Thursday, February 26, 2009

AToC Stage 8 - Running Diary vs VS

Hey Race Fans. Since most of you are probably going through a similar bit of post-AToC depression, please enjoy the following running diary from the VS coverage of Stage 8 from Rancho Bernardo to Escondido. This may be a bit free form and not exactly tense-specific in any way, so bear with me if I jump around a bit. I was traveling on Sunday and have read race reports but haven’t actually seen the coverage of this stage. Here we go:

- The shirts that Columbia made for the crew at VS are pretty lame. I know they make some good gear but don’t really understand why they put the TV guys in fishing shirts. Are those denim? Yeesh.

- What is the Over/Under on how many throat lozenges have been consumed by Liggett, Sherwen and Hummer this past week? With the way the veins were popping out of their necks during the pre-race chit-chat, you’d think these guys would be mute by now. I guess that’s what separates the Pros.

- Okay, Cozza and J-Mac go off immediately. Between Frischkorn and Cozza, I think I’ve seen Garmin do this 50 times in the last couple of years. The flag drop attack is not exactly the best way to win but it sure gets things moving. Not sure how many friends it wins you though.

- Good break with J-Mac, BJM, A-Schleck, Barredo and a few others. My favorite thing so far – Phil calling Barredo “Burrito.” Awesome. I still think about Barredo’s histrionics after getting dominated by Burghardt in the Tour last year. And I laugh and laugh.

- Bob Roll interviews VDV: Christian is actually a pretty funny guy and it’s good to see him being more relaxed and casual with the media. Although I guess it is probably easier to be mellow when you’re being interviewed by Bobke. Bad news about Svein dropping out, hopefully he will recover well and handle the Euro spring without any nagging injuries. Meatball is totally getting some face time behind VDV. Good job Mike. Hope you can parlay that into some action with the ladies.

- Commercials: Ugh, I really dislike the repetitive and feeble commercials during this coverage. What I do think is funny though, is this whole Uriah Faber WEC deal. The only reason I know this dudes name is because I have seen him fight a few times right before VS covers a bike race. He’s from NorCal, pretty much kills everyone in like 15 seconds and is actually the first cage fighter that I had seen with a TV commercial for some energy drink. But then the very next commercial is for the WEC coverage on VS and shows multiple angles of him getting absolutely cold-cocked and losing his title. Oops. Bad timing on that one Uriah. I still get a little sick every time I see that knockout. He looked like Mancebo in Stage 6.

- Bob Roll interviews Levi: I’m not sure but…I think LL may have hit the bong in the bus during the pre-race meeting/clam-bake. I have NEVER seen such a mellow, happy and glazed look on this guy before. Perhaps he really is NorCal to the core. Does he live in Santa Rosa or Humboldt? Jokes about crashing, Band of Brothers comments, glasses askew, perma-smile on the face, maybe growing a soul-patch…what flavor was that energy bar/brownie? Afternoon Delight?

- Mt. Palomar: This is a pretty wicked climb and it is not being made any easier by the presence of hundreds of idiots running alongside the riders. A dork with no peripheral vision in a beer bottle outfit, knobs in Speedo’s and helmets and just plain morons who want to get on TV were all out if full force on Palomar. I am embarrassed that these Donkey’s are out on the road and absolutely dread the time when one of them causes an accident. David Zabriskie was the only rider who I have heard mention how stupid some of the “runners” were and how sketchy they seemed as they fell down and tripped over each other up the mountain.

Here’s the thing – I’m a lover not a fighter. But…I swear, it should be totally fine for respectful spectators to “interfere” with all of these Jerks who interfere with the race. You can take that how you want it but a real fan, a real connoisseur of the sport, would not disrespect the racers by trespassing on their field of play. It sickens me that these fools are glorified by the television and photo coverage of the race. They should be arrested. And run over by the race caravan. There, I said it.

After personally watching Overcompensating Antler Boy nearly lobotomize dozens of people as he rode around downtown Solvang and seeing Big Hair and Ass Fan run right across the road in front of the riders on the Ballard Canyon climb – I officially call these fools out. They are giving American fans a bad name and are obviously more concerned with their own “CLOWN CELEBRITY” status than the race itself. For these CLOWNS to actually get suits made up (Antler guy is even so blatantly self-interested that he put a VS logo on his heinous skinsuit…how cheap and cheesy is that?) means that they actually consider themselves part of the race. Hey Dip Stick, YOU’RE NOT PART OF THE RACE!!!! THE RACERS ARE THE RACE!!!! YOU ARE A SELFISH CLOWN…GET OFF THE ROAD!!!!

- Back to the race: It looks like Enrique Gutierrez is back. I know his nickname was “The Buffalo” but being a Colorado alum, that always seemed like a negative association for my beloved mascot. Therefore, I think I will call him “Giro-doper I hardly knew #6.” Tim Johnson marks the move for OUCH and seems to be feeling the form after ending his cyclocross season a bit early to train for the road. The field is stringing out now but still staying together. It seems like they are wary of this climb and probably anticipating some fireworks in the last two or three miles of the grade.

- Still not really sure about the yellow Mavic kicks yet. Cool for cross, maybe not so much on the road. Sorry guys, they make white ones right?

- Has anyone commented on the “DEAD” written across the junk of the Rock Racing kits yet? I know it actually says “ROCKS NOT DEAD” but as Paco Mancebo displayed on Stage 1, it just looks like they have DEAD written on the chamois. That’s kind of harsh.

- Bob Roll interviews Lance: LA is cracking jokes, he really does seem pretty mellow. There is still a very deliberate and focused tone but I have been impressed with how much he seems to be enjoying the experience. Regardless of what you think of the man and his legacy, it’s always pleasant to see people that just like riding and racing their bikes. And Lance certainly seems to fall into that category. Cycling is fun and at the very least, LA is making it seem like an enjoyable and worthwhile endeavor. Nothing wrong with that. Especially if you work for Trek.

- VDV is taking it up a notch on the front of the rapidly dwindling peloton. These cats are not messing around anymore, as VDV seems to be laboring more than he was in the Alps and Pyrenees in July.

- Off goes Oscar Sevilla on what appears to be a ninja-bike. Maybe he’s trying to shed his baby-face image by rocking what appears to be Rick James’ hairdo underneath his helmet but unfortunately, it kind of just makes him look like one of the Mary Jane Girls. Sorry buddy, I’m just trying to help.

- Here comes Floyd with Voigt, Gesink, etc. Arrgh, some idiot just pushed Floyd and it seemed like he just gave up after that. Landis does not seem like the kind of guy that would appreciate that. That is really unfortunate. It would have been rad if Jens got off and went Chuck Norris on that guy. He kind of veered off so I got a little excited that there would be a roundhouse kick involved somehow. No such luck. This time.

- Andy Schleck is working hard in the break but kind of dancing around a little. Now Frank Schleck is going off the front of the peloton with JV, Gesink and Tom Danielson. It could get a little crazy if Saxo-Bank ends up with four guys ahead of the field with Levi isolated. You have to think that Astana is playing it cool since it’s still so early but…Bjarne seems to be applying his patented late-race Hail Mary tactics again.

- In other news: Dave Zabriskie is on LL like it’s nothing. I’ve always thought DZ should be able to climb with the best of them but just hasn’t been able to show it for some reason. Michael Rogers just took a MASSIVE pull to bring the GC guys back to the first chase group. Mick and DZ are looking super strong this year.

- Oh My Goodness. Some guy was just running along holding his infant child out like a musette bag. I really hope he gets arrested for child abuse. That was way worse than Michael Jackson a few years back. I swear, this is the reason I really fear for the future of our planet.

- Good to see Tommy D. in the front group. He’s been pretty visible in Boulder recently and seems to be finding a good comfort zone after a few frustrating years. Hopefully it comes together again for both him and Garmin-Slipstream.

- Jens Voigt presented by Chuck Norris looks like he’s in a prize fight with his new Specialized bicycle. I feel sorry for the carbon fiber when Jens starts rocking and throwing uppercuts with the quadriceps. Now there is some mental defective in green speedos running in front of Voigt. Oh how I wish there could be an official Time Out called for fighting like in hockey. The riders could even take off their gloves and then scrap. Actually, I’ve seen some funny YouTube clips with Bobby J and some other pugilists that may make me reconsider that.

- The main group goes over the summit of Mt. Palomar about a minute or so back. All the necessary names are present.

- Uh Oh, Michael Ball in the House: Humble? Not about being arrogant? A different time now? About business? He still has the Bentley though. I just hope the success in California gets guys like Baldwin and Creed paid for the rest of their contracts.

- The little Rock feature seemed to focus on Tyler more than M. Ball. Hamilton is still very popular and as polite and gracious as ever, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans. He actually seemed to be among the more visible of the “Big” name riders in the event.

- Commercials: Okay, how did I miss the investment potential for pharmaceutical male enhancement products? I could have retired by now if the frequency of advertising is any indication of cash flow. I feel like I need to take a shower after some of those innuendos.

- Apparently Bob Roll is doing product placement pieces now. I’m not sure how the manufacturers got VS to go along with that but okay. I wonder how much those little pieces were worth?

- Glenn Chadwick is off the front again and has really stepped up for this race. He was in the break all day on Stage 5 as well. It seemed like he just kind of fell away from the other guys down Palomar. I know he’s a Kiwi but he must know this descent.

- Paul Sherwen is now explaining how a stage race works. Duh…you mean it’s overall time? Der…what’s the green shirt for? Do they do stuff like that on the European coverage? Or do they just expect that if you’re watching, you pretty much know what is going on? I really hope that little production piece on the basics of a stage race helped some people out. Because I think it made a little bit of my brain explode and it better have been worth it.

