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New Gear, And Then There Were Many, Ex-Pats Make Good
By Staff
Date: 1/18/2004
New Gear, And Then There Were Many, Ex-Pats Make Good

By Charlie Melk

I woke up to the sound of ice scrapers on windshields this morning, and that awful noise left little doubt -†itís still freezing out there. This time of the year is always a challenge for my fitness and I. Weíre constantly at odds. Laziness is always lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce on all of my good intentions. Two things always get my lazy butt training again, though, even when the sun rises after I get to work and sets shortly after 5pm, making it feel as if itís already time to go to bed - buying new cycling gear and following the latest happenings in the world of professional cycling.

New Gear

First, the gear, and Iíll make it short. Unfortunately, I have discovered eBay these days, and that can only be a bad thing. It all started out as casual browsing, but before I knew it I was bidding left and right on stuff I really wanted, but didnít really need. Itís a good thing Iím still an auction newbie and easily distracted to boot - otherwise I would have some major problems paying my bills this month.

Anyway, there was one auction I actually followed through on with more tenacity than brains right until the hard-fought and bitter end. This particular auction was for a Limar F-107 helmet, and sheís a real beauty people - red, white, and Colnago emblazoned, just like my bike. I knew I had to have it and thought I was in the clear.

The minutes ticked down: 5,4,3,2 . . . and then all reason disappeared as a marauding bidjacker tried to dispossess me of my prize with one final minute remaining in the auction, and I furiously typed in an outrageous sum to "win" the auction for My Precious. At that moment of pressing "Enter" I was certain of only one fact in my life - not a soul on Earth could separate us. And I was so happy when it worked, I forgot for a moment that I would actually have to write a check for this undeniably cool, yet overpriced trophy of impulse. One could argue that this was a waste of money, but new gear in the cold, dark winter months is a good motivator for me, as I mentioned before. This hadnít occurred to me before, but I hope it fits.

And now for the second and altogether more enrapturing motivator - the pro cycling scene. Even in these bitterly cold and dark months on the frozen tundra of Wisconsin, which, contrary to legend, does not only exist on Lambeau Field, I follow the cycling scene in the Americas, Europe, Australia, and Asia with undiminished, and probably even heightened, interest.

It always seems that a dearth of actual races to follow only fuels the fire of this passion that I have little success in describing to most of the people I know in my everyday life. The business deals, the race presentations, the team hopping, the new teams - all of these and more add up to a smorgasbord of cycling delicacies of which I could never eat my fill. So letís catch up on what has been going on lately. This time weíll focus on the world of North American menís pro cycling.

North American Teams: And Then There Were Many

With the fall of the mighty Saturn and Prime Alliance teams at the end of last season, many people, and I was one of them, believed that professional menís cycling would fall into a state of decline in the North America. What has happened so far, however, promises to liven up the competition considerably. Instead of a situation where a majority of the race-makers were hoarded into one team, as was most obnoxiously the case in 2003 with Saturn, the talent pool has now been equalized considerably.

For instance, Webcor scored a real coup by signing both Chris Horner and Charles Dionne. Previously an ambitious but lower tier Division III squad, Webcor can now really hit out at the big boys in any race they contest. Few would deny that Chris Horner has been the most consistent winner on the North American scene for years, and the way Charles Dionne won the San Francisco Grand Prix a few years ago points to a similar future for him, should he stick around North America long enough to amass a similar palmares.

Chris Horner and Danny Pate at the NY City Cycling Championships 2003. Photo by Jaime Nichols.

Next, we have Colavita-Bolla, who managed to secure the services of Nathan OíNeill, Mark McCormack, Ivan Dominguez, and Will Frischkorn from Saturn. This team is going to be scary-powerful! Just days ago, Nathan OíNeill won the Australian National Time Trial Championship by two minutes against a good field, announcing his return from a horrific crash in which he could easily have died, or been paralyzed, last year.

And what about Team Healthnet presented by Maxxis? With the merger of Team Healthnet and 7-Up-Maxxis, fans will be treated to some serious horsepower in the form of a John Lieswyn-Gord Fraser one-two punch. And letís not forget about Danny Pate, whose results, I would argue, show that he is one of the next big natural talents to have come along in the U.S. since Lance Armstrong. And then there is Chris Wherry . . . the list goes on.

