Let’s do something a little different this week. Let’s start with the question: What the hell is wrong with Bjarne Riis?
It is entirely possible that, having read the question first, you already have some thoughts percolating in your head. The bald-pated Dane inspires reactions. It’s what he does. For those who don’t have any preconceived notions, allow me to elaborate a little.
No one in pro cycling has had the up and down year that Bjarne Riis has. On the up side, his riders won the Dwars door Vlaanderen (Breschel), the E3 Prijs, Paris-Roubaix, and Ronde von Vlaanderen (Cancellara), Stage 8 of the Giro (Anker Sorensen), finished second in the Tour de France (A. Schleck), won the Tour du Suisse (F. Schleck), four Tour stages (Cancellara 2x, A. Shleck 2x), as well as high placings in big races from the beginning to the end of the season. Saxo Bank finished the season as the top-ranked UCI ProTour team, and they deserved it.
My erstwhile editor, Padraig, had this to say: “Normally riders flood into a team ranked at the top of the UCI standings, not flee it. For all the talk of team unity that Riis’ wintertime team-building expeditions have legendarily engendered, that currency seems to have run out. I can think of only one other occasion in history where a rider at the top of his game—Fabian Cancellara—has walked away from the director who led him to the podium and that was Miguel Indurain’s departure from Banesto following team directors’ (José Miguel Echavarri and Eusebio Unzue) insistence that he ride the 1995 Tour of Spain when he said he wanted to rest. In an eerie echo, following Cancellara’s win at Roubaix, Riis suggested that Cancellara keep going with an eye to Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold. Cancellara flat-out refused.”
In fact, it’s not just Cancellara walking away. They’ve all sodded off to Luxembourg to join “The Team with No Sponsor,” the Schlecks, Jens Voigt, and more.
Padraig said, “Perhaps a bigger question isn’t why the riders are leaving. It’s why this Luxembourg sponsor wasn’t united with Riis. Someone there wants a team, and Riis needed a sponsor when that began brewing. No less than seven of Riis’ best riders are leaving the team for the Luxembourg project … when does a rider decide that the sponsor is more important than the director? By now doesn’t everyone understand that money can’t buy victory?”
“The biggest question of all,” says Padraig, “is what riders see when they look at Bjarne Riis. As cycling fans, we see what seems to be a very gifted team director. For a rider like Andy Schleck to believe he could better achieve his goals elsewhere, surely he can’t see the Bjarne Riis we see. Just what does he see?”
These are good questions, but they might not still be worth asking given that Saxo Bank reupped with Riis after he was able to replace his Tour contender, Schleck the younger, with the current Tour champion, Alberto Contador. But then, just when you thought the cat had landed on its feet, Contador got busted for doping, dragging the whole stinking project back down into the crapper.
I’m not exactly sure who is left at the Riis Racing Offices at his point. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Bjarne himself was considering a move, such has been the turnover. If it’s just Riis and Contador, should they maybe change their name to Team Pariah?
For a guy who has been so good at putting his riders on podiums for the last decade, Riis is suddenly the boss no one wants to ride for. What is going on? He has always had a reputation for being overly serious, and his management style has been characterized as “corporate,” with all the positive and negative connotations that word inspires, but the guy wins. He is tactically brilliant, and his legendary obsession with the latest technology has meant that riders like Cancellara have benefited enormously from riding the best bicycles available for any conditions Mother Nature can contrive.
Some said the Worlds Road Race course in Melbourne favored the sprinters. Others said it was more for the rouleurs. As it turned out the best sprinter of the rouleurs, Thor Hushovd, took the rainbow jersey, after first the Italians and then the Belgians tore the race apart. Hushovd won in a bunch sprint executed clinically and also with the patience one would expect of a world champion.
Fabian Cancellara, a titan in his own right, took the time trial for the fourth time, but was unable to make an impression on the road race. Hushovd and Cancellara together represent 12 wins in 2010, including Paris – Roubaix, Ronde van Vlanderen, Tour stages and prologues, a Vuelta stage, the E3 Prijs, national championships, etc. All big races. All year long.
We have been fortunate to have Cadel Evans as world champion for the last year, the Australian riding a season of courage and combativity in the rainbow stripes, and now that Hushovd takes over the shirt, it is fair to expect another great year from the sport’s designated king.
This brings up one very salient point for me.
At a time when le dopáge continues to damage the Tour de France, and we’re nearly to the point of farcical irrelevance now, we are seeing the return of a very special kind of rider. For years, fans and pundits have been asking if the Tour was too big, too important, as its drama and controversy seem to suck all the air out of the cycling universe year after year. Certainly to the casual fan of the sport, pro cycling is little more than those three weeks in July.
But we love cycling, we who begin watching in January (Tour Down Under) and hang in until October (Giro di Lombardia). We can wring our hands and gnash our teeth over the composition of Alberto Contador’s urine, but perhaps it’s just a better choice to revel in the brilliance of riders like Thor Hushovd, Cadel Evans, Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, Sylvain Chavanel, etc., etc.
Maybe it’s ok for the Tour to die a little, to have its branches trimmed, so that its sheer size doesn’t leave the whole of cycling in its shadows. Because bicycle racing is good. There are still heroes to watch. There is still inspiration to be gleaned from the performances of those who ride hard in January, March, May, July, and October.
We have new world champions, and they are worthy.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
G’day, mates! In case you’ve not been enduring the latest barrage of pro cyclist tweets from Down Under (Fabian Cancellara said the food at “Swiss Haus” was just like home), the World Championships are nigh. The 45.8km time trial is Thursday on a course departing from Geelong, and the men’s elite road race is Sunday in Melbourne.
In the time trial, Cancellara, aiming for his fourth TT World Championship, is clearly the man to beat. Anyone naming worthy challengers would have elicited a hearty guffaw from this writer prior to the ITT on Stage 17 of the recently completed Vuelta a España. Cancellara finished third that day, a show of mortality we’ve not seen from the Swiss chronometer in a long time. So Michael Rogers now officially has a shot. Richie Porte’s name has been bandied about. Tony Martin can’t be written off, nor, perhaps David Millar.
In the road race, all the big favorites have been very busy this week accusing each other of being the big favorites. Cadel Evans thinks Pippo Pozzato or Phil Gilbert will win it. The pundits and punters all have their eyes on Oscar Freire. Somewhere, off in a corner, Mark Cavendish is trying to summon the confidence (poor lad is always lacking for self belief) to have a tilt at it. Some say it’s a sprinter’s course. Others say the hilly part of the circuit that reaches down into Geelong makes it one for the classics men.
I love the tension that builds before a race like this, every rider playing down his chances, trying to lay low enough to be able to spring a surprise when the right moment comes.
Another distinct possibility is that Cancellara will win the TT and the road race, making everyone else look silly and giving his new Luxembourgish team the opportunity to make a combined World Champion’s jersey before they’ve even turned a pedal in anger.
You know how these Group Rides work though. We want to hear your predictions. Sticker pack to the first one who names both winners first.
It would have been easy, last week, to give over the Group Ride to a Tour prediction competition. We resisted, but no more.
Now that things are beginning to shake out a little, now that we’ve had a chance to espy the form of the favorites, it’s time to lay down our markers.
We’ve seen Contador and Schleck (the younger) come unscathed across the cobbles. We’ve seen Cavendish lose and win. We’ve watched Thor Hushovd win a stage and snatch the green jersey, and we’ve seen Geraint Thomas pull on the white jersey. And while Jerome Pineau currently sports the polka dots, something tells me he won’t be wearing them at the end of the day tomorrow.
And so, let’s do this the right way. Let’s hear your predictions for each jersey, yellow, green, white and dotted. Whoever gets the most right gets an RKP sticker pack. If multiple people get all four right, we’ll award the adhesives to the best climber as determined by an ITT up the Matterhorn on goat back. Best get your goats tuned up.
The yellow jersey, which currently resides with one Mr. Fabian Cancellara, will likely not end on the Swiss’ back. Among the favorites, Cadel Evans is closest to taking it over, but Evans’ climbing talent is not equal to that of either Andy Schleck or Alberto Contador. Can he find other ways to put time into his rivals, or will the maillot jaune trickle down to the top grimpeur?
In that case, the advantage goes to Schleck, but he’s lost his most capable mountain climbing domestique, brother Fränk. The question then becomes whether or not Contador can gap the young Luxembourger in the coming time trials. History suggests he can, but these are only suggestions. The race is still out on the road.
The green jersey competition is probably less open. Thor Hushovd showed last year a shrewdness and opportunism that saw him in green in Paris despite winning just one stage to Mark Cavendish’s six. Oft misunderstood as the “sprinter’s jersey,’ the maillot vert goes to the most consistent rider who may or may not be a consistent stage winner. Hanging around the top of the standings currently is 36-year-old Alessandro Petacchi, a wily veteran who can’t be discounted, and don’t write off Robbie McEwen either. He appears to be back in form after a long stretch of injury and disappointment.
The two jerseys most difficult to pick will be the polka dotted and white. This 2010 Tour is even climbier (not a real word) than recent editions, so there are opportunities for all the best to take points. The key here is that the best climbers don’t always score the most King of the Mountains (KOM) points, because they find themselves more interested in the general classification. That leaves openings for other freakishly skinny, hugely-lunged members of the peloton. The contenders include Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Matthew Lloyd (Omega Pharma Lotto) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank), assuming the latter doesn’t launch himself at the GC. Still, the King of the Mountains may hold a surprise. It may be that a rider like Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) or Tony Martin (HTC Columbia) makes a run at this prize in lieu of a higher placing in the standings.
British Road Champion Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) currently wears the white jersey, awarded to the best young rider (under 26) on GC. This is a shirt won recently by a veritable “who’s who” of Grand Tour winners, including Andy Schleck (2008, 2009), Alberto Contador (2007), Denis Menchov (2003) and Ivan Basso (2002). This year’s contenders include Gesink, Schleck (again), Tony Martin, Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas – Doimo), and Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Team Sky).
That’s all the help you’re going to get here, though. Riders not named are still eligible for any of the prizes enumerated herein, and I will almost guarantee you they don’t all go to script.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
This week’s ride was about stories, the ones the race tells and the ones we wanted to hear. Fortunately, and this is the hallmark of a good storyteller, this 2010 Tour de France is spinning some of the most unexpected and strange yarns we’ve heard in years.
From the roads of Rotterdam to the hills of Flanders, nothing has gone exactly as we’d anticipated. Did anyone see Armstrong beating Contador (if only by 5 seconds) in the short prologue time trial? The Lance-in-decline narrative took a twist there, didn’t it? And how did Tyler Farrar ride himself into the top ten?
Stage 1 saw 36-year-old Alessandro Petacchi sprint for the win after dodging a series of crashes that took out his younger competition. Experience 1 Audacity 0. This stage also introduced us to this idea of big GC names crashing: Kløeden, Leipheimer, Basso and Millar.
If Stage 1 introduced the idea, Stage 2 elevated it to the level of a Mad Max sequel. Apparently, a motorbike went down on the already rain slick descent of the Stockeu, turning it into a virtual luge run for the tetchy peloton. Something like 80 riders crashed there leading Fabian Cancellara to organize the neutralization of the run in to the finish with the acquiescence of Tour management, an odd finish to an unexpectedly brutal day on the road.
And then came the cobbles.
We’ve been talking about Stage 3 for months now, and when the riders finally rode it, all battered and bloody from the previous days’ fun, things went from bad-to-worse/ good-to-great (circle one).
Between crashes (Fränk Schleck busted his collarbone in three places.) and mechanicals (An untimely puncture cost Armstrong nearly a minute to Contador, who looked like a natural on the pavé, and over two minutes to Andy Schleck.) Stage 3 was everything we expected it to be plus a whole lot more.
To be sure, the peloton didn’t relish their time on the cobbles, and we can argue ad infinitum about whether it’s appropriate to insert a mini-Roubaix into a Grand Tour, but it sure made for great entertainment to see them strung out across the countryside like a chain of Christmas lights with half the bulbs burned out.
Like the first week of this year’s Giro, where the riders complained of the shear brutality of the course, Tour 2010 is off to a harrowing start. “Harrowing,” in this case, is French for “incredibly awesome.”
It just goes to show that every effort we make to predict the race is foiled almost the instant the riders roll out of the neutral zone. This is a story with thousands of authors, the riders, the organizers, the roads, the spectators, and an occasional off-leash canine. The results vary wildly, but the quality of the tale seldom drops.
Please note: The word “carnage” was NOT used in the production of this piece.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I believe that Bjarne Riis holds the keys to the future of professional road racing in continental Europe [Cue the sounds of a needle scratching a record/glass shattering/monkey's rioting at the banana packing plant].
For years we’ve been talking about the impact that each new doping scandal would have on the sport’s ability to attract sponsors able to support teams on the financial level necessary to race the UCI’s evolving, global race calendar. And, certainly, sponsors have dropped out after prolonged exposure to the negative publicity of having their athletes frog-marched out of the Grand Tours, heads hung in shame. What brand benefits from having their name associated with a bunch of anorexic junkies?
And yet, every time we lost a stalwart sponsor like T-Mobile, we gained a Garmin or a Columbia. Even the recent emergence of teams like RadioShack, Sky and BMC suggest that there are still deep-pocketed brands who believe in cycling. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the Shack is built specifically to support Lance Armstrong, a marketing juggernaut independent of cycling. Sky comes out of the British Cycling Federation’s successful track tradition, a group without doping-related baggage to carry around on tour with them. Among those three, only BMC, formerly Phonak, has struggled through years of dope-conjured setbacks, specifically with Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Oscar Camenzind and others. Their survival can be put down, completely, to the iron will of owner Andy Rihs, who loves cycling, perhaps to his own detriment.
On the European continent, things have not gone so well. Formerly dominant Italian teams have self-destructed or soldiered on, shadows of their former selves. Spanish sponsors have fled nearly wholesale, and the French, well, they seem to be underachieving on every front. Milram, the only ProTour team in Germany, will end their sponsorship commitment at the end of this season. Doom? You’re soaking in it.
That brings us back to Bjarne Riis and his Saxo Bank team. Among the ProTour horde, Saxo Bank stands out. They have dominated the Spring Classics through Fabian Cancellara, a rider who will also bring them Grand Tour stage wins in any race against the clock. They also have the Schleck brothers, Andy and Franck, who, in addition to contending for GC honors in the Tours, also represent the fresh, young face of cycling. Few teams bring to the ProTour what Saxo Bank brings, and much of that is down to their owner and manager, Riis.
And now that Saxo Bank is ready to end its sponsorship of the team, it is Riis scrambling around to find funding for what is, arguably, the best team on the continent. The irony is that Riis himself is a repentant former doper, who confessed, without coercion, to having won the 1996 Tour de France with the help of the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO), even offering to give back the yellow jersey he won that year.
A polarizing figure in cycling, Riis is clearly at the forefront of modern team managers, bringing new training techniques and technical innovations to the table more aggressively than any other. Many cycling fans are ambivalent about his influence though, disgusted with his participation in the drug culture of the late ’90s peloton, but intrigued by the performance and tactics of his team. Never a particularly warm presence, Riis has managed his team in the same ruthless way he raced. It wins races, if not always fans.
So now it’s down to this man to find a title sponsor for his team. It’s a proposition that tests the very premises of continental racing. Can a former doper with the best squad on two-wheels secure the funds? There is probably not a more valuable commodity than Team Saxo Bank, not a better end product to sell. But Riis may well be his own albatross. The deal maker might just be the deal breaker.
And this dilemma is not peculiar to this team. Every continental team has baggage to contend with when talking to sponsors. That is what makes Saxo Bank such a clear litmus test for the ProTour.
Let’s not be too dramatic. Pro cycling will not die. Where teams fail, others will spring up, but the new shoots of growth might come from unexpected sources, Australia or Japan maybe. The UCI has undertaken a globalization project for the sport. This can be looked at as either an effort to grow into new markets, or a tacit admission that the peloton has simply poisoned the well in mainland Europe.
Let’s hope this isn’t the case. Whether we like him or not, let’s hope that Bjarne Riis can present a business plan that overcomes the trepidation that must come from shaking hands with a former cheat.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Was it thrilling? Were you thrilled? Were you surprised to see Cancellara ride away with the race for the second weekend running? Were you pulling for Tommeke to reel the big Swiss back in? Did you think Hincapie was going to make something of his good mid-race position? Was Pozzato disappointing? What of Flecha and Hushovd, who seemed to wait for the Champion of Belgium to ride himself out in the chase, before dropping him in advance of the velodrome?
From my perspective, this year’s Paris-Roubaix was a bit of a let down. I successfully avoided learning the results all day in anticipation of the Versus coverage with Liggett and Sherwen (It’s the curse of residing on this side of the Atlantic that you can’t see these great races live), and then plopped myself down on the couch after reading my boys some rivetting bedtime stories about bears and mice having tea together, only to witness a decidedly subdued Hell of the North.
The French police barred spectators from drinking in the Arenberg Forest (above), and so there were far fewer at cobble-side, and thus less crashes. In fact, this version of the Queen of the Classics was just too short of mayhem for my tastes, an opinion not at all backed up by the fact that 85 riders had DNF next to their names at the end of the day.
The favorites rode to the front and stayed there. The usual attrition, the pummeling of the pavé, thinned the race down. And then Fabian Cancellara crushed the rest of the strong men, who scrabbled around in his dust, literally, leaving Tom Boonen alone to put up a fight. Quite how the nine of them couldn’t conjure any sort of meaningful paceline to at least limit their losses underlines how much stronger Cancellara was, physically AND mentally.
This was another aspect I found disappointing, the lack of fight from the guys who were supposed to fight.
After the race, as I noted in comments, Saxo Bank owner/manager Bjarne Riis took credit for his rider’s race-winning move. Apparently he commanded his giant Swiss-bot to attack at just the moment he saw Boonen napping at the back of the group. I’d pay 100 Francs to sit next to Bernhard Hinault while he read that interview and then went off on a profanity-laced tirade about modern riders all being a bunch of gigolos attached to Game Boys, but I’m like that. I love the drama. And badgers.
Getting to our little prediction contest…what’s wrong with you guys? You came up with really every permutation of Cancellara, Flecha, Hushovd, Boonen, Hincapie, etc., etc., et. al., PhD, MBA, PDQ, EXCEPT the right one. How did you do that? Well, now you know how Tom Boonen feels. Good effort, but no prize.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Roubaix! Roubaix! Allez! Roubaix!
I don’t know. It just came out. So … here we are. For some of us, the biggest weekend of the cyclo-spectator year. The Queen of the Classics. The Hell of the North. A Sunday in Hell. Other, clever monikers incorporating the word ‘hell.’ Go on. Make up some of your own. It’s fun.
Paris-Roubaix, which actually starts in Compiégne, north of the French capital, and ends in the velodrome at Roubaix, consists of 28 cobbled sections (see the RKP Roubaix t-shirt here for the full list of cobbled stretches) connected by bits of proper pavement. The pavement serves as respite from the suffering, and allows the riders who have been dropped, crushed, crashed, mechanicalled or otherwise beaten by the cobbles, to regain their senses and climb into a team car or the broom wagon.
I could go on and on (ask my wife), but my hyperbole would be as a smear of embrocation against the elements. Not up to the task.
Here is a list of favorites (some more favorite than others, obviously): Cancellara, Boonen, Hushovd, Flecha, Farrar, Eisel, Maaskant, Pozzato, Breschel, Hincapie, Hoste. The dark horses: Everyone else.
Paris-Roubaix sometimes yields to the strongest rider, but other times bestows its glory on the luckiest. If you’re both strong and lucky, you’ll win. Maybe.
Anyway, let’s do something special for this most special of Group Rides. Let’s say, the first person to name the podium finishers correctly (and in correct order) wins the aforementioned Roubaix t-shirt. We will have one winner, the first up with the right answers. So name your podium … now.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
What? A Group Ride on a Thursday? Well, yes. I promised when the Het Nieuwsblad Group Ride went off a few short hours before the race itself got underway that I’d do a better job as the season went on. So here we are, all standing around the parking lot, unexpectedly, pulling up our warmers and sucking on our water bottles and waiting for someone, anyone, to head out.
Rather predictably, this week’s topic of discussion will be the 300k ‘classicisima’ Milan – San Remo. This is the sprinters’ classic and one of the monuments of the sport. You know. It’s important.
And accordingly, the list of favorites is as long as your arm, which is a curt way of saying there is no favorite. Last year Mark Cavendish shocked the cycling world by dragging himself over the races many climbs in good enough working order to win the sprint at the end. It was an announcement that the one-trick pony had added another trick, a really good one.
But, Young Cav has crashed on the final stage of Tirreno – Adriatico, and, if we’re clinical about this, he hasn’t really seemed to round into form just yet, so those who might otherwise say he’s the man to beat are keeping their powder dry at the moment.
So who else is in it to win it? Well, the list takes in a selection of the peloton‘s strong men and sprinters. It looks something like this: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team), Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Juan-Antonio Flecha and Edvald Boasson-Hagen (both Sky), Tyler Farrar (Garmin), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Philipe Gilbert (Omega Pharma Lotto), Filippo Pozzato (Katusha). And those are just the light colored horses. There are dark ones, too.
I won’t even break this down and tell you why each of these riders can win. These folks have already done it.
What I will do is ask you who YOU think will win it and why? Two weeks ago, frequent commenter Champs called Paris-Nice, but really, picking Contador isn’t a very risky maneuver, is it Champs?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International