Iwan Spekenbrink’s team have come a long way since they made their debut appearance in the Tour de France in the mid-2000s. They have reinvented themselves several times over, from sprint train to Classics contenders, to eventual Grand Tour winners in 2017. It seems as though the last couple of seasons have been about transition for the team formerly backed by Sunweb but with Team DSM now on board for the future and a crop of talented young riders already making waves, Spekenbrink and his squad have one of the most exciting rosters in the WorldTour as they head into 2021.
Manager: Iwan Spekenbrink
Squad size: 30
Average age: 24.5
How did they fare in 2020?
WorldTour ranking: 5th
A total of 16 wins represented their best return since the Giro winning campaign of 2017 but there was real depth to the 2020 results, with three sublime stage wins in the Tour de France backed up by Jai Hindley’s second overall in the Giro. A number of other riders chipped in with important wins but there’s a growing sense that the team surpassed the limited expectations that were placed on them at the start of the year.
The coaching and tactics deserve huge credit, along with the team’s consistent ability to scout for new talent each winter. There are still legitimate questions over talent retention but that matters little when the win tally keeps on ticking over and the team continues to excite fans with their style of racing.
Marc Hirschi: If you can’t appreciate Hirschi’s style of riding or at the very least his smooth, almost mesmerising pedaling style then cycling really isn’t for you. A famous Russian rider of the mid-1990s was once dubbed ‘Mozart on pedals’ and Hirschi is somewhat similar but 2020 represented a breakout year for the 22-year-old and former U23 world champion. After lockdown, he was everywhere and could have conceivably won three stages of the Tour, let alone one. A win in La Flèche Wallonne, second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and third in the Worlds has demonstrated that the Swiss rider will be one of the leading protagonists in major races for the next five to 10 years.
Romain Bardet: The management at DSM – then Sunweb – faced so many difficult questions after Tom Dumoulin jumped ship in 2019 but to their credit, they remained resolute. They could have gone shopping for a replacement GC rider and panicked themselves into signing a rider who didn’t fit the culture or the team’s MPCC stance. Instead, they allowed the younger talent to flourish, waited a year, and then signed Romain Bardet. The Frenchman ticks a number of boxes: he’s pro-MPCC, he needs a change of environment, and the idea of sharing collective leadership will appease both athlete and team.
Bardet is a class act, and while his win rate has dropped in recent years, his Tour showing – until his crash – demonstrated that he still has plenty to offer. At Team DSM it will be fascinating to see how the tactics evolve with him on board and where the team see the former Tour runner-up showcasing his undoubted talent. He’s a formidable one-day racer, as well as a stage-race specialist, so the notion of linking up with Hirschi should worry plenty of WorldTour rivals.
Jai Hindley: Circumstances certainly helped the young Australian at the Giro but nothing should take away from the fact that the 24-year-old seized his opportunity with both hands and succeeded in proving many people wrong with a fine second place and a stage win. The result in Italy justifies DSM’s decision to jettison Sam Oomen and Wilco Kelderman, while at the same time, provides Hindley with the space to develop and mature into a more experience GC candidate. That means that repeating second place at the Giro shouldn’t be the primary aim in 2021, and instead, the Australian should look at consistent progression throughout a year-long campaign. He has the talent, no question, but any obsession within the media to demand another Grand Tour podium immediately should be parked in order to let Hindley grow at his own pace. Targeting some week-long WorldTour races before attempting a Grand Tour could be the perfect measure of ambition and realism.
Søren Kragh Andersen: Seeing a rider like Michael Matthews leave would hurt most WorldTour teams but with Hirschi, and Kragh Andersen within the squad, DSM will undoubtedly manage. Until his two Tour stage wins this year, the Dane was somewhat underrated, despite wins in Paris-Tours and a memorable stage win in the Tour de Suisse back in 2018. Victories as a whole have been limited to less than ten so far in his career, but like Matthews, Kragh Andersen tends to win big. At 26, one can expect further progression, especially in the Monuments, where so far his results have been somewhat poor.
Alberto Dainese: Tiesj Benoot, Cees Bol, and Nicolas Roche deserve places on this list as key riders but given the fact that Sunweb, and now DSM, put such an emphasis on youth we’ve highlighted another one of their up and coming riders. They signed Kevin Vermaerke who won the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege but second-year pro Alberto Dainese gets the nod. He’s 22 and won a stage in the Jayco Herald Sun Tour before picking up a volley of top-ten places throughout the rest of the season. He won the U23 European Championships road race in 2019 and if given enough support could become one of the team’s more dependable sprinters in the coming years.
While the team have star quality in certain areas, their standout feature in 2020 was the way in which they raced. They were aggressive when they needed to be but didn’t shy away from allowing their riders to completely rest at certain points, even during the Tour de France when riders were told not to even try and make the breaks on specific stages. That meant that when the team were intent on firing riders up the road, they had the numbers and the firepower.
The squad were often on the front foot, too, and their overall sense of collective accountability and strength served them well on countless occasions. Make no mistake, this is a very well rounded team that has moved intelligently in the transfer market over the summer.
Romain Bardet adds steel and dynamism in both the one-day and stage racing arenas, while clearing out some of the riders who no longer bought into the strategy of the team ensured that up and coming riders had more chances, and even younger talent could be recruited.
The team do not have a prolific sprinter, so there’s no one who can single-handedly keep the win rate ticking along with 10 wins during the year, and it’s still unclear if Hindley will immediately replicate his Giro result or if Bardet can return to his Tour form of old.
While there’s also a huge amount of depth to the squad there’s still a worry that sooner or later their current crop of stars follow the likes of Marcel Kittel, Tom Dumoulin, Michael Matthews, and Warren Barguil and leave while their contracts are still ongoing. That element doesn’t necessarily spell doom and gloom; Barguil has never returned to his imperious best from a few years ago, while Dumoulin gave up Grand Tour leadership for the chance to drag Primož Roglič around the Tour but riders like Hirschi are few and far between and keeping such riders on their books for the long-term future has to be a major aim for the management.
They might also be light in the climbing department – and perhaps miss one or two more riders with the experience of someone like Roche – but an athlete like Ilan Van Wilder – third in the Tour d l’Avenir in 2019 – could be one for the future.
After a poor 2019, the assumption was that the team would struggle the following year but they ended the 2020 campaign as one of the best WorldTour teams on the circuit. They’ve added talent to their roster and kept most of their stars, and, with one of the youngest teams at the highest level, they have what looks like a bright future ahead of them. They’re exciting to watch, cause upsets and, most importantly, race with a tactical astuteness that sets them apart.