I think we all should have smelled it last May, when Petacchi and his supporting cast offered themselves out as a a three million Euro package deal (search “Meanwhile”) just three days before committing a blunder on par with what I used to dodge in Collegiate C fields. Certainly, the harebrained dual-sprinter schemes (second paragraph) that kept changing as the off-season went on should have tipped us off, and by the much publicized ousting (scroll to “Sprenger”) of two former hard-liners from the squad, we all should have should have sensed that something was perhaps amiss back in the Milram team car.
But now that the season is on in good standing, things have most definately started to curdle over at Milram. Milan-San Remo? They blew it by going to the front and burning off too many riders too soon. Tour of Flanders? What were they thinking even putting Petacchi in the race? Zabel was at best a longshot, but with a couple of Top 10s on his palmares, he at least deserved a full squad behind him. Gent-Wevelgem? Refer to “Milan-San Remo” earlier in this paragraph. In fact, the squad’s biggest result of the season to date might be their jersey, which has proven much more distinctive than was first expected.
Sure, Ale-Jet beat up on Boonen a couple times at the Ruta del Sol, but squeakers in a February tune-up aren’t exactly the train-on-greased-rails wins at Grand Tours that Milram shelled out sponsorship dough for. Now, I’ll admit that Petacchi didn’t have many rivals back in the ’04 Giro, but still, the inability of the Milram supporting cast – and not it’s not the riders I’m talking about, here – to figure out a way to get a sprinter to the line at speed and in position has been prominent this season.
Let’s observe last weekend’s Henninger Turm. I get the basic plan of attack, here: German race, slightly uphill finish, Zabel’s got a good track record, so let’s make him the leader. But having Ale-Jet lead him out? If the finish is fast enough for Petacchi to lead out, why isn’t it fast enough for him to take the win? Petacchi has spent the last four years focusing like a lazer on being the fastest man in the world for 200 meters, so why expect anyone to be able to follow his burst? Putting Ale-Jet in that race only disrupted what should be one of the best lead-out trains in the world, all for the chance of a heartwarming “teammates” news story.
This brings me to the point (if there is one – and there very well might not be – I currently have no bed, no desk, no functional computer, I haven’t posted in a week, etc.) of my complaint, which is that Milram should stop doing this crap Zabel/Petacchi thing. Lots of teams have multiple sprinters, but very few try to make them lead each other out. Last year, Panaria had Graeme Brown, Brett Lancaster, Paride Grillo and Ruben Bongiornio, and rather than slam these squares into circle-shaped lead out roles, they’d just kinda huck them all at the line at once. Davitamon-Lotto occasionally makes Tom Steels or Fred Rodriguez lead out Robbie Mac, but Robbie’s not exactly a “lead out” kind of sprinter, and Fred…well, generally, Fred doesn’t contend on his own.
So why try to shoehorn a guy like Zabel, who’s always been a finishing rider, into a role for proven lead out men like Velo, Lombardi or Zanotti? No rider gets called a “true professional” more often than Erik Zabel, but as a supporting teammate, he’s far better with a hand sling than a lead-out. That’s why I think your odds of seeing a finish like this again are far better than your odds of seeing one like this. Fortunately, the Grand Tours are upon us and hopefully, Petacchi will have a strong, Zabel-less Giro. Then perhaps Milram management will see the light, and Peta’ and the Zab’ will be allowed to race their seperate ways.