It’s amazing how quickly things can change from one season to the next. This year, GreenEdge won Milan-San Remo with a rejuvenated Simon Gerrans—not with Matthew Goss, the defending champion. Tom Boonen tore through the cobbled classics after two seasons of relative mediocrity, while Fabian Cancellara was nowhere to be seen after bad luck and a broken collarbone ruined his April. Now a winless Philippe Gilbert looks to be a complete non-factor in races he dominated less than a year ago.
So with the Ardennes classics upon us—beginning with this Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race—what can we expect? Will former champions like Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego take a page from Boonen’s book and return to prominence in races they once dominated? Or will new stars have a chance to emerge? And what about Gilbert? Will his spring be a complete failure?
Here are six riders to watch over the next ten days:
Cadel Evans – Publicly, Cadel Evans has said all the right things regarding BMC’s off-season spending spree, but I wonder if he was nevertheless upset with BMC for signing Gilbert and Thor Hushovd. And why shouldn’t he have been? After all, as the team of the defending Tour champion, why add two riders to the roster who will do little more than help themselves to stage wins come July? The team could have easily afforded 2-3 experienced and talented support riders, men capable of helping Evans win another yellow jersey.
So don’t be surprised to see Evans send a message to his new colleagues and team management between now and Liege-Bastogne-Liege next Sunday. After winning the Criterium International, Evans has spent the past three weeks training and will certainly be his team’s best man over the next ten days. His team’s strong too, with Greg Van Avermaet serving as an able-bodied lieutenant and Gilbert a wild card who should at least keep some teams honest. By the time it’s all said and done, look for the former Fleche champion to add another Ardennes feather to his cap—possibly as early as this Sunday. And remember, Amstel is raced on a course similar to what the peloton at Worlds later this year—Evans could be giving himself an early edge on the competition.
Samuel Sanchez – Samuel Sanchez dominated last week’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco and now heads into the Ardennes classics as a top favorite. While the Euskaltel rider tends to perform better in stage races, his 2008 Olympic gold medal stands as proof that he can handle himself in one-day events. Of the three races between now and next Sunday, Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege suit Sanchez the best. He has multiple top-10 finishes in both events and a team dedicated to supporting him.
Joaquim Rodriguez – Of all the riders to consistently perform well in the Ardennes classics over the past few seasons, Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez is easily the best to never have won one. Were it not for an indomitable Philippe Gilbert, Rodriguez would certainly have a won at least one of the Ardennes classics (or two, or three) last April—he finished second to Gilbert in both Amstel and Fleche (his second time as runner-up in the midweek event). Like Sanchez, Rodriguez enjoyed a fantastic Pais Vasco and heads to the Ardennes feeling confident and strong. Amstel and Fleche Wallone suit him best as both races end with steep climbs that suit Rodgriguez’s ascending talents
Simon Gerrans – GreenEdge might have been a bit surprised when Simon Gerrans won Milan-San Remo as it wasn’t exactly the race they signed him for—but the Ardennes classics were. Assuming Gerrans has fortified his Tour Down Under and Primavera-winning fitness over the past few weeks, there’s little reason to believe the Australian won’t improve on his Ardennes performance from 2009—when he finished inside the top-10 at all three races while riding for the Cervelo TestTeam. Volta Catalunya-winner Michael Albasini will play key role in GreenEdge’s strategy. He’s one of the sport’s better domestiques right now and will certainly force other teams to chase should he get up the road. Can this talented duo add to GreenEdge’s World Tour win total?
Alejandro Valverde – Much to the displeasure of many fans, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde has returned to the sport—and the top step of the podium. That said, while the Movistar rider bears watching in all three races, I wonder if the lack of a grand tour in his legs will hurt him. Amstel and Liege are long, grueling races—Valverde’s riding without the benefit of a full season racing in his legs, a factor that could limit him in the latter phases of both events. Then again, we’re talking about a rider with talent to spare and it’s not as if he sat around watching football during his suspension. Should he win next Sunday, he’ll be the second rider in three years to return from suspension and win La Doyenne.
Vincezo Nibali – My how far the Italians have fallen. The spring classics used to be Italy’s happy hunting ground as riders such as Argentin, Ballerini, Tafi, Bartoli, Bettini, DiLuca, Cunego, and Rebellin (yeah, I know about those last two) won scores of monuments in the Eighties, Nineties, and Aughts. But lately, Italy’s been reduced to a country of bridesmaids rather than brides, where its best riders’ best results are podium finishes and top-10’s. Enter Vincenzo Nibali—his nation’s best hope for success over the ten days. Easily Italy’s most exciting rider thus far this season, “Nibbles” looks to take a big bite out of the Ardennes (sorry, I couldn’t resist) before deciding whether to tackle the Giro or the Tour. If he rides like he did in Tirreno and Milan-San Remo, he could easily score himself a place on the cover of next month’s Bicisport. Liege—a race in which he already has two top-10 finishes on his resume—is his best bet.
In the end, I see Gerrans taking Amstel, Rodriguez winning Fleche Wallone, and Evans winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege—thus sending a message to both his Tour rivals and his teammates that he is indeed one of the best in the world.
On a personal note, I’m happy to say I made it back safe and sound after 10 days in Belgium and France to ride and watch the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about my experiences in the days to come, but for now I’ll leave you with this: the Tour of Flanders is held annually on the 14th Sunday of the year—start planning your own trip now.
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Before we all (myself included) run away and hand the first three places in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders to Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Filippo Pozatto, let’s not forget that there are still 255 kilometers and about 190 other riders standing between these men and a win in one of the sport’s most prestigious monuments.
Here’s a rundown of some wild cards to consider come Sunday:
Peter Sagan – For many, Sagan’s not a wild card—he’s a favorite. But to me, his chances Sunday are bit less certain for one simple reason: his inexperience. The Ronde is a race where knowing the roads and climbs counts for a lot—knowing where to be and when to be there helps on narrow roads that crisscross the Flemish Ardennes. Sagan’s also still more of a sprinter than an attacker. While he’ll certainly be a major threat should a large group hit the line together, I wonder if he can follow the attacks of men like Boonen, Cancellara, and Van Marcke on the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Vacansoleil – Only two teams boast having a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders: Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Vacansoleil. Stijn Devolder finally looks as if he’s once again the rider who won the Ronde in 2008 and 2009. His teammate Bjorn Leukemans has finished 8th, 4th, and 7th in the last three editions, while Marco Marcato is proving himself to be a pretty handy cobbler as well. If they ride cohesively Sunday and use their underdog status to their advantage, they could easily pull-off an upset.
Oscar Freire – Freire’s best finish in the Ronde was 24th back in 2004, but the Spaniard finished 2nd at the E3 Prijs and 4th at Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend. His GW result was no surprise—it’s a sprinter’s race and the Freire’s won it before. But the E3 Prijs? That’s not the kind of race where we would expect Freire to perform well as sprinters like Freire often don’t survive the constant pace changes of the E3’s difficult route. That said, Freire’s Katusha squad is surprisingly strong and boasts a talented and experienced lieutenant in Luca Paolini. If he can stay out of trouble and some how survive a dense stretch of bergs between kilometers between kilometers 208 and 242, Freire could pull-off the one of the most surprising wins of his career.
Team Sky – Sky’s seemed to have a lost a bit of swagger since Bradley Wiggins won Paris-Nice and Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen looked as if they could go 1-2 in Milan-San Remo. They now head to the Ronde with Boasson Hagen and the Spanish cobble stalwart, Juan Antonio Flecha. Flecha hasn’t raced since breaking a bone in his hand earlier this month, but still bears watching this weekend—even if he doesn’t have the legs to be his team’s captain, he’ll certainly prove to be a valuable domestique and valuable decoy for his Norwegian teammate.
BMC – After signing Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd this past off-season, BMC had a right to expect big things at the Tour of Flanders. But with Gilbert and Hushovd out of shape (Gilbert) and recovering from illness (Hushovd), the team will likely be turning to Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, and Greg Van Avermaet in this year’s Ronde. Of those three, Ballan’s been the most impressive so far and as a former Ronde-winner, will likely be the team’s most protected rider. There’s also the poetic justice to consider: a Ronde victory from one of the team’s “original” classics stars would add an interesting twist to the team’s off-season spending-spree.
Leif Hoste – Hoste was the Ronde’s runner-up in 2006 and 2007. That was indeed a long time ago, but something tells me the Accent.jobs-Willems Verandas rider has one more high finish in him. He’s enjoyed a trouble-free build-up; he’ll have the entire team at his disposal; and he’s riding with a chip on his shoulder as his team was (justifiably) left off the list for Paris-Roubaix.
The Weather – The current forecast calls for a mostly cloudy day with only a 20-percent chance of rain and temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. Then again, this is Belgium and we’re still a few days out—things can change quickly.
The Course – Perhaps the biggest wild card of all, the Ronde’s new course will certainly throw a wrinkle into some riders’ plans. Three trips over the Kwaremont and the Paterberg (the last of which comes only 13-kilometers from the line) will certainly make tactics interesting while negating the chances, in my opinion, that we’ll see a large group sprint. Tactics will play a tremendous role and at least one favorite could be caught-off guard by being either too aggressive or too hesitant.
So while you’ll hear a lot about Boonen, Cancellara, (Vanmarcke if you listen to me), and Pozatto over the next few days, don’t forget that wild cards often play a big role in the cobbled classics. Even with a stacked field and a new course, this year might be no different.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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.
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