Paul Stockham's Blog
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"

Mar
29

As expected this was an aggressive race with the Tour of Flanders next week all the top specialists are really coming into form now. Tom Boonen is always under pressure to deliver in front of his home fans. He showed up fit and healthy and didn’t fail through lack of trying!

We had the usual “get the team jersey on television” break early on, but the real race started when Boonen stormed up the Taaienberg, immediately splitting the peloton. This first attack was neutralized, but when he went again on the Paterberg the decisive break was made.

Only Fabian Cancellara and Juan Antonio Flecha could stay with Boonen on the climb, so with 42km to the finish, it was really between these three. Last years winner Pippo Pozzato valiantly chased on his own, but every time he got close Boonen opened up the gas to extend their lead again.

With Boonen the favourite in a sprint Flecha and Cancellara had to attack. Surprisingly and partly due to the closeness of the chasers the three stayed together until one kilometer to go. Sparticus caught the other two napping and had a small gap.

Flecha rightly made Boonen chase, but as many have found before, catching a fit and healthy Cancellara is no easy task and he was gone! Boonen got second and Flecha third.

So Cancellara completed a great week for Saxo Bank after Matti Breschel’s win mid week. Should help in the search for a new sponsor!

This E3 was a dress rehearsal for next weeks Tour of Flanders, these three and Pozzato are all clearly fit and healthy so expect all four to play a major part at the Ronde.

Gent Wevelgem followed yesterday and despite the tougher course, the second climb of the Kemmelberg still proved to be the decisive point in the race.

The in form Matti Breschel proved again that the Saxo Bank team is motivated, fit and healthy. His attack on the Kemmel split the field, but he was unlucky to puncture and couldn’t rejoin the break he started. Despite a big chase behind, the lead group stayed away, to contest the win.

George Hincapie led it out, but probably went too early and was passed by Bernhard Eisel of HTC. Sep Vanmarke and Philippe Gilbert rounded out the podium

It’s great to see Eisel win a big race he is one of the unsung workers in the HTC team.

Everyone thought HTC would be weakened by guys like Hincapie and Boasson-Hagen leaving, but they know how to win and other riders are really stepping up. Incidentally what happened to last years winner EBH still not recovered from being sick at Milan – San Remo?

So we can see who is ready for the two biggest cobbled classics the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix. To win one of these being fit and healthy is not enough. These races are wars of attrition you also need huge determination, a strong team and one other essential element – luck!

Mar
26

Another big weekend in Flanders – the Belgian Classics come thick and fast now! After Het Volk and that epic from KBK a few weeks back we had Dwars in the week and two more semi-classics coming this weekend.

On Saturday we have E3 and then a revamped Gent Wevelgem moved to the Sunday rather than the mid-week slot it has had for the last few years. Next year it is meant to get back the extra distance that got cut when it became a Wednesday race and become a full classic again.

It’s all building up to the two biggest cobbled classics of the year the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris Roubaix. These two races are really the World Championships for the Northern Classics riders.

E3 is like a mini Tour of Flanders, shorter, but covering a lot of the same roads and cobbled bergs. Expect attacks as all the specialists are coming into form now, last year Pozzato beat Boonen from a small breakaway.

So who is fit and healthy?

Tom Boonen has looked strong all spring and has a great record at E3, with three previous wins, plus more from Quick Step team mates. Fabian Cancellara also looks like he is coming into form for his big targets in a few weeks. Both these guys have strong team mates and Quick Step and Saxo always do well in these races.

Thor Hushovd will be backed by a strong Cervelo team and also has a good record here; he won Gent a couple of years back.

Sky will have Juan-Antonio Flecha and Edvald Boasson-Hagen. Flecha is always near the front on these cobbled races and looks like he is riding better than ever and hopefully EBH has recovered from Milan – San Remo.

Gent Wevelgem usually ends in a bunch sprint, albeit a small bunch! Any one looking to get away will usually go on the second climb of the Kemmelberg. This is how Boasson-Hagen won last year, but normally these breaks are pulled back on the windy exposed run in to the finish.

The descent is often more decisive than the climb if it’s raining (in Belgium?)!

Should be a great weekend, expect anything! Freezing rain, gale force winds, attacks, crashes – it’s Flanders!

Want more on the Belgian Classics? Take a look at Whit Yost’s great blog PavePavePave and thanks to Pez for the link!

Mar
25

Oscar Freire won a tough Milan – San Remo at the weekend proving again that when he is fit and healthy, he is tough to beat at the end of these longer more selective races. He may not be as prolific as some of his younger sprint rivals, but three MSR wins and three World Championships put him in with some pretty elite company!

Staying fit and healthy seems to have been the main reason he has not won more races. Freire has been plagued with saddle sores and various back and neck problems and there is no doubt he would have won more races without all the injury lay-offs.

It’s funny he is only 34, but seems to have been around for ever. He burst onto the scene in 1999 when he won his first World Championship in Verona leaving most fans asking Oscar who? He has proved over the years that this was no fluke after two more Rainbow Jerseys.

He may not have the quantity, but the quality is definitely there. Most years he wins five or six races, but if you look through his Palmarès there are not too many “junk” wins – plenty of big stage wins in the major tours, classic and semi-classic wins and those three World Championships!

When “Oscar the Cat” is fit and healthy he is a real threat especially if the race is long or has a hill before the sprint. How many times have we seen him beat supposedly faster sprinters, because he handles the hills better?

Someone else who has definitely had health issues this year is Mark Cavendish. Cavendish normally has no problem with “quantity” and the “quality” seems to going up as he matures as well. I liked the interview he gave post MSR – very complimentary about Freire winning and no tantrums about his crashes or bad luck!

Hopefully he is fit and healthy again now and got his first win of the year in Catalunya on Tuesday.

Pro Cycling is hard enough if you are fit and healthy, if not there is really no where to hide. Striking a balance can be tough; overtraining may damage your health, but under training WILL damage your fitness!

So for all you “Weekend Warriors” out there, keep everything in balance and stay fit and healthy.

Mar
04

And so to Flanders and the first two semi-classics of the year: – Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne!

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad or Het Volk as it has been known for most of its 63 editions is nearly always won by a Belgian, right? Big surprise, for the first time ever no Belgian even on the podium!

No major cause for concern, more to do with bad luck than lack of talent. Boonen, who looked super strong attacking on the Taaienberg and previous winner Nuyens both punctured at critical moments and another previous winner Gilbert actually launched the winning attack, unfortunately it wasn’t him that finished it!

Juan-Antonio Flecha went after Gilbert when he attacked at 20k to go and simply rode away from him on a flat section of cobbles! Flecha has always been near the front on these cobbled races since his Fassa Bortolo days, when he and a young Fabian Cancellara made the selection at Roubaix. He has missed out on the big wins though.

Saturday was definitely his day! The way he dropped Gilbert was very impressive and once he was away on his own he never looked like he was going to get caught. He reminded me a lot of the late Franco Ballerini – similar style and very strong on these windy, exposed roads.

Flecha will need a few more big wins to justify the comparison, but it was great to see him win alone like this, with his new team Sky.

Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne follows on the Sunday and gives an immediate opportunity for teams and riders who missed out the day before. It is considered a little easier than Het Volk (sorry I still think of it by the old name!) with less hills and often ends in a bunch sprint.

Well forget about what normally happens, this turned into one of the hardest races I have ever seen! The weather was so bad, with freezing rain, gale force winds, that the race was literally blown to pieces, with little groups spread all over Flanders!

It really was a battle for survival with former Paris Roubaix winner and proven tough guy Stuart O’Grady describing the conditions with one word: – “ridiculous”!

The three guys who survived the best were unsung heroes Bobbie Traksel, Rick Flens and Ian Stannard. These three were out front and being chased by a second trio of Hushovd and Hunt (both Cervelo) and Roulston HTC for the last 60k. They almost made it across, bringing the gap down from 1.35 to 23 seconds until Jeremy Hunt who had been doing a lot of the work blew up big time.

The man with the hammer hit him HARD! You don’t often see that at this level, where a rider who would have finished Top 6 has to get in the team car!

So the three guys up front stay away to fight out the finish. Two Dutchmen and a Brit? Last time that happened Malcolm Elliott got worked over by the two Dutchmen at Amstel – so Ian Stannard must attack!

Stannard tried to get away, then got dropped and fought his way back on twice! All three looked hammered at the finish, with Traksel really the only one with any snap left in his legs getting the win for Vaconsoleil. Flens of Rabobank second and Stannard third to complete a great weekend for Team Sky.

How hard was this race? Out of 198 starters only 26 finished! Oh, and one more surprise, after this war of attrition no Belgians on the podium again!

