Each year, PavÃ© previews the upcoming road season with a countdown of the top-20 teams in the sport. Earlier today, we covered Team #2: HTC-High Road. Hereâ€™s the #1 team for 2011.
#1 â€“ Leopard Trek
For the second year in a row, Team Saxo Bank is the #1 team in our Season Preview.
Well, not exactly, but given the brief history of Leopard Trek, one is forgiven for feeling as if this new team isnâ€™t quite so new. With a Danish GM and Head DS in Bryan Nygaard and Kim Andersen (both of whom spent time working for Bjarne Riis at Saxo Bank) as well as the core of the team that finished the 2010 season ranked #1 in the UCIâ€™s World Tour.
Andy and Frank Schleck are the centerpieces of the squadâ€”they were quickly rumored to be working with Nygaard and Andersen long before their transfers were officially announced last summer. Arguably two of the most charismatic riders in the peloton, Andy captivated fans everywhere with his David versus Goliath fight to defeat Alberto Contador in last yearâ€™s Tour de France. Many wonder if he would have succeeded had Frank not crashed and broken a collarbone in the raceâ€™s first week.
In 2011, both riders will ride programs largely identitcal to last seasonâ€™s. Early-season stage races, the Ardennes classics, several Tour stage recon trips, and the Tour de Suisse will form the bulk of both ridersâ€™ Tour build-up. Andy looks to be the Tourâ€™s undisputed top-favorite without Alberto Contadorâ€”Frank will be a safety net should Andy crack. Post-Tour, Andy will likely try and return his older brotherâ€™s favor at the Tour of Spain, where Frank finished 5th in 2010.
In addition to the latter two Grand Tours, expect the Schleck brothers to be at the front during the Ardennes classics. Frank won the Amstel Gold Race in 2006 and Andy won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2009. Frankâ€™s also likely to contend for another stage race or two along the wayâ€”such as Paris-Nice, the Tour of Luxembourg, or the Tour de Suisseâ€”as he knows heâ€™ll likely be riding solely on behalf of his brother in July.
And even with Contadorâ€™s absence, young Andy will need all the help he can get. The Tour de France is indeed a race like no otherâ€”the lack of one favorite does not make the race any easier. If anything, a Tour sans Contador might be more difficult for someone like Schleck than it would have been with him. For one, Leopard Trek will fool no oneâ€”they will be expected to control the race from the first week through Paris. Second, every other contender will race a little bit harder this yearâ€”Schleckâ€™s not the only who fancies his chances in a Pistolero-free race. And finally, with or without Contador, Schleckâ€™s time trialing is still a major weaknessâ€”a rider like Ivan Basso can limit his losses in the moutains while gaining back potentially large amounts of the time against the clock. So while itâ€™s fine to make Andy the top favorite for the win, donâ€™t be fooled into thinking he doesnâ€™t have to race the race first.
But lest we forget, thereâ€™s more to Leopard Trek than just the Schlecks. Fabian Cancellara topped many of last yearâ€™s â€œRider of the Yearâ€ lists after back-to-back wins in Flanders and Roubaix, the Prologue and yellow jersey at the Tour, and another World ITT Championship. With an incredibly strong squad supporting him and a top-notch lietenant in Stuart Oâ€™Grady, thereâ€™s little reason to bet against Spartacus in any of his usual targets. The big question is at what point will the Swiss star decide to make a serious attempt at winning the final two Monuments left missing on resumÃ©: Liege and Lombardy.
As for the rest of the team, Linus Gerdemann and Jakob Fuglsang will likely win more than a few races for the squadâ€”Fuglsangâ€™s an exceptionally talented rider who appears to be on the verge of a truly breakout season. Daniele Bennati will try to win the team a field sprint or two, while Brice Feillu will get another crack at mountain stage wins at the Tour (should Schleck give him the green light).
And donâ€™t forget Jens Voigtâ€”he knows how to win a race or two.
In the end, thereâ€™s little not like about the roster Nygaard and Andersen have assembledâ€”itâ€™s unquestionably the finest collection of the talent in the world. As for the teamâ€™s backers and infrastructire, that remains to be seen.
Man of the Hour: The Tour looks as if itâ€™s Andy Schleckâ€™s to loseâ€”at least for now. But thatâ€™s a lot of pressure, maybe more than he had expected when starting this project. Itâ€™s one thing to go into the Tour as a bit of an underdog; itâ€™s another thing entirely to be everyoneâ€™s top favorite.
On the Hot Seat: Bryan Nygaard has a lot of peopleâ€”including myselfâ€”wondering just how stable this team really is. Mysterious press releases, unnecessary press conferences, and the lack of a title sponsor are not the best ways to convince everyone your projectâ€™s built for the long haul. That said, Garmin and HTC started in similar fashions and have enjoyed several successful seasons. But so did Coast, Bianchi, and that American team in 2001â€”what were they called?
Up-and-Comer: With a 13th-place finish in his first Paris-Roubaix last season, thereâ€™s little wonder why the Schleckâ€™sâ€”and ultimately Fabian Cancellaraâ€”wanted Dominic Klemme with them at Leopard Trek. The young Germanâ€™s already rewarded their trust with the teamâ€™s first ever winâ€”in Wednesdayâ€™s GP Le Samyn.
Best Pick-Up: Jens Voigtâ€™s one of the classiest riders in the sportâ€”and maybe the funniest too. For me, his move to Leopard Trek gives the entire project a bit more credibility. He wouldnâ€™t be involved if it werenâ€™t a realistic endeavor.
Biggest Loss: Whichever potential title sponsor backed-out at the last minute has to go down as the teamâ€™s biggest loss. I have a hard time believing that an essentially blank jersey was the plan when this project began last summer. Someone came down with a bad case of cold feetâ€”the team will need to get hot fast if Nygaard hopes to land someone soon.
And there it isâ€”the #1 team in our 2011 Team-By-Team Season Preview.
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