Cycling’s Division 1 has undergone something of a seismic shift over the last little while. We knew last summer that Mapei were pulling out. But other teams have come and gone, and an avalanche of riders have changed teams.
Au revoir, Bonjour – replaced by Brioches La Boulangиre. Having signed 3 neo-pros, and lost a couple of old stagers (Deramй and Simon) they’re effectively exactly the same team anyway. Arrividerci, Acqua-Sapone – no more tiger stripes for Cipollini. His rainbow jersey might be scarred by having Domina Vacanze-Elitron emblazoned on it, but he’ll be happy that the team personnel are practically unchanged.
Tacconi Sport have metamorphosed into Sidermec, who’ve been kicking around the peloton in a co-sponsor role for a number of seasons. They have a couple of good riders, but only one name stands out. With Stefano Garzelli, this is a team for the Giro d’ Italia – all else will be secondary.
Few squads in the top tier will have the clout or pulling power of Quickstep-Davitamon – a superstar-packed squad forged out of the wreckage of the former Mapei-Quickstep and Domo-Farm-Frites squads.
10 riders apiece have come from those teams, and here are just a few of the names to whet your appetite: Museew, Bettini, Vandenbroucke, Boonen, Virenque, Knaven, Wadecki. The question is how will Patrick Leferve keep them all happy? This is a new team with tons of experience, and they should be near the top of the rankings at the end of 2003.
Alongside them at the top of the tree should be the powerful Lotto-Domo and USPS squads, although neither strengthened significantly. But Fassa Bortolo and Telekom have.
Fassa came out successful in the bidding war for Aitor Gonzalez. The Vuelta winner gives them real options in the Grand Tours, and he’ll be backed by returnee Dario Frigo, 18 months after he was punted out for possessing doping substances. Fassa have the depth of squad to stay at the top.
Telekom have made terrific signings and look seriously strong, with riders for every situation. Ridding themselves of the troubled Jan Ullrich, and his gargantuan salary, has allowed them to bring in a startling array of talent. They’ll have a serious tilt at the Giro with defending champion Paolo Savoldelli and Daniele Nardello on board.
And for the Tour? The mercurial skills of Santi Botero, backed up Cadel Evans (likely winner of the ‘best young rider’ competition, if he takes part). Some astute business has probably guaranteed Telekom a major presence in the Grand Tours for at least the next 3 years, and the Classics through Mario Aerts.
With Zabel vowing to be more focussed, and Hondo, Wesemann, Vinokourov and Kloden still around, this looks like being a major season for the Germans.
Kelme have really suffered as a result of their interminable money problems and leadership squabbles. Gone is Botero. Gone, too, is Gonzalez who has taken the talented Juan Jose de los Angeles with him to Fassa Bortolo. Angel Vicioso and Santi Perez have also left.
The other Spanish squads of iBanesto.com and ONCE are much as they were in 2002. Euskaltel have lost Igor Flores and Cesar Solaun who’ve retired, victims of the contract crisis that’s hit the sport.
The French squads in general have gone for younger, less-experienced riders, with a number of new pros coming in. It’s hard to see Ag2r, Jean Delatour and Credit Agricole having a massive impact in the big races, but fdjeux.com have held onto their Aussie stars (McGee and Cooke) and their home headline grabbers (Durand and Mengin). Cofidis have made no major changes.
Rabobank ended the Oscar Friere saga, by picking up the double-world champion, and with Robbie Hunter there too, they could snare some big wins in 2003. Levi Leipheimer will be up there in the big Tours.
The Italians at Saeco, Alessio and Lampre will all feature well in the results as they’ve managed to consolidate their rider bases, but it’s going to be a big year for CSC. Jalabert’s Indian summer is over, and Rasmussen has flown the coop – can Tafi give them a Spring Classic win?
It’s going to be a fascinating season, but a lot of familiar names will still be appearing on the podium. And this time next year? It’ll probably be all change again.