For a lot of squads, there's the Cycling calendar, and then there's the Tour. Sure, if you're Italian or you've won the Tour of Flanders in the Belgian Champs' kit, the Tour might not be your biggest race. But for everyone else... so it goes.
Given that, I thought that now might be a good time to check in on where teams are in their 2008 program, as a way to take stock as well as to take a reading on the pre-Tour pressure gauge.
By CQ ranking, and starting with the top 10:
1. High Road
Wins: 30 -- La Fleche Wallonne, Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen, 4 Giro d'Italia stages, 4 Tour Down Under stages and Overall, 2 Dreidaagse de Panne stages, 3 Tour de Georgia stages and overall, 2 Pais Vasco stages, 2 Bayern Rundfahrt stages
Analysis: I've previously written about their ascension and how it's a great time to be around this young, exciting, and seemingly cohesive group of riders. Given the loss of Marcus Burghardt and George Hincapie's continued bad luck, their first half of the season has surely exceeded expectations. Cavendish's winning ways have given the team a spring in their step on sprint stages. Kim Kirchen has been excellent, winning La Fleche and lining himself up for a Tour challenge. They certainly have the potential to improve on the cobbles, but injuries and punctures... that's cycling.
Looking ahead: Kirchen and Mick Rodgers line up for the Tour with top ten GC places in mind. Linus Gerdemann's injuries will weaken things a bit, but there are plenty of horses in the stable at the moment. Cavendish's run at some stages could put him in Yellow on day 1. Despite their great start, the GC spotlight will be pointed elsewhere.
July Vibe: positively tranquillo.
[See 2-10... on the flip]
Wins: 21 -- 4 Giro stages, pts jersey and 4th overall, Romandie stage & pts jersey, 3 stages Coppi e Bartali, stage and overall Giro di Trentino, Paris-Nice stage, Volta a Catalunya stage
Analysis: Things were looking pretty bleak before the Giro, but an Italian team can turn things around for itself pretty quickly with a solid May campaign, and that's what they got. Of course, two more seconds and a podium place for Franco Pellizotti would have been much sweeter, but Daniele Bennati turned in four wins and two points jerseys in five weeks after an invisible spring. Of course, their ambitions for the first half of the season tend to revolve around Filippo Pozzato, who had little to show for his campaign besides second place (and many regrets) at Milano-Sanremo, and some shredded tires in Belgium. Put Pippo wasn't weak, just unlucky and maybe a tad indecisive. Anyway, I'd bet their sponsors would take a solid Giro over a win on the cobbles any day.
Looking ahead: Is there another team that uses the Tour as training? OK, it's not quite that silly, Liquigas will field a squad capable of delivering Bennati to the sprints on time, but with the worlds in Varese, they won't bother worrying about anything else in July.
July Vibe: cool as a tube of hair gel.
Wins: 14 -- E3 Prijs, Monte Paschi Eroica, Milano-Sanremo, Tirreno Adriatico stage & Overall, Tour of California 2 stages, Tour de Georgia stage, Clasica de Almeria, Murcia stage, Luxembourg tour 2 stages, Rund um Henninger Turm, Criterium International Overall, 1 Giro stage
Analysis: After MSR fell in their collective laps (if you can use such words to describe a Cancellara attack), their potentially brilliant spring kind of stopped happening. They were everywhere, as always, but not as effective: one Georgia stage, no big breakthroughs in Belgium besides E3 Prijs, no wins in the Ardennes. If you look at their roster, they have a lot of guys who can win by attacking, but in the classics there tend to be similar riders who can also sprint... so however well positioned they are in the big races, they usually need things to go exceptionally well to win. Not something to count on. As for the Giro, they pretty much opted out.
Looking ahead: The highest rated team that will be positively under the gun in France. Carlos Sastre wants the team to work for him, but it's hard to say what Riis will do if Sastre is trailing the Schlecks after the first time trial. All three have a chance to make their mark in a wide-open Tour, so if things go right, it might be a great month. And if not... The Schlecks and Cancellara will also be heard from in the Worlds (and Olympics) too.
July Vibe: Is it getting hot in here?
Wins: 14 -- Giro Overall, Pais Vasco 2 stages & Overall, Castilla y Leon 2 stages & Overall, Romandie 2 stages & Overall, ToC stage & Overall
Analysis: The story has been all about what they aren't doing, but how can you ask for more from the world's greatest stage-racing team? OK, they probably would have liked to make a dent on the classics scene, but Gusev got hurt and that was that. Otherwise, did they enter a stage race to win and fail anyplace? Georgia. That's it. And it wasn't just Contador, Leipheimer and Kloden got their palmares too. Respect.
Looking ahead: Apart from the lull in the schedule next month, they're going to completely devour the Vuelta, and if that's all they do for the season, nobody will complain. Honestly, I'm not sure how many other races are made for them.
July Vibe: Vacation time.
