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.
#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.
#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.
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.
#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.
#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?