Mergers seem to be all the rage in corporate America. Sometimes it's a good thing, sometimes not. In case you missed it, one of the most interesting mergers in the sports world is the recently announced union between the Indy Racing League(IRL) and Champ Car. Hey, that's open wheel car racing for those of you who aren't concerned about anything with more than two wheels.
It's been twelve years since Tony George took his Indy 500 and his ego and started the Indy Racing League. We already had a successful open wheel series, Champ Car, with all the top drivers including the Unsers, Andrettis and Rahals. But, Tony George wanted a bigger slice of the pie and since he owned the rights to the most popular open wheel race on the planet, the Indy 500 (sorry Monaco GP), he figured he had the juice to make it happen.
Of course, what did happen was that everybody lost. Champ Car has become a non-factor and the Indy Racing League turned into the 'oval racing league'. If Danica Patrick hadn't arrived a couple of years ago, the IRL would have put everyone to sleep and would have all but disappeared as well. Hopefully, the merger will take US open wheel racing off life support and we won't have resort to watching the good ol' boys swapping paint every weekend from some town where everybody knows the words to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again."
What does this have to do with cycling? Well, our good friends at the UCI and their nemesis ASO are at it again. Maybe it is just a huge case of Euro-cabin fever, but just like same time last year, these two organizations are sparring over control of European professional bike racing. ASO owns the Tour de France, Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and just about every other big race on the pro calendar. The UCI owns, well, uh, um, only the the World Championships and since they moved those from August to October nobody seems to care all that much.
So, what's at stake? It's all about the Benjamins. ASO, with it's rich TV contracts has them. The UCI, which can't seem to market the World Championships to save their life, doesn't have many Benjamin's at all. Let's forget all the polemics(that's a big word meaning politics), it really is about the green. ASO has it and the UCI wants it.
How is this similar to the IRL/Champ Car merger? I side with ASO on this one, but still I hope that both sides can work something out before the situation becomes critical and the teams and riders have to decide between the two. I suffered for 12 years while open wheel racing in the US became about as exciting as watching paint dry. If that happens to pro cycling, I may actually have to stop watching TV and go out and ride my bike.
Most aggro dude: GQ George Hincapie. He spent more time off the front and in more stages than anybody else. He went long on the climbs; he went long on the flats and even had enough gas left in the tank to go long on the final day as well.
Little Engine that Could Team: BMC Racing is one of the young up and coming teams looking for some love in the peloton. First with Jackson Stewart on Stage 1, then Scott Nydam on Stage 2, then with Taylor Tolleson on Stage 7, these boys showed that they came to play.
Hard Luck Kid: Health Net Maxxis' Roman Kilun was in that huge breakaway on the abysmal Highway 1 day and must have had jello for legs for the next day's time trial. Unfortunately, he flatted at the most inopportune moment on the course and could not get a new wheel for almost 2 miles. He missed the day's
time cut by only a minute and was out of the race. Sometimes lady luck just doesn't have a heart.
Not so Lantern Rouge: Michael Creed is the consummate journeyman pro, having spent time on all the major U.S. pro squads. Now on Rock Racing, he was having difficulty finding his form all week long which found him languishing at the bottom of the standings (the venerable lantern rouge). But Creed found some legs on the last day, initiated the major breakaway and even tried to launch himself over the massive Mill Creak Summit first.
Mr. Belgian: yes, there are real Belgians like Tom Boonen at the race. However, Australian, Henk Vogels, on the Toyota United team looks and acts (that's supposed to be a compliment) like the prototypical Belgian Hardman. Always ready for battle and seemingly with an endless ear-to-ear grin, I don't think the rain affected Henk one bit.
Classiest Rider: hey, all the guys who rode the AToC are classy, but one guy seemed to stand out. Paolo Bettini just knows how to look good on and off the bike and his engaging smile just seems to say, "bike racing is cool." I hope Il Grillo can win the final stage.
Bogus Move: the officials for DQing Mark Cavendish's stage win in Santa Clarita. Cavendish's move to use the team cars to pace him back into the pack after a late-race crash is something commonly done in Europe, but for some reason, not appreciated here in the U.S. Cavendish was just doing what any good sprinter would have done and he should have been given the win.
Best Ride of the race: Levi was expected to do well in the TT, as was David Millar, but Christian Vandevelde's third place was a very pleasant surprise. This will be Christian's third straight top-10 finish overall in this race
and his first time on the podium. Honorable mention to Levi for thoroughly schooling the field and holding onto the jersey.
Best Finish: Dominique Rollin in San Luis Obispo. It was sooooo bad out there for so long that everyone wanted the riders to bring it home and get warm. Nice to see one of the U.S. pro teams win one from the Pro Tour boys.
Crowd Favorite: Super Mario Cipollini. He's told me several times that this is his second career on the bike so it's like playing with the house's money, but that hasn't kept him from dicing it up at the finish. This man has rock star persona written all over him and the crowds mob him to prove it.
Peloton Heartthrob: Tom Boonen is one of the most recognizable faces in the pro peloton and for good reason. The heir apparent to Super Mario, Tom also has that rock star aura that whips his fans into a frenzy.
Hardest Working Man on Two Wheels: Che Chu Rubiera was on the front for Team Astana virtually the entire race. And he was on the front when it mattered most: over Mount Hamilton and Sierra Road. This guy does his job like no other and always has a smile and kind word while doing it.
Well, that's it for now. If you have some of your own awards to hand out, feel free to post up.
Time for the 2008 Amgen Tour of California(AToC) Peloton Awards. These prestigious awards honor riders, team personnel, race organizers and anyone else I feel like for their contributions to making the race what it is. Since the Academy Awards will be held tomorrow very close to the finish of the race, we are going to start with some more fashion-related observations.
Flashiest Team Jersey: Rock Racing! This new kit rocks and you can buy it!
Preppiest Team Jersey: Slipstream. Rumor has it that after the race they are all pledging with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity
Rugby Jersey: With their all-black kit, look for the boys from Health Net-Maxxis to be lining up with our favorite Kiwi rugby team.
Most Retro Jersey: Team High Road Sports with that lettering straight out of the late '70s.
Sentimental Favorite Jersey: Team Astana. I liked them at the Tour, I still like them and some guy named Levi is kicking major butt in it as well.
Most Patriotic Jersey: Toyota United. It's OK that a Canadian rode it across the line to victory in San Luis Obispo.
Most Edible Jersey: Jelly Belly. These guys are up against some pretty big boys, but they continue to exude positive energy.
Jersey Most in Need of a Makeover: BMC. I have already acknowledged that I have no fashion sense, but these guys need to spice it up a bit. Boring.
Lint Free Jersey: Bissell Pro Cycling. These guys have a great sponsor in Mark Bissell and with two riders in the top 10 at the Solvang TT, they are definitely cleaning up.
Sunglasses Jersey: Saunier Duval-Scott has the brightest jersey out there and they wear it well. Next year bring some English-speaking riders so I can interview to them.
Steal this Jersey: Rabobank. The Dutch bank has opened some offices in California so they are almost the home town team.
Most Classic Jersey: Team CSC. With just the right mix of lettering and colors, this jersey looks great at the head of the peloton which is where the No. 1-rated team usually is!
Almost as Classic Jersey: Tom Boonen and his Quick Step boys are almost as classic. If they could just get that diminutive Italian to give up his rainbow stripes then they would be there! I am not even going to say anything about the gold shoes.
Honorable mentions: Kelly Benefit Strategies/Medifast, Bouygues Telecom and Credit Agricole for adding their own color to the peloton.
Well, that's the jersey portion of the awards. More to follow at the conclusion of the race.
Levi Leipheimer delivered a good old-fashioned drubbing in today's 15-mile individual time trial at the Amgen Tour of California (AToC). With only 20 or so seconds separating all the big names this was definitely the most exciting day so far in the race. And it was the defending champion Leipheimer who rode one of the best time trials of his career to put an authoritative stamp on the race. His winning margin of 29 seconds over Slipstream's David Millar was even more impressive than last year, when he bested an in-form Jens Voigt.
The much-anticipated duel between Leipheimer and Team CSC's Fabian Cancellara failed to materialize as the two-time defending World Champion finished fifth, 1:05 back and just behind his teammate, Gustav Larsson. After the finish, Cancellara indicated that his performance in staying with the lead group on Tuesday's mountainous stage over Mount Hamilton and Sierra Road had left him a bit flat.
There were a lot of other bright moments in Solvang. In addition to Millar's brilliant second place, Christian Vandevelde uncorked a super ride as well to put two Slipstream/Chipotle riders on the finish podium. Dave Zabriskie's sixth-place finish was another great result for Jonathan Vaughter's boys as well. The team's power guru, Dr. Allen Lim, indicated that the most important thing in the time trial for his riders was to go out a bit easier than normal then build towards the finish.
With two days of racing remaining, and lots of climbing to boot, it is probably too early to call the overall winner. Levi is clearly motivated and his team has been killing themselves to keep him in the leader's jersey. However, there are number of teams still looking to make Team Astana earn the victory. Look for Team CSC, High Road Sports and Slipstream/Chipotle to be very aggressive on Saturday's stage which includes a number of short, steep climbs.
There as has been a lot of sickness following the AToC. Teams like Slipstream/Chipotle and Gerolsteiner seem to have been hit the hardest, but Chris Horner is also fighting a bug that has left him down on his strength.
After the deluge on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are looking dry with Sunday potentially seeing more rain. With the race reaching its highest point at just under 5,000 feet on Sunday, hopefully, it will be a warm rain.
UCI President Pat McQuaid is attending the race. I asked him if there was a limit to the number of days to which the AtoC could expand and he replied that there is no limit. Before we start thinking that the Tour of California may become a three-week race like the Tour de France, hopefully, the race organizers will add a day and run Saturday to Sunday so that the event can head down south towards San Diego.
I wrote in my blog a couple of weeks ago how much I hated riding in the rain. Well, the skies have opened up on the Amgen Tour of California (AToC) today and things have gotten messy. This is the showcase stage, 135 miles down ultra-scenic Highway 1. Unfortunately, the seasonal 20-30 mph north tailwind which usually propels the peloton on the race's longest stage to an average speed close to 30 mph, has done a 180 degree turnabout. Not only are the racers riding into a bitingly cold 20-30mph wind, but lashing rain has made it just that much more unpleasant.
OK. These guys are pros and they have to be prepared for a few days of rain here and there, but this is almost a perfect storm scenario coming on the day after the hardest stage in AToC history. Not surprisingly, there have been a number of notable abandons including Tom Danielson, Ivan Dominguez and almost half of the German-based Team Gerlosteiner.
In the press room, watching the race on TV, it definitely looks like a case of "anywhere but here" for the 110 or so riders remaining in the race. These guys are going to need some hot showers, a nice long massage and some good food as tomorrow is the all-important individual time trial (ITT) -- which will almost surely determine who will wear the gold race leader's jersey to the finish in Pasadena come Sunday. Look for a two-way battle between Leipheimer and Cancellara with Millar and Zabriskie as potential spoilers. Don't miss it!
A couple of quick notes: I talked with Tyler Hamilton of Rock Racing yesterday. He told me that, as I reported a few days ago, Rock Racing had a letter from the UCI, dated February 14th, that said there were no open doping investigations on any member of the team. Michael Ball made that letter public at his press conference last Saturday. Tyler indicated that the race organizers claimed to have a letter from the UCI, dated February 16th, that said there was an open doping investigation. However, nobody has seen this new letter. This whole affair seems reminiscent of the movie Animal House with Rock Racing being on "double secret probation."
