Monday, February 27, 2012

How to show faith in your designated sprinter

Mark Cavendish made it look easy with his text-book/video game sprint finish in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, but it was especially thanks to Vacansoleil-DCM that it actually ended up in a mass sprint.

Vacansoleil-DCM working hard in front
of the peloton in order to catch the break.
When the big group with Boonen, Ballan, Farrar etc. got away they quickly gained one minute on the peloton. Team Sky had a couple of a guys up front as well, so it was up to Lotto to do the work in order to catch them. Greipel used up all his team mates and when it seemed like there were no one left to pull, Vacansoleil-DCM suddenly took the front with 6 guys. At the time it didn't really make any sense, since the Dutch team already had two riders in the group with Boonen, one of them being the fast Kris Boeckmans. Boeckmans had showed his sprinting legs less than a week ago in Volta ao Algarve [taking 2nd on stage2 almost beating Edvald Boasson Hagen] and would have been a good pick for a podium spot in the front group if they had made it to the finish. But that wasn't the plan for Vacansoleil-DCM.

Kenny Van Hummel may not be among the best sprinters in world, but he has been showing great condition so far this year, stating he feels stronger than ever before at this time of year. So despite having Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel next to him, Van Hummel moved to the front with 5 team mates in front of him, railing the breakaway back in.
Boeckmans places Van Hummel up front
ready to jump when Cavendish kicks.

When the break was caught, Team Sky took over and with 45 km to go they never let anyone else take the front. On the last kilometer, Vacansoleil-DCM moved near the front with Kris Boeckmans and Kenny Van Hummel. Boeckmans placed Van Hummel in a perfect position with 300 meters to go and when Cavendish kicked, Van Hummel was right behind him. Yauheni Hutarovich then passed him, but Kenny Van Hummel still managed to hold on to 3rd place.

I must say I'm really impressed by the faith Vacansoleil-DCM showed Kenny Van Hummel. Knowing that it very well would mean Mark Cavendish taking the win, they put 5-6 guys to the front of the peloton just to give Van Hummel a shot at beating the World Champion. I take my hat off for Vacansoleil-DCM for showing that kind of confidence in their sprinter and to Kenny Van Hummel as well for almost pulling it off and still getting on the podium.

Since Mark Cavendish took over as the best sprinter in the world, almost no other teams have been helping catching the breakaways, simply because they know they didn't have a chance of beating him. Therefore I think it's very refreshing to see a team like Vacansoleil-DCM helping out, even though no one would have expected them to do so. Thumbs up!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Favorites for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad & Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne

It’s time for the Belgian cobblestones and I for one have been looking forward to this for quite some time now! Without much time on my hands I’ll go straight to it. Here are my favorites for the two races this weekend.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Favorite number 1 is without any doubt Tom Boonen. This is one of the few races Tornado Tom hasn’t won yet and with the condition he has been showing so far this year, he is the man to beat. On top of that he even has one of the strongest teams to back him up. Riders like Chavanel, Ciolek, Steegmans are all there to work for Boonen and except for BMC I can’t see any teams with a line up as strong as Quickstep’s for this race.

It would be easy to say Juan Antonio Flecha, but to spice it up a bit I’ll go with Greg Van Avemaet. It’s true that both Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd are there as well, but it’s not time for those two yet. Gilbert has RvV and the Ardennes on his mind while Hushovd has his mind fixed on Paris-Roubaix. This time Greg Van Avermaet has a rare chance to prove himself and with the shape he has proved to be in already, he is my best pick for a winner if not Tom Boonen takes it.

To stay with the outsiders, I’ll pick Marco Marcato. The Italian has recently made the cut for the Italian Olympic pre-selection and it seems like Marcato has started this season like he ended the last one – with style! Marcato has been working hard on his sprint during the winter and even though Vacansoleil also have Devolder on Leukemans on the roster for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, I think Marcato will be their designated leader. Look out for this in-shape Italian on Saturday!

