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Start-of-Season Preview: EF Pro Cycling

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Team Argyle Movin’ On Up Again

102nd Giro dell’Emilia 2019
Winning combo: Higuita and Woods
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Ah, the Little American Engine That Could. As lazy cycling narratives go, there’s something that feels good about this one. Sure, they are actually a sophisticated World Tour operation with deep experience in Europe and riders from all over the world. They may always have one foot in the US, but they’re as American as apfelkuchen. But they still don’t feel like one of the rich and powerful set, so when they hit it big on tricky bets — unproven kids, veterans looking to make good — it’s just a little more fun for everyone.

Last year was fun.

EF finished ninth in the World Tour rankings (tenth in the more important Podium Cafe rankings), cracking the upper echelon for the first time since 2016. Dani Martinez kicked off their World Tour assault when he stole away for the win in the Paris-Nice stage to the Col de Turini, and then things really got rolling. Simon Clarke had a couple nice results at the Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo. Alberto Bettiol took fourth at E3 Prijs. And then the stunner, Bettiol winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen, revitalizing his career and giving the team its first monument since Dan Martin’s 2014 Lombardia win, and cementing the team’s legacy in the cobbled classics to pair with Johan Vansummeren’s 2011 Paris-Roubaix win.

103rd Tour of Flanders 2019 - Ronde van Vlaanderen Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Bettiol’s campaign was an Argyle Armada classic, shocking and yet plausible all at once. The team nicknamed him “mamma di pasta” for his love of home cooking, and perhaps to poke him a bit about his weight (he stated that dropping 3kg was the key to a positive start last year). But his surge was the logical continuation of his stellar start at the team, only derailed for a single lost season at BMC where he says he didn’t fit in. With expectations tempered and rebound motivation high, Bettiol became a force again with three top-ten finishes in Tirreno-Adriatico and a powerful attack on the Poggio, before scoring a strong 4th at the E3 Prijs. His dream ride at Flanders was one of those things that just happens on a day when things go your way AND you’re ready to do something with your big chance. But the quality was the main story, confirmed once more with 6th in Brabantse Pijl the following week.

Bettiol’s bounce-back was accompanied by none other than Sep Vanmarcke, now an elder statesman at EF, nabbing his biggest classic win since that Omloop way back when, taking the GP Ouest-France, karmic payback after mechanical problems disrupted perhaps his strongest-ever showing at Paris-Roubaix, or at least his strongest since finishing second in 2013.

3rd Tour of Colombia 2020 - Training Photo by Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

But the best news of all was with its youngest contingent, EF’s pair of Colombian climbing aces, Dani Martinez and Sergio Higuita, who stormed the peloton with some dynamic victories and a shot across the bow of the teams who thought they had the decade locked up already. It’s up for debate which one is the most promising, the younger Higuita, age 22, who matched the likes of Roglic and Pogacar in the final week of the Vuelta a Espana, or the well-rounded Martinez, age 23, who won on the Col de Turini in Paris-Nice while racking up a few ITT top tens to burnish his credentials.

Exciting times, from start to finish... so everything looks just rosy for 2020, right? Riiiight.

Sorry, did that sound sarcastic? Really, I meant it, things are more exciting at EF Pro Cycling this year than they’ve been in a long time. These results last year might end up being the high point, cycling is a fickle game, but it’s impossible to think that this year is shaping up to be even better. The stage racing team has to be Vaughters’ deepest and most talented squad ever: Higuita and Martinez the rising stars, Rigoberto Uran the steady hand who might yet pull off a major result, Neilson Powless and Ruben Guerreiro two more young wild cards, and a host of proven helpers like Tanel Kangert and Tejay van Garderen to hold it all together. The classics squad might not be quite as loaded as the Hushovd-Farrar-Vansummeren-Haussler-Vanmarcke team of 2011 but Bettiol and Vanmarcke should be a threatening pair in a time of transition for that part of the pro peloton, and have Sebastian Langeveld and Jens Keukeleire for intriguing company. Magnus Cort Nielsen and Kristoffer Halvorson both bring some classics/sprinting prowess, the former a reliable point scorer and the latter an Ineos refugee, still not yet 24 and searching for his chance to shine. Michael Woods can hunt stages and climbers’ classics. There’s just a lot going on, all the time.

