"Better Late Than Never" was the theme of Stage 7 of the Amgen Tour of California as George Hincapie and Team High Road finally got the victory that had eluded them all week. The delinquency of this post is also emblematic of this theme. See the synergy there?
After a week full of near-misses, Bob Stapleton's guys were certainly motivated to win and the relegation of Mark Cavendish in Stage 6 provided all of the necessary locker-room billboard material. However, regardless of team unity, it was still a pretty tall task for the group to essentially win two stages in a row. But win they did, with Big George Hincapie proving to be the strongest of a nearly day-long break and easily taking the sprint over Rory Sutherland of HealthNet, Jason McCartney of CSC, Michael Creed of Rock Racing and last but not least, Tom Zirbel of Bissell who was the true animator of the finale.
In fact, it should be noted that compared to the young man nicknamed "Thor", Hincapie could have been accurately called "Medium George." Or "Georgie" as Paul Sherwen says. What's up with that? Anyway, Zirbel is one big kid and stands out like a School Bus when compared to the normal mid-sized to compact bike racers. Being a 6'4" and 194lb professional cyclist puts you in very select company. Not to mention the power of the mullet.
So, believe it or not, the final stage of the 2008 Amgen Tour of California took place under less-than-ideal weather conditions. I know, I know...crazy huh? The old adage that "It never rains in L.A." is certainly a bold-faced lie, but I don't think that many people expected it to be this nasty. I just hope the weather this past week doesn't discourage some of the Euro-guys from coming back. But then again, I can't exactly say that we natives didn't see this coming when they first announced plans for the event 4 years ago. California...in February? Uh, okay that sounds fun...but can a bicycle helmet be used as a flotation device?
Actually, I think the weather probably played into Levi's hands. Even though everyone had to ride through the same conditions, the fact that he wasn't surprised by them must have helped. I can speak from experience that Northern California bike racers are generally quite accustomed to rain and winds like those doled out on the ToC peloton. Levi must have been sitting back thinking, "I told you."
Now that I mention it, I wonder what percentage of California jacket and umbrella sales are actually attributed to tourists? It's got to be significant chunk. I always laughed at the people buying cheesy jackets down on Fisherman's Wharf because they thought they were vacationing in "Sunny" California. No matter what, some people just don't get that Cali can be cold. Safe to say the foreign riders learned their lesson this year.
Okay, back to the racing and the theme of the day. One of the more enjoyable elements of Stage 7 was seeing Mike Creed riding well and animating the action again. Even though he's had a pretty topsy-turvy few years recently, Creed is generally a pretty easy guy to root for. One of my Father's favorite bike racing moments came a few years back in the SF Grand Prix (or was it T-Mobile Int'l?) when Creed stopped at the top of Taylor St. and held his bike over his head after having been on a solo break for the entire morning. It was his final run with Postal/Discovery after having health issues most of the year and was just a cool gesture all around.
Breaking out of the Lantern Rouge with a display of hyper-aggressive racing and finishing in the break on the final day of the ToC was a cool gesture as well. Good job Creed. Even though Roll and Sherwen were somewhat critical of his tactics, at least Phil acknowledged that it was probably a publicity move. And a good one at that. Michael Ball must have loved the camera time and hopefully rides like this will prevent Creed from getting overshadowed by the other riders in the Rock Racing fold.
The most threatening GC move of the day came when Zabriskie escaped out of the peloton and joined a group up the road that included teammate Tom Peterson (who finished a VERY admirable 11th Overall by the way) and Robert Gesink, the winner of the Best Young Rider Jersey. The move was quickly countered by a resounding "Not So Fast" from Team Astana but provided a bit of drama nonetheless. DZ seems to be finding his climbing legs more and more as the years go by but this move was not about to be let go. If he can hang on uphill and TT like he always has...(dare I say it?)...what is preventing him from winning any number of stage races in the next few years? The mustache?
So, people in Boulder have known for quite a while that Tom Zirbel is not really easy to catch when he has a head of steam. As in, "Hey, that guy is freakishly strong...don't let him go," but I guess his breakaway companions didn't have the inside information. After about four laps of chasing him around the finishing circuit in Pasadena without making much of a dent in his lead, I am guessing they figured it out. Here's a formula for you: Top 10 in the Time Trial + Final day solo effort + Young Guy who is 6'4", 194lbs = Pro Tour rider within a couple years.
Despite the fact that it would have been cool for Creed or Zirbel to win, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Hincapie would be raising his arms on Sunday. The guy just has so much experience and played the cat-and-mouse game to perfection, marking the others in the break while managing the gap up to Zirbel and back to the peloton. Medium George may not be in the Tactician's Hall of Fame just yet, but his control of Stage 7 was a thing of beauty. There were about a million things that could have derailed the victory but he seemed to play every card to "absolute and utter perfection" as Paul Sherwen would say.
In fact, the same could be said for Levi who didn’t make a single mistake all week long and ended up dominating one of the strongest fields ever assembled on U.S. soil. Now, about the rest of the season...?!?
California bike racing in February is not for the weak. Neither is spectating.
Levi Leipheimer is rapidly becoming unbeatable in his home state event.
Cancellara, Haedo, Boonen, Gesink, Rollin, Leipheimer, Cavendish/Pagliarini and Hincapie make for a pretty solid list of stage winners.
The Antler Guy and The Big Haired Super Knob should be arrested. Or be tripped, beaten and mercilessly heckled by other spectators. One of these idiots is going to cause a crash soon. “Hey, look at me everyone…I’m on TV and endangering careers.”
With the mumbo-jumbo of the ASO and the Grand Tour debacle, the ToC should grow into a 3 week race, change dates and start creating a new direction for the sport. As Cipo said, "The future of cycling is in America."
Bicycle racing is about the riders, not the event. Even us arrogant Californians can recognize that. So, thanks to all the riders and teams that made the 2008 Amgen Tour of California such a great race.
I can't wait for next year. Rain or shine.