The 100th anniversary Giro d'Italia finished today with a 15km(9-mile) individual time trail around the streets of central Rome. The course passed a number of Rome's most famous landmarks including the Colosseum, Saint Peter's Basilica and Circus Circus. In the end, Denis Menchov's overall victory appeared to be a relatively easy affair, but that was far from the case.
It was a drama-filled final stage as the organizers seemed to try to heap additional difficulties on the riders by running the race on just about every poorly-cobbled street in central Rome. In fact, almost 7 miles of the 9-mile course was on cobbles and bad ones at that. It was a bumpy ride for all the contenders and with rain falling on and off, the outcome was far from certain.
Many riders not in contention for a high placing chose to ride a regular road bikes so as to have more control on the twisty, turny route which also included significant ups and downs. Also, riders looking to the Tour de France like Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer decided not to take any chances on the slick cobblestones and definitely rode within themselves.
The drama was provided by the rain which caused race leader Denis Menchov to crash in the final turn, but he was up quickly and lost little time. In the end Menchov was a deserving winner. He gained the bulk of his time in the race's 61km Cinque Terra time trial, but he rode consistently in the mountains, avoiding a single bad day, to keep his margin all the way to Rome.
Here are some photos. Race leader Denis Menchov(Rabobank) with 1.5 miles to go.
Danilo Di Luca(LPR Brakes), who finished second overall, negotiates a turn in the first kilometer.
Carlos Sastre(Cervelo Test Team) win two hard mountain stages and finished fourth overall. Look for him to be a factor in the Tour de France.
Lance Armstrong took it easy in the final TT. He will head to a high altitude training camp in the USA in the next few days.
The Roman Colosseum was the backdrop for both the start and finish of the stage.
ps - I shot a lot of photos and did a bunch of interviews. Look for them to be popping up once I get back to the states.
Even though there are two more stages to go in the 2009 Giro d'Italia the race is all but over as Danilo Di Luca was unable to drop overall leader, Denis Menchov, and gain any significant time before Sunday's concluding stage, a 9-mile individual time trial. Barring any sort of mechanical mishap or a crash, Menchov will undoubtedly best Di Luca in the race against the watch and wear the final pink jersey in Rome.
The last major climb of the Giro, Monte Vesuvio, showed once again that Carlos Sastre was the best climber in the race as he notched his second stage win in three mountain top finishes. The defending Tour de France champion on the newly formed Cervelo Test Team had been unable to produce the goods on the Blockhaus stage, but on the 6-mile, 2500 foot climb of the volcano he was unbeatable.
Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer were in the lead group chasing Sastre with five kilometers remaining. Lance, who suffered a scary-looking crash early in the stage faded a bit at the end, but his condition is definitely improving.
Here are a few photos from the day. The first photo shows Carlos Sastre dropping Ivan Basso halfway up the climb.
I have posted a number of photos of Armstrong and Leipheimer, here is a shot of Michael Rogers of the Columbia-Highroad squad. He was the team's leader, but has faded over the last week. Jani Brajkovic is over his right shoulder.
Dave Zabriskie(Garmin-Slipstream), who won a stage of the Giro in 2005, has had a pretty quiet race. Here is a photo of him in the grupetto. As he came by I asked him how he was doing. "Eh, OK," was the reply.
Franco Pellizotti won the big Blockhaus stage. I snapped this photo him at the team busses after the race.
Tom Danielson(Garmin-Slipstream) has also had a quiet Giro. On Vesuvio, he climbed well and was close to the leaders at the finish. It is good to see Tommy D up at the front.
Today's stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia was a bit of a low-key affair after the epic struggle yesterday on the Blockhaus. It was great to see American's Danny Pate(Garmin-Slipstream) and Jason McCartney(Saxo Bank) in the breakaway going for the win. However, the focus of the Giro is on Friday's stage 19 and the ascent of the extinct volcano, Monte Vesuvio, which buried Pompei long before there was anything even remotely resembling American Idol.
Monte Vesuvio is most likely Danilo Di Luca's last chance to gain time on his chief(and probably only) rival Denis Menchov who holds a scant 26 second lead over the rider nicknamed 'The Killer'. Menchov is the better time trialist as he proved besting Di Luca in the 61km test in the Cinque Terra by almost two minutes.
If Di Luca cannot shake Menchov then the race will most like be decided before the final time trial. This scenario is reminiscent of one of the most famous moments in Tour de France history when Raymond Poulidor tried to take the yellow jersey off the shoulders of Jacques Anquetil on another extinct volcanic summit, Le Puy de Dome. Di Luca will need at least a minute over Menchov if he is to have a chance of taking the pink jersey off the Russian's shoulders.
