Monday, March 29, 2010
Patrick Lefevere and Marc Sergeant, the public faces of top Belgian squads Quick Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto, respectively, have both been around long enough to know that you should never let the public see you sweat. So after last weekend’s new E3 Prijs Vlaanderen/Gent-Wevelgem double header, they’ll either have to stay out of the media glare and wipe their brows in private, or get Alan Lim to jimmy them up a cooling vest that fits smoothly under a sportcoat.
What was so bad about last weekend that the two of the most experienced managers in the business should be glistening with nerve juice? Nothing, really, at least not viewed in isolation. To whit:
Tom Boonen (Quick Step) initiated the winning break at the E3, looking dead relaxed while attacking over the Paterberg, drawing out Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) and creating a move with more horsepower than most teams’ buses. The trio rode through several other groups to arrive at the finale, where Boonen fell victim to one of Cancellara’s final kilometer attacks and had to settle for second place. That’s OK – that move is a tough one to counter. It happens. First or second, Boonen showed he’s rising to the form he’ll need coming into the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix next week.
On Sunday Omega Pharma put not one but two strong candidates – Philippe Gilbert and Jurgen Roelandts – in the final group of six. Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Columbia) was clearly the most fancied sprinter in a group that also contained George Hincapie (BMC), Daniel Oss (Liquigas), and Sep Vanmarcke (Topsport-Vlaanderen), so it was no great surprise when he waited out Hincapie’s early jump and came around for the win. As for Omega Pharma, well, even with a man-up advantage, you don’t always win. And after a pretty anonymous E3 the day before, the team showed their boys can sniff out the right move and get there in force, a good sign for next week’s mega classics.
That’s the positive reading of those two teams' performances last weekend. The negative reading?
In the E3, Boonen, who all eyes say is on screaming form right now, should have known Cancellara’s late move was coming roughly since the neutral rollout ended. In fact, I think Cancellara actually has the details of his signature attack printed on the back of his jersey, with a map, just in case anyone had any doubts about the plan. If Boonen couldn't anticipate that attack and roll with it last Saturday, is another eight days before the Ronde van Vlaanderen going to make the difference? Tom – Cancellara is NOT going to willingly go to the line with you. You have to make him take you to the line. To do that, you need to stick to the red kite attack until things get back on your own terms. Easier said than done, I know, but most things are.
And Omega Pharma? Two guys in a group of six? That’s 33 percent of the break. A third. Yes, Eisel is a damn good sprinter – and probably an underrated one due to the company he keeps at HTC-Columbia. But the two guys Omega Pharma had in the break weren’t exactly their second string, or neo pros getting a first look at the big time. Roelandts has some serious power, and Gilbert is an excellent late-race attacker and pretty handy in a small group sprint. So how did Omega use those strengths and numbers? Roelandts brought Vanmarcke's late attack back for everyone, then spent a few kilometers calmly dragging the whole group, Eisel included, to the sprint. There are some good cases to be made for altruism in competitive cycling, but that was a pretty weak headed example. A better one? Back when the leading group still numbered nine riders, the other team with two men in – Liquigas – used up one of its riders to kindly escort the most dangerous rider in the group, Oscar Freire (Rabobank), off the back. That I can live with. But just being the mindless derny that takes everyone to the line? No thanks.
All that said, yes, anyone can blow a weekend’s worth of racing pretty easily. Countless teams do it every weekend, and sometimes other people are just stronger. Again, it happens. But where Quick Step and Omega Pharma will run into trouble in the home press this week is that they’ve failed to bag a classic thus far, and it's getting late. And as those teams go, so goes Belgium in the springtime.
This spring, Belgian fans have watched as a Spaniard riding for a British team lifted Omloop Het Niewsblad. The next day, in abominable conditions, a Dutchman riding for a second division Dutch team carried off Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. A Dane on a Danish team outfoxed the natives at Dwars Door Vlaanderen; his Swiss teammate snatched up the E3. An Austrian on an American team claimed Gent-Wevelgem.
Previously little-known neo-pro Jens Keukelaire has been the country’s only classics winner this year, bagging the Dreidaagse van West Vlaanderen stage race, the GP Samyn, and the Nokere Koerse. He rides for Cofidis, a now-second division French team that didn’t even get an invite to Gent-Wevelgem or the Ronde.
Getting schooled by a local kermesse kid riding for Cofidis (particularly now that it’s a long way from its days as home to hardened classics riders like Jo Planckaert, Nico Mattan, Chris Peers, and Frank Vandenbrouke) is bad enough, but the fact is that there are a multitude of teams performing better in the northern classics than the two big teams that allegedly specialize in these races. It’s Saxo Bank executing the perfectly timed attacks. It’s Liquigas splitting the race in the crosswinds at Gent. It’s HTC-Columbia winning the hardman’s small bunch sprints. And yes, it’s mighty Quick Step putting its top finisher in the 22nd spot at Gent-Wevelgem (and that was Sylvain Chavanel, a Frenchman).
So all of that leaves Quick Step and Omega Pharma in an unenviable position. Yes, the whole cycling season is important in their native country. Yes, knowledgeable fans appreciate good rides that don’t necessarily end on the top step of the podium. But the fact is, if you’re one of the big Belgian teams and you’re not bringing home the big cups in the spring, you’re not doing your job. Fail to gain the top step in March and April, and there’s not much you can do the rest of the season to make up for it in the eyes of their core fan base. Make no mistake, these aren’t the sunshine boys of stage racing, where every race but the Tour de France or maybe the Giro is passed off as being “for training” or “a test.” Het Nieuwsblad matters. The E3 matters. Gent-Wevelgem matters. So after not nabbing any of the lesser classics to take the pressure off a bit, the big home teams need to win at the two hardest cobbled classics, the Ronde and Roubaix, to save face. And that’s a tall order, especially when you’re not going in with a rock solid confidence base. It feels a little like going 0-10 in the regular season, but planning to save it all by winning the championship.
The kicker for Quick Step and Omega Pharma? If one of them does take the big one on Sunday, it takes every last bit of pressure off that team’s shoulders….and heaves it directly onto the shoulders of the other. If one of them takes the win at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, look for the other to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink – and maybe even that – on the road the following Sunday at Paris-Roubaix.
Do I think that Quick Step's slow start means Boonen won’t bag the Ronde or Roubaix? Not by a longshot. Boonen is Boonen, and he's hungry. And I still think Gilbert’s chances are good, too. But putting all your eggs in those Easter baskets is enough to make any manager sweat, no matter how experienced.
- As Scott T. noted in the comments to the last post, I guess now we know how top riders will treat the E3 now that it’s the day before Gent-Wevelgem. Apparently, they go for the throat. Having Boonen, Flecha, and Cancellara driving the front, with Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) trying desperately to get across felt like what we expect a week or two weeks from now. After the first running of the E3/Gent-Wevelgem weekend, the lineup has seemed to draw E3 up a notch to put the competition at the same level as Gent-Wevelgem. This year, the latter race saw most of its action come from second-tier classics threats, but that's something that can happen in any given year and isn’t necessarily indicative of much. But the big boys coming out to play in the E3 rather than Gent makes sense. The E3 shares a lot more similarities and climbs (including the Paterberg where the key move went down) with next weekend’s Ronde than Gent-Wevelgem does, so it makes sense that the Ronde contenders were out in force on Saturday rather than Sunday.
