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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2016

Spring forward!

Here we are at that most perfect moment of springtime transistion: the quenching rains of the winter past are behind us and we’re barreling toward the balmy, golden glow of the summer ahead. At least in my corner of the world—Northern California—a fairly robust el Niño poured enough rain onto our parched landscape that the years of drought appear to be nearly over. The lakes are brim full, the creeks are babbling away, and the meadows are as green as Ireland. I concede what the climate experts are telling us: that we didn’t get quite as much rain as we really needed to finally knock the drought on the head for good, but at the moment, taking it all in with a superficial, non-expert’s eye, the world around us looks pretty darn good.

One thing is for sure: it’s perfect weather for cycling. Anyone who owns a bike is on it and out there, making the wheels go around. Everyone from lazy, sometimey pluggers to fierce, whippet-thin racers…the siren song of the sunny road has folks on the move. Which brings me to the theme of this month’s column: what’s happening in the world of racing?

The hard-working, hard-riding pros (and amateurs) have been beavering away at their appointed rounds ever since the early-season races in Australia and South America, eventually following the somewhat warmer weather to the Mideast and on to Europe and North America. (Warmer? Maybe. It’s sunny in California now, but a glance at the early spring races in Europe reveals a whole lot of cold, wet misery.) We have put most of the spring classics behind us, as well as several quite ambitious one-week stage races. Now we’ve arrived at the wonderful month of May, with the Giro d’Italia, the first of the three grand tours, beginning in just a few days. And if that’s not enough to get you revved up, we have what looks to be an interesting Tour of California launching just a week later.

So how did we get from the mid-winter doldrums—the days of cyclocross on muddy hillsides and six-day races in gritty velodromes—to this giddy tipping point of the 2016 race season? So far this year, on the UCI World Calendar, there have been 17 stage races, some as short as three stages and some longer than a week. As I write this in the last week of April, three more are underway. There were also 17 one-day races, including all the important spring classics and monuments. As a service to race fans, especially those who may not follow the early-season races too closely, I am putting together a thumbnail highlight list here of who did what over the first third of 2016. To keep this column from running on forever and to keep your eyes from glazing over, I’m going to skip over some of the less significant races. Let’s roll…

Tour of Oman, February 16-21. Letting his doubters know he’s not quite washed up yet, Vincenzo Nibali opened his account for the year with the GC in this six-stage tour. He sealed the deal with an impressive attack and victory on the mountaintop finish of Stage 4, ahead of Romain Bardet.

Volta ao Algarve, February 17-21. Geraint Thomas won the overall. He didn’t win any stages but was consistently near the top throughout. Fabian Cancellara won the ITT ahead of Tony Martin. Alberto Contador won a hilltop finish.

Vuelta a Andalucia, February 17-21. Alejandro Valverde won by taking out the hilltop finish on the final stage. Tejay Van Garderen won the ITT the previous day to take the overall lead, but couldn’t stay with Valverde on the big climb and finished second overall.

Strade Bianche, March 5. Fabian Cancellara won the tough classic over the gravel roads of Tuscany. I believe “Spartacus” has announced that this will be his final season. He’s not going quietly.

Paris-Nice, March 6-13. Geraint Thomas again, just four seconds clear of Contador. It could be argued that Contador lost the race in the 6-K Prologue, where he gave up nine seconds to Thomas. He lost another six seconds over the course of the week, then dropped Thomas on the final climb of the final stage and looked to have taken the lead. But Thomas grimly battled back and squeaked in with those four seconds to spare. Stage 3 was canceled because of snow. It was a hilly stage with a short but steep uphill finish. Having it in the mix probably would have favored Contador—supposedly a better climber—but…who knows?

Milano-San Remo, March 15. After crashing mid-race, Arnaud DeMare stormed back to the main group and prevailed in a bunch sprint to win La Primavera….his first monument.

Tirreno-Adriatico, March 9-15. Greg Van Avermaet bested Peter Sagan by one slim second for the overall. He beat Sagan in a two-up sprint on the next-to-last stage to open up a seven-second lead on Sagan in the GC. Then in the ITT on the final day, Sagan took back six out of those seven seconds…not quite enough. (Cancellara won the ITT.) Stage 5, with its potentially decisive mountaintop finish, was canceled because of snow, depriving the mountain goats of their chance at shifting the standings. A stellar line-up of strong climbers ended up within a minute or two of the winner, and almost certainly one of them would have won if that stage were included. 

