Ryan Newill – VeloNews.com http://www.velonews.com Competitive Cycling News, Race Results and Bike Reviews Thu, 08 Dec 2016 20:51:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://www.velonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/cropped-Velonews_favicon-2-32x32.png Ryan Newill – VeloNews.com http://www.velonews.com 32 32 Dirt road races find traction in Europe http://www.velonews.com/2016/11/news/dirt-road-races-find-traction-europe_425301 http://www.velonews.com/2016/11/news/dirt-road-races-find-traction-europe_425301#respond Mon, 28 Nov 2016 15:34:21 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=425301 After decades of anonymity, Belgian classic Schaal Sels breaks through with a dirty, grassy new look.

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Editor’s note: Perhaps the organizers read this story from the November/December 2016 issue of VeloNews, or maybe they were trying to emulate Schaal Sels, but regardless, Gent-Wevelgem 2017 will include 5.2km of unpaved farm roads.

Over cobblestones, dirt, and even grass-covered tracks, Belgium’s Schaal Sels is perhaps the most entertaining bicycle race you’ve never heard of. The race, which starts and finishes in the Antwerp suburb of Merksem, has actually been around since 1922. Famed Belgians Rik Van Looy and Edwig Van Hooydonck both won it, as did American Freddie Rodriguez. This year, cyclocross world champion Wout Van Aert took the big victory.

After toiling in anonymity for most of a century, Schaal Sels is two years into an eye-catching makeover. In 2014, construction on the road used for the finish threatened to cancel the race. The organizing club, Koninklijke Wielrijdersclub van Merksem, instead pulled out the map and scoured the Flemish countryside in search of a fresh new course.

When the curtain rose on the revised route in 2015, the old sprinter-friendly and mildly cobbled parcours was gone. The new compact, 195-kilometer route contained 34 kilometers of cobblestones and another 33 kilometers of onverhard, the Flemish word for the region’s unpaved farm roads. Some of these roads are dirt, others are gravel, and many are so unused that they are covered in grass. In total, more than 34 percent of the new Schaal Sels is now on non-tarmac surfaces. By comparison, the 27 pavé sectors of Paris-Roubaix cover only 21 percent of the Hell of the North.

The new course has boosted the race’s visibility. Two years after the redesign, Schaal Sels has vaulted from its place as a semi-anonymous semi-classic onto a list of hot properties that includes Italy’s Strade Bianche and France’s Tro-Bro Léon.

In truth, the race’s recent rejuvenation reflects a 20-year evolution in the tastes and whims of Belgian cycling. And the race’s transition from traditional tarmac onto its varied surfaces was due to the race’s progressive new management, which had both practical and fashionable reasons for the change. Whether the race’s newfound popularity leads to a step into cycling’s higher echelon is yet to be seen. For the foreseeable future, at least, the race hopes to carve out a unique identity as a catch-weight battle between the strongest one-day racers and the stars of cyclocross.

For most of the 20th century, Schaal Sels was a kermesse, one of the bread-and-butter Belgian circuit races whose town-based routes are affectionately known as “laps around the church.” By 1999, when Rodriguez took the win for Mapei – Quick-Step, Schaal Sels had climbed into the lower rungs of the UCI rankings. But the organizing committee was aging and funding was drying up.
That was when entrepreneur Ben Simons stepped in as head of the race organization. Simons’s most recent venture is a 50-percent stake in a project to build 19 power-generating wind turbines near Antwerp’s port. He brought new ambition and energy to the race, as well as a desire to take it outside the city. Under Simons’s guidance, the laps around the church expanded steadily outwards, further into the countryside.

“You don’t know what’s going to hit you next — but to be honest you can’t wait because it’s exciting and it’s just plain fun.”
– Dan Craven

“He’s transformed Schaal Sels from a kermesse to a race with a more interesting parcours going mostly through the fields where he grew up. And he’s proud of that,” says Wouter Nicolaes, one of the co-organizers of Schaal Sels. “It’s a green part in the north of the city of Antwerp, and with this race he wants to promote that area, because it’s rather forgotten.”

Though it climbed from a UCI 1.5 to 1.3 status under Simons, Schaal Sels was still just one of dozens of similar races filling out the Belgian calendar. If the race wanted to differentiate itself, it needed a new look.

“Of course it’s fancied these years to have a race that’s different from a classical road race. It’s fashionable,” Nicolaes says. “There are a lot of road races in Belgium, and if you want to survive you have to look for an atypical format that can make a difference between you and the others.”

With the addition of more cobbles and the onverhard, Sels found its unique look. And the creative route has seized on the sport’s current infatuation with dirt, gravel, and other non-traditional racing surfaces. Across the globe, amateur cyclists are flocking to new bicycle races that include alternative surfaces; the pros aren’t immune to the appeal.

“You don’t know what’s going to hit you next — but to be honest you can’t wait because it’s exciting and it’s just plain fun,” Dan Craven (Cycling Academy) gushed on an Instagram post after the 2016 race.

Of course the race’s move off of the tarmac had practical reasons as well, Nicolaes says. Farm roads offer respite from the road furniture that grows more prolific by the year across Europe. He believes the rutted dirt roads are actually safer than the paved streets that are lined with parking meters and barricades.

Heading for the backroads helps avoid figurative roadblocks as well. The sheer number of races in Flanders — big classics like the Tour of Flanders or Scheldeprijs, but also weekly club races, kermesses, and races for U23s and juniors — strains relationships with communities weary of frequent road closures and parking restrictions.

“By changing the track and using a lot of dirt roads, we don’t get into normal traffic, and we don’t annoy people,” Nicolaes says. “I think that this is the future for racing in our country, trying to do races while trying to annoy the minimum of people and employing the minimum of police agents.”

Schaal Sels also moved from Friday to Sunday, putting the race on better footing with the business community on the Bredabaan, the so-called “Champs-Élysées of Merksem” where the race finishes again now that construction is complete.

Two years after its evolutionary leap, Schaal Sels is thriving. The race reduced team size from eight to six riders to boost the action and make room for more teams. In 2016 the race invited 25 teams from nine countries, and had to turn other teams away. The race drew 500,000 live television viewers, despite a total lack of WorldTour teams. A wider international audience tuned in, too, thanks to international live web streaming and an uncommonly modern, multi-language web presence.

“It’s something new in Belgium,” Nicolaes says. “And we’ll keep it this way because we feel it has a high potential.”

Where does the potential lead? The race has set its sights on a UCI 1.HC designation, placing it among the upper tier of Belgian classics, on par with races like Scheldeprijs and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

While a jump into the WorldTour may sound inviting, race management is more interested in forging an identity for Schaal Sels. Taking advantage of its September date, management wants to position the race as the narrow edge where road racing meets cyclocross, not an end-of-season Roubaix rematch. As Nicolaes puts it, Schaal Sels is a race where Wout Van Aert can battle Peter Sagan.

WorldTour status would exclude most cyclocrossers, so the jump to the big leagues would destroy that vision. The more flexible 1.HC ranking, however, offers ample late-season points for Pro Continental and WorldTour teams, and allows cyclocross riders to compete. So the Van Aert vs. Sagan battle might not be far off.

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The eastern front: How the Czechs changed ‘cross http://www.velonews.com/2016/10/news/eastern-front-czechs-changed-cross_421862 Fri, 07 Oct 2016 11:00:39 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=421862 Raising the Iron Curtain on a cyclocross power. The Czech Republic has a long history of giving traditional powers a run for their money.

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Zdenek Stybar glittered in his white world champion’s kit as he walked across the line to win the Liéven round of the 2012 cyclocross World Cup. Above his head, the Czech star held his custom pink Specialized, a present from his Quick-Step WorldTour road team’s bike sponsor.

Stybar at his cyclocross peak — smiling, professional, courted by the world’s best teams — was a fitting bookend to the Czech Republic’s journey from cycling obscurity to ‘cross powerhouse. Over the course of four decades, the country’s racers overcame the poverty and isolation caused by the Iron Curtain. Their resourcefulness and passion for the sport helped them blossom into international greats, once the Soviet Union folded. But the process was long and painful.

The Czech journey began in 1972, when Prague hosted that year’s cyclocross world championships. During that event, the country’s grim conditions shocked the western Europeans getting their first peek behind the curtain.

“We saw burnt-out cars and tanks, just left on the street,” five-time amateur world champ Robert Vermeire told Belgian magazine Humo in 2015. “It may sound weird, but the people looked blacked out. They were dressed old-fashioned and unkempt, and looked ahead despondently.”

Vermeire and the other western Europeans had stepped into the long aftermath of the Prague Spring, a short period of political liberalization that began in early 1968. Within a few months, Soviet tanks crushed this brief flirtation with a more open society. Against that bleak backdrop, Eric DeVlaeminck won the sixth of his seven professional titles ahead of three-time champion Rolf Wolfshohl of Germany and Swiss Herman Gretener. The Czechoslovakians, firmly back under the thumb of the Soviet Union, were not permitted to ride in the professional ranks.

In the amateur race, though, the home team impressed. Just 22, cycling prodigy Miloš Fišera looked poised to deliver an upset, but made the mistake of going in for a bike change before the sprint. As he did, Belgian Norbert Dedeckere jumped away for the win. Still, Czechoslovakia had scored its first medal in the only international competition to which it had regular access. Behind Fišera, three more Czechoslovakians finished in the top 10.

The Czech successes during the ’72 worlds began to pry open the doors the Soviet invasion had slammed shut. The Swiss, conveniently free of Cold War political entanglements, began to invite the Czechoslovakians to their annual Christmas races. Given the value communist governments placed on sporting achievement — even in non-Olympic sports — the Czechoslovakian government granted its cyclists visas to travel to Switzerland, and eventually, to other nations.

Czech riders impressed the ‘cross establishment not only with their toughness and skill, but also with their resourcefulness. Tucked behind panels of their old cars, they smuggled out the one decent piece of ‘cross equipment the country produced — Barum tubulars — and found a ready market in the Belgians, who welcomed the affordable alternative to pricey Clements. With the income, the Czechs either bought western goods to smuggle back, or brought the cash home to supplement their government stipends.

While they made inroads in the sport, the professional ranks remained off-limits. But in the amateur and the junior ranks, the Czechoslovakians soon emerged as a force, particularly at the world championships. In 1977, Vojtěch Červínek was third in the amateurs, with Fišera fifth. Three years later, Fišera’s nephew Radomír Šimůnek won the junior men’s title. And in 1981, in Tolosa, Spain, Fišera finally earned his stripes, outsprinting Pole Grzegorz Jaroszewski and Belgian Paul De Brauwer. It was the start of a gold rush.

The next year in Lanarvily, France, Fišera repeated and Šimůnek, now in the seniors, was second. Šimůnek took the title himself in 1983 and 1984, while Roman Kreuziger Sr., father of Tinkoff pro Roman Kreuziger Jr., and Ondrej Glajza took the ’83 and ’84 junior titles, respectively.

Karel Camrda added another amateur title in 1988, and in 1989, Glajza and Šimůnek gave Czechoslovakia another one-two finish. It was the final title credited to Czechoslovakia. In November of that year, the Velvet Revolution swept the country and peacefully ended 40 years of communist rule. The nation officially split to the Czech and Slovak republics on January 1, 1993. Only weeks later, Kamil Ausbuher brought home the first rainbow stripes to the Czech Republic, in the junior category.

For Fišera, the revolution came too late. At 39, the man who put Czech ‘cross on the map rode several professional seasons, but with few big results. Šimůnek, however, was in his prime. Turning professional for the 1990 season, he quickly notched victories on hallowed ground in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium. He won the 1991 Superprestige series, and capped the season by winning the Czech Republic’s first professional world title. He won the 1992 Superprestige in the rainbow jersey, and won the series a final time in 1995.

Fišera and Šimůnek helped forge a cyclocross heritage that extends through Šimůnek’s son, Radomir Šimůnek, Jr., now a veteran of the international circuit, and a host of workingman’s heroes like Jiří Pospíšil, Zydenek Mlynar, Martin Bina, and Petr Dlask. Perhaps because the Czechs lack the abundance of prolific professional winners like Belgium, or perhaps because its potential professional class was repressed for so long, the nation rarely receives its due in the cyclocross pantheon. But it belongs there.

World championship cyclocross medal tally

Since 1996, when the under-23 world championship replaced the amateur category, the Czech Republic sits third in total world championship medals behind Belgium and the Netherlands. In the junior race, which has run since 1979, it sits fourth, behind traditional powerhouses the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland. But if the Czech Republic’s results are combined with those of the late Czechoslovakia, the country vaults to first in total junior medals, and second in world champions. There, it trails just the Netherlands by only a single title.

More importantly than individual riders or titles, though, the Czechs have developed a ‘cross culture, one that will help keep the sport at the forefront for the foreseeable future. The nation’s long-running UCI series started as the Budvar Cup in 2001, and was bankrolled by the country’s famed lager brewery until international porta-potty giant Toi Toi took over the title spot in 2007. This season’s series will count eight events from late September to early December. Internationally, the course at Tabor has hosted rounds of the UCI World Cup nine times, more than any other venue aside from legendary Koksijde, Belgium, and Hoogerheide, Netherlands. It has also hosted three world championships.

The 2016-’17 season is set to be a lean year for the Czechs. Stybar has seemingly departed for good, and no top-flight contender has emerged to replace him. There is no Czech World Cup round this year. Czech ‘cross has certainly faced harder years, though, and as always, there is plenty of talent in the pipeline.

Most immediately, the country will look to Nikola Nosková, who took the silver medal in the first women’s U23 world championship last season. On the men’s side, Adam Ťoupalík, now 20, looks to be the post-Stybar hope. At worlds, the Czech prodigy raised his arms in victory a lap early, losing his lead and eventually finishing second to Belgian Eli Iserbyt. It was a familiar scenario: a last lap mistake, a second place, a Belgian win. Four decades earlier, Miloš Fišera had felt the same stinging defeat. Of course, Fišera’s loss had started a revolution.

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Amid stage-race boom, U.S. road races face extinction http://www.velonews.com/2016/09/news/amid-stage-race-boom-u-s-road-races-face-extinction_420713 Wed, 14 Sep 2016 17:20:51 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=420713 Amid a stage-race boom, American road races face extinction. The Reading 120 is one of only three remaining UCI single-day road races in

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When the Reading 120 rolled off the start line in Pennsylvania on September 10, it was the last professional road race of the domestic season. It is also among the last of its kind.

These days, U.S. racing promoters are either obsessed with building the next big stage race or dedicated to criteriums. Reading is an endangered species — a U.S. road race in the style of a European semi-classic.

An evolution of the Univest Grand Prix that dates back to 1999, Reading is one of only three remaining UCI-sanctioned single-day road races in the country. The others are the three-year-old Winston-Salem Classic Road Race in North Carolina and the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic, which traces its roots back to 1985.

It wasn’t always this way.

From the 1990s through the mid-2000s, long road races had a healthy, if not thriving, U.S. presence. In 1992, a domestic pro with a decent team and a travel stipend could race the First Union Grand Prix in Atlanta, the Norwest Cup in Minneapolis, Thrift Drug Classic in Pittsburgh, the CoreStates races in Lancaster and Trenton, and the CoreStates USPRO championship in Philadelphia.

A second wave of UCI road races emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including Univest, the San Francisco Grand Prix, Colorado’s Saturn Classic, and Connecticut’s Housatonic Valley Classic. In the decade following the Tour DuPont’s demise in 1996, single-day UCI races far outstripped stage races.

In the mid-2000s, the tide began to turn. Lance Armstrong was at the height of his Tour de France-winning fame, pushing cycling farther into the American mainstream. For millions of cycling newcomers, stage racing was professional cycling, and the market responded.

In 2003, the Tour de Georgia emerged as the first major U.S. stage race since the Tour DuPont. Its fortunes soared the next year when Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team made the race part of his Tour build-up, and top European teams followed right behind.

At the same time, existing road races hit a rough patch. The San Francisco Grand Prix lasted five years before financial squabbling sunk it. The Saturn Classic, with its monstrous dirt climbs, was both ahead of its time and too remote. It lasted from 2000 to 2002. Lancaster and the first Reading race died after their bank sponsors were rocked by the 2008 financial crisis.

A decade prior, new races might have replaced these dying events. But in the Armstrong era, domestic racing’s resources — from political clout to sponsorship to riders and support services — were pouring into stage racing.

The Tour de Georgia was just the start. The Tour of Utah launched in 2004. (It worked its way to UCI status in 2011.) The Tour of California followed in 2006, the Tour of Missouri in 2007, and the USA Pro Challenge in 2011. That boom had a cost.

Oscar Clark won the 2016 Reading 120. Photo: marcoquezada.com
Oscar Clark won the 2016 Reading 120. Photo: marcoquezada.com

Longtime promoter John Eustice, who organizes the Reading 120, said his road races used to attract live television, massive crowds, and even European teams.

“In 2007 I had Univest live, start to finish, on Universal Sports. And they put the Tour of Missouri right on top of my race,” Eustice says. Univest eventually became the Bucks County Classic and, later, the Reading 120. “It killed it. It sucked away Mavic neutral support, it sucked all the riders, it sucked away Frankie Andreu, who I had as an announcer. They all went away.”

To curb costs, some promoters organized criteriums instead of road races. Those with big dreams or wealthy sponsors launched stage races. Stuck in the middle, road races withered.

With European classics becoming more accessible and popular stateside, the time may be right for a U.S. road racing revival. For those willing to push past the stage-race shine, they offer plenty of advantages, starting with their price tag.

More expensive than a criterium, the cost of a single-day road race can still seem downright affordable compared to multi-million dollar stage races. (Eustice estimates it costs from $150,000 to $350,000 for a UCI 1.2 road race, depending on municipalities and what is offered.) That alone could ultimately make them more sustainable. While Philly lives on and Eustice’s race turns 17, Georgia, Missouri, and the USA Pro Challenge have all collapsed under the weight of their budgets.

Road races — particularly circuit-based races like Philadelphia and the Reading 120 — can also deliver host cities tremendous value. Compared to being one of, say, 10 host cities as in a stage race, a road race can put the city on center stage for the entire day.

“I think that the city, the venue, the sponsor can build so much more into the race because you’re there for 10 hours, and not just a start or finish,” says Philadelphia International promoter Robin Morton. “There are so many other things that can go on around the event — concerts, festivals — and its available to everyone, all day.”

That sort of community event, year after year, builds loyalty. When longtime Philadelphia organizer Threshold Sports announced in 2013 that the race would end, the city effectively took ownership, kept the calendar date, and brought in Morton’s G4 Productions to oversee the event’s revitalization. The city simply refused to lose its annual date with bike racing.

The relative simplicity of road racing also appeals to novice fans. The tactics are still there for the connoisseur, but the complexities of stage racing are stripped away for the layman. The racing is more immediate, more obvious, and more accessible. So are the racers.

“In a one-day race there is no reason to hold back. I love crossing the line exhausted, completely spent,” says Kiel Reijnen (Trek – Segafredo), who has won two editions of Philadelphia, as well as the Bucks County Classic. “Some of my best memories from Philly and Bucks County are from after the race, celebrating with teammates, milling with fans, taking time to meet folks and get to know the area. When there is no stage 2, riders aren’t racing back to their hotels desperate to get a little more recovery time.”

Long road races could also build the next generation of great American racers. Eustice believes that a national series of UCI 1.2 races like the Reading 120 could help broaden the U.S. talent pool. In his opinion, a series of long, hard UCI sanctioned pro-am road races would provide a valuable platform for unheralded riders outside of USA Cycling’s development system.

Instead, Eustice says that American cycling is still obsessed with the Tour de France.

“We have to change the mentality from, ‘How do we get to the Tour de France?’” Eustice says. “You need a collective energy now to build the American circuit and American riders.”

Eustice’s opinion favors his event, the Reading 120, but his partiality should not overshadow the simple and idealistic qualities of road races. They offer something intangible: racing over countryside, in and around small towns and cities, first one across the line wins. It is an elemental part of the cycling experience, and one worth preserving.

“This is a work of art,” Eustice says. “Criteriums are rock-and-roll, but road racing is opera.”

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Post-Tour crits: The pro wrestling of cycling http://www.velonews.com/2016/07/news/pro-wrestling-cycling_416038 Wed, 27 Jul 2016 12:27:38 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=416038 The UCI has a strange entanglement with post-Tour criteriums — spectator-friendly "races" that have more in common with pro wrestling.

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UCI President Brian Cookson is a trim Brit who speaks the carefully measured language of international sporting bureaucracy. Vince McMahon, owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, is a muscle-bound American who bellows insults into the microphone during pro wrestling matches.

What do these two have in common? They both head organizations that sanction scripted competitions with pre-ordained outcomes, all orchestrated to ignite the passions of ticketholders.

Cookson’s UCI oversees the criteriums that are held immediately after the Tour de France. These races are cycling’s version of pro wrestling, replete with choreographed competition, oiled bodies, and pre-selected winners. It’s not uncommon for waifish climbers such as Chris Froome and Fränk Schleck to outsprint a field of tree-trunk-legged kermesse riders on a pancake-flat course. The races would make Vince McMahon proud.

The post-Tour criterium circuit opens the day after the Tour de France ends and rambles on through early September. During the competitively lazy pre-Vuelta weeks, the exhibition races make up a third of all races on the European UCI calendar. All told, there are nearly three-dozen of these events, which masquerade as 80-kilometer criteriums, showcasing the Tour’s jersey winners, stage victors, and hometown favorites in towns across Europe.

For more than 40 years, the promoters of these annual exhibition races have made it abundantly clear to contracted riders who will finish on the podium, and in what order.

To disobey those orders is to risk a sizable appearance fee—up to around $30,000 for a Tour winner—and likely forfeit any future invitations. The peloton’s job is not so much to race as to perform, mixing high speeds with feigned attacks and hard-driving chases. Almost inevitably, a late breakaway leads to a three-man sprint for the win.

It’s an odd spectacle, considering the races are sanctioned by the UCI, which occasionally investigates riders for paid collusion. The UCI rulebook explicitly prohibits, “cheating, attempted cheating, and collusion between riders of different teams.” This includes the buying and selling of races. But like a hapless pro wrestling referee, the UCI looks the other way during these races.

This fact is due in part to the history of the post-Tour criteriums. The races did not blossom within the confines of UCI rules, and instead evolved with their own unique culture and rulebook.

For decades, these folksy summer happenings were loosely regulated affairs, with participation a simple matter of scheduling and negotiating the fee. They were shows, pure and simple, and guidelines about competitive integrity did not matter. Deciding the outcome beforehand just let the riders put on a better show for the paying spectators.

The races were nearly snuffed out during the last decade. In an effort to promote its WorldTour system and combat breakaway leagues, the UCI created new rules dictating which events riders could race. On July 1, 2010, UCI rule 2.7.005 was modified to read:

“The national federations shall submit their criterium calendar to the UCI no later than 1st September for the following year. Organizers whose criterium is not included on this calendar may not invite riders from a team registered with the UCI or allow them to ride”.

Races hoping to attract top talent — including the Tour heroes — needed to register with the UCI and join its calendar. Gran fondos, small American stage races, and even the post-Tour crits were in danger of being shut out.

So in 2011, the post-Tour crits ponied up registration fees and made their dates with the UCI. Everything else about the events, however, remained the same.

Why doesn’t the UCI enforce the rules? When asked, UCI spokesman Louis Chenaille did not answer, instead saying, “The UCI’s regulations set out the framework in which national federations can register their events on the UCI calendar.”

Is there anything odious about fixing the result of a post-Tour criterium? Not really. Everyone knows the score, from the organizers and riders to spectators and the media.

Nobody is being tricked. Nobody is being cheated. Everyone inside the fencing is being paid, and everyone outside it is being entertained. It’s a circus. Sanctioning organizers or riders over the rigged results would be silly.

The post-Tour crits are a tradition that has endured despite the sport’s globalization and the increase in international broadcasts. They bring cycling directly to the people, and weave the sport into the social fabric of communities. The sport needs more of that, not less.

But for the UCI, which constantly fights corruption and cheating, the involvement with these faux races creates a needless conflict of interest. Yes, the relationship is an accidental byproduct of poorly considered rulemaking. But the relationship, matched with the Euro-centric view of the sport, means that the governing body can’t see criteriums as anything but scripted entertainment.

The UCI’s involvement in exhibition racing does a disservice to races and riders in the U.S., where legitimate criteriums make up a significant part of the professional calendar. American promoters diligently jump through bureaucratic hoops to organize compliant races, and the riders make them competitive. Should races like Tulsa Tough or Athens Twilight really carry the same designation as Belgium’s Profronde van Lommel, likely the only race to have ever been “won” by both Alberto Contador (2010) and Marcel Kittel (2013)?

Would it be so hard for the UCI to create an exhibition category that would leave in place key UCI provisions related to safety, facilities, and payment, while allowing top riders to participate, and recognizing that these races are not in the same class as competitive events?

Doing so would free the UCI from its involvement in pro wrestling-style races and better recognize the legitimacy of U.S. criteriums. It would also save the perpetually embattled governing body one more mild embarrassment among a host of major ones. In a sport that values its history, this time-honored tradition could continue, and the show could go on.

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Don’t call it a comeback: France is back on top http://www.velonews.com/2016/06/feature/dont-call-it-a-comeback-france-is-back-on-top_409918 Fri, 24 Jun 2016 12:53:25 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=409918 Arnaud Démare won Milano-Sanremo, and along with results from other up-and-comers, is it time to stop writing off French wins?

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Before Arnaud Démare could make the U-turn back toward the podium, pundits and fans alike were already tying the weights around the ankles of his Milano-Sanremo win. “Gaviria would have won if he hadn’t crashed.” “Sagan would have won if Gaviria hadn’t crashed.” “The course isn’t difficult enough to weed out pretenders.” And, inevitably, the old reliable, “Is he worthy?”

Worthiness is a usefully subjective measure, a rhetorical tool deployed against unpopular wins by upstart, unknown, or disliked riders.

Is Démare worthy? The 24-year-old sprinter from Picardie is no grand champion, not yet on the level of recent Sanremo winners like Eric Zabel, Mario Cipollini, or Oscar Freire, much less the giants of the road who preceded them. His palmares has grown mostly by winning stages of weeklong races held in his backyard, in the flats of Northern France and neighboring Belgium. But he’s also finished third in a Tour de France stage, behind Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff, and second behind John Degenkolb and ahead of Peter Sagan at last year’s Gent-Wevelgem. Until that day in Sanremo, however, he had not quite broken through.

Over the last few decades, cycling has developed a special lens through which it views French success.

Objectively, though, Démare’s Via Roma victory was sound, particularly in the context of a chaotic crapshoot of a finale that closed this and many other editions of Sanremo. Michal Kwiatkowski’s attacks did not drop him on the way up the Poggio, and three of the sport’s most fearsome descenders — Vincenzo Nibali, Fabian Cancellara, and Sagan — didn’t unhitch him on the way down. He didn’t crash inside the red kite like Colombian sensation Fernando Gaviria, nor get caught up in the aftermath like Sagan and Cancellara. He positioned himself perfectly to launch a long drag to the line, playing to his strength.

So why wouldn’t Démare be worthy? There were rumblings from Italian riders that he held onto a team car up the Cipressa, but that complaint emerged only after the initial pooh-poohing of his victory and came to nothing. Is he not a big enough champion for such a prize? Not yet, but how are big champions made if not by winning big races? Maybe the problem, then, is that he’s just too … French?

Over the last few decades, cycling has developed a special lens through which it views French success. A 217-kilometer break-away to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen? If Jens Voigt had done it in 2014, it would have birthed Internet memes and a rush order of celebratory T-shirts. When Jacky Durand actually succeeded in doing it in 1992? That was a mathematical and tactical error by the favorites, not a well-executed escape by two of the peloton’s long-raid specialists, Durand and Thomas Wegmüller. Nothing more than a lucky roll of the dice by a Frenchman whose luck held out long enough to also win Paris-Tours, a couple of French national championships, a few Tour stages, and a yellow jersey.

And what about Thomas Voeckler’s 20 days in the golden tunic? Just attention-whoring opportunism by a no-hoper who grabs the spotlight before the real contenders come out to play. Fabian Cancellara’s 29 yellow jerseys? Those are shrewd pieces of tactical riding by a true pro who seizes every opportunity to race aggressively and fly the colors. Never mind that Voeckler has won four Tour stages and the polka dot jersey, finished fourth on GC in 2011, and won a handful of stage races and semi-classics.

Three years after Voeckler’s fourth place, Frenchmen Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot both made it onto the box. Yet the first French podium presence since 1997 was framed mostly by absence. Yes, the French were there, but Froome and Contador had crashed out, and Quintana didn’t start. Two DNFs and a DNS managed to elbow the Frenchmen from the photo.

France Among the Big Four

So it goes for the French, seemingly stuck in the lovable loser role, results be damned. The 30-year drought of Tour de France wins hangs like an albatross around the neck of the French peloton, with its last champion, Bernard Hinault, giving it a tug now and then to make sure the rope holds fast.

With the French filter removed, however, Démare’s Sanremo win looks more like a breakthrough than a fluke. At 24, Démare is just coming into his prime, and a big win was a logical next step for a rider with a U23 world title to his name and progressive results since he joined the WorldTour ranks at the age of 19. He followed up his Sanremo with fifth place at Gent-Wevelgem, winning the field sprint. A tough rider without the outright speed of a Gaviria, Cavendish, or Kittel, Démare could ultimately turn in his finest performances in the classics.

He hasn’t been FDJ’s only bright spot this season. At Critérium International, Pinot, still only 25, won the time trial to take the leader’s jersey, then broke away alone on the race’s mountainous final stage to seal the overall victory.

France’s other 25-year-old GC hopeful, Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet, finished second to Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour of Oman and showcased his versatility in the process. He was third amongst the rouleurs and classics specialists on the third stage, then finished second to Nibali on the queen stage to consolidate his podium spot.

So it goes for the French, seemingly stuck in the loveable loser role, results be damned.

While Pinot and Bardet can hope for high GC placings in the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour, France’s best hopes for outright wins could come in the sprints. Cofidis’s Nacer Bouhanni, another 25-year-old, opened his 2016 account with a stage win at the Vuelta a Andalucía before his pugilistic sprinting put him in the headlines at Paris-Nice. He crossed the line first in the stage 1 sprint but was relegated to third for nearly putting prologue winner Michael Matthews into the barriers. (The stage win passed to Démare.)

Two days later, Bouhanni bounced back with a convincing — and clean — win in stage 3 to Romans-sur-Isère, beating Edward Theuns, André Greipel, Alexander Kristoff, and Matthews in the process. He followed up with two wins at Catalunya before finishing a strong fourth behind Démare at Sanremo, where a chain skip ended his shot at the win.

Beyond the crop of 25-year-olds now in the spotlight, more talent is flowing through the pipeline. Direct Energie’s Bryan Coquard, 23, barely missed at the semi-classic Dwars door Vlaanderen when he began to celebrate too early. Ag2r’s Alexis Gougeard, also 23, finished a promising fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before illness sank the rest of his classics campaign.

Is French cycling poised to return to its heights of the early 1980s? No. There is not yet a French Boonen or Cancellara in the wings, ready to dominate the classics. And in the era of Froome and Quintana, it is hard to envision an end to the French Tour-win drought quite yet. But the beginnings of a revival are there. The new class is winning, not just on the French circuit but on the international stage against top competition. Results beget results. And sooner or later, if those results continue to mount, they will have to be accepted for what they are: credible wins by young riders from one of the sport’s most storied nations.

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California dreaming: Why the Amgen Tour is successful http://www.velonews.com/2016/05/amgen-tour-of-california/california-dreaming-why-the-amgen-tour-is-successful_406011 Mon, 16 May 2016 19:19:09 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=406011 The Amgen Tour of California has succeeded where other races have failed by riding with cycling's prevailing winds rather than into them.

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Nearly three decades before his turn as an improbable, bombastic presidential candidate, Donald Trump was the equally improbable sponsor of one of the biggest events in American cycling history. Even then, his knack for ambitious proclamations was already well formed.

“This is an event that can be tremendous in the future, and it can really, very much rival the Tour de France,” the real estate mogul told NBC at the inaugural 1989 Tour de Trump.

It was a strong statement, brimming with the sort of saying-it-will-make-it-so confidence we now recognize as a Trump hallmark. Remarkably, though, even a European contingent still skeptical of American racing had to admit there was something to it. Dutch climber Gert-Jan Theunisse told the New York Times that the race “could be bigger than the Tour de France, because of the money.”

Anything seemed possible in 1989. The American cycling community was still riding high after the 1986 world championships in Colorado Springs. The void left by the loss of its premier international stage race, the Coors Classic, was immediately filled by Trump’s eastern counterpart. Greg LeMond had brought home the New World’s first Tour title. The U.S. 7-Eleven team had proven itself in the European peloton with Andy Hampsten’s 1988 Giro win. But for all that momentum, the stage race that would rival the Tour de France never materialized. Instead, America’s three-week dreams receded as it struggled to sustain even week-long events beyond infancy.

Trump’s taste for cycling was predictably fleeting, and Delaware-based chemical giant DuPont took over the race after just two years. But by July of 1996, DuPont departed as well, citing a need to focus “on strategic markets in other parts of the world where a sustained annual program versus a two-week event can better leverage the DuPont brand equity for profitable growth.”

It was the sort of corporate-speak that would become frustratingly familiar to U.S. organizers and fans as race after race fell to lack of funding. The Tour de Georgia ran six editions before title sponsorships dried up. The Tour of Missouri’s state tourism funding evaporated after just three editions. The USA Pro Challenge, blessed with Rocky Mountain vistas, a 2.HC UCI rating, and proximity to the Canadian WorldTour races, still could not cover costs after its fifth running, despite claims that it would reach profitability in three. After founders Rick and Richard Schaden bowed out, the new ownership group did not secure sufficient funding for the 2016 edition and announced its cancellation in February, vowing a 2017 return. Such revivals are not unheard of, but neither are they common.

Now 28 years in the grave, the Coors Classic still stands as the longest-lived major American stage race with 14 editions between 1975 and 1988. Heavily reliant on fickle sponsorship dollars and public funds that can shift with political whims, and without the television revenues that keep many European races in the black, U.S. stage races still struggle to survive.

There is still hope for a lasting, premier professional stage race in the United States, however. It just looks a bit different than the race Trump envisioned in 1989. Counter to Trump’s adversarial, bigger-than-the-Tour stance, the Amgen Tour of California has found stability and relative longevity by riding with cycling’s prevailing winds rather than into them.

By moving from its initial February date to May, opposite the Giro d’Italia, the race not only improved its weather, it positioned itself in the international calendar as a viable stop-over for Tour-bound sprinters and classification riders, as well as classics riders reentering the competitive fray after their April goals.

The race also ascertained early on that the classic name exposure that attracted Trump and DuPont didn’t provide enough stability in American cycling. Instead, the race pursued sponsors whose vision of the race extended beyond the number of eyeballs reached. As a result, California has retained the same title sponsor since its inaugural 2006 edition.

Pharmaceutical company Amgen uses the event not just for traditional brand exposure, but as a vehicle to promote its Breakaway from Cancer Initiative through events in host cities during the race. That stability has helped make it the reigning king of American stage races.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved in just 10 years, but we don’t lose sight of the fact that we are still in our infancy,” says Kristin Klein, president of the Tour of California and executive vice president of race owner AEG Sports, part of the Anschutz Entertainment Group. “I would hope that we still have a considerable amount of room to continue to build the platform.”

Key to that continued growth will be none other than Tour organizer ASO. More powerful and resilient than ever, the sport’s biggest race is no longer a target for upstart U.S. races. The partnership between California and ASO began in 2008 with ASO handling international television distribution of the race broadcast. By 2010, ASO was handling overall television production, sending its renowned directors, moto pilots, and cameramen to bring Tour-broadcast quality to the California television package.

This year, the partnership is taking another leap forward. Last June, Tour of California owner AEG split with Medalist Sports, the race’s organizer since its inception. Medalist has played a role in nearly every major U.S. stage race since the Tour DuPont era, including the Tour de Georgia, Tour of Missouri, and the Pro Challenge, as well as the 2015 Richmond World Championships and the country’s other 2.HC stage race, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.

There is no more experienced outfit in the United States, and AEG, by all accounts, was happy with Medalist’s work. So, for months, the question loomed as to who AEG had in mind as a replacement. While the Tour of California has not formally announced a new organizer to fill Medalist’s shoes, Klein told VeloNews that ASO will be assuming “a more meaningful role from an organizational perspective,” including many of the responsibilities previously handled by Medalist.

“[ASO has] been a fantastic partner of ours, so we look forward to working with them to continue to build the Tour of California and the overall international exposure of this event as well,” Klein says. “I think they have a few years on us. They’ve been doing this for a hundred years; we’ve been doing it for 10.”

If the partnership with ASO is successful in boosting the Tour of California’s international profile, could it become the first U.S. race added to the UCI WorldTour?

“Only time will tell,” says Klein of the prospect.

“Obviously there’s a lot of restructuring going on with the UCI, so I think they’re still trying to figure out what the next steps are. So it’s really contingent upon just the overall planning that’s taking place on the governing-body level.”

Tensions between teams, ASO, and the UCI have risen to an all-time high over everything from revenue sharing, to safety, to the WorldTour system. But Klein is confident that California’s expanding affiliation with ASO would not draw it into the political battles between the sport’s 900-pound gorilla, the UCI, and the teams.

One thing growth will not mean for the Tour of California — WorldTour or not — is added length. While Klein says “never say never,” there are currently no plans to expand beyond the eight-stage format. The race is more focused on achieving sustainability than chasing the two-week mark of the Coors Classic and Tour DuPont, much less the three-week grand tour dream.

While the duration of the men’s race will remain stable, the women’s race continues to build. A women’s criterium kicked things off in 2008, followed by an invitational time trial in 2011. In 2015, a three-day stage race accompanied the invitational time trial — which remained a stand-alone event.

This year, the Tour of California has abandoned the standalone time trial in favor of a four-stage women’s race held in conjunction with the second half of the men’s race. Comprising two road stages, a team time trial, and a closing criterium, the event is already one of two U.S. events in the inaugural Women’s WorldTour.

The combination of a strong field, advantageous scheduling, men’s and women’s competition, WorldTour status, and ASO in its corner could finally tip the balance for an American stage race, opening the door to television distribution revenues that keep top European races in the black. And with that stability, the Tour of California could finally be the first major American stage race to reach drinking age.

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Flanders: Three cubs who may become lions http://www.velonews.com/2016/04/news/flanders-three-cubs-who-may-become-lions_400386 Fri, 01 Apr 2016 10:00:22 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=400386 With the old guard — Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara — growing older, Belgium looks to new faces in the classics.

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This July will mark an even four decades since Lucien Van Impe claimed Belgium’s last Tour de France title, and while the milestone will elicit well-rehearsed hand-wringing by pundits, grand tours have never been the metric by which that nation measures its cycling worth. Flemish cobbles trump French cols, and the Oude Kwaremont looms larger than Mont Ventoux. Merckx is Merckx, of course, but a long line of Belgian champions — from Schotte and Van Steenbergen through to Van Looy, de Vlaeminck, the Planckaerts, Vanderaerden, Museeuw, and Boonen — built their legends not as collectors of stuffed Crédit Lyonnais lions but as Lions of Flanders.

Lately, though, the home team has faced a wider variety of challengers to its classics stronghold. For a decade, native son Tom Boonen has shared the throne with a Swiss, and with both Boonen and Fabian Cancellara nearing the end of their careers, their heirs apparent are not flahutes but Slovak Peter Sagan and Norwegian Alexander Kristoff. Even within the Etixx – Quick-Step team, the nation’s standard-bearer, Boonen’s most likely successor is Czech Zdenek Stybar.

In the shadow of Boonen and Cancellara, and against this cosmopolitan onslaught, an entire generation of Belgian riders — Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke, and Jurgen Roelandts, to name a few — has struggled to shine. The Tour is one thing, but if the classics wins become a thing of the past, the panic from the Belgian press will be genuine.

None too soon, then, a new litter of aspiring Flandriens, born in the 1990s, is preparing to take up the national cause and succeed the riders they grew up idolizing. For three of them, the 2016 season will be an important stepping stone on their road to potential lionization.

If Etixx – Quick-Step is Belgium’s juggernaut, Lotto – Soudal has always played the lovable foil. Lotto manager Marc Sergeant’s rumpled, maudlin, post-race recaps of opportunities missed are as much a rite of spring as Patrick Lefevere’s self-congratulatory proclamations. But if Lotto’s homegrown talent Tiesj Benoot stays on his current trajectory, those roles could be reversed in the coming years.

Just 22 years old, Benoot is a product of Lotto’s under-23 development team and a son of Gent, the heart of Flemish classics country, where he balances pro cyclist life with pursuing an economics degree at the university. A fast finisher (like Museeuw and Boonen before him, as often noted), he claimed 16th place in the 2014 Paris-Tours while riding as a 20-year-old stagiaire, a performance that sealed his full-time move to the WorldTour squad.

The following spring, Benoot took on the classics schedule of a seasoned veteran, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February and quickly picking up steam. He was fourth at Le Samyn in late March. Two weeks later, he stepped onto his first elite podium, with third place in the Handzame Classic.

Solid rides at Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke followed, setting the stage for his breakout ride at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. After quietly maneuvering into the finale of the 256-kilometer monument, Benoot was ready to work for Roelandts, but neither could respond when the winning moves went. With the race up the road, Roelandts turned his young charge free. Benoot jumped away alone in the closing kilometers and rode in 36 seconds behind winner Alexander Kristoff for an impressive fifth place.

He finished his first Paris-Roubaix in 100th position the following weekend, rode a quiet summer program, and then made the competitive Belgian selection for the Richmond worlds, where he was the youngest rider in the elite race. Coming full circle, he capped his remarkable first year in the WorldTour with an impressive fourth place at Paris-Tours.

In December, Benoot was honored as the Belgian Talent of the Year, the up-and-comers version of the Belgian Sportsman of the Year award won by Merckx, Maertens, Boonen, and Gilbert, among others. It speaks to how highly his countrymen rate his potential.

Like Benoot, Jasper Stuyven’s transition from development rider to the WorldTour was smoothed by team relationships. The 2009 junior world champion and 2010 junior Paris-Roubaix winner comes from Leuven in East Flanders. So it was a surprise when he signed his first pro contract with the U.S. Bontrager-Livestrong squad in 2012, where he raced events like the Tour of California and Tour of Utah instead of battling his countrymen in the semi-classics that have forged so many Belgian pros. But going to the stateside Continental program allowed Stuyven to develop outside of the pressure cooker of Belgian cycling.

Staying in the Trek family, he stepped up to the WorldTour in 2014, with a two-year contract from Trek Factory Racing. His American sojourn proved the right move, and he stepped straight back into Belgium and full-time European racing without missing a beat. Stuyven began his northern spring at La Samyn and went on to support Cancellara’s 2014 classics campaign, including his third Ronde victory.

Compared with his early successes, Stuyven’s first WorldTour victory was slow to come, but at the end of 2015, he finally popped champagne. On Stage 8 of the Vuelta, Stuyven shrugged off a broken wrist suffered early in the stage and launched his sprint from 350 meters to win by a bike length. He also won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in February with a bold solo move in a race usually reserved for the sprinters.

Trek-Segafredo doubled down on its classics future by signing another young talent from Belgium’s erstwhile development team, Topsport-Vlaanderen. Another Gent native, 24-year-old Edward Theuns possessed a race-sense and finishing kick that had already made him a known commodity in the bread-and-butter classics of the Belgian calendar. But in 2015, he proved his mettle among the world’s best.

Theuns scored wins at the Ronde van Drenthe and the final stage of the Four Days of Dunkirk, as well as the points competition at Étoile de Bessèges. But it was a string of high-profile second places that helped punch Theuns’s ticket to the first division. He was second to teammate Jelle Wallays at Dwars door Vlaanderen. (For Wallays, the win was confirmation of his unlikely 2014 Paris-Tours win and secured his move up to Lotto – Soudal for 2016.) Theuns then finished second at Scheldeprijs to an untouchable Kristoff, just off his Ronde win. In June, he finished second to Boonen at the Rund um Köln.

This season, both Stuyven and Theuns will look to learn all they can from Trek classics chiefs Cancellara and Stijn Devolder, who count five Ronde titles between them, not to mention Cancellara’s three Roubaix titles and three E3s. Cancellara will hang up his wheels at season’s end, and, at 36, Devolder will also be counting the days. That clear path of succession was a key reason both men signed with the American team over more crowded lineups. Come 2017, they may well hold the keys to the cobbled castle — leadership of a WorldTour team on their home terrain.

First, though, both must prove they can be effective in the final hour of the longest classics. Theuns has acknowledged that, unlike Benoot, he has not yet adapted to the difficulty and distance of races like Flanders and Roubaix. Stuyven, too, has yet to be tested in the classics’ death zone — those final, hypoxic 40 kilometers that separate workaday races like Dwars and E3 from the monuments.

It is that last, unforgiving hour, where any mental or physical weakness is magnified tenfold and even the smallest mistakes are unforgivable, that true legends are forged. If Benoot, Stuyven, and Theuns can learn to survive and thrive there, to drive back the foreign challengers and safeguard the Belgian birthright for another decade, the Belgian press will be able to safely, happily return to faux torment over the Tour de France drought, knowing the real prize is safely guarded by a new generation of lions.

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Of clothing and community http://www.velonews.com/2016/01/news/road/393159_393159 Wed, 27 Jan 2016 00:18:41 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=393159 Big cycling clubs are no longer key to getting kitted up, but they’re still a keystone of amateur racing.

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Not too long ago, in order to get high-quality cycling clothing, you had to join a cycling club. In the pre-Internet days, dressing for bike racing without being a club member was a bleak proposition. Inventory intensive and taste-driven, clothing was (and is) a risky buy for local bike shops. As a result, selection was usually paltry. Mail order catalogs offered more choices, but not necessarily better ones, and picking a jersey often meant simply deciding between the blue, red, or yellow ones, all rendered, ironically, in an ill-fitting “club cut.” Venturing beyond primary colors meant descending into a garish world where deranged clowns and beer logos passed for fashion design, settling for a pro team lookalike, or buying a souvenir jersey from a charity ride.

But the fast guys? The serious racers? Club kit. For decades, old style, big-tent cycling clubs — the kind that span gender, age, category, and discipline — weren’t just the keepers of the sport, the dedicated collectives that hosted races, organized weekly rides, developed young riders, and kept a counterculture sport’s essential knowledge alive and accessible. They were also the best way to buy clothes. No, club kit design wasn’t always the pinnacle of fashion, but with membership numbers ranging from the dozens well into the hundreds, the big clubs of old had economies of scale that let members get good quality, custom-designed racing kit for affordable prices.

But today, that seems to be changing. The sport is in the midst of an internet-driven fashion boom and, at the same time, undergoing fundamental changes in the way riders are entering and enjoying the sport. Both are contributing to shifts in the amateur club system that form the foundation of U.S. racing, and that could ultimately have a profound effect on the sport.

In the last decade, minimum order numbers for custom clothing sublimation have plummeted, sometimes into single digits. Affordable, accessible software has placed the tools of design into the hands of the masses, and the Internet has better connected consumers and manufacturers and streamlined the design process, ordering, payment, and delivery. Those big clubs’ big numbers, their knowledge of the process, and their longstanding vendor relationships have all been rendered nearly moot. Now, anyone with Adobe Illustrator, the $200 USA Cycling club fee, and enough riding buddies to meet a modest minimum order requirement can form their own club. And many are.

Correlation does not equal causation, but since it started becoming easier and cheaper to get small-batch custom clothing a decade ago, the number of USAC-registered cycling clubs has ballooned. In 2005, there were 1,575 registered clubs. By 2013 (the most recent year for which USAC has published data), there were 2,760, a remarkable 75 percent increase. During the same period, USAC membership rose only 33 percent. That means that while there are more clubs, they are smaller, down from an average of 30 members to 23, a drop of nearly 25 percent.

There’s undeniable appeal in breaking away from the big team structure to start a smaller organization. Trading the big tent for an EZ-Up lets small clubs focus more narrowly on their members’ interests, whether it’s women’s racing, the velodrome, cyclocross, or bourbon hand-ups. There’s also the appealing nimbleness in kit design, the freedom to create something new each year if desired, without being bogged down in decades of design tradition.

For all the appeal and advantages of small clubs, though, big clubs still offer some advantages to members and to the sport. They’re visible and accessible, the most identifiable way for neophytes or transplants to find their way into the local scene. Their broad base — men and women, juniors and masters, category 5s and elites — can provide a more holistic, balanced perspective on the sport, one that can help ensure the needs of all stakeholders are represented in decisions about local and regional racing. Their size makes them more likely to host races, too.

Big rosters give them a certain momentum that keeps them intact as smaller organizations come and go. Institutional knowledge of how to get things done—securing venues and working with municipalities, vendors, officials, and sponsors — can be more reliably preserved for the long-term and handed down through mentorships, both formal and informal.

But perhaps most importantly for amateur racing, big, traditional clubs have manpower. From race-day duties like course setup, road marshaling, registration, and staffing pace cars and wheel vans, to behind-the-scenes tasks like organizing porta-potties, wrangling sponsors, printing signage, and stuffing prize bags, it takes a lot of bodies to produce a safe, successful day of road racing. Cyclocross hardly reduces the burden, swapping road-specific concerns with kilometers of staking and taping, pruning and raking, followed by post-race remediation of acres of sodden, rutted lawn.

Therein lies the danger — that as the club scene fragments, the sport will be left with more clubs overall, but fewer with the critical mass of skills, resources, and desire necessary to create and sustain races. There are few consequences for failing to do so. Contrary to popular belief, it is not mandatory for registered clubs to promote a race each season, though local associations can make voting rights contingent on doing so.

So far, U.S. racing has not been heavily impacted by the fragmentation, at least according to the broad numbers. As the number of USAC teams rose from 2005 through 2013, the number of USAC races grew by a healthy 40 percent, from 2,204 to 3,105. But the mix of events is also changing. Cyclocross experienced enormous growth in terms of races and participation, while anecdotal evidence indicates that long road races—expensive and logistically difficult—are becoming rarer. The upward trend might also be at an end—the number of sanctioned races declined slightly in 2013, and more contraction is expected as amateur racing faces increased competition from professionally organized, mass participation events like gran fondos.

That’s not to say that small clubs aren’t doing their share. They are, many by partnering with other clubs to promote races, developing junior or elite riders, and providing a wider variety of options for riders to find the right home in the sport. That is, if those riders choose to join a team at all. Just as teams are growing smaller, remaining unattached—the term for racers who are not members of a USAC club or team—has never looked more appealing.

For years, USAC encouraged club membership by allowing promoters—usually clubs—to charge unattached riders an additional fee, typically $5 or $10, on top of the registration fee. For anyone serious about racing, the extra fees would quickly add up to the price of a club membership. The economics would take care of themselves, the theory went, and by joining a club, the rider would then contribute to the racing community. After a long decline in popularity, then-USAC technical director Shawn Farrell informed officials in a July 2012 update that the unattached rider fee had been formally abolished. Rather than encouraging club membership, the fee discouraged race participation, sending an exclusionary message that was even more costly than the financial one, particularly to riders just looking to get their feet wet.

Being unattached today no longer means paying an extra fee, nor looking like a garage sale refugee on the start line. Premium brands like Rapha have lured racers away from the logoed world of club kit. Now, independent kit designers, many of them part-timers, have proliferated, with their designs coming to fruition as kits by industry stalwarts like Castelli, selling to the public via the web, and advertising via social media.

With myriad clothing options available, the unattached fee dead, and the Internet serving as a surrogate for the cycling knowledge base, joining a club, particularly a large one, has been heavily disincentivized. Why pay membership fees? Why take on the responsibilities? In an era when social media teaches that personal networks can be carefully curated, and dissent easily and conveniently blocked out, why subject ourselves to the hurly-burly of big club life?

It is easier than ever to race bicycles without truly being part of the racing community. You can simply pay your entry fee, race, and drive home, all with no obligation to ever spend a day standing at an intersection in an orange vest imploring drivers late for church to wait just a minute for the peloton to pass or drive a sleeping junior to an 8 a.m. start.

But if too many cyclists make that choice, racing ultimately loses. Even the most committed will face a tipping point when the non-contributors become too numerous, and altruism and dedication to the cause are worn too threadbare to endure. That is when a year-on-year dip in the number of races will become a dive, and potentially a vicious cycle. No races, no racing, no racers.

Ultimately, the appeal of being part of something bigger — of community, of collective success, of contributing to the sport — will have to outweigh the desire for exclusivity, the appeal of convenience, and the whims of fashion. Like those old, creaky clubs, cycling is a big tent, but it takes everyone to keep the circus going.

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Suffer no more http://www.velonews.com/2015/10/news/road/suffer-no-more_388379 Sat, 31 Oct 2015 13:08:06 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=388379 Cycling is hard, painful, challenging. But to be alive and riding has nothing to do with suffering, writes Ryan Newill.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Velo magazine.

“Suffering:” The word is etched in cycling’s lexicon, deeper, it seems, with each passing race and ride. The sport’s relationship with suffering — the word and the state of being — predates the internet. But in the social media era, when carefully filtered images of abrasions, mud-streaked legs, and faces lined by fatigue can and must be dramatically captioned, its use as a descriptor of life on two wheels has exploded.

And why not? The word has always fit cycling’s hardscrabble identity, one forged in the operatic newspaper coverage of those early Tours de France and Giri d’Italia. It fit perfectly into the narrative of “les forçats de la route,” the convicts of the road, grimly enduring all manner of hardships to escape the farm or factory life.

A hundred years later, it still applies. How else can you describe what Fabian Cancellara has undergone this season? One of the last great season-long campaigners, he cracked two vertebrae in a crash at E3 Harelbeke in March, then another two while wearing yellow at the Tour de France. He clawed back again to start the Vuelta a España, only to be felled by a virus. Spartacus called it a season in August, having struggled, endured, and, yes, suffered.

And what do you call Peter Stetina’s experience since hitting an unprotected traffic bollard in a sprint at the Vuelta a País Vasco, where he shattered his leg, kneecap, and three ribs? On the bike, the 28-year-old helped his BMC Racing teammates win stages at August’s USA Pro Challenge, his comeback race. Off the bike, he walked with a cane. You call that “suffering.”

Those are extremes. But this sport definitely has a baseline level of individual affliction, the routine suffering we deliver to — and accept from — our rivals or force upon ourselves. The burning legs and searing lungs, the churning gut, the tunnel vision — all the manifold symptoms of the body running out of the materials it needs to do what the brain asks it to. In cycling, these discomforts are somehow a reward.

“I cannot sprint against the fastest, and sometimes I struggle on the bergs at Flanders, but Roubaix is perfect for me,” Belgian brawler Stijn Vandenbergh said before this spring’s Paris-Roubiax, perhaps the race most closely associated with physical torment. “I like to suffer and make others suffer.”

In most contexts, that sentiment would mark Vandenbergh as a sociopath. In cycling, it’s a testament to his dedication to his job. Indeed, if the sport’s assorted gods assembled their own set of commandments, somewhere between Eddy Merckx’s “ride lots” and Major Taylor’s “don’t eat cheap candies” would lie Udo Bolts’ admonishment to Jan Ullrich as he struggled with a moment of weakness en route to his 1997 Tour victory. The hardened domestique’s advice to his young charge offered neither tact nor tenderness: “Quäl dich, du sau!”

Suffer, you swine.

Bolts was nails — ask anyone — and while most of us won’t stoically drag more fancied riders through 12 trips around France, there is a little bit of him in all of us. We are comforted by the fact that for all the affronts to our rights on the road, the hurled insults about Lycra and sexuality and more than a few hurled beer cans, the bad weather and popped collarbones and all of the other indignities of thousands of miles on the road, we are tougher than other people.

We suffer it all and smile. We smile because cycling, lest we forget, is not the way of the cross. To focus solely on the pain and grimaces and raw, bleeding knees in all their romantic, sepia glory is to ignore cycling’s inherent yin and yang, one that guarantees equal portions of not suffering — generous helpings of beauty, reward, and fun.

There is no other sport with such a refined balance, which offers so detailed a receipt of the physical currency spent and later refunded. Each leg-sapping ascent comes back to us on the downhill. Every too-hard pull on the front finds its counterweight in those seemingly impossible moments being sucked along at the back, spun out and effortless at the same time. Even the most relentless coastal headwind vanishes at the turnaround. (There are no tailwinds in cycling, as the saying goes. There’s either a headwind, or you’re having a great day.)

It isn’t always that simple. Rewards for the harder moments aren’t necessarily immediate. Winds that promised to pay us back on the ride back home can shift or die, and mountaintop finishes can deny the gravitational dividend. On every group ride and in every race, someone is stuck paying the bigger part of the peloton’s collective tab. But over the years, it all evens out.

For all the howling winds and cold rains or, worse, winters spent in basements hunched over warped rollers, there are the bluebird days that can’t be captured with a lens or improved with a filter. Terrible city streets and urban sprawl give way to smooth, rolling farm roads and high mountain passes. Every dizzying Wednesday interval session has its counterpart in a chatty Monday recovery ride.

And for all those intervals and other slights against our bodies — the fatigue; the rebellions of joints and muscles and organs; the failures of talent and genetics and, if we’re honest, commitment — there are those moments when it all comes together. Sometimes through careful planning, sometimes almost by accident, we occasionally fall into that state of grace where gaps close by magic, hills flatten out, and competitors seem slower. No matter how much the speed and effort might still hurt, in those moments, we’re not suffering.

Nor are we suffering after our rides, when we sit in the sun with friends we’ve made over the years or on a single ride — whom we have alternately vanquished and been vanquished by, attacked and nursed home. We drink coffee or beer and laugh at ourselves and our lives. We enjoy the still, satisfying fatigue that stems from the effort we just completed, of having emptied the tank and found out where the limit was.

It is the opposite of suffering.

There is true suffering in cycling, the kind that can’t be relieved by simply letting up or putting a foot down, resting, and recovering. You can see it in the sad journeys of the sport’s troubled souls, men like Marco Pantani, José María Jiménez, and Frank Vandenbrouke, and in the anguish of the families of Nicole Reinhart, Andrei Kivilev, Wouter Weylandt, Fabio Casartelli and all the others who went out one morning to race bicycles and didn’t come back. It is there in abbreviated careers of men like Mauricio Soler. But that suffering — that of lives profoundly changed or lost — is the suffering of humanity. Cycling is only the setting. The kind of suffering cyclists talk of when we recount how the road pitched up or the big attacks went down? That isn’t suffering at all. It is discomfort, pain, or an investment that pays off later, in the next race, on the other side of the hill, on the ride back home, or in a warm coffee shop after a cold January ride.

Call the sport “hard” or “challenging” or “painful.” It is all of those things. But don’t ever describe being alive and able to ride a bicycle as “suffering.”

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Supply and demand: The value of a Tour victory http://www.velonews.com/2015/10/tour-de-france/supply-and-demand-the-value-of-a-tour-victory_388185 Sat, 24 Oct 2015 13:17:52 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=388185 Tour de France stage wins may be plentiful, but they remain one of the sport’s most coveted prizes.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the July issue of Velo magazine.

Since the dawn of the millennium fifteen years ago, 151 different riders have etched their names into the record books as Tour de France stage winners — dozens more if you count all the men who contributed to wins in nine team time trials. Those men have seized on 345 opportunities (prologues included) to earn one of the sport’s most instantly transformational victories, some multiple times, others just once. Compared to the scarcity of cycling’s other top prizes — the five monuments, the three grand tours, a world championship title — Tour stages present some appealing odds.

For those members of cycling’s top tier not destined for GC greatness, monumental glory, or rainbow stripes, winning a Tour stage is the most attainable piece of bona fide cycling stardom. No other stage win and few one-day races offer the same rewards or recognition. And the Tour offers that chance to every type of rider, from stoutest rouleur to willowy climber. So, despite the healthy supply of Tour stages in the marketplace, demand pushes their worth near the top of the sport’s value chain. A journeyman domestique or Coupe de France hero might not dare to consider winning Il Lombardia or a yellow jersey, but if everything plays out right — if he makes the break, if the GC leaders and their teams need a rest between mountain ranges, if the sprinter’s teams time it wrong — he just might be able to stand on the sport’s biggest stage for a few precious minutes.

And it is a big stage. Estimates for total television viewership vary widely, but most put the number north of 1 billion. By Tour organizer ASO’s sometimes optimistic estimate, some 12 million people stand in town squares and on mountainsides and in fields to watch it pass each summer. Win a stage, and, more than in any other bike race, the eyes of the world are upon you, from die-hard cycling fans to grandmothers out for a picnic. For the rest of your life, you have proof that you not only reached the de facto pinnacle of the sport, but emerged victorious, if only for a day.

As important as they are to a stage hunter, the value of a stage win isn’t lost on the men fighting for the Tour’s bigger honors. For those candidates for the yellow, green, and polka-dot jerseys, stage wins are an important accessory, proof of a victory achieved with panache rather than cool, calculated riding. Peter Sagan is the latest Tour jersey winner to feel the sting of a stage win’s absence, taking the green jersey in 2015 without the swashbuckling wins that had leant his three previous titles undeniable credibility and forced the cycling world to take a young, swaggering kid seriously.

It’s no new phenomenon. In 1990, the year Sagan was born, Greg LeMond’s dramatic, race-long pursuit of the unexpectedly tenacious Claudio Chiappucci featured plenty of drama and inspired riding, but the American never crossed the line first as he rode to his last Tour win. Without that defining moment — the stopped clock of a winning time trial, the victory salute of a road stage — even the grandest victory in Paris can feel lacking.

A Tour stage win is also, often, a trumpet blast that signals an arrival, a first foothold on the climb to the sport’s highest summits. Before he became the Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw roared in France in 1990, first in the dash to Mont-Saint-Michel and again on the Champs-Élysées. Fabian Cancellara’s talents first came to widespread attention when he crushed all comers in the 2004 prologue to wear yellow at the age of 23. Four world time trial championships and seven victories in three of the sport’s five monuments would follow. And back in 1989, high in the Pyrénées at Luz Ardiden, a domestique for defending champion Pedro Delgado seized an opportunity to ride for himself. Miguel Indurain bagged the stage and wore polka dots for a day, but returned to make yellow his own for the next five years.

For many, though, a Tour stage win is the summit, not a stepping stone; it is a career-defining achievement never to be bettered or even equaled again. It can mark the upper limit of talent for those who consider themselves race winners, or simply a shining moment in the life of an avowed domestique. Some, like Frenchman Pierrick Fédrigo, develop a knack for the Tour stage win, finding repeated success in the Tour’s pressure cooker that never quite extends to other events. But is that so bad? Victory at the Tour means a contract for the next year, bonuses, endorsements, and, if you believe the old saying, never the need to buy a beer again. Every stage winner comes from somewhere, and wherever it is, there’s a good chance there’s a cycling fan willing to buy a round just to hear the story again.

All Tour stage wins have value, whether in beer or bonuses, panache or prediction, but not all are valued equally. Unfair, perhaps, but true. In the hierarchy of Tour stages, elevation elevates. Victories in the Alps and the Pyrénées are the building blocks of legends, while the transitional stages between them are often written off as cease-fire days in the broader GC war.

Win on Mont Ventoux, for example, and your name goes down beside Gaul and Poulidor, Merckx and Thevenet. Win on Alpe d’Huez, and they put your name on a sign on one of those 21 famous hairpins — forever. Even Lance Armstrong’s name, purged from official Tour records, still marks hairpins number 19 and 21 for his 2001 and 2004 Alpe wins. And hairpin number one, that final, agonizing bend before the race launches toward the line in the ski village? That pride of place belongs to Giuseppe Guerini, who proved to be ahead of his time by getting knocked off his bike by a fan with a camera en route to victory in 1999. But Guerini’s gutsy solo win through the Massif Central at the tail end of the 2005 Tour? All but forgotten.

Compared to the rarified air of the mountains, victories in the flat heat of the field sprints are treated not as works of art, but as commodities. The locales are not legendary and their names mostly forgotten, reduced to one more tick mark in the raw tallies used to compare the sport’s legendary fast men. The man who all but created the supersprinter genre, Mario Cipollini topped out at 12 wins at the Tour, before his habit of quitting before the race hit the mountains made him a persona non grata. His foil, the more versatile but less rapid Erik Zabel managed 12 as well, as did Robbie McEwen, who unlike the blinding Cipollini remained all but invisible until 100 meters go. And then came Mark Cavendish. By the end of his third Tour, he’d surpassed them all and tied Freddy Maertens’ total of 15. Cavendish’s count now lies at 26, one more than heroic-era Frenchman André Leducq, third on the all-time stage wins list, with time left on the clock and a new team for 2016.

Though Marcel Kittel was absent this year, the context, caveats, and mitigating circumstances fall away from all but the most storied stage wins, regardless of terrain. Nobody remembers that the winning break was all but forgotten as a cat-and-mouse GC battle raged down the mountain, that the top sprinter got pinched against the barrier and had to brake, or that the winning mark in the time trial was set before the wind and rain swept in for the afternoon starters.

All of those facts are there for those who seek them, tucked into detailed histories, tattered magazine articles, and forgotten nooks of the web. But few bother to look. There are 21 new stages worth of stories each year, and the stage winner’s is just one among many. What’s the use in remembering that Traversoni’s 1997 win came only after Voskamp and Heppner were disqualified, or that André Greipel and Cavendish’s prosperous 2012 Tours came while Kittel battled and lost to a stomach bug, or that, in that same Tour, reigning world champion Tony Martin flatted in both the prologue and first individual time trial, won by Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins? No victory is achieved in a vacuum.

For the most part, only the stark truth is left in popular memory — the rider, the year, perhaps the name of a town or a mountain or an image of upstretched arms. The adulation fades, contracts come and go, careers end, the story is relegated to the barroom and the café. Only the honor and the line item on the palmares remain. And each July, like clockwork, 21 new opportunities spring forth to be fought over by 198 men hungry to claim their own piece of cycling’s most valuable property.

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Bello autumno: Six can’t-miss Italian classics http://www.velonews.com/2015/09/news/bello-autumno-six-cant-miss-italian-classics_386770 Tue, 29 Sep 2015 19:39:48 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=386770 Although they don't get as much attention as their spring Belgian counterparts, these classic one-day races deliver plenty of action.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of Velo magazine.

For all the weeks-long, pink-wrapped glory of May’s Giro d’Italia, Italy has only a fleeting relationship with spring’s other main events, the classics. Yes, Milano-Sanremo is the longest one-day race on the professional calendar and the first monument of the season. And in only nine editions, Strade Bianche has carved out a spot among races a century more mature. But as prestigious as both races are, they can feel like a prelude to the march back north. The Mediterranean capi and Tuscan hill towns are quickly forgotten once tubular tires hit Belgian cobbles.

Autumn is another story. At the far end of the season, Italy takes center stage as the season’s final dramas play out on the southern side of the Alps.

The 110-year old Il Lombardia is the centerpiece of the fall calendar — the last of the five monuments and the only one not held in spring. Since the UCI moved the world championships from late August to the September-October timeframe in 1995, this race has also become the traditional debut of the rainbow jersey, particularly when the worlds course has smiled on the sort of rider who excels on the short, sharp climbs that mark Lombardia’s trip around Lago di Como. Two riders, Oscar Camenzind in 1998 and Paolo Bettini in 2006, have managed to parlay their world championship form into Lombardia wins the following week.

Lombardia is the star, but it is supported by an undercard rich in Italian cycling history and local flavor that is relatively undiluted by the sport’s global push. From the week before Lombardia through the following Sunday, northern Italy hosts another five classics ranging from UCI 1.HC to UCI 1.2 status. Their spring analogs — supporting races like the E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen — have become well known to American audiences, thanks to the rise of live Internet feeds. But due perhaps to end-of-season fan fatigue, or to broader social and economic realities, the smaller Italian classics remain enigmatic.

Milano-Torino traditionally opens Italian fall classics in late September. The modest Wednesday timeslot belies the race’s significance. It boasts six fewer editions than Liège-Bastogne-Liège — the race known as La Doyenne, and traditionally referred to as the oldest. But Milano-Torino debuted in 1876, 16 years before the Belgian classic, which makes it the oldest race on the professional calendar.

Old age is seldom achieved without change or trauma. Milano-Torino’s struggle to gain traction in its earliest years is reflected in the yawning 18-year gap between its first and second editions.

Several more years-long hiatuses followed before the race finally picked up momentum in 1913. And like many races, it suffered as Europe and its cyclists fought two world wars. There have been recent challenges, as well. In 1987, organizers uprooted the race from its traditional spring spot ahead of Milano-Sanremo and pushed it to the fall. It moved back in 2005, only to be transplanted again in 2008, when the ascendant Strade Bianche demanded its date. In 2000, the race was canceled due to the Po River flood that killed scores and displaced tens of thousands, and from 2008 through 2011, it was put on ice while organizer Associazione Ciclistica Arona and owner RCS battled over terms.

The renaissance came in 2012. With management issues resolved, organizers revived Milano-Torino and traded the customary flat finale in front of the Fausto Coppi Motovelodromo for two circuits up the five-kilometer, nine percent slopes of the Basilica di Superga climb east of town.

The reintroduction of the brutally steep Muro di Sormano climb to the Giro di Lombardia had a new group of lightweight contenders targeting that monument, and Milano-Torino’s newly challenging profile was a perfect tune-up.

The new finish impressed in its debut, when Alberto Contador attacked on the second trip up the Superga to take the first — and still only — one-day win of his career. Fourth-placed Joaquim Rodríguez won his first of two Lombardia titles three days later, while runner-up Diego Ulissi, one of Italy’s most promising young classics riders, returned to win Milano-Torino the following year.

Whoever wins Milano-Torino this year will have little time to savor the sunset over the Alps. Thursday morning brings the start of the Gran Piemonte, which, until 2008, was known as the Giro del Piemonte. Like many of the fall classics, Piemonte has led a challenging existence, particularly during Europe’s recent economic troubles.

After a fairly steady run since its start in 1906, Piemonte first stumbled in 2007, when organizers could not raise enough sponsorship to host the race. It clawed back in 2008 but looked to be finished when it went dormant after the 2012 edition, won by Colombian Rigoberto Urán. But RCS resurrected the race for 2015 as part of its efforts to build a coordinated, sustainable, late-season calendar around Lombardia.

Written on rolling roads and short climbs in the far northern Apennines, Piemonte’s history is worth reviving. In 92 editions, Cino Cinelli, Felice Gimondi, and Eddy Merckx all claimed victories there. The great Gino Bartali, standard bearer for a generation of careers bisected by war, won Piemonte three times, twice in the late 1930s and again in 1951, when the race was held in June. In the sprint that brought “Gino the Pious” that final victory, Serse Coppi crashed on the tram tracks of Torino’s Corso Casale. He dusted himself off and returned to his hotel but died of a brain hemorrhage several hours later. A monument to Serse stands outside the velodrome named for his older brother, Fausto.

Piemonte’s modern history, while financially fraught, is less tragic. Daniele Bennati has claimed two wins, in 2006 and 2008, and Philippe Gilbert won Piemonte before both of his Lombardia wins in 2009 and 2010.

Little Italy

When the WorldTour calendar closes with Lombardia two days later, the non-Italian WorldTour teams and their stars will largely fade away into the off-season, depleted by three grand tours and a mandatory season that began in Australia in January. Those that are left will be split between the Italian races, French season closers Paris-Bourges and Paris-Tours, and a smattering of home-country obligations.

The last Italian races are fought out largely by indigenous second-division teams and the Eastern European squads that have gravitated to Italy since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Even without the flash of the big names, though, the end of the season sparkles. The crowds are smaller, but so are the buses. Riders mingle more and hide less.

Usually, the Thursday after Lombardia, the peloton swings southwest into Tuscany’s Pisa province for the 197-kilometer Gran Premio Citta di Peccioli-Coppa Sabatini. (In 2016, the race is run September 22, due to the later date of world championships.) As the lengthy name suggests, the latest version of the 63-year-old race takes in three circuits up and around Peccioli, a hill town of fewer than 5,000 residents in the heart of Tuscany’s racing country. Sienna, home to Strade Bianche’s dramatic finish, lies just to the southeast, with Florence to the northwest. Though younger than the races that surround it, this one has been admirably durable, having missed only one start, in 1977.

The change from WorldTour to Italian national classic is palpable. While last year’s Lombardia featured six nationalities in the top 10 — and an Irish winner — no non-Italian has finished in the top seven of the Coppa Sabatini for the last two years. That race’s mix of winners also speaks to the unpredictable nature of late-season competition, shaped by summer’s illnesses and injuries, fueled by the desire to either salvage a catastrophic year or ride a hot streak a little bit longer. It’s a rare race that sees classics legends like Argentin, Tchmil, Bettini, and Gilbert listed as winners alongside stage-race specialists like Bernard, Chiapucci, Riis, and Ullrich.

Recently, Sabatini has favored youth. Diego Ulissi scored here in 2013, wedged in between victories at Milano-Torino and the Giro dell’Emilia. Enrico Battaglin won as a neo-pro in 2011, and his teammate Sonny Colbrelli claimed last year’s title at age 24.

From Peccioli, the Italian peloton usually travels northeast across the Apennines to Emilia-Romagna for its closing weekend. Also in 2016, this race has been moved earlier, to September 24, accommodating October worlds in Qatar.

The course runs 200 kilometers through and around Bologna, with five rapid-fire trips up the two-kilometer, 10 percent climb to the Madonna di San Luca chapel in the final 40 kilometers. While the climb-heavy finale helped produce Colombian winners in Carlos Betancur and Nairo Quintana in recent years, enduring Italian Davide Rebellin won in 2014.

The serpentine history of Sunday’s season finale, the Giro della Romagna, reflects the trials of being at the bitter end of the calendar, where races struggle to attract scarce sponsorship money, waning fan attention, and the big stars that can help deliver both. First held in 1910, the race around Imola and Forli rolled through 86 editions, with the usual interruptions, until 2011, when it ran short of funding and merged with the similarly strapped Coppa Placci. In 2012, the Romagna name disappeared, while the Coppa Placci merged with the Giro del Veneto. Oscar Gatto won both those editions, which would mark the last editions of both Coppa Placci and Veneto (so far). For 2013 and 2014, the Romagna name returned, combined this time with the Memorial Marco Pantani, a race founded in 2004 to celebrate the life of the climber from nearby Cesenatico.

There are races after the fall classics in Italy. The faded Chrono des Nations soldiers on the next weekend in France, and the road season now stretches into November to accommodate new races in Asia, Africa, and South America. It is a positive sign for the sport. But as the sun sets on Lombardia in early October, it is only shutting its eyes for an ever-shorter winter hibernation.

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Stybar: The worlds favorite who isn’t http://www.velonews.com/2015/09/news/stybar-the-worlds-favorite-who-isnt_386130 Fri, 25 Sep 2015 20:08:30 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=386130 Czech Zdenek Stybar will aim to make history as the first man to win the cyclocross and road race world championship titles.

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Zdenek Stybar is not an A-list favorite for the rainbow stripes, and he’s OK with that.

“I would prefer to surprise. Yeah, indeed, I think probably the top favorites I’m definitely not, but I think it’s a circuit that could suit me,” Stybar said at the joint Czech and Slovak press conference on Friday. “I think my condition is pretty OK, so it’s really just wait and see. I’d rather be the outsider than the favorite for the moment.”

In riding the Tour of Britain rather than the Vuelta a España or Canadian World Cup races as preparation for worlds, Stybar has largely sidestepped pre-worlds scrutiny, and remained less prominent in pre-race prognostications than riders like Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb, and Alexander Kristoff. But despite the relatively low profile, conditions in Richmond could give the three-time world cyclocross champion and rising classics star the opportunity to do what not even the great Roger De Vlaeminck could: add rainbow road bands to those he’s earned in the mud.

Stybar has not been a prolific winner this season, but he has turned in top performances against many of the top favorites in Richmond, Virginia. He delivered a win over worlds rival Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium) in March’s Strade Bianche classic, and finished a close second to Degenkolb (Germany) at Paris-Roubaix. In his first Tour de France, he carried off stage 6 into La Havre with a cagey solo attack in the last 500 meters, foiling what looked like inevitable bunch sprint. With Richmond’s technical finale, could Stybar seize on another moment of hesitation to steal an even bigger prize from the sprinters?

“It’s really very difficult to predict how this race will go on. I think we’ll just have to see a little bit, and see what groups will go at the beginning of the race. Belgium have so many guys who could win, they can really play around. It will be, I think, really tough to control the end of the race.”

Rain predicted for Sunday’s race could make controlling things even tougher, and has many looking more closely at Stybar and Dutchman Lars Boom, another former ‘cross world champion turned road worlds outsider. While Stybar’s BMX and cyclocross background have provided him some of the best handling skills in the peloton, he’s not selling his road racing cohorts short.

“I think the circuit is pretty technical with the number of turns, so it’s definitely better to have the bike skills than not. But in the professional peloton it’s already a lot of guys with enough experience to handle their bikes, so I don’t think it will be against the big favorites any big advantage.”

Should the rains come as forecast, Stybar says, positioning will be key, particularly on the cobbled climbs of Libby Hill and 23rd Street, just minutes from the finish line.

“I think it will be more dangerous because you can see there’s some oil on the road, there are some technical turns, and we have to ride over the cobblestones. I think the steep parts will be tough to ride up it if there will be weather, not for the guys on the front, but I think on the back of the bunch probably it will be very tough to get up.”

Making sure Stybar is well positioned in key moments will be a strong seven-man Czech selection, short of the full nine-man complement enjoyed by the traditional European powers but entirely dedicated to his cause.

“In the end, we are with seven here. I think we have a good team, with Peter Vakoc who was very strong in Tour of Britain, Roman Kreuziger who was also going really good on the end of the season now. And also [Jan] Barta, he is strong, so I think we have a really good team if it will be necessary that we can work something out.

Should the Czechs work everything out in Richmond, Stybar will become the first man to wear stripes on both the road and in the mud.

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Sagan circumspect ahead of Worlds http://www.velonews.com/2015/09/news/sagan-circumspect-ahead-of-worlds_386104 Fri, 25 Sep 2015 17:23:06 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=386104 After crashing out of Vuelta, Sagan won't admit he's a worlds favorite, although the circuit seems tailor-made for the Slovak speedster.

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Since the moment the jagged, technical Richmond circuit was unveiled, Peter Sagan has been predicted as the winner of the elite men’s road race. There are the dozens of corners that favor his impressive technical skills. The sprinters’ hills would reward his renowned power. And the short cobblestone sections provide a whiff of the spring classics, where he has excelled in recent years. Two days before the elite men’s road race, though, the Slovak isn’t predicting anything.

“I don’t know. I’ll see the final if I’m in the front. If I’m not in the front, I won’t see it. Maybe on the TV,” Sagan joked when asked how he sees Sunday’s race playing out. “I don’t know. It’s the future. I don’t know how to predict my future or the race future. You have to be there and decide in the moment. [The finish] is very complicated. Maybe one guy, maybe 50 guys.”

On who that one guy — or 50 guys — might be, who he sees as his chief competition, Sagan was also unwilling to engage in the longstanding pre-worlds game of shifting the pressure to a rival’s shoulders.

“It doesn’t matter what I can see or not; it’s just losing time,” he said, noting that, in the last several years in particular, riders who were not big race favorites — Rui Costa, Michel Kwiatkowski — carried off the rainbow jersey. “I think it’s for nothing thinking about favorites.”

Who could blame Sagan for not wanting to prognosticate?

Since bursting onto the pro scene in 2010, the wunderkind has been tipped to win nearly everything on the calendar short of grand tours — and sometimes even those. In many ways, he’s delivered. Four consecutive Tour de France green jerseys speak to his speed and consistency. Wins at Gent-Wevelgem and the E3 Harelbeke, as well as podium finishes at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), show that enthusiasm for his classics potential was not misplaced.

But the forecasted dominance has not materialized, and the 25-year-old has now endured two frustrating seasons that, while they would be career years for many riders, haven’t lived up to expectations. Flashes of brilliance have been punctuated with disappointment.

This year, Sagan left the classics season without stepping onto a podium — his best results were fourth places at the Tour of Flanders and Milano-Sanremo — but he bounced back by winning two stages and the overall classification at the Tour of California and a pair of Tour de Suisse stages.

He captured his fourth green points jersey at the Tour, but as in 2014, he failed to score a validating stage win, instead having to settle for an astonishing five second-place finishes. The Slovak ended his grand tour stage win drought with a win in stage 3 of the Vuelta a España, but the high was short-lived. His Vuelta ended in pain and frustration when a race motorcycle crashed him out on stage 8.

With his own preparation interrupted as his worlds rivals raced in Spain, Canada, and Britain, Sagan now finds himself in Richmond wondering where he stands, knowing the question can really only be answered by the race itself.

“I don’t know now how I am with condition, because after the crash in the Vuelta I was one week recovering, and after I went to altitude training. But now I am one month without racing. Maybe we’ll see Sunday what I can do.”

With three short, steep climbs — two of them cobbled — and a series of 90-degree turns, Richmond’s chaotic finale could suit the swashbuckling Sagan if he has the legs after what’s likely to be a high-speed lead-in.

“For sure it’s technical, but the technical is just five kilometers of the race, or six kilometers,” added. “The rest is flat, big roads. We’ll see. It’ll be strange, but it can also be a nice world championships.”

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From rumor to reality: CrossVegas set to open World Cup http://www.velonews.com/2015/09/news/from-rumor-to-reality-crossvegas-set-to-open-world-cup_384493 Mon, 14 Sep 2015 12:37:49 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=384493 Wednesday's CrossVegas will be the first-ever CX World Cup in the U.S. It's been a long road to get here, but it represents a sea of change.

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A year and a half ago, CrossVegas promoter Brook Watts was spending a lot of time batting down rumors that his race was slated to become the first-ever U.S. stop on the UCI’s cyclocross World Cup. On Wednesday, the rumors will finally become reality, just slightly later than expected.

When UCI Cyclocross Coordinator Peter van der Abeele told Belgium’s Gazet Van Antwerpen in March 2014 that CrossVegas would kick off the 2014-2015 World Cup, Watts’ phone nearly caught fire. Rumblings about CrossVegas and the World Cup had circulated in cyclocross for several years but were easy to dismiss. Now it was serious. Was this race — held on a Wednesday, at night, in the American desert, in September — really going to break into one of the sport’s biggest annual series?

The answer — then — was no. While Watts had been in contact with the UCI for some time, it was far from a done deal. The race’s relative isolation from the rest of the world ’cross calendar remained a concern, as did keeping CrossVegas financially viable while conforming to requirements of the World Cup.

“I’m fully committed to doing a World Cup in America, when the time is right,” Watts said after the fuss died down, “when it makes sense financially as an event and when it makes sense for the teams to come over and perhaps participate in a number of races.”

Held in conjunction with the annual Interbike show, CrossVegas has attracted top international ’cross talent like Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink), Katie Compton (Trek Factory Racing), and Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin) over the years. The riders can get in a hard effort a few weeks ahead of the start of the traditional European season, and their sponsors get a big draw in their show booths. But until this year, sponsorship synergy for a few top stars hadn’t been enough to justify dragging the entire ’cross show across nine time zones.

Things changed about a year ago, when Patrice Drouin, president of Montreal race-promotion outfit Gestev, told Watts he wanted to host a World Cup race.

“I’ve said all along that I didn’t want [CrossVegas] to be the primary reason teams came over,” Watts said. “So it was particularly interesting that here was an opportunity for them to do two races on this side of the world and to get the World Cup schedule back up to eight races, which is the right number.”

Watts also cited new attitudes as key finally taking CrossVegas to the World Cup.

“There have been a number of changes leading to a willingness on the part of the UCI to accept some of the differences we have over here,” Watts explained, “like that CrossVegas is distinctly tied to the bicycle industry and Interbike, and so certain provisions have to be made from a sponsor standpoint.”

That new willingness to work with CrossVegas’ unique parameters means this year’s race will keep its suite of branded course features — the “TRP Brake Zone,” the “Raleigh Ramp,” and the “Focus Stairs,” to name a few — maintaining both longstanding relationships and revenue streams.

With the momentum finally there, Watts and the UCI met in Koksijde, Belgium, in late November to finalize details. At February’s UCI worlds in Tabor, Czech Republic, the announcement went out. North America would host not one, but two rounds of the 2015-16 World Cup.

Once again, though, the enthusiasm proved premature. In late June, Drouin and Gestev announced that their race would not take place due to a lack of sponsor support. Would the big guns of European cyclocross — famously loathe to leave the continent — simply call a truce for the U.S. round, stay home, and rely on the European rounds to sort out the overall?

“That was part of the discussions we had [with the UCI] last fall — that if you had two events, no one can miss them. You can’t get that many co-conspirators to sit out. There’s too much at stake,” Watts said.

“I had some concern that some of the fallout from the Montreal cancellation might see certain key athletes saying, ‘I’ll stay home and take a pass.’ That lasted no more than a few days, when communications that I get from these teams were at a critical phase. The communications continued. ‘OK, talk to us about the RVs. Talk to us about the parking space. What’s going on with the hotels?’ It was ‘turn the page, business as usual.’”

What choice did they have? As in previous years, Trek was motivated to have its stars, Nys and Compton, make an appearance. Giant felt the same about van der Haar. This year, though, what happened in Vegas wouldn’t stay in Vegas — the results from that hot, grassy race in Desert Breeze Park would have real repercussions in Europe. Spotting some North American pros a few points in a seven-race series is one thing. Giving former world champions and World Cup winners a head start is another.

“I haven’t seen any falloff from the riders,” Watts said of the Montreal cancellation. “Perhaps, if anything, it makes it doubly important to be in attendance at each and every World Cup leg. It hasn’t affected me thus far, and I don’t anticipate it will in the short period before the race.”

The cancellation has affected teams, however. Many were dreading the 2,500-mile, Vegas-to-Montreal journey that had to be done — with staff and equipment — in two days’ time. They will be spared the necessity of that cross-country, cross-border rally, but, in some cases, not the time and expense associated with it.

“All of us are feeling some financial pain, some more than others. Some of the teams have had to pay $150 per person per ticket to make the change to fly back from Las Vegas. A couple of the teams have had no choice but to go ahead and continue on to Montreal and then fly from there because that’s the routing, and they can’t change the routing. The inconvenience has fallen to the teams, and there’s nobody that’s happy about that.”

While the Montreal cancellation was a setback, Watts sees the debut of the World Cup in the United States as another step forward in an inevitable globalization of cyclocross. With the narrow window between an acceptable ’cross season start date and the traditional European opener at Neerpelt, Belgium on the final weekend of September, Watts knows challenges remain. But with a successful debut at this year’s CrossVegas, the United States could establish a firm foothold in one of the discipline’s premier series.

“We only have these guys for so long before they have to get back,” says Watts. “You’re not going to keep those guys over here. So we’ve got this early-season slot, and unfortunately, we have to fit 10 pounds into a five-pound bag.”

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Outlier: CrossVegas will be the first U.S. cyclocross World Cup http://www.velonews.com/2015/02/news/cyclocross/outlier-crossvegas-will-first-u-s-cyclocross-world-cup_359698 Mon, 02 Feb 2015 15:24:44 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=359698 Improbable as it seemed, CrossVegas, a race run in the middle of Nevada's most infamous desert metropolis, will become a World Cup race

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Velo magazine. The UCI recently announced that the cyclocross World Cup will include two North American stops in the 2015-2016 season — the first in Las Vegas, the second in Montreal.

Belgium averages a hair over three inches of total rainfall in December, well distributed across 20 days of the month. Beneath that near-perpetual cloud cover lies the epicenter of cyclocross, the spiritual home of the discipline; at its yearly high water mark, the Kerstperiode, fans on Christmas holiday gorge themselves at a feast of top-level cyclocross. The country, at that time, is the reference point for nearly every aspect of cyclocross not captured in the rulebook: the mud, the cold, and the hard-fought glory, the flags and beer and rubber boots, all cast against that threatening steel-gray sky.

The distance from Zolder, Belgium, which hosted the fifth round of this year’s UCI World Cup on December 26, to Las Vegas, Nevada, home to the now eight-year-old Clif Bar CrossVegas race, is 5,412 miles as the crow flies. It might as well be a million. In September, when CrossVegas is held in conjunction with the Interbike trade show, Las Vegas temperatures hover around the 95-degree mark under a desert sun, hence the race’s evening start. It takes Vegas most of the year to approach Belgium’s December rainfall mark. There is no mud, no cold, and no great cycling tradition here. And yet, CrossVegas is poised to become the first American round of the World Cup.

From dare to daring

CrossVegas started in 2007, the product of a mutual dare between veteran ’cross promoters Chris Grealish and Brook Watts. It was a quest that blended their love of cyclocross with a simple desire for something worthwhile to do in Sin City during Interbike.

“We both went to Interbike for other business, and we’re not drinkers, we don’t go to strip clubs, and we don’t go to Celine Dion,” Watts told VeloNews from his office in Boulder, Colorado. “At that time, there was nothing else going on around the show like there is now. It was like, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be neat if … ?’”

The first hurdle was finding suitable terrain amongst Las Vegas’s Disney-esque hardscapes and the surrounding desert.

“We flew into Vegas and bought a Rand McNally map, which is kind of dating myself. We circled all the green spaces on the map and drove to each one of them, each city park,” Watts recalled. “We identified a park that was right under the approach to McCarran airport. It wasn’t perfect. In fact, it sucked, but it seemed like the best we could do.”

It wasn’t. As they sat down to formally settle for the airport location, a parks department staffer asked the pair if they’d seen Desert Breeze park, a soccer complex too new to appear on the map, built into one of the bowl-shaped catchment basins that serve as Las Vegas’s only nod toward stormwater management. Watts and Grealish drove out to check it out, beheld the basin, a veritable “cyclocross stadium” as Watts sees it, and called the parks department back on the spot to lock it down.

World coup?

CrossVegas grew gradually, attracting domestic heavy hitters and more and more foreign talent as it settled in. More than a race, it has become the place to be every year on Interbike’s Wednesday night. As the race became entrenched, both as part of the show experience and in the fabric of American ’cross, rumors circulated that it was headed for World Cup status. But it still felt sudden when, this past March, UCI cyclocross coordinator Peter van der Abeele told the Gazet van Antwerpen, “In September 2015, CrossVegas is part of the World Cup circuit.”

It felt like a coup. This quirky race — an industry party, too early, too grassy, in the wrong climate, and eight hours too far west — would put Las Vegas, Nevada, on a map with ’cross destinations like Koksijde, Hoogerheide, and Tabor. Top level ’cross, in the American desert.

Except it wasn’t true. At least for the moment.

Watts quickly tamped down the premature celebration, but revealed that he was in discussions with the UCI about World Cup status, and that those discussions had taken on a more serious tone. But 2015 was not a done deal.

“I’m fully committed to doing a World Cup in America, when the time is right,” Watts told VeloNews in July. “When it makes sense financially as an event, and when it makes sense for the teams to come over and perhaps participate in a number of races.

“I wouldn’t want to inconvenience the teams financially, because it’s going to be a large investment,” he said. “[You and I] know what’s involved in flying one bike on a vacation; you can imagine flying multiple bikes, multiple wheels, staff, on and on and on. It just has to be done very cautiously, carefully, and correctly. At that point, then I’ll be the first guy in line to make it happen.”

Cautiously, carefully, and correctly. Doing it right involves assembling an intricate machine, one that combines factors like ensuring easy access to international airports to ease travel burdens, providing adequate racing opportunities before and after a proposed World Cup in a way that follows a logical migration pattern, and scheduling it all in a way that meshes, rather than competes with, the big European series that will continue to drive the sport’s top level for the foreseeable future.

All of those factors might not be in place yet, but it’s clear that CrossVegas’s mid-September date addresses one of the biggest concerns for European-based riders when it comes to racing in the U.S. Earlier than September and the ’cross elite are still preparing for their seasons. Later, and riders would risk having eight time zones’ worth of jetlag sap their season-opening performances at home. That means any hopes of big-time international cyclocross in North America must slot in ahead — but not too far ahead — of the powerhouse SuperPrestige and BPost Bank Trophy series in Belgium.

And how do Europe’s famously traditional promoters view this trans-Atlantic upstart potentially elbowing its way into the realm of the sport’s elite events?

“I think [European promoters] probably look on it as a curiosity, but they’ve also been around long enough to see that things are internationalizing and that there’s a place for the new world,” Watts said. “Nobody’s going to quit coming to Diegem to go to America and race in December, so I don’t think they feel threatened.”

Near term

Until all the pieces fall into place and Van Der Abeele makes another, more accurate announcement about World Cup status, CrossVegas continues to build [Las Vegas was named as the first stop in the 2015-2016 cyclocross World Cup at the end of January -Ed.]. In 2014, field quality got a boost as 2011 Vegas winner Lars van der Haar (Giant-Shimano) — winner of the 2013 World Cup overall — squared off against 2013 Vegas champion Sven Nys (Trek Cyclocross Collective) and the 2012 winner, U.S. national champion Jeremy Powers. Belgium’s Telenet-Fidea team also brought three riders, including rising star Thijs van Amerongen. The women’s race was headlined by reigning World Cup champion Katie Compton (Trek) and reigning European Champion Helen Wyman (Kona).

World Cup status would make recruiting top talent far easier, but for the time being, Watts gets an assist from his race’s attachment to the continent’s largest industry trade show. It’s helped him draw some of the sport’s premier names while avoiding an entrenched and expensive aspect of ‘cross promotion: start money.

“A lot more companies are starting to get that they shouldn’t look to me to cover the cost of their athletes. I won’t do it. I don’t believe in start money, and I’m not going to go down that slippery slope,” Watts said. Instead, he presents a value proposition to the companies that sponsor top riders. “I say, ‘Look, you’ve got all the reason in the world to bring your sponsored athletes over here. They’re providing entertainment for your retailers and your guests on Wednesday night. On Thursday, you’ve got them in the [trade show] booth signing autographs. It’s a win-win.’”

The 2014 field faced an array of course features that Watts added over the years to enliven Desert Breeze’s vast expanse of grass.

The two flyovers, three sets of stairs, and the Raleigh Ramp — a wooden, banked, 180-degree turn that slingshots riders toward the barriers — returned in 2014, along with a new sandpit and adjacent beer tent.

“[The sand pit] kind of completes the circle of available course features,” Watts said. “I could go crazy — it’s Las Vegas! I could do flaming hoops; I could do an alligator pit. You could be as silly as you want, but I’m a traditionalist.”

With CrossVegas making the leap to the World Cup, some of the existing features, let alone an alligator pit, might get the hook in the name of keeping the race in the World Cup mold. But while it may not offer quite the canvas of some of the sport’s legendary venues, Watts thinks Desert Breeze can offer up enough of a course in the context of the season.

“I would not presume to say that CrossVegas is a race you could do in the middle of January, two weeks before Worlds. It’s a different animal. It’s a spectacle. It’s a perfect pre-season race,” Watts said. “The purists might say, ‘Ah, it’s not quite what we should have.’ Well, no, but it’s September and you’ve got a little more leeway when you’re in that early part of the season in terms of course severity, what the course makeup is, and the like.”

And so, a night race in September in a catchment basin in Nevada is set to offer North America its first shot at a top international cyclocross race. It seems improbable, but so is Las Vegas itself. If you can build an entire city in a desert, why not a ’cross race?

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Top 14 stories of 2014: Eternal flame http://www.velonews.com/2014/12/news/top-14-stories-2014-eternal-flame_354839 Wed, 31 Dec 2014 13:00:45 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=354839 Death and life coexist at the season's final monument, Giro di Lombardia, and at the Ghisallo sanctuary

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Editor’s note: To close out the year, we are counting down the top 14 stories of 2014. VeloNews and Velo magazine’s editorial staff voted this piece, from the October 2014 issue of Velo, as our favorite story of the year.

There is a cemetery at the top of the Ghisallo climb. It’s on the right-hand side of the road, if you’re climbing from the north, the way Il Lombardia climbs the twisting 8.6 kilometers from where the town of Bellagio cleaves the southern waters of Lago di Como. Behind the stonewall and iron gate are graves and mausoleums brightened with fresh flowers, each marker lit with a round, red electric light the size of a coat button. These are a nod to modernity, a replacement for dripping candles with their vulnerability to wind and rain. Eternal flame, without the hassle.

For cyclists, the cemetery is easy to miss, because on the opposite side of the Via Adua lies the Santuario del Ghisallo, the little church where the bells will ring out as the racers pass on the Sunday of Il Lombardia. Here, too, is an eternal flame, also electric, but more grand in scale.

It stands in the center of the small church, over the grave of Don Ermelindo Viganò, the first rector of the sanctuary and the man who, backed by the peloton of the 1949 Giro d’Italia, personally petitioned Pope Pious XII to formally recognize the chapel’s raison d’etre, the Beate Vergine Maria del Ghisallo, as the patron saint of cyclists.

The Pope obliged, and in October of 1949, he blessed the ornate, sculpted torch and had it sent from Rome to the Ghisallo chapel via an Olympic-style relay. The final two torchbearers were Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, owners of a combined eight Lombardia titles. But like the chapel, the flame honors not just cycling royalty, but the memory of all fallen cyclists.

Morbid monument?

Death seems to surround Il Lombardia, perhaps no more so than on that short stretch of the Via Adua between cemetery and sanctuary. The last of cycling’s five monuments to take place each season, the race embraces its role. Its nickname, “la classica delle foglie morte,” is often generously and poetically translated into English as “Race of the Falling Leaves,” conjuring comforting images of fall colors and crisp afternoons after a hot summer of racing. The more direct translation, however, is “Race of the Dead Leaves,” a decidedly different vision, and one more in keeping with the dark, wet finishes that have marked recent editions.

It’s a fitting tagline for a race that, with its early fall calendar slot, traditionally marks the passing of each cycling season, when what started with spring rains in Belgium and green buds on the Riviera, finds its end in the dead, wet leaves blowing through the streets of Italian lake towns. Lombardia was once a hard deadline, the point when mechanics sold off team equipment, and riders, soigneurs, and directors exchanged handshakes and scattered, bound for a months-long offseason or the smoky indoor world of the six days.

Now, Lombardia’s role as the death knell of the season is largely symbolic. Calendar adjustments have left traditional French closer Paris-Tours the final major one-day classic in Europe, and expansion races, such as the Tour of Beijing, keep the modern road season on life-support well into October. But while the UCI calendar says different, and the Ghisallo’s eternal flame buzzes on, the fire of the season is extinguished at Lombardia.

Summit Sanctuary

If using light bulbs for an eternal flame blessed by a pope and borne by cycling legends feels chintzy, the reluctance for candles or gas lamps inside Il Lombardia’s most famous landmark is understandable — 65-plus years of bicycles, pennants, yellow, pink, and rainbow jerseys, photographs, and other memorabilia cover nearly every surface, floor to arched ceiling. Inside these cramped, ancient quarters, electricity feels a better choice than flame.

The sanctuary’s accretions commemorate the lives and exploits of champions living and dead, Italian and foreign, but death weighs heavily in the chapel. Opposite tomb and torch, enameled portraits of hundreds of departed cyclists, some famous, some obscure, stare from the walls; the chapel is both shrine to two-wheeled luminaries and tomb of the unknowns.

Many of the Ghisallo’s remembrances of cyclists past carry only the worn, detached sort of historical sorrow, but not all. Few still weep for Ottavio Bottecchia, the two-time Tour de France winner who was found dead in a field under mysterious circumstances in 1927, but other losses are still raw.

The red-and-blue Motorola Caloi bike that Fabio Casartelli, a native of nearby Como, was riding when he had his fatal crash on the descent of the Portet d’Aspet in the 1995 Tour de France is here, untouched, bent fork and all. A modest shrine to Marco Pantani appeared on the right side of the altar’s iron gate following his death in 2004. The chapel hosted a memorial for South African champion Ryan Cox after his death in 2007 from a burst artery in his leg. Small in physical space, the Ghisallo’s capacity for remembering cyclists expands to fulfill demand.

New shoots

For all its weight in remembering cycling’s deceased, Lombardia has never had a race fatality of its own, though it has served as a memorial in recent times. In 2006, newly crowned world champion Paolo Bettini crossed the line victorious with tears in his eyes and fingers pointed to the sky in remembrance of his brother, Sauro, who died in a car crash just prior to the race.
“Today I was not pedaling alone,” Bettini said. “The person who used to cheer me from the roadside can’t do it anymore, but he was with me today. I didn’t win by chance.”

While cycling’s dead and the season’s imminent demise might always hover near Lombardia, the race itself speaks of vitality. Organizer RCS Sport, which also owns the Giro d’Italia and Milano-Sanremo, has turned renewed attention to its late-season monument in recent years. For all its history, scenery, and iconography, Lombardia has suffered from its spot at the end of an increasingly long season, when riders are weary or injured, and fan interest is on the downslide. In response, in 2011, RCS moved the start to Bergamo, the heart of the Italian cycling industry and its culture, and set the finish in Lecco. RCS also rebranded the race, from the traditional Giro di Lombardia to “Il Lombardia.” Toying with such history was a bold move, but one in keeping with the company’s modern naming conventions, which have also given us the Roma Maxima (formerly the Giro del Lazio) and the Strade Bianche.

For 2012, RCS dusted off the Muro di Sormano segment of the larger Colma di Sormano climb. The “Sormano Wall” featured in the race from 1960 to 1962, but was removed due to rider complaints. Even the man who ruled the climb in those days, Ercole Baldini, could not bring himself to love it, telling reporters, “I understand the Ghisallo doesn’t guarantee
a selection, but this is an exaggeration in the opposite direction. This climb is simply beastly, impossible to race.”

Baldini and the others had reason to be perturbed — pitches on the 1.9-kilometer summit segment average 16 percent, and top out at just over 25 percent, forcing many of them to walk in the era before compact cranks and 6.8-kilogram bicycles. Given RCS’s love of seeking out wheel-spinningly steep climbs for the Giro d’Italia, it is surprising the Muro’s return took so long. Now optimally placed to kickstart the finale, the climb pours a shattered peloton into a technical descent through narrow hill-town streets, after which riders face 13 kilometers of rolling terrain before starting the Ghisallo. Preceded by the Sormano, the Ghisallo, once in danger of becoming more ceremony than selection, becomes relevant again.

Moving the finish to Lecco allowed RCS to include a final, key element just 10 kilometers from the finish. The Villa Vergano finishing climb, a 3.2-kilometer grind with ramps up to 15 percent with a technical descent, leaves late escapees only three kilometers of flat roads to survive before the line. With the Sormano-Ghisallo-Vergano combination, RCS has breathed new life into Lombardia, crafting a race that begins its steady winnowing process 80 kilometers out — prime television time — and builds to a crescendo with just minutes remaining.

Despite the weight of its history, 107 editions, and a patron saint in residence, “la classica delle foglie morte” remains very much a living entity. And when the 2014 Lombardia crests the Ghisallo climb and hits the false flat between cemetery and chapel, serenaded by church bells and cheers and horns, nobody will be thinking of death, not of leaves or cyclists or seasons. They will only be thinking of victory in the year’s final monument, and the immortality that comes with it.

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Team USA previews Richmond 2015 road, time trial courses http://www.velonews.com/2014/10/news/team-usa-previews-richmond-2015-road-time-trial-courses_350353 Thu, 23 Oct 2014 21:44:10 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=350353 Top contenders for the U.S. world championship team gathered in the Virginia capital to take a first tour of the road and time trial courses

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RICHMOND, Virginia (VN) – The 2015 UCI world championships in Richmond, Virginia, are still nearly a year away, but the initial reviews of the road and time trial courses are in.

Top contenders for the U.S. world championship team gathered in the Virginia capital on Wednesday and Thursday to take a first tour of the road and time trial courses, hold team meetings, and build the foundation of the nation’s first home-field advantage in nearly three decades.

After two police-escorted laps of the 16.5km course, the verdict was unanimous. Technical. Tactical. Unpredictable.

“It could be for anyone. It doesn’t suit a climber, it doesn’t suit a sprinter. It’s an all-rounder, that’s my prediction,” said Carmen Small, a medalist in the 2013 world time trial championship. “But it could be a climber, and it could be a sprinter. It’s pretty open. There are so many turns, and if someone gets away it could potentially stick.”

“I like the course. I think it could be a little bit harder, but it’s definitely Americanized with a bit of a Euro feel to it,” said Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing). “You have a lot of turns in town, a lot of right hand turns, criterium-style, then you go out and do this little cobbled climb. It’s going to be a punchy race, a hard race, but it’ll take a big team effort to make it selective.”

From the start, the road races will roll out through a flat, open 12 kilometers that would be a well-controlled sprinter’s delight, were it not for what follows. Packed into the circuit’s last four kilometers are the three principal challenges – the cobbled, switchback climb of Libby Hill, quickly followed by the short 18-percent ramp of 23rd Street and the final 350-meter ascent up Governor’s Street. By its crest, riders will be left with only some 700 meters to the line.

“Position will be probably more important than any worlds I’ve ever done,” said Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp). “I think it’ll make for an exciting final. There’s places to launch, there’s places to chase, and there’s places where chasing will be really hard.”

Late escapees will be aided by the technical finale, where the series of turns could help keep well-timed moves away from the prying eyes of a chasing peloton. And while Libby Hill might not be long or hard enough to have the decisive effect of a Flandrian climb, the battles for position as the race approaches the technical climb each lap will be fierce — and draining — especially if riders face a headwind on the run-in as they did on Thursday.

“It’s not the hardest cobblestone section I’ve ever done, but it is a cobblestone section, it is a small climb,” said two-time U23 Roubaix winner Phinney. “The main thing with the cobblestones is that you force 180 guys onto a really small road, so there’s a big fight for position before you go in. It’s almost less about the hill itself than the approach to it, and crashes, and staying safe, and being where you need to be. Then being able to gun it over the top while other guys are still on the climb, you’re kind of riding away off the front, and that’s how you make the race really hard.”

With an unpredictable course and an entire cycling season to run before the cycling world rolls into Richmond, few riders were willing to venture a strong favorite for the road race just yet.

“I think it’ll be sort of similar to the classics. Anyone who’s doing well in something like Flanders or Liège will do well here,” said Howes. “On paper, I think if a guy like [Simon] Gerrans is going as well as he was last year, it’s a good race for him. He’s probably better in the field than a lot of people, and he’s got a good finish. But maybe he’ll party too much this off-season and have a terrible year.”

On the U.S. squad, Howes cited a departing Garmin-Sharp teammate as a man to watch.

“I think Tyler Farrar could potentially get to the end here, and if he does he’s going to be pretty quick,” Howes said, “I think we’ll see him playing a new leadership role on MTN. If they don’t burn him out early and use him up at the beginning of the season, if he gears more towards the classics like he wants to and then takes a good break, he could be a serious contender for this course. And we have a lot of guys who can help him.”

As for the women’s peloton, Evelyn Stevens said she expects the usual suspects to be battling for the rainbow jersey.

“I think it’s the same women who are competitive nowadays: Marianne Vos, Lizzie Armitstead, Pauline [Ferrand-Prévot], the current world champion, and Elisa Longo-Borghini,” Stevens said of the elite women’s contenders. “I think there’s just a lot of talent out there, and it keeps increasing each year, so I think we’ll have a lot of good candidates who could win on this course.”

Could Stevens, a past winner of the women’s Flèche Wallonne, and a threat on punchier courses, be one of those candidates?

“I would like to be one of them,” she said. “It’s extra motivation. This is leading up to the Olympics as well, and I think to have the world championships in Richmond as you’re leading up to that Olympic year, for me, I couldn’t imagine anything better than winning here.”

Time Trial Washout

While riders had the privilege of a postcard blustery fall day to preview the road course on Thursday, Wednesday’s scheduled crack at the time trial course did not pan out. Heavy rain and temperatures in the low 50s engulfed the region, all but scuttling the day. Only Phinney, perhaps the United States’ best chance at a men’s worlds medal, braved the elements, shivering as his road bike was unloaded in the sprawling parking lot of the King’s Dominion amusement park, where the elite men’s time trial will begin north of Richmond proper.

“I figured, we flew all the way out here. It’s kind of cold and rainy, but I have a new appreciation for being able to ride my bike now since I was forced off it a couple months ago due to a crash,” Phinney said. “I had a great time, though. I had 10 police escort motos just for me, and as we started to get into town people were cheering me on. It felt like I was back in a race, and that’s not a feeling I’ve had in awhile.”

The course itself, Phinney said, is a fairly traditional world’s route that will suit the specialists well. Among them will be men who have already collected striped skinsuits, including Fabian Cancellara, Tony Martin, and, if he rides, reigning champion Bradley Wiggins. And Phinney?

“It’s rolling, it takes a lot of power but a lot of pacing strategy as well. It’s a good course for people who win time trials, basically,” he said. “I like to think of myself as one of those people.”

When it comes to battling Europe’s time trial monsters, Phinney may get an unlikely home field advantage from King’s Dominion itself, where the park’s one-third scale Eiffel Tower will preside over the TT start.

“I’m sure [the Europeans] will get really excited about starting in a theme park, because Europeans typically get really excited about American things like that. Maybe that’ll create a distraction and be beneficial to us,” he said.

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Hour record regulations could see changes by mid-year http://www.velonews.com/2014/02/bikes-and-tech/hour-record-regulations-could-see-changes-by-mid-year_318195 Fri, 28 Feb 2014 10:00:03 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=318195 The UCI is examining the rules governing the hour record and should make recommendations for changes before the Tour de France

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RICHMOND, Va. (VN) — The hour record may be getting a refresh this year, whether or not Fabian Cancellara makes good on his promise to pursue the long-stagnant benchmark.

Speaking with VeloNews at the Richmond 2015 course announcement on Tuesday, UCI president Brian Cookson revealed that the UCI Management Committee has tasked the organization’s track commission with reviewing and revising the regulations that govern the hour record. The track commission is expected to deliver its recommendations in the next several months, and Cookson expects any resulting changes to be adopted by mid-year.

“My own view is that the so-called athletes hour, the record on the old traditional track bike, I think it was a nice idea, but frankly I think it’s an idea whose time has passed,” Cookson told VeloNews.

The creation of the athlete’s hour was the UCI’s attempt to protect the hour record as a physical contest among men, as much removed from technology as an inherently technological sport could manage. It put the brakes on decades of technological advancement in record-setting technology — from Francesco Moser’s dual-disc funny bike to Graeme Obree’s radical and fast egg and superman positions — by limiting riders to a diamond-framed bike, shallow, spoked wheels, drop handlebars, and standard helmets.

The athlete’s hour may have removed technological variables to the extent possible, but it also all but killed interest in the record. Chris Boardman set the new record under the new rules in 2000, displacing Eddy Merckx, whose 1972 mark was reset as the official record. Since then, Boardman’s mark has only been topped by the relatively anonymous Ondřej Sosenka, the giant Czech winner of the 2002 Peace Race, who set the current mark of 49.7 kilometers in 2005 before exiting the sport on a methamphetamine positive in 2008. The athlete’s hour record has remained untouched since. Chris Boardman’s pre-athlete’s rules mark, set using the arms-out superman position pioneered by Obree and now known as the “best human effort,” still stands at 56.375 kilometers.

Faced with two parallel records and what its president views as outdated regulations, the UCI is left looking for the middle road between an anachronism and a technological battleground.

“So what we’ve asked the track commission is, look, what’s the step forward out here?” said Cookson. “We aren’t going to allow anyone to ride the hour record in the superman position. But we think that the old, traditional track bike athlete’s hour record is probably a little bit of an outdated idea. Where do we go from here?”

One likely solution would be to allow aspiring hour record holders to use current, UCI legal pursuit bikes, which, unlike current hour-record bikes, can use monocoque frames, deep section or disc wheels, and aerodynamic handlebars. But, with modern technology back in place, which mark would they be aiming for — Sosenka’s athlete’s mark, or Boardman’s ultimate hour?

Recent advances in training and technology mean that one of today’s riders on a modern pursuit bike might put the blazing marks achieved with the radical superman position within reach. In 2011 Australian Jack Bobridge, riding a pursuit bike, toppled Boardman’s 1996 4km individual pursuit record, set in the outlawed superman position and long considered unbeatable under current equipment rules. If that four-minute effort can be extrapolated to the hour, Boardman’s best human hour record could be a fair mark, yet one sufficiently difficult to narrow the field of riders who could claim what was once one of cycling’s crown jewels.

“I want to stimulate interest in the world hour record. I want people to go for that. But I want them to do it in a way that’s meaningful and sets a really high standard,” Cookson said. “I don’t just want to say, ‘OK, ride the pursuit bike and set a new record,’ because anyone could go and do that. Beating the athlete’s hour record on a current pursuit bike? I’m not going to say it would be a soft record, because it’s pretty hard to ride that speed for an hour, but it would be doable by a large number of athletes. What we have to do is find somewhere between the superman record and the athlete’s hour record that’s achievable by an athlete of stature and quality.”

With Fabian Cancellara stepping forward to express his interest in the hour, Cookson has an athlete of that stature and quality, but ultimately, he’d like to see a return to decades past, when the sport’s most formidable time trialists, men like Boardman, Miguel Indurain, and Tony Rominger, as well as innovator Obree, swapped the record amongst themselves.

“Yeah, [Cancellara] will be good. But you know, Tony Martin’s pretty good at riding fast on his own. Bradley Wiggins knows how to ride a track pretty fast. I’m sure there are others out there that would fancy having a go as well. I think we can see something really exciting coming.”

The impending rule changes could be responsible for Trek Factory Racing’s hesitation to set a firm date for Cancellara’s hour attempt. Setting a new athlete’s hour record under the current rules could make for short-lived glory if the hour is opened to modern technology later in the year. When contacted for comment, the team’s press officer responded via email, saying, “We’ve also heard rumors that the UCI is considering changes to the hour record rules, but we have no comment on it right now.”

In an era in which sports once considered “extreme” are now Olympic mainstays, can the ancient hour record — one man on a wooden track, steady on for 60 minutes — hope to recapture the fans’ imaginations?

“I was lucky to be present at both of Chris Boardman’s hour records and they were fantastic,” Cookson said. “Listen, anyone who says it’s boring watching a guy going around a track for an hour has never attended one. It’s absolutely brilliant. They were two of the best hours I’ve ever spent in a velodrome.”

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Richmond unveils 2015 worlds course ripe for the classics riders http://www.velonews.com/2014/02/analysis/richmond-unveils-2015-worlds-course-ripe-for-the-classics-riders_318041 Wed, 26 Feb 2014 00:01:50 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=318041 Richmond organizers unveil the 2015 road worlds courses and the elite road circuit is custom-made for the kings and queens of spring

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RICHMOND, Va. (VN) — The cobbled hills near downtown Richmond will play host to the world’s top riders in September 2015 and the pavé could provide the perfect launchpad for a rainbow-jersey showdown between cycling’s top classics riders.

Under the watchful eyes of Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, UCI president Brian Cookson, and other local and sporting dignitaries, the Richmond organizing committee released the routes for the 2015 UCI Elite Road World Championships Tuesday afternoon at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. It will be the first road worlds to be held in the United States since Colorado Springs hosted the 1986 races.

Compared to those races nearly 30 years ago, the Richmond championships will have a little something extra riding on them, in more ways than one.

“Not only will the famous rainbow jersey be at stake, it will also be one of the key events for both men’s and women’s qualifications for the Rio Olympics in 2016,” said Cookson. “So as well as being one of the most important and significant cycling events of the year, the riders and the UCI world championships are also a magnificent showcase for the sport, which, I’m happy to say, despite the reputational damages of recent years, is a sport which is growing immensely in popularity and is taking I believe successful and positive steps to improve its image.”

While cycling’s image in two years’ time will remain to be seen, the image Richmond presents to the world will be a largely urban one. The showcase road race course for elite men and women will loop 16.5 kilometers through Richmond’s downtown and along the banks of the James River before finishing on a wide open, 680-meter finish straight. Elite men will ride 16 laps, for a total distance of 264km. The total distance of the elite women’s race, which omits one of the course’s climbs, was not specified at press time.

The elite men’s time trial course will start north of Richmond at the King’s Dominion amusement park, and wind its way 53.1km due south back to the downtown area on largely flat, straight rural roads. Open to the wind and with few technical details until it enters downtown Richmond, it is a traditional time trialist’s course, ripe for men like German Tony Martin and Swiss Fabian Cancellara.

The elite women will tackle a separate time trial course starting and finishing in Richmond, and which is the lone course to travel west of the James River. More technical and varied than the men’s race, it should open itself to a wide range of contenders, including the United States’ Evelyn Stevens. Juniors and under-23 riders will share the 15.5km circuit with the women.

The team time trial, contested by trade teams, will follow a third time trial course, starting on the outskirts of the city, on the banks of the river, and finishing downtown. In between, teams will roll through farmland and Richmond National Battlefield Park, a Civil War site. Then, they’ll consider how to keep the required four men together for the finish as they ascend the Governor’s Street climb in the final kilometer. The men’s loop will run 35.3km; the women’s loop cuts off the southern portion of the course to total 24km.

Road Race: Cobbles and a sting in the tail

Though not one of the nation’s traditional cycling hotbeds, Richmond is no stranger to top-flight racing. The city featured in the Tour of America and numerous editions of the Tour de Trump and Tour du Pont in the 1980s and early 1990s. Most recently, the city hosted the finish of the one-and-done U.S. Open of Cycling in 2007, a rare point-to-point classics style race that started in Williamsburg and finished in downtown Richmond. Those race experiences have informed the 2015 worlds course, created by veteran organizer of the nation’s major tours and professional national championships, Medalist Sports.

From the start, riders will face a mild northwesterly first half of the circuit, terminating in the paving stones of Richmond’s Monument Avenue, lined with memorial statues of Confederate generals, before turning southeast and dropping to the city’s riverfront.

After a u-turn at the southern tip of the course, riders will encounter the course’s main challenges in rapid-fire succession. The first blow will come from the short, winding Libbey Hill, last used in the U.S. Open in 2007. While the evenly laid stone pavers of Monument Avenue will be sloggy but relatively kind to riders, the jagged blocks of Libby Hill would easily be at home in the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), as noted by Cookson Tuesday. Closed to auto traffic, the weed-strewn and potholed climb will be tidied up for the race, but the fight for position will be at its peak coming into the sharp right-hander onto the climb. Dropping a chain, or being stuck behind someone who does, could end a rider’s race here on any lap.

After topping Libbey Hill, any escapees will want to push their advantage to stay out of sight through a series of quick turns and into the grunt up 23rd Street. Though only 110 meters long, the arrow-straight hill tops out at a brutal 20-percent gradient. Anyone with a choice will hug the asphalt-paved left side; straying onto the cobbled right side could mean a dismount and awkward run to the top.

With a short drop, the peloton will then descend back into the quaint Shockoe Bottom neighborhood and then begin the 350-meter climb of Governor’s Street. Over the crest, they’ll face a wide-open false flat up Broad Street, where an aspiring rainbow jersey group would have to hold off any chasers, and each other, for an agonizing 680 meters to the line. If a small group is clear here, expect some curb-to-curb cat-and-mouse in the final meters.

Classics delight?

Richmond’s topography — the city straddles the divide between Virginia’s flat Tidewater and rolling Piedmont regions — will rule out a world title for the pure climbers of the peloton. Overall, the elite road course features only 280 meters of elevation change — far less than recent championships in Valkenberg, Netherlands, Firenze, Italy, and, this year, Ponferrada, Spain. At the same time, the turns and sharp climbs of the final kilometers may frustrate the pure sprinters, as well as their teams’ efforts to provide a coordinated leadout.

So who will be happy? The northern classics contenders. While the cobbled sections are relatively brief and might not require the skills of a specialist, the positional battles before cobbles, climbs, and key turns will favor those who battle for every corner from February to April. Men who grew up managing the wind along riverfronts and the repeated jumps of the kermesse circuit will feel right at home.

With nearly two full road seasons left before the peloton flies into Virginia, charting who the favorites might be for Richmond is a long way off. But assuming a peloton similar to today’s, who might be able to carry it off?

It would be foolish to rule out Peter Sagan, whose impulsive and punchy style could serve him well in what is sure to be a hectic final hour, and who has already shown that despite his youth, he can shoulder the kilometers of the longer races. Italy’s national team boss, Davide Cassani, pegged the Slovakian the favorite for Ponferrada, and Richmond could very well see his rainbow-jersey defense. Behind Sagan, a lineup of spring regulars — Belgium’s Tom Boonen, Jurgen Roelandts, and Greg van Avermaet, Italians Daniel Oss and Luca Paolini, Australian Heinrich Haussler, and others, will be licking their chops. The tough, rising finish straight could even play to the strengths of Cancellara, whose last-kilometer blasts have landed Tour stages and a Milan-Sanremo title in the past.

On the women’s side, of course, it would be foolish to elevate any rider above Dutch phenom Marianne Vos, almost regardless of the course. The multiple-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist would likely face a challenge from American sprinter Shelley Olds and Stevens, who might enjoy a chance to seize the rainbow stripes at home, but the Richmond course may not have enough topography to spring the latter. Other perennial women’s favorites, including former world champion Giorgia Bronzini (Italy), Sweden’s Emma Johansson, Great Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead, and Vos’ countrywoman Ellen Van Dijk could also play a role.

One thing riders are unlikely to face is spring classics weather. In late September, Richmond enjoys an average high of 77 degrees and a low of 56 degrees, with some of the lowest average precipitation of the year. But for U.S. collegiate racers, who will test the road and time trial courses to be used by the elite women and U23s at their nationals in just three months, Richmond, and Libby Hill in particular, will provide a little taste of the northern classics.

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Best of Velo No. 10: Smells like victory http://www.velonews.com/2013/12/news/road/best-of-velo-no-10-smells-like-victory_311719 Sun, 22 Dec 2013 10:00:05 +0000 http://www.velonews.com/?p=311719 The spring classics have bouquet and bouquets

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Editor’s note: As we ring out 2013, we look at 13 of our favorite stories of the year. Ryan Newill’s reflection on the olfactory experience that is the classics originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Velo magazine.

The spring classics open with a cold, damp smell, not because the classics and cold rain are nearly synonymous, but because with a five- or six-hour brawl ahead, the classics start early in the morning. Early enough that, for the first arrivals, the dew still wets public squares like the Sint Pietersplein and the Place du Général de Gaulle and the Piazza Castello, mixing with the air of fresh pastries baking, and diesel exhaust to create the smell of a European spring morning.

The first arrivals to the start, before the crowds and the teams, tend to be the old men, with a few arriving on sooty and scarred Flandrias and Bianchis and other now-nameless relics of their glory days as cycling’s young hopes. Yesterday’s beloften or espoirs or dilettante, depending. Exertion and the heavy air mingle in their jerseys, flocked with the names of clubs and cafes and tire stores that may or may not exist anymore, lending a wooly old smell to the wooly old men who can recite the winners going back to when they were schoolboys.

When they finally emerge from curtained bus doorways, the modern racers smell different, but also the same as they always have, like the sinus-clearing, leg-burning mix of cajeput, herbs, and oil. The embrocation, the signature perfume of bike racers, lends a time-honored shine to that bit of stubble on the legs, because this is bike racing, not the prom, and nobody shaves the morning of this sort of dance.

But somehow, the pros on a classics morning never smell quite the same as the tubs and tubes of embrocation on the bike shop shelves. Much of their product doesn’t come from for-retail-sale packaging with neatly listed ingredients, but from grimy, unlabeled bottles whose contents are mixed in bulk according to some recipe alternately guarded and passed down among soigneurs.

You can buy it sometimes, if you know where to look. Places like the back counter of Walter Godefroot’s Deinze bike shop, back when he still ran T-Mobile and Vino won his first Liége. But even if you can find some small-batch pro embro, when you get it home and on your legs, it never smells the same as it did at a late-March sign-in under a spitting rain.

The rain comes to the classics with glorious regularity. When it does, spring-classics rain has terroir. It smells different on the mossy stones of Arenberg than it does on the rolling tarmac of La Redoute, and different again on the flat roads out west towards Gistel and Oostend, where the inch-wide valley of death between the poured concrete slabs waits to trap a tire and trade the dull pain of the crosswinds for the sharp agony of impact and abrasion. (Those abrasions have their own smell, one you have to be very close, if not involved, to catch — the acrid scent of burning fabric, rubber, and skin.)

Eight hundred miles south, the rain mixes differently with the limestone gravel and dust of the strade bianche in Tuscany, where it is, at first, the blessing that keeps the choking dust glued down and then a menace when it later turns the same dust to a grainy paste.

And it smells different still when it hits the clean 600-meter high air over the Turchino pass or the salt air of the Mediterranean, where it bounces off the hothouse roofs that mark the frenzied descent from the Poggio.

And the rain has a distinct smell when it hits the flat farm roads of Flanders, because bike racing in Flanders in the spring smells like shit.

If northern Belgium is a notoriously inhospitable place to race bicycles, it’s also a notoriously inhospitable place to grow crops. To pull it off, Belgian farmers have, for centuries, coated their fields with layers upon layers of nature’s finest fertilizer, coaxing cereals, feed crops, and vegetables from a few parts naturally poor soil and many parts horse, cow, and pig excrement.

Carefully gathered, stored, aged, mixed, and liquefied, manure is sprayed with high-velocity abandon over the fields for the spring planting, just in time for races like the E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen (Across Flanders) to plow through the overspray as they traverse the country’s dense network of farm roads. With a little rain, those thousands of gallons of plant nutrition are liquefied anew, kicked up by car, moto, and bicycle wheels and sprayed again with abandon, this time over the legs, teeth, and eyes of some of the world’s best cyclists. Maybe it helps them grow, too?

But the smell (for spectators, anyway) is not intolerable, because the classics also smell like beer. Truckloads of it. At first, it’s the stale beer that lingers in the streets outside last night’s student bars and clubs that gives way, briefly, to the smell of espresso and pan au chocolate before fresher notes of today’s beer take over. From midmorning, it flows in cafés and bars and in temporary, taped-off pens outside, each pour preceded by the whoosh of steam cleansing the brand-correct glassware, at least until the crowd picks up and plastic cups are deployed to meet demand.

The beer means the classics also smell like piss, cigars, and cigarettes. Outside, you still catch a smoky whiff of how things used to be, but new indoor smoking bans have helped disperse the kind of blue clouds that could limit visibility inside the cavernous Kuurne Sporthalle to 15 feet on race day.

Public urination, however, remains Belgium’s third most popular sport behind soccer and cycling, and despite innovations like the four-stall, open porta-pissoir, the battle has been in vain. Gent and other municipalities roll out signs complete with gender-specific pictograms for an international audience, trying to cut down on the scourge of “wild plassen” during events, but to little avail. Beyond the town limit signs, though, few seem to mind. What’s a little extra soil enrichment?

Out in the fields, where “wild plassen” reigns, the lack of plumbing is matched by the lack of tap heads, and so crates of canned pils are the rule. Drinking the celebrated Trappist beers like Orval or Westmalle with your toes in a windswept gutter would be like drinking Dom Perignon in the bleachers at Fenway. This context, this landscape, demands the all-day, volume-friendly lightness of Jupiler, Maes, and Bavik. Unless you score a table at Restaurant L’Arbre and get to enjoy the heady aroma of Michelin-starred truffled scrambled eggs as Cancellara and Boonen barrel past the window and into the Carrefour’s climactic 2.1 kilometers of jumbled stones. Then, by all means, order the good stuff.

For most of the crowd though, it’ll be hamburgers, sausages, and god-awful fish-on-a-stick sold from thin-walled trailers with “frituur” emblazoned on them, their wind-dispersed aromas the only advertising needed. But, as well as street meat sells on a long afternoon, the smell of Vlaamse frites cooking in beef tallow still reigns supreme, in both olfactory appeal and cultural significance, though once the races hit the Ardennes hills of Wallonia and Limburg, the classic Liége waffle competes admirably in both categories

Culture, and the history that drives it, provide a strong undercurrent that runs underneath the classics, which feel more rooted in their regions than the more mobile, flexible grand tours.

It’s in the tilled spring dirt and flowers, surrounding acres of foreign military cemeteries at the base of the Kemmelberg, and in the decaying leaves and second-growth forests that envelope the war memorials at the top. It’s in every stone and every berg, cote, capo, and town, in the food and drink and the people themselves, layer upon layer built up over a hundred years of tragedy and triumph.

And at the end of a classic, all of it — the rain, sweat, diesel, embro, cow shit, piss, and history — at the finish, all of it is layered on the bodies and bicycles of a hundred or so competitors, blended together into the story of one race, on one day, in one place.

And for one rider, once the soigneur has scrubbed away the black slurry from his legs and face and handed him a clean, fresh jersey, the enduring smell of that particular classic will be of flowers, lipstick, perfume, and victory.

 

 

 

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