Sunday, March 23, 2014

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Milan-San Remo 2014


Last year I covered the cycling “Grand Tours,” the three most important stage races, online for a very select audience (i.e., like one guy).  Leveraging the blog format, I took full advantage of not needing to follow any rules of journalistic integrity, so I could call a spade a spade (and sometimes call a heart a spade—close enough) to get at the truth, if not the facts, of what was going on.  Meaning that when Froomestrong crushed everybody I could explain why (hint:  it has nothing to do with his “training during the winter” explanation).

This is the first time I’m reporting a “classic” in real time.  If you don’t know what a classic is, you’ve come to the right place:  I’ll explain it.  It’s a bike race that’s been held annually for many, many, many decades.  Such races make America’s Super Bowl look like a flash in the pan.  Milan-San Remo (say it “Mee-LAWN san RAY-mo”) first ran in 1907 and has been held every year since except for three years total due to the world wars.  (Yes, in this sport, a real sport, it takes more than an athletes’ strike to shut things down.)

In addition to being a classic, Milan San-Remo is a “monument.”  These are the oldest and longest of the classics.  The other four monuments are Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Tour of Lombardia, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.  Milan-San Remo is (I believe) the longest, at almost 300 kilometers.  It’s also considered one of the “easiest,” as if a pro bike race were ever easy.  The point is, it’s flatter than the others (except maybe Paris-Roubaix, which has a lot of cobblestone roads).

By the way, if you’re an expert on cycling and can’t stand me spoon-feeding you basic information like this, rest assured that you’ve still come to the right place.  Once the action starts I won’t have time for background info, and I pledge not to use all the hackneyed expressions other cycling commentators are addicted to, like “keeping his powder dry,” “the gallop to the finish,” “game of cat and mouse,” etc.

Biased Blow-By-Blow

There’s not a whole lot going on right now.  The riders have 72km to go (about 45 miles, a couple hours) and there’s a breakaway of five up the road.  I’m not going to share their names with you because there’s no point.  These breakaway riders are exactly like the red-shirted security guards you see at the beginning of a “Star Trek” episode who are usually toast before the opening credits even roll.

Ah, Sean Kelly just recounted (briefly) his 1992 victory in this race.  (Sean Kelly announces bike races for Eurosport, which is a treat, not just because of his thick Irish brogue but because he knows what he’s talking about.)  He said this was one of his favorite wins because it was late in his career and he wasn’t considered a favorite. (Kind of an understatement ... he was well past his prime and had very little punch left.  Those were leaner times in cycling, when even a top racer couldn’t necessarily afford to quit at the top of his game just to protect his ego.  Kelly came from a family of dairy farmers and figured it was probably what he’d go back to after his cycling career.  I have it on good authority that even during his peak, as one of the best racers in the world, he’d drive for three hours to do some crummy nothing race, just for the start money.)

Anyway, as Kelly just described it, he made sure (during the ‘92 race) not to follow any attacks because it’s too long a race and you have to save your energy. He saw Moreno Argentin close down 3 moves on the final climb, the Poggio, before breaking clear.  He said that the news accounts said Argentin had 7 or 8 seconds but actually he had 20. Kelly decided to go for second place and attacked on the downhill with 3km to go. That’s where he left off describing it, probably because he didn’t want to describe the wheel-sucking he then did. 

You can watch the finale of that race on YouTube, and it’s worth doing.  (I only got to read about it back in ‘92 but even that was thrilling enough.)  I just re-watched it with my daughters yesterday and it’s brilliant.  (Even my daughters, who normally don’t care much for bike racing, were on the edge of their seats.)  Kelly catches Argentin and they just have a handful of seconds over the peloton.  Argentin was no slouch—he won the World Championship road race in 1986 (I watched it in person, with better-than-front-row seats on top of a camper parked at the finish line) and Argentin handily crushed Charly Mottet in the uphill sprint.  So he had a good kick and was fully six years younger than Kelly (still is).  So he probably figures he can take Kelly, but not if he tows him all the way to the line.  Kelly, of course, has to be pretty blown from chasing him down.  (Most of why he was able to bridge was his fearless bike handling, but it’s not that steep a downhill so they were all still working.)

