Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pro Tours And Cons Of The Week - 5 on 5

Life is full of good things and not-so-good things. How's that for some philosophizing? It's true though...and the cycling world is no different. The good things generally outnumber the bad but for the sake of argument (and symmetry) I will compartmentalize the past week of racing into 5 things I liked and 5 things I did not like.

Things I Liked:

1) Alberto Contador – What else can you say about the performance this guy put on during Paris-Nice? It helped that he had the power of a great team behind him to set the table but the Spaniard's effort over the final stages of this event was what bike racing is all about. In order to win the race (and make up for a sloppy 17 second deficit he took early on when the group split and Disco dropped the ball), Contador had to be willing to sacrifice himself for breakaway opportunities and risk everything. While other riders were content to look after their Top Ten Overall placing (I'm talking to you Cadel Evans and Predictor-Lotto) by following wheels, Contador made no effort to conserve himself at all and just went crazy.

After breaking away and driving the lead group on the penultimate stage – only to be unceremoniously dropped by Luis Leon Sanchez and caught by the group within sight of the finish – it would have been fairly easy for Contador to get discouraged. Instead, he went out the next day, had his entire team (including the likes of Leipheimer and Danielson) set him up for the final climb up the Col d'Eze and subsequently rode the entire peloton into the ground with yet another ferocious attack. At 5'9" and 138 lbs, the Spaniard is rather adept at uphill accelerations but it was his aggressive descent and drive to the finish in Nice that was almost even more impressive.

Compounding my appreciation of Contador's performance was the replay of his near-death experience on the same descent a couple of years ago when he was off the front and pulled his foot out while accelerating out of a corner. I recall the sequence very vividly and even mentioned it in my Pro Tour Preview piece earlier this year. I can't find it on YouTube or anything yet but during the replay on Sunday it made me holler, even though I have watched it probably 10 times. I mean…the guy pulled his rear wheel entirely off the ground and made a 45 degree turn toward a rock wall and a cement telephone pole at probably 40+ mph but somehow managed to keep it together, using his released foot to settle himself, touch the ground and keep from slamming into the curb. It all happened SO fast but the replay puts it into perspective. Then he just clips back in and starts hammering away again…didn't even look down at his pedals. "Oops…Okay almost just killed myself…now back to work." Awesome.

I had forgotten that Contador had a serious brain injury as a result of a crash a few years back which jeopardized his career. Sixty stitches in his head and a brain hemorrhage can dampen one's enthusiasm for the sport sometimes. But Alberto kept riding and seems to appreciate what he has accomplished. Hopefully Contador's story can serve as inspiration for Saul Raisin as he returns from his head injury.

There are lots of ways to win bike races but this past Paris-Nice was an example of a rider simply breaking both the will and legs of his rivals. You could argue that there may have been a little politicking in the peloton but the bottom line is that Contador was the strongest rider both mentally and physically. And he knew it too. Maybe Bruyneel and Demol have some liquid courage or something that they give to their riders that makes them just feel superior to everyone else. That level of confidence is rare in bike racing but the Disco boys seem to have it in spades.

2) Discovery Channel – Speaking of which…is there really any question about who the strongest Pro Tour team is? With all due respect to CSC, Discovery is just an absolute stage racing machine. Between Leipheimer, Contador, Basso and Danielson they can challenge virtually any multi-day event and they seem to have more guts and confidence than just about anyone else. What other team would be able to ride the front for the entire Tour of California to protect the lead and then turn around and ride the front to set up winning attacks during Paris-Nice? Once again, it is rare for a team or a rider to just simply enforce their will on an entire Pro Tour peloton, but the Disco boys have done that now in both of the biggest events on the calendar so far.

It is a shame that Hincapie will not be challenging the cobbled Classics this year because if he were able to notch a win at Flanders or Roubaix, we could be looking at one of the most dominant team performances of all time. Barring a re-opening of Operacion Puerto it is virtually a given that Basso will repeat at the Giro, Levi will be positioned well to repeat at the Dauphine and it is conceivable that Disco could have three riders in the Top 10 at the Tour. Not to mention the Vuelta – where I expect Contador and Danielson to contend.

At this point, the only question about this team revolves around its sponsor for the coming years. As an American, I can only hope that the team remains registered in the US and does not turn entirely into a European squad. They should have no trouble securing a new title sponsor but for the good of the sport it should remain a US team.

3) Davide Rebellin - "Tin Tin" may not have won Paris-Nice but he put up one heck of a fight. I have always thought of Rebellin as a one-day racer but it turns out that he has had a number of good results in Paris-Nice and has finished on the podium a number of times. He will always be primarily known for his historic Fleche-Amstel-Liege sweep a couple of years ago but those wins overshadow a very consistent and intelligent career.

