Ahead of the 2021 cycling season, KONM is previewing every men’s WorldTour team. We’ll do two per week until all are covered. Obviously, given the Covid-related uncertainty surrounding us all, it’s hard to be definitive but for now we’re taking it as if the “normal” schedule of races will go ahead approximately as would have occurred pre-2020.
As if it wasn’t hard enough to get enthusiastic about a petro-team, they’ve only gone and added the word “Victorious” to their title. The name-change comes after McLaren decided to hawk their precision-engineered pollution-factories elsewhere as a result of people choosing not to buy very very expensive (and very very pointless) cars during a pandemic.
But, hey, pro cycling isn’t in a financial position to turn up its nose at sponsorship, so here we are celebrating another year of the great nation of Bahrain – and, to be fair, there are far worse places. Judge not lest ye be struck off the list of people invited to the king’s palace for tea and scones. Besides, Wikipedia tells me that Bahrain is now a “post-oil” economy, which is nice.
Anyway, after a rough 2020 everyone’s a bit tired of this kind of snark by now; cycling, that’s what we’re here for. And, lo, there are some reasons to be interested in this outfit, including the potential for a very decent grand tour department in 2021. For the anglocentrics among you, there are also several young British riders in the ranks, most of whom would have been inspired by the presence of Rod Ellingworth were it not for the fact he suddenly decided to up sticks and (re)join a better team at the earliest possible opportunity. Fair enough.
All things considered, Mikel ‘Free’ Landa is the outright leader of this team. And not without justification: in the four stage-races he started in 2020, he finished 3rd, 2nd, 18th and 4th in GC, the lattermost being the rescheduled Tour de France. Aside from that one obvious blip in the Criterium du Dauphiné, where he succumbed to cramps on the final day while still in contention, that’s pretty good going.
A critic would point out that he hasn’t won a race since stage 2 of the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali in March 2019, a whopping 22 months ago. In truth, if you look back through Landa’s results over the years, in the greater scheme of things he hasn’t really won many races at all; his sole grand tour GC podium was all the way back in 2015. Regardless, the Basque climber is a class act and, in the wider context of this Bahrain squad, fully deserves his primacy.
So what does KONM expect from Landa in 2021? Honestly… no idea whatsoever. It looks as if he’ll go to at least two grand tours, with the Tour as the number one target. No real surprise there, but predicting how he’ll fare is a much trickier pursuit. Landa, after all, has spent a large portion of his career belying prediction.
Still, he was consistent last season, which was no mean feat in a turbulent, disorienting year. That can’t be ignored, especially in what was his first campaign away from a turbulent, disorienting setup at Movistar.
On the face of it, then, Landa looks a real contender, particularly with talented climber Jack Haig brought in as support. It would be a bold analyst who forespoke of a major GC victory for the 31-year-old, but it would be a stupid one who didn’t recognise that there’s every possibility of him sneaking onto a grand tour podium and/or notching up some stages at a three-weeker.
A rung down from Landa on the leadership depth chart will be Pello Bilbao and Wout Poels (probably).
Bilbao was highly impressive at the 2020 Giro d’Italia, earning 5th in an admittedly weak GC field. It would be inaccurate to put him in the top bracket of climbers in the peloton, but the Basque is combative, dogged and smart. He’s got punch and he’s aggressive, a well-rounded operator with a strong constitution.
If pushed for an opinion, KONM would hesitantly suggest that Bilbao might be better-used away from grand tour GC contests, especially with Landa on the roster. Stage-hunting, shorter stage-races and punchy classics look right in his wheelhouse. Either way, the man from Guernica is a personal favourite of this blog, so we just want to see him winning things.
As for Poels, it’s hard to know where the Dutchman goes from here. In 2020 he toiled in service of Landa at the Tour and was given top billing for Bahrain at the Vuelta, where he finished an admirable 6th in what was a competitive GC race. And yet, chasing a top five in the lowest-profile grand tour won’t do much for his reputation among the team’s paymasters or management.
Poels, now 33, was shackled to the domestique desk at Sky/Ineos during his peak years as an athlete (getting some big wins along the way), and it’s tempting to make the facile suggestion that he may have come out the other side in decline. But it’s not really KONM’s style to write off riders because of age, so we’re hoping Poels can taste some success in 2021. In the past he has come up strong in week-long races – it would be nice to see him taking victory in that sphere.
