2010 Team-By-Team Season Review: #1

Fotoreporter Sirotti

#1 – Team Saxo Bank (Preview Ranking: #1)

What We Said:

And last, but certainly not least, Saxo Bank earns the title as Pavé’s #1 Team for 2010. With several riders capable of winning multiple classics, stage races, and Grand Tours, there’s really no better choice.

Skipping over Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico—races Saxo certainly has riders capable of winning—we’ll begin with Milan-San Remo and the cobbled classics where Fabian Cancellara seeks revenge following a less-than-stellar spring in 2009. Spartacus has won San Remo and Roubaix, with the latter a race he would like to win again. The schedule change also favors Saxo’s Swiss superstar, with Ghent-Wevelgem’s earlier date a perfect opportunity for such a powerful rider. Cancellara should have Baden Cooke and Frank Hoj to lean-on for support, with Cooke possibly missing the first weekend to attend the Criterium International—a race another Saxo rider, Jens Voigt, has come to own over the past several years.

Then the Ardennes arrive, the scene of Andy Schleck’s breakthrough win in last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Then all eyes turn to July, the scene of what will certainly be yet another showdown between Schleck and Alberto Contador—a duel we should get used to. Saxo heads to the race with perhaps the deepest team. Andy will have the support of the team’s best, with Cancellara, Voigt, Frank Schleck, and Gustav Erik Larsson more than capable of controlling the race for their young leader.

Like Cervélo, by this point in the summer we’ll likely be able to judge the overall success of the team’s season as the majority of its riders will have ridden through their season goals—except maybe Cancellara, who proved last year that he can be a contender in any month.

All in all, even after losing a talented a man or two, Bjarne Riis comes into 2010 with the strongest and deepest team in the world—and he’ll need all the help he can get if he hopes to attract a new title sponsor for 2011.

Man of the Hour: Cancellara’s the man of hour at Saxo Bank, both literally and figuratively. Look for him to win races from March through October in a variety of disciplines—and at 28, his best years might still be ahead of him.

On the Hot Seat: Andy Schleck’s on the Hot Seat for no other reason than the fact that he’s the #1 challenger to Contador’s Tour supremacy. By the end of July we’ll know if Andy’s able to handle the pressure.

Up-and-Comer: Jacob Fuglsang’s the next of Saxo Bank’s talented riders to get a chance in the Tour. He’s way down on the depth chart behind the Schleck’s, but he should at least get a taste for the event in. Maybe he can ride well enough to earn a chance somewhere else?

Best Pick-Up: Baden Cooke might not be the best of Saxo Bank’s pick-ups, but he’s certainly the most interesting. Bjarne Riis has a talent for resuscitating the careers of wayward souls—I wonder if he’ll prove able to help Baden return to prominence.

Biggest Loss: You mean aside from their title sponsor, right?

What We Saw:

In the end, choosing Saxo Bank as the season’s #1 team was no easy task.  HTC-Columbia won more races and Liquigas performed better in the grand tours, but by the time it was all said done, Saxo Bank displayed a level of consistency these other two seemed to lack.  From Qatar to Lombardy, in classics and grand tours, Saxo Bank was competitive, aggressive, and in many cases, victorious.

Saxo Bank’s season began in Australia, but waited for Qatar and Oman before the results began to arrive when Fabian Cancellara used his time trialing prowess to win the overall in Oman.  At the Ruta del Sol, Alex Rasmussen won the ITT and Jens Voigt finished fourth on GC.  At Paris-Nice soon after, Voigt wore the leader’s jersey for a day on his way to finishing fifth overall.  Meanwhile, the core of Saxo Bank’s classics squad used Tirreno-Adriatico as its build-up for Milan-San Remo and the northern classics.  Unfortunately, the team went a bit flat in San Remo, a disappointment considering the team boasted former winner Cancellara and the fast-finishing Breschel.

At Dwars door Vlaanderen the Wednesday after San Remo though, Breschel was the first to indicate Saxo Bank was peaking for the cobbled classics, winning easily from the large group of riders that hit the line in Waregem.  At the E3 Prijs days later, Cancellara established himself as a top favorite for the Ronde by beating Tom Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha with an exceptional display of power and cunning, attacking just before a narrow left-hand turn that seemed to catch at least one of his companions off-guard.

Then, in an interesting mix of roster management, Breschel became Saxo Bank’s protected rider at Ghent-Wevelgem the next day and it appeared as if he were the strongest rider in the race.  Were it not for an unfortunate flat tire inside the final 20km, he might have easily added an even more impressive cobbled victory to his resume.

The weekend of E3 and Ghent was also the weekend of the Criterium International, a race that enjoyed a new locale in Corsica.  Jens Voigt, a man who’s turned winning the 2-day, 3-stage event into a science, missed a chance for a record sixth win, as the team was forced to opt for the Pro Tour’s Volta a Catalunya instead.  Voigt did take a stage victory in Spain, but one has to hope he’ll get a shot at win #6 next year.

As far as Flanders and Roubaix are concerned, you know what happened there.  While it’s easy to give Cancellara all the credit for his monumental wins, his team deserves at least some of the glory for completely dictating the pace of both races at their most critical points.  At times, Saxo Bank had riders spread clear across the road, all but daring other teams to come to the front to try and break their stranglehold.  In the end, multiple Ronde and Roubaix-winner Tom Boonen was reduced to racing like an overmatched nieuwelingen.  (I’ll let you look that one up.)  Had Breschel managed to keep his wheels afloat in Ghent-Wevelgem, Saxo Bank might have enjoyed one of the most successful runs in cobbled history.

While Cancellara was working his magic in the north, Saxo Bank’s Ardennes unit was toiling away in Pais Vasco, doing it’s best to put Andy Schleck in a position for another successful run. In 2009 Schleck finished ninth, second, and first in the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege respectively.  Those results would be tough to match for anyone, and Schleck could manage only 18th, eighth, fifth in his three favorite one-day races.  Older brother Frank—a former winner in Amstel—managed seventh in Holland and eighth in Liege, before taking some well-deserved rest.

Andy wasn’t quite so lucky however, as his popularity meant he needed to make a quick trip to the Tour of California, home to team bike sponsor Specialized.  He and Cancellara were two of the most popular riders in the race, but their busy programs made the ATOC little more than a week of training.

At the Giro though, a new star was emerging in the form of Australian Richie Porte.  Porte first turned heads at the Tour of Romandie when he won the time trial in Stage 3 and finished tenth overall.  At the Giro a week later, he finished sixth in Stage 1’s ITT, and then made the mega-break in Stage 13 to L’Aquila.  He was awarded the pink jersey for his efforts and held his own during the race’s difficult final week to finish seventh overall, an incredible result for a 25-year-old grand tour rookie.  In addition to Porte’s successful GC run, Chris Anker Sorensen and Gustav Erik Larsson won stages for Saxo Bank, capping what proved to be a somewhat unexpectedly successful race for the squad—a testament to the team’s depth of talent.

Andy and Frank Schleck were reunited again at the Tour de Suisse in June—Frank following a stage win and second-place overall in his home tour, and Andy fresh from some post-California rest and Tour-reconnaissance.  And while Andy seemed content to slowly build form for July, the rest of his team was racing to win.  Fabian Cancellara took the opening time trial in Lugano, obviously hoping to successfully defend his title from 2009.  Frank Schleck took Stage 3 to Schwarzenburg, positioning himself beautifully to capitalize on Robert Gesink’s collapse in the final day’s time trial to make him a surprising but worthy overall winner by 12-seconds over Lance Armstrong.  Teammate Jakob Fuglsang finished third, another impressive result for a young rider brimming with talent—and confidence.

Unfortunately for Frank Schleck, his luck would run out on the cobbles of the Tour de France (now there’s a phrase I’m not used to typing) as his crash on the Sars-et-Rosieres sector of pavé in Stage 3 sent him home with a broken collarbone.  Considering the narrow margin between brother Andy and race-winner Alberto Contador, one has to wonder what difference Frank’s presence might have made.  But despite Andy’s “loss”—and the manner in which it occurred—Saxo Bank’s Tour was an overall success, with two stage wins each and time spent in yellow for both Cancellara and Schleck.  In addition to his second consecutive runner-up spot, Schleck also won another white jersey as Best Young Rider.  And let’s not forget, should Contador end-up on the wrong side of the investigation into his positive test for clenbuterol, Schleck will likely be awarded yellow.

But unfortunately, by the end of Tour, few were talking about what Saxo Bank had accomplished thanks to swirl of speculation surrounding the formation of Andy and Frank Schleck’s Luxembourg Cycling Project.  Bjarne Riis did his best to find a suitable replacement for his two soon-to-be-former protégés by signing Alberto Contador, but it became clear by August that a mass Saxo Bank exodus was at hand.

It goes without saying that the rift had an effect on the team’s end to the season—but they still won races.  For example, Breschel—a Rabobank signee—won a stage and the Team Lux-bound Fuglsang won the overall at the Tour of Denmark, while Larsson won a stage and the overall at the Tour du Limousin.

As for Frank Schleck, he was back on his bike in time to tackle the Vuelta a Espana.  Brother Andy had hoped to serve as his mountain lieutenant—at least until he was sent home with Stuart O’Grady mid-race for missing a team curfew (the Vuelta’s widely known as the THE biggest party of the season).  In the end, Frank was forced to battle on by himself—he did well to finish fifth overall.

Richie Porte enjoyed a successful end to the season as well.  He took fourth at the ENECO Tour, the Tour of Britain, and the World Championship ITT, confirming the talent he displayed in May. Cancellara won gold in the ITT, by the way—his fourth title in five years—while Breschel took second in the road race before taking third in Paris-Bourges and the Giro del Piemonte.  Compatriot Fuglsang ended the year strongly too, finishing third in Franco-Belge, second in the Memorial VDB and the GP Beghelli, and an impressive fourth in the Tour of Lombardy.

But despite a rocky end to the season, Saxo Bank deserves this year’s #1 spot.  The team’s dominant run at the cobbled classics partcularly separates them from everyone else.  Many teams boast stage race winners and grand tour performers, but few can match Saxo Bank’s consistency—and none can beat its classics resume.

It will be interesting to see how the core of 2010’s Saxo Bank performs as the nucleus of 2011’s Team Luxembourg Cycling Project/Team Leopard.  But one thing’s certain, without men like Cancellara, Voigt, Breschel, Fuglsang, and the Schlecks, Saxo Bank will be lucky just to make next year’s top-10.

Most Valuable Rider: Yes, Andy Schleck’s Tour de France performance—and near-miss—will be talked about for ages, but the true hero of Saxo Bank’s season was Fabian Cancellara.  E3, Flanders, Roubaix, two Tour stages, the yellow jersey, and another World ITT Championship—those results are tough to beat.  The guy’s a one-man wrecking crew who single-handedly had a better season than most teams.

Biggest Surprise: Richie Porte blipped onto the radar when he won the ITT and finished tenth overall at the Tour of Romandie. But he stayed on it with his seventh-place finish in the Giro and strong end to the season.  Riis managed to hang-on to the talented Australian, but let’s hope the pressure to perform doesn’t get to him—especially with fewer stars to share the spotlight.

Biggest Disappointment: I’m well aware that professional cycling is first and foremost a business, really I do.  That said, I was disappointed by the lack of loyalty displayed by so many of Bjarne Riis’ riders.  I understand a need for change, a chance to explore greener pastures, etc.  But O’Grady, Voigt, Cancellara, and the Schlecks all reached new heights once under the Dane’s watchful gaze.  For the sake of the riders, let’s hope their yet-to-be-named new project turns out to be a success.  For the sake of Bjarne Riis, let’s hope he’s able to rebound—the sport’s better when he’s able to field a competitive team.

And that’s it for our first annual Team-By-Team Season Review.  I want to thank everyone who offered encouragement, comments, and corrections during what turned out to be a pretty lengthy process.  I hope you enjoyed reading—and I look forward to turning right back around and starting it again with a preview of what we can expect from 2011.

But first, I’ll take some time and enjoy the New Year.  I hope you do as well—we wish you nothing but a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2011.

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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3 Responses to 2010 Team-By-Team Season Review: #1

  1. Josh says:

    Fantastic reviews! The highlight of my day is when I read this blog…

    My Saxo highlight was Breschel's tirade after the poor bike exchange at Flanders.

    I am anxious to see the new Saxo, unfortunately a lot of personality is gone.

  2. Scott says:

    Great stuff Whit. Pretty hard to argue with your write ups on all the teams. If Contador gets 2 years for eating "bad meat tainted with plastic", it will be interesting to see who Andy will get to duel with in the mountains come July!

  3. cthulhu says:

    I only had a quick glaze at your article, will read it tomorrow, but right now I'm too tired.

    But I like to add one thing to your "Biggest Disappointment". I personally think Riis did his job too well in this department, it really looks like he built up a great relationship between his riders during their time there. That alone wouldn't cause that mass exodus in case of a rider departing but then buying the biggest rival they had as a replacement for the loss was like an affront to the rest, because they weren't just hired mercenaries (anymore). I think if he promoted somebody from the other Saxo Bank riders to the new GT captains and signed some good helpers which might step up as replacement more of the team might have stayed. But with signing AC was absolutely clear that he going to be the captain and that he will bring along his mates. And that could lead to a not so good atmosphere within the team, with groups forming within the team.

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