Words by Peter Cossins | Photos by SWpix.com
Regular readers to La Course en Tête’s output will well know that I’ve got a bit of a soft spot when it comes to Team Sunweb.
Whether racing under the Argos-Shimano, the Giant-Alpecin or the Sunweb banner, from a working point of view they’ve always been one of the most approachable teams for a journalist to deal with, while this last season they were extremely easy on the eye in many of the major events, taking three stage wins at the Tour, filling two places on the podium at the Giro, and scoring notable one-day wins at the Bretagne Classic, Paris-Tours and Flèche Wallonne.
Last week, when I joined their online launch of their 2021 teams, I was also hugely impressed by their ability to keep a lid on the news that the travel company that is their headline sponsor is stepping aside as a result of a need to refocus due to the impact of Covid. With Sunweb set to bow out, DSM, a Dutch company focusing nutrition, health and sustainable living products and research, is stepping in for the next four seasons.
This will result in a change of kit, although the team’s distinctive double-stripe will remain, now in blue on a predominantly black jersey that resembles Team Sky’s. However, as coach Matt Winston explained to me following the online handover from Sunweb to DSM, the team’s approach to racing will essentially remain the same as it was in 2020, focusing on specific targets selected to suit the particular talents of their riders, and competing aggressively and, often, in numbers for them.
Winston highlighted four goals for Team DSM. “The first is the Classics, and having diverse tactics in the final is something we’re planning to target; the second is the Grand Tours; the third goal is our women’s programme, which we want to become a consistently strong force at the very top of the sport; and the final one is to keep bringing through the best talent with our development programme, to keep bringing through young riders into our WorldTour team almost in the style of a football academy,” Winston explained.
Although Sunweb’s most high-profile moments during 2020 arrived in the Grand Tours, looking down their very youthful line-up – there are only three riders above 30: new signing Romain Bardet, Chad Haga and road captain Nicolas Roche – I’m more excited by what their possibilities in the Classics. Flèche winner Marc Hirschi would probably have won Liège-Bastogne-Liège as well but for Julian Alaphilippe’s finishing straight swerve into the Swiss rider’s sprinting line, and he’ll be among the favourites for La Doyenne come mid-April.
Yet the German outfit look particularly well blessed for the earlier Spring Classics. In Tiesj Benoot, Nils Eekhoff, Søren Kragh Andersen, Joris Nieuwenhuis and Casper Pedersen, they have five fearsome talents. They may not have the experience of Deceuninck, but they’re certainly towards the front of the pack looking to knock the Belgian team off their perch as the kings of the cobbled Classics.
Turning to the Grand Tours, the team has lost Giro podium finisher Wilco Kelderman, Sam Oomen and sprinter Michael Matthews, but has made one of the more intriguing signings in Bardet, twice a podium finisher at the Tour. An aggressive racer by nature and tactically very astute, the Frenchman lost some of his zest during his last couple of seasons with Ag2r La Mondiale, where the Tour was essentially his primary target and he often had to suppress his desire to attack to keep this objective in his sights. At DSM, he’s looking for new challenges, including perhaps a debut at the Giro and the freedom to chase a win or two. It’s almost three years since Bardet last raised his arms, while, astonishingly, his one and only stage race success was back in 2013 at the Tour de l’Ain.
Winston says that the DSM’s approach to the Grand Tour is unlikely to change much during the new season. “Our focus will still be on stages, and we’ll maybe go for GC if the courses are right for us,” he revealed.
There’s a very strong emphasis on youth in the women’s team too. At 22, Germany’s Liane Lippert, fifth in the world road champs in September, is one of the peloton’s finest all-round talents. A year younger, Dutch sprinter Lorena Wiebes quickly got into her stride after a mid-season move from Parkhotel Valkenburg, winning three races. Three years younger still, 18-year-old American Megan Jastrab was a phenomenon in the junior ranks, where she was all but unbeatable, her biggest success the world road title at the 2019 championships in Harrogate. Seen primarily as a sprinter, her progress should be followed very closely.
The fourth goal is to keep the production line of talent flowing from the development team, which next year will number 14 riders. In 2020, this slowed a little due to the lack of racing at under-23 level. As a consequence, Germany’s Niklas Märkl has been the only rider to step up into DSM’s WorldTour ranks.
“We didn’t get the chance to do it much this last season because it was so compressed, but one of our goals with the development team riders is to integrate with the WorldTour riders at Europe Tour events, so a guy like Leo Hayter will join WorldTour team members in those lower category events,” Winston explained. “He’ll get invaluable experience and take that back to the development team’s races, which will help the journey for all of those younger riders, and help make their transition to the senior ranks much more fluid.”
At the end of a season that featured many highlights for Sunweb, I was interested to know which had been Winston’s favourite. “I think it was Søren Kragh Andersen’s second win at the Tour de France, because it offered confirmation of what we’re doing,” said the British coach.
“When you win a stage there, everyone thinks it’s partly down to luck, although I think in Marc Hirschi’s case everyone could see that he was close to a win and were relieved when he took it. When Søren won the first time, everyone was like, ‘OK, they’re doing something good.’ But to win three stages showed that we’d really arrived, to us as much as everyone watching.”
With a new headline sponsor, a new kit and a new bike supplier in Scott, Team DSM will look quite different to Team Sunweb, but will build on the foundations put in place under the previous sponsor. Talking to some of the riders and to Matt Winston, the sense of expectation and excitement was palpable. “I can’t wait to get into the first training camps and races,” said Nicolas Roche, who’s on the verge of his 17th pro season. “We’ve got an exciting group of riders and a sponsor that’s committed well beyond simply putting its name on the team. They want to be involved in kit design, nutrition and initiatives designed to make cycling greener and all of our lives more sustainable. DSM have got a global reach and I think it’s a boost to the whole sport to see a company of that nature make such a firm commitment to cycling. Now we just want to see what we can achieve together.”
If you’ve enjoyed this, why not try La Course en Tête’s review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is on sale here.