Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New Column - Ask Ritte!

Ritte Van Vlaanderen was born in Ninove, Belgium on November 5th, 1974, 1-day before Frank Vandenbroucke, a man whose shadow Ritte was never able to escape. Born Ritte Vanderslagmolenbeekegem, Van Vlaanderen changed his name when he moved to Southern California in 1999 after Vandenbroucke’s win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. As the general manger of the Ritte Van Vlaanderen racing team, he seeks to bring the traditional style and milieu of his homeland to the “Hollywood Homeboys” (his term, not ours) of Southern California. In effort to expand his influence, Ritte graciously agreed to become the centerpiece of a new column at Pavé—Ask Ritte—where he’ll offer his unique perspective on the sport by answering your questions. We’re certain you’ll enjoy it!

To commemorate the exciting new addition to Pavé, I thought a brief interview with Ritte would offer a chance to introduce this intriguing personality to those unfamiliar with his name.

First of all, Ritte, let me say how excited we are that you’ve agreed to be a regular contributor to Pavé—we’re really excited to have your perspective on the sport.

Yes, thank you for having me. And don’t be surprised at your own excitement—it’s a perfectly normal reaction to meeting me. I once caused three pregnant women to go into labor simultaneously by walking into a Lamaze by accident. I was supposed to meet a nurse in the broom closet, but opened the wrong door.

Why did you relocate from Belgium to Southern California?

I visited Los Angeles while on vacation and discovered the great disco scene. I had always dreamed of spending the off-season hanging around the discotheques and picking-up on the beautiful ladies. Then Frank won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1999 and there wasn’t enough room in Belgium for two incredibly handsome and stylish champions. Even though Frank was a fraud.

You mean because he was a known doper?

No, because he was a poseur. It was me who first wore white socks as shoe covers and put highlights in my hair. Even Museeuw came to me for the name of my stylist. Everyone loved VDB’s “look,” but he stole it from me.

So you knew him personally?

Sure, we were almost the same age—although I was born first. We grew up near one another and often raced against one another. He always won. But I realized early on that winners did not get the podium girls, so I’d put on a good show and then a few kilos from the line, slide out in a corner or hit a, how do you call it… fire sprayer or something, and the girls would come running.

Wow, so you’re saying you let VDB win? Why?

Well it wasn’t just about the girls. The plan was to let him get a reputation, then beat him in the National Championship. But I let him win too many races; I was never invited to the National Championship. But I still went to the post-race party.

How did you feel when Vandenbroucke’s death was announced?

I was sad of course. All things considered, he was a talented racer and an okay dancer. Every year on his birthday I pour 40 ounces of Duvel on the ground, which is one of the quaint traditions I’ve learned here in Los Angeles—It takes about a bottle and a half.

And what are you up to now?

Since I retired from racing I have kept myself occupied by searching for ancient Roman shipwrecks in along the Santa Barbara coast. I never gave up cycling completely; I would ride my rollers on my yacht. And let me tell you, riding the rollers on the open ocean is serious business, especially while trying to sip a pint without spilling. Anyway, after a few years of life alone on the sea, I came back to LA and started my team.

Why did you start your own team?

Well, you know, a man can only live for himself for so long… I needed a mission in life; I wanted to give something back to society. To do something philanthropic, like rescuing orphans from shark tanks or pulling old ladies from burning school buses. And when I looked at the world around me I saw starving people and poor children and disease and I thought to myself, “Ritte, you know what the world really needs? No Ritte, what? The world needs a classy cycling team.” So I did. It’s called the Ritte van Vlaanderen Cycling Team!

So you feel the answer to the world’s problems is cycling?

Well, maybe not all the problems. But if I can get together 25 young men in a nice-looking racing kit, well maybe that will balance out the sad, sad state of cycling style today—that will make the world a little better, don’t you think? It’s like that movie Stars War, where there’s the bad Force and the good… and now that there is that Footon team, well, let’s just say I’m going to have to step up my efforts.

That's an interesting stance. Well, before opening the floor to readers’ questions, I’ll start things off with a question of my own: What’s the most important advice you can give to young American racers?

If you can’t win the race, at least win the party. I heard that once from a guy in a San Diego bar, but I think he was talking about NASCAR.

Thanks, Ritte.  We look forward to learning more from you over the coming months.

Come back every other week for tips, advice, and insights from Ritte. Have a question? Email it to; please type “Ask Ritte” in the Subject line. For more from Ritte and his team, check-out their website and the team’s documentary video series, Behind the Peloton.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Monday Musette - Liège-Bastogne-Liège Wrap-Up

Yesterday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège brought the first major portion of the season to a bittersweet close with a win for Alexandre Vinokourov. Vino’s win begs several questions, the answers to which depend upon your perspective. Was yesterday’s result a victory for redemption—proof that even the most tarnished riders can earn a chance for atonement in the sport’s biggest races? Or, was the race nothing more than confirmation that cheaters really do rule the sport—more spit in the eyes of those naive enough to think progress really has been made?

Controversy aside, it will be interesting to see how many of yesterday’s top-10 finishers do the same in this year’s Tour de France. With at least 6 riders capable of high finishes in Paris, it’s easy to see the effects that Liège-Bastogne-Liège’s new place on the calendar has had on the early season programs of Grand Tour riders.

Here’s what we noticed:

1. We begin with the yesterday’s winner, Alexandre Vinokourov. A last-minute starter, Vino must have caught a quick flight from the Tour of Trentino, a race he won in semi-convincing fashion. A cunning rider, Vinokourov took advantage of a lull in the action following the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, a smart move considering Contador’s presence in the group behind. Were it Iglinsky, Grivko, or any other rider from Astana, we would call the move a textbook example of team tactics: send your second-best rider off the front to set things up for your best rider should the break get caught. Unfortunately for the fans, Astana’s second-best rider just so happens to be one of the sport’s most detested.

Like it or not, Vino deserves credit for the win—he won the race fair and square, so to speak. As for his past, he doped, he was caught, and he was suspended. Now he’s back, and like it or not, we have to grant him the right to win races under the assumption that he’s doing it cleanly. That said, I still think he’s a jerk—and there’s no suspension for that. Just because he wins doesn’t mean we have to like him.

2. As soon as Vino starting missing pulls yesterday, you I knew Katusha’s Alexandr Kolobnev was doomed. I wonder if Vino had convinced him that he had nothing left, or that Gilbert, Valverde, and Evans were closer than they actually were. Whatever the case, Vino’s final attack was perhaps the most obvious race-winning move of the Classics—aside from Cancellara’s Paris-Roubaix pocket angel, that is.

Despite the loss, Kolobnev had fantastic week with aggressive rides in all 3 races from Amstel to Liège. Kolobnev now has top-10 finishes in 3 World Road Races, 2 Olympic Road Races, 2 Liège-Bastogne-Liège’s, 1 Amstel Gold Race, and 1 Tour of Lombardy to go with the win he took in the first edition of L’Eroica in 2007. Clearly, this guy’s due for a major win sometime soon—and he’s only 28.

3. As for Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert, and Cadel Evans, they did everything they could once they realized they had let the cat in with the pigeons (my favorite Ligget-ism).

Gilbert tried his best to make the race with Andy Schleck on the Roche aux Faucons and attacked valiantly on the Saint-Nicolas hoping for one last miracle. Luckily for Gilbert, he took the win last Sunday in Amstel, otherwise he might have found himself lumped-in with Tom Boonen, the victim of yet another series of near-misses. His consolation prize for the day is the World #1 ranking. Now he heads to the Tour of Romandie—a race he could very well win—before enjoying a well-deserved rest before the Belgian Championships.

Valverde rode solidly but never really seemed in it to win it—as if his head weren’t in the game. He too heads to Switzerland for Romandie—will he finally get his season’s first important win?

And Evans? His rode impressively yesterday, at one time bridging-up solo to Valverde and Gilbert. He now heads to the Giro as one of the top favorites for the overall victory—can he take the first Grand Tour win of his lengthy career?

4. As for Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, I had hoped that Contador’s acceleration to join Schleck and Gilbert on the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons was going to be the move of the race. Unfortunately, negative racing and a lack of any real impetus from the trio doomed the move, paving the way for Vinokourov’s attack moments later. I was a bit surprised to have seen less of a Saxo Bank presence earlier in the day, perhaps that’s the result of an over-taxed team in major need of a rest before summer.

5. Credit Euskaltel’s Igor Anton for quietly taking top-10 finishes in both Flèche and Liège. Anton’s only 27 and has top-10 finishes in both Romandie and the Vuelta on his resume. Could a breakthrough be in the cards for the young Basque? And speaking of Euskaltel, where’s Samuel Sanchez been hiding?

6. As for the North American contingent, while many had their hopes up for something more, Chris Horner (8th) and Ryder Hesjedal (13th) finished just about where they should have given the competition. Great job, guys.

7. Thomas Voeckler seems to be beginning his summer crescendo for BBox while Team Sky’s Simon Gerrans finally decided to pop his head into the top-15 of a major race this season. Does another solid summer beckon for the Australian?

8. As for Rabobank, the German Paul Martens was the squad’s best finisher following ten days of solid riding going all the way back to the Brabantse Pijl. And Robert Gesink? 16th is a good result for the young Dutchman, but it’s far from where his potential and talent dictate he could be.

9. And what about Italy? Remember the days when the Italians used to rule La Doyenne? Stefano Garzelli was his nation’s top finisher in 18th, while perennial Ardennes contender Damiano Cunego could manage no better than 21st. The Giro begins in less than 2 weeks, the tifosi are becoming anxious.

10. Speaking of Italy, Liquigas underwhelmed me yesterday. Vincenzo Nibali was the team’s top finisher in 29th, while pre-race favorite Roman Kreuziger came home in 51st. Maybe Romandie and the Giro will begin turning the team’s season around.

11. And last but not least, Jérôme Baugnies was Belgium’s second-best rider following an impressive 23rd-place finish. It might not be worth writing home about, but it’s nice to see young riders from smaller teams performing well in the world’s biggest races.

And just like that, the classics are behind us. I’ll be spending the next two weeks wrapping things up while still trying to find some time to take a look at what’s ahead. I’ll also be giving some awards and taking a look back at the effects the various calendar changes had on the racing we witnessed (as well as some suggestions for 2011).

To everyone, thanks for your support and comments over the past several weeks—keep it coming!

As always, share your comments and feedback below!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Liège-Bastogne-Liège Preview

The Spring Classics come to a close this weekend with the 96th edition of La Doyenne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Covering 10 of the Belgian Ardennes’ most legendary ascents, this year’s event looks certain to be an exciting and memorable finale to the first major phase of the 2010 season. This year’s start list features several men capable of taking the win, including a handful of riders we might be watching come July in this year’s Tour de France. For now, here’s a run-down of the top men to watch this Sunday.

All photos by Tim Van Wichelen

5-Côte Favorites
The last Belgian to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège was Frank Vandenbroucke in 1999. While Philippe Gilbert’s win in last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race was a welcome sight to Belgian fans everywhere, it will likely become an afterthought should Gilbert come through Sunday in Ans. Gilbert’s enjoying the form of his life right now, calling to mind his indomitable run last autumn from Paris-Tours through the Tour of Lombardy. Gilbert “took it easy” on Wednesday in Flèche Wallonne, finishing in a group with the other main favorites a handful of seconds behind the winner, Cadel Evans. Gilbert’s talents are naturally suited to the challenging parcours Sunday—the climbs suit an aggressive rider possessing a sharp uphill acceleration. With the maturation of teammate Jurgen Vandenbroeck into a super-domestique, Gilbert might just have the found the missing piece separating him from a win in his first spring Monument.

Andy Schleck won last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège on his way to a 2nd-place finish in the Tour. He returns this year well-prepared to take a repeat win. Following quietly impressive performance in Amstel and Flèche, Schleck hopes his talented team—led by his older Frank—can keep him out of trouble until the major selections are made. He too is riding at a top-level as indicated by his attacks in the Gold Race. I suspect Schleck will be riding with a bit of added motivation this year, as his main Tour rival, Alberto Contador, takes the line as well. A win over Contador would certainly give Schleck a mental edge heading into the summer—something he might appreciate when the battle with Contador reconvenes in July.

4-Côte Favorites
Two-time Liège-winner Alejandro Valverde comes to this year’s event hoping to move one step closer to tying Eddy Merck’s record 5 victories. Valverde’s had a solid season, but has yet to score a major victory, finishing 2nd in both Paris-Nice and the Tour of the Basque Country. To take the win, Valverde needs to find a better way to utilize the talents of current world #1, Luis Leon Sanchez. If Valverde and his compatriot can successfully play-off one another’s talents, Caisse d’Epargne could take an important win as it continues to try and entice a new title sponsor.

Damiano Cunego has yet to bag the Ardennes victory he has sought for the past several years. Usually he peaks too soon; this year though, he seems to be hitting his stride at just the right time. Better still, Cunego’s not the #1 favorite for Sunday, something relieving a bit of the pressure the Italian’s faced in the past. Italy hasn’t won many important races this year; Cunego hopes to change that.

What does Cadel Evans have to do to earn our confidence and respect? The World Title? He got lucky. Flèche Wallonne? Contador choked on the Mur. But what about Liège-Bastogne-Liège? I’ll believe it when I see it. Well, if he rides as intelligently as he did Wednesday, as confidently as he did in last year’s Tour of Lombardy, and as aggressively as he did in Mendrisio, then “see it” we might. No, I don’t like Cadel Evans either, but we don’t have to like him to respect his chances Sunday.

Two races, two attacks, and two captures approaching the final ascent to the finish line—Katusha’s Alexandr Kolobnev is due for a win this week. He reminds me of Philippe Gilbert from a few years ago—incredibly strong, immensely aggressive, but a bit too eager to take things into his own hands. Often attacking at inappropriate times, Kolobnev needs a bit more patience and maybe a little more confidence in his chances against the other major favorites should he wait. That said, in Amstel and Flèche he was attacking a large group; tomorrow he should have the luxury of attacking a smaller, more select group. Without a large coalition able to reel him back in, Sunday could finally be Kolobnev’s day.

3-Côte Favorites
Like Kolobnev, Roman Kreuziger is another rider who might benefit from a bit of patience. Incredibly talented, Kreuziger often tries to force things a bit too soon rather than wait to try his chances in the finale. Liquigas might try using Vincenzo Nibali sooner, perhaps putting him a break inside the final 40 kilometers, thus forcing Kreuziger to follow the moves by other teams. When Nibali’s caught, that’s the time for the young Czech to make his move. If he manages to take the win, consider his move to Omega Pharma-Lotto in 2011 all wrapped-up.

Alberto Contador’s 3rd-place finish in Wednesday’s Flèche Wallone might be the best he can hope for this week. While I would love to see a Tour de France champion take a spring classic, I think Contador’s too inexperienced in races of this sort. Classics require a different tactical approach than stage races—being the strongest does not always mean you’ll win. That said, Contador’s team is strong and his resolve has been strengthened following what must have been an embarrassing defeat Wednesday. He says he’s racing only for the experience; to me, that just proves he’s racing to win.

Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez rebounded from a poor performance at the Amstel Gold Race to take 2nd-place in Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne. Like his teammate Kolobnev, Rodriguez is a talented rider with lots of top results, but few major wins. His solid performances in last year’s Ardennes classics and Worlds earned him a new contract and a new team, but it remains to be seen if the Spaniard has the goods to take the next step. Kolobnev and Sergei Ivanov are more aggressive than Rodriguez, traits that suit them in a race like Liège. While Rodriguez could conceivably react and cover his way into the final selection, he’ll have to attack at some point if he wants to take his first big win.

At 38, Radio Shack’s Chris Horner seems to be getting better with age. After 2nd place in the Tour of Sardinia, Horner went one better at the prestigious Tour of the Basque Country before scoring top-10 results in Amstel and Flèche. A smart aggressive rider, Horner’s just the man to take advantage of the fact that few consider him a realistic candidate for the win. With Popovych, Kloden, and Zubeldia, Horner’s team has enough experience and talent to keep him out of trouble early, positioning him to play a role in the finale.

2-Côte Favorites
Sergei Ivanov’s the last of 3 Katusha riders deserving consideration for Sunday. Buoyed by strong performances in last year’s Ardennes classics, Ivanov took a 10-day training camp in the Canary Islands following the Tour of Flanders just to prepare for this year’s events. Like Kolobnev, Ivanov’s showed no lack of willingness to attack, animating the finales at both Amstel and Flèche Wallonne—as to whether he was softening the race for Kolobnev and Rodriguez or trying to play his own card remains unclear. Should he make the selection on La Redoute; he’ll warrant careful attention from the favorites, for he’s been racing like he has nothing to lose.

I was starting to lose faith in Robert Gesink’s ability to win major one-day races; and then I reminded myself that he’s only 23. Clearly there’s time for the Dutchman to develop the confidence he needs in races like Amstel and Liège. His Rabobank squad is bolstered by the addition of Denis Menchov who’s clearly riding to top-off his form for next month’s Giro. If both can stay upright, might Menchov be enough to help Gesink become Liège’s first Dutch winner since Adrie Van der Poel in 1988?

Vincenzo Nibali’s a bit of an enigma. He receives little press outside of Italy, but has quietly risen through the ranks to be an outside podium contender in this year’s Tour de France. Following an aggressive performance at Milan-San Remo, Nibali continued to impress with solid rides at Amstel and Flèche. That said, it’s hard to tell if Nibali’s racing to win, or simply racing to train for July, as his attacks often seem out of place and his top results come by following wheels. He’s just as likely to finish on the podium Sunday as he is to spend all day in a break.

Finally, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal comes to Liège-Bastogne-Liège hoping to score Garmin’s first win in one of cycling’s 5 Monuments. Hesjesdal’s been riding well as of late, scoring high finishes in the Basque Country, Amstel, and Flèche. Ultimately, it’s hard to predict Hesjedal’s chances Sunday. Does he have the talent to defeat men like Schleck, Gilbert, and Valverde? The only North American to win Liège was Tyler Hamilton in 2003 when he several favorites to take the victory in Ans. With a young, but talented team under the veteran leadership of Christian Vande Velde, Hesjedal might just have what it takes.

As for my prediction, with so many favorites it’s hard to choose. In the end, I think Gilbert will do whatever’s necessary to end the spring with a Belgian victory. Valverde will win the sprint for 2nd-place, while a defeated Andy Schleck will sit-up just before the line, allowing Chris Horner to take 3rd.

Who are your picks for Sunday? Share them below.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Flèche Wallonne Wrap-up

If you’re a frequent visitor to Pavé, you might have noticed a rather interesting conversation taking place via the comments to my Flèche Wallonne Preview. Apparently Cadel Evans’ rainbow jersey was not enough to convince many of you that a renaissance might beckon for the temperamental Australian. Unfortunately it’s not always possible for me to respond to reader comments from work, so I was forced to suffer the slings and arrows of your discontent from the sidelines—until Evans won, that is.

Here’s what else we noticed:

1. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve never been a big fan of Cadel Evans either. But that doesn’t prevent me from giving credit where credit is due. Evans timed his sprint to perfection, catching and passing a fading Alberto Contdor just meters from the line. I liked that Evans gave credit to his DS, John Lelangue, for insisting that he pre-ride the climb despite the fact that Evans has raced it several times in the past. Now the question remains: just how well can Evans do Sunday in Liege?

