Wednesday, June 30, 2010

2010 Tour de France Preview - Part 3

Here's the third installment of Pavé's 2010 Tour de France Preview.  I'll wrap things up tomorrow with the final installment, and then present some interesting questions to be answered during this year's Tour on Friday.  In case you missed them, here are links to Part 1 and Part 2 of the Preview.  As always, share your comments and insights below.

Lampre-Farnese Vini
Damiano Cunego, Alessandro Petacchi, and 5 riders making their Tour debuts is hardly a roster to strike fear into the opposition, but that’s what Lampre brings to this year’s Tour de France. For a team that received almost as much criticism as Footon-Servetto for its inclusion, Lampre doesn’t seem too concerned with proving critics wrong.

After a relatively anonymous spring and a less-than-stellar Giro d’Italia, Cunego needs to do something—and soon—lest he risk losing money on the transfer market this off-season. He showed flashes of brilliance at this year’s Giro; unfortunately his good rides were often followed by rides equally as bad. He comes to this year’s Tour in search of a stage win or two, and perhaps a top-15 finish in the GC. Stick to stage wins, Damiano—start with Stage 2 through the Ardennes.

As for Petacchi, he’s clearly outclassed in anything other than regional Italian races. He won Stage 4 in Switzerland simply by virtue of the fact that he remained upright following a major crash, but that’s hardly an indicator of Tour field sprint success.

As for the rest, there’s always a chance for a stage win from a break or two—Simon Spilak’s a handy opportunist to have around and Grega Bole won a small field sprint in the Dauphiné. If Cunego and Petacchi falter, it’s up to a member of Lampre’s supporting cast to take center stage.

Man of the Hour: Damiano Cunego’s been hunting for a major result since last season when he failed in the spring classics, the Giro, the Tour, Worlds, and the fall classics. Were it not for two wins in the Vuelta, the Italian’s season would have been a complete wash. Time to shine, Damiano—there’s millions waiting for you this off-season if you do.

On the Hot Seat: Giuseppe Saronni has a lot of explaining to do. He lost some of his best riders this past off-season and replaced them with aging stars and unknown rookies. Rumors are already swirling that his last marketable asset—Damiano Cunego—is about to leave as well. With few important wins and a potentially deserted roster, Saronni’s sponsors can’t be happy.

Up-and-Comer: Simon Spilak won this May’s Tour of Romandie following the disqulification of Alejandro Valverde. A young, talented all-rounder, Spilak gets his second Tour start this year. Don’t be surprised if he’s the only Lampre rider to take a win.

Just Happy to Be There: Grega Bole, Mauro Da Dalto, Francesco Gavazzi, Mirco Lorenzetto and Adriano Malori are all making their Tour debuts this summer. Forza, ragazzi!

Feeling Left Out: The entire team in 2011—if they don’t perform in 2010.

In my humble opinion, Liquigas is one of the more intriguing teams in this year’s Tour de France. Ivan Basso won his second Giro d’Italia this May, topping-off one of the most fantastic post-suspension comebacks the sport has ever seen. Basso raced with grinta and determination, never wavering as he clawed back from a several-minute deficit to take the lead just before the final weekend.

Now he comes to the Tour, with aspirations to become the first person since Marco Pantani to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Can he do it? I discounted Basso’s chances to win the Giro, considering him too old and far removed from his prime to win a grand tour—he proved me wrong. As for the Tour, while I don’t consider him one of the top 2 or 3 contenders, I will not be surprised to see him take the win—especially if the main favorites make the same mistake I did before the Giro.

Remember, no one thought Pantani would win the Tour in 1998—especially over a seemingly dominant Jan Ullrich. And were you just a little surprised when Carlos Sastre rode away on Alpe d’Huez to take the win in 2008? Anything’s possible.

The biggest thing going for Basso is the layout of this year’s race. Basso rode himself into shape throughout the Giro, peaking during what was an impossibly tough third week. This year’s Tour de
France follows a similar pattern, slowly building week-to-week to a Pyrenean crescendo. Except for Saturday’s Italian championship, Basso hasn’t raced since May—making a steady progression through the Tour even more important—and probable. If he manages to pull it off, Basso’s ride will go down in history as one of the Tour’s most legendary performances.

As for the rest of the squad, don’t discount Roman Kreuziger either—a man with his own Tour aspirations. Kreuziger seems to have dialed-in his preparation this season, laying all of his cards on the table for the Tour. A talented climber and able time trialist, Kreuziger is the most talented of the young men expected to challenge for Tour supremacy throughout the next decade. Should Basso prove fallible, Kreuziger could be the man for Liquigas.

Man of the Hour: Basso. The competition will be fierce, but this might be his last and best chance for yellow.

On the Hot Seat: No one, actually. Liquigas has had a relatively perfect season so far, winning the Giro with several stage wins to boot. A top-5 finish in the Tour along with a stage win or two would be a welcome sight, but for now, Liquigas can ride a pressure-free race—a bad sign for the competition.

Up-and-Comer: Kreuziger’s barely 24 and already he’s finished 13th and 9th in the Tour de France. Should he continue his ascension toward the podium—perhaps even landing on it—look for him to be one of the most sought-after commodities in this off-season’s transfer market.

Just Happy to be There: If you have some time—and can tolerate Google translator—take a trip over Sylvester Szmyd’s blog. It’s casual, thoughtful, and offers a pleasant look into the mind of one of the peloton’s most underrated talents. This won’t be his first Tour—or his last—but Szmyd seems to epitomize someone who’s just happy to be there.

Feeling Left Out: Remember when Daniele Bennati was everyone’s pick to be the next great Italian sprinter? He won two stages in 2007—none since. While he be feeling left out, it’s easy to see why.

Omega Pharma – Lotto
Gone are the days when Lotto came to the Tour with split sprint/GC ambitions. With inconsistent Aussies Robbie McEwen and Cadel Evans elsewhere, and classics men Philippe Gilbert, Leif Hoste, and Greg Van Avermaet staying home, this year’s Lotto squad belongs to one man: Jurgen Van den Broeck.


Yup, the man I’ve come to call “VDB2” has earned the right to have a full team supporting his chances in this year’s Tour—and he’s done it fair and square. VDB2 first showed his grand tour talents by finishing seventh in the 2008 Giro d’Italia after several strong performances in the mountains. The effort earned the Belgian a spot in last year’s Tour, riding as a lieutenant for Cadel Evans. Evans quickly proved the weaker of the two though, ultimately surrendering his captaincy by the final week of the race. VDB2 would go on finish the Tour 15th overall, a deceiving result considering his earlier sacrifices.

This season, Van den Broeck rode brilliantly in support of Gilbert in the Ardennes classics, covering moves and driving the chase group to essentially hand Gilbert the Amstel Gold Race on a platter. He then finished 4th in the Dauphiné, beaten by two men peaking for the race itself—Janez Brajkovic and Tejay Vangarderen—and the man who is perhaps the best stage racer in the world—Alberto Contador.

If VDB2 has indeed saved his best form for July, a stunning result is possible—maybe even one inside the top-5. Heck, most of Belgium would settle for a top-10, considering it’s been ages since they’ve had a legitimate contender for the Tour’s GC. With a solid team of climbers, rouleurs, and domestiques, there’s nothing to prevent Van den Broeck from making his country proud.

Man of the Hour: Van den Broeck.

On the Hot Seat: Van den Broeck will be if he fails to deliver under such favorable cicumstances. Belgian fans can be so fickle.

Up-and-Comer: Like VDB2, Matt Lloyd is riding his second Tour this year as well. After a stage win and the climber’s jersey at the Giro, his stock is rising.

Just Happy to Be There: Considering how Lotto left just about every other classics rider off the Tour squad, Jurgen Roelandts has to be grateful to have been given a shot at the Tour. Maybe he would have preferred a vacation, but a grand tour might help the youngster’s progression for next year’s classics.

Feeling Left Out: I have a feeling Greg Van Avermaet was hoping for a chance at a stage win in this year’s Tour. One of the more disappointing Belgians of the past two seasons, it was beginning to look in June as if Van Avermaet was—finally—hitting his stride. Looks like he’ll have to be content with another Vuelta.

Quick Step
Quick Step can’t seem to catch a break. Last year Tom Boonen was almost disqualified before the Tour even started thanks to another cocaine offense. He received a last-minute reprieve, but failed to deliver after his team went to great lengths to get him to the line.

Fast forward a year and Boonen has already been ruled-out from racing thanks to the knee injury he received in a crash at the end of Stage 1 of the Tour of California. Even worse, his initial replacement, Giro stage-winner Wouter Weylandt, has been ruled ineligible since we wasn’t on the official 15-rider pre-selection list Quick Step sent to the race organization weeks ago. After all was said and done, the rider finally chosen to take Tom Boonen’s is probably the last rider on the list anyone ever thought would have to ride—Italian Francesco Reda.

Without Boonen, Quick Step closely resembles a French squad with several opportunists hunting for stage wins, a young rider or two hoping for a good GC showing, and a few soon to be washed-up veterans looking for one last chance to shine. Carlos Barredo and Sylvain Chavanel are the cream of the crop. Barredo came close to winning a stage last year before winning the Clasica San Sebastian soon after the Tour ended. Chavanel’s been rather disappointing so far this season—he’s certainly hoping to add another stage win to the one he took in 2008. Frenchman Jérome Pineau won a stage at this year’s Giro; a stage victory in his home tour would be a welcome addition to his résumé.

And that’s about it for Quick Step—not much to get excited about considering this team might have contended for the green jersey had its star been healthy enough to take part.

Man of the Hour: Barredo, Chavanel, and Pineau will take turns trying to take stages. Chavanel might make a go of it as early as Stage 3.

On the Hot Seat: For a Belgian super-team, getting shut-out of the classics is an incredibly worrisome situation. Two stage wins in the Giro were nice, but the team needs some Tour success if it wishes to regain credibility with its fans.

Up-and-Comer: Boonen’s absence might be the best thing for young Kevin Seeldraeyers, the winner of the white jersey as Best Young Rider in last year’s Giro d’Italia. Without the pressure of setting things up for field sprints, Seeldrayers can relax during the first week, doing his best to stay out of trouble. Will the 23-year-old join Jurgen Van den Broeck to form a new generation of Belgian Tour contenders?

Just Happy to Be There: Franceso Reda’s the obvious choice, but how about Eddy Merckx bicycles? Yes, Merckx himself has little to do with the company and the quality is rumored to be not what it once was, but it’s still nice to see the brand back in the Tour.

Feeling Left Out: I’m having a tough time wrapping my head around how and why it happened, but Stijn Devolder will be missed as Belgian national champion. The Tour’s always a better race with more national champions’ jerseys represented, but Devolder’s absence will be particularly missed on the stages through Belgium. At first it seemed as if Devolder was left off by management; then it appeared that Devolder himself had passed on the opportunity. Whatever the reason, it spells the beginning—or maybe the middle actually—of the end for the Belgian’s affiliation with Quick Step.

Denis Menchov, Robert Gesink, and Oscar Freire are the three Rabobank riders we can expect to hear the most from in this Tour de France.

Menchov skipped a chance to defend his title at the Giro this year, choosing instead to focus on adding the only grand tour he has yet to win to his palmares. As far as his chances go, your guesses are as good as mine. A natural grand tour rider, Menchov possesses the rare mix of climbing and time trialing so rarely seen nowadays. When in-shape and confident, he’s one of the best riders in the world. Unfortunately, Menchov’s also prone to crashing, something that makes him a bit suspect in a Tour beginning in Holland and passing over the pavé on its way to France.

Perhaps even more talented—at going uphill at least—than Menchov, Robert Gesink hopes to finally finish the Tour de France after an early exit last year. Like his Russian teammate, Gesink is a rider known for being a bit squirrely at times—a crash being the reason he left last year’s Tour. But a bigger liability for Gesink—as was so spectacularly illustrated at this year’s Tour de Suisse—is his inability to time trial. While Gesink is still young and has plenty of time to improve against the clock, losing a stage race to Frank Schleck in a time trial is certainly cause for concern. Until he fixes the problem, he’ll remain nothing more than a candidate for mountain stage wins, the polka dot jersey, and the lower half of the top-10.

As for Freire, he keeps coming back for more—and winning. After winning a stage and the green jersey in 2008, Freire was shut-out last year. But as he showed with his third win in Milan-San Remo earlier this season, Oscar’s not someone to ignore.

And by the way, Lars Boom could win the Prologue, so put your money down now.

Man of the Hour: Menchov’s wagered the first half of his season on success in France.

On the Hot Seat: This spot could be Menchov’s if he fails to deliver. That said, the man’s won three grand tours; he’s earned a bit of patience.

Up-and-Comer: Gesink’s an easy pick, but he’s been “up and coming” for so long now that it hardly seems fair to keep mentioning him. I’m eager to see what Lars Boom does in his first Tour. He might be a better pick than Gesink for Tour GC success a few years from now—especially since he can actually time trial. In fact, Boom’s a good outside bet to win the Prologue, so put your money down now.

Just Happy to There: There were few surprises in Rabobank’s Tour selection this year. Aside from some last minute crash replacements, everyone’s preparation has more or less gone as planned.

Feeling Left Out: Laurens Ten Dam fell heavily during the Tour de Suisse, suffering several serious injuries to keep him from riding this year’s Tour. A consummate professional and a seemingly fearless rider, Ten Dam’s presence in the mountains—the uphill part of them at least—will be missed by his team and its fans. Get well soon, Laurens!

And that’s it for Part 3 of Pavé’s 2010 Tour de France Preview. Be sure to share your comments and feedback below—and come back tomorrow for the fourth and final part of the series!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

2010 Tour de France Preview - Part 2

Here's Part 2 of Pavé's 2010 Tour de France Preview.  You can read Part 1 here.  Please share your comments and picks below.

Like most of the French teams in this year’s Tour de France, AG2R comes to the race hoping to find relevance through stage wins, days spent in various leader’s jerseys, and maybe—if one of the riders proves particularly lucky—a top-15 placing in the final overall classification.

Last year, Rinaldo Nocentini saved the day in what would have been an otherwise anonymous showing for the squad. His eights day in yellow gave the team and its sponsors a solid week of good publicity in the midst of a race where the only excitement the team had been able to generate involved its terrible fashion sense.

This year, the bulk of last year’s Tour squad returns for AG2R with similar goals in its sights. Rinaldo Nocentini started the season on a tear, winning the Tour Méditerranéen and the first stage of the Tour du Haut Var before breaking his elbow in a crash in March. He’ll be on the hunt for an early breakaway, looking for a stage win, the polka dot jersey, and perhaps some more time in yellow.

The AG2R man you’ll hear the most about is Nicolas Roche. The 25-year-old Irishman, came close to winning two stages last year—he’s looking to put himself on the top step of a stage podium at least once. He’s also being touted as having an outside chance for a top-15 or top-20 overall placing in Paris. While I don’t quite see it, anything’s possible after you pass the first 15 or so overall contenders—all it takes is one big time gap in a breakaway and suddenly you’ve jumped 50 places (ask Oscar Pereiro or Davide Arroyo about that).

Man of the Hour: Roche leads a team of vagabonds and opportunists—there’s nothing standing between him and a stage win.

On the Hot Seat: Do you feel like John Gadret’s been knocking on the door of a major result for the past 3 or 4 years? He finished 13th in this year’s Giro d’Italia—does he have the legs for a top-15 in France or a stage win? Here’s a tip, John: follow Pierrick Fedrigo.

Up-and-Comer: AG2R’s chosen a roster of veterans with few true “up-and-comers” among them. Roche is an easy pick, but he’s received so much press of late that it’s hard to give him the label.

Just Happy to Be There: Considering he was thought by few to have a shot at returning in time for the Tour, Rinaldo Nocentini deserves credit for healing and riding himself into enough shape to come back in time for the event.

