Perhaps the most amazing fact to emerge from the first week of the London Olympics was the size of the crowds watching the cycling road races. Last Saturday, the men’s event drew upwards of a million people. That’s said to be the largest number of spectators for any Olympic event ever—which may not be so surprising for an event starring Britain’s top two sports personalities, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, a matter of days after their crowning achievements on the Champs-Élysées. But what about the women’s race on Sunday? If you were cognizant of cycling’s history, you wouldn’t expect too many fans to show up for a stand-alone women’s race. But what happened? Despite no Tour de France stars being on the start line, and despite the race being held in mostly pouring rain, another million people showed up. Incredible!
From the British perspective, the men’s race was a disaster. Cavendish was widely heralded as a shoo-in to win gold after five-star assistance from Wiggins and their three powerful teammates, Tour runner-up Chris Froome, Tour stage winner David Millar and national champ Ian Stannard. But trying to control a race that was as long as Paris-Roubaix with just four riders, however strong they were, was always going to be a near-impossible task. And so it proved.
The GB boys boxed themselves into a corner with their all-for-Cav strategy. An early, powerful breakaway forced them to ride too high of a tempo for hour after hour to keep the break’s lead to bridgeable proportions, and they didn’t have enough gas left to stop three waves of riders making that bridge to the front over the final two laps of the demanding Box Hill circuit. Perhaps it would have been smart to let Cavendish surf one of those waves; he said he had the legs to do it.
In the end, it was extraordinary to see the 2012 Tour de France’s top two finishers, first Froome then Wiggins, ride themselves into total exhaustion trying to bring back the 26-strong breakaway group. That they didn’t succeed was disappointing for Cavendish and his supporters, but the Brits were heroic in defeat. The ultimate victory of anti-hero Alexander Vinokourov bemused the British public (and their media!), but the men’s race did make it to the front page of at least one major newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, which ran a huge photo of a solo, head-down Wiggins trailing in to the finish 1:17 behind the winner, with the headline: “Never mind, Bradley! There’s another gold medal chance on Wednesday.”
Perhaps the Tour champ would recover in time for Wednesday’s Olympic time trial, but a gold medal then would not change the public’s disappointment in the result of the road race. An inkling into just how the British media would have reacted had the gold gone to Cavendish came the next day when the women’s silver medal was claimed by Lizzie Armistead, an iron-strong Yorkshire lady from the same cycling club as the late Beryl Burton, who was probably England’s greatest-ever cycling champion. As the home country’s first medalist of these Games, Armistead’s photo graced page one of every national newspaper in Britain, with the most spectacular one being a double-page shot of the finish appearing in The Times—the iconic 227-year-old newspaper affectionately known as The Thunderer.
The Times headline read “Elizabeth the Second”—an allusion to Queen Elizabeth II, whose palace was the backdrop to the road-race finish, and to the fact that Armistead placed second. Not much play was given to winner Marianne Vos, the Eddy Merckx of women’s cycling. The Dutch woman’s victory salute was cleverly hidden on the back of the wraparound cover, with Armistead on the front page, smiling through the rain as she crossed the line. On this occasion, the British media and public came through for women cyclists; but the racers’ oft-heard cries of being treated like second-class citizens were borne out by the coverage in mainstream Europe. The Continent’s leading sports daily, L’Équipe of Paris, didn’t even report the women’s Olympic road race. It just printed the result in small type, deep inside the broadsheet’s cavernous pages.
But the women did get an unprecedented chance to show the quality and excitement of their racing in hours of live television around the world. And, after a slow start, they put on a great show of aggressive racing, particularly Vos, Armistead and sprinter Shelley Olds—whose ill-timed puncture when in the winning break robbed her of the chance to become the first American woman to medal in an Olympic road race since Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg placed 1-2 in the 1984 inaugural women’s event. Perhaps, almost three decades later, the excellence of the women’s racing at the 2012 Olympics will help them take a major step in their quest for equality.
We’ve heard a lot in the past year about the lack of parity between the men’s and women’s branches of professional cycling. Female racers have expressed their frustration that while, relatively speaking, money pours into the men’s side through multi-million-dollar sponsorships of teams and events (albeit with exceptions in austerity-ravaged economies such as Spain’s), women’s racing has stagnated, with even the top teams existing on shoestring budgets.
At the center of the parity storm is the world’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, even though the UCI willingly acceded to IOC demands that there be the same number of events for men and women cyclists at the London Olympics.
When UCI president Pat McQuaid was asked at last October’s road worlds whether there were plans to legislate a minimum wage for women racers, he said, “We have an agreement in men’s sport, but women’s cycling has not developed enough that we are at that level yet.” When his words were shared with the top three finishers in the women’s road race in Copenhagen, world champ Georgia Bronzini politely disagreed. Runner-up Vos said, “Of course, it’s a younger sport than the men’s sport but…with a minimum salary it can only be more professional.” And bronze medalist Ina Teutenberg added, “I don’t know why guys would deserve a minimum salary and women don’t.”
The debate heated up this past weekend, when Armistead, Britain’s brand-new Olympic silver medalist, said the things that bugged her about the inequality of the sexes were salary and media coverage, “but certainly I think we could get more help from the top—which is the UCI.” For now, let’s just hope that the dignified and delightful performances by Armistead, Vos and company in London makes the world of cycling, especially the media and the UCI, pay far more attention to women’s racing. At least, for the million or so Brits who stood in the rain last Sunday, the women’s race was just as much a spectacle as the men’s. And that can only turn up the volume in the women pro cyclists’ call for a minimum salary.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
I’m going to go out on a limb, if a very short one, and suggest that there’s not a cycling event on the planet whose participants exhibit more humor in the approach to the ride than at RAGBRAI. Certainly not everyone at RAGBRAI has a sense of humor, but funny is a fundamental part of the RAGBRAI DNA. RAGBRAI is funny the way poker is serious, which is to say, maybe a little too much.
