The Monuments—capital M—are supposed to be more than just bike races. They are the kings of the Spring Classics, races that transcend the riders who contest them. They are the days that we hope for mythic battles, crucibles that illustrate the constants of the universe, like how you never show your hand before the call.
Done right, the Monuments pit the very finest riders of the peloton against one another in a battle that kills off all the pretenders before the plus-size gal hits the stage. Occasionally, an interloper steals the show, and while that may seem to spoil the fun, it’s the grape seed that gives the wine its body.
Witness Jacky Durand’s victory at Flanders in 1992. His early escape was the mandatory suicide break meant to get Castorama some TV time, no more. Somehow, the plucky Frenchman stuck the break and rolled to the finish screaming, “Je gagne! Je gagne!” (I won! I won!) in one of the great displays of utter disbelief.
It is just such a win by Durand that made the 2010 Ronde Van Vlaanderen one for the ages. On the one hand we had two-time victor Tom Boonen coming off a very fine second place at Milan-San Remo and showing a renewed focus to his craft. On the other was the man who seems to be ticking off world-beating accomplishments like a grocery list: World Championship (2), check. Olympic Gold Medal, check. Paris-Roubaix, check. Milan-San Remo, check. Next up: the Tour of Flanders.
Fabian Cancellara came into the race declaring that if he won only a single race this year, he wanted Flanders. Those who witnessed Cancellara’s stage 3 victory in the 2007 Tour de France or his stunning descent to catch the breakaway in the Olympic road race that led to his bronze medal are familiar with the will power of the man they call Spartacus.
This one was the quintessential battle—McLaren vs. Ferrari. Say what you want about Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar, Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert, even the unexpected performance of Bjorn Leukemans of Vacansoleil or the brief shining light of Farrar’s teammate David Millar—they were all pretenders on the day.
We got a number of great comments, but the one that struck me as the most eerily true was Lachlan’s observation that the average group ride more closely mimics Flanders and Roubaix than they do actual amateur races. He’s onto something with that. It explains to a great degree my decision to stop racing, and is yet another insight into why the Gran Fondo experience is increasingly attractive to riders.
I’ve seen a few different numbers bandied about for Cancellara’s two attacks and whether he was turning 550 watts or more than 600 watts isn’t even close to the point. If you were to compare the average amateur racer to a V6 engine, Cancellara was a V12.
My absolute favorite quote on the day came from runner-up Tom Boonen who was nothing but complimentary of Cancellara’s victory and put the winner’s success into perspective by saying, “I was riding 55kph and I wasn’t getting any closer.”
What of our other predictions and hopes? While I thought it a pipe dream that any English-speaking rider might win Flanders, U.S. riders had, arguably, the best day they’ve ever had at Flanders by placing both fifth (Farrar) and sixth (Hincapie). And let’s give Vacansoleil rider Bjorn Leukemans big props for pulling out just the sort of ride that can embarrass the ASO; no one said anything about a Vacansoleil rider even finishing the race, let alone being part of a three-man break that dumped David Millar on the muur. Nice piece of work, that.
As for the other big names: Flecha, Hushovd, Devolder, they just weren’t in the class of Cancellara and Boonen.
So what do these performances do for Roubaix? Well the odds makers have taken note. Maybe Boonen won’t be so quick to say, “When you race me, you race for second.”
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Monument #2 of the season is this Sunday: the great Tour of Flanders. No other race in the world takes a series of short hills and turns them into such a series of body blows that even Muhammed Ali would have to take note. Maybe even compose a little poem.
And if you think I’m about to write a commemorative poem for the Tour of Flanders you’d be both right and wrong. I’m just not sharing it here.
Fully 82 percent of all stories on cyclists in Belgium right now concern Tom Boonen and the Tour of Flanders. It will be a national crisis if either he or his team doesn’t deliver something like the Second Coming on Easter.
The list of riders who want to win Flanders is nearly as long as the list of men who’d like a date with Heidi Klum. Similarly, the number of riders truly capable of such a win is just as short as the number of men Miss Klum would allow to buy her coffee.