Feeling Left Out: I’m a bit surprised to see AG2R’s Tour veterans Cyril Dessel and Vladimir Efimkin were left off of this year’s squad—perhaps they feel the same?

Caisse d’Epargne
Eusebio Unzue has a bit of a problem. His title sponsor has announced it no longer intends to sponsor his Pro Tour squad and his best and most high-profile rider has just been suspended for 2 years for his “alleged” involvement in Operation Puerto. Clearly, this will be an important Tour de France for the Spanish team—if it wishes to avoid making it their last.

But there’s hope on the horizon, and his name is Luis Leon Sanchez. Sanchez has long been overshadowed by Valverde—and with good reason, as Valverde’s accolades and antics deserve the attention they have received. But with several major wins over the past few years, including some impressive results in weeklong stage races, it’s time to see what Sanchez can do in a grand tour when fully supported by his team.

Some might say that we’ve already seen what Sanchez can do—last year, for example, when Valverde was barred from racing in Italy and therefore had to skip the Tour. While I might tend to agree, I think Sanchez was still racing for stage wins more than GC success. He has two stages to his name now (from 2008 and 2009); it’s the perfect time to test his legs as an overall contender.

Sanchez can climb, time trial, and has the benefit of an experienced and dedicated team at his disposal. There’s no better time like the present to see if he can have his countrymen asking “Alejandro who?” by the end of July. The future of his team just might depend upon it.

Man of the Hour: Sanchez is entering his grand tour prime with a resume many riders would like have by the time they retired. Can he take his talent to the next level?

On the Hot Seat: Unzue’s been relatively quiet regarding his search for a new sponsor. That could be a good sign—or a very, very bad one.

Up-and-Comer: Rui Costa won Stage 8 of this year’s Tour de Suisse and then followed it up with the Portugese time trial championship. One of the youngest riders on Caisse d’Epargne, he gets his second shot after abandoning last year’s Tour before Stage 12. One interesting note: Costa was one of the lucky Caisse d’Epargne riders chosen to ride the cobbled classics this spring—he finished none of them.

Just Happy to Be There: At age 39, Christophe Moreau is in the twilight of his career and riding what is likely to be his final Tour de France. Can he go out with a bang?

Feeling Left Out: Alejandro Valverde’s missed the last two Tours de France. He still hopes to clear his name, but he might be better served by taking his lumps and resuming his career later.

Have you ever gone on a blind date and quickly that realize you have nothing to talk about with the person sitting across from you?

Ring, Ring!

That’s how I’m feeling right now as I struggle to say something insightful about a squad most agree is in the Tour based less on merit and more on its Pro Tour contract.

Ring, Ring!

Footon’s won only a handful of races this year—unfortunately two of them were in Argentina and Australia (in January!), three were from the Circuit de Lorraine, and the last came in the 1.2 GP Judendorf-Strassengel.

Ring, Ring!

For Eros Capecchi, Manuel Cardoso, Markus Eibegger, Fabio Felline, and Iban Mayoz, the task will be simply making Footon’s presence felt—in breakaways, jersey competitions, and possibly, with a stage win.

Ring, Ring! I’m sorry I really have to take this.

Hello? ... What’s up? ...  Really? Is he okay? ... Well, I’m with someone—can’t you take him? ... No? ... Okay, I’ll be right home. ... Yup, bye.

I hate to do this to you, but that was my roommate. Apparently my dog ate something on his walk tonight that’s made him pretty sick and I need to take him to the vet. My roommate’s late for work, otherwise he’d take him. This has been great, though. I’m pretty busy for the next 3 weeks or so, but let’s talk at the end of the month, okay?

Man of the Hour: Take your pick.

On the Hot Seat: Mauro Gianetti last brought a team to the Tour in 2008 with Saunier Duval. Left home last year, Gianetti—a man with a not-so-clean reputation—needs a scandal-free race in assure he’s invited again.

Up-and-Comer: Many of these men are riding their first Tours—while few merit consideration as true up-and-comer’s, let’s give Eros Capecchi credit for his second-place in the Dauphiné’s Stage 5 and 13th-place finish in his nation’s national championship. Could the all-rounder take a stage in France?

Just Happy to Be There: Fuji paid handsomely to sponsor Gianetti’s squad only to be left-out of last year’s race. This year they get a chance to—finally—reach the larger audience they were hoping for when they made the deal.

Feeling Left Out: Vacansoleil, Skil-Shimano, and Saur-Sojasun, the three teams who deserved to be in the race more than Footon-Servetto.

Don’t be fooled—despite its publicized GC aspirations, Garmin’s 2010 Tour roster is built around Tyler Farrar. Robert Hunter and Martijn Maaskant are in; Tom Danielson and Daniel Martin are out—that looks to me like the makings of a team for sprints, not mountains. With Mark Cavendish riding a notch or two below where he was last year, the time is right for Farrar to take the next step in his ascension as a field sprinter. Like Columbia-HTC last year, Garmin has—on paper at least—a squad that can control most flatter stages well into their latter phases, delivering it’s American star to the line in time to take what could be multiple stage wins.

Farrar’s been riding well enough as of late to even garner attention as an early contender for the yellow jersey. He’ll likely put himself in contention with a solid ride in the Prologue, possibly taking yellow as early as Stage 1. He should lose time in Stage 2, but Stage 3 might be another day suited to his talents—he’s a classics rider in the making who performed well in several cobbled races this spring.

All in all, look for Farrar to have earned Garmin its first two (yes, I said two) Tour stage wins by the end of the first week—thanks largely in part to the efforts of his teammates.

As for the GC, Bradley is Wiggins has left for Team Sky, leaving Christian Vande Velde to fend for himself in the mountains. Vande Velde claims to be in fine shape despite a broken collarbone in the Giro and a quiet Tour de Suisse. He’s not expected by many to have a serious shot at a high placing in Paris, something that might suit him as the race progresses and he can quietly follow wheels. A third-consecutive top-10 would be a fine result for the veteran American—a late-race stage win would be even better.

And the rest of the squad? David Zabriskie impressed in the final time trial in Switzerland—does he have another Prologue-winning ride in his legs? Johan Vansummeren is without a doubt my favorite domestique in the peloton—expect to see him pulling on the pavé and in the mountains—a stage win for the Belgian would be a welcome sight. And then there’s David Millar. It’s been a year of redemptive rides with Alexandre Vinokourov and Ivan Basso taking big wins—can Millar add a “clean” stage win to his resumé?

Man of the Hour: Tyler Farrar has just about an entire team built for him. Last year he learned how to contest field sprints in the Tour; now it’s time for him to win some.

On the Hot Seat: Christian Vande Velde gets a lot of credit from Jonathan Vaughters before each Tour, but much less following it. Following Vaughters’ unsuccessful bids to retain Bradley Wiggins and sign Alberto Contador, it’s safe to wonder just how much faith JV really has in Vande Velde’s Tour chances. Wiggins’ late departure all but assured Vande Velde one more year of Tour captaincy, but unless he pulls the result of a lifetime, look for this chance to be his last.

Up-and-Comer: This squad is built for success—now. There’s no more room for up-and-comers.

Just Glad to Be There: Martijn Maaskant’s top rides in the 2008 editions of Flanders and Roubaix are looking more and like flukes. Will Maaskant do enough to remain with the team for another year?

Feeling Left-Out: Daniel Martin was likely told last year that this year would be his Tour debut. How much longer will Martin be content to wait for his first crack at the Tour?

La Francaise des Jeux
FDJ’s Tour aspirations read much like other French teams with one exception: they actually have a candidate for a high overall placing in Paris thanks to Christophe Le Mevel. Last year’s 10th-place finisher, Le Mevel impressed many with a gutsy ride through the final week to hold onto his placing. Brimming with confidence, he returns this year hoping to prove he’s no one hit wonder.

As for the rest of the team, the usual stage win suspects abound, led by Sandy “Stop Talking About the Damn Dog” Casar and Remi “I Promise I’ll Win Something Someday” DiGregorio. In fact, from top to bottom, FDJ has a roster so jammed with opportunists that it looks as if Le Mevel will be left to his own devices in repeating last year’s top-10 ride. Either his team doesn’t think he has it in him, or they consider a stage win a more important goal.

