Monday, March 5, 2012

Komentaar - 05 March 2012

Last weekend may not have been an opening weekend, but it surely felt that way. It was a full weekend of races in France, Italy, Spain and beyond. We noted that several races that happened or started last weekend would make good indicators of team leaders' intentions and their fitness as they approach the bigger races merely weeks away.

Tony Martin's warm-up bike in Paris-Nice prologue.
(c) Julius Kusuma.

Here are a few of our observations and thoughts on bad luck all around, Tony Martin's unusual tire choice from last year, Voeckler vs. Boonen debacle, and the fate of Monte Paschi Strade Bianche.

Lieutenants Get to Try, Too

In Monte Paschi Stade Bianche, Team BMC lieutenants Greg van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan, both nearly men in this race, were given full team support. Neither netted a win unfortunately. Fabian Cancellara simply showed up to what seemed his first race of the season and blew the doors out. Racing was clearly very hard: it was hard enough that Van Avermaet lost his SRM head unit during the race.

Calendar Matters

We were disappointed to see Monte Paschi Strade Bianche left out of many stars' calendars. Damiano Cunego decided not to do another Strade Bianchi - Paris Nice back-to-back, opting for the latter. For somebody who finished a credible second in GP Lugano only days earlier, we lament his forsaking of this race. Gilbert decided to give his lieutenants a shot at glory, a favor that we think he expects to be paid back in weeks. What is the better calendar position of Strade Bianchi? Some argue it is a good end to the classics season. We argue its best place is perhaps between the end of the cobble classics and the start of the Ardennes classics, given that this is one of few places that the two types of riders clash.

On the other hand, Tirreno-Adriatico continues to draw many pretenders to the crown of King of La Primavera, Milano-Sanremo. Expect a clash between Gilbert, Michele Scarponi, and Cadel Evans.

The French Are Indeed Rising

... but not the ones that you thought were going to lead the breakthrough. FdJ and Arnaud Démare deserve kudos for wins in GP Samyn and the last stage of Driedaagse van West Vlaanderen. We don't remember the last time a French team actually formed a successful sprint train, and you may never have heard of these races; GP Samyn is small enough that local teams that show up had to ask their little sisters and cousins to bring spare wheels on cobbled sections. But they are very important warm-up races for cobbles contenders. This was Démare's third win of the season already. What will be his schedule come TdF?

On the other hand, the other French team Europcar continues their malady with both Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Roland apparently still out of shape. It could be that the success of last season allows them to target le Grand Boucle, aka the Tour de France. But this is exactly the strategy (putting all eggs in one basket) that has ruined many a season. On the other hand, the accolade of a good ride in the TdF is so much higher than that of a good ride in other races, that we can't fault riders for trying.

Voeckler and Boonen's Soap Opera

We noticed that l'Equipe's coverage of Voeckler opens with the sentence "Thomas Voeckler, coureur adoré par le public, l'est beaucoup moins par ses confrères," which translates to "Thomas Voeckler, a rider loved by the masses, much less by his colleagues." Not the most flattering coverage, depending of how you read it, either of Voeckler personally or of the peloton in general. One issue he raised was that Boonen had "hit" him when he was attacking off the peloton in the 2006 Tour de France, supposedly to stop his attack, which Voeckler took as bullying. Boonen has since laughed it off, saying that he had waved his hand (not touching Voeckler) because Voeckler had swerved across him while accelerating. Anyway, we like both riders and we hope that they will be covered in the news for performing today, rather than arguing years ago. Could Voeckler have misunderstood Boonen's #angryeurohandwave?

La Légion Etrangères est Arrivée

Contribution of foreign investment, both in terms of capital and talent, continue to rise. Czech Mikail Kwiatkowski of OmegaPharma-QuickStep (OPQS) is a standout for an incredible late surge in GP Samyn and strong ride in Driegaadse which he nearly won. American Tejay Van Gardener had a good ITT in Paris-Nice, we will see how the rest of the race goes for him.

Paris-Nice also marked the return of Australia's Matty Lloyd to the pro peloton via team Lampre-ISD. He won the Giro d'Italia best climber's jersey a few years back and had an interesting stop to his 2011 season.

Unfortunately for Lotto-Belisol, their new rider Mehdi Sohrabi had to miss GP Samyn due to visa delays, but he was able to line up at Driedaagse. Sohrabi has dominated Asian cycling for years now and the team has high expectations for him. Quite funny, given that their divorce from OmegaPharma was allegedly due to wanting to focus more on Belgian riders ....

When It Rains, It Pours

Weather continues to be the bane of riders and race organizers. The first few stages of Paris-Nice are guaranteed (or have happened to be) beset by winds, rain, and possibly even sleet.

Tony Martin may argue that he lost time in the opener ITT of Paris-Nice due to being the last out of the starting gate. Rain came and slowed nearly nobody down but barely. Bradley Wiggins shows that he's nearly as good in the rain as he is in the dry. Everybody said that handling was quite sketchy in the wet, and this reminds us of Tony Martin's unusual choice of tires last year at the Worlds. He basically used a front clincher tire on his rear wheel. Of course, he won that race in the dry. Do you have any pictures that we dorks can stare at from this year's Paris-Nice ITT while we ponder the excellent chart over at squadralytics?

What is bad news for Tony Martin may be good news for teammate Levi Leipheimer. He sits high on the GC after a convincing ITT. Maybe Martin is happy to get Leipheimer contend for Paris-Nice, while Martin sets his sight for the TdF.

With apologies for being harsh, Levi Leiphemer has proven that he is not a credible grand tour contender. Leipheimer's best result in 2007 was hugely because of a very strong teammate Contador and the ungraceful ejection of then-leader Michael Rasmussen. On the other hand, Tony Martin has not yet proven he is not a credible grand tour contender. Will Martin then spend 2012 proving himself a contender, or will he prove himself a non-contender? The weight of expectation is starting to be heaped upon him. And we know that when one is considered a contender for the Tour de France, it takes years to convince fans otherwise. Just ask Iban Mayo. We await the Col d'Eze uphill ITT to gleam further insights into Tony Martin's plan for the year.

Shooting Stars Across Paris-Nice's Start Line in Dampierre

The first stage of Paris-Nice, started in Dampierre, brought bad luck to Saxo Bank. With Alberto Contador's suspension the team's top tier status is in doubt. To be fair, we think that their participation in the earlier races are not in doubt. It's their invite to the top races this summer that is in question, for example whether they'll get to ride the Tour de France. It would be nice for them to do well in races like Paris-Nice, an ASO-run race, and the spring classics, to quell critics. Plus, last year they were the surprise of the cobbled races with Nick Nuyens' outstanding rides in Dwars door Vlaanderen and de Ronde van Vlaanderen. Nuyens' crash in Paris-Nice is then a double-whammy for the team.

Is it a coincidence that this year's Paris-Nice start in Dampierre is beset by Low Countries-like weather? We think not. After all, Guy de Dampierre (or if you prefer Gwijde van Dampierre in Flemish) - whose name is borrowed by the suburb of Paris and castle therein - was Count of Flanders.

Looking Ahead

Paris-Nice will continue to be a good barometer of riders and teams' intentions of the season. Alejandro Valverde of Movistar marks his return to the pro peloton by making the break in Stage 2, clearly he has been training hard. What is more surprising however, is Wiggin's outsprinting of Valverde for bonus time points, important for weeklong stage races.

Tirreno-Adriatico (TA) starts in a few days, traditionally a test race for those dreaming of glory in Milano-Sanremo (MSR), the cobbled classics, and the Ardennes classics. We are watching TA for signs of form from Philippe Gilbert and Tyler Farrar, if these two indeed intend to show some mettle in the cobbled classics (and MSR for Gilbert).

In addition to actual racing, there is much consternation over the route change to the Ronde van Vlaanderen and possibly also to Paris-Roubaix. We are gathering our thoughts for a separate piece on this subject.

How did you like last weekend's racing and what do you look forward to?

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