Only 12 months ago, the champagne corks were popping at Orica-Scott, celebrating the team’s best season since it joined the pro cycling ranks five short years ago.
The team secured 28 UCI victories, including 17 WorldTour wins. Two defining Grand Tour general classification podiums made the season even more memorable.
The highlight had to be Mathew Hayman winning Paris-Roubaix and Esteban Chaves’ triumphant win at the Race of the Falling Leaves – Il Lombardia.
Fan favourite and adopted little Aussie battler, Chaves, also came second at the Giro d’Italia after leading the race and wearing the famous maglia rosa (pink jersey), then backed up that performance with a third place at the Vuelta a España.
Adam Yates, one half of the English twins that got away from the clutches of Team Sky, also secured fourth at the Tour de France, as well as winning the white jersey.
General manager Shayne Bannan commented at the end of the season, “Every year our group continued to push the limits and we can absolutely claim this season as our best to date.”
The success of Chaves at the 2016 Giro d’Italia and the increasing maturity of the Yates brothers resulted in a strategic change for Orica-Scott in 2017. The next logical step was to secure GC glory, with the Tour de France being the key focus for the season.
The team recruited riders that could support the team leaders’ quest. At the same time, the team became less focused on the minor jerseys, letting Michael Matthews leave to join Team Sunweb.
Yet, at the end of the 2017 season, there was no doubt a sober feeling in the boardroom, with the champagne definitely kept on ice.
According to UCI World Tour rankings compiled by Procyclingstats, as at 19 November 2017, Orica-Scott finished in seventh place with 7190 points – two places lower than last year.
The team only winning one stage across all three Grand Tours and no big Monument wins was the reason for the slip.
Surprisingly, Orica-Scott still managed to win more races than last year, with 29 overall, however only 13 of those were WorldTour victories. The bulk of those WorldTour wins also came at the start of the season (31 per cent), before the team left Australia.
As of 19 November, there were only three Orica-Scott riders in the top 50. Simon Yates was the highest, at 33rd position, with his brother just scraping in at 49th spot.
In 2016, Orica-Scott had six riders in the top 50, including Chaves in ninth place, as well as three riders in the top 30. Chaves slipped down to 66th position in 2017.
Making things worse for team management, Matthews’ impressive season saw him secure a top-ten spot, as well as sweeping the Cycling Australia annual awards, which included the prestigious Sir Hubert ‘Oppy’ Opperman Medal.
AP Photo/Christophe Ena
CyclingweeklyUK did not rate Orica-Scott positively in their end-of-season roundup, scoring the squad a disappointing five of ten, noting the lack of Grand Tour success by Chaves and the Yates brothers.
Interestingly, UK daily newspaper The Telegraph noted that if the points of Simon Yates were taken away, Orica-Scott would have finished in 14th place.
Swiss favourite Michael Albasini battled hard to score some important race wins, as well as several top-ten spots in the Autumn classics. Being one of the more successful riders on the roster, he will have to fight off the ageing demons again in 2018 in order to be competitive.
Caleb Ewan started the season well, with four WorldTour stage wins at the Tour Down Under, then went quiet – only winning a couple of stages in important races, including a stage win at the Giro, before bobbing up again at the Tour of Britain and winning three stages.
Unlike the Team Sky bots, the team domestiques were unable to support the Yates brothers effectively and efficiently. More will be expected of Roman Kreuziger, Damien Howson, Luke Durbridge, Michael Hepburn and Sam Bewley if the team is going to push for GC and threaten Team Sky.
Clearly with Chaves spending a large part of the 2017 season injured and Adam Yates being caught up in an accident during the Giro d’Italia, where he effectively lost his chance to be a serious contender, were reasons for the dismal season.
However, injuries and accidents happen in cycling with regularly – teams need to cover them or change strategies to recover.
It’s now important for management to conduct a proper end-of-season review and comprehensive rider exit interviews in order to get back on Grand Tour podiums. These reviews need to be the first step of next year’s preparations and well before rider race goals races are considered.
Difficult questions need to asked, such as did the team have the best mix of riders to support team leaders? Were sprinters supported effectively? Does the team have riders that can win the Classics? Even simple issues, like the decision not to retain the services of Matthews beyond 2016, need to be re-assessed.
From a fan’s point of view, there was a lack of depth supporting a leader’s push to win a Grand Tour, with the need for super-domestiques that can control the race, as Team Sky and Movistar have.
The team also missed a rider who could get into a breakaway and win the stage, like Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) or Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates).
New recruits Mikel Nieve, Jack Bauer and Matteo Trentin are strong appointments, and will go a long way to helping Chaves and the Yates brothers. Nieve is a very good climber who will be able to support the team leader – a role he performed admirably for Team Sky over the last four years, helping Chris Froome win several of his yellow jerseys.
The biggest coup, however, is the signing of Trentin.
While he will be a potential Classics winner, he is equally suited to assisting the GC contenders. Trentin has won a total of eight stages across all three Ground Tours. He is also the type of rider who will get into breakaways in the hilly stages and to win the stage.
Bauer will bolster the team in the Classics as well, but will also be a possible leadout man for Caleb Ewan.
The team’s head directeur sportif, Matt White, claimed in a November press release that the team is “stronger in all areas” and “in a better place than we were 12 months ago in all areas”.
White emphasised an important role for Nieve, in particular the expectation to support the GC riders, as well as mentoring the young GC contenders.
White went on to say, “obviously bringing in a rider like Nieve, who has been one of Chris Froome’s right hand men through numerous Grand Tours is a great signing for us.”
However, he will be 34 years old next year and may well be past his prime.
What’s more, in the process, the team has lost Ruben Plaza, who was instrumental in supporting Chaves during the 2016 Giro d’Italia. The team also missed out on signing Jai Hindley from its development team, who was signed by Team Sunweb early in 2017.
One of the most significant backroom changes for 2017 was the appointment of Kevin Tabotta as the high-performance coach, an appointment that raised eyebrows.
Prior to joining Orica-Scott, Tabotta was a high-performance director for the Australian cycling program, but left his role after a disastrous Olympics, managing to win only one silver and a bronze medal.
Tabotta fell on his sword as soon as the athletes returned home from Rio – likely before he was pushed. His appointment to Orica-Scott seems peculiar, given he came from a track background and Australia’s performance had been falling in recent years.
A proper investigation of the team’s directeurs sportifs and coaches needs to be undertaken to assess whether changes are necessary.
The 2017 season was an important year in Orica-Scott’s quest to show the cycling community that the team is a genuine GC contender. Success was also important to secure a new sponsor.
While the team achieved a large number of victories, they did not win any Monuments or threaten GC in any Grand Tours. This was especially disappointing given the team had three strong leaders to challenges the likes of Froome.
More will be expected of the riders, including the new recruits, in 2018 if Orica-Scott is truly going unhinge the strong teams like Team Sky, Movistar and Team BMC from winning the Grand Tours again.