Since the mass exodus of Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel and a host of other talented cyclists from the Astana cycling team, the Kazakh-based squad has become a sort of refuge for riders who have had difficulty in past seasons. It seems as though many established, popular riders are staying far away from last season's most successful stage racing team, leaving management with no other choice but to seek athletes that are less desired by other teams.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Michael Rasmussen was on the precipice of greatness two years ago at the Tour de France before being unceremoniously booted from the race by his own team for lying about his whereabouts on a UCI form. A year later, Italian Riccardo Ricco was found positive for EPO CERA, and was likewise booted from the Tour. Both riders will return to cycling in 2010, presumably without the assistance of drugs. Whether they will garner the same results however is another matter entirely.
Rasmussen, though not a time trialist, rode out of his skull at the 2007 Tour de France until he was kicked out. He was able to easily drop all of the riders in that year's race in the high mountains, with exception to "el pistolero" Alberto Contador. Rasmussen looked like a shoe-in to take top honors in Paris that year, but never got a chance after being removed form the Tour by his Rabobank team.
Riccardo Ricco too was having an amazing Tour before he was removed from the race for drug taking. The brash Italian, all of 22 years old, was seen (here at the Giro) flying off the front of the peloton as if he had a motor on several stages. Once caught, he flippantly admitted what he did, perhaps realizing that he still had his entire career ahead of him.
Now though, for both riders, things get very interesting. Rasmussen has announced that he'll have a new employer within the week, and that he feels confident that he'll get a chance to race at least in the Giro in 2010. But without doping, which he undoubtedly did his first time around, things may unfold differently for the lanky, skeleton-like Dane. Like Ivan Basso, Alexander Vinokorouv and many other riders who have returned after bans, the going is often much tougher for them than it was when they were cheating. Rasmussen will likely assume the role he has held since his suspension: an outlier, a side show attraction, but nothing more.
Ricco, unlike Rasmussen who is 35, is much younger and has a legitimate chance to clean up his tarnished image. "The Cobra" undoubtedly has it in him to be a great rider, but whether he can do so without cheating is another matter entirely. Ricco was known for his big mouth and attacking style before his suspension, it will be interesting to see if he retains any of his swagger this time around. Now 26 years old, Ricco will have a handful of years to make good legitimately as a pro, but with such a dark past it seems a matter of time before he is drawn to cheating again.
Whether Rasmussen and Ricco succeed is almost irrelevant. What is important is how they handle themselves upon their return. If they choose to be contrite and humble like Ivan Basso, they will likely win back many of their fans. But if they remain aloof, stubborn and arrogant like Alexander Vinokorouv, they should expect to be shunned by the cycling world much like the Kazakh nightmare himself is today.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
The BMC cycling team is no longer a mid-level domestic squad. They have, over the past few months, morphed into a powerhouse team with an International roster capable of winning a variety of races in 2010. The biggest names to sign are undoubtedly the threesome of George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan and Karsten Kroon. The three, each suited differently to one day races, should have a profound affect at the front of the peloton in many of next year's biggest races.
George Hincapie, hopelessly addicted and in love with the cobbles, will once again hope for the winning combination at his beloved Paris Roubaix. The tall American has been as close as runner-up, but has been doomed year over year with bad luck or poor form. It seems to be said every season about Hincapie, but 2010 really may be his last chance at glory in the Roubaix Velodrome.
Alessandro Ballan, former world champion and co-leader of the Lampre team, comes to BMC after a decidedly down 2009. Although he wore the rainbow jersey and did manage a few wins, Ballan's 2009 was largely a throw away season, marked with sickness and lack of form. Searching for a fresh approach, Ballan jumped to BMC, where he'll have the chance to race in American races as well as in Europe. A top showing at the Tour of Flanders is likely, before switching gears to lead the team at the Giro. Ballan, when on form, is lethal in one day races, and he'll be a key part of BMC's success (or lack thereof) in 2010.
Karsten Kroon, the third of the big three for BMC in 2010, is perhaps the least well known, but nevertheless the Dutchman is a capable one day rider with a penchant for the hills of the Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege classics. Kroon has never managed to win a classic, but like Hincapie he has been very close. Previously a part of the powerhouse Saxo Bank team, Kroon often found himself riding for teammates instead of himself in the big classics. That will change at BMC though, where he'll be counted on to ride well in the biggest hilly classics.
In addition to the above big three riders, the rest of the BMC team is strong for 2010 as well. They have added several other staunch Europeans to the team, including Marcus Burghardt, Steve Morabito and Michael Schar, and they are bringing back a slew of talented riders, including climbers Jeff Louder and Scotty Nydam, and all-arounders Brent Bookwalter and Jackson Stewart. 2010 should see a potent BMC surprise some in the cycling world, as they contend in the biggest races throughout the year.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Seeing the Light: Cunego to Target Grand Tour Stage Wins, One Day Classics in 2010, Forego GC Ambitions
Damiano Cunego has finally seen the light. Citing "stress" as the determining factor for a change of approach in 2010, the punchy Italian climber has decided that trying for the GC at grand tours is too difficult. Instead, he'll focus on stage wins at the grand tours, and of course the usual one day classics in the spring and fall. A shrewd move, Cunego's new approach should see him have a windfall 2010, with both classics and grand tour podium appearances aplenty.
Cunego, as an impetuous neo-pro back in 2004, won the Giro d'Italia behind amazing climbing and serviceable time trialing. He beat his teammate and race favorite Gilberto Simoni, sowing the seeds of discontent between himself and his then Saeco teammate while simultaneously endearing himself to the rabid Italian "tifosi" as Italy's next big hope in stage racing. It was a label that would not last for long.
The years following his amazing Giro overall win though unfolded differently than the Italian and his fans would have hoped. Year in and year out Cunego targeted either the Giro or the Tour de France, and consistently came up short, usually losing big time in the high mountains. Cunego, for better or worse, was showing far more promise in one day classics than in grand tours. He was able to ride away from the top protagonists at classics like the Amstel Gold race, but when the Giro or Tour came along Cunego found himself dropped early and often, relegated to also-ran status in each grand tour he rode.
Cunego's critics and many in the media began asking him a few years back whether he would stop focusing on the grand tours overall battle, choosing rather to try to dominate the one day classics and take stage wins at the grand tours. Cunego, stubborn and proud, insisted that both could be accomplished. He insisted that he was built for grand tour wins and could also have ambitions in one day classics throughout the year, but the results didn't resolve the way the small Italian would have hoped.
And so now, in 2009, finally, Damiano Cunego seems ready to accept his fate as a one day specialist. Realizing perhaps that he isn't as young any more, Cunego seems to know that he can have a far bigger impact as a one day rider than as a grand tour GC contender. He'll have the chance to win all year round, and without having to prep specifically for the grand tour overall picture, Cunego will be able to try to win stages in all three grand tours each year, in addition to the monuments and other one day classics of cycling. 2010 should see big rewards for Cunego, and he'll have an outside chance at a 20 win season without the pressure of grand tour prep.
Although it took him longer than it should have, it is both a mature and sage decision by Damiano Cunego to become what he has always been destined to become: THE best one day rider in the world. Now that he is fully focused on a one day approach, he'll ascend toward the top of the world rankings, and begin to make his Italian countrymen forget about the last great one day rider for Italy, Paolo Bettini. As the wins pile up, so will Cunego's legacy, and once his career is over his reputation will be safe as one of Italy's best ever riders . . . regardless of his grand tour overall win tally.
Friday, October 23, 2009
UCI Rules Alberto Contador Can Leave Astana, Seek Contract with Alternate Pro Tour Team . . . Good Luck Vino!
Huge news in the cycling world today as the world's best stage racer, Alberto Contador, was freed from his contract to the Kazahk-based Astana team. Contador can now move forward with signing with another team, with Caisse d'Epargne and Garmin viewed as the favorites to land "el pistolero." The Quick Step team too has been named as a team trying to land Contador. And regardless of where he goes (and he WILL leave Astana), Contador will instantly make one lucky team the odds on favorite to win the biggest bike race in the world.
For Astana, it may be lights out, as losing Contador leaves only Alexander Vinokorouv as a team leader. But Vino is no longer doping, at least not yet, and so he has been reduced to a good, not great rider. He'll never win any grand tour the rest of his career much less the Tour, and so Astana will have to majorly shift their priorities for 2010. They'll have to hope Vino has the goods in some of the hilly one day classics. He won some big one day races during his first career as a doper, but it is highly unlikely he'll be able to pull out another big classic win against some of the current talent in the sport. His time has passed him by, and perhaps Astana's time in the sport is coming to an end as well.
One final note about Astana's current roster is that the UCI rule for Contador may also work in Haimer Zubeldia's favor. The Spaniard was obliged to remain with the team earlier this year, despite his desire to ride with Lance Armstrong and Radioshack next year. Now, he too may get his wish.
Once Contador eventually signs with a team, the cycling landscape will have completely changed. Teams like Radioshack, Liquigas and Saxo Bank must have liked their prospects against Contador if he were riding for an inferior team like Astana. But now that he could go to powerhouses like Caisse d'Epargne, Garmin, or Quick Step, they may not be looking quite as forward to facing Contador come July.
Caisse d'Epargne seems the most likely choice for Contador to land. The team is already packed with talented climbing-oriented Spaniards (Valverde, Leon Sanchez, Rodriguez, Gutierrez), and the big budget to even add a few more names. Garmin too would be a good spot for Contador, but having the language barrier to deal with on the American team could prove too large a determining factor for Contador to jump to Jonathan Vaughter's team.
Over the coming days, the shape of the 2010 cycling season will change drastically. Alberto Contador will mull his options, and then choose his best chance for success in France in 2010. For Astana, rightfully, thing will get worse. Since accepting Alexander Vinokorouv back into their midst a few months ago, they have lost most of their technical staff, all of their team directors, all of their biggest stage and one day racers, and now, the best stage racing rider in the world. For a moment, all seems right in the cycling world.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
In what is sure to be an annual occurance, the Amgen Tour of California today announced its official route and host cities, along with several big name American riders that will ride in the May stage race. Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie and David Zabriskie are confirmed participants, and the list is sure to grow as other teams finalize racing schedules for their riders.
The debate can now officially begin as to whether riding the AToC is the best prep for the July Tour de France. Over the past few years many riders have chosen to ride the Giro d'Italia for preparation for the July Tour de France, as a three week grand tour builds fitness like no training can. Now that the AToC is on the schedule for May though, riders will have to weigh the risks and benefits of attending the Californian nine day race instead of the Giro.
For Armstrong, Leipheimer, Hincapie and Zabriskie, the choice is already made, seemingly without too much thought. But the wisdom of their decision will be determined only after the AToC and Giro are finished. Should Armstrong come to the July Tour de France and have a poor showing, the die could be cast against the AToC as a good prep race ahead of the French grandaddy of all stage races. Conversely, if Armstrong should have a great showing at the Tour in July, the AToC will be validated as a good prep race for the Tour. A podium finish in the overall standings would show that a rider can come to the US for the AToC and still prepare for an assault on the July Tour.
For the Europeans the situation will be more difficult a decision to make. Not only will they be sacrificing possible stage wins at one of the most prestigious stage races in cycling, but they will also be required to travel across multiple time zones, disrupting their sleep and leaving them open to colds or other sicknesses. Unlike when the Tour of California was in February, there will be no long team training camps ahead of the race, so riders will be state-side for far shorter periods than in previous years.
One area that the AToC will definitely suffer will be in relation to the Italian contingent that shows up to California to race. Names like Ivan Basso, Rinaldo Nocentini, Franco Pellizotti and even Marco Pinotti won't be in California, as they'll instead lobby to attend their home country's grand tour. The lack of Italians in California will leave less big time talent in the field, but will allow for other nationalities to show themselves in the flagship American race. For Italy the same will be true of the American contingent. Far fewer Americans will be in Italy to contest the Giro, instead staying home to support their country's biggest race.
The big wild card in the arguement are the sprinters and one day specialists. Thor Hushovd, Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish and others will have hard choices to make. Do they head to California for the chance at a few stage wins or do they stay in Europe and race one of the three biggest races in the world with an eye on a top performance in July in France? A twenty stage race will afford more opportunities at victory than a nine day race, and the prestige of being a grand tour winner, despite what AToC supporters (including us!) would have one believe, is still much more valuable than a stage in California.
As the Amgen Tour of California and Giro d'Italia prepare to butt up against each other for the first time, many questions remain. The big name American riders have clearly cast their support toward California, but until the Giro presentation we won;t know the stance of the Italians. How the first year with the new date goes will be far more important to the AToC than the Giro. If July's Tour de France sees more Giro stars battling at the front of the peloton than Tour of California protagonists, the now five year old stage race could find itself pigeon-holed into being viewed as a race unworthy of grand tour-level riders.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The embattled Astana cycling team announced the signing of Spanish climber David De La Fuente and Italian domestique Paolo Tiralongo recently, adding two nice support riders to the team of defending Tour de France champion Alberto Contador. The only question regarding the signing though is why any rider would choose to ride for the Kazahk outfit. Now that Johan Bruyneel and most of the key riders from 2009 are no longer associated with the team, why any rider would willfully go to Astana for 2010 is a mystery to EP.
Even before Johan Bruyneel left the team, Astana seemed like a tough team to ride for. They had money problems throughout much of the early season, and even now they are having issues in securing a Pro Tour title for next season. De La Fuente, and any other rider that chooses to sign with Astana, are risking not only their salaries, but also being able to start the biggest races on the cycling calendar in 2010.
Then there is the walking calamity that is Alexander Vinokorouv. Vinokorouv, a proven cheat and bald-faced liar, returns to Astana as one of it's leaders. How any rider with even a shred of integrity would be willing to align themselves with Vinokorouv is a mystery. First he stone walled Bruyneel into leaving the team, and now Vino returns, unapologetic to the sport, is enough to turn any cycling purist's stomach.
Finally, the new management for Astana in 2010 is dubious at best. The new director sportif of the team will be Giuseppe Martinelli, who was also the director of one of the most troubled . . . and doped riders in the history of cycling, Marco Pantani. Martinelli is no doubt a veteran cycling mind, but the baggage he brings along won't help Astana to look like a clean team. Also joining the team for 2010 as a coach is Yvon Sanquer, formerly of Festina. Festina too is remembered as one of the dirtiest teams in cycling, and were at the center of the 1998 Tour de France scandal.
The Astana cycling team will be around again in 2010, and even without a Pro Tour licence they will attempt to make an impression on the world cycling stage. But as they add shady managers and riders they risk becoming an even bigger target of the UCI and irate cycling fans. Teams like Astana are examples of what cycling doesn't need. Hopefully they'll be denied a Pro Tour licence, which will help speed their exit from the sport. On the other hand, if they are granted Pro Tour status, the cycling world will have to endure their presence for at least the next two seasons.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Alessandro Petacchi has been one of the world's top sprinters for the last ten plus years, but recently he has not been able to match up against the best riders in the world in many of the biggest races due to being on a non-Pro Tour team. He rode for the LPR team over the past two seasons, and although he had good results throughout the year, he missed out on the Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana, and other big races. But all that will change in 2010 when Petacchi lines up with the blue and pink kit of Lampre.
Petacchi inked a deal with the Italian Pro-Tour squad of Damiano Cunego a few months back, and the tall Italian is no doubt licking his chops at his prospects for next year. He will join a strong Lampre squad that has no other real sprinters in their midst, and Petacchi will be the protected leader in almost all the races he enters in 2010. Unlike in 2009 when he had to battle with the now suspended Danilo Di Luca and Gabriele Bossisio for help at many of the races, 2010 will see him enjoying full support from his new Lampre teammates.
Alessandro Petacchi heads into the 2010 season with his best chance to notch as many big wins as possible in both one day races and grand tours. He is a top sprinter heading into the final couple of years of his career at the highest level, and joining Lampre will afford him the best chance to pad his career wins list. For Lampre meanwhile, adding Petacchi will reduce pressure on their one day hilly specialist Damiano Cunego, who will also fly the flag for Lampre as their GC hope in the grand tours. Together, the duo could form a similar combination as the one that Garmin enjoys with Tyler Farrar and Christian Vande Velde.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Tom Boonen recently made comment that he is thinking about targeting the world time trial championship next year in Australia. To say the least, this comment is hugely surprising. Yes, Tom Boonen is an outsized talent capable of succeeding in a variety of circumstances, yes Tom Boonen has won prologues in the recent past . . . but world time trial champion? Seems almost impossible.
Over the past season and a half, Boonen has seen his prowess as one of the world's fastest men significantly reduced. Younger stars like Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar have left Boonen behind in many of this year's races, and so the Belgian is likely having doubts as to where his wins will come from in 2010 and beyond.
Trying to become a world class time trialist though is not a good decision for Boonen. As crowded as the sprinting scene is in pro cycling, the time trial discipline is also highly competitive. The reigning king, Fabian Cancellara, will rule the division for the next five years at least, and behind him are a host of other young, talented riders who will take the torch when he passes it. These names include Tony Martin, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Thomas Lovkvist, Alberto Contador, and many more.
After a tough past two years battling drug charges and poor poerformances at big races, Tom Boonen seem sot have lost some of his youthful swagger. He's no longer the new kid in cycling, and he is feeling the pressure of having to deliver in every race he enters. But before hitting the panic button, he should consider that in re-dedicating himself to sprinting, he could once again be back up toward the top of the sport in 2010.
Another point for Boonen to consider is that he is an amazing classics rider. The months of March and April belong to Boonen, and with a bit of fine tuning there's no reason to believe that he couldn't compete at the Amstel Gold race as well. He has always been a threat in the grand tours, despite his poor performance at this past year's Tour. For Boonen, staying the course should be the order of the day, and sticking with what got him to where he is as a cyclist today.
All athletes need new goals to reach for as their careers continue. But setting attainable goals is as important as making them in the first place. Tom Boonen is not now nor will he ever be a time trial specialist. Instead, he is a rock-solid strongman capable of riding away from the best riders in the world when the going gets tough. With a prudent off season work out plan and a positive outlook for 2010, Boonen will once again be bumping elbows with the best sprinters in the world . . . and riding away from them on the cobbles in the cold in the early spring.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Back in 2006, Philippe Gilbert took his first semi-classic victory at the Belgian one day race Omloop Het Volk after a successful amateur career that saw him win the points title and a stage at the prestigious Tour de l'Avenir. At only 24 years old, Gilbert was marked as a rider to watch for the future, and big things were expected of the rising Belgian star.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Over the course of 2009, now former Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel saw a cycling empire he created slowly deteriorate, leaving him with a new venture, but without the best stage racing rider in the world. His longtime colleague and friend Lance Armstrong returned to professional cycling this year, and like a true friend Bruyneel fell into line, clearing the way for Armstrong to join the Astana team, and even become its co-leader on the road.
Armstrong too did his part to be a company man, deferring to Contador throughout the season as the inevitable Tour de France face off drew closer and closer, but underneath a sense of unrest was palpable. The Texan allowed that Contador was the strongest rider in cycling, and that if he was still the strongest in July, that Armstrong would ride as domestique without argument. But like any true champion, Armstrong couldn't take a back seat to Contador, and the powder keg exploded on the world stage in France when the Tour began.
Throughout the three week stage race, Armstrong and Contador waged an unspoken war for control of the team. Contador struck first, besting the Texan in the opening prologue time trial. But Lance, the wily veteran, struck back on stage 4, making a decisive break and distancing Contador and many of the other favorites. Finally, the first mountain top finish saw Contador ride away from Armstrong and the rest of the field, effectively beginning his conquest for the overall classification.
Meanwhile, Johan Bruyneel did all he could to help Armstrong win the Tour without actively hindering Contador. Each of the two leaders were given two riders to protect them. Armstrong counted on Haimer Zubeldia and Yaroslav Popovic while Contador leaned on Andreas Kloden and Jesus Hernandez. Bruyneel tried to hold Contador back around every corner, but the Spaniard wasn't listening. Neither Johan Bruyneel or Lance Armstrong were going to tell him how to race, much less keep him from his second Tour title.
And so the seeds of discontent were sown between the three. One one side was Contador, proud and entitled, the rightful owner of best stage racer in the world, while on the other were Bruyneel and Armstrong, long time friends and colleagues ready to take on the world once again, also proud and entitled. And for awhile, it worked for the veteran duo. They succeeded in putting Armstrong on the final podium, and despite being outclassed by Contador, Armstrong was amazing in his comeback attempt.
Now though, after lines were clearly drawn, the landscaped has shifted completely for both Contador and Bruyneel. For Bruyneel, 2010 will once again align him with Armstrong, but on a new team. Once again, the Belgian will have the chance to do what he does best: Build a Tour de France winning team around Lance Armstrong. Whether he can do it or not remains to be seen, but the team that Armstrong has assembled appears very strong, if only on paper.
For Contador, 2010 will be undoubtedly tougher than 2009. He'll likely be obliged to stay at Astana, but the team is a shell of its former self. Only one major support rider, Haimer Zubeldia, remains at Contador's disposal, meaning that "el Pistolero" will be largely on his own in defending his 2009 Tour de France title. Alexander Vinikorouv too will be able to help Contador, but against the powerhouse Saxo Bank, Liquigas and Radioshack teams, Astana looks very vulnerable.
Lost among all of the new developments over the past few months is the fact that both Contador and Bruyneel have arguably lost as much as they each have gained over the final half of the cycling season. Bruyneel lost his team, but found a new one. What he left behind though is the best stage racer in cycling. He probably won't have another chance to coach Contador after burning bridges with the Spaniard. Contador meanwhile loses many of his teammates that helped him win the Tour, and he'll no longer enjoy advice from arguably the best cycling coach of the modern era. For both men, the situation is not a total loss, but each will have his share of regrets in the coming season, win or lose.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The final monument of the 2009 cycling season, the Giro di Lombardia, runs this Saturday in the beautiful Lombardy region in northern Italy. A star-studded field is ready to attack the hilly parcours, and the list of potential winners is long. Although Lampre's Damiano Cunego will be the strong favorite heading into the race as he searches for his fourth Lombardia title, there are a host of other riders capable of winning the prestigious race.
Cadel Evans is a favorite in a one day race probably for the first time in his career. The affable Aussie will hope to do his rainbow bands proud while racing close to his training home base, and if he has some of his world championships form, he'll be as dangerous as Cunego in the fight for the title. His teammate Philippe Gilbert, on fire recently, will stand as his backup in case he falters.
Robert Gesink finally broke through a couple of weeks back in taking a win in an Italian semi-classic, and the Dutchman will look for more at Lombardia. He'll have a strong team backing him, led by Lars Boom and Bauke Mollema. Look for Gesink to try to win on a solo attack on the final climb, as he looks to build momentum for 2010. A top three is well within reach.
Sammy Sanchez of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team hasn't had any huge results thus far in 2009, but he, like Evans, should have some decent form holding over from the world's, and a win at Lombardia would salvage an otherwise forgettable season. He is one of the few Spaniards taking part at Lombardia with a chance, and it would not be surprising to see him battling at the front in the closing kilometers.
Another top favorite will be Cervelo's Australian Simon Gerrans. Gerrans rode a masterful world's in support of Evans, but his form was good enough to have contended in Mendrisio had Evans fallen short. Now riding for his trade team again, Gerrans will have a free hand to try to win his first monument. A win would not be overly surprising for the promising youngster.
As they have done in every one day race of 2009, Columbia-High Road will field another very strong squad, highlighted by the three headed monster of Kim Kirchin, Thomas Lovkvist and Craig Lewis. Lewis is young and will likely support Lovkvist and Kirchin. Kirchin has had a tough 2009 and would love nothing more than to shine in the final big one day race of 2009 before he moves over to Katuysha in 2010. Lovkvist meanwhile will try to win yet another big race in 2009, adding to his stellar win at the Monte Paschi Eroica, another Italian one day classic.
Although not known as a team with one day specialists, Astana will bring two very capable athletes in the forms of Chris Horner and Janez Brajkovic. Horner, after a tough season full of injuries will look for a late season result, while Brajkovic will hope to go one place better than 2008, when he placed 2nd (he thought at the time he'd won) behind Cunego. Brajkovic is underestimated as a rider, but he'll have a target on his back at Lombardia after his stellar 2008 performance.
Italian hero Ivan Basso will ride in Lombardia as well, as the likely leader of his team. Like Evans, Basso is not known as a one day commodity, but that doesn't mean he won't try. Expect a rousing performance from the Italian as his comeback season draws to a close. One other notable Italian racing will be Filippo Pozzato of Katuysha. "Pippo" is the reigning Italian champion, and he'll be keen to show off the tricolore on home roads.
Lower profile favorites are aplenty at Lombardia, as there are several riders who could score an unexpected win providing they have fresh legs and a bit of good fortune. Those riders include Carlos Barredo of Quick Step, the punchy climber who broke through earlier this year at San Sebastian, Giovanni Visconti of the ISD team, 2009 Tour de France yellow jersey wearer Rinaldo Nocentini of Ag2R, Irishman Dan Martin and Tom Danielson of Garmin, Fabian Wegmann of Milram, and Saxo Bank's youngster Jakob Fuglsang, who has already had a great 2009 and would love to cap things off with a podium at Lombardia.
The Giro di Lombardia will crown another champion in two days time, effectively closing out the 2009 season. While watching the race, take note of how many rider fly off the front of the field during the decisive moments of the race. It will be a no-holds-barred battle royale for the final big trophy of 2009. Expect all riders to leave no energy in the tank as they search for glory at the Giro di Lombardia.
The debate on whether race radios should be banned in professional cycling continues to rage on, especially now that the UCI has made clear that they are planning on fazing out the use of race radios completely in the coming years. There are those who would rather see a compromise reached, while many old schoolers insists that banning radios is the right decision for cycling and fans alike. Below follows both sides of the argument: On one side the dyed-in-the-wool long-suffering fan and on the other a young and super-talented pro cycling star. NOTE: For those that have trouble with the obvious, these characters are not real.
70 Year Old Grizzly Pave, Cycling Fan Extradonaire
I'm not sure what the whole debate is about. It 's clearly the right decision to eliminate race radios from the sport. Did you ever see Eddy Merckx in his prime? Well I did, and I can tell you he didn't need anyone telling him how to race. Don't even get me started on Coppi, Bartali, and Poulidor. Actually, scratch that, Poulidor probably would have benefited from some help from a team car heh heh.
Over the past 20 years, the advent of radios in cycling has ruined the spontaneity of the sport. Riders today are robots. They can't make their own decisions, and are often afraid to trust their instincts. It's sad. Gone are the solo flyers and long range escapes, replaced by talking heads in team cars barking orders at their spandex-clad drones. Take the ear pieces away, and watch and see who the real cyclists are.
Mark my words: If you take race radio away from Mark Cavendish, he won't win as much . . . but he'll become a better rider. He'll learn how to win on his own, instead of with a team entirely dedicated to delivering him to the line with a head start at 250 meters. His radio was useless in San Remo and look how he won: On grit and emotion, on instinct. Most of his other wins were solely dependant on how well he got set up by his team.
Nick "The Quik" Taylor, 21 Year Old Neo Pro
Wait a minute, didn't Cavendish have expert guidance during his win from former MSR patron Erik Zabel, who guided Cav through many portions of the course. Any way, moving on . . .
Look, I'm all for race drama, and for encouraging riders to ride on instinct and make their own decisions. But do you really think we are all out there sitting in, staring straight ahead, waiting for the next order from the team car with a glazed look in our eyes? Sure, it's true that we receive guidance and course advice from our coaches via radio, but NO ONE can tell you when the exact right moment is to attack, or what side of the road the pot hole is on, or how to skip over a Bott's Dot, or how to accept a mussette from a saunier. Moreso, no one can feel fresh or tired legs . . . no one except the rider that is. I've won and lost my share of races on my own decisions, but I can count on one hand the amount of times advice from way back in the team car directly led to my winning a race. It just doesn't work that way . . .
Basically, you saw how the lack of race radios would affect a race at last year's Tour. I wasn't riding, but I was watching and I can tell you I would have gone with the same decision to neutralize the race. After all, it's not the UCI that are at the front of a hard-charging peloton, making split second decisions while chaos ensues all around them. We, the riders, put our lives on the line in every race we enter. It's hard enough maintaining safety with the help of race radio, it would be significantly harder without.
The UCI and anyone else can push and push for what they feel is the right decision for cycling, but when the chips are down it will be the riders who decide on how the racing unfolds. Compromise our feelings of safety, and expect rider protests and neutralized races aplenty in 2010 and beyond. Like it or not, technology is here to stay, and race radios are a part of the technology. It's time t put the technology debate to bed once and for all.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about what the ruling on race radios should be. The above perspectives make a case for each approach, but why not a compromise? Why not allow one rider per team to have a radio in the interest of safety and communication? As if the waters weren't muddy enough . . . more later we're sure.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Juan Mauricio Soler burst onto the professional cycling scene in 2007 at the biggest bike race in the world, the Tour de France. A tall, gangly climber with a nose like a hawk, Soler drew wry comments from the race announcers for his awkward form while climbing, but he took their breath away with his fierce accelerations on the steeps as he flew around France en route to becoming the winner of the polka dot jersey and the KOM competition for that year's race.
After that though, Soler virtually disappeared. With exception to a 2nd overall placing at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in the spring of that year, Soler was nowhere to be found at the front of the peloton. Sickness and crashes derailed his 2008 season, and the Columbian came into 2009 looking for a big rebound. Unfortunately, things didn't go to plan.
Similar to 2008, 2009 saw Soler out of the running for most of the season. He had good form at the Giro in May, but he faded as the race went on, leading to his abandon. And when his Barloworld team was snubbed by the Tour de France and left out of the race, Soler's 2009 campaign was sunk. For the second straight year, Soler had no results to show for his efforts, and he likely knew a major change was needed.
Insert the Caisse d'Epargne squad, led by Alejandro Valverde. Sensing that they needed to build up the support staff for grand tours, they signed Soler for 2010, hoping that he can find the form that has eluded him the past two seasons. For Caisse, it is a good gamble. If he has a poor season, they can quickly cut him loose. But if he regains the talent he flashed in 2007, Alejandro Valverde (if he is still riding next July an not suspended) will have a high-powered super domestique at his beckon call.
Juan Mauricio Soler seemed, at least a couple of years ago, to be a big time talent on the rise. But like many riders from a few years ago that were dominant, questions arise regarding whether they used doping to achieve their results. Soler has not been in the mix over the past two seasons, and unless he can regain his form in 2010, he'll likely be viewed as a rider that doped to achieve his surprising 2007 results. Luckily though for Soler he has 2010 to prove his doubters wrong, and once again become one of the top mountain men of cycling.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Since our last post over a week ago, a lot has gone down in the cycling world. Although it has only been 11 days, it feels like a lifetime. Hopefully EP is back on track, ready to post again on a daily basis. Before we get back into our regular swing though, some comments on the last few days . . .
Alberto Contador continues to wait on an answer as to where he'll ride in 2010, but it looks like he'll be obliged to ride for the Astana squad again in 2010. The Spaniard is without a doubt the number one stage racer in the world, but even the best individual athlete needs a team behind him if he is to succeed in the biggest stage races in the world. Astana's financial ills seem to be cured, which puts "el Pistolero" in a tough spot. Alexander Vinokourov has pledged his support to Contador for the Tour, but there are few others on the Kazahk team that will be able to really help Contador come July 2010. If he is to win the 2010 Tour, Contador will have to do so largely on his own, and against other teams with very strong support contingents, like Liquigas, Radio Shack and Saxo Bank.
Philippe Gilbert wins Paris-Tours again, this time beating fellow Belgian and proven sprinter Tom Boonen. A huge win for Gilbert and his Silence-Lotto team sets the stage nicely for the Giro di Lombardia. Gilbert will likely not have quite enough power to stay with the main favorites on the climbs, but after receiving staunch support from newly crowned world champion Cadel Evans at Paris-Tours, Gilbert will likely return the favor to his Aussie teammate in Italy. Evans meanwhile will be hoping for another top result, still an underdog despite his amazing win in Mendrisio, should place in the top ten at Lombardie.
Damiano Cunego heads into the final monument of the year, the Giro di Lombardia, as the prohibitive favorite as well as the defending champion. There are a host of other riders however in with a very good chance at victory in the Italian classic. For the Americans, Chris Horner should be watched, as the Oregon native is highly motivated to salvage a season that has been decimated by crashes and injuries. Columbia's Craig Lewis too is a dark horse to mark, after a top 20 placing in last year's edition. The Italians will be out in force again, with Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan, while Spain will hope for a top placing from their Olympic champion Sammy Sanchez and three time world champion Oscar Freire.
Other favorites for the last big race of the year include Robert Gesink, winner of the recent Giro dell'Emilia, and Thomas Lovkvist of the Columbia team. Fabian Cancellara, holding good form after the world championships will also try his luck, hoping to add yet another monument to his palmares. Finally, the young German Martin Reimer of the Cervelo TestTeam will hope for a top ten placing, while Astana's Janez Brajkovic will hope to improve on his runner-up placing from last year at Lombardia. Brajkovic, though under the radar, will be very dangerous, especially if Horner lends his support to the Slovenian.
Lance Armstrong continues to pad his team with Belgian riders, prepping for another assault on the Tour de France. Belgians are known as some of the hardest men in cycling, and Armstrong knows that Johan Bruyneel, also Belgian, will be able to control and motivate the Belgian's that have been brought on board for Radio Shack. Armstrong is still tweaking his team and more additions should be announced in the coming days, but he already has one of the strongest grand tour teams heading into 2010 . . . at least on paper.
Columbia seems a shell of its former self, with many of its top riders gone for 2010. From Kirchin to Hincapie to Henderson to Boasson Hagen to Lovkvist, Bob Stapleton's squad will have to lean heavily on mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel for wins in 2010. Make no mistake though, Cavendish is the best sprinter in the world and Greipel is in the top ten. Columbia will still win a ton of races in 2010, though they'll have less bullets to fire in the spring classics and grand tours.
Fabian Cancellara's performance and aspirations at the world championships foreshadows his potential as a possible GC threat in the grand tours. Currently on a stacked Saxo Bank team, Cancellara would likely get a free hand to play in the grand tours if he asked for it, despite having the brothers Schleck on his team. A scintillating time trialist and strong overall strength, if he can keep the weight off there is no reason to think that he can't challenge for a Giro, Tour or Vuelta title in the future.
BMC is poised to be a big player on the International cycling scene, but is their team really strong enough to win big races in 2010? Alessandro Ballan, despite being a former world champion, has little to show in the results column since his win on home soil in Varese in 2008. George Hincapie, though still a valuable commodity in the classics, has yet to break through in his beloved Roubaix, and barring an unprecedented run of luck in the northern classics, BMC looks like, at best, an outlier for the big International races of 2010. While not totally discountable, BMC will earn every result they garner in 2010, and only hard work will see them through. With workhorses like Hincapie and Ballan though, that may end up being just how they like it.
Alexander Vinokourov continues his "comeback," a shadow of the rider he was before being suspended for blood doping. It is deflating and demoralizing to see him off the front of big races, and even worse to hear him speak about future returns to glory. It would be better for everyone if he simply faded out and retired for good. Either way though, despite what he says, Vino won't be garnering any big results in the near future. His time has passed him by, thankfully for all of cycling.
Hopefully, after a tough few weeks getting healthy, EP is back on track and ready to resume daily posting. Thanks for the patience and understanding during this tough time, and see you tomorrow. Until then, allez!
Thursday, October 1, 2009
The course for next year's road race is a point to point event, the first in world championship history, beginning in Melbourne and ending in Geelong. But to the delight of the fans, the field will tackle multiple circuits around the city of Geelong to complete the event. There is one short, yet steep hill (it reaches 13% at its steepest point) on those finishing circuits, but it likely won't be enough to keep the world's best sprinters from fighting it out in a mass gallop to the line.
Already there are several names that will probably be mentioned in a year's time as favorites for the event. Starting with the host Australian team, the veteran "Pocket Rocket" Robbie McEwen will be keen to try his luck in front of a home crowd, as will sprinter turned hardman Stuey O'Grady. Finally, the sturdy and dependable Allan Davis will likely be selected to come to the fore in the event that McEwen isn't up to the task. All in all, Australia will field one of the most dangerous teams, at least on paper.
As they do every year, team Italia will have several weapons to choose from in 2010. Alessandro Petacchi has already made it known that he is on the hunt for a world title in Australia, but he won't be the only Italian fast man at the race. Daniele Bennati will be among the Squadra Azzura chosen in 2010, and although he has not won recently he'll still be a threat. Finally, Filippo Pozzato may get a shot at glory, as a serviceable sprinter and opportunistic attacker.
Recently it seems as though there isn't a glut of Spanish sprinters, but you only need one to win, and Spain will feature one of the most experienced sprinters left in cycling, Oscar "el Gato" Freire. Freire has made it clear that he'll retire after the 2010 season, but not before he tries to become the first rider ever to win four world championship titles on the road.
Other big names that will hope for glory in Geelong include 2005 world champ Tom Boonen of Belgium, who will hope 2010 is kinder to him than 2009 was, and America's Tyler Farrar. Farrar has had a breakout season in 2009, and he deserves to lead the American contingent in 2010. If team USA is comprised of the strongest America has to offer, Farrar will be in with a chance at winning the race. Norway's Thor Hushovd as well is aiming for a world title, and he is as fast as anyone providing he has a good lead out.
Finally, last but certainly not least, is the fastest man in the world, Mark Cavendish. Cavendish has a finishing sprint that is unparalleled currently, and he'll try to add a world title to his already glittering palmares. And Cavendish no one trick pony, not anymore. He can get over difficult climbs and remain in contact with the main group as he proved at this past year's Milan-San Remo classic. He'll be highly motivated to take gold in Australia, and will likely enter the race as the odds-on favorite to win.
Although much different than the 2009 world championship road course, the 2010 route should still be an exciting one. Australia will host their first world championships, and will have the defending champion on home soil to cheer along. After two straight years of tough, hilly, classics style courses, 2010 looks like one for the fast finishers.