September 12 - Weekly RapBy Rick Scott
There's probably no season longer in professional sports than cycling's. Some of these athletes have been racing since mid-January. Here it is, the middle of September, and they're still in high gear. In fact, there's so much bike racing going on right now that us here at The Weekly Rap are struggling to keep up with the international and domestic pro pelotons. Dig deeply and let's give it a go.
Eneco Tour of Benelux
It was the third go-round for this week-long stage race in the Netherlands and Belgium. Last year's edition ended it controversy: Gerolsteiner's Stefan Schumacher won the overall when GC race leader Discovery Channel's George Hincapie crashed in the sprint to the finish during the final stage when Schumacher swerved after getting hit by an overzealous fan and took Hincapie down. Not a pretty way to win a ProTour race. This year's edition got underway with a 5-kilometer prologue that was won by Michiel Elijen (Cofidis) by a single second over Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank). Perhaps some of the GC favorites dialed it back on the wet roads, but hey, the 25-year-old kid won himself a stage in a ProTour event so let's give him his props. In unusual planning, the Queen stage (i.e. the hardest) was up first. Another Cofidis rider got the win and the leader's jersey when Nick Nuyens conquered the uphill sprint ahead of Rabobank's rising young star, Thomas Dekker. Speaking of rising young stars, T-Mobile's 22-year-old Brit Mark Cavendish collected the pack sprint victory in stage 2. Pocket rocket Robbie McEwen won the mass stage 3 sprint even though he was still bitter about racing Eneco instead of being on Predictor-Lotto's Vuelta a Espana roster. Big boys banged shoulders in the thundering stage 4 sprint finish when Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Quick.Step's Wouter Weylandt went for the brass ring in a fast and furious duel. Weylandt was relegated to last place after taking a dangerous line in stage 2, but this time he was cleared and the win was his to keep. A three-man break disappeared after one kilometer and held the lead for 175 of stage 5's 180 kilometers. But this was the final flat stage so the sprinters' teams mounted a successful chase by closing a gap that had grown to ten minutes. Saunier Duval-Prodir's Luciano Pagliarini netted the stage while Nuyens kept his GC lead for one final day.
Unfortunately Nuyens and Dekker both hit the deck in stage 6. Sadly Nuyens was too injured to continue. Pablo Lastras (Caisse d'Epargne) made the winning move with 56-km to go and earned victory ahead of four chasers with the peloton close behind. Dekker moved into the GC lead heading into the final and decisive individual time trial showdown. He only held a four-second advantage over Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne) and six seconds over Britain's David Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir). The 29-kilometer “race of truth” revealed Dekker to be hurting from the crash the previous day. His 21st place sent him plummeting to 5th GC. Quick.Step's Sebastian Rosseler surprised the field with the best time of the day, but he finished a scant two seconds ahead of Gutierrez, who captured the overall win eleven seconds ahead of Millar. Once again, the Eneco tour was settled on the final stage, but thankfully this one was undisputed.
USPRO Championships Part 2 & 3
Over Labor Day weekend, the best American cyclists were in Greenville, South Carolina for the USPRO Championship Time Trial and Road Race. This is the second consecutive year that defending road race champ Hincapie's adopted hometown served as the backdrop for the national championships. CSC's Dave Zabriskie was back to defend his time trial championship, a title he won perhaps due to the crash of Chris Baldwin (Toyota-United), who went down after overcooking the last corner while ahead of Dave Z. on time. Ouch! This year, organizers deleted that suspect corner and the 32-km race went off without a hitch over primarily the same course as last year. It wasn't any easier though as the Salt Lake City native managed to hold on to his stars & stripes jersey with a narrow one second victory over Danny Pate (Team Slipstream). The day also marked a victory of another kind. Saul Raisin (Credit Agricole), who nearly died from brain injuries sustained in a crash while racing in France last year, completed his extraordinary comeback by competing in his first race.
The road race was 177 km long, trimmed down one trip up the brutal Paris Mountain from last year. But the 108 starters still had to haul booty up the climb four times and as expected, it proved to be the decisive passage in the race. With a small break up the road, Amgen Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) took flight and only Baldwin was able to hang on for dear life. They caught the break and a few others came across from the peloton as they tackled Paris Mountain one final time. This time, only Jelly Belly's Andrew Bajadali, who also rode like a rock star in last year's event, could hang on when Leipheimer dropped the hammer. Bajadali exploded in the final kilometer of the climb and BANG! he was dropped. Leipheimer tucked in for the final 40 kilometers, which he rode solo time trial-style to cross the line over a minute ahead of his Disco teammate, Hincapie, who was not too pleased to have been a marked man. By far, Leipheimer is having the best season of his career. Although he's not yet sure which team he'll race for next season with the eminent retirement of the Discovery Channel team, one thing is for certain: he'll race it wearing a red, white & blue jersey.
