For most of the past century, the Olympic Games weren’t a big deal in the cycling world. Only amateur bike racers could compete and they regarded the Games as a small stepping-stone toward the professional ranks. That began to change at Atlanta in 1996. Pro racers took part for the first time and their superior level of fitness was demonstrated by four Frenchmen, who’d just finished the Tour de France, getting together to win the track team pursuit. And the pros, led by Swiss champ Pascal Richard, swept all the medals in the men’s road race.
Since then, the prestige of winning Olympic gold medals in cycling was raised progressively by high-profile road race winners Jan Ullrich (Sydney 2000), Paolo Bettini (Athens 2004) and Samuel Sanchez (Beijing 2008). Our sport’s high profile has become personified by two multi-Olympic champions, British sprinter Sir Chris Hoy and French mountain biker Julien Absalon, who are household names in their respective countries.
Even the road time trial, started in 1996, has grown in stature thanks to its defending champion Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss superstar has again targeted the Olympic TT as a major goal, the same as Germany’s world TT champion Tony Martin. And their likely challengers include multi-time world pursuit champs Brad Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, now that their favored track discipline has been eliminated from the Olympic program.
A mark of the status held by cycling with the International Olympic Committee is the fact that the whole Games’ event schedule, for the third time, is being kicked off with the elite men’s road race. After the Athens circuit around the Parthenon, and the Beijing course to the Great Wall of China, London will see a start-finish outside the Queen’s Buckingham Palace with a route south to the Surrey Hills and nine laps of a scenic loop over and around Box Hill.
The race will not only showcase many of London’s most historic and beautiful sites, but also feature the very best classics riders in pro cycling. So, even though many of them are building up to what promises to be a fascinating Tour de France, they are looking beyond racing for yellow jerseys in Paris to shooting for gold in London. And the media hype has stepped up considerably since national federations announced their long teams for all the Olympic cycling events last week.
The focus to date has been on Britain’s home team of medal contenders, headed by world champ Mark Cavendish for the road race and Wiggins for the time trial. The two Team Sky leaders, like their team manager Dave Brailsford, believe that the road to Olympic gold is via the Tour—as do potential medal contenders such as Australia’s Matt Goss, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, Germany’s André Greipel, Norway’s Eddy Boasson Hagen, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, Spain’s Sanchez, Switzerland’s Cancellara and Tyler Farrar of the United States. Those not risking the Tour’s potential perils to focus totally on July 28’s Olympic road race include sprinters Tom Boonen of Belgium, Daniele Bennati of Italy and Thor Hushovd of Norway.
Selecting teams for London has been tricky because the strongest nations can field only five riders, as opposed to eight for regular one-day classics; and one of each country’s selection also has to start the time trial four days’ later. Ideally, a team will have a leader who can sprint well at the end of the tough 250-kilometer road race, along with support riders who can chase down breaks that will inevitably form on the many narrow, twisty back roads that precede and follow the nine laps of the hilly 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the London course.
For the United States, much has been made of the fact that veterans George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie separately contacted USA Cycling this summer, saying they did not want to be considered for the Olympic road team. But with Farrar already the designated leader since he became the first American sprinter to win a Tour stage last year, and with all four of the veterans being stage-race specialists, there was no compelling reason to select them. For instance, Hincapie hasn’t raced the worlds for the past four years (and he was only 39th in the Beijing Olympics), Leipheimer hasn’t started a worlds road race for eight years, and Vande Velde and Zabriskie last rode the worlds in 2010 (placing 79th and DNF respectively).
It has been speculated that the four riders recused themselves because they may be witnesses in the USADA-alleged doping conspiracy at the U.S. Postal Service team during Lance Armstrong’s Tour-winning years. But neither Leipheimer nor Zabriskie raced for Postal at those Tours. And though Leipheimer did race with Armstrong at the 2009 and 2010 Tours (on the Astana and RadioShack teams), which USADA alleges were also “suspicious” years, among his teammates was Chris Horner, who has been selected for the London Olympics.
In any case, Horner’s credentials for the 2012 Olympic team are far stronger than those of the four other veterans. Horner is one of the few Americans to have placed top 10 at one-day races as diverse as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy and the worlds’ road race, and he will be an invaluable aid to Farrar and the three younger members of the London Olympics squad: Tim Duggan, Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen.
As for these three, Duggan has proven himself this year as a powerful domestique for the Liquigas-Cannondale team (and he also happened to win the recent U.S. national road title!); Phinney was an excellent 17th in his first Paris-Roubaix in April (Hincapie finished 43rd); and Van Garderen will be helping his BMC Racing team leader Cadel Evans defend his Tour title next month, and he has finished the toughest Ardennes classics in each of the past two years.
Van Garderen can also be a strong back-up rider for the time trial should Phinney get injured or sick, while Phinney’s winning time trial at last month’s Giro d’Italia (besides his past world track titles) made him as good if not better candidate for the Olympic TT than the veteran Zabriskie. So the U.S. national team for London is solid in every respect, whatever may be speculated in the media. It will be fascinating to see how they perform at London in what has become one of cycling’s most sought-after prizes.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Even longtime cycling fans sometimes wonder what’s happening in bike races. Take this week’s opening road stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné. It looked like a fairly straightforward race day when a breakaway went clear from the start, but why did Orica-GreenEdge, the team of race leader Luke Durbridge, let the leaders create a 13-minute gap, forcing other teams to conduct the chase? And why couldn’t the sprinters’ teams close down the attacks in the finale before BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans snagged the stage win in precocious fashion?
The first question is easier to answer. Having the yellow jersey at races like the Dauphiné can be a mixed blessing. To win the flat prologue ahead of such a strong field was a coup for Australian rookie Durbridge, but he’s never going to be a top climber, so keeping the overall lead was not a high priority. Durbridge’s focus this season is trying for an Olympic time trial medal in London, so rather than defending a yellow jersey he’d be better off saving his energy for this Thursday’s long, 53.5-kilometer TT stage of the Dauphiné. And that’s what he did.
What was more interesting on Monday was that the chase behind the breakaways was initially taken up by Evans’s BMC men, not by the Sky team of prologue runner-up and defending Dauphiné champion Brad Wiggins. Evans himself went back to his team car to talk with his directeur sportif, John Lelangue, before getting teammates Michael Schär and Manuel Quinziato to push the pace at the head of the peloton.
In contrast, Wiggins, who’d take over the GC from Durbridge, was not eager to wear the yellow jersey and said at the post-stage press conference, “At one point [in my career] I would have been happy to wear the maillot jaune. Now, I can’t say that I’m upset, but I’d rather wear my Sky skinsuit for Thursday’s time trial, so I’d prefer to lose a few seconds between now and then.”
As a result, it was BMC that virtually closed down the breakaway, and then on a Cat. 3 climb in the last 12 kilometers, it was BMC’s Philippe Gilbert who joined one of several attacks before Evans counterattacked to join the key move after the summit. With the Aussie superstar were local French rider Jérôme Coppel of Saur-Sojasun and Kazakh veteran Andrey Kashechkin of Astana. “I knew that there could be some splits [on the climb],” Coppel said later, “and that once we were over the top of the hill the road didn’t go down right away.”
It was understandable that Coppel, in his “hometown” race, would ride as hard as he could with Evans, but it was surprising that the Kazakh also gave a few pulls to sustain the break over the final 5 kilometers. Five years after he was suspended for blood doping (shortly after the same verdict for his team leader Alexander Vinokourov), Kashechkin, 32, is trying to re-establish himself with team Astana; but, other than team-time-trial performances, he hadn’t taken a top-10 placing since his comeback to racing until his third place behind Evans and Coppel on Monday.
Maybe Kashechkin has hopes of replicating the third place overall he took at the 2007 Dauphiné, but at this year’s race he should be riding support for Astana teammate Jani Brajkovic, the 2010 Dauphiné champ, and not helping Evans gain what was a three-second gap at the end. As Lelangue told L’Équipe after the stage, “At the Dauphiné, every second is always good to take.”
Evans himself said he hadn’t planned on winning the stage, but “I enjoy being in these sort of moves.” His strong pulls and eventual dynamic uphill sprint were reminiscent of a certain Bernard Hinault, the five-time Tour de Franc winner who also took the Dauphiné three times. Evans has placed second four times at this prestigious French stage race, so maybe this is his year to win it for the first time before going on to shoot for a second Tour victory.
Among the BMC rider’s most serious opposition at the Tour will be the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team’s battery of stars. The team’s theoretical Tour team leader Andy Schleck is riding as he usually does at pre-Tour stage races, and he’ll likely test his climbing legs on one of the Dauphiné’s three mountain stages over the weekend; but signs from last week’s Tour of Luxembourg were very positive for the U.S.-sponsored squad.
On the decisive climbing stage on Saturday, only the sturdy Dutch climber Wout Poels of Vacansoleil could stay with The Shack attack by Fränk Schleck, Andreas Klöden and Jakob Fuglsang on the short but steep Col de l’Europe (1.5km averaging 7.6 percent), which they climbed three times at the end of the 206km stage.
In contrast to Evans’s unrehearsed breakaway at the Dauphiné, the Schleck-Klöden-Fuglsang demonstration was very much premeditated, and it is just the type of multi-pronged move that the team can be expected to engineer at the Tour next month, especially when you add into the equation RadioShack’s other climbers Chris Horner, Maxime Montfort and the younger Schleck, along with such explosive riders as Fabian Cancellara, Linus Gerdemann and Jens Voigt.
GIRO AND CALIFORNIA
While on the subject of why people make certain moves and others don’t, it’s worth taking a brief look back at last month’s Giro d’Italia and Amgen Tour of California. For example, why did 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego twice go out on long breakaways on the first two mountain stages, probably knowing that the moves wouldn’t be successful? Why did Horner, the defending Amgen champ, attack so far from the Mount Baldy finish on the decisive stage, leaving behind a breakaway group he had engineered with Voigt and two other teammates on the opening climb? And why did race favorites at both the Giro and the California tour wait so long before making aggressive moves—or simply waited and waited and never took risks?
Sometimes, the riders themselves can’t exactly explain their actions (or non-actions). They often act on instinct and even, at times, ignore the instructions given to them by their directeurs sportifs. But in the case of experienced riders such as Cunego, his Lampre-ISD sports director Robert Damiani and co-team leader Michele Scarponi, you can bet that the Italian rider’s actions were well thought out, even if they were impromptu.
On the first stage in the high mountains of the Giro, in cold and wet weather, Cunego reacted to a solo attack by the Venezuelan climber José Rujano, a few kilometers from the summit of the Col de Joux with about 90 minutes of racing still ahead before the mountaintop finish at Cervinia. Cunego had to work hard, sprinting out of the saddle on the long, steady climb just to get close to Rujano’s wheel—and when the Venezuelan slowed on the descent, Cunego plowed on alone before catching the day’s early break and eventually dropping back and being passed by the more conservative favorites.
Cunego made a similar move on the next day’s stage 15, again in cold, wet conditions, and both days he allowed teammate Scarponi to sit quietly in the small pack of leaders before making his own accelerations on each day’s summit finish. Scarponi didn’t win the Giro. but his efforts actually keyed the attacks by longtime leader Joaquim Rodriguez.
Because the toughest two mountain stages of the Giro came at the very end of the three weeks, everyone was hesitant to enter the red zone too early on any of the summit finishes. And even then, anyone who watched the riders finishing one by one, and in states of massive fatigue, on Alpe di Pampeago could see that this was a Giro fought to the very last breath. And the man with the most endurance, the strongest teammates and the best time trial was the man who deservedly won: Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda.
Over in California, the decision was always going to be made on Mount Baldy, the second-to-last day, because none of the stages before the stage 5 Bakersfield time trial were well-enough structured to avoid group sprints. By uncharacteristically conceding more than two minutes to the other main contenders (and placing a lowly 42nd in the time trial!), Horner ruled himself out of repeating his 2011 overall victory. Or so it seemed.
His jumping up to the first break on the Baldy stage and driving it with three RadioShack teammates was a gutsy and totally unexpected development that showed the true level of Horner’s ambitions. And when, after Voigt was cooked, Horner jumped clear of the break (with Colombian climber Jhon Atapuma on his wheel), he had a margin of more than three minutes on a desperately chasing field. And overall victory still seemed possible.
Ideally, the Californian would have had one more teammate. And in a perfect world, that man would have been Matt Busche, but last year’s Baldy hero was having a bad day and just surviving back in the peloton. So in the circumstances Horner had no choice but to make his solo attempt (Atapuma barely helped) with almost 40 kilometers (most of it uphill) still to go. It was an epic performance and augers well for Horner and his team to make the upcoming Tour de France one where tactics and teammates will be more important than ever before.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti