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 question facing each team ahead of the re-start.
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 part one of this feature, we run through the key questions facing the first 10 WorldTour teams, in alphabetical order.
Will Romain Bardet be offered a new contract?
It's rather telling that Oliver Naesen and several other riders have been offered new deals while the team's most successful rider in the last five years remains open to negotiations. Bardet has drawn interest from Sunweb and the rumours are that a deal is close but the French squad still have time to secure his services if they believe he's still capable of attaining results. Persuading Bardet – who clearly needs a new challenge – to stay will be a tall order.
Who will be brought in to help Naesen?
The 29-year-old Belgian signed a three-year contract extension earlier in June and will see out the best years of his career at AG2R in a move that is testament to the respect and trust both rider and team have for one another. Both parties are well aware that if Naesen is to make the next step and win a Monument then he will require more assistance, and the Belgian hinted in an interview last month that the team were looking to recruit two riders.
Can they get Latour back on track?
The 2019 campaign was ruined by illness and a lack of form but Latour remains a talented rider who hasn’t yet reached his full potential. At 26, he's no longer white jersey material but he needs a strong showing in a Grand Tour to suggest that the early progress made in his career hasn’t completely stalled. He's slated for the Tour, when one presumes he will ride for a team leader who already has one eye on 2021 and possible move to Sunweb.
Can López handle the Tour?
Miguel Ángel López has been one of the most consistent Grand Tour riders of the past few years. After a DNF on his debut at the Vuelta in 2016, he finished eighth in 2017 before making the podium at both the Giro and Vuelta in 2018 and finishing top-10 at the two races last year. Now, he will finally make his Tour de France debut, some six years after winning the Tour de l'Avenir. That U23 race comes with a tag of expectation and, now ineligible for the young rider classification, it’s time for a true test of Lopez's credentials and future prospects.
How hard has the team been hit by the pandemic?
Oil and gas prices have slumped globally as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and that has had a knock-on effect on Astana, who are funded by a Kazakh sovereign wealth fund. Team boss Alexandre Vinokourov has already warned the team would disappear if there was no racing again this season, so they'll be praying the return to competition goes smoothly. Even so, it's unclear how quickly the oil and gas industry will take to recover and, with wage delays already a feature of the team before the pandemic, there is a question mark over their continued funding.
What's the future identity of the team?
Following on from the previous point, Astana need some degree of financial certainty and room for maneuver, given they only have 10 riders contracted for next year. Jakob Fuglsang is among them but, at 35, he's surely nearing the twilight of his career. Alexey Lutsenko is the star Kazakh rider and keeping him will be considered a priority for the backers, but Lopez is out of contract and heavily linked with a move away.
Will riders and staff be paid their deferred wages and if not what’s next?
Cyclingnews broke the sorry story over deferred and drastically reduced wages at Bahrain McLaren back in March. It was a major blow for a team that had talked up their chances of Tour glory before the pandemic took hold. July sees the first month when riders and staff should be paid their full wages but not only that, they should begin to receive backdated wages for money owed. If that happens, great, but if there’s a further delay or deferral then morale will be shot before racing begins.
Does Mark Cavendish warrant another contract?
It’s genuinely hard luck on Cavendish that he lost the first half of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some would argue that this was his final chance to prove he can still win at the highest level but another block of racing missed throws his Tour chances into doubt and raises the question as to whether the team will indulge in another second chance. No one would want to see the greatest sprinter in Tour history fade away like this but it’s a tough call for the team management in terms of what to do next.
Will they really go all in for Landa at the Tour?
If they had the money to sign him, then Chris Froome would have signed in a heartbeat. After all, the team have one of the best stage racing cores in the peloton with Wout Poels, Pello Bilbao, Daminao Caruso, Dylan Teuns and Eros Capecchi making up their climbing contingent. The team have a dilemma though – do they send all of those riders to the Tour to support Landa or do they move a Bilbao or a Caruso to the Giro in order to chase points and publicity on as many fronts as possible? It’s unlikely that an extra pair of hands will be the deciding factor in whether Landa can mount a challenge, so the team may decide to balance their aspirations.
Can they keep Schachmann on board?
With no German championships in 2020, Max Schachmann will wear the national champion's jersey for another year but it's not yet clear what sponsor's name will adorn it. Bora have amassed a rich array of German talent – see Pascal Ackermann, Emanuel Buchmann, and Lennard Kämna – and Schachmann, who has shone since joining from QuickStep and is only getting better, should be their priority in the transfer market. The 26-year-old has caught the eye in week-long races, hilly Classics, uphill sprints, and even time trials, and has attracted the attention of a number of suitors. Losing him would be a big blow.
Will they live to regret honouring Sagan’s Giro promise?
