It seems to me that this year, in both the domestic and the European pro pelotons there have been more serious crashes than in years past. It just might be that the crashes are happening to high profile riders or guys and gals I know, but you name an important race on the pro calendar and this year, there was probably a serious crash.
By serious, I mean broken bones. To be sure, when you have 150+ riders on small roads somebody or a few somebody's will go down. However, they usually get up and finish the race albeit with some nasty road rash. What I am talking about is a big tumble where racer separates from machine and the only way the rider is going anywhere is in an ambulance.
For me, it all started in the Tour of California when Astana's Vladamir Gusev and one of my buddies, Jelly Belly's Bernard Van Ulden both went down on stage six. Gusev and Van Ulden broke their collarbones. Then there was Saunier Duval's Angel Gomez's altercation with a traffic island in the Tour of Flanders(AKA De Ronde). At the Tour de Georgia, three riders went down with Slipstream/Chipotle rider Tim Duggan carted off to the hospital with major head trauma.
At this year's Tour of Gila, the hero of the Tour of California's stage 7, Bissel rider Tom Zirbel went down hard on the final stage while wearing the leader's jersey and he, too, finished the race in the an ambulance. But, the worst crash at Gila involved Mexican rider Fausto Munoz who is now paralyzed from the waist down. In a great show of sportsmanship, Team Toyota United donated all the prize money they won at Gila to Munoz to aid his rehabilitation. Bravo!
That brings us to the Giro d'Italia where crashes to Dave Zabriskie (broken vertebrae), Stuart O'Grady(collarbone) and Brad McGee(collarbone) marred the initial stages. A couple of days ago, 2007 Tour de France winner hit the pavement for about the 5th time during the race, this time he fractured his elbow. On the women's professional side of things, Katheryn Mattis has broken her collarbone twice this season, once in Australia and just recently in Belgium. Ouch!
Obviously, crashing is a downer. However, the silver lining is that these pros are passionate about their craft and dedicated to the sport and they usually come back better than ever after a crash. It is sad to see Fausto Munoz as a paraplegic, but the cycling community showed its character by rallying behind the rider. Here's hoping that things settle down some. Knock on wood.
Things could not have started any better for the Slipstream/Chipotle team at the Giro d'Italia when they won the opening 23km team time trial to put Christian Vandevelde into the maglia rosa, the pink leader's jersey. It was a stunning effort made all the more exceptional by the fact that they bested every Pro Tour team, most with budgets two to three times that of the upstart American squad.
To be sure, Slipstream targeted this stage from the outset and well they should. With ace time trialists in Dave Zabriskie, David Millar and Christian Vandevelde you play to your strengths. Ryder Hesjedal and Magnus Backstedt can also turn the cranks pretty well which is critical since it is a team time trial. Acknowledging that Vandevelde was the strongest rider on the squad that day, the team elected to have him cross the finish line first. When their time edged the powerful CSC formation by six seconds and High Road Sports finished a further one second back, the celebrations began.
It has been 20 years since an American wore the pink jersey in the Giro. In 1988, Andy Hampsten became the first, and still only, US rider to win Italy's national race. Christian was quick to point out that he isn't aiming to follow in Hapmsten's footsteps, but Slipstream has a number of cards to play with sprinters Julian Dean and Chris Sutton and opportunists like Backstedt, Vandevelde and Millar all going for stage wins.
Unfortunately, a crash on some railroad tracks on stage 2 took out the teams' best time trialist, Dave Zabriskie. With a fractured L1 vertebrae, he is headed home, but he was instrumental in winning the team time trial so it is a bittersweet moment. Can the "Argyle Armada" bring home some more glory? They are off to a great start and a positive attitude is a huge factor in a three-week race. Bravo!
If you haven't already guessed it, I love bike racing. And I love professional bike racing most. It features the best riders in the best races (apologies to Astana and Rock Racing) and it is cool. These pros are the cream of the crop, top of the heap, A-No. 1. They are the strongest, fastest and best bike handlers on the planet. It is incredibly inspiring and interesting to see the pros on the job.
Last Saturday in Italy, the skills, dedication and drive of the pros was abundantly evident at this season's first classic: the umpteenth running of Milan-San Remo, or La Primavera as it is known to the tifosi (Italian for 'rabid fan'). I am still trying to understand why the first big race of the year is also the longest. At 185 miles, that's seven-plus hours in the saddle for the best of the best -- which is a long time even at 25-plus mph average.
It was nice to see one of my 'hoodmates from Boulder, Will Frischkorn of the Slipstream/Chipotle team, off the front for almost 150 miles. Luckily, he had several other riders to share the pace and though their breakaway was reeled in on the penultimate climb, the Cipressa, they got a lot of TV time for their respective sponsors and that is what is about.
We got to see two-time world champion Paolo Bettini, who was just recently racing in the Amgen Tour of California, make a strong move on the Cipressa that seemed to contain enough horsepower to make it the final 10 miles to the finish. But the peloton still thought they had a chance as well and Bettini and company were caught just before the final climb, the Poggio.
If you want to impress somebody with your knowledge of European cycling, the Poggio is pronounced "pocho." It is not that long (1.5 miles) and not that steep (4-5 percent), but when you have ridden 180 miles and you are smoking up the Poggio in your big chainring, nobody is going to say it's easy. More often than not, everybody who matters seems to make it over the climb and down the kamikaze descent so that it is a bunch sprint at the finish. Not this year. Everybody's favorite Swiss rider, Fabian Cancellara, ignited his jets and left the field in his wake to win his second classic (the first being Paris-Roubaix in 2006) of his career.
I love it when a superhuman individual effort foils the sprinters. Not to knock the fast finishers, those guy have an interesting mix of speed, cunning and fearless abandon like nobody else, but there is something about one guy holding off the bunch. Maybe it goes back to the old western movies where one settler holds off a whole pack of charging Indians. What it all adds up to is that the pro racing season is full on. No more training camps, no more lollygagging. It's time to eat lunch or be lunch. Bravo Fabian!
The Paris-Nice race has a date with the "Giant of Provence" on Thursday and it looks to be epic. The weather so far in the 'Race to the Sun' has made the conditions at the recent Amgen Tour of California look downright tropical. Bucketing rain and cold temps have caused shortened stages and a general lethargy in the pack. Who could blame them!
All that will change on Thursday as Mont Ventoux looms on the horizon. It's still winter, especially in France, which means that the riders won't be going all the way to the lofty, 6400 foot summit. A friend of mine rode to the top a month or so ago and ended up pushing through some pretty major drifts. Instead the race will finish at about the 4400-foot level at the ski station of Mont Serein. For those of you familiar with Lance Armstrong's epic battles on Ventoux in the Tour de France and the Dauphine Libere, Mont Serein is on the other side of the mountain, the north slopes.
The climb is a bit easier from the north, but by no means is it a gimmee. In fact, from the Maulecene, at the base, the average gradient is much more constant
and overall greater (7.2% vs 7.1%) than the more well-known south side start in Bedoin. Heck, whatever side you ride up this legend of cycling will leave you gasping, but with lots of great memories.
For the pro riding Paris-Nice this will be a 3300-foot climb and will be a rude awakening, especially for those racers who aren't really peaking for this race. My guess is that this will be a battle between Luis Leon Sanchez(Caisse d'Epargne) and Frank Schleck(CSC) with Robert Gesink(Rabobank) and Sylvain Chavanel(Cofidis) as spoilers. Hopefully, Slipstream Chipotle's David Millar can hang in there, though the climb may be a bit longer than his liking.
One dark horse is High Road's Craig Lewis. With a 6.4 watts/kg power output, he has the potential to be up there with the best, but in his first full-season on the European pro circuit, he may be on a steep learning curve.
Regardless of what happens, the European stage racing season officially opens on Thursday. Get there early for the best seats!