Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Santos - Australian for Bike Racing

Believe it or not, the 2010 UCI professional road racing season began in Australia this past week at the Santos Tour Down Under. In mid-January. I don't know who this Santos guy is but he is obviously not a procrastinator. I mean...I like bike racing but this just seems really early for a season that culminates in late Fall. Shouldn't pro cyclists have a longer break than professional golfers? Oh wait...maybe that is not the best example.

Actually, the TDU has historically been an Aussie-centric event in which a bunch of Southern Hemispheric (is that a real term?) dudes battle for Outback Steakhouse stocks, kangaroo pelts and crocodile vests. It was dominated by Michael J. Dundee in the mid-eighties and then Stuart O'Grady later on but has recently been shamed with victories by guys from Spain and Germany. While this cannot make Russell Crowe very happy, somewhere near Walkabout Creek a young boy who has killed multiple large reptiles is dedicating his life to reclaiming the TDU crown. Watch out Greipel.

Strangely, even though Andre "Bavarian Koko" Greipel won the event in convincing fashion yet again, there was a lot of interesting activity from guys we are usually accustomed to seeing at the front in July during the Tour. With names like Armstrong, Evans, Sanchez, and Valv.Piti (oh wait, he wasn't allowed in the Tour) at the front and showing form, it was a more interesting race than I have seen in previous editions.

Unfortunately, we ended up seeing some of these guys in new kits that really should have been thought out a bit more in the offseason. I continue to be perplexed by the overwhelming redness of the RadioShack and BMC offerings, Garmin seems to have given up on being cool and again, I am really just horrified by the Footon-Servetto debacle. It's bad enough to rock flesh-toned lycra but these cats are also being forced to wear yellow helmets. I wonder if they are planning on just making them wear Hot Dog On A Stick uniforms for the Tour de France.

We'll get back to the visual aspects of the Tour Down Under shortly but it seems like we need to talk about Andre Greipel a little bit first. For anyone who watched the coverage on Versus or any of the overhead shots on YouTube, it was clear that he was on a totally different level. I mean, even though he got caught out a couple of times, the guy was about 5mph faster than anyone else in the race. It was not close at all, despite what Team Sky would have you believe.

On at least two occasions, The Gorilla came from over 10 riders back and basically made everyone look like kittens. In fact, I would argue that right now, he and Cavendish are the two fastest guys in the peloton. Barring injury, I predict they will win 15 Grand Tour stages between them this year, and I put their combined over/under for the season at 43.5 wins.

But now we need to address Greipel's nickname. I don't know how many Gorillas there are in Deutschland but it seems like kind of a weird association, despite the fact that he is a pretty big guy. However, the bigger issue is that I am having difficulty determining whether to refer to him as "The Gorilla" or just simply "Gorilla." In addition to being entirely irrelevant, this is really annoying to me as a writer...and fellow primate.

Therefore, I will hereby refer to Andre Greipel as "Koko" in honor of the smartest gorilla ever to be referenced in an episode of Seinfeld. I think Koko is actually smarter than the chimpanzee that Kramer fought with (Bonus Question: What was the chimp's name? Answer below) at the zoo. Yeah, Koko...that Gorilla is alright. Besides, it was either that or "Magilla" or "Ronnie from the Jersey Shore" and "Koko" is just easier to explain. I would kind of like to see Greipel fight Ronnie though, and then Ina Yoko-Teutenberg can grapple with J-Woww. Then maybe Cavendish could throw down with The Situation?

Sticking with the highbrow sophistication of tabloid media, and understanding that my wife is currently caught up in the Red Carpet Season on the E! network, it follows that I am inclined to form my own Fashion Police for the bike racing world. And honestly, it's looking kind of grim in 2010 so far but there have been a couple of bright...well, er...less embarrassing spots that are worthy of note.

Two of the aforementioned bright spots could be seen on the feet of Lance Armstrong, who has finally made the leap to white shoes. Honestly, I thought he would have cured cancer before rocking white kicks and dishonestly, I would probably be almost as satisfied either way. Almost. I don't know if LA took my earlier words to heart and begged Nike to throw something hip together for him or not but regardless, it's good to see that he has finally come to the Dark...er, Light Side of the Shoe Force. Good grief, it's about time.

