April 18 - Weekly RapBy Rick Scott
Got spring classics fever like the rest of us here at The Weekly Rap? We’ve got plenty of the hottest racing action for you from Europe where the temperatures have been unseasonably warm while here in the U.S., frigid temps, blustery winds and even snow pelted the domestic peloton in Virginia. Ride with us as we catch up on the scene.
The first Spanish stage race of the season, Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, began with a 10 km time trial. While the early starters were blessed with dry roads, stage winner Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d’Epargne) didn’t let the rain slow him on his ride to victory. The sprinters had their day in stage 2 with Saunier Duval-Prodir’s Francisco Ventoso proving to have the fastest legs. Ditto in stage 3 with Ventoso winning after a long three-man break was caught in the final kilometer. With Karpets still in the GC lead, his team had their work cut out for them in the hilly stage 4 that culminated in a mountaintop finish. After the early break was reeled in by the Caisse d’Epargne-driven peloton, two more men tried their hand before Discovery Channel, riding for Alberto Contador, stamped their authority on the race. Saunier Duval-Prodir’s Koldo Gil attacked on a climb and Contador and Caisse d’Epargne’s David Lopez made the gap. Lopez fell off the pace and Gil couldn’t keep up with Contador’s accelerations on the final climb. With Karpets cracked, Contador took over the leader’s jersey. In the final stage, a five-man break was caught in the final meters with the impressive 24-year-old Ventoso scoring the hat trick. Despite the tag-team attacks on the climbs from Saunier Duval-Prodir’s 2nd place (Gil) and 3rd place (Juan Jose Cobo) GC finishers, Contador met the challenge and held on for the overall win.
Nothing like the criteriums in the U.S.
Many of the Grand Tour contenders came out to test their early season form at the Criterium International in France. The race is like a mini-Tour with something for everyone in that it consists of a primarily flat road race, a hilly road race and a time trial all staged over two days. Stage 1 was held in the rain with two-time Amgen Tour of California stage winner Olaf Pollack (Wiesenhof-Felt) winning the sprint after the peloton caught a valiant solo attempt made by Lampre’s Damiano Cuenego, who fled with 3 km to go only to be caught just short of the line by the sprinters. A double-header was on tap for Sunday and in the early show, everyone’s hero Jens Voigt (CSC) dropped his two breakaway companions and rode away solo for the final 25 km to take out the win. He finished with enough of an advantage - 48 seconds - that he appeared to be unbeatable in the afternoon time trial. Thomas Lovkvist (Francaise de Jeux) won the short 8.3 km stage and catapulted himself into 2nd place overall, but Voigt was not to be denied his third GC win at Criterium International.
Four at Three
The final tune-up race before the Tour of Flanders was Three Days of De Panne, which is actually four stages in three days. All the ballers expected to shine at Flanders were in the house such as Tom “Beastie Boy” Boonen, “Franken” Stijn Devolder, Lampre’s pretty pink & blue star Alessandro Ballan, Leif “Garrett” Hoste, and Liquigas’ speedboys Luca Paolini and Filippo Pozzato. Paolini attacked with Ballan to collect the stage 1 win. Lampre’s other fastman, Daniele Benatti, got it right in stage 2 by acing the pack sprint with gusto. Quick Step has more than just Boonen as Gert Steegmans dashed to victory in the pack sprint in stage 3. Later that afternoon, Devolder powered to win the 11 km time trial. Ballan climbed atop the top step of the podium as the overall winner, making him the man to beat in Flanders.
Ronde Van Vlaanderen
The Tour of Flanders is a hard man’s race. It’s 259 kilometers in Belgium, including 18 cobble stone hills to climb in the second half of the race that is typically held in windy, cold temperatures and rain-slicked roads. Over one million spectators lined the course for one of the biggest one-day races of the year. With America’s greatest hope, George Hincapie, home nursing a broken wrist, and two pure sprinter’s not taking the start – Robbie McEwen and Alessandro Petacchi – all eyes were focused upon Ballan, Hoste, World Champions Paolo Bettini and Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O’Grady (CSC), aging classic’s star Peter Van Petegem (Quick Step), and the man looking for his third consecutive Flanders win, Boonen. The weather looked more like Southern California on a gorgeous spring day, which some believe might have kept the pack together longer causing more crashes than normal in a race that was also very aggressive and filled with attacks. Many of the marquee stars crashed, including Boonen, Cancellara, and Erik Zabel, while Paolini and Van Petegem both hit the pavement twice. Boonen crashed in the first 50 km after a friendly neighborhood fireman hosed down the road, which left the Belgian rock star with achy knees and pain in his wrist.
A seven-man early break opened up a 12-minute lead in the first 80 kms. Then it was the crashes that helped shrink the chasing peloton. The “real” racing was ignited by Cancellara, who lit it up with 49 km to go, which set off a bevy of attacks and counter-attacks. With Quick Step sitting in to protect Boonen, riding up front were Bettini, O’Grady, Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd and Oscar Freire, Benatti, Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel) and T-Mobile’s Bernard Eisel and Marcus Burghardt. Being a loyal teammate for Boonen, Steegmans got a free ride on Cancellara’s wheel, which frustrated the Swiss time machine. Boonen finally attacked on the steep Muur with 16 km to the finish, which was covered by Ballan, Hoste, Bennati and Nick Nuyens (Cofidis). Cancellara took another dig, but Ballan caught him and attacked up the Grammont, dropping Boonen. Initially Boogerd and Hoste were able to stick, but Boogerd swiftly fell off the pace. Ballan and Hoste opened up an 8-second gap that grew to 20 seconds on the Bosberg, the final climb of the day. A group of 13 chasers attempted to nail back the break, closing it down to 11 seconds with 3 km to go. Thomas Vaitkus and Karsten Kroon got caught in no man’s land between the leaders and the threatening chasers, but Ballan and Hoste were determined to settle the matter themselves. In the sprint for the win, it looked like Hoste finally got it right after two previous 2nd place finishes in his native country’s race, but with 50 meters to go, Ballan recovered and burst through for the biggest win of the young Italian’s career. A disappointed Hoste had to settle for 2nd for a third time. Paolini, who had to change his shoes midway through the race after breaking a cleat, completed the podium.
Cobblestones & wind means we’re in Belgium, right?
Wrong. Try Virginia for the inaugural U.S. Open Cycling Championship, which trekked from colonial Williamsburg to Richmond. The race start was delayed due to temperatures in the teens, snow and savage winds. When the race finally did get underway, the 65-mile ride to Richmond was marked by harsh crosswinds, snow and temps only in the 20s. Riders attempted breaks, probably to get warm, but they didn’t get far until the peloton reached Richmond, where the skies were clear and the sun was shining. Once in Richmond, the riders faced eight technical circuits, including trips up the cobbled Libby Hill section. Gregorio Vega (Tecos) was the first to get away for a while and he was joined by Navigator’s Insurance Phil Zajicek. Toyota-United’s Ivan Stevic drove the successful chase and catch. Successful Living/Parkpre’s Alessandro Bazzana was next to flee, with Henk Vogels (Toyota-United) and Shawn Milne (HealthNet) accompanying him, but they were reabsorbed after 5 miles. Team Slipstream’s Pat McCarty made the decisive move of the day with 15 miles to go and was quickly joined by Symmetrics’ Svein Tuft. The duo worked well together to build a 30-second advantage over a seven-man chase group that contained Amgen Tour of California stage winner Ivan Dominguez. No one wanted to tow the Toyota-United sprinter to the line. With one of McCarty’s teammates, Lucas Euser, also sitting in, the chase group couldn’t get the cooperation they needed to make headway. On the final trip up Libby Hill, Tuft pulled away from McCarty and the Canadian time trial champ rode home solo for the win.
The Cool Down
No one has won more stages at the Amgen Tour of California than Juan Jose Haedo. His success at the race – two stage wins last year and two more this year - earned the sprinter an upgrade from one of the top domestic teams, Toyota-United, to one of the best ProTour teams in the world, CSC. But could he win in Europe? You betcha. J.J. won the Tour of Cologne in Germany by rocketing past none other than Ale Jet Petacchi. It’s going to be exciting to watch Argentinean’s star rise.
Last year, critics said that the Discovery Channel team had a disappointing season in their first post-Lance year even though they did win stages and held the lead in all three Grand Tours. This year, Disco is off to a rip-roaring start and they hold the early season team lead in the ProTour courtesy of impressive wins by Contador, Amgen Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, Yaroslov Popoyvch, Egoi Martinez, and other team members.
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Rick Scott is president of Great Scott P.R.oductions, an entertainment and sports public relations, marketing and management boutique. He can be contacted through www.greatscottpr.com.