Thomas De Gendt was the man of the year for Vacansoleil-DCM in 2012, putting the Dutch team on the final podium of a grand tour for the first time. The team brought in 17 wins, from 10 riders, ranging from early February to mid-October.
Vacansoleil is going into its third WorldTour year, in only its fifth year of existence. Seven new riders join it this year, and the team hopes to have avoided the poor signing decisions it has made the last few years (Riccardo Ricco and Ezekiel Mosquera).
De Gendt lived up to the promise he showed in his first season with the team. In 2011 he won stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. The Belgian put in a strong final week at the Tour de France, his first grand tour ever.
That was just a preview of what he would accomplish in 2012. He again won a stage at Paris-Nice, but it was the Giro d'Italia which really saw him establish himself in the scene, taking advantage of the legendary climbs which featured in the final week.
He climbed into the top ten overall on the 17th stage, finishing ninth. atop the Cortina d'Ampezzo, in the first chase group behind stage winner Joaquim Rodriguez. De Gendt bumped up one place on the 19th stage, but waited until the epic penultimate stage to show what he could do.
De Gendt put in the performance of a lifetime on what he called “his mountain”, the often-dreaded Stelvio. He jumped from a lead group with 16.5km to go, and giving it his all, crossed the finish line nearly a minute ahead of his nearest chaser. He moved up to fourth place.
On the closing stage he put in a strong time trial, coming in nearly one minute ahead of Rodriguez. That was enough for De Gendt to knock the Spaniard off the podium.
Lieuwe Westra also had a good season, with four wins, and Marco Marcato took an impressive win in Paris-Tours to top off the team's season.
The biggest disappointment of the year was without doubt Stijn Devolder, who won the Tour of Flanders in 2008 and 2009, and in 2010 won both national road and time trial titles. Expected to lead the Dutch team in the Spring Classics, his best times were behind him and he brought in virtually nothing. The team early on let it be known that he would be leaving after 2012.
Devolder's non-performance in the Classics was a reflection of the team's performance in those races, so important to a Dutch team. The final blow came when Bjorn Leukemans, Classics co-captain with Devolder, had knee problems which knocked him out of racing for six weeks, including the crucial Ardennes Classics.
Overall, the team was not really satisfied with the year. As new sport director Aart Vierhouten said at the team presentation in Amsterdam earlier this month, “Last season, the forward momentum of the team halted somewhat. It has to be rediscovered in 2013.”
What to expect in 2013
The keywords for the new season are “pride and passion”, as the team hopes to build upon the successes of the previous year. Buoyed by Marcato's season-closing win and De Gendt's impressive performance in Italy, Vacansoleil hopes to build on that momentum and the self-confidence it has gained.
De Gendt has shoved himself forward as team leader. He has already declare his hopes for a top ten finish in the season-opening Tour Down Under – a feat he hopes to repeat in the Tour de France, with a stage win also on his wish-list.
The team's grand tour squad has never been the strongest, and the signings of Juan Antonio Flecha and Jose Rujano should help out. Flecha brings much-needed experience, while Rujano is a strong climber who can help his team captain.
Team manager Daan Luijkx had his moments of worry this off-season with another new signing, Grega Bole. The Slovenian was brought in to strengthen the Classics squad, but only weeks after the announcement was made, trouble arose. He was named in Leonard Bertagnolli's affidavit in the USADA's Reasoned Decision, with his name being mentioned in a conversation between Bertagnolli and Dr. Michele Ferrari.
With the memories of the disastrous Ricco and Mosquera signings still fresh in their memories, the team conducted an internal investigation, which included an independent review of Bole's biological passport. He was pronounced clean and cleared to ride.
Rujano's signing is one which may backfire, though. His help in the mountains is desperately needed, but the tiny Venezuelan doesn't have the best reputation. He has frequently changed teams after only one season, and in 2010 he left his team after not being named to the Giro squad. He more or less repeated that in 2012, abandoning the Giro late in the race and not riding again all year. His team Androni-Giacattoli disputed his claim of mononucleosis and cancelled his contract.
Flecha and Bole are expected to work with Leukemans to restore the team's performance in the Spring Classics. After not being a factor at all in those races in its first two WorldTour years, the team is eager, if not anxious, to make its mark there.
Without a doubt, it is Flecha. The Spaniard, in his mid-30s, replaces Devolder as the man for the Classics, and certainly can't do worse than the Belgian did. Flecha won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad for Team Sky in 2010, and has been on the podium at the race several times. He can also claim three podiums at Paris-Roubaix, and one each at the Tour of Flanders, Brabantse Pijl and the E3 Prijs.
The experience he brings is invaluable to the team. He knows that he is expected to provide leadership, and says that “I have reached a phase where experience, trust and calm are extra weapons.”
Flecha also has the extra motivation of being able to ride for himself again, after riding for Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish at Sky. “I want to be the Flecha again, who I always was. A stage victory in the Tour de France is high up on my list. I know that would never happen with Sky, but I know I have it in me, so I want to grab that opportunity,” he said.
Two other signings were of interest, although their long-term significance remains to be seen. Sport director Jean-Paul van Poppel can look forward to guiding his sons Boy and Danny at the team. Both are still young, with Boy 25 years old and Danny only 19.
For Vacansoleil, this category is more “Biggest name loss”, with Devolder filling that role. The Belgian totally failed to perform in his two years at the team, and has gone to seek his luck at RadioShack-Leopard.
Gustav-Erik Larsson has moved on to the new IAM team, but he too failed to deliver as expected. In his single year with Vacansoleil, he delivered only the national time trial titles and the time trial at the 2012 Paris-Nice.
Man to watch
All eyes will be on De Gendt and Flecha as they perform in their specialities. Johnny Hoogerland is always a sentimental favourite. But perhaps 2013 will see the emergence of one of the team's young talents.