The much anticipated 61km time trial(TT) at the Giro d'Italia produced a few surprises, some good, some bad proving, once again, that Italy's grand tour is never predictable. At the end of the day, Rabobank's Denis Menchov proved that his two overall wins at the Vuelta a Espana were no fluke as he time-trialed himself past Danilo Di Luca and into the maglia rosa, the pink leader's jersey.
For Americans, all eyes were on Levi Leipheimer who had the potential to not only win the stage, but take the maglia rosa. While the quiet Californian came up short in both the stage and the overall leads his second place, only 20 seconds back of Menchov, must be considered a success. Leipheimer also moved up to third overall and is clearly within striking distance of the race lead.
What I take from Levi's performance is that the Giro is not the same race as the Tour. Leiphemier has repeatedly remarked that he feels nervous when racing on the tight roads and tricky descents of the Giro which has already cost him time in the race for the overall. Not every race is for every rider. Hopefully, Levi will feel more comfortable as the race progresses.
Of course, a lot of attention was given to Levi's teammate, Lance Armstrong, who finished 13th about 2:30 back of Menchov. While some might be close to writing Lance off, I think this is another indication that Lance is finding the form he will need to be a factor at the Tour. It must be remembered that in 2004, Lance lost 2 minutes to Iban Mayo at the Mont Ventoux time trial in the Dauphine Libere. He came back to win the Tour, dominating the TT's, and winning by over six minutes.
So what's going to happen in the final week? Clearly, if Di Luca is going to have a chance to win his second Giro, he is going to have to go on the attack on Monte Petrano, the Blockhaus or Monte Vesuvio. Leipheimer is going to have to make Di Luca pay for all his aggression in the first week by putting pressure on the front of the climbs. Menchov is going to have to keep doing what he has been doing; ride "steady eddy" and avoid one bad day in the mountains that seems to plague him in some grand tours.
Remember that the final stage is a 15km TT around Rome's famous landmarks. Go watch "Angels and Daemons" and you will get a pretty good idea of what the rider's will see. I think Levi is a better flat time trialist than either Menchov or Di Luca so if the gaps remain about the same, Levi could ended winning it all. I haven't mentioned either Ivan Basso or Michael Rogers. These two guys are going to need an exceptional day to put themselves back into contention.
Team Columbia-Highroad has been putting on a Bike Racing 101 clinic at the Giro.The squad has won four stages in the first nine days and they are doing it in classic racing fashion. The Giro is known for lots of crashes which sometimes produce lucky winners, but Columbia-Highroad's success has nothing to do with luck.
Columbia-Highroad's first win, on the opening day's team time trial, was the picture of perfection. There didn't appear to be any strategy other than to have each rider give his all. There were no sacrificial lambs, everybody just rode their hearts out.
Norwegian Edvald Boasen-Hagen has recorded a second-first-second in stages 6-8; his win into Chiavenna on stage 7 was won on rain-slickened roads, but he didn't appear to be taking unnecessary risks.
Constantin Siutsov's victory into Bergamo was probably the best demonstration of classic bike racing tactics. Columbia-Highroad sent their GC man Michael Rogers up the road on the stage's final climb forcing overal racer leader Danilo Diluca's LPR Brakes team to initiate a furious chase. As soon as Rogers and his breakaway companions, which included Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, were reeled in, Siutsov counter-attacked.
It was clear that the LPR riders were tired from chasing Rogers and Leipheimer and Siutsov quickly built a sufficient lead to take him all the way to the finish line. That is how you win a bike race.
The final chapter in team Columbia Highroad's racing primer was written in Milan when a near perfect leadout train in the final kilometers delivered uber-sprinter Mark Cavendish first across the line. Thus endeth the lesson, but I am guessing that Columbia-Highroad has a few more chapters to write before the end of the race.
A few more speculations on what will happen with Team Astana and the rollout with Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel's new team. It must be remembered that one of the strategies that Bruyneel and Armstrong used to help engineer Lance's seven tour wins was to acquire the competition.
Along that line of thinking, it would be better for Bruyneel and Armstrong to try and keep Team Astana together through the Tour so that they would have Contador on their squad. That's not to say that Bruyneel and Armstrong would try to keep Contador from winning. It just means that they would have more control over the situation. Only time will tell what happens.
