Friday, January 29, 2010

No Renaissance for France?

I’m not too proud to admit that I happen to be wrong from time to time. Case in point: during last season’s Tour de France, I did my best to fly the flag for the home team, proclaiming that the 2010 Grand Tour might be the dawn of a renaissance in French cycling. To me, Brice Feillu’s heroic stage win, AG2R’s days in yellow, and Christophe Le Mevel’s top-10 finish, all were signs that the times may be a-changin’ in a nation long-starved for big-time success.

But following yet another lukewarm off-season for the French, I’m starting to second-guess myself. As we enter into 2010, the French status quo has been maintained—at best—but the situation could soon prove to be much, much worse.

First of all, of the 18 Pro Tour teams, only 2 are French. Sure, Pro Tour status doesn’t quite mean what it once did—even Italy only has 2 squads. And yes, there are still 3 French Professional Continental teams (with Agritubel being replaced by Stéphane Heulot’s Saur-Sojasur outfit). But every year it seems that one French team or another needs some kind of Ave Maria just to keep its title sponsor. One year it’s Cofidis, the next it’s BBox, and so on and so forth. Only la Francaise des Jeux seems to have survived the last decade with nary a hint of sponsor dissatisfaction or pullout—a surprising situation when you consider the lack of big wins for Madiot’s boys.

But it’s not only the title sponsors that seem to be growing weary of supporting French squads. Two French teams now have Italian bike sponsors—Bbox and AG2R. True, it’s not the first time: AG2R’s outsourced for years, and Kuota was Agritubel’s bike supplier for two season’s before providing bikes to AG2R in 2010. A big deal? Perhaps not. But something just doesn’t feel right to me about a French team riding a Colnago.

And sponsors aren’t the only ones leaving France for greener pastures—riders are too. France’s best Classics rider—Sylvain Chavanel— already rides for a foreign team—Quick Step. Now the country’s most exciting hope for GC success at the Tour—Brice Feillu—has gone north to Dutch upstarts Vacansoleil. And that French espoir who won the Tour de L’Avenir and the World U23 Road Race, Romain Sicard? He signed a professional contract with Euskaltel. Euskaltel. Clearly something’s wrong when a nation’s best teams can’t even lure its best riders.

Clearly, if there’s any country in need of 1980’s-style Superteam, it’s France. Not a Superteam in the mold of Team Sky or Team HTC-Columbia—multilingual teams comprised of riders from across globe, backed by sponsors with interests straight out of Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat. No, France needs a team it can support unequivocally, with French stars riding French bikes for a French sponsor—maybe a Supermarket?  Yeah, I like the sound of that.

It could happen, non? Maybe Chavanel grows tired of playing 3rd fiddle behind Boonen and Devolder at Quick Step. Maybe the Feillu Brothers begin regret trading wine and foie gras for tulips and Heineken. After all, when was the last time you heard of someone successfully pulling the anti-Van Gogh, leaving France for career success in the Netherlands?

Am I being too hard on myself and the French? Maybe. But are we indeed witnessing the renaissance of French cycling? Unlikely. Instead, the Dark Ages seem destined to linger a bit—at least until someone comes along with the money and wherewithal to do something about it.

So while the world might be getting flatter for some, if you’re a fan of the French, it’s looks to be all uphill from here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wednesday Cross Report and Power Ranking

The 2009-2010 cyclocross season is winding down, but there's still one major event on the itinerary: the World Championships this weekend in Tabor, Czech Republic.  Erik's back again this week with his Weekly Report and Power Ranking.  For more--including Erik's in-depth World Championship Preview, visit his website, The Run-up.  As always, leave your comments for Erik below.

Just when I had written-off Niels Albert’s chances for a Worlds repeat, he comes storming through to surprise everyone, winning the final round of the World Cup in Hoogerheide, Netherlands. Needless to say, it was a bittersweet weekend for Albert, because Zdenek Stybar did just enough to take home the World Cup overall, finishing 2nd. Stybar received a heap of help from his teammate Kevin Pauwels who finished 3rd and never really challenged Stybar’s bid for his first World Cup title. Pauwels was followed across the line by fellow countrymen Klaas Vantornout and Sven Nys to fill-out the top-5. And, with the Belgians picking up 6 of the top 10 spots, they're clearly ready for the World Championships this weekend. Behind the Belgian brigade, Gerben de Knegt finished inside the top-10 in one of his final few races in his home country this year, while American Jonathan Page managed to hold-on to his early success to finish 8th. All in all, it was a very exciting final round of the World Cup; and a number of great story lines still remain for the World Championships this weekend in Tabor, Czech Republic.

