The Explainer: Spring break, TV woes and gentlemen’s agreements

Dear Readers,
As some of you might have heard, I took last week off to spend a little time with my son on a short vacation to Nebraska.

Yup, Nebraska. Sure, it’s one of the states out here in the Big Empty of America and not exactly the place that tops the list of most people’s spring break destinations, but it was spectacular.

We drove to the middle of Nebraska and worked our way up and down the roads along the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island to watch the Sand Hill Cranes, who are out there fattening up before continuing on their way north for the summer. It’s quite a sight and it’s something I would recommend to anyone who has a chance to stop by that part of the country at this time of year. Like clockwork, the cranes, who spend their days picking up left-over corn from farmers’ fields, return to the river to spend the night, listening for the sounds of predators approaching through the water.

At dawn, they take off and head to the fields where they can see any threats that will send them up into the air on quick notice. Last Sunday morning, we were below a flyover that included between 60,000 and 80,000 birds. That alone made the trip worth it, even though my own photos of that spectacular event were blurry at best.

Anyway, in checking my in-box upon my return, I thought I’d tackle a couple of questions that allow me to stay true to my reluctance to constantly dive into doping issues. Just as a reminder, if you have any questions related to cycling, cyclists’ rights, legal issues faced by the two-wheeled crowd and, yes even doping, drop me a line at Charles@Pelkey.com.
- Charles

Has the Internet killed the video star?
Hi Charles:
Not sure if the Explainer or someone at Red Kite Cycling could tackle this one, but I’m curious about the future of cycling on TV in the U.S.

There’s been a confusing series of mergers as Versus was swallowed up by NBC, which was then eaten by Comcast. During last year’s cycling season, I could find events on both Versus and Universal Sports channels. But now as I look at the lineup on the new NBC Sports channel, I find little or no coverage of anything cycling-related (I also miss ski racing as well).

I’ve read that Versus “Epic Cycle” brand will continue with the Tour de France, Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge. But what about all the great European classics, not to mention the Giro and the Vuelta which I watched last year on Universal? Am I doomed to real-time streaming via dodgy internet links?

Thanks,
— Eric

Dear Eric,
I was curious about that, too, but from the looks of it the mergers-and-acquisitions have not killed cycling on American TV.

The Folks at Versus will be offering some coverage of the Criterium International on Sunday March 25, but it appears that will just be a wrap-up with highlights. According to their schedule, we can see the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche-Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, California, the Dauphine, The Tour de Suisse and the biggie, the Tour de France, this season.

You will, in other words, get a full dose of Phil and Paul … assuming you light the blue touchpaper and get cable TV in time.

Notably absent on that schedule, of course, are the Giro and the Vuelta, grand tours I actually prefer over the Tour at times. For those, you may have to turn to Universal. If history is an indicator, it may be that you have no choice but to opt for streaming video, for a fee. I’ve actually long been a fan of streaming video and, yes, I agree it can be dodgy at times. Nonetheless, the quality has been improving over the years and with the 13mb connection I have, even out here in the wilds of Wyoming, I can often not tell the difference between that and regular TV.

Frankly, I am not sure what the future of cycling – or any other programming for that matter – might be on traditional television. With improving web technology and the à la carte menu of programming available on the web these days, we long ago abandoned cable TV in our house. I am not sure that’s a realistic option for all, since most traditional orb sports (football, baseball and basketball) tend to be limited to cable and broadcast TV. But since I never watch those anyway, it was an easy call for us to make.

Assuming your à la carte menu of programming includes a healthy dose of bike racing, it’s worth bookmarking Steephill.tv. The Steven Hill, the guy in charge of the site, works his tail off to provide you with a list of options available to television viewers, web watchers and even those who like to get a text feed on their phones (or the office computer during working hours). Indeed, Hill has even included a link to my own LiveUpdateGuy.com when I offer coverage.

Speaking of LUG, by the way, I will probably do some live coverage in advance of the grand tours this year. I am still working on the details and coordinating with friends, colleagues and photographers to get the necessary elements in line to do Paris-Roubaix. If we get the kinks worked out, you’ll be able to access that feed right here on Red Kite Prayer. As usual, I don’t offer much video (unless you count Monty Python’s “Bicycle Repairman!” sketch as cycling video), but I do try to keep a running update of current race details, strategies and the usual commentary that occasionally devolves into snark. Stay tuned to RKP or LiveUpdateGuy.com for further details.
- Charles

What happened to civility?
Good evening Charles,
Hope all is well for you and family out in Wyoming!

