May 10 - Weekly RapWe've got a monstrous week for you from the international and domestic racing scene. Join us for a trek through Northern Europe for the three races that comprise the Ardennes Classics and trip to Silver City, New Mexico for the Tour of the Gila, where if the Gila monsters don't bite you, the fast and furious cycling action will.
Hey bartender, make mine an Amstel Gold
More than just sprinters and one-day classics riders show up for the three races known as the Ardennes Classics, which kicks off with the Amstel Gold race in the Netherlands. Since there are plenty of climbs in this trio of races, climbers and Grand Tour stage racers come out to test their form and fitness. Amstel Gold is 252 kilometers long and conquers 31 climbs en route. It's the favorite race of Rabobank's Michael Boogerd, who recently announced that he'd be retiring at the end of the season. He won the race in 1999 and has landed on the podium an impressive seven times. He was hoping to take home the win this year. CSC's Frank Schleck was back to defend his win from last year, but he crashed hard with 50 kms to go. Amazingly he recovered to finish 10th.
An early five-man break was caught and passed by Jens Voigt (CSC), Steffen Wesemann (Wiesenhof-Felt), Daniele Righi (Lampre) and Piet Rooyakkers (Skil-Shimano). After they were hauled in and dropped by the day's favorites, Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) attacked on the 28th climb with only 21 kms remaining, riding away from his breakaway companions that included luminaries such as teammate Davide Rebellin, Boogerd, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas), Matthias Kessler (Astana), and Amgen Tour of California stage winner and reigning World Champion Paolo Bettini. Schumacher rode with stitches in his knee that resulted in a crash at the recent Tour of the Basque Country that forced him to take four days off the bike before this race. Bettini was the first to react, with Kessler, Boogerd and Rebellin grabbing his wheel. Di Luca raged out of the peloton with 16 km left to form a lead group of seven men, including three Gerolsteiners. One of the water men, Fabian Wegmann leapt with 15 km remaining, making the tempo hard for the others. Schumacher gave it the gas on the final climb up the Cauberg in the last kilometer and the others hesitated to chase, hoping someone else would do the work. That instant of hesitation gave Schumacher the gap he needed to take the win by 21 seconds over Rebellin and Di Luca.
On second thought, make it a Gerolsteiner
The unusually warm Euro weather continued as temperatures were a summery 80 degrees for the mid-week La Fleche-Wallonne. Defending champ Valverde was coming into form so he was bound to keep the heat on sizzle. Four men escaped after 40 kms, building a 6:50 advantage. They weren't caught until the final 40 kms. Bettini hit the showers early due to illness and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) was a crash victim, thankfully escaping without injury. A wave of small attacks and counterattacks were fired resulting in only small gaps of 10, 20 and 30 seconds. Di Luca launched with Valverde and Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile) were the only ones to follow. With Astana, Predictor-Lotto and AG2R mounting chase, the leaders were caught with 2 km to go up the Mur de Huy, the steep finishing climb. Kessler dashed and 36-year-old Rebellin, who won this race in 2004, sucked his wheel until the final 20 meters before coming around to take the win for the bubbly boys in baby blue. Valverde and Di Luca passed the blown Kessler to take the final steps on the podium.
The Killer pounces
The 93rd edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege was a killer won by The Killer. The last chapter of the Ardennes trilogy is regarded as one of the hardest one-day classics as the hilly 262-kilometer race allows little recovery between the 12 short, steep climbs thrown at the riders. The early four-man break built an 18-minute advantage. Schumacher and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) were closing in on the two men left in the break when they were joined by Karsten Kroon (CSC) and Cedric Vasseur (Quick Step). Together they were able to close the gap with 25 kms remaining, which then left seven men in the lead with a thirty-second advantage over the peloton.
Vasseur lifted the tempo on the penultimate climb, which drew the attention of Schumacher. After Vasseur cracked, Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto) was the next to try, but he didn't get far. With 10 kms remaining, Schumacher held a 22-second lead. Liquigas mounted chase and closed the gap on the final climb of the day up St. Nicolas. Boogerd and Bettini gave it a shot, but couldn't getaway. The race of attrition remained intact until Schleck's final uphill assault lit the decisive fuse in the final 4 kms. Di Luca joined him and they pried open a ten-second gap. Rabobank's Thomas Dekker attempted to bridge with 2.5 kms remaining, but failed. In the final kilometer, Di Luca was clearly superior to a tired Schleck, who miraculously raced with a broken vertebra that he took home as a souvenir from the Amstel Gold race. Nicknamed "The Killer," Di Luca slayed and filleted his prey in the final 500 meters to win what he called the hardest race in the world. Behind, an inspired Valverde jumped and overtook the shattered & battered Schleck for 2nd.
A well-deserved win
Nathan O'Neill's season got off to what you might call a rocky start. The HealthNet captain was hit by a car while training in January. After recovering, he was involved in a nasty car accident in March while on promotional duties for the Tour of Georgia. The Aussie made a strong season debut at the Georgia race and brought that form to New Mexico for the Tour of the Gila, perhaps the hilliest stage race in the U.S. O'Neill nailed the opening time trial by 15 seconds over Priority Health's Ben Jacques-Maynes and Toyota –United Chris Baldwin, the latter of who was the defending victor.
Colombian Herman Munoz (P&S Halcones) climbed to victory in the 94-mile second stage that finished on the steep switchbacks that comprise the three-mile Mogollan climb. O'Neill built on his lead over Baldwin and the evergreen Scott Moninger (BMC) by finishing 2nd on the stage, 10 seconds back of the winner. A six-man break that included Toyota-United Ivan Stevic escaped early, but HealthNet pulled them back by the ascent of the final climb. O'Neill accelerated and only Munoz and Baldwin could answer. When Munoz attacked near the summit, O'Neill let him go since he wasn't a GC threat and instead marked Baldwin's progress. He then left Baldwin behind, stretching his advantage to almost two minutes on the overall.
Team Slipstream was bit frustrated with things so they decided to decimate the field in the third stage. Just 10 miles into the 80-mile race, they dropped the hammer on the opening climb, which left only 20 riders, including O'Neill, in contention. While O'Neill waited for his teammates to chase back, Slipstream's Thomas Peterson attacked with Stevic, Nick Reistad (Jelly Belly) and David Solomon (P&S Halcones). The break held a 2-3-minute lead for the ensuing 45 miles. HealthNet led a patient chase with 20 miles to go. With less than 10 miles remaining, they mounted serious chase. In the final 3 kms, Peterson got a slow leak on his rear tire, but he was undeterred. The 19-year-old held on for his first pro win as the break finished a scant five seconds ahead of the peloton.
The GC wasn't expect to change much in the stage 4 crit, which tackled 34 laps of a 1.1-mile downtown course that included two short climbs per lap. When the early five-man break was joined by two additions, the escape gained renewed hope. However, Jelly Belly and HealthNet led the chase and closed the gap by the final lap. Jelly Belly executed a perfect lead-out for Brice Jones to sprint to victory.
The final stage was less than 72 miles, yet it included 9000 feet of climbing. Ouch. Since the break of ten didn't contain any GC threats, HealthNet let the course thin out the ranks through a process of natural selection. The break dwindled from ten to six, to four and eventually to three when they were caught on the second to last climb. Only a select group of climbers remained, including Moninger, Peterson, Baldwin, Munoz, Anthony Colby (Colavita/Sutter Homes), Andrew Bajadali (Jelly Belly) and O'Neill with teammate Ryder Hesjedal, who was the workhorse who lead the chase in support of his leader. On the final climb leading into the finishing town, Moninger again proved that he hasn't slowed a single pedal stroke at age 40 by wining the stage. O'Neill finished 15 seconds back in 6th, which was enough to ensure his well-deserved GC win.
The Cool Down
Unfortunately this sport is often marked by tragedy when cyclists encounter motor vehicles or peril at high speeds on dangerous roads. Sometimes something truly special and inspiring can spring from such loss. Six years ago, Javi Otxoa was paralyzed from the waste down and his brother, Ricardo, was killed. Even though he still is recovering from his injuries, you can't keep the spirit of a determined athlete down. Otxoa recently signed Saunier Duval-Prodir as one of his Paralympics sponsors. He'll wear the same kit, ride the same bike and utilize the same technical equipment as the ProTour team does next month when he competes in the Spanish Championships and at the UCI Cycling World Championships in August. At World's, Otxoa will be attempting to break his own record of winning five medals, including two gold. He's also a two-time Paralympic medalist. So what's your excuse for not training?
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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.