By Neal Rogers
I want to start this week’s column off by saying thanks to Health Net-Maxxis riders Gord Fraser and Tyler Farrar. Since the pair of sprinters appeared on the cover of our domestic road season preview, both are having a great start to the season, taking multiple wins and making us editors here at VeloNews look like we know what we’re talking about.
Resplendent in the Canadian national champion’s jersey, Fraser has won three races this year, one each at the McLane Pacific in Merced, the Central Valley Classic in Fresno and the San Dimas Stage Race in, well, San Dimas. Farrar has won twice, once at the Valley of the Sun stage race in February and again earlier this week while racing for the U23 national team in Belgium.
“I’d say it put a little pressure on the guys to live up to the cover,” said Health Net-Maxxis team director Jeff Corbett. “But they’ve done really well, and that doesn’t even count the wins by Scott [Moninger] and Ivan [Dominguez].”
More on Farrar’s Valley of the Sun win in a moment. First, his win at the March 20 Challenge de Hesbaye in Trognee, Belgium, deserves mention. The race is part of the prestigious Belgian Inter-Club series, which includes both elite amateur squads as well as UCI Continental (formerly Division 3) teams.
Based on a Health Net team press release, Farrar said the conditions literally blew the race apart early. When the winds forced a split in the bunch just 10km into the race, he was one of only 20 riders in the front group. The course and the conditions contributed to a slow war of attrition in the group, with the climbs and the crosswinds whittling the bunch down to just seven survivors with 10km to go.
“Things totally blew apart on the last finishing circuit,” Farrar said. The outcome looked in doubt for him when one of the remaining riders went away solo near the finish. But Farrar used his strong finishing kick and caught the rogue breakaway just 20 meters from the line to take the win.
“It’s an honor to win one of the races in this series,” Farrar added. “I feel like our team is starting to finds its legs here after coming over and adjusting to the hard racing and the tough conditions. Hopefully we can build on this success.”
Farrar followed up his win in the Hesbaye with a second place in the very difficult GP Waregem on Wednesday, March 23. The race is the biggest espoir contest in Belgium, and includes many of the famous climbs from next weekend’s Tour of Flanders, including the Eikenburg, the Knockteburg, Kwaremont and the Patersburg. The GP Waregem was part of the Espoir World Cup before the new Pro Tour system went into effect this year. This year’s edition ended in a field sprint that came down to a photo finish for the win.
“Unfortunately I came out on the wrong end of [the photo finish],” said Farrar. “The race was hard. The U.S. team rode superbly, bringing back a dangerous break with 10km to go. If not for them, the race might not have even come down to a bunch sprint.”
Beyond thanking both Fraser and Farrar for making our cover choice look so insightful, I also want to thank them both for agreeing to fly out to VN headquarters here in Boulder, Colorado, on extremely short notice.
Emerging from our weekly Wednesday-afternoon editorial meeting on February 16, VN editor Kip Mikler and I had agreed we wanted to get the Health Net riders on the cover. We had about 10 days to play with until the cover had to be shipped to the printers. Plenty of time, or so we thought.
As it turned out, Fraser was heading to Mexico with a few of the Health Net boys to race the Vuelta Sonora-Arizona from February 22-27. Okay, well, what about after the 27th? Nope, not going to work. Farrar was leaving for Europe on the 24th. But we really liked the story idea of their mentor/apprentice relationship — (what, you haven’t read it yet?) — and we wanted to get them out to Boulder so our ace photographer, Don Karle, could work his magic.
Okay, so what about the weekend of February 19-20? It was only three days away, but Gord was agreeable, saying he could get in a training ride in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday morning, fly out in the evening to do the shoot, and fly back the next morning and get in some training that afternoon. As for Tyler, he was more than happy to appear on the cover of our magazine with one of his heroes, but there was one small catch. He was racing at the Valley of the Sun that weekend in Phoenix. D’oh!
With Fraser in Tucson and Farrar in Phoenix, the idea of VeloNews staff flying to Arizona was a thought. But that proved to be every bit as complicated as flying the guys out to Boulder – actually, even more so, given the amount of photography gear Don would need to haul out, combined with our lack of knowledge regarding a Phoenix studio where we could shoot in the evening. Besides, with airfare growing more expensive by the minute on such short notice, I’d already booked Fraser’s ticket by the time I’d really thought of that.
Fortunately, Farrar was up for an adventure, and agreed to fly out from Phoenix after his Saturday-afternoon road race, fly in to Denver at 9 p.m., ride to Boulder for a 10 p.m. photo shoot, and catch a few hours of sleep before flying back in the morning for the stage race’s final-day criterium. Ah, to be young.
As I wrote in the eventual cover story, it wasn’t the first time Farrar attempted and succeeded in this type of endeavor. Last summer, after winning the national U23 time trial championship and placing sixth in the road race the following day, Farrar (pronounced “Farr-ah”) flew from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Los Angeles and won the Manhattan Beach Grand Prix, beating out accomplished sprinters such as Jonas Carney, Robbie Ventura and Henk Vogels. Farrar then flew back to Utah that evening and won the national U23 criterium championship the following day — five days, three wins, two states.
Okay, one final catch. Where were we going to conduct this photo shoot at 10 p.m.? And where were we going to house these guys, especially considering the photo shoot was to go from 10 to 11 p.m., and their flights headed out the following morning at 8 a.m., meaning they needed to be back at DIA at 7 a.m. Shuttling around from a photo studio to a hotel at midnight and then again at 6 a.m. didn’t have a lot of appeal.
Well, how about my place?
Through the City of Boulder’s affordable housing program, I managed to buy into an income-qualified, permanently fixed-affordable condo in a posh downtown Boulder commercial/residential building (http://www.oneboulderplaza.com/) a few years back. (That’s right, all you readers out there that thought cycling journalists were making the big bucks, well … let’s just say there ain’t no Santa Claus, Virginia.)
I knew of an empty commercial space on my floor that seemed perfect. It could save everyone a lot of time and energy by allowing Don and our art director, Miguel Santana, to set up while Kip picked up Tyler at the airport. This way we could literally walk down the hallway from the shoot to my place, where Tyler could get some sleep. I was to pick up Gord earlier that evening, and we had a dinner planned. My foldout futon would serve one of the guys, and a trip to Target yielded an air mattress that was suitable for six hours of rest for the other. (This is where I give a well-deserved thanks to my building’s owner, Paul Eklund, and property manager, Jodi Williams, for allowing us to set up for the photo shoot on very short notice.)
There were many variables involved in this hectic, 11th-hour scheme, and if any one of these cogs failed to mesh with another, the whole plan could be thrown into jeopardy. Cell-phone numbers were exchanged, and everyone had a “let’s see if we can pull this off” attitude. Fortunately, nothing went wrong. Both athletes arrived on time, Don and Miguel set up the shoot without a hitch, and, as you have seen, the photos came out looking great. Tyler, good sport that he is, hadn’t even showered after his rainy Valley of the Sun road race and simply asked for a quick rinse before he put on his team kit at 10 p.m. After the shoot, Tyler set his cell-phone alarm, brushed his teeth and hit the sack while I took Gord out for a drink or three in Boulder.
The following morning, there was a knock at my bedroom door. My alarm hadn’t gone off as early as planned — ah, a potential monkey wrench in the machinery — but Farrar’s had. Again, the kid’s a pro. It was time to roll, so roll we did, straight back to Denver International Airport, where Tyler flew back to Phoenix and won the closing criterium at Valley of the Sun – a full bike length ahead of Italian sprinter Roberto Gaggioli – to finish fourth overall. Four days later, he was on a plane again, on a trans-Atlantic flight to race with the U23 national team based in Belgium.
Okay, so the kid has talent.
