The Battle

Amstel Gold, 2011 – Yup, Another Belgian Wins

The Amstel Gold was on Sunday and another Belgian won. Amstel is the Netherlands biggest pro bike race and begins what’s called the Ardennes classics. These series of spring races, named for the Ardennes mountains and forests that make up northern Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, include the monument Liege-Bastogne-Liege and also Fleche Wallone (coming up in a few weeks)

Ridiculously narrow roads. Road furniture that comes out of nowhere. Steep, punchy climbs and a crazy uphill finish. That’s Amstel Gold. The beauty of these spring classics (Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix + a host of smaller races) is that they all have their own quality and character and they generally favor different kinds of riders. Every few generations, we may see a Fabian Cancellara that can compete in all of them but for the most part San Remo favors the sprinters, Flanders takes a strongman able to burst over short climbs, Paris-Roubaix is sheer power and guts, and Amstel Gold takes an incredible all-arounder with a massive uphill sprint.

In this year’s edition, the rider with the number one on his back as defending champion, Philippe Gilbert, chased down Andy Schleck and powered his way up the finishing climb to reassert himself as a man for the classics. Gilbert is from the French speaking region of Belgium, but hey he’s Belgian, and the Flemish have adopted him as one of their own.

So just in case you’re counting this spring, that’s FOUR BELGIANS that have won the past FIVE classics/semi-classics: Tom Boonen at Ghent-Wevelgem, Nick Nuyens at Flanders, Johan van Summeren at Paris-Roubaix, Philippe Gilbert at Brabantse Pijl, and again Gilbert at Amstel Gold. Belgium is smaller than Indiana and they’re kicking the crap out of the rest of the world in the toughest races on the planet. The legendary toughness of Belgian bike racers is well-earned.

Almost makes me want to go train for 4 hours in the freezing rain. Almost.

Ride on…


Your Weekend Training and Racing Inspiration

Halfway up a local climb

Ah, the weekend. Don’t know where you are but hopefully you can get in some long miles over the next 2 days. If you’re in California, maybe you’re over at Sea Otter tearing it up.

I take a lot of inspiration from quotes and on occasion tape a quote to the stem of my bike. Some have gotten me up long climbs & have kept me hanging on in a tough Group Ride long after I’ve wanted to sit up. Here are a few that have made it onto the stem or top tube:

“To be a cyclist is to be a student of pain. Sure, the sport is fun with its seamless pacelines and secret singletrack, its post-ride pig-outs and soft muscles grown wonderfully hard. But at cycling’s core lies pain, hard and bitter as the pit inside a juicy peace. It doesn’t matter if you’re sprinting for an Olympic gold medal, a town sign, a trailhead, or the rest stop with the homemade brownies. If you never confront pain, you’re missing the essence of the sport” – Scott Martin

“I know the pain of cycling can be terrible: in your legs, your chest, everywhere. You go into oxygen debt and fall apart. Not many people outside cycling understand that.” – Greg Lemond

“When you are having a devil of a job to stay with the pack, when you can’t remember your name and you can hardly see your own front wheel, it’s at such moments that you must remember that Coppi, Van Steenbegen, Poulidor, Gimondi and all the others achieved greatness only because they knew how to fight through these moments.” -Charles Ruys

When I read these, I’m reminded that it’s worth it. That I love this. Momentary pain and suffering are minor costs compared to the lifelong rewards of physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Do you have any inspirational quotes that you’ve taped to your bike?

Have a great weekend!

Ride on…

“Do What We Can Until We Die”

I cooked up a little Belgian fare for my family yesterday morning in honor of the country that’s taken more Paris-Roubaix wins than any other. But when Tom Boonen faltered mid-way through the race (punctures, crashes, ugh what a day for Tommeke), it looked like the Belgians’ chances at celebrating another storied win was all but shot.

Turns out it was a Belgian after all. Just not the one we expected. Johan van Summeren rode away with it at Paris-Roubaix yesterday, giving the American team Garmin-Cervelo a much needed Classics win. While all eyes in the final break were on Fabian Cancellara, Summeren’s teammate Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan, and Juan Antonio Flecha (among others), Summeren took everyone by surprise by motoring away on the Carrefour de l’Arbe section of cobbles. Come to find out, his rear tire was almost completely flat as he entered the velodrome alone to take the victory. Well fought and deserved winner of the Queen of the Classics.

