|Bradley Wiggins' winter coat. Photo from Team Sky.|
As we mentioned, these races give a good glimpse into riders' forms, team strength, and their intentions. Without further ado, we share our observations on Team Sky, predictions on the cobbled classics, predictions on the Ardennes classics, and the state of Italian classics contenders.
In June, Team Sky will have an enviable and complicated problem
That is, what will be the team's focus (or focii) come Tour de France? Will they try to support both Bradley Wiggins' GC ambition and Mark Cavendish's quest for sprinting glories? Read our discourse here.
The 2012 cobbled races will not be chaotic
With the apparent strength of OmegaPharma-QuickStep (OPQS) and Garmin-Barracuda, the cobbled races will be much more controlled. Not only are these teams strong, they also have established leaders that are hungry to win and depth in terms of domestiques. Last year OPQS had to start newbies in Paris-Roubaix, something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Fabian Cancellara will once again complain, but we don't think that the long leash he was afforded in 2011's Ronde van Vlaanderen, and nearly again in the 2011 Paris-Roubaix, will be found to be much shorter in 2012.
The nature of the race may make it hard for emerging teams such as Vacansoleil. But worse would be for teams such as BMC. If they do not pick up their form, they will be too heavily watched but without sufficient firepower to turn the race in their favor.
The 2012 Ardénnes classics will not play out as Gilbert vs. the World
Forgive us for saying this, but last year's spring classics rampage of Philippe Gilbert felt acutely as if he were up against the entire world, yet the entire world wasn't enough to stop him. This year, Gilbert must have woken up to the horror of seeing Alejandro Valverde return to competition in top form.
Valverde is a lethal adversary: he can climb with the best, and outsprint most of the field, even if that field included pure sprinters. We noted that in the 2005 Worlds in Madrid, he finished second in a selective course despite having just returned to competition following injury. Be very afraid of Valverde this spring: he knows that the TdF is stacked against him, so he may well target the Vuelta instead. That gives him, and his very united Movistar which now includes Giovanni Visconti, ambition and means to be at the fore of the Ardénnes races.
On top of this, Katusha is showing more teeth after years of investment and several near-wins last year. Joachim Rodriguez' win on Stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico, tailor-made for simulating an Ardénnes race, shows that. Moreover, Danilo Di Luca and many other super-domestiques such as Simon Špilak and Vladimir Gusev are in top form. We think that Katusha will do very well this year, and a big part of their improvement will come from internal regime change. For example, the hiring of Valerio Piva as directeur sportif following the demise of HTC-Columbia.
Beyond the Prince of Spain and his former cohort J-Rod, we also note the strong showing of Diego Ulissi and Grega Bolé of Lampre. With Damiano Cunego continuing to waste the hard work of his team in the last 200 meters (although he had a decent showing in Paris-Nice's last TT), we think that it is time that these two are given more opportunities to ride for themselves. Bolé pretty much outsprinted the field in Stage 3 of Paris-Nice, a very selective course, to finish second. And Ulissi had a very good turn at the final uphill ITT. If the spring classics escape their grasp, we have high hopes for them in the Giro d'Italia, as both Damiano Cunego and Michele Scarponi seem to be targeting Tour de France and skip the Giro d'Italia.
We share more thoughts on team BMC on this post below.
A new scuderia of Italian champions shall be revealed in the Giro
Speaking of Ulissi, we had wondered who would succeed Paolo Bettini's mantle as Italy's classics champion. We cannot put this quite into words, but we have a strong distinct feeling that an entire new generation of champions are starting to arise.
Lampre's Diego Ulissi, along with Liquigas-Cannondale's Eros Capecchi, Daniel Oss, Elia Viviani, et al., have been clocking wins in 200-km B- and C-grade races. This is the year that we think many of them will graduate to the top ranks. It is impressive that Liquigas-Cannondale has managed to collect so many of these young guns.
If we are proven right about the rise of this young generation of riders, it will mean that the champion mantle skipped one generation. And if we are proven right, in a few years' time national coach Paolo Bettini may have a full squadra of champions to choose from, if only he could survive that long.
Lastly, the entire BMC squad is on delayed schedule
That is, compared to how their top riders did in 2011. By this point in the season, Gilbert had won Monte Paschi Strade Bianchi, Evans was ruling both Italian coasts in Tirreno-Adriatico, and Hushovd had put in good digs in the races.
The riders claim they are not worried. Evans even seems to cite the 2012 London Olympics as a reason for the change in schedule. Perhaps he wants to do well in the ITT. Hushovd may want to try his luck in the road race. But what about Gilbert? His retirement from Tirreno due to a 38.2'C fever, only days before Milano-Sanremo, does not bode well for his plans.
Illness at this point in the season can be either due to (1) plain bad luck, (2) poor condition and pushing oneself too much during the race, or conversely (3) overtraining leading to weakened immune system. With many other BMC team members having had to retire from Paris-Nice early, including Thor Hushovd and Taylor Phinney, BMC just went from having too many contenders for Milano-Sanremo to having too few. It is now up to their lieutenants Greg van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan to lead the squad. Perhaps the illness in both races are due to unfortunate alignment of stars and shooting stars, but we wonder if they are correlated, with the hidden factor being either (2) or (3) above.
What do you think of all the racing that has been going on so far?