It's 9:30 Pacific time, and the polls have officially closed for the First Round of the Podium Cafe Best of the Aughts Smackdown! Yes, I am aware that Gavia asked for the polls to stay open til 10, but none of the contests remained close at the end, and anyway as a West Coaster Gav is accustomed to people announcing the results of national contests while she's on her way to the polling station. We can all take comfort in knowing that she'll have to train her energy toward the Quarterfinals instead.
And what a round it promises to be. Like any good, reasonably deep tournament, if one round is kind of mundane, the next one tends to get very tense. Basically the first round separated the wheat from the chaff in decisive fashion -- even the two upsets were blowouts shortly after halftime. So it's all wheat from here on. Previews of the quarters follow, after some brief notes.
First, if you can't read the bracket very well (and most people with normal eyesight cannot), just click on it and it should expand dramatically. I have entered the scores, which are raw vote totals, top number first (i.e., Zabel had 70, Mattan Drafts the Cars 10). I wasn't abundantly clear about the system yesterday, having rushed the product to market in a fit of excitement, so... I will delete all 8 of yesterday's game fanposts and post four game posts in Fanposts shortly after I am done here. You can read this post, but please go over to fanposts to vote on the individual matchups. There you will find identical match previews, plus a poll. Have at it, and remember: the only standard is Awesomeness! [E.g., don't think too much.] OK, matchup time...
Saint Etienne, France
Game 1: Fabian Cancellara vs. Tom Boonen's 2005
Cancellara cut through first-round opponent Jan Ullrich Transfers to COAST like, well, Cancellara powering through the wind in his aero position. As Awesome! as Jan's 2003 exploits were, it was simply too weak a form of awesomeness to hold Tony Spartacus at bay. This one was over early.
Meanwhile, Tom Boonen's 2005 won a somewhat surprisingly easy victory over Lance/Jan polemics, after falling behind in the early going. The Lance/Jan show, however, proved to be a lot of quick flash, with little staying power behind it, and Boonen's 2005, like Cancellara, stayed the course until the inevitable victory was in hand.
The quarterfinal matchup is intriguing for the similarities between two massive power dudes well-matched by age and expolits. It may favor Cancellara on paper, by virtue of seedings, but a closer examination promises a fair fight. As discussed yesterday, Cancellara brings a variety of Awesome! powers to the contest: sheer strength, funky hair, tactical brilliance, nice manners, world championships, excellent nicknames, and signature victories. He's the total package. But Boonen's 2005 was more than a glittering set of results. He was so strong, so fast in his finishes, that he completely demoralized the competition and towered over Cycling. He soloed home in de Ronde even though he didn't have to. He sprinted away from Hincapie and Flecha in the Roubaix velodrome with relative ease. He was piling up points at the Tour, with two stage wins, when he crashed out of the race. He beat Valverde in Madrid for the Rainbow Jersey. Erik Dekker is quoted as saying he was glad to be retiring soon with Boonen on the scene.
Game 2: Paolo Bettini vs. Lance's 7 Tours
This matchup features two of the decade's most obvious signatures squaring off after relatively easy first-round wins. Bettini dispatched with Floyd Landis's Epic Gallop rather easily, scoring a wire-to-wire victory over the fan non-favorite. Lance's 7 Wins overpowered a plucky, determined, but ultimately overmatched Paris-Roubaix Train-Gate. This was a clash of styles, and each side scored their share of points, but Train-Gate was watered down just enough by the annual weird/awesomeness! of Paris-Roubaix, giving Lance's 7 Wins the opening they needed to win and move on.
The matchup of the 4 and 5 seeds promises to be a close one. While the Awesomeness! of each side is well known, neither is without its weaknesses. Lance's 7 Wins have continually been dogged by ethical questions and criticism of Armstrong's narrow focus, and while this vulnerability has not been an issue in any Smackdown! to date, pundits have long predicted that it would eventually haunt Lance's 7 Wins. Can Bettini exploit it? Perhaps, but he too has his holes to fill. Bettini has ruffled feathers along the way, feuding with Michele Bartoli or swerving around the odd sprint. His record is also subject to challenge, relying heavily on national team events and races inside Italy for most of his headlines. But like Lance's 7 Wins, Bettini was unparalleled in his time as a classics racer and cannot be lightly dismissed.
