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.
Today's stage up the Blockhaus will undoubtedly provide some huge fireworks and may prove to finally solidify the true contenders for the maglia rosa. Unlike most mountain top finishes, the riders will hit the slopes of the Blockhaus after only 36 mostly flat miles. Add in the fact that this stage follows the Giro's second rest day and you will have the scenario of a lot of racers who think they can win the stage.
This scenario is pretty uncommon in the grand tours. Back in 1991, the Tour de France rolled up to Alpe d'Huez with only flat miles in their legs instead of a couple of category 1 ascents such as the Galibier, Glandon or the Croix de Fer. What transpired at the bottom of the Alpe was an explosion as both the stage hunters and overall riders were swept up in a wave of aspirations. Two groups of riders with different goals, but riding side-by-side up one of the world's most storied climbs.
The GC riders don't like this type of situation. They have to ride harder and punchier(not steady) than they would like in the third week of a grand tour. The guys going for the stage win will launch attack after attack and they GC riders usually respond. This has changed a bit with power meters and riders knowing what they can and cannot do on the bike, but still there is a group mentality which pervades and unless the GC riders call a truce, they can get sucked up into the fray.
Guys like Levi Leipheimer aren't punchy riders and a stage like today could cause him more difficulty. Personally, I hope not, but Levi may have a tough decision to make whether to ride within himself or go with the moves. The podium is on the line for the Team Astana rider which makes the decision even more difficult.
The final ascent is a 17km(11-mile) 1200m(4000') climb that averages about 7%. This should take the top riders about 45-minutes. Look for racers like Menchov, Sastre and Basso to be forcing the pace with Di Luca hanging on near the front. BTW, Ivan Basso won here in 2006 on his way to his first, and only, overall Giro win.
In the late 1960's Eddy Merckx won his first ever mountain-top finish in a grand tour. A few years later, the Giro hosted a similar stage as today in the morning and then ran a 200+km flatter stage in the afternoon. These "split stages" were common in grand tours up until the 1990's. Nowadays the UCI has outlawed them.
Undoubtedly the most decisive stage,so far, of the 100th anniversary Giro d'Italia was fought out on the slopes of Monte Petrano as 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre proved that he is the real deal crossing the line first, 30 second ahead of an elite trio of Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov and Danilo Di Luca. Sadly for Americans, Levi Leipheimer was unable to keep pace on the brutal day that saw temperatures reach almost 100 degrees. He is now in sixth place overall, 3:20 behind Menchov.
The 140-mile stage from Pergola to the mountain-top finish at Monte Petrano was clearly the most difficult day in the Giro with three big climbs in the final 55-miles. Oh yeah, did I mention that it was hot? The silver lining for the Americans was that Lance Armstrong continues to improve his form and played a crucial role in pacing Leipheimer in the closing kilometers.
Given his superior time trialing skills, if Levi can avoid losing anymore time on the Blockhaus and Vesuvio stages he still has a shot at the podium. Leipheimer, always a class act, replied at the finish that his rivals were just stronger than him. BTW,he has a nasty looking bit of road rash on his left bicep from a crash on the stage into Genoa.
I talked with Saxo Bank rider Jen Voigt, who was in the early stage breakaway that featured Damiano Cunego and Yaroslov Popovych. I asked Jens to give a short description of the stage and he simply said, "too long. Too hard." That seemed to be the feeling in all the rider's minds. Did I mention that it was really hot?
I rode the final climb, Monte Petrano, before the pros(more on that below) and it struck me that if anyone wanted to do some serious damage that they would have to attack in the first two or three km's of the 10km, 800m ascent. So, I came back down the mountain and positioned myself at a seemingly key spot. Sure enough, Sastre attacked about 500m before where I was standing so I shot some photos of the winning breakaway developing.
Here is a photo of Sastre(black), Menchov(pink), Basso(green), and Di Luca(purple) just after the attack. Sastre and Basso are looking back to assess the damage they have done and to see who has tagged along.
Lance Armstrong came by about 30 seconds later.
Levi was about 20 seconds behind Lance. Lance would ultimately wait for Levi and then pace Leipheimer to the finish.
I had the unique opportunity of riding the final climb with Franceso Moser who is one of Italy's all-time great cyclists. He won the Giro in 1984. He also won Paris-Roubaix three times, the World Road Race championships, the World Pursuit Championships and set the World Hour record. It was a honor to ride with a living legend. We chatted a bit in Italian though he was reluctant to pick a winner of either the day's stage or the overall.
Here is an on-the-bike-photo.
Moser, at the top of the climb, looking like the classy rider he was, and still is.
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.
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.
The 2009 Amgen Tour of California(AToC) starts on Saturday (it's my valentine this year) and looks to be an E-ticket ride for a whole host of reasons. First off, Lance is back in the saddle and unlike the recently concluded Tour Down Under in Australia, he will be riding to help his teammate Levi Leipheimer's quest for a three-peat. That means you won't be seeing Lance hanging out in the back of the pack working on his tan. He will have to be on the front or off the front to be an effective domestique.
But it is not all about Lance as a number of very accomplished professionals are in attendance. The aforementioned Leipheimer, of Team Astana, looks very good for a three-peat, but Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde, who finished fourth overall in last year's Tour de France and was on the podium a the AToC last year is a definite contender. Floyd Landis and Italian Ivan Basso are making comebacks after serving doping suspensions. Basso won't be on top form, but Landis, who won the inaugural AToC in 2006, could surprise.
The race route is extremely challenging with lots of climbing. Unfortunately, from a strategy and tactics standpoint, most of the really difficult ascents come too far from the stage finish to have an affect on the overall standings. The lone exception is Stage 2 on Monday from Sausalito to Santa Cruz where the final climb, Bonny Doon Road is long enough, six miles, and steep enough, the first two miles are 10% after that is is 4-7% to cause a selection. At the top of the climb a technical 10-mile descent drops the racers right into the finish. Look for a group of 3-10 riders to come to the line.
While the Bonny Doon climb will select the semi-finalists for the overall win, the time trial will choose the leader. As in the past three years, this 15-mile race against the clock will decide who will wear the golden fleece into the finish Sunday after next in Escondido.
While the race for the overall title usually takes center stage, look for former World Champion Tom Boonen and Britain's wunderkind, Mark Cavendish, to duke it out for wins on the flatter stages. I like Tom and one of his sponsors is the American bike company Specialized, but Cavendish seems even more motivated as his team's title sponsor, Columbia is headquartered on the west coast. Look for Boonen to take a stage and Cav to win on at least two days.
The weather will also make the race exciting, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. A series of major winter storms are lined up to come into Northern California starting on Sunday with daytime highs around 50F and snow levels of around 1500-2000 feet. There are several climbs in the race which eclipse that altitude so things may be white for the racers. Hopefully, the weather will not play a deciding factor. The racers are as tough as they come, but there is no need to turn it into a daily sufferfest.
Look for daily updates from behind-the-scenes at the race. It's going to be another week of unforgettable racing in California.
What to do? What to do? Does an athlete need to confess to a doping positive to be accepted back into favor with his fellow competitors and fans? In the past few days we have seen Alex Rodriguez(A-Rod) admit that he used steroids during the height of his career in 2001-2003 when he was voted the league MVP. The problem is that in 2007, A-Rod told Katie Couric that he had never taken performance enhancing drugs(PED's).
Why the flip-flop? Because several journalists at SI.com were able to obtain the identity of some of the 102 baseball players who tested positive for steroids when Major League Baseball did anonymous testing in 2003. So, faced with pretty hard evidence that he did use steroids, A-Rod came clean. In cycling, a similar situation occurred several years ago when Ivan Basso denied drug use until bags of his blood were identified in a refrigerator in Spain. David Millar also denied drug use then came clean when syringes containing EPO were found with his fingerprints at his home.
