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Offseason Capsule: Sunweb

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Sunweb, the team of extreme order, rules and structure if we are to believe reports. The perfect amalgamation of Dutch and German culture. Certainly one of the most interesting and distinct teams in the World Tour.

What we said last year

It was a tricky task last year to write about a team trying to follow up on a 2017 season where almost everything went right for Sunweb. Andrew didn’t make any bold predictions but got the basics right about Doom’s then unclear Giro/TdF-plans “In either race, he will be among the favorites.” although like everyone he sort of assumed TD would do either Giro or Tour and that it would most likely be the Tour. That Matthews “may struggle to match his results from 2017” was about right too. That “The rest of the squad will fill in around these two. “ turned out a little too optimistic depending on how you see it. As support yes, but in terms of delivering results Andrew was perhaps let down a bit by guys like Kelderman, Theuns and Bauhaus for various reasons.

What we got in 2018

Essentially another year of the Tom Dumoulin Show. Choosing to ride both the Giro and Tour with ambitions netted the team two podiumplaces in Grand Tours, albeit not a win. Still it cemented TD’s position as the undisputedly strongest GT-rider not on Team Sky. The Vuelta was more anonymous with Kelderman taking an ok top 10, a step down from 2017 but the Dutchman was also unlucky with injury just before the TdF. Elsewhere in stageraces it was an anonymous year with some respectable but not spectacular results for Oomen and Kelderman, perhaps reflecting that a lot of focus went into the GTs for all of these guys. Quietly in the background though the team saw good seasons from their young talents Storer, Hindley and Hamilton, something that bodes well for coming seasons.

The one day races were a mixed bag. Spring classics got off to a poor start with Michael Matthews breaking his shoulder and then playing catchup for most of the spring. Instead their best spring result came from Teunissen in Dwars where he looked good to win the small group sprint until he joined the punk-squad looking slackjawed at each other as Lampaert rode off for the win. The big signing Theuns managed a top 10 in the Omloop before he completely fell off the map and ultimately divorced the team citing irreconcilable differences. Kragh Andersen too was a complete bust in the spring and if he and Matthews hadn’t recovered so well in the second half of the season the classics prospects of this team would have come off looking disastrous.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

10th - Solid midpack with tight scores. Could have been 7th or 13th with a few different results and it wouldn’t have mattered much. Relying heavily on Dumoulin’s solid GTs which must be a concern.

Top Highlights

Michael Matthews’ Canadian adventures.

  1. The aussie had the kind of fall that he and the team needed after a disappointing spring. Sharing the same space as Sagan is not easy but when he is on his game we see that Matthews is a formidable bikeracer. Grabbing both the Canadian WT races was the crown in his season.

Tom Dumoulin’s Almost-but-not-quite-Double

  1. I tore out much of my thick velvety hair last year at this time when Dumoulin announced that he would not focus on the Froomeless Tour de France but would instead inexplicably follow Sky on their Giro-Tour folly-ride. Talk about opportunities lost. But then it gave us some fantastic racing, the two bigs up against each other in two GTs, a rare sight for cycling fans. And the result is impressive enough just as an athletic achievement alone.

Søren Kragh Andersen wins Paris-Tours

  1. No, Paris-Tours is not as big as it once was but it is still a major classic and the way he won it had Sunweb’s big hopes in the Dane confirmed and perhaps got them dreaming of more to come.
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Bottom Lowlights

Matthews’ spring & summer

  1. Big ambitions, injured already in the Omloop, leading to a string of disappointments in the Monuments and then another early exit in the TdF. These aren’t the sort of things a team like Sunweb can afford with one of their few stars.

Tom Dumoulin’s Almost-but-not-quite-Double.

  1. As impressive as it was, Froome still went one better winning the Giro and also podium in the Tour. Meanwhile it’s hard not to think Doom squandered a golden opportunity to take a historic first Tour-win for Sunweb. It still puzzles me.

Poor depth, not much stepping up happening.

  1. This is a team of big stars, big talents and quite a lot of empty space in between. It’s not a huge surprise that it is reflected in the result lists but you really would have hoped a few more riders would have stepped up. This is still a team where there really are a lot of opportunities to be had and you’d think their sprinters for example would put up a few more points on the board. And the same goes for a few of their classics guys.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Nicholas Roche (BMC), Jan Bakelants (Ag2r), Robert Power (Mitchelton), Marc Hirschi (Sunweb Devo), Asbjørn Kragh Andersen (Virtu) , Caspar Pedersen (Aqua Blue), Max Kanter (Sunweb Devo), Cees Bol (SEG), Joris Nieuwenhuis (Sunweb Devo)

Outs: Laurens Ten Dam, Simon Geschke (both CCC), Edward Theuns (Trek), Mike Teunissen (Jumbo), Phil Bauhaus (Bah-Meh), Tom Stamsnijder (retired), Lennard Hofstede (Jumbo)

This is quite the list of changes. Once again the talent mass they are bringing in is impressive but will the eternal youth movement work for them? The kids look really exciting but will they contribute? I know this is a team on a budget but at some point you have to wonder if they aren’t hoping for/relying on too much from promising neos? Especially considering that (and I say this mainly as a positive) talents don’t tend to magically and instantly turn into world beaters with them but rather develop steadily step by step. They’re losing two of their most solid veterans in Geschke and Ten Dam and are replacing with two similar types of veterans (Roche/Jan B) but are getting a lot of uncertainty in that bargain. Power is clearly the immediately most interesting addition adding some climbing punch judging by his hints of blossoming in 2018.

