As Chris noted, now the Northern Classics begin in earnest. However, racing doesn't stop elsewhere, especially in Spain where the non-Belgian paparazzi will burst forth in search of their Hero in his latest installment of As The Stomach Turns.
What am I talking about? There's two types of bike races going on this week. In Belgium there's one type full of attacking and countering and dirt and cobbles and grit and sprinters, etc. In contrast, Spain is hosting two other types of bike races. First, for the small minority who think Belgian racing is cool, who look at the words, "Dwars door Vlaanderen" and don't think about opening the door to the Scotch cabinet, or who see the phrase "E 3" and don't think of a) a European highway running from Cherbourg to La Rochelle, or b) the yearly big video game convention, there's an off-Broadway preview of this summer's Grand Tour GC battles, the Castile y Leon. Second, there's the Big Soap Opera. Perhaps you've heard of it...
This race around Castile and Leon easily transcends professional bike racing because of one rider. You know who I'm talking about. A true superstar of the sport, this rider is thought by some to be the best rider competing today. Attention follows him everywhere he goes because even in his youth he was thought of as a can't miss talent. Now he's older and there's a young upstart on his team, making news on his own by winning bike races. Naturally Our Hero is asked about this kid and even though Our Hero is Straightforward and honest in his answers, noting that the kid has a way to go to be considered truly great (like himself), people take his comments the wrong way and think Our Hero is becoming a cancer on his own team. How can that be? Everybody hates cancer!
But that's not the only controversy as long-standing doping allegations continue to plague Our Hero. Will they never stop? So far Our Hero has responded to the charges with aggressiveness, saying that he's clean beyond a shadow of a doubt. We wonder, can all this controversy stop Our Hero from focusing on his one Big Goal in cycling, namely competing winning in the Tour de France? It seems like every publication, every blog site, breathlessly awaits the form Alejandro Valverde will show at Castile y Leon...
Noticeably not on the Caisse d'Epargne team for the race is Lulu Sanchez, of whom Valverde recently said, is "no Indurain". (Lulu is riding Criterium International next weekend) However old pal Oscar Pereiro Garcia Acosta, Gutierrez, Pasamontes, Losada and others will carry the water. It should be a good team.
Now here's where it gets interesting. Two weeks ago, it was reported that CONI was set to decide on Valverde's fate the next week. "Next week" means last week for those who don't have a TARDIS, meaning that for some reason, CONI's delayed their verdict. What could be holding them up? What follows is wild, baseless, speculation: i.e. exactly why you are reading this post.
The last we heard, Valverde's lawyer sent a 21-page document to CONI saying that only Spanish authorities have jurisdiction in the case. So either that document has slowed down the process (meaning that it might have some merit after all) or there is behind the scenes bargaining going on and the outcome is not yet ready to be revealed to the public, or perhaps CONI is looking to make the biggest splash possible and will suspend (and UCI will back-up) Valverde during the middle of Castile & Leon. Boy would that provoke a reaction! Any way you look at it, the world will be looking at Valverde starting tomorrow.
Now as a website dedicated to professional bike racing we would be remiss to talk about Valverde's competitors but before we do that (giving ourselves time to let the implications of Valverde's week to sink in) let's look at the course.
It's a good one. Five days of racing. Stages one and five are flat sprinters courses with barely a hill in them. Not much of a chance for a breakaway to succeed those two days. The middle three days though...
Stage two is a 28.3 km ITT. Has a slight rise in the middle. Obviously this will test the riders, but it might not be the decisive stage.
Stages three and four are both mountain top finishes, with stage three the more gradual:
Stage four is the Queen stage:
That's it. Castile and Leon is a straightforward, functional stage race for GC hopefuls. No hilly stages where a rider can break away and hide. If you want the GC title you better climb and TT fast. One or the other is not enough. Three days of racing- Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday - will decide this race. Simple.
Given that there are several Grand Tour hopefuls in this race we'll get a very early gauge on their forms. So who are these other riders, Valverde's competitors, those little people who serve to show off Alejandro's greatness?
- Although Valverde is racing, it is thought by some bicycle insiders that one Alberto Contador of team Astana is the pre-race favorite being that he's won various Grand Tours recently. L script> 07"> // --> ike Lulu Sanchez, Contador is also a kid and thus prone to Big Mistakes and Nerves. So who knows? He might collapse under the weight of competing against El Imbatido. Many have before. Contador also has his somewhat trusty sidekick, the bald dwarf, Levi Leipheimer, hopefully healed up from cracking his sacrum in the Tour of California. (The sacrum is that wide piece of bone at the base of the spine, right where your butt crack starts. Actually composed of several fused together bones, the lumbar bones are on top of it, the coccyx (tailbone) below it and to each side the pelvic/hip bones. It's kind of important to have in one piece when riding a bike.) Also on Contador's team are his bud Hernandez, Zubeldia, Rubiera, Noval, Armstrong, and either Vaitkus, or Morabito. Vaitkus! says CyclingFever. Morabito! says Cycling news. Now this is controversy! I went to Astana's website to see if they could clear up this vagueness and there's an interview with Tommy Vaitkus wearing his Jamaican RR champion jersey. Unfortunately in reading the interview it's not clear if Vaitkus is riding C&L or not as the interviewer is putting words into his mouth. Thankfully this is the biggest controversy that Astana has to deal with! And yes I am being sarcastic through this whole preview!
- Rabobank is well represented with most of the team that seriously schooled it's competitors at the Vuelta a Murcia two weeks ago. Yeah the competition at that race wasn't nearly the level of this one, but for a first stage race of the year, it couldn't have gone better for Denny Menchov and Co. Ten Dam, Mollema, Clement, Weening, Ardila, etc. are back to be the chief competitors to Astana. My guess is that this Rabo squad is similar to their Giro squad so it bears watching.
