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Offseason Capsule: Dimension Data

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2018 Tour Down Under - Stage 6 Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

There seem to be phases in the lives of certain cycling teams. First there is a startup phase where a team is launched, there is a great sense of purpose. It’s going to be “Australia’s team” “create a British winner of the TdF”, “prove that you can run a clean team”, “build awareness about a disease” or any number of other lofty ideas. Maybe you want to build “Africa’s Team”. At first there is a great pioneering and feisty underdog spirit that makes everything fresh and even struggles are taken with a “live and learn”-attitude. Things are tough but you’re having fun, you have your dream in sight and you’re making it happen, together as a team. Rough times are the challenge you know you need to overcome, it’s part of the journey to success, you know that from every hero’s tale you’ve ever come across. Then at some point a period of realism sets in. You become aware that ideas, spirit and fan engagement won’t really last unless you also get some results. There’s rankings, race invites, rider recruitment and all the other dreary realities of actually running and keeping a team afloat year after year. Most notably there are economic realities in a world where a steady inflow of sponsor cash is vital to actually achieving any of what you set out to do.

And that leads into a phase where those realities have to be faced. Most often this means making tough compromises with your original ideas and trying to re-align your ambitions in some workable way while also doing what needs to be done. Sometimes you can do that while keeping true in some sense to your original ambition, sometimes not.
And this is where we meet Team Dimension Data 2018/2019.

What we said last year

Andrew did the honors last year and it was not an overly optimistic vote of confidence. Here are some snippets of what he had to say:
“This is a squad that needs a lot of things to go their way for them to return to the middle of the pack.”
*Narrator voice: “Things did not go their way” *

“Meintjes may be unlikely to pick up a Grand Tour podium but he’s finished in the top 10 three times, and brings credibility and visibility in the biggest races.”
*Narrator voice: “He didn’t” *

“Cav. I’ll say it was the injury, but he’ll need a good 2018 to demonstrate that there isn’t a broader and longer-lasting problem too.”
*Narrator voice: “There was a broader problem.” *

The whole thing was pretty well predicted with “if Cav doesn’t bounce back, 2018 will be another season with mediocrity as a pipe dream.” which may in hindsight seem obvious given this is a small budget team which put a lot of their eggs in the manxian basket but still, that was a good summation. Me, I had greater faith in other riders to pick up the slack and that faith turned out to be unjustified.

What we got in 2018

A pretty terrible follow-up to an already anonymous 2017. Cav’s woes continued and got worse. One win in Dubai is what the team got as return on their biggest investment. And while you might think Cav’s absence would open up windows of opportunity for other riders the reality looked more like the others falling out of that window and landing embarrassingly on their asses in the bushes outside. Boasson Hagen had a forgettable year where he looked a shadow of himself in most races, perhaps not helped by off-season surgery which messed with his build-up training. Louis Meintjes return didn’t pan out either and he couldn’t raise the team’s profile much. Instead the surprise “savior” of the season was Ben King who rode a rich vein of form in the Vuelta to two much needed GT stage wins, both in impressive style. It did little to hide the fact that the theme of the season was injuries, illness and far too few producing far too little for a team at this level though. A few wins in national championships and a handful of podiums is not impressive.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

20th. Which is dead f***ing last among the WT teams and with Pro Contis Wanty and Cofidis ahead of them. Luckily for them Katusha were terrible too or they would have had the embarrassing record of scoring less than half of the points of the second worst WT team. In fact, seven riders scored more points on their own than DDD did as a team. Yikes.

Top Highlights

1. Ben King’s Vuelta
The way he bossed his way to two big stagewins made you wonder why we don’t see more of King. His breakthrough win in the US champs way back when never really translated to bigger things later but he obviously has quality. He certainly earned his contract this season.

Ben O’Connor Tour of the Alps Tim de Waele/Getty Images

2. Ben O’Connor’s Italian spring
It started with a stage win in Tour of the Alps and went on with a stunningly solid run where he surprised everyone by hanging with the bigs for all but three weeks. Ultimately unlucky to crash and break a collarbone on the descent of the Finestre on the last real stage of the race he didn’t get the result he had worked for but up until then it was an almost perfect race.

