Does anything ever change with the Sons of Bjarne? This week comes the annual CSC post-team-building bootcamp report, and as usual everyone came out OK. No reports of riders failing to catch a teammate during the falling-backwards trust exercise; no reports of twisted knees during the ski trip; and best of all, no riders questioning the need to go traipsing around the woods of Norway every winter. Just the usual "O captain my captain" and predictions for a fruitful 2008.
Not that there's any Earthly reason for things to change. If there's a more consistent team out there, I'd like to see it. Somehow Bjarne not only hit upon a formula that works for him and his sponsors, but he's lined up the backing needed to keep it going even as their top ranking and successful riders started translating into higher salaries. If there was any bump in the road it was... we all know who. But even the Basso saga ended fortuitously, with the elephant leaving the room and forfeiting his inflated share of the team budget. Onward and Upward.
Someday they will relinquish the top spot in the Pro Tour and Cycling Quotient rankings, assuming someone else in the sport values team rankings. I tend to ignore them right up until it's time to write a team summary or preview, absent any particular race, and it's times like this that they tell a story.
Once again, CSC relied on a flood of solid riders, rather than any megastar, to gain them a constant flow of solid results, along with the odd massive success. Highlight of the year was Stuart O'Grady's Paris-Roubaix shocker, Jens! Voigt's defense of his D-Tour title, and Fabian Cancellara's Tour exploits. Lowlights? Hm, it depends on what exactly their expectations were. Sastre in Yellow? Cancellara winning Flanders? I'm not sure there was ever much to mourn over. They simply don't have an established grand tour leader (yet), so setting aside the biggest prizes, it was all good.
CSC has annually nudged its CQ totals upward by getting their top guys to improve a little, and by replacing lost points. Even Basso's departure was greatly softened by Andy Schleck's emergence, plus minor breakouts by JJ Haedo and Matti Breschel. In 2006 they placed ten riders in the top 100, including 8 in the top 50; in 2007 those numbers were 10/100 and 6/50. Frankly, they're a team-point-scoring machine, for whatever that's worth.
- Andy Schleck was the big story, and virtually all of his successes took place on the Boot: second in the Giro d'Italia GC, which included scads of minor stage placings and the unscored best young rider; and a stunning fourth in the Giro di Lombardia. Everyone seems to think the sky is the limit here, so all of my carping about no mega-stars may be moot by next summer.
- JJ Haedo fit his new team like a glove. Relatively young, cheap, and presumably grateful for a Pro Tour license, Haedo adjusted to a part-time European role by notching five wins, including the prestigious Rund um Koln and three wins back States-side. He sprints well and doesn't seem spooked by any particular race, and more importantly his American success is ideally suited to that (rare) European team determined to show their colors here. CSC don't feature many other stage sprinters, so this is JJ's best situation too.
- Matti Breschel scored a pair of stage wins (Danmarkrundt, Tour of Ireland) and no less than seven 3rd-placings to double his previous point total. Also cracking the top-100, and looking very intriguing, is Alexandr Kolobnev, who stormed through the last six weeks of the season with a win at the Monte Paschi Eroica, second in the World Championships and a Vuelta stage, and 11th at Lombardia. He earlier won stages at Paris-Nice and the DeutschlandTour. He's earned a shot at some big wins next year.
- Even their bad news isn't so bad. Karsten Kroon suffered the most notable points drop, abandoning his 43rd place ranking when his point totals fell by two-thirds. But is there something wrong with Kroon? I doubt it. He scored a boatload of late-season points in 2006 with minor results in places like the 3-Lander Tour (2 stages), Worlds RR (16th), Zurich (11th) and Plouay (12th). All of those points were replaced by his team effort at the Vuelta... probably good if unrewarding work for a Classics specialist. He also slipped in his key races from 2006: Brabantse Pijl (2nd to 5th); Amstel (4th to 31); Fleche Wallonne (3rd to 28th) and Liege (18th to 53rd)... but even that can perhaps be explained by his improving to 4th at Flanders, along with a nettlesome winter training crash. Kroon's "slippage" is a good illustration of the limited value of point totals, particularly on a team that wins by flooding the field with quality and letting the race sort out who scores.
- Dave Zabriskie also lost his spot in the top 100, and found himself slunking out of France looking tired and sounding dispirited. Two grand tours will do that to you, but he also was that rare CSC rider looking for a new home, something he found at Slipstream. Zabriskie is a steady TT threat but little else; ideally Vaughters will let him ride where he can do best.
Beyond that, you can pick over Carlos Sastre's loss of 100 points (largely due to a shorter season) or Kurt-Asle Arvesen's slight slippage, but why bother? CSC score points as a team, with less regard than most outfits as to who gets them. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in O'Grady's Roubaix triumph: nobody talked about defending Cancellara's 2006 win at all costs. They send out their guys with several possible plans and sort out the best options as they go along. Even when they fail, a CSC rider usually scores a top-10 or top-5, out of habit.