Weekly Rap - April 30, 2008Cobblestones, baby! It’s all about the cobblestones. Thanks for joining us at The Weekly Rap, your professional cycling highlight reel. We’ve got some of the biggest races in the sport to update you on, including two monuments: Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. While the riding was blustery, jarring and treacherous for the peloton, we’ve got a smooth cushy ride for you.
E3 Prijs VlaanderenGiving the peloton a taste of what will be served at the cobblestone classics, the 51st E3 Prijs Vlaanderen was held in Belgium March 29. Starting with the usual bevy of break attempts in the opening kilometers, a pack of fourteen successfully snapped the elastic after 42 kilometers. They achieved a maximum advantage of 4:20 with 71 kilometers remaining. The final portion of the race contained most of the cobbled climbs, thus that was where the real action took place. With 57 kilometers remaining, Quick Step-Innergetic’s Gert Steegmans accelerated out of the break, which quickly drew High Road’s Bernhard Eisel out. The move effectively trimmed the break to six, including CSC’s Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Bouygues Telecom’s Thomas Voeckler, Silence-Lotto’s Greg Van Avermaet, Cycle Collstrop’s David Kopp and Janek Tombak of Mitsubishi-Jartazi.
Back in the field, a pair of Amgen Tour of California stage winners, Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and CSC’s Fabian Cancellara, two heavily-favored heavyweights, united to form a two-man chase. They’d get as close as than slightly more than thirty seconds behind the break, but CSC didn’t want Cancellara to drag Boonen to the break because he would have had the fastest legs, hence be the likely winner. With three kilometers to go, Kopp brazenly went for the win and opened a gap while the others watched each other. At 1.5 kilometers before the finish in Harelbeke, Van Avermaet took off in pursuit of Kopp, which dropped Eisel. When young Van Avermaet ran out of gas, Arvesen jetted, flew past Kopp in the final 100 meters, and celebrated the win.
Three Days of De PanneThree Days of De Panne (April 1-3) consisted of four stages in three days of racing on Belgium cobblestones, the final preparation races before two spring monuments: Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The first stage, 192 kilometers from Middelkerke to Zottegem, saw a solo flyer, Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen), build a 9:30 lead before the chase began in earnest. With 25 kilometers remaining, Barloworld’s Enrico Gasparotto accelerated up the Haaghoek cobbles and went clear on the final climb of the day on the Berendies. With a good distance left to traverse, the Italian allowed countryman Luca Paolini (Aqua Sapone-Caffe Mokambo) to latch on. The duo became a quartet some ten kilometers later when Niki Terpstra (Milram) and Manuel Quinziato (Liguigas) closed the distance. With defending champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) driving a chase group, Gasparotto pedaled to victory in the downhill sprint after leading out the four-man dash from afar.
Stage 2 was a long, slow slog of 228 kilometers from Zottegem to Koksijde in howling winds. A three-man break gained up to six minutes on the field and ended up spending most of the stage out front before the teams of the sprinters reeled them in. In the chaotic finish, High Road’s 21-year-old British speedster Mark Cavendish roared into the winner’s circle defiantly after showing a clean pair of wheels to Francesco Chichi (Liquigas) and Sebastien Chavanel (Francais des Jeux). Gasparotto finished in the field and held onto the leader’s jersey.
Day three featured a morning 119-kilometer road race and an afternoon 13.7-kilometer time trial. Starting and finishing in De Panne, Stage 3 traversed cobbled hills including the famed Kemmelberg. A trio escaped early and stretched the gap to over six minutes. To combat the winds bludgeoning the peloton, echelons formed, which caused some riders to be gapped. With less than 20 kilometers remaining, the break had less than a minute advantage. Again echelons formed to knife through the powerful headwinds. Quick Step had a solid grip on things heading into the field sprint, but again Cavendish, a World Champion track rider, snatched the prize with a perfectly timed bike throw that eclipsed Chici.
Only the top 120 riders competed in the afternoon time trial although a few, like Boonen, instead decided to rest for the Tour of Flanders. Quick Step’s Stijn Devolder set the bar high early and looked likely to collect the stage before Slipstream Chipotle’s Magnus Backstedt bettered him by one second. Rabobank’s Joost Posthuma surprised even himself to not only win the stage by fifteen seconds over Backstedt, but erased the 27-second lead Gasparotto had going into the stage to claim the overall win. Quinziato finished 2nd overall down two seconds and Gasparotto dropped to 3rd GC eight seconds in arrears.
