What. A. Race. There were so many big moments in yesterday’s Tour of Flanders, it reminded me of a Fourth of July fireworks show. As soon as you think, “That must be it,” another big blast goes off and leaves you breathless.
First of all, Nick Nuyens. This guy has been an increasingly dark horse since some good showings in 2008. That he won the Dwar doors Vlaanderen a week-and-a-half ago might have been an indication of good form, but it took more than form to win yesterday’s Ronde. It took the perfect tactics, riding wheels, getting in the right moves, saving up, and then exploding in the last 200m to absolutely shock everyone.
Padraig: Nick Nuyens rode a terrific race and has given Bjarne Riis the right to walk around with a guilt-free smug grin for the rest of the week. And though he won, because he isn’t a rider I have feelings for one way or another and really did nothing to make the race exciting save for the fact that he won the final sprint (and let’s be honest, it is the most important move of the race), I must admit I feel slightly cheated by the outcome.
For some Nuyens’ win is disappointing. The Ronde is an emotional race, and it wants an emotional winner. Does anyone have any feelings for Nuyens? No. I didn’t think so.
At the finish I wondered, though, if Cancellara had had Riis in his ear, would the outcome have been different? More importantly, did Spartacus have the same thought? For fans, this win for Saxo can only intensify the rivalry with Leopard-Trek. Can there be any doubt who is winning?
Padraig: Spartacus was the man of the day. He may only have gotten third, but he was the carbonated water in my Coke, and a Coke without fizz is just pointless.
And if the Leopards were disappointed with third place, how must Quick Step have felt about 2nd and 4th. It looked as though QS put too much stock in the plan to win with Tom Boonen, completely disregarding, until it was too late, the obvious strength of Sylvain Chavanel on the day.
Padraig: For my part it was a race of surprises. I was surprised to learn that Quick Step director Patrick Lefevre was all-in on Boonen. You’ve got Sylvain Chavanel and you won’t let him do anything more than mark Spartacus? Really? That Philippe Gilbert couldn’t stay away showed how stunningly strong the top riders were. But I think my biggest shock was when Cancellara originally attacked how easily Tomeke seemed to give up when he got caught up in traffic.
The turning point for the Quick Steps seemed to come with about 2k to go with Chavanel off the front with Spartacus and Nuyens. The Frenchman shook hands with the Swiss as if to say, “I’ve been released. We can work together now,” which is just what they did, holding off Boonen, Gilbert, Flecha, Leukemans, et. al. Where Riis got it just right, QS chief Lefevre got it just wrong.
Was anyone else screaming at the TV for Gilbert when he made his own move with 3k left? It was textbook Gilbert, but just as Cancellara’s textbook escape with 40ks left failed to break the chasers’ will, so too was Gilbert reeled in.
Special mention should go to three domestiques. First, Chavanel, who was clearly Boonen’s up the road decoy, continued to follow the plan long after Boonen was able to hold up his end of the bargain. Second, Geraint Thomas buried himself over and over to keep Flecha in amongst the leaders, and finally Big George Hincapie performed yeoman’s work towing Alessandro Ballan over cobble and dale. Even if their leaders didn’t come through, they did their jobs to perfection. Hats off.
The only item left on my agenda is a quick assessment of Garmin-Cervelo. They sucked. I suppose Farrar did well to take the bunch sprint from the peloton, but did anyone hear Haussler’s name mentioned all day? And what did Hushovd do in the rainbow jersey? He was there or thereabouts for two-thirds of the race and then faded like a pair of Levis on permanent spin cycle.
I watched the race twice. Once on the Eurosport feed (while tuned in to the Feed Zone on Pavé, and that was excellent) and then again in the afternoon on Versus. It struck me how completely different were the stories the two networks told.
What did you think of this year’s Ronde? What surprised you? And what does it all mean for next week’s tilt in the North of France?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It is, perhaps, a mark of the this time of year that Padraig’s post about rim tape should garner more interest and passion than an open debate about the transfer market. It seems our minds have wandered away from the pros and onto the very serious subject of how to best ride the end of the summer (except for you Aussie and South American readers, of course).
Sophrosune brought up an excellent question, a topic for another Group Ride, which is, “What constitutes success for a pro team?”
Looking at recent transfers, it’s hard for me to believe that Riis Racing won’t succeed next year. Master Bjarne has replaced a Tour de France runner up with a winner, and, thus far anyway, retained last year’s Paris-Roubaix/Ronde von Flanderen winner. Does he have the two top riders in the peloton? I would say so.
Ryderider brought up Liquigas, which I failed to mention in my Group Ride intro, though the Italian squad boasts Basso, Nibali, Kreuzier, Kiserlovski and Sagan. One gets the distinct impression that, organized properly around a designated leader, they have the team to take a grand tour. Having lost Francesco Chicchi to Quick Step, they only have Daniele Bennati for the sprints, which will pull some wins off the table. You have to ask though, will winning the Giro be enough for Liquigas in 2011? Or do they need to make a serious assault on the Tour, given they have nothing for the Classics?
Omega Pharma – Lotto is the other team that sticks out for me. Living in QuickStep’s shadow for the last few seasons, things looked bad for Belgium’s other team when Cadel Evans left, but Phillipe Gilbert has kept their profile high with stellar end of season riding, and now they’ve signed Andrei Greipel who will, undoubtedly, add to their win total, and give them a proper presence at any grand tour they run him in.
The Spanish teams, Movistar and Geox,are the big question marks. What will money do for Spanish cycling? If Team Sky is any indication, not much, but their results may vary.
And now…back to rim strips!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
As the transfer season churns and boils, riders lining up new teams and new plans for 2011, the landscape and traditional power centers seem to be shifting. Omega Pharma – Lotto’s paltry four wins in 2010 will surely be bolstered by the addition of German sprinter Andrei Greipel. The merger of Garmin – Transitions with Cervelo Test Team gives the already opportunistic boys in argyle even more strong horses in more races, the only piece missing a real grand tour GC threat. Movistar’s take over and cash infusion with the current Caisse d’Epargne team promises a bright new day for Spanish cycling, not to mention Geox’s takeover of Footon-Servetto.
Along with the advent of the Schleck’s new Luxembourg-based team and Bjarne Riis’ capture of Alberto Contador to replace Schleck, this may be the most active off-season in recent memory.
The question for this week’s Group Ride is: Who will come out of this battle royale with the strongest team? Who is on the rise, and who is on the wane?
You don’t get any points for predicting the slow demise of Team Radio Shack, but I am curious to hear what we think of the moves made by the Belgian teams, Quick Step and Omega Pharma – Lotto. The rain in Spain is also mainly on the plain with a group of teams, once looking on the verge of collapse, blundering into new pots of money. Which team will emerge as the new Iberian powerhouse? And is there any hope for the French?
No. Probably not.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We took a position near the start of the pavé section of the Arenberg forest – a good 160 kilometers into the Paris-Roubaix. As we waited a few hours for the riders to come, it occurred to me, I was literally standing on history – sections of pavé first laid down in the time of Napolean Bonaparte.
Bombs from both World Wars had fallen nearby.
Team Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara leads part of the pack at the entrance to the Arenberg Forest.
I’d seen the coverage on and off for 25 years, and I’ve seen plenty of bike races before, but nothing could prepare me for seeing the 108th edition of the “Hell of the North” in person.
The fast-approaching buzz of the paparazzi helicopters from above. (If only Red Kite Prayer had the budget). The roar of the crowd, pickled from one too many Belgian beers. The bedazzlement of the many 100-year-plus French farmers, who still appreciate this annual spectacle.
And then there they were. Approaching fast from behind their gendarmerie escort, I could see the flurry of colorful jerseys from the world’s top cyclists.
Though each one was thirsty for blood, all with something to prove, it was the bouncing and vibrating of their arms and legs that said it all. The pavé – or, cobblestones to those of you on the left side of the Atlantic — humbled even the thirstiest of them. The gods of the pavé began to tremble. And tremble they did for the more than 50 kilometers of cobbled road.
And before we knew it, they were gone. In an instant. Nothing was left except the dust hanging in the air and gasps from the crowd — satisfied, but only for now. Arenberg forest dust coated my face and eyes.
And, again, in an instant, the crowd departed. I was off to see the next section of pavé, fully aware of my selfish desire to feed my new-found addiction.
But one cyclist on Sunday was not humbled. Was Fabian Cancellera’s addiction satisfied on Sunday or is he shaking the centuries-old dust off of his jersey in preparation for another cobbled classic?
Images: Alex Armitage
The Monuments—capital M—are supposed to be more than just bike races. They are the kings of the Spring Classics, races that transcend the riders who contest them. They are the days that we hope for mythic battles, crucibles that illustrate the constants of the universe, like how you never show your hand before the call.
Done right, the Monuments pit the very finest riders of the peloton against one another in a battle that kills off all the pretenders before the plus-size gal hits the stage. Occasionally, an interloper steals the show, and while that may seem to spoil the fun, it’s the grape seed that gives the wine its body.
Witness Jacky Durand’s victory at Flanders in 1992. His early escape was the mandatory suicide break meant to get Castorama some TV time, no more. Somehow, the plucky Frenchman stuck the break and rolled to the finish screaming, “Je gagne! Je gagne!” (I won! I won!) in one of the great displays of utter disbelief.
It is just such a win by Durand that made the 2010 Ronde Van Vlaanderen one for the ages. On the one hand we had two-time victor Tom Boonen coming off a very fine second place at Milan-San Remo and showing a renewed focus to his craft. On the other was the man who seems to be ticking off world-beating accomplishments like a grocery list: World Championship (2), check. Olympic Gold Medal, check. Paris-Roubaix, check. Milan-San Remo, check. Next up: the Tour of Flanders.
Fabian Cancellara came into the race declaring that if he won only a single race this year, he wanted Flanders. Those who witnessed Cancellara’s stage 3 victory in the 2007 Tour de France or his stunning descent to catch the breakaway in the Olympic road race that led to his bronze medal are familiar with the will power of the man they call Spartacus.
This one was the quintessential battle—McLaren vs. Ferrari. Say what you want about Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar, Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert, even the unexpected performance of Bjorn Leukemans of Vacansoleil or the brief shining light of Farrar’s teammate David Millar—they were all pretenders on the day.
We got a number of great comments, but the one that struck me as the most eerily true was Lachlan’s observation that the average group ride more closely mimics Flanders and Roubaix than they do actual amateur races. He’s onto something with that. It explains to a great degree my decision to stop racing, and is yet another insight into why the Gran Fondo experience is increasingly attractive to riders.
I’ve seen a few different numbers bandied about for Cancellara’s two attacks and whether he was turning 550 watts or more than 600 watts isn’t even close to the point. If you were to compare the average amateur racer to a V6 engine, Cancellara was a V12.
My absolute favorite quote on the day came from runner-up Tom Boonen who was nothing but complimentary of Cancellara’s victory and put the winner’s success into perspective by saying, “I was riding 55kph and I wasn’t getting any closer.”
What of our other predictions and hopes? While I thought it a pipe dream that any English-speaking rider might win Flanders, U.S. riders had, arguably, the best day they’ve ever had at Flanders by placing both fifth (Farrar) and sixth (Hincapie). And let’s give Vacansoleil rider Bjorn Leukemans big props for pulling out just the sort of ride that can embarrass the ASO; no one said anything about a Vacansoleil rider even finishing the race, let alone being part of a three-man break that dumped David Millar on the muur. Nice piece of work, that.
As for the other big names: Flecha, Hushovd, Devolder, they just weren’t in the class of Cancellara and Boonen.
So what do these performances do for Roubaix? Well the odds makers have taken note. Maybe Boonen won’t be so quick to say, “When you race me, you race for second.”
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
As October begins to blow leaves from the trees and the European season winds down, there are two big races left in 2009. The first is Paris-Tours. The second is the race to pry Alberto Contador out of his Astana contract. This is a race with a number of riders, all hoping to cross the line with 2010’s presumptive Tour de France favorite on their roster.
First, Contador has a year left on his Astana contract, so Astana have to be favorites to keep the mercurial Spaniard. This is technically true. But if the Kazahks lose their ProTour license, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has indicated that the governing body is evaluating Astana’s licensure, they might be inclined to cash out their assets (i.e. Contador) and pull out altogether.
Whatever posturing Alexander Vinokourov has done in his comeback from a two-year doping ban is just that, posturing. No one is going to run a pro team on the back of a 36-year-old unrepentant doper. If they’re daft enough to soldier on, and remember they’ll need to sign a full roster of riders after the Lance walked off all the strongest riders for his new RadioShack team, they’ll do so knowing they’re not likely to get invited to the Tour de France, both because of Vinokourov’s past and they’re own dearth of quality riders.
Next in line is Caisse d’Epargne, and they don’t need Contador unless they believe Alejandro Valverde’s troubles with the doping authorities aren’t going away. They’ll want a horse in the Grand Tour GC race in that case. I suppose they might think of sweeping the Tours with Valverde and Contador doing the podium tap dance. That would be a good trick, but does anyone think they have the support team to do that? No. I don’t either.
Garmin-Slipstream, who won’t talk about signing Contador except to say how awesome that would be, don’t need Contador either, unless they think Bradley Wiggins is going to force his way out of the team and into a Team Sky uniform. Sky is a British team. Wiggins is British. They can offer him a uniform that doesn’t look like a preppy car accident. You can see why Wiggins would want that. In the event of Wiggo’s defection, then Jonathan Vaughters might do worse than picking up Contador as a replacement.
Then there’s Quick Step. Now this one really makes sense to me. Packed full of talent for one-day Classics, the Belgian squad only needs to add a real GC man to strike bowel-clenching fear into the rest of the peloton. Signing Contador will cost money Quick Step doesn’t have, but the Spaniard is a bankable asset. Perhaps the Belgian floor maker can secure an additional loan to do a deal. Patrick Lefevre, the team’s manager, has even promised to hold five roster spots open to hire support riders just for Contador. Really, it’s shameless.
Finally, there has been talk of Contador forming his own team, but with the Shack and Team Sky entering the fray, the ProTour simply won’t support a third brand new team, even if Contador and his handlers could pull together a passable roster in time, which they can’t. So forget about it.
These are the moving pieces: Astana’s license, Alejandro Valverde’s DNA, Bradley Wiggins’ sense of national pride, Jonathan Vaughter’s argyle sweater vest, Quick Step’s line of credit.
Everything depends on Astana. Allegedly they’ve made all the financial guarantees necessary through the end of 2010, so there oughtn’t be a repeat of 2009’s bounced paychecks. But between 2009’s foibles, the return of the pariah, Vinokourov, and the loss of so many top-riders, it might be too big an ask for the Kazakh’s to go on. Once the door is open for Contador to leave, and believe me it will be, then it’s race on.
If the Kazakh consortium behind Astana is smart, they’ll let Contador’s price rise over the next month before doing a deal. As the holiday lights go up, what Astana can hope to get in return for their prize pony will dwindle. Teams will have to finalize rosters, make out budgets and firm up plans. Astana will be seen as desperate if they hold on too long.
It may well be that Garmin and Caisse d’Epargne are just waiting to see what happens with Wiggins and Valverde before tabling their best offers. Quick Step’s best bet is to make a deal before one of those other dominoes falls, because they likely don’t have the cash to compete otherwise.