Giro d’Italia: Let The Climbing Commence

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

Now that the Classics have come to an end with the closing of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, attention turns to the Grand Tours. The first of the Grand Tours starts this weekend, with the opening of the Giro d’Italia. There are three Grand Tours- called as such because they are three week tours of their host countries. May is the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), July is the Tour de France (Tour of France), and August is the Veulta a España (Tour of Spain). Each of these races has its own personality, but they all require the utmost in dedication and preparation. Whole seasons are dictated and structured around Grand Tours. If one hopes to win, place on the podium, or even in the top ten,  commitment must be 100%. There is no half-assing it at the Grand Tours! This is because Grand Tours are brutal to the max. Racing around 200 kilometres a day for 3 weeks, with only 2 rest days, is like running a marathon every day for 3 weeks.  They offer different challenges than one day races, with the cyclists hoping to be a General Classification contenders or podium finishers having to race smart to make sure their bodies can survive 3 weeks of racing. As such, the tactics are subtler and attacks by favorites less frequent. In addition, an awesome team is needed that can protect and shepard their leader to the finish.

Background

The Giro d’Italia was started by an Italian newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport. They were inspired by L’Auto, which had created the Tour de France five years earlier to boost sales. In 1909, the first race was held, with 127 riders on the start line. Only 49 riders finished 8 days later. Like most races of the era, it’s run was interrupted by World War I and II. Until 1914, winner was decided by how many stages they won, not by overall time.

Winners

Until 1950, only Italians stood on the top step of the podium and it wasn’t until 1919 that there was a non-Italian on the podium- Belgian Marcel Buysse. In 1925, Alfredo Binda started winning stages and races at such a rate, that in 1930, the organizers offered Binda 22,500 lire to not run the race! He returned in 1931, but had to abandoned due to a crash.

By the 1950’s, wasn’t being won just by Italians any more. In 1954,the the Swiss rider Hugo Koblet was the first non-Italian to win the race, and there wasn’t another run of Italian winners until 1997.

Not surprisingly, Italians have won this race 66 times, with Belgium WAY back in second with only 7. Andrew Hampsten is the only American to have won the Giro, in 1988.

Alfred Binda, Fausto Coppi, and Eddy Merckx are tied for most victories, as they each have won 5 times.

Jerseys

1931 was the year the pink jersey made its first appearance for the overall leader. The color was modeled on the color of La Gazzetta dello Sport‘s newsprint color. Francesco Camusso was first winner to bring this jersey home.

Maglia Rosa

The King of the Mountains Classification (maglia verde) jersey was introduced in 1933, as well as the first individual time trial.

Maglia Verde

The points classification jersey (spring jersey) is the maglia ciclamino (mauve jersey).

Maglia Ciclamino

The best young rider’s jersey is white, maglia bianca.

Maglia Bianca

In the 1940s, there was a black jersey for the cyclist in last place. Another entry in the interesting fact file was Alfonsina Strada as a female rider in the 1924 Giro. She was disqualified form the GC when she crashed and finished outside the time limit, but she was one of the 30 riders to finish that year. This was because when the newspaper saw a spike in sales after her participation, they made her the highest-paid participant so she would finish the remaining 4 stages.

2011 version celebrating 150th anniversary of unification of Italy and promises to be a doozy. Many riders have expressed their fear that the route might be the death of them. Podium Cafe has a great breakdown of the race and also check out the US Pro Cycling News previews as well!


The New Favorite: Gilbert on Form for Liege-Bastogne-Liege

Photo: VeloNews

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

After the cobbled classics of the north, the classics move to hillier south of Belgium. The Ardennes Classics are hillier and offer a different set of challenges than the cobbled classics. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is one of the five monuments and the last of the Ardennes Classics. It is called “La Doyenne”, which means “the oldest,” and it is, as it started in 1892. This predates Paris-Roubaix by 4 years (Paris-Roubaix is still the oldest of the cobbled Classics). Even though LBL’s history is not nearly as storied or interesting as Paris-Roubaix, it is considered the Ardennes Classics version of the Tour of Flanders- which is to say, the most famous, and biggest, of the Ardennes Classics.

Background

The Ardennes Classics include Flèche Wallonne and at one time LBL and Flèche Wallonne were run on successive days and known as the Le Weekend Ardennais. Only six riders have achieved the Ardennes double by winning both of these races in the same year.  Like many races of its era, LBL was conceived and organized to publicize to publicize L’Expresse newspaper in 1862. Because it was a French newspaper, it was run through the southern, French-speaking part of Belgium.

