With international racing set to return in July, and with the resumption of the WorldTour just over a month away, teams are busy preparing for the rest of the rescheduled and condensed 2020 season.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had widespread effects on professional cycling, far beyond the mere postponement of races, and there are a number of questions facing each team ahead of the restart.
The pandemic put transfer activity on hold for a number of teams, while the redesigning of the calendar, squeezing most of the WorldTour events into just over three months, means plenty of headaches when it comes to squad selection and team tactics.
In this second part of this feature, we run through the key questions facing the remaining nine WorldTour teams, in alphabetical order, from Lotto Soudal to UAE Team Emirates.
Can Ewan be successful at both the Giro and Tour?
The new calendar has left Caleb Ewan and his sprint train with the exacting task of riding the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia in barely two months. The Giro-Tour double is tough enough in a normal year but now there’s just a fortnight separating the two Grand Tours. "During the Tour, they should already be with the Giro in mind," noted Paul van den Bosch, a coach who works with the team. Ewan was arguably the world’s best sprinter in 2019 but faces a fine balancing act to not let his two targets compromise one another.
Can Gilbert realistically win Milan-San Remo?
All eyes will be on Philippe Gilbert when the riders leave Milan on August 8, with the Belgian needing to win La Primavera to complete the set of all five Monuments. Subdued in the wake of his incredible 2011 campaign and 2012 world title, Gilbert has been resurgent in recent years, ticking off Flanders and Roubaix. With the latter, last year, it was noted that with age he’d become more of a diesel engine, suited to the longer flatter efforts of Roubaix than the climbs of Liege and Lombardy. To win San Remo, however, he’ll need to be punching like never before. At 38, it really would cement his place among the all-time greats.
Is Hagen the real deal?
Setting aside the headline-grabbing GC exploits of Roglič, Pogačar, and Valverde, one of the stories of the last Vuelta was Carl Fredrik Hagen, who placed eighth overall on his Grand Tour debut. The Norwegian is 28 but still a relative newcomer, having previously been a cross-country skier. As such, there should still be plenty of room for improvement. Hagen will ride the Giro this year and we should get a clearer idea of his potential, along with whether Lotto have stumbled upon someone who could be their first Grand Tour contender since Jurgen Van den Broeck.
Can they persuade the Yateses to stay?
With the Foundation debacle over and Gerry Ryan coming to the rescue once more, the team has some vital breathing space as they restart their search for a long-term sponsor. In terms of their current roster, their biggest task will be to persuade Simon and Adam Yates to stay, with both riders out of contract at the end of this season. Trek came for Simon two years ago and might be tempted to update on Richie Porte – also out of contract – but a lot will depend on whether Ryan is willing to offer longer than a one-year deal.
Who will join on a one-year deal?
With Ryan presently willing to fund the team for next year, it will become harder for the team to attract fresh recruits. Why sign for a team offering one-year deals when an opposite outfit are dangling a two- or three-year deal in front of your face? Mitchelton are a highly popular option within the peloton, and there will be no shortage of riders wanting to join, but with longevity over contracts being an issue, they may have to deal with missing out on some of their targets.
All out for the Tour?
The original plan was for Simon to return to the Giro while Adam would take the Tour. Esteban Chaves was going to wait for the first few races before deciding his plans. The new-look goals for the Tour have yet to be confirmed, but with teams stacking their line-ups for the Tour, will Mitchelton consider following suit? This would make them stronger for the Tour and give them a different dynamic for the Giro – where stage wins could be the focus.
Can Mas and Valverde combine effectively?
While Movistar’s marquee 2020 signing, Enric Mas, has a rather large void to fill after the departures of Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Richard Carapaz, he is still set to ride the Tour and Vuelta alongside the Spanish team’s stalwart, Alejandro Valverde. Mas beat Valverde to the podium at the 2018 Vuelta but didn’t quite continue that precocious trajectory at last year’s Tour. With Valverde seemingly still evergreen, and with Tour and Vuelta routes that suit him, it’ll be interesting to see how Movistar divide up the responsibilities.
Will Soler take his chance?
The Movistar exodus means that, after several incidents of disquiet – notably the remonstrations when called back to wait for Quintana at last year’s Vuelta – Marc Soler has his chance to lead the line at a Grand Tour. The Spaniard is a former Tour de l’Avenir winner, and his Paris-Nice victory in 2018 feels an age ago, so his frustration is understandable. At the Giro, nothing is standing in his way, so it’s time to let the legs do the talking. He turns 27 in November, so it’s a pivotal moment in his career and will reveal to Movistar whether they had ready-made cover for Quintana, Landa and Carapaz.