Like last year I think it will end up in mass sprint this time as well and who is the best sprinter of 2012 so far? Andre Greipel! The Gorilla has been outstanding and been climbing very well too. If he is ready after Tour of Oman he will be the number 1 favorite, and that’s even with Mark Cavendish on the starting line as well – new world…

It’s too easy to say Mark Cavendish now and honestly I don’t know if he’s up for it already. I'll go with another outsider in Yauheni Hutarovich. The Belarus took second place last year and seems to be in good condition already as well this year. He has been just short of stage wins in both Tour Down Under and Tour Méditerranéen and normally he is good in the Belgian races. Have you practiced your spelling? If not, do it now, cause the name Yauheni Hutarovich is likely to be mentioned in the top3 Sunday…

There are a lot of riders who can surprise this weekend and being Danish and all I sure hope Matti Breschel is one of them. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is a very important race for Rabobank and it would be great to see Matti back in the mix with the best riders again. Also look out for Baden Cooke. The Australian has been great all season so far, and if he gets a chance it could take top3 in any of the two races.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Step Up!

This is something that has been bugging me for quite a while now. I may be the only one, but I'm now sick and tired of seeing some of sport's biggest riders neglecting to step up, take credit and say stuff like: "Yes, I'm freaking awesome. Didn't you see the way I won this stage?!"

Since Mario Cipollini I honestly don't recall any rider showing that "I'm great"-attitude and I think that's a shame. I'm not saying people should be arrogant and talk down to the other riders, not at all. What I'm saying is that riders like Mark Cavendish, Alberto Contador, Phillipe Gilbert & Alejandro Valverde these are all super stars - in cycling. They really are. Kids start to ride their bike because of them, they idolize them and when their heroes win something they make it look like they were "lucky" just to do so. No. They were simply better than the rest of the peloton!

"My team worked hard all day and gave me a perfect lead-out, I just had to open my sprint with 150 meters to go and win", does that sound familiar to you?

Cavendish wins a stage in the Tour'10 way in front of Petacchi.
And just to clarify again. I'm not saying that the team mates don't have any part in a victory. Of course they do. For the sprinters they make sure the breakaway gets caught and help setting up the sprint, but it is still Mr. Cavendish himself who wins by 2-3 bike lengths. He is so superior that the other teams don't even want to help catching the breakaways, because they know they won't beat him anyway. Mark Cavendish has a lot of charisma, and I like the way he behaves in the media, but I would like to see him, just once, step up and say: "I'm the best, that's why I won 6 stages in this bike race".

Same goes for Alberto Contador. Winning almost every single stage-race he is participating in, he never sounds confident in actually winning the race he is riding. Even in the Giro d'Italia last year, leading with several minutes, his official statements were something like: "Well, there is still a long way to go and we just hope for the best". Please Alberto... You have made the rest of the GC-contenders fight for only two spots on the podium pretty much from day one. Would it really hurt to say that you have been doing great yourself and now feel pretty secure on winning if nothing drastically changes?

Valverde's solo win in Vuelta Andalucía.
A fresh example is Alejandro Valverde. He made a mistake in Tour Down Under (read more here) but still won the toughest stage. In Vuelta Andalucía he was the man to beat on stage 2 to Lucena with a last kilometer hitting 18%. Everybody knew he would most likely win, and he did - solo victory! That means Valverde now leads the race with only two stages remaining. One of them seems like a sprint while the other one is another perfect stage for Valverde with a steep last 1,8 km.

So to sum it up: Alejandro Valverde has shown to be the strongest, by far, he leads the race and there are only two stages left where one of them is another one suiting him perfectly. So what does he say?

"Now there are two hard stages, it's going to be very difficult [to win overall] but we already took home a win and everything coming after that will be a plus"

Are you kidding me? Alejandro you just made a fool out of the rest of the peloton, with nobody being able to follow you and you even have another stage like that left. How can "everything coming after that" only "be a plus"?! And if you continue to ride like this, it will not be "very difficult" to win this race either. Come on...

