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.

Headwinds for Tailwind

The Service Course will be back with, you know, “actual things about bike racing” shortly. Probably tomorrow, in fact. And frankly, the royal we will be glad to get back to that sort of thing and away from this strangely self-imposed Lance Armstrong beat. (Who the hell is the assignment editor here? I need a word with him…) But on the controversy raised yesterday regarding Lance Armstrong’s ownership stake in Tailwind Sports, it seemed to make more sense to strike while the iron was hot if I was going to note it at all. And as much as I’d like to ignore the whole damn mess, the contradictions were so blatant I really can’t help myself.

If you’re not familiar with the whole issue, Joe Lindsey’s article is a good place to get up to speed. If you don’t have time for that, I don’t know what you’re doing here, but here's the crux of the thing: Armstrong yesterday denied ever having owned a stake in Tailwind Sports, the management company that owned and operated the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, with which he won the bulk of his Tours de France. Who, exactly, was running Tailwind has important implications for the federal investigation into the doping allegations made by former USPS rider Floyd Landis, since that company would have been the entity that received and then distributed sponsorship funds from the U.S. Postal Service. Armstrong’s statements yesterday regarding his stake in the company were quickly shown to contradict earlier statements made in his 2005 SCA deposition.

Now, my take? Look, the paper trail will say what it says – there really aren’t new facts being created, and the documentation of the existing facts is already out there. Now it’s just a matter of finding it. In light of the SCA deposition, the believability index doesn’t look favorable for Armstrong at the moment, but I’m sure his various mouthpieces will unleash a veritable maelstrom of obfuscation surrounding various timeline elements and word choices already in play. In that vein, expect to hear about when, exactly, Armstrong’s Tailwind shares were promised and/or issued vis-à-vis the transition from U.S. Postal Service sponsorship to Discovery Channel for the 2005 season, what exactly constitutes “ownership” and what “ownership” means as opposed to “equity stake,” “board member,” or “controlling interest,” and other similar issues. Expect, in short, to hear the near-Clintonian parsing of language that marks any good modern day legal battle. And expect to see a hell of a lot of paper. I remember hearing a World War II, European theater veteran say that what really shocked him about war was the amount of paper blowing around after battle, and while the printed detritus of actual war has probably been reduced by the electronic era, it certainly still litters the landscape of legal battles. Depositions, share certificates, and tax returns are about to be piled on the cashed checks, Sysmex receipts, subpoenas, and transcripts that will begin to form the foundation of the federal investigation.

Underneath all that, though, once you strip away the lawyer talk and the long, long ride down the paper trail, I don’t think there’s any question that Armstrong is being disingenuous about his role in the team. To claim, as he implicitly does in the New York Times article, that he was simply “a rider on the team” who was unaware of what was going on in management and didn't even really know the people who signed his paycheck is patently absurd. Are we honestly to believe that Armstrong had the same amount of sway in the operation of the USPS team as, say, Steffen Kjaergaard, or even Roberto Heras? Does someone who is just “a rider on the team” get to hand-select the team’s new sport director based on some vague interpersonal connection related to near death experiences? A man, Johan Bruyneel, who, at the time, was very recently removed from being a rider himself and had no team management experience? Does “just a rider” get to haul chief directors, mechanics, and soigneurs all over Europe to support their training rides? Yes, very good team leaders do get a lot of sway. But not as much as Armstrong had. Whether his management position was enshrined on paper or not, we’ll see, but it was certainly there in practice.

Leaving aside the laughable “I just work here” claim, Armstrong’s statements on Wednesday attempted to deftly throw aside an enormous body of literature – including numerous articles, books such as Dan Coyle’s Lance Armstrong’s War, and defacto authorized biographies such as John Wilcockson’s Lance – that expounds on Armstrong’s business savvy and his heavy-handed role in the management of his teams. If those portrayals are inaccurate, they’ve been known to Armstrong and repeated, yet left uncorrected, for a number of years. So, in effect, Armstrong has either been dishonest about his role in his teams for 11 years or for a single day and counting, depending on which version of events you believe. Take your pick, really, but with folks involved in the Landis allegations so quick to draw upon the elusive quality of “credibility,” the self-contradiction is probably worth noting.

Whatever finally shakes out from the investigation is still a long way down the road, but yesterday’s statements highlight an interesting element that may play out much sooner: the test of how deep the famed Armstrong loyalty really goes. Nearly all of Armstrong’s oft-cited inner circle had a finger in the Tailwind/CSE pie, and therefore all of them now stand a chance of getting burned by the filling. To extract himself from any culpability those organizations are found to have had, there’s a good chance Armstrong would have to throw the whole pie in the face of guys like Knaggs, Gorski, Stapleton, and maybe even Weisel at some point. Circling back to the root cause of this mess – allegations of doping on the USPS team – giving that group of guys the Bozo treatment could be a risky move for Armstrong, because if he was in fact part of an enormous doping operation, team affiliated or otherwise, chances are at least one those guys knows all about it. And as Landis and others have proved, once people are out of the circle, they get a lot more talkative.

