It’s hard to imagine, but the spring classics are finally upon us with Saturday’s running of Milan-San Remo, the first monument of the season. Much has been written about the type of rider perfectly suited to the year’s longest one-day event. Is Milan-San Remo a race for sprinters or attackers? Will the Cipressa and Poggio succeed in shattering the field, or will they simply prime the legs of the strongmen before an all-out bunch sprint?
In the end, La Classicissima is perhaps one of the sport’s biggest crapshoots as crashes, weather, and bad luck all play a role in destroying or elevating the chances of many pre-race favorites. Here’s a rundown of who to watch this Saturday:
Peter Sagan – Similar to last year’s edition, I expect we’ll see a select group hit the line together in San Remo Saturday. That makes a sprinter able to handle the Cipressa, the Poggio, and their descents while possessing a better finishing kick than his rivals—such as Liquigas’ Peter Sagan—the top favorite for Saturday. Sagan’s progressed steadily since his first season as a professional (2010), a season when he was head-scratchingly left off his team’s roster for Milan-San Remo after two stage wins in Paris-Nice. Taking the line for the first time last season, Sagan finished 17th, I suspect due to Milan-San Remo’s whopping 290-kilometers of distance.
The Slovakian returns this year with a grand tour in his legs (an important detail not to be discounted) and a tough week of racing in Tirreno-Adriatico. His stage win in Chieti showed his ability to survive selective courses and he has the added benefit of riding alongside Vincenzo Nibali, a trendy race favorite himself his overall victory in Tirreno. Look for Sagan to win the race in a fashion similar to Goss last year. He’ll take a backseat to Nibali for much of the finale, calmly following wheels and taking risks on the descent of the Poggio to keep himself in contention. If all goes as planned, the youngster will take his first classic at the tender age of 22.
Fabian Cancellara – Cancellara won Milan-San Remo in 2008 and finished second last year after making the lead group, but coming up short in the sprint. Interestingly, Cancellara’s 2008 victory came two weeks after he won L’Eroica and days after his time trial win (and overall title) at Tirreno-Adriatico. Sound familiar? After his impressive victory in L’Eroica two weeks ago and a near perfect build-up at Tirreno, only a true field sprint finish could definitively prevent Spartacus from taking his second victory in La Classicissima. Then again, given the form he’s displayed, even that might not defeat him.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – After his Stage 3 victory in Tirreno, EBH looked to have the form of a 5-Kite Favorite. Assuming a small but select group escapes on the Poggio, the Norwegian is—to me—Team Sky’s best bet for the win Saturday as he’s a better climber than Cavendish. But like many in the peloton, Boasson Hagen abandoned the race early, feeling the effects of a crash and wanting to be fully rested for Saturday. Such decisions are common, but it’s enough to cast a bit of doubt over the Norwegian’s chances, knocking him down a rung from the likes of Sagan and Cancellara.
Mark Cavendish – Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish has spent much of the still-young season either winning or sick. After taking his fourth win of the year in Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico, the World Champion abandoned the race a few days later, trying to keep himself fresh while avoiding the effects of a cold that has laid low many of the sport’s biggest names. For Cavendish, the question at Milan-San Remo remains whether or not he will make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio with the front group. If he does, there’s little reason to believe his powerful team won’t deliver the Manxman his second victory in the season’s first monument.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire has won Milan-San Remo three times—a fourth would tie him with Gino Bartali and Erik Zabel for third on the all-time behind Eddy Merckx (7 wins) and Costante Girardengo (6 wins). Freire has a knack for winning races when no one really expects him to, forcing everyone to utter “Oh yeah, Freire,” after seemingly coming out of nowhere to take a major victory. Freire’s won two races for Katusha so far this season and enjoyed a quiet Tirreno-Adriatico where he finished second behind Mark Cavendish on Stage 2. If a large group hits the Lungomare Italo Calvino in the lead, expect to see the Spaniard on the podium Saturday.
Tom Boonen – Every year it seems that Omega Pharma – Quick Step’s Tom Boonen comes to Milan-San Remo in top form only to find himself thwarted by riders more suited to the race’s crapshoot of a finale. Tommeke’s finished second and third here previously, but often lacks the acceleration to cover winning breakaways or the power to emerge victorious in the final sprint. After a terrific start to the season including a stage win in last week’s Paris-Nice, the Belgian appears as ready as he’ll ever be to take what would be his third of the five Monuments. Unfortunately, the Belgian’s chances have already been dealt a blow thanks to the withdrawals of Sylvain Chavanel and Dries Devenyns.
Vincenzo Nibali – Tirreno-winner Vincenzo Nibali would love to add Milan-San Remo to his resume. But with several teams hoping to see the race come down to a sprint and a finale that’s not quite hard enough to sufficiently kill their chances, Nibali might be relegated to the traditional role of “Italian grand tour favorite who attacks on the Cipressa and is caught at the base of the Poggio”. Then again, Nibali could combine his impressive descending skills on the Poggio with the pack’s fear of dragging Peter Sagan back into the lead to give the race its first Italian winner since Pippo Pozzato in 2006.
Alessandro Ballan – Thanks to a roster decimated by illness and injury, Ballan will likely be Team BMC’s best bet on Saturday. Still out to prove that the big wins he enjoyed earlier in his career were no fluke, Ballan finished fourth last year after making the final selection. And with Gilbert, Hushovd, and Van Avermaet bound to heal sometime soon, there might never be a better chance for Ballan to lead his squad in a major spring classic.
Matti Breschel – Rabobank’s Breschel seems to have overcome the injury troubles that dogged him throughout 2011. Critics will point out that he was dropped from the winning breakaway in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad three weeks. But to me, his performance serve as proof that the Dane’s form is headed in the right direction. With a relatively trouble-free Tirreno in his legs, Breschel should perform well in San Remo.
