#3 â€“ Liquigas-Cannondale
How does a team top a year in which it won both the Giro dâ€™Italia and the Vuelta a Espana? By winning the Giro dâ€™Italia and the Tour de France, of course! Itâ€™s a lofty proposition, but with Vincenzo Nibali and Ivan Basso on the roster at Liquigas-Cannondale, itâ€™s not an unreasonable goal.
At last yearâ€™s Giro, Basso and Nibali dominated the race in its most crucial phases, ultimately finishing first and third overall.Â Nibali then went on to win the Vuelta in September. This season, Nibali targets the Giro, hoping to repeat Bassoâ€™s win while improving upon his third-place finish. Considering how the only thing keeping him from winning last yearâ€™s race was maybe his teammate, itâ€™s easy to see why heâ€™s already the top favorite for the 3-week event.
But while Nibaliâ€™s an easy pick for the podium at the Giro, Bassoâ€™s Tour prospects are much less certain. Before his 2007 suspension, Basso looked as if he were the raceâ€™s next great champion. Since his return though, while managing fifth, fourth, and first in the 2009 Giro, 2009 Vuelta, and 2010 Giro, respectively, Basso could do no better than 32nd in last yearâ€™s Tour de France. This year heâ€™ll have all season to prepare for Julyâ€”and at 33, this might be his last chance before he cedes Grand Tour numero uno status to Nibali.
At the Classics, Liquigas will ask youngsters Peter Sagan and Daniel Oss to carry the load. Sagan was by far last seasonâ€™s â€œRookie of the Yearâ€ thanks to a five-win season and several other top placings. Liquigas was careful with the Slovakianâ€™s program last year, wisely choosing to protect the then-19-year-old from overdoing it. This spring, heâ€™ll likely be given more chances to prove himself, especially in the Classicsâ€”many of which seem to suit his talents. First and foremost among these is Milan-San Remo. At almost 300 kilometers, San Remo will likely be the longest race Saganâ€™s ever completed; but with a relatively gentle parcours and a finish that suits a fast-finisher who can make it over the Cipressa and Poggio, Sagan has to be counted as one of the early top-favorites.
Italian Daniel Oss finished in the lead group at San Remo last year, and had he not been tasked with leading out teammate Daniele Bennati, he might have finished inside the top-10. Oss then rode a full cobbled campaign, the highlight of which was his 5th-place finish in Ghent-Wevelgem. Together, Oss and Sagan will be one of more exciting duos to watch this spring, especially as theyâ€™ll likely be a bit overshadowed by the more popular favorites. Ghent-Wevelgem is an obvious target for the tandemâ€”as are Dwars Door Vlaanderen and the E3 Prijsâ€”but donâ€™t rule them out in Flanders and Roubaix either.
As for the rest of the squad, Sylvester Szmyd is always candidate for mountain stage winsâ€”heâ€™s someone to watch in shorter stages race such as the Tour of Romandie and the Criterium du DauphinÃ©. Kristjan Korenâ€™s another man to look out for in races of this sort; he finished 15th in the DauphinÃ© and then performed well while riding in support of Basso at the Tour de France. (He also rode Paris-Roubaix and the Ardennes Classicsâ€”an interesting bit of programming on behalf of his managers.)
But in the end, Liquigasâ€™ 2011 will ultimately be judged on the merits of Nibali and Basso. While a win in a major classic is a distinct possibility, it would pale in comparison to a Giro win for Nibali, or even better, a yellow jersey for Basso.
Man of the Hour: In his last three Grand Tours (the 2009 Tour, the 2010 Giro, and the 2010 Vuelta), Nibaliâ€™s finished seventh, third, and firstâ€”if thatâ€™s not Grand Tour potential, then I donâ€™t know what is.
On the Hot Seat: Ivan Bassoâ€™s at the end of his 2-year contract and will be using this yearâ€™s Tour de France to earn his next one. A true Tour contender before his 2007 suspension, it will be interesting how well he fares with a full season of dedicated preparation. With Nibali a hard-to-ignore for 2012, Basso has no time for excuses.
Up-and-Comer: Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan better watch-out: Daniel Oss has the talent and skill to one-up them both in the 2011 Spring Classics. With many teams likely to isolate Saganâ€”his flashier teammateâ€”Oss just might find he has the freedom he needs to take a win.
Best Pick-Up: Sugoi, SRAM, Cannondaleâ€”is it just me, or does Liquigas feel surprisingly North American? While the loss of Campagnolo means once again that Italyâ€™s best Grand Tour riders wonâ€™t be on Campy, the move to SRAM likely gave Liquigas a boost to its budget.
Biggest Loss: Roman Kreuzigerâ€™s one of the most talented young riders in the sport. Should Astana rove to be a greener pasture for the Czech rider, Liquigas might regret letting him goâ€”especially if Basso fails to deliver the goods in this yearâ€™s Tour de France.
And thatâ€™s it for #3 in our countdownâ€”only two teams remain. Weâ€™ll be announcing them soonâ€”but first, thereâ€™s Saturdayâ€™s Omloop to discuss.
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