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.
Generally, BORA-sagansgrohe is not a team that sends KONM into raptures of excitement. Things are a bit different in 2021 with some interesting elements and dynamics at play this season, not least the fact that Peter Sagan is in (we believe) the final year of his contract (as are BORA).
The clock that may or may not be counting down on the Slovak’s time with the team has begun to tick even louder after the arrival of classics monster Nils Politt, whose German nationality (along with his vast talent, of course) is likely to make him a serious leadership candidate. An internal squabble for classics primacy between this pair is highly unlikely, of course, and it’s far more probable that they’ll combine willingly as a thunderous one-two on the road.
Sure, an argument could be made that Politt has been brought in as the future king of this team but in the short term his arrival means that Bora now pack an even more brutal punch in the classics. They’ll be treated with extreme caution by their opponents, especially on the cobbles.
Overall, this is a well-balanced, well-rounded team that looks capable of fighting across all types of race and is littered with young talent. It’s also one of the more homogenous WorldTour teams in terms of language, with a large Germanic presence that should provide a sense of common purpose and cohesion that other setups lack. This may not be the most thrilling group of riders in the peloton but it’s one that will win plenty of races.
Let’s start with the three-time world champion, who looks like he’ll be doing a lot of racing in 2021. By his own standards, Big Pete didn’t have a stellar year in 2020 but was still there-or-thereabouts in most races he entered. Second-places, third-places and fourth-places were common throughout the campaign with only a spectacular, season-saving solo in the Giro putting a gloss on a fairly matte year.
That performance on stage 10 from Lanciano to Tortoreto reminded us all of what a special rider Sagan is. He looked beastly; a musclebound brawler laying waste to a bar-room full of pallid, scrawny dweebs. It was a throwback to days when Sagan seemed to do this at every big race, when he often looked to be from a different species to his opponents.
Lately, moments like this have been sparse for the man that middle-aged Rapha Dads insist on calling a “rock star”. Rumours of a Sagan demise have abounded. But that day, as he blasted into Tortoreto and crossed the line, his peacocking post-up seemed to demand of the haters, “How you like me now?”
Still, the Twitterati continue to murmur that he isn’t what he used to be and though it would be immensely stupid to suggest that Sagan is “past it”, it’s clear that his win-rate has decreased. If you decided to be extra critical you could say that, excluding points classifications, he has only produced two major wins in the past two seasons: Tortoreto in 2020 and stage five of the 2019 Tour de France. (Stans of Suisse, California and the TDU, do not @ me). The accepted wisdom is that lockdown affected him more than most in 2020.
But as ever, and as alluded to earlier, we are judging Sagan by Sagan standards. When you’ve won 12 Tour stages, seven green jerseys, three world championships and two monuments, people expect you to simply keep dominating ad infinitum. But that’s not really how things work. Rivals emerge, you get infinitesimally slower, shit happens. We’re in the MVDP/WVA era now. Maybe.
Today’s Sagan remains one of the best riders on the planet. Perhaps he has gone from being 5% better than everyone else to simply being in the 99th percentile. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Except, possibly, in the eyes of the people who hold the purse-strings at Bora. People who, one can surmise, may wish to see a winning return on their substantial investment in the Sagan pay-packet. In many ways Sagan, who turns 31 in a few weeks, has made this team what it is – but when have you ever known professional sport to be anything other than ruthless? If he wants a new deal – and he may not – then he’ll have to produce the goods.*
Would you bet against him doing so? KONM wouldn’t.
*It’s worth saying that all this contract speculation is exactly that. Conjecture, if you prefer.
And lo, there was Politt. Some of you reading this may feel that KONM has overstated his status, and based on results alone there’s definitely merit to this sentiment. After all, at this point in his career, the big lug hasn’t actually won anything of note and 2020 was a fairly calamitous time for him at Israel Startup Nation.
But it’s worth considering why Bora signed him. Because he’s German, certainly, but also because of impressive finishes at Roubaix in 2018 (7th) and 2019 (2nd), as well as 5th at Flanders in ’19. Those feats were achieved essentially without the support of team-mates in the latter kilometres; imagine what he’ll be able to do as part of a slick, powerful classics unit.