The only rider with super star status, showing just a little bit of what I'm looking for is Phillipe Gilbert. Getting ready for the Belgian classics he recently said "I'm still not in top condition, but if I can win without doing much I will do it".

I know people nowadays don't want to stand out, and I really think it's damn shame to be honest. I'm not just talking about cycling, but any sport. It seems like nobody wants to say they are good at something, fearing for looking stupid if one day they fail. Why is that? If you are good at something, please let people know it. Don't be ashamed of being great. Right now it seems like the only people stepping up telling how good they are, actually are the ones not even being near to the top. And that is a shame!

I want to watch Mark Cavendish winning with 2 bike lengths against the rest of the world's best sprinters, see the joy in his eyes are hear him say "Did you just see that?! I won with 2 bike lengths!"

If you are the best at what you do - don't be ashamed of admitting it. You don't have to talk down to anybody, but you most definitely don't have to hide it either!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Meltdown leaders

First Alejandro Valverde and now Vincenzo Nibali. Despite being the strongest riders in the race, both riders missed out on winning the overall classification in Tour Down Under and Tour of Oman because of one stupid decision.

Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali both like to race when it’s really hot outside, just like it was in Australia and Oman. Still both riders seemed to had a complete meltdown when the important decisions were to be made.

Valverde (green helmet) stops.
Gerrans (yellow jersey) overtakes him.
In Tour Down Under Alejandro Valverde admittedly stopped to pedal on the final meters on stage 2 to Stirling, seeing Simon Gerrans overtake him and get the bonus seconds for being third on the stage. Later on Alejandro Valverde showed to be strongest in show down between him and Gerrans, but since Gerrans had gotten the bonus seconds on stage 2, he ended up winning the race overall.

Normally Alejandro Valverde always sprints to the line, but I guess he still needs a little time getting back into the race rhythm after his ban.

Vincenzo Nibali attacking with the
sprinters teams chasing him down.
Vincenzo Nibali on the other hand had already been racing in 2012 before taking part in Tour of Oman. Still the Shark still to lack a lot of tactical sense. Nibali has always been very impulsive with his attacks, not really thinking very much ahead, and even though it seemed like he had grown in the Giro d’Italia last year, we can now conclude that he really hasn’t. Having been following the other overall favorites so far in the Tour of Oman, Nibali suddenly decided to attack on the last kilometer on stage 4. A completely flat finish, where he naturally got railed back in very quickly and hereafter couldn’t follow peloton, ending up losing 15 seconds to the other GC-riders.

The day after Vincenzo Nibali turned out to be – by far – the strongest climber in the race, winning on Green Mountain. Only problem was that Peter Velits got second on the stage, giving him the leaders jersey just 1 second ahead of Nibali.

Alejando Valverde would have won Tour Down Under, had he just continued pedaling the last few meters on stage 2 and Vincenzo Nibali would have won Tour of Oman had he not hopelessly attacked on the final – pancake flat – kilometer on stage 4.

Simon Gerrans and Peter Velits probably should send Valverde and Nibali a bottle of champagne thanking them for their help…

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Here comes the youth!

P. Sagan - M. Kittel - A. Demare
If there is a color that fits cycling right now, I think it's white [no jokes on cleanness]. I mean white for the youth, like the jersey in the Tour. Looking at the recent results it's amazing to see so many riders under 25 in the top.

Especially the sprint finishes show that the up-and-coming riders already have what it takes to beat the elite.

Take a look at the following stages in Tour of Qatar & Tour of Oman.