There has been a lot of speculation on why Levi Leipheimer hasn't been more of a factor in the race. I spoke with his coach, Max Testa, who pointed out that at the beginning of the season, it was to be Lance Armstrong who was to be the team leader at the Giro. Levi was supposed to be taking it easy in May, resting up after a difficult spring campaign which began way back in February at the Tour of California. When Lance broke his collarbone, Levi was pressed into service and may just be feeling the effects of a very long period at top condition.
I also spoke with Astana Team Director Allain Gallopin about the situation and he also said that Levi was not really focused on this event at the beginning of the season. Gallopin added that to expect better results, Levi needs to make the Giro a priority in his racing program.
Thomas Voeckler (BBox) was in the early breakaway on the stage to the Blockhaus.His group of about nine riders reached a maximum lead of close to three minutes before they reached the base of the climb. Unfortunately, the gap was not big enough and all the escapees were caught and passed in the first 3 miles of the ascent. I asked Voeckler why the break failed. "No one was really motivated to do the work necessary to get a big enough gap to make the break work," said Voeckler. I asked him if it seemed like his companions were only looking for some TV time, "yeah it sure seemed that way," he said.
Below are a number of photos I thought you might find interesting. The first photo is of the electornic scoreboard we use in the press room to keep exact details of how the race is progressing. The time, distance and rider names and number. Pretty cool.
Lance has his own personal photographer, Elizabeth Kreutz who travels with him much of the time. This is a photo of Liz after she spent over seven hours on the back of a motorbike in 100 degree heat(did I mention how hot it was) on Monte Petrano taking photos of the race. Tough job.
Speaking of Lance, the race on the Blockhaus was close to L'Aquila where the devastating 6.8 earthquake leveled much of the town several months ago. The region,Abruzzzo, is recovering and put out the red carpet for Big Tex.
What would a bike race be without podium girls.
Just when you think you have seen everything at a bike race, along come a women riding up a 10% grade in 100 degree heat chatting on her cell phone.
I thought this photo was interesting. Some people use paint, others use chalk, but here is a fan using the local rock (limestone) to write a slogan on the race course.
Danilo Di Luca is from the Abruzzo. He has his own cool Fiat fan car. They would't give me a ride up the hill so I had to keep pedaling my bike.
The overall standings in the Giro d'Italia tightened significantly on the massive Blockhuas climb setting the stage for a dramatic finish when the race concludes with a 9-mile time trial around the streets of Rome. While Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) won the stage, Danilo Di Luca not only beat race leader Denis Menchov by five seconds and added an 8-second time bonus to move within 26 seconds of Menchov.
Pellizotti's winning attack moved him up to third place overall, but it was the man who led the initial chase to bring back the Liquigas rider who made the biggest news of the day. Lance Armstrong launched from the main field containing all the favorites when Pellizotti attacked with 15km to go. For a while the gap between the two hovered at 8-10 seconds, but then the elastic seemed to break and Lance ended up with the group containing Carlos Sastre, Levi Leipheimer and Michael Rogers who ultimately finished about two minutes back.
I had a chance to talk to Astana directors Jonah Bruyneel and Viatcheslav Ekimov after the finish and that in itself is its own story. As I did on Monte Petrano, I rode the climb of the Blockhaus. As I was preparing to descend on my bike I saw Johan go by driving a team car. Several minutes later, Ekimov came by as well. Sensing an opportunity which only presents itself getting off big mountains in the grand tours, I took off after the Astana cars. It took me several minutes to catch Eki. I rolled up, tapped on his window and asked him what he thought about Lance's performance. "He looked really good. Really hot," was his reply.
Next I spotted Bruyneel's car several switchbacks below so I took off chasing his car down. When I caught up to Johan I asked him the same question. "He's coming. He's coming" was his reply. Sometimes a journalist has to take some unusual measures to get a comment or two. Chasing those guys down through a sea of cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians was some of the most fun I have had on a bike in years. BTW, it's not for the faint hearted.
Here are some photos of the finish. As you can see from the marker in the first photo, I was positioned about 40 meters from the finish line, which was a great place to catch the final action of the stage.
Here is Pellizotti driving hard to the line for the win.
Here is a photo of the sprint for second between Stefano Garzelli and Danilo Di Luca.
This is a photo of Denis Menchov in the pink jersey, head down, trying to lose as few seconds as possible to Di Luca.
The last photo is of a guy named Lance pacing Levi to the line with Carlos Sastre in tow.
Today's stage up the Blockhaus will undoubtedly provide some huge fireworks and may prove to finally solidify the true contenders for the maglia rosa. Unlike most mountain top finishes, the riders will hit the slopes of the Blockhaus after only 36 mostly flat miles. Add in the fact that this stage follows the Giro's second rest day and you will have the scenario of a lot of racers who think they can win the stage.
This scenario is pretty uncommon in the grand tours. Back in 1991, the Tour de France rolled up to Alpe d'Huez with only flat miles in their legs instead of a couple of category 1 ascents such as the Galibier, Glandon or the Croix de Fer. What transpired at the bottom of the Alpe was an explosion as both the stage hunters and overall riders were swept up in a wave of aspirations. Two groups of riders with different goals, but riding side-by-side up one of the world's most storied climbs.
