The ProTour landscape is undergoing seismic shifts for 2012. Following a week of speculation, RadioShack and Leopard Trek made it official yesterday that they will merge for next season to form the RadioShack Nissan Trek Professional Cycling Team. The news comes just weeks after confirmation that Quick Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto will join forces to create a Belgian superteam called Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Adding to the upheaval, HTC Highroad, one of the peloton's most successful teams and home to dominant sprinter Mark Cavendish and a host of other talent, announced a few weeks ago that it would be closing its doors at the end of the season after the team was unable to secure a title sponsor.
All the jostling and maneuvering is good for some: the mergers are creating extremely powerful alliances and have also bolstered existing teams' rosters with free agents. But with fewer ProTour teams (the changes could mean as few as 16 ProTour teams next year, down from 18 in 2011) and the market flooded with talented riders, it will probably also mean lower salaries and many accomplished riders left without teams since rosters are capped at 30. Here's a quick look at the shifting landscape:
RadioShack-Nissan-Trek Professional Cycling Team This merger can't be overstated as it brings together two extremely talented and deep teams. The full roster hasn't yet been disclosed (negotiations are certain to be ongoing), but what's clear so far is this: time trial world champion Fabian Cancellara and grand tour contenders Andy and Franck Schleck will continue forward from Leopard-Trek, while Tour of California champ Chris Horner, Tour de France veteran Andreas Klöden and national champ Jani Brajkovic will make the cut from RadioShack. That line-up will instill fear in the hearts of every other team out there (and there's more talent on tap), but arguably the biggest news is that Johan Bruyneel, who guided Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador to a combined total of 10 grand tour titles, will take the helm, which could be just the ingredient the Schlecks need to finally top the podium at the Tour. Contador himself even sounded a note of concern.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step After competing for the past several seasons for supremacy as the top Belgian team in the world, Omega Pharma-Lotto (OPL) and Quick Step (QS) gave up the fight and joined forces. Classics specialists Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel, who previously rode for QS, will anchor the team, and the addition of sprinter André Greipel from OPL will make the team that much more competitive in both the classics and the mass finishes. The new team also benefits from the shut-down at Highroad, with the addition of TT specialist Tony Martin, who has attained Cancellara-level success this year, and Slovakian brothers Martin and Peter Velits, the latter of whom placed third at the 2010 Vuelta a España. Levi Leipheimer, a casualty of the contractions at RadioShack in spite of his recent wins at the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Cycling Challenge, will bolster the new team's GC resumé.
BMC Racing Team After riding it's most successful season ever by placing Cadel Evans atop the podium in Paris, this Swiss team looks to get even more powerful for 2012. The team already had impressive depth, with, among others, Evans, all-arounder George Hincapie, classics specialist Alessandro Ballan, and rising American star Taylor Phinney. By wooing Philippe Gilbert, the reigning Belgian national champ who won almost everything he entered this year including all three Ardennes Classics, a stage at the Tour, and the prestigious Clásica San Sebastián, BMC scored what is easily the most coveted signing of the year. They didn't stop there: from Garmin-Cervélo, they picked up road racing world champion Thor Hushovd, and from Highroad they grabbed Italian TT champ Marco Pinotti and American up-and-comer Teejay Van Garderen.
GreenEdge Cycling The other big beneficiary of all the toings-and-froings is this all-new Australian outfit. Because of the downsizings, the team will almost certainly be up for one of the recently vacated UCI ProTour licenses, and they've also managed to pick off an impressive roster of riders. Just today, the team announced the signing of 2011 Milan-San Remo winner Matt Goss, who is another casualty of the HTC-Highroad shutdown. GreenEdge has also inked, among others, Aussies Stuart O'Grady (from Leopard Trek), Baden Cooke (from Saxo Bank-Sunguard), and Robbie McEwen (from RadioShack). There's even talk that Manxman Mark Cavendish could join the team, though the world's fastest sprinter has also been linked to Team Sky and hasn't yet made an official announcement.
On paper, all of these teams are now major forces. But lots of big names on a team doesn't necessarily make for huge success. After last year's merger between Garmin-Transitions and Cervélo TestTeam, all the talk was how the new team, which brought together Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, Tyler Farrar, Roger Hammond, and other one-day specialists and sprinters, would dominate the Spring Classics. In the end, the team managed to win only Paris-Roubaix (and not with any of its stars but with domestique Johan Van Summeren), and Hushovd left Garmin-Cervélo discontented after just one year, citing the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen syndrome. Remember, too, that every winner of the Tour de France in the last 13 years except one has come from a team with a single dedicated leader. (Contador topped teammates Lance, Kloden, Leipheimer in a contentious 2009 edition.) So it will be interesting to see how these new superteams will be able to balance the competing needs and interests of their big-name rosters.
The other take-away from all the mergers, acquisitions, and shutdowns is just how tough a time it is in cycling. It's worrying that HTC-Highroad, the most successful team in the ProTour with 47 wins to date in 2011, couldn't find a sponsor, and financial concerns are also clearly a driving factor behind the other new alliances. While it's easy to blame all the scandals that have rocked the sport for spooking big business away from sponsorships, other factors, such as the contracting economy as well as the UCI's insistence that ProTour teams field squads for every race on the calendar (meaning teams have to be very deep), are also at play. The silver lining is that this tumultuous off season is turning out to be nearly as dramatic and action-packed as all the exciting racing we've seen in 2011.