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Letters to Cyclingnews May 1, 2001
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Occupying the minds of many of our correspondents this week is the selection of the remaining four wildcards for the Tour de France. Barnaby Nygren has some thoughts on who deserves the places, and on George Hincapie in the Classics.
The inclusion or exclusion of two teams is causing most interest. CSC-World Online is rumoured to be a shoe-in because of Laurent Jalabert, despite the team's lack of results this season after Jalabert's accident, and Mercatone-Uno is rumoured to have already been eliminated because Pantani has had serious problems even finishing stage races so far. David Curran thinks there are valid 'romantic' reasons to include CSC, and Tina Jørgensen points out that even a great rider needs a good team around him. Johnny Jakobsen thinks other teams have more to offer than CSC, but notes the difficulty of the selectors' job, but Barrit thinks that missing the Classics will mean a fresh and fit Jalabert will front for the Tour.
Turning to Marco Pantani and Mercatone-Uno, Richard Marston agrees the team has not done enough to deserve a place, but still thinks a Tour without Pantani will be the poorer, a sentiment echoed by Italo Magni. Eric Guerin wonders if Pantani needs a break, while Matt points out that the preselection of weaker French teams is the root cause of this whole controversy.
Fraser Kennedy's comment that Americans don't understand how to suffer for the team brought a predictable flood of comment (some of it way too over-the-top let's try and play the ball not the man, please). Jeff Tabor points out that Postal suffered for Armstrong in the last two Tours, but Raymond Martin thinks most Americans don't understand that cycling is a team sport. Since most English-speakers don't understand our sport at all, that's hardly surprising though.
Speaking of Hincapie, 'Fillpot' thinks he's far from a mere domestique, but Robin believes Hincapie needs to use his head a bit more in situations like Paris-Roubaix. All we can say is that it's easy to be clever when you're not the one covered in mud with a couple of hundred kilometres of cobbles at your back.
Joshua Gordon notes that the pace of this year's Paris-Roubaix was intense and only the Domos had enough men who could sustain it to really be a force; Winni Nielsen points out that Domo's ride was a demonstration of team spirit as well as strength and tactics, and Ken Ballone thinks Domo's tactics were spot-on.
Louise Hilton and Graham Schofield are delighted to hear Australia's SBS TV is increasing its Tour coverage. Good news indeed!
Robert Schinner has heard that ONCE may have used Klein bikes in the 2000 Vuelta and wonders if anyone knows about this.
Finally, a request from me. Could letter writers please include your full names and some inkling of where in the world you live. We like to know who you are!
The selection of the final four teams for this year's Tour looks again to be controversial. Lotto has certainly earned a place. I think one can make a good case for Saeco and Euskaltel-Euskadi both on the basis of results this year and due to the fact that they both have the depth to be a factor in any of the stages (if not in the overall). The fourth team is more problematic. Alessio has had excellent results and would feature in a number of stages, but I wonder whether the Tour would select a second division Italian team if it meant excluding Jalabert. That said, with Jalabert's injury CSC, save Sorensen, have been fairly unimpressive.
Mercury, with the exception of Van Petegem, have not done much on the Continent. They also haven't demonstrated that they have any sprinters who have a hope of finishing the Tour. Nor have they shown that they have any climbers who might animate the mountain stages. Plus, their sponsor might be American, but they are not an American team. Finally there is Mercatone-Uno. With the departure of Garzelli, Mercatone-Uno, as their results this year indicate, are essentially a second division squad. Without Pantani they are nothing and over the last year and half Pantani has shown very little (one stage in the Giro and a couple in the Tour aside). Since Pantani hasn't shown that he can be counted on I suspect that CSC will be the choice, although Alessio is more deserving.
As for George and the Classics. I think that it is a little unfair to judge US Postal based on this year's Paris-Roubaix. The conditions were horrible and many strong riders didn't finish. In fact, no team other than Domo was well represented. In the other races this year (and in last year's Paris-Roubaix) George has had good support from Matthew White (in the early breaks) and from Ekimov and the very promising Christian Vande Velde. If Ekimov stays around and Vande Velde continues to develop, Postal is one support rider away from having a very good Classics squad. Maybe they could pick up someone like Scandri. A bigger issue, and an challenge to those who would argue that Hincapie is a Green Jersey candidate, is that (as Postal and the US national coaches need to understand) Hincapie is not a top-line sprinter. He is useful in group sprints and very dangerous in small group sprints, but, unlike Rodriguez, he has not demonstrated the high-end speed to beat the best in the world. George is superior rider, but (see Gent-Wevelgem) he is more of a hard man/sprinter than a pure sprinter. Unless he can find a team that will make him their main Classics rider and give him significantly better support, he should probably stay at Postal.
The French have a deserved reputation for appreciation of the romantic rather than the brutally empirical aspects of this life. Perhaps this is why CSC may get an "unfair" invitation to the Tour de France this year. Only this way can the organization be sure of providing the fans with another view of cycling's classiest and most insouciant combatant. One more glimpse of Jalabert's explosive power on a steep slope would be a memory worth cherishing for many.
I agree that CSC-World Online isn't worthy of a tour selection right now (even though I´m from Denmark) but it has been a really unlucky year for them so far, with both Jalabert brothers out of races because of accidents. I am positive that they will show that they are worthy later on. Some say that if they get elected its only because of Jalabert, I don't believe that because he can't survive in the Tour without a good team.
Even as a Dane, I would have to agree with Tom. I would love to see a Danish team in the Tour, but as a cycling maniac, I think riders like Tonkov, Zülle, Escartin, Cipollini, all the Euskaltel-guys and yes even an out-of-form Pantani would be more interesting to follow in Le Grand Boucle.
Still, as you probably know, getting a Tour invitation is not just about Spring results. There is also a lot of politics to it, which all the rather poor French team selections demonstrate. I don't know what they have been drinking at Berlingske Tidende (it is a rather conservative news paper and usually not at all interested in cycling), but I wouldn't be surprised if the rumour turns out to be true.
Also, I guess it is hard to find the perfect selection criteria. A super spring team like Lotto is usually not very dominating in the Grand Tours and if it wasn't for Blijlevens, who will hopefully get his old form back soon, I still can't see what they have to offer in the GC. Well, on Wednesday, we will all be a lot wiser.
I disagree with the opinion that CSC/Worldonline should not be selected for the TdF. The riders that make up CSC are all very experienced and quite aggressive. Hamburger, Hoffman and Piziks are all very good, exciting riders. Sometimes a rider who makes the break does not win, but it makes for an exciting race. CSC has not had the season so far that would warrant praise but neither has Mapei. I think that sometimes you must select a team for the established riders that make up the team as well as for the potential they have to make a stage race exciting. I for one hope that CSC gets in.
I'm sure that Team CSC will participate in the Tour The France this year. One of the reasons could be, that because of his bad luck in the early spring, Jalabert will reach the top of his form in a few weeks. He will not be not burned out, when the Tour starts but at full speed for the first time ever. While he was at ONCE, he had to ride every race in Europe in the Spring, and did not have the power to reach the top in the Tour. This year however, he will have the opportunity to trim his training with the help of Bjarne Riis and his technological view of cycling and special ways to train in the mountains. Jalabert will at least go in the top five and Jean Marie LeBlanc knows this, as well as he knows that Jaja is the most popular rider in France. That's why CSC-World Online is going to be in the Tour this year.
I think it is a tacit admission of the low probability of his team's selection for the TdF when Pantani states his primary objective is the Giro; that, and the fact it's his home tour and doubtless there's unfinished business to be settled there.
Unfortunately, Garzelli has taken his UCI points with him to Mapei. If he hadn't then Mercatone-Uno would be better placed and wouldn't be in danger of missing the Tour bus this year. That's the dilemma of structuring a team of dedicated domestiques entirely around the capabilities and ambitions of one leader. To have gone all-out to get results early in the season would mean peaking far too early for the Tour, with the risk of not recovering in time; but, with Garzelli's departure and Pantani's stop/start program and relative lack of results since 1999, it means they just haven't had enough done enough necessary for automatic inclusion.
Sure, Pantani is a huge draw for spectators and TV audiences of the mountain stages, but I can imagine that to justify inclusion purely on those grounds would scandalize those who have been told all along that it is "sporting considerations" that count. Pity really, because I'll be one of those on the roadsides of the Alps this year.