Sierra Nevada-Clif Bar deserves mention here as well. We all still remember Trent Klasnaís ability to demolish a race when duty calls and the form is there - I saw it with my own two eyes at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in Stillwater, Minnesota, last year. He will change the face of this previously overshadowed squad. Expect great things to happen when Trent gets his groove on.

There is a wealth of other Division III teams in North America this season as well, and with the talent spread thinner than it has been in years they must be licking their chops for a serious go at the action. It should be easier for the smaller teams to have a say this year, and that will make for better racing.

Letís not forget about the Navigators Insurance Cycling Team, the only Division II cycling team registered in the United States. The name has changed ever so slightly, but the essential core remains almost identical. Henk Vogels is making a steady comeback from a nasty crash last year, despite crashing last week, and cracking two ribs, in a crit in Australia (I literally cringed when I heard that!).

A notable addition to the team, and previous Saturn alum, is Viktor Rapinski, who can tear the legs off of just about anyone on the North American scene when heís on good form. Another great thing about the Navigators is that they make several annual forays into big-time Euro racing every season, and this year will be no exception, with many top races, such as the Classic Haribo, Tour du Haute Var, Gent-Wevelgem, and the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen all on the agenda for 2004.

Viktor Rapinski, Marty Nothstein and David Clinger, NY City Championships podium 2003. Photo by Jaime Nichols.

Speaking of Europe and talent, it would be a crime not to mention U.S. Postal Service Presented by Berry Floor, the only Division I team registered in the United States. This year Postal added eight new team members, an all time record. A most exciting trend at Postal seems to be the eager snapping up of many of the best young North American riders - Ryder Hejesdal, Canadian mountain biker extraordinaire, and also from Rabobank Division III; neo-pro Patrick McCarty, a Texan who was the 6th ranked U23 rider in the world last year, according to a little cycling governing body known as the UCI; and Mike Creed, who has won 20 United States national championships in his 23 years on Earth.

Formerly of Prime Alliance, Creed, I feel, will blossom especially well in the glow of the United Statesí most successful road cyclist ever - a certain Mr. Lance "All I want to do is have some fun and win #6" Armstrong. Of course, losing a rider such as Roberto Heras is never a good thing, but Jose Azevedo is going to be a huge contributor at the Tour, and in other races, this year. He is not a pure climber like Heras, but he is a an excellent time trialist and a solid tempo climber who will probably slot in right before Beltran or Rubiera, and right after Landis, on the Blue Train to Pain, coming in July to the Alps and Pyrenees near you.

And despite what many of my cycling cronies think, I believe that Mr. Armstrong will bring it, and deliver it on time to the top step of the podium in Paris this year for a record breaking 6th time.

Lance Armstrong. Photo by Scott Schaffrick.

Ex-Pats Making Good on the Path Less Traveled

Has anyone ever noticed that countries with less of a cycling tradition than, letís say, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, and Holland oftentimes export a certain "type" of rider predominantly? For instance, who can ignore the top-heavy number of incredible road sprinters from Australia? Baden Cooke, Robbie McEwen, and Stuart OíGrady simply dominate the Green Jersey competition at the Tour these days?

Similarly, Iíve noticed that the United States seems to produce a disproportionate number of incredible G.C. riders - the guys who can TT and climb with the best of both types of specialists for three weeks - this is a rare breed, indeed. Look at Greg Lemond; look at Andy Hampsten; look at Lance Armstrong; look at Tyler Hamilton; look at Levi Leipheimer; look at Tom Danielson!

I am very excited to see what Mr. Danielson is going to do to the Giro this year. Not since the emergence of a very young Lance Armstrong has there appeared a rider from the United States who seems to have all of the tools necessary to take it all the way to the top - and that can only mean overall victory in the Tour de France. Alas, you say, I go too far - heís never even raced in a Grand Tour before! I admit that this prediction is bold, but time will tell. Letís take a closer look at the three primary and current Grand Tour G.C. hopefuls from the United States who arenít named Lance Armstrong; who chose to strike out on their own steam and attempt to create their own legacies.

Tom Danielson. Photo © Peter Geyer

Tom Danielson is quite simply one of the most exciting new riders out there. His rise to prominence has been quick. A few years ago, he was a regional mountain biker and college student in Durango, Colorado, who could climb pretty well. Pretty soon, he exploded onto the scene with Mercury, besting Tyler Hamiltonís hill climb record up Mt. Washington, New Hampshire, which Hamilton had ridden after tackling the Tour de France that year (meaning on extremely good climbing form), and winning the Tour of Qinghai Lake, a UCI 2.5 race in China.

