Focus on 2020: Israel Start-Up Nation

Probable Leaders 2020: André Greipel, Dan Martin, Nils Politt, Ben Hermans

KONM’s 2020 Watchlist: André Greipel, Dan Martin, Nils Politt, Tom Van Asbroeck, Alex Dowsett, Ben Hermans

Hotness Rating 2020: Temperate

Israel Start-Up Nation are an interesting case. The former Pro Conti outfit inherited Katusha-Alpecin’s WorldTour licence for 2020 and the result is an unusual mix of big names, medium names, journeymen, grizzled veterans and callow novices who will need to develop relatively quickly.

At first glance you might say they’re one of the weakest teams in the WorldTour. At second glance you might say the same thing, but this is a new setup taking its first steps at the highest level and management’s eyes will surely be fixed on a point further down the line. Regardless, there are several Start-Uppers who float KONM’s boat and have the ability to make an impact this season.

To begin with, there’s a rider close to KONM’s heart, Dan Martin. The Irishman enjoyed major success during the first half of the 2010s, including a pair of monument wins (Liège 2013, Lombardia 2014), but the wins began drying up for Martin in the latter portion of the decade – roughly coinciding with his move away from the old Garmin (now EF) setup.

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After a two-year spell at Quick-Step he had an underwhelming time at UAE Team Emirates, winning a Tour and Dauphiné stage in 2018 but enduring a 2019 in which he failed to record a single victory. Given the relative paucity of that team as a whole, Martin probably wasn’t entirely to blame for such a barren run.

Reports have emerged, for example, that point fingers at UAE’s “hydration strategy” for last year’s Tour, which may account for Martin’s (and the rest of his team’s) relative underperformance at the race, but he will really need to show up big at the 2020 edition.

Now 33, Martin will see his transfer to ISUN (yes, we’re calling them that; get over it) as a new dawn – and perhaps as one of his last throws of the dice as an elite GC leader. His new team will back him all the way as outright leader and KONM believes he has what it takes to justify his protected rider status.

It’d be nice to see Martin adding to his impressive palmarès in the coming months and you’d have to believe that he’ll do so within a setup that affords him their faith – and resources – at races that suit his strengths.

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Perhaps the most intriguing rider at ISUN in 2020, however, is Nils Politt. The German brick shithouse is yet to wrap up a WorldTour victory (and has a solitary Deutschland Tour stage in his wins column) but his second-place at the most recent Paris-Roubaix marked him out as one of the peloton’s foremost classics monsters.

Prior to the Hell of the North, at Flanders Politt had already finished with the elite selection whose pocket Alberto Bettiol so cleverly picked. That was after out-sprinting the first group of chasers at E3, proving beyond doubt he’s a springtime powerhouse to be taken very, very seriously.

ISUN are lucky to have Politt and must give him support at the major one-dayers in March and April. Tom Van Asbroeck is an excellent classics rider in his own right but will surely be pressed into service keeping Politt in contention as much as possible on the cobbles and collines of France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

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Oh, and speaking of enormous Teutonic cyclobeasts, 22-time grand tour stage-winner André Greipel, who turns 38 in July, has also pitched up at ISUN. The Gorilla’s career is sadly nearing its end and many moons have passed since Greipel looked as if he could match the fastest men in the peloton, but he brings a sense of the big-time to this team – even if that’s only through past glory.

There’s talk of “mentorship” roles but riders don’t come much more competitive than Greipel. He’ll be hoping to spring up with a win or two as evidence that his old bones can still handle the WorldTour pace.

Another veteran aiming to pull off a coup here and there is Belgian all-rounder Ben Hermans (33). He had a great season for Israel Cycling Academy in 2019, winning the Tours of Austria and Utah – including three individual stages – and will harbour hopes of adding to his palmarès. ISUN are likely to again target the slightly lower-profile week-long races with Hermans and he probably won’t let them down.

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On the testing side of things, Alex Dowsett and Matthias Brändle have the pedigree to earn some victories for their team. There’s also potential for wins through riders such as Davide CimolaiKrists Neilands, Mihkel Räim and James Piccoli, who was runner-up to Hermans in Utah while on the books of Conti setup Elevate-KHS Pro Cycling.

KONM also thinks there’s more to come from Swiss rider Matteo Badilatti, who has also done well at Utah, showed up nicely at the Tour of Rwanda and managed second at Le Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc in 2018. Rudy Barbier has race-wins to his name while Jenthe Biermans will provide strong legs in the classics. Rick Zabel remains an untapped talent and will surely benefit from Greipel’s presence.

So there’s no shortage of hope for ISUN – including a young cohort of Israeli riders – but 2020 is mostly an exercise in credibility and foundation-laying. You get the feeling there’s real intent to develop this team, led by co-owner and multi-time Masters Category C national and world time-trial champion, Sylvan Adams.

The Canadian-Israeli businessman donated a small fortune to bring the 2018 Giro d’Italia to Israel and appears totally committed to developing cycling within the country. Adams managed to get Benjamin Netanyahu to hop on a bike, so you’d have to imagine that this is a man with the clout and perseverance to realise his visions. (Something, in fact, he has already proven by getting his team to the WorldTour).

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Prediction: KONM would love to see Martin back on the top step, while Politt is a very firm favourite chez nous, but there probably won’t be a whole lot of victories for ISUN in 2020.

They have what you’d describe as a “balanced” squad, one capable of competing in several different types of race, yet in terms of genuine depth at WT level it’s as shallow as a saucer of water. One outstanding rider in each category – classics, grand tours, stage races, TTs – seems to be the order of the day.

As already mentioned, however, this team’s focus is on the future, with consolidation and growth the buzzwords in the short-term. In years to come, this setup may end up a real fixture in the WorldTour, albeit not a superpower. It’s a WorldTour team with a Pro Conti feel and KONM is really starting to warm to them.

Let’s be honest, though: it just won’t be the same without the hangar-sized Conor Dunne, KONM ultra-favourite and now a GCN presenter.

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