Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify because the players are always changing, and the team can move to another city. You’re actually just rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. I mean, you are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.
Fans will be so in love with the player but if goes to another team they boo! This is the same human being, in a different shirt… they hate him now!
With the year’s final Grand Tour wrapped up, thoughts are starting to turn to 2018. We’ve still got quality racing to come this year, with the World Championships and Il Lombardia the highlights, and they’ll be covered on Podium Cafe. Still, the transfer market kicked into gear as the Tour finished, and we now know where most of the big names will be riding next year. We’ve had a long-running thread that has followed the tactics, this is an attempt to look at strategy.
There’ll always be churn on a cycling team. Contracts are typically short, and riders move for all sorts of reasons; money, opportunity, team support, proximity to home, equipment, a fresh start. All of these changes are significant for the riders, and they all cause confusion for the first couple of months of every season (I spent most of Milan-San Remo deeply impressed at how well Dumoulin was working for Degenkolb… before I was reminded that Matthews had moved to be the beneficiary of the Sunweb effect, and that Degenkolb was over at Trek). Often, though, you see similar riders moving in to replace those who move on. The aims, structure and nature of the team isn’t changed.
We don’t tend to root for clothes in cycling, but we do notice and care about teams, and as we follow riders from team to team, we wonder about what it will mean for them. The answer is, it can often matter a great deal.
This column is one man’s attempt to look at the broader picture within the hirings and firings. We’ll get into individual moves when we get into our offseason capsules, but for now, I’m sifting the tea leaves, looking for messages about the direction in which each team is attempting to head.
Hires so far: Silvan Dillier (BMC Racing), Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), Clement Venturini (Cofidis), Benoit Cosnefroy (Chambery CF)
Departures so far: Sondre Holst Enger (Israel Cycling Academy), Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida), Hugo Houle (Astana)
What does it all mean? This is pretty well business as usual for AG2R, who have been quietly impressive in the last couple of seasons. They are banking on continued development of their current core. Their goal is to remain competitive whilst keeping costs reasonable, and they’re doing it awfully well at the moment. Gallopin coming in for Pozzovivo makes them a little younger and increases their options in the Ardennes, but it isn’t a major change. Dillier improves the support for 2017 breakout star Olivier Naesen.
Hires so far: Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-Scott), Omar Fraile (Dimension Data), Jan Hirt (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac), Hugo Houle (AG2R)
Departures so far: Paolo Tiralongo (retired)
What does it all mean? 2018 will be a year with continued focus on quality climbing support for Astana’s GC men, with Fraile, Hirt and Villella all clearly able to assist Aru (should he remain), Lopez and Fuglsang. Nielsen is the outlier, but he’s a rising star who’ll help the growing Danish connection and provide (with Valgren) options in races where Astana aren’t traditionally visible.
Their strategy is clear and makes sense, but it is dependent on keeping Aru to give them an elite option alongside the emerging Lopez and resurgent Fuglsang.
Hires so far: Gorka Izagirre (Movistar), Kristijan Koren (Cannondale-Drapac), Matej Mohoric (UAE), Hermann Pernsteiner (Amplatz-BMC), Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale)
Departures so far: None
What does it all mean? This is year two of the Bah-Meh project (can’t remember where I stole that from, but I am grateful) and as you’d expect, there are more ins than outs. World Tour points, and riders who are flexible and able to contribute in a range of races whilst supporting Nibali remain the focus. The hilly classics and one-week teams were a strength in 2017 and will be stronger next year, and Gorka will presumably be a particularly welcome signing for his brother.
Hires so far: Albert Bettiol (Cannondale-Drapac), Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal), Nathan van Hooydunck (BMC Development)
Departures so far: Silvan Dillier (Ag2r La Mondiale), Ben Hermans (Israel Cycling Academy), Amaël Moinard (Fortuneo-Oscaro), Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe), Manuel Quinziato (retired), Manuel Senni (Bardiani-CSF)
What does it all mean? Hard to see this as progress, with the Classics side in particular taking a bit of a hammering. Greg van Avermaet will be sorry to see several of these riders go, and the pressure will be on Roelandts to contribute all spring long. This is starting to look like BMC purse-strings are being tightened, for once.
GVA is good enough to succeed without support but there isn’t much strategy for improvement here. Losing Oss to an arch-rival will sting.
Hires so far: Davide Formolo (Cannondale-Drapac), Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky), Daniel Oss (BMC Racing)
Departures so far: None
What does it all mean? Bora have their leaders in place, and this is about getting them better support. Formolo and Kennaugh are talented climbers who will be able to help Majka whilst leading when they get the chance, and Oss’ support of Sagan in his Liquigas days is doubtless at the heart of his move. This adds up to an ambitious and rising team significantly improving their depth. Impressive.
Hires so far: Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman)
Departures so far: Albert Bettiol (BMC Racing), Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe), Kristijan Koren (Bahrain-Merida), Tom-Jelte Slagter (Dimension Data), Davide Villella (Astana), Andrew Talansky (retired), Ryan Mullen (Trek)
What does it all mean? There’s been some good news of late with the emergence of Education First as the latest sponsor for the Vaughters project. The hiring of Powless gives them a promising rider for the future, too. Still, there’s talent leaving the team in droves, including riders who have their best years ahead of them. The strategy has been one of survival. Even more now rests on Sep and van Baarle in the spring, and Uran in the GTs.
Hires so far: Nicholas Dlamini (Dimension Data Continental), Louis Meintjes (UAE Team Emirates), Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale-Drapac), Julien Vermote (Quick-Step Floors)
Departures so far: Omar Fraile (Astana), Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin)
What does it all mean? Another newish team, DiDa are known for a stable of sprinters and for being the African team. Their changes won't address the first of these, but bringing in Meintjes definitely plays into the latter. The South African feels like he's been around forever, but has time on his side and is a top-10 contender in any GT, with the possibility of further improvement. Dlamini is another South African and they'll be pleased to see their Conti-feeder team doing what it is supposed to. Other moves are churn, with the focus on poachers and youth.
Hires so far: Georg Preidler (Team Sunweb), Ramon Sinkeldam (Team Sunweb), Benjamin Thomas (Equipe Cycliste Armée de Terre), Valentin Madouas (UC Nantes Atlantique)
Departures so far: Odd Christian Eiking (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Marc Fournier (Vital Concept), Johan Le Bon (Vital Concept), Jérémy Maison (Fortuneo-Oscaro), Lorrenzo Manzin (Vital Concept), Kevin Reza (Vital Concept)
What does it all mean? I'm not sure I know, really. A few good signings, with Sinkeldam a useful man for Demare. There's a bit of a move towards youth, and the French-focus remains, but I can't see many significant changes for this team.
Hires so far: Ian Boswell (Team Sky), Alex Dowsett (Movistar), Nathan Haas (Dimension Data), Matteo Fabbro (Friuli Cycling Team), Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors)
Departures so far: Angel Vicioso Arcos (Retires), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Rein Taaramäe (Direct Energie), Michael Morkov (QuickStep-Floors), Sven Erik Bystrøm (UAE Team Emirates)
What does it all mean? The headline is clearly Kristoff out and Kittel in. A strong leadout may be strengthened by Dowsett, and Kittel joins Zakarin as the leaders here. Obviously he's more of a pure sprinter than Kristoff but the change won't be dramatic. Boswell and Haas have plenty of upside as climber-types and should benefit from a change of scene.
Hires so far: Pascal Eenkhoorn (BMC Development Team)
Departures so far: Jurgen Van den Broeck (Retires), Steven Lammertink (Vital Concept), Twan Castelijns
What does it all mean? Business as usual for the Dutchies, with Groenewegen and some marginal GC-contenders leading the way. No big splashes, but Eenkhorn is a decent engine to be nicked from BMC.
Hires so far: None
Departures so far: Tony Gallopin (AG2R-La Mondiale), Jürgen Roelandts (BMC Racing), Kris Boeckmans (Vital Concepts), Louis Vervaeke (Team Sunweb)
What does it all mean? Not a huge insight here, but this is far from good. There's some serious talent leaving and nothing coming in (yet). You could charitably say that they're freeing up opportunities for Benoot and Wellens, but it'd be nice to see some additional support on the horizon.
