July 5 - Weekly RapBy Rick Scott
Can it really be that it's July and the kick-off to the 2007 Tour de France is days away? Whoa. This season is flying by. Before the "Big Dance" begins, catch up to the international and domestic peloton in this week's issue of The Weekly Rap.
A Swiss treat
"The Other" big Tour de France tune-up race in June is the Tour de Suisse. If you are a Tour de France contender and you weren't at the Dauphine Libre, you probably were in beautiful, pristine Switzerland to test your form. With last year's winner, Jan Ullrich, put out to pasture, there was no returning champ to defend. World Time Trial champion Fabian Cancellara (CSC) put on a powerful display demonstrating how he earned that title last year, collecting the opening prologue with eight seconds in hand over 2nd place Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital). It was Cancellara's first victory since he won the rainbow jersey last September and it was especially sweet for the Swiss native, who scorched the flat, technical 3.8-km course.
Bennati had to settle for 2nd place again in Stage 2, which was settled by a photo finish. After 157 kms of racing, Bennati and Erik Zabel (Milram) crossed the line together while Cancellara impressively took 3rd to keep his yellow jersey. Neither the Italian nor the German knew who got the win, but the camera gave the edge to Zabel. There was only one climb late in the stage to test the riders, but plenty of vertical challenges loomed ahead.
24-year-old Alessandro Proni (Quickstep-Innergetic) notched his first win as a pro solo in the 228-km Stage 3. The riders tackled the above category Fluelapass climb 60 kms from the finish and hit a third category climb that peaked 2 km from the finish. Proni had been in a long break with two others that at one point had gained over 11 minutes on the peloton. With CSC and Lampre closing the gap, Proni attacked solo on the final climb out of desperation. It worked. His superb descending skills helped him seal the deal, but by only 7 seconds over the chasers. Cancellara, a non-climber who yet again displayed his superior form, finished the stage with 28 top contenders and was able to preserve his general classification lead for yet another day. But it was to be the last.
Stage 4 concluded after 167 kms with a 12 km climb up Triesenberg-Malbun, which many liken to the legendary Alpe d'Huez in France. It seemed fitting that the winner of last year's Tour de France stage on Alpe d'Huez, CSC's Frank Schleck, won this stage 32 seconds ahead of Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne). Officials ranked the climb as category 2, but the riders think it's much harder and deserves a higher categorization. The peloton hit the base of the ascent together and Cancellara quickly fell off the pace. Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval-Prodir) attempted to get clear with 9 km to go, which was successful in shedding all except the elite climbers. Schleck leapt, but was pulled back. He went again and the second time proved the charm as no one could follow. He added time to his advantage all the way to the line. Schleck's effort also garnered him the yellow leader's jersey from his teammate so the CSC camp was still all smiles.
The sprinters got another day in the sun at the end of Stage 5, a 193-km trek that included a category 1 climb. Since the summit was 78 kms from the finish, there was ample time for the capture of the day's long escape and the regroup to take place well before the finishing charge to the line. Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) proved his form to defend the sprinter's points jersey in France is on course when he took the win ahead of Bennati (poor guy had to settle for 2nd place for the third time) and Zabel. There was no change in the overall race leadership.
The weather Gods made Stage 6 a nightmare. After riding less than 10 kms, the peloton was enveloped by a heavy storm that chucked golf ball-sized hail at the riders and race caravan. Bodies, bikes and cars were being damaged so the race was halted while organizers worked out a game plan. The 190-km stage that was to include an above category climb was restarted on the other side of the mountain with clear skies and 95 kms left to race. The shortened stage made for a faster pace. When the CSC-driven train hit the base of the 11 km finishing climb, they looked firmly in control. But Schleck faltered and lost time in the final kilometers, resulting in a drop to 3rd place GC. A flurry of attacks commenced with 10 km remaining. Discovery Channel's Stijn Devolder was first to drop the hammer. Simoni and Damiano Cunego (Lapmpre-Fondital) also helped thin the herd. Finally it was Rabobank's heir apparent Thomas Dekker who was able to get away alone in the final 2 kms to cinch the win. The time Efimkin earned over Schleck put the leader's jersey onto his shoulders.
Lucky number 7 was the Queen's stage with three mountains to conquer during the 125-km stage. The first two were hors categorie (above categorization) and the final ramp was category 1. With the cream rising in the dwindling kilometers, Disco's Vladimir Gusev went for broke and soloed the final 23 kms home for a sensational win, besting American Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto) by over two minutes and other top contenders by over four minutes. For the first time in this race, Astana's Andreas Kloden unveiled his form, showing that he'll be ready for France by scoring a strong 3rd place on the stage. Efimkin held onto the GC lead with help from teammate Vladimir Karpets.
The penultimate stage traversed 152 kms of rolling terrain. Breaks attempted to form, but nothing significant stuck until kilometer 70 when a serious group of eleven formed that contained three Disco boys, Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital), Fred Rodriguez (Predictor-Lotto) and CSC's Tour de France hopeful, Carlos Sastre. With the peloton steadily closing the gap, Ballan and Sastre used a hill to propel themselves into the lead. Sastre went on to drop Ballan at the top of a category 4 rise and set off on his own. With 10 km remaining, he had less than a minute advantage. The angry peloton swallowed him up and with 5 kms to go, Horner gave it a shot for a couple kilometers. After he was caught, the sprinters were ready to engage when Unibet.com's 20-year-old Colombian Rigoberto Uran stole the day with a late solo move to take out the stage. Efimkin held onto the jersey and would start the final day's time trial last, a mere 33.7 kilometers away from the biggest win of his career. If he was to fail his test again the clock, his teammate Karpets was within striking distance sitting 3rd GC. T-Mobile's Kim Kirchen was closer, just six seconds in arrears. Others still in the hunt for the overall were Schleck and Unibet.com's Matteo Carrara.
The 71st edition of the Tour de Suisse closed as it opened: with Cancellara rocketing to a defiant time trial win on home soil. Kloden's 2nd place on the stage, twenty seconds back, confirmed that he is on track to be a legitimate Tour de France contender. Efimkin tried, but couldn't do any better than 38th on the stage, losing 3:22 to Cancellara, causing him to plummet to 6th GC. Devolder delivered a solid 4th on the day and ended up on the third step of the final podium. Kirchen's 15th place was 1:10 slower than Karpets, thus he had to settle for 2nd overall. The Russian (Karpets), who rode to 6th on the day, catapulted into the final yellow jersey with over a minute in hand.
Cycling IS a team sport
There's nothing like the precision of a well executed team time trial and for the second year in a row, nobody did it better than CSC at the ProTour's Eindhoven Team Time Trial. But this one didn't go down as smoothly as last year. The Danish squad got a bit of luck this time. The Discovery Channel squad appeared to be racing to victory when a crash cost them the day. The new kids on the block from Tinkoff Credit Systems, with a lineup of Russians, rode like a perfectly drilled time machine and came thisclose to their first ProTour win, missing out by less than one second. Milram was third, down a dozen seconds.
We're Goin' Back to Cali
The Manhattan Beach Grand Prix takes place on a hotdog-shaped circuit that has a couple of rolling power hills and 180-degree turns on both ends of the course. Corners 3 & 4, especially on the last lap, are white-knucklers. The wind coming off the ocean makes breaks difficult to stick, but riders always try to combat Mother Nature only to be foiled allowing the sprinters to have their fun. This year, two locally-based pro teams – Toyota-United and Rock & Republic - had home field advantage and a bevy of sponsors to put on a show for. They didn't disappoint. The race marked the return of Amgen Tour of California stage winner Ivan Dominguez, who was coming back after a strange crash that occurred after a race concluded in May. Successful Living presented by Parkpre's Curtis Gunn took a "Hail Mary" solo flyer after a late break attempt was about to be reabsorbed, but Toyota-United and Rock & Republic's tattooed and pierced rebels went to the front to reclaim their leadership. As per usual, this was going to be a day for the speed demons. With Henk Vogels and the T-U red, white and blue squad lined up for Dominguez, Rock & Republic's ace sprinter, Rahsaan Bahati, knew where to be when having raced this course numerous times dating back to when he was a junior and his rise to the pro ranks. The hometown hero and winner of last month's CSC Invitational, which was the first major win for the newly formed Rock & Republic team, latched onto Vogels' wheel coming out of the last corner before Dominguez could get to it. After a few furious pedal strokes opened up an insurmountable gap, Bahati sat up and cruised the final meters with his arms aloft after a monstrous display of power in front of his family and friends. Dominguez settled for 2nd and finally got some much needed racing miles into his legs after six weeks of recovery. He'll be back in the winner's circle very soon.
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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.