After another crazy week that has eliminated several pre-race favorites, the 2012 Tour de France appears to have become the two-rider battle between Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and BMC’s Cadel Evans that many expected it to be.
Or has it?
With men like Vincenzo Nibali, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Andreas Kloden, and Samuel Sanchez positioned near the top of the GC as the race hits the mountains, there are still several men capable of upsetting the apple cart. And with talented teams like Garmin-Sharp, Rabobank, and Europcar gunning for stage wins now, these mountain stages could be faster, more aggressive, and harder for teams like Sky and BMC to control.
In other words, let’s not hand the race to Wiggins and Evans—at least not yet. There’s still room for an upset.
Take Katusha’s Denis Menchov for example. The Russian is actually the most successful grand tour winner in the bunch, having won the Tour of Spain twice and the Tour of Italy once so far in his career. He’s also finished inside the Tour’s top-3 on two occasions. Physically, Menchov should have no problems with the mountains of this year’s Tour de France and he can certainly hold his own in the race’s two long time trials. And with Wiggins and Evans marking one another heavily, Menchov is perfectly poised to add the one grand tour still missing from his palmares.
He’s the perfect dark horse in a race that still contains several of them.
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
With four riders jammed within 96 seconds of Joaquim Rodriguez’s maglia rosa, we’re about to witness one of the closet Giro finishes in recent years.
Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal is Rodriguez’s closest challenger. With two stages in the Dolomites and the final stage’s individual time trial in Milan, can the Canadian overcome the deficit to win his nation’s first grand tour?
And what about Liquigas-Cannondale’s Ivan Basso and Lampre’s Michele Scarponi? The Italians have won the last two editions (although Scarponi took his by virtue of Contador’s disqualification), but sit more than a minute behind Rodriguez. They might have the strongest teams in the race, but do they have the legs to gain back the time they lost to Rodriguez earlier in the three-week event?
No matter what happens, this weekend will likely bring the closest finish in recent memory.
So who’s your pick to take the win and how will he do it?
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
When Padraig asked me if I wanted to attend a small SRAM event during the first weekend of my trip to Flanders and Roubaix last month, I needed no time to think about my answer. After all, I was heading over anyway (to ride the Flanders Sportive and watch the both races)—why not spend a few days with other media types getting to know the latest innovations from SRAM, Zipp, and Quarq?
I landed on a cold, grey Friday morning a few weeks later and headed straight for our hotel. After some introductions and a quick lunch, we piled into vans for a field trip hosted by Jason Phillips and Ben Raby, two of SRAM’s European Sponsorship liaisons. Our first stop was Liquigas-Cannondale, a team who switched to SRAM at the beginning of the 2011 season. Interestingly, none of the Liquigas bikes we saw were running the new Red. Distribution is still taking its time to catch-up with demand, and only a handful of riders in the professional peloton had it on their bikes. Instead, Liquigas was running the “old” Red, albeit one with custom graphics to match the bright green of the riders’ bikes and kits.
Parked to the side was the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team car that brought Sylvain Chavanel to a press conference being held in the hotel’s conference room. Luckily for us, the team was kind enough to bring along one of Chavanel’s race bikes—with the number from his victory in the Three Days of DePanne still attached. Omega Pharma-Quick Step uses its service course as a base of operations throughout most of the spring classics (meaning less casual access for journalists and fans), so I was excited to have a chance to see Chavanel’s bike up close.
As the French Champion and a favorite for Flanders Sunday, Chavanel was, along with teammate Tom Boonen, one of the few riders lucky enough to have the new Red 2012 groupset. Jason pulled the bike down from its rack and began walking us through each component. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step deal was a major coup for SRAM as the team agreed to ride Red components and Zipp wheels, but Zipp bars, stems, and seat posts and Quarq power meters as well. The team’s decision to ride Specialized bicycles certainly helped matters, but this is one of the first instances where SRAM has been able to provide a team with just everything it has available.
But while pro bikes are always nice to see, I was here to experience Flanders—and SRAM Red 2012—for myself. Saturday offered me more than my fair share of both.
Each year, more than 15,000 people tackle the Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Wielertouristen one day before the professionals. There is a reason why you might not be able to imagine what it is like to ride with 14,999 other people: because it’s insane. At the start, people and bikes were everywhere and came in all shapes and sizes: young and old; men, women, and children; road, mountain, and hybrid bikes—even a few tandems! Some people wore sneakers—others had backpacks. Of course, this being Belgium, there were several hundred Omega Pharma-Quick Step jerseys as well.
On the road, I immediately noticed the relative silence of the new drivetrain—a big effort went into creating an altogether quieter experience. To achieve this, SRAM replaced the original Red cassette with the new Powerdome X cassette, a lighter, drilled-out cassette cluster similar to what SRAM uses for its XX mountain bike groupset. StealthRing elastomers have also been added between cogs, dampening vibration and reducing noise even more.
Shift lever ergonomics are vastly improved as well. On the “old” Red, it took a while for my hands to get used to feeling the shift and brake cable housing enter the level underneath the hoods. SRAM redesigned this transition with the new Red, making a smoother, more fluid interface between the housing, the bars, and levers. This offers a pleasant place on the hoods to rest your hands while improving the shifting even more (derailleur cables now have a more direct route to the shifter, meaning less drag and cleaner shifts). SRAM also provides a newly textured hood for extra grip on gloveless days. Lastly, the levers are fully customizable thanks to SRAM’s Independent Reach Adjust mechanism—folks with small hands will certainly appreciate that!
On smooth roads bike was incredible. I found Cannondale’s SuperSix EVO to be one of the lightest and stiffest bikes I’ve ever ridden with what I have come to consider a “World Tour” ride quality that begged me to get out of the saddle and accelerate. I especially appreciated this at the end of the day, on the wide, flat roads from the top of the Paterberg (the final climb) to the finish back in Oudenaarde. As the wind picked-up and echelons began forming, I found the bike gave me an extra gear, responding quickly as I jumped from echelon to echelon, pretending I was fighting my way back up to the leading group on my way to “winning” my first Ronde.