While Lance may not be making big headlines on the bike at the Giro, what he is doing off the bike is generating some exciting news. To be fair, Lance did not come into the Giro in peak form and he is showing that he is the master of the three week race by riding within himself in Italy so he can go the full distance and not burn out too early.
It was reported last week in several Colorado newspapers that Lance had called Governor Bill Ritter to sound out the Governor on the potential of putting on a Tour of Colorado much like the Amgen Tour of California. Last summer Lance bought a house in Aspen and has been using that dwelling for his altitude training. Lance and many of us remember the glory days of the Coors Classic and the possibility of re-capturing those magical times is a huge motivation to bring big-time bike racing back to Colorado.
At this time the idea is only in the 'trial balloon' stage. My guess is that Lance was just testing the waters to see how receptive the Governor's office was to the idea as the state is key to pulling off such an event. It would most likely be 2011 at the earliest before any race could happen.
In the past several years, Medalist Sports who run both the Tour of California and the Tour of Missouri has been working with a group in the Vail Valley to bring a 3-4 day professional stage race to Colorado, but that event has yet to be held. Hopefully, Lance will have more success.
My rumours and speculation on some of the details of the new professional team run by Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong generated lots of comments. Remember, the details of the team are all just speculation at this point.
One alternate scenario that is emerging is that the team will continue as Team Astana until after the Tour which would mean that Lance, Alberto and Levi would all be racing together in France in July. One good reason to keep the current squad intact through July is that if a new team emerges after the Giro, but before the Tour, it is not clear if that team would be allowed to start the Tour de France.
Given that the French National Anti-Doping Agency(AFLD) backed off on the "Showergate" incident, it seems clear that the French want Lance to start to the Tour. So, if the new team did emerge before the Tour there is a good possibility that a number of rules would be bent to allow them to participate.
My guess is that since Lance and Johan are pretty smart guys they have already contacted the Tour organizers and asked them if their new team would be allowed to start. The answer to that question will probably determine when the new team emerges.
Word coming from the Giro d'Italia is that it is all but a done deal that Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel will have their own professional cycling team. Details are still a bit in the speculative stage, but it appears that an official announcement will be made on or about June 1st, the day after the conclusion of the Giro and also the day after the UCI's deadline for Team Astana to get it's financial situation in order has come and gone.
More than likely, the bulk of the team will come from the current roster of the Astana squad. Speculating on the exact roster, the new team should include Lance, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaraslov Popovych, Chechu Runiera, Daniel Noval, Jani Brajkovic, and a most of the remaining supporting characters (Gregory Rast, Steve Morabito, etc.)
One rider who is rumoured to not be part of the new team is Alberto Contador. He has been linked to Caisse d'Epargne, the team of Alejandro Valverde whose own participation in the Tour de France has been put in doubt by a recent two-year ban in Italy for his participation in Opercion Puerto. It is not clear if Contador's good friend and training partner, Jesus Jernandez, will follow him to Caisse. Obviously, if Contador does not come to the squad, all questions about who will lead the team at the Tour de France become moot!
Another rider whose future is uncertain is Andreas Kloden who has recently been linked to blood doping during the 2006 Tour and will almost certainly face some sort of disciplinary action. Also, it is unclear if any of the Kazhak riders currently on the team will be retained.
Rumour has it that Bruyneel and Armstrong have already produced the team kit with their new sponsors and will be unveiling it at the public announcement in the days after the finish of the Giro. Look for Armstrong to be wearing his new team colors as he trains with Leipheimer and Horner at his home in Aspen between the Giro and the Tour.
We will have to wait and see how this all shakes out, but suffice it to say, the excitement in pro cycling won't go into hiatus between the Giro and the Tour.
The Giro hit the mountains today and all eyes were on one rider. I don't think it matters if you were French, Italian or a good ol' American. Everybody wanted to know if Lance 3.0 could climb? If you remember, Lance 3.0 is the comeback Lance. The guy who gave up retired life to ride in rain, wind and snow and fight for position in the pack all while trying not to get knocked down by overzealous racers. Let's face it. Lance has enough money so I am pretty certain he isn't trying to get free travel and hotels by being part of a professional cycling team.
But, I digress, though Lance 3.0's motivation to return to the top level of pro racing is always a great topic for discussion. The fourth stage of the Giro was a warm-up of sorts in the Dolomites. The first major climb, the Croce d'Aune, came too far from the finish to be decisive and the final climb to the enchanting town of San Martino di Castrozza was not really long or steep enough to really answer any questions. To be sure, by the stage finish the contenders had been separated from the pretenders, but there were definitely a lot of contenders when the lead group went under the red kite with a kilometer to go.
Lance was in that group, but a sharp acceleration by riders looking for the stage win gapped him and put the Texan about 15 seconds back at the line. It might be worrying that Armstrong wasn't able to respond to the late surge by eventual stage winner Danilo Di Luca, but again, this wasn't a really decisive climb and anything can happen when 40+ riders contest a supposed mountain-top finish.
Wednesday's stage, which ends in a massive 5000' climb to the ski station at Alpe di Siusi, will provide a more valid answer to Lance's climbing form. Well, sort of. You must remember that Armstrong is still recovering from his broken collarbone. If Lance gets dropped then it can be speculated that he is still gaining the form he needs to be a factor at the Tour. If Lance is with the lead group in the final kilometer, then we will know that he can be counted on to help his teammate, Levi Leipheimer, in Levi's quest to win the Giro.
That sounds a bit slushy. Will we really learn anything from how Lance climbs towards Alpe di Siusi? Lance will certainly learn something and that is confidence. You need confidence to be able to climb well. Lance had it in spades during his reign at the Tour. Does he have it now or is he just bluffing.
Personally, I would like to have seen Lance up closer to the front of the group, where Levi was riding, during the final climb. That makes me think that he will not be in the lead group at the finish on Wednesday. But, what I saw a few days earlier is even more important, IMHO. What I saw before, during and after the team time trial is how much Lance seems to be enjoying being back in a grand tour. He looks reasonably fit, but more importantly really motivated to ride at his limit and be a factor at the Giro.
With two months to go before the Tour, I think Armstrong's motivation is more important than fitness. In the days before his collarbone accident, I thought I detected a loss of enthusiasm at the task ahead, that being riding both the Giro and the Tour. His collarbone injury could easily have put the nail in the coffin of his comeback. To see him energized and ready to suffer says to me that his comeback is back on track.
Today was the first road stage of the Giro and true to form, a crash on the finishing circuits has already had an affect on the overall standings. The Giro is not the Tour de France and there are many reasons why one of them being the in-town finishing circuits. The Tour has never been fond of them, but the Giro seems to sprout them and on the worst roads in the smallest of towns.
I guess I should explain what finishing circuits are in case you might be wondering. In the Tour de France, stages start in town A and finish in town B. While the route might be circuitous getting from A to B, when the peloton gets to town B the race heads for the finish line and we have a winner. For some reason, the Giro has used a slightly different formula for stage finishes. Often when the race reaches town B, the peloton then embarks on, usually, three to five laps of a small (3-10km) finishing circuit.
You might be thinking what's the big deal; a kilometer is a kilometer. But, you have to remember that a lot of towns in Italy are pretty darn old and most were built before anything but horses were means of transportation. That means two things. First off, the roads can be pretty narrow and can also vary in width from block to block. Secondly, those same roads might not be paved with smooth asphalt. If you add in the fact that every Italian rider in the peloton that makes it to the finishing circuits will do anything short of murder to win a stage of the Giro you have a recipe for major disaster.
On these finishing circuits crashes are not the exception. They are the rule. Because of this it is crucial that any rider who wants to contend for the overall title has to be at the very front of the peloton. Getting caught behind a crash is almost as bad as being involved in the crash. Neither option is good. What this means is that guy riding next to Mark Cavendish might just be Levi Leipheimer or Ivan Basso. Well, that would be the case except that on Sunday's stage both Leipheimer and Basso were caught at the back of the group on the finishing circuits and lost 13 seconds.
One rider who was noticeably at the front of the peloton on the finishing circuits was Lance Armstrong. That wasn't by chance. You don't win seven grand tours by winging it and just letting stuff happen. Note to both Levi and Ivan. Keep a close eye on the guy in the black and gold helmet. He's up at the front where all the GC contenders should be.