5. Quick Step
Wins: 20 -- Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, 3 Paris-Nice stages, Tour of Qatar, Tour of California stage, Qatar, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Algarve, Tour of Belgium Overall & stages, 8 days in maglia rosa
Analysis: Number of wins dropping, guys getting hurt, no stage racers of note... and absolutely nobody could possibly care. Winning Flanders and Roubaix, that's a season. Actually, Devolder's win in Flanders wouldn't have been so great had Boonen not gotten his monument the next weekend; not all Quick Step wins are interchangeable. But, well, it's all fine now.
Looking ahead: OK, so Tom Boonen has some work left to do in July. It'll be interesting to see how the team staffs the race. Presumably they'll completely load up on leadout guys and really try to take over the sprint train from Milram. I would think they know, in the wake of Boonen's maillot vert win last year, that they have a chance to take control of the world's biggest race's second-biggest competition. So maybe Quick Step's seasons will last three months instead of just two.
July Vibe: Content, and reloaded.
Wins: 9 -- Murcia stage, Gent-Wevelgem, 2 stages Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour of California stage, Dreidaagse de Panne stage & Overall, Criterium International stage
Analysis: Last spring the entire team was completely on fire and rung up some impressive wins. And then there was the Tour, where the team won plenty of deserved credit for maintaining the lead, albeit on behalf of a corrupt leader. This spring has been far quieter, but the team is so loaded with promise that it can hardly be called disappointing. OK, they should probably reconfigure their Classics squads, now that Juan Antonio Flecha has gotten restless, but Langeveld and Mollema look like future contenders to build around. Robert Gesink's emergence was one of the bigger stories among emerging kids. Thomas Dekker probably won't have too many more winless springs.
Looking ahead: Some huge business left. Their Tour squad is pretty loaded, even if Denis Menchov seems a step behind the top contenders and Dekker is unproven on the big stage. Freire wants another rainbow jersey, or a green jersey, or an Olympic medal. Gesink is sure to animate a major climb someplace. Buckle up folks...
July Vibe: Excited... not nervous, not under pressure. Just excited.
7. Caisse d'Epargne
Wins: 9 -- Vuelta a Murcia Overall, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Valenciana stg, Andalucia GC, Tirreno-Adriatico stage, Paris-Nice stage
Analysis: The implosion of their Giro team in a pre-race training crash took a mediocre spring and made complete hash of it. OK, Valverde saved them with wins in Liege and his annual assault on his hometown Murcia tour, but nobody else did much of anything. This is an incredibly deep and talented squad, ready to win a lion's share of Spanish regional tours and some pretty large races overseas too. Didn't happen.
Looking ahead: Valverde may be licking his chops thinking of this wide-open Tour, his best chance yet to make the podium. He'll also be a strong contender in Varese, Beijing, and of course the Vuelta, if he has anything left.
July Vibe: Definitely getting rather warm in here...
8. Francaise des Jeux
Wins: 8 -- Het Volk, Tour of Picardie stage & Overall, Het Volk, Dreidaagse West Vlaanderen stage
Analysis: Not a bad start for a French team, though too many of their points came from Philippe Gilbert, who's leaving the team in the fall. Still, it's a young squad, so it's hard to see how much more could have been expected.
Looking ahead: Sandy Casar is gunning for the Dauphine. All of France is watching for signs of greatness from Rémy Di Gregorio at the Tour. Some results at Plouay or Paris-Tours wouldn't hurt.
July Vibe: Tranquillo... at least until another French team wins a Tour stage.
9. Silence! Lotto
Wins: 8 -- Paris-Nice stage, Andalucia stage, Coppi e Bartali stage & Overall, Romandie stage
Analysis: Not good times. Leif Hoste couldn't break through or even duplicate his usual near-misses. Evans made a terrific showing at La Fleche but that was it. Greg Van Avermaet is coming along nicely, but didn't have any major breakthroughs. Their absence from any results in Belgium seems depressing, and certainly explains why they're throwing money at Gilbert next year. Fortunately, there's still some racing left to be done before then.
Looking ahead: With some reminders from you guys, I can say that perhaps this is THE team for the Tour. Obviously last year's runner-up Cadel Evans looks like a solid favorite for the yellow jersey, assuming his knee is fine. Failing that, this is going to be one long, lost season.
July Vibe: Serious pressure! Fortunately they'll only have to wait four stages for the first time trial and chance for Evans to send a message.
10. Bweeg Telecom
Wins: 8 -- Dreidaagse West Vlaanderen stage, Catalunya stage, Circuit la Sarthe Overall
Analysis: Honestly, I haven't seen them anywhere, so I can only guess whether or not things are going to plan. I'll go with... yes?
Looking ahead: Tour time... this is a decent squad for le Grand Boucle. Voeckler will hang around, or switch into stage hunting mode. Dimitri Champion and Stef Clement are both threats in the time trials. Either one would love to parlay a result on stage 4 into some time in yellow.
July Vibe: Business time! Low expectations should make them frisky.