Last year's WorldTour upstarts Israel Start-Up Nation won two Grand Tour stages thanks to two of their new signings in their first season at the top table and they'll be looking to continue their rise in 2021, with even more big names coming on board.
Dan Martin's fourth place and stage win at the Vuelta a España was the season highlight, while Alex Dowsett soloed to their first Grand Tour stage win at the Giro d'Italia and Hugo Hofstetter won Le Samyn. But while they revamped their squad with 16 new riders for 2020, there are further improvements on the way, funded by the big-money owners Ron Baron and Sylvan Adams.
Chris Froome is the headliner as ISN look to progress towards Tour de France contention, and with him comes proven quality in the shape of Michael Woods, Alessandro De Marchi and Carl Frederik Hagen, while Classics specialist Sep Vanmarcke, road captain Daryl Impey and time triallist Patrick Bevin also sign up.
Fairly or not, their 2021 season will undoubtedly be judged on how Froome fares, but there's quality in the squad to suggest they'll look even more comfortable in the WorldTour, even if they still look some way off matching the likes of Ineos Grenadiers or Jumbo-Visma.
Manager: Kjell Carlström
Squad size: 32
Average age: 28.8
How did they fare in 2020?
Wins: 6 (plus 4 national titles)
WorldTour ranking: 19th
They may have finished at the bottom of the WorldTour rankings but ISN enjoyed a better year than several teams above them, especially given 2020 was their debut at cycling's top level.
The highlight was easily the Vuelta, where Dan Martin only fell away from podium contention in the Mirador de Ézaro time trial, eventually finishing fourth overall in Madrid with a stage win and three podium spots to his name.
The Irishman's stage win at La Laguna Negra de Vinuesa came just 12 days after Dowsett's win from the break at the Giro d'Italia. His solo victory in Vieste was – to that point – the biggest moment yet for a team who only made their Grand Tour debut at the Giro two years earlier.
As could be expected with countless .1 and .Pro races cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their win count was down from 2019, with 25 wins (all at non-WT level) falling to six in 2020 – including the two big ones, mind.
Elsewhere, there was success for Rudy Barbier (stages at the Vuelta a San Juan and Tour of Slovakia), Mihkel Räim (a stage at the Tour of Antalya) and Hugo Hofstetter (Le Samyn).
While the Martin and Dowsett signings certainly paid off, elsewhere it was a mixed bag. André Greipel didn't come close to adding to his 156 career wins and will surely transition to a road captain role, while fellow veteran Daniel Navarro was invisible and Nils Politt couldn't match his 2019 form, although Paris-Roubaix was cancelled. The latter two move on for 2021.
Chris Froome: All eyes will be on the Briton next season. The 35-year-old has endured a long, arduous and public recovery from his horrendous crash at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné, and ISN are banking on him being back to his seven-time Grand Tour winning best in 2021.
He raced a fairly full season in 2020, taking in seven races and 44 race days culminating in the Vuelta a España. While it was great to see him back on the bike after that career-threatening crash, there has been little in his performances to suggest that he will be competing for a fifth Tour win.
His best GC result came with 41st at the Tour de l'Ain and he showed some flashes working on the front of the peloton at several races, but ISN will be expecting for more than that in 2021.
Froome and Carlström have all said that the Vuelta was part of building up to next season, while Adams said in June that the Briton's numbers are as expected. From the outside, it's near-impossible to predict how he'll fare next year, but it'd be uncharitable not to give him some benefit of the doubt.
Whatever happens – even if the injuries and recovery mean that he doesn't reach his past level – his addition to the team shows the extent of ISN's ambitions to be a top WorldTour player.
Dan Martin: The Irishman was easily the stand-out man for ISN in 2020, riding consistently at the early-season races before taking fifth at La Flèche Wallonne and then fourth at the Vuelta with that stage win along the way.
He was horribly unlucky to suffer a sacral fracture at the Dauphiné, an injury which hindered his preparation for the Tour, where he was planning to aim for stage wins. He completed the race, later turning his attention to the Vuelta, where he could focus on a GC bid which resulted in his best-ever Grand Tour result.
It remains to be seen how things will work in 2021, though the prospect of Martin and Froome sharing Tour leadership has been mooted by Carlström. For his part, Martin has said that Froome's addition can inspire the team and that the qualities like professionalism and maturity he brings have been underestimated by outsiders.
Martin has a proven ability to compete throughout the season, from taking stage wins and GC fights at the Grand Tours to winning Monuments. He'll be back at it once again next season, and don't be surprised if he's the team's top rider again, too.
Sep Vanmarcke: While Nils Politt has moved on after just one season at ISN, the team have immediately gone out and upgraded their Classics leader spot. Vanmarcke brings a wealth of knowledge and experience for the northern Classics as well as a proven ability to get results.
He's a perennial contender from February to April, having stood on the podium at Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen, in addition to winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2012. What has often lacked, though, is simple good luck.
Being 32 is no barrier to success at those races, either, and he still has the ability to get results at the top level, winning the Bretagne Classic and finishing fourth at Roubaix in 2019.
And while ISN might not be Deceuninck-QuickStep, Vanmarcke has an underrated support squad which includes Greipel, Hofstetter, Jenthe Biermans, Rick Zabel, Mads Würtz Schmidt and Tom Van Asbroeck. Make no mistake, Vanmarcke can make some noise next spring.
Michael Woods: The third big-name to sign up for 2021 is Woods, a two-time Vuelta stage winner who has stood on the podium at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Worlds. With him and Martin on board, ISN have a very strong Ardennes line-up.
But Woods offers value elsewhere, too – he'll surely be called upon as a super-domestique at the Tour and can contend for wins wherever the hills get steep. In 2020, he recovered from a broken leg sustained at Paris-Nice to win a tough stage to Saturnia at Tirreno-Adriatico, later podiuming at La Flèche Wallonne and winning a Vuelta stage from the break as well as finishing runner-up in two others.
He'll be 35 before 2021 is up and 37 at the end of his three-year ISN contract, but as a relative latecomer to cycling – he started racing at elite level in 2013 at the age of 25 – there should be plenty of miles left in the tank. The Canadian is a quality addition to the team.
Strengths and weaknesses
"We're not the strongest team in any areas and we could strengthen the team in all aspects but at the same time, we're on a reasonable level in all ways. We're a pretty decent team for next year," is what Carlström had to say about ISN earlier this year.
That seems like a fair assessment of the team – they won't be at the top of the win rankings like Deceuninck-QuickStep or controlling stage races like Ineos or Jumbo-Visma, but they figure to be a solid WorldTour team with options to take wins through the season.
They are set for their Grand Tours, shorter stage races as well as Classics, and there's no doubt that the team has been improved for 2021.
However, the team does lack in the sprinting department despite having five fastmen on the roster in the form of Greipel, Hofstetter, David Cimolai, Rudy Barbier and Rick Zabel.
The group is capable of grabbing some wins at smaller races, and Cimolai has several WorldTour sprint wins to his name, but there's no one reliable results-getter who will rack up the wins, including Grand Tour stages.
A lot will rely on whether Froome can return to something approaching his top form, but the ambitious team is improving, nonetheless.
They have strengthened on several fronts and, as has been the case for the past several years, they look to be on an upwards trajectory with improved results and standing on the horizon. They're stronger on paper; we'll just have to wait and see if that carries across to the tarmac.
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