With all the drama surrounding Lance Armstrong's comeback and his chances for another Tour win, lost a bit in the hysteria is the fact that his Team Astana might not be at the Tour. I want to say up front that I want them at the Tour because they are one heck of a good team witness their win of the team prize at the recent Giro d'Italia. But, just this past week, Team Astana boss Johan Bruyneel indicated that the sponsors have still not paid up all the money owed to the riders and the team as of June 1.
You might be thinking that it is less than a month before the Tour and that Lance, Johan or some additional sponsor could step in to make good on the money owed, but you have to remember that the governing body of the sport, the UCI, is the one who makes the decision to suspend a team for financial non-payment. The UCI usually does this to protect the riders. If a team is not paying its riders then the UCI has the power to suspend the team until all salaries are paid up-to-date.
So, while Johan and Lance are doing everything they can to keep the team afloat through the Tour, the UCI may step in and spoil the party. The UCI could suspend the team or it could revoke the team's Pro Tour license if no long-term solution is possible. If the team is suspended then Lance, Alberto, Levi, Chris, etc, will be sitting on the sidelines watching the Tour. If the UCI revokes Team Astana's Pro Tour license, then the team is basically disbanded.
If the team disbands, that means that all the riders' contracts are null and void which free the racers to seek employment with other teams. Rumours abounded at the Giro about the teams who were talking to Alberto Contador if the Astana did disband. Also a hot topic in Italy was the very real possibility that Johan Bruyneel would get Astana's Pro Tour license and he and Lance will have their own top-tier pro team in the very near future.
Personally, I don't think the UCI will revoke Astana's Pro Tour license or suspend the team. Johan Bruyneel is clearly frustrated at the Astana sponsors inability to satisfy their financial commitment, but I think everything will probably hang together long enough to get the team through the Tour. But, it is clear that the money is slow in coming and the UCI might just step in to set an example. Team Astana should have been at last year's Tour. Hopefully their exclusion won't happen again.
It's hard to determine where Steve Larsen left a greater legacy. He was an accomplished road racer, riding in Europe in the mid-90's for the Motorola Professional Cycling team alongside Lance Armstrong and Andy Hampsten. He won a NORBA National Championship in 1998 and 2000 on the mountain bike. Who can forget his first ever Ironman triathlon winning and setting a course record at Lake Placid. Steve's awesome talent left its mark across a wide swath of endurance sports. If Steve was in the field, one thing was for certain, even if he didn't win, he made everyone else suffer trying to catch him.
Steve was also the consummate professional. He realized that his athletic prowess was the way he was going to put food on the table and went about trying to maximize his name and results. That's not a negative, it just indicates that Steve pursued the business side of the sport with the same skill and determination he used on the athletic side.
I knew Steve during all this phases, living and training with him and his Motorola teammates in Northern Italy, attending World Cup mountain bike races as a journalist and finally, watching him try to figure out how to train for the marathon portion of the triathlon without trashing his legs for cycling training. The common denominator in all three were his determination to give his best and leave it all out on the road, trail or water.
Steve never really did figure out how to train for the marathon. He told me that he ran the final 26.2 miles of a triathlon on pure guts, no training whatsoever. That might seem reckless, but at the time, he was also racing professionally for the Webcor Builders cycling team and the running hurt his legs so badly he could not train on the bike for his "real" job. The fact that Steve suffered his fatal injury while running a track workout seems a bit ironic.
In the 2001 Hawaii Ironman World Championships Steve was first off the bike, but suffered badly on the run and wound up 9th. While it might appear that the run was once again his undoing, Steve related to me that it was, in fact, all the water he swallowed during the swim finally catching up with him. Yes, Steve was really a biker first and foremost. Swimming and running were part of the job, but not part of the passion.
Off the bike, Steve and his wife Carrie opened a bike shop, Steve Larsen's Wheelworks, in his hometown of Davis, California. He sold the shop and relocate to Bend, Oregon five years ago and was working in commercial real estate. At only 39 years of age, he has left us way too early. Obviously, he will be sorely missed by his wife and their five children, but also by those of us who looked to Steve for inspiration on what could be accomplished once you set your mind to do it.
Team Columbia Highroad had an exceptional Giro winning six stages including the team time trial. I stopped by the team bus at the TT in Rome to chat with some of the guys.
