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Offseason Capsule: EF Education First - Drapac

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Putting the EF into ineffective

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2018 might be the most anonymous season a Vaughters team has ever produced. Are there signs of life for 2019?

What we said last year

I talked about the difficulties off the bike in the offseason, and the likely impact of that on the road. I also talked about an under-the-radar cobbles team that were pretty strong, and about the need for Woods and Uran to be effective in order for the team to be successful on smoother roads. It wasn’t an overly optimistic piece, but nor did I completely give up on this outfit.

What we got in 2018

Six wins, which is, in layman’s terms, not enough.

Despite my optimism about the cobbles team, there were no wins to be found, though Sep had a perfectly respectable season, with podiums in Omloop and Dwars, and sixth in Roubaix. He was joined in the Roubaix top ten by a resurgent and pleasingly active Taylor Phinney, something we’ve all been waiting a few years to see.

Biases towards cobbles and Lord Sep aside, the team’s biggest name is Uran, and his season was progressing nicely until the cobbled stage (eight) of the Tour, when he took a tumble and subsequently withdrew in stage 12. Before that, he rode well for podiums in Oro y Paz and Slovenia (winning a stage in the latter) and after it he grabbed fourth in Lombardia and seventh in the Vuelta, but there’s no doubt his prime goal for the season was lost to the cobbles. He’ll be back for more.

The team’s other big name, Michael Woods, grabbed a shock podium in the Worlds, looking arguably the strongest climber of all on the final slopes. That went together with second in Liege for a season in which the one-day results outshone the GC results (he was 19th in the Giro and 34th in the Vuelta). Turning stage-hunter, he did grab stage 7 of the Vuelta. That was the team’s second win after Simon Clarke took stage five from the break.

The rest of the year, and the rest of the team, were quiet. Daniel Martinez showed his climbing talent is undimmed, and Sasha Modolo had his moments, but in truth these were too infrequent to be of any great significance. Too often, this team were nowhere to be seen, which is a surprise given just how painfully visible their jerseys are.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

15th – Down in the doldrums of the 4,000s, with UAE not far below, and Katusah and Dimension Data gazing upwards from the deeps. If there was relegation in cycling, they wouldn’t be getting dropped, but they’d have been nervous for much of the year.

Top Highlights

1. Rusty Woods…. One day climbing stud? Sure seems that way, and this was the most successful season for the inexperienced 32 year old. Despite him winning at a grand tour for the first time, and his exploits in Liege, it was his climbing chops on the road to Holl that top the team’s achievements. He earned his podium.

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2. We should note that among the six wins were two in the Vuelta, which means that 33% of the victories were nice and prestigious. Simon Clarke had won a stage in the same race back in 2012, but was third-favourite in a three-man break with de Marchi and Mollema. He won the tactical battle and then out-sprinted Mollema to gain the win. He rides plenty of hard miles for others and it is always nice to see a lieutenant get a moment in the sun.

3. There really isn’t much. Uran had a nice season and perhaps the most optimistic moment came early, when he stuck with a superb group (Bernal, Henao and Quintana) on a tough day in Oro y Paz and then grabbed the stage win. After that, whilst he looked good, he never looked like regaining his Froome-bothering form of 2017…

Bottom Lowlights

1. … though we’ll never quite know. The cobbles to Roubaix were always going to trip up at least one contender, and Rigo was among them. A pity.

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2. I can’t quite copy and paste last year’s comments, since Sep wasn’t injured in 2018, but it was another year where he came close but never looked like winning. Aggravating.

3. There’s a general sense that something is missing from this season. I didn’t expect this team to be pushing for a top five, or even a top ten. Lower-league mediocrity is about what could be expected of the roster. On the other hand, six wins and an underwhelming set of highlights… it wasn’t very good, was it? Some kind of fireworks, anywhere in the year, would have been most welcome.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Alberto Bettiol (BMC Racing), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), James Whelan (Drapac EF Cycling), Moreno Hofland (Lotto-Soudal), Tanel Kangert (Astana), Luis Villalobos (Aevolo), Jonathan Caceido (Medellin), Julius van den Berg (SEG Academy), Sergio Higuita (Manzana)

Outs: Pierre Rolland (Vital Concept), Will Clarke (Trek-Segafredo), Tom van Asbroek (ICA)

Renewals: Matti Breschel, Sep Vanmarcke, Sebastian Langeveld, Hugh Carthy, Lachlan Morton, Danny McLay, Tom Scully

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Well, it wouldn’t be a Vaughters team without a good bit of churn, and here we are again. Lots going on, but there’s a question of what it all means. Perhaps the most heartening news for the team is that the biggest names on the list are resigning, with plenty of experience being retained. After the horror of the 2017/18 offseason, it is also encouraging to see the squad growing again.

All that said, there’s nothing much here to set the heather alight. The names coming in are primarily a mixture of the thoroughly exposed (van Garderen, Kangert) and the very young (Whelan, Caceido, van den Berg and Villalobos, all of whom have promise without being among the biggest names making the leap to WT level).

There are two interesting reclamation projects on the list. Moreno Hofland won a bunch of races back in 2014 and has since stagnated, whist Alberto Bettiol was one of the brighter stars for the Vaughters project in 2017 and is back after a sabbatical at BMC. Both are the sort of rider who have tasted success in the various iterations of Canondale, though it is far from guaranteed for either of them.

Most intriguing rider

You know what, I brushed through the youngsters coming in as being promising but not yet proven even as juniors, and I stand by that. There’s one in particular, though, who is going to be worth watching. Luis Villalobos. You look at that name, and you know what you’re getting. Young, Colombian, pure climber.

Well, one out of three. He’s definitely young (20, if you’re counting at home). He’s not a pure climber – he’s more than handy as a time-triallist, though he can climb too. He’s also not Colombian. He’s Mexican. That’s a first at World Tour level, I believe, with Luis Lebos, currently of ICA, the most prominent Mexican rider currently in the peloton.

He’s a graduate of the Aevolo team, run by former USPS rider Michael Creed, and has been making some noise on the US domestic scene, with 8th in Utah and 13th in Colorado eye-catching results for one so young. He’s also sticking with his development team until midsummer, when he’ll move to EF.

I don’t think he’s necessarily going to rewrite the record books, and certainly not in 2018. On the other hand, he’s blazing a new route to world tour cycling, which is always welcome, and he looks talented enough to make a success of it. Watch him.

So, what happens next?

I think we might be living in a post-Vaughters world. As I said in the lowlights, there wasn’t any excitement in 2018, and I fear that 2019 is going to be similar. You used to expect excitement from the argyle boys. Those days may have passed, alas.

Uran will do his thing, which granted good health and decent form is a crack at the Tour podium, with top five a realistic outcome. He probably hasn’t got many years left at the top but he might have one more. Woods’ programme is a bit less certain but a return to the Ardennes, and stage-hunting in at least one GT seems likeliest. Is he going to go after GC in a major race? We’ll see, but the returns weren’t great in 2018 and I’m not sure it is worth the candle.

Van Garderen gives the team another potential leader in the big races, though he’s underwhelming, whilst Bettiol is a powerful rider in the hilly classics and may have his best days ahead of him. McLay and Modolo are back for more but represent an under-powered sprinting unit. The cobbled squad is still strong but is a year older, which won’t do any of them any favours. Sep would love a cold, wet and rainy March and April.

There are some decent riders here, and there may be some good results. Enough to lift them into the top dozen teams, or to get the hearts of fans pumping? Probably not.