Tour de France Team Preview, Part 2

By: Whit Yost Jul 3

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12. Lampre-Farnese Vini

Damiano Cunego, Alessandro Petacchi, and 5 riders making their Tour debuts is hardly a roster to strike fear into the opposition, but that’s what Lampre brings to this year’s Tour de France. For a team that received almost as much criticism as Footon-Servetto for its inclusion, Lampre doesn’t seem too concerned with proving critics wrong.

After a relatively anonymous spring and a less-than-stellar Giro d’Italia, Cunego needs to do something—and soon—lest he risk losing money on the transfer market this off-season. He showed flashes of brilliance at this year’s Giro; unfortunately his good rides were often followed by rides equally as bad. He comes to this year’s Tour in search of a stage win or two, and perhaps a top-15 finish in the GC. Stick to stage wins, Damiano—start with Stage 2 through the Ardennes.

As for Petacchi, he’s clearly outclassed in anything other than regional Italian races. He won Stage 4 in Switzerland simply by virtue of the fact that he remained upright following a major crash, but that’s hardly an indicator of Tour field sprint success.

As for the rest, there’s always a chance for a stage win from a break or two—Simon Spilak’s a handy opportunist to have around and Grega Bole won a small field sprint in the Dauphiné. If Cunego and Petacchi falter, it’s up to a member of Lampre’s supporting cast to take center stage.

Man of the Hour: Damiano Cunego’s been hunting for a major result since last season when he failed in the spring classics, the Giro, the Tour, Worlds, and the fall classics. Were it not for two wins in the Vuelta, the Italian’s season would have been a complete wash. Time to shine, Damiano—there’s millions waiting for you this off-season if you do.

On the Hot Seat: Giuseppe Saronni has a lot of explaining to do. He lost some of his best riders this past off-season and replaced them with aging stars and unknown rookies. Rumors are already swirling that his last marketable asset—Damiano Cunego—is about to leave as well. With few important wins and a potentially deserted roster, Saronni’s sponsors can’t be happy.

Up-and-Comer: Simon Spilak won this May’s Tour of Romandie following the disqulification of Alejandro Valverde. A young, talented all-rounder, Spilak gets his second Tour start this year. Don’t be surprised if he’s the only Lampre rider to take a win.

Just Happy to Be There: Grega Bole, Mauro Da Dalto, Francesco Gavazzi, Mirco Lorenzetto and Adriano Malori are all making their Tour debuts this summer. Forza, ragazzi!

Feeling Left Out: The entire team in 2011—if they don’t perform in 2010.

13. Liquigas

In my humble opinion, Liquigas is one of the more intriguing teams in this year’s Tour de France. Ivan Basso won his second Giro d’Italia this May, topping-off one of the most fantastic post-suspension comebacks the sport has ever seen. Basso raced with grinta and determination, never wavering as he clawed back from a several-minute deficit to take the lead just before the final weekend.

Now he comes to the Tour, with aspirations to become the first person since Marco Pantani to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Can he do it? I discounted Basso’s chances to win the Giro, considering him too old and far removed from his prime to win a grand tour—he proved me wrong. As for the Tour, while I don’t consider him one of the top 2 or 3 contenders, I will not be surprised to see him take the win—especially if the main favorites make the same mistake I did before the Giro.

Remember, no one thought Pantani would win the Tour in 1998—especially over a seemingly dominant Jan Ullrich. And were you just a little surprised when Carlos Sastre rode away on Alpe d’Huez to take the win in 2008? Anything’s possible.

The biggest thing going for Basso is the layout of this year’s race. Basso rode himself into shape throughout the Giro, peaking during what was an impossibly tough third week. This year’s Tour de
France follows a similar pattern, slowly building week-to-week to a Pyrenean crescendo. Except for Saturday’s Italian championship, Basso hasn’t raced since May—making a steady progression through the Tour even more important—and probable. If he manages to pull it off, Basso’s ride will go down in history as one of the Tour’s most legendary performances.

