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So last week's column drew a heated, animated and understandable showdown of philosophies among its meager fan base. Part of being a non-traditional sports fan is that one’s interests do not always fall into sports. Often, sports will play some infinitesimal part in outside interests... for instance, the part of last week’s column where I spoke about the Olympic torch relay protests in Paris and San Francisco and all over as the flame circumnavigates the globe. Sports are but a guise, in this circumstance, for what is really a political issue. I graciously edited out this portion due to the steam it caused among several readers; do NOT think, however, that I will shy away from issues that pertain only peripherally to sports on occasion. It is part of being a fan of obscure sports AND an obscure sports fan -- I am obscure in many ways. If something offends or piques your interest in either a really positive or really negative way, though, please don’t go railing about it in the topics. I would prefer to get some constructive criticism in my inbox, please...

 

And on that note, onward and outward into the world of sports less familiar to the traditional American sports fan...

 

Tom Boonen wins Paris-RoubaixSo my decision to stop going with the front-runner in the spring classics paid absolutely NO dividends, as former world champion and 2005 Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen defeated two-time (and current) world time trial champion and 2006 Paris-Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara in a hotly-contested sprint finish on the Roubaix velodrome. The race was surprisingly dry, as pre-race forecasts had called for ceaseless precipitation. 198 riders set out from Compiegne on the journey; only 113 finished in Roubaix, the last nearly a half-hour after Boonen outkicked Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan of Lampre.

 

Now cycling's spring classics season will head toward the Wallone region of Belgium and into the Netherlands, starting with the Amstel Gold Race this Sunday. Comprised of a criss-crossing and circuitous route tracing back and forth over the hilly southwestern region of Holland, the only classic named for a beer company (or any company for that matter) has riders going over thirty-one climbs, some the same backbreaking roads two, three times...

 

Mur de HuyThen, next Wednesday, the race shifts back into Belgium for the Fleche Wallone (Yellow Arrow in Flemish), part of the Ardennes weekend. The riders will be racing over routes familiar to war buffs who have studied either of the World Wars. These are the lands where Erich Maria Remarque viewed during his time as a soldier before penning All Quiet on the Western Front... and they are as unforgiving to riders' legs as the trench warfare was to Remarque's body. The race finishes up the ultra-steep, 1.3 kilometer/9.3% average grade climb of the Mur de Huy. Riders in contention at the end of both these races will most likely be someone in the mold of a Davide Rebellin, the first rider to ever take both these classics in succession along with Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the culmination of the spring classics season, on April 27. Rebellin won all three races in the Ardennes in 2004 and has already won the overall classification at Paris-Nice back in March this year...

 

We will talk about Liege-Bastogne-Liege next week in the column...

 

Trevor Immelman... Forgotten Champion?Last week I talked about Trevor Immelman and Justin Rose, two South Africans on top of the Masters leaderboard after the first round, and how one could possibly hold on to win the Masters. Come Sunday, and Immelman was able to double-bogey on 16 at Augusta and laugh it off because it put him only THREE strokes ahead of Tiger and the field. Save his final-day debacle of a round, when all the pressure was off and victory was as assured as one can feel with The Man They Stopped Calling Eldrick hot in pursuit, Immelman played the tournament of a lifetime. He shot three consecutive sub-70 rounds -- AT AUGUSTA. The Tiger started Sunday SIX strokes back, for goodness sake...

 

Yet so many pundits and analysts want to talk about how Tiger failed to pull out the victory, as if failing to win the Masters every season is going to diminish the already-overfilled portolio of Woods' history. As I said last week (frightfully presciently, I might add):

 

It is indeed reassuring to hear some new names at the top of golf's leaderboard. These past years have been so Tiger-dominated -- with the media at times more focused on who could challenge Eldrick than the action on the course -- that it is always refreshing when we see some new blood at the top of the leaderboard. Zach Johnson was able to give golf fans an exciting finale at Augusta last year... could Trevor or Justin do it this year?

 

Because, in the end, for how good Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh and Ernie Els can prove to be, the real challenge to Tiger is going to come from the next generation of professional golfers. Tiger's contemporaries and elders can only do so much to stave the onslaught of Eldrick's victory march. It is the gaggle of golfers who are younger than Woods who will determine the course of his future career success...

 

Tiger is experiencing something familiar to what Roger Federer has this season. The field is simply catching up, and even the most dominant player in a generation cannot be expected to emerge victorious EVERY time. But because both Woods and Federer dominated their respective sports so thouroughly for several years, the casual media tries to view their presence at a tournament as a sign of inevitable victory. It is a lot like what I have been noticing with the Detroit Tigers lately as they begin to emerge from a king-high slump. As the media perceives a team's or a player's superiority, that player or collection of players begin to allow the thought to creep into their mind. Complacency sets in, and the field gains an advantage it previously lacked...

 

Or perhaps credit should go where credit is due... to the VICTOR. Every dog has its day, and every professional player is there because he or she is competent enough at his or her profession to remain in a job -- which MUST entail winning something at some point, if only a Cinderella upset at some point...

 

Davydenko back to winning ways...Which segues us into tennis, and the start of the clay-court season in advance of the French Open at Roland Garros in late May. The winner of the last spring hard-court tournament in Miami, Nikolai Davydenko, is continuing to cruise at the ATP Estoril Open. He sailed in straight sets yesterday to advance to the quarterfinals...

 

Davydenko is beginning to get back to playing sublime tennis after accusations of match-fixing began to plague his psyche after irregular betting patterns emerged around his match with Argentine Martin Vassallo Arguello in Poland in August. Davydenko has been cleared of any wrongdoing, and is once again speaking loud with his racquet and his on-court actions. With the way his form seems to be right now, he could be another serioius challenger to face down and take the French Open crown from Rafael Nadal -- the man Davydenko defeated in the final to win in Miami...

 

Stay tuned for news from Estoril next week to find out whether Davydenko will emerge victorious from the quarterfinals -- or possibly if Federer can find his mojo in time to take a victory before the second Grand Slam of the season...

 

Boxing has seemed to fade into the periphery in recent years. Casual American sports fans have had a relative dearth of easily-recognizable ring personalities to attract them to pugilism. The hunger for bloodlust is obviously there, as the rapid rise of mixed martial arts competitions and leagues and shows have popped up in our popular culture. So, too, the continuous and steady sustained growth of the NFL gives one ample reason to believe there should be a market for boxing in the United States. Did Mike Tyson ruin it for the various disparate international governing bodies of the sport?

 

WBO & IBF Champ Joe Calzaghe WBO, WBC and WBA super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe, a Welsh puncher born of Sardinian parents, will fight his first-ever bout in Las Vegas Saturday night. The opposite side of the card? Bernard Hopkins, perhaps the greatest middleweight since Marvelous Marvin Hagler and the number-one contender among light-heavyweights to boot...

 

When the two square off in the ring at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, there will be no title bouts at stake. Both fighters will be battling to gain footing in the 175-pound class. The victor will gain the inside edge toward claiming the vacant WBA belt in the division...

 

Both fighters have been talking a good fight, tossing barbs one another through the press in advance of the bout. The bookmakers have Calzaghe favored, and should the match go the distance and the judges' decision come into play, the Welshman should hold the advantage. But one cannot discount the cerebral Hopkins, who averaged 35 punches a round in his fight with Antonio Tarver...

 

Regardless of which fighter wins, it is assured of being a hard-fought battle between two superb athletes. As Calzaghe leaves the British isles for a rare trip to foreign destinations, Hopkins stands up and claims American superiority. Will this devolve into a Ricky Hatton-Floyd Mayweather Jr. matter where open blind patriotism gets in the way of the superb work of the two athletes in the ring? One can only hope not...

 

 

And on that note, let's wrap this up for the week. Like what you read here? Tell a friend...

Want something specific covered here which you just can't get elsewhere? Any suggestions? What'd you like? Did something pique your interest? Leave a comment...

Did something aggravate you to no end? Is something particulary offensive? PLEASE tell me through the FanMail...

 

And on that note, this ol' cookie is getting tired... time to sign off and get a few hours of shut-eye before the next shift at the day job... can't quite quit it yet... but I am on my way... until then, when you can read me somewhere practically EVERY DAY, keep on enjoying that wide world of sports beyond the baseball season and some silly draft...

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