The 100th anniversary of the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy or just plan Giro) will start on Saturday in Venice and end three weeks later with a time trial around the streets of Rome. Only one American, Andy Hampsten, has won the event, but this year, another US rider comes into this grand tour with the form to contend for the overall. No, it's not Lance Armstrong who recently admitted that his broken collarbone suffered in March has delayed his fitness.
Three-time winner of the Amgen Tour of California Levi Leipheimer arrives at the Giro with the form and the motivation to attempt to repeat Hampsten's 1988 performance. Levi has been on a tear since winning the AToC, taking Spain's Vuelta Castilla y Leon and dominating several races in the US. While Leipheimer has the chops to shine in the mountains and the time trials, he is going to have to stay close to the front in the flat bunch finishes to avoid the crashes which seem to plague the Giro.
Look for Lance Armstrong to work for Leipheimer in the mountains and on the flats, but he should be given free reign to go full gas in the time trials. I am hoping that Lance will ride the entire three weeks, he deperately needs the racing miles if he is going to be a factor in the Tour, but I suspect that he might pack it in after the 60km time trial south of Genoa in the middle of the 2nd week.
The Garmin-Slipstream team made huge waves last year when they won the first stage team time trial. This year, the first stage will again be a TTT. The argyle boys have the talent to repeat and take the race's first maglia rosa, or pink leader's jersey. Again, like last year, the team will most likely be using this race as training for the Tour. Christian Vande Velde might test his form for a stage or two in the mountains, but don't look for him to be high up in the general classification. Tyler Farrar will need to outfox and outpower Mark Cavendish to win a bunch finish. Look for Tom Danielson to go stage hunting in the mountains.
The other contenders for the overall include Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. All three riders have won a grand tour so they are going to be part of the mix. Usually a rogue Italian climbs into the fray as well. What this makes for is a very open Giro with no clear favorite. I am putting my money on Levi and hoping that his team will be focused on supporting him all the way to Rome.
BTW, NBC Universal Sports will be carrying daily updates from the Giro both online and on their TV station. If you have Comcast Cable you are in. Also, some metropolitan areas (Bay Area and Denver, Yeah!) get the channel over the air with the digital NBC network.
There was a major, 6.3 on the Richter scale, earthquake in central Italy close to the town of L'Aquila (the Eagle) on Monday. The devastation is huge and the death toll is 250 and climbing. The photos and videos of the tembler and the aftermath are striking. It clearly is a major tragedy.
Why am I writing about this quake? Because one of the classic climbs in all of Italy starts in L'Aquila. The 20-mile, 5000-foot ascent of the Gran Sasso has been a decisive hurdle in many a Giro, most recently, Marco Pantani soloed to a convincing win in 1999. It was a 150-mile stage that took over seven hours and was ridden in cold rain. Fog shrouded the top at 7000 feet above sea level.
What I remember most is that Pantani, who was sponsored by Bianchi bikes, was riding a mysterious all black machine. It had been a tradition since Fausto Coppi in the 1940's that Bianchi's racing machines were painted the legendary 'celeste' color, a sea green shade, but here was 'Il Pirata' on some sort of stealth black steed. It was a few month later that Sky Yager at Bianchi USA informed me that the black bike was indeed a Bianchi. However, Pantani wanted the bike to weigh as little as possible and by eliminating the paint job and just anodizing the aluminum tubes black saved three ounces of weight.
For you history buffs, the top of the Gran Sasso climb is known as Campo Imperatore. It was here in 1943 that Italian partisans hid Benito Mussolini after kidnapping him. The partisans were hoping that with Mussolini out of power, they could kick the Germans out of their country and sue for peace with the Americans and British. After several months in hiding, German commandos crash-landed gliders near Campo Imperatore and rescued 'Il Duce'. The Germans placed Mussolini back in power and the war in Italy continued for another year and a half.
If you ever get to Campo Imperatore you can, for five euros, visit the room in the hotel there that held Mussolini during his captivity with the partisans. In this photo the hotel is the big red building on the left.
