Following last week’s Paris-Roubaix, the big question on everyone’s minds was why, when Fabian Cancellara attacked, Tom Boonen didn’t react straightaway. While it isn’t possible to know exactly what was on Boonen’s mind, we can perhaps try to see the race through his eyes.
And if you’re wondering why this post is just now appearing, it has something to do with the steady stream of images arriving by e-mail from John Pierce; every day for a week, I’ve received another half dozen or so images. What you see here wasn’t available the day following the race.
When Cancellara attacked the first thought I had was that Boonen was too far back in the group to be the appropriate guy to counter the move. Even though he was arguably the strongest guy left in the group, to jump from that far back in the group would see everyone one his wheel, leaving him to play tow truck for Hushovd, Hammond and the rest. Boonen is a star and wouldn’t submit to so undignified a role as that. It’s like asking George Clooney to be an extra in a movie written for him.
Consider also the other information Boonen had at his disposal. Following Flanders he said he was riding at 55kph and couldn’t bring Cancellara back. That’s faster than the average TTT speed at the Tour in the 1980s and yet it wasn’t enough to bring back one man. (Okay, so that one man happens to be the current ITT World Champion.)
It was late in the race as well; even the best riders have a finite number of attacks in their legs. To counter Cancellara’s move means burning a match you planned to use later. Based on the shots of Boonen trying to rally the group to work together, it’s fair to say he realized he couldn’t pull Cancellara back on his own and knew his best opportunity was to get the group to work together to bring Cancellara back.
Based on what I’ve seen, I’d say Boonen didn’t settle for second; rather, the other riders in his group did. He seemed to be the one rider who really wanted to establish a paceline to bring Cancellara back.
After what happened at Flanders, Boonen can be forgiven for believing the only hope for victory was with the help of the group, and that without it, defeat was certain.
Images: 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
John Pierce of Photosport International has continued to edit images from Flanders and sent these along. Consider them a sort of portfolio of the day, a whole race distilled into a few magical moments of the race’s most pivotal stretch of cobbles, the Muur de Grammont.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
Monument #2 of the season is this Sunday: the great Tour of Flanders. No other race in the world takes a series of short hills and turns them into such a series of body blows that even Muhammed Ali would have to take note. Maybe even compose a little poem.
And if you think I’m about to write a commemorative poem for the Tour of Flanders you’d be both right and wrong. I’m just not sharing it here.
Fully 82 percent of all stories on cyclists in Belgium right now concern Tom Boonen and the Tour of Flanders. It will be a national crisis if either he or his team doesn’t deliver something like the Second Coming on Easter.
The list of riders who want to win Flanders is nearly as long as the list of men who’d like a date with Heidi Klum. Similarly, the number of riders truly capable of such a win is just as short as the number of men Miss Klum would allow to buy her coffee.
In my mind this year’s race is an either-or. Stijn Devolder, as great as he is, has been something of an interloper, mopping up spoils when Boonen was just too marked. I don’t think he’ll get that sort of opportunity a third time. No, Belgium wants Tomeke crowned king of Flanders. With his second at San Remo Boonen has proven that he is both fit and hungry for a big win.
So who’s the or? Simple. Cancellara. He has made it clear that he likes new challenges. With Roubaix, San Remo, a World Championship and the Olympics under his belt, he’d like to win something he hasn’t won before. Hmm, Flanders fits the bill.
So here’s the challenge to you: Do you think the winner will be someone other than this oh-so-dynamic duo? If so, who? More important: Why?
Not to point too fine a point on it, but here’s a real challenge: Make a case for why Pozzato could pull this off.
Oh, and while you’re at it, as unlikely as it ought to be, Da Robot has picked up the H1N1 virus. How a Robot gets a pig disease, we’re not sure, but you might wish him well as he suffers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
All the big teams have had their presentations for the 2010 season. The season’s goals have been laid out, some publicly, some not as. So what’s likely to happen?
I got to thinking about what I’d like to happen. There are probably a great many of you who think I’ll be at the prologue of the Tour with sniper rifle trained on Alberto Contador. My equipment will be loaded, to be sure, but only with a 2 gig memory card.
Would it be interesting to see Cav win Milan San-Remo going away from the field? Sure. Would it be amazing to see Tomeke equal Roger DeVlaeminck’s record at Paris-Roubaix? Absolutely. Would it be great to see Contador battle Armstrong and Schleck until the field quit in submission? Truly, it would be riveting.
There’s just one problem. Not one of these outcomes would be surprising. Even those of you who hate Armstrong with the level of detestation ordinarily reserved for the intestinal flu must admit that an Armstrong victory is a possibility, no matter how damnable you think that version of the future might be.
And so, with five hours of me, a bike and an average heartrate lower than the speeds I drove as an irresponsible youth, I thought about the coming season.
Obsessed may be more like it.
I asked myself how I’d feel about Cav winning in San-Remo. Blah. Tomeke enter the velodrome in Roubaix alone? Equal parts thrilled and bored. Contador in yellow in Paris? Less ennui than I felt when Indurain won his third, if pleased to see him equal Thevenet’s and LeMond’s record. What if Armstrong stood atop the podium. Stunned. Plain damn stunned. Can you think of another rider that more teams will be riding against at the Tour? Has there ever been another rider that more teams will have deliberately ridden against? Did Merckx inspire that kind of opposition in anyone other than DeVlaeminck?
The answer, in my case, is that I just want some surprises. I don’t really mean of the Dirk Demol or Jean-Marie Wampers variety, you know a guy who doesn’t even get named as a dark horse, but rather, a guy who is a 10 to 1 or a 20 to 1.
It means seeing a break succeed at Milan-San Remo or—better yet—a tactical checkmate that leaves Quick Step chasing all the way to Roubaix—and off the podium. Not that I’ve got anything against them, I just want some finishes that I would never have guessed. And given the enormous limitations of my memory and creativity, it really shouldn’t be that hard.
So what would it require? Well, here’s the thing that occurred to me somewhere around Hollywood’s coastal outpost, better known as the Colony: Race outcomes were more uncertain—say it with me, people—before race radios.
There is plenty of dislike for race radios among the RKP readership as it is. I’ve straddled the line. Those of you who have been readers of VeloNews for a long time may recall Bob Roll’s account of riding the Giro d’Italia in the 1980s and entering an unlit tunnel only to plow into a pile of bricks in the middle of the road and fall in a puddle of diesel. Race radios might have helped him. They have done much to help team directors alert riders of coming course difficulties. On the other hand, the race courses are generally better scouted and selected today.
What of TVs in the cars? Honestly, I think these are as much a problem as the race radios. Do you suppose the team directors would be ordering their riders to the front to pedal hard quite as often if they couldn’t see live feeds of the race on TV in their cars?
So back to the old question. Should race radios be banned? If the team directors had less information about exactly what was happening from one moment to the next they might not bark quite so many instructions to their riders, ordering them to the front to ride.
Had radios been in use in ’88 and ’89 it is highly unlikely Dirk Demol and Jean-Marie Wampers would have stayed away to win Paris-Roubaix, and while I was non-plussed that a rider I had never heard of won Paris-Roubaix in ’89, I’d be grateful to see more uncertainty injected back into the racing.
So one thing is certain: At the very least, the TVs ought to be outlawed, even if the radios persist. It’s a miracle, if minor, that some DS, apoplectic over his riders’ inaction in the face of an attack, hasn’t crashed his car while glued to the feed.
Meh. So there it is, I’ve come around to wanting race radios banned from the peloton. I want the TVs yanked out of the cars, the radios left at home and team staff forbidden from watching TV at some hotel and calling the DS to update him on just what’s on the tube. So maybe the cell phones should go—just during the race, mind you—as well.
I risk seeming a Luddite. I’m not against technology, but what I want to avoid is the near constant feedback that tells the pack they are bearing down on the breakaway. The GPS data that reveals what the gap to the break is—5:10, 5:05, 5:03, etc.—is tantamount to the live TV feed. While it’s great for the home audience, I’d like to see anything that can give precise enough feedback to let the pack know the gap is coming down 10 seconds per kilometer find its way to Salvation Army.
After all, shouldn’t part of racing be based on your ability to do math when you’re at or above your lactate threshold?
So what’s going to happen? The call for radios to be banned will grow louder, that is what’s going to happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
You are Marco Pantani. It is 1999, and you are winning the Giro d’Italia, the race you dreamed of winning as a teenager flogging a borrowed bike around the countryside outside Cesenatico. You’ve won four stages. You’re way ahead on GC, and you’re holed up in the team hotel, tired, mentally drained, but, on some level, deeply satisfied with the legacy you’re creating for yourself in the sport you love.
Then you’re out the side door into the bright sunlight, mobbed by press, hounded for an explanation for the impossibly high hematocrit level your tests show. You’re disqualified. You’re shamed. You are no longer a legend, but a pariah.
This is what professionals might call a “precipitating event.” In your life it might be a divorce, the loss of a job, the death of a child. In pro cycling, a doping positive can be the death of your career, the event that pushes you over the edge.
Charlie, the addictions counselor I see every Friday morning, tells me that he sees what’s called “dual diagnosis,” i.e. clinical depression AND addiction, so much that he’s not convinced the two can be separated. Depression can lead to addiction. Addiction can lead to depression. They are the chicken and egg, egg and chicken.
The vast majority of those reading these words will know how Marco Pantani’s life turned out. After his expulsion from the Giro he made a few faltering attempts at comeback, but eventually succumbed to cocaine addiction, dying alone in a hotel room in 2004.
Addiction is a disease, progressive and fatal if untreated.
Last week, in a piece entitled “Love for the Doper,” I connected the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) with the addiction to illicit drugs, the descent into a mental state that convinces you that you need the drugs to go on. At the time, Padraig (our host and proprietor here at RKP) asked me how I would explain the jump that many athletes who use PEDs make to abusing illicit drugs. The recent death of Frank Vandenbroucke, as well as the passing of Marco Pantani, are but two examples of this jump.
And I would say that the answer lies somewhere at the nexus of humiliation, shame, loneliness and the tendency toward extreme behaviors, all of these factors combined with a precipitating event. To use Pantani as an example, though Vandenbroucke’s particulars are fairly similar, you have a unique character type, a self-described loner, a guy who nearly everyone who knew him would call “socially awkward, who also happens to be an elite athlete, an occupation more or less defined by the extremity of the behavior necessary to achieve success. You take this awkward, lonely and very probably depressed guy, who is already completely inured to suffering, and you heap on top a generous serving of humiliation.
Now, that humiliation validates an underlying shame that the guy feels, because he’s doping. He becomes even more depressed. Up to that point he was able to offset the shame and depression with the thrill of victory and adulation. Later, Pantani and Vandenbroucke made an effort to find some equilibrium by turning to the one thing that made them feel better, the one thing that delivered the thrill and muted the shame, illicit drugs.
What was once just a party drug, readily available to them as wealthy celebrities, takes on a new role (Are you listening Tom Boonen?). It moves itself front and center. Forced to abandon the PEDs, the rider sticks with the illicit drugs, substituting the mental effects of one for the mental effects of the other. The central conceit of the addict’s mindset is that he can’t do without the drugs that are actually tearing him apart. Compounding the problem is that the rider believes he can’t make a living without riding and can’t ride without drugs of one sort or the other. It’s a Catch-22 that turned Pantani and Vandenbroucke into corpses in hotel rooms, the saddest possible ending for an athlete in our sport.
To be sure, not every rider involved with PEDs will make the jump to illicit drugs, but a very real link exists between the use of PEDs and depression, and then between depression and the use of illicit drugs. Think not only of Pantani and Vandenbroucke, but also of Richard Virenque, if Willy Voet is to be believed, and Jan Ulrich.
Every time I hear the name of another convicted doper I try to stifle my instinct to judge. Riders don’t make bad decisions maliciously. They slip a little, and then a little more, and day after day, week after week, year after year, they become something they never meant to be. They can make deals with the devil that take them to the very top of the sport, and then one event, one vial of blood spun down in a centrifuge, one tainted jar of piss, pushes them off the edge.
Some don’t make it back.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In 2007, when Specialized began sponsoring the Quick Step team, company representatives showed up at a winter training camp for the team with bikes for each and every rider. In the case of some riders, they actually showed up with two bikes if the size of their previous Time bike didn’t translate exactly to the Specialized bike.
In Tom Boonen’s case, the company came equipped with both a 58 and a 61 Tarmac. The 61 had the top tube length Boonen needed, but the head tube, he determined was too long. He couldn’t achieve the more than 10cm drop from the saddle to the handlebar with the 61; the bar was just too high. So Specialized left him with the 58cm frame and made a custom stem for him at their Morgan Hill fabrication shop. While no one has said exactly how long the stem was, indications are it was 15cm in length.
The season started … and so did Boonen’s back troubles. The PR fallout for Specialized didn’t seem too bad, unless you searched the message boards, and on those they were being murdered. Ditto for the talk on group rides.
With Boonen’s results suffering Specialized undertook a radical solution; working from the fit measurements of his previous Time, they recreated his fit exactly by building him a custom Tarmac and later a custom Roubaix from aluminum.
And yet the criticism of Specialized continued. Riders wondered why they weren’t building custom carbon bikes for Boonen. In fact, they were, but they wanted to make sure he was happy with the fit before they spent in excess of $25k cutting a mold. Those who have watched “This Old House” are familiar with the maxim, “Measure twice, cut once.”
As fate would have it, Boonen’s bike is just enough of a tweener size that the company has considered adding it to their size range.
The bike pictured here is the prototype Roubaix built for the three-time winner. While I haven’t heard definitively, I suspect Columbus Airplane (not Starship) tubing was used, given the bike’s weight and stiffness.
It’s a big bike by any standard. The top tube is 59cm on horizontal. The stem is 14cm and the bar is 44cm (center-to-center); both are aluminum. Reach from the nose of the saddle to the center of the stem is a whopping 63cm thanks to the 10.5cm drop from the saddle to the bar. And it is unmistakably a Roubaix thanks to the 42.5cm chainstays and the 60cm front-center. Saddle height is 80cm and his crank length is 177.5mm, naturally. With 25mm tubulars, the bottom bracket height would have been 27cm.
There’s a ding in the top tube from a hit and scratches along the left side of the downtube, signs of battle damage from the Hell of the North. Since it’s creation the bike has been with either Quick Step or Specialized; this is its first trip away from the Specialized HQ since coming back to the states. One other curious detail, as per the request of some team riders, this bike uses a Time fork painted to match rather than the Roubaix fork.