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Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Case Against the Case Against Lance

OK, so I am biased... but I just watched the Larry King/Bob Costas interview with Lance, and have the following thoughts about L'Equipe's bombshell.

* The least compelling argument Lance makes is that protocols were violated. He may well be right, and has a strong case to that effect, but protocols are process, not substance, and usually people resort to process arguments when they think they can't win on the substance. See every time the republicans cry "partisan politics!" when someone points out how corrupt they are. Because Lance's primary argument does actually take the substance head on, he shouldn't distract people with process.

* A person's credibility can be judged to some degree by how they hold up under live questioning. Ask any trial lawyer trying to make an impression on the jury. And here, Lance looks like the one to believe. His appearance on Larry King included all the necessary tough questions, and he betrayed not a shred of equivocation. Not many guilty people could go on worldwide cable (this was CNN after all), look into the camera, and say "I didn't do it." So score one for Lance.

* Maybe there's an explanation, but I fail to see how he could have six positives and several other negatives during the same month for a substance that apparently hangs around your system for several weeks.

* Even if he had some EPO in his system in 1999, he was negative for the rest of his career. He clearly did not base his success on dope. He was clean in 2001 when he looked back at Ullrich before destroying him on the Alpe.

After that, I still can't speak to the specifics much... some lab found an old sample, did something, bla bla bla... claims it's positive for EPO, etc. I do recall hearing Bob Costas basically dismiss Cycling as a sport right after the Tour, so for him to go coddling up to Lance was kind of nauseating. Ah well, at least he resisted the temptation to ask Lance about his love life, which is more than you can say for the gray, mumbling skull he shared the pulpit with.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


I feel obligated to say something about the new doping allegations. And what I have to say is, I have nothing to say.

OK, not nothing. I can say that I haven't read anything that makes me think "gotcha!" and am as suspicious as any American cycling fan who's been listening to unfounded carping from seemingly every corner of France for seven years. Usually the proof offered has been laughable, and so far I can't rule out the possibility that it will be this time too. Also, LeBlanc seems absurdly anxious to convict when he reads a newspaper article and announces Armstrong's guilt. What an asshole.

After that, I can only say that there's nothing to know for sure yet. Stay tuned. If not... why has there been a witch hunt aimed at Armstrong all these years? Do the French hate success that much?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Deutschland Notes

A few thoughts from vacation, where a stunning victory has awakened me from my blogging respite.

* Levi Leipheimer's tidy victory in the Tour of Germany is a really terrific palmare for a guy who seems ideally suited to a race of this stature. By all accounts, the Deutschland Rundfahrt is one of the best national Tours short of the big three, and thanks to Ullrich, T-Mobile and Gerolsteiner raising the sport's profile, the crowds turned out in droves. The course, meanwhile, was a mini-TdF mix of serious alpine passes, sprinters' stages, and a decent TT to weed out the pretenders. Leipheimer himself is a miniature of a grand tour winner, not quite up to putting Armstrong or Basso under pressure, but clearly better than just about anyone else. Since he races for a German squad, the race and the rider were made for each other.

* OK, so I will ask again: name the most prolific stage race of the season not won by either an American team or rider. Answers below, somewhere in the BeNeLux coverage. It's not exactly a trick question, but the results are sure piling up for the US.

* Is Ullrich the least lucky rider of all time? Probably not: if you read cycling history, there are numerous tales of guys having to weld their forks back together while the pack catches and passes them, guys getting kidney-punched, inter-squad treachery, etc. Cycling is very Euro-tragic in that way, the stuff of opera. But take a look at Ullrich's case, capped off most recently by a cold that cost him the top step in his own national tour.

-- 1997: wins Tour at age, what, 17? Anyway, he was young and the press proclaimed him the next big thing.
-- 1998: Ullrich does indeed become the next big thing, but can't drop the weight in time to catch Marco Pantani in the Festina tour.
-- 1999: Ullrich injures knee, misses Tour, and cringes while Armstrong returns to Cycling looking a lot more dangerous than before. Eventually he realizes, along with the rest of us, that any current rider with Tour ambitions just became incredibly unlucky enough to show up during the Armstrong Era.
-- 2000-01: The reality of the Armstrong Era sinks in.
-- 2002: Ullrich hurts knee again, sits around bored, takes ecstasy, runs over some bikes, and is banned from the sport for a season. Not that he was about to return to the top, but this was almost a death blow to his career, and something of an indelible stain on it. And yet, think about it: ecstasy has nothing to do with cycling! It's a party drug that stays in your system for a short spell, increases energy but virtually eliminates aggression in place of a certain bliss. I always thought that even if Ullrich took ecstasy during a race, he wouldn't be able to break away. He'd keep returning to the pack to see if his friends were OK, and whether they needed a hug. So basically he was banned by the morals police on charges that had nothing to do with the sport. What nonsense.
-- 2003: Lacking much of a team, a determined Ullrich puts the fear of God into Armstrong, virtually stealing the spotlight at the Centenary Tour, and only an early deficit due to illness held him back. After Alpe d'Huez, Ullrich was faster overall, but that two minutes heading into the Alpes was still one by the time they got to Paris.
-- 2004: More last second illness, more delayed fitness, another Tour loss.
-- 2005: Absent-mindedly runs into the back of a team car on the eve of the Tour, nearly severing his windpipe. That and another crash leave Ullrich shaken in the early stages, though he storms back onto the Podium eventually.

I may be confusing the illnesses, but I do seem to recall he caught something from little Sara last year, and that he had some mishap early in 2003 that undermined his monster form. Meanwhile, not only is he constantly getting ill, his chief rival in this era is a guy who never got sick. The mind boggles...

Monday, August 15, 2005

Best Names, Vuelta edition

Sure, there are substantive matters to report on, such as Constantino Zaballo's dramatic win in San Sebastian as well as the complete disappearance of the PCT overall contenders, or the start of the Tour of Germany with today's messy, middlin stage. Oh, and Congrats to Hoa-Noa! A cycling lifer gets a sweet deal with Davitamon, and hopefully Horner can now repurchase his home in Bend, Oregon.

But with the Vuelta on the horizon, it's time to take a closer look at some of the names that will make the competition great.

1. The T-Mobile Boys: Bas Gling, Torten Hiekmann, and Bran Schmitz. These are made-up names, right?

2. David Cañada. Despite hosting the Worlds in Hamilton, ONT, two years ago, Cañada needs some results to join the elite cycling nations. Hiring the Saunier rider to carry the maple leaf flag is a good move.

3. The Basques: Aketza Peña, Koldo Fernández, Egoi Martínez, just to name a few. Is there any combination of letters and sounds that's off-limits to Western Europe's oldest indigenous language?

As you can see, the blogging season is clearly winding down. By the Worlds, I will be typing "all blogging and no riding makes Chris a dull boy" repeatedly.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Full Vuelta Start List!!

Don't worry, this is just a cut-and-paste job. I don't love blogging that much.

Liberty Seguros (Sp): 1. Roberto Heras, 2. Dariusz Baranowski Pol), 3. Joseba Beloki, 4. Igor González de Galdeano, 5. Giampaolo Caruso (I), 6. Isidro Nozal, 7. Michele Scarponi (I), 8. Marcos Serrano, 9. Angel Vicioso. Reservas: Rene Andrle (Cze), Carlos Barrero, Jan Hruska (Cze) and Sergio Paulinho (Por).

Phonak (Swi): 11. Santiago Botero (Col), 12. Martin Elmiger, 13. Santos González (Sp), 14. Ignacio Gutiérrez (Sp), 15. José Ignacio Gutiérrez (Sp), 16. Floyd Landis (USA), 17. Martín Perdiguero (Sp), 18. Víctor Hugo Peña (Col), 19. Oscar Pereiro (Sp). Reserves: Aurellen Clerc, Uros Murn (Slo) and Tadej Valjavec (Slo).

Illes Balears (Sp): 21. Francisco Mancebo, 22. José Vicente Acosta, 23. José Iván Palacios, 24. Joan Horrach, 25. José Juliá Cayetano, 26. Pablo Lastras, 27. Mikel Pradera, 28. Aitor Osa and 29. Unai Osa. Reservas: David Arroyo, Toni Colom and Toni Tauler.

Bouygues Telecom (F): 31. Anthony Charteau, 32. Sebastien Chavanel, 33. Pierre Drancourt (F), 34. Pierrick Fedrigo, 35. Anthony Geslin, 36. Jerome Pineau, 37. Franck Renier, 38. Thomas Voeckler and 39. Unai Yus (Sp). Reserve: Yohan Gene, Frederic Mainguenaud, Alexandre Naulleau and Mickael Pichon

Comunidad Valenciana (Sp): 41. Angel Luis Casero, 42. David Bernabeu, 43. David Blanco, 44. Francisco Cabello, 45. Carlos García Quesada, 46. Eladio Jiménez, 47. David Latasa, 48. Javier Pascual Rodríguez and 49. Rubén Plaza. Reserve: Javier Cherro, Jose Luis Martínez, David Muñoz and Javier Pacual Llorente.

Cofidis (F): 51. Daniel Atienza (Sp), 52. Leonardo Bertagnolli (I), 53. Jimmy Casper, 54. Arnaud Coyot, 55. Bingen Fernández (Sp), 56. Dimitri Fofonov (Kaz), 57. Nicoladas Inaudi, 58. Luis Pérez (Sp) and 59. Staf Scheirlinckx (B). Reserve: Christophe Edaleine and Guido Trentin (I).

Crédit Agricole (F):
61. Francesco Bellotti (I), 62. Alexandre Botcharov (Rus), 63. Julián Dean (NZ), 64. Thor Hushovd (Nor), 65. Joly Sebastien, 66. Christophe Le Mevel, 67. Eric Leblacher, 68. Benoit Poilvet, 69. Nicolas Vogondy. Reserve: Geoffroy Lequatre.

Davitamon (B): 71. Mauricio Alberto Ardilla (Col), 72. Bart Dockx, 73. Nick Gates (Aus), 74. Jan Kuyckx, 75. Koos Moerenhout (Ned), 76. Gert Steegmans, 77. Tom Steels, 78. Leon van Bon (Ned) and 79. Preben van Hecke. Reservas: Mario Aerts and Aart Vierhouten (Ned).

Discovery Channel (USA): 81. José Azevedo (Por), 82. Manuel Beltran (Sp), 83. Tom Danielson, 84. Stijn Devolder (B), 85. Leif Hoste (B), 86. Benoit Joachim (Lux), 87. Benjamín Noval (Sp), 88. José Luis Rubiera (Sp) and 89. Max van Heeswijk (Ned). Reserve: Michael Barry (Can), Viacheslav Ekimov (Rus), Roger Hammond (GB) and Gennady Mikhaylov (Rus).

Domina Vacanze (I): 91. Simone Cadamuro, 92. Alessandro Cortinovis, 93. Marco Fertonani, 94, Angelo Furlan, 95. Sergio Ghisalberti, 96. Ruslan Ivanov (MDA), 97. Mirco Lorenzetto, 98. Rafael Nuritdinov (Uzb) and 99. Luca Solari. Reserve: Ruggero Borghi, Enrico Grigoli, Iván Quaranta and Paolo Valoti.

Euskaltel Euskadi (Sp): 101. Aitor González, 102. Koldo Fernández, 103. Gorka Gonzales, 104. Roberto Laiseka, 105. David López, 106, Egoi Martínez, 107. Iban Mayo, 108. Aketza Peña and 109. Samuel Sánchez. Reserve: Joseba Albizu.

Fassa Bortolo (I): 121. Fabio Baldato, 122. Massimo Codol, 123. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sp), 124. Alberto Ongarato, 125. Alessandro Petacchi, 126. Fabio Sacchi, 127. Julían Sánchez (Sp), 128. Matteo Tosato and 129. Marco Velo. Reserve: Andrus Aug (Est), Paolo Bossoni, Marzio Bruseghin, Lorenzo Bernucchi and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Bel).

Française des Jeux (F): 131. Ludovic Auger, 132. Christophe Detilloux, 133. Bernhard Eisel (A), 134. Frederic Finot, 135. Bradley McGee (Aus), 136. Ian Mcleod (RSA), 137. Jeremy Roy, 138. Benoit Vaugrenard and 139. Jussi Veikkanen (Fin). Reserve: Armand Gerara, Frederic Guesdon, Christophe Mengin, Fabien Sanchez and Matthew Wilson (Aus) .

Gerolsteiner (G): 141 Rene Haselbacher (A), 142. Heinrich Haussler, 143. Sven Montgomery (Swi), 144. Volker Ordowski, 145. Uwel Peschel, Matthias Ruus, 147. Torsten Schmidt, 148. Marcel Strauss (Swi) and 149. Thomas Ziegler. Reservas: Robert Forster, Sven Krauss and Marco Serpellini (I).

Lampre-Caffita (I): 151. Gilberto Simoni, 152. Daniele Bennati, 153. Giualiano Figueras, 154. Juan Fuentes (Sp), 155. Oleksandr Kvachuk (UCR), 156. Marco Marzano, 157. Andreas Matzbacher (A), 158. Sylvester Szmyd ( Pol) and 159. Andrea Tonti. Reserve: Javier Vila (Sp), Alessandro Spezialetti, Marius Sabaliauskas (Lit), Gerrit Glomser (A) and Giosue Bonomi.

Liquigas-Bianchi (I): 161. Magnus Bäckstedt (Swe), 162. Patrick Calcagni, 163. Mauro Gerosa, 164. Marcus Ljungvist (Swe), 165. Nicola Loda, 166. Oscar Mason, 167. Matej Mugerli (Slo), 168. Charles Wegelius (G) and 169. Marco Zanotti. Reserve: Dario Andriotto, Stefano Garzelli, Vladimir Miholjevic (CRO), Devis Miorin and Gianluca Sironi.

Quick Step (B) 171. Paolo Bettini (I), 172. Tom Boonen, 173. Kevin de Weert, 174, José Antonio Garrido (Sp), 175. Juan Miguel Mercado (Sp), 176. Luca Paolini (I), 177. José Antonio Pecharromán (Sp), 178. Guido Trenti (USA) and 179. Rik Verbrugghe. Reservas: Sebastian Rosseler and Jurgen Van Goolen.

Rabobank (Ned) 181. Denis Menchov (Rus), 182. Jan Boven, 183. Bram de Groot, 184. Oscar Freire (Sp), 185. Pedro Horrillo (Sp), 186. Alexandre Kolobnev (Rus), 187. Niels Scheuneman, 188. Jukka Vastaranta (Fin), 189. Thorwald Veneberg. Reserve: Michael Boogerd, Thomas Dekker, Maarten den Bakker, Mathew Hayman (Aus) and Ronald Mutsaars.

Relax Fuenlabrada (Sp) 191. Nacor Burgos, 192. Moisés Dueñas, 193, José Miguel Elias, 194, Xavier Florencio, 195, Jorge García, 196. Josep Jufre, 197. Oscar Laguna, 198. Luis Pasamontes and 199. Luis Pérez. Reservas: Javier Benitez, Fredy González (Col), Julio López and Daniel Moreno.

Saunier Duval-Prodir (Sp): 201 David Cañada, 202. Rubén Lobato, 203. Iñigo Cuesta, 204. David de la Fuente, 205. Gómez Marchante, 206, Leonardo Piepoli (I), 207. Joaquín Rodríguez, 208. Francisco José Ventoso and 209. Constantino Zaballa. Reserve: Rafael Casero, Angel Gómez and Oliver Zaugg (Swi).

Team CSC (Den) 211. Carlos Sastre (Sp), 212. Manuel Calvente (Sp), 213. Linus Gerdemann (G), 214. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), 215. Giovanni Lombardi (I), 216. Andrea Peron (I), 217. Jakob Piil, 218. Nicki Sorensen and 219. Christian Vandevelde (USA). Reserve: Lars Bak, Thomas Bruun, Allan Johansen, Bobby Julich (USA) and Luke Roberts (Aus).

T. Mobile (G): 221. Rolf Aldag, 222. Marcus Burghardt, 223, Serguei Ivanov (Rus), 224. Andrea Klier, 225. Bernhard Kohl (A), 226, Francisco José Lara (Sp),227. Daniele Nardello (I), 228. Oscar Sevilla (Sp) and 229. Erik Zabel (G). Reserve: Bas Gling (Ned), Torten Hiekmann (Ned), Andre Korff, Bran Schmitz and Christian Werner.

