2014 Lampre-Merida report card
WorldTour ranking: 14th (same as last year)
Win count: 28 (up from 16 last year)
Top riders: Costa (4th), Ulissi (42nd), Niemiec (76th)
Lampre-Merida team manager Giuseppe Saronni recently gave his team a score of 6.5 out of 10 for the 2014 season, claiming the team had done well but insisting his boys could have done a lot better. He is right, with a stark contrast of success and failure, some promising young riders and the demise of an older generation creating a season of contrasts. The team won 27 races but many of those were minor; 2014 could have been so much better.
New team leader and world champion Rui Costa won the Tour de Suisse for a third consecutive time while wearing the rainbow jersey but it was only the only time he raised his arms in victory while wearing the rainbow bands. He then struggled with illness on the much bigger stage at the Tour de France, quitting the race on stage 16. He finished fourth overall in the UCI WorldTour individual rankings with second at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal and third at Il Lombardia but Lampre-Merida was only 14th in the team rankings, worringly close to what could be a relegation zone in the 2017 WorldTour.
Chris Horner was a late signing and offered so much promise after winning the 2013 Vuelta a Espana but his nasty accident in the spring, when he was hit by a car in a tunnel while training in Italy, left him battered and bruised and forced him to miss the Giro d'Italia. After making a near miraculous recovery to be fit for the summer, Horner came down with bronchitis at the Tour de France and made little impact, finishing 17th in the general classification in Paris.
He bounced back to take second overall at the Tour of Utah, suggesting that he could challenge the likes of Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome in Spain. However he was forced to withdraw before the start of the Vuelta after he tested for low levels of cortisol - due to medication for the bronchitis he developed at the Tour de France, according to the team- and under the rules of the MPCC (Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Credible) the team was left with no option but remove Horner from its roster. The American has finally found a team for 2015 but it is not Lampre-Merida.
In many ways, Diego Ulissi's season was far worse than Horner's, and doubts about his future and 2015 remain real. The classy Tuscan one-day rider has look set to become the next big thing in Italian cycling at various points throughout the last two seasons, and his stage win and third overall at the Tour Down Under suggested it could be his year.
The 25-year-old won again at the G.P. Camaiore but then endured a few anonymous performances in the spring Classics, despite being coached by former Classics winner Michele Bartoli. He bounced back to win a stage of the Giro d'Italia in Viggiano and took another at Montecopiolo. A sore throat and fever surprisingly forced him out of the race but that wasn't the end of the story. An adverse analytical finding for Salbutamol, from stage 11 of the Giro d'Italia, meant Ulissi was suspended from racing until a final verdict on the use, or abuse, of the asthma drug is reached. A brief appearance at the Trittico Lombardo appeared to speed up the disciplinary process back in September and Ulissi was formally charged. But any verdict is still up in the air despite him undergoing tests to replicate the stress and heat that he claims sparked his high Salbutamol levels.
Sacha Modolo helped cover the gap in the Lampre-Merida team and ended the year with the most wins by any Italian (eight), while Niccolo Bonifazio grabbed three sprint wins at the Tour of Hainan to finish second overall. Other success includes Winner Ancona's victory atop Aramón Valdelinares at the Vuelta a Espana. It sparked lots of 'Winner' headlines but was also confirmation of the Colombian's talent. The 26-year-old had previously ridden three Grand Tours without much fanfare. Third overall at the Tour of Utah was evidence of a rider about to peak and he duly delivered in Spain.
Four days later Przemyslaw Niemiec gave Lampre-Merida a second stage victory with a thrilling breakaway win at Lagos de Covadonga, just five seconds ahead of Alejandro Valverde. He finished 33rd overall after taking sixth in the Giro d'Italia. However Saronni rightly wants the Polish rider to focus on winning stages than making the top ten overall.
Indeed, the challenge for Lampre-Merida is to win consistently during the season and confirm the team's status at WorldTour level, while also flying the flag as the only Italian team for Lampre in the 2015, and keeping key sponsor Merida happy. Costa is a classy team leader and has cleverly built his own squad of riders around him but the rest of the Lampre-Merida team needs to lift its game and get some consistent results.
What to expect in 2015?
For a start there will be no Chris Horner rumours after the team decided not to give him another contract, preferring to spend its limited cash on younger riders from around the world, including Taiwan and Ethiopia.
The enigmatic Filippo Pozzato is in the final year of his contract and and knows it is his last chance to win big. At 33 years of age, the 2006 Milan-San Remo winner isn't getting any younger and needs some major results to back his claim that 'Only God can judge me' (according to a huge tattoo on his back). Pozzato will no doubt be team leader on the cobbled Classics despite his lack of results, with backing from Modolo, Cimolai and perhaps Ruben Plaza.
The pressure of being world champion has been lifted from Costa's shoulders and the Portuguese rider should find things a little easier in 2015 without the rainbow jersey on his back. He's odds-on favourite to collect the most fan mail from the Tour de France again and a fourth straight Tour de Suisse crown would be historic. However the Tour de France will surely be Costa and Lampre-Merida's big goal after he was forced to quit this year's race with illness and never got to prove his Grand Tour credentials. We can also expect him to be a contender in the Ardennes Classics along the way.
Modolo and Bonifazio should continue adding sprint and stage wins to the team's tally during the season but the challenge for the duo is to perform at WorldTour level and score important ranking points. Modolo grabbed wins at the Tour de Suisse and Tour of Beijing, which will boost his confidence but repeating the trick in the Giro d'Italia and especially the Tour de France is another thing and far more important. Bonifazio turned 21 on October 29 and so has time on his side.
The ongoing Mantova Investigation is finally set to reach a turning point in coming months. The investigation and media coverage has cast a long shadow over the team's past and its future. The legal battle about who did what could be halted by the statute of limitations and snail's pace of the Italian courts but only the truth will clear the dark clouds of suspected doping.
Best signing: There has been very little incoming movement for Lampre-Merida during the off-season but the best bit of business by team manager Brent Copeland looks like the signing of Belarusian Ilia Koshevoy. Likewise 19-year-old Eduardo Estrada, who turned down Ag2r-La Mondiale to sign for Lampre, could be a future Colombian stage race talent. Other new young riders include Luka Pibernik of Belarus, Chun Kai Feng from Taiwan, the home of sponsor Merida, and most recent signing Tsgabu Grmay - the current Ethiopian road race and time trial champion, who raced with MTN-Qhubeka in 2014.
Biggest loss: Undoubtedly the loss of Anacona to Movistar is going to be felt by the team, as the Colombian was starting to truly find his feet at WorldTour level. The 26-year-old had his best season as a professional yet and his third overall at the Tour of Utah suggested his continued development as a GC rider. His loss has been compounded by that of Horner leaving the team quite light of general classification options.
Saying goodbye to Cunego is more of a nostalgic than a sporting loss. The little prince's potential to secure important results was extinguished some time ago and he has played the role of domestique for much of the last two seasons. However seeing him in anything but the fuchsia of Lampre will be an odd sight.
Man to watch: Valerio Conti. The 21 year-old from Rome made his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a Espana wearing the number one dossard after Horner was pulled by the team. The Italian quickly made his mark on the race with a visit to the podium to collect the white jersey in the combination classification. The last two races of the year yielded Conti a win at the Gran Premio Bruno Beghelli, and sixth place, Japan Cup, which might just lay the platform for a very successful 2015.