Sunday, February 24, 2008

ToC Stage 7: Love To Eat Them Mousies

Woohoo! What a great finish to a soggy, tough week in California. Hooray for George Hincapie, for Levi Leipheimer, for David Millar, Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie, Chris Horner - so many of my favorites did well, even battling illness as DZ and Horner were. I think my only top guy who missed out on the action was Jens Voigt. I know he wasn't feeling great, so I'm sorry he wasn't in the mix, but I look forward to plenty of action from him as the season progresses.

Crazy action from Kilometer Zero. It was a greatly diminished peloton, but what remained still had some fight in them. Michael Creed went a little nuts, I had to wonder if that was him or Michael Ball looking for even more publicity. At least Creed was still in it at the end. Nice attack on the big climb by Slipstream. Astana were obviously rock solid, but you can't just give up, you have to fight to the end, so good on Slipstream.

One of my mother's favorite T-shirts was the famous cartoon by B Kliban referenced above. I couldn't help but think of it in the final circuits today. Cat and mouse games in cycling give me fits. It's such a gamble, and results in failure so many times, it has me pulling my hair out every time. I thought it might be Rollin all over again, George still with good legs but waiting for the whole group to chase with him. Great run for Tom Zirbel - beast of a man, but he can get those pounds moving!

I had my doubts (forgive me!), but George did just enough to keep Zirbel within reach. I could see George had enough to bridge the gap, and I was afraid he was playing too many games. I had a feeling he could blow past Zirbel, and was relieved when he finally made the move. But then they all grouped up again, and started playing games again, argh! With the peloton swooping in, I wondered just how many years they wanted to take off my life. Out of nowhere I started saying "don't get hinky Hincie," delirium clearly setting in.

Another wave of relief as George made the final push for the line, and wild cheering as he crossed it with arms raised. It's been such a tough week for George. He was spreading his wings in a stage race, able to really race for himself, but hitting bumps along the way and not quite succeeding as he'd hoped. So it's so great to see him pull it out today, he can take that into the Spring as a boost, instead of a burdensome pile of almosts.

It's not that I think last year wasn't a real win for Levi - the race is what it is - but I'm glad he defended this year outright, no qualifications. He showed off his great strength and the great strength of his team. They couldn't have made a better statement. I love that Bobke is shamelessly partial, throwing up a softball question for Levi to make his emphatic point in the post-race interview.

In addition to the guys mentioned above, I was happy for the domestic teams that did well in so many breaks and took a couple of jerseys in the end. Especially Scott Nydam, who takes the KOM jersey home as great medicine for his dad.

I don't know that I've ever had such a love/hate relationship as I do with Versus. Please, tell me, what is so special about 7:18?? We can see Bob is standing with George, we couldn't squeeze that in? Show the World Combat League fans some real tough guys, stick around for the presentation! (As a side note, great/horrible stories from the announcers on about their worst crashes, oh my.) I couldn't even get the presentation on the Amgen website, they just had Frankie and JoE chatting for a while. Sorry, we can't all fly to California to see it in person. I need some closure, people!

Oh happy, happy day. I'll be a zombie at work tomorrow, but I stayed up to watch the repeat on Versus, just in case. Lo and behold, they had presentations galore - stage podiums, final podiums, Levi kissing his wife, Christian holding his baby, flowers, champagne, a second Levi interview, and an interview with George. George looked so worn out in all the interviews this week, but in this one he looked like a new man, I'm so happy for him! Okay, now I can go to sleep...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

ToC Stage 6: Cheeky Dos And Don’ts

A world-class time trialer taking a flyer in the final circuit to try and grab the yellow jersey - cheeky at its best. Hanging on to the team car to regain the pack and then charging to the front to try and take the sprint - not so much.

David Millar was the former, making the one move he could on the day. I love his fighting spirit, his not taking a moment for granted, and his refusal to be complacent with a well-deserved second place. I hope tomorrow provides greater opportunities for such fireworks.

And of course the latter is Mark Cavendish. I'm sure it wasn't an easy thing to work his way back up front and get across the line first. But if you get even the briefest chance to rest on the car before you do that, it can't be a legitimate victory. And so it was that he was rightly relegated. One could jump all over him for such a move, but it's not like no one else tries it now and again. Totally different context, much further from the finish, but let's remember Levi got nailed for the same thing in last year's Tour de France and it cost him second place on the final podium. Young Mark lost his win, lesson learned perhaps, I hope he doesn't make any stupid moves tomorrow in revenge.

Still waiting to hear about the injuries of Freddie Rodriguez and Vladimir Gusev, hope it's not too bad for either.

So an unusual end, in more ways than one, to a fairly routine day. (Easy for me to say, I know.) I guess the guys were pretty tuckered from the previous couple of days. I hope they've recovered a bit and give us a little more action for the final day tomorrow!

ToC Stage 5: Don't Make Me Angry

Seeing Levi Leipheimer spitting fire in the start house, with that demonic look on his face, he very well could've turned colors and started to burst out of his golden skinsuit. But it was the field that ended up shredded and green with envy as Levi took a strong, defiant win in yesterday's fantastic Time Trial. Maybe his opponents don't like him when he's angry, but I love him!

Last year in California it was the Basso debacle, and Levi powered up Telegraph Hill with a fierceness I'd never seen before. He kept the fire stoked throughout the year, and with the added fuel of Contador's surge, laid down another beauty in the final TT of the Tour de France. And now this year, with the biggest blow of all in ASO's derelict decisions, Levi is turning the pedals in fury and it's awesome to watch. It's like Lyle Lovett's Road to Ensenada album - I hate that he had to go through heartbreak to get there, but the result is exquisite.

I don't want to give all the credit to the adversity, Levi has always worked hard and dedicated himself to being a top rider. Then there's maturity, and finally being on a rock solid team, and so on, but the anger has added that extra spark. He has also known what to do with it, using it to fire him up instead of burn him down. And wisely leaving it on the course, remaining the congenial, soft-spoken guy after the racing's done. Having Viatcheslav Ekimov in your ear doesn't hurt either, great to see the Iron Man still in the mix.

I'm so glad we got sunshine and dry roads for the top guys. They were able to go all out, and we got raw, pure competition from several of the best in the business - a true race of truth. The riders did still have the wind to contend with, which makes Levi's win all the more impressive, slight guy that he is. Christian Vande Velde was also mightily impressive, not feeling great at the start and getting blown sideways, but powering through for an excellent third place. If ever we can call second place triumphant, it has to be with David Millar's powerful performance. Phil and Paul's declaration that he is back was choked with emotion, rightfully so. Great day for Slipstream, going 2-3 with Dave Zabriskie not far behind.

Not so great for Fabian Cancellara - as Levi says, these guys are not machines. Fabian was backpedaling a bit in his post-race interviews, skirting the line of making excuses, but I'm trying to give him the benefit of the translation and the disappointment he was feeling. And poor George Hincapie didn't even get coverage on Versus. He's not far enough behind that anyone's going to let him go on a long break, but I'm sure he'll be trying a move today or tomorrow to try and salvage things.

Versus keeps running that commercial with Levi, they must be thrilled he's defending well. But I think they need to rework it a bit. Levi's voiceover declaring himself a "quietly confident" rider is passé. His confidence is loud and proud these days. He's looking like a voracious shark with a fire in his belly. CSC and Slipstream will throw their best at him this weekend, but they just might need a bigger boat.

Friday, February 22, 2008

ToC Stage 4: They're All Studs Today

Every last one, including Jackson Stewart, who reportedly had to abandon to get treated for hypothermia. Seven hours in the cold, blowing rain. You can't even slap an adequate label on that, it's just plain miserable. A couple of years ago, I got caught out riding solo in a cold and nasty Nor'easter. It was just a 17-mile loop, but I was hanging on for life towards the end. When I made it home and stepped inside, I just stood there, dripping, for the longest time, my body going through all sorts of nasty sensations. I only see out of one eye as it is, and the vision in that "good" eye was blurred for a couple of hours afterwards. I believe the comment I made in my riding diary was: Don't ever do that again. Which is not at all to imply that I have any idea what these guys went through today, but rather to emphasize that I can't imagine. I mean, it's not live combat or anything, but as bike racing goes, a heck of a tough day.

Watching George Hincapie in the break, I kept thinking of his head-to-toe road rash. What does that feel like in the cold and wet, and having to wear clothing on all of it? One imagines he had the idea all day that a stage win would make it worth it, and he did well to at least make the chase, but how disappointing to fall just that little bit short in the end. Watching Dominique Rollin run away with it at the last, in addition to being impressed by the great move, I kept thinking of his bare-nekkid legs! I guess he was pumping them fast enough to keep warm.

Watching Astana toil away interminably at the front until CSC finally took a turn in the last miles, again I thought of France. A team that is willing to do the work, keep things under control, beyond their obligatory defense of yellow. Again, a team you might want to have around in, say, a major stage race.

I finally got the video working today, and watched the last few hours live on the Amgen Tour of California site. The irony was that their cameras were out for over an hour, but credit to Frankie Andreu and JoE Silva (sic) for keeping it interesting. That Frankie is getting good at this commentating thing; he offered some very nice insights from a rider's perspective.

In my best Johnny Carson "I did not know that," interesting to see riders hiking up their jackets just before crossing the line, required to have their numbers showing. Some of them did it, but others were not as attentive. With a day like today, I trust the officials will cut them some slack. Good job to the Kelly Benefit soigneurs, ready with cups of hot tea for their guys at the finish.

David Millar hugging Levi Leipheimer in commiseration after the finish is one of those moments I love in a bike race, but I have to admit my first thought was - no! Slipstream has the dreaded disease amongst them, stay away Levi! David's been going good, though, so hopefully he's still healthy.

More rain predicted for tomorrow - again No! Takes the pure fun out of a crucial time trial, but will no doubt be just as exciting. If nothing else, these days are getting the guys in shape for the Spring Classics. Although I believe the idea was to have fun in the sun before the nastiness Over There. Fingers crossed for the weekend.

Just watched the Versus broadcast. I gushed over Levi yesterday, but I have to say again, I really like the tough, confident competitor he's become. Didn't hesitate for a moment when he looked Bobke square in the eyes and said that yes, he could win tomorrow. Not guaranteeing it, knowing full well who's right behind him, but saying he could - and, the tricky part, believing it. And just when I worried I might be dramatizing the day too much, there Levi says it's in the top three worst days he's had on a bike. For a guy that's ridden his bike most every day since childhood, that's saying something.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

ToC Stage 3 - Through The Wringer

Nah, I'm not talking about the riders, I mean me! Okay, so it was kind of a tough day for them, too, but what an emotional roller coaster to watch.

In the Don't Go Breakin' My Heart category, we have Tyler Farrar having to abandon in yellow with a stomach bug. He was soooo happy yesterday, walking on air, eyes brimming with tears of joy. And today he was sitting so low in the sag wagon, you could barely see him. I hope he takes solace in how well he enjoyed his moment, and the sure knowledge that he'll be back zooming soon. And Mr. George Hincapie. A puzzling move once you saw how it worked out, but I guess you just don't know until you try it. Given how many guys who were just gone on the climbs managed to get back to that close chase at the end, I was surprised he fell so far. Oh well, hope there are brighter days ahead in the spring for George. And what about Tommy Danielson? I really hope he can pull it together this season and continue building on that potential.

But plenty to raise the spirits as well. Paul is coming up with some good lines in this race, today it was Chechu Rubiera as Stud. Chechu seems like such a sweetheart. There was a picture of him a while back, I can't remember where, of him in pajamas with some cute print, and that's how I always picture him. So it's funny to attach the name stud to that, but boy, was it true today! As Levi said afterwards, the Chechu of old with endless cranking ability for his leader.

And I was so proud to see Levi Leipheimer, Dave Zabriskie, and Chris Horner in that tiny lead group, all looking so good! DZ showed us last year he's gotten some climbing legs, keep it up! As a side note, are he and Cozza in some kind of mustache contest? Just as Astana intended it seems, there was even a touch of sadness watching their great work today. Because you see how strong Levi is, and hear what a leader he was during the stage, and see how well his support guys are going, and you can just picture them in France. I don't know if the substantial rumblings can change things at this point, but at least there are rumblings. So while it was tough to see all that grueling work come down to not so much time gained, there were larger purposes served.

Cyclingnews has been mentioning for a couple of days now Scott Nydam's blog, and his extra motivation to get in the breakaways and hang on to that KOM jersey. His dad is fighting cancer, and Scott is doing him very proud. The entry where he discloses his dad's illness is quite moving, and something I can really identify with. I wish them both all the best. With all credit to that, there's also a great little passage about Levi, and what he's done for Scott. If anyone's listening, this Levi guy sounds like a worthy champion any race should be happy to have.

Levi and Gesink were a fierce pair screaming home to victory, but also gave me a chuckle at their distinct Mutt and Jeff appearance. Gesink all lanky, like so many of those Rabobank guys are, and Levi a compact firecracker with those thighs of steel.

I tried to watch some video during the day, but with mixed results. So it was still a disappointment to just have the one hour on Versus. This is the kind of day, if it was the Tour, where you wouldn't take your eyes off the screen. You would feel exhausted just from watching it, and feel like you had shared in something with the riders. I had that a little bit, having followed it all day in one form or another, but it wasn't quite the same. Nevertheless, I'm always glad for what Versus gives us, and glad this race has quickly grown into real coverage instead of those glorified commercials of the first year.

Time Trials are always nail-biters, but Friday is going to be a ripper. So many great clock-racers made it to that lead chase group, Zabriskie, Millar, Cancellara, and of course Levi out in front - and all such great guys, I'll be cheering for them all!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tour of California Stage 1: Field of Dreams

Versus is killing me with this late schedule, so I'm just going to rip through this one, kind of like how they ripped through today's race. I can't get over this field, I have to keep pinching myself - he's here, and him, and him, and oh yeah him! Kudos to the ToC, long may it reign. And a women's crit thrown in for good measure, more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

David Millar continues to make the most of his second chance - dropping the field just like that to lead Tyler Farrar out for one of the intermediate sprints, and then pouring it on again towards the end of the stage. Right out of the chute, showing the same passion that was so endearing in last year's Tour de France. I'm glad he made it back into the peloton before second chances were taken off the menu.

I swear Paul was going to say "big Belgian butt," about what Tom Boonen has to drag over the mountains. Cracked me up, he caught himself and hastily said "body" instead.

Levi's kit is more Up With People than Captain America, yes? Who decides that - is it US Cycling, or the team designer? Snappy little outfit, granted, but it doesn't scream USA. Maybe that's the idea, the man does have to ride overseas after all. I wonder if he likes it, or if it's like the year the Olympic medals were mostly glass - you've been dreaming about wearing it your whole life, and then this is what you get. Update: Ah, the wonders of newly installed DSL - I can now watch VeloNews videos to my heart's content. And upon doing so, saw that Neal Rogers helpfully asked Levi about his kit. Levi acknowledged that people are loving or hating it, Neal loves it, Levi asked for something different than the jerseys of recent years, Trek designed it, Levi likes it a lot. Thanks Neal!

Speaking of kits, got a better look at BMC and CSC today - everyone's going with the white theme! I guess Rock Racing used up all the black crayons. Don't even get me started on the whole barbed-wire thing, fashion statement indeed.

Georgie, Georgie - seriously, dude, can we not make crashing in California a tradition? Looks like you made it out relatively okay today, please, stay healthy!

