An early season look into the future
It's only March, but that doesn't prevent me from making educated guesses on the whole 2012 season.
An interesting story from Bloomberg hit the wire the other week - the return of the breakaway league. No, this isn't a Steven Spielberg sequel, but an attempt by a sports marketing company, Gifted Group Ltd, to create a ten race series that would be contested not only in Europe, but also Asia and the U.S.
Now you're thinking to yourself, "Where are they going to place these ten races on the calendar?" At this point that hasn't been revealed, but what is certain is that these new races won't conflict with the A.S.O.'s Tour de France and according to Bloomberg, eight other high profile races.
I think we can assume that those other high profile races would be the Giro d'Italia, the Vuelta a España, and a selection from the monuments such as Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But what happens to the rest of the calendar? As a buddy told me, "there's not a lot of oxygen in the race calendar to support these other new races."
So if this new breakaway league actually comes to fruition what's the reason for teams to participate in these new events? Good question and as expected the answer is cash.
Teams racing in this new series will get 64-percent of the equity of the series - which means television revenue - something team owners have been trying to get at for a couple of years. Most notably Gamin-Barracuda director Jonathan Vaughters. But let's not forget Johan Bruyneel, manager of the RadioShack-Nissan team. It has been reported that The Shack squad has already signed up for the new league, which is set to roll out in 2014.
2014 may be too far away for Team RadioShack. Lee Applbaum was the chief marketing officer for the struggling electronic store. Last Tuesday he announced on Twitter, "Been a great 3.5 years @RadioShack. Hopeful I had a positive impact on the brand. On to the next one." When he was reached for comment he replied that it was time to move onto the next adventure - that sounds like code for, "I was asked to turn in my company key card" and an unsubstantiated rumor had it that a maintenance crew was already scrubbing his name off his VIP parking spot.
But really you can't fault RadioShack. They continue to take a pounding from the competition. And in addition to losing money on the retail side, the Texas based company becomes a title sponsor for a cycling team that makes its biggest impact in Europe where there are zero RadioShack stores. You need to question that business decision.
Someone who works in the administrative side of the team told me Applbaum was a super fan and carried the flag for sponsoring a cycling team. With the rest of the RadioShack board of directors not quite the über fans I wouldn't expect the RadioShack kit to line up in any race in 2014. Come this July I expect to see Bruynel out on the sponsor hunt looking to bag that next elusive sugar daddy.
Speaking of sugar daddies - Team BMC Racing sure hasn't had the early season payoff yet. Team owner Andy Rihs put his own euros on the line to support this team. Last year it paid off with a Tour de France win and with the super talent it grabbed up during the off-season most of us expected the red and black of BMC to loot and pillage the race calendar like a wild horde of Vikings. So far they've been slapped back by teams like Vacansoleil-DCM. The other super funded squads, Sky and RadioShack, have been putting notches into the win column.
My poor attitude toward BMC could be squashed if Philippe Gilbert wins Milan-San Remo this Saturday. If that happens Rihs will look like a genius for writing those hefty cheques to Gilbert. Of course even if he doesn't get to post up at the finish line with a victory salute all will be forgotten if the Belgian kills it at the upcoming classics. Yeah, I'm fickle like that.
Regardless of Rihs snagging Gilbert I have much respect for signing Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen. Even if those two don't get a pro win this season (which I doubt) I know that they will payoff in the near future - it's a matter of being patient.
As I write this it was reported that Gilbert has a virus, which caused him to abandon Tirreno-Adriatico. This takes him a couple of steps down in the favorites column. And the way Tom Boonen of Omega Pharma-QuickStep has been riding, my money is on him to take the roses this Saturday.
Boonen told Sporza he's at 90 to 95 percent of his form and that's good enough for Milan. At Paris-Roubaix you can expect the Belgian to step up a couple of percentage points. Since I'm on the subject of Omega Pharma-QuickStep I need to say how impressed I've been with Levi Leipheimer's season so far. A series of crashes ruined his chances of winning Paris-Nice, but I'm slowly coming around to the fact that he could be a real contender for the Tour de France. I know it's only March, but Leipheimer is looking sharp and with the 100 kilometers of time trialing it could be a battle between Levi, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans.
Bradley Wiggins also agrees with me and is saying that his win at Paris-Nice proves he can win the Tour de France. That's a bit of a leap to say winning a one-week stage race that doesn't contain all the race favorites, like the a fore mentioned Leipheimer and Evans, proves anything. Instead it shows that he's capable of winning, but so are a few other guys. While I'm a fan of making wild predictions months away from the Tour, I don't have the cojones to say Paris-Nice proves he can win. Wiggins seems to forget that he has a certain teammate that will undoubtedly win stages in July and contend for the green jersey with better odds than a tilt at the yellow jersey. Time will tell on how Team Sky will determine the Tour roster - a general classification or green jersey team.
One final news item that put a smile on my face was Mario Cipollini stating that he's ready to return to professional racing, hopefully with Farnese Vini-Selle Italia - a team he sponsors with his namesake brand of sexy bikes. That was met with a resounding, "WTF!?" from the team, but Cipo is still continuing to put himself out on the market saying he's in great shape.
The reason for my smile is that I've interviewed Cipo and he's a lovely man, but the UCI has a set of rules in place for just this situation. He needs to have entered himself into the UCI's anti-doping system six months ago - something he hasn't done. But Mario seems to dismiss this as a minor problem.
Part of me wants him to return to racing as he was always good for a quote or doing something crazy. I remember at the Tour de Georgia team presentation he wanted to moon the audience and had to be talked out of it. I would have died from laughter if that had happened, but on the flip side, it probably would have ended the Tour de Georgia right then.
If you have missed watching any of the races I've mentioned, don't worry! The fine folks at Roadcycling.com have video highlights from Tirreno-Adriatico available for your viewing pleasure in their video section. If you're looking for inspiration I recommend watching Chris Horner's ride in stage 4 of Tirreno. Is it too early to name him as a Tour favorite?