2012 Season Preview: On the Hot Seat

So far we’ve covered Men of the Hour and Up-and-Comers as part of our 2012 Season Preview; now it’s time for a list of the riders and teams who find themselves “on the hot seat” heading into the 2012 season.

Andy Schleck—It’s rarely a good thing when you’re being compared to Joop Zoetemelk. But that’s just the awkward place in which Radio Shack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck finds himself heading into the 2012 season. Schleck has now finished as runner-up at the Tour de France four times*. The good news: Contador’s not racing and Schleck will find himself leading a stronger squad with nine-time Tour de France winning DS Johan Bruyneel driving the team car. The bad news: he’s running out of excuses. And with a 2012 Tour route that emphasizes time trialing over climbing, Schleck could soon find himself one race away from equaling Zoetemelk’s record of six second-place finishes. Then again, even Joop won the race once.

(*Andy’s not counting 2010 as a victory, and neither am I.) 

Janez Brajkovic—Two seasons ago Slovenia’s Janez Brajkovic won the Criterium du Dauphiné for Team RadioShack with an impressive mix of climbing and time trialing; at the time he looked to be Johan Bruyneel’s next grand tour champion. But cycling’s a cruel sport and a year later Brajkovic found himself lying on the side of the road during Stage 5 of the 2011 Tour de France; his injuries sent him home less than a week into the Tour. The 28-year-old now rides for Astana, a squad that will welcome another GC contender to ride alongside Roman Kreuziger. Assuming Kreuziger targets the 2012 Giro d’Italia (a race in which he finished sixth last year), Brajkovic might find little stands between him and another chance at Tour leadership.

BMC—Earlier I included BMC on my list of Men of the Hour—and they deserve the distinction. But they also find themselves on the Hot Seat—here’s why:

  1. Philippe Gilbert, Cadel Evans, and Thor Hushovd will draw intense scrutiny after their 2011 exploits. The only feat more impressive than Gilbert’s 2011 season would be repeating the feat in 2012. As for Evans, he’ll soon find that winning a Tour is one thing, while defending the title is an entirely different proposition (just ask Carlos Sastre and history’s other 1-time winners). And Thor? Well, he did a quite bit of talking in 2011 about how unhappy he was at Garmin-Cervelo. Now he gets to show us what he can do while riding for a team where he feels his “leadership” is safe and secure.
  2. America’s great young hopes—Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen—need to show some progression in 2012. Phinney needs to turn his lessons from 2011 into results in 2012 while Van Garderen needs to win a week-long stage race—Paris-Nice would be a fantastic start.
  3. Aging and former stars such as George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan will fight to stay relevant just within their own squad. I’m still holding out hope that Thor’s arrival will give Hincapie the leash he needs to win Roubaix. As for Ballan, his continued presence on the roster surprises me considering his lack of results and the continued investigation of his role in the Mantova doping case.
  4. Last, but not least: chemistry. It takes a lot to manage the egos and aspirations of a professional cycling team, let alone a squad with so many high-profile stars. Evans, Gilbert, and Hushovd have all had moments where they appeared unable to play well with others—or at least unable to do so while keeping their mouths shut about it. Jim Ochowicz and the rest of BMC’s management will need to anticipate flare-ups before they happen and work quickly to extinguish problems before they spread.

Mark Cavendish—British rider, British team, World Champion, London Olympics—assuming he makes it through the Tour unscathed, Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish will likely face more Olympic pressure than any rider has ever known. With two stage wins in Qatar, at least he’s off to a good start.

Riders with Names Ending in “-ov”—In particular, I’m thinking of Alexandre Vinokourov, Alexandr Kolobnev, and Denis Menchov. As for Vino, he’s trying to end his career with some measure of respect at Astana, while putting behind him the “allegations” that he bought the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege from Alexandr Kolobnev (who’s been provisionally suspended for testing positive for masking agents at the 2011 Tour de France). Denis Menchov made a major career mistake when he transferred from Rabobank to Geox-TMC after a 2010 season that saw him finish third in the Tour de France. Unfortuantely, the supposed skeletons in the closets of Geox’s management meant there would be no Tour de France for the Spanish squad, so Menchov found himself sitting at home in July; he finished 8th in the Giro and 5tht in the Vuelta, but failed to make a major impact in either race. This year he finds himself riding for Katusha and should get another crack at leading a team the Tour. Believe it or not, the parcours suits him quite well, and another podium shot is certainly well within his reach.

Italy—Italians won 102 races in 2011, but few of any import. Worse still, the country’s grand tour riders came up empty after winning the Giro and the Vuelta in 2010. So it should come as no surprise that changes are in store for 2012. First, Liquigas rider Ivan Basso seems to have given-up on his Tour de France dreams; the 34-year-old has instead set his sights on winning his third Giro d’Italia. As for Vincenzo Nibali, the Tour de France was supposed to be his big goal for 2012; he finished 7tht in 2009 and has learned how to win and lose a grand tour in the two seasons since his breakthrough. That said, Nibali hasn’t ruled-out the Giro d’Italia either, an interesting proposition considering his toughest rival might also be his teammate.

In the classics, another poor season for Filippo Pozzato lost him his World Tour ride; he now leads Farnese-Vini, a team whose prospects—and race invitations—seemed to be improving until the charismatic,but frustrating, Italian “star” broke his collarbone. More weeks of training down the drain. Damiano Cunego still seems years away from his former race-winning self and Alessandro Ballan? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

But of all the Italians feeling pressure to perform in 2012, national team coach Paolo Bettini is likely to be feeling it the most. He’ll have two chances to redeem himself in 2012: the Olympics and Worlds. If he can’t do it, look for a change at the helm of the federation’s national squad.

Thomas Voeckler—Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler will be hard-pressed to re-create his Tour de France heroics from 2011. Let’s hope he doesn’t really take his Tour prospects seriously enough to sacrifice his chances in other races, as he’s one of the sport’s most exciting stars.

Monument Race Organizations—Changing the route or the date of a Monument is never a popular decision, but in 2012 we’ll see significant alterations to two of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious races. First off, the organizers of April’s Tour of Flanders have decided that the traditional Muur/Bosberg finale is too…predictable? Easy? Boring? To be honest, I’m not really sure what they were thinking, but if this year’s “new and improved” set of finishing circuits doesn’t lead to a spectacular win for either Philippe Gilbert or Tom Boonen, there will be hell to pay in Oudenaarde.

As for Italy’s “Race of the Falling Leaves”, il Lombardia (a name I’m still getting used to saying), a move to September means the leaves won’t be falling anymore. The UCI is hoping that an earlier date will see more in-form riders contest the late-season event, even if the scenery proves to be a less spectacular. The switch has a better chance of producing a more exciting race than the changes to Flanders do, but the sport’s purists are still shaking their heads.

Campagnolo—With more and more teams choosing Shimano or SRAM for their components, Campagnolo has to be feeling some pressure to remain relevant. Of the 18 teams in this year’s World Tour, only three (Lotto-Belisol, Lampre-ISD, and Movistar) will be riding the Italian groupsets in 2012 (Team Europcar, one of the sport’s better Professional Continental squads, will be racing Campy as well). The company’s new EPS electronic group was beginning to generate a bit of buzz—and then SRAM introduced its new Red grouppo and stole most of the spotlight. Campy’s still relying on decades of cachet to drive sales, but one has to wonder if they can keep up.

Team NetApp—They won one race last year—the time trial at the 2.2 Tour Gallipoli. They barely made a ripple at last year’s Amgen Tour of California—one of the biggest events on their calendar. Now they’re riding the Giro d’Italia? If the Giro had a Super PAC, Net App would have just made a significant donation.

Bjarne Riis—Even with a suspension and the loss of two grand tour titles, Alberto Contador will be just fine. As for Bjarne Riis and Team Saxo Bank-Sunguard? Well, that’s another issue entirely. It seems that Riis is almost always struggling to find new sponsors to help his team survive from one season to the next; now he faces six months without his Spanish star and the possible loss of his team’s World Team license. There were rumors circulating that Stefano Garzelli might sign with Saxo Bank after his Acqua & Sapone squad was not invited to the Giro d’Italia. Given Garzelli’s track record at the Italian grand tour, that might not be a bad option for the Danish general manager.

Who’s on your Hot Seat? Share your comments below.


Follow me on Twitter: @WhitYost

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Adam

    Nicholas Roche is on my hot seat. He seems to have very strong feelings that he should be his teams undisputed GC leader. He’s even written an autobiography even though his sole World Tour win is in China. In spite of that he was overshadowed this year by Gadret’s 4/3rd Giro result and Peraud’s – a 34 year old ex mountain biker – 9th place finish in the Tour. He’s a rider who will probably look for several more Grand Tour results while he should be chasing one week stage race results.

  2. Chris

    Not sure I agree that Van Garderen “needs” to win a stage race this year. He’s still quite young. But I will say that he needs a significant stage win (or two) and a couple more podium finishes to prove he’s progressing.

  3. Dave

    I think that Tom Boonen has a lot of pressure on him. After underperforming in the classics over the last couple of years and a rash of injuries last year, he’s certainly not getting any younger. I think that he needs to show this year that he can still be relevant. He’s off to a good start in Qatar, but we’ll see how he’s going as we get into the heart of the classics and he’s going head-to-head with on form riders.

  4. Fat Monte

    BMC looks too much like the cycling version of the Philadelphia Eagles or the Miami Heat. Too much superstar power, not enough roll players. Lots of ego, not enough team. The drama that unfolds with BMC will be the story to watch this year.

  5. Matt Walsh

    Pozzato is on the hot seat and since he just busted his clavicle, the seat is red hot. After three lousy seasons at Katusha, he needed to rebound. So far he’s not off to a good start.

  6. Nick

    much like Hincapie and Ballan, I’d include Juan Antonio Flecha as one of the aging protagonists who’s in danger of losing his relevancy. Flecha showed in Qatar that he’s still a good team player to have (3rd place and helped Cav to two wins), but if he’s going to win a race again, he needs to do it now.

  7. michael

    Jonathan Vaughters – the team association really needs to grow a pair and start the break away league. JV is the key. Too much politik, not enough action. Rattle some cages! Sidebar – he also needs to give Dan Martin a TDF start. WTF is taking him so long to do it? It`s beyond time. If MArtin has the form and he isn’t on the team come July, JV will have some ‘splainin’ to do.

    Heinrich Haussler – 2009 seems like an awful long time ago doesn’t it Heinrich?

    ASO – will they bend, open some doors, relent in some way and start the process of revenue sharing to help make pro cycling team ownership/sponsorship viable? Frankly, I think ASO is just as big of a problem to the growth of the sport as the UCI is.

  8. Jesus from Cancun

    Mat Goss. Even Cavendish admitted in his own words that Goss is the one whom he thinks could beat him fair and square.
    And his medal at the Worlds showed that MSR was no fluke. I am looking forward to seeing what he can do this year without the leash.

  9. Robot

    Could Pat McQuaid’s seat get any hotter. He’s just presided over the Contador debacle, which points just about everything wrong with the current system. It’s hard to see how he can stay, but generations of FIFA presidents have proven denial is a very powerful weapon.

  10. Mike

    What about Stijn Devolder? Does he matter anymore?

    And Greg van Avermaet? What happens now that BMC is overloaded with one day riders?

  11. spiff

    Thor is on the hot seat for Paris-Roubaix, h’e been second too many times not to want to win. Sorry George.

    Stefano Garzelli needs a new team, Riis is good at renewing riders like him.

  12. Simon

    Euskatel need to step up and do something. They’ve got sponsorship issues imminent; they could probably help themselves if they won something outside spain for the first time in a gazillion years.

    Michael – not sure that I’m quite buying into JV’s dream model of team ownership yet. This whole idea of franchise holders being given the keys to the cycling kingdom is more than a little loaded with advantage for the sideburned one. Even if I detest the man and despair at the organisation, I’d rather have Uncle Pat’s model, without race radios and everything. It seems to have worked well enough for the last fifty years…the tour isn’t getting any smaller, eh?

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