Sunday, February 28, 2010

Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne - Live Stream

Click here for a live stream of today's race--it works in the USA.  Classic weather--the race has been shortened by 20km!


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Friday, February 26, 2010

And it begins! - Pavé's Belgian Opening Weekend Preview

The season finally begins this weekend with Belgium’s Omloop Het Niuewsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the two opening dates on the Belgian calendar—and the unofficial beginning to the official road season in Europe.

Saturday’s the featured event, as the Omloop and is longer and more difficult than Kuurne. That said, with only a few exceptions, most riders contest both races, eager to add one of them to their lists of palmares.

This year’s events boast some of the deepest start lists in years—especially the Omloop—and while there have been some riders injured in the season’s first few weeks, most of the favorites are arriving with the form necessary to take a well-respected win.

Let’s take a look:

5-Stone Favorites
1. Edvald Boassen Hagen will likely be a 5-Stone Favorite in just about every race he enters for the next 4 or 5 weeks. His early season has been unmarred by sickness or crashes and he’s already displaying the time trial endurance and finishing sprint speed that seems to be a requisite for most northern classics specialists. Furthermore, his Sky team possesses several men able to helping his cause, including one man capable of taking the win for himself should he have the opportunity. In the end, luck’s the only variable Boassen Hagen’s unable to control—hopefully he finds himself in the right break or selection, positioning him to take his first big win of 2010.

2. 2-time Het Volk winner Philippe Gilbert is taking Sunday off, choosing to skip Kuurne so as not to peak too soon this spring. I think that’s a smart choice as Gilbert’s one of few men capable of finding success all the way through to Liege-Bastonge-Liege at the end of April. With that in mind, he can’t enter every race and still hope to have some speed left 8 weeks from now. However, this also spells bad news for his competition on Saturday, as Gilbert will put all his energy into winning the race. Like Boassen Hagen, his team is strong—Gilbert’s efforts will be spared until he really needs them, another fact making his third Omloop win a distinct possibility. His only flaw: he’s perhaps too strong. After last fall, all eyes will be on Gilbert and his team will be expected to dictate and control the race; he’ll receive no favors, a fact that would make a win all the more impressive.

3. Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel’s been due for quite some time—he must be getting tired of his Belgian teammates hogging the limelight. The Omloop’s just the kind of race where Chavanel could find himself free enough to take the win. Yes, it’s a big event for the Belgians, but offering Chavanel the win now—and helping him take one or two more in Paris-Nice—might guarantee his loyalty for the monuments yet to come—especially Ghent-Wevelgem, Flanders, and Roubaix. In short, getting Chavanel a win this weekend might keep him content when Quick Step’s hometown riders want their time to shine. Regardless of how or why it happens, many would be thrilled to see Chavanel finally get the win he so rightfully deserves.

4-Stone Favorites
1. Heinrich Haussler took a fall in the Volta Algarve and almost didn’t make the list for this weekend’s races. Had he not crashed, he would certainly find himself as one of the top favorites on Saturday. Haussler came tantalizingly close to winning here last year, ultimately getting caught before the line—thankfully by a group containing his teammate, Thor Hushovd, who took the win. A similar tactic could be displayed here, although both men are admittedly a bit behind where they were in 2009. Still, Haussler’s too strong to be discounted; even injured he’s a serious threat to take the victory.

2. Something tells me Stijn Devolder wants to win the Omloop to remind everyone that he’s capable of winning other races besides the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. He’s looked strong in training, has also enjoyed an incident-free season thus far, and like Chavanel comes from perhaps the deepest team in the race: Quick Step. Will he add the Omloop to his two Ronde victories?

3. Fillipo Pozzato would be 5-Stone Favorite were it not for the fact that he, like others, is thinking more seriously about events later in the spring. Were he a bit less experienced, he might go for it all this weekend, but his experiences in Flanders and Roubaix last year illustrated to everyone—himself included—that wins in those two monuments are well within his grasp. Thus, if Pozzato finds himself with the opportunity, he could very well take his second win in the Omloop—just don’t expect him to go too deep to make it happen.

4. BMC has several potential 4-Stone favorites, but it’s hard to decide which rider to choose. Burghardt, Hincapie, Ballan, and Kroon form quite a formidable foursome—but they’re been somewhat reclusive thus far, making tough to gauge the level of their fitness. I think Burghardt has the best chance to win right now. He’s performed well here before, and might not be as worried about saving himself for later races. Still, it would be unwise to ignore the other 3—they all could open their classics campaigns with a win this weekend.

3-Stone Favorites
1. Tom Boonen’s a favorite in just about any cobbled race, no matter the time of year. He’s been winning races recently, but I doubt he has the explosivity—at this point in the season—on par with riders such as Boassen Hagen and Gilbert. Right now he’s a better choice for the win in Sunday’s flatter Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Still, Boonen’s team is super-strong, and he’s probably the most gifted classics rider of the last 8-10 years—he should never be taken for granted.

2. Along with Boassen Hagen, Team Sky brings Juan-Antonio Flecha to the race, hoping the Spaniard with a love for the North will finally take the classics win he so craves. Unfortunately, his more talented teammate might prove to be his biggest obstacle. He’ll have to hope that he can ride himself into a winning move without stepping-on Boassen Hagen’s toes.

3. Johnny Hoogerland’s been quite active so far this year, just missing a win in the season’s opening race in Marsellie, France. He’s consistently ridden at the front of just about event he’s contested—without ever reaching the line first. Saturday could see him break that trend though. His team’s stronger and more confident than last year, with Bjorn Leukemans and Roman Feillu able to help ease the burden. Borut Borzic’s taking the line as well, but like Boonen, I see his chances must better on Sunday in Kuurne.

4. Like BMC, Rabobank’s classics hopefuls—Nick Nuyens and Lars Boom—have been relatively quiet thus far, making it difficult to speculate as to where their fitness lies. Nuyens has won the Omloop in the past and is thus slightly more favored than Boom. Still, Boom’s a proven winner in just about anything involving a bicycle; I wouldn’t be surprised to see him completely dominate. In either case, a win would start Rabobank’s spring campaign off with a bang.

5. Yes, he’s out of shape, banged-up, and almost didn’t even make the race at all, but Thor Hushovd is still Thor Hushovd. He has to be mentioned as someone capable of winning if things go his way. It might take a lot, but Belgian races often have a way of equalizing things—making Thor a legitamate 3-Stone Favorite.

6. Garmin’s roster is deeper than in years past, but I still the Omloop is a bit out of their reach. Tyler Farrar’s their top man this weekend, supported by strong men such as Johan Vansummeren, Martijn Maaskant, and Matt Wilson, the strongest classics team Garmin’s fielded in years. Kuurne might be a bit more up Farrar’s alley, but if he’s going to develop into more than just a sprinter, we should see signs of it Saturday.

7. Saxo Bank’s left their best classics man at home as Fabian Cancellara waits for March before making his 2010 Belgian debut. Stuart O’Grady, Baden Cooke, and Matti Breschel fly the flag in his absence. If they work well together, there’s enough talent and experience here to make something happen, but they face an uphill challenge against so many deeper teams.

2-Stone Favorites
1. Sergei Ivanov rides in support of Pozzato, but should he find himself with an opportunity, he could easily take the win for himself. A proven performer in Belgium, Ivanov won a terrific E3 Harelbeke in 2000, so he’s clearly comfortable racing on rough roads and in bad weather. Furthermore, as he proved with a win in last year’s Amstel Gold Race, he’s still a powerful and cunning rider. Watch for him in moves where he marks other favorites on Pozzato’s behalf—these will be his best chances for victory.

2. Greg Van Avermaet left us hanging last year, falling far short of our expectations. This year he rides in support of Philippe Gilbert, while hoping the race develops in such a way that he gets to punch his own ticket. Should it happen, Lotto certainly wouldn’t mind. Van Avermaet’s continued development is a vital piece of the puzzle if the team is to have any chance of competing with the likes of Quick Step, Sky, and BMC for peloton supremacy between now and Roubaix.

3. Manuel Quinziato showed much potential with solid finishes in the cobbled classics last season. He comes into this weekend backed by a talented team including Daniele Bennati, Frederik Willems, and the young Peter Sagan. A bit of longhshot, yes, but Quinziato’s one dark horse to keep an eye on.

4. HTC’s Bernhard Eisel and Matthew Goss are also two dark horses worth noting. The win might be a bit out of reach considering the competition, but both could see themselves finish inside the top-10. Sunday’s Kuurne offers them even better chances to take HTC’s first big win of 2010.

5. Radio Shack’s a bit depleted following an injury to Geert Steegmans. That said, The Shack’s best contender might just be Sebastien Rosseler, fresh from his stage win in Portugal. The odds appear stacked against him, but with a solid team effort, a top-5 result is a distinct possibility.

6. How old is Nico Eeckhout anyway? I feel like he’s been racing for years! The An Post rider’s already won the final stage in Besseges, and has to be mentioned on his home turf, a place where he always produces an inspired performance. His team faces the difficult task of keeping him out of trouble, but Eeckhout’s savvy enough to handle himself with little or no support. Look for him inside the first 10 on both days.

7. And that’s it—it’s the most wonderful time of year for us! What are your expectations? Who are you picks? What are you most eager to see?

Share your comments below.

Quick Step's Omloop Training Ride - Photo Essay

To tide you over until our Belgian Opening Weekend Preview, here's a terrific set of photos from Quick Step's pre-race training ride help earlier in the week.  All photos by Tim Van Wichelen--for more terrific imgaes from Tim and his colleagues, head to Cyclingview.

Bikes prepped...

...and cars packed.

Time to hit the road!

Devolder tests his legs on on De Haaghoek, the first cobbled section.

The Muur.

The Molenberg.

Wind, rain, and cobbles--it must be spring in Belgium!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pavé's 2010 Season Preview - Part 4 (Teams 5-1)

Here are the Top-5 teams in Pavé's Top-5 teams of 2010. Share your comments below and thanks for reading!

