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.
Two of the greatest sporting events took place this past weekend, one favorite prevailed, another came up short. While most of us are participants in the sports we follow very few of us ever reach the highest levels. That's OK, I am not going to get into a religious/scientific debate about genetics and evolution, but my guess is that is the way it is supposed to be. To be sure, we set goals for ourselves and strive to reach them, however we usually aren't performing in front of a live crowd and a television audience in the millions.
While it depends on the specific sport, professional athletes in the most popular athletic endeavours do feel pressure from sponsors and fans to do well. One of the characteristics of the best athletes is how they respond to that pressure.The word 'choke' describes how some athletes deal with the pressure. On the other end of the spectrum is the word 'clutch'. Hey, but I am not telling you something you don't already know and if asked you could probably come up with a list of 'clutch' players and 'chokers' for your favorite sport.
It is hard to use the words 'Tiger' and 'choke' in the same sentence since, on the golf course, Mr. Woods is the most consistent golfer in the world. He's been ranked number one for so many years he makes Roger Federer's accomplishments look human. Using the words 'Boonen' and "clutch' is almost passe, he's won so many big races that he is almost expected to win. The fact that he triumphs when he is expected to win is what makes his victories so special and amazing.
Does Tiger's second place at the Masters and failure to mount a charge when the eventual winner fired a 3-over par 75 on the final, albeit windy, day make him a choker? Did he succumb to the pressure or was he just a bit off his game? You have to feel sorry for Tiger. If he doesn't win a major he is considered a loser.The guy beats ever other golfer save one and he has to answer questions about what happened. If money can buy happiness then he shouldn't feel bad for long, but you and I both know that what drives Tiger Woods isn't the size of his bank account.
Tom Boonen not only won the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix, but he did it in masterful fashion, going off the front and proving without a doubt that he was one of the strongest, if not the strongest rider in the race. With two of the other heavy favorites, Fabian Cancellara and Juan Antonio Flecha for company in the three-up break, it was an epic duel in the making. In a recent interview I did with Cancellara, he mentioned that the pressure on Boonen to win in Belgium(Paris-Roubaix is on the Franco-Belgian border) and in the classics is huge, something he(Cancellara) would have difficulty handling.
In the end, both Tiger and Tom gave us memorable performances though only one was declared the winner. Dealing with pressure at any level reveals our character.Let's hope we can learn from watching both of these elite athletes perform on the world's stage.
If you are a rabid pro bike racing fan there is only one time of the year other than July when your mouth starts salivating, your hands start shaking and you can't sit still for more than about 2 seconds. OK. If you are Belgian, the maybe it is three times a year (De Ronde!), but for those of us who don't eat our frites with mayonnaise it is the Tour and Roubaix. Paris-Roubaix to be exact. The H3ll of the North. The Cobbled Classic. The hardest one-day race on a bike on the planet. Pick a moniker and as long as it describes a total melee on the most difficult surface to race a road bike thrown in with potentially bad weather and the odds on chance that you might get run over by a support vehicle and you have the Queen of the Classics.
If you happen to have the right combination of skill, strength, and luck, and somehow emerge from the fields of northern France in one piece and are first across the line in the velodrome in Roubaix, you get a huge cobblestone as a trophy of your win. The thing weighs a ton and probably still has a bit of cow poo on it, but there isn't a single rider in the pro peloton who wouldn't trade their left nut for that stone.
And if owning a piece of French real estate wasn't enough, they even name a shower stall in the Roubaix Velodrome after you. Of course, the race organizers fail to mention that you need a Class 7 biohazard suit to venture into the shower room at Roubaix, however, take my word for it, you get a stall with your name on it.
What makes Paris-Roubaix such a prestigious and tough race is those darn cobbles. As with the stones in De Ronde, these babies were laid down back in the late 1800's and early 1900's and while I am sure they looked flat over 100 years ago, that's definitely not the case now. There are twenty six cobbled sections along the 160-mile route ranging in length from 400 yards to several miles and you would swear that just when your strength is ebbing that those darn stones come alive, raise their little heads and send you and your bike flying sideways just for grins.
Yes, it takes a bit of luck to win Paris-Roubaix, but the cobbles always seem to produce a worthy victor, a rider who will, from that day on, be known as a hardman of the road a title that is well deserved. Who will be the next inductee into the hardman hall of fame come this Sunday. My mouth is watering, my hands are shaking and I can't sit still for more than 2 seconds. Bring it on!