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.


At the conclusion of Wednesday’s rain-soaked Grote Scheldeprijs race outside Antwerp, several riders hit the slick pavement just beyond the finish line. Saxo Bank's Jonathan Cantwell collided with photographer Taz Darling of Rouleur magazine, who suffered, at last report, a fractured eye socket, ruptured spleen, and a broken collarbone. Cantwell suffered a punctured lung, while the other riders involved got off more lightly.

Of all sports, cycling has one of the more intimate relationships with the weather. Unsheltered by stadiums, without rain delays and tarps, without a clock to expire and locker rooms to retreat to, road racing is exposed to the sun, wind, and precipitation like no other competitive sport. Riders survive bad weather, maybe even use it to their advantage; as fans, we embrace it.

Bad weather has been the catalyst for many of the sport’s fondest memories – Breukink and Hampsten on the Gavia in 1988, Hinault at Liege in 1980, Museeuw at the 2002 Roubaix, Evans’s strade bianche ride in the 2010 Giro d’ Italia. But those moments often come at a peril that is often under-recognized, even though part of their very value is in the danger, the risks the athletes take in pursuing victory despite the circumstances. The Scheldeprijs incident highlighted that risk, and Darling’s injury illuminated how the sport's dangers can sometimes extend beyond the riders and even beyond the finish line.

What can we do to reduce the risks? In many cases, nothing. As any U.S. amateur racer has been warned by countless pre-race releases, "bicycle racing is an inherently dangerous sport." Most so for the riders, but occasionally and unexpectedly so for support staff, media, organizers, and spectators. Darling’s injuries demonstrate that today, but there are examples to be had every year: the motorcycle crashes that punctuated last year’s snow-plagued Tour of California, the various deadly incidents that marred the long history of the Tour de France. To try to write rules around every possible circumstance that could be encountered on the open road, if this, do that, to try to bubble-wrap one of the last great daring adventures in organized sport, would hamstring races and do the sport a disservice. Rigid regulatory frameworks and road cycling have always been a poor fit.

What we need to do is encourage people – organizers, officials, teams, and media alike – to think. To make and accommodate changes based on current, on-the-ground circumstances, rather than what was planned for days, weeks, or months before. Apply relevant, accumulated knowledge to the situation at hand. Crazy, I know.

The conditions that led to the Scheldeprijs finish crash were utterly predictable. The surrounding area had been dry for weeks, leaving a substantial layer of accumulated diesel on the road, ready to be reinvigorated by those first few raindrops. The potential for slick roads was evident from the time the first clouds gathered. The amount of painted road markings near the finish was also plain to see, and anyone who’s been to a couple of rainy bike races knows what that means.

A quick review of the pancake-flat Scheldeprijs’s 100-year history will also reflect that it tends to come down to a storming bunch sprint amongst some fairly hefty (by bike racing standards) northern bruisers. It is not a mountain top finish, with 120-pound climbers twiddling across the line. The final has a certain momentum behind it. It’s also a known fact that winning professional bike races – even mid-week ones – is not easy, so it was always fairly likely that participants would be a little cross-eyed and oxygen deprived as they crossed the line.

The final factor? As Bicycling’s Bill Strickland pointed out via Twitter, “Knowing Taz, bet she shot all the way to impact.” I don’t know her at all, but I’m betting that’s probably true as well. Not just because good photographers are as committed to getting the shot as sprinters are to getting the win, but also because there’s not much depth perception to be had through a zoom lens. The longer the lens gets, the more compressed the depth perspective becomes, and it gets a lot harder to tell whether the rider in the viewfinder is 50 meters away or five. I don't mention this to blame the victim, but to point out that “get out of the way” isn’t a very viable back-up plan considering the job photographers are doing and the equipment they use to do it.

Given all those factors, what should have been done at the Scheldeprijs? Granted, I’m commenting a day later from the cheap seats across the Atlantic, but the immediate action as conditions worsened should have been to move the photographers back from the line. The diagonal, offset lines that the photographers stand behind are typically marked in tape or chalk (or, sometimes, by an official holding his arms out). Moving them farther up the chute would have been maybe a 10 minute job for one or two staff members. Doing so could have mitigated the effects of riders having to brake hard and swerve to the center of a painted, greased roadway, all within microseconds of maxing out their cardiovascular systems.

Some of the photographers would have complained, but they’re mostly shooting with 300 to 400mm lenses. They’d have managed the extra distance. And I’m sorry, if you don’t either have or know how to access that equipment, chances are you shouldn’t be staring down the barrel of a professional bunch sprint to begin with. Since the photographers would still have been stacked together, the playing field would have remained level: nobody would have been out-shot by a competitor due to moving the whole mess a few meters farther back.

Would it have helped? Maybe not. Cantwell and the others might have slid out whether the photographers were where they were, further back, or not there at all. And they still may have slid into someone or something else - it's clear in the footage that wheels are coming right out from under riders at the slightest movement. But given the conditions, I’m betting a few extra meters of breathing room couldn’t have hurt.

The catch, of course, is that there was a curve to the left after the line that might have complicated moving the photographers further back. It’s hard to tell from the finish shots, and again, I wasn’t there. Sometimes finish areas are tight, crammed into medieval town centers that weren’t meant to accommodate cars, much less TV trucks, dope control trailers, scaffolding, and team buses. Things get tricky, but in the end, that’s not an acceptable response to safety issues. Work on it. Figure it out. Or find a place that can safely accommodate what you need to accommodate. Think. Adapt.


  • Risking safety – anyone’s, really – for the finish line shot seems like a poor value proposition to me. In modern cycling, it's just no longer the defining shot it once was. Everybody has one seconds after the finish, and they’re all about the same. I know many will recoil, but it seems like a good case for using one or two pool shooters provided by the organizer. They could hire one or two of the usual suspects so they know they’ll get quality, use the shot themselves (for PR) and make it available to teams (for sponsor purposes) and media outlets (for reporting). Or just let all those parties pay the shooter directly if they want the shot. But do we really need 30 people taking the same shot on the line? Look at the well-received work being done by photographers like Kristof Ramon and Jered Gruber. The photos of riders crossing a white line just aren’t the crowning achievement. Most of the compelling work is done on the roadside or off the back of a moto.

  • Please don’t take offense at me noting that the photographers would have complained at being pushed farther back. I’ve covered a few bike races as a writer, and I like to complain about things like that, too. Now where the hell is my start list?

  • If you’ve seen pictures or video of the incident, two people stand out. One is Darling, on the ground. The other is Katusha rider Maxime Vantomme, who rolled in 32nd, four seconds down, but immediately circled back to check on the photographer and signal for help. For a lot of folks, especially folks who’d just contested a few hundred wet kilometers, that could have been a “not my job” moment, but for him it wasn’t. I like that, and I suspect he earned a few fans yesterday.

  • Lastly, the Service Course wishes all involved a speedy recovery. Hopefully we’ll soon see the end what seems like a particularly large number of broken bones and other serious injuries in this still-young season.

  • …but maybe not.

Monumental Shift?

If we put aside the hand-wringing over the loss of the Muur and Bosberg, there’s a more significant change evident in this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen parcours.

Hilltops and cobbled sectors have always come and gone, and come back again: witness the legendary Koppenberg’s lengthy layoff and eventual return. The Muur and the Bosberg will be back someday, too, maybe not in the crucial final hour where they’ve sat for decades now, but somewhere. Like the Koppenberg (or the Arenberg forest, or the Cote de Stockeau), they’re ultimately irresistible to route planners. Over the Ronde's 96 editions, plenty has changed, even start and finish towns, and despite it all it's always remained the Ronde, the serpentine tour of some of cycling’s most hallowed ground.

So I don’t weep for the Muur. Not yet, anyway. The momentary absence of a few hills is not a profound change against the accumulated weight of 99 years. But with this year’s route, the Ronde breaks strongly from its already malleable mold, and from the traditional format of the super-classics. This year’s Ronde route will make it the only one of cycling's five monuments – Milan-San Remo, the Ronde, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Giro di Lombardia – to repeat a significant course feature during the race.

Gent-Wevelgem scales its signature Monteberg/Kemmelberg combination twice, Fleche Wallonne does a recon pass of the mighty Mur de Huy before the final showdown on its slopes, and the Amstel Gold Race grinds up the Cauberg twice before returning again to finish on its crest. All are formidable races, career-makers by some standards. But they are not monuments.

Monuments are, by tradition if not definition, point-to-point, through-and-gone affairs. Paris-Roubaix doesn't spin the compass needle to traverse the same cobbles twice on its way to the velodrome, and Lombardia makes only one annual pilgrimage to the Ghisallo. Liege makes a single yearly pass at La Redoute, despite the opportunities for repetition its more or less out-and-back route presents.

In contrast, this year’s Ronde has adopted, if not a literal circuit-race format, something similar in spirit. During a series of three progressively tightening loops through the Flemish Ardennes, riders will climb the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg tandem three times at ever-closer intervals before centrifugal force spins them out towards the finish in Oudenaarde.

The reasons for the route changes are no secret, and organizers of circuit races on both sides of the Atlantic can recite the advantages of looped courses in their sleep. Multiple passes through the same location invite spectators to gather en masse, where they’re more easily exposed to event sponsors and contracted vending. Through readily accessible on-site food and beverage service, porta-johns, and jumbotrons, organizers can keep fans engaged for an entire day, all while they're esconced in a sea of vendor and sponsor banners, premes, and product. Those gathered crowds look great on the TV coverage, too, moreso since the TV stations can position multiple stationary cameras there all day.

All of that is just for the average spectator. There’s more revenue to be generated offering the hospitality services Americans typically associate with the corporate suites of large stadiums. For the VIP crowd – think race sponsors, team sponsors, corporations looking to entertain clients – there are tents to be rented, catering, wifi, and television service to be contracted and paid for. Champagne in a heated tent just feet from the storied stones of the Kwaremont, and a guaranteed spot on the fence when you hear the rotors overhead. Three times. As VIP services go, it beats sitting on metal bleachers on main street Meerbeke watching 99.9% of the race on a blurry jumbotron.

