A Quick Lesson

One time, after nobody had said anything for awhile, Michele Pollentier flicked four fingers outward over the top of the steering wheel and asked me why Americans don’t know how to ride their bikes through a race caravan.

I strung together some sort of response that felt diplomatic enough, maybe even accurate. About how a lot of the races over here are criteriums, so we have plenty of pits and free laps but not many caravans. How, especially back then, somewhere in the early-mid-2000s, only big professional races here had caravans at all. Those that weren’t criteriums, anyway. Pro-am races like the one we were following? Barely ever. Pretty simply, I supposed, it came down to lack of practice.

He nodded, glanced at the sideview, and adjusted the car a bit to shelter a Cat. 1 straining to return to the peloton up the left side. We were doing about 35 down some chipseal Pennsylvania road, headed to the foot of the next climb. The rider faltered somewhere around the B-pillar and sank backwards. I’m not sure if he came back or not; there was a lot of that sort of traffic.

Only after that – and after being put on the spot to explain my homeland’s shortcomings by a man who had won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Flanders, and yes, who was caught trying to cheat his dope test after winning on l’Alpe d’Huez – did I ask what gave him the impression that we, as a nation, didn’t know what we were doing in a race caravan.

“Look at the back,” he said, extending a stubby forefinger towards the bumper of the car in front of us. “Spotless!”

“OK…,” I allowed myself, thinking (too simply) that this race, the Univest Grand Prix, is a big one for a lot of these teams. Probably their biggest of the year. Regional U.S. amateur teams don’t get a TV helicopter and a crack at guys in the Rabobank program very often. Of course they washed their car. Probably twice.

“In Belgium – tock, tock, tock.” With each guttural tock, Pollentier was sighting down the edge of his right hand, which was cutting a series of vertical slashes across the width of the telltale bumper. “There would be black marks across. Rubber, from the bike tires.”

“These guys? They sit a meter off the back of the car. Too far. Then they try to come around as soon as they can. They don’t use the cars enough.”

Somehow, it came off as an observation, a friendly pointer that maybe I could pass on if I had an opportunity, not as a condemnation or even much of a criticism, really. There was no hint of the ex-pro, when-I-was-racing chest thumping or old-world cycling’s well-where-I’m-from contempt. Maybe it’s that manner, or his forthrightness about his past drug use and its effects, that explains why Pollentier is owner of a Firestone tire store in Nieuwpoort and the guiding hand of a development team rather than a yelling, car-door-slapping pro DS or a quotable curmudgeon like many of his racing contemporaries. There’s plenty to condemn in Pollentier’s past, for those who like to condemn. But sitting in the car then (and sitting here now) I wished there were more ex-pros like him.

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.

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 Cyclingnews.com: “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.

Tanking Up

Media outlets being in the tank for sports teams or individual athletes is nothing new, and it’s certainly not limited to professional cycling. In fact, just last week the Washington City Paper detailed the long, mutually profitable relationship between longtime NBC affiliate sports reporter George Michael and the Washington Redskins NFL franchise. It’s an interesting piece, but a little anti-climactic, both because Michael recently passed away, and because his Redskins bootlicking was so obvious you pretty much knew he had to be getting something out of it. Nobody would do that for free.

But unlike National Football League teams, cycling teams don’t typically have much cold, hard cash to throw at reporters to produce fawning infomercials about them. (At least I don’t think they do, though last year’s Versus Tour de France coverage occasionally made me question that theory.) Nor do most cycling publications have the resources or, thankfully, the ethical flexibility to pay riders for interviews (well, mostly). Nah, the currency that’s passed between the cycling media and its subjects isn’t cash, but rather the easily exchanged commodities of access and good press.

Once the initial contact and sniffing out between the reporter and rider are done, the access half of the equation follows a simple formula – write nice things (or wave your hands at the camera and mispronounce nice things) and we’ll keep talking with you. Disagree publicly, and we won’t. Do me an extra-special favor when I really need one, and maybe you’ll get that exclusive interview or insider tidbit later. Down the line, those interviews and tidbits get converted to attention-grabbing items that increase newsstand purchases, subscriptions, or page hits, thereby providing the media outlet with…cash.