Hires so far: Eduardo Sepulveda (Fortuneo-Oscaro), Jamie Roson (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Mikel Landa (Team Sky)
Departures so far: Adriano Malori (Retires), Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), Jonathan Castroviejo (Team Sky), Rory Sutherland (UAE Team Emirates), Alex Dowsett (Katusha-Alpecin), Jesús Herrada (Cofidis), Jose Herrada (Cofidis)
What does it all mean? Again, this may be a little premature as we don't know what Quintana is up to or how well Valverde will heal, but this is a case of the rich getting richer. Three Spanish-speaking climbers are coming in, including Landa, arguably the biggest free agent available this winter. Roson and Sepulveda are both excellent climbing lieutenants and will add depth. Movistar are losing some good riders (including all three of their TT engines) but this is a question of focusing on climbing. Like Astana, they're strengthening their strength.
Hires so far: Mikel Nieve (Team Sky), Cameron Meyer, Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors), Jack Bauer (Quick-Step Floors)
Departures so far: Magnus Cort (Astana), Ruben Plaza (Israel Cycling Academy)
What does it all mean? Trentin and Nieve are highlight signings. Orica have been moving in the last couple of years from punchy climber/sprinters (Gerrans, Bling, Albasini) to sprinters and GT men, with the emergence of Chaves, Ewan and the Yates. These moves continue that. Trentin can lead in the Classics and support Ewan as a second sprinter and leadout engine, whilst Frosty will be a huge help to the GC-men. The antipodean focus is helped by signing Bauer and Meyer, who are both very fine riders, as well as coming from the right place.
Hires so far: Jhonatan Narvaez (Axeon Hagen Bermans), Florian Sénéchal (Cofidis), Elia Viviani (Team Sky), Fabio Jakobsen (SEG Racing), Michael Morkov (Katusha-Alpecin)
Departures so far: Matteo Trentin (Orica-Scott), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), David de la Cruz (Team Sky), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), Julien Vermote (Dimension Data), Jack Bauer (Orica-Scott), Tom Boonen (retirement)
What does it all mean?
Hiring Senechal makes this a great offseason. There's a lot of talent leaving this year, and it is easy to see this as a weakening of the squad. I think it probably is, but it adds clarity. Martin was a bit of a clash with Alaphilippe and Kittel pulled the team into a direction they didn't need to go. All of the men leaving will be missed, but they've got younger and can focus on their existing leaders.
For all that, the strategy here was clearly led by the accountants, admid the swirling sponsor confusion. Gilbert made 2017 a success but I can't see a clear long-term plan from Quick-Step, unless it is to build around Gaviria and either Senechal or someone else brought in from outside as Terpstra, Gilbert and Stybar decline.
Sky… you know what? We’ll leave them until last
Hires so far: Martijn Tusveld (Roompot–Nederlandse Loterij), Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), Louis Vervaeke (Lotto Soudal), Jai Hindley (Mitchelton Scott), Michael Storer (Mitchelton Scott)
Departures so far: Ramon Sinkeldam (FDJ), Georg Preidler (FDJ), Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Oscaro), Bert de Backer (Vital Concept)
What does it all mean? I'm not about to criticise the Sunweb scheme, not after a 2017 season in which everything they touched turned to gold. Theuns leaves a crowded Classics squad at Trek and will come in as presumptive leader, filling a gap for this ambitious team. If Vervaeke can fulfill his U23 promise he'll be a valuable signing. Barguil is the highest-profile departure but the relationship had clearly broken down. Still, Dumoulin and Kelderman can lead the GT squads and this all looks more like tinkering than wholesale change.
Hires so far: Ryan Mullen (Cannondale)
Departures so far: Haimar Zubeldia (Retires), Alberto Contador (Retires), Jesús Hernández (Retires), Edward Theuns (Team Sunweb)
What does it all mean? Father time remains unbeaten. Trek have lost Contador, Hernandez and the invisible man to retirement, whilst the promising Theuns moves to Sunweb. Mullen is a nice hire but for now, this looks like a weaker team going into next year. However, they remain a strong all-around outfit and Mollema will be pleased to regain control of his GT squad of choice.
Hires so far: Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors), Rory Sutherland (Movistar), Sven Erik Bystrøm (Katusha-Alpecin)
Departures so far: Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Merida), Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data)
What does it all mean? Dan Martin leaves a team where he was bouncing off Alaphilippe for Ardennes leadership, and joins a squad where he'll be bouncing off Rui Costa. Still, he provides a potential GT replacement for Meintjes and is guaranteed quality at the top of the squad list. Kristoff brings WT points and credibility in monuments and tough sprints. As with Bahrain, this is a new team (well, new sponsor) building in strength and increasing options. They've improved significantly.