Not so cool are the red RadioShack tubetops and BMC ladybug kits. Don't the team managers have any say in this process? I cannot imagine Johan Bruyneel or Jim Ochowicz advising their clothing sponsors to come up with embarrassing kits for their riders. And I am certain that Mike Sayers was not consulted prior to the authorization of that much fire engine red in the design.

Having said that, I guess the BMC kits are a little more exciting than their "Weekend Warrior" theme from the past few years. Seriously, they looked like Cat.3's last year. I like the squad and what they are doing but there has not been a more anonymous looking team in the professional ranks. And yes...I will heckle teams that are too flamboyant as well as those who are too plain. Come on, it's hard enough looking like a cyclist (tan lines, odd proportions etc) so the least we can do is minimize the damage from a wardrobe standpoint. Is that too much to ask?

Anyway, until next time...Barry and the other banana-throwing monkeys say Peace. And watch out for the ones that aren't throwing bananas. Seriously, Kramer was lucky it was only fruit. After all, Barry could have thrown a Footon-Servetto kit at him.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

2010 Pro Tour Team Preview: T-Z

Okay, this is getting a little out of hand. First of all, the UCI website is making subtle changes but doesn’t seem to be acknowledging my bigger arguments from Pro Tour Preview A-F and G-S. For the record, multiple teams do not have the proper sponsor names listed, and the rosters are lacking updated information as of January 14, 2010. For example, despite being the most talked-about rider in the offseason, apparently Bradley Wiggins is not riding for anyone this year.

And now, with the most recent UCI news update (since the first UCI race starts in two days...in Australia) Lampre is basically just being embarrassed in public like a kid who didn’t get his homework in on time. I do not doubt that the paperwork was not properly completed (this is bike racing in Europe after all) but that does not change the fact that this stuff should have been addressed and finalized months ago. It is ridiculous for the UCI to have to hold their hands during the licensing process or make concessions to teams that cannot step up to their end of the organizational bargain.

I know that this is just bike racing, and not global finance or high technology but it would be nice if there was more than a hint of professionalism within the top-tier of this sport. Perhaps the cycling world would be better off if slacking, disorganized and marginally qualified teams were punished for being so. But then I guess the UCI wouldn’t get that big chunk of money for the Pro Tour license so…it makes sense that they are being lenient. It still makes everyone look bad though. Especially everyone wearing that ridiculous pink and blue Lampre kit.

Finally, the UCI website has switched the Sky name around a few times but, as mentioned earlier, still does not have Wiggie Smalls on the roster. They seem to be going back and forth between Team Sky and Sky Professional Cycling Team, with the latter being the most recent entry. But it was Team Sky when I started this thing, so I’m keeping them that way. Same with Saxo Bank, which is now listed as Team Saxo Bank. Good grief, it would be nice if this stuff was worked out before mid-January.

Now, from the Department of Redundancy Department, please find the "Team" teams listed below.

• Team HTC-Columbia (USA)

Team HTC-Columbia was sadly misnamed Team Columbia-HTC until very recently on the UCI website. However, I would like to give the UCI folks the benefit of the doubt and just hope that they are dyslexic instead of lazy. At this point, I would kind of like to see them get creative and put something like "Team THC-Colombia" up there, just to see if anyone notices. Now that would make for some great High Road jokes. If you can't have a sense of humor at the UCI headquarters...it's going to be pretty bumpy ride.

As for Bob Stapleton's crew, they basically got raided by Team Sky but were able to hang on to Mark Cavendish for at least one more year, which had to have been the only real goal this past offseason. As Wiggie Smalls proved, contracts can be broken when Rupert F-ing Murdoch is paying for your lawyers, so it was good to see Cavendish stay loyal. It says a lot about the relationship between Captain Cavman and Big Money Bob, who I still think is one of the best owners in professional sports.

As a result of the recent British Invasion and subsequent Pillaging, Team THC-Colombia (just checking if you're still paying attention) is noticeably thinner in the ranks than 2009. But the squad is still positioned to get some decent individual results and keep Cavendish where he needs to be in order to win another 20-30 races, as Andre Greipel gets more and more frustrated by only winning 10-20.