So where will they actually win? In other words, where can they take food of the plates of Ineos, Jumbo and Deceuninck Quick Step? That’s the tricky part. Vaughters thinks they will win the Tour sometime, though it’s his job to think that. I’m not ready to go there yet. But I’ll name a few.

5th Tour de La Provence 2020 - Stage 1 Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Milano-Sanremo

Long shot here but why not? It’s the lone monument the team has never won. That’s certainly no assurance they can win,

Hungry teams like EF tend to strike sooner than some of the big teams, who can take a longer view toward their goals, something nobody has ever said about Quick Step... huh. Well then call it a hunch, but there are a few guys going well early, like Keukeleire and Bettiol and MCN.

Paris-Roubaix... or somewhere in Belgium

Is Paris-Roubaix too ambitious a call? Maybe, but their strongest classics rider is Bettiol, who might draw a bit of a crowd this year, and Vanmarcke, who could find himself at the intersection of veteran quality and declining expectations — a combination that has served a lot of riders very well in the Classics, where disaster is always around the corner and the smart move is to keep playing the long game. Sure, some riders keep falling off in France because they lack the skills to go along with their overall power, but Vanmarcke is a true cobbles ace waiting for his chance to come. His next spin of the roulette wheel might be the most memorable one.

117th Paris-Roubaix 2019 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

It’s a bit early to tell whether the Classics deck is getting reshuffled this year — are Van Avermaet and Gilbert finally on the backside of their careers? Is Sagan going all in on the spring schedule as usual? Is any other team superior to EF across the board? Not DQS, they are reloading when it comes to its cobbles team. Trek maybe, but the rest of the teams are thin or young or both. Sep, Alberto, Keukeleire, Langeveld, MCN and maybe Halvorsen will have the peloton on its heels in March and April.

The Tour de France

No, they won’t win, but the Colombian kids are a good fit for a punchy course, with Uran the putative leader, I am with Andrew when he said Dani Martinez will be on the Tour podium. I think that’s in play. This 24 hours after I ... reacted with alarm to the prediction. Now that I’ve had a chance to think about their lineup, this makes sense. They have the depth and the quality, without the pressure, which will be 100% on INEOS and Jumbo.

The Klasikoa Donostia

I don’t really have any analysis here, but some random-ish strong guy wins every year, and if EF are going to grab some glory, this one will be available for the taking.

Three Questions

Will everything come up roses? Huh? What sport do you think this is?

  1. Are we sure they should target the Tour primarily? Another way to deploy their lineup would be to go all-in on the Giro d’Italia, and win it. The leading contenders are a Carapaz repeat for INEOS or Remco shocking the world in his first three-week event. There’s a Yates to deal with as well. With its long stages, the Giro will play into the hands of deep teams. [I’m torn on this one but nothing wrong with asking, right?]
  2. Should we pump the brakes on Higuita? He’s super young, he got hot for a week at the Vuelta and he’s never really raced under pressure.
  3. Can they score enough small-time wins along the way to keep the pressure from building? It’s naive to think they’ll come into the season with no expectations, and if they can’t grab some smaller wins along the way, will that pressure to do something come creeping in and weigh them down?
3rd Tour of Colombia 2020 – Stage 2 Photo by Maximiliano Blanco/Getty Images

The Argyle Armada are maybe still thought of as an insurgent American thing, and not for nothing. I still sorta go there. But look at the makeup of today’s World Tour. Sure, heavyweights INEOS (younger than EF) are in charge of the Tour and DQS still rule the classics. Movistar and Jumbo-Visma have comparatively ancient bloodlines. But the competition also consists of newbies like Bah-Meh, Israel Start-Up Nation, UAE (sorta), NTT and CCC. The French teams have varied in size and power since the Team Slipstream days. EF are a veteran team squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of presumed power and tradition (maybe money? No idea there). They should have accumulated a large slate of important victories by now, and be gearing up for more. Assuming they can pay their bills, you’d naturally think they could compete for top talent, picking over the bones of departing teams like BMC to strengthen their roster.

This year is a big opportunity, and they shouldn’t blow it. But the window might stay open for a while, even if they do.