In the history of pro cycling, there have been very few super squads: teams that dominate both the grand tours and the one-day classics. Some recent formations, such as Quick Step (previously Domo) prevailed consistently in the classics; others, including Discovery Channel (previously U.S. Postal) did the same at the grand tours. But we have to go back to the 1990s and the glory days of the legendary Mapei team to find a super squad that won classics, weeklong stages races and grand tours season after season.
Before that, the only teams that fully fit the bill were the TI-Raleigh and Renault-Gitane teams in the early-1980s/late-’70s, Molteni in the ’70s (largely thanks to Eddy Merckx), Flandria (with various co-sponsors) in the ’70s and ’60s, and St. Raphaël, Peugeot and Salvarani in the ’60s. That totals fewer than 10 teams over a 50-year period. So which of the 2012 UCI ProTeams has a real chance of joining the pantheon of super squads?
There are four candidates: the U.S.-registered BMC Racing, Spain’s Movistar, Belgium’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and RadioShack-Nissan (an amalgamation of Luxembourg’s Leopard-Trek and America’s Team RadioShack). All four have assembled rosters that give them the potential to win both one-day and three-week races, and they’ve put together management teams that have the experience to get those results. But it can take years of concerted effort to transform even a great team into one that will dominate the sport like a Mapei, Molteni or Flandria.
BMC Racing has the most important characteristic that gave Mapei its longevity: a benevolent patron who loves the sport. For Mapei, it was Dr. Giorgio Squinzi, owner of the Italian-based chemical building materials manufacturer. His passion for bike racing gave Mapei the financial solidity that allowed it to give staff and riders the base from which to create a super squad. For BMC Racing, the patron and owner is Andy Rhis, the Swiss multimillionaire whose companies include Phonak hearing systems and BMC bikes.
Rhis has the willingness and ability to pay the salaries that today’s super-stars command. That’s why co-team owner Jim Ochowicz (longtime boss of the Motorola and 7-Eleven squads) and sports director John Lelangue have this year been able to sign world No. 1 Philippe Gilbert (from Omega Pharma) and 2010 world champion Thor Hushovd (from Garmin) to a team that won last year’s Tour de France with Cadel Evans.
In theory, BMC has the firepower to become the dominant squad in 2012. Last year, Gilbert won five UCI WorldTour classics — including the Ardennes races where Evans will support him in 2012. This year, Gilbert has the potential to add Milan-San Reno and the Tour of Flanders to his list of conquests, along with Il Lombardia, the Italian classic that he has won twice before. And because Hushovd will now race Paris-Roubaix alongside cobblestone specialists Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt, George Hincapie and Greg Van Avermaet, BMC has all the classics covered.
As for stage racing, Evans is shooting for a second Tour victory while again contending at the earlier stage races: Tirreno-Adriatico, Volta a Catalunya, Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné. His chances are increased by the addition of solid support riders Marco Pinotti (from HTC-Highroad) and Steve Cummings (from Sky), who join the already established Brent Bookwalter, Steve Morabito, Manuel Quinziato and Michael Schär, while the hard-working Gilbert and Hushovd can only extend BMC’s breadth at the grand tours.
Looking toward the team’s possible future as a super squad, BMC has signed America’s brightest young hope to win a future grand tour, 23-year-old Tejay Van Garderen (from HTC), while the ultra-talented Taylor Phinney, 21, has the potential to be this country’s first winner at Roubaix or Flanders.
Movistar is the latest iteration of the Caisse d’Épargne, Illes Balears, Banesto and Reynolds teams that were all managed by Eusebio Unzué, now 56, and his longtime sports director Alfonso Galilea, 43. Over the past 25 years, their team has won grand tours (with Pedro Delgado, Miguel Induráin, Abraham Olano, Óscar Pereiro and Alejandro Valverde) and a host of shorter stage races and classics (with Induráin, Valverde, Vladimir Karpets and Rui Costa), but it has never been consistently great.
