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Le Tour '08: Talking Teams

Letour-sq2_1__mediumRanking the riders in every category seems like about as good a way to kill time here in the Cyclo-Blogo-Sphere as any, but when it comes to teams, it doesn't quite work, at least not in one long list. Instead, with a wave of the hand, I intend to hang presumptuous labels on each team which can be used to create vaguely useful categories. And then the ranking can begin...

BTW, there are no tourists at Le Tour. For starters, French teams base their entire season around le grand boucle, and there are a lot of French teams. Meaning, the foreign squads are limited to the cream of the crop. Also, stage hunters describes every team whose plan A fell apart, or maybe never existed. So I won't bother mentioning the fact that, say, CSC will probably go gunning for a few stages in addition to their higher ambitions. For now, the teams are listed in alphabetical order. Tomorrow, I'll turn these blurbs into a ranking, by category.

AG2R... Challengers

Who's it about? Cyril Dessel mostly. Dessel did a terrific, if unexpected, job of hanging with the big boys on all the climbs of the 2006 Tour, landing in sixth place on GC in Paris. Vlad Efimkin, Tadej Valjavec and John Gadret will be useful allies in the mountains. 

Can they do it? Only if by "it" you mean top 20. Dessel's only Tour result came from riding competently in a race where few others did. Also, he's 34. He's a decent rider in France, but this is too big a stage for him.

Agritubel... Sprinters

Who's it about? Then 23-y.o. Roman Feillu was just beginning to draw notice for keeping up with the Boonens and McEwens and Hushovds in the opening stages of the 2007 Tour, when he DNF'd in the Alps. He'll have Jimmy Casper, a former stage winner, on hand, and Christophe Moreau to either lend a hand or go after his own latest moment of glory.

Can they do it? Feillu has only just resurfaced with a win last month in the Boucles de l'Aulne, but at his best he's beaten some big names, like Hushovd. In a somewhat open Green Jersey win, taking a shot with Feillu is worthwhile.

This is going to run a bit long, so onto the flip...

Barloworld... Part-time Challengers, Sprinters

Who's it about? For now, all eyes are on Juan Mauricio Soler, a candidate for a high GC placing or at least a successful defense of his KOM jersey. But for a GC team, they have a pretty sharp sprinter in Robbie Hunter, second for the Green Jersey last year to a guy (Boonen) who's not starting this time. After that, Soler is more or less on his own.

Can they do it? As a team, their GC challenge is not overly likely, but there are so few pure climbers in the race that you can't rule out Soler as a threat. Hunter may well have control of the team by week three though, and could bring South Africa its first Green Jersey. Plan B for Soler is another KOM jersey, except that his achilles (long ITT) isn't likely to ruin his Tour til after the KOM points are gone.

Bouygues Telecom... Stage Hunters

Who's it about? Take your pick... Clement is a fine time trialist, though his opportunities consist of beating Cancellara on a modest course early on or hanging in til stage 20. Yuriy Trofimov was a revelation at the Dauphine Libere, winning the stage to Morzine and nearly bagging the KOM jersey. Thomas Voeckler will be on the loose somewhere.

Can they do it? Nothing stands out here. Their only hope for glory consists of picking the right breaks and hoping for an "any given Sunday" result.

Caisse d'Epargne... Contenders

Who's it about? El Imbatible, natch. Alejandro Valverde's GC placing seems to be the only thing on the team's mind this year. No Vlad Karpets for the (scant) time trials; no Xabier Zandio for sprints. As far as I can tell, they're all in for the climbs: Arroyo, Lopez, Pereiro, Sanchez Gil... quality.

Can they do it? I suppose it's worth pointing out that they haven't bagged a grand tour for Valverde yet, and when Pereiro won the 2006 Tour, it had almost nothing to do with his team. But in a more open race without a dominant GC squad, you can't totally hate their chances, right?

Cofidis... Contenders

Who's it about? Sylvain Chavanel and maybe Maxime Monfort. DS Eric Boyer is downplaying expectations after putting four first-timers on the roster, but you have to think they'll send out some feelers for a top-10 GC finish. Leonardo Duque is the designated sprinter. David Moncoutie is the resident veteran stage-hunter, with a couple palmares in the last three years.

Can they do it? Both Monfort and Chavanel are rock-solid chronomen at the medium distances, so I look for them to see where things stand and how people feel heading into the Pyrenees before going stage-hunting. Be bold Boyer! Of course, boldness is no longer an issue for Chavanel; the question is whether he can apply it toward an insurgent GC race or if he disappears up the road on a suicide attack. This far into the discussion, Cofidis are looking pretty intriguing.

Crédit Agricole... Sprinters

Who's it about? Hushovd, at least at the start. Big Thor has been the team's main Tour protagonist for years, highlighted by some time in yellow and a green jersey. I'm sure they have other riders looking to do something (Botcharov, Gerrans, Pauriol), but Hushovd's ambitions should take precedence.

Can they do it? The start of the Tour offers him a chance for more of the same (though the prologue has been good to Thor), and the absence of Bennati and Boonen elevates his green jersey chances dramatically. And it's not like he needs much help.

Euskaltel-Euskadi... Contenders

Who's it about? Haimar Zubeldia, Sammy Sanchez, and Mikel Astarloza, though there's some debate about what order. Gone from this year's Tour squad are guys who do anything but climb, like Koldo Fernandez. This is a pure GC squad, with potential for stages in the process.

Can they do it? Depends on "it" -- Top five? sure. Podium... maybe. Win?! Zubeldia and Astarloza were 5th and 9th on GC last year, both in their primes, so it's hard to say they can expect to improve. If you could package Zubeldia's fabulous climbing with Astarloza's solid time trial work, you'd have a real threat to win. And while I worry that I sound deluded when I talk up Sanchez over his teammates, Samu is the only guy on the team to finish on the podium of a three week tour -- his last one, the Vuelta. On the intrigue scale, they're a few orders of magnitude beyond Cofidis.

Française des Jeux... Stage Hunters

Who's it about? Sandy Casar is the GC guy, or at least a top-flight stage hunter. Philippe Gilbert is another stage hunter, though his plans to defect to Silence-Lotto probably won't earn him much freedom in the team. Seb Chavanel can bag a sprint when things work out for him, and Rémy Di Gregorio could win the hearts and minds of the country if he puts his talents to work in the mountains. A KOM jersey would be a shrewd move.

Can they do it? Having set the bar at rock bottom, I'd say sure. For those who think Casar is a GC man, his previous best was 16th at the 2004 Giro. I'm not seeing it. Gilbert falls into that category of well-heeled classics guys who you'd like to see win a Tour stage, but they rarely ever do. I'd like some inside dope on this -- do they draw too much attention in a breakaway? do the other breakaway riders resent famous intrusions on their one lone shot at glory? -- but suffice to say it's rare. In recent times, I can find two Filippo Pozzato wins that fall into this category; otherwise it's chronomen, sprinters, GC guys, failed GC guys who nobody bothers to chase, and domestiques set temporarily free.

The lone FDJ rider worth truly watching has to be Di Gregorio. All of 22 years old, he's shown flashes of true class in both the mountains and (less frequently) the time trials. I'd liken him to a can't miss prospect who isn't there yet, and hasn't escaped the burden of ridiculous expectations either. But there's plenty of time.

Gerolsteiner... Sprinters

Who's it about? Robert Forster and Heinrich Haussler fill out the sprinters' ranks. Markus Fothen goes for a long-shot GC placing. No shortage of classics guys around to hunt for a stage (Wegmann, Kohl, etc.).

