In the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, the HTC-Highroad squad celebrate the successful conclusion of what would turn out to be their last Tour de France. Mark Cavendish proudly wears his just-secured green jersey in the middle of the bunch.
The huge volume of races in any one cycling year provides ample opportunity for many ProTeams and ProContinental outfits to grab their moment in the spotlight and make their sponsors happy. In the past few years, few have done quite as prodigiously as HTC-Highroad have.
Their work in helping Mark Cavendish dominate the sprints of the grand tours has been the very definition of teamwork, the likes of Mark Renshaw and Bernhard Eisel more often than not giving the Manx Missile nothing short of exemplary leadouts on the way to his ever-growing tally of stage wins.
It has not been all about Cav though, with Tony Martin and Matthew Goss among others grabbing notable wins that put their team's logo up front and centre.
The news this summer that HTC-Highroad are to fold after failing to get a new sponsor brings an end to a team whose origins date back to the German Telekom/T-Mobile teams of Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel that so often lit up the 1990s and early 2000s. The disbanding also means that some of the best talent around has also become available.
While some of the team's riders have already declared their next destination, others are remaining tight-lipped for now. Either way, there are several reasons to be interested in the futures of this talented group. With few races left now for one of cycling's most high-profile squads, here are six soon-to-be ex-HTC-Highroad riders you should definitely be looking out for as we head into 2012.
The cyclist many view as the sport's best leadout man has signalled his intentions to step out of the shadows in 2012 with his move to Dutch outfit Rabobank. That he may well be competing with the man he has helped to so much success in the past three years is one of many intriguing storylines in Mark Renshaw's bid for independence.
28-year-old Renshaw has made a name for himself, in particular during the Tour de France, as the man most often in charge of delivering Mark Cavendish into position for the latter to sprint for stage wins. The level of teamwork between the HTC-Highroad riders in these situations has been noted as nothing short of exemplary, but these two in particular have developed an especially fruitful partnership.
Almost as frequent as the plaudits Renshaw has received for his selfless efforts have been the comments suggesting the Australian's speed and handling in the final kilometre of races would make him a decent bet to win himself. Neither is he afraid of the physicality of these frantic finishes, as shown in stage 11 of the Tour de France when he moved an encroaching Julian Dean out of his path by charging him with his head. Though, of course, that incident saw him disqualified.
There have been stage wins already, the most notable coming in the Tour Down Under and the Tour of Qatar. But in working for Cavendish, he has has generally forsaken his own chances of glory in the big events.
Renshaw will not have it all his own way at Rabobank and will have to work for Theo Bos there too. But he is sure to get more chances of his own now too, and should the wins come early, his new directeur sportif might decide it is him that he put up to compete against a certain old friend. Speaking of whom...
Mark Cavendish's standing in not just cycling, but the sporting world has never been higher.
Earlier this year SportsPro magazine designated him the 35th most marketable athlete in sports. The growing recognition is understandably in part down to his willingness to speak openly and truthfully about all manner of topics and his passion and understanding of his own sport.
But undoubtedly the major reason is because he is by far the most exciting thing on two wheels right now.
The Manx Missile won his first green jersey at the Tour de France this year, along the way adding to a tally of stage wins at the event that now stands at 20, the sixth most in the race's history. In addition there was the points classification win at the 2010 Vuelta a España, stage wins at the Giro D'Italia and in 2009 he took a memorable victory in the Milan-San Remo.
What is possibly the most interesting storyline surrounding Cavendish is that 2012 will perhaps offer his toughest test in cycling yet as he adjusts to life without the team that have helped him become so successful.
Cavendish has never been shy in making known his appreciation for the work done by his teammates for him. In fact one of his most charming qualities is the extent to which he works to repay them win a win the day after a stage in which he failed to capitalise on their efforts. If as rumoured, Cavendish moves to Team Sky, he will face a different challenge in that it will likely be a team focusing on the overall general classification rather than stage wins.
We know Cavendish is more than capable of fending for himself. His uphill stage 11 victory at this year's Tour de France demonstrated his capabilities in situations when the finish isn't laid on a platter for him. But in a peloton full of hungry and talented young sprinters, not least next year possibly in his own team, he will have to work hard to remain at the top of his game.
John Degenkolb's two wins at the Critérium du Dauphiné this year alerted the wider cycling world to one of the sport's great potential talents. He heads to Skil-Shimano in 2012 eager to fulfill this promise.
The 22-year-old sprinter will face healthy competition within his new team from fellow German Marcel Kittelbut hopes are certainly high within Skil-Shimano that Degenkolb is a green-jersey winner in the making. The lan is undoubtedly to build the type of strong and united squad that has fared so successfully in delivering in the closing kilmoetres of races at his old team.
For the immediate future, Degenkolb is targeting success next year in the Classics. On the HTC-Highroad website he makes it clear they are long-held ambition of his.
“My big dream is to do well in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I already got third in the U-23 Tour of Flanders once and I raced most of a season with my amateur squad in Belgium, so I know a little about the Classics. They’re my number one goal.”
With such outstanding sprinting talent it is understandable that HTC-Highroad have focused primarily on winning stages, but they have not entirely ignored the longer form of the sport.
Tony Martin has often been one of his team's sole representatives in the tough mountain stages of the grand tours, looking to make a dent on the general classification. While not yet translating into tangible success, if nothing else he has at least given HTC a presence in these events' most high-profile days.
As he gets ready to join Quick-Step, there is optimism that Martin is not far from making a much bigger impact on the sport. For a start he has already proved himself one of cycling's best time triallists, winning the German title in 2010 and finishing third in the World Championships time trial in both 2009 and 2010. In 2011 he took time-trial stages in the Tour de France and recently in the Vuelta.
Coupled with this year's stage-race wins in Paris-Nice and the Volta ao Algarve, all the signs are say that the 26-year-old has a bright future. Mountains classification titles in the former's 2009 edition and the Tour de Suisse of the same year demonstrate there is certainly ability in this area.
If Quick-Step can put some decent support around Martin, there is a good chance he can harness it and make the most of the valuable experience earned these past few years.
Joining Martin at Quick-Step will be his soon-to-be-former HTC-Highroad teammates Mark and Peter Velits. With the greatest respect to Mark, who is certainly no slouch, on the form of the past couple years it is Peter who stands out as the twin to especially look out for.
A former under-23 Road Race World Champion, Peter Velits really came to the fore late in 2010 with a third place finish in Vuelta a España, winning an individual time-trial stage along the way as well as taking advantage of his team's victory in the team equivalent that opened the race. In this year's Tour de France he finished in a more than respectable 19th place.
The 26-year-old Slovakian hasn't matched Martin as yet in notable victories elsewhere, but like the German the hope is Velits has the potential to be a regular visitor to cycling's most prestigious podiums.
Like Cavendish and Martin, Matthew Goss has enjoyed a great 2011.
The 24-year-old sprinter finished second overall in his native Tour Down Under to begin the year, and it has only improved from there. Goss took stage wins in Paris-Nice, the Tour of California and the Tour of Oman, and most notably won the Spring Classic, Milan-San Remo.
As it did when Cavendish won it two years previously, Goss will be hopeful that such a big victory can act as a springboard into the future.
There is a lot to look forward to for the Australian as he heads to the GreenEDGE team next year. While he has worked as something of an understudy for Cavendish with HTC-Highroad, he now gets a great chance to make a more consistent impact on the biggest races of the cycling calendar.
As he told the website of his new squad: “The reason I joined HTC-Highroad two years ago was to get a little more leadership responsibility and it’s slowly increased. It’s been a gradual process and I’m ready to take on more of a leadership role.”