The 2012 season was all about the possible return of Alberto Contador to the Saxo-Tinkoff team. His star signing, a deal sealed at the conclusion of the 2010 Tour de France, hadn't played out how team owner Bjarne Riis intended.
Contador's seemingly endless doping case reached its conclusion in early February 2012 and all his results back dated to the 2010 Tour were annulled. Contador was handed a six-month suspension from competition and was 'dropped' from the team immediately. There was however, little doubt he would return to Riis' side when he ban ended just in time for the start of the Eneco Tour.
With Contador inactive for the first half of the year, results were few and far between. ProTeam debutant Jonathan Cantwell lifted the morale of the squad with a couple of stage wins at Tour de Taiwan but a lack of riders capable of achieving results at the biggest races and more importantly accumulating WorldTour points meant the team's chances of remaining in the top-tier for the 2013 season were slim.
A handful of podium stage placings at the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, along with Michael Mørkøv's valiant few days in breaks at the Tour were the highlights of the year - before Contador unsurprisingly announced he had re-signed with Saxo. The team also picked up a few smaller victories but the true start of the year began when Contador re-joined the squad.
The Eneco Tour's start was the same day that Contador's ban ended, he finished fourth overall and continued his preparation for the Vuelta a España. With time away from racing it was uncertain whether Contador would be able to compete for the overall victory. The team picked a line-up that was willing to support its leader and after a bunch of decent stage placings by the Spaniard anything looked possible. Contador then took a big gamble with a long range, all-or-nothing attack on stage 17 that rewarded his efforts with the day's win and the lead in the race.
The Vuelta victory belonged to Contador and his team, however, the hanging cloud around his positive control for clenbuterol in 2010 has meant his points do not count when the time comes for the UCI to establish the ranking and license renewals for ProTeams. For this reason Riis' team barely scrapped into the top-tier for 2013 but having a seven-time (reduced to five after his stripped results) on the squad would make it difficult to refuse Saxo-Tinoff's place in the peloton.
What to expect in 2013
Contador has already outlined his season goal: to win the Tour de France while he remains undecided on the Giro d'Italia or Vuelta. It will be interesting to see what races he uses to prepare for the Tour and whether his team will be able to combat the strength of the Sky team.
Riis' focus will surely be circled around his star pupil and will use the services of Australian Michael Rogers and Irishman Nicholas Roche to achieve whatever other goals Contador and his manager put forward. With the exception of Rogers, there are few riders capable of winning big races.
The team has retained the services of a handy sprinter in the form of Jonathan Cantwell. One of the few Aussie's on the team managed a number of good results in 2012 despite never having raced any of the courses he competed on.
Contador should, with the correct lead-up, win the Tour while also picking up a number of smaller stage race victories while his latest right-hand man Rogers should shine in his new role. He already stepped up at Sky as a helped to Bradley Wiggins and riding with another grand tour winner will definitely improve his own chances for success.
Michael Rogers was one of Sky's most powerful domestiques at the races lead by Wiggins but he's more than able to achieve his own results. The former three-time world time trial champion will be missed at the Great Britain squad but as part of Contador's Tour squad, he'll be invaluable.
Nick Nuyen's move to Garmin-Sharp may not seem overly significant but the Spring Classics specialist is a former winner of Tour of Flanders. His experience will be missed during the 'hardman' one-day races.
Who to watch
With one pure leader for the grand tours all eyes will be on Contador's start to the year. Riis has always been a 'Tour man' and Saxo-Tinkoff's success will be weighted on its performance at the Tour.
Neo-professional Jay McCarthy will likely be finding his feet in 2013 but the young rider could develop into a great professional. It will be interesting to see how his development is fostered at Riis' squad and how he adapts to the increased load of racing.