Every professional sport has it - that time of the year many call 'the silly season', when speculation is rife surrounding the composition of teams for the following year. Cycling is no exception and in 2009 the silly season has become a lot sillier, with the addition of new teams to the peloton, returning riders and retiring sponsors.
With September 1 rapidly approaching - the date after which announcements can be made concerning pro team signings - there's a veritable mountain of conjecture about who will be riding where in 2010. While some transfers have already been confirmed, let's take a look at some of the names to look out for during this year's silly season.
Riders to watch
Juan Antonio Flecha (2000-02: Colchon Relax - Fuenlabrada, 2002-04: iBanesto.com, 2004-06: Fassa Bortolo, 2006-10: Rabobank)
Has explained his departure from Rabobank wasn't due to being disgruntled, and Rabobank is clearing the decks a little to streamline its operations. Our bet is Team Sky will have a nice little nest waiting for him. He's done the Spanish thing with iBanesto and the Italians may not value his Classics pedigree enough. Besides, Alessandro Ballan has that one covered.
Cadel Evans (1999-2002: Saeco Macchine per Caffé, 2002-03: Mapei - QuickStep, 2003-05: Telekom/T-Mobile, 2005- Davitamon/Silence - Lotto)
No one has expressed an interest in buying out the Australian's contract, which still has a full season to run. Speculation is that the Italians are interested in the dual Tour de France runner-up although the most likely scenario is that he'll stay with Silence-Lotto and with the emergence of Jurgen Van Den Broeck as a grand tour rider he'll alter his year's goals.
Giro d'Italia, anyone? We certainly hope so, given his stunning grand tour debut there in 2002.
Alberto Contador (2003-06: ONCE-Eroski/Liberty Seguros Würth, 2006-07: Astana, 2007-08: Discovery Channel, 2008- Astana)
The man of the moment. Will he stay with Astana, will he head to Caisse d'Epargne? Murmurings are growing louder that the 2009 Tour de France champion will move to the Spanish squad, although there's a chance he'll stick out the year with the Kazakh crew, buddy up with the returning Alexandre Vinokourov and bide his time before joining Fernando Alonso's outfit in 2011. More on that possibility below.
André Greipel (2005-06: Wiesenhof, 2006-08: T-Mobile, 2008- Team Columbia - HighRoad/HTC)
The giant German is a sprinting powerhouse and would be number one for bunch kicks in any other team. He's on Columbia-HTC however, which means there's a certain Manxman by the name of Mark Cavendish to contend with for that position. Sky may get the quietly-spoken and affable bloke from Rostock, although don't be surprised if he pulls something unexpected out of the basket. A possible replacement for Gert Steegmans at Katusha, perhaps?
Edvald Boasson Hagen (2006-08: Maxbo - Bianchi, 2008-10: Team Columbia - HighRoad/HTC)
Two words: Team Sky. It's become official that the Norwegian is leaving Columbia-HTC and given the ethos of the British outfit - i.e; a focus on young talent much like Bob Stapleton's squad - Boasson Hagen would be the perfect fit. Giro d'Italia and Tour of Poland success wouldn't have done his contract negotiations any harm and he's a likeable kid to boot.
Damiano Cunego (2002-05: Saeco Macchine per Caffé, 2005- Lampre - Caffita/Fondital/NGC)
Hmmmm, times have been a bit tough for 'Il Piccolo Principe'. The sheen of the 2004 Giro d'Italia wore off a long time ago but he has tasted plenty of Classics success since. Hasn't found his grand tour niche - one year the Tour is his focus, the next he's aiming for the Giro. Lampre may be a little tired of it and although there hasn't been much noise about his movements, there could be some stealthy negotiations going on.
George Hincapie (1993-97: Motorola, 1997-2005: US Postal Service, 2005-08: Discovery Channel, 2008- Team Columbia - HighRoad/HTC)
The American veteran has been linked to a possible BMC ride in recent days, although with Armstrong's 'Love Shack' taking shape, look out for Big George to be reunited with his old sparring partner for another ride down memory lane in 2010. United in more than their preference for black socks...
