Translated: The biggest fun is prefun. Prefun as in anticipation. And, no, I'm not gonna link to Carly Simon. Especially that Starbucks YouTube vid. Obscenely bad. God I hope they closed THAT Starbucks down and poured salt on the rubble. I'm surprised the whole Starbucks empire didn't fall after that performance.
Anyways, five more riders, the most boring first-
The Big Question- Is he fading into the sunset? There are mountain goats and there are mountain goats. Thus far I've explored only one category of goat: the excellent chrono/steady climbing class made up of Leipheimer, Evans, Menchov, and Vandevelde (and I would be negligent not to include Andreas Kloden here). Then there's the strong climber/indifferent chrono class who's leading member these days is Carlos Sastre. Our man of the minute Zubeldia is one of these. When he first started he put in a few good time trial efforts, but clearly he sacrificed his chronoing abilities to improve his goatage and so those days are long gone To expect more such efforts is unrealistic.
Its hard to get excited about Haimar, especially after last year which he might as well have mailed in. But even in the years before that, once the first blush of youth had worn of, it was hard to get excited even though he's had some excellent Grand Tour results:
Vuelta: 2000 10th, '02 10th
Tour: '03 5th, '05 15th, '06 8th, '07 5th
See? Good results! (Any Italian not named Basso would kill for those results these days. But I digress.) But I never got the feeling that he was actually battling for a podium spot, much less the overall win. I guess that's because a) his time trialing is not good enough, and b) the Euskie team effort was just not sophisticated enough. Good riders but not enough team tactical awareness. Think about it. Between Zubeldia, Sanchez, Astarloza, Mayo, and Anton, a good DS could have snagged one Grand Tour win somewhere, or if not that more than one podium spot (Samu's 3rd in the 07 Vuelta). It would have taken some careful planning, yes, like which Grand Tour to go after (avoiding as many other stars as possible) and assembling the right team to all peak at roughly the same time, but I don't think that's too much to ask. Instead we got/get some great rugged individual efforts that by definition fall short of their marks because- let's face it- Grand Tour racing is a lot more sophisticated than it was back in the day. Or I should say winning the Tour is a much more sophisticated effort now and when Those Teams decide to truly compete in one of the other Grand Tours, they win. The days of Cale Yalborough, Junior Johnson, and Lee Petty are long gone.
But now Haimar is on one of Those Teams. He'll be 32 this April- not too old for a Grand Tour competitor. Of course he won't be competing for a Tour win; he'll be a domestique there. And if Contador does the Vuelta again, he'll be a helper there too. But what if Bert doesn't race the Vuelta? There wil be no Levi or Lance there either. Just Klodi maybe. No Sastre. Just Anton, Valverde, Zeke, maybe Evans, maybe Gesink. And what about the other smaller stage races that Bert or Kloden or Levi won't compete in? (I see what Lance says he's gonna do and I can't figure out if he's clowning around or what so I'm not including him in any Astana figuring except for the Giro and Tour.) Exactly what races will Haimar race in anyway? Might we see a rebirth?
Best case for 2009- Besides no Bert in the Vuelta, some of the smaller stage races could be doable with team support. Castile & Leon, Crit. Int., Romandie, Catalunya, Poland. Races like that. Even with other Astana stars in those races the dude could get results.
Worst case for 2009- The domestique duties take all of his time and energy.
Likely outcome- Probably like 2008- VDS points in the 250 range.
Greg Van Avermaet
The Big Question- Is he for real? Ah to be young and sneaky. And, yeah, I'm not the smartest guy on the block but to me its this guy who was THE surprise story of 2008. We knew he had promise based on the year before, but wow. 2008 was a huge jump. From Qatar (3rd overall) to E3 (3rd) to Flanders (8th) to Picardie (7th) to Belgium (2nd) to Wallonie (2nd) to L'Ain (18th) to Ouest-Plouay (7th) to the Vuelta points winner to the Worlds RR (17th) this kid just didn't let up. Outside of Gesink and Lovkvist, and on par with Larsson, Van Avermaet's improvement was greater than any of the following new stars: Cavendish, Kreuziger, Andy Schleck, Gasparotto, Visconti, Vandevelde, Ciolek, Brajkovic, Dekker, Uran, Maaskant, Van Den Broeck, Nibali, and whoever else you want to throw in the ring. As Ray Lewis said, “You can't touch this! I'm a machine jerk!” He didn't just have a good spring or fall like most riders. He had a good year, wire to wire. To me that says he has a very high base level and can hold it longer than most.
But that was last year. How is he to consolidate these gains and does he have a chance to get better? I'm sure a lot of you looked at the list of achievements I wrote above and noticed the number of B races and wonder if he can maintain his results with better quality opposition. Even the Vuelta points jersey is a bit tainted to a skeptical eye as he probably won it more because the A-list sprinters (Bennati, Boonen, Freire) all dropped out leaving him with competition that weren't interested in a stinkin' blue jersey (Valverde and Contador). So you can look at this kid in two different ways:
Hey! This kid is great! He may not be the best sprinter but he competes hard all the time and he's good enough to get his share of wins!
Hey! This kid is not so great! Yeah he races a lot but he only does well when others don't put in the effort and he'll be in much harder races this year!
One final thing about Van Avermaet: he's not cocky like Cavendish. He knows what his limits are. This year he's riding the Tour for the first time and he's already discounting his chances at the green jersey. This is a good sign I think. He's using his head and my guess is that he's got a good grasp on what he can and can't do- and what he can do is that Ray Lewis thing- bring it every day. That's a rare gift. (Digression: maybe not as hard as Ray- if he did he'd be The Cannibal.)
Best case for 2009- Basically the same as 2008 but in bigger races. Keep getting top 10 and top 5 results in a number of races.
Worst case for 2009- the step up in quality forces him into the B-list sprinters hell of scrounging for a few points here and there. He joins the Caspers and Hausslers and Chicchis and Browns of the world. Not pleasant.
Likely outcome- I say much like 08, maybe a bit better VDS points-wise. He's good, he doesn't weaken, and he doesn't get discouraged. In some many aspects he's a younger Hushovd- not the fastest guy but one who can crank out the results in all sorts of odd places.
More on the flip.
The Big Question- Thor or Loki? Its funny. In my lazy moments I think of cycling and sprinters (by definition a lazy moment) and I rank them-
I start with guys like Bennati, Cavendish, Freire, and Boonen as my A listers.
Then I go to a select group right behind, my A- listers you might say: Hushovd, McEwen, Van Avermaet I guess (who replaces Zabel), probably Ciolek, Davis, Pozzatto (though he's not your normal sprinter) and maybe Matti Breschel and E B Hagen who by the time this year is out. Petacchi probably is here too. I should call these guys B listers just to be clearer.
Next are the B-list (should be C-list) sprinters: Eisel, Weylandt, and Lorenzetto. Haussler, Steegmans, Hunter, and Farrar. Klodo Fernandez, JJ Rojas, and Greipel. Brown, Dehaes, and Roelandts. I could go on and probably one could separate out a C-list group here and a D-list but what's the point?
At any rate then I look at Thor's 2008 record and wonder. Look at it too and see if the same thought comes to your mind: that he gets results and chalks up victories in races where he seems to have no peers. And by “peers” I mean no A or A- listers. Look again at the races he takes part in: the core of his schedule is stage racing: Paris-Nice- not a big sprinter destination. Catalunya and Dauphine, also not high on the Sprinters List of Things To Do. Het Volk, K-B-K and Flanders. Not chock full 'o sprinters there either. Okay he does Gent and MSR and sometimes Paris-Tours. And he does the Tour and either the Giro or Vuelta. There he mets the other top sprinters. And they beat him. He can win points jerseys, but mainly when the competition is less for some reason.