In exchange, the media member that’s granted that extra level of access – the kind of access that goes well beyond dishing out a few post-race trivialities to the assembled finish line hoard or sitting for a 10 minute pre-season interview at camp – is expected to use their available pulpit to tell the rider’s side of whatever the story may be, and righteously defend him from his enemies when need be. Or at least not stir the pot in the other direction. Down the line, that lopsided coverage, if it’s done right, will result in a better and higher-profile image for the rider, which will lead to better sponsorships, endorsements, and other deals, thereby providing the rider or team with…cash.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like these arrangements hinge on some tedious written agreement that’s hashed out by contract attorneys. It’s a little more organic than that, and some outlets’ overtures towards riders are fairly aspirational – floating that over-positive story out in hopes it’ll be noticed and become the launching point for a closer relationship. It’s also worth noting that what a rider needs to grant access varies considerably. For some, just not being patently offensive to them is enough, and as long as you don’t remark repeatedly on how unattractive their mother is or the lack of intellectual prowess displayed by their girlfriend, they’ll be happy to talk. Others have to actually know and/or like you, and still others likely have to know in no uncertain terms what you’re planning to write. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out how those degrees of scrutiny typically correlate to the rider’s pay grade.

Beneficial as it is for both reporter and rider, if not for the media consumer, it’s an understandable arrangement. That doesn’t make it palatable, of course, but frankly, no matter whether you like the flavor or not, it’s unlikely to change any time soon. You can do bare-bones race reporting without much rider access, because that just takes an understanding of the game, a view of the TV, and a seat in the audience at the winner’s press conference if you want to go deluxe. But actual for-profit web sites, newspapers, and magazines need more than that – they need the inside skinny, the big interview when things are falling apart, that photo shoot of a superstar’s bike room, the ride-along during the final TT of a grand tour. In the age of streaming, on-demand video of races, that stuff is what sells magazines and gets hits on web articles, not telling the public who made the early break in the stage they all watched yesterday. So they get it how they can.

Like the City Paper, though, cycling’s media consumers are pretty willing to call the media out when they hop the border between press and press agent, only we're willing to do it while the reporter is still alive. Last year, the SC was critical of what I thought was a too-cozy and one-sided handling of Lance Armstrong by the VeloNews editorial department, and Patrick Brady of Red Kite Prayer is currently taking a bit of a beating for the same perceived offense in the comments section of this article on the “Contador bought his own wheels” scandalette. In the course of that piece, Brady, in turn, insinuates that Spanish daily Marca is deeply and irretrievably immersed in Alberto Contador’s bathtub. And he’s probably right. After all, if media outlets didn’t need to say nice things to assure continued access to their target markets’ top dogs, why else would cyclingnews.com have touted Michael Rogers as a Tour hope all those years?

Anyway, since we seem to be stuck with it, I say that media and pseudo-media outlets should band together to make the best of the inevitable game of media-rider kissy face. On the cusp of a new season, what we need to do first is expand our horizons a bit, go for the less obvious partnerships. Really, where’s the fun if we’re all in the Armstrong tank, or the Contador tank, or the Boonen or Nys tank? For godssake, someone snuggle up to some of these other guys: let’s pick a neo-pro and lock him in young, rock the sport with some unrelenting and unapologetic coverage of Frederic Guesdon, or sign up to be the official undercover media mouthpiece of anyone on Footon-Servetto. That way, readers can get some balance in coverage, even if they have to visit 16 separate sites to get it.

And media members, once you pick your tank, remember: no matter what salacious or despicable act your rider may commit, no matter how big the tactical blunder, no matter how apparent the lack of fitness may be, you must vigorously defend and even promote his position and interests to the public. You must, despite any well-reasoned and fully-cited arguments against him, despite any amount – mountain or molehill – of damning evidence that comes to light, rise to protect your selected rider from the slings and arrows of an obviously fickle, ill-informed, and ignorant public. And when called upon, you must refute, point by point, the arguments made by his accusers, slanderers, and various other malcontents.

What the hell, I’ll take Filippo Pozzato.


- Does Cadel Evans even have a tank? If so, who’s in it?

- Credit Peter Hymas, formerly of the excellent Bobke Strut and lately of the much larger but less endearing cyclingnews.com, for starting the unconventional tank trend by forsaking other more talented and visually appealing riders and throwing his love behind Ag2r’s hairless spider monkey, John Gadret. That’s the spirit.

- I know I said above that I’d take up Pozzato’s cause, especially with the coming Boonen-mania of the spring classics, but Liquigas is practically advertising opportunities to jump in their tank, and a trip to San Pelligrino sounds mighty good. I hear the water there is terrific.