- Here is the final climb up Cole Grade. Nibali is drilling it in his Liquigas/Kermit the Frog costume. Oh no, idiot Sumo wrestlers running next to the riders. This is out of hand. And another fool carrying his kid while running alongside the peloton. Since when did that become an option?

- Schleck is really digging now but Nibali is hanging in there as they begin to hit the rollers. Astana is all over the front of the field as Armstrong seems to be regulating the tempo. Chadwick is caught and has a bite to eat as he falls through the group.

- Oh dear. It seems that VS has found some of the old graphics from the Coors Classic in order to demonstrate how drafting works. Nice. I could be wrong, but that looked like a cartoon or something. Did one of the viewers win a contest to get that on TV? Or one of the producers kids? That was amazing. Oh, so that’s why they ride in a line like that?

- Schleck seems to be the stronger of the two and is now gesturing for Nibali to pull through. The Italian takes a sucker pull but at least fakes it on the front for a few seconds. It seems like someone other than Astana would have had to start working to bring Schleck and Nibali back because the Kazakh crew had no reason to reel them both all the way in.

- Hummer just gave a strange shout out Bill Walton. Okay. I remember an old picture of Walton when he was with the Blazers and he had a bike with a foot-long head tube. Seriously, the guy is like 7 feet tall. I think Hummer wants Lakers tickets from Luke.

- The final descent before a finish is always hectic but this one could be fun to watch. Nibali almost nibbled the tailpipe of the moto there for a second. I wonder if Schleck ever thinks about his Superman impression at the Tour de Suisse last year? These guys are flying.

- There is an interesting mix of riders and teams in the front chase group of about 25. In a display of small guy power, Oscar Sevilla and Trent Lowe take pulls ahead of Gutierrez. There just aren’t enough guys from a motivated team in this final group.

- Now it seems like Schleck is sitting on Nibali for the final kilometers. The Luxembourger makes a jump in the final straight and that’s it. Hincapie edges Sutherland for third at 39 seconds back.

- Phew. It’s over. Levi wins again over DZ and Michael Rogers. Done, done and done.

- Apparently there were over 2 million spectators at the Amgen Tour of California. I am happy to say that I was one of them for a few days but must admit that it is certainly much more comfortable from the couch. As always, the VS coverage makes me scratch my head every once in a while but still proves to be the best that we have in the U.S. so I am grateful for its presence.

- Now if we could just do something about those shirts…

Monday, February 23, 2009

AToC Stage 7 - Through Rose Bowl Colored Glasses

Understanding that the Rose Bowl has played host to events such as the Super Bowl and World Cup, I really didn't think that it would be too crazy at the finish of Stage 7. Needless to say, I was wrong. It wasn't just a little crazy, it was completely Gary Busey-level insane.

In a scene that could be described as somewhat "Lollapalooza-esque" the final five circuits around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena provided a wonderful spectrum of demographic representation not usually seen at bicycle races in North America. The cultural melting pot that is LA was certainly on display and EVERYONE was psyched to be there, even though a number of the spectators didn't really seem to realize that it was a bike race and not a football game.

For those who are familiar with bike racing in the US, it is generally acknowledged that while the sport is comprised of "mostly" open-minded and accepting individuals, it is sadly deficient in terms of socio-economic and cultural diversity. There are certainly many unique examples around the country but for the most part, bike racing has not exactly transcended the boundaries of white-collar spectatorship and participation in the States. Hopefully events like the Amgen Tour of California will help make the sport more representative of our population as a whole.

As for the race itself, the final circuits provided an opportunity to see just how much time a team like Astana can take back on a breakaway over the last 30k. The day-long break, which contained names like Hincapie, Vande Velde, Baldwin, Roulston, Weening and Schleck was likely more concerned with the stage win than gaining time but still, they weren't exactly lolly-gagging. Frank Schleck put in a pretty good solo dig but it ended up being a group of three that got away at the very end with Nocentini barely edging Roulston and a fading Weening. Meanwhile, the Astana crew pulled back about five minutes and kept LL comfortably in the lead.

Although it didn't get much attention, the effort of Horner in particular was impressive as he was suffering from road rash and a nasty bang to the knee but still rotated with Chechu and the rest at 30+ for the final circuits. Similarly, it was inspiring to watch how hard Tom Zirbel, Svein Tuft and Trent Lowe were working behind the field after having crashed earlier in the stage. The three riders throttled themselves through ripped lycra and blood with no hope of catching back on, exemplifying the toughness and stubborness of elite bike racers. I just hope they could hear the crowd support as they finished, since that was likely the only bright spot to their day.

I also hope that the examples of personal character, fortitude and effort on display were appreciated by all the fans in Pasadena. The metaphor of life that is bike racing has the power to transcend most social and cultural barriers and perhaps...the world is a better place due to the sport. Or perhaps I am viewing the world through Rose Bowl colored glasses.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

AToC Stage 6 - Levi's Trifecta

If Solvang, California were a food, it would be a sweet, jelly-filled Danish pastry. If it were a bike race, it would be the Amgen Tour of California. And if I were more creative I would be able to come up with a better way to start this post.