Man of the Hour: Le Mevel’s been touted as France’s best (and only?) hope for a high placing in Paris—an honor he seems eager to accept. Le Mevel rode well in the Dauphiné, finishing 14th overall and riding with the leaders on the tough final two stages before finishing second in the French road championships. While 10th might be just about the best he can do in the Tour, adding a stage win would certainly warm the hearts of his countrymen—and sponsors.

On the Hot Seat: Okay, Monsieur DiGregorio, it’s time to show your mettle—or risk spending the rest of your career riding for Big Mat. You finished 19th in the Dauphiné and 19th on the Alpe d’Huez—but that’s far from what has been expected of you. A Tour stage, and all will be forgotten—at least until next year.

Up-and-Comer: The youngest rider on FDJ’s Tour roster, Wesley Sulzberger tackles his first Tour de France this July. Given the success English-speaking riders have enjoyed this season, it’s easy to see Sulzberger breaking through for his first big win.

Just Happy to Be There: Mathieu Ladagnous seems to have peaked a bit too early this season—as in, Etoile des Besseges-early. Either Marc Madiot knows something we don’t, or Ladagnous better make the best of his chances this July.

Feeling Left Out: His best days might have passed him by, but it’s a shame we won’t see 1997 Roubaix-winner Frédéric Guesdon on the pavé in Stage 3. Guesdon looked to be in fine shape during this spring’s early classics, but hasn’t done much since aside from a fifth-place in Stage 3 of the Route du Sud. Does a place behind the wheel of a team car beckon?

And that's it for Part 2!  Come back tomorrow for Part 3.

Share your comments and insights below.

Monday, June 28, 2010

2010 Tour de France Preview - Part 1

Pavé’s 2010 Tour de France coverage begins this week with our second annual Tour de France Team-by-Team Preview. As rosters are finalized, we’ll take a look at each team’s prospects for the Grand Boucle, highlighting several key riders as we go. To be fair, we’ll work alphabetically, skipping the teams with rosters still undefined until the final day. Come back daily between Monday and Thursday to get the complete scoop on what we expect to see over the coming weeks. On Friday, we’ll cover what we consider to be the most intriguing questions we hope to have answered by the time the Tour hits Paris a little more than 3 weeks later.

And with a little luck, we’ll be unveiling our new site design too!

So let’s get started!

Astana looks to win its second-consecutive Tour de France title this July with Spaniard Alberto Contador leading what is essentially a new-look team. Armstrong, Leipheimer, Kloden, Bruyneel, and Trek have all gone to Radio Shack; they’ve been replaced with a new supporting cast of riders (including Alexandre Vinokourov), new management, and a new bike sponsor—Specialized, Trek’s main rival.

Contador’s main support in this year’s Tour will come from a talented, but relatively untested group including Dauphiné stage-winner Daniel Navarro, Paolo Tiralongo, Benjamin Noval, and David De La Fuente. Maxim Iglinksy and Andrei Grivko impressed this spring in several of the classics; they’ll be on the attack during the dangerous first week, easing the pressure on the rest of the team to control the race.

Astana’s real wild card is Vinokourov. Will he be a trusted and loyal ally to Contador, or will he ride for himself if the situation presents itself? He and Contador have raced well together the few times they’ve shared a start list this season—few can forget Contador’s sacrifice for Vino in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, for example. The best case July scenario sees Vinokourov playing the role of dangerous lieutenant to Contador, thus easing some of the pressure on his captain and forcing team’s to think twice before keying-in on the Spaniard exclusively. If all goes well, look for Contador help Vino grab a stage win (and the polka dot jersey?) in the final week—if he has enough of a cushion to spare it.

After Vino, the biggest obstacle on Contador’s road to a third Tour de France title has to be Stage 3 from Wanze to Arenberg Porte de Hainaut. Including several sections of pavé—the last of which is quite rough and less than 10 kilometers from the finish line—this will be a day that several of Contador’s main rivals (especially Lance Armstrong) attempt to gain some time. Astana missed a good chance to get a feel for what they’re facing when they inexplicably skipped this spring’s Paris-Roubaix—although Contador did spend some time training with former Roubaix-winner Peter Van Petegem. Stage 3’s not a day when the Tour will be won, but it is certainly one in which at least one of the overall favorites will lose precious time. Contador and his team will need to ride attentively and confidently in order to avoid falling into an early hole—no pun intended.

Man of the Hour: Without a doubt, Alberto Contador, is Astana’s Man of the Hour. Despite wins and high placings in several other races this season, everything hinges upon Contador’s ability to take home his third Tour de France title—thus leaving him two shy of tying Miguel Indurain for the most wins by a Spaniard.

On the Hot Seat: Specialized paid a lot of money to get one of their bikes under Contador (first) and the rest of his team (second). With their flagship Tarmac SL3 under 2 of the race’s top three overall contenders and the new 2011 Roubaix SL3 under the riders when they tackle the cobbles on Stage 3, there’s a high ceiling on Specialized’s exposure this July. Anything less than a win will be a major disappointment for the American manufacturer.

Up-and-Comer: Maxim Iglinsky impressed many with several top rides this spring including a win in the tough Montepaschi Strade Bianche semi-classic. An aggressive rider who’s unafraid to ride himself into the ground for a win, look for Iglinsky to contend on several of the Tour’s transitional stages—if he’s not working for the sake of his team’s GC interests.

Just Happy to Be There: Alexandre Vinokourov might have been expecting it anyway, but he should be grateful to have a chance to return to the Tour de France—a race he disgraced in 2007. Vino’s riding in support of Contador—he says—but one can expect him to contend for at least a stage win or two and possibly the polka dot jersey.

Feeling Left Out: Oscar Pereiro would have given Astana two Tour-winners on their roster in this year’s race. Unfortunately, the form’s just not there for a man who should probably just be happy he’s on a bike and racing again following his grisly fall in the 2008 Tour.

BBox Bouyges Telecom
Like past years, BBox Bouyges Telecom comes to this year’s Tour de France hunting for stage wins and enough publicity to guarantee the squad’s existence for another year or two. In last year’s Tour, the team won two stages with Thomas Voeckler and Pierrick Fedrigo taking wins on Stages 5 and 9—a successful haul for any French squad. That said, this year’s team has already surpassed its win total from 2009, taking impressive wins in the Critérium International, 3-Days of DePanne, the Giro d’Italia, the Critérium du Dauphine, and both the French road and time trial national championships.

Voeckler—the French national champion on the road—and Fedrigo lead the charge, hoping to add to their impressive Tour résumés. Voeckler seems to shine more from breakaways during the Tour’s flatter stages, while Fedrigo wins more transitional mountain stages on days after the favorites have exerted themselves.

As for the rest, look to see the bulk of the squad’s roster in a breakaway at some point during the 3-week Grand Tour. For example, Nicholas Vogondy won the mountain stage to Rasoul in this year’s Dauphiné—the former French road champion (and current time trial champion), is always a threat to take a stage victory. Otherwise, it’s tough to see anyone making a mark for himself in the overall classification—unless there’s a serious breakaway involved. This is a team built for stage success—and one of the best at garnering it.

Man of the Hour: Thomas Voeckler made a name for himself in the 2004 Tour de France when he escaped with a small group and took the yellow jersey. Battling valiantly before handing the lead back to Armstrong in the Alps, Voeckler came to epitomize the kind of national cycling heroes most fancied by French fans. Every year Voeckler manages to take at least one win to maintain his relevance in the hearts and minds of his countrymen—this year he did it again by taking his second French national championship. He hopes to continue the winning trend in July.

On the Hot Seat: Jean-René Bernaudeau is apparently close to finding a new sponsor for 2011 and beyond, but until the ink is dry, there’s always a chance for things to fall through. With another high-profile performance on the sport’s biggest stage, Jean-René and his team might just seal the deal.

