Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
On the day of stage two of the Amgen Tour of California I took part in a charity event benefitting the organization Right To Play. The organization was started by four-time Olympic gold medalist Johan Olav Koss, the long-track speed skater. In broad strokes, Right To Play exists to bring opportunities for sport—and all the lessons that lie therein—to children living in impoverished and war-torn countries. They have programs running in roughly two dozen countries around the world, places like Ethiopia, Rwanda and the Palestinian territories. They’ve built facilities so kids can play sports like football (soccer) and volleyball. And yes, some of their programs involve cycling.
So what’s this really got to do with cycling? Well, people often need a little incentive to do good deeds—think the coffee mug you get when you make a pledge to your local public radio station. Right To Play does a lot of fundraising and they called upon the bike industry to pull together something special that a great many people missed out on.
Thanks to their relationship with Specialized, Right To Play was able to offer fundraisers a breakfast with Phil and Paul, a ride out of Aptos that took in part of stage 2′s race course, a VIP pass at the finish that got you one of the best spots to view the final sprint (won as you can easily recall by Peter Sagan, if only because he won nearly every stage … dang) and, finally, a dinner with the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team. Just which of these events folks took part in was determined by just how much they raised, but if you went all in and donated $17,000, you got each of those experience plus a Tarmac SL4 and a BG Fit at your nearby dealer. Of course, it was possible to get in on some of the festivities for as little as $1500.
Whether you like their products or not, Specialized comes in for some criticism from time to time for their business practices. Here’s an occasion that is worth considering. Specialized, due to their size, does more on the advocacy front than most companies in the bike industry. Indeed, they have a person on staff dedicated to advocacy efforts; heck, for a while Specialized even funded the salary of the director for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, the group that is bringing mountain bike racing to high schools around the country.
The ride was fun; no two ways about it. We climbed out of Aptos and up to Corralitos through dense Redwood forest. Following a brief descent we hooked up with the race course for the fast descent into Aptos and the run through town to the finish at the college. Western Spirit Cycling Adventures provided support; not that we needed a bunch of support for a 37-mile ride, but a snack or two at the top of the climb was hard to say no to.
Of course, the highlight of this thing was the dinner with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. And here’s where Specialized really made the difference. Anyone willing to lay out the greenbacks can buy a tent and VIP experience for a bunch of friends. But very few bike sponsors have the kind of pull with a pro team to hold a dinner for eight or ten people who donated money to a charity a bunch of pro riders have never heard of. Indeed, to kick the dinner off, one of Right To Play’s staffers got up to tell the team about what it is they do and how they do it. Some of the European riders seemed not to listen at all, but I looked over and noticed that Levi Leipheimer was paying close attention.
I need to stress, this sort of thing is just not done. Meal time has always been a sacrosanct event for riders. They sit together, you don’t bug them and when they finish they head back to their rooms to rest. They don’t sign autographs and they don’t hang out and talk with a bunch of bike geeks. But that they did. While the riders did sit together for dinner, the staff spread out and joined the VIPs at tables throughout our dining room. As fate/luck would have it, I was seated across from Patrick Lefevre and he spoke freely, entertaining questions from everyone at the table. What was most entertaining was hearing him address the issue of television revenue. His frustration at the lack of a unified front between the teams was readily apparent.
Generally speaking, teams can refuse any sort of PR request during a big race. That they did this speaks to the value Specialized sees in the team and how they view their investment. It’s one thing to sponsor a fast guy. It’s quite another to sponsor someone who can be personable with complete strangers. And honestly, every team at the Tour of California could have offered this, but very few teams could match OPQ for star power with both Levi and Tom Boonen at this dinner.
Beyond that, I was really impressed with how friendly and funny Phil and Paul were at the breakfast; who knows how many requests of this sort they get each time they come stateside. They even did a short promo video for Right To Play and showed what pros they are by nailing it on the first take.
There’s a reason Specialized brought me along. They want more people to know about Right To Play and a pretty killer event you can attend if you donate to them. So why mention it now? They plan to do something similar next year.
Most cyclists set some sort of challenge each year to give them an incentive to get into shape. For many years, my challenge has been a long ride in the Rockies west of my adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado, on my May 5 birthday. I began this now annual rite of springtime at age 50, when I mapped out a 50-mile route to ride with a couple-dozen colleagues from the office. It was a day of strong southerly winds and only half the group made it to the final loop through the foothills. I’ve been adding a mile to the ride every year since then, and now most of it is in the mountains rather than on the plains.