It was first run as an amateur race, from Spa to Bastogne and back. After racing for 11 hours, Leon Houa won the first edition, 22 minutes in front of the second place finisher. Out of 33 racers who started the race , only 17 riders finished, and after Houa crossed the finish line, riders were still arriving 5 hours later. Not only did Houa win the 1893 thirty minutes ahead of the second place finisher, he also won the first race when it became professional in 1894.

Despite becoming a professional race in 1894, that was the last edition until 1908. It was again suspended during WWI and WWII, however, there was an edition run in 1943 and 1945.

Route

It is often seen as the toughest of the classics, with many long, steep, climbs. The fact that the three hardest climbs occur in the last 35km is a nice sting in the tail.  The 2011 edition is 257.5km long.

Liege-Bastonge-Liege map 2011

Liege-Bastonge-Liege 2011

Who Will Win?

LBL has been won 57 times by Belgians, 12 times by Italians, and 6 times by the Swiss. The lone American winner was Tyler Hamilton in 2003. Eddy Merckx is the only rider who’s won it 5 times.

Typically this race favors puncheurs, strong cyclists who are capable of  short, explosive attacks on short steep climbs. As Philippe Gilbert fits this description, all eyes look to him to match Davide Rebellin’s hat trick of wins from 2004, where he won Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and LBL. Other cyclists on the top of many lists are Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervelo), Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana, and a previous two time winner), and Igor Anton and Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel-Euskadi).

Paris-Roubaix: The Granddaddy of Cobbles

paris-roubaix mybikeinfo.wordpress.com

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

These bloodied and battered warriors struggle through the rain, the cold, the mud, on roads better suited to oxen cart than bicycles. But for the victor there is glory, immortality and a place in history amongst the giants of the road.

-CBS Sports 1987

Well it’s finally here. The granddaddy of all the cobbled classics, the stuff of dreams, the legend maker: Paris-Roubaix. The excitement has been building for weeks. Since the first cobbled race in Belgium this season, the Omloop, talk and speculation has been building to this day. While the Tour of Flanders is seen as the pinnacle of the Belgian races and a win is coveted by all Belgian riders, Paris-Roubaix is the crowning glory of all the cobbled races. For the cyclists who are one day, Classic specialists, this is what they race for. A win in the Roubaix velodrome has no equal. So what makes this race so special? There are a couple of reasons. For those of you who are just joining us in this racing season, it is the most epic of the Classic, one day races. If you will allow me to quote myself, a brief explanation of what make these races so special:

The stage race: a multi day torture fest. The one day race: a one day torture fest. While riders in stage races must endure the torture for a week or more, and therefore must ride to conserve energy so they are able to ride another day, one day racers have only one shot to make it to the end. This means those riders must leave it all on the road if they want to win. Riders have 4 to 6 hours to push themselves further into the red than their opponents, and with no stage to race the next day, it doesn’t matter if you leave no gas in the tank.

And amongst the cobbled classic races, Paris-Roubaix is the most revered because it is the oldest, the cobble-est, hardest race of them all. It was first run in 1896 and only the two world wars were enough to stop it. It has many nicknames: The Hell of the North, A Sunday in Hell, Queen of the Classics, La Pascale. Today it is organized and run by the ASO (Amaury Sport Organization), which also organizes the Tour de France, Paris-Tours, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and other big races.

A new velodrome

The race was the brainchild of Theodore Vienne and Maurice Perez, textile manufacturers who were behind a new velodrome which had just opened. To promote their new velodrome and expose the citizens of the town to cycling, they proposed a race which would start in Paris and end in their Roubaix velodrome. For help, they reached out to the editor of Le Velo, a French daily sports paper. He pitched it to the owner of the newspaper as a training event for Bordeaux-Paris, a race run until 1988. The newspaper owner went for it, and a race was born.

The Hell of the War

While the nickname “Hell of the North” does accurately describe this Northern France race, it came not from the cobbles, mud, or horrible weather. Indeed, when put into perspective, the cobbled roads of the early 20th century were considered superior over most roads which were not paved at all. Rather, the nickname came from the destruction wrought on the route after World War I. After the war ended in 1918, the race organizers took a trip to Roubaix from Paris to see how the route had survived four years of warfare. The further they got from the city, the more destruction they witnessed- a land laid to waste by bombs and trench warfare. And the next day it was reported in the newspaper that these men had seen “the hell of the North.” When Henri Pelissier won the first edition of the race in 1919, he said, “This wasn’t a race. It was a pilgrimage.”

