#15 â€“ Vacansoleil-DCM
Itâ€™s always ways a risky proposition when teams try and sign their way into the sportâ€™s biggest races. In the last six months, Vacansoleilâ€™s taken more than a few gambles in its bid to attain ProTeam status for 2011.Â Now theyâ€™re hoping these signings havenâ€™t caused more harm good.
With the addition of the tempestuous-yet-talented Stijn Devolder, Vacansoleil has found itself a bookend for Bjorn Leukemans, giving the team a terrific combo for the cobbled classics.Â Devolder won the Ronde for Quick Step in 2008 and 2009, and the reigning Belgian Champ hopes to find similar form after a disastrous spring last year.Â Heâ€™s already been seen training on the course of the new and improved Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a sign that Devolder might not wait for April to take his first cobbled victory.
As for Leukemans, his progression in the cobbled classics has gone largely unnoticed outside of Belgium (although I know of one site thatâ€™s been singing his praises for years now).Â Leukemans reminds me of Peter Van Petegem in the mid-1990â€™s: near the top, but not yet bubbling over.Â Van Petegemâ€™s breakthrough came when he won Het Volk in 1997 and 1998â€”those wins gave him the confidence to take the next step in the cobbled Monuments (he won the Ronde twice and Roubaix once).Â Leukemans is at a similar stage in his careerâ€”he just needs that one big win to set him on his way.Â Unlike Devolder though, Leukemans has taken a more competitive approach to his preseason, racing his way into shape in France.
It will be interesting to see what happens when these two riders come together.Â Vacansoleil had some problems last year working together when Riccardo Ricco came on board; will these two headstrong Belgians prove able to race cohesively in their nationâ€™s biggest races?
As for the rest, the imminent loss of Riccardo Ricco will certainly hurt the teamâ€™s chances for success after April, forcing the team to aggressively search for breakaway wins here and there in the Tour de France (like most French teams).Â Borut Bozic is always a threat for a sprint win or two, but itâ€™s hard to see him competing with the likes of Cavendish and Farrar come July. Vacansoleil will likely look to rouleurs such as Johnny Hoogerland, Marco Marcato, and Romain Feillu for stage wins at the Tourâ€”Feillu has come close before and would certainly have the home crowd on his side.
Man of the Hour: Leukemans was the second-most impressive rider at last yearâ€™s Paris-Roubaix.Â Iâ€™ll never forget his visible frustration (7:01) at not being able to hold Cancellaraâ€™s wheel (and the moto getting in his way).Â If the team plays itâ€™s cards right, Devolderâ€™s presence could prevent teams from marking Leukemans out of races, perhaps giving him a bit more freedom to take his first major victory.
On the Hot Seat: First Riccardo Ricco, then Ezequiel Mosquera, now Riccoâ€”again.Â If these riders donâ€™t somehow see their way through recent doping allegations (and the resulting failed kidneys), Vacansoleil will be left high and dry by summertime.Â After all, cobbled classic victories only get a team so farâ€”right, Quick Step?
Up-and-Comer: Remember last yearâ€™s classics when those pesky Topsport Vlaanderen riders kept finding their way into breakaways?Â Well, Thomas De Gendt was one of themâ€”he finished second to Sebastian Rosseler in the Brabantsepijl (and fifth in the Tour of Belgium), a result that likely earned him his spot with Vacansoleil.
Best Pick-Up: Iâ€™m not sure which side needed the deal more, but Ridley likely has much more resources to offer Vacansoleil than Batavus.Â (Besides, Batavus is a brand associated more with commuters than racers.)Â As for Ridley, they needed to do something after parting ways with Katushaâ€”putting bikes under Leukemans and Devolder gives the brand some domestic notoriety.
Biggest Loss: With both Ricco and Mosquera looking likely to miss this yearâ€™s Grand Tours (at least), Brice Feillu would have been Vacansoleilâ€™s lone GC hope at the Tour de France.Â Itâ€™s too bad Vacansoleil couldnâ€™t convince him to stay.
And thatâ€™s it for #15â€”look for #14 tomorrow.
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