Where I live it will be 95°F today, but looking to the weekend and next week the days and evenings, will be getting cooler. Already some of the leaves are starting to lose their chlorophyll, beginning to go yellow or red at the edges. The company I work for is preparing for 2013. There is brochure copy to write. The season is winding down. This might all be a beat or two early, but…
On the roads of Northern Spain, especially the steep ones, the Vuelta is at full tilt, the battle lines drawn, the GC shaking out slowly. It wasn’t long ago that many of us argued over whether Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) or Chris Froome (Team Sky) would win this race. Purito Rodriguez (Katusha) apparently isn’t a regular RKP reader. Otherwise, he might have clued us in to his intention to win his home Grand Tour.
If you have been following closely, you will know what surprises this race has offered up. You would have seen the likes of Froome clinging to wheels. You would have seen Contador attacking with his signature explosiveness but not able to close the deal. You would have seen Rodriguez ride the time trial of his life to keep the jersey on his shoulders.
Perhaps it is still early to cast judgement. The top 5, which includes Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), are all within 3 minutes of one another. How many lead changes and plot twists we have in front of us is almost impossible to tell.
But, the excitement of the Vuelta, and some recent comments about the Tour, got me thinking about just which of the Grand Tours I’ve enjoyed most this season. Ryder Hesjedal’s big Giro win was fun to watch and featured plenty of back and forth with Rodriguez as well as Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD). The Tour, by some estimations, disappointed, with Team Sky managing every last detail to perfection. Still, the Tour is the Tour, a tautology that means something to most race fans.
So, though it might be early, this week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: Which was the best Grand Tour this year? And why?
Even longtime cycling fans sometimes wonder what’s happening in bike races. Take this week’s opening road stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné. It looked like a fairly straightforward race day when a breakaway went clear from the start, but why did Orica-GreenEdge, the team of race leader Luke Durbridge, let the leaders create a 13-minute gap, forcing other teams to conduct the chase? And why couldn’t the sprinters’ teams close down the attacks in the finale before BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans snagged the stage win in precocious fashion?
The first question is easier to answer. Having the yellow jersey at races like the Dauphiné can be a mixed blessing. To win the flat prologue ahead of such a strong field was a coup for Australian rookie Durbridge, but he’s never going to be a top climber, so keeping the overall lead was not a high priority. Durbridge’s focus this season is trying for an Olympic time trial medal in London, so rather than defending a yellow jersey he’d be better off saving his energy for this Thursday’s long, 53.5-kilometer TT stage of the Dauphiné. And that’s what he did.
What was more interesting on Monday was that the chase behind the breakaways was initially taken up by Evans’s BMC men, not by the Sky team of prologue runner-up and defending Dauphiné champion Brad Wiggins. Evans himself went back to his team car to talk with his directeur sportif, John Lelangue, before getting teammates Michael Schär and Manuel Quinziato to push the pace at the head of the peloton.
In contrast, Wiggins, who’d take over the GC from Durbridge, was not eager to wear the yellow jersey and said at the post-stage press conference, “At one point [in my career] I would have been happy to wear the maillot jaune. Now, I can’t say that I’m upset, but I’d rather wear my Sky skinsuit for Thursday’s time trial, so I’d prefer to lose a few seconds between now and then.”
As a result, it was BMC that virtually closed down the breakaway, and then on a Cat. 3 climb in the last 12 kilometers, it was BMC’s Philippe Gilbert who joined one of several attacks before Evans counterattacked to join the key move after the summit. With the Aussie superstar were local French rider Jérôme Coppel of Saur-Sojasun and Kazakh veteran Andrey Kashechkin of Astana. “I knew that there could be some splits [on the climb],” Coppel said later, “and that once we were over the top of the hill the road didn’t go down right away.”
It was understandable that Coppel, in his “hometown” race, would ride as hard as he could with Evans, but it was surprising that the Kazakh also gave a few pulls to sustain the break over the final 5 kilometers. Five years after he was suspended for blood doping (shortly after the same verdict for his team leader Alexander Vinokourov), Kashechkin, 32, is trying to re-establish himself with team Astana; but, other than team-time-trial performances, he hadn’t taken a top-10 placing since his comeback to racing until his third place behind Evans and Coppel on Monday.
Maybe Kashechkin has hopes of replicating the third place overall he took at the 2007 Dauphiné, but at this year’s race he should be riding support for Astana teammate Jani Brajkovic, the 2010 Dauphiné champ, and not helping Evans gain what was a three-second gap at the end. As Lelangue told L’Équipe after the stage, “At the Dauphiné, every second is always good to take.”
Evans himself said he hadn’t planned on winning the stage, but “I enjoy being in these sort of moves.” His strong pulls and eventual dynamic uphill sprint were reminiscent of a certain Bernard Hinault, the five-time Tour de Franc winner who also took the Dauphiné three times. Evans has placed second four times at this prestigious French stage race, so maybe this is his year to win it for the first time before going on to shoot for a second Tour victory.
Among the BMC rider’s most serious opposition at the Tour will be the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team’s battery of stars. The team’s theoretical Tour team leader Andy Schleck is riding as he usually does at pre-Tour stage races, and he’ll likely test his climbing legs on one of the Dauphiné’s three mountain stages over the weekend; but signs from last week’s Tour of Luxembourg were very positive for the U.S.-sponsored squad.
On the decisive climbing stage on Saturday, only the sturdy Dutch climber Wout Poels of Vacansoleil could stay with The Shack attack by Fränk Schleck, Andreas Klöden and Jakob Fuglsang on the short but steep Col de l’Europe (1.5km averaging 7.6 percent), which they climbed three times at the end of the 206km stage.
In contrast to Evans’s unrehearsed breakaway at the Dauphiné, the Schleck-Klöden-Fuglsang demonstration was very much premeditated, and it is just the type of multi-pronged move that the team can be expected to engineer at the Tour next month, especially when you add into the equation RadioShack’s other climbers Chris Horner, Maxime Montfort and the younger Schleck, along with such explosive riders as Fabian Cancellara, Linus Gerdemann and Jens Voigt.
GIRO AND CALIFORNIA
While on the subject of why people make certain moves and others don’t, it’s worth taking a brief look back at last month’s Giro d’Italia and Amgen Tour of California. For example, why did 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego twice go out on long breakaways on the first two mountain stages, probably knowing that the moves wouldn’t be successful? Why did Horner, the defending Amgen champ, attack so far from the Mount Baldy finish on the decisive stage, leaving behind a breakaway group he had engineered with Voigt and two other teammates on the opening climb? And why did race favorites at both the Giro and the California tour wait so long before making aggressive moves—or simply waited and waited and never took risks?
Sometimes, the riders themselves can’t exactly explain their actions (or non-actions). They often act on instinct and even, at times, ignore the instructions given to them by their directeurs sportifs. But in the case of experienced riders such as Cunego, his Lampre-ISD sports director Robert Damiani and co-team leader Michele Scarponi, you can bet that the Italian rider’s actions were well thought out, even if they were impromptu.
On the first stage in the high mountains of the Giro, in cold and wet weather, Cunego reacted to a solo attack by the Venezuelan climber José Rujano, a few kilometers from the summit of the Col de Joux with about 90 minutes of racing still ahead before the mountaintop finish at Cervinia. Cunego had to work hard, sprinting out of the saddle on the long, steady climb just to get close to Rujano’s wheel—and when the Venezuelan slowed on the descent, Cunego plowed on alone before catching the day’s early break and eventually dropping back and being passed by the more conservative favorites.
Cunego made a similar move on the next day’s stage 15, again in cold, wet conditions, and both days he allowed teammate Scarponi to sit quietly in the small pack of leaders before making his own accelerations on each day’s summit finish. Scarponi didn’t win the Giro. but his efforts actually keyed the attacks by longtime leader Joaquim Rodriguez.
Because the toughest two mountain stages of the Giro came at the very end of the three weeks, everyone was hesitant to enter the red zone too early on any of the summit finishes. And even then, anyone who watched the riders finishing one by one, and in states of massive fatigue, on Alpe di Pampeago could see that this was a Giro fought to the very last breath. And the man with the most endurance, the strongest teammates and the best time trial was the man who deservedly won: Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda.
Over in California, the decision was always going to be made on Mount Baldy, the second-to-last day, because none of the stages before the stage 5 Bakersfield time trial were well-enough structured to avoid group sprints. By uncharacteristically conceding more than two minutes to the other main contenders (and placing a lowly 42nd in the time trial!), Horner ruled himself out of repeating his 2011 overall victory. Or so it seemed.
His jumping up to the first break on the Baldy stage and driving it with three RadioShack teammates was a gutsy and totally unexpected development that showed the true level of Horner’s ambitions. And when, after Voigt was cooked, Horner jumped clear of the break (with Colombian climber Jhon Atapuma on his wheel), he had a margin of more than three minutes on a desperately chasing field. And overall victory still seemed possible.
Ideally, the Californian would have had one more teammate. And in a perfect world, that man would have been Matt Busche, but last year’s Baldy hero was having a bad day and just surviving back in the peloton. So in the circumstances Horner had no choice but to make his solo attempt (Atapuma barely helped) with almost 40 kilometers (most of it uphill) still to go. It was an epic performance and augers well for Horner and his team to make the upcoming Tour de France one where tactics and teammates will be more important than ever before.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
With four riders jammed within 96 seconds of Joaquim Rodriguez’s maglia rosa, we’re about to witness one of the closet Giro finishes in recent years.
Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal is Rodriguez’s closest challenger. With two stages in the Dolomites and the final stage’s individual time trial in Milan, can the Canadian overcome the deficit to win his nation’s first grand tour?
And what about Liquigas-Cannondale’s Ivan Basso and Lampre’s Michele Scarponi? The Italians have won the last two editions (although Scarponi took his by virtue of Contador’s disqualification), but sit more than a minute behind Rodriguez. They might have the strongest teams in the race, but do they have the legs to gain back the time they lost to Rodriguez earlier in the three-week event?
No matter what happens, this weekend will likely bring the closest finish in recent memory.
So who’s your pick to take the win and how will he do it?
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
The 2012 Giro d’Italia begins this Saturday in Denmark—here are 6 questions on my mind heading into this year’s first grand tour.
1. Will Taylor Phinney be the first American since Christian Vande Velde to don the Giro’s maglia rosa?
Looking over the Giro’s start list, there appear to be few riders able to defeat American Taylor Phinney in the 8.7-kilometer individual time trial that opens the race Saturday. From there, two field sprints are likely to follow, then a travel day and a team time trial once the race returns to Italy on Wednesday. Phinney’s BMC sqaud holds no GC aspirations—it’s racing simply to win stages. With the young American, Norway’s Thor Hushovd (perhaps Phinney;s greatest competition Saturday), and a supporting cast that just won the TTT at the Giro del Trentino, look for BMC to make its mark early—perhaps with Phinney leading the charge.
2. Can Tyler Farrar find his field sprint speed?
Tyler Farrar spent the first part of the season training for the classics—now he turns his attention to the Giro, hoping to regain the sprint speed that won him his first stage in the Tour de France last July. Farrar won two stages in Italy in 2010, beating men like Matthew Goss, Andre Greipel, and Alessandro Petacchi to take what were then the biggest grand tour victories of his career. This year, Farrar faces Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish at the Giro, a rider also trying to ride his way back into shape after some time away from the bike. A win would certainly be a confidence boost for the American, who is still winless on the season following his cobbled focus.
3. Will Mark Cavendish prove that his lead-out train deserves a place in Team Sky’s roster for the Tour de France?
Bradley Wiggins has won Paris-Nice and the Tour of Romandie so far this season, making him one of the top picks to win this summer’s Tour de France. So it’s only natural that some have started to wonder how the aspirations of the defending green jersey champ (and 20-time stage winner) Cavendish and an in-form Wiggins can co-exist in a squad with room for only nine riders. Sprinting is a team venture, and Cavendish needs a strong performance in Italy to prove to Team Sky management that he deserves to have his full lead-out train (with men like Danny Pate and Bernard Eisel) on the Tour’s starting line in Liege.
4. Will Damiano Cunego thwart Scarponi’s attempt to win the Giro “for real”?
With two defending champions starting the race, Lampre’s official stance is that Scarponi is going for the overall while Cunego is hunting for stage wins and fitness for the Tour de France—a race in which he finished sixth last year. But while Scarponi has progressed steadily as a Giro GC contender (he finished fourth in 2010 and then was awarded the overall title after Alberto Contador’s retroactive suspension) one has to wonder how he and Cunego will co-exist should the 2004-Giro champion feel he has the legs to race for himself. Cunego could turn out to be Scarponi’s greatest ally—or his biggest rival.
5. Will Frank Schleck prove what many have suspected: that he’s more of a grand tour contender than his brother?
Until Andy Schleck won Stage 18 of the Tour de France on the Galibier, pundits were wondering if Leopard-Trek management had made a mistake in not asking the younger Schleck to defer to the elder during last year’s Tour de France. With Jakob Fuglsang’s last-minute withdrawal and the subsequent addition of Frank Schleck to the roster, we will get another chance to see what Frank can do in a grand tour without worrying about his brother. 2010 was the last time we saw Frank riding for himself over the course of a three-week race. But that was at the Vuelta a Espana—at the end of a long season in which Frank broke his collarbone at the Tour de France. While a bit underprepared, Schleck’s fresher heading into the Giro. He should get stronger as the race progresses.
6. Can Basso win his third Giro without the help of Vincenzo Nibali?
Ivan Basso won his second Giro d’Italia in 2010 with much help from third-place finisher Vincenzo Nibali. This year, the two riders have swapped places from last season, with Basso leading the team at the Giro and Nibali taking the reins at the Tour. In a 3-week stage race, two heads are often better than one—especially in the mountains. This season, it seems as if Basso has abandoned more races than he’s finished, but he says he’s ready after finishing key Giro preparation events in Trentino and Romandie. Can Basso prove that two heads are not always better than one?
What are your questions for the first grand tour of 2012?
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti