Sixty seconds after crossing the finish line in Harrogate on day one of the 2014 Tour de France, Koen De Kort tenderly cradles Marcel Kittel’s head in his hands, like an older brother embracing his sibling. Another stage win, another yellow jersey was theirs. It was a tender moment, only shared by 60 or so members of the media crammed in around them.
“I guess I was there representing the team and what we did for him. He was a bit exhausted, he kind of just collapsed, so I did most of the talking… he was a bit speechless,” De Kort said the next morning.
Making bunch sprint victories look as easy and routine as Giant-Shimano have been doing recently is a special skill. Success is still new and exciting for them: it hasn’t been this way for long.
At the squad’s first Tour de France in 2009 (as Skil-Shimano), they were the wildcard team, allowed to go up the road into breakaways. My admittedly selective memories are of a Dutch-Japanese bunch of plucky losers; of escapes foiled in the closing hundred metres; of Kenny Van Hummel getting more column inches for his lanterne rouge lagging than sprint prowess; of half the team somersaulting into a ditch as they spectacularly messed up a TTT corner and finishing dead last.
“Ah yeah. Whenever we have a team time trial, we still mention that,” stalwart domestique Albert Timmer says. “Actually, that was one of the worst days of my career... I think I was the first one to crash.”
Collectively, the team dusted themselves down and learned lessons from the experience. They wouldn’t ride the Tour de France again until 2012 and by then, the team would be a different beast, with a new title sponsor, box-fresh WorldTour status and a powerful young talisman.
Rather than coming in flush with cash and a shopping list of champions, Giant-Shimano is a team that has gradually fought its way out of the gutter to be looking at its own stars.
When Iwan Spekenbrink, a marketer and sports agency manager, took over from team boss Arend Scheppink in the winter of 2006, he already had a plan for the future that was passed on to prospective riders. “It was not like ‘be the best team in the world’ or ‘to win the Tour’, that’s much too specific. We wanted to develop one of the best sporting environments.”
They had no team bus, just camper vans and nary an invite to a ProTour race. But, appropriately for a squad then sponsored by power tools company Skil, they were building something.
“It was a turbulent period in cycling, with the Fuentes affair. The main goal was to create an ideal environment for athletes to develop. You are responsible for them, you can’t look away anymore. You have to offer an alternative to doping. Combine an athlete’s dedication with our expertise.”
Spekenbrink is grateful to Christian Prudhomme, who believed in their mission from the start and offered a wild card to Paris-Nice in 2008.
While that first Tour de France a year later might not have been their most successful moment, it signalled an upturn in ambition. They identified and kept key members, strong personalities but low-key names, like Koen De Kort and Roy Curvers, who could guide conversation at the dinner table as well as the lead-out train around a stressful finish.
Of their 25-rider squad in 2009, eight still remain today, more than any other WorldTour team in the same period – indeed, five of those eight were part of their 2014 Tour de France team. From this influential core, the team culture has dripped down. The more years they spend together, the deeper the trust and knowledge. It sounds trite, but the riders attribute their bond as a big part of the success.
“It’s just really a bunch of friends that have fun. When that happens, the rest will come,” Albert Timmer, a team member since 2007, says.
Joining Skil-Shimano restored the enjoyment to Koen De Kort’s career. In the winter of 2008, he was disillusioned with the sport after riders from his previous teams, Liberty Seguros and Astana, tested positive.
“I was about to quit, I’d really had enough. There wasn’t an awful lot of fun in cycling anymore. I wanted to trust my team-mates again and didn’t always have to think, if one of them won, how it had come about. Would they go positive? Plus, there was one year I didn’t get paid for three months, another for four.”
Like De Kort, Albert Timmer has noticed that the public perception of cyclists has improved in recent years.
“It's starting to turn in a good way again,” Timmer says. “But a couple of years ago, the Armstrong thing happened. I’d go to a birthday party or something, there'd always be somebody who had something to say about doping. The first time it’s funny; after ten times, it starts to get annoying.”
The masterplan of Spekenbrink, long-time directeur sportif Rudi Kemna and company was to focus on bunch sprints and smaller racers. “Everyone knew at the time that doping was getting less but wasn’t completely gone… We always thought that would be the first thing possible to win without any doping, as [it has] the least amount of influence on bunch sprints,” De Kort says.
Nevertheless, in the early years, that spectre briefly hung over the team. When asked for his most difficult moment in charge, Spekenbrink identifies the case of young Frenchman Clément Lhotellerie.
The young Frenchman quickly made a name for himself, winning the Mountains classification in Paris-Nice in 2008.
“We believed his way of working was not our way… He wanted to be responsible for his own development. We’ve always said we do it together: our culture and knowledge has to be combined. We had no control [over him], that’s why we decided to terminate his contract a year early.” Lhotellerie went to Vacansoleil and tested positive in July 2009.