Thomas Lövkvist (2003: Bianchi Scandinavia, 2005-08: fdjeux.com/La Française des Jeux, 2008- Team Columbia - HighRoad/HTC)
The Swede is in the same boat as Edvald Boasson Hagen - time to move on from Columbia-HTC - and he may well be quite literally in the same boat as his Scandinavian teammate with a shift to Team Sky on the cards. A great buy for any squad due to his versatility, Lövkvist may have been swayed by the technical staff and experienced heads in the British outfit.
Karsten Kroon (1999-2005: Rabobank, 2005- Team CSC/Team Saxo Bank)
Saxo Bank's experienced Dutchman would be a great signing for a team in need of bolstering its roster. Classics, domestique duties... rumour has it he's looking for a new home, and with the Danish squad's focus on the brothers Schleck it seems like now would be a good time for him to pitch his tent somewhere else.
Teams to watch
The return of Alexandre Vinkourov, the departure of Lance Armstrong and the constant speculation surrounding Alberto Contador have all morphed Astana into the place not to be in 2010. Johan Bruyneel and Sérgio Paulinho have also flown the coop for the safety of 'The Shack', Armstrong's new setup.
Now, what's the collective noun for a group of pariahs...?
Despite claims it hasn't got 'money to burn', Team Sky has a generous wallet and the backing of the sport's current powerhouse nation, judging by its success on the track at last year's Olympics in Beijing. Directeur sportif Scott Sunderland has been a little coy - as is his wont and the regulations - about exactly who will line up for the team in 2010 although we have a pretty good inkling they'll hit the ground running.
There are still several spots on the roster to be filled but we do know that Cervélo Test Team's Serge Pauwels will be there after a Giro d'Italia of discontent.
The Spanish squad has stood by its man Valverde through testing times, and given this fact there's not much of a chance Eusebio Unzué will ditch him now. Joaquin Rodriguez has already signed for Katusha, Italian Marzio Bruseghin's on board for two years and French veteran Christophe has signed for one. Meanwhile, the Contador rumours fail to go away. If Alberto is given a new home chances are he'll be a grand tour rider in tandem with Valverde, who keeps performing well despite the headlines, much to his credit.
New sponsor, newish structure, old name at the helm and an even older name behind the wheel. It's like a remake of an old Burt Reynolds movie after Burt had plastic surgery. Lance will be there, Johan will be driving the car while Sérgio Paulinho and former pro Jose Azevedo have been thrown in to add some Portuguese spice to the American chicken. A delicious recipe for grand tour glory.
Apparently Johan Vansummeren, who rode a fantastic Paris-Roubaix this year, may be signing for the American squad to form a two-pronged attack force for the Classics. Confirmed is Michel Kreder from Rabobank's Continental squad. As Barloworld has announced the withdrawal of its sponsorship, it looks likely that Robbie Hunter will join Julian Dean and Tyler Farrar as one of the team's sprinters.
Talk persists about Bradley Wiggins' future, although given he has a year to run on his contract and the support he received from Christian Vande Velde, David Millar and co in France during July there's not much chance of him moving.
Clear the decks and haul the sails in - Rabobank is downsizing its crew for 2010. The Dutch stalwart will field a reduced roster of 25 riders next season, which means the culling has already begun. Flecha has gone, so too always-reliable Australian domestique Mat Hayman. Both these men are likely to line up in the colours of Team Sky next year. Bram de Groot is also on the 'exiting' list.
The busiest boys on the transfer block, it seems. Rasmus Guldhammer has come into the fold from Capinordic while young Australian Leigh Howard will make his ProTour debut in 2010. German rider Patrick Getsch from Thüringer Energie Team will don the yellow and white, while Jan Bakelants, Jan Ghyselink and talented American Tejay van Garderen have also penned deals with Bob Stapleton's team.
Edvald Boasson Hagen has been confirmed as an outgoing rider while Thomas Lövkvist will also probably head elsewhere. André Greipel could be making way as Mark Cavendish continues to go from good to great, as evidenced by six Tour de France stage wins this year.
One waiting in the wings...
A development to get excited about is the possible team headed by dual Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso, allegedly to be backed by the Santander bank. Old Fernando can't get enough of the bike, seen riding with Carlos Sastre in the off-season and generally expressing his love of two-wheels. He has stated that the likes of Alberto Contador would be a target for team management.
Add into the equation riders such as Sammy Sanchez and Chechu Rubiera and a possible 20 million euro budget and there's a seriously spicy Spanish squad waiting to take flight - at the moment that looks like being in 2011, but watch this space.
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