As for the rest of the squad, don’t discount Roman Kreuziger either—a man with his own Tour aspirations. Kreuziger seems to have dialed-in his preparation this season, laying all of his cards on the table for the Tour. A talented climber and able time trialist, Kreuziger is the most talented of the young men expected to challenge for Tour supremacy throughout the next decade. Should Basso prove fallible, Kreuziger could be the man for Liquigas.

Man of the Hour: Basso. The competition will be fierce, but this might be his last and best chance for yellow.

On the Hot Seat: No one, actually. Liquigas has had a relatively perfect season so far, winning the Giro with several stage wins to boot. A top-5 finish in the Tour along with a stage win or two would be a welcome sight, but for now, Liquigas can ride a pressure-free race—a bad sign for the competition.

Up-and-Comer: Kreuziger’s barely 24 and already he’s finished 13th and 9th in the Tour de France. Should he continue his ascension toward the podium—perhaps even landing on it—look for him to be one of the most sought-after commodities in this off-season’s transfer market.

Just Happy to be There: If you have some time—and can tolerate Google translator—take a trip over Sylvester Szmyd’s blog. It’s casual, thoughtful, and offers a pleasant look into the mind of one of the peloton’s most underrated talents. This won’t be his first Tour—or his last—but Szmyd seems to epitomize someone who’s just happy to be there.

http://sylwesterszmyd.blogspot.com/

Feeling Left Out: Remember when Daniele Bennati was everyone’s pick to be the next great Italian sprinter? He won two stages in 2007—none since. While he be feeling left out, it’s easy to see why.

14. Omega Pharma – Lotto

Gone are the days when Lotto came to the Tour with split sprint/GC ambitions. With inconsistent Aussies Robbie McEwen and Cadel Evans elsewhere, and classics men Philippe Gilbert, Leif Hoste, and Greg Van Avermaet staying home, this year’s Lotto squad belongs to one man: Jurgen Van den Broeck.

Who?

Yup, the man I’ve come to call “VDB2” has earned the right to have a full team supporting his chances in this year’s Tour—and he’s done it fair and square. VDB2 first showed his grand tour talents by finishing seventh in the 2008 Giro d’Italia after several strong performances in the mountains. The effort earned the Belgian a spot in last year’s Tour, riding as a lieutenant for Cadel Evans. Evans quickly proved the weaker of the two though, ultimately surrendering his captaincy by the final week of the race. VDB2 would go on finish the Tour 15th overall, a deceiving result considering his earlier sacrifices.

This season, Van den Broeck rode brilliantly in support of Gilbert in the Ardennes classics, covering moves and driving the chase group to essentially hand Gilbert the Amstel Gold Race on a platter. He then finished 4th in the Dauphiné, beaten by two men peaking for the race itself—Janez Brajkovic and Tejay Vangarderen—and the man who is perhaps the best stage racer in the world—Alberto Contador.

If VDB2 has indeed saved his best form for July, a stunning result is possible—maybe even one inside the top-5. Heck, most of Belgium would settle for a top-10, considering it’s been ages since they’ve had a legitimate contender for the Tour’s GC. With a solid team of climbers, rouleurs, and domestiques, there’s nothing to prevent Van den Broeck from making his country proud.

Man of the Hour: Van den Broeck.

On the Hot Seat: Van den Broeck will be if he fails to deliver under such favorable cicumstances. Belgian fans can be so fickle.

Up-and-Comer: Like VDB2, Matt Lloyd is riding his second Tour this year as well. After a stage win and the climber’s jersey at the Giro, his stock is rising.

Just Happy to Be There: Considering how Lotto left just about every other classics rider off the Tour squad, Jurgen Roelandts has to be grateful to have been given a shot at the Tour. Maybe he would have preferred a vacation, but a grand tour might help the youngster’s progression for next year’s classics.

Feeling Left Out: I have a feeling Greg Van Avermaet was hoping for a chance at a stage win in this year’s Tour. One of the more disappointing Belgians of the past two seasons, it was beginning to look in June as if Van Avermaet was—finally—hitting his stride. Looks like he’ll have to be content with another Vuelta.