That’s probably the wrong way to go about this venture. Friends say, “You should be riding on flat roads.” And they ask, “What are going to do when you’re in your 80s or 90s?” So I remind them of the 100-year-old French cyclist, Robert Marchand, who set a world hour record of 24.25 kilometers for his age group on the UCI Velodrome in Switzerland back in February. My sister tells me that I should switch my ride to kilometers, and that’s a choice I do think about … but not for long. I grew up with miles, so miles it remains.
I did have a few concerns in the lead-up to this year’s birthday ride last Saturday. Although I run three times a week to stay in shape, I didn’t take my first 2012 bike ride until late March — mainly because of some hectic traveling and new work schedules. However, I did manage to get in 10 short rides before May 5, including a longest one of 30 miles that went over a climb destined for this August’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. That gave me the confidence I could again tackle my birthday ride and its 6,000 feet of climbing.
My bike, I have to admit, was in far worse shape than I was. Fortunately, I managed to get a booking with Vecchio’s Bicicletteria, the iconic Boulder bike shop, whose owner Peter Chisholm worked his magic, fitting new pedals, chain, hub bearings and cone, cable housings, inner tubes, brake pads and a bar-end stop. When I took it for a spin the night before the ride, I couldn’t believe how smoothly everything was working. Thanks, Peter!
So my bike was ready, I was ready, and I knew the two (younger) friends coming with me had been riding a lot. Even the weather was looking good: a forecast for partly cloudy skies, high-50s early in the day, high-60s in the high country and high-70s back in Boulder. As for the ride itself, I’d modified the course to include an initial loop on some of the dirt roads used in this year’s Boulder-Roubaix race.
Because cell-phone coverage is spotty in the deep canyons of the Rockies and up on the high-altitude Peak-to-Peak Highway, I knew I wouldn’t get any live coverage of Saturday’s opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia — but I was looking forward to watching the Gazzetta dello Sport video of the stage when I got home. I was of course hoping that local hero Taylor Phinney, who has trained on these Colorado roads for years, would have the form to take the 2012 Giro’s first pink jersey on this Cinco de Mayo.
Besides sharing a birthday with such diverse characters as “Monty Python” comic Michael Palin and singers Adele, Chris Brown and Tammy Wynette, I expect unusual things tend to happen on my birthday. When I did the May 5 ride in 2000 — already a dozen years ago! — I learned that morning that Gino Bartali had died at 85. Later in the day, I heard that Lance Armstrong, on a Tour de France scouting trip, crashed heavily descending a mountain pass in the Pyrenees. And, in the heavens that night 12 years ago, there was a very rare conjunction of the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon. Some day!
This year, besides the start of the Giro in Denmark, May 5 would see a “supermoon” and a meteor shower from Halley’s comet. That would come later. First, there were birthday cards to open, Facebook greetings to read and phone calls to take before I set off on another challenging ride.
My watch read 7:30 when I spotted Steve circling the road near the end of his street. We reached across to shake hands and he wished me “Happy Birthday.” We were soon on our way, heading east, when we were passed (with a quick greeting) by two spin-class coaches from Steve’s gym who were out training on their full triathlon rigs. Seeing dozens of other riders (and generally being passed by them!) became a pattern of the day. That’s because it was a Saturday. When my birthday is on a weekday, I usually ride alone and rarely see another cyclist.
This time, I wasn’t alone. Steve’s a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund and a recreational cyclist. He was wearing his Triple Bypass jersey, reminding me that every July he does the infamous 120-mile mass ride over the 11,000-foot Juniper, Loveland and Vail Passes. It helps to have a strong riding companion! And his wife Martha, who oversees my weight training most weeks, would join us where our route entered the canyons.
But first we pounded along the dirt roads through a springtime paradise of infinite green, riding past rushing creeks, open meadows and an organic farm called “Pastures of Plenty” — which seemed to sum it all up. After a brief connection with Highway 36, busy with groups of cyclists heading north in the bright sunshine, we joined Martha and started up the 16-mile climb toward the Gold Rush-era village of Ward at 9,000 feet elevation.
As my weights coach followed me up the long, long climb’s culminating double-digit grade, with me feeling like a sagging Vincenzo Nibali muscling his way up the Côte de Saint-Nicolas in last month’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I was happy to hear her tell me: “Good job!” Usually, I have the deck at the Ward village store to myself. But on this pleasantly warm Saturday morning, there was a never-ending stream of riders, most of them stopping to eat homemade cookies, pump black coffee from a Thermos and guzzle 99-cent cans of Coke. We joined them.
