Whatever happenned to the Leopard dream? Part two.

The story so far: Flavio Becca has created Leopard-Trek, a slighlty stumbling, finacially uncertain ‘super team’ with its crown jewel riders held up  on shaky, perhaps overhyped foundations. After becoming more famous for finishing second then winning, the occasionally stroppy Becca hires Johan Bruyneel, the self styled master tactition, to take the regins and guide the ailing stars of his new aquisition to glory. Closer to home, he moves to make RadioShack the primary sponsor of the team, despite claiming that he can personally guarentee the team for 4 years. But with the influx of talent from RadioShack to help out, perhaps things will turn around for the team?

In 2012, things didn’t look particullarly brilliant for the newly formed RadioShack Nissan Trek. Even their name would not survive long – UCI rules stipulate a team can only have two title sponsors, and so whilst the team still referred to themselves as all three, in races, they had to be registered as simply RadioShack-Nissan – not exactly good news for the heavily investing Trek, or indeed Nissan, as Mercedes, the sponsor they had replaced, began to consider legal avenues after being forced out after just one year, seemingly without their knowledge. In fact, the whole transistion seemed to have occured without anyones knowledge. Brian Nygaard had already gone to GreenEdge, and riders seemed clueless as to what was going on, especially Jacob Fugslang. When the dust settled, the team had eventually emerged, no doubt with various riders paid off who had posessed contracts, and with, in theory, the cream having risen to the top. If only some thought had been applied to the kit – a dully nationalistic effort which welded the Luxembourg flag to the old Leopard jersey, but not in a good way. Even worse, ina  trend that has been growing, national champions jersies were relegated behind the colours of the team – every member of the team had more of the Luxembourg flag in their jersey then the champion, Frank Schleck.

The nation-based kit wasn’t very inspiring, especially when everyone but Frank looked like the Luxembourg champion

With yet another naming debacle after the joys of ‘it won’t be called Leopard’ the previous year, the team began looking at the best strategy forward. Cancellara was of course going to try and recapture his 2011 form, after the relative dissapoinment of a two bronze medals at the World’s – the first time he had been defeated in the event’s time trial since 2006 (although he didn’t contest 2008). The American contingent shipped over from the original RadioShack would be aiming for the Tour as well as the Amgen Tour of California, with Chris Horner declaring he was a basic shoe in for the win, although reading his interviews, he seems to think he should have won every race he’s entered, Grand Tours and Olympics alike, if only people had supported him. What to do with the Schlecks was more confusing. Popular opinion saw the Tour, with its 100km of time trials, as pointless for the brothers who were famously week at the discipline, but such concerns were dismissed by Andy, who declared that he would work on his position and challenge, as the Giro would be a ‘step down.’

A bright start as Cancellara took the Strade Bianche.

And so with Jacob Fugslang assigned the leaders role in the Giro, the team prepared, and Cancellara, the man they turned to in need, began to deliver. He took the new mergers first win in Italy with the Strade Bianche, and looked in ominous form, breaking away with Peter Sagan in the classics and being prevented from victory only by the return of his old rival, Tom Boonen. Whilst the rest of the team failed to take win anywhere, Cancellara took the Tirreno-Adriatico TT and went into Milan-San Remo fired up…only to come second once more. Still, at least judging by the reaction, everyone gave him a moral victory as the ‘strongest and most deserving rider’, deriding winner Simon Gerrans for not taking a turn, a fun comment from a load of keyboard warriors, I mean after all, it’s so easy to come past Spartacus.

Second once more at Milan San Remo, it’s a good job Cancellara had already won the race in 2008, else it would be his ‘bogey race.’

Whilst ominous given that the last season had kicked off with the same result, there was still hope, until the new Flanders course. Hitting a bottle at a feed station, Cancellara obliterated his collar bone into four pieces, although was confident enough to joke about it by claiming he had dented the road on twitter. Unfortunately, the team was now without its stalwart, and suddenly had to go into the Giro needing a result.

Collarbone destroyed, Cancellara is helped to his feet at Flanders.

Disaster struck of course. Fugslang’s knee played up, and in thw 11th hour, Frank Schleck was drafted in to take his spot. Whilst the team gave indications that another 2008 esque Bruyneel success was on the way, given the similarities to the 2008 race where the team had been hauled off the beach at the last second after Bruyneel guarenteed the entry of Leipheimer, Kloden and winner Contador for Astana, it quickly became clear that this was a pipe dream, and that the move looked slightly desperate. Schleck insited he was under no pressure, and was doing ok until a crash hurt his shoulder, forcing him to withdraw on stage 15. The team’s perfomance was miserable – they failed to place a rider in the top 10 of any of the race competitions bar the SuperTeam – hardly note worthy – and won nothing. The pressure was compounded by their performance in California – defending champ Chris Horner, who had quipped that only two riders on the planet could drop him (Schleck and Contador) was easily dispatched by the top contenders and even by Levi Leipheimer, who had broken a leg just weeks before. The team classification was the best they could show for their efforts.

The ever talkative Chris Horner couldn’t deliver on his own hype.

