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Offseason Capsule: Tinkoff Saxo Bank Expand Their Horizons

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Jean Catuffe, Getty Images Sport

Time to take a look at the Sons of Bjarne Oleg... But first!

A Little Background

Everyone knows Saxo Bank as the successor to Team CSC, which was a popular upstart squad back in the good ol' early 2000s, when everything seemed so simple and innocent. What? Anyway, Bjarne Riis invested in the original Professional Cycling Denmark project back in 1998 (while still riding for Telekom), divested from Team home-Jack and Jones, then took over the squad upon retiring in 2000 and signed on CSC as a sponsor. He quickly built a squad of riders other teams devalued or ignored, like Laurent Jalabert and Tyler Hamilton. Mostly we remember this for the resulting scandals, but CSC had cachet in the US all along, and I suppose we should be grateful for knowing Ja-ja a bit better than we otherwise would.

Riis' CSC/Saxo Bank teams suffered their share of scandals, to say the least. But they also begat Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O'Grady Unleashed, the Schleck brothers and probably the coolest Tour de France victory of the decade in 2008 -- a combination of teamwork and guile, also lacking in characters to retroactively hate. [Pity, perhaps, in the case of the Schlecks...] Then of course things fell apart. Riders complained Riis spent too much time golfing, IT Factory got embezzled out of sponsorship, Riis sold his Cervelo soul for Specialized, and before long it was the Alberto Contador Tainted Meat Show.

Only now can one argue that things have calmed down and Saxo -- now owned and named after another sideshow, Oleg Tinkoff -- are evolving into a normal World Tour team. Even Tinkoff, when not grossly offending Norwegians, has had some positive influence, spending the end of this season talking of the importance of riding all three grand tours. Not that that's the best idea, but maybe one that shouldn't be entirely forgotten. Anyway, at least it's a conversation about cycling. And after the last couple decades, that's something of a goal for any team.

What We Thought Coming In

This is actually from two winters ago; I seem to have taken a pass on reviewing them last year. I guess I assumed Jens would. But he assumed Douglas would. Anyway...

Remarkable as the decision to incude them in the World Tour was in a technical sense, there's no question Saxo-Tinkoff will make its impression felt in 2013. Contador is talking about riding the Giro, which would be something assuming he really does target the Tour. Anyway, whatever roads he travels will get hotted up, and his backup (either in support or alternate leadership) switches to Roman Kreuziger, with Jesus Hernandez, Sorensen, Nick Roche and Mick Rogers all playing useful roles. Compare that to the ridiculously empty cupboard of a year ago, and tell me Tinkoff money doesn't make a difference? [Brief classics discussion...] In short, where Saxo was thin across the board, now they have a nice balance of skills and talent, albeit a bit older than Riis might prefer. How quickly things come together is another matter, but I see that they did another one of those ridiculous army training weekends, so I'm sure it's all sorted out. Really, it's a pretty short walk from the outhouse to the penthouse these days. Take the Oleg Tinkoff elevator, and presto!

What We Got Instead

The trajectory remained the same -- generally upward -- even if the names did not. Alberto Contador was once more the guy who made everything happen, giving Tinkoff-Saxo a comeback season to remember, and by at least one measure (CQRanking and their cold, heartless point system) his greatest season of all time. Not that anyone really sees it that way, but if we are even having this conversation, it can't be all bad. Contador scored more points than ever (CQ version) with an unusually robust spring campaign, notching wins in Tirreno-Adriatico, Pais Vasco, and second in Catalunya. All of this was supposed to launch his greatest Tour de France challenge in a while, but when that blew up in an instant, he deftly transferred that work into a launch pad for a winning Vuelta campaign. Let's face it, Nairo Quintana's withdrawal was relevant, but also on Quintana, who crashed himself out of red during the time trial. Do questions remain about Contador's overall supremacy? Sure. But after a tepid 2013, Pistolero returned to the sort of form where, if he isn't the strongest, he's close enough to use his superior mentality to get him over the top.

The truly massive development for Tinkoff-Saxo has to be the substitution of Rafal Majka for Roman Kreuziger as the #2 stage racer. The Polish climber was on the rise regardless, following a 2013 season where he finished third in Lombardia with a grueling, gutty series of efforts in 2014, starting with sixth in the always-punishing Giro d'Italia, then a surprise (and not the good kind) start in the Tour which yielded a KOM jersey. Then, before exhaustion overtook him, he squeezed out a Tour de Pologne overall win, another feather in Polish Cycling's suddenly impressive cap. All this against a backdrop of legal proceedings against Kreuziger, who was stopped by his team following a biological passport irregularity, then reinstated by the Czech federation, only to have that appealed by the UCI. If he loses to the UCI, Kreuziger will have finally bottomed out on his Quixotic career, where he was once Nibali's more illustrious teammate. Character counts as much as power, sometimes, and while I don't know Roman Kreuziger, I do know that until further notice he has a Dr. Ferrari Problem. Nuff Said.

