As three-time winner of the Amgen Tour of California(AToC), Levi Leipheimer, predicted the race for the overall title will once again come down to the time trial. With the move of the race from February to May, it was hoped that the longer and more difficult courses would provide some separation, but that was not the case with the top four riders separated by only 14 seconds after 29 hours of racing.
To uplevel the discussion a bit, the race really does need a mountain top finish if it wants to provide a bigger challenge. Leipheimer has been vocal about the lack of such a finish, luckily for him, he is a very good time trialist. But, with the move to May, difficulty means not just adding more climbing, but making that climbing relevant. The fact that critical breakaways were chased down on both Stage 3 and Stage 6 demonstrates that it is not sufficient to put the final climb within 10-15 miles of the finish line.
So, without a mountain top finish, Saturday's time trial will be about as exciting as possible. The three strongest riders, Michael Rogers(HTC-Columbia), Dave Zabriskie(Garmin-Transitions) and Levi Leipheimer(Team Radio Shack) are all excellent time trialists. Michael Rogers is a three-time World Time Trial Champion. Dave Zabriskie has won time trials at the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia and is a medalist at the World Championships. Levi Leipheimer has won time trials at the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana and an Olympic bronze medal.
The one big unknown is the time trialing ability of Slovakian Peter Sagan. The 20 year old is the revelation of the 2010 season. He has shown he can sprint with two convincing stage wins at the AToC (as well as at Paris-Nice and Tour of Romandie) and that he can climb. But, can he go fast in the race against the clock?He is only fourteen seconds out of the lead and could take the jersey with an inspired ride.
Cadel Evans salvaged an up-and-down season with an historic win at the 2009 World Championships road race and he did it was a cheeky solo attack on the race's final climb with only 3 miles(5km) remaining. In August, Evans admitted that he expected to be fired by his Silence-Lotto team after finishing a massively disappointing 30th place in the Tour de France. After two successive second place finishes only the top step of the podium would have satisfied the rider, his team and fans, but it was not to be.
Then came the Vuelta a Espana where Evans was clearly one of the strongest, if not the strongest, rider in the race. However, an untimely wheel change on the stage to the mountain top finish at Sierra Nevada put paid to his chances for an overall victory. He publicly stated that his final finish in third place overall was satisfying, but when you have twice stood on the second step of the podium at the Tour those words seemed a bit hollow.
The men's 160-mile road race looked to be an Italy vs. Spain affair as these two countries have won the event eight times in the past ten years. With in-form riders like Damiano Cunego and Alejandro Valverde it looked like history would repeat itself before the race began. However, with the championships being held in Mendrisio, Switzerland and Fabian Cancellara being a home boy with a bit of form himself anything was possible.
It was Cancellara who provided most of the horsepower in the closing laps to bring the field altogether with one circuit remaining setting the stage for a flurry of attacks and it was Cadel's move which ruled the day. It was a great win for a rider who seems to have a love-hate relationship with journalists and the public. Will this career-defining win relieve some of the pressure on Cadel and allow him to be more relaxed when dealing with people? Hopefully so.
ps - the UCI took the first steps towards banning race radios from the pro peloton. It appears that the plan for phasing out the radios calls for several years before total elimination. However, this plan is strongly opposed by many of the pro teams managers and directors so this issue is a long way from being decided.
Regardless of the fact that things are a bit slow at the Vuelta, there are some incidents that transcend cycling and sports in general. One such incident happened this past Sunday night at the MTV Video Music Awards(VMAs). While many of our sports and entertainment stars decry that they do not want to be role models for our young children and teens, the fact is that their behavior does have an impact. Being center stage at the VMAs puts an entertainer's actions in about as big a spotlight as you can get with an estimated 27 million viewers worldwide.
The incident in question didn't happen when Taylor Swift was awarded the VMA for "Best Female Video". It was her first ever VMA and during her acceptance speech Kanye West came onto the stage, took the microphone out of her hand and pronounced that Beyonce should have won the award. It was, to say the least, a very poor move on West's part.
The incident I wanted to comment on, happened later in the show when Beyonce was accepting the award for "Best Video". Instead of giving her acceptance speech she told the audience about her first ever VMA win when she was a 17-year old member of Destiny's Child and how much that award meant to her. Beyonce than asked Taylor to come up on the stage and gave Swift the microphone so she could give her acceptance speech.
You don't have to be a Beyonce fan to recognize class and a class act. In the athletic world we would call it a great sign of sportsmanship. Clearly, there are some very good examples in the sporting world as well. Hopefully, this type of behavior is contagious.
The 2009 Vuelta a Espana(Tour of Spain to us 'Mericans) is finally getting interesting. Not that the race hasn't had a few surprises and some great moments for Americans and American teams, but the race for the overall has been, well, uh, er, a bit boring. There have been a number of marquee names vying for the top step of the podium such as Alejandro Valverde, Ivan Basso, and Cadel Evans. But, until Sunday's summit finish at La Pandera, all the GC riders seemed to be spending more time watching each other than actually trying to win.
