Today L’Equipe posed what it thinks are the 10 key questions in respect of the 2011 cycling season. The answers were supplied by its crack team of reporters.
1. Will Contador be at the start of the Tour de France?
90% said No. What I want to know is which reporter said “Yes”? Either they misunderstood the question, or they can’t count. The Spanish Federation is not expected to render a ruling until 15 February. Such ruling will be challenged either by UCI or by Contador. TAS takes six months to opine, so Contador will remain suspended until 15 July, at the earliest. When does the Tour start? I rest my case. Of course, being numerate isn’t necessarily a requirement for a journalist.
2. Has Andy Schleck already won the 2011 Tour?
80% said No. Again, which two journalists think all he has to do is turn up? Andy’s going to find being the favourite a whole different proposition. He’s not going to have anyone to take the lead. Instead, other riders will be watching him, waiting and pouncing. There are a couple of things in his favour. It’s a course suited to climbers, with relatively little time-trialling. Andy, despite being on a new team, will be surrounded by those with whom he is familiar and whom he trusts, including his older brother.
3. Are we seeing the emergence of a better generation of French riders?
60% said Yes. I think the French are right to be optimistic. They do have a large number of promising, younger riders who have shone at the junior and U23 level. But that promise has to be carefully nurtured and not snuffed out by the weight of expectations.
4. Will Philippe Gilbert be the King of the Classics?
80% said Yes. Again, it’s hard to disagree with this one. He’s only 28 and coming into his prime. He’s capable of winning races on the Cobbles and in the Ardennes and, indeed, throughout the season. But, please, don’t forget Spartacus!
5. Is Boonen in decline?
70% said Yes. A counter-point to the question above. His last three seasons have been disappointing in terms of the number of wins. He was clearly at the top of his game at the start of last season but lost out in the key races to Cancellara and Freire, before injuring his knee. At 30, he cannot expect to be as prolific as he once was but I’m sure we’ll see him picking up sprint wins in his favoured races, and at least another Cobbled Classic.
6. Will Team Leopard crush everyone this season?
80% said Yes. I suspect this is based on the assumption that Team Leopard will morph back into the winningest team a la CSC. However, the peloton has not stood still: witness the coming together of Garmin and Cervelo, the maturing of Sky, the continuing strength of Liquigas. I’m not sure I agree with this one. Moreover, I’m beginning to think I’ve identified at least one of the two journalists who are Schleck fans.
7. Is Mark Cavendish more than a great sprinter?
80% said No. Yes, I know he’s a bit of a chippy bugger but he has won Milan-San Remo and, while he’ll never win any of the Grand Tours, he might well win other Classics. It’s true that he is the finest proponent of pure sprinting in the peloton and has to be considered among the favourites for the Championship course in Copenhagen this year.
8. Will cycling regret Armstrong’s retirement?
60% said No. I sense a few fence-sitters here. Whatever you think about Armstrong, he’s a larger than life personality who polarises opinion. He’s probably the only person in the sport capable of getting 10,000 people to turn up to ride with him on the basis of a message on Twitter. All sports need personalities, cycling has too few.
9. Romain Sicard, will he come good in 2011?
60% said Yes. What did I say about the weight of expectation? Luckily, Sicard has a mature head on young shoulders and he’s being properly developed within the Basque, Euskatel-Euskadi squad.
10. Will Ricco generate more interest in cycling?
100% said Yes. Spot on, again he’s a very talented a chap who divides opinion. But like Basso and Vinokourov, he’s served his time and has returned to the peloton with a point to prove. A bit like Armstrong, I’m not sure I’d want to find myself sitting next to him at dinner, but he certainly provides plenty of fodder for the journalists.
Whether or not you agree with the august views of L’Equipe, 2011 is sure to be a great season. While there’s plenty of emerging talent, there’s also plenty of mature riders, unwilling to hang up their cleats, who are still capable of mixing it with the best of them.
Like many fans I have grave concerns over the current business model employed by many of the teams. While cycling is becoming more professional in its approach, it still has a long way to go to enjoy maximum credibility and commerciality. Cycling is a great medium for building product awareness on a global scale, at a reasonable price, but you must have exposure at the world’s biggest race, The Tour.