By Nigel Wynn
The 2010 season starter at the Tour Down Under may still be over a month away, but there's alreay been plenty of talk among fans as to which of the new ProTour superteams has the best riders - Team Sky or Team RadioShack?
Both squads have been aggressive in their signing tactics, creating a shopping list of riders and pursuing them dramatically. The creation of two such big teams with equally sizeable budgets has created a demand for riders that has not been seen for years. Perhaps ever.
And both have taken on board a mixture of experienced riders and new blood, in the hope of having signed the Next Big Thing.
Based on opposite sides of the Atlantic - Team Sky are based in Britain, and RadioShack in the US - the two squads have assembled their line-ups with the same predictably PR-friendly aim: to be competitive in the big stage races and one-day events.
But really, even a cursory glance at each roster will tell you that the squads are built very differently: RadioShack is Lance Armstrong's eighth Tour winning machine, and Sky is more of a one-day and stage winning wonder.
We've compiled some stats on the two squads to make a direct comparison, including results from the UCI's 2009 World Ranking. This ranking is based on points awarded to rider for placing highly in events included in the UCI's World Calendar, and gives an indication of performance.
Of course, the two teams will come up against big competition against existing outfits, not least 2009's top team Columbia-HTC, the dynamic Garmin-Slipstream and Tour winner Alberto Contador's Astana. We've kept them out of this particular punch-up, concentrating solely on the new boys.
Who are Team RadioShack?
Based in: USA
Main sponsor: US electronics retailer
Team boss: Johan Bruyneel
Number of riders: 26
Average age: 28.8
Number of riders in 2009 UCI World Ranking: 8
Highest placed rider in 2009 UCI World Ranking: Andreas Kloden (13th)
Highest placed rider at 2009 Tour de France: Lance Armstrong (3rd)
Rider with most wins in 2009 season: Levi Leipheimer (4)
Stated aim for 2010: Win the Tour de France, and other stuff. Hopefully
Riders: Lance Armstrong (USA), Fumiyuki Beppu (Japan), Sam Bewley (New Zealand), Janez Brajkovic (Slovenia), Matthew Busche (USA), Ben Hermans (Belgium), Chris Horner (USA), Daryl Impey (South Africa), Markel Irizar (Spain), Andreas Klöden (Germany), Levi Leipheimer (USA), Geoffroy Lequatre (France), Fuyu Li (China), Tiago Machado (Portugal), Jason McCartney (USA), Dmitriy Muravyev (Kazakhstan), Sérgio Paulinho (Portugal), Yaroslav Popovych (Ukraine), Gregory Rast (Switzerland), Sébastien Rosseler (Belgium), Ivan Rovny (Russia), José Luis Rubiera (Spain), Bjorn Selander (USA), Gert Steegmans (Belgium), Tomas Vaitkus (Lithuania), Haimar Zubeldia (Spain)
Created by Lance Armstrong and long-time manager Johan Bruyneel, RadioShack could be considered an extension of the duo's previous collaborations - US Postal, Discovery Channel and Astana. Very few riders have the luxury of having such a hand in creating a team to back them up, but then very few riders have won the Tour de France seven times.
After placing third at the 2009 Tour de France two places behind former Astana team-mate Alberto Contador, Armstrong looks to have pinched all the best Tour support riders from Astana. No less than 12 riders in the new RadioShack squad rode for Astana in 2009.
Armstrong has some of his most loyal, and talented, Tour team helpers in the squad: Levi Leipheimer, Yaroslav Popovych, José Luis Rubiera, Haimar Zubeldia, Andreas Kloden and Chris Horner.
Building a Tour team around Armstrong has one big drawback: what do they do for the rest of the year? The Tour is the big prize, no doubt, and it never did Armstrong any harm concentrating on one race, but that was years ago when the Texan was in his prime. Can a team really put all its eggs in one 39-year-old basket? Another third place will not do. It's win or nothing.
