By Ben Atkins and Brecht Decaluwé
What was the first half of the 2008 season like for the 18 ProTour teams? Who can be satisfied with their performance and who needs improvement? Or, as the Cyclingnews staff asked, "What went right and what went wrong?" In part four, the team-by-team analysis includes Astana, Silence-Lotto, Team CSC-Saxo Bank and Quick Step.
What went right: Under normal circumstances this would be an outstanding season for any team. 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador has won just about every race that he has entered including the Vueltas Castilla y Leon and País Vasco and the Giro d'Italia – the latter after reportedly being sat on the beach a week before. Andreas Klöden – one of the few big names left over from last year's team – has also chipped in with successes of his own: winning the Tour de Romandie and finishing second in the Tour de Suisse.
What went wrong: Not much has gone wrong on the road; it's off it that the team has hit problems. Despite protestations that the management and team structure has been replaced since the scandals in and after last year's Tour de France, the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) refused to invite them to any of the races that they own. Apart from the Tour de France, these races include Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, all of which would have been targets for Astana riders. This boycotting of the team was preceded by a similar action from the Giro's owners RCS Sport (until that last minute invitation), costing the team its participation in Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo.
Contador's Giro victory was criticised by some for not being as stylish as his Tour victory of last year – in fact he only had assurance of victory after the final day's time trial. This is not altogether surprising though as the invitation to race only arrived at the eleventh hour and the Spaniard was on holiday at the time.
Holding out for: With no Tour de France, there is little prospect of quality competition in the coming month. Astana will probably send one of the strongest teams to the Tour of Austria, but the big stars are now looking forward to the latter part of the season: the Olympic games, the Vuelta a España and the World Championships.
Contador himself has stated recently that his own national tour is his own preferred target, which would make him only the fifth rider to have won all three tours, and the first rider since Giovanni Battaglin in 1981 to win the Giro and Vuelta in the same year (and the first ever since the Vuelta was moved to its current position in the calendar.
Overall: As stated above, this would have been a fantastic season under normal circumstances. Astana has won virtually every major race where the team has been invited, but the non-invitation to ASO's races (and those owned by RCS Sport at the beginning of the season) has left a huge gap in the team's schedule and for a team of this size to not be invited to the Tour is a disaster.
No matter how much they try to distance themselves from it, the spectre of Alexandre Vinokourov still hangs over this team. Despite the door being firmly shut to him, it's difficult to escape the fact that the team was originally set up as a vehicle for the former Kazakh champion and the sponsors may yet start to make demands. The team can only hope that time will distance them from the 2007 disaster.
What went right: With Cadel Evans, the Belgian team has the odds-on favourite for the upcoming Tour de France. Evans even started to win races in an unusually aggressive fashion – taking an uphill sprint in the Ruta del Sol and the Ventoux stage in Paris- Nice, an unusual feat for a rider who normally focuses on following on the climbs.
Recently Robbie McEwen started winning bunch sprints again and his three victories in Switzerland made up for a rather poor showing earlier this year. The Australian contingent in the team was responsible for nine of the team's eleven victories.
Young ace Greg Van Avermaet showed that he can become the team's future leader in the Spring Classics; the Belgian gave an impressive performance in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and then went onto a gutsy stage win in the Tour of Belgium. For now Van Avermaet can use his fast legs to become the perfect lead-out man for Robbie McEwen in the Tour de France, like Gert Steegmans did two years ago.
In the Giro d'Italia Jurgen Van Den Broeck captured a seventh place, which is the best result for a Belgian in a Grand Tour since Rik Verbrugghe in the Giro of 2002. The 25 year-old was considered to be a talent after his junior world champion title, but things started to improve fast for the new 'VDB' after he moved to Italy to train in the mountains instead of flat Flanders. By extending the contract of 'VDB' until 2010, the team is assured of a good GC-rider aside Evans for the next couple of years.
What went wrong: Directeur Sportif Marc Sergeant drew the conclusion himself after the Spring Classics. "The team was able to show itself in the Spring Classics, but once again they missed the icing on the cake. If a book would be written about our Spring Classics it would contain a lot of pages, but would it sell? I don't think so, because you need victories for that."
Leif Hoste was the team's leader in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, which are extremely important races as they are held on, or near home soil. The triple runner-up in Flanders couldn't live up to the expectations. Partly due to bad luck, but also because other riders proved to be stronger than him. It's always a gamble to aim solely on these two races. It was Cadel Evans' second place in La Flèche Wallonne which rescued the team's Spring campaign.
Holding out for: The yellow jersey in Paris! Cadel Evans is the top favourite for the Tour de France and Silence-Lotto did everything they could to build a strong team around the Australian. By bringing on Yaroslav Popovych the team should have a man who can work for Evans in the high mountains. All the other riders, except for compatriot Robbie McEwen are in the team to work for Evans. It's Evans' race to lose.
Overall: The team relies almost solely on their Australian riders for victories, while the Belgians proved to be without winning legs in their Spring Classics. Luckily for them the Belgian team made a switch of focus last year, from the Spring Classics to the Grand Tours. For many years the team was fighting against all-mighty Quick Step in the Spring Classics, being left behind as Belgian's number two in most occasions. Nowadays they gained more publicity than ever as they are holding one of the most respected GC-riders around. All will depend on the performance from Cadel Evans in the Tour de France for a better mark at the end of the year.
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