Stefano Garzelli is now under contract with Mapei not Mercatone. As to other talented riders on the Mercatone, presently, I don't believe apart from Pantani they have any serious contenders. Most of their riders are there to support Pantani's tour (Giro, TdF) aspirations. Yes occasionally a Marco Velo, Igor Astarloa or Oscar Mason will put in a great ride, but let face it, the team revolves around Pantani, for better or for worse.
I am one who believes that a TdF without Pantani would be most unfortunate. Who in last year's tour truly challenged Armstrong in the mountains besides Pantani (Ventoux, Courchevel, to a certain extent Morzine)? Ullrich? He rode to finish second, not to win. He rode defensively and gave us about as much excitement as listening to table tennis on the radio. Marco Pantani was one of the great attractions in last year's Tour. Without him this year would greatly diminish many cycling fans' interest in the TdF.
The French sports newspaper L'Equipe reports that Pantani has suffered from bronchitis since the Tour of Valencia (early March) and has had a difficult time recovering. He recently abandoned the Settimana Lombarda as did Ullrich and Grazelli. By the way who amongst Armstrong, Ullrich and Pantani has won a race this year? None have.
The TdF without Pantani? Yes it is possible. It also won be sad.
In general I agree with Michael, Marco Pantani should not be in the Tour de France unless he earns his way. Mr Martinelli has no right to complain, he knows what the selection process is and his team is not equipped to make it as a wild-card. Just because Mercatone-Uno has Marco Pantani does not give them an automatic bid. One rider with two stage wins and no overall wins last year does not make a team, and Mercatone-Uno is a one dimensional team built around Pantani. With the departure of Stefano Garzelli to Mapei, they are left essentially with no other proven stage racers or Classics racers; just Pantani with a team of domestiques. The one exception could be Michael Andersson who won the Tour of Sweden.
There may be a personal battle for grinta (Italian pride) going on between last year's Giro d'Italia winner Garzelli and his old Mercatone-Uno team. I think Garzelli might have bruised Pantani's ego by beating him last year in the Giro. If Pantani needs to take some time off to sort out his issues then he should do it. He was once a great cyclist whom I admired. He seemed to dance on his pedals during climbs while others were struggling to get by. He used to ride, and win, with a little humility. Pantani needs to start using his bike to make his assaults rather than his mouth. If he really wanted to be considered for the Tour de France this year, maybe he shouldn't have trash talked with Armstrong last year and then departed abruptly before the Tour rolled into Paris. I don't think that he left a very good impression last year with Tour officials... and his team certainly hasn't done anything worthy of consideration this Spring.
I think perhaps the real problem with TdF team selection has been the selection of too many mediocre French teams. How does it benefit French cycling to include like Bonjour and AG2R, teams it can be almost guaranteed will sink without trace apart from forming early suicide breaks on countless transition stages. Everyone seems to have missed the quality of the French teams included over teams like Mercatone, and CSC.
As for Pantani focusing on the Giro for fear of a confrontation at the Tour; for many years at the Tour Pantani has shown the ease in which he can despatch Ullrich in the mountains, even last year when his form was nowhere near 100 per cent. If any rider worries Pantani, it would be Armstrong, a rider who can climb in the fashion of a climber, in short bursts, which will make him that much harder to crack. He also says Marco has no appetite for suffering, perhaps a review of Pantani's trials and tribulations since June 99 are needed here, coming back from suffering depression and countless legal harassment takes courage I think.
I believe it would be unthinkable, come May 2, for Pantani not to be included for the Tour de France, his presence and brilliance in the mountains, his record in the Tour, almost demand his inclusion. A victory by any other rider in his absence will place an asterisk by their name. The best riders have to be at the Tour, Pantani is one of these men.
Fraser says that Americans don't know how to win as a team. Come on Fraser have you missed the last two Tour de France? Did Channel 4 cut you guys off in 1998? Did Mercury win over 100 races last year and now are attacking in Europe?
Many of the respondents accurately observe that US teams are still not exactly sharp on the fundamentals of team cycling. Most Americans don't, in fact, even understand that cycling is a team sport.