More points came from certain usual suspects Matti Breschel, Michael Rogers, and youngster Michael Valgren. Rogers continued (or maybe completed) his three-year renaissance, heading into his cycling twilight. Remarkably, at 36, Rogers is only the fifth-oldest guy on the 2014 team (though Karsten Kroon has since retired). I guess Bjarne Riis likes to have some contemporaries around to play canasta with on long bus rides. Anyway, Rogers remained valuable as a Tour de France GC guy, presumably in a support role as long as the leader doesn't hit a pothole at the wrong moment. Which is great, because the other category of races -- the classics -- were something of a barren wasteland for Tinkoff's Boys. Only Kreuziger was evident in the Ardennes, and that's more than can be said for anyone in the cobbles. Breschel's season was weird even by his standards after he got hit by a flying mattress in Oman, but though he fought his way back onto the bike in time for Flanders, he managed to crash out there too.

Lastly, something something Nico Roche. OK I think I've covered it all.

Top Three Highlights

  1. Vuelta stage 16 to La Farrapona -- All of Contador's painful summer, washed away in a glorious afternoon. You could pinpoint other great moments in the Vuelta but if forced to pick one, a queen stage win that sorts out the GC is always a good place to start.
  2. Tour de France stage 14 to Risoul -- Majka solos just ahead of the maillot jaune. Virtually interchangeable with his performance four days later to Pla d'Adet. Pick 'em.
  3. Tirreno stage 5 to Guardiagrele -- Dominant performance by Bert; promise of good times ahead.

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. The Pothole. Really? A dent in the road ruins their Tour? Seems a bit much.
  2. The Mattress. Really? A MATTRESS?!? Why does Breschel deserve this? Does he spend his free time snuffing drifters?
  3. Anything about Kreuziger. Dopers suck. Especially when their cases linger in ambiguity.

Comings and Goings

Exeunt Roche to Sky, Kroon and Sorensen to retirement, Sutherland to Movi and Kump to Palookaville.

Incoming? Oh nothing much... Just Macej Bodnar, Ivan Basso, Robert Kiserlovsky, Pavel Brutt... hm, I seem to be forgetting.. oh!  PETER FLIPPING SAGAN!!!

What's Coming Next

Did you even read that last sentence? Peter Sagan is coming next, that's what. Sagan and Tinkoff, together at last! How can this possibly go wrong? Frankly, I don't know, but I do know how it can go so very right.

Look, Tinkoff have been creeping up the rankings but without many wins. Who can you buy to change that? Well, Kittel seems to have a contract, French guys are probably not interested, Boasson Hagen -- seemed like a good fit til the Boss called him a pussy on twitter. So yeah, SAGAN! Granted, Sagan's wins tanked last year, but there is nothing whatsoever about him that suggests he has lost anything. His final Cannondale season was slightly distracted with contractual stuff, but also positively engaged in the transition to elevated Classics focus. Ask Tyler Farrar: if you're going all in on the classics, it doesn't do much for your sprinting, where even the slightest dulling of the fast twitch muscles is enough to lose in today's hypercompetitive sprint field. For his efforts Sagan did win his first classic, the venerable E3 Prijs, and barely missed on Gent-Wevelgem. But his best result is a sixth place... in Paris-Roubaix. In his first effort across Hell, Sagan hung with the leaders -- which was a bummer when Niki Terpstra decided not to, but as far as Sagan's future prospects are concerned, this spoke volumes.

And while Sagan will also give them another star in July, the Classics is where this makes all the difference for Tinkoff-Saxo, and for Sagan too. Breschel is still a competent rider, when not snuffing drifters, and Daniele Bennati is a terrific teammate on the cobbles, strong enough to help and too dangerous to let go should he make a move. Michael Morkov is another strong kid waiting to pitch in. Taken together, this will be Sagan's best support on the cobbles. In the hilly classics, T-S will still depend on Kreuziger, if he's cleared, or maybe Kiserlovski, with Michael Valgren a kid to watch. Perhaps Oliver Zaugg will rediscover his 2011 magic. Not tremendously strong, but on the grand tour side they've restocked cleverly by padding Contador's support. Roche's departure doesn't help, but Kiserlovski, Basso and Brutt will all have roles to play alongside an already decent unit (Rogers, etc).

This is a top five squad, top to bottom. With just a little more discipline applied to the owner's Twitter account, they could be an admirable outfit in 2015.