The three of us then climbed the last little drag up to Peak-to-Peak. I told Martha that this scenic byway was built by “unemployed” workers during the Great Depression, and it was originally planned to link Long’s Peak with Pike’s Peak, but only its northern half was completed before the war started. I’m glad this half was built, because riding the always-curving, roller-coaster road, with close-up views of snow-covered peaks and distant views of the plains, is always the highlight of my ride. Back in the 1980s, I saw the likes of Andy Hampsten and Greg LeMond doing battle on Peak-to-Peak in the Coors Classic, and this coming August their successors Tom Danielson, Tejay Van Garderen, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde will be racing up and down these hills in the USA Pro Challenge.
Martha, Steve and I flew down the last long downhill into Nederland, and continued on, riding against the wind up the dead-end valley to Eldora before returning to Ned and a leisurely al-fresco lunch at the Whistler’s Café. All that remained was a 20-mile dash back to base, descending 3,000 feet in the canyon alongside the fast-flowing Boulder Creek. It was an exhilarating ending to our ride, followed by the excitement of learning that, after two other onetime Boulder residents, Hampsten and Vande Velde, Boulder native Phinney had become only the third American to don the Giro’s maglia rosa.
Thanks, Taylor. Thanks, Peter. Thanks, Steve. Thanks Martha. Good job!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Junket is a word for a trip made at someone else’s expense, as in a press junket. It is also a sweet, milk-based dessert thickened with rennet. RKP’s main and tallest editorial practitioner, my friend Padraig, will be enjoying one of these two things over the weekend and into next week at the invitation of the Specialized bicycle making company.
The thing which Padraig will be enjoying—like me, you’re still hoping it’s the milky dessert—will include a ride with the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team, or at least, those riders who will be racing the Tour of California. The roster, as it stands, includes Tom Boonen, Levi Leipheimer, Dries Devenyns, Bert Grabsch, Frantisek Rabon, Stijn Vandenbergh and Peter Velits. Whether or not Leipheimer races ToC remains to be seen, but he’ll be in attendance regardless, possibly eating junket. The mode is to grate some nutmeg over top.
Hopefully that won’t preclude him from answering questions, some of which we need to come up with here and now.
We might, for example, say to Tom Boonen, “Tom, every woman and half the men in Belgium want to sleep with you as a result of your big wins in Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix this year. Given the success you’ve already had, how do you motivate yourself for stage races during the rest of the year?”
The obvious answer is that there are women (and possibly men) the world over who can still be inspired to lustful admiration by winning stages and intermediate sprints, but it would be fascinating to hear Tommeke answer the question for himself, no?
There are also some lay-up questions to Levi about how it feels to get hit by a car (spoiler: it hurts and is scary), but even after that I’d love to hear how, at 38 and coming back from being hit by the aforementioned automobile, do you put your season back on track. How do you revise your goals to be both ambitious and realistic at the same time?
At that point, I might turn to Peter Velits and say, “Hey, Pete. You finished second at the 2010 Vuelta, winning the individual time trial and the team time trial, as well as climbing like a monkey on macchiatos (macchiati?), what do you rate your chances for the ToC, and who would have to get hit by a car to put you in the team leader’s role?”
Then you’ve got guys like Bert Grabsch, Frantisek Rabon and Dries Devenyns, a trio of steam engines in lycra, and I’d like to know how it feels to be in the same team with Boonen. Do they hide his room key? Do they call his mobile pretending to be his girlfriend? I would. I would also sprinkle rosewater on his junket, like the English apparently liked to do in medieval times. That’d be hilarious.
We have an audience with the Omega Pharma-Quicksteps. What do we ask? What do we want to know?
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
The recent car-bike collisions that put both Levi Leipheimer and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Tony Martin in the hospital with broken bones emphasized the dangers every cyclist faces when training alone on the open road. Leipheimer was hit from behind a few kilometers from his team hotel in Spain while riding on the far right of the right shoulder of a busy highway. Martin was only five minutes from his home in Switzerland, riding on a bike path, when he was apparently sideswiped by a motorist.
However much we use the roads, there’s always a new lesson to be learned. I learned a few new ones last week. First off, while driving home last weekend from a hike with my wife, I stopped at a three-way intersection, entering it at a sharp angle. When I looked left I didn’t see anything on the road, but later realized that the curve of the road had hidden a bike rider from my view. After turning right, I saw the bike in my rear-view mirror, about 100 feet away, approaching me fast on the long downhill. So I immediately gunned the car to keep well clear of the rider, but I still heard a distant voice through the open car window angrily shouting, “Asshole!”
The lessons from that incident was: (a) as a driver, I should have stopped longer at the intersection because of the sharp angle and looked more carefully to the left, and (b) if I’d been on the bike, I should have ridden more defensively and expected that a car entering the road from a tight angle might not be able to see me. That evening I went for a ride up the same canyon. As I was waiting to turn left onto the road, I waited until traffic cleared from the left, and I then waited for a last car from the right to pass by before I headed for the far shoulder. But on seeing me, the driver of that last car stopped for me and waved me across the road. I put up my hand and said, “Thank you.” Nothing better than a courteous car driver!
