Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Cycling's Spring classics kick off this weekend

Like cycling? Even if you don't, read Samuel Abt's preview of the upcoming Spring classic, Milan-San Remo:

The appetizers are finished, so it's time to crumb the table and move to the meat and potatoes.

That main course would be the venerated one-day classics of spring, starting Saturday with the Milan-San Remo race. All the long prep races of the past several weeks - the Ruta del Sol in Spain, the Tour of the Mediterranean and Paris-Nice in France, the Tour of California and Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy - have built toward the classics.

Paris-Nice finished its weeklong run Sunday with Floyd Landis, the American leader of the Phonak team, the winner, just as he was in the Tour of California. Tirreno-Adriatico ended its week Tuesday with Alessandro Petacchi, an Italian with Milram, winning the final stage; Thomas Dekker, a Dutchman with Rabobank, took overall victory. The race's best riders included Oscar Freire, a Spaniard with Rabobank, Thor Hushovd, a Norwegian with Crédit Agricole, and Fabian Cancellera, a Swiss with CSC.

Most of these men will be among the favorites in Milan-San Remo, which covers 294 kilometers, or 183 miles, from the customary heavy skies in the north to frequent sun, heat and flowers along the Italian Riviera. Not for nothing is the race known as the Primavera, or spring.

For four riders especially, Milan-San Remo is a major objective of the young season.

The first is Petacchi, 32, the Italian who won last year and showed that he could excel in more than sprint stages in the big Tours. The second is Tom Boonen, 25, the Belgian who won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the world road race championship last year after finishing eighth in Milan-San Remo.

They are the top two sprinters in the sport, and the question of which one is better is unresolved. In head-to-head competition this year, Petacchi leads in victories, two to one, in the Ruta del Sol.

During that race in February, both were customarily courteous while indulging in a little psychological warfare.

"To beat Boonen twice doesn't mean I'm better than him," the Italian said. Then he added slyly, "But each time I've sprinted against him in the past, I've never felt he was faster than me."

Down 2-0, the Belgian won the next day and said: "This is a great victory. I made a few silly mistakes over the past few days, probably because I was a little nervous.

"Today I launched the sprint, and Petacchi caught and overtook me, but I was able to get relaunched, catch him and overtake him. This is the most important thing for me."

They have not crossed paths since. Boonen rode in Paris-Nice, winning three daily stages amid tepid opposition to bring his victory total for the year to 10. After he won the one-day Tour of Lucca in Italy this month for his sixth victory of the season, Petacchi rode quietly in Tirreno until Tuesday.

Days earlier, when he finished second to Hushovd in a sprint, the Italian decided, "I'm in good form, perhaps better than last year, and I feel I can win San Remo again."

Petacchi left most of the sprinting in Tirreno to his colleague on the new Milram team, Erik Zabel, 35, for a dozen years a mainstay of the various German teams sponsored by Deutsche Telekom.

A star sprinter himself until the past couple of years, Zabel has won the green points jersey in the Tour de France six times, in 1996-2001. He has won Milan- San Remo four times and would have notched a fifth victory in 2004 if he had not raised his arms in triumph a nanosecond too soon, allowing Freire of Rabobank to nip him at the line.

With Milram, Zabel has become Petacchi's leadout man, the rider who guides his leader within shouting distance of the finish and then peels off, his duty done and his placing 11th or 24th in the mass rush to the line. The leadout man rarely contests the decisive sprint.

How does Zabel, with more than 100 victories on his record, feel about his new role as second banana?

"I felt a strong joy that I hadn't felt in years," he said after he helped Petacchi win the Tour of Lucca by setting him up for the last 100 meters. "For 12 years, I was the leader, and this was the first time I led out the sprint for a teammate."

Well and good, but what will happen if Milan-San Remo comes down to a sprint, as it has for the last six years, and Zabel, leading out Petacchi, scents victory for himself? Who does he work for then - for himself or selflessly for Petacchi?

The same questions might hang over Boonen.

His Quick Step teammate, the esteemed Paolo Bettini, Olympic road race champion and a king of the classics, won Milan-San Remo in 2003. Bettini, 32 next month, was in marvelous form, winning the first two stages in Tirreno-Adriatico, until he crashed heavily Friday and had to withdraw with cuts and bruises and a right knee that remained stiff for days.

Although nothing was broken, Bettini missed the rest of his tuneup race, and his appearance on Saturday is uncertain. A decision will be made Wednesday.

If he does race and is still at his best - "I feel as strong as I did in 2003, when I won Milan-San Remo," he told the newspaper l'Equipe before his crash - does he help Boonen or does Boonen help him?

"With Boonen, there has never been any rivalry," Bettini insisted.

The Belgian seconded that. "His crash wasn't good news, not for him, not for the team, not for me. We want to join forces to have a chance to win Milan- San Remo. I hope he'll be racing there."

The Frau is away this weekend, the kids will either be out playing or in their room, and I'll be watching the riders racing up the Poggio.