Blazin' Saddles

Looking ahead to 2012

Blazin' Saddles

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With 2012 fast approaching, Saddles tries to answer the five questions that could define the coming season.

Will Alberto Contador be cleared to ride?

When Bertie was flagged up for having beef in his blood a year and a half ago, no one thought his case would still be unsettled going into 2012. As it is, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will finally issue its ruling in the middle of January — and the drip-down affect is something that will run through the peloton quicker than a FDJ rider swept up after another futile breakaway.

Should Contador be cleared, then there's every reason to believe that normal duty will resume come July — that's to say, the world's best stage race rider will decimate the field on his way to a fourth Tour de France title.

Contador's presence may indeed affect which riders target the Giro or the Vuelta instead of the Grande Boucle — and one thing's for sure, after missing out in 2008 it will have Cadel Evans breathing a huge sigh of relief knowing that he made the most of the second time the door was left open for him. Indeed, it could be argued that the defending champion might as well take July off for some extra babysitting duties... although that would be a little harsh.

Whether or not Contador will be cleared is still unknown, although you'd think he will probably scrape through. With sponsors leaving the sport as fast as cowards jumping ship from the sinking Titanic, it's clear that cycling would take a huge battering at the hands of a Bertie ban.

What's more, Pedro Delgado — that pillar of 80s cycling respectability — believes his countryman to have suffered enough. "For the sake of international cycling," Delgado said, there must be no sanction. Who would have guessed the UCI was so into Japanese cuisine...?

Will too many cooks spoil the broth at BMC?

Having finally delivered his maiden Tour de France victory, it's easy to see why Cadel Evans was a bit miffed to see not only Thor Hushovd but also Philippe Gilbert arrive at BMC this close season. Adding the former world champion and the arguably the world's best all-rounder into the mix will certainly alter the balance of power at BMC.

That said, if the selectors pick the right remaining six riders to join the above three in the Tour, then there's no reason why it can't work out. As long as Evans has ample support in the mountains and on the flat, he should still be in with a shout as defending champion.

What's more, having both Gilbert and Hushovd gunning for individual stage victories might even take the spotlight off the Australian and give him some leeway to ride his own race — something he's become rather adept at doing over the years.

And of course, the season is not only about the Tour; it may be Evans' primary focus, but there are enough classics and stage races to keep both Hushovd and Gilbert happy — and given neither of them is an out-and-out sprinter, there'll be no obligation for one to lead out the other.

How will Sky accommodate both Wiggins and Cavendish?

The situation at Sky is a bit different to BMC, what with Mark Cavendish's style of winning heavily reliant upon a slick train to lead him out — something hardly conducive to a team that harbours hopes in the GC.

The short answer to this question is that Cavendish and Wiggins won't have to gel together until July because it's highly unlikely the two will ride together before the Tour gets under way in Liege.

Both Wiggins and Cavendish have talked about their mutual determination to go for both the yellow and green jerseys ahead of the London 2012 Olympics — and although this is clearly setting lofty ambitions, it's refreshing (not to mention encouraging) that such noises are being made.

Despite having clashed in the past, the pair are friends from their early days in Dave Brailsford's national set-up — and Wiggins put in a huge shift in Copenhagen as Cavendish rode to the rainbow jersey.

The truth is quite simple: Cavendish will be no use to Wiggins in the mountains in France, but as long as Sky take some riders who will fill this role (and not just fighter pilots like Bernie Eisel) then there's no reason why Wiggins cannot do his bit for Cav on the flat (while keeping out of the kind of trouble that saw his collarbone shatter last July) before teaming up with the likes of Uran, Porte and Froome in the mountains.

Can GreenEDGE deliver in their first season?

We'll soon know how the quasi-Australian national team are getting on when they make their bow at the Tour Down Under in January. It will be a big moment for Australian cycling, which has produced some real ripper riders over the years but has never had them all under one umbrella (insert Tour of Britain rain joke here).

Of course, cynics would say that they still haven't achieved this, given that Australia's best all-rounder and (arguably) best sprinter both failed to sign on the dotted line.

Cadel Evans quite rightly decided that staying with BMC offered him the best chance of defending his Tour crown, while Mark Renshaw thought his post-Cavendish days would be best served in the orange of Rabobank instead of alongside the orange of Robbie McEwen's face (a decision which resulted in the rather pathetic decision by the Australian national team to overlook Renshaw for the previous Worlds).

And while there's no Heinrich Haussler either, the arrivals of Matt Goss, Simon Gerrans and Jack Bobridge are encouraging.

Truth be told, it's very hard to predict how GreenEDGE will do without having seen a copy of their inaugural jersey; so much hinges on what the riders look like when together in the peloton and its worth noting that part of the reason why Team Sky's took so long to find their footing was surely down to their disgusting black-and-blue minimalist number.

Sky comparisons are useful and like Sky, GreenEDGE should hardly be judged on their first full season and certainly not their first race. As much as a PR gift it is for the team to make their debut on home soil in Adelaide in January, it does add a lot of pressure. How they perform in the TDU may well set the tone for the rest of their first season, but let's all be entirely frank and realistic: it's hard seeing anything but the odd breakaway win for GreenEDGE in their first year.

Will Johan Bruyneel bring out the best of the Schlecks?

Given the 2012 Tour route and the Schleck brothers' stubbornness to try anything new to end their 'losing' streak (such as the Giro) then Bruyneel will have to perform a miracle if he wants Andy to drop his Raymond Poulidor mask and actually win the Tour.

With Lance Armstrong and then Alberto Contador, Bruyneel led teams to thirteen Grand Tour championships in eleven years, including a Giro/Vuelta double in 2008 when Contador was banned from riding the Tour.

Armstrong's return and Bruyneel's subsequent time at RadioShack has been hardly a bed of roses, and you could say that the Schlecks need Bruyneel as much as Bruyneel needs the Schlecks.

Just as the brothers from Luxembourg clearly need that little bit extra to deliver the win they so clearly want, so too does the Belgian DS require not only a fresh challenge but also a stronger set of riders that his previous crop at RadioShack to restore his slightly ailing credentials as one of the best in the business.

A lot will hinge on the outcome of Contador's hearing with CAS this January, but even in the Spaniard's absence, the Bruyneel factor may not be enough to end Andy's run of three consecutive second places for the better. With less climbs and more time trials, the 2012 route is a nightmare for both brothers.

Perhaps Bruyneel's greatest first achievement would be to convince both Schlecks to focus on the Giro and Vuelta instead — for surely an overall victory in either of those races would put Andy in better stead going into the 2013 Tour de France rather than another second place or, woe betide, even a place off the podium in Paris?

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