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Team Sunweb: ‘We knew that a good year was coming’

German team's confidence in home-grown stars pays off in first season without Tom Dumoulin.

Some questioned how Team Sunweb would fare in 2020 without long-time poster boy and team linchpin Tom Dumoulin. The squad answered with a resounding haul of four grand tour stage wins, two riders on the final podium of the Giro d’Italia, and the promise of more to come.

“We knew we would have a good year,” team boss Iwan Spekenbrink told NOS this weekend. “That is easy to say afterward, you could say … but to be honest: the proof is there.”

Dumoulin’s exit in a high-profile move to Jumbo-Visma left Team Sunweb without a central figure heading into 2020 save for Dutch stalwart Wilco Kelderman. Spekenbrink’s squad embraced the opportunity to shake things up.

Rather than buying in established stars to fill Dumoulin’s shoes, the German squad pivoted toward its blossoming crop of youthful talents, many of whom had developed through the team’s own feeder squad. Sunweb’s young guns more than delivered.

Jai Hindley, 24, took a stage and second overall at the Giro, and Marc Hirschi, 22, won a stage at the Tour de France and backed up his stellar grand tour with a series of podium placings in marquee one-day races. Meanwhile, other under-25s on the squad, including Cees Bol, Michael Storer, and Chris Hamilton, all hit their stride.

The success came off the back of the groundwork built through 2019 and during the COVID lockdown this spring.

“Whether I expected this? Obviously, there were some outliers that we had not foreseen. It is not something you would expect, to finish with two men in the top three of the Giro – but we noticed last year that everyone was really working on the essentials again. People gave each other energy, ” Spekenbrink said. “Then we know that a good year was coming. And we have the confidence that this trend will continue for a while. There are also more talents on the way.”

Hirschi announced himself as the WorldTour’s newest superstar this season. The young Swiss rider won a stage, twice finished on the podium, and netted the combativity award at the Tour, and in the following weeks, won La Flèche Wallonne, and came close at both-Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the world championships.

Having risen to the top through the Sunweb development team, seeing Hirschi hit the big time was all the more rewarding for Spekenbrink.

“Symbolically, there was quite a lot in it,” he said of Hirschi’s breakout ride in France. “That is a young rider who has grown from our development program in a few years, and who is therefore getting better. Marc has been on the attack a lot with teammates, but also thanks to teammates. There was a lot in that award.”

There will be a shuffle at the top of Team Sunweb in 2021 as Kelderman jumps ship to join Bora-Hansgrohe, and Romain Bardet comes in from Ag2r-La Mondiale to focus on one-day racing. That leaves the door wide open for Sunweb’s new generation of stage racers to continue to thrive as the squad pushes to return to the top.

“Tom is of course a very good cyclist. But what we just didn’t want is to capture a Tom lookalike,” Spekenbrink said. “[We have riders who] in the future can certainly become just as good as Dumoulin is now. We prefer to work on improvement because that will eventually bring us closer to our bigger goals.”