The GC riders don't like this type of situation. They have to ride harder and punchier(not steady) than they would like in the third week of a grand tour. The guys going for the stage win will launch attack after attack and they GC riders usually respond. This has changed a bit with power meters and riders knowing what they can and cannot do on the bike, but still there is a group mentality which pervades and unless the GC riders call a truce, they can get sucked up into the fray.
Guys like Levi Leipheimer aren't punchy riders and a stage like today could cause him more difficulty. Personally, I hope not, but Levi may have a tough decision to make whether to ride within himself or go with the moves. The podium is on the line for the Team Astana rider which makes the decision even more difficult.
The final ascent is a 17km(11-mile) 1200m(4000') climb that averages about 7%. This should take the top riders about 45-minutes. Look for racers like Menchov, Sastre and Basso to be forcing the pace with Di Luca hanging on near the front. BTW, Ivan Basso won here in 2006 on his way to his first, and only, overall Giro win.
In the late 1960's Eddy Merckx won his first ever mountain-top finish in a grand tour. A few years later, the Giro hosted a similar stage as today in the morning and then ran a 200+km flatter stage in the afternoon. These "split stages" were common in grand tours up until the 1990's. Nowadays the UCI has outlawed them.
Undoubtedly the most decisive stage,so far, of the 100th anniversary Giro d'Italia was fought out on the slopes of Monte Petrano as 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre proved that he is the real deal crossing the line first, 30 second ahead of an elite trio of Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov and Danilo Di Luca. Sadly for Americans, Levi Leipheimer was unable to keep pace on the brutal day that saw temperatures reach almost 100 degrees. He is now in sixth place overall, 3:20 behind Menchov.
The 140-mile stage from Pergola to the mountain-top finish at Monte Petrano was clearly the most difficult day in the Giro with three big climbs in the final 55-miles. Oh yeah, did I mention that it was hot? The silver lining for the Americans was that Lance Armstrong continues to improve his form and played a crucial role in pacing Leipheimer in the closing kilometers.
Given his superior time trialing skills, if Levi can avoid losing anymore time on the Blockhaus and Vesuvio stages he still has a shot at the podium. Leipheimer, always a class act, replied at the finish that his rivals were just stronger than him. BTW,he has a nasty looking bit of road rash on his left bicep from a crash on the stage into Genoa.
I talked with Saxo Bank rider Jen Voigt, who was in the early stage breakaway that featured Damiano Cunego and Yaroslov Popovych. I asked Jens to give a short description of the stage and he simply said, "too long. Too hard." That seemed to be the feeling in all the rider's minds. Did I mention that it was really hot?
I rode the final climb, Monte Petrano, before the pros(more on that below) and it struck me that if anyone wanted to do some serious damage that they would have to attack in the first two or three km's of the 10km, 800m ascent. So, I came back down the mountain and positioned myself at a seemingly key spot. Sure enough, Sastre attacked about 500m before where I was standing so I shot some photos of the winning breakaway developing.
Here is a photo of Sastre(black), Menchov(pink), Basso(green), and Di Luca(purple) just after the attack. Sastre and Basso are looking back to assess the damage they have done and to see who has tagged along.
Lance Armstrong came by about 30 seconds later.
Levi was about 20 seconds behind Lance. Lance would ultimately wait for Levi and then pace Leipheimer to the finish.
I had the unique opportunity of riding the final climb with Franceso Moser who is one of Italy's all-time great cyclists. He won the Giro in 1984. He also won Paris-Roubaix three times, the World Road Race championships, the World Pursuit Championships and set the World Hour record. It was a honor to ride with a living legend. We chatted a bit in Italian though he was reluctant to pick a winner of either the day's stage or the overall.
Here is an on-the-bike-photo.
Moser, at the top of the climb, looking like the classy rider he was, and still is.
Mark Cavendish won his third stage of the Giro today in Florence (Firenze if you are Italian). Last year he won two stages in Italy so this has to be viewed as at least a 50% improvement for the just-turned 24-year-old pro on Columbia Highroad. Mark and his fiance live about 20 miles away from Florence so this was a homecoming of sorts. It is doubly nice to win in front of friends and loved ones.
The big news after the stage was that Cavendish will be departing the race and will not start Saturday's stage. While you might think that the Manx man should sack up and finish the race, this is pretty common these days among the top riders. You might remember that Cavendish won four stages of the Tour de France in 2008, before exiting that race in the final week to rest up and prepare for the Beijing Olympics.
In 2008, he finished the Giro mainly because there were a few flat stages in the final week where he had the chance to win. In the 2009 edition, the final week features uphill finishes and time trials and offers little opportunities for the sprinters. At only 24-years-old Cavendish has many more grand tours in his legs and will be exiting stage left so he can drive the 30 minutes home to rest.
