To Snub or Snipe?

For as long as we’ve had bicycle racing, we’ve had off-the-bicycle drama. Three words: Lady in White. She nearly derailed Fausto Coppi’s career. Today we’ve got turf wars between doping agencies, tension between the UCI and manufacturers, conflicts between the UCI and race organizers, and, of course, squabbles between teams and race organizers.

This last, the issues between teams and race organizers should seemingly be the easiest to resolve. Independent of a team’s registration is the UCI’s ranking of teams based on the accumulation of points by the team’s five best riders. It’s an absolute, objective measure of just how good a team is, even if it does favor those teams with a limited number of chiefs over a team like HTC-Columbia that seemingly has the ability to keep other teams guessing about just who may take the day, provided they aren’t setting Cavendish up for a sprint.

As a race organizer trying to position your race as producing a true champion, the best of the best on that course, the self-serving answer is to invite the best two-dozen or so teams as ranked by the UCI. To do anything else is to dilute the field on paper. We know from experience, however, that giving unranked Spanish teams entry into the Vuelta can spark some exciting racing, so some discretion does seem reasonable. But how should that discretion be exercised?

Were a race organizer as partisan as the Spanish federation, it is conceivable that Unipublic could invite only Spanish teams to the Vuelta to ensure than an Italian doesn’t win next year. Though the racing might still be animated, it would lessen the importance of the Vuelta in our eyes, and rightfully so.

Chatter on the RadioShack/RCS tiff has tended to favor RCS. Given the way Big Tex has fallen from favor, we should perhaps not be too surprised. What is more surprising is the brush with which the entire team seems to be painted.

RCS obviously had a reason they didn’t want RadioShack to appear at the Tour of Lombardy. Let’s explore the possibilities:

1)    They had been “snubbed” by RadioShack not racing the Giro, which may have felt like insult to injury after Armstrong didn’t toe the line for a much-anticipated appearance at Milan-San Remo.

2)    They didn’t want a team facing such serious doping allegations to besmirch their race.

3)    They lost the invitation.

So what’s wrong with #1? It’s petty. Teams have a right to decide what riders will race which races. The Shack deserves some criticism for not sending some squad to the Giro, though. They are a ProTour team and there is the expectation that such a team is capable of fielding two competitive squads simultaneously. It doesn’t seem to be an issue for HTC-Columbia. The fans deserve the best racing they can see and that means inviting them, even if you don’t like their choice of squad, which means sucking it up if Mr. Big Shot chooses the Tour of California over the Giro d’Italia. Just deal. Pros have been choosing to race the Dauphiné and the Tour of Switzerland instead of the Giro without retribution for years. Armstrong comes in for a little dressing down of his own, though: Don’t make noise about starting a race (Milan-San Remo) and not show unless you’re injured.

Okay, what’s wrong with #2? Not much, in fact. If you have a fear that your race will become the backdrop to a colossal doping scandal, you really shouldn’t be obligated to invite a team that is under large-scale investigation. This perspective is problematic, I admit, but at the end of the day, if all your sponsors pull out, you have no race, and the race’s survival trumps all else. Let us observe that this is a bigger concern for Unipublic than RCS. But there’s one caveat: Have the cajones to be honest. Don’t hide behind incompetence or lack of sporting results as an excuse.

And what’s wrong with #3? Everything. RCS didn’t “forget” the Radio Shack invitation; they forgot the contract. The team was snubbed by an organization with a short memory, and RCS was unwilling to admit it. This was proven when they (RCS) had to ask the UCI for a waiver that would allow them to include a 26th team in the race. Again, have some balls and be honest.

Look, I know that defending Armstrong on any level is more dangerous than unprotected sex with a lion. That said, talk that RadioShack is a shit team and didn’t deserve the invite they didn’t get to the Tour of Lombardy or the Vuelta really isn’t rational. RadioShack has been ranked as high as eighth this season and is ranked 10th as we speak. To put this in perspective, Caisse d’Epargne is ranked 11th. To all those who think Radio Shack is a bad team, I ask you this: Is Caisse d’Epargne a worse team?

There are plenty of strong riders on RadioShack who have turned in terrific performances this year. There’s just no way to say they are a bad team and come across as rational. All but nine teams on the planet are worse. The team’s median age of 65 is a problem for their future, but we shouldn’t denigrate their performance this year because they have a bunch of old guys, some of whom walk under a cloud of doping controversy that maps like a hurricane.

Based on sporting results, Radio Shack deserved invites to the Vuelta and the Tour of Lombardy. Concern for another Floyd Landis press conference or an announcement from Jeff Novitzky could reasonably make a Grand Tour organizer gun shy. No matter what, great racing is dependent on inviting the strongest teams; if it weren’t so, we’d all be sticking around to watch the Cat. 4s race the local Gran Prix du Industrial Park.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Champs

    None of this is to say that The Shack has gone without wins, or that Valverde deserves lighter punishment, but there IS a four year old legal investigation that has at least as much to do with those rankings as the comparative quality of those two teams.

  2. Souleur

    points all well taken Padraig. There will be alot of off-season talk this year as this is just the starting point.

