Last week we made a raft of preposterous predictions for the upcoming Grand Boucle in France. It was fun. But as the actual race approached we ought to probably settle in and start the very, extremely serious work of predicting and arguing over what will really happen.
To begin with, it seems we are on the verge of watching Alberto Contador complete the Giro/Tour double, a feat last performed by Marco Pantani, likely while riding with blood thicker than Jell-O. Contador has been so dominant this year, and over the last three years, that he, like Armstrong before him, will be the pre-ordained GC favorite.
What we need to do is figure out who really has a shot at beating him. You will recall Chaingate last year, the incident in which Andy Schleck’s mechanical opened the door to 39 seconds of breathing room for the mercurial Spaniard. Though a crappy time trialist, Schleck appears to be the only one able to climb with Contador.
Cadel Evans is another possibility. He of the ever-improving public image has raced very well over the last two seasons, and might well have been in yellow in Paris last year if it hadn’t been for a broken elbow suffered at the end of the first week. Evans can climb (if in a muscular style not at all like his bird-like competition), and he can time trial. Is it possible?
VeloNews (if you’ve read their Tour preview edition) seems to believe that the RadioShack cycling team have more than one GC contender from the group comprised of Leipheimer, Klöden, Brajkovic and Horner. I believe they have none, but who am I?
More credible, in my mind, is Ivan Basso. Like Schleck, the Italian can climb with the very best, but his time trialing is poor. What Basso has going for him is a strong TTT that might help him bank some time against Contador and the rest.
Then, of course, there’s a whole cadre of talented hopefuls: Fränk Schleck, the Leopard-Trek counterpunch who we’ve seen win big races and will certainly get his brother’s support if it comes to that; Robert Gesink, the willowy, Dutch climber; Roman Kreuziger, Astana’s new hope; Christian Vande Velde who has the talent and the team, but will his health hold?; Ryder Hesjedal, last year’s Garmin surprise; Brad Wiggins, who I was ready to write off until he won the Dauphiné; and Juergen van den Broek, the Omega Pharma – Lotto man.
Some one of that group is going to have a great race. Will it be great enough?
What do you think? Who can beat Contador? How will they do it? Why is it their time?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Well, the 2011 Giro d’Italia is in the books, the most epic, epicness in the history of epic epics. Race director Angelo Zomegnan took a page from Tour de France founder Henri Desgranges’ playbook and turned his race into more of a survival event than a bike race, with many racers and directors saying this version was just too hard. What I think they meant is that it was just too hard for everyone who wasn’t named Alberto Contador.
Alberto Contador - He’s the elephant in the living room or, perhaps more specifically, the pistol in the peloton. He completely dominated. He never looked troubled. He never looked challenged. He seemed to attack at will, often on whim or simply through appetite (the sort that earned a certain Belgian a not-always-complimentary nickname). The Spaniard’s performance was thrilling in a way, his signature attacks both completely fluid and completely explosive.
Of course, the flip-side to Contador’s ride is the lingering doubt that he’s clean. Whether it’s the doping case that will never end, or the whirling dervish of the Armstrong affair that is tarring all of our dominant riders with a tainted brush is hard to say. Regardless, it’s hard to believe in Contador’s flavor of dominance, whether that doubt has any basis in reality/science or not.
Michelle Scarponi – It must be hard to finish second and have everyone ignore you, but of all the GC hopefuls Scarponi made the absolute best pretense of trying to stay with Contador, chasing him off the front, if only to drop back. That so much was said about Vincenzo Nibali is a good indication that the rider who topped Nibali by 46 seconds was a worthy runner up.
Vincenzo Nibali – All of Italy seemed to be pulling for the “Shark,” but he didn’t have it. Known as perhaps the best descender in the pro bunch, Nibali had almost zero pop in his legs when it came to riding up hill. What made the Liquigas rider’s Giro interesting and admirable to me was the way the constantly rode within himself. He didn’t make any suicide attacks. He stayed patient and limited his losses to a clearly superior opponent. It wasn’t always exciting to watch, but it was good, smart racing.
John Gadret - My previous estimation of Gadret was based on his woeful lack of team spirit in supporting Nicolas Roche at the last Tour de France. I thought he was a punk, and he may well be, but in this Giro he showed a massive leap in ability, sticking with the world’s best climbers on some of the world’s toughest climbs. Maybe the French are rising again. No. Probably not.
Jose Rujano – If we turn slightly to our left, Rujano’s doping past will sit just out of our peripheral vision, and we’ll be able to view his 2011 Giro as a massively entertaining ride by a guy very few thought would ride at this level again. Perhaps he has earned himself a move up from Androni-Giacatolli to a bigger squad who can deploy him in the mountains of other grand tours.
Denis Menchov/Carlos Sastre – When Geox-TMC, the team of former grand tour winners Menchov and Sastre, weren’t invited to the Tour de France, I was one of those who thought ASO had screwed up, picking crappy French teams instead of this Spanish squad fronted by this unlikely pair. The Giro was, as a result, their everything, and the ASO is vindicated. Sastre was no where. Menchov was a shadow.
Honorable Mentions – Roman Kreuziger moved to Astana to get his chance at grand tour leadership. Liquigas was always going to go with Nibali and Ivan Basso, so that seemed like a sensible move. Kreuziger didn’t quite make the cut this time out. He remains a potential GC rider, rather than a real threat.
Christophe Le Mevel started strong, finished weak, but did Garmin-Cervelo proud, and provided another glimmer of the idea that French cyclists might be returning to grand tour podiums again one day. Maybe.
Peter Weening, the giant Dutchman, pulled a real Voekler and not only pulled on the maglia rosa in the first week, but then had the temerity to defend it.
Mark Cavendish came, saw, sprinted and then left. It’s sad to me that modern grand tour sprinters do this so often, but this is the world we live in. Specialization is king.
Final thoughts – They say the Tour de France is the biggest bike race in the world and that the Giro is the most beautiful. It would seem that Angelo Zomegnan is looking for more ways to draw even with his counterpart in France, Christian Prudhomme. They are both operating in the environment of modern cycling, which seems to be as much about which riders might be suspended as what the race route looks like. The 2011 Giro was an effort, I believe, to reassert the primacy of the race. In crushing all comers, Alberto Contador undid much of Zomegnan’s plan, and that is too bad.
(Just to be clear, I have no idea whether Contador is clean or not. I am only saying that the ongoing case related to last year’s clenbuterol positive creates doubt in the minds of many.)
Thanks to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and their geologically-timed appeals process, Zomegnan’s problem now becomes Prudhomme’s. How to keep the focus on the racing, when the racers themselves inspire such doubt. Perhaps one day we’ll look back on this time as the “Age of Asterisks,” a time when you couldn’t be sure what race you’d seen until the various governing bodies had a year or two or three to digest what happened and the lawyers had come up with acceptable compromises in Swiss conference rooms.
Regardless, this Giro d’Italia made a valiant effort at challenging the riders in unconventional ways, pushing them well outside their comfort zones. Was it too hard? Clearly, for some, it was. For the rest, it was a great race.
Big points have to go to the organizers for handling the tragic death of Wouter Weylandts with dignity and a minimum of controversy. Their modification of the stage that included the descent of Monte Crostis was another testing moment that passed with relatively few problems. These challenges are testament to the ability of a cycling organization to make good, effective decisions under time constraints.
The ASO, the UCI and the various national federations would do well to pay attention.
The Giro d’Italia starts Saturday, and this time out everything is BIG. The peloton, at 207 riders, is well beyond the normal size, as are the climbs (see Mt. Etna stage above), with seven mountain top finishes. This a race for the featherweights and survivors. Someone is probably taking odds on how many sprinters will even finish. My buddy DNF will definitely be there.
Here is my list of favorites: David Arroyo (Movistar), Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre (GEOX-TMC), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Roman Kreuziger (Astana), Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard), Tiago Machado (RadioShack), Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone), Danilo di Luca (Katusha), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), Giovanni Viscontini (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli).
Contador’s presence at the Italian race, for the first time since he won it in 2008, shakes up the general classification. 2010 champion Ivan Basso skips this Giro to focus on the Tour, so that leave his Liquigas teammate Nibali to battle with the Spaniard. 2009 winner Denis Menchov will hope that his Geox-TMC squad has the gas to keep him in contention. Will a rapidly aging Carlos Sastre be able to help?
Astana’s Roman Kreuziger, finally given a grand tour leader’s role, has a lot of questions to answer about his true top end capabilities, and the pack of skinny Italians who might normally crowd the podium (di Luca, Grazelli, Viscontini and Scarponi) will likely struggle to keep pace with Contador and Nibali.
While most observers ooh and aah over the total number of climbs in the race, the real issue will likely be recovery. It is one thing to climb strong for a week. It is quite another to do so consistently day after day. There will be no safety for the maglia rosa, as the course just provides far too many opportunities for rivals to put in attacks.
Patience and consistency, consistency and patience. And luck. Don’t forget luck.
Of course, it is far too early to begin picking an overall winner, but let’s try something different for this week’s Group Ride. Stage One is a Team Time Trial. Who will win it? AND…who will be in the pink jersey on the first rest day?
Stickers for correct pickers.
It is, perhaps, a mark of the this time of year that Padraig’s post about rim tape should garner more interest and passion than an open debate about the transfer market. It seems our minds have wandered away from the pros and onto the very serious subject of how to best ride the end of the summer (except for you Aussie and South American readers, of course).
Sophrosune brought up an excellent question, a topic for another Group Ride, which is, “What constitutes success for a pro team?”
Looking at recent transfers, it’s hard for me to believe that Riis Racing won’t succeed next year. Master Bjarne has replaced a Tour de France runner up with a winner, and, thus far anyway, retained last year’s Paris-Roubaix/Ronde von Flanderen winner. Does he have the two top riders in the peloton? I would say so.
Ryderider brought up Liquigas, which I failed to mention in my Group Ride intro, though the Italian squad boasts Basso, Nibali, Kreuzier, Kiserlovski and Sagan. One gets the distinct impression that, organized properly around a designated leader, they have the team to take a grand tour. Having lost Francesco Chicchi to Quick Step, they only have Daniele Bennati for the sprints, which will pull some wins off the table. You have to ask though, will winning the Giro be enough for Liquigas in 2011? Or do they need to make a serious assault on the Tour, given they have nothing for the Classics?
Omega Pharma – Lotto is the other team that sticks out for me. Living in QuickStep’s shadow for the last few seasons, things looked bad for Belgium’s other team when Cadel Evans left, but Phillipe Gilbert has kept their profile high with stellar end of season riding, and now they’ve signed Andrei Greipel who will, undoubtedly, add to their win total, and give them a proper presence at any grand tour they run him in.
The Spanish teams, Movistar and Geox,are the big question marks. What will money do for Spanish cycling? If Team Sky is any indication, not much, but their results may vary.
And now…back to rim strips!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’m not sure why, but every time I hear someone mention Paris-Nice, I envision Omar Sharif standing on the deck of a ski chalet wearing a Russian ushanka and imploring some cream-skinned Euro princess to follow him to the Orient. There is, literally, no good reason for this association, so let’s talk about bike racing instead.
Paris-Nice, “the race to the sun,” rolls off the start line on Sunday, (American viewers can catch some of the race on Versus) the 7th. Eight stages will wind their way south from Montfort-l’Amaury (Prologue), south of Paris to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice (Stage 7). For the big pros who hope to compete in the Grand Tours later in the season, Paris-Nice serves as the first coveted win.
Last year, the clear favorite, Alberto Contador, blew up on Stage 7, gifting the race to his Spanish compatriot Luis León Sánchez. It was, to date, really the only sign that Contador is not a robot.
Interestingly, the French anti-doping organization AFLD will NOT be working with the UCI on Paris-Nice this year, after AFLD director Pierre Bordry accused the UCI of favoring Lance Armstrong in 2009. UCI head Pat McQuaid didn’t appreciate the accusation, so the AFLD has been pushed aside. All very mature and professional, as usual.
Historical notes: Sean Kelly is the king of Paris-Nice having won seven straight titles between 1982 and 1988. Also, of note, during the 2003 race, Kazakhstan’s Andrei Kivilev died due to head injury sustained in an accident. His death prompted the UCI to mandate the use of helmets.
So who will win?
Contador, as the mostly undisputed top stage-racer in the world, is favorite, but León Sánchez and his Caisse d’Epargne teammate Alejandro Valverde have to be considered as well. In addition to that crack (not a drug reference) Spanish contingent, Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, Cervelo Test Team’s Heinrich Haussler, Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde, Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger, HTC Columbia’s Tony Martin, Radio Shack’s Levi Leipheimer, Saxo’s Fränk Schleck are all riders to watch.
Some, like Haussler and maybe Martin, will be looking more for stage wins, but this is a race where a big stage victory can shake up the GC.
So let’s hear it? Who are you picking? Who are you pulling for? And why?
But of course, even before we get to Paris-Nice, we have what will hopefully become one of the legendary classics—Montepaschi Strade Bianche, better known as the Eroica. While most of the talk lately has been about who is ready for Paris-Nice, Garmin-Transitions Ryder Hesjedal, who has twice finished in the top 10 on this event, has cited it as a big priority for his spring.
Previous winner Fabian Cancellara will be back and last week’s winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Juan Antonio Flecha, who has indicated Paris-Roubaix is among his goals, will both be lining up.
So who’s your call?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International