For the first part of the 2008 cycling season, Bjarne Riis and his then CSC sponsored team were on top of the world. Fabian Cancellara had taken the overall win at Tirreno-Adriatico, and had also notched wins at the 2nd edition of the Italian semi-classic Monte Paschi Eroica and the first monument of the season, Milan-San Remo. Riding an emotional high into the Tour de France, Riis realized his dream as a director, as Carlos Sastre won the overall title at the Tour de France, cementing Riis as one of the top directors in the sport.
Monday, April 6, 2009
2009 however hasn't been so kind to the Danish-registered team. After a great start at the Tour of California, where Fabian Cancellara won the opening time trial for the second year in a row and Frank Schleck the final stage, it looked like Riis' team would come out guns a-blazin' once again in the early European classics. Unfortunately though, once the big time races started across the pond in Europe, Riis has seen his squad go south in the results category. Sure, Jens Voigt took the overall title at Criterium International, but against a sub-par field.
Meanwhile, Cancellara, riding the February Amgen Tour of California prologue with a high fever, dropped out the next day and hasn't been the same since. He experienced a training crash only a few days ahead of the Tirreno-Adriatico start, and was unable to defend his title at the L'Eroica as well. The effects of his illness and injury kept him from Starting San Remo as well, and after some bad luck at this past weekend's Tour of Flanders, there seems to be no one to pick up the slack for the big Swiss machine. Not Frank Schleck, who himself experienced a training crash that knocked back his preparation. Not Matti Breschel, who still remains winless on the 2009 season. Not Andy Schleck, who is clearly lacking experience in some of the bigger races, and not Stuart O'Grady, who crashed bad a few weeks ago and is still recovering.
Even worse for Riis is, thanks to his late season rift between himself and Carlos Sastre, the Spaniard has changed teams, over to the Cervelo TestTeam. Sastre will target the Giro and Tour de France double for his new team, while Riis will have his squad focus on the Tour once again. This time though he'll go with two slightly less proven grand tour commodities in the brothers Schleck, Frank and the younger Andy. Sure, Frank has a win on Alpe d-Huez to his credit and Andy a best young rider jersey and 2nd place overall at the 2007 Giro, but neither has shown that they are capable of contending at the biggest race in the world, the Tour de France.
The achilles heel of the Schleck brothers seems to be their time trialing skills. Neither has shown himself to be particularly fond of the race of truth, yet without the requisite time trialing skills, each of the Schlecks will be reduced to the role of mountain goats able to win stages in grand tours, but not the overall. Riis, himself a master of the time trial discipline during his career, will certainly be able to help his Luxembourgian charges improve in the race against the clock, but does he have enough time before July to get his two hopes Tour ready?
With the lack of early season wins, Riis and the rest of the Saxo Bank team will be feeling enormous pressure to deliver during both the hilly classics and the smaller stage races that lead up to the Tour. If they are unable to break through in the three hilly classics or the Dauphine or Tour de Swiss, they may find themselves in a very tough situation in July. The pressure at the Tour de France is crushing even under the best circumstances, but without any wins to lend confidence to the team, Saxo could implode under the glare of the world media in France.
Luckily for Riis, there is still time left and no reason yet to panic. Providing they stick with their "team first" mantra, they are bound to break through sooner or later. But as the big races come and go without a Saxo win, the expectations raise higher and the pressure goes greater. Following his greatest season as a director, Riis may find himself suffering through one of his worst in 2009.