Michael Barry is quickly becoming a super-gregario or super-domestique, a support rider who toils in anonymity to setup the win by a teammate in this case, Mark Cavendish.
Bruce: What is your role in setting up Mark's sprint wins?
Michael: First of all we ride on the front from the start to make sure a breakaway of five or more riders doesn't get away because a bigger group is really hard to control. Five to ten riders is manageable. Groups bigger than that we chase down. Once a breakaway has gone we set a tempo behind keeping it within reach. That means we can be riding at the front for a couple of hundred kilometers. As close to the finish as possible we chase the breakaway down, bring them back and lead Mark out.
During that time he stays on the wheels and stays as fresh as possible. If it is like San Remo (stage) where we had a rider in the breakaway I just kept him out of the wind and made sure he was getting enough food and water. If he stops to take a pee then I stop with him and ride him back to the peloton. He is really conserving as much energy as possible.
On the longer stages it makes a huge difference if he can ride at 165 watts average as opposed to 180 watts for the first couple of hours that can make the difference between winning by a meter or losing by a foot.
Bruce: you are what the Italians call a "gregario" or "helper". How do you feel about that role?
Michael: I love it. For me, on many levels, cycling is all about the sacrifice and its weird that the public only sees one rider across the line with his arms in the air because on so many levels it is a team sport as much as football or soccer or hockey is a team sport. I really enjoy it especially if you have guys who are respectful of your work.
Mark Cavendish is the best field sprinter in the business, bar none. He won three stages of the Giro and looked relaxed doing it.
Bruce: what happened in the first sprint stage when you couldn't come around Pettachi and he won the stage?
Mark: I get complacent because it is easy to win sometimes and I got complacent that day and I was lazy. I learned from that. I wasn't lazy after that and was back to normal.
Bruce: you keep praising your team for your victories. Is that just being nice or are they really that important?
Mark: If you saw in the Milano stage you got the guy in the white jersey and our overall GC contender riding on the front when every other GC guys was south on the last lap it show how special it is. To have guys wasting their energy to help me succeed that's something pretty special.
Bruce: at the 2008 Tour you won four stages. Is there pressure on you to do better this year?
Mark: Even with the stage that finishes on Ventoux, I will give it my best. If it is a sprint day, if I give it my best, hopefully I can come out on top.
I stopped by the Team Astana bus during the Rome TT and spoke to Chechu Rubiera, Jani Brajkovic and Johan Bruyneel. Here is what they had to say on a variety of topics.
Bruce: it appears that, for the TT, the race organizers found every bad section of cobbles in central Rome.
Chechu: Not just in Rome, the whole Giro. We should start a business in Italy with asphalt. It is a good thing. You could make money here. The whole Giro had cobblestones and it has been really tough. It is the Centenario(100th anniversary) and the route was very nice with places like Rome, Venice, Vesuvio, but it was pretty damned dangerous. We were lucky it didn't rain because if it did rain this race could have been a big mess.
Bruce: You keep threatening to retire. Is this your last Giro?
Chechu: Maybe my last one. I didn't feel very good. I trained hard and I did my best, but I was pretty far from the best guys. It was a little bit of a disappointment.
Bruce: Will we see you at the Tour?
Chechu: No. I will be doing the Vuelta and not the Tour.
Bruce: how do you assess your performance in the Giro?
Jani: It was a pretty good Giro. I am pretty satisfied. We did a good job as a team also. I am not feeling super tired so I am happy. I was there to help Levi and Lance so I did that and I am happy about it.
Bruce: You seemed to excel as a climber in the Giro. Did you do anything special to become a better climber?
Jani: I think so far I have been quite a decent climber so I had no problems with that. I was not here to be a leader so there was no reason for me to go 100%. I tried to save as much energy as possible and use it on another day.
Bruce: what was it like riding for Lance and Levi?
Jani: Lance is incredible and Levi is also really strong. I am really happy to be racing with them. It is just incredible.
Bruce: for today's TT will you ride a road bike or a time trial bike?
Jani: Actually, I haven't decided yet. Maybe I will go on a road bike because I don't want to do it for the results. I just want to ride it because it is super-dangerous.
Bruce: what positives for Team Astana do you take away from the Giro?