Rebellin and Gerolsteiner were basically bullied out of the win this past weekend by Contador and Discovery, but the barrel-chested Italian hung in there for longer than I expected. He admitted after the race that he knew it would be tough to keep the lead into Nice and seemed to handle the disappointment with a lot of class. I think a lesser gentleman could have easily pointed to the lack of team support as a likely reason for his loss. It could be argued that one teammate to help him drive the descent into Nice could have made the difference. I was pleased that he didn't go there although it would have been justified. Gerolsteiner had some close calls this past weekend between Schumacher in Tirreno-Adriatico and Rebellin in P-N but I'm pretty sure these two will get some W's here soon enough.

The other cool thing about Rebellin is that the guys from Cycling.tv pronounce his name like it's the modified version of "rebelling." Like, Hey Rebellin...you gellin'? Good times.

4) Chris Horner - Smiley was very visible in the Rebellin group on Sunday up the Col d' Eze and proved to be the first American on the road for a while. He was working for a laboring Cadel Evans and actually helped steady the gap to Contador for a good portion of the final climb. The final group with him was Rebellin, Luis Sanchez, Pelizzotti, Schleck, Sammy Sanchez, Valjavec and Evans - all of whom had GC aspirations. Not only is that a select group in its own right but when you consider the motivation for the other guys compared to Horner who was looking out for Evans, it's even more impressive.

He made a big surge before the summit and then dropped off the pace but once again, it's always fun to watch Horner race a bike. I just hope that his service for Evans doesn't compromise too many opportunities. He's smart and talented enough to be of service to Cadel, look out for stage wins and go for a good overall placing all at the same time. You can't say that about too many riders. Jens Voigt, Hincapie...not many others.

5) American Domestiques - Speaking of helping out, how about the work of Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer in service of Contador? Pretty good stuff. Honestly I think Danielson is probably more suited to work like that than to go out completely for himself. He's obviously one of the best climbers in the world but I just think he fits better in a team role than as an outright leader. He did good work for Levi in California in that role as well.

As for Levi - one would assume that he held something back during Paris-Nice in deference to Contador and it bodes well for Discovery that so many quality guys are willing to work so hard for the team. Basso and Hincapie were selfless in the ToC, Levi and Danielson sacrificed in Paris-Nice and the Disco crew is 2 for 2. They're like the Yankees - only not Evil.

Things I Did Not Like:

1) Crashes - Bettini crashed twice and got a little banged up so he may not be 100% for Milan-San Remo. Matt White bailed hard on a descent and had to abandon Paris Nice while Iban Mayo hit a traffic island on the last stage. This week wasn't especially bad in the grand scheme of things but it reinforced the reality that nothing is given in this sport. Anything can happen at anytime and form is nothing if you don't keep the rubber side down.

2) Belgium Doping Investigation - I don't know much about it yet so I will reserve judgment until more comes out. Not good for Marichal though. Not good at all.

3) No Unibet in Paris-Nice - The race was so good that it was almost easy to overlook the fact that one of the best teams in the world was not in attendance. But I will not overlook it. Despite the quality of the race, the fact that the UCI caved to the ASO and basically turned their back on Unibet was at best a disservice to the product of bike racing and at worst a politically motivated challenge to the competitive landscape of the sport. You're telling me that Agritubel was better for that race than Unibet would have been? I know that's not really the argument (although the gambling thing is SO weak) but the point I am making is that the overall product was diminished by not inviting Unibet. This whole thing is such a shame. More later of course...as the saga continues...

4) Cycle Sport - I know it sounds silly to criticize a publication that I have subscribed to for years...but Cycle Sport will not let go of this Tyler Hamilton bashing. The latest tactic is to publish sugary letters from readers defending Tyler and then put a picture of him at the bottom of the page with the caption "Hamilton: Are you happy he's back?"

I just find it odd that they are being so plainly anti-Hamilton. I understand that there is little middle ground in the cycling community when it comes to Tyler - you either like him or you don't - but their readers are calling them out and then getting mocked. It just seems like a strange choice for a fairly reputable publication.

If Hamilton is able to come back and win again it will very interesting to see how they handle it. I am also curious to see how he is received at the Tour de Georgia. I personally believe that he will get a lot of support...just not from Cycle Sport. I really do like the rest of the magazine most of the time though.

5) Not actually being in Nice - Anyone who caught any of the footage of the final stage of Paris-Nice or has been to the area knows...Nice is very, very nice. I highly recommend it. Cannes and Monaco are pretty sweet too. Good place for a bike race, well...unless you're Unibet.


Joshua said...

Contador ftw!!!

Disco is kicking ass!

Jeremy T. Arnold said...