Essays / s /

February 4, 2010

The 2010 World Cyclo-Cross championships are now over, a pivotal moment each year that coincides with the European road season getting underway. Between watching the Tour Down Under cyclists perform in the searing heat of Australia, then enjoying the icy-cold spectacle of the 'cross worlds in Tabor, while at the same time searching for the results of the opening races in France and Italy, I'm starting to go all feral at the prospects for the new racing season. Already we can see sprinters like Andre Griepel and Alessandro Petacchi are in tip-top form, but that the likes of Cavendish, Bennati and Farrar have yet to pedal a sprint in anger – it might not be until Milan San Remo that we see their first real clash. We saw in Australia that Lance Armstrong is looking leaner and fitter than one year earlier – hungrier too if you ask me. His arch-rival, Alberto Contador, will start his season in a few weeks time, all the more determined to show that he too is relishing the seasons' prospects – these two 'stars are not due to clash until Liege-Bastogne-Liege at the earliest, and maybe not even before the Tour de France; now how sad is that?!

Yet the weeks will start to fly past now the season is up-and-running. Already my mind is on the races in March, with Paris-Nice and San Remo the two great targets to savour. And, just as February quickly becomes March, so does March mould into April, the month of the great one-day Classics. We'll see a lot from men like Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Leif Hoste, Alessandro Ballan, Thor Hushovd and Stijn Devolder in the coming weeks, but their anticipated wins and performances in February will mean next to nothing if it isn't followed by a major Classic victory as well. Ballan is on the enriched BMC team and as such is an unknown quantity against his better-supported rivals. But any speculation about his chances must be balanced by the ambitions of Sky's Boasson Hagen, a youngster expected to perform as well as in the 2009 Ghent Wevelgem by his new employers. A third equation to throw into the second-tier challengers is Gert Steegmans, Radio Shack's obvious Classics leader who must prove his mettle if he is to garner the team's mighty support.

BMC, SKY and Radio Shack all raced with intent and purpose in the Tour Down Under, which, although a long way from proving anything solid, hints at some great fights as the weeks and months flow past. Team Columbia proved in Australia that they will still be an enormous obstacle in anyone else's path, regardless of the talent that went to other teams at the end of 2009. I enjoyed seeing George Hincapie in his 'Captain America' colours for the first time, and seeing the power of New Zealand's Hayden Roulston as he ploughed away at the head of the Columbia train – these two tall gentlemen have lent their talents to new squads and seem all the more refreshed for it. This was the first TDU in years that saw Australia's cyclists eclipsed by Europeans. Normally, the heat and mid-January date favour the local riders, but this was not the case in 2010. Truth be told, Aussie sprinters are unsure about how to approach a season that could see one of them winning the World Championship in Melbourne – as long as they don't race too hard too early in the season.

Because of this, I'll be looking long and hard at two sprinters in particular this Spring. Robbie McEwen and Tom Boonen have their own particular walls to climb if Melbourne is to be their swansong World Championship. McEwen has suffered some awful injuries in recent years, while Boonen's problems are more psychological than physical – both riders badly need a good Classics campaign to solidify their confidence and standing within their teams. Younger fastmen are moving closer to team-leader status in Australia and Belgium, so McEwen and Boonen have a lot to prove. The TDU showed that there is so much talent out there in 2010, more than I can ever remember before. Behind the brazen sprinting prowess of Greipel, Henderson and Sutton came stage-racing specialists like Armstrong, Valverde and Luis Leon Sanchez – each of them supported by foot soldiers quite capable of winning races themselves. Radio Shack had Daryl Impey on view, and the South African fitted in so very well, helping to launch the stage four attack that sent Lance down the road at a great rate of knots. Sky had a guy like Matthew Hayman to propel its sprinters along – yet the Australian is capable of much, much, more if he's allowed to take his chances.

In contrast to this came Jack Bobridge, the young recruit at Garmin who scorched the TDU in 2009 as an amateur but who discovered a more daunting task was facing him in 2010. Bobridge suffered all week, partly because the pressure was on him to perform as well as in 2009 when there'd been no pressure at all. The South Australian is hugely talented, but he has to learn to walk before he can run, so to speak. Since his disappointing (for him) week in Adelaide, Bobridge has gone on to set the second-fastest pursuit in history at the Australian national track championships, so all is well with the kid even if his form may not always be there when he needs it. If there is a problem with the Tour Down Under, it is that we will have to wait weeks or months before seeing such a star-studded peloton racing again. The 40 or so 'professional' teams in existence will be spread over several continents in the coming month, with a huge variety of winners and losers for us to enjoy and appreciate. I know it will be strange to see people like Greipel, Bobdridge, Sutton, Henderson and Hincapie getting their faces covered in mud so soon after the Australian sunshine!

Back when I was a youngster trying to make my name, which seems a long time ago now, one of my great loves was the world of cyclo-cross. I'd travel northern Europe in the worst of weathers to capture the heroics of men like Roland Liboton, Albert Zweifel, Klaus-Peter Thaler, Hennie Stamsnijder, Pascal Richard and even Johan Museeuw as they earned their money the hard way by running and riding a bike in the mud. In recent years, the sport has become the domain of the Dutch and Belgians, racing on fast courses that more resemble a BMX track or criterium circuit than a cyclo-cross race. But this one visit to Tabor has served to remind me what a tough and challenging sport cyclo-cross really is. I just don't believe how fast men and women can race over slippery snow and ice, how they can stay upright in such atrocious conditions – and how they can then get off and run through the slushy mess as well! So yes, the World Cyclo-Cross races were fun, great fun, as was an all-too short visit to Prague, one of the great cities of Europe, without doubt. We even got a new-look World Champion in Zdenek Stybar, and now the Belgians have finally been beaten!

Our next full race update will come from Oman, the Tour of Oman, between 14th & 19th February, although I'll be making short visits to a Radio Shack training camp before that and a day here and there in the Ruta del Sol and Tour of the Algarve. February ends with the first 'classic' of the season, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad/Het Volk, which will be a major ambition for many of the sprinters who raced in Australia. Then, as the saying goes, the season really starts! Regular visitors to this site will have noticed the changes being made, and which are still being made. We've listened and learned from the many comments made by our visitors, and are trying to make the site as user-friendly and attractive as possible. Our on-line store overhaul has proved to be the toughest challenge, but we believe we are almost there and ready to re-launch any day soon. To propel interest in the site and our updates, I've become a Twitterer, and you can follow me at 'grahamwatson10' if you wish. '10' was the best I could get, for a Euro MP had already grabbed 'grahamwatson' and some other Graham Watson took 'grahamwatson1' before I had a chance to get it. I've also developed an iPhone App – Graham Watson Image Gallery – which carries some race updates, as well as a link to this site. So we're all set for a truly big season. For some reason I think it will be one of the greatest seasons in a long time…

- Graham Watson