In my mind this year’s race is an either-or. Stijn Devolder, as great as he is, has been something of an interloper, mopping up spoils when Boonen was just too marked. I don’t think he’ll get that sort of opportunity a third time. No, Belgium wants Tomeke crowned king of Flanders. With his second at San Remo Boonen has proven that he is both fit and hungry for a big win.
So who’s the or? Simple. Cancellara. He has made it clear that he likes new challenges. With Roubaix, San Remo, a World Championship and the Olympics under his belt, he’d like to win something he hasn’t won before. Hmm, Flanders fits the bill.
So here’s the challenge to you: Do you think the winner will be someone other than this oh-so-dynamic duo? If so, who? More important: Why?
Not to point too fine a point on it, but here’s a real challenge: Make a case for why Pozzato could pull this off.
Oh, and while you’re at it, as unlikely as it ought to be, Da Robot has picked up the H1N1 virus. How a Robot gets a pig disease, we’re not sure, but you might wish him well as he suffers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It’s been an interesting year in the world of cycling. There have been some duels for the ages between larger-than-life figures. I decided to ask each of RKP’s contributors to pick their three favorite stories of the year. Some of their answers may surprise you.—Padraig
Lance Armstrong. No other figure in cycling has ever made headlines worldwide the way Lance Armstrong does. Whether it’s his battle to rid the world of cancer, the birth of a new son, doping charges or his battle of wits with Alberto Contador, Armstrong is a headline wherever he goes, whatever he does. He is also significant because no other figure has half the ability to polarize a group of cyclists as Armstrong. To some, he is a virtually convicted doper, to others he is a champion and figure of hope. No matter what you think of him, he has the ability to keep cycling in the mainstream worldwide, which, ultimately, is good for cycling.
The conviction of Dr. Thompson. That Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson was even tried for one felony—let alone six—was a big success for cyclists everywhere. There were more opportunities for this case to go off the rails than can be counted, but some significant points were in the initial investigation, once the case was turned over to the district attorney and, of course, in Thompson’s cross examination. This case will be cited as a turning point in the recognition by the average person that cyclists are both vulnerable to the actions of malicious drivers and have a right to the road.
Doping. From Christian “cycling has changed” Prudhomme, to Danilo “the killer” DiLuca to the blood transfusion kits found among Astana’s medical supplies, one should draw the conclusion that some riders might be cleaner than in the past, but cycling, as a sport, has yet to shed the taint of doping. Prudhomme, the Tour de France director, made the ludicrous statement, “I recently confirmed that ‘there were no suspected cases’ (during the 2009 Tour de France). This means that the fight against doping progresses.” Astarloza’s positive proved his statement was both premature and dead wrong. If anyone should have been fired from the ASO, it shouldn’t have been Patrice Clerc, but rather Prudhomme for making such a reckless statement on behalf of such a storied institution.
The fire sale of Iron Horse bicycles to Dorel. Iron Horse wasn’t a prestigious brand, but it was long known as being a good value for new cyclists. Its descent into bankruptcy was an ugly, backbiting mess full of recrimination and charges of shady deals involving owner Cliff Weidberg and his son, who owned Randall Scott Cycles, a significant debtor to Iron Horse. Dorel (the parent for Cannondale, GT, Schwinn, Mongoose, Pacific, etc.) purchased Iron Horse for $5.2 million at auction, less than what Iron Horse’s three biggest secured creditors were owed, for a classic pennies-on-the-dollar deal. The sale left hanging dozens of unsecured creditors who were owed a combined $17 million as well as CIT Group for another $4 million, and made cycling’s biggest corporate colossus just a little bit bigger.
Lemond v. Trek. Just wait, the plus-size gal isn’t even on stage.
Contador and Schleck denying Armstrong an 8th TdF. When the Lance returned, so much of the American cycloratti was hoping he’d return to his throne, but personally, I was ready to move on. As the hype ramped up and up and up, through LA’s collar bone break, through the Giro and into the initial stages of the Tour, I was really wishing for the sport to move on. Not to be ungrateful for contributions made, but I was ready for some new legends to emerge. And they did.
Philippe Gilbert’s end of season wins. What I love about Gilbert is his incredible tactical sense and timing. This is a guy who beats riders head and shoulders stronger than he is, by keeping his wits about him and playing them against one another. Not a weak rider, Gilbert shows what racing might be like in the absence of race radios, when smart riders win as much as strong ones.
The emergence of Edvald Boasson-Hagen. While everyone was talking about Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador (myself included) another young rider was winning races (10) and taking the overall in smaller stage races like the Eneco Tour and the Tour of Britain. Boasson-Hagen is 22. He is exactly the sort of rider that today’s top guns should be wary of, because he’s going to get better.
USA Bike industry ignores its mounting inventory crisis for an entire year (repercussions will impact retail pricing and corporate profits until 2012). If you ever had any doubts as to whether bike companies know what they’re doing, well, here’s your answer.
Lemond v Trek: no matter which way it ends up (short of an out-of-court-plus-gag-order settlement), this story still has the potential to become the biggest scandal in US cycling history. It’s also the #1 story the cycling press wishes would just go away: no matter how—or even if—they report it, it’s a lose-lose for them.
American public starts to figure out that bikes are actually a lot of fun (and practical transportation, too). This is THE biggest sea-change in public attitudes about cycling since That Skinny Blonde Kid won some race over in France 33 years ago … although sometimes I liked it better when we were just a bunch of geeks and outcasts instead of too-cool-for-school fashion mavens in skinny jeans and ironic t-shirts.
Bonus: Mavic’s parent company (Amer Sports) puts it up for sale, can’t find buyer, de-lists it, fires its own President. You know the economy’s bad when no one wants a highly regarded company with the lion’s share of a long-term lucrative market.
Contador’s Tour win as part of the Bizarro World of Team Astana. I know of no other time in cycling history when, after the designated team leader takes the Yellow Jersey, the team manager wanted to put on sackcloth and ashes. The psychological war Bruyneel and Armstrong waged against Contador remains about the oddest thing I ever saw in cycling.
The death duel between Di Luca and Menchov in the Giro. While I watched it, I tried to forget Di Luca’s past doping offenses (he made sure I was reminded later…) and watched 2 superb athletes fight until neither had a watt left. Menchov’s crash in the final time trial made even the race’s last moments exciting. His poor performance in the Tour showed he had gone truly deep in the Giro.
Grand Tour VAMs. Both the Giro and the Tour had some spectacularly high VAMs (average rate of vertical ascent in a climb). There was one day in the Tour that saw the Tour climbing speed record Bjarne Riis set on the Hautacam in 1996 eclipsed.
Bonus: And the UCI says they are getting a good handle on doping. I’ve got some good ocean-front land here in Arkansas for anyone who believes that. I believe we lost ground during 2009 in the hunt for a clean sport.
Contador wins second Tour de France. The lead up to the race was more drama than MTV’s “The Hill” leading up to prom night. Every day there were hints that all the indicators being tossed out by Astana that “all is well” and “we are all behind our leader” and “Contador is our GC leader.” It was something everyone who listened and watched knew was slick talk and that there was 2 GC riders on the team, neither submitting to the other in reality. To see the dynamics play out was something that kept us all tuned daily for the month of July. I personally cannot wait ‘til 2010′s TdF!!
Fabian Cancellara SMOKES TT world championship. Fabian is a statesman for cycling and in my opinion one of the peloton’s classiest riders. He can be many things, but his TT skills are phenomenal and his lead up to the World TT championship brought us to anticipate a performance, which he delivered in jaw-dropping fashion.
Devolder repeats at Tour of Flanders. I love all the Classics, but I love the Spring Classics especially. Seeing Cav win Milan San Remo was incredible, to see Boonen win Paris-Roubaix was great, to see Schleck win Leige was sweet as well, but to see the Belgian Devolder repeat his win at Tour of Flanders held a meaning that goes to the very core of this race, to his pedigree, which makes him a national hero yet again, and brings this one to the top for me.
Notables: Team Columbia HTC should have an honorable mention notably as they really pulled off greatness in light of adversity, despite the other teams riding senslessly against them at times (Hincapie’s maillot jaune loss in TdF), they stuck it out and perhaps had the team of the year.
There is a covenant between us. The pros suffer. We watch. They will not suffer if we do not watch. We will not watch if they do not suffer. Some of us take this a step further. We suffer too. We suffer to understand ourselves, but also to understand their suffering. It puts their exploits in perspective and bonds us to them.
What is this transaction? Is it fan and competitor? Is it sadist and masochist? Entertainer and audience? All of those and more?
To be sure, there is art in cycling. Some riders have the tactical nous to achieve victories without being the strongest in the race. I’m thinking of Sylvain Chavanel, Phillipe Gilbert and perhaps Heinrich Haussler from the current peleton. Other riders find ways to turn their pure strength into spectacle. Now I’ve got Thor Hushovd, Fabian Cancellara and Mark Cavendish in mind. Finally, there are the sufferers, those who push themselves out into the red. These are the riders who win the Grand Tours, Contador, Armstrong, even Cadel Evans, on some level. There is no rider offering a red kite prayer who is not creating something from his or her capacity to suffer.
There is an audacity to suffering. Who dares go beyond the red?
There is a Kafka short story titled, “A Hunger Artist.” The main character is a once popular performer of fasts, a hunger artist, who falls out of favor with the public. Fasting is no longer appreciated. His straw strewn cage moves slowly from the center of proceedings out to the periphery of the circus. Eventually, the crowds walk by without so much as noticing his shrunken form. He pushes on regardless, starving himself to death, only to be buried in a hastily dug grave, along with the straw from his cage. He is replaced in the cage by a sleek panther.
This is, I believe, Kafka’s view of the artist in general, that he is made to suffer to earn his bread, but at some point the bread and the art get separated. The true artist goes on. He suffers to the end of the performance, regardless.
And so, looking back at the peleton, we can understand the popularity of a rider like Jens Voigt or Kurt Asle Arvesen or even Franco Pellizotti. These are riders who put it out on the line, that push at the edges of what’s possible, but do it for the sake of the thing. They aim less at winning races than they do at creating a story about themselves, a story of noble struggle, or purifying suffering.
I read an interview once with Jens Voigt (the King of Suffering), and the interviewer asked, “What sort of conditions are good for you to win a race?” I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the original. And Voigt responded, “When it’s rainy, windy and cold, it’s good for me. Basically, when things are bad for everyone else, they’re good for me.”
On another occasion Voigt described his strategy as basically throwing everyone into a blender of suffering, including himself, and seeing what comes out the other side.
As this winter descends on the colder climes (I’m exempting SoCal from that category, Padraig!), and the suffering ratchets up a notch or ten, I will think of what I’m doing, of what other riders are doing, as art. And as surely as no one hands me a bouquet when I walk through the door of the office, much less kisses me on each cheek, I will be satisfied with what I’ve done and know it’s more than simple hobby or transport.
I’m telling a story with my suffering. I tell it every day with the succinctness of a nickname. Robot. Robots don’t get cold. Robots don’t suffer. I’ve forged an identity from the way I ride, often alone, in the dark, into the wind. This is New England, after all.
Writing those words is much, much easier than riding them. Believe me. In my writing, I share my experiences, and you evaluate the truth of what I write, and you accept my suffering (maybe), and it bonds us (I hope).
We create this thing together.
How many saddle sores do we need to reach this point, and how much lactic acid do we need to be carrying? Is it uphill all the way? Is there a headwind? Will someone pace us? Will the echelons string across road like accordions of mercy and deliver us, just as a hole develops in the heel of our old wool socks?
Will the Earth spin under our wheels, and will all the trees blur into one, tall green spire? Will our chains run dry and our cables stretch thin on our way to this place?
In my mind, I can see it. The sweat soaks all the way out the brim of my cap and the lycra lets hold its grip. The road turns up and disappears, asymptotic in the distance. There’s a rasp in my chest and a creaking in my bars, and I used my last spare tube hours ago. It doesn’t matter, because the side walls of these thins tires are nearly gone. I’ve gone sallow in the cheeks, almost gray. I blend into the winter-bleached asphalt, pebbly and rough. And cars swish by, oblivious, the radio on too loud.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International