Best wishes to all the inhabitants of L'Aquila for the rebuilding and healing which will undoubtedly take years to accomplish. Buona Fortuna!
It usually only happens in early August, but right now, I am suffering from a bad case of Post Tour Depression(PDT). I am not talking about that bike tour around France in July, I am 'jonesing' for the Tour de Ski. Most one-day cross country ski races are pretty darn exciting, throw in a gun or two and they get even more so. But, the Federation International de Ski(FIS) has really hit it big with the Tour de Ski.
As I described in my blog last week, the Tour de Ski is a 9-day, 7-race cross country ski racing event based loosely on the Tour de France. The event has a prologue time trial, time bonus sprints, a time cut, flat stages, and mountain stages, the final day featuring a climb that can rightly claim to be the Alpe d'Huez of cross country skiing. And to top it all off, the Tour de Ski includes both men's and women's races.
The 2008-2009 edition was a real nail-biter a combination of the depth of the fields, format of the races and the huge prize list($100,000 in total prizes with cars going to both the men's and women's winners). These skiers came to lay it all on the line and it that they did.
The final stage featured the gruelling climb of Alpe Cermis, a 3.5-mile(6km), 1400-foot(425 meter) test that is unique in both it's length and gain in world-class cross country ski racing. What piqued the drama was the format of the final stage with the skiers heading out in order of their overall standing and with a time advantage equal to their standing on the other skiers.
In cross country skiing they call it a 'pursuit' race. If Gunnar is leading Thor in second place by 32 seconds going into the final stage then Gunnar starts 32 seconds ahead of Thor and so on and so forth all the way down the individual standings. So, unlike the Tor de France, the racer who crosses the finish line first on top of Alpe Cermis is the overall winner.
The women's race provided the most exciting moments as the second place Finnish skier, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, made up a 40+ second deficit on her first place teammate, Virpi Kuitunen. about a mile before the top, but blew up and was passed by Kuitunen just before the finish. Both racers collapsed in the snow, but rolled over to give each other a congratulatory hug.
The men's race was a runaway win by Switzerland's Dario Cologna, but the best ski of the day was Italy's Giorgi di Centa who moved up from 14th to 4th overall on the brutal ascent of Alpe Cermis.
Thank heavens the Tour de France is only seven months away. I am not sure I can go much longer without a Tour. Hey, but don't forget about the Giro. That could be the best grand tour in 2009 and it starts in just five months.
ps- you have to check out the TV channel NBC Universal Sports. They totally rock.
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.
The Giro heads into an extremely exciting final weekend in which the top three riders are separated by only 21 seconds. Saturday the race climbs the grueling Passo Gavia and the fearsome Passo Mortirolo and the final day features a 17-mile individual time trial. You have to go back 20 years to find a Giro which included both the Gavia Pass and a final stage time trial and guess what, an American won the whole enchilada!
Andy Hampsten's historic victory is most remembered for the stage which has become know as "The Day Strong Men Cried". It was on the slopes of the Gavia Pass, in the midst of a horrific blizzard, that Hampsten showed us the character of a true champion. While almost every other rider in the race was thinking only of survival, Andy rode away from his competitors and into the teeth of a snowstorm that turned the 8600' pass into a chaotic mess.
Conditions were so bad that most riders stopped on top and hopped into their team cars to warm up. But not Hampsten. He knew that the real race was going to be on the descent where the loss of the body heat he was generating going up the 4500' climb was going to end and the shivering would begin. There were no follow vehicles, no race radios, Andy headed down into the 5500' descent all by himself. There would be no help of any kind for him on the way down, he was literally on his own.
This blog isn't long enough to describe the tortuous ordeal in the detail it so rightly deserves, suffice it to say that Andy persevered and took the maglia rosa, the pink jersey signifying the race leader, at the finish. And just to prove that he deserved to be in pink, he and his Team 7-Eleven defended the jersey in the final week which included three mountain stages, a mountain time trial and a final stage time trial near Venice.
If the current media coverage, Versus TV, cycling.tv, the Internet, etc. had been around 20 years ago Andy would be a huge hero in the States. It was an epic win in epic conditions. But, the mild-mannered Hampsten would probably not have wanted all that public attention. He just likes living in Boulder, riding his bike and hanging with his daughter, Emma, girlfriend, Elaine, and his buds.