San Sebastian Preview

Previewing the post-Tour Classics is thankless blogging (you're welcome), partly from my own fatigue, but also the fatigue that has engulfed all of my usual sources of information. Cycling News hasn't said hardly a peep, besides running some wire lines about team lineups. But check out the Daily Peloton from my links bar... they've got the good espresso brewing in their office.

Mostly the story right now, thanks to the Pro Tour, is whether the White Jersey wearer will hang on. In this case, that distinction belongs to Danilo DiLuca, or as he is known in Abruzzi, Il Killer di Spoltore. Killer is not only the Pro Tour leader, he's also a rider ideally suited to a 200+km hammer-fest with a nice selection hill like the Jaizkibel (8km at some 4-8%). Of course, if he is successful he will earn the DP 50 Degree Award, given annually to the rider who performs best in Belgium in April and again in more southern climes in mid-August swelter. But he will face stiff challenges from the usual suspects, guys like Rebellin who won here back in '97, fresh off the boat from his hometown outside Buenos Aires, as well as Bettini and a few dozen well-motivated Spaniards. Interestingly, this race has been won by Lance Armstrong, Miguel Indurain, and... Erik Dekker. Not sure Dekk is going to defend, but it will be interesting to see if a non-climber can stick in a winning break.

Beyond that, I find it impossible to add anything intelligent. A lot of guys will be trying hard to win, and it will be much more fun to discuss after the fact. Thoughts? Predictions? Andele!

[p.s. BTW, put me down as picking the Killer.]

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I'm an Idiot, No. 163

Some time ago, this space was employed to determine which countries offered the most to the sport of Cycling, on the theory that there was nobody else out there distilling this kind of information. Turns out, there is. The, um, Pro Cycling Tour. Apparently they are compiling points by national origin, as well as individuals and teams.

Now, this isn't exactly the same assessment as I offered recently. This list is based entirely on points from results on the road, taking no account whatsoever of the subjective opinions of cat-4 riders in Seattle. So make of it what you will. Still, it's fun to compare.

My list:
1. Italy
2. USA
3. Flanders
4-5 Spain
4-5 Germany
6. Australia
7. Netherlands
8-9 Kazakhstan
8-9 France

PCT list:
1. Italy
2. USA
3. Spain
4. Germany
5. Belgium
6. Oz
7. Netherlands
8. Kazakhstan
9. France
10. Switzerland

Some key differences... the Pro Tour did not get the memo about Tom Boonen's incredible star power, letting Belgium languish in fifth even after including the results of Wallon riders. Also, their failure to punish Spain for its failure to live up to any expectations at all at the Tour is a dangerous precedent. If my kid loafed it through life but still got awarded third place overall, I would not be pleased. I think relegating Spain to 4th or 5th until they get their act together is more appropriate. But, I suppose reasonable minds will differ.

Update!!! Apparently the national rankings not only exist, but have some significance for the upcoming Worlds road race. According to CyclingNews, the top 10 PCT ranked nations are invited to the Worlds with a full 9-man team, but after that, nations have to qualify based on their European Cycling Union rankings, and with smaller teams down to as little as a single rider. PCT rankings close August 15, which means that San Sebastian is the last opportunity for nations like the Ukraine (just 7 measly points behind Switzerland) to make the cut. Ukraine, BTW, will have a frisky Yaroslav Popovych firing away in Spain, so there's some potential drama in the sprints for lesser places. Apparently Switzerland has to make it on the PCT basis, because they have almost no points with the ECU. Now if only the Worlds itself meant anything...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Pop Quiz

Name a 2005 Pro Tour stage race that hasn't been won by either an American rider or a U.S.-based team? OK, I can think of the Dauphinee and Giro/Rundfahrt, but that's about it. And don't go adding the Tour of BeNeLux to the list.

According to his website, Bobby Julich scorched the field in the final TT to vault up into the overall win. It's hard to gauge the conditions with so little information, but he put at least a minute into almost everyone on a flat, 26km course. That's a ton of time. And to further illustrate, the 37 seconds between him and second-placed Leif Hoste is the largest gap between any two riders on the stage, save for a couple outliers in the bottom five. Granted, he didn't have to face too many great TTers, and the fact that two Dekkers and Hoste rounded out the top four placings shows the, um, quality of the field in the inaugural event. But this is a guy who just rode his ass off at the Tour, after a monster spring season, with only a brief downtime in May. Now he's off to the Tour of Germany, where he'll face the T-Mobile studs and an otherwise deeper field. But given his resiliency and consistent form, I wouldn't be shocked to see him hanging around the GC leadership again.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

BeNeLux: Julich Poised?

Meanwhile, the Pro Tour goes on, relentlessly. Tomorrow's concluding 24km time trial will determine the winner of the inaugural BeNeLux Tour, and since there are three dozen guys within spitting distance of the podium, the winner will be determined by the Race o' Truth. In the picture is Christian Vandevelde, recovering nicely from his Tour TTT mishap to take the Mountains classification, having successfully scaled the 13,000-foot Mount Luxembourg just ahead of the main chasers.


Anyway, handicapping for tomorrow... Of course, Rik Verbrugge owns the leader's Bloody Shirt on the basis of his win in the 5.7km prologue, where he put 25 seconds into Bobby Julich. But Julich can TT, and at 37 seconds down, one would expect there to be an opening. Should make for a fantastic finish. Why can't all Tours be this fun?

My Alexandre Vinokourov Rant!

"I like to attack." So sayeth Cycling's greatest Central Asian rider, Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov. This aggressive mentality netted him fifth in the Tour, primarily by placing the judges in the position of having to award him a questionable time bonus to reward him for his final day's efforts. It also earned him a certain notoriety as a key protagonist in an otherwise bland race. Everyone loves a fighter.

Except apparently me. Here's my take on the man, from my distant and marginally informed perch in Seattle.

Strike One: A Foolish Consistency

In interviews, every third word out of his mouth is "attack". For this he is celebrated far and wide as a great rider... and he is a great rider, but that isn't why. Rather, his robotic insistence that "I am Vinkourov. I must attack." is tiresome and stupid. He reminds me of a dog chasing a tennis ball, not out of any intelligence but rather an irresistable urge, too powerful to ignore even if you threw the ball into a burning building. I think Vino grew up reading too many Marvel Comics.

His attacks work sometimes, but his stated goal this year was to win the Tour, and he threw away all such hopes with his attacks on the first big mountain stage, where his glorious attacks early on led to him blowing five minutes. See ya.

Strike Two: Nice Guys Finish Last

Cycling is a pretty cutthroat sport, but usually not within teams. Witness the harmony at Postal/Discovery that has led to seven straight wins. So it probably raised some eyebrows in the Peloton this spring when Vino, after signing with T-Mobile, had this to say to Cycle Sport about his new boss Jan Ullrich's efforts in the 2003 Tour: "He was already riding for second place. It was obvious from the way he rode tempo for Armstrong... it was tactically strange." Never mind that Ullrich was putting Armstrong under pressure, and nearly won the Tour. But publicly second-guessing your boss simply doesn't fly in Cycling. Did T-Mobile bring Vino in to stab Ullrich in the back, or to work for him?

Strike Three: Independence Day

As if to confirm the subtext of his interview comments, Vino rode his own race entirely this Tour. The strangest moment by all accounts was when Ullrich and Kloden chased down their "teammate" in the last week, seeming to state clearly that Vino was freelancing, and they felt no duty to respect his attacks. Bizarre, even by T-Mobile standards. But Vino was always working for Vino alone, rarely taking part in much teamwork, always looking to attack whether it happened to serve Ullrich's chances or not. Clearly Vino had no respect for his boss and had decided that if he did well enough, he could justify this sort of coup. In retrospect he was also auditioning for a contract, which he got with Liberty Seguros. But last I checked, Ullrich had a yellow jersey in his closet, along with several near misses including two years ago, while Vino was just another Classics guy hunting for stage wins. He had no business dissing Jan this way, at least as far as Cycling's unwritten rules go.