Riding an event like the Tour of Flanders is one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences that subjects you to a whole slew of conflicting emotions: you love it, you hate it; you’re exhilarated, you’re exhausted; you’re optimistic, you have no idea why you signed up for an 85-mile event in mid-April with only 6 weeks of solid riding in your legs.
You get the idea.
My first moment of apprehension arrived with the day’s first cobbled sector. A long, flat stretch of about two kilometers, the gutters were littered with water bottles, wrenched from their cages by riders too lactic to have noticed they were gone. Here, the stiffness of the bike (and its saddle) became more of a detriment. I remember wondering, “Are pros just more accustomed to how bikes like this feel on cobblestones?” And then it hit me. I stopped and examined my tires; the pressure was too high. Burping some air helped, but the harshness was something I would be forced to deal with several more times throughout the day.
But the bike made up for it on the climbs. First up was the Molenberg. Picking my way through several hundred riders—all climbing at different speeds—I realized that the day’s biggest challenge would be making it up each climb with my feet still clicked into the pedals. Luckily, the new Red handles shifting under load beautifully—I slipped the chain into the cassette’s biggest cog and picked my way through the mayhem. The new Red levers also felt as if they have been tightened-up on the inside. Shifts were crisp and gave positive feedback. Each shift was distinct and clear, even on rough, cobbled roads.
At the top of the Molenberg, it was time for me to reassess what I hoped to get out of this experience. I started the day with two goals: First, I wanted to survive it without bonking, blowing-up completely, or embarrassing myself. Second, I wanted to document as much of it as possible, even if that meant stopping frequently for photos. But the Molenberg showed me that making it over every climb without having to put a foot down would be an achievement in and of itself; I added that to the list.
From there I decided to treat each climb as its own finish line of sorts, mentally preparing myself for each and counting them down to mark my progress. The 22% beast of the Koppenberg came soon after the day’s first feed zone. Everyone was fresh, fueled, and feeling heroic. Sure enough, the crowds were dense, and I sat at the bottom, propped on a barricade, waiting for a lull between waves of riders making their way up the steep cobbled slope. Again, the new Red worked like a charm. Hands on the tops of the bars, I relied on my easiest gear. Keeping my ass on the seat and legs spinning at a high cadence enabled me to maneuver as if I were on a mountain bike and I made it to the top cleanly. I was finally starting to get the hang of this again, 15 years after mastering it for the first time.
Success on the Koppenberg buoyed my spirits for the next two hours, but I knew that two of the day’s toughest climbs awaited at the end: the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. Since I knew it was not as steep as the others, I started the Kwaremont a bit over-geared. But as soon as the cobbles began I regretted this decision and—promising to return another day to tackle it at speed—I upshifted to snake my way through walkers and slow-moving cyclists as I passed earlier. Success!
The Kwaremont dumps you onto a two-lane national road with a smooth surface and a wide bike lane. A left turn and a nasty false flat then take you to the top of the descent that ends at the foot of the Paterberg, a short, but steep cobbled climb that maxes-out at 20%. It’s also the last climb of the day.
The descent to the bottom of the Paterberg was narrow, technical, and fast. Imagining how fast the pros would tackle it the next day, I made my own bid for glory. There were few riders on the road at this point, and I was able to push the bike as far as I was willing to take it, braking late and carving the corners. Braking was even more powerful and smooth than the original Red—even with carbon-specific brake pads.
The Paterberg’s difficulty is exacerbated by the run into it. You scream down the descent into a tight right-hand corner that immediately sends you up the Paterberg’s steep, cobbled grade. Braking, downshifting (front), and upshifting (rear) simultaneously, I expected to drop my chain and prepared myself for the unenviable task of beginning the climb from a dead stop. But despite breaking every rule in the book, the bike shifted, the chain stayed engaged, and I attacked the last climb in the Tour of Flanders.
Back at the hotel, SRAM’s Michael Zellmann asked me what I thought. Struggling to come up with something eloquent or “techie” say, all I could manage was, “Well, it’s just better”.
“That’s exactly the reaction we’re hoping for.” He continued:
“You see, while everyone else is trying to reinvent the groupset [by going electronic or hydraulic], we felt traditional mechanical groupsets had yet to be perfected. Based on feedback we received about the original Red and our own research and testing, we knew there was still room to improve. With Red 2012, we feel we’ve created the best mechanical groupset in the world.”
Granted, I only spent a day on it, but after what the Ronde put us both through, I’m inclined to agree.
The 2012 Giro d’Italia begins this Saturday in Denmark—here are 6 questions on my mind heading into this year’s first grand tour.
1. Will Taylor Phinney be the first American since Christian Vande Velde to don the Giro’s maglia rosa?
Looking over the Giro’s start list, there appear to be few riders able to defeat American Taylor Phinney in the 8.7-kilometer individual time trial that opens the race Saturday. From there, two field sprints are likely to follow, then a travel day and a team time trial once the race returns to Italy on Wednesday. Phinney’s BMC sqaud holds no GC aspirations—it’s racing simply to win stages. With the young American, Norway’s Thor Hushovd (perhaps Phinney;s greatest competition Saturday), and a supporting cast that just won the TTT at the Giro del Trentino, look for BMC to make its mark early—perhaps with Phinney leading the charge.
2. Can Tyler Farrar find his field sprint speed?
Tyler Farrar spent the first part of the season training for the classics—now he turns his attention to the Giro, hoping to regain the sprint speed that won him his first stage in the Tour de France last July. Farrar won two stages in Italy in 2010, beating men like Matthew Goss, Andre Greipel, and Alessandro Petacchi to take what were then the biggest grand tour victories of his career. This year, Farrar faces Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish at the Giro, a rider also trying to ride his way back into shape after some time away from the bike. A win would certainly be a confidence boost for the American, who is still winless on the season following his cobbled focus.
3. Will Mark Cavendish prove that his lead-out train deserves a place in Team Sky’s roster for the Tour de France?
Bradley Wiggins has won Paris-Nice and the Tour of Romandie so far this season, making him one of the top picks to win this summer’s Tour de France. So it’s only natural that some have started to wonder how the aspirations of the defending green jersey champ (and 20-time stage winner) Cavendish and an in-form Wiggins can co-exist in a squad with room for only nine riders. Sprinting is a team venture, and Cavendish needs a strong performance in Italy to prove to Team Sky management that he deserves to have his full lead-out train (with men like Danny Pate and Bernard Eisel) on the Tour’s starting line in Liege.
4. Will Damiano Cunego thwart Scarponi’s attempt to win the Giro “for real”?
With two defending champions starting the race, Lampre’s official stance is that Scarponi is going for the overall while Cunego is hunting for stage wins and fitness for the Tour de France—a race in which he finished sixth last year. But while Scarponi has progressed steadily as a Giro GC contender (he finished fourth in 2010 and then was awarded the overall title after Alberto Contador’s retroactive suspension) one has to wonder how he and Cunego will co-exist should the 2004-Giro champion feel he has the legs to race for himself. Cunego could turn out to be Scarponi’s greatest ally—or his biggest rival.
5. Will Frank Schleck prove what many have suspected: that he’s more of a grand tour contender than his brother?
Until Andy Schleck won Stage 18 of the Tour de France on the Galibier, pundits were wondering if Leopard-Trek management had made a mistake in not asking the younger Schleck to defer to the elder during last year’s Tour de France. With Jakob Fuglsang’s last-minute withdrawal and the subsequent addition of Frank Schleck to the roster, we will get another chance to see what Frank can do in a grand tour without worrying about his brother. 2010 was the last time we saw Frank riding for himself over the course of a three-week race. But that was at the Vuelta a Espana—at the end of a long season in which Frank broke his collarbone at the Tour de France. While a bit underprepared, Schleck’s fresher heading into the Giro. He should get stronger as the race progresses.
6. Can Basso win his third Giro without the help of Vincenzo Nibali?
Ivan Basso won his second Giro d’Italia in 2010 with much help from third-place finisher Vincenzo Nibali. This year, the two riders have swapped places from last season, with Basso leading the team at the Giro and Nibali taking the reins at the Tour. In a 3-week stage race, two heads are often better than one—especially in the mountains. This season, it seems as if Basso has abandoned more races than he’s finished, but he says he’s ready after finishing key Giro preparation events in Trentino and Romandie. Can Basso prove that two heads are not always better than one?
What are your questions for the first grand tour of 2012?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Some thoughts from Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege:
1. Maxim Iglinskiy capped a terrific week for Astana, winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege after overtaking a fading Vincenzo Nibali with a little more than one kilometer left to race. While certainly an outsider, Iglinskiy’s win wasn’t a total shock. In fact, in looking over the Kazakh’s resume, he appears to be a poor man’s Philippe Gilbert. Consistent spring contenders, (Iglinskiy is better than you might think) both riders have won the Strade Bianche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They also both won stages at the Dauphiné earlier in their careers. Of course, Gilbert’s resume is much longer and contains many more major victories, but considering Iglinsky came millions of Euros cheaper than his Belgian counterpart, Astana is doubtlessly happy with the return on its investment.
2. Iglinskiy’s win underscored a terrific team effort from Astana. Well-represented all day (their jerseys are hard to miss), the team placed two riders in the first group chasing Nibali. Enrico Gasparotto’s third-place finish put an exclamation mark on a successful day for the squad while confirming that his win in last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race was no fluke. The squad has now won two of the last three editions of Liege. (I wonder if Alexandre Vinokourov had some pre-race advice for his teammates.)
3. As for Nibali, his ride yesterday bookended his performance at Milan-San Remo, the season’s first Monument. In both races, the Liquigas rider initiated the final selection, but succumbed to a rider that few had predicted to play a dominant role in the event’s outcome. It’s been a while since we’ve had a grand tour champion prove himself to be a legitimate contender in the spring classics—let’s hope Nibali returns next year ready to contend again. Now the Italian must decide whether or not to compete in his home grand tour. While the Giro is a tempting option, he’s better suited for this year’s Tour de France.
4. Speaking of this year’s Tour de France, RadioShack’s Schleck brothers played little role in Sunday’s race. Perhaps they were tired from their efforts to have Kim Anderson reinstated in the squad’s management team for July’s Tour de France. A win Sunday would have spoken a lot louder if you ask me.
5. Back to the race: Twitter was buzzing Sunday with people complaining of boredom during the race’s final hour. At first, I felt compelled to defend the riders. The weather was horrible and the course was difficult—one must remember that these men are indeed human. But in hindsight, it seems to me that several teams with top contenders could and should have done more to make the race difficult, thereby eliminating “outsiders” like Iglinsky before they had a chance to play a role in the finale.
For example, Gilbert’s BMC squad was clearly focused on controlling the race in preparation for what it hoped would be a decisive attack by Gilbert (or someone else). Unfortunately, this kept too many riders and teams in contention after La Redoute. Without a major selection at this point in the race, there were too many men left to settle things over the remaining 30 kilometers.
7. The same can be said of Katusha. With Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno they had a reason and the manpower to make the race more selective sooner—but they chose to sit-on. Some might say that Oscar Freire’s surprising resiliency gave the team an extra card to play should the race have stayed together all the way to Liege. (But that was an unlikely result—Freire’s performance was more a product of controlled racing than anything else.)
BMC can at least say they were racing to protect the chances of the defending chapion—they technically didn’t have to make the race (although that’s a slippery slope). Katusha made a mistake by basing this year’s tactics on last year’s favorite (Gilbert). Sometimes bringing the race to your competition is more effective than waiting for it to come to you.
8. Speaking of Gilbert, this spring was a minor catastrophe for the Belgian Champion. Last week I said that a win yesterday would have appeased his fans and softened his critics. Now it appears only a world championship will do the trick. Gilbert’s performance illustrates the importance of good health and good luck, while also reminding us that winning brings even loftier expectations the next time around. Hopefully Gilbert—who’s only 29, by the way—learned some valuable lessons from his experiences over the past two months. Look for him to be at his best once again next spring.
