Wiggins, Chavanel and Gilbert proudly display their national colors
LES HERBIERS, France (VN) — World champion Thor Hushovd, in his rainbow stripes, may have stolen the show at Thursday’s Tour de France team presentation by donning a wig and brandishing a hammer as the Norse god of thunder; but also sharing the spotlight were the riders in distinctively colored national championship jerseys who won their respective title races last weekend.
At the head of the line were Sky’s Brad Wiggins in the British red-white-blue hoops, Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert in Belgium’s black-yellow-and-red, and Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel in the French blue-white-and-red.
Leopard-Trek has two champs, but the team played down the colors, incorporating them into their regular uniforms: Fabian Cancellara with a mini version of the Swiss white-on-red cross and Fränk Schleck sporting just thin bands of Luxembourg’s red-white-and-blue.
The other champions wore more conventional outfits. Katusha’s Pavel Brutt had Russia’s blue-and-red stripes on a white jersey; Saxo Bank-SunGard’s Nicki Sørensen is in red and white for the fourth time; Lampre-ISD’s Gregor Bole was in the white-navy-and-red of Slovenia; and Garmin-Cervélo’s Ramunas Navardauskas displayed the yellow-green-red bands of Lithuania. But Spain’s new champion, José Rojas of Movistar, couldn’t wear his new red-and-yellow jersey as it wasn’t ready.
Winning a national road race championship is one of the most exciting moments in a pro bike racer’s career. That excitement is doubled when he goes straight on to ride the Tour with the champion’s jersey on his back.
That’s certainly the case with Chavanel, who has been battling for a decade to win the French road title. He did it last Sunday before massive crowds on a hilly circuit at Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he first bridged alone to an early move and then departed on a winning solo effort before his main rivals caught the break.
2011 wins for UCI ProTeams
(in UCI .1 races and higher through June 30)
1. HTC-Highroad 30 (11 riders)
2. Omega Pharma-Lotto 19 (four riders)
3. Garmin-Cervélo 18 (11 riders)
Team RadioShack 18 (11 riders)
5. Rabobank 18 (eight riders)
Lampre-ISD 18 (eight riders)
7. Movistar 17 (eight riders)
8. Vacansoleil-DCM 16 (six riders)
9. Sky 14 (seven riders)
10. Leopard-Trek 14 (six riders)
11. Saxo Bank-SunGard 14 (four riders)
12. Liquigas-Cannondale 13 (five riders)
13. Katusha 8 (three riders)
14. Euskaltel-Euskadi 6 (four riders)
15. Astana 5 (four riders)
16. Quick Step 4 (three riders)
17. AG2R-La Mondiale 3 (three riders)
18. BMC Racing 3 (one rider)
After being awarded the jersey alongside his two sons, Baptiste and Maxence, Chavanel said, “This jersey is going to give me new ambitions as I know that to win races with it on your back only adds to the win’s magnitude.”
Also taking his first national title after years of trying was Gilbert, who won the Belgian championship on a course at Hooglede-Gits that didn’t really suit him. The sprinters were expected to dominate, but Gilbert took off from the 18-strong front group 3km from the finish on what served as the course’s main climb — a short cobbled stretch of road that had a tiny 1.5-percent grade.
“It’s an honor to be champion of Belgium,” Gilbert said. “To wear this jersey for a year in the very biggest races — that will be super.”
Wiggins won his title before a surprisingly large crowd at Stamfordham in northeast England by first being one of six Team Sky men in a 12-man break, then pulling clear with teammates Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh, before heading off alone to take the road title to go with the time-trial championship he earned a few weeks ago.
“I wear the time trial jersey with absolute pride,” Wiggins said. “And now to go into the Tour de France and battle through in the British champion’s jersey — it’ll be fantastic!”
Cancellara, who first won the Swiss road title in 2009, utterly dominated his national championship on a course at Kirchdorf, only 15km from his home near Zürich. He split the large peloton the first time up the circuit’s main climb; accelerated midway on the same hill to cut the lead group to less than a dozen; and attacked again on the penultimate lap where only BMC Racing’s Steve Morabito could stick with him.
After easily out-sprinting Morabito for the win, Cancellara said, “This is the second time I’ve won (the jersey) so I must say that I got attached to it the first time around.”
There was not a great deal of competition in the Luxembourg championship road race. In the small field, Andy Schleck made a decisive solo break, and brother Fränk later joined him and they crossed the finish line together, with big brother Fränk taking the title for a second year.
In Russia, Katusha riders swept the first four places, with Brutt the chosen winner; in Denmark, Sørensen finished alone after attacking in turn with Saxo teammate Chris Anker Sørensen in a five-man break; Lampre’s Bole needed a strong sprint to overcome a competitive field in Slovenia; and in Lithuania the bull-like Navardauskas finished solo, a minute ahead of a 15-strong chase group.
Wearing their national colors in the Tour gives all 10 of these new champions an extra lift. Chavanel will find his popularity soaring over the next three weeks, just as previous French champions Thomas Voeckler did in 2004 and Bernard Hinault in 1978.
Voeckler said he felt inspired by his tricolor jersey seven years ago to go on the attack — which resulted in him forging a long successful breakaway that earned him the yellow jersey for a 10-day stretch. And Hinault, as national champ in his debut Tour, famously led a rider go-slow to protest onerously long transfers and double-stage days (which no longer exist) before swapping blue-white-red for yellow in the final time trial.
Chavanel already wore yellow in 2010 following his two stage wins, but this year could see Gilbert taking the maillot jaune in opening week — perhaps starting with this Saturday uphill stage 1 finish on the Mont des Alouettes above the town of Les Herbiers.
(Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This is the 20th installment. As he’ll be writing his daily “Inside the Tour” piece for the next three weeks, this “Inside Cycling” column will continue in August.)