Weekly Rap - April 10, 2008March Madness continues in April at The Weekly Rap, your pro cycling update. This week, we’ll fill you in on two big early season races: the Paris-Nice stage race and Milano-Sanremo, the first one-day cycling monument of the new season. Hey DJ, bring that beat back! Here comes The Rap…
Paris-NiceThe first major European stage race of the season took place in France March 9-16. The weather played a role in the 4.6 km Prologue. Rain dampened the roads after the first 40 riders started and stopped during the last 40 riders. In between, the times were clearly effected as racers didn’t want to take any risks, especially after Team Slipstream-Chipotle’s Tyler Farrar, who wore the yellow jersey in the Amgen Tour of California for a day, hit the deck hard after slipping in a corner. Early starter Markel Irizar (Euskaltel-Euskadi) surprised the field by delivering what looked to be the winning ride before big Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) bested the Spaniard by four seconds.
The weather turned downright nasty forcing the first stage to be trimmed from the planned 184.5 kms to 93.5 kms. It was expected to be a stage for the sprinters, but there was one hill to clear 15 kms into the revamped stage. On the descent, High Road’s Bernhard Eisel took a flyer with Peter Velits and Niki Terpstra (Milram) en tow. Their lead had stretched to more than four minutes when Francaise des Jeux and Quick Step-Innergetic manned the chase. With rain falling and devilish crosswinds pelting the peloton, Quick Step dropped the hammer to split in the field. Some big names got caught out, but Hushovd managed to hang on. The trio was nailed back with 15 kms to go. Although a couple riders tried in the final kilometers, Quick Step had a solid grip on the situation. Their sprinter, Gert Steegmans, launched with 350 meters left and looked to run out of gas before the line, but he held onto the stage win. Hushovd finished 3rd and kept the yellow jersey.
The “Race to the Sun” was treated to more rain on Stage 2. After a few early break attempts failed during the 201-km stage, Frenchman Thierry Hupond (Skil-Shimano) went clear at 29 kms. By the 105-km mark, his gap was over 15 minutes. With five hills to summit in the final portion of the stage, Hupond’s lead swiftly eroded. Rabobank’s Juan Antonio Flecha and Saunier Duval-Scott’s Benat Intxausti captured the young rider on the col de Fut d’Avenas with 20 kms to go. Hushovd rode like a warrior by attacking on the descent, gaining a 20-second advantage in the approach to the finish in Belleville. But he literally ran out gas – i.e. bonked – and waited to be caught by three-men who escaped from the pack: Steegmans, Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) and Michael Albasini (Liquigas). Steegmans pocketed another stage win in the uphill sprint while Hushovd held onto yellow with a 2nd place stage finish.
A two-man escape succeeded in winning the 165.5-km Stage 3 and the yellow jersey finally changed hands. After 8 kms, CSC’s Bradley McGee, Clement Lhotellerie (Skil-Shimano) and Kjell Carlstrom (Liquigas) departed the confines of the field and by the time they hit the 20-km point, their lead was 11:30. A group of favorites, including Hushovd, finally reacted after 131 kms. On the category 1 climb of col de la Croix de Chaubouret, Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger attacked the elite group, which narrowed the gap to just over two minutes. Chavanel and Lampre’s Damiano Cunego were able to join Kreuziger. McGee cracked and was dropped from the break on the last climb with 5 km to go. Hushovd came off the lead chase group there as well. Chavanel’s group was caught on the descent by a small group led by Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), but the Frenchman put a teammate at the front to drive the group home into St. Etienne. With Lhotellerie doing the majority of the work, he didn’t have much left for the two-up sprint, which Carlstrom snatched. Chavanel donned the yellow leader’s jersey.
Stage 4 finished partway up one of the legendary French climbs often featured in the Tour de France: Mont Ventoux. At kilometer 11 of 176, four men – Eisel, Terpstra, CSC’s Jens Voigt and Aleksandr Kuchinsky (Liquigas) – took flight. Their lead was over seven minutes 70 kms later when Rabobank finally came to the front to help Chavanel’s Cofidis squad in the chase. The always aggressive Voigt attacked at the base of Mont Ventoux with Rebellin’s Gerolsteiner teammates making the pace hard for the chasers. Chavanel popped 7 km from the finish and he would lose the yellow jersey. Amgen Tour of California stage winner Robert Gesink, a climbing phenom, lifted the pace in an elite group that contained Rebellin, CSC’s Frank Schleck and Silence-Lotto’s Cadel Evans & Yaroslav Popovych. They caught Voigt with 4 km remaining and less then a kilometer later, Gesink accelerated, which was too much for Popovych. Only Evans could respond and he later sprinted past Gesink to win the coveted climber’s stage. Gesink had done enough damage to claim the leader’s jersey by 32 seconds over Rebellin.
After the first Stage 5 climb at 31 of 172.5 kms, Frenchmen Christophe Moreau (Agritubel), Sandy Casar (Francaise des Jeux), Remi Pauriol (Credit Agricole) and Jerome Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) escaped. When Casar dropped off, his teammate Philippe Gilbert replaced him. A menacing group of 21 riders joined them at km 54, including Evans, which caused consternation for Rabobank who had Flecha in the break. Both men along with a few others were called back by their teams as the now 17-man break continued on. Quick Step’s Carlos Barredo was on a mission to move up the general classification and he did the lion’s share of the work along with deploying a bevy of attacks. His attack before the day’s final climb of the cote des Marquises at 160 kms trimmed the break down to five. He attacked again and rode the final 10 kms solo crossing the finish line four seconds ahead of the chase. Rabobank worked hard to close the gap to just north of two minutes in order to keep Gesink in yellow.
An equitable mix of eight riders formed just over 13 kms into Stage 6. Lhotellerie rode with them long enough to take maximum points on the first two King of the Mountains climbs before seeking refuge in the peloton after 96 kms. When the advantage was over five minutes after the col d’Espargon climb, Lampre and Caisse d’Epargne drove the chase, slowly chipping away at the lead. Twenty kilometers from the finish, the gap was less than two minutes when the now five-man break hit the climb of the col de Tanneron with AG2R and Quick Step at the front setting tempo. At the summit, only two men – CSC’s Bobby Julich and Bouygues Telecom’s Mathieu Sprick – had a 40-second gap. Sprick crashed on the treacherous descent leaving Julich to fend for himself. Chavanel encouraged the formation of a chase group with Cunego leading the effort. At the bottom, a new seven-man group formed, but Gesink was missing. Rebellin, a cagey veteran, had accelerated over the summit and Gesink couldn’t follow on the technical descent. Without any teammates to help him get back to the leaders, Gesink lost 1:27 on the day and dropped out of the top 3. With Rebellin and AG2R’s Rinaldo Nocentini marking each other in the final kilometer, Chavanel caught them by surprise with 500 meters to go to win the stage in Cannes. Rebellin was in yellow a scant three seconds ahead of Nocentini heading into the final day.
Stage 7 took place in Nice over 119 kms. A 35-man group departed at 11 kms and from that pack, four men escaped at 39 kms. Remi Pauriol (Credit Agricole) and Morris Possoni (High Road) went clear at the summit of the col de la Porte at 51 kms carrying a one-minute lead. On the descent, both Nocentini and Gesink crashed. In a classy display of sportsmanship often witnessed in this beautiful sport, Rebellin commanded the group to wait for both men to return before continuing the chase. The lead group became 15 riders at 79 kms when Lhotellerie attacked at the start of the La Turbie climb. Cunego tried to go with him to no avail. The Frenchman opened up a gap of 35 seconds on the chase and 1:35 on the field at the summit. He cleared the top of the col d’Eze and was joined on the descent by Jose Alberto Benitez (Saunier Duval-Scott). They were caught with 8 kms left. Cunego and Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne) were aggressive in the finale. Sanchez barely held off the fast-charging Maxime Monfort (Cofidis) and Barredo with the rest of the field nipping at their heels. He took home the stage while 36-year-old Rebellin got his long-awaited Paris-Nice overall win after two 2nd place finishes and one 3rd place finish. Having lost the race last year on the final day to Alberto Contador, Rebellin is sure to savor this victory.
Milano-SanremoThe longest one-day classic of the cycling season, Milano-Sanremo, typically favors the sprinters in the 298-km trek from northern Italy to the southern beach community. A field of 199 riders, including defending champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank), took the start of the 99th edition under sunny skies with temperatures a bit milder than expected. A four-man break – Raivis Belohvosciks (Saunier Duval-Scott), Will Frischkorn (Team Slipstream-Chipotle), Filippo Savini (CSF Group Navigare) and Nicola D'Andrea (Miche-Silver Cross) – dominated the headlines over the first 200 kms as they were able to gain a 16-minute advantage.
The field seemed to awaken when Gerolsteiner’s Bernhard Kohl attacked on the le Manie climb with 94 kms remaining. He didn’t get far before being caught, but the attempt was a harbinger that the real race had begun. The chase was on in earnest and the break’s gap fell precipitously. N’Andrea dropped off the pace and was swallowed up by the peloton. With 30 km to go, the trio was finally caught. Two-time World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Innergetic) leapt on the Cipressa climb. High Road’s Thomas Lovkvist hitched onto the diminutive Italian and others – Rebellin and Niklas Axelsson (Diquigiovanni) – bridged to join the effort. LPR’s Paolo Savoldelli flew down the descent in typical “Il Falco” fashion to help power the now five-man break. Liquigas led the chase in support of their man, Filippo Pozzato, who wore cornrows for the occasion. The catch came before the final climb of the day, the Poggio.
On the Poggio, Alessandro Bertolini (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli) was the first to attack and the favorites responded with alacrity. On the descent, a 15-man group formed consisting of such marquee riders as Rebellin, Pozzato, Freire, Hushovd, Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Enrico Gasparotto (Barloworld), and Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Landaluze gave it a go, but no dice. When Cancellara audaciously darted away in a Spartan-like move with 2 kms remaining, the lead group all looked at each other. That moment of hesitation was all the two-time World Time Trial Champion needed to steal the day from the sprinters. Cancellara won with panache, much like the road stage he swiped at last year’s Tour de France. After more than seven hours of racing, the Swiss rider added another monument to his growing collection. Finishing four seconds in arrears, Pozzato and Gilbert completed the podium.
The Cool DownKudos to the American ladies for bringing home three medals from the UCI World Track Championships held last month in Manchester, England. While the host nation steamrolled the competition en route to collecting nine gold medals along with a couple other medals for good measure, American Jennie Reed won her first World Championship gold medal in the keirin and added a bronze medal to her collection in the sprint. Two-time World Champion pursuiter Sarah Hammer rebounded from an off-season injury to win the silver medal confirming that she’s on-track for the Beijing Olympic Games. Both women base their training out of the ADT Event Center Velodrome in Carson, California.
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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.