Lance, Levi and Alberto all in the same place at the same time! No, it's not the Tour de France in February, its the Team Astana training camp. I traveled up to Santa Rosa, CA this past Wednesday for the media day and had quite a bit of fun re-uniting with the riders, mechanics and support staff as another year of professional cycling begins for, arguably, the best team in sport.
The camp is being held in Levi's backyard. I asked him if he was using his local knowledge to school his teammates on the training rides. He replied, "no, not really though my teammates think I am." However, after the days' 100+ mile ride through the incredible Sonoma countryside and along Highway 1 he did admit that he rode up the final climb, Coleman Valley Road, faster than he ever has before and only Alberto Contador was able to match his effort.
Lance was looking fit and relaxed and was clearly enjoying the area where he used to train when he rode for Team Motorola back in the mid 1990's. Armstrong has indicated that his first big race will be the Giro, but his fitness is ahead of schedule and it appears that he may be gunning for two spring classics, Amstel Gold race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He has finished second in both races.
Levi lit it up on the final climb, Spring Mountain Road, the day before and only Alberto Contador responded as well. The Spaniard seemed pleased with his efforts, but acknowledged that he is a bit jet-lagged after just flying in from Spain.
Newcomer and climbing phenomenon Jesus Hernandez was grateful to have a team to ride on for 2009 after his team folded up shop in 2008. Hernandez has made the news recently after dropping his teammates on the big climbs on the Canary Island of Tenerife at the December training camp and on Old Willunga Hill during the team's preparation for the recently-concluded Tour Down Under in Australia.
The route for the 2009 Tour de France was unveiled yesterday in Paris and all the stars were there including the past two winners Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. At first glance, the route is a huge break from tradition. Normally, the race alternates each year with either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction around France. That means in one year, the first mountains are the Pyrenees and then the Alps follow. The next year the Alps come first, then the Pyrenees.
For 2009, the Pyrenees come first, as they did in 2008, then the Alps follow. Hmm. That's probably no big deal except that it is a break from tradition. Another major change, which was also the case in 2008, is that there will be no time bonuses for any stage finishes. That means that the sprinters will have to earn the yellow jersey from a breakaway and not just by winning the first three or four stages. I wouldn't put any money on seeing Mark Cavendish in yellow even though he will probably win another two or three stages.
What about the critical stages, the mountains and the time trials? On paper the mountains look pretty tame with only three real mountain top finishes. In the Pyrenees there is the uphill finish to Arcalis in Andorra, but on the other two stages it is 20 miles from the bottom of the last climb to St. Girons and the next day it is 30 miles from the bottom of the Tourmalet to Tarbes. It will be very interesting to see how these two stages play out.
In the Alps there is an uphill finish on an up-and-down day to Verbier in Switzerland then after the Tour's second rest day, a big stage over both St. Bernard passes(first the big then the small one, but both are pretty big) followed by potentially the Tour's hardest day which ascends five medium-sized summit before the fast downhill to Le Grand Bornand.
Perhaps the most anticipated stage is the penultimate day when four small climbs soften up the field before attacking the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux. Fireworks will most certainly go off, similar to the race up l'Alpe d'Huez in 2008. If Lance does ride the 2009 Tour, look for him to be gunning for a stage win here, basically the only major French summit where he has never been victorious.
The three time trial, including the 15km prologue in Monaco, are relatively short at 38 and 40km and will definitely play to the advantage of the pure climbers like Contador and Sastre.
So, there you have it in a nutshell. A very different, non-traditional route that, on paper, looks moderate. But, we all know that the Tour always produces a worthy winner and there will be nothing moderate about the racing. About the only question that has yet to be answered is whether we will be yelling "Go Big Tex" on the tortuous slopes of Mont Ventoux.
The Vuelta a Espana concluded yesterday in Madrid and Spain's Alberto Contador won his third grand tour claiming the trifecta of the Tour, Giro and Vuelta. Clearly, the 25-year old is the world's top stage racer he climbs like an angel and time trials well enough to limit his losses. Unfortunately for American Levi Leipheimer Contador is his teammate which means that unless Alberto totally melts down in the mountains, Levi is going to have a tough time standing on the top step of the podium.
