Archive | March, 2010

Celebrating Second Place

28 Mar

Cycling’s a strange discipline. In what other sport would it be perfectly normal to describe a string of second-places in high profile events as “a problem“. In cycling, while three athletes get to ascend the podium, there’s the winner, and then there’s everybody else.

It’s almost better for everyone if the win is a “no one else in the photo” affair. The victor gets a moment to formulate a fun salute and show off the sponsors, while the rider behind him takes the battle for second, rather than losing the sprint for first.

The reactions for second place are practically scripted. Look away in disgust. Clinch your face in a pained expression. Bang the bars. Flail your arms about one of the swerves or bumps that are as much a part of the final k as the red kite. And under no circumstances look at all pleased with the situation.

         

Every so often, though, someone’s too excited to remember the rules. Sep Vanmarcke (who’s on Facebook, btw) put in a great ride at Gent-Wevelgem today, hanging tough with a turbocharged group of one-day riders at a pace tough enough to shell an on-form Oscar Freire. The Belgian even threw out an audacious attack 3k to go.

In the final sprint, Vanmarcke caught the wheel of winner Eisel, and held off a hard-charging Philippe Gilbert for second. While it wasn’t exactly a celebration, cameras still caught the Topsport giving a fist-pump of relief as he crossed the line.

I suppose everybody gets to celebrate second once. But I can almost guarantee that Vanmarcke’s next second place will come with a scowl.

Fixing Tom Boonen

27 Mar

The relationship between Tom Boonen and the E3 Prijs has got to be one of the most complex in cycling. The second-tier classic was one of the Belgian’s first major wins in his wunderkind days, and he had a literal lock on the event for four straight years.

But the past two editions have not been kind. Last year’s race ended with an uncharacteristic loss in a three-up sprint, and in this year’s race, Boonen was victimized by the combination of a brilliantly timed attack and a poorly negotiated bit of traffic furniture.

It’s not like Boonen has lost a step. While he was pretty much a non-factor in the bunch sprints at last year’s Tour, Boonen has maintained—if not improved—his ability to put in race-making moves. The Taaienberg in particular has been his personal playground this season; he crushed the field over it at Het Nieuwsblad, and used the climb to make today’s selection as well.

But let’s face it—Boonen is beginning to make a habit out of bending races to his will and then coming up short in the finale. E3 and Paris-Tours in ’09, KBK and E3 again this year. Even in his biggest win in recent memory—the 2009 Paris-Roubiax—Boonen made the selecting attacks, but it was assistance from a few dodgy corners that secured him the win.

I’d hate to advocate for less aggressive racing (or tell Boonen/QS director Patrick Lefevere what to do), but a more conservative approach might better serve the Belgian champ. His QuickStep teammates were controlling the pace and shelling riders by the fistful in the run-up to the Taaienberg today.

Rather than detonating the field, QS might have done better to continue pressing the tempo, giving Boonen an armchair ride near the front of the pack while his rivals hemorrhaged teammates and burned matches jockeying to stay out of the wind. The end result would be a more rested Boonen, more battered opponents, and fewer kilometers between a decisive Boonen attack and the finish line.

Conversely, QuickStep might make better use of their numbers by putting one of Boonen’s high-octane lieutenants into the break, forcing rivals to shoulder the responsibility of pace-setting, and giving Boonen incentive to not attack until later in the event.

While quiet seasons thus far from renowned QS griefers Sylvain Chavanel and Stijn Devolder might have taken some of the sting out of that particular tactic, both Lefevere’s past performance in the classics and QuickStep’s empty slate thus far suggest the Belgian squad will be pulling out some new tricks as the meat of the classics season approaches.

Is It Possible To Be Too Pro

24 Mar

While I’ve made occasional reference to the concept of “pro”-ness on this blog, that fact is that it’s never been something of special concern to me.

I have neither the income to assemble my own housing-level pro build, nor the free time to aggregate links directing my readers to the same. But recent events have got me wondering if being too pro can be detrimental, if not to one’s riding, then certainly to one’s image.

Case in point: Alberto Contador. It’s tough to argue that he’s anything but the best stage racer in the world right now. But (and I’m probably the last person to get around to mentioning this) the “fingerbang” branded equipment and apparel is starting to weird people out. According to the link, it’s so pro that no one’s selling it—though I’d imagine most riders would think twice before throwing their leg over that saddle.

Now let’s look at Oscar Freire. While he takes flack for his “here-today-gone-tomorrow” track record, I think three Worlds and three Sanremos speak for themselves. And how does Oscarito roll? With a minipump attached with duct tape, making his own adjustments to his infuriating cut-to-fit seatpost, and wearing a stock helmet with his initials Sharpied onto it.

Quite the contrast to the diamond-studded lid once worn by MSR first-loser, Tom Boonen. In fact, Boonen’s casque-to-cleat Belgian tricolor kit missed another win today at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Despite getting into the race-making selection at 40km to go, Boonen found himself bested by Danish champ Matti Breschel in his split-kit—which, depending on who you ask, is either totally bush league, or the epitome of retro-cool (the mostly-black shorts help).

And I don’t want to say anything against Vacansoleil, since they’ve both animated and delivered (another podium today) throughout this classics this season, but those kits, while not completely ugly, aren’t exactly pro—further evidence of a correlation.

So what’s the take-away from all this? Hedge your bets on Condator, and put the big money on Footon at the Grio.

Strange News While I'm Off The Grid

18 Mar

Man, I go off the grid for a second and the whole world goes bananas. I don’t even know where to begin.

First, Versus (Comcast, really) and DirecTV get into yet another idiotic conflict over carriage rates. Versus temporarily disappears from DirecTV, words are exchanged, and predictably, the modern-day frog war is resolved.

Strangely, Velonews, the leading cycling publication in the only country that this nonsense affects, has nothing to report about it beyond the same press release that everyone else got. Apparently, VS is how most Americans get their cycling—and you guys have nothing to say about it?

Then Nokere Koerse—a 70 man bunch sprint on cobbles? I understand that it’s among the smallest of the semi-classics, but still, the domination by smaller/non-classics teams is astounding. The first QuickStep rider was way back in 14th! I wish I’d seen it so I could say more, but certainly not your typical March race.

Things are always a little odd in the run-up to San Remo, I suppose. It’s a tough race to predict. You can be mathematical about it, but honestly, this is probably just as good. What’s really important in a race preview is that your website scales to fit different screen sizes so people can actually see pictures of the contenders.

Personally, I’ll just submit to the gambler’s fallacy and say that Linus Gerdemann will win MSR because the race hasn’t seen a real late break in a few years, and both he and his team are “due”. I also won’t have to suffer the ignominy of watching my pick turn to dust live this year (still in North Carolina) so I’m willing to be a bit more bold.

In a final bit of oddness, it appears that Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador will both compete at a newly-Corsican version of Criterium Internationale, a race better known as the GP Jens Voigt, until the German decided to take it off his schedule this season.

It feels like a decided change from the way I remember things in Lance’s dominant years, as he and Ullrich would seemingly plot their training on parellel courses, but avoid face-to-face meetups. Perhaps the Texan is looking to make a statement following Contador’s February TT victory.

The New "Stop Lance" Shirt

15 Mar

Stop Lance T-ShirtSo this (also available in white/red and black/yellow) is probably going to take some explanation.

The best place to start would be with a history lesson: in 1972, Steve Prefontaine had energized American audiences with his sensational distance running, leading to a proliferation of fan shirts that simply read “Go Pre”.

A few contrarians decided it would be clever to create a rival shirt, one that said “Stop Pre!” in a red stop sign for the 5000m Olympic Trials, and even persuaded one of Prefontaine’s rivals, Gerry Lindgren, to don the tee during warmups.

Pre was unmoved, and after winning the race, changed the face of sports forever by calmly slipping on a fan’s “Stop Pre” shirt and jogging his victory lap in it. The message, later relayed in a famous Jordan/Nike ad was clear—your critique will only amplify my legend.

So after years of torment from sunburnt tourists flailing little circular “Lance Fan” signs, I’ve created a shirt that lets the cycling-literate observer separate themselves the masses.

The message works for pretty much any audience, from someone who genuinely likes Armstrong but could do without the cult, to the most vehement Lance hater—but as I mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to lay criticism without tacitly highlighting your target’s talent and ability.

One final note: I don’t think I’m the first person to come up with this idea. I seem to remember reading an old Mountain Bike Action in which opponents of the Texan’s attempt to qualify for both on- and off-road events at the 2000 Olympics created a similar garment. If anyone could point me in the right direction for more info on that, I’d be grateful.

We Are Currently Experiencing Technical Difficulties

11 Mar

So for those of you who aren’t following me on Twitter, I’m currently in western North Carolina, getting in some riding and destroying my car on the very mountain roads that allegedly make this place so nice to ride in.

Unfortunately, the infrastructure I need to produce things on this blog have been hard to come by in these parts. Even staying on top of news stories, like Jens Voight’s return to awesome or Maxime Iglinksy’s win at Striade Bianche (I told you he could ride) has been a struggle, but considering my current setup, I’m lucky for even occasional blurps of news.

I’m just hoping a solution can be found before Milan-Sanremo, because it looks like it’s going to be one of the most hotly contested events in years. Boonen is on-form, and the lineup includes a fistful of former winners, including Oscar Freire, Filippo Pozzato, Mark Cavendish, and even a dinged-up Alessandro Petacchi.

And to quiet those of you who think that sprints are, by nature, “boring”, let me remind you that there are plenty of contenders with the ability to try something over the final few climbs. Linus Gerdemann has a pair of gritty wins achieved with late-race moves this season and a team desperate to see some good news in the headlines. And a driven youngster seems determined to give it a go as well.

But keep a special eye on Heinrich Haussler, who somehow managed to make a late attack and still sprint for second at Het Nieuwsblad earlier this season. He’s currently resting up in preparation for Sanremo, and despite a strong second place finish last year, probably could have placed even higher if fewer team resources had been directed to a Hushovd win.

Politics Between The Races

4 Mar

Armstrong in the pack / Angus Kingston, cc-by

Kind of a strange little hiatus, here. Two biggish races and then a little gap before the ProTour gets rolling at Paris-Nice. True, Lance is racing again, but I don’t find the early season warm-up all that compelling—certainly not when I can spend my time sussing out the various mind games at work.

It’s probably just that I’m looking for it, but does it seem like Armstrong is “looking great” a lot more often these days, and even managing to “eliminate some riders“. I seem to recall the Texan of old being far more coy during his prep races, though he has engaged in the age-old tactic of labeling someone else the favorite. I guess we’ll see what’s really up during Friday’s time trial.

I almost get the feeling that there’s something about cycling that lends itself to this sort of intrigue and posturing. The fact that hours of racing hinge on the actions of a few seconds seems to have inculcated instincts in everyone associated with the sport to work for every possible advantage, on and off the bike. And, of course, the politics also make a convenient scapegoat.

Thomas Dekker got the mandated two-year suspension for doping while Ricco got off with a reduced sentence? Ah, victim of politics. Didn’t get even a basic pro license because your squad makes Team Lada look like a rigorously-drilled drumline? Friggin’ politics!

But right when you’re about write it all off as a convenient excuse, something happens that makes so little sense that there can be no other explanation.

Is It Time To Update The Opening Weekend?

1 Mar

The 2010 season’s opening weekend has come and gone, and its traditionally tough races did not disappoint.

Juan-Antonio Flecha finally got his first classic win at Het Nieuwsblad—though a glance over his shoulder just before his winning salute might have been a coy reference to that race he should have won.

The next day, KBK delivered wonderfully miserable conditions, through which three relative unknowns held off a high-powered chase before Bobbie Traksel of increasingly prominent wild-card squad Vacansoleil took an exhausted sprint for the win.

Sadly though, I think this might be the beginning of the end for Belgium’s opening weekend of racing. Not to take anything away from the combined efforts of Stannard, Flens and Traksel, but a sizable chunk of the big names behind them had already dropped out by the time their decisive group coalesced.

Not only that, but the chase that did form to hunt them down seemed to be missing a gear. Jeremy Hunt’s dramatic implosion—straight out of the chase and into the car—and the sight of the Cervelo TestTeam stuffing his exhausted teammate Hushovd full of energy bars in the finishing circuits suggest that back-to-back days of all-out classic racing might be heading the way of the TdF split-stage.

Spring racing used to be a different animal. Riders came in weak and flabby, and other than a few show-offs, put in the miles for fitness, not glory. But with the season now officially beginning in January, and riders keeping year-round fitness in warmer climates, the racing at Het Niewsblad seems as hotly contested as any other one-day event.

The Belgian calendar has already been altered to give riders more time between events, and to provide promoters with more aggressive, star-studded events. Despite my sentimental attachment to Saturday-Sunday racing, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if KBK were moved back a week in the next few years.

If the empty barriers in Kortrijk yesterday—more a result of DNF’d Belgian riders than the miserable weather—are any indication, it’s the right move for a rapidly modernizing sport.