Monday, April 30
Postal's problem is not their unwillingness to sacrifice riders for the greater good of the team. Anyone who has witnessed their unselfish riding in the last two Tour de Frances can see that they can do that, especially the individual sacrifices of Kevin Livingston and Tyler Hamilton who could easily finish higher up the GC if they weren't throwing their all into Lance's overall victory. Postal's real problem is that they unable to field a strong enough Classic's team to fully support Hincapie.
There has been a lot of talk of George needing to change teams if he wishes to win a big race like Paris-Roubaix, or Milan San Remo, however this is unlikely and perhaps undesirable. The set-up of US Postal is ideally suited to Hincapie (English speaking, American, well run, good resources, directeurs, doctors and so on) and his form may suffer if he had to change. If he was to go to a team with of similar size and ambition, it is likely that he would become just another player, having to compete for support with others with their own ambitions.
Instead, if Postal's ambitions truly lie beyond the Tour de Lance,
they need to splash out and bring in a dedicated classics squad to support
Hincapie next year. While this may prove difficult, in that their American
sponsors desire coverage for their money, of the sort that perhaps the
Tour can only bring, if there is any Classic that could grasp the American
public's imagination, it is Paris-Roubaix, Hincapie's speciality, with
all its drama, spectacle, stories and downright weirdness. This could
be done by buying in specialists who may not be huge names, demanding
huge pay-checks. After all, who'd heard of Servais Knaven before his
Of course it's true that Postal isn't quite as strong of a Classics team as they are a Tour team. But it's also true that while George is a great rider, he's not yet at the level of Museeuw, Tchmil, or Bartoli, etc.
Domo was awesome in Paris-Roubaix, but in reality Postal was tied for second best as no other team had more than one rider in the front group. Postal did just as much for Hincapie as Lampre did for Dierckxsens , or Telekom did for Weseman, etc. What did Lotto do for Tchmil? Now somebody will say, "Lotto is a better classics team than US Postal!" And I'll agree, but it also proves my point. Even if you've got the strongest, most dedicated team in the race, it doesn't matter if they all got hacked off the back because they got caught behind the pile-ups in the first section of cobbles.
We should also remember that George is the undisputed leader in the spring Classics at US Postal. If he were to consider leaving Postal for another team he would have to consider that he could end up being somebody else's domestique. Would Mapei, Domo, Lotto or Telekom work solely for George at Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, or Ghent-Wevelgem? Of course not, so would he be better off than he is now? Not likely.
While I agree completely that Domo should not be criticized for their performance at Paris-Roubaix, as they ran a superb team effort, I certainly do not believe that George Hincapie qualifies as any type of domestique. He does ride in support of Armstrong for the tour, but he is far from simply a domestique, first-rate or otherwise. Yes, there were stronger riders finishing along with Hincapie in the velodrome on this day, but the "stronger" factor comes in large part from having three or four riders from the same team conserving their energy (Knaven, Vainsteins, Museeuw, and Peeters) by sitting on Hincapie and Dierckxsen's wheels all day while their team-mates got off on breakaways. As I said, their tactics were superb, but I actually think Hincapie was stronger than all of these riders individually this year. His problems stem from not having any team support in these classics.
I have a hard time liking George Hincapie. It's not so much George, though he just doesn't seem to be a very smart rider, it's just that I'm tired of hearing Phil Liggett and others focus on him constantly, when until this year he has proven nothing. It's worse than the curse of being the next Eddy Merckx for all the Belgian riders. At the end of the race this year Domo has crushed everyone, and Phil is still babbling about George. Just give me a break, will ya?
Take last year's Roubaix, you have a break with four Postal riders, several Mapei riders and a few others, Weseman et al. You have Andreu down the road and George on Museeuw's wheel. Johan looks back, and then powers his way up to Andreu. Imagine I'm George, I'm sitting on Johan Museeuw's wheel, and I just let him ride away from me? I'm sorry, but at the very worst I nullify Johan's move if I make the effort to go with him and everyone stays together. Heck, I'm supposed to be a great sprinter. Seems like that is good for me. I also realize my team mate is up the road, but someone has to mark Museeuw. It's Johan Museeuw for god's sake. I don't care if he has a broken leg, I'm going to mark him.
