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Unzue's Man: Val...er...Lulu?

Vds2_mediumI find Eusebio Unzue, Caisse d'Epargne's Director Sportif an unusual man. At least as a DS that is. I have no idea what he's like as a man. But as a DS he's unusual. He takes one of the basic truisms of the sport, disregards it and still guides his team into a solid top-five team in the world. Just to put some numbers to that (the only math that is required in this post!) if you take the Cycling Quotient team rankings from the last five years and average them out, you get:

  1. CSC/Saxo Bank-1.2 (average ranking over the last five years)
  2. Quickstep-3.4
  3. Bruyneel's Disco/Astana teams-5.2
  4. Rabobank-5.4
  5. Caisse d'Epargne-5.6
  6. T-Mob/Columbia/HTC-5.8
  7. *Lotto-7
  8. Liquigas-8
  9. Lampre-9.4

Note: I only compared teams that existed over the last five years (Bruyneel basically took his team with him) so no Gerolsteiner, Fassa Bortolo, Phonak, etc. 

Saxo was the #1 team every year until last year when Columbia took over the ranking. Saxo skidded all the way to 2nd. Within the five years Caisse d'Epargne, Columbia, and Liquigas have been on an upward trajectory, while Lampre has gone down after a couple relevant years. And there's no question which belgian team is the better every year.

Okay, back to Unzue. What's he done that's unusual? Ah, you'll have to jump for that.

It's a truism in the sport that if you have one of the big teams (see above) and you are targeting a certain few races in a given year (as all teams do) then you almost always have multiple riders who are threats to win those races. A few examples:

-Quickstep on the cobbles. Last year they had Boonen, Chavanel, and Devolder as class-A threats and a top notch support team to go with them. Basically they bludgeoned other teams who couldn't cover all their moves and Holy Week was theirs to lose. They didn't

-Also last year, Saxo Bank at Liege-Bastogne-Liege did the bludgeoning. Andy Schleck was, well he's Quality, but he was also the last of a series of attacks by the team that just wore out all the other teams. With Fuglsang chasing down the mid-race break and C A Sorensen, then Kolobnev, then finally Schlecket firing one after another, the likes of Phillippe Gilbert stood no chance. They didn't even need Frank Schleck, who was held in reserve all race. 

-Astana in last year's Tour, Saxo the year before that, Disco the year before that: the Tour rewards teams that bring multiple treats. 

Of course having multiple threats doesn't guarantee you the win, with last year's Giro being a case in point. Liquigas had the strongest team but couldn't quite keep pace with Menchov who had a good enough support team to defend from midway through the race. Still if one of the big teams brings multiple threats its hard to beat them with one guy. The main exception is if a team has one very dominant personality and that leader has a lot of high quality support riders like what Armstrong had for those seven Tour wins.

Numbers matter in pro cycling. That's why this year BMC bought three serious hammerheads in Ballan, Burghardt, and Hincapie to contest Quickstep on the cobbles. That's also why Katusha bought Kirchen, J-Rod, and Kolobnev to help out Ivanov to stand up to Saxo in the Ardennes this year. If you look at recent history I think you'll find that the biggest successes of virtual one-man teams  lead by the likes of Evans, Gilbert, Cunego, Kirchen with Columbia happen when there aren't any overpowering multiple threat teams racing. 

So multiple A-list threats at the big races is the thing to do for big teams. Except for Caisse d'Epargne. Unzue doesn't do that. Almost never. The last two Vuelta's were the races that Unzue came the nearest to fielding a multiple threat team with Valverde and J-Rod. But really those teams don't compare to either a) what other comparable teams do when they go all in on a race, and b) not nearly the most formidable lineup that Cd'E could have run out. 

Unzue is different in that he separates his major riders, giving each their own races to star in with a decent but not great supporting cast. Take last year. You had Lulu as the star of the early season, winning the Tour Mediterraneen and Paris-Nice and losing his form by the end of Pais Vasco. Basically that was his season. He did come back with the Tour as his centerpiece but not with the form that he had early in the season. He raced some more after the Tour with middling results.

Valverde had a different schedule, one that included the Ardennes but only for practice purposes this time. It was after the Ardennes that he started to get in gear: 4th at Romandie, and wins at both Catalunya and the Dauphine which were supposed to get him into peak form for the Tour. But then his Italian ban hit and he had to change gears which he did successfully, culminating in the Vuelta win and a 9th at the Worlds.

Arroyo was in between Valverde and Sanchez. He didn't start as quickly as Lulu: Tirreno-Adriatico (20th), Pais Vasco (23rd) then the main goal, the Giro (10th). He raced the Tour and Burgos but was strictly a support rider with no results of his own.

Uran had yet a different schedule which I won't go into. Same with J-Rod. Same with Moreno. Same with Costa. Same with Gutierrez: all had different overlapping schedules where they took a star turn in one or more races and then were strictly support riders in the next. Even Valverde was a support this time to J-Rod in the Ardennes. For this year they lost Moreno and J-Rod but add Bruseghin, Soler, and Moreau and each of those guys will have a different agenda. As I said, Unzue does things differently. 

So it was with interest that I read this from CN before the TDU:

Sánchez explained that he has taken a different approach to his preparations for 2010, in order to enter the new season with less bulk than in past years. "I'm not yet ready to fight for victory, but I've reached a reasonably good level. This winter I didn't train in the gym because in previous years my muscle mass increased too much and it has been a problem to lose it," he said.

