It's been a pretty wild ride for the last couple years at Team Riis. In what seems to say more about human nature than anything more logical, the iconic Danish manager Bjarne Riis went from a CSC-Saxo squad with a pretty set lineup to two years of non-stop turmoil.
First, there was the mass-desertion led by the Schlecks and Cancellara. Riis responded with a little of his old ways -- grabbing Nick Nuyens from the remainder bin and promoting unheralded kid Richie Porte into a secondary stage-race threat -- and a little bit of old George Steinbrenner, signing Alberto Contador following his messy divorce with Team Lance. That worked fabulously well for 2011, with Nuyens winning de Ronde and Contador making a run at the Giro-Tour Double, dominating the first and hanging tough in the second, before reality set in... all while the sword of Damocles hung over his head.
When it fell, taking Contador out of competition for eight months ending just after the 2012 Tour, the damage swept over the team like a tsunami. Gone was their star, with nobody to fill his shoes (Porte having departed for Sky). Suddenly Saxo-Tinkoff were looking at a pretty bare cupboard. Nuyens, of course, saw his fluky luck run out again, crashing in Paris-Nice and missing his title defense in Flanders. Much of the remaining team was set up to support Contador, not take his place. Worst of all (arguably), Contador's disqualification wiped out his rather large 2011 points cache, leaving the UCI cupboard even more bare than the talent one. The season started with calls for their license to be pulled retroactively, for failure to meet the sporting criteria. For much of 2012, the team rode like it didn't meet sporting criteria.
Fickle Fate returned with Contador in August, where the rusty champion seized the Vuelta in a manner reserved to the greats, which he is, or so we think, except for that strange doping thing, which juxtaposed against the exposition of his former team... makes my head hurt. So really, I'm not sure how much fun anyone was having at that point. Also, thanks to the Byzantine UCI system for calculating points, Saxo regained the world's #1 asset and still found itself heading to an almost certain denial of its World Tour license. As the news leaked out about the UCI's slow, stepwise licensing process, that fate seemed ever more certain... until this week, when Katusha forgot to sign something or pay a bill or whatever, dropping a World Tour license from the sky and into Riis' lap.
Like I said, there is no rational reason for all this, except humans think boredom is bad and are prone to messing things up for fun.
What We Thought Coming In
WITHOUT Contador everything is up in the air. Clearly Riis has struggled to come up with a Plan B and it could come back to bite him in the ass in a disastrous way. Saxo will have to come out with some fantastic Cinderella stories to score big UCI points this season and it's not that easy to see who is going to step up and get it done? Perhaps the top lieutenants Daniel Navarro and Chris Anker Sørensen can compete for top 10s in the GTs but neither of them look like obvious stars. Haedo is fast but nothing points to him being a winning machine even with better support. The polish talents, Majka in particular, look really promising but bringing in the top results? With all the stars in alignment the classics squad could pull off some wins both on the cobbles and in Amstel but just looking at some of the other powerhouses out there this year I wouldn't bet any money on it. The rest? Talent, sure, but not many wins among them presumably. In short, Riis had better been p(r)aying to make sure Contador rides in 2012. The future of his team might depend on it.
What We Got
Um... what did you expect? Riis went all in needing an ace to turn up, and it didn't. Not until July anyway. In Contador's absence, Saxo-Sungard had few answers for any races. Chris Anker Sorensen performed in line with his career norms, with some high placings capped by a Tour de France second-place in the Pyrenees behind Thomas Voeckler. The Polish kids weren't bad, particularly Rafal Majka, who ended the season strong. And that's about it. Sure, they scored points at the Tour de l'Ain and a few other places -- the further from the limelight, the better. But in the bigger events, they sank like a stone. Nick Nuyens couldn't defend his stellar Ronde van Vlaanderen title from 2011, after slamming his hip into the pavement in the prologue of Paris-Nice. Kind of a pointless way to go out, and which just about sums up the team's season. They had nowhere to go, and not very fast.
Until the return of Contador. Gotta give Riis this much credit: if you're going to stick your neck all the way out, you'd better be backing the right guy. And that's exactly what Contador was. In his only grand tour of the year, he won the Vuelta a Espana in a manner that should have softened some of the harder hearts out there, attacking on a middling stage to outmaneuver Joaquim Rodriguez with cunning and aggression, above all else. The win did little to solve Riis' licensing issues and even less to make the suspicions around Contador go away, happening as it did as the Armstrong scandal was on the verge of devouring the entire sport. But assuming we can accept Contador, a former Bruyneel disciple, coming back from suspension, then we're looking at a top favorite for the 2013 Tour de France. For all this team has been through, it's pretty amazing to think they will be one of a handful of teams with a chance to control July.
Top Three Highlights
- Contador's attack to win the Vuelta. Covered already.
- June 25, Tinkoff Bank comes on as co-sponsor. Really, Riis' team management career has more lives than a cat.
- Chris Anker Sorensen's second at Bagneres-de-Luchon. Just being close to Thomas Voeckler makes you a hero in France.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- There's a rumor Saxo Bank attended the Giro d'Italia.
- Nuyens goes down. So much for the classics.
- Tour de France, generally. Should this really be a lowlight? It's strange for a Riis team to have so little influence at Le Tour, so I guess. Maybe it's fairer to say their lack of results kind of summed up where they were at. But it wasn't for lack of trying, if Michael Morkov's constant attacks and Chris Anker Sorensen's final combativity prize are any indication.
Where Do They Go From Here?
Up. Remarkable as the decision to incude them in the World Tour was in a technical sense, there's no question Saxo-Tinkoff will make its impression felt in 2013. Contador is talking about riding the Giro, which would be something assuming he really does target the Tour. Anyway, whatever roads he travels will get hotted up, and his backup (either in support or alternate leadership) switches to Roman Kreuziger, with Jesus Hernandez, Sorensen, Nick Roche and Mick Rogers all playing useful roles. Compare that to the ridiculously empty cupboard of a year ago, and tell me Tinkoff money doesn't make a difference?
As for the classics, Nuyens is off to Garmin, replaced by Matti Breschel, who will of course resume his awesome potential the second he trades in his Rabobank kit. Daniele Bennati joins him, as useful a classics vet as you can find, along with Marko Kump, a young-ish sprinting talent. Tim Duggan and Oliver Zaugg will be guys to watch in the hillier classics. In short, where Saxo was thin across the board, now they have a nice balance of skills and talent, albeit a bit older than Riis might prefer. How quickly things come together is another matter, but I see that they did another one of those ridiculous army training weekends, so I'm sure it's all sorted out.
Really, it's a pretty short walk from the outhouse to the penthouse these days. Take the Oleg Tinkoff elevator, and presto!