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Back Pocket Previews: Saxo Bank

I couldn't possibly love cycling enough to blog about it for a decade or so if it weren't truly a team sport. Maybe such concepts aren't as stunning to, say, a Japanese citizen raised on collective spirit, but in the individualistic United States, the sight of a group of people working together to overcome the favorites never fails to inspire me. As usual, I blame the media, which relentlessly sells us star quality and, seven years later, still can't figure out how the Patriots beat the Rams in the 2002 Super Bowl.

My hometown football biases are what makes me appreciate Saxo Bank, formerly IT Factory, formerly CSC, and forever known as Sexy Back. Riis Cycling has been relentlessly successful by any overall measure, holding an iron grip on the top ranking for years before Columbia got in the way last year. And yet, who is their biggest star? Ivan Basso? Briefly, but that was a lifetime ago. Carlos Sastre? Frank Schleck? Winners but not stars. Fabian Cancellara? More like it... but just. Riis Cycling wins by using a system, where the rider with the right qualities that day is given a great chance to win by his team. That rider can be any of a dozen guys, and the choice comes down to who can do the job best in the moment, not who's the face of the team. This was the New England Patriots, before Brady began dating supermodels. Heck, like the Pats Saxo Bank even has a leader in Riis whom everyone respects but loves to hate -- effectively deflecting pressure and attention away from the riders. No bullshit, no drama, just a group of guys committed to a winning system.

Attributes: I suppose Saxo Bank's real attribute -- the system -- has already been covered. More specifically, though, Riis has built a deep team which tends to have a few distinct benefits. One, you have a lot of cards to play when team tactics start dictating the race. Is today a good cobbles race for Kroon? Then get Jens Voigt, the Sorensens and Van Goolen to drive the tempo. Is the Tour headed to the Alps? Put Cancellara on the front with O'Grady, Arvesen and McCartney until the Schlecks or Larsson are ready to attack. Just wave after wave. Two, this approach yields a lot of opportunity in the finale, particularly in the spring Classics, where every race is a small war of attrition, and every week features three or four more of these grinds. Riis' guys may not start the day as shining favorites, but they're almost certain to have a handful of guys hanging around, sniffing out a win.

Problems: Riis has yet to find a top-end sprinter. Breschel may yet be that guy, but my money's not on JJ Haedo. In general it seems as though Riis is reluctant to find a sprinter for the Tour, because it wastes precious roster spots needed to implement his overall GC plan. I'm not sure this is a problem so much as a choice. Another problem would be Frank Schleck's brush with the law, if only because every mention of doping at Saxo Bank immediately dredges up the Basso mess and Riis' own past. Then there's the disappearance of IT Factory from the sponsor rolls. On just about every other team, such matters would barely register as problems.

Key Rider: On a team of steady, known quantities, it's hard to pick out a guy who could carry the team beyond expectations. Everybody knows that Andy Schleck is taking the reins at the Tour, in place of the departed champion Sastre. But while he probably won't beat the Astana guys, there is little doubt in his fitness for the job. So, IMHO what could really make Saxo Bank's season is Matti Breschel: can he take his win in Madrid (last Vuelta stage) and join the fray of grand tour sprints? It's a tall order, but he's 24 and coming into his own. Riis has signed a couple track guys in Rasmussen and Morkov to bolster the sprint squad. Another possible breakthrough could come from Alexandr Kolobnev, a consistent winner in the fall races who could maybe do something more substantial in the Ardennes.

Key Moment(s):  Fabian Cancellara at the Tour of Flanders. With wins in MSR and Paris-Roubaix, de Ronde is Tony Spartacus' bete noir, and one of the few huge races on the planet that no Riis rider has won. I'll probably spend another dozen gigabytes this spring on why Cancellara can never be the favorite for Flanders, but he specializes in shockers, and makes no secret of his desire to win this race.

Passing Thought: I would love to know the answer to this question: what do pro cyclists value more, finishing second or helping a teammate finish first? Obviously there's some variety in the responses, but I'm pretty sure the Riis boys would choose the latter, as demonstrated at the Tour. I'm equally sure that the Columbia kids would make the same choice, mostly, even Cavendish seems devoted to his teammates. These are the top two teams in the sport. In fact, this attitude seems more prevalent than not, even in some corners of Team Astana. I don't know if this is Riis' legacy or something more long-term, but there is no question that the CSC era made a strong statement about how to win.