Monday, June 16, 2008

Twins are Hot!

MANKATO, Minn. -- You can't believe Kristen Armstrong until you see her race -- and even then, she leaves you dumbstruck by dominance that has probably never been seen in American bike racing.

From what I saw at the Nature Valley Grand Prix this weekend, no other woman could beat Armstrong unless Armstrong lets her. Not Tina Pic. Not the Europeans. No one.

Her unrelated namesake, Lance, was one of the all-time greats, of course. But he raced with the greatest teams ever assembled. She effectively races alone. If Armstrong raced alone, even at the height of his greatness, he couldn't have dominated like Kristen does -- not even against the domestic peloton.

To analogize in local terms -- and with all due respect to the rest of the pro female peloton -- Kristen Armstrong against the rest of the pro women is like Paul Martin racing in a men's Cat 3 field in Ohio.

Or maybe like Kristen Armstrong racing in a men's Cat 3 field in Ohio.

The whupping she imposed on the other women in the time-trial stage on Friday would've ruined the whole stage race if the organizers hadn't wadded up the rules in order to keep more than a few women racing.

The officials threw out the time cut instead of throwing out the 60-plus women who failed to finish within 120% of Armstrong's time. But with two stages left that favored power climbers, Anderson had already ended the race for GC. The time trial was short (about 6 miles) and mostly flat until the final 1/2 mile or so. That little aberration, though, comprised a climb comparable to Old Mill Road on Deca-Durabolin -- a 20% grade with three switchbacks and no place to relax.

Armstrong won by 47 seconds. Think about that: She put 8 seconds per mile into them.

The officials' leniency didn't matter, ultimately. The other women who would've been excised from the rest of the stages wound up watching from the cheap seats anyway on Saturday. Well, actually, they didn't: When Armstrong dropped the hammer, she was quickly out of sight, quite literally.

The women had already suffered through 80 miles of spirit-crushing crosswinds when they rolled in to Mankato in a tight bunch. Given the choice, most would've probably opted for another 80 miles of wind rather than what awaited them there: Four laps around a 4-mile circuit cursed with an inhumane mile-long climb at an average grade of 14 percent.

The emphasis is on "average": three flat intersections skew the number downward. Most of the wall -- including the last 300 yards -- is probably closer to 18-20 percent. The intersections are way too narrow to give a rider a break, but wide enough to dilute the grade number, and wide enough to cruelly crack a rhythm climber's steady pace. The top half is so steep that it hurt my knees to jog DOWN it, and I had to be careful not to pitch forward into the pavement.

The men, who came through an hour earlier, were climbing it at a walking pace, and a couple of the sprinters were zig-zagging from curb to curb like little kids.

This photo will give you a hint, but not a clear indication, because the sunlit bottom of the hill is obliterated by overexposure in this cell-phone shot. The folks down there were mere flecks when seen from the top.



The women were together for the last time when they hit the start-finish at the bottom of that hill. Then Armstrong looked like something at the Cleveland Air Show. She broke their legs and rode away like she was on an escalator and her competition was riding up a mountain of dirty laundry.

Re-read this post from the top to this point a couple times; the time it'll take you to do that would approximate the gap she built in that one-mile climb.

The bad news for the rest of the peloton was that three more trips up that hill were to follow, and all of the riders had to finish in order to race in Sunday's last stage to scramble for the scraps of second and third place. In the end, Armstrong had put a few more minutes -- and a few more bullets into the field.

***

On the men's side, HealthNet-Maxxis proved itself the full-team equivalent of Kristen Armstrong. Bissell's Ben Jacques-Maynes started the 95-mile stage with about a 45-second lead, and it evaporated when the men hit the 4-lap end circuit. HNM beat everyone into submission by then, and Rory Sutherland gradually inched away from Jacques-Maynes with each successive suffering up the wall.

