2012 Tour de France Contenders: Janez Brajkovic

Last fall, when the RadioShack-Nissan-Leopard-Trek conglomeration was picking riders to hold onto, a name fell on the table and laid there. Janez Brajkovic. You can almost imagine the short hush as Johan Bruyneel, the man responsible for discovering the Slovenia phenom, shook his head and looked at a handful of other riders instead. Jani wasn’t coming back in 2012.

The merger saw Levi Leipheimer gladly leave the set-up, while the Schlecks, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner and riders like Tiago Machado stuck around. It was called a dream squad, and Janez didn’t fit in the picture. On a team with multiple GC contenders and some of the most marketable names in the sport all on one team, the quiet, young Slovenia was too low-key, too known to keep around.

It was announced on September 29, 2011, that Janez would head back to his old squad, Astana, where he got his start alongside Levi Leipheimer, Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador under the tutelage of Johann Bruyneel. Signing originally with Discovery Channel, Brajkovic made the move to Astana when Discovery went belly up in 2007. When Armstrong left to create his RadioShack team, it was Janez Brajkovic’s name on the top of the list to take with him. It was Brajkovic making the long training rides alongside the Texan, spending months in Boulder and Spain to put in miles with the biggest name in the sport. And people still didn’t know who he was.

It was his 2010 Criterium du Dauphine win over Alberto Contador that finally put him on the map. Wearing yellow, he successfully defended his lead against Contador as the pair dueled their way up the 21 switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez. At the summit, Contador shook his head in disbelief as the skeletal Brajkovic slumped over the line behind him, a faint smile on his face.

2012 has been a bit less successful with his new outfit. Fans and the team were disappointed with his performance at the Dauphine, where he finished 7th and was well behind winner Bradley Wiggins almost from the gun. But this year, he’s always going to measured against the riders that RadioShack picked over him, like Chris Horner, Andy Schleck and Jakob Fuglsang. Fuglsang didn’t make RadioShack-Nissan’s Tour squad this year due to injury earlier in the spring, causing him to miss the Giro, too. Chris Horner flopped at the Tour of California and was a late addition to the Tour squad in the absence of Andy Schleck, who is out with a fracture in his tailbone. And the numbers are already in Janez’ favor, with the Slovenian winning a GC overall (Slovenia), a stage at the Volta a Catalunya and taking a top ten at the Dauphine. Andy Schleck has done more abandoning that racing, and Frank Schleck’s second at the Tour de Suisse is all the team have been able to hang their hats on since Fabian Cancellara’s win at Strade Bianche.

At the Tour, Janez Brajkovic will be riding as co-captain alongside Roman Kreuziger. As the stronger time trialist (Janez was the U-23 World Champ) on a course with a lot of TT miles, he should be the best bet for Astana a year after crashing out with a concussion and a broken collarbone in 2011. Of all the GC men, Brajkovic might be the best suited to beat heavy favorite Bradley Wiggins. Both are solid climbers and outstanding TT men, and Brajkovic is capable of beating Wiggins on a very good day, especially if Wiggins has had to defend a lead for a long period of time. Astana has yet to name it’s full squad, but boasts a full stable of climber and strongmen capable of supporting both Kreuziger and Brajkovic  in July.

It’s going to be a race for yellow, sure. But keep a careful eye on where Brajkovic finishes next to the riders Johan Bruyneel thought were better bets that the Slovenia he groomed to win the Tour. The Tour is a race with a lot of little victories, and Brajkovic wouldn’t mind beating all of the RadioShack-Nissan riders deemed better.

The Tour start June 30th in Liege, Belgium.

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