2012 Preseason Win, Lose or Draw

Many fans couldn’t care less about the first four weeks of the professional cycling season. Part of me can’t blame them. I mean seriously—Argentina? Qatar? Oman? And of these early races, only a few feature terrain that puts the majority of the peloton into the red zone. In most cases, crosswinds and cold weather do more damage than the actual racing does. Even Southern Europe was not immune, as record low temperatures turned most races into leg-warmer contests where the rider able to stay the warmest the longest often found himself on the top step of the podium. You’re forgiven for not caring.

On the other hand, the first weeks of the season offer our first glimpses of new riders and teams, many of whom are eager to impress following seasons that fell short of expectations. These early tests also offer pundits a chance to determine which riders are starting the year in good shape, making them possible contenders for the season’s first major rendezvous in Belgium, France, and Italy.

So whether you weren’t paying attention either by choice or by accident (and before the “real” season begins this Saturday with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad), here’s a quick rundown of what you missed, packaged together in a little game I like to call Win, Lose, or Draw (no Dom DeLuise required).

Omega Pharma-Quick Step (Win) – Belgium’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step has enjoyed a terrific start to the season—one that calls to mind the exploits of HTC-Columbia/High Road. At this point in the season it’s usually one or two riders that have won the bulk of any one team’s race victories; in Omega Pharma’s case, six riders have shared the spoils (Chicchi, Boonen, Fenn, Leipheimer, Ciolek, and Velits), with two more (Martin and Trentin) just missing wins themselves. If the team continues its torrid pace once the “real” racing begins in earnest, they could easily end the season as the year’s top-ranked squad. 

Lotto-Belisol (Lose) – Andre Greipel has already won five races for the restructured Belgian squad and Tour-hope Jurgen Van den Broeck looked strong in Qatar; but the team also lost Jurgen Roelandts after a crash in Stage 1 of the Tour Down Under. Roelandts was the team’s best hope for the cobbled classics, an important block of races for any Belgian team—especially one trying to keep up with Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s early season success. Without Roelandts, Greipel might need to ride himself into contention for the flatter classics—Milan-San Remo comes to mind, but Ghent-Wevelgem and the Grote Scheldeprijs might be better bets for the German speedster. 

BMC (Draw) – BMC made the biggest splash this past off-season, but they’re winless so far in 2012. That said, with men like Gilbert, Evans, Hushovd, and Van Avermaet on the roster, there’s hardly good reason to worry. This weekend’s Omloop will be our first opportunity to see some of the squad’s biggest names racing au bloc. And with two former winners and several other possible contenders on the roster, don’t count them out.

Tom Boonen (Win) – Omega Pharma’s most successful rider thus far has been Tom Boonen, a welcome sight considering the Belgian’s frustrating past two seasons. Boonen’s sprint speed appears to have returned, but perhaps more importantly, so has his confidence. Here’s a an interesting bit of trivia for those hoping to see Tommeke add another Flanders or Roubaix to his resume: each year that Boonen won the overall title at the Tour of Qatar, he took one of the two cobbled monuments as well.

Southern European Races (Lose) – There was a time when Mallorca, Southern France, and Italy were three of the sport’s most weather-friendly early season locales. But not this year as frigid temperatures and snow forced the abbreviation or cancellation of reventsaces in all three countries. But don’t get your hopes up for an “epic” weekend of racing in Belgium—the forecast calls for dry, sunny conditions. Go figure.

Mark Cavendish (Draw) – Two stage wins in Oman plus a bout of sickness and a crash amount to a draw for the reigning world champ. On the bright side, Cav’s wins indicate that his Team Sky lead-out train is coming along quite nicely.

Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Win) – Easily the season’s biggest surprise has been Endura Racing’s Tiernan-Locke, the winner of both the Tour Mediterranean and the Tour du Haut. The British rider won each event’s “queen” stage and in doing so, the overall titles as well. Thanks to his victories, Tiernan-Locke has apparently attracted the attention of several World Tour squads. Look for him to finish the season in a new uniform.

Greenedge (Lose) – Australia’s Greenedge Cycling team won its first two important goals of the season—the Australian Road Race Championship and the Tour Down Under—but have since fallen flat in their inaugural World Tour season. With so many flat races on the schedule (and shortened ones at that), you have to think that a roster with such an impressive set of speedsters would have produced more results. But let’s be fair: many upstart World Tour squads (especially those created out of thin air) have often struggled to find consistent results during their first seasons (Team Sky and Slipstream come to mind) but have gone on to win several major races. 

Alberto Contador (Draw) – For Alberto Contador’s fans, his two-year retroactive suspension counts as a loss. To proponents of a cleaner sport though, it’s a clear win. But at the end of the day, Contador’s suspension and the loss of his titles dating all the way back to the 2010 Tour de France amount to nothing more than a draw. First of all, Contador’s reputation seems to have survived the court of public opinion. Second, he’ll be back and racing in time to win his second Vuelta a Espana—which just about everyone expects him to do easily. Even his sponsor still supports him—a smart move considering he’s still likely to command a tremendous salary in spite of his suspension. 

Elia Viviani (Win) – I identified Viviani as one of several young Italian sprinters to watch as part of my Season Preview a few weeks ago. So far, the Liquigas-Cannondale rider has lived-up to my expectations. Viviani’s already won five races, and until the win by his teammate Moreno Moser (yes, he’s Francseco’s nephew) in Sunday’s Trofeo Laigueglia, he was undefeated on home soil. If he manages to take a stage or two in next month’s Tirreno-Adriatico, look for Viviani’s name on the list of contenders for Milan-Sam Remo.