Without the mind-boggling budget of a BMC or Team Sky, Giant-Shimano’s intelligent recruitment of hungry, young riders fed their progress. “Marc Reef, Adriaan Helmantel, Rudi Kemna and the other coaches look at the U23 category … spend time and energy with the rider and their family, learn their surroundings,” Spekenbrink says.
It was this gimlet-eyed approach that secured the signature of a strapping U23 European time-trial champion called Marcel Kittel ahead of the 2011 season. He was the final piece of the jigsaw.
“That was the turning point,” Timmer says. “From that moment on, we focused on the sprint, as far as I remember it.”
At the first training camp, the Dutchman was impressed by how Kittel slotted into the team dynamic. “He was really social and open to the other riders: from minute one, he fittted in perfectly. He was not sitting in a corner alone or anything, he talked to everyone.”
Testing on the bike, the managers saw his immense power and sought to change him into a sprinter. It led to him being last lead-out man for Kenny van Hummel on his professional debut at the Tour of Langkawi.
“He really stuffed it up and Kenny didn’t win,” Koen de Kort remembers. “Marcel had obviously never been in a [proper] sprint before, because he was always doing time-trials. So we decided we’d turn things around and Kenny would lead out Marcel the next day to show him how it’s done for next time. He did it – Marcel won by six bike lengths.”
He feels that Kittel’s first Grand Tour stage win, six months later at the Vuelta, was a significant moment. “We did a really good lead-out there, and from there on, I felt he can do it in the biggest races,” De Kort says.
Alongside precious WorldTour status, John Degenkolb arrived from HTC-Columbia in January 2012. Spekenbrink had originally wanted him to join a year earlier, with Kittel, but he kept a good relationship with the German and signed one of the hottest properties on the transfer market.
When a sick Kittel left his first Tour after a week that summer, Degenkolb’s five Vuelta stage wins two months later underlined how well-drilled a unit Giant-Shimano were becoming.
Look at the names of the current lead-out men: Dumoulin, Timmer, Curvers, De Kort, Veelers, Degenkolb. Save for the latter, none of them are world-beaters as individuals. But together, they have a knack of tearing out of the shadows at the perfect time to give Kittel a smooth ride to the front. The team has tampered only slightly with the lead-out line-up in recent years, carefully ironing out its creases.
Stalwart Albert Timmer is something of an unsung hero in the finales. “I'm the guy that puts the leadout into position to actually start, it can be at any point in the race,” he explains. “It could be 10km to go because there's a tricky corner where we have to be in front, [or it] could be 3km left.”
The bunch is a noisy place in the finale and Timmer is the one levering open space. “The biggest part is trust: Marcel has to trust me because he can scream a lot, but in general, I can't really hear because of the wind,” he says. “He'll shout left or right, Koen sometimes shouts too. It's really about listening and knowing the voices, because it's not just our team doing it. You really have to listen, know what to do and adapt to the changes.
Now, the former plucky breakaway artists are the ones shutting down escapes and being keenly watched. “You definitely notice that guys are looking at what we’re doing and sometimes try to copy it, to find weak spots to beat us,” de Kort says. “In many races, I can feel that everyone is waiting for us to start the leadout; that’s different to how it used to be.”
Yet the team loathes making mistakes too. “No race is perfect,” Spekenbrink says. “There’s always an improvement; [of course] they make mistakes, it's about how they react.”
With four Tour de France stage wins, Kittel burst onto the big stage last July. Repeating that feat this summer, the 26-year-old is the most serious challenger to Mark Cavendish’s sprinting hegemony.
Blessed with this finely-tuned lead-out, the German’s dazzling power and a preternatural air of confidence, Giant-Shimano have it nailed. They’ve come a long way.
“We started with three coaches, now we have eleven. We started with a men’s team; now we have that, a women’s one and a development team. We started with motorhomes; now we have them and two team buses,” Spekenbrink says.
The future is bright too, as Giant-Shimano have continued their shrewd signings. One wonders how they can possibly nick talented stage racer Lawson Craddock from likely American suitors like Trek Factory Racing or BMC; similarly, wunderkind Warren Barguil from a flock of French fanciers.
“The riders aren’t stupid,” directeur sportif Rudi Kemna says. “They also see what development they get in our team, they see the way we work. When you’re a smart young rider, you don’t make a choice directly for a big name team, you choose the process too, and that’s why the biggest talents come here.”
One possible criticism is that Giant-Shimano are essentially a bunch galloping one-trick pony at the moment. But with talents like Barguil, Craddock and Daan Olivier, there’s the potential to develop into a squad with genuine Grand Tour aspirations. How – and if – they can balance that with maintaining Kittel’s sprint supremacy is the next big challenge.
For all the growth, it seems serene on the surface. Where are the inflated egos or prima donna tantrums from the likes of Kittel and Degenkolb? “It’s up to us to keep their feet on the ground, confront them with their mistakes,” Spekenbrink warns.
So, don’t go calling Giant-Shimano the world’s best sprint team just yet – at least not to their faces. “As soon as you go and say that, you start losing,” Spekenbrink says. “The best? We’re one of the best.”