More fan engagement, increased sponsor exposure and value, better TV images, and – since we haven’t mentioned it – potentially amazing racing in the final. Aside from concerns that the brutal last hour will stifle aggression for the first 220 kilometers, it’s hard to see the downside of multiple loops over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. And unfortunately, I can’t articulate that downside very well, even though I know it's there.

The feeling isn’t rational, certainly no more rational than feeling like it’s not really the Ronde without the Muur de Geraardsbergen. But in my inner, non-objective estimation of what should and shouldn’t be in professional cycling, monuments don’t loop, don’t backtrack. They can meander, criss-cross, intersect, and even overlap a bit to get from here to there. But they don’t take a key course feature and run laps around it. Not in a monument. As I wrote in 2008, despite the name, the monuments are living organisms, not time capsules, and they've have always changed with cycling and the world around them. New hills and roads are added, others are lost to time, and some rotate in and out. But that basic, root-level format, from-A-to-B, full speed ahead? That's always been a steady undercurrent, an enduring connection to a century of road racing. It's a holdover from a time when transport and communication weren't so easy as they are now, and the races had to be taken to the people, even if only for a few minutes. That element might be missing from a lot of other races that were created in different eras or that were forced to modernize for sporting or commercial reasons, but it's always been there in the monuments. And for some reason, I’m afraid of losing that.

Don’t get me wrong. This year’s Ronde will be fine, maybe even great. The riders will always make or break the race, and there’s a showdown brewing. What I fear, I suppose, is that the Ronde's new formula may prove successful, and soon there will be finishing laps on the Via Roma and two passes of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. If, down the road, that’s what it takes to save one or all of the monuments from a financial or sporting perspective, I’m OK with that. But I don’t think we’re there yet.


  • I have to admit that the aversion to the circuit-izing of the monuments might be partially out of empathy for the folks doing race coverage. Writing play-by-play of circuit races, especially those like Philadelphia International or the Univest Grand Prix in the United States, which have long laps followed by short laps composed of parts of the long lap, can be brutal. The fourth ascent of this, the fifth long lap, the eighth ascent of the same hill but on the third short lap…painful. A nice point-to-point, though? Every action has a specific place connected to it.

  • The big question for Sunday, of course, is where Fabian Cancellara (RadioSchack) will make his first bike change. I think he’s averaging .76 bike swaps per classic for the last few years. Another year of that and he’ll have a smoother remount than Sven Nys.

  • Want a real outside pick? Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). You have to figure Quick Step will try to make it a team battle – it’s Cancellara’s weakness, and the course cries out for it. If you figure Chavanel goes long as usual and gets brought back at the start of the finale, Terpstra’s a logical next card to play. If he’s brought back, its Boonen’s turn, if not, Terpstra has the chops to take it to the line. Lefevere’s no stranger to that sort of finale – have a look in Servais Knaven's or Stijn Devolder's trophy cabinets.

  • I know a lot of you will be following the race with a Belgian ale and maybe a waffle or frites in hand. But if you lack the time, cooking skills, and/or budget for that, remember, a room temperature ham sandwich and a cold, cheap Pilsner from a can is every bit as authentic. But I covered all this in 2008. Vicarious Spectator’s Guide, Part 1 (Beer) and Part II (Frites).

We Want the Airwaves

I’ve been accused, as recently as that last post, of not being a very good conspiracy theorist. It’s true. I admit to the possibility that I lack a certain degree of insight, or that I am possessed of only limited imagination. Or maybe I just look terrible in tin foil hats. Regardless, I believe it’s important to show some effort, to rise to refute the accusations of your critics, and, in this case to strive to find ever more complex frameworks in which to place seemingly simple events. So here’s my theory on why public airing of team communications stopped being a talking point for directors sportiff and suddenly became a reality at Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen: it’s about asserting content ownership.

According to team directors, the UCI has dismissed the notion of public, auto-racing style access to team radio, an idea the teams floated in an effort to keep ahold of the communications in the face of the expanding UCI ban. But there it was, loud and proud during the RVV broadcast, and to considerable success by most accounts. Getting it done, of course, required cooperation between the broadcaster, possibly the race organizer, and obviously the teams, who provided access to their audio and had cameras mounted in their cars. And they did it all, seemingly, without a UCI finger in the pie. And I’m guessing that it’s driving the UCI nuts.

What I saw in Sunday's effort – undertaken as the radio battle between teams and the UCI rages on – was not just an earnest effort to demonstrate the idea's potential to the UCI and to anti-radio fans, though it certainly did that. I think it was – or at least, should have been – a purposeful assertion of ownership by the teams over the team communication content (i.e., everything that's said over the team radios). At the RVV, the teams arguably set a precedent that they are the ones who can permit, sell, or otherwise provide access to their communications to outside parties, whoever those parties may be. I expect you’ll see similar broadcasting in the coming months, because every time teams get the radio communications aired, it reasserts that ownership and builds the precedent.

Why is the issue of who "owns" all the chatter important? Well, due to the experiment’s apparent success on Sunday, the continued resistance to the radio ban, and the UCI’s near-slobbering envy of Formula 1, it’s entirely likely that the UCI will eventually come around to the public team communications idea. And when it does, you can bet that it will try to assert ownership of those communications, likely based on the fact that they are conducted in the course of a UCI-sanctioned race, where the UCI governs radio usage. So why, again, is this important? Why would the UCI want ownership over a stream of mostly boring drivel about upcoming roundabouts and who needs a Coke or a wee-wee break? Because it’s salable content, and the UCI would almost always rather potential income go into its coffers instead of the teams' or organizers'.

In the near-term, the rights to air those director-rider conversations could be sold to broadcasters, though I'd wager Sunday’s dose was a freebie, both to help the teams make the case for keeping radios and to win support of broadcasters, who in France have come out against radios. And I'd also guess the teams might continue to provide free access to TV broadcasters as a condition of keeping radios. But the fact that teams might be willing to provide the content without charge doesn't mean it is without monetary value. In the long-term, money-making possibilities abound. For instance, you could sell team-specific subscriptions to fans that would allow them to hear their team or teams of choice via internet or smartphone. Just 5 Euro per race, or 45 Euro for the whole year, friend. Want to get farther out there? Think product placement. Think commercials. If they maintain ownership of the communications, the teams could offer such “services” as value-adds to their sponsors and as enticements to future backers. If the UCI owns the communications, those services will go to UCI sponsors or the highest bidder, and the money will go into the UCI’s pocket.

It’ll be interesting to see what tack the UCI takes after the loudly trumpeted broadcast of team communications at the RVV. I say loudly trumpeted because the truth is, we’ve seen the same sort of in-car material before during the Tour de France and other races, and the UCI doesn't seem to give a damn. But now that the material has been re-cast as part of the radio debate, and has extended from select teams to all teams, it’s very likely to spark some sort of UCI response. Like I said, I suspect the UCI will ultimately want a piece of the action. And if it doesn’t get what it wants from the teams on the issue, I’ll be on the lookout for more rigid enforcement of rules against filming from caravan vehicles.


  • Ah, and what of the great Jonathan Vaughters “don’t work and wait for the sprint for third” kerfuffle that the RVV team communications provided us? The debate rages on. You know why it rages on? Because people are debating each other without acknowledging that they’re often arguing about two different issues.

    Supporters of the no-work order (understandably including the team) are arguing their side based on the tactical wisdom of the call. Was Vaughters’s order the right one? That’s easy to answer: yes, though admittedly not for the reasons he thought. Garmin’s two men in the front group, Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd, didn’t work to bring back the move, which came back anyway under the impetus of BMC and Vacansoleil. So, it might have been the wrong reason for not working, but not working was still the right call. (Though I do believe that the instructions to sit and wait for the sprint led to Garmin being too inattentive and missing the key move.)

    But in arguing tactical correctness against those critical of Vaughters’s orders, I think some folks are missing the point of what the “other side” in this fractured debate is really saying. Namely, that they just wished Vaughters's instructions to the troops had been different. In racing, there is the correct move which, as here, is often the conservative one – don’t work, sit in, follow the moves. And then there’s the popular move, the one the fans and media want to see. That move is usually the gutsy one – put your cards on the table, no prisoners, nothing to lose, risk it all. Attack, attack, attack. No, it’s not always (probably not even usually) the most tactically sound choice, but asking fans to not want it is absurd. And fans calling for the bold moves instead of the conservative strategy doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ignorant, it just means they want to see some go-for-broke racing from teams they like. Especially in the classics, which are blessedly free from the cautious we-don’t-actually-need-to-win aspects of stage racing.

    [Please note: The above point is not aimed at Jonathan Vaughters. There are few in his position more fan-savvy. It’s natural that he publicly clarified why he made the call he did and why it made sense at the time, and he’s cheerfully acknowledged that, hey, it didn’t quite go down like he thought it would, and there it was for all the world to see. That’s racing. And I don’t for a minute think he’s mystified as to why he’s taking flack for it. Further, by engaging the fans, he’s turned it into a teachable moment about the healthy, engaging debate that can come from the public being able to watch the decisions as they’re made. Well done.]

  • Bjarne Riis may have lost most of his team to Leopard, but he didn’t lose his ability to revitalize flagging careers. How does he do it? In my opinion: jersey design. Sure, the fake abs and feathers that fueled greatness at CSC are gone from the shirt, but the infamous trouser bird seems to have ably filled the inspirational void. Whatever the source of greatness, welcome back, Nick Nuyens.

  • So is that dude on the Muur going to wear that same Colnago sweater and hat every year?

