Thoughts on the 2014/15 transfer season (so far!) – part 2, the rise of super-teams
Earlier this week I wrote about how teams have handled their (UCI-level road cycling) transfer announcements, and now I want to look at what it might mean for the peloton in 2015. As before, this comes with a huge caveat that we don’t know what all the teams look like yet, it’s a snapshot of where we are right now, at the end of October 2014 – here’s the big transfer table (I’ll be updating it throughout November with any more news we see, so if you’re looking at this later in the month and thinking my questions are obviously answered, that’s why)
How the peloton will change in 2015 – more “super-teams”
It seems like we’re going to see a very different style of women’s peloton in 2015 – another new era, if you like. Back when I first really got into the sport, it was the heyday of the two “super-teams”, Cervélo Test Team versus HTC Highroad (who are still around as Specialized-lululemon), with Emma Johansson and Marianne Vos racing for “small” teams, and all the Italians in Italian teams. I loved that Cervélo-HTC rivalry, but since then it’s felt like talent’s been more evenly spread around the peloton. This season we had one “super-team” in Rabobank-Liv, who had an extraordinary year, with Anna van der Breggen and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot taking the steps up we knew they had in them, and Vos being her usual awesome self, and Annemiek van Vleuten‘s latest operation sorting out the problem in her leg that had been holding her back for the last three years, and the super-domestiques like Lucinda Brand and Roxane Knetemann getting chances to race for themselves. Rabo ended up with some incredible results, including podium sweeps at races like the Giro Rosa and the GP Plouay World Cup – but it’s important to remember that they didn’t start off so well, and their Spring Classics were frustrating – especially when faced with Boels-Dolmans’ pairing of Lizzie Armitstead and Ellen van Dijk, who won the Ronde van Drenthe and Ronde van Vlaanderen World Cups respectively. In fact, you can divide the season neatly into Spring Classics, dominated by Boels, summer stage races, owned by Rabo, and the pre-Worlds (& Worlds), late season section, “won” by Specialized-lululemon. While it’s easy to say “Rabo won everything”, it’s not actually true – but it’s interesting to see how other teams have responded.
First, we seem to be looking at three teams stepping up to try to rival Rabo as “super-teams”. Boels-Dolmans were already full of talent, so it’s interesting looking at who they’ve signed – Armitstead and Van Dijk are joined by two Spec-lulu riders – Open de Suède Vårgårda World Cup winner Chantal Blaak, and Thüringen Rundfahrt and Boels Rental Ladies Tour winner Evelyn Stevens. I find this interesting – that’s four riders who in the past have targeted the same World Cups, and with existing Boels rider Megan Guarnier, who was 7th in this year’s Giro, two potential Giro team leaders. Boels have got rid of a lot of their 2014 riders too – pretty much all of what they untactfully referred to as the B-Team, so we’re waiting to see if they’ll hire more, and have two squads racing at the same time, like they did this year.
Next up, a team that’s had a real shake-up, Wiggle Honda. There’s real changes here, and I’m not surprised. While Giorgia Bronzini has won a lot in her two years racing in the team, hers were the biggest results, and it’s always risky when one rider holds a team’s success on her shoulders. So they’ve expanded in different directions. When they signed Elisa Longo Borghini and Audrey Cordon from Hitec Products, they talked about how Elisa could win the Giro… and then signed two-times former winner Mara Abbott too – again, two Giro contenders in one team.
But that’s not all! They haven’t confirmed Bronzini’s staying, but she’s not signed elsewhere (so far!) and new signings are talking about how excited they are to race with her, so I was raising my eyebrows when they signed young Belgian star Jolien D’hoore, because D’hoore had this incredible 2014, and is shaping up to be another major sprinter. But people pointed out, D’hoore could target the cobbley Dutch & Belgian sprints she’s best at, and Bronzini go for the rest… but then they also signed tough sprinter Chloe Hosking – does this mean Hosking’s back in the sprint-train? Chloe will race the Aussie crit season, but they also signed Scottish crit star Eileen Roe, and another Aussie, Nettie Edmondson, who can win crits… That team is bursting with talent!
Super-team three is Bigla, and I’m so happy they’re back at the top. In the mid-2000s they were all over the podiums, with stars like three-times Giro-winner Nicole Brändli, Noemi Cantele, who won World ITT silver and road race bronze while riding for them, Zulfia Zabarova, who won stages of the Giro and Tour de l’Aude Grand Tours, and lots of other races, in their colours. Then in 2010, they took a major step back, to a 7-rider non-UCI-team, and in 2011 they only had 3 senior and 4 juniors. In 2012 they got a little bit bigger, and last year were up to 15 riders – still national-level, but with superstar Emma Pooley racing for them while she completed her PhD, they got invited to much bigger races – and this year they were back to UCI-level, a “small” team punching above their weight, with Vera Koedooder and Elke Gebhardt attacking and winning stages and getting podiums in major races, and Lotta Lepistö coming third in the Sparkassen Giro World Cup among other good moments – but next year they’ll be under new management, and back to their super-team days.
Koedooder and Lepistö are staying, but they’ll be joined by former Ronde van Vlaanderen and Road World Cup series winner Annemiek van Vleuten, multiple “first South African and African rider to get on the podium of…” Ashleigh Moolman, USA and Canadian sprinters Shelley Olds and Joëlle Numainville, and some super-domestiques, Dutch national champion and rouleur Iris Slappendel, and mountain goat Sharon Laws.
So what about the 2014 super-teams? Obviously Rabo have lost Van Vleuten and Slappendel, but the rest of the team is remarkably static – and they’ve added Aussie TT rider and former Giro stage winner Shara Gillow, who hasn’t seemed to have reached her potential at ORICA. Then there’s Specialized-lululemon. Losing their sponsors, and riders like Blaak and Stevens is hard, but they’ve announced they’re partnering with Cervélo, and while right now we only know Lisa Brennauer and Tiffany Cromwell are staying so far, that’s quite a pair – Lisa won 2 golds and a silver at this year’s road World Champs, and Cromwell is a brilliant attacking rider, who is always one to watch.
So how will these super-teams work?
I have to admit, when I look at the line-ups of these super-teams, I can’t work out how they’ll work in real life. So Bigla’s got how many contenders for the Classics? Who gets to lead for the Giro in Boels and Wiggle – and which sprinters will actually get to sprint in Wiggle and Bigla? I’m fascinated by how this will work out. Rabo has managed to juggle multiple leaders, and let riders race, but Rabo are lucky because while Vos is definitely the superstar, Vos is more than happy to race for her team-mates. Rabo made their multiple talents look effortless, but last year it was only Vos and Van Vleuten who won big races – and I can’t imagine managing a team with so many ambitious stars is as simple as they make it seem.
My friend Jens wondered if what some of these teams is doing is talent-hoarding – after all, one of the ways to neutralise threats in big races is to buy up the rivals, and I do wonder, with some of those super-teams, how they’ll decide who races what. A bad scenario for a rider is she’s got a 2-year contract, but doesn’t get to ride – or she is always frustrated at the situation, so when she does get to ride, she can’t be 100%. I really believe that if those super-teams aren’t managed well, smaller teams like Hitec or Giusfredi will be able to take advantage, manipulate the situations and take those wins.
How will the super-teams handle the season?
When I look at how Boels, and especially the 17 (!!) rider Wiggle, what I wonder is whether they’ll be splitting squads across continents as a way to deal with the too-many-cooks issue. Especially with the USA having a UCI season from late April with the Joe Martin and Tour of the Gila UCI stage races followed by the Amgen Tour of California women’s race in May (whatever form that takes…) and then the Winston Salem non-UCI crit and UCI Classic at the end of the month, leading into the Gatineau races in Canada and the Parx Casino Philly Classic being a World Cup at the start of May – that could be a great mini-season for eg Stevens and Abbott to lead teams in, while other iterations race around Europe. And with Roe, Dani King and Anna Christian, Wiggle could have a 3rd squad in the UK. But will they? Splitting squads is expensive, and how would they then decide races like the Giro?
I hope I don’t sound like I’m worrying about this, because I genuinely can’t wait to see what happens next year. I really hope the worst-case-scenario of riders not getting to race doesn’t come to pass, but I’ll be grabbing my popcorn and watching for drama, because cycling fans really enjoy some good speculation.
So why are riders signing to teams, if there’s a risk they don’t get to ride?
Super-teams – teams with money, or with stability?
One of the conversations I’ve been having is why these super-teams are there. It could be mega budgets, but I wonder if it’s less about money, and more about teams with stability – deals agreed to the end of 2016. It’s interesting looking at which teams really are stepping up. Obviously Bigla has had an influx of cash, but as the situation stands now, it looks like Boels-Dolmans, who’ve taken on some big names, have let go a lot more riders than they’ve taken on – maybe it’s the same budget, apportioned differently? And some teams, like ORICA look like they might be working on smaller budgets – but a team with a two-year commitment could be a better deal than a team offering big wages, for riders with Olympic ambitions, who want their riding not to be interrupted by endless stresses over where they’ll ride next year.
Speaking of the Olympics and after, I have thoughts about what this year’s transfer season means for the future, and I’ll be writing about that next week. Let me know in the comments, or on twitter, what you think next year will look like – I could talk about all this for days!