Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Weird Als Sweep Liège
They say that if you look hard enough around the less-traveled corners of Las Vegas and London, you can get betting odds on just about anything – life, death, and most things in between. Usually, though, when you hear about offbeat wagers, they’re talking about more mundane stuff, like betting on the opening coin toss of the Superbowl, or the time about a decade ago when David Miller’s mom put some cash down with Lloyd's on her neo-pro son winning the Tour de France by a certain date (update: she lost). But I’d guess that even the freak-wager specialists in the world’s betting capitals would take quite awhile to think out the odds on ending up with an all-Al podium at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. No matter how long the odds were, though, that’s exactly what we got, with Al Vinokourov (Astana) taking the top spot, followed by Al Kolobnev (Katusha) and Al Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), so anyone who placed that peculiar bet in time is probably still out drinking on their winnings now. I mean, really, that sort of thing hasn’t happened since Louis Armstrong outsprinted Lance Armstrong and Neil Armstrong to win the 1996 Classique des Alpes.
If you happened to be the person trying to make those odds, though, it probably would have been the Al on top of the podium who threw off your calculations. He certainly threw off mine. On hindsight, it seems obvious that Vinokourov should have been on the collective radar more prominently than he was, particularly coming off his win at Trentino. As indicative of good form as that win was, or should have been, banging around Italy for the prior week kept Vinokourov’s name well-removed from most of the pre-Liège buildup. Unlike the vast majority of his competitors, his initial odds weren’t predicated on performances at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, then constantly revised and discussed based on Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne performances. So despite his recent success, he was still somewhat of an unknown quantity, which can be a pretty valuable asset in professional cycling.
Despite his last minute arrival, though, Vinokourov’s performance shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise, at least once everyone realized he was there. He did, after all, win the 2005 Liege in fine style, so he kind of knew what he was doing. Remarkably, the fact that this was Vinokourov’s second Liege win went unmentioned in a number of initial reports I read, despite the fact that even the most info-anemic press packet typically includes a list of past winners. And he certainly didn’t get the pre-race previous winner treatment that Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Valverde did. Did his blood doping suspension really wash him so thoroughly from the public consciousness that not even the media pros could acknowledge that he’d taken this particular ride before?
Regardless of the reason or intent behind that memory loss, one person who didn’t forget his previous Liège win was Vinokourov himself. In fact, he managed to duplicate the conditions of his prior win as nearly as possible without wearing T-Mobile pink. As he did in 2005, Vinokourov forged his victory from a two-up break, and just as he did then, he went with a fellow former Eastern Bloc hardman as his breakaway companion, this time swapping East German Jens Voigt for Russian Kolobnev. In both cases, after working well with his companion to establish the winning gap, Vinokourov made two late-race moves to secure the win – a first testing attack just past the 10 kilometers-to-go point, and then a final killing move well inside the red kite. I suppose when you know what works, you might as well stick with the script.
Having the experience and the legs to win Liège is one thing, though, actually pulling it off is another. Fortunately for Vinokourov, he had an ace up his sleeve that none of his competitors did: a spare Al. Now Vino may claim up and down that he’s not doping, but really, the way things were working out on Sunday, having two Als in one team was so unfair it might as well have been illegal. For the preceding week, Vinokourov’s Astana teammate Alberto Contador had been busy soaking up all those Ardennes expectations, questions, and examinations that Vinokourov was studiously avoiding in Italy, playing the perfect decoy. And on Sunday, Contador took that decoy role from the press room to the road. Despite crowing to anyone who would listen that he was only at Liege to gain experience, when the Spaniard jumped to reach Andy Schleck and Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma) on the crucial Côte de la Roche aux Facons climb, there wasn’t a serious contender around who was going to let him go and see how things worked out. No sooner had an elite group of 10 contenders come back together around Contador than Vinokourov countered, drawing out Kolobnev as the mega-favorites – Gilbert, Cadel Evans (BMC), Valverde, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) – watched each other and Contador. And with that, two Als were off and running, and that's apparently a hard thing to stop.
- So how did the other Als of Liège-Bastogne-Liège fare? Well, Alan Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) made the early break and held out until just prior to La Redoute before taking the backroads back to the team bus, so that’s certainly a big day out for him. But Alessandro Spezialetti (Lampre), rolling in an anonymous 89th? That guy needs to pick it up.
- Hard to believe that late chase group couldn’t get it together, isn’t it? With Valverde, Evans, and Gilbert, they should have had the horsepower and experience to get back in the mix for the win. The only problem was that, when the trio drew to within 20 seconds or so of the leaders, only Gilbert seemed terribly interested in riding to win. Valverde, on the other hand, started skipping turns to save his energy to sprint to the third place he ultimately got, but his willingness to settle cost the group a shot at the title. For his part, Evans apparently tried to talk Valverde back into the rotation, but simply resigned his own chances when that proved ineffective rather than giving it a go himself. But, eh, that’s bike racing, and all three put in a hell of a ride regardless.
- What the hell is going on with Saxo Bank and brake drag? Frank Schleck had to bike-jack teammate Niki Sorenson at the bottom of the Roche aux Facons due to a rubbing brake on his own bike, leaving brother Andy alone at the front at a key point in the race. A few weeks ago at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, rubbing brakes were the impetus behind the famously flubbed Matti Breschel bike change. Fabian Cancellara also changed bikes during that race due to a rubbing caliper, but fortunately he received one of the smoothest bike changes in recorded history and still came out with the win. Since I haven’t heard any complaints about SRAM Red brakes, I’m starting to wonder if there’s an issue with the interaction between the brakes and the mounting point on the team’s bikes that’s causing the brakes to slip off-center (e.g., are Saxo bolting homemade number plate holders between the brake and bridge?). But please note that I’m basing those theories on absolutely nothing. Anyway, might be worth noting that Joao Correia of Cervelo Test Team also came down with a case of brake rub recently. Maybe team mechanics just aren’t doing enough blow to stay awake anymore.
- I suppose we have to talk about the doping angle in Vinokourov’s win, don’t we? Or maybe we don’t, because everyone else sure as hell is, and frankly, it’s exhausting. No matter how much I try to think about it, I have to confess to being a little ambivalent on the whole thing. Yes, it’s a little distasteful to have pretty unrepentant people back in the peloton and winning right after their suspensions end, especially people who are prone to referring to themselves in the third person. On the other hand, the world at large offers second chances in a lot of arenas far more important than bike racing, so I’m having a hard time getting too worked up about it. Mostly, I’m just reminded of the times following cycling’s first great purge, when Virenque, Brochard, Zulle, Moreau and company all made their way back into racing, and gradually back into big events and onto podiums. The same cries erupted then as now (though in a more muted way due to the relative infancy of the internet), but gradually, those initially vivid distastes faded more and more until Moreau became seen as a handsome, good-natured underdog again, and the Broche reestablished himself as a cult hero to mullet-loving cyclists everywhere. Virenque remained a ridiculous caricature of his ridiculous self, but there’s not much you can do about that guy. Now, the veterans of the second great purge – Miller, Basso, Vino, Ricco, Scarponi – are back, and we’ll go through those same pains again, and to much the same result, I expect. Would I rather have seen Kolobnev or Gilbert win? You bet your arse, but I don’t make those decisions.
In the end, I think the most interesting things in all the post-Liège Vinokourov doping claptrap are the implied admissions of prior wrongdoing he's finally made in the wake of his win. In various post-race quotes, he makes references to starting fresh, proving he can win without doping. For those observers who absolutely must have a confession to move on, I think that’s as close as you’re going to get.
Despite those confession-ettes, though, Vinokourov still seems a little confused about his message – kind of like my old dog used to get when he couldn’t remember whether he was play-growling at you or real-growling at you. Mixed in with his starting over talk were remarks about how his Liège win is great “revenge.” Apparently, he was talking about revenge on the media, who he believes treated him unfairly in the wake of his unseemly exit from the sport back in 2007. I can see being a little peeved at the people who called you names, especially when you think or know that all your coworkers are doing the same elicit things, but regardless – if you’re acknowledging that you did the crime, I’m not sure you get to have your feelings hurt by the reaction. (Also, it is notoriously hard to “get revenge” on the media – it’s part of their job to not give a shit what you think of them. The cycling media is bad at maintaining that perspective sometimes, but we still try. And whenever a subject tries to get revenge, they just provide more fodder.) The other thing Vinokourov doesn’t seem to quite be getting, judging by his open letter today, is that while he does indeed have the right to participate in and even win bicycle races, the public and the media are also perfectly within their rights not to like it, even if he's as clean and pure as a convent on wash day. That said, I do grudgingly admire the sort of self-confidence that makes people not understand why people don't like them.
- Am I the only one who thinks the "open letter" is a whiny, brooding way to do just about anything?
- OK, it wasn’t just lack of a doping prior that made me really want Kolobnev to win. It’s because I noted on Thursday that if the big favorites didn’t watch themselves, Kolobnev could run away with a Liege win, and I desperately wanted to be right. So I was hoping pretty hard in those last few kilometers. Obviously, it wasn't to be, but it was a darn good ride by the Russian, even if it wasn’t a particularly surprising one. Besides his good rides at Amstel and Flèche earlier in the week, a good ride was indicated for one other reason: Liège is long as hell and hard as hell, and Kolobnev loves long, hard races. He’s been second twice at the World Championships and on the podium at Lombardia, and he’s also won the Montepaschi race in Italy. If things continue on the current path, be on the lookout for Kolobnev come this year’s Lombardia.
- If you didn’t like the podium at Liège, you really shouldn’t delve deeper into Vinokourov’s Trentino win. Top 5 on GC: Vinokourov, Ricco, Pozzovivo, Scarponi, Basso. Only Pozzovivo hasn’t spent time on the bench. You know why? Dope won’t fit in the guy. Seriously, I’m no giant, but that dude’s tiny.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
By now, I trust you’ve heard that Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma) won the Amstel Gold Race last Sunday. Even better, since his victory in the 257k Dutch classic came a scant seven days after Paris-Roubaix, while there were plenty of jittery media types still milling around France and the low countries, there’s a chance the public might still remember his win almost five days later. Achieving that sort of institutional memory would be a real breakthrough for Gilbert, who despite his ample palmares seems to have each successive victory hailed by some parties as his “breakthrough win,” as if he was some starry-eyed neo-pro who just got his first giddy look at the inside of a team bus.
He’s not new though, what with being 27 years old, a seventh year pro, and one of the best classics riders out there. So why does Gilbert constantly seem to play second fiddle come classics season to guys with much thinner records – like, say, Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky)? As we’ve discussed a bit before, the meaning of “classics” has adopted more specific meanings than it should in some circles. For some, the term “classics” (and with it "classics rider") seems to have become synonymous with “cobbled classics.” It’s not. For others, it’s become synonymous with “spring classics.” And it’s not. For another subset, “classics” has become synonymous with both those terms, making an unstated mental mutation into “spring cobbled classics.” And it’s certainly not that. (We won’t get into the people who continually refer to Paris-Roubaix as a Belgian classic, because that’s another issue altogether – one that has more to do with cartography than etymology.) Anyway, it’s my belief that the narrow perception of what constitutes a classic and a great classics rider lies the root of Gilbert’s under-valuation, at least in these United States.
When many observers look at Gilbert’s palmares, they see the two wins in Omloop Het Volk in 2006 and 2008, arguably the second or third of his many “breakthrough wins.” And with that glimpse of cobbled potential, it seems, their eyes glaze over as they slide their index finger down the list that follows, scanning only for two words – Ronde and Roubaix. When those terms don’t appear, Gilbert gets thrown into some patronizing “hopeful” bin for classics greatness – a good rider, to be sure, but no Boonen, no Cancellara. While that latter assessment may still be a fair one – it takes a lot to equal those riders’ records – it misses the defining trait of Gilbert’s career: winning big classics that don’t necessarily fit the extraneous spring or cobbled qualifiers.
In 2008, in addition to wins in Het Volk and Le Samyn, Gilbert bagged Paris-Tours, his first full-scale classic. That win proved he had the legs to go over the 200k semi-classic distance, often cited as his chief limitation until then, and he dutifully followed up by winning Tours again in 2009 and capping that season with his first monument, the Giro d’Lombardia. Prior to those big wins, he also racked up a series of second-tier one-day wins, including a number of French Cup races during his FdJ days. Included in those results are the 2005 Trophee des Grimpeurs, Tour du Haut Var, and the Polynormande, and with them the overall French Cup title for the year. Those races – as well as wins in the GP Fourmies and GP de Wallonie the following year – aren’t mega-classics, but they’re nothing to sneeze at, either. And last year, between his big Tours and Lombardia wins, he added a pair of high-value Italian semi-classics, the Giro del Piemonte and the Coppa Sabatini, to go with his Belgian and French ones.
So what do a bunch of assorted hilly national semi-classics and four full-blown tarmac classic wins mean? Well, despite being a Belgian by birth, and the cobbled expectations Gilbert created for himself with his Het Volk wins, he’s really built in more of the Italian classics rider mold. Think of a Bartoli, a Bettini, a Diluca, or a Rebellin – though hopefully without the negative connotations of the latter two. It’s a less grindy style than the Belgian model, with more of an emphasis on stabbing attacks and perhaps a bit less raw strength. Of course, there are Italians that rode in the Belgian style – think Andrea Tafi, or Gianluca Bartolami – so maybe it’s time we had a Belgian that rode like an Italian.
Like the Italians above, he certainly has it in him to become a classics legend, probably moreso because, not actually being Italian, he won’t be tempted to waste a few good classics-winning years trying desperately to win the Giro d’Italia. And without that distraction, he’s the number one favorite to bring home Belgium’s first Liege win since Frank Vandenbroucke in 1999.
Does Gilbert have a Ronde van Vlaanderen win in him? Probably. But I think you’re likely to see a Liege win or even a sneaky Milan-San Remo win first, and I think Gilbert knows that’s where his true talents lie. And lucky for him, the home fans love him for it, even if he doesn't achieve quite the same status abroad. And that's because, in this country, it’s Roubaix that makes classics riders famous. Or, in the unusual case of the aforementioned Vandenbrouke, it’s a wicked drug habit, mental problems, and an early death that make you famous. But fortunately for Gilbert, he doesn’t live here.
A Note About Hesjedal
At Amstel, I was glad to see Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) time his charge up the Cauberg to get a solid second place behind an untouchable Gilbert. Hesjedal has been inching up the results sheets in the hilly one-days for the last few years -- most notably at the Montepaschi race in Italy -- and it was about time he scored a big result.
I don’t pretend to know Hesjedal, but I’ve encountered him at several points in his career. The first several times were when I covered the Snowshoe, West Virginia leg of the NORBA National Series (2001-2005), when Hesjedal was a very young, very talented, and mildly cocky mountain bike pro with Subaru-Gary Fisher. To be fair, it always seemed to me that he picked up a good bit of that last trait from his British Columbia training partner Roland Green, then with Trek-VW and a master of the cocky genre, and with whom Hesjedal was dominating both the national cross-country and short track series.
Hesjedal’s last appearance at Snowshoe was in 2003, when he won a characteristically slimy edition of the cross-country race; the next time I saw him was in 2004 in the lobby of a Flanders hotel. He’d recently made the jump to the road with Discovery Channel, and was being put through the wringer in his first shot at the cobbled classics. Talking to then-VeloNews editor Kip Mikler and me, he looked shell-shocked, exhausted, and far more humble. Since then, he’s gone from Discovery to Phonak to Garmin, where he seems to be benefiting from the team’s different management style as well as a few more years of living the Euro road life.
Amstel Gold Broomwagon
- Who put a firecracker up Bert De Waele’s (Landboukredeit) arse? He’s a solid, experienced Flandrian, no doubt, but I don’t think there’s a pundit around who would have picked him to be charging up the Cauberg in the top 5.
- Omega Pharma finally got its first season win, and a race like Amstel isn't a bad way to kick things off -- it's just a few months too late in the calendar for comfort. Make no mistake, Omega will still be signing a dedicated field sprinter over the winter to avoid repeating their painful spring next year.
- I still believe that anyone who finishes Amstel Gold should get an orienteering medal. But along with all the criss-crosses and corners every 2 kilometers, the Amstel Gold course also has some pretty hair-raising moments. At one point driving that course a few years back, we were flying down a rain-slick, 7-foot-wide road, the hood of the rented Ford Focus angled down at what seemed like 45 degrees, when we came into a surprise hairpin and found ourselves staring directly at a Virgin Mary shrine built into the stone wall of the house we were about to drive through. I am not Catholic, or even a church-going man, but I’m pretty sure I saw God there for a second. As I said before, there may not be cobbles, but these classics have their own challenges.
- One thing that really struck me watching the Amstel feed – no offense to the Dutch, but the Belgians and French produce much more informative cycling programming. I’m not talking about commentary – I’m talking about putting graphics on the screen identifying groups, gaps, riders in the break, and kilometers remaining. Granted, the tail end of this year’s Amstel got a bit hairy with groups and attacks going left and right, and I’m sure it was all a lot more clear if you spoke Dutch, but they’re still noticeably behind their neighbors in tracking the action on-screen.
