Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stage 17: Chieti to Blockhaus 83 km.

Italy Rising...

(Results and replays at www.universalsports.com)

Instead of settling on a traditional course for the 100th Anniversary Giro d’Italia, race organizers decided to throw an unpredictable route at the peloton and it has led to one of the most dynamic grand tours in years. Today’s stage up to the WWII German munitions dump at Blockhaus was yet another bizarre route that shook up the top ten and let some old lions show they still had some roar.

The shortest grand tour open road stage in more than twenty years started as a flat coast route for 30 km., followed by rolling foothills for 30 kilometers then culminated with a horrid 23 km. ascent to the summit at Blockhaus. Although the Giro hadn’t visited the peak since the 60’s, Belgian cycling fans know it as the blastoff point for their country’s most storied athlete, Eddy Merckx. Merckx, who won more than 500 of the 1500 races he entered (exact figures are in dispute) including five Maglia Rosas, won his first pro race on this mountain peak.

But today’s win was a celebration of Italian cycling. Up until Blockhaus, team Liquigas was still debating who was their team captain, Ivan Basso or Franco Pellizotti. But Pellizotti laid down the gauntled when he broke away from the GC contenders just a few kilometers into the climb. Surprisingly, the only taker on the challenge was 38-year-old Lance Armstrong. Astana manager Johann Bruyneel let the 7-time tour winner leave his duties as first lieutenant to Levi Leipheimer and follow Pellizotti up the mountain. Armstrong showed flashes of his old mountain-devouring self as he pulled to within eight seconds of the Italian. Then age and conditioning showed in Armstrong’s legs and he was forced to slide back to the chase group – and then fall away from that group too.

Armstrong made a charge, but couldn't hold off the young guard.

As Pellizotti continued storming the German fortress, the Giro leaders, Menchov (RUS – Rabobank) and Di Luca (ITA – LPR Brakes) forged a comeback assisted by cagey veterans, Basso and 2000 Giro champ, Stefano Garzelli (ITA – Aqua e Sapone). Armstrong fell back in a group with stage 16 winner Carlos Sastre (ESP – Cervelo) and 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego (ITA – Lampre).

Pellizotti never slowed taking his greatest victory and moving up to the podium spot with only three days left to ride. Di Luca took a few seconds off of Menchov, but the rest of the challengers fell by the wayside on the last two kilometers of the climb. Leipheimer managed to regain the Armstrong group at the line, but his dream of a third grand tour podium are over. The big loser on the day was Sastre who dropped off the podium and is now two seconds off Basso and a minute and a half down from Pellizotti.

Pellizotti's heroic climb should assure himself of a podium in Rome.

With Tomorrow and Saturday’s stages set for sprint finishes, that leaves only the climb to Vesuvius on Friday and the dinky time trial in Rome on Sunday to sort out whether it will be Menchov holding on to his lead or Di Luca raging a comeback in front of the Tiofosi.

(Images Universal Sports screen shots)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Stage 16: Pergola to Monte Petrano 237 km

A Couchemar for Astana

(Results and replays at www.universalsports.com)

It was debatable what was worse, Johann Bruyneel’s Astana team strategy or Levi Leiphiemer’s luck. But the combination of the two could not be overcome and the American dropped to 6th place overall, a devastating blow in his attempt to be the first American cyclist to reach the podium in all three grand tours.

Bruyneel wisely placed Yaroslav Popovich (UKR) in an early breakaway so Leipheimer would have a teammate marking any big accelerations. Inexplicably as the members of the breakaway tired, Popovich, who appeared strong, was sent up the road in search of the stage win. Unfortunately at the same time, Leipheimer flatted and was left behind the group containing the GC contenders. So at the time when Leiphiemer needed the group to slow down, Popovich was forcing the heads of the peloton to rush up the final climb to catch him.

Popovich showed excellent form on the final descent; but he should have been waiting for Leipheimer.

The only thing that went right all day for Astana was the selfless riding of international superstar Lance Armstrong. Armstrong went back and helped Leiphiemer regain the group of stars at the bottom of the final climb, a 10 km demoralizer up the 1100-meter Monte Petrano.

