Where I live it will be 95°F today, but looking to the weekend and next week the days and evenings, will be getting cooler. Already some of the leaves are starting to lose their chlorophyll, beginning to go yellow or red at the edges. The company I work for is preparing for 2013. There is brochure copy to write. The season is winding down. This might all be a beat or two early, but…
On the roads of Northern Spain, especially the steep ones, the Vuelta is at full tilt, the battle lines drawn, the GC shaking out slowly. It wasn’t long ago that many of us argued over whether Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) or Chris Froome (Team Sky) would win this race. Purito Rodriguez (Katusha) apparently isn’t a regular RKP reader. Otherwise, he might have clued us in to his intention to win his home Grand Tour.
If you have been following closely, you will know what surprises this race has offered up. You would have seen the likes of Froome clinging to wheels. You would have seen Contador attacking with his signature explosiveness but not able to close the deal. You would have seen Rodriguez ride the time trial of his life to keep the jersey on his shoulders.
Perhaps it is still early to cast judgement. The top 5, which includes Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), are all within 3 minutes of one another. How many lead changes and plot twists we have in front of us is almost impossible to tell.
But, the excitement of the Vuelta, and some recent comments about the Tour, got me thinking about just which of the Grand Tours I’ve enjoyed most this season. Ryder Hesjedal’s big Giro win was fun to watch and featured plenty of back and forth with Rodriguez as well as Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD). The Tour, by some estimations, disappointed, with Team Sky managing every last detail to perfection. Still, the Tour is the Tour, a tautology that means something to most race fans.
So, though it might be early, this week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: Which was the best Grand Tour this year? And why?
The Vuelta starts tomorrow, and, if we accept the dominant storyline that this steep Tour at the desperate end of the season is only a showdown between Sky’s Chris Froome and Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank’s Alberto Contador, then this week’s Group Ride is pretty simple. Who will win, the domestique, straining at his leash, or the returning master of the modern grand tour?
One view is that Contador will win because that’s what he does when the tour is grand. No one on the planet can stay with him when the road goes up and he’s in good form. But is he in good form? Last week’s Eneco Tour would suggest he’s going pretty well, but is it good enough to win in Spain?
The other view is that nothing can stop Chris Froome’s rise to the top of the sport, except perhaps a firm but quiet word in his earpiece from a DS who doesn’t want to see the flying domestique upstage his team leader. Like Contador, Froome excels in the steep. He is able to jump, to find another gear when he needs it. The question is whether he’s had enough time to rest and recover from the Tour and then the Olympics, and then to build his legs again for a three week race.
Of course, there will be other GC contenders showing up, trying to wriggle their way onto the podium. Defending champ JJ Cobo showed last year that he can hang pretty well in the mountains, and Team Movistar will also have Alejandro Valverde along, should Cobo falter.
Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is a rider on the brink. He might not have the change of speed the others have, but he’s a world class climber, and this is certainly a climber’s race. Other’s who might factor include AG2R La Mondiale’s John Gadret, Euskatel-Euskadi’s Igor Anton and Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez.
So have at it. This week’s Group Ride asks: If it’s either Froome or Conatador, which one? And if not them, then who will be the one to confound the commentators?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
What is wrong with the Vuelta a España? No. Seriously. What is wrong with this race? It’s a grand tour for crying out loud. It takes in some of the most beautiful roads in Europe, in a country with a rich cycling culture, passionate fans, great food, etc., etc. And yet, the Vuelta is a second tier race.
You know this is true because you’ve read the previews that highlight guys like Bradley Wiggins, Vincenzo Nibali, Igor Anton and Joaquim Rodriguez as potential winners. None of those guys is a world beater. Nibali is defending champion, but this year’s Giro showed just where the young Italian is in the grand tour pecking order, close but not quite at the top. The top Spanish rider, Alberto Contador, prioritized the Giro and Tour ahead of his home country’s race. What does that say?
Perhaps the Vuelta’s diminished shine has something to do with its timing. We’ve already had two grand tours, and most of the big riders are thinking about the world championship now. Would a move back to the beginning of the racing season return the Vuelta to its previous stature?
The proliferation of shorter stage races (e.g. California, USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Romandie, Eneco) also clearly has an effect on our appetite for more stage racing this time of year.
Finally, there seems to be a finite amount of oxygen for grand tours, and the bigger the Tour and Giro get, the less air remains for the Vuelta. Say what you will about Angelo Zomegnan’s recent Giri (the man just lost his job), but that race has been fantastic in recent years, and the Tour remains the Tour, the ne plus ultra of the cycling year.
So, tell me, what is wrong with the Vuelta a España? Is it timing? Is it organization? Do we even need three grand tours? Would more prize money ensure more big name participants? If you were Javier Guillen, the director, what would you do differently?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I was going to writing something witty and trenchant about the smaller Tours that dot the UCI calendar, but everything I came up with was too obscure, cruel or unfunny to waste your taxed eyesight on. The Tour of Romandie is on now. Then comes the Giro (and Tour of California). The Dauphiné and Switzerland are after that. Then le Tour. Tour of Poland and the Eneco countries are in there next. Then the Vuelta, and then it’s fall, and we’re back to watching Phillipe Gilbert write his legend.
For me, Tour season is tiring. There is a lot to keep up with, lot’s of racing, with very few results. The calculus of controversy becomes more abstruse. We go from reading the novellas of the Spring Classics to the Russian Epics of the Grand Tours. Oodles of characters to remember. Someone always going “mad.”
I am a Classics man myself. The races are smaller, easier to digest, like comic books…um…excuse me…graphic novels. They appeal to my sense of drama and brutality, my impatience. Four hours (roughly) to watch, four weeks to digest and debate.
Padraig is a Tour-a-holic. This is his season (quite literally) in the sun, and these are the races that quicken his pulse from its normally zombie-like cadence. The man loves an epic. Ask him how many Yes albums he owns. King Crimson. Pynchon novels. You get my drift.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Which are you, Classics or Tours? Perhaps there is a sub-species of one-week tour lovers, but I have not met one of these. Perhaps you love any and all racing. You’re poly-velo-amorous. You freak me out, but it takes all kinds. Tell us about it.
Say what you are, and why you are that way. Solve the problem, but show your work. Open our eyes to your unique and very valuable point-of-view.
Much about professional cycling can be understood in terms of the Brady Bunch, that late ’60s, early ’70s television confection that taught a whole lot of us American types exactly how to function within the confines of an idyllic suburban milieu. The Brady Bunch took everyday family problems, turned their volume up to 11 and broke off the knob. If I hadn’t seen that one episode (“Mail Order Hero”) in which Bobby fakes a terminal illness to get a visit from his hero, Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath, then I most certainly would have employed that strategy to win a visit from my own “hero” of the time, Farrah Fawcett.
Whew, that was a close one.
The Grand Tours are like the Brady girls, Marsha, Jan and Cindy. Sure, Marsha (the Tour) is the oldest, prettiest and the one whose route you’d most like to explore, but she’s so conceited and self-centered sometimes. Seriously, high maintenance girls/Grand Tours can be so much more trouble than they’re worth. Jan (the Giro), on the other hand, is smarter and more well-rounded and probably deserves more lines in the show. She has a subtle sophistication that Marsha lacks. You could spend your whole life with her, grow old together, raise small tours of your own, like Suisse or Eneco. Cindy (the Vuelta) is just cute as hell, but it’s hard to build a whole show around her. She has that adorable lisp, and you’re just sure that when she grows up, in that future that never comes on television, she’s going to be a real knock out.
To carry the metaphor to the next, and even more absurd, level, the Tour of California is Mrs. Brady, not your first choice, but you’d do her. Come on, she (it) is gorgeous. The Tour of Oman is Alice, the maid. Her timing is all wrong, and she’s not pretty, but you can’t help but feel she brings something necessary (warm weather training) to the show.
The three big component makers, Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM are like the Brady boys. Campy is Greg. He’s the oldest. He’s a bit of a playboy, but also sort of a mess. Shimano is Peter, the middle child. He’s the go-to if you need to get something done, because you get less drama than with Greg. Sure, he’s prone to fits of fancy, like that one time when he imagined he was a great detective, prancing about the tiny screen with a deerstalker hat on (Di2 anyone?), but ultimately Peter is your friend. When everyone else is at tryouts for football or cheerleading, Peter is on the couch, doing his homework. SRAM is Bobby, the young upstart. Bobby’s got real potential. He learns the most from his mistakes. He’s going to be a solid grown up.
The Brady house is actually a good metaphor for the pro peloton as a whole. Mr. Brady is an architect, he designs other people’s houses, i.e. he sets the style for how other people race and ride. The Brady house was, at the time, a super cool, modern design that all suburban families were jealous of. It managed to be futuristically perfect for a family of eight, plus maid and dog, but also homey and comfortable. Just like the peloton of that time, though, the Brady house looks hopelessly dated through today’s eyes. What was once cutting edge, now looks sort of silly, like Greg LeMond’s time trial helmet.
I shouldn’t pretend to understand really. I’m just Tiger, the family pet, out in a small house of my own in the backyard, only sporadically involved in the show, never really allowed in the house for fear I’ll ruin the furniture.
With Worlds upon us, we are fully into the season’s wind down. Riders who peaked for the Spring Classics may have mustered one more burst, or managed their work load with an eye on some of the Fall races. The big guns of summer have been laying low thinking about the end of year stage races. It’s all about peaking at the right time, or the right times.
