A marquee rider in Marcel Kittel may have left, but Giant-Alpecin are hurtling towards 2016 with arguably their strongest line-up in history. I's not quite the cycling equivalent of total football but, under manager Iwan Spekenbrink's quiet evolution, the squad have become one of cycling's most versatile outfits.
In seasons past Spekenbrink would have wandered into the Palais des Congrès in Paris for the Tour de France presentation with the sole purpose of counting up the number of sprint stages available. The mountains, the time trials even, would have all been afterthoughts for the team manager. A prologue may have pricked his ears but only because it would mean the opening stage would not end in a sprint. That said, if you're going to be a one-trick pony then you might as well be the best.
This year it's an entirely different scenario and as Spekenbrink casts his eyes over the parcours for the 2016 Tour, he must digest each and every stage. The team that once focussed so heavily and successfully on the sprints now have options for almost every scenario and platform. John Degenkolb for the sprints on hillier stages or when the peloton splinters, Tom Dumoulin for time trials, hilly stages and perhaps a GC bid, Simon Geschke for plucky rides in the mountains, and Warren Barguil for when the pure climbers hit the front. Marcel Kittel may have left for pastures new but there's no doubting that Giant-Alpecin have assembled and developed one of the most eclectic and talented teams in the WorldTour.
"If you see how the team has grown and which riders have developed then yes," Spekenbrink says when answering if his 2016 team is his strongest yet.
"John Degenkolb was already a star and then we've seen Tom Dumoulin and Warren Barguil step up. So as a team they deserve our backing for the future. If you look at our team, though, we still have a very strong mechanism that backs sprinters, like John, and someone like Nikias Arndt for the Classics. Then with our younger riders we’re going to give them time to develop. Then we have added more experience with Laurens ten Dam so we've certainly tried to cover more fields."
Guarding bases doesn't guarantee success, while replacing or replicating the wins of Marcel Kittel is a challenge any team would struggle with, but Spekenbrink's long-term strategy has seen his team develop into a well-oiled machine. They may have ended this season with half the tally of wins they achieved in 2014 but that tally has included Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, a Tour stage, and three stages and sixth overall at the Vuelta a Espana.
The lack of wins provided by Kittel is where the team suffered most this year. He won over a dozen times in 2014, with four of those wins coming in a memorable Tour, but his solitary win in 2015 spelled the end for the sprinter's tenure at the team.
"In a team you work together and we've done that," Spekenbrink says as he starts to open up about Kittel's departure to Etixx-QuickStep.
"At one point he came to us and said it might be better for him to go to a new environment. He openly asked and we helped him with that. The fact that it was a surprise to everyone shows to me that we worked as a team and didn't go through extra channels, like the media."
The transfer certainly was a surprise. Last season Kittel was cast in the role as the world's best sprinter and, with one year left on his existing deal at Giant, all appeared rosy. However, the German started this season with illness, and spent several months chasing his form, fitness and the peloton across several continents. His abandonment after less than 100 kilometres of the Tour de Yorkshire was a demoralising blow but his non-selection for the Tour de France was perhaps the tipping point. He had lost confidence in the team and they appeared to have reached the end of their patience. The collaboration was at an end.
"In the back of your mind you see how things are developing. We tried to work with him but as you saw this season every time something happened it was a step back. For example, with the Tour de France selection. We believed that he didn't have the level for the Tour and I think that deep inside he understood that even if he didn't agree. Then he improved his level and he won a stage in Poland. He looked ready but then he got sick again. One step forward, two back. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.
"It's not that I expected him to leave, but you keep it in your mind. When he came to us and asked if we would cooperate with him leaving the team, at that moment I couldn't say no because it would have been a hard year [ed in 2016]. On one hand we could think, 'we have one of the best sprinters so we should be defensive and keep him at all costs' but it could be tough year ahead.
"The moment he comes to you with this question you know that he's already been thinking about it. In his head he's already thought about it, and he's moved over that border. Then you have the interest of the sport – that sounds weird but maybe we have year when the cooperation isn't working. The fans, and Marcel, deserve a good Marcel Kittel and for our team it could also be better because we believe in success. We ask a lot from riders and they ask a lot from the team and that's based on continuous development. We have to stick to that line. We and Marcel grew together, so even from a human perspective he deserves that we look beyond our short term interests. I'm proud of the way we could part ways with such a big athlete."
The new stars emerge
Having signed Kittel, first as a time trialist, along with the likes of Degenkolb, Dumoulin and Barguil, Giant-Alpecin clearly know a thing or two about rider development.
The team have brought in a gaggle of up-and-coming riders for next year including Soren Kragh Andersen and Sam Oomen, and have married that with the experience and know-how offered by veteran Laurens ten Dam.
"People think that there's a big master plan but really there isn't," Spekenbrink admits.
"We just want to have the best talent in the team and that's the plan. There's the old sports law that you try and put more emphasis where you have more chances. If you're a football club and you have two wingers, you're going to play a style of the game that suits them. It's the same with what we did. Back in 2008 and 2009 we laid the groundwork for the sprint train and then with Degenkolb and Kittel we started to then build Classics teams. We've developed in other areas and while there's not so much pressure on short term results we've put emphasis on other areas. We'll carry on playing to our strengths."
Tom Dumoulin is the best fit when it comes to personifying the team's approach. The Dutch rider can time trial, climb and recover – three of the main attributes that are needed in three-week racing. Although he finished a fine sixth overall in the Vuelta – only succumbing to Astana's Fabio Aru on the penultimate stage – Spekenbrink will not put any pressure on his newest star to develop ahead of time.
"I can be brave and honest and say no, we didn't see that coming," Spekenbrink says in relation to Dumoulin's inspired Vuelta ride.
"The challenge with Tom is that he's too talented in too many fields. If you look at his physical make-up he could actually be very good rider in a race like Flanders, and he's part of the world elite in time trials, and in week-long stage races we knew he could get results. In Grand Tours we thought that was his long-term step and that's still the plan but this year he's already showed what he can do in time trials and in Grand Tours.
"He's talented and he can do a good Grand Tour but it's not realistic to come out and say that he can win a Grand Tour. It makes no sense to put those expectations on him, especially as the first aim is to concentrate on time trials."
Time trials, sprints, and GC – a three pronged attack for Spekenbrink and his Giant-Alpecin in 2016. Total cycling, maybe not, but with such a versatile squad exciting times are ahead for this team.