#5 – BMC
The new-and-improved BMC is the first of 2 Professional Continental teams in the Top-5, proof that a Pro Tour license isn’t the only key to success. Jim Ochowicz must have had quite a bit of fun signing the likes of Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt, Karsten Kroon, George Hincapie, and—just when we all thought the roster was complete—the newly-crowned World Champion, Cadel Evans. While they’re shy to admit it, the signing of Evans gave BMC the final piece they needed to most likely earn an invite to the 2010 Tour.

Regardless, the team is wise to take nothing for granted, planning the first half of its season around the classics and the Giro. Between them, BMC’s new men have all scored top-10 results in all major classics. Burghardt’s a threat in Ghent-Wevelgem and Flanders; Hincapie in Ghent, Flanders, and Roubaix; Ballan in Flanders and Roubaix; Kroon in Amstel; and of course, Evans in the Ardennes. If BMC plans wisely, they could certainly prove to be one of the sport’s most dominant teams from March through April.

After the Ardennes, the focus shifts to the Giro, where Cadel Evans will make another attempt at scoring a win in a Grand Tour. The Giro is a fitting choice, as it’s the place where Cadel first burst onto the Grand Tour scene with Mapei in 2002. He held the Pink Jersey for a day before cracking to finish 14th overall behind Paolo Salvodelli. Evans returns this year, hoping to shrug-off the bad luck he’s displayed in past Grand Tour attempts. While Cuddles is a bit temperamental, I think his Worlds win could be the beginning of a new phase in his career, perhaps instilling the confidence he seems to have lacked in years past. Who knows, maybe he wins the Giro, and then goes to the Tour relaxed and riding high.

The knock against BMC is chemistry. Only Burghardt and Hincapie raced together last season; otherwise everyone comes from a team in which he was more or less an undisputed leader. Will Ballan defer to Hincapie in Roubaix? Will Kroon defer to Evans in Amstel? If everyone peaks at the same time, these are questions that will need to be answered—and not on the road.

Man of the Hour: Cadel Evans won Worlds last year, a victory that moved him from a place on someone’s Hot Seat, to BMC’s Man of the Hour. Hopefully Cadel uses the win as stepping-stone to bigger things. Liege? The Giro? The Tour?

On the Hot Seat: George Hincapie’s running out of time for what would certainly be a career-topping win in Paris-Roubaix. He’s 37, and luckily Roubaix’s one race where age is less of a factor—especially since George’s age comes with the benefit of many years of experience on the pavé. With Burghardt and Ballan at his side, BMC has a team of Quick Step’s caliber, the one thing George has lacked in his past attempts. Clearly, this is George’s best chance yet.

Up-and-Comer: BMC’s perhaps the most up-and-coming squad in the entire sport—hopefully they’ll win enough to justify the distinction.

Best Pick-up: The signings of Evans, Hincapie, and Ballan received more press, but Marcus Burghardt might actually win the most races for BMC, possibly beginning this Saturday in the Omloop.

Biggest Loss: As a squad relatively new to the sport’s upper echelon, BMC’s gained more than it’s lost. We’ll have to revisit this one next year.

#4 – Liquigas
Liquigas has perhaps the youngest and deepest Grand Tour squad in the sport, led by the Four Horsemen of the Green-pocalypse (yes, I made that up myself): Ivan Basso, Franco Pellizotti, Roman Kreuziger, and Vincenzo Nibali. In a way, Liquigas finds itself in a siutution akin to BMC in that its only problem will be sorting-out who’s leading the team in which races. Luckily for them, I have some suggestions:

1. Roman Kreuziger began to show himself as a talented one-day rider in the second half of 2009, nearly winning the Clasica San Sebastien and a stage in the Vuelta. If I were Roberto Amadio, I’d set Roman’s sights on the Ardennes, a goal only a week or two earlier than the Tour of Romandy—a race he won last year. Then I’d send him to the Giro as co-captain with Pellizotti. Maybe he takes the line at the Tour, but otherwise he races the Vuelta and Lombardy.

2. Ivan Basso’s best days might be behind him; now he’s best served as a super-domestique, perhaps riding for one of the other three. I’d have him peak for the Tour, but with the understanding that he’s not the leader—he’ll be there to ride for Vincezo Nibali, a rider whose Tour prospects are headed in a direction opposite his.

3. As for Pellizotti, he’s a talented climber, but not a leader for a Grand Tour. Time trialing is a big weakness, and his best results have come on days when he’s played more the role of the joker than the ace. Like he did in 2009, I’d send Pellizotti to both the Giro and the Tour. In the Giro, he and Kreuziger would be formidable duo. In the Tour, he’s free to hunt for stages in support of Nibali, and perhaps another polka-dot jersey.

4. As for Nibali, it’s all or nothing in this year’s Tour. He showed the potential last year; now he needs to continue to progress. It’s shaping-up to be a difficult field, but with luck Nibali might finish in the first five.

That said, let’s not forget the rest of the squad. Manuel Quinziato and Alexander Kuschynski performed well in the cobbled classics last year; they head into 2010 looking to improve on those results. Daniele Bennati and Francesco Chicchi have both started their seasons with wins; they’ll be hunting for stage wins in the Giro and Tour, with Bennati an outside favorite in some of the flatter classics.

All in all, Liquigas is perhaps one of the most underrated teams in the sport. If their talented youngsters continue to progress, that won’t be the case for long.

Man of the Hour: Italy’s abuzz with talk about Nibali’s 7th-place finish in last year’s Tour. He did just enough to contend both in the mountains and in time trials. This year he’ll need to show considerable improvement in at least one discipline to advance a spot or two in the GC.

On the Hot Seat: Ivan Basso had a respectable return to the sport, including solid rides in the Giro and Vuelta. Unfortunately, his inability to capitalize on his team leadership in Spain leaves many wondering if he wouldn’t be better-off with a different set of goals.

Up-and-Comer: Peter Sagan’s only 19, but he’s already turned the head of Lance Armstrong following a week of aggressive riding in Australia. Sagan’s one of the riders I’ll be following in Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as he’s an accomplished single-day racer with a background in cyclocross. It might be too soon to tell if he’s got the goods to be a successful pro—but he’s certainly off to an auspicious start.

Best Pick-up: Liquigas had a rather quiet off-season, reinforcing its roster with a handful of neo-pros and some younger riders from other teams. One interesting note: Liquigas seems to be fond of riders from former Eastern Bloc nations, with 7 riders on the roster from Poland, Croatia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

Biggest Loss: Considering the talent Liquigas was able to retain, it’s tough to say they truly “lost” anything from 2009 to 2010. In fact, with some exceptions, most of the final 5 teams in the rankings suffered few big losses—perhaps a reason why they find themselves at the top of the heap.

#3 – HTC-Columbia
Then again, maybe I spoke too soon, as HTC suffered several key losses after a fantastic 2009 season. Marcus Burghardt, George Hincapie, Edvald Boassen Hagen, Thomas Lokvist, and Kim Kirchen all left for other teams—taking the bulk of HTC’s wins from 2008 and 2009 with them.

But all is not lost, as two of the sport’s fastest talents remain with HTC: Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel. Between the two of them, Cavendish and Greipel won 13 stages in the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. This year, Greipel’s already off to a fantastic start, having won several races. Cavendish on the other hand, has been sick; that could hurt his repeat bid in San Remo.

As for the rest of the team, it’s still quite impressive. Tony Martin performed well during the Tour’s first half last year; he’ll return this season hoping to build on that experience. He can climb and time trial, and could quietly become someone Germany might once again be proud of. He’ll be supported by one of the peloton’s most underrated support riders, Maxime Monfort.

For the Classics, HTC might have found a future champion in Matthew Goss, a rider who showed serious potential with Saxo Bank last year. He’s joined by two other one-day talents, Martin and Peter Velits formerly of Milram. These three could form the nucleus of a talented classics squad for years to come.

All in all, while seemingly depleted, HTC’s roster is chock full of potential—especially if the younger riders begin to flourish as they step from the shadows of their former teammates.

Man of the Hour: Simply put, Mark Cavendish is a superstar. But I have a hunch Greipel will win more races and is perhaps more versatile. I wonder if the squad will prove big enough for both.

On the Hot Seat: Michael Rogers just won the Ruta del Sol, but that only adds fuel to the fire as his Grand Tour potential has been touted for years with little to show for it. Can he finally break through?

Up-and-Comer: Tony Martin’s a good pick, but I want to mention the winner of the 2009 Giro’s 8th stage, Konstantin Siutsou. Siutsou’s been on my radar since he won the “Queen” stage and overall title at the Tour of Georgia in 2008. A talented climber and time trialist, Sioutsou finished the race last year 16th overall. Will he continue to progress?

Best Pick-up: Aside from the riders pulled from other teams, Bob Stapleton also did a terrific job of pulling talent from the U23 ranks including Belgium’s Jan Ghyselinck, Australia’s Leigh Howard, and Tejay Van Garderen from the USA. Once these riders develop, more wins will come for HTC.

Biggest Loss: Boassen Hagen would have won many races; but Hincapie would have helped win even more. It means a lot when Cavendish himself expresses his appreciation for all that Hincapie did.

#2 – Cervélo Test Team
Another Professional Continental team occupies the 2nd spot in our ranking as Cervélo Test Team hopes to build on its terrific first year in the sport. While HTC might be deeper, Cervélo has a better chance of winning big races, led mainly by Heinrich Haussler, Thor Hushovd, and Carlos Sastre. Basing such a lofty ranking on 3 riders is indeed a bit risky, but these men are worthy of such high expectations.

Haussler was the revelation of last year’s spring classics, finishing 2nd in both Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders. While these results were impressive, Haussler’s presence seemed to elevate Thor Hushovd, who had one his better springs with a win in Het Nieuwsblad and 3rd-places in both San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. He and Haussler complement one another well; Haussler’s attacks allow Hushovd to follow wheels, offering him a free ride to the finish should his teammate get caught. Right now, they’re both a bit under the weather, but look for them to peak in time for their favorite cobbled events. As long as they continue to work well together, they’ll be top favorites.

