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Offseason Capsule: Trek Segafredo

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Another year, another high-profile retirement.  This time, the future is younger but murkier. 

Cycling: 72nd Tour of Spain 2017 / Stage 20 Corbis Sport

2017 saw Alberto Contador bow out of cycling, seven grand tours and a boatload of polemica stuffed into his saddlebags. He finished in Japan, technically, but for our purposes his career culminated in a win on the final mountain stage of the Vuelta. That was the standout moment of Trek’s 2017, which was otherwise bizarrely anonymous.

What we said last year

Conor wrote about this crew, to help you through the festive perineum (ever since I heard that phrase I accept none of the weaker alternatives for the period 27-30th December. You’re welcome.). He was down on the chances of Bauke Mollema winning the Giro (correctly, although his anti-Dutch jokes look a bit weaker in retrospect), down on his chances of Alberto Contador winning the Tour (correctly, although the accountant’s performance at the Vuelta exceeded expectations), somewhat down on Jon Degenkolb’s monument chances (we’ll come to that) and down on the ability of anyone else to make the season a success.

It was all a bit bleak, to be honest, and from the comments, we all broadly agreed. There was some noise about a big year for Stuyven but we thought the stated goal of world’s best team was unrealistic. There was even a wet-behind-the-ears editor predicting a big season for the departing Bonifazio in his new digs, and attempting not to alert Ursula to that prediction (spoiler alert: I failed there. In both elements).

What we got in 2017

Based on headlines, a disappointing season, with only 18 wins, fewer than UAE or FDJ managed, among other smaller-budget teams. There were no Classics wins and just a couple of Grand Tour stages. Scratch a little deeper, however, and there’s something. Not an extraordinary season, but far from weak.

It started nicely. With Degenkolb in Abu Dhabi, winning a stage, his lieutenants were given free rein on opening weekend in Belgium, Felline grabbing fourth at Omloop, and Stuyven 8th there and 2nd in Kuurne. With Naesen and van Baarle making noise, Stuyven’s quiet progress in the classics wasn’t widely observed, but he had a good spring, adding a 4th in Roubaix.

Degenkolb was back in Europe for the main round of cobbled classics and looked very good in Gent-Wevelgem, just making the break to the elites for what could have been a decisive move. In the end he finished 5th, one of his many top 10s that also included three monuments – he was 7th in Flanders and San-Remo, and 10th in Roubaix. Through the year, Degenkolb picked up 1,090 VDS points and 23 top tens, with that Abu Dhabi win the only one of his year. The results don’t lie, and he was good but not good enough pretty consistently.

That theme for Trek continued in the Grand Tours, with Mollema a solid but largely anonymous 7th in the Giro as a leader. He did win a Tour stage but otherwise was a top ten staple. His Tour was in support of Contador, who came in on the back of podiums in Andalucia, Paris-Nice, Catalunya and the Basque Country – and, you’ve guessed it, no wins – and finished a winless 9th in the Tour.

Put the three of their bigs together and you have lots of banging on doors, and very few that were opened. Stuyven, Felline (who vastly exceeded my expectations in terms of versatility and reliability) and Edward “no, the one with the H” Theuns also piled on the promising results and the high finishes, but with precious few wins to show for it.

All of which led us to a Vuelta where Froome led and the headline writers followed Contador. You can’t blame the journos for following the story, and he was the story. In the last couple of years he’s kept his flair and attacking style whilst losing some of his top-end climbing speed. There was no shortage of heroic failures all over Spain, and time was running out when the mammoth final mountain stage headed out on the road to l’Angrilu. Contador danced away from the bigs, caught his old mentee Soler, left him behind, and held off the pack for a famous win. If you don’t mind a divisive protagonist and a peculiar act two, it was fairytale stuff.

Cycling: 104th Tour de France 2017 / Stage 16
2017 wasn’t Pantano’s year.
Corbis Sport

There was just enough time left for the rest of the squad to pick up some more solid top-10s, with Mollema bagging serious world tour points in Guangxi and Trek picking up three actual wins in Denmark, where Pedersen took the overall, before the season came to a close.

FSA-DS Ranking 2017

6th – Not number one in the world, nor even close, but a solid return and points pleasingly spread out, with just Pantano, Nizzolo and (to an extent) Degenkolb failing to produce returns worthy of their costs. 8 riders over 400 points is a nice place to be.

Top Highlights

1. Contador winning the Queen stage of the Vuelta in his last meaningful day in the saddle will do it every time.

2. Did you guys know Bauke Mollema had only won one GT stage, and that was in the 2013 Vuelta? You did? You guys are amazing. I didn’t know that, and it became untrue when he soloed home in stage 15 of the Tour for a win that capped a very solid season.

3. It feels like no Classics rider reaches the top without a couple of moments that feel significant as they’re happening. I got that feeling from Stuyven when he powered clear of a good group in an unusually tough Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Sagan was able to stay with him, but plenty of others weren’t, and only the fastvakian could outsprint him at the end. He’d win in BinckBank and perform well in bigger classics, but this was his moment of 2017. There’s more to come.

