Stone Free

Like many people, I’ve been struggling with just what to say about the 2010 Paris-Roubaix, beyond presenting the same postcards of the hanging that can easily be found elsewhere. Dominant performances like Fabian Cancellara’s (Saxo Bank) ride on Sunday tend to present the same paradox whenever they surface – they’re either mind-blowingly amazing or mind-numbingly boring, depending on how you look at it. Or maybe they’re both those things rolled into one, I don’t know. But frankly, neither interpretation lends itself particularly well to words, since close battles make far better fodder than blowouts. With the latter, you either end up with an overly wordy version of “holy shit, did you see that ride!?” or a longer, more specifically plaintive rendition of “well, great as it was, that was 40 kilometers of pure monotony. But here are some time gaps and stuff.”

Whatever your opinion on Sunday’s action though, history takes its snapshots with a hell of a lot of Vaseline smeared on the lens, and when you read about this year’s race in the next inevitable Roubaix coffee table book, it’s going to sound amazing. And it deserves to, because Cancellara’s was a historic ride. What you’ll read in that book years from now will be the story of a guy who attacked an assembly of the strongest classics riders of the generation, solo, about 20 kilometers before it was fashionable to attack at the time. Then he stretched that advantage into a victory margin of two minutes, a yawning gap back then, especially considering that the deficit would have been nearly three minutes if he hadn’t spent two laps of the velodrome shaking hands and kissing babies. Add in a nice shmear of the emerging rivalry with Tom Boonen (Quick Step) for historical context, some boosted-contrast ground-level-perspective pictures of red-clad Cancellara pounding the cobbles against a grey sky backdrop, and there you go. More than likely, even those of you who thought that Sunday's finale was a little short on competition will lean back, smile, and bore your kids with a meandering "ah, I remember it well" reminiscence. So at least we have that to look forward to.

Anyway, beyond the big picture – which was a display of power seldom seen even in the punch-in-the-mouth world of classics racing – what else was worth noting at Roubaix? Countless stories, no doubt, but here are a few things that stuck out for me.

Not Much You Can Do About That

I love being right, even if I was only stating the obvious at the time. From this cyclingnews piece, the great Sean Kelly on the usefulness of tactics in the face of Cancellara’s overwhelming strength: "You can only do so much with tactics, but when you’ve got a guy so strong you can have all the tactics in the world but it can be no good. The power and the form he’s in no one can touch him."

Shut Out

It had been percolating for awhile, but here we are, finally at the end the cobbled classics without a Belgian win in any of the big name events and no Quick Step or Omega Pharma-Lotto win from any nationality. That’s not going to play well in the home press.

While they’ll have to improve their spring classics campaigns next year no matter what else they do, look for both squads to try to sign dedicated, capable sprinters over the off-season in an effort to bump up their win totals and boost their grand tour relevance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia) wearing either jersey next year.

Chasing the Club of Three

Speaking of the Belgian press, Sportwereld quotes Saxo Bank chief Bjarne Riis saying he’d like to send Cancellara to the Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege next week, based on thinking that’s basically along the lines of, “the guy’s hot, why the hell wouldn’t I?”

Can I tell you how much I love that? As I’m sure I’ve harped on before, specialization in cycling reached an almost absurd peak over the last decade or so, with riders pursuing paper-thin specialties with laser-like focus. (Remember when Brad Wiggins was a “prologue specialist”? Remember watching him ride the 2007 Tour de France prologue in London, and the commentators talking about how, at 7.2k, the distance was a little much for him? Seriously?) Now that absurd level of pigeonholing seems to be breaking up a bit, and a number of riders seem to be stepping a bit outside their comfort zones from time to time. No, Cancellara won’t be a favorite for the hillier classics should he choose to go, but why not give it a shot and see what he can do? If he falls short in Limburg and the Ardennes, nobody with a clue about cycling will think less of him, and many, the Service Course included, will think more. Of course, after the couple of months he’s had, I also wouldn’t think much less of him if he spent the time between now and the world championships drinking cheap champagne and shouting profanity on some Bernese streetcorner.

But if Cancellara does start next week and puts in a promising showing on the côtes? Look for him to start thinking about how to shed some weight and take aim at Liege and the Giro d’Lombardia next season, where winning would give him the elusive distinction of having won all five of the sport’s Monuments. He’s said in the past that winning the same races repeatedly doesn’t really interest him, so he may be willing to give up a little something for Flanders and Roubaix to be more fit for the eastern races in late April.

Winning all five monuments would put Cancellara in a club of just three, together with Belgians Rik “the Emperor of Herentals” Van Looy, Roger “the Gypsy” de Vlaeminck, and, shockingly, Eddy “the Cannibal” Merckx. Despite the difference in nationality, Fabian “Sparticus” Cancellara would seem to fit into that lineup pretty well.

The last guy to seem like he had a shot at (and the interest in) winning every monument was Michele Bartoli, who won the Ronde in 1996, Liege in 1997 and 1998, and Lombardy in 2002 and 2003. He never quite had the raw power for Roubaix, though, especially up against riders like Johan Museeuw, Franco Ballerini, and Andrea Tafi in their prime. And Milan-San Remo would have taken some special circumstances for him to win – a feat unlikely 2008 San Remo winner Cancellara has already pulled off.

There Can Be More Than One

Speaking of things people have said in the past – Tom Boonen said long ago, like back when he was 25 or so, that he wasn’t one of those guys that was going to hang around the pro peloton forever. Back then, his plan was to make his name, cash out at 30 or so, and enjoy the good life. Guess what time it is, Tommeke?

No, settle down, I’m not saying Boonen should retire based on getting scalped by some Swiss freak a few times on his own turf, or based on some statement he made at age 25 (an age at which, based on my careful research, none of us should be taken at our word). And if he tried to hang up his wheels this October, I think he’d be pretty likely to get a visit from the (living) ghosts of De Leeuw and De Peet, who might remind him that there is indeed life after 30. Maybe not disco-and-blow, two-Monuments-a-year life, but a productive professional cycling life nevertheless.

What I am saying is that, in the coming weeks, Boonen is likely going to be doing some thinking on just where he fits in now that he’s not the dominant player in the classics, a role he’s played for the last five years. No, he didn’t win them all, but he was the prime factor. For instance, when his teammate Stijn Devolder lifted two Rondes in 2008 and 2009, it was partially on the strength of Boonen being in the group behind. Boonen’s defeats then were honorable, understandable, and tactical, and he came roaring back at Roubaix the next weekend to prove just what might have been had the chips fallen differently. But this year, he’s been bested twice by a rider who was just plain stronger, just as smart, and just as capable on the cobbles, and Boonen isn’t terribly used to that in the cobbled classics.

What will come from any thinking he does? Who knows. But what I hope he realizes is that every great cyclist needs a great rival. Otherwise, there’s no frame of reference, no yardstick by which to measure a rider’s true merit. Boonen needed his Cancellara. And Cancellara needs Boonen. And if both continue to ride as they have been, we could be in for another great five years.

Bike Change Blues

As he did at the Ronde last week, Cancellara did another picture perfect bike change at Roubaix on his way to another victory. And as it did at the Ronde, a bike change seems to have possibly cost his Saxo Bank teammate Matti Breschel a chance in the finale. This time, though, it wasn’t a botched race-day bike change that hurt Breschel, but apparently one he made a few days earlier when he switched over to bike sponsor Specialized’s new Roubaix-specific bike. The differences between that bike and his standard race bike may have been enough to aggravate a knee, forcing him from the race. doesn’t specify where Breschel’s knee pain came from, either because they know which side their bread is buttered on, or more likely because he didn’t mention it to them. But Breschel did mention the new bike causing him knee pain to his home country news source,, prior to the race. Roughly translated courtesy of Google, he told that publication:

"I've got a new bike especially for (Roubaix), and after riding it on some occasions, I started getting pain in one knee. It made me really nervous, but I have not wanted to talk about it because I hoped it would pass. "

At that point, he was still optimistic that he’d adjust to the bike:

"Fortunately, it now seems to be the case. During the last workouts it's been much better, and I certainly can not use knee injury as an excuse if my expectations about being at the forefront of Paris-Roubaix will not be honored."

Whether Breschel’s knee pain and subsequent retirement from Roubaix were due to switching bikes, I’ll probably never know with any degree of certainty. He hasn't brought the bike up post-Roubaix, and he's said in other interviews that he thinks he has an infection. But if he does think his problems have to do with the bike, he’d probably be well served not to let anyone know it. Knee pain due to switching to a different bike doesn’t indicate a “bad design” – only one that’s different enough from what a given rider is used to – but you can be sure that certain elements of the buying public will interpret it that way. And that’s the last thing a bike sponsor wants.

The wisdom of switching to a different geometry for one day a year for dubious benefit has always been debatable at best, but Roubaix is such a headline-grabber equipment-wise that sponsors feel the need to put something special underneath their star riders. If you’ve ever wondered why some of those super “Roubaix specials” you see teasingly propped against the team bus during the pre-ride sessions never see the start line, well, there you go.

From the Media Desk

Like a lot of you, Sunday morning saw me busy stuffing up the site as someone, presumably or Versus, shut down foreign feed after feed after feed. Look, I know how the game works, and I know they own the internet and television rights, respectively, to show Paris-Roubaix in the United States. They’re well within their rights to defend what they’ve purchased. That’s just good business, and though it made trying to watch the race exceptionally frustrating, I can’t argue with that.

But please, media outlets, if you’re going to black out all foreign feeds, have some respect for the U.S. viewers you’re trying to harness and do the races right. What do I mean?

Versus – show it live, not as some compressed, delayed dinner-hour theater seven hours later. Grand as it is (to us), Paris-Roubaix does not have even the modest amount of everyman recognition that the Tour does, and the arrangement is just irritating the very core, very key-to-you group of people who not only watch faithfully themselves, but also tell their friends – “Yeah, it’s a really exciting sport. When the Tour is on this summer, you should really watch it.”

I’m not asking for grand production values here, no Craig Hummer in custom embroidered shirt and whitened teeth, or even Phil and Paul doing blatantly after-the-fact editing booth commentary. In fact, though I know you’ll never do it, I’d prefer no “talent” at all – just give us the feed. You already own it. It’s practically free. The cat’s long been out of the bag that Versus does not, in fact, have a crack team of motorcycle cameramen jetting around Europe. We know you’re not the ones putting in the “tete de course” or “kop van der wedstrijd” graphics in, listing the riders in the break, counting the kilometers, or timing the gaps. Don’t worry, we don’t care, and for people who care enough about cycling to watch the classics, that information and a start sheet are all we need. Save your commentary cash for the Tour de France when you’re bringing in the fresh viewer meat. To be honest, I kind of like the audio backdrop of dopplered shouts from the crowd, motorcycles, and the helicopter. So please, just show the races. Live. A lot of us will watch. The rest of us will Tivo it. How about we start with the Amstel Gold Race?

And while you’re at it, Versus, please buy the internet rights to the classics races, too. You have a pretty flashy website now, and it worked pretty well during the Tour de France. So let’s use it – I bet you could get a good price with a television+internet package deal. Then, run the whole four hours of the feed on your site. Put commercials in it, put ads around it, or do it as a pay-per-view event. Whatever. Anything to get the internet rights out from under Now, I fully admit I haven’t tried in awhile, but when I paid for a subscription several years ago, it was so terribly unreliable, and the pricing structure changed so frequently (effectively going from an allegedly inclusive subscription service to pay-per-view format every time they needed to raise a few quick bucks), I can’t imagine ever trying it again. I know many others feel the same. So,, fix it, step aside, or let my people watch Sporza.

10 Things About Paris-Roubaix

Paris-Roubaix gets more attention than any other classic on the calendar, with the assembled press examining the race from every angle -- from rider form, to bikes, to stones, to cars, to the fans and watering holes along the route. I'm about 3,800 miles too far west to examine much of anything right now, but here are 10 things I'm thinking about Roubaix:

  1. Within minutes of his victory in Wednesday's Scheldeprijs, Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) was already telling the assembled press that he wouldn’t be among his team’s protected riders for Paris-Roubaix. When asked why, he noted that the team has two proven leaders for that event – Martijn Maaskant and Johan Vansummeren. Indeed, both have done notable rides in the cobbled classics, with Maaskant finishing fourth at Roubaix on his first try in 2008, and Vansummeren doing incredible support work for Leif Hoste at Lotto. But despite those riders solid record in past years, I still have to ask again – why is Farrar not a/the protected rider for Garmin at this year’s Roubaix?

    This year, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Farrar was third. Vansummeren was 52nd and Maaskant was 121st. At Gent-Wevelgem, Farrar was ninth, Vansummeren was 21st, and Maaskant was hors delay. At the Ronde, Farrar was fifth, with Vansummeren 55th at 5:13 back and Maaskant 90th at 13:20. At all three days of DePanne, Farrar was also the top finisher of the three. Now, yes, I realize that on some of those days, particularly those most likely to end in bunch sprints, Vansummeren and Maaskant were likely doing the donkey work for Farrar, and at some point in that job, you get to pull the plug and coast in. Maybe even save a little bit for Roubaix. But if Farrar was the team's leader and top finisher for hardman’s hilly cobbled classics like Het Nieuwsblad and the Ronde, and for moderately hilly cobbled races like Gent-Wevelgem, and for flat “sprinters” races with cobbles like DePanne and Scheldeprijs, why turn around and start talking about how you have better guys for a flat, cobbled race a week later?

    Yes, Farrar has only ridden the race once before, and experience counts. But Maaskant has been given protected status for two years now based on his high placing on his maiden voyage to hell. And besides, everyone always talks about how experience counts, but then someone always comes along and proves it doesn’t matter as much as some people say it does – look at Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) at last year’s Milan-San Remo. And besides, Roubaix’s been won out of a hardman’s bunch sprint before – think Guesdon and Backstedt – and Farrar’s as good a candidate as Garmin has right now from that perspective. So unless Farrar has quietly confided to his team that his form is about to come crashing down around him, or they’re just trying to take some heat off him by saying he’s just there to help out, I’m failing to see the logic here.

  2. Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) quietly re-entered the classics peloton at the Scheldeprijs on Wednesday after having to scrap the Ronde due to illness. The Scheldeprijs doesn't really suit him, so it's hard to tell anything from his 67th place, but if he’s recovered, Pozzato should jump right back onto the favorites list for Roubaix. His gutsy ride there last year helped him shake some of the negative connotations of his carefully cultivated pretty boy image. He’s still pretty, of course, but he can take a punch, too.

