Not only that but this is the annual drink your kool-aid here! edition.
So okay, since the last time we met, we've seen the 1st weekend in Belgium (and Switzerland), Eroica, and the 1st three week-long stage races. What tends to happen now is that certain Story Lines get set. You know: a certain team sucks! Or a certain rider looks better than anyone else! Or whatever; regardless, we fans tend to jump to conclusions about how the season is gonna play out based on these early races.
The reality, of course, is different. There is no Start To The Season where all riders and all teams are fully prepared, ready to go. That's true in any sport. At this point, post Tirreno-Adriatico, some riders are peaking for the season, while others are just shaking the rust off and they use these races to do that. Reality says that for some riders, the races that we just witnessed are THE races of the year (hiya Lulu!), while for others (Alexandr Kolobnev) they are in training mode.
So below I rank the teams and for most of them I look at why the story lines are (i.e. what type of kool-aid are we supposed to be drinking) and then look at the reality. To the rankings!
1. Quickstep Kool-aid: This team is set to have an historic year on the cobbles. We're talking Total Domination. Boonen flexed his muscles the opening weekend. Chavanel has been on fire, both on the cobbles and now at Paris-Nice. What a GREAT pick-up. Devolder showed with his TT at T-A that he's rounding into shape. Alan Davis wins TDU; Wouter Weylandt wins Le Samyn so we know they have depth and support. This team will be favorites to win ALL the cobbles races.
Reality: Actually not all that far from the kool-aid to be honest. Chavanel is so far the best pick-up of the year, improving on a very good last season. All their pieces are falling into place for the cobbles season. In addition Cancellara and arch-rival Saxo Bank is looking weaker this year. They SHOULD be favored for the next month.
But of course other teams have decent riders too. Lampre's been quiet and you have to figure Ballan and Gasparotto and Spilak etc. will make some noise. Cervelo is a tricky team, especially with Haussler on fire as well. They won't win everything. But it says here that they will win more than last year.
2. Rabobank. Kool-aid: Strong, deep and young but stupid. They have the talent but not the brains to win anything. Juan Antonio Van der Flecha embodies them: perpetual bridesmaids.
Reality: They aren't that stupid. It's not cobbles but exhibit A was the Tour of Murcia where they showed easily the finest teamwork in dominating the Queen stage and the GC of any team in all three recent stage races. Menchov worked great with his cast of Dutch supporters: Weening, Clement, Ten Dam etc. and they will be factors come Grand Tour season. Adding Gesink will make this team the dark horse to take home the big prizes later.
The one day races, true, have seen some questionable tactics that haven't delivered the bacon. Yet. But in no way are the only ones with squirrely strategies. We've seen questionable tactics from Astana, Columbia, Cervelo, Liquigas, Saxo Bank: most every team has had it's slip-ups. Why? Because it's still early in the season and teams are feeling out their riders still. Now that MSR is upon us, we'll see the results of that experimentation come into play as a strength.
No, Rabobank doesn't have a Boonen which lessens their victory totals. But Freire will be back by the 23rd (Castile and Leon). This team will get their share of wins both in the one day races and in the stage races. Reality says that Rabobank will play the role that Saxo/CSC played in past years: throw large numbers of really good riders at the competition in hopes that they can't mark them all.
3. Columbia Kool-aid: So they're good at one day races. Cavendish can't climb and they are pants at stage races, especially since they lost Kirchen.
Reality: This team is not the Platte River: a mile wide and an inch deep, and they are a factor in any race you can name. Burghardt, Eisel, Boasson, Hincapie, and Renshaw are adept on the cobbles. Lovkvist and Rogers with Siutsou in support make up the core of an excellent stage racing team. I won't go as far as Chris in proclaiming the best team in the world, but they are no worse than #2. I'll wait till the end of the season. When you see the likes of Frantisek Rabon winning the TT at Murcia, you know they are loaded. And look! I haven't even mentioned Cavendish and Kirchen!
4. Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni Kool-Aid: A new super team in the making.
Reality: Their split-schedule of a season plays to their advantage.