I read a comment today from Jose’ Azevedo about the stage 3 debacle in Catalunya that got me wondering something. Jose’ was talking about the crash that happened 5k into the stage and said something to the effect that the peloton would usually wait for everyone to get back on their bikes. “Not anymore. There was no waiting. It’s a war out there every day and there is no solidarity. It’s unbelievable,” he said.

Was / is there a “gentlemen’s agreement” in the peloton to cover things like this? I’ve heard this bit of etiquette mentioned before as in “no attacks when the leader takes a nature break or no attacks in the feed zone.

Is chivalry truly dead?
Thanks,
— Dan

Dear Dan,
Every few years, cycling turns its attention to the “unwritten rules of the peloton” or the “gentelmen’s agreement” not to profit from the misfortunes of others.

Most of us recall that the subject came up more than once in the 2010 Tour de France. Remember the peloton-wide neutralization that occurred on Stage 2 from Brussels to Spa in Belgium? With Sylvain Chavanel off the front, riders in the peloton were involved in as many as 60 crashes on narrow and slippery roads. Race leader Fabian Cancellara, with the support of many others in the field, moved to the front and slowed the entire peloton to what Britain’s Telegraph newspaper described as a “grandfatherly” pace.

Riders had concluded that it was both dangerous to ride on those roads at speed and that it was unfair to the many crash victims to attack at such an inopportune moment, especially that early in a three-week grand tour. Fans’ reactions were mixed, as I recall, with some applauding the decision and others suggesting the riders were either lazy or cowards (an easy critique usually offered from the comfort of a living room couch).

Flash forward two weeks later, on Stage 15 from Pamiers to Bagnères-de-Luchon, when race leader Andy Schleck famously dropped his chain as he neared the top of the Port de Bales. Denis Menchov and Alberto Contador moved past Schleck and we suddenly had what we now call “chaingate” (the “gate” element being Richard Nixon’s lasting contribution to the English language, I guess). Contador denied knowing that Schleck had suffered a mechanical and, if true, I certainly can’t fault his DS for not radioing him the news and asking him to wait. Schleck’s net loss was right around the amount of time by which he lost the overall Tour title, so the controversy has stayed alive … even now, since Schleck has since been declared the winner of that edition of the Tour (for reasons we all know).

I think another terrific example of how the “unwritten rules” come into play is the 11th stage of the 2004 Vuelta a España. As is common in the Vuelta, the day’s attacks started early that day and Dave Zabriskie (U.S. Postal) went off on his own by the fifth kilometer. Not long after he slipped away, there was a crash that took out Alejandro Valverde (Kelme), who was second on GC (behind Zabriskie’s teammate Floyd Landis) and leading the combined classification at the time. Out of respect for the injuries Valverde suffered the peloton rode the entire stage at a relatively moderate pace, while Zabriskie was off on his own, riding what turned out to be a 161km individual time trial.

Now contrast that stage and stage 2 at the 2010 Tour with the second stage of the 1999 Tour de France. Recall that the stage included the now infamous Passage du Gois.  Timed to coincide with low tide, the route took riders across a rough, slippery 3km road that spends a good portion of the day under water. Sure enough there was a big crash involving dozens of riders, including GC contender Alex Zülle (Banesto), who eventually finished second overall, by a margin roughly equivalent to the time he lost that day.

Those that escaped the carnage (including that year’s overall winner) didn’t hesitate for a moment. Unwritten rules or no, they punched it and they punched it hard. Early in the Tour and the GC had already been shaken up quite seriously. Depending on your perspective, it was ungentlemanly behavior … or, as they say, “that’s bike racing.”

And that brings me to the question you raised. Is cycling more or less civilized now? The problem with “unwritten rules” and “gentlemen’s agreements” is that they’re unwritten. The behavior is dictated by tradition. There are times when tradition still plays a role. There are plenty of recent examples of when it did. Other times it won’t. There are plenty of examples when it didn’t … even in the Golden Years of cycling. Competitors in any sport face an array of pressures from directors, sponsors and fans and sometimes, that can all combine to cause some to forget the dictates of tradition.