All eyes were on Cancellara who’s proven over the past few years to be the best Classics rider of this generation. This fact ensures that he’ll always have the biggest target on his back. Late in the race, it was easy to see everyone in the break watching his every move. And with good reason. He initiated every chase and, like Flanders last week, managed to ride the strongest riders in the world off his wheel. Always a great interview, Fabian said this before the race:

I just want to ride my bike. Live the passion from the race. It’s gonna be hard, it’s gonna be tough, but I think I’m ready. I’ll just do my best with my team ’til the finish line…but in this race you never know in which corner anything can happen. We’ll race our race and do what we can until we die.

That pretty much sums up this man and the way that he races. If you watched Cancellara’s late race heroics, bridging up to the break, dragging the pack along, and then storming off on his own again, it’s clear that he never says die. I think this is what makes him such a compelling figure. In situations like that, most team directors and riders would concede, sit in, get too tactical, and wait for the race to come to them. Remember Garmin’s team instructions to “race for third” at Flanders last week? Not Cancellara. He’s such an exciting and prolific winner because when he decides to lay it all out there, he commits and throws down. He’s a man of his word. No looking back and he fights to the end.

There were so many stories evolving in yesterday’s race, I’ll leave it to the news websites to report all the details. But here are a few moments that stood out to me:

  1. Boonen needing a bike change in the Forest of Arenberg. Ugh. Watching him stand there while his chances to win disappeared up the road was agonizing. With the narrow stretch of cobbles closed to cars, is there a worse place in any bike race to have a mechanical?
  2. Crashes. It seemed everyone went down at some point. And not just on the cobbles. Guys were flying around the pavement on straight, flat sections of road. I guess it happens to the pros too. When you’re at your limit for hours on end and can’t see straight, the details like road furniture, curbs, and the wheel in front come up fast.
  3. Sylvain Chavanel went down hard. The camera left him in his agony lying on the side of the road. Surely his day was done. A few minutes later, the moto camera shows him driving hard, the left side of his body torn to shreds. That guy’s got class and fight in him.
  4. Obviously, Cancellara. He chased from 1:50 down to 19 seconds back and when the dust finally settled, he walked away with 2nd place.
  5. George Hincapie lost out again. An untimely puncture, a desperate chase, and poor positioning when the leaders made their move left George dangling off the back. Again. Hoping he comes back for just one more year.
  6. The winner came from an early break! Sometimes the first moves in bike races matter a lot. Early race tactics actually played out the way all those guys fighting to get in the break in the first 100k dream about. And Summeren reaped the rewards of what he probably thought was just a “team move” to play out later for his team leader, Hushovd. Goed gedane, Johan.

The first two weeks of April sure haven’t disappointed. For my money, these races are the heart of the pro cycling season. I love the pageantry and big stage of the Grand Tours but the northern Classics give us pictures of heart, guts, and determination that can’t be found anywhere else. Makes me want to go ride my bike.

Ride on…

A Sunday in Hell

Today, the big dogs throw down. Pain and suffering, power and bike-handling, tactics and head games, Roubaix is a true test of guts and heart. Versus is airing 3 hours coverage of the Queen of the Classics this afternoon starting at 4pm PST.

Below is the full version of A Sunday in Hell. Still considered the best film ever made about pro cycling, it follows the 1976 edition of Paris-Roubaix. Grab a cup of coffee or bottle of Chimay. Embrocate. Soak it all in.

Ride on…

Everything You Need to Know About Tomorrow’s Paris-Roubaix

The following video is from Road to Roubaix. Simply beautiful. You must watch this before the race:

Honestly, there’s nothing I can say about Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix that hasn’t already been written. So here’s a smattering of coverage from across the interwebs to set you up for the big show.

Here are my top five:

  1. Spartacus
  2. Tommeke
  3. Hincapie
  4. Hushovd
  5. Flecha

Going with the favorites but hoping I’m wrong and Big George finally gets his cobblestone.

Who’s in your Top Five? Please leave a comment and let us know.

Ride on…

The Queen of the Classics

Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North. The Queen of the Classics. The greatest one-day race of the year. The biggest of the 5 monuments. Whatever you want to call it, this is THE one-day race. The battle goes down this Sunday.

