By Andrew Hood
What a difference a year makes.
This time last January, Bob Stapleton’s team entered the 2008 season without a title sponsor, with a largely young and inexperienced team and uncertain about its future.
Flash forward to 2009 and Highroad roars confidently into the season with new sponsor (Columbia, introduced ahead of last year’s Tour de France, back as co-sponsor), a new bike sponsor (Scott) and a bevy of young riders that is the envy of the peloton.
Self-assurance has replaced uncertainty and it was thick in the spring-like air on the Spanish island of Mallorca as the team introduced its 25-rider roster in a short and sweet team presentation on Saturday.
“Whether we win or lose, it is done as a team,” Stapleton said. “I’m not just proud of our success, I’m proud of the way in which we achieve it. All of the victories were earned by a good collective effort – by the riders and the management.”
The 2008 season proved to be a turning point for Stapleton’s stable of riders, breaking out with more than 80 victories and proving that racing clean and winning races can be synonymous.
That abundant harvest of wins led the way among the elite pro teams, something that Stapleton promises the 25-strong squad will aim to top in 2009.
For 2009, the team continues with its winning formula that includes a productive mix of youth and experience, with such stable hands as George Hincapie help to lead a herd of young bucks that includes 21 out of 36 riders (including the women’s team) under the ripe age of 26.
Leading the way will be British sprinting phenom Mark Cavendish and classics specialist and yellow jersey rider Kim Kirchen.
Cavendish, 24 in May, reeled off 17 victories in a breakout 2008 season, including an impressive haul of two Giro stages and four Tour wins while Kirchen will look to improve on his Flèche Wallonne win and a run in the Tour’s yellow jersey with even more stage-racing consistency.
Growing more confident with his ever-improving train, Cavendish looks like the man to beat in the fast-twitch horse race to the line.
“The lead-out team for the sprints will only be better this year,” Stapleton said. “The train didn’t even come together until the Giro last year. Now we know who is better in the last kilometer, the last pull. We will use that experience in 2009.”
The Manxster will make his season debut in the Tour of Qatar, a tricky race where he will square off with nemesis Tom Boonen (Quick Step), who’s ruled the desert kingdom with an iron fist.
After that, it will be a run through the cobblestones, where he might even race Paris-Roubaix, before a stab at the green jersey in the Tour.
Kirchen, meanwhile, will look to improve on his equally impressive 2008 season. A strong focus on the spring classics ahead of the Tour will provide GC heft to the team’s ambitious plans.
The team is already revamping its team time trial skills at the team’s training camp in Mallorca. The squad will practice team time trial efforts during a series of drills in Sunday’s training ride, something the team will continue to work on throughout the year.
“We won 15 time trials in 2008 and we plan to be very good this year in the team time trials,” Stapleton said. “The team time trials will be very important this year, especially at the Giro and the Tour. It’s a big goal for us.”
Gone are such names as Linus Gerdemann, Gerard Ciolek and Bradley McGee, but the team’s added some key players with Michael Albasini (28, Italy), Gert Dockx (20, Belgium), Maxime Monfort (25, Belgium) and Mark Renshaw (26, Australia).
Albasini will add some firepower in the mountains while such riders as Monfort can help out in the classics.
Back are Hincapie, still hoping for an elusive Paris-Roubaix win, Canadian Michael Barry, hoping to earn a Tour bid, and climbing prodigy Craig Lewis, who is on the short list to start the Giro d’Italia.
A healthy Michael Rogers – hampered with a string of health problems since crashing out in stage 8 of the 2007 Tour de France – will provide the team will more GC juice in the grand tours.
Norwegian sprinter Edvald Boasson Hagen will see more action this year as his confidence increases after a full year of racing while such younger riders as Tony Martin, Tour de Georgia winner Kanstantsin Sivtsov and Thomas Lövkvist will also see more chances this year.
The team’s methodology and emphasis on clean racing has already paid big dividends in 2008. There’s no reason to change the blueprint in 2009 now that the foundation is already laid.
Columbia-Highroad for 2009
• Michael Albasini
• Michael Barry
• Edvald Boasson Hagen
• Marcus Burghardt
• Mark Cavendish
• Gert Dockx
• Bernhard Eisel
• Bert Grabsch
• André Greipel
• Adam Hansen
• Greg Henderson
• George Hincapie
• Kim Kirchen
• Craig Lewis
• Thomas Lövkvist
• Tony Martin
• Maxime Monfort
• Marco Pinotti
• Morris Possoni
• Frantisek Raboñ
• Mark Renshaw
• Vicente Reynes
• Michael Rogers
• Marcel Sieberg
• Kanstantsin Sivtsov