Team Columbia Highroad had an exceptional Giro winning six stages including the team time trial. I stopped by the team bus at the TT in Rome to chat with some of the guys.
Michael Barry is quickly becoming a super-gregario or super-domestique, a support rider who toils in anonymity to setup the win by a teammate in this case, Mark Cavendish.
Bruce: What is your role in setting up Mark's sprint wins?
Michael: First of all we ride on the front from the start to make sure a breakaway of five or more riders doesn't get away because a bigger group is really hard to control. Five to ten riders is manageable. Groups bigger than that we chase down. Once a breakaway has gone we set a tempo behind keeping it within reach. That means we can be riding at the front for a couple of hundred kilometers. As close to the finish as possible we chase the breakaway down, bring them back and lead Mark out.
During that time he stays on the wheels and stays as fresh as possible. If it is like San Remo (stage) where we had a rider in the breakaway I just kept him out of the wind and made sure he was getting enough food and water. If he stops to take a pee then I stop with him and ride him back to the peloton. He is really conserving as much energy as possible.
On the longer stages it makes a huge difference if he can ride at 165 watts average as opposed to 180 watts for the first couple of hours that can make the difference between winning by a meter or losing by a foot.
Bruce: you are what the Italians call a "gregario" or "helper". How do you feel about that role?
Michael: I love it. For me, on many levels, cycling is all about the sacrifice and its weird that the public only sees one rider across the line with his arms in the air because on so many levels it is a team sport as much as football or soccer or hockey is a team sport. I really enjoy it especially if you have guys who are respectful of your work.
Mark Cavendish is the best field sprinter in the business, bar none. He won three stages of the Giro and looked relaxed doing it.
Bruce: what happened in the first sprint stage when you couldn't come around Pettachi and he won the stage?
Mark: I get complacent because it is easy to win sometimes and I got complacent that day and I was lazy. I learned from that. I wasn't lazy after that and was back to normal.
Bruce: you keep praising your team for your victories. Is that just being nice or are they really that important?
Mark: If you saw in the Milano stage you got the guy in the white jersey and our overall GC contender riding on the front when every other GC guys was south on the last lap it show how special it is. To have guys wasting their energy to help me succeed that's something pretty special.
Bruce: at the 2008 Tour you won four stages. Is there pressure on you to do better this year?
Mark: Even with the stage that finishes on Ventoux, I will give it my best. If it is a sprint day, if I give it my best, hopefully I can come out on top.
The biggest one-day race in Italy, Milan-San Remo, will take place on Saturday and a stellar field is expected to make the event unforgettable. Not only is Lance Armstrong going to ride the 190-miles from Italy's second largest city to the Italian Riviera, Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen look to continue their sprinting duel on San Remo's Via Roma.
Of course, everyone was expecting a sprint finish last year when Swiss ace Fabian Cancellara gave everyone the slip after the descent of the Poggio, the race's final climb. It was the stuff of legends, unfortunately Spartacus is still recovering from a training crash and will not defend his win.
The big question is whether uber-sprinter Mark Cavendish of Columbia-High Road will get himself over the four major climbs which define the race. The biggest, the Turchino Pass, comes at mid-distance which will allow the Manx-man to get back on. It is more a question of the Cipressa (pronounced Chipressa), the penultimate ascent, and the Poggio (pronounced POcho) which comes within five miles of the finish line.
It is going to take a lot of teamwork for Cavendish to make it over the "capos" or "climbs", look for his faithful ally, Michael Barry, to be handling the babysitting duties up and over the Poggio with George Hincapie and Mark Renshaw as the key players in the Columbia-High Road leadout train.
On the other hand, Tom Boonen has proven that he can get to the Via Roma with the bunch, but he has been outfoxed in the finale and is definitely looking to the 2009 edition of MSR to set matters right.
Look for Lance Armstrong to use this race to gain some more "conditioning" working on being comfortable in a big pack at high speeds for seven hours plus. It would be a fairytale ending if Big Tex could pull off the win, but even Lance will tell you that unless the perfect opportunity arises, he is still in the training phase of his comeback. That's just the reality of the situation.
Unfortunately for us US cycling fans, the Versus TV network will not be carrying the race. It was great last year to see Garmin-Slipstream's Will Frischkorn off the front for almost the entire race in a three-rider break not to mention Cancellara's surprising upset win. Check for streaming video options on the internet. You won't be disappointed.
Today was a day for the lesser-placed riders as a group of ten broke away from an Astana-controlled peloton to take the glory at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. This is a great segue into the theme of this posting which is, a stage may be difficult, but it is not necessarily decisive. I think that observation applies to Stage 4 from Merced to Clovis, today's stage from Santa Clarita to Pasadena and the final stage tomorrow from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido.
All three of these stages contain a lot of climbing. On paper, none of these climbs is exceptionally steep, but at the speed the pros are capable of riding up these ascents all of them can be very, very difficult. So, I don't think anyone isn't saying that these stages are an easy day for a lady. Quite the contrary. The real question from a racing standpoint is, are these stages decisive?
By decisive I mean will they have an affect on the race's overall standings? Unfortunately, in the case of these three stages, the climbs come too early in the day's ride. As we have seen many times before, a well-driven peloton can chase down a breakaway as long as the gap isn't too large. So, all the peloton needs to do is give the riders off the front some rope and they can reel them in.
In the case of today's stage, the ten-rider breakaway did not contain any riders who could threaten Levi's overall lead so Team Astana smartly allowed them some rope and the stage win. No harm done and Levi will be in yellow tomorrow. Also, it is a good idea to let other teams have their day in the sun. Greed doesn't make too many friends.
So, while a stage may be difficult, the position of the climbs has a huge affect on whether the stage will also be decisive. Stage 2 into Santa Cruz was decisive because the climb of Bonny Doon Road occurred so close to the finish. Stage 1 into Santa Rosa should not have been a decisive stage, but two factors, the fact that the breakaway containing Mancebo was allowed to get way too much time and the sanfu with the radio communications made it a decisive stage. Which goes to prove that even a difficult, non-decisive stage can become decisive if unforeseen factors intervene. That's what we call bike racing.
You finally say Christian Vande Velde(Garmin-Slipstream) at the head of affairs.Christian was on the podium last year, but has been pretty invisible this year. I asked his team director, Jonathan Vaughters, why Christian seemed to be auditioning for a remake of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Jonathan said that last year, the team was bidding for a wild card entry into the Tour de France so they needed to shine in the early season to impress the selection committee. This year, as a Pro Tour team, they are guaranteed an entry into the Tour so they are bringing Christian along a bit more slowly so he will be ready to fly come July.
I caught up with Michael Barry of Columbia-High Road at the TT. Michael and I have known each other for years so I can say this publicly, he looked like death warmed over. I asked him why and he said that he and teammate Adam Hansen have the job of looking after Mark Cavendish. What this means is that on the stages with climbs, when Mark gets dropped, Michael and Adam have to drop back and then pace Mark back up to the peloton after the climb is over. Then in the last two hours of the stage, they have to go to the front and ride tempo to bring back any breakaways. That's a tough way to make a living! Luckily, Michael and Adam are pretty good at it. Just look at the results.
It was great to see Chris Baldwin (Rock Racing) off the front in the breakaway today. Chris is a multi-national champion in the time trial so yesterday in Solvang, it should have been his day to shine. But, because his teammate, Oscar Sevilla, was in a position to take a high overall place, Chris had to hold back in case he needed to ride at the front to defend Sevilla's position. After his ride, Chris said it was very difficult to hold back in his specialty.