Bob Stapleton's HTC-Columbia team has been the most successful in terms of number of victories in pro cycling since the American businessman entered the sport, but they never enjoyed a final podium finish in a grand tour until Peter Velits accompanied Vincenzo Nibali and Ezequiel Mosquera on the Vuelta a Espana podium on Sunday in Madrid.
The 25-year-old Slovakian wasn't expected to be the first HTC-Columbia rider to do so but his consistency in the mountains and a brilliant win in the time trial boosted his final result.
"I also didn't expect to do so well but I'm extremely satisfied although it's possible that I would have been fighting for the overall victory if I didn't lose time in Cotobello," Velits told Cyclingnews at the end of Vuelta.
"I have no regrets because every day at the Vuelta I have given my best and I'm more than happy to finish third."
At the beginning of the race, directeur sportif Tristan Hoffmann warned: "We came to the Vuelta to win stages with Mark Cavendish but also to prepare for the future and build up riders like Peter Velits and Tejay van Garderen as GC riders," he said
"By the end of the Vuelta, we'll know if they can become grand tour riders." It's now clear that both Velits and Van Garderen are the future of HTC-Columbia for the grand tours as Michael Rogers is leaving the American outfit at the end of the year.
Van Garderen finished the Vuelta in 35th place but this was his first grand tour in his first year as a professional. "I'm very happy to make it to Madrid," Van Garderen said as he reached the Spanish capital. "I was in the top 15 for the first two weeks but I had a bad day in Asturias and a stomach bug the next day. For my future, it's very important to get to Madrid. In a couple more years, I can fight for victory in these races, I hope."
HTC-Columbia showed its developing talent not only at the Tour of Spain, but also at the championship of Flanders where Australian sprinting prodigy Leigh Howard won, and at the GP Isbergues where Latvian strong man Aleksej Saramotins soloed to victory.
Along with Andre Greipel's stage wins and Michael Albasini's triumph on GC at the Tour of Britain, Stapleton said: "It comes from the talent and personal commitment of each one our athletes and staff members. This kind of continuous success is only possible through tremendous teamwork."
HTC-Columbia is not only about Mark Cavendish winning sprints. The Manx Express himself was amazed at the Vuelta by the efforts made by Velits and Van Garderen to compensate the loss of train drivers Bernhard Eisel and Hayden Roulston. "Velits should be saving energy for GC," Cavendish said as he admired his teammate's dedication.
Both Velits and Van Garderen are hoping to ride the Tour de France next year. Velits has done it twice with Milram. He finished 55th in 2008 and 31st in 2009. "I was confident of making the top 20 this year," he said.
But he broke a small bone of a wrist at the Bayern Rundfahrt in late May and a collarbone at the Dauphiné in June. "Maybe it's been a good thing after all that I've been forced out of the Tour," the Slovakian said. "It has left me with a lot of strength for the Vuelta and now I know what I'm able to do in a grand tour."
Velits is the first Slovakian to finish in the top 3 of a grand tour. With his twin brother Martin, his next race is the world championship in support of their young prodigious compatriot Peter Sagan who hopes nothing less than beating the favourites in Geelong on October 3rd after having started his pro career only eight months ago at the Santos Tour Down Under in Australia.