Up-and-Comer: Pierre Rolland finished 8th and took the polka dot jersey as best climber in this year’s Dauphiné. Considered by some to be the next great French Tour rider, this might be Rolland’s last chance to show everyone he hasn’t been overestimated.

Just Happy to Be There: Yukio Arashiro is riding his second Tour de France, his second grand tour of the season after finishing May’s Giro d’Italia. Currently the only Japanese rider in the event, Arashiro is looking to improve upon the third-place finish he scored after a day spent in the break during the Giro’s fifth stage.

Feeling Left Out: Steve Chainel was one of the surprises of this year’s spring classics, taking several top placings to go with his win in Stage 1 at DePanne. While he might appreciate the time off to begin his build for the upcoming cyclocross season, there’s no doubt Chainel would have welcomed a chance to ride his national grand tour.

BMC Racing Team
It looks like BMC’s off-season upgrades had the desired the effects, as the squad was included on the list of invitees to this year’s Tour de France. Now the challenge begins as they attempt to find success in the squad’s first stab at the biggest race in the world.

Cadel Evans leads the team in what is likely to be the first grand tour where he’s not considered among the main favorites for the overall title. All in all, a stage victory in the rainbow jersey and a low top-10 finish in Paris would be a fine result for the Australian, setting him up nicely for the rest of the season.

As other teams before them have found, simply stocking a roster with talent is not all that it takes to find success in the Tour, but with several experienced and proven Tour winners on board, it could be a terrific July for a team eager to prove it deserves mention among the world’s best. George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Karsten Kroon, and Markus Burghardt have all won stages in the past—they’re all hoping to win a stage or two while preparing themselves for important one-day races later in the year.

Man of the Hour: Markus Burghardt has been BMC’s most aggressive rider of late, taking two impressive stage wins in the Tour de Suisse. Look for the former Ghent-Wevelgem winner to be a main contender in next week’s cobbled Stage 3.

On the Hot Seat: Remember when Alessandro Ballan was considered one of the world’s best one-day riders? Well, after an anonymous spring and rumblings that he was one of the riders involved with the Lampre drug scandal, there’s no time like the present for Ballan to win something…anything. After a third-place finish in Saturday’s difficult Italian championship, it appears as if Ballan’s hitting his stride—let’s see what he can do.

Up-and-Comer: Brent Bookwalter seemingly came out of nowhere to place second in Stage 1 of the Giro d’Italia. It will be interesting to see if the talented young American can take another impressive result in the Prologue of his first Tour de France. Last year: Utah; this year: France—an impressive change of scenery, no?

Just Glad to Be There: Rumor has it that Mike Sayers didn’t like me too much when I was with Mercury in 2001—I think he saw me as a young, uninitiated American who did little to deserve his place managing one of the top teams in the sport. Regardless, I’m glad to see Mike has worked his way to the Tour he was promised but never received during his years with Mercury. Always considered one of the hardest working guys in the peloton; it’s nice to see Mike’s years of dedication and perseverance rewarded—even if he never liked me. Congrats, Mike!

Feeling Left Out: While it’s hard to gauge the behind-the-scenes politics of such decisions, I bet there’s a part of Jeff Louder that regrets being left-off the roster for this year’s Tour. Louder’s been racing in Europe for years as both an amateur and a pro, and is one of the riders to have been with BMC since its earliest days. For certain he would have appreciated a chance to be with the team in Rotterdam.

Cervelo Test TeamThe Cervelo Test Team once again begins a major phase of its season without the services of one of its most talented riders, Heinrich Haussler. After missing much of the spring with a knee injury, Haussler looked to be back to his old self with a win in Stage 2 of the Tour de Suisse. Then came his now-infamous tangle with Mark Cavendish at the end of Stage 4, and Haussler’s back on the disabled list.

A stage winner last year, Haussler will certainly be missed by a team appearing to need all the help—and wins—it can get this season. Thor Hushovd is healthy once more; he’ll be hoping to replace his new jersey as Norwegian national champion with a green jersey sometime within the Tour’s first week. With two trips to the professional podium in Paris-Roubaix (he won the race as an amateur as well), Hushovd’s another rider to watch on the pavé during Stage 3.

As for Carlos Sastre, he limps to this year’s Tour following a Giro d’Italia in which he failed to live up to pre-race expectations. With a squad built more around Hushovd’s green jersey campaign than Sastre’s bid for yellow, it appears the team’s confidence in the Spaniard’s hopes to repeat his 2008 victory is on the decline.

If I were Sastre, I would forget the overall, and shoot for a stage win or two in the mountains. On his day he’s perhaps the best pure climber in the peloton. Losing minutes early might lengthen his leash later on, perhaps freeing him for a win in front of his home fans in the Pyrenees.

Man of the Hour: Thor Hushovd put on quite a show in winning the green jersey last year, at one point attacking in the mountains to extend his lead. With Cavendish ailing and nearly a full team of supporters backing him, the stage is set for Thor to take his third maillot vert.

On the Hot Seat: I hate to pick on him, but Carlos Sastre’s 35-years-old and beginning the downside of his career. If he wants to remain a commodity he’ll need to reinvent himself soon—similar to what Richard Virenque did when he began to make his exit. Mountain stage wins and the polka dot jersey are now worthy goals for a man whose best days are behind him.

Up-and-Comer: Ignatas Konovalovas won the final time trial in last year’s Giro d’Italia; now the 24-year-old gets his first start in the Tour. While the jury might still be out on the young Lithuanian, he’s by far the youngest rider on a team chock full of veterans. Look for him near the top of the result sheet in Saturday’s Prologue.

Just Happy to Be There: Jeremy Hunt’s inclusion was sure sign that Cervelo’s all about Thor’s green jersey this July. Hunt’s been a professional since 1996, but this is first Tour de France. Good luck, Jez!

Feeling Left-Out: He rode this May’s Giro and likely had little expectation of riding the Tour, but here’s hoping Ted King gets a shot at the French grand tour one day. One of the sport’s most open and accessible professionals, King’s commentary would have been a worthy addition to the already impressive amount of first-person perspectives into the race.

Like many French teams, Cofidis comes to the Tour eager to animate the race and perhaps win a stage or two. If all goes according to plan, Cofidis will take its first Tour stage since 2008.

Samuel Dumoulin took that last win for Cofidis in Stage 3 of the 2008 event, and if this season is any indication, he appears destined to at least repeat the feat. With six wins to his name, he’s clearly Cofidis’ best chance for a win from a breakaway or small group. But the list doesn’t end there, as Stéphane Augé, Julien El Fares, Christophe Kern, and Rémi Pauriol are all men unafraid to test their legs off the front.

Other than stage wins, Cofidis’ best chance for success—now and in years to come—might sit with the young Estonian, Rein Taaramae. Taarame’s been rising slowly through the ranks for the past few seasons, learning how to ride in smaller stage races before tackling his first grand tour in last year’s Vuelta. He’s had a bit of an up and down season, dropping-out of the Dauphiné before finishing 9th in the Route du Sud. That said, a top-15 or top-20 finish is certainly within reach, giving Cofidis a GC rider for the future.

Man of the Hour: Samuel Dumoulin’s been winning just about everything he enters this season—there’s no reason to think he’ll stop now.

On the Hot Seat: Stéphane Augé hasn’t taken a win since 2008—and he’s 35. ‘Nuff said.

Up-and-Comer: Rein Taaramae’s been on several “up-and-comer” lists for about a year or so. It’s time to see if he deserves the hype.

Just Happy to Be There: Remi Pauriol took two wins early last season before falling into obscurity. Either Cofidis thinks he still has something to show or they’re desperate for bodies—either way, Pauriol’s lucky to have earned the call.

Feeling Left-Out: Maybe I should call this one “Just Happy to Not Be There” as David Moncoutie’s chosen to skip his home grand tour in favor of the Vuelta, a race in which he’s fared much better as of late. Give Moncoutie credit for taking himself out of a race most Frenchman would give anything to contest.