And one final note on the Health Net boys: A lot of fuss was made in our online mailbag over the team’s skipping the podium after the Central Valley Classic circuit race in Fresno a few weeks back. And while I can’t really condone this sort of thing, given all the work, usually done by volunteers, that goes into putting on a race, there were reasons that may shed some light on why this happened.
The day’s racing was not without controversy after Fraser and Dave McCook (Jelly Belly-Pool Gel) tangled up while setting up for a finishing sprint. After seven laps that saw a breakaway reeled in with a half-lap remaining, the men’s 105-mile circuit race was destined to end in a field-sprint finish when Fraser and McCook collided at the front of the field in the final kilometer, missing the penultimate right-hand turn, heading off course with Seasilver’s Dan Schmatz in tow and opening the door for Colavita Olive Oil’s Juan Jose Haedo to finish ahead of Fraser’s teammate Dominguez.
Although all involved stayed upright, some heated words were exchanged after the finish, with Health Net quick to point the finger at McCook, calling his last-ditch effort to disrupt the Health Net lead-out train “reckless.”
But McCook, 35, said he’s seen this type of incident before riding against Fraser. “It was just a sprinter thing,” said McCook, who was setting up Jelly Belly’s sprinter Alex Candelario. “I snuck up underneath Gord, and Gord didn’t like that, mostly because he knew he was at a disadvantage. Realizing there was nothing he could do, he never set up for the turn. We bumped elbows, and neither one of us swung left in order to make the right-hand turn. Neither of us would back down. All I was doing was trying to get the inside line, I was not attempting to intentionally take anyone off the road.”
Maybe not, but it was enough to send Fraser and teammates Mike Sayers and Chris Wherry over to the Jelly Belly team camp for some sweaty post-sprint, adrenaline-fueled words. Cooler heads prevailed, but, as Health Net team director Corbett explained, at that moment the wisest course of action was to vacate the premises.
“It was a tense situation, and my guys were angry about it,” Corbett said. “They were disappointed not to get the win, and we just felt like it was best to get out of there quickly, before anything could escalate.
“It was a situation where there were two sprinters and one spot, and nobody wants to back down. Gord had a run-in with Charles Dionne last year at Redlands that people made a lot of noise about, but really it was another instance where two people wanted to be in the same spot. The laws of physics dictate that something’s gotta give.
“It is considered a little disrespectful when your teammate is in front of you to try and take somebody off his teammate’s wheel. But we don’t mean any harm or disrespect to the Fresno promoter or his sponsors. We’re glad they put on a nice event for us. We have good relationships with many promoters around the country. We never miss a podium appearance.
“If you look in our team handbook, I encourage guys to miss a flight if they have to in order to make the podium. We try to support the promoters and their sponsors. We like to do whatever we can, to the extent that after McLane Pacific I actually stuck around and [race organizer] Doug Fluetsch and I went to the Merced City Council meeting to speak about the financial impact of the race on the area and how significant it could be.
“We’ve done our best to try and help them to make the event a success,” Corbett finished, “but in Fresno, we had kind of a special circumstance.”
Anyone catch the good-spirited dig “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart took at Lance Armstrong on Wednesday night? While discussing how Paris city officials had wooed IOC delegates this past week with a stadium tour complete with pre-recorded crowd noise, Stewart mentioned that the city had received an “unexpected boost from an American.”
Quoting Armstrong, Stewart read aloud the six-time Tour de France winner’s words: “To be honest, I think Paris deserves the games.”
“You keep talking like that, my friend,” Stewart smiled, “and Americans might just stop caring about competitive cycling.”
Speaking of Armstrong in the media, the Tour champion’s pop-star girlfriend Sheryl Crow will guest DJ on Lance Armstrong’s Sirius satellite radio show, “Armstrong Radio,” on March 27. The show will broadcast from Spain, where Armstrong is training for the Tour. A more detailed article about Armstrong’s radio show can be found in the multimedia section of the new issue of VeloNews in stores now — with Bobby Julich, not Gord Fraser and Tyler Farrar, on the cover.