Cavendish has a new book hitting the shelves, 'Boy Racer', co-written with Procycling magazine's Features Editor Daniel Friebe. It should be a good read.
One of the rumours surrounding Cavendish is that when his contract is up at the end of the 2009 season, he will switch teams to ride for the new British professional cycling squad Team Sky. If I was the director of Team Sky and I wanted to get one British rider who would bring instant success to my team, that rider would be Mark Cavendish. It might cost you 25% (or more) of your total team budget, but the guy can win races and big races at that. Just make sure to hire a couple of his leadout men as well.
It would be sad to see Cavendish leave Columbia Highroad. Three years ago, Team Owner Bob Stapleton took a chance on the just-then-20-year-old rider and as Mark has blossomed, Stapleton has done what it takes to build a team around the sprinter. There is a lot of great chemistry on Columbia Highroad. I am hoping that Stapleton finds a way to keep Mark on the team.
There is another big race going on besides the Giro. Over in Spain the Tour of Catalonia is hotting up and Garmin-Slipstream rider Dan Martin is showing some incredible form. Last year, he won the Route Du Sud just before the Tour in the same region. On the hardest stage of Catalonia, he finished second, beating Alejandro Valverde and moving up to second place overall. Nice riding!
The much anticipated 61km time trial(TT) at the Giro d'Italia produced a few surprises, some good, some bad proving, once again, that Italy's grand tour is never predictable. At the end of the day, Rabobank's Denis Menchov proved that his two overall wins at the Vuelta a Espana were no fluke as he time-trialed himself past Danilo Di Luca and into the maglia rosa, the pink leader's jersey.
For Americans, all eyes were on Levi Leipheimer who had the potential to not only win the stage, but take the maglia rosa. While the quiet Californian came up short in both the stage and the overall leads his second place, only 20 seconds back of Menchov, must be considered a success. Leipheimer also moved up to third overall and is clearly within striking distance of the race lead.
What I take from Levi's performance is that the Giro is not the same race as the Tour. Leiphemier has repeatedly remarked that he feels nervous when racing on the tight roads and tricky descents of the Giro which has already cost him time in the race for the overall. Not every race is for every rider. Hopefully, Levi will feel more comfortable as the race progresses.
Of course, a lot of attention was given to Levi's teammate, Lance Armstrong, who finished 13th about 2:30 back of Menchov. While some might be close to writing Lance off, I think this is another indication that Lance is finding the form he will need to be a factor at the Tour. It must be remembered that in 2004, Lance lost 2 minutes to Iban Mayo at the Mont Ventoux time trial in the Dauphine Libere. He came back to win the Tour, dominating the TT's, and winning by over six minutes.
So what's going to happen in the final week? Clearly, if Di Luca is going to have a chance to win his second Giro, he is going to have to go on the attack on Monte Petrano, the Blockhaus or Monte Vesuvio. Leipheimer is going to have to make Di Luca pay for all his aggression in the first week by putting pressure on the front of the climbs. Menchov is going to have to keep doing what he has been doing; ride "steady eddy" and avoid one bad day in the mountains that seems to plague him in some grand tours.
Remember that the final stage is a 15km TT around Rome's famous landmarks. Go watch "Angels and Daemons" and you will get a pretty good idea of what the rider's will see. I think Levi is a better flat time trialist than either Menchov or Di Luca so if the gaps remain about the same, Levi could ended winning it all. I haven't mentioned either Ivan Basso or Michael Rogers. These two guys are going to need an exceptional day to put themselves back into contention.
If you are living in Boulder, Colorado (is there any other Boulder?) then the future of cycling looks pretty bright. Sure, 18-year-old Taylor Phinney is from Boulder and he has been lighting the track on fire riding world class times in both the Kilometer and 4000m Pursuit. But, there are a number of other young riders in Boulder and the Colorado Front Range who have been distinguishing themselves as well.
At the recent Excel Sports Boulder North Boulder Park Criterium it was a veritable youth parade in the Senior events. Just to make my point even clearer, riders under the age of 18 have their own special classes in which to compete. This is to allow them to develop slowly and keep them from being beat up on by riders much more physically mature. But, at the North Boulder Park Criterium it was them youngens' who totally stole the show.
In the Senior Men's Category 4 event (novice riders 19-34 years old), Michael Dessau of Jonathan Vaughter's 5280 Team not only won most of the prime sprints, but also took the victory. Michael is only 13-years old. His teammate Zane Godby, all of 14-years-old, took third.
In the Men's Category 3 event (advanced riders 19-34 years old), Yannick Eckmann soled off the front halfway through the 60-minute race and won in convincing fashion. Yannick, who also rides for the 5280 Team is a mere 15-years-old. Yannick's older brother Robin placed 6th in the marquis event the Senior 1/2/Pro race beating Tour de France veterans in the process.
