I don’t want this to be a hatchet job. Orica have been fine in 2017, they really have. I just thought they’d be a lot better than fine, and it is a shame. There are, however, plenty of reasons for optimism for a brighter 2018.
What we said last year
We did talk about the young Orica squad, though, even in the absence of a capsule. Between various buy/sell/holds and some race previews, I aired my views fairly widely – I saw them moving from a team with a focus on hilly sprinter types to GC and sprint focus. This was based on Bling moving to Sunweb, Gerrans and Albasini continuing to age, and the expected emergence of two Yates and a Chaves for GC, and Ewan for the sprints. It was a team that looked primed to take a major step towards relevance in the biggest races.
What we got in 2017
We got roughly what we expected, I suppose. Ewan started the season very strongly – indeed, Conor and I agreed on the podcafst that we expected him to be in the conversation as the world’s best sprinter after his exploits in the Tour Down Under and Abu Dhabi. He didn’t really live up to that, but picked up a stage win in the Giro (against a weak set of sprinters by GT standards), as well as wins in lesser races like Poland and Britain. He’s only 23 and has time to get quicker, but there is a sense of what might have been here. Other sprinty types (Mezgec, Impey, Cort Neilsen) chipped in with some decent results in smaller races.
On the GC side, both Yateses continued to be among the best in the field, without seriously contending for GT victories. Adam was ninth in the Giro, and Simon went two better in the Tour, where he also added a white jersey. He was, however, more than six minutes back in a Tour with relatively little climbing. Both rode well (Adam continues to show aptitude for one-day racing, too, with a top-10 in Liege as well as an early season win against decent competition in GP Industria) but it is hard to square their results with the belief that they’ll develop into serious GT-winning contenders. They’re 25 now and pretty experienced – if they’re going to get closer to the best, they need to get on with it.
Meanwhile, Esteban Chaves’ 2017 was as disappointing as his 2016 was exciting. After two podiums in GTs and a monument, hopes were high for 2017, but plans were delayed by a serious knee injury. He did manage to race in two GTs, but dropped from the top ten as he faded towards the end of the Vuelta. His hopes of defending his Lombardia crown were dashed by a season-ending collarbone fracture and he’s back to rehabbing ahead of 2018.
Michael Albasini, who really might be the most underrated rider of the last decade, put in yet another solid season to keep the squad competive through the summer. He picked up three top-10s in Ardennes week and impressed in Italy’s autumn races, too. Still, it is hard to shake the feeling that he’s losing his ability to compete with the very best in the tough races, and 2018 will be another battle with father time.
FSA-DS Ranking 2017
5th – contributions from almost the entire squad (19 riders with 100 points or more) and three thousand-pointers. The surprise is that Albasini, at 36, was again their highest scoring rider.
1. Caleb Ewan’s win in stage 7 of the Giro was the team’s biggest victory of the year, and his first GT win since the 2015 Vuelta. It marked the high-point of his season and should provide him with the motivation to keep fighting for similar wins as he matures.
2. Simon Yates took the white jersey in the Tour, and for all I’m sniffy about his lack of contention in the overall (and the weakness of the competition he faced) this is a prestigious victory and does point to him as one of the best GT riders of his age group.
3. Luke Durbridge’s spring. You might think I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here, but I don’t agree. We like a cobble here at the café, you may have noticed, and his emergence this spring was a surprise and a pleasure. Turbo Durbo came up in track cycling (and was a world champion in team pursuit back in 2011) but on the road he’d mostly been a domestique and TT specialist. This year, he turned in top tens in E3, Dwars and Strade Bianche, and was in the elite group behind Gilbert at Flanders. Watch his form coming into 2018’s cobbles season.
1. Chaves’… whole year. Lost seasons happen sometimes, but this one was a real shame. Finishing with an injury was particularly cruel as it adds to the doubts over his ability to bounce back in 2018. Here’s hoping he can manage that.
2. At the risk of being harsh, I’m going to say it. The Yates boys managed, between them, a win at Miguel Indurain, stages at Paris-Nice and Romandie, and win at GP Industria. For two such high-profile riders, there isn’t much winning in their year, and that continues a pattern that goes back through their career, with the notable exceptions of San-Seb and a Vuelta stage. They need to get on the top step of the podium a lot more.
3. Most teams don’t care about the world TTT, but Orica aren’t most teams. They’ve historically set themselves up as a well-drilled squad with several big engines and have been competitive since their inception. They were a distant fifth in Bergen, capping a year in which they didn’t make the podium in a single TTT. There aren’t many races where this matters, and their team make-up has changed, but this must be a disappointment.
Comings and goings for 2018
Ins: Jack Bauer (Quick-Step Floors), Lucas Hamilton (Mitchelton-Scott), Cameron Meyer, Mikel Nieve (Team Sky), Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors)
Outs: Simon Gerrans (BMC Racing), Jens Keukeleire (Lotto-Soudal)
Renewals: Sam Bewley, Mathew Hayman, Jack Haig, Michael Hepburn, Christopher Juul-Jensen, Svein Tuft
There’s relatively little activity here, but it speaks to a serious plan and real ambition. Gerrans’ departure is another sign of the squad moving towards an increased GC focus. Of the riders coming in, Trentin appears to be a straight replacement for Keukeleire as a cobbles leader, with the added bonus of a decent sprint. He may well benefit from getting away from the crowds at Quick Step, and he finished 2017 in sparkling form (four Vuelta stages, and the win in Paris-Tours, as well as fourth in the Worlds).
Mikel Nieve, meanwhile, reinforces that GC focus and provides an elite domestique for whichever GT men are lucky enough to have his help. It is clear that Sky aren’t pleased to see him go, and he’ll be made very welcome at a squad who needed more climbing lieutenants to meet their ambition.
Most intriguing rider
The correct answer is Chaves, but you’ve heard a lot about him elsewhere in this capsule. Instead, let’s talk about Jack Haig. At 24, he quietly enjoyed a breakout season, with a stage win in Poland his best result. He also caught the eye as an ultra-strong domestique for Chaves in the Vuelta, climbing extremely nicely. Second to Marc Soler in the 2015 Avenir, he found his feet through 2016 and emerged in 2017. It isn’t clear where his chances will arise in 2018, as this squad has no shortage of climbing leaders, but expect to see more of this lanky climber.
So, what happens next?
There can’t be any excuses in 2018. Ewan will be 23, the Yates boys 25 and Chaves 28. The future is arriving for the new leaders of Orica and they all need to take a step forward (in Chaves’ case, a return) in order to meet their potential. Between them, they need to harvest the three GTs for podiums and stage wins in order for 2018 to be considered successful.
Trentin and Durbridge give the squad renewed optimism for the cobbles and will be other cards to play throughout the season, whilst Albasini may have one more year of success in him. Haig, Nieve and Kreuziger are highly competent supporting riders.
I’m optimistic that this squad has the infrastructure and the supporting riders to excel, but I retain doubts about the quality of the leaders. If Chaves’ injury woes continue, this could be another disappointing year for a team who could reasonably expect to be among the best in the peloton.