Friday, March 19, 2010
Will 2010 be the year that marks the true revival of Dutch cycling? Though the start of the season creeps earlier each year, making it seem like mid-season by mid-March, the 2010 season is still barely in its infancy, so it’s still difficult to tell just where everything is going. [So intense is the battle for “season opener” status, in fact, that the 2011 GP Marseillaise will actually be held just prior to the 2010 Giro di Lombardia.] But so far, with the pre-season races over with, it’s looking like Dutch cycling may just be making a comeback after a decade in the relative wilderness.
Let’s start with a little history…
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Ti-Raleigh squad under legendary DS Peter Post [unstated motto: “I’d rather be feared than loved”] won damn near everything that mattered with riders like Hennie Kuiper, Jan Raas, Gerrie Knetemann, Joop Zoetemelk, and Leo Van Vliet. From 1974 to 1983, the team bagged a Tour de France (and 10 stages in the 1978 edition alone), Tour de Suisse, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Het Volk, Paris-Tours, Paris-Brussels, Paris-Nice…some of those multiple times.
In 1984, one of Post’s key riders, fellow Dutch hardass Raas, tired of Post’s rule at Ti-Raleigh and led a group of defectors to form Kwantum, where Raas briefly stayed on as a rider before slipping into the driver’s seat. Through a number of sponsorship and management twists and turns, that team would eventually become Rabobank in 1996 and continue through the present. For his part, Post continued to head the former Ti-Raleigh structure, now rebranded as Panasonic, which led a long and fruitful life through 1992.
Riding a wave of success fueled by that history, by 1989 there were four top-flight Dutch teams in the peloton – Panasonic and Kwantum heir Superconfex, TVM, and PDM. Though the influence of Dutch riders in the peloton may have dwindled a bit since the Ti-Raleigh days, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these four teams gave Dutch cycling plenty of visibility, whether their success came with native riders or foreigners like Eddy Planckaert, Edwig Van Hooydonck, and Sean Kelly. Nationalistic hopes rested mostly on GC threat Eric Breukink, sprinter Jean Paul Van Poppel, and a trio of climbers, Stephen Rooks, Gert Jan Theunisse, and the aging Peter Winnen. Each of those three tasted success on Alpe d’Huez., and to this day, that mountain still boasts an unofficial “Dutch corner” in their honor.]
So What Happened?
While Theunisse, Rooks, and Winnen occupied the pinnacle of Dutch cycling for a time, they also embodied the problems that would ultimately reduce Dutch cycling to a single major team in the peloton for the 2000s. Theunisse was busted outright for testosterone use in 1988, and again in 1990. Rooks and Winnen would confess to testosterone and amphetamine use after ending their careers, but that was only confirmation of what most of the world already knew. Rooks later fessed up to EPO use as well.
In 1991, the entire PDM team dropped out of the Tour de France, citing food poisoning from a team dinner. It was later revealed that the squad had a bad reaction to poorly-stored dope. The team pulled the plug the next year.
When the Festina Affair at the 1998 Tour de France brought EPO use into the spotlight, TVM was a major player, despite Festina getting naming rights to the scandal. TVM officials including DS Cees Priem and the team doctor were taken into police custody, and evidence of doping was found in the team’s hotel. Investigations and court cases followed; who knows when, how, or if they ever ended. A revamped version of the team soldiered on for two more years before exiting, though they did win the 1999 Ronde with Belgian Peter Van Petegem. As sponsors drifted off, only Rabobank was left, and in the absence of other big Dutch teams, it became the 800 pound gorilla of Dutch cycling.
Throughout the 2000s, the Dutch had a number of solid performers but few standouts, with most of the country’s expectations borne by Rabobank and its dynamic duo of Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker. Both fantastic riders, no doubt, but both often fell short of wins in the biggest classics, and Boogerd faced unfortunate pressure to become a grand tour rider during his prime years, which may have distracted him from the classics he was better suited for. With only one top team standing, retirements of Boogerd and Dekker, and careers of other mainstays like Servais Knaven and Leon Van Bon winding down, many were left asking what was next for Dutch cycling.