15. Quick Step

Quick Step can’t seem to catch a break. Last year Tom Boonen was almost disqualified before the Tour even started thanks to another cocaine offense. He received a last-minute reprieve, but failed to deliver after his team went to great lengths to get him to the line.

Fast forward a year and Boonen has already been ruled-out from racing thanks to the knee injury he received in a crash at the end of Stage 1 of the Tour of California. Even worse, his initial replacement, Giro stage-winner Wouter Weylandt, has been ruled ineligible since we wasn’t on the official 15-rider pre-selection list Quick Step sent to the race organization weeks ago. After all was said and done, the rider finally chosen to take Tom Boonen’s is probably the last rider on the list anyone ever thought would have to ride—Italian Francesco Reda.

Without Boonen, Quick Step closely resembles a French squad with several opportunists hunting for stage wins, a young rider or two hoping for a good GC showing, and a few soon to be washed-up veterans looking for one last chance to shine. Carlos Barredo and Sylvain Chavanel are the cream of the crop. Barredo came close to winning a stage last year before winning the Clasica San Sebastian soon after the Tour ended. Chavanel’s been rather disappointing so far this season—he’s certainly hoping to add another stage win to the one he took in 2008. Frenchman Jérome Pineau won a stage at this year’s Giro; a stage victory in his home tour would be a welcome addition to his résumé.

And that’s about it for Quick Step—not much to get excited about considering this team might have contended for the green jersey had its star been healthy enough to take part.

Man of the Hour: Barredo, Chavanel, and Pineau will take turns trying to take stages. Chavanel might make a go of it as early as Stage 3.

On-the-Hot Seat: For a Belgian super-team, getting shut-out of the classics is an incredibly worrisome situation. Two stage wins in the Giro were nice, but the team needs some Tour success if it wishes to regain credibility with its fans.

Up-and-Comer: Boonen’s absence might be the best thing for young Kevin Seeldraeyers, the winner of the white jersey as Best Young Rider in last year’s Giro d’Italia. Without the pressure of setting things up for field sprints, Seeldrayers can relax during the first week, doing his best to stay out of trouble. Will the 23-year-old join Jurgen Van den Broeck to form a new generation of Belgian Tour contenders?

Just Happy to Be There: Franceso Reda’s the obvious choice, but how about Eddy Merckx bicycles? Yes, Merckx himself has little to do with the company and the quality is rumored to be not what it once was, but it’s still nice to see the brand back in the Tour.

Feeling Left Out: I’m having a tough time wrapping my head around how and why it happened, but Stijn Devolder will be missed as Belgian national champion. The Tour’s always a better race with more national champions’ jerseys represented, but Devolder’s absence will be particularly missed on the stages through Belgium. At first it seemed as if Devolder was left off by management; then it appeared that Devolder himself had passed on the opportunity. Whatever the reason, it spells the beginning—or maybe the middle actually—of the end for the Belgian’s affiliation with Quick Step.

16. Rabobank

Denis Menchov, Robert Gesink, and Oscar Freire are the three Rabobank riders we can expect to hear the most from in this Tour de France.

Menchov skipped a chance to defend his title at the Giro this year, choosing instead to focus on adding the only grand tour he has yet to win to his palmares. As far as his chances go, your guesses are as good as mine. A natural grand tour rider, Menchov possesses the rare mix of climbing and time trialing so rarely seen nowadays. When in-shape and confident, he’s one of the best riders in the world. Unfortunately, Menchov’s also prone to crashing, something that makes him a bit suspect in a Tour beginning in Holland and passing over the pavé on its way to France.

Perhaps even more talented—at going uphill at least—than Menchov, Robert Gesink hopes to finally finish the Tour de France after an early exit last year. Like his Russian teammate, Gesink is a rider known for being a bit squirrely at times—a crash being the reason he left last year’s Tour. But a bigger liability for Gesink—as was so spectacularly illustrated at this year’s Tour de Suisse—is his inability to time trial. While Gesink is still young and has plenty of time to improve against the clock, losing a stage race to Frank Schleck in a time trial is certainly cause for concern. Until he fixes the problem, he’ll remain nothing more than a candidate for mountain stage wins, the polka dot jersey, and the lower half of the top-10.

