Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tour team: a bunch of question marks

While Euskaltel's team for the Tour de France this year is bereft of surprises and pretty similar to what it's used to be the last few years, several of the riders' form is an unknown only seven days before the grand départ in Liège. With the man himself, Samuel Sánchez, crashing badly and compromising his preparations in the Dauphiné, it may be all or nothing for Euskaltel in France.

That being said, the team includes the usual set of the experienced guys designated to lend Samu a hand on the flats as well as in the mountains. No one were surprised to see Egoi Martínez, Gorka Verdugo, Mikel Astarloza and Rubén Pérez, all proven Grand Tour riders, feature in the line-up. This quartet has shown their ability to peak at the right time in the past, and their lead-ups to the race have been reassuring. Astarloza looked solid in the Swiss mountains, Pérez was at his aggressive best throughout, whilst Martínez and Verdugo looked to be on track in the Dauphiné. The latter's performances may have been unspectacular, but he's always a reliable performer in the Tour and placed a highly creditable 25th last time out. In addition, the team's plans were scuppered by Samu's stage 1-crash, hence restricting some of the riders' chances to go on the offensive.

Gorka Izagirre may have had an underwhelming last 18 months after storming onto the professional stage with two wins in 2010, but the 24-year-old proved his mettle at this race last year with some aggressive performances en route to a 66th place overall. Izagirre looked the part in Suisse, finishing a noteworthy 22nd overall, and would be a good bet for a stage win. What a year that would make for the Izagirre family!

The other riders though don't look to be in the same shape. Pablo Urtasun enjoyed one of his best, if not  the best, springs of his career this season, picking up a raft of top three placings in Spanish races right through to early May. After that, though, results have dried up, and his showing in Suisse was not quite what one would have expected. He's already accumulated 45 days of racing this year, and may be feeling the effects of a hectic first part of the season that took in the Tour Down Under, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Bayern Rundfahrt and the Tour de Suisse, to name but a few. Enjoyed a solid Tour debut last year, but may just have peaked too soon this time around.

Amets Txurruka is the only Giro rider included in the line-up. He's been an attraction and a safe bet in the Tour for years, and looked to be approaching some climbing form reminiscent of years past in Italy, but it remains to be seen how he copes with another three weeks in the saddle so shortly after completing the Giro. Txurruka has clocked up the same number of racing days as Urtasun, but hasn't raced since reaching Milan. Naturally one can only speculate on what his form is like, but it seems certain that he'll need quite a few days in the Tour to get the feel for racing again. He might just come good in time for the climbs in the second and third weeks, but it appears to be a bit of a gamble. Despite his stature, though, he's got quite a motor, so he might just cope.

Jorge Azanza hasn't ridden the Tour since his first year with the team back in 2007, but remains a mainstay of the team despite never picking up results for himself. He's been a valuable and trusted domestique this season, doing big races like País Vasco, the Ardennes classics, Dauphiné and Romandie, but only has a 15th place in Almería to show for his efforts. A true all-rounder, who's decent on the climbs when in shape, he'll be a workhorse for the team on all kinds of terrain. Whether that's enough to significantly aid Samu in his charge for the podium, or pick up results in breaks for that matter, is an altogether different question though.

And then there's poor Samu, who got his lead-up partly ruined by that crash in the Dauphiné. Prior to that though, he enjoyed one of his best seasons to date by finally triumphing in País Vasco and also picking up a stage-win and second overall in the Volta a Catalunya. He's been training at altitude in the Sierre Nevada since completing the Dauphiné, but he'll probably need a few days, much like Txurruka, to get his racing legs on. Luckily this is not the Giro though, so the climbs will only kick in for real in the second week. It's impossible to tell just how much that Dauphiné crash put him back, but I suspect he'll be okay. Whether he's capable of a top three overall remains to be seen, but he'll probably never have a better chance what with Contador and Schleck both not present.

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