Two time Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Judith Arndt has retired. That leaves former winner Annemiek van Vleuten (Rabobank) as a firm favorite in a race in which experience is so crucial to success. German veteran Ina Teutenberg’s Classics season was derailed by a bad crash and concussion a few weeks back, and that will leave Rabobank, where van Vleuten races alongside Marianne Vos in the driver’s seat. Vos has to be considered a contender for any race (in any discipline) she enters. Having said that, the Classics are always packed with chaos and anything can happen. The list of potential winners from the rest of the peloton is long.
On the men’s side, the favorites have to be Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan, not necessarily in that order. It is always amusing to hear the pre-race interviews as each of them explains in detail why the others are more likely winners. This is sandbagging at the PRO level.
In year’s past we have done a straight ahead prediction thread for the pre-Flanders Group Ride. This year, let’s try something slightly different.
For the women’s race, it would be cool to have someone with greater expertise than I have, explain what’s going to happen and who the dark horses are (Where is Whit Yost when you need him?).
For the men’s race, let’s do two things. First, let’s predict the full podium. Then, per my friend Dan’s suggestion, let’s figure out what the winner will say to the other two guys on the lower steps.
Here’s an example: Sagan to win, Cancellara second, Boonen third, and Sagan says, “This is fun, huh? How long have you guys been riding bikes?”
Anyone who correctly picks a podium that does NOT contain all three of those guys will get a pair of RKP wool socks and my unreserved respect. If you also correctly name the women’s winner, I’ll spring for an Eddie ’72 shirt from the RKP store.
Image: PhotoSport International
The following post is by a contributor new to RKP readers, though he comes with quite the pedigree. August Cole is, among other things, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. One of those other things is a dedicated cyclist. We hope you enjoy this new (to us) voice—Padraig
The months of February and March reside well within winter’s confines, but still offer the passionate cyclist a visual bounty.
There is the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, where the apotheosis of frame building is on display to the merry pilgrims who can travel to Denver to seek meaning in machines.
In Northern Europe, brute paths and farm roads that for hundreds of years were the weary arterials of Western civilization begin to coat the peloton with the requisite mud and manure that precedes the professional cyclist’s ablution ahead of Holy Week – De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.
Our eyes feast.
Yet, for many of us, our hearts are cold. Inside, winter’s bite stings. It is a deep chill, deeper than has been felt in years. Or ever.
Maybe it is midlife. Or worst fears realized. Or a sense of betrayal, the worst kind, by legends who we knew to be our physical superiors and discovered to be our moral inferiors. The sport’s elite have pushed their bodies farther than we can legally and morally abide. Yet we still clothe ourselves just like them.
Cycling is searching for its soul at the very time when the bicycle itself approaches technical perfection. We can ride perfection for less than a committed smoker spends on their annual habit. We know what we see, and we like it. The intimate hours spent online reading about the industry’s finest work attests to it. The wink of carbon weave in bright sun. Team knee warmers matched to arm warmers matched to socks. We ride perfection for less than a committed smoker spends on their annual habit.
What we are not sure is how to feel about the heart of a sport that takes so much but can give back even more. It is like the weeks after a bad crash, when the body’s deeper aches announce themselves only after the Neosporin has done its job for the skin.
If we do not know how to feel about cycling, then how do we feel about ourselves?
Some search for answers during “Holy Week” as the cobbles of Northern Europe become the transcendent place we want them to be. The days spanning the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix are filled with delicious tension. Closer to home, our local dirt tracks and potholed roads take on new springtime significance.
Others seek to imbue their handmade machines with a soulful energy that improbably comes from welded metal, made by men and women who have mastered working with fire. Others practice a mortification of the wallet and continuously lighten aerospace-grade carbon fiber bikes to better ascend.
There is no easy path. There is no single right answer.
What is most important is that we search together, on the road or off it. The best bikes, whether laid up in molds in Taiwan or welded in Watertown, Mass., are just vessels that we use to bring us closer. The camaraderie at a bike-shop Tour stage viewing matters so much more than the lead grimpeur’s VAM. When we see the peloton riding shoulder to shoulder, fighting for each extra centimeter of room on the Oude Kwaremont, we should marvel as much at their ferocity as at their proximity. The peloton binds them as it binds us.
Once winter ends and we ride together again it will be with our hearts, not with our eyes, that we see the beauty of this sport.
Filippo Pozatto and Alessandro Ballan have each gone to bed four times since the 2012 Tour of Flanders has ended. Both riders turned in exceptional performances, rides worth remembering. They did not, however, turn in wins, which in the high-stakes poker of professional cycling is what matters. For some sponsors second might as well be no-show.
As cycling fans, we are both aware that nothing can be substituted for a win and that the idea that second place is worthless is pure B.S. Some of the gutsiest rides ever delivered resulted in second step appearances at the podium. And TV time by our favorite rider is a not invaluable dividend for the sponsor. But sponsorship value for second and third isn’t the consideration at hand.
How many times have you lain in bed, waiting for sleep to steal your consciousness, and played back the day’s events? From bike races to conversations with co-workers and spouses, we have all done it countless times. How many times have you thought, “Ah but for that one detail, things might be different”?
There’s no way to total it, is there?
The desire to re-write the day seems to be a common element of the human condition. The simply ability to imagine a different outcome, a different reality, is enough to feed hopes in the most unrealistic of ways. Wishing it won’t make it so.
If I could ask but one question to Pozatto and Ballan it would be what they thought about as they drifted toward sleep. Not just Sunday, but each night this week. Did they spend those last moments thinking of how they might have played their hands differently?
My experience as a musician hurt me when I first began bike racing. I had plenty of nights lying in bed, ears ringing with long-dead guitar chords, where I tried to will errant notes, failed cues, broken sticks into submission. It never worked, and my ability to let go of those missed notes largely determined how quickly I drifted off. I remained convinced that the next time around I wouldn’t have the same problem, make the same mistake. They were, as baseball fans say, “unforced errors.” The problem was, I was largely right. At gigs mere nights later, I’d play a previously troublesome passage without a hitch. So when I began bike racing I soon discovered the urge to Monday morning quarterback my races while I waited for sleep to free me from myself.
But for reasons I can’t explain, I couldn’t let go of a failed performance, that belief that, “I could have gone just a little harder; I just didn’t will it hard enough.” The stakes in my races can’t begin to compare with what a victory in a Spring Classic can do for a life; nonetheless, I’d beat myself up, certain that in the same situation again I’d try harder—and succeed.
It was the heart rate monitor that showed me how wrong I was. I can remember thinking on more than one occasion that I should have been able to follow a move, hold an attack for longer, overtake someone in a sprint, whatever. I could have been trying to fly to the moon. The HRM always told me the same thing: That my account was more overdrawn than the Federal Government. Any thoughts of going harder were as fanciful as trying to win the lottery without buying a ticket.
Eventually those out-of-bounds numbers became an easily guessed confirmation for what my body knew better than my head. Still, that couldn’t stop me from second-guessing. Once I knew a thing or two about race tactics, I began to wonder if I hadn’t ridden conservatively enough during less consequential moments. Might I have played my hand differently? No matter what I learned, I found new ways to use my knowledge against myself, fresh ways to try to rewrite an outcome I wasn’t capable of delivering.
I learned, finally, that there was a solution to the second-guessing: Winning. It was as easy as finishing first.
What went through Pozatto’s head as he relaxed in bed Sunday night? Did he question when he started his sprint? How could he not? And what of Ballan? The guy rode with more balls than whole teams that day. Did he rue his flock of attacks? Which three would he have sacrificed just to put everything into one hail mary full of afterburners?
If only will could make it so.
Images: Photoreporter Sirotti
Two big events took place this past weekend. Saturday was my daughter Emma’s birthday, and Sunday saw a radical rebirth of the Tour of Flanders. The two events may seem unrelated but, as I’ll show later, there was a significant connection.
Let’s start with Flanders, or the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Classics purists weren’t happy when the promoters moved the finish to Oudenaarde, cut out the iconic Mur de Grammont (the “Muur”), and included instead three loops over the cobbled climbs of the Old Kwaremont and Paterberg. So for the first time in its 100-year history, the Ronde didn’t have a true point-to-point course. It was point-to-spiral.
However, at a time when races are getting more complicated and more expensive to put on, maybe the Belgian organizers were right to get an extra return on investment by setting up massive spectator areas with beer tents on the Kwaremont, where thousands of fans hung out all day, spending money. There, they witnessed the key attacks of the race by Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato, and then watched on big-screen TVs as their national treasure Tom Boonen out-sprinted the two Italians to win the race.
It was quite a show but, the purists questioned, was it worthy of one of cycling’s five monuments to have the race circle back time after time to climb the Kwaremont and Paterberg? Of course it was, say the organizers, Flanders Classics NV—which owns six of Belgium’s one-day events, including last week’s Ghent-Wevelgem and this week’s Scheldeprijs. There’s an economy of scale in putting on six spring races (along with women’s versions of Ghent-Wevelgem and the Ronde), while concession sales add a healthy revenue stream to the traditional formula of sponsorship from newspapers, banks or local regions, along with possible broadcast rights fees.
Would the purists prefer classic races that struggle to survive—as did Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne before they were rescued by ASO, the well-capitalized promoter of the Tour de France? Would they prefer that more events disappear from the calendar—as a dozen Spanish races have done over the past six years (see item below)? Or would they be open to modifications to races like the ones made by the Tour of Flanders organizers this past weekend?
Four more major Spanish events were in danger of being cancelled this season until the UCI stepped in to give the international federation’s backing to seek new financial support. That was the case with this week’s Tour of the Basque Country, which was in jeopardy because of a $210,000 shortfall in its $1.3 million budget. After the UCI’s intervention, a private Spanish bank, Sabadell Guipuzcoana, signed a two-year sponsorship deal with the Basque organizers and the race went ahead.
A major problem with Spanish events has been the organizers’ traditional reliance on regional governments and their tourism departments to fund their races—and in a country that’s now lurching from one financial crisis to another, and with current unemployment levels at more than 20 percent, there is no extra budget to support sports events. And with no end in sight to the recession in Europe, organizers will have to seek alternative sources of income, including the ones that the Flanders Classics organization has begun to exploit.
Naturally, there’s reluctance from cycling fans to pay to watch races. North American promoters have realized this for some time, and events such as the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship, Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge sell corporate VIP packages that give access to finish-line hospitality compounds. But it’s harder to convince traditionalists in Europe that “admission fees” are a necessary part of race budgets.
There has been an outcry from the cycling community in Britain over the proposal by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) to sell 15,000 tickets to spectators to watch the 2012 Olympic road race on the prime viewing areas of Box Hill—which the field will climb nine times on a 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the 250-kilometer course. Confirmation of LOCOG’s plan is expected later this month, but the days are numbered when we can continue watching bike races for free.
For the Box Hill section of the Olympic race, for example, the organizers have to provide extensive parking areas, crowd barriers, concession areas, public-address systems and Jumbotrons. Should all that be free? Also, the road itself has to be resurfaced—just as the California state parks department is spending $100,000 to fix a privately owned access road to enable the Amgen Tour peloton to climb Mount Diablo next month.
I mentioned earlier my daughter’s birthday because talking to her Saturday night jogged my memory about a road trip we took across Europe in the 1980s. She was a teen and we played a certain tape over and over again on the car radio: the Dire Straits album, “Brothers in Arms.” The track “Money for Nothing” includes one line, “Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it,” and another “Money for nothin’ and chicks for free.”
Maybe cycling traditionalists believe that paying to watch bike races is “money for nothing,” but if the present system “ain’t working,” then what the Flanders organizers are doing is probably “the way you do it.” I’m not sure about the other line though; perhaps it should be “money for nothing and kicks for free.” After all, if you pay for it or not, pro bike racing remains one of the most thrilling sports around.
SPANISH RACE CRISIS
Financial problems in 2012: Volta a Catalunya, Tour of the Basque Country, GP Miguel Induráin, Clasica San Sebastian, GP Valladolid (women).
Reduced number of racing days in 2012: Mallorca Challenge (from five to four days), Vuelta a Castilla y León (four to three days), Vuelta a Murcia (three to two days), Vuelta a Rioja (two to one day).
Races cancelled in past six years: GP Llodo (cancelled 2012), Subida al Naranco (merged into Vuelta a Asturias 2011), Vuelta a Galicia (converted from pro to amateur race), Subida Urkiola (cancelled 2010), Bicicleta Vasca (combined with Basque Country tour in 2009), Clasica Alcobendas (cancelled 2009), Clasica a Los Puertos (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Valencia (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Aragon (cancelled 2007), Montjuich hill climb (cancelled 2007), Trofeo Luis Puig (cancelled 2006), Semana Catalana (combined with Volta a Catalunya in 2006).
I ended my column on the water bottle last week with the words, “If it’s dropped on the road or falls into a wheel … the bidon will still do some damage!” Unfortunately, it was another loose water bottle in a feed zone that did damage at the Tour of Flanders, with pre-race favorite Fabian Cancellara hitting a bidon and crashing out of the race after breaking his clavicle in four places. Perhaps riders can start thinking where they’re throwing empty bottles before they throw them. We want cycling to be safer as well as exciting.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Before we all (myself included) run away and hand the first three places in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders to Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Filippo Pozatto, let’s not forget that there are still 255 kilometers and about 190 other riders standing between these men and a win in one of the sport’s most prestigious monuments.
Here’s a rundown of some wild cards to consider come Sunday:
Peter Sagan – For many, Sagan’s not a wild card—he’s a favorite. But to me, his chances Sunday are bit less certain for one simple reason: his inexperience. The Ronde is a race where knowing the roads and climbs counts for a lot—knowing where to be and when to be there helps on narrow roads that crisscross the Flemish Ardennes. Sagan’s also still more of a sprinter than an attacker. While he’ll certainly be a major threat should a large group hit the line together, I wonder if he can follow the attacks of men like Boonen, Cancellara, and Van Marcke on the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Vacansoleil – Only two teams boast having a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders: Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Vacansoleil. Stijn Devolder finally looks as if he’s once again the rider who won the Ronde in 2008 and 2009. His teammate Bjorn Leukemans has finished 8th, 4th, and 7th in the last three editions, while Marco Marcato is proving himself to be a pretty handy cobbler as well. If they ride cohesively Sunday and use their underdog status to their advantage, they could easily pull-off an upset.
Oscar Freire – Freire’s best finish in the Ronde was 24th back in 2004, but the Spaniard finished 2nd at the E3 Prijs and 4th at Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend. His GW result was no surprise—it’s a sprinter’s race and the Freire’s won it before. But the E3 Prijs? That’s not the kind of race where we would expect Freire to perform well as sprinters like Freire often don’t survive the constant pace changes of the E3’s difficult route. That said, Freire’s Katusha squad is surprisingly strong and boasts a talented and experienced lieutenant in Luca Paolini. If he can stay out of trouble and some how survive a dense stretch of bergs between kilometers between kilometers 208 and 242, Freire could pull-off the one of the most surprising wins of his career.
Team Sky – Sky’s seemed to have a lost a bit of swagger since Bradley Wiggins won Paris-Nice and Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen looked as if they could go 1-2 in Milan-San Remo. They now head to the Ronde with Boasson Hagen and the Spanish cobble stalwart, Juan Antonio Flecha. Flecha hasn’t raced since breaking a bone in his hand earlier this month, but still bears watching this weekend—even if he doesn’t have the legs to be his team’s captain, he’ll certainly prove to be a valuable domestique and valuable decoy for his Norwegian teammate.
BMC – After signing Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd this past off-season, BMC had a right to expect big things at the Tour of Flanders. But with Gilbert and Hushovd out of shape (Gilbert) and recovering from illness (Hushovd), the team will likely be turning to Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, and Greg Van Avermaet in this year’s Ronde. Of those three, Ballan’s been the most impressive so far and as a former Ronde-winner, will likely be the team’s most protected rider. There’s also the poetic justice to consider: a Ronde victory from one of the team’s “original” classics stars would add an interesting twist to the team’s off-season spending-spree.
Leif Hoste – Hoste was the Ronde’s runner-up in 2006 and 2007. That was indeed a long time ago, but something tells me the Accent.jobs-Willems Verandas rider has one more high finish in him. He’s enjoyed a trouble-free build-up; he’ll have the entire team at his disposal; and he’s riding with a chip on his shoulder as his team was (justifiably) left off the list for Paris-Roubaix.
The Weather – The current forecast calls for a mostly cloudy day with only a 20-percent chance of rain and temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. Then again, this is Belgium and we’re still a few days out—things can change quickly.
The Course – Perhaps the biggest wild card of all, the Ronde’s new course will certainly throw a wrinkle into some riders’ plans. Three trips over the Kwaremont and the Paterberg (the last of which comes only 13-kilometers from the line) will certainly make tactics interesting while negating the chances, in my opinion, that we’ll see a large group sprint. Tactics will play a tremendous role and at least one favorite could be caught-off guard by being either too aggressive or too hesitant.
So while you’ll hear a lot about Boonen, Cancellara, (Vanmarcke if you listen to me), and Pozatto over the next few days, don’t forget that wild cards often play a big role in the cobbled classics. Even with a stacked field and a new course, this year might be no different.
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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
Philippe Gilbert has done what was truly the unthinkable. In sweeping the four races of the Ardennes Week—Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege—Gilbert has taken a quartet of victories no other rider has ever achieved. Even the triple of Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and L-B-L seemed too much to reasonably hope for, yet he went hope one further. How many riders can tell Roger De Vlaeminck, Rik Van Looy and Eddy Merckx to go suck it?
In the current issue (#3) of peloton magazine I put forward the suggestion that Gilbert is a rider cut in the mold of Rik Van Looy, the only rider to win each of the major classics. In the course of his career, Van Looy won each of the Monuments at least once, resulting in eight total wins of our greatest one-day races. What is interesting is that Gilbert’s victories in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Amstel Gold set him apart from Van Looy. The Emperor of Herentals, as he was known, never won Amstel or the Omloop Het Volk, as it was called in his day.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege marks only Gilbert’s third Monument, following his two wins at the Tour of Lombardy. Like Roger De Vlaeminck he has shown the ability to climb with the very best Grand Tour riders in a one-day race, and yet can sprint with Classics riders like Boonen. And that’s the trick.
Unlike his Belgian forebears Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem, whose sole wins in the Monuments came in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Gilbert has shown he can win south of Paris. Only a handful of riders, including De Vlaeminck and Michele Bartoli have won both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Lombardy during their careers. Of course, Merckx did that, too.
What’s most interesting about Gilbert isn’t his ability to win on any terrain, though that is certainly part of his strength and his appeal. And it isn’t the fact that he is well-poised to become the greatest one-day rider of his generation, with the potential to win a greater range of races than Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen. No, what makes Gilbert so interesting is his capacity to surprise, his sheer wily-ness.
For us, the question isn’t so much if he’ll win the Tour of Flanders, it’s which year and on which muur he’ll launch his attack. His combination of incredible strength and tactical sensibility were on full display during Liege-Bastogne-Liege. In fact, the greatest move of the race wasn’t the attack that separated Gilbert and the Schleck brothers from, well, from anything that might have mattered. The greatest move was after dumping Andy Schleck on the Côte de Saint-Nicholas; rather than try to drag brother Frank to the finish, Gilbert backed off, allowing Andy to chase back on. The effort kept Schleck the younger on the rivet and prevented him from being much of a factor in the sprint.
Had Gilbert continued, Frank wouldn’t have taken a single pull, and while it was unlikely he could have taken Gilbert in the sprint, there was no point in towing him to the finish and taking that risk. Once Andy returned to the duo, with both Schlecks present and accounted for, they were obligated to take their pulls. Tactically, Gilbert could have sat on them, yet he continued to take strong pulls to make the break work, but it was obvious from his positioning on the road that he was ever-mindful of the risk of an attack from one of the Schlecks.
With four consecutive wins, questions about the source of Gilbert’s strength threaten to spoil our enjoyment of a simple bike race. We’ve no reason to doubt he’s clean other than success and if we are to doubt a rider who wins, we are to doubt all of racing. The sport is too good for that. Let’s enjoy the day.
We’re seeing a rare rider emerge, one with the potential to win on any day. We had better keep our eyes peeled.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
Ronde! Ronde! Ronde! Ronde! Say it like that a bunch of times in a row, and it sounds like you’re revving a motorcycle in preparation for a jump over some absurdly large number of buses. Instead, you’re getting ready for, arguably, the most exciting week of bike racing all year, a week that begins with the Ronde van Vlaanderen (The Tour of Flanders) and ends with Paris-Roubaix.
Cobbles! Cobbles! Cobbles! Cobbles! goes the muffler on your vintage Triumph. The crowd’s collective stomach is all tied in knots. That’s a lot of buses, and the landing ramp looks a long, long, long way off. Is that a ring of fire they’ve lit on the end of the ramp?
We’re getting ready to launch the peloton’s hard men over many kilometers paved with bowling balls and bowler hats, narrow, twisting lanes that rise and fall like consumer confidence. Rain makes legends, but so does dust. Regardless, you’ll want the DVD.
The gambling houses stopped taking bets on Fabian Cancellara to win either race at the end of April last year. His current form must have every last rider on the road terrified. If I were Tom Boonen, I’d bring my Gent Wevelgem trophy with me so I had something substantial to hold while Cancellara is getting kisses from podium girls.
Who else could win? Hushovd. Flecha. Haussler. Gilbert. Ballan. Sagan. There, I’ve named a few. The rest is up to you.
Today’s Group Ride is a double dipper: Who will win the Ronde? Who will win in Roubaix? You get no points for guessing Cancellara, but do you really believe he can do the double? Again? If not, who is most likely to dethrone the rampant Swiss? Will anything less than a broken chain deny him his growing legend?
Okay, so we couldn’t leave a whole week without a post. It’s been a year of stories often as fascinating as they are frustrating. Robot and I have picked our five most significant (if not favorite) story lines.
1) Fabian Cancellara’s Roubaix/ Flanders Double—Few riders are able to completely dominate their competition quite the way Fabian Cancellara can when he’s in top form. His astonishing attack on the Muur in the Ronde, while seated mind you, is a move I will never forget. Then his turn of speed at Roubaix, with main rival Tom Boonen momentarily asleep at the switch, was thrilling. To ride off the front of a group containing Boonen, Thor Hushovd, Juan Antonio Flecha and a select crew of Classics specialists, demonstrates a power and quality we seldom see. Those two wins made Cancellara’s April my top highlight of the 2010 season.
2) The Rise and Fall of Contador—The American press tried to make the 2010 Tour about the duel between Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, but Armstrong never had a chance, crashing out of contention early and then fumbling along to the finish. The real match was between Contador and Andy Schleck and that story served up all the drama and controversy of the very best Tours, with Contador standing on the top step in Paris to confirm his inheritance of the Armstrong/Indurain/Hinault/Merckx/Anquetil/Coppi legacy.
Oh, but then soaring so close to the sun, waxen wings melting in the bright light, Contador tests positive for Clenbuterol. And with this positive test, confirmed with a B sample reading, and hurled into judicial purgatory for the rest of the year, we see an abrupt end to the building legend, an end that tarnishes the futures of both the rider and the race.
3) Thor Hushovd’s World Championship—Coming off a World Championship year that saw 2009 winner Cadel Evans represent the rainbow jersey with grit, bravery and aplomb, the talismanic championship seemed open to sprinters and roleurs alike. In the end, the sprintingest roleur won the race, riding a smart tactical race with a short-handed team, only flexing his considerable muscle when it mattered most. Hushovd’s win was big for a hard-working rider, but also big for the jersey itself, as we are now almost guaranteed a second consecutive year of class from the world champ.
4) The First Biological Passport Suspensions—The UCI might have taken a more expeditious path to this stage of the fight against doping, but despite their missteps and the blundering press comments of president Pat McQuaid, the biological passport program finally produced some results in 2010. It remains to be seen how its parameters and administration will evolve as tools against cheaters, but with the first suspensions, we are finally seeing an adjunct program to in-race testing that seeks to catch the dopers who slip through the first net. Love it or hate it, the Passport must have dishonest riders worried that they’re running out of options, and that is, unquestionably, a good thing.
5) The SaxoBank Exodus/Luxembourg Project—It is hard for me to fathom how so many riders (and managers) whose careers were built and fostered by Bjarne Riis would be so willing to jump off the SaxoBank ship to join a fledgling team, regardless of the pedigree of its component parts. That Riis can be prickly, stubborn and aloof is beyond argument, but the mutiny of nearly his entire team is an outcome I never foresaw. Heap on top that insult, the injury of Contador’s doping problems, and it becomes very hard to argue that the Dane will land on his race-winning feet in 2011.
1) Cancellara’s Flanders/Roubaix Double—I have to echo Robot here. Not only were Cancellara’s back-to-back victories the wins of the year for me, I have to say that Cancellara’s attack on the Muur de Grammont—seated and spinning the 25 while Boonen looked to be standing on a 21—was absolutely the attack of the year for me. Both rides had me standing up and cheering.
That anyone would accuse the four-time time trial World Champion of using an electric motor is like asking about Kobe Bryant’s rocket boots he uses to get his jump shot. We should ignore the birthers. They’ll go away faster this way. We have real problems to contend with, as evidenced by number two.
2) The Contador Doping Case—From a standpoint of rules, I don’t see how Contador will escape a suspension due to his positive test for Clenbuterol. American rider Scott Moninger went to incredible lengths to demonstrate that what he tested positive for was as a result of supplements tainted by sloppy manufacturing. He purchased stock made in the same lot as the supplements he took and submitted sealed containers for testing. His defense was rigorously scientific … and he still got a one-year suspension due to strict liability. Contador’s defense has been far less methodical, which makes me far less sympathetic. His claims have, for me, smacked of the ‘dog ate my homework’ variety.
However, the bigger question on my mind has to do with testing for plasticizers. The detection of plasticizers in Contador’s sample suggests that officials may soon be able to prosecute riders more effectively for autologous blood transfusions. This seems to have been the preferred doping method for GC hopefuls for more than five years, but catching these riders has been less than successful. I don’t care who the rider is, if they’re transfusing, I want them caught and suspended as a result of a rigorously scientific prosecution.
3) The UCI’s Technical Criteria for Bike Approval—Bike companies have been screwed like an Ikea entertainment center by the UCI’s technical commission. Cinelli was nearly bankrupted due to the Spinacci fiasco. Their implementation of rules ahead of schedule sparked a seething rant from me that I ultimately deemed too angry to publish. I’m glad that a procedure to approve bicycles is in place. Unfortunately, the fee schedule to get a bike approved is expensive enough that some companies might think twice before submitting a design. Viewed within the larger expense of sponsoring a ProTeam team, it’s not so bad, but for companies that stretch to sponsor a Continental team, this could be a deal killer; after all, $12k is the cost of some riders. Leave it to the UCI to create a system that would scare bike companies from sponsoring a racing team. While this story will make more waves in 2011 than it did in 2010, that the criteria were decided and announced is huge. It’s an important step in the right direction.
4) The SaxoBank Exodus—Once Fabian Cancellara announced that he, too, would depart SaxoBank, I had a Sixth Sense moment. If you recall the Bruce Willis thriller, when you reach the end of the film and realize that he is the dead guy, you must reanalyze the entire picture—better yet, just watch it again. I began to wonder if all the praise riders had heaped upon Bjarne Riis was all Hollywood kiss-kiss, “Love ya, babe.” Presented with a viable option every rider worth anything jumped like passengers from the Titanic. It’s little surprise Richie Porte stayed behind; there’s nothing like watching the heirs apparent abdicate. ‘You say I’m king?! Cool!’
I can’t help but wonder what skeletons rattle in Riis’ closet.
5) The Fall of Lance Armstrong—Long before investigator Jeff Novitzky became interested in Tailwind Sports and Lance Armstrong, many cycling fans rebuked him like a banana republic reformer-cum-dictator. Allegations of doping swirled around him, proven sufficiently to some, while others simply saw the allegations as typical efforts to besmirch a hard-working athlete. Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France seems to have been more than disenfranchised Floyd Landis could bear. My read is that Landis believes he played by the same set of rules Armstrong did, won, and got a very different result. Forgetting for a moment how Landis has conducted himself (the most conclusive thing I can say is that some of his choices seem to have been based on fuzzy logic), it doesn’t seem hard to see how a man who has lost everything he worked for—wife, home, stepchild, a father-in-law, savings—decides he’ll burn the rest down. History is replete with examples of figures who refuse to go down alone, people who want others in the boat with them when the gunwales swamp.
Armstrong’s story has a lot of unfolding left to do. We knew the comeback would be a fresh chapter in the athlete’s career, but no one expected this turn. Novitzky’s reputation indicates that if he tires of his work as an investigator he could teach graduate seminars in tenacity. Armstrong is anything but convicted, but the allegations all point to a conclusion that will change the world’s opinion of him, and probably his foundation. The tragedy is that if he is convicted of charges associated with doping, most casual followers of cycling will think of Armstrong as a dirty athlete in a dirty sport and simply write off cycling as a force for good. Lost will be the story of an athlete who returned from the grave, played by the standard of the day and won the Tour de France … again and again and again and again and again and again.
And so we put the question to you: What were the biggest stories of the year in your eyes?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International