Unlike amateur golf, pro cycling does not use a handicapping system to give riders of unequal talent an equal chance at winning the race. That is why, Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme deployed the “dumb ass spectator” strategy to bring the peloton down, outside the 10k banner, with Alberto Contador caught up in the resulting mess.
Oh sure, it looked like an accident, but could Prudhomme really have hoped for more? From the moment the UCI cleared Contador to ride, he was instantly installed as favorite to win. Having watched Lance Armstrong ride away with the yellow jersey in the ’00s, Prudhomme HAD to do something to take his race back.
And so, on an innocuously straight road where the pack was just ramping up the speed to set up the finish, a spectator leaned out, looking up the road for some reason, rather than back at the swarming velo mass flying by, clipped Maxim Iglinsky of Astana and sent riders tumbling like a gym full of dominoes at the end of a long college weekend. Contador wasn’t injured in the pile up, but he lost 1:20 on the stage, slightly less to the other race favorites, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Andreas Klöden, et. al.
Do not believe anyone who tells you Contador can’t overcome that deficit. He can. But that deficit is going to turn the 2011 Tour de France into a race.
Stage winner Philipe Gilbert perpetrated a half kilometer sprint to take the day. He dropped Fabian Cancellara. He gapped the entire lead group. A late breaking Cadel Evans couldn’t chase him down. It was exactly the sort of win that makes Gilbert the most exciting racer on the road today. On the podium, he pulled the yellow jersey over the Belgian champion’s jersey. That, my friends, is a bad ass maneuver.
Also, a big thumbs up for the new intermediate sprint rules. We were particularly surprised to see Mark Cavendish fall sound asleep in advance of the line, allowing both Tyler Farrar and Andre Greipel to come over top of him. Perhaps it’s true what he’s been telling the press, that he’s really only interested in stage wins.
The new set up for green jersey points turns 21 stages into 42. Sort of.
And on we go to the Stage Two Team Time Trial (TTT). I will be wearing a skin suit while watching from my couch. It’s an attempt to shave some time off the 3hr 30min live coverage that will keep the lawn from getting mowed and my children from getting parented.
Well, the 2011 Giro d’Italia is in the books, the most epic, epicness in the history of epic epics. Race director Angelo Zomegnan took a page from Tour de France founder Henri Desgranges’ playbook and turned his race into more of a survival event than a bike race, with many racers and directors saying this version was just too hard. What I think they meant is that it was just too hard for everyone who wasn’t named Alberto Contador.
Alberto Contador - He’s the elephant in the living room or, perhaps more specifically, the pistol in the peloton. He completely dominated. He never looked troubled. He never looked challenged. He seemed to attack at will, often on whim or simply through appetite (the sort that earned a certain Belgian a not-always-complimentary nickname). The Spaniard’s performance was thrilling in a way, his signature attacks both completely fluid and completely explosive.
Of course, the flip-side to Contador’s ride is the lingering doubt that he’s clean. Whether it’s the doping case that will never end, or the whirling dervish of the Armstrong affair that is tarring all of our dominant riders with a tainted brush is hard to say. Regardless, it’s hard to believe in Contador’s flavor of dominance, whether that doubt has any basis in reality/science or not.
Michelle Scarponi – It must be hard to finish second and have everyone ignore you, but of all the GC hopefuls Scarponi made the absolute best pretense of trying to stay with Contador, chasing him off the front, if only to drop back. That so much was said about Vincenzo Nibali is a good indication that the rider who topped Nibali by 46 seconds was a worthy runner up.
Vincenzo Nibali – All of Italy seemed to be pulling for the “Shark,” but he didn’t have it. Known as perhaps the best descender in the pro bunch, Nibali had almost zero pop in his legs when it came to riding up hill. What made the Liquigas rider’s Giro interesting and admirable to me was the way the constantly rode within himself. He didn’t make any suicide attacks. He stayed patient and limited his losses to a clearly superior opponent. It wasn’t always exciting to watch, but it was good, smart racing.
John Gadret - My previous estimation of Gadret was based on his woeful lack of team spirit in supporting Nicolas Roche at the last Tour de France. I thought he was a punk, and he may well be, but in this Giro he showed a massive leap in ability, sticking with the world’s best climbers on some of the world’s toughest climbs. Maybe the French are rising again. No. Probably not.
