A little reaction here, now that I'm finally available again to think about Cycling... what we saw at Paris-Nice was a pretty strong statement from Bruyneel's/Demol's squad that Discovery are back from their year in the wilderness.
Yes, we're talking about a display of awesome power on the road, but the team's turnaround began in the offseason. When Lance walked away, it seemed like Bruyneel toyed with the idea of making a versatile Tour team and a threatening cobbles squad, with lots of parts to move around. The departure of Hoste, following the departure of Boonen two years earlier, might have signalled to Bruyneel that the team's opportunity lay primarily in a stage-racing squad. Retaining Belgian cobbles talent is not impossible but pretty close; but Tour riders of any nationality seem pretty drawn to the Bruyneel label. And while stocking both squads may be possible, it's extremely hard.
So their incoming riders are Basso, Contador and Leipheimer... three guys who can hang near or at the front of any stage race. Moreover, Basso and to a lesser degree Leipheimer are Grand Tour team leaders, filling an obvious hole in the Disco roster from last year. All those guys who had Tour pretender status blow up on them last year (Hincapie, Beltran, Danielson, Savoldelli, Popovych) have either moved on or can enjoy the first- or second-alternate role instead. Suddenly they went from a team of guys who didn't know their role and weren't up to full leadership to a squad capable of leadership and with truly talented riders as their #2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 guys.
Watching Leipheimer, Danielson and Popovych working the peloton for Contador was simply awesome. Levi may not always agree to a back seat, but when he does, and when you put, say, Basso in as the squad leader... is there another team that can even come close in a grand tour? CSC are in the opposite mode: moving everyone up one spot in terms of responsibility rather than easing the pressure. Schleck and Sastre are this year's Hincapie and Popovych, taking over in the absence of a star's departure with no certainty as to how it will work out. T-Mobile are starting over. Caisse d'Epargne are dripping with power, but have no grand tour wins to their credit, at least as long as Landis is waiting for judgment. Others like Astana and Rabo and Lotto and Lampre have leaders and lieutenants but not nearly the depth. Look at what happened to Gerolsteiner by week's end.
Contador's emergence is stunning to me. People may think because I run this site that I know something about Cycling, but the fact is I didn't know Contador when he came over. To see him get away like he did yesterday, with no secret whatsoever to the strategy, powering off for the last 20km, was incredible. It's only March... but he's only 24. The amount of young talent in this sport is un-freaking-believable.
I don't see Discovery making much noise in Belgium in the next 6 weeks, but the rest of the year may belong to them. Even if the Tour sandbags Basso, they will still have the muscle to win at least two Grand Tours... Basso being one healthy wrist away from starting as the Giro's prohibitive favorite, and either going for the double or watching the squad work for the best of Leipheimer, Popo, Danielson and Contador. Yes, Basso at the top of the ticket provides the organization and clarity of purpose teams usually need, but that's a TON of reserve firepower.
People around here seem to regard Discovery, fairly, as the Yankees of Cycling: either the people you love for bringing you so much enjoyment, or the dominant paradigm that rubs you the wrong way. My Disco love has waned -- there are simply too many other fascinating teams to get hooked on just one -- but I guess I'm more in the former spot. They completed America's transformation as a Cycling nation, started by LeMond and 7-Eleven way back when. And now they're ready to write another chapter.
[And just in time; I read a cryptic note someplace about a new title sponsor in the cue.]