  3. With Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) taking the weekend off to reload for the Ardennes classics in his native Wallonia, Leif Hoste takes over leadership duties for Omega Pharma, which – as we’ve already beaten to death – really, really needs a classics win right now. I have mixed feelings about Hoste. I’ve had pleasant conversations with him at a team launch. I’ve also seen him shove a race official against a crowd barrier before the start of Philly for having the nerve to brush him as he went past. But that’s personality, which doesn’t matter very much at Roubaix, and I respect the hell out of his riding and his toughness. In addition to strong rides at Roubaix, he’s been a bridesmaid several times over at his native Ronde, which can draw you some criticism from the native press. One of the most memorable, steely-eyed responses I’ve witnessed was when a reporter asked him, after the 2004 Ronde, how he could dare chase down fellow Belgian Dave Bruylandts (then with Marlux) in the finale, bringing eventual German winner Stefan Wesseman (then T-Mobile) with him. Hoste’s response, paraphrased: “This isn’t the world championship. I get paid to ride for Lotto. Not for Belgium.” It wasn’t a popular answer given the venue, but it was delivered with such unflinching conviction and force, I don’t think anyone held it against him.

    Hoste has been fairly quiet this spring, mostly riding in Gilbert's shadow, but his form appears good and he's done his best rides when he hasn't been the center of attention.

  4. Roubaix organizer ASO announced on Tuesday that 100 gendarmes will be posted at the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobble sector to clamp down on the hooliganism that went on there last year. In addition to widespread littering, drunkenness, and I have to imagine ample public urination, spectators sector spit at and poured beer on competitors and pounded on and threw rocks at team cars and other race vehicles. So good on the neighboring towns and organizer for doing something to address it this year --- the only problem is that they’ve announced their clampdown way too early.

    Look, those people are coming to this race no matter what, and organizers would have been far better off rolling their security force into the Carrefour unannounced on Saturday and Sunday. That way, they’d have most of the crazies in one spot where they could keep an eye on them, and the delinquents wouldn’t have had time to plan evasive action. But now that ASO's told them the plan on Tuesday, the hooligan crowd will know that the Carrefour won’t be the party it was last year, so they’ll move on. Yes, originally the Carrefour was popular because it’s the last decisive sector of the race at just 14k to the finish, but the racing ceased to be the primary focus for the undesirable crowd a few years ago. So I suspect they’ll easily abandon the Carrefour and move upstream to somewhere like Mons-en-Pevele. It’s still a 5-star sector and still within the decisive final 40 kilometers for those that have maintained some interest in the race, and at a yawning 3,000 meters long, it’ll be tough as hell to patrol. And even better, they'll already know most of the gendarmes will be hanging out at the Carrefour.

  5. With wholesale Ronde DNF-ers Footon-Servetto not invited to Roubaix, which team is going to take the dubious prize of finishing the least number of riders? My money’s on Euskaltel. Sure, Caisse d'Epargne and Milram don't seem to have much of a taste for making the finale either, but for totally mismatched affinities, it's hard to beat a bunch of Basques on cobblestones.

    But let’s circle back to that Footon non-invite for a second. In the midst of all the recent kvetching about ASO’s Tour de France invites – which include the fairly unimpressive Footon – ASO's treatment of Footon at its classics shows just how much the organization is just grudgingly abiding by the 2008 agreement to invite then-ProTour teams to the Tour through 2010. While that document got Footon an invite to the big ball, that's as far as their love with ASO goes -- they won’t be attending Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne, or Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I have to admit, while it’s unfortunate that Footon is going to the Tour in a spot that could otherwise be used by more interesting teams, I’m glad that parties involved in the whole UCI/ASO ProTour dustup are finally bothering to read the agreements they’ve signed, and then go a step further and abide by them. What's next, reading contracts before we sign them?

  6. With the jaunt down into France from Belgium, the overall flavor of the peloton changes a bit, even if the basic cobbled classic game stays the same. Gone will be the Belgian second division teams, like Topsport Vlaanderen and Landboukredeit, and in come the French second division teams, like Cofidis and Saur-Sojasun. With swaps like that being made along (understandable) national lines, it speaks to the strength of the Dutch Vacansoleil squad that they’ve stayed on the roster as the action’s moved south. Of course, so has BMC, but thus far they’ve done so with recruiting rather than results.

  7. New observers of the Paris-Roubaix experience often have one of two reactions. Let’s address them right now.

    The first common reaction is, “Some of the roads I ride are bad like that! Why, after this bad winter, there are tons of potholes, and a bunch of gravel at the edges, too!” I get where you’re coming from, but no, your roads are not bad like that. It is not like riding a potholed road. Or a road with frost heaves. Or a gravel road. Or chipseal. Or your neighbor’s cobbled front walk. And chances are, you aren’t riding those roads at 45kph, so even if the road was the same, the experience really isn't. No doubt your roads are bad, but they are not like the ones at Roubaix. Have your Roubaix fantasies as you ride those roads – it’s fun – but don’t confuse them with reality.