Back to the Present
As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and the 2010 early season sees many signs that Dutch cycling may again be on an upswing. First, there was Bobby Traksel’s (Vacansoleil) gritty win in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne ahead of countryman Rick Flens (Rabobank), followed quickly by the very promising Lars Boom’s (Rabobank) win and initial leaders’ jersey in Paris-Nice, and several more good results from Traksel. Sure, a couple of early wins isn’t much to go on – but they’re one part of a renewed visibility for the Dutch on cycling’s world stage.
More than any individual rider, that renewed visibility is being spearheaded by a trio of teams that have placed themselves firmly at the top tier of the sport in the eyes of organizers. There is Rabobank, of course, which is reaping the benefits of its long running U23 development squad as the riders it’s nurtured move up to its ProTour team, bringing the average age down a notch from the Boogerd/Dekker era. But while Rabobank is a given at the top of the sport, the addition of pro continental squads Skil-Shimano and Vacansoleil to the top of the wild-card invite list is a more recent phenomena. Even better, all three are fairly well-stocked with home-grown talent.
[And to give credit where credit is due, the rest of the peloton is reaping the benefits of Rabobank’s U23 development program, too. In addition to helping fill out their Dutch rivals’ rosters, Rabo alums grace Garmin (Huub Duyn and Martijn Maaskant) and HTC-Columbia (American Tejay Van Garderen) among others.]
Skil-Shimano broke through by putting in a strong spring 2009 campaign that led to a Tour de France invite, where they animated the breakaways and generally proved they deserved their spot. While the team isn’t heavy in the win column, they always seem to make the news, either by going in the long break, or with Piet Rooijakkers doing something newsworthy, like punching people or breaking his arm. Anything for a laugh, that guy.
Vacansoleil, a merger of a long lineage of Hilaire van der Schueren-led teams (tracing a line through Mr. Bookmaker, to the ill-fated Unibet team, to Collstrop) and the small Dutch P3Transfer-Batavus squad, has also settled into the top of the wildcard heap. Critics will point out that they’ve done so mainly by signing French brothers Roman and Brice Feillu (the latter of whom had a breakout performance at the 2009 Tour de France riding with Agritubel) in a blatant attempt to catch the eye of Tour organizers ASO. Those critics would be right, if a bit intentionally naïve, but whether they like it or not, Vacansoleil’s personel moves and its riding are working: along with Skil-Shimano (and obviously Rabobank), they’ve just received an invite to Paris-Roubiax .
Given the fact that Roubaix is an ASO property, it’s well accepted that invitations to these early season races are try-outs to see which of the smaller teams will have what it takes to make the cut for the Tour de France, which, even if you’re a straight up classics team, is still the golden ticket in cycling. At first, picking Tour teams on the basis of spring classics performance, of course, seems to make about as much sense as picking the best field goal kicker to be your starting quarterback. For the bigger, more specialized teams, it would be particularly non-sensical – for instance, let’s look at what Quick Step brought to the classics last season versus what it did at the Tour, and also at what Astana did at the classics versus what it brought to the Tour. But those teams all get automatically selected to the Tour (or at least, they’re supposed to), and are so deep that the Tour squad and classics squad may have little overlap at all. The tryout system makes a little more sense for smaller teams for which it's intended – which are typically less specialized in their rider selection – to show what they might bring to the Tour. We (and they) know from the outset that they’re not likely to win either Roubaix or the Tour, but what they can show is fighting spirit, an ability to keep the crowds engaged, rise to the pressure on a big stage, and hopefully an ability to keep their noses clean.
So while Brice Feillu certainly won’t do Vacansoleil any good at all at Roubiax, his chances of riding the Tour will depend on his teammates' performances there. He has reason to be confident -- the team has a hell of a solid classics team on hand, including Dutchmen Traksel, Jimmy Hoogerland, Matthe Pronk, and Wouter Mol, as well as Belgian Bjorn Leukemans and Uzbek Sergey Lagutin. But Skil-Shimano is no slouch in the classics department either, with a young squad likely to be led by Kenny van Hummel, supported by fellow Dutchmen Koen de Kort, Roy Curvers, and Tom Veelers and Belgian Dominique Cornu.
Either squad could easily get the upper hand in competing for what’s likely to be only a single Dutch wild-card spot in the Tour de France. And even though Skil-Shimano and Vacansoleil both swear up and down they’re not out to just neutralize each other at ASO events like Paris-Nice and Paris-Roubaix, it’s worth watching out for the race-within-the-race at Roubaix. [And if both teams don’t make the early break, they will have already failed in one of their goals.] The week after, we’ll get to watch as Rabobank, Skil-Shimano, and Vacansoleil all claw each others’ eyes out for the home win at the Netherlands’ biggest classic, the Amstel Gold race.
So -- a few results, some new talent, three teams, two likely Tour slots -- what does it all mean? As in the glory days of Dutch cycling in the early 1980’s we’re witnessing an expansion from one dominant Dutch team to several as the talent on hand becomes too much to manage within a single squad. That's a good thing. And with more teams in the biggest events, both the sponsorship climate and the athlete draw in the Netherlands is likely to improve, hopefully building to an even brighter future. It may not be a full revival, and a lot has changed in the sport since the last glory years, but after years of dope scandals, loss of sponsors, and dwindling wins, the Dutch seem to be reemerging on the world cycling stage.
- If we believe Dutch cycling is on the comeback, and that it's in a cycle where success by homegrown talent breeds proliferation of big teams and a period of more success, followed by a partially doping-related decline and subsequent revival fuelled by new homegrown talent, then maybe Germany has something to look forward to. Because they're clearly at the bottom of the same cycle, though they seem to have compressed the whole timeline by a decade or so.
- OK, enough about the Dutch. What else is up with the Roubaix start list? Well, Astana’s not invited. We could rattle on and on about that, but really, is it that shocking for Astana not to get invited to an ASO event anymore? You could argue that they don’t have the chops for the big classics, but that’s a hard argument to make when they’re stocked with Eastern Europeans and Euskaltel is on the start list. More politics, I suppose, but who has time to unravel all the overlapping and conflicting motivations at this point?
- You know who did get a Roubaix invite? Androni-Giacottoli. I’m sure they’re nice enough fellows, but the selection seems like an odd one. First, Italy was well represented already with Lampre and Liquigas, not to mention Pippo Pozzato at Katusha. Italy is a deep cycling country, obviously, so adding another team wasn’t out of the question, and Acqua e Sapone was a fine choice – they’re a mainstay player in the slew of Italian one-day races we talked about last week. But Androni? A look at the roster shows you that, with their standout riders being Michele Scarponi and Jose Serpa, they’re far more cut out for week-long stage races and a shot at the Giro d’Italia than they are for cobblestones. But, what the hell, maybe they’ll surprise. One thing I do know for sure, though, is that for a team sponsored by a European toy company, with all the jazzy fonts and graphics that come with that, they could have had a much better jersey design.
- Longtime readers know I like Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia), either because of or in spite of his mouth, I haven’t decided which. But now it looks like his mouth is costing him a good shot at a Milan-San Remo repeat, as he was sidelined for much of the early season with what are being described as “severe dental problems.” And as sorry as I am that Cav will be a bit behind on form tomorrow, when a British rider is sidelined with dental problems, that’s a stereotype so good I can’t resist pointing it out. To our British readers who are scrapping me from their feeds right now, I kid because I love. After all, it’s not like the United States has never had a rider fall prey to a stereotypical American malady, like, say, being shot, or becoming a crack addict.
- Finally, Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis). Wow. West Vlaanderen, GP Samyn, and the Nokere-Koerse all in a row, all at 21 years old. It’ll be interesting to see how he does at Roubaix, but unfortunately, after falling out of the top tier and losing reliable names like Chavanel and Nuyens, Cofidis isn’t getting much love north of the border, so we won’t get to see how he stacks up to the Ronde and Gent-Wevelgem.