2. As for Alberto Contador, yesterday’s 3rd-place finish should be filed under “tactical mistakes”. While we can forgive Euskaltel’s Igor Anton for his suicide move up the Mur de Huy; Contador deserves criticism for overestimating himself and underestimating the climb. I feel like I can actually see the moment when he realizes, “S***, the line’s not where I thought it was!” Contador gets a shot at redemption Sunday, but for a man not known as a master strategist, a victory might prove to be just out of his reach.

3. Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez atoned for his poor showing last Sunday with a fine 2nd-place in Flèche. That said, given the aggressive rides by Sergei Ivanov and Alexandr Kolobnev, one cannot help but think the Russian squad wanted more. Credit Ivanov and Kolobnev for doing their best take matters into their own hands on several occasions. Kolobnev’s move was reminiscent of his last gasp attack in the waning moments of the Amstel Gold Race. Two races, two riders, two identical tactical displays—will things fall into place on Sunday?

4. Damiano Cunego went one better than his 6th-place in the Amstel Gold Race, an indicator that he might have timed his form just right for Sunday. It’s hard to believe, but Italy has yet to win a classic this year. That could change Sunday if Cunego gets his way.

5. The first “group” crossed the line 11 seconds behind Evans, including major favorites Philippe Gilbert, Alejandro Valverde, and Andy Schleck. These men are right on schedule for what looks to be one of the most exciting battles of the season on Sunday. Chris Horner and Ryder Hesjedal were in this group too—could a North American score an upset Sunday?

6. Landbouwkrediet’s Bert De Waele deserves praise for another fine result following his 4th-place ride Sunday in Amstel. With another top-10 performance this Sunday this Belgian might find himself in the Pro Tour next year—even at the ripe old age of 34!

7. Vincenzo Nibali climbed-in with Gilbert’s group as well—might I have underestimated his abilities in races of this sort? As long as Roman Kreuziger continues to race like a hyperactive junior, Nibali will have free rein to play his cards in race finales.

8. Robert Gesink and Daniel Martin arrived with the next gruppetto, 19 seconds back. I’m beginning to have less and less faith in Gesink’s abilities in major one-day races. As for Martin, he could prove a valuable asset to Hesjedal Sunday—the Irishman is clearly a super-talent.

And that’s that. As for the parcours, I guess some things never change—the Mur de Huy has always had an uncanny ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Oh gosh, I’m starting to sound more and more like Phil Liggett.

And if you have a chance, head over to Bicycling Magazine and check-out my new column as the Backseat DS. I’d love some feedback!

Have a great day--share your comments below.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Flèche Wallone Preview

Like many of this year’s spring classics, tomorrow’s Flèche Wallone has changed its parcours in an effort to create a more exciting finale in a race that traditionally has ended with a “field sprint” up the Mur de Huy. With pitches topping-out at 25%, the iconic Mur tests the riders’ legs 3 times—with the final ascent constituting the race’s final kilometer. Beginning in Charleroi, the race makes a beeline for Huy, where it then begins the first of two laps in the Ardennes. The first tour covers 100 kilometers and 6 climbs before ending with a second ascent of the Mur. With the new parcours, a shorter, 30-kilometer tour is now all that separates the riders from the finish line. The final lap includes only 1 climb, the Côte d'Ereffe, but with the penultimate ascent of the Mur now coming a mere 30 kilometers from the finish line, some expect a much smaller group of favorites to remain in contention for win by the time the race returns to Huy.

Unlike many mid-week classics, Flèche Wallone rarely produces a surprise winner as the Mur de Huy proves adept at separating the men from the boys. That said, here’s a ranking of the top-15 men taking the line in Charleroi with realistic aspirations to take the win.

15. Pierrick Fedrigo’s been targeting the Ardennes ever since his summit finish stage win and overall title at the Criterium International in March. The BBox rider used the Circuit de la Sarthe as his final preparation for the week, finishing 11th overall in the process. While he cannot be expected outsprint the top favorites should a large group hit the bottom of the Mur de Huy, he is just the type of rider to capitalize should a breakaway emerge following the climb’s penultimate ascension 30 kilometers from the finish. It’s been a terrific spring for BBox, can the Frenchman continue the trend?

14. Fedrigo’s teammate Thomas Voeckler is another rider who might be looking to upset the main favorites from a late-race breakaway. A punchy, aggressive rider unafraid to initiate important selections, Voeckler’s clearly in shape following his 6th-place finish in the Brabantse Pijl. An aggressive ride by Voeckler would go a long way toward making this one of the most successful French springs in recent memory.

13. Joaquin Rodriguez comes to Flèche Wallone hoping to rebound from his DNF in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race. Rodriguez might benefit should he find himself free to play the role of Katusha’s joker, covering moves and setting things up for his Russian co-captains, Alexandr Kolobnev and Sergei Ivanov. If given some free rein inside the final hour, Rodriguez could earn Katusha its first win in the Ardennes.

12. Ryder Hesjedal’s 2nd-place Sunday was the Canadian’s best one-day result to date. He’ll benefit from the Christian Vandevelde’s addition to Garmin’s squad in the Ardennes. Hesjedal’s not afraid to attack if he feels the moment is right. The Côte d'Ereffe 11 kilometers from the finish could be just the springboard he needs to take another important win for his American team.

11. Chris Horner’s 10th-place in the Amstel Gold Race followed closely on the heels of his win the Tour of the Basque Country—clearly the American from Team Radio Shack is in the form of his life. Like others, Horner’s an aggressive rider who’s unafraid to take matters into his own hands. With Haimar Zubeldia, Yaroslav Popovych, and Andreas Kloden joining him in Charleroi, Horner has the firepower and team support he needs to take the win.

10. Sergei Ivanov’s performance in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race proved his win last year was no fluke. (His 10-day training camp in Tenerife seems to be paying dividends as well.) Overshadowed by the Russian’s victory last year is the fact that he followed it with a 13th-place finish in Flèche Wallone and a 5th-place finish in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. With a new finale and a deep team supporting him, Ivanov’s not to be overlooked.

9. Rabobank’s Robert Gesink comes to Flèche Wallone hoping to avenge a poor performance by his team in last Sunday’s race. Flèche’s relatively short distance compared to other classics benefits Gesink—especially against such tough competition. Gesink could use a win tomorrow to prove he has the mental and physical toughness to contend in major one-day events.

8. Alexandr Kolobnev is the third Katusha rider to make the top-15 for Wednesday. Kolobnev’s been knocking on the door of a big win for some time now; his last gasp attack inside the final 10 kilometers Sunday almost gave it to him. If he and his teammates can work cohesively to attack and counter-attack the lead group, one of them might just be able to break free for victory. Given his performance Sunday and his steady progression, Kolobnev is his team’s best chance for the win.

7. Roman Kreuziger and Liquigas come to the Ardennes hoping to end their spring campaign with a win. Like Robert Gesink, Kreuziger’s someone who seems to falter in the crucial moments of major one-day events, missing moves, making poor choices, or crashing on his way to just missing the win. He has the form necessary to find success Wednesday and is bolstered by a powerful teammate in Vincenzo Nibali. If he does it, he’ll take his biggest one-day win since he won the Junior World Championship in 2004.

6. Damiano Cunego awoke from his slumber to take an impressive 6th-place Sunday. Given Cunego’s quiet build-up to this week’s races, one can only assume the Italian’s better days are still to come. For a rider often known for timing his peaks too early, this might be a good thing. With a unified team supporting him, Cunego could easily take his first Ardennes victory Wednesday. Or, he could use this year’s Flèche to put the finishing touches on his form for Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race that’s eluded him in the past.

5. Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert has made it known that he’s focusing more on Liège than Flèche. Seeing as he’s been more or less at a top level since Milan-San Remo, it’s hard to blame him for carefully picking his battles. That said, following his dominating performance in Amstel don’t be surprised to find Gilbert in a position to take the win Wednesday. Sometimes a good bluff makes all the difference!

4. Alejandro Valverde missed last Sunday’s race due to the volcanic ash-related European airport closures. He comes to Flèche Wallone—a race he won in 2006—in good form and backed by a proven team including world #1 Luis Leon Sanchez. That said, I wonder if the lost weekend will have a negative effect on the Spanish star. With the majority of his competition having raced last weekend, Valverde might need Flèche to “clean out the pipes” or “prime the needle” so to speak. If that’s the case, look for a relatively subpar performance Wednesday followed by fireworks in Liège. If it isn’t—well, you know.

3. Cadel Evans has ridden well this season but fallen short of scoring his first win for BMC. Flèche Wallone is his latest chance to show if his rainbow jersey will give him the confidence to win major races on a more consistent basis. He worked dutifully Sunday to position teammate Karsten Kroon for the victory and still had enough left to finish 13th, an indicator of his fitness. Evans has come close in Flèche before, finishing 5th last year and 2nd the year before. With a team motivated to earn it’s first big win, Evans might just have what it takes to hit the podium’s top step.

2. Give Astana’s Alberto Contador credit for wanting to win more races than just the Tour de France. After his 3rd stage race win of the season in last week’s Vuelta a Castilla y Lyon, the Spaniard comes to Flèche hoping to add a classic to his tally. If not for the uncertainty following changes to the parcours, Contador might be the #1 favorite, as he possesses an uphill acceleration few can match. Contador is relatively unproven in major one-day events, though. There’s a different rhythm to a stage race, especially when you’re waiting for the mountains to plan your attack. Then again, this is Alberto Contador we’re talking about—he’s simply too talented to be discounted.

1. Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck is my top favorite for this year’s Flèche Wallone. He has what might be the best team in the race supporting him, he’s clearly in-form, and he knows these roads well. Schleck’s attacks in the finale of last Sunday’s race might have easily obliterated the field, yet he appearred strangely uninterested in taking the bull by the horns. Maybe he’s more focused on winning another Liège-Bastogne-Liège—or maybe he’s just biding his time. Regardless, look for the younger Schleck to take the win tomorrow—possibly standing atop a podium that resembles the Tour de France more than a spring classic.

So that’s my take—what about you? Who are your picks for tomorrow’s Flèche Wallone? Share your comments below.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Monday Musette - Amstel Gold Race Wrap-Up

Phillippe Gilbert finally took a victory in a major spring classic, winning yesterday’s Amstel Gold Race with an impressive surge up the final ascent of the Cauberg. It was an exciting finish to a rather quiet race, as the favorites seemed content to wait until the final to begin testing their legs.

Here’s what I noticed:

1. Credit Gilbert for another aggressive performance in a major classic. Gilbert covered, attacked, chased, and still had something left at the end to take the win. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised to see him pull it off—I feared he went on the attack too early, perhaps overestimating his fitness. And credit Jurgen Vandenbroeck with some fabulous teamwork in support of his captain—without his efforts to bring back Sergei Ivanov between the Fromberg and Keutenberg, we might have had a different result. Now Gilbert heads into the Ardennes as a top favorite to take both Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a serious threat for the first “Triple Crown” since Davide Rebellin’s in 2004. And while we’re at it, let’s credit Gilbert for an excellent spring including top-10 results in Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and the Brabantse Pijl. If he continues his winning ways, he might just make Belgium forget about its lackluster cobbled campaign.

2. As for Ryder Hesjedal, he has to be the happiest rider ever to lose a race following his 2nd-place performance. Hesjedal’s evolution from mountain biker to elite roadie is well-documented. Following an impressive ride in Pais Vasco, the Canadian seems primed for more success over the coming days. While the Muur de Huy might be a tough sprint for him to win, Liege-Bastogne-Liege might suit his talents a bit more. With Christian Vandevelde and Daniel Martin joining the team in Belgium, it looks to be a good week for Garmin.

3. I completely omitted Astana from my race preview Saturday, a terrible oversight considering I’ve been one of only a few to consistently herald the team’s recent performances. While hindsight’s always 20/20, I’m not at all surprised by Enrico Gasparotto’s 3rd-place finish considering his aggressive riding thus far. With Maxim Iglinsky, Andre Grivko, and Gasparoto, Astana’s future in the northern classics looks bright. And with Alberto Contador arriving in time for the Ardennes events, Astana’s successful spring looks certain to continue.

4. When Bert De Waele burst from the peloton midway up the Cauberg, I momentarily wondered if Belgium’s first major win of the season might come from the most unlikely of places. My hopes were immediately dashed, but chapeau to De Waele for his 4th-place finish. It’s been quite a year for Belgian Continental teams, as teams like Topsport Vlaanderen and Landbouwkrediet have more than proven they deserve invitations to bigger races.

5. As for Liquigas, Roman Kreuziger took 5th-place while Vincenzo Nibali came in 21st. The duo rode well yesterday, ultimately falling a bit short in the end. Clearly, Kreuziger’s the more aggressive of the two, while Nibali might be more suited to a role as a super-lieutenant. Fleche is a race well-suited Kreuziger’s talents, especially with Nibali covering attacks and perhaps driving the group into the bottom of the climb. All in all, with two more races and two incredibly gifted captains, there’s still hope for a big win at Liquigas.

6. I was pleased to see Damiano Cunego’s competitive performance yesterday. Clearly he’s rid of the sickness that knocked him out of Pais Vasco, and ready to make a serious attempt at winning one of the Ardennes classics. His Lampre teammates rode cohesively to position him well for the finale—a good sign heading into Fleche and Liege. If Cunego continues to progress between now and Sunday, Italy could grab its first win of the classics.

7. Led by the Schleck brothers, Saxo Bank rode another aggressive race—even though they fell short in the end. Of the two, Andy clearly appears to be the stronger man—he put in some attacks that could have been devastating had he been willing to see them through. When it was all said a dn done, Frank ended the day better than his younger brother, but I think Saxo Bank’s “all about Andy” at this point. With one more week in his legs, the champion of Luxembourg will be ready for a repeat at Liege. As for my pre-race pick, Jens Voigt failed to finish—we’re both looking to Fleche for some redemption.

8. As for Vacansoleil, Marco Mancato’s 8th-place finish was the best they could muster—but not for lack of trying. Mancato and teammates Johnny Hoogerland and Bjorn Leukemans rode an aggressive and tactically sound race, doing what they could to force a selection before the race re-entered Valkenburg. Vacansoleil has inexplicably not been invited to the Ardennes, so Amstel was effectively the end of the team’s classics campaign. But with several high finishes in the major cobbled classics, I think the Dutch squad has enough reasons to consider the month a success. The first item on Vacansoleil’s “To Do” list? Re-signing Bjorn Leukemans.

9. BMC’s Karsten Kroon led the squad Sunday with a respectable, yet unspectacular 9th-place finish. World Champion Cadel Evans raced true to his word, closing gaps and reeling-in attacks to set-up his Dutch teammate for a possible home win. (Too bad he wasn’t racing for Phillippe Gilbert this time.) Evans looks ready to tackle the races in the Ardennes, perhaps boosted by newfound confidence following his world title in Mendrisio. With Gilbert and Cunego arriving in terrific form as well, we might get a replay of last year’s fireworks.

10. Chris Horner carries the hopes for Team Radio Shack. His 10th place bodes well for the next 2 races, but it’s hard to see Horner overcoming the likes of Gilbert, Cunego, and Valverde. Still, stranger things have happened and could again—especially if Horner happens to find himself in a break with top favorites more eager to stare at one another than cover surprise attacks from a savvy veteran.

11. As for Rabobank, before the race, would you have thought the team’s first finisher would be Paul Martens? Would you have bet not one of the team’s riders would finish inside the top-10? Robert Gesink raced aggressively, but faded toward the end; while Oscar Freire did well to arrive at the bottom of the Cauberg fresh and in good position before succumbing to riders more suited to the Cauberg’s steeper pitches. In the end, it was a disappointing day for a team expected by many to be the strongest in the race. Look for Gesink to rebound at Fleche Wallone where distance won’t be a limiting factor.

12. Last but not least, give credit to Katusha’s merry band of Russians for doing their best to take the race into their own hands. Sergei Ivanov and Alexandr Kolobnev put in several attacks, hoping one would stick. Kolobnev came closest—he had a decent gap heading into the final climb but fell victim to the surges of fresh chase group. Joaquin Rodriguez abandoned after being dropped in the last hour. If he can rebound in time for Wednesday, Katusha might have what it takes to avenge yesterday’s near-misses.

And what about you? Were you as bored as I was during the first hour or two of live coverage? Please share your comments and insights below.

Come back tomorrow for a preview of Wednesday’s Fleche Wallone. And if you’re in the area, consider joining us at Sunday’s Fools Classic, a terrific classic-inspired ride in scenic Bucks County. Pre-registration’s open for another few hours!

Have a great day!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Amstel Gold Race Preview

This preview is admittedly very late in coming to you—for that, I apologize. On the other hand, the unexpected delay might just have worked in my favor as it’s allowed me to take into account the effects of the Northern European airport closures due to the Icelandic volcanic eruption.

The Amstel Gold Race can be a tough race to predict. Stuck between the cobbled and the Ardennes classics, Amstel often attracts both riders hoping to make amends for missed opportunities in Flanders and Roubaix and men peaking for the following week’s Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. And then of course there are those (mostly Dutch) teams hoping to win Amstel for it’s own merits—and to please home sponsors and fans. With such a diverse group of riders, teams, and talents, I think a team-by-team approach to an Amstel Gold Race Preview is more appropriate and efficient. Let’s take a look:

5-Stone Favorites
The Amstel Gold Race is Rabobank’s Super Bowl, World Cup Final, Master’s Championship—whatever important sporting analogy you want to make. It’s also a race they haven’t won since Erik Dekker took the title in 2001—incidentally, that was also the last time a Dutchman won the event. Rabobank comes to this year’s event with what it without a doubt, the deepest and most talented roster. Oscar Freire and Robert Gesink are the team’s designated leaders, but look for Nick Nuyens to play a role as well following a brief respite last weekend. As for Lars Boom, I wouldn’t expect too much. An intense spring schedule seems to be taking its toll on the young Dutchman who admitted after last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix that the extra distance of the classics seems to be a bit much right now. As for the race itself, look for Rabobank to attack early, possibly with Sebastian Langeveld, thus easing the pressure on the team to chase. Robert Gesink animated the finale last year—look for much of the same this year as Gesink’s form seems to be cresting at just the right time. And should those attacks prove fruitless, there’s Oscar Freire waiting in the wings, a powerful sprinter able to handle the distance and parcours. Overall, it’s Rabo’s race to lose.

If Rabobank does lose the race, the defeat might come at the hand of last year’s winning team, Katusha. Sergei Ivanov won last year following cunning ride, exploiting the youthful aggression of men like Roman Kreuziger and Robert Gesink to take the biggest win of his long career. This year, Katusha comes to Maastricht with heavier expectations, bolstered by the additions of Alexandr Kolobnev and Joaquin Rodriguez, two men with proven track records in Amstel and the Ardennes. And don’t forget Filippo Pozzato, a man looking for some consolation following a regretful spring. Last weekend’s top-10 ride at Roubaix could prove to be just the boost Pippo needs to take the classic win we all expected—albeit 1 or 2 weeks later. In the end, the team’s best chance might just be Kolobnev, a rider whose steady progression through the ranks brings him to the race rightfully expecting a win. Could he become Katusha’s second-consecutive Russian victor?