    The second common reaction is, “Those roads are terrible. You know, they should use mountain bikes/suspension/bigger tires etc., etc., etc.” Yes, the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are horrible – more horrible than those in all the other cobbled classics, as a matter of fact. But there are also only 53 kilometers of them. The other 200 or so kilometers of Paris-Roubaix are paved, and that makes a lot of the equipment suggestions from the peanut gallery pretty inefficient. There was a time in the 1990s when mountain bike technology made some inroads at Roubaix, when Duclos Lasalle was winning on a RockShox Ruby and Johan Museeuw started the race on a horrific dual suspension Bianchi, but that anodized nightmare died out pretty quickly. Now, we’re back to the adaptations that have been a constant since the 1970s and 1980s – slightly bigger tires and clearance for them, a bit of extra padding here and there, and wheels that can take a pounding. Though cycling is painfully and detrimentally resistant to change at times, these equipment choices have stayed constant for a reason – they help you a bit on the cobbles, and don’t punish you for the other 200k.

  8. If you lurk around race caravans a bit, you get to see all the crap that gets taped to the team car dashboard to help directors and mechanics get their jobs done. Some are constants – start lists, kilometer numbers for climbs or cobbled sectors – but one of the less common ones is a diagram, usually hand drawn, noting where each rider's spare bike is on the roof of the car. For Sunday, Saxo Bank should look into that.

  9. Want to know one reason I like Paris-Roubaix? Since the race’s name comes from two cities, English language cycling publications aren’t tempted to translate it. For some reason, English speakers have some contrary and irrepressible urge to both translate foreign race names into our own language, and give our own races foreign names (Tour de Georgia, anyone?). And in translating foreign language race names, we’re terribly inconsistent, which only makes matters worse. Why do we talk about the Tour of Flanders, but the Giro d’ Italia? For that matter, why the Giro d’Italia, but the Tour of Lombardy? I once read a sider in a popular American cycling magazine that discussed someone’s win in the Across Flanders Race. I had to spend a minute clearing my head of images of head-strap wearing RAAM riders before I could figure out they were talking about Dwars door Vlaanderen. Even city-based race names aren’t immune from the desire to translate – after all, there’s the perverse need to put an “h” in Gent for Gent-Wevelgem, despite how the Belgians like to spell it on their maps.

    But Paris-Roubaix? Nice and clean.

    So what’s the worse race-name mangling I’ve ever seen? A few years back, in some Armstrong-centric series on Versus (Road to Paris, Stalking Lance, etc.), they had a segment on the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But on the segment intro -- a nice white letters on black screen divider -- what spelling did we get? Not the native Ronde van Vlaanderen. Not the Americanized Tour of Flanders. Not the French Tour des Flandres. We got, instead: Tour de Flanders. Some mongrel mix of French and English, all slapped together for a Flemish race. Well done.

    That said, my hypocrisy knows no bounds – in this very post I mentioned Milan-San Remo, not Milano-San Remo. But the Italians write about Parigi-Roubaix, so serves them right.

  10. Finally, disappointing to hear about Alessandro Ballan’s (BMC) provisional suspension by the team for his involvement in the latest blossoming Italian doping investigation, but good for the BMC management for acting quickly. There’s no sense in having things that happened while Ballan was at Lampre spill into their camp – they already have enough lingering baggage with the whole Phonak connection. At this point, I have to wonder at this point if Lampre will be at the start of Roubaix come Sunday. At just about this very time six years ago, Cofidis was busy packing up their things and slinking out of Compiegne as quietly as possible in the midst of a gathering dope storm. That scandal would cost David Millar (now Garmin-Transitions) two years on the bench. We’ll see where this one lands Ballan, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and the rest of the parties in question.

Sometimes, It Is That Simple

As cyclists, we sometimes have a tendency to overstate the strategic and tactical aspects of professional cycling. Don’t feel bad about it – it’s a perfectly natural reaction to being surrounded by a general public that, at least in the United States, understands little about the intricacies of the sport we love.

On a daily basis ("daily" meaning “six times in July”), we face misguided commentary and indignant questions from those who, through no fault of their own, believe that bicycle road racing is an individual sport, that once the starter’s pistol is fired, every one of those 180 lycra-clad freaks pedals hell bent for leather to the finish line, and may the strongest man win. For those who know better, it can be tough to take.

And so we, those who’ve left skin on the road, those whose sympathetic hearts pound when the big attacks explode across the television screen, yearn to teach the lay public different. We long to open those uninitiated eyes to the all the careful thought and closely guarded knowledge that allows the racer to make most effective use of his muscle, ache to share the science that shows it’s oftentimes better to be a few men behind than boldly out in front, and dream of the chance to illuminate the topographical nuances that will dictate how and where a race will be decided.

In response to the slightest provocation from a non-cyclist, in addressing the most innocent dinner party question, we go overboard, sputtering through explanations of the roles of domestiques, the commercial concerns that drive the early break, the benefits and drawbacks of multiple team leaders, and the importance of a well-drilled lead-out train. As the inquirer begins to shift uncomfortably in their seat, we continue with increased urgency to try to impart as many of cycling's rock-paper-scissors nuances as we can before our victim feeds the family dog a chicken bone to create a diversion and facilitate an escape.