Rabobank (Lose) – Last year, Rabobank had already won nine races by this point in the season. This year, they’ve won nothing. Worse still, Oscar Freire—the man they let go to make room for Mark Renshaw—has already won two races for Katusha. Luckily, Matti Breschel seems to be healed and ready to contend this weekend in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race Rabobank won last year as well. Too bad the winner (Sebastian Langeveld) now rides for someone else (GreenEdge).

Alejandro Valverde (Draw) – Similar to Contador, Valverde’s status depends entirely on your perspective. For many, the Spaniard’s return to racing leaves a black eye on the sport and its ability to fairly mete out justice. For others, it simply marks the return of one of the sport’s most talented and exciting riders, someone capable of challenging Philippe Gilbert in the Ardennes. And while he’s already won two races, he’s still a long way from redemption.

French Youth Movement (Win) – It was also good month for young Frenchman as Europcar’s Pierre Rolland, Saur-Sojasun’s Jerome Coppel, and FDJ-Big Mat’s Arnaud Demare and Nacer Bouhanni took wins. While Rolland and Coppel have bright futures as stage racers, Demare (the reigning U23 World Road Race Champion) and Bouhanni give the nation two young sprinters to root for at Paris-Nice.

Saxo Bank (Lose) – We’ll know for sure sometime in March, but if the team’s hearing before the sport’s Licensing Commission on February 27 doesn’t go well, they could find themselves on the outside looking in at the rest of the World Tour. Bjarne Riis has struggled in the past to find sponsors to support his program; a demotion certainly won’t make life any easier.

Share your early season Win, Lose, or Draw contestants below!

 

Follow me on Twitter: @whityost

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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10 comments

  1. grolby

    I feels like a low blow to say so, but two of those three Qatar wins by Boonen also preceded Stijn Devolder taking Flanders – is this his year again? But of course this has more to do with Boonen’s form than anything else, and winning Qatar is a good sign for him. I’m experiencing some Irrational Boonenism myself.

    As for BMC, their Het Nieuwsblad squad is so outrageously stacked that it’s hard to guess who will be riding for whom. For their sake, I hope too many stars don’t spoil the batter, or whatever.

    I’m also curious to see what Haussler does for Garmin, so I’ll be keeping an eye on him. Last year was supposed to be his rebuilding year, this year is supposed to be the year he comes back to the forefront of the sport. So far he’s been pretty quiet, but we’ll see what happens.

  2. Paul I.

    Win – Team Sky for that dominating performance in the Algarve.

    Lose – Tyler Farrar. Seems to be finishing behind way too many mid-tier sprinters.

    Draw – Radio Shack Nissan Trek. Some good signs, not too many results yet.

  3. Alan

    Folks who missed the early races lost out. I found them compelling and worth catching the highlights if not the last hour of the race. Got to see Oman for the first time via Eurosport highlights, that is a beautiful country. The race was quite good too.

  4. El Tejan

    Whit, sorry to be pedantic, but you may want to correct your first sentence. The expression you want is ‘could NOT care less.’ I am sure the remainder of my comment is riddled with errors, so apologies in advance.

    As for the assertion that crosswinds aren’t part of ‘real’ racing, what a load of malarkey. First of, racing in crosswinds is brutally hard. Moreover, it is compelling to watch. Some iconic photographs show three to four echelons stretched across the French or Belgian countrywide, separated by what appears to be mere seconds on the road but in reality we know the damage has been done. And yes, even honest to God ‘real’ races like that Tour in July have been dramatically altered by crosswinds. Had Contador not missed the split, would his “teammate” Armstrong still laid claim to being captain? And I believe post-Passage du Gois (spelling?), crosswinds played a role in the 5 minute gap opened by USPS over rivals Zulle et al. I am sure more astute fans can give better examples than I can.

  5. Whit

    El Tejan,

    Thanks for such a terrific comment!

    Regarding your first point: Typewriter Monkey #27 has been docked one banana for his poor editing. Thanks for pointing out the mistake!

    As for your larger point, I wasn’t saying that crosswinds and bad weather have no place in “real” racing. They play a large role in many important races—as you dutifully noted. My intended point was simple: many fans have a hard time getting excited about races such as the Tour of Qatar. I think we would both agree that if the Tour of San Luis took place in the middle of August, it wouldn’t attract the caliber of riders it did last month—nor would fans follow it so closely. For most of us, the season “officially” begins tomorrow with the Omloop, thus beginning a terrific stretch of racing.

    Thanks for keeping me on my toes—I always appreciate spirited discourse!

  6. Fausto's Schnauzer

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for your proper use of the phrase “couldn’t care less.” I always have the urge to take a pedal wrench to someone’s head when I read or hear “could care less.” Bravo!

  7. Hammerhed

    But now it’s March 7: Has the “pre-season” ended yet? Tomeke has made another deposit to the claim that he IS back. Haussler has still not arrived, and I’m beginning to feel sorry for him, not a good sign at all. Fabian notched a great win on the white highway, though he wasn’t beautiful in the process. The Schlecks have been a bust; Kloden has fired blanks; Horner showed up for work today. LeakyGas has done nada; RaboBanco likewise. Lotto has a two trick pony, and QuickStep? Oh Quickstep has WON the lotto! So far, QS can do no wrong. They have (about) seventeen wins with seven different riders, and it’s March 7th! Last year QS had FOUR wins all year. Patrick Lefevere’s and Zdenek Bakala’s feet probably touch the ground only when they have to pee. If the season keeps going like this, it may be one of the best in a very long time, at least in my simple mind.

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