Saturday, December 1, 2007

UCI 2K7 Year In Review - Who's Got Next?

2007 has been a weird, wild year in the world of professional cycling. There will be plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of it all as we head in to the darkness and cold of Winter, but for now I’d like to take this opportunity to look back at some of the major international races we had the pleasure to enjoy this past year. We’ll work through chronologically and fittingly, go back to my birthplace of San Francisco, for the first big race of the season.

Tour of California – Levi Leipheimer

The second edition of the Amgen Tour of California was even better than the first. Probably even for Ben Jacques-Maynes who, after a stellar prologue in The City, became the victim of one of the most blatant Home Town officiating decisions since the offsides penalty call in “Victory.”

The “Neutral for however many k’s from the finish we want” rule used in Santa Rosa ended up getting brushed under the rug because Levi was the favorite coming into the race and no one wants to see a crash in the finale take out the leader but BJM, a nearly-local guy himself, got seriously jobbed on that one. Bike racing is bike racing.

Regardless, the rest of the ToC was pretty entertaining. Any time you’ve got Jens Voigt presented by Chuck Norris challenging for the win on one of the most picturesque courses, it’s going to be a good event. The Rainbow Jersey wearing Paolo Bettini nabbed one of his few wins in 2007 and Hincapie’s fall and subsequent ride to help reel in Stuart O’Grady on the last big road stage was one of the toughest performances I’ve seen in a while.

Plus, I got to go to Solvang and show my Dad and Grandparents a little “behind the ropes” action at the Time Trial. That made it the best race of the season for me personally. You can catch my voluminous coverage of the entire event starting

Het-Volk – Fillipo Pozzato

While not as prestigious as his M-S-R victory last year, Pipo bagged himself another good early season win but apparently still can’t afford a haircut. Nevertheless, this guy is almost guaranteed to rack up a few W’s each year, whether in late attack or a small bunch kick. But the hair really does kill me. My initial thoughts on the race can be found

Paris-Nice – Alberto Contador

This was the first race that really made me a believer in Contador and was the catalyst for my later description of his style as being reminiscent of “a crazed spider-monkey darting around the road.” But I mean that in the best way possible. Seriously. You can read my original thoughts on this race

It really was amazing to watch him dance away from Rebellin and everyone else on the final stage though. It should have come as a surprise to no one who watched Paris-Nice that Contador would be a threat at the Tour in July.

How do you say “Better Recognize” in Spanish?

Milan Sanremo – Oscar Freire

I still don’t know how you beat Oscar Freire when he’s on form. And since he was clearly flying and motivated in early 2007, he made his second M-S-R victory look easy. And he didn’t even have to throw his bike this time.

What was not easy, was having to watch replay after replay of all the crashes, including poor Andrea Moletta breaking his leg by wedging himself between a light post and the cement wall on the side of a tricky corner. Milan Sanremo is just a spectacular event for so many reasons. I wish they did it twice per year. My first recap of this race can be found

Tour of Flanders – Alessandro Ballan

I’m not certain, but I think Leif Hoste means “Nice Try” in Flemish. Maybe the Belgian will win this race someday but going to the line with Ballan this year was not the way to the top step.

My brother would argue that Hoste is still working off his bad karma from ditching Hincapie a few years ago so he could gift wrap the victory for Boonen. Ballan had been knocking on the door for a while though, so he’s a deserving winner. He nearly made TomTom look like the paperboy on the Muur de Huy that day.

My original thoughts on the Tour of Ned Flanders are

Paris-Roubaix – Stuart O’Grady

I had a chance to hang out with O’Grady for a few minutes before the start of the Santa Barbara stage of the ToC this year and despite being a really nice freckly guy with earrings, he just oozes toughness. He threw down a gutsy ride that day and it was no surprise that he went on to win The Hell of the North this year.

Unfortunately, it ended up being kind of a hellish year for the unlucky Aussie but it was great to see him finally notch that big Classic win. There are few riders more deserving of it.

Following Stuey’s lead, maybe it will be Big George’s turn in 2008. Does anyone know who is making the stems and forks for Team High Road this year?

Amstel Gold – Stefan Schumacher

Speaking of Hincapie, I will probably never appreciate Schumacher after the whole Eneco debacle from 2006. Even though I don’t think that the German meant to take out Melanie’s husband, he certainly was responsible for George hitting the deck. There is just something terribly wrong about a guy (regardless of intent) ramming into the race leader, making him crash and then winning the event because of time bonuses. That was foul.

But anyway, even though Amstel is one of my favorite races (and beers), I have all but forgotten how Schumacher won it this year. I’m guessing Michael Boogerd was involved somehow though.

