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Team Sunweb bidding on future in face of leadership vacuum

Team offers equal opportunities throughout youthful squad as it prepares for loss of more stars.

Team Sunweb is playing the long-game as it gears up for the return to racing this August.

In its first season without long-time poster boy Tom Dumoulin, and uncertainty over the future of its current GC hopes Wilco Kelderman and Sam Oomen, Team Sunweb is focused on what it does have: A roster packing more than 15 riders aged 25-years or less and who are bristling with potential.

“We’re by far the youngest team in the WorldTour and we have some really good, young talent that we’re developing,” Sunweb sport director Luke Roberts told VeloNews. “We’re all-in on developing our pool of young riders coming through; we’ve got sprinters, climbers, classics riders, and we want them all to have the room to develop.”

2020 is the first of Team Sunweb’s seven years in the WorldTour without Dumoulin, the Dutchman who had formed the focus of the team’s GC plans since proving his three-week potential in the 2015 Vuelta a España. Going into 2021, it’s looking more likely that the team will also be without grand tour veteran and GC captain Kelderman or budding young Dutchman Oomen, both out of contract at the end of the year.

“At the moment, the situation is that they would not be offered a renewal here,” Roberts said. “And yeah, as a consequence of that, they are free to speak with other teams.”

With Roberts also dismissing talk of the team hunting the signature of French star Romain Bardet as “pure speculation,” the squad could be seen as without a focal point the next year. For now, the absence of one central figure is almost the intention. Instead, Sunweb is playing the long game, building a cohesive squad of young stars for the future.

The team is looking beyond any central points of focus such as Benoot and aiming to develop a pool of wide talent. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images.

“It’s not like we have one ‘poster boy’ here,” Roberts said in a telephone interview. “I think of Team Sunweb as a strong team together, and we’ve seen the possibility that there was a void there or perhaps that’s the public perception.

“We worked hard with our riders over the winter to build a strong team environment together — a strong team atmosphere. We’ve got such a big pool of young guys like Marc Hirschi [and] Alberto Dainese; we have Ilan van Wiler, Thymen Arensman … all strong riders coming through with qualities to strengthen the sprint group, classic riders, but also climbers and those targeting GCs,” Roberts said. “They’re all very ambitious and we want them all to get their chance.”

The German-based team confirmed its initial selections for the restarted 2020 season last week, with a focus on stage-hunting at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, and a GC challenge with Kelderman at the Giro d’Italia, where Michael Matthews would also be looking for sprint wins. Meanwhile, the likes of Søren Kragh Andersen and Tiesj Benoot would carry the team’s hopes at the cobbled classics, with Matthews joining them for Milano-Sanremo.

Matthews’ omission from the Tour squad came as a surprise to many, including the experienced Australian himself. However, the multiple grand tour stage winner deferred to the team’s ambition to offer all its riders opportunities to gain experience and have the space to shine.

“The program looks different from what I expected, yes,” Matthews told Wielerflits. “The decision was quite hard … I am convinced that the team management has done its utmost to offer everyone the best possible program in these circumstances. The team has clear goals for the coming years. In the past, they have usually succeeded in achieving it.”

Hirschi is one of many of Sunweb’s crop of next-generation talent. Photo: Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images.

When speaking to VeloNews, Roberts explained that producing a rider schedule that balanced rider exposure with team ambition was a tough task, saying “the way the program unfolded it’s difficult to give all the riders an ideal program and for this year, but we think we have provided a balanced and fair schedule for everyone. It was all about letting everyone have a chance.”

Although Sunweb is packing the big names such as Matthews and Kelderman, for now, everyone gets their opportunity regardless of their palmarès. And before coronavirus halted the season, the team’s youngsters showed they’re up to that challenge. This year started strong for Sunweb, with GC victory for 24-year-old Jai Hindley at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, a stage win at Volta ao Algarve with Cees Bol, also 24, third-place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with Søren Kragh Andersen, 25, and second overall at Paris-Nice via Tiesj Benoot, 26. Roberts hopes they can refind that momentum when the racing wheels get rolling again in August.

“We showed how this season started that we’re a strong unit together, and it was unfortunate with the break in the season that we couldn’t continue on with it. But the last three months, we’ve invested a lot of time to make sure we can start up again right where we left off,” Roberts said. “We’ve done a lot to work with the young guys since racing stopped, splitting them into groups – climbers, sprinters, classics guys –  doing virtual sessions together, working on developing key areas for their specialism.”

Roberts and his Sunweb team are looking to the Vuelta, in particular, to expose as many of its young squad to the rigors of three-week racing as possible, with the 12-name long-list including eight riders under 23 years old. Relative veterans Nicholas Roche and Texan Chad Haga are also in the selection and are likely to be on the start line in Spain to add an experienced ballast.

“There are quite a few in the Vuelta group with the qualities to be competitive there and that’s not directly GC, but at least get a feeling for a grand tour,” Roberts said. “And of course, they’ve got a lot of ambition; we’ll be trying for stages.”

“The young guys have already proven they can be competitive in the one-week stage races like Hirschi’s results last year [including third at Clásica Ciclista San Sebastián and top-six on GC at both the Binck Bank and Deutschland Tours]. And we’ll continue developing those guys through the future,” Roberts continued.

“Obviously, we’re probably not at the moment in a situation to go directly out chasing a Tour de France victory, but that can come.”