Race organizers of the Tour of Gila have certainly had an up and down ride this winter and spring. The popular New Mexico stage race was in danger of folding up shop when sponsorship woes raised their ugly head. At the last minute component manufacturer SRAM stepped in and saved the day. Then only a few weeks before yesterday's first stage, rumours started circulating that Lance Armstrong and his Team Astana might be on the start list.
There are a lot of interesting tidbits surrounding Team Astana's participation at Gila. First off, the team rides SRAM components on their Trek bikes. Having your marquis riders show up at an event you are sponsoring is always a good thing. Secondly, both Armstrong and Horner are recovering from broken collarbones, Lance at the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and Horner from the Vuelta Pays Basque a few weeks later. These two guys definitely need some racing miles if they want to be competitive at the upcoming Giro d'Italia which starts on May 9th.
Teammate Levi Leipheimer on the other hand has been racing and winning for the past several months starting with the Tour of California then the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and most recently at the Sea Otter Classic. As Levi will most likely be the Astana team leader at the Giro he needs to do what is necessary to arrive at the start in Venice ready for major action.
One interesting point about Gila is that the race takes place out of Silver City, New Mexico which is 6000'. As anyone knows who has tried to perform at altitude, you need to acclimate if you want to be competitive. Lance has been training in Aspen at 8000' and Levi has been in Park City at 7000' so both should be ready to roll at Gila.
On Wednesday, Levi proved that he was ready to race winning the first stage, which included a 5-mile climb to the finish, by almost one minute over his nearest rival. Lance and Chris Horner, who were there to support Levi's bid for overall victory, were active during the critical parts of the race.
There was a bit of drama before the start with the UCI almost preventing both Astana and Team BMC from starting citing a almost-never-enforced rule that restricts the top professional teams, those with Pro Tour and Professional Continental status, from participating from non-UCI events as either a team or individuals. A last minute truce allowed the three Astana riders to compete as Team Mellow Johnny, Lance's bike shop in Austin. Team BMC, which is competing as Team B, had to send five of its eight riders home to comply with the three rider limit.
While Levi looks on form to take another victory, most eyes will be on Lance to see how his fitness is progressing after his broken collarbone. But, keep an eye on Leipheimer as he will most likely be leading Team Astana at the Giro.
The Sea Otter Classic began today in the Monterey Penninsula south of San Francisco. About 9000 individual athletes are expected to compete over fours days in both road and mountain bike events. The Sea Otter Classic(SOC) is the unofficial kick-off for the biking season with most of the major (and a whole host of minor) industry players being present at the event's exposition and also at a number of hospitality events around the Monterey Penninsula area.
The SOC is a lot of fun to race, spectate or in my case announce. Throughout the four days I will be calling both road and MTB events from criteriums and circuit races to dual slalom and cross country. We have an expert, veteran crew who are as passionate about the sport as the racers. It is a big task keeping crowds as informed as possible. Our announcing calls are also broadcast on KSOC 90.1 FM Sea Otter Classic radio.
The big news at the SOC on the road racing front is that Team Astana's Levi Leipheimer will be riding the road race and circuit race on Friday and Saturday. With Lance Armstrong's broken collarbone, Levi has been bumped to team leader for Astana at the Giro and his stop at the SOC is an important tune-up before he returns to Europe to make final preparations for the Tour of Italy.
Also present on the road side is the Bissell Professional Cycling team. These guys have some major firepower and proved that in Thursday's criterium where they took the top four places on the podium. The Bissell boys look unbeatable, but that's never the case at Sea Otter.
In the MTB events, top American female racer Georgia Gould, and Canadian ace Geoff Kabush headline star-studded fields. Short track and cross country events are on tap for the endurance athletes while downhill, super-downhill and dual slalom make for a lot of excitement in the gravity events.
The weather forecast is for warm, dry conditions making it an ideal conditions for racing, spectating and announcing.
Lance Armstrong was caught up in a late stage crash on the first day of the Vuelta Castilla Y Leon and suffered a broken collarbone. Lance returned to his home in Austin, Texas on Tuesday and is scheduled for surgery on Wednesday morning. This is definitely a blow to Armstrong's comeback. With many questions yet to be answered, just how big a blow has yet to be seen.
It is not clear exactly what will be done during the surgery, the expectation is that a plate will be attached to the collarbone to span the break and help speed up the recovery time. What is also not clear is the extent of the break. A CT scan was performed on Tuesday evening to determine the exact details of the break. Once the surgery is performed, Lance is going to need some down time to allow the break to start to heal.
