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Spotlight '08: CSC-Saxo Bank

This project has been evolving slowly, in part because I'm a little unsure how interesting some of the team reviews can be. But that won't be a problem with today's subject: Team CSC/Saxo Bank-IT Factory. As usual, we start with accountability, in the form of my earlier Back Pocket Preview:

Attributes: A roster that would make most DS's drool uncontrollably. Generally healthy history and outlook. Admired widely for almost everything but Riis' riding career. Jens! Potential winners of every event they attend. Poster-boy Nails O'Grady.

On Further Review: Eh, Jens! Voigt is starting to show his age, or at least is getting overworked too early in the year. Stuart O'Grady rode admirably in defense of his Paris-Roubaix title, before injuries and reduced roles intervened. Instead, the story of their roster is that it remains as admirable as ever, but the focus is shifting rapidly to the next generation. In general, their roster consists of guys born before 1980 who declined last year, and guys born after 1/1/80 who improved. Old and in the way: O'Grady, Arvesen, Julich, Gustov, Ljungkvist, Voigt, McCartney, and Nicki Sorensen. Young and busting out: Cancellara, Bak, Breschel, Larsson, Chris Sorensen, Van Goolen. [Kolobnev was a push; Haedo and the Schlecks slipped a tad; Kroon, Blaudzun and Sastre improved against the odds.]

Now, statistically speaking two seasons isn't a definitive trend, and the exceptions include the biggest names on the team. But the latter point proves nothing: captains go up and down for any number of reasons, such as Andy Schleck playing support at the Tour rather than winning the Giro. Overall, aside from the captains, the team is transitioning nicely to Riis Cycling 2.0, led by a new generation of studs named Fabian, Andy, Matti, Chris-Anker and Henrik Gustav. The older guys are mostly very relevant, and the change is more gradual -- even natural -- than dramatic, but is unmistakeable nonetheless. Oh, and in their transition year they still won the team title.

Problems: Their grand tour GC chances probably represents their weakest element. Young guys saddled with high expectations. Someday they'll get outbid by wealthier teams for their top riders. A bit light on pure sprinters.

On Further Review: More of the same? It's funny, Riis's charges won a grand tour for the second time in the history of CSC, and once again the winner was out the door before the champagne went flat. Last time it was Ivan Basso being cast into the ether from the OP dragnet; this time it was the tenuous Riis-Sastre relationship collapsing under duress. Still, they pulled off a Tour for the ages, and Sastre's departure does nothing to tarnish a brilliant team victory. In fact, with Andy Schleck ripening nicely, Sastre's exit clarifies Riis' path to more grand tour success. Also, Breschel gives him another big, formerly elusive prize: a homegrown, serious sprinting threat.

Key Rider(s): Fränk Schleck. After Carlos Sastre, who's turning 33 this year, Schleck the elder is next in line for grand tour captaincy, assuming his kid brother needs a bit more seasoning (let's be reasonable here, people). He didn't get much love last year, with no mega-wins in April and some bad days in the mountains of the Tour, but even his bad years are good years: 8th-ranked in CQ points at 1525, both personal highs. Maybe Le Tour isn't his bag, but with the right program he's got a lot of wins in those legs.

On Further Review: Fränk did his job, scoring oodles of points for the team tally, but I wonder if he hasn't lost his job, or certain aspects of it, in the process? At the Tour, he proved once more that he's in the Valverde/Cunego class of three-week riders: good but highly unlikely to ever win. In the classics, he proved once more that he's a solid guy who will always be there, but may well never win a sprint. He and Larsson seem to be headed in opposite directions after this year, and Kolobnev could easily take charge in the hilly classics as well -- particularly if the investigation into Fränk's Fuentes connection goes anywhere. Taken together, the Elder Schleck's stock is sinking fast enough to warrant a NYSE listing.

Key Moment: Hm, tough one. Cancellara at Flanders or Sastre at the Tour... either one would represent a spectacular breakthrough for a team with a lot of hardware already. But I wouldn't bet on either.

On Further Review: Well, Cancellara's Flemish season finished a distant second to his efforts on the Via Roma, so I think we can safely go with Sastre's Tour win. As I said above, even with Sastre leaving, the style in which the win was executed pretty much cements Riis' legacy as a great Director, or at least personnel manager (assuming the win reflects their balding, white braintrust more generally).

Passing Thought: 27 riders from 14 countries... and not a single Italian? Talk about blatant bias. Here's hoping Riis chokes on a herring.

On Further Review: Riis will never win a popularity contest, but I personally have a ton of respect for him. His style is a tad abrasive (cough), and his checkered past makes it easy to call him a hypocrite on doping issues. Fine. My take on him is that he truly doesn't care what people think of him; he's got a job of running a team in real-time, and is extremely effective in his focused way. He doesn't get sentimental about guys on their way out, he doesn't take to conversations about his own past. He, instead, just builds the best team for the most races and hopes their record will drown out any dissent. The result? He's completely turned over the sponsorship, using the usually-devastating loss of a loyal and generous sponsor to actually make a better situation: similar money (I think?) from Scandinavian investors.

It's not entirely unusual for a manager to become the lightning rod, and have that benefit the team. If Frank Schleck is ever reprimanded for doping (pre-2007), it will be another hit to Riis' image, but it will also redirect all of the negative attention from the team itself. Everyone will be talking about that bastard Riis, and to some extent Schleck (again, IF this goes anywhere). Meanwhile, with Rasmus Damsgard certifying the team's present compliance, they'll be flooding the peloton with young talented studs in every corner of Europe. The pressure and focus will be at least partly distracted from the real action and the current stable of riders. And once again, the results will speak for themselves.