One of the major developments of modern cycling is the proliferation of power to new areas. In a world once dominated by frenchmen, italians and belgians we now find riders from the places like the US, Australia, Britain and Scandinavia taking up more and more space. When Sky were looking at riders for their team of the future it was no surprise that they looked north to Scandinavia for talent. Recent history shows that you can get very much bang for your buck and very little drama and intrigue. To make a sweeping generalization, certain not to offend anyone: If you want divas, look to the south - if you want to build a team , look to the north.
In a small series of articles I will take a look at what we can expect to see from the Rangers of the North in the upcoming season. First up is Denmark, the scandinavian country with the longest and proudest cycling tradition. No other country, except perhaps Holland, has as closer relationship with bikes and this is reflected in the interest for pro cycling. The presence of CSC/Saxo Bank has helped to ferry a steady stream of danes into the pro peloton but even before that, Denmark had a sizable number of pros. The peak in success came with "the golden generation" in the mid-nineties with names as Bjarne Riis, Rolf Sörensen, Jesper Skippy* and Bo Hamburger all taking wins in the major races.
Today's contingent may not yet be equal to them in palmares but there may be talent enough to match and even surpass them in the very near future. Here is what we can come to expect from them in the coming year.
*No, his name isn't Skippy but Skibby but that typo is too funny to edit out.
There are no secrets about this rider. A one day racer waiting for that major breakthrough win. He has proven in two WC that he is a man for the big races but has yet to get the win that will elevate him to superstar status. The big goal this year is the cobbled clasics in general and P-R in particular. With Cancellara mainly focusing on Flanders there might be an opportunity to be the team’s No 1 in the Hell of the North and so the stage is set for this guy, he now only has to deliver on the promise. Beyond April, Breschel's main goal is to get a place on the Tour-team. Last year he missed out, presumably dropped in favor of the more experienced O'Grady. Perhaps this year with improved climbing and the inclusion of the early cobbled stages he may stand a better chance.
Mr Birdsong with the impressive eyebrows is probably Denmark's greatest hope for a future GT winner. His debut season with Saxo exceeded all expectations. All that was missing was a major victory. He came close, both at the Vuelta and the Giro dell'Emilia but eventually had to settle for a string of impressive efforts in stage-races as well as classics. He by no means went win-less, winning both the Tours of Denmark and Slovenia which in itself is all kinds of impressive. This year all of Denmark will be looking to him to fly the Danish flag in the Tour de France. Destined to be the most important cog in the Schleck's Contador-slaughtering-machine, it will be interesting to see if he can be as impressive as he has looked so far when he is faced with the hardest race on earth. His off-season training has been hampered a bit with knee-pain but hopefully that won’t affect his season.
Chris Anker Sörensen
Out of the two young, proven danish climbers on Saxo, CAS perhaps fits the description of a pure climber even better than his teammate Fuglsang. With a so far unimpressive TT he may not be the big TdF contender many danes were hoping for a few years ago but he has definitely not reached his peak yet. In 2010 Saxo have decided to use him as captain at the climby Giro d’Italia and CAS is embracing the idea, saying a top 10 is a definite possibility. He is clearly aiming to peak there and will perhaps even opt to forego the chance of riding the Tour this year. The role of first lieutenant to the Schlecks in the mountains then seems likely to go to Fuglsang. CAS also recently signed a three year contract with Riis, showing some faith in Bjarne’s ability to find a new future sponsor.
Sometimes looked upon as the token dane on the CSC/Saxo Tour-teams but nothing could be further from the truth. One of Riis’s favourite riders, Nicki embodies all the qualities of a top domestique. He has the big engine, climbing ability and the willingness to give everything for his captain. After struggling throughout the 2008 Tour, a result of doodsmaking a road-sign early in the race, he got to shine in 2009. Having found great form he stepped up and took responsibility, leading the Saxo offensive, as Arvesen and Voigt abandoned with injuries. With that performance in mind it’s likely that he will be instrumental to the Schlecks in this years climby TdF where Riis has already declared that the only way to beat Contador is to attack hard and often. Besides the Tour, Nicki will be aiming for the Ardennes-classics, races that fit him like a glove. Had he had the self confidence to match his strength he probably could have had a podiumplace or two in these races by now but he is probably lacking some of the killer-instinct that all one-day racers need.
The dream came through for Vandborg last summer when he made the Liquigas Tour-squad and made his Tour-debut at age 28. He never made the cut at Saxo or Discovery and had taken a step back to a danish Continental squad before he made a ProTour comeback last season. Presumably he was taken on at the recommendation of Basso who knew his qualities as a TT:er and a domestique. Vandborg had a very impressive July, riding at the front for his captains and introducing himself to the mainstream danish TV audience with a very visible performance. With that ride and Basso aiming for the TdF in 2010 Vandborg is all but guaranteed a ride in July this year as well. Don’t expect him to score any wins but he could well be one of the season’s top domestiques.
Thomas Vedel Kvist
Perhaps the most intriguing danish rider for 2010 is this 23 year-old who has chosen an unorthodox route for a dane. Instead of staying with the comfortable domestic continental teams and hoping to catch the attention of Bjarne Riis, TVK moved to Belgium as a junior to ride for Quick Step's feeder-team Beveren 2000. He had impressive results and it came as a surprise to no one when Lefevere signed him to the ProTour outfit. Last season was to be his first full season at QS but a string of bad luck held him back. In the off season he contracted Epstein-Barr which cost him the first half of the season. As he was returning to action it didn’t take long before bad luck struck again, this time in the shape of a broken clavicle at the Tour of Turkey. He saw some late season racing but 2009 was more or less a lost cause. A rider suited to stageracing, he will be doing races like Haut Var and Catalunya in an attempt at securing a ride at the Giro d’Italia in May. If he can have a little more luck he might be able to live up to the promise of his dominant junior years. He may be the surprise of the year especially since nothing ever goes wrong for stageracers on Quick Step. Oh wait......
This is the dane many eyes will be focused on in 2010. A strong climber and winner of the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2009, he seems to be an obvious candidate for success at the talent-factory that is HTC-Columbia. He is by no means the only one on the team though and the question still remains how they will cope with the massive turn-over this year. I find it likely that they might take a season or two to find their groove but this team has surprised everyone in the past. If anyone had doubts Guldhammer proved that he is well prepared to ride with the big boys as he hung on for fourth place on GC at this years Post Danmark Rundt. This is by no means a race with ProTour level field but he did show excellent allround skills by staying close to eventual winner Fuglsang on the hilly queen stage and also pulling off a strong final TT, riding to defend his position. Had it not been for a doper he would have joined Fuglsang and Roger Hammond on the final podium too.
Many found it an intriguing move from Bak when he chose to leave the comfortable surroundings at Saxo in order to go to HTC-Columbia. Part of the reason he chose the american team is no doubt the presence of fellow dane Brian Holm as DS. His years with Riis have been the story of a strong allrounder struggling to find his niche. He has done everything from cobbled classics, via smaller stage-races to GT’s (never the Tour though) without really ever finding his groove. At HTC he is apparently hoping to finally get a chance to ride the Tour. He seems to be betting that the exodus of stageracers will leave an opening for him early in the Cav-train. Good luck with all that.
If you look up "journeyman" you may very well find a picture of the likable Høj. He has represented an impressive string of teams in his career and while the results haven’t always been as impressive no one can find fault in his enthusiasm and love for the sport. In his second stint with Riis he now plays the role of elder mentor to the younger danes on the squad. Known for his frankness and love for the cobbles there is little doubt that he will play a crucial role for a weakened Saxo in the belgian springraces. Look for him leading the charge in the Arenberg and covered in dirt, swearing and smiling in the post-race interviews in the velodrome in Roubaix.
Michael Mørkøv & Alex Rasmussen
Mørkøv and Rasmussen are the reigning Madison World Champions on the track. After their first year at Saxo, where they combined some road-riding with a strong focus on the major track events, they are now set to make a full on assault on the road. Rasmussen is the thoroughbred sprinter with a powerful TT while Mørkøv is more of a strong rouleur. Alex R will be doing the cobbled classics including Flanders and Roubaix, with perhaps Scheldeprijs as the race he focuses on for a personal result. In Mørkøvs case the season will be all about establishing himself as a valuable helper. His major goal will be the Giro but he’s also set to do Milano.Sanremo, Scheldeprijs and Romandy in the first half of the season.
André Steensen & Jonas Aaen
These two are the latest and youngest of the danish talents picked up by Saxo. Steensen, an allrounder with solid TT results already has one year on the team doing the typical neo-pro program of a smaller number of minor race but also the ProTour Tour of Poland. Aaen joins the team this season and will ride bigger races already in his first year by the looks of it. This is no doubt a rider who will benefit from the thinning out of Saxo’s roster, Being a puncheur in the Bettini-mold, Aaen seems to be getting a debut in the Ardennes classics in 2010 and it’s hard to picture that happening a year or two ago. More room for talents is the sweet side of budget-restraints. Question is if Riis has the ability to make the most of young talents, getting results out of older riders has come more natural to him in the past.
Kasper Klostergaard & Anders Lund
Lund and Klostergaard are both riders that have gotten the chance in the big leagues by virtue of being danish more than anything. Both are talents to be sure, Lund particularily had strong results in the youth-ranks, but they have failed to make an impression at Saxo so far. Klostergaard has proven himself a reliable worker in the classics, appreciated by the DS’s, and Lund fought bravely to complete his first GT at the Giro this year but they will both have to make some major progress this year if they are to stay on at the ProTour level.
Martin Mortensen & Martin Pedersen
Martin Pedersen is a name some might remember from old CSC rosters. He rode for the team in 2006-2007, scoring some sprintvictories at the Tour of Britain. His contract wasn’t renewed though and he spent the following two years on danish Continental teams before being picked up by Footon for the 2010 season. Amazingly he appears to have been given guarantees to ride both Giro and the Tour de France this year, which can only be viewed as a sad testament to the depth of the Footon squad. Could it be that several on the others refused to ride with arguments such as: "Are you nuts? Those races will be on TV, no way will I be seen in this outfit on TV!" Naturally the guy isn’t a bad rider, no one is on this level, but it’s hard to see what he can do in races of that calibre?
Mortensen is a rider more likely to end up in the hotitude threads than on the podium who is doing his second season on Vacansoleil.
All in all, despite the uncertainty regarding Riis Cycling's chances to find a new sponsor to replace Saxo Bank, this looks to be perhaps the most exciting season for danish cycling in many years. With opportunities to shine on many levels, maybe a successful season for the youngsters will help Bjarne Riis secure new sponsorship and continue to provide a solid base for danish talent-development?
Rider photos by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport