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Preview '06: Brothers in Arms?

As we swing around Europe to the north, let's take on two more teams.

Team 1 had 12 wins on the pro tour circuit, took the title at a grand tour and barely missed the podium at another, while also taking a lesser jersey, not to mention some near misses in the classics.

Team 2 had 11 wins, no grand tour titles despite focusing their energies on two of them, and also failed to score any classics wins.

So which describes Rabobank and which is CSC?

Readers of this site can make the connection, but if all you had to go on were magazine covers and the PCT team rankings, you'd almost certainly guess team 1 is CSC. Bjarne Riis's little team that could has become a media darling, with breathless reports every winter from the team's outward bound course and in-depth interviews with Riis's Danish retired commando buddies who run the show.

Rabo, meanwhile, are often thought of as a big-budget team that doesn't get much done and doesn't appear to have a plan for success.  Other than Oscar Freire's boils, it's hard to recall any non-race coverage of the team before Mickael Rasmussen's big splash at the Tour.

There is a certain amount of logic to this, in the same way there's a reason baseball pundits will speak differently of two pitchers with the same stats, one of whom is talented and young, the other less eye-popping or fresh-faced. CSC should be the next big thing, while Rabo's roster has been second-tier for years. But the fact is, last year both teams performed at a very high level even among pro tour teams, and should this year too.

Geography Moment

Growing up on the sport in the 80s, I was always under the imression that Holland was a cycling powerhouse. Granted, my ability to distinguish Flanders from Holland was, um, suspect, but I recall there were always at least two teams (say, PDM and Panasonic) who were major protagonists, and Dutch riders like Joop Zoetemelk, Stephen Rooks, Erik Breukink, Gert-Jan Theunisse, and Johan Van der Velde right in the thick of the action at all times. Now Holland is on the fringe of the cycling map, with one team of middlin' repute and few Dutch cyclists doing anything worth blogging about, while its neighbors on all sides keep getting better. Are all the 150-pound Dutch guys with phenomenal stamina playing voetball?

CSC, meanwhile, represents Denmark with great distinction. However, I wonder whether CSC does anything tangible to make Denmark a cycling country. Bjarne Riis is undoubtedly a true Danish sports hero (I assume), but he moved to Tuscany with his riches a while back. His team is officially based in Denmark, although it seems like the only thing they do in Denmark is the winter boot camp and an occasional race on home turf. CSC, meanwhile, is an American company. The team roster has Jakob Piil and a fistful of serviceable Danes, but their top riders are Italian, American, Spanish and Luxemburgers, while Denmark's most accomplished rider these days is Rasmussen -- at Rabobank. Anyway...

So what About This Year?

Everyone knows CSC's plans. Win the Giro, then try to win the Tour. Everyone knows that they could've won last year's Giro with ease if Ivan Basso were better at sipping ice water. Everyone knows that if Basso is on form in July, he should have only Ullrich and some long time trials standing in his way. Riis has built an excellent team through motivation and faith in his people; from all outside accounts he's an outstanding people manager, and I tend to agree with Lance that if Ullrich had accepted Riis' offer a few years back, his palmares would look a bit different. Riis has accomplished all of this on something of a shoestring, though with CSC's latest commitment he's got his team on solid footing.

CSC's purported goals don't end with the Tour and Giro and Basso, however. Bobby Julich's resurrection and David Zabriskie's development give them an American 1-2 in shorter stage races, time trials, and perhaps even a classic somewhere. Frank Schleck, meanwhile, might be the Boonen of the Ardennes -- he's 25 and almost stole both Zurich and Lombardia last year. They have Stuart O'Grady on board to take a shot at stage sprints. Even their domestiques -- namely Giovanni Lombardi -- are stars. If they were #1 in the Pro Tour last year, imagine what could happen if they had a good season!

Rabobank's relative parity with CSC could in theory continue -- they feature a full roster of potential winners by the handful at nearly every race. Grand tours? Menchov's got one already, and his TT skills make him a contender at this year's vanilla Tour, while Mauricio Ardila and Rasmussen form a Big Three, especially when the road turns up. Rasmussen is one of the biggest victims of the shitty Tour route, but he's got a few years of climbing left to bag maillots pois and wait for tougher routes.

Flat classics? The Flying Dekkers are still around, and hope to be leading out uber-sprinter Oscar Freire whenever possible. Hillier classics? Surely Michael Boogerd won't play bridesmaid forever at Amstel, right? And even if he can't find that extra gear, perhaps Juan Flecha can.

CSC are everyone's team to beat, and for damn good reason. But if Rabo were there matching them step for step again, well, nobody should be shocked.