With its usual mix of Basques and Spaniards, Euskaltel comes to this year’s Tour de France hoping reigning Olympic Champion Samuel Sanchez can contend for a spot on the race’s final podium. While not known much for it, Sanchez has ridden the Tour in the past, finishing 7th in 2008. And with five top-10 grand tour finishes on his resume, he deserves our attention. A talented climber, Sanchez has also proven to be not too shabby in a time trial, winning the final ITT in the 2007 Vuelta.

As is typical for Euskaltel, the team’s chances for a high overall placing depend largely on its ability to make it through the dangerous first week unscathed. Not known for riding at the front on flat, windy stages—the men in orange are often the first to be seen picking themselves up from the tarmac during massive Week 1 pile-ups.

That said, Sanchez could be targeting Stage 2 for an early shot at glory. The 201-km stage from Brussels to Spa tackles several of the climbs Sanchez knows from the Ardennes classics, a series of races to which he’s well suited. With the dangerous Stage 3 to follow, Stage 2 might be a good day for Sanchez to try and build himself a bit of a buffer for the cobbles to come.

Man of the Hour: Sanchez—there’s really no one else.

On the Hot Seat: With the several key stages in the Pyrenees including two days of the Tourmalet, the entire team will feel pressure from their sponsors and fans to take at least one stage in this year’s race. Euskaltel’s been supporting the squad since 1994—with 9 Tours and only 3 stages to show for it, now’s a better time than ever to honor their sponsor’s commitment with a victory.

Up-and-Comer: It’s tough to identify an up-and-comer as Euskaltel went for experience over youth with this year’s roster. That said, there’s a gorgeous new Orbea Orca ready to make its debut; let’s see how it fares!

Just Happy to Be There: Following his polka dot jersey in the Critérium du Dauphiné, Egoi Martinez has to be feeling good about his chances in the KOM competition in this year’s Tour. Last year’s second place finisher in the competition, Martinez would love to ride into Spain as the race’s best climber.

Feeling Left Out: He has no reason to be disappointed, but I’m sure Romain Sicard would have loved to race his country’s national tour this season. An impressive Dauphiné made the possibility all the more tempting, but in the end, cooler heads prevailed—Sicard will have to wait for the Tour of Spain to tackle his first grand tour.

And that’s it for Part 1 of Pavé’s Team-By-Team Tour de France Preview—come back Tuesday for Part 2.

And as always, share your comments below.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday Musette - Swiss Wrap-up, Crashes, Protests, and (Un)Invitations

School’s finally out for the summer, so expect to see Pavé back to a more frequent/regular post schedule. There’s also a new site design in the works, so keep checking back for changes, updates, and possibly a new address (don’t worry, I won’t surprise you with that). As always, your constructive feedback are always appreciated—I want to make the site as user-friendly and accessible as possible.

Without further ado, here’s this week’s Monday Musette.

1. Have we discounted Lance Armstrong’s chances in this year’s Tour a bit too much? Following a solid 2nd-place finish in last week’s Tour de Suisse, it’s beginning to look like perhaps we have. Lance rode with the main group of favorites on the tough mountain stage to La Punt, hung-in on a surprisingly difficult transitional stage Saturday, and then cemented his place on the podium with a respectable time trial. While I still have a hunch that Armstrong’s a bit closer to his ceiling than many of the other favorites, his performance last week indicates that he’s at least capable of remaining relevant in July—but just how much so remains to be seen.

2. Lost in the Armstrong hype were the top-10 performances of Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer. These two—plus Dauphine-winner Janez Brajkovic and Pais Vasco-winner Chris Horner—give Radio Shack the deepest team in this year’s Tour. While inter-squad tactics might hurt the team’s best chances for a yellow jersey in Paris, there’s a strong possibility the team prize will be theirs.

In other Tour de Suisse news…

3. While Tony Martin missed the overall win I had predicted he would earn, he still performed solidly all race, beating Fabian Cancellara and David Zabriskie to take the final stage’s individual time trial. If Martin continues to develop as a climber, thus limiting his losses in big mountain stages like Thursday’s, he’s certainly a rider HTC can build around for grand tour success—and Germany’s first legitimate grand tour contender since Jan Ullrich. Look for him to take the first white jersey of this year’s Tour in Rotterdam—and if beats the men he defeated yesterday—the first yellow one too.

4. Andy and Frank Schleck seem right on track for the type of Tour de France we expect from them. With a stage win and the overall title, older brother Frank should be perfectly content in dedicating all of his energy toward helping Andy. As for Andy, his form’s not quite there yet, but with three weeks until the Tour’s first mountain stages—and four before the race hits the Pyrennees—he should be firing on all cylinders when he needs to be. I also have a hunch that Bjarne Riis will be announcing a brand new sponsor before the starts the Saturday after next—Schleck’s win might have been enough to seal whatever prospective deal he’s had in the works.

5. Roman Kreuziger’s another rider who appears to be peaking at just the right time for a good Tour result. While I expected a bit more from him during Thursday’s stage to La Punt, he think he’ll be fine in July. Unfortunately, he’s still not guaranteed the leadership of his Liquigas team—especially with Ivan Basso training well and Vincenzo Nibali winning races. All in all, there’s enough going-on for the men in green to make Liquigas’ choice of a team captain one of the Tour’s more intriguing sub-plots.

6. Stijn Devolder seems to have just enough fitness to have tricked himself—and at least several thousand Belgians—into thinking he can pull a top-10 result in this year’s Tour. Don’t drink the Kool Aid though—Devolder would fare much better hunting for stages wins. That said, look for him to impress this weekend in the Belgian national championship—a second title is well within reach.

7. At what point is Maxime Monfort going to get the win he deserves? He rode his butt off in Saturday’s breakaway, ultimately falling to Caisse d’Epargne’s one-two punch of Da Costa and Rojas. He followed that up with an 8th-place finish in yesterday’s time trial. Let’s hope Monfort gets a chance or two to ride for himself in the Tour—I’d love to see him take a stage.

8. Was Christian Vandevelde even racing last week? If Garmin’s smart, they’ll be putting the majority of their eggs in Tyler Farrar’s basket next month—he’s a much safer bet for success. I’d take a stage win or two over another mid-top-10 finish anyway.

9. We can’t finish the conversation about this year’s Tour de Suisse without discussing the now infamous crash at the end of Stage 4. While I love bashing him just as much as the rest of you do, it’s hard for me to assign 100% of the blame to Cavendish for causing Tuesday’s crash. Haussler and he were both sprinting at a bit of an angle—Cavendish just deviated from his the most.

On the other hand, if he really did spit on Haussler as they were picking themselves up off the pavement—as has been reported—then Cavendish deserves every bit of the flack he received from the rest of the peloton. As long as Cavendish makes himself the center of attention, he should expect to receive all the attention—positive and negative—that he seems to crave.

10. As for the rider protest to Start 5, it’s a shame the riders have more courage to police their ranks than the UCI—the sport’s governing body—does. Maybe a little peer pressure will help Boy Racer become Man Racer—credit the riders for trying.

11. But while riders policing riders is one thing, races policing teams is another. At first I felt a bit of schadenfreude upon hearing the news of Team Radio Shack’s exclusion from this year’s Vuelta, but I’m less supportive of the organization’s decision once I became able to take an objective look at the situation. While the Vuelta’s organizers might be said to have had the best of intentions in leaving Bruyneel and his men at home this autumn (who knows where the federal investigation will be by the time late-August arrives), they are acting hypocritically in singling them out this time. Have we already forgotten the name of last year’s “winner”?

Spain has long been considered one of the dirtiest countries in cycling—from a doping standpoint at least. Once France and Italy began cleaning house (as best they could), the Iberian Peninsula became a hotbed for the sport’s most cutting-edge “preparation” methods. Letting Radio Shack bear the brunt of recent allegations only emphasizes the disparate methods by which information is revealed and dealt with. It’s not the job of race organizers to punish teams for their alleged unsportsmanlike activities—it’s the job of the UCI and the various other “professional” organizations charged with ensuring the sport is as clean and as fair as is humanly possible.

