For your consideration...
The Big Question- is he an elite rider? 2008 saw Christian on a new team but his season began like most others, at least superficially: A 3rd at California (good) was followed by a very non-descript 56th Paris-Nice. Castile & Leon was next with a meh 10th place. Circuit de la Sarthe saw him snag 2nd but that was a B race and he followed that by a 7th at another B race, Georgia, where Slippy's main guy was not Christian. May came and saw him crank out a 52nd place at the Giro and it seemed like he was the Christian that we all knew: a decent chronoman and climber but not one of the Big Boys. A junior grade Evans, or Leipheimer or Menchov you might say. Same basic qualities ‘cept not as good.
Then came the Tour and zowie! 4th place! Totally competitive in both the TT’s and the big mountains! True, he never threatened for overall but that just seemed to underscore his similarities to Evans-Leipheimer-Menchov. (except he's not as, you know- odd.) He finished the season by winning Missouri, which may not seem like much but to me showed new confidence. I mean the pre-Tour Christian would have finished oh 3rd or something, not 1st. This is new. This is a Man.
So now we enter 2009 and wonder. Was his 08 Tour run a one-time fluke? Or after years of toiling for others did he just need half a year to see that yes he can be an elite racer? Since he turns 33 in may this would be a good time to find out.
Best case for 2009- Figuring that he has the same schedule as 08 then best case for Christian is high GC standings and podiums at most of the 7 or so stage races he enters. Top 10 at the Tour again. And since I know you all are waiting for me to write it, top 5 at the Giro? Ah that depends on if he really is good and also if Vaughters uses the Giro for training purposes. Again, it says here that if he really is as good as it seems than the Giro is within his reach- if he tries.
Worst case for 2009- kinda clear here. Last year’s Tour was a fluke and he goes back to being another really swell guy in the peloton and Garmin pins its GC hopes on… Ursula shivers Tom Danielson.
Likely Outcome- I say last year’s Tour was an indication of Christian’s true abilities. However he will be marked a bit more this year plus the Tour to me looks tactically more complicated than last year’s meaning that Christian probably will finish more like in 5-10th place. In VDS terms I see him doing quite a bit better than last year’s 366 points. More like 750-900.
“Gertrude” Stijn Devolder
The Big Question- Is he a floor wax or a dessert topping? One thing is for sure: Devo is one of the most physically gifted athletes in the peloton. Plus another thing is true: the guy has the sense of a bunny looking at the headlights of an oncoming car. Still a rose is a rose is a rose and he’ll be racing this year so what to make of him?
Let’s review the enigma. Until last year he rode with the Classically inept Disco boys. That meant he did stage racing and in truth, when he wasn’t doing the most brain dead attacks on god’s green earth, he was pretty good at it. For instance: an 11th on GC at the 06 Vuelta plus an 8th at the Deutschland Tour. 07 saw a 3rd at Suisse and 1st at Austria. Rundfahrt! (I love that word.) To sum up, the Disco Devo was a superior chrono guy and decent climber who regularly brainfarted.
Then he signed on with probably the exact opposite team: Quickstep. If Quickstep was all about March and some April, Disco barely tolerated that time period. Now Devo did race cobbles with Disco and didn’t do that bad (18th at Roubaix in 07) and he is Belgian so there was some promise there. As we now know, that promise on the cobbles came thru in spades last year and he even extended it to winning the Tour of Belgium. But his stage racing suffered. 18th at Suisse. Got sick and didn’t finish the Tour. 33rd at T-A. 4th at zzzzzzzz Eneco but basically his climbing abilities disappeared (though his time trialing remained true). So the question is, can he keep his cobbles form and recapture his climbing abilities at least for smaller stage races? Or is the Quickstep philosophy stopping his multi-day racing development?
Best case for 2009- Stays strong on the cobbles and regains his climbing ability to compete somehow at Suisse, and the Tour. He hasn’t completed a Grand Tour since that 06 Vuelta so a healthy top 10 at this year’s Tour would be nice.
Worst case- he gets marked at Flanders and Roubaix. Does meh at Suisse and squat at the Tour. Takes 3rd place on the team behind Boonen and Chavanel.
