There's been a great deal of talk on this blog about teamwork in the past few weeks, almost all of it relating to the First Annual Podium Cafe Virtual Directeur Sportif Challenge, where teamwork is job one. But even though this Tour de France has not featured a dominant team or the usual up front teamwork you expect to see from what is actually a very team-focused sport, it's still worth taking a look at which squads have made the best case for stepping into the space vacated (understatement) by Discovery Channel after seven years.
Rabobank: Here, there and everywhere
As of this writing, nobody has more irons in the fire than the Netherlands National Cycling Team. Denis Menchov is the protected rider, and lurks just a minute back of Floyd Landis in the battle of true overall contenders. If KOM leader David de la Fuente were to look in his rearview mirror, his view of Michael Rasmussen might remind him of a semi making way for an oncoming Ferrari. And although Robbie Mac drove a stake through his overall chances, Oscar Freire's green jersey challenge has been exciting enough, featuring two stages, one long breakaway, and some dramatic top speed to light up the Champs Elysees next weekend.
Best of all, they have looked like a true team, taking control on the front during the Pla de Beret stage last week. Michael Boogerd (hey--a Dutchman!) looked like a locomotive on the front, in an impressive display of power.
Prediction: Polka dots again; maybe two more stage wins, and lots of kind words... but no yellow.
T-Mobile: Much ado about nothing
Even the best ship needs a helmsman, it seems. T-Mobile were constructed thoughtfully enough as the outfit that could protect Ullrich and deliver him in position to the final time trial, where through his own natural abilities and no other means (like banned substances, for example), he would devastate the competition and sweep away eight years of anguish. They can be forgiven for not having a plan B... which they didn't, or none that's apparent. Rogers? Kloden? Sinkewitz? None of these options are falling into their laps, and T-Mobile don't look capable of generating anything better through organization.
Prediction: They had their fun in yellow early on; no more stage wins coming.
Discovery: Where's the beef?
At least T-Mob can fall back on the excuse that they were planning on riding for Ullrich. Disco, meanwhile, have had months to come up with a plan.... OK, you know what? This isn't about planning. For all the criticism their GC-by-committee strategy has generated, there is no evidence that choosing one rider would have made any difference. None of the big four (Ace, George, Popo and the Falcon) have shown enough form to keep up with Landis and co., and if you lack the horses, you're never going to be in the race. Good idea to get Popo in position to take a stage, and I doubt that will be the last such effort.
Prediction: Acevedo wins an Alpine stage.
Phonak: The little team that could
Obviously having the man to beat for the yellow jersey makes them the envy of the peloton. But rather than puffing out their chests, Phonak are shrinking under the responsibility of protecting Floyd Landis. You'd think after Georgia, California and Paris-Nice they would have some confidence in their ability to manage a stage race from the front, but instead they are acting as though they can't handle it. Impressive? Hell no. But wise? Perhaps... there are three long, long, long days left, and my guess is they'll be defending on at least one of them. If there were a dominant team out there, this might be bad news, but as good as Rabo have been, there's no evidence they can put the hurt on Floyd.
Prediction: Yellow in Paris! Hey, he's made it three years on half a hipbone, what's one more week?
Gerolsteiner: Silent. Deadly?
The powder blue boys are one stomach virus away from a Rabo-like standing at this Tour. Too bad, Levi Leipheimer looked terrific when the road turned up and his temperature turned back down. He's a likeable guy who's been working hard for a chance like this year, and to see a stomach bug tack on a quick six minutes... well, that's Cycling. But having recovered, he's climbing back into the race, possibly for top 5, and with white-jersey holder Markus Fothen and lieutenant Georg Totschnig available, they present a powerful front for the Alps.
Prediction: Fothen wins white and a top-10; Leipheimer 4th overall.
Davitamon: Getting it done
Nobody else is accomplishing as much with as few guys pitching in as Davitamon. Sure, behind the scenes there is no doubt a lot of hard work done in the flat or transitional stages to keep control of races for Robbie McEwen - some of the Tour's most thankless work. Besides that, however, McEwen is a one man show on the line, and is doing fabulously well on his own, having sewn up the points competition against the best field seen in years. Tom Boonen was the odds-on favorite to win this year, but when it came down to experience versus power, the former has cleaned up. Meanwhile, Cadel Evans is my own favorite to challenge Landis for Yellow, and a solid podium contender at the very least. Does he have an armada to get him there? Nope. No problem, he can use Klodi's.
AG2R: Aux Armes Citoyens!
Each year... well, most years... OK, on occasion a French team steps up and shows itself at the national tour, and this year is clearly time for AG2R, a team that didn't even have a place in the Pro Cycling Tour last year. Yellow for Cyril Dessel for a couple days; a stage win for Calzati, and best of all a place in the final selection on the real stages by Christophe Moreau. Frankly, I'm at a loss for words, except to say that I don't expect anything more. But in this topsy-turvy world...
Prediction: Moreau 5th overall!
CSC: What the...?
No team has fallen so hard, so quickly in this Tour as all-world CSC. And yet, they still have Carlos Sastre right in the thick of the GC. Given all that's gone wrong, there is no reason to expect a miraculous ride by Sastre right to the podium, is there? Is there?
That's all the teams I can stand to review right now. Anyone else who wants to take on one of the missing (Lampre? Quick Step? LeakyGas? Caisse d'Epargne?) please feel free, even make a diary if you want. I'll be back in a spell... after riding up to Washington Pass.