Tour of FlandersArguably one of the most difficult single-day races in all of cycling, the Tour of Flanders is a true hard man’s race in Belgium spanning 264-kilometers over hilly cobblestone sections from Brugge to Meerbek. The 92nd edition started and finished under sunny skies April 6, but in between, the riders were pelted with cold, rain, hail and even snow, which made the famed cobblestones even more precarious. Ballan was present to defend his victory from last year and he was undeterred by a crash at 85 kilometers. A four-man escape formed after 111 kilometers, but they were kept on a short leash never allowed to gain much more than two minutes. The move was negated 75 kilometers later when the serious racing commenced.
Rabobank had three cards to play. First they sent three-time World Champion Oscar Freire on the attack. After his solo flight was corralled, Sebastian Langeveld was a protagonist at the front, allowing teammate Juan Antonio Flecha to conserve energy. But it was to be Quick Step-Innergetic’s day as the Belgium squad was led by captain and Amgen Tour of California stage winner Tom Boonen and lieutenant Belgium National Road Race Champion Stijn Devolder. Out to soften the favorites with an attack on the Leberg in support of Boonen, Devolder’s move caused the formation of a five-man group comprised of Ballan, Langeveld, George Hincapie (High Road) and Karsten Kroon (CSC) with 30 kilometers left. He leapt again on the Eikenmolen with only two climbs remaining in the final 25 kilometers. With his teammate on the attack, Boonen was forced to sit back and refuse to help any of the other favorites nail back Devolder.
A 28-year-old with a gift for time-trialing, Devolder held not more than a twenty-second advantage while being chased by a group comprised of Ballan, Boonen, Flecha, Terpstra, Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) and Gregory Rast (Astana) by the time he reached the top of the Kapelmuur. The gap dwindled to sixteen seconds at the summit of the Bosberg with a dozen kilometers remaining and Langeveld chasing alone. At seven kilometers remaining, Langeveld was swallowed by an elite chase group. Next it was Flecha to dart away with four kilometers left. Nuyens caught the Spaniard with two kilometers to go, but they could not get closer to Devolder than nine seconds back. The astonished Devolder took out the coveted win for his home country fanatics. Nuyens out kicked Flecha for 2nd followed closely by a twenty-man group of favorites.
Gent-WevelgemThe mid-week semi-classic Gent-Wevelgem (April 9) tackled 209 kilometers of Belgian roads and cobblestones with fewer hills, which suits the sprinters. After early breaks formed and were quickly absorbed, the first to be given any real leeway was Saunier Duval-Scott’s Ermanno Capelli, who set sail after 107 kilometers. The 22-year-old Italian held a ten-minute advantage at one point, but his lead was down to over six minutes when he started the first ascent of the Kimmelberg with 61 kilometers remaining. Liquigas’ Filippo Pozatto and CSC’s Matti Breschel cleared the summit with a gap on the field. They were soon joined by Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux). The trio forged a 1:20 separation from the pack and was only three-plus minutes behind Capelli. Breschel flatted and the chase was forced to continue as a duo. Pozatto and Gilbert got within a minute of Capelli when they conquered the Kimmelberg cobblestones for the second time with 39 kilometers to go. Rabobank led the charge for Freire and High Road amassed at the front for Cavendish as Pozatto and Gilbert joined Capelli with 27 kilometers left. Everyone was back together a couple kilometers later.
With 18 kilometers to go, Arvesen and Martin Elmiger (AG2R-La Mondiale) gained a 15-second separation on the field. With a dozen kilometers left, Quinziato, CSC’s Stuart O’Grady and Frederic Guesdon (Francaise des Jeux) rode across and the five men motored towards the finish with the two CSC riders taking turns launching off the front. In the last two kilometers, they were caught and a dangerous, chaotic high-speed drag race ensued. While Liquigas attempted to control the sprint, Rabobank was able to pilot Freire to victory, the first Spanish winner of the 70-year-old race.
Paris-RoubaixThere is nothing like the bike race and spectacle that is the “Hell of the North”: Paris-Roubaix. Twenty-eight sections of cobblestone hills mercilessly assault the 198 riders over 259 kilometers. If the day is dry like it was for the 106th edition April 13, frigid French winds kick up clouds of dust as the pedalers plow through the sectors that count down from 28, beating, battering and breaking bikes and bodies that are jolted and pounded as they ride over unforgiving cobbled climbs that zap the strength and spirit from even the mightiest of men. A moment of inattention or bad luck will end your chances of victory in a heartbeat. Over a million-and-a-half spectators line the route for the “Queen of the Classics” that crowns one king while sentencing the rest to a day in hell.
CSC won the previous to two editions with Cancellara (2006) and defending champion O’Grady. Quick Step-Innergetic’s Boonen, who won in 2005, was heavily favored and the Belgium press and fans put all the pressure on his shoulders for another win.
After a few foiled early breakaway attempts, a trio - Matthé Pronk (Cycle Collstrop), Jan Kuyckx (Landbouwkrediet) and Alexander Serov (Tinkoff) - managed to escape after 87 kilometers and gain a maximum advantage of five minutes. With the break dangling ahead and the first few cobble sections already reducing the field to about sixty riders, CSC congregated at the front before the crucial Arenberg forest sector (sector 18) to tap out a hellish tempo. Two of the favorites – Flecha and Pozatto – came to grief, scraped themselves off the pavement and mounted chase. While they were both able to reconnect with the leaders after 25 and 30 kilometers respectively, bad luck had played havoc with their chances of victory. The Arenberg sector inflicted its damage as the lead group was reduced to 28 riders with the break only ninety seconds ahead.
A few kilometers later, the break was over as Kuyckx flatted, Serov ran out of steam and Pronk got caught by the Quick Step-led chase with 72 kilometers until the finish. CSC, Quick Step and High Road, the latter in support of Amgen Tour of California stage winner Hincapie, took turns pushing punishing tempos as the sectors ticked by. Silence-Lotto’s Johan Van Summeren accelerated on sector 11 and only an elite group – his teammate Leif Hoste, Ballan, Boonen, Devolder, O’Grady, Cancellara, and Slipstream-Chipotle’s Martijn Maaskant - could respond. An untimely broken spoke ended Hincapie’s hopes with about 50 kilometers remaining.
Just as he had done the week before at Flanders, Devolder took off on sector 10 and CSC responded by sending O’Grady to join him. With Cancellara and Boonen marking each other, the duo gained an 18-second gap by sector 8 with 42 kilometers left. Van Summeren loyally led the chase for Hoste and was totally fried once the catch was made. Now down to seven riders as the group hit sector 7, Cancellara jumped and Boonen and Ballan responded with alacrity. With 33 kilometers left, the trio got a slight gap that grew the rest of the way home. Knowing that Boonen is one of the fastest sprinters, Cancellara made a few attempts to shed the big Belgian to no avail while Ballan seemed to be hanging on to the two gladiators by his fingernails. Ballan led them into the velodrome for the finish and was first to start the sprint with 300 meters to go, but it was Tornado Tom’s day. He stomped on the pedals in a dominating display of power to win his second Paris-Roubaix. Cancellara snuck around Ballan for 2nd. Further back, Maaskant slipped away from the dueling Devolder and O’Grady to finish 4th while becoming the “Discovery of the Day.” Watch out for this 24-year-old from the Netherlands!
Garrett Lemire Memorial Grand PrixBack in California, Ojai to be exact, the Garrett Lemire Memorial Grand Prix was held April 13 with oppressive heat taking a toll at this National Racing Calendar event. The field covered 49 laps on a course that featured a difficult power climb followed by a fast technical descent before the final corner and the finish line. Ten riders attacked early and were able to achieve a 45-second gap. Later they were joined by ten more men. With representation of 2-3 riders from each team, the field was uninspired to give chase in the heat and was content to let the break settle matters. HealthNet’s Rory Sutherland lit it up in the final laps making it hard for the break. He led teammates Kyle Gritters and John Murphy through the last few corners with sprinters Alejandro Borrajo (Colavita-Sutter Home) and Hilton Clarke (Toyota-United) close at hand. Gritters was keyed on Borrajo, but when he was slow to start his sprint, the HealthNet rider surged before the final corner. Exiting the turn first oh so close to the finish line, Gritters scored his first NRC win. His teammate Murphy finished 2nd and Clarke completed the podium.
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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.