Daniele Bennati – Bennati’s fine start to the season has been overshadowed by Fabian Cancellara’s exploits as of late. After setting-up Spartacus with a late-race move in L’Eroica, the Italian held on to finish 11th in Siena. At Tirreno-Adriatico, he seemed to have grown stronger as the race progressed: he finished second behind Cancellara in the event’s final time trial. Bennati’s biggest obstacle Saturday is certainly his teammate; he’ll rightfully be expected to defer to his Swiss teammate should they both find themselves in the final selection.
Heinrich Haussler – In 2009, Garmin-Barracuda’s Haussler narrowly missed winning Milan-San Remo when he was caught at the line by Mark Cavendish. Haussler has since fallen short of living up to that season, but says he’s back on track and ready to contend this spring. Saturday will be our first chance to see if he means it.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol’s Greipel is one of the world’s best field sprinters, but there are questions as to whether he can make it over the Cipressa and Poggio with the favorites. If he does, he’s not to be discounted. After all, if Cipollini and Petacchi can do it, why can’t he?
Matthew Goss – GreenEdge’s Goss has done little to show that he has the form necessary to defend his 2011 title. Then again, it’s early in the season and many riders have purposely remained under the radar so as to avoid racing on Saturday with a target on their backs. If Goss has truly recovered from the illness that cut short his Tirreno, a step on the podium is within his grasp—which one remains to be seen.
I went against my gut last year and didn’t pick Matthew Goss. I won’t make the same mistake twice. Sagan takes the win over EBH and Ballan. And then it’s on to Flanders!
Share your picks and favorites below.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
This weekend begins the final set of preparation races before the spring classics with Saturday’s running of the Monte Paschi Strade Bianche, Sunday’s start to Paris-Nice, and Tuesday’s opening of Tirreno Adriatico.
Monte Paschi Strade Bianche (Saturday, March 3rd)
Known commonly as “L’Eroica”, Italy’s Monte Paschi Strade Bianche is one of the newest races on the European calendar, but its roots are deep. Featuring over 57 kilometers of Tuscan white gravel roads, the race has quickly become one of the most popular events of the spring. Fittingly, the first five editions of the race have produced winners including Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert, the defending champion. As an added bonus, this year’s L’Eroica will be aired on live television, which means fans all around the world will have a chance to watch the action unfold.
Paris-Nice (Sunday, March 4th – Sunday, March 11th)
This year, the eight-day “Race to the Sun” has returned to its roots by including an individual time trial up Nice’s Col d’Eze for the first time since 2001. The race begins with a short, individual time trial that will start the GC sorting early, followed by several stages that will put the peloton’s echelon skills to the test. Expect sprinters and rouleurs to dominate these first few road stages.
As the race nears the Mediterranean, the mountains loom. Stage 5 finishes atop Mende’s Le Croix Neuve (the “Jalabert climb”), while Stage 6—a stage that begs for a Thomas Voeckler attack—features five categorized ascents on the road from Suze-La-Rousse to Sisteron. Stage 7 covers four more climbs, the last of which is the 1st Category Col du Vence, over 50 kilometers from the stage’s finish in Nice. Stage 8 will settle the GC; the Col d’Eze ITT leaves no margin for error. The climb is not incredibly steep, suiting more traditional time trialists best—pure climbers will need to forge their advantages earlier should they hope to emerge victorious.
Tirreno Adriatico (Wednesday, March 7th – Tuesday, March 13th)
Italy’s “Race of the Two Seas” begins Tuesday with a team time trial that will immediately place several GC riders at a disadvantage. Stages 2 and 3, while long and rolling, should both end in field sprints. Stages 4 and 5 see the mountains make their appearance, which should result in the first reshuffling of GC. Stage 6 features six laps of the circuit used for the 2010 Junior World Road Race Championship—another sprint is expected. The race concludes with a 9.3-kilometer individual time trial that will settle things once and for all.
With teams spread between two countries (or more in some cases) this is a ten-day period in which having a deep and talented roster is paramount to a team’s success. Let’s take a team approach to running down the favorites for this year’s editions:
BMC – BMC comes to Italy’s L’Eroica with defending champion Philippe Gilbert hoping to atone for a relatively poor showing in Belgium last weekend—or is he? He’s joined Saturday by George Hincapie, Greg Van Avermaet, Cadel Evans, and my pick for the win, Alessandro Ballan. Ballan has finished second in L’Eroica twice (2008 and 2011), and would certainly love to take his first victory since 2009 on home turf. Next week in Tirreno, BMC will be led by another returning champion: Cadel Evans. Evans was certainly unafraid that a win last year would ruin his Tour prep—look for him to use the 7-day event once again to test his form. The course certainly suits him.
In Paris-Nice, the squad turns to Thor Hushovd and Tejay Van Garderen, the former hunting for stage wins and form for the cobbled classics, the latter hoping to take another step in his development as a GC contender in major stage races. While a win might be out of his reach, a top-5 finish against some tough competition would be a step in the right direction.
By winning last year’s Criterium du Dauphiné, Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins proved that he has what it takes to win major weeklong stage races. He’ll get another chance at Paris-Nice alongside Richie Porte and Rigoberto Uran. With Christian Knees, Danny Pate, Geraint Thomas, and Kanstantsin Siutsou fetching bottles and pulling back important breakaways, anything but a podium finish (or the win?) will be a disappointment for the British team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Wiggo and Porte hit the podium.
In Italy, the squad’s classics contingent will tackle Tirreno Adriatico, building form for Milan-San Remo and the cobbled classics. Mark Cavendish, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Juan Antonio Flecha are the riders to watch here—expect at least a handful of stage wins and increased hype surrounding Cavendish and Boasson Hagen heading into Milan-San Remo.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – Omega hopes to shrug-off its mediocre performance during the opening weekend in Belgium with wins at Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico. Defending “Race to the Sun” champ Tony Martin will co-captain the squad in France alongside Levi Leipheimer (the winner of last month’s Tour de San Luis in Argentina), and French Champion Sylvain Chavanel. That said, I wonder if Martin would have been a better choice to lead the team at Tirreno Adriatico, a race with a TTT, an ITT, and less climbing than Paris-Nice. Leipheimer and Chavanel would have been fine on their own and the squad would have increased its chances of winning both races. Instead, the team will rely on Tour of Oman champ Peter Velits to lead the squad in Italy. He should do well assuming his form has improved since Oman.
Interestingly, for the first time since 2007, Tom Boonen will use Paris-Nice as his last stage race before the spring classics. Maybe he’s hoping for a return to 2005, when he won two stages in Paris-Nice on his way to winning both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Liquigas-Cannondale – Naturally, Liquigas is sending it’s two best riders—Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan—to L’Eroica and Tirreno Adriatico. Both won stages at last month’s Tour of Qatar, with Nibali taking an impressive win atop Green Mountain, the event’s “Queen” stage. Eros Capecchi, (the winner of Sunday’s GP Lugano) will be at Tirreno as well and is certainly a candidate for stage wins and possibly a top-10 finish overall. These three as well as Moreno Moser and Daniel Oss are riders to watch in L’Eroica. For many fans, the possibility of a Moser winning on the strade bianche is too tantalizing to ignore.
In Paris-Nice, Ivan Basso and Elia Viviani will lead the way. Basso is peaking for the Giro and will likely be riding to build fitness, while Viviani—himself a winner of five events already this season—will be looking to the race’s field sprints in an attempt to prove he deserves mention alongside Cavendish and Greipel as one of the fastest men in the world.
RadioShack-Nissan – RadioShack-Nissan heads to Paris-Nice with a squad that we could very well see lining-up in Liège this coming June (remember, the Tour de France begins earlier this year due to the Olympic Games). Indeed, with Frank and Andy Schleck, Andreas Klöden, and Maxime Monfort all starting, it is quite possible that we could see at least three (I doubt we’ll see Andy Schleck do anything more than ride tempo for his teammates) of Bruyneel’s men finish inside the Paris-Nice top-10. Of the three, Klöden (last year’s runner-up) has the best shot at a victory. The German won Paris-Nice in 2000, largely thanks to his win in the Col d’Eze time trial, a stage making its return to the race this year. RadioShack’s winless thus far in 2012—look for Klöden to end that next Sunday.
As for Tirreno, RadioShack takes the approach of many teams, sending the bulk of its classics contingent to Italy. Fabio Cancellara won Tirreno in 2008 and has used the race in the past as the foundation of his classics campaign. While another GC victory might be out of his reach, Cancellara will certainly make his presence known. Daniele Bennati could also challenge for a stage win, while Chris Horner could be a surprising GC contender at such an early point in his season.
Rabobank – Rabobank has divided its resources fairly equally between Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico, sending Bauke Mollema and Luis León Sánchez to France in search of high GC finishes and Carlos Barredo and Mark Renshaw hunting for stage wins. Sánchez already has four top-5 finishes in Paris-Nice, including the overall victory in 2009, but the event’s return to a more traditional parcours might hurt his chances. As for Renshaw, it is still a bit early, but I have a feeling he doesn’t have what it takes to be the team’s sprint captain—his past success looks to be more a product of HTC’s system than anything else. That said, a stage win in France would prove doubters like me wrong.
At Tirreno, Steven Kruijswijk will lead the team’s GC assault—the youngster has proven to like racing in Italy, as evidenced by his eighth-place finish in last year’s Giro d’Italia. Lars Boom is a candidate to win the final ITT (and GC?), while Matti Breschel and Michael Matthews should contend for stage victories as well. Breschel’s biggest priority will be putting the finishing touches on his form for the classics. His Omloop performance shows that he’s close, but still has room to improve.
Lampre – Lampre’s taking a two-pronged approach to the coming week, sending one squad led by Damiano Cunego to Paris-Nice and another led by Michele Scarponi to Tirreno. Scarponi won Tirreno in 2009 and narrowly missed defending his victory the following year when he lost to Stefano Garzelli by a fraction of a second. He’s looking forward to another assault on the Giro d’Italia this season (he finished behind Alberto Contador last year) and could certainly create some buzz with another strong performance next week. As for Cunego, he finished second in last Sunday’s GP Lugano, but has ridden inconsistently in recent years, making it hard to get a handle on his chances in the Ardennes. A strong Paris-Nice would certainly restore our faith in the Italian. Diego Ulissi bears watching for stage wins as well.
Movistar – Alejandro Valverde has returned from suspension to win three races already this season. He leads Movistar in France. Valverde has a Paris-Nice stage win and a (voided) second-place overall finish on his resume, but I have a feeling this year’s course—and the competition—might prove too tough for the Spaniard. He’ll be a contender, but I doubt he’ll win the race. Surprisingly for the Spanish team, Movistar’s best chances for a win this week might come in Italy, where Giovanni Visconti—the reigning Italian champion—will look to show his home fans that his emigration was not a mistake. Look for him to be at the forefront during both L’Eroica and Tirreno, where Visconti might be better served going for stage wins than a high overall finish.
Acqua e Sapone – Stefano Garzelli is justifiably disappointed to have seen his team left uninvited to the 2012 Giro d’Italia. After all, Garzelli won the Giro in 2001 and took home the mountains classification last year. Instead the Italian will have to settle for Tirreno Adriatico, a race he won in 2010—barely. Garzelli is one of those riders that you can always count on to perform well in certain races. In this case, he’s a certain contender for the overall victory by virtue of the simple fact that Tirreno’s the biggest race on his program—at this point at least. While other riders might be looking past it to more important events, Garzelli has been racing and training knowing that this might be his best (and only) chance for a major victory this season. And for a rider who’s been the subject of mid-season transfer rumors, a win next week might go a long way to making such a move come to fruition.
Katusha – Denis Menchov will lead Katusha in Paris-Nice. And while it’s anyone’s guess as to his current level of fitness, it’s certainly a race that suits the Russian’s strengths. In Italy, Joaquim Rodriguez and Oscar Freire will lead the way, both looking for stage wins. The race’s two time trials will likely be too much to make Rodriguez a candidate for the overall victory. Freire actually won Tirreno back in 2005, taking advantage of field sprints and time bonus to win one of the event’s flatter editions. This year, the Spaniard has included the race on his “farewell” tour as it gives him the best preparation for what could be his fourth victory in Milan-San Remo.
Garmin-Barracuda – I suspect Garmin-Barracuda will be seeking stage wins in both France and Italy next week, with Ryder Hesjedal a strong contender for Saturday’s L’Eroica. The former mountain biker scored three top-10 finishes on the strade bianche from 2008 through 2010, and with the pressure of contending the Tour de France off his shoulders, might find himself “riding a bit lighter” now. Johan Vansummeren and Tyler Farrar will join the Canadian in Italy as both riders continue to build for the classics. Farrar’s still winless in 2012; that could easily change in Tirreno.
In France, Omloop-winner Sep Vanmarcke will join Heinrich Haussler and Christophe Le Mével at Paris-Nice. Haussler is also winless this season and wants to prove that his fantastic 2009 season was more than just a flash in the pan—a solid Paris-Nice will a long way toward accomplishing his goal. Also worth noting: Thomas Dekker makes his World Tour return in Paris-Nice as well.
Saur-Sojasun – Jerome Coppel won this season’s Étoile de Bessèges and then finished third at the Ruta del Sol. A talented climber and time trialist, the young Frenchman hopes to continue his progression with a podium finish in Paris-Nice. If he does, look for the rider (with a 5th-place finish the 2010 Dauphiné and a 14th-place finish in last year’s Tour on his resume) to become the new darling of France’s cycling media.
Project 1T4i – 1T4i’s Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb will try for stage wins at Paris-Nice in the hopes that they can impress the ASO enough to earn a Tour de France wild card invitation. Kittel did well against some tough competition in Oman; he’ll face a more intense level of competition in France.
Astana – Astana has yet to win a race this season and hopes to soon end the streak. The squad turns to Roman Kreuziger, Maxim Iglinskiy, Borut Božič, and Enrico Gasparotto in Italy, and Janez Brajkovič
in France. Brajkovič won the Dauphiné and—on paper at least—should enjoy a Paris-Nice that looks tailor-made for him. Maxim Iglinsky won L’Eroica in 2010 while Božič should be a contender in Tirreno’s field sprints. As for Kreuziger’s chances at a high overall placing, I suspect he’ll test his form without ruining his preparation for this year’s Giro.
GreenEdge – GreenEdge is feeling the pressure that comes with being a new (and hyped) World Tour squad. In Paris-Nice, Tour Down Under winner Simon Gerrans will attempt to defend his lead in the World Tour standings while building fitness for the Ardennes classics. Meanwhile, Matthew Goss, Stuart O’Grady, and Sebastian Langeveld lead the Australian team’s Tirreno squad. Goss has been conspicuously silent so far this season—he needs to show himself soon if he wants to a chance to defend his title at Milan-San Remo.
1-Kite Dark Horses
Colnago-CSF – In 1975, Giovanni Battaglin won a stage of the Giro d’Italia that tackled the Prati di Tivo, the climb that concludes Stage 5 in Tirreno. Look for Battaglin’s nephew Enrico to do his best to honor his uncle’s legacy with a stage win of his own—or a win in L’Eroica. Sasha Modolo should also be a threat in Tirreno’s sprint finishes.
Colombia-Coldeportes – Colombia-Coldeportes makes its World Tour debut at Tirreno Adriatico with Fabio Duarte the team’s best chance for a stage win.
Team Type 1 – Sanofi – Jure Kocjan finished fourth in last year’s L’Eroica. He’s been sick as of late, but alongside Danielle Colli, he could turn some heads Saturday.
At L’Eroica, I think Alessandro Ballan will give BMC its first victory of the season over Ryder Hesjedal and Enrico Battaglin. Ballan’s in-form, motivated, and has the experience necessary to win a race on the strade bianche. In Paris-Nice, Andreas Klöden will take his second title in the “Race to the Sun” over Leipheimer and Valverde, while in Tirreno Adriatico, Nibali will defeat Evans and Garzelli.
What about your picks? Share them below.
Image: ©BMC/Tim de Waele
Here are my thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing:
1. After their Belgian victories this past weekend, it’s clear to me that Garmin-Barracuda and Team Sky are two of the best squads in the world—because they understand how to ride as a team.
Heading into the race’s critical phase during Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Garmin sent it’s team to the front, upping the pace and positioning themselves to follow whatever attacks might come. Eventual-winner Sep Vanmarcke was therefore perfectly placed to follow Tom Boonen’s acceleration on the Taaienberg (and to avoid Lars Boom’s somersault).
Sunday, Team Sky kept their fatigued and vomiting world champion out of harm’s way throughout the day, ensuring that he was at or near the front on every climb and safely guiding him through the last 50-kilometers. In the finale, Chris Sutton—the race’s defending champion—and former Ghent-Wevelgem champion Bernhard Eisel escorted Cavendish to the line.
In an era dominated by super-teams, Garmin and Sky appear to have a successful formula—especially Garmin, a team that has achieved much success with surprisingly few superstars on its roster. It was an impressive display and most likely served noticed to the rest of the peloton.
2. On the other hand, Team BMC appears to be lacking chemistry at a critical point it’s season. Thor Hushovd was situated right where he needed to be when Boonen attacked Saturday, only to find himself isolated once the move was established—a situation that went from bad to worse once the Norwegian was dropped on the Paddestraat. For a team with so many superstars, management must have been shaking their heads after such a lackluster showing.
3. As for Thor, it is easy to criticize the former world champion for getting dropped, but one must remember: it’s still early in the season (as Thor himself admitted before the race) and at least he made it there in the first place.
4. And Rabobank’s Matti Breschel? It was great see him back at the front of a major cobbled classic—even if he didn’t stay there for long. Give him a few weeks and he’ll be fine.
5. Speaking of poor positioning, BMC’s Philippe Gilbert attributed his mundane showing (31st) to a lack of fitness and poor peloton placement heading into the Taaienberg. But while Gilbert’s result was a disappointment to his fans, it should help him later in the season. I wonder if Gilbert watched how heavily marked Cancellara was during last year’s classics and is making his best effort to avoid the same thing happening to him this spring—at least in Flanders. (Everyone was marking Gilbert in the Ardennes—clearly it made no difference.) Gilbert’s known for the timing of his efforts. Perhaps he saw no need to show his hand too soon?
6. Back to the winner: Saturday’s victory confirms the promise Vanmarcke showed back in 2010 when the youngster—then riding for Topsport-Vlaanderen—finished second in Ghent-Wevelgem. While I questioned Vanmarcke’s aggressive riding during the race Saturday—especially with Boonen and Flecha both having teammates—I now see the wisdom of his tactics. His acceleration on the Paddestraat disposed of Hushovd and Breschel; a second surge would later drop both Hayman and Devenyns. Not many riders would choose to isolate themselves against Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha, but Vanmarcke was smart to realize that a 1:3 chance is better than a 1:7 chance.
I said before the race that the Omloop tends to announce the arrival of new classics champions. Consider Vanmarcke the best candidate to become Belgium’s next Ronde-Roubaix champion.
7. Vanmarcke’s performance also underscored Tom Boonen’s tactical ineptitude (sorry Tommeke, I want more than ever to see you return to form, but you really blew it Saturday). Yes, Boonen was given the unwelcome title of “pre-race favorite” by many pundits (myself included), but it was certainly not a new position to be in for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider. And while his sharp attack on the Taaienberg was devastatingly effective (and predictable), his actions in the remaining 59 kilometers were confusing and at some points, head-scratchingly immature.
To me it’s apparent that Boonen suffers in races without radios, as the lack of accurate time splits and information regarding what’s happening behind him probably led him to do more than was necessary to see to it that the break stayed clear. Boonen became a professional at a time when radio use was already more or less widespread among the sport’s best teams. After more than 10 years of riding with them, I’m beginning to wonder if riding without them leaves Boonen feeling insecure and under-informed, hence his bull in a china shop tactics. The last “major” race Boonen won was last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem, a race run with radios.
8. As for Sunday, Cavendish took his third of the season despite battling sickness. The question now turns to whether the Manxman can forge himself into a contender for Belgium’s biggest sprint prize: Ghent-Wevelgem. A new, longer, and hillier course will attempt to thwart him, but given the depth of Team Sky, it’s hard to discount Cav’s chances. What do you think?
9. For the second year in a row in Kuurne, Saur-Sojasun’s Jimmy Engoulvent tried at a late-race move. Next year, he might want to try a different tactic.
10. Last but not least, where was GreenEdge this weekend? After more than a year of hype surrounding the formation of the squad, the men in green and black were conspicuously absent from the first important weekend of the season. The team’s best result was 12th in Kuurne. It all goes to show that it takes more than money to build a successful World Tour squad. Like many team’s before them, GreenEdge might find that their first season is filled with more growing pains than victories.
In other news:
11. Like Garmin and Sky, Liquigas-Cannondale deserves mention in any conversation about the best teams in the sport. The team won its ninth race of the season Sunday, as Eros Capecchi defeated Damiano Cunego and Enrico Battaglin to win the GP Lugano.
12. And speaking of Lugano, Battaglin is a rider I missed when compiling my list of Up-and-Comers a few weeks ago. Keep an eye on him—and look for him to be joining a World Tour squad soon. Maybe he can join Moreno Moser at Liquigas?
13. One final question: Michael Matthews won Rabobank’s first race of the year at the Clasica de Almeria in Spain, but why wasn’t he racing in Belgium? Matthews, Taylor Phinney, and John Degenkolb traded blows as U23’s in 2010—why isn’t the Aussie on the same career trajectory as the other two? He certainly possesses similar talent.
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Image courtesy Slipstream Sports
In the eyes of most fans, the season officially begins this Saturday with the 67th edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—to be followed Sunday by the 65th running of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
In Saturday’s 200-kilometer “Omloop”, expect to see the leading breakaway form with about 20-kilometers remaining—just after a difficult stretch including the race’s third passage over the Haaghoek’s cobbles, climbs of the LeBerg and the Molenberg, and the cobbles of the Paddestraat, the Lippenhovestraat, and the Lange Munte. In all, that’s two climbs and about 8.5-kilometers of pave jammed into one 20-kilometer section of race.
On Sunday, while many will try to shake things up over the course of the 195-kilometer semi-classic, look for things to come back together for a field sprint. And should a breakaway succeed, expect the weather and a perhaps a handful of smaller teams (Professional Continental squads with nothing to lose) to have played a role..
When it comes to picking the favorites for the weekend, several things must be considered. First, many riders bring two captains—one for Saturday and another (usually a sprinter) for Sunday. Second, of the riders taking part in both races, one must consider in which of the two races the rider is more likely to play a major role. Going deep to win the race Saturday indicates a possibly lesser showing (or non-start) on Sunday—and vice versa. Lastly, it’s also a bit early to have a good idea of which riders are strongest; for many contenders, this is only their second racing weekend of the season.
Luckily, several teams have chosen not to make the trip (RadioShack-Nissan and Liquigas, for example). They’ve decided to make their cobbled debuts later in the spring—this narrows things down a bit.
So let’s take a look at the men to watch this weekend. Riders have been listed with their favored race in parentheses. (Disclaimer: Riders have been included according to the start lists available as of Thursday, 2/23—there can and will be changes.)
Tom Boonen (Omloop/Kuurne) – Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tom Boonen has won just about every important race on the Belgian calendar—except the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The race’s early date might have something to do with it. After all, Boonen’s a rider accustomed to peaking for races in late-March and early-April; going “too deep” to win the Omloop might be something he’s been less than willing to do—in the past. This year, I suspect that Boonen wants to get a head start on the criticism that has dogged him throughout past two seasons. He’s in terrific shape, he rides for one of the strongest teams in the race, and his confidence is brimming after a fantastic first month of racing—he’s the man to beat Saturday.
Juan Antonio Flecha (Omloop) – Flecha’s finished third, first, and second in the last three editions of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. And as his third-place finish in the Tour of Qatar indicates, there’s little reason to believe he won’t put in another podium performance Saturday. Even better for Flecha, Edvald Boasson Hagen won’t be racing due to the flu. The Norwegian’s presence certainly would have prevented other teams from marking Flecha exclusively, but Flecha’s not the kind of rider—and the Omloop is not the kind of race—where that would have made a tremendous difference. If anything, Flecha will ride with more confidence—and perhaps aggression—knowing that he has his team’s unanimous support.
Andre Greipel (Kuurne) – Greipel is the top favorite for Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, an event much more suited to his talents than Saturday’s Omloop. In 2011, Greipel finished third in Kuurne and fourth in Ghent-Wevelgem, so he clearly knows what it takes to win on tight Belgian roads. Better yet, he’ll have the undivided support of his Lotto-Belisol team as Jurgen Roelandts is out until early summer following a nasty crash at the Tour Down Under.
Greg Van Avermaet (Omloop/Kuurne) – Of the all-stars lining up for Team BMC this weekend, Greg Van Avermaet’s the rider most likely to emerge victorious. Van Avermaet’s best Omloop finish was fourth in 2009, but he’s at the top of his game following a terrific 2011. Perhaps a bit miffed that his team signed not one but two classics superstars, Van Avermaet knows he needs to take advantage of his opportunities when they arise—Saturday’s one of them. And should things not go his way in the Omloop, he’s also a more than capable sprinter with the talent to contend Sunday as well.
Mark Cavendish (Kuurne) – If he starts the race, Cavendish is a favorite to take the win Sunday in Kuurne. He’s without question one of the two or three best pure sprinters in the world, and he leads a Team Sky squad that’s powerful and experienced—as evidenced by their Kuurne victory last season. That said, Cavendish came out of the Tour of Qatar fatigued and battered following a bout with the flu and crash—there might be some cobwebs. Cold weather won’t help either.
Matti Breschel (Omloop) – After a dominant cobbled campaign in 2009, Denmark’s Matti Breschel missed last year’s races due to injury. He returns this year, fresh and ready to lead his Rabobank squad in what he hopes will be his team’s second consecutive Omloop victory. Breschel’s showed himself to be coming along quite nicely in early races, and is clearly his team’s best bet for Saturday.
Philippe Gilbert/Thor Hushovd (Omloop)– These two former winners have had quiet seasons thus far. And while they could easily prove me wrong, I suspect both are looking further ahead into the spring. The Omloop is a race many riders have used to announce themselves as major cobbled contenders. Thus, several riders have won it once or twice and then gone on to bigger and better victories. Gilbert and Thor have both had their turns at the Omloop (Gilbert twice). While their fans would love to see them on the podium’s top step Saturday, they would happily trade a victory now for a more important one later. Then again, Gilbert is the reigning Champion—a victory would be a fantastic way to open the Belgian year.
Heinrich Haussler/Tyler Farrar (Omloop/Kuurne) – The top of the Garmin-Barracuda food chain is a bit clearer now that Thor Hushovd has departed for BMC. Or is it? With Haussler, Johan Van Summeren, Martijn Maaskant, Ramunas Navardauskas (more on him later), and Sep Vanmarcke all taking the start Saturday, Garmin has at least five riders (I didn’t even mention Andreas Klier) that could play a crucial role. Then again, that’s just the way Vaughters likes it. After all, it’s easy to mark a rider out of race when he is his team’s undisputed captain; the more cards you have to play, the better your chances of winning. As for Sunday, Farrar will lead the way after a day off Saturday, which makes sense in a race that more often than not ends in a bunch sprint.
John Degenkolb (Omloop & Kuurne) – While Marcel Kittel’s been winning races, Project 1T4i’s John Degenkolb has been slowly riding his way into shape—and he’s just the type of rider to watch in both events this weekend. Last year, Degenkolb finished 12th in the Omloop—the last man in the first wave of riders to finish the race in what amounted to horrible conditions. While Degenkolb won the majority of his races as a sprinter, it’s clear to everyone that he’s more destined for the cobbled classics. He’ll have his first shot to lead a team in one Saturday. As I said earlier, the Omloop is a race that often announces the arrival of new champions—is Degenkolb next?
Yauheni Hutarovich (Kuurne) – FDJ-Big Mat’s Yauheni Hutarovich is often overlooked in most race previews, but somehow he always comes through with a result—in certain kinds races, at least. Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is one of them: hard, fast, cold, and likely to end in a group sprint. The Belarusian finished second in Kuurne last year. Expect to see him among the first five Sunday.
Taylor Phinney (Kuurne) – A field sprinter with the power and stamina to survive a long, hard cobble event, Phinney’s getting his first taste of riding the classics with the big boys this weekend—he’ll be on the starting line both days. Assuming he comes through the Omloop with something left in the tank, he has to be considered a contender in Kuurne on Sunday.
Sebastian Langeveld(Omloop) – GreenEdge’s Sebastian Langeveld won last year’s Omloop, but looks to be a bit more of a long shot this year after an unlucky spring filled with sickness and crashes. Still, experience counts for a lot in the cobbled classics, and Langeveld has several seasons of fine Flemish results on his resume.
Denis Galymzyanov (Kuurne) – Katusha’s Denis Galymzyanov took the biggest win of his career at last year’s Paris-Brussels, a race somewhat similar to Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. If he wins Sunday, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise as he possesses a powerful finishing kick and feels at home on Belgian roads.
Greg Henderson/Chris Sutton (Kuurne) – These two former teammates might find themselves in a position to win Sunday’s race should their captains falter. Sutton won the race last year, but will need a bad day (or a non-start) from Cavendish to be given an opportunity to repeat his 2011 victory. As for Henderson, his move to Lotto-Belisol is one of the big reasons why Greipel’s won so many races so far this season. He’s an able-bodied Plan B should Greipel find himself missing a step Sunday.
Ramunas Navadauskas (Omloop) – If you’re in the UK, go ahead and drop a fiver on Navadauskas. His U23 resume is filled with impressive results in amateur classics, he is an accomplished sprinter/time trialist, and he rides for a team with enough depth to put him in the perfect strategic situation to take a win (a place similar to where Van Summeren found himself in last year’s Paris-Roubaix). Say what you like about Jonathan Vaughters, but he certainly knows how to spot talent. Navardauskas could prove to be one his best finds yet.
Luca Paolini (Omloop) – The 41st Law of Cosmic Reality states: thou shalt not discount the chances of Luca Paolini in any race he enters. Trust me.
Daniele Colli (Kuurne) – The Italian from Team Type 1 – Sanofi recently finished second to Elia Viviani at the Reggio Calabria two-day in Italy. A sprinter who has only one professional victory on his rather long resume, Colli’s not likely to win, but could certainly squeak his way into the top-5.
Niko Eeckhout (Kuurne) – The 42nd Law of Cosmic Reality states: An Post’s Niko Eeckhout must be mentioned as a contender in any Belgian semi-classic he enters. After all, his nickname is “Rambo.”
So there you have it—my list of contenders for the season’s first big weekend. Share your picks and predictions below.
And look for me on Twitter during the race Saturday: @whityost.
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
We usually have to wait a few weeks to see the sport’s biggest stars take their first scalps of the season—but not this year. Andre Greipel (Tour Down Under), Alejandro Valverde (Tour Down Under), Oscar Freire (Tour Down Under), Levi Leipheimer (Tour de San Luis), and Alberto Contador (Tour de San Luis, later DQ’ed) have all opened their 2012 accounts—and in some cases, more than once. Even the reigning world champion has enjoyed some success, as Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish took his first two wins of the season in Qatar this week.
But the by far the season’s biggest success story—so far, at least—has been Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Tom Boonen. Boonen’s already won four races in 2012 including two stages and the overall at the Tour of Qatar. Boonen’s also proven to be a dedicated teammate; he helped Francesco Chicchi win two early stages in Argentina before taking the final stage himself.
More than anyone else this season, I’m expecting (and hoping for) big things from Boonen. One of the sport’s most exciting cobbled hardmen, Tommeke already has three wins in Paris-Roubaix and two in the Tour de Flanders. But Boonen’s current streak leads me to believe he’ll be the big favorite when the Belgian season opens two weeks from tomorrow at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—one of the few cobbled races Boonen has yet to add to his resume. As long as it doesn’t hurt his chances to win another Monument, I’ll be rooting for him there.
Which leads me today’s question: who’s the one rider you’re hoping will find the most success in 2012 and why?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Last week we discussed the Men of the Hour—a rather easy-to-compile list of the men we all expect to be at forefront of the sport in 2012. But while the sport’s Men of the Hour might be easier to identify, a list of Up-and-Comers is certainly more interesting to make as it allows for more prognosticating. After all, it’s always fun to go out on a limb—especially if you turn out to be right.
Colombia – Something tells me we’re on the verge of a renaissance, as Colombians have been taking some pretty huge scalps at the U23 level over the past few seasons including the Baby Giro (now called the GiroBio), the Tour de l’Avenir, and the World Road Championship. It’s therefore no surprise that much of the country’s best talent—men such as Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Duarte, Carlos Betancur, and Sergio Henao—is now turning heads as pros. But 2012 should see an even better sign of the South American nation’s resurgence as the Colombia Coldeportes team—the first full-time, European-based Colombian squad the sport has seen in years—has already gained entry into some of Europe’s biggest races. The team’s main goal? A Tour de France invite—and they think they can get it as soon as this year.
Sep Vanmarcke – Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke burst onto the scene with a second-place ride for Topsport Vlaanderen at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, beating George Hincapie and Philippe Gilbert in the process and earning himself a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. Fast forward one year and there was Vanmarcke again at the front during the classics, this time burying himself for the sake of teammates Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, and Tyler Farrar, yet still finding the strength to finish 4th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and 20th in Paris-Roubaix. Thor’s departure bumps Sep up a rung in the squad’s cobbled hierarchy this year, and considering Farrar’s inconsistency on the pavé, Vanmarcke could easily find himself in a position to win a race for himself this spring.
Salvatore Puccio – This is more of long shot, but keep an eye on Team Sky neo-pro Salvatore Puccio, the winner of the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. Talented young Italians come a dime-a-dozen, which explains why most find themselves signing their first professional contracts with Italian squads. Not Puccio though, his impressive U23 resume turned some World Tour heads and the Italian was smart to take advantage of an opportunity to join one of the best cobbled teams in the sport. If Puccio’s decisions on the road prove to be just as savvy, expect big things.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – The losers in the Philippe Gilbert sweepstakes made smart choices on this winter’s transfer market, bolstering their stage race ranks with the additions of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, while avoiding a potential logjam at the head of their classics squad (I doubt Gilbert and Tom Boonen would have fared well together in the same team). With Martin and Leipheimer, the team now has two men ideally suited to the route of the 2012 Tour de France—and both can counted-on to win their share of stages and overall titles in smaller stage races as well. In fact, the season’s already started-off on the right foot at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with Francesco Chicchi winning two stages and Leipheimer currently leading the overall after winning the ITT. Better still, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel appear healthy, fit, and motivated. Their return to form is certainly a good sign for the spring classics—and for a team looking to be competitive all season long.
Thomas De Gendt – Another member of the Topsport Vlaanderen class of 2010, De Gendt had quite an impressive World Tour debut with Vacansoleil in 2011, winning stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. A man built for the Ardennes, De Gendt should get more chances to ride for himself in all the spring classics this year—especially if Stijn Devolder proves unable to regain his Ronde-winning form from 2008 and 2009. But while the classics remain a goal for any Belgian, I wonder if De Gendt’s destined for greater things—like grand tours. The 2011 Tour de France was the 25-year-old’s first ever 3-week event. Not only did he finish the race in his first try, he finished 6th on Alpe d’Huez and 4th in the ITT in Grenoble, Stages 19 and 20 respectively. Those are telling results, for at a time when most riders were getting weaker, the Tour rookie was getting stronger.
Rabobank’s Young Grand Tour Men – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is still only 25 and despite his poor Tour de France last year remains Holland’s best hope for grand tour success. However, with men like Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema nipping at his heels, he’ll need to do something soon (like, now) if he wants to stay relevant. In 2010, Kruijswijk finished 18th in his first Giro d’Italia—at barely 23 years of age. He bettered that result considerably last year, finishing ninth and then following it up with a stage win and third-place overall at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later—against some very tough pre-Tour competition.
As for Mollema (who along with Gesink just extended his contract with Rabobank through 2014), his 2011 was even more impressive: tenth in Catalunya, ninth in Paris-Nice, fifth in the Tour de Suisse, and fourth at the Vuelta (along with the green points jersey and a day in the red jersey as race leader). Like Gesink, Mollema’s also a talented single-day rider who should challenge in hillier classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and il Lombardia (I’m still getting used to the new name too). And Mollema’s only 25 as well—that makes 3 super talents for Rabobank—all under the age of 26. With all three riders deservedly expecting grand tour leadership in 2012, Rabobank’s management might have a problem on its hands—then again, it’s not a bad problem to have. And in case they’re reading, here’s an easy answer: Kruijswijk gets the Giro, Gesink the Tour, and Mollema the Vuelta.
France – Yes, we’re still waiting for the true return of the French to the top steps of the sport’s most prestigious podiums—but there’s good reason to believe it’s going to happen soon. First of all, a very talented group of young French professionals is on the rise, led by men such as Pierre Rolland, Arnold Jeannesson, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s been a while since France had a rider who looked as if he could develop into a legitimate grand tour contender and now they have three.
Better yet, France has been identifying and developing young riders (juniors and espoirs) better than any country in the world, as evidenced by Frenchmen winning three of the last four junior world titles and two of the last three U23 world titles. While a rainbow jersey is never a one-way ticket to greatness, the French Federation’s run of success certainly bodes well for the future—especially since world champions aren’t the only quality riders the program is producing. And last but certainly not least, one has to expect that Thomas Voeckler’s heroic 2011 Tour de France (coupled with a terrible showing in the 2010 World Cup by the French national soccer team) has inspired at least a handful of young French boys to choose cycling over soccer that otherwise might not have. It only takes one rider to change a generation’s perception of a sport—maybe Voeckler’s stunning performance will reap greater rewards 5 to 10 years in the future.
Young Italian Sprinters – If last season is any indication, Italian fans might soon have someone other than Daniele Bennati to hang their field sprint hopes upon. Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani won a combined 29 races in 2011—and all but a few came via field sprints. The three still need to prove themselves in World Tour races (only Viviani won a race at the World level—and even that was in Beijing), and Modolo’s the only one to have started a grand tour (twice, in fact—but he failed to finish both times). But at ages 24, 22, and 22, respectively, they still have time to develop.
Project 1t4i – Even though it’s a Dutch squad, Project 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) will be led by two young Germans this year: 2011-revelation Marcel Kittel and HTC-import John Degenkolb. It goes without saying that Kittel is an up-and-comer—the 23-year-old won 17 races in 2011 (18 if you count the Amstel Race in Curacao) including four stages each at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Kittel’s biggest victory—and proof that he’s a force to be reckoned with in coming years—came at the Vuelta a Espana in September, the first of what looks to be many grand tour stage victories throughout his career.
No slouch himself, Degenkolb won six races in 2011 including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. That said, it’s clear that Degenkolb (also 23 years of age) is a future classics star—he reminds me of Matthew Goss in that he’s a talented field sprinter who shows even more potential as a classics hard man. Last year, the rookie was given a start in every spring classic that mattered from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (he finished 12th) to Paris-Roubaix (he finished 19th). With 1t4i already receiving several wild card invites to just about every cobbled race on the calendar, Degenkolb will be given new chances to impress in 2012.
So that it for my Up-and-Comers for 2012. If all goes as planned, our 2017 Men of the Hour will be a list of mostly Colombian, French, and German riders.
Who’s on your list Up-and-Comers for 2012? Come join me on the limb!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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