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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And what exactly is your beef with spindly climbers who blow in a cross wind like feather before a box fan???

God bless anyone who is willing to give attention to a male athlete that weighs 130 pounds. When you say "classics rider," I say "fat ass" ;-)

Good entries
So will we ever see a rider that wins both the classics and the grad tours?
It's interesting how Lance evolved as a racer. In essence, he was a one-day racer. I can't remember if his exploits in Amstel Gold was before cancer...
The same rider winning a cobbled classic and a grand tour seems fairly unlikely, but there is overlap between grand tour winners and winners of the Ardennes and fall classics. Notably, Damiano Cunego won the Giro d' Italia and Lombardia in the same year. Danilo Diluca has won Fleche Wallonne, Liege, and the Giro. Further back, I believe Laurent Jalabert won the Vuelta and later the Clasica San Sebastian. Indurain also won San Sebastian, as did Armstrong, pre-cancer, in 1995. (whether San Sebastian is actually a classic is a different debate) Armstrong also won Fleche Wallonne pre-cancer, but his losses to Dekker and Boogerd at Amstel Gold were post cancer.

Part of what you're getting at Ryan, is national chauvinism, and a sort of zen koan about how what you want most is what you cannot have. Just as the English have defined soccer as winning the World Cup, the French have defined bike racing as winning the TdF. Despite labeling the latest phenom as the "new TdF / World Cup" hope, all they succeed in doing is hammering on square pegs that don't fit into round holes, destroying the peg and sullying the hole in the process. The next great US cyclist, and maybe many more after that, may be wrecked simply because they aren't Lance; who knows how many Musseuws or Boardmans or McEwens we might miss out on because of national expectations? BTW, who is the NBA's "next Michael Jordan"? Seems to me that tag has screwed up Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Garnett, and every other player it's been applied to - in spite of the fact these guys are great players having Hall of Fame careers.

I think all you need to know about the Spaniards' problems is summed up in the Pyrenees stages of the TdF in Basque country. The insanely nationalistic Basques only care about those stages and the spanish teams; the spanish riders play their music where they are welcome. Why go anywhere else? Create the incentive, the market will move to meet it.

The sad part about all this, you are right, is the diseas. In the U.S., the casual fan and rest of sports world suffers from Lance' Disease. A guy like Tyler Farrar, who probably has it in him to win some classics (*finishing* races, sometimes in the top 40 or 50 riders, in his first year doing them?) but he may not get the fan and media support to do so - this is important because it drives marketing dollars and team priorities. What it may take to develop the next U.S. cycling superstar is for that guy to essentially do what LeMond and Hampsten did, and what Lance was doing until the Motorola juggernaut really got rolling - move their butts outside the mainstream of the U.S. cycling scene, camp out in somebody else's scene, then claim that place as their own. Laboring in the salt mines of the sport. Yeah, the odds are stacked against them there, but when they come through, they come through bigtime, the high investment pays off, and they aren't standing in anybody else's shoes, they aren't diminuated by the comparison. That seems to have worked for Jonathan Page too, though he isn't of the same athletic stature as LeMond.
Jim -- you gots it. Based on high profile riders' big successes, entire nations sometimes put on the blinders regarding the other disciplines and, like you said, it really screws some riders.

I'm happy to report that, as if on cue, Flecha has confirmed my Spanish theory on the pages of this morning. See Flecha's performance goes unnoticed in Spain about halfway down the page.
You also can't overlook the fact that in the US the vast majority of road racing is focused on crits, which creates limitations in and of itself. The qualities that make someone a good crit banger are not the same qualities that would allow them to go win 5 hour road races in Europe.

Indeed. You'd think we'd produce more top-notch sprinters, but I guess things change quite a bit when the speed ramps up for the sprint 40k out instead of 4 laps. Funny that the American public knows the Tour de France, but wouldn't know what a crit was if you routed it through their living room.

With regard to your other comment about size - one of the things that never fails to stun me when I go over is how small many of the European riders are compared to those on the domestic circuit. Even the big guys aren't that big. Except Backstedt. He's real-world big.

That's not really a shocker to me. Our "mountains" are few and far between, and a 3500 foot (at the peak) mountain may only have a 1500 or 2000 foot climb - *some* of the Rockies excepted, and then what soft bastards in this country want to learn to roadrace on dirt roads? Real climbing is plain old power to weight ratio, and it simply pays to have a natural build of 135 pounds.

Meanwhile, in crits, the premium is on straight up power, with power/frontal surface area being a key figure, since so much time is spent at relatively high speeds. Riders can be a bit thicker, if the thickness buys them a bit of power. Learn to race crits without hitting the brakes, and the weight isn't so much of a disadvantage as you might think. I know a little about that...

The other thing is that the Euro circuit is the elite circuit. That means that even many with topnotch gifts simply don't make it, sometimes for trivial and arbitrary reasons, and one of them might be that they just don't fit the mold. It's like any other sport. At one point in my rugby career, I was told the key to getting to the next level, developmental team stuff, at my position was to be 4-5 inches taller. The comment - "you don't do anything wrong. But you aren't tall enough." They wanted big, lumbering beastly guys. A few years later, smaller, more mobile skilled players who could do a lot of finesse things (along with hitting) were wanted, and I was well past my peak and it was way too late to try to get on the developmental track. That's the way it goes, and I'd guess that a lot of guys who are 6'0" 170, who are great crit racers, who probably have gifts similar to a Euro pro, simply can't make the jump because they are 3" too tall and 25 pounds too heavy, and that's just their natural build. Look at what Hincapie has done to himself to stick around. Even if a guy tears it up, he is subject to getting scouted and hired based in part on how well he fits into an archetype for the kind of rider he is perceived to be - witness last year's shock when it was discovered that Kayle Leogrande is actually not bad on some road courses. (Doping allegations notwithstanding). One of the British track girls talks about this, she's a tiny girl who is a great sprinter, and she says it took her a long time to realize that it wasn't her size that mattered.

As for Maggy, he's my frickin' hero.

Jim (the same one)
Yeah -- it's not that it's surprising. It is striking.
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