The Cobbles

When live television started to become a part of cycling in the late ’60s, many mayors along the route started paving over their cobblestones, lest those watching see them as backwards. But there were some who saw the cobbles as the “special sauce” of the race and worried that with their removal, the race would lose what gave it its heart. So Les Amis de Paris Roubaix was formed to find and preserve the cobbles of the route. The cobbles in northern France are different than the cobbles in Flanders. In France, they are bigger, rounder, with wider gaps between them. This makes them much harder to ride on.

Paris-Roubaix Arenberg sidelined.com.au

The Route

The route changes subtly from year to year as cobbled sections are deemed to dangerous, or are repaved or repaired. However, it always starts in the Paris region and ends in the Roubaix velodrome. This race is much flatter than other cobbled races in Belgium, but that does not mean it is easier, as the roads are narrow, twisty, and heavily cobbled. The iconic cobbled sections have names such as Orchies, Mons-en-Pévèle, Cysoing à Bourghelles, Carrefour de l’Arbre. The most famous section is probably Troueé d’Arenberg- the Trench of Arenberg. This section passes through a thick wood, making the cobbles slippery and dangerous. Positioning going into this section is vial, as it is narrow and the pace forces the peloton to string out- those who come out first have the best chance to reach the velodrome first.

Paris-Roubaix 2011 map

For the 2011 edition, the Arenberg section has been placed closer to the finish, which is expected to make the race more intense. There are 51.5km of cobbles this year, in 27 sections (PodiumCafe breaks down the cobbled sections of this year’s Paris-Roubaix here).

Who wins?

Once again, Belgians have dominated the winner’s board, with 53 wins. However, France has a respectable 28 wins, fitting for a race that is in their country. Italy is the only other country with double digit wins, with 13. Roger De Vlaeminck is the only rider to have won Paris-Roubaix four times. If Tom Boonen can win again, he’ll join De Vlaeminck.

For the 2011 edition has the usual suspects at the top of most predictions lists: Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. But many are placing bets on Thor Hushovd (who’s Garmin-Cervelo teams really needs a win), Juan Antonio Flecha or Geraint Thomas (who’s won the U23 version in the past).

The cruelty of this race is that form and fitness can only do so much. While positioning and race without a mechanical, a flat, or a crash are important in any race, at Paris-Roubaix they count for double, as the odds are stacked against all of those things. The 2011 edition of Paris-Roubaix should be another corker, if the earlier 2011 season races are anything to go by!

Check out ProcyclingLive, CyclingFans, and Steephill.tv for live streams the day of the race. I believe live coverage should start around 7:30am EST. I’ll be following along on Twitter as well, with the #roubaix hashtag.

The Race to Rule Belgian Cycling

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

Sunday is the date of the unofficial Belgian national championship, the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen in the native tongue). The Tour of Flanders is the race held most near and dear to the hearts of Belgians. To win this race as a Belgian will make your entire career. You’d never have to win or ride another race again in your life and you would still be seen as a Belgian hero into perpetuity. Nicknamed Vlaanderens mooiste (Flanders’ finest), the first edition was organized in 1913 by Karel Van Wijnendaele, co-founder of the sport newspaper Sportwereld. Before World War II, the race was held on the same day as Milan-San Remo, and as most Italians and French riders preferred to race the latter,  there was only one non-Belgian winner before World War II. After World War II, it became part of the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo, a precursor to today’s World Tour; this lead to a change in date so it no longer conflicted with Milan-San Remo and a subsequent rise in status. Despite its rise in popularity, Flandrian’s still thought of it as “their” race, on the hill in their back yard where they had learnt the craft of cycling. It’s as part of the Flemish culture as any other tradition and this is why it holds such a special place in the hearts of Belgians, and Flandrians especially. The race’s popularity within Belgium has not diminished over the years and many non-Belgians have adopted this race as one of the favorites.

The Cobbled Climbs

The race route follows the same pattern as it did at its inception: 200km through the plains, 100km through the maze of twisty, turn-ey lanes and cobbled hills. Cobblestone tracks were laid on the rolling hills of the Flemish Ardennes by the farmers to give traction for horses and wood-wheeled carts. It is this hills which define the race. Until the 1950s there were only three hills in the race- today there are usually 15. There is no one berg with defines or summarizes the Tour of Flanders, as each hill on its own wouldn’t be much to write home about. It’s more about how the hills are strung together after 200km of hard racing; how the short, steep gradients coupled with the cobbles make staying on the bike a difficult task; how the last few kilometers before each climb is a jostle-fest of trying to get the perfect position going into the climb. PezCycling News did a great piece breaking down one of the more famous climbs, the Koppenberg. Basically,  the location of this hill within the race (occurring directly after two already hard climbs), the slickness of the cobbles (regardless of rain or shine), and the steep pitch all combine to reduce even the hardest of cyclists to the indignity of pushing their bikes up the hill. Because once one rider falls, slips, or unclips to maintain his balance, he dooms everyone behind him to walking. The Koppenberg’s storied history has contributed to its occasionally removal from the race, as organizers deem it too dangerous one year or another.

The race has actually helped bring protection to many of the cobbled ways in Belgium. Many cobbled disappeared in the modernization period which followed World War II. By 1993, cobblestones had become officially protected, as the cobbles were recognized as the special sauce of the Ronde.

Who wins?

This race has always been dominated by Belgians, like many of the cobbled classics of the north. Belgians have taken the podium 66 times to Italy’s 10 and the Netherland’s 9. No American has ever won this race.

The winner will be someone who can attack the cobbled hills with full strength, maintain that power through the steepest gradients, and still have a burst of power left over to make it over the top. The ability to maintain sustained bursts of power is a must, which is why Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara are often at the top of the favorites lists for this race.

Last year, Cancellara motored to an impressive solo win, showing such a feat of strength that he was accused of having a motor in his bike.

This year, Bonnen, Cancellara, and Philippe Gilbert are at the top of many prediction lists. Heinrich Haussler, Geriant Thomas, Thor Hushovd, Sylvian Chavanel, Juan Antonio Flecha also seem to be on quite a few lists. Everyone and their mother has an opinion on who might win this race.

So, be sure to tune in the live streams on Sunday morning! Check out ProCycling LiveCyclingFans, and Steephill.tv for links to live streams and live tickers! Also, follow along on twitter with #RVV for up to the minute updates.

 

Let’s get ready to cobble! Gent-Wevelgem

This is a reprint of the article I wrote for US Pro Cycling News.

Sunday is the day for Gent-Wevelgem, a prestigious cobbled classic race which takes place in the lead up to the King of Belgian Cobbled races, Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). This race has grown in stature the past few years, as the organizers sought to make changes to elevate the status and reputation of the race. It was always a respected Belgian cobbled race, but because it was sandwiched right between Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, two huge cycling classics, it often got lost in the shuffle. That changed last year when it got moved to the Sunday before the Ronde, and therefore make for good training in the run up to the Ronde. It’s  status was also bolstered by its shift to the UCI WorldTour race calendar, which means all the UCI ProTeams are obligated to attend.

History

The race was first run in 1934, created as a tribute to Gaston Rebry (a Wevelgem native) who had won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix that year. The first edition was a junior race at only 120km; from 1936-1939 it was open to independent amateur riders; and after WWII it became a professional race, with a new route lengthened to 200km. Today, it is organized by the Royal Flying Wheel Velo Club.

Winners

Most notably, only one American has ever won this race- George Hincapie in 2001. Belgians have dominated this race, no question, with 46 wins over its history. Italy is way back in 2nd, with only six wins.

Route

Although it is often called a sprinters’ classic, with a flat finish, there are plenty of climbs and cobbles to thin the ranks and challenge the pure sprinters. Because of this, usually only a small elite bunch make it to the finish together.The biggest obstacle in the race is the Kemmelberg, a cobbled climb that is ridden twice, and which has a dangerous descent. The race hasn’t actually started in Gent since 2004- it usually starts in nearby Deinze.

In the quest to elevate the status of the race, the organizers redesigned the route, adding two climbs, bringing the total to 8, making it even less of sprinters race. Despite the changes, it is still the Kemmelberg climb that will shape the results.

E3 to suffer

Because of all these changes, the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke (E3 Prize Flanders), which typically takes place a week and a day before the Ronde, is being passed up for Gent. As a UCI WorldTour race, not only are teams obligated to attend, but points towards UCI rider classification are higher too, prompting many riders and teams to chose Gent-Wevelgem over the E3, which is only part of the UCI Europe Tour. While some claim the E3 race is still a better indicator of how the Ronde will play out, as the route is much similar, that is still not enough to draw riders away from Gent.

 

A little E3 Prijs taste

There are two Belgian cobbled classics happening this weekend: the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Haralbeke on Saturday and the Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. I don’t have time to write about them both and have decided to write about Gent-Wevelgem. However, here are some link to articles with previews of the E3 course, race, and riders attending.

  • CyclingNews has an overview of the controversies surrounding the race this year
  • Podium Cafe is running a prediction’s game and has some comments on how to pick a winner
  • Pavé has a run down of this year’s favorites
  • Velonation wrote a piece about how the date change of Gent-Wevelgem could be the death of the E3 (Gent has been moved from mid-week to the Sunday before Tour of Flanders)
  • ProCyclingLive breaks down the course
  • Check out Wikipedia for some history

There you go! Check ProCyclingLive, CyclingFans, or Steephill.tv for live coverage, which there is sure to be.

Milan-San Remo is coming!

Milan-San Remo is coming up this weekend! To get prepared, check out the quick and dirty history I put together for the US Pro Cycling News website!

Paris-Nice: History and Preview

For most longtime cycling fans, Paris-Nice signals the true beginning of the cycling season. This probably goes back to the day when Qatar and Oman didn’t exist, and there was limited to no live coverage available until Paris-Nice. While the hardcore fans enjoy the addition of the Tour Down Under, Qatar, and Oman, those long, flat, windy, sandy stages leave much to be desired. Paris-Nice brings the racing back to Europe and proper climbs back to the stages. It’s a race that’s about journeying to the sunshine, when “the rising warmth brings the riders out of their shells as if awakening from a winter’s hibernation.”

History

Like the Tour de France, Paris-Nice was also started by a newspaper owner hoping to promote his papers.  Albert Lejune owned a paper in Paris (Le Petit Journal) and in Nice (Le Petit Niçois). Hoping to promote sunny, Mediterranean Nice as a mid-winter getaway for those still in the cold North (and sell more papers in the process), in 1933, he created a week long stage race which started in the wintry North of Paris and wound its way south to finish in the warmth of Nice. His “Six Days of the Road” became known as “The Race to the Sun.” Like most races which started in the 30s, it was forced to go on a hiatus from 1940 to 1946 because of World War II. It picked up again in 1946, but didn’t really start to come into its own until 1951. By then it was being run by Jean Leulliot and backed by a new publication, Road and Track. However, it was still being used to promote Nice as a winter escape destination. It was in the 50s that the race really started to take off and gain prestige. Now top tier riders were riding and winning, such as Jacques Anqutiel, Eddy Merckx, Sean kelly, Miguel Indurain, etc. From 2000 to 2002, the race was organized by Laurent Fignon, but today the race is managed by the ASO (Amaury Sports Organization), which also owns and organizes other big races, including the Tour de France, Vuelta a Espana, Paris-Roubaix, among others.

The route

It was never meant to be a taxing course and Lejune, the founder, purposefully built the route to avoid the Alps. It doesn’t favor sprinters, like the earlier races in Australia, Oman, and Qatar, nor does it favor the climbers, like the Grand Tours. It is landscape is lumpy, not mountainous. It is a race for sprinters, climbers and roulers alike. For example, the 2011 edition features 3 flat stages and 3 hilly stages. There have been some changes to format of the race in 2011; mainly the prologue has been replaced with a 27km time trial in the final stage. This is the first time since 1996 that there will not be a TT prologue  and it’s certainly the longest TT its ever had- the normal range is between 4 and 13km. There are some who believe the inclusion of the longer time trial doesn’t fit with the character of the race. Now the race can be lumped in with more traditional week long stage races.

2011 edition

Jerseys

  • Overall leaders jersey: Yellow
  • Point classification: Green
  • King of the Mountain: Red polka dot
  • Young Rider: White

Jersey winners from 2011

Interesting facts

  • Irish racer Sean Kelly has won the most races with 7 consecutive title!
  • It was an accident at this race which occured in the 2003 edition that prompted the UCI to mandate the use of helmets during races, after Kazakhstan rider Andrei Kivilev died because of head injury sustained during a crash.

Where to watch

TV:

  • Oh happy days, Versus is going to be showing the race on TV! However, it will not be live and it will be at 4:00 in the afternoon, starting Sunday. There will probably be live streaming available the day of, starting at 7:40am, if my calculations are correct. Check out Cyclingfans.com and Steephill.tv for updates and ProcyclingLive and Sportz-Live.com (scroll down to cycling category) for straight links.
  • There have been rumors that Versus is using Paris-Nice as a gauge to see if it should broadcast more cycling. So, especially if you have a Neilson scanner in your house, try and watch it on Versus. There have also been rumors that Belgian Anti-Piracy groups are cracking down on “illegal” internet streams, so it’s possible that all the streams coming out of Belgium will be geo-restricted, meaning if you’re not in Belgium you can’t watch them. But who knows.

Twitter:

  • Official Paris-Nice hashtag is #pn
  • ProcyclingLive will be live tweeting

Live blog:

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