I hate it when people mess with stuff that isn’t broken. If it hadn’t been for Rapha I would probably still be sitting on the sofa in November wondering who canceled the race. This coming weekend we will experience one of the most beautiful races in the world, The Tour Of Lombardia, or The Race Of The Falling Leaves. Except this year maybe it would be better to call it The Race Of The Almost Falling leaves because it isn’t quite that time of year yet because of the UCI? The UCI in all their wisdom pushed it up two weeks so they could squeeze in another race, The Tour of Hangzhou. Yes that Chinese monument that the Pro’s love to travel to the other side of the world for. Alas the spectacle of Lake Como and its surrounding roads will not be reduced. If I had to pick one race I could go to every year this may be the one. The location is stunning, there is a reason why famous people all live in the same place. The racing is exceptional, as riders squeeze out that last ounce of fitness before heading into winter and the ever shrinking Off-Season (and final contract negotiations). The fans are incredible, and the food….man the food is so good. To this day I still had one of the best Calzones I have ever eaten in Tremezzo. If you are lucky enough to go and have got time to ride, yes you have to do the Ghisallo, it will be packed on race day and a “competitive” ride up with the locals should be expected. Nobody will be holding back. Don’t skip the west side of the Lake above Menaggio, and the SS340. It is a lovely climb over to Lake Lugano and Switzwerland for coffee and proper chocolate, and you will be back in time for an afternoon espresso at Café Del Pess overlooking the lake and the ferries back to Bellagio or Varenna. It really is a special place to ride and a hub of Italian cycling, plus Moto Guzzi are built on the shores of Como, so you can expect to see nice bikes of all types.
A series of beautiful prints, one for each of the Grand Tours, created by the Netherlands based designer Vincent Vermeij aka Chungkon. Somebody should give his number to A.S.O.
… is my tip for winning the Giro (Scarponi the guy in pink, not the pooch). I watched him in person “testing his legs” at Liege-Bastogne-Liege going up La Redoute, and he was definitely holding something back. Or, he was just very dis-interested and a bit cold. He comes out better and better every year, and last years performance should have given him the confidence to go for the top step. Also, now supported by a bigger and better team as a true leader he will be fresher when he hits the very vertical last week. The Tifosi who love him will probably give him an extra few watts and a little push up the climbs as well. This is all what I am telling myself because he is leading my fantasy Giro team. This post may well of course have completely jinxed him.
Last week I went back to the races in the Ardennes as a fan. No passes and no privileges, just someone else trying to get a look at the pros, the bikes and to soak up the atmosphere. The ambient story around a race and how it changes from country-to-country is something I was hoping to capture. The more races you attend, a cadence and pattern emerges that seems to be present in all of them no matter where you are, although each will present its own unique personality. Amstel, the Dutch classic, was organized chaos from the start village to the finish. Flèche Wallonne is one of those races that make cycling such a unique sport; how we can get so much access to the stars stuns me. It is the working class race of the Ardennes, the start village sandwiched between a factory and a football stadium. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is ASO getting reading for the Tour. Planned, controlled and everyone kept at arm’s length, at least at the start village. This didn’t seem to stop the riders reaching out to fans, and the course—well that is a whole other story. I pulled a selection of the shots that I got here, but I have enough that I hope to do a book, so that is the plan. Not sure how long it will take, but it is now in the works. More to come on that; in the meantime I would love to hear what you think of the shots.
That bottom right-hand corner of Belgium has a very unique feel, very different to the rest of the country. Let me dispel any myths that Belgium is flat, bar a few bergs. The climbs of the Ardennes are hard enough to test the legs of any of the mountain goats, and the races are long and hard enough to make most race strategies go out the window. In these races, the strongest usually win—they basically wear you down. Their personality carved out of being sandwiched between France, Luxembourg and Belgium has created some not so subtle cycling rivalries. This was demonstrated best when the Nissan/Trek car containing Bruyneel got “bathed” in beer coming up La Redoute, and one drunk young fan removed a nice deep section Bontrager wheel from the roof of the car as a souvenir. Gilbert was born on La Redoute, so the local support is somewhat opinionated, especially about the two brothers from just over the border in Luxembourg.
The weather, not usually a cyclist’s friend in the Ardennes, adds a whole other dimension to riding there. Usually when the drive into a region is marked by a large number of wind turbines, it is a pretty good pointer as to what conditions to expect. This year the low temperatures added to the mix. Standing on La Redoute, the weather was changing so much I started to fear the race would get cut short. We ran into Chris Horner in Brussels airport, on his way back for the Tour of California, who described L-B-L as one of his most epic days on a bike. He abandoned with hands so frozen he couldn’t use his brakes and shifters. Chris Horner is no soft lad. Planning for the weather there is near to impossible. The starts were marked by riders signing on in the sun, then rushing back to the buses to get shells and layers before the neutral rollout. In the space of one 15-minute section at Flèche Wallonne we saw sun – rain – hail – sun. There were numerous stories of riders stranded in the hail too far from team cars on the narrow roads to get shells to cover up, leaving them wet, cold and hungry on some of the hardest parcours in Europe. The site of a cold and bonking Nibali seizing up in the last KMs of L-B-L was hard to watch.
