2012 report card: Rabobank’s October decision to withdraw from sponsorship overshadowed all that came before, but on the road, the Dutch squad was its usual model of efficient consistency in 2012, quietly accumulating results across a range of terrains from a wide array of riders, albeit without ever landing the stand-out win that would serve as a keynote to the season. The Tour de France encapsulated Rabobank’s fortune at the biggest events in 2012. In a crash-strewn opening week, there seemed to be an orange and blue jersey at the bottom of every pile-up. Overall contenders Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema were forced out at the end of week one, and the team had just four finishers in Paris, even if Luis Leon Sanchez conjured up his annual stage win en route to save face.
Given that he had entered the campaign still recovering from breaking his leg in training in late 2012, Gesink showed considerable resolve to pick himself up and finish 6th in the subsequent Vuelta a España. Combined with his Tour of California win and solid Tour de Suisse showing, Gesink at least hinted that – ill luck notwithstanding – his liberal sprinkling of stardust remains intact as he approaches the prime years of his career.
Mollema partly balanced his unfortunate Tour with a string of consistent showings in the hilly Classics, even if his relative lack of explosiveness suggests that his future still lies primarily in the Grand Tours. Illness affected Lars Boom’s spring campaign, but he enjoyed a fine end to the season including victory at the Eneco Tour. Luis Leon Sanchez popped up with his usual quota of stylish WorldTour victories even if he remained unable to make any sort of impression in the Ardennes Classics.
In the sprints, Mark Renshaw had some teething troubles as he made the transition from lead-out man to sprinter, although Theo Bos enjoyed his best year since switching from the track after the Beijing Olympics. Elsewhere, the young talent Wilco Kelderman belied his tender years with fine performances at the Tour of California and Critérium du Dauphiné.
Off the bike, the reverberations of Rabobank’s less than salubrious past continued to be felt five years on from the Michael Rasmussen affair. The heavy involvement of former Rabo rider Levi Leipheimer in USADA’s Lance Armstrong investigation was one of many straws that ultimately buckled the Dutch bank’s resolve, and after 17 years of sponsorship, Rabobank has exited the professional peloton.
What to expect in 2013: Although Rabobank will no longer appear on the jerseys in 2013, Blanco Pro Cycling Team will continue to be funded by the Dutch bank as per the terms of its sponsorship agreement, as was the case for Highroad when T-Mobile withdrew ahead of the 2008 season. And, like Highroad, Blanco Pro Cycling will be hoping that a string of strong early-season performances will be enough to entice a new title sponsor before the end of the season, or perhaps even before the start of the Tour de France.
To that end, Gesink will make his Giro d’Italia debut and if he stays out of trouble in the opening week, the Dutch climber could well gatecrash the anticipated Wiggins-Nibali duel at the corsa rosa. Gesink will also line up at the Tour alongside Mollema and Laurens ten Dam, where things surely can only get better after the travails of 2012.
In the cobbled classics, Lars Boom and Sep Vanmarcke have the potential to form an intriguing partnership, even if one senses that, as usual, it will be a struggle for anyone to upset the Boonen-Cancellara duopoly at Flanders and Roubaix. If the finale of Amstel Gold Race is altered to mimic that of the world championships, then Blanco have a number of riders who can triumph in the Netherlands’ biggest one-day race, but if the finish line remains atop the Cauberg, then Mollema et al will likely be racing for the minor placings.
Additions to the sprint train mean that Renshaw and Bos will hope to make a bigger contribution to the team’s win column, while Jack Bobridge’s development should be worth following as he finally gets the chance to devote his talents solely to the road. Elsewhere, Luis Leon Sanchez is always liable to conjure up victories out of nothing.
Best signing: As a medium to long-term project, the acquisition of Jack Bobridge is a very astute one but in terms of immediate impact, it’s hard to look past the arrival of Sep Vanmarcke, who adds significant firepower to Blanco’s Classics line-up. Still only 24 years of age, Vanmarcke dealt Tom Boonen his only significant setback of last spring when he oh-so-casually dispatched of him in the finale of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and although he struggled over the greater distance at the Tour of Flanders, the signs are that Vanmarcke will make further progress this coming spring. If Blanco are to find a sponsor before season’s end, they will certainly hope Vanmarcke can find a smooth understanding with Lars Boom on the cobbles.
Biggest loss: When former manager Theo De Rooy admitted in May that doping was tolerated on the team up to 2007, some riders on the existing roster began to speculate privately as to when Rabobank might begin to lose patience, even if deep down they hardly anticipated that the Dutch bank would pull the plug on its sponsorship as abruptly as it did.
Rabobank’s October 19 announcement not only means that the squad must find a new backer within the next twelve months, it also sees a dramatic downsizing of the team’s structure. The feted Rabobank Continental team continues, but it is no longer directly linked to the WorldTour set-up. The loss of the feeder system that developed Gesink, Boom, Mollema, Kelderman et al could have potentially far-reaching consequences, although it’s a case of one crisis at a time for new manager Richard Plugge – his immediate priority will be ensuring that his team survives beyond 2013.
Man to watch: Like Ajax Amsterdam’s academy in football, Rabobank’s under-23 set-up earned a reputation for identifying and developing young talent, and Wilco Kelderman was the most exciting rider to come off the production line in 2012. Kelderman showcased his time trialling and his ability to ride tempo in the mountains en route to finishing 7th at the Tour of California and 8th at the Dauphiné, winning best young rider’s jerseys in each race for good measure.
Still only 21 years of age, the Amersfoort native has plenty of time to continue his development but his standing within the team is already apparent. Kelderman will make his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia in support of Gesink, but he will also have the freedom to carve out a leadership role in week-long stage races.