Johan: For us it has been a race where we didn't start with the obsession to win it or anything like that. We thought 'OK we want to have some good results', but we were not obsessed with winning it or having to have stage wins. Ultimately we are going to win the team classification. It is always a good indication of what the team performance is like.
Bruce: how do you feel about the performances of Levi and Lance?
Johan: I think Levi's sixth place is good. It's not great. We hoped for a little better, but his crash right before the time trial and the fact that he is on high form already since February makes it really difficult to maintain in the last week of the race. The last week of a big tour is always hard. We are happy with his performance at the end of three weeks.
Lance has improved considerably and is able to ride comfortably in the mountains.That is also a good thing we take away from it(the Giro). It has been a good three weeks.
Bruce: what does Lance need to do to be at top form for the Tour de France?
Johan: He needs some time. He needs another month now to have some good training in June. He'll be in good shape for the Tour. I don't know how good that can be to be with the best, but he will be in good shape.
The 100th anniversary Giro d'Italia finished today with a 15km(9-mile) individual time trail around the streets of central Rome. The course passed a number of Rome's most famous landmarks including the Colosseum, Saint Peter's Basilica and Circus Circus. In the end, Denis Menchov's overall victory appeared to be a relatively easy affair, but that was far from the case.
It was a drama-filled final stage as the organizers seemed to try to heap additional difficulties on the riders by running the race on just about every poorly-cobbled street in central Rome. In fact, almost 7 miles of the 9-mile course was on cobbles and bad ones at that. It was a bumpy ride for all the contenders and with rain falling on and off, the outcome was far from certain.
Many riders not in contention for a high placing chose to ride a regular road bikes so as to have more control on the twisty, turny route which also included significant ups and downs. Also, riders looking to the Tour de France like Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer decided not to take any chances on the slick cobblestones and definitely rode within themselves.
The drama was provided by the rain which caused race leader Denis Menchov to crash in the final turn, but he was up quickly and lost little time. In the end Menchov was a deserving winner. He gained the bulk of his time in the race's 61km Cinque Terra time trial, but he rode consistently in the mountains, avoiding a single bad day, to keep his margin all the way to Rome.
Here are some photos. Race leader Denis Menchov(Rabobank) with 1.5 miles to go.
Danilo Di Luca(LPR Brakes), who finished second overall, negotiates a turn in the first kilometer.
Carlos Sastre(Cervelo Test Team) win two hard mountain stages and finished fourth overall. Look for him to be a factor in the Tour de France.
Lance Armstrong took it easy in the final TT. He will head to a high altitude training camp in the USA in the next few days.
The Roman Colosseum was the backdrop for both the start and finish of the stage.
ps - I shot a lot of photos and did a bunch of interviews. Look for them to be popping up once I get back to the states.
Even though there are two more stages to go in the 2009 Giro d'Italia the race is all but over as Danilo Di Luca was unable to drop overall leader, Denis Menchov, and gain any significant time before Sunday's concluding stage, a 9-mile individual time trial. Barring any sort of mechanical mishap or a crash, Menchov will undoubtedly best Di Luca in the race against the watch and wear the final pink jersey in Rome.
The last major climb of the Giro, Monte Vesuvio, showed once again that Carlos Sastre was the best climber in the race as he notched his second stage win in three mountain top finishes. The defending Tour de France champion on the newly formed Cervelo Test Team had been unable to produce the goods on the Blockhaus stage, but on the 6-mile, 2500 foot climb of the volcano he was unbeatable.
Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer were in the lead group chasing Sastre with five kilometers remaining. Lance, who suffered a scary-looking crash early in the stage faded a bit at the end, but his condition is definitely improving.
Here are a few photos from the day. The first photo shows Carlos Sastre dropping Ivan Basso halfway up the climb.
I have posted a number of photos of Armstrong and Leipheimer, here is a shot of Michael Rogers of the Columbia-Highroad squad. He was the team's leader, but has faded over the last week. Jani Brajkovic is over his right shoulder.
Dave Zabriskie(Garmin-Slipstream), who won a stage of the Giro in 2005, has had a pretty quiet race. Here is a photo of him in the grupetto. As he came by I asked him how he was doing. "Eh, OK," was the reply.
