Tuesday, March 30, 2010

3-Days of DePanne - Stage 1 Live Stream

Here's a link to a live stream of today's stage.  Be sure to check-out our DePanne Preview below.

Thanks for reading!

3-Days of DePanne Preview

The 3-Days of DePanne begins today, offering procrastinators one last chance to cram before Sunday’s major exam—the Tour of Flanders. This 3-day, 4-stage event offers something for everyone: a long, hilly pre-Ronde reconnaissance stage; two stages for sprinters; and the traditional short, time trial finale.

Before Milan-San Remo, I spoke about certain races following scripts; here’s the script for DePanne:


(Cobbled climbs.)

--Breakaway or small group (possibly containing one or more contenders for the Ronde) wins hilly first stage, creating GC time-gaps.


--Despite several riders’ best efforts, Stage 2 ends in a field sprint.


--Stage 3a ends in another field sprint, after which the majority of riders not inside the top-20 head home early.


--Stage 3b time trial is won by a specialist, and the race overall goes to the best time trialist from Stage 1’s breakaway or small group.


So without further ado, let’s take a look at this year’s contenders.

Liquigas returns to the race with last year’s winner, Frederik Willems, supported by a strong cast including sprinters Daniele Bennati and Francesco Chicchi and all-rounders Manuel Quinziato and Daniele Oss. I could easily see Bennati and Chicchi taking a stage or two and Quinziato possibly going for the overall win should he make the break in Stage 1. Oss rode a superb Ghent-Wevelgem Sunday—he’s one to watch as well.

Omega Pharma-Lotto enters DePanne with both Phillippe Gilbert and Leif Hoste hoping to cram a bit more form into their legs before Flanders and Roubaix. For Gilbert, the race is little more than a tune-up, one final chance to test himself on terrain similar to Sunday’s. As for Hoste, he seriously needs some training, and perhaps a result to ease some of the pressure his team currently faces. He won this race in 2006—a repeat performance would certainly be a welcome sight for one of few teams not to have won a race yet this year.

HTC-Columbia is leaving Ghent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel home this week, bringing a young, but talented squad to DePanne. Marcel Sieberg and Peter Velits should continue to impress, while Bert Grabsch has the talent to win Thursday’s ITT. I’ll have my eye on Jan Ghyselinck, a talented young Belgian who might put on a show for the home fans.

Quick Step’s bringing a team comprised largely of domestiques and rouleurs, inevitably hoping one or two will rise to the challenge of getting Boonen a win on Sunday. All eyes will be on Stijn Devolder as he makes one final attempt to find the form that saw him win the last two editions of the Ronde. He’s faced consistent criticism in the press, especially from his own boss, Patrick Lefevere—today begins his last chance for redemption. He’s won this race before though—he at least has that going for him.

As for Astana, they bring the bulk of their classics team to the race including former stage winner Enrico Gasparotto. With Maxim Iglinsky and Allan Davis, there’s the potential for multiple stage wins and possibly the overall title for the aggressive Kazakh squad.

Katusha’s another team not leaving anything to chance, bringing Filippo Pozzato, Sergei Ivanov, and Robbie McEwan. Pozzato won a difficult Stage1 last year and almost took home the overall title—he always deserves mention. McEwen could take a victory on Stages 2 and 3a if things go well. This team’s biggest goal: keep Pozzato out of trouble. DePanne’s notorious for crashes; a fall for Pippo would be disastrous.

As for Garmin, they’re a team that might be looking for the overall win. Tyler Farrar’s well-suited to each of the three mass-start stages, and can certainly hold his own well enough in a time trial to win the overall title. With Johan Vansummeren, Martijn Maaskant, and Robbie Hunter riding in support, Farrar has to be considered a top favorite. And don’t forget David Millar. Fresh from his ITT win in the Criterium International, Thursday’s race against the clock certainly suits him.

Poor Lampre—we haven’t mentioned them once this classics season. That said, this is a race where they could grab a win. Danilo Hondo and Angelo Furlan are candidates for a field sprint, while Simon Spilak is always a threat from a breakaway.

On to BMC and another rider hoping DePanne will provide a glimpse of the winning form he’s displayed in the past: Alessandro Ballan. BMC’s beginning to reveal it’s potential with both Marcus Burghardt and George Hincapie delivering impressive performances over the weekend—now it’s Ballan’s turn to add a piece to the puzzle. If he can hit his peak in time for the following two Sunday’s, thus joining his two teammates at a high level, this will be a tough team to overlook. Ballan won DePanne in 2007 then won Flanders 3 days later. If he shows himself to be among the best between now and Thursday, we’ll have to take him seriously.

As for the rest of the teams taking the start, there are several highlights worth mentioning:

1. Skil-Shimano is hoping Kenny Van Hummel can send a message to the ASO with a stage win or two, while Dominique Cornu is an outside threat for the ITT.

2. Vacansoleil, another team left-off the Tour’s invite list, brings Bobbie Traksel and Borut Borzic. Borzic could easily take Stages 2 and 3a.

3. Acqua & Sapone’s Luca Paolini has been riding at a high level since Milan-San Remo. Could DePanne give him the win he’s been seeking?

4. Landbouwkrediet’s Davey Commeyne has made an impressive switch from cyclocross to road—look for him to continue to make strides this week.

5. BBox’s William Bonnet and Steve Chainel have put in some impressive performances as of late—watch for them this week.

6. Jens Keukelaire and Cofidis are both hoping for a win in DePanne, thus proving the young Belgian has what it takes to win against top competition.

7. Italy’s best chance for a win or two in DePanne might actually come from Colnago and Sasha Modolo, the 4th-place finisher in Milan-San Remo. Several sprinters have used DePanne to take their first big wins against tough foreign competition—with Mattia Gavazzi providing lead-outs, I think Modolo’s coming-out party will continue here.

8. And last but not least, we cannot forget An Post’s Nico Eeckhout and Topsport Vlaanderen’s Sep Vanmarcke, two riders at the opposite ends of their careers. Vanmarcke’s ridden incredibly well over the past 10 days; I’m eager to see if he can continue to mix it up with the big boys in DePanne.

And my final prediction? I think Tyler Farrar will take the overall title over Quinziato with Gasparotto, Bennati, Modolo, and David Millar taking the stage wins—in that order.

What about you? Share your comments below.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday Musette - E3 Prijs and Ghent-Wevelgem Wrap-up

Sorry for the delay, but here are my thoughts following a jam-packed weekend of racing:

1. It’s hard to believe that Saturday’s E3 Prij was Fabian Cancellara’s first win in Belgium—aside from an ITT stage at the Tour of Belgium. Clearly, Spartacus is hoping it’s just a taste of better things to come—and with a team that’s turning-out to be one of the strongest in the peloton, it’s easy to see why his confidence is brimming. I haven’t been able to ascertain whether or not he knew about that tight left-hander just inside 1km to go, but one can only assume he—or his director—did. It just goes to show what can happen when brains meet brawns.

2. As for Tom Boonen, Saturday was his second consecutive 2nd-place in a race he won 4-years running from 2004 to 2007. To be honest, I’m not sure why everyone’s making such a big deal about Boonen’s performance. The only time anyone ever spoke about last year’s E3 loss to Pozzato was immediately before and after this year’s event—don’t you think Pozzato would have much rather won Roubaix and lost the E3? Exactly. A win on either of the next 2 Sunday’s is all Boonen needs to erase any lingering thoughts following Saturday’s loss—at least until next year’s event. That said, Boonen intimated that he was not prepared for the change in the race’s finish. Had he known about that last corner, he might have taken a faster line, and perhaps come a bit closer to catching Cancellara. With several other men riding at the top of their game, Boonen is in no place to take anything for granted—Saturday proved how costly even the slightest of mental lapses can be.

3. Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha seems to have picked-up right where he left-off in February’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. I see him as a better contender for Roubaix than Flanders though, as he seems less explosive than he once was. Remember, when he attacked to win the Omloop, he simply motored-away from the rest on a flat section of cobbles. As for teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen, he was a non-factor in both races this weekend—that’s too bad as we all had high hopes for the young Norwegian. Can he get it together in time for Flanders?

4. And speaking of non-factors, Stijn Devolder might become the only former winner of the Tour of Flanders to be left-off his team the following year. Patrick Lefevere seems unimpressed by his team’s lack of urgency, even going as so far as to speculate just how many of his current riders might be looking for new jobs by the end of the season. While Sylvain Chavanel’s ridden well enough so far to be given a little bit of latitude, Devolder clearly has more to prove. He’s starting tomorrow’s 3-Days of DePanne, his last chance to show us—and his team—what he has to offer.

5. Hopefully Filippo Pozzato learned his lesson—he needs to be well-placed for every climb, not just the ones on which he thinks Boonen will attack. I don’t expect we’ll see him make the same mistake again—especially with Sergei Ivanov likely to have received a lecture as well following Saturday’s gaffe. Despite the mistake, Pippo’s clearly at the top of his game right now.

6. I picked Nick Nuyens for the win Saturday; he responded by hitting the deck not once, but three times. It’s a shame too as his Rabobank team was clearly up to the challenge, placing 3 riders in the top-10. One can only wonder what they would have done had Nuyens kept the rubber-side down.

7. Vacansoleil put in an impressive team performance as well, placing 2 riders in the top-10 including none other than Bjorn Leukemans. Okay, Bjorn, after 2nd-place in Dwars and 7th in the E3, you’re back on the radar. Please don’t disappoint me.

8. Were you surprised to see a Footon-Serveto rider finish 10th and a Xacebo-Galicia rider finish 18th? It’s okay, you can say it—I was too.

9. And speaking of Spanish teams, there was an interesting moment Saturday when Euskaltel had 4 riders struggling at the back in the E3 Prijs while 4 of their teammates were riding tempo at the front in the Criterium International. How’s that for universal balance?

Now to Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem…

10. It’s beginning to look like the only thing that might get in Fabian Cancellara’s way next weekend might be his own teammate, Matti Breschel. It was obvious to everyone that Breschel was the strongest man in the field. Had he not flatted, he might have added a major classic to the minor one he won last Wednesday. He and Cancellara are saying all the right things heading into Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, but one can only wonder what might happen between now and the finish line Sunday. One thing is certain: Saxo Bank clearly has the best one-two punch in the peloton right now—something few other teams can match.

11. But before we forget, let’s give some credit to HTC-Columbia’s Bernhard Eisel, the man who actually won the race. He admitted to not liking Ghent-Wevelgem very much in his post-race interview—that’s too bad as he’ll certainly be expected to ride it every year from now until he retires. Bob Stapleton must have been relieved to see his team take a big win—especially given the amount of success his former riders have garnered since their departures. Eisel was not eager to count himself among the favorites for next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, but his teammates Marcel Sieberg and Matthew Goss still warrant attention following impressive rides yesterday. This year might be too soon, but it’s clear that HTC’s future is bright.

12. Hats-off to Topsport Vlaanderen’s Sep Vanmarcke for what was one of the gutsiest rides I’ve seen in a long time. Not only did he attack in the finale of Ghent-Wevelgem, but once he was caught he was still able to sprint to 2nd place—which is more than can be said for some of his companions. Vanmarcke also made the main selection in Dwars Door Vlaanderen.  Let’s see what he can do in this week’s 3-Days of DePanne.

13. As for Philippe Gilbert and Omega Pharma-Lotto, it’s déjà vu all over again as their 2010 spring campaign has started as poorly as last year’s. With 2 men in a 6-man breakaway, it’s hard to see how the team didn’t come home with the win. Both Gilbert and Roelandts said they told the other to go for it, but that’s hardly an excuse for not even trying to attack. Worse still, there seemed to be no attempt at teamwork in the final sprint. Still, Gilbert’s riding well and is hoping DePanne will put the finishing touches on his form for Flanders. But this is Belgium—wins in Paris-Tours and the Tour of Lombardy will only get him so far.

As for Jurgen Roelandts, we could forgive him for his failure to come through for his team yesterday—had he made more of an effort in the final to lead-out Gilbert for the win. While I think he’ll play a role on Sunday, his true calling could be Paris-Roubaix two weeks from now.

14. And give George Hincapie credit for a solid ride Sunday—a ride I can’t say I was expecting. Despite the performance, I think Flanders is a bit out of his reach at this point—Marcus Burghardt might be a better bet for BMC. But Roubaix is still a race I think he can win, especially with two more weeks to improve. Sometimes getting sick can be a good thing—if it gets you to your peak at a time when others are starting to fall from theirs. Could this be George’s lucky year?

And while we’re talking about BMC, is Alessandro Ballan this team’s Stijn Devolder? Like the Belgian, Ballan’s riding DePanne, but I can’t help but if it’s too little, too late.

15. As for Liquigas and Astana, not riding Saturday clearly had an effect on their performances Sunday. Daniel Oss is a name to remember from Liquigas while Enrico Gasparotto and Maxim Iglinsky continued their impressive seasons for Astana. All three are listed for DePanne—I expect we’ll be hearing from them again. One interesting note for Astana, I think Iglinsky getting dropped from the break shows the decline of his form, while Gasparotto’s move to bridge a gap on the Kateberg shows his fitness might still be on the rise.

16. And finally, the organizers of Ghent-Wevelgem couldn’t have been happy with Boonen and Cancellara not finishing—and almost not even starting, for that matter. This weekend proved that riding both races at a high level is clearly not possible. Expect more calendar changes next year.

And that’s that as far this weekend’s cobbled races are concerned. What are your thoughts?

Share them below.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Friday, March 26, 2010

E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem Preview - A Team Approach

Until the Ghent-Wevelgem joined it on the same weekend, the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen was the traditional dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders. With over 200 kilometers of hills and cobbles—including many of the climbs to be used in the following Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, riders and teams felt it offered the best preparation and reconnaissance.

Now though, Ghent-Wevelgem takes the Sunday slot previously occupied by the Brabantsepijl—a race run on a less-demanding circuit. As a result, teams are now faced with the choice of doing both the E3 and the “new and improved” Ghent-Wevelgem—for a total of more than 400 kilometers of berg and cobble-filled racing—or choosing one race over the other. That’s a tough call considering the importance and prestige of both events.

For the past few days I’ve faced a difficult decision as well: do I write one or two previews for this weekend’s races? On one hand, a single preview might be more appropriate and perhaps less redundant as many of the favorites for Saturday will also be favored on Sunday. On the other hand, there are several key differences between each race’s start list—differences that could be a factor in the final results.

In the end, I’ve decided to take a team approach, previewing the prospects of the favored teams’ chances over the course of the weekend. I’ll start in an obvious place:

Quick Step’s heads into the weekend with what appears to be the strongest squad in both races. Tom Boonen was initially slated to start only Saturday’s E3 Prijs, but has reconsidered given his current form. After all, he’s won both races in the past, and the E3 Prijs 4 times! On Saturday he’ll have the team’s full complement backing him including Sylvain Chavanel, Stijn Devolder, and Carlos Barredo. On Sunday, Devolder will sit-out in favor of Wouter Weylandt, a rider capable of taking the win should things come down to a sprint. Aside from what could be an impressive display from Boonen, watch carefully for the roles played by Chavanel and Devolder—we could get our first glimpse of where they stand behind Boonen in the team’s hierarchy. If the last few weeks are any indication, Chavanel’s riding better than Devolder and should be given more latitude to play his own hand. Then again, this is Belgium—will Quick Step favor a Frenchman over a hometown hero?

Boonen and Quick Step’s main competition on Saturday should come from Filippo Pozzato’s Katusha squad, a team that has performed well over the past weeks on behalf of their longhaired leader. With experienced support from Sergei Ivanov—a former E3 winner—Pozzato can ride confidently; his main lieutenant knows the roads better than he does. Throw-in Stijn Vandenbergh and Laszlo Bodrogi, and you’ve got the makings of a deep squad. On Sunday, Pozzato will rest while Robbie McEwen joins the roster. Ghent-Wevelgem’s added more hills this year—possibly to attract more of the Ronde’s favorites—but making it a bit harder for the sprinters. Still, after a hard day in Harelbeke, it might be a race that ends in a bunch. If it does, look for Katusha to try and set things up for McEwen to take a win in front of his adopted home crowd.

Team Sky is another main contender, with both Edvald Boasson Hagen and Juan Antonio Flecha slated to start both events. This line-up could change though, as Hagen’s reported to be suffering from Achilles problems. I have a hunch we might see the team ride for Flecha Saturday and Hagen Sunday. Flecha’s form has continued to grow since his win in last month’s Omloop Het Niuewsblad; a win in the E3 would make him a solid favorite for Flanders along with Boonen and Pozzato. As for Hagen, he won Ghent-Wevelgem last year, and might choose an extra day of rest before returning to defend his title. With a strong team including Michael Barry, former E3 winner Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Matt Hayman, and Ian Stannard, this squad has the capacity to win both races. And don’t forget Greg Henderson in the event of a sprint on Sunday; with Chris Sutton giving him lead-outs, a sprint win for the Kiwi is a very real possibility.

From Sky to Saxo Bank, the team of Fabian Cancellara and Wednesday’s winner of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Matti Breschel. Cancellara’s racing both events—perhaps a statement directed at Tom Boonen. Look for him to be involved more on Saturday as the race is more akin to next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. In fact, if he—and Boonen for that matter—do well in the E3, look for one if not both to be last-minute scratches in Ghent. As for Breschel, he’s generally listed as starting both days as well, but I found one site in which he’s been scratched from the E3 Prijs—perhaps saving him for a possible sprint on Sunday? With both Cancellara and Breschel in the fold, Saxo Bank is another candidate for double wins.

But wait, there’s another team with the firepower necessary to do the double this weekend—Rabobank with Nick Nuyens and Oscar Freire. Nuyens has been building nicely all season. He raced aggressively in the Omloop before a flat tire derailed his chances for the win then followed it up with an attacking ride in Wednesday’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Look for him to have the sole support of team Saturday, with Lars Boom and Sebastian Langeveld his lieutenants. On Sunday, Nuyens rests while Milan-San Remo winner Freire attempts to continue his impressive March with what would be his second win in Wevelgem. With Nuyens, Boom, and Langeveld all resting in favor of lead-out men and rouleurs, it’s clear where Rabobank’s ambitions lie.

Omega Pharma-Lotto’s taken an interesting approach to the weekend, leaving both Philippe Gilbert and Jurgen Roelandts at home on Saturday in favor of a start in Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem, a choice that confuses me. Were I driving the car, I would have started Gilbert in the E3, thus giving him a chance to gauge his fitness against the other favorites in a race much more suited to his talents. On Sunday, I would put all my eggs in Roelandts’ basket, giving him a chance to see what he can do as the team’s protected rider. After all, he’s shown terrific form thus far—let’s see what he’s got, no? Instead, it appears Greg Van Avermaet will lead the team in Harelbeke. Van Avermaet displayed good fitness on Wednesday in Dwars; in Harelbeke he’ll be supported by Leif Hoste, a rider capable of a good ride, but seems more content to wait for Roubaix. As for Sunday, with both Gilbert and Roelandts rested, there will be a lot of pressure on the team to bring home the win in front of a home crowd. With such a stacked line-up, they’re certainly up to the challenge.

One of my big questions for the next two weeks is whether or not BMC is up to the challenge as well. At the beginning of the year we thought BMC would be challengers in several of the cobbled classics. But after a sub-par start to the season, many have doubts. Marcus Burghardt seems to be the team’s best rider at this point. He rode solidly in Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, finishing with the leading peloton. Burghardt’s finished in the top-5 in the E3 and won Ghent-Wevelgem in the past; similar results are well within his potential this weekend—he’s racing both events. Karsten Kroon joins him on Saturday while Alessandro Ballan joins him both days—the Italian needs to show something soon if he wants to be considered a favorite for next weekend’s main event. As for George Hincapie, he’s riding Ghent-Wevelgem—a race he won in 2001—but will skip the E3. At this point though, it’s hard to consider George a favorite this weekend—and possibly next as well. I’m hoping he’ll have good legs for Roubaix in two weeks—it’s a race where age and experience still mean something—but his current form doesn’t paint an optimistic picture. I hope I’m wrong.

As for the Cervelo TestTeam, they’ve lost a step thanks to the injury to Heinrich Haussler. On Saturday they take the line in Harelbeke hoping to propel Thor Hushovd to a good result on his way to his ultimate rendezvous with Flanders and Roubaix. After testing himself Saturday against his main competition, he’ll rest Sunday while former winner Andreas Klier, Roger Hammond, and Jeremy Hunt give it their best shot at Ghent-Wevelgem.

We would have expected HTC-Columbia and Liquigas to bring powerhouse squads to both races. Instead, the teams are riding Ghent-Wevelgem only—which certainly couldn’t have pleased the organizers of the E3 Prijs. That said, calling HTC’s roster for Sunday a “powerhouse” is a bit of an exaggeration. Marcel Seiberg and Matthew Goss—two young riders with serious potential—are the highlights of a classics team depleted by off-season transfers. Bernhard Eisel will be hoping for a sprint, but anything more than a top-5 placing might be out of his reach.

