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Preview '06: Disco and Phonak, Two More for the Tour?

Previous entries under this banner have focused on geographic rivalries, but the Cycling world has been expanded beyond its traditional boundaries to include new members, like the United States, and to acknowledge some long-standing -- if quieter -- ones, like Switzerland.

True, the Swiss have been hanging around the fringes of the sport since the early days, whereas America went unnoticed on the European cycling circuit until Greg Lemond showed up. But now, thanks to the Lance effect, Discovery Channel and Phonak, the sole Pro Cycling Tour representatives from each nation, are strange bedfellows.

If Lance's seven consecutive Tour wins had any lasting effect on the Peloton, it was in forcing teams who think they can win the Tour to duplicate his (and his team's) focus on le Grand Boucle. Maybe this won't be a lasting effect with the PCT and its huge, multi-faceted rosters, but so far in the new millenium if you want the maillot jaune, you need a clear leader, a series of Spanish lieutenants, some collective time trialling skills, and a light racing schedule in April, May and June.

Phonak burst on the scene three seasons ago when its small squad signalled its intention to go big time by signing Tyler Hamilton away from CSC, assembling a roster designed to help Tyler win the Tour... all with a copy of the Postal blueprint. Things don't always turn out the way you plan them... but the defection of Floyd Landis helped them stay the course: when Hamilton got the boot, Landis was promoted from protege to leader.

When last seen, the two squads were going head to head in California, a slimmed down version of last year's battle in France, but a preview of the battle to replace Lance, at home and abroad.

Historical Interlude

In a way, the cycling histories of Switzerland and the US have nothing in common at all. Like I said, the Swiss have been hanging around the outer regions of the peloton from the get-go, picking off victories in classics and tours since Heiri Suter's presumably surprising win in the Ronde in 1923... which he then doubled up at Roubaix the next week before disappearing from the spring classics forever. Hosting the Championship of Zurich since 1914 and the Tours of Switzerland (1933) and Romandie (1947) all these years has given the country a secure place on the map, as well as a platform for its own riders, who generally had their say on home turf until more modern times.

Swiss riders own a few other distinctions on the biggest stages too. Hugo Koblet's win in the 1950 Giro endeared him to Italians everywhere as the first foreigner ever to steal off with the maglia rosa. Ferdi Kubler performed the team double by winning the Tour that year (matched by Koblet in 1951), making Switzerland the fifth nation to produce a Tour winner, after France, Italy, Belgium and mighty Luxembourg. This puts the Swiss ahead of such Cycling nobodies as Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, the US, Denmark, Ireland, and the entire former Eastern Bloc. Not too shabby.

But check out the Cycling Hall of Fame's points ranking, which slots the Swiss in the thick of the Second Division with the Germans, Yanks, etc. Hey, it's a small country. And a good place to learn how to climb.

Discovering Life After Lance

Actually, this is a subject flogged to smithereens by the Cycling media, no need to rehash here. To recap, Discovery Channel's ambitions are a work in progress because they no longer have the Known Quantity for July; instead, they are wrestling with how to apportion their strengths in all sorts of disciplines, none of which they appear to own. The brilliant Johan Bruyneel has slowly built a roster that can challenge in April, not just with a lone George Hincapie but with second-tier challengers like Leif Hoste and Stijn Devolder. They can challenge in May too, as the canny Savoldelli showed a disbelieving world last year. They have GC riders like Yaroslav Popovych and Tom Danielson, or maybe Hincapie, who can win a smaller tour and maybe someday a bigger one.

The difference from years past is that they could fall short everywhere. With Hincapie focusing on July, one wonders whether he can perform in Flanders-Roubaix week at his past podium-worthy level. Savoldelli, meanwhile, heads to the Giro out of duty, but has all but given up in the face of relentless climbing... not exactly his style. And as for July, Hincapie's transition and the development of Popovych and Danielson are just works in progress. Bruyneel has so many useful, moveable parts that you know Discovery will make noise everywhere. But they will need some breaks to avoid being this year's CSC.

Phonak, meanwhile, look uncannily like US Postal, circa 2000 or so. They have Belgian DS John Lelangue starring as Bruyneel, American captain Floyd Landis as Lance, a mass of Spaniards to guard the jewels, and a mere token presence in the Classics and sprinters' venues. The kicker of course is that Landis has announced for the Giro, which never fit Lance's plan, but even with this change in the route to Paris Landis might still shine in July, with his ample protection and a skill set ideal for the upcoming vanilla Tour. Phonak did a decent job defending Romandie last year, and may make that a tier-two goal again along with last week's success in California. Don't look for them on the podium anywhere else, though, except maybe, just maybe, in the two biggest races on Earth.