2010 Tour de France Preview – Part 4

Here’s the fourth and final installment of Pavé’s 2010 Tour de France Preview.  In case you missed a day, click the link to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.  Feel free to share your comments below.

Sky Professional Cycling Team
Halfway through its first season of existence, Team Sky has already achieved one of its goals just by earning an invitation to the Tour de France. That said, despite the presence of last year’s fourth-place finisher, Bradley Wiggins, Sky might find success in the race itself a bit harder to find. Why? Because you can’t buy chemistry.

Starting from scratch this past summer, Team Sky brought together riders from 15 different programs to form its roster for 2010. It looks easy on paper, but building a strong and successful team takes more than just plucking the best riders and putting them in a race together—it takes time for the riders and staff to develop the chemistry that comes after years of racing and working with one another.

This is why Sky enjoyed so much success early in the season, but less so as the year progressed. The team won several races at a time when everyone was busy reacquainting themselves with their teams. But as the established formations quickly settled into patterns and roles established in prior years, Team Sky was still feeling-itself-out so to speak, something that might have led to a decline in results. Of course, an injury to one of the team’s best riders didn’t help.

That said, I think tempered expectations might be best for the team in its first year at the Tour de France. A stage win or two is realistic, but a dominating performance—and more importantly, a top-5 ride for Wiggo—might be a bit out of reach.

Wiggins could struggle during a difficult final week in a Tour where time trialing takes a backseat to major climbing. He’ll perform well on the pavé, but when the road turns uphill, I wonder which of his teammates will be the main man to guide him through the mountains. All in all, expect at least stage win from Team Sky—especially if Edvald Boasson Hagen returns to his 2009 form.

Man of the Hour: Wiggins comes to the Tour hoping to improve upon his fourth-place ride last year. Wiggins was one of the true all-rounders of last year’s race, a rider able to climb and time trial with the favorites. That said, he won’t have the element of surprise working in his favor this year; he’ll be racing as a contender and will be given less of a leash as a result.

On the Hot Seat: Edvald Boasson Hagen must be feeling some pressure to deliver on the tremendous potential he displayed last season. After missing much of the spring with an injury, he seems back on track following a win in the final stage of the Dauphiné. A talented time trialist, Hagen could take a win as early as Saturday’s Prologue.

Up-and-Comer: Geraint Thomas scored four consecutive top-10 finishes in the first four stages of the Dauphiné before winning the British road championship. Now he gets to show-off his new jersey in the Tour.

Just Happy to Be There: Michael Barry’s been a professional since 1999 and is riding his first Tour de France this season. “Happy to There” is a bit of an understatement.

Feeling Left Out: Kurt Asle Arvesen has ridden 5 Tours and has one stage win on his résumé. Dario Cioni is a talented climber and an experienced grand tour rider as well. Matthew Hayman knows how to control a peloton when gaps need to be closed and breaks need catching. For a team with GC aspirations, I can’t help but feel that these men would have been better choices than some of the riders selected.

Team HTC-Columbia
At some point, possibly as early as this year’s Team Tour de France, HTC-Columbia might have to decide whether it’s a sprint team or a GC team. Last year, the question had an easy answer: ride for Cavendish and let the young GC riders get a taste for the Tour. This year however, with both Michael Rogers and Tony Martin looking as if they have serious chances for top-10 results, HTC might be forced to reconsider its strategy.

First, let’s talk about Cavendish. Equalling last year’s six stage wins looks to be a tall order this year. For one, he’s lacking a bit of the fitness and speed he possessed last season at this time. Dental issues, poor form, and crashes have derailed his chances to find a rhythm—his wins have been few and far between. Worse still, Cavendish now seems to have attracted the ire of the majority of the peloton following his antics at the end of Stage 4 of the Tour de Suisse. Irregular sprinting, spitting, and a generally bad attitude will ensure that Cavendish gets no favors this year. Add to this the continued progression of Tyler Farrar and the rejuvenation of Thor Hushovd, and Cavendish might have more competition than he was used to in 2009—especially with Garmin now able to provide a lead-out much more on par with HTC’s. Overall, while a shut-out might be a bit unrealistic, I think 2-3 stage wins for Cavendish is a better estimate.

On the GC side of things, Michael Rogers and Tony Martin lead HTC’s charge, supported by super-domestique Maxime Monfort and climber Konstantin Siutsou. Rogers has been enjoying quite a renaissance after several seasons that fell short of expectations. As for Martin, he held the white jersey for a while in last year’s race before suffering too much in the mountains. The same happened in this year’s Tour de Suisse, where Martin held the yellow jersey before losing it on the big stage to La Punt. Rogers is clearly the more polished of the two right now, but Martin might be more talented. I’m eager to see how both perform—and to what degree HTC saves them in the first week.

In the end, the best thing HTC-Columbia has going for it is depth. If things go pear-shaped for Cavendish and/or the GC men, there are plenty of riders capable of picking-up the slack and taking some stage wins. While we might not see a repeat of last year’s Tour de Cavendish, with this team, another impressive performance is certainly possible.

Man of the Hour: Michael Rogers has been enjoying a terrific season with wins in the Ruta del Sol and Tour of California as well as podium spots in the Criterium International and Tour of Romandie. The Tour de France will be the Australian’s first grand tour of 2010—will the results continue?

On the Hot Seat: I feel like I wrote this last year, but Mark Cavendish needs to let his legs do more of the talking. After his two-fingered salute at the Tour of Romandie, there was a distinct sense at the Tour of California that team management had reprimanded the Manxman, given the subdued nature of his interaction with the media. After his Swiss antics, it can be assumed another lecture was delivered. But was it heard?

Up-and-Comer: Tony Martin’s still only 25—he has at least another year or two before he’s at his peak. One of the world’s finest time trialists, Martin needs to show some progression in the high mountains before we can begin heralding him as a true grand tour contender. I expected more from him in the Tour de Suisse, a race he was leading until the serious climbing began. This year’s Tour will be a terrific test of just how far the German has come.

Just Happy to Be There: Adam Hansen squeaked into HTC’s Tour selection with a win in Holland’s Ster Elektrotoer. It’s been a banner year for Australians, look for Hansen in the early stages of Cavendish’s lead-outs as well as some breakaways later in the race.

Feeling Left Out: At this point, Andre Greipel might as well list himself on eBay. His Tour snub was a clear reflection of HTC’s intentions not to make a strong effort to sign the German this off-season. Yes, he underwhelmed at the Giro—winning only one stage—but he hasn’t exactly been overshadowed by Cavendish either. Look-out 2011!

Team Katusha
It’s not good when your team’s GC rider is Vladimir Karpets—but that’s okay with Katusha, a team built more for stage wins than overall success.

Sergei Ivanov, Alexandr Kolobnev, and Jose Joaquin Rodriguez are Katusha’s best riders—look for them to come to the fore as early as Monday—Ivanov and Kolobnev impressed in the Ardennes races and could certainly win Stage 2 on similar terrain. Even though Rodriguez finished seventh in last year’s Vuelta, he is a more likely candidate for stage wins in France.

On flatter days, the team will back Robbie McEwen in field sprints, hoping the aging Australian can find a bit of the speed that saw him win 12 Tour stages between 2002 and 2007. At 38, McEwen’s another sprinter whose fastest days might have passed—but anything’s possible. Robbie should be especially motivated to take Stage 1 in Brussels as it’s not too far from Brakel, his adopted home. Do you think McEwen and Petacchi can give us a little flashback to 2003?

As for Karpets, he finished 13th in the 2004 Tour de France, taking the white jersey as Best Young Rider for Caisse d’Epargne. Last year the Russian ended the Tour in 12th-place as Katusha’s best-placed rider. This year, look for Karpets to follow the favorites in the mountains, using his above-average time trialing skills to pick-up places here and there. At best, Karpets can hope to beat-out Rabobank’s Denis Menchov for the best GC placing by a Russian. But if he were a legitimate contender for the podium, we would have seen more from him by now.

Man of the Hour: Alexandr Kolobnev was perhaps the most aggressive rider of the Ardennes classics, failing to take the big win he so valiantly sought. A Tour stage would be nice consolation for the new Russian champion.

On the Hot Seat: McEwen might be a candidate, but he’s at a point when less seems to be expected from him. On the other hand, Vladimir Karpets is 29 and in the “prime” of his career. If he fails to produce a top-10 result in France this year, it might be time to re-evaluate his goals, perhaps shifting focus from grand tours to shorter stage races (in which he’s performed well in the past).

Up-and-Comer: Katusha’s bringing a relatively veteran squad to this year’s Tour de France—except for 23-year-old Alexandre Pliuschkin. The 3-time defending Moldavian national champion, this will be the youngster’s first chance to show-off his nation’s colors in the Tour. With an impressive résumé including medals in various junior and U23 world championship events and a win in the 2007 U23 Tour of Flanders, it will be interesting to see how he fares in his first Tour. Is Pliuschkin the next Roman Kreuziger?

Just Happy to Be There: Robbie McEwen missed last year’s Tour with an injury—he’s got to be thrilled just to be riding this year.

Feeling Left Out: He certainly wasn’t “left out”, but let’s keep Kim Kirchen in our thoughts anyway.

Team Milram
I have a good feeling about Milram in this year’s Tour de France—and by that I mean they might win a stage (it would be their first). Niki Terpstra and Christian Knees won their national championships (Holland and Germany), perhaps giving the team a bit of confidence heading into the Tour.

Looking down the rest of the team’s roster, it’s not an all together a bad picture. Gerald Ciolek’s the team’s sprinter—he seems to struggle against the world’s fastest guys, but gets closer and closer each year. Knees, Terpstra, and Fabian Wegmann can handle themselves in breakaways—Wegmann has just missed on more than one occasion. And last but not least, Linus Gerdemann carries the team’s GC hopes. He’s certainly not the best rider to carry the team’s entire burden, but he’s more than serviceable and could certainly slip into the yellow jersey should he find the right breakaway during the first week.

Man of the Hour: Linus Gerdemann has been Germany’s GC-hopeful since he took a stage and the yellow jersey for a few days in the 2007 Tour. But looking over his résumé, there’s nothing to indicate that he’s a man for the grand tours. He finished 16th in this year’s Giro; but for a rider who always seems to suffer from at least catastrophic day, stage wins might be a more realistic goal.

On the Hot Seat: General Manager Gerry Van Gerwen has not yet received a commitment from Milram for next season. With several Pro Tour squads searching for title sponsors, now is not a good time to be a mediocre squad with a market severely damaged by the sport’s various doping scandals. Van Gerwen’s men need immediate results if he is to have any chance of securing his program’s future.

Up-and-Comer: Here’s the thing about Gerald Ciolek that many people forget—he’s only 23! He seems to be a man of near-misses in the Tour, but with time to develop, a win should arrive at some point. I could also see Ciolek becoming more of an all-rounder at some point in his career, forgoing field sprints for small groups and breakaways.

Just Happy to Be There: Roger Kluge made a name for himself on the track before switching primarily to the road. He makes his Tour debut in his first season in the Pro Tour. If he can avoid being overwhelmed by the Tour circus, he’ll be a valuable asset to Ciolek on flatter days.

Feeling Left Out: Markus Fothen made a name for himself in the 2006 Tour by wearing the white jersey for about two weeks. After two seasons of decent results, the 28-year-old seems to have disappeared from the map. This year, he’s on the outside looking in at Milram’s Tour de France squad.

Team Radio Shack
They say that sometimes in cycling, the best rider doesn’t always win. In the case of Team Radio Shack and the 2010 Tour de France, it might ultimately be said that the best team doesn’t always either—especially when they don’t have the best rider.

From top to bottom, Radio Shack brings the most experienced and talented squad to Rotterdam led by none other than 7-time Tour-winner, Lance Armstrong. In what he claims will be his last Tour de France, Lance has assembled the finest riders, staff, management, and material the sport might have ever seen. But will it be enough to overcome the Texan’s age and the riders looking to exploit it? I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pessimistic, nor am I taking advantage of an opportunity to be a Lance-hater. I just don’t think he has enough left in the tank to overcome the likes of Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, and several of the other contenders in this year’s race.

But that shouldn’t stop us from admiring the team Armstrong has assembled—it’s quite impressive. Andreas Kloden has two second-places and sixth-place on his Tour record, while Levi Leipheimer has four top-10 finishes including third-place in 2007. Either man would be a team leader on another squad. Then there’s Janez Brajkovic, a real star in the making who won this year’s Dauphiné in a fashion eerily similar to how Lance and Contador won their major stage races. Chris Horner’s also in the Tour de France this year following his omission in 2009, while Yaroslav Popovych, a veteran from Lance’s late Tour victories and a rider who once finished third in the Giro, rides as well.

Dmitri Murayev, Sergio Paulinho, and Greg Rast round out the squad, three talented domestiques who will be expected to drive the peloton in the service of their more illustrious teammates.

But never forget, this is primarily Lance’s team—even if Johan Bruyneel directs it. While a win might be out of his reach, Lance is certainly capable of another podium spot by virtue of his cunning and determined style of racing. Look for his team to work a bit harder to get him a final stage win as well, especially if he appears to have fallen out of contention.

And as far as the rest of his time in France is concerned, pay attention to whom Lance spends his time chatting with in the peloton as they might just become the new leader of The Shack in 2011, the year Lance seeks to win his first Tour de France—as a team manager, that is.

Man of the Hour: Lance—even if his team doesn’t give press conferences.

On the Hot Seat: Lost in the hubbub over Big Tex has been the slow, subtle decline of Levi Leipheimer. Levi is 36, several years past his best years as a rider. Racing in Lance’s shadow has obscured the fact that the California native hasn’t won an individual race since last year’s ATOC. Levi needs a good showing in France to prove he still has what it takes to win.

Up-and-Comer: Janez Brajkovic rides his first Tour after years of waiting in the wings. The 26-year-old Slovenian could be the future of what is a relatively “old” team. If he can climb and time trial like he did in June’s Dauphiné, he could turn out to be The Shack’s best rider—now.

Happy to be There: Chris Horner was a disappointing absentee from last year’s Tour after team politics kept him off the roster. Like Lance, Chris is 38 and nearing the end of his career—although you wouldn’t know it given his recent results. Here’s hoping he gets at least one chance to ride for a stage win in this year’s race—there’s perhaps not a more deserving rider.

Feeling Left Out: Geert Steegmans might be a bit miffed about missing this year’s Tour de France since it passes through Belgium. Steegmans won a Belgian Tour stage in 2007 and perhaps was looking to do so again. But despite his ambitions, it’s hard to Steegmans having a spot on team already leaving Tour veterans Jose Luis Rubiera and Tomas Vaitkus at home as well.

Team Saxo Bank
Last but not least, we have Team Saxo Bank, a squad who’s been in the press quite a bit lately—and for the wrong reasons.

When Saxo Bank announced that is was ending its sponsorship at the end of 2010, everyone assumed that Bjarne Riis would pull yet another rabbit from his hat—and probably right before the Tour. For a while it appeared that this would indeed be the case, with current co-sponsor Sun Guard stepping-up to become the new title sponsor. However, as recently as today’s press conference, there were no announcements coming from Riis—only promises that his team would continue.

Uh, oh.

To make matters worse, (former) members of Riis’ staff have decided to take matters into their own hands to create a new Pro Tour team for Luxembourg—rumored to be sponsored by French supermarket chain, Auchan. Of course, you can’t talk about Saxo Bank and Luxembourg without at least mentioning Andy and Frank Schleck—they’re rumored to be involved too, but this can’t be confirmed as they are currently under contract.

Clearly, there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. (Been waiting all week to write that!)

But moving on, there’s a little matter of the Tour de France at hand, a race Saxo Bank has a very good shot of winning.

Andy Schleck (the younger of the two brothers) finished second in last year’s Tour and seems to be the only rider—based upon last year’s performances at least—with a realistic shot at overcoming Alberto Contador. Next to Contador, he’s perhaps the most electric climber in the race, but needs to improve considerably against the clock in order to strike some serious fear in his Spanish rival.

As for Frank, he’s taken fifth-place in both of the last two editions, earning a stage win last year as well. An even lesser time trialist than his brother, Frank turned heads when he came from behind to win this year’s Tour de Suisse—in a time trial, no less.

In order to defeat Contador in this year’s race, Andy and Frank will need to go on the offensive early, exposing Contador and his team to a constant wave of attacks. The rest of Saxo’s squad is much deeper and more adept at controlling—and stringing-out—a race than Astana, something they’ll need to exploit. And should Saxo Bank and Radio Shack choose to work in tandem, it could mean lights-out for Alberto.

Look for Saxo Bank to go on the offensive as early as Stage 3, using Stuart O’Grady, Fabian Cancellara, and their 3 Paris-Roubaix titles to apply some serious pressure to the softer squads on the pavé. On other transitional days, Jens Voigt, Matti Breschel, and Nicki Sorensen can apply the heat, while Jacob Fuglsang and Chris Anker Sorensen can turn the screws when the race heads to the mountains.

That’s a lot of metaphors. (Must be the Shakespeare.)

In the end, it will take nothing short of a full team effort to topple Contador and Astana in this year’s Tour de France. But the question remains: will Saxo Bank have a team by the end of it?

Man of the Hour: Andy Schleck is the #1 threat to Contador’s throne. Better still, he’s only 25—this rivalry’s just getting started.

On the Hot Seat: It seems as if every other year Bjarne Riis is on the hot seat to find a new sponsor for his team. This season, things look particularly perilous, as members of his staff have left to form their own program. Riis needs a new sponsor—and fast—if he wants to keep the core of this year’s team intact.

Up-and-Comer: Jacob Fuglsang gets his first shot at the Tour following a third-place finish in last month’s Tour de Suisse. The Dane’s already received interest from other squads, making him one of several riders waiting to hear what Riis has or hasn’t found for 2011.

Happy to Be There: Following his scary crash on the descent of the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard in Stage 16 of last year’s race, Jens Voigt is just happy to be riding this year’s Tour. But as we all know, “just riding” is not a phrase Jens knows very well.

Feeling Left Out: Gustav Erik Larsson did just about everything that was asked of him prior to this year’s Tour de France, but in the end it just wasn’t enough to earn an invitation. The lack of a TTT in this year’s race was likely the biggest detriment to his chances, as he would have been a major asset to his team in the event of its inclusion.

That’s it for now–come back tomorrow for list of questions we hope to see answered during this year’s Tour.  And look for the launch of our new site Saturday!

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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