Looking beyond the Tour de France, RadioShack starts to look a bit thin on the ground. Although he had a quiet season last year, the team's best hope for one-day race results is perhaps Gert Steegmans. The Belgian was Tom Boonen's former lead-out man at QuickStep, but is now a force in the sprints in his own right. He has Tour and Paris-Nice stage wins in his palmares, but does not have the dedicated and proven lead-out train of, say, Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC), which may be to his disadvantage.
Leipheimer had a cracking early 2009, winning the Tour of California, Castilla y Leon and coming fifth at the Giro d'Italia. But at what cost? At the Tour in July he looked worn, and crashed out of the race with a broken wrist. He may be more cautious in 2010.
If Leipheimer stays upright, and Kloden puts in his usual solid ride, we could easily see at least three RadioShack riders in the top ten of the Tour overall in July.
Who are Team Sky?
Based in: Great Britain
Main sponsor: British satellite broadcaster
Team boss: David Brailsford
Number of riders: 24
Average age: 27.6
Number of riders in 2009 UCI World Ranking: 9
Highest placed rider in 2009 UCI World Ranking: Edvald Boasson Hagen (6th)
Highest placed rider at 2009 Tour de France: Sylvain Calzati (55th)
Rider with most wins in 2009 season: Edvald Boasson Hagen (12)
Stated aim for 2010: Classics, short stage races, Grand Tour stage wins
Riders: Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Nor), John-Lee Augustyn (RSA), Michael Barry (Can), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor), Sylvain Calzati (Fra), Kjell Carlstrom (Fin), Dario Cioni (Ita), Steve Cummings (GB), Russell Downing (GB), Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa), Chris Froome (GB), Simon Gerrans (Aus), Mat Hayman (Aus), Greg Henderson (NZ), Peter Kennaugh (GB), Thomas Lövkvist (Swe), Lars-Petter Nordhaug (Nor), Serge Pauwels (Bel), Nicolas Portal (Fra), Morris Possoni (Ita), Ian Stannard (GB), Chris Sutton (Aus), Geraint Thomas (GB), Davide Vigano (Ita)
Where RadioShack has Lance Armstrong, statistically the greatest Grand Tour winner still in the peloton, Team Sky have a gaping chasm of a hole. Sky simply has no Grand Tour contender on its roster, despite the continued rumours of signing Bradley Wiggins from Garmin.
Indeed, only two of Sky's riders finished the 2009 Tour de France - Sylvain Calzati and Juan Antonio Flecha.
But what Sky has is Edvald Boasson Hagen. The Norwegian had the third highest number of wins in 2009 behind former Columbia-HTC team-mates Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel, and his victories in 2009 included Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Benelux, Tour of Britain (four stages and overall) and a Giro d'Italia stage win.
Boasson Hagen's late attacks were often in a class of their own, and his ability to read a race and work on his own without a lead-out train mean he is a danger in any event where he takes to the start line.
Boasson Hagen scored more wins last year than the whole of Silence-Lotto (11), Milram (8) and several other large teams. He is the star in the Sky, but one man can't prop up a whole team, so it's good that they've also got Simon Gerrans. The Aussie scored stage wins at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana in 2009 to join his 2008 stage win at the Tour de France.
Thomas Lovkvist is the team's best hope in stage races, the Swede wore the maglia rosa in the 2009 Giro, where he placed 25th overall, and the white jersey in the 2008 Tour de France. At 25, he has the best stage racing years in front of him.
So who is the best?
On paper it is Team Sky who should come away from the 2010 season with the largest number of wins of the two squads. However, they are likely to come away from the all-important Tour de France with slim pickings whilst RadioShack go for the top step in Paris with an eighth victory for Lance Armstrong.
Hardcore racing fans will like Sky's all-round ability to get results in a variety of races, whereas the more casual only-watch-the-Tour observer will warm to the presence of Armstrong and RadioShack's Tour de France strength.
However, RadioShack know that it's the Tour that gets airtime and column inches in the mainstream media, it's the Tour that brings in the money and it's the Tour that keeps the sponsors happy. An eighth Tour victory for Armstrong will give them more publicity than 50 individual wins throughout the rest of the year, and that is what they are going for at any cost.
Who do you think will come out on top in 2010? Leave a comment in the box below this article.
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