Low Country Laments

So, who wants to place a bet on the next time you’ll see a grand tour start in the low countries once any current contractual commitments are fulfilled? I’m betting the latter half of the decade at the earliest.

For the opening week of two grand tours in a row now, there’s been carnage predicted and carnage fulfilled on the narrow roads of the Netherlands and Belgium. Various riders have either stated or tweeted their dissatisfaction with the decisions made on starting points for this year’s Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, and if I were lying there in some under-air-conditioned hotel, glued to my sheets by my own puss and blood with 180 miserable kilometers in my legs, I’m sure I’d be inclined to agree. But in observing the events of the last couple of days from a safe and comfortable distance, I can’t help but think that many of the incidents that have left skin on the pavement in this Tour haven’t been due to the ills typically associated with northern racing – narrow roads, street furniture, and wind. While that was the case with many of the prominent Giro crashes, the northern leg of the Tour has largely featured mishaps that could have happened anywhere. (Please note, this sentiment does not apply to today’s Stage 3 to Arenberg.)

On Stage 1, a bunch of big riders including Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), and Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack) were grounded by a dog that ran into the pack. Then, as the peloton entered the final kilometers of the stage, another group couldn’t sort out a hairpin corner and went down, sweeping riders on the outside along with them. A crash allegedly caused by a narrowing straight blocked the road entirely inside the red kite, while in the final 200 meters, Lloyd Mondory (AG2r) got a little giddy and rode himself into Tyler Farrar’s (Garmin) back wheel, taking himself down and saddling Farrar with an extra bicycle to haul around. Now, you could maybe argue about whether people should bring their dogs to the races, what the regulations for finishing straights should be, or whether the hairpin should have been included that close to the finish, but the fact is that neither the dog nor the hairpin nor the finishing straight were inherently Belgian or Dutch – they could have just as easily been in France, Italy, or anywhere else.

On Stage 2, the trainwreck descent of the Stockeau was, again, not caused by the conditions associated with racing in Belgium, but by a combination of a road frequented by diesel vehicles, rain, and a freakish accident in which a camera bike crashed and managed to spill oil and/or gas down the descent. Yes, the road was narrow, and it was a fast descent, but if you think the same thing can’t happen in the Massif Central or the Côte d’Azur, I’d suggest you have a bit of anti-lowland bias. But like I said, if I’d just deposited most of my left asscheek on some godforsaken Wallonian hillside, I’d probably be cursing those beer-brewing, chocolate-making, lace-working bastards, too.

(I’m just kidding, Belgium. I could never stay mad at you.)

Broomwagon: Stage 1 Edition
  • Day late and a dollar short on this one, so I’ll keep it quick: there was a bunch of riding of the type you’d expect on a flat first stage, including the obligatory wandering dog. Then, with around five kilometers to go, everything went batshit crazy. Guys crashed in a hairpin, then in a wide open finish straight, then again about 200 yards later in the wide-open finish straight. As he did in the infamous Tour de Suisse stage, Alessandro Petacchi won, because although he’s old, he apparently has about eight eyes spaced evenly around the circumference of his head. I have to admit, I didn’t see Petacchi factoring in this year. Chapeau.

Broomwagon: Stage 2 Edition

  • I have mixed emotions about yesterday’s general truce/regrouping called by then yellow-jersey Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank). On one hand, it seems fairly self-serving for a non-overall contender to use the rights traditionally afforded the yellow jersey to safeguard the race of their team’s actual GC contender(s). On the other hand, there were so many teams and riders affected by the Stockeau crashes that the order came close enough to being an altruistic move to pass the sniff test. And I get that after a day like that, everyone’s just kind of tired of risking their necks, regardless of why it got risky in the first place. The idea probably wasn’t a tough sell. Obviously, there were losers as a result of the decision. Cervelo Test Team was the most vocal, and had every right to be since they had both their stage contender Thor Hushovd and their GC rider Carlos Sastre in the front group. Quieter about the whole thing was Cadel Evans (BMC), who was also in the front group and in a position to gain time, having apparently overcome his tendency to be a little bit on the crash-ey side. Every bit of etiquette has winners and losers, though, because someone can always gain an advantage by not going along with it, so I suppose you just have to have faith that what goes around will come around. Along those lines, I think the regroup was a net gain, both for a beat-up peloton and for the prospects of a competitive Tour, if not for Cervelo and the soggy fans on the roadside.

  • While on the balance I’m OK with slowing down for the regrouping, I do think negotiating a non-sprint was a bit of an unnecessary flourish. Sure, the leadup speedup might have re-dropped some of the injured parties, but compared to the savings they’d already realized by the slowdown, those parties wouldn’t have had much room to complain – they’d be losing seconds instead of minutes. And, again, the finish straight was pretty dry and wide as a motorway for a considerable distance before the line, so I think they should have let Hushovd and any remaining sprinters have at it. The greatest danger would likely have been the presence of non-sprinters looking to mix it up in the diminished sprint, but you can pretty much get that on any given day.

  • I think that Phil Liggett, not surprisingly, contributed to a bit of the U.S. fans' ill will towards yesterday’s neutralized finish by repeatedly referring to it as a “protest.” Granted, I wasn’t there, but it seemed more precaution than protest. Or maybe that’s just me being hopeful, because there’s been a little too much protesting for me lately.

  • One thing about the Stage 2 slow-down is for sure: Fabian Cancellara will now forever be remembered as a gracious and magnanimous patron of the peloton, fit for a helmet topped with a laurel crown. How do I know? Because historically, Shakespeare's version of Mark Antony was dead wrong, at least when it comes to some aspects of cycling: it’s the good that men do that lives after them, while the evil is oft interred with their bones. People still remember Tyler Hamilton’s dramatic arm-waving slowdown of the front group after Armstrong hung himself up on a purse a few years back (though they’ve obviously not forgotten Hamilton’s evils just yet). They remember Armstrong waiting for Ullrich, and debate endlessly whether Ullrich waited for Armstrong a few years later. These things are etched into the chivalrous history of the sport by those who are, well, really into that stuff. The other side of the coin? The ones that are interred? Passage du Gois, 1999, anyone?

  • Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) was quick to hand over his bike to Andy Schleck during the Stockeau massacre, which doesn’t really warrant mention, since that’s sort of his job. But when you’re Matti Breschel, you never know what the hell you’re going to get from the roof rack. Come to think of it, does Breschel ever do a race where he doesn’t change bikes?

  • I’ve seen a few questions asking why, on the Stockeau, Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) was on the side of the road, but looked to be trying to get a Focus bike back in working order rather than the Specialized he was issued. It’s because it wasn’t Frank Schleck, as Versus commentators stated and splashed across the screen. It was Niki Terpstra of Milram, whose Dutch national champion’s jersey admittedly looks a lot like Schleck’s Luxembourg one, and who did not start Stage 3 due to illness. I point this out not to be an ass about a simple, understandable, in-the-moment misidentification by the commentary team, but to answer the question above and illustrate a broader point: When I’m doing race coverage, or writing about it here, I howl all the time about the importance of a start list matching rider numbers to riders. This is why. If it’s hard to distinguish two national champions riding in the Tour de France, what are the chances of distinguishing between the 35 unknown Australian continental team riders in an NRC crit?

  • Speaking of everyone looking like a Schleck, watching the Tour coverage I’ve been shocked, in a not shocked at all way, about the lack of regard given to Contador and some of the other GC contenders. For instance, even after building up the Armstrong/Contador rivalry, Versus can’t seem to bother to update on his whereabouts with any consistency. There is, however, a laser-like focus on the locations and sightings of various Schlecks, Vandevelde, sometimes Wiggins, and obviously Armstrong. Hey guys: Evans, Basso, Menchov. Remember them?