A few weeks ago I reported about what I felt was an unusually high number of serious crashes in the both the European and domestic pro pelotons. I have been in touch with a number of the crashees and just wanted to pass along some info on what some of the riders are up to.
Jelly Belly's Bernard Van Ulden, who broke his collarbone on stage 6 of the Tour of California(ToC) is back on the bike and recently placed third overall at the prestigious Joe Martin stage race in Arkansas.
Vladimir Gusev of Team Astana who also crashed on stage 6 of the ToC is currently racing the Giro d'Italia where he is riding in support of race leader Alberto Contador and is in 51st place overall.
Bissel Professional Cycling Team rider Tom Zirbel who went down on the final stage of the Tour of Gila while wearing the race leader's jersey is back on the bike and is scheduled to return to the fight at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in mid-June.
Tim Duggan of Slipstream/Chipotle crashed hard in stage 3 of the Tour of Georgia and suffered a serious head injury. Unfortunately, while Tim is on the road to recovery he will most likely miss the rest of the season to allow his head injuries to fully heal.
Dave Zabriskie who, after helping his Slipstream/Chipotle teammate Christian Vandevelde take the pink jersey by providing horsepower in the opening team time trial, crashed out on stage 2 and broke his L1 vertebrae. Dave is back in the states recuperating, but his participation in both the Tour de France and Beijing Olympics is in uncertain. On the bright side his wife, Randi, is about to give birth to the couple's first child so if Dave is sidelined he will be able to be present at a very important time in his family's life.
Brad McGee of Team CSC is back home in Monaco after crashing out of the Giro on stage 3 and breaking his collarbone. Brad had an operation to fix the break and is back training on the bike. The multiple Olympic medalist is still on track, so to speak, to represent Australia in the pursuit and team pursuit in Beijing.
Unfortunately, Fausto Munoz, the Mexican Team Tecos rider who was paralyzed from the waist down after crashing in the final stage of the Tour of Gila will most likely not recover. Props to the Toyota United Team for donating their prize money to help pay Munoz's hospital bills. Also, props to Beverly Harper of the Webcor Builder's womens team for donating her prize money and all the other riders who did the same.
Here's a get well soon to all those who have gone down.
The first three mountain stages of the 2008 Giro d'Italia are in the record books and, not surprisingly, the overall results have been dramatically shuffled. At the top of the heap is 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador who had ridden consistently, but not brilliantly, in the Dolomites to eek out a slim lead over Riccardo The Cobra Ricco, two-time Giro winner Gilberto Simoni and last year's champion Danilo The Killer Di Luca.
Before Contador supporters start filling my mail box, let me explain that I think Alberto rode very intelligently in the Dolomites. Climbing form is about as elusive as finding a normal person on the Maury Povich Show and it must be remembered that Astana was invited to the Giro at the last minute. In Contador's case, he was on a beach in Spain taking a well-deserved break from racing. I was probably riding more hills than Alberto and if the 2007 Tour champion realized that, it is even more reason for him to be cautious when the roads went uphill.
As we all know, you can't fake your climbing form. On the flats, you can sit in and still look strong. If you have a sprint, you might even be able to win a few races. But, when it comes to going uphill, the laws of gravity are always strictly enforced. There is no place to hide. Astana teammate Chris Horner, who was riding the Tour of Catalonia and not at the Giro, has always said that in a three week race you have to race smart and that is exactly what Contador has done so far.
Would we like to have seen the punishing attacks Alberto unleashed in the Pyrenees last July. Absolutely! Those accelerations were the high point of the race and showed the mettle of the a true champion. But, until Contador feels completely confident in his climbing form, look for a more tactical, and close(!), battle to take place in the Italian Alps. There are several more hard stages including the 20th anniversary of American Andy Hampsten's ascent of the Passo Gavia (hopefully there will be no blizzard) and the fearsome Mortirolo. The Giro is far from over. With three Italians breathing down his neck, Contador better get some confidence or start working on his poker face.
ps - Levi Leipheimer is struggling a bit at the Giro. Unlike Contador he has not found his climbing legs most likely a result of the last minute invitation to the Giro. Levi is in the perfect position to shoot for a stage win, but because the battle for the overall with Contador is so close, Leipheimer will be riding in support of Alberto and not get that chance. Hang in there!
pps - Alberto Contador was riding 30x34 gearing on the Plan de Corones climb; the last 3 miles are dirt with sections up to 24%.
It seems to me that this year, in both the domestic and the European pro pelotons there have been more serious crashes than in years past. It just might be that the crashes are happening to high profile riders or guys and gals I know, but you name an important race on the pro calendar and this year, there was probably a serious crash.
By serious, I mean broken bones. To be sure, when you have 150+ riders on small roads somebody or a few somebody's will go down. However, they usually get up and finish the race albeit with some nasty road rash. What I am talking about is a big tumble where racer separates from machine and the only way the rider is going anywhere is in an ambulance.
For me, it all started in the Tour of California when Astana's Vladamir Gusev and one of my buddies, Jelly Belly's Bernard Van Ulden both went down on stage six. Gusev and Van Ulden broke their collarbones. Then there was Saunier Duval's Angel Gomez's altercation with a traffic island in the Tour of Flanders(AKA De Ronde). At the Tour de Georgia, three riders went down with Slipstream/Chipotle rider Tim Duggan carted off to the hospital with major head trauma.
At this year's Tour of Gila, the hero of the Tour of California's stage 7, Bissel rider Tom Zirbel went down hard on the final stage while wearing the leader's jersey and he, too, finished the race in the an ambulance. But, the worst crash at Gila involved Mexican rider Fausto Munoz who is now paralyzed from the waist down. In a great show of sportsmanship, Team Toyota United donated all the prize money they won at Gila to Munoz to aid his rehabilitation. Bravo!
That brings us to the Giro d'Italia where crashes to Dave Zabriskie (broken vertebrae), Stuart O'Grady(collarbone) and Brad McGee(collarbone) marred the initial stages. A couple of days ago, 2007 Tour de France winner hit the pavement for about the 5th time during the race, this time he fractured his elbow. On the women's professional side of things, Katheryn Mattis has broken her collarbone twice this season, once in Australia and just recently in Belgium. Ouch!
Obviously, crashing is a downer. However, the silver lining is that these pros are passionate about their craft and dedicated to the sport and they usually come back better than ever after a crash. It is sad to see Fausto Munoz as a paraplegic, but the cycling community showed its character by rallying behind the rider. Here's hoping that things settle down some. Knock on wood.
Just when you didn't think it was going to happen, the elastic broke today at the Giro d'Italia. For the previous four days, when it looked like a breakaway might actually win the stage, the peloton came storming in to snatch the glory and cast the escapees back into obscurity. While everyone likes a field sprint and watching the likes of Cavendish and Bennati duking it out at 40+mph is thrilling, it is nice to see the boys who did the hard work all day long reap some rewards.
However, on Thursday's 140-mile stage the 'no-hopers' finally got their day in the sun(literally). Not only did 11 riders escape the pack, but in the end, their margin of over eleven minutes is a clear sign that the fight was not in the peloton. In some ways this is a bit surprising since this was supposed to be a 160-mile stage, but the riders mounted a protest and the organizers shortened the stage by 18 miles. It has been a tough Giro for the teams. The riders have been subject to over 300 miles of stage transfers, this occurs when the start for the following day's stage is in a different location from the previous days' stage finish.
In one very unfortunate incident, the day the teams transferred, by ferry, from the island of Sicily to mainland Italy, there was a four hour wait to catch the ferry. Usually, in these types of circumstances, the race organizers rent their own ferry so the transfer can be accomplished quickly. Inexplicably, this year,the teams had to wait their turn to take the public ferry and by the time most of the them reached their hotels it was almost midnight. Such a late hour of arrival makes it very difficult to get a meal and the critical post-stage massage and still get enough sleep for the next day.
So, the riders protested and fortunately, the organizers listened and agrees to make things a bit easier for the teams. After all, this is a three-week race and any extra effort now will have to be accounted for later on in the event. Personally, I want to see great racing and sometimes that means that the breakaway succeeds. However, the competition and the course should provide the difficulties, not the logistics of getting to and from the stage starts and finishes.