The other day I wrote a post, Comparing the Grand Tour Teams, that first of all noted how important teamwork is to winning a race these days (duh) and also attempted in a very simple way to give a numerical value to the strength of man of the teams in the three Grand Tours. The comments below the article contained some very helpful suggestions and critiques which improved the model I think. Thanks all! With this post I will attempt to use that model to prognosticate how the Giro will run. But don't worry! Math will not be required here!
The Straw That Stirs The Drink
Think for a minute of the major races from the past year. You can go back further to as many years back as you can remember. One thing is clear: the stronger a team is compared to it's rivals, the more likely that team will include the individual winner. That's kinda obvious in retrospect and is also a chicken-and-egg dynamic too as the strongest rider on a day goes a long way to making his team the strongest. But right before a race we tend to forget this simple "strongest team provides the individual winner" formula. We often note a whole slew of riders who could win the race. However for most of those riders, since they ride of weak teams, they are at the mercy of the tactics of the strongest team (or couple of teams).
Take this year's Tour of Flanders. Pre-race we knew that Quickstep was the strongest team as they had proved themselves time and again in the earlier cobbles races. Furthermore they had what looked like three legit possible winners in Chavanel, Boonen, and Devolder. No other team had such a triple option; no other team has the deep bench of supporting riders. Every other team's hopes depending on a certain way their riders played off Quickstep. In the end Devolder won with ease.
Take Paris-Roubaix. Same basic issues as with Flanders: how to deal with Quickstep. Same result: the other teams couldn't. It says here even without the Fletcha crash and the later Hushovd smack, Boonen was 85% likely gonna win.
Take Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Saxo Bank was like a T-rex nibbling so many tasty duckbills the way they launched one rider after another until Andy Schleck stuck, winning with Devo-esque ease. Every team in that race had to play by Saxo's rules because they were all inferior. In the end they not only had to settle for the race for 2nd, but they were happy about it.
But of course not all races have such dominant teams.
Often there are a couple major teams; which team has the winning rider depends on tactics. A couple examples: A) Het Niewsbald and how Rabobank blew it, B) Paris-Nice and how Caisse d'Epargne and Lulu took advantage of Astana's weak supporting riders on that long penultimate stage, C) the E3 Prize where a dominant-but-not-that-much Quickstep allowed Pippo Pozzato to contest a two-man sprint with Boonen, and D) Amstel which had a bunch of fairly evenly matched teams that both cancelled each other out and allowed the strongest rider on the day to win in the end. So the first question in handicapping the Giro is are there any dominant teams out there? That takes me back to my earlier cited post where a number is given to the major Giro teams; the higher the number the more strength the team possesses. Styrength here is defined as a combination of Here's the list of teams:
1. Liquigas: 17 points
2. (tie) Lampre and Astana with 11
4. (tie) Rabobank and Cervelo with 7
6. Diqui 6
7. (tie) LPR, Columbia, and Caisse d'Epargne with 3
10. Aqua & Sapone with 2
The rest of the teams really don't have any General Classification aspirations beyond a wing and a prayer.
Big Man on Campus-Liquigas
From one of the best Giro teams last year, Liquigas has done a substantial upgrade. They lost Nibali to the Tour but gained Basso, the highly underrated glue guy Szmyd (23rd last year) from Lampre and by addition through subtraction traded in their injured sprinter, Bennati (anyone have any pictures of this guy?) for another GC domestique. (I don't have anything against Benna! It's just that carrying a sprinter on a Grand Tour squad always hurts a team's GC chances.) This team is clearly the best team this year and as such if anyone will dictate how the race shakes out, it's this team. They alone have two riders on everyone's short list of GC favorites in Basso and Pellizotti and they have the depth to contest all the climby stages. In theory.
But Leeky has a couple of problems. The first is that compared to a couple examples I gave above, Quickstep at Flanders and Saxo at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Liquigas isn't nearly so dominant. Definitely they are the best, but their margin for error is not so large.
The second problem is the course. I can't imagine a course that's more unfriendly to the dominant team. This course looks like it's daring any team to control it and if Liquigas tries to do so in the early mountain stages then they'll get chewed up chasing down breaks later on. Maybe if they had included Nibali and Kreuziger they could effect control but they didn't. At the final analysis no team can control this race from the beginning but if any team is tempted to make an early strike (stages 4-6) and hold on... they won't. The real GC race will start post-Milan and stage 9 but if teams aren't careful they can lose the race in the first week by trying too hard or starting too slowly. Will Liquigas recognize this? That's the first big question. If they do and they just try to keep things close for the first half of the race then, with the depth they have, they can just unload on the other teams on stages like the Block Haus.
Then there's the third problem, that pesky stage 12 time trial. It just so happens that Liquigas is only fair at best in this endeavor while the second best team is loaded for bear...
The following was written in Velonews the other day:
VN: Do you guys get any sense of what folks in Europe know about the Gila and what they think of you being here?
LA: The definitely pay attention, all those guys, they look at the sites, the results, they dissect the results, they look at the pictures, the positions - - are they light, are they heavy? A guy like Basso for sure he's reading every day, word for word, about the Gila.
CH: Especially the TT day.
LA: Yeah, for sure they are watching.
Astana is one of two teams tied for being the second strongest team. Lampre is the other. But I put Astana as the main rival to Liquigas because they are, a) more focused than Lampre on the GC race, b) have in Levi a rider with a superior recent history at Grand Tour racing, and c) and they have an ace in the hole with Levi's time trialing abilities. Somehow Liquigas has to deal with the Astana Problem. My guess is that if Liquigas/Basso and/or Pellizotti can get past that stage 12 ITT tied or a little ahead of Astana/Levi they would feel like they could drive home to victory as that would imply that they were already superior in the early mountains. But the advantage would be reversed if Astana/Levi had a minute or more (three? four?) advantage after stage 12. That would be especially true if before stage 12 Liquigas tired and failed to shake Astana, giving Astana confidence that they could hold on in the remaining mountains.
