Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Primo Primavera

The 2008 Milan-San Remo is in the books now, with Swiss Fabian Cancellara (CSC) continuing his charge through the early season and adding La Primavera to a resume that already includes Paris-Roubaix, several Tour de France prologues and stages, and a couple of world time trial titles. Not too shabby.

The Cancellara Conundrum

The win at San Remo proved, yet again, what an unusually versatile rider Cancellara is. In short, there aren’t many riders any more that excel at both prologue and full-length time trials, yet still have the punch necessary to win the monumental classics. The efforts just aren’t tremendously similar – the time trials involve a hard but steady-state effort of maybe 40-60 kilometers. Certainly difficult, certainly painful, but not similar to riding at the front of a classic for 200-300 kilometers and maintaining the awareness and snap to make or follow the moves when it’s time. Also difficult, also painful, but different. Sean Kelly could do it, and sprint, too, but he came from a less specialized time in racing.

Where Cancellara obviously excels is in his ability to apply his time trial prowess to classics situations. Paris-Roubaix, which he won solo in 2006, is fairly good match for a natural time-trialist, since it tends to be a war of attrition with the selection from the back rather than from a succession of killing moves. It also seems that, after 200-plus kilometers, Cancellara can also call up a prologue effort to spring himself for anywhere from one to three kilometers in advance of the finish. It worked at the 2007 Tour stage into Compiegne, and it worked at Milan-San Remo.

But what makes Cancellara remarkable is his ability to respond to the repeated sharp attacks of the classics well enough to be able to hang in until those closing kilometers, where he can play to his specialties. Responding to attacks from guys like Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Phillipe Gilbert (FDJeux) takes a decidedly different skill set from that of a typical time trial specialist. It seems, from looking at his performances, if not his power meter data, that Cancellara’s little secret is just pure, unadulterated power. After his previous wins, particularly his Compiegne stage win , other teams knew very well when he would play his cards. There just wasn’t anything they could do about it.

Who Did the Course Changes Favor?

Prior to the start in Milan, many were wondering what affect, if any, the revised course would have on the results. Would this year’s slight changes to the traditional course give a Milan-San Remo that continued to favor sprinters like Alessandro Petacchi (Milram), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), and Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto)? Or would the balance of power shift to the breakaway specialists who could break free on the Poggio and hold off the thundering herd to the line?

The first change to the course seemed to clearly favor the bunch sprinters. Construction on the traditional finishing straight on the Via Roma forced the finish seaward to the Lungomare Italo Calvino. More importantly, it added an additional kilometer from the bottom of the Poggio descent to the line – giving the sprinters teams a bit more time to run down any last-minute attackers. However, that kilometer came with an additional three turns to make any coordinated chase a bit tougher.

But what construction giveth to the sprinters at the finish, it taketh away as the race turned along the coast towards San Remo. Due to road closures and blockages, organizers routed the race over the Le Manie, a five-kilometer climb just south of Savona on the coast. Le Manie slotted into the course with a nice, round 100 kilometers remaining, and gave riders just 30 kilometers from the foot of its descent to recover before hitting the traditional coastal finale: the three capi (the Mele, Cervo, and Berto) followed by the 5.7 kilometer Cipressa and the 3.7 kilometer Poggio. The climb may have cost some of the supersprinters, like McEwen and Petacchi, a bit of necessary punch as the race hit the Poggio, but the more versatile Freire was still able to make the cut come crunch time.

So did the revised course favor sprinters or attackers in the end? Cancellara’s win on Sunday could be seen as an answer, but realistically, it’s only a single data point, and there have always been successful breakaways in this “sprinters’ classic.” So only time will tell, but in the end, the changes may favor the attackers. While the finish will almost certainly return to the Via Roma when construction is complete, there’s a chance Le Manie may grow on the organizers, who have been known to add climbs in the past to avoid guaranteed bunch sprints.

A Broadcasting Note

U.S. viewers who watched the tape delayed San Remo television coverage on Versus were likely left with a few questions. The race coverage was perfectly clear – the questions surround the English voice of cycling, Phil Liggett. First of all, is Phil getting some sort of paycheck from Astana or Trek for all the on-air griping he does about Astana’s exclusion and for his plugs for the fairly ridiculous Trek-owned “Let Levi Ride” site? If not, he should, because if you’re going to scrap your integrity as a journalist, you might as well sell it rather than give it away. Granted, there’s a time and a place for editorializing, but that time isn’t “constantly” and the place isn’t during the play-by-play of a race that Astana likely wouldn’t have factored into anyway.

Bob Roll was also doing some pushing for Let Levi Ride during the Tour of California coverage, and both he and Phil continue to refer to it as a grassroots effort by Leipheimer’s fans, which it isn’t. Either Phil and Bob aren’t doing their homework, or they’re being dishonest in trying to gather support for the organization that, admittedly, has helped ensure them gainful employment for the past nine years by playing to the nationalistic hopes of the U.S. audience. Sure, personal agendas are rife in the media, but the transparency of the Versus allegiances takes away from the coverage.

One of Phil’s grumblings about the Astana situation didn’t specifically cite that team, but was pretty transparent nonetheless. When Cofidis’ Tristin Valentin took a guardrail ride and crashed on the descent of the Cipressa, Phil commented on the fact that he rode for Cofidis, which “despite having drugs on the team” was invited to the Tour anyway. Well, I never! He does have a valid point buried in the harumphing, since Cofidis did have the whole doping blow-up the day before the 2004 Paris-Roubaix and did have Christian Moreni get popped at last year's Tour de France. But, like his darling Astana, Cofidis has addressed those problems, so what problem does Phil have with them besides sour grapes? Additionally, Phil’s little snipe is a bit intellectually dishonest, since one of the central figures of the Cofidis scandal of 2004 was David Millar, who he seems to enjoy quite a bit in his other commentary. Has Millar’s change of uniform confused Liggett? And without Cofidis handing out paychecks, how would he have been able to rattle on about Bradley Wiggins for stages on end during the 2007 Tour de France? After all, what TV coverage do track pursuiters get outside of grand tour prologues?

Phil’s call of Valentin’s crash also made it strikingly clear that Phil and Paul weren’t doing the San Remo commentary live. From a pretty fuzzy, overhead helicopter shot of a high-speed descent, Phil was claiming that the crashing rider “looked like the style of Valentin.” The difficult distance and camera angle, combined with the fact that Valentin basically entered the shot as a red blob and fell over, and the fact that most people, even Phil and Paul, would not know the “style” of a modest utility rider like Valentin if he rode over their toes, made it pretty obvious that the commentary team is boosting its powers of perception by pre-screening the footage at least once prior to recording. Again, it’s not a big deal, and they cover pretty well most of the time, but could we at least try to be a little discreet?


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Nice place you got here.

It'd be a shame if anything were to happen to it.
Great insight.
You got to admit, Cancellara timed that attack perfectly. It was a great move, and the fact that he has the horse power to make it stick, makes him fun to watch.
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