At the end of last season, Jonathan Vaughters began reshaping his tried and trusted Garmin-Sharp squad, in the mold of something younger and something more focused.
He has to like what he’s seen thus far. Even as the American team largely sat out February, it has thus far blistered March on the swift turn of new signing Tom-Jelte Slagter, who won two stages at Paris-Nice and established himself as an Ardennes wildcard.
“Obviously Tom-Jelte has done a pretty fricking incredible job. So I’m pretty happy about that,” Vaughters told VeloNews this week. “What are we, like [seven] for the year? … Normally for us, we’re a pretty slow starting team, and this year we hardly even raced in February. So if you look at the percentage of races we’ve done to the percentage of races we’ve won, I think we’re batting a higher average than we ever have at this point in the year. So that’s good.”
The squad made big changes this year, as it inked more key climbing domestiques and will give its top general classification riders specific objectives and dedicated squads to support them. It parted ways with long-time riders David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde and made room for new riders, such as Nathan Brown, Phil Gaimon, Ben King, Sebastian Langeveld, Dylan Van Baarle, Lasse Norman Hanson, Andre Fernando Cardoso, and climbing ace Janier Acevedo.
So far, the Garmin freshman class has delivered. In addition to Slagter’s wins, Gaimon won the opening stage at Tour de San Luis and held the leader’s jersey for four days, eventually finishing second overall. Langeveld won Egmond-Pier-Egmond. Garmin returnees Jack Bauer and Nathan Haas each have two and one win, respectively.
Headed into the classics, what’s not to like? The team has a former Paris-Roubaix winner in Johan Van Summeren and Liège-Bastogne-Liège champ in Dan Martin, yet it remains as a comfortable darkhorse.
“As far as the cobbled stuff goes, I think we’re going to do a lot better than people give us credit for. I think Sebastian Langeveld is going to be really good starting at Milan-Sanremo. I think Van Summeren is going to have a really good Paris-Roubaix. I think we’ve got a solid classics squad,” Vaughters said. “Do we have Tom Boonen or [Fabian] Cancellara? No. But we’ve got a solid, solid cobbled classics squad that can pull off the very darkhorse upset victory like we’ve done before. It can happen again this year. Will it happen again this year, who knows? But I think the pieces are in place to do that.”
The Ardennes races tilt more upward and, as a result, toward Garmin more so than their cobbled counterparts. With Slagter’s display of uphill punch, he has to be considered an Amstel-type rider.
“Looking forward to the Ardennes, I think Tom-Jelte is going to be great,” Vaughters said. “If we look at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne — if Tom-Jelte keeps his head on and doesn’t get too nervous, because he’s still a very young rider — I think he actually could win either one of those. From what I saw at Paris-Nice, up the Muur de Huy or the Cauberg, as long as he keeps his head on and we keep him healthy between now and those races, I don’t see any reason he’s not right in contention to win either one of those.”
Martin is an outsider to repeat his monument win at La Doyenne, though his form is coming around.
“Dan Martin is a little bit behind where he was last year. He’s on a different — last year Liège was the last race he did before he took a big break,” Vaughters said. “This year, the day after Liege he has to basically get back out there and start preparing for the Giro. He’s on a different trajectory. I think he’ll still end up being incredibly strong at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I just don’t know we’ll see a lot from Dan Martin before Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Beyond the spring classics, Garmin will look to Martin and Hesjedal in Italy, and then to Andrew Talansky in France. Talansky got off to a slower start than he would have liked, finishing 17th overall and more than 5 minutes behind winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).
“I think Tirreno, we had some trouble in the team time trial mechanically, so that was a bit of a pisser. But Andrew, he did a solid race at Tirreno but it wasn’t special,” Vaughters said “He’s in that upper 15, 20 percent of riders in the peloton, but he’s not at the level where he was at Paris-Nice last year. Now that doesn’t necessarily surprise me too much. He did the Vuelta and he raced really hard all the way to the end of the year [last season], so he sort of had that as a springboard for his spring condition.
“As soon as he started training hard in January, boom, he was right back into condition. This year he did the Tour and then he didn’t race a ton … he didn’t really race that much until the end of the year. So I think he’s having a little bit more trouble popping back into the condition that he wanted to.”
In the long run, none of this concerns Vaughters, who thinks his young stage racer will come out just fine as the season bends toward the Tour.
“Looking down the road, Tour of Romandie, Dauphiné, Tour de France, I don’t really see that as a problem,” Vaughters said. “I think that’s just sort of something that fixes itself over the next month.”