#2 Liquigas – (Preview Ranking: #4)
What We Said:
Liquigas has perhaps the youngest and deepest grand tour squad in the sport, led by the Four Horsemen of the Green-pocalypse (yes, I made that up myself): Ivan Basso, Franco Pellizotti, Roman Kreuziger, and Vincenzo Nibali. In a way, Liquigas finds itself in a siutution akin to BMC in that its only problem will be sorting-out who’s leading the team in which races. Luckily for them, I have some suggestions:
1. Roman Kreuziger began to show himself as a talented one-day rider in the second half of 2009, nearly winning the Clasica San Sebastien and a stage in the Vuelta. If I were Roberto Amadio, I’d set Roman’s sights on the Ardennes, a goal only a week or two earlier than the Tour of Romandy—a race he won last year. Then I’d send him to the Giro as co-captain with Pellizotti. Maybe he takes the line at the Tour, but otherwise he races the Vuelta and Lombardy.
2. Ivan Basso’s best days might be behind him; now he’s best served as a super-domestique, perhaps riding for one of the other three. I’d have him peak for the Tour, but with the understanding that he’s not the leader—he’ll be there to ride for Vincezo Nibali, a rider whose Tour prospects are headed in a direction opposite his.
3. As for Pellizotti, he’s a talented climber, but not a leader for a grand tour. Time trialing is a big weakness, and his best results have come on days when he’s played more the role of the joker than the ace. Like he did in 2009, I’d send Pellizotti to both the Giro and the Tour. In the Giro, he and Kreuziger would be formidable duo. In the Tour, he’s free to hunt for stages in support of Nibali, and perhaps another polka-dot jersey.
4. As for Nibali, it’s all or nothing in this year’s Tour. He showed the potential last year; now he needs to continue to progress. It’s shaping-up to be a difficult field, but with luck Nibali might finish in the first five.
That said, let’s not forget the rest of the squad. Manuel Quinziato and Alexander Kuschynski performed well in the cobbled classics last year; they head into 2010 looking to improve on those results. Daniele Bennati and Francesco Chicchi have both started their seasons with wins; they’ll be hunting for stage wins in the Giro and Tour, with Bennati an outside favorite in some of the flatter classics.
All in all, Liquigas is perhaps one of the most underrated teams in the sport. If their talented youngsters continue to progress, that won’t be the case for long.
Man of the Hour: Italy’s abuzz with talk about Nibali’s 7th-place finish in last year’s Tour. He did just enough to contend both in the mountains and in time trials. This year he’ll need to show considerable improvement in at least one discipline to advance a spot or two in the GC.
On the Hot Seat: Ivan Basso had a respectable return to the sport in 2009, including solid rides in the Giro and Vuelta. Unfortunately, his inability to capitalize on his team leadership in Spain leaves many wondering if he wouldn’t be better off with a different set of goals.
Up-and-Comer: Peter Sagan’s only 20, but he’s already turned the head of Lance Armstrong following a week of aggressive riding in Australia. Sagan’s one of the riders I’ll be following in Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as he’s an accomplished single-day racer with a background in cyclocross. It might be too soon to tell if he’s got the goods to be a successful pro—but he’s certainly off to an auspicious start.
Best Pick-Up: Liquigas had a rather quiet off-season, reinforcing its roster with a handful of neo-pros and some younger riders from other teams. One interesting note: Liquigas seems to be fond of riders from former Eastern Bloc nations, with 7 riders on the roster from Poland, Croatia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
Biggest Loss: Considering the talent Liquigas was able to retain, it’s tough to say they truly “lost” anything from 2009 to 2010. In fact, with some exceptions, most of the final 5 teams in the rankings suffered few big losses—perhaps a reason why they find themselves at the top of the heap.
What We Saw:
Is Liquigas occupying the #2 spot in our Season Review simply because its riders won two grand tours in 2010? Yes and no. While winning the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana in one season is indeed an impressive feat—especially with two different riders—it’s not the only reason why Liquigas moves up two spots from its preseason ranking. The team won 40 races in 2010—from January through October—and finished the season ranked second by the UCI. And while those grand tour wins certainly helped the Liquigas’ case, they weren’t the only bright spots on the team’s resume.
Liquigas began its season in January at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis where Francesco Chicchi took Stage 1 and Vincenzo Nibali won the Stage 4 ITT en route to the overall title. Chicchi then went to the Tours of Oman and Qatar, where he partnered with Daniele Bennati to bring the team three more victories.
Back in Europe, Roman Kreuziger took his first win of the season over an impressive field at the Giro di Sardegna, using a victory in the difficult Stage 2 to secure the overall. He went on to take third at Paris-Nice, ninth at the Volta a Catalunya, and fifth in the Amstel Gold Race before starting his build-up for the Tour de France.
The real spring star for Liquigas was Slovenia’s Peter Sagan, a rider who began the year by turning the head of none other than Lance Armstrong at the Tour Down Under. Sagan burst onto the scene for everyone else at Paris-Nice, where he won two stages and finished second on two more. Unfortunately, the youngster was left off his team’s roster for Milan-San Remo, an interesting omission considering he would have been a certain contender for the victory.
Instead, Liquigas seemed content in placing its San Remo hopes in the hands of Daniele Bennati, fresh from a stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico (Nibali finished eighth overall as well). Unfortunately, the competition once again proved to be too much for the Italian—he only managed fifth.
