Less than two years ago, the team now known as EF Education First Pro Cycling was in the midst of a cycling drought. For 24 long months, they’d gone without a WorldTour win. Victory was their white whale.
It would have been a frustrating time for a team that had once soared to the highest heights, winning the 2012 Giro d’Italia with Ryder Hesjedal, the 2014 Critérium du Dauphiné with Andrew Talansky and two monuments with Dan Martin along with Johan Vansummeren’s Paris-Roubaix.
In just a few short years, however, they’d plummeted to the lowest of lows. Hesjedal never repeated his miraculous feats. Dan Martin moved on to greener pastures. Talansky, unable to deliver on his supposed grand tour potential, switched to triathlon. Strapped for cash, the team nearly folded. Jonathan Vaugher’s Slipstream project was on the verge of WorldTour extinction.
The team eventually broke its drought at the 2017 Tour of California before picking up a couple of grand tour stages – including, you may recall, stage 9 of the Tour de France, where Rigoberto Uran outsprinted a small group of climbers while stuck in his biggest gear. Uran finished second in that year’s Tour – a great result, yes, but the team still searched for that one big win.
Canadian Mike Woods came close to landing a monument, running second in last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. As it turned out, 2018 was another lean year, with a pair of Vuelta stage wins their only WorldTour victories. They finished third-last in the 2018 WorldTour standings.
He may have reached Oudenaarde solo, but Alberto Bettiol’s Tour of Flanders victory embodies an entire team’s re-entrance to the highest level of cycling.
Yes, Bettiol won because he had a big engine. Without amazing legs, you can’t escape from the world’s best riders on the Oude Kwaremont, then stay away for 17 kilometres. But – as Bettiol himself was quick to point out – he also won because of some fantastic team riding.
“I knew Sebastian [Langeveld] was there protecting me. Sep [Vanmarcke] did an amazing job too – a champion like him worked for us all day. It was just crazy. All the guys, Matti [Breschel], Sacha [Modolo], Tom [Scully], Taylor [Phinney], everybody. I think EF was in the front all day.”
Vanmarcke has always shown the potential to win at Roubaix or Flanders. However, with knee injury scuppering any chance of personal glory at this year’s Ronde, Vanmarcke turned super-domestique, putting himself in a key breakaway.
After Bettiol made his move, Langeveld played the sheriff, following counter-attacks, slowing down the chase and generally making himself the perfect nuisance.
EF Education First have reinvented themselves this year. Their bold tie-dye jersey symbolises an intent to break the traditional cycling mould. That’s been evident in their targeting of “alternative” off-road events such as the Dirty Kanza and Leadville 100. They’ve also launched “EF Gone Racing”, a behind-the-scenes video series like the successful Backstage Pass of GreenEdge fame.
With Bettiol’s win, EF Education First are well and truly back in the game. And that’s where they intend to stay.
“We showed we can win the Ronde van Vlaanderen,” said Bettiol. “From now on you should look out more for the pink in the front.”
Feature image: EF Education First Pro Cycling