What you end up with in the above scenario starts to looks a lot like the Mutually Assured Destruction principle of the Cold War – everyone has their finger on a button, but everyone’s pretty reluctant to push theirs, because as soon as they do, they other guy will push his, too. And then everyone gets burned up, or at least comes down with an acute case of radiation poisoning. The arrangement keeps everyone nice and friendly, even if they’re not exactly smiling at each other. But I don’t think either side in a hypothetical Tailwind implosion can count on that delicate balance of power keeping things in check in light of a federal investigation, in which investigators can pretty easily tip the scales by offering the appropriate sticks or carrots to one party or the other. Or both. Time will tell, of course, but if “who called the shots at U.S. Postal” becomes a lynchpin of criminal wrongdoing in the investigation, it’s hard to see the most cohesive team in all of cycling staying cohesive much longer. Races to be won has become moot; skins to be saved are the focus now. And stressful though it may be, losing the Tour de France has nothing on going to jail.

Hints and Allegations

Just wanted to do a quick follow-on to yesterday’s post, which wondered, based on admittedly slim evidence, whether or not Francisco Mancebo is planning a jump from Rock Racing to Caisse d’Epargne. Having not heard back yet from either team, we still don’t know for sure whether there’s any truth to the matter or not (though the folks from Rock & Republic did pay the site a visit before ignoring the request). What we do know as of this morning is that Caisse d’ Epargne doesn’t plan to start him in the Clasica San Sebastian either way – they’ve released their roster this morning. Mancebo has also been removed from the start list at as of mid-morning.

Still, doesn’t it seem strange that Mancebo’s name would appear on the start list of Eusebio Unzué’s squad entirely without rhyme or reason? Sure, there’s the fact that his full name is Francisco Mancebo Perez, and the team also boasts a Francisco Perez Sanchez, so I suppose that could cause confusion for someone quickly typing up a start list, especially for someone who has typed most riders' names dozens of times. The problem with that is that in the earlier version of the start list, both Mancebo Perez and Perez Sanchez were listed. (Perez remains listed in Caisse’s official roster of this morning.)

Also counting against the “innocent mistake” argument is the undeniably long and fruitful association between Mancebo and Unzué’s outfits. Mancebo turned professional in 2000 with Banesto, the team with which Unzué directed Miguel Indurain to five Tour de France and two Giro d’ Italia wins. Before that, the team was known as Reynolds, with which Pedro Delgado scored his Tour de France win. In that neo-pro season, Mancebo won the white jersey of the best young rider in the 2000 Tour de France, setting his countrymen to wondering whether he would be the next great Spanish GC hope. Mancebo didn’t turn out to be an overnight Tour candidate, but he followed up that neo-pro season with a number of quality wins, staying on with Unzué as the team morphed into, Illes Balears-Banesto, and finally to Illes Balears-Caisse d’ Epargne. He also made steady progress in his GC placings, capping off his time with Unzué with a personal best 4th place in the 2005 Tour de France and a 3rd place in the Vuelta a Espana.

Following that performance, Mancebo finally left Unzué’s squad (which would become Caisse d’Epargne in 2006) for Ag2r, where he wouldn’t have to compete with an ascendant Alejandro Valverde for team leadership. Shortly after, Mancebo’s number came up in the Operacion Puerto scandal, and he was subsequently prevented from starting the 2006 Tour de France. He announced his retirement from cycling, but mounted a return the following year with the Spanish second-tier Relax-GAM before sliding to the anonymous Fercase-Paredes squad in 2008. In 2009, he signed with the often troubled U.S. Rock Racing squad, where he raced alongside other Puerto refugees Oscar Sevilla and Tyler Hamilton. He’s achieved some reasonable results in that time, including making an impression in several Spanish appearances, but Rock Racing’s continental license doesn’t allow him to compete in the biggest events.

Now, reviewing that history, does it seem like a coincidence that Mancebo’s name would pop up under the Caisse d’ Epargne name? And, does it seem that far fetched to think that, given half a chance, Mancebo wouldn’t get on a flight tomorrow to go back home and ride for a ProTour team and the director who guided him to his biggest successes? The real question lies in what such a move would solve for Unzué.

Unzué’s current leader, Valverde, is already barred from racing in Italy due to his own connections to Operacion Puerto and is now facing the very real prospect of that ban being made international. So Unzué could try to hedge his bets by bringing in an experienced and familiar GC rider. However, should he return to European racing and regain some prominence, Mancebo’s alleged involvement in Operacion Puerto could land him in much the same boat as Valverde, though most non-Italians have seen fit to move on from Puerto at this point. Additionally, if Valverde is benched, Unzué already has some other viable options for getting big results in Joachim Rodriguez and Luis Leon Sanchez, both of whom are younger than Mancebo and haven’t been several years removed from top-flight racing. So as a Valverde-substitute, Mancebo doesn’t make the most sense at this point.

The other reason for bringing back Mancebo could relate to this week’s biggest rumor mill, namely the question over where Alberto Contador (Astana) may ride next year. Should Contador jump ship, he’ll want assurances of a team that can back him up, and Mancebo could add some value to Caisse as a potential support rider in the grand tours.

Taking all that into account, it looks as if, in the event that Mancebo does land back under Unzué’s wing, the reason is likely to be more personal than sporting. Regardless of the reasoning though, Mancebo still seems to have what it takes to hold his own in Europe, and could produce a few more profitable seasons under proven leadership.

[Note: If you've read this far, please do read the followup here.]

The Perpetual Neo-Pro

Can it be that Thomas Voeckler (BBox) is really 30 years old? Voeckler turned professional in 2000 at the age of 20, but only entered the broader public consciousness with his stint in the yellow jersey during the 2004 Tour. The product of a fifth stage giveaway break with no true contenders, Voeckler’s scrappy and surprising defense of that jersey for ten days, and the white jersey for four more, made him the talk of the Tour, especially as the GC was largely believed to be a foregone conclusion. Voeckler has never been a GC contender at the Tour, a fact he likely knows better than anyone, but that’s never kept him from seeking out more modest successes in July. In 2005, he grabbed the polka-dot jersey for a day, and last year, he nabbed that jersey again, this time holding onto it for several early stages. But yesterday, Voeckler finally grabbed the prize he wanted – his first Tour de France stage win. And to be honest, he doesn’t look to have aged a day since 2004.

Since that 2004 Tour, Voeckler has taken hold of the “scrappy underdog” label he earned there and parlayed it into a career as France’s lovable little brother of the peloton, a marked cultural break from that country’s prior love affair with the far oilier visage of Richard Virenque. To play the role to perfection, Voeckler has always carefully ensured that he has his heart firmly and self-consciously tacked to his sleeve and a slightly pained, earnestly Boy Scout-ish “I’m really trying my best” expression slapped across his mug whenever the going gets remotely rough. If it weren’t for the layer of stubble that occasionally appears on his chin, a close-up of his pain face could easily be mistaken for a junior taking his first road race ass-kicking.

While the facial contortions always seemed a bit contrived to me, they've certainly seemed to help Voeckler’s public image. But I’d also argue that his image has masked what has been a solidly good – if not flashy – professional career. By the time he wore yellow, he had already won the overall and two stages at the 2003 Tour of Luxembourg as well as the 2004 French national championship, along with a few more minor races. A quiet 2005 followed his Tour breakout, but since then he’s amassed a steady stream of wins in short French stages races, including the overall at the 2006 Route du Sud, the 2007 Tour du Poitou Charentes and the KOM at Paris-Nice, the 2008 Circuit de la Sarthe, and the 2009 Tour du Haut Var and Étoile de Bessèges. He’s also racked up a few stage wins, as well as solid French Cup wins in the 2007 Grand Prix Plouay, the 2008 Grand Prix de Plumelec, and the 2009 Trophèe des Grimpeurs.

No, it’s not the palmares of a superstar, littered with monuments and grand tours, but at 30 years old and in his 10th year in the professional ranks, Thomas Voeckler is no longer the aw-shucks-just-glad-to-be-here caricature of youthful enthusiasm he used to be. He’s a guy who knows how to win bike races, wrapped in the skin of a neo-pro. But while he’s getting older, and better, his expression (a genuine one this time) at yesterday’s finish showed that he still has his enthusiasm for the Tour, and for taking a chance for the big payoff, and I’m glad he finally got it. And when he finally retires – I’m guessing at age 36, at least – it will still come as a shock, if only because we won’t want to believe we’ve aged so much since little Tommy Voeckler wore yellow.

Charlie Don’t Surf

And Leipheimer Don’t Jump

Cyclists have as many words for minutely different types of strength as Eskimos do for different types of snow, but a professional rider’s specialty, and their success at it, often boils down to whether they’re very, very fast for a short time, or just very fast but for a longer time. To try to figure out which a rider is, you can phrase the question any number of ways: Is he a climber or a time trialist? Is he fast, or is he strong? Is he a sprinter or a classics rider? Is he a turbo, or a diesel? The questions vary slightly, depending on whether we’re in classics season or in the midst of the grand tours, but they’re all looking for the answer to the same equation – where, on the spectrum between what we’ll call “fast” and what we’ll call “strong,” does he fall?

