Monday, September 24, 2012

Komentaar: the 2012 Elite Men's World Championship Race

With one blistering attack on the Cauberg, Philippe Gilbert of Belgium opened up a mile-long gap from the front of the field in the 2012 elite men's world championship; effectively redeeming his 2012 season. We were impressed by the work of the Belgian team and of course by Gilbert's sense of timing. Despite having a different finale than the Amstel Gold Race route that the course borrowed heavily from, Gilbert bested our estimate that the Spanish armada would win by sheer weight of talent and history of teamwork. Had the Spanish bet on the wrong horse? Did team Italy work too hard in the middle part of the race? We share our thoughts below.

Timing, and Planning, Made the Race

We were impressed by the teamwork of the Belgians: Tom Boonen, Greg Van Avermaet, and Bjorn Leukemans all figured in the finale but unselfishly sacrificed themselves for team leader Philippe Gilbert.

In 2011 Gilbert won the Amstel Gold race (see below at 5:36) by literally punking Joachim Rodriguez just as the two was about to pass under the viaduct. In the 2012 world championship, the organizers added some distance past the Amstel Gold race finish. But Gilbert attacked anyway at almost the same point that he did in 2011, opened a gap immediately, and stayed away for good. By opening up a large gap in just a few pedal strokes, Gilbert's rivals hesitated for a split second and this was enough to end the race in Gilbert's favor. What helped Gilbert was also a stiff headwind; indeed, it is the direction that the wind of the North Sea favors. A half-hearted chase was organized by Alejandro Valverde, but even he conceded that he was racing for a medal.

In the end, Gilbert had plenty of time to savor what is perhaps the biggest win of his career.

Both times, Joachim Rodriguez of Spain was paced up the lower part of the Cauberg by Luca Paolini of Italy: Paolini was Rodriguez's Katusha teammate in 2011.

Did Spain Bet on the Wrong Horse? 

There was much talk of Oscar Freire being a dark horse to win this race and set the record for world championship wins. It seems Freire himself thought that he was the leader of the team and criticized Valverde in particular for not waiting for him on the final climb. That they agreed at pre-race to ride for Freire was eminently reasonable - after all, Freire had finished fourth in this year's Amstel Gold race. What the team didn't count on was that the final attack would stick, aided in part by a stiff tailwind.

Could Valverde have won the race if he had been the designated leader at the start of the race? We don't know for sure, but we think his hesitation in the finale was understandable. Amstel Gold race is a race that has been won by counter-attacks on the most recent occasions, Gilbert's punking of Rodriguez's cheeky move in 2011 included. In a front group that contained Alexandr Kolobnev of Russia and Edvald Boasson-Hagen of Norway, Valverde was quite understandably conflicted.

Is Bettini Right? 

Having once-again failed to net a win, coach Paolo Bettini of Italy optimistically predicted a bright future for the Italian team, with Vincenzo Nibali (27 yo) showing his aggressiveness, and youngsters Moreno Moser (21 yo) and Diego Ulissi (23 yo) making a good worlds debut. He had brought a youthful team on purpose, overlooking the likes of Giovanni Visconti (29 yo) and former world champ Alessandro Ballan (32 yo). Is he right to be so optimistic?

Bettini himself debuted in the worlds race in 1998 at the age of 24; over the years it took a feud with senior teammate Michele Bartoli and diplomacy with 2002 world champion Mario Cipollini before Bettini earned his leadership position under the late coach Franco Ballerini. Notably, Ballerini named Bettini leader every year from 2003 to 2008 despite Davide Rebellin's magical 2004 season during which Rebellin won the Ardennes classics triple.

As Ballerini's reward, Bettini won the Olympics in 2004, and the worlds in 2006 and 2007. So perhaps Bettini is of the mind that it is better to invest in a future leader, and perhaps Nibali is to be that leader.

The course made the race

Keeping in mind that the world championships switch location each year, we applaud the organizers in Limburg. Borrowing heavily from Amstel Gold means that the finale is well-designed and provided an exciting race. If anything else, this is the closest to a classic that the world championships have been in recent years.

In other editions, it is apparent to us that designing for a competitive one-day race is really difficult. A circuit race is almost always mandatory to minimize footprint and impact to activities in the localities. But this makes the finish tend to end in a sprint. In part, this is the reason for Oscar Freire's rise as a worlds specialist. He is a sprinter with a large reserve, and this combination lends itself well to the long worlds race.

What was your impression of the race?

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