Word is circulating that the AToC may visit the San Diego area next year. It is not clear at this writing if the race will increase the number of days it will run or if some of this year's stages will be scrapped to make room for the trek south. Stay tuned for details.
Today was the queen stage in the 2008 Amgen Tour of California (AToC) with the grueling climbs of Mount Hamilton and Sierra Road looking to separate the pretenders from the contenders. And that it did, providing some of the most memorable moments in the three-year history of the event.
Before the stage, I asked Levi if he thought the race would be made on the first (Mount Hamilton) or second (Sierra Road) climb. His response was simply "Sierra Road." His Team Astana teammate Chris Horner echoed his leader's reply noting that the game plan was to get as many Astana riders as possible over Mount Hamilton and then let it play out on the punishing 13-15 percent slopes of Sierra Road.
And that's what Astana did, bringing back everybody including a bold move by High Road Sports rider George Hincapie. When the 15-rider strong lead group hit the final climb it was definitely game on. Astana's Che Chu Rubiera laid down some heavy tempo for the first third of the climb and then the race exploded. It was great to see Che Chu at the front of the race in the mountains giving his all for his team leader, even more so as he set tempo up a major portion of Mount Hamilton as well. It was clearly a reminder of how hard he worked for Lance in his multiple Tour de France wins.
Back to the final climb where it was down to just four riders, Leipheimer, Horner, Dave Zabriskie and Robert Gesink of Rabobank at the halfway mark when Gesink, who rode well on Sierra last year as well, put in a vicious attack and then there were only two. Clearly gunning for the stage win, Gesink set a hard tempo as he and Leipheimer pulled away, cresting the summit 45 seconds ahead of Zabriskie and Horner, who were to be caught by the remains of the original 15-man lead group on the descent.
What ensued was cat-and-mouse with Gesink and Leipheimer doing all they could to hold off the charging bunch. At the finish, Gesink took the stage with Leipheimer taking the leader's jersey. But wait, there's more...Fabian Cancellara was able to infiltrate the chase group which means Levi's lead is a mere 13 or so seconds over the two-time World Time Trial Champion. At the finish, I asked Levi if he had won the AToC today, he astutely said, "no, it is a long ways from over."
It looks like the race will come down to Friday's individual time trial. Don't count out Slipstream/Chipotle's two Daves, Zabriskie and Millar. They are both capable of putting together a ride to take the jersey from Levi. And with only 15-30 seconds separating a whole host of riders while Levi is in the driver's seat, the race is far from over. Back in 2006, Leipheimer wore the race leader's jersey into the San Jose TT only to have Floyd Landis take it off his back. However, as true champions do, Levi made amends last year and simply
smoked the entire field in Solvang in 2007. Not to put any pressure on the Leipheimer, but it is now his race to lose.
Hey, how about the Gesink kid. Last Friday, I went riding with the Rabobank team in the hills above Silicon Valley. I remembered Robert from his cracking ride last year and remarked that with his skinny physique, he looked like a climber. His response was, "yeah, but I am too long[tall]." I wish I was that tall! He even sat on my wheel and let me set the pace on the climbs. What a nice guy.
Even though we have had three days of very exciting racing at the Amgen Tour of California (AToC), the real race for the overall title begins tomorrow with a potentially epic stage over the 4,200-foot Mount Hamilton and the 2,000-foot Sierra Road, which boast grades of up to 15 percent as it climbs 1,800 feet in 3.8 miles. Expect to see riders like Levi Leipheimer, Jens Voigt, Jason McCartney, Tom Danielson, Robert Gesink, Chris Horner and Janez Brajkovic in the mix in the final miles of the stage.
The big guns will be firing and with cloudy skies and the potential for a few showers, the stage could take on epic proportions. This is clearly the hardest road stage ever held in the AToC's young history and will undoubtedly see a small group of riders who are not considered contenders for the overall title go up the road even before the Mount Hamilton climb. These "no-hopers" may even stay clear to the top of Mount Hamilton and all the way to the base of the brutal Sierra Road, but look for their shot at stage glory to be erased on the slopes of the AToC's signature climb.
As legendary cycling photographer Graham Watson put it, "Levi doesn't need to win in San Jose, he just needs to shed himself of some of his competitors." Yeah, baby! The race is on!
In other notes, Slipstream/Chipotle rider Tyler Farrar who took over the AToC leader's jersey has a bit if difficult to pronounce last name. It's 'Farra' to you, just like that Charlie's Angel who used to be married to Ryan ONeal.
Scott Nydam who, like his BMC Racing teammate Jackson Stewart the day before, went on a long solo break on Stage 2 from Santa Rosa to Sacramento. Scott lives in Sebastapol which is close to the stage start. He told me he had several reasons to go off on a raining day in search of glory. First off, his father was recently diagnosed with leukemia and though the cancer is in remission, he wanted to do something for his dad. Secondly, Scott is a climbing specialist and was disappointed with how he rode on the Coleman Valley ascent yesterday especially since he trains a lot on that climb and knows it well. Good on ya, Scott.
And it appears that Super Mario is back. While he lost the final sprint to his heir apparent, Tom Boonen, Super Mario definitely seems to be enjoying what he calls his second career on the bike. A podium finish in Sacramento was a huge result for the upstart Rock Racing team. Michael Ball's squad appears to be settling into a rhythm and has put the first few turbulent days behind them. Rumor has it that Rock Racing may get the 25th and final team spot for the first classic of the season, Milan-San Remo, a race Il Leone has won and his teammate Freddie Rodriguez has finished second.
As reported earlier, Rock Racing started only five riders in today's first stage, the 2.1-mile prologue, in the 2008 Amgen Tour of California(AToC). AToC organizers excluded three of Rock Racing's riders supposedly because they had open doping investigations. Rock Racing has maintained that there are no open investigations, but race organizers held firm. Frankly, it is not clear to me that there are any open doping investigations. I haven't seen any public mention that there are any open investigations and none of the Rock Racing riders have been privately notified that they are under investigation.
What is interesting to me is the parallel between what happened earlier this week to Team Astana. In the Astana affair, Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) issued a statement that Team Astana will not be invited to any ASO events, which includes the Tour de France. ASO cited the past history of doping on the team as their reason for the exclusion. However, Team Astana is a completely different team in 2008. Gone are all the riders implicated in any 2007 doping infractions as well as the whole team management.
So, if all the problem riders and team personnel are gone the team should be clean. The only rider on the team with a potential problem is Alberto Contador who has been linked to the same Operacion Puerto affair that AToC organizers used as a reason to exclude the three Rock Racing riders.
I think the decisions to exclude three riders from the AToC and Team Astana from the Tour are unfair. If you are upset that Levi may not get to ride in France, I think to be consistent, you have to also be upset that Tyler, Oscar and Santiago aren't riding the AToC. Would it be fair to allow Team Astana to ride the Tour de France if they don't bring Alberto Contador? How do you all feel about this? Do you all agree that both decisions are unfair?
On to the racing news, which I hope will shortly eclipse all this talk of doping. My pre-race prediction (and I made that prediction on Thursday), Fabian Cancellara, obliterated the competition winning by a substantial four-second margin in the short, 2.1-mile prologue time trial. Levi Leipheimer, who won the first two prologue time trials in 2006 and 2007, finished fourth, six seconds back.
No big surprises in the race for the overall. All the overall contenders finished within 20 seconds of each other. With several big climbing stages and a 15-mile time trial yet to come, the race is still a dead heat. Cancellara could hold the jersey for the next two days which offers only moderate climbing and flat finishes. However, come stage 3 on Wednesday, when both Mount Hamilton and Sierra Road are on the agenda, look for the 2006 Paris-Roubaix Champion and two-time World Time Trial Champion to hopefully transfer the jersey to one of his teammates such as Jens Voigt, Stuart O'Grady or Bobby Julich.
Less than a day before the start of the 3rd annual Amgen Tour of California (AToC) and there is a huge storm on the horizon. At the center of the controversy is Michael Ball and his Rock Racing Team; the issue being whether certain riders on his team roster will be allowed to start the race. Earlier this week, Ball submitted ten riders names as potential members of his team for the AToC. When race organizers published the team rosters, only five of those original ten were listed as potential starters. Somewhere along the way, race organizers left five of Michael's riders off the list.
On Saturday morning, Michael Ball, just back from a training ride with his team, met with the press in downtown Palo Alto, the scene of Sunday's prologue start, to address this issue. The owner of Rock and Republic clothing was adamant that none of the members of his AToC team are involved in any active doping investigation and he provided written documentation to back it up. Also provided to the media was a written letter to race organizers informing them of the same thing, that no rider on his AToC team is involved in an active doping investigation.
The passionate Ball was firm in stating that the riders named to his team, Santiago Botero, Oscar Sevilla, Tyler Hamilton and Kayle Legrande who have been linked to potential doping practices will start the race. Micheal strongly denied that he would accept a reduced number of riders if the race organizers refuse to let the aforementioned teammates participate.
At the heart of Ball's insistence is his belief that under the current conditions in professional cycling, riders need to be given the benefit of the doubt, especially if there is no open doping investigation. Ultimately, he would like to form a rider's union, something which is commonplace in most high-profile professional sports.
At the time of this blog, AToC organizers had not issued any statements as to their plans with regards to this situation. Personally, I think we have to allow riders an "innocent until proven guilty" attitude. This is their job and how they put food on the table. Keeping someone from making a living based on rumor, innuendo or unproven charges is simply not fair.
I am hoping that a solution that is fair to the teams as well as the race can be reached. The AToC has so much to offer to the fans, sponsors and teams that it would be sad to see something like this bring any dark clouds to the race. Hey, it is February in California, we have enough other dark clouds to worry about.
With only two days to go before the start of the third Amgen Tour of California, the streets around Palo Alto are awash with pro racers getting in those last, critical pre-race miles. So much is going on surrounding the race, you almost need 25 hours in a day. Here are the latest happenings:
At a Trek Bicycle-sponsored meet-and-greet with Levi Leipheimer on Thursday night,the Tour podium finisher in 2007 announced that his Team Astana would be mounting a grass-roots campaign to lobby ASO to give his team a much-deserved slot in the Tour de France. Look for some announcements and a website launch
in the next few days to allow fans to send their thoughts to ASO. This is your chance to be heard, don't pass it up!
The team rosters are being finalized as we speak. Some of the big names are Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner from Astana; Fabian Cancellara, Bobby Julich, Jens Voigt and Stuart O'Grady from Team CSC; Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini from Quick Step...heck, there are too many big names and great riders to list, so my apologies to everyone I didn't mention.
Which brings me to my next observation. This is undoubtedly the best field of riders for a Tour of California. And the teams have come here to lay down some serious smack. Jens Voigt told me that they have been riding hills, hills and more hills at their team training camp down in Thousand Oaks. Team High Road Sports have been doing 5- to 6-hour rides everyday; some riders had 34-plus hours on the bike last week! Whoa! That is some serious saddle time for this early in the season.
I hope you all out there get chance to see at least one, and hopefully two or more, stages of the race. If you can't be here in person, Phil and Paul will be making the race call, daily, on Versus.
OK. One last thing. I am going to go out on a limb and make a prediction for the prologue. This might not seem like much of a guess, given his propensity for winning these type of races, but I think Fabian Cancellara will
win the prologue. I just did a lengthy interview with the two-time World Champion and he is not only very fast, but a nice guy to boot! Go Fabian.