Today was a day for the lesser-placed riders as a group of ten broke away from an Astana-controlled peloton to take the glory at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. This is a great segue into the theme of this posting which is, a stage may be difficult, but it is not necessarily decisive. I think that observation applies to Stage 4 from Merced to Clovis, today's stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena and the final stage tomorrow from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido.
All three of these stages contain a lot of climbing. On paper, none of these climbs is exceptionally steep, but at the speed the pros are capable of riding up these ascents all of them can be very, very difficult. So, I don't think anyone isn't saying that these stages are an easy day for a lady. Quite the contrary. The real question from a racing standpoint is, are these stages decisive?
By decisive I mean will they have an affect on the race's overall standings? Unfortunately, in the case of these three stages, the climbs come too early in the day's ride. As we have seen many times before, a well-driven peloton can chase down a breakaway as long as the gap isn't too large. So, all the peloton needs to do is give the riders off the front some rope and they can reel them in.
In the case of today's stage, the ten-rider breakaway did not contain any riders who could threaten Levi's overall lead so Team Astana smartly allowed them some rope and the stage win. No harm done and Levi will be in yellow tomorrow. Also, it is a good idea to let other teams have their day in the sun. Greed doesn't make too many friends.
So, while a stage may be difficult, the position of the climbs has a huge affect on whether the stage will also be decisive. Stage 2 into Santa Cruz was decisive because the climb of Bonny Doon Road occurred so close to the finish. Stage 1 into Santa Rosa should not have been a decisive stage, but two factors, the fact that the breakaway containing Mancebo was allowed to get way too much time and the sanfu with the radio communications made it a decisive stage. Which goes to prove that even a difficult, non-decisive stage can become decisive if unforeseen factors intervene. That's what we call bike racing.
You finally say Christian Vande Velde(Garmin-Slipstream) at the head of affairs.Christian was on the podium last year, but has been pretty invisible this year. I asked his team director, Jonathan Vaughters, why Christian seemed to be auditioning for a remake of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Jonathan said that last year, the team was bidding for a wild card entry into the Tour de France so they needed to shine in the early season to impress the selection committee. This year, as a Pro Tour team, they are guaranteed an entry into the Tour so they are bringing Christian along a bit more slowly so he will be ready to fly come July.
I caught up with Michael Barry of Columbia-High Road at the TT. Michael and I have known each other for years so I can say this publicly, he looked like death warmed over. I asked him why and he said that he and teammate Adam Hansen have the job of looking after Mark Cavendish. What this means is that on the stages with climbs, when Mark gets dropped, Michael and Adam have to drop back and then pace Mark back up to the peloton after the climb is over. Then in the last two hours of the stage, they have to go to the front and ride tempo to bring back any breakaways. That's a tough way to make a living! Luckily, Michael and Adam are pretty good at it. Just look at the results.
It was great to see Chris Baldwin (Rock Racing) off the front in the breakaway today. Chris is a multi-national champion in the time trial so yesterday in Solvang, it should have been his day to shine. But, because his teammate, Oscar Sevilla, was in a position to take a high overall place, Chris had to hold back in case he needed to ride at the front to defend Sevilla's position. After his ride, Chris said it was very difficult to hold back in his specialty.
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.