Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We Are Devo: Lay-o-Pard-Trek Earning Their Spots

Leopard-Trek (pronounced Lay-o-pard...Trek) sounds familiar to most people not as the current development team but as the World Tour squad that was created for the 2011 season and formed around the Schleck brothers, the premiere cycling family in Luxembourg. Funded by Flavio Becca, the team lasted only one year under the Leopard name before merging with the former RadioShack squad to create RadioShack-Nissan. Instead of getting rid of Leopard-Trek entirely, the team was turned into a Luxembourg-based development squad (and feeder team to RadioShack) tasked with "promoting and developing Luxembourgish cycling in the world."

Bob Jungels
2012 was a big year for the freshman squad with big wins from Bob Jungels (now Radioshack) and strong performances from Julian Kern (now Ag2r), Alexandre Pliuschin (now IAM), Giorgio Brambilla (Atlas Personal-Jakroo) and Euginio Alafaci. The team graduated 3 riders to WorldTour/Pro Continental squads (Brambilla transfered to a different continental team) but was able to bolster the roster with multiple new signings.

2013 brought changes to the squad. With Bontrager-Livestrong cutting its affiliation with the RadioShack squad, Leopard-Trek is now the sole development team to RadioShack. There are a few things that make this team different than other development squads. Firstly, the team is rather diverse in nationalities where as most development squads are pretty nationally homogenous. Secondly, the majority of the riders are not U-23's, which is again different for a traditional development squad, which usually sees their riders target bigger U23 races. So while part of the team will go for big U-23 events, the rest of the riders are focusing on a big schedule filled with 1.2-2.2 races and taking every opportunity to go up against pro riders.

Let's start with some of the squad's holdovers from 2012...

Eugenio Alafaci was one of the most consistent performers on the squad last year, obtaining 22 top tens over the course of the season, mainly in sprints. Was it a one-off season? 2011: 24 top tens while riding in Italy for the Lucchini Maniva Ski team, a team that also had Moreno Moser. Hell, 2010: 27 top tens. So what is the problem? Well when we combines all three of those seasons and 73 top tens, Alafaci only had two wins as a elite/U23, both of which came in 2010. He obviously has talent but this year will be important for him to get over the hump and get a few wins as an elite.
Jesus Ezquerra

Jesus Ezquerra is a time trial and all-around talent. He first showed himself in 2011 on the Spanish amateur scene as he was 2nd overall in the Copa de España, a yearly ranking of races for Elite/U23 racers in Spain. Signing with Leopard for 2012, where he did solid work for the team throughout the year and made the most of a few chances he got. After getting a bigger role for 2013, Ezquerra took 6th overall at the Istrian Spring Trophy, going well in both the opening prologue (7th) and in the queen stage (8th).

Fabio Silvestre is good at just about everything. He has a sprint, which is obvious by his sprint win in the first stage of the Tour de Normandie, yet he is a good time trialist, as indicated by his U23 Portuguese championship and other strong TT result. He isn't one that has to sit in the bunch either as indicated by his 4th place at the U23 Paris-Tours, where he was apart of a long breakaway that went the distance. Even this season, his dual threat is evident. He was 3rd at the Dorpenomloop Rucphen and 2nd in the bunch gallop. At the Tour de Normandie now, he was 10th in the short prologue before his sprint stage win.

Other holdovers include Swiss classics man Olivier Hofstetter and a trio of Luxembourgish riders in Alex Kirsch, Joel Zangerle and Pit Schlechter. Kirsch had some injuries last year but is trying to develop as a GC man. Zangerle is a decent climber while Schlechter is trying to develop as a classics man, as evident by his 12th at U23 Paris-Roubaix.

Leopard reloaded after losing Jungels and co. to the pros and did so in a big way...

Sean de Bie has been one of the biggest hopes in Belgium since his junior days but has had injury problems in the past and had a bad crash (broken eyesocket and sinus) last August which stopped his season. Coming from a famous cycling family in Belgium can bring lots of pressure, especially when de Bie is in his final U23 season. De Bie will be shooting for high results in the classics, especially the U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen, where he went 2nd last year.

Jan Hirt is probably the purest climber on the squad after doing great rides at the queen stages of Tour de l'Ain and Giro di Padania. The Czech rider stagiaired with the team last summer after finishing 5th overall in the Tour of Slovakia (3rd on the queen stage) and 9th at the Czech Cycling Tour. Still a U23, Hirt might be targeting bigger U23 races throughout the season.

Coming from the Danish Tre-For squad, Kristian Haugaard Jensen is a punchy climber who should enjoy success on shorter, steeper climbs. Jensen finished 5th in the youth classification at the Tour of Denmark last season and finished 16th on the race's queen stage. Finishing 7th overall in the hilly Istrian Spring Tour was a solid start to the season for the U23 rider and results like that should be repeatable.

Daniel Klemme is the younger brother of IAM Cycling's Dominik and seems to take after his brother as a classics man with a fast finish.

Max Durtschi is a former US junior national champion who is a good climber but needs time to adapt to European racing before he makes a big splash.

Other new riders include Italian Piero Baffi and Luxembourger Tom Thill. Baffi, the son of team DS Adriano Baffi, is a sprinter just like his father and grandfather but has a bit more rouleur in him. Thill is an additional Luxembourger who is a rider who is a worker but gets a result here or there.

Now there is a catch-22 for the team in that RadioShack is most likely going to cease sponsorship after this season so riders won't have assured stagiaire positions past this season and won't be assured spots on a team if there were any potential for openings. (There are rumors of Danilo Hondo creating a high-level team after his retirement but as of now, they are just that.) So I postulate a question...if RadioShack folds and their is no direct feeder team for Leopard-Trek, will Flavio Becca be interested in extending the team's sponsorship?  In any case, the riders on Leopard-Trek will be busting their ass to get big results (and a spot on a pro team) so they can avoid this possibility.

Note: Photos used in this article are by Petit Brun and are used under the Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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