Things could not have started any better for the Slipstream/Chipotle team at the Giro d'Italia when they won the opening 23km team time trial to put Christian Vandevelde into the maglia rosa, the pink leader's jersey. It was a stunning effort made all the more exceptional by the fact that they bested every Pro Tour team, most with budgets two to three times that of the upstart American squad.
To be sure, Slipstream targeted this stage from the outset and well they should. With ace time trialists in Dave Zabriskie, David Millar and Christian Vandevelde you play to your strengths. Ryder Hesjedal and Magnus Backstedt can also turn the cranks pretty well which is critical since it is a team time trial. Acknowledging that Vandevelde was the strongest rider on the squad that day, the team elected to have him cross the finish line first. When their time edged the powerful CSC formation by six seconds and High Road Sports finished a further one second back, the celebrations began.
It has been 20 years since an American wore the pink jersey in the Giro. In 1988, Andy Hampsten became the first, and still only, US rider to win Italy's national race. Christian was quick to point out that he isn't aiming to follow in Hapmsten's footsteps, but Slipstream has a number of cards to play with sprinters Julian Dean and Chris Sutton and opportunists like Backstedt, Vandevelde and Millar all going for stage wins.
Unfortunately, a crash on some railroad tracks on stage 2 took out the teams' best time trialist, Dave Zabriskie. With a fractured L1 vertebrae, he is headed home, but he was instrumental in winning the team time trial so it is a bittersweet moment. Can the "Argyle Armada" bring home some more glory? They are off to a great start and a positive attitude is a huge factor in a three-week race. Bravo!
The season's first grand tour, the Giro d'Italia, kicks off on Saturday and though it looks to be a decidedly Italian affair, the last minute inclusion of Team Astana has turned the race inside out. Well, sort of. While Astana's roster includes, arguably, the three best grand tour riders, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden, only Kloden appears to be in shape to contest a major stage race.
OK. Can Levi and Alberto come off the couch and ride circles around yours truly? Do you even need to ask? But, dropping Bruce like a bad smell is different than keeping it all together in a three week race. One look at the race map should strike fear into anyone with a heartbeat and knowledge of the route.
The Passo Manghen on Stage 14 is pretty darn hard and the finish of that stage on the Alpe di Pampeago is humongous. The next day is brutal with the Passo Giau at 6mi of 10% and then the finish on the Marmolada(Passo Fedia) which is probably the hardest climb in the Dolomites, the last 3km averaging 15% or so. But, wait, there's more. The next day is an individual time trial which finishes at the Plan de Corones with sections up to 25% in the last 4 miles. Ouch!
Hey, but the hardest stage on paper may be Stage 20 five days later which includes the Passo Gavia and its ramps up to 16% and then the fearsome Passo del Mortirolo which is probably the second or third hardest pass in any grand tour. The 8-mile climb averages 11% and it is just a never ending climb of pain and suffering. Anyone who is hoping to do well in the race and has questionable fitness is going to have nowhere to hide.
With Astana's snub from the Tour I am hoping that the boys in blue lay down some serious smack and show why they deserve to be in France come July. Given their current lack of race conditioning it might be a tall order, but don't count out Alberto and Levi.
ps - rumour has it that there will be a stage start or finish in the central valley town of Visalia in the 2009 (insert you favorite sponsor here) Tour of California. That may mean a mountain stage up into Sequoia National Park where 6-7000' climbs exist. Hmmm.
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.