- Somewhere in the cited RKP article above, Brady flatly states as truth that it is “standard practice” that riders are all provided the same equipment by sponsors, noting that Trek confirmed for him that that was the case at Astana last year. In the broad sense, it’s true that all riders on a given team do receive the same equipment (e.g., you all get a Felt with Dura-Ace and Mavic wheels), but let’s not pretend that the stars don’t get special toys, which is the matter at hand in the article. For instance, Trek famously developed a special extra-narrow TT bike for Armstrong during his Tour run. He didn’t like it, and Ekimov eventually ended up riding it, but as far as I know, not everyone in the team rank-and-file had access to one. Similarly, in 2007, Tom Boonen was issued a custom aluminum version of Specialized’s usually-carbon Tarmac to correct a fit problem he was having, and more recently had custom carbon bikes made up for his spring classics campaign. In 2004, after winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Stefan Wesemann showed up the next weekend for Paris-Roubaix riding a custom Giant carbon road bike with extra clearances and cantilever brakes. Nobody else on T-Mobile had one, and there were all of two made, or at least that’s what he told me. And those are just cases where the equipment actually came from sponsors – the big guns also tend to get away with playing it a little looser with the sponsor equipment rules. So, standard practice maybe, but with some considerable and relevant exceptions.

Chain Reactions

Or, The Downside of Sponsorship

On Monday, I wrote a little bit about how Fabian Cancellara’s (Saxo Bank) showmanship over his broken chain during the Tour of Flanders might impact new team sponsor SRAM, which manufactures chains. Lest you think that these little incidents fail to make an impression on the viewing (and buying) public, we bring you the Top 15 search terms used to reach one very, very small cycling web site:

1. Cancellara koppenberg
2. koppenberg cancellara
3. cancellara broken chain
4. broken chain on the koppenberg
5. cancellara chain break
6. cancellara chain flanders
7. cancellara fabian chain break
8. cancellara koppenberg 2009
9. cancellara koppenberg chain
10. cancellara sram chain around neck
11. course gent wevelgem
12. fabian cancellara broken chain
13. koppenberg cancellara chain
14. koppenberg chain race
15. koppenberg sram

As you can see, not all publicity really is good publicity, and if people are reaching this site using those terms, chances are they’re reading accounts of it on every major cycling site and more than a few minor ones as well. So while it’s still just a single broken chain, the story is bound to take on greater weight due to sheer exposure, repetition, and drama.

There’s plenty of precedent for high-visibility product failures haunting companies, of course. And within cycling, there’s even plenty of precedent for high-profile broken chains. Julio Perez Cuapio (then with Panaria) famously broke his chain during a promising breakaway in the 2001 Giro. I can still see him in that orange jersey by the side of the road, but I can’t for the life of me remember what kind of chain it was. I did look it up, though - Shimano, 9-speed. (Remarkably, Perez Cuapio smashed his teeth in on a guard rail a couple days later, then won a stage a few days after that. Tough guy.)

Compared with Perez Cuapio’s high-profile but relatively brand-anonymous failure, the intriguing thing about Cancellara’s is its close association with the SRAM name. In this case, it seems that the PR fallout was likely made much worse by the temporal proximity of the sponsorship announcement to the failure. Saxo Bank – a formidable team that famously resisted component sponsors because they wanted the freedom to use what they wanted – is a big get for SRAM, and the company talked it up accordingly. Given how persnickety director Bjarne Riis has been about equipment, signing SRAM as a sponsor registered as a bigger product endorsement than pay-to-play sponsorship deals usually do. Then, hot on the heels of that well-received press release, advertising that the team is riding their products, one of their new star riders suffers a race-ending failure of one of their core products in the first major event since the announcement. You could almost feel the sales and marketing guys cringing. Imagine if Colnago took over sponsorship of Astana, and Levi Leipheimer snapped a frame on the first day of the Giro.

Maybe I’m too soft, but what I’ve seen of the reaction feels a little strong to me. Yes, you certainly don’t want a chain snapping on you, and it does seem to be becoming a more common failure with thinner chains. But this tempest seems to have taken on more significance than it deserves due to an unfortunate pair of conditions – bad timing regarding the sponsorship announcement, and the fact that it occurred on the Koppenberg. The breakage probably wouldn’t have even been race-ending had it not occurred on that famous 600 meter stretch of cobbles, where team car access is restricted and poor position over the top is punished severely. And had it occurred nearly anywhere but the Koppenberg or the Muur van Geraardsbergen it surely wouldn’t have been subject to so much photography. As I noted Monday, Cancellara’s histrionics sure didn’t help things, but after the season the guy’s had, I also can’t begrudge him a little in-the-moment frustration.

As a result of all that, articles mentioning the breakage abound, but really, we’re still talking about one failure, for one very strong guy, on one very brutal hill. As much as I love you all, let’s not kid ourselves about our ability to replicate those conditions in our own riding. Even if we could all crank out the watts like Cancellara, anecdotal information indicates that most chain failures can be attributed to faulty installation – very few people actually break a sideplate or pull out a previously untouched pin. In other words, a failure of your mechanic's head and hands is far more likely to break your chain than the strength of your thighs. Or a manufacturing error, for that matter.