Liege-Bastogne-Liege – Danilo Di Luca

After a series of close calls and podiums, Di Luca was pretty much on fire at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I think that ultimately, in a race as long and brutal as L-B-L, the guy who wants it the most wins. It could be argued that of the guys in the finale, The Killer was the only one who really needed to win. To overcome the embarrassment of those blue and green striped shorts. And that meager nickname.

Tour de Georgia – Janez Brajkovic

For some reason I have never really gotten too excited about the Tour de Georgia. Maybe it’s the annoying combination of the “de” in the name and the fact that it’s in the South. I’ve been to Georgia and I know that it is a very beautiful state (for the most part) but I just can’t seem to get that into it.

This year was no exception, as the Brajkovic breakaway blew the race to bits and relegated the strongest guy in the race (Levi, his teammate) to going for stage wins and an anonymous overall placing. It’s always bittersweet when the winner isn’t the best guy. SEE: Hinault/LeMond, 1985 Tour de France for example.

Not to diminish the win or speak ill of Janez, or “Yanni” as it seems people call him. I would like to pronounce it Jan-EE-ZEE. He seems to have a bright future ahead of him though. Wearing pants with a 23” waist.

Giro d’Italia – Danilo Di Luca

So Di Luca won the Giro…something that I openly proclaimed was impossible for the last few years. I don’t know how he won it, but he did. Oily hair and all…

Andy Schleck was pretty impressive as well. Although ever since I learned that Luxembourg has the highest per capita income in the world, the all-white, Best Young Rider kit seems kind of like a country club tennis outfit.

Dauphine Libere – Christophe Moreau

When Le Chien won the Dauphine, I was actually as happy as I could be for a guy that I really don’t care for very much. It has to be pretty cool to win solo on Mt. Ventoux as a Frenchman. Even though he should have known that he peaked a month too early and would croak in the Tour.

This race should have also served notice that Astana was charging. They were all over the place, including Vinokourov and Kashechkin getting the better of Zabriskie and Evans by a startling 30 seconds in the 40.7k Time Trial. All in all, Astana riders won 4 of 6 road stages (Vino 2, Colom – w/ Vino 2nd, Iglinski) and had two riders hold the leaders jersey for half the race (Vino, Kashechkin), ultimately leaving it for Moreau as they eyed the Tour. I was very afraid of that team after the Dauphine.

Tour de France – Alberto Contador

The most excruciatingly enjoyable and frustrating 3 weeks of absurdity imaginable.

Can’t wait until next year. But please…no Trautwig.

It’s not that I wish Contador hadn’t won…but I wish either Cadel or Levi had. Does that make sense?

Anyway, my original thoughts start somewhere around
here and go on for a while. I still don’t know what to think about my old friend though.

USPRO Championships –David Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer

More surprising than DZ’s repeat win in the TT was how close Danny The Pate and Boulder’s own Timmy Duggan came to clipping their soon to be teammate. Good work for the domestic fellas.

More surprising than Levi’s runaway victory in the Road Race was how his teammate, Melanie Hincapie’s husband, reacted to it. Poor PR work there big guy. There are some more thoughts about it

I ran into fellow BHS alum and former USPRO Road Champ Chris Wherry at DIA on Labour Day, the day after the race, and he said Levi was just super strong and that the field was pretty blown apart.

But how about this glimpse into the life of a pro bike racer – Chris was waiting in Denver for a flight to Durango after having done the 100k Classic in Atlanta that morning, the day after the 177k USPRO Championships in Greenville. That’s a pretty tough 48 hours. Props to professional bike racers.

Vuelta a Espana – Denis Menchov

Apparently dropping out of the Tour after your scandalous yellow jersey-wearing teammate gets fired by your stressed out Director is the perfect way to prepare for the Vuelta a Espana. At least it seemed that way, because Denis Menchov followed that exact path to dominance in the bronze medal Grand Tour.

The flap between Carlos Sastre and Leonardo Piepoli was weird. It would be nice to see Carlos get a Vuelta win someday but he got a little lippy this year. I guess Triki Beltran did too. I wonder what Bjarne Riis had to say about the prospect of Piepoli working for Menchov. And the prospect of his top rider coming off like a whiner.

Tour of Missouri – George Hincapie

The inaugural Tour of Missouri was an armadillo-ridden affair that resembled the TdG in a number of fashions. With an early breakaway ensuring that only a handful of riders ever had a shot at the overall, Discovery Channel again steamrolled and got the W on home soil.

