Tales from the peloton, April 7, 2004
Injury doesn't prevent Stuart O'Grady from lining up at the April classics
Despite the inconvenience of a broken rib, Cofidis rider Stuart O'Grady is hoping the parcours of Wednesday's Gent-Wevelgem semi-classic may not pose the same problems as last weekend's Tour of Flanders, where he felt the twinges on every one of its 18 climbs.
"We're going to have a real crack at that," he said of the mid-week semi-classic. "There's only two super-hard climbs so it may not be so bad. After that, we're going to make a decision on (entering) Paris-Roubaix."
But last weekend, O'Grady felt just how incompatible the cobbles of Flanders are to carrying an injury, like a broken rib, courtesy of Paolo Bettini's front wheel crashing into his chest during a pile-up in the finale of the E3 Prijs, a key lead-up race prior to Flanders.
Although he was expecting some discomfort, nothing had really prepared him for the task of powering up the harsh, cobbled climbs of the Tour of Flanders. Even with the best form in the world, there's only so much pain a rider can withstand.
Nonetheless, O'Grady still finished Flanders, but this time he was in the exact opposite of his third place in 2003; in 2004, he finished third-last, some 17 minutes behind race winner Steffen Wesemann.
"I'm disappointed, obviously, and I was hoping the rib wouldn't cause too much drama, but I found that pave and broken bones just don't go together. I had crossed my fingers before the start and hoped it would be better. I suffered and got through it, but it was just on the pave it was really giving it drama. "It was OK on the flat and when it was smooth, but as soon as we hit the cobbles on the climbs, I just couldn't get any real power down," O'Grady said.
The Flanders course poses obstacles that are not taken in a sustained, seated climbing effort, rather, it's out-of-the-saddle hammering, drawing on every ounce of power the rider can muster, the type of climbs where upper-body strength does have a role to play.
"I thought I'd suffered that much that day I may as well ride it in. The legs are there at the moment," he said of his current form.
The broken rib could not have come at a worse time for O'Grady, who'd been training specifically for the Spring Classics, including motor-pacing sessions with trainer Leigh Bryan at 50-60kmh. To some, the Australian is finally targeting races that many observers believe should have been his objective for several years. Even in his own words, O'Grady admitted to some surprise when he came third in last year's Flanders.
However, the Australian sprinter is emerging as a solid contender for the Classics, after his third place in Milan - San Remo last month. Indeed, O'grady has identified the Spring Classics and the World Cup as his principal objectives for the year, with stage victories in the Tour de France also on his wish-list. His desire to win the Tour's green jersey has been put aside as riders such as Baden Cooke and Alessandro Petacchi have emerged. After last year's Tour, O'Grady quipped he had more chance of winning the mountains jersey than finally bagging the green sprinter's jersey, after running second in the points classification for several years.
It would seem O'Grady was on track for 2004, with a clever third-place in Milan-San Remo behind Oscar Freire and a stunned Erik Zabel, who uncharacteristically threw his arms up in a victory salute before his wheel had crossed the line.
"I was really shocked to see Zabel do that," O'Grady said of his Tour de France nemesis, whom he's sprinted against countless times. "He's usually got 10 metres on the field before he throws his arms up, so he could have been like 'oh my God, I'm going to win this again!', but he went just too early." The German sprinter has won MSR four times and O'Grady said the final straight of MSR along the Via Roma is a slight uphill gradient, one that feels that much harder and slower "after you've done 295 kilometres and you're finishing off in the 53x11. It's a long day."
He'd enjoyed "awesome" support throughout the race from teammates such as David Millar and Igor Astarloa, the reigning world champions in the individual time trial and road race, respectively.
Over the years, O'Grady has proven himself as a capable solo hunter in the bunch sprints, rarely enjoying the lead-out trains of Zabel and Cipollini. It's this ability to find the best wheels to follow that has seen him repeatedly on the podium and the same applied in the E3Prijs, the all-important lead-up race to the Tour of Flanders.
In the finale, "I looked across at the Lotto train and I could see that Robbie (McEwen) wasn't doing so well, but Quick Step were leading out (Tom) Boonen."
It was the right train to follow, except other riders had the same idea and the kamikaze moves started. With only 600 metres to go, Fabrizio Guidi (CSC) tried to push in but bumped wheels and hit the deck, taking out O'Grady and Paolo Bettini, whose front wheel slammed into O'Grady's chest, breaking the 11th rib on the lower right hand side.
Boonen eventually took the win, but O'Grady felt he was in with more than a chance of the victory. While respectful of Boonen's ability, "I don't like to call a race finish when I didn't make it, but I was on Boonen's wheel and ... well, let's say I would have been in the first two."
Such is the fate of the fast finishers, that a crazy move in a lesser race can spoil the more important races. As O'Grady realised last Sunday, racing for the first time with a broken bone, "I've found that there's no miracles in this game."
He hoped he could stay with the leaders in Flanders while carrying what is a painful and debilitating injury. "After Gent-Wevelgem, we'll see how it goes and we may have to forfeit Paris-Roubaix and go for the Amstel Gold."