    My thoughts on this have all centered around #1, (all are true, but #1 seems to me to carry the water). Italians are a very very proud people in general and expect…absolutely expect respect. They give and they take it. If they think something is deserving, whether I think so or not is mute, I must give it the respect it appears to deserve or else ‘not be friends’. Radioshack should have sent someone to the Giro, and those things could have been talked about in a behind the scenes manner, but to talk of the Primavera and no show…well, now thats a problem.

    So, there is a tit for tat attitude now. Shack must do what it takes to over come that, build a relationship and move on.

    Which is a tangential question but to me seemingly related, but is there some guff between the RCS and ToC? Are they (RCS) taking their disappointment out on the Shack since they seem to be the easy target? Perhaps. Which brings about a full turn around on the UCI calendar and mutual repect, mutual recognition of interests and someone organizing the calendar in a way that makes sense to ‘the sport’, not just racers, not just patrons, not just local organizers.

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  4. Hank

    It’s a balancing act for the organizers. They need to keep local fans happy while not reducing the importance of the race internationally. They are in a kind of ongoing negotiation and contest with teams to try and extract a squad that will raise the profile of their race. I expect RS has gotten on the wrong side of that tug of war with the Vuelta and Giro organizers. Who knows what the full story and the real reasons are.

  5. Sophrosune

    You need not worry, Padraig, UCI ranking will be the law of the land for Grand Tours next year and as a result, you will never again see a performance like Mosquera’s. Three cheers for standardization, eh?

    When the Vuelta organizers were selecting teams, I believe RS was the 14th ranked team in UCI points, which by the way is not always such a good indicator of a team’s competitiveness–just look at the example you offered of Caisse d’Epargne. It seems I saw Caisse d’Epargne fighting in every race this year in Europe, outside of the northern Spring Classics. RS not so much except for Tour of the Basque Country and the Dauphine.

    Here’s the rational argument. Before the Vuelta organizers could choose any teams for the Vuelta they were obligated to invite 16 teams that had been guaranteed entry to the three Grand Tours under a deal brokered by the UCI with promoters ASO/Unipublic and RCS in 2007 (which by the way included Caisse d’Epargne). This left the real choice of the two Spanish teams, Garmin, Katusha and Sky as their final choices.

    Let’s look at who they choose. Garmin may have been ranked 15th in UCI points (one slot behind RS) at the time of the selection but had won three stages in the previous year’s race and were competitive throughout, Katusha was not only ahead of RS in UCI points but had Rodriguez who was not only Spanish, but a real GC contender, and the two Spanish teams were no surprise since they had been invited in previous years, had always been competitive, their invitation followed a long, and largely unquestioned tradition of inviting representative national teams to a Grand Tour (that goes for the TdF, Giro and Vuelta), and one of them had Mosquera who had finished 4th the previous year and this year made the race.

    This left the choice down to new teams with no previous history: Sky and RS. I argue that both teams had unsatisfactory qualities and it was really a choice between a rock and a hard place. I believe the Vuelta organizers probably looked at the Giro snub by RS and thought that is not what we’re looking for and choose Sky.

    Now the other possibilities I have seen offered for this choice was fear that Armstrong’s doping scandal might become a distraction–maybe. And the other was “jingoism” on the part of the Spanish. This second one I find offensive, not only because I happen to live here in Spain but because it singles the Vuelta organizers out for a tradition that has been practiced by all of the Grand Tours and even smaller races throughout all of Europe.

    I am real sorry we didn’t get to see Leipheimer sit on someone’s wheel up all the graded climbs and turn in a respectable ITT to finish in the top ten. While I would have preferred to see that than see Sky withdraw with viral and bacterial infections, I am sure glad I got to see Mosquera’s attack on Bola del Mundo instead of Leipheimer’s version of watching paint dry.

  6. randomactsofcycling

    Ahhh, the growing pains of our beloved Professional Cycling.
    As Padraig has mentioned, great racing depends upon inviting the strongest teams but if that team has been realised purely as a vehicle for one rider to win one race, it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that a second string team is going to show up for a three week training ride at la Vuelta.
    RadioShack have more to worry about than not being invited to races. How long will their sponsor continue when they realise their Golden Goose has retired and they are left with a team that is completely unappealing to their market and populated by riders that are not even ‘has been’ but are more like ‘almost were’?

  7. Robot

    I’d like to see the automatic invites for ProTour teams continue, but I’d also like the ProTour to be reduced to about 12 teams. I think those teams should commit, as part of their licensure, to compete in certain events, all three Grand Tours among them.

    I think, in order to bring big money into the sport, you’ve got to be able to make some guarantees to the ProTour teams, but I’d also like more room left for the second division squads to show their stuff. I think a better balance would give the ProTour teams more impetus to ride hard. No one wants to finish consistently behind a Vacansoleil or Xacobeo Galicia. We would also get more Mosqueras out there, stirring up the big races and breaking through into the big time.

    Anything that pushed back against complacency is, to me, a good thing. I think the current idea is right. I just think the balance is wrong.

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