No matter how many times I see Pro riders I am always amazed at how skinny they are. Standing in a cold and damp Markt Square in Maastricht at the start of Amstel Gold, it doesn’t take much to imagine how illness and chest infections can take hold. The young riders on the teams, this maybe their first “big” race, look scared and fiddle with their bikes much to the annoyance of their mechanics. Others (the workers) look resigned to the 265 km of pain that lies ahead. The favorites don’t reveal themselves to the last minute, and bustle their way up to sign-on with their game-faces on (apart from Chris Horner who was riding around smiling and saying hello to everyone, the gent that he is).
There were a few nice moments before the off. Seeing Thomas Dekker welcomed back amongst the Dutch fans, a young guy on a second chance and looking glad to have it. Seeing how Oscar Freire, after leaving Rabobank, is still held in the hearts of the Dutch fans. It is hard to stop cheering for a guy after he’s been doing it for 8 years, and this was before he launched himself off the front in the finale in what is probably his last time up the Cauberg. And lastly, how a shiny new bike never gets old. A Pro build with a slammed stem just looks good. Ten of them lined up against each other, looks even better.
It has been talked about before how accessible the stars of this sport are. Maybe more surprising is how accessible the tools of the trade are. Bikes are touched, lifted and left exposed until the riders throw their leg over. Yesterday we drove around a lot of the Flèche and Liege courses, my first time in this part of the racing world. The Ardennes are hilly, very hilly, and the wind blows a lot, and seems to always be in your face. One down, two to go. I am going to have a lot of photo editing to do….
Hennie Kuiper winning Milan San Remo in 1985.
This Saturday is one of my favorite races, Milan San Remo. Last year I was lucky enough be there in Milan and on the Poggio with the kind hospitality of Specialized, which made me fall in love with the race and the Tifosi even more. Growing up it was one of the few races that we got live on Irish television, in the glory days of Kelly and Roche. I have memories of Kelly literally bouncing of the walls on the decent of the Poggio in hot pursuit of a desperate Argentin. In that period there were not many riders that could get my support beyond “King Kelly” – but Hennie Kuiper was one. This type of rider comes along about once every 50 years (actually in these times of “saving your matches” I am not sure we will ever see them again). He could ride cross in the winter, finsh on the podium in the Tour, win on Alp D’Huez, win a hilly classic like Milan San Remo and Lombardia, win a flat classic like Paris-Roubaix, oh and he also won the Olympic road race and the World Championships. He could win solo or he could win in a sprint. A true Dutch legend, who when he decided to retire went home to Holland to a small cyclo-cross race at Oldenzall near his home, and rode for his own one last time.
There has already been some great racing this season, but despite the “off-season” getting shorter and shorter, March and this weekend is where I really tune in. Although I did really enjoy K-B-K last weekend, and watching SKY click. It looks like they have already got their act together in their 3 weeks down in Mallorca. Business as usual for Cav? This weekend there is a race like no other, Strade Bianche. A race unique in character, and a serious test of fitness and mental strength, as it rolls through and over the stunning Tuscan hills. I selfishly almost pray for rain before this race making it a visually spectacular event, one better suited to maybe mountain bike skills than road.
As it happened they got a dry and perfect day for racing, and a lot of the classic stars showed their form. Cancellara, although not looking as dominant as days gone by, rode away when from the break when it mattered. I feel the “quickening“. One of my favorite riders, Van Avermaet, was animated and in the break, looking like he is setting himself up for another great MSR. Ballan, despite looking like he was riding someone else’s bike (what is it with that guys position? He looks awkward as hell) seemed to have good legs, and Roman “Christian Bale look-alike“Kreuziger seems to have come out of the winter with good legs. This time last year was the start of Gilbert’s romp of a season as he set the the pattern for many of the great one day races. This year, it is a bit early yet to start questioning his form and team move, but it is certainly different. Maybe the biggest stat of all from yesterday, that is either testament to the quality of the race (or riders not wanting to “go too deep, too early) is that out of 112 starters, only 52 finished.
Today the Paris-Nice “mini tour” kicks off, and despite wet conditions and riding conservatively, Wiggins delivered a smoking time trial. So far this season Sky and Omega/Quickstep seem to be the teams most settled and ready to race early.