Likely outcome- a major factor on the cobbles though he doesn’t win a Big One. (I do predict a Paris-Roubaix victory within 3 years.) Does better with stage racing though there’s no Vandevelde-esque improvement there. Top 20 at the Tour. About the same number of VDS points- a solid 750, plus or minus.
Flip over for the final three riders.
Gert “Stein” Steegmans
The Big Question- New team, better results? A case can be made about Quickstep as a team resembling the inhabitants of the Land of the Lotus Eaters. They work hard during cobbles season and don’t care much for the other 11 months of the year. Superstars in their own (very) little country, they make little effort outside of it (see, Devo above). Team leader Boonen inhales the good life: he’s complacent to repeat his seasons one after another until he retires. Talented? God yes. But do they get the most out of their talent? How’s Wouter developing?
That brings us to Steegmans who until now was simply the last lead out guy to Boonen. He got the odd win and last year was in theory the lead guy at the Tour what with Boonen having drug problems. But look at that Tour campaign for Gert: until the very last day the guy wasn’t competitive with the main sprinters. He probably never even saw Cavendish in the last kilometer of a sprint. To call Gert a B-list sprinter was an insult to the B-list sprinters. Definitely a huge disappointment and if you thought the win on the Champs-Elysees did anything for his confidence or fire then think again: he followed his blah Tour with an equally blah Eneco. Oh yeah- on his last race of the season, Paris-Bruxelles, he did manage a 2nd place to, interestingly enough, his soon to be teammate Robbie McEwen. Hmm. The Thought plickens….
… Where we fast forward to this year and we see (so far) Steegmans and McEwen burning it up on Mallorca. Could it be that the influence of Robbie could shake off the Quickstep complacency and turn Gert into an A or B+-list sprinter? can Robbie's much more aggressive personality (as opposed to Boonen's) get Gert to HTFU?
Best case for 2009- Yes, Robbie does just that and Gert’s win total goes up to 12-15 with half of those coming in major races/stages. One thing to notice from his races last year is that he barely took any time off once the season started and to me that says burn out. No wonder he was blah at the Tour and elsewhere. He probably peaked at Paris-Nice- where he won two stages- and then held on the rest of the year. Silly. This year the Katusha management gives him a rest and it pays dividends big-time.
Worst case for 2009- He’s exactly what we saw at Quickstep last year. A decent lead-out man but nothing more.
Likely outcome- Closer to the best case I think. Quickstep’s distain for the other 11 months of the calendar hurts several of their riders and with Gert we will see that. He’ll increase his VDS points from 195 last year to 500+. Yet again we see Lefevre’s ineptitude: he just doesn’t know a rose is a rose is a rose.
The Big Question- will less equal more? In the movie Grosse Point Blank, John Cusack is telling of a dream to his psychologist, Alan Arkin. The dream consists of Cusack imagining himself as the Eveready Bunny and he asks Arkin what he thinks about it. Arkin replies that it’s a terrible dream, which surprises Cusack who asks why. “Because it has no anima!” Arkin replies. “It has no soul! It just goes around banging and banging those cymbals over and over! Its a terrible dream!”
Like the Eveready bunny, so all too many cyclists. Too many teams make their riders race too many races. Look again at Gert Steegman's schedule last year- way too many races! Its like those sad bike racers in the Triplets of Belleville come to life. They race so many races that life becomes one 60th place finish after another. It’s horrible and, yes, in no way do I admire Philippe Gilbert’s schedule.
This is not just a problem in pro cycling of course. Most every sport schedules too many contests for their athletes and the result is a) injuries, b) drug use, and c) most contests where the athletes don’t try their hardest. Soccer, basketball, baseball, rugby, whatever: too many contests. Of course that’s like many jobs too. Say did I ever say I hate capitalism?