Meanwhile, the backroom was fizzing away, as a war of words began between the Schlecks and Bruyneel, ever being played down by the team. But there’s no smoke without fire, and the comments of Bruyneel that Schleck has no reason to abandon the Giro on the very evening before he did looked silly, as did both parties attempts to claim misunderstanding. The slanging extended to Andy, who had to confirm he would be riding the Tour, after Bruyneel claimed that the only rider guarnteed to ride was the still recovering Cancellara, although to be fair he later clariffied that the Schlecks would certainly ride. It never bodes well when you claim the only rider on your team sheet is the one with a serious injury.

The Schlecks plowed on however, with Frank coming an impressive second (notice the theme?) in the Tour de Suisse, hinting at a revival, but Andy produced a typically poor Dauphine prologue before crashing in the long TT, struggling on and proclaiming he would not abandon, only to do so. Of course, as is now infamous, he had fractured his hip, and suddenly, the teams two best riders were injured, and the teams best hope of the Tour win was gone, with only hopes of the Vuelta showdown with Contador to sustain the younger Schleck.  To add to the gloom, Frank claimed he could not hold the form he had been having for much longer, and blasted any suggestions he would do well the Tour. But perhaps a pessimist could never be dissapointed?

The Tour prologue around Liege was a rescue for RadioShack. On a slighlty shorter version of the route he had beaten Armstrong on and won his first prologue back in 2004, Cancellara stormed to victory by seven seconds to become the second rider on the team to wear yellow in two years (Not that many remember Schleck’s one day in the lead). Sure, Bruyneel was not present, staying at home due to the USADA investigation into himself, US Postal and Armstrong, but who cares when you have yellow? Of course, second place to Sagan on stage one was to follow, but a first week in yellow was a happy point for the team, and certainly releaved the pressure on a squad who hadn’t appeared to set any goals. What their goal was quickly transpired as they placed 3-4 riders in the lead group and followed wheels – the team classification and with it, a podium place in Paris. Even with Cancellara leaving to attend the birth of his second child, things looked rosy – Voigt managed a 3rd place, and the team gained a strong lead. Even Frank Schleck had managed to do well on some stages.

Finally, some glory.

But the comedy of errors was complete with Schleck’s positive A-sample, which added yet another nail in the teams seemingly over-due coffin. Many clouds now sit above them waiting to burst – one of their star riders derided as a doper, an anti-doping investigation hanging over their team manager, their star no longer the invincible odds on favourite for the Olympic TT gold he would have been but a year ago, and their ‘eternal second’ rider out for longer then expected, perhaps not even to compete in the Vuelta. One of their best riders is not even allowed to compete by the team itself – Fugslang is excluded seemingly for declaring he wanted to leave after critisising the team (despite winning the Tours of Luxembourg and Austria), and so is sidelined from gaining points that would increase his value in the UCI’s not very well thought out ranking system. And then there’s Becca.

Becca has seemingly become involved in a money laundering scandal, and is under invesitgation for alleged financial fraud. Due to this, riders have been complaining about unpaid salaries, and rumours continue to fly about the Schleck brothers leaving the team for either a new German team or to Astana. What seems near certain if you believe the whispers is that the team will near certainly fold at the end of the year. And who could blame them? The experiment clearly hasn’t worked, bar some miracle. The team is full of riders either passed their best, or not as good as they were hyped up to be. Whilst no one would write off Cancellara, Spartacus seems less the gladiator he was, and the perfect match everyone envisioned for Bruyneel and the Schlecks seems anything but.

Where can they go from here? It’s a tricky question. The team will surely now stand on the podium in Paris as best team, but that will be an illusion – the multitude of cracks that permeate them cannot be plastered, and it seems that despite a not bad splattering of results over their two years (with podiums in every monument in 2011), the dream of a national team for Luxembourg is already dead.

RadioShack have had their name/team on the podium in Paris before, but perhaps the Black kit was an omen – the team increasingly reads like an obituary.

Leopard-Trek/RadioShack-Nissan-Trek notable results 2011-12.

2011: 25 victories with 11 different riders and 1 TTT

Grand Tours: 2nd and 3rd overall Tour de France + 1 Stage (18,  Andy Schleck) One day in leaders jersey (Schleck), Vuelta a Espana, TTT and Stage (20, Daniele Bennati), 2 days in leaders jersey (Fugslang, Bennati)

Monuments: 1st, Il Lomardia (Zaugg), 2nd, Milan-San Remo, 3rd, Tour of Flanders, 2nd, Paris-Roubaix, (all Cancellara), 2nd and 3rd, Liege-Bastonge-Liege (Schlecks)

Other: Tour de Suisse, 2 Stages (1 & 9, Cancellara), 1st, Tour of Luxembourg (Gerdermann), 2nd, Ghent-Whevelgem, (Bennati), 1st, Criterium International, (Frank Schleck)

2012: 9 victories with 3 riders.

Grand Tours: Prologue win, Tour de France, one week in leaders jersey (Cancellara), 4x 3rd place, stages of Giro d Italia (Sergent, F. Schleck, Bennati, Nizzolo)

Monuments: 2nd, Milan-San Remo (Cancellara)

Other: 1st, Tour of Luxembourg (Fugslang), 1st, Tour of Austria (Fugslang), 2nd, Tirreno-Adriatico (Horner), 3rd, Tour down Under (Machado), 3rd, Tour of Oman (Gallopin), 2nd, Tour de Suisse, (F. Schleck)

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