Elsewhere, another step (or two) down the ladder, KONM is keeping a very close eye on Dylan Teuns, in addition to wild cards like Matej Mohoric, Mark Padun and Jan Tratnik.
In theory, Teuns could have been placed on the Bilbao/Poels rung and, taking everything into account, he’s likely to be given some kind of leadership role in whatever races he chooses to target in 2021. But the way 2020 panned out for the Belgian was a little weird, so there are extenuating circumstances.
Initially told by the team that he was going to the Tour, management had a change of heart and, while his team-mates jollied around France, Teuns spent those 21 days DNF-ing at the Trofeo Matteotti and the Memorial Marco Pantani, and (figuratively, I think) fetching bottles at Tirreno-Adriatico. Oh, and all this came a matter of weeks after signing a new contract with Bahrain. Unsurprisingly, Teuns wasted no time in publicly expressing his disappointment.
Nevertheless, the spring/October classics in his homeland went pretty well. After cracking the top 10 at what was an iconic Gent-Wevelgem, Teuns impressed with 11th at the Tour of Flanders, rolling in with the first group of chasers pursuing the WVA/MVDP axis. That was his first appearance at the Ronde, which begs the question as to why he didn’t show up there sooner. Perhaps a proper northern classics tilt is something he should consider in 2021.
At 26 years old, we’ve surely passed the point of calling Mohoric a “promising talent”, yet it’s hard to shake that perception of him. 2018 was a breakout year for the Slovenian, in which he took a Giro stage and won GC at the BinckBank Tour and the Deutschland Tour, but he hasn’t hit those heights since.
Still, there’s little doubt about his quality, and in 2020 he was strong enough to finish 4th at Liège and 10th at Milan San-Remo, so it would be a big mistake to give up on Mohoric. It’s difficult to pinpoint what type of race he should focus on, as is often the case with all-rounders like him. That performance at Liège shows he has the constitution for the punchy classics, but he’s also a serious stage-hunting weapon and a valuable engine in stage-races.
Speaking of engines, Mohoric’s squat compatriot Tratnik gave an excellent account of himself at the 2020 Giro, winning the 229km stage 16 from Udine to San Daniele del Friuli and hovering around the top 10 in each of the race’s three ITTs. That performance in Italy endeared Tratnik to KONM, not least because of his rather track-like, barrel build. We’re not expecting him to light up the WorldTour in 2021, but don’t rule him out of standing on a top step somewhere.
Padun was another who caught the eye in the Giro, finishing 2nd to Jhonatan Narvaez on stage 12. The young Ukrainian went toe-to-toe with his opponent but was outmanoeuvred slightly after the two found themselves separated from the day’s breakaway, but it was a display that showed real potential. Like Tratnik, we’re not expecting huge things from Padun this season, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he was more prominent than in previous years.
On the sprint side of things, Phil Bauhaus may now enjoy full support after the departure of Mark Cavendish. The German hasn’t yet proven himself to be in the highest tier of fast-men, but he’s only 26 and has plenty of scope to improve. Without the distraction of Cav to worry about, 2021 could be Bauhaus’ year. Again, KONM doesn’t expect a hatful of victories, but there’s reason to believe Bauhaus will emerge as a real contender in the bunch gallops.
Italian dynamo Sonny Colbrelli is also more than capable of finishing fast and can hold his own in the classics, as he showed with 4th at the Brabantse Pijl and 7th at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Colbrelli went to the Tour in 2020 but was largely anonymous aside from a top 10 on stage 14, with one-dayers and shorter stage-races producing his best performances. Hopefully those are the events he targets this season. Colbrelli knows how to win, especially in Italy, and he’s a charismatic rider; there are many who’ll be pleased to see him do well in 2021.
Finally, a word for Gino Mader, who looks an interesting prospect. In previous years he was prominent in the U23 ranks and only turned 24 yesterday, so this is a guy with a future – with the emphasis there being on the word “future”.
It would be wrong to suggest that Mader will get big results in 2021, but he could be a name we associate with the sharp end of proceedings further down the line. For evidence of that, all you need to do is to look at his 2nd-place on stage 17 of the Vuelta, where he only lost out to French phenom David Gaudu.
2021 team hotness rating: 6/10
Transfer business rating: 6/10
Likely 2021 leaders: Mikel Landa, Pello Bilbao, Wout Poels, Dylan Teuns
Potential breakout riders: Gino Mader, Mark Padun
2021 kit rating: n/a
Featured image: Laurie Beylier/Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Licence cc-by-sa-2.0, edited by KONM