The Spring Classics season is over. Shit. And true to form it offered up some legend-burnishing performances (Boonen’s Flanders/Roubaix double) and some jaw-slackening surprises (Gasparotto at Amstel Gold).
The big winner, Tommeke Boonen, just put the cherry(s) on top of what has already been a peach of a season for Omega Pharma-QuickStep (OPQS). They’ve gotten wins on the road from Francesco Chicchi, Levi Leipheimer, Gerald Ciolek, Peter Velits, Michal Kwiatkowski, Julien Vermote, Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel as well; 2011 Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin hasn’t even pitched in yet, quite possibly because he had an altogether too close encounter with a car while training earlier this month.
Other big winners must include Green Edge, who put Simon Gerrans on the top step of the podium at Milan-San Remo, and Astana who took the final prize of the spring at Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Maxim Iglinskiy.
BMC showed well with Alessandro Ballan on podiums at both Flanders and Roubaix, but for a team of this caliber (and payroll) a pair of third places and a lot of anonymous rides from last year’s rider-of-the-season, Philipe Gilbert, has to be seen as an abject failure.
RadioShack-Nissan-Trek-Jingleheimer-Schmidt will also feel about as happy as kid who’s dropped his ice cream after watching Fabian Cancellara face plant in the feed zone at Flanders, shattering his collarbone and a potential rematch with Boonen over the the cobbles of le Nord. In the Ardennes, where the Schleck brothers made most favorites lists, the team fired nothing but blanks.
More could have been expected from Team Sky and perhaps Katusha also, but the Spring seldom runs to script.
This week’s Group Ride looks back wistfully at the just-done spate of races and asks: Who were your winners and losers? What did you love? And what did you hate?
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
This weekend begins the final set of preparation races before the spring classics with Saturday’s running of the Monte Paschi Strade Bianche, Sunday’s start to Paris-Nice, and Tuesday’s opening of Tirreno Adriatico.
Monte Paschi Strade Bianche (Saturday, March 3rd)
Known commonly as “L’Eroica”, Italy’s Monte Paschi Strade Bianche is one of the newest races on the European calendar, but its roots are deep. Featuring over 57 kilometers of Tuscan white gravel roads, the race has quickly become one of the most popular events of the spring. Fittingly, the first five editions of the race have produced winners including Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert, the defending champion. As an added bonus, this year’s L’Eroica will be aired on live television, which means fans all around the world will have a chance to watch the action unfold.
Paris-Nice (Sunday, March 4th – Sunday, March 11th)
This year, the eight-day “Race to the Sun” has returned to its roots by including an individual time trial up Nice’s Col d’Eze for the first time since 2001. The race begins with a short, individual time trial that will start the GC sorting early, followed by several stages that will put the peloton’s echelon skills to the test. Expect sprinters and rouleurs to dominate these first few road stages.
As the race nears the Mediterranean, the mountains loom. Stage 5 finishes atop Mende’s Le Croix Neuve (the “Jalabert climb”), while Stage 6—a stage that begs for a Thomas Voeckler attack—features five categorized ascents on the road from Suze-La-Rousse to Sisteron. Stage 7 covers four more climbs, the last of which is the 1st Category Col du Vence, over 50 kilometers from the stage’s finish in Nice. Stage 8 will settle the GC; the Col d’Eze ITT leaves no margin for error. The climb is not incredibly steep, suiting more traditional time trialists best—pure climbers will need to forge their advantages earlier should they hope to emerge victorious.
Tirreno Adriatico (Wednesday, March 7th – Tuesday, March 13th)
Italy’s “Race of the Two Seas” begins Tuesday with a team time trial that will immediately place several GC riders at a disadvantage. Stages 2 and 3, while long and rolling, should both end in field sprints. Stages 4 and 5 see the mountains make their appearance, which should result in the first reshuffling of GC. Stage 6 features six laps of the circuit used for the 2010 Junior World Road Race Championship—another sprint is expected. The race concludes with a 9.3-kilometer individual time trial that will settle things once and for all.
With teams spread between two countries (or more in some cases) this is a ten-day period in which having a deep and talented roster is paramount to a team’s success. Let’s take a team approach to running down the favorites for this year’s editions:
BMC – BMC comes to Italy’s L’Eroica with defending champion Philippe Gilbert hoping to atone for a relatively poor showing in Belgium last weekend—or is he? He’s joined Saturday by George Hincapie, Greg Van Avermaet, Cadel Evans, and my pick for the win, Alessandro Ballan. Ballan has finished second in L’Eroica twice (2008 and 2011), and would certainly love to take his first victory since 2009 on home turf. Next week in Tirreno, BMC will be led by another returning champion: Cadel Evans. Evans was certainly unafraid that a win last year would ruin his Tour prep—look for him to use the 7-day event once again to test his form. The course certainly suits him.
In Paris-Nice, the squad turns to Thor Hushovd and Tejay Van Garderen, the former hunting for stage wins and form for the cobbled classics, the latter hoping to take another step in his development as a GC contender in major stage races. While a win might be out of his reach, a top-5 finish against some tough competition would be a step in the right direction.
By winning last year’s Criterium du Dauphiné, Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins proved that he has what it takes to win major weeklong stage races. He’ll get another chance at Paris-Nice alongside Richie Porte and Rigoberto Uran. With Christian Knees, Danny Pate, Geraint Thomas, and Kanstantsin Siutsou fetching bottles and pulling back important breakaways, anything but a podium finish (or the win?) will be a disappointment for the British team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Wiggo and Porte hit the podium.
In Italy, the squad’s classics contingent will tackle Tirreno Adriatico, building form for Milan-San Remo and the cobbled classics. Mark Cavendish, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Juan Antonio Flecha are the riders to watch here—expect at least a handful of stage wins and increased hype surrounding Cavendish and Boasson Hagen heading into Milan-San Remo.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – Omega hopes to shrug-off its mediocre performance during the opening weekend in Belgium with wins at Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico. Defending “Race to the Sun” champ Tony Martin will co-captain the squad in France alongside Levi Leipheimer (the winner of last month’s Tour de San Luis in Argentina), and French Champion Sylvain Chavanel. That said, I wonder if Martin would have been a better choice to lead the team at Tirreno Adriatico, a race with a TTT, an ITT, and less climbing than Paris-Nice. Leipheimer and Chavanel would have been fine on their own and the squad would have increased its chances of winning both races. Instead, the team will rely on Tour of Oman champ Peter Velits to lead the squad in Italy. He should do well assuming his form has improved since Oman.
Interestingly, for the first time since 2007, Tom Boonen will use Paris-Nice as his last stage race before the spring classics. Maybe he’s hoping for a return to 2005, when he won two stages in Paris-Nice on his way to winning both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Liquigas-Cannondale – Naturally, Liquigas is sending it’s two best riders—Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan—to L’Eroica and Tirreno Adriatico. Both won stages at last month’s Tour of Qatar, with Nibali taking an impressive win atop Green Mountain, the event’s “Queen” stage. Eros Capecchi, (the winner of Sunday’s GP Lugano) will be at Tirreno as well and is certainly a candidate for stage wins and possibly a top-10 finish overall. These three as well as Moreno Moser and Daniel Oss are riders to watch in L’Eroica. For many fans, the possibility of a Moser winning on the strade bianche is too tantalizing to ignore.
In Paris-Nice, Ivan Basso and Elia Viviani will lead the way. Basso is peaking for the Giro and will likely be riding to build fitness, while Viviani—himself a winner of five events already this season—will be looking to the race’s field sprints in an attempt to prove he deserves mention alongside Cavendish and Greipel as one of the fastest men in the world.
RadioShack-Nissan – RadioShack-Nissan heads to Paris-Nice with a squad that we could very well see lining-up in Liège this coming June (remember, the Tour de France begins earlier this year due to the Olympic Games). Indeed, with Frank and Andy Schleck, Andreas Klöden, and Maxime Monfort all starting, it is quite possible that we could see at least three (I doubt we’ll see Andy Schleck do anything more than ride tempo for his teammates) of Bruyneel’s men finish inside the Paris-Nice top-10. Of the three, Klöden (last year’s runner-up) has the best shot at a victory. The German won Paris-Nice in 2000, largely thanks to his win in the Col d’Eze time trial, a stage making its return to the race this year. RadioShack’s winless thus far in 2012—look for Klöden to end that next Sunday.
As for Tirreno, RadioShack takes the approach of many teams, sending the bulk of its classics contingent to Italy. Fabio Cancellara won Tirreno in 2008 and has used the race in the past as the foundation of his classics campaign. While another GC victory might be out of his reach, Cancellara will certainly make his presence known. Daniele Bennati could also challenge for a stage win, while Chris Horner could be a surprising GC contender at such an early point in his season.
Rabobank – Rabobank has divided its resources fairly equally between Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico, sending Bauke Mollema and Luis León Sánchez to France in search of high GC finishes and Carlos Barredo and Mark Renshaw hunting for stage wins. Sánchez already has four top-5 finishes in Paris-Nice, including the overall victory in 2009, but the event’s return to a more traditional parcours might hurt his chances. As for Renshaw, it is still a bit early, but I have a feeling he doesn’t have what it takes to be the team’s sprint captain—his past success looks to be more a product of HTC’s system than anything else. That said, a stage win in France would prove doubters like me wrong.
At Tirreno, Steven Kruijswijk will lead the team’s GC assault—the youngster has proven to like racing in Italy, as evidenced by his eighth-place finish in last year’s Giro d’Italia. Lars Boom is a candidate to win the final ITT (and GC?), while Matti Breschel and Michael Matthews should contend for stage victories as well. Breschel’s biggest priority will be putting the finishing touches on his form for the classics. His Omloop performance shows that he’s close, but still has room to improve.
Lampre – Lampre’s taking a two-pronged approach to the coming week, sending one squad led by Damiano Cunego to Paris-Nice and another led by Michele Scarponi to Tirreno. Scarponi won Tirreno in 2009 and narrowly missed defending his victory the following year when he lost to Stefano Garzelli by a fraction of a second. He’s looking forward to another assault on the Giro d’Italia this season (he finished behind Alberto Contador last year) and could certainly create some buzz with another strong performance next week. As for Cunego, he finished second in last Sunday’s GP Lugano, but has ridden inconsistently in recent years, making it hard to get a handle on his chances in the Ardennes. A strong Paris-Nice would certainly restore our faith in the Italian. Diego Ulissi bears watching for stage wins as well.
Movistar – Alejandro Valverde has returned from suspension to win three races already this season. He leads Movistar in France. Valverde has a Paris-Nice stage win and a (voided) second-place overall finish on his resume, but I have a feeling this year’s course—and the competition—might prove too tough for the Spaniard. He’ll be a contender, but I doubt he’ll win the race. Surprisingly for the Spanish team, Movistar’s best chances for a win this week might come in Italy, where Giovanni Visconti—the reigning Italian champion—will look to show his home fans that his emigration was not a mistake. Look for him to be at the forefront during both L’Eroica and Tirreno, where Visconti might be better served going for stage wins than a high overall finish.
Acqua e Sapone – Stefano Garzelli is justifiably disappointed to have seen his team left uninvited to the 2012 Giro d’Italia. After all, Garzelli won the Giro in 2001 and took home the mountains classification last year. Instead the Italian will have to settle for Tirreno Adriatico, a race he won in 2010—barely. Garzelli is one of those riders that you can always count on to perform well in certain races. In this case, he’s a certain contender for the overall victory by virtue of the simple fact that Tirreno’s the biggest race on his program—at this point at least. While other riders might be looking past it to more important events, Garzelli has been racing and training knowing that this might be his best (and only) chance for a major victory this season. And for a rider who’s been the subject of mid-season transfer rumors, a win next week might go a long way to making such a move come to fruition.
Katusha – Denis Menchov will lead Katusha in Paris-Nice. And while it’s anyone’s guess as to his current level of fitness, it’s certainly a race that suits the Russian’s strengths. In Italy, Joaquim Rodriguez and Oscar Freire will lead the way, both looking for stage wins. The race’s two time trials will likely be too much to make Rodriguez a candidate for the overall victory. Freire actually won Tirreno back in 2005, taking advantage of field sprints and time bonus to win one of the event’s flatter editions. This year, the Spaniard has included the race on his “farewell” tour as it gives him the best preparation for what could be his fourth victory in Milan-San Remo.
Garmin-Barracuda – I suspect Garmin-Barracuda will be seeking stage wins in both France and Italy next week, with Ryder Hesjedal a strong contender for Saturday’s L’Eroica. The former mountain biker scored three top-10 finishes on the strade bianche from 2008 through 2010, and with the pressure of contending the Tour de France off his shoulders, might find himself “riding a bit lighter” now. Johan Vansummeren and Tyler Farrar will join the Canadian in Italy as both riders continue to build for the classics. Farrar’s still winless in 2012; that could easily change in Tirreno.
In France, Omloop-winner Sep Vanmarcke will join Heinrich Haussler and Christophe Le Mével at Paris-Nice. Haussler is also winless this season and wants to prove that his fantastic 2009 season was more than just a flash in the pan—a solid Paris-Nice will a long way toward accomplishing his goal. Also worth noting: Thomas Dekker makes his World Tour return in Paris-Nice as well.
Saur-Sojasun – Jerome Coppel won this season’s Étoile de Bessèges and then finished third at the Ruta del Sol. A talented climber and time trialist, the young Frenchman hopes to continue his progression with a podium finish in Paris-Nice. If he does, look for the rider (with a 5th-place finish the 2010 Dauphiné and a 14th-place finish in last year’s Tour on his resume) to become the new darling of France’s cycling media.
Project 1T4i – 1T4i’s Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb will try for stage wins at Paris-Nice in the hopes that they can impress the ASO enough to earn a Tour de France wild card invitation. Kittel did well against some tough competition in Oman; he’ll face a more intense level of competition in France.
Astana – Astana has yet to win a race this season and hopes to soon end the streak. The squad turns to Roman Kreuziger, Maxim Iglinskiy, Borut Božič, and Enrico Gasparotto in Italy, and Janez Brajkovič
in France. Brajkovič won the Dauphiné and—on paper at least—should enjoy a Paris-Nice that looks tailor-made for him. Maxim Iglinsky won L’Eroica in 2010 while Božič should be a contender in Tirreno’s field sprints. As for Kreuziger’s chances at a high overall placing, I suspect he’ll test his form without ruining his preparation for this year’s Giro.
GreenEdge – GreenEdge is feeling the pressure that comes with being a new (and hyped) World Tour squad. In Paris-Nice, Tour Down Under winner Simon Gerrans will attempt to defend his lead in the World Tour standings while building fitness for the Ardennes classics. Meanwhile, Matthew Goss, Stuart O’Grady, and Sebastian Langeveld lead the Australian team’s Tirreno squad. Goss has been conspicuously silent so far this season—he needs to show himself soon if he wants to a chance to defend his title at Milan-San Remo.
1-Kite Dark Horses
Colnago-CSF – In 1975, Giovanni Battaglin won a stage of the Giro d’Italia that tackled the Prati di Tivo, the climb that concludes Stage 5 in Tirreno. Look for Battaglin’s nephew Enrico to do his best to honor his uncle’s legacy with a stage win of his own—or a win in L’Eroica. Sasha Modolo should also be a threat in Tirreno’s sprint finishes.
Colombia-Coldeportes – Colombia-Coldeportes makes its World Tour debut at Tirreno Adriatico with Fabio Duarte the team’s best chance for a stage win.
Team Type 1 – Sanofi – Jure Kocjan finished fourth in last year’s L’Eroica. He’s been sick as of late, but alongside Danielle Colli, he could turn some heads Saturday.
At L’Eroica, I think Alessandro Ballan will give BMC its first victory of the season over Ryder Hesjedal and Enrico Battaglin. Ballan’s in-form, motivated, and has the experience necessary to win a race on the strade bianche. In Paris-Nice, Andreas Klöden will take his second title in the “Race to the Sun” over Leipheimer and Valverde, while in Tirreno Adriatico, Nibali will defeat Evans and Garzelli.
What about your picks? Share them below.
Image: ©BMC/Tim de Waele
Zero to delerious, that’s how I feel. Just the other day I was still snarking about the desert races (and being upbraided by faithful readers), and now, suddenly Classics season is ON. Tomorrow we’ve got Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Sunday Kurne-Brussels-Kurne. I don’t want to do too much analysis as the far more capable Whit Yost has broken down the races for you here already.
I’ll just say this. I expect the 2012 Spring Classics season to be one of the most exciting in years. This year we have a perfect storm of talent and motivation. We have Philippe Gilbert thinking about adding Flanders and Roubaix to his palmares, about dominating the Ardennes races, and even about notching a third Omloop Het Nieuwsblad win to bring him level with legends like Peter van Petegem. Every race from now until April (and most of the ones after) Gilbert will be hungry to win. A hungry Gilbert is fun to watch.
We’ve also got Tom Boonen on what appears to be his best form in three years. We have Fabian Cancellara, the one-man wrecking crew, back and looking for revenge after the whole peloton worked against him last season. We have Hushovd, Gilbert’s teammate at BMC, needing to justify his leadership with some big rides. World Champion Mark Cavendish is capable of taking any of the one-day races with a reasonably flat run in to the finish, and guys like Andre Greipel, Heinrich Haussler and Peter Sagan can get in the mix, too.
It’s an awful lot of strong guys in good health and with top motivation.
Again, read Whit’s piece to get the in-depth, to read about the darker horses and to get a good sense for how this weekend’s races will likely play out. Then come back here and make your predictions. This week’s Group Ride asks: Who will win the opening salvos, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kurne-Brussels-Kurne? Who will lay down their markers? And who will go home and cry themselves to sleep having come up short?
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Image: Jon Pierce, Photosport International
As teams at the fringes of the ProTour struggle to find and keep sponsors, a few super teams have risen to the top of the sport. BMC, Team Sky and RadioShack-Nissan have thrown their large budgets at cadres of the best riders, and conventional wisdom suggests these are the teams who will be vying for the lion’s share of the podium spots in the year’s biggest races.
But things seldom go to script in top level racing. Despite the financial clout wielded by the super teams, talented racers from other squads will certainly muscle their way into the spotlight.
For example, BMC have Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd for the Spring Classics. Fabian Cancellara rides for RadioShack-Nissan. Those three riders will go on every favorite’s list for each of the big spring flings. But OmegaPharma-Quickstep believe their one-two punch of Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel can pull off big results, surrounded as they are by northern European strong men.
No conclusion is forgone, unless of course the Schlecks are involved in a two-up sprint against my grandmother, in which case grammy is going to need some help shaking up that magnum of champagne.
All kidding aside, there are dark horses that aren’t so dark. Who are they?
It would be ridiculous to call Alberto Contador a dark horse, but, assuming he’s not suspended, he’s the prohibitive favorite to win the Tour de France this summer. BMC’s Cadel Evans, RS-N’s Schleck brothers and Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins will have their work more than cut out for them, and that is pro cycling’s top prize.
If Boonen were to take either Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders, or as last year, Garmin-Baracuda were to pull of the tactical coup they executed at Roubaix last season, that would take another shiny bauble off the table.
Mark Cavendish will be the favorite for Milan-San Remo glory, but does anyone think Matt Goss and Greenedge won’t be there to contest? This week’s Group Ride asks: Who are the riders who will ruin the party for the super teams? Who are the dark horses? And where will they win?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There is nothing actually very special about the end of the year. The moon has completed yet another revolution of our green planet, true, but it does that all the time. We humans who track our whereabouts in time by the movement of the celestial bodies have simply decided this is the end. We’ve come around the sun again. We made it! Except, quite where the beginning and end of that orbit are is pretty subjective.
Nonetheless, in our tiny, human way we mark the passage with all sorts of big talk. We do year-end awards (look for ours soon), stories-of-the-year stories. We make lists. Even though time marches on, and the borders are arbitrary, we do this.
And so you have been reading all sorts of retrospectives of 2011, many of which mention names like Gilbert, Cavendish, Evans, Contador and Schleck. Those guys all had big years. I know. I watched. On TV.
Too some extent, the riders in the pro peloton are no more real than the characters in my wife’s favorite television programs. Our paths don’t cross. I don’t know them in anything more than a two-dimensional way.
What is far more tangible for me is MY cycling year, not theirs. This year I rode D2R2 for the first time, bought my first new mountain bike in 15 years, started a new Saturday morning group ride, showed my son proper wheelie technique, bought my wife her first road bike, and took a job, a full-time job, in the cycling industry.
Those were the top stories of 2011 for me. This week’s Group Ride, the last ride of the year, asks the question: What were the top stories of YOUR cycling year?
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If you were a pro cyclist, you’d probably have some mixed feelings about the holiday season. The late fall and early winter represent rest time. You can eat some food. You can leave the bike in the garage. You can see your family and friends. The holidays are the culmination of that well-earned rest.
What comes next is training camp.
The Tour Down Under is nigh. Oman and Qatar will follow. These are races that serve as showcases for new talent or simple opportunities for veterans to reaffirm their talent. Maybe they’re coming back from injury. Maybe they just want to remind everyone they haven’t retired yet.
The journalists will begin warming up again, too. You’ll start seeing stories about racers who had bad 2011s, and how they’re completely rejuvenated and ready to go for 2012. Reshuffled teams will all be on the press offensive, singing songs of harmony and united purpose. It’s all so glow-y and optimistic.
I have spent this “off season” (like much of cyclo-manity) sucked into cyclocross. There was a bandwagon. I hopped on. It was a fun ride.
But now I find my mind turning to the road season ahead. What can we expect from Mark Cavendish in the World Champion’s jersey? From Team Sky with Wiggins and Cavendish and Chris Froome and Flecha and Gerraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson-Hagen? How will the team chemistry play out at BMC with Hushovd and Gilbert and Evans all tugging at the reins? What of Radio Shack-Nissan-Trek-Leopard-Schleck? And then there’s the Belgian super squad Omega Pharma Quickstep, now with 100% more Leipheimer.
This week’s Group Ride shifts focus back to the road. What are you most looking forward to about the 2012 road season? What storyline are you most interested in? What surprises do we have in store?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The silly season is upon us, and, with the demise of HTC-Highroad, there are a lot of top riders on the market. The merger of QuickStep with Omega Pharma and the start up of the Australian GreenEdge project will also shuffle the pack. And of course, there is the normal, seasonal activity on top of all that.
One move that is sure to create waves is Thor Hushovd’s switch from Garmin-Cervelo to BMC. Hushovd, who absolutely killed it at the Tour de France this summer, was not happy with how G-C managed his spring classics campaign. He believes he’ll get better support and higher priority at BMC. More money probably helps, too.
As a result of Hushovd’s announcement, Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters promptly excluded the Norwegian from his team’s roster for the Vuelta a España. This makes perfect sense as the Garmin-Cervelos will need all the points they can get for returning riders, in order to maintain their WorldTour placing. Deploying departing riders isn’t very useful to managers in the current pro set up. It’s better for Vaughters to key on Tyler Farrar, who is staying, in grand tour sprints. That Hushovd evinced surprise over losing his Vuelta spot is silly.
One has to wonder the wisdom of Hushovd’s move, though, given that Cadel Evans has already told BMC boss Jim Ochowicz point blank that he doesn’t want Hushovd at the 2012 Tour de France. Freelancers need not apply. If the god of thunder knew that going in, it says something about his commitment to winning Paris-Roubaix, and may indicate BMC’s resolve to support him there.
Another big move is in the offing for Philippe Gilbert, the world’s number one rider. He has been linked with both the new, Belgian super squad and BMC, though where he would fit in with the latter is hard to see, given his large salary and the amount of support he would need to achieve his spring (and fall) targets. Gilbert is running out of things to accomplish. Milan-San Remo and/or one of the cobbled classics must be on his list, but that level of ambition requires ambitious support. With the reported salary of Hushovd being $2.5M euro, it seems likely that BMC—despite its well-deep pockets—was angling for either Hushovd or Gilbert, but not both.
Finally, there is the curious case of Mark Cavendish. In my mind, you can reasonably ask whether the Manxman’s departure from HTC-Highroad preceded or precipitated the end of HTC’s sponsorship of the team. Regardless, now, he’s moving on, and he’s doing it without his lead out man Mark Renshaw, who has already signed with Rabobank in an effort to move from second fiddle to first violin. If Cavendish goes to Sky, as has been rumored, who will comprise his new lead out? There will be more money and a home-based team, but Sky will have the same problem with Cav that BMC might have with both Hushovd. Too many stars, not enough water carriers.
That brings us to our question. Which of these riders will land well, and which will be disappointed in 2012? The motivation to move from one team to another lives somewhere at the nexus of greed, ego and ambition. Getting the balance right is key to success, as long as you measure success by wins. So, who is getting it right? And whose pride goeth before a fall?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
HTC is pulling out of pro racing, mergers promise to reduce the number of ProTour teams surviving into 2011, Alberto Contador continues to ride with a CAS-sized question mark over his head, and Lance Armstrong, the ghost of cycling past, waits to find out whether he’ll be indicted by the US government. But screw it, it’s always darkest before the dawn. You’ve got to stay on the sunny side. Accentuate the positive. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Etc. Etc.
This has been a GREAT year for racing, beginning with the Spring Classics, continuing through the Giro and culminating with the just finished Tour de France. If you have not enjoyed this season, it is likely you don’t care for bike racing. You should take up the harp or explore your interest in paragliding.
Having just won the Tour, Cadel Evans is a strong candidate for rider of the year. He dazzled last season, while wearing the rainbow stripes of World Champion, and that gave him a measure of popularity he hadn’t enjoyed previously. He won Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie before claiming his first maillot jaune at 34.
Thor Hushovd started slowly, and though his marking of Fabian Cancellara clearly led to Johan van Summeren’s big win at Paris-Roubaix, the norseman was vocally upset that Garmin-Cervelo wasn’t planning more races around his burgeoning talent. As this year’s wearer of the rainbow stripes however, Hushovd absolutely lit up the first week of the Tour, spending eight days in the yellow jersey and generally getting to display his class on the very biggest stage cycling offers.
Of course, any discussion of 2011 has to include Philippe Gilbert. To wit, Gilbert has won: Ster-Elektrotour, the Tour of Belgium, the Belgian road championship, Liége-Bastogne-Liége, Amstel Gold, La Fléche Wallonne, Montepaschi Strade Bianchi, Brabantse Pijl, stages at the Tour de France, Tirreno-Adriatico, and the Tour of the Algarve, and stood third on the podium at Milan-San Remo. Dude. Wins. Everything.
And, now that you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking I’m going to ask who the rider of the season has been up to this point. Wrong. Gilbert wins it going away (as usual). No. The question is, who has anything left for the end of the year? Evans can certainly be competitive in those Fall Classics that have, over the last few years, been the meat and potatoes of Gilbert’s palmares. Hushovd will surely notch some more wins before the leaves drop.
The question is: Which of these three will win more this year? Where? And why?
No one, it seems, is faster than a Cavendish scorned. Written off the day before, Mark Cavendish stormed to the line in Stage 5 without his
security blanket lead out train. He pulled a real Freire out there, freelancing on Geraint Thomas’ wheel, before blasting past Philipe Gilbert. Honestly, who blasts past Philipe Gilbert? If I were HTC-Highroad directeur sportif Rolf Aldag I’d walk to the back of the bus each morning and slap the young Briton across the face. It’d be a win-win.
Here is some more advice for open-minded managers and DSs:
Bjarne Riis just shouldn’t speak to Alberto Contador. Not until they’re riding into Paris anyway. Learn the lessons of the past Bjarne, and shut your pie hole. Cast your mind back just two short years. Another guy with a big mouth, Johan Bruyneel, was running Contador’s team that year, and he, in an effort to produce an eighth Tour win for one Lance Armstrong, effectively snubbed the mercurial Spaniard.
Oh, Bjarne. Just remember the look on Lance’s face as he stood on the third podium step and go whisper something encouraging in Richie Porte’s ear, in English.
Quick-Step team manager Patrick Lefevre has one very discouraged and somewhat damaged Tom Boonen on his hands. Now that Boonen isn’t sure he likes sprinting so much anymore, you have to wonder why Tornado Tom is even at the Tour. Quick-Step are stage hunters at a race like this. They have NO real climbers. So you’ve got to do whatever it takes to shake Boonen’s cage. Maybe have breakfast with Philipe Gilbert, or accidentally call him Fabian over the race radio. Desperate times.
If Leopard-Trek’s Kim Andersen had any sense at all he wrote down every bat-shit crazy thing Bjarne Riis said over their long stint together at CSC/Saxobank. He’s going to want to go back through those notes now to see if there is ANYTHING that will get the Brothers Schleck out on the attack. Those boys can climb, but they never seem to start until someone else is up the road first.
Perhaps mention to Andy that he has never, actually, you know, sort of, won a stage race. Yeah, yeah, he probably knows, but it might help if you let him know that YOU know.
Finally, based on their team performance thus far, there is really nothing I can tell Jonathan Vaughters that he hasn’t already thought of, other than hire a credible GC rider. Of course, the story of the first week has been Thor Hushovd and the sheer class he’s demonstrated in the team time trial and then in the lead out for the Stage 3 sprint, taken by teammate Tyler Farrar. It’s a charming departure from the minor hissy fit he pitched after being forced to watch teammate Johan van Summeren win Paris-Roubaix.
Vaughters’ master stroke was in having Hushovd cross the line first in the TTT, allowing the Norwegian to don the maillot jaune. Hushovd just wants to feel special, and what, in all of cycling, is more special than pulling the yellow jersey over the world champion’s stripes? Nothing is the answer. There is nothing more special than that. And now the Mighty Thor will do whatever you ask of him, and that is worth everything. Way to go, JV!
Now lose the sideburns. You look like someone’s creepy uncle.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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.