Each year, PavÃ© previews the upcoming road season with a countdown of the top-20 teams in the sport. Hereâ€™s #10.
#10 â€“ Euskaltel-Euskadi
With Grand Tour contenders Igor Anton and Samuel Sanchez leading the way, Euskaltel comes into 2011 hoping to find success similar to that of Liquigas last season.
Anton was one the most consistent stage racers of 2010, finishing well in Catalunya, Castilla y Lyon, Romandie, Burgos, and the Vueltaâ€”where he won two summit finishes and was leading the race before crashing and breaking his collarbone.Â Along the way, Anton also finished fourth and sixth in Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege respectivelyâ€”if the races fit his 2011 program, heâ€™ll be a top contender in the Ardennes as well.
Anton will be 28 in March, an age when many Grand Tour champions begin to emerge. Heâ€™ll lead Euskaltel at the Giro dâ€™Italiaâ€”and heâ€™s racing to win, not just for a top-5 results.Â And while there will be several other contenders looking to conquer the Giroâ€™s difficult parcours, Anton can take heart from the knowledge that he was stronger than Vincenzo Nibali (the early top-favorite for the 2011 Giro) during the first half of last yearâ€™s Vuelta. In other words: Italy, youâ€™ve been warned. After the Giro, Anton will likely rest, perhaps before another try at winning his home tour.Â Donâ€™t be surprised if the Spaniard equals Nibaliâ€™s Grand Tour run of 2010â€”a third-place finish in the Giro and a win in the Vuelta are easily within his grasp.
As for Samuel Sanchez, he spent the majority of his time in 2010 focusing on the Tour de France, efforts that were largely rewarded with a fourth-place finish in Paris. Luckily for Sanchez, two of the three men who finished in front of him in 2010 (Alberto Contador and Denis Menchov) are unlikely to ride this yearâ€™s edition.Â As for his prospects, the Tourâ€™s mountainous course suits the Olympic Champion; but Stage 2â€™s team time trial does not. As part of his build-up, Sanchez is likely to win several races throughout the first part of the seasonâ€”assuming his and Antonâ€™s programs donâ€™t conflict.Â Paris-Nice, Pais Vasco, and the Ardennes are likely early targets.
As for the rest of the team, men like Koldo Fernandez, Gorka Izagirre, Mikel Nieve, and Ruben Plaza will do their best to take the odd win while supporting their captainsâ€”if and when those opportunities present themselves.
Man of the Hour: Igor Anton looked as if he were on his way to winning the 2010 Vuelta had a crash not ended his race prematurelyâ€”while he was leading it.Â This year, heâ€™ll get his first shot at redemption in the Giro dâ€™Italia, in a race that suits him and against an opponent he knows well.
On the Hot Seat: Samuel Sanchez is one of the most talented riders in the world, but should he fail to contend at this yearâ€™s Tourâ€”or if Anton manages to win the Giro or Vueltaâ€”his team might encourage him to shift his focus for 2012.
Up-and-Comer: Romain Sicard was Euskaltelâ€™s high-profile signing at the end of the 2009 season. His best 2010 performance came when he finished second in Stage 4 at the DauphinÃ© and 11th overall. Heâ€™ll get his first shot at a Grand Tour when he contests the Vuelta at the end of the summer.
Best Pick-Up: Mikel Landa finished fifth at the Tour de lâ€™Avenir and 18th at Worlds in 2010. Â Heâ€™s the best of Euskaltelâ€™s small group of signings.
Biggest Loss: Like many Basques, Benat Intxausti can climb.Â But like only the best, he can also time trial, making him a future stage race contender. Â He finished tenth in the Criterium International, second in Pais Vasco, and third in Asturias thanks to top-5 ITT rides in all three events.Â Movistarâ€™s lucky to have him.
Thatâ€™s it for #10â€”share your comments below.