Sorting the contenders from the pretenders Anthony Tan previews the 22 teams and their key riders in this year’s Grande Boucle.
†Denotes one of four Pro Continental teams to be offered a wildcard
AG2R-La Mondiale: Drought Or Dessert?
Founded in 1992, AG2R is one of the longest-running teams in the pro peloton (in this year’s Tour, second only to Lotto-Belisol) yet they’ve also been one of the most mercurial during the month of July. It’s either drought or dessert for long-time general manager Vincent Lavenu’s team.
In 2006 they picked up a stage win and a day in yellow, then nothing the next year, before a pair of stages in 2008. A year later in Lance Armstrong’s comeback Tour their rider Rinaldo Nocentini, who is still with them courtesy of a successful breakaway, took the maillot jaune for eight days before handing it over to its final bearer, one Alberto Contador. Since then they have much to say ‘merci’ to Christophe Riblon for, since he saved their backsides in the 2010 and 2013 Tours with a stage win in each, atop Ax-3-Domaines and, last year, on the hallowed climb of Alpe d’Huez.
In Nicolas Roche they lost one of their best at the close of the 2012 season (who defected to Tinkoff-Saxo) but this year four riders in particular have come good: Romain Bardet, Carlos Betancur (winner of Paris-Nice), Jean-Christophe Péraud (victory in Critérium International) and Domenico Pozzovivo. The latter is perennially Giro-bound but expect the other three to light things up in the medium and high mountains and if all else fails there’s always Riblon…
Astana: Shark Attack!
A relatively short history dating back to 2007 but by golly, it’s been colourful. Alberto Contador, Alexandre Vinokourov, Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel and Chris Horner have all been involved with the team at some point but curiously none have anything more to do with the Kazakhstan-based outfit except for ‘Vino’, who is now the team’s general manager… Ahem. (Sorry, just clearing my throat – seems to happen every time I utter his name.)
After two years too many relying on nearly man Roman Kreuziger who left for Tinkoff-Saxo the same year as Roche, they now boast a bona-fide Grand Tour winner in Vincenzo Nibali who, after winning the Vuelta a España in 2010 and last year the Giro d’Italia, has chosen to focus fully on winning The Big Shebang. By the time he gets to the Yorkshire Grand Départ he will have completed just 41 days’ racing and at the time of writing had won nothing at all, but that’s mostly intentional. Mostly.
Sure, he’ll be pitted against Contador, Chris Froome et al but he’s one of a select few who fears no one. His nickname is ‘The Shark’, after all.
Belkin Pro Cycling: Minor Miracle Required
Formed from the ashes of Rabobank, like Astana (and for that matter, the majority of others) Belkin has a ‘past’, but with old management ousted and a new sponsor as of last July this really does feel like a new team.
Robert Gesink has long been touted as Dutch cycling’s Next Big Thing but to be good at Grand Tours you need to be consistent; the reality is the wiry blond has been anything but when it comes to three-week races. One week, yes, three, no. In April it was made known his previous issues with cardiac arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat, had returned and underwent medical intervention in an attempt to correct the problem.
While they have Bauke Mollema, who finished sixth last year, and Laurens Ten Dam the pair are at best pseudo contenders who would both need a minor miracle to realise the podium. Until young Wilco Kelderman gets a little older and a little stronger they’re best off hunting stage wins. Belkin boasts one of the world’s fastest in Theo Bos but the former sprint world champ doesn’t yet have the endurance to master Grand Tour sprints, let alone those faced at Le Tour, and may never will.
BMC Racing Team: Primed For A Podium
Better Make Cash. That’s the joke team owner Andy Rihs told a packed press conference back in January 2010 at the Tour Down Under, when they were a second-tier Pro Continental team hoping to be invited to the biggest races in the world and some journalist asked what they stood for.
The irony was that the BMC Racing Team didn’t need to ‘make’ cash, for Rihs was – and still is – a billionaire, his windfall derived from the profits of his company Phonak Hearing Systems, which develops and markets hearing aids and cochlea implants. Before too long, with his many millions and co-owner Jim Ochowicz, the team was able to buy some of the world’s best riders including then road world champion Cadel Evans, who one year later won the Tour de France, 2010 road world champ Thor Hushovd, and in 2012 Philippe Gilbert, who would win the road worlds the same year. So they don’t mind their world champions.
Thing is though, for such a moneyed team, they don’t win that much. Their cost-per-win ratio is probably the highest of any WorldTour squad, which has led some to accuse Rihs of ‘financial doping’ and by often paying well above market value, creating an uneven playing field. But Rihs don’t make the rules and as it stands there is no salary cap, nor is there a ceiling on team budgets, for which they must surely be in the top three or four (along with Astana, Katusha and Team Sky).
Now Rihs may not care for cash flow but results are another matter. Their lugubrious Tour of yesteryear, where they walked away with nothing and their best-placed rider finished 35th overall, Steve Morabito crossing the line in Paris almost one-and-a-half hours behind Chris Froome, inevitably spelled change. Out went team manager John Lelangue and in came Allan Peiper, who in his short spell since has righted the Goodship BMC and domesticated egos like a master lion tamer – and sure enough, victories have followed.
Evans, after two consecutive less than par shows in July, is leader no longer. They have now built their team around Tejay van Garderen, who luckily for them looks the real deal. Peiper says he’s a “five to six year” plan but the young American, who was best young rider in 2012 and finished fifth overall, needs to podium within the next three.
Bretagne-Séché Environnement†: Outside Bet
You probably haven’t heard of them but they’ve been around since 2005 and pretty much race only in France. In its wildcard invitations ASO has historically been very kind to its local counterparts (last year all three were French) and this year is not too different with Cofidis also getting a guernsey – although IAM Cycling and NetApp-Endura also got the nod, helped in part by Europcar’s elevation to the WorldTour and one less top-level team (18 this year versus 19 the previous). If you’ve got money to throw away, place your out-of-the-ballpark bets with rouleur Florian Vachon and the brothers Feillu with grimpeur (climber) Brice, who won a stage to Andorra at the 2009 TdF, and his elder bro and sprinteur non-deluxe Romain. Like I said though, only if you’ve got cash to burn.
Cannondale: It’s Easy Being Green
With Ivan Basso well past his limelight years at 36 years old and previous top dog Vincenzo Nibali leaving for Astana at the end of 2012 Cannondale, the team known as Liquigas for 14 years till the Connecticut based bike company took over sole title sponsorship in 2013, has since been all about one man: Peter Sagan.
Such focus on one rider, who is shy on camera but not on bike (his victory salutes and impromptu wheelies annoy the hell out of Fabian Cancellara, among others in the peloton) perhaps belies the team’s combined strength: for eleven consecutive Grand Tours from the 2009 Giro d’Italia to the 2012 Tour de France, they finished each and every one with all nine riders. No mean feat.
The speedy Slovak, precocious as he is, was desperate to score a Monument this spring – Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Paris-Roubaix were all on his hit-list – but try as he did, failed to make it happen. His attention now turns to a potential – and given his all-terrain capabilities, very possible – third green jersey title and building on his TdF stage win count that so far numbers four. The ‘Tourminator’ won his last two maillots verts by a country mile and for a sprinter his versatility is without peer, often able to leap over medium mountain stages with the front group, so number three appears a fait accompli.
Cofidis†: A Little Too Casual
Like Astana another team with a colourful past, having signed riders from Lance Armstrong to Bobby Julich to Frank Vandenbroucke to David Millar to Christian Moreni to Stuart O’Grady to Matthew White to Remy Di Gregorio… See a pattern emerging here?
Despite repeated problems with doping scandals, however, Cofidis is in its 17th year of sponsorship and still going. Still going strong, well not quite, but nevertheless still going. They were part of the UCI ProTour (now WorldTour) for the first five years, but in September 2009 the governing body’s licensing commission deemed them unfit to receive automatic invites to the world’s top races; based on a string of sub-standard results, their licence was not renewed. By consequence, from 2010 they have since competed as a Professional Continental team and have largely relied on Samuel Dumoulin, David Moncoutié and Rein Taaramäe for the bulk of their victories.
Dumoulin went to AG2R from last year and ‘Moncoots’ retired in 2012, leaving Taaramäe to take up the reins. Unfortunately for Cofidis the Estonian has been less than ordinary the last two years – though recently he seems to have found his race legs again, with a mountain stage win and overall podium finish forthcoming at the Tour of Turkey.
Don’t get me wrong: Cofidis is not devoid of talent. There just seems to be a culture of insouciance that has insidiously infected those who work there, which, unsurprisingly, affects their ability to succeed.
FDJ.fr: Moral Fibre
Founded the same year as its French frère Cofidis though nothing like its scandal-laden brother due to the strong moral fibre of its upstanding GM Marc Madiot. FDJ has enjoyed a long affinity with Australians that first began with Bradley McGee, but today all bar three riders are Française – and no ‘kangourous’.
Success at their home tour has been hit and miss (actually mostly miss) save for some special moments like McGee’s prologue victory at the 2003 Tour, Sandy Casar’s three stage wins (2007, ’09, ’10) and, courtesy of Thibaut Pinot and Pierrick Fédrigo, another two stages in 2012. Casar has since retired and Fédrigo’s getting on a bit so much faith rests on the 24 years young shoulders of Pinot. At the time of his stage win he was the youngest rider in the Tour and finished 10th overall; at 22 years and 54 days, the youngest to make the top 10 since Raymond Impanis in 1947.
Although he abandoned on stage 16 of last year’s tour, seventh overall two months later at the Vuelta a España shows he’s on the improve. Another four or five years, Pinot may well be fighting for yellow – and, should he successfully do so, break what is now a near 30-year drought, the last French victor Bernard Hinault in 1985.
Garmin-Sharp: All For One, One For All
This is the story of The Little Engine That Could.
From fledgling junior development squad in 2003 to US Continental team one year later, to Pro Continental in 2007 and finally ProTour in 2009. Albeit with a series name change (now WorldTour) it is where they have remained, Slipstream Sports, the name of their holding company, a major player in pro cycling’s highest level for the past five years.
For a team that espouses a strict anti-doping policy and, to their credit has incurred no doping positives, Garmin-Sharp is perceived by some pundits to be lenient on ex-dopers. They’ve hired more than most and their GM and CEO Jonathan Vaughters is one such man himself. While their transgressions occurred a decade or more ago, almost all did not admit their sins till after the US Anti-Doping Agency released their thousand-page dossier that brought down Lance Armstrong and his once close-knit coterie of teammates, henchmen and acolytes. For cooperating with USADA riders like Dave Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson received six-month bans and were then welcomed back by ‘JV’ with open arms; Armstrong got life. Yes, he played a far bigger role and was an enabler and well as a user, but one has to ask: Is it fair – has justice been served?
Nonetheless, Vaughters operates on a principle that no one rider is above another. Garmin-Sharp is far less hierarchical than other teams and as a result they’ve been pretty successful at it, winning their first Grand Tour with Ryder Hesjedal at the 2012 Giro d’Italia (18 months later, he too confessed to having doped back in the day). Everyone gets their chance, so long as the ‘all for one, one for all’ modus operandi is strictly obeyed. Plus quirkiness – and anything argyle – is in.
Bereft of a bona fide podium contender or top notch sprinter, via meticulous planning, prescience and preparation they threw everything including the kitchen sink at winning the ninth stage of last year’s Tour – and, quite brilliantly, pulled it off with Dan Martin. Same deal this year: using either Martin or Tom-Jelte Slagter, I’m predicting an all-out offensive on stage nine again: another short, climb-laden traverse, this time in the Vosges mountain ranges and a day before the stage to La Planche des Belles Filles.
Giant-Shimano: Blond Ambition
Marcel Kittel. He is why Giant-Shimano has the reputation they do.
Last July, in only his second Grande Boucle, Kittel became king of the sprinting world notching four stages including the first and last, thereby ensuring for the next five years no one would forget his name. From his early days as a time trial specialist the German’s rise appears meteoric though not unbelievable; perhaps that was in part due to the media’s incessant focus on the duel between Mark Cavendish and André Greipel – till Kittel pulled their pants down, that is.
Can we expect more of the same this time round? It’s a distinct possibility. Cavendish, although reunited with his old lead-out man Mark Renshaw and back in the groove is no longer a class above, and Greipel, while arguably the strongest of the three, doesn’t appear to be getting any quicker. But at 26 years young and in only his fourth pro season, there’s much more to come from Marcel.
At 82 kilos, however, he is, by some margin, the heaviest of the lot. The key for Kittel, therefore, will be his ability to haul his barn house body uphill and down dale for 3,656 kilometres without damaging his kick and store enough in reserve for the finales of sprint stages. The man with the best-coiffed hair in the peloton did a masterful job of it last year, so one year older and one year stronger there’s no reason why he couldn’t do it all again.
If selected also watch out for the equally precocious and almost as quick John Degenkolb, second in this year’s Paris-Roubaix and winner of five stages at the 2012 Vuelta a España; and 22-year-old climber Warren Barguil, along with FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot one of French cycling’s few hot prospects and double stage winner at last year’s Vuelta, which he won with old-school panache.
IAM Cycling†: New Kid On The Block
Launched in January last year IAM Cycling is the youngest kid on the block and being Pro Continental, they rely on wildcard invites to race on the WorldTour. Luckily for them – and in no small part due to the acquisitions of two popular Frenchman in Sylvain Chavanel and Jérôme Pineau – Tour organisers ASO announced in January this year one of four wildcard invites had gone to the Swiss-based team, managed by former French road race champion Serge Beucherie.
They don’t yet have a guy who can challenge for the podium but the team is chock-full of puncheurs (Ardennes Classics style riders) and baroudeurs-roleurs (attacking riders who excel over rolling terrain) – think Chavanel, Martin Elmiger, Mathias Frank, Heinrich Haussler, Thomas Löfkvist, Vicente Reynès – so expect them to be competitive on the medium mountain and transitional stages.
Lampre-Merida: On A Wing And A Prayer
Being an Italian based squadra this team’s focus is centred on the Giro d’Italia and big one-day races, particularly those in Italia like the autumn classics that include the Tour of Lombardy. That said, way back in 2007 Lampre scalped two stages of the Tour de France with Daniele Bennati, then another two from Alessandro Petacchi in 2010, the latter also taking the maillot vert as winner of the points classification.
It’s been slim pickings since with no sign of success at Le Tour. Road world champion Rui Costa and Vuelta a España winner Chris Horner, who was down to ride the Giro before a not inconsiderable crash in April put paid to his Italian ambitions, hit by a car while training around Lake Como, could provide a reversal of fortunes en France for the distinctive fuchsia-clad team.
Lotto-Belisol: Going Long, Going Strong
In terms of title sponsorship they’ve been going longer than any other team in the WorldTour but have undergone more name changes than Fletch. Still, one company name has always remained on their jersey: Lotto, the national lottery of Belgium.
Belgian to the core they may be yet ironically, their greatest success at the Tour in the past decade has come from two Australians: Robbie McEwen who won all but one of his dozen Tour stage victories including three green jerseys (2002, ’04, ’06) with them; and Cadel Evans, who while riding for the team twice finished second (‘07, ’08) and rode another two times to a top-10 finish in Paris (’05, ’06). Since then another non-Belgian, André Greipel, has largely spearheaded their success at Le Grand Shindig, the German sprinting juggernaut (who otherwise goes by the unfortunate nickname ‘the Gorilla’) having amassed five stages to date.
In recent years local riders enjoyed a modicum of success. Philippe Gilbert (at BMC since 2012) and Jelle Vanendert (still with them) came away with a stage victory apiece in 2011 when Evans, no longer riding for the team, famously won the whole shebang and created yet another slice of Australian sporting history. But Jurgen Van Den Broeck, the man they expected to take up the mantle when cycling’s little Aussie battler left at the close of the 2009 season, has failed to deliver on his promise – or perhaps more correctly, what management hoped. Fourth overall at the 2010 Tour was the best VDB got, and at 31 years of age and showing no signs of improve, it’s the best he’s likely to get. Time to stop bashing one’s head against the cobbled wall, methinks.
Realistically, both Van Den Broeck and Vanendert should focus on opportunist stage wins in the medium-high mountains, with the rest of the team safeguarding and leading out Greipel for the flat stuff.
Movistar Team: Alejandro’s Last Chance Saloon
The most successful team to come out of Spain began as a dominant force and still is.
When they were called Reynolds (1981-’89) Pedro Delgado won the 1998 Tour de France and ’89 Vuelta a España for them. Miguel Indurain, without a skerrick of doubt the best rider of his generation, also rode for Reynolds (which later became Banesto – 1990-2003) and among a pile of other races won five Tours on the trot (1991-’95). After they were known as Illes Balears (2004-’05) and became Caisse d’Epargne (2006-’10) Oscar Pereiro belatedly won the 2006 Tour, albeit two years after American Floyd Landis was stripped of his title, having tested positive for testosterone.
Despite 2013 Tour revelation Nairo Quintana finishing as runner-up, Movistar management has granted his more experienced counterpart Alejandro Valverde one last crack at the title. It’s more than a little unusual (some say a travesty) given the 33-year-old has previously never finished on the Tour podium (his best is fifth overall in 2007), and his only Grand Tour victory came five years ago at the 2009 Vuelta – shortly before his results from 2010-’11 were voided by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, pinged for his involvement in the Operación Puerto investigation.
Nevertheless, post-suspension, Valverde has twice finished on the Vuelta podium (2012, ’13) and remains adamant he would have been right up there in last year’s Tour if not for a inopportune flat on the wind-ravaged 13th stage to Saint-Amand-Montrond, which his foes took full advantage of. His impeccable early season form, and later performances in the Spring Classics that saw him triumph at La Flèche Wallonne and finish second to Simon Gerrans in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, suggests he still has what it takes. As a unit Movistar is as formidable as Team Sky or Tinkoff-Saxo on paper, but for whatever reason (karma, perhaps?) Le Tour has never looked kindly on señor Valverde.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step: A Team For All Seasons
Right from the get-go OPQS (it’s too much to say their full name, even once) has never seemed that interested in Grand Tours. Their speciality is the Spring Classics – particularly the cobbled variety. Three week races, even one as prestigious as the Tour de France, are more an afterthought. The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix always come first, and the road world championships (be it road race, time trial or team time trial) a close second. As for everything else… a somewhat distant third. And in Belgium Tom Boonen is God.
Times are a-changing, albeit gradually, at general manager Patrick Lefévère’s team.
Hiring time trial king Tony Martin in 2012, now a three-time world champion in the discipline, has placed his speciality in the spotlight and bestowed the team umpteen pages of extra publicity. In a similar vein the purchase of Mark Cavendish from season 2013 onwards has placed renewed importance on sprinting and stage wins at Grand Tours and particularly the Tour de France. And the recent rise of Pole powerhouse Michał Kwiatkowski, another 2012 acquisition that is beginning to pay big dividends, has seen the team competitive throughout the spring rather than just for a fortnight. Who knows, after his 11th place overall last July, ‘Kwiato’ may even be a podium contender in years to come.
OPQS are now a team for all seasons as opposed to only one. And it’s showing in their results, the last two years seeing a host of talent bearing much fruit for the Belgian sponsors, rather than a hit-or-miss reliance on a few riders. No, they won’t win the Tour or take the most stage wins or make the most noise or have the best whatever, but they will be fiercely competitive, I can guarantee you that.
Orica-GreenEDGE: Tales Of The Unexpected
They were billed as a team of underdogs and proudly wore the label, but two years on from their WorldTour debut at the 2012 Tour Down Under and 67 wins later, they can definitively be called frontrunners.
In anything other than general classification at GrandTours OGE is competitive from the first race of the season to the last and everything else in between. Granted, they rely an awful lot on Simon Gerrans but the puncheur from Down Under continues to deliver. Dressed to the nines in the national champion’s green and gold, he landed his biggest one-day trophy this April with victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. What’s more, when Gerro wins so do his teammates, it seems, because in the next fortnight the team took a quartet of stage wins and overall victory at the Tour of Turkey. Last year, after Gerrans won the third stage of the Tour in Corsica, OGE won the following day’s team time trial in scintillating fashion, upstaging pre-race favourites Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Team Sky.
For a few years now they’ve been on the lookout for a Grand Tour contender (team owner Gerry Ryan tried to court Cadel Evans, obviously unsuccessfully) and when they do, OGE really will be complete. Until then, however, as far as the Tour de France is concerned, it’s all about stage wins – more often than not, when they least look likely to do so. That said – and I’ll stick my head on the block here – they’re unlikely to win any of the days tipped for the pure sprinters: Matthew Goss can sometimes match but rarely beat guys like Kittel, Cavendish and Greipel, and it’ll be a few years yet before Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews and Leigh Howard can contend with the aforementioned three.
Team Europcar: Take A Rental On An Underdog?
Former pro Jean-René Bernaudeau has been managing and directing this plucky outfit for twenty years now and in many ways they are like the Garmin-Sharp or Orica-GreenEDGE of France. With no outright leader they’re full of riders who dare to be different, who thrive on the impossible and who punch above their weight, occasionally turning impossible into reality. However they don’t win nearly as much as GreenEDGE, which therefore makes them closer to Garmin than OGE, since as mentioned earlier, the Aussie outfit’s now progressed from underdog status.
The team’s overwhelming reliance on housewives’ favourite – big call, though some even say national hero – Thomas Voeckler, now 35, remains, though it’s highly unlikely, nay, impossible, he’ll repeat or better his fourth place result from 2011. He of the eternally wagging tongue is resigned to stage wins during his Indian summer, four of which he has so far accrued from Le Tour. Bernaudeau also has a rough diamond in Pierre Rolland, best young rider from 2011 and twice in the top-10 (2011, ’12) but his albatross is the time trial which he seems only vaguely interested in correcting, and aged 27, time’s galloping away to make good on his early promise.
Team NetApp-Endura†: The Czech Connection
Created last year from the merging of two former teams, German based NetApp and British team Endura, they probably feel like they’ve already won the Tour de France, being one of four Pro Conti teams to receive a wildcard invitation to this year’s Grande Boucle.
In terms of talent it’s a mixture of old and new, from 23-year-old German youngster Michael Schwarzmann to Basque veteran Iker Camaño, who turned 35 in March. Interestingly, the two best riders are from the Czech Republic: their road race and time trial champ Jan Bárta, who won the 2012 Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali, and Leopold König, winner of the queen stage of last year’s Tour of California, who five months later and on another summit finish took the team’s first Grand Tour victory on the eighth stage of the Vuelta a España, also finishing ninth overall.
Team Katusha: From Russia With Love
Have money. Will buy.
This pretty much sums up Katusha’s formation and acquisition strategy since its inception in 2009. Still, unlike BMC, who are notorious for paying way above market prices, the procurers for Katusha, a team backed by Russian oligarchs, secure smart.
By some margin their best Grand Tour rider is Joaquim Rodríguez, but ‘Purito’ has this year decided to do the Giro-Vuelta double, so you’re unlikely to see UCI WorldTour champ of the past two years. This means the likes of classics riders Pavel Brutt, Alexandr Kolobnev and Alexander Kristoff, surprise winner of this year’s Milan-San Remo, will battle for stages that are neither flat nor mountainous, and when the roads do veer skywards Daniel Moreno and Simon Špilak will stick their noses in the wind.
Team Sky: How To Repeat The Feat
Their mission, which they chose to accept, was “to win the Tour de France within five years” according to team principal Dave Brailsford. They did it in three with Bradley Wiggins, and then did it again last year with Chris Froome.
Other races do matter and they’re fairly competitive year-round. But like the United States and Australia they hail from a country where, for Joe Average cycling fan, it’s only the Tour that counts. Unlike most other teams, however, the problem is not money – they are effectively owned and therefore financed by the Murdoch-owned News Corporation. Their problem relates to precedent, for having won the previous two Tours on the trot, anything less than first in Paris will be deemed a failure by their much moneyed benefactors and the majority of the cycling public.
Lucky for them Froome is the real deal; had he not been so loyal to Wiggins in 2012 (well, most of the time, anyway) he may already have won two. Still, Sky probably didn’t count on a resurgent Alberto Contador who has so far looked imperious. And aside from some early season form at the Tour of Oman, a recurring lower back problem didn’t have the Kenyan born Brit back in the swing till April’s Tour de Romandie, which he, as much as his team, needed to win.
With his best friend Richie Porte skipping the Giro, along with Wiggins wishing to be part of the line-up in Leeds, the ‘Froome-dog’ is nevertheless likely to receive all the support he needs in an attempt to repeat the feat of yesteryear. Add Spaniards David López, Mikel Nieve and Xabier Zandio, Brits Peter Kennaugh, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas, and Team Sky has the makings to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest, in this year’s field.
The pedigree, physiology and mentality is there in Froome. It is the not-so-simple matter of making it happen. Again. And again.
Team Tinkoff-Saxo: Sky’s Achilles’ Heel
What do you get when you mix a narcissistic multi-millionaire Russian with a Danish investment bank and a former Tour champion who doped himself to the eyeballs to win?
Answer: Why, Tinkoff-Saxo, of course!
Undoubtedly one of the more, er, shall we say colourful kids on the WorldTour block, the team managed by Bjarne Riis – a.k.a. The Eagle from Herning, a.k.a. Mr Sixty Per Cent in his doping heyday – as much as some would like them to, just won’t go away. And whichever way he does it, one can’t ignore his success as a manager/sport director, with four Grand Tour wins with four different riders (2006 Giro d’Italia, Ivan Basso; 2008, ‘10 Tour de France, Carlos Sastre, Andy Schleck respectively; 2012 Vuelta a España, Alberto Contador).
There’s arguably a smidgeon of sentiment associated with this team also. Riis employs three Australians in Jay McCarthy, Michael Rogers and Rory Sutherland, though more likely than not, only the latter two will get starts in this year’s Tour line-up. And what a line-up it is, spearheaded by a reborn ‘El Pistolero’, who at the time of writing had won two of the toughest stage races (Tirreno-Adriatico, Basque Country) on the calendar and finished second in another two (Algarve, Catalunya) – all in the space of two months.
It’s a tantalising proposition, Froome versus Contador, the two best riders on the two best teams, both at their very best; a three-week slugfest of the highest order. With any luck, it’s something we’ll all have the privilege of watching this July.
Trek Factory Racing: Motley Crew
It had the makings to be the world’s best but for a multitude of reasons it didn’t happen, and likely never will.
The brothers Schleck, Andy and Fränk, are two of the most talented in the peloton, yet in a sport that demands a near-ascetic life in order to succeed, two of the most carefree. At the other end of the scale is Fabian Cancellara. If it were not for the three-time world time trial champion and cobbled Classics king, now three times a winner at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, the team may not exist today. It also didn’t help that Johan Bruyneel, debarred by the United States Anti-Doping Agency for his involvement in “most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”, was the team’s general manager in 2012, standing down by season’s end.
Following Bruyneel’s self-imposed exile of sorts the team has seen somewhat of a turnaround. Last season was arguably their best yet with 24 wins coming their way: among them the rare Flanders-Roubaix double (merci, Fabian), a stage of the Tour de France (Jan Bakelandts), and last but not least, overall victory at the Vuelta a España, as Chris Horner became the oldest winner of any Grand Tour, 51 days short of his 42nd birthday. Cancellara made it back-to-back victories after his triumph in this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, ably supported by Kiwi road champion Hayden Roulston. And new recruit Julián Arredondo, 2013 Tour de Langkawi champion, has been competitive throughout the spring and is a rider to watch for the future.
A pay dispute saw Horner (eventually) find a new home at Lampre-Merida but the core (read: Cancellara) remains, including those laissez-faire Schlecks and undoubtedly the most popular man in the peloton, Jens ‘Shut up legs!’ Voigt, whose work ethic is at polar opposites to the lax brothers from Luxembourg.
Trek Factory Racing won’t win the Tour – by a long shot – but they won’t go unnoticed either.