The 2009 Amgen Tour of California sloshed into Santa Rosa and it was Rock Racing's Francisco Mancebo, of Spain, who was off the front for 102 of the 107 miles in this stage, taking the victory. On a day when the elevation profile looked to allow the field to re-group after each of the three moderate climbs, mother nature, some dodging radio communications, and some last minute modifications to the race rules conspired to give Mancebo the opportunity to take the stage and potentially the overall Tour of California title.
Because of the cold, rainy conditions the peloton allowed Mancebo, Tim Johnson (Ouch Medical) and David Kemp(Flying V Australia Successful Living Foundation) to breakaway only five miles into the stage. Poor communication from race radio, which keeps the teams up to date on the time gaps for breakaways, allowed the gap to grow to epic proportions. When Mancebo attacked his two companions and went free over Howell Mountain, that information was slow in reaching all the other teams. When word did get back to the pack, Team Astana went ballistic and shattered the field over Howell Mountain putting five of its riders in the 20-man chase group. Armstrong, Leipheimer, Horner, Rubiera and Jani Brajkovic spent the better part of an hour and a half trying to bring back Mancebo.
When the race entered the streets of Santa Rosa, a territory quickly becoming known as the Bermuda Triangle of UCI race regulations, the officials decided to take the finishing times at the start of the first of the three finishing circuits. This decision, which was made sometime during the course of the stage basically robbed the chasing teams of about 7 miles of extra distance in which to try bring back Mancebo.
OK. We can all debate the advantages and disadvantages of race radios(personally, I don't like them), but the current rules allow them, maybe this time around it was a case of those who live by the radio, die by the radio. In any event, the overall standings of the AToC have been turned completely upside down. Mancebo is a good time trialist, but Levi Leipheimer has owned the Solvang TT the past two years and if Levi doesn't lose anymore time to Mancebo between now and then, the 1'02" he is down to Mancebo could easily be won back with a standard Leipheimer TT effort. For that matter, any of the 19 riders in the chase group who are now within about 1'30" of Mancebo are still in the hunt and could win the overall with a superb TT effort.
Here are some photos of the race. I was playing around with soft focus a bit, please bear with. Graham Watson and I are good friends because 1) he can drink me under the table with one hand tied behind his back, 2) I am not going to be taking any food out his mouth with the cycling publications.
Here is a shot of Mancebo on the finishing circuits out in front solo.
Lance, with Horner on his wheel, are chasing hard.
After he crossed the finish line, Mancebo headed down my way. Ben Delaney, Editor of VeloNews, and I were the first to approach him, but he wanted to do the interview in Spanish so we decided to leave it to the interpreters this time.
On Saturday night, thieves broke into the Team Astana's bike trailer at the Residence Inn Sacramento and stole the first four bikes in the line-up. Taken were Popovych's, Brajkovic's and Morabito's road bikes as well a Lance's one-of-a-kind TT bike on which he had just finished 10th that day in the prologue. Luckily, all the riders had spare bikes, but the team had to borrow three road bikes from Trek Travel for additional spares for Popo, Jani and Steve to have on top of the car for the day's stage.
I talked with Ben Coates who is the liaison with Trek for the team and who was upset that the incident occurred. He was upbeat that this situation would demonstrate the advantages of US-made Trek bicycles in that replacement frames were in the process of being painted and sent out in the next few days to the team.
Lance, Levi and Alberto all in the same place at the same time! No, it's not the Tour de France in February, its the Team Astana training camp. I traveled up to Santa Rosa, CA this past Wednesday for the media day and had quite a bit of fun re-uniting with the riders, mechanics and support staff as another year of professional cycling begins for, arguably, the best team in sport.
The camp is being held in Levi's backyard. I asked him if he was using his local knowledge to school his teammates on the training rides. He replied, "no, not really though my teammates think I am." However, after the days' 100+ mile ride through the incredible Sonoma countryside and along Highway 1 he did admit that he rode up the final climb, Coleman Valley Road, faster than he ever has before and only Alberto Contador was able to match his effort.
Lance was looking fit and relaxed and was clearly enjoying the area where he used to train when he rode for Team Motorola back in the mid 1990's. Armstrong has indicated that his first big race will be the Giro, but his fitness is ahead of schedule and it appears that he may be gunning for two spring classics, Amstel Gold race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He has finished second in both races.
Levi lit it up on the final climb, Spring Mountain Road, the day before and only Alberto Contador responded as well. The Spaniard seemed pleased with his efforts, but acknowledged that he is a bit jet-lagged after just flying in from Spain.
Newcomer and climbing phenomenon Jesus Hernandez was grateful to have a team to ride on for 2009 after his team folded up shop in 2008. Hernandez has made the news recently after dropping his teammates on the big climbs on the Canary Island of Tenerife at the December training camp and on Old Willunga Hill during the team's preparation for the recently-concluded Tour Down Under in Australia.
Today the race organizers of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California announced the list of ProTour teams who will be participating in the race. A number of US-based teams such as Garmin-Slipstream and Team Columbia Highroad were on the list as well as the squad of two-time defending champion Levi Leipheimer, Team Astana who will most likely bring his new teammate Lance Armstrong along with him. Team Saxo Bank, the new sponsor of the old Team CSC as well as Tom Boonen's Quick-Step squad also made the cut.
Not surprisingly, Rabobank and their ace climber Robert Gesink (that's Hesink to you) will be there. They recently signed on a a major co-sponsor of the event.Look for Gesink to be lighting it up on Bonny Doon Road during stage 2. Surprisingly, the French team Ag2r-La Mondial will be making their first appearance in California.
Even more surprisingly, Liquigas is also invited and that means the potential participation of Ivan Basso who rode alongside Levi at the Tour of California in 2007. Basso is returning from a drug suspension. There used to be a rule that any rider who is serving a drug suspension cannot ride for a ProTour team for an additional two years after the end of his sentence. When the UCI was questioned about this apparent breach of the ProTour rules, they responded that the additional two year suspension was part of a "code of ethics" agreed to by all the ProTour teams and not part of the UCI's official rules. Huh? What? Would the UCI look the other way if Floyd Landis signed with a ProTour team?
It is interesting to note that there will only be eight ProTour teams in 2009 down from nine in 2008. By UCI rules, that means that there can only be eight non-ProTour teams invited so, there will be two fewer teams(16) than in 2008(18). I hope this isn't a cost-cutting measure by the organizers of the race. But, the three-year old event has never made money and in this economic downturn it is unlikely to do so in 2009.
So, which non-ProTour teams will get the remaining eight spots? It seems like Ouch Medical, BMC Racing, Rock Racing, Bissel, Jelly Belly and Kelly Benefits have the inside track which leaves just two other slots open one of which might just go to the recently announced merger of Successful Living and Australia's Virgin Blue squads with the remaining spot going to Team Type 1.
Stay tuned to see which domestic pro squads secure a coveted berth in America's premier stage race. Anybody else got any ideas?
ps - one of last year's AToC ProTour teams, Saunier Duval-Scott, has been reborn as Fuji-Servetto. As Fuji is an American-based bicycle manufacturer it is not clear if they applied or were considered for one of the ProTour slots in the 2009 race. More as details become available.
It was announced yesterday that Rabobank, a Dutch-based bank, will become a major sponsor of the Amgen Tour of California(AToC). If you follow professional cycling you know that Rabobank also sponsors a highly successful European cycling team. Levi Leipheimer rode for the Rabobank squad for three season from 2002-2004. Luckily, for us Californians and Americans in general, the Dutch bank is looking to expand across the pond into the USA.
What makes Rabobank's sponsorship even more noteworthy is the fact that, even before the current economic crisis, money was flowing out of the sport. Sponsors like Credit Agricole and Gerlosteiner in Europe and Health Net, Toyota and Jittery Joes in the US all said 'adios' to cycling in 2008. That left a lot of riders looking for work. And without races for them to ride, the riders and their teams would be in even more serious trouble.
The AToC has a reported budget of roughly $8,000,000 which works out to about $1,000,000 per stage. In it's three-year history the race has yet to turn a profit, but if any major bicycle race in the US has a chance of running in black ink, it is the Amgen Tour of California. Last year, with the inclusion of Rock Racing both the number of spectators and the desired demographic were up sharply. Add to that the number one-ranked team, Team CSC, America's favorite team, Slipstream-Chipotle(now Garmin-Chipotle) and California son Levi Leipheimer and his Astana squad and you had all the right ingredients for a successful event.
In 2009, the race will keep its mid-February dates, but expand from eight to nine days with the final stage in the San Diego Area. Clearly, the race organizers are trying to find the correct formula to make the AToC profitable. Hopefully it is just a matter of time. With Rabobank on board, the organizers have done just that, given themselves more time to prove to all of us that the AToC is one of the best events going on the entire planet.
ps - As a bit of an education into the Dutch culture, Rabobank's up and coming star and the winner of last year's AToC stage three into San Jose is Robert Gesink. In Dutch, the "G" is pronounced like an "H", the phonetic pronunciation of Robert's last name is "Hesink". Also, for those of you who like Gouda cheese, named after a small town in western Holland, the correct pronunciation is "Houda".
The Vuelta a Espana concluded yesterday in Madrid and Spain's Alberto Contador won his third grand tour claiming the trifecta of the Tour, Giro and Vuelta. Clearly, the 25-year old is the world's top stage racer he climbs like an angel and time trials well enough to limit his losses. Unfortunately for American Levi Leipheimer Contador is his teammate which means that unless Alberto totally melts down in the mountains, Levi is going to have a tough time standing on the top step of the podium.
That's both good and bad. Without a doubt, Levi was the best time trialist at the Vuelta, winning both the races against the clock, and he was clearly the second best rider in the race behind his teammate. Thank heavens team director Johan Bruyneel let Leipheimer and Contador ride without orders in the final TT, it would have totally bogus to ask Levi to throttle his engine. That would not have been right.
There is a bit of history here. Way back in 2001 when Levi was in his first tour of duty with Bruyneel and the then US Postal Service Team, Leipheimer and his teammate Roberto Heras were locked into a dual for third place going into the final TT. Bruyneel let them ride then and Levi bested Heras to claim the final spot on the podium and it was that race which really propelled Leipheimer into the upper ranks of the pro peloton.
If anyone has any doubts as to which is the strongest stage race team in the world, I think that question has been answered. With a win in the Giro and a 1-2 finish at the Vuelta, my guess is that Carlos Sastre is thanking his lucky stars that Team Astana did not get invited to the Tour. Hopefully, that situation will be rectified for 2009.
The Lance angle in all this is that on Wednesday, the 24th, the Texas Tornado will make a public announcement about his future in pro cycling. Recently, Armstrong has been logging some pretty serious training miles in both Aspen and Solvang, the big question is not if, it is with whom? Given his strong ties with Trek Bicycles, the most likely candidate is Team Astana, but where does that leave grand tour champion Contador and Leipheimer?
If Lance has any ambitions to win the Tour again, I think he has to sign with Astana. I think Contador is a strong enough challenger to Lance's ambitions that the only way Lance can neutralize that challenge is to make him a teammate. Lance has a history of doing just that, the most notable example was the signing of Roberto Heras in 2001 after he put Lance in a spot of bother at the 2000 Tour. I don't know what Lance's arrival at Astana will do to team dynamics, but from a purely competition side of things, Contador has to be neutralized.
Of course, all of this is just speculation. We will hopefully get a much clearer picture on Wednesday. One interesting piece of fallout from Lance 3.0 (Lance 1.0 was the Motorola years; Lance 2.0 was the post-cancer years) is that the Tour of Georgia just might be saved. Rumours are that the Tour of Georgia will not return for 2009, but the power of Lance may just be strong enough to keep the Georgia race alive.
