April 30 - Weekly RapThis week, spring classics fever continues including coverage of the Hell of the North and a peach of a race where the biggest surprise emerged from Georgia since Jimmy Carter. No tickets or passports are required on our weekly trek following the pro peloton’s dash to the line.
Bridging the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix is the mid-week classic Ghent-Wevelgem, 210 kms of primarily flat roads with a couple of hilly cobbled passages over the Kimmelberg. The race is often marked by crashes and crosswinds. Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) was back to defend his win last year. He sat out Flanders as did other G-W favorites Robbie McEwen, Allan Davis, Alessandro Petacchi and Baden Cooke so they had fresh legs. Others to watch were Philippe Gilbert, Nick Nuyens, Stijn Devolder and Gert Steegmans. Tom Boonen was testing his beat up body after the injuries he sustained at Flanders. Daniele Bennati didn’t take the start due to illness. Unfortunately Erik Zabel retired early after crashing.
The unseasonable summer-like weather continued and an early three-man break – Roger Hammond, Florent Brard and Christophe Mengin - flew the coup at 40 km and built a 12-minute advantage. The pack was nearing the catch when Oscar Freire, Francisco Ventoso and Marcus Burghardt joined the leaders to help stretch the lead from 16 seconds to 45 seconds with 10 km remaining. The break worked well together until T-Mobile’ Burghardt got the order to attack in the final 2 km. The young German powered away for his first pro win with teammate Hammond taking 2nd. Freire completed the podium. There was lots of carnage during the race, much of it happening on the dangerous Kimmelberg section, which has sparked debate as to whether the section should be removed from future editions of the race in the name of rider safety. Sometimes “old school” is synonymous with “old fool.”
Hell of the North
The weather once again had impact on the 105th edition of Paris-Roubaix, but this time it wasn’t because of cold, windy, rainy or muddy conditions. Temperatures were in the upper 80s with heat and dust making breathing conditions in Northern France difficult for the riders. For the first time, an Australian took out the win in the 259 km “hard man’s” race notorious for its short, but steep cobblestone climbs. CSC’s Stuart O’Grady was undeterred by a minor crash and a flat in the decisive Arenberg sector. A thirty-man group escaped 30 kms into the race and was not caught until 40 kms remained. O’Grady, who was riding in support of teammate and defending champ Fabian Cancellara, made the lead group as did Hammond, who ended up finishing 7th on the day. After a pack of big-named contenders caught the break, Quick Step’s Kevin Van Impe and Gerolsteiner’s David Kopp attacked at 210 kms, quickly followed by a small group of chasers. Behind them, Boonen and Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto) applied pressure to Cancellara. When the time trial World Champion faltered, O’Grady was given clearance to fly. Steffen Weseman (Wisenhof-Felt) attacked first. O’Grady joined him and countered, riding away solo with 25 kms to go. It’s rare for a rider to enter the velodrome alone for the final laps, but that’s exactly what the 33-year-old former track champion did, winning by 52 seconds over Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) and Weseman.
The fifth Tour of Georgia was expected to be a Disco-dominated affaire show with Discovery Channel’s Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer the heavy favorites. Other ProTour contenders included David Zabriskie (CSC) and Saunier Duval-Prodir’s David Millar and Gilberto Simoni. Of note was the return to U.S. racing by Tyler Hamilton along with his new Tinkoff Credit Systems team. From the domestic peloton, the anticipated contenders were Danny Pate (Team Slipstream), Christopher Baldwin (Toyota-United), Nathan O’Neill (HealthNet), Phil Zajicek (Navigators Insurance), and Ben Jacques-Maynes (Priority Health). The race stretched out to seven days and 658 miles, making it the longest stage race in the U.S.
The first shot was fired by Tinkoff’s Danielle Contrini, who won the 98.5-mile opening stage after attacking his breakaway companions on the climb during the finishing circuits in Macon. The break was started by Navigator’s Viktor Rapinski, who led by a minute before being joined by four chasers. Together they built a six-minute advantage. Discovery Channel and CSC led the chase and closed the gap. In the finale, Rapinski blew up when Contrini accelerated en route to winning the stage, thereby claiming the first yellow leader’s jersey.
Toyota-United was disappointed that they didn’t participate in chasing the break in stage 1 so they made up for it in the second stage. A long three-man break had gained a maximum 9-minute lead until the pack caught them as they arrived in Rome for the finishing circuits. T-U’s Ivan Stevic, the Serbian National Champion, attacked on the short, steep Clocktower Hill and sprinted in alone ahead of the pack in the final kilometer in a deftly timed move.
Stage 3 changed the face of the General Classification battle for good, eliminating all but a dozen riders from overall contention after a break won the 118-mile stage by more than 29 minutes. This was one of those rare days when the early break, originally comprised of 16 men, went away and stayed away. The break only had a one-minute advantage when Predictor-Lotto took up the chase, cutting the gap in half. None of the other teams lent a hand so they shut off their engines and the break went unchecked the rest of the way. There were four-categorized climbs on tap and the leaders worked well together until the final ascent when they attacked each other on the cat. 3 Burkhalter Gap. The flurry of attacks continued in the final 5 kms until Disco’s Gianni Meersman scored his first pro win when the Belgian sprinter blasted to victory with 150 meters to go. Saunier Duval-Prodir’s David Canada took the GC lead, while Disco’s Janez Brajkovic was the new favorite to win the race.
Amgen Tour of California winner Leipheimer won the challenging stage 4 time trial after being the only rider to finish under 45 minutes. It was an 18.9-mile technical uphill course that finished atop Lookout Mountain. Canada struggled and finished more than two minutes back of his rivals, losing the GC lead to Brajkovic, who finished 11th on the stage. CSC’s Christian Vande Velde finished 12th and moved into 2nd GC, 12 seconds in arrears.
The stage everyone looks forward to in Georgia is the Queen’s stage: the showdown on Brasstown Bald. While the favorites were no longer battling for the GC win, it was still bound to be a fiercely fought contest. The 107-mile stage 5 finished atop the epic, beyond category climb that rises to 4784 feet. A threatening 16-man break containing Leipheimer, Danielson and Simoni escaped early. Four riders initially went clear on the first King of the Mountain climb with four more joining them. The leaders’ advantage of 5:30 was down to 3:40 by the time they tacked the second KOM climb. The gap shrunk to 2:30 at 15 kms to go with the battle up Brasstown Bald remaining. BMC’s Alexandre Moos valiantly pulled away from the break. Millar piloted Simoni to The Wall where the Italian, who is fine-tuning his form for the Giro d’Italia, took over in the final 5 kms. Only Leipheimer and Danielson were able to stick on Simoni’s wheel. Leipheimer rode away for the win while Danielson, being a loyal teammate, awaited word of the progress of Brajkovic. Once he heard his leader wasn’t far behind, he jetted past Simoni with 2.5 kms to go to take 2nd place on the prestigious stage. Vande Velde finished with Brajkovic despite his repeated efforts to drop the 23-year-old, thus the top two places on the GC remained intact.
The sprinters got their due in the final two stages. It had been a year since Fast Freddie Rodriguez collected a win so he was thrilled to capture stage 6, his fourth win in Georgia. The pack charged to the line at the end of the 113.5-mile stage after the day’s main three-man break was caught in the first of two finishing circuits. In the final kilometer, HealthNet’s Ryder Hesjedal went for broke, but CSC shut it down while riding for J.J. Haedo. Rodriguez followed the HealthNet train then latched onto George Hincapie’s (Discovery Channel) wheel before launching his winning sprint in the final 200 meters. Haedo took 2nd and Hincapie, in his first race back after breaking his wrist at the Amgen Tour of California, was 3rd.
The Tour of Georgia concluded with a 67-mile circuit race in Atlanta. Three men – Jacques-Maynes, Kirk O’Bee (HealthNet) and Cesar Grajales (Jittery Joe’s) - comprised the break. Jacques-Maynes suffered a mechanical problem, which cost him the day. Grajales, a gifted climber, was in his first race after breaking his collarbone and wasn’t quite on form. The break was sucked up and Haedo won the long uphill sprint in Centennial Olympic Park. Rodriguez decided to go all out for the stage win instead of battling for sprint points during the stage. After finishing 2nd to Haedo in the stage, he ended up losing the points jersey to the four-time Amgen Tour of California stage winner as well. Brajkovic finished safely taking the overall win back to Slovenia along with his second consecutive Best Young Rider’s title. Sometimes it pays just to show up as Brajkovic was a last-minute replacement on the Disco roster after Jose Luis Rubiera couldn’t make the trip.
The Cool Down
What do you do after you win the Super Bowl of Classics at Paris-Roubaix? Apparently the same thing Super Bowl MVP’s do: go to Disneyland. That’s right, after notching the biggest win of his stellar career, Stuey O’Grady spent a couple days with his family in Euro Disney. We heard from him afterwards and he was still in shock every time he looked at the cobblestone trophy adorning his abode. It couldn’t have happened to a better or classier bloke. Cheers to you, mate.
# # #
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.