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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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