Can Costa's arrival save the troubled team?
WorldTour Ranking: 14/19
Win Count: 16
Top riders: Michele Scarponi (16th), Przemyslaw Niemiec (42nd), Filippo Pozzato (47th), Diego Ulissi (87th) and Max Richeze (104th).
Lampre-Merida was hoping to put a terrible 2012 season behind them but the Italian team again under performed in 2013, winning just 16 minor races. True, they also landed 26 second places and 23 third places but that only underlined their poor results in the races that mattered.
Despite their garish pink and blue jerseys, the Lampre-Merida riders were rarely seen in the Classics and the Tour de France, while Michele Scarponi was only fourth in the Giro d'Italia dominated by his Italian rival and now Astana teammate Vincenzo Nibali.
Lampre-Merida won just two WorldTour races in 2013, the best being when Filippo Pozzato sprinted to victory at the GP Ouest France in Plouay, France. But that failed to make up for the Italian playboy's disappointing year.
Pozzato won the Trofeo Laigueglia in February and seemed on track for a good cobbled-Classics campaign but then he faded at the first signs of spring. He later claimed an undiagnosed virus wrecked his chances but he went onto ride the Giro d'Italia, where he also went missing on several stages. He eventually came good late in the summer to secure a place in the Italian world championship team but was dropped on the final climb as teammate Nibali went on the attack.
Damiano Cunego did not even secure a place in the Italian Squadra for the Tuscan world championships and continued his unexplainable downwards spiral in the Ardennes Classics and Tour de France. He accepted to take up the role of domestique deluxe by the end of the season.
Only Diego Ulissi brought some consistent cheer for team manager Giuseppe Saronni. The hilly Classics specialist and fast finisher won six races, including the impressive end of season run at the Milan-Turin, the Coppa Sabatini and the Giro dell'Emilia in Italy. He also won the opening stage at the Tour of Poland in the summer and the overall at the Coppi & Bartali.
Ulissi was a double junior world road race champion. He has yet to show that kind of ability in the highest ranks but is perhaps Italy's best Classics riders of his generation and is still only 24.
Time trialist Adriano Malori won three races, including the overall at the Bayern-Rundfahrt but he has taken his skills against the watch to Movistar for 2014. Kristjan Durasek was a surprise winner of the Tre Vale Varesine but the likes of sprinter Roberto Ferrari, Elia Favilli and Jose Serpa failed to live up to expectations. Alessandro Petacchi quit the team in April, citing a lack of motivation, only to sign for Omega Pharma-Quick Step in August to become a lead out man for Mark Cavendish.
The Mantova doping trial hung over the team like a dark cloud. The team has always denied any wrong doing but has failed to explain why all its riders were sent to a specific chemist in Mantova, despite living hours away. Twenty-eight current and former riders and staff are on trial, with phone taps apparently leaving many of them with a fragile defence. The slow speed of the Italian legal system could save them from a guilty verdict but the eventual effects and sporting bans could be devastating.
What to expect in 2014:
Despite its problems, Lampre-Merida is undergoing a rebuilding process thanks to the loyalty of Lampre as a sponsor and the added financial support of bike brand Merida.
Ulissi could bloom into a great Classics rider, while Pozzato will surely get his act together in 2014 and be a contender in the Classics. He might struggle to beat Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan but he will surely have a shot at victory at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Lampre signed Rui Costa before the world championships to help them promote their laminated steel business in Portugal. His world title was like winning a golden ticket to cycling's chocolate factory and has helped rebuild the team's image and prospects for 2014.
Costa showed his class by winning a second Tour de Suisse, two stages at the Tour de France and by outwitting Nibali and Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde in Florence in 2013. He wants to test his ability in the general classification at the Tour de France but will no doubt be a threat in the Ardennes Classics and even in stage races like Paris-Nice and the Tour of the Basque Country.
Sacha Modolo is another good signing. The Italian sprinter is not the fastest finisher in the peloton but can climb and read a race, making him a useful combination and alternative to Pozzato in the Classics and other one-day races.
Other news signings include Nelson Oliviera from Portugal, China's Gang Xu and Rafael Valls.
Michele Scarponi's doping past would make him a liability for some teams but his move to Astana leaves a big hole at Lampre-Merida. He is past his best but the sad-clown of Italian cycling was reliable, especially at the Giro d'Italia, and still gets a cheer from the tifosi and parts of the blinkered Italian media.
Who to watch:
It will be interesting to see if Rui Costa can continue to show his class and winning expertise with Lampre-Merida in his season as world champion. The rainbow jersey creates extra attention and pressure and Costa will need some strong team support to win big in 2014.
Diego Ulissi is the rising star of Italian cycling and at Lampre-Merida. He is still shy and lacks confidence for the major races and has yet to prove he can be in the fight after 200km of racing. But he seems to be maturing nicely. 2014 could be his breakthrough season.
Filippo Pozzato always captures attention, even if its often for his failings rather than his successes. However Pippo should never be overlooked. He has the ability to win a monumental Classic again.
Brent Copeland is the new team manager at Lampre-Merida and has quickly brought in some changes. However even the likeable and organised South African and Rui Costa's rainbow jersey may not be able to stop the damaging effects of the Mantova doping trial.
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