Somehow Liquigas has to try and get a meaningful lead before stage 12. But as I wrote above, trying to control the race too early is just asking for trouble; it would wear out the domestiques while Astana (and other teams/riders) are just riding in their wheels. So stage 10, the shortened Queen stage comes to mind as a main Liquigas attacking point. But that's real obvious, especially if Liquigas hadn't done much attacking before then.
For Astana the game plan is to keep things close but not lead until that ITT stage 12. They will think that if they can get Levi ahead after that stage then they have a good chance at winning the race. But can Levi close the deal? He's never won a Grand Tour obviously. Here's where I think Lance comes into play, and it might be good or bad for Levi. I see Lance in this race as very happy to support Levi; to be Astana's road captain. The good Lance will keep Levi focused and believing in himself. The bad Lance could overplay that confidence card by having Astana fly the flag too early. What I mean by that is think of Lance's Tour wins. He tended to get control of the race ASAP and hold it in a Vulcan death grip until the end. He could do that because his team was so damn dominant. But that was then and now Astana isn't that strong. Like Leeky, Astana will get chewed up if they try to control the race too early.
So with Liquigas preoccupied with Astana, that leaves room for other teams. Lampre is the first team to look at. It's to my mind a funny team with two seemingly opposite personalities as co-leaders.
Let's talk Bruseghin first. Who here would pick him to even repeat his podium finish of last year? Me neither. Yet he's got many of the same qualities that Leipheimer has: not as good of a climber but pretty good, and he won last year's Urbino ITT. I can't imagine him actually attacking in the mountains so let's say he just tries to stay close, do well in the big TT and see how things shake out. He's Plan B for the Lamps.
That brings us to Plan A, Cunego, maybe the most mocked GC contestant this side of Valverde. Since his 5th place finish in the 07 Giro, our boy hasn't finished two Vueltas and a Tour. He's a decent enough climber and his chrono ability, while erratic, can be serviceable. Potentially he could cause havoc in this race if Liquigas and Astana are too focused on each other and unlike say Diluca Happy Puppy has a decent amount of support from his team to make a bold move stick.
But where would he attack? Geez that's a hard question. Since it's hard I default to an early stage, when the race heads into and out of Switzer land. Definitely there will be all sorts of attacks here but almost all of them won't affect the GC battle because the teams supporting the attackers won't be strong enough to defend. But again Lampre is a bit stronger than most teams and a successful early attack by Cunego will buy him time that he can use to his advantage later. Its like this: Cunego attacks an early stage, and gets a GC lead on his main rivals. He then intentionally lets the lead go, allowing him to rest up some. But the last stages he (and his team) is still close to the GC lead and relatively fresh. He attacks again and snatches the lead on say Vesuvius. He's a good enough TT guy to hold that lead on the final Lazio Rome ITT.
The Twilight Zone
It's quite likely that we've already discussed the winner of this Giro. But there are other riders with a slight chance. They all have in common relatively weak teams, meaning they all have to hope for weakness in the three teams discussed above. History says that's pretty unlikely to happen and I give the rest of the field combined a 5-10% chance- and I'm being generous. There are two scenarios that could work though.
1) Dennis Menchov. He's an interesting dark horse. He knows Grand Tour victory. He rode last year's Giro to a 5th place finish. He's got a decent team; probably the strongest team outside of the Big Three. He's a decent chronoman. Decent climber too. He's actually said (yes-he can talk!) that he's targeting this Giro and not using it for Tour training. He won't attack much but on some mountainous stage he'll see an opening to make some time on his rivals, like stage 14 last year. So he's a possibility. [update] I see now that Brownie won't be contesting the sprints for Rabobank. That's good news for Menchoov and in my eyes makes his GC aspirations a bit more likely. He's now a serious contender, just below Astana/Levi among the Foreign contingent.
As for the other GC foreigners-Sastre, Vandevelde, Rogers and Lovkvist of Columbia-it's hard to see much hope. Sastre, the weakest time trialist of the bunch, would need to just ride away from the field on some late mountain stage. But it's unlikely that will happen, right? Rogers and Lovkvist don't seem to have much more juice than a top 10 finish. That leaves C. He could slide between the cracks and like Bruseghin, stay close, do well on the big TT and find himself in podium contention before the Roma TT. So far though he hasn't shown the inclination to ride for the win here. Ultimately, we'll know in the first week if these guys are for real because if they fall behind in the Switzerland stages they'll never come back as their teams aren't strong enough.
The other long-shot scenario involves the other marginal Italian GC men: Simoni, Killer, and Scarponi, mainly. Like Sastre, etc., just above, these guys don't have strong enough teams to support a sustained (multi-stage) run at the GC. They can definitely win individual stages (and they will) and so they will find themselves late in the race with a theoretical chance to win but on their own they don't have enough juice to overtake teams like Liquigas. Not when it's Business Time. If they manage to get ahead they will be attacked like Cadel Evans was by CSC in last year's Tour.
But what might just work is if a couple of their teams banded together, especially if Astana is looking good and Liquigas not so much. Go back to how Kloden and Lovkvist were attacked on the Queen stage of this year's Tirreno-Adriatico. Multiple Italian teams working together.
So there you go. A very plausible handicapping of this year's Giro using the team scores form last week's post. Which means that it won't happen.