Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tour of St. Louis

The Tour of St. Louis is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, it is two criteriums and a short time trial with an overall classification. Not really an epic stage race, but it's hard to accomplish such things in the States, much less St. Louis

The spring has not been kind to mountain bikers in our city and about the only real off road riding aside from racing can be counted on one hand. That's all year. It's nearly May and the constant rain is growing old for me. Additionally, the newly epic fuel prices make justification for driving ten hours round trip to the only MTB race in the region harder and harder to find. These factors have led me to revisit criterium racing, which is very popular around here and readily accessible. I dipped my toes back in at the local Tuesday night worlds a few weeks ago. Round one had me red lined and somewhat terrified. I pulled out with two laps to go. The following week, my comfort level skyrocketed and I cornered confidently and followed through with my resolution to finish the race in the group. Subsequent weeks saw me attempt bridging, attacking for primes and pulling at the front. These events gave me some confidence in both my ability and fitness level and I decided to sign up for the Tour of St. Louis and give it a proper shot.

There's really very little to tell about the races. Mountain bike races are epic events littered with personal battles and stories aplenty, but crits tend to be a lot of riding around in circles trying to stay safe. I decided to ride conservatively and stay toward the front and work on my positioning. I was successful in staying in the top fifteen for the whole race and managed to move up to the top five for the lap countdown. On day one at Carondelet, I avoided the two massive wrecks and kept myself where I needed to be. That race was simultaneously the easiest and scariest crit I have done. People were squirreling all over the place and multiple attempts at squeezing through gaps led many rider to hit the ground. Going into the last lap, I was sitting fifth wheel, seemingly in perfect positioning. With less than half a lap to go, the surge shot by on either side and I hesitated for a moment and lost about twenty spots. I managed to make it back to 18th, but the race was over. Day two at Forest Park was much the same but without all the crashing. The race played out the same and my result was largely the same. I didn't hesitate this time, but I didn;t have anywhere to go to respond to the surge. I am pleased with how I raced on both days, but I need to work on my finish and the anticipation necessary to go with the surge. Thankfully, there's always the Tuesday night worlds to help me practice and hopefully continue to progress...

Friday, April 25, 2008

Why didn't I see this coming?

Pais Vasco, or the Tour of the Basque Country is the number one form indicator for the Ardennes week. How is it possible that I omitted Kim Kirchen from my list of favorites for Fleche Wallone? One needs only to look at the correlation between the Basque tour and the Ardennes classics over the last few years to see the link. I wrote Kirchen off due to his wins in flatter bunch sprints in the stage race as opposed to one of the more climbing centric stages. Lesson learned. I will go on record and say that he will not make the top five at Liege on Sunday. Frank Schleck will win. Or maybe Cunego.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Ardenennes

The Ardennes classics are upon us and marks the time when the cobbled hardmen put up their legs and watch as the punchy attacking climbers come out to play. One exception to this is Alessandro Ballan who, following his sterling performance in the cobbled classics, immediately put himself at the service of Damiano Cunego. It paid off, with Cunego taking the win in a classic that suits him to the ground, making Lampre one of the only teams, short of Quick Step, to be major players in all of the spring classics. In this age of specialization, this is highly impressive and if this trend continues with Cunego's attempted run at the Tour, Lampre could find itself as the most versatile team in the peloton. As the week moves on, with Fleche Wallone coming tomorrow and Liege Bastogne Liege on Sunday, it can be expected to see the top ten from Amstel in the mix again. I will make a few predictions, none of which are adventurous. I had picked Cunego for Amstel, based on his performance at Pais Vasco and he did not disappoint. He will be an obvious favorite for the remaining classics as he will hope to repeat Davide Rebellin's historic treble of 2004. I am a huge Cunego fan and would love to see him achieve the status he deserves. I will also list Thomas Dekker as a favorite for the Fleche. It's the kind of semi-classic that the main favorites for Liege might ride as training while it would represent a major win for Dekker. His 5th place at Amstel shows he's on track and he could benefit from the favorites for Liege hoping to keep their powder dry. For Liege, I will go with Frank Schleck. He will be looking to add this major classic to his palmares and if CSC take the race by the throat the way they did at Lombardy last year, Schleck will be in excellent position to take out La Doyenne. All this hinges on a fair amount of luck as we saw in Lombardy last year. At any rate, expect all of the protagonists from Amstel to be in the mix again and since there are so many candidates on fire at the moment, I feel we are in for some excellent racing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Classic Recap- Thoughts on the Protaganists