As for Freire, he keeps coming back for more—and winning. After winning a stage and the green jersey in 2008, Freire was shut-out last year. But as he showed with his third win in Milan-San Remo earlier this season, Oscar’s not someone to ignore.

And by the way, Lars Boom could win the Prologue, so put your money down now.

Man of the Hour: Menchov’s wagered the first half of his season on success in France.

On the Hot Seat: This spot could be Menchov’s if he fails to deliver. That said, the man’s won three grand tours; he’s earned a bit of patience.

Up-and-Comer: Gesink’s an easy pick, but he’s been “up and coming” for so long now that it hardly seems fair to keep mentioning him. I’m eager to see what Lars Boom does in his first Tour. He might be a better pick than Gesink for Tour GC success a few years from now—especially since he can actually time trial. In fact, Boom’s a good outside bet to win the Prologue, so put your money down now.

Just Happy to There: There were few surprises in Rabobank’s Tour selection this year. Aside from some last minute crash replacements, everyone’s preparation has more or less gone as planned.

Feeling Left Out: Laurens Ten Dam fell heavily during the Tour de Suisse, suffering several serious injuries to keep him from riding this year’s Tour. A consummate professional and a seemingly fearless rider, Ten Dam’s presence in the mountains—the uphill part of them at least—will be missed by his team and its fans. Get well soon, Laurens!

And that’s it for Part 3 of Pavé’s 2010 Tour de France Preview. Be sure to share your comments and feedback below—and come back tomorrow for the fourth and final part of the series!

17. Sky Professional Cycling Team

Halfway through its first season of existence, Team Sky has already achieved one of its goals just by earning an invitation to the Tour de France. That said, despite the presence of last year’s fourth-place finisher, Bradley Wiggins, Sky might find success in the race itself a bit harder to find. Why? Because you can’t buy chemistry.

Starting from scratch this past summer, Team Sky brought together riders from 15 different programs to form its roster for 2010. It looks easy on paper, but building a strong and successful team takes more than just plucking the best riders and putting them in a race together—it takes time for the riders and staff to develop the chemistry that comes after years of racing and working with one another.

This is why Sky enjoyed so much success early in the season, but less so as the year progressed. The team won several races at a time when everyone was busy reacquainting themselves with their teams. But as the established formations quickly settled into patterns and roles established in prior years, Team Sky was still feeling-itself-out so to speak, something that might have led to a decline in results. Of course, an injury to one of the team’s best riders didn’t help.

That said, I think tempered expectations might be best for the team in its first year at the Tour de France. A stage win or two is realistic, but a dominating performance—and more importantly, a top-5 ride for Wiggo—might be a bit out of reach.

Wiggins could struggle during a difficult final week in a Tour where time trialing takes a backseat to major climbing. He’ll perform well on the pavé, but when the road turns uphill, I wonder which of his teammates will be the main man to guide him through the mountains. All in all, expect at least stage win from Team Sky—especially if Edvald Boasson Hagen returns to his 2009 form.

Man of the Hour: Wiggins comes to the Tour hoping to improve upon his fourth-place ride last year. Wiggins was one of the true all-rounders of last year’s race, a rider able to climb and time trial with the favorites. That said, he won’t have the element of surprise working in his favor this year; he’ll be racing as a contender and will be given less of a leash as a result.

On the Hot Seat: Edvald Boasson Hagen must be feeling some pressure to deliver on the tremendous potential he displayed last season. After missing much of the spring with an injury, he seems back on track following a win in the final stage of the Dauphiné. A talented time trialist, Hagen could take a win as early as Saturday’s Prologue.

Up-and-Comer: Geraint Thomas scored four consecutive top-10 finishes in the first four stages of the Dauphiné before winning the British road championship. Now he gets to show-off his new jersey in the Tour.

Just Happy to Be There: Michael Barry’s been a professional since 1999 and is riding his first Tour de France this season. “Happy to There” is a bit of an understatement.

