Itâ€™s that time of year again, and rather than save all 20 teams in our 2011 Season Preview for the week before the season â€œofficiallyâ€ opens with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (a momentous task that very nearly killed me last Februaury), Iâ€™ll be rolling this yearâ€™s top twenty squads over the next several weeksâ€”starting this morning with #20.
#20 â€“ Team Europcar
Until a few months ago it looked as if we wouldnâ€™t be talking about Team Europcar at all this yearâ€”or any semblance of Jean-RenÃ© Bernaudeauâ€™s BBox Bouygues Telecom team for that matter.Â But at the last minuteâ€”early October in factâ€”rental car company Europcar stepped-in to ensure that the team from the Vendee region of France would exist for another few years.
Unfortunately for Bernaudeau, the delay meant several of his teamâ€™s most talented ridersâ€”Pierrick Fedrigo, Johan Tschopp, Steve Chainel, and Nicolas Vogondy, to name a fewâ€”left for greener pastures.Â Forntunately, Thomas Voecklerâ€”arguably the most popular rider in France at the momentâ€”hung-in until the bitter end, guaranteeing at least one marquee name on the squadâ€™s roster.Â Along with saving his team, Voecklerâ€™s decision might have been just enough to protect Eurocarâ€™s invitation to the 2011 Tour de Franceâ€”the squad was one of the four wildcards announced two weeks ago.
Voeckler is certainly the teamâ€™s best chance to score important wins and heâ€™s coming-off one of his most successful seasons.Â A proven Grand Tour stage winner and a savvy one-day rider, Voecklerâ€™s a lock for at least 2-3 wins per season.Â For the sake of his new sponsor, hopefully one will come in France this July.
As for the rest of the roster, itâ€™s the usual mix of French rouleurs, opportunists, and escape artistsâ€”in other words, they cover just about every clichÃ© in the book when it comes to taking advantage of race-winning opportunities when they ariseâ€”even if it means travelling to Gabon, Malaysia, or Mumbai.
Man of the Hour: Thomas Voeckler all but single-handedly saved his teamâ€™s season just by staying on it.Â He remains the squadâ€™s best chance to make Europcarâ€™s investment pay off.
On the Hot Seat: Every year it seems as if Jean-RenÃ© Bernaudeauâ€™s scrambling for something.Â Last year he needed a sponsor.Â This year he needs his team to perform well enough to perhaps earn itâ€™s way back into the World Tourâ€”or at least the Tour de France.Â The former might be a safer bet actually, as the ASO seems eager to let newer, younger teams such as Saur-Sojasun and Bretagne-Schuller show their mettle.
Up-and-Comer: Again due to the late announcement of its new title sponsor, Europcar was rather inactive on the late-season transfer marketâ€”the positive end of it at least.Â Still, the squad was able to land a few former stagiares and a veteran free agent or two.Â Of these, Christophe Kern might be the most valuable. Kernâ€™s ridden with just about every major team of the past ten years, including four seasons with Bernaudeau.Â His experience and veteran leadership should come in quite handy, especially in this yearâ€™s Tour de France.
Best Pick-Up: Considering the team was on life support heading into autumn, I think finding Europcar as a replacement for BBox is easily this teamâ€™s best pick-up.
Biggest Loss: Pierrick Fedrigo won several important races while riding for BBox over the past few seasons and had become almost as good an annual bet to win Tour stages as Thomas Voeckler.Â The squad will miss his results more than any other riderâ€™s this season.
And thatâ€™s it for #20.Â Come back soon for #19â€”and share your comments below.