The final Grand Tour of the season is upon us and that can mean only one thing: You’ve planned your Labor Day Weekend. Wait, no, that’s not it. Your kids are back in school. Hmm, maybe, but still not quite right.
Oh, right, your TV is about to get monopolized.
Frank Schleck says he can win the Vuelta, but to do so, he’s going to have to go chainring-to-chainring with all of Spain, including Giro second place David Arroyo and Joaquin Rodgriguez. We’ve got Carlos Sastre, Oscar Pereiro and Carlos Barredo. Garmin-Transitions has brought Christian Vande Velde, though their actual GC guy is Tom Danielson. After Schleck, Arroyo and Rodriguez, how many of those guys really look like anything other than dark horses?
Given the current, tarnished finish on Grand Tour podiums, the real question at stake may be how long it will be before this year’s Vuelta podium is ensnared in a doping scandal. For where the Tour goes in doping scandals, the Vuelta seems to lead by a year or two. When we ask, “Who will win the Vuelta?” we mean now … and after the dust settles.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The recently concluded 2010 edition of the Amgen Tour of California was easily the most exciting edition of the race, thanks in part to two of the hardest courses the race has ever undertaken, a field arriving with a great deal more fitness than could be expected in February and a host of real contenders who rode as if the race were the only goal of their season.
Surprisingly, I’ve heard some criticisms of the race coming from varied quarters. The criticisms are free-range: the race takes in too much of a large state; the organizers caved to team pressure and moved a stage start from an historic, crowd friendly and scenic location (Pasadena) to a wasteland (Palmdale); the time trial was made a mockery by the presence of Floyd Landis and pre-runs of the course by corporate big wigs and triathletes; the course was either too damn hard or the judges too unforgiving, which resulted in 37 riders being ruled hors delai between stages six and eight.
At least one thing is true beyond a doubt. After the DNFs and HDs, only 37 riders finished the Amgen Tour of California. I can’t recall a race that started 128 riders and finished less than a third of them. What’s unfortunate about this is how perception can be shaded as subtly as the chiaroscuro on the faces of the subjects of the Dutch masters. The difficulty of next year’s race course may turn on whether people (racers, directors, sponsors, fans) come to the conclusion that the race was harder than granite and cool, or harder than Rubik’s cube and unreasonable.
Which conclusion people draw may rest on the officials’ actions. Hors delai is a rule around which officials can exercise some discretion. Of the 80 riders that did not finish the race, 68 of them saw their race end on either stage six or stage eight. Of those, 37 didn’t finish because they were outside the time limit.
As many riders finished outside the time limit as finished the race.
While I haven’t checked just how deep prize money went, presumably money was left on the table due to the small number of finishers.
The DNFs were attributable to fatigue, crashes or other maladies, such as leg cramps, and claimed another 41 riders over the course of the race. Still, had 79 riders finished, more than six teams would have been listed in the final team GC. Only Garmin, Radio Shack, HTC-Columbia, United Healthcare, Team Type 1 and Bissell finished enough riders—three—to be counted on the teams classification.
The question for AEG is: How similar are ‘wow, really hard race’ and ‘whoa, that’s just stupid’? My guess is you can quantify the difference. I’d say it’s about 37.
By almost any standard, the Amgen Tour of California presented race fans with an extraordinary week of racing. Despite the HDs and DNFs, we saw a more competitive field with a higher overall level of fitness than in previous years.
I feel like I learned a few things about the teams present, such as: Danielson’s DNF means that once and for all, we won’t see him at the Big Show and if he’s released from Garmin, his next stop will be with some Continental team that needs a affordable former sorta star. Hesjedal’s stage win indicates the guy is getting stronger with each passing lunar cycle. Liquigas has some serious depth given that they, like Garmin, are managing to be competitive at two races at once. Team Jelly Belly is composed of cycling’s equivalent to suicide bombers. They didn’t win a single stage, but they figured in almost every significant break. They give new meaning to “die trying.” HTC-Columbia and BMC both must hope that their teams recover well after the Giro and Tour of California, otherwise they won’t have the depth necessary to support their GC men at the Tour de France. Oh, and watch out for Saxo Bank at the Tour; Andy Schleck generally looked like he was out on training rides.
I’ve seen a lot of racing over the years and I can say the final stage Amgen Tour of California was some of the most thrilling racing I’ve seen in person. While it didn’t carry the weight of a Grand Tour or Monument, it really was the next best thing. I’d hate to see it get watered down.
Among American cycling fans Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Slipstream formation has enjoyed the loyal love afforded a hometown team. That love has been based more on the team being “American” than on having actually kicked a lot of ass.
Of course, it isn’t the only ProTour team registered in the U.S., as Bob Stapleton’s Columbia-HTC team is based in San Luis Obispo, California. However, despite an American owner and one of two title sponsors being American, most cycling fans still perceive the team as European for two simple reasons: Most of its sport directors came from the former T-Mobile team and it has almost no American riders.
Critics of the team have noted a dissonance between the amount of media attention Garmin garners wherever it goes, and its results. The undercurrent being—the team really hasn’t earned its status.
Many of the headlines the team has generated have come as a result of its outspoken anti-doping stance. On paper there are several teams with anti-doping programs as stringent as Garmin’s, but Jonathan Vaughters is the media’s go-to guy for quotes on how to run a clean cycling team. To be fair, no one else is as articulate on the challenges a pro cyclist faces or the mixed signals a rider might receive when trying to balance the need to produce results with the need to recover.
Until recently, most of the team’s wins have come in stages of smaller stage races and four national championships. A stage win and the leader’s pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia were all it claim for Grand Tour performances beyond a host of top-five finishes in stages and general classification.
But in less than a week two different riders, Tyler Farrar and Ryder Hesjedal, won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, giving the team its first Grand Tour stage wins. Back home, the team defended its title at the Tour of Missouri with David Zabriskie’s time trial win that culminated in overall victory. It was the first stage race victory for the talented time trialist.
Unless you’ve been sleeping through September, you know all that. Why bother to note this? There are a great many teams with little ability to win outside of their star rider. Garmin-Slipstream won stages in two different stage races—meaning two different squads—despite the fact that Christian Vande Velde had to withdraw from the Tour of Missouri.
It’s been easy to slag on Tom Danielson for his failed promise. A probably top-10 at the Vuelta doesn’t measure up to the promises that he would be America’s next Tour de France winner, after Lance Armstrong, of course. That said, until he was struck with a virus, he was lying fourth on the general classification. Even so, he stands to give his team its second top-10 finish in a Grand Tour this year. That may seem an achievement of dubious value but consider that Cofidis, AG2R La Mondiale, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Columbia-HTC won’t post two Grand Tour top-tens and Quick Step won’t even post one.
Tyler Farrar’s three stage wins at the Eneco Tour of Benelux are significant more for what they taught Farrar and his teammates and as a confidence-building exercise than for the wins themselves. Those wins were an imperative step toward winning his first Grand Tour stage.
For a team in only its first year of the ProTour, Garmin-Slipstream deserves recognition for the team’s rise to earned prominence. Still a darling of the media, the team has results to justify the interviews and TV time.
Photo: John Pierce, Photosport International