In Holland, Albert picked-up the win, but Stybar wound-up with the jersey. So who's Number One this week? Time to find out:

1. Zdenek Stybar (1) - Stybar did just enough to take the World Cup overall with his 2nd place on Sunday. In the end, that's good enough to stay Number One here. The Czech National Champion will have a lot of pressure on him in front of his fellow countrymen this weekend in Tabor. So far, he's been able to handle it well, but Worlds is all about national teams, meaning Stybar will be without much help and almost all alone against the Belgians this weekend.
2. Niels Albert (9) - Albert simply rode away from the leaders on Sunday and really never looked back. He jumps-up 7 spots this week and seems to have found the form that brought him early season success. A few weeks ago, he said a Worlds repeat was out of the question. However, with Sunday’s performance, he's on my list for the podium, and could definitely pick-up the win.
3. Klaas Vantornout (3) - Vantornout continues to quietly ride his way into the lead group, hanging-on for several top-5 finishes. He hasn't shown the ability to attack the "big boys", but always seems to be near the front when the winning moves are made. With a bit of luck and some great legs, the Belgian could find himself in the middle of the battle for the Rainbow Jersey.
4. Sven Nys (2) - Nys was the best of the chase group in Hoogerheide, raising a lot of questions. The most popular regarded Nys' decision to race on Saturday in a meaningless Belgian race (which he won). The other big story was Nys' comments about Sunday's race not mattering ahead of Worlds. Bottom line: Nys needs to win on Sunday to make everyone forget his antics and excuses.
5. Erwin Vervecken (5) - Vervecken narrowly missed a second consecutive top-5 World Cup finish on Sunday. With his recent string of success, Vervecken has to be a favorite to podium in his final World Championships. Here's a good tidbit to chew on: Vervecken has won three World titles; his first came in 2001—in Tabor.
6. Kevin Pauwels (na) – Pauwels’ podium finish launches him back into the rankings. He remains a wild card for a podium spot at Worlds, but it would take a lot of luck for him to take the top step. Regardless of how he does, Pauwels is another young Belgian who will have plenty of opportunities to pick-up a World Championship jersey in the future.
7. Tom Meeusen (4) - Much like Stybar, Meeusen wrapped-up his U23 World Cup overall with a second place in Hoogerheide. Meeusen is the odds-on favorite to win the U23 World Championships in Tabor, and is another Belgian superstar-to-be. He has already proven that he can race with the best in the world and thus remains in the rankings.
8. Gerben de Knegt (7) - de Knegt may not be the Dutch National Champion, but he has proven this year that he's the best rider from his country. He'll lead his nation on Sunday in Tabor and should finish inside the top-10. A podium spot seems out of the question at this point, but de Knegt continues to surprise everyone—even at age the of 35. Imagine if Nys (34), de Knegt (35), and Vervecken (38) were to finish on the podium!
9. Bart Aernouts (8) - Aernouts has rarely cracked the top-5 this year, but rides consistently in the top-10. His consistent season has earned him a Worlds spot. Clearly, he's capable of a top-10 in Tabor, but anything better would be major surprise.
10. Jonathan Page (na) - Page's 8th place on Sunday surprised everyone, including myself. As a result, Page will have a second row start in Tabor along with a lot of confidence. While he's capable of a top-10 this weekend, I think a podium spot is out of the question. That said, he shocked the world in 2007—could he do it again?

Dropped this week: Bart Wellens (6) and Steve Chainel (10).

Unless you haven't been paying attention, the 2010 Cyclocross World Championships take place in Tabor, Czech Republic this weekend. Overall, it’s been an incredibly exciting year and the World Championships promise to be no different. Belgium and the Czech Republic will both start seven riders, each country receiving a bonus rider due to having the current World Champion (Albert) and World Cup overall champion (Stybar). Belgium will start four former World Champions (Wellens, Nys, Vervecken and Albert). The odds-on favorites are Stybar, Nys and Albert, but a surprise could be lurking around every turn. All in all, it promises to be a battle to the end, one that I cannot wait to see. Enjoy the fireworks!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday Musette - Caisse Says Goodbye, Chemistry, Monkeys in Heat

1. Some bad news broke last week when Caisse d’Epargne announced it would no longer sponsor a professional cycling team following the 2010 season.  Saxo Bank, Milram, Caisse d’Epargne—that’s 3 Pro Tour title sponsors.  I said it once and I’ll say it again: this is not good.  I know that we keep seeing new sponsors enter the sport, but when programs of such stature lose them, there are bound to unexpected side effects.  

In this case, here’s one: I still think the reason Alberto Contador was willing to ride another year for Astana was because he knew he would have a safe landing place in the form of Caisse d’Epargne in 2011.  By then—assuming the Caisse were still around—Valverde would have exhausted his team’s dwindling hopes for Tour de France success and a frustrated-by-playing-second-fiddle Luis Leon Sanchez might have left for greener pastures, paving the way for Contador to play messiah.  No chance for that now—unless a new sponsor is found—quickly.  Maybe this is just the excuse Fernando Alonso needs to take the plunge?  Gosh knows, Unzue has the infrastructure necessary to run a team at the sport’s highest levels.  Why would Alonso start from scratch when he can buy his way in at the top?

And don't forget Quick Step.  How ironic would it be for Contador to have a bad year with Astana, no Spanish safety net, and end-up with Quick Step--riding an Eddy Merckx?

2. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with Chemistry class (at least as much one can be while still trying to get dates with mildly attractive girls). At the time I remember being incredibly impressed with the Periodic Table of Elements—how could such seemingly disparate elements fit together so neatly to form one tidy little diagram?  It boggled me then and still does now.