That's both good and bad. Without a doubt, Levi was the best time trialist at the Vuelta, winning both the races against the clock, and he was clearly the second best rider in the race behind his teammate. Thank heavens team director Johan Bruyneel let Leipheimer and Contador ride without orders in the final TT, it would have totally bogus to ask Levi to throttle his engine. That would not have been right.
There is a bit of history here. Way back in 2001 when Levi was in his first tour of duty with Bruyneel and the then US Postal Service Team, Leipheimer and his teammate Roberto Heras were locked into a dual for third place going into the final TT. Bruyneel let them ride then and Levi bested Heras to claim the final spot on the podium and it was that race which really propelled Leipheimer into the upper ranks of the pro peloton.
If anyone has any doubts as to which is the strongest stage race team in the world, I think that question has been answered. With a win in the Giro and a 1-2 finish at the Vuelta, my guess is that Carlos Sastre is thanking his lucky stars that Team Astana did not get invited to the Tour. Hopefully, that situation will be rectified for 2009.
The Lance angle in all this is that on Wednesday, the 24th, the Texas Tornado will make a public announcement about his future in pro cycling. Recently, Armstrong has been logging some pretty serious training miles in both Aspen and Solvang, the big question is not if, it is with whom? Given his strong ties with Trek Bicycles, the most likely candidate is Team Astana, but where does that leave grand tour champion Contador and Leipheimer?
If Lance has any ambitions to win the Tour again, I think he has to sign with Astana. I think Contador is a strong enough challenger to Lance's ambitions that the only way Lance can neutralize that challenge is to make him a teammate. Lance has a history of doing just that, the most notable example was the signing of Roberto Heras in 2001 after he put Lance in a spot of bother at the 2000 Tour. I don't know what Lance's arrival at Astana will do to team dynamics, but from a purely competition side of things, Contador has to be neutralized.
Of course, all of this is just speculation. We will hopefully get a much clearer picture on Wednesday. One interesting piece of fallout from Lance 3.0 (Lance 1.0 was the Motorola years; Lance 2.0 was the post-cancer years) is that the Tour of Georgia just might be saved. Rumours are that the Tour of Georgia will not return for 2009, but the power of Lance may just be strong enough to keep the Georgia race alive.
Now that the Olympics are over it is time to get back to talking about the best sport there is (even if the USA only won two medals) and that is cycling. It is too bad that NBC didn't figure that out, but we all know it and that is what counts. BTW, Craig Hummer, who shared the mike with Paul Sherwen at the cycling events is a pretty mean cyclist himself. Originally a swimmer and top Southern California lifeguard, Craig can definitely ride a bike.
The pro bike racing scene is still in full swing, but events like the Tour of Germany and Vuelta a Espana don't seem to evoke the same level of excitement of those early and mid-season races. Hey, Levi will be riding the Vuelta, but his teammate and Giro winner, Alberto Contador, will also be riding. Given that Contador is Spanish and the race is in Spain, look for Levi to be riding super-domestique duties unless Alberto is having a bad race. Hopefully Levi can get the OK to give it some gas in the time trials and potentially also in the high mountains.He can clearly win a stage, but will probably need team approval.
Also, the US Professional Championships (USPRO) is coming up. Just who will wear the Stars and Stripes jersey next year is anybody's guess because at this time of year form is fleeting. Maybe Christian Vandevelde will back up his fine finish in the Tour and get that Captain America jersey. Can anybody beat Dave Zabriskie in the time trial? Chris Baldwin has come very close and he needs to find a new team for 2009 so the motivation is there.
Hey, I am off to Europe to help Andy Hampsten lead a bike tour in the Italian Dolomites to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Giro d'Italia win. Look for some sporadic blogs from the land of pasta and red wine.
