Thus far we've talked about most of the deepest teams in the cobbloton: Quick Step, CSC, Davitamon, Rabo. And we just saw what depth means in bike racing, where Rabobank set up a near-coup with a lot of hard chasing at the Het Volk, and where Quick Step dominated KBK, from the moment they decided to. These teams do it with depth. At least in the races they care about, their roster is stacked with guys who can win, guys who can deliver them to the line, guys who can do the dirty work.
I just don't see that with Lampre. I see some of the sport's brightest stars, one for each discipline, and undoubtedly some serious professionals doing their job, but never in a position to outgun anyone as a team. In Cycling, there are teams that try to do one thing well, like QSI, and it isn't always a mistake... as well as teams who try to do everything, like Rabo or Disco, and that isn't always a mistake either. But either strategy can blow up. If Quick Step misfires at the Tour of Flanders, their whole season is cooked, just as if Disco stretch themselves too thin, they can find themselves being mediocre day after day.
Lampre seem like a low-budget version of the stretched-too-thin team. Their budget of less than $8 mil is bottom-third of the Pro Tour, and either this year or sometime soon a pretty large chunk of that will be committed to Damiano Cunego, who extended with the team for -- what? four or five years. It's hard to see this as sustainable.
But they have two things in abundance: phenomenal young Italian talent, and as a result, hope. Yes, Alessandro Ballan might get isolated in the finale of the cobbled classics again, but for now at least people aren't watching him as much as others, which is why he was top five in both Flanders and Roubaix last year. It's hard to imagine him sauntering away from the field, or beating Boonen in a sprint, but if you keep getting to the final KMs with the lead group, something will happen eventually.
Ballan got plenty of notice last year, but in 2007 he's got two teammates with truly interesting chances in March and April. Daniele Bennati is very quickly emerging as the sprinting sensation to take on Boonen wherever he can get to the line in decent shape. Bennati's wins have come in stage race sprints, but if he can translate that talent to the one-day races, even Boonen admits Bennati could win.
But it's Cunego whose chances on the cobbles come with the fewest qualifiers. Third at Liege; former winner of the Giro di Lombardia (and the other Giro too). Possessor of lightning closing speed. Like Valverde, he has everything you need to win in the Ardennes. I suppose the only criticism is that he hasn't done it yet, despite high (ridiculous?) expectations. At age 25, he's ready for battle.
All of these guys will be up against teams with greater numbers in contention in the late stages, so they all face the same disadvantage: their team will have trouble giving them all the support they need. Each can win anyway, but it's going to take quite an effort.