WorldTour Ranking: 6/19
Win Count: 8
Top riders: Roman Kreuziger (11th), Alberto Contador (15th), Rafal Majka (20th), Nicolas Roche (36th).
Although they finished sixth in the WorldTour rankings, 2013 constituted a disappointing season for Bjarne Riis and his men. Alberto Contador only managed one win all season – a stage in the Tour de San Luis – and the team’s grand haul of eight victories was overshadowed by off-the-bike headlines that reverberated around anti-doping investigations, Oleg Tinkoff’s will he-won’t he purchase of the team, and Michael Rogers’ A sample positive for clenbuterol.
There were flashes of brilliance on the road, such Nicolas Roche’s stage win and overall performance at the Vuelta, Rafal Majka’s solid ride in the Giro d’Italia, and Roman Kreuzinger’s Amstel win - although this, too, was tainted by the rider’s admission of previously working with Dr Ferrari - but the wins were few and far between for what is a essentially a team with too many riders living off former glories and past achievements.
At the head of that queue is Contador. His failure to win an overall stage race – a first in almost a decade – and his fourth in the Tour de France signified his leanest, fully-competitive season since turning professional, and although he was a top five placer on a consistent basis, there was a sense that Chris Froome, and others for that matter, consistently had the Spaniard’s number.
Daniele Bennati failed to win a race all year for the first time since 2004, while the less said about Oliver Zaugg’s failings since winning a Monument two years ago, the better.
Matti Breschel popped up with a traditionally strong ride is his native Tour of Denmark, and Michael Morkov won a stage in the Vuelta but with Contador flailing the team lacked a genuine plan B for most of the season.
Michael Rogers chipped in with second place in California, and there were podium spots for others in Lombardia, Tirreno, Oman, Paris-Tours and Milano-Torino but overall it was a season the team will want to vastly improve on.
What to expect in 2014:
So can they? Well, even if Samuel Sanchez finally signs on the dotted line it’s hard to see where Riis can conjure up anything close to guaranteed success. He’s not held a genuine sprinter at the top of his game since JJ Haedo so there’s no opportunity to alleviate the pressure on the stage racers. The fact is that too many at the core of the team, Contador (30), Rogers (34), Nicki Sørensen (38), Matteo Tosatto (39), Paulinho (33), Bennati (33) are past their best, although Roche (29) and Majka (24) are still developing.
Contador’s slimmed down racing programme may help him and even the likes of Hinault had off years that forced them to retreat, refocus and come back stronger.
Breschel will presumably lead the line in the early Classics with Bennati and possibly Tosatto to help him, while Roche will be another outside bet for the Ardennes.
Nikolai Trussov has been around the bloc having ridden for Tinkoff, Katusha and RusVelo in the past, and like fellow new signing Ivan Rovny, he’ll be a solid worker. However Michael Valgren Andersen is a rider with huge potential having won back-to-back editions of the U23 version of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He has a decent time trial in the bank, too.
Benjamin Noval has retired and his loss will put a dent in Contador’s Tour team but the big question marks remain over Rogers and Riis. The Australian must await the B sample of but if it were to go the same way as the principle sample, and a two-year ban is handed down, then the team would certainly miss one of their most vital riders. Riis’s problems all depend on the reach of the investigation in Denmark but his sale of the team to Tinkov certainly brings and end to an era in modern cycling. The Dane will remain onboard for three years but it certainly won’t be the same again.
Who to watch:
If Contador can return to winning ways then there are few riders capable of stopping him. If that fails, then all attention will deviate straight to Tinkov as the world watches with baited breath to see which of riders he castigates on Twitter first.
On the road, Contador remains the team’s talisman and best hope for success. His principle aim of winning the Tour de France is not impossible but in doing so he would need to return to the blistering form he displayed in 2009, and even that might not be enough to dethrone Froome. His 2012 Vuelta win papered over the cracks, somewhat, and while there’s no doubting that the Spaniard isn’t the same rider he was pre-ban, the days of rubbing the Schleck’s faces in the dirt in order to win a Grand Tour are gone. Sky is top dog and for all their inspiring guerilla tactics during the Tour, Saxo were eventually brushed aside this year.