Great Migrations

The Schlecks are off form, so is Gilbert, and Fleche
 Wallonne as currently structured is doomed to three minutes of sincere action. Among other things, that’s what the 2012 Ardennes classics revealed, though none of that was really news. But what the three Ardennes winners and their teams did highlight is just how much one aspect of cycling, driven by external political and economic forces, has reversed itself in the last two decades or so. 

At the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, a wave of riders old and young poured out of Soviet-controlled eastern Europe and central Asia through an increasing number of holes in the iron curtain. They experienced a great deal of success, mostly on Italian teams, though there were notable exceptions. In Italy, the red-and-white striped Alfa Lum team was the tip of the spear. Faced with the wholesale departure of its Italian riders after the 1988 season, which ended with Maurizio Fondriest winning the world title and leaving for Del Tongo, Alfa Lum management rebuilt for 1989 by importing a cadre of 15 Soviet riders.

Among those Alfa Lum Soviets were aging legend Sergei Sukhoruchenkov, winner of the 1980 Olympic road race, and four men who would define the new crop of eastern professionals in western European cycling. Dimitri Konyshev, a Russian, exploded onto the scene by taking a couple of Italian classics and finishing second (behind Greg Lemond and ahead of Sean Kelly) in the 1989 world road championship at Chambéry, France. He delivered the team a Tour de France stage the next year and went on to race professionally until he was 40.

Moldovan Andre Tchmil didn’t linger in Italy after two winless years with Alfa Lum. He headed northward to ride for Belgian squads, where he ultimately ended up at Lotto. In his eight years there, he won two editions of the E3-Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, two Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Paris-Tours, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, and a World Cup. In 1998, he traded honorary Belgian citizenship for the real thing.

Uzbek Djamolodine Abduojaparov arrived at Alfa Lum a year after Konychev and Tchmil, fresh out of the Soviet national program. He went on to become known as the Tashkent Terror for both the ferocity and pure recklessness of his sprint. In a seven year pro career cut short by a positive test at the 1997 Tour, he amassed three Tour green jerseys with 9 stage wins, points classification wins and stages at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta, and a Gent-Wevelgem victory. 

Piotr Ugrumov, a Latvian, was the lone general classification threat of the group. At Alfa Lum, he won the Vuelta Asturias, which may have led to a brief stint with the Seur team in Spain before he returned to Italy for Mercair-Ballan, predecessor to the mighty (and notorious) Gewiss-Ballan. He had his best years there, finishing second in the 1993 Giro d’Italia, second in the 1994 Tour de France, and third in the 1995 Giro. But maybe more importantly, at Gewiss, he would help guide the next generation of eastern bloc homesteaders. In 1994, blonde-haired Russian Evgeni Berzin would win both the Giro and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and contribute to the team’s infamous sweep of Fleche Wallonne, while teammate and countryman Vladislav Bobrik would close out the team’s EPO-fuelled 1994 rampage with a win at the Giro di Lombardia.

Doped or not, riders from the former Soviet Union were now firmly implanted in the European professional peloton, both in Italy and beyond. And they’d continue to come – a young Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov turned up on Casino’s doorstep 1998 with Andre Kivilev not far behind; after a few years with the Polish Mroz team Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas would hit the big time with Fassa Bortolo in 2000. Former East Germans like Erik Zabel and Jan Ullrich fuelled the success of Telekom and T-Mobile for a decade.

Released from the confines of state-supported “amateur” racing by the snowballing effects of Gorbachev’s glasnost, the products of the USSR’s extended sports machine were freed to pursue careers that went beyond Olympic success and inside-the-curtain events like the Peace Race. The partnership was a good deal for both sides. The west got riders who worked hard, delivered results, and asked for little. The riders got the better salaries, bigger opportunities, and higher standards of living that the free-market, private capital-fuelled western system offered.

But a look at Ardennes races this year shows how things have changed since the borders of the USSR and its satellites first cracked.

In 2012, two teams accounted for wins at Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Astana, the Kazakh team financed largely by Kazahkstan's substantial natural resources wealth through quasi-state entities like Samruk-Kaznya, won both Amstel and Liege. For all intents and purposes, the squad is a state team, a vanity project designed to advance the image of the nation, much like those old Soviet systems but with a more progressive face.

In Liege, Astana won with home-grown Kazakh talent Maxim Iglinsky, allegedly inspired by an encouraging phone call from team godfather Vinokourov. For a team with nationalist objectives, it was perfect, much like the Russian Katusha squad’s 2009 Amstel win with native son Sergei Ivanov. What’s far more telling is that Astana won Amstel with Enrico Gasparotto, a 30-year old Italian from the Friuli region who began his career with Liquigas. Along with teammates from Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Croatia, Gasparotto was aided by two other Italians – Francesco Gavazzi and Simone Ponzi.

On the Wednesday following Gasparotto’s Amstel win, the Russian Katusha team, also running on a state-sponsored sports model with a 21st century facelift, carried off Fleche Wallonne. It did so with 32-year-old Joachin Rodriguez, a diminutive but explosive Spaniard from Barcelona who's a threat in any uphill finish. For a rider of his kind,  Fleche is one of the ultimate prizes, and for a squad like Katusha its age and prestige make it a substantial scalp, even if they have to achieve it with a little foreign help.

For much of the spring, Katusha's other prime attention getter has been Oscar Freire, the Spanish three-time world champion who gave the Amstel Gold it’s best moments of suspense with a late-race break. All told, the team counts seven Spaniards, along with a smattering of Italians, a Belgian, and a Norwegian to bolster its eastern core. Under the influence of former director Tchmil, the team has also tried its luck with western standouts like Leif Hoste, Gert Steegmans, and Pippo Pozzato. To hear most tell it, the cultural differences between Tchmil and the riders were just too much to handle. 

While today’s top teams' compositions are more diverse across the board than they were in the 1980s, one implication is clear. The great east-west rider migration that began in the late 80s has reached a certain equilibrium, or even reversed. Where former eastern bloc riders once fled crumbling Soviet economies to seek their fortunes with western trade teams, riders from traditional cycling countries like Italy, Spain and Belgium are jumping at chances to go to eastern, quasi-state run programs. They aren’t packing suitcases like the Alfa Lum recruits did and moving to Moscow or Astana, of course, but the principle is the same. They’re seeking good salaries, relative stability, and better opportunities to ride the biggest races. It’s just that, with corporate sponsorship suffering in the current economy, all those selling points are being offered by teams with government backing, and the governments that are willing to spend money on sports are in the east. It’s in their genes, and they appear to be passing those genes on. Western, “non-traditional cycling nations” like Great Britain and Australia are adopting the state-backed systems that looked like endangered species at the dawn of the 1990s. For riders like Konychev, Tchmil, Abdoujaparov, and Ugromov, who burst through the door the second they heard the key turn, the change must be astounding.

  • Yes, Astana has also notably won the Tour with Alberto Contador and employed Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Johan Bruyneel’s other standard cast of characters. I’m more-or-less disregarding that above, as that came at a time of such dope and funding related upheaval that it makes little sense in any greater context. With those collaborations behind it, the current Astana is much more true to the vision of its owners.
  • Exciting news seems to be brewing for the Service Course on the writing-about-cycling front. Being superstitious, I’ll make sure everything’s locked down before I say more.


The Ardennes classics, which kick off this year with the Amstel Gold on Sunday,
* are the third stage in understanding professional road cycling.

The grand tours, and the Tour de France in particular, are cycling’s window dressing, the defacto gateways to the sport.** They're what makes the papers and sometimes TV, even in those non-traditional cycling countries the UCI's always making eyes at. From those first Tour experiences, those seeking deeper cycling fandom tend to reach toward the cobbled classics, a sort of sensory antidote to the near-unbearable beauty and sunshine of the grand tour Alpine idyll. Often cold, tinged with grey, always brutal, and run on roads that have sometimes been un-paved rather than re-paved in anticipation, they introduce many of the sport’s rougher truths, not least that of lost time that must be reclaimed immediately, not in tomorrow’s mountains or next week’s time trial. There is an appealing coarseness and urgency that comes with the cobbles, and with it a sense of appreciating beauty in something ugly and subtle that most people don’t understand. I imagine it is something like what boxing fans feel.

But appreciating the Ardennes classics? That comes later, if at all. At least over here. La Doyenne though she may be, Liege-Bastogne-Liege probably hasn’t been the lure that hooked many new cycling fans, at least not those who didn’t spend their childhoods in the wooded hills of Limburg or Wallonia. The optics, as they say, just aren’t as good as the grand tours or the stones. There’s no readily apparent sense of violence in the Ardennes, and no serialized drama to replace it. No special or one-off equipment, few behind-the-scenes photo galleries or Scandinavian documentaries to be had. No carefully orchestrated new product releases. No win-a-bike-and-a-trip sweepstakes, no co-branded bike shop promotions. Just bike racing. No tricks, no frills, no gimmicks.

But for those who stay long enough to embrace them, the Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (along with the less conveniently packaged Milan-San Remo, Giro di Lombardia, and Paris-Tours) have a lot to teach. After mapping the grand tours and cobbled classics, the tarmac classics are the crucial third point in the triangulation needed to navigate the world of bicycle road racing. They defy the generalizations and dispel the misconceptions the cobbles and tours create and which, left undisturbed, could easily decompose into accepted fact.

They teach that Belgian classics don’t all have cobbles, and that Flemish and Belgian aren’t synonyms, even in bike racing. That the classics and the northern classics aren’t interchangeable. That classics specialist doesn’t necessarily mean cobbled classics specialist. That general classification riders are capable of riding races that only last a day. That they can even win them. That there is a whole breed of classics specialist that Tour fans probably only know as stage hunters. That what it takes to ride 260k of shorter cobbled hills can take something different than riding 260k of longer paved hills. But not always. That climbers can win classics. So can sprinters. So can rouleurs. That Michele Bartoli and Paolo Bettini and Claude Criquielion are mentioned among the greats for a reason. That former eastern bloc riders do have a specialty if you look hard enough. That you don’t need bad roads or mountains to create tension and excitement.

The list goes on, so pay attention this week, even as you try to shake off the Holy Week hangover. The Ardennes races and the other tarmac classics (yes, even San Sebastian) give us the beautiful rebukes to all the sport’s oversimplifications. They provide a disproportionate number of cycling's excepts and buts and thoughs – he was only ever a GC rider but...a cobbled specialist except…couldn’t climb, though… – and knowing them is, somewhat paradoxically, the key to both winning trivia contests and understanding the sport more deeply.

* Yes, I’m using “Ardennes classics” to cover Amstel Gold, too, even though the traditional “Ardennes week” was only Fleche and Liege. Let’s not get technical.

**In a way (specifically, in a way that conveniently excludes consideration of money, influence, and promotion), it’s surprising that people come to the sport through the grand tours, because they’re about the most complex interpretation of road racing imaginable. And frankly, they lead a lot of new fans to overthink everything they see in the sport from then on.

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.

Already Broke

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.