How many of those keyword searches above are SRAM looking to assess the damage, and how many are consumers trying to find out what happened? I have no idea. But I have to say, I haven’t seen that much keyword consistency since I wrote something a year ago that included the name of Specialized’s HR maven, Shannon Sakamoto. I don’t know what else she has going on, but someone Googles that woman at least once or twice a week. If SRAM has any luck at all, their little hubbub will die out a little more quickly than that.

In other news, you may have noticed that sneaking in up there at number 11 on the list is “course gent wevelgem.” That fine semi-classic was run this morning, of course, and we’ll try to get to that later.

Flanders Fragments

Damn near every cycling news source will be barraging you with Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) news this morning, including detailed blow-by-blow descriptions of the race, close-ups of the equipment, and several forms of minutae that haven’t even occurred to me yet. And with good reason – Flanders is simply one of the best races all year. While yesterday’s contest doubtlessly deserves all the attention it’s receiving, I’m in no position to add to the din of details and firsthand accounts, so instead I’ll just throw out a few things that occurred to me as I watched it. Since I followed the race via Versus’ insanely fragmented and hard-to-follow coverage, I’ve tried to replicate that feeling here…

  1. First, we have to address the winner, Stijn Devolder (Quick.Step), who took his second consecutive victory in fine fashion. Another perfect execution of strong-team tactics, another well-timed and committed attack on the Eikenmolen, another powerful and unrelenting solo ride to the finish. Devolder doesn’t get a hell of a lot of airplay, but at the last two Rondes at least, he’s been the rider everyone wants Boonen to be. Of course, next year he won’t even be able to sign in without Pozzato and three guys from Lotto running into his back wheel.
  2. For me, the strongest rider coming into Flanders looked to be Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), and if there were no such thing as teams in cycling, I would have called him the outright favorite. But there are teams, and Pozzato knew that Quick.Step was strong and his Katusha squad wasn’t, and that he’d have to spend his day cuing off them. It looks like Adri Van der Poel, Pozzato, and I are all on the same page, judging by this Van der Poel quote from the cyclingnews.com live coverage: "To me there's one top favourite and that is Pozzato. If he's smart then he's just staying on Boonen's wheel all race long. They have other riders in the Quick Step team but the sponsor will most likely prefer Tommeke to win it." Pozzato did just that, likely using the same logic, and as it turned out, he bet on the wrong Quick.Step horse. I don’t think that makes it the wrong decision on his part - when you're just one guy, sometimes you just have to stick to the plan and hope it all comes back together again, and this time the cards just fell the other way. But when he and Boonen were jamming up the Koppenberg side-by-side, there was a taste of what might have been. And Pozzato looked better.
  3. Silence-Lotto held true to its signature move of missing the moves that matter. They did look strong during some of the shenigans just after the Paterberg, putting Leif Hoste in the move that also contained Sylvain Chavanel (Quick.Step), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Daniel Lloyd (Cervelo), and Frederick Guesdon (FdJ). Behind that move, Lotto was able to respond to Boonen’s aggression with Philippe Gilbert and Staf Scheirlinckx. Unfortunately for Lotto, by the time the finale was being played out, only Chavanel and the surprising Quinziato were left from that group, and Lotto had nothing at the front or in the half-assed chase. Gilbert saved the day by grabbing the bunch sprint for third.
  4. How about Chavanel and Quinziato? A career day for both of them, right to the bitter end. Chavanel was particularly remarkable - all race long, he did the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. Just perfect. How did various directors let this guy waste almost 8 years on Tour de France dreams when the classics are clearly what he’s meant to do?
  5. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) is typically one hell of a professional – he proved that again by sucking it up and showing up to the start of the race he’d targeted, knowing that injury and illness had him far below where he wanted to be. That said, professionalism-wise, he slipped up a little today. Last week, his team signed a new component sponsorship deal with SRAM. Today, Cancellara snapped his (presumably SRAM) chain on the way up the Koppenberg, a failure of one of the company’s bread-and-butter products. You know, shit happens, and professionals break fine equipment all the time for a variety of reasons. And when they do, the protocol is to not make a big deal out of it and get the broken material into the truck and out of sight as soon as possible. But on the Koppenberg, Cancellara first did a little ‘cross-style hike, then performed a weak bike toss, then picked it back up, and then pointed out the problem to the crowd, a trio of waiting photographers, and the TV cameras. Then he turned around, picked up the offending chain, hung it around his neck, and coasted back down the hill, much to the delight of even more photographers. The only way he could have drawn more attention to the equipment failure was if he used the chain to lasso Tom Boonen and hitch a ride to the top. Not the best way to welcome a new sponsor to the team. From VeloNews.com: “We always joke that when you have full power you’re going to break everything, but now it happened,” Cancellara said, referring to his SRAM Red chain, which snapped midway up the Koppenberg when he was at the front of the peloton…While Cancellara turned around and retrieved his broken chain — maybe the SRAM technical whizzes may learn something from it…”
  6. I need Heinrich Haussler to win something big, soon. The Australo-German grabbed a well-deserved second place today with a well-timed late attack (and aggressive racing all day), a nice match for his second place at Milan-San Remo, but I can’t imagine that has him feeling overjoyed after an early season filled with near misses in big events. Amstel? Fleche? Probably longshots, but the guy’s gotta get lucky at some point.
  7. I don’t know what Martijn Maaskant’s (Garmin-Slipstream) contract looks like, but it’s going to be tough to keep him out of Lotto, Quick.Step, and Rabobank hands if he keeps turning in these rides in the big classics. I’ve only seen him work in good conditions – it’ll be interesting to see what he can do if things turn sloppy.
  8. What’s up with the special Quick.Step podium jersey? Looks like they might have tried to debut a new look, complete with black shorts, but it was a no-go from the UCI. Good thing, too – I think one of the first ten commandments of cycling is that Belgian teams should never be flashy. Leave all the wardrobe changes to the Italians for godssake. I do kind of like the new look, though.