Franco Pellizotti won the big Blockhaus stage. I snapped this photo him at the team busses after the race.
Tom Danielson(Garmin-Slipstream) has also had a quiet Giro. On Vesuvio, he climbed well and was close to the leaders at the finish. It is good to see Tommy D up at the front.
Today's stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia was a bit of a low-key affair after the epic struggle yesterday on the Blockhaus. It was great to see American's Danny Pate(Garmin-Slipstream) and Jason McCartney(Saxo Bank) in the breakaway going for the win. However, the focus of the Giro is on Friday's stage 19 and the ascent of the extinct volcano, Monte Vesuvio, which buried Pompei long before there was anything even remotely resembling American Idol.
Monte Vesuvio is most likely Danilo Di Luca's last chance to gain time on his chief(and probably only) rival Denis Menchov who holds a scant 26 second lead over the rider nicknamed 'The Killer'. Menchov is the better time trialist as he proved besting Di Luca in the 61km test in the Cinque Terra by almost two minutes.
If Di Luca cannot shake Menchov then the race will most like be decided before the final time trial. This scenario is reminiscent of one of the most famous moments in Tour de France history when Raymond Poulidor tried to take the yellow jersey off the shoulders of Jacques Anquetil on another extinct volcanic summit, Le Puy de Dome. Di Luca will need at least a minute over Menchov if he is to have a chance of taking the pink jersey off the Russian's shoulders.
There has been a lot of speculation on why Levi Leipheimer hasn't been more of a factor in the race. I spoke with his coach, Max Testa, who pointed out that at the beginning of the season, it was to be Lance Armstrong who was to be the team leader at the Giro. Levi was supposed to be taking it easy in May, resting up after a difficult spring campaign which began way back in February at the Tour of California. When Lance broke his collarbone, Levi was pressed into service and may just be feeling the effects of a very long period at top condition.
I also spoke with Astana Team Director Allain Gallopin about the situation and he also said that Levi was not really focused on this event at the beginning of the season. Gallopin added that to expect better results, Levi needs to make the Giro a priority in his racing program.
Thomas Voeckler (BBox) was in the early breakaway on the stage to the Blockhaus.His group of about nine riders reached a maximum lead of close to three minutes before they reached the base of the climb. Unfortunately, the gap was not big enough and all the escapees were caught and passed in the first 3 miles of the ascent. I asked Voeckler why the break failed. "No one was really motivated to do the work necessary to get a big enough gap to make the break work," said Voeckler. I asked him if it seemed like his companions were only looking for some TV time, "yeah it sure seemed that way," he said.
Below are a number of photos I thought you might find interesting. The first photo is of the electornic scoreboard we use in the press room to keep exact details of how the race is progressing. The time, distance and rider names and number. Pretty cool.
Lance has his own personal photographer, Elizabeth Kreutz who travels with him much of the time. This is a photo of Liz after she spent over seven hours on the back of a motorbike in 100 degree heat(did I mention how hot it was) on Monte Petrano taking photos of the race. Tough job.
Speaking of Lance, the race on the Blockhaus was close to L'Aquila where the devastating 6.8 earthquake leveled much of the town several months ago. The region,Abruzzzo, is recovering and put out the red carpet for Big Tex.
What would a bike race be without podium girls.
Just when you think you have seen everything at a bike race, along come a women riding up a 10% grade in 100 degree heat chatting on her cell phone.
I thought this photo was interesting. Some people use paint, others use chalk, but here is a fan using the local rock (limestone) to write a slogan on the race course.
Danilo Di Luca is from the Abruzzo. He has his own cool Fiat fan car. They would't give me a ride up the hill so I had to keep pedaling my bike.
The overall standings in the Giro d'Italia tightened significantly on the massive Blockhuas climb setting the stage for a dramatic finish when the race concludes with a 9-mile time trial around the streets of Rome. While Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) won the stage, Danilo Di Luca not only beat race leader Denis Menchov by five seconds and added an 8-second time bonus to move within 26 seconds of Menchov.
Pellizotti's winning attack moved him up to third place overall, but it was the man who led the initial chase to bring back the Liquigas rider who made the biggest news of the day. Lance Armstrong launched from the main field containing all the favorites when Pellizotti attacked with 15km to go. For a while the gap between the two hovered at 8-10 seconds, but then the elastic seemed to break and Lance ended up with the group containing Carlos Sastre, Levi Leipheimer and Michael Rogers who ultimately finished about two minutes back.
I had a chance to talk to Astana directors Jonah Bruyneel and Viatcheslav Ekimov after the finish and that in itself is its own story. As I did on Monte Petrano, I rode the climb of the Blockhaus. As I was preparing to descend on my bike I saw Johan go by driving a team car. Several minutes later, Ekimov came by as well. Sensing an opportunity which only presents itself getting off big mountains in the grand tours, I took off after the Astana cars. It took me several minutes to catch Eki. I rolled up, tapped on his window and asked him what he thought about Lance's performance. "He looked really good. Really hot," was his reply.
Next I spotted Bruyneel's car several switchbacks below so I took off chasing his car down. When I caught up to Johan I asked him the same question. "He's coming. He's coming" was his reply. Sometimes a journalist has to take some unusual measures to get a comment or two. Chasing those guys down through a sea of cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians was some of the most fun I have had on a bike in years. BTW, it's not for the faint hearted.
Here are some photos of the finish. As you can see from the marker in the first photo, I was positioned about 40 meters from the finish line, which was a great place to catch the final action of the stage.
Here is Pellizotti driving hard to the line for the win.
Here is a photo of the sprint for second between Stefano Garzelli and Danilo Di Luca.
This is a photo of Denis Menchov in the pink jersey, head down, trying to lose as few seconds as possible to Di Luca.
The last photo is of a guy named Lance pacing Levi to the line with Carlos Sastre in tow.
Today's stage up the Blockhaus will undoubtedly provide some huge fireworks and may prove to finally solidify the true contenders for the maglia rosa. Unlike most mountain top finishes, the riders will hit the slopes of the Blockhaus after only 36 mostly flat miles. Add in the fact that this stage follows the Giro's second rest day and you will have the scenario of a lot of racers who think they can win the stage.
This scenario is pretty uncommon in the grand tours. Back in 1991, the Tour de France rolled up to Alpe d'Huez with only flat miles in their legs instead of a couple of category 1 ascents such as the Galibier, Glandon or the Croix de Fer. What transpired at the bottom of the Alpe was an explosion as both the stage hunters and overall riders were swept up in a wave of aspirations. Two groups of riders with different goals, but riding side-by-side up one of the world's most storied climbs.
The GC riders don't like this type of situation. They have to ride harder and punchier(not steady) than they would like in the third week of a grand tour. The guys going for the stage win will launch attack after attack and they GC riders usually respond. This has changed a bit with power meters and riders knowing what they can and cannot do on the bike, but still there is a group mentality which pervades and unless the GC riders call a truce, they can get sucked up into the fray.
Guys like Levi Leipheimer aren't punchy riders and a stage like today could cause him more difficulty. Personally, I hope not, but Levi may have a tough decision to make whether to ride within himself or go with the moves. The podium is on the line for the Team Astana rider which makes the decision even more difficult.
The final ascent is a 17km(11-mile) 1200m(4000') climb that averages about 7%. This should take the top riders about 45-minutes. Look for racers like Menchov, Sastre and Basso to be forcing the pace with Di Luca hanging on near the front. BTW, Ivan Basso won here in 2006 on his way to his first, and only, overall Giro win.
In the late 1960's Eddy Merckx won his first ever mountain-top finish in a grand tour. A few years later, the Giro hosted a similar stage as today in the morning and then ran a 200+km flatter stage in the afternoon. These "split stages" were common in grand tours up until the 1990's. Nowadays the UCI has outlawed them.
Undoubtedly the most decisive stage,so far, of the 100th anniversary Giro d'Italia was fought out on the slopes of Monte Petrano as 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre proved that he is the real deal crossing the line first, 30 second ahead of an elite trio of Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov and Danilo Di Luca. Sadly for Americans, Levi Leipheimer was unable to keep pace on the brutal day that saw temperatures reach almost 100 degrees. He is now in sixth place overall, 3:20 behind Menchov.
The 140-mile stage from Pergola to the mountain-top finish at Monte Petrano was clearly the most difficult day in the Giro with three big climbs in the final 55-miles. Oh yeah, did I mention that it was hot? The silver lining for the Americans was that Lance Armstrong continues to improve his form and played a crucial role in pacing Leipheimer in the closing kilometers.
