#10 â€“ Euskaltel (Preview Ranking: #16)
What We Said:
With perhaps one or two exceptions, Euskaltelâ€™s going to live and die on the back of Samuel Sanchez in 2010.Â A force to be reckoned with in just about any hilly race, Sanchez is more known for the races heâ€™s just missed winning (too many to list) than those in which heâ€™s actually taken a victory (the Olympics).Â Big wins just donâ€™t seem to come easily for the daredevil Spaniard.
Looking over the rest of Euskaltelâ€™s roster, Sanchez can take heart in knowing heâ€™ll have no competition for the leadership of his team.Â Look for him to begin making his mark possibly as soon as Paris-Nice, but certainly no later than the Vuelta al Pais Vasco in April.Â From there, the Ardennes classics will be next on the agenda before a possible ride in the Tour.Â All in all, if Sanchez doesnâ€™t start winning some monuments soon, he could be Spainâ€™s version of Michael Boogerdâ€”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: Sanchezâ€”thereâ€™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.Â Remember though, heâ€™s Basque, and riding for Euskaltel is like a kid from North Jersey playing for the New York Yankees.Â Sicardâ€™s an exciting talent, and Euskaltelâ€™s quickly thrown him in at the deep end, obviously trying to get him top-level experience as quickly as possible.Â I canâ€™t wait to see what he can do!
Best Pick-Up: Sicard.
Biggest Loss: Euskaltelâ€™s biggest loss in 2010 actually occurred in 2009 when Mikel Astarloza tested positive following his Tour stage win.Â Astarlozaâ€™s departure will be missed as he was a strong riderâ€”but the damage to Euskaltelâ€™s reputation could prove much more detrimental to an already fragile team.
What We Saw:
Ironically, the day after receiving some much appreciated kudos, our Team-By-Team Season Review continues with one of the teams hindsight tells me might have ended-up a bit too high.Â (Oh well, hopefully by now youâ€™ve realized that itâ€™s not about the ranking anyway.)
We said Euskaltel would live and die on the back of Samuel Sanchez.Â But while the teamâ€™s most marquee showings indeed came thanks to the Olympic Champion, there were other bright spots for the Basque squadâ€”including some that we didnâ€™t quite expect.
Overall, Euskaltel won 17 races in 2010, a number on par with several teams in the middle of our top-20.Â Of those, Sanchez took fiveâ€”a number that hardly indicates the consistency the Spaniard displayed throughout 2010.
Sanchez began his season with a fine fifth-place finish in the Volta Algarve before finishing fourth on GC at both Paris-Nice and the Criterium International.Â At Aprilâ€™s Vuelta al Pais Vascoâ€”Euskaltelâ€™s â€œhomeâ€ eventâ€”Sanchez continued his run, winning a stage finishing seventh overall; while his teammate, Benat Intxausti finished second overall after an impressive ride in the final stageâ€™s ITT.Â Days later, Sanchez and Igor Anton finished 1-2 in the Spanish semi-classic, the Klasika Primavera, capping a successful week in front of the teamâ€™s rabid fanbase.
At this point in the spring, Sanchez chose to skip the Ardennes classics in favor of a well-deserved rest, while Anton went on to take second overall and a stage at the Vuelta a Castilla y Lyon before earning top-10 finishes at both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and a stage victory at the Tour of Romandie (to go with his ninth-place finish on GC).
But soon, all orange eyes turned to Julyâ€™s Tour de France, where Sanchez hoped to make a serious bid for a spot on the podium in Paris.Â And he came close in the end, finishing fourth after losing the third place he had occupied for much of the second and third weeks.Â A crash on the way to the final ascent of the Tourmalet left him too battered to fend-off Denis Menchov in the penultimate dayâ€™s time trial.
After the Tour, Sanchez took ninth at the Classica San Sebastian before winning two stages and the overall at the Tour of Burgos.Â (Koldo Fernandez took a stage as well.)Â By mid-August, many were beginning to wonder if Sanchez would once again contest his home tour (he would have been a certain contender for the win), but he skipped the Vuelta to rest for one last assault on Worlds and the fall classics.Â Â (He managed sixth-place rides in both Montreal and Lombardy.)
But despite the absence of big-hitter Sanchez, Euskaltel still enjoyed a successful Vuelta.Â Igor Anton continued his impressive season, taking two stages and the red jersey as overall leader before crashing heavily and breaking his collarbone on Stage 14 (the second time the Spaniard was forced to abandon the Vuelta while occupying a high place on GC, by the way).Â Mikel Nieve also won a stage for the Basque team, taking Stage 16 on the difficult Alto de Cotobello.
In the end, while #10 is perhaps a few spots too high for Euskaltel, imagine what might have been had Anton not faded on the Mur of Huy, or if Sanchez had not crashed before the Tourâ€™s final ITT, or if Antonâ€™s collarbone had stayed in one piece during the Vuelta.Â While itâ€™s true that â€œalmostâ€ only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, Euskaltel riders consistently put themselves in positions to (almost) win several important races in 2010.Â Thatâ€™s a lot more than can be said of some teams.
Most Valuable Rider: I had a hard time taking Sanchez seriously heading into the Tour this July.Â But after an aggressive three weeks in which he showed himself to be one of the most consistent riders in the race, he heads into 2011 as one of a few men with a serious shot at winning itâ€”depending on whoâ€™s allowed to enter, that is.
Biggest Disappointment: Considering how well they rode, itâ€™s a shame the big wins eluded Euskaltel in 2010.Â From Pais Vasco to the Tour, Euskaltel often found themselves only a step or two away from where they wanted to be on the podium. Â As for the Vuelta, Anton looked as if he had the legs to take the win before his crashâ€”a spot on the podium looked all but certain at least.Â Will the teamâ€™s luck change in 2011?
Biggest Surprise: Romain Sicard finished second in Stage 5 at the DauphinÃ©.Â While the result hardly comes as a surprise, itâ€™s an encouraging sign from last yearâ€™s U23 World Champion.
Thatâ€™s it for #10.Â Come back tomorrow for more!
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