As for Liquigas, Peter Sagan has inexplicably been left off the list for Ghent-Wevelgem, a race he might have won. He’s on tap for Paris-Roubaix though, so we’ll soon get to see what he can do on the pavé. The team is bringing Daniele Bennati and Francesco Chicchi, two men certainly capable of winning the race in a sprint—if they work together. Aleksandr Kuschynski finished 2nd here last year—he and Manuel Quinziato will be looking for a succesful breakaway.

Garmin and Astana also chose to skip Saturday’s E3 Prijs in exchange for fresh legs on Sunday. Garmin’s clearly hoping Tyler Farrar can climb better in Flanders than he did last Saturday in Italy when he was dropped in Milan-San Remo. With Matt Wilson, Johan Vansummeren, Martijn Maaskant, and Robert Hunter supporting him, Farrar will be a force to be reckoned with in a field sprint. As for Astana, Maxim Iglinsky and Enrico Gasparotto have been riding very well as of late. Iglinsky finished third behind Pozzato and Boonen in last year’s E3. He won’t have another chance this year, but he clearly rides well in Belgium and is an early dark horse candidate for Flanders. As for Gasparotto, he won a stage in DePanne a few years back—he’s someone to watch for as well.

And the rest? Acqua Sapone brings Luca Paolini to both races—he’s been progressing nicely and is just the kind of rider to pull a surprise in a race like Harelbeke—if the favorites spend too much time staring at one another. Milram’s Niki Terpstra will be looking to build upon his great result in Dwars door Vlaanderen with another top result in Ghent-Wevelgem. La Francaise des Jeux brings Anthony Geslin, Yoann Offredo, and Frederic Guesdon to Harelbeke on Saturday and adds Yuheni Hutarovich—a talented sprinter—to the squad for Sunday. Without Geert Steegmans, Radio Shack will be hoping Geoffroy Lequatre can continue to impress, while Vacansoleil hopes Bjorn Leukemans and Borut Borzic can land solid results Saturday and Sunday respectively.

And last but never least, Nico Eeckhout and his An Post team will be racing on Saturday in the E3—never, ever count him out.

So I guess it’s prediction time, huh? Here you go!

I think a break gets away in Harelbeke, likely containing several top favorites. I see Nick Nuyens coming through for the win, as he’s perhaps a bit more desperate to prove himself in front of his home fans. It’s been a while since he’s won something important; if he gets a chance Saturday he’ll have no choice but to take it. Boonen will lead whoever’s left home for 2nd place on the day—look for Flecha, Burghardt, and Pozzato to be up there too. And don’t forget Luca Paolini.

On Sunday, I have to go with Oscar Freire for a second winning performance in a major race this season over Bennati, Farrar, Borzic, and Breschel. Ivanov, Iglinsky, and Quinziato will do their best to make a break succeed, but in the end the sprinter’s teams will prevail.

And while I’m at it, look for Alberto Contador to storm to a win in this weekend’s Criterium International, directly throwing sand in the face of Lance Armstrong and The Shack. He better take a rest soon though; he’s been riding at a high level for a while now and will need to rest before building peaking again for July.

That’s all for today—thanks for reading! Who are your picks for this weekend’s races?

Share your comments below. I’ll post a live feed tomorrow if I find one—look for me on Twitter as well if my schedule permits.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

5 Questions for the Cobbled Classics

Before things get underway this weekend, I thought it might be appropriate to share some questions I look forward to having answered in this year’s cobbled classics. The list is by no means exhaustive—there are many more plots and sub-plots to explore. But these are 5 of the biggest stories I’ll be following from Harelbeke to Roubaix.

1. What effects will Ghent-Wevelgem’s calendar move have?

This is something I’ve been wondering about ever since the calendar switch was announced last year. Traditionally, a rider trying to peak for Flanders and Roubaix took part in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, the E3 Prijs Harelbeke, and maybe the 3-Days of DePanne, before participating in the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix. It was a fairly seamless preparation: a rider could focus exclusively on the Ronde, then race Ghent-Wevelgem as both a possible consolation prize and good training for that Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.

Now though, riders and teams are forced to make a choice. Let’s look at Tom Boonen, for example. He rode Dwars Door Vlaanderen Wednesday and was originally slated to participate only in Saturday’s E3 Prijs. This was good for him, but bad for his team as it would have left its biggest star home for one of its country’s biggest races. Now Boonen’s decided to race both the E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem. Could this prove to be too much for him? If he suffers at Flanders will we all wonder if the extra hard day of racing took a bigger toll than he and his team expected?

It will be interesting to see who takes part in which races this weekend, what their results are, and then compare how well they fare next weekend at the Ronde. If we get a week’s worth of fantastic racing, with all of our favorites stars leading the charge, then call it victory for the UCI and the Belgian Federation. On the other hand, if the changes prove to hurt the quality of racing, a few people might have more questions to answer. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

2. Will BMC rise to the occasion?

BMC made some of the biggest waves this past off-season, signing proven classics performers George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt, and Karsten Kroon. On paper, these moves looked to make BMC a force to be reckoned with in the Northern Classics. So far, not so good though, as BMC’s imports have done little to impress. The Belgian opening weekend was a complete disaster as BMC’s riders were more or less absent from the front in both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. L’Eroica was no better—for Hincapie and Co., at least—as Cadel Evans was the team’s best finisher. Tirreno-Adriatico was yet another success for Evans, but offered little indication that BMC would make it’s mark in the next few weeks. And Milan-San Remo? Nada.

We're now less than two days from the E3 Prijs, the true dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders; will Ballan, Hincapie, and Burghardt justify the hype? Burghardt seems to be in the best position for a win, especially in this weekend’s Ghent-Wevelgem—a race he’s won before. If Ballan and Hincapie are indeed biding their time for Flanders and Roubaix they better show something soon. They might be hiding their form in the hope they are given more latitude—and less attention—in the races they covet. But as each day passes, I wonder more and more if they just don’t have it. We’ll have our answer soon.

3. Will Boonen and Pozzato become the DeVlaeminck and Moser of their generation?

If the last two weeks of racing are any indication, Tom Boonen and Filippo Pozzato are well on their way to picking-up right where they left-off at last year’s Paris-Roubaix. The budding rivalry brings to mind the duel waged each spring by Roger DeVlaeminck and Francesco Moser when the two of them combined for seven Paris-Roubaix titles in the 1970’s and early-1980’s.

At ages 29 and 28, respectively, Boonen and Pozzato could easily surpass the impressive run of their legendary compatriots—especially with teams talented and experienced enough to help them do it. Boonen’s already won three, although one can only wonder what would have happened last year had Pozzato been riding behind him instead of Thor Hushovd. After all, DeVlaeminck won all four of his titles before Moser even won his first—the tables could easily turn.

Personally, I would love to see Boonen win a 4th title in his nation’s drie-kleur—although I can say the same for Pozzato and his tricolore. At relatively young ages, we can only wonder just how many races these two can win.

And I didn’t even mention Fabian Cancellara.

4. Who will be this year’s revelation of the cobbled classics?

Last year’s young stars Heinrich Haussler and Edvald Boasson Hagen were expected to take the next step this year, with at least one of them perhaps taking a win in Flanders or Roubaix. Unfortunately, things don’t appear to be working-out as planned. Haussler’s already been ruled-out with a knee injury and now Hagen’s form has been put into question due to inflammation in his achilles tendon. We wouldn’t be so disappointed if it weren’t for their breakout performances last year. Who will be next young riders to rise to the top?

Two days ago I would have mentioned Saxo Bank’s Matti Breschel as a rider capable of scoring a breakout win—but he did that yesterday in Dwars Door Vlaanderen.

Peter Sagan’s another candidate—if he gets a chance to race. It’s hard to believe that the double stage-winner at Paris-Nice didn’t even make the Liquigas team for Milan-San Remo; but with Roman Kreuziger and Vincezo Nibali likely non-starters at the cobbled events, look for this young Slovakian to get a chance to continue his impressive debut season.

Jurgen Roelandts of Omega Pharma-Lotto is only 24; he’s certainly someone who seems ready to step-up and assume more responsibility following solid results so far this spring in major Belgian races. If Philippe Gilbert has an off-day and Roelandts is given a green light, look for him to shine—possibly this Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem. Paris-Roubaix might be an interesting race for the Belgian as well; he’ll technically be riding in support of Leif Hoste, but as we all know, that’s hardly something for him to worry about.

5. Will Stijn Devolder be forced to defer his Flanders lieutenancy to Sylvain Chavanel? And if he does, will Chavanel become France’s first winner in a cobbled classic since Frederic Guesdon in 1997?

Stijn Devolder’s never been a rider to set the world on fire prior to the Tour of Flanders. That said, his sub-par performances so far this year are cause for alarm. If we couple these lackluster showings with the impressive rides by Chavanel at Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo, we’ve got more than enough to reason to wonder if a change in Quick Step’s hierarchy might be coming.

I know I keep saying it, but Devolder will have to show something this weekend (he really will) if he hopes to have even the slimmest chance of playing his own card in the Ronde. As for Chavanel, he’s more than earned the right to be Quick Step’s #2 behind Tom Boonen with weeks (years really) of dedicated service to the team. Don’t forget, some wondered if Chavanel might have won the Tour of Flanders last year had Devolder not attacked. And after Boonen was well on his way to the win at Roubaix, Chavanel rode solidly to take 8th place. While Belgians will have their hands full watching Boonen, Gilbert, and Devolder over the coming weeks, French fans will have all of their attention squarely on Monsieur Chavanel’s shoulders. Will this be his year?

And there you have it—5 Big Questions for this year’s cobbled classics. And what about you? What do you hope to learn between now and Paris-Roubaix?

Share your comments below—and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dwars Door Vlaanderen - Wrap-up

I think the only person happier than I was about Matti Breschel winning today’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen was Matti Breschel. Don’t get worng: Pavé isn’t designed to be a prognostication site; I predict winners simply for entertainment purposes. Being correct just adds to the fun; I won’t gloat—for too long, at least.

I caught the last 30 kilometers of the race during my lunch break with a friend who’s becoming a bit of a racing enthusiast. Today was his first opportunity to watch a race on Belgian roads and it was great to see his reactions. “Wow, that’s narrow!” and “Is that a crack down the center of the road?” were just some of the things he noticed, a reminder of the days when I first had a chance to see the classics unfold before me—albeit on a VCR several months after the races took place.

Here’s what I noticed today:

1. As for Breschel, give him credit for gambling on his own. Tom Boonen would have certainly taken the field sprint; it was a smart move for Breschel to test the willingness of other teams to drag any group with Boonen back into the race. And don’t let this win fool you, Breschel’s a successful sprinter in his own right; so look for him again come Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem.

2. It took him a while, but Steve Chainel finally showed some of the potential we wondered about earlier in the season. The young Frenchman is a talented cyclocross rider and appears to have the makings of a fairly decent classics man. Compatriot Geoffroy LeQuartre had another solid day as well, building upon his good performance in Milan-San Remo. Couple these performaces with Sylvain Chavanel’s impressive form and one can’t help but wonder if France might have a successful spring.

3. Give Luca Paolini credit for finishing 10th in Milan-San Remo, spending a night or two at home, and then hopping a plane to Belgium to finish 5th today with what appeared to be minimal support. Consider him a dark horse candidate for the podium on Sunday.

4. As we had hoped, Nick Nuyens rode well, impressing me with several attacks late in the race. His role in Saturday’s E3 Prijs should confirm his status as a favorite for the Ronde. Few are mentioning the Rabobank man as a rider to contend with, but as Oscar Freire demonstrated Saturday, the men in orange are not to be overlooked—especially with talented support from riders like Sebastian Langeveld and Lars Boom.

5. Speaking of overlooking, I completely ignored Bjorn Leukemans and Niki Terpstra yesterday, and they both punished me for it with a terrific race today. Terpstra’s omission was a flat-out mistake on my part, but Leukemans? I overrated him often last year and I didn’t have the guts to risk it again. I’m waiting until after Saturday before predicting anything from him again.

6. As for the rest, Fabian Cancellara is clearly in peak condition. With Breschel and other strong teammates, he should contend for another win in a spring monument. And Boonen? I’m starting to wonder if he’s too strong at this point—Flanders and Rouabix are still 10 and 17 days away. Can he keep it up?

7. And finally, someone asked if the parcours had changed from recent years. The answer is yes, with the final laps around Waregem being scrapped and the finish line moved from the center of town to the neighborhood surrounding the local stadium.

And what about you? What did you take away from today’s events? Share your comments below.

Dwars Door Vlaanderen - Live Stream

It's my lunchbreak, and there are still about 30km left in today's race--how lucky!

Here's a link to a live stream that seems to be working.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dwars Door Vlaanderen - Preview

The build-up to the cobbled classics begins in earnest tomorrow with the 65th Dwars Door Vlaanderen.  Formerly known as Dwars Door Belgie and the GP Stad Waregem, this semi-classic begins the peloton’s re-acclimatization to the hills and cobbles of Flanders.  This year’s edition covers 200 kilometers, heading east from Roeselare toward Brakel, the hometown of the legendary Peter Van Petegem, before looping back toward Waregem.  By Brakel, the race has already covered 3 of its 12 bergs, and 3 of its 11 cobbled sectors. 

Dwars Door Vlaanderen is often a tough race to call.  Several stars choose to skip the event, especially if it means arriving in Belgium a few days earlier.  Most of the Belgian contenders take part though, as this is the beginning of the most important 3 weeks of the season for publicity and press attention.  The winner here is often a young up-and-comer, a rider hoping to begin building his classics resume with a victory on traditional terrain.  Sometimes we see a former star or wily veteran get the win—especially if the opportunity presents itself without the rider having to compromise his chances for the coming weekend.

This year’s start list presents several interesting options—let’s start with the obvious:

Quick Step is bringing a stacked roster to the race including Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, and Stijn Devolder.  Boonen and Chavanel have already proven their form thus far; for them this race should prove to be nothing more than a stiff training ride.  As for Devolder, he needs to show us something—and soon—if he wishes to be considered a candidate for a third consecutive win in the Tour of Flanders 10 days from now.  Even worse, Chavanel’s form has pushed Devolder from the #2 spot on his own team—he’ll need a good result to earn back some respect.  If you recall last year’s event, a Quick Step rider was the victor—but not one of the team’s “Big Three”.  And while Kevin Van Impe is not starting this year, don’t be surprised if Woueter Weylandt takes the win should the race arrive in a sprint.

Quick Step’s main domestic rival, Omega Pharma-Lotto, is taking a different approach to the race, leaving it’s biggest star—Philippe Gilbert—at home.  Instead, look for Jurgen Roelandts to have an opportunity to prove whether his impressive performance in last month’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was a true sign of things to come.  Greg Avermaet’s listed as starting on the event’s website, but other sources have him not taking part; if he does, he’s another rider needing a good performance to remain relevant.  And finally, Leif Hoste is set to race; it will be interesting to if he’s on-target for his annual rise to Paris-Roubaix favorite-status.

Moving down the start list, FDJ’s bringing a solid team to the race with Anthony Geslin, Yauheni Hutarovich, Frederic Guesdon, and Yoann Offredo all set to participate.  Guesdon rode a fantatic Omloop; many would love to see him take another classic win.  Anthony Geslin won the Brabantsepijl last year—he knows how to peak for this time of year.  Hutarovich has to be mentioned in the event of a sprint and Offredo impressed with a powerful move in the finale of Milan-San Remo.

As for HTC-Columbia and Katusha, HTC’s Mathew Goss and Marcel Sieberg are two young talents who could announce themselves with a win in Waregem, while Katusha’s Sergei Ivanov is an in-form classics veteran who knows these roads well. Robbie McEwan takes the start too, but his best days are behind him; he’s starting merely to please his “home” fans.

Fresh from a successful weekend in Italy, Rabobank brings a talented squad to continue the winning run.  Depending on where you check, Lars Boom’s racing tomorrow and has to be considered a contender if he does.  Sebastien Langeveld is also someone ready to take the next step, possibly using Waregem to make his move.  Most importantly, keep an eye on Nick Nuyens.  I think we could see Nuyens take a big in this year, possibly in Flanders.  He looked certain to contend for the win in the Omloop before an untimely puncture; let’s see if he can continue where he left-off.

As for Team Radio Shack, Geoffroy Lequatre finished well at Milan-San Remo—maybe he or his teammates Sebastien Rosseler and Tomas Vaitkus can take the team’s first Belgian win?  Saxo Bank’s reported to be bringing a powerhouse of a team including Fabian Cancellara.  While it’s hard to imagine Spartacus showing himself any time sooner than this weekend, Matti Breschel’s a perfect candidate for a race such as this, as well as former winner Baden Cooke and fellow Aussie Stuart O’Grady.

Team Sky brings a team hoping to build upon its first successful foray into Belgium with Omloop winner Juan Antonio Flecha taking the line in Roeselare.  More likely, Team Sky might try to bring the race to a sprint with Chris Sutton and Greg Henderson forming a powerful tandem should they succeed.

And if you like dark horses, Acqua Sapone’s Luca Paolini is a good man to pick, as is Cofidis’ Jens Keukeleire, a young sprinter who’s already won several races this year.  Cervelo’s been reduced to dark horses as well, thanks to Heinrich Haussler’s injury and Thor Hushovd’s absence from the roster.  Consider Andreas Klier, Roger Hammond, and Jeremy Hunt the team’s best options. 

Vacansoleil’s start list is also in limbo, with both Johnny Hoogerland and Borut Borzic occupying the same spot.  That’s an interesting oversight; bringing both riders would seem to cover the team in both a breakaway and a field sprint.   

And finally, let us never forget the persistent Nico Eeckhout of An Post.  He crashed last week, but is always up to the challenge of a good semi-classic result on his home turf.

As for a prediction, I’m going to cover my bases too.  In the event of a sprint, look for Keukeleire to confirm that he’s more than just a Kermesse King, nipping Henderson/Sutton and Hutarovich. 

That said, I think a break’s more likely to succeed—in that event, look for Matti Breschel to take the win over Langeveld, Seiberg, and Ivanov.

And you?  Who are your picks to start the cobbled classics with a win?

Share your comments below.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday Musette - Milan-San Remo Wrap-up

Saturday’s Milan-San Remo went-off without a hitch--despite the weather’s best attempts to ruin the day. After 298 kilometers of racing in cold, rainy conditions, it was a Spaniard who ended-up with the victory. Funny how two men from warmer, sunnier climates have taken wins in two of the season’s grimiest races thus far. Here’s what we learned:

1. I remember watching the 1999 World Championship Road Race in Verona, Italy with friends on a television in my apartment in Leuven, Belgium. When a young, unknown Spaniard surprised a select group of favorites including Francesco Casagrande, Frank Vandenbroucke, and Jan Ullrich, we all felt a bit ripped-off. But after 2 more World Titles, 7 Vuelta stage wins, 4 Tour stage wins, 1 Ghent-Wevelgem, and now 3 Milan-San Remo’s I think it’s time for me to officially apologize to Oscar Freire for years of underrating him. With the changes to this year’s Belgian calendar, Freire has a terrific opportunity to take yet another win in Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem—especially since many of his main rivals might choose to take Saturday’s E3 Prijs more seriously. Congratulations, Oscar. I won’t overlook you again—at least for one more week.

2. Tom Boonen was satisfied with a respectable 2nd place in San Remo—even though Freire blew his doors off in the sprint. What impressed me most was Boonen’s positioning on the Cipressa and Poggio—he rode attentively and comfortably at the front of the peloton, consistently placed within the first 10 or so riders. Clearly his form for Flanders and Roubaix has arrived. Unfortunately, I wonder if he might find himself too heavily marked in Flanders to take a third win. On the other hand, it’s essentially every man for himself on the pavé of Paris-Roubaix—at this point only Pozzato, Hushovd, and Cancellara look to have the condition to ride with him there. Then again, those races are still 2 and 3 weeks away—maybe it’s too soon to speculate?

3. As for Pippo Pozzato, he seemed to ride as if he had read the “This will come down to a sprint” writing on the wall. Knowing he had relatively little chances against sprinters such as Freire, Boonen, Bennati, and Hushovd, he seemed content to treat the race’s finale as an opportunity to test his legs on the attack. To be honest, when he rolled-off the front in pursuit of Vincenzo Nibali with 2km to go, I thought he would take his second victory—too bad the rest had other things in mind. At Flanders though, they might find catching up to Pozzato an entirely different enterprise.

4. And speaking of Hushovd, he made the leading group, ultimately sprinting to a slid 6th-place finish. With Flanders and Roubaix still weeks away, Thor looks to have starting his crescendo at just the right time. Unfortunately, it was also announced that he won’t have the support of Heinrich Haussler; his knee injury seems to be worse than expected, keeping out of races until later this spring.

5. Philippe Gilbert’s attack on the Poggio and subsequent 9th place finish confirmed his candidacy for a win in Flanders—Roubaix’s not very suited to his strengths. While his attack had little effect on the race itself, it served noticed to everyone—including the Belgian press—that he’s not to be overlooked.

6. And finally, we must mention Fabian Cancellara, another rider who led a quiet build-up to Saturday’s race. Spartacus rode comfortably with the lead group, finishing the day in 17th place. Like Hushovd, he appears on-track for a solid cobbled campaign.

7. Moving away from the pre-race favorites, Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel looks to be peaking quite nicely. If Boonen finds himself too heavily marked, Chavanel could play Devolder’s role in Flanders, possibly getting the win we all know he deserves. Regardless, his condition means teams will have two Quick Step riders with which to contend; an advantage few teams are able to match.

8. BMC’s Marcus Burghardt was his team’s only rider to finish with the leaders. As he seems to be peaking a bit sooner than his teammates Ballan and Hincapie (both of whom came in with the second group, 1:40 behind), look for him to impress this Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem, a race he won in 2007. The German has also recorded top-5 finishes in both Dwars door Vlaanderen and the E3 Prijs in the past—it’s a shame they weren’t invited to Dwars, but it still could be a good weekend for the squad.

9. As we expected, Colnago’s Sacha Modolo finishing 4th on Saturday, continuing his string of top results from Tirreno-Adriatico. I know it’s a bit early to talk transfers, but look for him to be snapped-up by a team with an aging sprinter before next season—Lampre and Katusha might be possibilities—especially if he manages to grab a stage win or two in this year’s Giro.

10. Liquigas rode a fantastic race for Daniele Bennati with Vincenzo Nibali and Roman Kreuziger playing roles as prominent as we expected. Unfortunately, Bennati could manage no better than 5th. Clearly he’s a second-tier field sprinter, able to win only when better, faster competition is absent. Stick to Tirreno, DePanne, and the Vuelta, my friend. And by the way, give Liquigas the first “What Were They Thinking?” Award of 2010 for leaving Peter Sagan—a double stage-winner in Paris-Nice—at home.

11. Unfortunately, Tyler Farrar’s performance Saturday might put him in the same category as Bennati—although Bennati made it to the finish with the lead group. If Farrar’s team can’t position him well in a finale as straightforward as Milan-San Remo’s then what will they do in the cobbled classics, races with much more difficult profiles?

Two final thoughts from Saturday:

12. What the heck was Stefano Garzelli doing on the Poggio? Several sources claimed he attacked, but in my opinion he simply set a hard pace—but for whom?

13. Did you notice the prevalence of super-deep carbon fiber rear wheels? If this is indeed a new trend, I don’t get it. But I’m like that.

Time permitting, I’ve got a big week planned for Pavé. Here’s the schedule for the next several days:

Tuesday: Dwars Door Vlaanderen Preview
Wednesday: 5 Questions for the Cobbled Classics
Thursday: Dwars Door Vlaanderen Wrap-up/What We Learned
Friday: Weekend Preview(s) E3 and Criterium International
Saturday: Ghent-Wevelgem Preview

It’s an ambitious program, but I think I’m up for it—at least I hope so.

Thanks for reading! Share your comments below

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Milan-San Remo Live Stream

Here's a link to a USA-friendly, legal live stream of today's race.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Milan-San Remo Preview

It’s a bit of shame that when we talk about the favorites for Milan-San Remo we look at sprinters.  Maybe it’s just the way the sport’s evolved over time, but it seems that the likelihood of a true breakaway succeeding gets slimmer and slimmer every year.  And worse, while it used to be that only those sprinters able to make it over the Cipressa and Poggio would have a chance for the victory, now just about everyone has the ability to make it to the final straightaway down the Via Roma with a chance for the win.  Then again, any race approaching 300 kilometers in length has to be taken seriously—no matter how the victor gets it done.

Regardless, La Primavera’s a beautiful race that any rider would be pleased to win. This year it once again looks as if sprinters will rule the day with Quick Step, Katusha, Garmin, Liquigas, and Sky all likely to work to bring a relatively intact group to the line.  Interestingly, many of these teams also possess some of the more dangerous threats to win from a breakaway—I wonder what the result will be should a select group of lieutenants escape before the line.  Would Quick Step chase down a group containing Chavanel?  Would Rabobank bring back a break containing Boom or Nuyens?  What will Katusha, Sky, and Liquigas do if Kolobnev, Flecha, and Kreuziger find themselves with a sizable gap at the top of the Poggio?  And let’s not forget the Acqua Sapone’s and Androni Giocatoli’s of the world—they have no other choice than to attack, attack, and attack some more.  These teams will make things interesting should the bigger squads prove resistant to animating the race.

Truly, the joy in Milan-San Remo comes from watching these scenarios unfold.  So without further ado, let’s take a look at the favorites for Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, the first true classic of the season:

Fotoreporter Sirotti

5-Stone Favorites
Tom Boonen - Quick Step only has 4 wins so far this season and they’re nothing to write home about.  But that could change Saturday, as Tom Boonen heads into Milan-San Remo as the odds-on favorite to take the win. Boonen hasn’t been shy about his desire to win Milan-San Remo, and judging from the form he’s displayed over the past few weeks he’s clearly ready to do it.  He’s powerful to make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio with the lead group.  With a unified team dedicated to getting him to the line first, Boonen just might add a Milan-San Remo to his 2 Tours of Flanders and 3 Paris-Roubaix victories—quite an impressive classics resume!

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Filippo Pozzato – Like Quick Step, Katusha’s won only a few races so far this year, but don’t let that fool you—they have one of the most talented squads in the professional peloton. Filippo Pozzato already has one Milan-San Remo win under his belt—he’s hoping to add another.  But while the wins haven’t come for Pippo yet this year, he’s made his presence known at the front of races including the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, L’Eroica, and several stages in Tirreno-Adriatico.  Milan-San Remo is the first target in what Pozzato hopes will be his finest spring yet—one that he hopes will include victories in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix as well.  Look for this to be the beginning of a terrific duel between Pozzato and his Belgian nemesis, one that could last the next 3 weeks.

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Edvald Boasson Hagen - Of all the teams making splashes this past off-season, Team Sky appears to be getting the quickest returns on its investment. Hagen’s already won several races this year, including the final stage of Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this week, and his powerful sprint makes him a top favorite for Milan-San Remo. Hagen’s also an attacker though—if he looks around after the Poggio and doesn’t like what he sees, don’t be surprised to see him attack before the line in a fashion similar to Tchmil and Cancellara when they won on the Via Roma.

4-Stone Favorites
Tyler Farrar - Garmin comes to Milan-San Remo hoping Tyler Farrar can get the team its first win in a major spring classic.  Farrar will need to make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio in the lead group while hoping some of the competition—like Hushovd and Tom Boonen—does not to have a chance for the victory.  And while he might not have to worry about Hushovd, Boonen appears to be at the peak of his fitness.  Still, Farrar’s beaten Boonen before; if things go right for him and his team, Garmin might just find itself on the top step of the podium.

Oscar Freire – Freire’s had a quiet build-up to this year’s Milan-San Remo, but he’s a rider whose experience cannot be ignored.  With a talented team supporting him, Freire could easily take his third Milan-San Remo title.  Lars Boom and Nick Nuyens are two excellent wild cards; both would make excellent decoys in the race’s later phases.  Look for one of them, likely Boom, to attack on the Cipressa, ultimately forcing other teams to chase.  Freire’s greatest strength is his ability to handle the hills; he’s usually the last of the sprinters to be dropped on climbs like the Cipressa and Poggio.  He’s also extremely cunning; of all the riders to have received little press this week, he’s the one to take most seriously.

Philippe Gilbert – Omega Pharma - Lotto’s Gilbert won two classics in a week last autumn when he rode to dominating victories in Paris-Tours (a race for the sprinters) and the Tour of Lombardy (a race catered to climbers).  Like many riders, Gilbert’s had a quiet season thus far, slowly riding himself into form in Qatar, Oman, and Paris-Nice.  A true all-rounder, Gilbert’s a legitimate contender in just about every major classic save Paris-Roubaix.  His team’s full of strong men capable of keeping Gilbert fresh for the two climbs late in the race.  If he makes it over the Poggio in a group with a gap to the pure sprinters, he could add a third classic to his resumé.  He’s also candidate for a last-second dash for the line before the sprint has started.

Daniele Bennati - Tom Boonen’s pick for victory, Daniele Bennati comes to the race in peak form.  He won Stage 3 of Tirreno, beating Petacchi, Farrar, and Flecha in the process.  Like Freire, Bennati has a talented team of men surrounding him, two of them—Vincenzo Nibali and Roman Kreuziger—are perfect candidates for peloton-weakening attacks on the Cipressa and Poggio.  Were I driving the car, Nibali would be given the task of attacking and/or covering on the Cipressa while Kreuziger would give it his all on the Poggio.  The rest would ride support for Bennati, keeping him out of trouble and making sure he’s well-placed for an ensuing sprint.  If Bennati hits the Via Roma in good position, he could bring home the win for the tifosi.

Thor Hushovd - The Mighty Thor finished 3rd here last year—he essentially won the “field” sprint behind Haussler and Cavendish—but this year his fitness has been a bit of a mystery.  He was all but absent at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but then practically rode himself into the ground at Kuurne.  In Tirreno he failed to wow us, but that might just be a smokescreen.  Without the injured Heinrich Haussler, Hushovd loses a valuable ally—other teams will be able to key on him exclusively should he find himself isolated.  Still, Thor’s not someone to ignore, especially in a race often ending in a bunch sprint.

3-Stone Favorites
Marcus Burghardt – At this point in the season, Burghardt seems to be BMC’s best shot for victory tomorrow.  He rode a solid Tirreno-Adriatico, even making an appearance in the break with Tom Boonen during Stage 6.  With Hincapie, Kroon, and Ballan riding support, he could be granted a relatively stress-free ride to the finish where he could surprise everyone in a sprint.

Alessandro Petacchi – Petacchi’s gracefully entering into the twilight of his career having made the move from LPR to Lampre.  With Danilo Hondo providing lead-outs, he seems to have regained some of the speed that saw him win this race in 2005.  That said, despite several early-season successes, I think Petacchi’s a step below riders like Boonen, Hagen, and even Oscar Freire—especially after his crash before Tirreno.  A top-5 finish might be a more reasonable expectation for this aging star.

2-Star Favorites
Bernhard Eisel – I might regret it by tomorrow afternoon, but I don’t consider Mark Cavendish one of the favorites for tomorrow’s race.  He’s had an inconsistent season thus far, with no wins having been added to his name.  HTC’s best chance for a win might just be one of Cavendish’s lead-out men, Bernhard Eisel.  Eisel’s career lacks a big win, but don’t let that fool you; he’s a talented sprinter who often is often asked to ride for the bigger names within his team.  Can he win?  That might be a bit of a stretch, but a good result is certainly well within his reach.  Watch for his teammate Matthew Goss as well, the young Australian is on the way up and could mix it up at the finish as well.

Matti Breschel – Saxo Bank’s had a quiet season thus far, and while many think Cancellara’s their top man for MSR, I think he’s a better bet for the cobbled classics in a few weeks time.  Saxo’s better challenge might come from Matti Breschel, someone who has proven abilities in a sprint.  Like Petacchi and Eisel, Breschel’s a bit of a long shot, but surprises have happened here before.

Maxim Iglinski & Enrico Gasparotto - Don’t be fooled into thinking Astana’s a one-trick pony.  They have men not named “Alberto” who have scored wins so far this season and the team has ridden aggressively in every race it has entered.  Two riders deserve mention as outside favorites for Milan-San Remo: Maxim Iglinsky and Enrico Gasparotto.  Iglinsky won this year’s L’Eroica, Italy’s version of Paris-Roubaix, and Gasparotto won a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico.  A win in San Remo would certainly be a surprise—but then again, stranger things have happened.

Mattia Gavazzi & Sacha Modolo – Colnago’s talented pair of sprinters scored some top finishes in Tirreno, look for one of them in the top-10 on Saturday, particularly if other riders sit-up once they feel they’re out of contention.  These aren’t necessarily riders worth placing bets on, but when you’re on the Sunday group ride, you can say you weren’t surprised to see them in the front.

Stefano Garzelli & Michele Scarponi – It’s been a while since we saw an attack from the Poggio survive to the finish, but if it were to happen this year, I expect one or both of the top-2 men from Tirreno to be involved.  Their teams don’t possess the sprint strength of other contenders and they’ll have free rein to try their hand in a breakaway.  In Italy’s most important one-day race, look for both to attack in front of their home audience.

Final Prediction?

Certain races start to follow scripts over time, and Milan-San Remo’s proven no different over the past decade.  This year I think we’ll see a race similar to 2009, but with different players in the leading roles.  I think Boasson Hagen will play Heinrich Haussler, perhaps trying a last-second move rather than take his chance against a large group of field sprinters.  Like Haussler last year, he’ll be caught just before the line—by Tom Boonen.  Tyler Farrar will take advantage of the chaos to take third, taking Hushovd’s place from last year.

As for Pippo Pozzato, I think he’ll descend the Poggio with the leaders, but might not feel comfortable taking chances to take the victory.  They’ll be too many riders, and he’ll perhaps be isolated or poorly positioned coming off the Poggio.  In the end he’ll play it safe, lest he risk his chances in the cobbled classics still to come.

So that’s my Top-3: Boonen gets the win over Hagen and Farrar.

What about you?  Who are your picks for tomorrow?  Share them below.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tirreno-Adriatico - What We Learned

Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico wrapped-up yesterday with Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen sprinting to the stage win ahead of Alessandro Petacchi and Sacha Modolo. Let’s take a minute or two to discuss what we learned during the “Race of the Two Seas”.

1. Tom Boonen’s ready to win Milan-San Remo. Judging from his win in Stage 2 and a day spent on the attack in Stage 6, Tom Boonen’s sights seem squarely set on a victory in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. With a team dedicated to his success, another Monument win seems to be a very real possibility for the Belgian Champion.

2. Astana’s not a one-trick pony. While all eyes were on Alberto Contador’s battle with Caisse d’Epargne in France, the rest of his team was quietly turning heads in Italy. Maxim Iglinksy started the ball rolling with a fantastic win in L’Eroica on the Saturday before Tirreno and Enrico Gasparotto took a win in similar fashion in Tirreno’s Stage 5. Furthermore, there was always an Astana rider in the breakaway as they were clearly one of the most aggressive teams to take part. At this point, it’s easy to see why some are quietly wondering if the departure of Armstrong and Co. was a good thing for the team.

3. The jury’s still out on BMC for the cobbled classics. Cadel Evans aggressively raced to a 3rd-place finish, almost winning a stage in the process. Aside from that, there wasn’t much to write home about from BMC. Hincapie claims his form is improving, while Burghardt spent the day in the break on Stage 6, ultimately being one of the last men to be caught. And Alessandro Ballan? Well, there’s not much to say there. Overall, while there were no signs of regression—no sickness or crashes laid claim to any of BMC’s top guns—there was nothing to indicate continued progress toward the team’s northern goals.

4. Fabian Cancellara and his Saxo Bank team were notably absent from the proceedings. This is either really good or really bad for Spartacus’ competitors come the cobbled classics. He and Ballan are two riders hoping for a return to winning form in time for Flanders and Roubaix—here’s hoping their quiet week in Italy is a sign of bigger things to come.

5. It’s not over ‘til the bald Italian sings. Credit Stefano Garzelli and his team for continuing the race for the overall title through the final day. One can only wonder what would happen if two riders were to head into the Tour’s final stage with mere seconds between them—would we see something resembling the last stage at Tirreno?

6. And speaking of Garzelli and good form, it looks like Pavé is coming into form as well—if I may say so myself. Allow me to quote from our Tirreno-Adriatico Preview:

“And let’s not forget the Italians hoping to score a stage or two in front of their home crowds, men like Giovanni Visconti, Stefano Garzelli, and last year’s winner Michele Scarponi come to mind. Here’s where you might find an overall favorite or two, as they’re fast enough to finish near the front in a sprint, while aggressive and lithe enough to perhaps steal time on hillier days. Scarponi won the race last year; he’ll be extra-motivated to defend to his title.”

Obvious choices? Perhaps—but it still feels good to be right every once in a while.

Although I’ve probably just jinxed myself for the rest of the season.

What about you? What did you take away from this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico? Share your thoughts below.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Musette - Paris-Nice Wrap-Up, Sad News from Poland, & One Great Ride

Here’s today’s Monday Musette:

1. Let’s begin with yesterday’s completion of Paris-Nice, where Astana’s Alberto Contador kept his cool to survive an onslaught of attacks from Caisse d’Epargne to win his second Paris-Nice. Give me some credit for predicting the top-3—even though I had Contador and Valverde in the wrong positions.

Here’s what we noticed:
--Astana and Katusha work well together. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but I found it interesting to see Katusha—not Astana—setting the pace at several points during yesterday’s stage. Were they trying to place Joaquim Rodriguez higher on the GC? Maybe, but more likely a deal was made where Katusha offered support to Astana for a favor to-be-named-later.

--Peter Sagan’s for real. At one point, I thought he was going to win a third stage on Saturday. Liquigas heads to Milan with perhaps the strongest overall team for Saturday’s La Primavera. If they’re smart, they’ll work to keep the young Slovakian tucked safely near the front of the pack, ready for the attacks on the Cipressa and Poggio, as well as a possible small group sprint. He’ll be one of my top favorites in Friday’s Milan-San Remo Preview.

--Where was Levi Leipheimer? If you’re Johan Bruyneel, you’re worried.

--The French rode a respectable race, taking two stages and placing two riders in the top-10. Cofidis’s Reim Taaramae might be Estonian, but he rode a fantastic race as well—I might have learn how to spell his name as we could be seeing more of it.

--Watch-out for Sylvain Chavanel when we get to Belgium. He put in some attacks here and there during the week and is certainly hoping to be peaking in 10-days time. With Stijn Devolder conspicuously absent down in Italy, Chavanel looks to be Quick Step’s #2 man for the cobbled classics.

--Nicholas Roche appears closer and closer to earning a big win—he finished 11th in Paris-Nice. Look for a top-10 result this Saturday—if his team’s up to the challenge of keeping him in contention.

2. Moving to Tirreno-Adriatico, the action over the last 3 days has been pretty exciting as we’ve seen some difficult finishes. As we expected, Michele Scarponi and Stefano Garzelli seem to be waging a two-man civil war for the GC, while Cadel Evans lurks in 3rd. We’ll let the race finish tomorrow before making our final judgments, but for now I’ll say this: the next 3 weeks should be very exciting.

3. I wasn’t surprised to hear of the Szczepaniak brothers testing positive for EPO at Cyclocross Worlds this past January. And while I smirked at how obvious their transgressions were after the fact, I’m saddened to have heard the news of younger brother Kacper’s suicide attempt following the news. First of all, let’s hope the kids get some help as clearly they have bigger problems than giving back their medals. But the bigger question remains: when will we learn that doping goes beyond just being a cheater. It’s like faulting a student for failing an exam without considering the fact that they can’t read. Maybe there’s a better analogy, but at some point I hope the UCI, WADA, and the IOC devote some money to not only catching dopers, but also to researching why they do it in the first place.

4. Here are two great sites I found recently—one from New Zealand and one from Italy. They’re connected, but I’ll let you read to find out for yourself. Great stuff!

5. Thanks for finding this video, BQ. Close your eyes if you’re squeamish.

6. And finally, I don’t talk about my own riding too much, but yesterday I participated in a ride that was too good not to share. It’s called the Philadelphia Spring Classic; it’s unsanctioned, unadvertised, and unlisted—but if you know someone who knows someone, you can get the details. Occurring over 3 weeks, the Classic incorporates some of the dirtiest, narrowest, and craziest roads, trails, and paths Philadelphia has to offer. Each week is about 55 miles in length—If you ride all 3 “stages” you’ve completed the equivalent of a “real” classic and have earned the right to enjoy a cold stout and a warm cigar upon crossing the finish line.

Due to NAHBS and some family commitments last weekend, I was only able to partake in yesterday’s final stage—luckily the wind, rain, and cold temperatures arrived to celebrate my participation. What ensued was several hours of some of the most fun I’ve ever had on my bike including one crash (not me), several flats (not me), at least two flasks of hooch (okay, I had a little), several cans of sardine “nourishment” (not quite there yet), and one leg-cramping ascent up The Wall in Manayunk.

I’ll be certain to make arrangements for next year’s event well in advance—those cigars looked mighty satisfying.

As always, thanks for reading—share your comments below.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Paris-Nice & Tirreno-Adriatico Live Streams

Here are to USA-friendly links to live streams of today's racing in France and Italy.  They're a bit slow, but better than nothing.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Weekend Preview - Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico

This weekend’s main festivities take place in France and Italy with the conclusion of Paris-Nice and the continuation of Tirreno-Adriatico. So far, the racing’s gone more or less as expected in both events: the Spanish are ruling the Race to the Sun and sprinters and breakaways have traded punches in Tirreno.

The current GC in Paris-Nice holds few surprises. Thanks to his peloton-shattering attack on La Croix Neuve in Thursday’s Stage 4 to Mende, the Astana rider leads his compatriot, Alejandro Valverde, by 20 seconds and Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger by 25. Valverde’s teammate and defending Paris-Nice champion, Luis Leon Sanchez, sits in 4th with Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez tucked just behind in 5th. While seemingly indomitable, Contador’s lead is anything but assured. A 20-second deficit is not much, especially when the task of overcoming it lies in the capable hands of Valverde. With Leon Sanchez close to the lead as well, Caisse d’Epargne possesses a numerical advantage over the other favorites; they need to double-team Contador, subjecting him and his relatively weaker Astana team to a constant series of attacks. Throw Roman Kreuziger and Samuel Sanchez into the mix, and Contador’s lead begins to look even shakier—if they all ride aggressively.

Aside from the battle for GC supremacy, Paris-Nice has proven to be the coming-out party for Peter Sagan, Liquigas’ young (he’s 19!) superstar. Pavé’s been talking about Sagan as early as the Tour Down Under, where he impressed the likes of one Mr. Armstrong with several strong performances. With two stage wins this week, he seems to be this year’s revelation—a la Heinrich Haussler and Edvald Boassen Hagen.

And speaking of Haussler, he dropped-out of the race midway through Stage 4—his knee’s still bothering him, apparently. One hopes he can recover in time to do battle in Milan-San Remo and the cobbled classics, the races where he announced his stardom last year.

As for the final two stages, tomorrow’s Stage 6 features 8 categorized climbs including the 1st Category Col de Vence—although its summit lies about 35 kilometers from the uphill finish in Tourettes-sur-Loup. This will be the first chance for Contador’s challengers to earn back some time. Sunday’s final stage features three 1st Category ascents: the Col de la Porte, La Tarbie, and the Col d’Eze. Paris-Nice has been decided on the last day in the past—this year might provide a similar finale.

As for Tirreno-Adriatico, we expected a clash between breakaways, sprints, and the weather. So far, all has progressed as expected with a breakaway succeeding in Stage 1—Milram got another win from Linus Gerdemann—and sprinters finding success in Stages 2 and 3 with Tom Boonen and Daniele Bennati taking the victories. As for the overall, Bennati holds the lead by a mere 4 seconds over Gerdemann and Boonen.

Tomorrow’s stage might produce an exciting arrivothe last 8 kilometers are quite difficult, with two ascents containing pitches over 15%. Look for a strongman to take the win, possibly a rider like Philippe Gilbert or Filippo Pozzato. Cadel Evans lurks back in 9th-place on GC; a strong finish from him could put BMC atop the podium and into an overall leader’s jersey for the first time this season. Sunday’s Stage 5 offers an interesting finish as well. The line comes 1km after a short, but sharp climb with an average gradient of 15% (it’s steepest section is 20%). This might be an even better day for the men we’ve already mentioned—if their teams can set them up well coming into final 2000 meters.

It looks like we’ll have some tough choices to make Saturday and Sunday with several options for live viewing. Overall, it will be an exciting 2 days of racing, with almost of the favorites ready to shine.

And what about you? What do you expect to see happen this weekend? Share your comments below.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tirreno-Adriatico Preview - Will the Stars Shine in Italy?

With perhaps the most star-studded list of participants we’ve seen this year, the Tirreno-Adriatico stage racebegins tomorrow in Livonro, Italian with 148 Tuscan kilometers. Tirreno’s become the preferred build-up race for sprinters and classic stars, with several of the most recent winners of Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix having used Italy’s “race between two seas” to race themselves into top shape.
This year’s route offers few real difficulties—there are no true summit finishes, and the toughest days feature little more than several successive hills well before the finish line. Therefore, aside from the weather—it’s predicted to be a cold and rainy week—there is little reason to expect anything more than large and small group sprints.

Of the true field sprinters, Tirreno offers our first chance to see Mark Cavendish, Thor Hushovd, Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Petacchi, Daniele Bennati, Tom Boonen, Oscar Freire, and Robbie McEwen compete head-to-head. They arrive with varying levels of fitness, but it’s safe to say that on any given day we’ll see at least a handful of them testing their legs in advance of next Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. Aside from these men, several second-tier sprinters—many of whom are enjoying successful seasons—make the trip as well. Look for the likes of Robert Hunter, Yauheni Hutarovich, and Luca Paolini to try and surprise the big boys.

Along with Hushovd and Boonen, several men hoping for April success in Belgium and France are taking the line as well. In fact, we might as well cut-and-paste this list into our race previews for the next few weeks, as these are the names we’ll get used to seeing from the E3 Prijs to Roubaix including George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt, Karsten Kroon, Manuel Quinziato, Leif Hoste, Greg Van Avermaet, Stijn Devolder, Nick Nuyens, Edvald Boassen Hagen, Juan Antonio Flecha, Filippo Pozzato, Fabian Cancellara, and Stuart O’Grady. These riders will certainly be seen mixing it up here and there in breakaways and bunch sprints—regardless, their real goals are yet to come.

But Tierreno’s not only about sprinters and hard men, as several favorites for the Ardennes classics and Grand Tours are heading to Italy, perhaps to avoid what would have been a head-to-head conflict with Contador and Valverde in Paris-Nice. Alexandre Vinokourov, Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali, Franco Pellizotti, Robert Gesink, Michael Rogers, Kim Kirchen, and Andy Schleck top this list. While few if any will be racing for the overall title, look for several to try and gauge their fitness during some of the race’s more difficult days, especially those toward the mid-point of the event.

And let’s not forget the Italians hoping to score a stage or two in front of their home crowds, men like Giovanni Visconti, Stefano Garzelli, and last year’s winner Michele Scarponi come to mind. Here’s where you might find an overall favorite or two, as they’re fast enough to finish near the front in a sprint, while aggressive and lithe enough to perhaps steal time on hillier days. Scarponi won the race last year; he’ll be extra-motivated to defend to his title.

Overall, this year’s race is certain to be a treat—especially if the stars decide to flex their muscles. One can only hope at least a few of them engage in their own version of “King of the Hill”—if they do; we’re in for a treat.

In particular, I’ll be watching a few things closely:

1. Is Mark Cavendish over his dental issues? Tirreno ends the Tuesday before the defense of his Milan-San Remo title—will he have raced himself into shape by the end of Tirreno?

2. BMC claims it will be racing aggressively in Tirreno. I’ll want to see them attacking, with Ballan, Hincapie, and Burghardt demonstrating some speed as we inch closer and closer to the cobbled classics.

3. What roll will the weather play? The forecast right now is for wet and near-freezing conditions. Look for crashes and colds to claim at least 2 or 3 riders by the time we hit the line in Milan next Saturday.

4. Stijn Devolder’s lack of form was a bit too obvious for comfort during Belgium’s opening weekend. Not that Tom Boonen cares, but will Tirreno help Devolder rise to the occasion once the action returns north?

5. Can Tyler Farrar win a stage against such tough competition? We know he can win bunch sprints, but I’d like to see him take a stage on a day with a more difficult profile, perhaps beating the likes of Hushovd, Freire, and Pozzato. If he can survive a tough day to take a win, he’ll be one of my top favorites for MSR in 10-days time.

That’s it! It’s time sit back, relax, and enjoy what’s certain to be one of the most entertaining races of the year. Isn’t it hard to believe we’re almost to Milan-San Remo?

Share your thoughts and comments below. What are looking for in this year’s edition?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday Musette - Weekend Wrap-up, Great Videos, and Two Rides You Should Do

We’ve got a lot to get to today—let’s dive right in!  First, a brief recap of the weekend’s events:

1. While I didn’t come right out and say he would win, give me some credit for indicating that Frantisek Rabon was someone to watch for.  Yes, there were bigger names behind him, but at this point in the season, Rabon had to be considered a threat.  Aside from Rabon, Bradley Wiggins seems to be building quite nicely for April and May.  I’m eager to see how well he fares at Paris-Roubaix and the Giro.  As for Lance, Bruyneel’s apparently decided that Radio Shack needs more racing, an uncharacteristic admission from a team usually known to have all its I’s dotted and T’s crossed.

2. In L’Eroica—I mean, the Montepaschi Strade Bianche—Astana’s successful start to the season continued with Maxim Iglinsky taking the win following an aggressive ride in the final 10km. Pippo Pozatto, a man who seems to be simmering just in time for Flanders and Roubaix finished 4th.  Garmin’s Ryder Hesjedal was 5th on the white roads; L’Eroica’s quickly becoming for him what Roubaix is for George Hincapie. 

3. And speaking of L’Eroica, many of us were dismayed at the lack of live coverage available.  Clearly this race has yet to warrant the kind of large-scale publicity we all know it deserves.  For a good video overview though, I’ve found 2 sources on YouTube—one in 5 parts, the other in 2 parts.  Here’s a link to 1 of 5; and here’s a link to 1 of 2.  Enjoy!

4. And finally, the weekend closed with an exciting 8km time trial to open Paris-Nice.  For those in the know, Lars Boom’s win was anything but a surprise; if he can continues to ride this well he must considered a favorite for the overall.  I’m particularly eager to see how he handles the hills later in the week, as I have a hunch he might turn-out to be better suited to the Ardennes than the cobbled classics. 

While all of the favorites were grouped toward the top of the standings after yesterday, things got more interesting today when wind and crashes caused some problems at the end of the stage. Greg Henderson took the win while pre-race favorites such as Alberto Contador, Samuel Sanchez, and Levi Leipheimer lost time, as a small group (including Boom) slipped-away to finish 17 seconds ahead of the next group.  While everyone’s still sitting relatively near the top, Boom’s a rider that cannot afford to be ignored—these lost seconds might prove tough to win back.  There are still several hard stages left, but Boom looks to have the brains and the brawn necessary to win.

5. If like me, you sometimes have a hard time watching these races live (for training, work, or family reasons); I’ve found something you might find helpful: YouTube’s World Cycling Channel 2 seems to have videos of just about event soon after it’s happened.  It’s not live, but it’s worth-it just the same—especially if you can only watch your races in small doses due to other commitments. 

Did you miss the final stage in the Vuelta Murcia?  WCC2 has it.  Did you want to see the Prologue from Paris-Nice but had a ride in the morning and a family dinner in the evening?  Don’t worry, it’s there.  What about the GP Lillers?  Oui, they have that too.  Sorry you missed the 3-Days of West Flanders?  Normally it’s there directly, as the Belgians say.  Check it out!

6. If these videos are too long though, consider Cosmo’s “How the Race Was Won” series over at Cyclocosm.  Cosmo gets all the highlights and commentary into one short, digestible segment—perfect for a coffee break or bus ride.  Even better, he’s given me permission to embed them here at Pavé, further expanding the content we have to offer.  Why not get started now—here’s Het Nieuwsblad:

7. I’m starting to worry a little bit about BMC.  A team that’s so stacked really needs to have more of a presence at the front of spring races—especially since the squad’s chances become much longer at the end of April.  Now they’ve been uninvited to Dwars door Vlaanderen, an important yet expendable semi-classic run the Wednesday before the E3 Prijs and Ghent-Wevelgem.  I understand taking the “slow and steady” approach to building your form, but at some point we’ll need to know for certain whether Ballan, Hincapie, and Burghardt have what it takes to be protagonists this spring or not.

Good luck to Xacobeo, by the way.  Have fun in Flanders.

8. It’s spring, and that means time for embrocation.  One of the sport’s fastest growing trends is the homemade, all-natural embro market, with Mad Alchemy setting the bar for performance, price, and quality.  At NAHBS, I had the pleasure of meeting both Mad Alchemy’s Peter Smith, as well as Brad Ford, the owner of Classic Cycling Essentials, a local guy and the new kid on the block in the embrocation market.  Both were happy to donate some samples that I’m looking forward to trying soon.  Stop-by both sites and sample their wares—Mad Alchemy has a wonderful chamois cream, while CCE makes Mustache Wax—for the hipster you love.

9. And if you’re in the Mid-Atlantic region and looking for a reason to buy some embrocation, consider these two rides: the Hell of Hunterdon and the Fool’s Classic.  Both feature some of Buck’s County’s finest roads, and both offer few conflicts with other events—domestic and abroad.  And if you attend, you might even get a free Pavé sticker.  If that’s not reason enough of a reason to come then what is?  Pre-registration for Hell ends on March 28th and for the Fool’s Classic on April 18th.  Hope to see you there!

10. And last but not least, if you haven’t yet added Michael Barry’s blog, Le Métier, to your RSS reader you need to.  He’s without a doubt the most talented English-speaking writer/rider on the professional scene, and offers a glimpse into the pro life that few can match.  His “Classics” post is just a taste of what he has to offer.  Photos too!

That’s it for today—come back tomorrow for a Tirreno-Adriatico Preview. 

And as always, share your comments below.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Weekend Preview - Murcia, West Flanders, L'Eroica, and the Race to the Sun

The season’s heating-up with several important events taking place this weekend. Here’s a run-down of what’s going-on:

1. Let’s begin in Spain, where the 5-day Vuelta a Murcia continues through Sunday—albeit without any Italian and some important Spanish teams. Tomorrow’s flat 22km time trial offers our first chance to see some of the Grand Tour favorites test their legs against the clock—and one another. The race marks Lance Armstrong’s 2010 European debut; he’s already expressed his willingness to use tomorrow’s ITT as a chance to check his progress. Andreas Kloden, Denis Menchov, and Bradley Wiggins will certainly use the stage as an opportunity to gauge their fitness as well. All four men sit within 5 seconds of Josep Jufré’s lead; a good ride Saturday will take the leader’s jersey. Watch-out for Frantisek Rabon; he’s proven he can time trial, and he’s 3rd behind Jufré, with the same time. While not a contender for the overall, Garmin’s Danny Pate seems to be riding himself into form; he’s no slouch in a time trial and could surprise tomorrow. The same can be said for Pate’s teammate Michael Kreder, who’s quickly looking to be a star in the making.

Sunday’s stage offers two more categorized climbs, but none come near enough to the finish to cause any shake-ups. Look for the leader at the end of the day tomorrow to carry-through to the finish of the Spanish stage race.

2. In Belgium, the Dreidaagse van West-Vlaanderen started today in Kortrijk with Cofidis’ Jens Keukeleire following-up his win in Le Samyn with another win. As a result, he takes what has to be considered one of the most unique leader’s jerseys in the world—are there any things more Belgian than frites, hops, endives, and bricks?

This 3-day Belgian affair takes place mainly on the flatter side of Flanders, with wind, rain, and cobbles constituting the main difficulties the riders will encounter. Sunday’s final stage does offer some hills, taking-in the major climbs of the traditional Ghent-Wevelgem route including the Rodeberg, the Monteberg and Kemmelberg, with finishing circuits that include 3 passes over the smaller Keiberg. The 2008 winner and this year’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne victor Bobbie Traksel returns hoping for another title—his victory Sunday proves he’s no wuss when it comes the worst Belgium has to offer. Other notable starters include Saxo Bank’s Nicki Sorensen, Milram’s Robert Forster, Landbouwkrediet’s Davy Commeyne, Topsort-Vlaanderen’s Geert Steurs, Skil-Shimano’s Kenny Van Hummel, and the ever-present Niko Eeckhout from An Post.

It’s a shame this race has no other choice but to share a weekend with L’Eroica and Paris-Nice, otherwise we might have another chance to see the stars hit Belgium’s cobbles.

3. This weekend’s main events begin Saturday in Italy with the 4th running of the Montepaschi Strade Bianche. Also known as L’Eroica, this race navigates over 55 km of Tuscany’s white gravel roads—the strade bianche that give the race its name. You can do the same in October during the L’Eroica cyclosportive event.

Taking place a few days before the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race, L’Eroica’s start list is conveniently filled with classics specialists including favorites on both the cobbles and in the Ardennes. Throw-in several Italian’s looking for a shot of glory and you’ve got all the makings of an exciting race.

From top to bottom, the strongest team in this year’s edition seems to be Garmin—a squad who’s come close to finding success here in the past. With Farrar, Hesjedal, Maaskant, Van Summeren, and Wilson, Garmin has a team capable of controlling the race from start to finish, and hopefully placing a man or two in the winning break. Other favored teams include Sky, who brings a squad nearly identical to the team that took a win in the Omloop and 3rd in Kuurne (but minus Edvald Boassen Hagen), and Katusha, who hopes Filippo Pozzato and Kim Kirchen can bring home a win. BMC brings two of the focal points of their Ardennes and Northern classics programs in Cadel Evans and Alessandro Ballan; Saxo Bank does the same with Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara—two more riders who have proven effective at handling L’Eroica’s white roads. Cervelo’s trio of Roger Hammond, Jeremy Hunt, and Andreas Klier could continue to exhibit the form they displayed in Belgium last weekend, while Omega Pharma-Lotto will be hoping Leif Hoste and Greg Van Avermaet can begin to show some fitness. And never forget HTC-Columbia—Cavendish is listed as a participant, but the bulk of the team’s hopes lie with Michael Rogers, Marco Pinotti, and the Velits Brothers. And last but not least, Liquigas might work for Franco Pellizotti, but they’re better-off trying to get Daniele Bennati into a situation in which he can find success.

As this race grows in prestige, it will soon become one of the highlights of the spring—it’s already a favorite event for many riders, especially the Italians who consider the race their version of Paris-Roubaix. I wonder how long before we see someone do the L’Eroica-Roubaix double?

Overall, this is tough race to pick—especially with so many favorites taking the line. In the end, I have a feeling Cadel Evans might be up to the challenge, but Pippo Pozzato will get the better of him. Acqua e Sapone’s Luca Polini will be up there as well—I just have a gut feeling.

4. The weekend ends Sunday with the first stage of the Race to the Sun, Paris-Nice. This 8-day, 1288km stage race begins Sunday with a short time trial in Montfort-l'Amaury before making a beeline for warmer weather on the French Riviera. Several long, hard stages are in store for this year’s participants, including several with multiple 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Category climbs. By the end, we’ll have a worthy winner, able to ride consistently well over the diffucult terrain. The main protagonists of the last 2 editions—Alberto Contador and Luis Leon Sanchez—are back for more, but several challengers seem primed for victory as well.

Last year’s winner, Luis Leon Sanchez, faces the tough task of not only overcoming Aleberto Contador for a second year, but also dealing with his teammate, Alejandro Valverde. It will be interesting to see how these two interact, as both have the form to dominate the race. Their toughest challenge will come from Contador’s Astana team, a squad brimming with confidence following Contador’s overall win in Portugal at the Volta Algarve.

Other challenges could come from Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez, Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger, Lotto’s Jurgen Van den Broeck, and Radio Shack’s Levi Leipheimer. Dark horses include FDJ’s Christophe Le Mevel, Quick Step’s Kevin Seeldraeyers, HTC’s Tony Martin, Saxo Bank’s Frank Schleck, and Rabobank’s Lars Boom, a rider whose potential continues to impress. Garmin also brings a solid team of men hoping for good overall results including Tom Danielson, Dan Martin, and Christian Vande Velde.

In addition to these overall favorites, several riders come to the start Sunday hoping for stage wins including one-day stars like Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, Cervelo’s Heinrich Haussler, and Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert. Katusha’s Alexander Kolobnev, Sergei Ivanov, and Joaquin Rodrigues will be hoping to hone their form for later in the spring—perhaps with a stage or two here—as will Lampre’s superstar Damiano Cunego. Team Sky’s Simon Gerrans is certainly hoping to continue his team’s successful start to the season. And let’s not forget French hopes Pierrick Fedrigo, Thomas Voeckler, and Samuel Dumoulin—all could take wins for the home fans.

Of the sprinters taking the start, HTC’s Andre Greipel, Saur-Sojasun’s Jimmy Casper, Liquigas’ Francesco Chicchi, Katusha’s Daniele Napolitano, and Vacansoleil’s Borut Borzic are the cream of the crop, with Sky’s Greg Henderson and Saxo’s Juan José Haedo hoping to steal a win as well.

In the end, I’m picking an all-Spanish podium with Valverde taking the win over Contador and Sanchez—but only by a handful of seconds. It will be one of the most exciting events in years, with everything coming down to the final day.

And you? It’s a big weekend, who are your picks?

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