Wednesday, April 30, 2008



Probably 10 years ago or so, VeloNews published a photo from the Ronde Van Vlaanderen/Tour of Flanders as it passed through the Flemish town of Gistel. Someone there had strung every Johan Museeuw jersey you could imagine along a clothesline at the side of the road. I mean everything – ADR, Lotto, GB-MG, Mapei, rainbow stripes, the works. The caption was simply “Flaundry.” For some reason, the term stuck with me, and with the spring classics now behind us, it seemed like a good title for a post to wash away some last thoughts from a great three weeks before hanging them out to dry.

The Liege-Tour Fallacy

This time of year, the media (and sometimes the riders) seem to delight in trying to divine Tour de France predictions from the results of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Take, for example, this little product from AFP, which casts Valverde’s Liege win as a warning shot to fellow Tour contenders like Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre). I suppose they do it because Liege is often the first time the Tour heavy hitters emerge in concert from their hideouts after studiously avoiding each other for three months. In fact, that has to be it, because there’s virtually no other reason to think that Liege has any bearing on readiness to win the Tour de France.

So what does a one-day race in late April tell us about a 23 day race in July? Not a damn thing, other than some of the same people ride both races. Just look at the history. For starters, only one single man has won both Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour de France in the same year, though he did do it three times. Any guesses? Right – Eddy Merckx pulled off that particular double in 1969, 1971, and 1972. And if we know anything, it’s that Merckx’s results really can’t be extrapolated or applied to anyone else. They are what they are, and have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of us.

Looking further, only three other men can boast victories in both races, though at least one won’t be boasting, because he’s dead. Frenchman Jacques Anquetil (1934-1987), the first man to win the Tour five times (1957, 1961-1964) notched his single Liege win in 1966. The first to do the double was the Swiss Ferdi Kübler, most famous these days for the iconic picture of him freaking out with frame pump in hand. He won the Tour de France in 1950 and followed up with Liege wins in 1951 and 1952. The last to do it, of course, is Bernard Hinault, the Badger, who won Liege in 1977, won it again in a snowstorm in 1980, and took his five Tour de France titles in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1985.

So what does all of that mean? It means that nobody has won the Tour and Liege in the same year since 1972 – before any of the current contenders were even born, and in a far different era of professional cycling. It also means that the last Tour win by a winner of any edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege was in 1985 – 23 years ago. And that looking to Liege to predict Tour victories would mean comparing the 2008 Tour contenders to Hinault and Merckx, which they ain’t.

Of course, if a Tour contender is way off the back or 10 kilos overweight at Liege, it’s not the best sign for his season. But none of them were too far off each other this year – Valverde won, slightly in front of a couple of Schlecks, and a little bit more ahead of Evans and Cunego. Given the margin of victory, that the Tour is two months away, that the Côte de La Redoute is not exactly the Alpe d’Huez, and that the Tour is roughly 22 days longer than Liege, I hardly think Valverde’s classic win tells us much at all about his Tour chances. Certainly, there are numerous winners of one of these races that have been contenders in the other (Armstrong, Lemond, and Hamilton to name a few), but you could say the same for a lot of other races and probably come up with much better correlations. Even then, it’s a dubious practice, especially when people can rip a true Tour prep race like the Dauphine Libere to pieces, and then completely tank at the real Tour.

In the end, looking at the 100+ year histories of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour de France, you could just as well argue that winning one will almost certainly doom your chances to win the other.

The Conquistadors

As we pointed out earlier, there are now several classics winners from Spain, that sun-scorched land where the week-long stage race seems to be king. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) has since added another Liege victory to his 2006 title, which he preceeded with a Fleche Wallonne win. Oscar Freire (Rabobank) had a great spring as well, putting in an impressive ride in support of Juan Antonio Flecha at Flanders before winning Gent-Wevelgem three days later. That was the first Spanish win in the big three cobbled classics, and Freire followed that performance up by persevering in his campaign not just through Roubaix, but through Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne as well. That’s a boatload of punishment for anyone.

But the real revelation isn’t the pair of Spanish winners. Igor Astarloa took the “first Spaniard” title quite awhile ago by winning the 2003 Fleche, and we’ve certainly known Valverde had the legs for a couple of years now. The real story is in the number of other Spaniards playing a role up north. This year, behind the raised hands of Valverde, you had the tireless prep work of Joachim Rodriguez (Caisse d’Epargne), who could well have the legs to take a classic himself. Flecha has made the hopefuls list for every cobbled classic and, together with Freire, has formed half of an odd leading duo for a Dutch team. And Quick.Step, that most Belgian of outfits, hired Carlos Barredo to help out Boonen at Flanders and Roubaix. That’s a pretty big endorsement.

Then there’s Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Juan Jose Oroz, who, though tough to spot, may have the most impressive classics record of the past 12 months. Peter at Bobke Strut can show you why.

The Youth Movement

For awhile there in the early half of the 2000’s, the spring classics were starting to look disturbingly like cycling’s geriatric ward. The names garnering all the press were all the trailing end of a generation that had steamrolled the north for the last decade. You had Peter Van Petegem (then Lotto-Domo) pulling off the fabled Flanders-Roubaix double in 2003 at the age of 33, and Davide Rebellin sweeping the Ardennes week at the age of 32. Museeuw was still hanging around, as were Mapei alums Michele Bartoli, Gianluca Bartolami, and Andrea Tafi. Suddenly, it seemed that becoming the next Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle and winning Roubaix at 40 was everyone’s career goal.

Now, just a few years later, only Rebellin remains active of those mentioned above, and he’s competitive at that. But though he won Paris-Nice and was in the mix in his beloved Ardennes this past week, his 36 years may finally be costing him the punch to win the single day races. Indeed, Rebellin, George Hincapie (High Road), Stefan Wesemann (Collstrop), and a few others are the last of that late 1990s-early 2000s era of riders holding on, and they’re giving way, if unwillingly, to the new generation. With the exception of Freire’s Gent-Wevelgem win (he’s 32), all of the major spring classics were won by riders 30 years old or younger: Stijn Devolder (Ronde Van Vlaanderen, 28), Tom Boonen (Paris-Roubaix, 27), Damiano Cunego (Amstel Gold, 26), Kim Kirchen (Fleche Wallonne, 30), and Alejandro Valverde (Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 28).

The Rinse Cycle

Did you feel it? Because the lack of doping news in the past three weeks was almost conspicuous in its absence.

In the time between the Ronde Van Vlaanderen depart in Bruges through the Liege finale in Ans, there was nary a doping story to be found, cycling-wise. Even better, none of the doping news that was floating about originated with this year's classics. Sure Björn Leukemans’s (formerly Silence-Lotto) testosterone suspension was upheld in Belgium, the Floyd Landis (formerly Phonak) case dragged on well into its second year, Liquigas signed Ivan Basso, and Phil and Paul knocked out the occasional Astana exclusion gripe on the Versus coverage. But really, it was pretty quiet.

I point this out apropos of nothing. I’m not saying the sport itself is cleaner, that the classics are any cleaner than the grand tours, that the drugs or the testing have improved, or that the public has lost interest in cycling’s dirty (f)laundry. I’m just saying that for three weeks, I enjoyed the focus on the racing.


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Monday, April 28, 2008


The Mutability of Monuments

Calling something a monument adds a certain air of permanence to it, a sense of historic untouchability. After all, nobody suggests adding a revolving rooftop restaurant to the Washington Monument, do they? But the five monuments of cycling – Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Roubaix, Ronde Van Vlaanderen, Milan-San Remo, and the Giro di Lombardia – while formidable, aren’t as permanent as the term might indicate. They’re more like sprightly senior citizens than stone monoliths, closer to the quirky great aunt who somehow remains stylish than to sterile historical sites with interpretive audio tours.

Over the years, these races have subtly remade themselves as both cycling and the world around them have changed, retaining their history while preserving their contemporary relevance. Take Milan-San Remo. The Cipressa climb, now such a natural a part of the San Remo finale, was only added in 1982 when organizers saw that the Poggio no longer provided enough of a challenge to break up the modern peloton before the finish. When the Cipressa was no longer enough to consistently split things up, the organizers added the Le Manie climb this year.

The mighty Ronde Van Vlaanderen, too, shifts a bit each year, sometimes nipping westward from Brugge through Johan Museeuw’s hometown of Gistel and out toward the coast. Other times it drops almost straight down into the hill zone in the Flemish Ardennes. What’s more, the flexible “Tour of Flanders” name doesn’t even anchor the race to a set start and finish. It's finished in Meerbeke recently, but not always. Same story with Italy's Giro di Lombardia, which has even started in Mendrisio, Switzerland.

And Paris-Roubaix -- flat, 46-tooth inner chainring Paris-Roubaix -- once had a hill. It was (and is) at Doullens, situated some 150 kilometers north of Paris, and about 100 kilometers south of Roubaix. As recently as the Sean Kelly years, Paris-Roubaix didn’t even always finish in the iconic municipal velodrome, but rather on the street outside La Redoute’s corporate headquarters on several occasions. It’s also easy to forget that Peter Post’s remarkable record speed of 45.129 kph in 1964 was posted in the edition that boasted fewer kilometers of cobblestones than any before or since, an aberration that jumpstarted the effort by locals and the organizers to preserve and sometimes exhume the cobbled roads of northern France. Indeed, it has taken substantial yearly effort to keep Paris-Roubaix such a barbaric anachronism.

And yet, few complain about the renovations beyond the initial recoiling at the thought of change. Soon after, the public forgives and even embraces the yearly eccentricities of the monuments – a privilege afforded to few things besides old men and old races. That the public does so speaks to the skill of the organizers in integrating changes without tearing the delicate fabric of these historic icons. There are no doubt many who would try to preserve some “classic” version of these races for posterity, picking a single year’s course as some sort of zenith, bolting the course markers permanently to the signposts, and simply inflating the one-kilometer-to-go banner each year.

It would be easy that way, but the effect would be predictable racing on courses preserved under glass. Instead, the organizers of the monuments have managed to remain forward-thinking, despite the weight of history they carry on their shoulders. The positive effect of progressive race planning was evident in Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where the new Côte de la Roche aux Faucons climb with 20 kilometers remaining jumpstarted the final selection and led to a three-rider showdown between winner Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), and Frank Schleck (CSC).

This year wasn’t the first time Liege organizer ASO has taken action to ensure that the race doesn’t become just a longer version of Fleche Wallonne, another race to be decided on a frenzied final ascent. Faced with larger and larger groups of riders arriving together at the foot of the final Côte de Saint Nicolas climb to sprint it out on the final stretch up to Ans, ASO resurrected the "terrible triple" in 2005. The sharp, closely spaced climbs of the Côte de Wanne, Côte de Stockeau, and the Côte de La Haute Levée, icons of the Merckx era, are too far from the finish to make a final selection, but they do take their toll on the peloton. The year of their introduction, Alexander Vinokourov (then T-Mobile) outsprinted Jens Voigt (CSC) for the win after the reintroduced climbs reshaped the race.

But, just a year later, the terrible triple had been assimilated into various team strategies, and the group sprinting for the win ballooned to 12 riders, with Valverde emerging the winner. Another year on, in 2007, the group on the Saint Nicholas had grown still larger, with Danilo DiLuca taking the sprint, and so the new Roche aux Faucons was placed into the finale for 2008.

That Valverde won Liege-Bastogne-Liege again this year under different circumstances speaks to the Spaniard’s adaptability. But the fact that he won it from a group of three rather than a group of 12 speaks to La Doyenne’s adaptability as well. After 118 years, she’s still stylish.


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Thursday, April 24, 2008


A Pound of Flèche

It’s a little bit hard to see, because somehow it’s hovering just below the radar, but High Road is on what may be this young season’s finest winning binge. The biggest victory by far came in yesterday’s Flèche Wallonne, where Luxemburger Kim Kirchen ground past Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) to win the slo-mo sprint atop the mighty Mur de Huy. Yes, it's still a mid-week classic, but it's a good one. And behind that fairly prestigious win, High Road has racked up the victories in an astonishing number of locales – just not in the headline events.

While Kirchen was still feeling the aftereffects of the bubbly over in Belgium, the other half of the team was busy collecting first and second place on Stage 3 of the Tour de Georgia with Greg Henderson and Andre Griepel. Henderson’s efforts and a time bonus also gave the big New Zealander the leader’s jersey, at least until the course tilts uphill later in the week. So yeah, Wednesday was a good day.

But High Road’s low-profile streak goes much farther than fighting a good war on two fronts this week. Let’s have a look at April, which isn’t even over yet. On April 3, Mark Cavendish won his second of two consecutive stages in the Three Days of DePanne in Belgium, both in bunch sprints. Two days later in the Hel Van Het Mergelland up in the Netherlands, High Road duo Adam Hansen and Tony Martin attacked together after 15 kilometers of the one-dayer and stayed away for the rest of the day, with Martin getting the nod to take the win. The next day, Kirchen took a bunch sprint win ahead of Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) in Stage 2 of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, took a day off, then won Stage 4. That victory came just ahead of teammate Morris Possoni, who had been in the breakaway until the peloton swept by at the last second.

A drought of five entire days followed, until Cavendish nipped Roubaix winner Tom Boonen (Quick.Step), who seems to suffer from premature gesticulation, to win the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen and salvage a disappointing Flanders-Roubaix week for the squad. The next day, down in France, young Norwegian talent Edvald Boasson Hagen outkicked four breakaway companions to win the GP Denain. Another agonizing five day wait ensued before Kirchen and Henderson picked up the slack in Belgium and Georgia, respectively.

And that’s just April. Here’s a quick view of the rest of the early season:

January: Roger Hammond takes the team’s first win in the British cyclocross championships, and Adam Hansen adds the Aussie TT championship, all in an effort to get themselves out of the terrible black kits the team debuted with. Griepel wins four stages and the overall at the Tour Down Under, giving him the lead in the admittedly anemic ProTour competition and, thankfully, a different jersey.

February: Smitten with the fetching white look of Griepel’s ProTour jersey, the team changes to white kit with disco-rific lettering. George Hincapie and Bernhard Eisel bat cleanup at a pair of weeklong stage races, winning the final stages of the Tour of California and Volta ao Algarve, respectively.

March: Trackie-in-disguise Bradley Wiggins goes under cover with the British national team to win three gold medals at the World Track Championships, taking the individual pursuit on his own (obviously), the team pursuit, and the Madison with trade teammate Cavendish. Boasson Hagen scores the second victory of his fledgling pro career by winning the 8.3k final TT of the Criterium International.

Yes, there are no stages of Paris-Nice, no Roubaix title, no Flanders. But keep in mind we’re not even to the Dauphine yet, and the list above only notes outright victories, not podiums or admirable performances. Though there’s an argument to be made for quality over quantity, High Road’s wins, particularly those in April, are all solid wins and good media attention for the team. And when it comes down to it, there are precious few of those super-wins that can make a season on their own. Five monuments and a couple of grand tours is a pretty narrow window to shoot for, and for a team in search of a sponsor, betting big money on small odds and good luck would be a pretty risky strategy.

There’s a lesson here for teams looking to get in the papers as often as possible, even if it’s a bit less glamorous than a Tour de France GC win or hoisting a cobblestone at Roubaix: sign a ridiculous number of sprinters and let them have at it. Those GC wins take big manpower (as can certain sprinters), but if you have a few sprinters who can ride the wheels and fend for themselves, and if they’re pretty young like Griepel, Boasson Hagen, Cavendish, and Gerald Ciolek, you get pretty good media bang for your buck. If a couple of them can get relegated or spout off in the press occasionally, and Cavendish seems like a good prospect here, all the better. Call it the Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto) model for cycling publicity. It won’t get you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but it’s a lot cheaper than the Lance Armstrong plan.


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Monday, April 21, 2008


Amstel Gold: The Italian Dilemma

Watching the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday morning gave me a bit of deja vu, somehow sucking me right back to 2005. It wasn’t just the race that triggered the flashbacks, but rather the combination of watching the familiar scenes around Maastricht and stepping out briefly into the weather outside my own front door.

Here in the mid-Atlantic United States, it was one of those grey spring days with twilight from dawn to dusk and drenching rain showers blowing through every hour. Even in those interludes when it didn’t look to be raining, I was greeted by those huge, soaking rogue drops that make me look above for a dripping tree, only to get a clear view of a cloudy sky hovering like a low ceiling over the horizon. They were the type of clouds you could have ridden up into if there were a decent hill around, but standing in the flatlands, you could only peer out through the mist sandwiched between them and soaked ground.

With the rain pounding the orange tulips flat out in the lawn and the scenes of the Cauberg playing out on the computer screen, it was easy to make the mental leap back to the grey Amstel of 2005. Back then, I was perched shivering on top of that nasty little hill in a press room located in a white, corrugated steel building. Sitting in a metal building on a wet 50 degree day is a bit chilly, but the facilities were a lesson in effective truck-based service provision. Out one side of the building, a pink and black T-Mobile truck was pumping out the wi-fi signal necessary to get text and pictures out of the Ardennes hills, while a trailer on the other side housed what must have been one of the world’s finest port-o-johns. It had everything: urinals, stalls, toilet paper, running water, soap, flowers, and a 60-year-old woman who would hop up off her stool in the corner to wipe down the urinal as soon as you stepped away, making you feel somehow guilty even if you’d been exceptionally careful. And, of course, there was the Amstel truck, keeping the assembled press in good spirits by continually restocking the in-suite bar. I’m not really sure where the sandwiches and coffee were coming from, but I was certainly glad they were there.

Not everything functioned as well as the press room in 2005 though. Unlike this year’s edition, that one was held in the same eternal twilight, chilly air, and rain that blanketed the mid-Atlantic yesterday, as well as an intense fog that grounded the TV helicopters, preventing the camera motos from transmitting any live television signals. By the time the fixed position cameras on the Cauberg kicked in, we were running from the press room to that bridge you can see in the coverage to see what the race looked like, since we’d only have three chances all day.

Yes, indeed, despite the similarities in weather, there were several differences between my Amstel Gold 2005 and 2008 experiences. I saw more of the race this year, made my own coffee, and the wi-fi signal was Verizon instead of T-Mobile. The plumbing is inside the house, and if there’s a need for wiping down the toilet, I’ll likely be told in no uncertain terms to do it my damn self. But as far as the winners, there were some similarities to be had.

In 2005, the winner was Danilo Diluca (then Liguigas, now LPR), an Italian who despite his classics success always dreamed of winning the Giro d’Italia. He went on to take Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, but came up short at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, thus failing to repeat the incredible Ardennes sweep that countryman Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) had achieved the year before. Though he failed to complete the triple that year, Diluca would return in 2007 to take his Liege before going on to realize his Giro d’Italia win, snapping closed the mouths of people like me, who always thought (and sometimes said) that he was just kidding himself.

Diluca’s Giro goal was easy to dismiss, if only because several other Italians with similar profiles and better results – Michele Bartoli, Paolo Bettini, and Davide Rebellin – had previously chased the same dream and failed. Further, once they finally cast off the shackles of grand tour expectations and surrendered to the idea that they were classics riders, and great ones at that, their careers leapt forward. Sure, we were dismissive, but we were just acting in Diluca’s best interests.

Despite the weight of history being against him, Diluca somehow (and many people continue to question just how) made it work, as has 2008 winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre), who now boasts the same Giro d’ Italia/Giro di Lombardia/Amstel Gold lines on his resume as Diluca. The difference between Cunego’s grand tour/classic equation, Diluca’s, and Bettini, Bartoli, and Rebellin’s, however, is that he’s approached it from opposite direction. Unlike his countrymen, who all notched classics before getting grand tour ideas, Cunego tasted his first big success at the 2004 Giro d’Italia, where he won four stages and the overall, and succeeded in pissing off Gilberto Simoni to no end (the former being much more difficult than the latter). He went on to take the first of his two Giro di Lombardia titles that fall, which capped off a year that also saw him win the Giro del Trentino and a host of Italian semi-classics: the GP Industria & Artigianato-Larciano, Giro dell’Appennino, GP Nobili Rubinetterie, and the GP Fred Mengoni.

But promising classics results be damned – you win a grand tour at 23, and you’ll hear only one whisper in your ear, the one that says “Tour de France.” Cunego did manage to capture the white jersey of the best young rider at that event last summer, but for someone with a three-year-old maglia rosa hanging on their wall already, that’s a bit of a hollow victory. He’s tried to recapture the magic at the Giro d’Italia several times as well, but to no avail.

So now more than ever, the whisperers are starting to go the other way on Cunego, telling him that, hey, maybe he’s a classics rider after all. And that’s really pissing him off, according to this post-Amstel article by VeloNews’ Andrew Hood. Frankly, Cunego can be irritated all he wants, but when you’re a 5’4” Italian with a good little kick, a pair of Lombardias and an Ardennes win under your belt, you start looking a hell of a lot more like Paolo Bettini than Paolo Savoldelli.

With Cunego mounting an all-out bid for the Tour this year, going so far in his mission as to buck the Italian dogma and forgo the Giro, July could hold all the answers for the 26-year-old. If he meets with success there, he’ll no doubt start developing insidious habits like showing up in low-speed wind tunnels and spending perfectly good spring classics seasons riding deserted Tour de France climbs with an unmarked car and a film crew behind him. He also will have pulled off something pretty unique in modern cycling – going from grand tour winner, to classics star, and back to grand tour winner. So far, even Diluca has only gone in one direction.

All of that, of course, would be phenomenal, and would make for a career profile not seen since Bernard Hinault (no, various combinations of Vueltas and Clasicas San Sebastian don’t count for entrance to the grand tour/classic pantheon). But if Cunego falls a bit too short in his Tour bid, that bit of failure could open up the door to a set of classics palmares that, with a good 10 more years yet to develop could put many of his predecessors to shame.

Parting Shots

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Friday, April 18, 2008


The Migration

In the week between Paris-Roubaix and the Amstel Gold Race, a strange migration occurs in northern Europe as the stout masters of cobblestones and rain gradually disappear from the countryside. We catch our final glimpses of them at races like the Scheldeprijs, and then they’re off to sunnier climes to rest and retool for a second, warmer season as Giro and Tour stage hunters.

But as the familiar plumage of the past few weeks departs, the peloton seems to grow tanner and thinner as its ranks swell with different subspecies, many from more southern countries. The narrow, better paved roads of the Netherlands’ Limburg region and southeast Belgium attract riders who perhaps lack the more solid constitutions necessary for the jarring, muddy roads of Flanders, but who boast physiques that find a more compatible habitat in this region’s frequent, choppy hills.

Some of the native Belgians are replaced by migrating Spaniards, like Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), who has tuned his classics form with a win this week in Paris-Camembert, and Igor Astarloa (Milram), who will try again to find the magic that won him Fleche Wallonne in 2003. Sunny Italy, of course, produces subspecies that can thrive in both environments, but they are distinct from one another, with riders like the proven Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and young Ricardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) replacing the likes of Alessandro Ballan and Fabio Baldato (Lampre).

This yearly migration also marks an anomaly in cycling – that singular time of the year when grand tour riders cross the lines of specialization to participate in one-day races. The winners lists of Amstel, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are dotted with those who have been successful in the three week tours –DiLuca, Armstrong, Kelly, Berzin, Zoetemelk, and Hinault to name a few. And of course, Merckx, but that’s a given. Those same lists are also marked by those who have tried and failed to master both disciplines – Hamilton, Bartoli, and the aforementioned Rebellin. This year, there are several participants who could yet hope to be durable enough for both – Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Frank Schleck (CSC), and, of course, Valverde.

As with any migration, there are always the outliers – the early arrivals and those who trail behind their departed flocks. Some riders who favor these wooded hills, like Quick.Step’s Carlos Barredo and Cofidis’ Sylvain Chavanel, arrived in time to endure and thrive on the cobbles of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, but will now seek to make good on their form in a more suitable environment. Others, stars of the flatter roads like Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto) will ride at least through Amstel, hoping to salvage their spring seasons with a better result despite the increasingly unfavorable courses. And still others, mostly domestiques like Bram Tankink (Quick.Step), more suited to the stones than the asphalt, will hang around a bit longer before giving way to more specialized squads for the hills of the Walloon Ardennes.

Finally, of course, there are the rare local birds, like Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux), Maxime Monfort (Cofidis), and Christophe Brandt (Silence-Lotto), who come home to roost just once per year and will look for success in front of the home crowds.

It’s a strange flock, this mashup of worn out Flandriens, wiry Spaniards, and stage race hopefuls. But somehow, it works. Each year, Amstel, Fleche, and Liege serve up some of the most riveting racing of the season, and perhaps the only chance to catch a glimpse of professional cycling that is not so sliced, diced, specialized, analyzed and weighed for maximum performance. After all, when else could you see Leif Hoste battle Damiano Cunego for a win? How often would Oscar Freire face off with Frank Schleck? Like many things in cycling, Ardennes week comes but once a year. Enjoy it while you can.

The Schedule
Amstel Gold Race: Sunday, April 20
Fleche Wallonne: Wednesday, April 23
Liege-Bastogne-Liege: Sunday, April 27

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Classics Interlude Update

With the cobbled classics in the books and the Ardennes classics yet to begin, it seems like a good time to look back at the last month here at the Service Course and see how some of the subjects we’ve explored have developed.

On March 21, we took a look at victory salutes, and pointed out that rule number one was to never, ever raise your arms until you were absolutely sure you’d won. Clearly, Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) did not read that particular article, because at this morning’s Scheldeprijs (a.k.a. the Grand Prix de l'Escaut), Tornado Tom threw the guns in the air just a bit early, allowing Mark Cavendish (High Road) to squirt by him. Feeling a bit invincible after Paris-Roubaix, are we?

Even further back on March 10, the Service Course discussed the industry spat du jour, the Cannondale versus Specialized war of words, which played out in a highly discussed Cannondale advertisement. People seem to enjoy a bit of industry polemics, and the dispute gave us hits from a number of people Googling things like “Shannon Sakamoto Specialized” and “Specialized stealing Cannondale engineers,” so the ad did have some effect in raising awareness if not necessarily swaying any loyalties. That was all quite awhile ago now, but apparently the hurt feelings have yet to heal. Evidence comes in the form of this article on the Bicycle Retailer and Industry News site today. I say less whining, more designing.

Speaking of Google-y ways people get to this site, the most interesting search to lead to a hit last month was undoubtedly “Museeuw hair piece.” I don’t believe the Lion of Flanders’ follicular status has been addressed here, but I guess we had enough of the terms to make that little aberration happen. And if that wayward reader happens to stop back by, I’m pretty sure Johan has plugs, not a piece. The installation of said plugs may have lead to the regrettable do-rag incident at the 2000 Paris-Roubaix. Or maybe not, but it’s hard to imagine a classics specialist embracing Marco Pantani as his style maven unless there were extenuating circumstances. And besides, he’s retired – leave the poor man’s hairline be.

March also found us wondering if, after changing the name, the location, and the date of a race, you can still claim that it’s the same event. And on April 11, we got our answer: it doesn’t matter, because there’s not going to be a race anyway. Yes, the U.S. Open of Cycling, previously slated for late May in Rhode Island (previously known as the U.S. Open Cycling Championship held in April in Virginia) won’t be held anywhere, at any time, under any name in 2008. But we look forward to hearing the plan for 2009.

In a more recent entry discussing the plight of Spanish classics riders in the wake of Oscar Freire’s (Rabobank) Gent-Wevelgem win, I speculated that part of the reason Spain doesn’t turn out a great many such riders is that, after they’re forced out to foreign teams, the Spanish media doesn’t report much about their exploits. Freire’s teammate and fellow expat Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) reinforced that theory the very next day in this little snippet on Seems that his podium place at Flanders getting footnote billing under the daily results from Pais Vasco miffed Flecha a bit. After getting left for dead by his team at Paris-Roubaix, he’s not in any better mood a week later.

Finally, just prior to the start of the cobbled classics, I offered some suggestions on what to drink as you enjoyed whatever coverage you could squeeze out of the internet and Versus. There was some wiggle room in those suggestions, depending on whether you wanted to go for an authentic spectator experience or go a bit more upscale. With the coming of the first Ardennes classic, there is really no choice. It is, after all, the Amstel Gold Race. But apparently those wily Dutch don’t think that Americans will tolerate a fully caloried beer, so unfortunately, our only choice stateside is the ubiquitious Amstel Light. I’m not sure if that means that news of the American obesity epidemic doesn’t make it to CNN International, or that it does, and the Dutch are trying to do us a favor. Either way, the combination of a beer sponsorship and a race route that looks like it was laid out by a drunk trying to find his house after last call just feels right.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Paddling Toward the Waterfall

So, that was Paris-Roubaix 2008. What more can you say about it? Plenty, and the cycling media will be busy cranking out those stories for the next week (web) or month (print), resulting in a volume of words eclipsed only by the Paris-Roubaix discussions already raging in online discussion forums. Whatever the venue, expect suspect answers to such questions as:

Why do people who should know better insist on using deep carbon wheels for Roubaix?

Who is Martijn Maaskant, the least talked about but most effective member of Slipstream's classics squad?

Now that he has undeniably good team support, can we switch to “mechanical problems” as the official George Hincapie post-Paris-Roubaix discussion subject?

And, most importantly…

Was Cannondale secretly behind the de-cornrow-ization of Pippo Pozzato? Because that hairdo was a PR nightmare.

Yes sir, the implications and speculations will be flying around for a week or so, until the Ardennes classics come along and give people something else to think about.

In an effort to not get caught up in the rampant over-analysis that inevitably follows Paris-Roubaix, I’ll offer just one observation: You know that Fabian Cancellara (CSC) and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) had to be riding those last 40 kilometers thinking, “Seriously? We’re just going to rotate through like we’re on a well-oiled training ride, and bring Tom Boonen into a sprint on the velodrome?”

We’ve all had those moments, both on and off the bike, in which we’ve actively played a leading role in our own demise, gallantly paddling the canoe towards the waterfall while the natives look on expectantly from the banks. We know what’s going to happen if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing, but for any number of reasons, we’re powerless to change course.

If bicycle racing occurred in a pain vacuum, Ballan would have attacked Boonen over the waning cobbles at the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Hem, and Gruson, and Cancellara would have mustered his resources for one of his late race, 4-kilometer dashes to the line. But it doesn’t, and they didn’t. Ballan and Cancellara (and Boonen) would have known that Boonen would eat them alive in the sprint, but without the strength to try one more attack, to dig deep one more time, all the tactical savvy in the world doesn’t mean a damn thing. So there was little to do but keep moving towards the velodrome, hand Boonen a fork and napkin, and get on with it. And if they went straight to the table like good little boys, maybe they get to keep their podium places.

Those who have to wait until the Versus coverage next Sunday to see Paris-Roubaix should be sure to stick it out to the sprint, even though the results will be stale news by then. The resignation of the two men to their fate as they roll toward the velodrome is both frustrating and beautiful. You want the attacks to come, for Boonen’s competitors to fight for their lives, but Ballan and Cancellara have already done what they can. There isn’t an attack left in either, and they’re left to wait for that dinner bell that signals one lap to go. And when Boonen starts his sprint before the last corner, it’s like seeing a starving man enter the Old Country Buffet – he goes in, jumps the whole line, and five seconds later there’s not a crumb left.

And that’s what keeps bicycle racing interesting – it takes time-tested tactical dogma and then complicates it by introducing human strength and weakness to the mix. People say professional cycling is like chess, but that only covers one part of the equation. It’s a game of chess that you can actually lose because you don’t have the strength to move your piece.

Parting Shots:

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Friday, April 11, 2008


Marlin Fishing and Paris-Roubaix

When I worked at a bike shop in high school, there were several years when the owner took the staff on a deep-sea fishing trip as an end-of-season celebration. At 4:00 am, we’d all show up bleary-eyed at the fishing marina, where the charter’s diesel would already be rumbling, then cast off towards the Gulf Stream in search of mahi-mahi and marlin.

Those trips are always a long day out, but conditions and events always conspired to make ours even longer. The boat we chartered was an older one, equipped with a single engine. That made the trips to fishing waters slower, hence the early departure, and a few hours after we left the dock the newer twin-engine boats would come growling past us. But that was expected; other events weren’t. Like the time we broke the rudder linkage about 60 miles offshore, backing down on a 300+ pound blue marlin. We landed the fish, but a rudder jury-rigged by bike mechanics on a single-engine boat makes for a less-than-direct route home. The next year, we were caught in a storm and rocked our way home over 15 foot swells with half the staff puking below decks.

After 20 hours of diesel engine drone on a rolling boat, standing back in the parking lot of the marina felt so quiet, so still, that it was disarming. Stepping off the boat and walking towards the car, it was like someone had stolen my senses. Everything seemed suddenly muted. The sensation was almost the opposite of what I’d expect – the absolutely solid ground under my feet made me feel like I was floating.

I found myself thinking of those trips some 12 years later as I pedaled along the roads around Denain in northern France, just after I'd hopped my bike (or, rather, Specialized Bicycle Company’s bike) over the asphalt lip that separates the end of Paris-Roubaix’s Haveluy cobblestone sector from the pavement beyond. Marlin fishing and riding bicycles on cobblestones don’t have terribly much in common, except maybe getting wet and the distinct possibility of hurting yourself. But on this occasion, they collided in my mind for a single, unifying reason – while both are extremely vivid experiences in the moment, they both produce perhaps their most striking sensation by simply being over.

After having my eyeballs rattled in their sockets, my hands jarred, and my posterior hammered by an unfamiliar saddle for the 2.5 kilometers of Haveluy, the ordinary, unspectacular French asphalt felt bizarrely smooth. Almost pillowy. The vibration that seemed to have made its way into my ear canals and manifested itself as sound was gone, I could fully close my hands around the bars again, and everything was quiet and smooth. While hitting the entrance to that first sector of the day, unwarned and at speed, was pure sensory shock-and-awe in its own right, the exit, to me, was far more memorable. It was almost exactly like stepping off the fishing boat onto the midnight docks of Rudee Inlet – suddenly silent, unsettlingly still, and somehow surreal. Like floating.

That feeling – which I would experience three more times as we exited the Trouée d’Arenberg, Wallers, and Hornaing sectors – got me thinking about the odd, unspoken paradox of Paris-Roubaix. Namely, that after some 250+ kilometers, this anachronism, this cruel, jarring, dusty, muddy, jackhammer of a course decides its victor not on a surface of uneven cobblestones or bog-standard asphalt, but on cycling’s most sublimely smooth and sanitized surface, the velodrome.

Indeed, in the absence of a solo escape, victory at Roubaix requires winning performances on two almost diametrically opposed surfaces. To get to heft that most weighty of trophies, competitors have to endure and excel on 52.7 kilometers of cobblestones (this year) that are nearly pancake-flat. That much is well known. What’s often forgotten is that, at the end of it all, they must push the mud and stones from their minds, and try to conjure up a few long-ago memories, if they have any, of track racing. Then they have to adapt them to account for riding a geared bike. Better to sneak through the inside in the final turn? Or take the high line and use the trip down the banking to accelerate? Who is the strongest in the group? It’s a good thing the velodrome is smooth – on the pave, such decisions would be impossible to make with a brain rattling around in its casing.

The new-ish Paris-Roubaix book from VeloPress (which damn near everybody has reviewed already) draws heavily on the race's “Hell of the North” nickname in order to talk about it in religious terms. The authors fittingly dub the first sector of cobbles at Troisvilles “the gates of Hell,” and go on to outline key sectors of the race past and present as “stations of the cross.” That they manage to string these metaphors together pretty smoothly throughout the book to create an engaging and not-religiously-offensive narrative is a testament to their skill and experience.

But that narrative focuses almost exclusively on the descent into Dante’s inferno, with riders sinking a circle deeper with each successive sector. Only when riders reach the famed concrete showers do they find salvation. That fits fine with the structure of the book, but I’d argue that redemption begins a bit earlier than that. When the riders have crossed the last truly hellish cobbles at Hem, they begin to ascend from the depths once again, crossing the 300 meters of mild show-cobbles of Roubaix’s main street, then riding the tarmac once more, and finally making the righthand turn onto the blessedly smooth concrete track. Having undergone far more of a beating in more repeated cycles than I did in my brief cobblestone experience, I'm not sure if they even notice the floating sensation that so stuck in my mind. But if being on a velodrome rather than some Napoleonic washboard of a road doesn’t make them feel like they’ve sprouted wings for the trip to see Saint Peter, they can listen to the cheering chorus of angels ringing in their ears as they do their one-lap-plus and pause in the grassy infield to take it all in.

By the time they get to the showers, they’ve long since left hell and passed through the gates of heaven.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Un Rey de los Adoquines? ¿Por qué no?

Make a few cracks about Spanish classics riders on Tuesday, and Oscar Freire wins Gent-Wevelgem on Wednesday. That’s just great. Though in my defense, I did intentionally exclude Freire and his key man Flecha from that discussion to guard against just this eventuality. But, even though it was Freire taking out the win, it does mark the first Spanish victory in Gent-Wevelgem, and the first Spanish victory in any of the cobbled Flanders-Roubaix week races. Have the floodgates opened to a string of Spanish classics victories?

Probably not.

Freire may be the first Spanish winner to net one of the three biggest cobbled classics, but he missed out on being the first Spaniard to win a big Belgian classic. That honor goes to Igor Astarloa, who became the first Spanish winner of the mid-Ardennes week Fleche-Wallonne in 2003. I guess the Spanish ride better on Wednesdays than Sundays? Maybe it’s a religious thing. Astarloa has another point in common with Freire in that he’s also worn the rainbow jersey, earning his in Hamilton, Ontario, the same year as his Fleche win. Of course, Freire has won an astonishing three of those fancy shirts, some Milan-San Remos, and a host of stages to go along with them. Astarloa, not so much.

Regardless of their career trajectories, probably the most telling similarity between Freire and Astarloa has been their choice of teams during their respective 11 and 9 year careers. With the exception of Freire’s first two seasons with the Vitalicio Seguros squad, at the conclusion of which he won his first world championship, neither has since ridden for a Spanish team. With the rainbow stripes boosting his market value, no home team was willing to pay Freire his worth, so he went off to the Italo-Belgian Mapei-Quick.Step for three years, and then to Dutch team Rabobank ever since.

While Freire opened his career at home, Astarloa didn’t even do his stagiare ride for a Spanish team. Instead, he did his test run with the Swiss Riso Scotti-Vinavil squad in 1999 before signing his first pro contract with Mercatone Uno in 2000. After two years there, he stayed in Italy, signing for Saeco-Longoni Sport, where he had his fantastic 2003 season. For 2004, Cofidis was stocking up on world champions, and signed both David Millar and Astarloa, but Astarloa quickly jumped ship to Lampre when Cofidis pulled its team from competition on the eve of the 2004 Paris-Roubaix. The Cofidis scandal would eventually cost Millar his jersey and a couple of years on the bench, while Astarloa would spend an anonymous year with Lampre before moving on to the allegedly South African Barloworld squad during its modest early years. After a couple of years in the hinterlands, a win in Milano-Torino was enough to gain him a ride with Milram, where he remains today.

So here we have two riders who, in the scope of the last 9 years, have given Spain four world championships and some of its biggest professional victories. And in that time, neither has ridden for a Spanish team. Why don’t Spanish teams want classics riders? I think it’s due to Miguel Indurain Disease (MID). MID is very similar to the malady known on this side of the pond as Lance Armstrong Disease (LAD). The common thread is a nation having one rider so dominate the collective consciousness for so long that people begin equating that rider’s specialty with bike racing itself. And in both cases, that means stage racing, not winning burly one-day classics. MID, which is principally tied to GC victories, is rendered far more potent by the long Spanish legacy of spindly climbers who, despite their inability to win the grand tours, make a good living genuflecting across their mountaintop finish lines.

What makes MID even more dangerous is that the Spanish don’t build antibodies to it; instead, due to the nature of the disease, they just keep getting re-infected. Young Spanish riders watch the current Spanish professional squads, dream of success in the mountains of the grand tours, and focus their attention there. Young talent is groomed for the hills, not the crosswinds. The Spanish teams and their sponsors know that the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Dolomites are where the fans will expect them to make their mark, so yet another “Next Indurain” is signed while proven classics contenders are exported to Italy and the north. And there they stay, because even if the Spanish teams would pay them, they wouldn’t have the support they need in their races, because everybody’s too busy preparing to ride five mountain passes a day. While they’re outside the Spanish border, their day-to-day exploits go underreported to their countrymen, and the cycle starts again.

If the next Oscar Freire is coming up through the Spanish ranks right now, I can guarantee you someone’s jabbering in his earpiece trying to make him the next Iban Mayo. Meanwhile, Flecha, Freire, Barredo, Reynes and others are dispersed among the northern teams, more appreciated by a host of Flemish lunatics than their countrymen until it’s time to hoist the flag at the World Championships. Venga, venga, venga.

(If you want to see the reverse, look at Belgium’s recent grand tour history versus their role in the one-day classics. I believe it’s called the Johan Museeuw Disease (JMD).)

But back to Spain. People like to use the phrase, “exception that proves the rule.” I’m never sure exactly what they mean, and I don’t think they are either, but in this case, I’m pretty sure that exception is Alejandro Valverde. Despite winning both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2006, he somehow still rides for Caisse D’Epargne and, in fact, has not ridden for a non-Spanish team in his career. I think that’s because, in spite of his sprint, his palmares, and his lack of time-trialing ability, he has just enough high-mountain staying power that people continue to whisper “Vuelta a Francia” in his ear.

God bless him, Valverde is doing his best to fight MID by winning sprints and generally being an exciting rider, but the disease just keeps recurring. Every half-decent time trial and second place mountaintop finish is like Miguel himself sneezing in his face. And like LAD, MID is a tough illness to kick. Over here, many in the competitive cycling community have hoped that a big win from George Hincapie (High Road) in the classics could provide the antidote to LAD, but so far, the results aren’t propitious. An unexpected win from Tyler Hamilton in Liege-Bastogne-Liege looked promising, but that research later proved to be flawed. However, if we learn from the MID work the Spanish have conducted with Freire and Astarloa, it looks as if Hincapie could win Paris-Roubaix three times this Sunday, and we’d still be a long way from finding the cure. I’m thinking of starting a charity ride.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008



Doing the Triple

Sandwiched between two monuments, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, the mid-week Belgian classic Gent-Wevelgem would seem ripe for getting the short end of the stick when it comes to participation by the peloton’s big guns. Riders targeting Paris-Roubaix could justifiably head straight from the Ronde finish in Meerbeke down to Compeigne, begin scoping out cobbled sectors, and count on those recon rides and their Ronde kilometers to put them on the boil for Sunday in Hell. In the past, it’s an option that more than one cobble specialist has exercised.

And who could blame them? Last year, the larger of Gent-Wevelgem’s two hills, the Kemmelberg, caused havoc in the peloton, not so much on the climb as on the cobbled descent. Crashes split the peloton on both trips down the hill in 2007, causing injuries serious enough to interrupt the seasons of several riders, including Tyler Farrar (then Cofidis, now Slipstream) and Matt Hayman (Rabobank). Though last year was particularly notable for its carnage, it’s never exactly been a relaxing coast through the woods. This year, however, organizers have chosen to route the course around the most dangerous portion, substituting an apparently sketchy right turn at the bottom of a paved descent for the eyeball-rattling cobbled downhill. Tomorrow will tell whether the cure proves worse than the disease.

But despite the danger just days ahead of Roubaix, and despite the fact that Gent-Wevelgem has never carried the same World Cup/ProTour/UCI points or prestige as the weekend heavies, a few teams still come out on Wednesday morning loaded for bear. Witness High Road, for example, which will hit the start line in Dienze with not only 2001 winner and perennial classics favorite George Hincapie and 2003 winner Andreas Klier, but also 2007 runner up Roger Hammond, 2001 Paris-Roubaix winner Servais Knaven, Tour Down Under winner Andre Griepel, on-form sprinters Mark Cavendish and Bernhard Eisel, and Vincent Reynes. Hold on, Vincent Reynes? Can you tell who got the call-up to replace the team’s injured 2007 Gent-Wevelgem winner Marcus Burghardt? Even without Burghardt, though, that’s a team that should have every expectation of coming home with a trophy Wednesday evening.

Quick.Step isn’t pulling any punches either, with Tom Boonen attending despite his focus on bringing home a second Roubaix title. It’s worth remembering that Boonen had his breakout classics win at Gent-Wevelgem in apocalyptic conditions in 2004. Along with Boonen, the team is also bringing Ronde hero Stijn Devolder out for a curtain call, as well as Gert Steegmans, who could certainly take Gent himself on a good day. To that trio, they add their usual battle-hardened classics support staff of Steven De Jongh, Wilfried Cretskens, Kevin Hulsmans, Matteo Tosatto, and Wouter Weylandt. So, even at a 2-1 disadvantage to High Road in the previous winners department, they'll will be shouldering plenty of hopes for the home crowd.

According to the organizer’s provisional start list, a few Roubaix hopefuls are taking a pass, including Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto, who gives up leadership for this sprinters’ classic to Robbie McEwen), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis), and Fabian Cancellara and Stuey O’Grady (CSC), and Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) (*update - Cancellara, O'Grady, and Gilbert all ended up taking the start this morning). But many of the heavy hitters for the spring are manning up and making it a full week, including the aforementioned Quick.Step and High Road riders, Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), and defending Gent-Wevelgem champion Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole). I’m glad they are. If only in a very small way, it harkens back to a time when the sport wasn't quite so specialized, when riders didn’t target a single race as the focus of the year, and when you got to see the same group of riders face off more than once or twice a year.

Southern Discomfort

Naturally, the media focuses on the favorites around this time of year – the Quick.Steps, the Silence-Lottos, the High Roads. And to a lesser extent, on those upstart teams that could make a splash, like Slipstream. Nobody tends to focus on the people that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Or a Spaniard’s chance in the Hell of the North, as the case may be. And no, Juan Antonio Flecha and Oscar Freire don’t count, because they’ve been excommunicated from their own country and adopted by the Dutch.

As a result, we have stories out there about every Belgian on every team riding themselves into the ground all spring to make the team selection for the Ronde or Paris-Roubaix. We have stories of agony when they don’t, and of elation (and sometimes more agony) when they do. But what’s going on inside a Euskaltel-Euskadi or a Caisse d’ Epargne in those last weeks of March, when the decisions have to be made about who packs their bags for the flight to Brussels?

Somehow, I always picture them sitting around a table, maybe in the service course, under a bare lightbulb, shivering a bit from the chill as they draw straws. I know that’s not how it happens, but the image works for me.

That said, the Spanish did have three riders in the top 10 of Gent-Wevelgem last year, if we're kind and include Freire's 3rd place. Francisco Ventoso was 4th, and Joaquin Rojas was 9th. That's more riders in the top 10 than any other country.

The Media Note

It may be the “smallest” classic of this week, but Gent-Wevelgem has probably the nicest press facilities of the three. And by nicest, I mean the four things the media values most – free coffee, beer, and food, and indoor plumbing. Granted, the smell of the bathroom will probably be with me for the remainder of my years -- you couldn’t really tell if it came from urine or a cleaning product designed to eradicate urine, but the place seemed spotless, which probably indicates that it was, in fact, an exceptionally poorly thought out cleaning product. Anyway, it was pretty good living there in Wevelgem, a few steps from the finish line, the frites wagon, and the cheesy Euro-pop live show. Even better, there were surprisingly unguarded international phone lines in a back room. What more could you ask?

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Monday, April 07, 2008


De Ronde: Impressions

The Textbook

Sometimes, no matter how correctly they’re executed, cycling tactics can make for a disappointing result – not just the riders, but for the fans as well. Witness Cadel Evans’(Silence-Lotto) win atop Mont Ventoux during Stage 4 of Paris-Nice this year. Evans earned his paycheck by shadowing Robert Gesink (Rabobank) up the Ventoux, a move intended to preserve his teammate's small gap to the lead. After having his nose up Gesink’s arse the entire climb, Evans still managed to smell the line well enough to jump around the young Dutchman for the win. You can’t blame Evans. Tactically, it was the right move, and any DS worth his salt would have your hide for not taking an opportunity to win on the Ventoux, no matter how you got there. But for spectators, it didn’t feel too good. It didn’t feel like the right guy won.

Not so on Sunday at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), where Quick.Step played the tactical game to perfection, and emerged with a deserving solo winner in Stijn Devolder. Other contenders knew what they were in for by the time the race hit the Koppenberg with 69 kilometers remaining. With so much of the race and 10 more climbs remaining, Devolder and teammate Tom Boonen didn’t try to get away, but their muscle flexing over the top of one of the course’s most challenging climbs told everyone that they were about to get the old “1-2” from the pair of Belgian strongmen.

As it turned out, they only got the “1” part of the 1-2, but they got it three times before finish. Just outside of Peter Van Petegem’s hometown of Brakel, Devolder joined Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) on an excursion on the Leberg. Then he stuck with it as that move morphed into one containing himself, Karsten Kroon (CSC), George Hincapie (High Road), Sebastian Langevelt (Rabobank), and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) after the Berendries climb.

Of course, when you have an on-form Boonen riding shotgun in the group behind, you don’t have to do terribly much work in the break. The bit of extra rest let Devolder jump again just as the move was reabsorbed on the Eikenmolen, never to be seen again. Though he never got a huge gap (it topped out at around 30 seconds), the chase group of 24 or so riders could never quite work out how to get up to Devolder without taking Tornado Tom along with them. Devolder pounded away for the remaining 25 kilometers, mowing down the traditional stumbling blocks at the Kapelmuur and the Bosberg to roll in ahead of late escapees Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank).

In the end, Boonen’s presence behind made Devolder’s ride possible, but it was also clear that one of the strongest guys, if not the strongest guy in the race won. It felt right -- for fans, for the Belgian spectators, and certainly for Devolder. But, with Quick.Step’s tactics working in textbook fashion, I wonder how strong Boonen really was. Flecha mounted a very strong solo chase behind Devolder starting on the Kapelmuur and, for awhile, looked as if he might be successful on the run-in to Meerbeke, especially when he was joined by Nuyens. Both were certainly credible contenders for the victory. Flecha was well-supported by a super Oscar Freire and Langevelt throughout the race, and Nuyens had Brabantse Pijl and E3 Harelbeke winner Chavanel. If Boonen wasn't there to mark Flecha and Nuyens, who was he marking? So, when Flecha and Nuyens jumped away in the finale, did Boonen choose not to go with them, or was he unable to? Fortunately, Devolder is enough of an ox that it didn’t matter.

Demol’s Discovery

Devolder did look great, didn’t he? Crossing the line alone in the Belgian national championship kit – undoubtedly one of the most classic in the peloton? That sight reminded me of how, for years, Devolder never looked quite right in US Postal or Discovery Channel colors. Somehow, it didn’t quite fit him. Clearly, his current kit suits him just fine.

His victory in the Ronde has several news outlets chanting the same mantra – that Devolder has always been considered a stage race rider, rather than a classics rider. Perusing his palmares, you can certainly make that case, but I think it’s being overstated in most of the press. Why? Because anyone who has watched the guy go berserker in races like Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne over the last several years should know that, even if he didn’t have the head for the classics yet, he sure as hell had the legs.

One guy who always knew Devolder had the legs is Dirk Demol, who as director of the US Postal/Discovery classics squad brought Devolder over from the small Vlaanderen-T Interim squad. I had the good fortune of attending the Discovery launch in January 2005, and asked Demol about his young Belgian talent. Those who have plumbed the depths of this site will have seen this quote already, but it seems fitting to run it up the flagpole again. Said Demol:

“He was one of the biggest talents in Belgium. Even when you talk about the debutantes, the juniors and the espoirs, when he was in good shape he was as
strong as Tom Boonen was. He's a strong athlete, but mentally he's nowhere. When something goes a little bit wrong, he loses his morale and he goes nowhere.

When he came in the team I believed in him because before I came to the team I was working with young riders and he was one of my young riders, so I know him a little bit from that time. I saw him again doing big things in 2003, in a few races in the end of the season. That was for me the moment that showed me that I still believed in Stijn Devolder and his talents. Years ago, he was one of the biggest talents in Belgium. For a few years, it's been pretty quiet for him, but I'm sure he has the talent and he has the legs, he can do something. Let's give him a chance and let him work with us. He showed last year that he improved a lot, not with amazing results, but I can say I'm sure this guy is capable of winning races. When I talk about winning races I'm talking about races like the E3 Prijs Harelbeke. This guy in my eyes is capable of anything. He can win on his own, and as a teammate he's doing everything you tell him, if you tell him to pull, he just pulls, if you tell him to protect
somebody, he protects, he does everything we want.”
Even back then, Demol had it right in a lot of ways. But in winning the Ronde rather than the E3 to open up his classics palmares, I think Devolder may have surpassed even Demol’s expectations. Fortunately, the demise of Discovery didn’t mean that Demol had to miss out on Devolder’s breakout. The 1988 Paris-Roubaix winner is now a DS with Quick.Step.

Hincapie – New Clothes, New Man?

Has switching teams reinvigorated George Hincapie (High Road)?

As we discussed above, Quick.Step’s used some textbook tactics to win the Ronde, and given that team’s experience in the Belgian classics, they certainly have historical race knowledge on their side. But they’ve never been paralyzed by it. During his many years with US Postal/Discovery, it seemed that many times, Hincapie was waiting for the textbook or history to play out on the road. And when it didn’t, he couldn’t adapt to what was happening before his very eyes, which may account for why a rider as strong as Hincapie doesn’t have more classics wins on his palmares. There are certainly keys to winning races like the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, things that remain fairly consistent year after year, but there’s not a set playbook that you can plan your ride by and hope to win.

This year, Hincapie seemed more daring, going in a strong escape on the Berendries, far earlier than the textbook Ronde finale. He spotted a move that, with Devolder, Kroon, and Ballan, could well have gone the distance, and he jumped on it despite the fact that the traditional showdown on the Kapelmuur and Bosberg were still four hills away. That Hincapie was willing to take that risk is a small but promising sign for his season. The move didn’t work out, but he should take solace in the fact that he gave it a shot, it wasn’t any sort of mistake, and he still had the legs to fall into the chase group behind Devolder and pull out a fifth place finish at the line. Here’s hoping that he continues to race aggressively, and that he’ll be rewarded with results.

On a final Hincapie note, I’d advise anyone who wants to be a successful classics rider to ride at his side for a year or two. I don’t know that he’s out there at training camp handing out tips, but the results are undeniable. Just look at the list of ride-with-George alumni: Boonen, Devolder, Leif Hoste…

Ok, ok. There’s probably no causal relationship there, but it’s hard to deny that Demol lined up some good support for Hincapie during the US Postal/Discovery days, despite plenty of claims otherwise.

Slipstream – Too Slippery to See?

I’m not trying to pick on them, because I like what they’re doing, but it’s a good thing Slipstream already has its Tour de France ticket. They turned in what may be the most invisible race performance since, I don’t know, that French team sponsored by that company that rode the Tour like four years ago. Or maybe it was five years ago, and it was a Spanish team. Who cares.

Anyway, Slipstream is clearly built more for the stage races, and for classics season is far more likely placing its eggs in Magnus Backstedt’s basket for Paris-Roubaix, since he’s a proven winner there. But wow. I actually looked for their jerseys throughout the broadcast, and didn’t see a one. Apparently, Dutchman Martijn Maaskant came through for the squad by making the front group and finishing a respectable 12th. And in all fairness, they were no more invisible than Caisse d'Epargne and several other squads. With Paris-Roubaix being an ASO race, which the Ronde and Wednesday’s Gent-Wevelgem aren’t, look for Slipstream to bounce back and into the early break next Sunday.

The Broadcasting Note: Flanders Edition

Six minutes. That’s how long into the Versus broadcast it took Paul Sherwin to find an excuse to talk about Astana’s exclusion from ASO events. And that six minutes includes Sherwin and Phil Liggett’s stand up intro in the Bruges square and the standard Versus preamble of spinning freewheels, color-washed riders, and swoopy yellow lines they do at the start of each broadcast. So, really, it probably only took about three minutes of actual race commentary time for the subject to come up. The impetus in this case was Tomas Vaitkus (Astana) going to the front on the Oude Kwaremont climb. It would be the team’s most significant contribution of the day.

Really, as soon as you saw Vaitkus up there you knew Liggett would be off and running about exclusion and injustice and conspiracy. But Liggett was clearly off his game on Sunday, so Sherwin quickly cartwheel-roundoff-backhandspring-ed in to shake those Astana pom-poms. He did a credible job, but couldn’t quite muster the same level of indignant grumbling that Liggett can. I think it’s the age difference -- once Sherwin hits 50 or so it should come more naturally.

That Sherwin had to step in like that so early in the broadcast was a sign of things to come. Among the corrections that Sherwin had to make to Liggett’s commentary were that Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder actually ride for the same team (Quick.Step), a moment of confusion that made for some pretty strange tactical theorizing on Liggett’s part. Among the other slips that were left to run their course was Liggett getting confused about who was in the five-man break that formed after the Berendries, somehow mixing up Kroon (Dutch and CSC) with Flecha (Spanish and Rabobank). I think he was really just trying to mix up Flecha and teammate Sebastian Langeveld. But my favorite of the day was Liggett reading off the Belgian feed and bursting out with, “Ah, kop van der wedstrijd. French is such a beautiful language.” Kop van der wedstrijd, which appears in the corner of the screen to denote the first group or rider on the road, means “head of the course.” In Dutch. But yes, I suppose French is a beautiful language.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Liggett, and I certainly couldn’t do what he does. I’m hoping that he’s just dusting off the early-season cobwebs, and will be on peak form by the time we hit the Ardennes classics. And I’m hoping that, with appropriate counselling, both he and Sherwin will eventually be able to move on from the Astana situation.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008


The Northern Classics: A Vicarious Spectator's Guide, Part II

Narrow roads, cobbles, rain, wind. Riding in the gutter for kilometers on end, throwing elbows to get into position before every climb. The classics are the stomping grounds of the hardest of the hard.

And nobody’s harder than Martha Stewart.

After all, Johan Museeuw may have overcome a shattered kneecap and a motorcycle wreck on the way to collecting three titles apiece in both the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, but even the mighty Lion of Flanders has never done hard time (yet) or ruled a multimedia empire with an iron fist. And I hear his apple popovers are crap.

Sometimes we need to look outside the sport to get the vital information we need, so who better than Stewart, the Cougar of Westport, to step in as a culinary guide to the realm of the tough? Don’t let her usual persnickety treats fool you – if you dig around enough, she provides some solid takes on favorites from the land of the kasseien.

In Part 1 of our classics viewers' guide, we reviewed proper beverage selections for classics viewing. But even drinking regular strength beer as opposed to 10% alcohol-by-volume monk fuel, you’ll need something solid to soak up the booze. Again, we suggest you go native by treating yourself to a generous helping of traditional Belgian frites while you take in the heroics of the north. And again, we suggest you shrug off the unfair social judgement associated with drinking beer and eating fries at 10am.

Now, anyone can run down to McDonalds for a quick frites fix, but as with cycling itself, you’ll get a better experience if you put in a bit of work ahead of the big event. For those willing to invest the effort, Martha has generously provided us with the traditional Belgian recipe for both the frites and the accompanying mayo.

Making the frites is a little involved, with some time required to soak the cut potatoes and double-fry each batch. Though fry-o-lator ownership and a cycling habit are an unnatural combination, a purpose-built machine can make things a bit easier. However, a pot of oil and an appropriate thermometer can work just as well. Making the mayo is pretty easy, and it’s a more flavorful alternative to the Hellmann’s if you’re undeterred by seeing what mayonnaise is made of and you can get past the idea of consuming mayonnaise you’ve made yourself.

Both of the referenced formulas are pretty tried and tested. I’ve followed these very instructions several times with good results, but they’re pretty similar to every other recipe you’ll find for the same things. My only recommendations are to go long on the cooking time for the second frying, cut the fries a bit thinner than recommended, don’t skip the soaking in the interest of time, and pay attention to the oil temperature. Also, leave yourself enough time to get everything done – you can keep the frites warm in an oven if necessary, and it’s not a process that goes well when rushed. Other than that, just don’t burn yourself with the oil or poison yourself with the mayonnaise and you should be all set.

Tradition dictates that you eat your frites from a paper cone, blob of mayo on the top, with a tiny wooden fork. We’re usually sticklers for tradition, but when you’re eating them over your own living room carpet rather than the work-polished stone of a public square, a plate or bowl will do just fine.

Bonus Service Course Training Tip: Plan on riding an extra 70 kilometers or so on Monday to offset your little Sunday celebration, and throw the fry-o-lator out immediately following Liege-Bastogne-Liege. It’s for your own good.


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Wednesday, April 02, 2008


The Northern Classics: A Vicarious Spectator’s Guide

Unscientific observations of the United States cycling community indicate that there may be some misconceptions on how to properly celebrate the northern classics.

Not to worry, we’re here to help.

While the assumption that beer is an appropriate accompaniment to fine, cobble-laced bicycle racing is correct, the drinking selections of many of my countrymen seem to be a bit off. It seems that, in these parts at least, Versus coverage (or, if you’re one of the lucky five subscribers to win the viewing lottery) of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix sends the local leg-shavers scuttling off to Whole Foods for a bottle of Westmalle, Chimay, or Corsendonk to enjoy during the festivities.

This is simply not correct.

I’m not saying you can’t do it, and most any time you’re not operating heavy machinery is a good time to enjoy a fine, monk-blessed (or monk-blessed-style) brew. But such hoity-toity selections don’t maintain the proper parallelism to those hearty fans enjoying the races in person, and thus, you should consider a revised menu. Sure, there are likely dyed-in-the-wool-shorts Belgians who, when the first minutes of the Ronde broadcast crackle across the airwaves, uncork an Orval, carefully pour it into the proper glass, and raise a toast to the early breakaways. There are probably also Americans who serve vintage Bordeaux and fois gras at their Super Bowl parties, but that doesn’t make it normal.

No, the Ronde, like Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix to follow, are races of the people, and should be celebrated as the people celebrate. And that means production beer, not anything with a cork or “tones” to be analyzed by expert palettes. Besides, these races can be six hours long – how do you expect to be conscious for the finale if you drink more than a couple of glasses of 10% alcohol-by-volume beer? So, to go native, that means going with such Budweiser-gold selections as Bavik, Jupiler, and Maes. 500ml tallboy or draft, take your pick.

Finding any of those is usually less than a block’s walk in any town in Flanders, but on this side of the Atlantic, distribution presents a bit of a problem. After all, parent company InBev lists Jupiler as a “local brand,” and Maes and Bavik also seem content to stick with the home market. But while InBev keeps Jupiler to itself, it also provides the solution to our quest for an appropriately cheap, bland, high-volume Belgian beer stateside -- Stella Artois. Stella was, and is, much like its fellow Belgian “just beers” for years – it tastes basically the same, and the brand’s tasteful lighted signs decorate the exteriors of countless Belgian cafes. But recently, for whatever reason, it was singled out to become, in InBev’s words, a “global brand.” Probably because Stella Artois is more fun to say than Bavik or Maes. So unlike its contemporaries, you can get it here. Price-wise, it’s positioned at the same level as the other standard imports over here -- about the same $7 per bottled six-pack as Heineken. More than it’s worth, really, but a small price for bringing some authenticity home to your classics viewing party. Finding the appropriate branded glassware (we’re not complete heathens, after all) so close to the Ronde may be difficult, but fortunately Stella comes bottled with some dressy white paper around the neck of the bottle.

The mighty InBev also provides us with a more unusual but still culturally appropriate selection in Hoegaarden, a Belgian white beer. It’s widely available in grocery stores here, and is a good choice if you’re somehow obligated to invite the sort of guests who whine about “not liking how beer tastes.” It’s quite light, with sort of a lemony flavor to it. In a departure from the European correct-glassware tradition, it’s served in crappy plastic cups at the Six Days of Gent. So if you'll be serving people beer in crappy plastic cups, there’s some additional low country authenticity to be mined there.

If you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of low-brow (that’s low-brow, not Löwenbräu) authenticity, other suitable selections are available as well. If you simply must go a touch upscale, you can settle on a Leffe, which is still an abbey-style brew, but is produced on a larger scale and is fairly widely available at places like Trader Joe’s for reasonable prices per six-pack. And finally, if you find the allure of that big 750 ml, corked bottle irresistible, a nice Duvel is a good compromise. Duvel retains the correct golden color for mass consumption, while packing a bit more kick and more refined flavor. But it's still produced by a large, heartless corporation, as it should be. Delicious.

So now you have the proper, or close enough to proper, brew for your northern classics party. With a little planning, you may even have the correct glassware next year, which will add an air of authenticity to your party even if you and your friends can’t generate the nearly impenetrable cloud of cigarette smoke necessary to achieve total accuracy. But when should your party begin? Some would argue you should crack the first bottle a half-hour or so before the broadcast comes on – a bit of a pre-game warm-up, a nice, smooth cruise along the tarmac before the jarring of the cobbles begins. But again, to remain faithful to tradition, history dictates that you start drinking around 10am or so on the day of the event. To prove we’re not total sticklers for the rules, though, I suppose we can go by your local time, rather than mandating a correct Central European Time start.



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