him to score points in short stage races.

Finally, the biggest name after Sagan will be Majka, and it looks like he will try to duplicate his very successful 2016 campaign, targeting the GC at the Giro and then seeing what he has left in the tank for the Tour. Last year he netted a 5th overall in Italy and a second KOM jersey in France, two big prizes that would be precious victories for Bora if he can replicate them. Konig will help him some, and his relationship with Emanuel Buchmann will be interesting to see, specifically whether the young German helps Majka or the other way around. Buchmann hasn’t been touted as a future Tour podium guy, as far as I know, but cracking the top 15 this year would be a tremendous accomplishment and a good bit of data for the team.

So there is plenty to see here after Sagan goes by. Not so many certainties, but when you have a record-shattering World Champion scooping up wins and points all year long, it can put the rest of the team in a very good mental state. Sagan’s ability to win without a ton of support means that the difficulties of meshing a roster that’s been overhauled and bringing along young talents will unfold quietly alongside the beautiful hoopla that will follow the World Champion. Not sure it gets much better than that. Of course, if Sagan can’t perform, things will go south all that much quicker as a young and newly-formed team struggles to compensate for lost expectations. In cycling, every outcome is on the table. But Sagan has been as reliable as it gets in the sport. If you’re hitching your wagon to one guy and asking him to tow you from nowhere to the center stage, Bora-Hansgrohe’s choice of horses to drive them is as smart a choice as there is.