By Andrew Hood
Living up to the success of last season will be challenging for Saxo Bank, formerly CSC, but team boss Bjarne Riis is cautiously optimistic despite the departure of reigning Tour de France champ Carlos Sastre.
Seven riders followed Sastre out the door from the triumphant 2008 lineup, including retired pros Bobby Julich, Michael Blaudzun and Brad McGee and workhorses Iñigo Cuesta, Volodymir Gustov and Allen Johansen.
Instead of searching out a big star to replace Sastre, Riis has bolstered his 2009 squad with a slate of younger riders to reinforce the already-sturdy foundation that includes classics strongman Fabian Cancellara, the Schleck brothers and such reliable performers as Jens Voigt, Stuart O’Grady and Kurt-Asle Arvesen.
“We have a lot to live up to after this year, but when I consider the riders on our team, there’s no reason whatsoever why we shouldn’t be able to do it again — or maybe even better,” Riis said on the team’s web page. “Obviously, we’re in the middle of a major generational change, but I can easily imagine some of the young riders competing for some victories here and there.”
“Bjarne’s Army” enjoyed its most successful season in 2008, with Sastre taking the team’s first Tour victory in a banner year that saw 14 of 27 riders win than 50 races, including Milan-San Remo and stages in all three grand tours.
Sastre’s reliability will certainly be missed along, with the prestige that comes with riding the season as the defending Tour champion. The Spanish climber made an acrimonious departure from his longtime home at CSC to join start-up Cervelo.
Filling the gap left by Sastre will be the Schleck brothers, with Andy expected to step up to contend outright for the spoils at the Tour while Fränk — cleared last month by Luxembourg officials for links to the Operación Puerto doping scandal — should once again tackle the Ardennes classics and the Tour.
Cancellara is expected to continue to be a major player in the classics as well as in time trials. The big Swiss time machine is taking special aim at the Tour of Flanders while young gun Matti Breschel (winner of five races in a breakout 2008 season) and 2007 Paris-Roubaix winner Stuart O’Grady will be ready for the cobblestones.
Riis, known for his eye for promising talent, has signed highly touted British rider Jonathan Bellis as well as Michael Morkov and Alex Rasmussen, two trackies from the silver-medal-winning individual pursuit team in Beijing.
The return of popular Dane Frank Høj, who rode with CSC in 2004, will help keep the team in a light-hearted mood as it rides into what Riis hopes will be a fast start to the 2009 season.
Jason McCartney, back for his second season with Riis, remains the team’s lone American following the retirement of Julich.
“Of course, we need to be realistic and respect the fact that the other teams have a lot to offer as well, but I believe we have a great season ahead of us. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we start winning races already from the beginning,” Riis said. “Our guys are really working hard at the moment and it seems like they want to start the season with a bang. Last year we kicked off with a bang as well so if the riders have cranked up their training efforts even further over the winter it can only mean a great start to 2009.”
After wrapping up a training camp on Mallorca, the team will begin its racing calendar at the Tour Down Under and the Tour de San Luis, where sprinter JJ Haedo won two stages last year.
Riis also downplayed the loss of co-sponsor IT Factory. Authorities in California arrested Stein Bagger, the managing director of the Danish company, in December. The company was introduced as a co-sponsor during the 2008 world road cycling championships.
“I get the feeling that we’re all determined to prove that we have no intentions of turning down our ambitions because of the bad news regarding IT-Factory,” Riis continued.