Cast your minds back to the season’s restart in August and all eyes were on Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma and a smattering of other teams that typically populate the upper regions of race results.
Team Sunweb were page-footer fodder. One of two handfuls of teams predicted to make their presence felt in a race only occasionally, and win even less. Ahead of the Tour de France, the Guardian’s race predictions listed the German team as being in a “leadership hiatus” whose “best bet is lanky Belgian Tiesj Benoot… [who] isn’t a prolific winner”. Hardly encouraging people to bet on them, then.
With the elongated season coming to an end in a week, Sunweb have earned themselves an army of new fans, enamoured by their attacking plays at the Tour, the emergence of a new superstar in 22-year-old Marc Hirschi, and asserting themselves as the de-facto strongest GC team at the Giro d’Italia. Quite the turnaround in two months, right?
“Last season wasn’t where we wanted to be as a team, and we knew that we weren’t at the forefront of people’s minds at the beginning of the year, writing in their black book who will do what,” admits Matt Winston, one of the team’s sports director who has been a major player in the squad’s fortunes.
“But we knew we had some incredible talent in the team, the youngest in the WorldTour, and we were hoping and expecting to win races. It’s nice that no-one else expected it, it kept the pressure off, but at the same time we didn’t feel like we had a team that couldn’t do anything.”
It feels like the story starts on the final Sunday of August in Nice when little-known Hirschi was just a sprinting metre shy of denying Julian Alaphilippe a swift return into the yellow jersey. Winston, though, says that the success can be traced back to pre-lockdown times.
“We won the Herald Sun Tour in Australia with Jai (Hindley), picked up a few stages at Paris-Nice and one at the Tour of Algarve and we felt we were building momentum,” he says. “Through lockdown, we worked hard to make sure we were ready to go for the Tour.”
The team’s focus for the opening Grand Tour of the season was clear: target stage wins. “There were only three stages out of 21 where we felt we couldn’t win, either from a break or in a sprint with Cees Bol or Casper Pedersen,” Winston says.
“In the first week, we did some really nice things. We did an excellent lead-out for Cees one day and stand by the fact that we know he can win a Tour stage. We were really close to a win and on the first rest day we gathered together and I said to them all: ‘we’re on the cusp, we don’t change tact, we don’t panic, we focus on the process, and we don’t need to change anything. If we carry on, we will get results’.”
The Brit’s words were prophetic. On stage 12, Hirschi finally scored his deserved win after agonisingly missing out on stage nine. Stage 14 and 19 saw Søren Kragh Andersen double up with two victories.
It appeared the team’s fun was natural, racing instincts driving their ascendency. That’s true, but their triumphs were also planned. “We in the car can control quite a lot,” Winston says. “We always had various scenarios that were part of the plan, and we were able to switch scenarios on the day depending on how the race was happening.
“Sometimes we would have four guys bouncing off each other. Søren’s win in Lyon only happened because Tiesj and Marc tried their luck, and when there was a five-second moment of the bunch switching from attacking to launching full-on sprints, Søren hit his sweet spot and went. It was instantly game over for the bunch.”
The Giro d’Italia was different. Wilco Kelderman was widely rated as the fifth most-fancied rider, and the team’s aim was to “go for GC with Wilco”. Out went the daring moves and in came consolidation.
Early withdrawals for Geraint Thomas, Simon Yates and Mitchelton-Scott, Steven Kruijswijk and Jumbo Visma as well as below-par form from Vincenzo Nibali and Jakob Fuglsang changed the race’s dynamic, and by the mid-point Sunweb were the principal GC team.
Winston reflects: “There were moments before where we could have taken the lead but then we’d have to sit at the front for four days and we knew it was better to conserve energy and try and take the jersey in the final week. Why burn the team out and waste energy?”
On the Grand Tour’s first foray into the Dolomites Hindley matched Kelderman, raising the question of whether the young Australian was better than his Dutch team-mate. A few days later, such suspicions were confirmed on the Stelvio as Kelderman inherited pink from João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick Step), but Hindley closed to within 12 seconds of him.
“There was a lot of talk online about our tactics of leaving Wilco behind, but we always had two cards to play,” Winston says. “From the start we wanted to hold them both in the GC for as long as possible.
“Jai was fully committed to Wilco. Ahead of stage 20 on the bus, Jai asked: ‘what if there is a scenario at 5km to go where Wilco has a problem – do I give him my bike?’ Wilco said ‘no, no. Don’t do that because then we’re both out of the race.’ They were both bouncing off each other and had respect for one another.”
Stage 20 saw Hindley take pink off Kelderman who slipped to third, the 24-year-old Australian remarkably tied on the same number of seconds with Tao Geoghegan Hart. The final time trial in Milan resulted in the Brit winning his first Grand Tour, but Winston had no regrets.
“We’ve been criticised for our tactics, but no one expected us to be on the podium,” he continues. “In the end we had two. We’re really happy, proud of what we have done, and think we have done a fantastic job.
“Looking back at what we’ve done, I wouldn’t do too much differently. Normally, you return home saying this could have been done, but for the first time in my career I can say that we used our guys to their best of their abilities.”
Is the former One Pro Cycling DS happy for a rest now though? “I had one-and-a-half days off from Aug 2 to October 26. It’s been really intense, a pretty crazy three months, but really good fun. It’s where I dream of being and I am so grateful for Sunweb for allowing me to fulfil that.”