A broken collarbone is one of the most common injuries in cycling and is really the first major injury from a crash that he has suffered since he started racking up his seven Tour de France wins. Racers have returned to competition within three to four weeks after breaking their collarbone, but laws of average don't necessarily apply in medical cases.
The effect on Lance's comeback is not really known at this time and may not be known for several weeks. Clearly, since the Giro d'Italia starts in just five weeks, Lance's quest for an overall title there is probably in jeopardy. In fact, his participation in the event may also be in question. The Giro seems to be a much more crash-prone event due in part to the fact that many of it's stage finishes include multiple circuits around the finish town on roads that vary dramatically in width.
If Lance doesn't ride the Giro, he is going to need to find some other races to sharpen his skills if he wants to contend for another Tour de France title. Whatever happens, don't count out the Texan. While circumstances may completely scuttle his comeback, if he can recover quickly and get back his motivation, there is no reason to doubt that he will be ready to rage in July.
ps - Levi Leipheimer demonstrated how quickly he recovered from his hip fracture at the Amgen Tour of California to win the much-anticipated time trial at the Vuelta Castilla Y Leon besting Astana teammate Alberto Contador by 16 seconds over the 15-mile course. Garmin-Slipstream's Dave Zabriskie recovered from his home burglary to take take third just 22 seconds behind Leipheimer.
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.
Amaury Sports Organization(ASO), the group which owns and runs the Tour de France announced 20 of the teams participating in the 2009 edition of the race. The biggest news is, as expected, Team Astana, the squad that includes four riders who have been on the podium at the Tour, is back after a much-publicized one-year absence. That means that Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden will most likely be toeing the starting line when the race commences in Monaco (that's not France) in about four months.
The other big news, which was also kind of expected, is that the Fuji-Servetto team was not invited. Fuji-Servetto was the only Pro Tour team left off the start list, supposedly, the UCI had signed an agreement with ASO that all Pro Tour teams would get starting slots. However, you might remember that last year, Fuji-Servetto was named Saunier-Duval when they left their mark on the 2008 Tour. They won three stages with Ricardo Ricco(2) and Leonardo Piepoli only to have everything come crashing down when it was revealed that Ricco had tested positive for CERA, a new slow-release version of the blood-cell-boosting EPO. Piepoli later admitted that he used CERA as well.
After the revelation, Saunier-Duval supposedly left on its own accord, but all information point to ASO giving them the boot. Fuji-Servetto has been denied starting slots in a number of races so far this season. The UCI needs to send a very clear message, instead of the muddy one they are dishing out now. If there are big questions surrounding Fuji-Servetto then the UCI should not have issued them a Pro Tour license. Now that the UCI has issued them a license, they need to show some solidarity and stand behind all the Pro Tour teams. Not good.
The good news for Americans besides, Lance, Levi and Chris being back in the Tour is that both American Pro Tour team Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-High Road are both in the big show. The other Pro Tour teams include Milram, Quick Step, Silence-Lotto, Saxo Bank, Caisse d'Epargne, Euskaltel-Euskadi, AG2R La Mondiale, Bbox Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis, Française des Jeux, Lampre-NGC, Liquigas, Rabobank and Katusha.
The three wild-card teams are Cervelo Test Team, the squad of defending Tour champion Carlos Sastre; Agritubel which rode very aggressively in last year's Tour and Skil-Shimano a mostly Benelux squad whose roster doesn't include any big names.
The 2009 Amgen Tour of California ended today and Levi Leipheimer locked up his three-peat. Leipheimer was clearly the strongest rider in the race, he proved it on the climbs and in the TT's which is where stage races are won. It was a great event, race organizer AEG estimated that two million people watched the spectacle live, obviously countless more viewed it on TV as the feed went out to 60 countries across the globe. It is safe to say that in just four year, this race has grown exponentially in size and stature and is truly one of the best events on the pro cycling calendar. Yes, there are some issues such as whether the race should move to a more weather-friendly date and if it should become a Pro Tour event, but there is no doubt the 2009 edition was an unqualified success.
In my report from yesterday, I noted that the final stage would be difficult, but not decisive. That was indeed the case, but there was one incident high on the slopes of Palomar Mountain that deserves some discussion. About three miles from the top of the massive 4200' climb, Jens Voigt, who was placed fourth overall about one minute behind Levi, broke away from the peloton and took a group of riders with him. Because Jens had a teammate in the group and the group was about five riders, there was a real chance that if they could work together, they might threaten to stay away to the finish and change the overall outcome of the race.