This year, the team has signed 2011 Vuelta a España winner Juanjo Cobo, and re-signed 2009 Vuelta winner Valverde (after a two-year doping suspension) and 2007 Tour of Switzerland winner Karpets (after a three-year spell at Team Katusha), along with reigning Italian national champ Giovanni Visconti. All these riders — along with the Spanish team’s well-established sprinters José Rojas and Francisco Ventoso, its Belarus climber Vasil Kiryienka, and Portuguese all-rounder Costa — will help Movistar get more traction in the classics and grand tours.
As for the future, great things are predicted for new Colombian signing, Nairo Quintana, 21, who won the mountainous 2010 Tour de l’Avenir ahead of Van Garderen, and time trial specialist Jonathan Castroviejo, 24, who has arrived from the Euskaltel team. One item missing from Movistar’s potential as a super squad is a bankrolling patron: The team’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, with the down periods coinciding with times of lean sponsorship.
OMEGA PHARMA-QUICK STEP
By combining Belgium’s top two teams, Omega Pharma and Quick Step, the respective team bosses Marc Coucke and Patrick Lefevere were hoping to have the country’s two super-stars, Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen, racing together. That hasn’t happened because Gilbert didn’t like the way the merger negotiations took place, and he went to BMC. Despite that loss, and with the cash input from Czech mining billionaire and team owner Zdenek Bakala, the new team has widened its goals from just the classics to all of the UCI WorldTour races.
The main coup has been signing the best of the defunct HTC team’s stage-race riders in Tony Martin and Bert Grabsch of Germany, Martin and Peter Velits of Slovakia, and Frantisek Rabon of the Czech Republic, along with America’s top grand-tour performer Levi Leipheimer from Team RadioShack. And the arrival from HTC of ace Danish sports director Brian Holm makes Omega-Quick Step a team that has even greater tactical nous as well as great riders.
On the classics side, former cobbles king Boonen has been revitalized by the merger, and he should give French star Sylvain Chavanel the small boost he needs to move from runner-up at last year’s Tour of Flanders to a victory in one of the sport’s monuments — perhaps Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. Others to look for include Irishman Matt Brammeier and German Gerald Ciolek, and great things are expected from the Czech Republic’s world cyclo-cross champion Zdenek Stybar in his second season of road racing.
The team’s destiny as a true super squad lies in world time trial champ Martin developing into a Tour de France contender; and in youngsters such as Britain’s Andrew Fenn, 21, Poland’s Michel Kwiatowski, 21, and Belgium’s Guillaume Van Keirsbulck, 20, becoming classics contenders. And with one of the world’s richest men, Bakala, behind them, the squad’s future looks assured.
If star power means anything, then the fusion of such high-powered teams as RadioShack and Leopard-Trek should lead to domination of the UCI WorldTour. On the management side, the new formation brings together eight-time winning Tour de France director Johan Bruyneel with Leopard team owner and multimillionaire businessman Flavio Becca of Luxembourg. Meanwhile, veteran Danish sports directors Kim Andersen and Lars Michaelsen have teamed up with Belgian Dirk Demol, Italian Luca Guercilena and Portuguese José Azevedo to make perhaps the most skilled group of directors in the WorldTour.
On the competitive side, Tour de France stars Andy and Fränk Schleck and their 2011 teammates Jakob Fuglsang, Maxime Monfort and Linus Gerdemann join forces with stage race standouts Chris Horner, Andreas Klöden, Markel Irizar, Tiago Machado and Haimar Zubeldia. As for the classics, multi-winner Fabian Cancellara and 2011 Il Lombardia winner Oliver Zaugg should benefit from the arrival of Belgians Jan Bakelants and Ben Hermans, New Zealander Hayden Roulston and promising French rider Tony Gallopin.
Whether all this talent can be corralled into a cohesive force in 2012 is uncertain, but with Andy Schleck, 25, likely to remain a grand tour (and hilly classics) contender for at least a decade, with Cancellara ready to add to his classics portfolio for another five years, and with the financial stability that will see the arrival of more young talent, this multinational squad could become the closest that any current team gets to becoming the next Mapei, Molteni or Flandria.
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