The biggest one-day race in Italy, Milan-San Remo, will take place on Saturday and a stellar field is expected to make the event unforgettable. Not only is Lance Armstrong going to ride the 190-miles from Italy's second largest city to the Italian Riviera, Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen look to continue their sprinting duel on San Remo's Via Roma.
Of course, everyone was expecting a sprint finish last year when Swiss ace Fabian Cancellara gave everyone the slip after the descent of the Poggio, the race's final climb. It was the stuff of legends, unfortunately Spartacus is still recovering from a training crash and will not defend his win.
The big question is whether uber-sprinter Mark Cavendish of Columbia-High Road will get himself over the four major climbs which define the race. The biggest, the Turchino Pass, comes at mid-distance which will allow the Manx-man to get back on. It is more a question of the Cipressa (pronounced Chipressa), the penultimate ascent, and the Poggio (pronounced POcho) which comes within five miles of the finish line.
It is going to take a lot of teamwork for Cavendish to make it over the "capos" or "climbs", look for his faithful ally, Michael Barry, to be handling the babysitting duties up and over the Poggio with George Hincapie and Mark Renshaw as the key players in the Columbia-High Road leadout train.
On the other hand, Tom Boonen has proven that he can get to the Via Roma with the bunch, but he has been outfoxed in the finale and is definitely looking to the 2009 edition of MSR to set matters right.
Look for Lance Armstrong to use this race to gain some more "conditioning" working on being comfortable in a big pack at high speeds for seven hours plus. It would be a fairytale ending if Big Tex could pull off the win, but even Lance will tell you that unless the perfect opportunity arises, he is still in the training phase of his comeback. That's just the reality of the situation.
Unfortunately for us US cycling fans, the Versus TV network will not be carrying the race. It was great last year to see Garmin-Slipstream's Will Frischkorn off the front for almost the entire race in a three-rider break not to mention Cancellara's surprising upset win. Check for streaming video options on the internet. You won't be disappointed.
Amaury Sports Organization(ASO), the group which owns and runs the Tour de France announced 20 of the teams participating in the 2009 edition of the race. The biggest news is, as expected, Team Astana, the squad that includes four riders who have been on the podium at the Tour, is back after a much-publicized one-year absence. That means that Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden will most likely be toeing the starting line when the race commences in Monaco (that's not France) in about four months.
The other big news, which was also kind of expected, is that the Fuji-Servetto team was not invited. Fuji-Servetto was the only Pro Tour team left off the start list, supposedly, the UCI had signed an agreement with ASO that all Pro Tour teams would get starting slots. However, you might remember that last year, Fuji-Servetto was named Saunier-Duval when they left their mark on the 2008 Tour. They won three stages with Ricardo Ricco(2) and Leonardo Piepoli only to have everything come crashing down when it was revealed that Ricco had tested positive for CERA, a new slow-release version of the blood-cell-boosting EPO. Piepoli later admitted that he used CERA as well.
After the revelation, Saunier-Duval supposedly left on its own accord, but all information point to ASO giving them the boot. Fuji-Servetto has been denied starting slots in a number of races so far this season. The UCI needs to send a very clear message, instead of the muddy one they are dishing out now. If there are big questions surrounding Fuji-Servetto then the UCI should not have issued them a Pro Tour license. Now that the UCI has issued them a license, they need to show some solidarity and stand behind all the Pro Tour teams. Not good.
The good news for Americans besides, Lance, Levi and Chris being back in the Tour is that both American Pro Tour team Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-High Road are both in the big show. The other Pro Tour teams include Milram, Quick Step, Silence-Lotto, Saxo Bank, Caisse d'Epargne, Euskaltel-Euskadi, AG2R La Mondiale, Bbox Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis, Française des Jeux, Lampre-NGC, Liquigas, Rabobank and Katusha.
The three wild-card teams are Cervelo Test Team, the squad of defending Tour champion Carlos Sastre; Agritubel which rode very aggressively in last year's Tour and Skil-Shimano a mostly Benelux squad whose roster doesn't include any big names.
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.