At a time when Popovich should have been holding up to help Leipheimer, he was pushing every stroke at the front of the race in a futile attempt to hold off some of the world's best climbers. Two km. into the climb, 2008 Tour de France champ Carlos Sastre (ESP – Cervelo) burst out a 100-meter sprint and was followed by Danilo Di Luca (ITA-LPR Brakes) and Maglia Rosa wearer, Denis Menchov (RUS – Rabobank). A few seconds later a group including the two Italian Liquigas stars, Ivan Basso and Franco Pellizotti ramped up their pace trying to cling to the kings of the Giro. Armstrong went with that group until he noticed that the lone King who could not make the group was his team leader, Levi Leiphiemer, who had spent all his effort regaining the race after his flat.

Armstrong dutifully stayed with Leipheimer as their teammate, Popovich, was pulling the race out of their hands three km up the mountain. Two clicks from the top, Sastre blew past a destroyed Popovich, and floated up the mountain for a second Cervelo win in three days.

With the favorites pouring over the finish line, Astana’s stars were painfully late to the tape. Popovich lost 3:21 in just the last two km. Armstrong drug Leiphiemer across the line 2:51 after Sastre crossed, but nine riders had since finished leaving Leipheimer looking up the standings towards his once sure podium spot.

When the dust cleared, Menchov was solidly in pink; Di Luca 39 seconds back; Sastre moved up to third (- 2:19); and even the two Liquigas climbers, Pellizotti (- 3:08) and Basso (- 3:19) had pulled ahead of Leipheimer who is now one minute and two seconds out of his podium dream.

Tomorrow is a much needed rest stage leaving only three opportunities in the last five stages for Leipheimer to regain his spot. Wednesday is a bizarre stage, a short 88km sprint up the 2100 meter peak at Blockhaus. Friday is the final climb of the Giro to the top of Vesuvius. And finally the tour ends with a miniscule 15.3 km time trial finishing at the Coliseum. The struggling Leipheimer cannot afford any more mountain collapses if he hopes to climb back into the 2009 Giro.

(Image is a Universal Sports screenshot)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Stage 15: Forli to Faenza 161 km.

Where's Carlos?

(Results and replays at www.universalsports.com )

For the second day in a row a domestique left his breakaway and took a mountain stage in the 2009 Giro. But unlike yesterday's calm group ride, today’s peloton was full of attacks that shattered the field.

With 40 kilometers to the finish, Italian Leonardo Bertagnolli (SDA) and Belgian Serge Pauwels (Cervelo) rode off from a 12-man breakaway on the ascent of the 3rd category climb up Monte Casale. The pair stayed away until the descent of the 2nd category Monte Trebbio when Casale appeared to get team orders to wait for his captain, 2008 Tour de France Champ Carlos Sastre (ESP). As Pauwels sat up, Bertagnolli dropped the descent like a runaway train and held on the final 15 km. for the win. Sastre was no where in sight.

The 31-year-old Bertagnolli takes his second and most-impressive grand tour win.

Pauwels was heartbroken after the race and explained the decision on the Cervelo website:

“I was so torn”, explains Serge Pauwels. “I know that my job is to help Carlos, that’s what I signed up for when I started this Giro. So I know that I should drop back to help him immediately when he asks, that’s part of the game. But it was so difficult, because I could see that I had a chance to win this stage, and that would have been so amazing. By delaying the moment where I waited, we look pretty stupid. Lesson learned.”

Meanwhile, back in the peloton, a couple of disgraced Italian superstars tried in tandem to ride themselves back into contention. Normally the peloton is broken up during the climbs, but Ivan Basso’s Liquigas team decided to make a suicide break on the descent of a minor climb blasting the peloton into five groups. On the ascent of the Monte Casale, Basso broke from the leaders and was joined by 2000 Giro winner, Stefano Garzelli (ASA) taking the peak with a 40 second advantage over the GC contenders.

Garzelli was kicked out of the 2002 Giro for doping and Basso is riding his first grand tour after a two-year ban following his involvement in Operation Puerto. Watching the two pull away was like seeing Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa come back and lead the All-Star Home Run Derby.

But the Giro’s big three, Denis Menchov (RUS-Rabobank), Danilo Di Luca (ITA-LPR Brakes) and Levi Leipheimer (USA-Astana) along with a dozen elite climbers reeled the pair back on the ascent of the Monte Trebbio. Before the group reached the summit, Di Luca stormed ahead of the field and only Menchov could match his tempo. Leipheimer was left in the dust showing his lack of punch on the big climbs. Although Leipheimer regained his rivals on the descent, Menchov and Di Luca now feel they can take him in a mountaintop finish.

Which is exactly the setting tomorrow as the Giro finishes a harrowing week with the 237 km. Queen stage. The riders will tackle four major climbs including the 1100-meter Monte Petrano at the finish. On paper it looked like Leipheimer had the better climbing team, but Lance Armstrong, his ace in the hole, had to be dragged up the final climb today by team mate Yaroslav Popvich (RUS). Leipheimer’s main goal tomorrow will be to not lose the minute and 17 seconds he has in hand over Basso’s Liquigas teammate, Italian Franco Pellizotti.

(Image is Universal Sports screenshot)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Stage 14: Campi Bisenzio to San Luca (Bologna) 172 KM

Two Kilometers of Hell

(Results and replays at www.universalsports.com)

Simon Gerrans (AUS – Cervelo) out lasted his breakaway companions, gutting out the torturous final two kilometers to Bologna’s Madonna di San Luca chapel to take the 14th stage of the 2009 Giro.

The short yet severe climb (16% grade at points) to the highest point in Bologna blew apart the peloton and cost American Levi Leipheimer (Astana) three precious seconds to his overall rivals, Danilo Di Luca (ITA – LPR Brakes) and Denis Menchov (RUS – Rabobank). With two-thirds of the Giro in hand, Menchov holds only 34 seconds on Di Luca and 43 on Leipheimer. Leipheimer’s superstar teammate, Lance Armstrong, lost 50 seconds to the leaders even though he started the final climb alongside them.

Even the great Armstrong now takes a turn as a domestique.

Up until those final two kilometers, the contending teams held their cards close to their jerseys during a mountainous stage in which many thought one of the leading teams would try a break. But a ten-man breakaway of non-contenders spent most of the day a few minutes up the road from a tight peloton, guarded at the front by the top three teams.

Tomorrow stage to Faenza should be a nervous ride as there is one major climb and several smaller hills that could pose problems. But the riders will have Monday’s mountaintop finish in Monte Petrano on their minds before expending too much effort. After an unsuspectedly grueling mid-tour week, Tuesday’s rest day should find most of these riders horizontal and sucking fluids.

(Universal Sports screenshot image)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Stage 13: Lido di Camaiore to Firenze 176 km

Welcome Home!
(Giro replays and results at www.universalsports.com)

                      Cavenish's third win came right at his doorstep.

After yesterday’s peloton-massacring time trial, the Giro had a routine sprint stage, with a predictable sprint god, Mark Cavendish (Columbia), taking his third stage in five days. The win was especially sweet for the British tornado as Florence is his adopted home. The sprint was perfectly managed by Portland’s Columbia squad as they let the other American-based team, Garmin, do most of the early work trying to spring their rising threat, Tyler Farrar (US). But with 500 meters to go the now familiar white and yellow jerseys of Columbia came to the tip of the pack and sprung Cavendish for the win. The biggest loser was Italian gunner Alessandro Petacchi whose LPR Brakes team did no work for him, saving their gas for their team leader, Danilo Di Luca (ITA) and the three mountain stages to come this weekend.

German Björn Schröder's valiant solo breakaway was thwarted by a charging peloton with only five kilometers left. The race favorites, Denis Menchov (RUS, Rabobank), Levi Leipheimer (US – Astana) and Di Luca rode quietly near the front of the peloton for most of the day and finished anonymously in the pack with no change in their standings.

German Björn Schröder was almost 15 km/hr slower than the peloton when he was finally caught.

The stage is set for what could be the most dramatic Giro finish in history. The three leaders and their teams will be marking each acceleration over the hilly weekend. While Di Luca has a flair for the dramatic break during the climbs, Leipheimer is known for his steady pace that seems to have him not winning stages, but never falling far behind. The wild card is Menchov who appears to be riding as strong as he ever has. In the end it could be more a war of attrition than a strong escape along the route. Odds are we won’t know who keeps the 2009 Maglia Rosa until the last man rides past the Coliseum next Sunday.

(Images are Universal Sports screenshots)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stage 12: Sestri Levante - Riomaggiore (ITT), 60.6km


(Live Giro streaming and results can be found at http://www.universalsports.com/)

                         Di Luca shews away an aggressive Tiofosi
Quite simply, it was the most brutal stage in professional cycling in decades. The 60.6 kilometer individual time trial, nearly 30 kilometers of which was climbing, left the world’s greatest aerobic athletes in a shambles at the finish line in Riomaggiori, the southernmost village of the Italian Rivera’s stunning Cinque Terre region.

And at the end of all that effort, nothing was settled. The winner, Russian Denis Menchov (Rabobank), squeezed out a 20 second win over American Levi Leipheimer (Astana) and took enough time out of Italian crowd favorite Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes) to wrestle the Maglia Rosa off his shoulders. But the result in the overall Giro is that Menchov holds only 34 seconds on Di Luca and 40 on Leipheimer.

The real story of the day was what this marathon solo effort did to the field. Most grand-tour time trials are won in under an hour, but this atrocious test was won in one hour and 34 minutes. Each cyclist dished out maximum effort fifty percent longer than what they train for. This time trial was so long it actually had a feed zone. Normally riders don’t want to lift their head up during these tests, let alone sit back and eat. The riders, who leave the starting block individually at two-minute intervals, were bunched up in groups of three and four as they trudged up the second climb at 46 km. The last place finisher of a major time trial is rarely more than eight minutes back. The slowest rider today, Italian Oscar Gato (ISD), finished almost 18 minutes behind Menchov. The general rule in cycling is that a rider is eliminated if he is more than ten percent slower than the winner. If Giro officials hold to that standard, 92 of the remaining 186 riders would be eliminated.

What are left for the decimated field are nine stages over the next ten days, four of which cover significant mountains. Of the three teams in contention, Leipheimer’s Astana team has by far the best climbers including none other than Lance Armstrong. Armstrong finished a disappointing 16th in today’s time trial, a discipline he would have relished in his days as the world’s greatest cyclist. Now, out of contention, he would like nothing better than to lead Leipheimer to victory. Team Astana, which is supported by the Kazakhstan tourism board, has not paid its riders in more than two months. The riders are wearing the jerseys, but all ‘Astana’ decals have been removed. Rumor around the Giro is that the team will emerge on the last day as ‘Team Livestrong’ sponsored by Armstrong’s cancer foundation. A pink jersey on Leipheimer in Rome would be as sweet as any of his seven yellow jerseys.

Leipheimer and Menchov may have been the only two happy riders after the most brutal time trial in years.

But Menchov, would love to add a Giro title to his two Vuelta a España wins and Di Luca has no short motivation for driving home a second Maglia Rosa in three years. In the end it could all come down to either the Stage 19 mountaintop finish on Vesuvius or two days later in the tiny 26 km time trial finishing at the gates of the Coliseum on the Giro’s final day.

(Images are Universal Sports screenshots)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Stage 11: Torino-Arenzano 214 km

Vladimir Isiay-who?

(Giro coverage streams live, as well as constant reruns, on www.universalsports.com)

Cycling tactics are the kind of things that are discussed months in advance; gone over ad nauseum on the eve of a grand tour; then tweaked and refined until every rider knows exactly what their job is. Until a Spanish executive screams at his team manager to get his jerseys on the television screen or he’ll pull his sponsorship before the end of the race!

More than likely that sentiment was levied down to Álvaro Pino Couñago the manager of the barely professional Spanish team, Xacobeo Galicia. Couñago then likely asked for volunteers for a solo breakaway and the only hand in the room was rookie Russian pro Vladimir Isaichev (or at least I think that’s his name as it is spelled differently on the three websites he’s listed).

Thus Couñago's pre-race plans are thrown away as his unknown rider builds up more than an eight-minute lead over the course of 150 kilometers and tries for dear life to crest the last hill of the day and survive to victory. What usually happens in these scenarios is that the peloton wakes from its stupor with 50 or 60 clicks left and demolishes the rookie leaving him miles behind as they roar to the finish.

Thus was the fate of Mr. Isayachev (I’ll use all his spellings to make sure I get it right once) as he was swallowed up 35 kilometers from the Italian Riviera in his quest for stardom. And in the North Portland, Ore. offices of Columbia Sportswear, an Amercian executive, Ma Boyle, smiled at her computer screen and thought, “Mark’s gonna win again!”

Sure enough, 20 kilometers after the heads of state made a great showing over Fausto Coppi’s famous Passo del Turchino, the peloton regrouped and charged into Arenzano together. Minutes later, back in Portland, Ma Boyle looked up from her computer and raised her fist in the air as Columbia’s Mark Cavendish (GB) distanced his arch rival, Italian Alessandro Petacchi (LPR Brakes) for the win. All the GC favorites were in the first group, so there were no major changes in the standings.

Squeezing in second on the day, ahead of Petacchi, is the newest pure sprinter on the American circuit, Garmin’s Tyler Farrar. The U.S. has never had a dominant sprinter so Farrar’s status is a welcome sign to a nation of climbers and GC specialists. But unfortunately the rest of the news for the Americans is bleak. Garmin said today that Tour podium hopeful Christian Vande Velde’s crash during stage 3 was actually much more severe than first thought. Several new breaks have been discovered and his season is in jeopardy. Astana’s Chris Horner crashed hard in yesterday’s stage 10 and did not start today. Velonews reports Horner is headed back to his home in Bend, Ore. to recuperate and prepare for the Tour. Levi Leipheimer also hit the deck in today’s stage, but finished strong, losing no time.

Tomorrow’s 62 km. time trial around Cinque Terre will have journalists from around the world glued to Lance Armstrong to see if he is actually as strong as his latest results indicate. Leipheimer needs the ride of his life if he hopes to knock off the 1:40 he trails Pink Jersey wearer Danilo Di Luca (Ita – LPR Brakes). He also trails seasoned time trialists Denis Menchov (Rus-Rabobank) by 20 seconds and Michael Rogers (Aus-Columbia) by seven.

Oh and as for Vladimir Isaiyichev (3rd spelling!), he finished 174th on the day, eleven and a half minutes behind Cavendish. But he did manage to get his jersey on international television and computer feed for more than two hours. Now if we only knew what his sponsor, Xacobeo Galicia sells?

Stage 10 - Tuesday, May 19: Cuneo - Pinerolo, 262km

Di Luca – a la Armstrong

In a stage that went through the same town that launched Lance Armstrong into international superstardom, Danilo Di Luca did his best Armstrong imitation, breaking from an elite group while wearing the race leader’s jersey and taking a major stage.

When the Giro’s course was announced in December, race organizers were pointing to the 9th and 10th stages as a mid-race boost to keep the Tiofosi energized through the middle of the 3-week race. But due to a rider-safety protest organized by the heads of the peloton, yesterday’s circuit race around Milan was neutralized to a 13 kilometer sprint course. And what the riders couldn’t modify, the Roman gods did. An April earthquake’s least tragic effect was the nullification of three major climbs in today’s tenth stage.

But with ten-kilometers left in the 262-kilometer blast through the Italian Alps, Di Luca accelerated up the final small climb of the day and gave him just enough distance to sprint through Pinerolo for a ten-second win. The stage victory increased his overall lead to one minute twenty seconds over Rabobank’s Russian standout Denis Menchov and 1:33 over the Australian Michael Rodgers, riding for Portland’s team Columbia.

Both American superstars, riding for the near-defunct Astana team, rode well finishing 29 seconds back. But what was a strong sign for Armstrong (18th @ 5:28) may prove to be a bitter disappointment for Levi Leipheimer. Armstrong, recovering from an early season collarbone fracture stayed with the lead pack proving he may be coming back into form six weeks before the July 4th Tour de France start in Monaco. Leipheimer, now in 4th, let Di Luca slide away extending his lead to 1:40 over the Californian who desperately wants to cap off a tremendous career with a grand tour win.

For the better part of the day it looked like the mountaintop town of Sestriere, would be the scene of yet another cycling comeback story. 2000 Giro winner Stefano Garzelli topped the ski resort town at kilometer 200 with a 6:15 advantage over the Pink Jersey of Di Luca. But Sestriere wasn’t as kind to Garzelli as it was to Armstrong in the 1999 Tour de France. On that day, Armstrong, less than a year after cancer surgery, rode away from the best conditioned athletes in the world on his way to his first of seven Tour victories. Unfortunately on this day, Garzelli couldn’t hold off a slew of select climbers and was caught just minutes away from the finish line.

Tomorrow’s 214 km stage from the Olympic town of Torino to the shores of the Mediterranean in Genoa, should prove to be a sprinter’s paradise. Look for Team Columbia’s Mark Cavendish to resume his feud with Italian superstar Alessandro Petacchi.