Happily, I can say that only vary rarely in my many decades of riding a road bike have I felt like cursing at motorists for dangerous behavior … and much of my riding has been in cities such as London and New York. Like Leipheimer, I try to ride as far to the edge of the road as possible and always be aware of the location of any cars around me — whether they’re ahead, behind or to the side.
Knock on wood, I’ve had only two actual collisions with vehicles. The first was in my college days when I was riding my bike from London to join some classmates on a geology field trip to the southwest of England. I was on a major road (remember we ride on the left in the UK), descending a long hill that curved to the right. There was no shoulder, so when a big truck (they’re called lorries in England) came up from behind me, the driver moved out to his right to pass me before cutting back toward the left.
I was wearing a black wool sweater my mum had knitted for me, and as the lorry cut back in too quickly (the driver obviously misjudged my speed), the back edge of his vehicle caught a loop of my sweater and dragged me off the bike and some distance down the road. Somehow, I was not badly hurt, but the front wheel of my bike was pretzeled. The driver stopped to see if I was all right and kindly gave me a lift to the nearest town (it was Paignton in Devonshire). He dropped me off at a bike shop and paid for the repair. I was able to carry on riding to my destination and wasn’t even late for the start of the field trip. A happy ending to what could have been a very nasty accident.
The other incident happened in my hometown a few years later. I was riding one evening to a meeting of my cycling club, heading slightly downhill through a green light. Just as I headed reached the intersection, a car going the other way cut across the street right in front of me. My bike hit the car’s headlight and I flew through the air and landed face first on the hood. The only thing that broke (besides my bike’s front wheel) was a front tooth. So maybe there is a tooth fairy, after all.
The other good part of that story is the traffic light where I crashed was right outside the apartment where a club-mate lived. I rang on his doorbell. He took my bike up to his place and he gave me a ride to our club meeting in his car. Another happy ending.
There are two more lessons to be learned from these incidents. One, motorists tend not to be looking for cyclists when they make turns, and that was probably the reason why that car turned in front of me at the light and why the motorist in Switzerland sideswiped Tony Martin last week — he was knocked unconscious and didn’t remember exactly what happened. Two, motorists almost always underestimate the speed at which we ride our bikes. That was the case with the truck driver in Devon who moved in too soon and dragged me off my bike. As for Levi Leipheimer, the elderly driver that hit him from behind most likely didn’t see a cyclist — although he might also have thought the shoulder was a driving lane.
Anyway, whether you’re riding or driving on the open road, take extra care today—and every day.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
I had a long discussion last week with a friend who takes just a passing interest in bike racing. He was asking me about the state of American cycling now that Lance Armstrong has retired. I told him it was going very well, that Armstrong’s peers Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer were still contesting stage races at the highest level, that U.S.-registered teams BMC Racing, Garmin-Barracuda and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek were winning the toughest races in the sport’s major league (the UCI WorldTour), and that a new generation of excellent riders was coming through.
There are some exciting prospects in this new generation. At BMC, Tejay Van Garderen is being groomed to take over the Tour de France leadership role of Cadel Evans when the Aussie retires, and Taylor Phinney is the natural successor to his veteran teammate George Hincapie. Over at Garmin, a truly homegrown squad, Peter Stetina is working toward contender status in the grand tours, starting with next month’s Giro d’Italia, and Andrew Talansky is shaping up to match him. And while Armstrong has quit RadioShack as a racer, his team is schooling such talents as U.S. road champion Matt Busche and under-23 standout Lawson Craddock.
My friend hadn’t heard any of these names, except for Leipheimer and Phinney. And that was only because Levi received great coverage in the Colorado media last August for winning the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and Taylor is the son of local sports icons and Olympic medalists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter Phinney. But if you only read the national press, listened to 99.9-percent of America’s radio stations and only watched network television, you certainly wouldn’t have heard of Leipheimer or Phinney, let alone all those other great American cyclists.
You may be thinking, this is nothing new. Cycling fans have known for decades that cycling is regarded as a second-class sport—or not even a sport—by the majority of couch-potato Americans. And we know that the only sports that register on the radar of U.S. sports editors are (American) football, baseball, basketball, (ice) hockey, golf, tennis and NASCAR.
My friend agreed that, besides cycling, the world’s other major sports—football (soccer), athletics (track and field), cricket and rugby—barely get a mention in the U.S. media. And he too was puzzled that while soccer is a far more popular participant sport in schools across the country than gridiron football, that doesn’t translate into the U.S. being a power player on the global soccer scene except, thankfully, for our women. But, then, there’s no money in women’s soccer, and it only makes the sport pages when there’s a World Cup or Olympic medals at stake.