I’m not sure if you read Cyclocosm (if you don’t, you should), but this wowed me in a way that takes me right back to Mr. Rea’s 10th grade Honors Chem. Class.  Nice job, Cosmo.  Although I do have some ideas...

3. Every once in a while, someone somewhere gets a little too “poetic” with a race recap.  Case in point: VeloNews’ report on Saturday’s Stage 5 of the Tour Down Under.  Here was my favorite over-the-top use of figurative langugae:

“...his [Sanchez’s] victorious right arm circling like a lasso and left hand beating the Caisse d’Epargne logo on his chest like a monkey in heat”

Like a monkey in heat?  What’s that look like, VeloNews?  Oh wait, we’ll never know—because you deleted it.

4. And speaking of the Tour Down Under, the race ended yesterday with another circuit race victory for Team Sky.  All in all it was a fantastic event for all who took part; inspired racing, great weather, and only a handful of abandons meant everyone is going home happy—especially Andre Greipel, the first leader of the Pro Tour Ranking.

5. And how about Liquigas’ new wunderkind: Peter Sagan?  Was it me, or was he in just about every major breakaway?  It will be interesting to see how he performs back on the Continent—the European one, that is. The kid’s got pedigree too: in 2008 he won the Junior World XC Mountain Bike Championship and took silver in cyclocross. Look for him to continue to impress come Classics-time.  Liquigas is looking more and more like one of the most loaded teams in the peloton.

6. It was a good start for my prognosticating too—Andre Greipel was an easy pick for the overall, but even my dark horse got in the act when Chris Sutton won the final stage.  Not too shabby—for January.

That’s it for today’s Musette.  What’s on your minds as January closes and February beckons?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Weekly Cross Report and Power Ranking

Erik's report is a bit late this week--he was in Roubaix doing some advance scouting for his Worlds predictions. He's back now though, and has provided his weekly dose of commentary. For more, check-out his site, The Run-up.

With a bevy of freshly-crowned National Champions, the cyclocross world returned to a bit of normalcy this past weekend with the penultimate round of the World Cup in Roubaix. The course, which finishes on the famed Roubaix Velodrome, has become famous for its harrowing descents and horrific conditions. Sure enough, the sloppy mud and technical nature of the course led to a natural selection containing all of the big names—except Niels Albert who was clearly suffering from the broken rib he received thanks to a run in with a drunk fan at the Belgian National Championship. Zdenek Stybar was the strongest on the day; he rode clear of the rest of the top-5 with a few laps to go. As a result, he takes sole control of the World Cup and UCI Points overall rankings. Behind him, Klaas Vantornout managed to pick-up second place ahead of a self-proclaimed "not fresh enough" Sven Nys. Last year’s winner, Erwin Vervecken, ended-up 4th, a handful of seconds ahead of Bart Wellens.

The two biggest disappointments of the weekend had to be Francis Mourey and Petr Dlask who finished 21st and 22nd, respectively. As a result, both men are dropped from this week’s Power Rankings. Lars Boom also dropped-out of the Rankings when it was announced that the Dutch National Champion will not be a part of the Dutch Worlds Team due to his desire to focus on the Classics—a bit of a shame if you ask me. From an American standpoint, the biggest disappointment of the weekend came on the women's side of things when Katie Compton was forced to the sidelines due to persistent leg cramps. As a result she lost her lead in the World Cup and UCI Points overall rankings. And speaking of the Americans, Jonathan Page was the top US rider, finishing 18th. Ryan Trebon made his European debut; he finished a disappointing 39th.

Zdenk Stybar deserves top honors this week, but where does the rest of the field stand? Time to find out:

1. Zdenek Stybar (2) - With only two weeks remaining before the World Championships, Stybar seems to be making all the right moves. After a solid first half of the season, Stybar has come on hard and as a result he currently leads the World Cup and UCI Points overall rankings. With only one World Cup remaining, the pressure is squarely on the Czechs shoulders—not to mention the pressure he'll face one week later when Worlds are in his backyard.
2. Sven Nys (1) - Nys claimed he lacked the "freshness" to win after a very hectic week. (Sounds like another lame excuse for not winning.) He's out of contention for pretty much everything except the GVA Trophy. However, all will be forgotten if he picks-up a rainbow jersey in a few weeks.
3. Klaas Vantornout (4) - Vantornout continues to climb the rankings after a very strong late-December and early-January. Right now, I consider him the second-best rider in Belgium—even though he got the better of Nys this week. A trip to Worlds is nearly locked-up for Vantornout; a podium finish is not out of the question.
4. Tom Meeusen (8) - Meesuen won another round of the U23 World Cup this weekend and jumped-up the rankings this week. He's the best U23 cross rider in the World right now and has proven that he's one of the top Elite riders as well. The real issue for Meeusen: he's already being called the next Sven Nys—talk about a tough position to be in.
5. Erwin Vervecken (na) - At the beginning of the year I promised that Vervecken would surprise everyone with one last, great, performance. Honestly, I thought a repeat was in the cards on Sunday in Roubaix. Either way you look at it though, the 38-year-old made his bid for a Worlds spot. He still has some time to pick-up one last "big win," but to see him race Worlds one last time would cap-off a great farewell season for the superstar.
6. Bart Wellens (na) - Wellens has been very inconsistent since returning to racing after battling a nasty virus. The 4-time World Champion admitted he was unprepared for the Belgian National Championships, where he finished 14th. However, he bounced-back in Roubaix with a superb 5th-place. It's hard to imagine he'll be left off the Worlds team, but with his inconsistency it could be a big risk to take.
7. Gerben de Knegt (7) - de Knegt continues to ride very well and hasn't let his narrow loss to Boom last weekend effect him. He remains the top Dutch rider in the World and his country's best hope for a medal at Worlds. The 35-year-old is still on my short list of podium contenders; I think he could surprise quite a few people at Worlds.
8. Bart Aernouts (10) - Aernouts finished 7th in Roubaix and as a result, added his name to the Belgian Worlds candidate list. So far, Albert is the only rider guaranteed of a spot since he's the defending World Champion. And, if you go by my recommendations Aernouts and Pauwels (who once again failed to make the rankings) would get the last two spots (of the 7 allotted for Belgium). It's amazing to think that some of these riders may not even make the Belgian Worlds team.
9. Niels Albert (na) - Last week Albert got bounced from the rankings; this week’s 8th-place finish hasn't done much to change my mind. If Albert’s ribs heal a bit more I think he may be able to make a last minute charge for the World Cup and, perhaps, another World Title. Albert's a true wild-card at this point, but one that cannot be ignored. After all, he still leads the Superprestige series and is within striking distance of the lead in the World Cup, GVA Trophy and UCI Points.
10. Steve Chainel (na) – Chainel’s posted back-to-back top-10 finishes in the last 2 rounds of the World Cup. He had huge support from the hometown crowd in Roubaix and for a few laps it looked like he was going to surprise a number of people. It will be very interesting to see how he does this weekend; he continues to improve every week.

Dropped this week: Francis Mourey (3), Petr Dlask (5), Lars Boom (6) and Dieter Vanthourenhout (9)

With one weekend remaining before the World Championships in Tabor, all eyes will be on Hoogerheide in the Netherlands for the final round of the World Cup. Niels Albert trails Zdenk Stybar by only 16 points. Can the Czech hold on, or does the World Champion have a surprise in store? While it will be our last chance to see where everyone stands before Worlds, this weekend will mark Tim Johnson's first appearance in Europe. The former Worlds medalist and current US National Champion has taken an unorthodox approach to Worlds (by training in California) and it's time to see if it will pay-off. As previously mentioned, Katie Compton failed to start last week in Roubaix and has been forced to watch her World Cup title slip away. Can the American bounce back right before Worlds? Or is her season done for good? All in all, a lot of questions will be answered this weekend. But I'm sure a bevy of new ones will arise just in time for the World Championships.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday Musette - Pavé News, Cyclocross, Service Courses, and UCI Record-Keeping

I’ll begin with some big news for Pavé. I’m pleased to announce that ace international cycling photographers Stefano Sirotti and Tim Van Wichelen will be providing images from the 2010 cycling season. Stefano’s contributions will begin shortly as he’s currently covering the Tour Down Under. Tim’s first major date is cyclocross Worlds in 2 weeks—but who knows what goodies he might offer between now and then. All in all, I’m hoping this is just the start of what we’re hoping will be a big year here at Pavé. As always, thanks for your continued reading and commenting—you’re the inspiration for all we do. (Oh boy, I’m starting to sound like Peter Cetera).

As for the rest of the Monday Musette:

1. All signs point to a serious showdown in Tabor, Czech Republic two weeks from now as the majority of the favorites for a cyclocross World Title are rounding themselves into form. Hometown favorite Zdenek Stybar took the World Cup honors in Roubaix yesterday, with Belgians Klaas Vantornout and Sven Nijs in 2nd and 3rd respectively. I'll leave the bulk of the commentary to Erik and his Wednesday Cross Report, but did you notice Erwin Vervecken and Bart Wellens in 4th and 5th place at less than a minute behind Stybar? These are two men not to be discounted in Tabor. Both have won Worlds before (Verwecken 3 times—once in Tabor—and Wellens twice) and both have the savvy and skill required to pull-off what some would consider a slight upset (not me). Furthermore, both have something to prove: Vervecken’s retiring and would love to go out with a bang; Wellens is eager to remind us that he still deserves to be mentioned with the giants of the sport. Working against them? They're Belgian--their biggest challenge might simply be making the team.

2. Last week, VeloNews provided a terrific glimpse behind the scenes at the Garmin-Transitions Service Course in Girona, Spain. It’s tough to imagine the amount of preparation that goes into running a professional cycling team—especially when you’re doing it on two continents. Do you have any idea how much space 22,000 water bottles occupy? Well, now you do.

Garmin’s mechanics face an additional challenge this year, as longtime wheel sponsor Zipp is out and Mavic is in. As a result, several hundred fresh tubulars will need to be glued—if you’re at a race hotel restaurant any time between now and May, Garmin’s mechanics should be easy to spot: they’ll be the ones with the menus sticking to their fingers.

And I wonder what Mavic will give them for the Classics? Raise your hand if you’d love to see an updated version of these Classics!

3. And lest we forget, there’s racing this week! Team Sky’s Greg Henderson took the season’s first blood, winning yesterday’s Cancer Council Helpline Classic. It was an impressive victory for Sky, albeit one that came after only 51km of racing. Things begin in earnest tomorrow, as the “real” racing gets underway in Stage 1 of the Tour Down Under. My pick for the overall win? André Greipel. My dark horse? Chris Sutton.

4. I’ve started writing Pavé’s team-by-team 2010 season preview and pre-season ranking (to be unveiled soon), and while printing rosters from the UCI’s website, I noticed something. Anyone missing? A quick perusal of other rosters revealed more errors, although none as glaring as omitting a former Tour de France champion and one of the sport’s hottest young talents. Next thing you know an 8-year-old boy will show-up on the USA’s No-Fly List! Thank heavens for Cycling Quotient.

5. And finally, are you going to NAHBS? We are; and while I’m not yet sure what the plan will be, I’d love to arrange some sort of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad viewing event. Any ideas?

As always, share your thoughts below.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wednesday Cross Report and Power Ranking

Nationals are over, Worlds beckon--clearly, we're nearing the end of the 2009/2010 cyclocross season.  Here's the latest report and Power Ranking from Erik Mitchell--our man in the mud.  For more, go visit Erik's site, The Run-up.

This past weekend, the superstars of cyclocross split-up and went home as the Belgians, Dutch, Czech, French and Italians (just to name a few) all held their National Championships this past weekend. Arguably, the biggest race is the Belgian Championship—they have the biggest names and the deepest field of any country. Sven Nys' victory in Oostmalle came as no surprise; the seven-time National Champ has been on a tear lately. In the Czech Republic, it was much of the same as Zdenek Stybar took home top honors ahead of a respectable group of riders. The biggest surprise came in the Netherlands, where Lars Boom seemingly popped-out of nowhere to out-sprint Gerben de Knegt to take the win. All-in-all, it was another exciting weekend; now everyone can relax—sort of—before the World Championships in a few weeks.

Behind, Nys, Stybar and Boom, lies a bevy of riders making their case for a spot on their countries’ World Championship teams. Obviously, the biggest pressure was on the host county’s riders—the Czechs. Stybar proved that he's the best rider in the land (and possibly in the World) while Petr Dlask continued his late season run, finishing 2nd. Dlask proved he could finish in the top-10 last weekend, but he still struggles with the World Cup races—hopefully that will change. In Belgium, Tom Meeusen (a rider to watch) pulled-off a stunning 3rd place finish behind Nys and Klass Vantornout. Meeusen was forced to race with the Elite Men because he has a professional contract, but will race with the U23 Men at Worlds, as he's only 21. More surprises came from Belgium where Niels Albert and Kevin Pauwels finished 9th and 10th, respectively. Pauwels simply had a bad day, while the reigning World Champion claimed he was pulled-off his bike by a rabid Nys fan. Regardless, they both had sub-par performances.
As you might expect, Sven Nys and Zdenk Stybar top the rankings this week; but where does everyone else fall? Time to find out:

International Power Rankings

1. Sven Nys (1) - While all National Championships are prestigious, the Belgian race takes top honors. A star-studded field and a crazy race combined for some great action. Nys came out on top, and continues to lead the rankings. He's once again the talk of the town when it comes to a World Championship, but I'll reserve that conversation for a later date.
2. Zdenek Stybar (2) - Stybar will have the honor of wearing his National Championship jersey (or at least his national team jersey) in front of a hometown Worlds crowd in a few weeks. He's one of the few men who can beat Nys and should have the course dialed-in by now (the Worlds course was used for the National Championships). Stybar is also in contention for the World Cup, the GVA Trophy, and Superprestige overalls. He definitely has a lot ahead of him to look forward to.
3. Francis Mourey (4) - Mourey picked up his fifth French National title in style this weekend, narrowly beating Steve Chainel. Mourey had a very strong early season, which quickly tailed-off in December. Two victories in two weeks prove that he's found his form again, but can he hold it until Worlds?
4. Klaas Vantornout (10) - Vantornout took crazy risks in an aggressive bid for a Belgian National title. In the end he came up short, as Nys overcame a bevy of crashes and mechanicals to win. Vantornout seems able to ride at the front in the races that matter most; he's definitely a wild card when it comes to Worlds.
5. Petr Dlask (9) - Dlask moved into the rankings for the first time last week and for good reason. He was the only rider who could keep Stybar in his sights and took a well-earned 2nd place. As I said last week, Dlask struggles at the bigger races, but is dominant in his home series (the TOI TOI cup). With a few World Cups coming-up, we will soon see how well he fairs outside of his native land.
6. Lars Boom (na) - Boom returned to the cross scene just in time to pick-up his fourth consecutive elite National title. The former cyclocross World Champ-turned roadie, has not mentioned any intentions to ride Worlds this year. But that may have changed now that he wears his Nation’s colors once again.
7. Gerben de Knegt (6) - de Knegt was my pick to win in Holland, but a last-lap stumble allowed a resurgent Boom to rejoin the lead and out-sprint him for the win. Even if Boom races Worlds this year, de Knegt is still his country’s best shot for a medal. Regardless, the 35-year old is having an outstanding season.
8. Tom Meeusen (na) - While nobody is the next Sven Nys, Meeusen may be as close as we'll ever get. The 21-year old has won nearly 50% of the races he's entered this year, dominating the U23 age group along the way. He is the odds-on favorite for U23 Worlds.
9. Dieter Vanthourenhout (5) - Vanthourenhout has continued his strong last-half of the season. His 5th-place finish in Oostmalle was hard-fought. It will be a battle for the last few Belgian spots at Worlds, but Vanthourenhout should have earned his ticket.
10. Bart Aernouts (7) - Like Vanthourenhout, Aernouts rode a solid race in Oostmalle, proving he's a worthy candidate for a Worlds spot. It will be interesting to see if the Belgian can crack the top-5 over the next few weeks.

Dropped this week: Niels Albert (3) and Kevin Pauwels (8).

It's back to a bit of normalcy this week in Europe. With the National Championships behind us and the World Championships right around the corner, we're in the midst of one of the most competitive parts of the season. Right now, team managers are finalizing their Worlds rosters and almost everyone wants to prove worthy of a spot. This weekend there's really only one race: Round 8 of the World Cup in Roubaix. Last year, the technical course, which goes in and around the famed Roubaix Velodrome, was turned to mud—epic mud. In fact, most riders were forced to run down the descents because it was safer and quicker. In the Overall standings, Niels Albert leads Zdenek Stybar by a mere 20 points, which means the first of that duo across the line should take the World Cup lead. Sven Nys is a distant 3rd and needs a miracle to wind-up the Overall. Last year, Erwin Vervecken shocked everyone with his victory, perhaps Nys can do it again. We’ll have to wait and see!

Share your comments below!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Monday Musette - Money, Assault (Aesthetic and Physical), and Craftmanship

1. By now you’ve heard the news of Milram and Saxo Bank’s withdrawals from title sponsorship following the 2010 season. (If not, The Boulder Report has a nice summary of all you need to know.) Here’s my question: at what point will the bubble burst? Some might be inclined to say no, as this season sees several new sponsors joining the ranks—including big investments by both Radio Shack and Sky. But to me, these deal seem more a result of companies hoping to cash-in on the sport’s biggest stars at the height of their popularity (such as Armstrong and Wiggins) and less an indicator of the sport’s fiscal health.

Losing sponsors such as Saxo Bank and Milram could be very, very bad for the sport should replacements not be found. Hopefully it’s not the tip of the iceberg. Luckily, Bjarne Riis has proven himself adept to find last-minute funds when he needs to. Look for him to have someone new on-board by the Tour, most likely a co-sponsor that will magically become the title sponsor in 2011. However, Milram’s Gerry Van Gerwen faces a tough proposition; his task is made more difficult given the fact that Milram’s not quite a team known for winning races.

2. And while we’re on the subject of teams and sponsors: is it me, or is this the ugliest jersey you’ve EVER seen? As their tans deepen by mid-summer, some of these riders will look downright naked! A better choice would have been something similar to the design used for the team’s two Austrian Champions, Markus Eibegger and Matthias Brändle, a tasteful red and white color scheme. Ugh.

3. Tough luck for Niels Albert in this weekend’s Belgian National Cyclocross Championship as a collision with a drunken fan broke one of his ribs. Don’t forget, this isn’t the first time there’s been a scuffle between a rider and a fan at a Belgian cyclocross event, right Bart Wellens? This time, the unprovoked actions of one inebriated spectator threaten to ruin one of the purest fan-to-racer experiences the sport still has to offer.

One of the best things about cyclocross is the close proximity we as fans can get to the action. We don’t need a car to ride from vantage point to vantage point, and lap times aren’t so high that we lose interest before the next go-around. We can stand in one place for an hour, drink, frites, or cowbell in hand, and watch the events unfold right before our very eyes. It’s a front row seat to the action.

But like so much in life, it’s all fun and games until someone breaks a rib. And it must be noted: Belgium’s quickly developing a reputation for producing hooligans dressed as fans. Remember the encouragement Filippo Pozzato received while chasing Tom Boonen in last year’s Paris-Roubaix? Passion is passion, and hometown favoritism is hometown favoritism; but assault’s something else.

Before moving-on, I think it’s important to include one of the more entertaining bits from Cyclingnews’ report on the incident:

“Roodhooft [Albert’s manager] went on to say that the spectator claimed to be a supporter of Albert, although he was standing with fans of Nys.”

I find this comical only because I’m certain there’s an investigation underway in Belgium to find the true allegiance of the perpetrator—it will be a topic of conversation for weeks.

And for the record, Albert said he wasn’t going to win anyway, so enjoy your 7th title, Meneer Nijs.

4. On a related note, Lars Boom won the Dutch National Championship in his first season as a “retired” cross racer. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do in this year’s Classics.

5. And finally, take a look at the beautiful bike Justin Spinelli assembled for one of his customers at Svelte Cycles. It’s especially interesting when juxtaposed with Competitive Cyclist’s explanation of its decision to stop selling Pegoretti framesets. Personally, I’m on the fence. I agree with Competitive Cyclist: when you pay for a bike from the master, you’re paying for the master’s expertise as well—no questions asked. But at the same time, there’s something to be said for a builder able to take a customer’s idea and craft it with skill. Svelte’s Mondrian IF is a fine example of what can happen when a customer, a shop, and a master frame builder are all on the same page.