Can they do it? Almost certainly not. Forster hasn't shown the consistency to make a serious points jersey run, though on his day he can beat anyone, and has some nice grand tour palmares like a win in Milan in 2006. Haussler is even less decorated and wasn't supposed to start til Oliver Zaugg couldn't make it. Gerolsteiner hope to make a splash this month by announcing their new sponsor, and maybe starting to bring home some new talent, but otherwise the silence could be deafening in July.

High Road/Columbia... Contenders

Who's it about? Kim Kirchen, mostly, thanks to last year's 7th at the Tour and otherwise excellent riding everywhere he went. Kanstantin Siutsou and Thomas Lovkvist are two young longshots for a notable GC place. Hincapie plays the captain/uber-teammate role, while Cavendish and Ciolek chase sprint glory. Their glue guys are Eisel, Burghardt and Adam Hansen, if that's any indication of this team's depth of quality. [Hint: it is.]

Can they do it? It's hard to see Kirchen on the podium, but equally hard to imagine him slipping out of the top 10. Frankly, their entire lineup consists of guys who can be reliably expected to deliver something. Will Siutsou or Lovkvist or Ciolek disappear? Gut says no. But in the end, placings aren't very dramatic; jerseys are. And the only new jersey Columbia is likely to bag is the kit they're rolling out Thursday. I think it'll be a successful Tour, with the team prize a realistic possibility. By 2009 Columbia should be ready to set their sights on bigger prizes.

Lampre... Contenders

Who's it about? Another simple one: Damiano Cunego. Unlike past years where Lampre have hedged their bets on the GC chase with (excellent) sprinters, this time around Bennati is gone, Napolitano has been left home, and the Kid has a raft of climbers in Szmyd, Marzano and Tiralongo to tow him around. Alessandro Ballan is a great teammate in the lowlands, and Lampre is intent on delivering Cunego to the high passes in one piece.

Can they do it? In theory, sure. This isn't a Tour-proven squad, but it's a veteran one. In all likelihood Cunego will sink or swim on his own, but it's equally likely that his team won't be burdened with controlling things and he can park on Evans' or Valverde's wheel until it's business time. Building a GC support team around him can't hurt, especially if he gets in trouble someplace. Mostly though, this is about Cunego making good on the clearest shot at a Tour title (or podium) that he'll ever get.

Liquigas... Stage Hunters

Who's it about? OK, here's a pessimistic call, just to keep things honest. Their GC guys are Kreuziger and Nibali. Their sprinter begged off with injury and left the job to his modestly-decorated understudy. They also have a bevy of fine riders... for the classics. Translation? Stage hunting.

Can they do it? Like Gerolsteiner, if you set the bar low enough... In anticipation of some blowback on the GC guys, here's what we know about Kreuziger: he's got a lot of quality, but he's 22 and his only grand tour experience consists of last year's 21st place at the Vuelta. Winning the Tour de Suisse is one of the sport's biggest red herrings. Nibali is a tad older and has two top-20s at the Giro under his belt, but the Tour is a different animal, and his superpower is time trialing, not something the Tour is emphasizing.

Quick Step... Stage Hunters

Who's it about? Tom Boonen, and his absence from the team. Stijn Devolder is the GC guy until he explodes in the mountains. Steegmans and De Jongh would be prime stage candidates, with Vandewalle and Barredo looking for the right breakaway.

Can they do it? Aside from the boilerplate about anyone can win stages, Devolder is the focal point. I'm completely unsold on his ability to climb in the Alps. He can climb better than your typical Tour of Flanders winner, but I read that to include the Ardennes, or maybe the early stages in the Massif Central. Reasonable minds may disagree, but his track record so far is clear. But if Lefevre wants to call Devolder a GC guy, whatever, I suppose his squad needs something to stay busy.

Rabobank... Contenders/Sprinters

Who's it about? Denis Menchov and Oscar Freire. More than any other team, Rabobank (true to its nature) has divided its attention between objectives. With the Chicken cooked and Dekker out, at least they're only chasing two jerseys and not four. Both guys have some solid protection, with Flecha and Posthuma on the flats and Ten Dam in the mountains.

