If the Group Ride were an actual race, and Padraig was the RKP DS, then I’d be climbing up the stairs of our lavishly appointed bus right now and apologizing for letting the team down on the opening day of the race season (in Belgium). Clearly, I mistimed my attack, launching the Het Nieuwsblad prediction thread only a few short hours before the race rolled out of Ghent, leaving almost no time for you, the peloton, to chase it down. Don’t worry. I’ll round into form as the season goes on.
Having said that, what a great weekend of racing. Juan Antonio Flecha busts one off with 20km to go and makes it to the line, ALONE IN PHOTO, the best way to finish. Heinrich Haussler, that yapping terrier of a rider, broke the tape second, ahead of a sprint won by Tyler Farrar, for third place.
Gee, that’s funny, no Belgians in the top three. How embarrassing.
I wonder if it has anything to do with all those Flemish hardmen spinning their wheels in the South of Spain in advance of the season, instead of in the wind and cold of their native land. Ironic, then, to be beaten by a Spaniard.
Flecha was all class, not only in winning, but also in paying tribute to his fallen friend Frank Vandenbroucke, a cheater, yes, but a cheater with a flare for the dramatic and a heart of fool’s gold.
Of course, Sunday held the survival race-themed, 2010 running of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the weather in Belgium turning from “good” to “hellish” overnight. The storm that tore across the northern lands even had a name, “Xythia,” straight out of the Chronicles of Narnia. 195 riders were on the start list. 26 finished. That’s 13% of the peloton you might call “tough.”
Apparently, temperatures in the 40s with wind gusts to 60kph are too much for the pros. Having commuted in those conditions I can confirm that they’re sub-optimal, but really boys, aren’t you being paid to race?
Bobbie Traksel (WHO?) raced and won for Vacansoleil, the Pro Continental squad’s second big win of the year after Wouter Mol took the GC in the Tour of Qatar. Kinda makes you think the smaller investment sponsorship in a Pro Con team might make more sense than the big money Pro Tour ticket, since, to this point, the top purveyor of European camping vacations has garnered more positive press than most, if not all, of the lower level Pro Tour teams.
RKP props to Thor Hushovd and Sylvain Chavanel who were among the few big names who bothered to finish K-B-K. Will it take a Norwegian and a Frenchman to teach the Belgians what it means to be hard again?
There is, of course, time for redemption. We’ve only just begun. Are you listening Tom Boonen?
Het Volk, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Ghent-Ghent, pick your name, just don’t call it a semi-classic. Because, while it lacks the reverence of the monuments, the Ronde, the Paris-Roubaix, et. al., it does take on a special significance merely for opening the Belgian “road” season. By tradition it’s a semi, but in my heart it’s a real classic.
I place road in quotes above, because these cobbled races really sort of mark a transitional state somewhere between ‘cross and the road proper. Yes, there are roads involved. Road bikes are used, but success in these races goes beyond being able to ride a bicycle fast over a paved surface. They are part road race, part bull ride.
And so it begins.
This race has been on since 1945 and only failed to go off three times, all weather-related cancellations, which, in Belgium, is like saying they called it off because there were four horsemen galloping up the Koppenburg. This European winter has been pretty harsh, but we’ll likely get a race in this weekend anyway. I’ve seen that a number of the riders have been spinning around Spain and Italy to top off their training. I wonder what it will be like to step off the plane in Belgium and feel the weather and contemplate the saddle thrashing brutality of race day.
Rather predictably (and mercifully) this week’s Group Ride asks you to pick a winner. Keep in mind that Belgians almost always win this race. In 63 runnings, only nine have been taken by non-Belgian riders, though, in recent years Pippo Pozzato and Thor Hushovd have both claimed the honors.
There are too many potential winners for me to list them all here, which is exciting and saves me a bit of typing. I will ask that in naming your projected winner you give something of your rationale. “He has the best hair,” or “Because he really kicks ass,” are both acceptable, but I’m sure you can do better.
You get extra points (redeemable for blenders or luggage) for naming a winner of the women’s race. You win the day if you can name both in Flemish.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International
Agence France Presse has reported the death of Frank Vandenbroucke. The one-time great Belgian cyclist who scored 51 wins in his career was on vacation in Senegal when he died. Preliminary reports are that he died of a pulmonary embolism.
Most recently, Vandenbroucke had been riding for the Cinelli-Down Under team and had been a columnist for the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. A byline had appeared as recently as last week.
Readers of RKP are well aware of Vandenbroucke’s troubled past. Following a stellar season in 1999 when he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Omloop Het Volk and two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, Vandenbroucke’s career spun out of control following an initial drug bust in 1999. His additional drug busts, DUI and suicide attempt are well documented and reducing his troubles to a handful of nouns is a disservice.
Vandenbroucke’s descent into depression and further drug use is eerily similar to that of Marco Pantani. It would be easy to reduce his story to a cautionary tale: Kids, don’t do drugs!
However, the reality is much more shocking. Our body of knowledge about the use of performance-enhancing drugs really hasn’t included the assumption that top-ranked cyclists busted for drugs will turn to recreational drugs and a plummet into depression. Following his bust, Vandenbroucke teammate David Millar says he fell into a terrible depression he buried in alcohol, but somehow he turned it around.
Could it be a pattern is emerging? Indications are Marco Pantani turned to recreational drugs following his bust for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Same for Jan Ullrich. We know Tyler Hamilton battled depression following his suspension for a positive test.
What do we have to expect from Mr. Full Disclosure, Bernard Kohl? (I’ll address his ongoing monthly interviews with new revelations in another post.)
I’ve made my peace with Vandenbroucke and the riders who won the Classics and Grand Tours of the 1990s. Given the circumstances, he was truly one of the better riders of his generation and deserves an extra measure of panache in our memories for announcing—before the race—on which hill he would attack at the ’99 L-B-L. The shot above of him at the finish has defined for many the hard-man style the Belgians are known for: the legs coated with embrocation, the shoe covers and arm warmers pushed to the wrists; only a man for the Classics can make 55 degrees look like a bright summer day.
Despite flashes of brilliance (what else would you call his second place at the 2003 Tour of Flanders), VdB never returned to his winning ways following his first bust.
Even if you hated Vandenbroucke for his drug use, I hope you can lament his death and the loss that means for cycling. He was, after all, one of our own, a guy who loved to go fast, a hard man who understood style, had a heart for the red line, and a family man who leaves behind both his parents and a daughter.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International