In the Women's Category 4 event, Maddie Godby (Zach's older sister) was victorious. She's 16-year's old.
Whoa! We call these riders "Senior Slayers" because they are winning against riders sometimes twice their age(and older). The future looks pretty bright for cycling if we can keep pumping out young riders who show such potential. Best of luck to Michael, Zach, Yannick, Robin, Maddie and all young riders working their way up to the senior ranks.
There has been some speculation on who the title sponsor will be for Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel's new team. One rumour has it that Livestrong will be prominent on the jersey. It must be rememebered that there are actually two Livestrongs out there.
The first is Livestrong.org which is Lance's very successful cancer charity. Lance and his people have raised millions to help fight the cruel disease. The second is Livestrong.com which was launched about a year ago and is a wellness web site that is dedicated to helping people get answers to basic health questions.
My guess is that if Livestrong is a sponsor of the team, Lance will not divert any of the cancer money, but will instead use the Livestrong.com site as the money source. Only time will tell, but that's my speculation.
Team Columbia-Highroad has been putting on a Bike Racing 101 clinic at the Giro.The squad has won four stages in the first nine days and they are doing it in classic racing fashion. The Giro is known for lots of crashes which sometimes produce lucky winners, but Columbia-Highroad's success has nothing to do with luck.
Columbia-Highroad's first win, on the opening day's team time trial, was the picture of perfection. There didn't appear to be any strategy other than to have each rider give his all. There were no sacrificial lambs, everybody just rode their hearts out.
Norwegian Edvald Boasen-Hagen has recorded a second-first-second in stages 6-8; his win into Chiavenna on stage 7 was won on rain-slickened roads, but he didn't appear to be taking unnecessary risks.
Constantin Siutsov's victory into Bergamo was probably the best demonstration of classic bike racing tactics. Columbia-Highroad sent their GC man Michael Rogers up the road on the stage's final climb forcing overal racer leader Danilo Diluca's LPR Brakes team to initiate a furious chase. As soon as Rogers and his breakaway companions, which included Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, were reeled in, Siutsov counter-attacked.
It was clear that the LPR riders were tired from chasing Rogers and Leipheimer and Siutsov quickly built a sufficient lead to take him all the way to the finish line. That is how you win a bike race.
The final chapter in team Columbia Highroad's racing primer was written in Milan when a near perfect leadout train in the final kilometers delivered uber-sprinter Mark Cavendish first across the line. Thus endeth the lesson, but I am guessing that Columbia-Highroad has a few more chapters to write before the end of the race.
A few more speculations on what will happen with Team Astana and the rollout with Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel's new team. It must be remembered that one of the strategies that Bruyneel and Armstrong used to help engineer Lance's seven tour wins was to acquire the competition.
Along that line of thinking, it would be better for Bruyneel and Armstrong to try and keep Team Astana together through the Tour so that they would have Contador on their squad. That's not to say that Bruyneel and Armstrong would try to keep Contador from winning. It just means that they would have more control over the situation. Only time will tell what happens.
While Lance may not be making big headlines on the bike at the Giro, what he is doing off the bike is generating some exciting news. To be fair, Lance did not come into the Giro in peak form and he is showing that he is the master of the three week race by riding within himself in Italy so he can go the full distance and not burn out too early.
It was reported last week in several Colorado newspapers that Lance had called Governor Bill Ritter to sound out the Governor on the potential of putting on a Tour of Colorado much like the Amgen Tour of California. Last summer Lance bought a house in Aspen and has been using that dwelling for his altitude training. Lance and many of us remember the glory days of the Coors Classic and the possibility of re-capturing those magical times is a huge motivation to bring big-time bike racing back to Colorado.
At this time the idea is only in the 'trial balloon' stage. My guess is that Lance was just testing the waters to see how receptive the Governor's office was to the idea as the state is key to pulling off such an event. It would most likely be 2011 at the earliest before any race could happen.
In the past several years, Medalist Sports who run both the Tour of California and the Tour of Missouri has been working with a group in the Vail Valley to bring a 3-4 day professional stage race to Colorado, but that event has yet to be held. Hopefully, Lance will have more success.
My rumours and speculation on some of the details of the new professional team run by Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong generated lots of comments. Remember, the details of the team are all just speculation at this point.
One alternate scenario that is emerging is that the team will continue as Team Astana until after the Tour which would mean that Lance, Alberto and Levi would all be racing together in France in July. One good reason to keep the current squad intact through July is that if a new team emerges after the Giro, but before the Tour, it is not clear if that team would be allowed to start the Tour de France.
Given that the French National Anti-Doping Agency(AFLD) backed off on the "Showergate" incident, it seems clear that the French want Lance to start to the Tour. So, if the new team did emerge before the Tour there is a good possibility that a number of rules would be bent to allow them to participate.
My guess is that since Lance and Johan are pretty smart guys they have already contacted the Tour organizers and asked them if their new team would be allowed to start. The answer to that question will probably determine when the new team emerges.
Word coming from the Giro d'Italia is that it is all but a done deal that Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel will have their own professional cycling team. Details are still a bit in the speculative stage, but it appears that an official announcement will be made on or about June 1st, the day after the conclusion of the Giro and also the day after the UCI's deadline for Team Astana to get it's financial situation in order has come and gone.
More than likely, the bulk of the team will come from the current roster of the Astana squad. Speculating on the exact roster, the new team should include Lance, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaraslov Popovych, Chechu Runiera, Daniel Noval, Jani Brajkovic, and a most of the remaining supporting characters (Gregory Rast, Steve Morabito, etc.)
One rider who is rumoured to not be part of the new team is Alberto Contador. He has been linked to Caisse d'Epargne, the team of Alejandro Valverde whose own participation in the Tour de France has been put in doubt by a recent two-year ban in Italy for his participation in Opercion Puerto. It is not clear if Contador's good friend and training partner, Jesus Jernandez, will follow him to Caisse. Obviously, if Contador does not come to the squad, all questions about who will lead the team at the Tour de France become moot!
Another rider whose future is uncertain is Andreas Kloden who has recently been linked to blood doping during the 2006 Tour and will almost certainly face some sort of disciplinary action. Also, it is unclear if any of the Kazhak riders currently on the team will be retained.
Rumour has it that Bruyneel and Armstrong have already produced the team kit with their new sponsors and will be unveiling it at the public announcement in the days after the finish of the Giro. Look for Armstrong to be wearing his new team colors as he trains with Leipheimer and Horner at his home in Aspen between the Giro and the Tour.
We will have to wait and see how this all shakes out, but suffice it to say, the excitement in pro cycling won't go into hiatus between the Giro and the Tour.
The Giro hit the mountains today and all eyes were on one rider. I don't think it matters if you were French, Italian or a good ol' American. Everybody wanted to know if Lance 3.0 could climb? If you remember, Lance 3.0 is the comeback Lance. The guy who gave up retired life to ride in rain, wind and snow and fight for position in the pack all while trying not to get knocked down by overzealous racers. Let's face it. Lance has enough money so I am pretty certain he isn't trying to get free travel and hotels by being part of a professional cycling team.
But, I digress, though Lance 3.0's motivation to return to the top level of pro racing is always a great topic for discussion. The fourth stage of the Giro was a warm-up of sorts in the Dolomites. The first major climb, the Croce d'Aune, came too far from the finish to be decisive and the final climb to the enchanting town of San Martino di Castrozza was not really long or steep enough to really answer any questions. To be sure, by the stage finish the contenders had been separated from the pretenders, but there were definitely a lot of contenders when the lead group went under the red kite with a kilometer to go.
Lance was in that group, but a sharp acceleration by riders looking for the stage win gapped him and put the Texan about 15 seconds back at the line. It might be worrying that Armstrong wasn't able to respond to the late surge by eventual stage winner Danilo Di Luca, but again, this wasn't a really decisive climb and anything can happen when 40+ riders contest a supposed mountain-top finish.
Wednesday's stage, which ends in a massive 5000' climb to the ski station at Alpe di Siusi, will provide a more valid answer to Lance's climbing form. Well, sort of. You must remember that Armstrong is still recovering from his broken collarbone. If Lance gets dropped then it can be speculated that he is still gaining the form he needs to be a factor at the Tour. If Lance is with the lead group in the final kilometer, then we will know that he can be counted on to help his teammate, Levi Leipheimer, in Levi's quest to win the Giro.
That sounds a bit slushy. Will we really learn anything from how Lance climbs towards Alpe di Siusi? Lance will certainly learn something and that is confidence. You need confidence to be able to climb well. Lance had it in spades during his reign at the Tour. Does he have it now or is he just bluffing.
Personally, I would like to have seen Lance up closer to the front of the group, where Levi was riding, during the final climb. That makes me think that he will not be in the lead group at the finish on Wednesday. But, what I saw a few days earlier is even more important, IMHO. What I saw before, during and after the team time trial is how much Lance seems to be enjoying being back in a grand tour. He looks reasonably fit, but more importantly really motivated to ride at his limit and be a factor at the Giro.
With two months to go before the Tour, I think Armstrong's motivation is more important than fitness. In the days before his collarbone accident, I thought I detected a loss of enthusiasm at the task ahead, that being riding both the Giro and the Tour. His collarbone injury could easily have put the nail in the coffin of his comeback. To see him energized and ready to suffer says to me that his comeback is back on track.
Today was the first road stage of the Giro and true to form, a crash on the finishing circuits has already had an affect on the overall standings. The Giro is not the Tour de France and there are many reasons why one of them being the in-town finishing circuits. The Tour has never been fond of them, but the Giro seems to sprout them and on the worst roads in the smallest of towns.
I guess I should explain what finishing circuits are in case you might be wondering. In the Tour de France, stages start in town A and finish in town B. While the route might be circuitous getting from A to B, when the peloton gets to town B the race heads for the finish line and we have a winner. For some reason, the Giro has used a slightly different formula for stage finishes. Often when the race reaches town B, the peloton then embarks on, usually, three to five laps of a small (3-10km) finishing circuit.
You might be thinking what's the big deal; a kilometer is a kilometer. But, you have to remember that a lot of towns in Italy are pretty darn old and most were built before anything but horses were means of transportation. That means two things. First off, the roads can be pretty narrow and can also vary in width from block to block. Secondly, those same roads might not be paved with smooth asphalt. If you add in the fact that every Italian rider in the peloton that makes it to the finishing circuits will do anything short of murder to win a stage of the Giro you have a recipe for major disaster.
On these finishing circuits crashes are not the exception. They are the rule. Because of this it is crucial that any rider who wants to contend for the overall title has to be at the very front of the peloton. Getting caught behind a crash is almost as bad as being involved in the crash. Neither option is good. What this means is that guy riding next to Mark Cavendish might just be Levi Leipheimer or Ivan Basso. Well, that would be the case except that on Sunday's stage both Leipheimer and Basso were caught at the back of the group on the finishing circuits and lost 13 seconds.
One rider who was noticeably at the front of the peloton on the finishing circuits was Lance Armstrong. That wasn't by chance. You don't win seven grand tours by winging it and just letting stuff happen. Note to both Levi and Ivan. Keep a close eye on the guy in the black and gold helmet. He's up at the front where all the GC contenders should be.
The 100th anniversary of the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy or just plan Giro) will start on Saturday in Venice and end three weeks later with a time trial around the streets of Rome. Only one American, Andy Hampsten, has won the event, but this year, another US rider comes into this grand tour with the form to contend for the overall. No, it's not Lance Armstrong who recently admitted that his broken collarbone suffered in March has delayed his fitness.
Three-time winner of the Amgen Tour of California Levi Leipheimer arrives at the Giro with the form and the motivation to attempt to repeat Hampsten's 1988 performance. Levi has been on a tear since winning the AToC, taking Spain's Vuelta Castilla y Leon and dominating several races in the US. While Leipheimer has the chops to shine in the mountains and the time trials, he is going to have to stay close to the front in the flat bunch finishes to avoid the crashes which seem to plague the Giro.
Look for Lance Armstrong to work for Leipheimer in the mountains and on the flats, but he should be given free reign to go full gas in the time trials. I am hoping that Lance will ride the entire three weeks, he deperately needs the racing miles if he is going to be a factor in the Tour, but I suspect that he might pack it in after the 60km time trial south of Genoa in the middle of the 2nd week.
The Garmin-Slipstream team made huge waves last year when they won the first stage team time trial. This year, the first stage will again be a TTT. The argyle boys have the talent to repeat and take the race's first maglia rosa, or pink leader's jersey. Again, like last year, the team will most likely be using this race as training for the Tour. Christian Vande Velde might test his form for a stage or two in the mountains, but don't look for him to be high up in the general classification. Tyler Farrar will need to outfox and outpower Mark Cavendish to win a bunch finish. Look for Tom Danielson to go stage hunting in the mountains.
The other contenders for the overall include Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. All three riders have won a grand tour so they are going to be part of the mix. Usually a rogue Italian climbs into the fray as well. What this makes for is a very open Giro with no clear favorite. I am putting my money on Levi and hoping that his team will be focused on supporting him all the way to Rome.
BTW, NBC Universal Sports will be carrying daily updates from the Giro both online and on their TV station. If you have Comcast Cable you are in. Also, some metropolitan areas (Bay Area and Denver, Yeah!) get the channel over the air with the digital NBC network.
The Amgen Tour of California(AToC) is moving its races dates for the 2010 edition to May 16-23. After two soggy years of racing the event organizers were looking for a change and after discussing the possibility of April, May or June dates with the UCI, the organizing body of the sport, it was decided that a mid-May date worked best with the existing professional calendar of events.
Also included in the news was the fact that in 2011 the AToC will most likely become a Pro Tour(PT) event meaning it will rank up there with the top professional races on the globe. If you are a Pro Tour team that's a good thing as now that it is a PT event, more PT teams can compete. Currently, as a non-PT event only half the field can be PT teams. If you are a US domestic pro team the change is not a good thing as with the inclusion of more PT teams, less US domestic teams will be invited.
This might seem like a bad thing, but if you look at the results from the AToC from 2009 there was a significant performance difference between the PT and non-PT teams. Clearly, this is not an ideal situation. Hopefully, this will motivate the US domestic professional teams to raise their game.
The May date still has the ability to attract top European riders. The only competition on the schedule is the Tour of Italy and while many top riders would potentially be competing there, the AToC offers good preparation for riders looking to ride the Tour de France and not desiring to ride a three-week race like the Giro as part of their program.
Also a possibility if the race moves to May is an incursion or two into the high Sierra Nevada mountains. Unfortunately, tackling the Sierras does not guarantee the AToC's first ever mountain-top finish as there are few towns in the mountains that can come up with the cash necessary to pay for a stage finish. If the race goes up and then back down into the Central Valley look for the same sprint finishes we experienced this year. Something is going to have to change with the race's business model before we will ever see a real mountain-top finish.
Overall, this change is a good thing for the race. The weather will almost surely be better and the best professional teams will still participate (though they may need some financial incentives to fly so far west in May). In it's short, 4-year history the race has shown that it can change and adapt to make itself a better event. Keep it coming!
On Monday, Lance Armstrong went public with his announcement that he hopes to run his own top-flite European professional team in 2010. This year, Armstrong launched an Under 23(U-23) team, Trek-Livestrong, captained by current World 4000m Pursuit Champion Taylor Phinney, but the plan for next year is to put together a squad that will compete at the highest level of the sport.
Also mentioned in the announcement is that long-time friend and team director Johan Bruyneel will also be part of the program. Bruyneel, who currently runs Team Astana will need to figure out how to sever his ties with the Khazak squad. Given the current rumours surrounding the health of Team Astana that might not prove to be too difficult. It appears that the Astana, which is funded by a conglomerate of Khazak companies, has been hit hard by the economic downturn and has not been able to meet its payroll commitments.
There is some speculation that Astana may not be able to stay afloat long enough to participate in the Tour de France. Also rumoured is that the UCI may step in an revoke the squad's Pro Tour license. Obviously, this is all rumour and speculation, but something appears to be happening. Before we jump to any conclusions let's hope that the team can iron out the difficulties and continue with its dominating season.
Also in the announcement, Armstrong indicated that he would like to be a team director and rider for the new outfit meaning that he would still be on the bike in 2010. It is too far off to get a feeling if he would ride the Tour or other big stage races with his new squad. Let's let him get his 2009 season under his belt before we all start guessing on his racing program for next year.
Just who the title sponsor will be for Armstrong's new squad is a mystery. Some have speculated that Nike will step up. Another possibility might be SRAM, the component manufacturer who has a big enough budget to step up in a major way. Whoever decides to write the checks, the Armstrong/Bruyneel combination combined to form a very potent force. We will have to wait and see if Alberto Contador is recruited for the team, but whoever joins the ranks will be part of an exciting new team.
Basically, I dislike group rides. Well, to be honest, I dislike group riders. Maybe that's the same as disliking group rides, but I think there is a difference. Just so you don't think I dislike everybody, because I am an outgoing person I try to like everybody. But, for reasons outlined below I dislike most group rides. Well, riders.
Again, I have to qualify my statement. I really like doing groups rides with the pros, especially when I am in shape enough to be able to keep up the entire ride. You see, the pros are, well, pros. They don't have anything to prove to me or any other riders except other pros and their sponsors(and potential sponsors).
Because they have nothing to prove when they go group riding they actually ride like they are in a group. With the pros we usually ride two-by-two and while we go pretty fast these guys are so smooth we are actually not working that hard and can carry on interesting conversations. Yes, talking to each other. It is a group ride after all.
The pros save their toughest workouts for when they ride solo. These guys spend so much time on the bike that when they are lucky enough to have someone to ride with they keep the pace manageable and have some social interaction with the other cyclists.
The non-pros are a different story. The riders I have the most trouble with are those that treat any ride with more than one person as a de-facto race. If there are more than two riders then a paceline is almost mandatory. These guys are on the edge the entire ride trying to keep the pace as high as possible. There is very little opportunity to chat let alone sit up and enjoy the scenery.
To be sure, there are group rides in every city or town that are known to be de-facto races. Obviously, given what I have been saying here, you would never catch me on one of those rides. However, when a group of cyclists decide to get together and go out for a ride that doesn't necessarily make it game on.
Which brings me to the reason I am writing this blog. Last week a friend of mine and I were up in NorCal riding with a group. What started out as a nice, moderate group ride deteriorated into a single file paceline, every man for himself training ride. Now, I should mention that my friend has won a grand tour as well as four or five other major professional stage races. His street cred on a bike is not in question.
When I expressed to my friend my dislike of how this ride had deteriorated he told me that he had the perfect solution to the problem. When we reached a town he informed the other riders that he was stopping for lunch. The others responded in disbelief so we bade them farewell and sat down for a delicious Mexican feast. The ride home was fun and enjoyable and we still got in our 90 miles. Now that's what I call a group ride.
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