It is worth noting, however, that Gent-Wevelgem winning HTC-Columbia didn’t ride the E3 the day before. Neither did Gent strongman Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank), and E3 winner Cancellara hadn’t originally planned to ride Gent the following day. It’ll be interesting to see how teams play these two races as the arrangement becomes more ingrained in the calendar.
- Speaking of Pozzato, it’s not really fair, since I’m basing this on only this year’s E3 and last year’s Roubaix, but I feel like I spend a lot of time watching him chasing alone. Hey Pippo, how about we spot the break when it goes – I think it’ll work out better for you.
- You know (part of) why I like Gent-Wevelgem? It’s one of the only races that’s historically been capable of showing people that sprinters can really ride. Remember Mario Cipollini bridging up to the break in 2002 before taking the win? Yesterday, we had Eisel and Freire in the break, and Tyler Farrar (Garmin) and Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank) helping drive the chase. Most of the time, the big sprinters are hiding in the wheels until the last possible moment, because that’s the best way to win those races. But they get a bad rap for it, anyway, and people love to label them as hopeless climbers, one-trick ponies, or lazy glory-hounds. Gent seems to be their favorite chance to prove otherwise.
- Sep Vanmarcke, whoever that is, had a career day at GW yesterday. No matter how anonymous the Topsport-Vlaanderen rider was in the morning, by the afternoon we all knew who he was since he dutifully sat on the back of the break right in front of the TV cameras for the last 20k. Which, as the new guy in a group of bigger names in a huge race, is exactly where he should have been. Sure, Freire and likely a few other guys in the break hollered at him for it – if you can intimidate someone into working, why not – but they also knew exactly where he was coming from. While he was back there, Vanmarcke saved up enough gas to try the only real late-race grab at victory, then still mustered a second place in the sprint. Beats just plodding steadily to the slaughter…Roelandts.
- Matti Breschel’s (Saxo Bank) flat on Sunday was the heartbreaker of the race. The kid is absolutely flying right now, stomping everyone on the final climb of the Kemmelberg before (sensibly) easing up, and his presence in the finale could have drastically reshaped the race. It’s not quite to the level of the Boonen/Devolder two-headed monster, but with Breschel riding as he is, Cancellara’s chances at the Ronde are a little better than they were.
- Related: Shimano neutral support is going to have to spend this week practicing its wheel changes – if Boonen gets a change that slow next Sunday, they’re going to get lynched.
- Finally, think Omega Pharma-Lotto's current no-win season is bad? In 2005, the very talented T-Mobile went scoreless until Alexandre Vinokourov finally outsprinted Jens Voigt (CSC) to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Tough and Tranquilo
Oscar Freire (Rabobank) isn’t an obvious candidate for cycling stardom, is he? Tom Boonen (Quick Step) is better on the stones. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) is quicker. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) has more horsepower. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) is a better climber. Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) is, well, we don’t know what he is yet, but we’re pretty sure it’s good.
By comparison, Friere’s talents are a bit less obvious, perhaps even more mental than physical, and he doesn’t get as many chances to show off his specialty as the aforementioned riders do. That’s because there just aren’t too many races that cater to what seems to be Freire’s defining talent: being the best small bunch sprinter in the world in cycling’s death zone – distances beyond 250 kilometers. In fact, there are really only two races with that sort of distance that are likely to end in a bunch sprint: the occasional World Championship, and Milan-San Remo. But as of last Saturday Freire has won both of them three times, and I hear they pay pretty well.
In trying to explain those victories, it would be convenient to pin Freire’s long-haul prowess on age – to profess that his 34 years have given him the fabled “resistance” that comes from years as a professional and the tens of thousands of kilometers in the legs, the magical force that gives older riders the edge when the kilometer count gets beyond the norm. I’d like that to be true – it’s a theory that I’m fond of, more and more so as I get older, in fact. The truth is, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case for Freire. He bagged his first world championship (1999) in Verona at age 23, when he was a little-known rider on the modest Vitalicio Seguros team. His second title came in 2001 when he was 25, and the third in 2004 at 28. So Freire wasn’t boy-wonder young when he won those, but he certainly wasn’t shuffling off towards the rocking chair, either. His San Remo victories (which tack another 40k or so onto the typical World Championship distance of around 260k) fit the older rider theory a bit better, having been achieved at ages 28 (2004), 31 (2007), and 34 (2010). But after his earlier Worlds successes, those San Remo triumphs were hardly surprising. We already knew he could go the distance and still have a kick at the line.
Pure distance isn’t the only thing Freire seems to thrive on, though; there seems to be a level-of-difficulty aspect that factors into his wins as well. After all, if Freire’s turn-on was just rolling out the kilometers and having a sprint at the end, he would have stacks of Paris-Tours victories in his palmares. But he doesn’t, and my thinking is that’s because, while Paris-Tours is a hair over 250k, it’s also pancake flat, with a straight-as-an-arrow run in. There’s just not enough material there for Freire to work with, no obstacles to wear out the more conventional sprinters and their assistants or to sap the strength of the late-race breakaway heroes who have captured quite a few victories there recently.
While I certainly wouldn’t rule out Freire winning Paris-Tours based on that, his sweet spot does seem to lie somewhere between selectivity of a Ronde van Vlaanderen and the sprinter-friendliness of a Paris-Tours. For Freire to thrive, the race needs enough difficulty to shed the pure sprinters, but not enough to decimate the field entirely. (In short, a flatish World Championship course, or the capi of the Ligurian coast.) If that comfort zone seems familiar, it’s because it used to be the stomping ground of Eric Zabel, who’s probably at least part of the reason Freire doesn’t have more victories in races that fit the bill. (Although Zabel is at least partially responsible for Freire’s 2004 Milan-San Remo victory.)
Looking back over his victories, I can’t help but think that Freire’s advantage in long races is more between his ears than in his legs. He has a certain calmness about him, even when he’s flicking his bike over medians and through roundabouts to pick up a couple bike lengths in a hectic finale. Since he burst on the scene with his 1999 World Championship win in Verona, I can’t recall an instance of Freire getting in a media pissing match with another rider or with his team management. I’ve never heard him complain about a dangerous finish, or seen him upset after a narrow loss. While it’s become a verbal reflex for Spanish riders to tell journalists they’re feeling tranquilo ahead of a major goal or after some major disappointment, coming from Freire, I’d actually believe it. Though he undoubtedly has the same worries and fears we all have, in racing and in life, he doesn't seem to let any of it get to him. If you up all the worrying a typical rider could during the buildup to a big event and over almost 300 kilometers of racing, then by comparison Freire has to be saving some serious mental energy for the sprint. And that comes in handy when you’re looking for the right wheel, dodging toasted leadout men, and trying to spot the jump when it comes.
While the exact conditions that most favor his success are somewhat rare, Freire (again like Zabel), also possesses surprising versatility. Like most riders with a strong sprint as their most notable quality, he has a host of stage wins, including four in the Tour de France, seven in the Vuelta a Espana, and wins at a number of smaller venues. To those, he adds the Tour de France green jersey in 2008, and an overall win in Tirreno-Adriatico in 2005 – both feats seldom accomplished by pure sprinters.