The loss for the classics squad in Theuns and Teunissen is gutting and is going to require some major stepping up from those who remain, Søren Kragh most notably. Hard to see any of the new names filling the gap already in 2019.

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Seven Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Most intriguing rider

Jan Bakelants. I suppose we usually talk about some exciting prospects here but this is an addition that I’m really curious to see what the plan is with. It was a few years and one horrific injury ago that Bakelants won races and even then he wasn’t exactly a prolific winner. He was “just” a strong rider with an opportunist skillset in hillier races and stages. Presumably the idea is to use him as a veteran helper, something that he may have qualifications for that aren’t obvious to us on the outside. On paper it looks like a trade down from Simon Geschke who was a known entity but you never know with these things, the German sid seem to be fading a bit at Sunweb for whatever reason. It’s good to see Bakelants with a chance to make sure the awful Lombardia crash was not a killshot though and his late season results from last year seem promising that he can get back to a high level. It’s an odd signing to me but I’m curious to see if the team can surprise me and make it a winning move.

So, what happens next?

This team always strikes me as one firmly squeezed between great ambition and limited resources in the last few years. You can see their ideas about what team they want to be but there are some harsh realities that put restraints on what they can actually get out. They’re of course not a crisis team, their deal with Sunweb seems more stable and longterm than most can hope for but their budget is also not up there on par with the biggest. So what does that lead to? Well, they obviously have some of the best talent-spotting and development of any team, the stream of good riders into the system looks endless. And they’ve managed to build up one of the premier stageracers around in Tom Dumoulin. But here’s where the trouble starts. A guy like that sucks up a lot of oxygen. Resources not being endless they really need to use their second best riders to support him, because how can you have a potential TdF winner and not back him up? So guys like Oomen and Kelderman need to do some work. Theoretically both those deserve chances to ride their own chances in one of the three GTs but if you can’t afford many others to call on you have to do what you have to do. And letting Dumoulin do two GTs per year with GC ambitions in both is commendable but also not helpful for the “undergrowth”. The risk you run is your second best guys looking elsewhere for opportunities which leads you back in the loop of relying heavily on young talents and having to recruit on a budget to fill gaps.

This year when (if all goes to plan) Doom does both Giro and Tour so does Kelderman, thereby likely making sure your second best guys doesn’t add much to your results column. Yes, of course he will target some of the early stageraces but we also know that with that schedule he will need a training buildup that reduces the chances there. Oomen comes fresh for his first run at the TdF and one can’t help but wonder if the best thing for the team wouldn’t be if Doom bins his GC ambitions early in the TdF to give room for the other two? If he goes full guns and requires assistance in the first two weeks only to blow up in the third then the team may well get nothing out of it. We’ve already gone over Dumoulin’s choice to do the double again elsewhere so I won’t say too much about it except that I fear that the guy is due some kind of setback at some point and this year may be time for that.

Putting a more positive spin on it, Sunweb actually have a potentially very solid second tier of helpers to call on. Michael Storer and Chris Hamilton both had solid 2018s as did Jay Hinckley. Robert Power may add to this young guard and bringing experience is Nicholas Roche who can be great in the role if he isn’t in too much of a decline. This could spell very good news for Doom’s chances although it doesn’t really help the Kelderman-Oomen “problem”.

Le Tour de France 2017 - Stage Twenty Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Perhaps even more so we are seeing the limitations elsewhere for Sunweb. Like other teams such as Mitchelton they really are a demonstration how it’s really hard for WT teams to cover everything. Sunweb have Matthews as their second big money star and he is a good fit as he can cover a lot of ground for them, from Ardennes via cobbles to hillier sprintstages in the TdF. And eventhough he will always struggle with having an almost identical preferred race profile as all-conquering Peter Sagan he will produce this year I think. Yorkshire Worlds may be his best chance ever at the rainbow and that may influence a bit of his second half of the season. This could turn out to be either a positive or a negative depending on how he approaches it, I suspect a positive. Behind Matthews though the team is looking increasingly thin in the classics and in the sprints. Almost all of the setup around Kittel is now gone and none of the guys they’ve tried with since the big German have really come through. Bauhaus, (Theuns), Arndt, Walscheid all seem to land in the same category of “nearly there but not quite” and this year it will mostly fall to Walscheid to handle the sprints that Matthews is not suited for. I think we will see the same limited success as before frankly. As for classics a lot may hinge on two things, can Søren Kragh step up as a race winner and will any of the new names add something significant? Kragh I’m very optimistic about, he’s due a successful spring and he’s getting the experience and confidence. The depth may be poorer but in the best of worlds not having to contend with Theuns and Teunissen for leadership may work in his favor. Plus he makes a perfect duo with the more passive sprint-focused Matthews in whatever races they overlap in. The new kids I know too little to say (except to say that Asbjørn is Juraj or Dayer, not Andy), they certainly look promising by their U23 results but who knows if that translates and how fast. Sunweb lost 3 out of their “standard” lineup for the cobbles last year so there is certainly space for whoever wants to step up.