After the classics, it’s Carlos Sastre’s time to shine as the Grand Tour season begins. Last year, Sastre experimented, using the Giro to prepare for the defense of his 2008 Tour de France title. While the experiment didn’t help him in France, he won 2 summit finishes in Italy on his way to placing 4th overall. This year he’s focusing a bit more on the Giro as a result; perhaps he can add a pink jersey to the yellow one he earned two years ago.

In July, all three men will head to the Tour with Hushovd hoping for another green jersey, Sastre another yellow one, and Haussler for more stages. While yellow might be tough—the competition’s just too strong for Sastre—a green jersey and several stages are well within the realm of possibility.

All in all, we’ll know the success of Cervelo’s 2010 campaign by August 1st. A classic or two plus a successful Giro and Tour will be more than enough to justify their status as one of the top 2 or 3 teams in the world.

Man of the Hour: Thor Hushovd had an impressive season in 2009, even though his late-race fall kept him from winning at Roubaix. This year he heads into the season more motivated than ever—will he bring a pavé trophy home to Norway?

On the Hot Seat: Carlos Sastre’s 34, an age many consider to be the beginning of the end—of a Grand Tour rider’s peak, that is. This year might be the last in which he’ll be considered a legitimate contender for an overall title—unless his performances dictates otherwise.

Up-and-Comer: Haussler’s an old story, but he’s an up-and-comer because he’s still on the way up. There’s an incredibly high ceiling for his talent—and we have yet to see him reach it.

Best Pick-up: Cervélo spent surprisingly little money upgrading it’s roster, signing only 5 riders including a 31-year-old, a 34-year-old, and a former track rider. All in all, that’s little to get excited about. Their biggest pick-up might just be SRAM, a component company still willing to throw heaps of cash at elite teams. Did you notice the switch Cervélo made from Dura Ace’s 7900 levers to 7800 levers last year? They weren’t completely compatible with the team’s Rotor cranksets. SRAM’s components offer no such compatibility issues, and likely came with a much bigger check.

Biggest Loss: Cervélo had no chance to retain Simon Gerrans after leaving him home during the 2009 Tour. They’ll miss him in the Ardennes and the Grand Tours—especially if the others fail to find success.

#1 – Saxo Bank
And last, but certainly not least, Saxo Bank earns the title as Pavé’s #1 Team for 2010. With several riders capable of winning multiple classics, stage races, and Grand Tours, there’s really no better choice.

Skipping over Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico—races Saxo certainly has riders capable of winning—we’ll begin with Milan-San Remo and the cobbled classics where Fabian Cancellara seeks revenge following a less-than-stellar spring in 2009. Spartacus has won San Remo and Roubaix, with the latter a race he would like to win again. The schedule change also favors Saxo’s Swiss superstar, with Ghent-Wevelgem’s earlier date a perfect opportunity for such a powerful rider. Cancellara should have Baden Cooke and Frank Hoj to lean-on for support, with Cooke possibly missing the first weekend to attend the Criterium International—a race another Saxo rider, Jens Voigt, has come to own over the past several years.

Then the Ardennes arrive, the scene of Andy Schleck’s breakthrough win in last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Then all eyes turn to July, the scene of what will certainly be yet another showdown between Schleck and Alberto Contador—a duel we should get used to. Saxo heads to the race with perhaps the deepest team. Andy will have the support of the team’s best, with Cancellara, Voigt, Frank Schleck, and Gustav Erik Larsson more than capable of controlling the race for their young leader.

Like Cervélo, by this point in the summer we’ll likely be able to judge the overall success of the team’s season as the majority of its riders will have ridden through their season goals—except maybe Cancellara, who proved last year that he can be a contender in any month.

All in all, even after losing a talented a man or two, Bjarne Riis comes into 2010 with the strongest and deepest team in the world—and he’ll need all the help he can get if he hopes to attract a new title sponsor for 2011.

Man of the Hour: Cancellara’s the man of hour at Saxo Bank, both literally and figuratively. Look for him to win races from March through October in a variety of disciplines—and at 28, his best years might still be ahead of him.

On the Hot Seat: Andy Schleck’s on the Hot Seat for no other reason than the fact that he’s the #1 challenger to Contador’s Tour supremacy. By the end of July we’ll know if Andy’s able to handle the pressure.

Up-and-Comer: Jacob Fuglsang’s the next of Saxo Bank’s talented riders to get a chance in the Tour. He’s way down on the depth chart behind the Schleck’s, but he should at least get a taste for the event in. Maybe he can ride well enough to earn a chance somewhere else?

Best Pick-up: Baden Cooke might not be the best of Saxo Bank’s pick-ups, but he’s certainly the most interesting. Bjarne Riis has a talent for resuscitating the careers of wayward souls—I wonder if he’ll prove able to help Baden return to prominence.

Biggest Loss: You mean aside from their title sponsor, right?

And there you have it—the first annual Pavé Team-By-Team Season Preview. Let the debates begin!

Thanks for reading--come back tomorrow for our preview of Belgium’s Opening Weekend. And look for us at NAHBS. The Pavé hat will be a dead giveaway…

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Pavé's 2010 Season Preview - Part 3 (Teams 10-6)

Here’s Part 3 of Pavé’s 2010 Season Preview.  Today we take a look at the first half of the Top-10.  For at look at Parts 1 and 2, click here and here respectively.  We’ll wrap it all tomorrow with a look at what I consider to be the 5 best teams in the sport.  As always, thank you for reading and keep those comments coming!

#10 - Katusha
Katusha takes #10 by a hair over Omega Pharma-Lotto, due to the depth of talent on its roster.  But talent has never been Katusha’s problem—fulfilling it’s potential has.  The signings of Kolobnev, Kirchen, and Rodriguez bolster an already impressive squad, while the healthy return of Robbie McEwen should add wins as well.  If this squad performs as impressively as it looks on paper, it will be a very good year for the Russian super-team.  We’ll get our first indication of Katusha’s prospects this weekend at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Remember last spring when everyone spoke about how Filippo Pozzato was a top-favorite to win a classic in 2010?  Well, nothing’s changed really, other than the fact that other riders have moved to the front of our consciousness.  But Pozzato’s power display last April shouldn’t be forgotten.  In Flanders, many consider him to have been the strongest rider in the race, more a victim of Quick Step’s overwhelming depth than anything else.  In Roubaix, he was unfortunately on the wrong side of Thor Hushovd’s fall; otherwise we might have seen a different winner in the Roubaix Velodrome.

Now Pozatto enters 2010 as a man on a mission to win one of the monuments of the North—Flanders or Roubaix.  He’s won Het Volk and Milan-San Remo; Flanders and/or Roubaix are the logical next steps.  The best thing Pozatto has going for him is undisputed team leadership; unlike other favorites he won’t have another contender wearing the same jersey as he does.  Yes, this might allow other teams to focus on him, but in the end it must feel nice to know that your biggest competition really comes from your competition and not your own team.  Even better, he’ll have Sergei Ivanov at his side once more.  Ivanov’s a talented rider in his own right (he won Amstel last year) who knows the roads and will be able to support Pippo into the later phases of these races.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pozzato do the Flanders-Roubaix double, as he the skills necessary to excel in both.

In the Ardennes and shorter stage races—like Pais Vasco, for example—look for Katusha’s trio of Kim Kirchen, Alexander Kolobnev, and Joaquin Rodriguez to shine, with perhaps one of them taking an overall victory here and there.  Kirchen returns after a difficult 2009; he’ll be eager to return to the form that saw him win Fleche Wallone and ride well in the Tour.

And don’t forget Katusha’s sprinters, Robbie McEwen and Danilo Napolitano.  McEwen’s 37-years-old and perhaps a year or two past his best days.  Napolitano’s in his prime, but perhaps a rung below the best.  Together though, good things could happen if they learn to complement one another’s strengths.

Man of the Hour: Pozzato’s just nearing his prime; expect big things from the talented Italian. 

On-the-Hot Seat: Kim Kirchen’s a man on a mission as he attempts to rebound from a terrible 2009.  Look for him to excel in short stages races and the Ardennes before tackling the Tour.

Up-and-Comer: Alexander Kolobnev burst onto the scene last year with several top-10 results in races including Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Amstel Gold Race, the World Championships, and the Tour of Lombardy. Katusha’s hoping he can at least win one of those.

Best Pick-up: Together, Kirchen, Kolobnev, and Rodriguez—if they perform to the level of their expectations—might be the 3 best signings of the off-season for any team.  If they perform...

Biggest Loss: Hardly any—unless Geert Steegmans finally wins a big race or two.

#9 – Rabobank
Rabobank’s another risky team to place in the top-10 as their performances often fall far short of their expectations given the level of talent they have on the squad.  Rabobank’s success hinges upon the seasons of four men in two major departments: the classics with Lars Boom and Nick Nuyens; and the Grand Tours with Denis Menchov and Robert Gesink.

In the Classics, Nuyens needs a good result to remind us all that he has the talent to be one of the best one-day riders in Belgium.  He looked good early last spring, but for some reason never pulled it together.  This year he’ll have Lars Boom at his side.  The former World Cyclocross Champion’s switch to the road will be one of the more interesting sub-plots of the 2010 spring.  He’s found much success in the past on the road with Rabobank; let’s see how he fares on the pavé.  If one of these men can win a major race in April, it will be good news for the Orange.  If it’s Boom, even better, as the Dutch will finally have a Classics rider to get excited about.

In the Grand Tours, all hopes lie on the inconsistent Denis Menchov and the talented Robert Gesink.  Menchov’s inconsistency is his tragic flaw.  He followed a fantastic win in the Giro with a forgettable performance in the Tour.  It’s interesting to note the lack of respect he seems to be getting both in Holland and abroad considering he’s won 3 Grand Tours.  Clearly, all eyes at Rabobank are on Gesink; he’s super talented, particularly when the road goes up. If he can keep the rubber side and not succumb to the pressure of the Tour, he could do quite well.  A top-5 result is certainly within his reach. I can’t wait for the Tour’s next rendezvous with Alpe d’Huez as I’m sure Gesink will whip the legions of orange-clad fans into a real frenzy.

Man of the Hour: Some might call him an up-and-comer, but after his fantastic Vuelta last year, Robert Gesink’s the Man of the Hour in the Netherlands. 

On the Hot Seat: Denis Menchov needs to have top performances in back-to-back Grand Tours to finally earn the credit he deserves.  The question for Menchov this year is whether or not he should return to the Giro to defend his title.  I think he should do it.  It’s a winnable race for him, and then he can head to the Tour in support of Gesink while taking advantage of an opportunity to ride for himself if one arises.

Up-and-Comer: Lars Boom is turning into a more than respectable road racer—now he gets to take his first stab at the Classics.  Along with Gesink, Holland’s future is looking very bright.

Best Pick-up: Rabobank’s a team not known for making waves on the transfer market; the majority of their new talent comes from their in-house Continental team.  This year, two riders make the jump, Steven Kruijswijk and Dennis Van Winden.

Biggest Loss: Too bad Rabobank couldn’t retain Tejay Van Garderen; he looks to have the makings of a star.

#8 – Caisse d’Epargne
While some might hate to admit it, the presence of one rider can often elevate a team’s status.  As a matter of fact, we’ll see that twice in today’s portion of ranking, beginning here with Alejandro Valverde and Caisse d’Epargne. 

Love him or hate him, Valverde is one heck of talented rider, and has to be considered a favorite in just about every race he enters—excluding the Tour of course. Valverde’s already started-off 2010 on a victorious note, taking the overall title in the Med Tour.  His next big objectives are Paris-Nice, Catalunya, and Pais Vasco before hitting the Ardennes—all winnable races for him.
Things get tricky for Valverde at the Tour though.  The Dauphiné is one of his favorite races; his success there speaks volumes.  But as soon as the calendar hits July it’s as if Valverde becomes an entirely different rider: timid, unsure, and prone to mistakes.  While I doubt he can do it, if he were to take the mentality and poise he displayed in last year’s Vuelta and combine it with his fitness level from last year’s Dauphiné, a solid Tour result would be likely.  I’ll grant him one last Tour try, but if this year goes as poorly as it has in the past, I hope he’ll settle for winning just about everything else.

There’s more talent at Caisse d’Epargne in the form of Luis Leon Sanchez, one of the savviest riders in the peloton.  Sanchez can do it all when called upon, making him the most legitimate Tour leader for the Tour in Caisse’s stable.  One can only imagine what Sanchez could do if he were free to ride for himself.

Overall, this talented duo faces the difficult task of performing well enough to entice someone to replace Caisse d’Epargne as title sponsor in 2011 and beyond.  That’s a tall order in times as tough as these.  But if anyone is capable of pulling it off, it’s Valverde—especially if he’s ever allowed back in Italy.

Man of the Hour: Valverde—could there be anyone else?

On the Hot Seat: Eusebio Unzue needs to find a sponsor—and fast.  Not only is he looking down the barrel of unemployment, but he’s also competing with Bjarne Riis and Gerry Van Gerwen, two men whose teams have lost title sponsors as well.

Up-and-Comer: It’s hard to call Sanchez an up-and-comer given how long he’s been winning races.  But he’s only 26, and still receives surprisingly little credit for his talent.  If he raced anywhere but in Spain, he would be one of the most talked-about young riders in the world.

Best Pick-up: I like the additions of Marzio Bruseghin, Christophe Moreau, Juan Mauricio Soler, and Juan-Jose Cobo.  Individually, none of them bring much to write home about, but collectively, they provide an instant injection of experience, talent, and strength to Caisse’s Tour squad.  If only they had a leader with a proven track record of Tour success.

Biggest Loss: Caisse d’Epargne (the bank) has supported cycling for many years; its departure will be sorely missed—and not only in Spain.

#7 - Astana
Another team that benefits largely from the presence of one man is Astana with Alberto Contador.  Like compatriot Alejandro Valverde, Contador is a favorite in any race he enters—particularly if it has at least one summit finish, and one mid-length time trial.  Like Valverde, Contador’s already won his first this season, and appears headed to yet another title in the Tour. 

When first ordering my teams for this project, I noticed several teams between Astana and Radio Shack.  They appear quite similar, yet Astana is much further ahead in the ranking.  Why?  Because Contador will likely win the Tour and Armstrong will struggle to finish inside the top-10.  Regardless of how a team performs in other races, a win in the Tour is an impressive result, and Astana cannot be taken lightly just because it appears one-dimensional.

But is Astana one-dimensional?  Not really. Contador’s already won a race and will certainly win others before July.  And even though he annoys the heck out of us, Alexandre Vinokourouv should be good for a win or two at some point in the season—maybe he’ll even win the Vuelta.  Enrico Gasparotto won several races with Barloworld before falling into a bit of an obscure period; he has talent enough to win a race or two in Italy this season.  And there’s Allan Davis as well, although I can’t help but wonder why he has such trouble finding teams willing to acquire his services.   

But in the end, while other wins might come in, it’s all about the Tour for Astana.  A win, and they’ve justified my high ranking.  A loss—or worse—and several of them might be looking for new jobs in 2011.

Man of the Hour: It’s all about Contador and his bid for another Tour title.  If he can win again—with the support of a completely re-designed team—he’ll affirm his place as the most talented Tour rider since Lance Armstrong.

On the Hot Seat: I am for ranking Astana 7th.  It’s a risky move to put such a scandal-ridden team ahead of teams such as Rabobank, Caisse d’Epargne, and maybe even Radio Shack.  Hopefully they’ll win enough races to make me look smart!

Up-and-Comer: Good luck answering this one, as the rest of Astana’s roster is filled with veterans hoping for a new lease on life and Kazakh neo-pros.  If they’re lucky, maybe one or two will turn-out to be something worth keeping. 

Best Pick-up: Specialized jumped at the chance to win a Tour, jettisoning Quick Step to sign Contador and then the rest of his team.  A Tour winner needs more than just the support of the other 8 men in the race and Specialized will do anything to see to it that Contador has the best material in the world.

Biggest Loss: Johan Bruyneel is the best director in the sport.  Even though he was in Bruyneel’s doghouse for most of the race, Contador will surely miss his leadership and mid-race tactical decision-making. 

#6 – Team Sky
Whether you love them or hate them, Team Sky really has done an impressive job of putting together a deep and talented roster.  One might resent teams that come out of nowhere, using deep pockets to cherry-pick talented riders from other more established teams; but look at this way: it’s refreshing to see sponsors still willing to take huge financial risks to back top-level teams.  With sponsors like Saxo Bank, Milram, and Caisse d’Epargne falling to the wayside, we should welcome Team Sky, if for no other reason than the fact that they’ve taken the risk at all.

Sky’s biggest signing was one of it’s last as the saga over Bradley Wiggins lasted from the Tour well into the off-season.  Wiggins gives Sky what it believes to be a serious Tour contender. I beg to differ.  While Wiggins might find some success in the Tour, it can’t be counted-on as his performance last year seemed to come out of nowhere.  Wiggins will ride the Giro before the Tour; perhaps we’ll have a better sense then of his prospects. 

Sky’s real success will likely come from its other acquisitions—men like Edvald Boassen Hagen, Juan-Antonio Flecha, and Simon Gerrans.   Boassen Hagen might be the most talented young rider in the sport right now—he’s a top favorite for the Omloop this weekend and could score big in the Tour of Flanders.  Sky will also have one of the strongest teams on the line at Paris-Roubaix—maybe Flecha finally gets his big win.  Hagen, Hayman, and yes, Brad Wiggins, will prove to be valuable domestiques on the pavé.  In the Ardennes, Gerrans will get his chance to improve on his top-10 finishes before embarking on yet another bid for Grand Tour stage wins.

All in all, it’s a deeply talented squad, with many men capable of taking wins here and there.  If I were Sky, I’d take an approach similar to BMC, focusing on the Classics and the Giro, reserving Tour success for the icing on the cake.  But I’m not the one writing the checks now, am I?

Man of the Hour: Edvald Boassen Hagen’s on the verge of a major victory (as if Ghent-Wevelgem wasn’t enough).  And at 22 years of age, he hasn’t even approached the ceiling of his potential.

On the Hot Seat:  Both Wiggins and Flecha have been given chances to lead a team in their targeted races.  Can they deliver the goods?

Up-and-Comer:  I could try and list another rider, but Boassen Hagen’s the best young rider in the sport—and he’s 22!  Incredible.

Biggest Pick-up: The fact that Dave Brailsford was able to pick-up a sponsor willing to foot the bill for such a team is pretty impressive.  Without Sky’s support, a roster like this would never be possible.

Biggest Loss: Dignity. Did you see Sky’s skinsuits from Australia?  More should be left for the imagination.

And that’s it for Part 3!  Thanks so much for reading—I’ve appreciated all the terrific comments and emails.  Please recommend us to your friends—and look for us at NAHBS if you plan to attend.

Come back tomorrow for Part 4—who will be #1?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pavé's 2010 Season Preview - Part 2 (Teams 15-11)

Here's Part 2 of Pavé's 2010 Season Preview.  Today we're profiling teams 15-11 in our ranking.  For teams 20-16, click here.  Share your comments below!

#15 – Lampre
Poor Lampre.  Not only did they lose one of their best riders this past off-season—former World Champion and Tour of Flanders winner Alessandro Ballan—but they also almost didn’t even make it to the Pro Tour without the help of some last minute legal wrangling.  Ballan’s departure takes away a contender for the cobbled classics and a stage winner in Grand Tours.  Alessandro Petacchi and Danilo Hondo—quite possibly the oldest and most suspicious lead-out train ever assembled—add some sprint speed, giving Lampre it’s first legitimate sprinter since Jan Svorada.