3. Tom Jelte Slagter, podium, DownUnder. Does it qualify as a highlight? There really isn’t much else I can come up with.

Bottom Lowlights

1. Cavendish’s Annus Horribilis
A neverending string of crashes in the spring, ranging from the absurd to the atrocious meant that we never really got a fair answer of what he was capable in 2018. After that he was playing catchup and it did not work out well. The season ended with repeated illness (Epstein-Barr virus) and somewhere inbetween there was obvious team friction about bikes, whatever that was. At that point the rift between Cav and team management seemed such that they were sure to part ways.

2. Injuries, crashes, illnesses
Cav we’ve mentioned, Eisel had a horrific training accident, Thwaites broke vertebrae, Reinhard Janse van Rensburg broke his tongue trying to say his own name was out most of spring with a groin injury, Pauwels DNFed the Tour with a broken elbow. I’m sure I’m forgetting a dozen more because there was a period there when you wondered how many mirrors DDD had broken while walking under a ladder to avoid the black cat crossing the road.

3. Louis Meintjes goes missing, even from the result list:
Never the most visible exciting rider anyway but clearly a capable rider who up until 2017 was progressing steadily into a solid stage racer. His return to DDD was perfectly aligned with the idea of putting top African talents in a position to succeed on the highest level but the first season back clearly went pearshaped for whatever reason. He just misfired the whole year.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Michael Valgren (Astana), Roman Kreuziger (Mitchelton), Enrico Gasparotto (Bahrain), Giaccomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), Danilo Wyss (BMC), Lars Bak (Lotto Soudal), Rasmus Tiller (Joker-Icopal), Gino Mäder (IAM), Stefan De Bod (Dimension Data Conti)

Outs: Igor Anton (Retired), Natnahel Berhane (Cofidis), Merhawi Kudus (Astana), Lachlan Morton (EF Education), Kent Main (TEG), Serge Pauwels (CCC), Scott Thwaites (tbd), Mekhseb Debesay (?), Nic Dougall (?), Johann Van Zyl (?)

Renewals: Mark Cavendish (and his merry band of helpers)

Clearly some massive improvements coming in, it would be strange otherwise after a year like 2018. The biggest surprise might be that the team are doubling down on their massive gamble on Cavendish. Not only are they once again putting faith in a rider who to most look like a man ready for retirement, but they are bringing in one more of the aging old HTC heroes to back him up in Lars Bak.
Kreuziger, Gasparotto and Nizzolo all look like the kinds of gambles a team with limited budget needs to take. Earlier proven riders who look like they have passed their prime but if you get lucky it turns out their old teams were not getting the most out of them and they still have results in them. Nizzolo in particular looks like a high risk/possible high reward gamble because who knows which way his career turns.

Valgren Amstel Gold Luc Claessen/Getty Images

In Michael Valgren they have a signature signing to build a team around and the talent signings look exciting too especially Mäder who looks really promising, if perhaps not the type of rider who will start to pay off immediately.

The price they’re paying is of course dropping a whole bunch of their African riders and this is where we get into the sensitive area. How much of their development ambition can they afford to sacrify while still remaining true to their original idea? Yes, these riders were not “getting the job done” but from the outside it’s hard to see where the fault for this lies. Where they the “wrong” recruits? Was the team’s development plan for them flawed? Was the balance between productive riders and development riders wrong? Maybe the World Tour is not the level where such a project belongs? All of this is really the topic for a much bigger study.

Most intriguing rider

I’m intrigued by the lot of them. Seriously, there is barely a single rider on this team that I can look to and say “this is what I with some certainty expect he will do in 2019”. On most teams you have a handful of solid dependable ones where you can say “you can count on them to produce this and that, no more no less” but apart from a few of their anonymous helpers you don’t get that here. The list of mysterious questionmarks is so long. So much so that if I were the manager here I’d stock up on calming medicines and antacids for the season.