  • I won’t rattle on about it, but this year’s Ronde had to be one of the best bike races I’ve seen in five years. Probably longer. What was often billed in the runup as a fairly closed race between Boonen, Cancellara and maybe Gilbert turned into a brawl between a decade’s worth of classics strongmen, from the aforementioned to Chavanel, Nuyens, Hushovd, Ballan, Langeveld, Hincapie, Leukmans, Devolder and on and on. Chapeau and thanks all.

  • Today’s obscure title reference brought to you by the Ramones.

E3 K.O.?

Sporza is reporting this morning that the organizers of the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen believe that tomorrow's edition of the race is likely to be its last. If true, the impending death of the E3 it is the predictable outcome of moving Gent-Wevelgem from the Wednesday between the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix to E3's traditional weekend before Flanders. It took all of two years.

The sad irony, of course, is that Gent is doing to E3 what Roubaix was effectively doing to Gent in the years leading up to the date change. Namely, key riders, if not whole teams, are opting to sit out the lesser ranked race to keep their powder dry for the higher caliber event to follow.

It's understandable. As various iterations of the ProTour concept came in, placing more importance than ever on the top-tier races, more and more riders were giving Gent a miss to rest up (and stay injury free) for Roubaix. So Gent moved to the weekend, and promptly became the event rider rested up for, rather than skipped to rest up for something else. After a feeling-out year in 2010, this year the arrangement has effectively sucked the life out of the lesser-ranked E3's field quality. The evidence? Tom Boonen, a four-time E3 winner, is sitting it out this year in a desperate attempt to gain World Tour points for his faltering QuickStep squad. Filippo Pozzato is doing the same thing for Katusha. But at least QuickStep and Katusha will have teams there. Not so for BMC, HTC, and Sky, three teams that have factored heavily in classics racing this year. All of them are giving E3 a miss to focus on Gent.

The potential loss of E3 and smaller races like it would obviously be a great loss to racing. Not just for the many reasons that lower-tier events are important (fan access, fostering new talent, rider preparation, etc.), but also because they provide some of the best classics racing. Unlike races in the UCI's various super-league schemes with their guaranteed (and, in some cases, forced) participation rules, races like E3 only feature teams that lust for the classics. There are no grand tour-centric squads phoning it in, no herds of short-straw Basques climbing off in the first feed zone. You get a combination of hard-hitting top-tier classics teams, and, maybe more importantly, hungry second-tier squads like Landboukrediet, Topsport-Vlaanderen, and Veranda-Willems. For those teams, races like the E3 are the big races, and it shows in their aggression. But the races still need some big stars on hand to attract the sponsor dollars.

So can the E3 be saved? Possibly. First, it's worth pointing out that the organizer might be doing a bit of hand-wringing over the loss of Boonen. Yesterday's version of the E3 start list still boasted, among others, Cancellara, Hushovd, Haussler, Devolder, Nuyens, Hoste, and Langeveld. But let's assume the situation is as grave as organizer Bart Ottevaere asserts. For E3, taking Gent's former Wednesday slot is not an option. As Ottevaere rightly pointed out to Het Laatste Nieuws, E3 is not a course for a Wednesday. Unlike Gent-Wevelgem, it cuts eastward from the Flemish Ardennes, tickling the weekday arteries of the Brussels metro area. Sure, the Flemish everyman likes his bike racing, but Brussels is full of diplomats, foreign and domestic, who are likely to be far less impressed when their shiny black Benz is landlocked by the lycra set on the way to the meeting du jour.

The more workable solution would be to flip the two races on the pre-Ronde weekend, moving Gent-Wevelgem to Saturday and E3 to Sunday. The move would effectively set up a situation analogous to the Het Nieuwsblad:Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne relationship. Putting the higher ranked race first lets the big guns go into the weekend's big prize rested and ready, then ride Sunday's lower tier event with more or less intensity as they see fit. Then, they still have the same six recovery days before the Ronde, just as they will after Gent this year. Yes, E3 will invariably continue to get a lower quality field than Gent, even with the change. That's the nature of being a lower-tier event, but the swap would significantly lessen the impact of sharing a weekend with a seemingly resurgent Gent-Wevelgem. Only problem is, according to its director, Gent-Wevelgem likes the ritzy feel of Sunday, and isn't going to give it up without a fight. How quickly they forget, no?


The Service Course has had a difficult time summoning much enthusiasm for professional cycling lately, an affliction I gather is not uncommon these days. After all, the sport is beset by maladies at every level, from frame stickers to radios to doping to poor governance to outright corruption.

Distasteful as the whole mess seems at times, that's not the reason I've skipped more than two months here. Anyone who thinks I can't find material in the pettiness and stupidity of this fine sport need only check the archives. No, the lull, I assure you, has more to do with real work and other commitments, including a brutal and ongoing springtime war with my back yard.

None of that is over by a longshot -- not pro cycling's tiresome ailments nor the necessity of paying work nor the seasonal encroachment of my neighbor's bamboo crop. But I did just watch the finale of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and for the first time in months, I felt the pangs.

For the damp dirt smell that tells you're finally west of Brussels.

For the synchronized beat of car tires on stones and rotors on air.

For the batshit crazy old woman who runs the Charles Inn outside of Gent.

For kids in Lotto hats with autograph books four inches thick and old men in anoraks with cigars.

For the spot on the Molenberg where Nardello buried himself for Bartoli's Het Volk win.

For the cigarette smoke haze of the Kuurne sporthalle at sign-in.

For the backslaps and guttural exhortations of the Flemish pressroom.

For the bar at the top of the Kemmelberg and the restaurant halfway up the Oude Kwaremont.

For buckets of Leffe at midnight on the Bruges square after the Ronde.

For the cough-inducing ammonia-and-piss olfactory punch of the Wevelgem press room lavatory and the unguarded phone lines in the back room.

For the amateur crit in Compiegne the evening before Roubaix.

For the cobblestones and tractors and five-car freight trains crisscrossing the Department du Nord.

For the right turn into the velodrome.

For the faux Swiss alpine villages of Wallonia.

For the howling claustrophobia of the Mur de Huy and the Cauberg.

For high-ceiling opulence and shiny faces at the Palace Liege and trash and filthy legs in a parking lot in Ans.

For the dead, empty quiet when it's all packed and gone by sunset.

And none of that has goddamn thing to do with Pat McQuaid or Johan Bruyneel or TV rights or bodily fluids or an alphabet soup of warring tribes in blue collared shirts. It's just bike racing as I've known it, and as it continues to be when you get past the pencil-pushers and get down to it. And it's beautiful.

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.

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’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.

Stone Free

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."

Shut Out

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. 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,, 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 site as someone, presumably 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 Now, I fully admit I haven’t tried 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,, fix it, step aside, or let my people watch Sporza.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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 “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.

44 Hills

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)
Baneberg: GW
Berg Stene: E3
Berthen (FR): GW
Boigneberg: E3
Bosberg: RVV
Den Ast: RVV
Eikenmolen: HN
Goeberg: WV
Holstraat: DDV
Kanarieberg: KBK
Katteberg: DDV
Kalkhoveberg: DDV
Kapelberg: E3
Kluisberg: RVV
Koppenberg: RVV
Kortekeer: DP
Mesenberg: DP
Mont des Cats (FR): GW
Mont Noir (FR): GW
Oude Kruiskens: E3
Pottelberg: HN
Scherpenberg: GW
Stationsberg: E3
Steenbeekdries: RVV
Wolvenberg: HN


  • 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.

Pressure Drop

Patrick Lefevere and Marc Sergeant, the public faces of top Belgian squads Quick Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto, respectively, have both been around long enough to know that you should never let the public see you sweat. So after last weekend’s new E3 Prijs Vlaanderen/Gent-Wevelgem double header, they’ll either have to stay out of the media glare and wipe their brows in private, or get Alan Lim to jimmy them up a cooling vest that fits smoothly under a sportcoat.

What was so bad about last weekend that the two of the most experienced managers in the business should be glistening with nerve juice? Nothing, really, at least not viewed in isolation. To whit:

Tom Boonen (Quick Step) initiated the winning break at the E3, looking dead relaxed while attacking over the Paterberg, drawing out Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) and creating a move with more horsepower than most teams’ buses. The trio rode through several other groups to arrive at the finale, where Boonen fell victim to one of Cancellara’s final kilometer attacks and had to settle for second place. That’s OK – that move is a tough one to counter. It happens. First or second, Boonen showed he’s rising to the form he’ll need coming into the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix next week.

On Sunday Omega Pharma put not one but two strong candidates – Philippe Gilbert and Jurgen Roelandts – in the final group of six. Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Columbia) was clearly the most fancied sprinter in a group that also contained George Hincapie (BMC), Daniel Oss (Liquigas), and Sep Vanmarcke (Topsport-Vlaanderen), so it was no great surprise when he waited out Hincapie’s early jump and came around for the win. As for Omega Pharma, well, even with a man-up advantage, you don’t always win. And after a pretty anonymous E3 the day before, the team showed their boys can sniff out the right move and get there in force, a good sign for next week’s mega classics.

That’s the positive reading of those two teams' performances last weekend. The negative reading?

In the E3, Boonen, who all eyes say is on screaming form right now, should have known Cancellara’s late move was coming roughly since the neutral rollout ended. In fact, I think Cancellara actually has the details of his signature attack printed on the back of his jersey, with a map, just in case anyone had any doubts about the plan. If Boonen couldn't anticipate that attack and roll with it last Saturday, is another eight days before the Ronde van Vlaanderen going to make the difference? Tom – Cancellara is NOT going to willingly go to the line with you. You have to make him take you to the line. To do that, you need to stick to the red kite attack until things get back on your own terms. Easier said than done, I know, but most things are.

