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Where Does This Leave Discovery Channel?

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One quiet evening, a relaxed Johan Bruyneel was alone with his thoughts, and his mind began to wander. What if he could have the world's #1 Grand Tour rider, Ivan Basso? What if Basso were cleared of suspicion, set free from the tangled doping dragnet, cast into orbit by CSC? Bruyneel began to picture Basso in Discovery colors, Il Patrone of the Giro riding with authority in the Dolomites... and the heavy favorite at the Tour too. He couldn't help but think too of the effect this would have across his roster. Levi could be on standby for the Tour, or set loose at the Vuelta. So too could Contador or Brajkovic, or Popovych, who after Liege could act as ace lieutenant to Basso in Italy. And among these brilliant stage racers, Discovery would have an answer for every week-long race on the Calendar: Paris-Nice, Pais Vasco, the Dauphine, DeutschlandTour...

Then he awoke with a start. Had it all been a dream? Surely not. Didn't he just spend yesterday with Basso at the wind tunnel? The picture of the Italian, dutifully leading Leipheimer around California like a true leader, was just too vivid to not have been real. Or was it? In his confusion he picks up his Giro roster: no Basso on Discovery, or anywhere else. It had been a dream all along. Over the long, arduous course of the cycling season, the mind can start playing tricks on you...

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Where does America's Team go from here? It's easy to shift into plan B, at least as far as filling out rosters for this race or that. No Basso? Discovery had signed Levi Leipheimer away from Gerolsteiner as their Tour de France leader, a steadier presence, or maybe just a more American one, than Popovych had been up to now. Popovych, perhaps thrown into the fire too quickly last year, can start over at the Giro as the nominal leader, working on balancing aggressiveness and survival. Brajkovic or Contador, whoever is freshest, could be a leader in the Vuelta in case Danielson can't close the deal. It's not hard to concoct a plan, on paper anyway.

But Cycling is in some ways the ultimate team sport. Take one piece away and everyone suffers. Adding Basso had been a master stroke in that it gave the team prohibitive favorite status at the Giro, and an unbeatable collection of weapons for the Tour. Great, seasoned riders would be slotted into clear, confined support roles, to the point where the full squad could control any peloton. Take away the leader, and everyone moves up the ladder one step. The question is, are those people ready?

Leipheimer as the Tour leader is perfectly logical. Two years ago he was basically tied for 5th with Alexandre Vinokourov... and the first four have all since retired or been kicked out, making Levi the top remaining rider from Le Tour '05. Last year didn't work out, as a stomach bug caused Leipheimer to cough up the worst time trial of his life, effectively shelving his chances at Yellow. Unlike Oscar Pereiro, there was no gift waiting around for him to make up his six lost minutes. He's also 33, so his window is closing quickly... my reaction to his signing last summer was pretty negative on this score alone. But if you can ride young, age alone doesn't matter, and Leipheimer has looked awfully comfortable on the bike so far this year. Wins on Brasstown Bald and the Chickamauga time trial bode well for grand tour success in those two critical disciplines. And no dominant threat has emerged anyplace else.

Without Basso, though, Leipheimer and everyone move up a step. Suddenly George Hincapie goes from a lesser support role to perhaps #2 behind Levi... or Popovych, or Chechu, or Danielson. Whoever it is, wouldn't they have been a more powerful #3, behind Ivan and Levi? Wouldn't Discovery have had the race by the throat?

The situation in Italy is far worse. The dropoff from Basso to Popovych is precipitous, but he will have to carry the team, with guys like Chechu, Vaitkus and Paulinho in support. A far cry from Basso supported by Popovych and the rest.

And Spain? TBD... probably Danielson, maybe Brajkovic, or Contador if he's refreshed and ready. None of these guys would be a strong favorite, especially after working hard in support of Leipheimer all summer. Basso had no role in smaller stage races, so Discovery still have a potential winner behind almost every door. But the more pressure they get in the Grand Tours, the less likely they will be in peak for every time they're called upon.

Johan knows. He doesn't have time to dwell on the subject, but he knows that the luxury of building one stage race team after another with a full complement of weapons each time, is suddenly a stretch, maybe not worth contemplating. Now they will have to take the stage races one at a time.

Now Discovery are competing with the Grand Tour teams on their own level, teams like Lampre or Saunier Duval with one protected rider and only a minimum show of force for reinforcement.  Teams like CSC, themselves left headless last summer and since, have retooled and will be anxious to control the front when they have their A-squad out. Can Discovery keep up with these guys? Sure, anywhere... but the role of every Discovery rider gets stretched a bit thinner by the Basso debacle.

The Tour remains completely wide open, and Levi Leipheimer can't be ruled off the top step in Paris just yet. A ninth straight* American victory. Discovery Channel back on top, with potential title sponsors desperate to leave Johan a vociemail. This and other Bruyneel plans may yet hatch, but their odds just went down all the way across the board.