Clearly the elephant in the room is Mark Cavendish though. Where does he go from here? My reading of him in 2018 is that he is a conflicted man. On the one hand he desperately wants to retire, he’s got other priorities, the cost of staying at the top is too high, his body is protesting, the fire for racing doesn’t burn the way it used to, in short he’s done with this world. But on the other hand he has that stubborn arrogance that has served him so well in his career. He definitely wants to move on on his own terms and not get spat out the back a shadow of his former self, forced out by injury and stripped of his former glory. He wants that farewell season, making an exit with some signature win(s) fresh in people’s minds where he can once again prove the doubters wrong and stand and say thank you and goodbye on the day of his own choosing.

Now is that even possible, does anyone see that development in the cards? Well Dimension Data are certainly gambling on it and I will say that betting against the will-power of Cav is a fool’s bet. I think certainly most would like to see him get a fair shot at a season like that at least and not the injury/illness mess that was 2018, so lets see what 2019 brings.

So, what happens next?

2019 is going to be a crucial year for this team. Two seasons in the doldrums is enough, it’s hard to see them getting through more of those if they actually hope to stay at the World Tour level. But what’s the path to success? Somehow it has to include Cavendish finding his legs again against all odds, in some meaningful way at least. Too much is invested in him and his old HTC-survivors crew for that not to be required. Surely Renshaw getting injured already won’t help that cause but then again it’s been years since he’s been the leadout force he used to be so who knows. Am I confident in Cav? Not really but a fair guess is that he at least gets some major or major-ish win that can be spun into a feelgood ending by a halfdecent marketing department.

A better bet for success is of course the classics squad here. You look at it on paper and it’s really impressive. Valgren and Boasson Hagen should make for an ideal duo on the cobbles and if people are healthy the support isn’t half bad. Paired with the other “newbies” Valgren then poses an almost equally strong threat in the Ardennes. All in theory of course but based on the spring alone this should not be an 18th ranked team anymore. Problem is of course that EBH is unreliable as ever, Valgren might suffer transition problems and Gaspa is a million years old, at least in horse years. And yes, that was a slur referring to his facial features.

Louis Meintjes Getty Images

As for stage races there look to be essentially three plans. Meintjes to get back on track which I feel pretty confident about. Unless something more serious happened he should have a decent idea of what went wrong this season and he has enough solid seasons behind him to make adjustments to get back to his old self. Presumably Kreuziger is going to take a new stab at stageracing results whether it be in the form of GC or inspired stagehunting in the GTs. It’s a track we’ve been down before and I suspect DDD will be as thrilled with the outcome as Astana were back in the days. For all the promise, there seems to be something burdensome about hauling that big engine around a Grand Tour, it never seems to pan out the way it’s supposed to when the pressure is on.

Most interesting of the stage racing options might be young Australian Ben O’Connor. An anonymous first year followed by that spring blossoming this year, was it a fluke or is he the real deal? His rather anonymous second half of the year may point to the former but I think it’s a guy who had his appetite tickled and will be coming back for more and better. Living up to promise is almost harder than being the surprise sensation so it may not translate into much success in terms of hard results next year but I’m betting we see him taking the next steps in development. A white jersey challenge somewhere perhaps?

Around these guys what needs to happen for this team to develop is the smaller names to really start performing to their respective abilities. A guy like Tom Jelte Slagter needs to grab a win or two in smaller races, where he is a threat on paper, as does Nizzolo. There are plenty of races where Cavendish won’t be around and this team has a decent sprint setup if they just put it to use. There aren’t that many African talents left to build on but Dlamini and Ghebreigzabhier do have promise if they find their roles in the team. So far this is the main failing of this team but it’s too early to write them off completely as they are still finding their feet when it comes to DSs and performance staff.

Now, is this still “Africa’s team” we’re seeing? An aging British sprinter , the blondest Danish classics ace in history and a handfull of veteran journeymen brought in to bring home the bacon? Maybe not so much right now but then again it doesn’t take much for it to turn around. If Meintjes suddenly has a good run at a GT podium or one or two of the talents turn a corner and start producing then suddenly it all starts looking more lively. But first of all this team has to get a kickstart into actually developing a bit of winning culture, pretty much in any way possible. Then maybe we can start worrying about fulfilling dreams.