Now that the Olympics are over it is time to get back to talking about the best sport there is (even if the USA only won two medals) and that is cycling. It is too bad that NBC didn't figure that out, but we all know it and that is what counts. BTW, Craig Hummer, who shared the mike with Paul Sherwen at the cycling events is a pretty mean cyclist himself. Originally a swimmer and top Southern California lifeguard, Craig can definitely ride a bike.
The pro bike racing scene is still in full swing, but events like the Tour of Germany and Vuelta a Espana don't seem to evoke the same level of excitement of those early and mid-season races. Hey, Levi will be riding the Vuelta, but his teammate and Giro winner, Alberto Contador, will also be riding. Given that Contador is Spanish and the race is in Spain, look for Levi to be riding super-domestique duties unless Alberto is having a bad race. Hopefully Levi can get the OK to give it some gas in the time trials and potentially also in the high mountains.He can clearly win a stage, but will probably need team approval.
Also, the US Professional Championships (USPRO) is coming up. Just who will wear the Stars and Stripes jersey next year is anybody's guess because at this time of year form is fleeting. Maybe Christian Vandevelde will back up his fine finish in the Tour and get that Captain America jersey. Can anybody beat Dave Zabriskie in the time trial? Chris Baldwin has come very close and he needs to find a new team for 2009 so the motivation is there.
Hey, I am off to Europe to help Andy Hampsten lead a bike tour in the Italian Dolomites to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Giro d'Italia win. Look for some sporadic blogs from the land of pasta and red wine.
Pollution, heat, humidity and a difficult course all conspire to make both the men's and women's Olympic road races potential death marches of the highest order. Add to that the fact that every country is sending their best athletes to Beijing(well, duh, it is the Olympics!) and 'epic' is the only word that comes to mind to describe the events which will unfold this weekend.
On paper, the Olympic Road Race course looks pretty darn tough. The men will climb over 11,000 feet and the women will climb over 4000 feet meaning that it is highly unlikely that a sprinter will be wearing the gold medal in either event. And the teams seem to agree with only a few of the them bringing anyone with fast twitch muscle fibers.
Actually, the course is split up into two distinct parts. The first section, which both the men and women will ride, is about 55 miles of mostly flat riding, designed by the Chinese to showcase some of their national treasures such as the Great Wall. The second part of the course is a 15-mile loop which contains about 1500' of climbing most if it coming in a 6-mile, 1250-foot climb. Following the ascent is quick down and up and then a long, gradual 8-mile descent back to the finish line. The men will complete seven laps for a total of 150 miles; the women will do two laps on the circuit for a total of 75 miles.
The US Men's team is headed by now 5-time Olympian George Hincapie who is joined by Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie and Jason McCartney. George, Levi and Christian will be the designated leaders with Zabriskie and McCartney riding in a supporting role. The US Women's team includes two-time Olympians Kristin Armstrong and Dr. Christine Thorburn who will be joined by first-timer Amber Neben.
Both squads are definitely medal-capable especially if they ride as a team. It is difficult to put personal ambitions aside especially since the difficulty of the course will clearly make this a race of attrition. But, teamwork will be key especially if the heat and humidity are oppressive and the designated leaders need a lot of water to stay fresh.
In the men's race, Spain looks to be the biggest threat. They are sending a hugely-talented squad which includes Alejandro Valverde who just won the Classic San Sebastian, Tour winner Carlos Sastre, Giro winner Alberto Contador, Tour green jersey winner Oscar Friere and Sammy Sanchez. Italy always seems to ride well in big races and they can't be counted out especially with defending Olympic Champion Paolo Bettini and one-day specialist extraordinaire Davide Rebellin. The tiny country of Luxembourg looks very good with the Schleck brothers and Kim Kirchen all who rode well in the mountains of the recent Tour.
In the women's race, Germany is always powerful with defending Olympic Champion Judith Arndt and Ina Teutenberg. Holland with Marianne Vos brings a strong team as well as the Swiss and Great Britian.
The men's race is Saturday, August 9th the women's race is the next day on the 10th. Look for both competitions to be action-packed once the races hit the finishing circuits. The pollution coupled with the heat and humidity will make it prohibitive to attack before that.
It is almost July and that can mean only one thing. It's Tour time. In just over a week, some of the best riders in the world (condolences to Team Astana and Tom Boonen) will be toeing the line in Brest for the biggest show in cycling. It is both a blessing and a curse that Contador, Leipheimer and Boonen will not be there. With the both the favorites for the yellow and green jerseys not participating the race is wide open and it looks like this could be one of the most up and down editions of the Grand Boucle in years.
Personally, I would have like to seen Alberto, Levi and Tom at the start, they deserve to be there. Some may decide to show their support by boycotting the race and I respect that, but I will be there France trying to bring you all the behind-the-scenes insights that I provided last year. Look for my daily blogs and join in the fun by posting your thoughts as well!
One thing that I think is kind of funny in all of this is the position Cadel Evans finds himself. I think he is in a no-win situation. Remember he bookended teammates Contador and Leipheimer on the podium in the closest 1-2-3 finish ever at the Tour. If Evans does win many will say it is because Contador and also Leipheimer were not there. If Evans fails to win, he will be seen as inconsistent and someone who might just not be able to win the big one. Certainly, there will be champagne in Paris if he is victorious, but it will most likely be served warm.
Having said all that, I expect this to be a very exciting Tour. Much like the Giro this year which also suffered from the lack of a patron of the peloton, the Tour will be wide open, not only in terms of the competition, but also because there is no one to ride herd on the pack. Looks for lots of daily attacks and early moves by the favorites in the mountains. The yellow jersey could easily change hands between five or six of the major contenders.
So, clean out your TiVo, say goodbye to your loved ones, hang your bike on the rack in the garage, tell your boss that you will be late for work for the next three weeks and get ready for the total body experience which is the Tour de France. There is only one you know(TIOOYK).
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%.
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.
Levi Leipheimer delivered a good old-fashioned drubbing in today's 15-mile individual time trial at the Amgen Tour of California (AToC). With only 20 or so seconds separating all the big names this was definitely the most exciting day so far in the race. And it was the defending champion Leipheimer who rode one of the best time trials of his career to put an authoritative stamp on the race. His winning margin of 29 seconds over Slipstream's David Millar was even more impressive than last year, when he bested an in-form Jens Voigt.
The much-anticipated duel between Leipheimer and Team CSC's Fabian Cancellara failed to materialize as the two-time defending World Champion finished fifth, 1:05 back and just behind his teammate, Gustav Larsson. After the finish, Cancellara indicated that his performance in staying with the lead group on Tuesday's mountainous stage over Mount Hamilton and Sierra Road had left him a bit flat.
There were a lot of other bright moments in Solvang. In addition to Millar's brilliant second place, Christian Vandevelde uncorked a super ride as well to put two Slipstream/Chipotle riders on the finish podium. Dave Zabriskie's sixth-place finish was another great result for Jonathan Vaughter's boys as well. The team's power guru, Dr. Allen Lim, indicated that the most important thing in the time trial for his riders was to go out a bit easier than normal then build towards the finish.
With two days of racing remaining, and lots of climbing to boot, it is probably too early to call the overall winner. Levi is clearly motivated and his team has been killing themselves to keep him in the leader's jersey. However, there are number of teams still looking to make Team Astana earn the victory. Look for Team CSC, High Road Sports and Slipstream/Chipotle to be very aggressive on Saturday's stage which includes a number of short, steep climbs.
There as has been a lot of sickness following the AToC. Teams like Slipstream/Chipotle and Gerolsteiner seem to have been hit the hardest, but Chris Horner is also fighting a bug that has left him down on his strength.
After the deluge on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are looking dry with Sunday potentially seeing more rain. With the race reaching its highest point at just under 5,000 feet on Sunday, hopefully, it will be a warm rain.
UCI President Pat McQuaid is attending the race. I asked him if there was a limit to the number of days to which the AtoC could expand and he replied that there is no limit. Before we start thinking that the Tour of California may become a three-week race like the Tour de France, hopefully, the race organizers will add a day and run Saturday to Sunday so that the event can head down south towards San Diego.