The result of all this cat and mouse is that a number of lesser riders have been stealing the show from the stars. Hey, it is great to see more riders get a chance to shine, but it makes the racing a bit jaded if we have to wait five minutes after the stage winner to see the overall contenders cross the line. That might be OK on the flatter stages, but in the mountains, the big boys should be at the head of affairs and not trying to share TV time with racers who arrived at the bottom of the last climb with a ten minute lead.
Having said all that, it was great to see Tyler Farrar win his first ever stage of a grand tour. He was oh, so close in both the Giro and the Tour on numerous occasions and while his main rival Mark Cavendish was not in Spain, last time I checked they aren't just giving stage victories away for showing up. This is a great result for the Garmin-Slipstream rider in his first full season as a pro. I think it bodes well for his future in the sport. Also, having an American who can win a bunch sprint will definitely make watching the flatter stages of the grand tours much more interesting for American fans.
Garmin-Slipstream also won a mountain stage with Ryder Hesjedal taking the stage to Velefique. While he was one of those lesser riders off the front stealing the stage from the GC contenders, Ryder rode smartly and made his opportunity count. I really like Ryder and hope that this is a portent of big things to come.
Which leads us to Sunday's stage and the finish at La Pandera. The final 5-mile climb is really tough and provided a cornucopia of drama when overall race leader Alejandro Valverde was dropped by Ivan Basso and Robert Gesink with about three miles to go on the climb's steepest section. It looked like Valverde was going to have his usual one bad day in a grand tour and drop out of contention until he got a second wind and started chasing down his competitors.
Valverde not only succeeded in catch Basso, but he also bridged up to Gesink who was on his way to taking the overall race lead from the Spaniard. It was a display of determination worthy of a champion and it might just be the winning moment of the race. Finally, the Vuelta is getting interesting.
Chris Horner's run of bad luck this season continued at the Vuelta as a crash on stage four into Liege resulted in a fractured wrist and his premature departure from the race. It was a huge crash caused by a rider touching the wheel in front of him as the peloton went through a roundabout with about 2 kilometers remaining. The crash occurred right at the front of the peloton which caused over a third of the riders to go down with the remainder caught behind the carnage. Only six riders at the front were still upright and able to contest the finishing sprint.
Chris's misfortune is yet another setback in a season beset with bad luck. Chris injured his knee in a crash in the Tour of California. He returned to racing at the Tour of Basque Country only to break his collarbone in a fall when the teammmate he was following broke his chain. Through all of this, Horner persevered and came back in super form for the Giro. He was the only rider on Team Astana who was able to keep pace with Levi Leipheimer on the climbs and was clearly a critical player for the team's overall hopes. However, on stage 10, he crashed on the descent of the Monte Cenis and broke his leg.
His Giro crash put him off the bike for twelve days, but again, his determination saw him accompany Lance and Levi to Aspen for a pre-Tour training camp. Long miles at altitude saw Horner regain his Giro form, but politics kept him off the team and he was denied the Tour de France for a second year in a row. Most likely in response to his Tour snub, he was given the team leadership role at the Vuelta. He was clearly headed for a top ten finish at the Giro; single digits at the Vuelta was clearly in the realm of possibility.
Horner is one of the nicest guys in the pro peloton. He is always available for interviews and gives frank and insightful comments. It is an unfortunate side of professional cycling that there seems to be a lot more bad luck than good. Obviously, you can't win all the time, but if you have paid your dues like Horner, you should get your chance to shine in the sun. Hopefully, Chris will be back in form for the Giro di Lombardia in early October, a race where he has been top 10 several times.
So, I am over here in Europe in the Italian Alps and Dolomites helping a friend lead a bike tour. We are riding some great passes and having a wonderful time, but that's not what I am writing about. The third grand tour, La Vuelta a Espana, started on Saturday and the daily results have generated some interest among the clients of our tour group who, not surprisingly, are a bunch of bike racing junkies.
The problem is that it is very hard to find the Vuelta on TV here in Europe. OK, since the race is in Spain, maybe the Italian national TV won't be carrying it (they do carry the Tour de France, BTW), but what about Eurosport, the ESPN of European TV. They have a long history of carrying everything from table tennis to sailboat racing live, but this year, the Vuelta coverage comes on about two hours after the stage finish.
The lack of respect for the Vuelta is so great that yesterday, Eurosport showed the European Equestrian Championships and the Women's Euopean Soccer Championships live in the Vuelta time slot. C'mon. It's bike racing. The start list includes Ivan Basso, Andy Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and a whole host of other great racers. OK. Alexandre Vinokourov is making his comeback from a two year suspension for doping so there may be a bit of backlash, but showing the stage two ours after it finished, in Europe, is basically tantamount to saying "who really cares."
I am hoping that once the table tennis, curling, horse jumping and all the other minor sports conclude their world championships the Vuelta will get shown live on Europsort. Who knows? There was a proposal this year to shorten the Vuelta from the normal grand tour length of three weeks down to two weeks and move it back to it's original April time slot. That proposal was shelved. Man the race, just like Rodney Dangerfield, can't get no respect.
If you live in America, you can get same day coverage of the Vuelta on NBC/Universal Sports. Americans are used to seeing delayed coverage of sporting events so its not that big of a deal. I don't know what the Vuelta needs to do to get some respect. It looks to be an exciting race, if only we could watch it here in Europe, where cycling is considered a major sport, when it is actually happening.
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.