Game 3: Podium Cafe Invented! vs. Alberto Contador
Podium Cafe Invented! represents the only off-bike entrant in the Smackdown, after the surprise exclusion of ASO/UCI from the Tournament by the selection committee. Debate still rages about how this exclusion came about, with most people attributing it to UCI President Pat McQuaid's recent interview in Cycling Weekly where he called the selection committee "a bunch of old poofs." ASO's Christian Prudhomme more or less blamed McQuaid with a reference to "that fat idiot who never shuts up" in a recent L'Equipe article on the exclusion of ASO/UCI from the Smackdown Finals. Representatives of the selection committee declined to comment directly, though sources from within the organization hinted that entries were gauged for both competitive fitness as well as their ability to represent the Smackdown! with dignity. Anyway...
Podium Cafe Invented! made short work of Lance/Alberto in round 1, utilizing the home-court of Solvang for inspiration and settling in quickly for the easy win. So too did Alberto Contador do away with The Chicken Gets Cooked, relying on his unbroken string of Awesomeness to grind down the initial flash and feathers of the Chicken.Contador's Awesomeness! enjoys a great deal of momentum, and one can picture him carrying a top seed into the Best of the Teens Smackdown in late 2019. But the future is for another day; for now, we have a fairly young Spanish mountain goat who not only learned how to shore up his supposed vulnerability (against the watch), but who has won four Grand Tours in a more classic, attacking fashion. His biggest weakness comes from the lack of aggression in the Giro win, due to his supposedly having been sitting on a beach three days earlier, and from the extent to which team tactics have cleared the course for him in his last couple wins. Moreover, we would be talking about a one-off Tour champion had the Chicken remained uncooked in 2007. So, it's not a done deal.
That said, Podium Cafe Invented! will get all it can handle. For all the bits of Awesomeness! the Cafe's invention has generated, it still has holes in its game. The main criticism, apart from the spelling, grammar, lack of professionalism, obsession with fashion, and sexist attitudes toward Italian sprinters, is the economic cost of lost productivity attributed to the Cafe's Invention. Every spring and summer four years running, the Cafe's invention has brought the economies of Santa Barbara, Seattle, Portland, Boston, Melbourne, Porto, Malmo and Utrecht to a grinding halt, while London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sydney have been forced to implement emergency stimulus measures to counteract the effect. There's some real Awesomeness! in there, but it's in the eye of the beholder.
Game 4: Gilbert's Autumn Double vs. Erik Zabel
Our final matchup is one that has pundits salivating. Gilbert's Autumn Double extended its white-hot run of success by unexpectedly crushing Savoldelli to the Mob in the first round, while the regal Zabel breezed past Mattan Drafts the Cars in its early matchup. Frankly, I was surprised Mattan Drafts the Cars didn't get more votes, but audacity hasn't held up well in this tournament. Anyway, continuing with our discussion of vulnerabilities...
Erik Zabel may have won everything there is to win outside of general classification success, but that doesn't automatically put you over the top. After all, this is a sport which celebrates Grand Tours first. That said, even in the Tour Zabel more than made his mark, re-redefining the Green Jersey in its original terms: as a competition among well-rounded, tireless, crafty guys who can sprint, as opposed to pure sprinters. Even his lowest moment -- raising his arms to celebrate yet another MSR win and as a result losing to Oscar Freire -- has a whiff of Awesome! to it, as did the dignified manner in which he accepted his mistake. Yeah, Zabel will be tough to beat... but he'd be a #1 seed if the Aughts extended back a few more years.
Gilbert's Autumn Double has history on its side and momentum to spare. But all comets eventually fade... or smash into a planet, destroying all living species, reversing the polarity and transforming the planet for millions of years to come. Either way. Gilbert's Autumn Double came at the expense of a slightly depleted peloton, as is often the case in October. Then again, the list of names is still far beyond the quality of your average Giro d'Italia startlist, so Gilbert's Autumn Double got some game, for sure.