Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Leopard-Trek still winless as big guns start firing

The blogosphere is wondering about another vaunted new team, Leopard-Trek, which up until Monday had not registered a single victory since it debuted at the Tour Down Under just over a month ago.

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This second installment focuses on which UCI ProTeams are performing the best … and worst.

In 2010, after a huge media build-up, the critics laid into a brand new cycling team for its lack of success. That would be Britain’s big-budget Team Sky, which endured a mediocre first season when its top-paid rider, Brad Wiggins, registered just one international win: the prologue time trial at the Giro d’Italia.

A year later, the blogosphere is wondering about another vaunted new team, Leopard-Trek, which up until Monday had not registered a single victory since it debuted at the Tour Down Under just over a month ago. Indeed, only one rider from the Luxembourg-based squad (which was ranked No. 1 by the UCI) has even got a podium spot: Italian sprinter Daniele Bennati took four second and two third places in his opening two stage races: the Persian Gulf’s Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through Feb 21)
1. THR-HighRoad 9 (six riders)
2. Garmin-Cervélo 9 (five riders)
3. Rabobank 7 (three riders)
4. Movistar 3 (three riders)
5. Sky 3 (two riders)
6. Lampre-ISD 3 (one rider)
Vacansoleil-DCM 3 (one rider)
8. AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)
Omega Pharma-Lotto 2 (two riders)
Team RadioShack 2 (two riders)
11. Liquigas-Cannondale 2 (one rider)
12. Quick Step 1 (one rider)
(The six other ProTeams registered no wins)

After an early season drought, Mark Cavendish returns to his winning ways. Photo: Graham Watson | <a href=
Cavendish got back to his winning ways and notched one for HTC-HighRoad on stage 6 in Oman

Leopard’s record over the past five weeks is paltry compared with the majority of elite UCI ProTeams. Garmin-Cervélo and HTC-HighRoad have nine wins each (see chart), followed by Rabobank’s seven W’s (highlighted by Robert Gesink’s brilliant triple this past weekend at the Tour of Oman: overall, hilly time trial and mountaintop finish victories). Nine other top squads have scored between one and three wins this year.

Tour of the Algarve

In defense of Brian Nygaard’s Leopard team, it is not the only ProTeam without a win this year. BMC Racing, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Katusha and Team Astana have all failed to score. Also winless is Saxo Bank-SunGaard, the team from which Leopard poached the top of its roster. The closest that Saxo Bank has come to a victory was last Friday when its high-priced and (temporarily?) un-suspended leader, Alberto Contador, came third on the only semi-mountain stage of Portugal’s Volta ao Algarve.

Admittedly, Contador traveled to the race only hours after the Spanish cycling federation announced it was not following through with its previous verdict of a one-year suspension for his clenbuterol positive at the 2010 Tour de France — a decision that almost certainly will be appealed by the UCI (and WADA). And after missing a flight connection that night, the three-time Tour champ completed his journey by road and didn’t arrive at the Algarve race until the early-morning hours of the opening day.

But, other than a couple of criteriums in August, Contador hadn’t raced since last year’s Tour. That six-month absence probably accounts for his hesitancy on the uphill stage 3 finish in the Algarve, where 29-year-old Brit Steve Cummings of Sky scored one of the best wins of his seven-year pro career and American hope Tejay Van Garderen of HTC took his fifth second-place since turning pro a year ago.

Also in the small group sprinting for the win on the Alto de Malhao (where Contador won solo in 2010) was HTC’s German rider Tony Martin, who went on to dominate the closing 17.2km time trial to clinch the overall victory. At 25, Martin looks ready to step up to bigger wins this year, while his teammate Van Garderen, 22, who rode a strong TT and finished second overall in the Portuguese race, continues on a path that’s headed toward the grand tours.

Time trials continue to play a huge role in stage racing, so in a week that saw the final farewell from cycling of Lance Armstrong, his RadioShack teammates showed collective excellence in Sunday’s TTs in the Algarve and Spain’s Ruta del Sol.

In Adra, Portugal, RadioShack’s Tiago Machado (from Portugal), Jesse Sergent (New Zealand) and Andreas Klöden (Germany) placed third, fourth and fifth respectively, while on the opening stage of the Spanish race in Benahavis, Markel Irizar (Spain), Levi Leipheimer (USA) and Ivan Rovny (Russia) were second, fourth and 10th for the American team. Those collective results are encouraging for RadioShack because team time trials feature large at this year’s Giro and Tour.

Tour of Oman

2011 Tour of Oman, Stage 4
Gesink on stage 4

While Martin was winning the Algarve, another 25 year old, Dutch climber Gesink, astonished most observers by winning Saturday’s TT at the Tour of Oman — which was a far more difficult race than last year’s inaugural event. It was the first TT win of Gesink’s career, although it was on a highly unusual course: out and back over a massive climb, Al Jissah, that provided 1,500 feet of climbing in the 18.5km distance.

That gave the on-form Gesink a big advantage. Only the day before, on the massively steep Jabal al Akhadhar (Green Mountain), which averages 13.5 percent for the last 2km, Rabobank’s Gesink danced his way to a 47-second winning margin over runner-up Eddy Boasson Hagen of Sky — who came racing past American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin), Italian Giovanni Visconti (Farnese-Neri) and Belgian Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) in the leg-crunching “sprint” to the line.

Gesink would win the TT by 16 seconds over Visconti, while world TT meister and defending Oman champ Fabian Cancellara of Leopard was 27 seconds back in fourth place; but Boasson Hagen, another two seconds back, might well have beaten Gesink.

At the 9km turnaround point, after the first trip over the 853-foot-high Al Jissah mountain, Gesink and Boasson Hagen were dead level. But as the 24-year-old Norwegian began the return climb, his progress was impeded by a low-flying TV helicopter.

Boasson Hagen’s team director Servais Knaven said on the Sky web site: “As he went back up the hill the helicopter swooped down to about 10 meters above him, and it was like riding in a hurricane as it followed him. All the sand and leaves whipped up and he was right in the middle of it. His bike was wobbling uncontrollably and he almost crashed. That cost him all his speed; and his concentration and cadence were obviously affected as well.”

That Boasson Hagen recovered enough to lose less than half a minute speaks highly of his high class and true grit. Though it’s too early to say where the Norwegian phenom’s career is headed — he’s already won a spring classic and stages of grand tours — it wouldn’t be a shock to see him fighting it out with the likes of Gesink and Martin at this year’s Tour.

Maybe Gesink surprised even himself by winning an elite-level time trial, but anyone who saw him win last fall’s Grand Prix de Montréal knows he packs great power in his skinny legs. That day in Canada, Gesink gained about 10 seconds with a furious attack over the challenging Mount Royal climb and then held off a chase group containing Boasson Hagen, Ryder Hesjedal, Peter Sagan and Samuel Sanchez in a spirited 10km solo effort.

It’s early season yet, but it’s already pointing toward a sensational Tour de France, where Boasson Hagen (for Sky), Gesink (for Rabobank), Martin (for HTC) and Vande Velde (for Garmin) could all be contenders; and that doesn’t include the Leopard duo of Andy and Fränk Schleck, whose names we’ll be mentioning a lot in the months ahead. As for Saxo Bank’s Contador, the jury is still out, despite the verdict handed down last week by the Spanish federation.