Volta a Catalunya, March 21-27. Out of a field of all-star riders—as good as any Tour de France field—Nairo Quintana emerged the winner, seven seconds ahead of Contador and 17 seconds better than Dan Martin and Richie Porte. He gained his margin of victory with a nicely timed attack on the mountaintop finish of Stage 4. Van Garderen, Bardet, Chris Froome, and most of the other big names in stage racing were all right there, within a minute or so at the finish.

Gent-Wevelgem, March 27. World Champion Peter Sagan was the winner out of a four-man break. Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke were also in the break.

Tour of Flanders, April 3. Sagan dropped Cancellara and Vanmarcke on the last climb of the day—the Paterberg—and soloed to a comfortable victory for his first ever monument. It looked a lot like his World Chamionship move last September: a powerful surge up a steep, cobbled wall, then the solo run to victory. It was a bittersweet second place for Cancellara, in this great monument where he has performed so well for so many years.

Vuelta al Pais Vasco, April 4-9. Alberto Contador turned the tables in this race, winning the overall by :12 over Sergio Henao and by :37 over Quintana. Henao carried a six second lead into the time trial on the final day, but Contador won the ITT and secured the overall. It wasn’t a dominating performance for Contador, but it was competent and efficient. He has announced that this is his last season, but he looks as if he’s in prime form right now.

Paris-Roubaix, April 10. Four-time Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen and Sep Vanmarcke appeared to be the strongest riders in a five-main break that went off the front late in the race, but the surprise winner out of their little bunch sprint in the velodrome was Australian Matthew Haymen, with Boonen second. Cancellara crashed on one of the later sections of pavé, nearly taking Sagan down with him. Cancellara was not badly hurt: he rolled in 7:34 down.

Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, April 15-17. Alejandro Valverde won two out of the three stages to take the overall. (Note: this is a UCI Europe Tour event, not on the World calendar, but it still seems significant to me, if only as an indicator of Valverde’s form right now.)

Fleche-Wallonne, April 20. Alejandro Valverde was best again on the brutal wall of Mur de Huy, winning this classic for a record fourth time and second in a row. If you know how hard that last kilometer is…what he has done to come out on top four times. Amazing.

Liege-Bastogne-Liege, April 24. A four-man break hit the final uphill grind with a slight lead over the closing main pack. They stayed away, barely, and Dutchman Wout Poels had that little extra left to drop his companions for the biggest win of his career and his first victory in a monument.

So there you go: the show so far. I should add that I haven’t really touched on what the sprinters are up to. Every stage race has a few sprinters’ stages and several of the one-day classics end in sprints, so there have been plenty of opportunities for those hard boys to strut their stuff. Suffice it to say, at this point, it looks like the same guys who were bringing it last year are mostly back at it this year. 

Can we study the tea leaves here and get any sense of what might transpire in the races ahead? I’m leery of predictions. There are simply too many variables in stage races: injuries, illness, tactics, team strength, weather, crashes…on and on. About all we can say is that this or that rider appears to have good early-season form. Interestingly, this spring has been good for some seasoned veterans: Contador and Valverde in particular, but also Nibali and Cancellara. Young guns Quintana and Sagan are ready to rock and roll. Other big names, Chris Froome and Fabio Aru among them, have yet to make much of an impression. But we all know that spring form does not always translate to mid-season form.

The Giro should be fun. There are seven stages designated as really hilly, including a few monsters and an uphill time trial that averages 8% for 11 km. The one long ITT is more downhill than uphill, with a net loss of 1000’ over 40 km, but there is a 5-km climb 7 km from the finish. The downhills in that ITT look technical…lots of tight wiggles…which should favor a skillful, bold descender like Nibali. Overall, this Giro is not absurdly hilly, but it’s tough enough that the winner will have to bring a top-tier climbing game. If things are still hanging in the balance at the end of the third week, Stage 20, on the next-to-last day, should be an epic battle, with up-and-overs on three giant cols: Vars, Bonette, and Lombardia. Let’s hope it’s not snowed out.

As is often the case, many of the sport’s bigger stars are taking a pass on the Giro and looking ahead to the Tour. Last year’s first and second-place finishers—Contador and Aru—are both missing. Third-place finisher Mikel Landa (Aru’s teammate) will be back. So will Nibali. Others who might do well: Domenico Possovivo, Rigo Uran, Igor Anton, Rafal Majka, Tom Dumoulin, Ilnur Zakarin, and Alejandro Valverde. Valverde is the most intriguing entrant for me. I can’t recall that he’s ever entered a Giro before. He’ll be the team leader for Movistar…not riding in support of Quintana. He seems to be in tip top shape. Could this finally be the year that we can stop calling him the greatest rider of his generation to have never won a grand tour?

And then there’s the Tour of California. For years I’ve been saying the event organizers need to introduce more really substantial mountaintop finishes. In fairness to them, I admit it’s not that easy to do. It’s not as simple as picking your favorite big climb and then proposing a finish line at the top. The logistics are complex in the extreme. For a while, I kicked around the idea of devoting one of these columns to a top ten list of the best uphill finishes in California…a wish list to pass along to the ToC planners. But it hasn’t happened yet and probably won’t happen because I understand that basic point: it’s not that simple, especially if the hilltop finish is in the middle of nowhere, as is the case for many of our best ascents.

And to give the ToC folks their due, they have pulled it off a few times. The finish at the top of Sierra Road a few years back—where Chris Horner dropped Levi Leipheimer—was an excellent venue, and they made it work, even though there’s nothing at all in the way of infrastructure at the summit. And they’ve finished at the top of Mt Diablo, although that really didn’t break up the group as much as I had expected. 

Anyway, while I was thinking about possible, plausible hilltop finishes, one that kept rising to the top of my list was Gibraltar Road out of Santa Barbara. And guess what? It’s going to be the finish of this year’s Stage 3. They figured out how to do it, and they didn’t need my helpful suggestion to get there. If you read the preview they have at their site, you get the impression they’ve been thinking about this road and working with the locals for several years to make it happen. Although it’s an obscure, remote road, it’s no best-kept secret. Many pro teams do their winter training around Santa Barbara, and this climb has been a part of their programs for years. Andy Hampsten called it his favorite climb in the world. High praise! 

They’re saying it gains about 3000’ in a bit over seven miles for an 8% average. That seems approximately correct, although I don’t know exactly what they’re calling the start of the climb or where the finish line will be. I’ve ridden it a few times and led a couple of tour groups over it. But it’s been a few years. My recollection is that it’s a long, hard climb, but not a brutally hard climb. Will it be enough to make the kind of difference a major mountaintop finish is supposed to make? I think it will. We’ll find out in a few weeks!

There are also substantial, categorized climbs on Stages 1, 2, 5, and 7, although in all of those cases, they’re mid-stage, with long descents and roll-outs before the finish. The accumulated gain may take its toll, but barring some miracle breakaway, those stages should all come back together for field-sprint finishes.

Who are the major players at the ToC? Beats me! Unlike every other major pro race on the calendar, they are unable or unwilling to publish the roster of entrants ahead of time, or at least not yet, two-plus weeks out. We know which teams are entered, but not who will be on those teams. Peter Sagan will be there. He’s the defending champion, but it’s difficult to imagine him winning this year, with that big uphill finish in the mix. Still, he’s an amazing young talent and we almost certainly have not seen his best yet (even though he’s already World Champion). They say Rohan Dennis will lead the BMC team, which begs the question: where is Tejay Vangarderen? He’s had a good spring campaign and he’s not entered at the Giro…so what’s he doing in this crucial month of May? (He’s competing right now in the Tour of Romandie, but that ends on May 1…perfect prep for the ToC.)

Not publishing the team rosters seems like a critical lapse to me: one rather glaring example of how the Tour of California is still a few logs short of a cord. If all the other events can do it, why can’t they?

Well…I don’t want to carp on their missteps too much. They’ve given us a beautiful hilltop finish this year, plus many other good stages, including one starting and ending in my backyard: Santa Rosa. (I’ll be there, right on the finish line.) We can forgive them a few minor sins. 

As I do every year when writing about racing as a spectator sport, I want to give a plug to SteepHill.TV. If you want to watch almost any of the races that are not on US television—which is most of them—you can plug into streaming video at SteepHill’s site, and if you can’t watch them live—often early in the morning—you can almost always catch the last five or six or ten kilometers in replay later the same day. For distant races like the Giro, it’s the next best thing to being there. And for races closer to home, like the Tour of California, I hope to see you out there on some distant ridge line, ringing your cowbell, or in a mosh pit of fans on a fast-n-furious finish line. It’s spring time…it’s prime time!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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