What? Gasparotto? Oh yeah. In his Back Pocket review of Lampre, Chris talked up young Enrico, who only turns 27 this March. Chris is right: this kid is good. (I wish other folks around here would talk up Italian racers.) The kid had a monster spring for Barloworld last year. I’ll go further and say that this kid will be one of the dominant spring racers for most of the next decade. One of the top 5 easily. Multiple MSR victories are his to grasp. If Lampre can keep him, Ballan, and Spilak together, wow. Boatloads of victories from perhaps THE spring team (sorry, Quickstep, Lotto, Saxo, Rabobank, and Columbia).
But what about the rest of the year- because it will be the rest of the year that will cement Gasparotto as one of the greats of the sport. Well if you look at his schedule last year you see that he a) raced most of the time, and b) got good results but in lesser races- races that he won’t be in much now that he’s a Big Deal on a Pro Tour team. He did take July off last year and that was good. Lampre must now give him a solid month (at least) off again. Will they?
Dunno. But look at Ballan’s schedule for a clue since they have overlapping skill sets. To me Ballan raced a little too much last year. It could have been worse, definitely, but I’m not sure of what the point was in racing Ballan at Catalunya AND Suisse AND the Tour. Especially Catalunya, Ballan should have had May off. It's like they had to justify him not racing the Giro so they stuck him in Barcelona. Fortunately he didn’t go to the Olympics so he had some juice for Ouest-Plouay, the Vuelta and Worlds. Still I would have given him Catalunya and Suisse off and thus given him two seasons. Obviously Ballan did well and he has the rainbow jersey and a day in the Gold jersey in Spain to prove it. But with that schedule I fear that Ballan will never quite achieve what he could do, which is Bettini-like greatness.
Gasparotto could be another Bettini too with the right scheduling. I hope for this year he skips the Giro, as that would overextend his spring and he won't do well in it. Miss Catalunya too. Get back into racing pre-Tour and have a killer late summer and fall. I’m glad they didn’t waste him on TDU or Qatar or similar second tier races.
Best case for 2009- Follow my orders, of course! Ha! Seriously, he’s a dark horse pick for MSR and should team nicely with Ballan and Spilak on the cobbles. Then its stage hunting in the Tour (probably and Vuelta (probably).
Worst case for 2009- Honestly I can’t see him doing any worse than last year so look there for his baseline. Check that. If he races the Giro he could burn out for the rest of the year. Other than that, he’s the real deal. Watch him to see a star being born.
Likely outcome- In VDS-speak: 800+ points, easy. He’ll better last year’s spring (not saying he’ll win this year’s MSR but top 10 definitely meaning he’ll be in the final selection) and he’ll score various stages in the last two grand Tours and races like Ouest-Plouay.
Luis Leon Sanchez Gil
The Big Question- is there space for him to step up? Short answer: no. Long answer: Caisse d’Epargne is too crowded with similar or better stage racers to give LL the attention he needs to take the next step in quality.
He’s only 25 and he does have an upside but by now his season’s path is established:
1) Start the season early with some TDU action, culminating in Paris-Nice and Criterium International.
2) Continue on with Pais Vasco and the Ardennes even though he’s clearly past his peak.
3) Take a whole half-month off, do Catalunya (hey! Its in Spain!) Then rest for the Tour where he’s a domestique and stage hunter in the first week. (I wonder if Unzue notices that by this time LL is of no help in the big mountains? Nah.)
4) Then finish the season with some shit like Eneco and Poland because, wait for it! There’s still more of the season and he’s a bike rider for god sakes! He should be proud of his 41st in Eneco and 56th place in Poland last year! What a competitor!!!!!!!
Ahem. I don’t know when this guy’s contract runs out but I hope he runs- not walks- away from Caisse d’Epargne. Between Valverde and Uran, Costa, and Moreno, Arroyo and Rodriguez, Kiryienka and Gutierrez, Periero and JJ Sanchez, he’s never gonna be given more attention then he’s getting now. He’s hit a ceiling with them that's not his true ceiling.
Best case for 2009- what he did in 2008.
Worst case for 2009- Astana hammers him at Paris-Nice. Not much happens at Crit. Int. Cd’E management doesn’t allow him any stage hunting chances at the Tour so he can support Valverde better.
Likely outcome- Closer to worst case than best case I’m afraid. Wait. Why am I afraid? He should have gone to Katusha. VDS? 250 points, tops.