Obviously, we all have our own conditions for calling an event a great race; the recently concluded Giro d'Italia had all the trimmings to make one exceptional race. To be sure, Team Astana's Alberto Contador took the top overall honors, but his fellow competitors forced the outcome to be decided on the final day of the 21-day grand tour.
Lance Armstrong won seven Tours de France, but which one was his "best" victory? Was it the times where the Texas Tornado appeared unbeatable and seemed to just be toying with his rivals? For me it was 2003 when he almost got dropped on Alpe d'Huez, lost to Ullrich in the first time trial and then crashed on Luz Ardiden. Lance looked totally vulnerable and it came down to the final time trial to settle the score.
For me, it is great competition which makes a memorable race. This year at the Giro, going into the final mountain stage, three day before the end of the race, the top three competitors were separated by only 21 seconds. And, all three were bonafide contenders. But, more importantly, all three had looked vulnerable at one time or another.
Leader Alberto Contador had been unable to respond to late stage attacks on both the Alpe de Pampeago and the Marmolada. But, as a true champion does, he didn't just sit up, he rode his own pace and limited his losses. Only four seconds back, Saunier Duval's Ricardo Ricco, lost over two minutes to Contador in the first time trial. He clearly had to make up that deficit in the mountains and his relentless attacks were successful in pegging back critical seconds. Third place Danilo DiLuca, the 2007 Giro champion, had been riding quietly in the lead group, but had not shown any traces of last year's form. His attack on the second-to-last day in the mountains almost put him in the maglia rosa, the pink leader's jersey.
In the end, Contador's consistency in the mountains and his superior time trialing skills neutralized Ricco while DiLuca's audacious attack on the second-to-last mountain stage proved to be too much too soon and he was never able to recover for the final weekend of racing.
Which brings us to the upcoming Tour de France. While Cadel Evans may be the odds-on favorite, his recent knee troubles have limited his pre-Tour training program. Chris Horner likes two-time Vuelta a Espana winner Dennis Menchov. Somewhere lurking in the mountains is Alejandro Valverde. Suffice it to say, there really is no clear favorite and all the top contenders have shown signs of vulnerability in the Tour in the past. Of course, that means it's going to be a great race.
A few weeks ago I reported about what I felt was an unusually high number of serious crashes in the both the European and domestic pro pelotons. I have been in touch with a number of the crashees and just wanted to pass along some info on what some of the riders are up to.
Jelly Belly's Bernard Van Ulden, who broke his collarbone on stage 6 of the Tour of California(ToC) is back on the bike and recently placed third overall at the prestigious Joe Martin stage race in Arkansas.
Vladimir Gusev of Team Astana who also crashed on stage 6 of the ToC is currently racing the Giro d'Italia where he is riding in support of race leader Alberto Contador and is in 51st place overall.
Bissel Professional Cycling Team rider Tom Zirbel who went down on the final stage of the Tour of Gila while wearing the race leader's jersey is back on the bike and is scheduled to return to the fight at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in mid-June.
Tim Duggan of Slipstream/Chipotle crashed hard in stage 3 of the Tour of Georgia and suffered a serious head injury. Unfortunately, while Tim is on the road to recovery he will most likely miss the rest of the season to allow his head injuries to fully heal.
Dave Zabriskie who, after helping his Slipstream/Chipotle teammate Christian Vandevelde take the pink jersey by providing horsepower in the opening team time trial, crashed out on stage 2 and broke his L1 vertebrae. Dave is back in the states recuperating, but his participation in both the Tour de France and Beijing Olympics is in uncertain. On the bright side his wife, Randi, is about to give birth to the couple's first child so if Dave is sidelined he will be able to be present at a very important time in his family's life.
Brad McGee of Team CSC is back home in Monaco after crashing out of the Giro on stage 3 and breaking his collarbone. Brad had an operation to fix the break and is back training on the bike. The multiple Olympic medalist is still on track, so to speak, to represent Australia in the pursuit and team pursuit in Beijing.
Unfortunately, Fausto Munoz, the Mexican Team Tecos rider who was paralyzed from the waist down after crashing in the final stage of the Tour of Gila will most likely not recover. Props to the Toyota United Team for donating their prize money to help pay Munoz's hospital bills. Also, props to Beverly Harper of the Webcor Builder's womens team for donating her prize money and all the other riders who did the same.
Here's a get well soon to all those who have gone down.
The first three mountain stages of the 2008 Giro d'Italia are in the record books and, not surprisingly, the overall results have been dramatically shuffled. At the top of the heap is 2007 Tour de France champion Alberto Contador who had ridden consistently, but not brilliantly, in the Dolomites to eek out a slim lead over Riccardo The Cobra Ricco, two-time Giro winner Gilberto Simoni and last year's champion Danilo The Killer Di Luca.
Before Contador supporters start filling my mail box, let me explain that I think Alberto rode very intelligently in the Dolomites. Climbing form is about as elusive as finding a normal person on the Maury Povich Show and it must be remembered that Astana was invited to the Giro at the last minute. In Contador's case, he was on a beach in Spain taking a well-deserved break from racing. I was probably riding more hills than Alberto and if the 2007 Tour champion realized that, it is even more reason for him to be cautious when the roads went uphill.
As we all know, you can't fake your climbing form. On the flats, you can sit in and still look strong. If you have a sprint, you might even be able to win a few races. But, when it comes to going uphill, the laws of gravity are always strictly enforced. There is no place to hide. Astana teammate Chris Horner, who was riding the Tour of Catalonia and not at the Giro, has always said that in a three week race you have to race smart and that is exactly what Contador has done so far.
Would we like to have seen the punishing attacks Alberto unleashed in the Pyrenees last July. Absolutely! Those accelerations were the high point of the race and showed the mettle of the a true champion. But, until Contador feels completely confident in his climbing form, look for a more tactical, and close(!), battle to take place in the Italian Alps. There are several more hard stages including the 20th anniversary of American Andy Hampsten's ascent of the Passo Gavia (hopefully there will be no blizzard) and the fearsome Mortirolo. The Giro is far from over. With three Italians breathing down his neck, Contador better get some confidence or start working on his poker face.
ps - Levi Leipheimer is struggling a bit at the Giro. Unlike Contador he has not found his climbing legs most likely a result of the last minute invitation to the Giro. Levi is in the perfect position to shoot for a stage win, but because the battle for the overall with Contador is so close, Leipheimer will be riding in support of Alberto and not get that chance. Hang in there!
pps - Alberto Contador was riding 30x34 gearing on the Plan de Corones climb; the last 3 miles are dirt with sections up to 24%.
The season's first grand tour, the Giro d'Italia, kicks off on Saturday and though it looks to be a decidedly Italian affair, the last minute inclusion of Team Astana has turned the race inside out. Well, sort of. While Astana's roster includes, arguably, the three best grand tour riders, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden, only Kloden appears to be in shape to contest a major stage race.
OK. Can Levi and Alberto come off the couch and ride circles around yours truly? Do you even need to ask? But, dropping Bruce like a bad smell is different than keeping it all together in a three week race. One look at the race map should strike fear into anyone with a heartbeat and knowledge of the route.
The Passo Manghen on Stage 14 is pretty darn hard and the finish of that stage on the Alpe di Pampeago is humongous. The next day is brutal with the Passo Giau at 6mi of 10% and then the finish on the Marmolada(Passo Fedia) which is probably the hardest climb in the Dolomites, the last 3km averaging 15% or so. But, wait, there's more. The next day is an individual time trial which finishes at the Plan de Corones with sections up to 25% in the last 4 miles. Ouch!
Hey, but the hardest stage on paper may be Stage 20 five days later which includes the Passo Gavia and its ramps up to 16% and then the fearsome Passo del Mortirolo which is probably the second or third hardest pass in any grand tour. The 8-mile climb averages 11% and it is just a never ending climb of pain and suffering. Anyone who is hoping to do well in the race and has questionable fitness is going to have nowhere to hide.
With Astana's snub from the Tour I am hoping that the boys in blue lay down some serious smack and show why they deserve to be in France come July. Given their current lack of race conditioning it might be a tall order, but don't count out Alberto and Levi.
ps - rumour has it that there will be a stage start or finish in the central valley town of Visalia in the 2009 (insert you favorite sponsor here) Tour of California. That may mean a mountain stage up into Sequoia National Park where 6-7000' climbs exist. Hmmm.
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.