2012 Season Preview

At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.

Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:

Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself.  In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad.  And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.

Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012.  But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.

American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.

Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.

Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.

As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.

Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.

Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.

Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.

But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.

Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?

Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.

Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.


Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. TomC

    It was a very pleasant surprise to come here and find the same sort of content that i used to read and enjoy at Pave, I glad that although the blog has come to an end you have found a suitable new home where we can still read your insight and commentary.

    As a brit last years improved Team Sky performance was very exciting and the new additions over winter make this season a very interesting prospect. Not only as far as juggling Cav and Wiggo at the Tour but also making good use of Uran and Porte’s prodigious talents as well. I’m also hoping Geraint Thomas continues his upward curve and gets some results in the spring classics again.

    Have to say i really can’t see Frandy doing too well at the tour, too many TT miles. I reckon it will be the Cadel vs Contador show with (hopefully) Wiggo in the mix for the podium too. It’s all very interesting!

  2. Paul

    Good overview. Some of the things I am interested in seeing this coming year:

    – Can Griepel catch up to Cavendish?
    – Are Froome and/or Cobo for real?
    – Is there enough TT mileage in the TdF for Wiggins to podium? (And too much for Schleck to win?)
    – Can Gilbert repeat his incredible 2011, and will there be enough scraps to keep Thor happy?
    – Is Valverde coming back at the level he was before his ban?

  3. gmknobl

    Bruyneel always seems to have problems when it comes to the one-day classics. I don’t think he’s every had someone who could win them outright except for Armstrong if he really, really wanted to, but when he has had someone in a position for winning it seems there has been lack of support or poor decisions by himself or his charges, all of which he should have been able to fix. I know I’m including his DS that were at the events if Bruyneel wasn’t there himself. But they were his responsibility too. Yes, the immensely talented George Hincapie did win a semi-classic. And yes, unfortunate timing was responsible for at least one missed opportunity; who can forget Hincapie’s handlebar break in PR.

    The point is, Bruyneel has much to prove when it comes to the classics. He has the firepower in his team now but he must run races better from a tactics point of view, IMO, and he must have the right people there to support Spartacus. I hope he can do it but as it stands, Bruyneel is the greatest GT DS around now but NOT the best classics DS by far. Now’s his best opportunity but he cannot squander it as he has in the past.

  4. Adam

    The Olympics! Small teams, short laps with a punchy climb. Can Cav’s five man team control it and deliver him. Can Austrailia get one back on the UK and deliver Goss, Hausler or Gerrans. What about Belgium, an inform Boonen teamed up with Gilbert with Nuyens and VanSummeren. Will Freire go out on top with one last big win for Spain. Or maybe the small team format will favour Norway who’ll bet on either Thor or EBH. Or will Cancellara manage to do the double that he was so close to in Beijing? I love the Olmpics for the small teams and the long distance – creates great racing.

  5. Jesus from Cancun

    It will also be interesting to see how Cavendish does this year. He showed a few times that he can win without a leadout, a la McEwen. But with a dedicated leadout team, he has been almost impossible to beat.

    Now it is very questionable whether he will have a comparable leadout or not, especially at the Tour, where the team will divide duties and possibly loyalties with Wiggo.

    He will still win a lot, I am sure. But with possibly less team support than he had at HighRoad, and with his former leadout guys, and great sprinters themselves, now his rivals, this should do for some great bunch finishes.

  6. michael

    – Is Haussler over his injury bug of the last 2 years and will he have the form to be a real contender/threat in the classics? He is riding well at the TDU this week, that much is certain.

    – will Sagan open up his account during classics season with a semi-classic win?

    – will Dan Martin open up a can of vertical whup-ass in Lombardy in the fall and take the classic best suited to his abilities?

    – will Gilbert suffer from the same type of negative marking tactics that nullified Cancellara this past spring? Most importantly, can such tactics blunt his patented uphill attacks?

    – will Pierre Rolland step-up a huge notch this year and impress yet even more and make a top-5 at the TDF? (sidebar – given the time trialing this year, it would be interesting to instead see him in Spain. should Europecar get an invite, which they most likely won`t..)

    – will a pro conti team pull off a major race or classic win against all odds?

    – will the team owners and managers finally grow a pair, ditch the UCI and start their own league?

    – will ASO finally realise they won`t have much of a commodity on their hands in a few years if they keep the honey pot to themselves? They need to have a Pooh moment at some point.

    – will everyone finally realise that Serge Arseneault and his team are quietly putting together the best two stops on the entire World Tour?

  7. Whit

    Great comments everyone! Certainly there are many questions that we hope to have answered by the end of the season. I too am looking forward to the Olympics. I hope the smaller teams will prevent an inevitable field sprint, and perhaps give one of the sport’s more aggressive riders a chance.

  8. Gal

    all I hope right now is for Contador to be fully cleared and then it can be one of the greatest season in recent time,rather you like him or not (I do)without him it will just not going to be the same.

  9. Whit

    @Gmknobl: It’s funny, last night I was watching the 2005 Tour of Flanders with some friends and realized the same thing about Bruyneel’s success–or lack thereof–in the Classics. Two things to keep in mind perhaps: Dirk Demol does a lot of the driving at the Classics; his role needs to be considered. There’s also the fact that Cancellara is better than any rider Bruyneel’s had to work with in the past (it hurts me to type that). I wonder if Cancellara will do more to make Bruyneel look good than vice versa.

    @Robot: let’s face it, there’s really no comparison. It’s unfair to compare anyone to what Gilbert did in 2011.

    1. Padraig

      Michael: Boy, you’re inquisitive, aren’t you? You might have some talent as an interviewer. If we run out of ideas for the FGR we’ll know where to turn.

      Robot: Agreed. That line was genius. I LOLed when I read that.

      Whit: It’s really wonderful to have you aboard.

  10. cormw

    Got to wonder how BMC is going to pull of the Classics with such a big name line up. Will they all just work against Cancellara or will they have the gusto to go for it on their own? And what are the odds of Thor complaining about the team tactics at the end of Roubaix/Flanders this year?

  11. Brcire

    What if… how about this or that… And then there’s…

    Your insight, their insight,the post-ride insight…AHHHHHH!!!!! I can’t wait for it all to start! I hate this of year!

  12. Souleur

    excellent insight Whit!

    Totally agree on Martin, I look for him to be a very serious GC’r next year.

    and I pray that Spartacus can put them on the ropes in ’12
    there are so many others in the spring classics peloton, marked men, hopefully he will be able to break out again

  13. gadi

    Great as always but a bit short (for the standards I got used to…)
    Hope ‘they’ let you express with no limitation regarding the length and editorial effort needed.
    By the wat – I Couldn’t find the name of Jelle Vanendert under ‘Belgium’.

  14. CAT4Fodder

    Thanks you for including the Tour of Utah. Honestly, as someone who is not even from Utah, not Morman, and only enjoying a well run race….This is a well run, fun race.

  15. CAT4Fodder


    I agree on Greipel. I think a foil to Cav would be great. Add to that the Greipel is honestly just a solid guy, and seems to be the guy burning with desire due to his issues with Cav makes for a great story, regardless of the outcome.

  16. cthulhu

    The men making the headlines this year?

    Surely Cancellara vs Martin goes into round three, especially with the Olympics on.

    Btw Olympics, for the road race I predict now, we will have same top three riders as at the last worlds, maybe in a different order.

    Also, I believe Gilbert will be making headlines earlier this year, as he will at least add the “third” monument to his palamares *cough* flanders.

    I cannot await Milan-San Remo. I think Gilbert will be on the attack there too, but last year he and the other non sprinters couldn’t get of all of them and it seems this year are even more sprinters/sprinter teams trying to target the race and willing to keep it together.

    Âs for the other BMC riders. Cadel will ride a solid season again, but if he can defend his title is questionable and I fear Thor will again not win his Roubaix. And I will keep a close eye on van Garderen.

