What the hell?

A National Championships Review

You have to admit – even though they’re only a single race, on a single day, ridden by riders from a single nation – national championships are a high-value target in professional cycling. Win one, and you get not only a snazzy new jersey, but a dramatic increase in recognition, on-air commentator chatter, personal sponsorships, and, if your agent is any good at all, a bit of a pay raise for providing all those expanded advertising opportunities to your team.

Yes, they’re a good value per kilometer – they’re also kind of a crapshoot, as the results of this weekend’s slate of European national championships will show. Even in the most cycling-crazy countries, the national championships are a combination of a few native international superstars, big teams, and legions of B-listers who ride mostly national events with occasional wild-card opportunities to mix it up in the home country’s classic du jour. On top of throwing unfamiliar riders together, there’s the odd tactics that can ensue when the country’s home ProTour team shows up on the line with two teams worth of riders, while a countrymen who rides for a foreign team may be all on his own. How much support could CSC have given Jurgen Van Goolen in the Belgian championship, compared to the 20 riders that Silence-Lotto sent?

Yes, Silence-Lotto started the Belgian championship with an astounding 20 riders, and they still managed to miss all the breaks. But 20 guys gives you a good bit of chasing power, and in the end, one of them did win. In this case, it was neo-pro college boy Jurgen Roelandts putting the blocks to a cast that included Belgian title specialist Nico Eeckhout (Topsport Vlaanderen), Silence-Lotto’s much heralded “next Tom Boonen” Greg Van Avermaet, and Quick.Step’s “current Tom Boonen,” Tom Boonen. Cyclingnews.com can tell you how.

As the cyclingnews.com article points out a near-insulting number of times, Wouter Weylant (Quick.Step) screwed up Boonen’s leadout a bit and brought some people down, which shook things up a bit in the finale. Boonen wasn’t biting on the inevitable, “would you have won if…” questions the press was feeding him though, giving young Roelandts full credit for a good win. Even after driving 180 kph and getting caught with a head full of blow, Boonen still manages to come across as a class act when he needs to. Momma must be proud.

Boonen was right in his praise for Roelandts’ win, but a look at the top 10 of this race shows how national championships can turn the expected order of things on their head a bit. Slipping in there at a solid 9th place is Iljo Keisse, who rides on the road for continental Topsport Vlaanderen, but actually makes the vast bulk of his cash on the track during the winter 6-day season, and 254 kilometers in the wind isn’t usually what those guys are all about. Another boy of winter also made good – standout cyclocross rider Sven Vanthourenhout (Sunweb Pro Job) sprinted his way through the mess to finish second, ahead of Eeckhout and the rest of the guys who make their living in the warmer months. Kevin Pauwels (Fidea), another member of Belgium’s dominating cyclocross contingent, was eighth.

The cyclocross crowd came up a tad short in Belgium, but north of the border in the Netherlands, Lars Boom, the current ‘cross world champion, showed who’s boss, probably leading to another round of the same lame “Boom Boom” headlines we had to endure after the ‘cross worlds. Though I have no idea how it went down, Boom’s win could bring up a touchy subject – collusion. Boom officially rides for the Rabobank Continental team, not to be confused with the Rabobank ProTour team. That’s been typical for Rabobank’s cyclocross riders, including superstar Sven Nys, over the past several years, as the management seems to want to keep the ProTour roster full of riders it can draw on for the road season, and the continental status fits the contractual structure of ‘cross racing just fine. Aside from playing host to the muddy set, the continental team also serves as a sort of development program to bring along young riders (think Thomas Dekker) until they’re ready for the ProTour squad.

But, at the national championships, you suddenly have the Rabobank ProTour squad, which features much of the prominent Dutch talent in the sport, riding the same race as the Rabobank Continental squad, which is technically a separate entity. From a sporting perspective, neither should be aiding or abetting the other, and they could probably be fined for doing so. (I believe the Lotto management had a problem with this around 2004 when they ran both the D1 team and the D2 Bodysol-Brustor teams, both bankrolled by Omega Pharma and both riding in the Belgian classics.) Again, whether or not any undue cooperation went down, I don’t know, because I haven’t seen any coverage I can read well enough to tell. Fifteen of the apparent 44 finishers (and god knows how many of the starters) rode for the big Dutch bank in some form, though, and you have to feel for the poor Skil-Shimano boys and all the scattered representatives of foreign teams in the face of that onslaught. In fact, I’d like to see the result if you asked everyone at the start line who had ever been a part of any Rabobank program to raise their hands -- it would probably look like a stadium wave.

Joining Belgium and the Netherlands in the “unexpected victor” category is Italy. Much of the pre-race talk there focused on Damiano Cunego (Lampre), who after winning Amstel Gold this year and a couple of Giros di Lombardia in the past was seen as a good bet for the classics-style course around Bergamo. Filippo Pozzatto (Liquigas) also rated some mentions, along with up-and-comer Giovanni Visconti (Quick.Step) and Ardennes specialist Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner). You know who wasn’t mentioned? Filippo Simeoni (Ceramiche Flaminia).

But the man best known for being chased down, shut up, and ordered back to the peloton by Lance Armstrong during the 2004 Tour de France came up with the goods, relegating Visconti, Pozzatto, and Rebellin to second through fourth, respectively, and delivering the best victory of his 37 years. The ugly little Armstrong incident that was Simeoni’s previous claim to fame allegedly took place because Simeoni was outspoken about drug use, with Armstrong arguing that he was simply using his yellow jersey power to enforce the will of the peloton in shutting Simeoni up. That may be true, but it’s also true that in doing so, Armstrong probably brought more attention to Simeoni’s prior comments than if he’d just let him go up the road and get dropped by the breakaway on his own, and through the media attention the incident generated, he gave Simeoni an even bigger platform to speak from. Whoops. That’s all old news, of course, but Simeoni has struggled since to find teams, and he’s always been thin on results, so it’s nice to see him get a big one that will let him retire on his own terms.

Not all national championships are upsets, weirdness, and surprises though. Frank Schleck (CSC) delivered in Luxembourg, beating fellow former title holder Benoit Joachim (Astana). Frank's brother Andy was fifth. The rest of the population of Luxembourg finished sixth through 109th. The German podium was a greatest hits list of that country's current pros, with Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) retaining his title by beating old Erik Zabel (Milram), young Gerald Ciolek (High Road/Columbia), scary Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), and respected Jens Voigt (CSC). France’s championship was hotly contested as always – unlike a lot of countries, there aren’t one or two superpower French teams to fight it out amongst themselves, just a slew of O.K. teams. It keeps their national championships interesting, but makes the Tour de France kind of sad, in a way. Anyway, Nicholas Vogondy (Agritubel) won for the second time in his career, so he’ll probably try to win the Tour stage on Bastille Day too. It’s a contractual requirement for the French jersey wearer – it’s stitched into the lining, along with a wedge of brie and a lingering sense of persecution.

And finally, there’s Spain. Oh what an electric day there – with the national soccer team facing off Sunday night against Germany in the Euro 2008 final, I’m betting the cycling championships weren’t getting terribly much airplay. After all, Spain was looking to erase decades of underperformance on the pitch, with its last major victory coming 44 years ago in the European championship. They managed to pull it off with a well-played 1-0 win. Speaking of long years of underperformance, Oscar Sevilla (Rock Racing) finished second to Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) in the Spanish road racing championships. That’s right – we came within a tick of seeing the horror of a Spanish national champion’s kit as rendered by the chief designers of Rock & Republic. So I think we should all join together and thank Valverde for saving us from that, and maybe congratulate him on his win as well.