Hires so far: Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar), David de la Cruz (QuickStep-Floors), Egan Bernal (Androni Giocattoli), Pavel Sivakov (BMC Development Team), Kristoffer Halvorsen (Team Joker Icopal), Chris Lawless (Axeon Hagens Berman)
Departures so far: Peter Kennaugh (Bora-Hansgrohe), Mikel Nieve (Orica-Scott), Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin), Mikel Landa (Movistar), Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors)
What does it all mean? Let's deal with the easy stuff first. Viviani has reached the point where he needs support in some bigger races, and he and Sky knew that wouldn't happen with their GC focus. That's a move that makes sense. Kennaugh and Boswell struggled to get opportunities in a crowded roster of quality climbers and have moved on. Again, that makes sense.
What is odd is to see a team with money and a track record of success getting weaker in the GC squads. Castroviejo and de la Cruz are great, but they won't match Landa and Nieve. Meanwhile, in Bernal, Sivakov, Halvorsen and Lawless, they have four of the best neo-pros available this year. That's why I've left the always contentious SkyBots until last. I think there's a strategy here, and I'm going to lay out my theory on their thinking.
- If you build a good enough Tour team with depth, it'll fill every other race. Rowe (except for 2018, thanks to his broken leg), Stannard, Kwiatkowski and Moscon make a decent cobbles squad, with Knees as captain. Poels and Henao can go well in the Ardennes with Kwiat. Froome joins Doom as the presumptive Tour favourite. Meanwhile, Thomas, Rosa, Elissonde, de la Cruz and Castroviejo can join with those riders to give Froome support in his GT(s) of choice, and squads with chances in the other GTs - probably led by Thomas and Poels, but we'll see. Meanwhile, we've only named 12 riders.
- Contador has retired, Nibali is fading, Valverde is 152 and one-legged. Froome is our guy and is 32. Take those riders out and you lose an enormous number of GT wins and podiums. Come down to the next generation and who do you have? Dumoulin looks very solid, but you can pick holes in Quintana, Aru, Chaves, Kelderman et al. Sometimes that happens; a "golden generation" is followed by a few years where you don't get multiple GT-winners.
- So, you look to the next generation down. The white jersey competitions haven't inspired for the last couple of years, with the Yateses, Meintjes, Jungels and the like all looking a notch below the level of serious winners. Lopez looks like a good bet and needs watching but he's solidly placed with a big-money team of his own. There are lots of younger riders around with serious promise, however, and if we throw enough mud at the wall, some it will stick.
- Conclusion: we can race for now with 12 core riders (Froome, Kwiat, Poels, Henao, Castroviejo, de la Cruz, Elissonde, Rosa, Thomas, Knees, Rowe, Stannard and Moscon). We can flesh that out by rehiring the likes of Wisniowski, Deignan and Intxausti or finding similar replacements but we will have spaces left on our squad. We can only see two bullet-proof riders younger than Froome for the races we care about (Dumoulin and Lopez). So, we go after youth to fill our roster, gain experience and develop, in the hope that we find a serious long-term replacement for Froome.
- Outcome: Last year Sky hired Tao Geoghan Hart, Jon Dibben and Owain Doull, all of whom are hugely promising and keep the "Brit-quotient" nice and high. This year, they added Avenir winner Bernal, U-23 World Champ Halvorsen, l'Isard winner Sivakov and the next Brit hope (and Avenir stage winner) Lawless. We have ourselves a Magnificent Seven.
I have my doubts about this theory. First, I don't believe that Sky are effective as developers of talent. It'd be very good for cycling if they could disprove that theory in the next couple of years, because we need at least some of the Magnificent Seven to succeed. Second, even if Sky could devleop riders, they have to make supporting Froome their major priority at the moment, and there's a reason why most squads carve off their development outfits. Walking and chewing gum at the same time is hard.
Third, seven is a lot. All of these guys deserve the chance to lead, and have the right to expect it. Take away the races targeted by the core riders above, and it is hard to find space on the calendar for this development to happen. I think it is this barrier that has tripped Sky up before - as Dombrowski, Boasson-Hagen, Boswell, Kennaugh and many others would attest.
So I don't know if they'll pull it off, but I'm interested. For all we look at Sky as mechanistic and boring, I think there's a meaningful and logical strategy here. It ties into how I read the future. I think there'll be a GT winning vacuum developing in the next 3-5 years, and I'd back the M7 to be among the young riders emerging to fill it.