Jose Rujano – If we turn slightly to our left, Rujano’s doping past will sit just out of our peripheral vision, and we’ll be able to view his 2011 Giro as a massively entertaining ride by a guy very few thought would ride at this level again. Perhaps he has earned himself a move up from Androni-Giacatolli to a bigger squad who can deploy him in the mountains of other grand tours.
Denis Menchov/Carlos Sastre – When Geox-TMC, the team of former grand tour winners Menchov and Sastre, weren’t invited to the Tour de France, I was one of those who thought ASO had screwed up, picking crappy French teams instead of this Spanish squad fronted by this unlikely pair. The Giro was, as a result, their everything, and the ASO is vindicated. Sastre was no where. Menchov was a shadow.
Honorable Mentions – Roman Kreuziger moved to Astana to get his chance at grand tour leadership. Liquigas was always going to go with Nibali and Ivan Basso, so that seemed like a sensible move. Kreuziger didn’t quite make the cut this time out. He remains a potential GC rider, rather than a real threat.
Christophe Le Mevel started strong, finished weak, but did Garmin-Cervelo proud, and provided another glimmer of the idea that French cyclists might be returning to grand tour podiums again one day. Maybe.
Peter Weening, the giant Dutchman, pulled a real Voekler and not only pulled on the maglia rosa in the first week, but then had the temerity to defend it.
Mark Cavendish came, saw, sprinted and then left. It’s sad to me that modern grand tour sprinters do this so often, but this is the world we live in. Specialization is king.
Final thoughts – They say the Tour de France is the biggest bike race in the world and that the Giro is the most beautiful. It would seem that Angelo Zomegnan is looking for more ways to draw even with his counterpart in France, Christian Prudhomme. They are both operating in the environment of modern cycling, which seems to be as much about which riders might be suspended as what the race route looks like. The 2011 Giro was an effort, I believe, to reassert the primacy of the race. In crushing all comers, Alberto Contador undid much of Zomegnan’s plan, and that is too bad.
(Just to be clear, I have no idea whether Contador is clean or not. I am only saying that the ongoing case related to last year’s clenbuterol positive creates doubt in the minds of many.)
Thanks to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and their geologically-timed appeals process, Zomegnan’s problem now becomes Prudhomme’s. How to keep the focus on the racing, when the racers themselves inspire such doubt. Perhaps one day we’ll look back on this time as the “Age of Asterisks,” a time when you couldn’t be sure what race you’d seen until the various governing bodies had a year or two or three to digest what happened and the lawyers had come up with acceptable compromises in Swiss conference rooms.
Regardless, this Giro d’Italia made a valiant effort at challenging the riders in unconventional ways, pushing them well outside their comfort zones. Was it too hard? Clearly, for some, it was. For the rest, it was a great race.
Big points have to go to the organizers for handling the tragic death of Wouter Weylandts with dignity and a minimum of controversy. Their modification of the stage that included the descent of Monte Crostis was another testing moment that passed with relatively few problems. These challenges are testament to the ability of a cycling organization to make good, effective decisions under time constraints.
The ASO, the UCI and the various national federations would do well to pay attention.
The professional racing season is underway in Europe. The pro peloton are all racing to the sun in France or from sea to sea in Italy, and there are finally more articles about actual racing than about the Contador case. At last, Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll are doing their best to enliven the first few hours of television coverage, when the peloton’s main business is riding through gray-ish tan villages, hucking empty water bottles at small pockets of people just out of the café for a few minutes.
And while certain bits of the story are running to script the racing has already offered up some surprises.
For me, the biggest has perhaps been the riding of Thomas de Gendt at Paris-Nice. The Vacansoleil rider came out of nowhere to win Stage 1, engineering his win from a three-man breakaway with Jeremy Roy and Jens Voigt. The Belgian then kept the jersey through the Stage 2 sprint, but lost it on Stage 3 by just two seconds. Not content with his performance up to that point, de Gendt found his way into another successful breakaway and pulled the golden fleece on again. Not a threat for the overall, de Gendt has still been able to light up the race with the sort of smart and swashbuckling riding every fan likes to see.