From there, it was time for the cobbled classics of Belgium and France, races that Liquigas was happy to animate in years past. The newly positioned Ghent-Wevelgem was up first, where Daniel Oss announced himself a future classics contender with a superb fifth-place finish. At the 3-Days of De Panne, Manuel Quinziato—the consummate classics dark horse—finished tenth overall by the end of the 3-day, 4-stage event. At Flanders and Roubaix, the team fared less well; Oss and Kristjan Koren were the team’s best finishers there—but well outside the top-10. In the Ardennes, Kreuziger’s fifth in Amstel was the lone highlight—Nibali did his best, but failed to finish in the top-10 at Fleche Wallonne or Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Then again, Liquigas was not a team built primarily for wins in the cobbled or Ardennes classics. With proven grand tour contenders such as Nibali, Kreuziger, and Ivan Basso on the roster, May’s Giro d’Italia was a much important goal.
Basso chose a traditional approach to the Giro, using the Giro del Trentino and the Tour of Romandie to fine-tune his form. He took fifth overall in Trentino, then seemed to back off a bit in Romandie, finishing 13th overall. Sagan added a Romandie stage win to his growing resume as well.
Riding together at the Giro, Basso and Nibali (a last-minute replacement for the suspended Franco Pellizotti) proved to be a formidable duo, propelling the team to a win and the pink jersey for Nibali in the Stage 4 TTT. Nibali would give up the jersey days later, but that seemed okay with Liquigas—it would be better to let other teams tire themselves by having to defend the lead. The two started their final assault on the podium with wins on Stages 14 (Nibali) and 15 (Basso), sending a message to the competition that any attempts at wearing pink in Verona were going to pass directly through them. In the end, Basso proved the better climber of the two, perhaps benefitting from a few less race days than his younger teammate; he took the win by almost two minutes over Caisse d’Epargne’s David Arroyo. Nibali ended the race third—an impressive feat considering he wasn’t even supposed to be competing.
Meanwhile, while Basso and Nibali stormed Italy, Liquigas was also finding success at the Tour of California, as Chicchi won Stage 4 and Sagan took Stages 5 and 6. The team stayed stateside for the Philadelphia International Championship, where Sagan finished second.
June meant a return for Roman Kreuziger as the Czech began to prepare for July’s Tour de France. After an impressive second-place ride in the Stage 1 ITT, he ended the week 16th. Meanwhile, at France’s Criterium du Dauphiné, Sylvester Szmyd finished tenth—with Kreuziger and Basso he would be another card for Liquigas to play in the mountains at the Tour.
Unfortunately, a repeat of the team’s impressive Giro was not to be—at least at the Tour de France. Basso had hoped that several weeks of rest following his Giro win would leave him fresh and ready to contend in France, but a sickness sent him drifting back through the GC as the race entered its third week. As for Kreuziger, he rode consistently, but never quite seemed to have the form necessary to follow the main contenders in the mountains. He finished ninth overall in Paris, but seems to be struggling to take the next step into the top-5. As for the rest of the team, Oss did his best in the sprints and several riders tried their hands in breakaways, but the team went home winless, with little to show for their efforts. One has to wonder what could have been had Nibali’s original program remained intact.
August brought a series of one-day wins for Liquigas in Italy, as Basso, Koren, Nibali, and Oss all found the top step of the podium. Szmyd and Bennati took a pair of sixth-places in Poland and Hamburg, while Sagan took seventh in Plouay, keeping Liquigas relevant in Pro Tour events. And by the end of the month, Nibali was being hailed as one of the major contenders for September’s Vuelta. All eyes were on Spain as Italy’s tifosi prepared to watch the Sicilian take his first crack at leading the team as a favorite in a grand tour.
As they did in Italy, Liquigas laid the foundation for an overall victory with a fast ride in the TTT, this time finishing second to HTC in Stage 1. Nibali then rode one of the smartest and most tactically sound races of the year, eliminating his main competition one man at a time. A little luck no doubt helped the Italian, but by the time the race hit its final ascent to the Bola del Mundo, all Nibali needed to do was follow one man: Ezequiel Mosquera. His win promptly initiated an outbreak of yellow fever throughout Italy. And after Nibali’s seventh-place in Paris last year, can you blame them for getting a little excited?
Overall, Liquigas is the first team since Discovery Channel in 2005 to win two grand tours with two different riders in the same season. And with Basso and Nibali on board for 2011, there’s little reason to believe Liquigas can’t do it again. Should other stars such as Oss and Sagan develop into top contenders in the spring classics and other major one-day races, Liquigas could easily become the team to beat in 2011.
Most Valuable Rider: Basso’s victory in the Giro d’Italia was indeed an impressive feat, but Vincenzo Nibali is by far the more talented and valuable rider to Liquigas—if for no other reason than he’s at the opposite end of his career. While a full-on Tour de France assault might have to wait until 2012, Italy should expect to see its new hero in pink by the end of the 2011 Giro.
Biggest Surprise: Peter Sagan took the sport by storm in 2010, winning five races and placing highly in several others—and he’s not even 21-years-old! Here’s hoping he gets his first stab at more of the cobbled classics in 2011.
Biggest Disappointment: Roman Kreuziger has now finished thirteenth, ninth, and ninth in the last three editions of the Tour de France. While still only 24, those results indicate a rider stuck in a bit of a rut. Will a change of scenery—and a teammate like Alexandre Vinokourov—help the youngster take the next step?
And that’s it for #2—we have one team left in our Team-By-Team Season Review. Come back tomorrow to see who it is. (Here’s a hint: it’s not Verandas Willems.)
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