Here at Velo Voices we love to talk about cycling, and nothing delights us more than the opportunity to talk to each other and to fellow fans about the sport. In the second of a four-part series to kick off 2012, we take a look at some of the key moves for 2012.
Movers and shakers for 2012
How do we feel about the increasing moves towards ‘super-teams’, such as the RadioShack/Leopard-Trek and Omega Pharma-Lotto/Quick Step mergers?
Tim: I fear cycling is going the same way as football, with the ‘haves’ hoarding all the best talent while the ‘have-nots’ simply cannot compete in terms of salaries and prestige. Will cycling become as predictable as the Premier League and La Liga, where only a handful of teams mop up all the major prizes? I hope not, but I fear that’s where we’re heading.
Sheree: Are these teams the haves? Yes, there’s plenty of talent in both teams but the mergers were born of financial necessity. If we’re talking big budgets we have to include BMC, Sky, Katusha and Astana.
Tim: You’re quite right. My biggest issue with the team mergers is their disruptive effect, with many good, honest pros suddenly finding themselves cast out and scratching around for a contract while the top guys such as Frandy [Frank and Andy Schleck – Ed] get to eat at the top table. Survival of the fittest, I suppose.
Kathi: I think the merging bit is a one-off because of the dire economy. As for super-teams like Sheree mentions, I don’t think these are going to be as dominant as people might think. Cycling is such an unpredictable sport – as last season alone taught us! – and because it is a team sport but it is the individual who wins, that’s not like football. Egos are going to clash to get podium places, team tensions could play a massive part (look at Astana with Contador and Armstrong) – and there might well be races where everyone is looking to the big teams and miss the little guy who takes his chance. So I’m not as worried about it because I have faith that there is going to be monumental selfishness at various times in these teams and that could level the playing field. And don’t underestimate the power of the David vs Goliath mentality!
Jack: I agree with Kathi, I think that these ‘super-teams’ aren’t necessarily going to dominate the scene as much as they are expected to. Clearly, such teams are going to have immense strength in depth, but as we have seen with the likes of Team Sky in their first season, things very rarely go exactly according to plan.
Mark Cavendish has gone to Sky to join Vuelta podium finishers Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. How do we think things will pan out?
Sheree: There’s enough Grand Tours to accommodate everyone’s podium ambitions. I expect Bradley Wiggins to get first dibs at this year’s Tour with Chris Froome being the protected rider at either the Giro or Vuelta, or both. While Cav has had the luxury of a long lead-out train at HTC, he’s demonstrated his ability to make use of other’s trains and/or fend for himself. I expect he’ll have to become a little more self-sufficient but I still expect him to win plenty of sprints, including a repeat green jersey.
Jack: I agree that Cavendish doesn’t need a humongous lead-out train like the one he had at HTC, as demonstrated when it all got a bit messy in the closing stages of the World Championships. Just as well, as there’s no way that Sky can accommodate a team to help Cav in the sprints, while also going for the general classification.
I was immensely excited to see the emergence of Chris Froome at the Vuelta last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him trying to win another Grand Tour outright, possibly the Vuelta again – although now it’s likely that Sky will take him to the Tour de France in order to help Wiggins up the climbs. However, a question still remains in my mind over how good Wiggins is at going uphill on the mountains which separate the men from the boys. I can’t see him winning a Grand Tour unfortunately, and in the long run Froome appears to be a much better bet.
Kathi: Totally agree with you, Jack, about Wiggins. The Tour might have a lot of time trials this year but he’s going to have real problems in the mountains because it’ll be attack after attack after attack. I thought his tweet after the Angliru stage ‘should I battle on or ride to keep third’ (paraphrasing, of course) was a disgrace – it sums up why I can’t stand him as a rider. Why didn’t he ride for the strongest guy who could have won if he got some help?
Tim: I can’t argue with those assessments. I do also think Cav brings natural leadership (which Wiggins lacks) which will help mould a unit around him. With teammates such as Edvald Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift he will still enjoy some top-class lead-outs at races. He won’t win as many races in 2012, but I still expect him to be the man to beat. Pencil him in for three stages and the green jersey at the Tour.
Kathi: Everyone is talking about the limited lead-out train and how that is going to affect Cav and conflict with Wiggo’s dreams of Tour victory. But I don’t think that’s where the trouble is going to lie. Cav is talented enough to adapt and win any old how, but what he can’t control and what he desperately does need help with – I’m talking in the Tour – is getting over the mountains to stay in the race. They’re going to have to appropriate a rider or two to shepherd him over those – he was outside the time limit a couple of times last year but because he was in the gruppetto it was okay. But there were a couple of hairy moments where he was on his own and way back and someone had to go back for him.
Tim: That’s true, although it’s worth bearing in mind that Cav has recently revealed that he had major stomach problems in the mountains, which certainly wouldn’t have helped.
Kathi: Wiggins is going to have trouble on the steep sharp climbs (because he can’t do steep sharp climbs) so he’s going to need everyone as well. But I can’t believe that Sky would be stupid enough to not to err on the side of Cav if it came down to where the team resource has to be on a hard day in the mountains. The green jersey is his to lose, he owns the Champs sprint, he’s arguably the most bankable star in the peloton …
Another HTC-Highroad refugee, Tony Martin, has gone to Quick Step. How will he fare against Fabian Cancellara in the time trials, and do we think he can transform himself into an overall contender?
Kathi: Obviously whenever someone talks about anyone beating my beloved Fabian Cancellara anywhere, I close my eyes, plug my ears and sing a little song to go to my happy place. But I’ll be grown-up about this question. I think Martin is going to get better and better and I think Cancellara is looking for other types of victories. He’s said as much in interviews about two years ago, when he was still unassailable in the TT – he was fifth in the Champs sprint last year and fourth in the Worlds sprint, who knows what he’s up to! That said, the man loves to win, loves to win big, loves to shut the doubters up so I think he’ll always be there and give it all.
I don’t know about Martin becoming a GC contender. But QuickStep could put a lot of firepower behind him and a talented rider is always going to benefit from that.
Sheree: Tony got the upper hand in 2011 but it all depends on how he sees his career progressing. I’m sure he’s eyeing Olympic Gold this year. He’s won one-week races where he’s dominated in the time-trial but can he keep going for three long weeks and does he want to? The press want to turn everyone into a Tour contender: Cancellara, Phil Gil, whoever but it’s not that easy. Sometimes, you’re better off sticking to your knitting. Better to be the world’s best time-triallist than ninth at the Tour de France. Who was ninth in 2011? Exactly, you don’t remember. It was Tom Danielson.
Tim: This is going to be one of the most interesting battles of 2012 for me. Martin is the most formidable threat Cancellara has ever faced, and the only current rider who can claim to be his equal against the clock. I think Fabian will rise to the challenge and come back strong, but I expect the two to trade wins at all the major races throughout the year. I can’t see anyone else getting a look-in.
Can he transform himself into an overall contender? If he’s going to do it any year, it will be at July’s Tour. The climbs are not as severe as they have been in recent years, and he will be able to take advantage of the time trials to build a cushion to defend. He might just sneak into the top ten on GC.
Jack: Sorry Kathi, but I think that Martin has surpassed Cancellara in terms of time trialling abilities now – as demonstrated at the world championships. However, that could change if he decides to focus more on becoming a GC rider. I’m yet to be convinced that he can challenge on the big climbs – he could only manage 44th at last year’s Tour de France – but he’s proved he’s more than capable of winning the week-long races – winning Paris-Nice is no mean feat. I think that it’s up to him, and what he wants to focus on.
Kathi: Jack, stop that kind of talk! Actually, I think you’re right about Martin in time trials but I also think Fab has other goals so it might just free him to focus on other things.
Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd are joining Tour de France champion Cadel Evans and Paris-Tours winner Greg Van Avermaet at an increasingly strong BMC. How are they going to do?
Sheree: Now here’s a team with deep pockets and chock full of talent. But they don’t expect their riders to race 100-plus days a year so there’ll be plenty of opportunities for everyone. Evans, Hushovd and Gilbert might be stars but none of them are prima donnas.