Something About Fleche Wallonne
At this point, you probably also know that Cadel Evans (BMC) won Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne semi-classic. If you don’t already know that, you’re probably one of those people studiously avoiding the results until Versus shows you some cut-up version of the race this Sunday, and you’re probably cursing me for giving it away without putting some goofy, internet-nerd “spoiler” tag on this post. Then again, if you’re one of those people, I’ve probably already offended your delicate sensibilities with something I’ve said here in the past, and you’re still here, so I’m really not too worried about it. Anyway, onward…
What can you say about Fleche, except that once again it came down to a climbers’ bunch sprint up the Mur de Huy? I suppose you could note that the organizer, ASO, tried to avoid just that scenario by moving the second of three ascents of the Mur to just 30 kilometers from the final, deciding ascent of that hill. And then you could argue that the change didn’t really work out, or you could say that it did, depending on your mood.
ASO rejiggered the course in hopes that the narrowed distance and recovery time between the second and third ascents of the Mur would encourage a breakway to go and liven up the finale a bit. To their credit, a break did go, with Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank), David Loosli (Lampre), Bram Tankink (Rabobank), and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) having a bit of an adventure until they were caught inside 5k or so to the finish. After that, it was the usual run-in and scrap on the Mur. So is that a success or a failure of ASO's course change? I think it'll take a few more years with the current setup to really know.
Both Schleck and Kreuziger are legitimate threats in a race like Fleche, so even though that particular move didn’t work out, it showed that some candidates and teams were willing to take a chance on the long move. Sure, Astana’s underrated Ardennes squad shut the break down pretty handily, but if the representation had been a bit different, who knows? Add in Alberto Contador (Astana) or Evans, swap Tankink for teammate Robert Gesink, or add some of Katusha’s considerable horsepower, and it could have been game over. I think ASO will give the new layout another try next year, and now that the teams have had a look, I’ll be expecting a few more shenanigans on the penultimate ascent of the Mur.
For what it’s worth, John Wilcockson, who would know, postulates that it’s not the course that creates the seemingly inevitable slo-mo sprint up the Mur, it’s the race length. At 200k and with contenders peaking for the 60k longer Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Fleche just isn’t long enough to be selective. Look at how the monuments play out and you’ll see the logic – most of the action up to the 200 kilometer mark is just softening the legs; the real action doesn’t come until the last 50 kilometers or so. Unfortunately, as Wilcockson also notes, the UCI has capped the length of lesser classics, including races like Gent-Wevelgem and Fleche, so organizers are left to either tinker with the course or embrace the sprint.
Fleche Wallonne Broomwagon
- You know why I’m glad Evans won Fleche? So we won’t have to hear him whine about being boxed in on the Mur again. Was that 2008 that he was complaining that someone ever-so-slightly moved over on him? I’ll let bygones be bygones, though, and hope that the confidence that comes with the rainbow stripes will let Evans be a little less vocal about the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortunes this year.
- I do pick on Evans fairly frequently, but it’s nice to see someone winning big races in the World Champion's stripes. We certainly didn’t get a lot of that with Alessandro Ballan last year, and if Evans finds his legs for the Giro d’Italia it will be the first time in a long time we’ve seen the rainbow at the front in a grand tour. Who was the last? Gianni Bugno in 1991 and 1992?
- Though it’s been talked about much less that Omega Pharma’s pre-Amstel win drought, Evans’ BMC team really, really needed that win. With George Hincapie putting in a pretty anonymous cobbled classics season, Ballan radically underperforming and then being suspended due to an Italian doping investigation, and few wins of note, BMC's threatening classics lineup was shaping up as a bit of a paper tiger. The Fleche win doesn’t supplant all that, but it helps, and it’ll help morale ahead of both Liege and the Giro.
- Despite the win, it was still a mixed day for BMC, with Ardennes asset Karsten Kroon getting caught up in a crash and suffering multiple facial fractures. Ouch. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.
- I can’t look at the map of Fleche Wallone without thinking back to a conversation with a fellow cycling writer, when we were discussing how nice it was that the Ronde van Vlaanderen started in the lovely main square in Brugge. To provide contrast, he added, “But have you been to Charleroi? Charleroi is a shithole!” I don’t know if that’s true or not – the year I was at Fleche I was also covering the women’s race, which starts and finishes in Huy, so I didn’t get to experience whatever pleasures or horrors Charleroi may offer. But I’d be lying if I said my image of it wasn’t pre-tarnished.
- With their performances at Amstel and Fleche, Katusha is emerging as the squad to watch for Liege. Joaquin Rodriguez’s second place to Evans at Fleche is obviously the most notable result, and he deserves to be on the favorites list for Liege. But the Russian duo of Sergei Ivanov and Alexandr Kolobnev are proving to be two of the strongest setup men in the business, and if the Kim Kirchen of old decides to show up, Katusha will have a lot of horsepower at its disposal. Rodriguez will be a marked man, but if the favorites don’t pay close attention to him in the last 20 kilometers or start looking at each other, Kolobnev could wander off with Liege.
- Through Amstel and Fleche, a couple of big favorites for Liege have yet to really materialize. The Schlecks were present and visible in both races, but not outstanding, and the Valverde we saw at Fleche wasn’t anything to write home about (though he did just have to drive from Spain to Belgium). That doesn’t mean they won’t rate at Liege, just that the others won’t be shaking in their boots. In fact, though it feels pretty remedial to point it out, the results sheet from Fleche could well tell the tale of this year’s Liege, with this week’s winners Evans and Gilbert, the Schlecks, and possibly Damiano Cunego (Lampre) again battling it out with the Spanish armada of Rodriguez, Contador, and Igor Anton (Euskaltel).
- Yes, the cycling writer’s union requires than any collection of Spanish riders numbering greater than two must be referred to as “the Spanish Armada.” And much to Team Sky"s and Rabobank's chagrin, it doesn't look like they're going to be sunk by the British and the Dutch anytime soon.
- I hadn’t noticed earlier, but it looks like ASO finally overhauled some of its race’s logos this year. It’s probably about time. Some things in cycling are timeless, but the jaunty brushstroke look of the previous Fleche and Liege logos wasn’t among those things. Remarkably, the Tour de France logo seems to be a holdout.
Friday, April 16, 2010
From Pave to Pavement
I’ve never really been a “season” person. You know – some people are “winter people,” full of talk about snow and brisk air and the smell of wood smoke, and others are “summer people,” constantly pining for warmth, long days, and short sleeves. Not me. By the time the end of any given season is near, I’m ready for it to be over – tired of freezing, tired of sweating, or tired of being in between the two. I’m not sure what that says about me, or my ability to dress properly for the conditions, but that’s how it is.
And as it is with the calendar year, so it is with the cycling year. I love the cobbled classics with all my heart, but after the crescendo of the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, it’s time for something else. Something a little less bleak. Something to appeal to the other parts of our psyche and that, when it’s done its turn in the limelight, will leave us yearning for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad again come February. After all, even Christmas would lose its appeal if we had it all year round. So, I don’t mourn the yearly passing of the cobbles.
That said, we can’t just leap straight from the cold, flattish, and brutal affairs we’ve just witnessed to warm Italian sunshine, rolled-up jersey sleeves, and grand tour stages barreling up winding mountain roads. That would be far too jarring a change for any normal person, and perhaps more so for those with fragile cyclist sensibilities. So to ease us gently into the days to come, professional cycling, too, has its transitional period – its own weeklong spring – the Ardennes classics.
The grand tour riders start to pop out at the Amstel Gold Race like the first buds on barren trees, lending a bit of fresh foliage to the last damp remnants of the cobbled classics squads and creating hybrid lineups that likely won’t been seen again until this time next year. Rabobank, for instance, adds the willowy Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam to tiring Flanders mainstays Boom, Langeveld, Nuyens, and Tankink. While some team’s grand tour squads will just be showing their first green shoots at Amstel, Saxo Bank will almost be in full bloom, replacing its entire cobbled roster with a fresh one that contains at least half of their likely Tour de France lineup, complete with two Schlecks, a Voigt, and a Fuglsang. As the week wears on into Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and the next Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the last dried out husks of the cobbled specialists will fall away, replaced with riders more suited to the longer côtes of Wallonia than the sharp cobbled bergs of Flanders. And once that’s done, there we’ll be, staring squarely at the first grand tour of the season. Though they’ve already ridden myriad weeklong stage races since January, the GC riders’ appearance in Belgium is as sure a sign of the approaching Giro d’Italia as the replacement of Nemesis rims with deep section carbon.
All of that isn’t to say that the coming Ardennes classics – in which we’re including the Amstel Gold for convenience sake – are simply some temporal bridge to be crossed between Roubaix and the Giro d’Italia. Far from it.
