Cadel Evans salvaged an up-and-down season with an historic win at the 2009 World Championships road race and he did it was a cheeky solo attack on the race's final climb with only 3 miles(5km) remaining. In August, Evans admitted that he expected to be fired by his Silence-Lotto team after finishing a massively disappointing 30th place in the Tour de France. After two successive second place finishes only the top step of the podium would have satisfied the rider, his team and fans, but it was not to be.
Then came the Vuelta a Espana where Evans was clearly one of the strongest, if not the strongest, rider in the race. However, an untimely wheel change on the stage to the mountain top finish at Sierra Nevada put paid to his chances for an overall victory. He publicly stated that his final finish in third place overall was satisfying, but when you have twice stood on the second step of the podium at the Tour those words seemed a bit hollow.
The men's 160-mile road race looked to be an Italy vs. Spain affair as these two countries have won the event eight times in the past ten years. With in-form riders like Damiano Cunego and Alejandro Valverde it looked like history would repeat itself before the race began. However, with the championships being held in Mendrisio, Switzerland and Fabian Cancellara being a home boy with a bit of form himself anything was possible.
It was Cancellara who provided most of the horsepower in the closing laps to bring the field altogether with one circuit remaining setting the stage for a flurry of attacks and it was Cadel's move which ruled the day. It was a great win for a rider who seems to have a love-hate relationship with journalists and the public. Will this career-defining win relieve some of the pressure on Cadel and allow him to be more relaxed when dealing with people? Hopefully so.
ps - the UCI took the first steps towards banning race radios from the pro peloton. It appears that the plan for phasing out the radios calls for several years before total elimination. However, this plan is strongly opposed by many of the pro teams managers and directors so this issue is a long way from being decided.
The 2009 Vuelta a Espana(Tour of Spain to us 'Mericans) is finally getting interesting. Not that the race hasn't had a few surprises and some great moments for Americans and American teams, but the race for the overall has been, well, uh, er, a bit boring. There have been a number of marquee names vying for the top step of the podium such as Alejandro Valverde, Ivan Basso, and Cadel Evans. But, until Sunday's summit finish at La Pandera, all the GC riders seemed to be spending more time watching each other than actually trying to win.
The result of all this cat and mouse is that a number of lesser riders have been stealing the show from the stars. Hey, it is great to see more riders get a chance to shine, but it makes the racing a bit jaded if we have to wait five minutes after the stage winner to see the overall contenders cross the line. That might be OK on the flatter stages, but in the mountains, the big boys should be at the head of affairs and not trying to share TV time with racers who arrived at the bottom of the last climb with a ten minute lead.
Having said all that, it was great to see Tyler Farrar win his first ever stage of a grand tour. He was oh, so close in both the Giro and the Tour on numerous occasions and while his main rival Mark Cavendish was not in Spain, last time I checked they aren't just giving stage victories away for showing up. This is a great result for the Garmin-Slipstream rider in his first full season as a pro. I think it bodes well for his future in the sport. Also, having an American who can win a bunch sprint will definitely make watching the flatter stages of the grand tours much more interesting for American fans.
Garmin-Slipstream also won a mountain stage with Ryder Hesjedal taking the stage to Velefique. While he was one of those lesser riders off the front stealing the stage from the GC contenders, Ryder rode smartly and made his opportunity count. I really like Ryder and hope that this is a portent of big things to come.
Which leads us to Sunday's stage and the finish at La Pandera. The final 5-mile climb is really tough and provided a cornucopia of drama when overall race leader Alejandro Valverde was dropped by Ivan Basso and Robert Gesink with about three miles to go on the climb's steepest section. It looked like Valverde was going to have his usual one bad day in a grand tour and drop out of contention until he got a second wind and started chasing down his competitors.
Valverde not only succeeded in catch Basso, but he also bridged up to Gesink who was on his way to taking the overall race lead from the Spaniard. It was a display of determination worthy of a champion and it might just be the winning moment of the race. Finally, the Vuelta is getting interesting.
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!
One thing I have learned from my many years as a journalist is that, especially at the start and finish of race stages, I should only ask a few questions and the total interview should be around a minute. This is for several reasons. First off, there are other journalists who also want to talk to the riders. If I tie up a rider for five minutes, when time is really critical, not only do I keep other journalists from getting their story, but I risk having competing journalists evesdrop on my interview and then I loose a bit of exclusivity. So to be fair and to keep my interview as exclusive as possible I get and get out and let others do their work as well.
The second reason is that these riders have a job to do. Yes, they need to make themselves available to the press, but before or after race stages when chaos and anxiety are at critical levels is not the place to start asking about career goals and how they feel about the war in Iraq. So, out of courtesy, I try to keep it short and simple.
Today at the sign in for the stage from Bourg d'Oisans to St. Etienne I talked to a bunch of the riders who have been lighting it up in the Alps.
Carlos Sastre rolled up in his first day in yellow. BTW, Sastre's time for the ascent of the l'Alpe d'Huez was 39'29" for an average speed of 13 miles per hour.
Jens Voigt has done just about everything in this Tour from pacesetting at the front to climbing to initiating breakaways to super-domestique in the mountains. I asked him if is there is anything he cannot do. "I am really shite on a rainy descent. That's the only thing where I am absolutely hopeless. Apart from that I think I am doing well."
Jens was asked to describe his teammate Carlos Sastre. "He is just a peaceful warrior. He's hard when it comes to it(racing), but he is friendly and loyal. He gives a lot to the team so that is why everyone wants to help him."
Austrian Bernard Kohl of the Gerlosteiner squad will wear the polka-dot jersey into Paris. I asked him about what it was like on the Alpe, where he finished in the lead chasing group and sits third overall 1'34 seconds behind Sastre and one second behind Cadel Evans. "Yeah, it was really hard. It was the hardest stage in the Alps and after two and a half weeks of racing and after 200 kilometers (on that day) the race was really hard."
Who was he keying off of on the Alpe? "I had to look for Cadel Evans. He needed to keep the gap from getting too big for the time trial." Can Kohl defend his podium position or even move up a place or two in the final time trial? "No, I am not really the time trialer like Cadel Evans or Denis Menchov. I am a climber. I will try my best in the time trial and we will see."
Kohl's Gerlosteiner teammate, winner of the first time trial and former wearer of the yellow jersey, Stefan Schumacher, was especially active in the Alps with long breakaways on the stage to Jausiers and also to the Alpe. I asked him if he was trying to make up for his sub-par performance in the Pyrenees. "Yeah, in the Pyrenees I was not so good, but now I have a lot of time(he was way down on GC) so I tried. Also, it was important for the team to ride an offensive race and work for the mountains jersey. Bernard had the jersey and I controlled it at the front."
Danny Pate was in the lead breakway on the stage to Prato Nevoso and in a position to snag Team Garmin-Chipotle's first Tour stage win. I asked him who he was watching on the climb to the finish. "I was just watching the Euskatel guy(Egoi Martinez) because he seemed like the best guy." Both Pate's and teammate Will Frischkorn's breakway moves were big pluses for the squad and proved their worth in the Tour even if they did not win a stage. Also, having a rider contending for the Tour podium isn't half bad, either!
Save for one bad day, the stage to Huatacam in the Pyrenees, Alejandro Valverde would be a heavy favorite for a podium finish come Paris in four days time. I asked him what happened down south and why he climbed much better in the Alps. "In the Pyrenees I had bad luck and my legs were not there. In the Alps I felt better and could climb better as well. I am happy with how things have worked out."
George Hincapie crashed hard on the stage to the Alpe and on the day after he was wearing extensive bandages on his left side which were already showing stains from his wounds. He looked like he was in a lot of pain and confrimed it when he succintly answered my question on how he feels. "Bad." I asked him if he would soldier on to Paris and he replied that he would give it a shot. George is a true warrior and I hope he makes to to Paris for his 13th Tour.
The last of the 150 remaining riders to sign in was one of the true revelations of the race, Garmin-Chipotle cyclist Christian Vandevelde. He was oh, so close to the podium, and has still has a shot, but the emerging star recounted what happened in the Alps. "I had one bad day two days ago but I made up for it yesterday."
Most likely referring to the clinic Team CSC Saxo Bank put on during the past three days, when asked how it felt to leave the Alps, Christian was not convinced that the race had truly left the Alps therefore allowing the riders to rest up for the showdown on Saturday. "It feels good, but we are still in the Alps. We have to go to St. Etienne first."
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.