Given his superior time trialing skills, if Levi can avoid losing anymore time on the Blockhaus and Vesuvio stages he still has a shot at the podium. Leipheimer, always a class act, replied at the finish that his rivals were just stronger than him. BTW,he has a nasty looking bit of road rash on his left bicep from a crash on the stage into Genoa.
I talked with Saxo Bank rider Jen Voigt, who was in the early stage breakaway that featured Damiano Cunego and Yaroslov Popovych. I asked Jens to give a short description of the stage and he simply said, "too long. Too hard." That seemed to be the feeling in all the rider's minds. Did I mention that it was really hot?
I rode the final climb, Monte Petrano, before the pros(more on that below) and it struck me that if anyone wanted to do some serious damage that they would have to attack in the first two or three km's of the 10km, 800m ascent. So, I came back down the mountain and positioned myself at a seemingly key spot. Sure enough, Sastre attacked about 500m before where I was standing so I shot some photos of the winning breakaway developing.
Here is a photo of Sastre(black), Menchov(pink), Basso(green), and Di Luca(purple) just after the attack. Sastre and Basso are looking back to assess the damage they have done and to see who has tagged along.
Lance Armstrong came by about 30 seconds later.
Levi was about 20 seconds behind Lance. Lance would ultimately wait for Levi and then pace Leipheimer to the finish.
I had the unique opportunity of riding the final climb with Franceso Moser who is one of Italy's all-time great cyclists. He won the Giro in 1984. He also won Paris-Roubaix three times, the World Road Race championships, the World Pursuit Championships and set the World Hour record. It was a honor to ride with a living legend. We chatted a bit in Italian though he was reluctant to pick a winner of either the day's stage or the overall.
Here is an on-the-bike-photo.
Moser, at the top of the climb, looking like the classy rider he was, and still is.
Mark Cavendish won his third stage of the Giro today in Florence (Firenze if you are Italian). Last year he won two stages in Italy so this has to be viewed as at least a 50% improvement for the just-turned 24-year-old pro on Columbia Highroad. Mark and his fiance live about 20 miles away from Florence so this was a homecoming of sorts. It is doubly nice to win in front of friends and loved ones.
The big news after the stage was that Cavendish will be departing the race and will not start Saturday's stage. While you might think that the Manx man should sack up and finish the race, this is pretty common these days among the top riders. You might remember that Cavendish won four stages of the Tour de France in 2008, before exiting that race in the final week to rest up and prepare for the Beijing Olympics.
In 2008, he finished the Giro mainly because there were a few flat stages in the final week where he had the chance to win. In the 2009 edition, the final week features uphill finishes and time trials and offers little opportunities for the sprinters. At only 24-years-old Cavendish has many more grand tours in his legs and will be exiting stage left so he can drive the 30 minutes home to rest.
Cavendish has a new book hitting the shelves, 'Boy Racer', co-written with Procycling magazine's Features Editor Daniel Friebe. It should be a good read.
One of the rumours surrounding Cavendish is that when his contract is up at the end of the 2009 season, he will switch teams to ride for the new British professional cycling squad Team Sky. If I was the director of Team Sky and I wanted to get one British rider who would bring instant success to my team, that rider would be Mark Cavendish. It might cost you 25% (or more) of your total team budget, but the guy can win races and big races at that. Just make sure to hire a couple of his leadout men as well.
It would be sad to see Cavendish leave Columbia Highroad. Three years ago, Team Owner Bob Stapleton took a chance on the just-then-20-year-old rider and as Mark has blossomed, Stapleton has done what it takes to build a team around the sprinter. There is a lot of great chemistry on Columbia Highroad. I am hoping that Stapleton finds a way to keep Mark on the team.
There is another big race going on besides the Giro. Over in Spain the Tour of Catalonia is hotting up and Garmin-Slipstream rider Dan Martin is showing some incredible form. Last year, he won the Route Du Sud just before the Tour in the same region. On the hardest stage of Catalonia, he finished second, beating Alejandro Valverde and moving up to second place overall. Nice riding!
The much anticipated 61km time trial(TT) at the Giro d'Italia produced a few surprises, some good, some bad proving, once again, that Italy's grand tour is never predictable. At the end of the day, Rabobank's Denis Menchov proved that his two overall wins at the Vuelta a Espana were no fluke as he time-trialed himself past Danilo Di Luca and into the maglia rosa, the pink leader's jersey.
For Americans, all eyes were on Levi Leipheimer who had the potential to not only win the stage, but take the maglia rosa. While the quiet Californian came up short in both the stage and the overall leads his second place, only 20 seconds back of Menchov, must be considered a success. Leipheimer also moved up to third overall and is clearly within striking distance of the race lead.
What I take from Levi's performance is that the Giro is not the same race as the Tour. Leiphemier has repeatedly remarked that he feels nervous when racing on the tight roads and tricky descents of the Giro which has already cost him time in the race for the overall. Not every race is for every rider. Hopefully, Levi will feel more comfortable as the race progresses.
Of course, a lot of attention was given to Levi's teammate, Lance Armstrong, who finished 13th about 2:30 back of Menchov. While some might be close to writing Lance off, I think this is another indication that Lance is finding the form he will need to be a factor at the Tour. It must be remembered that in 2004, Lance lost 2 minutes to Iban Mayo at the Mont Ventoux time trial in the Dauphine Libere. He came back to win the Tour, dominating the TT's, and winning by over six minutes.
So what's going to happen in the final week? Clearly, if Di Luca is going to have a chance to win his second Giro, he is going to have to go on the attack on Monte Petrano, the Blockhaus or Monte Vesuvio. Leipheimer is going to have to make Di Luca pay for all his aggression in the first week by putting pressure on the front of the climbs. Menchov is going to have to keep doing what he has been doing; ride "steady eddy" and avoid one bad day in the mountains that seems to plague him in some grand tours.
Remember that the final stage is a 15km TT around Rome's famous landmarks. Go watch "Angels and Daemons" and you will get a pretty good idea of what the rider's will see. I think Levi is a better flat time trialist than either Menchov or Di Luca so if the gaps remain about the same, Levi could ended winning it all. I haven't mentioned either Ivan Basso or Michael Rogers. These two guys are going to need an exceptional day to put themselves back into contention.
If you are living in Boulder, Colorado (is there any other Boulder?) then the future of cycling looks pretty bright. Sure, 18-year-old Taylor Phinney is from Boulder and he has been lighting the track on fire riding world class times in both the Kilometer and 4000m Pursuit. But, there are a number of other young riders in Boulder and the Colorado Front Range who have been distinguishing themselves as well.
At the recent Excel Sports Boulder North Boulder Park Criterium it was a veritable youth parade in the Senior events. Just to make my point even clearer, riders under the age of 18 have their own special classes in which to compete. This is to allow them to develop slowly and keep them from being beat up on by riders much more physically mature. But, at the North Boulder Park Criterium it was them youngens' who totally stole the show.
In the Senior Men's Category 4 event (novice riders 19-34 years old), Michael Dessau of Jonathan Vaughter's 5280 Team not only won most of the prime sprints, but also took the victory. Michael is only 13-years old. His teammate Zane Godby, all of 14-years-old, took third.
In the Men's Category 3 event (advanced riders 19-34 years old), Yannick Eckmann soled off the front halfway through the 60-minute race and won in convincing fashion. Yannick, who also rides for the 5280 Team is a mere 15-years-old. Yannick's older brother Robin placed 6th in the marquis event the Senior 1/2/Pro race beating Tour de France veterans in the process.
In the Women's Category 4 event, Maddie Godby (Zach's older sister) was victorious. She's 16-year's old.
Whoa! We call these riders "Senior Slayers" because they are winning against riders sometimes twice their age(and older). The future looks pretty bright for cycling if we can keep pumping out young riders who show such potential. Best of luck to Michael, Zach, Yannick, Robin, Maddie and all young riders working their way up to the senior ranks.
There has been some speculation on who the title sponsor will be for Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel's new team. One rumour has it that Livestrong will be prominent on the jersey. It must be rememebered that there are actually two Livestrongs out there.
The first is Livestrong.org which is Lance's very successful cancer charity. Lance and his people have raised millions to help fight the cruel disease. The second is Livestrong.com which was launched about a year ago and is a wellness web site that is dedicated to helping people get answers to basic health questions.
My guess is that if Livestrong is a sponsor of the team, Lance will not divert any of the cancer money, but will instead use the Livestrong.com site as the money source. Only time will tell, but that's my speculation.
Team Columbia-Highroad has been putting on a Bike Racing 101 clinic at the Giro.The squad has won four stages in the first nine days and they are doing it in classic racing fashion. The Giro is known for lots of crashes which sometimes produce lucky winners, but Columbia-Highroad's success has nothing to do with luck.
Columbia-Highroad's first win, on the opening day's team time trial, was the picture of perfection. There didn't appear to be any strategy other than to have each rider give his all. There were no sacrificial lambs, everybody just rode their hearts out.
Norwegian Edvald Boasen-Hagen has recorded a second-first-second in stages 6-8; his win into Chiavenna on stage 7 was won on rain-slickened roads, but he didn't appear to be taking unnecessary risks.
Constantin Siutsov's victory into Bergamo was probably the best demonstration of classic bike racing tactics. Columbia-Highroad sent their GC man Michael Rogers up the road on the stage's final climb forcing overal racer leader Danilo Diluca's LPR Brakes team to initiate a furious chase. As soon as Rogers and his breakaway companions, which included Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, were reeled in, Siutsov counter-attacked.
It was clear that the LPR riders were tired from chasing Rogers and Leipheimer and Siutsov quickly built a sufficient lead to take him all the way to the finish line. That is how you win a bike race.
The final chapter in team Columbia Highroad's racing primer was written in Milan when a near perfect leadout train in the final kilometers delivered uber-sprinter Mark Cavendish first across the line. Thus endeth the lesson, but I am guessing that Columbia-Highroad has a few more chapters to write before the end of the race.
A few more speculations on what will happen with Team Astana and the rollout with Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel's new team. It must be remembered that one of the strategies that Bruyneel and Armstrong used to help engineer Lance's seven tour wins was to acquire the competition.
Along that line of thinking, it would be better for Bruyneel and Armstrong to try and keep Team Astana together through the Tour so that they would have Contador on their squad. That's not to say that Bruyneel and Armstrong would try to keep Contador from winning. It just means that they would have more control over the situation. Only time will tell what happens.
While Lance may not be making big headlines on the bike at the Giro, what he is doing off the bike is generating some exciting news. To be fair, Lance did not come into the Giro in peak form and he is showing that he is the master of the three week race by riding within himself in Italy so he can go the full distance and not burn out too early.
It was reported last week in several Colorado newspapers that Lance had called Governor Bill Ritter to sound out the Governor on the potential of putting on a Tour of Colorado much like the Amgen Tour of California. Last summer Lance bought a house in Aspen and has been using that dwelling for his altitude training. Lance and many of us remember the glory days of the Coors Classic and the possibility of re-capturing those magical times is a huge motivation to bring big-time bike racing back to Colorado.
At this time the idea is only in the 'trial balloon' stage. My guess is that Lance was just testing the waters to see how receptive the Governor's office was to the idea as the state is key to pulling off such an event. It would most likely be 2011 at the earliest before any race could happen.
In the past several years, Medalist Sports who run both the Tour of California and the Tour of Missouri has been working with a group in the Vail Valley to bring a 3-4 day professional stage race to Colorado, but that event has yet to be held. Hopefully, Lance will have more success.
My rumours and speculation on some of the details of the new professional team run by Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong generated lots of comments. Remember, the details of the team are all just speculation at this point.
One alternate scenario that is emerging is that the team will continue as Team Astana until after the Tour which would mean that Lance, Alberto and Levi would all be racing together in France in July. One good reason to keep the current squad intact through July is that if a new team emerges after the Giro, but before the Tour, it is not clear if that team would be allowed to start the Tour de France.
Given that the French National Anti-Doping Agency(AFLD) backed off on the "Showergate" incident, it seems clear that the French want Lance to start to the Tour. So, if the new team did emerge before the Tour there is a good possibility that a number of rules would be bent to allow them to participate.
My guess is that since Lance and Johan are pretty smart guys they have already contacted the Tour organizers and asked them if their new team would be allowed to start. The answer to that question will probably determine when the new team emerges.