Damn. That's all I have to say about trying to keep up with all the storylines in cycling right now. Let's try and not let too many slip through the cracks.
Peraud - Pinot II... Prelude to a Rematch?
One of spring's least-loved major races, Critérium International, staged a pretty fantastic edition in Corsica over the weekend. Apart from scenery that would make it onto Will J's calendar, the two-man battle between Jean-Christophe Peraud of AG2R and Thibaut Pinot of FDJ was the latest in what's been shaping up to be the most fun season in a while for the climbing set. The key, of course, was the absence of Team Sky and their joyless race-controlling ways, having been dispatched to Catalunya where they controlled the race and defeated joy once again.
Peraud and Pinot occupied the two steps of the Tour de France podium below winner Vincenzo Nibali last summer, and touched off another round of curiosity as to whether French Cycling was ready to emerge from their three-decade doldrums. Setting aside other dimensions such as the raft of top sprinters (Arnaud, Bouhanni) and young hopes (Barguil, Barguil again), watching these two established riders do battle was fun enough. So when they came into Critérium International as the top favorites to duke it out, with Peraud the defending winner and Pinot the charismatic challenger, there was reason to take an interest.
On Sunday, with Pinot up 12 seconds on Peraud (and lying sixth overall behind Ben King and some of the crono aces from Saturday's second stage), the elder statesman took off and left Pinot boxed in behind, taking back 16 seconds plus bonuses to once again win Critérium International. Peraud gets the most credit, for launching an attack with some 8km to go and Pinot unable to respond, then making it stick, getting up as much as 41 seconds before nearly blowing a gasket and his lead, just hanging on. He had excellent help from Alex Vuillermoz and Jan Bakelandts, his AG2R teammates, who dogged Pinot every time he accelerated in pursuit of Peraud. [None of Pinot's PDJ mates finished within three minutes of their lonely captain, despite sitting near the front en masse til the final 12km.] Still, if the French stereotype of celebrating plucky losers holds, they'll love the effort by Pinot, who tried again and again to break free from the suffocating efforts of AG2R, as well as other riders, and managed to do so with his mouth agape in the final 2km. Very exciting stuff. Maybe next year we won't ignore Critérium Inter... wait, it's still on the same day as Gent-Wevelgem.
Colombian Update -- Cobbles (!)
My pick in Catalunya, Rigoberto Uran, ran out of road in Spain and ended up 18 seconds behind winner Richie Porte, all the way down in fifth. I haven't got much to say about the Volta that we didn't cover thoroughly last week. Nice, cagey race, and the strongest guy won. Kudos to Bart De Clercq for extending the suspense as long as he did.
But the more interesting story for our Southern Hemispherians, was the experience of Nairo Quintana, Cobbles Man. Quintana was 78th in Dwars door Vlaanderen, accomplishing a key goal for anyone trying to gain experience in Belgian-style cycling... finishing the race. Granted, coming in seven minutes back of Jelle Wallays meant he had an easy enough time of just turning the pedals over, free from the stress of the chasing peloton. But I'd imagine he was OK with it for now. On Friday Quintana was more circumspect, witnessing the early crashes that cost Fabian Cancellara his spring season and a few other riders their hopes as well. With that in mind, Quintana bailed, not willing to risk his form right now with a crash on hard rocks.
I don't blame him, but learning to bounce across the stones is only part of the task. Anyone hoping not to come a-cropper in stage four of the Tour de France, which includes seven cobbled sectors totaling 13km, needs to understand how to really race on them, without fear (if that's possible). Riding the cobbles well under pressure is what separated Nibali from his rivals last year. No doubt Quintana has ridden his bike in a lot of pressure situations and crazy circumstances, so his ability to hang in with some top group is there. But I don't know that he's gained too much from his time in Flanders so far.
- First, a very important question: at what point during the Ronde van Vlaanderen should we do our traditional toast? I ask because the Koppenberg occurs with 40km to go in the race, awfully late in the game. I have a few other ideas. See the attached poll.
- Pippo Pozzato talks to CyclingNews a lot, which is good because otherwise I might be wondering where he is these days. He twittered something about immodium last week, and sure enough he turned up ill and missed the opening races. But he's at Driedaagse trying to regain his form for Flanders and Roubaix. The former, his better race, seems like a longshot now, but I suppose there remains hope for the latter. The old guard are almost all missing -- no Cancellara, no Boonen, no Ballan, no Hincapie, no Hushovd, not much from Chavanel. and so on. Pippo is a survivor at least, I'll give him that.
- Oh, but aren't you forgetting someone? Yes, Stijn Devolder is here, and a favorite to maybe win Driedaagse de Panne if his past history against the watch is any indication. Devolder is now the leader of a Trek team losing not only Cancellara but Gert Steegmans as well (in a crash today). Devolder will be the only former winner to take the line Sunday, and though nobody expects this to happen, he still technically has a chance to match the all-time greats with a third victory.
- Speaking of victory, all of us were winners Sunday when Jack Bauer of Cannondale threw his bike into a canal Sunday in a fit of pique that summed up how a lot of people felt about the conditions at Gent-Wevelgem (something that may turn into a bit of a real discussion, as it turns out, after today's start had to be neutralized). Dangerous conditions are not something anyone wants, but in the classics it can be hard to say where to draw the line. We kvetch about neutralizing Tour stages, but in that case we can all agree we don't want to ruin three weeks of racing because of one bogus stage. The classics? There is no tomorrow. Anyway, in a more upbeat spirit, Sporza went ahead and compiled an all-time list of bike throws, including several I was not aware of. Enjoy!
- Finally, kudos to Cosmo Catalano (@cosmocatalano) and to the Recon Ride Podcast, where Cosmo correctly picked Geraint Thomas to win E3 Prijs. I downloaded the preview before the race occurred, so I know it was legit when I played it yesterday and heard him nail the top step of the podium, with a not-entirely-conventional pick. Remember, Cancellara was in one piece when the pick was made.