Frankly, I don’t see a significant lessening of compliance with those unwritten rules of the peloton. The history of the sport is rife with examples dating back to its origins of riders taking advantage of others’ misfortunes to move up on GC. We tend to forget a lot of those and at times recall only those memorable incidents when our long-passed heroes of the road rode and acted under a code of cycling chivalry. I think rather than a general decline in civility, though, I can attribute much of it to our somewhat selective memories.
— Charles

Photo Credit: William Walker

The Explainer is a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

Follow me on Twitter: @Charles_Pelkey

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6 comments

  1. Jeff O

    In regards to the cycling coverage, I’ve been able to watch lots of racing now that I get Universal Sports on Dish. I’ve been able to record World Cup CX (both men’s and women’s), many of the spring classics and the smaller tours. The problem is that I don’t have enough time to watch it all. I’m thankful for this coverage because I live too far out in the sticks to get high-speed and can’t stream much of anything for more than a few minutes at a time.

  2. Jesus from Cancun

    I hope you will be able to bring us Paris-Roubaix LUG style. I was hoping you would be on for Milan-San Remo, but it is great to know that PR is in the works.

    At least the Grand Tours are in the program for sure, right?

    Long live LUG!

  3. Alex

    I will take a live video feed over a high speed internet connection any day over Phil & Paul. These two repeat the same old tired cliches every year, and can’t read a race to save their life.
    Much better commentary and reading of the races on any Eurosport feed.
    Versus is commercials interrupted by bits of bike racing.

  4. Jody

    I don’t care where the coverage comes from as long as I get it. Live streaming is nice but the time difference makes it hard to wake up for. I personally love Phil and Paul. Phil has been the voice of the Tour since the 80’s and I couldn’t imagine it without him.

  5. gfurry

    I am glad to see any coverage on TV. If they are having problems with ratings they should carry the racing live. I will take a sketchy live internet feed over beautiful tape delayed HD everytime. With the proliferation of social media it is hard to avoid finding out the winner before it is aired on TV in the U.S. I would guess even the SuperBowl would take a major ratings hit if they showed it 8 hours after the game was over.

  6. Cat4Fodder

    As someone who used to get Universal Sports on Comcast here in the Front Range, a couple of things:

    A) Universal Sports is still showing these events, except they changed their business model. They used to go for the ESPN / Versus route, where they wanted to be part of the basic cable package. However, their ratings never could support that model, as it was advertiser heavy reliant, and with low ratings, you get low ad rates.

    So Universal switched business models, and instead wants to be a subscription style channel, sort of like HBO. In essence, they are banking on the idea that there are dedicated fans of cycling and other Olympic style sports willing to dish out $$$$ each month above and beyond their basis cable subscription. So all cable companies dropped Universial, and Universal remains available currently through three options:

    1) Dish Network
    2) DirectTV
    3) Internet packages for streaming.

    Universal Sports is still in progress for negotiating with the cable providers. We dropped Comcast specifically because I really only watched it for Universal Sports, and once Comcast dropped them, it made no sense. Add to that less time in front of the tv is more time doing something better and more productive.

    However – hopefully in time negotiations will allow for Universal Sports to be added to the various cable providers as an add-on feature.

    I paid around $40 something for the internet feed and quite frankly, it is awesome. I still get access to past subscriptions (I can go back with unlimited access to the 2010 Vuelta for example which I paid for back in the day). Most of the races oddly enough use Eurosport commentators, except for those which will also be included on Universal Sports the television network, which then uses Gogluski and Schlamer duo. While some people deride their commentary, I actually like them overall, especially compared to the awful Ligget/Sherwin duo. Ligget is still the master at calling the final few kms of any race, but they wear on you as you always feel they are calling the 2001 TdF.

    Anyways – Universal Sports (at least through the Spring package I purchased) has given me access to the Giro, Strada Biancha, Volta a Cataluna, and a host of other spring races. Not too back when you consider how much you will pay for other forms of entertainment.

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