Anyway, I love this freaky little town and think that the TT in Solvang may be the single coolest event in North American bike racing. The day’s temperatures flirted with the mid-70’s and the Califosi (does that count as a new word?) were out in full force, turning the town and beautiful 15 mile course into an virtual amusement park of bike racing goodness.

Having attended the event for the third year now, it is clear that attendance was significantly higher in 2009 than previous editions, to the point that spectators were packed 10 deep along portions of the course and jammed the expo area like sardines. Even along the more remote stretches of road outside of town there was rarely more than a few hundred meters between bunches of people clanging cowbells and cheering the racers.

As for the racing itself, LL Cool Heimer proved that he is the sole owner of this stage and anyone who wants to steal it from him will probably have to take up residence in the Central Coast in order to uncover his secrets on this TT course. David Zabriskie came as close as anyone has to accomplishing the feat but still ended up 8 seconds shy of the three-time winner. Saxo Bank’s big Scandanavian Gustav Larsson took the third step of the podium and continues to prove that he is one to watch in big races against the clock.

Michael Rogers put up a respectable performance but at one point it was announced that his first split was a full two minutes ahead of Zabriskie. Now…for those familiar with bike racing (or physics) it was pretty clear that there was no possible way that any human being could go two minutes faster that DZ over 7.5 miles but that did not stop a number of people from going crazy in the crowd. Thankfully Big Dave Towle came to the rescue and brought some sanity back to the event by stating that Rogers would have to be flirting with the sound barrier in order for the split to be correct. Needless to say, the time check was not right and I politely informed some people standing near me that it’s not really possible to go 40mph for that long. Sorry Mick, not this time.

On a final note, through the much-appreciated goodwill of MissingSaddle and the Jelly Belly team, I was able to accompany Danny Van Haute in the infamous bean-colored Lexus as we followed Stage 5’s Most Courageous rider Matthew Crane along the TT. I will document this experience in greater written and photographic detail shortly but suffice to say, it was pretty rad and I am quite thankful for the hospitality. I first met Van Haute as a 15 year-old junior racer back in the day but I never anticipated kicking it in the car with him during the biggest race in the country. Who knew? Stay tuned for more on that soon.

Stage 7 into Pasadena has the potential to be a bit tricky but I anticipate another bunch finish with Captain Cavman taking yet another scalp ahead of Thor and Tom. Rose Bowl here we come.

Friday, February 20, 2009

AToC Stage 4 & 5 - Captain Cavman

Okay, it is officially “normal” at the Tour of California now. After days of rain, crashes and breakaways the sun has returned and Mark Cavendish is racking up stage wins. With a second victory in as many days Captain Cavman made his boss proud as he took the “hometown” honors just up the road from Bob Stapleton’s house.

While the stage played out basically as expected, a breakaway of six riders did their best to mess up the formula and stayed away for most of the day. Matthew Crane took the Most Courageous jersey back to the Jelly Belly bus for his efforts in the break and got some solid publicity for the Bean Team. As the longest-running sponsor in North American racing, it’s great to see the return on investment for the NorCal company and Director Danny Van Haute.

It was also great to see that there was far less carnage on the roads of California than we have seen over the last few days. After the likes of Kirchen, Freire and Nydam were hauled off in ambulances yesterday, the field stayed more upright in Stage 5 and enjoyed near-perfect conditions for most of the race. It’s been a pretty hectic event for the medical staff up to this point so hopefully Stage 5 bodes well for the remainder of the ToC.

Viewing the finish in person, it was clear that Captain Cavman and his Columbia crew were not going to be denied. What was not clear upon viewing a replay of the finale, was whether MC the Hammer was pointing to the team logos on his kit…or well…something else as he crossed the finish line. Maybe his arms were tired or something but all I know is that the hands were pointing pretty low in relation to the Columbia-High Road logos. Not sure about gesturing at your junk for a post-up victory salute but I guess when you win as much as the Teen Wolf of bike racing, you can assume a little creative license.

Again, despite the weird victory salute, team owner Bob Stapleton was very pleased after the race. I had a chance to chat briefly with The Man as we walked to the press conference and the moral of the story is that he is quite possibly the coolest owner in all of professional sports. As evidence of this, he actually held Cavendish’s bike and stayed for the duration of the comments almost sheepishly in the back of the room, graciously accepting congratulations and deflecting praise upon his team.

This may not seem like a big deal at first but can you imagine the owner of an MLB team shagging fly balls or assisting the players in any way other than signing their checks? But Stapleton really seems to care about his riders and never seems to come off like a multi-millionaire owner of a professional sport team. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with him on a number of occasions now and he is always exceedingly polite and friendly. So much so that I am almost willing to forgive him for going with the white shorts this year. Almost.

