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.
The Garmin-Slipstream team announced its 9-man roster for the Tour de France. Not surprisingly, Christian Vande Velde will lead the squad. He finished fourth last year and looked very good doing it. The only question will be can he regain the fitness necessary to be competitive after a serious crash in the opening stages of the Giro? Recently, at the Tour de Suisse (Tour of Switzerland) he looked like he is on the way back, but there is some more fitness needed to contend for the overall. Luckily, Christian knows how to make it happen.
The team will also include Bradley Wiggins who came within one second of winning the final TT at the Giro. Besides being counted on to place highly in the time trials he has lost a reported 9 pounds(4 kilos) and will be a key support role for Vande Velde in the mountains. The multi-Olympic gold medalist will also be part of the leadout train for Tyler Farrar. Bradley will be earning his money at the Tour.
David Millar and Dave Zabriskie are included on the team for their time trialing abilities. The team time trial on stage 4 is a goal for the squad and they have the horsepower to win it. Also, look for Millar to go for stage wins in a small breakaway on the flatter stages.
Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin are included for their climbing abilities and to support Christian in the mountains. Ryder played a key role in the Alps at the 2008 Tour and Dan Martin is one of the up and coming stars in the pro peloton with some outstanding performances in hilly stage races last year and this spring.
Tyler Farrar was one of the revelations of the Giro. He sprinted to several second place finishes behind Mark Cavendish. While he didn't get a stage win, he showed that he was ready to mix it up in the finale and had no fear in doing it. He could definitely win a stage of the Tour.
Julian Dean is the final cog, after Bradley Wiggins, of the Farrar leadout train. Look for Wiggins to go from 1km to about 600m with Julian taking it from there to about 200m. This train, which was new for the Giro, had lots of practice in Italy and is ready to launch.
Danny Pate also has immense time trialing skills, but as he proved on the stage to Prato Nevoso in last year's Tour he can sense an opportunity for a stage win and go for it. He was oh so close last year.
The Garmin-Slipstream team is a well-balanced squad that includes riders for all the tasks necessary to be competitive in the mountains, flats and time trials. Good luck boys!
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!
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.
The rain continued to fall on the second road stage of the Amgen Tour of California(AToC), but that didn't deter the 135 riders from taking to some of the prettiest roads in Northern California. Bicycles crossed the main road of the Golden Gate Bridge for only the second time in history (the first time was in the first Tour of California in 1971) then headed south along Highway 1 toward Santa Cruz. By the first of the day's two major climbs a group of ten riders had broken away from the pack and established a three-minute lead. At the head of affairs was Bissell Pro Cycling rider Ben Jacques-Maynes who went to college near the finish at UC Santa Cruz and knows the roads of the race route like the back of his hand.
Yesterday, I asked Ben if he thought the big boys would be firing on the last climb of the day, Bonny Doon Road. "I am not going to wait around to try to get to the line with them . So we will see what happens." True to his word, he seemed to be the leader of the breakaway, bringing his group to the base of Bonny Doon Road with their three-minute lead intact. But, Team Astana, who is clearly the strongest squad in the race took charge launching Levi Leipheimer in pursuit of the escapees. The two-time overall race winner rocketed passed all the early leaders like he was on a motorbike and only Garmin-Slipstream rider Thomas Peterson could gain his wheel.
Leipheimer and Peterson kept their advantage all the way to the finish line where Peterson took the win and Levi gained 31 seconds over his rivals throwing a Tiger Woods fist pump in the air as he crossed the finish line. I asked Levi if his attack was motivated by the time he lost on yesterday's stage into Santa Rosa. "It was payback for what Mancebo did to us yesterday," replied Leipheimer
Michael Rogers of Team Columbia-High Road finished third on the day. The three-time World Time Trial champion led the chase to catch Levi. "We had to. We were just trying to limit our losses to Levi." The team's hard work paid off as Rogers moved into second place overall, only 21 seconds behind Leipheimer.
The day's big loser was overnight race leader Fancisco Mancebo who finished 1'52" behind Leipheimer and dropped to 16th overall. I asked him what happened to him on the stage. "I am dead, dead, dead. I went very hard yesterday. Today I was tired and not able to go hard."
Even though Ben Jacques-Maynes didn't win the stage, he was awarded the Amgen Breakaway from Cancer Most Courageous Rider's Jersey for his day's efforts. He recounted how it all unfolded. "We wanted to animate the race and my move was the one that went. Andy was in a move and Frank was in a move before that. I had the luck of the draw. I was cramping a bit by that point. It was just so cold and wet. The cold just takes it out of your legs so when it is time to push hard it is very difficult."
Lance Armstrong got knocked down on Highway 1 by a photo motorcycle driven by his personal photographer. He was unhurt and got back into the peloton without incident.
Ben Jacques-Maynes brother Andy crashed and was taken to hospital. Ben knew his brother had crashed and was in the ambulance when it passed his breakaway heading to the hospital, but there was nothing he could do about it at that time.
With all the rain at both this year's and last year's race, there is some serious discussion about moving the race to the April dates vacated by the recently defunct Tour de Georgia. Clearly, certain top-name pro riders would not be able to attend as it is the height of the one-day-classic season, but the weather should be better, in theory.
Lance Armstrong continues to impress. He finished in the chase group behind Levi and is now in fourth place, only 30 seconds behind Leipheimer.
The weather for Tuesday still show rain, but Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday look dry. Sunday might be a little wet, but the accuracy of the forecast models that far out is pretty poor.