More interesting, however, is Freire’s more recent affinity for the cobbles of northern Europe. It first showed with his win at the Brabantse Pijl Belgian classic, which he first won in 2005 before nabbing the 2006 and 2007 titles as well. For those who might have missed those gritty wins, his victory at the 2008 Gent-Wevelgem may have come as a surprise, if only because he’s Spanish and Gent has cobblestones. But looking closer, Gent is a perfect target for the Cantabrian. Though only a paltry 219 kilometers long, the relatively sprinter-friendly cobbled classic features two ascents of the Rodeberg-Monteberg-Kemmelberg triple before descending and flattening out for the remaining 28 kilometers to the finish on Wevelgem’s Vanackerestraat. In the absence of a quality escape like 2009's, that leaves the perfect recipe for a hard-man’s bunch sprint, and a potential Freire victory.
Gent-Wevelgem, of course, is coming up this Sunday in its new weekend time slot, and Freire is clearly on form. But, when the inevitable list of favorites come out, he’s likely to slot in around fifth or sixth on a top-10 list again. I’m guessing he won’t be bothered by that.
- What do we think of Gent-Wevelgem’s move to the weekend? For the race itself, for riders, and for anyone living within striking distance of it, it’s a great move. Obviously, the race’s chances of getting a good crowd and live TV audience are better on a Sunday than they are on a Wednesday, even in Belgium, where people are willing to bag work for a bike race. Organizers are also likely hoping that absenteeism among the top cobbled riders will drop, since they’ll no longer be primarily concerned with recovering from Flanders and preparing for Roubaix, and bailing on Gent as a result. And, as big a win as everyone knows Gent is, being a mid-week classic still hurts your prestige a bit.
Who might lose out from the move? Well, American and tourists from far-away lands, for one – you used to be able to take a nine day block and fit in Flanders, Gent, and Roubaix for your dime, but now you’ll have to mill around Flanders for an extra week to fit all three in. Granted, for bike racers, there are worse places to be stuck than Flanders in early April. I’m on the fence about whether the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (a.k.a., the GP E3) the day before Gent wins or loses in this deal. Big riders might either double up on the weekend and get a last block of high-intensity training in before Flanders the following Sunday, or they might skip or sandbag the E3 in hopes of doing real damage in Gent. Probably a little bit of both, actually, but I’m guessing in the end it’s a net win for the E3.
- After dental problems set back his early season preparations, Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) seems to be bouncing back, taking the stage win at the Volta a Catalunya today. Catalunya doesn’t exactly draw the cream of the sprinter crop, but with Cavendish feeling at least a bit better, Gent-Wevelgem just got that much more interesting.
- Yet again, the outfit currently known at Omega Pharma-Lotto is under the gun for failing to register a win with the thick of classics season upon us. I’ve always liked Lotto, at least partly because they’re always the lower-budget underdog at the top of Belgian cycling, if that makes sense. I was hoping that without Cadel Evans’ grand tour aspirations to look after this year, they’d be able to focus in on their core competencies and be fit, happy, and ready for April, but no avail. It’s worth noting that Evans’ current team, BMC, is also winless so far with a classics squad that’s been radically underperforming, particularly for a team that should be trying to make its name.
- Like a good Belgian classic? Don’t forget Dwars door Vlaanderen (“Race Across Flanders”) on Thursday. It has cobbles, bergs – you know, all that stuff you like. Looking back over the season so far, it’s hard to bet against riders like Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis) or Bobby Traksel (Vacansoleil) for races like Dwars and E3, but this isn’t early March anymore, and with the giants of the road tuning up their form, their odds may be getting a bit slimmer.
- On the track, Belgium’s Iljo Keisse broke his collarbone during a training session at the World Championships. That’s unfortunate for Belgium’s hopes in the madison and points race, but it's also now a loss for road racing fans. After dominating the Six Day races for several years, Keisse signed a contract with Quick Step for this year, where many were looking forward to seeing how he’d translate his ample skills on the boards to the road. Belgium’s last big Six Day star, Etienne de Wilde, amassed a pretty impressive road resume, including Het Volk and Tour de France stage wins. Looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer to see if Keisse can make a go of it year-round.
- One final Freire note – I had to include a link to this Bobke Strut post, which also gives a bit of insight into Freire’s relaxed personality. It features Freire with a mini pump duct-taped to the top tube of his Rabobank issued Colnago. That earned him the Strut’s “low budget superstar” title, and he did it the honest way, by not sweating the details (not by the Rivendell/Martha Stewart way, where you spend 12 hours on internet research and another 4 hours in the garage to make things look like they’ve “just been thrown together”).
Friday, March 19, 2010
Will 2010 be the year that marks the true revival of Dutch cycling? Though the start of the season creeps earlier each year, making it seem like mid-season by mid-March, the 2010 season is still barely in its infancy, so it’s still difficult to tell just where everything is going. [So intense is the battle for “season opener” status, in fact, that the 2011 GP Marseillaise will actually be held just prior to the 2010 Giro di Lombardia.] But so far, with the pre-season races over with, it’s looking like Dutch cycling may just be making a comeback after a decade in the relative wilderness.
Let’s start with a little history…
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Ti-Raleigh squad under legendary DS Peter Post [unstated motto: “I’d rather be feared than loved”] won damn near everything that mattered with riders like Hennie Kuiper, Jan Raas, Gerrie Knetemann, Joop Zoetemelk, and Leo Van Vliet. From 1974 to 1983, the team bagged a Tour de France (and 10 stages in the 1978 edition alone), Tour de Suisse, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Het Volk, Paris-Tours, Paris-Brussels, Paris-Nice…some of those multiple times.
In 1984, one of Post’s key riders, fellow Dutch hardass Raas, tired of Post’s rule at Ti-Raleigh and led a group of defectors to form Kwantum, where Raas briefly stayed on as a rider before slipping into the driver’s seat. Through a number of sponsorship and management twists and turns, that team would eventually become Rabobank in 1996 and continue through the present. For his part, Post continued to head the former Ti-Raleigh structure, now rebranded as Panasonic, which led a long and fruitful life through 1992.
Riding a wave of success fueled by that history, by 1989 there were four top-flight Dutch teams in the peloton – Panasonic and Kwantum heir Superconfex, TVM, and PDM. Though the influence of Dutch riders in the peloton may have dwindled a bit since the Ti-Raleigh days, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these four teams gave Dutch cycling plenty of visibility, whether their success came with native riders or foreigners like Eddy Planckaert, Edwig Van Hooydonck, and Sean Kelly. Nationalistic hopes rested mostly on GC threat Eric Breukink, sprinter Jean Paul Van Poppel, and a trio of climbers, Stephen Rooks, Gert Jan Theunisse, and the aging Peter Winnen. Each of those three tasted success on Alpe d’Huez., and to this day, that mountain still boasts an unofficial “Dutch corner” in their honor.]
So What Happened?