4-Stone Favorites
Omega Pharma-Lotto is the only team in the Pro Tour not to have won a race this season—a mark that surpasses even last year’s fruitless start to the season. Phillippe Gilbert looks to change that between now and next Sunday though, hoping he has reclaimed the terrific form he displayed last autumn from Paris-Tours through the Tour of Lombardy. He’s supported by a talented, but somewhat untested team—if they all ride to their potential they could fare quite well. Regardless, Gilbert is enough to make this team a contender if for no other reason than he’s maybe the strongest rider in the race. The question remains how aggressively Gilbert will race—will he go for it all in Amstel, or perhaps save a bit extra for Liege-Bastogne-Liege? Given his team’s winless record, it’s hard to believe he’ll leave anything in reserve.

Vacansoleil’s performed surprisingly well this spring, particularly when compared to teams with bigger budgets. With a talented and in-form group of riders taking the line tomorrow, Vacansoleil just might end its classics campaign on top. The only regret Vacansoleil has about Bjorn Leukemans right now is that he’s Belgian and not Dutch. With top-10 rides in most of the cobbled classics—including Flanders and Roubaix—Leukemans seems poised to be a major protagonist Sunday. In Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl, he made the elite chase group including Phillippe Gilbert and Thomas Voeckler, indicating that he hasn’t lost a step following his aggressive ride in Roubaix the Sunday before. With Johnny Hoogerland and Marco Mancato—two dark horse candidates to take the win themselves—Vacansoleil has three men able to make the important selections late into the race.

Liquigas heads to Amstel led by Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali. Kreuziger has grown more and more animated in one-day races, beginning with an aggressive performance at last year’s Amstel. With another year of experience under his belt, he seems poised to take what would be his first major win in a single-day event. As for Nibali, it’s hard to forget his inspired ride in the finale of last month’s Milan-San Remo. With a month of training since then, Nibali could show the world that he’s more than a Tour de France contender—giving Italy something to cheer for in the process. With a team including Manuel Quinziato, Liquigas might just have what it takes to claim the podium’s top step.

3-Stone Favorites
It’s a shame Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara decided against racing Sunday, for he might just have taken what would have been an unprecedented 3rd straight major classic—not that he can be blamed following his wins in the E3 Prijs, Flanders, and Roubaix. Without Spartacus, Saxo Bank will rely on Andy and Frank Schleck to continue the team’s impressive win streak. Frank won this race in 2006, while Andy won last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege; clearly both men know how to peak for this week’s events. With Jakob Fulsgang, Nicki Sorensen, and Jens Voigt keeping things under control, the Schleck’s should have a comfortable ride to the point when things become competitive. And don’t forget Voigt—he’s just the type of rider to pull an upset in a race like Amstel—as evidenced by Ivanov’s win last year.

BMC has to be a bit disappointed following the cobbled classics where it’s much heralded trio of cobblers fell short of success. Since Roubaix, George Hincapie’s gone home and Alessandro Ballan continues to wait for word following his “suspension” pending some information from the Mantova drug investigation. Marcus Burghardt is the last main piece of BMC’s cobbled contingent; he takes the line tomorrow hoping for a bit of redemption. That said, BMC’s real chance for a win comes from last year’s 2nd-place rider, Karsten Kroon. Kroon’s been stuck in the shadow of more popular riders for years, but he should not be overlooked tomorrow, especially since Cadel Evans pledged his support to his Dutch teammate—at least for this week.

2-Stone Favorites
Radio Shack’s Sebastien Rosseler took Belgium’s first classics win of the year in Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl, but despite the victory he’s not riding Amstel. Instead, The Shack’s looking to recent Pais Vasco winner Chris Horner to continue his winning form. Horner seems to have kicked the crash demons of last season; the veteran could surprise the heavy favorites if his team can keep him out of trouble in what is often a nervous and hectic race.

Lampre’s Damiano Cunego went home from Pais Vasco with a some form of a stomach flu, ironically just as the s*** was beginning to hit the fan (no pun intended) in Mantova. He’s listed as starting Sunday’s race where he’s hoping to add another title to the one he earned in 2008. I have little reason to believe he’s up to the challenge this year—especially given the depth of the competition—but Cunego’s still not someone to be ignored.

Team Sky’s focus now turns to the Ardennes, where Australian Simon Gerrans looks to build upon his top results from last season. With the support of a talented, yet underrated team (that might include Bradley Wiggins—the reports are conflicting), he just might take the next step, adding a classic to his stage wins from all three grand tours.

1-Stone Favorites
HTC-Columbia brings only 6 riders due to the race following Mother Nature’s collaboration with the Norse gods. But Michael Albasini, Tony Martin, Maxime Monfort, Marco Pinotti, and the Velits borthers are 6 riders any team would love to have. With little pressure and nothing to lose, HTC just might surprise you.

Garmin-Transitions brings a young squad to tomorrow’s Dutch classic. Ryder Hesjedal impressed many with a fine performance in Pais Vasco, while Michael Kreder’s been riding like anything but a neo-pro. While a win might be a bit out of reach given the tough competition, look for Hesjedal in the top-10 and Kreder in the top-15—if the extra distance doesn’t take it’s toll.

As for my official prediction, while I’d to see Phillippe Gilbert take what would be his first major spring classic, something tells me we’re in for a bit of surprise tomorrow. The flight cancellations have undoubtedly thrown several riders—especially those expecting to fly-in—off their typical pre-race routines. The race will be exciting and aggressive, perfect for a man like Jens Voigt. Look for Saxo Bank to continue it’s win streak!

Wherever you are, enjoy tomorrow’s race—and all apologies for the late posting. If the gods smile upon me, I’ll be Twittering away once live coverage begins. You can sign-up to follow me here.

Enjoy your evening and share your picks and comments below.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Brabantse Pijl Wrap-Up

I was only able to catch the last 15 kilometers of today’s Brabantse Pijl, but I was impressed by what I saw. The changes to the course created an exciting finale, thanks largely to a finishing circuit containing 3 difficult climbs, including a steep drag to the finish.

Belgium held it’s breath as the 3-man all-Belgian breakaway fought to give the home crowd it’s first Belgian victor of an important Belgian race this season, while the select chase group with Phillippe Gilbert, Bjorn Leukemans, Thomas Voeckler , and Paul Martens (the latter two being French and Dutch, respectively) crept ever closer.

But the gap help, and as the leaders traded punches up the final ascent, it was easy to feel the pain in their legs. They seemed to beg one another to attack, thereby ending their shared misery sooner.

Here’s what I noticed:

1. It’s hard to believe Team Radio Shack has won a (semi-) classic and Quick Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto have not. Credit Sebastien Rosseler with what is looking to be the finest season of his career following a stage win in the Volta Algarve, a good finish in Roubaix, and now a win in Brabant. Along with Chris Horner and Tiago Machado, Rosseler and Radio Shack can head to Amstel and the Ardennes confident in their chances to take an even more impressive victory.

2. As for Thomas De Gendt, his 2nd-place finish continues the impressive performance of Topsport Vlaanderen this spring. The Belgian Continental squad now has 2nd-place finishes in both Ghent-Wevelgem and the Brabantse Pijl—that’s more than several Pro Tour teams can boast.

3. On the flipside, Jurgen Vandewalle’s 3rd-place finish continues Quick Step’s string of “close, but no cigar” finishes in major races—but not in a good way. The team now heads to Amstel and the Ardennes with no viable candidates for victories—unless Sylvain Chavanel and Carlos Barredo can turn today’s “training” into some top-level fitness.

4. Phillippe Gilbert seems right where he needs to be for the next 10 days. He cannot be blamed for assuming the day’s first breakaway would be caught and he rode aggressively to do what he could to take the win. It was the perfect warm-up for Amstel and the Ardennes, where he’ll certainly be a top-favorite. His teammate, Greg Van Avermaet, is riding well too; should Gilbert prove heavily-marked, he might get a chance to try for the win for himself this Sunday.

5. Thomas Voeckler deserves consideration Sunday as well following a solid performance in Brabant. His BBox team has been one of the biggest surprises of the classics thus far, playing a role in just about every race it’s entered.

6. As suspected, Bjorn Leukemans played an important role in today’s race, coming a bit short of the win I predicted. Leukemans is well-suited to the Amstel Gold Race; with teammates like Marco Mancato and Johnny Hoogerland riding well, the squad could score it’s biggest win to date—and on home turf no less.

7. And speaking of home turf, Rabobank appears set for Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race with both Oscar Freire and Nick Nuyens ready to try for the win. Freire seems particularly fast right now following his week at Pais Vasco. If Rabobank can bring the race together for the finale Sunday, look for Freire to grab the victory.

8. Karsten Kroon looked comfortable today, riding to a respectable 15th-place finish. Kroon’s likely to be BMC’s sole leader for Sunday in Holland—could he do what his more-heralded teammates could not?

9. And finally, give credit to Garmin’s Micheal Kreder for a terrific result (21st)—this kid’s clearly a talent for the future!

Overall, it was a terrific race, and perfect warm-up for Amstel, Fleche, and Liege. As word spreads, look for the start list to grow more impressive as well.

That’s it for me—share your comments and feedback below!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Brabantse Pijl Preview

Lost in the hullabaloo surrounding Ghent-Wevelgem’s calendar move to the Sunday before the Tour of Flanders was the race already occupying that date on the calendar. Ironically, the Brabantse Pijl seems to be one of the only events to have benefited from its new spot. Previously held the day after the E3 Prijs, the Brabantse Pijl often suffered from a lackluster start list thanks to the mini-Ronde taking place the day before. Couple that with a rather uninteresting course profile offering none of the climbs or cobbles from the following Sunday’s monument, and you have a race that often struggled put on a big show for the sponsors and fans. Oftentimes, the event was won by riders more suited to the Amstel Gold Race or the Ardennes classics, hence the decision to bump it to the Wednesday before Amstel, a terrific warm-up for the next 10 days of racing in Holland and the Ardennes.

The race itself has changed as well. Originally starting in Zaventem, the race traditionally came to its conclusion following several local laps of a finishing circuit in the Brussels suburb of Alsemberg. In 2008, the race moved to begin Leuven; and this year, the race ends with several laps in Overijse, a town cyclocross fans might recognize from the annual race held there.

All in all, the Brabantse Pijl takes-in about 200 kilometers of some of the Province of Brabant’s finest roads, skirting back and forth between Flanders and Wallonia in the process. For me, the “new” Brabantse Pijl takes on a personal significance, as the course includes several of the roads I used for training during my lackluster days as student/racer. But I digress.

As I said before, the event’s new place on the calendar makes it an important appointment for riders looking to fine tune their form in preparation for Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race. Let’s have a look at the teams and riders expected to make their mark:

Rabobank’s a squad we’ll be hearing a lot about over the coming days as they prepare for the most important one-day race of their season this Sunday. Rabo’s won 5 of the last 10 editions, with Oscar Freire taking 3 of them. Freire is starting tomorrow; he’s supported by a strong team including Nick Nuyens, a man hoping to be the first Belgian to win an important race in Belgium this season.

Phillippe Gilbert’s another man hoping to earn a win—doing so would open accounts both for Belgium and his Omega Pharma-Lotto squad, one of few remaining teams without a win this year. Greg Van Avermaet joins him in a race that could just as well end in a sprint.

Quick Step’s taking heat for exiting the cobbled classics without a victory. Stijn Devolder was to be the team’s main contender tomorrow, but he’s out due to knee injuries sustained in a fall Sunday in Roubaix. The team might be better off without him though, as Devolver’s absence gives 2008-winner Sylvain Chavanel and the 2009 Clasica San Sebastian-winner Carlos Barredo a chance to race for themselves. Who would have thought this Belgian squad would have to rely on their imports to take its first big win on home soil this season?

Team Sky brings the foundation of its squad for the Ardennes including Simon Gerrans, a man hoping to breakthrough with a win in one of this year’s hillier classics. Michael Barry joins him before taking a well-deserved break following a long spring spent in service of his team.

Garmin brings a younger group to Leuven; Micheal Kreder is one to watch in what will be his first semi-classic appearance of the season. Katusha will be hoping Kim Kirchen can begin to show the form he displayed in the Ardennes 2 years ago when he won Fleche Wallone.

As for Team Radioshack, Sebastien Rosseler finished well at Roubaix on Sunday; he and Frenchman Geoffroy Lequatre lead the squad in Brabant. BBox and BMC will be relying on Thomas Voeckler and Karsten Kroon, respectively. Kroon is a rider to watch come Sunday in Amstel. And for some reason, my gut tells me to keep an eye on Raivis Belohvosciks from Ceramica Flaminia, while Cervelo’s Xavier Florencio deserves consideration following his stage win in Paris-Nice. From Belgium, Landbouwkrediet brings Bert De Waele and Davey Commeyne to races where they could earn top-5 results, and the indefatigable Nico Eeckhout will give it one more try for An Post.

But at the end of the day, the strongest team in the race might just be Vacansoleil, with the Feillu brothers, Borut Borzic, Johnny Hoogerland, Marco Mancato (who’s won some races recently), and Bjorn Leukemans. While the Feillu’s and Borzic might not be the best picks, Hoogerland, Mancato, and Leuekemans all deserve consideration—especially if Leukemans has recovered from his effort Sunday.

As for my prediction, I think Gilbert might race conservatively in advance of Sunday’s race and Freire might prove a bit rusty following some time in between races. And while I’d like to think Chavanel or Barredo could finally finish the job for Quick Step, I have to go with Bjorn Leukemans. He’s enjoying incredible form, has something to prove following a string of near-misses, and knows the roads in this area well. He’s my pick.

And what about you? Share your comments below.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Monday Musette - Roubaix Wrap-Up

All Photos by Tim Vanwichelen

Admit it, you found yesterday’s race a bit boring. Unless Cancellara happens to be your favorite rider, there was something a bit anti-climatic about the way he quickly and authoritatively disposed of his competition, motoring away from them all with a little less than 50 kilometers remaining in the race. There was no drama, no tension, and no tactics; he simply picked his moment, and rode off to victory.

1. But let’s not allow our unfulfilled expectations to prevent us from giving Spartacus his due. His ride yesterday was nothing short of astounding, the kind of dominating performance we see in a classic only once every 20 years or so. As we did after his win in Flanders, we must credit Cancellara’s team for providing him with a stress-free ride to the race’s decisive phases. Saxo Bank controlled the peloton for much of the day, at one point having 7 men spread across the front of the leading peloton. Interestingly, the man widely assumed to be Cancellara’s strongest teammate, Matti Breschel, disappeared just as things got interesting. But in the end, the day belonged to Fabian Cancellara, a truly worthy winner, and the second Swiss rider to complete the Flanders-Roubaix Double. The question now is whether or not Cancellara will take a shot at the Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Given what we’ve seen, I won’t discount his chances. Will you?

2. Thor Hushovd raced to a fine 2nd-place, the first of two Cervélo riders in the top-5. Thor overcame much this spring, ultimately going one better than his 3rd-place in last year’s edition. He rode a relatively quiet race, receiving some criticism for his apparent unwillingness to help Boonen chase Cancellara. While it cannot be explained why a team with two men in the group would seem so apprehensive, there’s the distinct possibility that they just had nothing to give. When you go back and watch the highlights, it’s clear that each rider was at his limit and doing everything he could just to hold the wheel directly in front of him. Congratulations as well to Thor’s teammate, Roger Hammond, for another great ride in Roubaix. Believe it or not, it’s not Hammond’s best result on the pavé though; he finished 3rd in 2004.

3. Juan Antonio Flecha put Team Sky on the podium in the team’s first foray into Hell with 3rd-place on the day. Overall, it’s the Spaniard’s third visit to the podium in Roubaix and his fifth finish inside the top-6. Sky’s pleased with the ride, but Flecha has to be wondering just what he has to do to win. His team did well to protect him into the race finale and he made no errors, tactical or otherwise. In the end, he simply succumbed to two stronger riders—nothing more, nothing less.

4. Tom Boonen was the day’s biggest loser, taking 5th in a race he was favored to win. Much can be said about Boonen’s performance—there’s a lot of blame to go around. First of all, Boonen’s Quick Step team left its leader far too isolated when the race began to intensify. Even before the Forest of Arenberg, Boonen was all but alone while his competitors—especially Cancellara—had several teammates at their sides. Heading into the final 60 kilometers with a relatively large group, Boonen’s anxiety began to show as he launched a series of unsuccessful attacks inside a span of about 10 kilometers. These were moves that should have been made by his teammates, but they were all too busy dropping-out, crashing, or chasing back to the front. Had Boonen some help in softening the front of the field, he might have had the legs to go with Cancellara’s race-winning attack moments later. Had he been paying attention, that is.

In the end, it’s easy to fault Boonen for a mistake many might have made. The road was wide, the group was tired, and a small group had just escaped to give the group some purpose. Surrounded by other favorites, it was—he thought—the ideal time to slip to the back, grab a drink, stretch his legs, and follow wheels for a bit. While Cancellara certainly wasn’t planning to attack at such a moment, once he looked back and saw Tommeke’s poor placement, he had to take his chance.
Boonen chased valiantly upon realizing the severity of the moment—he was clearly riding at a level better than his companions—but in the end it wasn’t enough to close the gap created during his moment of inattention. Overall, Boonen’s spring was one most riders would love to have had; but for a man boasting such an impressive resume, it’s a disappointment.

5. Bjorn Leukemans continued his impressive run with a 6th-place finish, two spots below his best-ever result in Roubaix. Watching Leukemans bury himself to hold Cancellara’s wheel is perhaps the best highlight of all the cobbled classics. As for his fist pound, I’m not sure Leukemans was responding to Cancellara’s speed as much as he was expressing his frustrations with a front tire that was losing air and a moto that seemed slow to accelerate. (Here’s a great link to a video of the entire sequence--feel free to form your own assumptions.) Regardless, hats-off to Leukemans—let’s see what he does in Amstel.

6. Filippo Pozzato came home in 7th-place, taking the Ballerini Prize as first Italian finisher. It was a good result for the Italian, but one that only begs the question as to what he could have accomplished had he not been hit with the flu in the week leading up to Flanders. The black kit was a nice touch, if for no other reason than it softened the effect of those god-awful Lazer helmet covers.

7. As for Leif Hoste, he can at least say he tried. His attack with Leukemans and Sebastien Hinault set-up Cancellara’s winning attack. His 8th-place finish is a solid result; but looking at the competition, it’s tough to see him ever getting the win he so craves.

Looking down the rest of the finishers from Sunday—which is easy to do considering there were only 74 of them—there are few highlights:

8. George Hincapie was literally right next to Cancellara when the Swiss rider snuck up the left side of the road. I took some heat for touting George’s chances in the days before the race; now it appears I need to read the writing on the wall. One comment yesterday compared George to Levi Leipheimer, another man known more for his misses than his hits. After another Roubaix where George seemed able to do little more than follow, it’s looking like the comparison might be appropriate. I’m sorry George, but maybe Roubaix is one nut you’ll never crack. George’s BMC teammates fared no better; none of them completed the race.

9. Other non-finishers included Peter Sagan and Lars Boom, while Stijn Devolder—after another day spent at or off the back—could manage no better than 42nd.

10. As for Garmin, we expected big things from Tyler Farrar and his colleagues—what we got was Martijn Maaskant in 22nd, the team’s only finisher.

On a day of sunshine and dry conditions, a strong headwind is the most common excuse for the attrition—that and the other-worldly exploits of a rider enjoying the best form of his career. Domination might be boring, but it never fails to impress.

Enjoy your Monday—share your thoughts below.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Paris-Roubaix - 2010 Live Stream

Here's a link to a USA-friendly live stream of today's Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix.

Follow us on Twitter for live commentary!


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Paris-Roubaix - 2010 Predictions

And you thought I’d leave you without a prediction. In fact, I have two:

My heart wants a win for either George Hincapie or Filippo Pozzato, with Hincapie getting the nod because he’s running out of time for it. I want him to win solo, with time to savor the moment. Post-race, we’ll see a long line of defeated men waiting patiently to shake his hand.

1. George Hincapie
2. Tom Boonen
3. Fabian Cancellara
4. Juan Antonio Flecha
5. Matti Breschel

However, my head thinks the win goes to Juan Antonio Flecha, after taking advantage of a moment of hesitation from Cancellara and Boonen. Boonen will take the sprint for second, but the day will belong to Spain and Team Sky.

1. Juan Antonio Flecha
2. Tom Boonen
3. Fabian Cancellara
4. Manuel Quinziato
5. George Hincapie

And you? What does your heart feel and head think will be the result of tomorrow’s race? Share your comments, below.

Paris-Roubaix - 2010 Preview (For Real This Time...)

All Photos by Tim Vanwichelen

While last year I took an early stab at predicting the favorites for this year's race, I've saved the real Preview for the last minute. The last few weeks have given us time to separate the men from the boys, hence a smaller list than usual of men capable taking the Queen of the Classics. Here we go:

5-Stone Favorites

Last spring, sickness and injury took their toll on Fabian Cancellara, possibly a result of an early season trip to the rainy and cold Tour of California. As a result, the Swiss Champion rode a rather anonymous classics campaign, abandoning the Tour of Flanders after a broken chain on the Koppenburg and spending most of Roubaix in the service of his team. But Spartacus is back this year—in a big way. After winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders—an impressive double in its own right—Cancellara now heads to Roubaix as the top favorite to become only the second non-Belgian (and coincidentally, the second Swiss rider) to add the impressive Flanders-Roubaix double to his palmares as well. Cancellara is obviously in the form of his life and he has enjoyed past success on the pavé (he won the race in 2006 and has several high finishes on his resume). Perhaps more importantly, Cancellara has the confidence from knowing he defeated his main rival, Tom Boonen, twice in the last two weeks—in races considered Boonen’s home turf. All that aside, Cancellara’s biggest asset is his team. With experienced domestiques including Stuart O’Grady (the 2007 Roubaix winner), Baden Cooke, and Frank Hoj, look to see Saxo Bank massed at the front of the peloton well into the race’s final phases. Better still, Cancellara has a lieutenant strong enough the race himself—Matti Breschel. Combine condition, experience, confidence, and team with a dash of luck, and Paris-Roubaix is Cancellara’s race to lose.

It’s to hard to believe that Quick Step’s Tom Boonen comes into this year’s Paris-Roubaix as a slight underdog considering he’s the two-time defending champion and the winner of three of the last five editions. Boonen’s also took second in Milan-San Remo, the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, and last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders—an impressive haul for most riders. That said, there’s just one thing separating Boonen from being a shoo-in to take a record-tying fourth Roubaix: Fabian Cancellara. To beat Spartacus, Boonen needs to ride with confidence and a bit of luck to go with the form that’s obviously there. He’ll also need more support from his team than he received last week. The world’s fastest time trialist, Cancellara won Flanders partly because he was able to isolate Boonen early, forcing him to ride mano a mano in what was essentially a two-man time trial to the foot of the Muur. His legs clearly spent from the sustained power output, Boonen was unable to respond to Cancellara’s inevitable surge. Tomorrow, Boonen will need his teammates, notably Stijn Devolder, to ease the pressure on their captain before the race enters its crucial sectors—especially since Cancellara’s team seems to be much stronger. If Boonen can exit the Arenberg Forest with at least 2 or 3 teammates at his side, he’ll be in good shape; if he’s isolated early though, it could mean the end of his terrific run at Roubaix.

4-Stone Favorites

The next two riders on the list come to this year’s edition of the Hell of the North with new teams and fine condition—two things they’ll need to overcome Cancellara and Boonen—and years of near misses.

Team Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha is a rider unafraid to attack in Paris-Roubaix, but bad luck, poor team support, and foolish choices have often prevented him from taking the win. A victory in this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad seemed to indicate that Flecha—thanks to the support of a powerful Team Sky—had finally shrugged the cobbled monkey from his back. However, missed chances in the E3 Prijs and the Tour of Flanders have some wondering if Flecha’s Omloop was more a result of timing than a signal of bigger things to come. That said, I think Flecha can win this race. Roubaix’s always suited him more than Flanders—he’s a powerful rider, capable of the long, sustained in-the-saddle efforts from which Roubaix winners are born. Furthermore, he has a talented team entirely devoted to getting him the win. If Flecha’s able to take advantage of what might certainly become a two-man staring contest between Cancellara and Boonen, he could ride away to take the biggest win of his career—and the first cobbled monument ever to go to a Spaniard.

BMC’s George Hincapie is next on our list of favorites, and is another man hoping a new team and some incredible form might propel him to the win that’s eluded him throughout his career. Hincapie’s progressed nicely through the classics, following his 4th place in Ghent-Wevelgem with a 6th place in the Tour of Flanders. Hincapie has indeed fielded some criticism for what seems to be a penchant for missing the “big move”—Sunday’s Ronde seemed to add fuel to the fire. Optimists like me hope last Sunday was just an indication that Big George is peaking just in time for Roubaix, a race a bit more suited to his powerful style. He enters Sunday as Co-captain with Marcus Burghardt, a man who could certainly ease the pressure on George in a race where he’s often found himself alone earlier than most. Alessandro Ballan would have been another valuable asset, but he’s been scratched following a “suspension” due to his rumored involvement in the Mantova doping investigation. Like Flecha, Hincapie needs to take advantage of a possible Cancellara-Boonen stalemate should the two top favorites prove unwilling to take the bull by the horns. If George can pull it off, it will be the finest day of his long career, and quite possibly all he needs to call it one too.

Our last 4-Stone favorite again faces the difficult task of trying to win the race for himself while riding in support of more-favored rider. Saxo Bank’s Matti Breschel appeared to be the strongest man in last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders before a mechanical and a botched bike change ruined his day. Now he comes to Roubaix eager to prove to himself and his suitors for 2011 that he’s the real deal. If he plays his cards right, he might just get his chance, as a Roubaix is a race where loyal teammates often find themselves in winning situations—especially riding for heavy favorites. (Just ask Servais Knaven.) Remember, Breschel finished 10th in Roubaix last year, a result he earned more or less on his own merits. With such a crowded situation at the top of the field, Breschel’s just the type of man to take advantage of the logjam to win it all for himself—if he can ride with more calm and poise than he did last week.

3-Stone Favorites 

While perhaps, a step below Matti Breschel, Stijn Devolder’s another rider who could benefit from his team captain’s status as top favorite. The last two years, Devolder’s come to Roubaix on the downswing following wins in the previous Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. His form seems a bit late this year though, something that might just push him over the edge in Roubaix—a race where he’s showed some potential in the past, albeit with nothing to show for it. This year, with dry conditions and a supporting role, Devolder might just add a Paris-Roubaix to his two Flanders victories. If he does, look for Quick Step’s post-race press conference to contain more fireworks and/or icy stares than the race itself.

Along with Hincapie, I’ll be rooting for Katusha’s Filippo Pozzato to win tomorrow’s race. While enjoying the form of his life heading into the Tour of Flanders, Pozzato was forced to fly home with a nasty flu during the 3-Days of DePanne. Pozzato’s back now—he finished Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs—but admits to being a step below where he was two weeks ago. While it remains to be seen where exactly his fitness lies, it’s clear that Pozzato feels no pressure for Sunday—and that’s a good thing. Roubaix’s a race where anxiety and nervousness can take their toll—cases in point: Flecha and Hincapie. If Pozzato feels good and has a chance to play his card, he could go one step higher than last year’s 2nd place, becoming the first man to win as Italian Champion since Andrea Tafi in 1999.

I guess there’s something about Roubaix and near misses. Cervelo Test Team’s Thor Hushovd could have won last’s year edition had he not crashed on the Le Carrefour de l'Arbre sector, 20 kilometers from the end. This year, Hushovd’s not had the season he and his team were expecting, with sickness, injury, and poor form taking their toll on what was hoped would be a breakthrough season the team. That said, as many of the favorites certainly know, Hushovd’s not to be discounted. He’ll make the splits during the middle third of the race; it’s the final sectors that will determine whether Mighty Thor becomes the second Scandinavian winner of the Hell of the North. The good weather works in his favor, eliminating one variable from an already chaotic and nervous event.

Speaking of second chances, Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Leif Hoste might be known more for his missed opportunities in the Tour of Flanders—he’s finished second three times. This year, Hoste rode a solid Ronde in support of Phillippe Gilbert; as a result he’ll have a strong team including Greg Van Avermaet and Jurgen Roelandts at his disposal in Roubaix. Another rider who could capitalize on hesitation at the top, Hoste will need to demonstrate a willingness to make the race for himself should the opportunity present itself—something we have yet to see from the Belgian. Lotto’s the only team not to have won a race this year—there’s no better time than now for Hoste to end that streak.

Marcus Burghardt has quietly proven himself to be one of the most consistent riders in the cobbled classics over the past few years. He’s overlooked by virtue of the fact that his breakthrough win preceded several top finishes; usually the opposite is the case. Technically the Co-captain of the BMC squad taking the start in Compiegne, Burghardt might have to defer to George Hincapie’s latest attempt to add Paris-Roubaix to his resume. That said, like Breschel and Devolder, Burghardt might find a supporting role just the leash he needs to position himself for a win—especially if other teams give their lieutenants similar opportunities. And with Hincapie known for his “it’s all about the team” mentality, he’ll have an advantage over men with more jealous leaders.

2-Stone Favorites

I can’t understand why Tyler Farrar’s not getting more attention following his solid run of results leading into this weekend’s race. With top-10 finishes in Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, Farrar clearly has the legs to handle 200-plus kilometers of hard racing and still have something in the tank for the finale. His win in Wednesday’s Scheldepriis indicates his form is still rising. While Farrar has said he’s riding in support of Martijn Maaskant and Johan Vansummeren, I see those comments as nothing more than a smokescreen as Farrar’s clearly a step above his two Benelux teammates. Do I think Farrar can win? No. Do I see him finishing in the top-10 and possibly top-5? Absolutely. While many view Farrar as a true field sprinter, I see him as more of classics rider—like Museeuw early in his career. That’s a bold comparison, I know; but after Sunday, it might just prove prophetic.

Lars Boom leads Rabobank into Sunday along with Joost Posthuma. While Boom plays down the role his cyclocross background will have, I think it merits at least some attention for the confidence it could give the Dutchman heading into the race’s rougher patches of pavé. While Boom might still be a few years away from being a serious candidate for the win, he could find himself in a breakaway that might propel to a top-10 result. For a nation starved for a true cobble-contender, that’s an accomplishment worthy of merit.

1-Stone Dark Horses
Peter Sagan was inexplicably left home for a few weeks following his two stage wins in Paris-Nice. While I understand the need to protect the young Slovakian’s development (he’s only 20), I can’t understand why he didn’t at least deserve a start in Milan-San Remo. I guess management was afraid of Daniele Bennati being upstaged. Regardless, Sunday is Sagan’s first start in a classic—what a stage for a debut! And while the odds are overwhelmingly against him, consider these 3 things: Sagan has proven unfazed by the top-level competition he’s faced so far this season; he finished 2nd in the 2008 junior Paris-Roubaix; and he’s a former World Junior Cyclocross Champion. While he might be forced to ride for Manuel Quinziato and Daniel Oss, by the end of the day Sunday, expect to see Sagan’s name near the top of the results.

Like the now-retired Wilfred Peeters, Matthew Hayman is a super-domestique deserving of one big day. He rode an aggressive race in last week’s Tour of Flanders, at one time escaping from the front only to be caught by the eventual winning move. A rider capable of high wattage outputs on the pavé, Hayman is more of a sentimental favorite than anything else. At the end of the day, he’ll defer to his captain Juan Antonio Flecha; but once his work his done, a top-10 finish is certainly within the Australian’s reach.

Others to watch include BBox's Steve Chainel, another talented young star who's proven his mettle thus far this spring; Bernhard Eisel a savvy rider benefiting from several departures from HTC; and Bjorn Leukemans, a man hoping to show the ASO just what it's missing by not inviting his Vacansoleil team to the Tour.

So there you have it, Pavé’s 2010 Paris-Roubaix Preview. I’s interesting how closely it compares to last year’s imaginary 2010 Preview. Will the result resembles last year’s as well? Only time will tell.

For now, enjoy the race—you can follow Pavé on Twitter for live commentary—and share your comments and picks below.

Friday, April 9, 2010

2009 Preview to the 2010 edition of Paris-Roubaix

Several times over the past few days I have received comments about my Preview of this year's Paris-Roubaix.  The thing is, I haven't posted it yet!  I was quite confused until I realized that after last year's race, I had some fun imagining what a 2010 Roubaix Preview might look like.  Apparently it's one of the first hits when one Googles "Paris-Roubaix 2010 Preview"--hence the comments. 

So to tide you over for my official 2010 Paris-Roubaix Preview (to be published later today or early tomorrow), I thought I would re-post, my 2009 attempt at a Preview of the 2010 Paris-Roubaix.

I hope you enjoy it--please share your comments below.

2010 Paris-Roubaix - Preview (Originally Published, April 14, 2009)

Tom Boonen - Boonen came into this season with Milan-San Remo as his primary goal. His tire length victory over Mark Cavendish gave him the win he so craved in one of the few Monuments he had left to conquer. Last week at Flanders he looked as though his form is on the decline following weeks at top niveau; but in a race like Roubaix, he still cannot be discounted. Some might say the loss of Devolder will hurt him, but as we saw last year, Roubaix is a race where Tommeke can fend for himself quite well. As long as Quick Step has a rider in the early break to offer support later, Boonen should be fine. As always, luck will be a factor (his opponents' crashes and miscues in 2009 certainly made things a bit easier for him); but in the end, it will come down to just how badly he wants it. If he can display the determination he displayed in San Remo, look for Tom to take the top step for the fourth time.

Fabian Cancellara – Spartacus just can’t catch a break. Last year in Flanders he broke his chain on the Koppenburg, this year he flatted out of the chase group between the Bosberg and the finish line. With O’Grady and Riis’ Viking Horde of dedicated workers, Cancellara is eager to win this race again, thus cementing his place with Boonen in what could become a legendary rivalry.

Filippo Pozzatto – Going into last week's Tour of Flanders, the question regarding Pozzato centered upon whether or not he would try and take the race into his own hands. Last year’s shadowing of Boonen won him the sprint for second, but it did little to help him get him the win. Ironically, this year it was following wheels again that meant the difference for Pippo. The only one able to follow Devolder’s attack up the Muur, Pozzato was more than happy to wait for the sprint where he knew he would make quick work of the Silence rider. This weekend, he stands an even better chance of pulling-off the double in a race that seems to suit him even more. With legions of tifosi lining the course to protect him from those bad Belgian hooligans, Pozzato is primed for victory.

Stijn Devolder – Devolder’s move to Silence might just have paid-off. I’ll admit, I was worried that he might pay the price for letting his ego and his wallet lure him away from the safety of Quick Step. But his performance in last week’s Flanders proves he’s truly Silence’s kopman. While he didn’t win the race, his team worked flawlessly to set him up for his leg-searing attack at the foot of the Muur. Unfortunately, Katusha set-up Pozzato equally well. As domestiques, Hoste and Van Summeren are enough of a team to get Devolder where he needs to be for the win. Throw someone like Sentjens into an early break and you'll have the ingredients for a Devolder victory.

Alessandro Ballan – While still young, as Ballan ages he seems to be losing the explosivity necessary to win on Belgium’s muurs and bergs. However, that doesn’t hinder him in Roubaix, a race of sustained power and endurance. His team is still a bit weak despite the off-season addition of Quinziato. Like many of the other riders, the key for Ballan will be in how he plays off the deeper teams. He’ll need patience and a bit of luck in choosing just which attacks to follow.

Thor Hushvod – The Mighty Thor is out for revenge. He thought he had a second Ghent-Wevelgem in the bag before a stalled motorcycle in the final km led to crash, derailing the peloton’s capture of Flecha’s 2,000-meter suicide breakaway. Thor came-out okay—his lead-out train bore the brunt of the fall—but he’ll certainly be riding with something to prove. As he showed last year, he’s capable of winning this race, should things (including Flecha) fall in his favor.

George Hincapie - For better or worse, we will be subjected to one final year of Versus TV coverage that highlights George Hincapie above all else—the race included. His retirement following this year’s Tour of Missouri will leave Paris-Roubaix without one of its biggest storylines of the past 15 years (at least for English-speaking fans). Could this finally be the year? Columbia added Kevin Ista to bolster the attack, but will it be enough? Burghart and Eisel are there again, but can they be patient for one more year? Time for some box-section alloy rims, George. Your carbon deep-dish wheels seem to make you more flat prone. Pull-out all the stops and give it one more go!

Martijn Maaskant - Maaskant’s move to Rabobank has clearly paid dividends. Having a team of riders capable of supporting him in the big classics made all the difference in his win at the E3 Prijs 2 weeks ago. I still think he’s a year away from a win in Flanders or Roubaix, but he’s certainly capable of succeeding ahead of my schedule. His form is there, his team is solid, and he’s proved adept at learning from his mistakes. Expect big things—if not now, then soon.

Leif Hoste – At first upset by Devolder’s move to Silence, it might turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to Leif. Why? MUCH less pressure. Hoste’s just not strong enough to handle the burden that comes with the status of top favorite. I think he’ll be much better served as a role-playing lieutenant. He could easily find himself in a situation to win the race in a fashion similar to Knaven in 2001. Given a free hand while the other favorites look to Devolder, Hoste might finally bag his big classic win.

Sylvain Chavanel – Devolder’s departure cemented Chava’s place with Quick Step for at least one more year. He’ll get more freedom to play his own odds in race where the competition might mark Boonen too closely. In short, he’s Quick Step’s new Stijn Devolder. In 2009, his late-race exploits showed us all he has the ability to win Roubaix, now he’ll just need the opportunity. If he gets it, don’t be surprised to see the first French winner since Guesdon.

Heinrich Haussler – Haussler still seems to be recovering from the spectacular crash in Stage 3 of the 2009 Vuelta. He shows glimmers of the form that made him the talk of the spring in last year, but I think the top form is still coming. Amstel might be a better chance for him.

Juan Antonio Flecha – Johan Bruyneel has never won at Roubaix. The signing of Flecha proves just how important it might be to him. Flecha’s the king of "too little, too late" as he always seems to miss the move that matters. He broke that streak in Roubaix last year, but crashed in the final 20km. Too eager? Perhaps. But if there’s anyone that can help overcome his nerves and tendency to panic, it’s Bruyneel and Alain Gallopin. Cool under fire, they might prove to be the difference makers for the Spanish Arrow.

2-Stone Outsider
Johan Vansummeren – These two have played the roles of faithful domestiques over the past several seasons. They’re likely to do so again, but don’t rule them out. Hoste’s the new lieutenant at Silence; that could give Van Summeren more latitude. Stranger things have happened!

That’s it for my 2010 Paris-Roubaix Preview! Did I miss someone? Share your thoughts below.