How Bora-Hansgrohe evolved into a grand tour powerhouse

The exit of Peter Sagan cleared the way for the German WorldTour team to pivot toward grand tours. The payoff came sooner than anyone could have dreamed.

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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Not so long ago, the idea of a Bora-Hansgrohe rider winning a grand tour seemed as unlikely as Peter Sagan winning atop Alpe d’Huez.

The German-based team was largely built around Sagan and his high-flying antics both on and off the road. Fans and media ate it as Sagan chewed up the pavé and bergs, winning three straight world titles, green jerseys, and monuments on a whim while popping wheelies along the way.

Behind the scenes, however, Bora-Hansgrohe was angling for a change.

Team boss Ralph Denk, who founded the team in 2010 as Team NetApp, wanted to be more than the “Sagan Show.”

He hinted as much in a bombshell interview in April 2021, suggesting that Sagan was out after five years on the team, and new GC riders were coming in.

Flash forward a little more than 12 months later, and Denk’s GC ambitions materialized faster than anyone could have imagined.

The so-called “band of brothers” won the 2022 Giro d’Italia with new signing Jai Hindley in a stunning takedown of Richard Carapaz and the most successful franchise during the past decade with Ineos Grenadiers.

The franchise’s inaugural grand tour victory catapulted Bora-Hansgrohe from a team that won classics, sprints, and stages onto frontline grand tour contenders.

“It’s pretty massive for the team,” Hindley said of the significance of his pink jersey. “For sure they’ve made some big changes and big investments in signing some big GC riders, and they’re trying to transform the team into a GC team, and stepping away from classics and one-day type of team.”

That’s understating it.

Turning the page on the Sagan Era

Aleksandr Vlasov is one of Bora-Hansgrohe’s new key signings. (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Last year, Denk drew heat when he threw shade at Sagan, suggesting last spring that the Slovakian superstar might be getting on in years and that his money would be better spent on chasing promising talent and building out the team’s GC ambitions.

Denk walked backed some of those comments, but it foreshadowed the big changes within the team to build for a post-Sagan future.

“I don’t think that everyone in the world of cycling understood what we did and some did not understand why we let Peter Sagan go,” Denk told Bici Pro last week. “We had a clear plan, a clear strategy. Many people around the team have a great passion and a great motivation for this project, and it is very nice to see how the plan worked after not even half a season.”

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That plan was a clear pivot toward the GC and particularly the grand tours.

When Sagan and his wide-ranging entourage that also includes several riders, staffers, and backroom personnel made the switch to TotalEnergies, the pathway was clear for Denk to reshape the team.

He not only signed Hindley, an investment that’s paid huge dividends not even halfway through the 2022 racing season, but also Aleksandr Vlasov, the ever-improving Russian climber who will take on leadership at the Tour de France next month.

Also read: Sagan brings superstar swagger to TotalEnergies

The team also penned Sergio Higuita, the promising pint-sized Colombian climber who’s already proven his worth this spring by winning four races, including the overall at the Volta a Catalunya.

Another reason behind the dramatic shift toward a GC focus also came from longtime backers Bora and Hansgrohe, both of which are signed on with Denk through 2024.

The companies have been supportive of Denk’s longterm vision and provided the extra financial heft required to rebuild the team for a more aggressive grand tour tilt.

In fact, it was that backing by the German sponsors that was part of the shift from classics to stage racing. In the huge but under-tapped German market, fans know the Giro or Tour de France, but less so races such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège or the Tour of Flanders.

It’s the yellow jersey that can sell kitchen sinks and ovens in Germany, not some unpronounceable race deep in Benelux.

Also read: Hindley ‘didn’t feel intimidated’ in Giro face-off with Ineos

To reshape its future, Bora-Hansgrohe was one of the busiest teams in the 21-22 transfer season, with 10 riders leaving, and 11 coming in.

Also returning is Irish sprinter Sam Bennett, who will give the team a steady presence in the mass sprints and the green jersey hunt this July as well.

Those riders all linked up with the solid base that Denk had slowly built up, including Emanuel Buchmann, fourth in the 2019 Tour, Max Schachmann, Wilco Kelderman, third in the 2020 Giro, and Lennard Kämna.

“That’s a big risk sometimes it takes a lot of time and effort to transfer a team into a GC thing, it’s not an overnight thing,” Hindley said. “There was a lot of pressure and stress to approach the sponsors to say we can be a GC team. I was really happy to win the Giro and prove to the team that we can be a GC team.”

Setting their gaze on the yellow jersey

In addition to new riders, Denk also brought in fresh energy to bolster the team’s sport director roster. Recently retired pros Enrico Gasparotto and Bernie Eisel were signed for 2022, bringing with them decades of racing at the highest level.

Throughout the Giro, Gasparotto shared the lead team car with longtime director Jens Zemke and Rolf Aldag, and helped deliver the franchise’s first grand tour victory in Verona on Sunday.

“As a sport director, part of our role is to bring ideas to the riders, and then we can look really intelligent,” Gasparotto told VeloNews at the Giro last week. “It’s easy to work with the riders that we have here because, first of all, they have arrived at the Giro in good shape and, second of all, they trust us, and they have a growing self-confidence day by day and they have shown that with their performances.”

Also read: Hindley pivots to the Tour de France

And thanks to the team’s big successes so far in 2022, it’s tucked nicely in the top six of the UCI team rankings, giving it a cushion in the next round of WorldTour licenses that will be divvied out in part based on team rankings.

The new arrivals blended in nicely with the core group that was already at Bora-Hansgrohe, which includes some of the best German riders in the peloton.

The group quickly gelled and produced a string of promising early season results even before the Giro started. Kämna, who proved key to Hindley’s Giro win, hit out early with a stage win at the Ruta del Sol that seemed to set the tone for the team in the post-Sagan era.

“Peter Sagan was also a great leader, and you always had somebody you could count on,” Kämna told VeloNews. “For sure it’s a different riding style right now. I personally really enjoy it.

“We want to ride aggressively and we want to win races,” Kämna said. “We are not there anymore just to go for eighth place in GC. We want to be in front, so it’s kind of a process right now to be always there.”

The newly confident Bora-Hansgrohe will now take on the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse not to win a stage here or there, but to fight for the overall classification.

Not that one style of racing is better than another, but the transition to a GC is what the sponsors, the riders, and the team owners viewed as the next challenge as the team moves into its second decade.

The behind-the-scenes work and investment paid off with the Giro, and the team is quietly confident it will continue through the Tour and Vuelta and beyond.

Flying high after winning the Giro, Hindley and the team are already thinking about cycling’s biggest prize at the Tour and the yellow jersey.

“For sure, why not? Never say never,” Hindley said when asked if could win the Tour. “That would be the ultimate dream. I am not going to say it’s not possible.

“We are going to be a team to watch in the future.”

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