All this begs an even more important question: when will the UCI start policing the ranks so the rest of its stakeholders (riders, organizers, fans, etc.) don’t have to? It’s an answer they’ll need to answer soon—especially if Landisgate becomes as big a scandal as some think it might be. If the sports own governing body could do a better job in handling brats, cheats, and hypocrites, individual interests wouldn’t have to take matters into their own hands.

That’s enough time on the soapbox for one week.

Share your comments below.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Musette – Dauphiné Wrap-up, Swiss, and More

1. The 2010 Critérium du Dauphiné concluded yesterday with Slovenain Janez Brajkovic taking Radio Shack’s first big win of the season—and perhaps more importantly, he did it by beating Astana’s Alberto Contador. Although Brajkovic’s been a professional for 5 seasons, he’s only 26-years old—his best years are clearly still ahead of him.  He won the race in textbook fashion: a top-5 prologue followed by a win in the ITT and a successful defense of the leader’s jersey in the mountains. Lance must be proud.

Here’s my question: does Armstrong have cause to worry that his younger teammate might steal his thunder come July? 

2. As for Contador, he’s right on schedule for a successful defense of his Tour title next month.  Some are trying to cast doubt on the Spaniard’s fitness, but I think he’s right where he needs to be in order to peak for the Tour’s second and third weeks.  Better still, his team seems to be rising to the occasion as well.  At times during several of the race’s tougher moments, Contador had two or three teammates with him compared to Brajkovic’s one or two.  With another two or three weeks of good hard training and some time to grow more accustomed to his new TT bike, Contador should be fine in July.

3. While it might be a bit early to say so, I’m starting to think Tejay Van Garderen is the USA’s next great stage race hope—and not in a Tom Danielson kind of way either.  Van Garderen’s proven himself as an amateur in Europe, and finished 2nd in another important French stage race last season, the Tour de l’Avenir.  Van Garderen seems unfazed when racing in a country where just about every GC leader’s jersey is yellow.  With a terrific organization backing him, look for Van Garderen to steadily progress through the ranks—he’ll get his first shot at a Grand Tour in this autumn’s Tour of Spain.

4. Belgian Jurgen Vandenbroeck took a solid 4th-place, making him Belgium’s first legitimate top-10 contender in the Tour de France since…

VDBk rode with a confidence that speaks volumes about his ability to lead his Omega Pharma-Lotto team; on Alpe d’Huez he even attacked—something we haven’t seen from a Belgian grand tour favorite since…

5. As for Rabobank’s Denis Menchov—his Alpe d’Huez performance notwithstanding—I think it’s safe to put him back on the list of favorites for July—unless there’s rain during the Prologue.

6. Other impressive rides were registered by youngsters Romain Sicard, Branislav Samoilau, and Thibault Pinot from Euskaltel, Quick Step, and FDJ, respectively.  None of the three is likely to be riding the Tour this summer, but their performances bode well for the future.

7. It’s too bad that Heinrich Haussler and Edvald Boasson Hagen had to wait until Sunday to win their first major races of the season—it’s good to have them back.

8. In other news, it’s looking like the organizers of the Tour de Suisse gave Fabian Cancellara quite a gift in creating this year’s parcours.  Today’s Stage 3 was effectively the only “summit” finish of the weeklong Tour—if you consider a 2-kilometer climb with an 11% grade climb to the finish.  The event’s Queen Stage is Thursday’s Stage 6, a 213-kilometer slugfest featuring one first category and two hors categorie ascents.  But don’t get your hopes up—the stage finishes after about 15 kilometers of descending following the HC climb of the Albulapass.  The stage will test Cancellara’s climbing legs, but with the strongest team in the race and a long-ish ITT on the final day, it might be hard for the competition to deny him another win in his home tour.

That said, my pick for the overall title—Tony Martin—just took the leader’s jersey today.  If he can gain more time between now and Sunday’s ITT, he’s the one rider capable of limiting his losses enough to unseat Cancellara from his throne. 

9. In terms of the Tour de France, several men bear watching in Switzerland this week.  For instance, Stage 1 gave us our latest chance to see if Lance Armstrong is ready to challenge the favorites at this year’s Tour.  If Saturday’s 7.6 kilometer ITT is any indicator, the answer is “no”.  Lance finished 44th—almost half a minute down.  Even Andy Schleck beat him.

And yes, there’s a difference between saying Contador’s defeat is nothing to get worked-up about while stating that Armstrong’s is cause for concern.  Contador is at about 90% of his top fitness, I reckon—the difference might have been enough for him to win the Dauphiné’s long ITT or perhaps drop the rest on Alpe d’Huez.  Had Armstrong finished a few seconds off the pace Saturday, we would consider him on-track for the Tour as well.  But he didn’t.  No matter how you slice it, losing 29 seconds over 7.6 kilometers is just not something we have come to expect from a Tour contender at this point in the season—especially one known for his time trialing.  In Lance’s defense, there was rain, and several other favorites recorded poor times including David Zabriskie, Luis Leon Sanchez, and Christian Vande Velde.

10. Last but not least, what do you make of today’s announcement of the teams invited to the Vuelta?  Is Radio Shack starting to feel the fallout from Landisgate?  And what does Vacansoleil have to do to earn an invitation to a grand tour?

11. In closing, I’ll leave you with this.  (Warning: it’s graphic.)  Thoughts?

Have a great day—and share your comments below.  What did you take away from the Dauphiné?  What do you think about this week’s Tour de Suisse?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Weekend Preview - The Dauphiné and the Tour of Switzerland

The Criterium du Dauphiné wraps-up this weekend with two “legendary” stages in the Alps. Saturday’s the most difficult of the two, taking the riders over 3 categorized climbs—including the hors categorie Col du Glandon—before finishing atop the infamous Alpe-d’Huez. The stage should finalize the top of the general classification. If it doesn’t, Sunday offers an interesting parcours as well, ending with 5 laps in Sallanches—site of the 1980 World Championships and arguably one of the toughest courses in World Championship history. If small gaps remain following Saturday’s slug-fest, look for aggressive action Sunday.
Radio Shack’s Janez Brajkovic sits comfortably atop the GC, with a 1:41 lead over his main rival, Alberto Contador. Denis Menchov and Jurgen Vandenbroeck are riding well at the moment; they lurk dangerously close at 2:55 and 3:06 respectively. While it appears unlikely these two will unseat the men from Radio Shack and Astana, their performances deserve noting in advance of the Tour de France. Other impressive rides have been put in by Tejay Van Garderen—he sits in second-place at 1:15—and Reine Taaramae—he’s in tenth-place at 3:28.

It’s looking like Brajkovic and his team have what it takes to hold Contador at bay—tomorrow’s finale should provide some exciting fireworks as the men within shouting distance take their shots. The day will be a good test for both teams—does Astana have what it takes to win when racing from behind?

Tomorrow also sees the start of the Tour of Switzerland—the other important Tour de France preparation event. If a start list is any indicator, the Tour de Suisse is overwhelmingly the preferred pre-Tour test. Several teams are bringing the bulk of their Tour rosters; only Contador, Menchov, Vandenbroeck, Evans, Basso, Nibali, and Wiggins won’t be taking part. A day longer than the Dauphiné, the TdS seems to have a slightly easier parcours with no major summit finishes and less time trialing than the Dauphiné. That said, this is the Tour of Switzerland we’re talking about—it’s certain to be intensely competitive.

Fabian Cancellara would love to defend his title from last year—doing it while wearing the jersey of Swiss national champion would be an added bonus. Saxo’s bringing the team he needs to do it, with both Schlecks and Jens Voigt lending firepower to the challenge. The TdS will also be our last chance to gauge Lance Armstrong’s fitness prior to the Tour de France. Is he really back on track—or does he still have work to do? We’ll know by next Sunday.

We’ll also get our first opportunity to see Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish, and Thor Hushovd battle head-to-head this season (at least I think so). Oscar Freire’s coming too—giving us a terrific preview of some of the main contenders for this July’s green jersey.

Personally, I’m eager to see how well Christian Vande Velde has recovered from his crash in the Giro, as well as the extent to which young guns Roman Kreuziger and Robert Gesink will be contenders in next month’s Grand Boucle.