Huh. Now I presume that Lulu didn't just decide this on his own; Unzue had to be behind this training change. Why the change? Reading further,

His goals for next season include the defense of his Paris-Nice title and, for the first time in his six-year career, a possible Grand Tour double at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. "I would like to do as well as I did in 2009 and win again a race like Paris-Nice," he said. "Currently the team does not intend to let me start, but I hope that [Team Director] Eusebio Unzúe will change his mind so that I can race in France.

"Apart from Paris-Nice, it would of course be great to be able to win a third stage in the Tour de France and fight for the general classification at both the Tour and the Vuelta. I'm hoping to arrive both in good condition and very motivated."

Okay that clears things up for me. Reading just a bit between the lines, I see that Unzue knows that Valverde will probably get suspended and that a big hole in the Caisse d'Epargne schedule had opened up. Unzue, with a choice of GC-type riders to choose from is planning to fill that hole with Lulu. Lulu, being a jock, doesn't quite understand what his DS has in store for him but we do. (As for Valverde, expect him to try to go out in a blaze of glory at Paris-Nice.) 

So what do we think of this news? And will the other riders be effected? As for the second question, it's hard to say. I'd expect Bruseghin to be on a similar schedule as Arroyo has been with the Giro as the main goal but will Arroyo change races? Moreau will be at the Tour but I expect the team will be behind Lulu still. Soler? I have no idea.  Will this Valverde-less team demand different things from Gutierrez, Costa, and Uran? Beats me. Only thing I can say is that JJ Rojas...I wish he would get a good talking to from Oscar Freire or someone as he'll never get any support while at Caisse d'Epargne. 

Lulu_medium

 

So back to Lulu. Is he capable of stepping up to the Big Boys of the Grand Tours? IMO he's an above average chronoman and an average climber and maybe the best GC stage finisher in the business and that should add up to success. Let's look at those three in a bit more detail:

- Time trialing. The 2008 Spanish national champion, last year he was Contador's bitch in the discipline: Lulu was 3rd at the Paris-Nice ITT, 9 seconds behind Bert, and 2 seconds behind Wiggins. He beat the likes of Millar, Chavanel, Martin, Posthuma, and Karpets there so 3rd was no small feat. 

Then he was 5th at Pais Vasco, again behind Contador by 1'13", plus Colom, Sam San, and Rogers. He finished ahead of Pinotti, Vande Velde, Evans, Gesink, Cunego, Nibali, Kreuziger, and Brajkovic, so again a good effort against top competition.

Next, the Spanish ITT where he was second by 37" to you know who.

Comes the Tour and he screwed the Monaco ITT finishing in 89th place. Then he redeemed himself at Annecy, finishing 7th, just 45" back. That was it for his time trialing last year.

Bottom line? He's above average. Better than several major GC guys but not as good as the best. His best races against the clock were probably Paris-Nice and Pais Vasco (where he overtook Evans and Cunego in the final GC standings from his chrono effort).

-Climbing. Ah, this is harder to assess since his traditional early season schedule doesn't find him climbing the huge mountains of France or Spain. At Paris-Nice he did finish second to Bert (and tied with Frank Schleck) 58" behind up Ventoux' little sister, La Montagne de Lure.

In Pais Vasco's ultimate climb, he finished 7th, 35" behind Bert. Evans, Colom, and Sam San were just 8" back, Cunego 27", Gesink 32", and the likes of Kreuziger, Nibali, Kessiakoff further back still. More importantly perhaps, it was this stage where Lulu lost the race.

Now the Tour? Not bad, for a guy who again, was not planning on leading his team. He finished 20th overall, with a win in the Pyrenees, the stage after Arcalis. The other mountain stages he did less well. Would he have done better if he had started the season knowing that he was The Man for his team at the Tour? That's the question.

-Stage finisher. Maybe this has something to do with Unzue or maybe Valverde's sprinting abilities have rubbed off onto Lulu, but to me this guy is money finishing a stage in a small group. You seriously do not want to drag this guy to the line, just like his (soon to be erstwhile) teammate. We just saw a small demonstration of this strength on Old Willunga Hill. Better yet, was the penultimate stage in last year's Paris-Nice, the Bert Bonk stage.We remember that stage for the Bonk, but perhaps in the long run we will remember it for the decisive way Lulu crushed Bert and the rest of that small group: Chavanel, Frank Schleck, and Jens!, and Colom, winning by 50". Without Lulu attacking from 17 kilometers out, who knows how long Contador might have fooled the others and held on. 

What? Want a third example? Try the Tour's stage 7 in '08. Look it up. I'll wait.

The main problem with this finishing skill is that he might give too much on a particular stage and needs a couple stages to regroup. But wasn't that the M.O. for Valverde until winning the Vuelta without winning one stage? Unzue solved that problem and should be able to coach up Lulu.

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So Sanchez costs 12 points in the hallowed VDS competition, pretty cheap for a GC contenda. On the one hand, he's unproven in the Grand Tours. On the other hand he will have a schedule more like Contador and Valverde that has allowed those later two to rack up practically obscene amounts of VDS points. I'm not saying he'll rack up 2000+ points this year, but he's being primed for a jump beyond what he has done in the past. Myself, before it became apparent that he was The Green Bullet's successor, I wouldn't have thought twice about picking him for my team as I figured that he had basically maxed out on the schedule Caisse d'Epargne and Unzue had him on the past couple of years. But he's still young (he won't turn 27 until the season is over, a year younger than Bert) and  he's been improving every year, including making a nice jump into the A-list last year: if you like Lulu and don't mind gambling in this silly game we play, Lulu might be the wild card you are looking for.