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Tour of Flanders re-cap, Pais Vasco delight, and more

- After months of waiting, the motherlode of Cervélo P4 framesets has arrived. In case you’ve been tempted by one, FYI we have them in open stock in both 56cm and 58cm.

- More importantly, let’s move on to our awards related to the baddest one-day race of the year, the Tour of Flanders:

Comeback Player of the Year: cycling.tv. We’ve spent the better part of a year extolling cyclingfans.com for scouring the ‘net for every conceivable video feed of pro bike races, no matter how obscure. These feeds are godsends, but for high-profile races the bandwidth demand on those sites gets huge, which occasionally leads to choppy-or-completely-frozen video. We experienced this most acutely with Milan-San Remo, and given our dizzy love affair with the Ronde van Vlaanderen we couldn’t bear to risk it. So this past Sunday morning we did something we swore we’d never, ever, ever do again: We re-subscribed to cycling.tv.

As high as we’ve been on cyclingfans.com, we’ve been equally critical of cycling.tv. Historically their video player was clunky as hell with a circa-Atari 2600 interface -- inelegant and unintuitive. It didn’t work with a Firefox browser. And, not unlike cyclingfans, at the crescendo of each race the video would often lock up due to bandwidth demand. But the Ronde…love of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul…we couldn’t entrust it to fickle cyclingfans feeds.

Cycling.tv has two basic subscription options: A 3-month sub for $45, or a yearlong one for $99. We figured we’d get the rest of the spring classics, Tour de Suisse, plus the Giro for our 3 months, so we went for that option. And the coverage was…dare we say it….stupendous. Why? Four main reasons: (1) The live coverage was 4 hours long. At best you get only the final 2 hours via cyclingfans. Cycling.tv starts nearly 100km earlier. (2) The bandwidth demand problems are seemingly gone. Perhaps it’s because cycling.tv is now owned by Jump.tv, so they have superior horsepower than in the past (or perhaps it’s because everyone in the world has given up on them, so there was NO demand other than me…) Even in the last 20km, the video quality was flawless. (3) Anthony McCrossan does a beautiful job with the play-by-play. Brian Smith’s color commentary continues to disappoint. (Within the last 100km he criticized Quick Step for botching their tactics a dozen times, but within the same span he praised them a dozen times for their brilliant tactics. It was manic.) And, parenthetically, the back-up play-by-play crew is awesome. During Wednesday’s Ghent-Wevelgem coverage, the duo -- some Aussie-sounding guy plus a color-commentating Maggie Backstedt just killed it. It was like the classic days of Pat Summerall and John Madden. (4) You can now use Firefox for cycling.tv.

Some small problems still remain. Cycling.tv makes use of supremely obnoxious Flash pop-ups that take over your screen if you accidentally mouse over them (not click on them, just mouse over them.) And the site requires to login twice for live race coverage -- once on the homepage, then again on the Live Player. But these are small things. All in all, the redemption here is profound. Chapeau cycling.tv.

Bike fit detail most worth noting: Stijn Devolder’s headset stack. When it comes to superstar pro bikes we’re accustomed to seeing sky-high saddles and chopped down fork steerers. Riders like Fabian Cancellara and and countless others made it a fashion emergency for tifosi to ride with 0cm of headset spacers (and a 73 degree stem if at all possible). Isn’t it interesting that Stijn Devolder has won the Ronde two years running; he’s done it solo both times; and he’s done it with what appears to be a spacer stack of 3cm? It’s worth noting, too, that Devolder is the defending Belgian National Time Trial Champ. While we don’t dispute that aerodynamics is key and it’s never bad to spend a king’s ransom in the wind tunnel, those 3cm of spacers mystify and delight us…

The right rider on the wrong team award: Martijn Maaskant. He got 4th place in the ’09 Ronde. He got 4th place in the ’08 Paris-Roubaix. But he races for a team entirely ill-equipped to shield him from the thousand little things that sap energy and concentration in a grotty Belgian classic. Team Garm*n is made of time trialists and time trialists only. Yes, they have a token sprinter and rouleur here & there, but for springtime carnage they’re on par with Euskatel. We heard some folks making analogies between Maaskant and George Hincapie, whose US Postal team perhaps lacked in the personnel needed to escort him to victory in Roubaix during the Armstrong era. Truth be told, though, Maaskant is far worse off. George had some incredible riders at his disposal back then: Viatcheslav Ekimov, Leif Hoste, Frank Hoj, and Max van Heeswijk are just a few of the springtime specialists who come to mind. But Maaskant? He’s all but racing unattached. Lest we forget, Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder both found themselves on Grand Tour-focused teams early in their careers, and they both wisely made an exit to teams focused on their specialty.