I hate to have the broadcast only be an hour, but it does keep you on the edge of your seat, phew! Way to go JJ and CSC, see y'all tomorrow!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Pale, Restless, and Ready

You know you're enduring a bad winter when you start to literally dream about clear roads. I had such a dream the night before last, and that was the entire dream - me standing in the middle of a road devoid of snow and ice and sand and salt, laughing and jumping up and down because the road was clear. And smooth. Just as the precipitation this winter in Maine has been diabolical from day one, so now the frost heaves are as bad as ever. The roads have become a jolting, jarring obstacle course straight out of an all-terrain vehicle advertisement. If it's not the actual heaves in the pavement itself, it's islands of packed ice and snow left from the dreaded "wintry mix" of recent storms. I used to pride myself on riding outside at least one weekend a month during the winter, but no such fun this year. When the one real shot came during the January Thaw, I was in the middle of a six-week virus from hell that I'm still trying to recover fully from.

So it will still be a while before I can get out on the roads here, but at least now I can watch cycling again! I've been following the early races online, but nothing gets the juices flowing like hearing the whirs and clicks and seeing the thrills and spills as they unfold. Or as they are sliced and diced into a compact one-hour show, but we'll take what we can get! Now we can see who's showing early form, get accustomed to guys on their new teams, cackle with glee over DZ's latest facial hair stylings, and check out this year's kits. I see Saunier-Duval are still sporting their little pee-pees, Quick-Step is going with more white, High Road has gone completely white - are they all trying to look extra-clean or what? Astana is looking a little funky, and I don't mean that in a good way. And Rock Racing is way-funky - I don't agree with those green stripes, not flattering at all. I know, Michael Ball is Mr. Haute Couture, but I never understood that stuff either, so I guess it stands to reason.

The Tour of Qatar was our appetizer last night on VS. Being crammed into an hour doesn't help, I suppose, but it still strikes me as an odd little race. A slight peloton slogging away on a barren landscape, with very few spectators it seems, even at the finishes. But hey, it's racing and it gives Tom Boonen a chance to get his grinning mug some airplay. It was nice to see Slipstream-Chipotle mixing it up, but of course that hit a sour note with the nasty crash of Maggy Backstedt. Here's hoping he makes it back for some classics. I was also bummed that basketball ran over, so we didn't get to see the TTT stage; that would've been a lovely way to start the viewing season.

And then today we had California, in all its sunny glory, lucky bastards. (I'm not bitter, I'm not bitter…) Did PP & B have jet lag or what? That "pre-game" was dreadful, they couldn't even get it up to talk about Levi and Contador being out of the Tour! Jet lag, or maybe they're as weary as the rest of us with that aspect of the sport, but come on, you gotta be able to muster up some outrage on that one. Although, seeing as we are back in California, it does remind one that our very own race organizers did some pretty sketchy bending of the rules last year to keep Levi in yellow. Totally different scale, yeah, but I'm just sayin'.

The boys finally got their wild excitement on for the actual racing. Which, of course, was going on all during the first hour filler, but as usual we only got to see the second half. It's nice for folks to get to know the new teams, but throw us a bone or two to keep us awake! My eyes did perk up upon seeing a glimpse of Floyd Landis at the pre-race event, and a Floyd Fairness Fund T-Shirt in the crowd at today's race.

I can't say I love the new all-flat opening day, but it's always fun to watch Fabulous Fabian show the field how it's done. As he did so many times last year, Fab gave a finishing effort like no one else's, and reaped the just rewards. Nice to see he's starting right where he left off, hope we get another thrilling season from him. Forget the cheese, he was the answer to "Where's The Beef?" today.

Levi was disappointed to break his "winning streak," but he did just fine for himself. Placed right up among the specialists, and ahead of his likely rivals. I look forward to he and George duking it out in earnest this year, instead of all that drama about who has to work for whom in which races. And I hope Jens can fight this one out too, but those scrapes from his training spill looked nast-y! I hate to see him like that, but I love to see him, and all the guys, back in the saddle again for another season.