But let’s face it, this is a team built around Damiano Cunego, a man who needs to dial-in his training a bit more to ensure his peaks line-up with his goals.  The first order of business for Cunego—if he can stay healthy and avoid more falls like the one suffered recently in the Ruta del Sol—is Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a race he’s been “targeting” for years.  If he wins, Lampre’s spring is an overwhelming success.  From there, maybe the Giro and or Tour beckon Cunego, perhaps he steals a stage win or two before building once again for the autumn classics—and possibly Worlds.

Cunego has the talent to win races in a fashion similar to Alejandro Valverde; their impending showdown in the Ardennes will be a treat if they both arrive in form.  The risk with Cunego is his inability to stick to his targets—or hit them squarely.  He’s often peaks too early, something he’ll need to avoid in order to win Liege or the Tour of Lombardy.  Hopefully he learned his lessons after 2009.

Man of the Hour: Without a doubt, Damiano Cunego.

On the Hot Seat: Giuseppe Saronni’s the man behind Lampre, and if he wants to keep his team in good shape he’ll need to do a better job than he did this past off-season.  Essentially trading Ballan for Petacchi and Hondo is a bit of a desperate move; in effect trading quality wins for a quantity of wins.  That might work for some, but when your title sponsor’s been backing you for over 20 years, they have a right to expect more.

Up-and-Comer: Diego Ulissi turns pro this year after several years as an amateur in Italy.  Only 20 years old, Ulissi’s best known for winning the Junior World Road Race Championship in both 2006 and 2007.  The only other person to do that?  Giuseppe Palumbo.  Here’s hoping Ulissi makes a better pro than he did.

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Best Pick-up: He might have lost a step or two, but Alessandro Petacchi’s not entirely washed-up.  He’ll earn Lampre wins on home soil, hopefully adding one or two more Giro stage wins to his total.  Aside from the Giro, domestic one-day  and stage races are his bread and butter now; the presence of Hondo gives him a lead-out man the lesser Italian competition will be hard-pressed to overcome.

Biggest Loss: Losing Alessandro Ballan takes away the first half of Lampre’s one-two punch for the spring classics, and further isolates team leader Damiano Cunego in fall races like the Vuelta and the Tour of Lombardy.  If Ballan takes another Flanders—or better still, Paris-Roubaix—for BMC, Saronni will have a lot of explaining to do.

#14 – Radio Shack
Some will say I ranked this squad too low.  But look at the facts—this team is built for one thing and one thing only: Lance Armstrong.  Geert Steegmans was signed to give the team at least somewhat of a presence in the classics, but he’s already proven to be too fragile to be counted upon.  Levi Leipheimer will win the Tour of California and maybe fare well in the Dauphiné and Vuelta and Andreas Kloden gets the Tour of Romandy and the Tour de Suisse. But those options aside, this team is built entirely around improving Lance’s chances to win an 8th Tour.

Unfortunately, his chances don’t look very good—at least on paper.  For one, Lance is old.  Yes, he raced to 3rd last year after several years off the bike.  But whatever he gains this year from having another year of racing under his belt, he loses by virtue of being another year older.  Worse, while he’s maturing, so are his main competitors.  That levels the playing field, right?  It would if Lance’s opponents were also pushing 40.  But they’re approaching 30, the peak of most Grand Tour cyclists’ careers.  So while Lance inches further and further away from his best years, his main challengers grow nearer and nearer to theirs.  That’s not good.  So, while most of 2010 might be a fun trip down memory lane for Lance, Bruyneel, and their boys, July might not prove to be the kind of trip they were expecting.

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Man of the Hour: Is there really any doubt?  Radio Shack hinges entirely upon the success of Lance Armstrong.  All eyes are on him in every race he enters.

On the Hot Seat: I could say Lance, but he’s known for not letting pressure get to him.  Instead, I’ll say Geert Steegmans.  It was only 2 years ago when everyone thought Steegmans was the next greatest Belgian field sprinter/classics rider.  Then came his move to Katusha, and it all went downhill from there.  Steegmans seems to be a bit fragile to me—he’s already been all-but-ruled-out of the Omloop this weekend—and he seems to struggle when things don’t develop exactly as he was expecting.  That said, he’s now riding for one of the most organized and best-directed teams in the sport—he’s running out of excuses.

Up-and-Comer: This one’s tougher to call as many of Radio Shack’s signings were relatively unknown before signing with Radio Shack, of course.  Ivan Rovny finished 3rd in last year’s GP Isbergues, a hard man’s race at a time of year when the best one-day riders in northern Europe are gearing-up for Worlds.  I’ll be watching him closely this spring.

Best Pick-up: Sébastien Rosseler has already rewarded the faith shown by Bruyneel with a stage win in last week’s Volta Algarve.  I’m curious to see how he fares without Steegmans in Saturday’s Omloop.  He’s a powerful rider, and he benefitted from several years at Quick Step.  He could turn-out to be one of this weekend’s biggest surprises.

Biggest Loss: The Shack’s a new team; we’ll have to save this one for next year.

#13 – Garmin – Transitions
While on the ride, Garmin’s still not quite there when compared to the truly elite teams in the sport.  There’s enough potential on the roster to easily make Jonathan Vaughters’ squad one of the top five or six in the world, but until we start seeing more wins we’ll have to be satisfied with just wondering “what if”.

Of Garmin’s potential big hitters, Tyler Farrar has the best chance to launch the squad into the big time.  Perhaps no other rider showed more steady improvement throughout 2009.  Tyler started the year with a win in Tirreno-Adriatico, before contesting the bunch sprints in the Tour, where he was a consistent top-5 finisher.  August was his finest month, bringing wins in the Benelux Tour as well as the Hamburg Pro Tour event.  The year ended with stage wins at Franco-Belge and of course, a win in the Vuelta.  All in all, these were solid results—a season well done.  Now though, it’s time for Farrar—and the rest of this relatively young squad—to take the next step.

A win in one of the monuments would start things off on the right foot.  Farrar will certainly come to Milan-San Remo and possibly several of the cobbled classics (Ghent-Wevelgem) to follow as a favorite.  With the experienced support of men like Julian Dean, Ryder Hesjedal, Martijn Maaskant, Johan Vansummeren, and Matt Wilson, Garmin could even be an outside player at Roubaix.

From there, the Grand Tours beckon, a place where the departure of Bradley Wiggins will certainly be felt.  Christian Vande Velde has placed well in the last two Tours de France, and will continue to lead the team while younger riders like Daniel Martin gain experience.  For Vande Velde, a top-5 in a fully-stacked Tour would be a terrific result—especially if it comes with a stage win (from anyone), and is perhaps at least one spot better than Wiggins (revenge is dish best served in July).

Garmin’s wild cards are David Zabriskie and Tom Danielson, two riders known for the sharp contrasts between their highs and lows.  When going well, both have the ability to dominate their given disciplines; however, sickness, crashes, poor judgment, and just plain bad luck seem to target these two just when they appear to be hitting their stride.  Perhaps 2010 will be the year they put all the bad voodoo behind them.

Man of the Hour: Tyler Farrar is America’s best chance for the a win in a major classic since George Hincapie—America’s other best chance for a win in a major classic.  Farrar’s got the team he needs for success.  Should he strike-out this spring, he’ll have the Tour to make amends, but the odds are bit longer there, as Mark Cavendish seems pretty unbeatable.

Fotoreporter Sirotti

On the Hot Seat:  I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, this year has to be Tom Danielson’s last chance to prove he’s worth keeping around.  He was on track to end last season on a high note before succumbing to a stomach virus in the Vuelta.  He’s started 2010 well with some promising showings in France.  If he can pull it together in time for a top-10 finish in the Giro, he might earn his place on the Tour team in July.  And from there, it’s anybody’s guess.

Up-and-Comer:  Sometimes I wonder if Jonathan Vaughters spends more time thinking about the future than thinking about the present.  That said, the signings of Jack Bobridge and Michael Kreder insures the strength of the squad over the next 5 years.  Bobridge tore-up the track a few weeks ago in Australia and deepen an already strong time trial squad.  Kreder’s performed well this past weekend in the Tour du Haut Var.  

Best Pick-up: Johan Vansummeren will prove worth his weight in gold by mid-July. He’s a rouleur in every sense of the word—a proven performer on the pavé, he can sit on the front of a group for hours, slowly tapping away at a break’s lead. If Garmin wins both Roubaix and a Tour stage, I bet they’ll owe it all to this guy.

Biggest Loss: Bradley Wiggins might not do better than his 4th place in the 2009 Tour, but his presence certainly helped Christian Vande Velde (sometimes 2 heads are better than one) as well as Garmin’s TTT squad.  While Vaughters made the right choice in letting him flee to greener pastures (his price was too expensive), the squad lost some depth as a result.

#12 – Quick Step
It’s not good when your top Grand Tour rider’s name is Kevin Seeldraeyers.  No offense to the guy, but one top-15 finish in a Grand Tour is hardly anything to write home about—especially when you’re from Belgium, a country not known (at least lately) for producing Grand Tour riders.  But don’t get me wrong. Quick Step’s not pretending to be a team with serious Grand Tour aspirations (aside from the odd stage win here and there).  And besides, if it were taking its Tour prospects seriously, then why make such a public attempt to sign Alberto Contador and his colleagues?

Quick Step’s clearly a team built almost exclusively for the Classics.  Last year, the team won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the Classica San Sebastian.  Clearly, with Tom Boonen, Stijn Devolder, Sylvain Chavanel, and Carlos Barredo in the fold, it’s hard to doubt this team’s chances in all but the hilliest of one-day races.

That said, I sense a bit of tension in the house.  Stijn Devolder’ won the Ronde the last two years—some might say at the expense of Tom Boonen.  Luckily, Boonen’s won Paris-Roubaix the last two years as well, perhaps lessening any potential wounds to his ego.  The wild card is Chavanel, a rider who must be getting tired of playing 3rd fiddle.  If Boonen and Devolder prove heavily marked by other favorites (or each other), Chavanel stands to profit the most.  And don’t forget Barredo, he’s on the verge of rivaling Juan-Antonio Flecha as Spain’s best classics rider; if the cards play-out right, look for him to profit from Quick Step’s numeric advantage in spring races such as Dwars door Vlaanderen or E3 Harelbeke.

Photo: Tim VanWichelen

Man of the Hour: All eyes will be on Tom Boonen this season as he tries to show the world that he’s not a one-trick pony.  Another classic is a must, but some Tour wins would go a long way as well.

On the Hot Seat: Devolder’s got to do more this year than just win Flanders.  He’s too talented a rider to rest on his laurels.

Up-and-Comer: I teased before, but 14th in the Giro at the age of 22 is something Kevin Seeldraeyers should be proud of.  While it’s still too early to call him the next Eddy Merckx, a top-15 result with little or no support is not something to ignore.  Let’s see how he fares this year; then we’ll raise the bar in 2011.

Best Pick-up:  His name’s hard to pronounce, but Branislau Samoilau is rumored to be the real deal.  He came to Quick Step midway through the 2009 season.  This year he’ll get his first shot at a Grand Tour, perhaps the Giro in support of Seeldraeyers.

Biggest Loss: Quick Step couldn’t win the Alberto Contador sweepstakes, a loss that will be felt this July.  Signing Contador and his talented core of riders would have instantly made Quick Step one of the 5 best teams in the World.

#11 – Omega Pharma – Lotto
Last season, Silence-Lotto was to the autumn what Quick Step was to the spring—maybe even a bit better. And while Quick Step might have more top riders for the classics, Omega Pharma-Lotto has one who will consistently ride well from March to October: Philippe Gilbert.  As a result, they head into the new season ranked a spot ahead of their compatriots. 

Anyone who saw Gilbert dominate last October knows what I’m talking about.  He’s had a quiet winter, racing peacefully down in Qatar and Oman.  But this weekend we should see if he intends to pick-up where he ended in 2009.  He’s already won the Omloop twice in the past; a 3rd time would be a terrific way to welcome himself back to the top step of a Belgian podium.  Gilbert possesses a rare mix of power, acceleration, and aggression, attributes that make him a favorite in just about every monument from now until the end of April.  With the exception of Roubaix (relax, Leif Hoste), Gilbert has the talent to win Milan-San Remo, Flanders, Amstel, and Liege—as well as any number of minor classics along the way.  It’s a long stretch though, and he’ll have to see how his form develops before making promises.  Still, that’s a not bad problem to have.

After Gilbert, there’s a huge drop-off though, making me a bit nervous about ranking them so high.  The departure of Cadel Evans will be felt by the entire squad.  Yes, Cuddles had a lackluster season until winning Worlds, but lackluster by Evans’ standards is still quite good compared to most. Evans played a big role in Gilbert’s autumn success too, forcing teams to address two captains rather than one.  In the Ardennes, having a rider like Evans would take an enormous amount of pressure off Gilbert’s shoulders, while giving the competition two riders with which to contend.

In the Grand Tours, Lotto enters 2010 relying on Jurgen Vandenbroeck to develop perhaps a year or two earlier than some might have expected.  Here again we see an effect of Evans’ departure.  With Evans, Vandenbroeck might have had one more year to ride in the service of someone else, perhaps riding himself into a high placing if given the opportunity. This year, he’ll enter the race as “the man”—can he handle the pressure?

Man of the Hour: There’s perhaps no other rider I’m more eager to see come classics-time than Gilbert.  In fact, he’s my early favorite for Saturday’s Omloop.

On the Hot Seat: Last year, I expected a lot from Greg Van Avermaet, but he failed to deliver.  He needs a good season to protect his reputation as one of Belgium’s brightest young stars. 

Up-and-Comer: Jurgen Vandenbroeck really should be spending one more season as everyone’s up-and-comer—not as Lotto’s designated leader for the Tour de France.  He has the talent to ride a good race, but the pressure to succeed is something many young riders fail to anticipate.  Let’s hope he can avoid the hype.  Maybe he and Quick Step’s Seeldraeyers will be the ushers of a new era of Belgian Tour champions?

Best Pick-up: Jan Bakelants won a lot of races in 2008—his last race as an amateur—including the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Triptych Ardennais.  Now he heads to the Pro Tour following a year learning the ropes with Topsport-Vlaanderen.  He reminds me of a young Philippe Gilbert—convenient for Lotto, no?

Biggest Loss: Evans is the obvious choice, for reasons I’ve already explained.  However, don’t discount the effects of Johan Vansummeren’s transfer to Garmin.  Leif Hoste fine-tunes his form perfectly for the second weekend in April.  Vansummeren’s been a loyal and dedicated domestique at Roubaix, often spending large amounts of his time pulling Hoste into position.  Without Vansummeren’s service, it’s hard to see Hoste even finishing in the top-10.  Mark my words: Lotto’s loss will be Garmin’s gain.

And that’s it—the first half of our 2010 season preview is complete!

Share your feedback and comments below!  And please, if you’re enjoying the preview, recommend us to a friend or follow us on Twitter.  We still have much more planned for 2010!

And yes, we’ll be at NAHBS.  Look for us at the Embrocation booth when we’re not walking around enjoying the sights.

Have a great day!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Pavé's 2010 Season Preview - Part 1 (Teams 20-16)

In Belgium, newspapers don’t publish their official season previews until the week before the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—the official opening day of the Belgian cycling season. I like doing it that way too—it gives a bit of time to get acclimated with the new season before attempting to sort everyone out.  So, over the next 4 days, I’ll publish my preview of the Top-20 teams of the 2010 season.

I’ll start with #20 and count backwards all the way to #1. Come back daily between now and Thursday to see where your favorites fall. Enjoy!

#20 – Bbox

If it not for the heroics of Thomas Voeckler and Pierrick Fedrigo in last year’s Tour, this team might not be around this year.  Bumped from the Pro Tour after 2009 (although don’t put too much stock in that distinction), Jean-René Bernaudeau’s team comes into the 2010 season once again hoping for some domestic one-day wins and perhaps a stage or two in the Tour will be enough to keep the Euros flowing to the Vendée region’s home team.  Still on the strength of their two stars, they make the ranking for 2010—barely.

The bulk of the team’s aspirations fall heavily on the shoulders of Voeckler and Fedrigo.  Both ride aggressively in June, July, and August—three of the biggest months in French cycling; and both exhibit the kind of spunk that most French fans seem to appreciate nowadays.  As for the rest of the team, you’ll be hearing Pierre Rolland’s name a lot come the Dauphine—he’s yet another in a long line of French “Next Big Things”.  While some are growing inpatient, it should be noted that he’s still quite young, so there’s time for him to develop.

In the end, it all boils down to wins for BBox—any wins they can muster.  Some are wondering if the Pro Tour snub is the beginning of the end for these plucky Frenchmen.  They’ll spend much of 2010 just trying to fend-off what many consider to be inevitable.

Man of the Hour: Thomas Voeckler’s been been a darling of French fans ever since he took the maillot jaune in the 2004 Tour.  Luckily for him, he always manages to come through with a big win just as his stock seems to dip.  Aside from his Tour stage, Voeckler narrowly missed adding a stage win in the Giro to his palmares when he finished 2nd on Stage 20—maybe this year he goes one better?

On the Hot Seat:  General Manager Jean-René Bernaudeau’s got to be sweating a bit.  Aside from the heroics of his two stars, his team’s hard-pressed for wins.  He needs to develop some new talent quickly.  Voeckler and Fedrigo won’t be around forever, and if his team fails to show the consistency it needs to secure long-term deals with major French sponsors, he could be out of a job.

Up-and-Comer: Everyone’s talking about Rolland, but I’m eager to see if Steve Chainel can develop into a classics rider following his strong showing in several races toward the end of the cyclocross season.  I know, cyclocross isn’t always an indicator for classics success, but let’s see if Chainel can make the transition from mud to asphalt in time for a top-15 result in the Omloop on Saturday.

Best Pick-up:  When was the last time Colnago sponsored a French team?  This is clearly a match made in desperation: Colnago must have been desperate for a big-time team—so desperate it went to France; while BBox must have had a tough time finding a domestic sponsor willing to top Colnago’s offer.  Regardless, look for BBox to be extra-motivated in this year’s Giro, hoping to honor Ernesto’s patronage with a stage win.

Biggest Departure: Sadly, few riders left BBox following 2009, a testament as to just how dire the situation truly is.  

Fotoreporter Sirotti

#19 - Ag2r

If it weren’t their brown shorts and several days in yellow during last year’s Tour, would you have even known this team existed?  They won five races!  Were it not for Nocentini’s July exploits, Vincent Lavenu’s boys might not have even lived to see another year. (Is there an echo in here?)

But this year’s off to a promising start.  Nocentini claims he wants to win Paris-Nice; he appears to be on his way to the form necessary to do so following a 2nd place on Mont Faron in the Med Tour and a stage win in the Tour de Haut Var.  Paris-Nice is another event entirely; but if Nocentini can come close, perhaps winning a stage along the way, it will go a long way to ensuring this team’s place in the peloton for perhaps another year or two—perhaps easing some pressure come July.

Overall, Nocentini’s a good representative of the type of rider most likely to find success for this team: cunning, punchy, and aggressive when necessary.  This is a team that does best when it takes advantage of opportunities presented by others teams trying to dictate the outcome of a race.  Case in point: Cyril Dessel.  Dessel’s not the type of rider to initiate a race-winning breakaway; but he is just strong enough to hang on for dear life, and perhaps accelerate away for the win at the moment you least expect it.  Did you know that Tadej Valjavec has had two top-10 overall finishes in Grand Tours since 2008?

