Tomorrow could mark the start of one of the most fascinating offseasons in recent cycling memory. Bjarne Riis is holding an all-access press conference to supposedly roll out his new sponsor, the one who will make Riis Cycling a continuing concern. This is great news, with a handful of teams headed to extinction, particularly given the great racing the Riis boys have given us over the years. And at least one source has put out there that he could use the occasion to announce a new relationship with Alberto Contador. That's all perfectly logical -- Schleck and other monies coming off the books, Specialized contractual connection, etc. -- but sportswriters in Europe are notorious for putting out hunches as rumors, so I'll hold off on believing anything until there's something to believe.
Come what may, this almost has to be the most dramatic offseason in some time. To wit, here's the top four at the Tour de France and their status:
- Alberto Contador -- Free agent
- Andy Schleck -- Forming new team
- Denis Menchov -- Free agent, Rabo return doubtful
- Samuel Sanchez -- mulling options (free agent?)
Contador's status alone is somewhat unique. Not since Greg LeMond has a multiple Tour champion changed teams in mid-run. Of course Contador's first move to Astana was necessitated by sponsor exits (Discovery) and was more of a rebranding than a big change, but his current plan to redirect his career would resemble nothing since Bernard Hinault, who left Renault with four tours in his pocket to form La Vie Claire for his final three attempts (and last win). The Tour champions since then have been relatively settled in their career paths:
- Stephen Roche is an exception, jumping to Fagor right after his Tour win, but then he was on the move a lot.
- Pedro Delgado left PDM right after finishing second to Roche and accomplished all his remaining achievements (e.g. 1988 Tour) with Reynolds.
- LeMond was forced out by La Vie Claire and Bernard Tapie's mancrush on Jean-Francois Bernard (sucker!), made his comeback with a makeshift ADR team before going to Z (successor to
PDMPeugeot) and Gan (same team) for his final four seasons.
- And then things settle down. Miguel Indurain was joined at the hip to the Reynolds/Banesto team, now more or less Caisse d'Epargne.
- Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich were Telekom guys when they came to power, and both retired in those colors (though Ullrich did a year of exile with COAST/Bianchi).
- Lance's Bruyneel thing doesn't require repeating.
- Pereiro and Sastre had some team changes but weren't regarded as big Tour winners apart from their lone wins.
I don't think I could successfully examine the changes in the sport that occurred when, for example, Hinault jumped ship, and the sport has changed enough that history may not be much of a guide. But a few likely scenarios are:
- Contador leaves Astana for ?, brings a praetorian guard of climbers with him.
- Astana has a vacuum to fill in the grand tour leader position and money to spend. Speculation centers on Menchov, a Russian (close enough) and available.
- Menchov's departure from Rabo clears the way for them to sign Luis Leon Sanchez, a Tour contender in the making.
- Riis Cycling and Caisse d'Epargne (already missing Valverde) have big gaps in their Tour squads.
Vincenzo NibaliRoman Kreuziger is a free agent and likely to move on from Liquigas, although this wouldn't prompt much scrambling, since the 'Gas already have KreuzigerVincenzo Nibali and Ivan Basso.
And so on. Like I said, this is gonna get fun, fast.
Photo by Spencer Platt, Getty Images Sport