For whatever reasons, the Ardennes classics just don’t get the respect the cobbled ones do in the United States. Maybe it’s because the cobblestones deal out much more obvious and dramatic punishment than their more evenly tarmac-ed brethren to the east. Maybe it’s because of the extent to which the fetishized Flemish cycling culture seems to dominate one-day racing, or it could be some lingering cross-cultural confusion over why they speak French in Liege, even though it’s only a half-hour drive from Maastricht and in the same country as Gent. Or maybe it’s because, as we discussed above, the Ardennes classics draw so many of those faces we hear about all through July. And with so many familiar players, maybe the Ardennes just don’t feel as special or different as the cobbled races, so they don’t attract quite the same cult following. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not totally off the radar here – I’m sure there are Americans who have made special pilgrimages to visit the Ardennes classics. But I also bet those who do have already been to see the Ronde or Roubaix.
Not getting respect and not deserving it are two different things, though. A look at the saw-tooth profile of Amstel’s 31 climbs, one drive up Flèche Wallonne’s iconic Muur de Huy, or a read down the list of men who have won the 95 editions of Liege will show that, though the roads may not be quite so endearingly crappy as those in Flanders, the Ardennes hold their own unique spot in cycling history, present their own unique challenges, and create their own champions. And they are very, very hard. So, classics lovers, I say, rather than lamenting the passing of early spring cobbles, look forward to this week's soft transition to the pursuits of summer.
- Ronde/Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) politely declined director Bjarne Riis’s public invitation to try to stretch his scorching form through Liege. Did you hear the giant sigh of relief coming out of Luxembourg?
- Sebastian Rosseler (Radio Shack) salvaged a small bit of Belgian pride by winning Wednesday’s Brabanste Pijl, held on the smooth roads just south of Brussels. After a rough classics season for the home public, it’s no Ronde win, but it’s something. Of course, that’s still no consolation for his former team, Quick Step, or the still scoreless Omega Pharma. In fact, it may just make things worse.
- Speaking of Rosseler, he’s about to get to race on his home turf as one of a rare breed of riders – the non-Flemish Belgian professional cyclist. Rosseler hails from Verviers, just a bit southeast of Liege, as does Omega Pharma’s big hope for the week, Philippe Gilbert. Gilbert will get support from Liege-born veteran Christophe Brandt; meanwhile, HTC-Columbia’s Maxime Monfort hails from the southern turnaround of the LBL course, Bastogne. Be on the lookout for inspired -- if not ultimately victorious -- rides from the locals in Flèche and Liege.
- And speaking of Gilbert, together with 2009 Amstel winner Sergei Ivanov, he’s one of a select few riders with good chances in both the cobbled and tarmac classics. (Ben Delaney has a piece on just that in the most recent VeloNews, so I was fairly and squarely beaten to the punch on that. Damn you, Delaney.) To that list of potential pave-to-pavement crossovers, I’d add Ivanov’s teammate Filippo Pozzato, who may have some form to use after sitting out the Ronde due to illness; Oscar Freire, who sat out Roubaix due to common sense, and who is always a threat at Amstel for home-team Rabobank; and Quick Step’s Carlos Barredo, who does donkey work for Boonen and co. in March before getting more of a free hand for himself in the Ardennes.
- It’s a matter of alphabetical fate that Lars Boom as been assigned the 121 number plate for Rabobank in the preliminary Amstel start list, but it could just as easily be the cosmos pointing Rabobank towards its future. With memories of Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker factoring in seemingly every Amstel finale fading fast, the Netherlands’ defacto national team needed a new homegrown hope for its homebrewed classic, and Boom seems to be making the transition from ‘cross just in time to step into the role. While everyone tends to assume cyclocross riders will make great cobbled classics riders, Boom’s early successes on the road could indicate that he’ll be more of a threat in the Ardennes than in Flanders. It’ll be hard to tell for a few more years, but with his ample and flexible talents, could Boom be the next Adri van der Poel – winning on the cobbles, on tarmac, and in the mud? The Dutch have to be hoping so.
- Finally, in a nod to our namesake, here’s a link to cyclingnews.com’s tour of the Team Sky service course in Mechelen, Belgium. The photo gallery will be interesting to bike geeks and fans of luxury motorcoaches, as well as Nutella fetishists such as myself.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Like many people, I’ve been struggling with just what to say about the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, beyond presenting the same postcards of the hanging that can easily be found elsewhere. Dominant performances like Fabian Cancellara’s (Saxo Bank) ride on Sunday tend to present the same paradox whenever they surface – they’re either mind-blowingly amazing or mind-numbingly boring, depending on how you look at it. Or maybe they’re both those things rolled into one, I don’t know. But frankly, neither interpretation lends itself particularly well to words, since close battles make far better fodder than blowouts. With the latter, you either end up with an overly wordy version of “holy shit, did you see that ride!?” or a longer, more specifically plaintive rendition of “well, great as it was, that was 40 kilometers of pure monotony. But here are some time gaps and stuff.”
Whatever your opinion on Sunday’s action though, history takes its snapshots with a hell of a lot of Vaseline smeared on the lens, and when you read about this year’s race in the next inevitable Roubaix coffee table book, it’s going to sound amazing. And it deserves to, because Cancellara’s was a historic ride. What you’ll read in that book years from now will be the story of a guy who attacked an assembly of the strongest classics riders of the generation, solo, about 20 kilometers before it was fashionable to attack at the time. Then he stretched that advantage into a victory margin of two minutes, a yawning gap back then, especially considering that the deficit would have been nearly three minutes if he hadn’t spent two laps of the velodrome shaking hands and kissing babies. Add in a nice shmear of the emerging rivalry with Tom Boonen (Quick Step) for historical context, some boosted-contrast ground-level-perspective pictures of red-clad Cancellara pounding the cobbles against a grey sky backdrop, and there you go. More than likely, even those of you who thought that Sunday's finale was a little short on competition will lean back, smile, and bore your kids with a meandering "ah, I remember it well" reminiscence. So at least we have that to look forward to.
Anyway, beyond the big picture – which was a display of power seldom seen even in the punch-in-the-mouth world of classics racing – what else was worth noting at Roubaix? Countless stories, no doubt, but here are a few things that stuck out for me.
Not Much You Can Do About That
I love being right, even if I was only stating the obvious at the time. From this cyclingnews piece, the great Sean Kelly on the usefulness of tactics in the face of Cancellara’s overwhelming strength: "You can only do so much with tactics, but when you’ve got a guy so strong you can have all the tactics in the world but it can be no good. The power and the form he’s in no one can touch him."
It had been percolating for awhile, but here we are, finally at the end the cobbled classics without a Belgian win in any of the big name events and no Quick Step or Omega Pharma-Lotto win from any nationality. That’s not going to play well in the home press.
While they’ll have to improve their spring classics campaigns next year no matter what else they do, look for both squads to try to sign dedicated, capable sprinters over the off-season in an effort to bump up their win totals and boost their grand tour relevance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia) wearing either jersey next year.
Chasing the Club of Three
Speaking of the Belgian press, Sportwereld quotes Saxo Bank chief Bjarne Riis saying he’d like to send Cancellara to the Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege next week, based on thinking that’s basically along the lines of, “the guy’s hot, why the hell wouldn’t I?”
Can I tell you how much I love that? As I’m sure I’ve harped on before, specialization in cycling reached an almost absurd peak over the last decade or so, with riders pursuing paper-thin specialties with laser-like focus. (Remember when Brad Wiggins was a “prologue specialist”? Remember watching him ride the 2007 Tour de France prologue in London, and the commentators talking about how, at 7.2k, the distance was a little much for him? Seriously?) Now that absurd level of pigeonholing seems to be breaking up a bit, and a number of riders seem to be stepping a bit outside their comfort zones from time to time. No, Cancellara won’t be a favorite for the hillier classics should he choose to go, but why not give it a shot and see what he can do? If he falls short in Limburg and the Ardennes, nobody with a clue about cycling will think less of him, and many, the Service Course included, will think more. Of course, after the couple of months he’s had, I also wouldn’t think much less of him if he spent the time between now and the world championships drinking cheap champagne and shouting profanity on some Bernese streetcorner.
But if Cancellara does start next week and puts in a promising showing on the côtes? Look for him to start thinking about how to shed some weight and take aim at Liege and the Giro d’Lombardia next season, where winning would give him the elusive distinction of having won all five of the sport’s Monuments. He’s said in the past that winning the same races repeatedly doesn’t really interest him, so he may be willing to give up a little something for Flanders and Roubaix to be more fit for the eastern races in late April.
Winning all five monuments would put Cancellara in a club of just three, together with Belgians Rik “the Emperor of Herentals” Van Looy, Roger “the Gypsy” de Vlaeminck, and, shockingly, Eddy “the Cannibal” Merckx. Despite the difference in nationality, Fabian “Sparticus” Cancellara would seem to fit into that lineup pretty well.
The last guy to seem like he had a shot at (and the interest in) winning every monument was Michele Bartoli, who won the Ronde in 1996, Liege in 1997 and 1998, and Lombardy in 2002 and 2003. He never quite had the raw power for Roubaix, though, especially up against riders like Johan Museeuw, Franco Ballerini, and Andrea Tafi in their prime. And Milan-San Remo would have taken some special circumstances for him to win – a feat unlikely 2008 San Remo winner Cancellara has already pulled off.