GP Ouest France-Plouay
That same weekend, the ProTour was in France for the 210-km GP Ouest France-Plouay. Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali selflessly put his own ambitions aside to ride for his Liquigas teammate, ProTour leader Danilo DiLuca. The riders faced eleven laps and the early break of four went during the first loop, building a nearly nine-minute advantage. Seven men later joined the fiesta, but the chase was in earnest as the gap was narrowed to 1:41 with 33 kilometers remaining. The table was being set for a group gallop, which certainly appealed to Quick.Step. A trio, including CSC's evergreen Jens Voigt, got away on the first of three final climbs. DiLuca attempted an escape with 12 km to go and Bradley Wiggins (Team Barloworld) put everything into a solo move with less than 10 km remaining. Both were unsuccessful, but the leading trio was finally captured in the final 5 kilometers. With just under 3 kilometers to go, perennial animator, Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), threw caution to the wind as per usual only this time he got it right. The peloton hesitated to chase for an instant, which was all the feisty Frenchman needed to seize the biggest win of his career in front of an enraptured French crowd. Credit Agricole sprinter Thor Hushovd was 2nd just two seconds in arrears while DiLuca settled for 3rd, but went home with the ProTour points he sought to pad his season lead.
US 100 Classic
On Labor Day, Atlanta was the sight of the final NRC contest of the year at the US 100 Classic. Priority Health's Emile Abraham, a Trinidad native, resides in Atlanta and parlayed home field advantage into a repeat win in a rip-roaring downhill sprint finish. Various breaks formed on the 9-kilometer course. A threatening move of 15 was hauled in with six laps to go; yet another went only to be neutralized with three laps remaining. With Toyota-United, Priority Health, Kelly Benefits Strategies, HealthNet and Jittery Joe's driving the field towards the inevitable sprint finale, it was a fast, full-throttle finish. Abraham jetted around HealthNet's Karl Menzies and Dave McCook (Kelly Benefits Strategies) to snag the win for a second consecutive year. With HealthNet and Toyota-United battling to the wire for NRC points for the season team win, Menzies' podium appearance ensured HealthNet's fourth consecutive NRC team title. The squad's Rory Sutherland's 8th place enabled him to eclipse Ben Jacques-Maynes (Priority Health) for the NRC individual title.
Univest Grand Prix
In Souderton, Pennsylvania, the riders faced 172 kilometers at the Univest Grand Prix in early September. A bit of misdirection due to an errant race official guided the 60-man peloton off course, which led them to being deemed past the time cut, hence they weren't allowed to compete on the finishing circuits. The battle ended up being between a seven-man break, which included two Slipstream boys: Will Frischkorn and Timmy Duggan. That proved bad news for the others as two gunslingers are always better than one. Duggan attacked with nine laps remaining, which forced the others to react. When he was roped in, Frischkorn countered to perfection, riding home alone with an almost three-minute margin of victory. The argyle-clad climber also captured the King of the Mountains title.
The next day, the field competed in a criterium in Doylestown, Pennsylvania that culminated in a thrilling sprint with the peloton spread out across the road bolting to the line. Italian Mattia Gavazzi snatched the top prize. Kelly Benefit's Ryan Roth finished the day 5th, but when combined with his 2nd place finish from the day before, he garnered the overall omnium victory based upon points for final placings.
The Cool Down
Crashing is an inevitable part of cycling, which means injuries are, too. However, it always hurts when you see a friend hit the pavement. CSC's Stuart O'Grady took a bad fall during the Tour de France and if it wasn't for the pole he smacked into at full speed, he might have flown off the mountain to a fateful demise. Thankfully the Paris-Roubaix winner “only” broke 8-9 ribs, broke his shoulder, punctured a lung and damaged vertebrae. He spent quite a bit of time in hospital healing in July, which is when we checked in with him. While he called it the worst crash of his long career, the always optimistic Australian found the silver lining: he was home last month for the birth of his first daughter. Congrats, Stuey. Great to hear you're back on the bike already looking forward to next season. You can't keep a good man down…
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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.