Overlap Season

Remember those times, back before city governments saw building sports stadiums as a springboard to economic revitalization and an excuse to try out cookie-cutter residential-over-retail new urbanism principals, backed by generous tax breaks and zoning workarounds for team owners and developers? Back when baseball teams and football teams actually had to, gasp, share a single stadium for a few short weeks, leaving early-season running backs to tear up late-season baseball diamonds, and outfielders hustling across the 40 yard line? That little visual reminder that summer was turning to fall seems less common today, though I certainly don’t watch enough of the TV news sports reports to really know. So maybe I’m making it up. But I do follow cycling, and we have our own seasonal markers – namely those few weeks when the late-season classics overlap the early-season cyclocross races in Europe.

That time is upon us, evidenced by this past weekend’s multi-disciplinary smorgasbord of Paris-Tours and the first round of the SuperPrestige ‘cross series at Ruddervoorde, Belgium. Thanks to a combination of Versus coverage and the generous decision of Belgian TV to webcast the SuperPrestige ‘cross series worldwide, those of us in the United States were able to take in the changing of the seasons a bit more than usual.


The French season-closer marked a breakthrough of sorts, with Belgian Philippe Gilbert taking his first bonafide classics win. The Walloon has been a big classics threat for a few years now, netting a couple of Het Volk titles, more than a few great but unsuccessful rides, and a bunch of little stages here and there. But the word inside cycling was that he couldn’t perform much over the 200 kilometer mark – the invisible line that helps separate full-blown classics from semi-classics.

By picking up the win in the 252 kilometer Paris-Tours with one of his typical late-race attacks, Gilbert appears to have finally broken the 200k curse. Granted, 252 kilometers of pan-flat French countryside are a bit different from the Ronde Van Vlaanderen’s 264 kilometers of Flemish hills and cobbles, or the 261 kilometers of Ardennes hills that comprise Gilbert’s “home classic,” Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But Gilbert seems to be coming into his own at 26 years old, and next year he’s bidding adieu to Francaise des Jeux and going to Silence-Lotto, where he’ll have a stronger supporting cast of classics men at his side. If he can continue his current trajectory and avoid butting heads with perennial Ronde contender Leif Hoste, he’ll be a solid pick for a Flanders win in 2009.

But Gilbert’s ascendance isn’t the big stateside talking point about Paris-Tours now, is it? Here, it’s been all about Dave Zabriskie’s (Garmin-Chipotle) fashion sense. Always a time trial powerhouse, DZ decided to spice up his Paris-Tours wardrobe and equipment with some contre la montre touches, including a long-sleeve skinsuit, super-deep section wheels, rubberized booties, and a not-so-subtle rearrangement of stem spacers. Short of reviving Cinelli’s mid-1990s “Legalize Spinaci” campaign and wearing an alien helmet, it was just about as much time-trial crap as you could break out in a road race.

But why? Clearly, DZ was intending to go on a solo mission, which he sort of did when he bridged up to the early break and did more than his fair share in driving it out to a 12-minute gap. It was an impressive display, and together with teammate and breakaway companion Lucas Euser, he did a hell of a job protecting the team’s sprinter Tyler Farrar, who rewarded the efforts by winning the bunch sprint for fifth place.

All that said, was it worth it? After all, the other guys in the break did pretty much the same thing wearing and using pretty standard issue stuff. And that stuff is standard for a reason. I’d be interested in hearing about any tradeoffs DZ experienced from his choices, like diminished ability to carry food and the severly limited ability to make a graceful pee-stop in a skinsuit. The Garmin-Chipotle site has a few different posts mentioning the choices, but doesn’t go much beyond “he was planning to go fast.” Of course, in racing, that’s pretty much the point of most things, so there’s not too much of a point in examining things too closely.

One final thing I wonder about though: In its continual quest for style, modern professional cycling teams often have a specific skinsuit design goes beyond a welded-together version of their standard jersey/shorts combo. Such is the case with Garmin-Chipotle – the difference in the design was even more evident given the presence of both DZ and Euser (in standard jersey) in the break. Traditionally, having riders in different clothes is a rulebook no-no, and could potentially land you a fine payable in Swiss francs. But it’s a little different from the Cipollini clothing antics of old, in that Garmin has the skinsuit design in regular rotation, so it’s kind of a gray area. Any UCI rulebook geeks out there that can clarify?

And one, final, final question: With a fair number of Paris-Tours wins in the past decade coming in breakaways, can we stop calling Paris-Tours the sprinter’s classic yet?

Ruddervoorde, SuperPrestige #1

I didn’t really get to watch enough of this to be able to comment on the race proper, but I was struck by the difference in watching professional road cycling and professional cyclocross on television/internet. With road cycling, it’s often difficult to fully realize the speed, to see in some real sense just how different the professionals are from your Sunday road race. You know they’re faster, but just staring at the screen it’s hard to tell how much faster, since you’re only looking at the relative speeds of a bunch of very, very fast men. Not so with cyclocross.

Even though the webcast was pretty jumpy, and the full-screen feature wasn’t working for me, I was struck by how clearly different the professionals ride from weekend hackers like me, and even some of the top guys in the United States, and how clearly that difference comes across on-screen.

If you’ve raced a few cross races yourself, and then watch a televised SuperPrestige or World Cup, you can almost feel the points on the course where you would lose your momentum, ease off the pedals, or coast through a turn. Quite simply, where most of us would slow down from a lack of power or technical skill, the top pros don’t. It’s not surprising, but it is striking. Hairpins are pedaled through full tilt, and that all-too-familiar submarining effect never seems to materialize when they hit the deep sand. I’ve never seen the equivalent of Ruddervoorde’s pump-bump section on a U.S. ‘cross course, but while I’d visualize many riders more-or-less coasting through, the limiting factor for Sven Nys et al. seemed to be keeping the back wheel planted well enough over the top to keep applying full power the whole way through the section – up and down. And, of course, there’s the almost imperceptible transition from riding to running to riding.

With a couple of local ‘cross races done and gone now, watching that sort of skill live via internet was a little disarming. I realize now how my mother must have felt sitting in the passenger seat as I was learning to drive – as we’d approach each curve, she would instinctively and frantically stab at a brake pedal that wasn’t there, anticipating a seemingly inevitable trip into an adjacent lawn or privacy fence. I’m proud to report that never happened, but that ingrained “he’s never going to make it going that fast” feeling is the same. Without the threat of imminent bodily harm, of course.

Something Almost Completely Different

We all know that Belgium is the holy land of cyclocross. But just how far does that country’s support of the sport go? Pretty far, as it turns out. One of the byproducts of being in the Washington, DC metro area is the proliferation of embassies, and the Belgian Embassy has stepped up to sponsor the kid’s race at the upcoming DCCX race at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in DC. It’s not a big thing, by any means, but it’s pretty cool that they’re making the effort, and really cool that it’s coming in support for the junior-est of juniors.