There Can Be More Than One
Speaking of things people have said in the past – Tom Boonen said long ago, like back when he was 25 or so, that he wasn’t one of those guys that was going to hang around the pro peloton forever. Back then, his plan was to make his name, cash out at 30 or so, and enjoy the good life. Guess what time it is, Tommeke?
No, settle down, I’m not saying Boonen should retire based on getting scalped by some Swiss freak a few times on his own turf, or based on some statement he made at age 25 (an age at which, based on my careful research, none of us should be taken at our word). And if he tried to hang up his wheels this October, I think he’d be pretty likely to get a visit from the (living) ghosts of De Leeuw and De Peet, who might remind him that there is indeed life after 30. Maybe not disco-and-blow, two-Monuments-a-year life, but a productive professional cycling life nevertheless.
What I am saying is that, in the coming weeks, Boonen is likely going to be doing some thinking on just where he fits in now that he’s not the dominant player in the classics, a role he’s played for the last five years. No, he didn’t win them all, but he was the prime factor. For instance, when his teammate Stijn Devolder lifted two Rondes in 2008 and 2009, it was partially on the strength of Boonen being in the group behind. Boonen’s defeats then were honorable, understandable, and tactical, and he came roaring back at Roubaix the next weekend to prove just what might have been had the chips fallen differently. But this year, he’s been bested twice by a rider who was just plain stronger, just as smart, and just as capable on the cobbles, and Boonen isn’t terribly used to that in the cobbled classics.
What will come from any thinking he does? Who knows. But what I hope he realizes is that every great cyclist needs a great rival. Otherwise, there’s no frame of reference, no yardstick by which to measure a rider’s true merit. Boonen needed his Cancellara. And Cancellara needs Boonen. And if both continue to ride as they have been, we could be in for another great five years.
Bike Change Blues
As he did at the Ronde last week, Cancellara did another picture perfect bike change at Roubaix on his way to another victory. And as it did at the Ronde, a bike change seems to have possibly cost his Saxo Bank teammate Matti Breschel a chance in the finale. This time, though, it wasn’t a botched race-day bike change that hurt Breschel, but apparently one he made a few days earlier when he switched over to bike sponsor Specialized’s new Roubaix-specific bike. The differences between that bike and his standard race bike may have been enough to aggravate a knee, forcing him from the race.
Cyclingnews.com doesn’t specify where Breschel’s knee pain came from, either because they know which side their bread is buttered on, or more likely because he didn’t mention it to them. But Breschel did mention the new bike causing him knee pain to his home country news source, Politiken.dk, prior to the race. Roughly translated courtesy of Google, he told that publication:
"I've got a new bike especially for (Roubaix), and after riding it on some occasions, I started getting pain in one knee. It made me really nervous, but I have not wanted to talk about it because I hoped it would pass. "
At that point, he was still optimistic that he’d adjust to the bike:
"Fortunately, it now seems to be the case. During the last workouts it's been much better, and I certainly can not use knee injury as an excuse if my expectations about being at the forefront of Paris-Roubaix will not be honored."
Whether Breschel’s knee pain and subsequent retirement from Roubaix were due to switching bikes, I’ll probably never know with any degree of certainty. He hasn't brought the bike up post-Roubaix, and he's said in other interviews that he thinks he has an infection. But if he does think his problems have to do with the bike, he’d probably be well served not to let anyone know it. Knee pain due to switching to a different bike doesn’t indicate a “bad design” – only one that’s different enough from what a given rider is used to – but you can be sure that certain elements of the buying public will interpret it that way. And that’s the last thing a bike sponsor wants.
The wisdom of switching to a different geometry for one day a year for dubious benefit has always been debatable at best, but Roubaix is such a headline-grabber equipment-wise that sponsors feel the need to put something special underneath their star riders. If you’ve ever wondered why some of those super “Roubaix specials” you see teasingly propped against the team bus during the pre-ride sessions never see the start line, well, there you go.
From the Media Desk
Like a lot of you, Sunday morning saw me busy stuffing up the cyclingfans.com site as someone, presumably cycling.tv or Versus, shut down foreign feed after feed after feed. Look, I know how the game works, and I know they own the internet and television rights, respectively, to show Paris-Roubaix in the United States. They’re well within their rights to defend what they’ve purchased. That’s just good business, and though it made trying to watch the race exceptionally frustrating, I can’t argue with that.
But please, media outlets, if you’re going to black out all foreign feeds, have some respect for the U.S. viewers you’re trying to harness and do the races right. What do I mean?
Versus – show it live, not as some compressed, delayed dinner-hour theater seven hours later. Grand as it is (to us), Paris-Roubaix does not have even the modest amount of everyman recognition that the Tour does, and the arrangement is just irritating the very core, very key-to-you group of people who not only watch faithfully themselves, but also tell their friends – “Yeah, it’s a really exciting sport. When the Tour is on this summer, you should really watch it.”
I’m not asking for grand production values here, no Craig Hummer in custom embroidered shirt and whitened teeth, or even Phil and Paul doing blatantly after-the-fact editing booth commentary. In fact, though I know you’ll never do it, I’d prefer no “talent” at all – just give us the feed. You already own it. It’s practically free. The cat’s long been out of the bag that Versus does not, in fact, have a crack team of motorcycle cameramen jetting around Europe. We know you’re not the ones putting in the “tete de course” or “kop van der wedstrijd” graphics in, listing the riders in the break, counting the kilometers, or timing the gaps. Don’t worry, we don’t care, and for people who care enough about cycling to watch the classics, that information and a start sheet are all we need. Save your commentary cash for the Tour de France when you’re bringing in the fresh viewer meat. To be honest, I kind of like the audio backdrop of dopplered shouts from the crowd, motorcycles, and the helicopter. So please, just show the races. Live. A lot of us will watch. The rest of us will Tivo it. How about we start with the Amstel Gold Race?
And while you’re at it, Versus, please buy the internet rights to the classics races, too. You have a pretty flashy website now, and it worked pretty well during the Tour de France. So let’s use it – I bet you could get a good price with a television+internet package deal. Then, run the whole four hours of the feed on your site. Put commercials in it, put ads around it, or do it as a pay-per-view event. Whatever. Anything to get the internet rights out from under cycling.tv. Now, I fully admit I haven’t tried cycling.tv in awhile, but when I paid for a subscription several years ago, it was so terribly unreliable, and the pricing structure changed so frequently (effectively going from an allegedly inclusive subscription service to pay-per-view format every time they needed to raise a few quick bucks), I can’t imagine ever trying it again. I know many others feel the same. So, cycling.tv, fix it, step aside, or let my people watch Sporza.
Friday, April 09, 2010
10 Things About Paris-Roubaix
Paris-Roubaix gets more attention than any other classic on the calendar, with the assembled press examining the race from every angle -- from rider form, to bikes, to stones, to cars, to the fans and watering holes along the route. I'm about 3,800 miles too far west to examine much of anything right now, but here are 10 things I'm thinking about Roubaix:
- Within minutes of his victory in Wednesday's Scheldeprijs, Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) was already telling the assembled press that he wouldn’t be among his team’s protected riders for Paris-Roubaix. When asked why, he noted that the team has two proven leaders for that event – Martijn Maaskant and Johan Vansummeren. Indeed, both have done notable rides in the cobbled classics, with Maaskant finishing fourth at Roubaix on his first try in 2008, and Vansummeren doing incredible support work for Leif Hoste at Lotto. But despite those riders solid record in past years, I still have to ask again – why is Farrar not a/the protected rider for Garmin at this year’s Roubaix?
This year, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Farrar was third. Vansummeren was 52nd and Maaskant was 121st. At Gent-Wevelgem, Farrar was ninth, Vansummeren was 21st, and Maaskant was hors delay. At the Ronde, Farrar was fifth, with Vansummeren 55th at 5:13 back and Maaskant 90th at 13:20. At all three days of DePanne, Farrar was also the top finisher of the three. Now, yes, I realize that on some of those days, particularly those most likely to end in bunch sprints, Vansummeren and Maaskant were likely doing the donkey work for Farrar, and at some point in that job, you get to pull the plug and coast in. Maybe even save a little bit for Roubaix. But if Farrar was the team's leader and top finisher for hardman’s hilly cobbled classics like Het Nieuwsblad and the Ronde, and for moderately hilly cobbled races like Gent-Wevelgem, and for flat “sprinters” races with cobbles like DePanne and Scheldeprijs, why turn around and start talking about how you have better guys for a flat, cobbled race a week later?