It is almost July and that can mean only one thing. It's Tour time. In just over a week, some of the best riders in the world (condolences to Team Astana and Tom Boonen) will be toeing the line in Brest for the biggest show in cycling. It is both a blessing and a curse that Contador, Leipheimer and Boonen will not be there. With the both the favorites for the yellow and green jerseys not participating the race is wide open and it looks like this could be one of the most up and down editions of the Grand Boucle in years.
Personally, I would have like to seen Alberto, Levi and Tom at the start, they deserve to be there. Some may decide to show their support by boycotting the race and I respect that, but I will be there France trying to bring you all the behind-the-scenes insights that I provided last year. Look for my daily blogs and join in the fun by posting your thoughts as well!
One thing that I think is kind of funny in all of this is the position Cadel Evans finds himself. I think he is in a no-win situation. Remember he bookended teammates Contador and Leipheimer on the podium in the closest 1-2-3 finish ever at the Tour. If Evans does win many will say it is because Contador and also Leipheimer were not there. If Evans fails to win, he will be seen as inconsistent and someone who might just not be able to win the big one. Certainly, there will be champagne in Paris if he is victorious, but it will most likely be served warm.
Having said all that, I expect this to be a very exciting Tour. Much like the Giro this year which also suffered from the lack of a patron of the peloton, the Tour will be wide open, not only in terms of the competition, but also because there is no one to ride herd on the pack. Looks for lots of daily attacks and early moves by the favorites in the mountains. The yellow jersey could easily change hands between five or six of the major contenders.
So, clean out your TiVo, say goodbye to your loved ones, hang your bike on the rack in the garage, tell your boss that you will be late for work for the next three weeks and get ready for the total body experience which is the Tour de France. There is only one you know(TIOOYK).
Obviously, we all have our own conditions for calling an event a great race; the recently concluded Giro d'Italia had all the trimmings to make one exceptional race. To be sure, Team Astana's Alberto Contador took the top overall honors, but his fellow competitors forced the outcome to be decided on the final day of the 21-day grand tour.
Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France, but which one was his "best" victory? Was it the times where the Texas Tornado appeared unbeatable and seemed to just be toying with his rivals? For me it was 2003 when he almost got dropped on Alpe d'Huez, lost to Ullrich in the first time trial and then crashed on Luz Ardiden. Lance looked totally vulnerable and it came down to the final time trial to settle the score.
For me, it is great competition which makes a memorable race. This year at the Giro, going into the final mountain stage, three day before the end of the race, the top three competitors were separated by only 21 seconds. And, all three were bonafide contenders. But, more importantly, all three had looked vulnerable at one time or another.
Leader Alberto Contador had been unable to respond to late stage attacks on both the Alpe de Pampeago and the Marmolada. But, as a true champion does, he didn't just sit up, he rode his own pace and limited his losses. Only four seconds back, Saunier Duval's Ricardo Ricco, lost over two minutes to Contador in the first time trial. He clearly had to make up that deficit in the mountains and his relentless attacks were successful in pegging back critical seconds. Third place Danilo DiLuca, the 2007 Giro champion, had been riding quietly in the lead group, but had not shown any traces of last year's form. His attack on the second-to-last day in the mountains almost put him in the maglia rosa, the pink leader's jersey.
In the end, Contador's consistency in the mountains and his superior time trialing skills neutralized Ricco while DiLuca's audacious attack on the second-to-last mountain stage proved to be too much too soon and he was never able to recover for the final weekend of racing.
Which brings us to the upcoming Tour de France. While Cadel Evans may be the odds-on favorite, his recent knee troubles have limited his pre-Tour training program. Chris Horner likes two-time Vuelta a Espana winner Dennis Menchov. Somewhere lurking in the mountains is Alejandro Valverde. Suffice it to say, there really is no clear favorite and all the top contenders have shown signs of vulnerability in the Tour in the past. Of course, that means it's going to be a great race.
