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NTSF 100: Celebrating a century with cycling news, a non-traditional take on college football and more…

So it’s been a crazy journey over the past couple years. When I sat down at FanNation in March 2008 — prodded by a friend on the site to write a weekly article for one of his groups — and penned the first edition of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America, I was simply setting out to define what has made me the type of sports fan that I’ve evolved into over the years. Little did I know then that a simple rant about my personal proclivities would evolve into a full-fledged column that has traversed time and appearances on three different websites to become what it is today. It’s been a crazy journey, full of twists and turns both in the global realm of sports and on a more personal level in my own life.

A simple scan of SI.com led to the innocent-enough rant that would take root and become a column that, two years later, is a hundred editions strong and counting!

Since that fateful Thursday two-plus years ago when the journey began, I’ve lived in even more residences than have housed the column. But even as things change, so too do they stay the same. I still work by day at the University of Oregon, putting that culinary degree to some semblance of use in the catering department on campus. By night I still keep staying up way too late, surfing the nether-regions of the cerebral vortex that is cyberspace and tapping out words into the wee hours of the morning. I still enjoy a cocktail as I write… and I still think far too much about performance-enhancing drugs as I drink them down and continue working the keyboard.

The format has expanded — and is still always malleable, if there’s anything in particular you faithful readers desire to see as a regular feature. Since that first disjointed rant, this space has evolved a more codified format. Regular features such as “Tooling Aroung the Net” and “On the Docket” have become weekly staples. The former is there every Thursday, helping to keep you up-to-date on those particular readings I’ve found interesting and wish to share; the latter is the primer of what’s coming up over the weekend and up until our next time together.

It’s been a hell of a ride so far, and I appreciate all the comments, suggestions and questions which have come in over the past two years from all of you out there. If all goes well, a book should be coming out sometime early 2011 — it looks like it will be part almanac, part year-in-review, and part memoir (some might say cautionary tale), taking you through what it is like to spend an entire year immersed in as much as one man can gobble up on the smorgasbord offered by sporting communities around the world. And now that a new home has been found here at Sports Nickel, I’ll still be churning out the volumes week after week. It may be laborious at times, but being A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America is nothing but a labor of love…

SEE EVERY ONE OF THE 100 NTSF ARTICLES HERE!

TALKING ABOUT THE PROTOUR AHEAD OF THE VUELTA…

Farrar defends Vattenfall Cyclassics title

The Vattenfall Cyclassics — as the only UCI ProTour event on the calendar in Germany, the one-day classic has been taking place annually since 1996 — had never until this year seen a repeat champion. It is a race that favors the rider who has either been away from the Tour de France and is getting ready for the Vuelta. The list of former winners, a who’s who of the sport’s great sprinters (including McEwen, Freire, Erik Zabel, Johan Museeuw, and Paolo Bettini), had been without a two-time winner. So now, as he enters the prime of his career, Farrar once again sets himself up as a man to watch in the sprints heading into a Vuelta that should be jam-packed with perhaps its most talented cast of rider’s in the race’s long history….

READ MORE HERE

As we get nearer to the start of the Vuelta a España in the last week of August, several different things are coming to a head. The UCI ProTour has found its way back into the news lately. I have a special fondness for the pet project of former UCI president Hein Verbruggen, his last attempt to unify the elite events on the international cycling calendar with the top teams and the best riders. Ultimately it proved futile — the weight of the large-scale race organizers headed by Amaury Sport Organization, the management of the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix and other legendary races throughout France and Belgium, served to collapse the always-tenuous hold Verbruggen’s pipe dream had on the calendar. But despite having penned down this effective obituary for the ProTour before the fact, and despite the fact that a piecemeal version of the ProTour exists mostly as a satellite schedule of feeder events that provide training and race miles for the top teams in preparation for the biggest classics and the grand tours that fall outside its rankings, it still apparently holds the various teams captive.

This is the time of year when teams start to clamor for those eighteen spots available. With ten teams already renewed through 2011, there are just eight licenses up for grabs… and fourteen teams clamoring for them. Eight are teams requesting renewal of contracts which expire at the end of 2010, two are former ProTour license holders looking to reenter the top ranks of the sport, and four more still are either newly-formed teams for 2011 looking to start right out at the top or lower-level teams looking to promote up to the ProTour.

So who has the best chance at getting licenses? Who are these fourteen teams battling for the eight golden paydays, if you will? After all, while these spots don’t guarantee passage into the Giro or Tour or Vuelta, they do confer upon these teams a certain cachet that makes them more appealing to the race organizers when selection time comes (grand tours are obligated to take only the top 14 teams out of the 18 ProTour members, though usually most if not all make it in). And there are some heavy hitters aboard. Let’s take a look…

SAFE TEAMS IN 2011 (10) EXPIRING CONTRACTS (8) SEEKING PROMOTION (6)
AG2R

Garmin-Transitions

Lampre

Omega-Lotto

Quick Step

Rabobank

Team Sky

Katusha

Radio Shack

Saxo Bank

Astana

Euskaltel-Euskadi

Milram1

Française des Jeux

Geox2

Liquigas

HTC-Columbia

Team Movistar3

Bouygues Telecom*

BMC

Cofidis*

Pegasus Sports

Luxembourg Cycling Project

Vacansoleil

1 — seeking sponsorship for 2011

2 — formerly Footon-Servetto

3 — formerly Caisse d’Epargne

* — former ProTour teams

Who amongst the teams has the best chances moving forward of obtaining one amongst that precious octet of slots still available? In order of probability, here’s who I think will make the cut:

  1. HTC-Columbia — With sprinters Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel leading the way, HTC-Columbia is probably the team most assured of retaining a spot in the ProTour for 2011 and beyond. A consistent threat in the grand tours and a big draw at races abroad such as the Tour of California, the American team that Bob Stapleton crafted out of the wreckage of the T-Mobile powerhouse will give the United States representation by four squads out of the eighteen in 2011 (see fourth below). For those who continue to assume that cycling is going to dry up and fade away in this country once Lance Armstrong finally retires for good, the upswing in participation from grassroots to the cream of the crop continues to prove otherwise.
  2. They'll be riding in different jerseys for a new squad based in their homeland, but the Schleck brothers will still be part of all of cycling's biggest events in 2010...

    Luxembourg Cycling Project — The team has yet to suit up for a single race. It has yet to even reveal its 2011 title sponsor. But the team designed to capitalize on the growth of cycling in the small European grand duchy of less than a thousand square miles will make it into the 2011 ProTour on its first try for two simple reasons: Andy and Frank Schleck. The two brothers naturally signed on to the project, as the growth in cycling in the country has coincided with their burst onto the scene. Frank, the elder brother, has been national champion three times and has won both small yet prestigious stage races such as the Tour de Suisse along with classics like the Amstel Gold Race. His younger brother, Andy, has done his sibling one better. The younger Schleck has been the best young rider at each of the past three Tours de France; in 2009 and 2010 he was runner-up to Alberto Contador. They are the reason this team gets into the ProTour.

  3. Team Movistar — The team has had many sponsors over the years, but the link to the past has remained throughout. Originally formed in 1980 as the Reynolds team, the team has sustained three decades of continuous presence at the top of the sport. From former Tour de France winners Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain to Oscar Pereiro’s improbable ride in 2006 that retroactively handed him the maillot jaune, the team has gone from Reynolds to Banesto to Illes Balears to Caisse d’Epargne without sacrificing an iota of excellence. This team of Eusebio Unzue, one of the sport’s legendary figures, will certainly be amongst those appearing in the ProTour in 2011.
  4. Liquigas — Most recently this team captured the Giro d’Italia with Ivan Basso, and is currently ranked fifth in the UCI World Ranking for teams. But this team is far more than just the wily veteran who returned from his suspension for involvement in the Operacion Puerto doping scandal to win another Giro. Roman Kreuziger, Vincenzo Nibali, Valerio Agnoli and Robert Kiserlovski are a power-packed quartet that are all 25 years old or younger and just coming into their prime. As we saw in Italy this May, the decade-old outfit offers up one of the deepest rosters in the peloton. As the preeminent Italian team at the moment, the UCI would be absurd to deny the ProTour license to Liquigas.
  5. BMC — This will be the fourth American-registered team in the 2011 ProTour, thanks largely to the presence of current world champion Cadel Evans. Evans, twice the runner-up at the Tour de France and for the better part of the past decade one of the more dangerous GC riders in the peloton, lends the team all the credibility it needs to slip into the ProTour for its first time. Alessandro Ballan, the 2008 world champion and former Tour of Flanders winner, lends additional credence to their inclusion, as does up-and-coming time-trial specialist Brent Bookwalter.
  6. Euskaltel-Euskadi — What would life be like without the Basques? A traditional hotbed of cycling and individual identity, the orange-clad riders of Euskaltel-Euskadi have represented their region (all riders for the squad must either be from the Basque country or have familial ties to the territory) with distinction for over sixteen years now. Its current star, Samuel Sanchez, has been on the cusp of greatness over the past few years. Last year he lost out on the Vuelta to Alejandro Valverde; this year he was standing on the podium at the Tour de France until the penultimate stage when Denis Menchov leapfrogged him in the standings thanks to a stronger time-trial performance.
  7. Astana — Two things could certainly hurt the Kazakh team’s bid to stay in the ProTour. First, the loss of Alberto Contador after 2010, to fill the leadership void at Saxo Bank left by the departed Schleck brothers, will leave the team without any true contenders. This team is going to look a lot more like the true Kazakh squad envisioned by Alexander Vinokourov when he stepped in to rescue the pieces of the Liberty Seguros squad. But even if he races next year, he is no grand tour threat anymore now that he is soon to be 37 years old and has been away from the sport for years. But they’ve also been at the top of the UCI World Ranking each of the only two years it has been calculated, and it’d be surprising to see them snubbed as long as the financial backing is still there.
  8. Bouygues Telecom — Why Bbox-Bouygues Telecom? Well, I find it hard to believe that UCI would allow the traditional standard-bearer of the sport of cycling just one team at the highest rank of the sport. AG2R is the obvious class of French cycling currently, and both Bouygues Telecom and Cofidis are clamoring for that other spot. (It’s amazing to think America will get four team slots and the French are battling just for a second.) Cofidis currently leads the UCI rankings by a single point over Bouygues, 148-147. But I’m guessing top-ten appearances by the team at both the Giro and the Tour this year will sway the decision in their favor.

And here are the six who won’t get in and why they’ll see their bids denied:

  1. Milram — Sponsorship. Sponsorship and big names. Guys like Gerald Ciolek will get nabbed up quickly by the other sharks; the rest will fade off to Continental teams or into obscurity. This team splashed onto the scene five years ago thanks to the prowess of its twin sprinting sensations, Erik Zabel and Alessandro Petacchi. Now Zabel is retired, Petacchi is at Lampre and Milram is toast.
  2. This might be the last time these two dozen guys all assemble together for a team photo as Milram seeks 2011 sponsorship...

    Française des Jeux — Results. As the second-worst placed amongst the five French squads in the top 30 of the world standings (and at #25, no less), there is simply no way that the UCI can justify the continued inclusion of this squad. It was always going to be a three-way battle between the three French teams lumped together at #18 through #20 in the world ranking. And FdJeux misses out by a wide margin.

  3. Geox — Even worse results. Only Skil-Shimano ranks lower amongst the top 30, and no one is pretending that they are a ProTour-worthy squad. Despite nabbing a big new sponsor for 2011 and beyond, the simple fact is that this squad is simply not good enough at this time to compete throughout the season against the elite. Like with Pegasus, inability to be consistently competitive will come into play.
  4. Cofidis — Grand tour performance. While they aren’t directly a part of the ProTour calendar, the fact that the gap between this team and Bouygues Telecom left the three grand tours as the final determinant. Cofidis placing 4th in the 2009 Vuelta wasn’t enough to displace Bouygues, who has been there at the past two grand tours in greater force. After all, it was apparent after 2009 they weren’t up to snuff.
  5. Pegasus Sports — Obscurity. This team has been racing to this point as a domestic team pretty much in the American calendar, with brief forays back to home soil (but not yet for even the Tour Down Under). The UCI would love to have an Aussie team to build the base around following the September world championships being held in Melbourne and Geelong, but they can’t ignore the lack of strength here.
  6. Vacansoleil — Name recognition. The Dutch squad has been slowly building itself over the past two years, picking up results here and there with guys like Borut Bozic and Johnny Hoogerland and Bobbie Traksel. But they still have yet to really make an impression. Their one grand tour appearance, at the 2009 Vuelta, they finished 15th of 22 teams; just as the Vuelta didn’t invite them back, neither will the UCI invite them into the ProTour.

After all, it’s a tough business in professional cycling. Nothing is ever guaranteed, and even the most solid of foundations can crumble in an instant. Yesterday’s dominant powerhouse is tomorrow’s cannon fodder. That’s the beauty and the burden of the sport, all wrapped in a layer of mystique and suffering…

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Zach is a writer and editor who covers a wide array of sports both traditional and non-traditional. Formerly the managing editor of Informative Sports before joining Sports Nickel, Zach has been covering events international and domestic for various publications since 2006. Find him @zbigalke on Twitter.

Zach Bigalke has written 289 posts for SportsNickel.com

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5 Comments

  1. Mariner Mariner Eccles says:

    Congrats on #100.

    I like the depth you covered in this.

  2. Rich Stowe Rich Stowe says:

    Congrats on #100 Zach….and best wishes to Baun-ded

  3. David David says:

    congrats on the C-note

    but no favre?

  4. BloodSweat&Beers says:

    Looking forward to your breakdown of the Vuelta

  5. Zach Bigalke Zach Bigalke says:

    The Vuelta preview should be out within the next week… with a lot of stars showing up to Spain this year, it should be one hell of a race!

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