First in a series this week that looks at specific riders for the coming year. You'll get the hang of it. We'll start with some stars.
The Big Question- Will his Tour obsession mess with the rest of his year? It says here that Al is - arguably- THE best rider of this decade. (Arguably, mind you.I don't think he's the best yet. Let's see what this year brings.) Just look at the Cycling Quotient results for his career: since 2003 he has finished 6th, 5th, 14th, 2nd, 3rd, and 1st in their rankings. He's a freaking metronome in producing results and he's so good because his skill set as a rider, great sub-Alpine climbing ability, good (though erratic) chrono efforts, combined with finishing speed that's barely a tad slower than the sprinter specialists, almost perfectly matches what most race courses demand in a winner. Go back and look at what he doesn't race (cobbles mainly) and you realize that he would/could probably win those races too. Would he be a fave at Flanders? You bet.
Which brings us to the Tour. Every year now he says he wants to at least podium on that race. Every year he falls short. This year though he appears to be changing his race schedule to focus on his goal. For instance he's not racing his home stage race, Murcia, which he not only won last year but beat Contador in the process- something no one else can say. So will he miss other races, and use others for training purposes just to get on the podium in Paris?
Best Case for 2009- Podiums in Paris, obviously. (I won't say win but I do notice that the top step of the podium is reserved for the winner.) Likes that podium so much that he podiums in Madrid too. Meanwhile his training goes so well that he still gets his share of Classics in the Ardennes plus the Worlds plus podiums at Pais Vasco, and maybe Dauphine. In VDS terms he snags close to 3000 points.
Worst Case for 2009- His Tour obsession not only fails but it gets in the way of him getting podium results anywhere. Just a bunch of top 10 finishes await and a VDS score of, oh 900-1000. (He's so good that he'll rack up points in his sleep.)
Likely Outcome- Ursula takes a long deep breath. Geez I can see a top five in Paris, possibly a podium spot but the field this year is stacked. Okay somewhere between 2-5. He also wins LBL he can win that as a training exercise), does well at Worlds, top two at Pais Vasco, 3rd at Vuelta (might win it), and picks up a few wins elsewhere. 2700 VDS points. Like I said- the guy's a freaking metronome. He's too good to overreach.
The Big Question- Is he really that much better than the rest? We all know what The Accountant did last year: won almost every stage race in sight. Even the one he lost he lost because his time trial found him in traffic on the road. So the question exists: is this guy one of the all-time greats? Are we just at the beginning of him taking on all comers for years now and beating them almost always in every stage race? Is he that much better than Evans, Menchov, Leipheimer, Basso, Gesink, Dekker, Kreuziger, Andy Schleck, Uran, etc. ad nauseam? Can we just chalk up two Grand Tour victories a year for him?
Or is he not quite that great? Here's a contrarian view of last year: Sure he's a great stage racer. No doubt. But both his Giro and Vuelta wins were less than what they appear. At both races he faced sub-par competition. At the Giro... how to put this politely... outside of Basso, Italians suck at stage racing. They can only win a Giro if no decent outsider comes to race. Geez Menchov was just training and came in 5th. Andy Schleck didn't even know how to race and came in 2nd. The only competition Contador faced last year was from dopers. Bruseghin on the podium. What a joke. Bunch of stage hunters.
The best racer at the Vuelta was Contador's teammate, Levi. If Astana wasn't so focused on getting Bert that 3rd GT win, Levi would have won it. So that says that Bert is just one of a bunch of excellent Grand Tour riders; he hasn't established dominance in the peloton.
Best Case for 2009- He does back up his claims of dominance by winning the Tour and Vuelta and Pais Vasco and Castile & Leon. One thing to keep in mind from his pre season talks: He does know that he has room for improvement, especially in the time trials. Considering that he's pretty good there already, it shows that he still has the will to improve. With the newly added VDS races he could well approach 3000 VDS points- which is what he would have scored last year if those races had been included.
Worst Case for 2009- He's not quite that dominant, Lance takes away his team support, and since he races relatively few stage races he podiums but doesn't win thus leaving him with 1000 VDS points. Or he might win the Tour and not race the Vuelta- 1500 VDS points.