Of course, another big surprise was Andreas Klöden’s win on Stage 5, out sprinting Sammy Sanchez of all people. In doing so, he put enough time into de Gendt to take the leader’s jersey as well. Klöden won this race 11 years ago, but did ANYONE mention his name in any of their previews as a possible overall winner? Answer: no.
This is not to focus all our attention on the Paris-Nice. At Tirreno-Adriatico, the sprinters are all tuning up for Milan-San Remo. After the opening Team Time Trial (TTT), won, shockingly by Team Rabobank, Tyler Farrar took a win in Stage 2, and then JJ Haedo took Stage 3, just denying Farrar the double. Of course, the name missing here is Mark Cavendish, who has finished well down the order on both sprint stages.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What has been the biggest surprise of the week for you, and why?
1. Mark Cavendish’s failure to win yet at Tirreno-Adriatico.
2. Andreas Klöden’s win at Paris-Nice.
3. Thomas de Gendt (who?) in the yellow jersey at Paris-Nice.
4. Team Rabobank’s TTT win at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Enough, enough, enough of all this doping-related blather. Just because the Tour of Qatar is as entertaining as watching someone do their taxes, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be spending this time chatting anxiously about the coming season, rather than sticking pins in our Pat McQuaid voodoo dolls or trying to understand how the body takes in and stores dime store stimulants.
There is actually a racing season coming.
And, as it does every year, the landscape has shifted. Whether it’s the renaming of Team SaxoBank to Team Leopard – Trek (What? They’re not the same team?), or the merger of Cervelo with Garmin, the talent has been thrown up in the air like a deck of cards and then quickly reshuffled. How will it all play out?
Will Taylor Phinney’s move to BMC put them on more podiums? Will Tejay VanGarderen improve on last season’s promise? What of Jack Bobridge, the new owner of the world individual pursuit record? Will Radio Shack, the de facto retirement home for aging racers, have more to offer than they did last year, in Lance’s swan (dive) song?
Can Tyler Farrar help Thor Hushovd pour glory on the rainbow stripes, and can Hushovd help Farrar best Mark Cavendish? Can they even coexist? Will Andrei Greipel rise up to compete at the very top of the sprint pile? Can Phillipe Gilbert win big in the Spring? What does Fabian Cancellara do for an encore after complete lighting up 2010? Will Tom Boonen come back to the form from his early career?
So many questions. This week’s Group Ride tries to keep it simple: What is the most interesting unanswered question for the 2011 season?
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’s early yet. There is still plenty of time in Grande Boucle 2010 for a violent plot twist and/or turn. Tours de France (see how easy it is to pluralize that?) are pretty much plot twist machines. You just start one up and out come the thrills.
And so, even though it’s early, this week’s Ride is about the Tour that was. This Ride has got to last us all through the weekend and into next week, by which time we’ll have the benefit of about ten minutes of hind sight.
Clearly, this race will be remembered as the one where Lance Armstrong went out with a whimper, rather than a bang, the one where Andy Scheck tried hard, but couldn’t quite ride Alberto Contador off his wheel. We’ll remember Fränk Schleck down on the pavé. We’ll remember everybody and their brother down on the Stockeu. We’ll remember the World Champ riding into Paris with a broken elbow and scores of riders (ok, a few) going home with broken wrists. Mark Cavendish? Poor form, his lead, lead out man expelled, and he still took four stages. Old man Petacchi in green. Chaingate. So many stories here.
Will this be the year that Tour organizers realized their route was causing just that little bit too much pain and suffering? Or is 2010 the year that heralds the return to grand tour as survival race, the way Henri Desgranges envisioned it? Will this be Jens Voigt’s last Tour de France? Egads!
Wrap it up for us, people. Who was the biggest surprise? Who was the biggest loser? What was the best story? What will you remember?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
Because Mark Cavendish, 25-years-old at time of writing, has just released his autobiography, “Boy Racer,” I decided to ride down to my local library and borrow their copy of “Memories of the Peloton,” Bernard Hinault’s auto-hagiography. It’s not that I’m not interested in Young Mark’s estimation and explanation of his times thus far. It’s more that I think he’s maybe jumped the gun a bit, but such is the fashion now.
Hinault “wrote” his ode to himself after he retired to his country farm. I say “wrote” because he actually seems to have rambled, nearly stream-of-consciousness style into a tape recorder and then had someone transcribe the manuscript. Even with serious restructuring by the English translator, Hinault’s account of his career is a bit, um, disjointed.
