News Feature, January 11, 2009
By Shane Stokes
Focusing on a friendly, family-like approach rather than the glitzy presentations favoured by T-Mobile in years past, Columbia High Road introduced its 2009 team to the media on Saturday. As was the case with T-Mobile, the launch was held in the Club Robinson resort on the east side of Majorca. However this time the large theatre and charter-jet full of journalists was passed up in favour of that more intimate setup.
In truth, the team doesn't need that glitz; it's about substance rather than an excess of style. Last year both the men's and women's teams were the most successful in cycling, winning 85 and 68 races respectively. In fact, the women were victorious in more than half the races they entered; that's a staggering statistic in a sport with so many teams and so many riders.
Columbia High Road won from the start until the end of the season in 2008, and it is planning on doing the same again. Because of that, not all of its riders were present; for example, Michael Rogers has just taken the team's first victory of the year by winning the Australian time trial championships. He, Adam Hansen and Mark Renshaw will ride the road race on Sunday, while the German rider Judith Arndt took advantage of the open nature of those champs to compete in Saturday's women's race. Other riders such as George Hincapie are preparing for their own imminent start of competition.
"Cycling has changed a little bit and the season no longer begins in March and April. We have big races now in January and February," explained Bob Stapleton, team owner. "We have got an exciting group of athletes here but we also have a number who are already out and who are making final preparations for racing. We have got a very strong team in the Tour Down Under, and they are down in Australia right now. That includes George Hincapie, that includes André Greipel, who along with his team-mates dominated that race last year, winning five of the six stages, and also Adam Hansen and Michael Rogers."
Even with those absentees, plus others such as Ina-Yoko Teutenberg and Mara Abbott who are also not in Majorca, there were a large number of riders presented to the media. The men's team is 25 strong, while there are eleven women in 2009. Of those 36, a surprising 21 are 26 years of age or younger. Combine that with the number of victories taken last year, and it's clear that many of the brightest young talents in cycling will be kitted out this year in the new-look yellow and white team kit.
The new signings to the men's squad are Michael Albasini (28, Italy), Gert Dockx (20, Belgium), Maxime Monfort (25, Belgium) and Mark Renshaw (26, Australia). The women's squad has two new signees, namely world scratch race champion Ellen Van Dijk (21, Netherlands) and Canadian champ Alex Wrubleski (24). Many others return from last season, including big names such as Kim Kirchen, Mark Cavendish and world time trial champion Bert Grabsch on the men's side, plus Arndt and Teutenberg for the women.
"We have made a few strategic changes. The aim is to build on our strengths and elevate our weaknesses," Stapleton explained. "For example, Michael Albasini is of great importance for the mountain stages.
"Of our 36 riders, 21 of them are 26 or younger, making us the youngest team at the top level of professional cycling. We hope that future champions will come out of the this team as well."
A new look
Apart from the riders themselves, there are a couple of significant changes in 2009. The most obvious is that redesigned team kit. Last year the then-High Road team started competing with a black kit, then changed to a white design before settling on blue after Columbia signed on as title sponsors. This time round, the riders will be wearing yellow and white. Stapleton explained the change and what it symbolises.
"Our basic kit is going to be white and yellow," he said. "Yellow is success, yellow is the goal, yellow is leadership, yellow is victory. Everybody knows what the yellow jersey stands for and on our kit, yellow is what we aspire to.
"The white is clean, it is simple, it is new, it is fresh. It is also transparent. I think that the concern for some of our riders is when these white shorts get wet, they might be too transparent [laughs] but in the winter races we will be wearing black shorts also."
The other main change is the equipment; Columbia will be using Scott bikes in 2009, together with Shimano electronic groupsets plus various other components. Stapleton told Cyclingnews that the team will keep some equipment advancements under wraps for now, unveiling it a little later in the season.
So there are changes, but what persists is the team spirit. Last season Columbia showed superb teamwork, with victories such as Mark Cavendish's four stage wins in the Tour de France being made possible with the help of others. The fact that many are involved in success such as those Grand Tour victories, or Judith Arndt's World Cup title, plus the overall victories in the Deutschland Tour, the Tour of Ireland, the Tour de Georgia, the Route de France and the Sachsen Tour is something that appeals to Stapleton and which is emphasised by him.
"I am quite proud of not only the success the team has had, but how it has been achieved," he said. "Always you see the guy crossing the line with the arms in the air, but in this team all these victories have been earned through good effort by everybody. The riders who have sacrificed their chances for victory, the staff that have made sure the bikes were ready, the food was ready, the kits were ready and that they work well together."
But success breeds success, too. Of the 42 men and women on the team in 2008, 31 won at least one race. Columbia may emphasise team-work, but it does also give its riders the chance to chase their own victories. Michael Rogers got the ball rolling earlier this week with the Australian time trial title; expect many more big results to be added in the months ahead.
Bob Stapleton & Allan Peiper: United Colours of Columbia
Rolf Aldag: German shepard
Mark Cavendish: Who can challenge him in the 2009 sprints?
Bob Stapleton on new anti-doping programme
The 2008 Team High Road presentation