While his rivals are battling it out at the Tour of Flanders, Peter Sagan will be hauling himself up the summit finish to Piancavallo. On the day of Paris-Roubaix, he'll be riding a short time trial into Milan. It doesn't seem to make much sense. Sagan's decision to make his Giro debut was a welcome change to his routine, but sticking to that promise in the new calendar is an extraordinary call for a rider who is arguably short on Monuments when you consider his talent. There may have been a financial incentive to keep up appearances at the Giro but, with Sagan now set to ride two Grand Tours in two months, he and Bora are going to need a hefty return of stage wins if it’s to be worth the sporting sacrifice.
Can they keep Ackermann happy?
With Sagan heading to both the Tour and the Giro, that leaves Pascal Ackermann with the Vuelta. The German sprinter has said he’s totally fine with that but, after emerging as one of the top sprinters in the world last year, winning two stages and the points jersey at the Giro, just doing the Vuelta seems something of a downgrade in programme. Sam Bennett left after only being given the Vuelta last year and keeping Ackermann productive – he won 13 races last year to Sagan's four – will be a test for the Bora management.
Can Jim save the day?
With a CV that includes 7-Eleven, Motorola, BMC and CCC, it's fair to say that Jim Ochowicz is one of the best in the business when it comes to finding sponsors. The relationship with CCC looked to be stable and on track for the coming years but with share prices dropping and shoe outlets closing there was little room for a cycling team. Whether Och can find a company in the current climate to indulge in a multi-million dollar project remains to be seen but he's certainly talking a confident game. He has time on his side too, possibly until late into the autumn, because there will be no shortage of riders on the market. However, if he can maintain what he has it would arguably be one of his greatest achievements as a boss.
What will the Tour game plan be?
On paper, the team will struggle to support Ilnur Zakarin in the mountains. They don't have the climbers and riding to 10th place in Paris is hardly going to set the pulses racing for potential suitors. The team might find more success in targeting stage wins. Greg Van Avermaet, Matteo Trentin, Alessandro De Marchi, Patrick Bevan, Serge Pauwels and Zakarin are all classy bike riders, capable of memorable rides and victories from either breaks or reduced bunch sprints. An all-out attack approach would generate headlines each day, especially if a sponsor is still needed.
Why is a Tour stage win more important than top 10 on GC?
Because they haven’t won a race this year. In fact they haven't won since Van Avermaet took won the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal last year. A win – any win – is crucial and the earlier they can take it once racing resumes the quicker the nerves will settle and confidence will grow.
Can Viviani get back to winning ways?
Elia Viviani was the marquee signing for Cofidis as they re-entered the WorldTour for 2020, the Italian having established himself as arguably the top sprinter in the past couple of years – certainly in 2018. However, he had a shaky start to 2020, with 19 race days and no victory. In that time, he was beaten by the likes of Caleb Ewan, Sam Bennett, Pascal Ackermann, and Fabio Jakobsen. Of course, you can't write someone off in that short space of time – especially on a new team – but it will be interesting to see where Viviani, in Cofidis colours and without QuickStep's lead-out train, sits in what is now a crowded sprinting hierarchy.
Can Martin step up?
Although not a headline name like Viviani, Cofidis' other major signing for 2020 was Guillaume Martin. The French climber/philosopher had quietly caught the eye riding the Tour de France for Wanty-Groupe Gobert, finishing 12th last year, and Cofidis boss Cedric Vasseur thinks he can make the top five. For a few years now we've talked about his potential and, having recently turned 27, it's time for him to step into the spotlight in a leadership role.
Do they have enough depth at the top level?
If Viviani doesn't turn out to be as prolific as the rider they signed, you have to wonder if they have enough cover. Christophe Laporte should bring in a fair share of results and Jesús Herrada has been productive since joining from Movistar. However, you sense the Vasseur project is more ambitious that that and, with 13 riders out of contract, there is scope for strengthening the squad.
Is Alaphilippe serious about going for the Tour?
Last year's extraordinary Tour de France left us wondering whether it was a one-off of a dreamy summer, or whether Alaphilippe was a true Tour de France contender. He has said he's not overtly targeting the GC this year, but then he said that last year and almost won, and this year's route seems even better suited to him. Ironically, the panache that ultimately cost Alaphilippe last year was what put him in the picture in the first place, so it remains to be seen if he looks to play to those innate talents again, or if there’s a plan to turn him into a more conservative Grand Tour machine.
How badly have the sponsors been hit?
Manager Patrick Lefevere initially asked the sponsors for time when it came to assessing the impact of the pandemic and any knock-on effect on funding. He's become used to having to make difficult decisions when it comes to contracts, and so may find himself limited in the market when he does have a clearer idea of what he has to spend. A good chunk of the roster are under contract for 2021– including Alaphilippe, Evenepoel, Bennett, Jakobsen, Stybar. However, Jungels and Lampaert are both on the market and attracting interest (though Lefevere has held talks with both), which poses a threat to QuickStep's Classics core, never mind the idea of building a GC team for Alaphilippe.