9. And if Gilbert didn’t already miss Jelle Vanendert, he certainly does now. I still can’t believe he didn’t make more of an effort to bring him along to BMC. That said, Tejay Van Garderen rode one heck of a race yesterday on behalf of Gilbert. The American now heads to Romandie before taking another crack at winning the Tour of California.
10. What a spring for Specialized and SRAM, huh?
That’s it for me—what’s on your mind?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Here are some thoughts following Sunday’s 47th edition of the Amstel Gold Race:
1. Well, Italy finally won a spring classic after what seemed to be a pretty long drought—it just wasn’t the rider or the classic many expected. That said, savvy fans weren’t surprised to see Gasparotto taking the victory Sunday. A rider who has proven able to survive tough races and then win group sprints, the former Italian National Champion finished third last year after winning a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico. His Astana team rode a fantastic race, protecting the Italian with multiple teammates until the final trip up the Cauberg. Gasparotto delivered, timing his sprint perfectly and failing to be overwhelmed by Philippe Gilbert’s initial surge. And while Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege might be a bit too hilly for him, the question now remains whether Gasparotto’s Amstel performance makes him a candidate to be Italy’s captain for Worlds—a race that will be held on a similar course (with a nearly identical finish) later this season.
2. Speaking of Gilbert, he appears to have found some form at just the right time. While he’s clearly not at the level he was at this point last year (his unsuccessful attack Sunday was essentially the same acceleration he made to win the last two editions of the race), he will be a contender at both Fleche and Liege. And while repeating last year’s historic quadruple is out of the question, a win in Liege Sunday would certainly erase any bad taste from his mediocre (by Gilbert’s standards) start to the season.
3. But while Gilbert’s resurgence is good news for BMC, the team also lost Cadel Evans early Sunday as the Australian continues to struggle with a sinus infection. That’s a blow to Gilbert’s chances as Evans would have been a valuable card to play Wednesday and Sunday. Greg Van Avermaet rode a fantastic race on Gilbert’s behalf yesterday, but an in-form Evans might have tipped the scales in BMC’s favor.
4. Speaking of Van Avermaet, I’m not sure of his contract status, but one has to think he’ll receive some pretty nice offers once it expires. How long can this talented—and still relatively young (26)—rider be expected to sacrifice his own chances on behalf of others?
5. Anyone who underestimated just how much of a role Jelle Vanendert played in Gilbert’s success last year needs to watch yesterday’s sprint one more time. The Belgian will do his best to salvage Lotto-Belisol’s spring with a win later this week.
6. It bothers me when good riders make foolish attacks—and I’m not talking about Katusha’s Oscar Freire. His move made sense and it almost stuck. But I am talking about Omega Pharma – Quick-Step’s Niki Terpstra. Terpstra’s been one of the spring’s most consistent riders. He certainly could have secured his third consecutive top-10 finish in a major classic had he not taken it upon himself to try and bridge to Freire with less than 10 kilometers remaining in Sunday’s race. Some might say he was setting-up Dries Devenyns for the sprint—I’m not so certain.
7. Hats-off to Garmin-Barracuda’s Alex Howes who after finishing sixth in Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl spent 200 kilometers off the front Sunday. Let’s see what the 24-year-old can do in Fleche and Liege!
8. If you’re going to spend two weeks preparing for a race, Matti Breschel, you might as well finish it. Rabobank continues to be cursed in its home event. It’s been 11 years since Erik Dekker took the last win for the host nation and team. The irony of Oscar Freire (who left Rabobank this past off-season) almost taking the win Sunday had many pundits smirking at their computer screens.
That’s it for me—what’s on your mind following Sunday’s big event?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
It’s amazing how quickly things can change from one season to the next. This year, GreenEdge won Milan-San Remo with a rejuvenated Simon Gerrans—not with Matthew Goss, the defending champion. Tom Boonen tore through the cobbled classics after two seasons of relative mediocrity, while Fabian Cancellara was nowhere to be seen after bad luck and a broken collarbone ruined his April. Now a winless Philippe Gilbert looks to be a complete non-factor in races he dominated less than a year ago.
So with the Ardennes classics upon us—beginning with this Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race—what can we expect? Will former champions like Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego take a page from Boonen’s book and return to prominence in races they once dominated? Or will new stars have a chance to emerge? And what about Gilbert? Will his spring be a complete failure?
Here are six riders to watch over the next ten days:
Cadel Evans – Publicly, Cadel Evans has said all the right things regarding BMC’s off-season spending spree, but I wonder if he was nevertheless upset with BMC for signing Gilbert and Thor Hushovd. And why shouldn’t he have been? After all, as the team of the defending Tour champion, why add two riders to the roster who will do little more than help themselves to stage wins come July? The team could have easily afforded 2-3 experienced and talented support riders, men capable of helping Evans win another yellow jersey.
So don’t be surprised to see Evans send a message to his new colleagues and team management between now and Liege-Bastogne-Liege next Sunday. After winning the Criterium International, Evans has spent the past three weeks training and will certainly be his team’s best man over the next ten days. His team’s strong too, with Greg Van Avermaet serving as an able-bodied lieutenant and Gilbert a wild card who should at least keep some teams honest. By the time it’s all said and done, look for the former Fleche champion to add another Ardennes feather to his cap—possibly as early as this Sunday. And remember, Amstel is raced on a course similar to what the peloton at Worlds later this year—Evans could be giving himself an early edge on the competition.
Samuel Sanchez – Samuel Sanchez dominated last week’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco and now heads into the Ardennes classics as a top favorite. While the Euskaltel rider tends to perform better in stage races, his 2008 Olympic gold medal stands as proof that he can handle himself in one-day events. Of the three races between now and next Sunday, Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege suit Sanchez the best. He has multiple top-10 finishes in both events and a team dedicated to supporting him.
