Word came from Spain yesterday that Jose Luis Rubiera had won stage 2 of the Tour of Muricia. It was the queen stage with big climbs and when it started snowing it turned into a mini-epic. You have to be happy for Chechu, Rubiera's nickname. In his final year of a storied career, the affable rider from Gijon in Northern Spain is a true class act and winning in difficult conditions just adds to the legend.
Less than two weeks ago, he was Levi Leipheimer's right-hand man on the big climbs and rainy, windy flats at the Amgen Tour of California. It was the Chechu of old, pacing his team leader to yet another major stage race win. For me, it was one of the feel-good stories of the race and it was great to see Rubiera riding again at such a high level.
Chechu has amassed an impressive record throughout his professional career. He rode nineteen grand tours and finished top ten in four of those tours. He won several stages of the Tour de France as a member of the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel team time trial squad and also won two individual stages of the Giro d'Italia. Of course, he was by Lance Armstrong's side from 2001-2005 for the Texan's last five Tour victories.
He rode strongly in all, but the 2002 event. I once asked him what happened in 2002 and he replied that he had tried to do Lance's pre-Tour training program and it had burned him out. "Lance is like a motor bike of 1000cc and I am a 250cc or even less. We can't do the same training, we can't," noted the modest Spaniard.
But, Chechu will retire at the end of this year and join his wife, who is a lawyer, in Gijon. He has a degree in industrial engineering which he received while racing as a professional many times cracking his books in his hotel room after an exhausting six hours in the saddle.
I will miss his infectious smile; his positive attitude and his professionalism. The guy is truly one of the gentlemen of the sport and a class act. To be winning mountain stages and paving the way for your team leader to win a big stage race is truly the best way to exit stage left. We will all miss you. Buena suerte, amigo.
The Amgen Tour of California(AToC) organizers had the capacity to invite 18 teams to its recent race; it only invited 17. One team noticeably absent was the Canadian Symetrics squad which, in 2007, won the UCI Continental Championship for North and South America an honor which means it was the best team, based on UCI points, on two continents. Add to that, their rider Svein Tuft, not only won the individual UCI Continental Championships as well, but he also pulled off a remarkable win at the US Open, a race televised nationally on NBC TV, last April.
Unfortunately, Symetrics got no love from AToC organizers and was left out of the race. The Vancouver-based squad was on the sidelines as teams they beat in 2007 were racing in the Tour of California. I ran into one of their top riders, Eric Wohlberg, a three-time Canadian Olympian the day before the start of the AToC. His frustration was evident; there really was no good reason the Symetrics team was left out of the race.
Hey but, Eric is a champion and champions don't get mad, they get even. This past weekend was the first big race on the US domestic calendar after the AToC, The Merco Cycling Classic, and all of the US domestic squads who had competed in the AToC were set to participate. All Eric did was solo off the front for the final 25 miles of the 120-mile road race to win alone. That's an in-your-face move if ever there was one!
You have to know Eric to realize that it wasn't so much as kicking mud in your eye. It was just a case of kicking your butt. As former US Postal/Discovery Channel rider and fellow Canadian Michael Barry once told me, "Eric has two speeds, hard and harder." Here's hoping that Eric and his Symetrics team can get some love from the other top races in the US. They deserve to be at all of them, including that Tour of California gig. Hey, was all that rain some sort of karma payback?
Mark Cavendish was robbed of his win on stage 6 of the Tour of California, plain and simple. Yes, he received some help from his team car when he crashed in the final 10km's, but anyone who has ridden in the pro peloton knows how hard it is to move up, not only through the peloton, but also through all the team cars in the final few km's of a race, especially when everybody is going 35+mph.
This isn't a case of a rider hanging onto a car door and getting towed right back up to the front of the field. Far from that. Look at the photo. Cavendish is lying on the ground after crashing, lucky that the whole field didn't run him over and put him in a hospital bed.
After the crash, Cavendish was probably 15-30 seconds behind the field and yes, he probably got significant help getting back to the tail end of the race caravan from his team car. But, that sort of practice is totally OK in Europe in pro racing because just regaining the back of the caravan after a crash is viewed as"righting a wrong". A crash is viewed as an unfortunate circumstance and pacing back on is just the way to reverse the circumstance.
Once Cavendish regained the caravan, he had to work his way back to the peloton past 30 or so team cars. When he got to the back of the peloton after risking his life amongst the cars, he just had to work his way past 100+ racers all going wheel to wheel at 35+mph to end up at the front. Simply done, you say. Not!
So, this wasn't a case of Cavendish getting a free ride to the line from his team car. Far from it. He had to pick himself up, sort himself out, work his way through 30+ cars and 100+ riders going flat out. That's what sprinters do and that's what Cavendish did. Taking the win away from the plucky Brit is like taking Muhamed Ali's heavyweight crown away from him for fighting. It was a great win under the most difficult of circumstances. The sprinters are the showmen of our sport. Let them demonstrate why it takes a bit of madness, a bit of luck and a bit of savvy to win the bunch kick. We love it!
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.
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.