Can they patch things up with Acquadro?
The departures of Richard Carapaz and Andrey Amador to Team Ineos led to a bust-up between Movistar’s management and Giuseppe Acquadro, arguably cycling’s most powerful agent. Movistar have eight riders under the age of 23, showing an effort to develop talent rather than sign it, but the freeze on dealings with Acquadro – who counts numerous Spanish-speakers as clients – only leaves them hamstrung in the transfer market.
How quickly can Riis make his mark?
Even those at the team would struggle to find positives in the past couple of seasons, where poor performances have been compounded by injuries and illness in a self-fulfilling downward spiral. Bjarne Riis took over as manager in January and the team quickly put six wins on the board – only one fewer than the whole of the past two campaigns. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has left it open-ended as to whether this was part of a more lasting turnaround.
Can the Meintjes of old be recovered?
As Louis Meintjes himself acknowledged on the team’s website, his top 10s in the 2016 and 2017 Tours "already feel like a really long time ago". When he rejoined the African team in 2018, Doug Ryder spoke of a project that would put him in the yellow jersey in 2020, and it’s fair to say the script has long-since been veered from. Out of contract at the end of the year, Meintjes has to show signs of life at this year’s Tour.
How will they (re)build a team for 2021?
The reorganisation of the South African team at the start of the year left uncertainty over the management structures and future funding, even before the pandemic set in. Riis now finds himself in choppy economic waters, needing to overhaul a squad that has stagnated. Only five riders are contracted for next year, leaving him with a lot of contracts to write up. Along with Meintjes, the resurgent Giacomo Nizzolo, Michael Valgren, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Ben O’Connor and Max Walscheid are all out of contract.
Who can replace Nicolas Portal?
It‘s delicate because not only did the late Frenchman possess a world of knowledge as a sports director, but he was a vital cog in the Ineos machine when it came to smoothing over bumps and easing tension. Ineos still have fine directors, such as Servais Knaven, but Portal is irreplaceable. This will mean shuffling his previous duties between the existing management, and while that might work in theory, the team will only get to implement the strategy properly for the first time at the Tour.
Will they select Froome for the Tour if he's leaving?
One scenario could see Chris Froome stay at Ineos for the rest of the season, but switch to Israel Start-Up Nation at the start of 2021. If that’s the case, then Ineos may consider whether they want to blood new talent at the Tour and leave Froome at home before sending him to the Vuelta. It wouldn’t be the kindest of ways to pay back a rider who had won multiple Grand Tours, but cycling isn’t exactly known for kindness or compassion when it comes to riders switching teams.
How would they handle three leaders?
Ineos are used to balancing the interests of two leaders, but if Froome does stay, and if he is selected, they’d have three, and that’s a different prospect entirely, as Knaven has already admitted. In that case, more than a third of the squad are protected riders, which dulls the mountain domestique influence that has worked so well in the past. It also opens the door for chaos, and while Ineos have, on the surface, at least, 'let the road decide' to good effect in the past couple of years, you sense this would require strong management and tough calls.
Is Roglič the undisputed leader?
The Slovenian, who won the Vuelta and ended 2019 as the number-one ranked rider in the world, just keeps getting better, and he showed in the road race at the recent Slovenian National Championships that he’s kept sharp during lockdown. Nominally, he shares leadership for the Tour with Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijsiwjk, but form would dictate he’s the strongest candidate. Putting together such a line-up is a luxury for the team’s management, but it comes with tough calls, and they have to maintain harmony while ensuring they get the best out of whoever emerges as their best hope. Another consideration is the fact that Dumoulin is a ‘home’ rider, and a Dutch Tour winner would be a dream for the Dutch sponsors.
Is Dumoulin ready to race?
While Roglič's form speaks for itself, there’s still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding Dumoulin, who hasn’t raced in more than a year. His fall-out with Sunweb was well documented, but his debut with Jumbo has been pushed back by illness and injury. Physically, there’s no real way of knowing how competitive he might be, and mentally it remains to be seen how he handles his comeback, not to mention settling into what are still new surroundings.
Have they made the right decision in not selecting Groenewegen for the Tour?
The decision to announce their Tour team in December was met with consternation, and indeed one change has already had to be made, with George Bennett replacing the unfit Laurens De Plus. Perhaps the biggest call was leaving out Dylan Groenewegen, who has won stages at the past three Tours and is among the world’s very best sprinters. At the very least, opening a spot for him would represent a back-up plan if the GC bid went awry, but the team clearly feel it’s worth risking an unhappy Groenewegen in order to go all-in to try to take Ineos down. It could go either way, with not much room for middle ground now.