(Yes, indeed, we’re oversimplifying, but for a reason. There are finer distinctions, of course, depending on terrain and roles – though both short and very, very fast, a sprinter’s violent acceleration is differently calibrated than a pure climber’s stabbing attack, for instance. But where a rider sits on the spectrum compared to rivals within his specialty can tell you a good bit about how a race will likely go down.)

Different specialties within the sport require different balances of power – those often vague waypoints on the fretless fast-strong continuum. And to keep things interesting, the balance points aren’t necessarily static – some riders are able to sacrifice the “jump” needed for a bunch sprint for the mystical “force” required for the cobbles, others can barter “explosiveness” in the hills for the “strength” needed for a flat 40k time trial. Sometimes it happens through training, sometimes it just seems to come with age, sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, but as every rider knows, you can’t have it all at once. Nobody knows that better than GC riders, who slide around the continuum more than most, trying to find that sweet spot that will bag them a grand tour title.

As with anything, there are limits – no rider who is naturally bent too far towards one end of the spectrum can hope to force himself very far towards the other side, no matter how hard he works at it. You can’t fight nature, and they can only seek their best achievable balance. For GC riders’, the specially tailored version of the fast-strong continuum is labeled, at either end, “attacking climber” and “time trial monster.” The reality is that mostly, GC riders are very good at both, often among the top riders in either specialty. But they’re always a little bit, or in some cases, a lot, farther towards one end or the other. The best reach a high white note of balance that lets them make and match the killing accelerations in the mountains and also slay their opponents against the clock. The names of those who achieve it are written in the recordbooks, but more numerous in those same books are the names of those who simply came closer to the balance than the competition on hand.

Which brings us to the point of today’s sermon: Leipheimer don’t jump. That, of course, is not news, and to his credit he’s always been remarkably open about it. The real question was, at what point would Leipheimer’s best attainable spot on the continuum – the one that lets him be very strong in the TTs and climb fast and steady, but not match any sort of acceleration – come to be seen not as a “vulnerability,” but as the absolute, immutable roadblock that would forever prevent him from achieving a grand tour win? I’d say that point was reached on Stage 16 of this year’s Giro d’ Italia, from Pergola to Monte Petrano. Earlier, I’d speculated that this stage would see those who could throw down sharp attacks do so, and then we’d see if a Leipheimer/Armstrong tandem could diesel their way back up in time to save their day. The first part happened, with Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) opening the attacks. Danilo DiLuca (LPR) and pink jersey Denis Menchov (Rabobank) sprang away in pursuit, preserving their GC spots from the surprising and sudden danger presented by a very sharp Sastre. Leipheimer, well, he didn’t. As he always does, he rallied a bit and rode a great tempo up the remainder of the final climb, but so did everyone else of importance. The problem was, with those opening salvos in the initial kilometers of the climb, the minutes he needed had already gone up the road, and while his climbing tempo is fast, it isn’t that fast.

Leipheimer is obviously out of contention now for the Giro, but why say that his lack of acceleration will be the roadblock to any future grand tour success? Well, for obvious reasons, I’m guessing he won’t get much of a chance at freedom in the Tour de France. And, in the unlikely event that he chooses to ride a three grand tour season, anathema to Americans, he’d just close out the year at what may be the biggest festival of acceleration you could ask for – the Vuelta. Though he’s come closer there than elsewhere, with Alberto Contador (Astana) potentially doubling up, a healthy Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) possibly back in action, and about a dozen other jumpy Spanish climbers hopping around like jackrabbits, it doesn’t seem like the best opportunity. Of course, those guys can’t usually time trial, so there you go again… But after the Vuelta, time just keeps marching on, if you know what I mean.

Leipheimer’s not the first victim of getting caught at that damning spot on the continuum, of course. Look at Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), for one. And indeed, for years of Tours de France, the point on the spectrum where both find themselves wasn’t a bad spot to be in at all. In the Armstrong era, grinding, not explosiveness, seemed to be the key to victory, or at least contention. Alex Zulle, Jan Ullrich, Joseba Beloki, Andreas Kloden? All fantastic time trialists and strong climbers, but explosive high-mountain riders were never among the true challengers, though Iban Mayo looked to be for a very short time. And in those sorts of races, Leipheimer probably would have a fair shot (critics will, rightfully, point out that he had leadership of both Rabobank and Gerolsteiner during those years and failed to produce, though I’d argue longer experience has been key to his recent successes). Now, though, the formula for Tour candidates seems to be changing, with more snappy mountain riders making bigger impressions on the overall – riders like Contador, Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), and, obviously Sastre. With his ride in the Giro, Menchov seems to be only one of the riders from the traditional mold to approach the high white note – seemingly sitting on the perfect balance of speed in the mountains and strength against the clock. Basso also had it once, whether he will again remains to be seen.

