2014 Report Card: Belkin Pro Cycling

2014 Belkin Report Card
WorldTour ranking: 12th (Down one place from 2013)
Win count: 23 (Down from 38 in 2013)
Top riders: Mollema (19th), Vanmarcke (23rd), Kelderman (33rd)

2014 was meant to be a season of stability for Belkin after a turbulent 2013 which saw the Dutch team start the year with no name or sponsor on its jerseys until the American electronics company came on board on the eve of the Tour de France.

Almost a year to the day and Belkin announced it would be ending its sponsorship deal early. Team manager Richard Plugge was in a familiar 'groundhog day' scenario but once again he delivered, just 13 days later, thanks to the Dutch Lotto and BrandLoyalty but not before floating the idea of crowd funding.

With the future of the team in flux, Lars Boom, Bauke Mollema and Theo Bos signed on for new teams in 2015 but to his credit, Plugge was able to retain the majority of his roster when at one point, he looked like seeing all his talent jump ship.

Sprinters Bos and Moreno Hofland were the most prolific winners for the team with 16 victories between them but only the one of those was a WorldTour victory. At the American, Asian and Europe Tour level the team was more than capable with four stages wins at the Tour de Langkawi via Bos and two at the Tours of Alberta, Norway (including the overall) and Utah.

However, success at the WorldTour level proved harder to come by with stages wins at the Volta a Catalunya, Tour de Pologne, Paris-Nice and arguably the highlight of the year, Boom's stage win on the cobbles at the Tour de France, but with the talent on the roster, bigger things are expected of these well remunerated riders.

After narrowly missing out at Paris-Roubaix last year, Sep Vanmarcke was hungry to atone for his narrow miss and claim a maiden monument. With consistent performances at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem,  the 26-year-old started the Tour of Flanders as one of the favourites and lived up to the hype during the race.

But it all went awry for Vanmarcke as Fabian Cancellara once again proved to be the rider of his nightmares as the Belgian could only watch on in horror as the Swiss maestro put on a masterclass.

With time on his side, Vanmarcke will be better off for his 2014 classics campaign in years to come and can look forward to sole leadership as well with the defection of Boom.

Losing Robert Gesink to heart surgery early in the year was always going to impact the GC aspirations of Belkin but in the absence of the 28-year-old,  up stepped Wilco Kelderman. In just his second grand tour, the 23-year-old impressed at a youthful Giro d'Italia to finish in seventh place overall.

Forgoing any immediate and well earned rest, Kelderman lined up at the Critérium du Dauphiné with his form intact and rode to fourth overall and first in the young rider classification, further enhancing his reputation as a young rider to watch and setting the standard for the team's GC men.

Bauke Mollema is not the kind of rider to who racks up win after win but the Dutchman's GC performances this year were arguably down on last year. Mollema put in career best performances in the Ardennes and while he had high overall placing at the Tour, the 2007 Tour de l'Avenir remains his sole overall win.

Perhaps Trek will provide the platform he needs to take the next step to becoming a more consistent winner.

For Laurens ten Dam, it was a similar story with ninth overall at the Tour a career best placing confirming his talent as a top-ten GC rider but unable to truly match it with the likes of a Nibali or Contador. With Steven Kruijswijk's first overall win, the Arctic Race of Norway, and Kelderman's performances, perhaps 2015 will see ten Dam ride in more of a supporting role than he has recently.

What to expect in 2015? Mitigating the depature of the most talented riders on the roster was a bonus for the team and with the absence of Mollema and Boom, there are enough riders to step up and fill the void in 2015. Otherwise, it appears a season of more or less the same goals of the cobbled classics and grand tour podium places but with a commitment to bettering 2014 results.

The loss of Bos is likely to see the team record a few less wins in 2015 but the former track world champion never truly peaked on the road as he failed to fulfil his ambition of a grand tour stage win. Hofland proved on enough occasions that he can be the team's go to sprinter and bring home wins with his brief Vuelta a Espana appearance suggesting a grand tour win is on the cards.

In the cobbled classics, the team will be built around Vanmarcke who can call upon new-signing Tom Van Asbroeck for support in an otherwise unchanged classics team bar Boom.

Kelderman has made it very clear that his season will be built around the Tour. A fatigued Kelderman faded in the final week of the Vuelta but will be better off in 2015 for having raced two grand tours this year. If Kelderman is given the freedom to pursue his own success, a top-ten place overall should be a minimum target on the climber friendly parcours but his early season performances may need to impress the team first if Gesink also targets the French grand tour.

Best signing: The signing of Lotto and BrandLoyalty on a long-term deal, in cycling anyway, will have eased the minds of riders and staff alike, as what the psychological effects are of a three-year search for financial security, is unknown. Time will tell though if riders  find themselves unburdened and with a new found confidence and results that follow.

There has been little transfer activity at Belkin so far and half of the new-signings arrive via the Rabobank Development team. George Bennett moves across from Cannondale and has ridden at WorldTour level since 2012 but is yet to deliver on his talent. The security of a two-year deal may just unlock the New Zealander's potential who has ridden largely in support of teammates thus far in his career.

Timo Roosen and Mike Teunissen are both riders of the future and are proven winners at U23 level. Teunissen as the winner of the 2014 Paris-Roubaix Espoirs and Paris-Tours Espoirs could surprise a few people if given the opportunity in the cobbles and one-day races and looks like being a signing for the future.

Biggest loss: Losing Mollema, Boom and Bos would test any squad but their departures won't be catastrophic as there are riders who can step into their shoes.

The loss of Mollema for next season is a double-edged knife for the team who wave goodbye a consistent GC performer but will be buoyed by the fact that it's an occupancy they can quickly fill with Kelderman. 

While Boom was a consistent performer in the cobbled classics, Vanmarcke was arguably the better performer of the duo over the past two seasons. Boom's Tour stage win was one for the ages and a reward for his tenacity but again, the team will be confident that it is has the riders to cover his loss.

Man to watch: Since turning pro in 2012, Kelderman has produced numerous eye catching performances and become a serial collector of best young rider jerseys (Tour of California, Danmark Rundt twice, Critérium du Dauphiné twice and Tour de Romandie).

In 2014 he continued his upward trajectory in the sport with his seventh at the Giro and while his Vuelta wasn't reflective of his best work, big things are now expected in 2015. While he may be just 23-year-old, the Dutch can't be considered crazy for dreaming that a third Tour victory isn't too far away via the man nicknamed "Keldermerckx".

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