Anyway, now we head to Solvang where the forecast predicts 72 degrees and plenty of sunshine. The conditions will be perfect for Levi to keep his unblemished record on the spectacular course through the Santa Ynez valley and virtually lock up the overall. And again, tasty Danish pastries will be consumed by yours truly. I can’t wait.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AToC Stage 3 - Sprinting 101

Just in case anyone was wondering how to lead-out a sprint in bike racing, take a look at the tape of the Cervelo Test Team in the finale of Stage 3 in Modesto. After making a late catch of the day's breakaway remnants, the field basically just had to watch as an English-speaking chariot delivered Thor to Valhalla...uh, I mean Modesto.

After a valiant effort by Jeff Louder to stay away after spending all day in the break, Cervelo took over about 1k out and just crushed it with Roulston, Rollin and Lancaster. They actually controlled the finish to the point that Hushovd basically made a little jump at 150 meters and coasted easily across the line.

After not being sure that Cervelo was even in the race up to this point, it was nice to see the new team show the Pro Tour kids how to do it. In retrospect, I'm disappointed that I didn't fully appreciate the lead-out speed and size of Roulston, Rollin and Lancaster before witnessing it in Stage 3. With the God of Thunder in the caboose behind them, it's safe to say that not many people are going to be coming around those dudes.

It was interesting to note that Cavendish got caught up a little bit with Fast Freddie in the finish and never really contested the sprint. After having words with Cipollini last year, it may be safe to say that the Teen Wolf of Man will not be palling around with the Rock Racing crew at the afterparty.

Stage 4 from Merced to Clovis has the potential to be either epic and heinous or epic and spectacular. Either way it's going to be tough and the final descent off of Crane Valley Road is making me cold just thinking about it. If a small group gets away over the last climb, there will probably be too much real estate to cover before the finish but there is also a strong possibility that if some riders way down on GC get a couple minutes over the top it may not be worth it for the peloton to take risks on the final descent and run into Clovis. Look for a group of random European guys and a few young Americans to get away early before George Hincapie avenges his teammate and takes the sprint out of a group of about 30 riders.

Monday, February 16, 2009

AToC Stage 2 - Bridgeway to the Boardwalk

It's not often that the biggest bike race in the country traces a portion of one's commute to work. Consequently, it's not often that one can watch the best professionals in the world make the hardest part of your daily ride look like, easy neutral zone warm-up. Thousands of Bay Area cyclists are probably thinking similar thoughts of inferiority as I write this.

While it's been a number of years since I last spun down Bridgeway in Sausalito and made the jump up to and across the Golden Gate Bridge on a cold and drizzly Monday morning, it all seemed pretty familiar as the peloton took the scenic route into San Francisco to begin Stage 2. At $6 toll fee per rider and car (uhh, probably not) it must have been a pretty hefty tab so I hope the pictures were worth it. Although come to think of it, I would easily pay $6 in order to not have to yell at all the tourists standing in the middle of the bike paths on the bridge. It's usually so loud and windy that they can't hear you and you narrowly avoid drilling them anyway so I hope the NorCal guys in the group tried to express how much of a priviledge it was to take the road. Good job Caltrans.

After a nice little scamper through Sea Cliff (one of the nicest neighborhoods ever) and up past the 17th hole of Lincoln Park (one of the most scenic par 3's ever) to the Legion of Honor (one of the coolest art museums ever), the group dropped down into the Ocean Beach area of The City. The course then passed the Zoo and Olympic Club (one of the best golf clubs ever), up through the outskirts of Daly City and down into Pacifica where the field then traveled by the BEST TACO BELL IN THE WORLD. No parentheses needed for that one.

I can't tell you what the food tastes like but for those who are not familiar with this place, it sits right on Pacifica State Beach and has this great view of the shoreline, surf and surrounding cliffs. I've passed this Taco Bell a thousand times and have only stopped on a few occasions but take my word for it...if you're ever in the mood for a Chalupa and want a nice view...this is your place. We always joked that the drive-thru was regular price but it was probably like $30 per entree in the Taco Bell dining room because of the view.

Anyway, a good sized break containing local-boy-done-good Ben Jacques-Mayniac got a few minutes up the road and took the lead all the way to the final climb of Bonny Doon. It was at this point that Levi Leipheimer began levitating up the climb and turned a 3 minute lead into a cruel joke. Carlos Barredo thought he was good for a minute or two but was then caught by Tom Peterson and Jason McCartney near the top of the climb.

The two Americans began pulling away from the Spaniard when a 5'7" yellow and teal clad motorcycle came charging up from behind at what seemed to be about 20mph. Peterson managed to hang on to the Levi Express into Santa Cruz and easily came around for a good, albeit somewhat "conditional" win. The young Garmin rider is certainly worthy of the publicity though, as he is among the best of the upcoming American stage racers and clearly a name to watch in the future.

