#1 â€“ Team Saxo Bank (Preview Ranking: #1)
What We Said:
And last, but certainly not least, Saxo Bank earns the title as PavÃ©â€™s #1 Team for 2010. With several riders capable of winning multiple classics, stage races, and Grand Tours, thereâ€™s really no better choice.
Skipping over Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriaticoâ€”races Saxo certainly has riders capable of winningâ€”weâ€™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 Saxoâ€™s Swiss superstar, with Ghent-Wevelgemâ€™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 Internationalâ€”a race another Saxo rider, Jens Voigt, has come to own over the past several years.
Then the Ardennes arrive, the scene of Andy Schleckâ€™s breakthrough win in last yearâ€™s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Then all eyes turn to July, the scene of what will certainly be yet another showdown between Schleck and Alberto Contadorâ€”a duel we should get used to. Saxo heads to the race with perhaps the deepest team. Andy will have the support of the teamâ€™s best, with Cancellara, Voigt, Frank Schleck, and Gustav Erik Larsson more than capable of controlling the race for their young leader.
Like CervÃ©lo, by this point in the summer weâ€™ll likely be able to judge the overall success of the teamâ€™s season as the majority of its riders will have ridden through their season goalsâ€”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 worldâ€”and heâ€™ll need all the help he can get if he hopes to attract a new title sponsor for 2011.
Man of the Hour: Cancellaraâ€™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 disciplinesâ€”and at 28, his best years might still be ahead of him.
On the Hot Seat: Andy Schleckâ€™s on the Hot Seat for no other reason than the fact that heâ€™s the #1 challenger to Contadorâ€™s Tour supremacy. By the end of July weâ€™ll know if Andyâ€™s able to handle the pressure.
Up-and-Comer: Jacob Fuglsangâ€™s the next of Saxo Bankâ€™s talented riders to get a chance in the Tour. Heâ€™s way down on the depth chart behind the Schleckâ€™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 Bankâ€™s pick-ups, but heâ€™s certainly the most interesting. Bjarne Riis has a talent for resuscitating the careers of wayward soulsâ€”I wonder if heâ€™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 seasonâ€™s #1 team was no easy task.Â 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.Â From Qatar to Lombardy, in classics and grand tours, Saxo Bank was competitive, aggressive, and in many cases, victorious.
Saxo Bankâ€™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.Â At the Ruta del Sol, Alex Rasmussen won the ITT and Jens Voigt finished fourth on GC.Â At Paris-Nice soon after, Voigt wore the leaderâ€™s jersey for a day on his way to finishing fifth overall. Â Meanwhile, the core of Saxo Bankâ€™s classics squad used Tirreno-Adriatico as its build-up for Milan-San Remo and the northern classics.Â 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.Â 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 Bankâ€™s protected rider at Ghent-Wevelgem the next day and it appeared as if he were the strongest rider in the race.Â 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.Â Jens Voigt, a man whoâ€™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 Tourâ€™s Volta a Catalunya instead.Â Voigt did take a stage victory in Spain, but one has to hope heâ€™ll get a shot at win #6 next year.
As far as Flanders and Roubaix are concerned, you know what happened there.Â While itâ€™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.Â 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.Â In the end, multiple Ronde and Roubaix-winner Tom Boonen was reduced to racing like an overmatched nieuwelingen.Â (Iâ€™ll let you look that one up.)Â 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 Bankâ€™s Ardennes unit was toiling away in Pais Vasco, doing itâ€™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.Â Those results would be tough to match for anyone, and Schleck could manage only 18th, eighth, fifth in his three favorite one-day races.Â Older brother Frankâ€”a former winner in Amstelâ€”managed seventh in Holland and eighth in Liege, before taking some well-deserved rest.
Andy wasnâ€™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.Â 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.Â Porte first turned heads at the Tour of Romandie when he won the time trial in Stage 3 and finished tenth overall.Â At the Giro a week later, he finished sixth in Stage 1â€™s ITT, and then made the mega-break in Stage 13 to Lâ€™Aquila.Â He was awarded the pink jersey for his efforts and held his own during the raceâ€™s difficult final week to finish seventh overall, an incredible result for a 25-year-old grand tour rookie.Â In addition to Porteâ€™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 squadâ€”a testament to the teamâ€™s depth of talent.