And Omega Pharma? Two guys in a group of six? That’s 33 percent of the break. A third. Yes, Eisel is a damn good sprinter – and probably an underrated one due to the company he keeps at HTC-Columbia. But the two guys Omega Pharma had in the break weren’t exactly their second string, or neo pros getting a first look at the big time. Roelandts has some serious power, and Gilbert is an excellent late-race attacker and pretty handy in a small group sprint. So how did Omega use those strengths and numbers? Roelandts brought Vanmarcke's late attack back for everyone, then spent a few kilometers calmly dragging the whole group, Eisel included, to the sprint. There are some good cases to be made for altruism in competitive cycling, but that was a pretty weak headed example. A better one? Back when the leading group still numbered nine riders, the other team with two men in – Liquigas – used up one of its riders to kindly escort the most dangerous rider in the group, Oscar Freire (Rabobank), off the back. That I can live with. But just being the mindless derny that takes everyone to the line? No thanks.

All that said, yes, anyone can blow a weekend’s worth of racing pretty easily. Countless teams do it every weekend, and sometimes other people are just stronger. Again, it happens. But where Quick Step and Omega Pharma will run into trouble in the home press this week is that they’ve failed to bag a classic thus far, and it's getting late. And as those teams go, so goes Belgium in the springtime.

This spring, Belgian fans have watched as a Spaniard riding for a British team lifted Omloop Het Niewsblad. The next day, in abominable conditions, a Dutchman riding for a second division Dutch team carried off Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. A Dane on a Danish team outfoxed the natives at Dwars Door Vlaanderen; his Swiss teammate snatched up the E3. An Austrian on an American team claimed Gent-Wevelgem.

Previously little-known neo-pro Jens Keukelaire has been the country’s only classics winner this year, bagging the Dreidaagse van West Vlaanderen stage race, the GP Samyn, and the Nokere Koerse. He rides for Cofidis, a now-second division French team that didn’t even get an invite to Gent-Wevelgem or the Ronde.

Getting schooled by a local kermesse kid riding for Cofidis (particularly now that it’s a long way from its days as home to hardened classics riders like Jo Planckaert, Nico Mattan, Chris Peers, and Frank Vandenbrouke) is bad enough, but the fact is that there are a multitude of teams performing better in the northern classics than the two big teams that allegedly specialize in these races. It’s Saxo Bank executing the perfectly timed attacks. It’s Liquigas splitting the race in the crosswinds at Gent. It’s HTC-Columbia winning the hardman’s small bunch sprints. And yes, it’s mighty Quick Step putting its top finisher in the 22nd spot at Gent-Wevelgem (and that was Sylvain Chavanel, a Frenchman).

So all of that leaves Quick Step and Omega Pharma in an unenviable position. Yes, the whole cycling season is important in their native country. Yes, knowledgeable fans appreciate good rides that don’t necessarily end on the top step of the podium. But the fact is, if you’re one of the big Belgian teams and you’re not bringing home the big cups in the spring, you’re not doing your job. Fail to gain the top step in March and April, and there’s not much you can do the rest of the season to make up for it in the eyes of their core fan base. Make no mistake, these aren’t the sunshine boys of stage racing, where every race but the Tour de France or maybe the Giro is passed off as being “for training” or “a test.” Het Nieuwsblad matters. The E3 matters. Gent-Wevelgem matters. So after not nabbing any of the lesser classics to take the pressure off a bit, the big home teams need to win at the two hardest cobbled classics, the Ronde and Roubaix, to save face. And that’s a tall order, especially when you’re not going in with a rock solid confidence base. It feels a little like going 0-10 in the regular season, but planning to save it all by winning the championship.

The kicker for Quick Step and Omega Pharma? If one of them does take the big one on Sunday, it takes every last bit of pressure off that team’s shoulders….and heaves it directly onto the shoulders of the other. If one of them takes the win at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, look for the other to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink – and maybe even that – on the road the following Sunday at Paris-Roubaix.

Do I think that Quick Step's slow start means Boonen won’t bag the Ronde or Roubaix? Not by a longshot. Boonen is Boonen, and he's hungry. And I still think Gilbert’s chances are good, too. But putting all your eggs in those Easter baskets is enough to make any manager sweat, no matter how experienced.

  • As Scott T. noted in the comments to the last post, I guess now we know how top riders will treat the E3 now that it’s the day before Gent-Wevelgem. Apparently, they go for the throat. Having Boonen, Flecha, and Cancellara driving the front, with Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) trying desperately to get across felt like what we expect a week or two weeks from now. After the first running of the E3/Gent-Wevelgem weekend, the lineup has seemed to draw E3 up a notch to put the competition at the same level as Gent-Wevelgem. This year, the latter race saw most of its action come from second-tier classics threats, but that's something that can happen in any given year and isn’t necessarily indicative of much. But the big boys coming out to play in the E3 rather than Gent makes sense. The E3 shares a lot more similarities and climbs (including the Paterberg where the key move went down) with next weekend’s Ronde than Gent-Wevelgem does, so it makes sense that the Ronde contenders were out in force on Saturday rather than Sunday.

    It is worth noting, however, that Gent-Wevelgem winning HTC-Columbia didn’t ride the E3 the day before. Neither did Gent strongman Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank), and E3 winner Cancellara hadn’t originally planned to ride Gent the following day. It’ll be interesting to see how teams play these two races as the arrangement becomes more ingrained in the calendar.

  • Speaking of Pozzato, it’s not really fair, since I’m basing this on only this year’s E3 and last year’s Roubaix, but I feel like I spend a lot of time watching him chasing alone. Hey Pippo, how about we spot the break when it goes – I think it’ll work out better for you.

  • You know (part of) why I like Gent-Wevelgem? It’s one of the only races that’s historically been capable of showing people that sprinters can really ride. Remember Mario Cipollini bridging up to the break in 2002 before taking the win? Yesterday, we had Eisel and Freire in the break, and Tyler Farrar (Garmin) and Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank) helping drive the chase. Most of the time, the big sprinters are hiding in the wheels until the last possible moment, because that’s the best way to win those races. But they get a bad rap for it, anyway, and people love to label them as hopeless climbers, one-trick ponies, or lazy glory-hounds. Gent seems to be their favorite chance to prove otherwise.

  • Sep Vanmarcke, whoever that is, had a career day at GW yesterday. No matter how anonymous the Topsport-Vlaanderen rider was in the morning, by the afternoon we all knew who he was since he dutifully sat on the back of the break right in front of the TV cameras for the last 20k. Which, as the new guy in a group of bigger names in a huge race, is exactly where he should have been. Sure, Freire and likely a few other guys in the break hollered at him for it – if you can intimidate someone into working, why not – but they also knew exactly where he was coming from. While he was back there, Vanmarcke saved up enough gas to try the only real late-race grab at victory, then still mustered a second place in the sprint. Beats just plodding steadily to the slaughter…Roelandts.

  • Matti Breschel’s (Saxo Bank) flat on Sunday was the heartbreaker of the race. The kid is absolutely flying right now, stomping everyone on the final climb of the Kemmelberg before (sensibly) easing up, and his presence in the finale could have drastically reshaped the race. It’s not quite to the level of the Boonen/Devolder two-headed monster, but with Breschel riding as he is, Cancellara’s chances at the Ronde are a little better than they were.

  • Related: Shimano neutral support is going to have to spend this week practicing its wheel changes – if Boonen gets a change that slow next Sunday, they’re going to get lynched.

  • Finally, think Omega Pharma-Lotto's current no-win season is bad? In 2005, the very talented T-Mobile went scoreless until Alexandre Vinokourov finally outsprinted Jens Voigt (CSC) to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Tough and Tranquilo

Oscar Freire (Rabobank) isn’t an obvious candidate for cycling stardom, is he? Tom Boonen (Quick Step) is better on the stones. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) is quicker. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) has more horsepower. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) is a better climber. Edvald Boassen Hagen (Sky) is, well, we don’t know what he is yet, but we’re pretty sure it’s good.

By comparison, Friere’s talents are a bit less obvious, perhaps even more mental than physical, and he doesn’t get as many chances to show off his specialty as the aforementioned riders do. That’s because there just aren’t too many races that cater to what seems to be Freire’s defining talent: being the best small bunch sprinter in the world in cycling’s death zone – distances beyond 250 kilometers. In fact, there are really only two races with that sort of distance that are likely to end in a bunch sprint: the occasional World Championship, and Milan-San Remo. But as of last Saturday Freire has won both of them three times, and I hear they pay pretty well.

In trying to explain those victories, it would be convenient to pin Freire’s long-haul prowess on age – to profess that his 34 years have given him the fabled “resistance” that comes from years as a professional and the tens of thousands of kilometers in the legs, the magical force that gives older riders the edge when the kilometer count gets beyond the norm. I’d like that to be true – it’s a theory that I’m fond of, more and more so as I get older, in fact. The truth is, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case for Freire. He bagged his first world championship (1999) in Verona at age 23, when he was a little-known rider on the modest Vitalicio Seguros team. His second title came in 2001 when he was 25, and the third in 2004 at 28. So Freire wasn’t boy-wonder young when he won those, but he certainly wasn’t shuffling off towards the rocking chair, either. His San Remo victories (which tack another 40k or so onto the typical World Championship distance of around 260k) fit the older rider theory a bit better, having been achieved at ages 28 (2004), 31 (2007), and 34 (2010). But after his earlier Worlds successes, those San Remo triumphs were hardly surprising. We already knew he could go the distance and still have a kick at the line.

Pure distance isn’t the only thing Freire seems to thrive on, though; there seems to be a level-of-difficulty aspect that factors into his wins as well. After all, if Freire’s turn-on was just rolling out the kilometers and having a sprint at the end, he would have stacks of Paris-Tours victories in his palmares. But he doesn’t, and my thinking is that’s because, while Paris-Tours is a hair over 250k, it’s also pancake flat, with a straight-as-an-arrow run in. There’s just not enough material there for Freire to work with, no obstacles to wear out the more conventional sprinters and their assistants or to sap the strength of the late-race breakaway heroes who have captured quite a few victories there recently.