That’s it for today. What are your thoughts on the fiscal state of the sport? How about your picks for Ugliest Jersey? And what can be done about spectator-racer “interaction” at cyclocross races?

Share your thoughts on these and all others topics below—and have a great week!

P.S. A little self-promotion: tomorrow’s the deadline for the nominating your favorite blogs for the 2010 Bloggie Awards. If you have the time, cruise over and nominate your favorites (there are several categories from which to choose). I’m not saying you should vote for Pavé, but I’m sure you can think of someone out there who deserves some recognition—it might make his/her day.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

My Favorite Rider

This was published earlier over at Embrocation, but with all the great comments following Monday's Musette, I thought it would only be fitting to share it here as well.  My one regret?  I forgot to include my 1994-5 Richard Virenque obsession following his Tour stage win to Luz Ardiden.  (I have a blue-white-red Timbuk2 messenger bag to prove it--so mid-ninties, huh?)

At lunch the other day, my friend Matt asked me who my favorite rider is.  Aside from being a good friend and a respected colleague, Matt’s also a recreational cyclist who has enjoyed learning more about the sport during our frequent lunchtime discussions. I wanted to give him a thoughtful answer, but his question stumped me.

That was over 2 weeks ago and Matt’s question still lingers.  Throughout the holidays I frequently found myself thinking about it, wondering which rider—if any—could be considered my favorite.

I came to the sport in the early 1990’s.  A mountain biker at first, a friend took me to the 1993 Core States Championship in Philadelphia, where I stared in awe as Lance Armstrong attacked to win the million-dollar Triple Crown.  He was young, charismatic, American, and fast.  He became my first favorite roadie, and a Specialized Sub-6 helmet and replica Motorola jersey became the centerpieces of my wardrobe that summer.

Then came 1996 and my burgeoning obsession with the cobbled classics.  Thanks to World Cycling Productions I was finally able to watch these legendary races unfold before my eyes.  My first order consisted of two titles: the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem.  As a result, Vittoria All-Weather, Briko, and Mapei were just a few of the year’s additions to my cycling lexicon, and Michele Bartoli (with Johan Museeuw a close second), became my new favorite rider.  It’s easy to see why: his attack at the foot of the Muur (you can find it on YouTube) left destroyed the other race favorites, including several former winners.  His position on the bike during the final kilometers brought to mind stories I had heard of Maurizio Fondriest riding rollers in front of a mirror, analyzing his form to make it look just right.  To me at the time, Bartoli represented everything exotic about the sport—an classy Italian winning the quintessential Belgian race was the perfect juxtaposition of what I considered to be cycling’s two best aesthetics.  Bartoli later won several more of what have since become my favorite races: Het Volk, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour of Lombardy.

Near the end of Bartoli’s prominence though, I entered the sport myself (at the professional level, that is), taking a job with Mercury-Viatel in late-2000.  My perspective soon changed.  No longer a fan, I became a colleague, even a boss of the men I had previously only read about in magazines or watched in videos.  Being a “fan” suddenly seemed out of place, amateur even.  As it was I was already struggling for credibility as a 24-year old American without an impressive racing pedigree; idolizing riders was out of the question.

After 2001 and my return home, my cycling heroes soon became the friendly, honest, approachable, and down to earth men I had to come to know during my time in Europe.  I felt thrilled when Peter Van Petegem took back-to-back wins in Flanders and Roubaix, proud to see Matt Wilson driving on the front at the Tour, and vindicated when Pavel Tonkov took his final stage win in the Giro d’Italia, his middle finger aloft in salute to all who felt he “just didn’t have it anymore”.

And now? Matt’s question remains unanswered.  Tom Boonen?  Sorry Tommeke, your affinity for nose candy reinforces the wisdom of “fool me once”.  Alberto Contador?  You had me at hello Alberto, but lost me as soon as you opened your mouth after this year’s Tour—taking the high road would have proved much more impressive.  Stijn Devolder?  A Flanders Double is great, but go win something else before you whine as much as you did last fall.  Bradley Wiggins?  Don’t even get me started.

Instead, this season I’ll be looking to the Vansummeren’s, Haussler’s, and Hincapie’s of the sport for my hero-fix.  They ride hard, win the races they’re supposed to win (well, almost), and do it all while keeping their mouths shut (unless you or your team really pisses them off).  For me, that’s good enough. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wednesday Cross Report and Power Ranking - Nationals Beckon

Here's Erik's latest Cross Report and Power Ranking.  For more, visit his website, The Run-up.  And please feel free to share your comments below.

The New Year kicked-off in style this week with no less than a dozen cross races in Europe. No race was more important than the GP Sven Nys, which in addition to being named after a cross superstar, was a round of the Gazet van Antwerpen Trophy. Nys took the victory himself in incredible fashion over Zdenk Stybar, while Niels Albert finished a distant 3rd. Behind them, Gerben de Knegt continued his push towards a national title and potential World Championship podium, finishing 4th; while a resurgent Francis Mourey took 5th. Beyond the top-5, there were a few surprises, including an absent Bart Wellens and a fading Kevin Pauwels. The rest of the top-ten was filled with the usual cast of characters.

With the prestige of a national title on the line this upcoming weekend, most riders picked and chose their races based on location and form. As a result, besides the GVA Trophy round, only one other race was hotly contested: the mid-week race in Tervuren. Stybar pulled-out the win there while Nys and Pauwels rounded-out the podium. Behind, Albert, Mourey and a handful of other Belgians filled the top-10. While Nys and Stybar had the biggest wins of the week, Bart Aernouts, Mourey and Dieter Vanthourenhout all graced the top step of podiums in other events. Needless to say, everyone appears to be on form for his shot at a national title. Jonathan Page found his way onto a few podiums this week too, which is a great sign heading into Worlds. However, this weekend all eyes will focus on Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic (among others), to see who will wear their nation’s colors for the next year. That said, here's how everyone lines-up this week:

International Power Ranking

1. Sven Nys (1) - Nys chose to only do two races this week placing 1st and 2nd. His win at the GP Sven Nys (go figure) puts him in command of the GVA Trophy, the only series in which he's still in contention. Nys seems to have found his stride, just in time for a shot at a national and possibly world title.
2. Zdenek Stybar (4) - Stybar flip-flopped podium positions with Nys and also picked-up a 4th in Bredene. He's the heavy favorite to win the Czech National title this weekend, but the pressure to win Worlds in front of his home nation keeps mounting. Imagine, being in the lead group on the last lap of Worlds wearing your nation’s colors in front of all your countrymen. For Stybar, it's a distinct possibility.
3. Niels Albert (2) - The reigning World Champion continues to ride just off the pace of the rest of the leaders, especially in the bigger races. He raced 3 times this past week, picking up 2 thirds and a fifth. He's a major contender for the Belgian title this weekend, but Nys seems to have his number right now.
4. Francis Mourey (na) - The Frenchmen finally returns to the rankings this week after a pair of top-10’s and a victory in Sint-Niklaas. To say he's a favorite to win the French National title again is an understatement; the real question is can he return to the lead group at the upcoming World Cups and World Championship.
5. Dieter Vanthourenhout (7) - While Vanthourenhout finished a disappointing 13th at the GVA round this weekend, he also managed a 3rd place and a win in Bredene. He has an outside shot at a Belgian title this past weekend, and is making a strong push for a spot on the Belgian Worlds team.
6. Gerben de Knegt (5) - de Knegt picked up another 4th at the GP Sven Nys this past week. He also managed a 2nd and a 7th at some of the smaller races. Vanthourenhout's win is the only reason de Knegt isn't in the top-5 this week—but that should all change with a Dutch National title this weekend.
7. Bart Aernouts (8) - Aernouts picked-up a stellar win at the GP Groenendal along with a 6th at the GP Sven Nys. While he continues to be a regular in the rankings, he still lacks the ability to contest the lead at the bigger races.
8. Kevin Pauwels (3) - Pauwels struggled to finish 12th in last weekend’s round of the GVA. However, he managed a 3rd behind Nys and Stybar in Tervuren. Perhaps I dropped him too far down the rankings this week; that can all change with a podium spot this weekend.
9. Petr Dlask (na) - Dlask made his presence known this week, picking-up two top-10’s. Dlask's season has consisted of top-20 World Cup finishes and podium spots in the TOI TOI cup. Perhaps his slow and steady build is finally paying off—just in time for the Czech rider to make his country’s Worlds team.
10. Klass Vantornout (6) - Vantornout is the only rider in the rankings this week who only raced once. He picked-up a top-10 at the GP Sven Nys and appears to be prepping for the Belgian National Championships this weekend. He has an outside podium shot, but that's about it.

Dropped this week: Bart Wellens (9) and Radomir Simunek (10).

There are only a few races this weekend, but they're the second-most important of the year as almost every European country will be handing-out national titles. The real fight will be in Belgium where Nys, Pauwels and Albert are all capable of winning. Stybar should pick-up the win in the Czech Republic, Mourey in France, and de Knegt in the Netherlands. However, it's been a year of surprises and great racing, I expect some more this weekend.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Monday Musette - 3 Questions for YOU!

For the first Monday Musette of 2010, I want to give you a chance to share your ideas with the rest of us. Here are 3 questions that I want to hear from YOU about:

1. Last week, a work colleague asked me who my favorite rider was. It took me a moment or two before I realized just how hard a question it is to answer. So I’m wondering: who’s your favorite rider and why?

2. The 2010 road season begins in a little over 2 weeks with Australia’s Tour Down Under. It’s therefore the time of year when teams are introduced, programmes are determined, and new kit and bikes are unveiled. What do you most look forward to as each new season begins?

3. Finally, I’m sure that by now many of you have read or heard the news about João Correia’s contract with the Cervelo TestTeam. As for me, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it in an effort to determine whether I’m a) inspired, b) jealous, c) skeptical, or d) all of the above. What’s your take?

Please share your answers either as a comment below or in an email to us directly at