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Back Pocket Previews '09: Silence! Lotto

Back-pocket-2_mediumI would love to see a graph of who spends what in the Pro Tour, along with some analysis of returns on the dollar. Silence-Lotto strike me as a well-funded team, and have the extra good fortune of fronting for Omega-Pharma, something of a giant Belgian pharmaceutical company, who no doubt enjoy the prestige of having their name attached to an elite Cycling squad. What's more, Silence-Lotto have generally played the role of Belgian representative to the racing world outside Flanders, unable to pry Quick Step off its home-field perch. Silence can be seen at the front of the Tour de France, the Ardennes races, the Giro di Lombardia, etc. Assuming Omega sell their stuff outside the motherland, their investment is bringing very nice returns. Oh, and the Lotto half of the name represents the Belgian national lottery company, a perma-sponsor who have invested in the sport since before the invention of the inflatable tire.

But other than generally hoping for the best for Cycling's bottom line, I couldn't care less about this. I care about who delivers on the road, and here's where Silence's performance starts to unravel. Marc Sergeant has employed a formula that could be described as the anti-Lefevre strategy: spreading resources across every discipline, without concentrating on any. Since 2006 Cadel Evans has captained the Tour team, usually with a token lieutenant. Robbie McEwen was the designated sprinter. Peter Van Petegem headed the classics team until Leif Hoste signed on. The result has been plenty of points and a team ranking in the latter half of the top ten... not too shabby if you don't care about wins. I do, however... which is why Silence Lotto don't do much for me. On with the show.

Attributes: While Silence continue to focus on top talent supported by nobody in particular, they do get some credit for their offseason signings: Philippe Gilbert and Thomas Dekker. The latter is an all-rounder with a proven record in chronos and short stage races, while the former is a cobbles stud and Cycling's version of the energizer bunny (non-Jens! edition). Help is also coming up through the ranks in the form of Greg Van Avermaet, who arrived ahead of schedule last year, and Jurgen Van Den Broeck, a talented climber scheduled to arrive any moment now. Taken together and you have a climbing team of Evans, VDB and Dekker, and a classics squad manned by Hoste, Gilbert and Van Avermaet. Some very nice chess pieces. Also, McEwen's move to Katyusha nixes the sprint squad, which allows them a better chance to concentrate on doing a few things well.

Problems: A trio of potential leaders are only as powerful as their willingness to devote themselves to the team. Individually, Hoste is a perpetual second, Gilbert is an overly aggressive attacker, and Van Avermaet is unproven on the tougher classics course. Together, you have two long-range weapons and a sprinter if the race doesn't break up before the finale. In the hills, Evans is a podium guy rather than a winner, Dekker comes in with a big pedigree and bum rep, and Van den Broeck is still a tad young. There simply is no indication that the new plan will work, until it actually does. And finally Evans can't expect to be any less exposed in July than he was last year, when he didn't have to contend with the Astana Armada.

Key Rider: Dekker. Actually, this team is lousy with massive wild-card types. But to me Dekker is the wildest. Van Avermaet and Gilbert are known quantities looking for marginal improvements. Dekker is a mega-star talent whose career jumped the rails last year, for reasons not too well known. Someone dropped hints of doping suspicion, and if nothing else Rabobank's allergic reaction to bad press undoubtedly played a role in the fallout. Dekker has Due Mari and Romandie wins to his credit, went 5th-5th-6th in the Ardennes last year, and won't celebrate his 25th birthday til after the Giro. This is a guy who could do something big, soon... if he flies right, and if he's not tainted.

Key Moment(s): Something good has to happen to bring these guys together as a team, and while that could be any day, I'll go with Gent-Wevelgem, April 8. If this race comes together after the Kemmelberg, the fast finishers will take over. Except Oscar Freire won't be there, and Mark Cavendish is an uncertain threat for a win over this demanding course. Van Avermaet will go in as a top threat to win, and might even get some assistance from his famous (and/or less-heralded) mates.

Passing Thought: I make similar complaints about Rabobank: lots of talent and effort applied toward lord-knows-what. But Rabo have a couple distinct advantages. First, Denis Menchov has two grand tour titles to his name, and Rabo acquitted themselves well in the 2007 Tour before the ~:> came home to roost. If the almost-great Evans didn't fling himself exclusively at the Tour every year, he too could have some huge stage-racing wins to his name. Secondly, Rabobank are starting to enjoy the fruits of a 13-year investment in youth and junior cycling, and the current team is being taken over by a new generation that has never known anything but success. Rabobank are turning the corner, possibly rather quickly. Silence-Lotto... I just don't know if there is a new dawn on the horizon yet.