While I certainly wouldn’t rule out Freire winning Paris-Tours based on that, his sweet spot does seem to lie somewhere between selectivity of a Ronde van Vlaanderen and the sprinter-friendliness of a Paris-Tours. For Freire to thrive, the race needs enough difficulty to shed the pure sprinters, but not enough to decimate the field entirely. (In short, a flatish World Championship course, or the capi of the Ligurian coast.) If that comfort zone seems familiar, it’s because it used to be the stomping ground of Eric Zabel, who’s probably at least part of the reason Freire doesn’t have more victories in races that fit the bill. (Although Zabel is at least partially responsible for Freire’s 2004 Milan-San Remo victory.)

Looking back over his victories, I can’t help but think that Freire’s advantage in long races is more between his ears than in his legs. He has a certain calmness about him, even when he’s flicking his bike over medians and through roundabouts to pick up a couple bike lengths in a hectic finale. Since he burst on the scene with his 1999 World Championship win in Verona, I can’t recall an instance of Freire getting in a media pissing match with another rider or with his team management. I’ve never heard him complain about a dangerous finish, or seen him upset after a narrow loss. While it’s become a verbal reflex for Spanish riders to tell journalists they’re feeling tranquilo ahead of a major goal or after some major disappointment, coming from Freire, I’d actually believe it. Though he undoubtedly has the same worries and fears we all have, in racing and in life, he doesn't seem to let any of it get to him. If you up all the worrying a typical rider could during the buildup to a big event and over almost 300 kilometers of racing, then by comparison Freire has to be saving some serious mental energy for the sprint. And that comes in handy when you’re looking for the right wheel, dodging toasted leadout men, and trying to spot the jump when it comes.

While the exact conditions that most favor his success are somewhat rare, Freire (again like Zabel), also possesses surprising versatility. Like most riders with a strong sprint as their most notable quality, he has a host of stage wins, including four in the Tour de France, seven in the Vuelta a Espana, and wins at a number of smaller venues. To those, he adds the Tour de France green jersey in 2008, and an overall win in Tirreno-Adriatico in 2005 – both feats seldom accomplished by pure sprinters.

More interesting, however, is Freire’s more recent affinity for the cobbles of northern Europe. It first showed with his win at the Brabantse Pijl Belgian classic, which he first won in 2005 before nabbing the 2006 and 2007 titles as well. For those who might have missed those gritty wins, his victory at the 2008 Gent-Wevelgem may have come as a surprise, if only because he’s Spanish and Gent has cobblestones. But looking closer, Gent is a perfect target for the Cantabrian. Though only a paltry 219 kilometers long, the relatively sprinter-friendly cobbled classic features two ascents of the Rodeberg-Monteberg-Kemmelberg triple before descending and flattening out for the remaining 28 kilometers to the finish on Wevelgem’s Vanackerestraat. In the absence of a quality escape like 2009's, that leaves the perfect recipe for a hard-man’s bunch sprint, and a potential Freire victory.

Gent-Wevelgem, of course, is coming up this Sunday in its new weekend time slot, and Freire is clearly on form. But, when the inevitable list of favorites come out, he’s likely to slot in around fifth or sixth on a top-10 list again. I’m guessing he won’t be bothered by that.


  • What do we think of Gent-Wevelgem’s move to the weekend? For the race itself, for riders, and for anyone living within striking distance of it, it’s a great move. Obviously, the race’s chances of getting a good crowd and live TV audience are better on a Sunday than they are on a Wednesday, even in Belgium, where people are willing to bag work for a bike race. Organizers are also likely hoping that absenteeism among the top cobbled riders will drop, since they’ll no longer be primarily concerned with recovering from Flanders and preparing for Roubaix, and bailing on Gent as a result. And, as big a win as everyone knows Gent is, being a mid-week classic still hurts your prestige a bit.

    Who might lose out from the move? Well, American and tourists from far-away lands, for one – you used to be able to take a nine day block and fit in Flanders, Gent, and Roubaix for your dime, but now you’ll have to mill around Flanders for an extra week to fit all three in. Granted, for bike racers, there are worse places to be stuck than Flanders in early April. I’m on the fence about whether the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (a.k.a., the GP E3) the day before Gent wins or loses in this deal. Big riders might either double up on the weekend and get a last block of high-intensity training in before Flanders the following Sunday, or they might skip or sandbag the E3 in hopes of doing real damage in Gent. Probably a little bit of both, actually, but I’m guessing in the end it’s a net win for the E3.

  • After dental problems set back his early season preparations, Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) seems to be bouncing back, taking the stage win at the Volta a Catalunya today. Catalunya doesn’t exactly draw the cream of the sprinter crop, but with Cavendish feeling at least a bit better, Gent-Wevelgem just got that much more interesting.

  • Yet again, the outfit currently known at Omega Pharma-Lotto is under the gun for failing to register a win with the thick of classics season upon us. I’ve always liked Lotto, at least partly because they’re always the lower-budget underdog at the top of Belgian cycling, if that makes sense. I was hoping that without Cadel Evans’ grand tour aspirations to look after this year, they’d be able to focus in on their core competencies and be fit, happy, and ready for April, but no avail. It’s worth noting that Evans’ current team, BMC, is also winless so far with a classics squad that’s been radically underperforming, particularly for a team that should be trying to make its name.

  • Like a good Belgian classic? Don’t forget Dwars door Vlaanderen (“Race Across Flanders”) on Thursday. It has cobbles, bergs – you know, all that stuff you like. Looking back over the season so far, it’s hard to bet against riders like Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis) or Bobby Traksel (Vacansoleil) for races like Dwars and E3, but this isn’t early March anymore, and with the giants of the road tuning up their form, their odds may be getting a bit slimmer.

  • On the track, Belgium’s Iljo Keisse broke his collarbone during a training session at the World Championships. That’s unfortunate for Belgium’s hopes in the madison and points race, but it's also now a loss for road racing fans. After dominating the Six Day races for several years, Keisse signed a contract with Quick Step for this year, where many were looking forward to seeing how he’d translate his ample skills on the boards to the road. Belgium’s last big Six Day star, Etienne de Wilde, amassed a pretty impressive road resume, including Het Volk and Tour de France stage wins. Looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer to see if Keisse can make a go of it year-round.

  • One final Freire note – I had to include a link to this Bobke Strut post, which also gives a bit of insight into Freire’s relaxed personality. It features Freire with a mini pump duct-taped to the top tube of his Rabobank issued Colnago. That earned him the Strut’s “low budget superstar” title, and he did it the honest way, by not sweating the details (not by the Rivendell/Martha Stewart way, where you spend 12 hours on internet research and another 4 hours in the garage to make things look like they’ve “just been thrown together”).

Dutch Treat

Will 2010 be the year that marks the true revival of Dutch cycling? Though the start of the season creeps earlier each year, making it seem like mid-season by mid-March, the 2010 season is still barely in its infancy, so it’s still difficult to tell just where everything is going. [So intense is the battle for “season opener” status, in fact, that the 2011 GP Marseillaise will actually be held just prior to the 2010 Giro di Lombardia.] But so far, with the pre-season races over with, it’s looking like Dutch cycling may just be making a comeback after a decade in the relative wilderness.

Let’s start with a little history…

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Ti-Raleigh squad under legendary DS Peter Post [unstated motto: “I’d rather be feared than loved”] won damn near everything that mattered with riders like Hennie Kuiper, Jan Raas, Gerrie Knetemann, Joop Zoetemelk, and Leo Van Vliet. From 1974 to 1983, the team bagged a Tour de France (and 10 stages in the 1978 edition alone), Tour de Suisse, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Het Volk, Paris-Tours, Paris-Brussels, Paris-Nice…some of those multiple times.

In 1984, one of Post’s key riders, fellow Dutch hardass Raas, tired of Post’s rule at Ti-Raleigh and led a group of defectors to form Kwantum, where Raas briefly stayed on as a rider before slipping into the driver’s seat. Through a number of sponsorship and management twists and turns, that team would eventually become Rabobank in 1996 and continue through the present. For his part, Post continued to head the former Ti-Raleigh structure, now rebranded as Panasonic, which led a long and fruitful life through 1992.

Riding a wave of success fueled by that history, by 1989 there were four top-flight Dutch teams in the peloton – Panasonic and Kwantum heir Superconfex, TVM, and PDM. Though the influence of Dutch riders in the peloton may have dwindled a bit since the Ti-Raleigh days, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these four teams gave Dutch cycling plenty of visibility, whether their success came with native riders or foreigners like Eddy Planckaert, Edwig Van Hooydonck, and Sean Kelly. Nationalistic hopes rested mostly on GC threat Eric Breukink, sprinter Jean Paul Van Poppel, and a trio of climbers, Stephen Rooks, Gert Jan Theunisse, and the aging Peter Winnen. Each of those three tasted success on Alpe d’Huez., and to this day, that mountain still boasts an unofficial “Dutch corner” in their honor.]

So What Happened?

While Theunisse, Rooks, and Winnen occupied the pinnacle of Dutch cycling for a time, they also embodied the problems that would ultimately reduce Dutch cycling to a single major team in the peloton for the 2000s. Theunisse was busted outright for testosterone use in 1988, and again in 1990. Rooks and Winnen would confess to testosterone and amphetamine use after ending their careers, but that was only confirmation of what most of the world already knew. Rooks later fessed up to EPO use as well.

In 1991, the entire PDM team dropped out of the Tour de France, citing food poisoning from a team dinner. It was later revealed that the squad had a bad reaction to poorly-stored dope. The team pulled the plug the next year.

When the Festina Affair at the 1998 Tour de France brought EPO use into the spotlight, TVM was a major player, despite Festina getting naming rights to the scandal. TVM officials including DS Cees Priem and the team doctor were taken into police custody, and evidence of doping was found in the team’s hotel. Investigations and court cases followed; who knows when, how, or if they ever ended. A revamped version of the team soldiered on for two more years before exiting, though they did win the 1999 Ronde with Belgian Peter Van Petegem. As sponsors drifted off, only Rabobank was left, and in the absence of other big Dutch teams, it became the 800 pound gorilla of Dutch cycling.

Throughout the 2000s, the Dutch had a number of solid performers but few standouts, with most of the country’s expectations borne by Rabobank and its dynamic duo of Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker. Both fantastic riders, no doubt, but both often fell short of wins in the biggest classics, and Boogerd faced unfortunate pressure to become a grand tour rider during his prime years, which may have distracted him from the classics he was better suited for. With only one top team standing, retirements of Boogerd and Dekker, and careers of other mainstays like Servais Knaven and Leon Van Bon winding down, many were left asking what was next for Dutch cycling.

Back to the Present

As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and the 2010 early season sees many signs that Dutch cycling may again be on an upswing. First, there was Bobby Traksel’s (Vacansoleil) gritty win in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne ahead of countryman Rick Flens (Rabobank), followed quickly by the very promising Lars Boom’s (Rabobank) win and initial leaders’ jersey in Paris-Nice, and several more good results from Traksel. Sure, a couple of early wins isn’t much to go on – but they’re one part of a renewed visibility for the Dutch on cycling’s world stage.

More than any individual rider, that renewed visibility is being spearheaded by a trio of teams that have placed themselves firmly at the top tier of the sport in the eyes of organizers. There is Rabobank, of course, which is reaping the benefits of its long running U23 development squad as the riders it’s nurtured move up to its ProTour team, bringing the average age down a notch from the Boogerd/Dekker era. But while Rabobank is a given at the top of the sport, the addition of pro continental squads Skil-Shimano and Vacansoleil to the top of the wild-card invite list is a more recent phenomena. Even better, all three are fairly well-stocked with home-grown talent.

[And to give credit where credit is due, the rest of the peloton is reaping the benefits of Rabobank’s U23 development program, too. In addition to helping fill out their Dutch rivals’ rosters, Rabo alums grace Garmin (Huub Duyn and Martijn Maaskant) and HTC-Columbia (American Tejay Van Garderen) among others.]

Skil-Shimano broke through by putting in a strong spring 2009 campaign that led to a Tour de France invite, where they animated the breakaways and generally proved they deserved their spot. While the team isn’t heavy in the win column, they always seem to make the news, either by going in the long break, or with Piet Rooijakkers doing something newsworthy, like punching people or breaking his arm. Anything for a laugh, that guy.

Vacansoleil, a merger of a long lineage of Hilaire van der Schueren-led teams (tracing a line through Mr. Bookmaker, to the ill-fated Unibet team, to Collstrop) and the small Dutch P3Transfer-Batavus squad, has also settled into the top of the wildcard heap. Critics will point out that they’ve done so mainly by signing French brothers Roman and Brice Feillu (the latter of whom had a breakout performance at the 2009 Tour de France riding with Agritubel) in a blatant attempt to catch the eye of Tour organizers ASO. Those critics would be right, if a bit intentionally naïve, but whether they like it or not, Vacansoleil’s personel moves and its riding are working: along with Skil-Shimano (and obviously Rabobank), they’ve just received an invite to Paris-Roubiax .

Given the fact that Roubaix is an ASO property, it’s well accepted that invitations to these early season races are try-outs to see which of the smaller teams will have what it takes to make the cut for the Tour de France, which, even if you’re a straight up classics team, is still the golden ticket in cycling. At first, picking Tour teams on the basis of spring classics performance, of course, seems to make about as much sense as picking the best field goal kicker to be your starting quarterback. For the bigger, more specialized teams, it would be particularly non-sensical – for instance, let’s look at what Quick Step brought to the classics last season versus what it did at the Tour, and also at what Astana did at the classics versus what it brought to the Tour. But those teams all get automatically selected to the Tour (or at least, they’re supposed to), and are so deep that the Tour squad and classics squad may have little overlap at all. The tryout system makes a little more sense for smaller teams for which it's intended – which are typically less specialized in their rider selection – to show what they might bring to the Tour. We (and they) know from the outset that they’re not likely to win either Roubaix or the Tour, but what they can show is fighting spirit, an ability to keep the crowds engaged, rise to the pressure on a big stage, and hopefully an ability to keep their noses clean.

So while Brice Feillu certainly won’t do Vacansoleil any good at all at Roubiax, his chances of riding the Tour will depend on his teammates' performances there. He has reason to be confident -- the team has a hell of a solid classics team on hand, including Dutchmen Traksel, Jimmy Hoogerland, Matthe Pronk, and Wouter Mol, as well as Belgian Bjorn Leukemans and Uzbek Sergey Lagutin. But Skil-Shimano is no slouch in the classics department either, with a young squad likely to be led by Kenny van Hummel, supported by fellow Dutchmen Koen de Kort, Roy Curvers, and Tom Veelers and Belgian Dominique Cornu.

Either squad could easily get the upper hand in competing for what’s likely to be only a single Dutch wild-card spot in the Tour de France. And even though Skil-Shimano and Vacansoleil both swear up and down they’re not out to just neutralize each other at ASO events like Paris-Nice and Paris-Roubaix, it’s worth watching out for the race-within-the-race at Roubaix. [And if both teams don’t make the early break, they will have already failed in one of their goals.] The week after, we’ll get to watch as Rabobank, Skil-Shimano, and Vacansoleil all claw each others’ eyes out for the home win at the Netherlands’ biggest classic, the Amstel Gold race.

So -- a few results, some new talent, three teams, two likely Tour slots -- what does it all mean? As in the glory days of Dutch cycling in the early 1980’s we’re witnessing an expansion from one dominant Dutch team to several as the talent on hand becomes too much to manage within a single squad. That's a good thing. And with more teams in the biggest events, both the sponsorship climate and the athlete draw in the Netherlands is likely to improve, hopefully building to an even brighter future. It may not be a full revival, and a lot has changed in the sport since the last glory years, but after years of dope scandals, loss of sponsors, and dwindling wins, the Dutch seem to be reemerging on the world cycling stage.

  • If we believe Dutch cycling is on the comeback, and that it's in a cycle where success by homegrown talent breeds proliferation of big teams and a period of more success, followed by a partially doping-related decline and subsequent revival fuelled by new homegrown talent, then maybe Germany has something to look forward to. Because they're clearly at the bottom of the same cycle, though they seem to have compressed the whole timeline by a decade or so.

  • OK, enough about the Dutch. What else is up with the Roubaix start list? Well, Astana’s not invited. We could rattle on and on about that, but really, is it that shocking for Astana not to get invited to an ASO event anymore? You could argue that they don’t have the chops for the big classics, but that’s a hard argument to make when they’re stocked with Eastern Europeans and Euskaltel is on the start list. More politics, I suppose, but who has time to unravel all the overlapping and conflicting motivations at this point?

  • You know who did get a Roubaix invite? Androni-Giacottoli. I’m sure they’re nice enough fellows, but the selection seems like an odd one. First, Italy was well represented already with Lampre and Liquigas, not to mention Pippo Pozzato at Katusha. Italy is a deep cycling country, obviously, so adding another team wasn’t out of the question, and Acqua e Sapone was a fine choice – they’re a mainstay player in the slew of Italian one-day races we talked about last week. But Androni? A look at the roster shows you that, with their standout riders being Michele Scarponi and Jose Serpa, they’re far more cut out for week-long stage races and a shot at the Giro d’Italia than they are for cobblestones. But, what the hell, maybe they’ll surprise. One thing I do know for sure, though, is that for a team sponsored by a European toy company, with all the jazzy fonts and graphics that come with that, they could have had a much better jersey design.

  • Longtime readers know I like Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia), either because of or in spite of his mouth, I haven’t decided which. But now it looks like his mouth is costing him a good shot at a Milan-San Remo repeat, as he was sidelined for much of the early season with what are being described as “severe dental problems.” And as sorry as I am that Cav will be a bit behind on form tomorrow, when a British rider is sidelined with dental problems, that’s a stereotype so good I can’t resist pointing it out. To our British readers who are scrapping me from their feeds right now, I kid because I love. After all, it’s not like the United States has never had a rider fall prey to a stereotypical American malady, like, say, being shot, or becoming a crack addict.

  • Finally, Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis). Wow. West Vlaanderen, GP Samyn, and the Nokere-Koerse all in a row, all at 21 years old. It’ll be interesting to see how he does at Roubaix, but unfortunately, after falling out of the top tier and losing reliable names like Chavanel and Nuyens, Cofidis isn’t getting much love north of the border, so we won’t get to see how he stacks up to the Ronde and Gent-Wevelgem.

Almost as Good as Homemade

Courtesy RCS

With the Montepaschi Strade Bianche, held last weekend over the spring hills of Tuscany, Italian organizer RCS has managed to pull off an almost unthinkable feat – they’ve managed to create an instant classic. In a sport that places a premium on history and longevity – a sport where, after 40+ years, the Amstel Gold Race still struggles to be taken as seriously as its older siblings – the Montepaschi is inching its way towards premier status after only four short years of professional existence.

No, victory in the Montepaschi won’t soon be held in the same esteem as a win in the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix. That part will still take time – a lot of time, if it ever happens at all. But a victory earned over the Montepaschi’s gravel white roads is fast becoming a desirable entry in classics riders’ palmares. That desirability comes from the inherent value of winning a tough, interesting race, but it also comes from the high profile that a tough, interesting race garners in the press. And the Montepaschi has garnered media attention in spades. To illustrate, we’ll note that despite its stature in the eyes of fans, the race is rated a 1.1 on the UCI scale. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but consider that this season Italy will also host 26 other UCI 1.1 races:

G.P. Costa degli Etruschi (2/6)
Trofeo Laigueglia (2/20)
Clasica Sarda Olbia-Pantogia (2/28)
Giro del Friuli (3/3)
Giro dell’Appennino (4/25)
G.P. Industria & Artigianato (5/1)
Giro della Toscana (5/2)
Memorial Marco Pantani (6/5)
G.P. Nobili Rubinetterie, Coppa Papa’ Carlo (6/19)
G.P. Nobili Rubinetterie, Coppa Citta di Stresa (6/20)
Trofeo Matteotti (8/1)
G.P. Industria & Commercio Artigianato Carnaghese (8/5)
G.P. Camaiore (8/7)
Coppa Agostoni (8/18)
G.P. Banca di Legnano – Coppa Bernocchi (8/19)
Trofeo Melinda (8/21)
Giro del Veneto (8/28)
Coppa Placci (9/4)
Giro della Romagna (9/5)
Giro del Lazio (9/11)
Giro di Sicilia (9/12)
Memorial Cimurri (9/18)
G.P. Industria & Commercio di Prato (9/19)
Memorial Viviana Manservisi (9/25)
Coppa Sabatini (10/7)
G.P. Beghelli (10/10)

Now, you’ve probably heard of a few or even most of those. You might even know the past winners of a couple of them, particularly those that precede the Giro d' Italia or those that the Italian national team uses as tune-ups for the World Championships. But how many of those races have garnered previews, team statements, tech features, and day-of coverage complete with photo galleries? Not many, and for English speakers at least, coverage is usually limited to a bit of AFP-esque text highlighting the need-to-know details and little else. And at home in cycling-rich Italy, domestic 1.1 races sometimes warrant only six or so column inches in the mighty Gazetta dello Sport. And a lot of those races are old enough to be your father.

So what accounts for the love-at-first-sight appeal of the Montepaschi, and why have you seen so much more about it than, say, the 64-year-old Trofeo Matteoti? In crafting their recipe for an instant classic – altering the usual classics ingredients a bit to adjust for the absence of leavening time – the Montepaschi organizers did a lot of things right. Obviously, there are the gravel roads, Tuscany’s ubiquitous “strade bianche” that make up 60 kilometers of the 190 kilometer route and form the backbone of the race’s identity. They certainly give the race an immediate leg up on some more conventional competition, but while including crappy roads might seem like an autostrada to instant credibility, if treated ham-handedly they could have just be seen as a gimmicky, overindulgent effort to manufacture enough uniqueness to get people talking. But the Montepaschi’s organizers handled their signature element with care. They didn’t overdo the number of gravel roads, and didn’t throw in anything eye-poppingly dangerous. (And if you’ve been to Tuscany, you know there are options available for that.) As a result, they ended up with a tough but credible race, not a circus act.

By using the strade bianche, RCS also embraced a course feature that’s native to the region the race traverses. They didn’t make the mistake of hunting down misfit scraps of cobbles to mimic Roubaix or venture out to some coastal capi to cash in on Milan-San Remo’s intellectual property. Like the rest of the Chianti region it passes through, the race recognizes the value of terroir and embraced the local flavors that the hills and roads of the region have to offer. Those flavors add an air of authenticity and timelessness to the race despite its youth, and having the finish in Siena's iconic Piazza del Campo, site of the Palio horse race, doesn't exactly hurt, either.

RCS also had enough confidence in their concept to let it stand on its own merit. Granted, I haven’t reviewed all the literature, but I’ve never seen them promote it as “Italy’s Paris-Roubaix” or “just as tough as Roubaix.” When you’re promoting a new race with bits of questionable roadway divided into sectors, it can be tough to avoid those words parting your lips, but RCS is experienced enough to know that those sorts of phrases just immediately admit (and advertise) inferiority and lack of confidence in your race. Of course, as the organizer of the Giro d’ Italia, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, and the Giro d’ Lombardia among others, RCS probably isn’t lacking for confidence in their ability to put on a good race. But you have to believe that there might be just a bit of a chip on their shoulder when they know their events will be compared to ASO properties like Roubaix, Fleche Wallone, and Liege. Fortunately, they feel good enough about their efforts at the Montepaschi to avoid making overambitious comparisons. It's OK to reference Roubaix or Flanders for your rough-road ride with friends, but for a professional race with serious ambitions, it's a no-no (Hel van het Mergelland, I'm looking at you).

Finally, RCS scored the perfect calendar spot for the Montepaschi, slotting it in a week after classics riders really get their heads in the game at Het Niewsblad and Kuurne and a week before they tune up for Milan-San Remo by riding Tirreno-Adriatico. The Montepaschi does face some competition from the simultaneous Dreidaagse van West-Vlaanderen in Belgium – which could siphon off some of the considerable home classics talent from that country – but at this time of the year, many riders will still be eyeing opportunities to head south. The Vuelta a Murcia also overlaps, but that’s far more relevant to the stage race crew. So, like Het Nieuwsblad, while the Montepaschi might not be a primary season target for many riders, organizers will still get a motivated group of relevant riders on rising form to attend. Perhaps most importantly from a calendar perspective, RCS didn’t overreach by trying to insert itself in the heart of classics season – like between San Remo and the rescheduled Gent-Wevelgem, or just after Liege. Though it might look like a more prestigious spot to the naked eye, trying to gatecrash a late March or April time slot would likely backfire as top riders pick and choose their targets.

Besides all that, I suppose the fact that RCS also owns La Gazetta dello Sport doesn't do the race's publicity efforts any harm, either. Call it an unfair advantage if you will, but some pretty good races have been founded to sell newspapers.


  • Pointing out above that a large number of Italian UCI 1.1 races are relatively anonymous wasn’t a slight. In fact, I highly recommend them – and their counterparts in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Look, if you’re going to plan a whole vacation around watching bike races, yes, by all means go for the gusto and hit the Gent-Ronde-Roubaix week, the Ardennes week, or the Giro d' Italia. But if you just happen to be banging around Europe on other business, check out the UCI calendar and see what’s going on where you are. Compared with the top races, the UCI 1.1 races are like seeing a great-but-lesser-known band at a small venue instead of a superstar at an arena. The music is still great, you can get a lot closer to the stage, and you’re far more likely to meet the guitarist having a drink at the bar.

  • In writing about the Montepaschi race, how many times has “Strade Bianchi” been typed, only to be corrected to “Strade Bianche”? Or not corrected, as the case may be.

  • Word just came down that first and second place at the U23 Cyclocross Worlds just rang the doping bell at that event. Two brothers, both from Poland. This news manages to go both ways on the stereotype meter, and both ways manage to be bad. On one hand, the news chips away at the somewhat baseless “cyclocross is cleaner” feeling as well as the timeworn “the new generation will be cleaner” mantra, but it also does a hell of a job reinforcing the “Eastern Europeans are all huge dopers” stereotype. Ah well.

  • This is old news, but Gert Steegmans (RadioShack) got blown over in the Paris-Nice prologue and broke a collarbone. Blown over. Now, I know the weather over there hasn’t been peachy lately, and that time trial bikes are a bear in the crosswinds, but at 6 feet 2 inches and 185 pounds, Steegmans isn’t exactly a waif by bike racing standards. So if Steegmans was blown over, I’d expect Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) to be somewhere in Oz, surrounded by Munchkins and oiling up a tin man right now. Ewww, that sounded bad. Anyway, more bad luck for Steegmans, which is a shame. I was looking forward to seeing how he’d do riding in a leadership role at the classics instead of playing second fiddle.

Classic Classics

Sometimes – usually in years when there’s a clear blue sky in Flanders or it’s downright balmy at Roubaix – it can be hard to explain to people where the spring classics get their fearsome reputation. Other times, like last weekend, it’s fairly apparent how these races have become known as the crucible that forges cycling’s hardest men. Of professional cycling’s many and varied “season openers,” the start of the northern classics season is perhaps the most anticipated by fans. With always-questionable weather and courses that traverse some of the sport’s holiest ground, the early Belgian classics provide a more vivid, bracing awakening from the off-season than do the multitude of warm-weather events that now precede them on the calendar. So for those who like to expunge the depths of winter by plunging into a frozen pond instead of by easing into a warm bath, last weekend marked the true start to the cycling season.

While the home fans were likely disheartened by the lack of a Belgian winner, this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad/Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne weekend didn’t disappoint viewers looking forward to some classic classics racing. Tough weather, fate, and the traditional fierceness of the competition ultimately produced winners who for years have hidden in plain sight. Both riders have been a steady presence up north for the better part of a decade but seldom topped the favorites lists, though for decidedly different reasons.

On Saturday, under cold but clear conditions, Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) finally tasted victory at Het Nieuwsblad after netting the second spot in 2007 (when the race was still known as Het Volk) and a third last year. You have to wonder if Flecha felt a little dizzy at he scaled that last steep pitch to the top step of the podium, as he’s not exactly familiar with the altitude. One of a count-them-on-one-hand cadre of Spanish classics specialists, Flecha has consistently been near the front of the big classics for the past five years, scoring a second in Gent-Wevelgem, third at Flanders, and second, third, fourth, and sixth at Paris-Roubaix. Those are extraordinary results for any classics rider, much less a Spanish one, and they’ve been more than enough to get his name chalked on the bookies’ boards with some pretty decent odds. But even though it’s long been apparent that Flecha has the legs to contend, observers had started to wonder if he had the head to win a classic rather than just place or show.

With his win at Het Nieuwsblad, Flecha looks to finally have matched his own strengths with a sense of timing. Though he’s a big, powerful rider with extraordinary force, he’s never going to scalp Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) or Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) in a sprint on the Roubaix velodrome, or win a small-group jumping contest from Nick Nuyens (Rabobank) or Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) on the run-in to Meerbeke. If Flecha was going to bag a big win, he’d have to start his move far enough out to be able to grind away from riders with more punch, and in separating himself from Gilbert, Frederic Guesdon (FdJ), Roy Curvers (Skil-Shimano), and Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma) some 20 kilometers from Gent, he finally got the formula right.

Waiting for the inevitable group-of-five shenanigans to begin in the final kilometers would have sunk Flecha, since despite his strength he doesn’t fare well when winning requires repeated jumps. That scenario would play more to Gilbert’s strong suits, even moreso when Gilbert had teammate Roelandts in the group to help soften things up and close down gaps. So instead of waiting for hesitation to deal him his losing hand, Flecha mustered a single, committed acceleration to create the gap, then relied on his greatest asset – force – to drive at a steady, relentless pace that the chasers simply couldn’t match.

Now, with this season's cobbled classics in the books, we’ll need to wait a month to see if Flecha is able to apply his lessons learned when Boonen, Hushovd, Pozzato, et. al. reach top form for Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, and Roubaix. It’s one thing to pull of that sort of move in the early season over just Gilbert, an aging Guesdon, and the others; it’s another to pull it over on a royal breakaway as you’re rolling up to the Bosberg full-tilt.

Like Flecha, Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Bobbie Traksel (Vacansoleil) wasn’t many people’s top pick, if he was anyone’s pick at all. But unlike Flecha, it’s been a long time since Traksel’s even been considered at the bookie tables. Rabobank signed him to his first pro contract in 2001 at least partly on the strength of a win at the U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Traksel rewarded that faith the next year with a win at Veenendaal-Veenendaal, the Netherlands’ biggest home classic outside of the Amstel Gold Race. But after a quiet 2003 and 2004, Traksel was no longer looking like the Dutch heir to Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker at Rabobank, and he moved across the border to the second division Mr. Bookmaker team in Belgium. He’s remained solidly in the second division from there, riding for various teams directed by Hilaire Van der Schueren -- Palmans in 2007 and the more anonymous P3Transfer-Batavus in 2008 -- and a stage victory and subsequent overall win in the 2008 Dreidaagse van DePanne ensured his place when Van der Schueren created the more fancied Vacansoleil squad in 2009.

While he hasn’t thus far turned out a classics star, Traksel has always been a classics specialist, appearing continuously in the results sheets of the biggest races, always battling, and doing the job in relative anonymity – the definition of the workingman’s pro. He’s been the guy in the early break who’s getting caught just as the TV coverage comes on. He’s been one of those four nameless teammates driving in a steady rotation at the front of the peloton. He’s been the guy getting spit out the back when he’s done with his work.

It’s something nice when things come good for a guy like that – a guy who just keeps plugging away – and maybe it’s that doggedness that let him persevere in the three-man break with Rick Flens (Rabobank) and Ian Stannard (Sky) through miserable conditions that cut the peloton down to just 26 finishers. Riding through a storm so fierce that it killed several people in northern France and earned itself a name, Xynthia, the peloton was split in two within an hour, with 50 riders, including a number of favorites, climbing off a the first feed zone. Once the race hit the hills, it was Traksel who made the selection, attacking with teammate Arnaud Van Groen, whom he later dropped. Fens and Stannard bridged up on the Oude Kwaremont – which is still damn early in that race – and the three fought off respectable chases from Hushovd and Dominique Rollin of Cervelo and Hayden Roulston of HTC-Columbia. Not rattled by the chance of tasting big success for the first time in years, Traksel stayed calm in the finale, jumped at the right moment, and stepped back out of anonymity.

On a final note, Rabobank has long been the classics squad that, while undeniably talented, couldn't quite seem to close the deal, at least not as often as they should have over their long history -- a few Amstel Golds with Dekker and Boogerd, a couple Nokere Koerse with Graeme Brown, and Gent-Wevelgem and a few Brabantse Pijl with Oscar Freire being the most notable. With Rabo alumni taking home both wins in fine stye this weekend, we have to wonder -- is the squad's short classics win column simply (bad) luck of the draw on race day, or is there something wrong in the car or the office?


  • Omloop Het Niewsblad, former Het Volk, holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first European race I ever covered. I freely admit that I was a little blown over at the time, but was saved by Marcel Slagman, then of the Dutch magazine Wieler Revue, who gave me an insiders’ lesson in covering the classics and a hell of a tour of the Flemish hill zone. Seems he’s with Wieler Magazine now, applying the same skills and hopefully continuing to assist the neophytes as they wander past.

  • Tyler Farrar (Garmin) finished a great third place in Het Nieuwsblad, bringing the field sprint home behind Flecha and late escape Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo). Farrar, of course, is no revelation at this point, but it’s still great to see Garmin getting its biggest results with home-grown talent versus hired guns.

  • Though they’ve publically declared their primary goal to be winning the Tour de France with a British rider within a few years, Team Sky has nonetheless recruited what might be, on a rider-by-rider basis, a much better classics team. Given their talent, well publicized budget, and somewhat embarrassing missteps at the Tours of Qatar and Oman, no doubt the pressure was on Flecha to get a big result early to clap some of the wagging jaws in the press and peloton firmly shut. That mission’s obviously been accomplished with his Het Nieuwsblad win, and reinforced by Stannard’s ride at Kuurne. But how much of those performances was due to the team versus individual grit? Has Sky been transformative for Flecha? Is he really getting better support? Or did he just need a change of scenery from Rabobank to anywhere else? Sky will obviously remain one of the major stories throughout the season, with Flecha and Edvald Boassen-Hagen both looking to figure prominently in the plotline of next several months.

  • You have to love Frederic Guesdon. Well, maybe you don't have to love him, but you have to respect him. After winning Paris-Roubaix in 1997, only to have many dismiss it as a fluke, he managed to stay motivated through some lean years of scattered small stage wins before netting the 2006 Paris-Tours for his persistence. Now, at 38 years old and in his 15th year as a professional, he's back again and making the late break at Het Nieuwsblad.

  • Like many, I’m excited for March and April. People will continue to speak of Quick.Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto as the heavy hitters for the classics, and rightfully so. But the truth is, there are more guys capable of a big win than any time in the last decade, and they’re more spread among the teams, ProTour and Pro Continental alike. There’s Boonen, Chavanel, and Devolder at Quick.Step, of course, and Hoste, Roelandts and Gilbert at Omega. Haussler, Klier, and Hushovd at Cervelo. Steegmans and Rosseler at RadioShack. Pozzato at Katusha. Nuyens and Boom at Rabobank. Kroon, Hincapie, Ballan, and Burghardt at BMC. Flecha and Boasson-Hagen at Sky. And others I’ve forgotten, but you get the point.

  • How big a role could fate play in contests of strength and skill amongst highly trained athletes? In road cycling, plenty. Consider that Kuurne featured a course 20 kilometers shorter than intended due to a downed tree on the Cote de Trieu, and was subdivided not once, but twice by trains. Keeps things interesting, no? At least the trains in Flanders tend to be relatively short and quick, not like the 500 car coal trains that lumber through parts of Virginia.

  • Speaking of Virginia, the Service Course spent Sunday at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond. It was a very successful event by all accounts, mine included, and based on what I saw, there should be thousands upon thousands of photos available on the Internet within a matter of days in case you missed it. Since the photographic angle will be well covered, I’ll give a more text-based assessment a bit later in the week.

What Now?

or, Mancebo to Caisse d' Epargne?

What now? That seems to be the question this time of year, as the road cycling world tries to get its post-Tour de France feet underneath it again. The tail end of the season sort of always feels like that – as if, having peaked already for the classics and then the Tour, the sport itself is now hunting for that elusive third peak. If it hits it, through an interesting Vuelta, a great Lombardia, or a nice, hard-fought World Championships road race, the sport goes into winter on a strong note. If not, it just sort of fizzles out, and hopes to get some rest and collect itself during what’s rapidly become a three-week off season.

Time will tell how this year’s third peak goes down, but the immediate “what now” is easy to spot – the Clasica San Sebastian, the first of the late-season classics is coming up on Saturday. (We’ll save the arguments over what makes a classic, and if San Sebastian qualifies for another time. Or have we already done that one?) Overall, the San Sebastian start list is looking like an attempt to wring the last bit of usefulness out of some pretty knackered Tour riders, and I suspect we’ll see a lot of last-minute withdrawals and substitutions before the gun goes off.

Right now, though, they have Contador, some Schlecks, Evans, damn near anyone and everyone who was expected to win a stage at the Tour, and some who even managed to pull it off. But to quote the excellent aviation documentary Airplane!, “that’s not important right now.” What is important, or at least passingly interesting, is that’s start list has Francisco Mancebo starting for Caisse D’Epargne. Which is weird, because he rides for Rock Racing in the United States.

You may remember Mancebo from his head-tilted riding posture, his breakout performance in Operacion Puerto, his subsequent retirement and unretirement, or, most recently, his second-place finish behind teammate and fellow Puerto exile Oscar Sevilla in Oregon’s Cascade Classic. Obviously, a rider of Mancebo’s European palmares still has connections in Spanish cycling, and riders pass through Rock Racing like fat guys through a fast food drive-thru -- desperate, short on cash, and sometimes several times in a single day. So jumping ship to Caisse, even at this strange point in the season wouldn’t be surprising in the least. It might not be legal, but we haven't looked into that part. Before we get too excited, though, according to the Clasica San Sebastian's own start list, Mancebo’s not starting for anyone, though they do have most of Katusha listed as Team Columbia, so despite what you’d think, they hardly seem to be the last word on the matter.

Anyway, I haven’t seen any formal announcement of the sudden transfer. Who knows, maybe the team not getting an invite to the Tour of Missouri was the final straw and Mancebo went looking for teams. Or maybe word of his Tour of California Stage 1 ride trickled back through the European peloton and the Caisse boys decided it’s time to bring him in from the cold. Or maybe it’s just a mistake on CN and it's not happening at all. But this is rumor season, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to get a piece of that action. If Mancebo's move is true, though, I have one more question – does Mancebo's departure mean another former pro/current club rider will get to step back up from the Rock Racing amateur squad? Because I think they'd totally enjoy that.

We've contacted both Rock Racing and Caisse d' Epargne for comment, but haven't received any comment at this point.