In addition to the leadout train, hopefully they will also help Cavendish think up some new finish line post-up moves. The "DZ Nuts" salute in Paso Robles was pretty creative/obscene but I have a feeling that he is still kicking himself for fumbling with his glasses a little bit in the Tour. He could have popped a wheelie on the Champs Elysees last year, so I am hoping that he starts upping the degree of difficulty somehow. Maybe take a foot out of the pedals like he did with Cipo in the Tour of California a few years ago. I still can't believe he did that, but somehow it adds to the legend in a strangely positive way. Far more positive than say...pointing at your junk in white shorts, for example.

Besides Marky Mark and his Funky Bunch sprints, it will be interesting to watch the progression of Greipel and Tony Martin in 2010. I'm still not sure what kind of rider Martin is or will be, but he has Rolf Aldag in his corner and could give German cycling fans a bit of GC hope after some painful years. For some reason I feel better about watching him and The Gorilla race than I ever did with Michael Stoolmacher.

• Team Katusha (RUS)

I must admit that I did a double-take when Cycle Sport listed Katusha as the top team in one-day races for 2009. I guess it makes sense, considering Sergei Ivanov's win at Amstel Gold and Pipo Pozzato's Springtime wheelsucking but the scientist in me wants to come up with a better formula. Not to be critical, but it seems like Quick Step taking both Flanders and Roubaix, as well as Sylvia Chavanel's impressively consistent mediocrity, would have put them on top. I don't know, maybe I need to crunch the numbers a bit before I tick off any Russian dudes (or Cycle Sport for that matter).

In a perfect world, 2010 will mark the triumphant return of Robbie McEwen as a sprinting threat against youngsters like Cavendish and Farrar. At the very least, I would like to see more head-butting and profanity in the peloton, and Robbie Mac is the best at that kind of stuff. When I mentioned how Saxo Bank had some tough guys their team preview, I neglected to explain that Australians are actually in a separate class by themselves. Seriously, even Cadel Evans is kind of scary in a weird, unpredictable way but can you imagine having the King of Australian Badassery hollering at you?

There is no real frame of reference for this but for some reason, I have a recurring nightmare about Robbie McEwen yelling at me and using weird Aussie words that I don't really understand…although I can infer that they are not complimentary. Trust me, it's a bad dream but somehow I feel tougher for having it.

• Team Milram (GER)

For the record, I have never been a fan of the team kits that actually try to portray something about the sponsor. For example, the old Castorama overalls (similar version worn here by the one and only Laurent Brochard) were far more embarrassing for Laurent Fignon than his loss to LeMond in the '89 Tour and despite their popularity and my appreciation for Danny Van Haute's crew, the Jelly Belly kits have never been kind to my eye. Therefore, I just cannot imagine how the giant milk stains on the Milram (a dairy company) jerseys were authorized in the first place, let alone repeated in 2010. In fact, I'm not even sure if they are milk stains or if they are trying to make the riders look like skinny blue Holstein cows. At least they don't have big white splotches on the shorts too. That would be REALLY bad.

Despite the jerseys, Milram is a decent squad that will get a number of medium-to-high quality top-5 finishes with guys like Gerald Ciolek and Fabian "The Other Fabian" Wegmann. I will always think Wegmann is cool because he won the final San Francisco Grand Prix, which is my favorite event of all time. It really was a great race but I still can’t reconcile how Charles Dionne won 40% of the times it was held. Regardless, Wegmann could win something big someday and Ciolek will probably continue to have crazy head spasms which keep him from the top step. Seriously, watch him sprint with Cavendish and notice how one looks low and fast while the other looks like he may be having an epileptic seizure. It’s hard to look at sometimes.

Anyway, I have been trying to think of a clever pun about crying over spilt milk or something in an effort to make my G-Pa and Dad proud but I can’t seem to conjure up anything fit for print. Sorry guys, I feel like I let the family down.

• Team RadioShack (USA)

I really don’t know much about this team or any of its riders but I guess there are some guys who used to be on other teams, one dude who used to be an actor, and the director is a motivational book author from Belgium or something. I don’t know, it’s been hard to get much information on this organization or how they even managed to raise enough awareness and money to warrant a Pro Tour license. I mean…it’s not like they’re trying to cure cancer or something, right?