Joaquim Rodriguez – Of all the riders to consistently perform well in the Ardennes classics over the past few seasons, Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez is easily the best to never have won one. Were it not for an indomitable Philippe Gilbert, Rodriguez would certainly have a won at least one of the Ardennes classics (or two, or three) last April—he finished second to Gilbert in both Amstel and Fleche (his second time as runner-up in the midweek event). Like Sanchez, Rodriguez enjoyed a fantastic Pais Vasco and heads to the Ardennes feeling confident and strong. Amstel and Fleche Wallone suit him best as both races end with steep climbs that suit Rodgriguez’s ascending talents
Simon Gerrans – GreenEdge might have been a bit surprised when Simon Gerrans won Milan-San Remo as it wasn’t exactly the race they signed him for—but the Ardennes classics were. Assuming Gerrans has fortified his Tour Down Under and Primavera-winning fitness over the past few weeks, there’s little reason to believe the Australian won’t improve on his Ardennes performance from 2009—when he finished inside the top-10 at all three races while riding for the Cervelo TestTeam. Volta Catalunya-winner Michael Albasini will play key role in GreenEdge’s strategy. He’s one of the sport’s better domestiques right now and will certainly force other teams to chase should he get up the road. Can this talented duo add to GreenEdge’s World Tour win total?
Alejandro Valverde – Much to the displeasure of many fans, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde has returned to the sport—and the top step of the podium. That said, while the Movistar rider bears watching in all three races, I wonder if the lack of a grand tour in his legs will hurt him. Amstel and Liege are long, grueling races—Valverde’s riding without the benefit of a full season racing in his legs, a factor that could limit him in the latter phases of both events. Then again, we’re talking about a rider with talent to spare and it’s not as if he sat around watching football during his suspension. Should he win next Sunday, he’ll be the second rider in three years to return from suspension and win La Doyenne.
Vincezo Nibali – My how far the Italians have fallen. The spring classics used to be Italy’s happy hunting ground as riders such as Argentin, Ballerini, Tafi, Bartoli, Bettini, DiLuca, Cunego, and Rebellin (yeah, I know about those last two) won scores of monuments in the Eighties, Nineties, and Aughts. But lately, Italy’s been reduced to a country of bridesmaids rather than brides, where its best riders’ best results are podium finishes and top-10’s. Enter Vincenzo Nibali—his nation’s best hope for success over the ten days. Easily Italy’s most exciting rider thus far this season, “Nibbles” looks to take a big bite out of the Ardennes (sorry, I couldn’t resist) before deciding whether to tackle the Giro or the Tour. If he rides like he did in Tirreno and Milan-San Remo, he could easily score himself a place on the cover of next month’s Bicisport. Liege—a race in which he already has two top-10 finishes on his resume—is his best bet.
In the end, I see Gerrans taking Amstel, Rodriguez winning Fleche Wallone, and Evans winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege—thus sending a message to both his Tour rivals and his teammates that he is indeed one of the best in the world.
On a personal note, I’m happy to say I made it back safe and sound after 10 days in Belgium and France to ride and watch the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about my experiences in the days to come, but for now I’ll leave you with this: the Tour of Flanders is held annually on the 14th Sunday of the year—start planning your own trip now.
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Here are some thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing in Flanders.
1. Tom Boonen’s not fooling anyone.
Despite declaring Fabian Cancellara the top favorite for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Boonen’s wins in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem make his comments hard to believe. Of his two victories, Boonen’s E3 victory (his record-setting fifth) is by far the more impressive of the two, as it came in an event much more akin to the Ronde. At Ghent-Wevelgem, Boonen was much more free to sit in the bunch, make the important selections, and let his team do most of the work for him. At times, there were even questions as to whether Boonen had made the leading group at all. Then again, all of Boonen’s top rivals were present in the finales of both races—the Belgian simply proved himself to be the better sprinter.
2. Filippo Pozatto is back to where he was in 2009 physically—but tactically?
After he won the E3 Prijs in 2009 it was clear to everyone that Pippo was going to be Tom Boonen’s biggest challenger at that year’s Flanders and Roubaix. Unfortunately, word never got to Pozatto that “keeping an eye on Tom Boonen” didn’t mean marking him so closely that he marked himself out of the race as well. For Pozatto that spring, being a “wheel watcher” meant much more than being a fan of Pat Sajak.
This year, if he wants to take his first win in a cobbled Monument, Pozatto will have to start racing to win—as opposed to racing to not be beaten. He’s riding for one of the strongest teams in the race with a lieutenant (Oscar Gatto) that many teams (like RadioShack-Nissan) would love to have complementing their captains. Better still, I suspect that Pozatto’s injury and subsequent (albeit brief) time off the bike means he has more form to gain. Boonen and Cancellara—the latter especially—run the risk of topping-out before the end of the cobbled fortnight. Pozatto might continue to get stronger.
3. It’s only a matter of time before Sep Vanmarcke wins Flanders, Roubaix, or both.
If the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Prijs are any indication, the budding rivalry between Vanmarcke and Boonen will be one of the highlights of the next two weeks. A smart, aggressive rider who appears undaunted by the competition, Garmin-Barracuda’s Vanmarcke has twice been the first rider to follow Boonen’s accelerations on the Taaienberg (although just barely on Friday). He’s already been named Garmin’s captain for the cobbles and with an in-form Johan Van Summeren serving as super-domestique, the American team could easily grab its second cobbled Monument in as many years. As for the 23-year-old Vanmarcke, there’s seemingly no limit to what he might achieve. He’s one of the most exiting riders of the season’s still-young spring campaign.
4. Philippe Gilbert’s Flanders is lost and he needs to act quickly if he wishes to contend in the Ardennes.
If you follow me on Twitter (@whityost), you’ve heard me say this before: Philippe Gilbert needs to skip Flanders, fly to Spain, and complete the Tour of the Basque Country if he wishes to have any chance of defending his titles in the Ardennes. Gilbert’s obviously been lacking the race mileage of his peers and could quickly gain some with a week of tough racing in Spain. Better still, he’ll avoid the media scrum of one of the world’s toughest press corps. Lastly, BMC has more than enough talent to spare the spot—especially if Thor Hushovd does indeed return to form. Like many, I am disappointed that we will not see the Belgian drie-kleur on the top step of the Ronde’s podium in Oudenaarde Sunday—especially as the course looked to suit King Phil’s style of racing.
5. If Filippo Pozatto, Sep Vanmarcke, or Tom Boonen wins the Tour of Flanders, he will likely have Oscar Gatto, Johan Van Summeren, or Sylvain Chavanel to thank for it.
History has shown that the world’s most successful one-day riders take the line with at least one teammate capable of winning the event as well. This year, Pozatto, Vanmarcke, and Boonen can rest easily knowing that they each have lieutenants capable of easing some of the pressure by covering late-race moves, putting other teams on the defensive, and ensuring that their captains won’t be isolated when the manure hits the fan. And who knows, should things go their way, we could see one Gatto, Van Summeren, and/or Chavanel on the final podium Sunday.
One final note: I’m heading to Belgium this Thursday and will be staying through Paris-Roubaix. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@whityost) for updates and insights from the thick of the action.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen kicked-off the run to the cobbled monuments with a gutsy solo win for Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra. Now all eyes turn to the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem, two races who have seen quite a bit of change over the past few years. Traditionally held a week and a day before the Tour of Flanders, the E3 Prijs was considered by most to be the final check-point for riders hoping to win the Ronde. With many of the Ronde’s key climbs included over the E3’s 203-kilometer parcours, it provided both training and reconnaissance for riders hoping to be at their best the following weekend.
Then came Ghent-Wevelgem’s move to the Sunday before the Tour of Flanders, a move that forced teams and riders to choose between the two legendary events (many would start both, only to abandon one or the other at the first feed zone, angering both organizers and fans). The E3’s organizers soon cried foul, worryied that Ghent-Wevelgem’s World Tour status would attract the best competitors. So a deal was struck and the E3 was granted World Tour status for 2012—in exchange for a new date on Friday. Is it the best solution? Probably not. (I personally preferred the traditional Ronde-Ghent-Roubaix “Holy Week” format.) But it appears to have worked this year as the start lists of both events are jam-packed with star power—which also makes it a bit easier for pundits to preview both races simultaneously.
So without further ado, here’s my rundown of favorites for the weekend—with riders ranked according to my confidence in their ability to come through with at least one win.
Tom Boonen – Omega Pharma-Quick Steps’ Tom Boonen is the top favorite for this weekend’s races—both of them—for three simple reasons:
1. His current form is par with that during the best springs of his career.
2. He’s won the E3 Prijs four times and Ghent-Wevelgem twice—including last year’s edition.
3. He rides for the strongest team in both races with Sylvain Chavanel, Dwars-winner Niki Terpstra, and a full complement of able-bodied domestiques at his disposal.
Of course, Boonen might choose to “disguise” his fitness in favor of next weekend’s Monument—then again, he won the E3 and/or the Ronde and Roubaix on two occasions.
Sep Vanmarcke – Of all the riders taking part in this weekend’s races, I’m most excited to see what last year’s E3 Prijs fourth-place finisher, Garmin-Barracuda’s Sep Vanmarcke, can do. Vanmarcke announced himself as a main contender in this year’s cobbled classics by beating none other than Tom Boonen to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He then finished fifth behind Boonen after make the critical split during the windy Stage 2 of Paris-Nice. In Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, the young Belgian laid down an attack on the Oude Kwaremont that blew the peloton apart.
John Degenkolb – I’m going way out on a limb here: Project 1t4i’s Degenkolb took fifth in Milan-San Remo but should be even better this weekend in Belgium. A sprinter who is quickly becoming a classics challenger, I see Degenkolb as Boonen’s top challenger in Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem. Even thought Marcel Kittel starts alongside him, I think harder parcours at Ghent will suit Degenkolb more. He has also proven himself over the Flemish bergs and stones, while Kittel is a bit more of a cobbled unknown.
Fabian Cancellara – If cycling were truly an individual sport, Cancellara would easily be a 5-Kite favorite. But as we’ve seen, his lack of a teammate talented enough able to draw some attention away from him has hurt Spartacus’ chances in major races. Daniele Bennati’s the team’s best bet currently, he rode a perfect race in support of Cancellara at L’Eroica (a race which Cancellara won) and finished second to Tom Boonen at Ghent-Wevelgem last year. I suspect we’ll see Cancellara do his best to win his third consecutive E3 Prijs Friday, before spending at least the first half of the race Sunday working for his Italian colleague.
Filippo Pozzato – After sixth-place finishes in both Milan-San Remo and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Farnese Vini’s Filippo Pozzato looks to have rediscovered the form that won him the E3 Prijs in 2009. Pozzato easily followed Vanmarcke’s Kwaremont surge during the Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen and has the added benefit of an in-form Oscar Gatto serving as his lieutenant. While a win would hardly be a surprise, the Italian might choose a more tranquillo approach to the weekend, hiding his good legs until next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Matti Breschel – After a disastrous 2011, Breschel looks to have regained the form he displayed in 2010 when he won Dwars door Vlaanderen and was arguably the strongest rider in the race at Ghent-Wevelgem. Perhaps more importantly, Breschel’s Rabobank team displayed its ability to control the front of the a Saturday at Milan-San Remo, something the Dane will certainly appreciate this weekend. With Lars Boom, Carlos Barredo, and Mark Renshaw (Sunday only), racing as well, there will certainly be enough men in orange to prevent Breschel from being marked exclusively.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire is on the start lists of both events this weekend, but it’s safe to say that his best chance for a win will come Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem—a race he won in 2008. Freire’s enjoyed a good season so far but fell a bit short in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. Katusha will likely back Luca Paolini in the E3 Prijs, while the talented young sprinter Denis Galymzianov provides a solid back-up plan on Sunday should Freire falter.
Peter Sagan – Sagan’s also on the list for both races for team Liquigas-Cannondale, but like Freire, the Slovakian a better candidate for Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem than Friday’s E3 Prijs. Sagan’s underwhelmed during his cobbled excursions thus far in his career, but could take his first Flemish scalp Sunday should the course not prove too difficult for him. Daniel Oss is another Liquigas rider to watch—he finished fifth in Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010 and ninth in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. That said, he and Sagan will need to communicate if the team is to be successful—meaning one rider will have to willingly take a backseat to the other.