This year, I'm George, I'm in a break with a slew of Domo riders, and crazy Ludo. Wilfred Peeters is up the road and the main field is about two minutes or less back. Do I keep hammering my head against the wall and try to drop Museeuw and all? I don't think even in my best hallucinations that is going to happen for one moment. I think I sit up, let the pack catch me and then get some help to go after Peeters. Yes, Domo may try to jump away with another rider, but now I'm marking their moves and doing less work. And, once again, I am supposed to be a sprinter, I think my odds are better if it all comes back together. However, even if I keep pushing along, when Museeuw gets a flat towards the end, I think it's time to attack. What's the worst that can happen? I get away with Knaven or Vainsteins and at the very least I get better than fourth. I'm just sorry Peeters didn't get him at the line.
Yes, I'm not a pro, but a little thought could be a big plus to George's legs.
Instead of all the focus on whether or not Domo was correct in winning the race while riding as a team (they were) and whether Hincapie has adequate support from his team, why has no one asked the most basic question? Might the case have been that Hincapie was given the support he needed, but his support was unable or inexperienced enough with this type of race to keep up with the pace? Look at the number of DNFs; look at the number of injuries. To even finish a race like Paris-Roubaix, a cyclist must be a superb athlete and have a considerable amount of luck. Hincapie had both, in spades. Therefore, is it anathema to suggest that the pace simply caused Hincapie and the other members of the lead group to ride the legs off everyone else, including Hincapie's support team-mates? How many times in his Tours de France has Lance Armstrong been left alone with the competition, and suffered for it, only to dig deep and finish well? Hincapie rode a brilliant race; unfortunately, Domo had more riders in form. End of story.
I really think it is foolish when people criticise the Domo-Farm Frites team for their strategy and performance in Paris-Roubaix. Like Mapei before them, the team demonstrated what road racing is all about, no coincidence of course. This year gave us a really great Paris-Roubaix! If anybody thinks otherwise, blame it on those teams who gave up too early; if it wasn't for Ludo Dierckxsens and George Hincapie only the weather would have given the Domos a match but that is not Domo's fault.
Actually, Domo demonstrated another great thing in road races that the team spirit and brain is just as important as the legs. Johan Museeuw is such a super-biker, not for coming back every time he is hit by something (which is of course also admirable) but for being able to be a member of a team, an impossible task for some champs, and for being smart. This he was not the first at finish but he was number one anyhow.
I can't see how any true cycling fan could not appreciate Domo-Farm Frites' domination at Paris-Roubaix. It was one of the best displays of team cycling I've ever seen. Domo played it almost exactly as it should be, although I would have rather seen the Lion of Flanders take the win. Probably most of Belgium would agree.
Being from Long Island, years ago I had the pleasure of meeting and riding with George. He's a heck of a nice guy and a strong rider, but I'm sure even he could appreciate the ride of the Domo boys. It's a shame that far too many people don't understand that cycling's a team sport. Funny, I didn't hear people complaining about Lance putting time into Ullrich at last year's Tour team time trial.
Those who lament George's loss as "cheap team tactics" only cement the opinion that many people have of us Americans... sore losers.
We just want to congratulate Australia's SBS Television for their weekend announcement that it would be again showing highlights of Le Tour de France this year. Not only that, they will have TWO complete live sessions, including Stage 12 in the Pyrenees and the final run into Paris (which was the only live session last year). Following complaints about commercial television's coverage of The Tour Down Under in Australia recently, and rumours that SBS would not be able to afford to cover Le Tour de France again, this is GREAT news for cycling fans in Australia.
Well done and thanks Mike Tomalaris and the rest of the SBS team (including the purse holders at the top)!! The cycling public, SBS and free public broadcasting in general win again!
If anyone else thinks this is good news, please send your thanks and congratulations to SBS yourselves to help ensure this coverage continues into the future. We're sending a copy of this to SBS as well. We also want to thank SBS for its continuing highlight coverage of many other important cycling events, including the recent Paris to Roubaix.
Louise Hilton and Graham Schofield
I have heard that ONCE used Klein frames in the Vuelta 2000 instead of their usual Giant bikes. Does anyone have information about this?
The last month's letters