This team has the strength and knowhow to deliver their new signing to places that Katusha/ISN couldn’t, so it’s reasonable to expect him to feature prominently on flat-but-tough parcours in 2021, all the more so on pavé. Moreover, as we’ve already suggested, Politt gives Bora a chance to punch and counter-punch hard at the sharp end of races like Roubaix and Flanders. Frequently, Sagan has been marked out of contention by the field and the presence of a threatening team-mate will surely take the heat off him.
Without reading too much into a PR statement, management is hammering home the message that Politt is simply “part of the squad”. For now, while Sagan is still part of the group, this rings true. Feasibly, there are those among you who might even reach (erroneously, in KONM’s opinion) for the phrase “super domestique” but it’s hard not to look at this roster and see Politt as the principal-in-waiting, a classics heir lined up to follow-on from one of the peloton’s greatest ever riders.
Of course, all this theorising about succession could easily be rendered moot should Sagan sign a new contract. Regardless, Politt is here to stay as a classics favourite and it would be no surprise whatsoever if he showed up strong in northern France and Belgium.
Anyway, we’re over a thousand words deep and no mention as yet of Manny Buchmann, Max Schachmann, Lennard Kämna, Pascal Ackermann or the newly transferred Wilco Kelderman. So here we go.
Buchmann, Schachmann, Kämna and Kelderman are presumably Bora’s primary leaders for stage races and some of the hillier one-dayers, with Felix Grossschartner and Patrick Konrad likely to serve as elite helpers who may get occasional opportunities to ride for themselves.
Buchmann crashed out of 2020’s Critérium du Dauphiné while third in GC, meaning his performance in the Tour de France a fortnight later should be disregarded. Better indicators of his current ability are to be found in third- and fourth-place finishes on stage two and three of that Dauphiné. On both occasions he mixed it with the big favourites and looked as if he was set for a serious tilt at the Tour – in which race, of course, he had finished fourth the previous year.
KONM’s not convinced that Buchmann should be put in the same tier of favouritism as the likes of Pogacar, Roglic and Bernal. In fact, that would seem a grossly unfair tag to place on someone who has never actually won a pro general classification. Rather, he looks like a very good all-round candidate who will represent his team with distinction and, if a lot of things go his way, he could break that GC duck this year. An overall win is on the cards but expectations should be measured as he goes into a season where the Giro appears to be the main target.
Schachmann, meanwhile, is an excellent rider, a puncher who has really stood out in recent years. In 2020 he won that fateful Paris-Nice amid the Covid chaos that was just beginning to unfold around the world. Then, in his first race back on the road after lockdown, he finished third at Strade Bianche before underwhelming somewhat at the Tour de France a few weeks later. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to see a future filled with victories, some of which may come in 2021. Hardly a bold prediction but Schachmann should be considered a contender for any event he targets.
Kämna, who only turned 24 in September, looks like one of the brightest GC/climbing prospects in the peloton. Possibly it’s a stretch to think that he’ll start winning big stage races in 2021 but after a Tour stage-win last season, as well as an impressive Dauphiné (8th overall), it’s easy to believe that this is a guy who’ll go on to fight for major GCs on a consistent basis.
As with Schachmann, you’re not being told anything you don’t already know there. What remains to be seen is what kind of opportunities Kämna gets this season. If KONM was a DS at Bora, he would be ahead of Buchmann in the grand tour GC depth chart but that’s unlikely to be the situation in reality – and reasonably so considering the latter’s admirable pre-injury form. Another grand tour stage-win seems a real possibility for the younger man, so that will probably be the aim in 2021. But the future surely holds more than this for Kämna.
Then there’s Kelderman. Poor Wilco; you’d have to be made of stone not to have felt sympathy for him at last year’s Giro as he submerged beneath the onrushing tide of his team-mate Jai Hindley and Ineos’ Tao Geoghegan-Hart. Prior to the race no-one really thought the Dutchman would be in the shakeup for pink but he ended up third overall, an impressive showing by any metric, notwithstanding the absence of several high-profile favourites.
He arrives at Bora from Sunweb, another of several big names to have departed that squad in recent times. It’s an interesting move and there must have been some assurance from management at his new team in relation to leadership. As things stand, he’s set for GC at the Tour but how that pans out will be intriguing. Bora have the ability to fight on several fronts at that race – does that mean Kelderman will suffer with attention divided between him and Sagan/Ackermann?
The team currently have a “14-man long list” for the Grand Boucle with Sagan, Ackermann and Kelderman all pencilled-in. We don’t yet know for sure how that roster’s going to look but if Sagan demands a spot you’d have to think he’ll get it, while Ackermann is sure to be pushing hard for a chance to test his legs at Big Race for the first time. Where that leaves Wilco, we’ll wait and see, but whatever happens KONM will be holding a candle for the Netherlander in 2021. After that heartbreak in Italy, he deserves some success.
At long last we get to Ackermann, the German sprinter whose sparkling form and rise within the team hastened Sam Bennett’s departure (to be fair, Sagan’s presence didn’t help either). As an Irish blogger, you’d think that would make KONM indisposed to Ackermann but, au contraire, Bennett’s career has gone from strength to strength since pitching up at (probably) the world’s best team, Deceuninck-Quick Step, so in our book big PA should be considered a hero of Hibernian cycling.
Anyway, vapid banter aside, Ackermann is a top-class rider and will be aiming to repeat Bennett’s feat of winning a stage in all three grand tours. As covered above, it’s touch-and-go as to whether he’ll get that chance in 2021. Should Bora choose to bring him to France alongside or instead of Sagan, it’s not difficult to see him atop a Tour podium. If not, he’ll surely be looking to take further victories in the Giro or Vuelta.
In 2019 Ackermann showed himself to be a clinical finisher in the sprintier “lesser” classics, winning Gooikse Pijl, GP de Fourmies, Bredene Koksijde, Eschborn-Frankfurt and the Clasica de Almeria. Likeliness is he’ll do something similar in 2021, though he hasn’t yet looked as if he’s capable of (or particularly interested in) big results in the major classics. Even if he was, it’s unlikely he’ll get the chance while he’s on the same team as Sagan.
So, more of the same from Ackermann this season? Probably.
Still here? Good.
There’s plenty more that could be written about this team but we’re going to round things off with a word for Matteo Fabbro and Ide Schelling, two young riders who entered KONM’s consciousness last season.
Fabbro in particular demanded attention with a few remarkable displays of climbing prowess in the Giro and Tirreno Adriatico. On occasion at the Giro he pulled so hard in service at the front of the peloton that he inadvertently gained separation on climbs before having to wait up for the rest of the pack. Ridiculously light, he is a grimpeur to be marked, albeit one who probably won’t get too many chances to ride for himself and it appears he will be charged with helping Buchmann at the 2021 Giro. Still only 25, he is one to keep a very very close eye on.
Schelling, taller and heavier, is one for lower-elevation feats but he still managed a top 10 on a lumpy stage seven of the Vuelta. He also did well for 13th-place in a pretty stacked field at the Brabantse Pijl, so there’s every reason to believe that the Dutchman is an all-round talent. It’s hard to know what will end up being his speciality but he’s worth keeping in the back of your mind for the upcoming season.
Lastly, a quick postscript on Dane Frederik Wandahl. KONM makes no claim to know a huge amount about him but if a team like Bora is signing a 19-year-old, you’d better believe that that 19-year-old has potential. A rider to listen out for in 2021, even if it’s only to find out more.
2021 team hotness rating: 7.5/10
Transfer business rating: 6.5/10
Likely 2021 leaders: Peter Sagan, Manny Buchmann, Max Schachmann, Pascal Ackermann, Lennard Kämna, Nils Politt, Wilco Kelderman
Potential breakout riders: Ide Schelling, Matteo Fabbro, Frederik Wandahl
2021 kit rating: 9/10
Featured image: Laurie Beylier/Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Licence cc-by-sa-2.0, edited by KONM