Feeling Left Out: Kurt Asle Arvesen has ridden 5 Tours and has one stage win on his résumé. Dario Cioni is a talented climber and an experienced grand tour rider as well. Matthew Hayman knows how to control a peloton when gaps need to be closed and breaks need catching. For a team with GC aspirations, I can’t help but feel that these men would have been better choices than some of the riders selected.

18. Team HTC-Columbia

At some point, possibly as early as this year’s Team Tour de France, HTC-Columbia might have to decide whether it’s a sprint team or a GC team. Last year, the question had an easy answer: ride for Cavendish and let the young GC riders get a taste for the Tour. This year however, with both Michael Rogers and Tony Martin looking as if they have serious chances for top-10 results, HTC might be forced to reconsider its strategy.

First, let’s talk about Cavendish. Equalling last year’s six stage wins looks to be a tall order this year. For one, he’s lacking a bit of the fitness and speed he possessed last season at this time. Dental issues, poor form, and crashes have derailed his chances to find a rhythm—his wins have been few and far between. Worse still, Cavendish now seems to have attracted the ire of the majority of the peloton following his antics at the end of Stage 4 of the Tour de Suisse. Irregular sprinting, spitting, and a generally bad attitude will ensure that Cavendish gets no favors this year. Add to this the continued progression of Tyler Farrar and the rejuvenation of Thor Hushovd, and Cavendish might have more competition than he was used to in 2009—especially with Garmin now able to provide a lead-out much more on par with HTC’s. Overall, while a shut-out might be a bit unrealistic, I think 2-3 stage wins for Cavendish is a better estimate.

On the GC side of things, Michael Rogers and Tony Martin lead HTC’s charge, supported by super-domestique Maxime Monfort and climber Konstantin Siutsou. Rogers has been enjoying quite a renaissance after several seasons that fell short of expectations. As for Martin, he held the white jersey for a while in last year’s race before suffering too much in the mountains. The same happened in this year’s Tour de Suisse, where Martin held the yellow jersey before losing it on the big stage to La Punt. Rogers is clearly the more polished of the two right now, but Martin might be more talented. I’m eager to see how both perform—and to what degree HTC saves them in the first week.

In the end, the best thing HTC-Columbia has going for it is depth. If things go pear-shaped for Cavendish and/or the GC men, there are plenty of riders capable of picking-up the slack and taking some stage wins. While we might not see a repeat of last year’s Tour de Cavendish, with this team, another impressive performance is certainly possible.

Man of the Hour: Michael Rogers has been enjoying a terrific season with wins in the Ruta del Sol and Tour of California as well as podium spots in the Criterium International and Tour of Romandie. The Tour de France will be the Australian’s first grand tour of 2010—will the results continue?

On the Hot Seat: I feel like I wrote this last year, but Mark Cavendish needs to let his legs do more of the talking. After his two-fingered salute at the Tour of Romandie, there was a distinct sense at the Tour of California that team management had reprimanded the Manxman, given the subdued nature of his interaction with the media. After his Swiss antics, it can be assumed another lecture was delivered. But was it heard?

Up-and-Comer: Tony Martin’s still only 25—he has at least another year or two before he’s at his peak. One of the world’s finest time trialists, Martin needs to show some progression in the high mountains before we can begin heralding him as a true grand tour contender. I expected more from him in the Tour de Suisse, a race he was leading until the serious climbing began. This year’s Tour will be a terrific test of just how far the German has come.

Just Happy to Be There: Adam Hansen squeaked into HTC’s Tour selection with a win in Holland’s Ster Elektrotoer. It’s been a banner year for Australians, look for Hansen in the early stages of Cavendish’s lead-outs as well as some breakaways later in the race.

Feeling Left Out: At this point, Andre Greipel might as well list himself on eBay. His Tour snub was a clear reflection of HTC’s intentions not to make a strong effort to sign the German this off-season. Yes, he underwhelmed at the Giro—winning only one stage—but he hasn’t exactly been overshadowed by Cavendish either. Look-out 2011!

19. Team Katusha

It’s not good when your team’s GC rider is Vladimir Karpets—but that’s okay with Katusha, a team built more for stage wins than overall success.

Sergei Ivanov, Alexandr Kolobnev, and Jose Joaquin Rodriguez are Katusha’s best riders—look for them to come to the fore as early as Monday—Ivanov and Kolobnev impressed in the Ardennes races and could certainly win Stage 2 on similar terrain. Even though Rodriguez finished seventh in last year’s Vuelta, he is a more likely candidate for stage wins in France.

On flatter days, the team will back Robbie McEwen in field sprints, hoping the aging Australian can find a bit of the speed that saw him win 12 Tour stages between 2002 and 2007. At 38, McEwen’s another sprinter whose fastest days might have passed—but anything’s possible. Robbie should be especially motivated to take Stage 1 in Brussels as it’s not too far from Brakel, his adopted home. Do you think McEwen and Petacchi can give us a little flashback to 2003?

As for Karpets, he finished 13th in the 2004 Tour de France, taking the white jersey as Best Young Rider for Caisse d’Epargne. Last year the Russian ended the Tour in 12th-place as Katusha’s best-placed rider. This year, look for Karpets to follow the favorites in the mountains, using his above-average time trialing skills to pick-up places here and there. At best, Karpets can hope to beat-out Rabobank’s Denis Menchov for the best GC placing by a Russian. But if he were a legitimate contender for the podium, we would have seen more from him by now.

Man of the Hour: Alexandr Kolobnev was perhaps the most aggressive rider of the Ardennes classics, failing to take the big win he so valiantly sought. A Tour stage would be nice consolation for the new Russian champion.

On the Hot Seat: McEwen might be a candidate, but he’s at a point when less seems to be expected from him. On the other hand, Vladimir Karpets is 29 and in the “prime” of his career. If he fails to produce a top-10 result in France this year, it might be time to re-evaluate his goals, perhaps shifting focus from grand tours to shorter stage races (in which he’s performed well in the past).

Up-and-Comer: Katusha’s bringing a relatively veteran squad to this year’s Tour de France—except for 23-year-old Alexandre Pliuschkin. The 3-time defending Moldavian national champion, this will be the youngster’s first chance to show-off his nation’s colors in the Tour. With an impressive résumé including medals in various junior and U23 world championship events and a win in the 2007 U23 Tour of Flanders, it will be interesting to see how he fares in his first Tour. Is Pliuschkin the next Roman Kreuziger?

Just Happy to Be There: Robbie McEwen missed last year’s Tour with an injury—he’s got to be thrilled just to be riding this year.

Feeling Left Out: He certainly wasn’t “left out”, but let’s keep Kim Kirchen in our thoughts anyway.

20. Team Milram

I have a good feeling about Milram in this year’s Tour de France—and by that I mean they might win a stage (it would be their first). Niki Terpstra and Christian Knees won their national championships (Holland and Germany), perhaps giving the team a bit of confidence heading into the Tour.

Looking down the rest of the team’s roster, it’s not an all together a bad picture. Gerald Ciolek’s the team’s sprinter—he seems to struggle against the world’s fastest guys, but gets closer and closer each year. Knees, Terpstra, and Fabian Wegmann can handle themselves in breakaways—Wegmann has just missed on more than one occasion. And last but not least, Linus Gerdemann carries the team’s GC hopes. He’s certainly not the best rider to carry the team’s entire burden, but he’s more than serviceable and could certainly slip into the yellow jersey should he find the right breakaway during the first week.

Man of the Hour: Linus Gerdemann has been Germany’s GC-hopeful since he took a stage and the yellow jersey for a few days in the 2007 Tour. But looking over his résumé, there’s nothing to indicate that he’s a man for the grand tours. He finished 16th in this year’s Giro; but for a rider who always seems to suffer from at least catastrophic day, stage wins might be a more realistic goal.

On the Hot Seat: General Manager Gerry Van Gerwen has not yet received a commitment from Milram for next season. With several Pro Tour squads searching for title sponsors, now is not a good time to be a mediocre squad with a market severely damaged by the sport’s various doping scandals. Van Gerwen’s men need immediate results if he is to have any chance of securing his program’s future.

Up and Comer: Here’s the thing about Gerald Ciolek that many people forget—he’s only 23! He seems to be a man of near-misses in the Tour, but with time to develop, a win should arrive at some point. I could also see Ciolek becoming more of an all-rounder at some point in his career, forgoing field sprints for small groups and breakaways.

Just Happy to Be There: Roger Kluge made a name for himself on the track before switching primarily to the road. He makes his Tour debut in his first season in the Pro Tour. If he can avoid being overwhelmed by the Tour circus, he’ll be a valuable asset to Ciolek on flatter days.

Feeling Left Out: Markus Fothen made a name for himself in the 2006 Tour by wearing the white jersey for about two weeks. After two seasons of decent results, the 28-year-old seems to have disappeared from the map. This year, he’s on the outside looking in at Milram’s Tour de France squad.

21. Team Radio Shack

They say that sometimes in cycling, the best rider doesn’t always win. In the case of Team Radio Shack and the 2010 Tour de France, it might ultimately be said that the best team doesn’t always either—especially when they don’t have the best rider.

From top to bottom, Radio Shack brings the most experienced and talented squad to Rotterdam led by none other than 7-time Tour-winner, Lance Armstrong. In what he claims will be his last Tour de France, Lance has assembled the finest riders, staff, management, and material the sport might have ever seen. But will it be enough to overcome the Texan’s age and the riders looking to exploit it? I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pessimistic, nor am I taking advantage of an opportunity to be a Lance-hater. I just don’t think he has enough left in the tank to overcome the likes of Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, and several of the other contenders in this year’s race.

But that shouldn’t stop us from admiring the team Armstrong has assembled—it’s quite impressive. Andreas Kloden has two second-places and sixth-place on his Tour record, while Levi Leipheimer has four top-10 finishes including third-place in 2007. Either man would be a team leader on another squad. Then there’s Janez Brajkovic, a real star in the making who won this year’s Dauphiné in a fashion eerily similar to how Lance and Contador won their major stage races. Chris Horner’s also in the Tour de France this year following his omission in 2009, while Yaroslav Popovych, a veteran from Lance’s late Tour victories and a rider who once finished third in the Giro, rides as well.

Dmitri Murayev, Sergio Paulinho, and Greg Rast round out the squad, three talented domestiques who will be expected to drive the peloton in the service of their more illustrious teammates.

But never forget, this is primarily Lance’s team—even if Johan Bruyneel directs it. While a win might be out of his reach, Lance is certainly capable of another podium spot by virtue of his cunning and determined style of racing. Look for his team to work a bit harder to get him a final stage win as well, especially if he appears to have fallen out of contention.

And as far as the rest of his time in France is concerned, pay attention to whom Lance spends his time chatting with in the peloton as they might just become the new leader of The Shack in 2011, the year Lance seeks to win his first Tour de France—as a team manager, that is.

Man of the Hour: Lance—even if his team doesn’t give press conferences.

On the Hot Seat: Lost in the hubbub over Big Tex has been the slow, subtle decline of Levi Leipheimer. Levi is 36, several years past his best years as a rider. Racing in Lance’s shadow has obscured the fact that the California native hasn’t won an individual race since last year’s ATOC. Levi needs a good showing in France to prove he still has what it takes to win.

Up-and-Comer: Janez Brajkovic rides his first Tour after years of waiting in the wings. The 26-year-old Slovenian could be the future of what is a relatively “old” team. If he can climb and time trial like he did in June’s Dauphiné, he could turn out to be The Shack’s best rider—now.

Happy to be There: Chris Horner was a disappointing absentee from last year’s Tour after team politics kept him off the roster. Like Lance, Chris is 38 and nearing the end of his career—although you wouldn’t know it given his recent results. Here’s hoping he gets at least one chance to ride for a stage win in this year’s race—there’s perhaps not a more deserving rider.

Feeling Left Out: Geert Steegmans might be a bit miffed about missing this year’s Tour de France since it passes through Belgium. Steegmans won a Belgian Tour stage in 2007 and perhaps was looking to do so again. But despite his ambitions, it’s hard to Steegmans having a spot on team already leaving Tour veterans Jose Luis Rubiera and Tomas Vaitkus at home as well.