The ultimate team player award: Sylvain Chavanel of Team Quick Step. It’s indisputable that Sylvain Chavanel is a first-tier rider. He’s won more 1-day races than we can remember, including a frightful Brabantse Pijl in 2008 where he soloed in the wettest, coldest Belgian misery we’ve ever seen. Did you see how he attacked 140km into this year’s Ronde, with the sole purpose of protecting Boonen and Devolder? Chavanel would be the #1 classics rider on nearly any other team. But he willfully gave up his own chances for the benefit of Quick Step’s Belgian stars, and he came within 2km of finishing on the podium nonetheless. It was an inspiring display of selflessness.

The unsung heroes award: The HD riders. HD -- it doesn’t mean High Definition. It’s an abbreviation for two of the cruelest words in the French bike racing lexicon, hors deiai -- outside the time limit. Can you imagine suffering through the last hours of the year’s toughest one-day race just so you can tell your grandchildren you finished, and you’re treated as though you dropped out at the last feed zone? Ouch.

- We had staff on the ground at Brugge in the hours before the start of the Ronde. A few photo highlights:

  • * We’d love to know more about these Speedplay pedals seen on some Liquigas bikes. No doubt the beefy cylinder at the heart of the pedal has something to do with cleat retention. And that screw at the outside of the spindle -- is that a grease injection port?
  • * Looks like the Cervelo Test Team isn’t keen on Elite’s carbon cages when it comes to cobbled races.
  • * Nor is the Test Team keen on Rotor cranksets when it comes to the cobbles. These are stock 53/39 FSA K-Force Light cranks.
  • * This shot of a Team Garm*n Felt says a couple of things: Their use of alloy Thomson Elite setback seatposts shows their good taste in componentry. Thomson makes the toughest, easiest-to-microadjust post money can buy. And dig the use of a Fizik Nisene saddle (normally seen on mountain bikes.) As we’ve commented on a few occasions earlier, the Fizik-sponsored pros have seemed to universally shun the new-for-2009 Antares model. We saw a few Nisenes, a ton of Aliantes, and a good number of Ariones. But the Antares? Nearly totally absent.
  • * How much does Team Garm*n trust the stock Garm*n handlebar bracket? Based on the zip tie sandwiching this GPS to the stem, we’d say not at all. Also, check out the Arundel Mandible carbon fiber bottle cages. Maybe they can loan some to the Cervélo Test Team?
  • * Team Quick Step is sponsored by Specialized, but their ‘Toupe’ saddles were about as easy to find as a Fizik Antares. Instead, the hardmen of Belgium seemed to universally choose a classic saddle for the classics: The Selle San Marco Regal.

- A few additional photos courtesy of velonews.com:

- It’s the best week of the year for bike racing. Most people think it’s because in the span of a week you get the Ronde, then Ghent-Wevelgem, then Paris-Roubaix. But a huge bonus is the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, a.k.a. the Tour of the Basque Country, where the world’s best climbers literally try to murder each other. Every day it’s the same -- 150km with 6 or 7 categorized climbs, the last few 10-deep with rabid fans at Led Zeppelin-like decibels. It’s madness.

Here’s a tip: cyclingfans.com (who we still love, by the way) offers links to 3 or 4 feeds of the Pais Vasco. The video quality is great, and the histrionic play-by-play is awesome in & of itself. Check it out before the end of the week. Gear-related race highlights so far:

  • * Second-tier Spanish pros hauling ass up mountains on Ridley Excaliburs. Remember the tagline from those Ridley ads, ‘We Are Belgium’? Is there anyplace further from Belgium than the wicked mountains of the Basque Country? We take great joy in our cultural disorientation here.
  • * Can you figure out Damiano Cunego’s Wilier? Is it a stock Cento Uno with the integrated seat mast completely lopped off, or is it something different? Inquiring minds want to know.
  • * Berri txarark. Basque punk rock somebody sent our way. Perfect for the halftime show!

- The now-very-defunct Kodak Gallery team is having a sale of bikes, clothes, plus the kitchen sink. We’ve never seen Serottas so cheap. The paint schemes!

- We’ve said it once and we’ve said it again: When was the last time you rode a metal bike? It shouldn’t be your only bike, but there’s something about the way they ride…Some interesting thoughts from an old hand at metal bike manufacturing.

- Put this on your must-see list next time you’re in Frankfurt.

- And a quick editorial aside here for those of you who’ve expressed concern at my recent editorial behavior to the comments in the What’s New section: Please look up the definition of ad hominem and understand that this is my business and my blog. If people attack me personally or foment with substance-free & reality-free rants about Competitive Cyclist, the comment will be nuked. I welcome opposing arguments. I welcome constructive criticism. I welcome alternative views of reality. But tantrums and/or comments indicative of the fact that just you’re scanning, not reading, what is written here -- they’ll be blown away like a Garm*n rider on the cobbles. Let’s please be civil, please.