The 2012 Tour de France will probably be won by Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins. If not, it will almost certainly be won by another rider from across the pond.
Cycling started as a European-dominated sport. Not until 1986 did American Greg LeMond win the Tour de France and it started earning the attention of the world. LeMond repeated in 1989 and 1990; then nine years passed before Lance Armstrong started his string of seven.
Armstrong rode for a few U.S. teams: 7-11 (which is now Motorola) U.S. Postal, and Discovery (and RadioShack for his comeback.) Prior to Armstrong, there weren’t a lot of U.S. teams seriously shaking up European Pro Tour cycling.
Spurred mostly by Armstrong’s amazing success, that has started to change—but the rate of change has been uneven.
Four American teams entered in 2011, and three did well. Winner Cadel Evans rode for the U.S.-based, Swiss-funded BMC team. HTC-Highroad dominated the sprint stages and the Points Classification, while Garmin-Cervelo won the Team Classification and four stages. Only RadioShack didn’t score—crashes and injuries wiped out the team’s General Classification contenders.
For 2012 there is a much different picture of the top level of American cycling.
RadioShack will be back, though only Frank Schleck, and not his brother Andy, will ride. Otherwise the team has some challengers like Andreas Kloden and Chris Horner, but they might be getting a bit old to challenge over 21 stages. Horner might have both the time-trialing and climbing ability to be a podium contender, but a winner? Perhaps there are too many seasons on those legs for a victory.
One of RadioShack’s 2011 stars, Levi Leipheimer, moved to the Omegas Pharma-Lotto super team—but that team hasn’t gelled, and Leipheimer unfortunately was hit by a car while training, suffering a broken leg. He will ride the tour, but it is hard to believe he will be in top form after losing five weeks training.
Garmin is now Garmin-Barracuda, and just like last year they have some of the second best riders in the race. Sprinter Tyler Farrar is fast, but not quite as fast as Cavendish. Team leader Ryder Hesjedal, a Canadian, is good, but still young; he did win the Giro d’Italia, but since then he hasn’t shown the legs or the technique to beat Wiggins and the Sky brigade.
Christian Vande Velde is another great American rider on Garmin, but an older version of Hesjedal. Vande Velde was almost a superstar but a little bad luck stole his best chances. Now he will be a great support for the best American; neither likely will be quite good enough. Podium? Sure. Top step? Not unless others have bad luck.
HTC dissolved; once the winningest team in cycling, HTC is now defunct. A lot of their firepower went to Sky; the rest scattered.
BMC has two notable Americans, George Hincapie, riding his record-setting 17th tour, and Tejay Van Garderen, an excellent young American rider who probably will win a grand tour or two in his career—but not this year. Like Hesjedal and Vande Velde, these are really fine riders whose time has either yet to come or has passed. Neither will have quite enough to get Evans back to the top of the podium.
America has a few very good riders coming up. Along with Van Garderen and Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky and Peter Stetina show promise. Stetina did well in the Giro, helping Hesjedal win, and Talansky took second overall in the Tour de Romandie.
In fact, Garmin-Barracuda might be America’s best hope for cycling success. The Schlecks are rumored to be leaving RadioShack; Garmin has the greatest depth of young riders. Hesjedal, Talansky, and Stetina could become household names—at least among homes with cycling fans.
But not this year. This year belongs to Bradley Wiggins and Sky.
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