2010 Team-By-Team Season Review: #3

Fotoreporter Sirotti

#3 – Team HTC-Columbia (Preview Ranking: #3)

What We Said:

HTC suffered several key losses after a fantastic 2009 season. Marcus Burghardt, George Hincapie, Edvald Boassen Hagen, Thomas Lokvist, and Kim Kirchen all left for other teams—taking the bulk of HTC’s wins from 2008 and 2009 with them.

But all is not lost, as two of the sport’s fastest talents remain with HTC: Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel. Between the two of them, Cavendish and Greipel won 13 stages in the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. This year, Greipel’s already off to a fantastic start, having won several races. Cavendish on the other hand, has been sick; that could hurt his repeat bid in San Remo.

As for the rest of the team, it’s still quite impressive. Tony Martin performed well during the Tour’s first half last year; he’ll return this season hoping to build on that experience. He can climb and time trial, and could quietly become someone Germany might once again be proud of. He’ll be supported by one of the peloton’s most underrated support riders, Maxime Monfort.

For the Classics, HTC might have found a future champion in Matthew Goss, a rider who showed serious potential with Saxo Bank last year. He’s joined by two other one-day talents, Martin and Peter Velits formerly of Milram. These three could form the nucleus of a talented classics squad for years to come.

All in all, while seemingly depleted, HTC’s roster is chock full of potential—especially if the younger riders begin to flourish as they step from the shadows of their former teammates.

Man of the Hour: Simply put, Mark Cavendish is a superstar. But I have a hunch Greipel will win more races and is perhaps more versatile. I wonder if the squad will prove big enough for both.

On the Hot Seat: Michael Rogers just won the Ruta del Sol, but that only adds fuel to the fire as his Grand Tour potential has been touted for years with little to show for it. Can he finally break through?

Up-and-Comer: Tony Martin’s a good pick, but I want to mention the winner of the 2009 Giro’s 8th stage, Konstantin Siutsou. Siutsou’s been on my radar since he won the “Queen” stage and overall title at the Tour of Georgia in 2008. A talented climber and time trialist, Sioutsou finished the race last year 16th overall. Will he continue to progress?

Best Pick-Up: Aside from the riders pulled from other teams, Bob Stapleton also did a terrific job of pulling talent from the U23 ranks including Belgium’s Jan Ghyselinck, Australia’s Leigh Howard, and Tejay Van Garderen from the USA. Once these riders develop, more wins will come for HTC.

Biggest Loss: Boassen Hagen would have won many races; but Hincapie would have helped win even more. It means a lot when Cavendish himself expresses his appreciation for all that Hincapie did.

What We Saw:

HTC has traditionally been known as a team for whom quantity means more than quality—and with 70 wins in 2010, it’s easy to see why.  However, if you remove Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish and their 32 victories from the equation, HTC season looks strikingly different.  Don’t get me wrong, there are many teams that would suffer should one discount the efforts of their best riders (Katusha and Astana come to mind first), but for HTC it’s a fact worth considering before one declares them the best team in the world.

HTC began the season strongly with Andre Greipel taking another win in Australia’s Tour Down Under—making him the first leader of the UCI’s World Calendar classification.  Greipel then took wins in Mallorca and Algarve before heading to Turkey—where he added another five wins to his season-best 21.

While Greipel was enjoying his success, other HTC riders were winning races as well, a testament to the depth of talent assembled by Bob Stapleton.  Leigh Howard won a stage in the Tour of Oman over some stiff competition, Michael Rogers won the Rute del Sol, and Frantisek Rabon took the Tour of Murcia—all in a span of a little more than 2 weeks.  Rogers would go on to take third in L’Eroica and second in the Criterium International—2010 was a banner year for the Australian (well, the first half of it at least). As for Mark Cavendish, health problems meant a late start to the year for him—he won his first race at the Volta a Catalunya near the end of March.

Up north though, HTC was having a more difficult making its presence felt.  Bernhard Eisel did win Ghent-Wevelgem, a worthy prize for a rider often relegated to helping the faster sprinters on his team.  But aside from Eisel’s victory, there was little to report following HTC’s classics campaign—one of the reasons why it’s difficult to rank the team as the best in the world.  Even the Ardennes—terrain much more suited to the likes of Marco Pinotti, Peter Velits, and Rogers—the best the team could muster was Michael Albasini’s 11th-place in the Amstel Gold Race.

But April showers bring May flowers, and HTC’s season improved with the weather (depending on where you live).    Pinotti and Cavendish took stages at the Tour of Romandie, while Rogers finished third overall.  At the Giro d’Italia, Matthew Goss and Greipel both won stages, while Pinotti took second in the final stage and ninth overall.  Meanwhile, at the Tour of California, HTC put a stranglehold on the race, winning two stages, finishing on the podium seven times, and delivering Rogers the overall win he had come close to taking in past editions.

In June, it was time for the final push to the Tour de France at the Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse.  For HTC, these races were opportunities for two of the squad’s younger stars to test their mettle against some of the world’s best stage racers.  At the Dauphiné, American Tejay Van Garderen rode a near flawless race from start to finish, displaying an impressive mix of time trialing and climbing to finish third overall.  What impressed me most was the American’s ability to ride within himself on the crucial stage to Alpe d’Huez, limiting his losses while protecting his place on the podium.

At the Tour de Suisse however, Tony Martin was not quite so lucky.  The German cracked badly while wearing the leader’s jersey during Stage 7 to La Punt, dropping the rider down the GC and outside the top-10.  A win in the final day’s ITT brought Martin back up to sixth overall, but one has to wonder what could have been had he not lost so much time in the mountains.  June concluded with five HTC riders winning National Championships—most of them in the ITT.

By July, HTC was once again back to being a team built around its field sprinters as Cavendish took five stages at the Tour de France and Greipel took two in the Tour of Austria.  This trend continued well into August as Greipel, Goss, Mark Renshaw, and Roulston won stages in Poland and Denmark, while Goss won the prestigious GP Ouest France Pro Tour event in Plouay.  Not to be outdone, Greipel took a stage at the ENECO Tour the very next day, while Tony Martin took the overall title buoyed no doubt by his superior time trialing, but more so by a savvy breakaway with Koos Moerenhout during Stage 3.

As if it weren’t apparent already, it was now obvious that HTC had too many cooks in the sprint kitchen with Cavendish, Goss, and Greipel all winning races.  Greipel spent much of the season widely expected to be the odd man out, a fact confirmed when he announced his transfer to Omega Pharma-Lotto by the end of the summer.

At September’s Vuelta a Espana, a new HTC began to emerge. And ominously for the rest of the peloton, the new one seemed capable of winning stages while contending for the overall title in Madrid.  The team opened the race with a win in the Sevilla team time trial before guiding Cavendish to wins in Stages 12, 13, and 18.  But something funny happened on the way to points jersey for HTC, as the team found itself a grand tour contender in Peter Velits.  Before the race began, all eyes were on Tejay Van Garderen as he took the line in his first grand tour.  But while Van Garderen rode well during the first week, it was Velits who really shone, winning the final ITT and sticking with the leaders in the mountains to finish third overall.  For the 25-year-old Slovakian, the result was confirmation of the talent he displayed when he won the World U23 Road Race in 2007.  Granted, it was the rider’s first such result in a 3-week Tour, but considering HTC’s other grand tour prospects, it’s reason to be optimistic.

But while all eyes were on the Vuelta in September, HTC continued to do what it did best in 2010: win just about every minor race it entered.  At the Tour of Britain, Greipel added another three wins to his resume, while Albasisni won Stage 3 and the overall title.  In Belgium and France, Leigh Howard and Aleksejs Saramotins won the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen and the GP d’Isbergues—the final two wins of the team’s season.

So was HTC-Columbia the best team in 2010? The answer depends on how you define “best”.  Were they best at winning races?  Absolutely.  But were they the best at winning important races?  Not by any account.  A team known more for its sprinting and time trialing prowess than its ability to win major classics and grand tours, here’s hoping the continued development of young talent like Van Garderen, Martin, and Velits can take the team to new heights in 2011.

Most Valuable Rider: If anything, HTC showed that it’s not a team dependent upon the success of any one rider, something the team owes to its management team under the direction of Bob Stapleton.  Stapleton’s showed time and again an uncanny ability to overcome the loss of both riders and sponsors, consistently putting forth a professional and competitive squad.  Stapleton’s not a rider, but without him, this team goes nowhere.

Biggest Surprise: You’d be lying if you tell me you picked Peter Velits to finish inside the top-5 at the Tour of Spain.  And if you’re not, you correctly predicted one of 2010’s most surprising and impressive performances by a rider in a grand tour.

Biggest Disappointment: For a team as talented as HTC, it’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t fare better in major one-day races—especially the classics.  This is perhaps one area in which the team’s success hurts it a bit as the team’s best riders often are plucked by other teams.

That’s it for #3 in our Team-By-Team Season Review.  Come back tomorrow for #2.

And share your comments below.

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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