Maxim Iglinskiy’s impressive, yet shocking victory at the 98
th Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday ended a spring classics season that lived up to current expectations: predictably unpredictable.
Last year, the wins by Matt Goss (at Milan-San Remo), Nick Nuyens (Tour of Flanders) and Johan Vansummeren (Paris-Roubaix) came out of left field, while not even Philippe Gilbert believed he could do the Amstel Gold Race-Flèche Wallonne-Liège triple. This year, the upset winners were Simon Gerrans (San Remo), Enrico Gasparotto (Amstel) and Iglinskiy, while Tom Boonen’s sweep through the cobbled classics was just as unexpected as Gilbert’s hat trick in 2011.
Most of the factors that led to the season’s upset results were present at this past weekend’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège—which is arguably the toughest of all the spring classics and usually the most predictable. Not this time. To find out who are the biggest favorites to win La Doyenne (“the Oldest One”) fans generally turn to Europe’s most respected sports newspaper, L’Équipe.
For Sunday’s race, the French publication’s list began with its hottest picks: 5 stars for defending champion Gilbert and Flèche Wallonne winner Joaquim Rodriguez; 4 stars for Olympic road champ Samuel Sanchez; 3 stars for two-time Liège winner Alejandro Valverde, three-time podium finisher Fränk Schleck and Gilbert’s former lieutenant Jelle Vanendert; two stars for Flèche Brabançonne winner Thomas Voeckler, San Remo winner Gerrans and fresh-from-the-Giro del Trentino Damiano Cunego; and, just one star for Amstel winner Enrico Gasparotto and on-form Vincenzo Nibali.
If Europe’s supposedly best-informed journalists selected 11 favorites and didn’t even name Iglinskiy as an outsider then who would have picked the Kazakh? Furthermore, their long shots, Nibali and Gasparotto, ended up in second and third places. What no one—except perhaps the wily Astana Proteam manager Giuseppe Martinelli—really considered was that (1) the Kazakh-financed squad had been racing well all week, and (2) Iglinskiy had been released from the cannon-fodder role he usually plays because veteran team captain and two-time Liège winner Alexander Vinokourov was searching for better form at the Tour of Turkey.
Sunday morning, Vinokourov, 38, called Iglinskiy, 31, at his Liège hotel, telling him it was a race he could win and advising him to be patient. “He told me to stay cool and do my best,” Iglinskiy said at his post-race press conference.
Schlecks suffer in the cold
With heavy rain and hail showers, and strong winds blowing from the southwest, the outward passage from Liège to the border town of Bastogne followed the organizers’ slowest schedule of 38 kph. None of the favored teams bothered to put a rider in the early breakaway, and an indication of how the race would play out only came when Rodriguez’s Katusha teammates increased the tempo to cut the break’s lead from 12 minutes to two by the time the first serious climbs came with 100 of the 257.5km race still to go.
On the ultra-steep Stockeu climb (where Eddy Merckx would usually start the attacks that earned him a record five wins at Liège), it looked like Fränk Schleck was going to have a good day. His brother Andy was sitting on the wheels of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek teammates Chris Horner and Jan Bakelants, making the pace high enough to shed the peloton’s weaker elements, while Maxime Montfort, who comes from this part of Belgium, was taking care of the elder Schleck.
Looks clearly deceived on this occasion, because Horner and the Schleck brothers were all suffering from the cold, wet conditions and faded from view on the windswept plateau before descending to the Ourthe Valley and the crucial climb of La Redoute. Describing the RadioShack team’s effort, Montfort said, “The key point in the race was 10km before La Redoute [when] you have to fight to be in good position. But right then it was raining and so cold it was almost snowing. We were thinking more about getting our rain jackets instead of moving up.”
Team manager Johan Bruyneel confirmed his riders’ physical (and mental) state: “[When] Fränk came back to the car [for his jacket], he was shaking, quite frozen….” As for Horner, he confirmed that he and his team leader were badly placed at that point. “I started at the back on La Redoute [and] if you start at the back on an important climb, you aren’t going to make anything happen. Today, I got too cold, so things went bad there,” Horner said on his team Web site. “It’s difficult to race when you weigh 63 kilos (139 pounds) and it’s this cold.”
With his numb hands unable to use the brake levers safely, Horner abandoned the race, along with his hard-man teammate Jens Voigt and their colleagues Joost Posthuma and Laurent Didier. At the end of the day, Andy Schleck and Bakelants would finish in a 25-man group 5:39 back, while brother Fränk was the best of the team, placing 23rd in a 20-man group with Montfort, 2:11 down.