Usually, the effect of this deluge of mind-numbing detail is that the victims retain nothing at all, but if they somehow manage to digest some of our inane ramblings, they’d be likely to come away with the mistaken view that cycling is almost entirely decided by strategy and tactics. And that’s as untrue as thinking it relies solely on fitness. In fact, when it comes down to the finale of races like last Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the average oblivious man on the street might have a more accurate impression of how things work than a bunch of overanalytical bike geeks. Sometimes – maybe most times, in fact – it all really does just come down to who’s stronger.

In the Ronde, both Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) rode tactically perfect races. Each had obviously picked the right man to mark (not a hard decision after last week’s E3 Prijs). Both stayed alert during the early sortings out on the Paterberg and Koppenberg climbs. Cancellara attacked on the Molenberg with 45 kilometers remaining to the finish – marking almost exactly the point at which the magical “final hour” of a bike race begins – and set the pair up to pick up a tailwind boost as the race turned southeast. Boonen followed with so little hesitation that many press outlets seem hesitant to assign the attack to one rider or the other, instead giving dual credit, and both favorites immediately began to work to build their advantage over the rest.

Everything from the start in Brugge up to that point of attack on the Molenberg – all that work to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people? Though there’s a (high) minimum fitness level required to execute it, that’s all the tactics and teamwork of professional cycling. That’s all that stuff we like to rattle on about, entertaining each other and lulling outsiders into a dangerous state of combined boredom and loathing.

But past the Molenberg -- over the Leberg, Berendries, Tenbosse, Muur, Bosberg, and on into Meerbeke? That part of the race was all pure brute strength, the kind it doesn’t take a cyclist, a cycling fan, or a journalist to spot. Tactically, scientifically, and aerodynamically speaking, the larger group of very strong riders behind – names like Gilbert, Hincapie, Iglinsky, Langveld – should have been able to regain Boonen and Cancellara. But they couldn’t. Instead, Cancellara and Boonen continued to build their gap. And when Cancellara attacked again on the Muur, Boonen didn’t hesistate, didn’t let Cancellara go figuring his move was too far from the finish. Boonen didn’t make any sort of tactical or technical mistake, didn't misjudge or get caught asleep at the wheel – he simply couldn’t match Cancellara’s power. Nor could he recover and claw back anything on the Swiss over the Bosberg or on the flat run to the finish. From start to finish, Boonen rode a perfect race. Cancellara just rode a perfect race faster.

Sometimes, beaten riders subjected to press questions will cite little tactical issues that they credit with ultimately bringing about their demise – too far back on this climb, little team support here, followed the wrong wheel there. Again, it’s understandable. It is hard, and boring, to simply tell the assembled press that you just weren’t strong enough, and it’s easy and sounds more insightful to focus on all the times when a small mistake cost you. But those immediate post-race statements just tend to reinforce the poor but oft-stated metaphor that cycling is like a chess game. It isn’t. Nobody makes you get three quarters of the way through a chess game, and then arm wrestle to see who wins. So, tactics junkies, race analysts, and cocktail party bores, listen closely to what Tom Boonen had to say following his heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Cancellara:

“I was racing after him at 55 kilometers an hour, and he took a minute off me. What can I say? He was the strongest.”

Sometimes, losing is just that simple.


  • Want a second opinion on Cancellara’s strength? From Gent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel, on hearing the Cancellara/Boonen break behind him, from “I thought, I’d better let this motorbike come by, but when I turned around and looked it was Cancellara.”

  • I don’t care if you’re a ProTour team or not, if you don’t put a single rider across the finish line of a monument like Flanders, you should receive a mandatory one year exclusion from that race. No hard feelings or griping from the organizer need enter into it – it would just be a sort of automatic, single-event relegation. This year, all eight of Footon-Servetto’s starters ended up on the DNF end of the results sheet. Under my plan, they’d be excluded next year, so David Gutierrez (Footon) can stay home where he wants to be, preparing for the Tour of the Basque Country or whatever, while someone like Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis) can be at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where he wants to be. Another beneficial side effect: the second feed zone of cycling’s monuments won’t have more people looking for a ride than a goddamn Greyhound terminal on Thanksgiving weekend.

    Anyway, hot on Footon-Servetto’s dubious heels were fellow Spanish imports Caisse d’Epargne and Euskaltel-Euskadi, who each managed to send a single rider across the finish line (Joaquin Rojas in 37th and Javier Aramendia Lorente in 65th, respectively). Look, I know the classics aren’t a focus for those teams, and that only two of Footon’s riders were actually Spanish, but that’s a ridiculous attrition rate and the shared country of origin really makes it stand out. To be fair, home team Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator also finished only a single rider – Gent-Wevelgem warrior Sep Vanmarcke, in 62nd position – but they’re a second division team focused on young talent, and with a budget that makes the constantly sponsor-challenged Footon look wealthy.

  • Last week, I pointed out that if “classic specialist” ProTour teams Quick Step and Omega Pharma failed to win the Ronde, they’d be in the unenviable position of having to win Paris-Roubaix to salvage the part of the season that pays the bills for them. Well, they didn’t win the Ronde (or today's Scheldeprijs, either). That both these teams have failed to climb the top step of the podium at this year’s cobbled classics makes me wonder anew whether there is really room for such a high level of specialization at the very top of the sport these days. With teams like HTC-Columbia and Saxo Bank making an impact from February to October in classics, stage races, and grand tours, will even the most die-hard Belgian sponsor be willing to front ProTour money for two months of hit-or-miss classics specialization, followed by six months of chasing stages and glorified kermesse wins? For the sort of cash Quick Step puts up, they should at least have an Ardennes specialist that will give them a legitimate shot through late April. People wail and moan about Tour de France-centric teams like U.S. Postal/Discovery only really racing for 21 days a year, but if you count up the days of classics racing, are Quick Step and Omega Pharma (post-Cadel Evans) really far off that mark?

  • Finally, how about that Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions)? Somebody needed to start winning things for that team, and I’m glad he’s the one to do it. OK, that’s a little mean, considering David Millar’s stage and overall win in DePanne, but people have had a lot of expectations for this team for a long time, and those expectations were starting to wear pretty thin. Now that Farrar seems to be really getting his legs under him in the classics, let’s hope he’s allowed to put some energy into building on that promise, rather than spending a career getting overmatched in grand tour bunch sprints. Success (or, if not success, visibility) in grand tours means a lot to American teams in particular, so it’s understandable that Farrar gets highlighted in that capacity. And don't get me wrong, he’s very, very good in the bunch sprints – one of the best. But he could have a potentially better career as a classics man ahead of him, and I have to wonder if Garmin will be the right place to make that transition in the most effective way.

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 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, 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.

Cobbled Comparisons

What’s left to write about Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) winning cobbled classics? I don’t know, really. He has the power, the skills, and the head, and he puts them together with remarkable consistently, rendering him very hard to beat. And, as we saw on Sunday, when it comes down to the sort of blunt, teamless, rider vs. rider fistfight that Paris-Roubaix tends to be, he’s very, very hard to beat.

Boonen has long since won all three of the biggest cobbled classics – 1 Gent-Wevelgem, 2 Rondes van Vlaanderen, and 3 Paris-Roubaixs – and he’s won most of the smaller races over the pavé, too. It must be those palmares, combined with his riding style and his allegiance to the teams of Patrick Lefevere, that gives people the irresistible urge to constantly compare him to Johan Museeuw. It’s a fair comparison, of course – they’re very similar riders. But when, as of yesterday, people were still posing questions like “is Boonen the next Johan Museeuw?” I just have to shake my head. It was a valid question three years ago, but now?

Let’s have a look at how they stack up win-wise in the races that are best suited to the basic characteristics that both men share. (The selection of races shown is purely at my discretion – feel free to argue about it.)

To my eye, though the numbers break out a little differently, Boonen has already at least drawn even with the retired Museeuw, though you could probably score it either way if you tried hard enough.

There’s no denying that Boonen lacks wins in some of the races Museeuw conquered, like those “classic” victories in the Zuri-Metzgete and HEW Cyclassics that Museeuw gained while chasing the old World Cup title (which he won in 1995 and 1996). But those races are far less important now, and not worth focusing on like Museeuw did in the World Cup years. In the big cobbled classics, Museeuw is still one Tour of Flanders win up on Boonen, though he lacks a Gent-Wevelgem title. The older Lion can boast an Amstel Gold win, which doesn’t seem to be on Boonen’s wish list and may be outside his abilities with the changes to the course since Museeuw's win in 1994. Museeuw also owns one Paris-Tours, which should be well within Boonen’s skill set. Museeuw and Boonen both have one World Championship title to their credit, but Museeuw also owns two Belgian national champion’s jerseys, and you have to believe that Boonen would like at least one of those. Finally, Boonen has somehow failed to yield a Het Volk/Het Niewsblad title yet, while Museeuw collected two.

So considering the above, how can I score them equal in stature? Well, two reasons. The first is that classics riders have to find something to do all summer, and that’s usually trying to bag stage wins. In that capacity, Boonen has far, far exceeded Museeuw. On the biggest stage, the Tour, he’s won six stages to Museeuw’s two, and bagged a green jersey as well. While Museeuw’s other stage wins were mostly in smaller Spanish stage races (e.g., Ruta del Sol, Tour of Valencia), the Four Days of Dunkirk, and a couple stages of the Tour de Suisse, to be fair, many of Boonen’s have been captured in ProTour stage races, including the Vuelta a Espana, Paris-Nice, the Eneco Tour, and the Tour of Belgium. And, particularly if you exclude criteriums, Boonen's overall palmares are just much longer and of higher quality.

My second reason is simpler, and involves less fuzzy math and conjecture. Museeuw retired at the age of 38, with many of his biggest victories coming after his 30th year. Boonen, on the other hand, is 28 and very much an active rider. So, in short, Boonen has reached this level of success in a far shorter time. Will Boonen's palmares soon definitively exceed those of his mentor? Almost certainly. A Milan-San Remo, Paris-Tours, and additional cobbled classics are still available if the cards fall right. The question now is how long Boonen will continue to ride – after his amazing 2005 season, he floated the idea of stopping at 30, saying he didn’t want to linger into old age. As someone over 30, I’m trying not to take offense to that, but we’ll have to see if the ensuing four years have changed his mind. After all, the job pays well, and the kid has some expensive habits…

So why, after each of Boonen’s big cobbled victories, do people continue to reflexively ask whether he “stacks up” to the legendary Museeuw? For me, the answer is simple – weather. Boonen’s Flanders and Roubaix wins have all come in pretty fair weather, and Boonen crosses the line bathed in late afternoon sunshine, teeth and jersey glowing white, maybe a little dusty. Museeuw, on the other hand, was a rain and mud magnet – just Google for pictures of his 2002 Roubaix win, and you’ll see a textbook on how to forge your legend.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling Boonen a fair weather rider, and I think that when the rains do return to Flanders and Roubaix, Boonen will still be there at the kill. Like Museeuw, Boonen wins hard races against hard competition and whatever nature provides. It’s just that Boonen needs to make it look harder, and for that, he needs a little cooperation from mother nature. One or two mud-encrusted Boonen wins, and the comparisons should take care of themselves. And if not, time will do it for him – everything looks harder when us older folks are doing it.

Race Radio

  • Silence-Lotto finally made it into the move that mattered, putting both Leif Hoste and Johan Vansummeren into the royal breakaway that also contained Boonen, Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), and Thor Hushovd (Cervelo). Man, I’ve been waiting weeks to type that. Unfortunately, they got caught out a bit when Flecha elected to auger himself into the ground, but what can you do? Next step: win something. I think the Grote Scheldeprijs this week is calling their name.

  • Pozzato may not have brought home any trophies this week, but he’s inserted himself into the list of cobbled contenders in a way that he hadn’t before. Maybe it’s his fashion choices, his manner, or his palmares, but he’s never really shouted “nails” the way a Boonen, a Van Petegem, or even any number of Flemish kermis specialists do. And though he’ll probably continue to have a better off-bike wardrobe than his competition, nobody will take him for a harmless pretty boy in the cobbled classics from here on out. Even better, the Flemish fans gave him a hell of a hard time in the finale, giving him a coating of spit and beer and closing the road down on him, and he gracefully brushed it off in the post-race interviews.

  • Those cobble-level TV shots they like to get at Roubaix are good at showing a peloton shape that’s pretty unique to the race: the trident, formed by one line of riders coming up the crown, and one line in each gutter.

  • Is it just me, or did the Garmin car seem to wait for George Hincapie (Columbia) to get on the bumper after his flat and awkward tire change?

  • Speaking of George, I like him, I really do. And I know that Versus is aimed at the American audience, many of whom are familiar with Hincapie from his support of Armstrong at the Tour de France all those years. But could Versus please dial back the Hincapie love a notch or two? Call the race, make note of the local favorite and get a quote, but don’t be the cheering section.

  • Speaking of Versus, remember last year when Phil and Paul were crowing and clucking and harumphing at every opportunity about Astana being excluded from some ASO races based on events that transpired the year before? Not so much vocalization now that Fuji-Servetto (formerly Saunier Duval) is the team getting the door slammed on them for the same sorts of issues, eh? I mean, sure, it’s not All-American Leipheimer and Horner getting screwed this year, but Ivan Dominguez is an American now. Can’t a former Cuban get a little jingo love from the home broadcaster?

  • It wasn’t a big attack, but 2001 Roubaix winner Servais Knaven gave it a dig, anyhow. Always a team man, Knaven led Domo’s (another Lefevere team) sweep of the podium that year, getting away while everyone kept an eye on Museeuw. Romans Vainsteins (Remember him? And his rat-tail?) was third. Knaven may not be a star, but his move was the first time I remember Milram doing anything notable, or even visible, this classics season.

  • With his third Roubaix win, Boonen enters some pretty elite company, including late model legends like Museeuw, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, and Rik Van Looy, as well as old-timey heroes Octave Lapize and Gaston Rebry. Again, with time left on the clock, equaling four win record of Roger "Mr. Paris-Roubaix" DeVlaeminck doesn't seem to far out of reach, does it?

  • My longshot predictions from Friday proved to be just that -- longshots. Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) was able to follow the early splits, but fell out of contention come crunch time. Still a career week for him. Kevyn Ista (Agritubel) did arrive in Roubaix eventually, but at more than 17 minutes behind, he finished hors delay. At least you still get the famous shower at the end.

  • Seeing some new contenders emerge this week has me looking forward to next year. With Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) hopefully back from injury and illness, Pozzato possibly supported by a strengthened second-year Katusha, Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) improving and back for another crack, Sylvain Chavanel (Quick.Step) making things interesting for the French again, and Boonen, Stijn Devolder, and Hoste still flying the Belgian flag, it should be a vintage year.