Here are some thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing in Flanders.
1. Tom Boonen’s not fooling anyone.
Despite declaring Fabian Cancellara the top favorite for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Boonen’s wins in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem make his comments hard to believe. Of his two victories, Boonen’s E3 victory (his record-setting fifth) is by far the more impressive of the two, as it came in an event much more akin to the Ronde. At Ghent-Wevelgem, Boonen was much more free to sit in the bunch, make the important selections, and let his team do most of the work for him. At times, there were even questions as to whether Boonen had made the leading group at all. Then again, all of Boonen’s top rivals were present in the finales of both races—the Belgian simply proved himself to be the better sprinter.
2. Filippo Pozatto is back to where he was in 2009 physically—but tactically?
After he won the E3 Prijs in 2009 it was clear to everyone that Pippo was going to be Tom Boonen’s biggest challenger at that year’s Flanders and Roubaix. Unfortunately, word never got to Pozatto that “keeping an eye on Tom Boonen” didn’t mean marking him so closely that he marked himself out of the race as well. For Pozatto that spring, being a “wheel watcher” meant much more than being a fan of Pat Sajak.
This year, if he wants to take his first win in a cobbled Monument, Pozatto will have to start racing to win—as opposed to racing to not be beaten. He’s riding for one of the strongest teams in the race with a lieutenant (Oscar Gatto) that many teams (like RadioShack-Nissan) would love to have complementing their captains. Better still, I suspect that Pozatto’s injury and subsequent (albeit brief) time off the bike means he has more form to gain. Boonen and Cancellara—the latter especially—run the risk of topping-out before the end of the cobbled fortnight. Pozatto might continue to get stronger.
3. It’s only a matter of time before Sep Vanmarcke wins Flanders, Roubaix, or both.
If the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Prijs are any indication, the budding rivalry between Vanmarcke and Boonen will be one of the highlights of the next two weeks. A smart, aggressive rider who appears undaunted by the competition, Garmin-Barracuda’s Vanmarcke has twice been the first rider to follow Boonen’s accelerations on the Taaienberg (although just barely on Friday). He’s already been named Garmin’s captain for the cobbles and with an in-form Johan Van Summeren serving as super-domestique, the American team could easily grab its second cobbled Monument in as many years. As for the 23-year-old Vanmarcke, there’s seemingly no limit to what he might achieve. He’s one of the most exiting riders of the season’s still-young spring campaign.
4. Philippe Gilbert’s Flanders is lost and he needs to act quickly if he wishes to contend in the Ardennes.
If you follow me on Twitter (@whityost), you’ve heard me say this before: Philippe Gilbert needs to skip Flanders, fly to Spain, and complete the Tour of the Basque Country if he wishes to have any chance of defending his titles in the Ardennes. Gilbert’s obviously been lacking the race mileage of his peers and could quickly gain some with a week of tough racing in Spain. Better still, he’ll avoid the media scrum of one of the world’s toughest press corps. Lastly, BMC has more than enough talent to spare the spot—especially if Thor Hushovd does indeed return to form. Like many, I am disappointed that we will not see the Belgian drie-kleur on the top step of the Ronde’s podium in Oudenaarde Sunday—especially as the course looked to suit King Phil’s style of racing.
5. If Filippo Pozatto, Sep Vanmarcke, or Tom Boonen wins the Tour of Flanders, he will likely have Oscar Gatto, Johan Van Summeren, or Sylvain Chavanel to thank for it.
History has shown that the world’s most successful one-day riders take the line with at least one teammate capable of winning the event as well. This year, Pozatto, Vanmarcke, and Boonen can rest easily knowing that they each have lieutenants capable of easing some of the pressure by covering late-race moves, putting other teams on the defensive, and ensuring that their captains won’t be isolated when the manure hits the fan. And who knows, should things go their way, we could see one Gatto, Van Summeren, and/or Chavanel on the final podium Sunday.
One final note: I’m heading to Belgium this Thursday and will be staying through Paris-Roubaix. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@whityost) for updates and insights from the thick of the action.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Either my embrocation is tingling in places I didn’t apply it, or I’m really, really excited for Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. Watching last week’s Tour of Flanders reminded me (as if I needed reminding) just what’s so special about one-day races in April, and this week we get to see perhaps the most brutal race of the season.
Where Flanders is long and winding and roll-y and technical, lending itself to all sorts of tactical scheming (see: Nuyens, Nick), Roubaix is a race of pure attrition. There is one tactic, stay upright and on the front.
A quick review of the favorites looks much like last week’s Flanders preview. Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O’Grady from LeOpard-Trek. Nick “Nothing to See Here” Nuyens from SaxoBank-Sungard. Thor Hushovd, Tyler Farrar, Heinrich Haussler and Roger Hammond from Garmin-Cervelo. Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel from QuickStep. Big George Hincapie from BMC. Juan Antonio Flecha, Geraint Thomas and Matt Hayman from Team Sky. Bjorn Leukemans from Vacansoleil. Matt Goss and Bernhard Eisel from HTC-Columbia. Peter Sagan from Liquigas.
In the category of likely winners, we can only include Cancellara, Hushovd, Boonen and Flecha. However, if Flanders taught us anything last week, it’s that “likely” isn’t nearly as powerful a modifier when applied to the winners of bike races as it is to the possibility of having to work at a job you hate for the rest of your working days.
Some of the riders in my list need certain, specific scenarios to play out for them to have any chance, but in this race, anything is possible. For example, Stuart O’Grady, who has won this race before, will be riding for Cancellara. If Cancellara’s legs are bad or some mechanical takes him out of contention, O’Grady has the power and experience to be Leopard-Trek’s man on the line.
Similarly, Hushovd should be Garmin-Cervelo’s ace, but he was crap last week, where Farrar seemed strong. Of course, Farrar went down in a heap in the bunch sprint at Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, so he’s carrying some damage. This team needs a win badly, and, depending on the situation on Heinrich Haussler has been no where recently, but with question marks over team leadership, Garmin could opt for any of these guys, or even Roger Hammond who is massively experienced and perfectly suited to the horrible terrain this race takes in.
While Flecha remains Team Sky’s top guy, anyone who watched Geraint Thomas pounding away on the front for his captain last week knows the young Welshman is strong enough to make his own race. Matt Hayman also has the characteristics of a Roubaix winner, big, strong, indifferent to pain.
Tom Boonen and Quick Step took a lot of flack for only finishing 2nd and 4th in Flanders. While Sylvain Chavanel has the build to do well in the Belgian race, he’s probably not a big enough brute to challenge in the North of France. But then, who saw him finishing ahead of Boonen AND Cancellara in the Ronde?
I’ll not waste a lot more pixels on the rest of the contenders. There seem to be a lot of folks who want (and still believe) Hincapie can win this race. I’m not one of them, but that doesn’t mean much. Bjorn Leukemans won’t win it either, except that he’s a sneaky bastard who is always there or thereabouts.
This is your preview. We picked Paris-Roubaix winners last week on the Group Ride, but you have more information now. You’ve seen all the horses run. Pick again. Can Cancellara come back? Will Boonen have the gas without Chavanel up the road? Have we missed someone you think has a legitimate (or sentimental) shot at hoisting that giant cobble trophy in the velodrome at Roubaix?
I will be joining the fine fellows at Pavé for their Feed Zone Live Chat, starting around 7am EDT Sunday. We’ll have the Sporza internet feed dialed up, the coffee brewed and the wise cracks flowing like champagne off the podium steps, so please do join us. It’s sure to be a (metric) ton of fun.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I’m not apologizing to Dickens, not after the last two days of racing. He couldn’t have seen this coming.
For the Schleck brothers and Team Saxo Bank the Dickens quote sums up the last two days in a few different ways.
Yesterday’s stage neutralization preserved Saxo Bank’s 1-2 GC punch. Lucky thing for them. So yes, they did benefit twice as much as other teams, after all, Lance Armstrong is the only GC threat Radio Shack is advertising; same for Alberto Contador at Astana.
But to preserve the Schlecks, Fabian Cancellara had to surrender the maillot jaune. History shows us no one does that happily, readily and rarely willingly. Established professional or not, surrendering the yellow jersey when you have good legs has got to hurt. It just hast to.
Less than 24 hours later Frank Schleck goes down on the pavé and breaks his collarbone. If teammate Jens Voigt’s reaction is any indication, Saxo Bank is devastated to lose its GC duo: “It was a daft decision to include this stage in the Tour. For months, we’ve said, people, this is too much of a spectacle, this is too dangerous, did they listen to us? No. And now Frankie has a broken collarbone. This is the last straw. I’m so disappointed.”
For most teams, securing the yellow jersey—yet again—could overcome the shock of losing almost any rider. Given the way they’ve ridden for the last ten years, this is doubly true for any French team.
What this needs is a reduction sauce: During stage 2, Team Saxo Bank surrendered the yellow jersey but managed to preserve the GC hopes for both Schlecks. In stage 3, Team Saxo Bank regained the yellow jersey—an event almost no one would have dared predict—but lost one of its most important GC riders.
We expect that the unexpected will take place in racing, that some riders will fall victim circumstances and by the time the race’s most strategic stages unfold the list of front runners might have changed somewhat; still it’s unfortunate to lose a rider due to a crash on cobblestone. To the degree that the cobblestones are meant to be a strategic focal point the intent is to force racers to be vigilant and stay up front, not take them out in crashes, though we understand that possibility is ever there.
Schleck’s departure and Cancellara’s regaining the yellow jersey may have been unexpected, but they weren’t the stage’s only surprises. To see Alberto Contador ride so well on the pavé was a genuine surprise, especially the way he gained time on his biggest rival, Lance Armstrong, who flatted on the cobbles.
In a day full of surprising turns, the one that most surprises me is Andy Schleck’s ride in hanging onto teammate Cancellara’s group as he drilled it to the finish. It’s hard for anyone to claim that they anticipated Cancellara regainin the yellow jersey, harder still to claim they could anticipate pavé virgin Contador’s good ride or Armstrong’s bad luck. However, almost no one would have been willing to bet that injured Andy Schleck would have gained time on the other favorites on a stage that was just flat but containing sections of road a climber just isn’t meant for.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Wow! I’ve not seen consensus like that in the RKP comments section since … uh … since … okay, I’ve never seen consensus like that here. To whit: Fabian Cancellara, Jens Voigt, Tomas Voekler, Jens Voigt, Philipe Gilbert, Oscar Freire, Michael Barry, George Hincapie, Sylvain Chavanel, Stuart O’Grady, Chris Horner, Johan VanSummeren, Thor Hushovd.
That list is notable for not containing the names: Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. World Champion Cadel Evans had a passing mention, but no real advocate. So, what I’m getting is that winning doesn’t give you class. It just gives you a trophy, a bouquet and lipstick smears on each cheek (also possibly a hotel key … I’ve heard stories).
The Cancellara lovefest just went on and on. Here is a rider of supreme power, humble demeanor and team first attitude, a guy who clearly loves his family and rides with a smile on his face. The guy’s so classy he probably eats his pomme frites with a knife and fork. He most assuredly never farts in elevators or litters. I actually think in Switzerland littering is a capital offense, so maybe that doesn’t count. But still….
We also heaped the love on Herr Voigt, though he’s a different sort of rider than Cancellara. Voigt is not so much a dominant winner as a hammer par excellénce, the guy who, as he passes you on the way to the front of the peloton, you think, “Crap! There goes the morning!” Oh, and he smiles. First he crushes you, and then he grins. Nothing says class like a man who can smile while YOUR heart is breaking.
Also, clearly deserving and oft mentioned, was Philipe Gilbert, who is not the fastest or most powerful, not the strongest climber or sharpest sprinter, but a tactician and all around attack-minded rider, the guy who lights up the one-day races like a halogen in a coat closet.
I, for one, need these riders desperately. As the revelations spew out of Festina and Puerto and Mantova and little, out-of-the-way sports clinics in Austria and Germany, I need to remember that there are riders of true class in the peloton. There ARE reasons to keep watching.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
There is a covenant between us. The pros suffer. We watch. They will not suffer if we do not watch. We will not watch if they do not suffer. Some of us take this a step further. We suffer too. We suffer to understand ourselves, but also to understand their suffering. It puts their exploits in perspective and bonds us to them.
What is this transaction? Is it fan and competitor? Is it sadist and masochist? Entertainer and audience? All of those and more?
To be sure, there is art in cycling. Some riders have the tactical nous to achieve victories without being the strongest in the race. I’m thinking of Sylvain Chavanel, Phillipe Gilbert and perhaps Heinrich Haussler from the current peleton. Other riders find ways to turn their pure strength into spectacle. Now I’ve got Thor Hushovd, Fabian Cancellara and Mark Cavendish in mind. Finally, there are the sufferers, those who push themselves out into the red. These are the riders who win the Grand Tours, Contador, Armstrong, even Cadel Evans, on some level. There is no rider offering a red kite prayer who is not creating something from his or her capacity to suffer.
There is an audacity to suffering. Who dares go beyond the red?
There is a Kafka short story titled, “A Hunger Artist.” The main character is a once popular performer of fasts, a hunger artist, who falls out of favor with the public. Fasting is no longer appreciated. His straw strewn cage moves slowly from the center of proceedings out to the periphery of the circus. Eventually, the crowds walk by without so much as noticing his shrunken form. He pushes on regardless, starving himself to death, only to be buried in a hastily dug grave, along with the straw from his cage. He is replaced in the cage by a sleek panther.
This is, I believe, Kafka’s view of the artist in general, that he is made to suffer to earn his bread, but at some point the bread and the art get separated. The true artist goes on. He suffers to the end of the performance, regardless.
And so, looking back at the peleton, we can understand the popularity of a rider like Jens Voigt or Kurt Asle Arvesen or even Franco Pellizotti. These are riders who put it out on the line, that push at the edges of what’s possible, but do it for the sake of the thing. They aim less at winning races than they do at creating a story about themselves, a story of noble struggle, or purifying suffering.
I read an interview once with Jens Voigt (the King of Suffering), and the interviewer asked, “What sort of conditions are good for you to win a race?” I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the original. And Voigt responded, “When it’s rainy, windy and cold, it’s good for me. Basically, when things are bad for everyone else, they’re good for me.”
On another occasion Voigt described his strategy as basically throwing everyone into a blender of suffering, including himself, and seeing what comes out the other side.
As this winter descends on the colder climes (I’m exempting SoCal from that category, Padraig!), and the suffering ratchets up a notch or ten, I will think of what I’m doing, of what other riders are doing, as art. And as surely as no one hands me a bouquet when I walk through the door of the office, much less kisses me on each cheek, I will be satisfied with what I’ve done and know it’s more than simple hobby or transport.
I’m telling a story with my suffering. I tell it every day with the succinctness of a nickname. Robot. Robots don’t get cold. Robots don’t suffer. I’ve forged an identity from the way I ride, often alone, in the dark, into the wind. This is New England, after all.
Writing those words is much, much easier than riding them. Believe me. In my writing, I share my experiences, and you evaluate the truth of what I write, and you accept my suffering (maybe), and it bonds us (I hope).
We create this thing together.
How many saddle sores do we need to reach this point, and how much lactic acid do we need to be carrying? Is it uphill all the way? Is there a headwind? Will someone pace us? Will the echelons string across road like accordions of mercy and deliver us, just as a hole develops in the heel of our old wool socks?
Will the Earth spin under our wheels, and will all the trees blur into one, tall green spire? Will our chains run dry and our cables stretch thin on our way to this place?
In my mind, I can see it. The sweat soaks all the way out the brim of my cap and the lycra lets hold its grip. The road turns up and disappears, asymptotic in the distance. There’s a rasp in my chest and a creaking in my bars, and I used my last spare tube hours ago. It doesn’t matter, because the side walls of these thins tires are nearly gone. I’ve gone sallow in the cheeks, almost gray. I blend into the winter-bleached asphalt, pebbly and rough. And cars swish by, oblivious, the radio on too loud.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International