Why am I bringing this up? Am I jealous that A-Rod hooked up with Madonna and I didn't? No, it is because the 4th annual Amgen Tour of California starts on Saturday and Basso will be there. Millar rode the race last year. But, more importantly, Americans Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis will also be there. Basso, Millar, Hamilton and Landis all served suspensions for doping infractions, but while Basso and Millar admitted their transgressions, Hamilton and Landis did not.
There is a good reason that Tyler and Floyd have not admitted to doping. Both contend that they didn't do performance enhancing drugs. The question here is, do Tyler and Floyd need to admit that they took PED's to be accepted back into the pro peloton and be embraced by the fans much like what has happened to both Millar and Basso? Is it good enough that Tyler and Floyd served their suspensions, paid their debt, so to speak?
Personally, I think that Tyler and Floyd should be allowed to compete and their fans should be allowed to cheer and cheer and cheer for their success. If you are not a Tyler of Floyd fan, then fine, don't cheer for them. Don't put them on your Christmas card list. What I have a problem with is people calling Tyler and Floyd dopers. Yes, they were dopers, but by the same token so were Basso and Millar. So, if the shoe fits, then everybody should wear it.
ps - unless some huge story breaks in the next week, this is the last blog I intend to write about doping. The Tour of California is America's premier bike race so let's focus on the positives!
pps - if you are saving an asterisk for any of Barry Bond's records, don't forget to save a few for A-Rod.
The route of the 2009 Giro d'Italia was unveiled in Venice on Saturday and all I can say is what?!?! This is the centenary Giro, remember the centenary Tour back in 2003?, so clearly there has to be some tie-in to the 100 year history of Italy's biggest race, but what the heck? And with Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and 2008 Tour Champion Carlos Sastre all scheduled to start, maybe the route is only a secondary concern.
What about the route? Sure it is the customary 2500 miles (4000km) long, but there aren't really any big Dolomite climbs with strategic significance; the hardest climbing day is mostly in France and even though there are a bunch of mountain-top finishes, they just don't have the recognizable names that we have all come to know and love over the past 25-30 years.
That doesn't mean the mountains aren't going to be challenging, it's just that the route doesn't seem to lend itself to any "normal" flow. From the get go, the race is going to be challenging with a 13-mile(20.5km) team time trial on stage 1. Only four days later, Stage 5, the first of three mountain top finishes, the Alpe di Suisi in the Dolomites offers a 5000' climb with the final 6 miles at a very challenging 8%.
The next big test for the riders is a Stage 10 from Cuneo to Pinerolo which includes the Maddelena(Larche), Vars, Izoard, Montegenevre and Sestriere passes on the 150-mile route. This is the queen stage of the Giro and includes 17,000+ feet of climbing. Unfortunately, it is a 33-mile(55km) descent to the finish in Pinerolo so the GC selection may be limited.
A 37-mile(61km) time trial on Stage 12 has some significant climbing and could really break the race wide open. Look for Lance Armstrong to make his move on this stage after hanging with the leaders and conserving on Stage 10.
Stage 17 is only 50 miles in length, but it is all uphill from basically sea level to the 7000' summit of the Blockhaus. This is a pretty darn tough climb and will basically be a time trial between the overall contenders. Here is a photo of the final mile to the top.
A mountain top finish on Stage 19 to the summit of the famous Vesuvius volcano(sorry Pompei) is the final climbing test. The 3300' ascent over 8 miles has the profile to shake up the overall standings.
A final, short, 9-mile(15km) flat time trial in Rome probably isn't long enough for anyone to make a serious move up the standings, but if the gaps are tight, it could provide all the fireworks necessary for a nail-biting finish.
Can Lance win the Giro and become only the second American after Andy Hampsten's 1988 victory? Yes, I don't think there is anything in the route that provides a real danger to any of the Texan's weaknesses. Does he have any weaknesses? Certainly the 37-mile very hilly time trial will be a key stage for Armstrong especially if he can hang with the other contenders on the climbs.