Filippo Pozatto and Alessandro Ballan have each gone to bed four times since the 2012 Tour of Flanders has ended. Both riders turned in exceptional performances, rides worth remembering. They did not, however, turn in wins, which in the high-stakes poker of professional cycling is what matters. For some sponsors second might as well be no-show.
As cycling fans, we are both aware that nothing can be substituted for a win and that the idea that second place is worthless is pure B.S. Some of the gutsiest rides ever delivered resulted in second step appearances at the podium. And TV time by our favorite rider is a not invaluable dividend for the sponsor. But sponsorship value for second and third isn’t the consideration at hand.
How many times have you lain in bed, waiting for sleep to steal your consciousness, and played back the day’s events? From bike races to conversations with co-workers and spouses, we have all done it countless times. How many times have you thought, “Ah but for that one detail, things might be different”?
There’s no way to total it, is there?
The desire to re-write the day seems to be a common element of the human condition. The simply ability to imagine a different outcome, a different reality, is enough to feed hopes in the most unrealistic of ways. Wishing it won’t make it so.
If I could ask but one question to Pozatto and Ballan it would be what they thought about as they drifted toward sleep. Not just Sunday, but each night this week. Did they spend those last moments thinking of how they might have played their hands differently?
My experience as a musician hurt me when I first began bike racing. I had plenty of nights lying in bed, ears ringing with long-dead guitar chords, where I tried to will errant notes, failed cues, broken sticks into submission. It never worked, and my ability to let go of those missed notes largely determined how quickly I drifted off. I remained convinced that the next time around I wouldn’t have the same problem, make the same mistake. They were, as baseball fans say, “unforced errors.” The problem was, I was largely right. At gigs mere nights later, I’d play a previously troublesome passage without a hitch. So when I began bike racing I soon discovered the urge to Monday morning quarterback my races while I waited for sleep to free me from myself.
But for reasons I can’t explain, I couldn’t let go of a failed performance, that belief that, “I could have gone just a little harder; I just didn’t will it hard enough.” The stakes in my races can’t begin to compare with what a victory in a Spring Classic can do for a life; nonetheless, I’d beat myself up, certain that in the same situation again I’d try harder—and succeed.
It was the heart rate monitor that showed me how wrong I was. I can remember thinking on more than one occasion that I should have been able to follow a move, hold an attack for longer, overtake someone in a sprint, whatever. I could have been trying to fly to the moon. The HRM always told me the same thing: That my account was more overdrawn than the Federal Government. Any thoughts of going harder were as fanciful as trying to win the lottery without buying a ticket.
Eventually those out-of-bounds numbers became an easily guessed confirmation for what my body knew better than my head. Still, that couldn’t stop me from second-guessing. Once I knew a thing or two about race tactics, I began to wonder if I hadn’t ridden conservatively enough during less consequential moments. Might I have played my hand differently? No matter what I learned, I found new ways to use my knowledge against myself, fresh ways to try to rewrite an outcome I wasn’t capable of delivering.
I learned, finally, that there was a solution to the second-guessing: Winning. It was as easy as finishing first.
What went through Pozatto’s head as he relaxed in bed Sunday night? Did he question when he started his sprint? How could he not? And what of Ballan? The guy rode with more balls than whole teams that day. Did he rue his flock of attacks? Which three would he have sacrificed just to put everything into one hail mary full of afterburners?
If only will could make it so.
Images: Photoreporter Sirotti
Two big events took place this past weekend. Saturday was my daughter Emma’s birthday, and Sunday saw a radical rebirth of the Tour of Flanders. The two events may seem unrelated but, as I’ll show later, there was a significant connection.
Let’s start with Flanders, or the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Classics purists weren’t happy when the promoters moved the finish to Oudenaarde, cut out the iconic Mur de Grammont (the “Muur”), and included instead three loops over the cobbled climbs of the Old Kwaremont and Paterberg. So for the first time in its 100-year history, the Ronde didn’t have a true point-to-point course. It was point-to-spiral.
However, at a time when races are getting more complicated and more expensive to put on, maybe the Belgian organizers were right to get an extra return on investment by setting up massive spectator areas with beer tents on the Kwaremont, where thousands of fans hung out all day, spending money. There, they witnessed the key attacks of the race by Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato, and then watched on big-screen TVs as their national treasure Tom Boonen out-sprinted the two Italians to win the race.
It was quite a show but, the purists questioned, was it worthy of one of cycling’s five monuments to have the race circle back time after time to climb the Kwaremont and Paterberg? Of course it was, say the organizers, Flanders Classics NV—which owns six of Belgium’s one-day events, including last week’s Ghent-Wevelgem and this week’s Scheldeprijs. There’s an economy of scale in putting on six spring races (along with women’s versions of Ghent-Wevelgem and the Ronde), while concession sales add a healthy revenue stream to the traditional formula of sponsorship from newspapers, banks or local regions, along with possible broadcast rights fees.
Would the purists prefer classic races that struggle to survive—as did Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne before they were rescued by ASO, the well-capitalized promoter of the Tour de France? Would they prefer that more events disappear from the calendar—as a dozen Spanish races have done over the past six years (see item below)? Or would they be open to modifications to races like the ones made by the Tour of Flanders organizers this past weekend?
Four more major Spanish events were in danger of being cancelled this season until the UCI stepped in to give the international federation’s backing to seek new financial support. That was the case with this week’s Tour of the Basque Country, which was in jeopardy because of a $210,000 shortfall in its $1.3 million budget. After the UCI’s intervention, a private Spanish bank, Sabadell Guipuzcoana, signed a two-year sponsorship deal with the Basque organizers and the race went ahead.
A major problem with Spanish events has been the organizers’ traditional reliance on regional governments and their tourism departments to fund their races—and in a country that’s now lurching from one financial crisis to another, and with current unemployment levels at more than 20 percent, there is no extra budget to support sports events. And with no end in sight to the recession in Europe, organizers will have to seek alternative sources of income, including the ones that the Flanders Classics organization has begun to exploit.
Naturally, there’s reluctance from cycling fans to pay to watch races. North American promoters have realized this for some time, and events such as the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship, Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge sell corporate VIP packages that give access to finish-line hospitality compounds. But it’s harder to convince traditionalists in Europe that “admission fees” are a necessary part of race budgets.
There has been an outcry from the cycling community in Britain over the proposal by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) to sell 15,000 tickets to spectators to watch the 2012 Olympic road race on the prime viewing areas of Box Hill—which the field will climb nine times on a 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the 250-kilometer course. Confirmation of LOCOG’s plan is expected later this month, but the days are numbered when we can continue watching bike races for free.
For the Box Hill section of the Olympic race, for example, the organizers have to provide extensive parking areas, crowd barriers, concession areas, public-address systems and Jumbotrons. Should all that be free? Also, the road itself has to be resurfaced—just as the California state parks department is spending $100,000 to fix a privately owned access road to enable the Amgen Tour peloton to climb Mount Diablo next month.
I mentioned earlier my daughter’s birthday because talking to her Saturday night jogged my memory about a road trip we took across Europe in the 1980s. She was a teen and we played a certain tape over and over again on the car radio: the Dire Straits album, “Brothers in Arms.” The track “Money for Nothing” includes one line, “Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it,” and another “Money for nothin’ and chicks for free.”
Maybe cycling traditionalists believe that paying to watch bike races is “money for nothing,” but if the present system “ain’t working,” then what the Flanders organizers are doing is probably “the way you do it.” I’m not sure about the other line though; perhaps it should be “money for nothing and kicks for free.” After all, if you pay for it or not, pro bike racing remains one of the most thrilling sports around.
SPANISH RACE CRISIS
Financial problems in 2012: Volta a Catalunya, Tour of the Basque Country, GP Miguel Induráin, Clasica San Sebastian, GP Valladolid (women).
Reduced number of racing days in 2012: Mallorca Challenge (from five to four days), Vuelta a Castilla y León (four to three days), Vuelta a Murcia (three to two days), Vuelta a Rioja (two to one day).
Races cancelled in past six years: GP Llodo (cancelled 2012), Subida al Naranco (merged into Vuelta a Asturias 2011), Vuelta a Galicia (converted from pro to amateur race), Subida Urkiola (cancelled 2010), Bicicleta Vasca (combined with Basque Country tour in 2009), Clasica Alcobendas (cancelled 2009), Clasica a Los Puertos (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Valencia (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Aragon (cancelled 2007), Montjuich hill climb (cancelled 2007), Trofeo Luis Puig (cancelled 2006), Semana Catalana (combined with Volta a Catalunya in 2006).
I ended my column on the water bottle last week with the words, “If it’s dropped on the road or falls into a wheel … the bidon will still do some damage!” Unfortunately, it was another loose water bottle in a feed zone that did damage at the Tour of Flanders, with pre-race favorite Fabian Cancellara hitting a bidon and crashing out of the race after breaking his clavicle in four places. Perhaps riders can start thinking where they’re throwing empty bottles before they throw them. We want cycling to be safer as well as exciting.
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Before we all (myself included) run away and hand the first three places in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders to Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Filippo Pozatto, let’s not forget that there are still 255 kilometers and about 190 other riders standing between these men and a win in one of the sport’s most prestigious monuments.
Here’s a rundown of some wild cards to consider come Sunday:
Peter Sagan – For many, Sagan’s not a wild card—he’s a favorite. But to me, his chances Sunday are bit less certain for one simple reason: his inexperience. The Ronde is a race where knowing the roads and climbs counts for a lot—knowing where to be and when to be there helps on narrow roads that crisscross the Flemish Ardennes. Sagan’s also still more of a sprinter than an attacker. While he’ll certainly be a major threat should a large group hit the line together, I wonder if he can follow the attacks of men like Boonen, Cancellara, and Van Marcke on the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Vacansoleil – Only two teams boast having a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders: Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Vacansoleil. Stijn Devolder finally looks as if he’s once again the rider who won the Ronde in 2008 and 2009. His teammate Bjorn Leukemans has finished 8th, 4th, and 7th in the last three editions, while Marco Marcato is proving himself to be a pretty handy cobbler as well. If they ride cohesively Sunday and use their underdog status to their advantage, they could easily pull-off an upset.
Oscar Freire – Freire’s best finish in the Ronde was 24th back in 2004, but the Spaniard finished 2nd at the E3 Prijs and 4th at Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend. His GW result was no surprise—it’s a sprinter’s race and the Freire’s won it before. But the E3 Prijs? That’s not the kind of race where we would expect Freire to perform well as sprinters like Freire often don’t survive the constant pace changes of the E3’s difficult route. That said, Freire’s Katusha squad is surprisingly strong and boasts a talented and experienced lieutenant in Luca Paolini. If he can stay out of trouble and some how survive a dense stretch of bergs between kilometers between kilometers 208 and 242, Freire could pull-off the one of the most surprising wins of his career.
Team Sky – Sky’s seemed to have a lost a bit of swagger since Bradley Wiggins won Paris-Nice and Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen looked as if they could go 1-2 in Milan-San Remo. They now head to the Ronde with Boasson Hagen and the Spanish cobble stalwart, Juan Antonio Flecha. Flecha hasn’t raced since breaking a bone in his hand earlier this month, but still bears watching this weekend—even if he doesn’t have the legs to be his team’s captain, he’ll certainly prove to be a valuable domestique and valuable decoy for his Norwegian teammate.
BMC – After signing Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd this past off-season, BMC had a right to expect big things at the Tour of Flanders. But with Gilbert and Hushovd out of shape (Gilbert) and recovering from illness (Hushovd), the team will likely be turning to Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, and Greg Van Avermaet in this year’s Ronde. Of those three, Ballan’s been the most impressive so far and as a former Ronde-winner, will likely be the team’s most protected rider. There’s also the poetic justice to consider: a Ronde victory from one of the team’s “original” classics stars would add an interesting twist to the team’s off-season spending-spree.
Leif Hoste – Hoste was the Ronde’s runner-up in 2006 and 2007. That was indeed a long time ago, but something tells me the Accent.jobs-Willems Verandas rider has one more high finish in him. He’s enjoyed a trouble-free build-up; he’ll have the entire team at his disposal; and he’s riding with a chip on his shoulder as his team was (justifiably) left off the list for Paris-Roubaix.
The Weather – The current forecast calls for a mostly cloudy day with only a 20-percent chance of rain and temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. Then again, this is Belgium and we’re still a few days out—things can change quickly.
The Course – Perhaps the biggest wild card of all, the Ronde’s new course will certainly throw a wrinkle into some riders’ plans. Three trips over the Kwaremont and the Paterberg (the last of which comes only 13-kilometers from the line) will certainly make tactics interesting while negating the chances, in my opinion, that we’ll see a large group sprint. Tactics will play a tremendous role and at least one favorite could be caught-off guard by being either too aggressive or too hesitant.
So while you’ll hear a lot about Boonen, Cancellara, (Vanmarcke if you listen to me), and Pozatto over the next few days, don’t forget that wild cards often play a big role in the cobbled classics. Even with a stacked field and a new course, this year might be no different.
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Here are some thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing in Flanders.
1. Tom Boonen’s not fooling anyone.
Despite declaring Fabian Cancellara the top favorite for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Boonen’s wins in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem make his comments hard to believe. Of his two victories, Boonen’s E3 victory (his record-setting fifth) is by far the more impressive of the two, as it came in an event much more akin to the Ronde. At Ghent-Wevelgem, Boonen was much more free to sit in the bunch, make the important selections, and let his team do most of the work for him. At times, there were even questions as to whether Boonen had made the leading group at all. Then again, all of Boonen’s top rivals were present in the finales of both races—the Belgian simply proved himself to be the better sprinter.
2. Filippo Pozatto is back to where he was in 2009 physically—but tactically?
After he won the E3 Prijs in 2009 it was clear to everyone that Pippo was going to be Tom Boonen’s biggest challenger at that year’s Flanders and Roubaix. Unfortunately, word never got to Pozatto that “keeping an eye on Tom Boonen” didn’t mean marking him so closely that he marked himself out of the race as well. For Pozatto that spring, being a “wheel watcher” meant much more than being a fan of Pat Sajak.
This year, if he wants to take his first win in a cobbled Monument, Pozatto will have to start racing to win—as opposed to racing to not be beaten. He’s riding for one of the strongest teams in the race with a lieutenant (Oscar Gatto) that many teams (like RadioShack-Nissan) would love to have complementing their captains. Better still, I suspect that Pozatto’s injury and subsequent (albeit brief) time off the bike means he has more form to gain. Boonen and Cancellara—the latter especially—run the risk of topping-out before the end of the cobbled fortnight. Pozatto might continue to get stronger.
3. It’s only a matter of time before Sep Vanmarcke wins Flanders, Roubaix, or both.
If the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Prijs are any indication, the budding rivalry between Vanmarcke and Boonen will be one of the highlights of the next two weeks. A smart, aggressive rider who appears undaunted by the competition, Garmin-Barracuda’s Vanmarcke has twice been the first rider to follow Boonen’s accelerations on the Taaienberg (although just barely on Friday). He’s already been named Garmin’s captain for the cobbles and with an in-form Johan Van Summeren serving as super-domestique, the American team could easily grab its second cobbled Monument in as many years. As for the 23-year-old Vanmarcke, there’s seemingly no limit to what he might achieve. He’s one of the most exiting riders of the season’s still-young spring campaign.
4. Philippe Gilbert’s Flanders is lost and he needs to act quickly if he wishes to contend in the Ardennes.
If you follow me on Twitter (@whityost), you’ve heard me say this before: Philippe Gilbert needs to skip Flanders, fly to Spain, and complete the Tour of the Basque Country if he wishes to have any chance of defending his titles in the Ardennes. Gilbert’s obviously been lacking the race mileage of his peers and could quickly gain some with a week of tough racing in Spain. Better still, he’ll avoid the media scrum of one of the world’s toughest press corps. Lastly, BMC has more than enough talent to spare the spot—especially if Thor Hushovd does indeed return to form. Like many, I am disappointed that we will not see the Belgian drie-kleur on the top step of the Ronde’s podium in Oudenaarde Sunday—especially as the course looked to suit King Phil’s style of racing.
5. If Filippo Pozatto, Sep Vanmarcke, or Tom Boonen wins the Tour of Flanders, he will likely have Oscar Gatto, Johan Van Summeren, or Sylvain Chavanel to thank for it.
History has shown that the world’s most successful one-day riders take the line with at least one teammate capable of winning the event as well. This year, Pozatto, Vanmarcke, and Boonen can rest easily knowing that they each have lieutenants capable of easing some of the pressure by covering late-race moves, putting other teams on the defensive, and ensuring that their captains won’t be isolated when the manure hits the fan. And who knows, should things go their way, we could see one Gatto, Van Summeren, and/or Chavanel on the final podium Sunday.
One final note: I’m heading to Belgium this Thursday and will be staying through Paris-Roubaix. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@whityost) for updates and insights from the thick of the action.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti