Forgive me if I have cobbles on the brain. It's been too long since we last raced over them, and I am no longer tranquillo.
Fortunately, we have the next best thing to de Ronde happening Sunday. Well OK, not Paris-Roubaix, the next-next-best thing. What? No, it's not ENECO! It's KoppenbergCross. A race that can make Kevin Pauwels smile like a kid on Christmas morning.
OK, a kid on Christmas morning who's been told he's had enough presents and it's time for church. Anyway, here's the land mass that defines the KoppCross, which starts up the famed road and turns right into this field.
Photo by someone, possibly me, or Patrick Verhoest
At the top of the field, the race snakes back across the road into a series of downhill chicanes behind those trees. Like so:
Photo by Balint Hamvas
And that's all you need to know about the greatest CX race of the year.* Every one will be there, except the North Americans and World Champion Mathieu van der Poel. Dossard #1 goes to Sven, because shut up. Feel free to check out the race homepage. We shouldn't lack for live video this time, since it's a BPost Trofee race and is carried by Sporza. Weather looks fabulous, sadly, but I'm sure we'll get a fine race regardless.
[* It's a five way tie. For word on some of the other four, go here. Also, I haven't exactly counted to five, but I'm sure I can think of at least four other un-missable races.]
OK, to the news...
Gilbert out of De Ronde?
Philippe Gilbert has told Sporza that he is not currently planning on tackling the Tour of Flanders in 2016, kicking off discussion of how this will be a weird year, calendar-wise, with plenty of repercussions. But in Gilbert's case, it's all about being an Ardennes Week specialist. That's where BMC would like him to focus his efforts, and with Greg Van Avermaet on the roster, plus plenty of support riders, the team cannot afford to send the former Belgian Champion out to win the national race of Belgium three weeks before Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
There's also some smalltalk in the article about the Olympic Road Race in Rio. Gilbert checking in on whether it's for him, etc. etc.... Hey...
Nairo, Froome to Rio
Wait, this is an Olympic year! It's been a while since we had one, four years in fact, and the last one was quite different from what's coming next. 2012 was London, and it was lovely, but it was also considered a sprinters' course and the stars of the Tour de France weren't expected to do too much, though eventually Vino took the win and Tour winner Bradley Wiggins figured big in Great Britain's plan to drag Cav to the line (didn't happen). Also Wiggo struck gold at the time trial. So there was that. But we didn't have a full-on climbers' course, by anyone's account.
We did get a climbers' race in Beijing in 2008, and 2004 Athens was so long ago I can't remember any details. But suffice to say nobody active in today's peloton has built their season around an Olympiad featuring a serious climbers' course. Except Valverde. And maybe Cancellara. OK, there are a few.
Anyway, VeloNews discussed the course last year and passed along a report from El Universal on the ambitions of Nairo Quintana this week to win the Tour, the Olympics and the Vuelta as the focus of his 2016 campaign. His Olympic dreams make all kinds of sense, being from the continent and Rio being the first South American Olympics. The timing, says Quintana, works well with the road race August 7, exactly two weeks after the Tour ends and 13 days before the Vuelta begins. Also, credit card company Visa is sponsoring Nairo as one of its 30 showcase athletes for some corporate branding thing I am not bothering to understand. Good for Nairo. Moving along...
Anyway, Froome has already said he'll be in Rio, as has Alberto Contador. You won't be able to keep Valverde off the Spanish team. Expect the rest of the Tour contenders to start lining up their plans around Rio.
Whither the Worlds?
Which begs another interrelated question... is anyone going to bother with the World Championships? Recall, the UCI is among the many organizations (including FIFA) to make the disastrous decision to bring its main event to the State of Qatar at a time of year that could prove unworkable for the athletes. It's hard to imagine what is worse: soccer games for three weeks in June and July, or a six-hour road race in October, when it's still hot enough to promt news stories like this. And this. Nothing like "heat coma" to liven up a race preview.
Meanwhile, the Secret Pro, a psuedonymous rider/writer over at CyclingTips, is worried that riders will risk serious consequences, even deadly ones, for racing all day in the heat of Qatar, based on the recent experience in Abu Dhabi at the same time of year. Read the whole piece over there. I don't know how awful it will be, but does the Secret Pro speak for a lot of riders? If so, you have the following...
- Conditions that the pros will hate
- a course that is flat and dull
- a host country with next to no professional riders and next to no fans
- and a race on October 16, a date when most riders want to be on vacation.
Is this going to work? Flat world champs courses will be tuned out by a large number of riders, unlike Richmond which left nearly everyone wondering til the last lap whether it was their type of terrain. The official race site is touting crosswinds as the big natural feature, and everyone loves echelons and chaotic crashes caused by crosswinds in a huge peloton with a bunch of inexperienced riders from smaller countries. No -- no they do not.
Add in the Olympics, where national teams will have leveraged all of their power on professional cyclists already, just two months earlier, and will riders opt en masse to take a pass on Doha?
I would. It is bullshit, as the Secret Pro says, to gloss over serious safety concerns in this way, all because the UCI took a big cash payout from a country with no cycling traditions or clear interest. [Don't even get me started on the World Cup.] Someone has to win the Rainbow Jersey, and I'm sure a few of the big sprinters will bother, but how much will it mean? I am pretty sure the atmosphere in Richmond added a lot of the significance to the victories of Sagan, Armitstead et al -- fans were out in force, people raced like mad, everyone cared. Like they did in Ponferrada in 2014, and Toscana in 2013 and Limburg in 2012, and so on. Subtract the fans, subtract the local interest, subtract the challenges of a course and the feeling of good will (as in, I'm glad the UCI brought us here), and what do you have? A complete shit show. Sorry Dohans, I hope it works out fine in the end, but count me among the deeply skeptical. Oh, and one more thing, if it is simply too hot, think of the Juniors and U23 riders who can't say no to the event so easily. They'll be there if their national team tells them to, and I hope the rider safety protocols (including excessive heat standards) are enforced with their utmost safety in mind.