For most of the past century, the Olympic Games weren’t a big deal in the cycling world. Only amateur bike racers could compete and they regarded the Games as a small stepping-stone toward the professional ranks. That began to change at Atlanta in 1996. Pro racers took part for the first time and their superior level of fitness was demonstrated by four Frenchmen, who’d just finished the Tour de France, getting together to win the track team pursuit. And the pros, led by Swiss champ Pascal Richard, swept all the medals in the men’s road race.
Since then, the prestige of winning Olympic gold medals in cycling was raised progressively by high-profile road race winners Jan Ullrich (Sydney 2000), Paolo Bettini (Athens 2004) and Samuel Sanchez (Beijing 2008). Our sport’s high profile has become personified by two multi-Olympic champions, British sprinter Sir Chris Hoy and French mountain biker Julien Absalon, who are household names in their respective countries.
Even the road time trial, started in 1996, has grown in stature thanks to its defending champion Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss superstar has again targeted the Olympic TT as a major goal, the same as Germany’s world TT champion Tony Martin. And their likely challengers include multi-time world pursuit champs Brad Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, now that their favored track discipline has been eliminated from the Olympic program.
A mark of the status held by cycling with the International Olympic Committee is the fact that the whole Games’ event schedule, for the third time, is being kicked off with the elite men’s road race. After the Athens circuit around the Parthenon, and the Beijing course to the Great Wall of China, London will see a start-finish outside the Queen’s Buckingham Palace with a route south to the Surrey Hills and nine laps of a scenic loop over and around Box Hill.
The race will not only showcase many of London’s most historic and beautiful sites, but also feature the very best classics riders in pro cycling. So, even though many of them are building up to what promises to be a fascinating Tour de France, they are looking beyond racing for yellow jerseys in Paris to shooting for gold in London. And the media hype has stepped up considerably since national federations announced their long teams for all the Olympic cycling events last week.
The focus to date has been on Britain’s home team of medal contenders, headed by world champ Mark Cavendish for the road race and Wiggins for the time trial. The two Team Sky leaders, like their team manager Dave Brailsford, believe that the road to Olympic gold is via the Tour—as do potential medal contenders such as Australia’s Matt Goss, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert, Germany’s André Greipel, Norway’s Eddy Boasson Hagen, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, Spain’s Sanchez, Switzerland’s Cancellara and Tyler Farrar of the United States. Those not risking the Tour’s potential perils to focus totally on July 28’s Olympic road race include sprinters Tom Boonen of Belgium, Daniele Bennati of Italy and Thor Hushovd of Norway.
Selecting teams for London has been tricky because the strongest nations can field only five riders, as opposed to eight for regular one-day classics; and one of each country’s selection also has to start the time trial four days’ later. Ideally, a team will have a leader who can sprint well at the end of the tough 250-kilometer road race, along with support riders who can chase down breaks that will inevitably form on the many narrow, twisty back roads that precede and follow the nine laps of the hilly 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the London course.
For the United States, much has been made of the fact that veterans George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie separately contacted USA Cycling this summer, saying they did not want to be considered for the Olympic road team. But with Farrar already the designated leader since he became the first American sprinter to win a Tour stage last year, and with all four of the veterans being stage-race specialists, there was no compelling reason to select them. For instance, Hincapie hasn’t raced the worlds for the past four years (and he was only 39th in the Beijing Olympics), Leipheimer hasn’t started a worlds road race for eight years, and Vande Velde and Zabriskie last rode the worlds in 2010 (placing 79th and DNF respectively).
It has been speculated that the four riders recused themselves because they may be witnesses in the USADA-alleged doping conspiracy at the U.S. Postal Service team during Lance Armstrong’s Tour-winning years. But neither Leipheimer nor Zabriskie raced for Postal at those Tours. And though Leipheimer did race with Armstrong at the 2009 and 2010 Tours (on the Astana and RadioShack teams), which USADA alleges were also “suspicious” years, among his teammates was Chris Horner, who has been selected for the London Olympics.
In any case, Horner’s credentials for the 2012 Olympic team are far stronger than those of the four other veterans. Horner is one of the few Americans to have placed top 10 at one-day races as diverse as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy and the worlds’ road race, and he will be an invaluable aid to Farrar and the three younger members of the London Olympics squad: Tim Duggan, Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen.
As for these three, Duggan has proven himself this year as a powerful domestique for the Liquigas-Cannondale team (and he also happened to win the recent U.S. national road title!); Phinney was an excellent 17th in his first Paris-Roubaix in April (Hincapie finished 43rd); and Van Garderen will be helping his BMC Racing team leader Cadel Evans defend his Tour title next month, and he has finished the toughest Ardennes classics in each of the past two years.
Van Garderen can also be a strong back-up rider for the time trial should Phinney get injured or sick, while Phinney’s winning time trial at last month’s Giro d’Italia (besides his past world track titles) made him as good if not better candidate for the Olympic TT than the veteran Zabriskie. So the U.S. national team for London is solid in every respect, whatever may be speculated in the media. It will be fascinating to see how they perform at London in what has become one of cycling’s most sought-after prizes.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
So far we’ve covered Men of the Hour and Up-and-Comers as part of our 2012 Season Preview; now it’s time for a list of the riders and teams who find themselves “on the hot seat” heading into the 2012 season.
Andy Schleck—It’s rarely a good thing when you’re being compared to Joop Zoetemelk. But that’s just the awkward place in which Radio Shack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck finds himself heading into the 2012 season. Schleck has now finished as runner-up at the Tour de France four times*. The good news: Contador’s not racing and Schleck will find himself leading a stronger squad with nine-time Tour de France winning DS Johan Bruyneel driving the team car. The bad news: he’s running out of excuses. And with a 2012 Tour route that emphasizes time trialing over climbing, Schleck could soon find himself one race away from equaling Zoetemelk’s record of six second-place finishes. Then again, even Joop won the race once.
(*Andy’s not counting 2010 as a victory, and neither am I.)
Janez Brajkovic—Two seasons ago Slovenia’s Janez Brajkovic won the Criterium du Dauphiné for Team RadioShack with an impressive mix of climbing and time trialing; at the time he looked to be Johan Bruyneel’s next grand tour champion. But cycling’s a cruel sport and a year later Brajkovic found himself lying on the side of the road during Stage 5 of the 2011 Tour de France; his injuries sent him home less than a week into the Tour. The 28-year-old now rides for Astana, a squad that will welcome another GC contender to ride alongside Roman Kreuziger. Assuming Kreuziger targets the 2012 Giro d’Italia (a race in which he finished sixth last year), Brajkovic might find little stands between him and another chance at Tour leadership.
BMC—Earlier I included BMC on my list of Men of the Hour—and they deserve the distinction. But they also find themselves on the Hot Seat—here’s why:
- Philippe Gilbert, Cadel Evans, and Thor Hushovd will draw intense scrutiny after their 2011 exploits. The only feat more impressive than Gilbert’s 2011 season would be repeating the feat in 2012. As for Evans, he’ll soon find that winning a Tour is one thing, while defending the title is an entirely different proposition (just ask Carlos Sastre and history’s other 1-time winners). And Thor? Well, he did a quite bit of talking in 2011 about how unhappy he was at Garmin-Cervelo. Now he gets to show us what he can do while riding for a team where he feels his “leadership” is safe and secure.
- America’s great young hopes—Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen—need to show some progression in 2012. Phinney needs to turn his lessons from 2011 into results in 2012 while Van Garderen needs to win a week-long stage race—Paris-Nice would be a fantastic start.
- Aging and former stars such as George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan will fight to stay relevant just within their own squad. I’m still holding out hope that Thor’s arrival will give Hincapie the leash he needs to win Roubaix. As for Ballan, his continued presence on the roster surprises me considering his lack of results and the continued investigation of his role in the Mantova doping case.
- Last, but not least: chemistry. It takes a lot to manage the egos and aspirations of a professional cycling team, let alone a squad with so many high-profile stars. Evans, Gilbert, and Hushovd have all had moments where they appeared unable to play well with others—or at least unable to do so while keeping their mouths shut about it. Jim Ochowicz and the rest of BMC’s management will need to anticipate flare-ups before they happen and work quickly to extinguish problems before they spread.
Mark Cavendish—British rider, British team, World Champion, London Olympics—assuming he makes it through the Tour unscathed, Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish will likely face more Olympic pressure than any rider has ever known. With two stage wins in Qatar, at least he’s off to a good start.
Riders with Names Ending in “-ov”—In particular, I’m thinking of Alexandre Vinokourov, Alexandr Kolobnev, and Denis Menchov. As for Vino, he’s trying to end his career with some measure of respect at Astana, while putting behind him the “allegations” that he bought the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege from Alexandr Kolobnev (who’s been provisionally suspended for testing positive for masking agents at the 2011 Tour de France). Denis Menchov made a major career mistake when he transferred from Rabobank to Geox-TMC after a 2010 season that saw him finish third in the Tour de France. Unfortuantely, the supposed skeletons in the closets of Geox’s management meant there would be no Tour de France for the Spanish squad, so Menchov found himself sitting at home in July; he finished 8th in the Giro and 5tht in the Vuelta, but failed to make a major impact in either race. This year he finds himself riding for Katusha and should get another crack at leading a team the Tour. Believe it or not, the parcours suits him quite well, and another podium shot is certainly well within his reach.
Italy—Italians won 102 races in 2011, but few of any import. Worse still, the country’s grand tour riders came up empty after winning the Giro and the Vuelta in 2010. So it should come as no surprise that changes are in store for 2012. First, Liquigas rider Ivan Basso seems to have given-up on his Tour de France dreams; the 34-year-old has instead set his sights on winning his third Giro d’Italia. As for Vincenzo Nibali, the Tour de France was supposed to be his big goal for 2012; he finished 7tht in 2009 and has learned how to win and lose a grand tour in the two seasons since his breakthrough. That said, Nibali hasn’t ruled-out the Giro d’Italia either, an interesting proposition considering his toughest rival might also be his teammate.
In the classics, another poor season for Filippo Pozzato lost him his World Tour ride; he now leads Farnese-Vini, a team whose prospects—and race invitations—seemed to be improving until the charismatic,but frustrating, Italian “star” broke his collarbone. More weeks of training down the drain. Damiano Cunego still seems years away from his former race-winning self and Alessandro Ballan? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
But of all the Italians feeling pressure to perform in 2012, national team coach Paolo Bettini is likely to be feeling it the most. He’ll have two chances to redeem himself in 2012: the Olympics and Worlds. If he can’t do it, look for a change at the helm of the federation’s national squad.
Thomas Voeckler—Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler will be hard-pressed to re-create his Tour de France heroics from 2011. Let’s hope he doesn’t really take his Tour prospects seriously enough to sacrifice his chances in other races, as he’s one of the sport’s most exciting stars.
Monument Race Organizations—Changing the route or the date of a Monument is never a popular decision, but in 2012 we’ll see significant alterations to two of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious races. First off, the organizers of April’s Tour of Flanders have decided that the traditional Muur/Bosberg finale is too…predictable? Easy? Boring? To be honest, I’m not really sure what they were thinking, but if this year’s “new and improved” set of finishing circuits doesn’t lead to a spectacular win for either Philippe Gilbert or Tom Boonen, there will be hell to pay in Oudenaarde.
As for Italy’s “Race of the Falling Leaves”, il Lombardia (a name I’m still getting used to saying), a move to September means the leaves won’t be falling anymore. The UCI is hoping that an earlier date will see more in-form riders contest the late-season event, even if the scenery proves to be a less spectacular. The switch has a better chance of producing a more exciting race than the changes to Flanders do, but the sport’s purists are still shaking their heads.
Campagnolo—With more and more teams choosing Shimano or SRAM for their components, Campagnolo has to be feeling some pressure to remain relevant. Of the 18 teams in this year’s World Tour, only three (Lotto-Belisol, Lampre-ISD, and Movistar) will be riding the Italian groupsets in 2012 (Team Europcar, one of the sport’s better Professional Continental squads, will be racing Campy as well). The company’s new EPS electronic group was beginning to generate a bit of buzz—and then SRAM introduced its new Red grouppo and stole most of the spotlight. Campy’s still relying on decades of cachet to drive sales, but one has to wonder if they can keep up.
Team NetApp—They won one race last year—the time trial at the 2.2 Tour Gallipoli. They barely made a ripple at last year’s Amgen Tour of California—one of the biggest events on their calendar. Now they’re riding the Giro d’Italia? If the Giro had a Super PAC, Net App would have just made a significant donation.
Bjarne Riis—Even with a suspension and the loss of two grand tour titles, Alberto Contador will be just fine. As for Bjarne Riis and Team Saxo Bank-Sunguard? Well, that’s another issue entirely. It seems that Riis is almost always struggling to find new sponsors to help his team survive from one season to the next; now he faces six months without his Spanish star and the possible loss of his team’s World Team license. There were rumors circulating that Stefano Garzelli might sign with Saxo Bank after his Acqua & Sapone squad was not invited to the Giro d’Italia. Given Garzelli’s track record at the Italian grand tour, that might not be a bad option for the Danish general manager.
Who’s on your Hot Seat? Share your comments below.
Follow me on Twitter: @WhitYost
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
For most of the last 40-odd years I’ve been on the planet my mother has asked me for a Christmas wish list. I’ve obliged each and every year, though the results have not always been satisfying. My mom has this belief that if I received everything on my list, the experience would be dissatisfying, a Christmas-day letdown due to the utter lack of surprise. Naturally, I took exception with this, “Let me find out how dissatisfied I’d be.”
As an adult, most of the things I really want I don’t expect my parents to provide for me at Christmas, so my requests don’t have the urgency you would expect to find in a 14-year-old wishing for a slot-car track.
Even now, I still have my wishes. I don’t expect most of these to take place, but as this is the season of wanting, I figured I’d get these out of the way before I go shopping for toys for my son that I think will be fun.
I want YouTube clips of Champion riding in the Triplets of Belleville.
I want a 13-lb. steel bike that is reliable and turns heads the way a Ferrari does.
I want a Richard Sachs. Now.
I want a week of riding and wine in Sonoma County.
I want to climb all the 2000-meter cols in France. Then Italy.
I want to ride la Marmotte and l’Eroica.
I want a contract with Chronicle Books.
I want Dick Pound to shut up.
I want to climb 6-percent grades in my 53×19 like I used to.
I want to go for a ride with Eddy Merckx.
I want to hug Paolo Bettini’s mama.
I want to have a conversation in French with Bernard Hinault.
I want a 2-ounce camera with a Leica lens that shoots 20 megapixel images to take on rides. And a strap that makes it impossible to drop.
I want to drive to races in a Citroen 2CV that can’t break down.
I want to retire in the Cote d’Azur.
I want to know which drugs Jan Ullrich didn’t take.
I want to descend like Sean Yates did.
I want a chain I don’t have to clean.
I want 320tpi tubulars that don’t flat.
I want Alberto Contador to come clean.
I want 26 hours in a day and the ability to multi-task effectively so that I can work more hours each and play with my son while concentrating as I write a new post for RKP.
I want to wear PRO-style long socks and not get an effed-up tan line.
I want to race Killington again.
I want the metabolism of a 14 year old.
I want a responsible organization to replace the UCI.
I want a time machine so I can be 25 again, but this time I would train seriously.
I want to win a mountain stage of the Tour de France.
Oh hell, I want to be the greatest cyclist ever.
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.
The end of the season is well and truly here with tomorrow’s Tour of Lombardy. As the fifth and final Monument of the season, this is a PRO’s last real chance to score a win of note and either capitalize on a great season or hope to rescue a lousy one.
Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the winner of Lombardy, the race of the falling leaves, is often a man of the Grand Tours, but not in the way you think. It’s true that the roll of winners included Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly and Tony Rominger, but the majority of winners have been riders who aspired to do well at the Grand Tours, but rarely put together the form for a win. What more of them have in common is a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Indeed, in the last 20 years, only two riders have put together a Grand Tour win and success at Lombardy in the same year. Three-time winner Damiano Cunego did it back in 2004 when he won the Giro d’Italia, and sustained his form all the way from May to October. Prior to that Tony Rominger did it in ’92 following his win in the Vuelta a Espana when it was still held in April.
And while it may seem that a rider should be able to capitalize on great form from World’s, so far, only Paolo Bettini has been able to cross the finish line at Lombardy in the arc-en-ciel.
Clearly, Lombardy is not a race for Thor Hushovd, but Cadel Evans seems to be both hungry and going well. However, following his win in the Tour of the Piedmont, Philippe Gilbert seems to be on track to repeat in Lombardy. Clearly, Matti Breschel and Filippo Pozzato will have something to say about who wins.
I say Gilbert will be too heavily marked to win. I’m going with Evans.
What say you?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix, Franco Ballerini, has died as a result of injuries sustained in a rally car event. He was 45.
A professional from 1986 to 2001, Ballerini won Paris-Roubaix in 1995 and 1998. The Hell of the North was also his last race as a professional in 2001.
Other significant victories include Paris-Brussels and the Omloop Het Volk. In 1993 he was second to Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle on the line at the Roubaix velodrome.
Ballerini was serving as the co-driver (navigator) for driver Alessandro Ciardi at an event in the municipality of Larciano. The vehicle left the road and crashed. Ballerini and Ciardi were rushed to the nearest hospital, in Pistoia, but despite doctors’ efforts, Ballerini died soon after.
After retirement, Ballerini became the coach of the Italian national team, guiding the Squadra Azzurra to victory at the world championship in his first year, 2002. He was able to rally the team to support Mario Cipollini, giving the team its first victory since 1992. He was universally praised for managing to unite a team whose infighting had resulted in years of silvers and bronzes.
Following Cipollini’s win, the team would go on to support Paolo Bettini to win gold at the 2004 Olympics plus two rainbow jerseys—in 2006 and 2007. The next year Alessandro Ballan made it three years in a row for Italy.
Ballerini leaves a wife and two children.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International