October 23 - Weekly RapAs the vibrant colors of summer relinquished their powers to the autumnal hues, the final two ProTour races took place in Europe bringing the 2006 racing season to a dramatic conclusion. In France, the centennial running of Paris-Tours brought a win to the host country. Frenchman Frederic Guesdon (Francaise des Jeux) won his biggest race since the 1997 Paris-Roubaix. The 254-km race is known as the "sprinter's classic" for its flat terrain, which made rocketmen Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Daniele Bennati (Lampre), Erik Zabel (Milram) and Stuart O'Grady (CSC) pre-race favorites. Just 33 kms into the race, an initial break of 28 men was established. They were absorbed by a group of 40. Zabel and Boonen missed the break completely and headed to the showers early. With 45 km to go, Guesdon was part of a 5-man attack group that was able to open up a 20-second gap. The chasing peloton came close to the catch, but Guesdon and CSC's Kurt-Asle Arvesen got away to stay after using a hill with 8 km remaining as their launch pad. With 200 meters to go, Guesdon was able to come around Arvesen for the win, finishing eight seconds ahead of the 35-man pack led by O'Grady.
The beautiful Giro di Lombardi was held in Italy where newly crowned World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) sought to defend his race win from last season. With six mountains climbs and 10,000 feet of climbing over 246 kms, this race certainly wasn't for the sprinters. Along with Bettini, pre-race favorites included CSC's Frank Schleck, Liquigas' Danilo DiLuca, Rabobank's Michael Boogerd, Gerolsteiner's Davide Rebellin, Euskaltel-Euskadi's Samuel Sanchez and ProTour winner Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne). The race was dominated by a four-man break - Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner), Andrea Pagoto (Panaria), and Barloworld's Diego Cacchi and James Perry – that escaped after 82 kms. The break built an advantage of over 13 minutes, but was caught on a climb with 45 kms to go. The peloton had already been reduced in size by the aggressive and highly-motivated Bettini, who raced in memory of his brother, who tragically was killed two weeks prior in an automobile accident. With the entire country pulling for the diminutive Italian, Bettini pulled away for good with 15 kms remaining after attacking on the Ciciglio climb. Gerolsteiner's Fabian Wegmann joined him on the descent, but Bettini was not to be denied. He dropped Wegmann on the San Fermo climb and soloed in for an emotional victory, crossing the finish line in tears. It was Bettini's first win in the rainbow World Champ's jersey. Sanchez took second and Wegmann hung on for third.
Down in the land of Oz, Australian Simon Gerrans successfully defended his Herald Sun Tour title in Australia's oldest stage race. He was the first repeat winner in 32 years. Gerrans, who races for AG2R, raced on the composite Jayco Australian National Team along with Tour de France points jersey winner Robbie McEwen of Davitamon-Lotto. McEwen, one of the fastest sprinter's in the game today, helped Gerrans take the overall win. Heading into the final stage, Chris Jongewaard (Savings & Loans) led the race by one second over David McCann (Giant Asia Racing), with Gerrans less than a second further back in third. McEwen won the 80-minute criterium in Melbourne, with HealthNet's Greg Henderson claiming second and Gerrans in third. The third place time bonus gave Gerrans the GC win. The week-long race turned out to be a showcase for a few cyclists who primarily compete in the U.S. The first stage was won by Navigators Insurance's Hilton Clarke, who won a slew of major NRC crits in the U.S. this past summer. HealthNet's Henderson landed on the podium on the final stage even though he spent most of the stage race supporting teammate Karl Menzies, who won stage 2 and held the leader's jersey until the mountains.
While the U.S. racing season ended last month, there has been some exciting news from USA Cycling for 2007. Next season will mark the debut of the U.S. Professional Cycling Tour, which will recognize top international foreign and domestic UCI pro teams and riders. The tour will consist of 15 races in 11 states beginning with…you guessed it…the Amgen Tour of California. There will be four stage races, three national championship events, and eight one-day races that will spotlight world class UCI-sanctioned races featuring UCI professional teams and athletes. With the growth and development of American cycling talent, including many who race in the ProTour, the U.S. Professional Cycling Tour is the next logical step in the evolution of the sport here. Not only will American pros be given the opportunity to compete at the highest level in their own country, but the world's best pro cyclists will be coming to compete on U.S. soil, which will prove to be a treat both for the racers and for American cycling fans.
The Cool Down
They began the season by winning the team competition at the Amgen Tour of California and ended it by repeating as ProTour season champions. Congratulations to CSC on another incredible year of racing. Rounding out the podium were Caisse d'Epargne and Rabobank.
Team transfers seem to dominate the headlines this time of year. Two-time Giro d'Italia champion Paolo Savoldelli left Discovery Channel to join Alexandre Vinokourov's Team Astana. After a few disappointing seasons, the often promising Iban Mayo left his long-time home at Euskaltel-Euskadi to join Saunier Duval-Prodir. Hmm…since Saunier Duval competed in the first Amgen Tour of California, wonder if that means we'll get to see Mayo race here in February...