March 13, 2010

It's hard to imagine that my last blog was posted way back on 4th February, just after the cyclo-cross worlds and right before the first European races started. Fact is, I've travelled that much, and that far, to the point where only now can I think clearly enough to post some fresh words. Spain, Oman, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, and then France - from where I'm just back after Paris-Nice – offered me an awful lot of racing to photograph and different cultures to experience. And I can assure you I've had few disappointments along the way. Six weeks ago I talked of the contrasts between Tour Down Under and World Cyclo-Crosschampionships; this offering compares the joyful discovery that was the Tour of Oman, with the solid, stable and highly exciting Paris-Nice – the season's true starting point in my opinion.

When a new race like Oman comes along, as did the Tour of California in 2005, inevitable suggestions are made declaring such new events as the future of cycling – and few can criticise those comments, for it reveals genuine hope and support for our sport. However, to have seen so many different races in February and to then see a really big one – Paris-Nice – sends such well-founded beliefs to the four winds. It is hard to describe the suspense of seeing 190 of the worlds' best cyclists racing their hearts out across the French countryside, all that training and warm-up racing a thing of the immediate past, so eyeballs-out has been the real stuff. And at the end of it emerges Alberto Contador, far from his best form but still a highly potent individual when he needs to be.

On his newly managed Astana team, Contador had a lot of pressure on him to win, and win well. He did just that and sent another warning to his rivals and critics – the Spaniard will be a hard man to beat come July, as well as in the months of April, May and June. Paris-Nice offered many more delights other than Contador. There was the horribly cold weather, and a fearful wind that blew the race south all the way from Paris, but which blew some riders off the road along the way. And then there was the discovery of a youthful talent called Peter Sagan - at just 20 years, now a double stage-winner of the race! Sagan did enough to trouble not just the pure sprinters but the G.C guys as well. The Spanish-flavoured teams of Valverde, Sammy Sanchez and Contador acted as a tough armada that will repeat itself in the Tour de France. But Sagan got in there with them and caused some strife, even if the Spaniards won through at the end. I wonder what the Slovakian could do if he rides some of the Classics like Wevelgem, Flanders, Roubaix and Amstel?

Talking of the Classics reminds me of the over-riding characteristic of the past month's racing – the virtual lack of a sprinting figurehead. Sure, we've seen Italy's fastmen winning in Oman and Italy – Bennati, Petacchi and Chicchi – but to-date we have seen so little of Cavendish, Farrar and Hushovd when it matters. If the injury-troubled Robbie McEwen will forgive me, these last three (and TDU winner Andre Greipel) are undoubtedly the best sprinters in the business – but why haven't they shown themselves yet? Instead, it has been the Italians, plus Boonen, Freire, Hunter, Bos and Henderson who are out in front. Even Heinrich Haussler seems all out of sorts on the eve of Milan San Remo, a race so often won in a mass sprint. Is the season-ending World Championships figuring too heavily on the minds of the best sprinters? Or are they just hiding from mind and view to then bounce ahead in San Remo? The Italian Classic is not a place to hide oneself as a sprinter – the mild climbs of Cipressa and Poggio will make sure only the strongest sprinter wins, if indeed it ends in a sprint.

I'm forsaking the established attractions of the following Classic – Ghent Wevelgem – to discover the less-known charms of Corsica, thanks to the Criterium International moving itself there, AND getting Lance Armstrong to race in it. Leaving Wevelgem out of my schedule hurts, and I hope it is for just this one year when I do so. But a combination of Corsica and Armstrong is a strong pull in such an important year for the American. Besides, it is Wevelgem that has moved dates, not the other way around, and I'm remaining loyal to a victim of its switch in the calendar. I have spent many moments of many evenings with foreign journalists and photographers this past month, and each and every one of them wants to know how well Lance is looking and racing. I tell them he looks great – well, he always looks great – and looks leaner and fitter than in 2009. I tell them he looks more like a cyclist than in 2009, and that he's more motivated than ever to get closer to Contador in the Tour. In the past week I've used my latest imagery of Lance in Murcia to illustrate those beliefs. Lance transformed that modest Spanish race into a world event, racing with a steely determination but also with a wicked sense of fun. That 25% of the peloton were amateurs or semi professionals didn't matter – he mingled with, and raced amongst them, with equal respect - and left all of them with some great memories.

With San Remo, Criterium, Flanders and Amstel on Lance's immediate schedule, it is going to be a fascinating period of racing – I just wish he'd race in Paris-Roubaix as well! I cannot see Cancellara, Boonen, Hushovd and Devolder not being in at the kill for these races, but who else? Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen must be a candidate in Roubaix after his Omloop success, as too could be Filippo Pozzato, who's in dire need of a big win to match the flamboyance of his all-Italy outfit. The French are on something of a roll these days, with the mysterious Sylvain Chavanel lying and waiting for his Classics chance – but which Classic? If I am excited about the prospects for San Remo and Criterium, then I'm decidedly going stir-fry about Flanders and Roubaix. Seeing as the BMC team has imposed itself at our favoured Kortrijk hotel, we'll be seeing lots of the Hincapie clan – the brother and the father of George in particular. George has been a part of my Classics experience for about fifteen years, and he remains to this day a photogenic diamond for my camera. We're sure to drink enough beer and wine to last a lifetime if George can come up with a big win again – but he's not allowed to win Ghent-Wevelgem, now that would really hurt.

I'll close this piece by highlighting my favourite events of the past six weeks. Oman was a real eye-opener, a country full of wonderful people - and scenery to die for. Thousands cheered on the race as it sped across the desert or through built-up towns and tiny villages. The green, black and red Omani flag was flown everywhere, as if the French organisers had exported a version of their renowned chauvinism to a part of Arabia hitherto unknown for such public demonstrations. If the scenery was good, then the support for the race was quite outrageous. The night-time opening stage was at once both humorous and quite dangerous, but provided the best entertainment by far. The only problem is that the Sultan of Oman wants more of the same – nocturnal racing, with tens of thousands of people watching. In complete contrast to Oman came my racing highlight of this young season – Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. The rain, the wind, the cobblestones and the cold provided the basis for a very nasty day out. But it was the nature of the racing that provided the extra gloss to this semi-classic. In this modern era of cycling, it is so rare to see and enjoy a true fight to the line, yet that is what we got when Hushovd, Hayden Roulston and Jeremy Hunt battled for the last 50-kilometres to chase down a trio of supposedly lesser men. A 30-seconds gap was never closed and when Hunt, then Hushovd, blew to pieces in the wind and cold, it was a testimony to the conditions and the firepower of the men in front. Remember the names of Ian Stannard, Rick Flens and Bobby Tracksel (the winner) as this season rolls along – their performance in Kuurne guarantees further stardom is waiting around the corner.

- Graham Watson

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