Tour of Qatar: 
Stage1: Five riders under 25 in the top8 (best 2nd)
Stage5: Seven riders under 25 in the top9 (best 2nd)
Stage6: Six riders under 25 in top11 (best 1st)

Tour of Oman: 
Stage1: Seven riders under 25 in the top9 (best 2nd)
Stage 2: Five riders under 25 in the top6 (best 1st)
Stage3: Seven riders under 25 in the top13 (best 1st)

Riders like Marcel Kittel & Peter Sagan have already established themselves as the future stars of the sport, but don't forget youngsters like the two Frenchmen Nacer Bouhanni and U-23 World Champion Arnaud Demare as well as Italian Andrea Guardini and Russian Denis Galimzyanov. We won't run out of top-sprinters anytime soon!

Writing this piece there are still 3 stages left in Tour of Oman and I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of these would have another winner under 25 years of age.

Update: A few hours after I posted this, Edvald Boasson Hagen won stage 2 in Volta ao Algarve. Another youngster who is already a super star!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Favorites for Tour of Oman

After being spot on with first Tour Down Under and then Tour of Qatar, I hope to make it three out of three with Tour of Oman starting on Tuesday, February 14. 

Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez
Oman may be a flat race for most of the stages, but with the finish on Green Mountain on stage 5 it seems assured that the overall winner will be a climber. Last year Robert Gesink won the stage to Green Mountain (and the time trial the following day) and took the overall win. If you look at stage results from Green Mountain last year it may surprises you to see Purito down as number 16, 3,28 minutes behind Gesink, but beware – the numbers lie. Purito didn’t get dropped by Gesink with 3½ min, he actually got caught up in the strong wind and had to start the climb 3 minutes down already. In fact Purito had the second fastest time on the final climb, only beaten by; well Robert Gesink. This time I’m sure Purito will be eager to take revenge and without a time trial, a win on Green Mountain should be enough to take the overall win.

Vincenzo Nibali
Tour de San Luis showed that Vicenzo Nibali is already in pretty good shape. On the two mountain stages he stayed within reach of Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer and on the time trial he took second place, beating Alberto Contador with around 30 seconds. The Green Mountain climb may not suit Nibali nearly as good as Purito, but with the shape Nibali showed in Argentina I would be surprised if he doesn’t go top3 on Green Mountain and thereby in the final classification as well.

Sylvain Chavanel
Another one who showed great shape in Argentina is Sylvain Chavanel. Fourth in the time trial, 39 seconds behind Levi Leipheimer (22 seconds faster than Alberto Contador) and close to the best riders in the mountains, Quickstep now hopes for Chavanel to show off in Tour of Oman. Chavanel is very good in the wind and knows how to position himself in any situation. Of course he doesn’t have the same punch as Purito on Green Mountain, but I think the Frenchmen will surprise quite a few with a great performance. It would have been ideal with a time trial for Chavanel, but even without it, I think he will be a player for the overall victory.

As a joker for the general classification I would like to point out Danish Jakob Fuglsang. Fuglsang showed in the hilly race on Mallorca that he is in good shape and knowing Green Mountain from last year, he has good starting point. If he has a super day I actually think he can win on Green Mountain. Top5 overall should be a pretty safe bet.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

So who won?

One of the biggest chances after today's CAS verdict, stripping Jan Ullrich of all his results from May 2005 to February 2007, is that Francisco Mancebo now takes third place in the Tour de France 2005. That made me take a look at the overall classification for 2005 and I must admit the view is shocking.

How many names on this list can you pick out who haven't (officially) been linked to doping abuse? I think the first rider in the Top10 will be Cadel Evans followed by well...who? I fear that one day we will look at the Top10 from the Tour de France 2010 with the same eyes. I don't think it will happen, but I must admit I feel the fear lurking somewhere in my mind...

Take a look here:

What do you think? Feel free to comment below...

Monday, February 6, 2012

Exclusive interview - Stefano Garzelli

Stefano Garzelli
Stefano Garzelli had planned to end his long glorious career after the Giro d’Italia this year, but since his team Acqua e Sapone didn’t get an invitation, Garzelli suddenly had to decide he if wanted to continue his career at all. I had a talk with the Italian veteran about the future and to clarify what happened with Bjarne Riis last summer.

Stefano, I'm very sorry to learn about the missing invitation to the Giro d'Italia. It must have been a big chock for you? 
Indeed. After what I managed to do last year in the race, I really didn’t expect this decision. I think I gave a lot to the Giro last year.

Do you find it disrespectful by the RCS not to invite you after all you have given the Giro? 
It’s beyond just lack of respect. I find it very hard to accept. I don’t understand why they have invited teams with less potential among their riders than we have. Beside myself we have two very talented young riders in Taborre and especially Betancur who would be our key rider for the GC. I would have liked to teach Betancur how to win a Giro but unfortunately that won’t happen now. 

Have you considered riding another season in order to be able do ride the Giro next year?
To be honest I won’t exclude it. I have already got an offer to continue one more year, but I will have to take my time and find out if I really want to keep on with the training and make all the sacrifices that go with it. If I can’t see the point in doing it, I will rather stop now because I will not continue riding my bike if I can’t compete with the best riders. 

I know you had planned to end your career after the Giro. How do you find the motivation to continue training without having the Giro to look forward to? 
Well, after I got the news [about not being invited to the Giro] my first thought was to stop my career. At my age it’s difficult to keep up the motivation and make sacrifices when the race that matters the most to you has been taking away. But after I had some time to think about it, I sat myself new goals starting with Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-San Remo. I think this will be a good way to end my career as well.

Recently La Gazzetta dello Sport wrote that you would sign with Team Saxo Bank after Tirreno in order to ride the Giro. Is there any truth to that? 
I would have liked to, but unfortunately the regulations doesn’t allow it [Read here why not].

I know you were talking with Bjarne Riis last summer about a contract. Can you explain the reasons for not signing with Riis back then? 
Bjarne contacted me last year and we talked about it, but the problem was that I already had a contract with Acqua e Sapone for 2012. I talked with my team [Acqua e Sapone] about changing, but they made it clear to me that it would jeopardize their participation in the Giro and therefore I decided to not change. I could have insisted [on going to Saxo Bank] but because of our relationship I didn’t want to do it. 

So there is no possible way you will be able to ride the Giro d'Italia this year? 
In 2008 when we weren’t invited the decision was final, so I don’t have any hopes left now.

To end this interview I can tell that Stefano Garzelli just became father for the 4th time. He tells that for him 2012 is now already a success. “What more could I ask for than a lovely family and a good health”, he explains to me. Hopefully his newborn son Leonardo will help him getting through a difficult start to the season.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Favorites for Tour of Qatar

Let's take a quick look at the favorites for Tour of Qatar. Mark Cavendish seems to be out of the picture after picking up a flue on his way to Doha.

Tom Boonen
I have said it many times before and I won't mind saying it again. Tom Boonen will have a great 2012-season! He showed in Argentina he is in good shape already and is normally very good on the windy stages in Qatar. Boonen won the first stage last year and could very well do that again this year. If you gamble, put some money on Tornado Tom to win the race overall.

Mark Renshaw
I'm sure Mark Renshaw is a little bit disappointed by his results in Tour Down Under. He came in good shape with high ambitions but he didn't stand a chance against Andre Greipel. Still he ended off nicely with a second place on the last stage and as defending champion in Qatar there are no doubts he will be extremely motivated. Renshaw was great last year and even though the team time trial may not be in his favor he should be among the three fastest guys in the race. 

Fabian Cancellara
The team time trial is definitely in his favor. RadioShack-Trek has a very strong team for that disciplin and usually Cancellara doesn't get dropped in the wind either. He might not have a chance against the fast guys in the sprints but if Cancellara is in the top5 and eyes an oppotunity to attack, I'm sure he will take it. I don't think he will win the race but a podium spot is in reach I would say.

As outsiders for the overall classification I would like to point out Daniel Oss, Taylor Phinney and John Degenkolb as the best picks.