And my pick for the winner? I think Tony Martin takes it with a powerful time trial on the last day. Cancellara will be close, but he’ll have one tough day in the hills, giving Martin the gap he needs to take the win.

What about you? Who are your picks for the weekend’s events? What do you hope the race will reveal in advance of this year’s Tour?

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Monday Musette - Weekend Racing, Doing the Double, and Transfers

Here’s this week’s Musette—finally on the proper day too!

1. The renamed Criterium du Dauphiné kicked-off yesterday with a 6.8-kilometer Prologue in Evian-les-Bains. Alberto Contador won the event over young American Tejay Van Garderen and Radio Shack’s Janez Brajkovic. While Contador’s win was impressive, he was quick to play it down, bluntly stating he has no intention of defending the jersey.

Contador’s victory was hardly a shock, but several Prologue performances were, including David Millar and Denis Menchov losing 15 and 25 seconds respectively. While Ivan Basso illustrated at this year’s Giro that coming to a grand tour a bit under form can benefit a rider in a tough final week, it’s hard to see Menchov having such luck similar given his shaky track record in le Grand Boucle.

That said, there’s still a lot of racing left. With no true field sprinters and an aggressive parcours, we should see an exciting race for the yellow jersey as more than a few men stand a chance to wrestle it from Contador’s shoulders before the long time trial Wednesday. Stay tuned.

2. The Tour of Luxembourg finished yesterday with Vacansoleil’s Matteo Carrara taking a close win over Frank Schleck. Radio Shack’s Lance Armstrong finished third and promptly declared himself back on track for the Tour. Really Lance? You’ve missed about 10 days of racing, been sick, crashed on your face, and are currently facing the most serious doping accusations of your career. How do 5 days in Luxembourg suddenly put you back on track?

3. Speaking of on-track, HTC-Columbia’s Matthew Goss won yesterday’s TD Bank Philadelphia International Cycling Championship (the TDBPICC, for short). Interestingly, lost in the Cavendish-Greipel feud has been the quiet evolution of Goss into one of the world’s best up-and-coming field sprinters. He took a stage in the Giro last month and now hard-fought win in Philly. Goss should make it easier for HTC to let Greipel go this coming off-season; he gives HTC a second sprinter to bring wins in races Cavendish doesn’t attend. If Greipel can’t keep his mouth shut—which he won’t if he’s left home from the Tour again—look for Goss to get a Vuelta start in his place. Remember, this is an HTC-Columbia team that was rumored to have sat riders at the end of last season after they had reportedly signed deals elsewhere. Just sayin’.

4. It looks like Heinrich Haussler has put his knee troubles behind him. A good friend and I have long maintained a theory that the best homeopathic remedy—for anything—is crashing a car.  Looks like Haussler might agree.

5. I’ll admit I was a bit shocked to read about Ivan Basso’s plans to attempt the Giro/Tour Double. Do you think he can do it? The last one to accomplish the feat was an Italian—Marco Pantani in 1998—but with Kreuziger, Nibali, and Basso in the mix, I can’t help but think Liquigas might have too many cooks and not enough pots to go around.

6. And last but not least, last week showed us all that it’s never too early to start talking about next year, with rumors on several possible transfers hitting the news.

Stijn Devolder seems to be a popular choice for many teams with Radio Shack and Vacansoleil looking to be the most likely destinations for the Belgian star. I’ve been predicting a Lance-Devolder reunion at the Shack since last summer—does Vacansoleil really have a deal made or is Devolder’s agent just trying to raise Radio Shack’s offer? And if Devolder does indeed land with the Dutch team, what does that mean for Bjorn Leukemans?

Another report has surfaced claiming Alberto Contador will be joining the Spanish Caisse d’Epargne team next season with a hefty 4-year contract. (Luis Leon Sanchez has to be going crazy by now.) That’s funny considering Caisse d’Epargne has yet to announce a new title sponsor. Will he bring Specialized with him—hard to see that happening as the team’s have been riding Pinnarello’s for as long as I can remember.

And finally, Fabian Cancellara’s rumored to be heading elsewhere too, given the lack of an official announcement from Bjarne Riis. I assume this is yet another ploy; it allows Bjarne Riis to pressure his potential suitors into closing the deal, lest they risk losing Cancellara to someone else.

Which transfer do you expect to make the most headlines over the coming weeks?

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Monday Musette - Giro, Belgium, Motors, Etc...

Yesterday was Memorial Day—the unofficial first day of summer—and I took advantage of a day-off from work to indulge--and ride. Here’s this week’s Musette.

1. It’s hard to believe this year’s Giro has come and gone—but it has. Credit Ivan Basso for quickly one-upping Alexander Vinokourov’s win in L-B-L with a grand tour win following his 2-year suspension—I’ll admit I was surprised. Before the race, things looked a bit dire for Liquigas. Franco Pellizotti was suspended, Nibali was a last-minute addition, and Basso was admittedly a bit behind in his preparation. In hindsight, everything worked-out perfectly for the men in green: Nibali was a perfect lieutenant, and Basso was able to ride himself into winning-form by the time the race entered its final, difficult week. Even better, he was able to do so confident in the knowledge that he was his team’s undisputed leader.

Now the big question for Liquigas is Vincenzo Nibali. Will he recover from his 3rd-place in time for another top performance in the Tour; or will his efforts have relegated him to uber-lieutenant to Roman Kreuziger. Time will tell, but I’m hopeful Nibali can rebound in time to give Italy a legitimate podium contender in July.

As for David Arroyo, he did everything he needed to in order to defend his spot on the final podium—too bad the achievement was overshadowed by the suspension of his teammate.

2. Cadel Evans once again fell short of winning a grand tour. While I thought he had the confidence and the fitness to win the race, it’s now obvious that Evans is more suited to one-day classics and short stage races. Still, I think he might have one last chance for grand tour glory at this year’s Vuelta.

Were I running BMC, I’d send him to the Dauphiné—aside from a certain Spaniard, there’s a relatively weak field competing and he Evans take an important victory. Then I would rest him during the Tour or send him only for training and stage wins. Following a post-Tour vacation, he can then build for the Vuelta—a race he can win without Valverde taking part—and Worlds in Australia.

It’s a pretty straightforward plan, but it hinges upon one minor concept: relinquishing the Tour dream. Cadel’s still at the peak of his career—how long can he continue to waste time chasing races he has virtually no shot of winning?

3. In other national tour news, bad weather and a puncture kept Philippe Gilbert from winning the Tour of Belgium. Imagine that! Bad weather and punctures in Belgium? 

4. Speaking of the ToB, Stijn Devolder took the overall win—maybe his time in the wind tunnel made a difference. I wonder if his win—plus a possible second Belgian Championship—will be enough for him to keep his spot with Quick Step. Then again, does he even want a spot with Quick Step?

5. In other racing news, the Tour of Luxembourg begins tomorrow, marking Lance Armstrong’s return to racing following his (un)timely crash in the Tour of California. Lance is quickly running out of time for peak Tour fitness. Luxembourg and Switzerland are his last two dates before July. My money’s on Frank Schleck, Andreas Kloden, and Giovanni Visconti to constitute the top-3.

6. Did you see that BMC’s Alessandro Ballan’s snuck onto the early start list for the Tour of Switzerland? Did I miss something?

7. I sometimes have a tough time explaining the difference between irony and coincidence to high school students. So I leave this one up to you: was the timing of Valverde’s suspension announcement ironic or coincidental? Discuss.

8. And by the way, I was only kidding when I hinted about it last week, but apparently some have taken the ball and started running with the motorized doping/boosting/cheating story—the conspiracy theory seems to be gaining momentum. Here’s a handy video that explains everything you need to know:

Would Davide Cassani have been so quick to throw stones had Pozzato won a cobbled monument? Regardless, it’s a spooky concept. I look forward to seeing what the UCI does to combat the threat—I bet it’s hilarious!

9. In related news, I’m pleased to announce that Pavé has become the official US importer for the Gruber Assist. (There’s something about a goat with wings that I think will look swell on our next jersey.)

Enjoy your week!

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