Even though I can’t say much about Team RadioShack (yet), I would like to take this opportunity to tell the primary sponsor that I still think it was messed up to charge me $36 for a new cell phone charger in 2005. That was wrong, and I will never forgive you for asking for my number and then ripping me off on the charger so that I could use my phone - which you then apparently wanted to call me on. It’s kind of funny in retrospect but I will always hold a grudge against The Shack for taking advantage of me like that. I literally felt dirty when I walked out of the strip mall.

But with that said…thanks for sponsoring this poor little bike racing team full of starry-eyed, hopeful youngsters. Really, thank you. Dare I say it’s…Shacktastic?

• Team Sky (GBR)

Team Sky is another team that seems to be having some trouble getting in the news and promoting itself lately. Either that or I have trouble understanding British people...or digesting anything from the Murdoch Empire other than The Simpsons. Actually, Arrested Development was great but Rupert’s henchmen put a premature end to that so…yeah, not too excited about Fox-related stuff on a few levels. I am aware that the News Corporation only has a 39% stake in British Sky Broadcasting but that is still a little too close to the Bill O’Reilly Zone for my conscience. Does this mean that Glenn Beck is going to start talking about bike racing? I need to stop thinking about this.

In somewhat Imperialistic, cut-throat fashion, the new British team (that we’ve known about for years) went about nabbing riders like Bradley Wiggins, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Thomas Lovkvist, and just about any other English speaking guys they could get their money-laden hands on. The Wiggins project was particularly awkward but actually made me think that bike racing is becoming a little more like a real professional sport, replete with contract disputes, lawyers and blatant lies in the media. Then again, that may not be as nice as it sounds.

So…basically, Team Sky poached a number of big name riders from American teams and is rapidly embodying the somewhat fancy, pompous reputation developed by most of the British people I know. I’m not sure what it is about the Brits, but these guys are not making a ton of friends in the peloton and they haven’t even raced yet. Perhaps George Bluth Sr. from Arrested Development was on to something when he warned Michael, “Sure, they’re polite and the men all sound gay, but they will rip your heart out, and their breath…”

Thankfully, we won’t have to wait long to see how Team Sky and all of the other Pro Tour squads (which Lampre may join eventually) fare in 2010 because the season is just about to get underway in Australia at the Tour Down Under. I can’t think of many better places to kick off the rust and sweat through some new team clothing, although I hope nobody makes Robbie McEwen or any of the other natives mad. Even the new World Champion (who is not riding for a Pro Tour team, in case you didn't hear my consternation the first time) has proven to be pretty tough. Like I said before, mess with Australians at your own risk. Just ask the management at Omega Pharma-Lotto. D'oh.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

2010 Pro Tour Team Preview: G-S

Please forgive the unavoidable delay since my last preview of Pro Tour teams A-F. It seems that the graphic and disturbing nature of the new Footon-Servetto kit has caused the FCC to consider charging the team and the UCI with Cycling-Related Crimes Against Humanity, and now journalists who have referenced them publicly are being interrogated. I had three guys in suits and sunglasses banging on my door the other day, asking me if I knew anything about the new kit design, its possible effect on school children and general notions of public decency. They then confiscated my computer for nearly a week and I just now got it back. Strangely, all references of the team have been deleted from my hard drive.

In addition to the Footon-Servetto delay, I was planning on giving the UCI a chance to kick off the vacation dust and make some changes to its website. But...as of January 11, 2010, our leaders in Switzerland still have not gotten around to updating the Pro Tour pages to include Lampre-Fondital among the public list of licensed teams. Therefore, I guess they missed the bus, and Damiano "Fresh Prince" Cunego will have to bear the brunt of the UCI giving me extra time to think of new Carlton and Jazzy Jeff jokes.

Please find the G-S teams listed below. Again, this content is based on the UCI website so it may or may not be accurate. And again, the T's are going to be ridiculous because of the inexplicable use of "Team" as a first name. Whatever.

Garmin-Slipstream (USA)*

*Please note that the team is not yet recognized as Garmin-Transitions on the UCI website. Again...on January 11, 2010 the correct sponsor name is not listed. Sweet.

Anyway, now that brooding Brit Bradley Wiggins (aka Wiggie Smalls) has followed the pounds to Team Sky (although you wouldn't know it from the UCI lists) the team will be able to focus on helping Americans Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie and Tom Danielson in stage races throughout the season. Additonally, the emergence of Irishman Dan Martin will give Jonathan Vaughters and Matt "Lt. Jonathan Kendrick" White viable GC options in almost any kind of event throughout the year. In a strange way, I feel like each of these guys has a lot prove this year, either to confirm that they deserve the recognition or to finally make the leap to the next level. The effect of resident Mad Scientist Allen Lim's defection to RadioShack will also be interesting to watch as the season progresses.

One of the biggest hurdles to success in 2010 will be trying to solve the Cavendish Conundrum for Tyler "Farrah Fawcett" Farrar in the sprints. I don't know if the big man from Washington will be able to close the gap to the Teen Wolf of Man but it would be nice if we finally got around to consistently pronouncing his name correctly. It's hard enough to finish second a hundred times in a season, let's at least make sure to get the guy's name right as we describe his frustrating near-misses. Okay Phil and Paul?

All in all, I see Team Sky's cherrypicking of Pro Tour talent as the best thing that could have happened to Garmin-Transitions in 2010. With the diminished Columbia train, not to mention the removal of Wiggie Smalls and his snotty aloofness (seriously, why call out Armstrong and tick off most of your primary competition in the off-season?), I see the Argyle Armada being a more focused crew who will be better prepared to fight with Cavendish and support VDV, DZ and Tommy D in the stage races. My hunch is that 2010 will be the most successful year in the history of this team. I would also like a job with them...but I swear that has nothing to do with my prediction.

Liquigas-Doimo (ITA)

It sounds weird but...Liquigas is freaking stacked. I really don't know how else to say it. A quick glance at the roster shows names like Bennati, Chicchi, Kreuziger, Nibali, Pellizotti, and Basso, not to mention a bunch of other intensely greased up and cologned Italian dudes. I can't point to much hope for the Spring Classics (even though Quinziato stepped up last year) but Kermit the Frog's favorite team looks pretty decent in both the sprints and the GC for 2010. As Italian cycling slowly fades in to the past, the Gas Face crew is keeping the torch lit for a little while.

Perhaps the most intriguing component of the lime green gang is the established rivalry amongst Franco "Soul Glow" Pellizotti, Roman "Holiday" Kreuziger, Vincenzo "Nibbles" Nibali, and Ivan "The Terrible" Basso. As far as I can tell, none of these guys really like each other and they all seem to be equally good and flawed at the same time. It's like they stocked up on a bunch of cats who probably can't win a Grand Tour but will certainly be fighting each other for spots in the Top 10. I don't know if this is a strategic benefit or not but the drama in 2010 could be Astana-esque.

My only other thought is that they really, really need to do something about those kits. Enough is enough. It's time to leave the 1989 Kawasaki theme in the closet, where it belongs. With that many narcissistic Italians on the team, you would think they'd have switched to something a little cooler by now.

Omega Pharma-Lotto (BEL)

Having lost Cadel Evans almost immediately after winning the World Championship, the Omega Pharma-Lotto team basically gets no reward for years of near-misses by the snippy Australian. Without placing blame on anyone, I wonder how many times in recent history a new World Champ has bolted for a team that, at least on the surface, is in an inferior league. BMC may be stronger than OP-Lotto on paper, but the fact remains that a Pro Tour team lost the rainbow jersey to a Pro Continental team that has virtually no guaranteed starts in the biggest Pro Tour events. One could argue that Evans' salary is probably less than the cost of entry into the Pro Tour, and yet his presence guarantees BMC entry into the best Pro Tour events. So...why are these other teams spending millions of dollars to get a UCI Pro Tour license again? Good grief, I think my head is going to explode.

Anyway, Leif Hoste will probably finish second in excrutiating fashion during some big races this Spring but at least he won't be crashing with Johan Van Summeren anymore. That's a good thing, I guess. Now he can just crash and lose on his own.

