Wednesday, April 22, 2009
In Soviet Russia...
When the Katusha cycling team, the biggest, most visible component of the “Russian Global Cycling Project,” became a reality this season, the formula looked familiar. While the team’s stated aim is to develop young talent from the home country, the Russian squad hired a healthy dose of mercenary foreign talent to keep the sponsors’ names in the papers until that young talent was sufficiently developed to provide the results on its own. Sure, the team lured some veteran Russian riders home, giving the team a little more authenticity and providing the youngsters with some native-language support and role-models, but most people expected that the first major results would come from Robbie McEwen racking up some stage wins, or Filippo Pozzato or Gert Steegmans bagging a big cobbled classic.
That’s not an indictment of the team’s methodology. Like I said, it’s a pretty standard format these days, particularly for young teams coming from outside the traditional Western European cycling nations. Think (post-Vino and Kash) Astana with Contador, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Kloden, or Garmin-Slipstream hiring Backstedt, Millar, and Wiggins. It’s also a good business strategy – by bringing in some foreign names with dependable specialties, the teams can secure the wins their sponsors demand without unduly burdening their more developmental riders with winning expectations right out of the gate. With the direction the sport is trying to take with regard to drug use, I’d call that a positive.
So Katusha set out this season looking for early wins from McEwen and Pozzato, home country interest from perennial Tour hope Vladimir Karpets, and some quality racing miles for its slew of younger riders, like Mikhail Ignatiev and Ivan Rovny. So when veteran Russian hardman Sergei Ivanov outsprinted the younger and much more fancied Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) to win the Amstel Gold Race, the team got something even better than it planned – the team’s first big classics win, gift-wrapped and delivered by a native Russian.
For a project that states freely and often its insidiously Cold War-esque mission of returning mother Russia to her “proper place” in the cycling world, it doesn’t get too much better than that. Yes, at just 40-plus years old, the Amstel Gold Race is no monolithic Tour of Flanders, no storied Paris-Roubaix. But for a team with Katusha’s goals, what’s better: your imported Italian playboy winning Flanders, or your Soviet-era, life-long worker Ivanov winning a pretty solid classic? I’d argue for the latter.
- At 34 years old, Ivanov hasn’t been a big winner over his career, and Amstel Gold is certainly his biggest trophy to date. His other wins include the 2000 E3 Prijs, stages in the 2001 Tour de France and Tour de Suisse, and stages of smaller races. He’s also a five-time Russian national champion.
- In the Service Course’s Tour of Flanders preview, I pointed out that Ivanov was one of the only riders on the Katusha roster that stood a chance of being there for Pozzato in the finale. He did the job at Flanders, and seems to have held his form pretty well since. That said, I don’t see him being a factor at Fleche Wallonne or Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where the climbs are a bit less suited to a puncher. (Full disclosure: I’ve already seen the result for Fleche Wallonne).
- The home team can’t catch a break at their home classic, can they? It’s been eight long years now since Erik Dekker’s 2001 win, and despite the presence of a second Dutch team in Skil-Shimano, it seems like Rabobank still gets to shoulder much of the blame for the drought. This year looked promising with natives Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) both in the winning move, but you could feel the air go out of the crowd when Gesink fell back and Kroon never even reached Ivanov’s back wheel, much less came around him.
- It seems like the Dutch riders and teams should really have an advantage here – half the challenge of the Amstel Gold is not getting lost. But their true disadvantage, at least in terms of public perception, is the lack of any other top-tier events in the Netherlands. If an Italian wins Flanders, the Belgians still have Gent-Wevelgem, the Brabantse Pijl, and all those prior home semi-classics to fall back on. For the Dutch, Amstel Gold and Veenendaal-Veenendaal are pretty much the only chances for a home classic win.
- In our ongoing Silence-Lotto watch, Philippe Gilbert managed a solid fourth place at Amstel Gold. Together with fellow Walloon Christophe Brandt, Gilbert has his homecoming this week with Fleche Wallonne and Liege. Neither race suits him particularly well, but maybe homefield advantage will do more for him than it’s done for the Dutch at the Amstel Gold.
- This has nothing to do with Amstel Gold, except that they both involve Rabobank not winning, but as a cycling site, I’m mandated to address the Theo Bos (Rabobank) Tour of Turkey incident. The Service Course’s official stance is that Bos wasn’t actually trying to put out a hit on Impey. How can we say that, when it looks so intentional? Because if you’re really aiming to take someone down, dragging them across your own front wheel at 50 kph isn’t usually the way you’d choose to do it. That said, the UCI needs to at least issue a fine or moderate suspension for the simple fact that you’re not supposed to take your hands off the bars in a sprint, and I’d say within the 1 kilometer mark is close enough to a sprint. Bos is a trackie, and a big one at that – he should have been able to do all he needed to do with his head and shoulders.
Friday, April 17, 2009
The Dope Show
With news of Tyler Hamilton ringing the doping bell for a second time all over the front pages today, it seemed like a good time to drag out the dope-related piece below. Why? Because just rehashing the Hamilton saga wouldn’t be any fun, and I’m confident that any number of sources will be able to fill that void in your informational needs. But doping is going to be the topic of the day whether I like it or not, and I'm not strong enough to swim directly against that rip current. So I'm swimming sideways, just like they tell you to. Onward...
Back in January of 2008, a fellow club member (and writer for a serious, newsy publication) was looking for sources that knew the ins-and-outs of the doping world, since she’d been assigned to cover the Major League Baseball hearings on Capitol Hill. So she put the question out to our listserv. Since we travel in some overlapping circles, and I’ve never been one to resist a snarky reply, I channeled my alter ego to warn her of the dangers of what she was asking – namely, asking cyclists for nearly any sort of input on doping matters, cycling or otherwise. If she had any doubts as to the wisdom of that course, I believe the response, pasted below, cleared it right up.
