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