The favorites are starting to show themselves and the UCI is in the dog house again.
The opening salvos of the race season have finally been fired. This past Saturday the sixth edition of the Strade Bianche was contested and for the second time Fabian Cancellara took the win (video highlights). Then on Sunday the Paris-Nice stage race began with a 9.4 kilometer time trial with Gustav Erik Larsson (Vacansoleil-DCM) beating Sky's Bradley Wiggins by a second and four seconds faster than Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
Off the race course we had more UCI drama (Did you honestly think we wouldn't?) - but we'll get to that later.
The Italian Strade Bianche race takes its name from the white gravel sections of roads that the cyclists must traverse. Think of this race as a low-calorie Paris-Roubaix. There's plenty of dirt sections, bad weather could make any edition a death march and a bad crash is just a slight miscalculation away, but it lacks an Arenberg Forest-like trench that could end a rider's career.
For many the Strade Bianche is the first time we really see what the big teams are capable of in the new season. As we all know BMC's team owner Andy Rihs opened up his cheque book and grabbed some talented riders for the classics. One big purchase was Belgian road champion and dominator of the 2011 classics season, Philippe Gilbert. He won the race last year and while he didn't put any pressure on himself by proclaiming he was looking to go back-to-back, a man with his pedigree could expect to place well.
When it was all said and done Cancellara broke away with 12 kilometers remaining, got low on his bike and powered away. Four riders were chasing (or perhaps just riding - resigned to the fact they were no longer racing for the top step of the podium) and two of them were in the red and black of BMC: Alessandro Ballan (third in 2011) and Greg Van Avermaet.
The big Swiss rider had already crossed the finish line when the quartet came into the final kilometer - Van Avermaet was dropped in the final surge to the line and Ballan didn't have the strength get himself into a good position for the sprint.
Coupled with last weekend's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, this was not a great start for the BMC gang. Now before I get letters saying that it's only March and I need to wait, and blah, blah, blah, let me remind you that those gentlemen are expected to be on some sort of form. There needs to be some indication that April will be the month for BMC. So far I just don't see it. Instead Omega Pharma-Quickstep has been the team on fire.
Levi Leiphemer's move to Omega Pharma-Quickstep was the best move he could have made. And I'm not sure what the directors are putting into Tom Boonen's muesli, but that guy has been on a tear! In fact, he just won stage 2 of Paris-Nice. I count this his fifth win of the season.
I know I said late last year that Omega Pharma-Quickstep is the team where general classification dreams go to die, but I'm going to have to eat crow. With 100 kilometers of time trialing in this year's Tour de France and Leipheimer's re-found ability, I feel he could go top three in Paris.
While BMC's classics squad has been lacking, I have to give props to the younger generation of riders they added to the 2012 roster: Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen. I'm super impressed with those boys and I can safely predict that one day Phinney will win a Paris-Roubaix and Van Garderen a Grand Tour.
Another team that has an über fan as a team owner is RadioShack-Nissan. Luxemburg's answer to Donald Trump, Favio Becca, has finally gotten a win with Cancellara. But, surprisingly, they had to wait awhile to get it. While I don't think it will be a completely horrible season for RadioShack-Nissan, it won't be good. Why do you ask? Just because, on paper, you have a bunch of talented riders doesn't mean they are all going to gel into a cohesive unit. If Cancellara wins any of the northern classics, it will because of his strength on the bike - not his teammates. He demonstrated that at Strade Bianche.
The merging of Leopard-Trek and RadioShack was a derisive union, like a marriage between a couple each with kids of their own - there's going to be factions made and an uneasy relationship for a couple of years. These riders are the kids in this new marriage - they were not sure where they stood contract wise and left wondering if they made the cut to be a member of the new squad.
This does not breed team camaraderie - quite the opposite. It just further illustrates what upper management thinks of their riders - disposable. This in turn creates an atmosphere where a rider needs to take care of themselves rather than the collective needs of the whole team. Who will the kids - I mean riders - take sides with, dad or Joan, the new "mom"? And let's face it, after Andy Schleck's disappointing time trial in Paris-Nice, can anyone really think he will win this Tour de France?
As mentioned, the A.S.O. added five more kilometers to the amount of time trials in this year's race, which is five more than Andy needs. A quick look at his time trial history only confirms my theory - he'll be lucky to stand on the final podium.
The big money teams aren't the only ones facing some early season problems. The AIGCP (Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels) issued a press release stating they have "no confidence" in the UCI.
In a statement released to Cyclingnews, the AIGCP wants a piece of the television rights. That only seems fair, but the million euro question is how do the television profits get divided? And what about the web? Is this the monetary crossroads for professional cycling?
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that race promoters should charge a fee for spectators at certain sections of a race course. The money could be used to bolster the race's bank account so it doesn't teeter on the brink of extermination like some Spanish races have (breaking news - Vuelta al País Vasco and Clasíca San Sebastian are saved at least for this year). If they live-streamed their race on a site with ads that could be another method of creating income.
It's only fair that television profits should be shared with the teams that are making it happen on the roads for our enjoyment, and in the case of the UCI, making money for Aigle.
I don't hold much hope that this vote of no confidence will do much. The UCI wields too much power and the AIGCP doesn't have much recourse. Here in the States basketball players have gone on strike, but the cycling is too fractured to have that kind of unity. While I don't propose teams sit out races in protest, as I think that will destroy events, the AIGCP members need to get together, put aside internal and quite frankly distracting issues like the use of race radios, and focus on the big picture - what can be done to ensure professional cycling can withstand financial hardships? Profit sharing is the important step to protect the longevity of the sport.
Until next week, watch daily video highlights from the 2012 Tirreno-Adriatico in the video section right here on Roadcycling.com starting this coming Wednesday.