I should caution you that my alter ego is not a stickler for strict presentation of “the facts,” which should never be allowed to get in the way of making a point. Also, he’s usually a little drunk.
Dear Mme. [Name Withheld]-
Welcome to the dope show.
I suggest that you get in touch with your friend and mine, Mr. [Name Withheld] lately of Boulder, Colorado. He’s been sniffing around the back end of that dog since 1999, at least, and he hasn’t let it bite him yet. The astute minds of NPR call on him each July to speak on the issue, as he has a voice for radio, with a face to match, as he’d no doubt point out, ha ha, hee hee… The MLB crowd isn’t his game, but he’s likely kept up with the issues.
But before telephoning and getting down into the dirt of the assignment, I advise you to consume a minimum of one pint cheap whiskey, open all the windows and put a needle the live version of Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” preferably at maximum volume and distortion. I stress that it must be out loud and analog, at least at the output end – none of that digital file and earbud shit your generation has an affinity for.
“I’m going to try
For the kingdom, if I can
Because it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
Aw, honey, things aren’t quite the same…”
Ah, things aren’t quite the same. Indeed. And that's the problem. Talking to lycra-clad freaks about doping in the American big leagues is a dangerous proposition. For starters, they’re so radicalized through years of cycling’s “unfair” media browbeating that their spittle-whet rants about American major league sports are nearly nonsensical. But more than that, their tirades are virtually irrelevant, as the sewer of dope regulations running beneath cycling's roads is much deeper and has far more tributaries than the shallow ditch that runs straight past the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL headquarters and out to their ample parking lots. For that crowd, being a federally regulated monopoly has its drags, like providing health insurance and wearing a tie for congressional hearings, but strict rules against the hot sauce ain’t among them.
But not so with cycling, my friend. We have plenty of those little sticky wicket dope rules, and we did it to ourselves. Rather, Hein Verbruggen did it to us back in 1992, when the UCI reunited its FIAC (amateur) and FICP (professional) arms and wrapped them lovingly around the busty chest of the IOC in a ploy to get at the roll of cash tucked neatly into her décolletage. That clumsy groping opened the door for professional cyclists in the Olympics, that quadrennial feel-good sham that for some reason continues to intoxicate the advertisers.
And what did we get for it? The goofiest son of a bitch to ever hold a Swiss passport, geezer Pascal Richard, wins the 1996 Atlanta road race and starts an unfortunate trend by putting his remedial art skills to work designing himself a commemorative jersey. Compare that to 1992 in Barcelona, when quiet, young, and beautiful Fabio Casartelli, clad in a sponsor-free Squadra Azurri jersey, single-handedly Hindenburged the USCF-funded Lance Armstrong publicity dirigible that was floating over the NBC coverage. Armstrong got other chances, of course, but Casartelli not so much. He died way too early and way too publicly on the Portet d’Aspet, and we’re left with a Telekom Cerberus negotiating the medals on the road in Sydney 2000, Paolo Bettini riding in gold shoes, and at least one other pro race every four years guaranteed to be as fucked up as the World Championships. But that’s not the worst of it.
In exchange for sipping complimentary Coca-Cola in some luxury trailer on a humid Atlanta streetcorner, then flying off to the next round of bid cities to check out their race courses, liquors, and prostitutes, collecting as much as he could in cash and prizes along the way, Verbruggen ceded dope regulation of professional cycling to the rules of the IOC, with all the integrity that implies, and subsequently to its WADA minions. That lot and their accredited labs have joined the national cycling federations, national Olympic committees, and some attention-starved police forces and magistrates to form some sort of babel-tongued Greek chorus, chanting for heads on plates wherever they can find them. When they can’t find the plates, they settle for the heads, and then fight amongst themselves over who gets the ear and who the tongue. The rest is all written down.
But that doesn’t have anything to do with baseball. Because the professional stick-and-ball crowd has the goddamned good sense to stick to the culture they know and the rules they make and enforce themselves, instead of handing the keys to the kingdom to some Swiss milkmaid in a labcoat just to gain entry to an event their audience doesn’t give a rat’s ass about. They’ve got a good thing going, and they’re not about to screw it up by hopping in the sack with a bunch of guys in Prada sunglasses sipping thimblefuls of coffee in Lausanne cafes.
Those guys may have a lot of Euros lining their pockets, but baseball is content with the pile of greenbacks it has, an extra large from Dunkin Donuts, and getting hauled in front of a congressional panel every now and then. Why? Because they’re smart enough to know that baseball is about the pennant, the World Series, and money, not the Olympics, just like cycling is about the Tour, the Classics, and money, not the Olympics. And that you’re far better off running your own show. The Olympics are a cold-war relic more suitable for Greco-Roman wrestlers, ice dancers, and eastern-bloc gymnasts than for sports with more than a couple of bucks in hand and other things to do with them, and you’re far better off without the IOC’s hand in your particular cookie jar. But cycling failed to recognize that. Fortunately for professional baseball, it did, and its dog-and-pony hearings will go as scheduled: superficially tough questions pitched to bit players, marble-mouthed non-answers from the low seats, the ceremonial ousting of several “bad seeds,” then business as usual. Cycling used to have that luxury, but we sold it for a soft-focus interview with Bob Costas.
So anyway, yeah, call [Name Withheld]. He’s probably wondering what you’re up to anyway.
Monday, April 13, 2009
What’s left to write about Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) winning cobbled classics? I don’t know, really. He has the power, the skills, and the head, and he puts them together with remarkable consistently, rendering him very hard to beat. And, as we saw on Sunday, when it comes down to the sort of blunt, teamless, rider vs. rider fistfight that Paris-Roubaix tends to be, he’s very, very hard to beat.
Boonen has long since won all three of the biggest cobbled classics – 1 Gent-Wevelgem, 2 Rondes van Vlaanderen, and 3 Paris-Roubaixs – and he’s won most of the smaller races over the pavé, too. It must be those palmares, combined with his riding style and his allegiance to the teams of Patrick Lefevere, that gives people the irresistible urge to constantly compare him to Johan Museeuw. It’s a fair comparison, of course – they’re very similar riders. But when, as of yesterday, people were still posing questions like “is Boonen the next Johan Museeuw?” I just have to shake my head. It was a valid question three years ago, but now?
Let’s have a look at how they stack up win-wise in the races that are best suited to the basic characteristics that both men share. (The selection of races shown is purely at my discretion – feel free to argue about it.)
To my eye, though the numbers break out a little differently, Boonen has already at least drawn even with the retired Museeuw, though you could probably score it either way if you tried hard enough.
There’s no denying that Boonen lacks wins in some of the races Museeuw conquered, like those “classic” victories in the Zuri-Metzgete and HEW Cyclassics that Museeuw gained while chasing the old World Cup title (which he won in 1995 and 1996). But those races are far less important now, and not worth focusing on like Museeuw did in the World Cup years. In the big cobbled classics, Museeuw is still one Tour of Flanders win up on Boonen, though he lacks a Gent-Wevelgem title. The older Lion can boast an Amstel Gold win, which doesn’t seem to be on Boonen’s wish list and may be outside his abilities with the changes to the course since Museeuw's win in 1994. Museeuw also owns one Paris-Tours, which should be well within Boonen’s skill set. Museeuw and Boonen both have one World Championship title to their credit, but Museeuw also owns two Belgian national champion’s jerseys, and you have to believe that Boonen would like at least one of those. Finally, Boonen has somehow failed to yield a Het Volk/Het Niewsblad title yet, while Museeuw collected two.
So considering the above, how can I score them equal in stature? Well, two reasons. The first is that classics riders have to find something to do all summer, and that’s usually trying to bag stage wins. In that capacity, Boonen has far, far exceeded Museeuw. On the biggest stage, the Tour, he’s won six stages to Museeuw’s two, and bagged a green jersey as well. While Museeuw’s other stage wins were mostly in smaller Spanish stage races (e.g., Ruta del Sol, Tour of Valencia), the Four Days of Dunkirk, and a couple stages of the Tour de Suisse, to be fair, many of Boonen’s have been captured in ProTour stage races, including the Vuelta a Espana, Paris-Nice, the Eneco Tour, and the Tour of Belgium. And, particularly if you exclude criteriums, Boonen's overall palmares are just much longer and of higher quality.
My second reason is simpler, and involves less fuzzy math and conjecture. Museeuw retired at the age of 38, with many of his biggest victories coming after his 30th year. Boonen, on the other hand, is 28 and very much an active rider. So, in short, Boonen has reached this level of success in a far shorter time. Will Boonen's palmares soon definitively exceed those of his mentor? Almost certainly. A Milan-San Remo, Paris-Tours, and additional cobbled classics are still available if the cards fall right. The question now is how long Boonen will continue to ride – after his amazing 2005 season, he floated the idea of stopping at 30, saying he didn’t want to linger into old age. As someone over 30, I’m trying not to take offense to that, but we’ll have to see if the ensuing four years have changed his mind. After all, the job pays well, and the kid has some expensive habits…
So why, after each of Boonen’s big cobbled victories, do people continue to reflexively ask whether he “stacks up” to the legendary Museeuw? For me, the answer is simple – weather. Boonen’s Flanders and Roubaix wins have all come in pretty fair weather, and Boonen crosses the line bathed in late afternoon sunshine, teeth and jersey glowing white, maybe a little dusty. Museeuw, on the other hand, was a rain and mud magnet – just Google for pictures of his 2002 Roubaix win, and you’ll see a textbook on how to forge your legend.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling Boonen a fair weather rider, and I think that when the rains do return to Flanders and Roubaix, Boonen will still be there at the kill. Like Museeuw, Boonen wins hard races against hard competition and whatever nature provides. It’s just that Boonen needs to make it look harder, and for that, he needs a little cooperation from mother nature. One or two mud-encrusted Boonen wins, and the comparisons should take care of themselves. And if not, time will do it for him – everything looks harder when us older folks are doing it.
- Silence-Lotto finally made it into the move that mattered, putting both Leif Hoste and Johan Vansummeren into the royal breakaway that also contained Boonen, Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), and Thor Hushovd (Cervelo). Man, I’ve been waiting weeks to type that. Unfortunately, they got caught out a bit when Flecha elected to auger himself into the ground, but what can you do? Next step: win something. I think the Grote Scheldeprijs this week is calling their name.
- Pozzato may not have brought home any trophies this week, but he’s inserted himself into the list of cobbled contenders in a way that he hadn’t before. Maybe it’s his fashion choices, his manner, or his palmares, but he’s never really shouted “nails” the way a Boonen, a Van Petegem, or even any number of Flemish kermis specialists do. And though he’ll probably continue to have a better off-bike wardrobe than his competition, nobody will take him for a harmless pretty boy in the cobbled classics from here on out. Even better, the Flemish fans gave him a hell of a hard time in the finale, giving him a coating of spit and beer and closing the road down on him, and he gracefully brushed it off in the post-race interviews.
- Those cobble-level TV shots they like to get at Roubaix are good at showing a peloton shape that’s pretty unique to the race: the trident, formed by one line of riders coming up the crown, and one line in each gutter.
- Is it just me, or did the Garmin car seem to wait for George Hincapie (Columbia) to get on the bumper after his flat and awkward tire change?
- Speaking of George, I like him, I really do. And I know that Versus is aimed at the American audience, many of whom are familiar with Hincapie from his support of Armstrong at the Tour de France all those years. But could Versus please dial back the Hincapie love a notch or two? Call the race, make note of the local favorite and get a quote, but don’t be the cheering section.
- Speaking of Versus, remember last year when Phil and Paul were crowing and clucking and harumphing at every opportunity about Astana being excluded from some ASO races based on events that transpired the year before? Not so much vocalization now that Fuji-Servetto (formerly Saunier Duval) is the team getting the door slammed on them for the same sorts of issues, eh? I mean, sure, it’s not All-American Leipheimer and Horner getting screwed this year, but Ivan Dominguez is an American now. Can’t a former Cuban get a little jingo love from the home broadcaster?
- It wasn’t a big attack, but 2001 Roubaix winner Servais Knaven gave it a dig, anyhow. Always a team man, Knaven led Domo’s (another Lefevere team) sweep of the podium that year, getting away while everyone kept an eye on Museeuw. Romans Vainsteins (Remember him? And his rat-tail?) was third. Knaven may not be a star, but his move was the first time I remember Milram doing anything notable, or even visible, this classics season.
- With his third Roubaix win, Boonen enters some pretty elite company, including late model legends like Museeuw, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, and Rik Van Looy, as well as old-timey heroes Octave Lapize and Gaston Rebry. Again, with time left on the clock, equaling four win record of Roger "Mr. Paris-Roubaix" DeVlaeminck doesn't seem to far out of reach, does it?
- My longshot predictions from Friday proved to be just that -- longshots. Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) was able to follow the early splits, but fell out of contention come crunch time. Still a career week for him. Kevyn Ista (Agritubel) did arrive in Roubaix eventually, but at more than 17 minutes behind, he finished hors delay. At least you still get the famous shower at the end.
- Seeing some new contenders emerge this week has me looking forward to next year. With Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) hopefully back from injury and illness, Pozzato possibly supported by a strengthened second-year Katusha, Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) improving and back for another crack, Sylvain Chavanel (Quick.Step) making things interesting for the French again, and Boonen, Stijn Devolder, and Hoste still flying the Belgian flag, it should be a vintage year.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Paris-Roubaix Tech MadLibs
This time of year, cycling magazines and web sites turn their considerable attentions to cranking out article after article about the myriad little equipment changes that teams make for tomorrow’s Paris-Roubaix classic. But why should credentialed journalists have all the fun? Thanks to modern MadLib and internet technologies, we can now give you all the opportunity to create your very own Paris-Roubaix tech article the same way the the pros do.
Though MadLibs are usually a free-form exercise, we’ve inserted a few multiple choice selections (separated by an "/"), since we can’t have every team riding “Boob” wheels and “Farty” forks. You know the drill – when you see the underlined sections, insert the appropriate words of your choice, or pick your favorite selection from the list of options.
Team Name Verbs New Solution to Roubaix’s Unique Challenges
Scanning the team trucks as the squads do their pre-Roubaix reconnaissance always yields some interesting equipment choices, and this year has been no different. Many teams rolled out under sunny / threatening skies to survey the cobbles, revealing special touches for star riders and domestiques alike, all in hopes of improving their chance at glory in the storied / infamous / epic Hell of the North / Queen of Classics.
Team name has benched the team bike model they usually ride in favor of something a little more suitable for the treacherous cobbled farm roads of northern France. And with wet and slippery / dry and dusty weather forecasted, they’re likely to need all the help they can get. This year, most riders will roll out on bike sponsor’s new cyclocross / “Roubaix” / “all road” / “geriatric dentist” frames. In addition to substituting aluminum / carbon / a different carbon layup in key areas, the frames also feature extra rear wheel clearance along with long reach caliper / cantilever brakes. Out back, the chainstays are 1 centimeter longer than the team’s standard bikes and have been reshaped to provide more tire clearance / room for the 44 tooth inner chainrings. The seatstays have also been given the Roubaix treatment – bike sponsor team liason sponsor press flack name points out that the usual seatstay shape has been flattened / curved / fitted with elastomers to increase vertical compliance over the jarring pave.
All that extra clearance allows the team to squeeze in boutique maker’s / Vittoria’s beefy / plush / cushy 25c tubulars, which allow riders to drop the pressures a bit and provide a little extra comfort / relief / solace over the course’s 50+ kilometers of stones. And while they’re made by boutique maker / Vittoria, they’ve been relabeled with wheel sponsor’s logo using a Sharpie marker / thermal transfer.
Those tires are wrapped around / mounted / glued to the old school / classic / bulletproof combination of Dura-Ace / Record hubs and Ambrosio Nemesis / Mavic Reflex tubular rims. Leaving the low spoke count and carbon hoops for the more forgiving classics, team name opts for 32 spokes and brass nipples, tied and soldered by hand to give a bit of extra strength and keep everything in place should a spoke break.
Steering duties are handled by bike sponsor’s cyclocross / second tier fork. While the fork weighs more that the squad’s usual setup, it offers a steel steerer / an aluminum steerer / more tire clearance for a little extra insurance on rough roads. Team’s star rider will maneuver that fork from gutter to pothole with handlebars bolstered by a layer of extra bar tape / rubber under the tape / sponsor’s gushy tape product. While well known domestique forgoes the extra padding on the bars, he does use a ‘cross top lever for quick braking from the tops should the need arise. Domestique's bike also sports a handwritten / typed piece of paper taped to the stem / top tube with the location and length of each cobbled sector, as well as an extra seat clamp to ensure the seatpost stays put when the impacts come.
While team name spares no detail in it’s Roubaix setup, not everyone is going with such tried and true techniques. Bucking the trend, other team name rolled out on wheel sponsor’s new carbon hoops. It's hard to tell by looking, but team mechanics tell publication name that the wheels have more carbon / a modified carbon layup where it matters to give the squad a bit more forgiving ride / better strength over the cobbles, while still providing the aero advantage for a solo ride to the velodrome. The brake surface on the new wheels is carbon / aluminum, which should be a decided advantage / disadvantage if the weather turns wet / dry.
Which strategy will prove to be the right one? That might just depend on Sunday’s forecast.
So, kidding aside, who is going to win Roubaix? Hell if I know, but there are plenty of places to read the list of favorites, and those guys are favorites for a reason. But outsider-wise, I’m looking to Liquigas. They don’t have a marquis Roubaix rider, but Manuel Quinziato and Aleksandr Kuschynski have been riding above their heads all week.
For a way-long shot, I’ll look for Kevin Ista from Agritubel. At 24, he’s way too young, and he’s mostly a sprinter at this point, but why not? The 5th year pro from Auvelais, Belgium (about 16k northwest of Charleroi) has had good showings all spring. He was there in a few long breaks in the semi-classics, and bagged a shocking second place at Het Nieuwsblad/Het Volk behind Thor Hushovd. He was also second overall at the Dreidaagse van West-Vlaanderen, and won the points, sprints, and best young rider titles in the process. He also took Stage 3 of the Med Tour over former French sprint hope Jimmy Engoulvent. Agritubel wasn’t on the guest list for Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem, so his form’s a bit of a mystery at this point, and there’s no telling how he’ll hold up against ProTour competition, but you have to jump in sometime.
Hope everyone enjoys the race.
Friday, April 10, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, I finished a book called “Over the Edge of the World” by Laurence Bergreen. It documents Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, a voyage that started in 1519 and completed its lap in 1522. The book’s title is a nod to the prevailing wisdom at that time that if you sailed far enough, you might just fall off the end of the earth, never to be seen again.
So why the hell am I talking about this on a cycling site? Well, Magellan’s voyage (which notably returned sans Magellan) proved that there was no literal “edge of the world” to sail over into some inescapable void. This year’s Gent-Wevelgem, on the other hand, proved that there are still plenty of figurative places to drop out of existence, never to be seen or heard from again. At least in bike racing.
Gent-Wevelgem, perhaps more than any other classic, seems driven by the wind. Changes in direction relative to those prevailing winds can crack the peloton into desperate, suffering echelons for kilometers. Then suddenly, a single turn is rounded, and the first echelon is blown out to an insurmountable gap by a howling tailwind. The Kemmelberg does its work, and another loop around the hills allows the process to repeat itself, smashing a lead group into even smaller pieces.
Combine that wind-and-hill cycle with the tricky politics of big-split team tactics, and the underlying message of this year’s G-W was clear – miss a single move, get a badly timed flat, and there’s no coming back. Lose the front group, and you’re off the edge of the world. No chasing back on, no teammates dropping back, no bridging, no regrouping. Three key splits occurred throughout the race – one at 20k that broke 36 men free, one after the first descent of the Kemmelberg that split that group in half, and one when the winning two-man break went clear. Each time, anyone who didn’t jump quickly enough or had a bit of hard luck might as well have turned up the side road and ridden straight for Wevelgem and the showers. It may be a "sprinter's classic," but anyone sitting in and waiting for the regroup hasn't been paying attention.
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
On Monday, I wrote a little bit about how Fabian Cancellara’s (Saxo Bank) showmanship over his broken chain during the Tour of Flanders might impact new team sponsor SRAM, which manufactures chains. Lest you think that these little incidents fail to make an impression on the viewing (and buying) public, we bring you the Top 15 search terms used to reach one very, very small cycling web site:
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As you can see, not all publicity really is good publicity, and if people are reaching this site using those terms, chances are they’re reading accounts of it on every major cycling site and more than a few minor ones as well. So while it’s still just a single broken chain, the story is bound to take on greater weight due to sheer exposure, repetition, and drama.
There’s plenty of precedent for high-visibility product failures haunting companies, of course. And within cycling, there’s even plenty of precedent for high-profile broken chains. Julio Perez Cuapio (then with Panaria) famously broke his chain during a promising breakaway in the 2001 Giro. I can still see him in that orange jersey by the side of the road, but I can’t for the life of me remember what kind of chain it was. I did look it up, though - Shimano, 9-speed. (Remarkably, Perez Cuapio smashed his teeth in on a guard rail a couple days later, then won a stage a few days after that. Tough guy.)
Compared with Perez Cuapio’s high-profile but relatively brand-anonymous failure, the intriguing thing about Cancellara’s is its close association with the SRAM name. In this case, it seems that the PR fallout was likely made much worse by the temporal proximity of the sponsorship announcement to the failure. Saxo Bank – a formidable team that famously resisted component sponsors because they wanted the freedom to use what they wanted – is a big get for SRAM, and the company talked it up accordingly. Given how persnickety director Bjarne Riis has been about equipment, signing SRAM as a sponsor registered as a bigger product endorsement than pay-to-play sponsorship deals usually do. Then, hot on the heels of that well-received press release, advertising that the team is riding their products, one of their new star riders suffers a race-ending failure of one of their core products in the first major event since the announcement. You could almost feel the sales and marketing guys cringing. Imagine if Colnago took over sponsorship of Astana, and Levi Leipheimer snapped a frame on the first day of the Giro.
Maybe I’m too soft, but what I’ve seen of the reaction feels a little strong to me. Yes, you certainly don’t want a chain snapping on you, and it does seem to be becoming a more common failure with thinner chains. But this tempest seems to have taken on more significance than it deserves due to an unfortunate pair of conditions – bad timing regarding the sponsorship announcement, and the fact that it occurred on the Koppenberg. The breakage probably wouldn’t have even been race-ending had it not occurred on that famous 600 meter stretch of cobbles, where team car access is restricted and poor position over the top is punished severely. And had it occurred nearly anywhere but the Koppenberg or the Muur van Geraardsbergen it surely wouldn’t have been subject to so much photography. As I noted Monday, Cancellara’s histrionics sure didn’t help things, but after the season the guy’s had, I also can’t begrudge him a little in-the-moment frustration.
As a result of all that, articles mentioning the breakage abound, but really, we’re still talking about one failure, for one very strong guy, on one very brutal hill. As much as I love you all, let’s not kid ourselves about our ability to replicate those conditions in our own riding. Even if we could all crank out the watts like Cancellara, anecdotal information indicates that most chain failures can be attributed to faulty installation – very few people actually break a sideplate or pull out a previously untouched pin. In other words, a failure of your mechanic's head and hands is far more likely to break your chain than the strength of your thighs. Or a manufacturing error, for that matter.
How many of those keyword searches above are SRAM looking to assess the damage, and how many are consumers trying to find out what happened? I have no idea. But I have to say, I haven’t seen that much keyword consistency since I wrote something a year ago that included the name of Specialized’s HR maven, Shannon Sakamoto. I don’t know what else she has going on, but someone Googles that woman at least once or twice a week. If SRAM has any luck at all, their little hubbub will die out a little more quickly than that.
In other news, you may have noticed that sneaking in up there at number 11 on the list is “course gent wevelgem.” That fine semi-classic was run this morning, of course, and we’ll try to get to that later.
Monday, April 06, 2009
Damn near every cycling news source will be barraging you with Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) news this morning, including detailed blow-by-blow descriptions of the race, close-ups of the equipment, and several forms of minutae that haven’t even occurred to me yet. And with good reason – Flanders is simply one of the best races all year. While yesterday’s contest doubtlessly deserves all the attention it’s receiving, I’m in no position to add to the din of details and firsthand accounts, so instead I’ll just throw out a few things that occurred to me as I watched it. Since I followed the race via Versus’ insanely fragmented and hard-to-follow coverage, I’ve tried to replicate that feeling here…
- First, we have to address the winner, Stijn Devolder (Quick.Step), who took his second consecutive victory in fine fashion. Another perfect execution of strong-team tactics, another well-timed and committed attack on the Eikenmolen, another powerful and unrelenting solo ride to the finish. Devolder doesn’t get a hell of a lot of airplay, but at the last two Rondes at least, he’s been the rider everyone wants Boonen to be. Of course, next year he won’t even be able to sign in without Pozzato and three guys from Lotto running into his back wheel.
- For me, the strongest rider coming into Flanders looked to be Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), and if there were no such thing as teams in cycling, I would have called him the outright favorite. But there are teams, and Pozzato knew that Quick.Step was strong and his Katusha squad wasn’t, and that he’d have to spend his day cuing off them. It looks like Adri Van der Poel, Pozzato, and I are all on the same page, judging by this Van der Poel quote from the cyclingnews.com live coverage: "To me there's one top favourite and that is Pozzato. If he's smart then he's just staying on Boonen's wheel all race long. They have other riders in the Quick Step team but the sponsor will most likely prefer Tommeke to win it." Pozzato did just that, likely using the same logic, and as it turned out, he bet on the wrong Quick.Step horse. I don’t think that makes it the wrong decision on his part - when you're just one guy, sometimes you just have to stick to the plan and hope it all comes back together again, and this time the cards just fell the other way. But when he and Boonen were jamming up the Koppenberg side-by-side, there was a taste of what might have been. And Pozzato looked better.
- Silence-Lotto held true to its signature move of missing the moves that matter. They did look strong during some of the shenigans just after the Paterberg, putting Leif Hoste in the move that also contained Sylvain Chavanel (Quick.Step), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Daniel Lloyd (Cervelo), and Frederick Guesdon (FdJ). Behind that move, Lotto was able to respond to Boonen’s aggression with Philippe Gilbert and Staf Scheirlinckx. Unfortunately for Lotto, by the time the finale was being played out, only Chavanel and the surprising Quinziato were left from that group, and Lotto had nothing at the front or in the half-assed chase. Gilbert saved the day by grabbing the bunch sprint for third.
- How about Chavanel and Quinziato? A career day for both of them, right to the bitter end. Chavanel was particularly remarkable - all race long, he did the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. Just perfect. How did various directors let this guy waste almost 8 years on Tour de France dreams when the classics are clearly what he’s meant to do?
- Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) is typically one hell of a professional – he proved that again by sucking it up and showing up to the start of the race he’d targeted, knowing that injury and illness had him far below where he wanted to be. That said, professionalism-wise, he slipped up a little today. Last week, his team signed a new component sponsorship deal with SRAM. Today, Cancellara snapped his (presumably SRAM) chain on the way up the Koppenberg, a failure of one of the company’s bread-and-butter products. You know, shit happens, and professionals break fine equipment all the time for a variety of reasons. And when they do, the protocol is to not make a big deal out of it and get the broken material into the truck and out of sight as soon as possible. But on the Koppenberg, Cancellara first did a little ‘cross-style hike, then performed a weak bike toss, then picked it back up, and then pointed out the problem to the crowd, a trio of waiting photographers, and the TV cameras. Then he turned around, picked up the offending chain, hung it around his neck, and coasted back down the hill, much to the delight of even more photographers. The only way he could have drawn more attention to the equipment failure was if he used the chain to lasso Tom Boonen and hitch a ride to the top. Not the best way to welcome a new sponsor to the team. From VeloNews.com: “We always joke that when you have full power you’re going to break everything, but now it happened,” Cancellara said, referring to his SRAM Red chain, which snapped midway up the Koppenberg when he was at the front of the peloton…While Cancellara turned around and retrieved his broken chain — maybe the SRAM technical whizzes may learn something from it…”
- I need Heinrich Haussler to win something big, soon. The Australo-German grabbed a well-deserved second place today with a well-timed late attack (and aggressive racing all day), a nice match for his second place at Milan-San Remo, but I can’t imagine that has him feeling overjoyed after an early season filled with near misses in big events. Amstel? Fleche? Probably longshots, but the guy’s gotta get lucky at some point.
- I don’t know what Martijn Maaskant’s (Garmin-Slipstream) contract looks like, but it’s going to be tough to keep him out of Lotto, Quick.Step, and Rabobank hands if he keeps turning in these rides in the big classics. I’ve only seen him work in good conditions – it’ll be interesting to see what he can do if things turn sloppy.
- What’s up with the special Quick.Step podium jersey? Looks like they might have tried to debut a new look, complete with black shorts, but it was a no-go from the UCI. Good thing, too – I think one of the first ten commandments of cycling is that Belgian teams should never be flashy. Leave all the wardrobe changes to the Italians for godssake. I do kind of like the new look, though.
Finally, just for kicks, let’s see how well my little pre-race spiel jived with reality:
- We pointed out that the Quick.Step trio of Boonen, Devolder, and Chavanel would be hard to stop, and that was right. But that’s sort of like predicting that the Ronde will be held in Belgium, so I won’t break my arm patting myself on the back for that one.
- In the Katusha camp, Pozatto did end up looking a bit lonely when the deal went down, and Sergui Ivanov did manage to show himself at the end, mounting a late chase behind the Devolder-Chavanel-Quinziato-Van Hecke group.
- Just like they did at De Panne, Silence-Lotto made all the moves, except the ones that mattered. Despite what Greg Van Avermaet may think, that still isn’t as good as winning.
- I thought Flecha and Nuyens might do something for Rabobank. Even though they got some camera time, they did nothing of consequence. Likewise, Columbia failed to really materialize, capping things off with George Hincapie’s crash in the final few hundred meters. If it weren’t for bad luck…
- Frederick Guesdon (FdJ) did his best to make me look like a genius for naming him as a possible spoiler. It didn’t work out, but I appreciate his efforts.
- As for my final predictions: The winner was not a member of Euskaltel-Euskadi, though two of them did finish: Koldo Fernandez in 51st and Markel Irizar in 65th. So I’m good there, but nobody with a surname beginning with Van was in the early break, so my second prediction failed to become reality. Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas) and Wim De Vocht (Vacansoleil) made up that move, but really, for an early break in Flanders, it’s a toss-up between betting on a “De” or a “Van”, and I picked wrong. Ah well, there’s always next year.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
Gam Jams Reviews: Car Racks – Yakima*
My qualifications to review bicycle-toting car racks are based entirely, though somewhat paradoxically, on my near total lack of qualifications on the subject. That is, I bought a roof rack 15 years ago, and have not purchased one since. And when I did buy mine, a Yakima, it was not based at all on comparison shopping, features, reviews, or price. I was a bike shop rat at the time, Yakima was what we carried, so that’s what I got. That said, it’s proven to be the right non-choice ever since.
Now, you have to understand that my “15 year old rack” is a little like old tale about the woodsman’s favorite axe. You know, “I’ve had this old axe for 15 years. I’ve replaced the head three times and the handle five times, but she just keeps on going...”
My rack’s evolution isn’t quite that bad, but it’s close – the crossbars are still original, and most of the system survived intact from about 1992-2002. It was originally purchased for a ’78 Chevy Impala station wagon, a formidable vehicle, and as such the crossbars are Yakima’s “holy crap!” length. From there, the same rack passed with some adjustment to a much narrower ’86 Subaru wagon, where they menaced sidewalk pedestrians until that car met an unfortunate head-on demise outside of Wilkes-Barre, PA. The only thing salvaged from that little incident, the racks were adjusted again and clamped to the gutters of an ’83 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, where they served me well until that vehicle’s engine caught fire near Scranton, PA. At that point, I believe I swore off driving that particular stretch of I-81, but the racks were rescued again and fitted to a 1986 Volvo sedan.
During the Volvo years, a slow evolution to the rack setup began. I’d moved to the fringes of Capitol Hill in DC, where I installed some of those newfangled “locking” bike mounts (though still the split-mount style rather than full trays, because I’m cheap). If you’ve ever lived there, you know why. Then, bypassing 1990’s vehicles altogether, I bought a 2002 Volkswagen, and to my surprise, vehicles no longer came with enormous chrome rain gutters. That forced a switch to the more modern Q-towers and clips instead of the gutter mounts, but the crossbars, bike mounts, and wheel hooks remained.
Over the years, the crossbars have grown a bit shorter than they were. They’ve been trimmed off a centimeter or so at a time as the ends have rusted from the rain, salty air, and salty roads of time spent in Virginia Beach, upstate New York, and Boulder before landing in the DC area. But trim them a bit with a sawzall, pop some new end caps in, and they’re set to go for another few years. All in all, the durability, the ability to adapt most of the same parts to different vehicles, the wide availability of even small replacement parts, and never having to worry about incompatibility with newer parts is what’s kept me with the Yakima’s for so long. That, and the fact that they’ve always stayed on the roof and held the bikes securely, which is nice. Maybe all of that’s the same with the other options – I’ve just never had to find out.
So until I have this guy build me a set of custom ProTour racks, complete with the hydraulic fold down wheel rack and a loudspeaker mount so I can shout “Venga! Venga! Venga!” from the driver’s seat of my black-market Skoda, I’ll stick with Yakima.
* Some of my regular readers might be wondering what this entry is about, since it has only a fragile and passing relationship to professional cycling, and a strange title. GamJams.net is a Mid-Atlantic (U.S.) regional bike racing site, and one of the better examples of the breed, I’d add. In addition to dishing out regional amateur racing news, maintaining an event calendar, and providing lists of resources, coaches, and beloved club sponsors, GamJams also periodically calls on its wide-ranging affiliate network to do honest reviews the equipment they use. Usually, I’m ineligible, because the stuff I ride is typically too old to be available anymore. And it’s not that cool “vintage” old, either – just that awkward 10-12 years old. But this time, that sort of durability seemed like a good selling point.
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
De Ronde Abhors a Vacuum
But someone has to fill that void, and it turns out that’s Filippo Pozzato (Katusha). The fashion-sideways Italian tends to bag a decent win or two every early season, make a lot of promises, then go cold come Flanders-Roubaix week. This year, though, it looks like he may have timed things a little better, staying pretty quiet until this last week, then nailing the E3 Harelbeke semi-classic in a surprising sprint over Boonen on Saturday and winning the first stage of the Dreidaagse De Panne on Tuesday.
Assuming he’s not burning too many matches screwing around at De Panne, the world’s best classics stage race, Pozzato’s chief problem come Sunday would look to be support. The woefully out-of-date start list at the RVV web site sheds some light on the issue. Considering Gert Steegmans is now out with some sort of leg/nerve issue, Pozzato could have a lonely day at the front on his hands. Mikhail Ignatiev is certainly good for some grunt work, and Serguei Ivanov can have the staying power to be there at the end, but the roster is no who’s who of classics racing. He does have Andre Tchmil in the car directing, so that has to be good for something.
That’s not quite fair, of course – Katusha has a roster better than two-thirds of the teams in the race. It’s just that there are four squads between Quick.Step and Katusha that really stand out. First comes the mostly hapless Silence-Lotto squad. Sure, their early season has been crap, with just one win by Cadel Evans in Coppi e Bartali last week to its credit, but if things start going their way, there are some hard hitters on their list. There’s Leif Hoste, who’s been second three times at the Ronde and very motivated to win, if only to avoid having “second three times at the Ronde” carved on his tombstone. He’s likely to share protected status with Philippe Gilbert, who’s been flirting with greatness for several seasons, racking up some Omloops Het Volk, a Paris-Tours, and a bunch of stages in the process. Greg Van Avermaet gets a lot of hype too, though I don’t quite understand why, so I guess they have that going for them. Those three are backed up by Vansummeren, Cretskens, Scheirlinckx, Delage, and Lang, a group I’d put up against any classics supporting cast.
So if Lotto comes around, they’re as good a bet as any. Van Avermaet, putting out some hype of his own, thinks that the team has lifted its game and turned a corner, telling cyclingnews.com of the first day of De Panne “We made the race today; that was the first time that I see that and I think this is a change for us." Sure, they helped force the split that shed Boonen 70k from the finish, but if Van Avermaet defines “making the race” as “leading the second group in a minute behind the guy who won, and missing what was likely the defining break of the race,” I may have to rethink my assessment.
Who’s there besides the home teams? Rabobank, always teetering at the edge of classics greatness without quite managing to fall in, has high hopes for Juan Antonio Flecha, who will hope to shake his reputation for getting the best view in the house of other guys winning bike races. Belgian import Nick Nuyens has been quiet this season, but seems to be coming around OK, if not in a headline sort of way, and relative youngin’ Sebastian Langeveld could be a viable option as well. Backed up by the cobble-friendly De Maar, Hayman, Posthuma, Tankink, and Tjallingi, they should be capable of having decent representation when the race hits the Muur and the Bosberg.
Cervelo Test Team and Columbia should factor in the finale as well, and are both split about half and half between grizzled veterans and talented newcomers. On the Columbia side, there’s Hincapie, always Hincapie, supported by an international smorgasbord of pretty talented folks, including Bernhard Eisel, Marcus Burghardt, and Bert Grabsch. Cervelo has this spring’s nearly man, Heinrich Haussler, along with 2009 Het Volk and 2006 Gent-Wevelgem winner Thor Hushovd, Belgophile Briton Roger Hammond, and 2003 Gent-Wevelgem winner and Belgian resident Andreas Klier. Those four are backed up by a sturdy group of rouleurs, including Canadian Dominique Rollin, who everyone believes fits the profile for these sorts of races.
So that’s a quick rundown of what the favorites, Pozzato now included, will have to deal with, but that’s the breaks when you’re trying to win a classic. If you look at the draft roster for Ballan’s Lampre squad, you’ll see he would have been in a similar situation, with the squad now looking a little headless without him. And just as guys like Pozzato and Ballan can be considered favorites despite a lack of lauded support, there are guys scattered throughout the start list with the potential, on a good day, to upset the whole apple cart for the stacked squads – guys like Frederic Guesdon (Francaise des Jeux), who sneaks away to win another classic just when everyone’s forgotten about him again, or a Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) who could finally manage to slip his domestique label once and for all.
In light of all this, I’m sure not making any predictions as to who the winner will be. I will go out on a limb and bet that the early break will include at least one rider whose surname begins with “Van,” and that the winner will not come from Euskaltel-Euskadi. Mr. Bookmaker, here I come.