Tim: I don’t think it will be a big problem. BMC now have a strong enough squad to operate two ‘A’ teams, and they can effectively run parallel programmes for Evans and Gilbert. I imagine Cadel will run a relatively light schedule as he did in 2011, defending Tirreno-Adriatico in the spring while Gilbert focuses on the classics. The only place where their agendas are likely to collide is at the Tour, and that didn’t really cause any problems last year, did it?
Van Avermaet needs to demonstrate that he can convert his undoubted talent into consistent performances. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to lead the team in the absence of Evans and Gilbert at middle-ranking races, and I would expect him to be BMC’s Plan B in the one-day classics should Gilbert be too tightly marked by his rivals.
As for Thor, I fear he has jumped from frying pan to fire, and could well be facing another year of being on the wrong end of team tactics at several of the classics.
Kathi: Thor’s the wild card in this team and this is where the conflict might come in as both he and Gilbert have very similar racing ambitions. One of these days, Gilbert is going to go all out for Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders – races that Thor wants to win. Cuddles [Evans – Ed] will have the Tour with the team riding for him so I don’t see conflicts there. Those will be further down the line – not this spring perhaps but next spring almost certainly. BMC is the team I’m watching this year so it’ll be fun!
Jack: I think that there’s a danger of it all becoming a bit messy at BMC by the time the classics come round, especially between Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd.
Hushovd was clearly fed up at last year’s Paris-Roubaix when his teammate Johan Vansummeren won it and not him, and it’s clear that the Norwegian is desperate to prove that he’s king of the cobbles.
Kathi: I think he was ready to ride with Cancellara and sprint it out in the end – he looked as livid as Cancellara when they were talking to the team car and instructions were not to ride.
Jack: However, Gilbert has also often stated his ambitions to win the ‘Hell of the North’ [Paris-Roubaix – Ed], so there could well be some friction there. The classics are often so unpredictable that it’s perfectly possible that neither of them win the races that they would like to.
Having said that, I’m certain that both riders will have more wins to add to their palmares come the end of the season, and BMC look like they’ve constructed a hell of a team – of course Cadel Evans will be back to defend the maillot jaune.
As for Greg Van Avermaet, I like him although he seems to me like the type of rider who promises much and often delivers little – much like Heinrich Haussler of Garmin. Nevertheless, he’s an extremely useful rider to have around for the classics, and should provide great help for the team.
How much is the long, drawn-out handling of the Alberto Contador case damaging cycling as a whole?
Sheree: Sadly this affair has been mishandled from day one by the authorities and has called into question the entire procedure which I feel is in need of a radical overhaul. Maybe that’s what Contador’s hoping to achieve, along with proving his innocence of any deliberate wrong-doing.
Kathi: I think Sheree is right – it’s the mishandling of it by the authorities (although I don’t think Contador is doing this to push the authorities into a radical overhaul). What burns me up about this case is that it drags on and on and on and he keeps racing – Valverde all over again (although Valverde’s case, to me, seemed more clear-cut).
I think that it has to be the rule that if you test positive, you are suspended until the final ruling. No ifs, ands or buts. That might stop the endless appeals of the guilty (why do they do that? Are they hoping people will get so bored, they’ll let them off?) but also it respects the other riders and the races themselves. But in order for that to be fair to the rider, the case has to be heard asap, everyone has to agree to expedite the matter to get it done and dusted in a matter of months, not years.
Jack: I’m sure I’m not alone in being incredibly bored of the Contador saga dragging on, and it’s embarrassing for the UCI and the sport. To have various decisions over the affair pushed back more times than I care to remember is absolutely ridiculous, and leaves a huge cloud over the sport.
Tim: Cycling is already damaged goods in the eyes of most sports fans, and the ham-fisted way the process has been handled won’t improve things. Which is saying something given how low the bar has been set after the Festina affair, Operacion Puerto, Landis, Rasmussen, Ricco and so many others.
Oddly enough, I think Contador is the only person who can come out of this affair looking good. He has largely maintained a dignified silence throughout the past 18 months while the UCI and the Spanish national federation have covered themselves in nothing but brown smelly stuff.
Right, that’s it from us for the moment. See you all next time.
If you would like to add your voice to the discussion, please feel free to add a comment below. And look out for part three of our round-table on Saturday, where we will preview the races we’re most looking forward to in 2012.