So the point that I'm not making so well is that he's a tricky one. Not so much Thor Smash! But Loki the trickster. He gets his results in races that other big name sprinters don't race in, much like young Van Avermaet just above.
But now after years being the big fish of Credit Agricole, he's on a brand new team, Cervelo. What's that mean? It'll take a year to play out but we might have gotten a big clue in the just completed Tour of Qatar. Other than the tragic death the biggest thing there was not Cavendish going zoom or Boonen winning another overall, but the aggressiveness of Cervelo's group of B and C -list sprinters. Particularly on stages two and three, that group including Haussler, Hammond, Florencio, Klier, Lloyd, and Rasch were all over the front of that race. Very impressive to my eyes. Now if Hushovd can harness that power and speed and agressiveness to his advantage, he'll have better support than he ever did at C.A.
Best case for 2009- What I just said. Hushovd dominates his small stage races as usual but is also more competitive in the big Grand Tours too. He tips his CQ points back over 1000- and his VDS points go there too. That lead out train is as good as any and more aggressive than the rest.
Worst case for 2009- His train's Qatar promise fades and he's alone scraping for points. He still does well but fans don't think of him so much like they used to.
Likely outcome- He's only 31. Maybe its the really good stout I'm drinking right now that's doing the talking but I like that lead out. I see him improving on last year. 1100 VDS points are within his reach.
The Big Question- Can he possibly do it again? Since with Zubeldia I introduced the Sastre class of Grand Tour GC riders (iffy time trialing combined with strong climbing), I might as well talk about the holotype himself. Its so easy to dismiss him now that he's not in the Saxo fold. “His” Tour victory last year was more due to Bjarne Riis and his Napoleon-like strategy than to Sastre's goat-like qualities.
Just to be clear- I am not being pejorative when I'm comparing Riis' strategies to Napoleon's. They are similar. To oversimplify, Napoleon would win battles by holding back crack troops until late in the day when all the other troops- on both sides- had tired themselves out. Then he'd release the reserves at the right time and place for a decisive victory. Riis employed much the same tactical strategy last year in the Tour. He smashed over and over again with Cancellara, O'Grady, Arvesen, Sorensen, Gustov, Jens!, and the Schlecks, al the while keeping sastre's powder dry, leaving a much fresher Sastre to win the day on L'Alpe d'Huez. Sastre's Tour victory was one for the team and for its general, Riis. It was yet another demonstration of how team trumps individual. (Note that this is not the only way a team can win.)
But then we came to last year's Vuelta where Sastre was left on his own to fight another Team, Astana (a Team that wins in different ways than Saxo). Not surprisingly he got crushed. He was not happy, lashing out at Riis for leaving him alone and ultimately not renewing his contract. Still his result, a solid 3rd place, demonstrated his individual prowess. He saw Zeke, Valverde, J-Rod, Gesink, etc. in his rear view mirror. (What's that? An Italian in 10th place? Always happy to see an Italian Grand Tour rider join in the fun cause it so rarely happens!) I don't call his type of GC rider Sastre-class for nothing. The guy's wicked good.
Now he's on a new team, Cervelo. What's gonna happen to Carlos? Does he want to make Riis look bad? You betcha. Does he have the same support that I think Hushovd has? Hmm. I don't think so, but then again I didn't expect to see such a good showing of Hushovd's train at Qatar either so maybe I'm underestimating Sastre's goat supporters too. Maybe after this year is over we'll marvel on how Cervelo DS Theo Maucher really coached up this squad to surprising results in both sprints and climbs. If so that would be one of the great stories of the year.
Best case for 2009- Carlos doesn't have to win the Tour or Giro (he's doing the Giro, right?) but a couple of podiums is his best case scenario. One other thing. Carlos' M.O. is to not compete in any pre-Grand Tour stage races, finishing well back. Let's see if being on a new team changes that at all.
Worst case for 2009- It was Bjarne. One top ten Grand Tour finish.
