Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Courses with panache modify the radio debate

At a time when the major professional teams have become unified in their position opposing the UCI ban on two-way radios, all three of the past week’s semi-classics saw dramatic, unpredictable racing.

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 fourth installment focuses on the courses and tactics used in races during the past week.

Gilbert wins.
Gilbert wins on Saturday

At a time when the major professional teams have become unified in their position opposing the UCI ban on two-way radios, all three of the past week’s semi-classics saw dramatic, unpredictable racing. It can be argued that the lack of radios contributed to the drama at last Saturday’s Montepaschi Strade Bianche in Italy, but what can’t be denied is that the radio debate has made riders even more aware that the fans, media and race organizers want less-controlled, more aggressive racing.

In his open letter on the subject last Friday, German veteran Jens Voigt of Leopard-Trek said: “Why not consider some circuit stages: the fans will see us more often, it’s easier and cheaper for the TV crews and it’s safe to ride without radios.”

Others have also called for more interesting courses that would satisfy the cycling world’s desire for races with more panache and less predictability. Interestingly, the three races that provided the most excitement this past week were ones that used a finishing circuit or something similar.

The three semi-classics were around 190km (four-and-three-quarter hours) in length, considerably shorter than the 260km (six-and-a-half hours) of the major classics, so early attacks had a better chance of staying the distance.

Le Samyn: Late drama

Last Tuesday’s Memorial José Samyn (remembering the talented French rider who won this race in 1968 and was killed the following year in a race accident) was held on a course through southwest Belgium, with a rolling finishing loop that was battered by strong winds and featured non-stop action.

2011 GP Le Samyn, Dominik Klemme - and his team - had ample reason to celebrate
Dominik Klemme - and his team - had ample reason to celebrate at Le Samyn

The ProTeams present fielded several younger riders hoping for a breakthrough, most notably the new Leopard-Trek team that was still without a victory. Going into the final circuit, the win looked like going to the brave Belgian rider Björn Leukemans, who’d split from a small breakaway group with about 50km to go and had his Vacansoleil teammates Thomas De Gendt, Frederik Veuchelen and Rob Ruijgh defending for him in the 30-strong chase group that had left behind the 75-strong peloton.

Leukemans (who last year placed fourth at the Tour of Flanders and sixth in Paris-Roubaix) would have been a popular winner; but he was caught in the final 5km after a solid pursuit led by four riders from Pro Continental French team Cofidis, along with three from Leopard-Trek and two from Quick Step. Cofidis’ Kevyn Ista — who was second to Philippe Gilbert in this same race three years ago — made an immediate counterattack that looked decisive.

If they’d had radios, it’s probable that a directive would have come from the sprinters’ teams to go after Ista before he took a 200-meter gap. Instead, just one man took off from the group: a very determined Dominic Klemme of Leopard-Trek. Pushing a massive gear into the wind up a hill to the finish, Klemme, a 24-year-old German, inched closer and closer to Ista before grinding away from the Belgian in the last 100 meters. It was Klemme’s first major pro success, two years after he scored two solo stage wins at the under-23s’ Tour de l’Avenir.

Friuli: Fortune favors the brave

Two days later, cold rain and sleet hit the peloton early on at the Giro del Friuli in northeast Italy. The result was a breakaway by 31 men that went clear on flat, windswept roads and gained two minutes by Gorizia, where they faced six laps of a hilly finishing circuit.

The near-freezing temperatures and tough circuit decided the race, and not even radio communication would have stopped 130 riders quitting before the finish. A few accelerations split the leading group of 20 on the final climb, where a well-wrapped-up Colombian, José Serpa of Team Androni, went clear with Russian Pavel Brutt of Katusha — both of whom came out of the previous week’s Tour of Sardinia with scintillating form.

2011 Monte Paschi Eroica
The challenging and beautiful course makes the Montepaschi special

Serpa easily beat Brutt in the sprint to take his first single-day race victory in his six years with the Italian Pro Continental squad, while Danish veteran Nicki Sörensen was five seconds away from catching them and perhaps scoring a first season win for his Saxo Bank-SunGard team (that win had to wait until Alberto Contador took the Tour of Murcia at the weekend).

Montepaschi Strade Bianche: Spectacular course

Tuscany’s Montepaschi Strade Bianche is an instant classic, now in its fifth year, after growing from a cyclo-sportif event in which riders dressed as racers from cycling’s heroic era using vintage bikes. Its major features are 50-plus kilometers of narrow and hilly, chalk-white dirt roads normally used by farm workers in the Chianti vineyards, along with an iconic finish in medieval Siena’s Piazza del Campo — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — accessed via a narrow, extremely steep street.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through March 7)
1. Rabobank 11 (five riders)
2. HTC-Highroad 10 (six riders)
3. Garmin-Cervélo 9 (five riders)
4. Liquigas-Cannondale 7 (three riders)
5. Team RadioShack 5 (four riders)
Sky 5 (four riders)
7. Lampre-ISD 5 (three riders)
8. Movistar 4 (three riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM 4 (two riders)
10. Omega Pharma-Lotto 3 (two riders)
11. Saxo Bank-SunGard 3 (one rider)
12. AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)
13. Quick Step 1 (one rider)
Katusha 1 (one rider)
Geox-TMC 1 (one rider)
Leopard-Trek 1 (one rider)
(Out-of-suspension Alberto Contador gave Saxo Bank-SunGaard its first wins of the season at the Tour of Murcia, and New Zealand rookie Jesse Sergent added two wins to the RadioShack account by taking the overall at the Three Days of West Flanders after blasting the prologue TT. Leopard-Trek took its first ever victory with Dominic Klemme at Le Samyn to leave BMC Racing and Euskaltel-Euskadi as the only ProTeams yet to register a victory.)

The challenging figure-eight course, with its short, steep climbs and constant turns, is exactly the type of race that riders have been seeking whether they have radios or not. Again, it was the riders’ aggression on an extremely interesting course that made the race so absorbing.

The day’s major, dozen-strong break was started on the first of eight sections of white roads (“strade bianche”) by Leopard-Trek’s Andy Schleck and Stuart O’Grady. And though Schleck fell back to the bunch after suffering two flat tires, his veteran Aussie teammate was still in front with BMC Racing’s excellent Greg Van Avermaet heading into the last dirt section with 13km to go.

The on-form Damian Cunego and his Lampre-ISD teammates were prominent in the chase and, after the two leaders were caught, Leopard’s Fabian Cancellara (the 2009 winner) and Fabian Wegmann enlivened the race with Omega-Lotto leader Philippe Gilbert and BMC’s Alessandro Ballan (whose team is still looking for its first season win).

Two dozen came together in the streets of modern Siena before entering the ancient part of the city — where Gilbert surged on the steepest, 16-percent pitch 500 meters from the line, and only Ballan and Cunego could follow. Gilbert made use of his front position to navigate the last two narrow turns faster than his rivals to take an impressive victory from Ballan and Cunego.

The Strade Bianche may not (yet) be a major classic, but its magnificent course gave rise to just the type of racing that everyone wants — a mission also accomplished to a lesser extent at the Samyn and Friuli races last week.