It is a new year and that means it is time for a few resolutions. I am not going to bore you with the 'lose weight', 'ride more', 'train harder', 'win the Tour de France' and all those other cliche and mundane resolutions. These are big, earth shattering, life changing, global planet resolutions/wishes.
-buy a clue for the UCI. Every year I do this, but every year the UCI seems to lose it. I just don't understand how the governing body of our sport can continue to make such bonehead moves as dumping the individual pursuit from the Olympics.
-get a peace pipe for Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador. Enough already. The Tour was finished five months ago and you haven't ridden together, or against, each other since. Here's an idea. Let your legs do the talking.
-find Floyd Landis a team. OK. The big rumour is that Floyd is going to Rock Racing and that is probably true, but let's give him one more chance to put the events of 2006 behind him and get back to rocking it on the bike.
-get the World Road Championships moved back to late August/early September. The titles shouldn't go to riders who don't have anything better to do in October.
-push for the USA to have a national tour like the Tour de France. This may seem to be a bit provincial, but let's lose the Tour of Georgia, Tour of Missouri and Tour of Utah and just let the awesome Tour of California become, like the Dallas Cowboys, America's Tour.
-get women's cycling some more credibility. While the men's ranks are loaded with depth, women's racing really suffers from depth of field. We need to attract more quality female riders to the sport which will make those victories both much more deserving and also exciting.
-get more cycling on TV. It is great that NBC Universal Sports has stepped in to pick up the slack as Versus seems to want to focus more on getting more high profile sports, but both of these channels are now owned by cable giant Comcast. We need to get cycling on the four major networks so we can all watch and not have to become tools of the Comcast empire.
Tyler Hamilton received an eight year ban from the United States Anti-Doping Agency today effectively ending the 38 year-old's professional cycling career. Hamilton admitted in April that he had taken an over-the-counter anti-depressant that contained the banned substance DHEA. DHEA is a precursor for testosterone. At that time, he also announced that he has been fighting depression for a number of years which was the reason for taking the over-the-counter medication.
Hamilton's career has been marked by some very high highs and some very low lows. In 2002 he became only the second American to stand on the podium of the Giro d'Italia and the first American to win a classic, the Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2003. His Tour de France stage win in the same year, riding with a broken collarbone, was the stuff of legends.
Tyler's Olympic Gold Medal in the Time Trial at the 2004 Athens Games was, undoubtedly, the highlight of his career, but the low point occurred only a month later when he tested positive for non-homologous blood transfusion at the Vuelta a Espana. What followed was two years of trials and hearings which ultimately resulted in Hamilton receiving a two-year ban.
Tyler returned to racing in 2007 with the Italian Tinkov racing squad, but found a better place in 2008 with Michael Ball's Rock Racing team Last year he won the USPRO Road Championships meaning that in 2009, he would be sporting the coveted Stars and Stripes Captain America jersey when he competed. Unfortunately, he only got to wear that jersey in one race, the Amgen Tour of California, before being informed of his positive test at the end of February.
Tyler is one of the nicest persons you will ever meet. The best word to describe this premature end to his career is tragic. I hope that he will be able to rely on the support of his friends and family to fight his depression and move on to the next chapter in his life.
The tenure of the Rock Racing cycling team may be close to coming to an end. The team which was formed about two years ago and burst onto the international spotlight at the 2008 Tour of California has been hit hard by the financial crisis and is running very low on funds. In the past week, the team has had to lay off the three highest paid riders on its amateur team, Chris Baldwin, Michael Creed and Caesar Grajales and its participation in the upcoming Tour of Gila is in serious doubt.
The Rock Racing team was initially funded by the Rock and Republic clothing company which has annual sales well into the eight-figure range. However, its line of $300+ dollar jeans and similarily priced apparel have been selling poorly as everyone tightens their belts in this uncertain economic times. Rock Racing looked to be shutting down before the 2009 season even started but, Michael Ball, the team owner and co-founder of Rock and Republic told me at the Tour of California that he stepped in to help save the team.
The Rock and Republic Board of Directors wanted to pull the plug, but Ball had all the riders return their contracts so that new contracts, with significant pay cuts, could be put in place. Also, Ball agreed to pay a percentage of the team budget out of his own pocket. However, it looks like those measures were not enough to save the team.
Personally, I would hate to see Rock Racing fold. A lot of my fellow journalists will probably be glad to say good bye to Ball and his crew, but I think Rock Racing was a breath of fresh air. Also, as I have stated before, I was very disappointed that many of my fellow journalists never seemed to take the time to understand Michael Ball and his vision. Many of the early reports in the media were extremely negative. It just seemed like my writing brethren didn't feel the need to gather any background before shooting from the hip.
Some journalists will mock Rock Racing's motto of "here to stay". I honestly believe that if it weren't for this unprecedented economic downturn Rock Racing would be healthy and racing a full calendar. I hear my fellow journalist bemoaning their slumping ad sales. Do you think that might also be the case for Rock and Republic?
Before people start piling on me as a tool for Rock and Republic, I realize that the the way Michael Ball and his crew rolled up to bike races was pretty unique and not to everyone's liking. However, we should all practice some measure of tolerance. Ball and Co. brought a significant number of new eyeballs to the sport of cycling. Isn't that worthy of some understanding?
The two greatest stage racers of the modern era are set to race, head-to-head, at Spain's Vuelta a Castilla Y Leon which starts on Monday. Ordinarily this situation would make for some very interesting racing. What makes this even more interesting is that both racers are on the same team. Yup, you guessed it, Big Tex and the Pistolero from Pinto are set to race side-by-side, well at least on the flats, in Spain.
Can it get even better? Of course it can. Cycling has had its share of drama over the past few years because of doping problems, but recently, the Lance and Alberto show has taken center stage. As you might remember, Alberto was all set to win Paris-Nice a week ago, but pulled a total rookie move by not eating enough food and bonking on a tough climbing stage. Lance didn't let that faux pas go, commenting to the media that Contador still had a lot to learn.
Public sparring between two riders on the same team is pretty unusual. I would have to say that Lance probably should have relayed his comments to his teammate privately, but in this era of Twitter and Facebook is anything safe from the public eye? Clearly, if both Armstrong and Contador are in top form at the Tour it is going to be a rough ride, but why create a bumpy road before you have to?
Some have commented that the reason Astana lost both Paris-Nice and the other big stage race at that time, Tirreno-Adriatico, was because of poor teamwork. That will definitely not be the case at Vuelta Castilla y Leon. Lance and Alberto will have Levi Leipheimer, Haimar Zubeldia (both top-5 finishers in the Tour de France) along with stalwarts Chechu Rubiera, Benjamin Noval, Thomas Waitkus and Jesus "Baby Jesus" Hernandez. This team could contend for a Tour title, it is that strong.
The Vuelta Castilla y Leon looks to be a good test for both Lance and Alberto. There is a 28km TT, similar in length to the Solvang TT at the Amgen Tour of California, plus two mountain-top finishes. This is exactly the kind of riding Big Tex needs to be doing to keep his comeback on track, the only question being is how he will ride given that the race is in Spain and Contador is Spanish and he is also the defending champion.
The five-stage race is laid out perfectly for maximum drama. Stage 2 is the time trial with Stage 3 and 4 being mountain-top finishes. Contador is on super TT form as of late, but if Armstrong uncorks a ripping ride, he could put the pressure on the team to ride for both potential team leaders. My guess is that Lance is still a tick or two behind Contador against the watch and in the mountains so we should see more gun slinging than fist pumps at the finish line.
Besides Team Astana, there are a number of other riders and teams of interest. Rock Racing and Garmin-Slipstream up the American factor and Fuji-Servetto finally got invited to a big race. Throw in Alejandro Valverde and Denis Menchov and this could be a lot of fun to watch.
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.
I hope I am not jinxing the race by welcoming the sun back to the great(well, kind of great, these days) state of California especially when I tell you that temperatures in the 70's might greet the riders in Solvang for the decisive time trial(TT). Just to be sure there was lots of snow lining the roads today in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but the roads were dry and the temps were moderate.
All this adds up to a bluebird day for the AToC and the racers did not disappoint. Current US Pro Road champion, Tyler Hamilton(Rock Racing), Jason McCartney(SaxoBank) and Serge Pauwels(Cervelo Test Team) formed the break of the day and almost held it into Clovis. But, the sprinters and their teams timed the chase to perfection setting up for only the second bunch finish of the race. Unlike yesterday when the smart money was on sprint phenom Mark Cavendish (Columbia-High Road) and Thor Hushovd(Cervelo Test Team) stole the show, the Cav won by about two inches over another sprinter extraordinaire, Tom Boonen(Quick Step). The margin would most likely have been bigger if Cav hadn't started celebrating before he crossed the line, but that doesn't really matter. A win is a win.
So why did Cavendish seal the deal today, but come up empty-handed yesterday? The answer is in two parts. First off, the sprinter has to feel good enough to want to contest the sprint. In my interview with Tom Boonen yesterday, Tom was pretty adamant that he wasn't going to be going for it on wet roads and risk a crash that might end to his 2009 spring Classics season. That ruled out Tom yesterday, but Cavendish doesn't ride the spring classics to win. He is more a a pure sprinter and while he might try for a win in the flatter races such as Milan-San Remo, he won't be targeting monuments to cycling such as Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. So, that means that Cavendish will be going for sprint wins, even on wetter stages, as long as he feels good.
The second major part is the team's leadout train. These days, to win a big bunch sprint in a big race you either need to be significantly faster than everyone else or have a good group of guys who can set you up for the sprint. A leadout train basically revs up the pace to keep the speed high enough to prevent anyone from breaking away. Then, each rider pulls off at a pre-determined point orchestrated in such a way that their top sprinter hits the front with 150-200 meters to the finish line. The sprinter sits in the draft of his teammates until the very last minute then boom, off go the champagne corks.
Yesterday, in the sprint in Modesto, it appeared that Mark Cavendish was willing to give it a go, but in the final mile of the race, his leadout train got severely derailed. The final three riders in the train were George Hincapie, Mark Renshaw and Mark Cavendish ordered that way because Renshaw is faster than Hincapie and Cavendish is faster than Renshaw. The problem was that Renshaw couldn't hold Hincapie's wheel. It was probably not due to speed, more than likely there was too much 'barging'(pushing and shoving) and Renshaw just got pushed off of George's wheel.
Today, in Clovis, the sun clearly improved the spirits of all the riders, including the sprinters so Cav and Boonen were ready to contest the finish. And, unlike yesterday, the Columbia-High Road leadout train did not get derailed. On the flip side, Boonen's Quick-Step leadout train look disorganized. Advantage Cavendish.
Jason McCartney spent a long time off the front in both Stage 2 and today's stage, but has yet to grab the brass ring. I talked with him briefly after his long escape on the way to Santa Cruz. He was initially dropped by Quick Step's Carlos Barredo on the final climb, but he clawed his way back into the lead halfway up the climb. I asked him if he had a stage win in his sights, "Yeah, for certain, but I just kind of locked up at the end. It was cold out there and I just needed a little more freshness." Here is a photo of a very tired and cold McCartney embracing his family at the finish line.
I thought I would throw in this photo from yesterday of the riders heading out on the course from San Jose. Hopefully, this will be one of my last rain photos.
Tyler Hamilton won Amgen's Breakaway from Cancer Most Courageous Rider Jersey for his efforts in the breakaway today.
Not So Race Notes
Tomorrow, the race route will take the racers right past the location where legendary actor James Dean died in a tragic car accident in 1955. At about mile 98 they will pass the intersection of State Highway 46 and State Highway 41 where the accident occurred. Coincidentally, Dean was headed to Paso Robles, the site of the stage finish when he died. There is a memorial to Dean at the small diner at the intersection.
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.
Rock Racing rolled into the 2008 season on the heels of a huge media blitz. Unfortunately, most of the press was of a negative nature. Luckily, the real(TM) journalists out there who actually took the time to find out what the Rock Racing program was all about quickly realized that while RR CEO Michael Ball was a bit of a renegade, he had a solid message that was worth a listen.
It might not have been the way most of us would have gone about doing business, but you had to give Ball props for doing things his way, sticking with it, sponsoring cycling in the US to the tune of seven figures and oh, yeah, winning a bunch of big American professional races.
Hey, but don't take my word for it. The crowds at all the major races Rock attended welcomed the team and clearly produced the biggest buzz at the events. And for the most part, these were new, young, eyeballs something the sport absolutely needs if it is going to survive.
I am hoping that the traditionalists and naysayers who did not welcome Rock Racing in 2008 can find a way to give them their due in 2009. After all, they will be wearing the stars and stripes jersey of the USPRO National Road Champion, certainly the most coveted American-based winner's jersey.
Hey, but that's not what I wanted to talk about in this blog. If you are a fan of Rock Racing and want to show your support, you can purchase the full Rock Racing kit online(you know how to use Google, don't you?). Throughout the year, the boyz at RR seemed to have a different kit for almost every major race, well, Rock and Republic is all about style. My personal favorite is the "venom" look, the predominately black with florescent green accents that was all the rage at the 2008 Amgen Tour of California.
Not only will the kit set you apart from your riding buddies, but the stuff fits and rides well. Imagine that. You can be stylish and comfortable at the same time. One note of caution. You are making a statement, fashion or otherwise. Please be certain you are capable of handling it. Of course, if you are a fan of Rock Racing, then you probably know how to roll.
A lot of people thought Michael Ball and his Rock Racing team would be a flash in the pan, but as the 2008 cycling season has progressed, the team sponsored by Rock and Republic has proven that they are players in the US domestic cycling scene. And, they are not just leaving their mark on the road; Michael Ball has put his money where his mouth is, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to various charities and becoming a key sponsor at both the Tour of California and Tour de Georgia and other races throughout the USA.
Ball's latest philanthropic effort is to establish a "Catastrophic Injury Fund" a "charitable entity to raise money for professional and elite amateur cyclists who suffer a catastrophic injury as a result of their participation in the competitive sport of cycling" as described in a team press release. Money from the fund will also be available to pro and elite riders in European racing events such as the Tour de France.
Devastating crashes and cycling go hand in hand and currently there is no safety net in place, said Rock Racing Team Owner Michael Ball in the press release. If these riders get seriously injured, thats it. There is no insurance, no pension and no workmans comp. There is nothing. This is the first time there will be a financial support mechanism in place.
Rock Racing will make a "significant donation" to get the fund rolling then the team will donate 10% of all Rock Racing on-line sales as well as 100% of the proceeds from special fund-branded products which they will introduce later this year. The goal is to raise $20 million over the next two years. Also, Ball challenged other industry types who generate revenue from bike racing to also help in funding the charity.
You can say whatever you want about Michael Ball, he certainly talks the talk, but more importantly, he walks the walk and big time. The UCI has shown, time and time again, that the welfare of the athletes they govern seem to be a secondary concern. Hats off to Ball for taking the bull by the horns and creating something, especially with all the serious crashes we have had this year, which has been needed for a long, long, time.
I am going to go out on a limb and predict that the next development from Ball will be the attempt to establish a rider's union, something else that has been needed for a long time. When the riders finally create a unified voice, they won't be treated like second-class citizens by the UCI. Here's hoping it happens.
You gotta love it, Rock Racing will be at the starting line next Monday for the Tour de Georgia. The Pro Tour team Saunier Duval pulled out due to "numerous injuries to key riders" opening a slot for Rock Racing. After their reception and performance in the Amgen Tour of California it seemed like a lock that we would see the boys in black and neon green at all the biggest races on the US professional racing calendar. However, Medalist Sports announced last month that Rock Racing would not be invited to Georgia; managing partner Jim Birrell, told Velonews.com I like all the riders he has on his team its just that renegade approach and his desire to steal the limelight away from the platform that has been created for everybody else is what troubles me."
It appears that Medalist and Michael Ball were able to reach an agreement, hats off to both parties for sitting down and making this happen. This is a good thing on so many levels. First off, Rock Racing is the most popular new team on the US domestic racing circuit. Secondly, at the recent Redlands Cycling Classic, with all the best domestic pro riders in attendance, Rock Racing rode superbly and took the overall win with Santiago Botero. And probably most importantly, Rock Racing is bringing new eyeballs to the sport and those peepers belong to the young fans in the always critical 18-35 year old demographic.
On a personal level, the news is bittersweet for me. I am heading off to be one of the event announcers at the upcoming Sea Otter Classic and was looking forward to having Botero, Sevilla, Hamilton, Pena, etc. in the field for the National Racing Calendar(NRC) circuit race on Saturday. I am still hoping the Rock Racing sends a team to Sea Otter, team member Doug Ollerenshaw won there several years back. However, if it takes my disappointment to get Rock Racing into the Tour de Georgia I guess I will just have to live with it.
The next item on the agenda is to figure out a way to get Astana into the Tour de France. Short of the Kazakhstani government cutting off natural gas supplies to France, I think this might be an impossible task. Anybody out there have a solution?
With the American economy teetering on the brink of a recession the ripples across the USA haven't been limited to housing foreclosures. This past week several long-standing bicycle races and one well, never-to-be race announced that they were modifying their plans for 2008. This might just be the tip of the iceberg for the sport which has been struggling for sponsorship dollars in light of widespread doping fears and the squabbling between the sport's governing bodies and race organizers.
Of course, most of the negative side of cycling seems to be taking place on the other side of the pond, but some of these high profile issues have an impact on domestic racing. Just recently there was a regime change in USA Cycling. Outgoing president Jim Ochowicz has served a maximum three two-year terms. His place will be taken by Mark Abramson, who in his mid-30's is in a perfect position to attract the generation X crowd, wooed by the likes of Michael Ball's Rock Racing Team, into the sport of cycling. It is clear that capturing the hearts and minds of the 20-34 age crowd is critical to the success and continued longevity of the sport. Best of luck.
Back to the present, the Tour of Virginia will not be held in 2008 citing sponsorship woes, but it is hoping to return in 2009. One of the lynch pins in the late summer racing calendar, Pennsylvania's Tour de Toona is downsizing it's seven day schedule to a single day criterium. When one of the hallmark events drops 86% of it's bodyweight it is time to stand up and take notice.
On a slightly different note, the Tour of America, which many feel will never be held, announced that it will move its inaugural start date from 2008 to 2009.This cross-continent event seems more flash than substance with stage lengths and locations that appear to be difficult to attract sponsors. Hey, the organizers get points for trying, but a big dose of reality might be best path to success.
Before everyone starts hopping a plane for wet, cold and dreary Belgium and its packed calendar of races take a deep breath and let's see how extensive the damage may really be. The Redlands Bicycle Classic started today; the Sea Otter Classic and all the other big domestic races appear to be healthy. Let's hope our domestic pros have enough opportunities to strut their stuff in 2008! They deserve it.
With the recent exclusions of Astana from the Tour and Rock Racing from the Tour of Georgia the very real question needs to be asked. Why is the sport of cycling so determined to eat it's young? As you might remember, when Liberty Seguros pulled the plug on it's team in 2006, Astana, which is a conglomeration of a number of Kazakhstani business ventures stepped in to save the team. After the debacle at the 2007 Tour, the sponsor still stayed. In 2007 several long-standing domestic teams either ended entirely or underwent radical downsizing. Rock Racing stepped in to fill the void and gave jobs to a number of domestic and euro pros.
There are lots of very, very good reasons to keep Team Astana in the sport, but in this blog I am focusing on Rock Racing. Besides giving jobs to riders, at the recent Amgen Tour of California, Michael Ball, the head honcho at Rock and Republic which owns the team, gave $500,000 to race organizers AEG to be a sponsor. Also, Ball loaned the race his helicopter to the get those great overhead shots you all saw on Versus. In Sacramento, Michael Ball donated $10,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Sacramento and in Solvang, Michael Ball donated $10,000 to the Sheriff's Activity League to benefit youth sports programs. Add in the tab for the daily TV commercials and Ball estimates that his financial outlay at the Tour of California came to about $1.2 million dollars.
That's a lot of money, but its not all about the Benjamins. A recently Bicycling.com poll asked 'What pro cycling team will you be rooting for this year?' Over 16,000 votes were cast with Rock Racing receiving a whopping 60% of the total vote. That means that Rock Racing was more popular than all other teams combined. Whoa. That's huge. Obviously Ball and his boys are doing something right if over half those polled are rooting for one team. I can totally believe these numbers after seeing the daily scrum at the Rock Racing booth at the AToC. The place was a mob scene.
Something else worth mentioning is the appeal of Rock Racing to the younger generation. Whether you like it or not the only guarantees are death and taxes and if you want this sport to survive you need to attract new, younger eyeballs. There is no doubt that Rock Racing is doing just that, bridging the gap between pro bike racing and the X-Games crowd. How can somebody argue with that?
Well, the folks at Medalist Sports weren't buying any of the Rock Racing hoopla. Medalist managing partner, Jim Birrell, told Velonews.com, I like all the riders he has on his team its just that renegade approach and his desire to steal the limelight away from the platform that has been created for everybody else is what troubles me." I don't know what went on behind the scenes at the AToC and I think Jim Birrell is a good guy, but if Rock Racing brings in the fans then what is the problem with having the team at the Tour of Georgia? I have covered European racing and US domestic racing for years and I can tell you that during the Lance Armstrong years the Texan totally stole the show and was, even at the Tour de France, bigger than the events in which he participated.
To be balanced, Michael Ball does do things his way. He is definitely not old school and yes he could be described as a renegade. When he rolls, we all know it. Whether you think that is style or arrogance, people are interested and they are coming to the races and with the state of cycling worldwide new fans and a genuine interest is critical for long-term survival.
Maybe Rodney King said it best, "can't we all just get along?". Would a little tolerance and understanding help smooth the waters and allow those who march to a different drummer find a place in our sport? I think so. I must admit that my first impression of Michael Ball was less than positive. But, after I met the man, had a dialog, saw his passion and why he is in the sport of cycling I think I understood him. Here's hoping that the new sponsors don't get chased out of the sport and that governing bodies and race organizers listen to the fans and figure out a way for everybody to be happy.
ASO announced the twenty teams for the 2008 Tour de France today and not surprisingly, Astana was not on the list. Coincidentally, the Tour of Georgia unveiled their start list for the late-April event and Rock Racing did not receive and invite. While I support the right of race organizers to invite whichever teams they choose, that doesn't mean I have to agree with them about their decisions. In both the aforementioned cases, I think the race organizers have erred in not inviting Astana to the Tour and Rock Racing to Georgia.
The Astana team with 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador and third-place finisher Levi Leipheimer is clearly one of the strongest squads in the pro peloton and on the basis of strength alone deserve a slot. Keeping them out of the Tour means that all the best riders will not be on the starting line. It definitely devalues the 2008 yellow jersey. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Unfortunately, it appears that Astana's problems are probably linked to Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong's seven Tour wins. It seems that ASO still feels that these two somehow pulled of all those victories in a less than honest matter.
Rock Racing was one of the most popular teams at the 2008 Amgen Tour of California. They had huge crowds at their team bus before and after each stage and their riders responded to the attention with Mario Cipollini taking third on Stage 2, Victor Hugo Pena climbing extremely well and Michael Creed aggressively going off the front on several occasions in an attempt to take a stage. However, Michael Ball tangled with race organizers over the exclusion of three riders, something which appeared to the public to be totally arbitrary. Clearly, Michael Ball marches to a different drummer, but judging by the number of fans and the demographic of those fans, his team is generating a lot of buzz about the sport of cycling.
I think to be fair and un-biased if you believe that Astana got a raw deal you also have to feel that Rock Racing was unjustly spurned. Levi and the boys should be racing in France just as Fast Freddie and his crew should be on the start line in Georgia. I still support a free market when it comes to races. Organizers should be able to invite whomever they want though they should have some published criteria so teams have some indication on what they need to do to be considered. I just hope that they can be more fair and just when it comes to team selection.
Today, Rock Racing confirmed that Mario Cipollini is no longer with the team. Many speculated that il Leone was leaving at the last minute to open the doors for a ride in this Saturday's Milan San Remo classic with Tinkov Credit Systems, but Cipollini denied any such 12th hour move. It looks like Cipo is headed towards his second retirement from the sport.
Hey, but what a ride Mario gave us all at the Amgen Tour of California(AToC). There is no denying that he is a rock star and his involvement with the high-profile Rock Racing Team looked to be a perfect match. When Michael Ball's squad rolled up to a stage start and Super Mario popped out into the crowd the electricity was in the air and the race came alive. He was clearly a fan favorite and he obliged all who sought autographs and interviews. He told me that this second career was just going to be fun. In Vegas terms, this time he was playing with the house's money.
Even with a relaxed attitude, Cipo still delivered, coming third in Sacramento to his heir apparent Tom Boonen and looking and acting like he had just won the stage. It was definitely the highpoint for Rock Racing and was ample justification for the team being invited to the AToC. Somehow, Mario willed his 40-year old body over both Mount Hamilton and Sierra Road the next day. Just to make sure his resolve was still at a professional level, mother nature unleashed her fury on the Hiway 1 down to San Luis Obispo resulting in a seven hour day in the saddle in cold rain.
Cipo's perpetual tan took a beating on that epic day, but he finished with the group and eventually the whole race to Pasadena proving that he still had what it takes to be a pro. During the AToC, Mario confided that his major goal was to take Rock Racing to Europe and participate in some of the great races across the pond. Rumour had it that the organizers of Milan-San Remo were keeping the 25th and final team slot open for Rock Racing with Cipo looking to repeat his 2002 victory on Via Roma where he beat his now-teammate Freddie Rodriguez to the line.
Unfortunately, Cipo and Micheal Ball could not come to agreement on the details the result being that flamboyant Italian has hung up his cleats and the show that is Super Mario has closed once again. Personally, I prefer substance over flash, but with Cipo you got both. I miss him already.
Time for the 2008 Amgen Tour of California(AToC) Peloton Awards. These prestigious awards honor riders, team personnel, race organizers and anyone else I feel like for their contributions to making the race what it is. Since the Academy Awards will be held tomorrow very close to the finish of the race, we are going to start with some more fashion-related observations.
Flashiest Team Jersey: Rock Racing! This new kit rocks and you can buy it!
Preppiest Team Jersey: Slipstream. Rumor has it that after the race they are all pledging with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity
Rugby Jersey: With their all-black kit, look for the boys from Health Net-Maxxis to be lining up with our favorite Kiwi rugby team.
Most Retro Jersey: Team High Road Sports with that lettering straight out of the late '70s.
Sentimental Favorite Jersey: Team Astana. I liked them at the Tour, I still like them and some guy named Levi is kicking major butt in it as well.
Most Patriotic Jersey: Toyota United. It's OK that a Canadian rode it across the line to victory in San Luis Obispo.
Most Edible Jersey: Jelly Belly. These guys are up against some pretty big boys, but they continue to exude positive energy.
Jersey Most in Need of a Makeover: BMC. I have already acknowledged that I have no fashion sense, but these guys need to spice it up a bit. Boring.
Lint Free Jersey: Bissell Pro Cycling. These guys have a great sponsor in Mark Bissell and with two riders in the top 10 at the Solvang TT, they are definitely cleaning up.
Sunglasses Jersey: Saunier Duval-Scott has the brightest jersey out there and they wear it well. Next year bring some English-speaking riders so I can interview to them.
Steal this Jersey: Rabobank. The Dutch bank has opened some offices in California so they are almost the home town team.
Most Classic Jersey: Team CSC. With just the right mix of lettering and colors, this jersey looks great at the head of the peloton which is where the No. 1-rated team usually is!
Almost as Classic Jersey: Tom Boonen and his Quick Step boys are almost as classic. If they could just get that diminutive Italian to give up his rainbow stripes then they would be there! I am not even going to say anything about the gold shoes.
Honorable mentions: Kelly Benefit Strategies/Medifast, Bouygues Telecom and Credit Agricole for adding their own color to the peloton.
Well, that's the jersey portion of the awards. More to follow at the conclusion of the race.