Another small-ish group came in a bit later, carrying most of the contenders except an obviously tired Francisco Mancebo, who relinquished the leader's jersey to the hyper-motivated Leipheimer. All politics and yada, yada aside, I feel a bit bad for the Rock guys who busted themselves all day long in the rain and wind, only to have Paco get dumped immediately on the last climb of the day. I saw Baldwin on the front for what seemed like hours on end as the field slogged down Highway 1. The team did everything they needed to do but it was a lot to ask for Mancebo to come back with a good day after his effort on Stage 1.

So now Levi Leipheimer and Astana have the lead and about half of the Top 10 in the general classification. It's going to be uber-hard for anyone to beat LL and his posse but there is a long way to go before we get to Escondido. Hopefully the sunshine at the finish in Santa Cruz is an indication that things will be clearing up. If not, it will be a rough wake-up call as the field hits Sierra Road almost immediately after the start of Stage 3 in San Jose on Tuesday.

Look for the first field sprint finish in Modesto (still the worst host city ever) with Cavendish getting the better of Boonen and perhaps Haedo or Hushovd. It would be great to see an American sprinter get in the mix so hopefully Huff, Farrar, O'Bee or even good old local boy Fast Freddie Rodriguez rubs some elbows and represents on home turf. But if Caviar-dish is within sniffing distance of the front, chances are he will get the redemption from the relegation in 2008 and coast to a 3 bike-length victory. I just hope it's dry and everyone stays upright. Send good thoughts to AJM.

AToC, Stage 1 Recap - What Just Happened?

So…as many of us familiar with February in NorCal had feared since the race was first announced five years ago, the rain and weather have been less than pleasant. I know bike racers are tough but there must have been a lot of complaining going on between Davis and Santa Rosa.

Apparently, Chris Horner was the only rider to renew his MENSA membership and realized that Paco Mancebo was in danger of riding away with the entire race on the first road stage. Summoning the troops with sketchy time splits. Astana began to pull back the deficit with the confused help of a small but strong group, coming into the circuits of downtown Santa Rosa a little over a minute behind the solo Rocker.

Here’s where it gets really strange. Apparently the brain trust at the AToC decided to neutralize all of the finishing circuits and count final times upon the first finish line crossing. It’s difficult to say who actually knew of this decision out on the road but it is certain that this info was not provided to the media during coverage of the finale. So instead of a ferocious chase, we ended up watching the group almost soft-pedal around while Mancebo slaughtered himself off the front. Seeing the chase group go from a long line to a slightly bunched up training ride was confusing at best for those watching.

Here is a sampling of my confusion:

“Why the hell aren’t they chasing?” “Come on, you pulled for 50 miles to get him back, why give up now?” “Do they really want to let Mancebo have over a minute?” “Why isn’t anyone else working to pull him back?”

Well, it turns out that there was really no need to do any more work once they got onto the circuits since the course was neutralized. What was even crazier though, was that Vincenzo Nibali and Jurgen Van de Walle then took off and easily bridged up to Mancebo, seemingly putting themselves in excellent position for both the stage and the overall.

Here is another sample of choice comments:

“What the hell are they doing?” “If it was that easy for two solo guys to bridge, you’re telling me they couldn’t have pulled hard for another lap and caught everyone?” “You’re just going to sit there and give a minute plus to Mancebo and Nibali?” “Does anyone from the US want to win this race?”

Ultimately, both Van de Walle and Nibali got jobbed because not only did Mancebo end up taking the sprint for the stage, the officials ended up giving them the same time as the first chase group that finished over a minute down because of the neutral circuit judgment. Wait…what? Yeah…I know, try explaining that one to them after 4+ hours in the cold rain.

Anyway, it remains to be seen just how strong Mancebo and Rock Racing are so the race is surely not over. It will be a wild one now for sure. Hopefully Stage 2 from Sausalito to Santa Cruz will be a little clearer – both in weather and official race functions. And hopefully BJM or one of the other NorCal kids can represent and then go get some cotton candy at the Boardwalk.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

AToC - Prologue Recap and Stage 1 Preview - Davis (Phinney) to Santa (Maglia) Rosa

The 2009 Amgen Tour of California has officially begun and looks strikingly similar to last year. Fabian Cancellara continues to perform the best Motorcycle impersonation, Levi Leipheimer shows that he is firing and Slipstream narrowly misses another win. Yup, pretty much like 2008.

Although, after viewing the recorded VS coverage I did find some other interesting things to note. For example, did you know that Lance Armstrong had cancer and came back to win the Tour de France? I was not aware of that. It's a good thing the VS producers dusted off that video they made in 2000 and got me up to speed.

I'm all for fighting for a good cause and referencing a truly remarkable comeback tale but seriously, does ANYONE not know this story by now? Instead of running old footage that everyone in the English-speaking world has seen, it would have been very nice to have perhaps seen some of his recent work with the Trek-Livestrong U-23 Team or something that speaks to his current position and the future of the sport.

While it was unfortunate that most of the coverage was rehashed from the Tour of California Preview show the week before, there was some interesting new material. For example, the clip on Mark Cavendish was interesting, even though you couldn't really hear him over the Gaelic festival music blasting over the dialogue. I'm still not sure if he lives in a barn on the Isle of Man or not but he apparently likes cereal, has a pretty cool striped bathrobe and an awesome golden retriever.

Anyway, they did end up actually showing some of the racing and it was encouraging to see many of the names in the top 25 - shown below:
1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Team Saxo Bank                                       4.32.9 (50.294 km/h)
2 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana 0.01.2
3 David Zabriskie (USA) Garmin - Slipstream 0.02.7
4 Michael Rogers (Aus) Team Columbia - Highroad 0.02.8
5 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervélo TestTeam 0.03.1
6 George Hincapie (USA) Team Columbia - Highroad 0.03.4
7 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step
8 Mark Renshaw (Aus) Team Columbia - Highroad 0.04.1
9 Svein Tuft (Can) Garmin - Slipstream 0.04.2
10 Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana 0.04.3
11 Mark Cavendish (GBr) Team Columbia - Highroad 0.04.9
12 Tom Zirbel (USA) Bissell Pro Cycling 0.05.0
13 Ben Jacques-Maynes (USA) Bissell Pro Cycling 0.05.6
14 Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin - Slipstream 0.06.5
15 Charles Bradley Huff (USA) Jelly Belly Cycling Team 0.07.2
16 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 0.07.4
17 Hayden Roulston (NZl) Cervélo TestTeam 0.07.6
18 John Murphy (USA) OUCH Presented By Maxxis 0.07.9
19 Peter Latham (NZl) Bissell Pro Cycling 0.08.2
20 Christopher Horner (USA) Astana 0.08.5
21 Jeremy Vennell (NZl) Bissell Pro Cycling
22 Christian Vande Velde (USA) Garmin - Slipstream 0.08.7
23 Andy Jacques-Maynes (USA) Bissell Pro Cycling 0.09.4
24 Dominique Rollin (Can) Cervélo TestTeam 0.10.0
25 Juan José Haedo (Arg) Team Saxo Bank 0.10.5
In addition to having 14 North Americans in the mix, it is especially cool to see the prominence of riders like Tuft, Zirbel, BJM and Huff (even though Hummer called him "Charlie") who continue to show that our domestic racing scene is bursting with world-class talent. The fact that I also predicted all of these guys to do well need not be mentioned. Oops, too late.

Stage 1 from Davis to Santa Rosa has the potential to be a really wild one. If the weather is nasty, I could see the race breaking up on Howell Mountain and then completely fanning out all the way to the finish. The only hope for a big sprint is if the field comes back together crossing Napa Valley before they get to the final short climb up Petrified Forest Rd.

The chances of someone local like Steven Cozza or Scott Nydam trying to get away early is pretty high but I think that there are enough big name sprinters like Boonen, Cavendish, Hushovd, Haedo and Freire to bring everything back in Napa or at the last minute in Santa Rosa. In this case, I actually see Freire coming through and taking his first Tour of California victory. I was a little surprised by his prologue time but he's been quiet lately and always wins something of note. This could be a good stage for him - kind of Milan Sanremo-esque with the final sharp climb and finish.

I've ridden most of this course and just really hope the conditions are decent and nobody comes to grief on the potentially treacherous roads. Twisty, wooded roads + Botts Dots + First big race + High motivation = DANGER. The finish has been a little tricky in Santa Rosa lately as well, as evidenced by the addition of "The Levi Rule" into the cycling lexicon. Hopefully everyone stays upright.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The California Lottery - Predictions

Let's be honest. Although the Amgen Tour of California field is bursting with big name riders, there really are only a handful of legitimate contenders who make the event a top priority. But as Jacques Anquetil said, "There are no races. Only lotteries."

Considering this and the fact that weather may play a significant role in the event, it would not be surprising to see just about any one of 25 or 30 riders take the jersey into Escondido next Sunday. For the most part, the pre-race favorites will work their way to the top of the leaderboard but this could be the year that a big break stays away and gives a handful of dangerous guys a sizable cushion on the rest of the field.

Obviously we know the main protagonists - Levi, Floyd, VDV, Hincapie, Armstrong, Cancellara, Basso, Zabriskie, Hamilton, Sastre, yada, yada, yada. The odds are that one of these guys will win and out of this group, I would actually put my money on Hincapie...if gambling were legal. I just feel like George could scratch together enough seconds throughout the course of the week to hold off Levi and Floyd in the TT and Mt. Palomar. But LL and Flandis will not be easily denied.

However, for some reason my gut tells me that it will be one of the "Lieutenants" who gets in a break on a nasty weather stage (perhaps into Santa Rosa, Clovis or Paso Robles) then has a solid TT and doesn't get dropped on the climbs. In this case, I could envision probably 25 guys who may be capable of defending a 2-4 minute lead on the pre-race favorites.

