After a disastrous Giro dâ€™Italia in which the team failed to win a stage or mount a serious GC challenge, Liquigas-Cannondale heads to the Tour de France with Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Saganâ€”the teamâ€™s most successful riders so far this season.
Nibali last rode the Tour de France in 2009 and finished seventh in a difficult race that featured (among others) a still-competitive Lance Armstrong. But while Nibali was only 24 at the time, the 2009 Tour was actually his fourth grand tourâ€”and his second Tour de France. Â This year, Nibali enters his third grand boucle after two seasons spent focusing on the Giro and the Vueltaâ€”with stellar results.
But the Tour de France is a different race entirely, and finishing seventh as a relative unknown and challenging as a contender are two vastly different propositions. As for Nibaliâ€™s chances this year, he seems to be a bit lost following a terrific spring. He was well off the pace at the Tour of California (slightly alarming) and failed to contend at the Criterium du DauphinÃ© (very alarming). In a race filled with experienced Tour contenders, Nibali cannot afford to have taken anything for granted in his preparation. Luckily, the course suits him. A talented climber and an above-average time trialist, heâ€™s also one of the sportâ€™s best at going downhill, a valuable asset in a race with a few mountain stages that end after long descents.
And then thereâ€™s Peter Sagan, a young man taking the start in what will be his second grand tour and first Tour de France. It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Saganâ€™s been on a tear latelyâ€”heâ€™s won 10 races in about five weeks. (Iâ€™m still getting over his incredible victory in Stage 6 when he appeared to be pinned against a barrier with 150 meters to go.)
While thereâ€™s no such thing as a sure thing, Saganâ€™s about as close to one as you can get at this yearâ€™s Tour de France. And after his surprising Prologue victory at the Tour de Suisse, whoâ€™s to say he wonâ€™t end the raceâ€™s first weekend with a yellow jersey?
Man of the Hour
Saganâ€™s the hottest one-day rider in the sport right now. Liquigas has been smart with his progression, waiting two full seasons before unleashing the Slovak on the Tour. Now he gets to shine on the sportâ€™s biggest stage.
Overall, Nibali has enteredâ€”and finishedâ€”eight grand tours and his worst result remains his 20th-place finish in the 2007 Tour de France. But despite the fact that heâ€™s already won one, Nibali still has some room to grow as a grand tour rider – at 27-years-old, time is on his side.
On the Hot Seat
Ivan Basso lost a few fans at this yearâ€™s Giro after the Italian rode a fatally conservative race. Now he rides the Tour alongside Nibali, the rider who helped him win his last Giro dâ€™Italia. How Basso fares as a rider and as a teammate will go a long way toward determining his future.
Polandâ€™s Sylvester Szmyd has played a major role in the stage race success Liquigas-Cannondale has enjoyed over the past few seasons. And while he has only one win on his resume, heâ€™s one of the most respected domestiques in the sport. (And check out his blogâ€”even in translation itâ€™s an entertaining read.)
Follow Whit on Twitter at @whityost