By Andrew Hood
The warm ties between Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx and Lance Armstrong appear to have hit a rough stretch following Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège World Cup race. Merckx, who won the Tour de France five times over a career that included three world titles, seven victories at Milan-San Remo and five wins at La Doyenne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, said that Armstrong may have “overestimated” his abilities.
“He was supposed to sail to victory. To have listened to him, it was a formality and his rivals never even had a look in,” said Merckx, in a story published in Tuesday’s edition of L’Equipe.
“The fact is, he failed,” Merckx said. “I think he overestimated himself. Armstrong was not as strong as he thought. In any case, he didn’t impress me.”
The strong words are something of a surprise from a man who is normally considered to be a close confidante of Armstrong’s. Indeed, Merckx’s comments may well have stemmed from Armstrong’s actions as he caught Merckx’s son Axel on the Tilff, one of the final climbs of the one-day classic.
The younger Merckx had made a futile breakaway attempt, and Armstrong’s apparent acceleration as he rode past the 30-year-old rider was seen as a sign of disrespect.
For Merckx, who was watching as a television consultant, the gesture – similar to the one Armstrong dealt out to rival Jan Ullrich during the climb to Alpe d’Huez in the 2001 Tour – was enough to alter his opinion on the man to whom he has been a close friend since the American contracted cancer in 1996.
“Armstrong did the same thing to Axel during the Sydney Olympic Games,” Merckx said. “He came up behind him with 200 meters to go to finally finish fourth.
“I can’t understand his logic. By leaving Axel in his trail on Sunday, he effectively ended his own hopes of winning. Armstrong rode badly.” Armstrong, having twice finished runner-up, looked en route to winning his first Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest of the one-day classics, after successfully chasing down Axel Merckx in the final 20 kilometers.
However, the 31-year-old American was then caught by a strong chase group driven in large part by the CSC team of former teammate Tyler Hamilton, who became the first American to win the classic.
Despite Merckx’s opinion that Armstrong has lost some of his humility, the 57-year-old Belgian added that the American’s bid to equal Miguel Indurain’s record streak of five Tour wins in a row in July has not been compromised.
“I think he (Armstrong) is surrounded by people who are always telling him how great he is that he believes he can say and do everything,” Merckx said. “And, while he’s American and it’s in his mentality to believe all that, that’s more dangerous than he thinks. “As for the Tour, that’s something else. But his team might cause him a few problems. (Viatcheslav) Ekimov (37 years old) is not getting any younger and (George) Hincapie is having trouble getting back from his injuries.
“That said, Armstrong is still Armstrong,” Merckx added, “and when it comes to the Tour, he’s got the advantage.”
Zabel still No. 1; Hamilton breaks into top-10
Team CSC’s Tyler Hamilton shot into the top-10 in the latest UCI world rankings released this week thanks to his spectacular victory in Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Hamilton, 32, moved from 16th to 10th and is also ranked fourth in points earned so far in 2003.
German sprinter ace Erik Zabel (Telekom) continued his reign atop the world rankings while Italian Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) fell from second to fourth after missing some racing after crashing out at the Ghent-Wevelgem race in mid-April. Lance Armstrong (USPS) inched up into third while Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo) moved into second-place.
In the team rankings, the Belgian Quick Step team retained its top ranking while Saeco jumped from fifth into second after a solid classics run and both Gerolsteiner and Euskaltel moved solidly into the top-10.
The next rankings will be released May 11.
UCI world rankings, April 28, 2003 (previous ranking)
1 (1) Erik Zabel (Telekom), 2,217 points
2 (3) Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo), 2, 030
3 (4) Lance Armstrong (USPS), 1,942
4 (2) Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), 1,907
5 (5) Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), 1,798
6 (6) Aitor Gonzalez (Fassa Bortolo), 1,502
7 (8) Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo), 1,485
8 (10) Mario Cipollini (Domina Vacanze), 1,428
9 (9) Roberto Heras (USPS), 1,360
10 (16) Tyler Hamilton (CSC), 1,360
Other North American riders in top-200
130 (198) Fred Rodriguez (Vini Caldiroli), 406
137 (136) Levi Leipheimer (Rabobank), 384
Team rankings (previous ranking)
1 (1) Quick Step, 2,829
2 (5) Saeco, 2,619
3 (3) Rabobank, 2,541
4 (2) Telekom, 2,505
5 (4) Fassa Bortolo, 2,401
6 (6) ONCE, 1,786
7 (13) Gerolsteiner, 1,666
8 (7) Kelme, 1,627
9 (9) Alessio, 1,618
10 (15) Euskaltel, 1,604
Gonzalez hoping for best before Giro
Fassa Bortolo’s Aitor Gonzalez is the wild-card challenger to take on the Italians in next month’s Giro d’Italia, but you wouldn’t know it from his performances so far this year.
Despite his win at the GP Reggio back in early March at his first race of the season after resolving his contract dispute with Domina Vacanze, Gonzalez has struggled with poor form and hasn’t raced since he pulled out of the Tour of the Basque Country earlier this month.
The defending Vuelta a Espana champion starts Tuesday’s opening prologue of the Tour of Romandie with hopes of finding his racing legs in time for the May 10 start of the Giro. Gonzalez says he likely won’t challenge for the overall at Romandie, but rather test his form.
“I want to test myself, above all else, in the summit finish (Friday) and in the time trial on Sunday,” Gonzalez said in an interview with the Spanish daily AS. “It’s a test to know how I am, for this I want to see for myself in the hardest days.”