Think of all the different kinds of humor you can: a quick survey of the inside of my skull comes up with juvenile, black, bathroom, dry, sophomoric, obvious and sex. At RAGBRAI there’s someone or several someones somewhere working that angle. And nowhere is humor in better evidence than with the team buses. When I was here in ’97 all the teams were made up of old friends, folks who had been doing the event for some years and the bus just seemed to be a good way to simplify things and keep the party together.
These days, members of many teams I talked to told me that they had met at RAGBRAI and decided to purchase a bus together—their friendships didn’t extend pre-RAGBRAI, but were instead based in it.
Not only did I see buses of all manner of persuasion, kinda like insects in the Amazon rain forest, but the investment in said buses varied just as wildly. I saw a couple with their hoods up belching smoke with the insistence of an angry father. I also saw some that must have been owned by a bunch of single/divorced guys because there’s no way anyone with a wife/family could have ferreted away enough money to make them so nice.
To be sure, these are no million-dollar motor coaches with A/C and showers. I didn’t see a single one that lost the basic plot of keeping the party rolling. The closest any of them came to creature comforts was a bit of ingenuity to just how the beer was kept cold. Ahem.
Some did make an effort to take good care of the bikes, though.
I never found any of the members of Team Blonde, so I can’t report if they were actual blondes, people who just have blonde moments, or other folks, maybe even gentlemen, who prefer blondes. This much is known for sure, though:
What remains unclear is whether they live or love to party.
Maybe blonde is just a destination.
There were any number of teams that were sponsored by microbreweries, Miller Light (some riders had a real hoot each time they saw Miller Light riders drinking Budweiser), Papa John’s pizza and more. Attitudes on the commercial sponsorship of teams ranged from completely digging an underwritten vacation to disliking the mercenary and commercial nature of the venture. Riders I talked to seemed to like the idea of a microbrew-sponsored team while disliking a team sponsored by a pizza chain. Each to their own, I guess.
There were a lot of buses that didn’t strike much of a visual presence beyond whatever signage they featured. This bus was one of my faves.
This one, because it reminded me of my old checkerboard Vans’ slip-ons, was close to my heart.
When I did RAGBRAI in ’97, easily one of my favorite characters I met was this guy, Randy, a real-live rocket scientist who was wearing a road kill necklace. The road kill in question was a turtle of some indeterminate, but former, variety. He and his teammates adorned themselves with only what they found; these weren’t sanitized or taxidermied. Alas, it can be easier to find a team’s bus than the team’s members.
There’s a huge swath of the cycling public, most of the roughly 10 million people who call themselves cyclists, who will never enter a race. They will never enter a century or gran fondo. They aren’t doing group rides. They don’t own bikes that are worth even $2000. RAGBRAI is the pied piper that pulls them from the woodwork and somehow makes seven straight days of riding seem like something fun. The odds against this are as high as no one watching the Olympics.
It’s a place where cycling doesn’t take itself too seriously, where fun comes first, maybe even at the expense of sobriety, but because bikes are involved almost no one gets too drunk and if there are fights, we haven’t heard about them, which makes RAGBRAI a good deal safer and friendlier an event to take your family to. Which is to say, next time I’m there, I’ll have my family in tow.
I’m still wondering: Why hasn’t anyone else been able to bottle this?
I’m going to tell you that I’m not really suited to RAGBRAI, but when I say that I mean something very specific. I don’t mean that I don’t like Iowa, or that I dislike being on the road with every conceivable make and variety of bicycle out there, or that I dislike stopping in every town I pass through or even that I object to an event where the closest thing you can find to sports nutrition is Gatorade. No, I mean something entirely different. What I mean is that I’m not acclimated to triple-digit temps and nearly triple-digit humidity.
If I can use a boxing metaphor, the weather is Mike Tyson and I’m getting my ass whipped. Last time I was here it was hot, but not so hot that I wasn’t willing to sit on a curb and eat watermelon with a few riders and see how far we could spit the seeds. It wasn’t so hot that I was unwilling to climb up to the upper deck of some team’s bus and shake my money spender to the Spice Girls. (Lord knows, I don’t make any money with it.) We’re talking the difference between 90 and 104.
In each of the last three days I’ve consumed more than 150 oz. of fluid during the course of my ride. By the end of the day I’ve been well north of 200 oz. Most of it has been Gatorade at $2 or $3 for a 20 oz. bottle. Not all of them are as cold as would be helpful.
Having said that, I need to clarify that this isn’t a complaint, but a lament. I’m simply not seeing or doing as much as I’d like. While I’ve met a few readers and some other really nice folks, but I’m not hanging out the way I’d like. Two showers a day is the absolute minimum necessary to keep me from smelling like a meat locker with no power.
Marshalltown surprised me with some of its incredibly stately homes. And after a visit to Zillow’s web site, I was shocked by how little some of these places cost. Move to Iowa anyone?
I have a lot of eyewear with lenses of many different shades and colors. I’ve got some pretty good stuff, some really good stuff and a couple of pairs that are amazing. The Transitions lenses in the Oakley Racing Jackets I’ve been wearing have helped to moderate my other discomforts. I’ve had to deal with chafing, slightly rashy areas because of so much sweat and a near-constant feeling of cottonmouth. It’s been nice to have one thing that I can count on for comfort.
Normally I find myself wearing really dark shades in hot summer weather because of how bright the sun is. Then I go inside and have to take them off and when I head back outside, the bright sun scorches my retinas and renders me snow blind until I put my glasses back on.
Look, I know they want me to like their product; they want everyone to like their product, which is why they’ve been renting pairs of Oakleys with Transitions lenses at their booth in the expo. And it’s been interesting to see the Transitions staffers take questions from riders. From diplomatically answering why certain lenses were delaminating to talking about why certain glasses perform better in certain situations, not to mention the many technical details specific to the Transitions lenses. Honestly, I hadn’t given any thought to how fast the transition from light to dark or dark to light might happen or should happen; all I know is that the shift has been timed so that I don’t ever notice it. I’ll do a full review of these soon enough, but I’m grateful that these glasses have covered my needs no matter the hour of the day. That is an uncommon degree of adaptability.