Cycling: 69th Kuurne - Brussels - Kuurne 2017
Stuyven’s “moment”
Corbis Sport

Bottom Lowlights

1. Nothing much wrong with Mollema’s season, as I’ve said, but he was hanging around the Giro podium until he finished way back on the stage 14 climb at Oropa, dropping 1.44 and falling from contention. He had a real chance but once again couldn’t quite climb well enough consistently enough for three weeks.

2. Giacomo Nizzolo had picked up lots of points in 2016, and I didn’t expect him to be anything like as prominent in 2017 (indeed, I called him the most overrated rider in the peloton, which was probably harsh). Injuries were a problem in what became a lost year for the Italian speedster, and his season never really got going. More can be expected in 2018.

3. I don’t really have a third lowlight. The overall feeling of this capsule is “meh”, and I think that’s probably the lowlight in itself. It is a thorny problem to solve, but this squad need to find a way to bring more wattage.

Comings and goings for 2018

Ins: Gianluca Brambilla (Quick-Step Floors), Nicola Conci, Niklas Eg (Virtu Cycling), Alex Frame (JLT Condor), Tsgabu Grmay (Bahrain-Merida), Ryan Mullen (Cannondale-Drapac), Toms Skujins (Cannondale-Drapac).

Cycling: 111th Il Lombardia 2017
High hopes for Brambilla
Corbis Sport

Outs: Alberto Contador (retired), Edward Theuns (Team Sunweb), Haimar Zubeldia (retired), Marco Coledan (Willier), Jesus Hernandez (retired).

Renewals: Julien Bernard, Fabio Felline, Michael Gogl, Kiel Reijnen, Markel Irizar.

Well, Contador has left the building, and things will be different. Joining him in retirement are Zubeldia and Hernandexz, whilst Thuens moving to Sunweb will leave a gap in their cobbles squad and takes away a talented rider approaching his prime.

There’s youth coming in, and a range of talent. Nicklas Eg, for example (I make no apology for that joke. I thought of it two weeks ago and laughed out loud, in a room on my own). My fondness for the ever-so-polite Mullen doesn’t blind me to the fact that Brambilla is the biggest new name. He’s an interesting foil for Mollema, who is a better one-day rider than he gets credit for, and could thrive leaving the crowded Ardennes field at Quick-Step.

Most intriguing rider

This Trek column is the reason I added “most intriguing rider” to the capsule format, if you’re wondering.

I could write several columns about Jon Degenkolb, and each one would contradict the others. He’s won two monuments and been around the top of the sport since about 2011. Despite that, I still think we haven’t seen the best of him… or maybe we have. His 2016 season was wrecked by an awful pre-season crash but 2017 was a healthier year. Is he taking time to return to his best, or is his best a level below the superstars of the sport? Has Sagan pushed him out?

I hope 2018 will be the year we figure it out. I have a bunch of options. Degenkolb is:

a) A prodigious talent who reached a peak early and has maintained it, a level below Sagan and Kristoff. He’ll be on the fringes of podiums for the rest of his career.

b) A man caught between sprinting and classics who has got worse as his career developed because he never quite maximises his potential in either area.

c) A rider behind only Sagan as a hardman of the sport who was derailed by that crash, and still wasn’t quite right in 2017 but will dominate in 2018.

d) Overrated and lucky to win weak Vuelta stages, a lottery of a Milan San-Remo and a sunny Paris-Roubaix lacking superstars.

I don’t believe d). I’d like to believe c) but I think the right answer is probably a). If he isn’t winning by the end of this spring, we’ll know.

Cycling: 79th Gent - Wevelgem 2017 / Men
Just clinging on in Gent-Wevelgem. Can he do more of this in 2018?
Corbis Sport

So, what happens next?

Contador and Theuns have left and Brambilla’s arrived, so on paper the squad has got weaker. That would be the case if we were re-running 2017, but I suspect the development of the retained riders will lead to a stronger 2018.

The cobbles team remains solid. Degenkolb and Stuyven are a decent one-two punch who complement each other nicely. Roubaix will probably suit them both more than the hillier classics, but either could win anywhere. In Dillier, Felline, Rast et al they have decent support. As the classics get hillier attention will turn to Brambilla, who has a chance to go well riding for himself.

Mollema will have his pick of the grand tours and looks firmly set in the “good but not brilliant” camp. There isn’t an abundance of GC leadership, which is probably the weakest part of this squad, and they’ll be hoping that Pantano can produce a 2018 that looks more like his 2016 season than 2017. He’s certainly a skilled enough climber but is yet to really put it all together, and this is probably the year it should happen.

There are lots of guys in this squad who can win on their day. For all my jokes, Giacomo Nizzolo has it in him to win a Giro sprint and pick up some wins after a weak 2017, and Brandle, Pedersen and the newly-acquired Skujins are potential winners. I’d expect to see a similar level of performance and a few more wins than in 2017, but for a year which makes headlines, they are relying on Degenkolb and Stuyven winning big and early.