Can Evenepoel handle the Giro mountains?
The Belgian's short career so far has defied all logic, so you'd have to say, 'why not?' In one and a half seasons, Evenepoel, still only 20, has won time trials, Classics, and week-long stage races, but his Grand Tour debut at October's Giro d'Italia represents a truer test of where he wants to go with his career. Evenepoel's performances so far have left many of his colleagues picking their jaws off the floor but some voices have questioned his ability in the high mountains. The Giro, which packs plenty of them into a brutal final week, will give as clear an indication as any over whether we are indeed looking at 'the next Eddy Merckx'.
Will the US riders be allowed into Europe?
Lawson Craddock, Alex Howes, and Tejay Van Garderen are three potential candidates for Tour de France spots but their possible participation could be halted if their forced to remain in the US due to travel restrictions. Throw Sean Bennett, Logan Owen, Lachlan Morton and Neilson Powless into the mix and the team could have a problem on their hands when it comes to racing in Europe.
Does Urán have a different role to play?
Sergio Higuita is one of the most exciting prospects in the WorldTour and his Paris-Nice performances demonstrated that he has no fear when it comes to taking on establishment. His debut in this year's Tour will be fascinating to follow and it will be intriguing to see how he and Rigoberto Urán work together. We don’t for a second foresee problems, but if Higuita is the stronger of the two then Urán will need to nurture and protect his younger compatriot. If they’re both on song, and Michael Woods has recovered, then the rest of the peloton need to watch out.
Can Andreas Klier mastermind a different Flanders win?
The team were competitive throughout last spring with top 10 rides in Paris-Roubaix, E3 Milan-San Remo and of course their thrilling Tour of Flanders victory. Alberto Bettiol is unlikely to be given any freedom whatsoever this time around, meaning that Andreas Klier will need to look for another way to win with Sep Vanmarcke, Sebastian Langeveld, and Jens Keukeleire
Can Pinot bounce back… again?
The tears that fell from Thibaut Pinot's face as he exited the 2019 Tour, and his wails as Marc Madiot tried to console him in his hotel room painted a picture of a man at his most tormented. Pinot felt he should have won that Tour. He'd allowed himself to believe it would happen, and even then after assuming it was over when he got caught out in the crosswinds. The wounds took time to heal and it will be a test of the Frenchman's resolve if he has let it scar him, or if he can channel his experiences into belief it will someday still happen for him. After winding up in hospital while on the verge of a Giro podium, he came back to win Il Lombardia in 2018, so Pinot has the so-called 'bouncebackability', but how many blows can he take?
What to do with Démare?
With Pinot's heart seemingly back in the Tour, where does that leave sprinter Arnaud Démare? Previously, the pair had been kept on separate schedules, with one doing the Giro and the other the Tour, both with success. The prospect of a Pinot Tour win has gained clarity and so it’s hard to envisage space for Démare in FDJ's line-up, much less any lead-out support. Like Pinot, the 28-year-old has signed a new long-term contract, so must have received assurances over his opportunities.
Will they look for new signings?
The team have already made huge strides to firming up their future, recently tying Pinot, Démare, David Gaudu, Stefan Küng and Rudy Molard to long-term deals. At a time when some teams were cutting salaries and trying to stay afloat altogether, it was quite the statement. With French prospect Valentin Madouas also under contract, the core of the team is secure, but there is still room for strengthening, with high mountain support for Pinot the most notable area. Gaudu has already stepped up to the plate there but Reichenbach, who has been Pinot's closest ally, has not yet signed a new deal.
Where to splash the cash?
When the team took Katusha's WorldTour licence, they managed to squeeze in a couple of signings – notably Dan Martin – for the 2020 season, but that one small window was never going to match the size of their budget or the scale of their ambition. Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Dylan Teuns, Jasper Stuyven, and Oliver Naesen are just some of the names they've been linked with so far this year. The desire for big names is there, the money is there to make it happen, but is this a scattergun approach or is there a long-term strategy?
What does Greipel bring to the table?
The news that André Greipel had been handed a new two-year deal came as something of a surprise, given the veteran German sprinter almost retired at the end of last year. After a disastrous year at Arkéa-Samsic, do they believe the German can still lead the line in a team that lacks a top-level sprinter? Or will he be moving into more of a mentoring role?
Can Dan Martin go for GC at the Tour?
If Froome signs mid-season, the point is moot, but as it stands Dan Martin is Israel’s leader for the Tour. Amidst a disappointing Tour for UAE Team Emirates last year, he took 18th after three consecutive top 10s. Those top 10s all came despite a series of setbacks, however, and Martin was justified in thinking he could aim a little higher. At 33, the Tour will be a key test of his Grand Tour credentials.
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