So Kelly absolutely refuses to take his turn at the front.  Argentin, being Italian, gesticulates wildly but Kelly just sits on his wheel.  Finally Argentin commits himself to holding off the pack, which you can see barreling toward them; he’s banking on his youth to hold off Kelly and Kelly is banking on Argentin to keep him ahead of the pack.  Finally Kelly launches his sprint and just blows Argentin away.  It’s so glorious I even forgive Kelly his terrible dome-shaped Brancale helmet, shown below (which bears a striking resemblance to the modern so-called “aero” helmets that Kelly’s fellow commentator has just been talking about, saying that they are in fact more aero, which a) cannot possibly be true, and b) is beside the point because they’re ugly, and I’m sure—or at least I hope—no rider would wear nipple rings, with jersey cutouts to display them, if it were found they increase your speed, and I wish the riders would show this same discretion with these modern ugly helmets, but I digress).

So yeah, Kelly did some major wheel-sucking there, which some riders and fans would look down on, but not me.  To me, it was an example of the intersection between fair play and professionalism.  Fair play because there’s no rule that you have to share the work.  Professionalism because Kelly needed to win because cycling was his career and he needed to give his team what they were paying him for—and to get paid himself, frankly—more than he needed to look like a chivalrous, gallant fellow.

In contrast, look at, say, Lance Armstrong “gifting” the Mount Ventoux stage of the Tour de France to Pantani.  Lance was clearly trying to further polish his image as a fair, honest, even generous champion, probably in pursuit of yet more endorsement money, but of course it wasn’t actual fair play because he was lubed to the gills.  Only a doper can win so much he has the luxury of giving away victories.  Dopers protect their image by lying out their asses.  Kelly sucked Argentin dry in full view of everybody, and haters be damned.  Ah, the good old days, when men were men.

Wow, a Eurosport ad just showed a power-weight-lifter hoisting a massive weight over his head, and in that final jerk his rolls of belly fat jiggled like a full tray of Jell-O atop a paint shaker.  “Athlete” indeed.

A final note on doping:  it plays, I think, less of a role in these one-day races where cunning, boldness, bike handling, and teamwork matter more than in stage races such as the Tour de France.  In a stage race, recovery is absolutely key, and one of the main benefits of EPO is its ability to help you recover (specifically, to keep your blood from losing its ability to carry oxygen).  So the classics are generally more exciting than the stage races.  So why haven’t I been saying more about the race?  Well, it’s long, and largely flat, and until the riders get to the two big climbs, the Cipressa and the Poggio, not much happens.  So it is today:  still no real action with 43km (~27 miles) to go.  The breakaway is down to three riders and has about five minutes (though they had over ten minutes earlier).

Have I mentioned it’s rainy and wet out there?  I’m glad I’m not in it.  As I documented a couple weeks ago, I’ve had enough rain riding for the year. 

Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma - Quickstep) looks cold and miserable but he’s in good position.  He’s won this race before (in 2009) and is a favorite this year.  Interestingly, he only recently decided to do this race (whereas other riders have been training specifically for it all winter).  The promotors had added another climb, between the final two, to make the race more exciting, and on that basis the pure sprinters decided to skip it.  It’s hard enough for them to hang on over the Cipressa and the Poggio, with the non-sprinters and their teams desperately working to drop them; with a third climb, they’d no longer have that much of a chance.  But terrible weather in the area this past winter caused a landslide and the promoters had to take the new climb out.  This shuffled the start list accordingly. 

Other favorites are sprinters like Andre Greipel of Lotto-Belisol (another last-minute entrant), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), and last year’s surprise winner Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), along with great classics racers like Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Fabian Cancellara (Trek), and last but not least Peter Sagan (Cannondale) who blew it last year by being overconfident and starting his sprint too early.  Sagan is an interesting case because he’s an all-rounder (i.e., is far more versatile on climbs and in long solo efforts than a sprinter), but has a fast enough sprint to mix it up with the best of them, at least after almost 300km of racing.

Riders are ditching their jackets because the rain has let up.  Surely they know it’s raining harder at the finish, because they’re spoon-fed all kinds of information through their race radios.  I’m against the radios because they make the racers more like drones.  Back in Kelly’s day, riders had to make their own decisions, which favored savvy and experience and intuition, which is part of why a tired-out old rider like Kelly in ‘92—the human equivalent of a spent tea bag—could still eke out a victory in a major race.

The riders are approaching the final climbs so I’m going to have to take a little break here while I still can...

Perhaps you’re frustrated by how this supposed blow-by-blow has been nothing but digressions.  Well, that’s how bike racing is.  It’s like a piece of classical music that builds up slowly, unlike, say, basketball which, with its constant action and scoring, is more like rap.  Cycling is a great sport to watch if a) you’re a patient person, b) you enjoy looking at the scenery and the bikes, and c) Chris Froome isn’t there bludgeoning the pack to death on drugs alone, without the need for tactics.  (No, he’s not doing this race.  He wouldn’t dare.)

The break is on the Cipressa.  It can’t be that hard a climb because it sounds like a salad.  Ah, the peloton is on the climb too, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) attacks!  Cannondale is going after him, working for Sagan of course.  Wow, Nibali’s got a big gap!  Only Cannondale is chasing.  The other teams are no doubt hoping Cannondale will wear itself out with the chase.  Kind of risky ... they wouldn’t want Nibali to be able to solo.

Whether he can hold it depends a lot on the wind.  With a tailwind, he’d have a great shot.  With a headwind, he’d be doomed.  I can’t tell what the wind is doing.  Nibali looks solid, even comfortable.  He’d a good descender but I think this move was too early.  Kelly rightly points out that if one other rider bridges to Nibali, he could have a chance.

Nibali has 33 seconds accourding to the video feed, but the commentators say 20 seconds.  There are still two riders ahead of Nibali:  Marc de Maar (United Healthcare) and Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin).  Their breakaway is doomed, but at least Tjallingii can take comfort in having the hardest name to spell in the entire pro peloton, if not in all of sport.

The leaders have finished the Cipressa and are moving on to their cioppino course and their breadsticks.

The peloton is now descending at great speed on the shiny, wet road. 

One of my real-time readers (okay, my real-time reader) has written in to say that he once did a 300km race (during the Tour du Pont) and found it “totally boring.”  There are probably bored riders in this peloton (domestiques without much to do) but all the contenders and their better teammates are probably experiencing a severe pucker-factor now, with 18 km (~11 miles) to go.  (Note:  I am not talking about their cold lips.)

A six-man group has broken from the main peloton.  Cancellara, clad in all-black, is in the group.  The peloton, which has been peeled down to about 30 riders, isn’t having any of it.

Sagan and Gilbert are working hard on the front, doing what they can to keep this from coming down to a bunch sprint.

Nibali is still slogging away on his own.  He looks pretty good, but he’ll have to really fly on the Poggio.  He’s got about 45 seconds.  Somebody knowledgeable (I can’t remember who, perhaps past winner Oscar Friere) said that with this race, you can only play one card.  Meaning that there is no Plan B, since the race is too long for anybody to try something, fail, rest up, and have enough energy left to try anything else.  Nibali has clearly committed to this one move.  He’s probably doomed, but you never know.

I’m very interested to see if Cav can hang on over the Poggio.  The lead group is going to be flying.

Nibali is on the Poggio, all alone.  He’s passed the remains of the breakaway.  He’s got about 40 seconds now.  For those of you not terribly familiar with the sport, Nibali won the Giro d’Italia last year, and almost won the Vuelta a España.  (Click here and here for my blow-by-blow accounts of key stages.)

The main group is flying up the Poggio.  At least, they were before this annoying pop-up ad obscured my view.

My correspondent asks, “You think Sagan could go across?”  Yeah, he’d have to really launch himself to get clear of that bunch, though if a rider like Cancellara or Gilbert joined him, he’d have good odds to win.

Looks like it’s all over for Nibali.  They’ve got him in their sights.  Man, the field is just crushing it.  After 275 km no less.

Gregory Rast (Trek) has attacked.  Perhaps he’s figuring his teammate Cancellara can counter-attack once he (Rast) is caught.  He’s going faster up this climb than I could go down it, I think.

Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani-CSF) has attacked.  He’s a nobody (I’d never heard of him) on a team I’ve never heard of, but then so was Ciolek last year.  You just never knew.

Battaglin has joined Rast.  By the way, I have heard of “Battaglin,” as a bike brand.  Not sure if this guy is related.  Maybe “Battaglin” is like “Smith” or “Jones” over in Italy.

Only 7.5km to go and these two are well ahead of the group.  In fact, it’s kind of remarkable—whoah, there goes Gilbert!—how far ahead they’ve managed to get.  The group chases Gilbert right down, and just like that they’ve caught Battaglin and Rast too. 

The group is stretched out in a long line so you know they’re completely drilling it.  They’ve now reached the top of the Poggio.  I think the sprinters have managed to hang.  Greipel is hanging at the back by the skin of his teeth.  I can’t tell if Cavendish is still in there.

This is such a great descent.  Loads of switchbacks.  It’s getting strung out now with gaps developing between riders.

Bauke Mollema (Belkin) is doing a great job at the front.  There’s just 4km to go.  It’s deceptive how big the gaps look ... at such high speed, separation in distance doesn’t represent much separation in time, and you can get a good draft from pretty far back.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has attacked, but gets nowhere.  Mollema is right on him.  The group has come back together after being stretched tight on the descent. 

Some guy in a chartreuse jersey has attacked and I hope he gets caught because I can’t tell who he is.  With 2km to go, he’s doomed.  The peloton is swarming and the sprinters’ teams will be setting up their leadout train.  Lots of Katusha riders.  Wow, Greipel is just latching onto the back now!  He’s got to be dying.

I think Sagan is sitting fifth, but it’s hard to say.  My postcard-sized video feed is blurry.

They’ve got less than 1km to go!  About 30 guys in the group.  My pulse is racing.  There’s been a crash at the back.  Ah, there’s Cav up near the front.

Dammit!  My feed froze right at the key moment!  At least I can see the replay.  After his Katusha team’s great leadout, Alexander Kristoff, whom I’ve never heard of in my life, took the win.

So typical.  After watching for over two hours, and seeing absolutely nothing that shaped the outcome in any meaningful way, I lose my video feed in the final, crucial 30 seconds.

Cancellara was second, Ben Swift (Team Sky) was third.  Cancellara did a lot of good work lolling his tongue out of his mouth during the sprint, but it wasn’t quite enough.  He did a great scowl and downward-punching non-victory salute though.

I’m not going to try to form an opinion, on the spot, of this relative nobody winning the race, other than to say a) it’s always nice to see a fresh face making his mark on the sport, especially when the Tour de France result is all too predictable, and b) his helmet is not only ugly, but crooked.

Even though these racers finished well ahead of schedule, it looks like the coverage is ending so I’m not able to report on the podium girls.  So that’s it for today ... I hope you’ve enjoyed this coverage.

1 comment:

  1. You're damn straight calling out Kristoff's crooked helmet Dana. It destroys any dignity in the finish line pictures. Makes him look like some guy who rented the costume for the day. Maybe they can PhotoShop it....

    He's not the only one with problems though. When my son and I finished our ride today we saw a guy in full bicycler get-up heading down San Pablo Dam Rd. with his helmet on completely backwards.