Dang, I love me some team breakdowns... but first, a message from our U23 friends...
This is a sprinters' course!
Yes, that's right, after all the months of people pointing out how another group of people were maybe wrong when that second group of people said this was a sprinters' course, and how the first group of people were here to set the record straight... it turns out that maybe the first group of people were sandbagging and the second group were right all along. Because last night the U23 set did a full 150-something km of racing over the circuit, 10 laps = 20 climbs in those young, growing legs, and when it was all said and done, when every last King or Frenchman was finally reeled in, the peloton arrived in a mass at the corner of Western Beach Rd and Morabool Street for a bunch gallop. Not your ordinary bunch gallop, mind you, because that long, wide, straight stretch is going uphill some 3% the whole way. This is a painful sprint. But it was a sprint nonetheless.
Does this mean that the Elite Men will be teeing up Cav and Farrar and Greipel tomorrow night? Not certain, riders make the race, and the tricky circuit certainly invites attacks, but it's time to stop dismissing the possibility of a sprint. This seems like a bit of an annual exercise -- after a few weeks or months where everyone bemoans how hard the worlds circuit is, there's Oscar Freire in position at the start of the last lap. Now, virtually every worlds circuit of late (since Zolder... bleh) has had more than enough undulation to make you wonder, but when the race is finally run it no longer matches the apocalyptic predictions we were treated to beforehand. To me, Geelong looks less selective than the last two, and the sprinters' crop is strong, so my gut says we'll have 20-30 guys there at the end. Frankly, I can't think of a more exciting type of race. Anything can happen. Well done Melbourne organizers.
Anyway, the teams...
Overall Strength: Through the roof. Assuming it's a sprint, here are your domestiques: Sammy Sanchez, Luis Leon Sanchez, Carlos Barredo, Manuel Garate, Ruben Plaza and Haimar Zubeldia. That's just one hypothetical.
Course Fitness: More important than their general quality, Spain have a terrific mix of riders suited to each "kind" of race: a climb-fest, a late-attackers' race, and a sprint. Given the mystery at hand, this is what you'd want. Other teams are banking on one or maybe two possible outcomes. Not Spain.
Closer: In a sprint, Freire or Ventoso get the call. The former, if in top form, is always a serious threat, but it's hard to know where he is. I like Barredo for a late attack as much as any other scenario for Spain.
Prediction? No better than a bronze. Yes, they can cover anything, but there's no scenario that someone else doesn't do a bit better.
It goes on... and on... the flip:
Overall Strength: You could argue tit-for-tat with Spain. Australia's lineup isn't quite as flashy, as Spain do rule the sporting universe at present, but Evans, Gerrans, several worthy sprinters, and some glue guys like Stuey O'Grady and Mick Rogers amount to a strong, coherent group of guys.
Course Fitness: Like Spain, they're ready for practically anything. Evans will be marked to the top of the Ridge, although he might still sneak in a late attack, though Gerrans has a better shot of being let loose. They're a little lighter on the pure climbers than Spain, but I've arrived at the point where that seems smart to me. Having at least three plausible sprinters means they can stick one in any threatening-looking late group, and save the other two for a bunch gallop. Nice options.
Closer: For my money it's Goss. Davis and Hayman can't win over Cav or Farrar or Greipel. Goss can.
Prediction? Sky's the limit. Goss is one of my favorites for victory. I expect them to play all their cards and put a lot of pressure on the more careful teams (coughItalycough).
Overall Strength: Not in the same class as the first two. This is more like a collection of useful riders assembled to promote the chances of one guy. Even Leukemans, who I like, doesn't seem like he's going to attack and get away. He's more of a survivor. Van Avermaet is a wild card, but we say that a lot.
Course Fitness: While not ready for anything, Belgium are VERY ready for a slow war of attrition with a medium-sized group at the end. My hunch is that the race will play out like a Belgian race, and when it does, they will take care of business.
Closer: Philippe Gilbert. Favorite Number One. This finish looks eerily similar to Toledo, albeit with fewer 15th century buildings around.
Prediction? The results in the U23 race only make me more comfortable with the prediction I started making (recklessly) a year ago. PhilGil FTW.
Overall Strength: Terrific mix, I think. Sieberg and Wegmann are guys who could mix it up on the last lap. Grabsch and Martin are power beasts who can also play the good leadout role.
Course Fitness: Like Belgium they didn't really prepare for the climbers to take over. But in case of a sprint or late attacks, they're loaded with quality.
Closer: Greipel is a major threat to win, but don't overlook Danilo Hondo, a sprinter who seems to show up unexpectedly at times.
Prediction? Not enough finishing quality. This might be the first day Germany don't get a medal.
5. United States
Overall Strength: Not their hallmark. This is a domestique team. Even Zabriskie and VandeVelde are here for one purpose, and not their own.
