Are we witnessing modern cycling’s new sprint kings, one team who dominates the fast finishes pretty much everywhere they go?
When Corendon-Circus became a second-tier ProContinental team in 2019, with ambitions of reaching the WorldTour, they knew that they couldn’t just rely on the talent of their talisman and poster boy, Mathieu van der Poel. Wins had to come from elsewhere. And they did.
Over the next four years, Tim Merlier chipped in with more than 20 victories to ensure the big race invites kept on coming, and the team that became known as Alpecin-Fenix established itself as one of the best in the men’s peloton and earned promotion to the WorldTour table. But they were still largely known as Van der Poel’s team.
Things haven’t changed completely - Van der Poel, now road race world champion, is still the undoubted star, the team’s most prized asset and a marketing department’s dream - but in 2023 the perception has altered. Alpecin-Deceuninck are no longer just Van der Poel’s team, but the peloton’s most prolific and most dominant sprinting team.
The acquisition of Jasper Philipsen in 2022 from UAE Team Emirates was initially seen as a smart piece of business; it has turned out to be one of cycling’s biggest transfer coups of recent times. In the 2022 Tour de France, Philipsen won on the Champs-Élysées, and in this year’s race he won the first four flat bunch sprints. He was, by quite some distance, head and shoulders above the rest of the competition.
Now, at the Vuelta a España, Alpecin are continuing their sprint supremacy, with Kaden Groves, the reserved 24-year-old Australian, winning stage four into Tarragona and looking a good bet to potentially win all of the six stages likely to end in a mass sprint.
Not since Quick-Step Floors in 2017 has cycling had one team be so prolific in the Grand Tours. That year, Fernando Gaviria won four stages of the Giro, Marcel Kittel won five stages at the Tour, and then Matteo Trentin went to the Vuelta and claimed four victories.
There are many similarities to draw: Philipsen, like Kittel was back then, is the undisputed best sprinter in the peloton; Groves, like Trentin was back then, can stake a strong claim to being the best of the rest and top of the B-class sprinters.
Groves’ win in the Vuelta on Tuesday - he claimed his first Grand Tour victory at the Vuelta last year and won a stage of this May’s Giro d’Italia - was, in the end, pretty convincing, despite the technical and tricky finale. His win does come with a caveat: the quality of the sprinting field is of a low quality, even more than it usually is at the Vuelta where mountains are prioritised over sprint-friendly parcours.
But, as the adage says, you can only beat what is in front of you, and Alpecin have become masters at doing exactly that. They don’t have the fear that the former HTC teams of Mark Cavendish used to have, but as a unit they are so well-drilled and execute their plan so well that it’s difficult for any other team to claim that they have a better functioning sprint department than theirs.
Groves may get another opportunity on Wednesday, and almost certainly on Friday, and it’s pretty likely that by the time this Vuelta a España comes to a conclusion in Madrid on September 17, there’ll be many sprinting teams asking themselves how on earth they can supersede Alpecin as the new sprint kings.