But Kirk O'Bee and Jelly Belly's Nic Reistad know who to respect:


video


***

ST. PAUL -- Well, it turns out that the Twin Cities aren't perfect after all: I saw a few potholes yesterday.

Actually, I saw six, maybe seven -- in 460 miles of driving over three days.

Here where the temperatures reach 30 below (that's minus-144 Celsius, I think), and the freeze-thaw cycles are even more violent than Cleveland's, the pavement looks like Disneyland's. It's almost creepy, in the way a wax museum is: The roads bear an unsettling resemblance to what we know is real, but they are utterly unrealistic. It takes all the fun out of driving when you don't get to slalom through Cleveland, shaking like a cell phone on vibrate.

It used to confound me how Latin baseball players, coming from the most decrepit villages in the Dominican etc., would make their living here and then head straight back home to those hovels.

Now I'm not so confounded, because that's how I feel heading back to Cleveland from the Twin Cities.I spent most of my time in St. Paul, in the parts of it that the locals are worried about -- the "bad" parts, as it were. I'd heard, in my pre-trip research, of how these neighborhoods were on the decline and people were panicking.

When I got there, I was sure I must be in the wrong place. I drove for miles through these "troubled" neighborhoods, up and down both main streets and side streets.I saw one boarded-up house. One.

I saw no houses with bars on the doors. And the main street that I'd heard so much hand-wringing about -- all the "boarded-up storefronts" etc. This street was as vibrant as Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, with a lot more ethnic diversity. The "vacant storefront" epidemic comprised about one empty facade out of every 10 or 15.

Its crime rate is almost Disneyesque, too, compared to us. Cleveland has 2.7 murders for every one in St. Paul. The rates of robbery, burglary and vehicle theft there are about half of what Cleveland's are. And I saw only a single panhandler in the entire time I was there -- a guy in a wheelchair with no legs.

To be sure, St. Paul has a lot of ugliness. But it's aesthetic ugliness -- bad 1950s architecture, bad urban design and bad subdivision regulation. There are neighborhoods where ghastly Brook Park-type ranch homes seem to be dropped randomly from the sky. Haphazard lot lines and setbacks, total lack of architectural consistency, garage-centered house designs and general heinous aesthetics dominate more than half of the city. (The other half is idyllic.)

But it's just kind of unsightly, not unsafe.

The city's mayor confided, as politely as he could, that he was taken aback by Cleveland's desolation and the nonstop stream of moochers and bums who descended on him like pigeons. He'd heard about all the cool stuff, he said -- the Rock Hall, the stadiums, the alleged revitalization. By the time his visit last year was done, he implied, he couldn't wait to get out of town and take a shower.

He was almost apologetic to me about his city's comparative health. With some self-consciousness, he acknowledged that his "bad" neighborhoods would be the envy of most major cities."There is no place in this city," he said without boasting, "that I'd be afraid to be in."Here, the converse is almost the rule.

***

I won't even get started on Minneapolis. Long story short: Forget Seattle and Portland. No city has a better balance of cosmopolitan hipness and real liveability than Minneapolis. It is the trendy, cool and urbane twin, compared to its sensible, blue-collar sibling.

Eleven months of winter probably have a lot to do with it, but the cities embrace the outdoors with an almost explosive exuberance. A chain of lakes, each the size of Lakewood or South Euclid, runs through Minneapolis, and beaches and multipurpose trails ring the lakes. On Saturday, thousands upon thousands of people were swarming there -- rollerbladers, cyclists, joggers and walkers.

Windsurfers and sailboaters were all over the lake (even though the winds were intimidatingly high that day). People were just everywhere.

Then I went in town away from those obvious people magnets. It was the same everywhere -- cyclists, skateboarders, joggers and rollerbladers of every size and color.

There were thousands of people on bikes everywhere I looked. The subset of bike commuters alone was bigger than the total of all cyclists in Greater Cleveland, I'm sure. And, for better or worse, the cities have bike lanes all over the place -- especially St. Paul.

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