The next year he was winning just about everything on the domestic scene with Saturn that his teammates werenít winning, but most notably the Tour de Langkawi, an international, two week, highly prestigious (2.3 ranked) and cash-laden race in Malaysia. When I looked at the little time that he had been riding professionally and the magnitude of that win, I got excited. As it turns out, I wasnít the only one.

This year, Danielson had some hard choices to make. Just about every Division I team made a play for him. In the end, however, his choice seems to have made sense - he chose the number one ranked Division I team, Fassa Bartolo. Ah, the privilege of mutant genetics! All joking aside, and keeping in mind that he has worked very hard to get where he is at, there is little doubt that team boss Giancarlo Ferretti, one of the most respected and most experienced team bosses in the European peloton, will guide young Tom through the labyrinth to the prize. I only wonder how long it will take, and not if it will happen or not.

After Levi Leipheimerís incredible third place ride in the 2001 Vuelta a EspaŮa, the world was his oyster. Postal couldnít afford him anymore, and one got the impression that there may even have been bad blood between him and Johan Bruyneel. Whatever the reality of the background goings-on, Leipheimer left certain servitude at Postal for a leadersip role at the powerful Dutch squad Rabobank.

Aiming solely for incredible form, and a top 10 G.C. placing, at the Tour, Leipheimer won the Route Du Sud en route to an excellent 7th place overall at the 2002 Tour de France. At the end of 2002, he encountered a life-threatening intestinal blockage, the result of left-over scar tissue from a childhood accident, and his season was over, but thankfully he fully recovered from this scary episode.

Levi Leipheimer. Courtesy Unipublic.

2003 promised to be his break-out year. The podium looked possible . . . until a crash in stage 1 of the 2003 Tour put an end to his aspirations in the form of a broken pelvis. Continuing with Rabobank this coming season, albeit at a reduced salary, Leipheimer has vowed that 2004 will see him concentrate on more than just the Tour. I, for one, will enjoy watching him reclaim his rightful spot amongst the pelotonís elite.

Tyler Hamilton is the one person in the pro peloton I would most enjoy sitting down with and having a real conversation. He is as gracious as he is generous; as tenacious as he is naturally talented; as intelligent as he is in-the-moment. And to top it off, heís one of the most complete bike racers the United States has ever produced as well. Wins in such events as the Dauphine Libere, The Tour of Denmark, The Tour of Romandie, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, as well as 2nd overall at the Giro díItalia and 4th overall at the Tour de France, mark him as one of the most accomplished professional cyclists with Grand Tour G.C. potential in the peloton at this moment, irregardless of his country of origin.

Tyler Hamilton. Photo by Scott Schaffrick.

The grit involved in finishing the Giro in second place with a broken scapula was only overshadowed by winning a stage of the Tour last year on a seemingly impossible long solo break, which saw the peloton unable to reel him back despite a concerted effort, en route to a near podium placing overall, with a collarbone that was cracked in not one, but two, places! It seems just as improbable as I write it as it did this summer, but nonetheless it is still true.

After leaving Postal two years ago, Hamilton chose to join Bjarne Riisí CSC squad. Their partnership is now legend, and Hamilton emerged into a real Grand Tour threat. This year, he chose to assume the role of sole leader for the Tour de France at Phonak, a promising Swiss team. Even though Hamilton has changed teams, however, he has still reportedly retained the services of Bjarne Riis as his personal coach, which can only be a good thing.

While Phonakís place at the Tour this year is not assured, the presence of both Hamilton and Oscar Sevilla should provide the required impetus for the selectors to choose Phonak - in theory. We have all seen quirky selections by the Societe du Tour de France before, though, so Hamilton has definitely taken a calculated risk with the selection of his new team. Looking at the damage he caused last year with a broken collarbone, I can only imagine what Hamilton might achieve if he manages to get through the race without a serious crash - Tyler, please donít crash this year! There, I said it, and I knocked on wood. Once again, time will tell.

. . .

All in all, this is shaping up to be another fantastic season. Very soon we will be treated to the Jacobís Creek Tour Down Under, the Tour of Qatar, The Tour de Lankawi, Etoile de Bessťges, and the Vuelta a Argentina - that means that February brings us racing from four separate continents. Game on!

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