Italian giants Liquigas were briefly one of my favorite teams, but for the wrong reasons (DiLuca). In my Back Pocket Preview I called them a team in flux. 'Twas true, and for the obvious reasons, but while the captaincy became a hot potato, the second team made some important strides. As usual, for accountability purposes, the stuff in italics is what I wrote in March.
Attributes: Liquigas have a reasonably well-rounded squad that (gasp!) sometimes does well outside Italy. For an Italian team they're pretty aggressive in their spring approach. Signing Bennati was a great diversion from the DiLuca hangover.
On Further Review: Bennati was supposed to kinda sorta replace Danilo DiLuca -- not in like kind, of course, but a green jersey in July would make cutting ties with the reigning Giro champion go down easy. Thanks to illness and a nagging achilles, it never quite worked out, and Bennati's season was a tad quiet as a result: no spring results at all, no Tour. He did win the maglia ciclamena at the Giro, but for Liquigas' investment, it wasn't enough. One silver lining: Benna and Mark Cavendish went head-to-head eight times in 2008, with Benna ahead in five of them, including four wins to Cav's two. Much as people want to crown Cav the undisputed sprint king, I'd argue it's not settled yet. Bennati is still very fast.
The other big story was Roman Kreuziger. While Franco Pellizotti filled in admirably as the GC guy, it was the dazzling potential displayed by the 22-year-old Kreuziger that was worth some real attention. The young Czech won the Tour de Suisse with some flair in the form of a stage win at the fearsome Klausenpass. He then rode to 12th at the Tour de France, consistently placing with the top climbers over all three weeks. Obviously Basso comes in now as the GC guy, but that can only help Kreuziger, shielding him from pressure and giving him a top level guy to emulate (on the bike, ahem!).
Problems: The DiLuca hangover. Kits. Turnover. Some sorting out to do as to how one existing expensive star (Pozzato) works constructively with another incoming expensive star (Bennati).
On Further Review: Pozzato and Bennati hardly ever raced together, and now Pippo is off to Russia, so "problem" solved. More of a problem this year was getting guys into position to win. Bennati, as mentioned, struggled to gain form, and Pozzato, while on form, struggled to make things happen. I'm sold on his ability, but things have a way of not happening for Pippo: Cancellara suddenly gallops away to steal an MSR win from him; his tires blow up seven times en route to Roubaix, etc. Of course, the classics have a way of making good people unexpectedly miserable, so perhaps this isn't so much Pippo's doing as just a typical run of luck. He might still win Flanders or Roubaix; I'm willing to bet he gets at least one. But this simply wasn't his year.
Key Rider(s): Vincenzo Nibali. He can climb and time-trial, and though he's a young 24, a breakout by the Sicilian would do wonders for a team that doesn't have much else to throw at the Giro GC.
On Further Review: Time trialing is nice, but Nibali's climbing isn't good enough for those time trials to matter. He's still very young and doing the Giro-Tour double was undoubtedly good experience, but Kreuziger stole the show from him this year. Not sure how Nibali gets any further with Leakygaz right now.
Key Moment: Champs Elysees, late July. Bennati's charge should certainly include a Green Jersey run, and if he can take on Boonen, it will be a three-week battle royale. Seriously, this could be one of the best competitions of the year.
On Further Review: Saddest story of the year was how the Tour suddenly didn't feature anything like a sprint showdown. Indeed, seeing Oscar Freire win an elusive points title only made it worse, given the lack of competition otherwise and the complete beatdown Cavendish had been giving him before going home. Freire is a good soldier and it's no shame to see him win, but he did so without style or drama. In hindsight I'd say Kreuziger on the Klausenpass was the clear highlight of the season for the calceazzuri boys.
Passing Thought: I suppose Bennati and Pozzato could get in each other's way, but a more realistic scenario is that it works rather well. First, I have zero info and no memory at the moment, but I doubt the 'Gaz signed Daniele without talking to Pippo first. Seems more likely that Pippo was all for it, maybe even recruiting. [Help here?] Either way, neither is enough of a force in the classics to overshadow the other, so even if they didn't mesh well, it still probably wouldn't be too hard to just go with whoever looks stronger on any given day.
On Further Review: Why exactly did Pozzato leave Liquigas? Am guessing it had to do with money first, but he also cited "leadership" as a reason. I don't totally get this: what leadership was he missing at Liquigas? Basso displaces him in some general sense, but surely Pippo doesn't have designs on any of the same races. Maybe he just felt overshadowed -- Basso's rumored signing was more newsworthy than anything Pippo was doing on the bike. The only other theory I can name is that Pippo likes to go stage-hunting in grand tours, something he might not get to do with a team organized around a clear captain. Anyway, it's Basso's team now, for good or ill. A Giro win and a steady stream of thoroughly unsuspicious blood values would do the team a world of good in 2009.
OK, back to surfing...