It ain't always easy being pink. Actually, in Italy there isn't even the slightest problem. But outside the friendly confines of il Bel Paese, Men in Pink doesn't play the same way. The mudstains of Hell obscure your sunny visage. The overheated atmosphere in France often leaves you at a loss. And good luck getting anyone in Spain to even look your way.
But don't cry for Lampre, now Lampre-ISD. Just when they seemed adrift, in both roster of riders and sponsors, Giuseppe Saronni's squad actually seems to have a plan. And not just any ol' plan, but a pretty smart one. And although they didn't always command your attention, the foundation for this year laid by 2010 Lampre-Farnese Vini was pretty respectable. Which leads to this year's theme: bigger, badder, and pinker than before.
What Went Right in 2010
With one noticeable malaise-ridden exception, practically everyone of note on the squad had seasons to feel pretty good about. The headliner, once again, was Alessandro Petacchi, who accounted for 40% of the team's 20 victories (that's 8 wins, math geniuses) and added to his lifetime achievements with a first-ever maillot vert success. The latter, I can't really say enough about -- for a supposedly temperamental "pure sprinter" whose speed no longer tops the field, this is a hell of a feat, and I'm through underestimating the guy.
Next come some of the kids. If you asked me to describe what Grega Bole does well, I'd probably stammer out a rather uncertain "everything?" in response. Ostensibly a fast-finisher type but not a pure sprinter... only the 25-year-old
Slovak Slovenian can climb pretty well in the lower altitudes, like in Poland when he hung with guys like Mollema and Santambrogio on the queen stage until Dan Martin bid them adieu. Anyway, if you can finish fast and get over some hills, you will never run out of races in Italy, as well as other jobs within a Pro Tour squad. The same could be said of 26-year-old Francesco Gavazzi, who one day is sprinting on the Avenue de Grammont for a high placing in Paris-Tours, the "sprinters' classic," and the next is winning the Coppa Agostini over skinny climbers like Santambrogio and Paolini. Together they're young, fast, and very, very useful.
And what to say of Simon Spilak? Granted, it took the long-awaited dismissal of Alejandro Valverde from the official rolls but in the end Spilak bagged his first major achievements with a stage win and the overall title at the Tour de Romandie, a huge achievement for a guy who was all of 23 last season. At least with Spilak we can say he's not a sprinter, but for a guy who gets sent off for rather lonely duty at the cobbled classics he's got some nice climbing achievements on his resume: matching Igor Anton on the queen stage at Romandie; 8th on a Mont Ventoux stage in Paris-Nice ('08) and 27th on the Plan de Corones time trial (also '08). He's generally solid in the crono, so I guess you can say he's got a big motor. Another truly useful kid to have around.
What Went Wrong in 2010
Two words: Damiano Cunego. I don't want to dump on him, he was hardly terrible, but by the lofty standard to which the world and Cunego himself hold the Kid it was a dull, drab, forgettable, regrettable campaign of winless malaise. Cunego gave plenty of interviews wondering aloud when success would come, floating the idea that a change of scenery might do him good, before recommitting to Lampre with the hope of a brighter tomorrow. He even seemed to give in, at long last, to the idea that chasing grand tour victories isn't his bag. 2004 was indeed a long time ago.
What really went wrong? The biggest share of his 50% dropoff in points had to do with the lack of an autumn campaign, which he bagged on citing fatigue. Cunego rode to win in both the Giro and the Tour, for the first time since 2006, and it could be that he simply overdid it. [And the prospect of a less-than-ideal worlds course didn't help.] The next culprit, he said, was the lack of any early pre-Ardennes success, which seemingly dented Cunego's confidence. Cunego has had a habit of racking up a few wins before Amstel -- even in his worst year, 2008, he bagged a thrilling stage of the Pais Vasco over Contador, Rebellin, J-Rod and others. Even when he had Epstein-Bar virus in 2005 he won a stage in Romandie.
Cunego's Giro performance is easily overlooked, but he improved to 11th overall (from 18th in '09), and with a very impressive 4th on the Zoncolan stage. Most notably, Cadel Evans pipped him for an epic win in Montalcino -- think about it, the guy supposedly had a terrible season, but he was a mere two seconds back in second place from winning a race we talked about for the rest of the year. Also his results in Amstel and La Fleche were identical to '09. So it's not like, at age 29, he's suddenly lost it.
But the biggest change isn't the kit. The addition of Michele Scarponi to head up the grand tour battles (a/k/a the Giro d'Italia) could transform the entire team. Scarponi's post-suspension redemption tour with Androni was a year-plus in the making, requiring two months of '08 and all of '09 to get his legs back. By last May, he was more than ready: 4th in the Giro, seconds off the podium, and top five in every mega-stage, including the win in Aprica when he helped Liquigas break David Arroyo for good. Androni didn't get too many big foreign invites, so we can't say for sure what he can do in, say, the Ardennes or the Pyrenees, but Scarponi was second in Lombardia and third in Emilia. And very consistent.
Roster-wise, they didn't really lose much. Mirko Lorenzetto departed from the forlorn cobbles squad. As for incoming riders, there's a slew of ISD guys about whom I know nothing, and Przemyslaw Niemiec, a very useful, veteran guy who can help Scarponi and Cunego in the hilly races. Niemiec was last seen finishing 17th at Emilia.
How is 2011 Looking?
Like I said, Scarponi's signing changes everything. He takes a solid team and stabilizes its biggest weakness and the single most important position: grand tour leader. Presumably his main target will be the Giro. I would guess he'll lead Lampre at the Tour too, but with a brutal (and winnable) Giro in his legs, so let's not assume much beyond June 1. If he delivers the maglia rosa, dayenu.
What this does for Cunego will be interesting to watch. Does the Kid respond by feeling released form the pressure, happily chasing stages and the GC if it falls in his lap? After winning his first Giro attempt he's never really raced without expectations. His big targets will likely be the Ardennes and some slice of glory at the Tour (he renounced the 2011 Giro a while back). Lampre also hired Roberto Damiani as DS -- a guy who cut his teeth as a director with the Mapei-Quick Step juggernaut -- and contracted with Aldo Sassi and the Mapei Center, which Cunego had hoped would lead him back to prominence, but Sassi's untimely death in December may have scuttled or at least altered those plans. In any event, the team has moved aggressively forward with their longtime star, not content with another meh season, which I find encouraging so one can imagine its effect on the team.
Last year Cunego led the team on GC with a slew of young, interesting riders helping or chasing other goals, and with Petacchi and his sprint squad targeting the Green Jersey. This time around adding Scarponi reduces the expectations for everyone -- not just Cunego but Bole, Spilak and Gavazzi -- just when everyone I named is primed to be as good or better than they were in 2010. Only Petacchi can reasonably be expected to slip, getting up in age just as the sprint competition reaches a new level (as well as a new format in the Tour points comp that won't favor him). But again, I'm through counting Ale-Jet out of anything.
Biggest Days Ahead:
- MSR: Bole and Gavazzi will be dark horses, while Petacchi (2004 victor) is a more straightforward threat. An early mega-win could light the fuse for these guys.
- Amstel Gold: Cunego 3.0 will be visible for all to see in a race that suits him, and with no Giro hanging over his head.
- Wherever the pivotal point of the Giro is, Scarponi will be on the shortlist of guys to watch very closely.