While Theunisse, Rooks, and Winnen occupied the pinnacle of Dutch cycling for a time, they also embodied the problems that would ultimately reduce Dutch cycling to a single major team in the peloton for the 2000s. Theunisse was busted outright for testosterone use in 1988, and again in 1990. Rooks and Winnen would confess to testosterone and amphetamine use after ending their careers, but that was only confirmation of what most of the world already knew. Rooks later fessed up to EPO use as well.
In 1991, the entire PDM team dropped out of the Tour de France, citing food poisoning from a team dinner. It was later revealed that the squad had a bad reaction to poorly-stored dope. The team pulled the plug the next year.
When the Festina Affair at the 1998 Tour de France brought EPO use into the spotlight, TVM was a major player, despite Festina getting naming rights to the scandal. TVM officials including DS Cees Priem and the team doctor were taken into police custody, and evidence of doping was found in the team’s hotel. Investigations and court cases followed; who knows when, how, or if they ever ended. A revamped version of the team soldiered on for two more years before exiting, though they did win the 1999 Ronde with Belgian Peter Van Petegem. As sponsors drifted off, only Rabobank was left, and in the absence of other big Dutch teams, it became the 800 pound gorilla of Dutch cycling.
Throughout the 2000s, the Dutch had a number of solid performers but few standouts, with most of the country’s expectations borne by Rabobank and its dynamic duo of Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker. Both fantastic riders, no doubt, but both often fell short of wins in the biggest classics, and Boogerd faced unfortunate pressure to become a grand tour rider during his prime years, which may have distracted him from the classics he was better suited for. With only one top team standing, retirements of Boogerd and Dekker, and careers of other mainstays like Servais Knaven and Leon Van Bon winding down, many were left asking what was next for Dutch cycling.
Back to the Present
As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and the 2010 early season sees many signs that Dutch cycling may again be on an upswing. First, there was Bobby Traksel’s (Vacansoleil) gritty win in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne ahead of countryman Rick Flens (Rabobank), followed quickly by the very promising Lars Boom’s (Rabobank) win and initial leaders’ jersey in Paris-Nice, and several more good results from Traksel. Sure, a couple of early wins isn’t much to go on – but they’re one part of a renewed visibility for the Dutch on cycling’s world stage.
More than any individual rider, that renewed visibility is being spearheaded by a trio of teams that have placed themselves firmly at the top tier of the sport in the eyes of organizers. There is Rabobank, of course, which is reaping the benefits of its long running U23 development squad as the riders it’s nurtured move up to its ProTour team, bringing the average age down a notch from the Boogerd/Dekker era. But while Rabobank is a given at the top of the sport, the addition of pro continental squads Skil-Shimano and Vacansoleil to the top of the wild-card invite list is a more recent phenomena. Even better, all three are fairly well-stocked with home-grown talent.
[And to give credit where credit is due, the rest of the peloton is reaping the benefits of Rabobank’s U23 development program, too. In addition to helping fill out their Dutch rivals’ rosters, Rabo alums grace Garmin (Huub Duyn and Martijn Maaskant) and HTC-Columbia (American Tejay Van Garderen) among others.]
Skil-Shimano broke through by putting in a strong spring 2009 campaign that led to a Tour de France invite, where they animated the breakaways and generally proved they deserved their spot. While the team isn’t heavy in the win column, they always seem to make the news, either by going in the long break, or with Piet Rooijakkers doing something newsworthy, like punching people or breaking his arm. Anything for a laugh, that guy.
Vacansoleil, a merger of a long lineage of Hilaire van der Schueren-led teams (tracing a line through Mr. Bookmaker, to the ill-fated Unibet team, to Collstrop) and the small Dutch P3Transfer-Batavus squad, has also settled into the top of the wildcard heap. Critics will point out that they’ve done so mainly by signing French brothers Roman and Brice Feillu (the latter of whom had a breakout performance at the 2009 Tour de France riding with Agritubel) in a blatant attempt to catch the eye of Tour organizers ASO. Those critics would be right, if a bit intentionally naïve, but whether they like it or not, Vacansoleil’s personel moves and its riding are working: along with Skil-Shimano (and obviously Rabobank), they’ve just received an invite to Paris-Roubiax .
Given the fact that Roubaix is an ASO property, it’s well accepted that invitations to these early season races are try-outs to see which of the smaller teams will have what it takes to make the cut for the Tour de France, which, even if you’re a straight up classics team, is still the golden ticket in cycling. At first, picking Tour teams on the basis of spring classics performance, of course, seems to make about as much sense as picking the best field goal kicker to be your starting quarterback. For the bigger, more specialized teams, it would be particularly non-sensical – for instance, let’s look at what Quick Step brought to the classics last season versus what it did at the Tour, and also at what Astana did at the classics versus what it brought to the Tour. But those teams all get automatically selected to the Tour (or at least, they’re supposed to), and are so deep that the Tour squad and classics squad may have little overlap at all. The tryout system makes a little more sense for smaller teams for which it's intended – which are typically less specialized in their rider selection – to show what they might bring to the Tour. We (and they) know from the outset that they’re not likely to win either Roubaix or the Tour, but what they can show is fighting spirit, an ability to keep the crowds engaged, rise to the pressure on a big stage, and hopefully an ability to keep their noses clean.
So while Brice Feillu certainly won’t do Vacansoleil any good at all at Roubiax, his chances of riding the Tour will depend on his teammates' performances there. He has reason to be confident -- the team has a hell of a solid classics team on hand, including Dutchmen Traksel, Jimmy Hoogerland, Matthe Pronk, and Wouter Mol, as well as Belgian Bjorn Leukemans and Uzbek Sergey Lagutin. But Skil-Shimano is no slouch in the classics department either, with a young squad likely to be led by Kenny van Hummel, supported by fellow Dutchmen Koen de Kort, Roy Curvers, and Tom Veelers and Belgian Dominique Cornu.
Either squad could easily get the upper hand in competing for what’s likely to be only a single Dutch wild-card spot in the Tour de France. And even though Skil-Shimano and Vacansoleil both swear up and down they’re not out to just neutralize each other at ASO events like Paris-Nice and Paris-Roubaix, it’s worth watching out for the race-within-the-race at Roubaix. [And if both teams don’t make the early break, they will have already failed in one of their goals.] The week after, we’ll get to watch as Rabobank, Skil-Shimano, and Vacansoleil all claw each others’ eyes out for the home win at the Netherlands’ biggest classic, the Amstel Gold race.
So -- a few results, some new talent, three teams, two likely Tour slots -- what does it all mean? As in the glory days of Dutch cycling in the early 1980’s we’re witnessing an expansion from one dominant Dutch team to several as the talent on hand becomes too much to manage within a single squad. That's a good thing. And with more teams in the biggest events, both the sponsorship climate and the athlete draw in the Netherlands is likely to improve, hopefully building to an even brighter future. It may not be a full revival, and a lot has changed in the sport since the last glory years, but after years of dope scandals, loss of sponsors, and dwindling wins, the Dutch seem to be reemerging on the world cycling stage.
- If we believe Dutch cycling is on the comeback, and that it's in a cycle where success by homegrown talent breeds proliferation of big teams and a period of more success, followed by a partially doping-related decline and subsequent revival fuelled by new homegrown talent, then maybe Germany has something to look forward to. Because they're clearly at the bottom of the same cycle, though they seem to have compressed the whole timeline by a decade or so.
- OK, enough about the Dutch. What else is up with the Roubaix start list? Well, Astana’s not invited. We could rattle on and on about that, but really, is it that shocking for Astana not to get invited to an ASO event anymore? You could argue that they don’t have the chops for the big classics, but that’s a hard argument to make when they’re stocked with Eastern Europeans and Euskaltel is on the start list. More politics, I suppose, but who has time to unravel all the overlapping and conflicting motivations at this point?
- You know who did get a Roubaix invite? Androni-Giacottoli. I’m sure they’re nice enough fellows, but the selection seems like an odd one. First, Italy was well represented already with Lampre and Liquigas, not to mention Pippo Pozzato at Katusha. Italy is a deep cycling country, obviously, so adding another team wasn’t out of the question, and Acqua e Sapone was a fine choice – they’re a mainstay player in the slew of Italian one-day races we talked about last week. But Androni? A look at the roster shows you that, with their standout riders being Michele Scarponi and Jose Serpa, they’re far more cut out for week-long stage races and a shot at the Giro d’Italia than they are for cobblestones. But, what the hell, maybe they’ll surprise. One thing I do know for sure, though, is that for a team sponsored by a European toy company, with all the jazzy fonts and graphics that come with that, they could have had a much better jersey design.
- Longtime readers know I like Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia), either because of or in spite of his mouth, I haven’t decided which. But now it looks like his mouth is costing him a good shot at a Milan-San Remo repeat, as he was sidelined for much of the early season with what are being described as “severe dental problems.” And as sorry as I am that Cav will be a bit behind on form tomorrow, when a British rider is sidelined with dental problems, that’s a stereotype so good I can’t resist pointing it out. To our British readers who are scrapping me from their feeds right now, I kid because I love. After all, it’s not like the United States has never had a rider fall prey to a stereotypical American malady, like, say, being shot, or becoming a crack addict.
- Finally, Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis). Wow. West Vlaanderen, GP Samyn, and the Nokere-Koerse all in a row, all at 21 years old. It’ll be interesting to see how he does at Roubaix, but unfortunately, after falling out of the top tier and losing reliable names like Chavanel and Nuyens, Cofidis isn’t getting much love north of the border, so we won’t get to see how he stacks up to the Ronde and Gent-Wevelgem.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Almost as Good as Homemade
With the Montepaschi Strade Bianche, held last weekend over the spring hills of Tuscany, Italian organizer RCS has managed to pull off an almost unthinkable feat – they’ve managed to create an instant classic. In a sport that places a premium on history and longevity – a sport where, after 40+ years, the Amstel Gold Race still struggles to be taken as seriously as its older siblings – the Montepaschi is inching its way towards premier status after only four short years of professional existence.
No, victory in the Montepaschi won’t soon be held in the same esteem as a win in the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix. That part will still take time – a lot of time, if it ever happens at all. But a victory earned over the Montepaschi’s gravel white roads is fast becoming a desirable entry in classics riders’ palmares. That desirability comes from the inherent value of winning a tough, interesting race, but it also comes from the high profile that a tough, interesting race garners in the press. And the Montepaschi has garnered media attention in spades. To illustrate, we’ll note that despite its stature in the eyes of fans, the race is rated a 1.1 on the UCI scale. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but consider that this season Italy will also host 26 other UCI 1.1 races:
G.P. Costa degli Etruschi (2/6)
Trofeo Laigueglia (2/20)
Clasica Sarda Olbia-Pantogia (2/28)
Giro del Friuli (3/3)
Giro dell’Appennino (4/25)
G.P. Industria & Artigianato (5/1)
Giro della Toscana (5/2)
Memorial Marco Pantani (6/5)
G.P. Nobili Rubinetterie, Coppa Papa’ Carlo (6/19)
G.P. Nobili Rubinetterie, Coppa Citta di Stresa (6/20)
Trofeo Matteotti (8/1)
G.P. Industria & Commercio Artigianato Carnaghese (8/5)
G.P. Camaiore (8/7)
Coppa Agostoni (8/18)
G.P. Banca di Legnano – Coppa Bernocchi (8/19)
Trofeo Melinda (8/21)
Giro del Veneto (8/28)
Coppa Placci (9/4)
Giro della Romagna (9/5)
Giro del Lazio (9/11)
Giro di Sicilia (9/12)
Memorial Cimurri (9/18)
G.P. Industria & Commercio di Prato (9/19)
Memorial Viviana Manservisi (9/25)
Coppa Sabatini (10/7)
G.P. Beghelli (10/10)
Now, you’ve probably heard of a few or even most of those. You might even know the past winners of a couple of them, particularly those that precede the Giro d' Italia or those that the Italian national team uses as tune-ups for the World Championships. But how many of those races have garnered previews, team statements, tech features, and day-of coverage complete with photo galleries? Not many, and for English speakers at least, coverage is usually limited to a bit of AFP-esque text highlighting the need-to-know details and little else. And at home in cycling-rich Italy, domestic 1.1 races sometimes warrant only six or so column inches in the mighty Gazetta dello Sport. And a lot of those races are old enough to be your father.
So what accounts for the love-at-first-sight appeal of the Montepaschi, and why have you seen so much more about it than, say, the 64-year-old Trofeo Matteoti? In crafting their recipe for an instant classic – altering the usual classics ingredients a bit to adjust for the absence of leavening time – the Montepaschi organizers did a lot of things right. Obviously, there are the gravel roads, Tuscany’s ubiquitous “strade bianche” that make up 60 kilometers of the 190 kilometer route and form the backbone of the race’s identity. They certainly give the race an immediate leg up on some more conventional competition, but while including crappy roads might seem like an autostrada to instant credibility, if treated ham-handedly they could have just be seen as a gimmicky, overindulgent effort to manufacture enough uniqueness to get people talking. But the Montepaschi’s organizers handled their signature element with care. They didn’t overdo the number of gravel roads, and didn’t throw in anything eye-poppingly dangerous. (And if you’ve been to Tuscany, you know there are options available for that.) As a result, they ended up with a tough but credible race, not a circus act.
By using the strade bianche, RCS also embraced a course feature that’s native to the region the race traverses. They didn’t make the mistake of hunting down misfit scraps of cobbles to mimic Roubaix or venture out to some coastal capi to cash in on Milan-San Remo’s intellectual property. Like the rest of the Chianti region it passes through, the race recognizes the value of terroir and embraced the local flavors that the hills and roads of the region have to offer. Those flavors add an air of authenticity and timelessness to the race despite its youth, and having the finish in Siena's iconic Piazza del Campo, site of the Palio horse race, doesn't exactly hurt, either.
RCS also had enough confidence in their concept to let it stand on its own merit. Granted, I haven’t reviewed all the literature, but I’ve never seen them promote it as “Italy’s Paris-Roubaix” or “just as tough as Roubaix.” When you’re promoting a new race with bits of questionable roadway divided into sectors, it can be tough to avoid those words parting your lips, but RCS is experienced enough to know that those sorts of phrases just immediately admit (and advertise) inferiority and lack of confidence in your race. Of course, as the organizer of the Giro d’ Italia, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, and the Giro d’ Lombardia among others, RCS probably isn’t lacking for confidence in their ability to put on a good race. But you have to believe that there might be just a bit of a chip on their shoulder when they know their events will be compared to ASO properties like Roubaix, Fleche Wallone, and Liege. Fortunately, they feel good enough about their efforts at the Montepaschi to avoid making overambitious comparisons. It's OK to reference Roubaix or Flanders for your rough-road ride with friends, but for a professional race with serious ambitions, it's a no-no (Hel van het Mergelland, I'm looking at you).