Anyway, Vino wins enough to get away with this nonsense with his glorious attacking reputation untarnished. So now he and legendary Tour DS Manolo Saiz will join forces, and with carcasses like Joseba Beloki to work for him, he is a clear threat to win it all in 2006. These guys definitely deserve each other.

Monday, August 08, 2005

National Interest

I've expended a lot of hot air over the failures of certain cycling nations in the last several months, notably those surrounding the Pyrenees, as well as another perpetually threatened by the sea. Which begs the question, at least in the mind of one person, while gnawing on my federally un-subsidized pita sandwich... how would one rank the Cycling Nations right now? Since Cycling provides us a ranking on the road of virutally every individual and collection thereof except for nations, the answer is: on paper!

So here goes.

Top Step: Italy

OK, so I am biased. And I'll admit that Italy hasn't exactly covered itself in Cycling glory. But they held serve in their home Tour with the top two spots in the face of real international competition for the first time in years, nabbed second at the neighboring Tour, boast the leader on the road in the Pro Tour, and have wins at Milan-San Remo, Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallon, and the HEW Cyclassics Classic (did I mention that this is a Classic?). Davide Rebellin's dramatic renouncement of his Argentinian citizenship brings in last year's Spring surprise, and none of this even accounts for the next great thing Damiano Cunego. So Italian Cycling lacks only a charismatic multi-faceted winner, but is otherwise stacked to the gills with what some genius once called "deep depth."

Podium Finishers: U.S., Flanders

OK, so I am biased. But the Americans, while not likely to hold this position for long, have more than just a dominant Tour winner; they have minor-Tour winners in Julich and Danielson, single day stud Hincapie, GC captains in the mix at two other major teams, and a few other protagonists around. Plus, you know the US is having a great year when its national championship is won by a guy who also won the race. Anyway, the nationals competition thins out pretty quickly, so the US could occupy this spot again someday.

Flanders, meanwhile, boasts a two-man squad, but one of them is the hottest rider on the planet (save for a nagging knee injury) Tom Boonen. So along with Nico Mattan drafting his way to a win at Ghent, add Boonen's Flanders, Roubaix and TdF stage wins, when he established himself as a clear Green Jersey favorite before crashing out. No reasonably flat race is safe when Boonen is lying in wait, and given his youth and power, we seem to be watching the breakout of an all-time great.

Well, maybe not. But who else would you put here, Spain?

Rounding out the Top Five: Spain, Germany

Frankly, I wouldn't want to try to sort out which to put before the other, given the thin list of results to go by. But Ullrich is still arguably one of the three best riders on the planet, and Valverde is about to be. Plus both countries can be expected to hold serve in their national tours, which is more than you can say about their shared neighbor. Spain is also hosting the Worlds, and has a sitting World Champion around to call attention to that fact. Also, there's Jens Voigt around to prove that Germans do win races from time to time. The difference is that Germany is thin and downwardly mobile at #4 or 5, while Spain with its glittering roster can only be labeled a disappointment to even be compared to a newcomer like Germany. Maybe Aitor Gonzales, the only Spaniard with a solid win under his belt, can wake up the Armada in the next month or so. But the glory days won't be back until someone from Iberia dons a yellow jersey.

Missing the Break: Holland, France, Kazakhstan, Australia

The Dutch arguably held serve at Amstel, with Michael Boogerd doing his traditional implosion in the final KM. It's odd that a country with such a legacy and no shortage of riders would have so little brewing. But then, if Holland is conspicuously absent from the Podium, what can one say about France? Only that we're getting used to them being on the sidelines. Kazakhstan almost made the podium, but until they can field a TTT squad, they're out.

The Aussies are the cream of the losers here... someday they'll win something besides TdF stages; perhaps a stage race, or a Classic. They produce more talent than Holland, France and Kazakhstan combined, but it's all working for someone else.

Dishonorable Mentions

All of Scandinavia, which would threaten the podium if they admitted that they're really one country. But by separating the Backstedts from the Rasmussens from the Hushovds, they get no credit. Same goes for the Alps, where Moos, Totschnig, Cancellara and Haselbacher could scare a few folk. Russia could field a decent team, but they need Vlatchislav Ekimov upright to lead them. Next year... he'll only be 49 years old.

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