BMC raced with honor
When the RadioShack team’s challenge disappeared, Gilbert’s BMC Racing squad fulfilled its responsibilities for the race favorite. American workhorse Brook Bookwalter pulled the peloton through the frigid weather (as low as the high-30s Fahrenheit) over the wearing climbs of the Rosier, Maquisard and Mont-Theux before his compatriot Tejay Van Garderen took over. They were riding at a high level and high pace to answer a danger posed by Europcar’s Pierre Rolland and Movistar’s Vasil Kiryienka, both strong climbers, who counterattacked over the Haute-Levée climb, with 85km to go, and quickly caught the morning’s six-man break.
“It was necessary to make the race harder to favor Thomas [Voeckler],” Rolland said, referring to his team leader. Rolland — who won the 2011 Tour de France stage at L’Alpe d’Huez — traveled to the race straight from Italy’s Trentino stage race, where he placed 10th on last Friday’s Pordoi mountaintop finish. The young Frenchman’s efforts on the climbs split the lead group apart and after La Redoute, only Kiryienka, one of Valverde’s teammates, and the Italian Dario Cataldo of Omega-Quick Step, could match him.
Ironically, while Rolland and Kiryienka were making the race hard over La Redoute, 34.5km from the finish, their team leaders were struggling on the climb’s lower slopes. First, Voeckler hit the deck: “It was raining and perhaps I skidded on a manhole cover,” he said. His teammate Cyril Gautier waited for his leader but Voeckler had to go it alone up the Redoute’s double-digit-percentage grades. It was here that Valverde, also suffering from the cold, dropped his chain and changed bikes with teammate Angel Madrazo.
Voeckler made a huge effort to make it back to the small group of leaders, still being led by Van Garderen, but Valverde would not. As for another Spanish favorite, Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, his day started badly when his best teammate Igor Anton crashed in the streets of Liège and broke his collarbone. Things got worse when Sanchez’s rear derailleur broke at the foot of the Stockeu “wall” and he had to chase for a long time when the race was heating up over the Haute-Levée and Rosier climbs. Showing his resilience (and his downhill skills on the mostly slick descents), Sanchez came through to take an eventual seventh place.
As has happened in each of the five times it has been included in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Roche aux Faucons climb saw the decisive moments of the race. In front, Rolland dropped his last companions, while Van Garderen finally pulled over after his marathon effort at the front to let teammate Santambrogio keep setting the pace for Gilbert. The American team’s impressive show left Gilbert in the place he needed to be, but when you are not on your very best form it’s impossible to fake it in a race as long and tough as this one—especially in conditions that were cold and wet one moment, and still cold and windy when the sun came out.
So Gilbert was in the ideal position going up the Faucons climb, which starts on a wide residential street and ends on a narrow rural back road between tall trees. The Belgian champion was able to follow the first attacks by Nibali and Vanendert after they passed Rolland, but he was slow to take up the chase behind Nibali when the Italian accelerated after going over the top a couple of lengths clear. Gilbert got within 30 meters of the Liquigas rider on the downhill, but that was it. Nibali was flying clear with the wind at his back.
“I tried to follow Nibali but I put myself in the red and couldn’t recuperate,” Gilbert said. “From that point on, I knew it would be difficult for me.” Indeed, when the group split in two on the uncategorized climb 2km after the Roche aux Faucons, Gilbert was in the back half.
Ahead, the chase was taken up by the three teams still with two or three riders: Astana, Katusha and Europcar. As a result, the long downhill through Seraing (where the opening road stage of the Tour de France will finish on July 1) resulted in rapid, yet tactical racing, with Rodriguez and Iglinskiy emerging as Nibali’s only challengers.
Battle on Saint-Nicolas
Working together, the little Spanish climber and the solid Kazakh team rider were faster on the crosswind sections before reaching the vicious ascent of Saint-Nicolas—which starts with a 10-percent pitch up a narrow street through this working-class neighborhood and ends with a couple of steep turns before reaching a kilometer of flatter roads high above the city of Liège.
It was on this climb where the road was exposed to the crosswinds that the race was won and lost. Gilbert fell off the pace in the chase group. The cold and distance got to Rodriguez, who could only watch as Iglinskiy rode away from him up the hill, while Garmin-Barracuda’s Dan Martin climbed past the Katusha man with Rolland on his wheel (they’d both be caught on the run-in to the finish). And Nibali struggled, his body jerking with the effort as he sat in the saddle, unable to get more speed or power into his pedals.
Over the top, with 5.5km to go, Iglinskiy had closed from a 40-second to a 15-second deficit. And his catch of the leader within sight of the one-kilometer-to-go archway was inevitable. After Iglinskiy rode clear to a 21-second victory, Nibali was close to tears following his epic yet finally heartbreaking effort. “I don’t think I made any mistakes,” he told reporters. “I just lacked a little strength in my legs in the finale. There was lots of wind on Saint-Nicolas and I left most of my strength there.”
Over at the Astana team car, where they were celebrating the squad’s second upset win in eight days, with first Gasparotto and now Iglinskiy. Their directeur sportif Guido Bontempi said, “It’s a big surprise for us. We prepared the race from Gasparotto’s perspective, but we gave carte blanche to Iglinskiy, to react according to the circumstances. And that’s what he did….”
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Some thoughts from Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege:
1. Maxim Iglinskiy capped a terrific week for Astana, winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege after overtaking a fading Vincenzo Nibali with a little more than one kilometer left to race. While certainly an outsider, Iglinskiy’s win wasn’t a total shock. In fact, in looking over the Kazakh’s resume, he appears to be a poor man’s Philippe Gilbert. Consistent spring contenders, (Iglinskiy is better than you might think) both riders have won the Strade Bianche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They also both won stages at the Dauphiné earlier in their careers. Of course, Gilbert’s resume is much longer and contains many more major victories, but considering Iglinsky came millions of Euros cheaper than his Belgian counterpart, Astana is doubtlessly happy with the return on its investment.
2. Iglinskiy’s win underscored a terrific team effort from Astana. Well-represented all day (their jerseys are hard to miss), the team placed two riders in the first group chasing Nibali. Enrico Gasparotto’s third-place finish put an exclamation mark on a successful day for the squad while confirming that his win in last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race was no fluke. The squad has now won two of the last three editions of Liege. (I wonder if Alexandre Vinokourov had some pre-race advice for his teammates.)
3. As for Nibali, his ride yesterday bookended his performance at Milan-San Remo, the season’s first Monument. In both races, the Liquigas rider initiated the final selection, but succumbed to a rider that few had predicted to play a dominant role in the event’s outcome. It’s been a while since we’ve had a grand tour champion prove himself to be a legitimate contender in the spring classics—let’s hope Nibali returns next year ready to contend again. Now the Italian must decide whether or not to compete in his home grand tour. While the Giro is a tempting option, he’s better suited for this year’s Tour de France.
4. Speaking of this year’s Tour de France, RadioShack’s Schleck brothers played little role in Sunday’s race. Perhaps they were tired from their efforts to have Kim Anderson reinstated in the squad’s management team for July’s Tour de France. A win Sunday would have spoken a lot louder if you ask me.
5. Back to the race: Twitter was buzzing Sunday with people complaining of boredom during the race’s final hour. At first, I felt compelled to defend the riders. The weather was horrible and the course was difficult—one must remember that these men are indeed human. But in hindsight, it seems to me that several teams with top contenders could and should have done more to make the race difficult, thereby eliminating “outsiders” like Iglinsky before they had a chance to play a role in the finale.
For example, Gilbert’s BMC squad was clearly focused on controlling the race in preparation for what it hoped would be a decisive attack by Gilbert (or someone else). Unfortunately, this kept too many riders and teams in contention after La Redoute. Without a major selection at this point in the race, there were too many men left to settle things over the remaining 30 kilometers.
7. The same can be said of Katusha. With Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno they had a reason and the manpower to make the race more selective sooner—but they chose to sit-on. Some might say that Oscar Freire’s surprising resiliency gave the team an extra card to play should the race have stayed together all the way to Liege. (But that was an unlikely result—Freire’s performance was more a product of controlled racing than anything else.)
BMC can at least say they were racing to protect the chances of the defending chapion—they technically didn’t have to make the race (although that’s a slippery slope). Katusha made a mistake by basing this year’s tactics on last year’s favorite (Gilbert). Sometimes bringing the race to your competition is more effective than waiting for it to come to you.
8. Speaking of Gilbert, this spring was a minor catastrophe for the Belgian Champion. Last week I said that a win yesterday would have appeased his fans and softened his critics. Now it appears only a world championship will do the trick. Gilbert’s performance illustrates the importance of good health and good luck, while also reminding us that winning brings even loftier expectations the next time around. Hopefully Gilbert—who’s only 29, by the way—learned some valuable lessons from his experiences over the past two months. Look for him to be at his best once again next spring.
9. And if Gilbert didn’t already miss Jelle Vanendert, he certainly does now. I still can’t believe he didn’t make more of an effort to bring him along to BMC. That said, Tejay Van Garderen rode one heck of a race yesterday on behalf of Gilbert. The American now heads to Romandie before taking another crack at winning the Tour of California.
10. What a spring for Specialized and SRAM, huh?
That’s it for me—what’s on your mind?
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
It’s amazing how quickly things can change from one season to the next. This year, GreenEdge won Milan-San Remo with a rejuvenated Simon Gerrans—not with Matthew Goss, the defending champion. Tom Boonen tore through the cobbled classics after two seasons of relative mediocrity, while Fabian Cancellara was nowhere to be seen after bad luck and a broken collarbone ruined his April. Now a winless Philippe Gilbert looks to be a complete non-factor in races he dominated less than a year ago.
So with the Ardennes classics upon us—beginning with this Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race—what can we expect? Will former champions like Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego take a page from Boonen’s book and return to prominence in races they once dominated? Or will new stars have a chance to emerge? And what about Gilbert? Will his spring be a complete failure?
Here are six riders to watch over the next ten days:
Cadel Evans – Publicly, Cadel Evans has said all the right things regarding BMC’s off-season spending spree, but I wonder if he was nevertheless upset with BMC for signing Gilbert and Thor Hushovd. And why shouldn’t he have been? After all, as the team of the defending Tour champion, why add two riders to the roster who will do little more than help themselves to stage wins come July? The team could have easily afforded 2-3 experienced and talented support riders, men capable of helping Evans win another yellow jersey.
So don’t be surprised to see Evans send a message to his new colleagues and team management between now and Liege-Bastogne-Liege next Sunday. After winning the Criterium International, Evans has spent the past three weeks training and will certainly be his team’s best man over the next ten days. His team’s strong too, with Greg Van Avermaet serving as an able-bodied lieutenant and Gilbert a wild card who should at least keep some teams honest. By the time it’s all said and done, look for the former Fleche champion to add another Ardennes feather to his cap—possibly as early as this Sunday. And remember, Amstel is raced on a course similar to what the peloton at Worlds later this year—Evans could be giving himself an early edge on the competition.
Samuel Sanchez – Samuel Sanchez dominated last week’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco and now heads into the Ardennes classics as a top favorite. While the Euskaltel rider tends to perform better in stage races, his 2008 Olympic gold medal stands as proof that he can handle himself in one-day events. Of the three races between now and next Sunday, Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege suit Sanchez the best. He has multiple top-10 finishes in both events and a team dedicated to supporting him.
Joaquim Rodriguez – Of all the riders to consistently perform well in the Ardennes classics over the past few seasons, Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez is easily the best to never have won one. Were it not for an indomitable Philippe Gilbert, Rodriguez would certainly have a won at least one of the Ardennes classics (or two, or three) last April—he finished second to Gilbert in both Amstel and Fleche (his second time as runner-up in the midweek event). Like Sanchez, Rodriguez enjoyed a fantastic Pais Vasco and heads to the Ardennes feeling confident and strong. Amstel and Fleche Wallone suit him best as both races end with steep climbs that suit Rodgriguez’s ascending talents
Simon Gerrans – GreenEdge might have been a bit surprised when Simon Gerrans won Milan-San Remo as it wasn’t exactly the race they signed him for—but the Ardennes classics were. Assuming Gerrans has fortified his Tour Down Under and Primavera-winning fitness over the past few weeks, there’s little reason to believe the Australian won’t improve on his Ardennes performance from 2009—when he finished inside the top-10 at all three races while riding for the Cervelo TestTeam. Volta Catalunya-winner Michael Albasini will play key role in GreenEdge’s strategy. He’s one of the sport’s better domestiques right now and will certainly force other teams to chase should he get up the road. Can this talented duo add to GreenEdge’s World Tour win total?
Alejandro Valverde – Much to the displeasure of many fans, Spain’s Alejandro Valverde has returned to the sport—and the top step of the podium. That said, while the Movistar rider bears watching in all three races, I wonder if the lack of a grand tour in his legs will hurt him. Amstel and Liege are long, grueling races—Valverde’s riding without the benefit of a full season racing in his legs, a factor that could limit him in the latter phases of both events. Then again, we’re talking about a rider with talent to spare and it’s not as if he sat around watching football during his suspension. Should he win next Sunday, he’ll be the second rider in three years to return from suspension and win La Doyenne.
Vincezo Nibali – My how far the Italians have fallen. The spring classics used to be Italy’s happy hunting ground as riders such as Argentin, Ballerini, Tafi, Bartoli, Bettini, DiLuca, Cunego, and Rebellin (yeah, I know about those last two) won scores of monuments in the Eighties, Nineties, and Aughts. But lately, Italy’s been reduced to a country of bridesmaids rather than brides, where its best riders’ best results are podium finishes and top-10’s. Enter Vincenzo Nibali—his nation’s best hope for success over the ten days. Easily Italy’s most exciting rider thus far this season, “Nibbles” looks to take a big bite out of the Ardennes (sorry, I couldn’t resist) before deciding whether to tackle the Giro or the Tour. If he rides like he did in Tirreno and Milan-San Remo, he could easily score himself a place on the cover of next month’s Bicisport. Liege—a race in which he already has two top-10 finishes on his resume—is his best bet.
In the end, I see Gerrans taking Amstel, Rodriguez winning Fleche Wallone, and Evans winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege—thus sending a message to both his Tour rivals and his teammates that he is indeed one of the best in the world.
On a personal note, I’m happy to say I made it back safe and sound after 10 days in Belgium and France to ride and watch the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about my experiences in the days to come, but for now I’ll leave you with this: the Tour of Flanders is held annually on the 14th Sunday of the year—start planning your own trip now.
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Milan-San Remo has probably weathered more controversies in its 106-year history than any other classic. Last Saturday’s race, headed by Simon Gerrans’ upset victory, was no exception. And the announcement by the organizers on Monday that they are (again) thinking of making a few modifications to the 298km course has only added fuel to the perennial arguments about the race not being hard enough to reveal a true champion. But let’s first look at this year’s edition, how some riders raced smarter than others, how misfortune played an important role, and how teams could have changed their tactics to achieve a more favorable outcome.
The big pre-race favorite according to the European media was Team Sky’s world champion Mark Cavendish, but the Manx sprinter rode like an amateur on the challenging climb to Le Mànie, with more than two hours of racing still remaining. He was unable to hang on to the peloton being pulled by the Liquigas-Cannondale squad, and despite his Austrian teammate Bernie Eisel dropping back to pace him on the second part of the 4.7km uphill and down the twisting descent, Cavendish only returned to the back half of a divided peloton — which never caught back to the leaders.
The four Sky riders with Cavendish and Eisel in that 50-rider group chased for a long time, hoping to catch back so they could help their other team leader, Edvald Boasson Hagen. But it was already obvious when Cavendish was dropped on the Primavera’s first serious climb that he was on a bad day and he would never have been a factor on the climbs near the end. So, even though he’s the world champ and a former San Remo winner, Cavendish should have been left to his own devices. Tam Sky would then have had a chance to truly help Boasson Hagen. As it was, the Norwegian had only Swedish teammate Thomas Lövkvist for company in the front group. They finished 25th and 30th respectively, 20 seconds behind the winners, after being caught behind a crash on the descent of the last hill, the Poggio.
Besides Cavendish, the European media’s other big favorite was Vincenzo Nibali, fresh from his winning Tirreno-Adriatico. His Liquigas-Cannondale team did enjoy an almost perfect Milan-San Remo. It set the fast pace on Le Mànie to dispose of Cavendish, along with sprinters such as Alessandro Petacchi, Tyler Farrar and Gerald Ciolek. It took control again up the next-to-last climb, La Cipressa, with Valerio Agnoli and Daniel Oss pulling the peloton at a ferocious speed. And the team’s tactics did succeed in keeping its leaders Nibali and Peter Sagan out of trouble, whereas another pre-race favorite, Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, got caught up in a small pileup that prevented him contesting the finale.
But perhaps Liquigas didn’t think out their tactics perfectly. They still had four men in the front group of 50 as they hit the foot of the Poggio with 10km to go, as did Rabobank (with sprinter Mark Renshaw), while both Katusha (for three-time San Remo winner Oscar Freire) and GreenEdge (with defending champion Matt Goss and Aussie champ Gerrans) had three riders left.
Rabobank took to the front on the last climb, hoping to keep the group together on the 3.7km climb for Renshaw, before Liquigas sent Agnoli away on a solo attack. The Liquigas team rider’s short-lived move did put pressure on the other teams and allowed Nibali to follow the wheels before making his decisive acceleration a kilometer from the top, but Agnoli’s energy might well have been reserved for a different tactic.
Liquigas could have had Oss set a high pace for Nibali, with Agnoli riding shotgun on Nibali’s wheel, followed by Sagan, the sprinter. In that scenario, when Nibali jumped on the steepest, 8-percent grade, instead of having Gerrans on his wheel, Agnoli, Oss and Sagan could have let a big gap open. That would have given Nibali a chance to reach the summit alone and maybe use his renowned descending skills to stay away for the win. Instead, the attentive Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek was close enough to jump across to Nibali (and Gerrans) when the Poggio gradient eased before they began the zigzag plunge into San Remo. Of course, any different tactic by Liquigas may have favored the enormously strong Cancellara, who would probably have caught Nibali anyway.
An even more intense and uncertain finale would have resulted had misfortune not intervened. But for his fall on the Cipressa, Belgian champion Gilbert looked strong enough to be in the mix with Nibali on the Poggio. And in the first turn of the Poggio descent, the young Belgian Kris Boeckmans of Vacansoleil crashed right in front of a feisty Tom Boonen, which resulted in 30 riders getting delayed and unable to rejoin the 11 men chasing Cancellara, Gerrans and Nibali. Without that incident, a 40-man chase would almost certainly have closed the 12-second gap held by the front trio before the remaining 3km of flat roads into the finish. As it was, Gerrans sprinted to the win over Cancellara and Nibali only two seconds before Sagan led in the chase group.
Which brings us to the proposal by the organizers, RCS Sport, to move the finish line from the San Remo harbor to the Corso Cavalotti, 2km closer to the Poggio. Their goal is to avoid a field sprint and give attackers on the Poggio a better chance of staying away — especially a solo breakaway by a Nibali. A second part of their plan is to make the Cipressa climb more decisive by using an adjacent steeper road to encourage the strongest riders to create a select group of breakaways that could fight out the victory over the Poggio.
This latter scenario has been the goal at several points in the history of Milan-San Remo. After superstars Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Louison Bobet took six consecutive wins in the immediate postwar years, the Classicissima turned into a sprinters’ paradise, with the race ending in bunch gallops through the late-1950s. As a result, the Poggio was inserted in 1960 and breakaways again became the more common outcome.
By the 1970s, field sprints again became more usual, and if it hadn’t been for the seven wins by Eddy Merckx, most of them earned in late breakaways, the organizers would have already started looking for more climbs to include. They did add the Cipressa in 1982 — and breakaways again became more common, resulting in high-profile victories for Giuseppe Saronni, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon, Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci.
As roads became smoother, teams stronger and riders collectively fitter and faster, Milan-San Remo again became the realm of the sprinters. From 1997 onward, there were four wins by Germany’s Erik Zabel, three by Spaniard Oscar Freire and single wins for Mario Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish, while attacks in the final kilometer were successful for Andreï Tchmil (1999), Filippo Pozzato (2006) and Cancellara (2009). There have been no successful long-distance breakaways since Gabriele Colombo won at San Remo 16 years ago.
This week’s RCS announcement has resulted in riders saying that the new finish — less than a kilometer from the end of the Poggio decent — is recipe for disaster. But few riders could go downhill faster than Cancellara did last Saturday, when the only Poggio crash happened near the top before the chasers hit top speed. As for toughening up the last third of the race, the inclusion of Le Mànie on 2008 is already having an effect (ask Cavendish!), while making the Cipressa a little harder will stretch the sprinters and perhaps encourage the attackers.
But whatever results from another set of changes to the course, Milan-San Remo will remain a classic that will always generate plenty of excitement — and controversy!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
It’s hard to imagine, but the spring classics are finally upon us with Saturday’s running of Milan-San Remo, the first monument of the season. Much has been written about the type of rider perfectly suited to the year’s longest one-day event. Is Milan-San Remo a race for sprinters or attackers? Will the Cipressa and Poggio succeed in shattering the field, or will they simply prime the legs of the strongmen before an all-out bunch sprint?
In the end, La Classicissima is perhaps one of the sport’s biggest crapshoots as crashes, weather, and bad luck all play a role in destroying or elevating the chances of many pre-race favorites. Here’s a rundown of who to watch this Saturday:
Peter Sagan – Similar to last year’s edition, I expect we’ll see a select group hit the line together in San Remo Saturday. That makes a sprinter able to handle the Cipressa, the Poggio, and their descents while possessing a better finishing kick than his rivals—such as Liquigas’ Peter Sagan—the top favorite for Saturday. Sagan’s progressed steadily since his first season as a professional (2010), a season when he was head-scratchingly left off his team’s roster for Milan-San Remo after two stage wins in Paris-Nice. Taking the line for the first time last season, Sagan finished 17th, I suspect due to Milan-San Remo’s whopping 290-kilometers of distance.
The Slovakian returns this year with a grand tour in his legs (an important detail not to be discounted) and a tough week of racing in Tirreno-Adriatico. His stage win in Chieti showed his ability to survive selective courses and he has the added benefit of riding alongside Vincenzo Nibali, a trendy race favorite himself his overall victory in Tirreno. Look for Sagan to win the race in a fashion similar to Goss last year. He’ll take a backseat to Nibali for much of the finale, calmly following wheels and taking risks on the descent of the Poggio to keep himself in contention. If all goes as planned, the youngster will take his first classic at the tender age of 22.
Fabian Cancellara – Cancellara won Milan-San Remo in 2008 and finished second last year after making the lead group, but coming up short in the sprint. Interestingly, Cancellara’s 2008 victory came two weeks after he won L’Eroica and days after his time trial win (and overall title) at Tirreno-Adriatico. Sound familiar? After his impressive victory in L’Eroica two weeks ago and a near perfect build-up at Tirreno, only a true field sprint finish could definitively prevent Spartacus from taking his second victory in La Classicissima. Then again, given the form he’s displayed, even that might not defeat him.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – After his Stage 3 victory in Tirreno, EBH looked to have the form of a 5-Kite Favorite. Assuming a small but select group escapes on the Poggio, the Norwegian is—to me—Team Sky’s best bet for the win Saturday as he’s a better climber than Cavendish. But like many in the peloton, Boasson Hagen abandoned the race early, feeling the effects of a crash and wanting to be fully rested for Saturday. Such decisions are common, but it’s enough to cast a bit of doubt over the Norwegian’s chances, knocking him down a rung from the likes of Sagan and Cancellara.
Mark Cavendish – Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish has spent much of the still-young season either winning or sick. After taking his fourth win of the year in Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico, the World Champion abandoned the race a few days later, trying to keep himself fresh while avoiding the effects of a cold that has laid low many of the sport’s biggest names. For Cavendish, the question at Milan-San Remo remains whether or not he will make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio with the front group. If he does, there’s little reason to believe his powerful team won’t deliver the Manxman his second victory in the season’s first monument.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire has won Milan-San Remo three times—a fourth would tie him with Gino Bartali and Erik Zabel for third on the all-time behind Eddy Merckx (7 wins) and Costante Girardengo (6 wins). Freire has a knack for winning races when no one really expects him to, forcing everyone to utter “Oh yeah, Freire,” after seemingly coming out of nowhere to take a major victory. Freire’s won two races for Katusha so far this season and enjoyed a quiet Tirreno-Adriatico where he finished second behind Mark Cavendish on Stage 2. If a large group hits the Lungomare Italo Calvino in the lead, expect to see the Spaniard on the podium Saturday.
Tom Boonen – Every year it seems that Omega Pharma – Quick Step’s Tom Boonen comes to Milan-San Remo in top form only to find himself thwarted by riders more suited to the race’s crapshoot of a finale. Tommeke’s finished second and third here previously, but often lacks the acceleration to cover winning breakaways or the power to emerge victorious in the final sprint. After a terrific start to the season including a stage win in last week’s Paris-Nice, the Belgian appears as ready as he’ll ever be to take what would be his third of the five Monuments. Unfortunately, the Belgian’s chances have already been dealt a blow thanks to the withdrawals of Sylvain Chavanel and Dries Devenyns.
Vincenzo Nibali – Tirreno-winner Vincenzo Nibali would love to add Milan-San Remo to his resume. But with several teams hoping to see the race come down to a sprint and a finale that’s not quite hard enough to sufficiently kill their chances, Nibali might be relegated to the traditional role of “Italian grand tour favorite who attacks on the Cipressa and is caught at the base of the Poggio”. Then again, Nibali could combine his impressive descending skills on the Poggio with the pack’s fear of dragging Peter Sagan back into the lead to give the race its first Italian winner since Pippo Pozzato in 2006.
Alessandro Ballan – Thanks to a roster decimated by illness and injury, Ballan will likely be Team BMC’s best bet on Saturday. Still out to prove that the big wins he enjoyed earlier in his career were no fluke, Ballan finished fourth last year after making the final selection. And with Gilbert, Hushovd, and Van Avermaet bound to heal sometime soon, there might never be a better chance for Ballan to lead his squad in a major spring classic.
Matti Breschel – Rabobank’s Breschel seems to have overcome the injury troubles that dogged him throughout 2011. Critics will point out that he was dropped from the winning breakaway in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad three weeks. But to me, his performance serve as proof that the Dane’s form is headed in the right direction. With a relatively trouble-free Tirreno in his legs, Breschel should perform well in San Remo.
Daniele Bennati – Bennati’s fine start to the season has been overshadowed by Fabian Cancellara’s exploits as of late. After setting-up Spartacus with a late-race move in L’Eroica, the Italian held on to finish 11th in Siena. At Tirreno-Adriatico, he seemed to have grown stronger as the race progressed: he finished second behind Cancellara in the event’s final time trial. Bennati’s biggest obstacle Saturday is certainly his teammate; he’ll rightfully be expected to defer to his Swiss teammate should they both find themselves in the final selection.
Heinrich Haussler – In 2009, Garmin-Barracuda’s Haussler narrowly missed winning Milan-San Remo when he was caught at the line by Mark Cavendish. Haussler has since fallen short of living up to that season, but says he’s back on track and ready to contend this spring. Saturday will be our first chance to see if he means it.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol’s Greipel is one of the world’s best field sprinters, but there are questions as to whether he can make it over the Cipressa and Poggio with the favorites. If he does, he’s not to be discounted. After all, if Cipollini and Petacchi can do it, why can’t he?
Matthew Goss – GreenEdge’s Goss has done little to show that he has the form necessary to defend his 2011 title. Then again, it’s early in the season and many riders have purposely remained under the radar so as to avoid racing on Saturday with a target on their backs. If Goss has truly recovered from the illness that cut short his Tirreno, a step on the podium is within his grasp—which one remains to be seen.
I went against my gut last year and didn’t pick Matthew Goss. I won’t make the same mistake twice. Sagan takes the win over EBH and Ballan. And then it’s on to Flanders!
Share your picks and favorites below.
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.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’ve seen and reported on a lot of bike races over the years. Next to the Tour de France, the event I’ve most wanted to witness in person was the Giro. The reasons why are simple in my mind.
First, Italians are the masterminds of la dolce vita. No culture could be better suited to watching a bike race than the very people who invented passion. Second, the Giro, unlike Paris-Roubaix, takes place at a time well-suited to standing around outside. Watching a bike race in cold weather just isn’t quite as chummy as it is when the sun is out. Trust me on this. Third, in a world full of nationalistic pride, Italy sets the bar high and the Giro is less a celebration of bike racing than what Italians think bike racing ought to be. Ask an Italian what the Giro is and he’ll tell you it is bike racing, perfected.
I was in Italy to check out Cannondale’s new SuperSix EVO on behalf of peloton magazine. I’ll circle back to my impressions of that bike in another post on its way. The nature of press events is always one in which the host company wishes to wow the journalists as much as possible. The invites are coveted because, well, other than the workload (which is considerable in the age of the Interwebs), these shindigs are fun.
The upshot here is that we were guests of Team Liquigas in their specially cordoned-off area at the start of the team time trial beginning this year’s Giro. The protected space the team had was easily double that of any other team I saw and involved a convoy of vehicles large enough to convey most of the press corps. They had, in fact, not one, but two buses, the second being a rolling kitchen that fed, so far as I could tell, every VIP within the city and not one of the team’s riders. Understandable, really, as what they fed us was too laden with cheese to have been ideal for a pre-race meal.
Similarly, the 9.5 (say “nine dot five”) Cold Wine (a low-alcohol Prosecco) wasn’t really suitable for water bottles if you get my drift. ‘Twas delightful stuff, even if I was served my first flute of it at 11:00 in the morning. And for the record, while it may seem kinda cutesy to have an official pasta sponsor, it’s ultra-cool to have the owner of the company show up to your party with his product.
The self-propelled kitchen was fascinating, but my personal interest went to the mechanics and the gear truck. Theirs was stunningly well-stocked. However, gear is only so interesting; more interesting is how the mechanics set up the bikes.
The big thing I noticed on the Liquigas TT bikes, which I saw on no other bikes (thought it’s possible I missed it) was, truly, a very small thing. Each of the bikes had an in-line brake lever mounted on one of the aero bar extensions. The lever was connected to the front brake, giving the riders the ability to scrub speed without leaving the aero position. If you’ve ever tried to ride a paceline in aero bars then you know just how difficult it is, and just how PRO that little touch is.
Because the team is sponsored by Italian saddle manufacturer Fi’zi:k, the mechanics had every shape of Fi’zi:k saddle in the team’s signature white and lime green color scheme. The entire team could go down for a week and they’d still have saddles to spare. Ditto for Vittoria tubulars. There were enough tires to get the average Belgian team through the first half of any cobbled classic.
As I wandered the streets near the start ramp, every single team used rope, cellophane tape or those stands with the retractable polyester webbing (like you see in banks) to keep the fans back from the riders. Even so, Italian fans would slip under and plead “Che passione!” to see if they would be allowed to hang out.
No matter. The riders had to leave and the most popular among them (e.g. Danilo DiLuca) would have a train of fans chasing them down the street, paparazzi style. See what I mean? The Italians have a word for the crazed fans that chase stars with their cameras.
It was a day to celebrate cycling and the singular achievement that is bike racing. Simple times. A simpler day.