Most every other team started in January with TDU and is still in the process of slowly building up to peak performance and will, s with varying riders, try to hold that peak continuously through to October. SDA is different in that after the Giro they don't do much of anything until the fall Italian races. None of that yucky June-July-August racing for them! Too hot! They might perspire! As a result they can peak as a team at roughly the same time, much of which (in the spring- now) other teams are still training. So this team will probably get more results than otherwise but we won't hold that against them. Any team in the top 10 is deep and varied in it's portfolio of riders and SDA is no exception. They're the #1 team on Italian soil at the moment.
5. Astana Kool-Aid: Cat fight! It's all against Contador! He will leave the team as soon as this year ends!
Reality: The story here is injuries. Leipheimer, Horner, Vaitkus, and Brajkovic: all out. If these guys weren't hurt we wouldn't be talking of an anti-Bert conspiracy. The Reality says that once you get past their front line domestiques, Astana is much like any other team with a group of not-ready-for-prime-time players. And, no, Popovych has never been a major domestique, even on Disco. He's too mercurial.
But now the injuries are healing up, Vaitkus (who was contesting for the win at Het Nieuwsblad when Pozzato ran into him) is back for MSR. Leipheimer will be back at Castile and Leon. Horner and Brajkovic will be back well before their peak to their season, the Ardennes. And if you read all of Lance's Bert tweets, he's being supportive of The Accountant. Their season was not derailed by Paris-Nice, a race that Contador wasn't planning to win pre-season so the fact that he dominated the TT and the big climb will mean more in the long run than the stage seven bonk.
6. Cervelo Kool-Aid: Crafty veteran team will steal the limelight from their more hyped rivals all year.
Reality: Crafty and veteran they are, true. But the tricks they pulled early on in their wins won't pan out as the season plays out. Thor is still remarkably slow for a sprinter. In fact Haussler might be a better bet.
However this team will still get more than it's share of the wins as they are also remarkably multi-dimensional. That's a deep cobbles team they have, in many ways very similar to Columbia's. Right now I place them behind only Quickstep and Rabobank in cobbles prowess. Then once Sastre wakes up they have a decent Grand Tour team too. Not the best but not Lotto-esque (Cattle and his un-merry nameless dwarves) in futility. They should leapfrog Astana in these rankings before the month is over (though they won't hold that high ranking over the summer).
7. Liquigas Kool-Aid Basso's back!!!!!! He's gonna sweep the Giro and Vuelta! He's the best stage racer in the world!
Reality: He does look back to my eyes. The question of is he the best remains to be seen. THAT'S WHY THEY PLAY THE GAMES. It's way to early to say if he's back to the dominance he showed pre-suspension. Otherwise the team is rounding into shape nicely. Benna has four wins already, second only to Cavendish. They'll be the team to beat at the Giro.
8. Caisse d'Epargne Kool-Aid: Lulu Sanchez! The next Indurain!
Reality: He may be very good- it's hard to tell since he's under Valverde's shadow- but the reality this year says that he peaked at Paris-Nice,he'll try to hold that peak through the Criterium International and after that he falls back and becomes a domestique. Thus what we saw at P-N was a rider who was having the most important ride of his season while the others (Contador, Schleck, Voigt, Evans, Monfort, Vandevelde, etc.) were all just in advanced training mode. Even Sanchez acknowledges this reality.
Now what might happen if/when Valverde gets suspended is anyone's guess. Compared to last year though this team is on a pretty similar trajectory. Last year Valverde won Murcia, Lulu placed 5th at Paris-Nice, and J-Rod won the Montelpeone stage at T-A. This year no Valverde at Murcia, but the other two results (along with JJ Rojas' various top 10 placings) are very similar. But their season waits the Valverde resolution...
9. Garmin Kool-Aid: We know what we are doing.
Reality: Vaughters isn't quite the mastermind that his glass frames purport but the team is stepping up in class nicely.
It hasn't been easy. A fair Qatar and a better California were followed by Dave Zabriskie's house being robbed, leaving Tom Danielson to not successfully lead the team at Murcia. But things started to turn for the better with Hesjedal's 10th at Eroica, Wiggins' 2nd at the P-N ITT, Vandevelde's P-N stage win, Hesjedal's
9th 8th (thx, nikki) on GC at T-A and Farrar's win and 2nd place also at T-A. They haven't really threatened for the win at a stage race, nor a major one day race yet but they're coming along nicely.