Race Radio
  1. All this coverage of the short climbing stage to Blockhaus, and not a single picture of the actual World War II German-built bunker at the top? Come on. As a former history major and the son of an architect, I was all set to combine my love of cycling with gawking at a bit of history and some early inspiration for brutalist architecture. Oh well -- I suppose the lack of photos has something to do with the top 3k or so of the climb being snowed in. The stage itself was certainly brutal for its length, with Carlos Sastre sinking again just as fast as he’d risen on Monday, Armstrong looking rough, and DiLuca making Menchov look winded for the first time in awhile. Good on Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) for winning, and for recognizing his narrow speciality – freak stages.

  2. DiLuca continues to impress with his ability to grovel for seconds wherever he can, attacking Menchov on the Blockhaus finish and grabbing himself another 13 seconds on GC. While his true chances are very slim, the way he’s riding, I’m not ready to count him out quite yet. Unrealistic? Maybe, but to put it in the typical language of non-native English speaking riders, he “likes to make a show for the fans.” I like that.

  3. Will Menchov become the first rider to be both awarded and stripped of a grand tour win as the result of a doping scandal? Unfortunately, maybe. As is our (young, ever-evolving) policy here at the SC, we’ll just keep writing about the performances like they’re real, until someone with some sort of authority tells us they’re not with some degree of credibility.

  4. You know you’re in the waning days of a grand tour when you start looking at the other jerseys. Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick.Step) and Francesco Masciarelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo) are locked in a battle for the young rider jersey, with the surprising Masciarelli only two minutes adrift. The Italian looks to be on the upswing, so tomorrow’s finish atop Vesuvio could be his chance. On the other hand, Belgium must be excited about the prospect of a new GC contender in Seeldraeyers, since things haven’t been working out too well for them on that front for the past 30 years or so. Like the battle for pink, it's a two-man game, with the next rider something like 15 minutes down.

  5. In the mountains classification, former Giro winner Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) looks to have things all sewn up, even if his country hates him for outsprinting DiLuca for second place on the Blockhaus stage (thus eating bonus seconds DiLuca could have used). Whatever – Garzelli wanted the points, and I’m glad to see he’s found something to do in his dotage. Beats playing bocce.

  6. Speaking of Garzelli’s success, is it feeling a little old in here, or is it just me? I mean, Garzelli, Sastre, DiLuca, Menchov, Leipheimer? What’s happened to riders in their late 20s, the alleged peak of grand tour prowess? Mick Rogers (Columbia), at 7:05 back isn’t flying the flag terribly high.

  7. On a non-Giro note, I’ll be providing some straight-up, button down, race coverage reportage for VeloNews for this weekend’s Air Force NRC races in Arlington, Virginia. That’s the Clarendon Cup crit (former CSC Invitational, former U.S. Postal something-or-other, and originally…the Clarendon Cup) on Saturday, and the Air Force Cycling Classic circuit race on Sunday. Say hello if you see me.

Yes, He is That Good

And he's getting better.

Besides collarbones, their associated maladies, and Silence-Lotto’s shocking and continued inability to win bike races, the big news this past week was Mark Cavendish’s (Columbia) allegedly unexpected win in Milan-San Remo on Saturday. The guy’s clearly the fastest sprinter out there, so the win was really only a surprise because popular wisdom dictated that Cavendish wouldn’t make it over the late climbs in any shape to unleash his remarkable sprint. After all, that much-vaunted wisdom holds that San Remo can only be won by a veteran mountain goat – you know, like Alessandro Petacchi (2005) or Mario Cipollini (2002). So much for that…

Now, I’m not claiming Cavendish has the best history when the road goes uphill, but he’s hardly another incarnation of Ivan Quaranta, that other trackie-turned-road-sprinter who continually paid homage to his roots by being unable to ascend anything with more altitude than the boards of the Vigorelli. Cavendish has never come close to that lack of climbing prowess, except for possibly his first year in the big leagues, so some of the more vocal criticisms of his climbing that circulated in the past weeks seemed a bit overstated. That said, you can’t discount Cavendish’s history in the hills entirely. He did need things to break his way to have a shot at the Milan-San Remo title, and they did – the ascents of the Cipressa and Poggio were markedly more sedate than they have been in recent years, with fewer hard-hitting attacks to unship the faster-twitch members of the group, Cavendish included. But many, if not most races are won by riders who just happened to have things fall their way. Just look at last year’s San Remo.

Despite the fact that races are always won partly by virtue of the cards dealt by others, some observers will doubtlessly use this year’s lack of aggression on the climbs to denigrate Cavendish’s San Remo win, and I’ve already seen a few instances of the “come on, is he really that good?” and “well, he’s no Boonen/ McEwen/ Cipollini/ Abdujaparov/ Kelly/ Altig/ Van Steenbergen” thrown out there. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how Cavendish got off on the wrong foot with so much of the public. Sure, he’s made some bold statements regarding his abilities, but he is, after all, 22 years old and very, very fast. And it’s tough to ignore the fact that he hasn’t made a statement yet that he hasn’t lived up to.

I do think that people, particularly older people, fail to fully or accurately account for his age when observing his off-the-bike words and deeds, which seems to weigh heavily and unfairly on their ability to judge whether he’s a good bike rider or not. Simply put, not many of us in our 30s, 40s, and beyond hang out with people just cracking open their second decade, and there’s a reason – it’s just too hard to relate. Many of the defining contexts of our lives are simply too different, and even if we could have, in our younger years, related to that person, we've long since forgotten how. So it's not surprising that he's rubbed some people the wrong way, but in the post San Remo press conference, Cavendish sounded downright reasonable, even to those of us in our dotage. I suppose some will find passing Cipollini while pedaling one-legged in the Tour of California prologue offensive, but that was last year, and c’mon, that’s pretty damn funny. Almost Cipollini-esque, if you will.

It’s too bad if old folks don’t care much for young Cavendish, because it’s that very age issue that really made Cavendish’s win on Saturday something special, not the fact that he got over the hills. At 22, he’s the third youngest winner of the race, after Ugo Agostoni in 1914 (when most people were four feet tall and only lived to be 26, anyway) and a young standout named Merckx, who first won it during the years when an iPod was called a hi-fi, and then a few times later when it was called a stereo. That young men make better sprinters than old men is no secret, so it might seem that San Remo should play to a younger demographic. But what young men don’t often do well is cross the 200k mark, that invisible line that separates stage victories and semi-classics from classics and monuments. Granted, Boonen seems to have been born with the ability to do, but Philippe Gilbert just broke through it last year at Paris-Tours, and he’s 26. Sylvain Chavanel just got there last year as well at 29. Some guys never get there. So for Cavendish to cut from stage wins and semi-classics straight to muscling through San Remo’s 298k is remarkable for such young legs.

Another important distinction Cavendish shares with Merckx and few others is that that he won San Remo his first attempt. As numerous pros have pointed out in countless pre-race interviews over the years, experience counts in the classics. Knowing every little twist, turn, up, and down is a decided advantage, and it usually takes a few years of run-throughs at race speed to get the combination down. Again, some guys never do. There are, however, several things you can do to help mitigate a lack of experience – listening to people that have the experience to help you, and maintaining a laser-like focus on your target and what you need to do to reach it. Neither of those are activities that come naturally to the young, but according to Columbia teammate Mike Barry, Cavendish did both on his way to his first classic win. He also proved that he can keep his head when things don’t go down in clockwork bunch sprint fashion, like when Haussler (Cervelo) inadvertently gapped his own sprinter and the field, forcing Cavendish to jump a bit earlier than he usually does. All of which point to a maturity, on the bike at least, beyond his years.

So will Cavendish ever have the breadth of wins of a Sean Kelly, or ride the cobbles like Boonen? Maybe not. But if you’re talking about winning bunch sprints, which is what he’s really trying to do, there’s no better bet for your money.

Is he better than Cipollini? Better than Jalabert? Who gives a shit – they’re retired.

Does he have their style, their grit? Do you like him? Well, those are all judgment calls, and I can’t make them for you.

Is he good? That good? Yes, he is that good. Especially if you remember we’re talking about professional bicycle racing, not whether you want to have dinner and a snuggle with him.


All the above is old news, of course, and I probably should have posted it earlier in the week. Anyway, on to this weekend's Belgian fun -- the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (a.k.a., E3 Harelbeke, a.k.a. GP E3) on Saturday and the Brabantse Pijl (a.k.a. the Brabant Arrow) on Sunday. One's on the Flemish end of things, the other's in the more neutral territory around Brussels, but they're everyone's last chance to grapple for protected status at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen on April 5. My bet's on Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) for E3 (since he doesn't look to be riding the Brabantse Pijl). I'm not sure I've ever seen someone ride as well in the spring with so little to show for it.

Pride of Wallonia

Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) led Sunday’s brief rider protest at Paris-Nice, taking the podium along with first and second placeholders Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2r) to denounce the utterly inappropriate treatment of Kevin Van Impe (Quick.Step) at the hands of dope testers (see below). Spearheading such an effort is indicative of Gilbert’s recent ascendancy in the peloton, both in terms of stature among the riders as well as his prowess on the road in the five years he has been a professional. Now a two-time winner of Het Volk, Gilbert is a known threat and is among the riders to watch for a win in the upcoming cobbled classics.

What’s notable about Gilbert is not that he’s a solid classics rider from Belgium, but in which part of Belgium he’s from. Gilbert, now 25 years old, hails from Verviers, some 30 kilometers east along the E40/E42 from Liege. In other words, Gilbert is a Walloon, not a Flandrien. The French-speaking residents of Belgium’s southern sector have never shared the same love of and success at bicycle racing as their Flemish-tongued northern cousins, though the region has produced a few notable riders as well as La Doyenne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Maybe it’s the hillier terrain, or the relative lack of storied cobbled bergs that makes the Walloons more prone to soccer-playing than cycling. Or maybe it’s that the “Rooster of Wallonia” doesn’t conjure up the same heroic medieval imagery as the “Lion of Flanders” title applied to great Flemish cyclists.

During a trip to assist with VeloNews coverage of the Ardennes classics (Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege) in 2005, I sat down to chat a bit about Walloon cycling with Christophe Brandt (then Lotto-Davitamon, now Silence-Lotto), who hails from Liege, as well as his teammate Axel Merckx. The resulting article, which never ran, appears below. The information in the article has not been updated since – most notably, Merckx the younger is now retired, and Maxime Monfort now rides for Cofidis.

Le Minority Report
Liege, Belgium

When asked on one occasion whether he considered himself Flemish or a Walloon, Eddy Merckx famously answered, “I’m a Belgian,” and left it at that. In doing so, he may have avoided a civil war between Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country, and Wallonia, the French-speaking south. Both were anxious to claim the great champion, who hailed from Brussels suburb Woluwe-St. Lambert. The capital city straddles the line between the two regions and afforded Merckx his diplomatic, if ambiguous, answer.

Though of similar size geographically, Flanders dominates the deeply divided country, both economically and culturally—a dominance that has historically extended to cycling as well. Despite hosting two of the most prestigious spring classics, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, famous Walloon cyclists are hard to come by—1984 world champion Claude Criquelion was the region’s last great champion, and he retired in 1991. In fact, when most cycling fans think of Belgian cycling, the images that spring to mind are almost exclusively Flemish—the cobbled bergs, fanatic fans, black and yellow rampant lion flags, and surnames often beginning with “Van” or “De.”

With the weight of history against it, Wallonia may never surpass or even rival its northern neighbor in producing top-level cyclists. But Walloon cycling is on an upswing, both in numbers and results.

“Now just in Liege we have six or seven professional riders,” says Christophe Brandt, a 27-year old from Liege riding for Davitamon-Lotto. “So we try to train together, but this is the first year we have so many. There are three young guys who have just become professionals this year. I guess you can say we don’t have so many riders, but we have good quality riders.”

Brandt, together with 22-year-olds Philippe Gilbert (Francaise Des Jeux) and Maxime Monfort (Landbouwdrediet-Colnago), are part of a crop of young Walloon riders just beginning to make an impact in the professional ranks. Already in 2005, Gilbert has won the Tour du Haut Var and the second stage of the Tour of the Mediterranean, while Monfort won the first stage and placed second overall Frenchman Freddy Bichot (Cofidis) at the Etoile de Besseges. In 2004, Monfort also took the overall at the Tour of Luxembourg.

Currently, there are only 15 or so Walloons in the professional peloton, compared with over 80 for neighboring Flanders. But with Wallonia offering good roads, little traffic, and miles of rolling hills to train on, why does Flanders dominate its French-speaking countrymen, both in numbers of professionals and results?

“We have less culture of the bicycle sports. In Wallonia, we are more for football and everything like that,” explains Brandt. “If you want to become a rider in Belgium you have to go to Flanders to make the races and to learn to race.”

Brandt readily admits that the cycling-mania that grips Flanders’ fields year-round doesn’t extend to his corner of the country. “People like the big races. The little races, they aren’t so concerned with, so they only come for the big races. They only come for Fleche, Liege, and the Tour de France last year. But for the rest of the year, they don’t have so much interest in bicycling.”

Surprisingly, Brandt’s own family was no different. “The first time I went to see a race was Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I live six kilometers from the start. I come from a family that wasn’t interested in bicycles, but every year at this moment of the season, they go to see as a family Liege-Bastogne-Liege. That’s because, I don’t know, it’s something special. Every person living in Liege goes to see Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They don’t know the racers, they have no interest in racing, but they go to see the riders at Liege.”

Though he thus far lacks the victories of his younger compatriots—the high point of his palmares is a solid 14th place at the 2004 Giro D’Italia—Brandt showed this year that he may be the most likely to bring a win to the home team in the Wallonia’s Ardennes classics. Eighteenth at the Amstel Gold Race and 15th at Fleche Wallonne just prior, Brandt was clearly on good form for the race he holds above all others, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

While Gilbert would retire early, and Monfort would ride to a relatively anonymous 70th place, Brandt was active throughout. He set off with three others over the 11 percent slopes of the Cote de Saint-Roch in pursuit of a five-man break. Though that move would be brought back quickly, Brandt was active again on the Cote de Sprimont, 29 kilometers from the finish in Ans, attacking a 30-strong chase group stacked with heavy-hitters and cresting the climb third behind leaders Vinokourov and Voigt.

He arrived in Ans in 16th position, 1:04 down on the winner, but no doubt thinking of next year. Brandt is proof positive that, though the public may not be as fanatic as they are in Flanders, Walloon riders value their own native classics every bit as highly as Flemish riders do the Ronde Van Vlaanderen or the Omloop Het Volk.

“I think I can fall dead if I win Liege,” says Brandt. “I’m from Liege. If I can win this race it’s the most beautiful thing I can reach in my sport. Also, it’s not a little race, so you have to be really, really good. But if it happens, I think it’s like a dream. It’s more than a dream.”

As for the Merckx question, it remains unanswered to this day, and Eddy’s son Axel (Davitamon-Lotto) isn’t giving away any of the family secrets. “I’m from the same place—I’m from Belgium first,” says Merckx the younger. “I was born in Brussels, and I don’t think of myself as French-speaking or Flemish-speaking, I just think of myself as a Brussels guy.” The two regions remain, as they did in Eddy Merckx’s day, culturally and linguistically divided, but at the very least, they’ll both always have Eddy.

Out of the Shadows

A number of cycling’s stars have served apprenticeships of sorts, riding in service of established champions, if only briefly, before coming into their own as race winners. With two World Championships, two Lombardia, a Milan-San Remo, two Liege-Bastogne-Liege, an Olympic gold medal, and three World Cup overall victories now under his belt, it’s easy to forget that a young Paolo Bettini once served as an errand boy for Michelle Bartoli in the days of the Mapei superteam. It’s easier to remember Greg Lemond’s tumultuous tutelage by Bernard Hinault at La Vie Claire, a time fraught with infighting and accusations but which, for better or worse, enhanced the legends of both men. No matter how memorable, cycling is riddled with such relationships – even its grand champion, Eddy Merckx, rode for Tom Simpson in his early days.

Recently, it seems another rider is emerging from the shadow of his leader, as Gert Steegmans, one of Tom Boonen’s key Quick-Step helpers, continues a string of good performances dating back to the 2007 season. At the 2007 Tour de France, Steegmans was dutifully leading Boonen out for the sprint at the rising finish in Gent, but when Boonen was unable to come around, Steegmans closed the deal himself, and riding into his best career result and the spotlight. He followed that up with two stages and the overall at the Circuit Franco-Belge. Over the past week, he has taken advantage of riding Paris-Nice for himself by netting two stage wins, one at Nevers and a second in terrible conditions at Belleville. His current freedom comes courtesy of Boonen riding the overlapping Tirrenno-Adriatico in Italy, which Boonen and almost everyone else views as better preparation for Milan-San Remo.

Despite Steegmans’ recent emergence as his own man, the relationship between Boonen and Steegmans isn’t quite as paternal as some of those cited above. In fact, the two are eerily similar in many respects. Both Belgians, the pair were born in 1980 only 15 days and 40 kilometers apart in Flanders – Boonen in slightly more northern Mol, Steegmans in neighboring Hasselt. According to their official stats, Boonen is a mere two centimeters taller than Steegmans, though the latter is heavier by two kilograms. Both riders’ physiques, somewhat towering by cycling standards, put them squarely in the classics mold. Both excel on the cobbles and bergs of their native Flanders, and in hard sprints at the end of heavy kilometers.

Though Steegmans is actually the elder of the two, he turned professional a year later, riding another year in the amateur ranks after riding as a stagiare with the Domo-Farm Frites squad of Peter Van Petegem in 2001. While Boonen surprisingly signed his first contract with U.S. Postal back in 2002 before jumping to Quick-Step in 2003, Steegmans went straight to a home team, signing for Lotto-Domo in 2003. During four seasons at Lotto, Steegmans forged himself a reputation as a hard man, and gravitated towards the role of shepherding Lotto sprinter Robbie McEwen towards the sprints. He was so successful in his domestique role that Boonen requested him for Quick-Step, where Steegmans signed on for 2007.

Their palmares reflect the roles each of them has played over their careers. Boonen, always the star since his breakout third-place performance in the muddy 2002 Paris-Roubaix, had notched some 84 wins by the end of 2007, including three as a neo-pro. By contrast, Steegmans counted only 17 wins prior to this season, and had to wait two years before first throwing his arms in the air at a stage of the 2005 Tour of Picardie.

Tom Boonen’s star is likely still on the rise, as much as it can be said to be “rising” after already capturing two Tours of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the World Championship. But there’s no doubt that Steegmans is only getting better, and, given their similarities as riders, Boonen may soon face competition from his lieutenant on the northern cobbles and in the stage race sprints. Steegmans and Boonen, at 27 years old, are only now entering their prime years as classics riders, if we’ve learned anything from the careers of Johan Museeuw and Van Petegem. It’s reasonable to think that, if his year continues its current trajectory, Steegmans may look to ride in different colors than Boonen and Bettini next year, just to see what he can do for himself.