Likely outcome- Beats me. My heart says a couple of Grand Tour podiums- his best case scenario, which in VDS terms is much like last year. I don't know though. My advice: If you are a Carlos fan, bet on him. You'll hate yourself if you don't. The Vuelta proved he's good on his own and with Evans not in the Giro, that race is that much more open. He's a solid dark horse pick there even with that annoying 61 km ITT. He showed he could handle the pressure of a 53 km ITT in last year's Tour, right?
The Big Question- Was he or wasn't he- and can it be detected? Bonus Big Question- Is he the Terrell Owens of Cycling? We all know about the strange season Dekker had. Spent most of the pre-Ardennes part of the season in Spain chalking up solid results in Castile & Leon and Pais Vasco before doing a Rebellin (5th, 5th ,and a 6th) in the three Ardennes races. So far his season was a steady improvement of his breakout year the year before. Goes to Romandie, where he won the year before, and on the Queen stage throws up his hands and quits. Just quits. No real explanation. For me that was one of the top five images of that year, Dekker quitting. (Oddly another one of my top five was also at Romandie- Kloden in the TT where he came into the final corner of that course so hot that he bounced off the retaining signage and still won the race. Full contact time trialing! Yee haw!)
After Romandie, whispers (see gavia). He next enters Suisse as a pre-Tour warm-up, does awful, and his team drops him from the Tour. Dekker's pissed. Rabobank management's pissed. Everybody's pissed. Rumors of doping sprout on the fertile, well watered (and very purple) soil. Dekker does compete in the national championships and the illustrious Sachsen Tour, does diddly in both, and that's the last we see of him in the Rabo orange. Loads of rumors fly. Columbia will pick him up. No Astana. No CSC. No- he's gonna get busted. NO- his blood is okay. No, his agent is spreading rumors of other teams but he's radioactive- no one will touch him.
Finally he signs with *Lotto. What's gonna happen this year? I think if we polled PdC members we'd get predictions all across the spectrum from he'll get busted to he'll make people forget sliced bread. Two variables are in people's minds: A) the possible doping. Did he dope? If so is it something new and unidentifiable other than some slightly odd (but not too odd) blood readings? B) what's he gonna do on *Lotto, a team famous for poor stage racing results? They have Evans, that prickly bastard. They didn't keep Horner, the signed Popovych who was a bust then let him go. Its like they're the Oakland Raiders of stage racing. Now they have Dekker from that famously dysfunctional Rabo rabble. How's he gonna get along with Evans?
Best case of 2009- Look at two years ago then increase the results beyond what he did in the first half of last year. The guy doesn't hit 25 until next September; he's one of the great talents of his generation, equaled only by Contador, Cavendish and maybe Gesink and Kreuzinger and Ciolek. Falling out with Rabobank is a good thing. It shows courage and integrity. And as for working for Evans at the Tour: he'll be the best helper Evans has ever had. Just look at the work he put in for Rasmussen two years ago. Best case says he'll be happy at *Lotto and a happy Dekker means podiums in the Ardennes, podiums on a bunch of not so minor stage races (Pais Vasco, Romandie, Suisse) podium at the Worlds RR, podium at Lombardia (prediction: he and Happy Puppy will have a long and exciting rivalry in the hilly Classics).
Worst case for 2009- Busted! Or, if not that, he's a head case with *Lotto too, pouting his way through the season where he gets discarded soon and signs with a non-Pro Tour team for a year before he's out of the sport and into x-rated films. Not that that's a bad thing with that body. -:)
Likely outcome- Hey- I'm a Dekker fan. I say that next year when it comes time to figure out how much each rider costs in VDS terms, he'll be a solid 20 pointer and I'll have thoughts about making him cost 25 points, so perhaps I'm not the best judge of a likely outcome. He didn't get busted last year; I doubt he will this year. Getting along with Evans will be easy as pie compared to what he's used to at Rabobank. 1400 VDS points. (Note: the 12 pointers have several riders that I think are bargains.)