Burma Shave-style signs are really popular with RAGBRAI. They are a terrific way to advertise to cyclists in motion, and every now and then they are funny enough to give you a chuckle.
Back to the ride: I have this nagging suspicion there is more story out there, more going on than I’m capturing, but every now and then there are these moments. Riding into Marshalltown, just before reaching the center of town—and after passing some spectacular, stately old homes—I saw a series of signs made from pink cardboard bakery boxes.
Most signs I see are of the “we got food” variety. These were a bit different. They had some style and what they sold was more than just food. I decided to drop by the place they were advertising.
At first glance, the Morning Glory Bakery looks like your typical bakery. Donuts, pies, cakes, cupcakes, cheesecakes, fruit pizzas, lemon bars, brownies and of course cinnamon rolls—not to mention cookies the size of a salad plate. Then you begin to notice just how many varieties there are—they had cinnamon rolls covered in icings of buttercream, caramel and chocolate and so many different cookies that choosing one was a bit like a sugary lottery.
But they were advertising more than just their baked goods; for RAGBRAI, Morning Glory was to be open around the clock with movies streaming and free wi-fi. This was owner Laurie Wadle’s first RAGBRAI as a vendor and she admitted she really didn’t know what she was in for. I told Laurie (front and center in the photo) that some people had told me that RAGBRAI can equal the sales they generate the rest of the year.
She was planning to stream movies to make the place just a little more exciting and inviting; I suggested she might consider Breaking Away.
Towns lobby the Des Moines Regsiter to route RAGBRAI through their community. Just passing through town can be an incredible bonanza, but making a town the location of a stay can changes fortunes—literally—overnight. So there it is again: RAGBRAI is what you make of it. For someone needing to make some fast cash honestly, it’s a stunner of an opportunity. You may not sleep for a week, but you’ll make enough that you can nap through the entirety of August.
RAGBRAI is a side of cycling most of the industry neither knows about or understands. Even after riding it twice I can’t say I really understand it because it spans every angle of cycling known. Equipment is unimportant. Attitude is unimportant. Participation is all that matters. I know there are other cross-state rides out there, but I can’t help but wonder why none of the others have endeared themselves to a state the way this ride has. It’s not an event, it’s a phenomenon.
A little personal update: I’ve got more RAGBRAI content to post but currently I’m traveling in Hungary, on to my next assignment. Internet access from the Danube River with our ship’s satellite hookup is sketchy at best. I’m getting through email and comments as I’m able, but I’m not making great headway on either. You may not hear a lot from me for the next 10 days as we make our way to the Black Sea. Stay tuned.
I hope all is well with you and yours.
I know that you are immersed in the Live Updates and your practice at this time of the year but the latest charges against “The one who will not be named” started me thinking about one of the most quoted arguments I hear against continuing this investigation. On any story about this I hear people say, “Well everyone was doing it so it just leveled the playing field.”
On the surface, this sounds like a logical assumption, but like many logical assumptions, it may not stand up to daily reality. I have been trying to come up with a name of any athlete that was busted for PEDs, who returned, without PEDs, and was back at the top of their sport? In cycling, only David Millar and Ivan Basso continue to contribute to their team, but I don’t think anyone can argue that they are anywhere near the same competitive level in the peloton as before the ban.
So if that is the case, does that mean that the peloton is still doped, or was the peloton not as fully doped in the 1990-2007 era as some are stating? Looking at average speeds and some passport info that has been available, I would tend to believe the peloton is cleaner now, but reformed dopers are not back on top. So would it be reasonable to assume if the peloton were cleaner then, the podiums would have looked different, and the only reason for the people winning was the PEDs? In other words if no one was on PEDs then Riis, Ullrich and Armstrong would not have been winning tours.
Without the “Everyone’s doing it” argument, the “Sporting fraud” argument really stands out, hence the need for this trial.
Does any of this make sense?
Trying to stay classy,
– John in Milwaukee
You do raise one of the most common arguments used to justify doping. Los Angeles Times columnist, Joel Stein embraced the argument in a July 2006 column – “Level the playing field with cheating, doping, lying” – which, it should be noted, came out before news of Floyd Landis’ positive.
I don’t think it’s the cheating, or the medical danger, that makes people hate doping so much. They only hate it because it seems deeply unfair.
That’s why, to level the playing field, we need to legalize doping.
Gee, makes sense, right?
Well, it’s worth looking at just how level that playing field would be.
While the debate focuses on legalizing all performance-enhancing drugs, let’s just focus on what we must assume to have been the most commonly used pharmaceutical booster used during that “Golden Age of Doping,” synthetic erythropoietin – what we all have come to know and love as “EPO.”
Cycling’s Mo’ Better Blues
Now back in the cruder days of doping, before the UCI even bothered to manage hematocrit levels, the bravest riders in the peloton simply took a “more-is-better” approach to the question. In other words, if a little EPO would boost your performance, then a lot of EPO would really ramp things up for you. There was a reason Bjarne Riis’ nickname in the peloton was “Mr. Sixty Percent” and it had little to do with his score on that biology test he obviously flunked in high school.
In that environment, the playing field would be leveled only if riders would be willing to ignore the obvious risk factors of blood clots, thrombosis and cardiac arrest. With 60+ percent of your blood volume made up of red blood cells, your oxygen-carrying capacity would be phenomenal, but the viscosity of your blood would be akin to that of Jell-O™. Obviously, there would be something of a transient advantage for those riders willing to assume more risk … at least until they got to the point at which they died.
In his 2007 book, “The Death of Marco Pantani,” Matt Rendell quotes an unnamed cyclist who recounted the practice of riders sleeping with heart monitors set to trigger an alarm if that rider’s pulse rate were to drop below a given rate. Riders would then wake up – or be woken up – and ride rollers for a few minutes to get their pulse rates back to a point where the heart could comfortably pump that sludge through their circulatory systems.
“During the day we live to ride, and at night, we ride to stay alive,” the rider is quoted as saying.
Sometimes, it didn’t work. As you might recall, there was a spate of deaths of young, seemingly healthy, cyclists back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More than a dozen cyclists died in their sleep, a horrible statistic that then UCI president Hein Verbruggen told me was an unfortunate coincidence of deaths that could be attributed to pre-existing heart conditions and not on illicit drug use. Of course, those deaths were also coincident with the commercial availability of EPO.
All of that changed for the better in 1996 when the UCI took the first significant step in addressing the problem of EPO use (and both autologous and homologous blood doping) by setting an upper limit on riders’ hematocrit levels. Based on data from a fairly large population sample, the UCI concluded that the mean hematocrit level was 45% in a healthy adult male. By taking the mean, plus two times the standard statistical deviation – or 50% – that standard should cover 95 percent of the population. Two-and-a-half percent would deviate below that range, so they would not present an enforcement problem. The other two-and-a-half percent would naturally exceed 50%, so those riders would have to provide medical records to justify their claim that they fell within that group.
Indeed, at the 1999 Tour de France, there was a ripple of excitement in the newsroom on the day of the prologue, after reporters learned that three riders had exceeded the 50% limit on their pre-Tour medical exams. The UCI soon followed-up saying that the three were able to prove that they had naturally higher rates than that and that three riders out of a population of 189 riders fit within a predicted statistical profile.
So, did that level the playing field?
While the 50% limit did address the immediate safety concerns, critics were justified in saying that it also just established a “license to cheat,” but with an upper limit attached.
If you look at hematocrit data over the years after the imposition of the 50% limit, you will notice that there was a discernible increase in mean hematocrit levels among cyclists. In other words, the data used to establish that limit showed the mean to be 45%. Among cyclists after the limit was imposed, it inched upwards to around 47.3.
There were some notable examples of that. In the 2004 case involving Tyler Hamilton, USADA submitted blood profiles dating back months before he was cited for homologous blood doping at the Vuelta a España. Back at the Tour of Romandie, he purportedly had a hematocrit of 49.2%. That would vary over the months, but USADA also pointed out that medical records showed that Hamilton’s natural hematocrit level was closer to 41 or 42%. He was not the only one whose levels fluctuated.
Now in his “Level the playing field” article, Stein seems to suggest that it would be fair to let everyone ride at – or just below – 50%. It would, theoretically, be a quite level playing field, no?
No, it would not and here’s why.
First, there are qualitative as well as quantitative changes that occur in the blood profiles of riders using EPO.
In a 2001 study conducted by the Australian Institute of Sport – “Detection of recombinant human erythropoietin abuse in athletes utilizing markers of altered erythropoiesis” – researchers found that different test subjects react differently to identical levels of erythropoietin and even to identical hematocrit levels. My 50% hematocrit might provide more or less oxygen transporting capacity than your 50% hematocrit level.
We are, after all, men and not machines. Taking the approach that might work in establishing standards for bikes or Formula 1 racing cars and trying to apply that same standard to human beings doesn’t always work.
And those individual variations may best answer your question about returning dopers.
What doping appears to have accomplished is to select a new population of highly trained, talented and strategically savvy athletes who may have been genetically pre-disposed to derive the maximum benefits from the added boost of performance-enhancing drugs. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those same athletes would necessarily rise to the top in a world of clean riders.
Now let assume for the sake of argument only – I am, after all, doing my best to remain “classy” – that the top 20 finishers of the Tours de France, between Riis’ win in 1996 and Landis’ win ten years later, were all juiced to the gills. Stein’s playing field would be level, right? Wrong.
Were that hypothetical scenario true, it would merely show that the athletes who derived the greatest benefits from doping emerged at the top of the heap in those years. Were the reverse true – that no one had doped – we might see an entirely different set of riders at the top of the results list. We will never know.
So when a rider suspended for doping returns to the peloton, assumedly now clean, and begins to ride not as top GC rider, but as a strong lieutenant, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the riders currently at the top of the results are continuing to dope.
We see slower Tours these days. Times up climbs like l’Alpe d’Huez have actually declined since the record-setting days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. When taken in their entirety, the numbers seem to suggest that cycling is cleaner these days.
Risks both known and unknown
Finally, the level-the-playing field crew fails to take into account the unknown risks of pharmaceutical use, even if it’s seemingly benign at the time.
We all remember Dr. Michele Ferrari’s now-infamous statement that “EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink 10 liters of orange juice.”
As offended as people were at the time, Ferrari’s assessment was actually pretty reasonable. Anything used in excess presents a danger. He was merely suggesting that medically monitored use of certain drugs, like EPO, might not pose a danger to riders.
Well, on the surface, that actually makes sense. Careful medical monitoring would probably help riders avoid those late-night cardiac deaths. However, that monitoring is conducted with the best medical information available at the time. The long-term consequences of that use may not be part of the picture.
There were, for example, concerns raised about the effect recombinant erythropoietin might have on the body’s ability to produce its own after long-term use.
And we may learn of other consequences only when sufficient data has been collected. For example, in past years, one common recommendation for cancer patients suffering from chemo-induced anemia was to inject something known as “ProCrit,” an EPO variant that would help boost declining red counts. Indeed, I even asked my doctor about that when my own hematocrit levels dropped below 30 last year while I was on chemo.
Nope. The doc said that the Food and Drug Administration had issued a “black label” warning against that use, because the rate of cancer recurrence was actually higher among those patients than those who did not get the injections. Carefully medically monitored does not mean that the law of unintended consequences doesn’t apply.
So, this “level playing field” argument would simply mean that anyone hoping to compete at the top tier of the sport would have to assume – or ignore – the potential risks of taking drugs, simply to participate in the sport we love.
Call me crazy, but I’d much rather see the halting – and hopefully improving – efforts of WADA, USADA and the rest of the pee-in-the-cup crew than I would a laissez-faire approach that would relegate clean riders to fighting it out for lanterne rouge “honors” at the world’s greatest bicycle races.
