Is this the Schleck's stale project, the Cancellara express, or something new?
Our offseason capsule project limps along (damn you cyclocross!!) with today's latest entry, a look at what's left of the Radio Shack-Trek cycling empire. And the job here is to focus on cycling. There are so many things to get distracted by, it's hard to say where to start, but riders are human beings, and so too (finally) is their manager, now Luca Guercilena, so if I accomplish nothing else in this post, it will be to separate the perceptions around the team from the riders themselves, if possible.
Starting with those perceptions, 2013 is a huge year for the team. Perceptions don't work in cycling like they do in other sports. In the NFL, perceptions can't change the fact that stadiums are sold out for decades, that TV money is already banked, and that player contracts go on for five or six years at a chunk. In cycling, whose lifeblood is easily severable sponsorship arrangements between teams and increasingly image-sensitive widget-making corporations, perception is tantamount to existence. For more on this subject, see the last four years of Jonathan Vaughters' twitter account.
Assuming there is an ongoing purpose for this team to continue existing -- and owner Flavio Becca says he's at the "halfway point of this project," -- perception is at rock bottom, but in ways that can change in a hurry. The bulk of the perception problems came in thru last year's ugly shotgun marriage, which stuck the post-Bjarne Saxo vets with Johan Bruyneel and his assortment of riders. Bruyneel, after a nightmarish year with the team, has been taken out with the Armstrong trash, and the world is a noticeably better place for that. But there are riders left to ride, as a team, and how they pick up the pieces of a brutal offseason is one of the more interesting questions to be answered in 2013. Are they a short-term Schleck-driven vanity project? Are they a Trek-driven matter squeezing the last few dollars out of the Armstrong machine? Or is the team finally free to form a logical, durable, even likeable identity at the top level of the sport?
What We Thought Coming In
No capsule last year. But I can speak for at least some of us who thought this was a train wreck waiting to happen. The Armstrong investigation didn't arise overnight, and even if it had, the suspicions around Bruyneel and the Armstrong project had made pariahs of both the director and the former Tour champion. Team Leopard had a different set of issues -- namely, that it was arranged as a project for the Schleck brothers who, however talented, weren't really the kind of guys you build around too much. Could Bruyneel stay a step ahead of the law, long enough to deploy his successful Tour formula? Given exactly how his teams managed to "win" in the past, nobody liked their chances.
But those were the headlines. Back down inside the team, there was much to see. For one, Fabian Cancellara ... ah screw it. If you've gotten this far in the article -- hell, if you even found this website -- you know all you need to know about Tony Spartacus. On the other hand, Cancellara's support in the classics was down to almost nothing, and even the best need a little help. Pessimists saw vulnerability; everyone else saw a fair fight.
When the road went up, things were bound to get more interesting. Andy Schleck was still a Tour de France favorite, as long as Cadel Evans was too old and Alberto Contador was too suspended to get in Andy's way. [Time trials were another matter.] His brother Frank served as the secondary captain of an armada of veteran climbers -- Gerdemann, Kloden, Horner, Popovych -- and another wave of climbing talent led by Tiago Machado and Americans Ben King and Matthew Busche was gathering behind the old guys. It stood to reason that the Schlecks would be kept under glass til June, and the Bruyneel program of doing everything in service of the Tour would make the team seem as aloof as the Postal squad was, but between the top guys they were bound to win enough to justify their approach.
What We Got
A lightly-mitigated disaster. Cancellara won the Strade Bianche, and in two losing efforts at the start of the classics (E3 and Gent-Wevelgem) he more or less made the race-defining moves, only to lose out in bunch sprints. This positioned the Swiss Bear as the favorite in the two monumental cobbled races, but a touch of wheels shattered his collarbone and his team's only hope for springtime.
The Schlecks delivered even less. The highlight of Andy's year was probably his ex-post-facto Tour de France victory for 2010, awarded to him when Contador ran out of technicalities and tainted steak alibis. At last, he had won a stage race. But he was a non-factor in the Ardennes, and then he broke his sacrum in a crash at the Dauphine, where he was battling in the media with Bruyneel over the latter's obnoxious comments. Andy's Tour was over, and apart from a few uneventful spins around Beijing, his season was too. Frank, meanwhile, managed the near-impossible task of having an even worse season, with an equally lousy spring followed by second in the Tour de Suisse, only to have his vague Tour hopes shattered by a crash on stage six, a couple minutes lost, and finally an expulsion for having xipamide in his system. Just when you thought you could assign all the past evils to Bruyneel and his posse, one of the headlining Leopards turns up a positive.
Below the fold, the team's depth made the Shack look like a normal cycling team, with promising athletes delivering respectable and intriguing performances. The end result was a top-five ranking at CQRanking (but outside the top ten at the Cafe's World Rankings). Among the highlights, Giacomo Nizzolo graduated to the ranks of serious Pro Tour sprinters who like hard terrain, with his best results (including two wins) in Belgium. Jan Bakelants improved statistically, albeit with mostly minor placings, but hey. Old guys like Zubeldia and Horner continue to produce. Maxime Monfort cracked the Tour top 20. Jakob Fuglsang competed everywhere he went, with some nice results. And Tony Gallopin continued to be pretty damn good at a lot of things, dueling with climbers and sprinters throughout the season. If you could ignore the headlines and just watch the races, you might have seen enough to like this team.
Top Three Highlights
- Jens! Voigt wins USAPCC stage to Beaver Creek, Colorado on a long solo flight. Old guys rule! Also, the dark clouds were gathering then, so yeah. Good news, and by an internationally beloved rider.
- Cancellara wins Tour de France prologue in return from spring injury. This was a pretty star-studded prologue, and after all he'd been through it was nice see that the Master was back.
- Johan Bruyneel fired in October following Armstrong report. Really, nothing less than this could have rid the team of him, given Bruyneel's hold on the team's license and contracts.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Easy -- Cancellara's crash. Cancellara might be the mentally strongest rider I've ever seen, and for a team which spends as much time dutifully propping up the Schlecks as these guys, Cancellara has to be one of the people holding the project together. Big loss -- UCI points, wins, exposure and undoubtedly morale.
- Andy's cracked sacrum. In hindsight, Wiggins would have probably crushed him on this course, and further labeled Schleck as a guy who loses stage races against the watch. But at least the Shack would have had hope.
- Hm... I'll stick with a sporting example and go with Tiago Machado's stalled progress. His last two seasons haven't matched the promise of 2010, and he turns 28 this year.
Where Do They Go From Here?
The bad news... Frank's doping case is due to be completed January 30th, when the Luxembourg federation will announce its conclusions. A suspension -- the likeliest outcome -- would be another stain on the team's reputation and delay its emergence from whatever chrysalis they're in now, but a free pass to Frank would be even worse. So the team will continue to have to deal with the sport's dark side. Andreas Kloden was under investigation in Germany last year too. The hits keep coming.
Beyond that, however, the team's older stars will continue to deliver the points while the younger core comes of age. Cancellara has said he's focusing on the Classics, which has to have cost everyone at Quick Step a few hours of peaceful sleep already. Gallopin, Nizzolo, Jesse Sergent, and incoming Robert Kiserlovski provide a nice core of guys who are likely to compete almost everywhere in the next few years. Losing Fuglsang (to Astana) is a blow, however, and the departure of Oliver Zaugg is disappointing as well. Overall, the roster probably needs to get younger pretty soon, but their additions of Danilo Hondo and Stijn Devolder do little in that regard. How much longer can Chris Horner defy the aging laws? How many more Tours will they run out Haimar Zubeldia and Andreas Kloden in pursuit of minor GC placings? The makeover of this team isn't merely about putting the Armstrong scent off of them, it's about revitalizing the roster so that fans take an interest in them. If somehow Devolder wins de Ronde again, then fine, but a more likely scenario is that we have more and more trouble remembering that he's still around.
I've never liked this team since it was either the Lance Project or the Squadra Schlecks. Only now is there a real chance for them to evolve into something interesting to behold. It's going to take some time, and with Bruyneel in charge all the way to October, long past the transfer season's key moments, 2012 wasn't their big chance. But with some strong performances, new leadership and a commitment to doing things well and with integrity, the project has a chance to shine in 2013, and go big after that.