It used to be that the same riders who contested the Three Week Grand Tours would do quite well in Roubaix (Merckx, Bobet, Coppi, et al). But in the modern era, it takes a completely different kind of rider to even think of coming close to the podium. Grand Tour winners of the past 20 years won’t touch it. Just think about that for a moment – Hinault, Indurain, Armstrong, and host of other Tour de France winners don’t even come close. Like the Tour of Flanders last week, Belgians have dominated this race since it’s inception in 1896: Belgium 53, France 28, and it drops from there. This race above all others takes an unworldly threshold for pain and suffering, a quality of toughness that Belgium breeds in its riders.

It’s no secret who’s going well this year. With Ghent-Wevelgem and Flanders in back to back weeks, it’s the same group of riders who stand a chance. If you want to know who to put your money on, just check the top ten from the last 2 weeks: Cancellara, Boonen, Gilbert, Nuyens. But don’t count out Hushovd, Hincapie, Chavanel, Hausler, or Ballan. It won’t be a climber. Not here. Also probably not a pure sprinter like Mark Cavendish. Roubaix dishes out so much pain and suffering that it takes a freakish power monster to arrive in the Velodrome with a chance.

The record for wins stands at 4 (Roger De Vlaeminck) with 7 others holding at 3 wins. Six of those riders hung up their cleats long ago. Only Tom Boonen, with 3 wins to his credit, lines up on Sunday with a chance to make history and join De Vlaeminck in the elite 4x winner club. But let’s not forget American George Hincapie. An American has never won this race and for YEARS Americans have been cheering for George to come through. Second place in 2005 has been the closest he’s come to the top step. Big George has suffered through every kind of bad luck and oppositional tactics that you can possibly imagine. In 2006, with 2 teammates with him in the winning break 30k from the finish, George’s steerer tube broke sending him careening into a ditch. The stars have never quite aligned for him but I hoping this will finally be his year.

Also keep a look out for American Taylor Phinney in his Paris-Roubaix debut. He won the U23 Paris-Roubaix just last year and is suited to this kind of racing. But he may not yet have the power to go the distance with the big dogs.

In case you’re wondering what a pre-Classics PRO Group Ride looks like, here’s a video of BMC getting ready to roll out. Except for the $8,000 bikes, rolling mechanics, team cars, vans, and impeccable kit, it looks just like every other Group Ride roll out: a bunch of skinny dudes standing around waiting for someone to call it out.

Here are a few recommended posts from Velonews to get you going for the race this weekend:

Velonews ran a great collage of Vintage Paris-Roubaix photos from years-gone-by. It’s worth a look to get a sense of the race’s history.

Graham Watson posted his photos of pre-Roubaix training rides on Velonews HERE.

Versus is airing 3 hours coverage of the Queen of the Classics this Sunday starting at 4pm PST.

Ride on…

Flanders Proves the Strongest Rider Doesn’t Always Win

One thing that’s true about bike racing at all levels, the strongest rider doesn’t always win. That’s racing. If you watched the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, it was clear why everyone was so concerned about Fabian Cancellara in the weeks leading up to the race. As advertised, he was clearly the strongest rider in the field. The guy’s a monster, actually. The only thing that can be said about his ride is that possibly he lost out on some tactics that didn’t go his way. When Tom Boonen attacked, Fabian had to go with him. Boonen literally pulled Cancellara up to the front of the field and then launched him up to a Quickstep teammate, Sylvain Chavanel, who was up the road on a solo flyer. Then Boonen faded. Not big Tom’s greatest move. Once this happened, Fabian had to play the card he was dealt. Potentially, his other option would have been to sit in and wait for the final climb. But this would have been a big gamble and a thoroughbred can only be held back for so long.  So off he went. Fabian bridged up to Chavanel, eventually got reeled in by the pack, then unbelievably launched again. It finally came down to a group of three: Chavanel, eventual winner Nick Nuyens, and Fabian. The following video reveals the final k – all of the work being done by Cancellara. He made the race, broke it open, and dragged the trio to the finish line where an astute Nuyens took advantage of having done the least amount of work. Very smart tactic on Nuyen’s part. He was invisible all day until it counted and rode away with the biggest victory of his life. After crossing the finish line, the first thing he should have done was turn and say a big thank you to Spartacus. Reaction in the Saxo team car is priceless.

Below is an incredible video from a documentary on de Ronde that I had saved in a draft and meant to post last week. I thought about saving it ’til next year but it’s just too good not to share now. In it, the toughest men (Cancellara, Hausler, Gilbert, Eddy Merckx, and others) talk about the toughest race and just how massive the Tour of Flanders really is:

Next up: The Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix.

Ride on…