Finally, just for kicks, let’s see how well my little pre-race spiel jived with reality:

  • We pointed out that the Quick.Step trio of Boonen, Devolder, and Chavanel would be hard to stop, and that was right. But that’s sort of like predicting that the Ronde will be held in Belgium, so I won’t break my arm patting myself on the back for that one.
  • In the Katusha camp, Pozatto did end up looking a bit lonely when the deal went down, and Sergui Ivanov did manage to show himself at the end, mounting a late chase behind the Devolder-Chavanel-Quinziato-Van Hecke group.
  • Just like they did at De Panne, Silence-Lotto made all the moves, except the ones that mattered. Despite what Greg Van Avermaet may think, that still isn’t as good as winning.
  • I thought Flecha and Nuyens might do something for Rabobank. Even though they got some camera time, they did nothing of consequence. Likewise, Columbia failed to really materialize, capping things off with George Hincapie’s crash in the final few hundred meters. If it weren’t for bad luck…
  • Frederick Guesdon (FdJ) did his best to make me look like a genius for naming him as a possible spoiler. It didn’t work out, but I appreciate his efforts.
  • As for my final predictions: The winner was not a member of Euskaltel-Euskadi, though two of them did finish: Koldo Fernandez in 51st and Markel Irizar in 65th. So I’m good there, but nobody with a surname beginning with Van was in the early break, so my second prediction failed to become reality. Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas) and Wim De Vocht (Vacansoleil) made up that move, but really, for an early break in Flanders, it’s a toss-up between betting on a “De” or a “Van”, and I picked wrong. Ah well, there’s always next year.

De Ronde Abhors a Vacuum

It was getting a little fuzzy there for awhile as to who, exactly, was going to mount any sort of challenge to the Boonen-Devolder-Chavanel Quick.Step combination for this Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). With Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) slipping into a domestique role after an early season plagued by injury and illness, and world champion and 2007 winner Allessandro Ballan (Lampre) out altogether, it was starting to look like serious challengers to that cabal could be few and far between.

But someone has to fill that void, and it turns out that’s Filippo Pozzato (Katusha). The fashion-sideways Italian tends to bag a decent win or two every early season, make a lot of promises, then go cold come Flanders-Roubaix week. This year, though, it looks like he may have timed things a little better, staying pretty quiet until this last week, then nailing the E3 Harelbeke semi-classic in a surprising sprint over Boonen on Saturday and winning the first stage of the Dreidaagse De Panne on Tuesday.

Assuming he’s not burning too many matches screwing around at De Panne, the world’s best classics stage race, Pozzato’s chief problem come Sunday would look to be support. The woefully out-of-date start list at the RVV web site sheds some light on the issue. Considering Gert Steegmans is now out with some sort of leg/nerve issue, Pozzato could have a lonely day at the front on his hands. Mikhail Ignatiev is certainly good for some grunt work, and Serguei Ivanov can have the staying power to be there at the end, but the roster is no who’s who of classics racing. He does have Andre Tchmil in the car directing, so that has to be good for something.

That’s not quite fair, of course – Katusha has a roster better than two-thirds of the teams in the race. It’s just that there are four squads between Quick.Step and Katusha that really stand out. First comes the mostly hapless Silence-Lotto squad. Sure, their early season has been crap, with just one win by Cadel Evans in Coppi e Bartali last week to its credit, but if things start going their way, there are some hard hitters on their list. There’s Leif Hoste, who’s been second three times at the Ronde and very motivated to win, if only to avoid having “second three times at the Ronde” carved on his tombstone. He’s likely to share protected status with Philippe Gilbert, who’s been flirting with greatness for several seasons, racking up some Omloops Het Volk, a Paris-Tours, and a bunch of stages in the process. Greg Van Avermaet gets a lot of hype too, though I don’t quite understand why, so I guess they have that going for them. Those three are backed up by Vansummeren, Cretskens, Scheirlinckx, Delage, and Lang, a group I’d put up against any classics supporting cast.

So if Lotto comes around, they’re as good a bet as any. Van Avermaet, putting out some hype of his own, thinks that the team has lifted its game and turned a corner, telling cyclingnews.com of the first day of De Panne “We made the race today; that was the first time that I see that and I think this is a change for us." Sure, they helped force the split that shed Boonen 70k from the finish, but if Van Avermaet defines “making the race” as “leading the second group in a minute behind the guy who won, and missing what was likely the defining break of the race,” I may have to rethink my assessment.

Who’s there besides the home teams? Rabobank, always teetering at the edge of classics greatness without quite managing to fall in, has high hopes for Juan Antonio Flecha, who will hope to shake his reputation for getting the best view in the house of other guys winning bike races. Belgian import Nick Nuyens has been quiet this season, but seems to be coming around OK, if not in a headline sort of way, and relative youngin’ Sebastian Langeveld could be a viable option as well. Backed up by the cobble-friendly De Maar, Hayman, Posthuma, Tankink, and Tjallingi, they should be capable of having decent representation when the race hits the Muur and the Bosberg.

Cervelo Test Team and Columbia should factor in the finale as well, and are both split about half and half between grizzled veterans and talented newcomers. On the Columbia side, there’s Hincapie, always Hincapie, supported by an international smorgasbord of pretty talented folks, including Bernhard Eisel, Marcus Burghardt, and Bert Grabsch. Cervelo has this spring’s nearly man, Heinrich Haussler, along with 2009 Het Volk and 2006 Gent-Wevelgem winner Thor Hushovd, Belgophile Briton Roger Hammond, and 2003 Gent-Wevelgem winner and Belgian resident Andreas Klier. Those four are backed up by a sturdy group of rouleurs, including Canadian Dominique Rollin, who everyone believes fits the profile for these sorts of races.

So that’s a quick rundown of what the favorites, Pozzato now included, will have to deal with, but that’s the breaks when you’re trying to win a classic. If you look at the draft roster for Ballan’s Lampre squad, you’ll see he would have been in a similar situation, with the squad now looking a little headless without him. And just as guys like Pozzato and Ballan can be considered favorites despite a lack of lauded support, there are guys scattered throughout the start list with the potential, on a good day, to upset the whole apple cart for the stacked squads – guys like Frederic Guesdon (Francaise des Jeux), who sneaks away to win another classic just when everyone’s forgotten about him again, or a Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) who could finally manage to slip his domestique label once and for all.

In light of all this, I’m sure not making any predictions as to who the winner will be. I will go out on a limb and bet that the early break will include at least one rider whose surname begins with “Van,” and that the winner will not come from Euskaltel-Euskadi. Mr. Bookmaker, here I come.

De Ronde: Impressions

The Textbook

Sometimes, no matter how correctly they’re executed, cycling tactics can make for a disappointing result – not just the riders, but for the fans as well. Witness Cadel Evans’(Silence-Lotto) win atop Mont Ventoux during Stage 4 of Paris-Nice this year. Evans earned his paycheck by shadowing Robert Gesink (Rabobank) up the Ventoux, a move intended to preserve his teammate's small gap to the lead. After having his nose up Gesink’s arse the entire climb, Evans still managed to smell the line well enough to jump around the young Dutchman for the win. You can’t blame Evans. Tactically, it was the right move, and any DS worth his salt would have your hide for not taking an opportunity to win on the Ventoux, no matter how you got there. But for spectators, it didn’t feel too good. It didn’t feel like the right guy won.

Not so on Sunday at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), where Quick.Step played the tactical game to perfection, and emerged with a deserving solo winner in Stijn Devolder. Other contenders knew what they were in for by the time the race hit the Koppenberg with 69 kilometers remaining. With so much of the race and 10 more climbs remaining, Devolder and teammate Tom Boonen didn’t try to get away, but their muscle flexing over the top of one of the course’s most challenging climbs told everyone that they were about to get the old “1-2” from the pair of Belgian strongmen.

As it turned out, they only got the “1” part of the 1-2, but they got it three times before finish. Just outside of Peter Van Petegem’s hometown of Brakel, Devolder joined Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) on an excursion on the Leberg. Then he stuck with it as that move morphed into one containing himself, Karsten Kroon (CSC), George Hincapie (High Road), Sebastian Langevelt (Rabobank), and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) after the Berendries climb.

Of course, when you have an on-form Boonen riding shotgun in the group behind, you don’t have to do terribly much work in the break. The bit of extra rest let Devolder jump again just as the move was reabsorbed on the Eikenmolen, never to be seen again. Though he never got a huge gap (it topped out at around 30 seconds), the chase group of 24 or so riders could never quite work out how to get up to Devolder without taking Tornado Tom along with them. Devolder pounded away for the remaining 25 kilometers, mowing down the traditional stumbling blocks at the Kapelmuur and the Bosberg to roll in ahead of late escapees Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank).

In the end, Boonen’s presence behind made Devolder’s ride possible, but it was also clear that one of the strongest guys, if not the strongest guy in the race won. It felt right -- for fans, for the Belgian spectators, and certainly for Devolder. But, with Quick.Step’s tactics working in textbook fashion, I wonder how strong Boonen really was. Flecha mounted a very strong solo chase behind Devolder starting on the Kapelmuur and, for awhile, looked as if he might be successful on the run-in to Meerbeke, especially when he was joined by Nuyens. Both were certainly credible contenders for the victory. Flecha was well-supported by a super Oscar Freire and Langevelt throughout the race, and Nuyens had Brabantse Pijl and E3 Harelbeke winner Chavanel. If Boonen wasn't there to mark Flecha and Nuyens, who was he marking? So, when Flecha and Nuyens jumped away in the finale, did Boonen choose not to go with them, or was he unable to? Fortunately, Devolder is enough of an ox that it didn’t matter.

Demol’s Discovery

Devolder did look great, didn’t he? Crossing the line alone in the Belgian national championship kit – undoubtedly one of the most classic in the peloton? That sight reminded me of how, for years, Devolder never looked quite right in US Postal or Discovery Channel colors. Somehow, it didn’t quite fit him. Clearly, his current kit suits him just fine.

His victory in the Ronde has several news outlets chanting the same mantra – that Devolder has always been considered a stage race rider, rather than a classics rider. Perusing his palmares, you can certainly make that case, but I think it’s being overstated in most of the press. Why? Because anyone who has watched the guy go berserker in races like Het Volk and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne over the last several years should know that, even if he didn’t have the head for the classics yet, he sure as hell had the legs.

One guy who always knew Devolder had the legs is Dirk Demol, who as director of the US Postal/Discovery classics squad brought Devolder over from the small Vlaanderen-T Interim squad. I had the good fortune of attending the Discovery launch in January 2005, and asked Demol about his young Belgian talent. Those who have plumbed the depths of this site will have seen this quote already, but it seems fitting to run it up the flagpole again. Said Demol:

“He was one of the biggest talents in Belgium. Even when you talk about the debutantes, the juniors and the espoirs, when he was in good shape he was as
strong as Tom Boonen was. He's a strong athlete, but mentally he's nowhere. When something goes a little bit wrong, he loses his morale and he goes nowhere.

When he came in the team I believed in him because before I came to the team I was working with young riders and he was one of my young riders, so I know him a little bit from that time. I saw him again doing big things in 2003, in a few races in the end of the season. That was for me the moment that showed me that I still believed in Stijn Devolder and his talents. Years ago, he was one of the biggest talents in Belgium. For a few years, it's been pretty quiet for him, but I'm sure he has the talent and he has the legs, he can do something. Let's give him a chance and let him work with us. He showed last year that he improved a lot, not with amazing results, but I can say I'm sure this guy is capable of winning races. When I talk about winning races I'm talking about races like the E3 Prijs Harelbeke. This guy in my eyes is capable of anything. He can win on his own, and as a teammate he's doing everything you tell him, if you tell him to pull, he just pulls, if you tell him to protect
somebody, he protects, he does everything we want.”
Even back then, Demol had it right in a lot of ways. But in winning the Ronde rather than the E3 to open up his classics palmares, I think Devolder may have surpassed even Demol’s expectations. Fortunately, the demise of Discovery didn’t mean that Demol had to miss out on Devolder’s breakout. The 1988 Paris-Roubaix winner is now a DS with Quick.Step.

Hincapie – New Clothes, New Man?

Has switching teams reinvigorated George Hincapie (High Road)?

As we discussed above, Quick.Step’s used some textbook tactics to win the Ronde, and given that team’s experience in the Belgian classics, they certainly have historical race knowledge on their side. But they’ve never been paralyzed by it. During his many years with US Postal/Discovery, it seemed that many times, Hincapie was waiting for the textbook or history to play out on the road. And when it didn’t, he couldn’t adapt to what was happening before his very eyes, which may account for why a rider as strong as Hincapie doesn’t have more classics wins on his palmares. There are certainly keys to winning races like the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, things that remain fairly consistent year after year, but there’s not a set playbook that you can plan your ride by and hope to win.

This year, Hincapie seemed more daring, going in a strong escape on the Berendries, far earlier than the textbook Ronde finale. He spotted a move that, with Devolder, Kroon, and Ballan, could well have gone the distance, and he jumped on it despite the fact that the traditional showdown on the Kapelmuur and Bosberg were still four hills away. That Hincapie was willing to take that risk is a small but promising sign for his season. The move didn’t work out, but he should take solace in the fact that he gave it a shot, it wasn’t any sort of mistake, and he still had the legs to fall into the chase group behind Devolder and pull out a fifth place finish at the line. Here’s hoping that he continues to race aggressively, and that he’ll be rewarded with results.

On a final Hincapie note, I’d advise anyone who wants to be a successful classics rider to ride at his side for a year or two. I don’t know that he’s out there at training camp handing out tips, but the results are undeniable. Just look at the list of ride-with-George alumni: Boonen, Devolder, Leif Hoste…

Ok, ok. There’s probably no causal relationship there, but it’s hard to deny that Demol lined up some good support for Hincapie during the US Postal/Discovery days, despite plenty of claims otherwise.

Slipstream – Too Slippery to See?

I’m not trying to pick on them, because I like what they’re doing, but it’s a good thing Slipstream already has its Tour de France ticket. They turned in what may be the most invisible race performance since, I don’t know, that French team sponsored by that company that rode the Tour like four years ago. Or maybe it was five years ago, and it was a Spanish team. Who cares.

Anyway, Slipstream is clearly built more for the stage races, and for classics season is far more likely placing its eggs in Magnus Backstedt’s basket for Paris-Roubaix, since he’s a proven winner there. But wow. I actually looked for their jerseys throughout the broadcast, and didn’t see a one. Apparently, Dutchman Martijn Maaskant came through for the squad by making the front group and finishing a respectable 12th. And in all fairness, they were no more invisible than Caisse d'Epargne and several other squads. With Paris-Roubaix being an ASO race, which the Ronde and Wednesday’s Gent-Wevelgem aren’t, look for Slipstream to bounce back and into the early break next Sunday.

The Broadcasting Note: Flanders Edition

Six minutes. That’s how long into the Versus broadcast it took Paul Sherwin to find an excuse to talk about Astana’s exclusion from ASO events. And that six minutes includes Sherwin and Phil Liggett’s stand up intro in the Bruges square and the standard Versus preamble of spinning freewheels, color-washed riders, and swoopy yellow lines they do at the start of each broadcast. So, really, it probably only took about three minutes of actual race commentary time for the subject to come up. The impetus in this case was Tomas Vaitkus (Astana) going to the front on the Oude Kwaremont climb. It would be the team’s most significant contribution of the day.

Really, as soon as you saw Vaitkus up there you knew Liggett would be off and running about exclusion and injustice and conspiracy. But Liggett was clearly off his game on Sunday, so Sherwin quickly cartwheel-roundoff-backhandspring-ed in to shake those Astana pom-poms. He did a credible job, but couldn’t quite muster the same level of indignant grumbling that Liggett can. I think it’s the age difference -- once Sherwin hits 50 or so it should come more naturally.

That Sherwin had to step in like that so early in the broadcast was a sign of things to come. Among the corrections that Sherwin had to make to Liggett’s commentary were that Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder actually ride for the same team (Quick.Step), a moment of confusion that made for some pretty strange tactical theorizing on Liggett’s part. Among the other slips that were left to run their course was Liggett getting confused about who was in the five-man break that formed after the Berendries, somehow mixing up Kroon (Dutch and CSC) with Flecha (Spanish and Rabobank). I think he was really just trying to mix up Flecha and teammate Sebastian Langeveld. But my favorite of the day was Liggett reading off the Belgian feed and bursting out with, “Ah, kop van der wedstrijd. French is such a beautiful language.” Kop van der wedstrijd, which appears in the corner of the screen to denote the first group or rider on the road, means “head of the course.” In Dutch. But yes, I suppose French is a beautiful language.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Liggett, and I certainly couldn’t do what he does. I’m hoping that he’s just dusting off the early-season cobwebs, and will be on peak form by the time we hit the Ardennes classics. And I’m hoping that, with appropriate counselling, both he and Sherwin will eventually be able to move on from the Astana situation.