At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.
Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:
Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself. In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad. And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.
Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012. But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.
American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.
Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.
Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.
As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.
Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.
Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.
Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.
But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.
Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?
Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.
Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Let’s get the new year off on the right foot. I think fortune telling to be worth only slightly less than the word of someone working on Wall Street. And predicting the future contains all the science found in an episode of Entertainment Tonight.
So I’m going to jump in with a few predictions for this year. They may constitute wishful thinking more than actual predictions, but going into this new year, I’ve spent some time thinking about what the new season will bring.
Change will be the watchword for the year. I suspect the various changes in behavior we will see on the part of various riders, teams and companies will require lots of re-thinking. In some cases that thinking will go as deep as identity, but it could require rethinking less who you are than how you do business.
Change in Strategy: If Fabian Cancellara’s attacks at Milan-San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Paris-Roubaix were bold, expect him to be more guarded this year. Don’t be surprised if he waits until later in the race to make his move. That said, for such a strategy to work, his accelerations will have to be more ferocious. A late-race attack needs afterburners to succeed because more of the favorites are willing to burn matches to ensure their own chances. Of course, because Cancellara has one of the biggest engines in the peloton, don’t be surprised if he goes even earlier in a bid to catch competitors off guard.
Change in Goals: Of the many teams that will be invited to compete at the 2012 Tour de France, Thor Hushovd signed with the one guaranteed to prevent him from attempting to notch another stage victory at le Grand Boucle. It could be argued that Saxo Bank would similarly clip the Norwegian’s wings, but with Alberto Contador’s 2012 season a matter of much speculation and at least some doubt, it could be that he could have signed with Bjarne Riis only to arrive with plenty incentive (and direction) to get some result, any result. Hushovd will have a free hand at Roubaix, but can that really be his only goal for the season? And if he doesn’t find success there (how often does a rider achieve his sole goal for a season?), what will become his plan B? Complicating matters for him is the fact that he will share the non-Tour spotlight with Philippe Gilbert, a guy who wins more often. There’s not a team with more promise or more volatility currently licensed. Years from now we could look back on this team as the one that put La Vie Claire and Astana to shame.
Change in Mission: Omega Pharma-QuickStep is a team that will be forced to reinvent itself. Having signed Levi Leipheimer and Tony Martin, the team management will need to figure out how to support a rider at—at the very least—shorter stage races, if not a grand tour. Given the lousy year Tom Boonen had (and only a rider of his stature can win Gent-Wevelgem and still have a lousy year), it would seem unwise to hang the whole of the team’s hopes on him for their big results. To do so would mean wasting the investment on Leipheimer and Martin.
Change in Business: Electronic shifting is going to change the evolution of component groups. The move from 10 to 11 gears and from 11 to 12 will no longer require new control levers. Instead just a software update will be necessary. Riders using Di2 will be able to purchase a Dura-Ace 11-speed cassette and instantly have 11-speed Di2. Neat trick. The upshot here is that one of the traditional drivers/limiters to a new group is a redesigned control lever. If adding another cog is as easy as software code, then you have to ask just what will drive the introduction of a whole new group. The question isn’t as easy as it seems. Is weight enough of a driver? Almost certainly not. How much performance increase is enough? That’s almost impossible to quantify, but there’s a tipping point, most will agree. With this technical hurdle out of the way, we may see Shimano and Campagnolo doing more to update their groups each year and in that there’s the risk of turning off the bike-buying public. Caveat venditor.
Change in Scope: Well, Bicycle Retailer let part of the cat out of the bag, but it wasn’t all of the cat by any means. You’ll see a post regarding the other half of that story soon. A change in scope is what’s happening at RKP. I began this blog as a way to publish work that wasn’t finding a home at mainstream media outlets. Belgium Knee Warmers proved there was an audience for it and RKP gave me a way to follow my heart on subject matter and make some money, so that I could continue to do that work. My one promise to myself was that RKP would be a home to good writing. That promise has taken on a slightly more epic cast (and while the word “epic” gets overused, in my personal circumstance I get to use it this time).
We decided to do some year-end awards here at RKP, but because we don’t see much point in awarding someone “best Danish single-speed cyclocrosser with no ink”, we figured we’d give some nods to those people, events and moments most memorable. And to add to the fun, we invited Whit Yost and Jeremy Rauch from Pavé to join in the fun.
So here we go:
Rider of the Year—Despite not notching a win another monument this spring, by virtue of the fact that Fabian Cancellara finished on the podium in Milan-San Remo (2nd), Ronde van Vlaanderen (3rd) and Paris-Roubaix (2nd), he proved to be the strongest rider in this year’s spring campaign. That Cancellara was chased as if an attack from him was everyone else’s ticket to glory was unseemly. It appeared—given those who latched onto his wheel—he was chased less to prevent him winning than as a springboard to anyone else’s.
Most Valuable (Non) Player—This has to go to Francesco Moser for doing more to liven up this year’s Tour de France short of any rider other than Thomas Voeckler. By instructing the Schlecks on how to win at bike racing, Moser inspired Andy Schleck to take the single most interesting flyer at this year’s Tour. Frankly, it did much to illustrate the criticism that due to radios riders no longer know how to ride tactically. The greater lesson is just how the greats were. How about a mentoring program for today’s GC riders? The racing might get more interesting if we dusted off more GC champions from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The We-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-It Award—Thor Hushovd has easily been the peloton’s biggest crybaby for the last two seasons. Of his seemingly endless skills—honestly, has anyone else delivered more unexpected and surprising wins?—diplomacy isn’t one. He may be the only guy who could teach Bradley Wiggins a thing or two about badmouthing a previous team. That said, his cunning has proven he is more than worthy of both protection and a free hand. Maybe we should call this one the Wild Card Award. You just never know with this guy.
The Mad Ambition Award—This goes to Jim Ochowicz and the rest of the management at Team BMC. On one hand, they are geniuses for vaulting BMC to the top of the pops in just two years. Their ability to sign riders of real quality was confirmed in a royal flush back in July when Cadel Evans finally won the Tour de France. So how they managed to court and sign both Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd can’t simply be magic; it’s more like sorcery. Evans was on record saying anyone on his Tour team (and it is his Tour team) won’t freelance, won’t go for stage wins and will bury himself for the team. Somehow Gilbert and Hushovd—who between them took three stages of this year’s Tour—claimed they were okay with that. We also give this the Most Likely to End in Tears Award.
The Most Coveted Award—This has to go to Zipp for the new Firecrest 303. There’s not another set of wheels I’ve heard spoken of with a more covetous tone than the redesigned Firecrest 303. Lighter than a supermodel’s brain, more aerodynamic than a Cessna and more durable than any aluminum rim you’re riding, the only question is who doesn’t want this wheel.
The Relief Award—Bike fans breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that Campagnolo will finally begin selling its long-awaited electronic group, EPS. Though we heard that the Italian maker was working on this group back in 2002, Shimano came to market with Di2 a full two years ahead of Campagnolo. This is quite a contrast from the introduction of index shifting and integrated control levers. Shimano’s stuff may have worked better in both instances, but at least Campy had a ready response. The good news is that EPS seems to be kink-free, so this year you’ll be able to enjoy electronic shifting and 11-speeds all in the same group.
Worst News of the Year Award—The demise of HTC-Highroad. To have Bob Stapleton depart cycling is the worst news the sport will get for a long, long time.
The Textbook Courage Award—If you needed any proof of the talent at Andy Schleck’s disposal, his attack on Stage 18 from Pinerolo to the Galibier in this year’s Tour de France showed exactly what the young and often hapless Luxembourger is capable of. Down on GC and running out of road, Schleck had to do SOMETHING. What he did was one of the most courageous and awe-inspiring attacks we’ve seen this decade. First, Leopard – Trek put Joost Posthuma and Maxime Monfort into the break. Then, Schleck attacked with 60km to go, took a gap, stretched it to two minutes and then latched onto Posthuma and Monfort to stretch his lead, ending just 15 seconds out of yellow, as Tommy Voekler buried himself on the imposing slopes of the Galibier. This is the racing fans have always wanted from Schleck, but he has seldom delivered. Cautious to a fault, on this day Schleck was a legend.
The Have No Cake and Fail to Eat It Either Award—I, for one, thought it was a good idea for Zdenek Stybar to try his luck on the road, especially with a Classics-oriented squad like QuickStep. Unfortunately, Stybie flopped in his first season and has now relinquished his dominance of the Euro Cyclocross World Cup Series to Kevin Pauwels. What’s the Flemish for “Oops?”
The Straight Face Award—It’s been 18 months since Alberto Contador tested positive at the Tour de France. The saga of inaction since then is well-documented. Under WADA guidelines, it doesn’t matter how or why the “adverse analytical finding” came about, the rider should be suspended, and yet Contador has argued, with a straight face, that he deserves to ride, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has gone on as if the fleet Spaniard isn’t receiving preferential treatment. If we say up is down long enough, will we all learn to fly?
The Ricco Suave Award—This award is reserved for dopers who approach the rank stupidity of Ricardo Ricco in their efforts to cover their tracks and/or protest their innocence. This year’s award goes to Ezequiel Mosquera. After a positive test for hydroxyethyl starch at the 2010 Vuelta, at which he was runner-up, Mosquera cried foul. But the test for hydroxyethyl starch has been around a long time, and that substance’s use as a masking agent for doping products is well-documented. Compounding Mosquera’s guilt, one of his Xacobeo-Galicia teammates, David Garcia, also tested positive for the same substance at the same race. The Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) rewarded Mosquera’s cheating with a two year ban ON TOP of the 14 months he’s already been off the bike. The rider has said he’ll retire. Don’t do us any favors Ezequiel.
Cyclist of the year—All new cyclists. They may be annoyances right now. They might reduce our cool, bad-boy cred. They may do stupid things in the road, at lights, on the trail, etc. But they’re making the world a better place for us. Growing the sport makes the roads safer, will eventually make the public more sympathetic, and some day, some of them will be giving us their draft as they pummel us in their wake. Cycling is growing so much that some places, like New York City, are experiencing a backlash. I think the backlash will be shortlived. We’re going to win and all new cyclists are helping.
The “Why Would Anyone Need X” award:
This year saw a number of new technical innovations: some good, some bad, but all the victim of some variant of the pace-line putdown “Why would anyone need <insert component here>”. The list of what would surely be past winners is long and filled with the things we take for granted today, and would surely include clipless pedals (“Too dangerous in a crash!”), index shifting (“I don’t need click-shifting to find my gear!”), Di2 (“If I wanted to play video games, I’d just stay home and play Nintendo!”) and 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and yes, 12 speed rear clusters (“Why would anyone need more than 5/6/7/8/9/10/11 speeds?”).
2011′s award, based on the seemingly never discussions on the topic, goes to disc brakes in cyclocross. With a battle cry of “if they were good enough for De Vlaeminck*, they’re good enough to me”, the canti-devoted dismissed the disc as unnecessary – too heavy, too powerful, not hydraulic, and just plain pointless. It’s true that the disc options when using brifters are incomplete; quality cable actuated brakes like those from Avid aren’t quite as effortless as hydraulics, and the mechanical/hydraulic adapters look like a mechanical in the making. That said, any mountain biker will tell you there’s no denying the performance of discs in the muck. Wet or dry, discs just work. It’ll take a few years for vendors to come up with ideal, rather than adapted solutions to discs in cyclocross. But when they do, I suspect the naysayers will see their benefits and at the very least, wish they were on discs too. Hey, give me hydraulic brifters, and I just might be willing to move off this 9 speed setup – because really, more than 9 speeds is silly, but disc brakes are awesome.
The shut-up and ride award—By now, we’ve all seen the video of Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland getting whacked by the errant media car in Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France. Both men suffered injuries that would have sent most of us crawling into an ambulance or at least the broom wagon. What was impressive, though, is that both of them got up, finished the stage and then made it all the way to Paris nearly two weeks later. It’s a story worth bringing up next time one of your non-cycling friends tries to tell you that American football players are the toughest athletes on the planet.
The great French hope—It was fun to watch Thomas Voeckler reprise his 2004 role as the beloved – but doomed – defender of the yellow jersey. (Voeckler actually earned the jersey as part of the aforementioned break from which Hoogerland and Flecha were taken out.) Voeckler is now 32 and his years may be numbered. It was inspiring to see the entire Europcar squad rise to the occasion and protect the jersey for 10 stages … all the way up to stage 19 when another member of the team earned the spotlight and maybe even signaled the start of what would be a welcomed renaissance in French cycling. Pierre Rolland showed more than a flash of brilliance on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, out-classing Samuel Sánchez and Alberto Contador atop that storied climb. Not only did he win the stage, he grabbed the best young rider’s white jersey for good and finished the Tour in 11th on GC. Like another promising young rider in the season’s final grand tour, you have to wonder what this guy could have accomplished had he not been saddled with domestique duties for most of the race.
Maybe, just maybe, we will see an end to the French drought at the Tour, a race the hosts haven’t won since 1985.
Out of Africa―Having grown up in in Kenya and South Africa, Chris Froome showed he was more than able to meet the challenges of the European peloton in this year’s Vuelta a España. Froome finished second in the Vuelta and one can only imagine how the 26-year-old Team Sky rider would have fared had he not been obligated to ride in support of Bradley Wiggins at critical moments in that grand tour. As is the case with Rolland, I’m looking forward to seeing Froome ride without other obligations holding him back.
The No-Man-Is-an-Island Award―This last one is purely personal. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’ve hit a few rough spots over the past few months. Had you told me in January that things would have taken the turn they did in July, I would have predicted that I would just curl up in a ball and stay in bed. The darn thing, though, is that there are folks out there who just wouldn’t let that happen. Anything that I’ve accomplished or anything positive that has happened to me over the past months is purely due to the fact that people have been generous and spectacular. I have to extend my thanks to a host of people, including the gang over at NYVeloCity.com, their readers, the folks who follow me at LiveUpdateGuy.com, countless friends and family and, of course, those responsible for my new home here at Red Kite Prayer. I can’t even begin to count the ways that I have reason to be thankful. All of you gave real meaning to the words “cycling community.”
Most Disappointingly Successful Stage Race-Winning Strategy—Thanks to victories by Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, and Juan José Cobo in this season’s grand tours, it was easy to overlook a rather unexciting “trend” in the art of winning stage races. Of the eleven non-grand tour stage races on the 2011 World Tour, eight had at least one time trial. Of those eight, seven were won by men who took either only the time trial or no stage wins at all, a race-winning strategy calling to mind Miguel Indurain.
Take Bradley Wiggins for example. The Brit from Team Sky won the Criterium du Dauphiné—without winning a single stage. The same can be said of RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer at the Tour de Suisse. Both riders used top rides in individual time trials as the foundations of their victories then simply hung-on for dear life in the mountains. Of course, both victories were well deserved—after all, consistency goes a long way—but race fans can’t be blamed for wanting to see a bit more aggression from their champions. At least Germany’s Tony Martin actually won stages (both time trials, though) at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Beijing for HTC-HighRoad on his way to taking both overall victories.
What does it all mean? Not much, perhaps. But it could inspire more time trialists to find some climbing legs for a week every now and again. Or maybe a few of the sport’s aggressive riders might find themselves spending some time in the wind tunnel or behind a motor scooter, doing their best to defeat the sport’s Martin’s, Wiggo’s, and Leipheimer’s at their own game.
Then again, this is professional cycling—there are no style points. Victories bring contracts and unless your name is Thomas Voeckler, no one cares about how much excitement you generate in losing. We need to give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
The forecast for my favorite event of the year and the event I’ll go to the mat arguing is the best day of cycling in all of the Americas was for wet. Fog, mist, possible rain, it wasn’t a day to have a camera on your shoulder. Ugh.
In the previous editions (both of them), Levi spoke to the crowd from the announcer’s dais, which is to say that unless you were within 20 feet of him, you couldn’t see him. This year he stood up on top of a Sprinter van and the excitement the crowd drew from actually seeing him was palpable.
And then we were off. And by “we” I mean an incredible 7500 cyclists. It’s the biggest one-day event I’ve ever taken part in. The start was a bit sketchy, with everyone within 100 meters of me attempting to make sure they stayed in the front 20 riders.
The first climb of the day comes roughly 12 miles into the ride and while the pace has been animated up to this point, it hasn’t been fast enough to burn off anyone with reasonable fitness. However, by the time we begin the second kilometer of that climb, the real sort is underway. So goes the story of the day. Each successive climb continues the sort.
A friend commented to me at the finish, as we were consuming an ambitious post-ride meal, the unexpected pleasure of being on a ride with 7499 other people and yet finding himself utterly alone at times. The opportunity for seclusion and quiet moments alone is arguably one of the ride’s surprise gifts.
This year, for the first time ever, I actually looked down at my Garmin unit on a couple of occasions to check the gradient of some of the pitches on King Ridge. I’d heard that there were sections at 20 percent previously. I filed the data under unnecessary. As it turns out, on two entirely different pitches I saw the numbers 24 and 25. It was less informative than a pick-me-up for my self-esteem. I was moving pretty slow.
The weather on King Ridge started overcast and damp, gradually turned foggy and then near the top mist flirted with drizzle. It made some of the descents a puckery affair. There was a reward, though, for the truly fall weather. On the descent to Jenner we dropped out of the fog with just enough elevation remaining to give a view of the coast that was as sudden in its appearance as it was spectacular in expression. I’d compare it to walking into a friend’s living room only to behold Botticelli’s Venus.
I’ve done rides with a tenth of the ridership that were goat parades. I’ve never done a ride that was better organized. Sure, there was plentiful food and signage. Thank heaven all the intersections were controlled (well, we were stopped at one and at another the CHP officer was sitting in his cruiser while traffic approached), but it may be that what really defines a gran fondo in the U.S. (it’s a different beast in Italy—I accept that) isn’t the mass start or the controlled intersections.
What makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so special is that it’s an expression of place. Santa Rosa is Levi’s adopted home and they have adopted him as much as he has them. So you’ve got an adored and bona fide cycling celebrity, which is a good start. But that’s not enough. The secret really comes down to the way Carlos Perez, Greg Fisher and Yuri Hauswald—the guys behind Bike Monkey have enlisted the support of not just Santa Rosa, but Sebastopol and Jenner and Bodega Bay and more. At a certain level, the fact that the ride happens says something for the love the community has for the way the guys at Bike Monkey have created a cycling culture outsized to the community they serve, which is why the gran fondo can draw people from all over the world.
I can tell you this: If I ever miss this event, check the hospitals.
It was just more than a week ago most Tour observers, which is to say all but the 198 riders in the event, were wringing their hands in the anticipated ennui brought on by Alberto Contador’s virtually assured dominance of said Tour. To call our projection of the future a state of anxiety is to confuse being eaten by a Great White Shark with stubbing your toe.
The tiny Spaniard, we assumed, was going to trounce everyone and everything like the school bully. It was an image fraught with contradiction.
But it’s an interesting world full of unexpected turns. Alberto Contador currently sits in 39th place on the GC, an incredible 1:42 down on Thor Hushovd, but more importantly, 1:41 down on Cadel Evans, a rider who, at the age of 34, is statistically certain not to win the Tour de France. Let me phrase that a bit differently: Since the end of World War II, no rider has won their first Tour de France at such an, ahem, advanced age.
But statistics aren’t a record of what’s possible, just what’s happened so far.
How we imagine the world going forward, what we think can happen, can be born in the tiniest of moments. It was in the stage 4 sprint that I saw the possibility that Alberto Contador might not already have the 2011 Tour de France in the bag. Allow me to explain.
The Tour’s history includes plenty of examples of riders who lost time early in the race only to recoup it all and then some with a couple of days in the mountains. Even Greg LeMond pulled back 10 freakin’ minutes on a guy who had more EPO in his blood than plasma. I wasn’t concerned when Contador lost 1:20 on the opening stage. Come on? To Philippe Gilbert? Gilbert is likely to go down as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—one-day riders of his generation. But Grand Tour winner? I’ve covered this.
What was certainly more interesting was the fact that he’d given up 1:17 to Cadel Evans, and 1:14 to both Andy and Frank Schleck, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner. That Contador has risen to 39th from 82nd says less about his riding (after all, he has lost time while rising on GC) and more about how the field gradually implodes over time.
It was in stage 4, in watching the reactions of Contador and Evans as they hit the line that I began to wonder if this year might truly be different. The details were small, but changes are often found in a single grain of sand. First was the fact that Contador was surprised when he didn’t ride everyone off his wheel. Second, he waited a long time, too long as it turns out, to take a second run at the sprint. Third, he sprinted with his hands on the hoods, a position from which you really can’t generate the most powerful sprint. Finally, he permitted himself a slight celebratory salute for a win he hadn’t actually earned. It’s that last that sticks with me.
Did he, like the rest of us, assume that the 2011 Tour de France was a mere formality? I liken it to sitting down for escrow on a new home. All the negotiations are complete. The documents are drawn. By the time you sit down, all you’re going to do is sign your name again and again.
Ideally, if I’m going to see last year’s Tour de France champion beaten, I’d like to see him defeated on his home court—the mountains—rather than in an accumulation of rotten luck early in the race. The events of these days may remind us of a certain performance last year than finished with an ignominious departure for a former giant. The parallels here are juicy, but the fruit not yet ripe to pick.
Ladies and gentlemen, this thing is wide open.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’ve got friends who crash so often it’s a casual occurrence to them. Two of them in particular seem so okay with it that the lost skin, destroyed bikes and even loss of control don’t seem bother them. Somehow, they make it seem routine.
To be able to take skin loss and broken bones in stride is an obviously requisite part of PRO. I was never able to relax in the face of carnage. I always flinched at the sound of scraping metal as if I’d been goosed. It was a big factor in my decision to stop racing.
A few years ago, during the Tour of California, Levi Leipheimer crashed with Tom Boonen right next to him. Leipheimer disappeared from view and Boonen never flinched. He didn’t turn his head, look down, even shudder. The event didn’t even seem to register with him.
I asked him about it the next day. He told me, “It’s natural; it’s something you’ve got. It’s the same in the sprint, and I think a lot of the riders have that kind of concentration…. The moment you panic is the moment you crash.”
He confirmed for me what I’d known for a few years; I never had the PRO’s sense for pack riding. I didn’t panic, but I definitely flinched.
Illnesses achieve routine status long before we ever get on the bike and because they come on so gradually only the worst, most surprising news can shock us.
But I got one such shock this morning. My wife woke me at 1:00 because our little team captain was throwing up with the force of a fire hose. We got him calmed down, cleaned up, the bed changed and him back to sleep. I followed suit.
Just before I was to get up for my group ride my wife woke me again to tell me how she had been throwing up ever since we got the Little Guy back to sleep (that’s what, five hours?) and needed my help. Only three questions were necessary to conclude that they had eaten tainted grapes. The three of us were in the car on the way to the ER before the city woke.
Years ago I was in a race infamous for its 180-degree turn 150 meters from the finish. I’d done the race a few times and had yet to do well, or even enjoy it. After cresting a small rise we accelerated on the down toward the turn and a rider weighing a good 30 lbs. more than me bumped me hard. To keep my tensed body from pinballing back and forth between him and a friend to my right, I reached out my right hand and put it on the small of my buddy’s back to steady myself.
Of course, just as I put my hand on his back the peloton began braking for the turn. I was certain I was about to wear multiple chainrings in my back like some sci-fi cross between a human and a dinosaur. Visions of broken frames, bars and wheels danced around my head like so many cartoon birds.
I did the only thing I could; I pushed away from his back, careful not to push him to the right at all. It slowed me just enough I could take my hand off his back and get it back into the drop even while the rest of the pack was braking hard. By the time I exited the turn I was so relieved not to have crashed I didn’t even care that I was too poorly placed to contest the sprint.
The ER visit was a race of a different sort—one that lasted 10 hours—and I can assure you, this time I didn’t flinch. The surprise came when I realized I hadn’t felt quite that brand of relief since that nearly ill-fated race; that is, not until both my wife and son were belted in and I placed the car in drive to head home.
The gran fondo concept is in its infancy here in the United States. Most cyclists I speak with aren’t really sure what the difference is between a century and a gran fondo. Some are downright sarcastic about any ride called a gran fondo, believing the organizer is just attaching a trendy name to what would be a century to regular folk.
It’s a misperception I spend a lot of time trying to correct.
The challenge in this is that most gran fondo organizers are essentially flying blind. Let’s face it: Most American cyclists have never ridden a proper gran fondo (or cyclosportif as many of the French and Belgian events are called). Our ability to emulate something we’ve never seen is fraught with diabolical challenges.
Most gran fondos I’ve run across are organizing their inaugural edition and as a result, there is some variance in the experience riders are presented. For some events, there seems to be the idea that if you put on a big show at the start and finish, you’ve covered most of your bases.
So I was curious to see just how the first SLO Gran Fondo would turn out. The start of the event was held in downtown San Luis Obispo, essentially at the old Spanish Mission. Staging was a little loose, with riders approaching the start line from three different directions, perhaps in part because only 600 riders were registered.
With significant support coming from High Road Sports, the ride did have the VIPs in attendance. It was obvious that the riders enjoyed having the likes of Tejay Vangarderen, Danny Pate, Amber Neben and even High Road Sports’ CEO, Bob Stapleton on the ride.
However, to the organizers’ credit, rolling out of town was silk-smooth. The San Luis Obispo police department controlled each of the intersections for riders as the mass of riders began to sort itself out. All this was conducted in fairly misty conditions with the promise of a very cloudy day ahead and a 30 percent chance of rain before the end of the ride.
Robert is better known for his monster Zinfandels
It was on the farm roads between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay that the first selections began to be made. I was riding with a friend and we had to work our way through a fair amount of traffic before reaching the lead group of 100 or so riders.
That didn’t last long though as a split in the group placed us in group two and the leaders heading up the road. It wasn’t a bad outcome, though. Our group was working well together and comprised of riders with plenty of skill. Unfortunately, even that didn’t last as I flatted just before we reached Morro Bay. A quick tube change still didn’t prevent group three, then group four, group five and group six from passing us.
We spent the next eight miles working our way from one group to another, and meeting a few RKP readers along the way. The only significant climb began about mile 22 and lasted 10 miles, though with two short downhills to break it up. Despite the lack of sustained climbs, the frequently rolling terrain made for a course with 3675 feet of climbing, according to Map My Ride. Other estimates placed that number rather higher.
Compared to some of the other events I’ve done, the SLO Gran Fondo had a number of intersections, so making sure as many intersections were controlled as possible required a great deal of manpower. Cambria, toward the northern end of the course was the one location where traffic was not controlled for us in any way. Fortunately the lights were brief and slower riders didn’t immediately head for the front of the group.
Following the descent into Cambria at mile 45, the ride was essentially finished with climbing; there were but five hills the rest of the ride and only one of those merited a Cat. 5 designation according to Map My Ride. However, that isn’t to say the ride became uninteresting. Coastal California is always pretty and, inexplicably, the sun burned away the clouds and the rain was banished to some less fortunate locale.
For those who, like me, prefer to stick to wrapper foods like Clif Bars and Gus when on long rides, the SLO Gran Fondo was a bit of an adjustment. The food was all standard century fare: orange slices, cookies and such. The lunch stop was equipped with Subway party platter sandwiches. I can’t tell you the last time I ate a turkey sandwich mid-way through a ride.
It was on the rolling roads back to the finish where I most enjoyed myself. My friend Robert was riding his first century ever and it was terrific fun to be a part of his experience. We infiltrated a group dominated by Art’s SLO Cyclery team riders and their smooth rotation gave Robert the opportunity to dig deep with some long pulls and still get the chance to recover. There’s a great sense of satisfaction to being part of a paceline made up of riders you really don’t know rotating easily and maintaining a pace you simply couldn’t manage on your own.
The finish line was in the walking plaza of the mission, so any sort of sprint was out of the question; the run-in was downhill and you had to brake before the turn, so that aspect was a touch anticlimactic.
The post-ride lasagna and Caesar salad (and homemade cookies) were all terrific. A number of local businesses set up 10×10 tents for an afternoon expo that gave riders some reason to stick around.
As first-year events go, this one was quite well done. Why more riders didn’t attend is hard to guess, though the promise of HTC-Columbia team members (um, which ones?) might not be quite the draw of, say, Levi Leipheimer or Paolo Bettini; point being, Tejay Vangarderen is certainly a rising star of US cycling, but no one knew he’d be there for sure.
The more important opportunities for improvement would be in staging (make that a little clearer and better organized), food (bring on wrapper foods, at the very least Clif Bars or something along those lines), controlled intersections (make sure all of them are controlled and make sure that all of the police controlling the intersections really understand just what that means) and the finish line (give folks something they can really sprint to).
San Luis Obispo is such a cool a city there’s no reason this event shouldn’t become the focal point of a destination weekend. With excellent riding, dining and wining (not to mentions spas and the like), it’s an ideal opportunity at an ideal location for a getaway.
When I think back on the peak experiences in my life as a cyclist, those days where I was never more pleased to be a cyclist, I survey some pretty fine days.
There was the day in 1997 when, as part of the Washington D.C. AIDS Ride, I rode onto the National Mall and cheered other cyclists as we stood before the Washington Monument. Riding into Washington, I slowed down as we crossed the Potomac River just so I could take in the view of the Lincoln Memorial, and as we rode onto the National Mall I couldn’t help but thinking that you couldn’t find a more perfect spot on which to end a bike ride that sought to reach out to others, the perfect ending to a great act of charity. I still get chills thinking about that day.
There was the first time I did the Tour of the California Alps, better known as the Markleeville Death Ride, and with the ride two-thirds completed, I passed through the single-equine burg of Markleeville and seemingly the entire town was seated on the lawn of the post office cheering us on as if we were participants in the Tour de France. For a few seconds, I felt cool.
There was the final day of the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Championships way back in 1992 and I took a flyer in the criterium with two laps to go. People screamed the way they do at sporting events—like it mattered—and the incredible thing was they were caring about whether or not I stayed away. I didn’t, but that ride up the start/finish gutter was better than any medal I might have taken home.
And then there was this past Saturday. As I’m a guy prone to bold statements, I’ll save you all the trouble of wondering just what I’m playing at with the title of this post. I do declare that Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo is the best cycling event in the United States of America.
I know you’re going to want me to back up that claim. I’m happy to. That’s the whole point of this post: To tell you what an amazing time it was. Let’s try some of this in broad-stroke bullet-point style:
1) From what I could tell, the ant colony of volunteers seamlessly registered more than 6000 participants. WTF?
2) The goody bags were cool musette bags emblazoned with the gran fondo’s logo and included truly useful stuff such as samples of DZ Nuts chamois cream and a CamelBak water bottle (as opposed to some low-fi bottle with a leaky top and syringe-like nipple.
3) Start festivities included interviews with Levi Leipheimer and Patrick “Doctor McDreamy” Dempsey of Grey’s Anatomy.
4) Michael Ward of Wallflowers and “Mike and the Bike” fame gave the crowd a Jimi Hendrix-style National Anthem sendoff.
5) VIPs included recently crowned U.S. road race champion Ben King and U23 Time Trial World Champion Taylor Phinney.
6) All but one intersection was controlled by local police for quick passage.
7) The course was pretty enough to be arguably the prettiest you’ll do in the U.S.
8) The course was challenging enough to be a major achievement for most riders who undertook it.
9) The post-ride festivities included great food and plenty of it. The paealla was good enough last year that it was a point of conversation prior to this year’s ride.
10) Rolling back into town, people lined the streets as they had done for the whole ride but cheered with the ferocity reserved for stage finishes of the Tour de France.
I wrote about how great the course was last year. The course remains unchanged. The rollout is flat enough to give you a chance to warm up and the first hill just enough work to sort the group appropriately. While most of the climbs aren’t terribly long, many of them contain some pretty steep pitches, stiff enough to reduce some riders to walking.
More significant, perhaps, were two of the descents, the first following the lunch stop and the second down to Jenner, on the coast. Both contained pitches in the neighborhood of 18 percent. They are not only steep, but rather technical as well. Depending on your view, they offer a thrilling challenge or a terrifying interlude. While I wasn’t willing to let the bike run, I did enjoy them in a job-performance-review way.
For me, the ride offered a bonus; I saw a great many industry friends. From industry legend Tom Ritchey to former Mountain Bike and Bicycle Guide editor Mark Reidy to Capo Forma boss Gary Vasconi, and even Greg Shapleigh and Eric Richter of Easton/Bell Sports, I was pleased to see such a great turnout from the industry. Frequently, events such as these happen and you won’t see a soul from the bike industry. I met BMC team manager Gavin Chilcott, who is both a local and a one-time very fast guy.
This year, the start/finish was moved from the parking lot of the Finley Center to the road in front of it, which made the start a little smoother, but more importantly made an actual sprint to the finish possible, which is to say that even though I doubted I’d sprint to the finish, I found myself doing exactly that even as I tried to capture an image or two of my group winding it up. Events might not have played out that way had it not been for the fact that within the last 20 miles I found myself in a group with Fred Rodriguez and then, closer to town, we were joined by Levi Leipheimer’s group, with also included Ben King.
I saw Leipheimer and Rodriguez at two of the rest stops and neither refused a single picture or autograph. That they are famous and I’m not gave me a significant edge in logging (easier) miles, though the last few miles were actual work and the sprint was something of a shock. People lined the finish stretch and cheered our arrival as if we were all as famous as Levi.
So Alberto Contador won the Tour de France by a margin slimmer than many said was possible, a margin equal to what he clawed out with the aid of Dennis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez on stage 15. We can argue about all the places each rider gained or lost time, but really, the race comes down to two fateful events: Schleck’s mis-shift on 15 and his later 39-second gap in the final time trial. The symmetry of the two events is more difficult to ignore than the economy.
And just to be ultra-clear about this, yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.
I should also point out that even though he twice went for stage wins for himself, Alexander Vinokourov proved to be both valuable and loyal to Contador in the mountain stages. Vinokourov sat on Schleck on stage 15 and never rode for himself by taking a pull at the front of the group. He’ll always be an unpredictable element in my mind, but he demonstrated his value to the Astana team repeatedly. He deserves to be recognized.
But individual performances aside, if we back up and look at the 2010 Tour de France as an elaborate chess game involving 22 players, some interesting questions emerge.
First, what the hell has Johan Bruyneel been thinking? He fielded the most experienced team in the Tour de France, sure, but it was also the oldest team by an Egyptian pharaoh. The most youthful element of the team was the management company’s formation documents. Even if we accept the possibility that the fight went out of Armstrong following his daily crashes so that by the time the time trial came around, he really wasn’t trying—which is why we didn’t see the form necessary to win the race overall anywhere in the same time zone as him—we should still ask the question: Why did no one else other than Chris Horner ride like his career was at stake?
Speaking of recognition, let’s hope that Horner feels some satisfaction and vindication at his stellar ride. It’s one of the best performances by a rider over the age of 35 ever at the Tour, and is his single best performance there. It was his misfortune to sign for a French team when he first went to Europe and his worse fortune to have his career coincide with Armstrong’s. Had he hit Europe five years earlier than he did, he could have led Motorola in its quest to do something significant in a Grand Tour. Or not. There have long been reports that Jim Ochowicz (director of Motorola and now one of the powers that be at BMC) had issues with the formerly feisty San Diegan.
Back to Bruyneel. His reputation as a kingmaker able to deliver a worthy rider to a Grand Tour victory has suffered its first setback. Even with the triple-barrel shotgun of Armstrong, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer he was unable to deliver any one of them to the top 10. Horner’s performance was the sort of showing that the French teams generally hope to luck into but can plan no better than a chimp considering retirement.
With that much talent and so little to show for it, the brass at The Shack might be understandably perturbed.
This time last year many of us were beginning to rethink what might be possible age-wise in a Grand Tour. Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.
And cast in the light of failure, Armstrong seems less ambitious, less hungry, less focused on highlighting the cause of cancer than just gluttonous, a corpulent ego.
But that’s how we play it isn’t it? When our heroes fall, we pounce.
But even if the Radio Shack board is less than thrilled, imagine what’s going on in the boardroom at Sky. Isn’t the question there whose head rolls first?
Seemingly a world away, Bjarne Riis has proven that he knows how to bring the race to anyone he wants. He’s delivered Tyler Hamilton, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck all to podium finishes at Grand Tours, though his record of wins (just two) is rather slim despite the obvious strength of his team.
Yvon Sanquer, a name you may not be very familiar with even after his team’s success, is the director of Team Astana and has kept a profile nearly as high as that of newly mown grass. His previous best result as a team director was after being brought in to rescue Team Festina (not unlike what he was asked to do with Astana) and his riders (mostly Marcel Wüst) were able to take a stage of the Tour de France along with four stages of the Vuelta plus some stages at lesser stage races. Before 2010, his riders’ closest association to the winner of a Grand Tour was if they had chatted with him.
And yet, somehow Sanquer brought together what seemed to be an underpowered team and saw to it that Contador was rarely without help in the mountains.
Despite the Astana team performing as if it were still run by Johan Bruyneel—admit it, it was an impressive performance that very few thought could truly deliver the goods as a cohesive unit this past January—I am surprised by the number of people I hear from who just plain don’t like Alberto Contador. To the degree that maybe many cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about him, it seems that even if his counter attack on stage 15 didn’t rile people, the fact that he lied about not knowing what was going on with Andy Schleck seems to have sent some fans around the bend. I’ve not been a fan of some of his tactics, and have thought some of his interviews with the Spanish media were whiny and meant to play the pity card, which strikes me as unseemly—like the Super Bowl winning team sniffling about playing hurt, but it struck me as insulting to fans everywhere for him to claim he couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with Schleck.
Which brings me to Jonathan Vaughters. Of the teams bidding for Contador’s services last year, Vaughters’ Garmin-Transitions formation was one of the teams in the running to sign the diminutive Spaniard. There are reports that after all of his efforts to leave Astana he is now considering a new contract and staying.
Contador would do well to leave, so long as he left for Vaughters. Of the many team directors at the Tour de France, Vaughters is the one that seems to have an uncanny ability to help riders achieve greatness in the GC that he never could reach on his own. In three years of competing in the Tour de France Vaughters has delivered three different riders to top-10 finishes, first with Christian Vande Velde’s fourth place, then Bradley Wiggins fourth and now Ryder Hesjedal’s seventh place. In each case the riders were uniformly believed to be talented, but no one—other than Vaughters—considered them real GC vehicles on which to pin a team’s hopes.
Sanquer’s success with Contador suggests competence, nothing more. After all, if you can’t guide a previous Tour de France winning to yet another victory, what kind of team director are you?
Bjarne Riis has consistently put together one of the strongest, most cohesive teams on the planet. That he hasn’t won more may be a question of formula more than anything else. The question seems to be, ‘Why didn’t he win?’ rather than, ‘What’s it going to take to secure another win?’
Bruyneel is the great curiosity this year. He’s ripe for criticism. How should he deflect the charge that he went with Armstrong less for career than paycheck? If he didn’t go to Radio Shack for the paycheck, then why? It’s hard for Bruyneel to charge that Vinokourov is a more tarnished rider than some he has worked with. Contador clearly has a greater future than Armstrong does. Maybe the question is just how loyal a guy is Bruyneel. Some folks are loyal to a fault. Could it be so with him?
Even if he didn’t go to Radio Shack just for a bigger paycheck that is virtually guaranteed not to dry up mid-way through the season, where does he rank his ambitions as a director? Twelve of the team’s 26 riders have had their 30th birthday. Six of them are older than 32. The only rider on the team who is showing talent and is early in his career is Janez Brajkovič. Taylor Phinney doesn’t count because he’s only a staigiaire.
How else do you wind up with that many riders in need of a retirement party than by selecting a crew that can be depended on being utterly devoted to Armstrong? Now, there’s nothing wrong with being committed to supporting your team leader, but it is fair to ask how smart it is to construct a team for a single year’s performance. Even if Leipheimer, Klöden, Horner and Rubiera plan to ride Grand Tours next year, how capable will any of them be? Horner is the only guy I’d bet on as a good support rider for the simple reason that he is obviously still proving his value and talent long after most guys have quit.
You want to make the 2011 Tour de France really interesting? Get Vaughters to sign Horner.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
On July 1, 2010, the 2010 Tour de France looked as if it would be one of the most competitive editions of the race in its history. Rarely has a Grand Tour had so much talent show up with winning in mind. It was as if the six best teams in the NFL took the field for the Superbowl.
This was a Tour whose closest parallel was perhaps the 1989 edition, where three former winners—Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond—took the start and were ultimately the race’s greatest protagonists. This year’s race also had three former winners toe the start line—Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Nearly as important is the fact it also had an amazing six former podium finishers—Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov—at the start, plus Denis Menchov, a three-time Grand Tour winner in his own right. It was to be The Great Showdown.
The point of a Grand Tour, of course, is to see who cracks, which riders fail under pressure, but even more importantly, which riders rise to the occasion and surprise themselves, their teams and the fans. With a field gushing talent and experience like an out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico, no one really thought there would be room for any insurgent talents, but the prospect that one of the former top-10s, such as Frank Schleck, Michael Rogers or Bradley Wiggins capturing a podium spot seemed less science fiction than the impossibility of sealing off that aforementioned well.
But here we are, nine stages into The Great Showdown and what do we have? A race of two. That is, the race will come down to Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck provided there are no race-ending crashes or other stunning tragedies that befall either rider. That said, the way this race is going, I am willing to accept the possibility that someone other than either of these two riders could win. This race has had that much bad luck.
Lance Armstrong’s good fortune seems at an end. I’ll say more on that in another post. Garmin-Transitions lost Christian Vande Velde in a crash and it’s odd to think he isn’t the only rider on that team nursing broken bones. Frank Schleck was rumored to be even stronger than brother Andy this year. And then there was Cadel Evans’ detonation. Even though this isn’t the first time he has choked under pressure, his eight-minute slide down the mountain and the standings must have caused a few jaws to hang open, mine among them.
Speaking of surprises, what of Team Astana? Last winter I wrote of the skeleton crew that had been hired just to give them enough riders to qualify for the ProTour. I was critical of the team and dinged the formation for not having the climbers necessary to defend Contador when he would most need it. Tonight’s meal will include a serving of my words.
What should we make of Alexander Vinokourov’s performance so far? The great fear was that he would go rogue and ride for himself and challenge Contador’s leadership. His performance, while good, has been erratic enough that I can’t say whether he has been riding for himself or not. There certainly have been times when his riding hasn’t seemed to be for the benefit of Contador, but then, in this race anything seems possible.
It is with the impossible in mind that arrive at Samuel Sanchez. Two podium finishes at the Vuelta are maybe on a par with a top-10 at the Tour de France, so almost no one seriously considered this guy to be a podium threat. Sure, he is the leader of Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is something like being a favorite if for no reason other than he is protected (in theory) by eight guys. But a real contender?
I’m beginning to think the battle for the last step of the podium is between Sanchez, Menchov, Gesink and Leipheimer. I think Van Den Broeck will crack, as will Basso, late in the Pyrenees. The fact that there is but one remaining time trial and it is at the end of the race will threaten a GC shuffle, and while we think the likely beneficiaries would be Contador, Menchov and Leipheimer, I refuse to bet. Anything seems possible right now.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International