I love to watch professional bike racing when the action is good and the race is on the line. For folks like me, the past weekend has been nothing short of spectacular! The Tour of California on Saturday featured a long break by popular American Chris Horner which, as is almost always the case, ended in failure as the power of the peloton comes to bear on the solo hero. Sunday's Giro d'Italia, the first of the three week European Grand Tours, had a very different outcome. Unknown Italian Matteo Rabottini was in a two man break 150k from the finish. At 75k he dropped his companion and soldiered on through rain and fog over 4 categorized climbs, only to be caught inside the final kilometer by Joaquim Rodriguez. Usually when riders are caught after an exhausting break, they hang their head and accept their fate, but Rabottini fought off the attacking Rodriguez, exchanging passes with him, finally taking the lead in the final 20 meters. Rodriguez took the overall race lead, but Rabottini took the stage in one of the most dramatic finishes I've seen. Great stuff. While many of you have been able to follow the Tour of California on NBC Sports via cable, in order to watch the Giro, fans had to have satellite, fish around for live English language coverage ( or try to follow the Flemish or Italian commentary) on sites like Cyclingfans.com, or shell out a few bucks to get all of the action on Universal Sports on line. I chose to do the latter and the first two weeks of racing have already been worth the $19.95, with the final week in the mountains yet to come. With Universal, I plug the TV into my notebook via an HDMI cable and kick back with wireless mouse in hand. It is not the production quality that we are accustomed to on Versus/NBC, as there are stretches when the only sound is that of helicopter rotors or the engines of the motos as they follow the riders on the road, but the commentating is good and certainly enough to keep you in the race. Since I can barely look up from my desk during the day, I appreciate the fact that I can watch on my own schedule and move quickly through the long droning stretches that dominate flat stages. Typical stage coverage is around four hours. The sprint stages for the most part have been dominated by either my man Mark Cavendish or by crashes taking out Mark Cavendish. Cav, along with other dominant sprinters of their time like Robbie McEwen, are perceived by many fans to be total a-holes. I prefer to think of them as tough little banty rooster types who are willing to bump handle bars and shoulders to battle their way through the pack at speeds close to 50MPH as they approach the line. Cavendish is widely accepted as the fastest man in the world on two wheels, at least for a couple of hundred meters, and few folks have been able to prove otherwise. Roberto Ferrari managed to stop Cav on stage 3 by veering wildly into his wheel as they approached the line. Check it out below:
The most impressive moment in the video is the rider bunny hopping Cavendish as Cav rolled down the pavement. Yes, sprinters are a crazily skilled bunch!
There is still a lot of racing between now and the June 30 start of the Tour de France, with the June 3Critérium du Dauphiné seen as a pretty good preview of the Tour. The Dauphiné this year features the same teams and much of the same terrain as the Tour de France. With Alberto Contador sidelined by a doping suspension the racing has been wide open. Cadel Evans has shown good form, but his style often leads him to lose big chunks of time and the Schlecks seem too busy squabbling with their management to focus on racing. With no dominant riders at the top of the sport, it is going to be a fun summer to watch some bike races.