Tom Boonen- The majority of the Flemish press had written him off, as had many of his competitors, but the Lion of Flanders showed his worth in Paris Roubaix. By failing to win any of the minor semi-classics, Boonen had given doubt to his exceptional ability. In truth, he likely learned the mistake of giving too much in minor races such as Dwaars Door Vlaandaren and the E3 Prijs. His rampaging performance in Flanders showed he was right on track, one doesn't blow the majority of the peloton off one's wheel on the Koppenberg merely by chance. He also benefited from a teammate up the road and as such, didn't have to dig too deep in the finale, thus putting him at an advantage over rivals who were murdering themselves in the pursuit. When Roubaix came around, he made sure to put himself in a position to unleash his fearsome form. Team tactics worked to his advantage as he was able to counter Devolder's move and attack to form the winning break. Having far more of his reserves left than either Cancellara or Ballan, the sprint was a foregone conclusion and Boonen put many bike lengths into his breakaway companions, thus silencing the critics who felt Boonen no longer had what it took to win a major classic.

Fabian Canellara- Cancellara represents the biggest motor in cycling now that Ullrich has fallen from grace. Unfortunately, even the biggest motor in the world cannot be run at top speed for months on end. While he was clearly impressive, and a step above his Flanders performance, Cancellara was well on the tail end of the peak that allowed him to ride the Milan-San Remo peloton from his wheel. That he was able to contribute to the winning break after so long at such a high level belies his phenomenal talent. It is not hard to imagine that if at his best, his attack in the Carrefour de L'arbre section would have ended the race for his competition, rather than crippling him with cramps, keeping him from even being able to stand and sprint in the velodrome.

Allesandro Ballan- Ballan is a fighter and is clearly the heir to Ballerini for Italian classics glory. His tenacity was impressive throughout the week, particularly so in Flanders where the pressure of a title defense as well as a heavy fall would've derailed lesser men. Nonetheless, fighting to a fourth place was a sterling ride and indicative of his overall class. He also possesses an astute tactical awareness that allowed him to sense the danger move at Roubaix and mark the necessary wheel to bring him to the podium. All said, however, he is not quite the same caliber as either Boonen or Cancellara and it is likely that a full strength Ballan may only have moved one step higher on the podium in a similar scenario. That said, his aggressive riding style and tactical sense will likely net him further classics victories in the future, likely more prestigious than the Vattenfall Cyclassics.

Stuart O'Grady- O'Grady played a remarkable team role in Roubaix and his move with Devolder in the closing sections of the race put an end to Leif Hoste's chances and confirmed his 2007 win was not a fluke. While a remarkable rider in his own right, and one that is clearly benefiting from Bjarne Riis's career revitalization skills, it is likely that O'Grady, like Servais Knaven, will continue forward as a super domestique and will not enjoy the same protected status in CSC that will be given to Cancellara.

Stijn Devolder- Devolder's win in Flanders was a long time coming. One needs only to watch the 2005 Het Volk to witness his sheer power and talent. That talent is often tempered by over enthusiasm and his propensity for spending far too much time on the front has put paid to many chances. In the Postal-Discovery organization, it was likely that his talent would be squandered with ill-advised attempts at the Vuelta GC and further wins in smaller semi-classics, but at Quick-Step, Devolder has immediately been able to seize on his potential and has the full strength of the Quick Step juggernaut behind him. He will continue to enjoy joker status and provided he does not out grow this role, as Fillipo Pozzato did following his 2006 Milan San-Remo win, Devolder will find a much more fruitful career at his new team.

Fillipo Pozatto- Pozatto didn't have it this week. It would seem that undisputed leader may be a bit too much for him and he likely would've been better off remaining with Quick Step and taking his opportunities as they came, rather than trying to go head to head with his old boss. His talent is indisputable, but it feels as if his head isn't fully in the game. Still, it is hard to ignore his declaration of an impending stage win at Autun in the 2007 Tour and his subsequent follow through. Such hubris coupled with the ability to back it up is the mark of a true champion and if Pozatto can maintain focus, he could share the Italian classics spotlight with Ballan in the future.

Leif Hoste- Hoste, while powerful, is in danger of becoming a classics also-ran. Luck ruined his shot at Flanders this year and he was the victim of a dramatically superior Quick Step/CSC tandem at Roubaix. Hoste's decision to leave Discovery to become undisputed leader at Lotto makes sense on paper, but at the time of his departure, Discovery had a far more powerful classics team. No one doubts his ability, but a string of near misses, coupled with his poor 2008 showing have to be getting in his head and he is quickly running out of time to right his ship.

Magnus Backstedt- It is appalling that a 200lb rider, with experience in Paris Roubaix, opted for a pair of deep section carbon tubulars while all his competitors utilized time tested traditional wheels. This fool hardy decision ended his chances in the Forest of Arenberg and provided the engineers at Zipp with some much needed humbling. Regardless of his teammates success on a similar set up, Backstedt's girth should have made the decision for him. Such poor judgment, not lack of strength, kept Backstedt from succcess.

George Hincapie- Despite the obvious physical attributes needed to succeed in the classics and despite now being on a team capable of supporting his goals, George Hincapie will never win a major classic. Unless he sits on the right wheel for the entire day before putting his wheel in the wind for a victory, Hincapie will always come up short. Unfortunately for George, that is not a tactic that works at Prais Roubaix as there will never be the opportunity to play the "I'm sitting in for Lance" card that netted him his biggest win to date.

All photos copyright 2008 Graham Watson

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Roubaix Reconnaissance

The cobbles of the dreaded Arenberg sector

Leif Hoste hopes to finally top the podium on Sunday

Fabian Cancellara will hope for his San Remo form

All photos copyright 2008 Roberto Bettini

Friday, April 11, 2008

Paris-Roubaix 1984

Sean Kelly at his finest


Back in the fall, Dave and I discussed our racing plans for 2008 and a race at the Tsali trail system in North Carolina came up as a possibility. I had visited Asheville a couple times in 2007 and was falling in love with the place, so the idea of riding the Tsali trails at top speed was deeply appealing. All we needed was a couple more bodies in the car to split the now exorbitant fuel prices. We recruited Mesa sport riders Zach and Drew and the plans were set.

We left the shop Friday night and drove to Nashville, where an Ikea centric Red Roof Inn awaited us with a pair of full beds for the four of us. We are all a little closer as teammates after that night's sleep. Breakfast at Huddle House the next morning put us on the road for the remainder of the drive to the Smokies. The final leg of our drive took us through the Smokies on US129, a road known as "the Snake" and one that is a world renowned destination for motorcycles. This road featured amazing beauty and further reinforced my new found love for the Appalachians. As the road banked and twisted through the mountains, it was hard not to think of the possibilities a road bike would offer...

We arrived at our modest cabin late in the afternoon and immediately suited up to spin the legs out and get them prepped for the following days race. The rain, which had been drizzling since we entered North Carolina, was now coming down heavily. We rode to Tsali to check out the start area and first section of singletrack. Somewhat surprised, we found the trail to be in fairly solid shape and definitely was not the swamp I was expecting. We turned around and after a few efforts up the climb out of the park, we motored back to the cabin and headed off in to town to stock up at the local IGA. After a mountain of pasta and a screening of "Attack of the Clones", I tried to sleep on the pull out couch my coin toss with Drew had relegated me to. The sleep was not as sound as I would have liked, but then again it never is anymore.

We dropped Drew and Zach off for their race in the morning and went back to the cabin to try and relax before our start. Dave, being the ball of nerves that he is, had to sequester himself in his room in preparation for the big show. I sat outside and looked at the mountains and thought about the ride I was about to experience. Eventually, we made it over to Tsali and tried to warm up. We got to the line way early, thus canceling out any warm up we may have had. I wasn't really nervous due to the fact that I had no expectations for the race and was more excited about the trail than the competition. Mountain bike races always seem to shake out how they're supposed to and I usually just hope my fitness is where it should be.

The race started on a fire road before dipping in to the singletrack. My poor starting skills put me in the back third of the pack going into the singletrack. Once we started climbing, I picked off a few riders, but a week of allergies had my head feeling like it was set to explode. I tried to ride steady and put thoughts of quitting out of my mind. A couple riders passed me by laps end. Heading into the next lap, Drew and Zach were working the cowbell and screaming for me so I found a new batch of energy. Each climb on the second lap allowed me to pick off more racers and move up in the placings. I felt much better than lap one and really enjoyed every bit of that fifteen miles. The descents were so fast and flowing and there was rarely a time when leaving the 44 was necessary. It was unbelievably fun and the warm spring sun together with the flowers lining the course and the wiffs of campfire in the air made it all the more amazing. Toward the end of the lap, I caught one more rider and passed him after he bobbled a creek crossing. I gassed it a bit on the following climb and never saw him again. The possibility of his return, and the cheerpack I downed before the final five miles, kept me motivated and in the big ring until the finish.

Eventually, I finished 12th in my field and am very pleased to perform so well at a national caliber event with a big field. Thirty five miles is by far the longest race I've done and I'm pleased I was able to finish and not feel crippled. More than anything, I'm elated over the three hour ride in the Smokies. Ridiculous though a twenty hour round trip may be, the fact that we did it and it proved to be worthwhile is highly satisfying. The team performed admirably with Zach and Drew taking fourth and eighth in their respective races and Dave placing a phenomenal second in his race.

To hop in the car after such an effort and drive ten hours home was not really the best thing for the legs, but sunset through the Smokies and milkshakes at midnight made it all worthwhile. I hit the bed around four am and thoughts of the trail stayed with me as the birds began chirping outside until I finally drifted to sleep. Until next time...

Tuesday, April 8, 2008