Of these riders, I would personally like to see someone like Svein Tuft, Chris Baldwin or Ben Jacques-Maynes take the win. I could also see Jens Voigt, Stuart O'Grady, Michael Rogers or Rory Sutherland having the goods. But if I were a gambling man, I would put a couple bones on one Christopher Horner. It's been a while since C-Ho took a big W on American soil and it would not be surprising to me if we saw Astana riding for the "other" Yankee on the squad after he sniffs out the right move.

Oh...and I'm going to go WAY out on a limb and predict that some British guy named Cavendish will win a sprint or two. But while I'm out here, I'm thinking that there will be a few surprise stage winners in the AToC this year as well. Similar to Dominique Rollin's breakout victory in heinous conditions last year, the 2009 edition may present a great opportunity for another North American rider from a domestic team to tough out a career-defining win. Look for someone like Brad Huff, Tim Johnson, Steven Cozza or Tom Zirbel representing the USA to the fullest with a gritty stage win.

I will make stage predictions as the race goes on but my pick for the prologue is Thor Hushovd. I've never met a Norwegian I didn't like and the course and conditions may suit the big man to perfection. Plus, he's riding a Cervelo TT rig now - which can only be a vast improvement over his past machines. That could make the difference in a 3 mile prologue.

So there you have it. I've filled out my ticket...let the lottery begin.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Pre-Cali Ponderings Purge

Schadenfreude Rage:

Schadenfreude is generally understood as pleasure taken from observing the misery of another. A slightly more detailed definition is the "largely unanticipated delight in the suffering of another, which is cognized as trivial and/or appropriate."

It should be noted that I was a fan of professional baseball before I even knew what professional cycling was. So, while the recent A-Rod, Tejada and Radomski stories may not have “delighted” me per se, I must admit that it is oddly relieving to have another sport usurp cycling for the top spot on the media’s “Dirty List.” Even if it is the National Pastime.

On a side note regarding the A-Roid Story: Does anyone else think that Madonna is just about the most perfect candidate for HGH use? I’m not usually down with making suggestions like that but have you seen the woman lately? She’s ripped like Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon.

I always thought the relationship between Sean Penn’s 50 year-old ex-wife and the highest-paid player in baseball was an odd one at best. Perhaps not quite as odd as her past with Dennis Rodman (did he introduce her to Kabbalah?) but still pretty strange. It would be naïve however, to think that celebrities from music and film did not rival professional athletics in the widespread use of “performance-enhancing” drugs. The prominent use of HGH in anti-aging clinics is a topic that I have not heard discussed much in music or film, but it could be argued that the physical benefits for those industries equal or outweigh the results gained in pro sports.

“Gotta drop 25lbs and get muscled-up for that next super-hero flick? In three months? Okay, I think we can find something to help.” “Need to get smooth, toned and tight for that romantic-comedy with the younger guy? “You may want to try this…”

Who knows? I’m just saying…but I should probably get back to the cycling stuff.

Somewhere Phil Liggett Is Having Nightmares:

There was a break in the fourth stage of the Tour of Qatar that consisted of what may be the most tongue-twisting group of names that I can recall. With the exception of the exceedingly normal Michael Barry (Columbia-High Road), the rest of the break’s participants had names like Abdelbaset Hannachi (Doha Team) Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Gatis Smukulis (Ag2r-La Mondiale) Dominik Roels (Milram), David Deroo (Skil-Shimano) and Rhys Pollock (Drapac Porsche Cycling).

I can just see Phil and Paul in the booth (if they were there?), looking at those names and freestyling something that may or may not have been even remotely close. I often wonder how many names I unknowingly mispronounce because of Phil and Paul. I’m sure they do their best and get far more right than wrong but still…who’s going to correct them? Bob Roll?

For all I know, maybe it really is “Bone-in” and not “Boo-nen” and Valverde actually does pronounce his first name “Alleythandro.”

Excuse me Mr. Armstrong but Phil Knight is on Line 1:

Not that it’s a big deal, but is LA wearing black Rocket 7’s with a big yellow Nike swoosh on them? I know that there are a number of other high-profile riders such as Levi Leipheimer, Mark Cavendish and Nicole Cooke who still rock the legit Nikes…so what’s up with LA going all ninja stealth? I know his old kicks were basically re-branded as well, but they at least did a better job of covering it up. Can you imagine LeBron James just slapping a sticker on some Reeboks?

Also…What’s the Over/Under on how long it takes Mr. Armstrong to convince Astana that the old powder and yellow kits need to get “Lance’d” up a little bit and modified? Three months?

Nothing too severe but somehow I see changes being made to the kit used in the bigger races later on in the year. My guess is that the earliest time for a kit change would be the Tour of California and the latest would be the Giro d’Italia. There just has to be more black eventually. Not like "Smell The Glove from Spinal Tap" black but you’ll see…the image is too important.

Speaking of California:

I can’t wait. There will be MUCH more to follow as I prepare for another trip back to the Homeland for perhaps the best race in U.S. history. Hopefully the weather cooperates. Stay tuned.