- Garmin is here and our old pal Dave Zabriskie is back! He should make some noise in the TT but overall this team looks Very Serious with Christian Vandevelde leading Tom Danielson. So like the other teams I'm mentioning, it looks like this race is a serious rehearsal before the Grand Tours ramp up. Vandevelde won a stage in Paris-Nice but never competed for the overall due to crashing in the opening time trial. Hope his luck is better this time. As for Danielson, this race has to be HUGE because of the poor effort he produced at Murcia. Maybe he just needs leadership to do well. If so than this race is set up for him.
- Cervelo and Carlos Sastre are present , but with Carlos you never know what he'll put into a non-Grand Tour race. It should be noted that, like Rabobank and Astana, this team has got "climby" written all over it so it bears watching.
- Euskatel has Igor Anton to lead them and it will be interesting to see if he can keep up in the mountains or if he needs more time to heal.
- Fuji Servetto rolls out JJ Cobo. Being this year's Shunned team, their schedule is difficult and court-ordered so this could be a big race for them.
-Xacobeo Galicia is also bringing their A-squad as this is a big Giro dress rehearsal for them as well. Zeke Mosquera had a decent Murcia, finishing 6th overall and showing his climbing legs. The TT will be a challenge.
- Then there's Rock Racing. Clearly this is possibly THE race of the year for them and they have brought their heavy hitters: Pena, Hamilton, Sevilla, etc. But I have a question as I don't follow them much: do they have money to finish the year? I kinda remember they were having mucho funding problems. Have they been cleared up or is their tip to Spain a final blow-out?
- Not to be forgotten is Liberty Seguros who has Ruben Plaza. He finished 2nd at Murcia.
- Other then the above mentioned teams, there are five Spanish Continental teams, ISD with a bunch of riders that I am absolutely clueless about (their eastern European contingent), and BBBBBBox Telecom with a bunch of tourists to round out the field. If anybody (read: semprenaroda) would like to comment about the Continental teams, please do!)
There you have it. A short climby stage racers delight. But what about those two sprinters stages? Who are the sprinters? We just got done with MSR; surely one of those guys is competing?
Ha! Dream on! The sprinters at Castile and Leon make the sprinters at Murcia (Graeme "Heckuva Job" Brown, Greg Henderson, JJ Haedo) look like a bunch of Mark Cavendishes in comparison. Caisse d'Epargne is throwing out JJ Rojas. Fun Fact! Since JJ last won (February 12th of 2008 at Trofeo Pollenca) he has finished in the top ten of various races no less than 34 times!) This kid is the definition of also-ran.
Actually there is one sprinter who I am keen to watch and that is Fuji's Cuban Missile, Ivan Dominguez. Haven't seen him since last year and he'll be who I'm cheering for on the first and last stages. Fast Freddy Rodriguez of Rock is also here. My guess is that there are other sprinters but who among the Continental teams has a fast finish is beyond me. I did look at the sprinters stages at Murcia to see if there were any overlaps but a) none of the Continental teams threw up a decent sprinter there ("decent" loosely defined as you can beat Peter Weening at the end) and again those ISD Ukrainians are new to me. This is a prime GC tune-up race and there should be video via either Steephill TV or Cycling fans. Enjoy!
PS. PSYCHE! Lance? You want me to talk about Lance? Who do you think I am?I realize that some of you do want me to highlight Lance but I just don't have the heart for it these days. For that I apologize.
Yeah, Lance is of course the HUGE news for this race. Nowhere is that better expressed than at the top of the Cycling Fans site where it is written:
Lance is a big fat whale. I get it.
Now obviously, the opening bit of this preview highlighting Alejandro Valverde was an intentional misdirection away from Lance. Just substitute Lance or Alejandro and you have a perfect match! And I'll admit that prior to writing this I had a big soap opera-themed story with Lance as the centerpiece. (*See bottom picture for the only surviving remnant of said soap- opera.) If you want to talk about Lance in the comments, please do.
But I couldn't carry out the Lance Soap Opera because frankly I am getting tired of his show. To me, as a cyclist he's at most a decent domestique for Contador and Leipheimer, though any climber who struggles to climb the Cipressa, as Lance did yesterday, will be challenged as a domestique when the Grand Tours and really big mountains start. (Remember, before ToC we were told quite frequently that Lance was in the best shape of his career so it's not like he's out of shape.) People, even riders, get old and all the attention seeking Tweets in the world won't change that.
If I had to choose the most likely scenario for the rest of Lance's year, either he becomes a major Grand Tour contender or an increasingly embarrassing cautionary tale as he becomes irrelevant in actual races, I pick the later.
Of course, we will be subjected to constant all-Lance-all-the-time reports during Castle y Leon and through to the Tour and I suppose it will be interesting to see how Bert and Levi handle it. I hope that today Bert sits down with Levi who will explain how best to deal with Lance: smile, keep a low profile and let Lance fall behind as the race plays out.
So to sum up:
- This is a nice early preview of the later Grand Tours. Most stage races are a world unto themselves but this race, this year, is basically a Grand Tour dress rehearsal- but not like the Dauphine or Suisse, or Romandie as this is far enough ahead of any bigger race that the riders can theoretically go all out without fear of peaking too soon. That's unusual. Hopefully it will be good.
- Bert is the favorite
-Levi is getting back into racing shape. Might be good, or might be training.
-Menchov, Mosquera, Vandevelde, Cobo, Sastre, and Anton all pose threats.
-Valverde is a wild card, what with CONI hanging over him.
-Lance is a sideshow, interesting to the race insofar he messes with Bert's head.
-My picks for the GC podium:
*Pictured below: Lance and Johan at the Lance is back! presser with bonus points to anyone who can identify the picture: