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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