When asked what it was like upon completing his first Catford Hill Climb, one rider exclaimed “It was the best two minutes of suffering all season“. Traditionally held on the first Sunday in October, this uniquely British style hill climb is a chance to close out your season with an adrenaline pumping, gut busting effort, mixed with a little “Alpine” atmosphere to push you along. These time trials shouldn’t be mistaken for the European monument climbs of the Alps, or even the American icons of Mt. Washington or Mt. Evans. They are unique in their length, type of effort, and setting. Run amongst the hedgerows and country lanes of England, often no wider than the width of a car, they usually average out at around 12.5% for about 1km. They are venues to win winter bragging rights amongst the cycling clubs of your region.
It is not too hard to define what type of rider excels at these types of challenges. The effort is explosive, and the type of rider the French would call “Dynamique” has probably got what it takes. An ability to suck up the pain is undoubtedly needed, but then again what type of climbing doesn’t need that. Track riders are often seen taking to the hill on fixed gears (I mean riders who actually ride on the velodrome), and powering their way through. Road riders strip down their bikes, get in the drops, and hold it for as long as they can, often crumpling into their saddles just before the top. To take a tip out of Cancellara’s training regime for the Belgium monuments, no out-of-the-saddle climbing until March is probably a good way to prepare. Power is the key to success.
One of the oldest events in the UK, The Catford Hill Climb has roots right back to 1887, and earns the auspicious title of “The Championship Of All England”. To give you a sense of the effort, it is held on York Hill and is “707 yards” (646m) in length. The average grade is around 12.5%, with a few bursts of 25%. The record for the climb stands at an impressive 1min 47 seconds, and has stood for 19 years. One note of interest, when the ride started back in 1887 the bike weight limit was 35lbs, even back then riders were obsessed about there bike weight. Riders travel in from all over the country and make the trip worthwhile by competing in the “4 climbs” series, stretching over the Saturday and the Sunday. The UK has seen a resurgence in the format over the last few years, with the introduction of the Urban Hill Climb organized by Rollapaluza in London. Unlike New York, London actually has a few pretty decent hills, with Swains Lane in Highgate providing the course. This year they had 120 riders tackle the 800m ascent with a height gain of 71m.
These events have been occupying my thoughts in the last few months as I have been riding around the hills of Litchfield County and the Berkshires, and it made me think why the format hasn’t caught on here, or in Europe for that matter. The region certainly has the hills–Great Hill Road or Geer Mountain Road come to mind. I also think I know enough riders who would throw themselves up a gradient in search of a little glory and maybe a little prize money. So the research starts now for us to host a Fall event next year in the Berkshire hills. The “Suffer between the hedges” hill climb time trial. I will work on the route and find the prizes. You bring your legs, lungs, and the lightest bike you can muster (no weight limits here), and we will take it from there.
THE FULL KEIRIN PHOTO ESSAY IS HERE
One day I am going to get to Japan, and one of the first things I hope to do is go to a Keirin race. The track racing scene is alive and well in Japan, with annual bets getting up to ¥1,5 trillion ($15 billion). Seats are hard to come by for the bigger events, with more than 20 million Japanese attended Keirin races last year. The riders trained specifically for the 2km event have all earned the privilege of competing professionally by passing through the Japan Bicycle Racing School in Shuzenji. With school days that start at 6.30am, that include 100km road rides before lunch, schooling, cleaning chores and track training in the afternoon, it takes a dedicated rider to stick it out and survive.
Unfortunately graduating does not always guarantee you a ride, with only a percentage of the 150 graduates making it on to the track. Those that do get the “honor” of wearing the green striped shorts with seven white stars denoting “Rookie“. Top professionals can race up to 100 days per year at the 4 day events. Riders are locked down at the tracks during the events and isolated from all contact with the outside world to prevent race fixing. Top riders earn up to ¥100 million a year, a very good living, with some riders sustaining that level well into their 40s. Unfortunately for the pros at the bottom of the league life is a constant test, with each rider being accessed every 6 months. Failure to compete at a consistent level means getting demoted out of the pro ranks, a place where it is very hard to return from.
One of the enduring stars of the Keirin scene is “Tomity“. Toshihiko Tomita is a 52 year old, 29 year Keirin veteran. Yeah, read that line again and think about it for a while. For 29 years Tomity maintained the power to stay at the top of the pro ranks, despite a constant challenge and influx of new young talent. On a trip to Japan photographer Fredrik Clement was able to spend a day with Tomity training at the Seibuen velodrome before he retired. His photo essay presents the opposite atmosphere to that felt on race night. The empty stadiums where the riders train appear cold, empty and emotionless, and behind the scenes the rider facilities present a picture of a harsh and simple life. We were lucky enough for Fredrik to allow us to feature this series. Cheers mate.
