Is Cannondale Pro Cycling - the new name for 2012's Liquigas - Cannondale team - on the rise or falling? According to the UCI World Tour rankings, things are looking up as the team moved from 8th in last year's rankings to 3rd this year. But by other rankings, the team stayed stagnant, and growth was concentrated in one Peter Sagan rather than dispersed across a broad swath of individuals.
Long regarded as Italy's flagship, Cannondale is in danger of losing its soul. With the departure of Vincenzo Nibali and the inevitable aging of Ivan Basso, an American title sponsor and a Slovakian star are now the core of the team. A gaggle of promising young Italian riders are gathered within the team's ranks, but this always seems to be the case and only a few pan out as we expect them to.
Where, then, is Italy's pride and joy headed?
What we thought coming in:
While Nibali is definitely talented, the team's best prospect seems to be to hold onto Peter Sagan and let him develop naturally. It remains to be seen if he will steer more towards pure sprinting or towards the Philippe Gilbert model, but either way he is guaranteed some success. Indeed, he could even gravitate towards the Thor Hushovd model, winning sprints based off pure power alone but gravitating towards the classics later. Really, with this dude, the possibilities are almost endless...
What they lack is depth in stage racing talent - without replacing Kreuzinger and Kiserlovski and without palpable improvement in Agnoli, they are becoming overly reliant on two riders to pull in results in their area of traditional strength.
What we got:
Wins, wins, wins. 38 to be exact, which is a whole heck of a lot. Only OmegaPharma - Quickstep and Sky took home more victories in 2012. And a whole heck of a lot of those victories belonged to Peter Sagan, who took 16 wins and multiple points classifications over the span of the season before finally beginning to fizzle out in September. Moreno Moser and Elia Viviani contributed the most after Sagan, though mostly in smaller races. But hey, you have to start winning somewhere, so they did well.
Want to hear more about Sagan? He won the bunch sprint for fourth in Milan - San Remo behind the trio containing teammate Vincenzo Nibali. He was second behind Tom Boonen in Gent - Wevelgem and fifth at the Tour of Flanders after making a daring but ill-fated move to bridge up to the winning trio of Pozzato, Ballan, and Boonen in the final 10 kilometers. And he capped it off by sprinting up the Cauberg to third in Amstel Gold. The Slovakian wunder kid knocked on the door of a monument win all spring - impressive for a rider aged all of 22 years.
Once you look past Sagan, though, things start to fizzle out a bit. Vincenzo Nibali was on the podium in the Tour de France again - and the only non Team Sky rider to finish within 10 minutes of Bradley Wiggins - but failed to live up to expectations even there. In the classics, he finished a daring second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and third in Milan - SanRemo, signaling to some that he could win one day and to others that he would always be a bridesmaid. Hard to please when you're at the top tier but don't quite win, isn't it? Ivan Basso looked to be at the beginning of an inexorable decline towards retirement aside from atypically out-sprinting Dan Martin to win Japan Cup, otherwise known as "that late, late race people only do because they really really have to". In short, depth wasn't the defining characteristic of the team this year.
Top 3 Highlights:
- Peter Sagan wins three stages en route to taking the Green Jersey in Paris, pretty much uncontested. Sagan is a prodigious talent, fast enough to stay near the front end of a bunch gallop and much quicker than most anyone else who can get over shorter climbs in the lead group, so it is no surprise he took home the Malliot Verde even though this was his first Tour de France. The new points format, heavily weighting mid-race sprints that Sagan was often able to steal on more mountainous days, favored him. Cavendish had mediocre support in the sprints at best and André Greipel was injured for one of Sagan's wins on a flat day. But had two of the world's best sprinters been firing on all cylinders all race long, Sagan still would have won. It was a masterclass of talent, brains, tenacity, and a little bit of youthful insolence.
- Vincenzo Nibali wins a tight Tirreno-Adriatico in the final time trial. As it usually is, Tirreno - Adriatico entered the final stages of the race with a general classification separated by under a minute. Chris Horner led after the penultimate stage by 5 seconds over Roman Kreuziger and 6 seconds over Nibali with only a 9.3km individual time trial between him and overall victory. Behind him lie two stronger time trialists, with arguably the stronger one in second place. But Nibali, who had won the race's queen stage and had victory on Stage 4 narrowly snatched from his fingers by his teammate Peter Sagan in the final 50 meters, careened through the streets of San Benedetto del Tronto to put over 15 seconds into both riders, firing a warning shot that he would be a contender not for the podium but for the win in the stage races to come for the rest of the season.
- Moreno Moser wins two stages and the overall in the Tour de Pologne. Coming out parties are the best, and 2012 was a year long party for Francesco Moser's illustrious nephew. He took his first professional victory - in his first full season as a professional - in February at the Trofeo Laiguella and rode strongly through a narrow second place finish at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal in September, so a defining moment of the season is hard to pick out. I gravitate towards Poland because it was a World Tour win and showed remarkable consistency and tactical awareness over the span of a week, not a single day.
Bottom 3 Lowlights
- Ivan Basso's anonymous 5th place in the Giro d'Italia. Really, where was the smiling assassin and 2010 champion? Nowhere near my computer screen in the interesting parts of the race, that's for sure. One wonders if it is age or the loss of his coach Aldo Sassi that was holding Basso back this year, but something definitely was. But hey, at least he won Japan Cup?
- Fewer Oss-some victory salutes from Sagan's favorite wingman.
- Vincenzo Nibali's failure to emerge as a credible challenger to Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France. If you told me you thought Nibali would win le Tour, I would have chuckled. Way too many time trials for Bradley Wiggins to whirl his oval chainrings towards victory in. But most expected Nibali to at least prove the better climber, which he failed to do. He tested the waters with a few attacks, most notably on Stage 10 when he teamed up with Peter Sagan on a descent but was reeled in by Wiggins' teammates and Stage 16 when he dropped all but Wiggins and Froome up the Col du Peyresoude. But getting dropped on two other summit finishes did little for his ego, methinks.
Where do they go from here?
Unless we witness a big surprise, 2013 will be a downgrade from the prior two seasons. The transfer market has not been so kind to Cannondale with Nibali leaving to join Astana only the beginning of what is not quite a hemorrhage but definitely a blow to the team. Valerio Agnoli, a stage racing hope, is following Nibali while promising young climber Dominik Nertz heads to BMC with classics and leadout domestique Daniel Oss. Timothy Duggan, oft regarded as a workhorse but also U.S. national champion, is out as is climbing and consonants ace Sylvester Smyzd.
Sagan remains, but he can only do so much for a team. The HTC of years past was dominated by Mark Cavendish but was also home to a host of other notable talents that could continue to bear the team flag. Cannondale lacks this depth and desperately needs some young riders to step up and fill some large, large shoes.
On the inbound side, no huge name steps out, not even in the "support Sagan in the classics" department. Cannondale's management have invested much in the man but not enough in the infrastructure to support him. With most of their eggs in the Sagan basket, Cannondale may want to make some offerings to the cycling gods before the season starts.