Gonzalez said he missed four days of training after pulling out of Basque Country with a sore gut, but continued to train without major problems near his home in Alicante along Spain’s Mediterranean Coast.
“I will start the Giro with 18 days of racing. It’s not a lot, but it will also allow me to end the race stronger,” he said.
That’s a perfect formula for Gonzalez, with the Giro ending this year with a 40km final individual time trial in Milan.
Castilla y Leon gets new dates
When the Pope comes to Spain, everything else takes a back seat, including bike racing.
The Vuelta a Castilla Leon (UCI 2.3) was scheduled for April 30-May 4, which coincided with Pope John Paul II’s visit Spain this week. In a nation where more than 90 percent of the population is Catholic, Spanish TV was committed to covering the Pope’s visit, which meant the bike race would not get any television coverage at all.
Race organizers asked the UCI to move Castilla y Leon to the dates of the now-defunct Midi Libre in France. The UCI agreed, so now the race will be held May 20-24, ensuring race coverage for bike fans and Pope coverage for Pope fans.
The five-day race doesn’t have a difficult summit finish, but there is a team time trial in the second stage and the stage into Avila will feature five rated climbs.
Although the race now coincides with the Giro d’Italia, race organizers are hoping for a competitive field. Kelme’s Oscar Sevilla has already confirmed he’ll race and there’s even been talk of Jan Ullrich and even Lance Armstrong showing up, though so far those are unconfirmed rumors floating around the Spanish press.
“Only one Spanish team is going to the Giro, that’s Kelme, but they have assured us they will bring to our race the riders that will start the Tour de France,” said race organizer Jose Luis Lopez Ferron. “The other Spanish teams will have the chance to ride face-to-face against Tour riders.”
Tour of Romandie start list and favorites
Check back later today for a complete report from today’s opening stage of the Tour of Romandie, as well as full results and photos.Fassa Bortolo
1 Dario Frigo (I)
2 Fabian Cancellara (Swi)
5 Aitor Gonzalez (Sp)
6 Sven Montgomery (Swi)Alessio
11 Laurent Dufaux (Swi)
12 Fabio Baldato (I)
15 Angelo Furlan (I)
16 Ruslan Ivanov (Mol)
18 Andrea Noe (I)AG2r Prévoyance
21 Alexandre Botcharov (Rus)
22 Mikel Astarloza (Sp)
23 Inigo Chaurreau (Sp)
24 Thierry Loder (F)
25 Christophe Oriol (F)
26 Nicolas Portal (F)
27 Mark Scanlon (Irl)
28 Olivier Trastour (F)Cofidis
31 Daniel Atienza (Sp)
32 Inigo Cuesta (Sp)
33 Bingen Fernandez (Sp)
34 Massimiliano Lelli (I)
35 Angelo Lopeboselli (I)
36 David moncoutié (F)
37 Luis Perez (Sp)
38 Guido Trentin (I)CSC
41 Tyler Hamilton (USA)
42 Michael Blaudzun (Dk)
44 Andrea Peron (I)
45 Carlos Sastre (Sp)
47 Nicki Sorensen (Dk)Jean Delatour
51 Patrice Halgand (F)
52 Pierre Bourquenoud (Swi)
53 Christophe Edaleine (F)
54 Frédéric Finot (F)
55 Sébastien Joly (F)
56 Ludovic Martin (F)
57 Eddy Seigneur (F)
58 Bruno Thibout (F)Domina Vacanze
61 Giovanni Lombardi (I)
63 Miguel A. M. Perdiguero (Sp)
65 Santos Gonzalez Capilla (Sp)
67 Francesco Secchiari (I)
68 Paolo Valoti (I)Euskaltel-Euskadi
71 Roberto Laiseka (Sp)
73 Iker Flores (Sp)
76 Alberto Martinez (Sp)
77 Haimar Zubeldia (Sp)FDJeux.com
81 Bradley McGee (Aus)
82 Sandy Casar (F)
83 Nicolas Fritsch (F)
84 Philippe Gilbert (B)
85 Régis Lhuillier (F)
86 Mickael Pichon (F)
87 Jean Cyril Robin (F)
88 Benoit Vaugrenard (F)Gerolsteiner
91 Georg Totschnig (A)
92 Gianni Faresin (I)
95 Uwe Peschel (G)
97 Gerhard Trampusch (A)Lampre
101 Vladimir Belli (I)
102 Rubens Bertogliati (Swi)
105 Marco Serpellini (I)
106 Mariano Piccoli (I)
107 Jan Svorada (Cz)Landbouwkrediet
111 Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr)
113 Voldymir Bileka (Ukr)Milaneza-MSS
121 Fabian Jeker (Swi)
122 Claus Moller (Dk)
124 Txema Del Olmo (Sp)
128 Rui Sousa (Por)Phonak
131 Alex Zülle (Swi)
133 Martin Elmiger (Swi)
135 Alexandre Moos (Swi)
136 Oscar Pereiro (Sp)
137 Santiago Perez (Sp)Team Saeco
141 Gilberto Simoni (I)
143 Gerrit Glomser (A)
144 Ivan quaranta (I)
145 Marius Sabaliauskas (Lt)
146 Alexandr Shefer (Kaz)Vini Caldirola
151 Stefano Garzelli (I)
154 Andrej Hauptmann (Slo)
155 Oscar Mason (I)
156 Eddy Mazzoleni (I)
157 Steve Zampieri (Swi)