BMC – Aside from Alessandro Ballan, BMC has done little over the past two weeks to warrant serious consideration as a contender for this weekend’s races. Philippe Gilbert is still recovering from a sickness from Tirreno. Thor Hushovd has adjusted his program after missing both Milan-San Remo and the Volta Catalunya but is clearly racing to train. Even Greg Van Avermaet has Achilles issues. On a positive note: George Hincapie finished with the leading peloton at Milan-San Remo, a good sign for a rider who often flies under the radar until just the right moment. I’d expect to see the team back Ballan in E3 and Big George Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem. Adam Blythe bears watching Sunday as well, as does Marcus Burghardt. With such a star-studded roster, who’s going to grab the bottles?
Tyler Farrar – Garmin-Barracuda’s Tyler Farrar took third in Ghent-Wevelgem last year behind Boonen and Bennati. Still winless in 2012, at Ghent-Wevelgem he has the undivided support of a strong Garmin-Barracuda squad that includes lead-out specialists Robbie Hunter and Murilo Fischer along with David Millar and Johan Van Summeren to cover breakaways.
Stijn Devolder, Bjorn Leukemans, and Marco Marcato – Vacansoleil brings three riders capable of bringing home the team’s first win in a major cobbled classic. Devolder’s the biggest wild card here—he spent the last two season dodging criticism after back-to-back Ronde wins in 2008 and 2009. Leukemans has become one of the most quietly consistent cobbled specialists in the sport without a victory—could he be this year’s Nick Nuyens? As for Marcato, he’s an aggressive rider who can handle himself in the hills and in small group sprints. Look for him to stick his nose out in front at least once over the course of the weekend.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol took a big hit with the crash of Jurgen Roelandts in the Tour Down Under as he was their best for hillier cobbled races—he finished second in the E3 Prijs last year. On Sunday, Andre Greipel is the team’s best chance to score an important home victory at Ghent-Wevelgem. He’ll have the team entirely at his disposal—they should find plenty of help from other squads hoping for a bunch kick as well.
Matthew Goss – Before he won grand tour stages and Milan-San Remo, GreenEdge’s Matt Goss was considered a star-to-be for the cobbled classics. That said, not much has come of it since his third-place finish at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2009. Assuming he’s timed his peak a bit later than last year, Goss could continue GreenEdge’s World Tour run with a win Sunday.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – Team Sky’s EBH was the last to win Ghent-Wevelgem on a Wednesday—back in 2008. At Tirreno he appeared to be at his best once again, but the Norwegian rode an anonymous Milan-San Remo. Assuming he’s over whatever caused his early exit from Tirreno and flat performance Saturday, he could be one of the best this weekend—especially on Sunday.
Juan Antonio Flecha – If the start list is accurate and he’s only riding Ghent-Wevelgem, don’t expect to see Flecha as a major protagonist Sunday—especially with both Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen lining up beside him. It’s more likely that Flecha’s using the weekend more for training purposes—he knows these roads like the back of his hand and would certainly trade a weekend of teamwork for the sake of their unquestioned support at the Ronde and Roubaix.
Arnaud Demare – The current U23 road race champion from FDJ makes the first World Tour starts of his career this weekend. A talented sprinter, he’s hoping for a high finish in Ghent-Wevelgem.
Lloyd Mondory – Another Frenchman, Ag2r’s Mondory has been steadily proving himself to be a skilled rider in cobbled races. He made Wednesday’s select chase group and has a good chance to at least repeat his fifth-place finish in last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem.
Jose Joaquin Rojas – Aside from Flecha, it’s been a long time since we’ve Spaniards to watch in a cobbled classic. That said, Movistar’s Rojas possesses a powerful sprint and the ability to make important selections in tough races. Ghent-Wevelgem is just his cup of tea.
Kris Boeckmans – With seven top-10 finishes so far in 2012, Vacansoleil’s Kris Boeckmans could finish in the top-10 Sunday at Ghent-Wevelgem. Without Leukemans and Devolder taking the start and teams with more favored sprinters doing the lion’s share of the work, he should have a relatively easy ride to the finish—if such a thing is possible in a race like Ghent-Wevelgem.
Oscar Gatto – He’ll likely spend most of the weekend working for Pozatto, but Farnese Vini’s Oscar Gatto is just the type of rider to make Friday’s winning breakaway—and finish third.
Jens Keukelaire – Those who were watching Dwars door Vlaanderen might have witnessed the transformation of GreenEdge’s Jens Keukelaire from a field sprinter to a classics rider. Let’s see if this weekend proves it was no fluke.
The usual protagonists will all be present and accounted for, but this weekend will continue the anointing of two new heroes as Garmin’s Sep Vanmarcke wins the E3 Prijs and Project 1t4i’s John Degenkolb wins Ghent-Wevelgem.
Enjoy the races!
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Because it’s held on a Saturday, Milan-San Remo affords us the luxury of discussing the race on Sunday’s group ride. For fans of a sport unfamiliar to most Americans, this is a distinct pleasure as it gives us an opportunity to play Sunday Morning Quarterback with people who actually know what they’re talking about.
Here are some things I heard on this morning’s ride—and my responses:
“Cancellara is so strong! The other guys must be crapping their pants just thinking about Flanders and Roubaix.”
Yes and no. Yes, Cancellara has indeed found the form he displayed in 2010 and 2011 and his track record will certainly make him the top favorite for the cobbled classics. But as we saw last year, he’s beatable, especially since he rides for a relatively weak team. Without a lieutenant who poses a threat by positioning himself in late-race breakaways, Cancellara and his team are often isolated during critical moments—as we saw during Flanders and Roubaix last year. Unless one of his teammates steps up to the plate and takes on a greater role, Cancellara will be forced to resort to the tactics that won him the Ronde-Roubaix double in 2010: drop everyone and win the race alone. As we saw Saturday, that’s easier said than done.
“Gerrans was a jerk for just sitting on his wheel and then sprinting at the end.”
Absolutely not. Gerrans did what he had to in order to win the race. When you’re sitting on the wheel of the most powerful engine in the sport, you do whatever you can to stay there. In fact, had Gerrans and Nibali taken anything more than cursory pulls, the speed might have dropped, dooming the breakaway. Besides, it didn’t look to me like Cancellara was begging for help. He seemed more than content to drag the other two to the finish, obviously liking his chances against two better than his chances against 30.
“I can’t believe Cavendish got dropped!”
Frankly, neither could I. It appears that Cavendish’s rollercoaster of a spring finally caught up with him. I guess that winning sprints in Qatar, Kuurne, and Tirreno Adriatico is a lot different from Milan-San Remo. It’s a shame really as Sky would have loved to follow-up Bradley Wiggins’ Paris-Nice victory with what would have been the team’s first Monument. That said, with Dwars door Vlaanderen, Ghent-Wevelgem, and the Scheldeprijs still to come, Cav will have his chances this spring—even if those races pale in comparison to La Classicissima.
“And what about Edvald Boasson Hagen? Wasn’t he Sky’s back-up plan?”
Yes, he was, but he was nowhere to be seen. He finished an anonymous 25th. Maybe the flu that caused his early exit from Tirreno was a bit worse than was originally implied? That said, like Cavendish, EBH will have more than his share of chances in the coming weeks—he’s already won Ghent-Wevelgem once and could still be a favorite next week. After all, he finished the race with the leading peloton Saturday—those 298-kilometers of racing will certainly help in the not-too-distant future.
“I thought Boonen crashed—I’m so happy he finished safely.”
Me too! Boonen rode one of a heck of race considering he lost Sylvain Chavanel and Dries Devenyns days prior. It seems that the Poggio is just a bit too long for Boonen to cover attacks over the top. He’ll need a group sprint and a near-perfect lead-out if he ever wants to win in San Remo. That said, he’s clearly in good form and will once again be Cancellara’s main challenger at Flanders and Roubaix.
“Too bad for Garmin. I thought Haussler or Farrar had a good chance.”
Haussler, yes. Farrar, no. At some point, Farrar needs to admit that his career stands at a fork in the road: will he continue to chase field sprints, or will he make an attempt to become more of a one-day rider? It takes a special kind of rider to excel at both—Tom Boonen’s the best we’ve seen recently. Were I Jonathan Vaughters, I would have Farrar stick to field sprints. With Haussler and Sep Vanmarcke, the team is well-stocked for the cobbled classics. And besides, Farrar will always have races like Dwars door Vlaanderen, Ghent-Wevelgem (assuming this year’s new course doesn’t prove too tough for him), and the Scheldeprijs.
As for Haussler, he was where he needed to be on the Cipressa—except when he was riding behind the rider that caused the crash that brought him down along with Philippe Gilbert. Haussler will need an impressive cobbled campaign—this year—to prove his scintillating 2009 was no flash in the pan. Unfortunately, with Farrar, Vanmarcke, and Vansummeren on the squad, he’ll likely be sharing the captainship of his team at the E3 Prijs, Flanders, and Roubaix.
“What’s up with Gilbert?”
Your guess is as good as mine, but he’s clearly not (yet) the rider who won 18 races last season. Gilbert seemed nervous yesterday, as evidenced by his yelling at a teammate for driving the bunch when the team lacked a true sprinter. Some might say that we’ll never know what he could have done since he crashed on the Poggio. But here’s the thing: why was he at the back in the first place? At this rate, Alessandro Ballan is BMC’s best chance over the next two weeks—his eighth-place finish proves the former Ronde-winner is in good form.
“I can’t believe Pippo Pozatto finished sixth less than a month after surgery to repair a broken collarbone.”
Neither can I and I’m excited to see him back among the best. Italy needs a classics champion—badly. Pippo seems more focused and motivated than ever before and if he can rediscover the form that he had in 2009 then we all might be in for fluorescent treat come Flanders and Roubaix.
“Rabobank did a lot of work in the finale, do you think they can win a cobbled classic?”
Certainly. Matti Breschel will likely be at his best in Flanders. He was arguably the strongest rider in the race in 2010, but was done-in by his Saxo Bank team’s tactics. (Of course, given Fabian Cancellara’s dominance during that 7-day period, it’s hard to argue with the team’s decisions.) If he participates, look for Breschel to bring home a win for Rabobank possibly as early as Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, a race he won in 2010 and one whose start list has been adversely affected by the E3 Prijs having been moved up to Friday.
“Bummer that Liquigas did all that work and came out empty-handed, huh?”
Yeah. After all, they rode a perfect race. After making life hard for many of the sprinters earlier in the day, Agnoli’s attack at the base of the Poggio set-up Nibali for his acceleration closer to the top. Of course, this was the move that we all knew was coming as a Nibali’s attack guaranteed Peter Sagan a free ride to the finish. In the end, Gerrans spoiled the team’s party, but with Nibali finishing third and Sagan fourth, they can sleep well knowing that their plan was perfectly executed—it just didn’t have the result they had hoped for. And keep an eye on ninth-place finisher Daniel Oss in the cobbled classics—especially Ghent-Wevelgem next Sunday, a race in which he finished fifth in 2010.
“Who’s John Degenkolb?
He’s a name you should get to know—and quickly. This is the young German’s second year as a professional, and he seems destined for classics stardom. After a stellar U23 campaign in which he developed an exciting rivalry with Taylor Phinney (now with BMC) and Michael Matthews (now with Rabobank), Degenkolb won six races with HTC-HighRoad as a neo-pro, including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. He now rides for Project 1T4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) and hopes to win Germany’s first cobbled classic since Andreas Klier won Ghent-Wevelgem in 2003.
In the end, I had the words of former NFL head coach Herman Edwards resonating through my head after Saturday’s Milan-San Remo:
“You play—to win—the game.”
That’s just what Nibali, Cancellara, and Gerrans did. It’s just unfortunate that two of them had to lose.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti