Filippo Pozatto and Alessandro Ballan have each gone to bed four times since the 2012 Tour of Flanders has ended. Both riders turned in exceptional performances, rides worth remembering. They did not, however, turn in wins, which in the high-stakes poker of professional cycling is what matters. For some sponsors second might as well be no-show.
As cycling fans, we are both aware that nothing can be substituted for a win and that the idea that second place is worthless is pure B.S. Some of the gutsiest rides ever delivered resulted in second step appearances at the podium. And TV time by our favorite rider is a not invaluable dividend for the sponsor. But sponsorship value for second and third isn’t the consideration at hand.
How many times have you lain in bed, waiting for sleep to steal your consciousness, and played back the day’s events? From bike races to conversations with co-workers and spouses, we have all done it countless times. How many times have you thought, “Ah but for that one detail, things might be different”?
There’s no way to total it, is there?
The desire to re-write the day seems to be a common element of the human condition. The simply ability to imagine a different outcome, a different reality, is enough to feed hopes in the most unrealistic of ways. Wishing it won’t make it so.
If I could ask but one question to Pozatto and Ballan it would be what they thought about as they drifted toward sleep. Not just Sunday, but each night this week. Did they spend those last moments thinking of how they might have played their hands differently?
My experience as a musician hurt me when I first began bike racing. I had plenty of nights lying in bed, ears ringing with long-dead guitar chords, where I tried to will errant notes, failed cues, broken sticks into submission. It never worked, and my ability to let go of those missed notes largely determined how quickly I drifted off. I remained convinced that the next time around I wouldn’t have the same problem, make the same mistake. They were, as baseball fans say, “unforced errors.” The problem was, I was largely right. At gigs mere nights later, I’d play a previously troublesome passage without a hitch. So when I began bike racing I soon discovered the urge to Monday morning quarterback my races while I waited for sleep to free me from myself.
But for reasons I can’t explain, I couldn’t let go of a failed performance, that belief that, “I could have gone just a little harder; I just didn’t will it hard enough.” The stakes in my races can’t begin to compare with what a victory in a Spring Classic can do for a life; nonetheless, I’d beat myself up, certain that in the same situation again I’d try harder—and succeed.
It was the heart rate monitor that showed me how wrong I was. I can remember thinking on more than one occasion that I should have been able to follow a move, hold an attack for longer, overtake someone in a sprint, whatever. I could have been trying to fly to the moon. The HRM always told me the same thing: That my account was more overdrawn than the Federal Government. Any thoughts of going harder were as fanciful as trying to win the lottery without buying a ticket.
Eventually those out-of-bounds numbers became an easily guessed confirmation for what my body knew better than my head. Still, that couldn’t stop me from second-guessing. Once I knew a thing or two about race tactics, I began to wonder if I hadn’t ridden conservatively enough during less consequential moments. Might I have played my hand differently? No matter what I learned, I found new ways to use my knowledge against myself, fresh ways to try to rewrite an outcome I wasn’t capable of delivering.
I learned, finally, that there was a solution to the second-guessing: Winning. It was as easy as finishing first.
What went through Pozatto’s head as he relaxed in bed Sunday night? Did he question when he started his sprint? How could he not? And what of Ballan? The guy rode with more balls than whole teams that day. Did he rue his flock of attacks? Which three would he have sacrificed just to put everything into one hail mary full of afterburners?
If only will could make it so.
Images: Photoreporter Sirotti
Here in New England the spring has not yet sprung, but a recent week of summery warmth turned everyone out of their houses in shorts and t-shirts, maniacal grins plastered across their pasty mugs, such is the influence of sunlight on the normally turgid New England psyche.
But, true to cold seacoast form, relatively normal weather service has now resumed. Please forgive me for the gratuitous low country reference, but it’s pretty Belgian here lately.
And that got me thinking about all that time of year that is neither winter nor summer, the time in between. Your clothing never makes sense. It rains when you didn’t think it would. It doesn’t rain when you’ve got your rain gear on. Your bike is in between clean enough to be proud of and dirty enough to actually get the hose on. Your legs are neither particularly weak nor particularly strong.
It strikes me that when we talk about our riding we mostly do it in absolutes. You’re either super strong or you’re crap. What we mean when we say “crap” of course is: not quite as strong as our buddies, which really means in-between crap and good enough. It’s an in-between, in-between.
Think of all the pro riders, male and female, who would be the fastest people you’d ever ridden with, if you’d ever ridden with them, but they’re just domestiques who do a job all day. Not legends. Not amateurs. Just in between. They spent the early part of their careers chasing the promise of something more, desperately trying to escape in-between-ness, before settling in and accepting their lot. In this case, their simple mediocrity is head and shoulders above my very best. It looks down from on high and laughs, if it even bothers to notice.
Years ago, when I was in a loud, fast, talentless band, our bass player made a rule for us. Always play as fast as you can, but if you can’t, play slow, never in between. Man, could we play slow! Of course, we peaked the day we played first on a seven band bill at the Rat in Kenmore Square.
I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I’m always chasing the perfect ride. I’ll go here. It’ll be like this. I’ll ride with that guy. He knows the best spots. And on and on, sometimes bailing on a ride if I don’t think it’s going to be great. This is actually “pre-bailing,” a term my friend Joe coined to describe the act of calculating in advance whether or not a ride is going to be good enough for you and deciding not to go. How many times have you pre-bailed and regretted it?
Yeah. Me too.
And then of course, because as cyclists we have this perverse love of suffering, we find ways to ennoble the ignoble, the rides that are really bad, like when it’s 37(F) and raining or when the headwind is so stiff you could lean your bike against it and walk away to get a drink.
Most of our riding is in the vast middle, and we either don’t appreciate it or dismiss it as unimportant. However, very seldom have I had a transcendent cycling experience that I expected to have. Mostly, you can’t schedule these things. Hell, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) spends all year and millions of Euros trying to design transcendent bike races. In fact, they try to do it 21 times-in-a-row every summer, but a lot of those turn out to be just another bike race, easily forgotten.
What I have to remind myself, over and over and over again, is that you have to ride to enjoy riding. Fast with your friends. Slow with your family. In between, by yourself, before work, or after the kids are in bed. And sure, epic locales can produce epic experiences, but so can my daily commute. 4.5 miles over pocked and rutted New England pavement.
Sometimes I throw a victory salute for the kids when I get home.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Two big events took place this past weekend. Saturday was my daughter Emma’s birthday, and Sunday saw a radical rebirth of the Tour of Flanders. The two events may seem unrelated but, as I’ll show later, there was a significant connection.
Let’s start with Flanders, or the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Classics purists weren’t happy when the promoters moved the finish to Oudenaarde, cut out the iconic Mur de Grammont (the “Muur”), and included instead three loops over the cobbled climbs of the Old Kwaremont and Paterberg. So for the first time in its 100-year history, the Ronde didn’t have a true point-to-point course. It was point-to-spiral.
However, at a time when races are getting more complicated and more expensive to put on, maybe the Belgian organizers were right to get an extra return on investment by setting up massive spectator areas with beer tents on the Kwaremont, where thousands of fans hung out all day, spending money. There, they witnessed the key attacks of the race by Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato, and then watched on big-screen TVs as their national treasure Tom Boonen out-sprinted the two Italians to win the race.
It was quite a show but, the purists questioned, was it worthy of one of cycling’s five monuments to have the race circle back time after time to climb the Kwaremont and Paterberg? Of course it was, say the organizers, Flanders Classics NV—which owns six of Belgium’s one-day events, including last week’s Ghent-Wevelgem and this week’s Scheldeprijs. There’s an economy of scale in putting on six spring races (along with women’s versions of Ghent-Wevelgem and the Ronde), while concession sales add a healthy revenue stream to the traditional formula of sponsorship from newspapers, banks or local regions, along with possible broadcast rights fees.
Would the purists prefer classic races that struggle to survive—as did Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne before they were rescued by ASO, the well-capitalized promoter of the Tour de France? Would they prefer that more events disappear from the calendar—as a dozen Spanish races have done over the past six years (see item below)? Or would they be open to modifications to races like the ones made by the Tour of Flanders organizers this past weekend?
Four more major Spanish events were in danger of being cancelled this season until the UCI stepped in to give the international federation’s backing to seek new financial support. That was the case with this week’s Tour of the Basque Country, which was in jeopardy because of a $210,000 shortfall in its $1.3 million budget. After the UCI’s intervention, a private Spanish bank, Sabadell Guipuzcoana, signed a two-year sponsorship deal with the Basque organizers and the race went ahead.
A major problem with Spanish events has been the organizers’ traditional reliance on regional governments and their tourism departments to fund their races—and in a country that’s now lurching from one financial crisis to another, and with current unemployment levels at more than 20 percent, there is no extra budget to support sports events. And with no end in sight to the recession in Europe, organizers will have to seek alternative sources of income, including the ones that the Flanders Classics organization has begun to exploit.
Naturally, there’s reluctance from cycling fans to pay to watch races. North American promoters have realized this for some time, and events such as the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship, Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge sell corporate VIP packages that give access to finish-line hospitality compounds. But it’s harder to convince traditionalists in Europe that “admission fees” are a necessary part of race budgets.
There has been an outcry from the cycling community in Britain over the proposal by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) to sell 15,000 tickets to spectators to watch the 2012 Olympic road race on the prime viewing areas of Box Hill—which the field will climb nine times on a 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the 250-kilometer course. Confirmation of LOCOG’s plan is expected later this month, but the days are numbered when we can continue watching bike races for free.
For the Box Hill section of the Olympic race, for example, the organizers have to provide extensive parking areas, crowd barriers, concession areas, public-address systems and Jumbotrons. Should all that be free? Also, the road itself has to be resurfaced—just as the California state parks department is spending $100,000 to fix a privately owned access road to enable the Amgen Tour peloton to climb Mount Diablo next month.
I mentioned earlier my daughter’s birthday because talking to her Saturday night jogged my memory about a road trip we took across Europe in the 1980s. She was a teen and we played a certain tape over and over again on the car radio: the Dire Straits album, “Brothers in Arms.” The track “Money for Nothing” includes one line, “Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it,” and another “Money for nothin’ and chicks for free.”
Maybe cycling traditionalists believe that paying to watch bike races is “money for nothing,” but if the present system “ain’t working,” then what the Flanders organizers are doing is probably “the way you do it.” I’m not sure about the other line though; perhaps it should be “money for nothing and kicks for free.” After all, if you pay for it or not, pro bike racing remains one of the most thrilling sports around.
SPANISH RACE CRISIS
Financial problems in 2012: Volta a Catalunya, Tour of the Basque Country, GP Miguel Induráin, Clasica San Sebastian, GP Valladolid (women).
Reduced number of racing days in 2012: Mallorca Challenge (from five to four days), Vuelta a Castilla y León (four to three days), Vuelta a Murcia (three to two days), Vuelta a Rioja (two to one day).
Races cancelled in past six years: GP Llodo (cancelled 2012), Subida al Naranco (merged into Vuelta a Asturias 2011), Vuelta a Galicia (converted from pro to amateur race), Subida Urkiola (cancelled 2010), Bicicleta Vasca (combined with Basque Country tour in 2009), Clasica Alcobendas (cancelled 2009), Clasica a Los Puertos (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Valencia (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Aragon (cancelled 2007), Montjuich hill climb (cancelled 2007), Trofeo Luis Puig (cancelled 2006), Semana Catalana (combined with Volta a Catalunya in 2006).
I ended my column on the water bottle last week with the words, “If it’s dropped on the road or falls into a wheel … the bidon will still do some damage!” Unfortunately, it was another loose water bottle in a feed zone that did damage at the Tour of Flanders, with pre-race favorite Fabian Cancellara hitting a bidon and crashing out of the race after breaking his clavicle in four places. Perhaps riders can start thinking where they’re throwing empty bottles before they throw them. We want cycling to be safer as well as exciting.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
We’re trying something of a “soft launch” of the LiveUpdateGuy’s 2012 coverage. While the formal debut will take place on April 8th, for Paris-Roubaix, we thought it might be good to try and work out the cobwebs with today’s Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Editor’s note: veteran journo Alan Coté is known for his work for most of the big cycling magazines distributed in the U.S. He has served as a contributor or editor for Outside, Bicycling, Bicycle Guide, VeloNews and Winning, among others. His sources reach deep into the industry and we were shocked to learn what he reveals in his first piece for RKP. Oh, and for the record, he helped Padraig get his interview at Bicycle Guide.
AIGLE, SWITZERLAND—Details about impending equipment restrictions from the UCI have leaked out in recent weeks. Bicycle racing’s world governing body is ruling over sock length, safety tabs on forks, and more. The sharp, if mysterious, voice over at the Inner Ring posted all the details here.
But in an exclusive interview, Red Kite Prayer has learned from an inside source, who only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, about a much bigger rule change that’s looking to be implemented starting in 2013 – a rule that could even avalanche to sportifs-type riders as well.
RKP’s source, whom we’ll call Bas Gorge, told us that gear restrictions are being considering for pro level racing. While a maximum gear size has long been in effect for junior racers, the idea has never before been considered for the pro level. What’s even more surprising is that a limit on low gears is also on the table. We spoke to him at his Swiss office on a wet spring day.
On the big cookie side, the UCI considers the matter one of safety – this after early Tour de France stages in 2011 took out the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Tom Boonen, and Chris Horner, to name a few. The UCI created a commission to look at the problem, and one of the resulting recommendations was a gear limit – though this hasn’t been made public.
“We must always keep in mind the sporting criteria, and this is where gear restrictions make certain sense”, Bas Gorge said. “Requiring a maximum gear of say 52 x13 has several advantages. First, it limits top speed in the sprints. Second, it limits top speeds on fast intermediate sections of a typical parcours. Both of these are where crashes occur most often.”
Bas Gorge went on to make a Cold War analogy. “When the US and the Soviets developed atomic missiles that were too powerful, what did they do? They set limits on the size of warheads. There’s a sprinter now called the Manx Missile, yes? The UCI is stepping in with an arms treaty before many people get hurt.”
Bas Gorge went on to explain a third reason for keeping the big meat strictly vegetarian. “Among the UCI management, there is a feeling that current pros lack souplesse. Sure they may ride faster than ever, but aesthetics of the sport must never be forgotten. With a pedal stroke that is not fluide, a pro can easily look like a beauf.”
While a 52×13 top gear rule may be surprising, what’s even more startling is a gear restriction never before seen in cycling: a limit on how low a pro can go. 39 x 23 is the current target, and Bas Gorge explained the two-part thinking behind this.
“With low gears there is no safety concern, but there is still as always the sporting criteria. And the problem here lies with the speed of the grupetto.”
Indeed, in grand tour mountain stages, the Green Jersey often finishes far behind the stage winner and yellow jersey. For example, in stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France, which finished atop the Col de Galibier, Green Jersey holder Mark Cavendish crossed the line 35:40 behind stage winner Andy Schleck.
“Pat McQuaid was on the Galibier and he wasn’t happy about freezing his derrière off waiting around for the green jersey podium ceremony,” Bas Gorge said. “In theory, a bigger bottom gear will increase the speed of those riders, as their pedaling frequency won’t drop below its naturally lowest rhythm.”
When RKP questioned the idea that simply using bigger gears on climbs will result in increased speed for the gruppetto – pointing-out that this requires an equivalent increase in power – Bas Gorge cut us off.
“To that, we say that maybe the days are numbered for power meters in competition as well.”
We moved on to asking about part two.
“The second reason behind the low gear rule lies with a different aspect of the sporting criteria,” Bas Gorge said. “For certain mountain stages, pros are fitting compact cranks with 34 tooth inner rings—or even worse, triple cranks. This is the realm not of the professional but of the cyclotourist. Such equipment is grotesque on the machine, and these twiddly gears equate the professional to someone of much lesser ability. The UCI is looking to protect the long-term sponsorship value of the professional.”
Moreover, they’re even considering including these rules for sportif rides like Etape du Tour—though only rides held under UCI sanction would be affected. “These rides are getting too many entrants, especially slow ones. It costs organizers up to €1000 per hour to keep the roads closed, so it may be a way to filter out the weakest from entering.”
We asked about gearing for women’s racing, and Bas Gorge replied with a shrug, “Pfft, I have no idea, the UCI doesn’t pay attention to women’s racing.”
What the UCI clearly is paying attention to is: change.
“Synthetic fiber saddles, plastic waterbottles, shoes without laces … where will it stop?”, he asked, stabbing the butt of a cold Gauloise into an UCI-logo ashtray as he stared out the window into the drizzly Swiss sky.
“No one else seems willing to stand in the way of progress and reason, so the UCI must.”
― Alan Coté
April 1, 2012