By Neal Rogers
Ah, Georgia, still on my mind.I know in the age of the Internet that the Dodge Tour de Georgia is sooo last month, but besides being the highest profile race I’ve covered in my two years here at VeloNews, I’d have to say it was probably the best bike racing I’ve had a chance to see up close.
I think what was most gratifying to see was the chance for domestic racers to show to Lance, Mario and the gang from CSC that North American racing is no joke. Domestic veterans like Eric Wohlberg (Sierra Nevada) and John Lieswyn (Health Net-Maxxis) were putting up a fight day after day against the man, and the team, that’s won the biggest stage race in the world five years running.
Out of seven stages, Cipollini’s stage 2 win was the only by a European, while Health Net-Maxxis’s Gord Fraser punked him in a sprint not once, but twice. (Okay, Cipollini was nowhere to be seen at the stage finish, but hey, it was a field sprint.)
And while he didn’t win a stage, Ivan Dominguez proved he’s got what it takes to butt heads with the fastest guys on two wheels – just ask Mario, who said himself Dominguez belongs in Europe. And what was the name of that other guy who won a sprint? Even after watching the video over and over, I’m still having trouble believing that bike throw Armstrong gave to take stage 3. No one in the crowd could believe it. Except of course, for Lance. Sorry, Ivan, but you got out-sprinted by the best climber in the world.
There was no shortage of revelations in Georgia, starting with Health Net’s Jason McCartney, who had not one, but three epic days in the saddle, starting with his 100-mile pull on stage 2, followed by his top-10 ride in the time trial and capped off with his heroic solo breakaway on the race’s hardest stage.
Then there was Cesar Grajales, who went from a relative nobody on the radar of the international cycling community to a dragon slayer when he put Armstrong, Horner and Jens Voigt into difficulty on the inhumanely steep Brasstown Bald. You can read more about Grajales in our upcoming issue 9, but I will say this: Given his climbing abilities and the general lack of hilly stage races in the U.S., it would be a shame if he didn’t get a crack at a European grand tour.
Best U23 rider Kevin Brouchard-Hall also deserves mention. Although his is hardly a new name to the sport — brother Derek raced made a name for himself at Mercury — Kevin has been carving out his own identity racing in Belgium with the U.S. national team. He took fourth at Redlands on the tough Panorama Point road race, and the exposure he got from podium time with Lance and the gang will surely lead to bigger things sooner rather than later.
In the absence of a “most combative team” award, I’ll put my bid in to Ofoto-Lombardi Sports. While the team didn’t come away with any stage wins, the small-budget Bay Area squad was hyper-aggressive from day one, whether it was Tim Larkin or Erik Saunders in a breakaway or Jackson Stewart off on a suicidal tailwind flyer, the team never let up. Before handing it over to Bouchard-Hall, Ofoto’s Nieko Biskner spent a few days in the best U23 rider’s jersey, and although he dropped out in the mountains, I suspect we’ll be hearing from him for years to come. Nice work, boys.
It seemed with the five-time and current Tour de France champion in the peloton, the field was really on its best behavior. There were no real crashes all week, save a brief uphill stack on stage 1’s cobblestone climb, and that was really more of a pause than a pileup.
That is, of course, not discounting the horrible injustice suffered by U.S. National-TIAA-CREF’s Craig Lewis, who was struck by a vehicle on the course during the time trial and suffered serious injuries including two collapsed lungs, five broken ribs, a broken jaw, wrist and femur and a concussion. Reports said Lewis, who was the amateur team’s GC hope, had his head down when the senior citizen behind the wheel of an SUV turned through traffic cones designating the time trial course sending Lewis sliding across the pavement less than two miles before the finish line. Word around the race was that Lewis, who hails from Greenville, South Carolina, had been training with U.S. Postal’s George Hincapie prior to Georgia and was able to hold Hincapie’s wheel on the toughest of climbs.
“Craig is the most talented rider I have seen since Lance Armstrong,” team director Jonathan Vaughters said the day after Lewis’s accident. “If I took you out and you saw him ride, you’d think he was the next Pantani.”
Other observations from the Tour de Georgia:
• The CSC boys like their coffee. I was amazed at the start of the first stage in Macon to see Jens Voigt and Max Sciandri sitting in the shade, finishing their lattes, while the rest of the field had already staged with less than three minutes to the start. I guess when you’ve raced as much as they have, you’ve got the whole system pretty well dialed. A few days later, they used a coffee shop near the start line as their team meeting place — no fancy RV needed. Very Euro. Very cool.
