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.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It’s hard to imagine, but the spring classics are finally upon us with Saturday’s running of Milan-San Remo, the first monument of the season. Much has been written about the type of rider perfectly suited to the year’s longest one-day event. Is Milan-San Remo a race for sprinters or attackers? Will the Cipressa and Poggio succeed in shattering the field, or will they simply prime the legs of the strongmen before an all-out bunch sprint?
In the end, La Classicissima is perhaps one of the sport’s biggest crapshoots as crashes, weather, and bad luck all play a role in destroying or elevating the chances of many pre-race favorites. Here’s a rundown of who to watch this Saturday:
Peter Sagan – Similar to last year’s edition, I expect we’ll see a select group hit the line together in San Remo Saturday. That makes a sprinter able to handle the Cipressa, the Poggio, and their descents while possessing a better finishing kick than his rivals—such as Liquigas’ Peter Sagan—the top favorite for Saturday. Sagan’s progressed steadily since his first season as a professional (2010), a season when he was head-scratchingly left off his team’s roster for Milan-San Remo after two stage wins in Paris-Nice. Taking the line for the first time last season, Sagan finished 17th, I suspect due to Milan-San Remo’s whopping 290-kilometers of distance.
The Slovakian returns this year with a grand tour in his legs (an important detail not to be discounted) and a tough week of racing in Tirreno-Adriatico. His stage win in Chieti showed his ability to survive selective courses and he has the added benefit of riding alongside Vincenzo Nibali, a trendy race favorite himself his overall victory in Tirreno. Look for Sagan to win the race in a fashion similar to Goss last year. He’ll take a backseat to Nibali for much of the finale, calmly following wheels and taking risks on the descent of the Poggio to keep himself in contention. If all goes as planned, the youngster will take his first classic at the tender age of 22.
Fabian Cancellara – Cancellara won Milan-San Remo in 2008 and finished second last year after making the lead group, but coming up short in the sprint. Interestingly, Cancellara’s 2008 victory came two weeks after he won L’Eroica and days after his time trial win (and overall title) at Tirreno-Adriatico. Sound familiar? After his impressive victory in L’Eroica two weeks ago and a near perfect build-up at Tirreno, only a true field sprint finish could definitively prevent Spartacus from taking his second victory in La Classicissima. Then again, given the form he’s displayed, even that might not defeat him.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – After his Stage 3 victory in Tirreno, EBH looked to have the form of a 5-Kite Favorite. Assuming a small but select group escapes on the Poggio, the Norwegian is—to me—Team Sky’s best bet for the win Saturday as he’s a better climber than Cavendish. But like many in the peloton, Boasson Hagen abandoned the race early, feeling the effects of a crash and wanting to be fully rested for Saturday. Such decisions are common, but it’s enough to cast a bit of doubt over the Norwegian’s chances, knocking him down a rung from the likes of Sagan and Cancellara.
Mark Cavendish – Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish has spent much of the still-young season either winning or sick. After taking his fourth win of the year in Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico, the World Champion abandoned the race a few days later, trying to keep himself fresh while avoiding the effects of a cold that has laid low many of the sport’s biggest names. For Cavendish, the question at Milan-San Remo remains whether or not he will make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio with the front group. If he does, there’s little reason to believe his powerful team won’t deliver the Manxman his second victory in the season’s first monument.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire has won Milan-San Remo three times—a fourth would tie him with Gino Bartali and Erik Zabel for third on the all-time behind Eddy Merckx (7 wins) and Costante Girardengo (6 wins). Freire has a knack for winning races when no one really expects him to, forcing everyone to utter “Oh yeah, Freire,” after seemingly coming out of nowhere to take a major victory. Freire’s won two races for Katusha so far this season and enjoyed a quiet Tirreno-Adriatico where he finished second behind Mark Cavendish on Stage 2. If a large group hits the Lungomare Italo Calvino in the lead, expect to see the Spaniard on the podium Saturday.
Tom Boonen – Every year it seems that Omega Pharma – Quick Step’s Tom Boonen comes to Milan-San Remo in top form only to find himself thwarted by riders more suited to the race’s crapshoot of a finale. Tommeke’s finished second and third here previously, but often lacks the acceleration to cover winning breakaways or the power to emerge victorious in the final sprint. After a terrific start to the season including a stage win in last week’s Paris-Nice, the Belgian appears as ready as he’ll ever be to take what would be his third of the five Monuments. Unfortunately, the Belgian’s chances have already been dealt a blow thanks to the withdrawals of Sylvain Chavanel and Dries Devenyns.
Vincenzo Nibali – Tirreno-winner Vincenzo Nibali would love to add Milan-San Remo to his resume. But with several teams hoping to see the race come down to a sprint and a finale that’s not quite hard enough to sufficiently kill their chances, Nibali might be relegated to the traditional role of “Italian grand tour favorite who attacks on the Cipressa and is caught at the base of the Poggio”. Then again, Nibali could combine his impressive descending skills on the Poggio with the pack’s fear of dragging Peter Sagan back into the lead to give the race its first Italian winner since Pippo Pozzato in 2006.