Again, you’re probably thinking, why is Wilcockson going on about mainstream sports when he knows that cycling will never make it with the American media. The only time it does make the national news is when the words “Tour de France,” “Lance Armstrong,” and “doping” are contained in the same sentence.
Yes, I know all that, and I know how frustrating it is for journalists who discover cycling in all its majesty, beauty and history to come up against the brick wall that is the American-sports-editor establishment. All my above thoughts and feelings crashed together like cymbals this past Monday morning after I picked up our two nationally distributed newspapers, USA Today and The New York Times. Predictably, both of them headlined golf’s Masters tournament and the fairy-tale win by Florida native Bubba Watson. The sports editors were obviously relieved that in a week when Tiger Woods failed to beat par in all four rounds that the win at Augusta didn’t go to that South African guy with the unpronounceable name. Long live Bubba—who made it an even better story by invoking his Christian faith in his victory speech, à la Tim Tebow.
Okay, Bubba’s success was a great story. But I also expected that our national dailies would have some decent coverage of cycling’s biggest one-day classic, Paris-Roubaix, especially because NBC Sports had decided to broadcast it live in HD and repeated the coverage with a three-hour show at primetime. But, no, my hopes were soon dashed. USA Today didn’t even mention Paris-Roubaix, not even the result in tiny agate type. As for the Times, well, they had a paragraph in its sport-summary section under the insulting headline: “Belgian wins French race.”
Let’s admit it, American mainstream sports editors are out of touch. They propagate their views by only covering the sports that they’ve always covered. They may say that it’s too expensive or too difficult for them to put cycling on their pages — and why would anyone be interested in cycling anyway? But Web sites with a shoestring budget manage to cover cycling very well indeed, and virtually every American, like my friend, rides a bike at some point in their lives, so why wouldn’t they want to read about the heroic athletes who compete in one of the most dramatic sports ever invented?
It’s time to take those elitist sports editors out of their ivory towers and plunk them down in a frenzied crowd of fans on Mount Baldy at the Amgen Tour of Colorado, on Independence Pass at the Pro Challenge, or on the Manayunk Wall at the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship. Better still, give them a VIP package to any of these American events, or ferry them across the Atlantic and wine and dine them at the Tour or Giro — or give them a front-row seat at the worlds or any of the one-day classics. Perhaps even take them to the Forest of Arenberg or the Carrefour de l’Arbre at Paris-Roubaix to see the athletes battling (and crashing) their way over the cobblestones at speeds that only four-wheel drives or trials motorcycles can normally contemplate on such rugged roads.
It was encouraging that NBC Sports (formerly Versus, formerly OLN) devoted its time, energy and resources to broadcast the live feed of Paris-Roubaix, even if it’s a half-century since the European networks first covered the Hell of the North classic. But it’s shameful that our national press virtually ignored one of the world’s truly great sports events, especially in a year when Tom Boonen made the most brilliant performance of his phenomenal career to become only the second man in a century to win at Roubaix four times.
And outside of Boonen’s triumph, there were a dozen other stories to whet sports fans’ appetites, including the amazing debut (and top-15 finish) of Taylor Phinney at age 21, and the record-equaling 17th Paris-Roubaix finish of George Hincapie at 38. You can bet that if Samuel Abt of the Herald-Tribune hadn’t retired and was still writing for the Times that he would have given his unique take on the race, and if Sal Ruibal hadn’t been let go by USA Today he would have seen that the newspaper at least mentioned Paris-Roubaix.
So what can we do? I suggest that everyone who reads this column begins writing letters, sending emails and making phone calls to the sports editors of every newspaper they read (on-line or in-person) to make them aware that cycling is a major sport in this country, not just in the rest of the world. Keep on sending those messages and send this column to your friends to do the same. Don’t take no for an answer.
If we can’t get the media to see cycling as a major sport then riders such as Phinney, Talansky and Van Garderen will continue to be perceived as second-class sports citizens in this country. You know and I know that these guys are far superior athletes to the Bubba Watsons and Tim Tebows of the American sports establishment. Let’s start to help our young pros (and help our sport) gain the recognition they truly deserve!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Stage-race organizers love a suspenseful final day. If that finale also incorporates a spectacular location amid beautiful scenery, so much the better. And should it happen to be a time trial, then that’s best of all.
A finish incorporating all three of those elements has been chosen by French race promoter Christian Prudhomme of ASO to end Paris-Nice this coming Sunday. The once iconic time trial up the Col d’Eze — a 9.6km climb on the spectacular Haute Corniche road from the villas of Nice to a 1,644-foot summit high above the Mediterranean — was last used to conclude the race in 1995. So perhaps this revival can return Paris-Nice to the glories it enjoyed in the winning years of stars such as Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche.