What happened next is the interesting part. The rider who initiated the chase of Voigt and who ultimately drove the chase group to catch Jens and his crew was Michael Rogers of team Columbia High Road who was in third place overall. Also in the chase group was Dave Zabriskie of Garmin-Slipstream who was in second place overall. With those two guys in the chase group, Levi jumped up there as well. Unfortunately, Levi didn't have any teammates in the chase group while both Rogers and Zabriskie had one each.
This may seem like a huge tactical error by Levi and his Team Astana because they allowed Levi to be isolated in a group with his closest rivals. However, it was really a very big tactical error by Michael Rogers. Because the time gaps between the first five riders were so small, if Jens Voigt and his group succeeded in staying away, Voigt, who was in fourth place, threatened not only Michael Rogers' third place and Dave Zabriskie's second place, but he also threatened Levi's race lead. That means that it was really the responsibility of Leipheimer's Team Astana to chase down Voigt and not Michael Rogers.
Looking at the bigger picture, Roger's should have seen Voigt's escape not as a need to defend his third place position, but as an opportunity to attack the race lead of Leipheimer. Instead of initiating the chase and driving the group up to Voigt, he should have sat at the front of the peloton and forced Team Astana to chase Voigt. Then, once that chase and catch has been performed and Team Astana was tired from the effort, he then could launch a counter-attack and try to get away.
The fact that Rogers decided to defend his third place and not attempt to go for the win might indicate that he felt Levi was too strong to be beaten, but in any case, he should have left the chasing up to Team Astana.
Dave Zabriskie rode tactically correct when he was in the chase group. He sat on Levi's wheel looking for any weakness and if Leipheimer had faultered, it would have been a perfect scenario for Dave to attack him and go for the overall win. Dave Z did it right, Michael Rogers didn't. Well, that's the way I saw it.
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.
For the third year in a row, Levi Leipheimer owned the Solvang individual time trial cementing his lead on the overall title. A three-peat looks more and more likely even though the time gaps between Dave Zabriskie(Garmin-Slipstream) and Michael Rogers(Columbia-High Road) are only 36 and 46 seconds, respectively the next two stage, while difficult, will not be decisive. For Leipheimer it was, yet again, confirmation that he is the strongest rider in the race. But, for Dave Zabriskie, who finished just second seconds behind Leipheimer, it was the ride that we had all been hoping he would finally perform at the Solvang TT.
Zabriskie was on the podium at the first ever AToC, but in the last two editions, he has come into the event with high expectations, but no brass ring. In 2007, an ugly crash on the race's first stage put paid to his chances whereas in 2008, an intestinal bug robbed him of the power so necessary to do well in the race of truth. Temporarly setting the course record, the Z-Man finally delivered the goods and was clearly pleased with his efforts bringing his son with him on the podium.
The big question of whether Lance would get the green light to go full gas was answered in a chat with Astana Team Director Johan Bruyneel. "He will go as fast as he can. It is going to be a very good test for him. It is a long time trial and it is more than three years since he has done a long time trial so it is basically discovering a lit bit the feelings again. We don't know what to expect."
"Maybe he feels good in the beginning and blows up. We don't know. We are really going to play it by the feeling and see how far he can get. But, at the same time we know that there are a handful of riders here who are in really good shape and they are going for the win. I don't expect him to be in the very front. Somewhere between fifth and tenth would be a very good result." After yesterday's stage, Lance told reporters that he would most likely lose about a minute to Levi in the TT. Lance ended up 14th, 1'16" back of Leipheimer.
When asked about how he felt Levi would perform, Bruyneel replied, "Well, Levi has won the time trial the last two years and he wants to win again. The main goal is to defend the lead and if we can get that we will be happy."
Levi's better half, Odessa Gunn, was in Solvang to support her man. I asked Odessa how she felt Levi would perform. "This is one of his favorite days. Certainly in the race, but in general. He loves this stage. He loves this town. He loves time trialing."
And how does Odessa give her support? "Staying out of his way. Because I have this uncanny ability to always ask him the wrong question at the wrong time. So, I just keep my distance and say good luck."
When Levi crossed the line, he held up three fingers signifying a three-peat. It was unclear if he was
talking about his third straight victory in the Solvang TT or his third overall win.
Dave Z heading out of the starting gate. He is the picture of concentration.
It's Back!!!!!!!! Lance's stolen TT bike was found in an alley in Sacramento sans wheels. City of Sacramento officials brought the bike back to the team for the TT.
Mark Cavendish won his second stage of the Amgen Tour of California (AToC) in as many days once again besting Tom Boonen. The Columbia-High Road sprinter won the race's longest stage at 134 miles, but all eyes were looking southward toward Solvang where the most decisive stage of the race, a 15-mile individual time trial, will most like decide the winner of the 4th edition of America's biggest and best race.
While two-time overall champion Levi Leipheimer goes for the three-peat, the big question is whether Team Astana boss Johan Bruyneel will let Lance Armstrong go all out in the time trial. There may seem to be an obvious answer to the question, but with two difficult days in the mountains looming, Lance may need to save his strength to be able to defend Levi's jersey.
That, of course, is assuming that Levi keeps the jersey. He has owned the Solvang TT since its inception and his fitness and drive seem to indicate that he will continue his domination. With Lance as the closest placed teammate in fourth, just 30 seconds back, it might make sense to play it safe and let Armstrong go full gas. If Levi flats, crashes or just has a bad day, having someone who can step in and take over the race leadership is a big plus. That's exactly the role Levi played for Alberto Contador in last year's Vuelta a Espana. Levi finished second overall, but if Contador had come to grief, Team Astana would still have won the race. After all, it is all about the team.
However, if Levi does ride to the level we can expect, Lance may be needed to help defend the jersey in the final two days. If you remember the 2007 Tour of California, Jen Voigt was in second place behind Levi going into the time trial. The German went all out and almost won the race. But, in 2008, Jens held back inthe time trial because his teammate, Fabian Cancellara, was in second place to Levi and if Cancellara beat Levi and took the jersey, Jens' strength would be needed to defend the jersey.
All this discussion may be moot because Team Astana is the strongest squad in the race and even if Lance does go full gas, rider like Yaroslav Popvych, Jani Brajkovic, Chechu Rubiera and Chris Horner are clearly capable of working at the front to keep the jersey on Levi's shoulders.
Personally, I would like to see Lance unleashed just to see what he can do and where his fitness is at this time of year. I think Levi is a tad bit stronger than Lance so I still see Leipheimer winning, but a one-two finish is not out of the question.
Also, I like both Mic Rogers and Dave Zabriskie, the riders in second and third place overall and hope that they both ride well. It might be a bit too early for Rogers to ride the type of time trial we expect from a three-time World Champion in this discipline, but you never know. Dave Z is supremely motivated to do well, I hope he can pull out a good ride and keep his spot on the podium.
Sort of race notes:
Here are photos of some of the spectators along the course:
The rain continued to fall on the second road stage of the Amgen Tour of California(AToC), but that didn't deter the 135 riders from taking to some of the prettiest roads in Northern California. Bicycles crossed the main road of the Golden Gate Bridge for only the second time in history (the first time was in the first Tour of California in 1971) then headed south along Highway 1 toward Santa Cruz. By the first of the day's two major climbs a group of ten riders had broken away from the pack and established a three-minute lead. At the head of affairs was Bissell Pro Cycling rider Ben Jacques-Maynes who went to college near the finish at UC Santa Cruz and knows the roads of the race route like the back of his hand.
Yesterday, I asked Ben if he thought the big boys would be firing on the last climb of the day, Bonny Doon Road. "I am not going to wait around to try to get to the line with them . So we will see what happens." True to his word, he seemed to be the leader of the breakaway, bringing his group to the base of Bonny Doon Road with their three-minute lead intact. But, Team Astana, who is clearly the strongest squad in the race took charge launching Levi Leipheimer in pursuit of the escapees. The two-time overall race winner rocketed passed all the early leaders like he was on a motorbike and only Garmin-Slipstream rider Thomas Peterson could gain his wheel.
Leipheimer and Peterson kept their advantage all the way to the finish line where Peterson took the win and Levi gained 31 seconds over his rivals throwing a Tiger Woods fist pump in the air as he crossed the finish line. I asked Levi if his attack was motivated by the time he lost on yesterday's stage into Santa Rosa. "It was payback for what Mancebo did to us yesterday," replied Leipheimer
Michael Rogers of Team Columbia-High Road finished third on the day. The three-time World Time Trial champion led the chase to catch Levi. "We had to. We were just trying to limit our losses to Levi." The team's hard work paid off as Rogers moved into second place overall, only 21 seconds behind Leipheimer.
The day's big loser was overnight race leader Fancisco Mancebo who finished 1'52" behind Leipheimer and dropped to 16th overall. I asked him what happened to him on the stage. "I am dead, dead, dead. I went very hard yesterday. Today I was tired and not able to go hard."
Even though Ben Jacques-Maynes didn't win the stage, he was awarded the Amgen Breakaway from Cancer Most Courageous Rider's Jersey for his day's efforts. He recounted how it all unfolded. "We wanted to animate the race and my move was the one that went. Andy was in a move and Frank was in a move before that. I had the luck of the draw. I was cramping a bit by that point. It was just so cold and wet. The cold just takes it out of your legs so when it is time to push hard it is very difficult."
Lance Armstrong got knocked down on Highway 1 by a photo motorcycle driven by his personal photographer. He was unhurt and got back into the peloton without incident.
Ben Jacques-Maynes brother Andy crashed and was taken to hospital. Ben knew his brother had crashed and was in the ambulance when it passed his breakaway heading to the hospital, but there was nothing he could do about it at that time.
With all the rain at both this year's and last year's race, there is some serious discussion about moving the race to the April dates vacated by the recently defunct Tour de Georgia. Clearly, certain top-name pro riders would not be able to attend as it is the height of the one-day-classic season, but the weather should be better, in theory.
Lance Armstrong continues to impress. He finished in the chase group behind Levi and is now in fourth place, only 30 seconds behind Leipheimer.
The weather for Tuesday still show rain, but Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday look dry. Sunday might be a little wet, but the accuracy of the forecast models that far out is pretty poor.
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.
The 2009 Amgen Tour of California(AToC) starts on Saturday (it's my valentine this year) and looks to be an E-ticket ride for a whole host of reasons. First off, Lance is back in the saddle and unlike the recently concluded Tour Down Under in Australia, he will be riding to help his teammate Levi Leipheimer's quest for a three-peat. That means you won't be seeing Lance hanging out in the back of the pack working on his tan. He will have to be on the front or off the front to be an effective domestique.
But it is not all about Lance as a number of very accomplished professionals are in attendance. The aforementioned Leipheimer, of Team Astana, looks very good for a three-peat, but Garmin-Slipstream's Christian Vande Velde, who finished fourth overall in last year's Tour de France and was on the podium a the AToC last year is a definite contender. Floyd Landis and Italian Ivan Basso are making comebacks after serving doping suspensions. Basso won't be on top form, but Landis, who won the inaugural AToC in 2006, could surprise.
The race route is extremely challenging with lots of climbing. Unfortunately, from a strategy and tactics standpoint, most of the really difficult ascents come too far from the stage finish to have an affect on the overall standings. The lone exception is Stage 2 on Monday from Sausalito to Santa Cruz where the final climb, Bonny Doon Road is long enough, six miles, and steep enough, the first two miles are 10% after that is is 4-7% to cause a selection. At the top of the climb a technical 10-mile descent drops the racers right into the finish. Look for a group of 3-10 riders to come to the line.
While the Bonny Doon climb will select the semi-finalists for the overall win, the time trial will choose the leader. As in the past three years, this 15-mile race against the clock will decide who will wear the golden fleece into the finish Sunday after next in Escondido.
While the race for the overall title usually takes center stage, look for former World Champion Tom Boonen and Britain's wunderkind, Mark Cavendish, to duke it out for wins on the flatter stages. I like Tom and one of his sponsors is the American bike company Specialized, but Cavendish seems even more motivated as his team's title sponsor, Columbia is headquartered on the west coast. Look for Boonen to take a stage and Cav to win on at least two days.
The weather will also make the race exciting, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. A series of major winter storms are lined up to come into Northern California starting on Sunday with daytime highs around 50F and snow levels of around 1500-2000 feet. There are several climbs in the race which eclipse that altitude so things may be white for the racers. Hopefully, the weather will not play a deciding factor. The racers are as tough as they come, but there is no need to turn it into a daily sufferfest.
Look for daily updates from behind-the-scenes at the race. It's going to be another week of unforgettable racing in California.
There was another team training in Santa Rosa besides Astana. Team Trek-Livestrong, Lance's Under-23(U-23) development squad was also in Northern California putting in some quality early season miles. The team is captained by 'Mini-Phinney', Taylor Phinney, the 18-year-old son of cycling greats Connie Carpenter and Davis Phinney.
I hung out with the boys and tagged along for a short part of their ride, here are a few photos of the squad preparing for their 107-mile training spin and on the road northwest of Santa Rosa.
Axel Merckx, son of the greatest cyclist ever, Eddy Merckx is the Director Sportif. Axel was a fine professional in his own right and rode with Lance on Team Motorola in 1995 and 1996. When not directing the young bucks, he lives with his wife Jody in Canada.
Long-time Armstrong friend and head honcho at Capital Sports and Entertainment,Bart Knaggs, is helping to oversee the team. A former top amateur racer, Knaggs also rode with the team and looked pretty fit.
Axel and the team during their pre-ride chat.
Mini-Phinney with Bjorn Selander who recently represented the USA at the World Cyclocross championships.
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.
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).