Monday, April 4, 2011

Post mortem

One thing you learn when you go to Belgium is that everyone, from the grocery store clerk to the bank teller to the local doctor and village priest, has a (rather strong) opinion about bike races and how to win these races. Everyone has a magic formula and everyone is quick to point out what so and so did wrong and why and when they won or lost the race.

Swiss cheese

To be fair, I have to admit that most Belgians, even those who don't care much for the sport of cycling, do know a lot about bicycle riding and racing, especially when it comes to racing in the conditions that are prevalent in the Ronde.

When you grow up in Belgium it is simply impossible not to know about cycling. Unlike soccer, which may well be a more popular sport, cycling is in your face. It takes place on public roads and everyone at one time or another has run into a race or been inconvenienced by one. As a matter of fact, you can't go anywhere in Belgium during the season without bumping into bike races left and right. At times, even freeways are blocked by races.

Furthermore, every Belgian has ridden a bicycle as a kid, and most have continued to do so through adolescence and adulthood. Every Belgian has ridden on cobblestones, in wind and rain, and even the most disinterested Belgian knows how to draft or ride an echelon (een waaier) in crosswinds. It is a skill many US Cat 1 racers struggle with, but your Belgian grandmother can explain it to you and give you a demo if requested. Every Belgian has raced his or her friends and found out the hard way what works and what doesn't.

Cat 1

So it is not surprising that after a Ronde like the one we witnessed on Sunday, sentiment is running high. Everyone agreed the big Swiss cracked, but the real question is why. Many fault him for being impulsive and for being foolhardy. Some pointed out that 40 Km solo just can't be done in the Ronde. They are quick to point out Fabian made the same mistake in 2007. Then he died before the muur. But he was not as well known back then.

Then there is Husovd, the world champion. Lighting a fire but burning out quick as a match. Haussler, a favorite who was nowhere to be seen, and Tyler Farrar who had to settle in a sprint for 13th.

Most of the criticism is going to Quick-Step and Garmin-Cervelo however. The latter because many saw them as the team to beat in 2011. They had retained Peter van Petegem, a colossal force in the classics, and a man who promptly called Garmin the best team around. The result wasn't just bad, it was awful, according to the Belgian press.

And Tommeke, who decided to bridge the gap to Chavanel on the Haaghoek, a move many call reckless and a sign of overconfidence.

And then there is Quick-Step and what many call its profound lack of strategy. Despite being in car 5 and having access to the latest technology, Quick-Step waffled.

Tom could not match Cancellara, but did he wait too long in the end? Chavanel was out there and it took the Swiss rider almost 10Km to make up 24s. The consensus is that Quick-Step should have supported Chavanel, whom most now see as the strongest rider in the race.

Finally there is Nuyens. Although he did not win with bravado, a closer look at his ordeal reveals a man of strength befitting the Ronde. He was in trouble on the Knokteberg, crashed on the Kwaremont descent, had trouble with his clipless pedal and had a loose cleat. He rode with that cleat for two hours not knowing if it would come off or not. He gambled, worked hard and won. Granted it looked opportunistic, but given what he was faced with, it was deserving.

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