• The 10km climb up Brasstown Bald Mountain really needs to be seen to believed. It’s just that mean. Being there with the big crowds lining the road reminded me of the first time I ever saw Mavericks, the big-wave surf spot between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California.
It was late-December 1994, and a 25-foot swell had hit. People were lining the cliffs, watching the world’s top big-wave surfers tackle one of the nastiest waves ever seen. Though Mavericks local Jeff Clark had “revealed” the break a few years before, it was the arrival of Hawaiian surfers Mark Foo and Ken Bradshaw that gave that week a sense of both discovery and legitimacy, much like Armstrong and Voigt’s suffering on Brasstown.
When Mark Foo died later the next day under a heavy wave, Mavericks instantly became a part of surf legend. And while no one was hurt on Brasstown, it looked as though every rider there had died a thousand deaths on that climb — including Armstrong.
• Like the guy holding the sign that said, “Lance who? Chirs Horner is my hero,” you gotta love the underdog, at in Georgia it was Chris Horner. I mean, how could you not secretly pull for a guy who straight-faced stood up to the microphone at the pre-race press conference and declared, “I’m here to win.”
Webcor Builders vs. U.S. Postal and CSC. It was David. vs. Goliath. Squared.
And still, Horner put up an admirable fight, attacking on the penultimate climb on stage 5 and sticking with Armstrong and Voigt until the final kilomter up Brasstown. Besides being an absolute goldmine of quotable material, Horner is a damn fine bike racer, and he and the rest of the domestic crew represented well against two of the top teams in the world.
“I saw three guys here that I believe have the body type and just the class on the bike [to race in Europe],” said CSC’s Bobby Julich. “That would be Chris Baldwin [Navigators], Jason McCartney and Ivan Dominguez. With a little bit of help, on the right team, they could be pros in Europe. I hope I’m not missing anyone, but those are the three guys that showed me something here. It’s exciting to see. Of course there are the established guys like Chris Horner, who had a chance over in Europe and it didn’t work out, but he came back here and didn’t give up. He’s just been dominating races in the States ever since he came back. I believe he deserves another shot as well. A talent like that needs to be built upon.”
It’s been said before and I’ll say it again. Horner belongs in Europe. But I love having around here in the States, which is why I’m going to end this week’s column with a quote from Horner himself, on racing against the best rider in the world.
“I’m not scared to have Lance here. I understand that with having Lance here it brings my chance of winning the overall down considerably, but I also can appreciate riding against quality riders like that, and seeing where your form really is against guys that are the best in the world. I love having better riders in the field.”
A race is being held this weekend in Ojai, California, for a good cause. The Garrett Lemire Memorial Grand Prix is being held in honor of the talented young cyclist who died last year during the Tucson Bicycle Classic.
“The 2003 race season will be remembered for the loss of Garrett Lemire, a talented Ojai cyclist,” writes race organizer Robert Coble. “His love of cycling, nature, people and life have inspired all who knew him and will forever remain foremost in our treasured memories.”
Teams from across the country will be attending the circuit race, which offers a $10,000 cash purse, $6,000 of which will go to the Pro/1/2 racers. The USCF Cat “B” race takes place on Sunday, May 9th, on a challenging 1-mile course in the downtown area of Ojai. It is a non-profit race, with all proceeds going to community education on bicycle racing, cycling awareness and cycling safety.
For more information, see www.bicyclesofojai.com
In case you hadn’t noticed, the crew over at OLN is going wild with “Lance Fever,” as evidenced by the two new shows, “Road to the Tour” and “The Lance Chronicles.” In fact, the network has gone so wild over Lance and his U.S. Postal Team — a team it sponsors, in fact — that it is busily filling and re-filling time slots to accommodate more Lance time.
OLN will replace “Road to the Tour” repeats on Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m., and Mondays at 930 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., with repeats of “The Lance Chronicles.” “Road to the Tour” will still air on Thursdays at 9 p.m. and 12 a.m. and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
What really stinks is that the network will be repeating “The Lance Chronicles” at 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays in May, supplanting Tour de Georgia coverage on May 8, and Sea Otter Classic footage on May 15. My theory with OLN and it’s sporadic scheduling changes: If there’s a race you really want to see, set your VCR, TiVo, whatever, to record it the first time it’s aired.
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