April 27, 2010

Driving the six-hour journey down to the Tour of Romandie provides me with the time to reflect on the Classics season that ended with a thrilling Liege-Bastogne-Liege on April 25th, and with it the first phase of the 2010 season. We have learnt many things from the last month's racing. Firstly, the sport is alive with excitement and speculation, and is being watched by an ever-growing number of fans, as well as TV viewers from around the world. Secondly, the winners of the Classics have set out their stall for the remainder of the season and guaranteed further interest and debate as the summer stage-racing period is about to begin.

We know with a frightening certainty that Fabian Cancellara will win many more races this season, and those victories could well come in some quite unexpected circumstances. Cancellara trashed all opposition to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix with ease, and it is just a question of where he puts his power and grace to next. I wonder if Tom Boonen will ever be the same again, having suffered so publicly at the hands of his Swiss rival up their in the north of Europe?

It won't have gone unnoticed that there seems to be no young talent coming up to challenge Cancellara – his few rivals, Boonen, Hammond, Flecha and Hushovd are no spring chickens, whereas the man himself has age on his side and a glowing future. Cancellara won the Tour de Suisse last year, thanks to a mixture of a weak course, his strength to get over what few hard mountains there were, and his crucifying ability to race against the clock so much faster than anyone else and on any terrain. Could Cancellara win a grand tour? I think not, yet to see him try might in itself be a wonderful thing.

In a distinct reversal from previous years, the Ardennes classics turned out to be so much more exciting than the cobbled classics. They also gave us winners that help point the way through the summer races and beyond. Amstel Gold race, Fleche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege – all three events were rich with talent and delivered only the best winners.

Philippe Gilbert found some unbeatable form to snatch a late victory in the Amstel, on a day when an early summer brought out hundreds of thousands of fans to watch the race. That single victory by Gilbert saved the season for Omega-Lotto and has allowed Gilbert to save his best form for the World Championships in Australia, where he's also guaranteed full team support on a course that suits both his sprinting and climbing skills. His friend and ex-teamate, Cadel Evans, would have used Gilbert's victory to inspire him in the Fleche Wallonne, a race Evans won as the reigning World Champion to bring so much happiness to the true fans of cycling. Evans has come of age since winning the Worlds in Mendrisio and has taken the responsibility of wearing that rainbow jersey with utmost sincerity. Yet the best is yet to come I think – let's now see if Evans can win the Giro d'Italia, shall we..?

Alexandre Vinokourov put himself up as a Giro contender by winning L-B-L in such a powerful way, yet the speed with which Vino' has come back to winning ways after his suspension has sent out alarm calls to any self-respecting lover of this sport. Yet to deny Vinokourov his moment of glory is as dishonest and shameful as was the fact that Vino' took drugs to win so many races in the past. L-B-L was the hardest of the classics in 2010, as it usually is, and Vinokourov was the hardest competitor in it. If his strength was ever found to be because of illegal drug assistance, then it's all over for him. But Vino' has served his time according to the rules and returned to race – and be tested – according to the rules. Keep your fingers crossed that L-B-L was won by a clean rider, it's not too much to ask for… Vinokourov's successful return has added a shine to the armoury of Astana, a team that appeared to be struggling to support its Spanish leader. Alberto Contador now knows he has a powerful captain to keep the troops in-line for July, and to ensure that only the best Kazakhs make it on to the team in support. And Vinokourov can go to the Giro with greater ambitions than seemed likely even one week ago. But, to win that three-week race? No, I d not think it is possible…

There probably won't be another blog by me until the Giro is over in late-May. By then we'll know who's won, who's lost, or who crashed out while trying to win. With Mark Cavendish in California, the Italian sprinters could expect to win the bulk of the sprinting stages in Italy – of which there seem to be many. But they'll still have Andre Greipel and Tyler Farrar to beat, now that won't be easy. And expect the foreigners to dominate in the mountains – of which, also, there seem to be so many! No-one knows exactly where or how Ivan Basso is these days, yet if he takes the start in Amsterdam on May 8th it is not to make a fool of himself. Basso is likely to be the best chance Italy has at winning its home race, yet I cannot see him matching the likes of Evans and Sastre when it most matters, and he has to deal with teammate Franco Pellizotti as well as Michele Scarponi. I'll be looking closely at the performance of Bradley Wiggins in his quest to become a talent in grand tours. The Prologue in Amsterdam, and then the TTT a few days later, favour the Brit and his Sky team more than most. But it's the mountains of the last week that will provide the final verdict. And for those I cannot wait!

- Graham Watson

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