Few people gave a penny for Team Sunwebs chances of big successes in 2020. “But we knew we would be a good year,” it sounds from the mouth of team boss Iwan Spekenbrink. Thats easy to talk afterwards, youd say, but to be honest: the evidence is there.
In December 2019 Spekenbrink said this: “How to proceed without Tom Dumoulin? New unique talents are coming. I am not going to mention them now, because then there will be far too great expectations. But they are seriously great talents.”
Spekenbrink referred among others to Marc Hirschi (22), the young Swiss who made a furore this year with solos in the Tour de France. And on Jai Hindley (24), who almost came second in the Giro.
By expressing confidence in his scouting device, Spekenbrink didnt make it easy for himself. Because the simple choice, halfway last year, would have been to find a replacement for Dumoulin. “Tom is of course a great cyclist. But what we didnt want is to capture a lookalike of Tom. Someone who fits that profile. Because there are not so many riders who are just better than Tom at the moment.”
Spekenbrink had faith in the talents that were already under contract. Riders who “in the future can certainly become as good as Dumoulin is today. Then we prefer to work on improvement, because it ultimately brings us closer to our larger goals”.
Having talents in the house is one thing. To make them perform is a second. “Why do they get so good with us? There must be a commitment, a drive to get better. That way of working makes all the difference. If that commitment is there, we know what to do. In terms of approach and guidance.”
Thats not easy, says Spekenbrink. “Its demanding. But if they have that dedication, its almost an abc. Then we know that they are going to get better and that there will be successes. And then they develop quite quickly.”
Much comes into the process of improving and performing. Spekenbrink enumerates the following: “Then you have to be curious. Then you have to want to understand things better, and if you get it even better, you can start thinking about how youre going to influence it. Everything helps us with that. For example, the data. But that can also be wind tunnel tests, explorations of routes, analyses of tactics, anything that helps us to make riders better in the preparation. We are seriously far in that.”
Sunweb showed a fine piece of tactical races in the Tour and the Vuelta. Not infrequently the team was in the breakaway with two or three riders at the same time. A form of probability calculation that seems easy to conceive, but is difficult to realize.
“ Our odds were in trip wins. We knew the competitors, we knew the profile, we knew our own riders. We had to do it with an offensive approach. We had to anticipate certain situations.”
success of this tactic was mainly due to the riders that Sunweb selected; not top players like Michael Matthews, Wilco Kelderman and Sam Oomen, but debutants like Marc Hirschi (22), Joris Nieuwenhuis (24) and Casper Pedersen (24).
Sunweb won three stages with it and Hirschi was named the most combative rider of the Tour. “Symbolically there was quite a lot in there. This is a young rider who has grown from our development program in a few years. And that is getting better. Marcs been in the attack a lot. With teammates, but also thanks to teammates. There was a lot in it.”
But not only in the Tour there was success. Even before the coronavirus really broke out in Europe, there were victories and places of honour in races such as Paris-Nice and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. After the competitions were resumed, victories were followed in the Walloon Pijl, Paris-Tours and the Tour and the Giro. And Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman took a long time to win the final win in that Giro.
“ Did I expect this? Of course there were outliers that we did not foresee. The fact that you end up with two men among the best three in the Giro is not something you expect right away. But we noticed last year that everyone was really working on the essence again. People gave each other energy. Then we know theres gonna be a good year. And we are confident that this trend will continue for a while. There are also more talents coming.”
The highlight? “The stage victory of Søren Kragh Andersen in the Tour, in Lyon. Initially, we were in an early breakaway that we didnt really give a chance. We have lowered ourselves back.”
It was laughed about by many followers. Cees Bol and Casper Pedersen first drove the lungs out of their bodies to sit along in the escape, but let themselves back down a little later. “We knew that in the finals, with a barrage of demarrages on those hills, we took control of the pelotoncould break. And that someone might be able to go to the line alone. We performed that perfectly.”
In that final, Tiesj Benoot first demarred, then Marc Hirschi and then, as the last part of the three-stage rocket, Kragh Andersen. “That was great to see. How in a few miles, on a few hills, we got control of the peloton. That was pure top sport and pure teamwork.”
Giro, the choice
Then there is that matter in the Giro. Yes, there were two Sunweb riders on the podium, but not at the highest scaffold. And that while Wilco Kelderman had two minutes and 42 seconds ahead of the later winner four days before the end.
There was much to do about Sunwebs choice not to keep Hindley waiting for Kelderman, when the latter solved the Stelvio. “Yes, I still support that choice. Wed do the same thing now. There were still some mountain rides to go at that time and we knew that Tao Geoghegan Hart was actually just a little stronger than Wilco. And that if Wilco had to unload early, we had to keep Jai in the wheel of Hart. He would work like an anchor. Hart wouldnt drive full throttle with Jai in the wheel.”
That was the plan beforehand. On top of the Stelvio, Kelderman was forty seconds behind and lost even more time on the plane, on his own.
“ You can never know how another plan would have worked out afterwards. If Wilco had had superlegs that last Saturday, he could have had a margin to win. But it has gone as it has gone. And out of the 176 riders we had two on the podium.”