    Contador will dominate the headlines whether he rides or not anyway. Unfortunately…

    As will team Schleck…but those are the obvious choices.

    But I think the former skill team will be stirring up tings this year and Boonen will be back.

  17. Whit Yost

    First let me say how wonderful it is to see so many familiar “faces” from Pavé. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you!

    @Gadi, thanks for adding Vanendert’s name to the list–I certainly should have mentioned him.

    I still have Up-and-Comers, On the Hot Seat, and Best Pick-Ups left to cover, so hopefully I’ll cover just about everyone.

    Thanks for reading. And keep those comments coming–they’re one of my biggest sources of motivation!


  18. Rich L

    I’m amazed nobody, and I mean nobody has mentioned Renshaw. I’m not sure Griepel will deliver when it counts. Okay, he’s got the leadout train he always wanted but up against Cav he doesn’t have a great record. Renshaw knows Cav inside out, and with no Oscar at Rabobank they have one main sprinter to look after.

    BMC, I think this might go the way of GarVélo of last year, starting off poorly, taking the opportunity when it strikes, but Ultimately not doing as well in the Classic’s as the Super Team might suggest. The GT BMC may be a different beast. Cadel is my top tip to win the Tour if Bert ends up on holiday, if he does start it’s game over.

    I’ve already written about this on my blog, but expect the return of Lord Boonen. Van Summeran was a blip, his Dirk Demol moment. He’ll go back to being a highly important Super Domestique. But OPQS could be a Team to fear, it seems a crazy mix, Tony, Levi, Tom and Sylvain all potential riders in touch of glory this year. This is probably Levi’s last chance, but my guess is the Tour will be for Tony. I’d expect him to reach the podium this year, as unlike Fabian he can climb a lot better and his Time Trailing is pretty good!

    JB and the Classic’s – he just doesn’t get it. He’s a master tactician at GT races, with a record as a DS holds no equal. But even with Fabian I can’t see him bagging a big one.

    But as usual I’ll get it all wrong, but what I do know is that it’ll be very exciting and I can’t wait for the season to start.

  19. Rich L

    Robot I hope not. I was watching the 2009 MSR and wondered what happened to Ciolek. I think it’s interesting that nobody is talking about GreenEdge. This maybe a mistake, or we are all on the money.

    I’m really excited about the first few months racing, can’t wait till it all kicks off proper.

  20. Whit Yost

    @Rich L: I hear ya, but I suspect we’ve already seen what Renshaw can do. Greipel and other certainly got the better of him at the TDU–a race in which several of the sport’s “top tier” sprinters weren’t present. I’d love to see him deliver on the promise he showed at HTC, but I think he was better served as the world’s best leadout.

    As for Greenedge, my money says we’ll see them put in a season similar to what Sky did in their first year. They’ve signed a handful of B-stars (Goss not included) who are eager to prove they deserved more than they were given in their former squads. As for Goss, he’ll face a lot more pressure as his team’s #1–as opposed to his team’s #1A.

    That said–I’m eager for the season to start properly as well! Maybe we’ll all be eating our words by April!

    Thanks for the comments!

    1. Padraig

      It’s very possible that Renshaw has the goods, but I doubt he’ll have the timing correct for a win against all comers in the first part of the season. It takes time to know how to execute a final sprint even if you’ve been watching from a ringside seat for years. More than anything, I think that’s why Renshaw hasn’t been talked about. He may have the form, but as a sprinter, that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Once he’s had a few near misses at real races his stock will rise and people will talk about his potential.

  21. gmknobl

    To me the scariest new kid around was Peter Sagan. When he won, he won with apparent ease. And he won in multiple types of races. He doesn’t, yet, have the ability to stay with the top climbers and doesn’t profess to want to do this, looking more like a top tier rolleur and a tough man for the classics. But he is young and needs some aging and more resistance perhaps to see his full potential. Or, he could disappear for several years somewhat like Cunego, who he joined with a very fast descent in the TdSuisse last year. Let’s hope the latter doesn’t happen as he is very exciting to watch.

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