#15 – Vacansoleil (Preview Ranking: #17)
What We Said:
Vacansoleil is the epitome of a team trying to do more with less. Look at its stars from 2009: Bozic, Hoogerland, and Westra are hardly household names, yet they accounted for more wins than several teams with bigger budgets and more recognizable rosters. In addition to these three, 2010 sees the arrival of France’s favorite brothers: the Feillu’s. Young Brice endeared himself to many French fans following his fantastic win at Arcalis during the 2009 Tour, while Romain—more of an all-rounder—is a threat in both sprints and from breakaways. Together, they add depth to a squad hoping to steal Skil-Shimano’s wild card invitation to this year’s Tour.
The meat and potatoes of Vacansoleil’s roster come in the form sprinter Borut Bozic and all-rounder Johnny Hoogerland. Bozic won a grand tour stage in last year’s Vuelta, while Hoogerland finished 12th overall before taking 5th in the Tour of Lombardy. Of the two, Hoogerland has the higher ceiling, as Bozic doesn’t seem to fare as well when facing the best of the best. Beyond these two and the Feillu’s, there’s a solid backbone of strong men able to support of their leaders while making the most of their own chances when opportunities arise. Of these, Bjorn Leukemans remains an outside bet for a one-day win in one of the Belgian semi-classics. (I promise this will be the last year I say that.)
Man of the Hour: Johnny Hoogerland’s stock is high following a successful final stretch in 2009. His rides in the Vuelta and the fall classics put him on the radar as a talent to watch in 2010. Now the pressure’s on to see if he can raise the bar a little bit higher, perhaps taking a big win or two in a grand tour. Not to be forgotten is Hoogerland’s penchant for cobbles—he finished well in several Belgian races last spring. Look for him in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
On the Hot Seat: Assuming the ASO grants Vacansoleil an invitation to the 2010 Tour de France, whichever 9 men make the roster will be under the gun to produce at least one stage win. ASO is a fickle organization, one not too keen on giving hand-outs to non-French squads that don’t animate the race. Should Vacansoleil’s boys not score on the big stage come July, in 2011 they might find themselves on the outside looking in.
Up-and-Comer: Brice Feillu won the hearts of French housewives everywhere (we really need a new metaphor) when he won Stage 7 in the 2009 Tour. Now he needs to prove he’s more than just a flash in the pan. This year, I’d like to see him try for a high overall placing in Paris rather than searching for stage glory. It’s a tough choice, as his team will likely be desperate for success; but in terms of this rider’s development, a year following wheels in the mountains could reveal much more about his true potential.
Best Pick-Up: For obvious reasons, the Feillu brothers.
Biggest Loss: Some might consider Baden Cooke’s departure a big deal, but let’s be honest, Bozic’s success made the Australian expendable. Cooke’s much better off as the latest subject of one of Bjarne Riis’ career resurrection projects.
What We Saw:
Vacansoleil was the Rodney Dangerfield of professional cycling in 2010: they got no respect (sorry, I couldn’t resist). But seriously, they were overlooked by not one, but all three of the grand tours and several other major races, but still managed to score an impressive 17 wins—more than many of the teams in the UCI’s Pro Tour. Overall, Vacansoleil riders made 74 trips to the podium in 2010, an incredible haul considering the team missed-out on about nine weeks of racing.
Borut Bozic and Wouter Mol got things started in February with Bozic taking two stages at the Etoile de Besseges and Mol winning the overall in Qatar. Then Bobbie Traksel took his memorable win in the cold and rain at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, while Bjorn Leukemans was the man of the hour April, taking several top-10’s including high finishes in both Flanders and Roubaix.
In May, the squad took its second stage race of the year, thanks to Matteo Carrara’s win in the Tour of Luxembourg. By August, Roman Feillu finally found his form (as for brother, Brice, your guess is as good as mine), taking stage wins at the Vuelta a Burgos and Tour de l’Ain (Wout Poels took one too). Feillu continued winning into September by taking the prestigious GP Fourmies semi-classic in France. At the Tour of Britain, Poels and Bozic both won stages, while Joost Van Leizen and Riccardo Ricco closed-out the season with October wins at the Munsterland Giro and Coppa Sabatini respectively.
While lacking the major win or two that had hoped for, 2010 wasn’t an entirely bad year for the squad. But one wonders what they could have done had they been invited to at least one grand tour. If all goes as planned, they’ll certainly have their chances in 2011.
Most Valuable Rider: Bjorn Leukemans was a one-man wrecking crew during the cobbled classics this spring, ensuring that Vacansoleil’s jersey was in just about break that mattered from Dwaars Door Vlaanderen to Roubaix. He didn’t win a race until the end of August, but with an improved squad and better support, he shouldn’t have to wait as long in 2011. And with Belgian sponsors DCM and Palmans joining the fold next season, a case could be made that Leukemans’ spring heroics are at least part of the reason why.
Biggest Disappointment: Brice Feillu gave new meaning to the phrase, “starting the season on a high note” by placing eight in the GP d’Ouverture la Marseillaise on January 31st—it was his best result of the season. He might have been banking on a solid Tour performance, but those invites had been handed out so early that there’s little excuse for such a poor year. Johnny Hoogerland’s season followed a similar trajectory—he deserves a mention as well.
Biggest Surprise: Over the course of the summer, Vacansoleil offered contracts to Riccardo Ricco, Ezequiel Mosquera, and Stijn Devolder, thereby adding a convicted doper, a suspected doper, and a dopey teammate to its ranks—surprising moves for certain. Will these risky moves pay-off next season?
That’s if for #15—come back later for more! And share your comments below.