Andy and Frank Schleck were reunited again at the Tour de Suisse in Juneâ€”Frank following a stage win and second-place overall in his home tour, and Andy fresh from some post-California rest and Tour-reconnaissance.Â And while Andy seemed content to slowly build form for July, the rest of his team was racing to win.Â Fabian Cancellara took the opening time trial in Lugano, obviously hoping to successfully defend his title from 2009.Â Frank Schleck took Stage 3 to Schwarzenburg, positioning himself beautifully to capitalize on Robert Gesinkâ€™s collapse in the final dayâ€™s time trial to make him a surprising but worthy overall winner by 12-seconds over Lance Armstrong.Â Teammate Jakob Fuglsang finished third, another impressive result for a young rider brimming with talentâ€”and confidence.
Unfortunately for Frank Schleck, his luck would run out on the cobbles of the Tour de France (now thereâ€™s a phrase Iâ€™m not used to typing) as his crash on the Sars-et-Rosieres sector of pavÃ© in Stage 3 sent him home with a broken collarbone.Â Considering the narrow margin between brother Andy and race-winner Alberto Contador, one has to wonder what difference Frankâ€™s presence might have made.Â But despite Andyâ€™s â€œlossâ€â€”and the manner in which it occurredâ€”Saxo Bankâ€™s Tour was an overall success, with two stage wins each and time spent in yellow for both Cancellara and Schleck.Â In addition to his second consecutive runner-up spot, Schleck also won another white jersey as Best Young Rider.Â And letâ€™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 Schleckâ€™s Luxembourg Cycling Project.Â Bjarne Riis did his best to find a suitable replacement for his two soon-to-be-former protÃ©gÃ©s 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 teamâ€™s end to the seasonâ€”but they still won races.Â For example, Breschelâ€”a Rabobank signeeâ€”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.Â Brother Andy had hoped to serve as his mountain lieutenantâ€”at least until he was sent home with Stuart Oâ€™Grady mid-race for missing a team curfew (the Vueltaâ€™s widely known as the THE biggest party of the season).Â In the end, Frank was forced to battle on by himselfâ€”he did well to finish fifth overall.
Richie Porte enjoyed a successful end to the season as well.Â 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 wayâ€”his fourth title in five yearsâ€”while Breschel took second in the road race before taking third in Paris-Bourges and the Giro del Piemonte.Â 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 yearâ€™s #1 spot.Â The teamâ€™s dominant run at the cobbled classics partcularly separates them from everyone else.Â Many teams boast stage race winners and grand tour performers, but few can match Saxo Bankâ€™s consistencyâ€”and none can beat its classics resume.
It will be interesting to see how the core of 2010â€™s Saxo Bank performs as the nucleus of 2011â€™s Team Luxembourg Cycling Project/Team Leopard.Â But one thingâ€™s certain, without men like Cancellara, Voigt, Breschel, Fuglsang, and the Schlecks, Saxo Bank will be lucky just to make next yearâ€™s top-10.
Most Valuable Rider: Yes, Andy Schleckâ€™s Tour de France performanceâ€”and near-missâ€”will be talked about for ages, but the true hero of Saxo Bankâ€™s season was Fabian Cancellara.Â E3, Flanders, Roubaix, two Tour stages, the yellow jersey, and another World ITT Championshipâ€”those results are tough to beat.Â The guyâ€™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.Â Riis managed to hang-on to the talented Australian, but letâ€™s hope the pressure to perform doesnâ€™t get to himâ€”especially with fewer stars to share the spotlight.
Biggest Disappointment: Iâ€™m well aware that professional cycling is first and foremost a business, really I do.Â That said, I was disappointed by the lack of loyalty displayed by so many of Bjarne Riisâ€™ riders.Â I understand a need for change, a chance to explore greener pastures, etc.Â But Oâ€™Grady, Voigt, Cancellara, and the Schlecks all reached new heights once under the Daneâ€™s watchful gaze.Â For the sake of the riders, letâ€™s hope their yet-to-be-named new project turns out to be a success.Â For the sake of Bjarne Riis, letâ€™s hope heâ€™s able to reboundâ€”the sportâ€™s better when heâ€™s able to field a competitive team.
And thatâ€™s it for our first annual Team-By-Team Season Review.Â I want to thank everyone who offered encouragement, comments, and corrections during what turned out to be a pretty lengthy process.Â I hope you enjoyed readingâ€”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, Iâ€™ll take some time and enjoy the New Year.Â I hope you do as wellâ€”we wish you nothing but a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2011.