Mar
04

For me last weekend’s Belgian semi-classics Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne are when the bike racing season really starts to get serious. There are really only two popular sports in Belgium soccer and cycling and if you win on the Flemish cobbles national hero status is awarded automatically!

No disrespect to races like the Tour Down Under, Qatar or Oman, but they simply don’t have the same reputation or tradition, although they still provided some good racing. It seems the racing season gets longer every year and although we are only just into March and we have already had two months of racing. So before getting to Flanders a quick recap of the season so far!

We had the usual merry-go-round of transfers, but with two new superteams Radioshack and Team Sky, plus BMC really gearing up there are a lot of riders in new colors this year and everyone extra motivated to get some results for their new teams.

There have been some surprising trends already this year.

Cycle Sport recently did an article on Cancellara, Cavendish and Contador saying they are pretty much unbeatable in their specialist disciplines – TT, sprints and stage races. We don’t have lot of races to judge these guys on yet. Contador has won the only stage race he has done, but Cancellara was beaten by Boasson-Hagen in the Oman TT, but what has surprised me are the sprints.

So far it has really been “the year of the sprinter”. Nearly all the sprinters have already won, with many of them Bennati, Boonen, Freire, Greipel and Petacchi having multiple wins, but ironically Cavendish has still not opened his account! Now I don’t think there is any major cause for concern here, he has been delayed by dental problems and his big targets are later in the year (Green Jersey and Worlds), but surprising still?

The other surprise for me is how quickly Edvald Boasson-Hagen is developing. He has been recognised as a great talent from an early age and has always won races, but I didn’t really see him as a specialist sprinter, more of an all rounder. This year he looks competitive with most of the other sprinters, ok we haven’t seen him go head to head with old team mates Cavendish or Greipel yet, who were clearly the best in 2009.

He was also very impressive in the Oman TT, beating Cancellara any time of year is tough! And all this apparently after a winter in Norway cross country skiing and riding in the snow!

How are the new teams doing? Team Sky generated a huge amount of publicity and also some controversy on the signings of Wiggins and Ben Swift, but are winning races. Apart from two stumbles in the Gulf they have looked very well organised for a new team.

Radioshack and BMC (effectively a new team) have looked solid, but both their targets will come later in the year!

Two established teams who have started really well are Lampre (boosted by the arrival of Petacchi) and Liquigas (Bennati and Chicchi), both these Italian teams have been posting up regular sprint wins.

Anyway, enough about the appetizers, it’s time for the main course! Check back for more on the Belgian season openers, shortly!

Mar
04

Over the weekend I experienced a new social media phenomenon.“Watching” sports on Twitter!

It started Sunday morning when I was looking for a live video feed to watch Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne one of the early season “Belgian Classic” bike races. For non cycling fans, these races are notorious for being run on bad roads and usually in bad weather.

I found live coverage on Belgian TV Channel Sporza with Flemish commentary, so I also follow the written updates from Cyclingnews to keep track of what is going on in English. The weather gets so bad, with freezing rain, gale force winds and lousy visablity, that Cyclingnews are struggling to figure out what is going on in the race!

At this point I was also on Twitter. After a few quick searches and sharing the link to the Belgian TV coverage we now have a good little “Twitter #KBK community” forming. Mainly fans like me, but also a few professional cycling sites and even one cycling commentator – Brian Smith who works with Cycling TV.

Now this is where it starts getting interesting, as the information dried up (unlike the weather!) everyone fills the void with what effectively became our own commentary. What’s happening with the race, who looks strong, background info on riders, personal tips on who will win etc.

It was actually a great race, a real battle of survival and it almost felt like watching with a bunch of friends, although I only actually knew one of the guys in real life! Some pretty good one liners and jokes made it a lot more fun than just watching the video.

Next up we have the Olympic hockey final so out of curiosity I look to see who is following this on Twitter as I am watching on NBC. It seemed like all of Canada and most of the USA had formed into the “Twitter #Hockey (Twockey?) community”! Again there were some funny tweets, one in particular made me laugh, when someone said “These non hockey tweets are beginning to annoy me!”

This Group was a lot more animated, but I guess things happen much faster in a hockey game. There was also a lot more rivalry, but that’s understandable with only two teams and not many neutrals! When Parise scored the equaliser with 24 seconds to go there were literally thousands of tweets in a few seconds and it was crystal clear if they were from Canadians or Americans!

I would be very interested to hear how many #Hockey tweets there were during this game, if anyone has the stats?

Again it definitely added an extra dimension to the game, not as good as being there, but more fun than just watching television only. As the game finished there were a lot of messages, being tweeted about how people had enjoyed “watching the game on Twitter”.

So who knows, maybe this social media thing could catch on!

Feb
28

Today Canada’s hockey team gave their country a huge morale boost with a home town win in Vancouver.

So we all got the big showdown we wanted with Canada and the USA fighting it out for Olympic Gold today in the men’s hockey final and what a great game it was!

As expected both teams were highly motivated and from the first to the last second, the game was played at ninety miles an hour and full contact. Fighting may not be allowed in Olympic finals, but it was certainly physical. You can call me old fashioned, but I think that’s how hockey should be, it’s meant to be physical!

Canada also had the “extra man” with a noisy home crowd – my favorite quote in the first period was when NBC called them “a slightly partisan crowd” nice use of understatement there NBC!

Canada were always ahead after Jonathan Toews opened the scoring and then increased their lead when Corey Perry added a second. The game was now really in the balance, with the next score likely to be decisive. Had Canada got a third it would have been hard for the US to come back in a tight competive game like this.

The USA really had to score at this point to keep the game alive and athough Ryan Kesler did, they were still chasing the game all through the final period. It looked like they had run out of time, until with only 25 seconds left on the clock Zach Parise scored to level it at two each and send the game to overtime! You could hear the groan all the way from Vancouver.

I was also following the game on Twitter, which “lit up” with various combinations of OMG, Goal, RU kidding me, Yes, No, Argh, liberally spiced with swear words, extra letters and exclamation points!

I am pretty sure I saw smoke coming out of my computer for a while and wonder how many #hockey tweets there were during this game?
Hockey took over Twitter so much I was even prompted to come up with following tweet myself “Twitter have just announced a name change – they are now called Twockey!”

At this point, either country would have been a deserving winner, but unfortunately sport and life are not like that. There has to be a winner and we go to overtime with sudden death, as if there wasn’t enough excitement already!

No second chances now, no more comebacks, one big play for all the marbles! Just after 7 minutes of OT, Sidney Crosby squeezed his shot past the Tournament MVP – Ryan Miller for the winning goal and it was all over Canada are the Olympic Champions!

So back to the theme of these last few posts “Home Wins” boosting morale. It really doesn’t get much better than winning Olympic Gold at home in your national sport!

As a side effect Canadian breweries and bar owners can also look forward to a boost in morale in these depressing economic times. Stock Tips – “Buy Molson” then tomorrow “Buy Coffee”!

So congratulations Canucks everywhere, you can go back to work happy tomorrow or whenever the party ends!

Feb
26

Team USA completed their path to the “Dream” final by overwelming Finland in the first semi-final earlier today. Finland were undefeated, before this game and had been described as talented, but you would never have guessed it from watching the first period!

It was also said that the Finnish Goalie Kiprusoff did not like being crowded. Well he was in a crowd for most of his time on the ice today; unfortunately they were mostly Americans slapping each other on the back after scoring!

Ryan Malone opened the scoring after only two minutes and three more goals followed in quick succession, Kiprusoff got his chance to be alone and was pulled from the game after ten minutes!

Two more goals followed and after thirteen minutes Team USA were 6 – 0 up and cruising, with the game pretty much won. The US goals were scored by Malone, Zach Parise, Erik Johnson, Patrick Kane (2) and Paul Stastny.

The Fins made more of a fight of it in second period, but couldn’t score, with Ryan Miller in contrast to Kiprusoff, always looking in control in the other goal.

The Fins don’t smile a lot at the best of times and had little to smile about in this game! They eventually got a consolation goal in a niggly third period after Miller had been relieved just before the end.

Canada duly delivered in the second semi-final beating Slovakia and now join the US in the final everyone was hoping for. Patrick Marleau opened the scoring for Canada in the first period . Brendan Morrow added to their lead and Canada ended the first period 2 – 0 ahead.

The Canadians got a third on a power play scored by Ryan Getzlaf and looked like they had booked their place in the final. Slovakian hopes were raised when Visnovsky got one back half way through the last period to make it 3 – 1. When Michal Handzas got their second with five minutes to go Canadians everywhere started to look seriously worried!

Canada survived a nervous last five minutes, although it seemed a lot longer at the time and hung onto their 3 – 2 lead for the win!

