Incredible Hulk: Peter Sagan set the Tour alight with three stage wins and the green jersey win
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Squad's 38 victories in 2012 arguably its best-ever season
When the Cannondale Team was officially presented in Los Angeles on Saturday, it marked the end of the team's sponsorship by the Italian Liquigas company and the start of a new, more American, more international team, with Cannondale as the lead, and for now, the only main sponsor.
The team will still have a green jersey, Italian management and 14 Italian riders (out of 28) in its roster but Liquigas has terminated its sponsorship after 15 years in professional cycling. The bottled gas company has managed its own team since 2005 and its riders have won over 200 races, including two victories at the Giro d'Italia and one at the Vuelta a España. It is the end of an era and the loss of an important Italian sponsor for cycling.
Liquigas-Cannondale's run ended with a final victory thanks to Ivan Basso winning the Japan Cup race in October. It was the team's 38th victory of 2012, arguably the team's best ever season. Nine different riders contributed to the number of victories but it was also the quality that impressed.
Peter Sagan confirmed his huge potential by winning three stages in the Tour de France and dominating the green points jersey. The aggressive Slovakian sprinter also won 13 other races in style, including five stages at the Tour of California - four of then consecutively - reinforcing the comparisons to Eddy Merckx.
Sagan lets slip a slight smile whenever he is asked about Merckx. He perhaps knows he will never go on to dominate Grand Tour stage races but he does share the Cannibal's hunger and determination when he smells a chance of success. He won a stage at the Tour of Oman in February and kept winning all the way until August, when he then cleaned up and took home a pile of cash from a string of post-Tour de France criteriums. He may have missed an opportunity to win the world title in the Netherlands and perhaps stumbled in the Classics due to tactical mistakes and inexperience but Sagan was without doubt one of the major revelations of 2012.
Winning at the Tour de France always secures global attention but Sagan's style, superiority and his love for different ways of celebrating meant he even managed to overshadow Mark Cavendish. Whoever hopes to win the green jersey for the next decade will have to be fast and strong enough to beat him.
The Liquigas-Cannondale development programme also paid big with other riders in 2012. Elia Viviani hoped to win gold on the track at the London Olympics. He failed but still won seven races, starting with a stage in the Tour de San Luis in Argentina in January, and ending with a stage at the Tour of Beijing in October.
The Moser surname is legendary in cycling, representing a dynasty of successful riders. Moreno Moser is the latest of the family from the Dolomites and proved he has the class of his famous uncle Francesco, by winning the Trofeo Laigueglia, Rund um den Finanzplatz Eschborn- Frankfurt and the overall classification of the Tour of Poland in his first full season as a professional. He was also second in the GP de Montréal and a team leader for Italy at the world championships, convincing the Italian tifosi that he will become the next great classics rider.
Nibali also played his part in Liquigas-Cannondale's success in 2012. The Sicilian from Messina won Tirreno-Adriatico ahead of Chris Horner and then was the only rival to Team Sky at the Tour de France, finishing third behind Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Despite agreeing to his huge new contract Nibali accepted a heavy race programme and also won the Giro di Padania in September and even rode Il Lombardia.
Nibali was considered Ivan Basso's understudy until 2012 and the two shared the leadership in Grand Tours. However the results of 2012 proved that Nibali is on the rise, while Basso seems past his best. The two-time Giro d'Italia winner is now 35 and was the ghost of his former self at the 2012 Giro. He claims a mental block stopped him producing the power needed to be competitive in the final mountain stages. True to character, Basso fought on but was a distant fifth behind Ryder Hesjedal when the Giro d'Italia ended in Milan. He helped Nibali at the Tour de France when he could but limped to Paris in 25th place.
Other Liquigas-Cannondale victories came from Tim Duggan in the US national road championships, Eros Capecchi won the GP Lugano, Maciej Bodnar won the Polish time trial title and talented young rider Kristjan Koren won a time trial at the Tour de Slovénie.
What to expect in 2013: Team Cannondale has been built from the ashes of the Liquigas-Cannondale team but with a significant loss of key riders.
Peter Sagan, Ivan Basso, Moreno Moser, Elia Viviani remain - they were all under contract - but the team now lacks a true Grand Tour contender because of the loss of Nibali to Astana.
The team was unable to retain Duggan and his stars and stripes jersey and he surprisingly moved to Saxo-Tinkoff. Capecchi could have been the next Italian Grand Tour contender but he has moved to Movistar, along with hard working and highly loyal mountain domestique Sylvester Szmyd. Daniel Oss has also moved on, joining the BMC Racing Team, while Valerio Agnoli and Alessandro Vanotti will be Nibali's bodyguards at Astana.
Five of the eight who have left the team are Italian and all were talented or key team players. Alessandro De Marchi is the lone Italian amongst the new signings and part of a mixed bag of minor talents and workers. They include Guillaume Boivin and Brian Vandborg from Spidertech, Cameron Wurf, Japan's Nariyuki Masuda, Lucas Sebastian Haedo and German neo-pro Matthias Krizek.
Sagan will again target the sprints, Classics and green jersey at the Tour de France in 2013, while Basso is keen to prove he's not finished by beating Nibali et al at the Giro d'Italia. Moser will target the Ardennes Classics, while Viviani will focus entirely on the road and compare his best sprinting skills against Cavendish, Kittel and the rest.
Sagan is probably a safe bet for the green jersey but the odds of the other riders winning big in 2013 are a lot longer, despite Moser's talent. It will be very difficult for Cannondale to match the 38 victories of 2012.
Best signing: None of the new riders stand out in the peloton and perhaps many have been chosen to ensure Cannondale has a presence in several key markets. Krizek won a stage of the GiroBio and impressed as a stagiaire but he does not seem to be the next great thing.
Biggest loss: Vincenzo Nibali. He does not have the charisma of a great champion of the sport but is the best stage racer of his generation and the Italian most likely to win the Giro d'Italia in the next five years. Cannondale were unable to match Astana's big offer and it could turn out to cost them dearly if he wins big while riding a Specialized.
Man to watch: Peter Sagan, for his great sprinting and his fun victory celebrations.
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