Each year, PavÃ© previews the upcoming road season with a countdown of the top-20 teams in the sport. We entered the top-5 yesterday with Garmin-CervÃ©lo. We pick things up today with #4.
#4 â€“ Rabobank
In my first draft of this yearâ€™s Preview, Rabobank was one of the top-3 teams. But over the past few weeks, itâ€™s become apparent that Matti Breschelâ€™s knee injuryâ€”while not getting any worseâ€”isnâ€™t getting better fast enough to guarantee that heâ€™ll be at full strength (or even participate) in the Spring Classics this season. It might seem harsh to penalize an entire teamâ€™s ranking for one riderâ€™s injury, but youâ€™re talking about the top 3 to 5 teams in the world (which we are), losing someone as talented as Breschel is a major blowâ€”enough to knock even this talented squad down a notch or two.
But despite Breschelâ€™s convalescence, Rabobankâ€™s already won eight races this seasonâ€”three of them thanks to Robert Gesinkâ€™s impressive overall title at the Tour of Oman last week.Â In a perfect world, the rest of the teamâ€™s season will go as smoothly as it did in the Persian Gulf.Â The team won 4 of the raceâ€™s 6 stages, with Theo Bos sprinting to two stage wins and Gesink taking the summit finish atop Green Mountain and the ITT on his way to the GC victory. Not to be forgotten is Lars Boomâ€™s Prologue win in the Tour of Qatar one week prior.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, letâ€™s begin with the rider from whom Rabobankâ€™s success usually originatesâ€”Oscar Freire. Freire turned 34 last week, but appears to show no signs of slowing down. 2010 was meant to be his swan song, but after a win Mallorca and two wins in the Ruta del Sol, it was clear the tiny Spaniard was loaded for bear. A third win in Milan-San Remo soon followed, as did a win in Paris-Tours in October.
Freire is off to his usual winning ways this year as well. Despite going winless in Mallorca, he opened his account today in Stage 3 of the Ruta del Sol. After a trip to Tirreno-Adriatico, look for the Spaniard to once again challenge for victory in San Remo. From there, he will probably head to Pais Vasco where before making his bid to win another Ghent-Wevelgem title. Last yearâ€™s newer, tougher course seemed to catch Freire off-guardâ€”but I donâ€™t expect to make the same mistake twice.
That said, Freireâ€™s not Rabobankâ€™s main man in the cobbled classics. Denmarkâ€™s Matti Breschel was supposed to be, but given the aforementioned knee troubles heâ€™s been experiencing, I doubt weâ€™ll see his face at the front. Instead, the team will likely rely upon whoever is the best from a group including Carlos Barredo, Lars Boom, Sebastian Langeveld, and Maarten Wijnants. While all talented, none of these riders seems capable of dominating a race in the way that Breschel could have, although his absence just might give someone a chance to prove us wrong. (My moneyâ€™s on Langeveldâ€”for confirmation, go back and watch the 2008 Tour of Flanders.)
In the Ardennes, Robert Gesink will lead the squad, with Luis Leon Sanchez, Paul Martens, and Bauke Mollema helping him out. Gesinkâ€™s riding with a new sense of confidenceâ€”as evidenced by his win in Oman. Arguably one of the most talented riders in the peloton, thereâ€™s no ceiling to his potential. In the Ardennes, Fleche might suit him best right now as itâ€™s a bit more tactically simple, but donâ€™t rule him out in Amstel or Liegeâ€”especially if heâ€™s not the top favorite.
From there, all eyes will be on the Tour de France where Gesink will lead the team with Sanchez playing the role of capable lieutenant. For quite some time Iâ€™ve been waiting for Sanchez to reveal himself as a true GC contender, but he seems more content hunting for stage wins and finishing the race comfortably inside the top-10 or 15.
As for Gesinkâ€™s Tour chances, anythingâ€™s possible. While the yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit of stretch, a place on the podium certainly isnâ€™tâ€”especially if the improved time trialing he displayed in Oman proves to be more than a mirage. Letâ€™s not forget: Gesink finished sixth last year while riding for third-place finisher Denis Menchov. He likely had a bit more freedom to ride for himself than his teammates, but one has to think Menchovâ€™s presence hindered Gesink at least a little bit. Then again, Tour captainship often proves to be too much for some ridersâ€”does Gesink have the mettle? Weâ€™ll see in July.
By August, I expect Sanchez and Barredo will be using their Post-Tour fitness to steal a summer classic or two, with the Vuelta on the list for both. Gesink might make an autumn return here depending on how he fares at the Tour, or he might choose the autumn Pro Tour/Italian semi-classic route he took last year.
And to cap things off right where they began, weâ€™ll all be talking about Oscar Freire by October as he attempts to win his fourth world title on a flat course in Copenhagen, Denmark. But heâ€™ll have to watch-out for two teammates: Breschel (if healed) and young Australian Michael Matthews, a rider whoâ€™s already taken some pretty big sprint scalps and looks set for a fantastic career.
Man of the Hour: Hollandâ€™s been craving a Tour contender for decades now; they might have found the best one yet with Robert Gesink. Climbingâ€™s never been the issue with Gesinkâ€”heâ€™s one of the best in the world. On the other hand, heâ€™s about as aerodynamic as a sail and has suffered against the clock throughout his career. It wonâ€™t take muchâ€”especially if Andy Schleckâ€™s the Tourâ€™s top favoriteâ€”but heâ€™ll have to improve if he wants to win. Oman was a startâ€”can he do it on a flatter course?
On the Hot Seat: Matti Breschel did a lot of talking during last yearâ€™s Classicsâ€”now it looks as if he wonâ€™t even participate this year. Should his knee not heal in time for him to make a go of it, the pressure will be on him this summer and fall. A world title certainly wouldnâ€™t hurtâ€”Breschel should be extra-motivated to take the win in front of his home crowd.
Up-and-Comer: Michael Matthews won last yearâ€™s World U23 Championship and promptly took his first professional race at Stage 3 of the Tour Down Under. With three more top-5â€™s in Algarve, the Aussieâ€™s clearly on the fast track to field sprintingâ€™s upper echelon. Watch out for him the classics as wellâ€”something tells me his true potential lies on the pavÃ©.
Best Pick-Up: Itâ€™s incredible that we made it through the entire Team Preview with hardly more than a mention of Luis Leon Sanchez. But donâ€™t be fooled, Sanchez will win several races for Rabobank, possibly as soon as Paris-Nice in two weeks time. A talented all-rounder with a nose for the right break, Sanchez is always a threat in shorter stage races, hillier one-day events, and of course, Grand Tour transition stages. He should make his new employers quite happy.
Biggest Loss: While manyâ€”including myselfâ€”think heâ€™s a bit over-rated, Denis Menchov did win the Vuelta, the Giro, and took third in the Tour while riding for Rabobank. Over-rated or not, results like that are hard to replace.