News feature, June 26, 2008
Halfway through: A review of the ProTour teams' season to date (Part 4)
What was the first half of the 2008 season like for the 18 ProTour teams? Who can be satisfied with their performance and who needs improvement? Or, as the Cyclingnews staff asked, 'What went right and what went wrong?'
Here is part four of a team-by-team analysis of the first half of the year. The teams are listed in no particular order.
By Ben Atkins
What went right: Under normal circumstances this would be an outstanding season for any team. 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador has won just about every race that he has entered including the Vueltas Castilla y Leon and Pais Vasco and the Giro d'Italia – the latter after reportedly being sat on the beach a week before. Andreas Klöden – one of the few big names left over from last year's team – has also chipped in with successes of his own: winning the Tour de Romandie and finishing second in the Tour de Suisse.
What went wrong: Not much has gone wrong on the road; it's off it that the team has hit problems. Despite protestations that the management and team structure has been replaced since the scandals in and after last year's Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) refused to invite them to any of the races that they own. Apart from the Tour de France, these races include Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, all of which would have been targets for Astana riders. This boycotting of the team was preceded by a similar action from the Giro's owners RCS Sport (until that last minute invitation), costing the team its participation in Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo.
Contador's Giro victory was criticised by some for not being as stylish as his Tour victory of last year – in fact he only had assurance of victory after the final day's time trial. This is not altogether surprising though as the invitation to race only arrived at the eleventh hour and the Spaniard was on holiday at the time.
Holding out for: With no Tour de France, there is little prospect of quality competition in the coming month. Astana will probably send one of the strongest teams to the Tour of Austria, but the big stars are now looking forward to the latter part of the season: the Olympic games, the Vuelta a España and the World Championships.
Contador himself has stated recently that his own national tour is his own preferred target, which would make him only the fifth rider to have won all three tours, and the first rider since Giovanni Battaglin in 1981 to win the Giro and Vuelta in the same year (and the first ever since the Vuelta was moved to its current position in the calendar.
Overall: As stated above, this would have been a fantastic season under normal circumstances. Astana has won virtually every major race where the team has been invited, but the non-invitation to ASO's races (and those owned by RCS Sport at the beginning of the season) has left a huge gap in the team's schedule and for a team of this size to not be invited to the Tour is a disaster.
No matter how much they try to distance themselves from it, the spectre of Alexandre Vinokourov still hangs over this team. Despite the door being firmly shut to him, it's difficult to escape the fact that the team was originally set up as a vehicle for the former Kazakh champion and the sponsors may yet start to make demands. The team can only hope that time will distance them from the 2007 disaster.
By Brecht Decaluwé
What went right: With Cadel Evans, the Belgian team has the odds-on favourite for the upcoming Tour de France. Evans even started to win races in an unusually aggressive fashion - taking an uphill sprint in the Ruta del Sol and the Ventoux stage in Paris- Nice, an unusual feat for a rider who normally focuses on following on the climbs.
Recently Robbie McEwen started winning bunch sprints again and his three victories in Switzerland made up for a rather poor showing earlier this year. The Australian contingent in the team was responsible for nine of the team's eleven victories.
Young ace Greg Van Avermaet showed that he can become the team's future leader in the Spring Classics; the Belgian gave an impressive performance in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and then went onto a gutsy stage win in the Tour of Belgium. For now Van Avermaet can use his fast legs to become the perfect lead-out man for Robbie McEwen in the Tour de France, like Gert Steegmans did two years ago.
In the Giro d'Italia Jurgen Van Den Broeck captured a seventh place, which is the best result for a Belgian in a Grand Tour since Rik Verbrugghe in the Giro of 2002. The 25 year-old was considered to be a talent after his junior world champion title, but things started to improve fast for the new 'VDB' after he moved to Italy to train in the mountains instead of flat Flanders. By extending the contract of 'VDB' until 2010, the team is assured of a good GC-rider aside Evans for the next couple of years.
What went wrong: Directeur Sportif Marc Sergeant drew the conclusion himself after the Spring Classics. "The team was able to show itself in the Spring Classics, but once again they missed the icing on the cake. If a book would be written about our Spring Classics it would contain a lot of pages, but would it sell? I don't think so, because you need victories for that."
Leif Hoste was the team's leader in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, which are extremely important races as they are held on, or near home soil. The triple runner-up in Flanders couldn't live up to the expectations. Partly due to bad luck, but also because other riders proved to be stronger than him. It's always a gamble to aim solely on these two races. It was Cadel Evans' second place in La Flèche Wallonne which rescued the team's Spring campaign.
Holding out for: The yellow jersey in Paris! Cadel Evans is the top favourite for the Tour de France and Silence-Lotto did everything they could to build a strong team around the Australian. By bringing on Yaroslav Popovych the team should have a man who can work for Evans in the high mountains. All the other riders, except for compatriot Robbie McEwen are in the team to work for Evans. It's Evans' race to lose.
Overall: The team relies almost solely on their Australian riders for victories, while the Belgians proved to be without winning legs in their Spring Classics. Luckily for them the Belgian team made a switch of focus last year, from the Spring Classics to the Grand Tours. For many years the team was fighting against all-mighty Quick Step in the Spring Classics, being left behind as Belgian's number two in most occasions. Nowadays they gained more publicity than ever as they are holding one of the most respected GC-riders around. All will depend on the performance from Cadel Evans in the Tour de France for a better mark at the end of the year.
Team CSC-Saxo Bank
By Ben Atkins
What went right: Two words: Fabian Cancellara. An unbeatable week and a bit in March for the Gladiator saw him take wins in the Monte Paschi Eroica, the Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano- Sanremo. Two stages in the Tour de Suisse – his home Tour – show that the World time trial champion is heading into the second half of the season in the same way he hit the first. Argentinean sprinter Juan Jose Haedo has chipped in with several early sprint victories in the Tours of California, Murcia, Georgia and Luxembourg. On top of this Kurt-Asle Arvesen won the E3 Prijs, and Jens Voigt won the Criterium International (as usual) and took the Giro d'Italia stage into Varese, surely an early confidence boost for this year's World Championships.
Perhaps the biggest victory of the year has been off the road though, with the securing of a new sponsor in Saxo Bank.
What went wrong: Besides Cancellara's second place behind Tom Boonen at Paris-Roubaix, the northern classics weren't fantastic for a team with such talent in such areas. The team had won the race for the two preceding years – in Cancellara and Stuart O'Grady – but Quick Step took the race back from them.
Voigt's stage win was a blip in an otherwise anonymous Giro. Worse still, a crash in the third stage took out both Brad McGee and Stuart O'Grady – both with broken collarbones. The two Aussies should be back in time for the second half of the season, but only time will tell how this has disrupted their preparation for key events.
Holding out for: After a successful first half of the year, CSC is preparing for a three pronged assault on the Tour de France. This could be the best chance that Carlos Sastre has to move up form podium contender to overall winner. He will be ably supported by Luxembourg brothers Frank and Andy Schleck – either of whom is capable of stepping into the breach if Sastre falters.
Many of the team's riders have ambitions for Olympic success in Beijing, including O'Grady and McGee on the track. The majority of this next phase of the season will be aimed at arriving at the Games in the best condition.
Overall: The season so far for CSC is pretty much as you'd expect with victories and results from all over the team. After Cancellara's Sanremo victory however, the rest of the classics season was a bit of a disappointment and the Giro was not exactly a success. With the team's top riders coming into form for the Tour de France though, and with the security afforded by its new sponsor, things are going pretty well.
By Brecht Decaluwé
What went right: With 32 victories it is clear that the Belgian team didn't perform poorly."Tornado Tom" Boonen and his team-mates started racking up wins from Qatar and California on. While Boonen struggled a bit in Europe it turned out he was still as strong as ever as he went on to end the first part of his season with a fantastic win in Paris-Roubaix. His Belgian team-mates Gert Steegmans and Stijn Devolder have improved compared to last year, and the latter managed to capture his first Spring Classic in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Wouter Weylandt and Steven De Jongh are lead-out men and sometimes great lightning rods for Boonen in the bunch sprints, both being able to rack up some wins themselves. Italian champion Giovanni Visconti spent eight days in the pink jersey, which made the team's Giro d'Italia a success
What went wrong: A lot... In dark cycling times team manager Patrick Lefevre was able to extend his current sponsor contracts with Quick Step, Specialized and Innergetic for three more years after a long and troubled quest. Just before announcing this deal, Boonen's cocaine problems brought the team's existence in danger. It wasn't the first non-sporting news flash about Boonen. The flamboyant Belgian lost his driver license on two occasions for speeding and driving under intoxication. Nevertheless the sponsors decided to keep their faith in the team. The cocaine story from Boonen is considered to be a non-cycling related issue, but nonetheless both the Tour de France and the Tour de Suisse barred Boonen from participation in their races. Being considered as one of cycling's superstars Boonen hasn't been setting a good example especially in light of the sport's troubles.
On the sporting side, Quick-Step's non-Belgian contingent was not as strong as expected. More was expected from world champion Paolo Bettini, who captured only one non-important victory in the GP Formaggi Guffanti. The 34 year-old was nowhere in the Spring Classics, not being helped by a crash in the Basque Country that left him with a broken rib. In the Giro d'Italia Bettini was doing all he could to capture a stage win in the world champion jersey, but he didn't get further than seven top-10 positions, and spent much of his time working for Visconti during his long stint in pink.
Holding out for: The world championships in Varese and the Olympics in Beijing because Paolo Bettini will be keen to extend both his titles in these races. And of course more Tom Boonen gossip. Tornado Tom quickly started to race again after the cocaine news, but he is under a lot of pressure. Surely Boonen will try to stay out of focus once off his bike, but every new mistake will be punished without mercy.
Overall: Quick Step has won plenty of races - not just with Boonen, but with a strong contingent of one-day racers and sprinters who threaten the dominance of Boonen - perhaps why he was looking elsewhere for employment before his cocaine debacle. In the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Stijn Devolder gave Boonen a bit of turnabout, and Gert Steegmans could become the team's next big sprinter. The team is not all about Boonen and Bettini, and with the former out of the Tour, it might be time for some of the lesser knows to shine.