It’s not often that Big George wins stage races so I couldn’t help but think that this was kind of similar to Davis Phinney winning the 1988 Coors Classic for America’s first team, 7-Eleven. They are obviously different types of riders and won the races in different manners, but still. Although I bet the scenery in Davis’ race from San Francisco to Boulder was a touch prettier than George’s week-long jaunt through Mizzourah. What the Show Me State showed me can be found

World Championships – Fabian Cancellara, Paolo Bettini

See 2006 World Championships. At least they already had the jerseys made up.

Oh yeah, there was also the whole ridiculousness of the UCI versus the German Race Organizers versus Bettini versus general respectability and professionalism. I still don’t know if anyone came out of it a winner though.

I actually thought Bettini handled the whole situation better than anyone. After being specifically targeted as undesirable by the organizers (along with Eddy Merckx and a number of others) The Cricket channeled it into the legs and gave the best gun-related victory salute I’ve seen in a long time. I used to give the two-handed 6-shooter style when I had the chance but Bettini took out the rifle for whoever deserved it.

Paris-Tours – Alessandro Petacchi

Ale-Jet got a nearly perfect leadout from Erik Zabel and took home the prize but the real excitement came when Robbie McEwen was basically punched in the face by a spectator in the final stretch.

As the Pocket Rocket was snuggling up to Petacchi’s wheel he tasted hand at about 40 mph, got his glasses knocked sideways, unclipped a pedal and veered left directly into Oscar Freire who then bumped into Alan Davis. It was amazing that none of them stacked it. I must have rewound (Is that really a word? Spellcheck didn’t catch it. But it did catch Spellcheck…) the tape of the finish 10 times and saw something different and crazy and amazing with each viewing.

It’s cool to see breakaways and the cat-and-mouse of smaller group finishes but there is nothing like a big field sprint in a major event. Nothing. It’s insane. Seriously. The sheer physics of that many riders and bikes moving at so many angles at such great speeds would lead one to believe that a field sprint is something akin to a game of Russian Roulette. Well…maybe that’s not too far off base. And Robbie, Oscar and Alan all nearly caught a bad one in Tours this year.

Tour of Lombardy – Damiano Cunego

Lombardy is always a beautiful and exciting race and makes a nice bookend to the season with Milan-Sanremo in the Spring. The 2007 edition lived up to this reputation and provided some good drama and a worthwhile winner.

Even though Cunego got the win and was probably the strongest guy in the race, the real animator was Ricardo Ricco who seemed to be able to jump off the front at will. Cunego was marking him throughout the entire finale and got the better of him in the end, but it was Ricco’s repeated attacks that finally sprung the two young Italians.

I would like to take a moment here to acknowledge some similarities and differences between Cunego and Ricco. First, they both kind of superseded teammate Gilberto Simoni in the Giro, which is always fun to watch. But despite this common bond, they have very different nicknames. Cunego is The Little Prince and Ricco is The Cobra. I think the Italians are poor nicknamers in general but I’ll give the edge to Ricco on that one. Although if his nickname were "Cobra Kai" then it would immediately be the coolest in the peloton. Sadly, it's just Cobra.

Also sadly, I got the feeling that Franck Schleck was the strongest rider until he spaced out, crossed wheels and decked it a few k’s from the finish. That was most unfortunate.

So...there is a quick recap of the biggest international races of 2007. Well, maybe not that quick. It was not the best year for cycling, but also probably not the worst either. Well, depending on who you ask I suppose.

There was certainly a lot of negativity in professional cycling in 2007, but there was also a lot of exciting action as well. I think 2008 will be better for a number of reasons but looking back on 2007 provides some good memories to build on.

Except the Liquigas and Saunier-Duval kits of course.


Sebastian said...

I've noticed before that you don't like Christophe Moreau. May I ask why? I wouldn't list him as one of my faves, but you gotta respect a guy who didn't ride a great tour til he was 29, after surviving Festina to boot, and who since then has kept attacking and winning the odd big race even though he's now a decade older than the competition. What's not to love?

Meanwhile, nice year-in-review.

CaliRado Cyclist said...

Good question. I generally try not to be too much of a hater but there are a few guys/teams/things that I kind of like to dislike.

Disliking (at least superficially) certain riders/players/teams is an interesting element of being a sports fan. I am happy to say that there are few things I pretty much hate...but the Dodgers, Cowboys, Lakers and Festina are four of them.

As for Moreau specifically, I think I will do a post on him and some others to clear the air. Like I said, I don't want to sound like a hater but I do believe in the power of well informed heckling.

I am already making a list...

Anonymous said...

"Usted necesita reconocer."