THE FULL KEIRIN PHOTO ESSAY IS HERE
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There were so many things that made the 2011 Tour a great one, especially after such a chaotic and sickening first week. Sitting today on my first day of no pre or post work Tour to watch… damn I miss it! These were a few of the standouts for me:
Anyone Not Know The Name Hoogerland Now? He has redefined the meaning of gutting it out. After peeling himself off a barbed wire fence he still finishes the stage covered in lacerations and bleeding, into the arms of his visibly upset father. Could there be a better person to have by your side on the rest day after the crash to encourage you to continue? Everywhere he races now will know the name Hoogerland, and the term HTFU. (Going for a spin with his dad on the rest day).
A Tragic End For Vino: He came to this tour knowing it would be his last, with the hopes of a swan song and maybe a day in yellow before he retired into the DS seat. Carrying some of the best form he has had in years it just seems wrong that his career should end on a nondescript shitty descent in the Massif Central.
Ten Dam’s Face Plant: After a spectacular somersault coming into a bend too hot on the Col d’Agnes he did a face plant at speed going over bars. What greeted the medics on the roadside was a disorientated bloody and dirty mess. Ten Dam’s response? He got back on and was monitored all the way to the finish by the race doctor. That evenings tweet “No Fractures” and back in the bunch the next morning.
Let Pierre Roland Off The Leash More Often: Nobody expected anything from Europcar other than maybe a stage win from Voeckler. Not only did Tommy surprise us all with one of the best displays of courage in the saddle and scare the crap out of the GC contenders, the whole team (all French) supported him beyond all expectations. Some names stood out like Charteau and Gautier, but maybe best of all was Pierre Roland and his ride on the Alp. He rode some of the biggest names in cycling off his wheel and applied perfect tactics to take Frances first stage of the Tour, and on Alp D’Huez no less. Hinault eat your words, yes he is the real deal. Welcome to the sport Europcar!!! Sucks B-Box right?
J.C.Peraud Arrives. Better Late Than Never. After spending most of his career as a successful mountain biker, Peraud in the twilight of his career and in only his second year as a pro on the road (and in his first ever tour) managed to finish top ten on GC. Something most pros spend a lifetime dreaming of. It was a stunning ride for someone still learning the ropes of road riding, let alone riding a Grand Tour. This should silence a lot of the doubters. Two ex-mountain bikers in the top 10, anybody know of any road riders taking a mountain bike world cup?
The Lantern Rouge: Fabio Sabatini. Who knows what sort of result Fabio could have gotten if he had been riding for himself. Top 50? maybe even a top 25 with a little bit of luck and strategy? But he wasn’t, he spent most of his days going back and forwards between the cars and the peleton for his team. You ever try carrying eight 2lb bottles up a Cat 1 climb? That is another bike in weight. Sent to the front as disposable power when Evan deemed it was ok to participate in a chase, definitely not the most glamorous of lifestyles, but a priceless role. Chapeau Fabio, you finished the Tour. The Lantern Rouge is something to be proud of.
Lets All Stand For Cadel: The sight of Cadel Evans out of the saddle and dropping serious power up some of the toughest climbs in the Alps. Maybe the most impressive of all was his chase wrestling his bike up the Galibier on Stage 18. When he started at the bottom a select group of 23 riders, some of the best climbers in the world were strung out on his wheel. By the top 4 were left. He got no help and never looked over his shoulder once. He just rode. If you want to win the tour, sometimes you just have to get on with it.
O.T.S.S Or Over the Shoulder Syndrome: The first acute symptoms were spotted at the Tour of Switzerland, and obviously got worse from there. Both the Schleck brothers have a severe case of it, and need a cure quick. Ironically the first day Andy didn’t look over his shoulder going up the Izoard, was the day that he made his biggest impression on the race. Sometimes tactically naive, and more concerned with where each other was the Schleck brothers gave everyone the opportunity to recompose and follow everything they did (just my humble opinion). When you have the legs the finish line is straight ahead (see Cadel reference above). It maybe says more about a lack of confidence in their own ability than anything else.
“Jeremy Roy Is Up The Road Again!” How many times did we say that over the last three weeks? Who is this guy!?! His ride on stage 12 to bridge to Geraint Thomas was a great piece of solo riding, to only get caught on the last climb in the last 8km. The day after at the start of stage 13 he said he didn’t think he was going to be able to finish the stage. Two hours later he was up the road again and dropping Thor going up the Aubisque. Unfortunately Thor had a few things to get off his chest, like riding like a World Champion, and smothered Roy in the sprint. Roy was in the break 6 times over the three weeks, for a total of 700 Km off the front. He attacked on the first day, and finished it off with an attack on the Champs Elysees on the last. An exciting rider to watch.
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