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Varese 2008: A Gav's Eye View


Bella Italia! Certainly, they know how to throw a bike race in Italy. What a lovely course they found for this year's festivities in and around Varese. It's not hard to see why Varese produces so many talented bike racers. Could the terrain be any more perfect? I'm thinking no. The course, with its twisting climbs and technical descent gave the attackers an opportunity to make the race, an opportunity that plenty of riders seized for exciting racing all the way around.

A Gav's eye view of the proceedings, on the flip.

I love watching the U23 men's race. All the kids want contracts and the worlds is a great place to get one. No holding back in this race. As with the elite men, the U23 azurri rode great tactics. Damiano Caruso tried and failed to escape the winning break on his own. Too carefully marked by the others in the break, he could not escape. Knowing that Simone Ponzi had the better sprint, Caruso switched to a supporting role, leading Ponzi out for the final sprint. Too bad for the Azurri that Columbian climber Fabio Duarte had a sprint left and then some. Duarte unleashed just in side the final kilometer and kept going, and going, and going, much to the frustration and dismay of Ponzi. The Columbian will ride for Diquigiovanni, next year.

On the podium, the third place rider, John Degenkolb of Germany could not have looked happier, he looked far more excited by the proceedings than the winner. Less happy were the Belgians, who waited until too late to chase down the winning move. Jan Bakelants, most recently winner of the Tour de l'Avenir, ranked among the favorites at the start, and he had team-mates on the front working the chase. Too little, too late. The strong American team led by Peter Stetina and Tejay Vangeraden also missed the move. Van Garderen finished 25th, Stetina 52nd. Not the best day for the young Americans, but they will have other chances no doubt.

By far my favorite race of Worlds week is the women's road race. And not just because I'm of the Girl Persuasion. The women's race never fails. It's the biggest single day of racing on the women's calender. Quick, name the women's World Cup winner. Or, the winner of the Tour de l'Aude. Giro Donne? Right. Though some of the major world cup races receive television coverage, it's rare to see a women's race uncut. More typically, the major women's races are sliced and diced, a few minutes shown in the midst of the men's classics, if at all. Not so for worlds, and the women know it. But it's not only the attention that gives the women's race so much energy. The UCI limits the distance that elite women's races can run. Though I have a visceral revulsion for the wafting whiff of patriarchy about those rules, in the case of worlds, the short race works. The women have fitness to burn, and burn it they do. The racing is animated, the time gaps close. The climbs are just enough harder for the women's field to tempt the escapists. Bastianelli won Stuttgart on a solo break, Cooke won Varese from a group of six. At Salzburg, Vos won the sprint from a good-sized group, a group that reformed not far from the finish. If you aren't watching the women's worlds race, you're missing out.

It's easy to say that the winner rode a perfect tactical race. Nicole Cooke certainly made no mistakes on her way to her big Olympics-Worlds double. (Suzanne Lungskog of Sweden has also won that double, among the women.) Emma Pooley of Great Britain again played the perfect team-mate, toughening the race with a lap to go, exactly as she did in Beijing. Though they didn't win, the Germans rode flawless tactics. The early break contained two German riders, while the others sat in the bunch out of trouble. The German girls in the break contributed, but their body language gave away the truth. The Germans did not want the break to succeed. Behind, Trixi Worrack and Judith Arndt waited patiently. When Marianne Vos's race-making move came on the Ronchi, they proved ready. Likewise for the Swedes, and Emma Johannesson showed that her Beijing podium placing was no fluke. Once in the race-winning break, Arndt and Worrack attacked tirelessly in a doomed effort drop Nicole Cooke. Neither Worrack nor Arndt are sprinters. Arndt's biggest results have come in hilly stage races. Her third place finish was well-earned success for a German team short on finishing speed of the likes of Cooke and Vos.

If the Germans plotted flawlessly, Marianne Vos made the race. Her big attack on the final ascent of the Ronchi set up the race winning move. From there, she tried repeatedly to escape, relying on her fast finish only as a last resort. It nearly worked. Her ride in Varese could not have looked better than Beijing, where she had a virtually anonymous ride. Steadily, she grows into her huge talent. If she made a mistake, it was in the sprint, jumping too early. Perhaps she hoped to surprise Cooke, but she clearly ran short of legs just short of the line. Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want.

Riddle me this. Of the riders in the early break, Diana Ziliute and Kristin Armstrong appeared the most committed. Both rode as if they wanted the break succeed. Ziliute, especially. On fire, that girl, waving her arms about with Hoste-like intensity. By why did Armstrong work so hard in this break? She drove and drove and drove, especially on the climbs. Maybe that was the American plan, for Armstrong to go alone from the break. But if it was, Amber Neben did not appear to know it. In a quick camera switch we saw first Armstrong driving the break, then Neben pulling the main field. While Armstrong burned up her legs in a doomed break, Neben wasted hers chasing it down. Pointless. Not surprisingly, when Vos made the winning move, neither American could go with it, despite their positions close to the front. Very poor tactics.

Spare a thought for Naomi Cantele. The Italian held third wheel, perfectly positioned when Vos made her big move. But sadly, the legs were not perfect, and Cantele did not make the break. Not one to give up, she set off on a lonely effort to bridge. The flying group of six remained within sight, but not within reach. Cantele hung suspended between the break and the main field, 30 seconds on either side. Only in the last rush to the line did the main field end Cantele's hopes for a top ten finish. The women's race resulted in a rare shut-out for the Azurri, though not for lack of trying.

Surely the success of the elite men will more than make up for the rare failure of the Italian women to make their mark on this world's race. Franco Ballerini said at the outset that he named Paolo Bettini as his team leader because il Grillo had the chance to make history with three straight victories. But Ballerini also chose Bettini because he said he could count on the two-time World Champion to tell his team-mates if he did not have winning form on the day. Ballerini also said that his choice of riders reflected an expectation that they would sacrifice for one another.

And sacrifice they did. What a display of aggressive team-riding the Azurri put on. One after another they forced the pace and threw down the big attacks, confident that eventually one of them would succeed. Davide Rebellin, Damiano Cunego, and Alessandro Ballan all made the final break. That's some serious fire power, right there. Among them, those three claim wins in some of the biggest races in the sport. The two Danes, Chris Anker Sörensen and Matti Breschel, did not let them have it easily, though. Both put in some big efforts in that break, and well-earned that third place for Matti Breschel. That's two big results in the last month for Breschel: the Mardrid stage of la Vuelta and third at Worlds. No doubt there's more where those came from. With the exception of Rebellin, young riders dominated the winning break: Thomas Lövkvist, Chris Anker Sörensen, Matti Breschel, Damiano Cunego, Alessandro Ballan. No doubt we will see these names at the front for some time to come. The generations turn over.

A fond arrivederci to Paolo Bettini and Erik Zabel, two of the giants of their generation. Over the course of his career, Zabel won more than 200 races. Over the course of his, Bettini won all but two of the major monuments and two world championships. They crossed the line together four minutes behind the hard-riding breakaway. Kids, these days. Bettini waved to the crowd, as Zabel pushed him along, the two linked as they were at Salzburg when they celebrated Bettini's first world championship victory together. What a joyous final kilometer, as Bettini celebrated his team-mates' successes and his own lengthy career.

Arrivederci à Varese! Grazie for a beautiful week of racing.