The Col d’Eze was first used for a Paris-Nice time trial in 1969 when the race was organized by longtime French cycling journalist, Jean Leulliot, who wanted a more suspenseful finish than a field sprint down by the beach. The uphill-time-trial experiment was a gift to Merckx, who won this final stage and the overall title three consecutive times.
The Cannibal was expected to win again in 1972. And going into the final stage, Merckx led second-placed Poulidor by 16 seconds. Everyone expected an easy win for the Belgian superstar, probably with a ride that bettered his Col d’Eze record of 20:14, set two years before. Some French reporters had even written their final race stories and taken an early train home.
At 36, French veteran Poulidor was thought to be past his best, and he didn’t look like posing a threat when Merckx was leading by a few seconds at the first time check, on pace to beating his own course record. But as the gradient eased on the higher parts of the climb, the French veteran got a second wind, and even though he appeared to be struggling, he was moving faster than the smooth-looking Merckx.
Amazingly, Poulidor stopped the clock atop the climb at 20:04, a new course record. All eyes then turned down the hill toward Merckx, who was still looking strong, though he later said his back was hurting from a crash earlier in the week. Even so, the Belgian was close to the record, too, but he was 22 seconds slower than Poulidor and so he lost that Paris-Nice by six seconds. What a dramatic finish!
Poulidor’s course record held up for 14 years, until Sean Kelly won the fifth of his record seven consecutive victories in Paris-Nice, improving the record for the 9.5km climb to 19:45. In his phenomenal win streak, Kelly twice lost the Col d’Eze time trial, both times to his compatriot Stephen Roche — losing by one second in 1985 and 10 seconds in ’87. Neither effort was good enough for Roche to overtake Kelly on overall time, and the younger Irishman never repeated the overall Paris-Nice victory he scored in his rookie season of 1981.
No rookies will win Paris-Nice this coming Sunday, but the Col d’Eze time trial should provide a brilliant showdown between the men who’ve already emerged at the top of this stage race’s overall standings: British road champion Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky, American veteran Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step and third-year U.S. pro Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing. Shaping up to be another contender is Spain’s former world No. 1, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who should continue picking up time-bonus seconds in the uphill stage finishes before Sunday.
It will also be of great interest to see how close the protagonists come to (or by how much they beat) Kelly’s 1986 course record of 19:45. Even though this Sunday’s climb is tagged at 9.6km, it looks like the same course as the 9.5km one 26 years ago; distance measurements were usually rounded to the closest half-kilometer in the 1980s.
In 1986, Kelly raced a regular aluminum-framed Vitus road bike, which was light for its time but about 3 pounds heavier than today’s carbon creations; and Kelly didn’t use disc wheels or anything aero. So the chances are that Wiggins, Leipheimer or Van Garderen will break the Irish legend’s old course record by at least a minute, perhaps more.
More important than the record, of course, is the overall victory in Paris-Nice, the second of this year’s UCI WorldTour races. Should it be a three-way race up the hill out of Nice, then Wiggins can be seen as the Kelly of the race, Leipheimer as the Poulidor, and Van Garderen as the upstart Roche. And perhaps Valverde, should he continue to collect time bonuses, will be the wild card.
As for the climb, though much lower in elevation, the Col d’Eze is similar to the last 10km of Colorado’s Old Vail Pass, which was used for the decisive time trial in last year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Van Garderen lost 51 seconds that day to stage winner Leipheimer, who took back his GC lead.
Leipheimer has also done well on other similar courses. One that comes to mind is the 2008 Vuelta a España’s last time trial up the Alto de Navacerrada, which the American won by beating overall winner Alberto Contador by 31 seconds, with a certain Valverde in third! Today, Leipheimer is 38 and as youthful as Poulidor, then 36, was in defeating Merckx on the Col d’Eze in 1972.
As for Van Garderen, his career bears similarities to that of the young Roche. The Irish prodigy won Paris-Nice in his rookie season, whereas the American, as a neo-pro in 2010, came in third at the Dauphiné, only a minute behind Contador; that demanding race in the Alps opened with a prologue time trial that featured a stiff climb, with Van Garderen placing second, only two seconds down on Contador.
Despite the two Americans’ challenges, Wiggins could be the Kelly of the 2012 Paris-Nice. We know the tall Brit is one of the sport’s top three time trialists, along with current world champion Tony Martin (who is riding for teammate Leipheimer at this race) and four-time champ Fabian Cancellara (who is competing in Tirreno-Adriatico this week). And we know that Wiggins has a steady climbing style, which he displayed in winning last year’s Dauphiné and placing third at the Vuelta a España. But will the Team Sky leader be able to put those two qualities together in an explosive time trial that lasts for some 18 minutes?
ASO race promoter Christian Prudhomme is probably asking the same question, and hoping, like his onetime predecessor Jean Leulliot did in 1969, that Paris-Nice will give him the spectacular finish he’s looking for.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
We usually have to wait a few weeks to see the sport’s biggest stars take their first scalps of the season—but not this year. Andre Greipel (Tour Down Under), Alejandro Valverde (Tour Down Under), Oscar Freire (Tour Down Under), Levi Leipheimer (Tour de San Luis), and Alberto Contador (Tour de San Luis, later DQ’ed) have all opened their 2012 accounts—and in some cases, more than once. Even the reigning world champion has enjoyed some success, as Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish took his first two wins of the season in Qatar this week.
But the by far the season’s biggest success story—so far, at least—has been Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Tom Boonen. Boonen’s already won four races in 2012 including two stages and the overall at the Tour of Qatar. Boonen’s also proven to be a dedicated teammate; he helped Francesco Chicchi win two early stages in Argentina before taking the final stage himself.
More than anyone else this season, I’m expecting (and hoping for) big things from Boonen. One of the sport’s most exciting cobbled hardmen, Tommeke already has three wins in Paris-Roubaix and two in the Tour de Flanders. But Boonen’s current streak leads me to believe he’ll be the big favorite when the Belgian season opens two weeks from tomorrow at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—one of the few cobbled races Boonen has yet to add to his resume. As long as it doesn’t hurt his chances to win another Monument, I’ll be rooting for him there.
Which leads me today’s question: who’s the one rider you’re hoping will find the most success in 2012 and why?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last week we discussed the Men of the Hour—a rather easy-to-compile list of the men we all expect to be at forefront of the sport in 2012. But while the sport’s Men of the Hour might be easier to identify, a list of Up-and-Comers is certainly more interesting to make as it allows for more prognosticating. After all, it’s always fun to go out on a limb—especially if you turn out to be right.
Colombia – Something tells me we’re on the verge of a renaissance, as Colombians have been taking some pretty huge scalps at the U23 level over the past few seasons including the Baby Giro (now called the GiroBio), the Tour de l’Avenir, and the World Road Championship. It’s therefore no surprise that much of the country’s best talent—men such as Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Duarte, Carlos Betancur, and Sergio Henao—is now turning heads as pros. But 2012 should see an even better sign of the South American nation’s resurgence as the Colombia Coldeportes team—the first full-time, European-based Colombian squad the sport has seen in years—has already gained entry into some of Europe’s biggest races. The team’s main goal? A Tour de France invite—and they think they can get it as soon as this year.
Sep Vanmarcke – Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke burst onto the scene with a second-place ride for Topsport Vlaanderen at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, beating George Hincapie and Philippe Gilbert in the process and earning himself a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. Fast forward one year and there was Vanmarcke again at the front during the classics, this time burying himself for the sake of teammates Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, and Tyler Farrar, yet still finding the strength to finish 4th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and 20th in Paris-Roubaix. Thor’s departure bumps Sep up a rung in the squad’s cobbled hierarchy this year, and considering Farrar’s inconsistency on the pavé, Vanmarcke could easily find himself in a position to win a race for himself this spring.
Salvatore Puccio – This is more of long shot, but keep an eye on Team Sky neo-pro Salvatore Puccio, the winner of the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. Talented young Italians come a dime-a-dozen, which explains why most find themselves signing their first professional contracts with Italian squads. Not Puccio though, his impressive U23 resume turned some World Tour heads and the Italian was smart to take advantage of an opportunity to join one of the best cobbled teams in the sport. If Puccio’s decisions on the road prove to be just as savvy, expect big things.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – The losers in the Philippe Gilbert sweepstakes made smart choices on this winter’s transfer market, bolstering their stage race ranks with the additions of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, while avoiding a potential logjam at the head of their classics squad (I doubt Gilbert and Tom Boonen would have fared well together in the same team). With Martin and Leipheimer, the team now has two men ideally suited to the route of the 2012 Tour de France—and both can counted-on to win their share of stages and overall titles in smaller stage races as well. In fact, the season’s already started-off on the right foot at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with Francesco Chicchi winning two stages and Leipheimer currently leading the overall after winning the ITT. Better still, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel appear healthy, fit, and motivated. Their return to form is certainly a good sign for the spring classics—and for a team looking to be competitive all season long.
Thomas De Gendt – Another member of the Topsport Vlaanderen class of 2010, De Gendt had quite an impressive World Tour debut with Vacansoleil in 2011, winning stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. A man built for the Ardennes, De Gendt should get more chances to ride for himself in all the spring classics this year—especially if Stijn Devolder proves unable to regain his Ronde-winning form from 2008 and 2009. But while the classics remain a goal for any Belgian, I wonder if De Gendt’s destined for greater things—like grand tours. The 2011 Tour de France was the 25-year-old’s first ever 3-week event. Not only did he finish the race in his first try, he finished 6th on Alpe d’Huez and 4th in the ITT in Grenoble, Stages 19 and 20 respectively. Those are telling results, for at a time when most riders were getting weaker, the Tour rookie was getting stronger.
Rabobank’s Young Grand Tour Men – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is still only 25 and despite his poor Tour de France last year remains Holland’s best hope for grand tour success. However, with men like Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema nipping at his heels, he’ll need to do something soon (like, now) if he wants to stay relevant. In 2010, Kruijswijk finished 18th in his first Giro d’Italia—at barely 23 years of age. He bettered that result considerably last year, finishing ninth and then following it up with a stage win and third-place overall at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later—against some very tough pre-Tour competition.
As for Mollema (who along with Gesink just extended his contract with Rabobank through 2014), his 2011 was even more impressive: tenth in Catalunya, ninth in Paris-Nice, fifth in the Tour de Suisse, and fourth at the Vuelta (along with the green points jersey and a day in the red jersey as race leader). Like Gesink, Mollema’s also a talented single-day rider who should challenge in hillier classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and il Lombardia (I’m still getting used to the new name too). And Mollema’s only 25 as well—that makes 3 super talents for Rabobank—all under the age of 26. With all three riders deservedly expecting grand tour leadership in 2012, Rabobank’s management might have a problem on its hands—then again, it’s not a bad problem to have. And in case they’re reading, here’s an easy answer: Kruijswijk gets the Giro, Gesink the Tour, and Mollema the Vuelta.
France – Yes, we’re still waiting for the true return of the French to the top steps of the sport’s most prestigious podiums—but there’s good reason to believe it’s going to happen soon. First of all, a very talented group of young French professionals is on the rise, led by men such as Pierre Rolland, Arnold Jeannesson, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s been a while since France had a rider who looked as if he could develop into a legitimate grand tour contender and now they have three.
Better yet, France has been identifying and developing young riders (juniors and espoirs) better than any country in the world, as evidenced by Frenchmen winning three of the last four junior world titles and two of the last three U23 world titles. While a rainbow jersey is never a one-way ticket to greatness, the French Federation’s run of success certainly bodes well for the future—especially since world champions aren’t the only quality riders the program is producing. And last but certainly not least, one has to expect that Thomas Voeckler’s heroic 2011 Tour de France (coupled with a terrible showing in the 2010 World Cup by the French national soccer team) has inspired at least a handful of young French boys to choose cycling over soccer that otherwise might not have. It only takes one rider to change a generation’s perception of a sport—maybe Voeckler’s stunning performance will reap greater rewards 5 to 10 years in the future.
Young Italian Sprinters – If last season is any indication, Italian fans might soon have someone other than Daniele Bennati to hang their field sprint hopes upon. Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani won a combined 29 races in 2011—and all but a few came via field sprints. The three still need to prove themselves in World Tour races (only Viviani won a race at the World level—and even that was in Beijing), and Modolo’s the only one to have started a grand tour (twice, in fact—but he failed to finish both times). But at ages 24, 22, and 22, respectively, they still have time to develop.
Project 1t4i – Even though it’s a Dutch squad, Project 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) will be led by two young Germans this year: 2011-revelation Marcel Kittel and HTC-import John Degenkolb. It goes without saying that Kittel is an up-and-comer—the 23-year-old won 17 races in 2011 (18 if you count the Amstel Race in Curacao) including four stages each at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Kittel’s biggest victory—and proof that he’s a force to be reckoned with in coming years—came at the Vuelta a Espana in September, the first of what looks to be many grand tour stage victories throughout his career.
No slouch himself, Degenkolb won six races in 2011 including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. That said, it’s clear that Degenkolb (also 23 years of age) is a future classics star—he reminds me of Matthew Goss in that he’s a talented field sprinter who shows even more potential as a classics hard man. Last year, the rookie was given a start in every spring classic that mattered from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (he finished 12th) to Paris-Roubaix (he finished 19th). With 1t4i already receiving several wild card invites to just about every cobbled race on the calendar, Degenkolb will be given new chances to impress in 2012.
So that it for my Up-and-Comers for 2012. If all goes as planned, our 2017 Men of the Hour will be a list of mostly Colombian, French, and German riders.
Who’s on your list Up-and-Comers for 2012? Come join me on the limb!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International