#15 – LamprePoor 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.
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.
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.
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!
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