Likely Outcome- Two Grand Tour victories for the second year in a row. He and Rafa Nadal stage a year end surfing contest at Pe'ahi to determine who's the Best Athlete Of All Time. Laird Hamilton becomes the winner's towel boy.
The other riders are on the flip
The Big Question- Can he further diversify his game? I loved what Tom Boonen said last week about he and Spartacus: that each of them could have gone the other's route to success. And I think that's true. Cancellara could have had Boonen's sprinting/cobbles career. Instead, and up to now, Fabian has chosen the power Classics/chrono route and 2008 was the career year for him. Just look at his results and you can see that there's precious little he can further achieve along the lines he's laid out. Yeah he could win Flanders. He didn't win the World's ITT because he was tired and he had already beaten the field at the Olympics. Like Contador in stage races and Valverde at hilly classics, Cancellara, who turns 28 in March, is supreme in his field. What to do now? Will he do like Boonen and seemingly find happiness doing the same races every year?
All appearances indicate that, similar to Valverde's quest for Grand Tour success, Cancellara will look towards the hilly classics, and if he's successful there, move on to stage racing. The guy's looking to reinvent himself. We saw him start this process with his surprise Olympic RR. Expect to see him pop up in the Ardennes, San Sebastian, the Worlds RR, maybe Lombardia either this year or next. What we don't know is how fast will this transition be, to what degree he'll neglect his traditional strengths, and how fast can he get results in his new races. These new races will demand some loss of weight and possibly some loss of brute power...
Best case for 2009- He successfully straddles two worlds. He still competes/podiums at MSR, Flanders, and Roubaix, wins various time trials. but also scores in the Ardennes and Worlds RR. He improves on his 2008 VDS total of 1622 and finishes on the good side of 2000.
Worst case for 2009- I firmly believe that he can make the transition to great hilly classics rider, maybe even Grand Tour competitor. (That's some good tasting kool-aid served by Mrs. Cancellara!) But it takes more than a year and this year he gets caught out not having quite the power to dominate the chronos or just run away from the peloton 2 km from finishing lines and thus doesn't score nearly as many dramatic victories. He just needs two years to fully retool: 900 VDS points.
Likely outcome- A fairly successful transition with results in the Ardennes. 1800 VDS points. Not sure if his chrono abilities will be quite as good. Or perhaps I should say he'll chrono better in the Grand Tours but a little worse at one day chrono events like Worlds. Final word: I'll be looking closely at Cancellara at California, a stage race that he could win this year, if he points towards it. A win there will put the rest of the peloton on notice.
The Big Question- Can He hang on? With Tin Tin, its simple really. He's 38 years old and he finished a very solid third last year in both the CQ and VDS standings. How long can he keep it up?
If you look at what he did last year, one thing stands out: he didn't actually- you know- win much. He won Paris-Nice due to Gesink's growing pains but other than that and a preseason win, he didn't win anything. There's a whole bunch of 3rds, and 5ths, and 2nds, and 6ths but no 1sts- yet still he scored big time by any measurement. Why is this? Basically he's Valverde's big brother: they have a similar skill set and that particular skill set dovetails with what pro cycling is most about. Tin Tin doesn't need to win to score big-time. Notice too that he wasn't allowed to compete at Lombardia last year, a race where he gets results like its an ATM machine.
But still. 38 years old. Look at superstars in any sport and see how they age. The falloff, when it happens, is often lightning quick. One year they are so solid, seeming ageless. The next- gone. The question will always be there: is this Rebellin's last year? Will he finally lose his mojo?
Related to the age question (and maybe more important) is the New Team Question. He's done great on Gerolsteiner. Now he's on deep breath Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni - Androni Giocattoli (which amazingly lazy people like gavia -;) shorten to SDA). (BTW- what does PVC stand for? Is this team toxic to all known life?) Since SDA (oops!) isn't a pro tour team Tin Tin will have a different race list. He's already not defending Paris-Nice, instead opting for Tirreno-Adriatico. Can he get into the Ardennes? His new team Serra- oh screw it- SDA doesn't have any history there. Amstel Gold has already announced their four wild card teams and SDA ain't among them. Will ASO give him some love? Doubt it since they've already didn't invite his team to Paris-Nice. It will be totally weird to not see Rebellin in the Ardennes.
Best case for 2009- He gets invites to... something. SDA is really an Italian team; they rarely race outside of that country. But perhaps due to Rebellin's presence they get invited to oh San Sebastian or the Vuelta or- geez tough crowd tonight! - Poland or something. Otherwise it's Italy all the way: T-A, MSR, Giro, Worlds, and the fall classics: Emilia and Lombardia, and maybe Sabatini and Lazio. If all falls right with him he could get 1400 VDS points just in Italy.
Worst case for 2009- No races outside of Italy get him to thinking retirement, which he announces at the Worlds. He gets a few results but his heart is no longer in it. 400 VDS points or less.
Likely outcome- Shows he's still got it, but retires at year's end. Gets results at various stages in the Giro and T-A plus podiums at Lombardia and top 10 at Worlds, and Emilia and MSR. 900 VDS points.
The Big Question- Can he keep his head? Funny guy, Cadel. Its sooo easy to describe him in negative terms. He doesn't have Valverde's finishing speed- but results say that he does quite well in the hilliest of one day Classics like La Fleche and Lombardia. Doesn't have Contador's huge accelerating ability on the Big Mountains- but he can use his diesel to hammer out a ferocious pace up the Alps. He's mislabeled a wheel sucker, but that's because like Leipheimer and Menchov he just doesn't have that fast burst. There's no élan with Cadel. He's just one of the top five riders every damn year.
Evans. Menchov. Leipheimer. Not the riders who fans love. They don't make big statements. They don't have flair. They just combine good chrono ability with the steadiness that all Grand Tour competitors need to have. Cadel is the best of them, though Levi is making a late career bid for supremacy and Menchov does have two Grand Tour wins and isn't done yet.
But its got to wear on these guys, the constant questions which usually come in the form of doubt. You hear it in their responses which are so often tense, prickly. Bike riding for them just doesn't seem all that fun. You don't hear these guys being popular with their teammates or the peloton. Respected, yes, popular, no. And Cadel with that little dog...
So I write all of this because for Cadel, the Big Prizes are within reach, but he has to be careful in his strategy and tactics. He just can't overpower everybody because there's always someone who can match him- plus his team support isn't much. (We'll see what Dekker brings.) I thought last year on L'Alpe, Cadel blinked. He could have won the Tour but he let the Schleck brothers' buzzing around him mess with his climbing rhythm, allowing Sastre to escape. If he had just stayed patient: but that's the pressure of a Grand Tour. So can he keep his head this year? This time he won't have a huge bulls eye on him at the Tour as Astana and Saxo will be looking at each other too. Maybe that will give him the space he needs- as long as he stays steady.
Best case for 2009- Wins the Tour. Or the Giro. Honestly he should hit the Giro with all he's got (as I think Menchov will) since the field won't be as good and the course is not at all bad for him. At any rate he should get two top 10's, probably top 5 finishes at the Grand Tours. At least one podium, probably two. Then he has the other races he has a history of results in: Dauphine, Pais Vasco, La Fleche, Worlds, Lombardia. He could well win back the UCI best rider prize and hit 2500 VDS points with a career year.
Worst case for 2009- He loses his head. It might be blamed on an injury like last year's knee problems, or he just might get too uptight. Whatever. He slips. Gets some results but there's always a couple of riders ahead of him. 1000 VDS points.
Likely outcome- A year much like 2007. Two good Grand Tour results (no wins this year though) and he could win the Giro, plus a bunch more. 2000+ VDS points.
The Big Question- Is he still good now that he's clean? (And is he actually clean?) Chris wrote about Basso and anything I write here would basically repeat what he wrote. I think his ability is a huge question. If he's still one of the best. he'll have a great year: wins the Giro, maybe wins the Vuelta, does well at T-A. If the dope gave him just that wee bit to get overt the top then he's just one of the peloton. My thoughts?
Best case for 2009- What? Didn't you just read the paragraph above? The guy could clean up with a solid 2500 VDS points.
Worst case for 2009- What? Didn't you just read two paragraphs above? It was the dope that mad him do it: 350 VDS points.
Likely outcome- I think he's good. He'll contend in the Giro and Vuelta- but not win. The Giro in this centennial year- will go to a foreigner for a second year in a row. The Vuelta to Contador. But Basso is top five in both, podiums in one: 1000 VDS points.