Finally, RCS scored the perfect calendar spot for the Montepaschi, slotting it in a week after classics riders really get their heads in the game at Het Niewsblad and Kuurne and a week before they tune up for Milan-San Remo by riding Tirreno-Adriatico. The Montepaschi does face some competition from the simultaneous Dreidaagse van West-Vlaanderen in Belgium – which could siphon off some of the considerable home classics talent from that country – but at this time of the year, many riders will still be eyeing opportunities to head south. The Vuelta a Murcia also overlaps, but that’s far more relevant to the stage race crew. So, like Het Nieuwsblad, while the Montepaschi might not be a primary season target for many riders, organizers will still get a motivated group of relevant riders on rising form to attend. Perhaps most importantly from a calendar perspective, RCS didn’t overreach by trying to insert itself in the heart of classics season – like between San Remo and the rescheduled Gent-Wevelgem, or just after Liege. Though it might look like a more prestigious spot to the naked eye, trying to gatecrash a late March or April time slot would likely backfire as top riders pick and choose their targets.
Besides all that, I suppose the fact that RCS also owns La Gazetta dello Sport doesn't do the race's publicity efforts any harm, either. Call it an unfair advantage if you will, but some pretty good races have been founded to sell newspapers.
- Pointing out above that a large number of Italian UCI 1.1 races are relatively anonymous wasn’t a slight. In fact, I highly recommend them – and their counterparts in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Look, if you’re going to plan a whole vacation around watching bike races, yes, by all means go for the gusto and hit the Gent-Ronde-Roubaix week, the Ardennes week, or the Giro d' Italia. But if you just happen to be banging around Europe on other business, check out the UCI calendar and see what’s going on where you are. Compared with the top races, the UCI 1.1 races are like seeing a great-but-lesser-known band at a small venue instead of a superstar at an arena. The music is still great, you can get a lot closer to the stage, and you’re far more likely to meet the guitarist having a drink at the bar.
- In writing about the Montepaschi race, how many times has “Strade Bianchi” been typed, only to be corrected to “Strade Bianche”? Or not corrected, as the case may be.
- Word just came down that first and second place at the U23 Cyclocross Worlds just rang the doping bell at that event. Two brothers, both from Poland. This news manages to go both ways on the stereotype meter, and both ways manage to be bad. On one hand, the news chips away at the somewhat baseless “cyclocross is cleaner” feeling as well as the timeworn “the new generation will be cleaner” mantra, but it also does a hell of a job reinforcing the “Eastern Europeans are all huge dopers” stereotype. Ah well.
- This is old news, but Gert Steegmans (RadioShack) got blown over in the Paris-Nice prologue and broke a collarbone. Blown over. Now, I know the weather over there hasn’t been peachy lately, and that time trial bikes are a bear in the crosswinds, but at 6 feet 2 inches and 185 pounds, Steegmans isn’t exactly a waif by bike racing standards. So if Steegmans was blown over, I’d expect Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) to be somewhere in Oz, surrounded by Munchkins and oiling up a tin man right now. Ewww, that sounded bad. Anyway, more bad luck for Steegmans, which is a shame. I was looking forward to seeing how he’d do riding in a leadership role at the classics instead of playing second fiddle.
Thursday, March 04, 2010
As the native son of an affordably priced beach resort town, I appreciate the thought and craftsmanship that goes into a good screen-printed t-shirt. It starts with the basic graphic design elements like the colors and style of the design, which have to mesh with broader branding elements like an attractive, easily recognizable logo and a clever, catchy, and commercially desirable motto or catch phrase. Laid over (or underneath) all of that, there are the considerations of shirt colors, fabric weights, cuts, and quality. Between the art itself and the cotton canvas that hosts it, there’s plenty to appreciate for a true enthusiast of the medium. So, you could imagine my delight at the variety and volume of stunning shirt-craft on offer at the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show, where seemingly every booth had something delightful in ink and cotton for sale. But this was no ordinary t-shirt show – there were some bicycles scattered about, too.
I'm kidding, of course. Fantastic handbuilt bikes were obviously and overwhelmingly the centerpiece of NAHBS, and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, you’ve probably already combed through a dizzying number of web sites and Flickr galleries to get your fix. But there were a hell of a lot of shirts on offer, too, and a good number of socks and hats as well. And though it might have created confusion as to what the real product was at times, the swift soft goods trade made sense for several reasons.
First, compared to selling the merits of marginally different $1,200+ custom frames, moving $20 t-shirts is easy money, and they pretty much sell themselves. Hang one up or throw a stack on the table, and if people like it enough, they’ll buy it. You’d don’t have to take the time to explain why your just-so seatstay treatment is better, or why getting just the right axle-to-crown length is crucial to executing your creative vision. It’s a t-shirt. People get it. And if you have a good design and sell enough of them, you can help mitigate the cost of getting to the show, at least.
Second, every good luxury brand – and most of the exhibitors at NAHBS could be considered luxury brands in cycling – knows that while most people can’t afford a $2,500 purse, they can afford a $40 t-shirt bearing the logo of a brand whose goods they admire. Most shirts at the show seemed to slot in at around $20, but the aspirational aspects of the marketing are the same.
Finally, if you have a reasonably attractive t-shirt design, people will actually pay you for a chance to advertise your brand. What could be better if you’re a small company looking to raise your profile? This concept is already well-trodden ground in cycling, though, so I won’t go any farther than that. (Except to point out that just because I’m noting that t-shirts give companies cheaper-than-free advertising doesn’t mean I’m one of those people who hangs around cycling message boards harrumphing about how I stripped all the logos from my frame and ride in a plain blue jersey because those bastards don’t pay me to advertise their stuff dontchaknowit. Who has the time?)
The Bicycle Trend Report
But enough about t-shirts -- you're probably wondering what was notable about the show for non-shirt enthusiasts. I’d say it was the move away from the over-the-top commuter/utility bikes of the past few years, and back towards what I’ll call sport bikes. By sport bikes, I mean road bikes designed for lively riding, but which will accommodate a greater range of fitness and flexibility levels than racing bikes, accept a 28c tire, fenders, and maybe a rack, and hopefully handle a bit of abuse without complaint. If you’re over 40, you probably call them sport-tourers, and if you’re over 40 and particularly crotchety you’ll probably rattle on about how Nishiki used to build a perfectly fine one and it didn’t cost two grand.
Given the emphasis on that genre, it was also refreshing to see that the interpretations of sport bikes were not radical, stylized overreactions to the exaggerated deficiencies people like to broadly assign to racing bikes. By and large, they didn’t have 700x98c tires to “smooth out rough roads”, or disc brakes, or handlebars so high that they would gently nuzzle your bearded chin, or self-consciously retro builds. They were just very nice bikes for people to take their normal rides on, without trying to oversell the buyer on some underlying, all-encompassing riding philosophy. And that’s progress, people. (So what's the next step on the road to universal cycling enlightenment? People who should and do know better will stop crowing about how racing bikes are uncomfortable in their marketing materials. Horses for courses, and for people who race, who ride long and fast, and who are used to them, racing bikes are shockingly comfortable.)
Anyway, from a market perspective, the move to sport bikes from uber-commuters makes sense. Almost too much sense for the bike industry. I’d venture there are far more people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle for recreation -- something comfortable and fun to ride with friends or on a Backroads tour of the Sonoma wine country -- than there are people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle to ride to the Safeway for deodorant and cheese and then lock to the parking meter outside the office. And since they’re already fighting for a tiny segment of overall bicycle consumption, builders are well served in providing what the greatest number of consumers want to buy, not what builders wish they wanted to buy. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have statistics to back any of that last part up.
The whole commuter-centric feel that pervaded the past few years’ shows gave off a bit of a racing-is-passé vibe, at least for someone reading the coverage from a distance. But while it would be foolish for NAHBS-type builders to focus heavily on a racing market dominated by big production, big marketing, and high margins, there was still a lot for someone involved in competitive cycling to like at the show. For instance, two of the last great European shadow-builders were present – Dario Pegorretti and Cyfac. Together, those two outfits account for quite a few high-profile professional racing results – it’s just that their frames were buried under someone else’s name at the time. With uniquely sculpted and easily identifiable (read: branded) carbon now the universal norm at the professional level, it’s tougher to pull off a good rebadging, so both companies have had to build their own brands in recent years, both to considerable success.
Further highlighting the changes in how bike builders and pro cycling teams interact was Italian builder Tiziano Zullo, based in Castelnuovo del Garda. Under its own name, Zullo sponsored the powerful Dutch TVM squad in the early 1990s, netting the final stage of the 1991 Tour de France under Dmitri Konyshev for the brand. Zullo’s production? About 200 frames per year. Compare that with the financial and production capacity needed to sponsor a top team today, and you see why there’s less diversity on the downtubes of the pro peloton these days.
The Cultural Trend Report
The success of the NAHBS over the past several years fits with what I see as a trend that goes beyond cycling. In a nation that traded its ability to manufacture much of anything for cheap product and the vaunted service economy (which is, in turn, being outsourced), there had been growing acceptance that material goods are things that are made by machines somewhere overseas, not by people here with ideas and families and houses. But in response to that alienation from the goods we consume, there now seems to be a growing fascination with people who can actually MAKE things – quality things – using knowledge, skill, and their own two hands. You can see it at NAHBS, of course, where I ran into people who already had bikes on order with builders, but who made the trip down just to meet the person making their bike face-to-face. But maybe more importantly for culture at large, you can see returned interest in production and origin in more moneyed industries than cycling. On television, there are any number of cable shows highlight the work of carpenters doing home remodels; show how, where, and by whom consumer items are made; and espouse the benefits of cooking real food. Grocery stores that note where, how, and by whom the food you’re buying was produced are doing better than ever, despite their higher prices. Foreign car manufacturers trumpet the fact that many of their cars are actually made in the United States by American workers. In short, people are starting to care again about where things came from and how they’re made, and that’s important. Beats not giving a damn, anyway.
- Did I really just refer to it as the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show up there? Yes, I did. Sponsors keep cycling’s collective show on the air, so when it’s reasonable, I try to keep their names associated with the events and teams they’re bankrolling. When is it not reasonable? When people name their team something like “ShipCrap International Logistics Company Professional Cycling Team presented by Stinky Puppy Coffee Company – Put Some Pup in Your Cup.” In print, that sort of branding diarrhea eats up your word count. Online, it just annoys me.
- Sports – particularly the vaguely defined category of “outdoor sports” like cycling, running, surfing, and skateboarding – have always been a t-shirt rich environment. We’ve been over brand shirts already, but then you’ve got your participant shirts, your souvenir shirts, your one-off novelty shirts, your cause shirts, your tribute shirts, you name it. For godssake, you’d think cyclists didn’t know how to use buttons.
- Several of the display booth designs at NAHBS really stood out. Vanilla’s booth, with a series of large crates depicting phases of frame production and others housing bike-display dioramas, was well done down to the last detail, as was Bilenky's full-scale reproduction of its workshop. I also liked Rapha’s mini-mart themed booth, since it reminded me of a travelling companion from my junior days who used long drives to expound at length on the virtues of well-stocked marts and their undeniable value to cyclists.
- The big-time booths were nice, but one of the most intriguing areas of the show was the back right corner, where the ultra-small builders had their space. One man, one bike, and a folding table. It doesn’t get more grassroots than that.
- No, I didn’t buy any t-shirts.
Monday, March 01, 2010
Sometimes – usually in years when there’s a clear blue sky in Flanders or it’s downright balmy at Roubaix – it can be hard to explain to people where the spring classics get their fearsome reputation. Other times, like last weekend, it’s fairly apparent how these races have become known as the crucible that forges cycling’s hardest men. Of professional cycling’s many and varied “season openers,” the start of the northern classics season is perhaps the most anticipated by fans. With always-questionable weather and courses that traverse some of the sport’s holiest ground, the early Belgian classics provide a more vivid, bracing awakening from the off-season than do the multitude of warm-weather events that now precede them on the calendar. So for those who like to expunge the depths of winter by plunging into a frozen pond instead of by easing into a warm bath, last weekend marked the true start to the cycling season.
While the home fans were likely disheartened by the lack of a Belgian winner, this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad/Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne weekend didn’t disappoint viewers looking forward to some classic classics racing. Tough weather, fate, and the traditional fierceness of the competition ultimately produced winners who for years have hidden in plain sight. Both riders have been a steady presence up north for the better part of a decade but seldom topped the favorites lists, though for decidedly different reasons.
On Saturday, under cold but clear conditions, Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) finally tasted victory at Het Nieuwsblad after netting the second spot in 2007 (when the race was still known as Het Volk) and a third last year. You have to wonder if Flecha felt a little dizzy at he scaled that last steep pitch to the top step of the podium, as he’s not exactly familiar with the altitude. One of a count-them-on-one-hand cadre of Spanish classics specialists, Flecha has consistently been near the front of the big classics for the past five years, scoring a second in Gent-Wevelgem, third at Flanders, and second, third, fourth, and sixth at Paris-Roubaix. Those are extraordinary results for any classics rider, much less a Spanish one, and they’ve been more than enough to get his name chalked on the bookies’ boards with some pretty decent odds. But even though it’s long been apparent that Flecha has the legs to contend, observers had started to wonder if he had the head to win a classic rather than just place or show.
With his win at Het Nieuwsblad, Flecha looks to finally have matched his own strengths with a sense of timing. Though he’s a big, powerful rider with extraordinary force, he’s never going to scalp Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) or Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) in a sprint on the Roubaix velodrome, or win a small-group jumping contest from Nick Nuyens (Rabobank) or Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) on the run-in to Meerbeke. If Flecha was going to bag a big win, he’d have to start his move far enough out to be able to grind away from riders with more punch, and in separating himself from Gilbert, Frederic Guesdon (FdJ), Roy Curvers (Skil-Shimano), and Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma) some 20 kilometers from Gent, he finally got the formula right.