Can they do it? Freire, definitely. Well, he's never won a points competition in a three-week race. If he can make it to Paris, there's no reason he can't be clad in all green for the occasion. But his history is chock full of grand tour withdrawals. He needs some luck... the speed is there. Menchov's status is roughly the same, except that there's more glory in finishing second on GC than on points. Whether he can weather the Alps is the big question, but all the other tools -- including a brief history of grand tour wins, albeit in Spain -- are sittin in the toolbox.

Saunier Duval... Secondary Contenders

Who's it about? Ricardo Ricco, and by secondary I mean secondary jerseys, not Yellow. Leo Piepoli, if healthy, will look to reprise their Giro plan by launching 1-2 punches at their rivals on the biggest slopes. Plenty of potential stage winners on hand too, I suppose.

Can they do it? I've been touting Ricco for the polka dots. He's touting himself for the maillot blanc, forgetting that he's going to lose something like 8 minutes to Andy Schleck in the time trials. Frankly, we have no idea how his effort in the Giro will affect him, so even his magnificent climbing ability may desert him before he can start annoying people. If not, and if he sets his sights on the KOM, he's got a great chance, especially with Peeps helping. If nothing else, he's likely to drop enough time in the first time trial for the GC guys to let him escape up the road after early KOM points.

Silence! Lotto... Contenders

Who's it about? Cadel Evans, firstly. Robbie McEwen will go stage hunting, and he'll likely have Van Summeren and old friend Leif H\o/ste by his side. The rest of the team is all in for Evans. Yaroslav Popovych is the world's greatest teammate, in case you didn't know.

Can they do it? Most certainly yes. They're favorites for yellow, and A-list contenders for Green. Really, what more can be said here?

Slipstream/Garmin... Stage Hunters

Who's it about? Take your pick. Magnus Backstedt and David Millar are the big names, though they can only win in breaks. Trent Lowe and Christian Vande Velde will eye their overall placing, as long as they're doing well.

Can they do it? Sure, I suppose. Expectations shouldn't be too high. Vande Velde is 32 with a best Tour placing of 25th last year, but he burned a lot of matches at the Giro this May. Lowe is pretty green and needs to learn the ropes of the grand tour world. Karma owes David Millar a stage, or at least a nice strong chain.

Team CSC/Saxo Bank... Contenders

Who's it about? In order, Carlos Sastre, Frank Schleck, and Andy Schleck, or so they're saying. This is a GC squad; no more fliers on JJ Haedo. All these guys can climb, or hammer, or both. Fabian Cancellara is the non-GC superstar patron of the time trials... CSC's only real distraction from the main goal of yellow.

Can they do it? Absolutely. Last night I went out for an exhilirating twilight ride, and 25 miles later I talked myself into Andy Schleck, Tour de France Champion. Can he? Honestly, it's hard to judge a guy on one Giro, but he appears to have the goods. One thing I don't really buy is Riis wasting him for his brother or Sastre. Riis personally knows what it means to hand off team leadership to the young protege, having passed the baton at Telekom to Jan Ullrich in 1997, while clinging to yellow himself. As CSC boss, after all the strong showings, all the crap of the last two years, Riis must be desperate for yellow this time around, and sentimental attachment to Carlos Sastre won't count for much if Sastre can't drop Evans decisively enough to counter his deficit in the time trials. I say if Andy is their best-placed rider heading into the Pyrenees, Riis gives him something between two lieutenants and the whole team.

Team Milram... Stage Hunters

Who's it about? Zabel, I suppose. I like that Terpstra kid. Peter Velits too.

Can they do it? Uh... If blogging somehow seems glamorous to you, try putting the time I just expended into this article and then finding something interesting to say about Milram. Zabel will hang around the Green Jersey comp but won't win. After that... it's time to start working on transfer season.