  • I like watching Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) ride, and I’m glad he won Stage 2, regardless of the circumstances. There were a painful few years there in the early 2000s when he was heralded as the next French Tour winner, followed by the inevitable few years when people found him to be a profound disappointment because he couldn’t carry the albatross they’d tied around his neck. The loss of those misguided GC years now seems even more unfortunate, as it’s pretty apparent he’s fantastically suited to being a classics rider and stage race aggressor. But letting bygones be bygones, I’ve enjoyed seeing his re-emergence over the last few seasons, including what seems to be a blossoming specialty in crappy condition wins.

  • Stage 2 couldn’t have been bigger for Quick Step, could it? Lost in all the chatter about the Stage 1 crashes, the Stage 3 cobbles, and the GC battle was the fact that Stage 2 was an important day for the stalwart classics squad. After the pre-Tour withdrawal of their big draw, Tom Boonen, Stage 2 was the team’s chance to make good on home soil and begin vanquishing memories of a solid but winless classics season and last year’s dismal Tour. It was Chavanel who came through bigtime, and from a publicity perspective, it couldn’t have worked out better: in a French stage race in Belgium, the Belgian home team wins with a French rider, giving press and fans in both countries have something to love, and allowing the race organizers to feel good about a French win on an otherwise dismal day. Add in fellow Frenchman Jerome Pineau’s grab of the race’s first polka dot jersey, and it would be a day that would turn around many other teams’ seasons. The sad truth though is that without that April win, even a stage win, yellow, and polka dots might not be enough to salvage Quick Step’s year.

Broomwagon: Doping, dimwits, and other pertinent issues

  • How does the same publication that employs Bonnie Ford publish this Rick Reilly piece? It’s like a “spot the errors and distortions” puzzle. I’ll get you started: Postal wasn’t a sponsor in 2006, Discovery was, and in that year, Leipheimer rode for Gerolsteiner, not USPS/Discovery, and Armstrong did not ride the Tour. Landis complained about his bike at Postal (Trek) – he was riding a different bike by the time he was in yellow for Phonak. And on, and on. Now that you know the game, I’ll leave the rest to you…

    Seriously, someone put a fact checker on Reilly. We’re not talking about who or what he or you or I believe about the case – Reilly’s piece is theoretically just trying to recount what Landis has said along with basic indisputable timeline items. And he’s doing such a horrible job at it, it’s difficult to think he doesn’t have an agenda. Impossible, in fact.

  • For me, the most surprising aspect of the now infamous Wall Street Journal article had to do with Landis’s assertion that when he was at Phonak, he would coordinate with riders from other teams to arrange purchases and deliveries of blood and/or dope, including Levi Leipheimer. No, it’s not that I’m blown away by the idea that Leipheimer might have charged; I’m surprised by the idea that Gerolsteiner didn’t have its own organized doping program. Given the number of Gerolsteiner boys who rang the bell before the team’s related demise, you’d think something had to be going on on the team level. But I suppose it just goes to show you that Festina ’98 was kind of an anomaly, which makes sense: it’s not organized doping that typically gets you nailed, it’s disorganized doping. Maybe I was too harsh in thinking that Gerolsteiner director Hans Michael Holzer’s Sgt. Schultz “I know nothing!” act was a crock. Sorry, Mickey.

  • Speaking of Mickeys, Mike Sayers, a.k.a. Mickey Havoc, is directing at the Tour for BMC, and I’m glad to see it. When I was covering my first international race at Het Volk, Sayers was a sight for sore eyes being 1) someone I easily recognized who was 2) not surrounded by a mob and who 3) I knew spoke English. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was the warmup interview that let me get my day going. Nice to see him working at the top level of the sport.

  • Anyone notice that after eschewing the tradition/privilege for much of his Tour winning first career, Armstrong is all over the rainbow stripes on the jersey sleeves since his comeback?

I’m told there may have been cobblestones today. More on that later. For those looking for faster turnaround missives, consult the Twitter.