Taylor Phinney at the Worlds - Fotoreporter Sirotti
The last race of the European road season revives the top time-trialling rivalries of 2012
A number of you have been asking me, when will the road racing season officially be over so we can get started on a winter-long discussion of Lance Armstrong? Well, at long last, I have good news for you. It all ends Sunday, in Les Herbiers, France, with the last-last-last event of the season, the Chrono des Nations time trial.
The Chrono des Nations has rarely come onto our radar here, but it's been in continual existence for 30 years, and has found itself in a position of unprecedented prominence. Only now in 2012 does it function as the curtain call for the entire season, supplanting the Giro di Lombardia in that role. And when better for it to take its place, after what can be vaguely characterized as the Year of the Crono?
If time trials have had a bigger year, I'd like to hear about it. The Tour de France was decided in the Race of Truth, perhaps not like never before, but certainly to an extent not witnessed since the Indurain years. The World Championships held their standard individual events, but added a team time trial for the first time since 1994. Being an Olympic year gave the cronomen one more goal, and indeed one that trumps all the others, as well as giving us a total of three stand-alone individual time trial events from which to draw conclusions -- very interesting data, arguably more so than results notched in the context of a major stage race.
On the dudes' side, it's fair to say that the outcome was a split and incomplete decision. Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky dominated the Tour de France events, trailed not-so-closely by his teammate Chris Froome, and Wiggo became Olympic Champion in the event back across the Channel. Reigning world champion Tony Martin, meanwhile, defended his rainbow title convincingly, took silver in London, and reminded us all that he's not a grand tour racer. All of this was great fun, if you managed to forget the absence of Fabian Cancellara, the best time triallist I personally have ever seen.
Cancellara's season was an unmitigated disaster, thanks to two poorly timed crashes, one that subtracted him from the Classics halfway through the Tour of Flanders, and another in the Olympic road race that robbed him of his form for the subsequent crono, where he still finished seventh. This year's results won't end the argument about who's really the world #1 against the watch.
And neither will the Chrono des Nations. From the startlist, it's easy to look at the lineup and see the names at the bottom, starting in reverse order of presumed awesomeness, and call it a Tony-verus-Taylor throwdown. Martin will be there, and after winning the Tour of Beijing in aggressive fashion just a week ago, the Panzerwagen gets my vote for guy who's most likely to still be on form.
Among the challengers, Phinney stands out as a guy who likely brings the motivation. The story of Phinney's season is near-misses in the Race of Truth. There was that opening prologue at the Giro d'Italia, and a three-day stint in pink for his troubles, but otherwise he finished just out of the medals in the Olympics (ITT and road race), finished second in the Worlds ITT by a mere five seconds, and missed out on a TTT gold by an even more excruciating three seconds. America's best cronoman in ... a while will be racking up the milestones before long, but you can bet he'd like to start Sunday, rather than suffer through one more Panzerwagen victory lap. Phinney rode Beijing, so he's as fresh as anyone in late October.
That last bit probably knocks Froome from the challengers' ranks. He'll be there, but since DNF'ing in the world road race he's been out of racing. Not the recipe for success. A better bet for a strong challenge is Frederick Kessiakoff. Not close to a major title (e.g., +1.50 at the worlds), Kessiakoff has been excellent in October, third in Milano-Torino, second in Emilia, and really just on form since the worlds. If ever there were a time for him to beat the best cronodudes, now is it. His countryman Gustav Larsson usually rates a mention, and he'll be in town for this, but maybe the days of taking him seriously in time trials are over. A better bet for a sneak attack would be Sylvain Chavanel, but I'm not putting money down there.
As for the women, Amber Neben has to be the heavy favorite. She came away with a gold medal in the TTT, plus fourth in the road race and seventh in the crono at Valkenberg, the last major event of the women's calendar. She's as on as anyone can be after a three-plus week pause. Even better, the list of potential challengers who aren't on hand positively dwarfs the list of those who are. Absentees include Vos, Teutenberg, Arndt, Pooley, Stevens and Villumsen. Practically everyone. Her challengers will be the ageless Jeanne Longo and decent riders like Patricia Schwager, but nobody really in Neben's class.