Erik Dekker demonstrates how to ride across a gap at the 2001 Amstel Gold Race, Holland,
chasing Armstrong and Mazzolini.
Dekker would go on to win vs Armstrong in a infamous track style match sprint.
Even without Thomas Dekker’s fine performances during the classic races,
the night’s video presentation of the team’s 2008 highlights, when team RaboBank was introduced, would not have been a short one.
There were wins by Lars Boom and a green jersey and other prestigious triumphs for Spanish sprinter Oscar Freire. The mega-talented Robert Gesink had a brilliant season while Russian Denis Mentsjov came third in the Tour de France after Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl tested positive for EPO. “We haven’t done too badly but we’re not there yet,” says Knebel.
With an annual budget of 12 million euros, Rabo is one of the richest teams in professional cycling. But last year it did not have as many wins as it did under the previous team leadership of Jan Raas and Theo de Rooij. Expectations had been running high at the beginning of the year. The team was to be one the best sports teams of the world, up there with the racing team Ferrari, football club Real Madrid, baseball team Boston Red Sox and basketball’s LA Lakers.
The only Dutch international cycling union (UCI) ProTour team also showed a distinct lack of fighting spirit. “We needed to be more aggressive”, Knebel admits. “We showed a lack of initiative although this Tour was one Rabo’s best ever in terms of results. Still, we were less visible.”
The former banker, who stepped into De Rooij’s shoes last year as team manager, knows exactly what to do about it. “We must seize the initiative, attack more.” As an example of what he means, Knebel mentions two races, the Franco-Belge, won by Juan Antonio Flecha, and the Tour of Flanders, in which Sebastian Langeveld dominated.
Knebel denies that the team’s popularity suffered as a result of a number of conflicts during last year’s season. A row with the team’s leaders saw Thomas Dekker drop out for the Tour de France. After seven seasons his contract was annulled and this year “the biggest Rabo talent ever” will ride for the Belgian Silence-Lotto team. Team leader Erik Dekker came in for criticism for not acting decisively enough in an alleged doping case involving his rider namesake. And it also turned out that retired rider Michael Boogerd, after having been one of the team’s best known members for thirteen years, could not be found a job at Rabo. He ended his contract with the sponsor in August last year.
Bigger than ever
Several riders and members of staff complained off the record about the new approach which was established by Rabo in the team after the Rasmussen affair . [Rasmussen repeatedly failed to inform cycling’s drug testing bodies about his whereabouts and, wearing the yellow jersey, was finally forced out of the 2007 Tour de France.]
The 2009 Rabo team is bigger than ever. The professional team consists of 30 riders and the trainee team has 22. Besides experienced foreign riders such as Oscar Freire, Denis Mentsjov, Juan Antonio Flecha and Belgian talent Nick Nuyens, Rabo offers lots of opportunities to young Dutch talent.
Robert Gesink will make his debut in the Tour this year while Bauke Mollema will try his luck in the Spanish Vuelta. Sebastian Langeveld will concentrate on the classic races and Lars Boom is entering the professional league which will also see the return of Kai Reus who was seriously hurt in an accident in 2007. Several times world champion indoor track cycling Theo Bos will make his debut in the trainee team.
Knebel: “We are aiming for a recognisable Dutch image.”