Yes, Farrar has only ridden the race once before, and experience counts. But Maaskant has been given protected status for two years now based on his high placing on his maiden voyage to hell. And besides, everyone always talks about how experience counts, but then someone always comes along and proves it doesn’t matter as much as some people say it does – look at Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) at last year’s Milan-San Remo. And besides, Roubaix’s been won out of a hardman’s bunch sprint before – think Guesdon and Backstedt – and Farrar’s as good a candidate as Garmin has right now from that perspective. So unless Farrar has quietly confided to his team that his form is about to come crashing down around him, or they’re just trying to take some heat off him by saying he’s just there to help out, I’m failing to see the logic here.
- Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) quietly re-entered the classics peloton at the Scheldeprijs on Wednesday after having to scrap the Ronde due to illness. The Scheldeprijs doesn't really suit him, so it's hard to tell anything from his 67th place, but if he’s recovered, Pozzato should jump right back onto the favorites list for Roubaix. His gutsy ride there last year helped him shake some of the negative connotations of his carefully cultivated pretty boy image. He’s still pretty, of course, but he can take a punch, too.
- With Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) taking the weekend off to reload for the Ardennes classics in his native Wallonia, Leif Hoste takes over leadership duties for Omega Pharma, which – as we’ve already beaten to death – really, really needs a classics win right now. I have mixed feelings about Hoste. I’ve had pleasant conversations with him at a team launch. I’ve also seen him shove a race official against a crowd barrier before the start of Philly for having the nerve to brush him as he went past. But that’s personality, which doesn’t matter very much at Roubaix, and I respect the hell out of his riding and his toughness. In addition to strong rides at Roubaix, he’s been a bridesmaid several times over at his native Ronde, which can draw you some criticism from the native press. One of the most memorable, steely-eyed responses I’ve witnessed was when a reporter asked him, after the 2004 Ronde, how he could dare chase down fellow Belgian Dave Bruylandts (then with Marlux) in the finale, bringing eventual German winner Stefan Wesseman (then T-Mobile) with him. Hoste’s response, paraphrased: “This isn’t the world championship. I get paid to ride for Lotto. Not for Belgium.” It wasn’t a popular answer given the venue, but it was delivered with such unflinching conviction and force, I don’t think anyone held it against him.
Hoste has been fairly quiet this spring, mostly riding in Gilbert's shadow, but his form appears good and he's done his best rides when he hasn't been the center of attention.
- Roubaix organizer ASO announced on Tuesday that 100 gendarmes will be posted at the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobble sector to clamp down on the hooliganism that went on there last year. In addition to widespread littering, drunkenness, and I have to imagine ample public urination, spectators sector spit at and poured beer on competitors and pounded on and threw rocks at team cars and other race vehicles. So good on the neighboring towns and organizer for doing something to address it this year --- the only problem is that they’ve announced their clampdown way too early.
Look, those people are coming to this race no matter what, and organizers would have been far better off rolling their security force into the Carrefour unannounced on Saturday and Sunday. That way, they’d have most of the crazies in one spot where they could keep an eye on them, and the delinquents wouldn’t have had time to plan evasive action. But now that ASO's told them the plan on Tuesday, the hooligan crowd will know that the Carrefour won’t be the party it was last year, so they’ll move on. Yes, originally the Carrefour was popular because it’s the last decisive sector of the race at just 14k to the finish, but the racing ceased to be the primary focus for the undesirable crowd a few years ago. So I suspect they’ll easily abandon the Carrefour and move upstream to somewhere like Mons-en-Pevele. It’s still a 5-star sector and still within the decisive final 40 kilometers for those that have maintained some interest in the race, and at a yawning 3,000 meters long, it’ll be tough as hell to patrol. And even better, they'll already know most of the gendarmes will be hanging out at the Carrefour.
- With wholesale Ronde DNF-ers Footon-Servetto not invited to Roubaix, which team is going to take the dubious prize of finishing the least number of riders? My money’s on Euskaltel. Sure, Caisse d'Epargne and Milram don't seem to have much of a taste for making the finale either, but for totally mismatched affinities, it's hard to beat a bunch of Basques on cobblestones.
But let’s circle back to that Footon non-invite for a second. In the midst of all the recent kvetching about ASO’s Tour de France invites – which include the fairly unimpressive Footon – ASO's treatment of Footon at its classics shows just how much the organization is just grudgingly abiding by the 2008 agreement to invite then-ProTour teams to the Tour through 2010. While that document got Footon an invite to the big ball, that's as far as their love with ASO goes -- they won’t be attending Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne, or Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I have to admit, while it’s unfortunate that Footon is going to the Tour in a spot that could otherwise be used by more interesting teams, I’m glad that parties involved in the whole UCI/ASO ProTour dustup are finally bothering to read the agreements they’ve signed, and then go a step further and abide by them. What's next, reading contracts before we sign them?
- With the jaunt down into France from Belgium, the overall flavor of the peloton changes a bit, even if the basic cobbled classic game stays the same. Gone will be the Belgian second division teams, like Topsport Vlaanderen and Landboukredeit, and in come the French second division teams, like Cofidis and Saur-Sojasun. With swaps like that being made along (understandable) national lines, it speaks to the strength of the Dutch Vacansoleil squad that they’ve stayed on the roster as the action’s moved south. Of course, so has BMC, but thus far they’ve done so with recruiting rather than results.
- New observers of the Paris-Roubaix experience often have one of two reactions. Let’s address them right now.
The first common reaction is, “Some of the roads I ride are bad like that! Why, after this bad winter, there are tons of potholes, and a bunch of gravel at the edges, too!” I get where you’re coming from, but no, your roads are not bad like that. It is not like riding a potholed road. Or a road with frost heaves. Or a gravel road. Or chipseal. Or your neighbor’s cobbled front walk. And chances are, you aren’t riding those roads at 45kph, so even if the road was the same, the experience really isn't. No doubt your roads are bad, but they are not like the ones at Roubaix. Have your Roubaix fantasies as you ride those roads – it’s fun – but don’t confuse them with reality.
The second common reaction is, “Those roads are terrible. You know, they should use mountain bikes/suspension/bigger tires etc., etc., etc.” Yes, the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are horrible – more horrible than those in all the other cobbled classics, as a matter of fact. But there are also only 53 kilometers of them. The other 200 or so kilometers of Paris-Roubaix are paved, and that makes a lot of the equipment suggestions from the peanut gallery pretty inefficient. There was a time in the 1990s when mountain bike technology made some inroads at Roubaix, when Duclos Lasalle was winning on a RockShox Ruby and Johan Museeuw started the race on a horrific dual suspension Bianchi, but that anodized nightmare died out pretty quickly. Now, we’re back to the adaptations that have been a constant since the 1970s and 1980s – slightly bigger tires and clearance for them, a bit of extra padding here and there, and wheels that can take a pounding. Though cycling is painfully and detrimentally resistant to change at times, these equipment choices have stayed constant for a reason – they help you a bit on the cobbles, and don’t punish you for the other 200k.
- If you lurk around race caravans a bit, you get to see all the crap that gets taped to the team car dashboard to help directors and mechanics get their jobs done. Some are constants – start lists, kilometer numbers for climbs or cobbled sectors – but one of the less common ones is a diagram, usually hand drawn, noting where each rider's spare bike is on the roof of the car. For Sunday, Saxo Bank should look into that.
- Want to know one reason I like Paris-Roubaix? Since the race’s name comes from two cities, English language cycling publications aren’t tempted to translate it. For some reason, English speakers have some contrary and irrepressible urge to both translate foreign race names into our own language, and give our own races foreign names (Tour de Georgia, anyone?). And in translating foreign language race names, we’re terribly inconsistent, which only makes matters worse. Why do we talk about the Tour of Flanders, but the Giro d’ Italia? For that matter, why the Giro d’Italia, but the Tour of Lombardy? I once read a sider in a popular American cycling magazine that discussed someone’s win in the Across Flanders Race. I had to spend a minute clearing my head of images of head-strap wearing RAAM riders before I could figure out they were talking about Dwars door Vlaanderen. Even city-based race names aren’t immune from the desire to translate – after all, there’s the perverse need to put an “h” in Gent for Gent-Wevelgem, despite how the Belgians like to spell it on their maps.
But Paris-Roubaix? Nice and clean.
So what’s the worse race-name mangling I’ve ever seen? A few years back, in some Armstrong-centric series on Versus (Road to Paris, Stalking Lance, etc.), they had a segment on the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But on the segment intro -- a nice white letters on black screen divider -- what spelling did we get? Not the native Ronde van Vlaanderen. Not the Americanized Tour of Flanders. Not the French Tour des Flandres. We got, instead: Tour de Flanders. Some mongrel mix of French and English, all slapped together for a Flemish race. Well done.
That said, my hypocrisy knows no bounds – in this very post I mentioned Milan-San Remo, not Milano-San Remo. But the Italians write about Parigi-Roubaix, so serves them right.
- Finally, disappointing to hear about Alessandro Ballan’s (BMC) provisional suspension by the team for his involvement in the latest blossoming Italian doping investigation, but good for the BMC management for acting quickly. There’s no sense in having things that happened while Ballan was at Lampre spill into their camp – they already have enough lingering baggage with the whole Phonak connection. At this point, I have to wonder at this point if Lampre will be at the start of Roubaix come Sunday. At just about this very time six years ago, Cofidis was busy packing up their things and slinking out of Compiegne as quietly as possible in the midst of a gathering dope storm. That scandal would cost David Millar (now Garmin-Transitions) two years on the bench. We’ll see where this one lands Ballan, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and the rest of the parties in question.
Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Sometimes, It Is That Simple
As cyclists, we sometimes have a tendency to overstate the strategic and tactical aspects of professional cycling. Don’t feel bad about it – it’s a perfectly natural reaction to being surrounded by a general public that, at least in the United States, understands little about the intricacies of the sport we love.
On a daily basis ("daily" meaning “six times in July”), we face misguided commentary and indignant questions from those who, through no fault of their own, believe that bicycle road racing is an individual sport, that once the starter’s pistol is fired, every one of those 180 lycra-clad freaks pedals hell bent for leather to the finish line, and may the strongest man win. For those who know better, it can be tough to take.
And so we, those who’ve left skin on the road, those whose sympathetic hearts pound when the big attacks explode across the television screen, yearn to teach the lay public different. We long to open those uninitiated eyes to the all the careful thought and closely guarded knowledge that allows the racer to make most effective use of his muscle, ache to share the science that shows it’s oftentimes better to be a few men behind than boldly out in front, and dream of the chance to illuminate the topographical nuances that will dictate how and where a race will be decided.
In response to the slightest provocation from a non-cyclist, in addressing the most innocent dinner party question, we go overboard, sputtering through explanations of the roles of domestiques, the commercial concerns that drive the early break, the benefits and drawbacks of multiple team leaders, and the importance of a well-drilled lead-out train. As the inquirer begins to shift uncomfortably in their seat, we continue with increased urgency to try to impart as many of cycling's rock-paper-scissors nuances as we can before our victim feeds the family dog a chicken bone to create a diversion and facilitate an escape.
Usually, the effect of this deluge of mind-numbing detail is that the victims retain nothing at all, but if they somehow manage to digest some of our inane ramblings, they’d be likely to come away with the mistaken view that cycling is almost entirely decided by strategy and tactics. And that’s as untrue as thinking it relies solely on fitness. In fact, when it comes down to the finale of races like last Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the average oblivious man on the street might have a more accurate impression of how things work than a bunch of overanalytical bike geeks. Sometimes – maybe most times, in fact – it all really does just come down to who’s stronger.
In the Ronde, both Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) rode tactically perfect races. Each had obviously picked the right man to mark (not a hard decision after last week’s E3 Prijs). Both stayed alert during the early sortings out on the Paterberg and Koppenberg climbs. Cancellara attacked on the Molenberg with 45 kilometers remaining to the finish – marking almost exactly the point at which the magical “final hour” of a bike race begins – and set the pair up to pick up a tailwind boost as the race turned southeast. Boonen followed with so little hesitation that many press outlets seem hesitant to assign the attack to one rider or the other, instead giving dual credit, and both favorites immediately began to work to build their advantage over the rest.
Everything from the start in Brugge up to that point of attack on the Molenberg – all that work to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people? Though there’s a (high) minimum fitness level required to execute it, that’s all the tactics and teamwork of professional cycling. That’s all that stuff we like to rattle on about, entertaining each other and lulling outsiders into a dangerous state of combined boredom and loathing.
But past the Molenberg -- over the Leberg, Berendries, Tenbosse, Muur, Bosberg, and on into Meerbeke? That part of the race was all pure brute strength, the kind it doesn’t take a cyclist, a cycling fan, or a journalist to spot. Tactically, scientifically, and aerodynamically speaking, the larger group of very strong riders behind – names like Gilbert, Hincapie, Iglinsky, Langveld – should have been able to regain Boonen and Cancellara. But they couldn’t. Instead, Cancellara and Boonen continued to build their gap. And when Cancellara attacked again on the Muur, Boonen didn’t hesistate, didn’t let Cancellara go figuring his move was too far from the finish. Boonen didn’t make any sort of tactical or technical mistake, didn't misjudge or get caught asleep at the wheel – he simply couldn’t match Cancellara’s power. Nor could he recover and claw back anything on the Swiss over the Bosberg or on the flat run to the finish. From start to finish, Boonen rode a perfect race. Cancellara just rode a perfect race faster.
Sometimes, beaten riders subjected to press questions will cite little tactical issues that they credit with ultimately bringing about their demise – too far back on this climb, little team support here, followed the wrong wheel there. Again, it’s understandable. It is hard, and boring, to simply tell the assembled press that you just weren’t strong enough, and it’s easy and sounds more insightful to focus on all the times when a small mistake cost you. But those immediate post-race statements just tend to reinforce the poor but oft-stated metaphor that cycling is like a chess game. It isn’t. Nobody makes you get three quarters of the way through a chess game, and then arm wrestle to see who wins. So, tactics junkies, race analysts, and cocktail party bores, listen closely to what Tom Boonen had to say following his heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Cancellara:
“I was racing after him at 55 kilometers an hour, and he took a minute off me. What can I say? He was the strongest.”
Sometimes, losing is just that simple.
- Want a second opinion on Cancellara’s strength? From Gent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel, on hearing the Cancellara/Boonen break behind him, from Cyclingnews.com: “I thought, I’d better let this motorbike come by, but when I turned around and looked it was Cancellara.”
- I don’t care if you’re a ProTour team or not, if you don’t put a single rider across the finish line of a monument like Flanders, you should receive a mandatory one year exclusion from that race. No hard feelings or griping from the organizer need enter into it – it would just be a sort of automatic, single-event relegation. This year, all eight of Footon-Servetto’s starters ended up on the DNF end of the results sheet. Under my plan, they’d be excluded next year, so David Gutierrez (Footon) can stay home where he wants to be, preparing for the Tour of the Basque Country or whatever, while someone like Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis) can be at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where he wants to be. Another beneficial side effect: the second feed zone of cycling’s monuments won’t have more people looking for a ride than a goddamn Greyhound terminal on Thanksgiving weekend.
Anyway, hot on Footon-Servetto’s dubious heels were fellow Spanish imports Caisse d’Epargne and Euskaltel-Euskadi, who each managed to send a single rider across the finish line (Joaquin Rojas in 37th and Javier Aramendia Lorente in 65th, respectively). Look, I know the classics aren’t a focus for those teams, and that only two of Footon’s riders were actually Spanish, but that’s a ridiculous attrition rate and the shared country of origin really makes it stand out. To be fair, home team Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator also finished only a single rider – Gent-Wevelgem warrior Sep Vanmarcke, in 62nd position – but they’re a second division team focused on young talent, and with a budget that makes the constantly sponsor-challenged Footon look wealthy.
- Last week, I pointed out that if “classic specialist” ProTour teams Quick Step and Omega Pharma failed to win the Ronde, they’d be in the unenviable position of having to win Paris-Roubaix to salvage the part of the season that pays the bills for them. Well, they didn’t win the Ronde (or today's Scheldeprijs, either). That both these teams have failed to climb the top step of the podium at this year’s cobbled classics makes me wonder anew whether there is really room for such a high level of specialization at the very top of the sport these days. With teams like HTC-Columbia and Saxo Bank making an impact from February to October in classics, stage races, and grand tours, will even the most die-hard Belgian sponsor be willing to front ProTour money for two months of hit-or-miss classics specialization, followed by six months of chasing stages and glorified kermesse wins? For the sort of cash Quick Step puts up, they should at least have an Ardennes specialist that will give them a legitimate shot through late April. People wail and moan about Tour de France-centric teams like U.S. Postal/Discovery only really racing for 21 days a year, but if you count up the days of classics racing, are Quick Step and Omega Pharma (post-Cadel Evans) really far off that mark?
- Finally, how about that Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions)? Somebody needed to start winning things for that team, and I’m glad he’s the one to do it. OK, that’s a little mean, considering David Millar’s stage and overall win in DePanne, but people have had a lot of expectations for this team for a long time, and those expectations were starting to wear pretty thin. Now that Farrar seems to be really getting his legs under him in the classics, let’s hope he’s allowed to put some energy into building on that promise, rather than spending a career getting overmatched in grand tour bunch sprints. Success (or, if not success, visibility) in grand tours means a lot to American teams in particular, so it’s understandable that Farrar gets highlighted in that capacity. And don't get me wrong, he’s very, very good in the bunch sprints – one of the best. But he could have a potentially better career as a classics man ahead of him, and I have to wonder if Garmin will be the right place to make that transition in the most effective way.
Thursday, April 01, 2010
When the riders of the 94th Ronde van Vlaanderen scale the race’s 15 defining climbs on Sunday, they’re unlikely to be surprised by what they find there. Sure, there are the much-photographed team reconnaissance rides that take place throughout this week, but those are mostly a little extra media exposure, maybe a chance to give the punters a bit of a peek at some classics-specific equipment. At their most useful, those rides are probably a bit of a security blanket – a feeling of doing something, anything, to prepare for the chaos to come, a final cram session before the test, a last look at the angle of approach. But absent the race conditions that influence speeds and racing lines, those jaunts can tell only so much. No, the real recon rides for the Ronde have come during the string of Belgian classics that precede the Ronde: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Nokere Koerse, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. In addition to these UCI 1.1 and 1.HC single day races, a pair of 2.1 stage races, the Driedaagse West Vlaanderen and the Driedaagse DePanne also traverse much of the same terrain.
All told, from Het Niewsblad in February through the Ronde in early April, the Flemish Ardennes, a.k.a. the hill zone, is a beehive of activity. A small section of a small country, this hilly little patch of woods and farmland bordered roughly by Kortrijk to the west, Gent to the north, Ronse to the south, and Aalst to the east, becomes the epicenter of the cycling world for two months a year. So dense is the racing activity in the area, so intensive the use of its indigenous climbs, both cobbled and paved, that if you overlaid the winding routes of all the spring races on a single map, it would look like the Spirograph work of a drunken madman.
This Year’s Debutantes
Come Sunday, the most battle hardened classics men lining up for the Ronde will likely have seen, in competition, all but five of the race’s featured hellingen.
The Ronde’s first two climbs, both paved, have yet to be used in top level competition this year. At only 450 meters, the Den Ast climb (km 131) tickles the minimal requirement for listing in the roadbook, while the Kluisberg (km 165) is more formidable at 925 meters at an average gradient of 6.8 percent and a maximum of 14.5 percent. Both fall early enough in the race that absolute intimacy with their contours is unlikely to be terribly important.
Not so with the legendary Koppenberg (km 189), the climb that lurks in a steep trench in the farmland outside of Oudenaarde, a spiritual center of Flemish cycling that's home to the Ronde van Vlaanderen museum. The 600 meter cobbled climb averages 11.6 percent and maxes out at 22 percent, and though still early in the race, presents a danger for several reasons. To apply the cycling cliché, you can’t win the Ronde on the Koppenberg, but you can lose it there. Shaded and little used for the rest of the year, the Koppenberg has had issues with moss growing on the cobbles, adding to the slickness that already abounds with smooth stones, rain, and the region’s abundant use of manure as fertilizer for its fields. Combined with the grade, the slickness causes, if not outright crashes, an ample number of bobbles and dabs, with the ensuing loss of momentum bringing trailing riders to a screeching halt. The same factors make restarting on the climb difficult, and as the front of the race accelerates over the top, several riders will see their chances of making the finale evaporate.
Lack of mechanical support on the Koppenberg also poses a danger. After the legendary commissaire-running-over-Jesper-Skibby incident in 1987, the Koppenberg was ejected from the race for a number of years, deemed too constricted for the safe passage of the race. Forgiveness and reinclusion in 2002 were predicated on both a re-laying of the cobbles, as well as an accompanying race caravan diversion. As a result, riders who suffer mechanicals between the Koppenberg’s turf walls won’t receive help quickly, and for front runners, any delay at all here could spell disaster. Just ask Fabian Cancellara.
All of that makes a good position at the front of the race crucial as the Koppenberg looms. Obviously, being near the front means less riders to potentially bog down in front of you, but it also means more teammates behind you to hand over a wheel or a bike, or to give a starting shove if need be. With that in mind, previewing riders will be examining the approach just as much as the hill itself, looking for landmarks to warn of its approach and stretchs of road where they can pick up a few spots.
Hot on the heels of the Koppenberg comes the Steenbeekdries (km195), which also hasn’t seen use yet this spring. Compared to its predecessor, it’ll feel like a picnic. While longer than the Koppenberg at 700 meters, and just as cobbled, the Steenbeekdries rises at a comparatively modest 5.3 percent average and 6.7 maximum.
The final first-look climb at the Ronde is also its final hill – the Bosberg. At 980 meters long, with intermittent cobbles and an average of 5.8 percent, the Bosberg isn’t as distinctive as the Koppenberg or the Ronde’s signature climb, the Muur de Geraardsbergen, but it makes up for its milder character with an impeccable sense of timing. Coming at kilometer 250, several key selections will have already been made, and the Bosberg will provide one final chance for a rider or group to shed their companions before the flat 12 kilometer drag race into Meerbeke. While last year’s winner Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) seems to prefer an earlier launch pad, Edwig Van Hooydonck proved the effectiveness of the Bosberg several decades ago, attacking on the hill on his way to winning the Ronde in 1989 and 1991, and earning his nickname “Eddy Bosberg” in the process.
Green Hills of Flanders
So what of the other 10 hills of the Ronde? All of them – including the iconic Muur de Geraardsbergen and Oude Kwaremont hills – have already been used in competition this year. By the finish of the Ronde on Sunday, the classics specialists will have scaled 44 different hills in the region during the top-flight spring races (if we include the three French hills introduced to Gent-Wevelgem this year). One hill, the one alternately known as the Tiegemberg and/or the Vossenhol, stands above the rest this year, getting five races worth of action, while many are used just once. It’s worth noting that Belgium has one of the densest road networks in the world, allowing organizers to create almost endless combinations of hills and routes between them, so in any given year, the prevalence of any single hill can shift. For instance, had the Oude Kwaremont factored into the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year, as it often does, it would have also received 5 visits.
Here’s how use of the various bergs breaks down – so keep this in mind if you’re looking to buy a vacation home in Flanders. Remember -- location, location, location.
HN: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, February 27
KBK: Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, February 28
WV: Driedaagse West Vlaanderen, March 5—March 7
NK: Nokere Koerse, March 17
DDV: Dwars Door Vlaanderen, March 24
E3: E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, March 27
GW: Gent-Wevelgem, March 28
DP: Driedaagse DePanne, March 30—April 1
RVV: Ronde Van Vlaanderen, April 4
5 Races (1 Hill)
Tiegemberg/Vossenhol: KBK; NK; DDV; E3; DP
4 Races (5 Hills)
Berendries: HN; DDV; DP; RVV
Eikenberg: HN; DDV; E3; RVV
Knokteberg/Cote de Trieu: KBK; DDV; E3; RVV
Leberg: HN; DDV; DP; RVV
Oude Kwaremont: KBK; DDV; E3; RVV
3 Races (7 Hills)
Kemmelberg: WV; GW; DP
Kruisberg: HN; KBK; DP
Monteberg: WV; GW; DP
Nokereberg: KBK; NK; DDV
Paterberg: DDV; E3; RVV
Taaienberg: HN; E3; RVV
Valkenberg: HN; DDV; DP
2 Races (6 Hills)
Edelareberg: KBK; DP
La Houppe: KBK; E3
Molenberg: HN; RVV
Muur de Geraardsbergen: HN; RVV
Rodeberg: WV; GW
Tenbosse: HN; RVV
1 Race (25 Hills)
Berg Stene: E3
Berthen (FR): GW
Den Ast: RVV
Mont des Cats (FR): GW
Mont Noir (FR): GW
Oude Kruiskens: E3
- Yes, I do have a flashier chart version of the information above, but it’s not cooperating well with the blog format.
- It’s important to note that the information above only counts the number of races that have visited each hill, not the total number of times they’re climbed. For example, Gent-Wevelgem scales the Kemmelberg twice during the race, but Gent-Wevelgem is still counted as a single race visit for that hill.
- Hill-wise, I have to admit to being partial to the Oude Kwaremont. It’s long, cobbled, and there’s a pretty good restaurant near the top, and if you sit in the terrace area you can see the riders coming from far enough off to get back out to the street for the live view. And though the climb is tough, the locals will tell you the sting is in the tail – once you’re over the top and through the tiny town, you pop out into an open field where you get flattened by crosswinds. Fun.
- The number of riders who could win the Ronde seems to be dwindling quickly, doesn’t it? With Heinrich Haussler and Andreas Klier (Cervelo) and Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) out with injuries, Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) apparently under the weather, and riders like Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) showing little form of note lately, it feels like a diminished field. Fortunately, we started the season with a wealth of riches, so we still have Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky), Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma), Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), Nick Nuyens (Rabobank), Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank), and a host of other riders in with a shot at carrying off the victory. I’m not too worried.
- Enjoy the race on Sunday. As for how you enjoy it, that’s up to you. If you’d like some pointers, though, I start seeing hits on this beer post and this frite post again, so there they are.