Man of the Hour: Tough to say there is one as any number of Ag2r’s riders could lead the team in wins this season.  Of them all, Nocentini seems the most primed for success—at least at this point in time.  He could pull some wins in minor stage races, and when in form is an outside contender for a race like Fleche Wallone.

On the Hot Seat: Everyone is on the hot seat.  Like many French teams, no roster spot is safe on a team in need of a few quality wins each year to guarantee the renewals of it sponsorship agreements.  In particular, Vladimir Efemkin hopes to return to his form from 2008, a year when he finished 11th in the Tour.  He needs a solid 2010 to prove the result wasn’t a flash in the pan.

Up-and-Comer:  Nicholas Roche turned heads in last year’s Tour with several high finishes.  He’s a talented rider with all-round abilities.  Ag2r’s hoping 2010 will be the year he gets his first big win.  He and Garmin’s Daniel Martin are the future of Irish cycling.

Best Pick-up: You have to love someone with the last name “Champion”.  Dimitri Champion scored the sweetest kind of revenge when he won the French National Road Race Championship for the low-budget Bretagne-Armor Lux team the year after getting dropped by BBox.  He also won the 1.1 Tour Finistére and last year’s Etape du Tour, which finished atop Mont Ventoux.  He’s been seen often at the front of races so far this season—here’s hoping he has what it takes to score a few wins while wearing his national colors.

Biggest Loss:  See BBox.

Fotoreporter Sirotti

#18 – La Francaise des Jeux

What a start for Marc Madiot’s men in white and blue!  If they continue this streak, I’ll soon be looking pretty foolish for ranking them so low.

Or will I?  Yes, they’ve won a few races so far this season, and yes, they have some talent (including a rider who finished 10th in last year’s Tour de France).  But come June, will wins in the Med Tour and Haut Var still look all that impressive?  Don’t get me wrong though, there are some terrific pieces here, including many riders capable of taking wins. But which wins and how many is another story.

FDJ hasn’t had a bona fide star since Baden Cooke. Sure, Sandy Casar’s a terrific rider on his day, an opportunist known for his dramatic Tour stage wins.  And yes, Frederic Guesdon won Paris-Roubaix—in 1997.  Anthony Geslin won a semi-classic in 2009 and Yauheni Hutarovich has already won several races this season—but something still seems missing.

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Like so many of the French teams, FDJ’s strategy seems to involve throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks—hardly the way to run a successful program.  In the end, success is quite possible for one of the longest-running teams in the sport.  But when and from which riders is anyone’s guess. This team needs a true leader, someone the others can ride for, confident in the knowledge that if they do their jobs, he’ll do his.  Until they find a truly talented and dynamic lead rider, their destined to pick through everyone else’s scraps.

Man of the Hour: Christophe Le Mevel stunned many with his top-10 finish in last year’s Tour de France.  He’s started-off 2010 on the right foot, winning the second stage and the overall title at this past weekend’s difficult Tour du Haut Var.  If he keeps his form, together with Casar and Remi DiGregorio, FDJ might have some hope for success in their first major domestic engagement of 2010: Paris-Nice.

On the Hot Seat: And speaking of Remi DiGregorio, when will we see him capitalize on all the potential everyone thought they saw him indicate in the Dauphiné a few years ago?  He’s still just 24, but the home fans—and pundits—are growing impatient.  Hopefully he’ll continue to display the aggressive riding he showed in the Med.

Up-and-Comer: It’s not all gloom and doom for France though.  2009 was a banner year for French U23 riders, culminating in Roman Sicard’s World Championship win in Mendrisio.  Lost in all the excitement over Sicard was young Thibaut Pinot, the winner of the difficult Val d’Aosta stage race in Italy.  In Pinot, Marc Madiot might have made his best signing in years—if this young climber comes close to meeting the expectations of those who have seen him ride.

Best Pick-up: Considering there are only 3 newcomers to the roster, signing Pinot has to be the best of this year’s off-season haul for FDJ.

Biggest Departure: Again, not many teams are lining-up to steal riders away from French teams right now—at least not at this level.

Fotoreporter Sirotti

#17 – Vacansoleil

Vacansoleil is the epitome of a team trying to do more with less.  Look at its stars from 2009: Borzic, Hoogerland, and Westra are hardly household names, yet they accounted for more wins than several teams with bigger budgets and more recognizable rosters.  In addition to these three, 2010 sees the arrival of France’s favorite brothers: the Feillu’s.  Young Brice endeared himself to many French fans following his fantastic win at Arcalis during the 2009 Tour, while Romain—more of an all-rounder—is a threat in both sprints and from breakaways. Together, they add depth to a squad hoping to steal Skil-Shimano’s wild card invitation to this year’s Tour.

The meat and potatoes of Vacansoleil’s roster come in the form sprinter Borut Borzic and all-rounder Johnny Hoogerland.  Borzic won a Grand Tour stage in last year’s Vuelta, while Hoogerland finished 12th overall before taking 5th in the Tour of Lombardy.  Of the two, Hoogerland has the higher ceiling, as Borzic doesn’t seem to fare as well when facing the best of the best.  Beyond these two and the Feillu’s, there’s a solid backbone of strong men able to ride in support of their leaders while making the most of their own chances when opportunities arise.  Of these, Bjorn Leukemans remains an outside bet for a one-day win in one of the Belgian semi-classics.  (I promise this will be the last year I say that.)

Man of the Hour:  Johnny Hoogerland’s stock is high following a successful final stretch in 2009.  His rides in the Vuelta and the fall classics put him on the radar as a talent to watch in 2010.  Now the pressure’s on to see if he can raise the bar a little bit higher, perhaps taking a big win or two.  Not to be forgotten is Hoogerland’s penchant for cobbles—he finished well in several Belgian races last spring.  Look for him in Saturday’s Omloop.

On the Hot Seat:  Assuming the ASO grants Vacansoleil an invitation to the 2010, whichever 9 men make the roster will be under the gun to produce at least one stage win.  ASO is a fickle organization, one not too keen on giving hand-outs to non-French squads that don’t animate the race.  Should Vacansoleil’s boys not score on the big stage come July, in 2011 they might find themselves on the outside looking in.

Up-and-Comer: Brice Feillu won the hearts of French housewives everywhere (we really need a new metaphor) when he won Stage 7 in the 2009 Tour.  Now he needs to prove he’s more than just a flash in the pan.  This year, I’d like to see him try for a high overall placing in Paris rather than searching for stage glory.  It’s a tough choice, as his team will likely be desperate for success; but in terms of this rider’s development, a year following wheels in the mountains could reveal much more about his true potential.

Best Addition: For obvious reasons, the Feillu brothers.

Biggest Loss:  Some might consider Baden Cooke’s departure a big deal, but let’s be honest, Borzic’s success made him expendable.  Cooke’s much better off as the latest subject of one of Bjarne Riis’ career resurrection projects.
Fotoreporter Sirotti

#16 – Euskaltel-Euskadi

With perhaps one or two exceptions, this team’s going to live and die on the back of Samuel Sanchez in 2010.  A force to be reckoned with in just about any hillier race, Sanchez is more known for the races he’s just missed winning (too many to list) than those in which he’s actually taken a victory (the Olympics).  Big wins just don’t seem to come easily for the daredevil Spaniard.

Looking over the rest of Euskaltel’s roster, Sanchez can take heart in knowing he’ll have no competition for the leadership of his team.  Look for him to begin making his mark possibly as soon as Paris-Nice, but certainly no later than the Vuelta Pais Vasco in April.  From there, the Ardennes Classics will be next on the agenda before a possible ride in the Tour.  All in all, if Sanchez doesn’t start winning some monuments soon, he could be Spain’s version of Michael Boogerd—an extremely talented rider known more for being a bridesmaid than a bride.

Man of the Hour: Without a doubt, Samuel Sanchez.

On the Hot Seat: Sanchez—there’s no one else to share the load.

Up-and-Comer: Romain Sicard won the World U23 Road Race title for France, and then promptly signed with a Spanish team.  Remember though, he’s Basque, and riding for Euskaltel is like a kid from North Jersey playing for the New York Yankees.  Sicard’s an exciting talent, and Euskaltel’s quickly thrown him in at the deep end, obviously trying to get him top-level experience as quickly as possible.  I can’t wait to see what he can do!

Best Pick-up: Sicard.

Biggest Loss: Euskaltel’s biggest loss in 2010 actually occurred in 2009 when Mikel Astarloza tested positive following his Tour stage win.  Astarloza’s departure will be missed as he was a strong rider—but the damage to Euskaltel’s reputation could prove much more detrimental to an already fragile team.

And that’s it for Part 1 of Pavé’s 2010 Season Preview.  Come back tomorrow for teams 15 through 11 in our Pre-Season Top-20.

As always, share your comments and thoughts below—have we already omitted your favorite?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Weekend Preview - Algarve, Haut Var, the Ruta, and More

Here’s just about everything you need to know about the next few days of racing:

1. Before we preview the weekend’s festivities, we should take a minute to wrap-up the Tour of Oman, which finished today with an ITT won by—as we correctly predicted—Edvald Boassen Hagen. Unfortunately, thanks to an untimely stop to answer nature’s call during Wednesday’s Stage 4, Boassen Hagen was unable to take the overall title. Stage 6 runner-up Fabian Cancellara took his first win of the season instead—and looks to be right on track for April.

So what did we learn? First, the racing in Oman was fast, serious, and a good indicator of the fireworks we expect to see come next Saturday in Belgium. With all of the usual classic favorites firing on all cylinders—plus a few new faces—the time between now and Paris-Roubaix is certain to be one of the most competitive in recent memory. Second, given the weather we’ve seen on the Continent so far this month (even Portugal’s been rainy and cold), look for more and more riders to contest the races in Qatar and Oman next year—especially if this year’s Arabian Knights (I can’t believe I just made that pun), take a big win or two in the next several weeks.

2. Speaking of Portugal, the Tour of Algarve’s first three stages are in the books and there have been two main surprises: first, the weather’s been awful—cold and rainy; second, several Grand Tour riders decided to come out of hiding and show themselves on today’s Stage 3 summit finish. Alberto Contador took the win, following a strong effort by his teammates to put him contention for the victory. Tiago Machado and Levi Leipheimer took 2nd and 3rd on the day, saving face for Team Radio Shack. Two stages remain including a time trial in Sunday’s final stage. Barring any more shake-ups between now and then, Contador should take what he hopes will be the first of many overall titles in 2010.

3. Racing returns to Italy on Saturday, with the annual running of the Trofeo Laigueglia. Androni Giacattoli (that’s a team) takes the line with returning champion Francesco Ginanni supported by a strong roster including Michele Scarponi and Alessandro Bertolini. Katusha has a former winner as well with Kim Kirchen, as does Acqua e Sapone with Luca Paolini. If all goes according to plan though, look for Lampre’s Alessandro Petacchi to continue his run to San Remo with another early season win. We won’t know for sure if Ale-Jet has what it takes for success on the Via Roma until we see him face some tougher competition, but in this race, he’s clearly the man to beat.

4. Moving from Italy we head to France and the Tour du Haut-Var. Haut-Var used to be the first event of a French weekend that included the Classic Haribo—named for the French candy company. In recent years though, Haribo’s moved-on and the Haut-Var expanded to become a 2-day event with races on both Saturday and Sunday in the Draguignan region of Provence. It’s a beautiful race in one of France’s most picturesque regions.

This year’s start list features several strong teams and many riders eager to take a victory or two. Last year’s winner, Thomas Voeckler, returns with BBox ready to defend his title. Teammate Pierrick Fedrigo has enough talent to take the win as well. Ag2r brings Rinaldo Nocentini, fresh from his 2nd-place in the Tour de Med—his performance on Mont Faron proves he’s ready for business. Nocentini’s supported by the current French Champion, Dimitri Champion, a rider eager for a win in his French maillot. FDJ found much success in the Med Tour, led by Yauheni Hutarovich and Jussi Veikkanen; they’re eager to continue their winning trends here.

Other men coming from the Med with some fresh legs and a chance to win in the Var include Garmin’s Danielson and Rabobank’s Gesink. But when it’s all said and done, I think we might see a repeat performance from many of the protagonists at the Med with Nocentini and Veikkanen finding their biggest challenge in the shape of the defending champion, Thomas Voeckler.

5. Finally, on Sunday we’re back to Spain and the start of the Ruta del Sol. When the season began weeks ago, the racing featured mainly flat courses, with sprint finishes the norm. Now, as we move closer and closer to the first important dates on the 2010 calendar, we’re starting to see races with more challenging profiles. Case in point: Sunday’s Stage 1 of the Ruta del Sol finishes atop the first category Alto de la Guardia after about 160km of racing. Look for men like Rabobank’s Juan Manuel Garate, Vacansoleil’s Brice Feillu and Johnny Hoogerland, Saxo Bank’s Schleck brothers, Sky’s Simon Gerrans, and Lampre’s Daminao Cunego to test their legs, ultimately hoping for success by day’s end. Stage 2 is really the only “flat” day, one in which the sprinters like Oscar Freire, Mark Cavendish, Borut Borzic, Greg Henderson, and Chris Sutton might find success. Stages 3 and 5 feature more climbing, and Stage 4 is a bone-flat time trial that has Gustav Larsson’s name all over it. In the end, a rider with all-round abilities will likely emerge victorious—someone who can climb, avoid splits on the flats, and pull a good result in the time trial. Tony Martin, Linus Gerdemann, Hoogerland, Thomas Lovkvist, and Cunego all come to mind. This race might prove most interesting for fans of the Ardennes classics, as this provides one of the first chances to see several late-April favorites go head-to-head. It should be exciting!

What about you? Who are your picks for the weekend? And with one week until the “real” start season with next Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, who are you early picks?

Share your thoughts, comments, and questions below!

Cross Report and Power Ranking

It’s a bit later than usual, but here’s the penultimate edition of Erik’s Cross Report and Power Rankings. For more coverage, check-out Erik’s site, The Run-up. He’ll be joining Pavé at NAHBS as well, so if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of our in-house cross guru! 
All Photos by Tim Van Wichelen

With just one race left this year, Zdenek Stybar has returned to the top step of the podium and won another major competition. The World Champion did just enough Sunday to hold-off a charging Niels Albert on a slick, icy course in Vorselaar, taking the win and the Superprestige overall title. The big surprise came from Radomir Simunek who lead for a majority of the race before a crash allowed Stybar to catch him with 3 laps to go. From there, it was an all-out dash to the line as Albert and Sven Nys would eventually catch and pass Stybar as he headed to the pits. Albert took full advantage of Stybar’s momentary stoppage, launching an attack for the win. Chaos ensued including a spat between Nys and Simunek resulting in both men going down in a corner, allowing Stybar to slip-by to chase Albert alone. With half a lap to go, Stybar caught Albert and the two went toe-to-toe for the victory and the overall title—no one could have drawn it up any better. The two traded punches until Stybar got a gap over the fading Albert with a few hundred meters remaining and never looked back.

In addition to the stellar action up front, the penultimate race of the season held a few other surprises as several riders tried to end their seasons on a high note. Dieter Vanthourenhout rode a terrific race. He was dropped from the lead group with only a few laps remaining, but managed to hold-on to 5th. Jonathan Page managed to make his way up to 6th at one point before a few technical mistakes dropped him 7th. Perhaps the most interesting result came from Mariusz Gil as the Polish rider found himself in the top-10 in Vorselaar on Sunday and in the GP de Eecloonaar on Saturday (which was one by Bart Wellens).

All in all, it was spectacular weekend, setting things up nicely for another showdown in Oostmalle on Sunday. It was yet another week of big changes in the rankings—time to see where everyone landed:

International Power Ranking

1. Zdenek Stybar (2) - All Stybar needed to do was finish one place ahead of Niels Albert and the Superprestige title was his. He managed to do it, and the spectacular fashion in which he won the race will be etched in my mind forever. The Albert-Stybar battle is long from over though. Stybar's final chance to do the impossible comes Sunday where he has a very outside chance of taking the GVA Trophy.

2. Niels Albert (4) - Albert won the final round of the World Cup in January in an attempt to take the overall. Stybar needed to finish 3rd or worse for this to happen; Stybar finished second. Albert needed to beat Stybar by one place on Sunday to take the Superprestige overall; he lost by 6 seconds. Needless to say, it’s been a rough year for the former World Champion. He essentially has been left with nothing after destroying the competition in the first half of the season. He's tied for 2nd (yes, with Stybar) in the GVA Trophy series. Sunday's his last chance for a title this season.

3. Sven Nys (1) - Nys would have you believe that had Simunek not taken him out, he may have won the race. I beg to differ. Ultimately, there's only one race that Nys needs to worry about: the GVA Trophy’s final round in Oostmalle on Sunday. He has a 14-point lead over Stybar and Albert. Nys hasn't won much this year; a GVA Trophy would allow him to end the season on a high note.
4. Dieter Vanthourenhout (10) - Vanthourenhout finished 2nd on Saturday and seems to have found some great form. His 5th on Sunday was surprising, but it was a shame he was never really in contention for the win. After a season of ups and downs, it's nice to see the young Belgian end things on a positive note.

5. Bart Wellens (6) - Wellens finally grabbed a victory this year at the GP de Eecloonaar on Saturday. The race featured all the big names including Nys, Albert, and Stybar. Wellens was able to beat them all and pick-up a well-deserved victory. Next year, may be Wellens’ last, so ending this season on a high note is very important.
6. Radomir Simunek (n/a) - Simunek was in the mix all day on Sunday and at one point it even looked as if he might take win. In the end, he narrowly defeated Sven Nys for 3rd place. I won’t go too deep into the conspiracy theory, but Simunek did just enough to keep Nys out of Stybar's way, preventing him from bridging across to Albert. One thing's for sure: it's all about the Czechs and the Belgians right now.
7. Klaas Vantornout (5) - Vantornout finished inside the top-10 in both races this weekend, but never managed to make the lead group. I have a feeling that next year Vantornout will do some real damage, adding to the chaos at the front of the field.
8. Kevin Pauwels (3) - Pauwels continues to have a rocky end to the season, only managing 6th and 11th this past weekend. It's been a long season for the young Belgian, but it appears that his future is very bright. He won Round 7 of the World Cup and has dozens of podium finishes. Perhaps next year,he'll be in the mix for an overall title in one of season’s many race series.

9. Mariusz Gil (n/a) - Gil has won one race this year: the Polish National Championship. Beyond that, he's finished in the top-10 only twice—but that was in September and October. Needless to say, the Polish rider’s pair of top-10’s this past weekend came as a big surprise. I'm not sure if it's good luck or late season form, but either way, Gil made it into the rankings for the first time this year.
10. Jonathan Page (n/a) - Page returns to the rankings after a stellar 7th in Vorselaar. His season will conclude with an indoor race at the end of February, before he heads back over the Atlantic for the off-season. It has been a rough year for the American. He started-off strong, but has had sporadic results over the past few months. Perhaps he can put it all together this weekend and go out with a bang.

Dropped this week: Sven Vanthourenhout (7), Bart Aernouts (8) and Gerben de Knegt (9).

The final race of the 2009/2010 cyclocross season will take place in Oostmalle, Belgium on Sunday. It's the final round of the GVA Trophy and after last Sunday's showdown in Vorselaar, it promises to be a good one. Sven Nys leads Zdenek Stybar and Niels Albert by 14 points, so all Nys really needs to do is finish. Stybar or Albert can take the overall with a win and a Nys finish outside the top-10. Cleary, it's Nys' title to lose.

Have a terrific weekend—share your comments below.