Words by Peter Cossins | Photos by CorVos/SWpix.com
What is it about Team Sunweb that leads to the German outfit being portrayed as underdogs so often? My theory – and it’s simple, I’ll readily admit – is that each season they tend to say goodbye to their biggest names and, for the most part, replace them with young and relative unknowns. In short, they’re something of a WorldTour-standard feeder team, developing talent that flourishes and then moves on.
Consider some of the names that have left over the last half-dozen years. At the end of 2015, what was then Team Giant-Alpecin waved goodbye to Marcel Kittel, their standard-bearer for the four previous seasons. In 2016, it was John Degenkolb, who had won Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix in their colours. In 2017, Warren Barguil moved on after winning two stages and the King of the Mountains jersey at the Tour. In 2019, Tom Dumoulin left to join Jumbo-Visma. At the end of this season, Wilco Kelderman, who finished third at the Giro, Sam Oomen, long regarded as one of the Netherlands’ best prospects, and, Michael Matthews are heading for pastures new.
For the most part, Sunweb team manager Iwan Spekenbrink has resisted the temptation to replace one big name with another. While Roman Bardet is joining the team next season – the Frenchman’s arrival a surprise in itself after nine seasons with Ag2r La Mondiale – Spekenbrink has focused on bringing through talent from Sunweb’s development team and similar outfits, or on picking up young riders from rival WorldTour squads.
Take the last two seasons, for instance. In 2019, sprinter Cees Bol arrived, as did Joris Nieuwenhuis and Casper Pedersen, who were part of Bol’s very potent lead-out train at the Tour. Like Nieuwenhuis, Marc Hirschi also stepped up from Sunweb’s development team. This year, Belgian stage race prospect Ilan Van Wilder was promoted straight to the WorldTour from the junior ranks, while budding sprinter Alberto Dainese and Dutch powerhouse Nils Eekhoff, very controversially disqualified after winning the 2019 world U23 road title in Harrogate, were also taken on.
As a consequence of this, the average age of Sunweb’s teams at major races has usually been at the lower end of the scale. Significantly, though, results keep coming, with nine wins taken in the WorldTour this year. These include three stages at the Tour, Hirschi’s victory on his Flèche Wallonne debut, and Jai Hindley’s tremendous success on the Stelvio stage of the Giro, where he finished a very close second on GC to Tao Geoghegan Hart.
The team’s #keepchallenging hashtag encapsulates Sunweb’s philosophy. Their approach to events is meticulous, their post-racing analysis of performance equally so. Speaking at the Tour, team coach Matt Winston explained that selection for every race is done with specific objectives in mind that are influenced by the terrain and the likely strengths of rival teams. For example, according to Winston, Matthews wasn’t included on their Tour line-up because it was felt he would have more opportunities at the Giro and the Bretagne Classic, which he won. Equally, the German team ensured that the riders who did make the Tour line-up were focused on a few very specific stages, including all three where they triumphed.
This focusing of riders on races that suit that particular talents is one of the reasons for Bardet being tempted into signing. Having been on something of a treadmill at Ag2r, where the Tour is always the main priority, the Frenchman has admitted to losing some of his zest for racing. What’s more, during nine years with Ag2r, he’s won just seven races. Although Sunweb will want him to be one of their Grand Tour leaders, putting the Frenchman another in the position to win will be just as important.
It will be interesting to see how Bardet fits into what is shaping up as an even more dynamic WorldTour attack. Hindley now looks very capable of taking the GC pressure off the Frenchman’s shoulders. The 24-year-old Australian’s compatriot Chris Hamilton should also offer strong support based on his Giro performance. An eye should also be kept on another new arrival, 21-year-old Norwegian time trial champion Andreas Leknessund, who’s a very useful climber too based on his under-23 record.
Although Matthews is moving on, Sunweb’s sprint attack still looks extremely potent. Bol is already battling with the best in the bunch on flatter stages. When it’s more rolling, Paris-Tours winner Pedersen should come into his own, emerging as one of Matthews’ principal rivals in this kind of terrain.
Above all, though, the Classics should provide Sunweb with the stage to show the extent of their resources. The very punchy Hirschi, who has already proved he’s well capable of duelling with and beating the best, might well have added Liège-Bastogne-Liège to his Flèche victory if world champion Julian Alaphilippe hadn’t switched across him in the sprint, clipping his front wheel in the process. Eekhoff, the winner of the U23 edition of Roubaix in 2017, should be more prominent in the Northern Classics after his first full season in the pro ranks. And let’s not forget established leaders Tiesj Benoot and double Tour stage-winner Søren Kragh Andersen.
It should also be highlighted that Sunweb are one of just three WorldTour outfits (the others being Lotto-Soudal and, from 2021, Jumbo-Visma) that also boast a women’s WorldTour team and an under-23 development squad. The former has been boosted by the arrival of two of the most exciting young talents in women’s racing in 21-year-old Dutch sprinter Lorena Wiebes and 18-year-old American Megan Jastrab, who’s been close to unbeatable at junior level.
Ultimately, Sunweb are not so much underdogs as ever-present dark horses, a team that knows where it strengths lie and where to deploy them. Don’t be surprised when they do.
This piece was commissioned for our “pop-up” review of the year,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is available to purchase here >