Saturday, May 17, 2008

Giro d'Italia 2008 Stages 7 & 8: Inspired By True Events

Watching this Giro is kind of like watching a docu-drama. You want to take it on its face value and just enjoy the ride. But you're afraid of finding out later that significant facts were fictionalized, thus changing the whole feeling of the story. I want to believe that no one is so stupid to still be doping now, but people do stupid s*** every day, why should cycling be different?

So yesterday, when there is a blistering attack by Danilo Di Luca, and Riccardo Ricco and Alberto Contador jump on it, and they meet up with Leonardo Piepoli, and the four of them put on a good show gaining time on the other rivals, what to do? In the moment, it was fun - that's why they call him Killer, look at his face, what great effort and intensity, he could make plants wilt with that fierce gaze. Ricco and Piepoli are the Dynamic Duo once again, what great work Piepoli does for his man Ricco. Contador has such great instincts, you can see what Johan saw in him, look how he sweeps by Joaquin Rodriguez (who tried to go with Di Luca, but quickly faded) - excuse me, I'm with the big boys, see ya. Contador talked of testing the form, maybe going home, but in the moment he is a fierce competitor and gives it his all. Always alert, he was right on Di Luca's wheel for much of the stage, watching him like a hawk, and was ready to go when the moment came.

But what of the whispers and outright charges in their past? Should they even be here? On the same day Alessandro Petacchi is fired by Milram, here is Piepoli in the thick of the race. Ricco makes suggestive remarks after the race about where Contador really was on his vacation. Ironic, considering it was Ricco and Di Luca who had the pre-adolescent hormone levels last year. I guess Contador has had the least dirt stick of the four, but those Puerto questions linger. To be fair, I haven't studied any of their cases in depth, so I'm just giving the fan-on-the-street perspective, but I know I'm not the only one seeing things from this angle.

So do we consider all that sins of the past and give them the benefit of the doubt? Do we just call the race as it is and hope nothing comes along later to burst the bubble? I disagreed with all those fans who said they were through with pro cycling, and couldn't watch anymore. I didn't understand how they could just turn their backs on such a beautiful sport and throw the baby out with the bathwater. I'll keep watching, but on days like these, you do see the conflict. It's kind of sad when you find yourself encouraged by signs of fatigue - look, Contador fell off towards the end, and Di Luca was really struggling. They're really hurting, it must be a clean effort, right? Right?

Okay, back to the baby. After their emotional embrace on Thursday, it was fun to watch Paolo Bettini take such care of Giovanni Visconti in pink on Friday. Being under the world champion's wing in the leader's jersey on a Grand Tour, that's a story for the grandkids. Today was a stage for Bettini, so it was Visconti returning the favor as best he could. It all caught up to him and he went backwards a little in the final kilometer, but still held on to pink. Bettini nearly made it for the win, coming up just short on Ricco. Too bad, it would've been nice after all he'd done for Visconti.

Christian Vande Velde continues to carry the flag for Slipstream-Chipotle, still hanging in there amongst the contenders. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy, I wish him a smokin'-hot TT on Tuesday.

Valiant effort by Adam Hansen of Team High Road. With the way breaks have been making it this week, can't blame him for trying to be last man standing today. But the gasket blew in the closing kilometers, and the big guns were hungry for their shot. I was with the RAI guys, alarmed at Di Luca in the back of the pack with just a few K to go. His slingshot to the front a few moments later was impressive, but alas, too early. Piepoli and Ricco were at it again, the former setting up the latter for his second stage win. Whatever else, they do work well together.

In our RAI tidbit of the day - I knew there was a dude named Francesco out there on a motorcycle in the peloton, but I didn't realize he was doing face-to-face interviews with the team directors! Just like the riders, he sidles up to the team cars and sticks his microphone in the window. Seems a little more dicey than when the bikes do it, but I guess they all know what they're doing. It's like at the Preakness, where the chick on the horse interviews the winning jockey as he's cooling down his steed. Yeah, just like at the Preakness, where the pre-game show was filled with discussions of steroid use, and that sticks in the back of your mind as you try to enjoy Big Brown dusting the field again.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Giro d'Italia 2008 Stage 6: Smile

A few smiles from yesterday:

Rumor has it Pavel Brutt was something of a wheelsucker on his Stage 5 win, no such problems with Matteo Priamo. He did more than his share of work in the break from the break, and won off the front coming to the line.

Giovanni Visconti also made a great effort to the line, and traded in his national champion's jersey for pink. When he got the news that pink was his, he broke into a tremendous grin that didn't leave his face through the whole post-race show. Watching dreams come true before your eyes is a joy to behold.

Enrico Gasparotto has been a staple at the front this week, looking focused as he led the Barloworld train for Mauricio Soler. So it was a delight to see him in a more relaxed mode on the post-race show, being interviewed by a little girl. Gasparotto's grin was as big as Visconti's as the girl earnestly asked her questions. I had no idea what they were saying of course, but the smiles needed no translation and it's such precious moments that keep me tuned in to RAI despite my language deficit.

Dave Zabriskie's latest blog entry (May 15) made me smile, laugh, and cry. One of many things he is sure to pass on to his little one is a healthy dose of perspective. Another brilliant entry by a brilliant guy, I hope he is resting well now.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Giro d'Italia 2008 Stage 5: Arrrgh-yle Redux

Alright, for those of you searching on "David Millar bike throw," or "David Miller bike toss," or "hurl," or whatnot, here is what youtube has so far. But really, I would hold out for live action, because the slo-mo doesn't do Millar's throw justice. [And here we go, check out the full-speed Eurosport highlight at Steephill.]

He's already had someone tsk tsk-ing him on the team site, but most of the comments are supportive. I'm firmly in the latter category - what else is there to do in such a situation? Grand Tour. Made the break that got away. The break stayed away to the finish. He looked to be the strongest in said winning break. His chain broke. In the final kilometer. If ever there was a moment to hurl a bike, that's it. Millar and Jonathan Vaughters each have pitch-perfect post-race reflections, typical of what makes Slipstream-Chipotle such a loveable team.

Millar seemed to convey the same sentiments in a gracious interview on the RAI post-race show. I still have a little of my high-school French, and I think he said something about wanting to still win a stage here. Looking forward to it, David, great attitude!

I really have to learn Italian. I don't know what they're saying most of the time, but I still feel confident that RAI has the best race coverage on the planet. The camera shots - of the fans and of the race, groovy music intros, creative video montages, on-screen stats like the respective speeds of the break and the chase, comments on the scene, lengthy post-race show with several riders hanging out to chat, and an overall congenial attitude make it a pleasure in any language. They were even rockin' Green Day today, love it!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Giro d'Italia 2008 Stage 4: Good Thing

Not much to say about today's stage, except it's a darn good thing Mark Cavendish came through with the win. His team worked from start to finish to give him the chance, and he did well to repay their efforts. For much of the sleepy stage, there was a lone High Road rider smack on the front, leading Liquigas and the rest so that Rik Verbrugghe was at least kept in the same time zone. And then when Cavendish was lost on the final climb, they brought him back. And when he was a few too many riders behind going into the stretch, teammate Tony Martin moved him up into the perfect spot. Heck, even Paolo Bettini helped the kid out, you've got to honor that!

Cavendish was his usual cocky self after, but he did also give great credit to his team, and Bettini. It's good to see that these things make a big impression on him, and I like to think he's learning and growing as he goes.

The day was not without nasty crashes, but at least it was better than yesterday. Shoes seem to be a recurring theme this week, today we had a Gerolsteiner rider getting two new shoes out of the trunk of the team car after a crash. The peloton was going slow, but still, that must've been one heck of a haul to get back on after such a long stop. Thank you, Giro gods, for keeping a couple of my Slipstream-Chipotle guys from crashing into that dog! I'd like to have seen their heart meters after that one. No thank you to whoever thought it would be a brilliant idea to toss pink streamers over the peloton as they're riding like bats out of hell. At least one got caught up in a rider's wheel, thankfully on the non-chain side. The balloons, too, Erik Zabel had to dodge one right after the line, come on people! As for the final crash, the guys at RAI had the only word for it - bruttissimo. Some things just don't need translating.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Giro d'Italia 2008 Stage 3: Feeling Their Pain

Suffering is the hallmark of cycling, but therein lies a dichotomy that has been front and center in the early days of this Giro. We love to watch the riders suffer - up a mountain, in a time trial, in a valiant attempt to hold off the chasing peloton, in a fierce sprint. They push their bodies to the limit and we stand in awe and respect of their hard work and determination.

But when they crash, especially as horribly as they did today, it is a suffering we almost can't watch. We hate it, we wish it never happened, we want it to stop. Versus may build their marketing campaign around the "excitement" of spectacular bicycle crashes, but I have to think most true fans of the sport take no pleasure in them. We marvel at them, and at the survivors who manage to shake it off and continue on, but our hearts sink and our breath catches each time as we assess the damage.

Having noted how hard they are to watch, I will say that RAI offers excellent coverage of them. I don't recall ever seeing so much follow up of the immediate aftermath. We saw all the tangled bikes, and guys wandering about, looking for bikes, teammates, wheels, even shoes. Side note to David Millar - to be able to write a lovely little piece like that after a day like today, brilliant, and such a gift to the fans. I don't know if the bus is the most comfortable place for Dave Zabriskie, but I like the idea of him being with the guys until he gets to go home.

Just as it was so heartbreaking to watch Zabriskie yesterday, today it was the same watching Brad McGee. First the long time lying on the road, then hunched over, then in that angelic kneel. There was just something about it, his uniform was still clean, his two feet perfectly together, his body so still while the doctors attended to his broken collarbone. And then that horrible jolt of pain as he tried to lie back on the stretcher. As if that wasn't bad enough, I was crushed to find out later that teammate Stuart O'Grady suffered the very same fate. It was so good to see him back this year after last year's horrific crash in the Tour, how frustrated he must be.

Crashes aside, RAI is delightful to watch. I added it to my satellite programming, so I get to watch it on regular TV instead of squinting at the computer. They had a fun opening montage, and a previous day recap which included a smiling Christian Vande Velde in the pink jersey, toasting to the camera with his water bottle. With the bubbling Italian commentary, I feel just like Bill Cosby's Cliff Huxtable when his wife spoke Spanish, "I just listen for my name."

In this case, it's the riders' names, and it's funny how much you can pick up in context. Today's vocabulary word was mano (hand), which I picked up as they discussed first Soler's injury from yesterday, and then Ricco's today. I even got that they were saying a hand injury is bad, given how crucial hands are to cycling. It works both ways, though, once I knew what they were talking about, I was interested in what they had to say about it and wished I could understand more. For example, I easily picked out "salbutamol," "asthma," and "Petacchi," but then couldn't tell what their commentary on the situation was. I gathered, though, that they didn't enjoy the double standard enjoyed by Piepoli. And then there was something later about Armstrong's legendary ride into Gap, I was dying to know what connection they were making there!

RAI is not subtle about their T&A shots, but they show plenty of kids and old folks, too, so you just have to smile. And where else do you get to see Robbie McEwen do an interview in Italian, including congratulating Petacchi on his new bambino.

Other fun shots of the day included Alberto Contador outstripping teammate Antonio Colom to get back to the peloton. Watching he and Levi Leipheimer, it's like an old dog being thrown back in the hunt. They weren't training for it, but their instincts are there and they fall right back into the race.

Astana provided a number of dicey moments on the day - Colom getting a repaired shoe from the team car and proceeding to let go of the car and put the shoe on while rolling along. He immediately fell back off the team car's pace, just as what appeared to be a race official's care came right up behind him. I guess it all worked out though, as he took a flier off the front in the closing kilometers. In a more humorous incident, an unknown Astana rider went astray around some traffic furniture and had to come back into the race through the crowds lining the road.

There were a lot of multiple pacelines on the front, Barloworld in particular out in force. I hope Soler's hand is feeling better!

I love Erik Zabel, and was happy to see him take a strong second in the rough and tumble final sprint. As for Liquigas, look how much fun you're having, still in pink and Daniele Bennati winning the stage, what do you need with Ivan Basso? (I'm not a Basso hater, I just get squirmy at the shadier aspects of the whole thing.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Giro d'Italia 2008 Stage 2: Arrrrgh-yle

After their brilliant TTT win yesterday, Slipstream-Chipotle was awesome again today, although heartbreak replaced jubilation as the emotion of the day. I settled in with breakfast, ready to enjoy Christian Vande Velde in pink and the Argyle Armada leading the pack. And that I did, the guys looked great and worked their tails off once again in defense of the jersey. Especially Magnus Backstedt, who seemed forever on the front drilling away. Much as I adore the argyle, it's fun and impressive to see all the national jerseys on Slipstream, three in the TTT, and three on the road stages, with only one overlap.

Then came the shot of the rider-less bike, on the left half of the road. I couldn't tell whose bike it was, but I was immediately thinking, where's the rider, where's the rider? And then they panned over to the right side of the road, and there was the instantly recognizable Dave Zabriskie, lying in the grass in a very bad pose. It was awful to watch, he was so pale, with his brow furrowed in shock, pain, and confusion. He was obviously in a lot of pain, and having trouble breathing deeply, I just wanted to reach through the screen and give him strength. Zabriskie is such an internal guy, watching him quietly suffer as he was lifted up onto the stretcher and wheeled away, I couldn't help but be reminded of his horrible crash in yellow at the Tour. (He joked yesterday about not wanting the pink jersey, I'm sure he was doubly glad today to not have it.) He had that same stoic look then as the reporters and photographers mercilessly jostled his bloody and battered body while he was trying to make it to the team car. He's often called quirky and goofy, but let's not forget, Zabriskie is also tough as nails.

Vande Velde mentioned how he will miss Zabriskie, and the smiles he brings, over the next few weeks, and so will we all. DZ is a joy to watch on the bike, and to listen to off the bike. Maybe he can come up with those Marvel characters for his teammates while he recovers (see May 6 entry). I'm glad to hear the injury is not a serious one, and hope he will recover well and be able to rock his baby and all that fun stuff when the little one arrives later this month.

Things of course could've been much worse, as they were for Fausto Munoz Esparza, recently paralyzed in the Tour of Gila. He joins DZ in my thoughts and best wishes, it's a hard and uncertain road ahead for him.

Getting back to today's stage, the boys kept things under control as long as they could, and David Millar did a great turn as Vande Velde's last ally going in to the closing circuit. (As a side note, the Norway feed sure picked a random time to up and leave the race for some studio show, but fortunately cyclingfans and steephill had all the links needed to find continuous coverage.) But then it was all up to Christian, and it was great to see him give his all and battle 'til the end, sensibly following the strong wheels where he could. One second is always a frustrating margin, but they knew keeping the jersey would be a tough ask on a day like today, and they gave their all, so I agree with the posts by Christian and others on the team website, no regrets and no shame. Julian Dean deserves a mention as well, for keeping his place in the paceline, shredded left side and all. The pressure's off, they can recuperate and decide where in the race they want to spice things up again.

Who knows what the whole story is with Danilo Di Luca, but it must be said his team had a good showing taking over the pace at the end and setting him up for a good result. And nice to see Riccardo Ricco pedaling his bike across the line instead of throwing it. Ironic for Slipstream to hand the jersey over to Liquigas, of all teams, but I have nothing against Franco Pellizotti, so good on him for the extra effort in the end and realizing every Italian boy's dream.

Speaking of quietly heroic athletes who get the crap beat out of them and come back for more, today's movie recommendation is The Rocket, about hockey great Maurice Richard. Not a fancy movie, but the compelling story carries the day. Ironically, the DVD offers a version dubbed in English, but I'd recommend the original French with subtitles. There's a bunch of dialogue in English anyway, and even though it's just actors, it seems wrong to not let them speak French, given the subject matter.