Saturday, June 27, 2009

Euskaltel Euskadi's Odds

This article about how Euskaltel Euskadi may fare in this year's edition of the Tour de France was published at Daily Peloton:

2009 Tour de France - Euskaltel/Euskadi Pronóstico

Christopher Fauske

The orange warriors of the Basque team bring its best balanced and strongest team to the tour. The team is aiming for a good showing and stage wins... but where and when in the 21 days of racing will they find the opportunity and magic?

It’s easy to make light of the chances of Basque team Euskaltel-Euskadi in the Tour de France. One leading US publication estimated 10,000:1 as the ratio of the number of Basque flags on the mountains to the number of stage wins by the team. Mainly, this easy joke pays tribute to the importance the team has in contemporary Basque society.

It might also turn out to be unintentionally prescient as the squad does have a legitimate shot at picking up a stage win or two. Those chances partially lie in lucky breaks going the way of the orange squad; but they also lie in the hard work that DS Igor González de Galdeano has invested these past two years.

Before dismissing the team completely, it’s worth bearing in mind that prior to the Olympics last year one member of the team’s staff told me that Samuel Sanchez had, maybe, a “one per cent chance of Gold.” And look who won.

So where, and under what conditions, might the team pick up those stage wins?

First, the structure of this year’s Tour teams means that much is likely to be unpredictable. Astana is sending 4 legitimate GC contenders to the event. It will surely take a remarkable feat of discipline to figure out the appropriate tactics for that team on any given day.

The defending champion is now riding for a team that struggled throughout the Giro to protect its top rider, and at least some of Carlos Sastre’s best chances lie in long, lethal solo attacks on the climbs. Such attacks should shatter the field. They will also bring a response from Saxo Bank on behalf of one or other Schleck brother. Rabobank will be sending Giro champion Denis Menchov up the climbs. Cadel Evans seems to once again be trying to win le Tour with a solo effort.

Put all that together, take away race radios for two stages, throw in the flat stages made for Mark Cavendish, add the fact that Mont Ventoux is on the penultimate day (and somebody is going to have try to save something for that even while fending off attacks throughout the stages leading up to it) and it should be fiendishly difficult for any team to know just how to approach many of the race days. Several teams will be looking to take advantage of any resulting confusion in race tactics, Euskaltel-Euskadi among them.

Euskaltel-Euskadi’s GC contender is Mikel Astarloza. This will be his seventh tour. He finished 9th two years ago and sixteenth last year. His form at the 2009 Dauphiné Libéré was promising, and he was more comfortable with long solo climbs than he has been in the past. As other riders look to keep an eye on each other, Astarloza might just be able to pull away on one of the critical climbs and steal a march on his rivals. If his GC position during the transition stages isn’t too great a threat to race leaders, he also has the experience and the talent to join a long escape and help it stay away.

The team has three other potential stage winners in Amets Txurruka, who made a splash on his 2007 tour debut, picking up the most combative rider award, joining a long break on stage 12 that stayed away until the final kilometer, and wearing the white jersey for best young rider, albeit that he was “borrowing” it. Txurruka has not lost the ability to stay away on long breaks, and his increasing experience should help him on the road, especially those two stages that are going to be radio-free.

Additionally, the timing of the mountain stages and the need of several teams and a bunch of riders to gauge their efforts suggest that on several stages if the right group of riders get into a breakaway, they will be able to stay away from a peloton unlikely to be that interested in a chase. Look for Txurruka to contest at least one of those stages.

Koldo Fernández is Euskaltel-Euskadi’s first legitimate sprinter. Odds have to be on Mark Cavendish to win any sprint stage where he is with the lead group in the final kilometer, but there are two or three other sprinters with teams capable of countering at least some of Columbia-High Road’s lead-out efforts. On days when it is their intention, Euskaltel-Euskadi is fielding a team that can deliver Fernández to the final kilometer in good shape. Look for him to mix it up after this and to seek an unexpected opening, perhaps capitalizing on other teams’ final run-in countering of Cavendish’s moves.

The team has made it clear that Igor Antón is going to be looking for a stage win. Last year, his campaign was marred by injury, but anyone who saw his stage sixteen win in the 2006 Vuelta a España between Almería and the Calar Alto observatory knows he can climb. If Astarloza can rely on the rest of his team for support, the Euskaltel-Euskadi will be able to send Antón on his own forays. This might happen as early as the Pyrenees and definitely in the Alps. Who knows what Mont Ventoux will bring?

There is always at least one stage in the Tour when the day’s winner is a surprise to everyone, and if you were to look for Euskaltel-Euskadi’s potential “surprise,” neither former Lance Armstrong lieutenant Egoi Martinez nor Alan Pérez seems implausible.

In short, this is most likely the best balanced, strongest team Euskaltel-Euskadi has yet brought to the Tour.

Predictions: Mikel Astarloza, 7th in GC. Koldo Fernández, at least one second place stage finish. Most likely stage win, stage 11. Igor Antón, most likely stage win, stage 9 or 17. Amets Txurruka, most likely stage win, stage 13.

Hopefully he's right.

.... ... .

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