Meanwhile, from my saddle, the onset of Autumn looks like a brand new day. I was thinking about how the pros plan their years, the races they target, the way they ramp up and cool down, and it led me, as it usually does, to examining my own patterns.
As a year-round rider, I also have peaks, and those correspond, roughly, to the seasons. In the spring, when the first warmth creeps back into the morning, and my gloves shed their fingers, I experience this great burst of form. I am fast. I am motivated. I can climb, and I can sprint, and it all feels good. Then the rains come. What started as a sunny rebirth turns into a wet slog that leaves me praying for the first strains of summer.
Then, too, I get a lift. The hot summer air gets me down to my lightest riding kit. Being lighter makes me faster. The summer blasts away. After a month of sweat-soaked speed, I get tired of rubbing salt into my eyes. The heat takes its toll. It wears me down.
Then the fall descends on us. Cool air blows up my hill. I pull on a pair of arm warmers, and I’m on top of it again. Instead of feeling as though I’m losing my soul to the constant flow of perspiration, I hum along at near perfect temperature, dropping triathletes in my wake, like the dust off a Trans Am’s bumper.
The leaves fall. The rain returns. Wet leaves turn the roads into brown ice. My knickers are sodden with cold water. By late November, I’m ready for the snow to fall. What portends months on the couch for some, connotes daily rides bereft of joggers and hybrid-pedaling accountants for me. To ride, as those first fat flakes drift from the graying sky, is sublime. It’s like the whole road is mine again. I ride down into the city, along the river, alone.
By February, I’ve been barking against the cold for too long. My tights are grimed with salt and sand, put down to keep the cars from reenacting a carnival ride. The elastics in my winter hats are all distended. I’d sell my bottom bracket for Spring to spring up from the icy crust.
These are my seasons. At the beginning of each I peak, by the end I’m just hanging on.
Sam Abt wrote of the pros:
“Out in the countryside of France, the fields are brown and barren, their corn long harvested and the stalks chopped down for fodder. Until the stubble is plowed under when winter wheat is planted, the landscape is bleak and the air full of despair.
“For professional bicycle riders, April is not the cruelest month. Far from it. In April, hopes for a successful season are as green as the shoots just then starting to push through the fields that the riders pass in their early races. The cruelest month is really October, when the nine-month racing season ends and the riders finally know what they have failed to accomplish.”
With no trophies to hoist aloft, no podium girls to kiss, I’m left to the elements. I ride to be fast and smooth, to find myself “on top of it” as Souleur wrote this week. All winter I ride to be fast in the Spring. All Spring I ride to be fast in the Summer. All Summer I ride to be fast in the Fall. All Fall I ride to be fast in the Winter. Seasonal.
I wish the pros luck in the coming month. Some will be sprinting for victory in Australia. Others will be eying Lombardy and Tours to salvage the hopes they sprouted in Sam Abt’s Spring. I will be riding too. Trying to be fast.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In Italian bike racing, Angelo Zomegnan is an important, powerful and sometimes sensitive person. The former Gazzetta dello Sport writer is now race director for the Giro d’ Italia, Milan-San Remo, Tirreno Adriatico and the Giro di Lombardia, all owned and organized by RCS Sport. You will recall that, having been notified that Lance Armstrong’s RadioShack team would not be attending the Giro, choosing the Tour of California instead, Zomegnan chose not to invite the Shack to Tirreno Adriatico either.
Apparently, there was a subsequent agreement, made after Armstrong called Zomegnan directly, to allow Radio Shack to ride in the Giro di Lombardia. In fact, according to the Shack, a contract of some sort was signed guaranteeing them an invitation. Then, Zomegnan decided not to invite the American team after all, and now they have filed a suit in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) seeking to be admitted to the last big Italian race of the season.
It has been alleged that Zomegnan’s pique with the Shack began when Armstrong did not appear for Milan-San Remo, as expected. Then, when Armstrong’s team opted out of the Giro, the Italian director wrote the squad off entirely. Whether or not this is the case, and remember that Vuelta a España director Javier Guillén also chose not to invite RadioShack to his race this year, is only conjecture, until Zomegnan steps forward and confirms it.
Shack rider Janez Brajkovic finished second at Lombardia in 2008, so RadioShack believes it deserves to be at the race start. Armstrong himself never planned to be at Lombardia, but Levi Leipheimer had the race on his schedule, so two riders with legitimate chances for the overall win suggests the team was taking it seriously.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What should have happened here? Should Zomegnan have invited the Shacks? Or has RadioShack peed in the proverbial pool? Has their decision not to race the Giro given European race organizers the reason they needed to cross the team off their lists? Is it about Armstrong personally? Or is it about the way the team has conducted themselves?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International