• Mitchelton-Scott will hope for a blockbuster 2018 with its cohort of young stars. (Getty)Source: Getty
We're starting to see what teams are thinking for the 2018 season and now is the time where races yet to be ridden can be won and lost.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central
21 Dec 2017 - 8:36 AM 

Cycling can often be an outlier within other sports. Talent rules over all, we can talk about teamwork, technique and the mental side of things all we want... but at the end of the day there are only a few people in the world who can produce a 75km/hr sprint at the end of a 200km stage and fewer still that can climb Alpe D'Huez in under 40 minutes.

In terms of an industry comparison, it's perhaps most like Hollywood. Film executives know the stars and what they can do, and its that combination of talent and script which puts bums on theatre seats and sells the movie to mass audiences.

Executives match a franchise star with what they hope will be their best movie of the summer. Imagine for instance that instead of the well-known and relatable Matt Damon in 'Downsizing', you had an unknown in the lead. It doesn't matter how good the supporting cast is - maybe the movie goes on to win awards for excellence in special effects - but the chances of it making money are decided well in advance of release.

In cycling, General Classification (GC) contenders are your box-office stars, and similar to the studios competing for that coveted big grossing Christmas movie slot, all the big players in cycling are competing for The Tour de France limelight. Decisions at this early stage can dramatically change the future odds.

For example, Chris Froome (Sky) announces that he'll do both the Giro and the Tour and his chances drop dramatically for the Tour with many thinking the double too big an ask, even for a rider of his stature.

Sprinters are probably the equivalent of 'eye-candy' star (think Megan Fox or Channing Tatum) in Hollywood. They'll look great on a poster or billboard and they'll be in any clip of the movie/race that anyone else will show because, like sex, speed sells.

The key to the game at this stage of the season is putting your collection of riders in races where you think you'll be able to get the biggest bang for your buck during the season to come. So its got to be the right fit for each in terms of the stature of the rider, terrain and supporting cast.

If you doubt the importance of this time of each year, remember that it's often mentioned by riders after a poor season. 'Oh, they got my schedule wrong. I was underdone heading into key races because of lack of race days and wasn't near my best.'

It was during the 2016 off-season where Nairo Quintana (Movistar) decided on the 2107 Giro-Tour double and lost both. He decided he would go into the Italian Grand Tour slightly underdone and got shown up by Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and was then totally legless in July at the Tour.

Countless stages in the Grand Tours are decided by which sprinters to show up. Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors) is hardly the fastest guy in the peloton, but he picked up three sprint wins in the 2017 Vuelta a España (plus a fourth from a breakaway) by being the best of those who toed the start line.

So, where does that put our Aussie-battlers-turned-major-players Michelton-Scott for the 2018 season? The biggest announcements to date have been that Caleb Ewan will head to the Tour de France alongside Adam Yates in the GC leadership role, while Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves will both contest the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a España.

On a base reading of the announcements (no further news on team support has accompanied the initial press release), the team will be drawing back from the all-out assault it did on the GC at the 2017 Grand Tours for a more targetted assault.

Ewan will get the chance to become a household name across Australia, not just in living rooms of cycling fans. He is one of a dominant emerging group of sprinting youth talent and while the old guard of Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) are still around they will shortly be overtaken by the new generation coming through. That said, Marcel Kittel(Katusha-Alpecin) is showing little sign of slowing down.

In Hollywood terms, Ewan is being groomed to be a franchise. Like Cadel Evans before him, he'll be a consistent Australian presence during the news at the Tour de France. He'll become familiar to those back home, to the extent that he could be the recurring mainstream star of Tours to come.

The shorter stages at this year's Tour will suit him and with a bit of natural progression, there's no reason not to expect that he can snag a few stages in his debut showing to go along with his Giro and Vuelta wins.

Adam Yates has drawn the fuzzy end of the lollipop when it comes to the GC stars at Michelton-Scott. He'll get only one Grand Tour and that one as a co-leader, with the reduced team sizes and a Ewan sprint train, he'll be lucky to have two riders left to assist him in the mountains.

Maybe this Tour run will mean that he'll get to have a proper crack at the Ardennes classics, races he should excel in given past form in an event like the Clásica San Sebastián.

His twin, Simon, will likely share the reins of leadership with Esteban Chaves on the remaining two Grand Tours. It's possible one leans more towards one race than the other... Simon Yates may be more suited to the time-trials in the Giro than Chaves. But there's no reason they can't both be competitive in either.

This will be the main thrust of the Michelton-Scott attack for a GC win, I'd expect to see a full complement of climbers to support their bids in Italy and Spain.

Roman Kreuziger had a disappointing 2017, he wasn't with the team leaders in support on the final climbs of the big stages as expected and didn't deliver results of his own.

Mikel Nieve is a big off-season recruit, he comes straight off being the second to last man for Froome in the mountains and no doubt Michelton-Scott management will be hoping that he can be the guy that is there to do a job on the final climb of those crucial Grand Tour stages.

What will be most interesting to follow for the rest of the season will be the development of the other young climbing talents. Can they be effective teammates? Can they step up to the next level and start taking big results of their own?

The furthest along the path to stardom is Jack Haig and Damien Howson. Haig has flashed that sort of talent all throughout his career, showing up NRS fields as a youngster, being near the top as developing talent in the under 23 ranks and now showing that he has what it takes to win stages of WorldTour races (Tour of Poland) and ride a race for a high GC (21st at the Vuelta) placing.

Howson may lack Haig's flash, but is solid in all aspects of racing while building a reputation as a selfless team-mate. Witness his ride to move Esteban Chaves up the GC in Stage 20 of the Vuelta in 2016. He's very similar rider to Nieve in a lot of ways, but a better time-triallist, something that has held Nieve back from greater personal success.

Robert Power has had well-documented struggles with serious medical conditions but was one of the best talents of Australian cycling and his comeback looks to be complete. Lucas Hamilton was the pick of the bunch from the under 23 crop of Australian stars, we've seen in the past that his development won't be rushed, but a Vuelta start isn't entirely out of the equation.

It is this young crop of Australian riders that will act as a supporting cast to any Grand Tour push. Maybe they'll get a chance to show a flash of their own talent, up-stage the more established stars and eventually move into leadership roles of their own.

Michelton-Scott now have a stable of bankable stars in which they can have confidence. Ewan has proven worthy of promotion to leading man, while Adam Yates, Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves continue their progress as riders capable of winning a Grand Tour win for the Aussie team.

Like Hollywood, cycling can be a fickle business. Decisions made at this stage of the season shape what's to come and can have a massive impact on racing months down the line and Michetlon-Scott has set itself up for a blockbuster season.