So we have the big showdown for the Gold on Sunday and the US will have to face a strong Canadian team and a hostile home crowd, but as Zach Parise put it they are used to that “Every international tournament I have played up in Canada we have gotten booed,” Parise said. “You learn to tune it out. You play in pretty hostile environments in the NHL”

Either country would be a deserving winner. Unfortunately one country is going to be disappointed, but for the victor winning Olympic Gold gives everyone a huge morale lift in these difficult times!

Feb
25

Back in December I wrote a piece about how home town wins boost morale. The Giants had just beaten Division rivals Dallas and everyone went back to work happy on Monday. That may have been the last time they won by the way!

An even better example, which I also cited back in December, was the Saints who were unbeaten at the time and then went on to win one of the best Super Bowls for years. Their great season and championship win really helped New Orleans bounce back from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

There is no doubt “Home Town” wins have a really positive effect on local morale and I am sensing a similar buzz about the Olympic Ice Hockey.

In this case we should be talking about “Country” rather than “Town”, but Canada is really getting into the chase for Gold! Despite what some Americans feel, Canada is actually not part of the USA! Even so there is still a home town feel about a Team USA win as well.

Before the games started all the talk was about Canada and Russia meeting in the final and sure enough these two headed the bookmaker’s favourites. In any sport we always hear the expression “that’s why they play the games” and we now know if Canada makes the final they won’t be facing Russia after beating them convincingly 7 – 3 in the quarter final!

Canada now faces Slovakia (who beat the third favourite Swedes 4 – 3 in their quarter final) for a place in the final.

In the other semi USA will play Finland. Finland beat the more favoured Czech Republic 2 – 0 and the US knocked out Switzerland 2 – 0 with two Zach Parise goals.

So Canada and USA will meet in the final if everything goes to form (it hasn’t so far!), with the winners getting Gold Medals and bragging rights when the get back to their NHL Teams!

No disrespect to Slovakia and Finland, but the whole North American continent wants a USA v Canada final now. Let me rephrase that, we need a USA v Canada final. The Economy sucks, it’s snowing again. We need it!

I believe, both these teams are good enough and have the extra motivation of being in front of their own fans so let’s hope they make it. Then, unfortunately someone is going to be disappointed, but either country would be a great winner. OK if you push me I go with the US, with Parise scoring the winner (I’m a NJ Devils fan)!

So in these depressing Economic times winning Olympic Gold gives everyone a big lift and we all go back to work happy!

Feb
25

Google are big news at the moment! The FT just ran a series of articles about some antitrust cases; we have had the hacking story from China, Google Buzz and the turf war with Bing. It seems they are never out of the news at the moment.

The European Commission have received three antitrust complaints against Google from companies who claim they have not been fairly positioned in Google search results. Google’s response seems to be the Algorithm decides the ranking position, but what makes it more interesting is that two of the three have Microsoft connections!

Ciao is a consumer review site, which is part of Bing and owned by Microsoft and Foundem is a vertical search company which is a member of a group partially funded by Microsoft. The third complainant eJustice is a French legal site without any obvious Microsoft connection!

The hacking story reads like something from a James Bond movie, with some sources saying the hacking reached a level of sophistication not normally seen outside Government Defence circles! Again there is a Microsoft angle on the story with the company admitting some responsibility on their own blog: –

“Based upon our investigations, we have determined that Internet Explorer was one of the vectors used in targeted and sophisticated attacks against Google and possibly other corporate networks,” said Microsoft’s director of security response Mike Reavey in the post.

Also with China’s reputation for cloning or copying products – what are the odds we see a Chinese Google look a like at some point in the near future?

Google Buzz has certainly lived up to its name although a lot of the early buzz has been fears of what it may do to Twitter and Facebook. Google are playing this down and claiming it is filling a niche in social media. We will see.

Google still have around 65% of the search market although Bing made some inroads in January 2010 increasing their market share by 0.6% to 11.3%. Now, I have read a number of comparisons between the two and Bing are getting some favourable comments, but to a large extent it seems this battle is being decided by who is the default search engine.

So as people change to Windows 7 they automatically get Bing as their search engine – you would have to figure that this will play in Bing’s favour over time, wouldn’t you? Microsoft’s style has always been to cross sell and offer their own alternative to any successful competitor, but I don’t expect we will all be “Googling” on Bing for some time yet!

So as I say Google are certainly making news at the moment. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised; search is now a big part of our everyday lives. We now make 2 billion searches per day through Google and last year they made around $2 billion net income doing this, so we should expect them to make some noise.

What is also apparent is that most of the Google news has a Microsoft thread running through it – coincidence? You decide!