The first three mountain stages of the 2008 Giro d'Italia are in the record books and, not surprisingly, the overall results have been dramatically shuffled. At the top of the heap is 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador who had ridden consistently, but not brilliantly, in the Dolomites to eek out a slim lead over Riccardo The Cobra Ricco, two-time Giro winner Gilberto Simoni and last year's champion Danilo The Killer Di Luca.
Before Contador supporters start filling my mail box, let me explain that I think Alberto rode very intelligently in the Dolomites. Climbing form is about as elusive as finding a normal person on the Maury Povich Show and it must be remembered that Astana was invited to the Giro at the last minute. In Contador's case, he was on a beach in Spain taking a well-deserved break from racing. I was probably riding more hills than Alberto and if the 2007 Tour champion realized that, it is even more reason for him to be cautious when the roads went uphill.
As we all know, you can't fake your climbing form. On the flats, you can sit in and still look strong. If you have a sprint, you might even be able to win a few races. But, when it comes to going uphill, the laws of gravity are always strictly enforced. There is no place to hide. Astana teammate Chris Horner, who was riding the Tour of Catalonia and not at the Giro, has always said that in a three week race you have to race smart and that is exactly what Contador has done so far.
Would we like to have seen the punishing attacks Alberto unleashed in the Pyrenees last July. Absolutely! Those accelerations were the high point of the race and showed the mettle of the a true champion. But, until Contador feels completely confident in his climbing form, look for a more tactical, and close(!), battle to take place in the Italian Alps. There are several more hard stages including the 20th anniversary of American Andy Hampsten's ascent of the Passo Gavia (hopefully there will be no blizzard) and the fearsome Mortirolo. The Giro is far from over. With three Italians breathing down his neck, Contador better get some confidence or start working on his poker face.
ps - Levi Leipheimer is struggling a bit at the Giro. Unlike Contador he has not found his climbing legs most likely a result of the last minute invitation to the Giro. Levi is in the perfect position to shoot for a stage win, but because the battle for the overall with Contador is so close, Leipheimer will be riding in support of Alberto and not get that chance. Hang in there!
pps - Alberto Contador was riding 30x34 gearing on the Plan de Corones climb; the last 3 miles are dirt with sections up to 24%.
The season's first grand tour, the Giro d'Italia, kicks off on Saturday and though it looks to be a decidedly Italian affair, the last minute inclusion of Team Astana has turned the race inside out. Well, sort of. While Astana's roster includes, arguably, the three best grand tour riders, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden, only Kloden appears to be in shape to contest a major stage race.
OK. Can Levi and Alberto come off the couch and ride circles around yours truly? Do you even need to ask? But, dropping Bruce like a bad smell is different than keeping it all together in a three week race. One look at the race map should strike fear into anyone with a heartbeat and knowledge of the route.
The Passo Manghen on Stage 14 is pretty darn hard and the finish of that stage on the Alpe di Pampeago is humongous. The next day is brutal with the Passo Giau at 6mi of 10% and then the finish on the Marmolada(Passo Fedia) which is probably the hardest climb in the Dolomites, the last 3km averaging 15% or so. But, wait, there's more. The next day is an individual time trial which finishes at the Plan de Corones with sections up to 25% in the last 4 miles. Ouch!
Hey, but the hardest stage on paper may be Stage 20 five days later which includes the Passo Gavia and its ramps up to 16% and then the fearsome Passo del Mortirolo which is probably the second or third hardest pass in any grand tour. The 8-mile climb averages 11% and it is just a never ending climb of pain and suffering. Anyone who is hoping to do well in the race and has questionable fitness is going to have nowhere to hide.
With Astana's snub from the Tour I am hoping that the boys in blue lay down some serious smack and show why they deserve to be in France come July. Given their current lack of race conditioning it might be a tall order, but don't count out Alberto and Levi.
ps - rumour has it that there will be a stage start or finish in the central valley town of Visalia in the 2009 (insert you favorite sponsor here) Tour of California. That may mean a mountain stage up into Sequoia National Park where 6-7000' climbs exist. Hmmm.