What’s the team’s long-term strategy when it comes to recruitment?
In the last few seasons the team have lost Marcel Kittel, Tom Dumoulin, and Warren Barguil, and with Wilco Kelderman and Sam Oomen heading for the door the exodus looks set to continue. That’s a huge pool of talent to lose without suitably replacing them, and while having an ethos and ideology is all well and good, if you’re constantly losing your best riders it becomes harder and harder to build a sustainable future. Romain Bardet might be the answer but with two climbers leaving the team need to find replacements in a market where specialist climbers are at a premium.
Who is ready to step up?
The team started the year with a bang, taking seven wins including two stage wins and second overall in Paris-Nice. They have a base to work with but they’ll need to continue that progress as the season ramps up, and more will be expected from Michael Matthews, Cees Bol and Søren Kragh Andersen. Tiesj Benoot has already settled in nicely but the team will looking for one or two of their starlets to chip in with the odd win here or there. If they can get anything out of Kelderman and Oomen it will be a bonus.
Is Bardet the right fit?
The move makes sense. Bardet needs a new challenge after going off the boil at AG2R, and Sunweb need a talisman to replace the vacuum left by Dumoulin. There are only a handful of proven GC riders that would fit within Sunweb’s stable and Bardet ticks a number of those boxes. At the same time, the team will give him more backup in time trials and allow him the freedom of racing his bike without undue pressure or responsibility that was starting to weigh on his shoulders in France. The deal isn’t official just yet but on paper it looks like a perfect match.
Will Richie Porte be offered a new contract?
Last season Porte struggled for form and fitness due to a string of illnesses. He bounced back at the start of the year with a resounding performance at the Tour Down Under but he was robbed of the chance of adding to his week-long tally of stage-racing wins by the pandemic. At the age of 35, Trek might be tempted to chase Simon Yates again before opening up any form of discussions with Porte.
Will Nibali have enough support at the Giro d’Italia?
With Porte and Mollema holding the fort at the Tour de France, the team may ponder if Nibali has the necessary support when it comes to challenging for the Giro d’Italia. It makes sense to stockpile your ammo for the Tour, but that does leave Nibali short of cover in the mountains with only Nicola Conci and Giulio Ciccone pencilled in.
What role will Pedersen play?
Among the disruption caused by the pandemic, Mads Pedersen has been severely limited in his opportunity to show off the rainbow jersey he won at the Worlds last year. The Dane was a young winner, and may not feel too aggrieved at not being able to wear the bands as it comes with a level of attention and expectation that he was perhaps not ready for. At the Opening Weekend this year, he insisted he had a lot to learn, and a lot to learn from Jasper Stuyven, who appears to remain Trek’s top Classics rider. He has said that he's aiming for the October Classics and hoping for a wet Paris-Roubaix, however.
Are they all-in for Pogačar at the Tour?
When Tadej Pogačar revealed he was riding the Tour de France this year, he said he’d be there to support Fabio Aru and see how he goes on his debut. Yet, after a blistering start to 2020 proved his first pro season was no one-off, and with Aru showing few signs of revival, surely Pogačar is the team’s out-and-out leader for the Tour. It’s understandable that they would want to minimise pressure but, after winning three stages and finishing on the podium at last year’s Vuelta, it’s already clear he has the legs for three weeks.
Can Gaviria get back on track?
A couple of years ago, it seemed the world was at Fernando Gaviria’s feet, with domination in the sprints and even the Classics said to be in front of him for the foreseeable future. However, 2019 was a tough year for the Colombian, who was knocked off course by a knee injury and also admitted to struggling to adapt to his new team. After a start to 2020 that saw him spend a month in the UAE after contracting the coronavirus, the 25-year-old will be hoping to get back to a time when things seemed simpler. If he can rediscover his old form, together with trusted lead out man Max Richeze back at his side, there’s no reason why he couldn’t re-establish himself as the world’s best sprinter.
How will the team blood their young talents?
Inspired by the arrival of Joxean Matxin Fernandez as sporting manager, the team has invested heavily in youth in the past couple of years, with the squad’s average age dipping below 27. Along with Pogačar, the arrivals have included Christian Muñoz, Jasper Philipsen, the Oliveira twins (Ivo and Rui), Mikkel Bjerg, Brandon McNulty, Andrés Camilo Ardila and Alessandro Covi. UAE are building for the future but, in the here and now, how do they ensure all those talents have the space to develop, especially in such a crowded calendar?
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.