Alessandro Ballan – Thanks to a roster decimated by illness and injury, Ballan will likely be Team BMC’s best bet on Saturday. Still out to prove that the big wins he enjoyed earlier in his career were no fluke, Ballan finished fourth last year after making the final selection. And with Gilbert, Hushovd, and Van Avermaet bound to heal sometime soon, there might never be a better chance for Ballan to lead his squad in a major spring classic.
Matti Breschel – Rabobank’s Breschel seems to have overcome the injury troubles that dogged him throughout 2011. Critics will point out that he was dropped from the winning breakaway in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad three weeks. But to me, his performance serve as proof that the Dane’s form is headed in the right direction. With a relatively trouble-free Tirreno in his legs, Breschel should perform well in San Remo.
Daniele Bennati – Bennati’s fine start to the season has been overshadowed by Fabian Cancellara’s exploits as of late. After setting-up Spartacus with a late-race move in L’Eroica, the Italian held on to finish 11th in Siena. At Tirreno-Adriatico, he seemed to have grown stronger as the race progressed: he finished second behind Cancellara in the event’s final time trial. Bennati’s biggest obstacle Saturday is certainly his teammate; he’ll rightfully be expected to defer to his Swiss teammate should they both find themselves in the final selection.
Heinrich Haussler – In 2009, Garmin-Barracuda’s Haussler narrowly missed winning Milan-San Remo when he was caught at the line by Mark Cavendish. Haussler has since fallen short of living up to that season, but says he’s back on track and ready to contend this spring. Saturday will be our first chance to see if he means it.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol’s Greipel is one of the world’s best field sprinters, but there are questions as to whether he can make it over the Cipressa and Poggio with the favorites. If he does, he’s not to be discounted. After all, if Cipollini and Petacchi can do it, why can’t he?
Matthew Goss – GreenEdge’s Goss has done little to show that he has the form necessary to defend his 2011 title. Then again, it’s early in the season and many riders have purposely remained under the radar so as to avoid racing on Saturday with a target on their backs. If Goss has truly recovered from the illness that cut short his Tirreno, a step on the podium is within his grasp—which one remains to be seen.
I went against my gut last year and didn’t pick Matthew Goss. I won’t make the same mistake twice. Sagan takes the win over EBH and Ballan. And then it’s on to Flanders!
Share your picks and favorites below.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Last week we discussed the Men of the Hour—a rather easy-to-compile list of the men we all expect to be at forefront of the sport in 2012. But while the sport’s Men of the Hour might be easier to identify, a list of Up-and-Comers is certainly more interesting to make as it allows for more prognosticating. After all, it’s always fun to go out on a limb—especially if you turn out to be right.
Colombia – Something tells me we’re on the verge of a renaissance, as Colombians have been taking some pretty huge scalps at the U23 level over the past few seasons including the Baby Giro (now called the GiroBio), the Tour de l’Avenir, and the World Road Championship. It’s therefore no surprise that much of the country’s best talent—men such as Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Duarte, Carlos Betancur, and Sergio Henao—is now turning heads as pros. But 2012 should see an even better sign of the South American nation’s resurgence as the Colombia Coldeportes team—the first full-time, European-based Colombian squad the sport has seen in years—has already gained entry into some of Europe’s biggest races. The team’s main goal? A Tour de France invite—and they think they can get it as soon as this year.
Sep Vanmarcke – Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke burst onto the scene with a second-place ride for Topsport Vlaanderen at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, beating George Hincapie and Philippe Gilbert in the process and earning himself a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. Fast forward one year and there was Vanmarcke again at the front during the classics, this time burying himself for the sake of teammates Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, and Tyler Farrar, yet still finding the strength to finish 4th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and 20th in Paris-Roubaix. Thor’s departure bumps Sep up a rung in the squad’s cobbled hierarchy this year, and considering Farrar’s inconsistency on the pavé, Vanmarcke could easily find himself in a position to win a race for himself this spring.
Salvatore Puccio – This is more of long shot, but keep an eye on Team Sky neo-pro Salvatore Puccio, the winner of the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. Talented young Italians come a dime-a-dozen, which explains why most find themselves signing their first professional contracts with Italian squads. Not Puccio though, his impressive U23 resume turned some World Tour heads and the Italian was smart to take advantage of an opportunity to join one of the best cobbled teams in the sport. If Puccio’s decisions on the road prove to be just as savvy, expect big things.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – The losers in the Philippe Gilbert sweepstakes made smart choices on this winter’s transfer market, bolstering their stage race ranks with the additions of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, while avoiding a potential logjam at the head of their classics squad (I doubt Gilbert and Tom Boonen would have fared well together in the same team). With Martin and Leipheimer, the team now has two men ideally suited to the route of the 2012 Tour de France—and both can counted-on to win their share of stages and overall titles in smaller stage races as well. In fact, the season’s already started-off on the right foot at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with Francesco Chicchi winning two stages and Leipheimer currently leading the overall after winning the ITT. Better still, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel appear healthy, fit, and motivated. Their return to form is certainly a good sign for the spring classics—and for a team looking to be competitive all season long.
Thomas De Gendt – Another member of the Topsport Vlaanderen class of 2010, De Gendt had quite an impressive World Tour debut with Vacansoleil in 2011, winning stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. A man built for the Ardennes, De Gendt should get more chances to ride for himself in all the spring classics this year—especially if Stijn Devolder proves unable to regain his Ronde-winning form from 2008 and 2009. But while the classics remain a goal for any Belgian, I wonder if De Gendt’s destined for greater things—like grand tours. The 2011 Tour de France was the 25-year-old’s first ever 3-week event. Not only did he finish the race in his first try, he finished 6th on Alpe d’Huez and 4th in the ITT in Grenoble, Stages 19 and 20 respectively. Those are telling results, for at a time when most riders were getting weaker, the Tour rookie was getting stronger.
Rabobank’s Young Grand Tour Men – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is still only 25 and despite his poor Tour de France last year remains Holland’s best hope for grand tour success. However, with men like Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema nipping at his heels, he’ll need to do something soon (like, now) if he wants to stay relevant. In 2010, Kruijswijk finished 18th in his first Giro d’Italia—at barely 23 years of age. He bettered that result considerably last year, finishing ninth and then following it up with a stage win and third-place overall at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later—against some very tough pre-Tour competition.
As for Mollema (who along with Gesink just extended his contract with Rabobank through 2014), his 2011 was even more impressive: tenth in Catalunya, ninth in Paris-Nice, fifth in the Tour de Suisse, and fourth at the Vuelta (along with the green points jersey and a day in the red jersey as race leader). Like Gesink, Mollema’s also a talented single-day rider who should challenge in hillier classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and il Lombardia (I’m still getting used to the new name too). And Mollema’s only 25 as well—that makes 3 super talents for Rabobank—all under the age of 26. With all three riders deservedly expecting grand tour leadership in 2012, Rabobank’s management might have a problem on its hands—then again, it’s not a bad problem to have. And in case they’re reading, here’s an easy answer: Kruijswijk gets the Giro, Gesink the Tour, and Mollema the Vuelta.
France – Yes, we’re still waiting for the true return of the French to the top steps of the sport’s most prestigious podiums—but there’s good reason to believe it’s going to happen soon. First of all, a very talented group of young French professionals is on the rise, led by men such as Pierre Rolland, Arnold Jeannesson, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s been a while since France had a rider who looked as if he could develop into a legitimate grand tour contender and now they have three.
Better yet, France has been identifying and developing young riders (juniors and espoirs) better than any country in the world, as evidenced by Frenchmen winning three of the last four junior world titles and two of the last three U23 world titles. While a rainbow jersey is never a one-way ticket to greatness, the French Federation’s run of success certainly bodes well for the future—especially since world champions aren’t the only quality riders the program is producing. And last but certainly not least, one has to expect that Thomas Voeckler’s heroic 2011 Tour de France (coupled with a terrible showing in the 2010 World Cup by the French national soccer team) has inspired at least a handful of young French boys to choose cycling over soccer that otherwise might not have. It only takes one rider to change a generation’s perception of a sport—maybe Voeckler’s stunning performance will reap greater rewards 5 to 10 years in the future.
Young Italian Sprinters – If last season is any indication, Italian fans might soon have someone other than Daniele Bennati to hang their field sprint hopes upon. Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani won a combined 29 races in 2011—and all but a few came via field sprints. The three still need to prove themselves in World Tour races (only Viviani won a race at the World level—and even that was in Beijing), and Modolo’s the only one to have started a grand tour (twice, in fact—but he failed to finish both times). But at ages 24, 22, and 22, respectively, they still have time to develop.
Project 1t4i – Even though it’s a Dutch squad, Project 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) will be led by two young Germans this year: 2011-revelation Marcel Kittel and HTC-import John Degenkolb. It goes without saying that Kittel is an up-and-comer—the 23-year-old won 17 races in 2011 (18 if you count the Amstel Race in Curacao) including four stages each at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Kittel’s biggest victory—and proof that he’s a force to be reckoned with in coming years—came at the Vuelta a Espana in September, the first of what looks to be many grand tour stage victories throughout his career.
No slouch himself, Degenkolb won six races in 2011 including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. That said, it’s clear that Degenkolb (also 23 years of age) is a future classics star—he reminds me of Matthew Goss in that he’s a talented field sprinter who shows even more potential as a classics hard man. Last year, the rookie was given a start in every spring classic that mattered from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (he finished 12th) to Paris-Roubaix (he finished 19th). With 1t4i already receiving several wild card invites to just about every cobbled race on the calendar, Degenkolb will be given new chances to impress in 2012.
So that it for my Up-and-Comers for 2012. If all goes as planned, our 2017 Men of the Hour will be a list of mostly Colombian, French, and German riders.
Who’s on your list Up-and-Comers for 2012? Come join me on the limb!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International