Waiting for the inevitable group-of-five shenanigans to begin in the final kilometers would have sunk Flecha, since despite his strength he doesn’t fare well when winning requires repeated jumps. That scenario would play more to Gilbert’s strong suits, even moreso when Gilbert had teammate Roelandts in the group to help soften things up and close down gaps. So instead of waiting for hesitation to deal him his losing hand, Flecha mustered a single, committed acceleration to create the gap, then relied on his greatest asset – force – to drive at a steady, relentless pace that the chasers simply couldn’t match.
Now, with this season's cobbled classics in the books, we’ll need to wait a month to see if Flecha is able to apply his lessons learned when Boonen, Hushovd, Pozzato, et. al. reach top form for Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, and Roubaix. It’s one thing to pull of that sort of move in the early season over just Gilbert, an aging Guesdon, and the others; it’s another to pull it over on a royal breakaway as you’re rolling up to the Bosberg full-tilt.
Like Flecha, Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Bobbie Traksel (Vacansoleil) wasn’t many people’s top pick, if he was anyone’s pick at all. But unlike Flecha, it’s been a long time since Traksel’s even been considered at the bookie tables. Rabobank signed him to his first pro contract in 2001 at least partly on the strength of a win at the U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Traksel rewarded that faith the next year with a win at Veenendaal-Veenendaal, the Netherlands’ biggest home classic outside of the Amstel Gold Race. But after a quiet 2003 and 2004, Traksel was no longer looking like the Dutch heir to Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker at Rabobank, and he moved across the border to the second division Mr. Bookmaker team in Belgium. He’s remained solidly in the second division from there, riding for various teams directed by Hilaire Van der Schueren -- Palmans in 2007 and the more anonymous P3Transfer-Batavus in 2008 -- and a stage victory and subsequent overall win in the 2008 Dreidaagse van DePanne ensured his place when Van der Schueren created the more fancied Vacansoleil squad in 2009.
While he hasn’t thus far turned out a classics star, Traksel has always been a classics specialist, appearing continuously in the results sheets of the biggest races, always battling, and doing the job in relative anonymity – the definition of the workingman’s pro. He’s been the guy in the early break who’s getting caught just as the TV coverage comes on. He’s been one of those four nameless teammates driving in a steady rotation at the front of the peloton. He’s been the guy getting spit out the back when he’s done with his work.
It’s something nice when things come good for a guy like that – a guy who just keeps plugging away – and maybe it’s that doggedness that let him persevere in the three-man break with Rick Flens (Rabobank) and Ian Stannard (Sky) through miserable conditions that cut the peloton down to just 26 finishers. Riding through a storm so fierce that it killed several people in northern France and earned itself a name, Xynthia, the peloton was split in two within an hour, with 50 riders, including a number of favorites, climbing off a the first feed zone. Once the race hit the hills, it was Traksel who made the selection, attacking with teammate Arnaud Van Groen, whom he later dropped. Fens and Stannard bridged up on the Oude Kwaremont – which is still damn early in that race – and the three fought off respectable chases from Hushovd and Dominique Rollin of Cervelo and Hayden Roulston of HTC-Columbia. Not rattled by the chance of tasting big success for the first time in years, Traksel stayed calm in the finale, jumped at the right moment, and stepped back out of anonymity.
On a final note, Rabobank has long been the classics squad that, while undeniably talented, couldn't quite seem to close the deal, at least not as often as they should have over their long history -- a few Amstel Golds with Dekker and Boogerd, a couple Nokere Koerse with Graeme Brown, and Gent-Wevelgem and a few Brabantse Pijl with Oscar Freire being the most notable. With Rabo alumni taking home both wins in fine stye this weekend, we have to wonder -- is the squad's short classics win column simply (bad) luck of the draw on race day, or is there something wrong in the car or the office?
- Omloop Het Niewsblad, former Het Volk, holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first European race I ever covered. I freely admit that I was a little blown over at the time, but was saved by Marcel Slagman, then of the Dutch magazine Wieler Revue, who gave me an insiders’ lesson in covering the classics and a hell of a tour of the Flemish hill zone. Seems he’s with Wieler Magazine now, applying the same skills and hopefully continuing to assist the neophytes as they wander past.
- Tyler Farrar (Garmin) finished a great third place in Het Nieuwsblad, bringing the field sprint home behind Flecha and late escape Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo). Farrar, of course, is no revelation at this point, but it’s still great to see Garmin getting its biggest results with home-grown talent versus hired guns.
- Though they’ve publically declared their primary goal to be winning the Tour de France with a British rider within a few years, Team Sky has nonetheless recruited what might be, on a rider-by-rider basis, a much better classics team. Given their talent, well publicized budget, and somewhat embarrassing missteps at the Tours of Qatar and Oman, no doubt the pressure was on Flecha to get a big result early to clap some of the wagging jaws in the press and peloton firmly shut. That mission’s obviously been accomplished with his Het Nieuwsblad win, and reinforced by Stannard’s ride at Kuurne. But how much of those performances was due to the team versus individual grit? Has Sky been transformative for Flecha? Is he really getting better support? Or did he just need a change of scenery from Rabobank to anywhere else? Sky will obviously remain one of the major stories throughout the season, with Flecha and Edvald Boassen-Hagen both looking to figure prominently in the plotline of next several months.
- You have to love Frederic Guesdon. Well, maybe you don't have to love him, but you have to respect him. After winning Paris-Roubaix in 1997, only to have many dismiss it as a fluke, he managed to stay motivated through some lean years of scattered small stage wins before netting the 2006 Paris-Tours for his persistence. Now, at 38 years old and in his 15th year as a professional, he's back again and making the late break at Het Nieuwsblad.
- Like many, I’m excited for March and April. People will continue to speak of Quick.Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto as the heavy hitters for the classics, and rightfully so. But the truth is, there are more guys capable of a big win than any time in the last decade, and they’re more spread among the teams, ProTour and Pro Continental alike. There’s Boonen, Chavanel, and Devolder at Quick.Step, of course, and Hoste, Roelandts and Gilbert at Omega. Haussler, Klier, and Hushovd at Cervelo. Steegmans and Rosseler at RadioShack. Pozzato at Katusha. Nuyens and Boom at Rabobank. Kroon, Hincapie, Ballan, and Burghardt at BMC. Flecha and Boasson-Hagen at Sky. And others I’ve forgotten, but you get the point.
- How big a role could fate play in contests of strength and skill amongst highly trained athletes? In road cycling, plenty. Consider that Kuurne featured a course 20 kilometers shorter than intended due to a downed tree on the Cote de Trieu, and was subdivided not once, but twice by trains. Keeps things interesting, no? At least the trains in Flanders tend to be relatively short and quick, not like the 500 car coal trains that lumber through parts of Virginia.
- Speaking of Virginia, the Service Course spent Sunday at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond. It was a very successful event by all accounts, mine included, and based on what I saw, there should be thousands upon thousands of photos available on the Internet within a matter of days in case you missed it. Since the photographic angle will be well covered, I’ll give a more text-based assessment a bit later in the week.