Kittel delivers in the sprints as team perfects its lead outs
WorldTour Ranking: 16th
Win Count: 29
Top riders: John Degenkolb (41st), Marcel Kittel (56th), Tom Dumoulin (60th), Warren Barguil (101st)
On the face of it a tally of 29 victories in their first WorldTour season should be marked down as a major success for Iwan Spekenbrink and his Argos-Shimano team. Marcel Kittel was the undoubted star of the team and his teammates proved they are the best at sprint lead outs.
The German joined the elite group of sprinters due to his all-conquering display at the Tour de France and surrounded his Tour haul with a second Scheldeprijs title, a stage apiece in Oman and Paris-Nice, three stages in the Presidential Tour of Turkey and the ProRace Berlin. Only one win followed his sprint victory on the Champs Elysees but by then his stock was so high that Argos-Shimano's most crucial victory came when their prize asset agreed to sign a contract extension to remain on the team for the foreseeable future.
Away from Kittel, and the team’s impressive aura and success rate wilted slightly. Apart from François Parisien and John Degenkolb picking up a stage win each at Catalunya and the Giro, no rider other than Kittel won a race until the middle of August. There in lies the team’s weakness and as well as their main strength.
In the last two years the team has built the slickest of leadout trains, purposefully signing riders with the job of protecting Kittel. A team such as Omega Pharma QuickStep undoubtedly has stronger athletes on an individual basis but Argos-Shimano's synergy is just as impressive as that of Mark Cavendish and HTC in 2009 and 2010. If you have one of the best sprinters in the world, why not work for Kittel?
However with Kittel taking more of a backseat in the second half of the year, we were then treated to a glimpse of the team’s other strengths and talents. John Degenkolb added to his already decent palmares with wins in Paris-Tours and Paris – Bourges, while longstanding servant Bert de Backer popped up with a win in GP Jef Scherens - Rondom Leuven.
However the star of the second half of the year was Warren Barguil. The 22-year-old 2012 Tour de l'Avenir winner had the pick of the French teams when he turned professional but instead chose Argos-Shimano. This speaks volumes of the Dutch team's ability to develop young talent. However even the team's management must have been surprised by how well the rider from Hennebont coped in the WorldTour, with top twenty riders in the Criterium du Dauphine and the tour de Pologne, backed up with two superb stages in the Vuelta a Espana.
What to expect in 2014
Argos-Shimano is a team that knows exactly what they’re about and in 2014 the plan will be to compete and win in the sprints once more. With no stand out rider for the majority of the Classics, and young but unproven GC talents for Grand Tours, Kittel and Degenkolb will be expected to provide the majority of the results.
Saying that, Barguil will be measured by how far he develops in Grand Tours and week-long stage races. A new sponsor is set to be unveiled in January and along with their women’s and U23 programme the team will be competing on a number of fronts.
It’s hard to pick between Lawson Craddock and Chad Haga, who both rode on the US domestic circuit in 2013. The latter finished third in the season long NRS, with standout performances in Redlands, Joe Martin Stage race and Elk Grove, while Craddock backed up a strong-looking 2012 with top ten overall finishes in the Tour of California and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. The signing of Daan Olivier has gone under the radar somewhat too, but the Dutch U23 rider already has some impressive results to boast about.
An even harder category to narrow down given that the team managed to re-sign most of their 2013 roster. While Parisien has retired and William Clarke moved down the ranks to Drapac, the loss of Patrick Gretsch signifies perhaps the most important departure. The former track and HTC rider picked up the odd victory here and there since moving to Argos-Shimano but has moved to AG2R-La Mondiale for 2014.
Who to watch
Understandably all eyes will be on Kittel in 2014. After a disappointing Tour de France in 2012 due to crashes and illness the German bounced back in the best possible manner this season. The task now is for the team’s talisman is to repeat his success in 2014.