It’s that time of year again, and rather than save all 20 teams in our 2011 Season Preview for the week before the season “officially” opens with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (a momentous task that very nearly killed me last Februaury), I’ll be rolling this year’s top twenty squads over the next several weeks—starting this morning with #20.
#20 – Team Europcar
Until a few months ago it looked as if we wouldn’t be talking about Team Europcar at all this year—or any semblance of Jean-René Bernaudeau’s BBox Bouygues Telecom team for that matter. But at the last minute—early October in fact—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 team’s most talented riders—Pierrick Fedrigo, Johan Tschopp, Steve Chainel, and Nicolas Vogondy, to name a few—left for greener pastures. Forntunately, Thomas Voeckler—arguably the most popular rider in France at the moment—hung-in until the bitter end, guaranteeing at least one marquee name on the squad’s roster. Along with saving his team, Voeckler’s decision might have been just enough to protect Eurocar’s invitation to the 2011 Tour de France—the squad was one of the four wildcards announced two weeks ago.
Voeckler is certainly the team’s best chance to score important wins and he’s coming-off one of his most successful seasons. A proven Grand Tour stage winner and a savvy one-day rider, Voeckler’s a lock for at least 2-3 wins per season. For the sake of his new sponsor, hopefully one will come in France this July.
As for the rest of the roster, it’s the usual mix of French rouleurs, opportunists, and escape artists—in other words, they cover just about every cliché in the book when it comes to taking advantage of race-winning opportunities when they arise—even if it means travelling to Gabon, Malaysia, or Mumbai.
Man of the Hour: Thomas Voeckler all but single-handedly saved his team’s season just by staying on it. He remains the squad’s best chance to make Europcar’s investment pay off.
On the Hot Seat: Every year it seems as if Jean-René Bernaudeau’s scrambling for something. Last year he needed a sponsor. This year he needs his team to perform well enough to perhaps earn it’s way back into the World Tour—or at least the Tour de France. 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 market—the positive end of it at least. Still, the squad was able to land a few former stagiares and a veteran free agent or two. Of these, Christophe Kern might be the most valuable. Kern’s ridden with just about every major team of the past ten years, including four seasons with Bernaudeau. His experience and veteran leadership should come in quite handy, especially in this year’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 team’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. The squad will miss his results more than any other rider’s this season.
And that’s it for #20. Come back soon for #19—and share your comments below.