10. Francaise des Jeux Kool-Aid: Plucky little French team that lost it's best rider.
Reality: Hey! Not bad! Not bad at all!
In all probability they won't keep this high ranking but the early season has shown a versatility that keeps them interesting. Several of their riders have contested races: Roy, Hutarovich, Ladagnous, Casar, Veikkanen, and Sulzburger have all plastered themselves on the tee vee. Let's see if it continues.
11. Saxo Bank Kool-Aid: The Best Team In The World.
Reality: They are experiencing a little dip in performance as their young riders work to fill the gap left by their old guys. Plus the bench behind Cancellara in the spring classics is thin.
Can this be right? Saxo Bank hasn't won a race since California? Wow. No doubt that will change but you gotta admit that their cobbles team with it's strength-through-numbers strategy sure looks beatable without Spartacus in it. I might even favor a Vaitkus-led Astana team over this Kroon/Breschel/Arvesen-led Saxo team. L'ouch. And while Frank Schleck is looking like he's rounding into form nicely (with Jens! towing him along) the same can't yet be said about his little bro. Larsson's quiet. Kolobnev's yet to wake up from his winter hibernation. O'Grady and Arvesen are old. CA Sorensen, Breschel and Fuglsang are too young. Haedo's not good enough if he's looking at the tail ends of Greg Henderson and Graeme Brown at finish lines.
But I am making it out as worse than it is. Cancellara will get back. The kids are getting good experience- and they are good. The old guys (does age affect Jens! or does he just kick it in the balls?) still have some life in their legs. They'll be back, but this year is a down year.
12. Katusha Kool-Aid: You cant buy championships
Reality: There's brains behind that money.
Maybe not quite as successful as Cervelo, but they have gotten some good results, chiefly via the legs of Toni Colom. This Astana leftover is looking like a Grand Tour leader. He won't win, but he'll place for sure. The rest of the team has yet to meld though. Pozzato, McEwen, Dehaes, Steegmans: their time is rapidly approaching with MSR. Pfannenberger and Ivanov wait for the Ardennes. By the end of the Giro we'll know exactly how well this team meshes.
The rest of the teams are below in order just have pithy little phrases since they are the definition of "meh".
13. Acqua & Sapone- Garzelli got drilled by Rabobank at Murcia but recovered for Tirreno-Adriatico.
14. Skil Shimano: Hivert!
15. BBBBBBBBBBBox Bweeg!!! Voeckler had a P-N to forget about: poor tactics (where have I heard that before?) on stage 4 then crash with a broken shoulder on stage 5.
16. Liberty Seguros I wonder why they aren't at Castile and Leon as I would have liked to see Ruben Plaza face stiffer competition.
17. LPR- Killer looking like Killer.
Not the worst Pro-Tour team!
19. Xacobeo-Galicia Zeke's getting up there in age. Give him a race to get his legs under him.
20. Cofidis Yes they still exist.
21. Vacansoleil Cobbles comin' up!
22. CSF Waiting for Sella.
23. ISD Are you sure Gio Visconti?
24. Lampre Done squat this year. Just imagine what teams below them are like.
25. Topsport Vlaanderen Well there's hope. Just a couple more words to their name and they can overtake SDA.
26. AG2R Have a stranglehold on 20th place in any- ANY! stage race.
27. Euskaltel Samu has a boo boo.
28. Ceramica Flaminia Wait till fall.
29. Fuji-Servetto ASO treating them like Astana last year. Will they respond like Astana? Ha!
30. Contentpolis-Ampo Paul Krugman the other day described Spain economically as the Florida of Europe. I can imagine several fewer regional teams and several fewer regional stage races next year. At least they ain't Greece or Ireland.
31. Barloworld No Tour. Pray for Giro.
32. House of Paint I just love this name.
33. Drew's team Waiting for a Flanders invite.
34. Hon's team The Quickstep of Quebec. Bitter, bitter enemies of Drew's team.
35. Chris' team Will ride you into a ditch just for laughs.
36. Kelly Slater He's good in most any kind of surf.
37. My cat, Ursula She was a great kitty.
1,000,000. *Lotto Why do they exist?