Here’s what I took away from the book, much of which you already know:
1) Le Blaireau was a bully. Even as a kid he took special delight in fist fights with students from a rival country school every afternoon on his way home.
2) He always got his way, either through intimidation or simple bloody-mindedness.
3) His motives were always, always, always beyond reproach.
4) He didn’t attack LeMond. All those times he was up the road, he was actually helping.
5) Greg LeMond is mentally unstable. Americans, generally, lack humility.
6) When he retired, he walked away happy and satisfied with what he’d done.
What I didn’t know, and might just be too-determined reading between the lines, is that, despite the enormous ego, Bernard Hinault was constantly fighting off self-doubt. In the book he casts himself often in a position of weakness, though he was, through much of the time covered, the widely acknowledged top rider in the world.
It is, perhaps, a mark only of low self-esteem that leads a rider of that caliber to feel the constant compunction to prove himself. Or maybe it is only a psychological trick that allows champions to motivate themselves to further and better accomplishment.
I have often thought the Badger, both in his racing career and in his retirement, was simply an asshole, a highly quotable and entertaining asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. And this gets to the core of much of my wonder about our more bombastic champions, whether they possess Hinault’s palmares or Cavendish’s somewhat less developed CV.
Does winning things make you arrogant, or is it arrogance that makes the champion in the first place? Is the tension between self-doubt and superior ability a recipe that breeds both winning and gracelessness at the same time? The arrogance is perhaps not a product of the championships, but rather a mechanism of them, like lactic acid in metabolism.
Even in retirement le Blaireau continues his combativeness. He is never slow to denigrate a race winner or a tactic he doesn’t approve of, and through this sort of sourness he carves out space for his continued legend. In the Hinault universe, not only did the man win all those races, BUT he also did it the right way. Infer what criticisms you will.
Clearly, Hinault and Cavendish were cast in different molds, the former a GC rider par excellence, the latter a pure sprinter. But the method behind the madness of releasing an autobiography so early in his career might be that Cavendish is the same sort of character as his French forebear. When the young Britton, also a country boy in a big city sport, says he is the fastest rider in the world, me thinks he protests too much. It’s not that he doesn’t back it up with his sprinting. It’s more that I suspect he says it out of fear that it isn’t true as much as belief that it is.
With both Hinault and Cavendish colleagues talk about the “hunger for success.” That hunger may be very real, but it invariably contains, within it, the fear of failure. Arrogance is the flip side of insecurity, isn’t it? Thus does Hinault attack LeMond. Thus does Cavendish bad mouth Greipel.
I am not going to run out and buy “Boy Racer.” There was an excerpt in the last VeloNews, and it reads much as one would expect it to. The Badger has gone. The Badger has come again. And this time he’s got bad teeth.
The Spring Classics season is over. And now that I’m done crying in my espresso over it. It’s time to shift the mental gears for Grand Tour time. Ignore that grinding sound. My mechanic said it would work itself out, eventually.
And so, let’s take the Group Ride away from race predictions. Who really feels predictively competitive about the Tour of Romandie?
No. This week, in the aftermath of Alexander Vinokourov’s win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Mark Cavendish’s profane victory salute in Romandie, I’m thinking about character. I am looking at today’s pro peloton and wondering who the real good guys are. Who, amongst our champions, has the character to go along with his victories? Who has the poise? Who has the class?
Of course, we’ve always had our villains, and I believe they’re a necessary part of the equation. They bring brashness and audacity (Cavendish). They play as foils (Vinokourov) to the good, clean talents pedaling for glory. The bad are often more entertaining than the good, and we all like to be entertained.
What I want to know this week is who you admire? Who will be remembered, not just for their palmarés, but also for the manner in which those victories were won?
My mind goes immediately to a rider like Jens Voigt, the breakaway artist loyal to his team, who suffers with a smile on his face, who makes the hardest parts of bike racing look like fun and respects the riders around him for their power, intelligence and effort.
Then there’s Phillipe Gilbert, outspoken about clean racing, a hard rider on a weak team, an intelligent and humble champion, who can beat stronger riders with his mind, rather than his radio.
There are other worthy riders, of course, but I’ll let you name them.
Image: John Pierce, Photosp0rt 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