Philippe Gilbert will probably continue to win late-season races while the rest of the field except Cunego and Sammy Sanchez are recovering from the Spring Classics, Giro and the Tour. I know it puts some pressure on, but seriously, why wouldn't you just target late-season events like the Vuelta and Lombardy with the understanding that half of the best guys in the world are basically on vacation or getting ready for the off-season? Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like more guys target the Spring and Summer than the Fall. After numerous dismal starts, maybe Gilbert and Omega-Pharma Lotto are just good at playing the odds. It sure worked in 2009.

Quick Step (BEL)

Barring yet another cocaine bust, Quick Step seems like they are fading from the spotlight, not to mention the ranks of the power teams. With the exception of Tom Boonen, the biggest name on this team is the Patrick LeFevere (or Lefevre..or LeFavre) who is essentially a prototype of the typically arrogant and self-serving Belgian director. How many times has LeFevere been involved in disputes with riders over the last few years? Honestly, I don't even know...but I'm pretty sure it's more than any other Pro Tour figurehead. Sadly, it is turning out that Quick Step represents the old guard of Belgian "Goombah" mentality more than any other organization, and they had better hope the Spring turns out well or else it's going to be ugly in 2010.

If I could bet my entire life savings on something, I would (maybe) put everything on the odds that Quick Step does NOT win either Flanders or Roubaix in 2010. After so many years of dominance, this feels like the year that it all falls apart for the historically successful Belgian team. Sorry Tomeke, but I can't envision good fortune for your team, let alone for anyone who wears socks that combine the World Championship stripes and the Autobot logo (see above photo). Seriously, that is totally unacceptable. You only missed the "Transformer's Are Cool" bus by about 20 years there Big Guy. Besides, everyone knows that the Decepticons were way better than the Autobots. Come on, Bumblebee or Sound Wave? No contest.

Rabobank (NED)

Does anyone really root for Denis Menchov? Honestly, I don't know. Has there been anyone in the history of professional cycling who has won as many Grand Tours and gets less credit or publicity? Again, I can't think of anyone who has been more successful and less popular. Is it just a function of sucking in the Tour? Really? By results alone, he is one of the best riders in the last 20 years but you'd be hard pressed to get anyone to mention the guy's name in the same sentence as Pantani or Ullrich, or even Basso. Arguably, only Armstrong and Indurain have been more successful since 1990, so it must be the fact that he crashes so much, thus allowing slow, fat journalists to fool themsleves into thinking that he's not that good.

It would be nice to see Oscar Freire win something again but we really need to get Robert Gesink some help. He seems to be following the Menchov formula of being exceptionally strong but strangely prone to decking it at the worst possible time. It's not even like he crashes in groups or anything, he just flies off the road for no reason. I am beginning to wonder if the Rabobank team is cursed, after watching Rasmussen, Menchov, Horillo, Flecha and now Gensink flailing across the road and into the bushes so many times. I know that Flecha has gone to Sky but he was another example of a guy who just couldn't manage to stay on his Rabobank team bike. Maybe if they change their boring kits, they will have better luck. Wishful thinking...

Saxo Bank (DEN)

As usual, the Saxo Bank empire is built on the combined "Hard Man" foundation of Bjarne Riis, Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara. I always laugh when I think of bike racers fighting but honestly, are there three other dudes in the sport who you think could take The Bald Eagle, Chuck Norris and Tony Montana in a street fight? I don't think so. But I would pay just about anything for the Pay Per View if someone wants to set up a tag-team match in the Octagon.

This actually brings up another question: Is hitting the deck at 40 miles per hour more painful than getting punched in the face or kicked in the ribs?
Although I have never been punched in the face (yet) or kicked in the ribs (yet) I would have to assume that crashing on a bike is WAY worse. If some tatooed donkey clocks me in the jaw, I figure I fall down and curl up like a child while someone comes over, stops the fight and takes the other idiot off to jail for a few hours. But you can't take the easy way out in bike racing; bad things are going to happen if you crash at any speed and they are probably more gruesome and painful than taking a fist in the mouth. Therefore...I think Jens Voigt will beat up Kimbo Slice and will win the MMA title in a few months. Then he will win the Criterium International while wearing the championship belt around his waist...just to show that he can.

Interestingly, the Schleck Brothers (aka Schlecks N Effect) are going to probably get more media attention than anyone else on the team in 2010. For some reason, people think that Andy can beat Contador (which he can't) and that somehow the siblings are strengthened by each other (which they aren't). After all, if the 2009 stage to Ventoux was any example, there is nothing to be gained by Frank having anything more than a Lieutenant role in the GC of any Grand Tour. The bottom line is that unless they can do a "Face Off" style surgery that allows Fabian Cancellara to time trial for Andy, the Saxo Bank crew will not get to the top step of the Tour any time soon. Sorry Luxembourg.

With that said, Bjarne's Army will again challenge for the title of the best team in the world, after having given up that claim to Columbia and Astana for the past few years. Especially with recent news that Saxo Bank will be pulling its sponsorship at the end of 2010, you can bet that B. Riis will have everyone's feet firmly in the flames all year.

Stay tuned for the 2010 Pro Tour Preview: T-Z coming soon...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2010 Pro Tour Team Preview: A-F

As of January 5th 2010, the most recent Pro Tour team information on the UCI website is from late November 2009. Sweet. The website lists 17 Pro Tour teams although there has been news that Lampre was granted the 18th Pro Tour license. Unfortunately, the UCI apparently takes the entire month of December off, and has not bothered to post this information on their website. But that's okay, I'm sure this makes it easier for everyone to line up sponsors and funding when you don't even know which races you will be eligible for until January.

Can you imagine if we didn't know which teams were going to be playing in the NFL, NBA or MLB just a few months before the season? Oh, the Giants are going to be a Minor League team this year? Really? I know cycling is a unique business and there must be some kind of rationale for such tardiness and ambiguity in the licensing process but I am consistently amazed by how shabby professional cycling looks in relation to other sports. Reading the UCI website is a rather fascinating, and oddly depressing endeavor.

In spite of this unfortunate circumstance, I will attempt to provide a brief overview of the 17 Pro Tour teams listed on the UCI website as of early January 2010. It should be noted that the teams are listed alphabetically, although many of them actually have the term "Team" as the first name (Team Columbia-HTC, Team Milram, etc) so there will be an inordinate amount of "T" listings. Again, I am basing this off of published information from the UCI so don't blame me for the confusion. There will be further analysis upon completion of this list but this will have to do for the time being.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2010 UCI Pro Tour Team Pre Preview:

AG2R La Mondiale (FRA)

AG2R La Mondial 2009 is remembered for Rinaldo Nocentini’s run in the yellow jersey during the Tour de France, but they are also notorious for orchestrating one of the strangest mid-season kit changes in recent memory. Not really having any household names on their roster after the departure of Christophe Moreau, the French squad went about their pre-Tour business somewhat anonymously in a somewhat boring blue and white design. However, the team underwent a curious fashion transformation which somehow led to the inexplicable vision of the yellow jersey accompanied by brown cycling shorts. How this happened is still a mystery. A crazy French murder mystery. Brown shorts are better than white or yellow, but the whole thing just seemed awkward. Although strangely, I ended up thinking the splotchy white and blue jersey with the brown shorts was kind of cool.

Besides Nocentini and his Franco-Italian soul-patch, the squad is built around the Efemkin twins (I think Vladimir and Evgeni are the Russian names for Mary Kate and Ashley), the future of Nicholas Roche (and history of his father) and the ghost of Cyril Dessel’s yellow jersey from 2006. Sadly, the main thing I think of with Dessel is how many times his name was pronounced "Cereal" by the OLN announcers. We'll see if the brown shorts come back in 2010 because I'm not sure if I see another yellow jersey run in the near future.

Astana (KAZ)

What do you get when you combine the government of Kazakhstan, the best bike racer in the world, the worst Tour champion ever, and a sketchy super-freak nicknamed after wine? You get Astana 2010, that’s what.

The UCI Pro Tour website continues to recognize them by the same name but this Astana team is a shell of the 2009 version and sadly, continues to keep the horrible baby blue and yellow kits. The only significant difference is the inclusion of a few large red Specialized logos which look like stickers.

Contador could probably finish on the podium of the Tour by himself but it will be interesting to see how he and Vinokourov share the load over the course of the year. Lance and Johan were going to leave and do their own thing anyway but they clearly realized that Astana is Vino’s team, the result being a severely weakened 2010 squad in almost every respect. The addition of Oscar Pereiro seems like a PR move, cashing in on his tainted Tour win yet again. Unless he crashes in spectacular fashion (yet again) I doubt he will be of much interest. He's like a guy who won the lottery but still needs to work. The motivation just isn't the same. It will be interesting to see if this attitude creeps into the rest of the team as well, especially Contador, who almost seemed ready to take 2010 off if Astana didn't come up with the dough.

Caisse d’Epargne (ESP)

The Spanish team of Spanish riders won the 2009 Tour of Spain, which was good for them (but horribly bad for those who think that the Italian ban on Valverde should be enforced worldwide) and theoretically good for the country. I don't know though. Spain's reputation has not been enhanced by anything stained with Operacion Puerto blood and unfortunately, Caisse d'Epargne won the Vuelta with a guy who seems to be clearly involved. Unfortunately for cycling fans, he also happens to be really good and just won a Grand Tour while banned from racing in another country. This is not what the sport, or Spain's reputation for that matter, needs right now.

All Valverde issues aside, CdE does have other riders who deserve positive attention. Luis Leon-Spinks Sanchez is one of the sharpest and exciting young talents in the peloton and it will very interesting to see if he can continue his progression as a stage racer. After all, he is basically the only guy to beat Contador in the last few years with his victory in Paris-Nice. His tactical sense and time trialling are stronger than Valv.Piti's and he could be in a position to benefit from lying slightly off the main radar in a Grand Tour.

The signing of La Chien, Christophe Moreau was curious, but at the end of the day (and beginning of 2010) Valverde remains the gigantic elephant in the CdE bus.

Euskaltel-Euskadi (ESP)

We knew Samuel Sanchez was good (2008 Olympic Champion - in case you couldn't tell from his gold-highlighted helmet and bike) but his performance in the 2009 Vuelta was quite impressive, and showed that he may be a Grand Tour contender as well. He just better hope that there are no more team time trials ever again because his stubbornly Basque team is stubbornly one of the most insignificant squads in the Pro Tour. I am beginning to think that their biggest contribution to most races is providing a nice splash of bright orange in Graham Watson photos.

After Landaluze tested positive, it is difficult to name many of the riders on Euskaltel-Euskadi. This is not because I don't know who they are, it's because their names are literally hard to pronounce. They are just a massive jumble of x's and t's and k's, with vowels in odd places (see Amets Txurruka, etc). He may not admit it but I am certain that this is Phil Liggett's least favorite team.

Footon-Servetto (ESP)

Even though 2009 was a barren, meager year for Fuji-Servetto, at least they got another sponsor with an "F" name for 2010. That was pretty convenient, and I can't wait for my spellcheck to suggest calling them "Futon" throughout the season. That will be fun.

After losing Juan Jose Cobo and his shinguards/socks to CdE, this team is pretty unremarkable. So unremarkable that I really can't think of anything significant they did last year or are likely to do this year. Personally, I will consider Footon-Servetto's season a success if they manage to be mentioned in North American cycling media more than five times the entire season.

Fran├žaise des Jeux (FRA)

The best thing that I can say about FdJ is that they are really loyal to their original jersey design. Other than having one of the most familiar kits in the sport, there is really not much else to say about this French team. Seriously, I really wish I had more to say about these guys but with the exception of Sandy Casar’s occasional stage win, there are very few big results to be seen.

While still maintaining their image as a French development team, two of the more intriguing riders are Wesley Sulzberger from Australia and Jussi Veikkanen from Finland. If nothing else, they have great names and are actually pretty decent finishers as well. I would really like to hear the name “Juicy” on the PA at a big event. Whenever you can get the title of a Notorious BIG song pronounced in your name, you are destined for good things. This is why I always thought that Yaroslav Popyvich should have changed his name to Big Popo, but that is another story.

Stay tuned for more shortly...