22. Team Saxo Bank

Last but not least, we have Team Saxo Bank, a squad who’s been in the press quite a bit lately—and for the wrong reasons.

When Saxo Bank announced that is was ending its sponsorship at the end of 2010, everyone assumed that Bjarne Riis would pull yet another rabbit from his hat—and probably right before the Tour. For a while it appeared that this would indeed be the case, with current co-sponsor Sun Guard stepping-up to become the new title sponsor. However, as recently as today’s press conference, there were no announcements coming from Riis—only promises that his team would continue.

Uh, oh.

To make matters worse, (former) members of Riis’ staff have decided to take matters into their own hands to create a new Pro Tour team for Luxembourg—rumored to be sponsored by French supermarket chain, Auchan. Of course, you can’t talk about Saxo Bank and Luxembourg without at least mentioning Andy and Frank Schleck—they’re rumored to be involved too, but this can’t be confirmed as they are currently under contract.

Clearly, there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. (Been waiting all week to write that!)

But moving on, there’s a little matter of the Tour de France at hand, a race Saxo Bank has a very good shot of winning.

Andy Schleck (the younger of the two brothers) finished second in last year’s Tour and seems to be the only rider—based upon last year’s performances at least—with a realistic shot at overcoming Alberto Contador. Next to Contador, he’s perhaps the most electric climber in the race, but needs to improve considerably against the clock in order to strike some serious fear in his Spanish rival.

As for Frank, he’s taken fifth-place in both of the last two editions, earning a stage win last year as well. An even lesser time trialist than his brother, Frank turned heads when he came from behind to win this year’s Tour de Suisse—in a time trial, no less.

In order to defeat Contador in this year’s race, Andy and Frank will need to go on the offensive early, exposing Contador and his team to a constant wave of attacks. The rest of Saxo’s squad is much deeper and more adept at controlling—and stringing-out—a race than Astana, something they’ll need to exploit. And should Saxo Bank and Radio Shack choose to work in tandem, it could mean lights-out for Alberto.

Look for Saxo Bank to go on the offensive as early as Stage 3, using Stuart O’Grady, Fabian Cancellara, and their 3 Paris-Roubaix titles to apply some serious pressure to the softer squads on the pavé. On other transitional days, Jens Voigt, Matti Breschel, and Nicki Sorensen can apply the heat, while Jacob Fuglsang and Chris Anker Sorensen can turn the screws when the race heads to the mountains.

That’s a lot of metaphors. (Must be the Shakespeare.)

In the end, it will take nothing short of a full team effort to topple Contador and Astana in this year’s Tour de France. But the question remains: will Saxo Bank have a team by the end of it?

Man of the Hour: Andy Schleck is the #1 threat to Contador’s throne. Better still, he’s only 25—this rivalry’s just getting started.

On the Hot Seat: It seems as if every other year Bjarne Riis is on the hot seat to find a new sponsor for his team. This season, things look particularly perilous, as members of his staff have left to form their own program. Riis needs a new sponsor—and fast—if he wants to keep the core of this year’s team intact.

Up-and-Comer: Jacob Fuglsang gets his first shot at the Tour following a third-place finish in last month’s Tour de Suisse. The Dane’s already received interest from other squads, making him one of several riders waiting to hear what Riis has or hasn’t found for 2011.

Happy to Be There: Following his scary crash on the descent of the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard in Stage 16 of last year’s race, Jens Voigt is just happy to be riding this year’s Tour. But as we all know, “just riding” is not a phrase Jens knows very well.

Feeling Left Out: Gustav Erik Larsson did just about everything that was asked of him prior to this year’s Tour de France, but in the end it just wasn’t enough to earn an invitation. The lack of a TTT in this year’s race was likely the biggest detriment to his chances, as he would have been a major asset to his team in the event of its inclusion.

And there you have it: 22 teams, 198 riders, and several contenders for the overall victory once the race hits Paris. Bonne chance!

 

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