Course Fitness: They have one scenario locked down. Anything else -- uphill attacks, late surprises -- and they don't really have an answer.
Closer: Tyler Farrar has to be wondering what he did to have such a great course come his way, and at a perfect time. Helped old ladies cross the street? (Plausible.) Was courteous to strangers? (Very likely.) That time he put a baby bird back in its nest? Whatever... any flatter and we wouldn't really like his chances of stopping Cavendish. Here...
Prediction? Farrar can't follow any attacks on his own without compromising his chances and towing some combination of Gilbert and Cavendish with him. He needs to sit back and hope things fall in his lap a bit. In a big, big bunch, he can definitely win.
Overall Strength: It's Italy. You don't make the Azzurri if you can't hammer. DS Paolo Bettini went a little heavier on the domestiques (Tossatto, Tonti) than Spain, and Nibali must be pretty tanked. But otherwise they're very solid, more threatening than the US.
Course Fitness: I am a little torn, in the wake of Mario Cipollini's criticisms that Bettini didn't make enough of a sprinters' team. But in the end Bettini is gambling on something just a bit more selective, too much so for Petacchi, and the challenge with running the Italy squad is always getting the strongest team you can without setting up internal rivalries.
Closer: It's Filippo Pozzato's team, so he's the likely final guy in a small group. But Daniel Oss, Luca Paolini and Francesco Gavazzi could all find themselves in the right place at the right time.
Prediction? A win would be an upset, but if a stronger team doesn't take control, all the blue jerseys will be hard to keep track of.
Overall Strength: Strong? Sure. This is always the Dutch plan: 1. Assemble strong riders; 2. [ ]; 3. Profit! But they're also quite young. Bringing about hegemony takes time...
Course Fitness: There's nothing inappropriate about these guys. Langeveld, Boom, Kroon, Terpstra, these are all guys who can stay with the front group in a hard, slightly undulating hammerfest. Nobody sticks out as a guy with a strong chance to win, but you can't make WC favorites appear out of thin air. Your best bet is to grow them patiently, which Rabo & co are doing. And in the meantime you can field a group of guys with some plausible attack threats like Terpstra and Boom.
Closer: Boom I guess? I don't see DeKort making it through the bunch gallop. Boom is not a great pick to win in 2010. Come back in a couple years.
Prediction? Everything I write about Dutch riders will eventually come true. Just don't hold me to any specific dates.
Overall Strength: Ja, sure, fine. I'm not sure how much help Cancellara needs, but he has veteran domestique-able strong guys like Albasini and Rast and Elmiger at his disposal.
Course Fitness: Mostly it's perfect for Cancellara, enabling him to take advantage of most of his skills without favoring pure climbers or sprinters. It's also not terrible for Albasini or Elmiger, who could be trouble in a small group. If a big bunch arrives at the end, they're cooked though.
Closer: I wouldn't go so far as to say that the job of the Swiss team is to get Cancellara to the final lap and get the hell out of his way, but it will probably play out something like that.
Prediction? Cancellara gets a medal if there's no big bunch. Or if they leave it just a moment too late.
Overall Strength: Millar has to be a bit tired. That leaves Hunt and Cavendish. Do the math.
Course Fitness: Not great. I mean, Millar obviously likes it, but he had his day. Cavendish is left hoping against hope. And cutting deals with potential leadout men.
Closer: But if there were a sprint...?
Prediction? Gold or nothing.
Overall Strength: Probably better than Britain's.
Course Fitness: Hushovd has to love it. The sprint won't particularly favor Cavendish as the little uphill calls for power, which Thor has in spades. It's also an attacker's course. But Hushovd will have to decide whether to wait for a sprint or try something in the last 5km. Not an easy call.
Closer: If Thor doesn't show up at the end, perhaps Edvald Boasson Hagen will. These long, hard days aren't for kids though.
Prediction? Unlike a lot of guys I've mentioned, I am more or less certain Hushovd will get a top ten. But which spot... I could be talked into all ten.
Don't Sleep on...
Slovenia: I marked them down a bit because their finishers, Borut Bozic and Grega Bole, haven't thrived on the biggest stages. In Bole's case he might need a bit more seasoning. By Florence (2013) he will be a big-time threat. They also feature Brajkovic and Simon Spilak as helpers.
Denmark: Matti Breschel is another top-flite favorite on a course like this. But Breschel runs a bit hot and cold, IMHO, and two of his last three starts were DNFs. Bak and Sorensen are able vets.
Belarus: You know who likes a hard sprint? Yahueni Hutarovich.
Slovakia: A/k/a Team Velits. Except if you mark them too closely, Peter Sagan will eat your lunch. Check back on them in a couple years, this could be like Team Lux the last few years with its paltry three guys... two Schlecks and a Kirchen.