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.
“Like riding a bicycle,” they say. This quip is meant for anything that is easy, or any skill that, once acquired, remains embedded in your animal brain for the remainder of your days among the upright. The simplicity of the machine and the elegance of the physical act of riding are touchstones for our human experience.
Once we get off the bike however, things get complicated. As cyclists, we are bombarded with information about products, accessories and services. What is good? What is bad? What might be better? What is a big lie? What are the hidden secrets? Once you have been jumped into the velo-gang, you will ask all yourself all of these questions and be subjected to all the other gang members’ opinions, as long as you’re willing to sit still long enough to listen to them.
Our friends are obviously a big influence. Here is a group of people with whom we identify, who are participating in the same activity and spending their own money to field test an array of products for us. We ought to listen to them.
Then there are magazines and websites, staffed by experts (a subset of the industry that does not include this writer). These people have access to a stunning panoply of bits and bobs. They’ve seen and done it all. We wonder. They know. We ought to read what they’ve written.
There are also the great unwashed hordes (by far my favorite), who, by virtue of internet connectivity and a ready wit, will tell you exactly what you need, why you need it, and why everyone else is wrong. Think of website forums, the lawless Wild West of cyclo-expertise. There amongst the naivete and vitriol you can find real pearls of wisdom, true insight.
If, like me, you are un/fortunate enough (this is subjective) to work in the bike industry, you will also sit cheek-and-jowl with people who are doing the actual work of dragging this great stinking beast of a pastime forward, the folks designing the stuff or marketing the stuff or dealing with all the stuff that breaks. Here too you can find genuine expertise, in addition to cynicism, optimism, sarcasm, sincerity, inspiration and coffee.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Who are YOUR influencers? Do they produce reliable information or too much noise? What are the best sources of information? Who really does have your best cycling interests at heart?
I once wrote that there is no one great truth to the city of Los Angeles. By that I meant that you can’t hold up any idea, any location, any product, any star, any “thing” as exemplifying the fundamental nature of one of the world’s least-understood cities. My point: That LA’s great truth is that it hasn’t one. LA is a city in which anything can be found. From great art, music and theater (both live and filmed) to incredible dining and nightlife, Los Angeles can go toe-to-toe with the rest of the world’s great cities. LA is also the poster child for many of the world’s ills. Drug abuse, murder, white collar crime, traffic, pollution, ostentatious greed, narcissism and disconnected living, LA has it all, and by the bushel. But what most folks don’t understand is that LA nestles pockets of absolute normality, places where families carry on quiet lives issuing young adults into the world, places that could be mistaken for the Midwest.
In trying to explain RAGBRAI to one of the Transitions staffers who was new to the event, I had to use my characterization of LA to convey what I believe RAGBRAI to be. It is the world’s most plastic, malleable, self-reflecting ride. If you’re looking for seven days of big, hard rides, you can do it that way. If you want to drink a beer in as many different towns in Iowa as possible, that’s available. If you want to show your kids the state from the saddle of a bike, show them that there’s a way to see the world other than through the windows of an SUV, this ride is perfect. If you want to get away from it all and just have a bunch of lazy days with bits of riding a bike, this is the ideal spot for it.
RAGBRAI is what you make of it.
It’s true that you see lots of corn and beans. It’s true that you see most of the same vendors day after day and that if by Wednesday if you haven’t had a pork chop or smoothie, it’s not for lack of opportunity—you must not want one. It’s also true that in each town you’ll see something you haven’t seen in any other town. Despite so predictable a format, each day is as different from the last as your mother is from your father.
But dear God it has been hot this year. When I was here before it wasn’t this hot, save for part of just one afternoon. The heat has sapped some of my interest for exploring, for taking in the diverse and sometimes odd foods available. I began to wonder yesterday if I just lacked the interest, the curiosity. This morning, before meeting a few readers, I spent a bit of time riding through town just looking around. It was only 80 degrees.
The heat has had another unintended consequence: a beer must be near absolute zero for me to be interested in drinking it in this weather. Not everyone has suffered with this issue.
In my time riding alone I’ve looked back over the 15 years that have elapsed since I last did this event and the turns my life has taken. It’s made me think about what I want my riding life to be, that not only has my riding shaped me, I wish to shape my riding. And this last thought comes to me out of the realization that I am not the cyclist I was 10 years ago, that I can’t continue to be the cyclist I am now, that I will age and in aging I have a choice—whether to go with grace or by some less elegant method.
A year ago, after Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the Tour de France, his Sky team’s directeur sportif Sean Yates muttered to no one in particular: “Game over, i’n’ it?” It was game over for that Tour as far as GC was concerned, though Sky’s Norwegian star Eddy Boasson Hagen did take two stage wins. And that was a big improvement on the British super-team’s lackluster 2010 debut when there were no stage wins and Wiggins was its best finisher in 24th overall.
The disappointment of those two Tours was part of Sky’s steep learning curve. Team boss Dave Brailsford and his legion of behind-the-scenes operatives kept their ambitious goals, but they adjusted their preparations. In particular, Brailsford hired an altitude-training expert and began sending his key players (Wiggins, Michael Rogers, Richie Porte and Chris Froome) to training camps in the Canary Isles, where they put in thousands of feet of climbing every day at varying speeds and intensities, ate the best foods, and developed an uncanny bonding for the races ahead.
The results were immediate. Sky put Froome (second) and Wiggins (third) on the podium at the 2011 Vuelta, and this year the team scored a succession of stage-race victories for Wiggins at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphine. Sky was so dominant at the Dauphiné (including second overall for Rogers, and fourth for Froome) that Wiggins came into this year’s Tour as the odds-on favorite. But translating that good, season-long form into a three-week-long peak for the Tour was uncertain, especially as the best British results in 98 previous Tours were two fourth places (Robert Millar in 1984 and Wiggins, when he was riding for Garmin-Slipstream, in 2009).
The world now knows that Sky achieved its initial goal of a Brit winning the Tour within five years; and now Brailsford is out to conquer the rest of the cycling world, by targeting all three grand tours in the same year and then winning all of the monumental classics. But for now, let’s just take stock of what Sky and the other teams achieved at this 99th Tour de France, in terms of riders who confirmed their talent and those who were true revelations.
Brad Wiggins (GB), 33, Sky
No one in the history of cycling has previous succeeded in sweeping Paris-Nice, Romandie, Dauphiné and Tour in the same year—though that still doesn’t compare with what Jacques Anquetil achieved from March to July in 1963 (when the French legend won Paris-Nice, the Vuelta a España, Dauphiné and Tour), or what Eddy Merckx did in the first half of 1970 (winning Paris-Nice, the Giro d’Italia and Tour, along with Paris-Roubaix, Ghent-Wevelgem, Flèche Wallonne and the Belgian national title!). Even so, Wiggins’s 2012 season (which might also include an Olympic gold medal next week!) has been unprecedented in modern cycling. The highlights of his Tour included his first-ever stage wins (both long time trials) and third places at the Planche des Belles Filles and Peyragudes summit finishes. But the biggest plus was his consistency over the whole three weeks and the total solidity of his Sky team.
Vincenzo Nibali (I), 27, Liquigas-Cannondale
This charismatic Italian had previously won the Vuelta and twice finished on the Giro podium, but his podium spot at the Tour brought him new stature. Despite the disadvantage for him of 100-plus kilometers of time trialing, Nibali never gave up and his third place was a huge improvement from his previous best of seventh in 2009. For sure, he was a victim of Sky’s catenaccio-style defense, but he still managed to stretch the British team with his accelerations on the mountaintop finish at La Toussuire.
Jurgen Van den Broeck (B), 29, Lotto-Belisol
This ever-improving Belgian climber was one of the few consistently aggressive riders in the 2012 Tour and fourth place overall was his just reward. Especially as his Lotto team was more focused on getting stage wins for German sprinter André Greipel, so Jelle Vanendert was Van den Brouck’s only true ally in the mountains.
Mark Cavendish (GB), 27, Sky
The world champion played a back seat to teammates Wiggins and Froome for most of the Tour, and yet Cavendish again confirmed his stature as the Tour’s fastest-ever sprinter by becoming the first man to win four consecutive stage wins on the Champs-Élysées and bringing his total of career stage wins from 20 to 23—one more than the previous record for a sprinter set by Frenchman André Darrigade a half-century ago.
Thomas Voeckler (F), 33, Europcar
His Tour couldn’t have started in worse circumstances, having barely recovered from a knee injury, being the center of an investigation by the French judiciary into alleged doping, and getting booed by many of his French fans. But Voeckler showed that his long spell in yellow last year was not a fluke by recovering his top form to win two stages, the first from a disparate breakaway at Bellegarde-sur-Valserine and the other with a long solo break through the Pyrenees to Luchon—which saw him claim the climbers’ polka-dot jersey that he ably defended till Paris.
Pierre Rolland (F), 25, Europcar
This ambitious young Frenchman last year astonished the world by winning at L’Alpe d’Huez and placing 10th overall at the Tour. Rolland again surpassed expectations this month by winning the tough alpine stage to La Toussuire and moving up to eighth overall. But his poor time trialing (only 64th last Saturday at Chartres) probably means that he’ll never be a podium contender.
Chris Froome (GB), 27, Sky
In only his second Tour (he placed 84th on his debut at age 23 for Team Barloworld), this Kenyan-born Brit showed that his runner-up spot at last fall’s Vuelta was a true indication of his abilities, and his placing second overall to team leader Wiggins at the Tour was nothing less than sensational. Froome clearly has to learn more about team etiquette; but his climbing stage win at La Planche des Belles Filles, ahead of defending champ Cadel Evans, and his second place to Wiggins in the two long time trials mark him as the strongest candidate to win a future Tour—maybe even next year.
Tejay Van Garderen (USA), 23, BMC Racing
The die was cast for this confident young American’s future when he signed a big contract to move from HTC-Highroad to BMC this year, and he more than confirmed his potential at this Tour. After placing 81st in his Tour debut last year, Van Garderen exceeded even his own high ambitions by placing fifth overall (ahead BMC team leader Evans), winning the best young riders’ white jersey, and taking fourth places in both the prologue and first long time trial. His big breakthrough marks him as America’s best hope to win a future Tour.
Peter Sagan (Svk), 22, Liquigas-Cannondale
What can you say about a young man who came into his first Tour already with 13 wins in 2012 and cruised through the three weeks like a veteran to take three stage wins (and three second places) and the green jersey? His Liquigas team didn’t push Sagan in the mountains but he still proved a valued aid to team leader Nibali, and no one would be surprised should the Slovak phenom drop the baby fat and win the yellow jersey in three or four years’ time.
Thibaut Pinot (F), 22, FDJ-BigMat
Very few people outside of French cycling had even heard of this youngest rider in the Tour before he emerged as one of its foremost climbers. Insiders knew about his three mountaintop victories in his rookie 2010 season (on the Ballon d’Alsace and Grand-Colombier in France and at Presolana in Italy), but not even his biggest fans had expected Pinot to take a solo win on the Porrentruy stage (after ditching the rest of a breakaway on the 17-percent slopes of the Col de la Croix), placing second at La Toussuire and fourth at Peyragudes, to finish 10th overall. He could be the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Hinault in 1985.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Bradley Wiggins is Tour de France champion. Let that echo for a minute, as if from a carnival loudspeaker. Let it doppler out to the outer reaches of the crowd and then come rippling back in whispers and muted applause, building to a crescendo. Let Wiggins have his moment.
Because he earned it.
Even when winning the Tour de France appears easy, a branded group ride with prize caravan and soigneurs in tow. Even with your team sitting on the front day-after-day, your rivals cowed into submission, a couple of monster time trials sealing the deal, winning the Tour de France is not easy.
First of all, it is hard to ride on the front for three weeks, even in the slipstream of an able teammate. The simple concentration necessary to hold the wheel for hours on end, staying out of trouble, always being in the right place, makes the winner worthy. It is a Chinese water torture of a task. To succeed you must not crack.
There is a tremendous amount of calculation that goes into grand tour strategy. It is one thing to say, we will ride conservatively, cover attacks and then let Bradley win the time trials, but Bradley has still got to win the time trials. Timing the effort and then producing it is a feat beyond imagining, and this too makes the winner worthy.
When the road turns up, things get unpredictable quickly (including the disposition of certain climbing domestiques). When you are a diesel engine, like Wiggins, and the stop/start of sudden attacks doesn’t suit your style, you’ve still got to hold your nerve. The man who can watch Cadel Evans go up the road, bridging to a teammate, and slowly grind out the gap deserves to win the Tour de France. It is a bluff with no aces in the blind, unless there are aces, but who knows? That is the nature of the bluff. That is the power of it.
Every day the yellow jersey performs the ceremony with podium girls and flowers, kisses on cheeks, autographing one hundred versions of the same shirt for sponsors and charities and posterity, submitting to interviews and drug tests. This is a labor on top of the labor, both physically and mentally draining. The longer you hold the jersey, the more of this you must do. Any man who can wear the jersey, perform its duties and ride into Paris still in yellow deserves to win the Tour de France.
That Wiggins had the temerity to lead teammate Mark Cavendish out for the final, winning sprint was a display of pure class. It is necessary to have class to claim the jersey.
There is more, though. First, he was a champion on the track. He rode right to the pinnacle of that discipline and had the audacity to think there was something more. Then, he remade his body in the image of a grand tour champion, beginning with that track racer’s power and then stripping away kilograms of weight and muscle to build an entirely new kind of machine.
There is finishing fourth, just off the podium, and learning that not only has the change worked, but the podium is a possibility. But then there’s still so much more. More work and more calculation, an early season of stellar form, holding, holding, holding that form for the big moment, and then executing, pulling it off and standing there while people tell you it was boring.
A true champion will always bear insults.
This Tour win was not boring, but neither did it happen in a flash. It is not easily digestible in highlight reel or in the nut graph of a newspaper story in French. It’s an epic poem in a stilted meter, a wandering tale like the Odyssey or the Aeniad, with contrived beasts and long stretches where not much transpires, but make no mistake, it is not boring.
No. Bradley Wiggins is Tour de France champion. He earned it. For the sake of the man and the sake of the sport, let’s let him enjoy it.
It’s strange to me that in the 15 years that have lapsed since I last participated in RAGBRAI one aspect of the ride hasn’t changed at all. Communication with the outside world is nearly impossible while on the ride. Back then the problem was finding a pay phone that wasn’t occupied—if it worked at all. Email? The concept was a joke. And today, communication with the outside world is still next to impossible. But now the problem is completely different. The issue in 2012 is that with 20,000 or so people (who’s really counting?) descending on towns that may only have 1000 year-round residents, the cellular networks—all of them—are completely overwhelmed. I’m not sure how many of them are like the teen who was in line ahead me at the market who kept leaving his mom voicemails that he couldn’t find his batman necklace (and who drank most of a $1.65 Coke while in line but only had $1 to his name), but there’s a chance that most of our attempts at communication with the outside world could be filed under nonessential, my Facebook posts included. That I’m posting this now is only possible because Transitions is able to get me out of town in the evenings.
Given how hard it can be to find your BFF for a ride (or a beer), RAGBRAI’s organizers still put out sandwich boards for people to use for messaging. It’s as quaint as it is ineffective. The only people I ever saw visit this one (aside from me) were folks leaving notes.
When I spied this cooler in one of today’s towns (honestly, I’m not sure which one because my sole focus today was on pedaling and keeping cool) I pulled over immediately. Why? Well, I could hardly contain my excitement. Yeah, okay, so why was I so excited? Well, it was one of the members of Team Bad Boy who gave me my introduction into the party side of RAGBRAI back in ’97. So memorable was his act of generosity that I opened my feature with it. He poured me about a half a tumbler of Bacardi 151 at 11:00 or so in the morning. Yeah, so it was like that.
Alas, I couldn’t find him or any of his mates. I’m sure they were in the beer garden, and while that sounded like a great idea in principle, this was one of those days that just flat-out didn’t work on principle. It took something more than that. Just what, I can’t be certain because I don’t think I cracked that particular nut.
I spied this sticker on Team Bad Boy’s assorted belongings. Funniest sticker I’ve seen so far.
This is Kelly of Kelly’s Berry Best Pies. When RAGBRAI isn’t going she bakes pies that are sold through area grocery stores and restaurants around her home in Minden. During RAGBRAI she makes hundreds of pies, loses sleep (four hours in the last three nights) and generally kicks ass with incredible pies, mostly of her own recipe. I was reminded to some degree of the movie Waitress.
There are, according to my math, more varieties of pie than there are days of RAGBRAI, which poses a serious challenge. With the heat the way it is, consuming even one slice of pie is like trying to get 30 miles-per-gallon out of my Subaru. I don’t see me getting a second slice down, not unless she opens a second location on the route. My slice of caramel-apple was as good as I’ve ever had, and I was only able to settle on that following a laborious consideration of both peach and raspberry-peach. I’ll do one of those tomorrow.
Mr. Pork Chop is the guy who took over when Pork Chop Man retired a few years back. His pink bus—
Ta da! is a pink beacon of ready porkness. The loudspeaker on the roof of the bus above the driver’s seat is rigged to a recording of Pork Chop Man calling out: Poooooork Chooooooop! If ever there was a you had to be there moment, this is one of them.
The toughest jobs at RAGBRAI have to be those that require someone to cook anything. The guys responsible for doing these pork chops said they will go through about 900 per day. Per day. And the heat coming off those grills was amazing. I didn’t think anything could be hotter than the sun in Iowa on a July day. It turns out, there are things hotter. I felt like I needed another coating of sunblock just standing by to snap a few images.
Of course, when you’re at RAGBRAI, it’s not enough just to make food. The food needs to be fun or funny or interesting or something beyond just food. Except for all those vendors who charge you $3 for a no-name 16-oz. energy drink. Somehow they get away with that. But if you want to be remembered, have your picture taken, engender the sort of loyalty that causes people to eat your food seven times in a week, well dear friend, you need schtick.
Schtick can’t be cookie cutter. It has to be like flair, something you come up with on your own like, for instance, this fire truck brick-oven pizza maker. Smelled amazing. ‘Nuff said.
This is how I know I’m getting old. I looked at this kid, who was riding along having a terrific time and I sized up the 20-inch wheels and the backpack that looked to weigh half of what he does and I nearly bonked on the spot. This kid, if there’s any justice in the world, is the future of our sport, the Tejay Van Garderen of the Roaring (20)20s.
There are times when the enormity of RAGBRAI will leap out at you, like a child from a closet. I never really know when it will happen, but a few times each day, I’ll crest a rise and the wide expanse of Iowa will square against the stunning number of riders, which number like ants streaming from a hill and all I can do is utter a Keanu Reeves-like, Whoa!
I’m in Cherokee, Iowa, or somewhere thereabouts, riding RAGBRAI, which for those of you who don’t follow the cross-state rides is the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. RAGBRAI is the grand daddy of all the cross-state rides, both the first and the biggest of all of them. This is the 40th anniversary of RAGBRAI, which, it’s worth noting is a longer uninterrupted run than enjoyed by most bike races in North America. I participated in RAGBRAI in 1997 on its 25th anniversary. My piece for Bicycle Guide was alternately praised for capturing the vital essence of the event and lambasted for irresponsibly promoting the evils of alcohol (beer cans or alcohol appeared in more than half of my photos) and missed the point of the event entirely.
I’m here at the invitation of Transitions, the people behind the eyewear lenses that change tint depending on the available light. I’m sure they have some more polished description, but this one’s mine and you get the point. Oakley offers Transitions lenses in an ever-increasing number of models. Full disclosure: Transitions agreed to cover my expenses and give me a pair of Oakley Racing Jackets with Transitions lenses to wear; in return I’d write about my experience at RAGBRAI. As I’ve been trying to get back to this crazy event for 15 years, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. They’ve not asked me to say anything I don’t believe, nor am I having to whore myself out swearing on my grandmother’s grave that Transitions are the greatest thing since toilet paper. (I’m not sure what’s the best thing since toilet paper, but sunglasses are a bit down the list.)
I’ve written about how Los Angeles is a city with no one, singular, essential truth. It’s a place where you can find the best of what the United States has to offer—and the worst of what the U.S. has to offer. Just depends on where you look. RAGBRAI is a bit like that as well. At today’s first town we passed through, Orange City, we encountered a generations-old community of Dutch settlers. There were a great many quaint artifacts of their Dutch heritage that made for cute/amusing/memorable photos (as evidenced above) but the best moments came when we encountered people in the native outfits and singing songs handed down from their ancestors.
Now July in Iowa is a sort of summer worst-case scenario. It’s hotter than a Victoria’s Secret catalog and more humid than fog. The day started off well-enough, which is to say that temps may only have been in the 80s by late morning. Of course, things couldn’t stay that way, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
By the way, this calliope above made the most delightful racket, something that approximated music just well enough to transport me to Europe and the fairs that I’ve visited on occasion. It’s older than the entire city of Los Angeles. There’s a big Dutch festival that happens in town each May. I’m currently having fantasies about visiting it; I should probably save that sort of energy for dreams that are a bit more exciting, like winning the Tour de France, but this is, at least, something I could actually do.
One of the challenges of RAGBRAI is figuring out what and when to eat. It wouldn’t be hard to gain weight while riding the 500 or so miles across the state. All that would be required would be to stop at every little roadside food stand and get something to eat and drink. In fact, it’s kind of unlikely you could stop at them all, consume something and still cover all the mileage each day, so plentiful are they.
I’m willing to bet my bike I won’t see anything cuter than this girl this week. I only hope I find another town as charming as Orange City while on RAGBRAI.
I could have spent the morning listening to these folks sing. They were as entertained doing the singing as we were listening to them. Honestly, I envied them their connection to their roots.
RAGBRAI isn’t like any other cycling event you’ve ever been to. Think of a style of bike you’ve seen. It’s here. Old Schwinn Varsities? Check. Dime-store mountain bikes? Check. Cervelo TT bikes? Check. Recumbents? Check. Tandem recumbents? Check. Tandem recumbent trikes? Check. But of all the non-singles out there, this family team on this triple was easily my favorite. A family of four, captained by mom. Yeah.
It’s worth noting that cycling clothing or what passes for cycling clothing is a matter of broad interpretation.
And what passes for acceptable transport on this ride is as well.
Recovery is something that should be seized upon whenever possible. This is a seven-day ride.
One of my favorite aspects of RAGBRAI is that when you pull into town, you never really know what you’re going to encounter, but the scads of parked bikes are an indicator that a lot of people have already found what there is to find.
Rob is the local Oakley rep. He also produces ‘cross races in the fall. When he rides down the road, people yell at him as if he’s George freakin’ Hincapie. He’s as close as you need to a rock star on this ride—hang out with him and the party comes to you. Delightful, friendly and funny, if I don’t ride with this guy more, I’ll be missing out on some good fun.
Abby is a recent NorCal transplant and former pro mountain biker. She’s also a friend of Rob’s and drilled the last eight or so miles into town with her husband Bill (the guy below) alongside. The tires on Bill’s Hakkalugi were pumped up to all of 60 psi. How he could do 28 mph after multiple beers was a feat that left me in awe (and sucking his wheel).
I’m not really sure what’s going to happen next, which is probably the best way to go about RAGBRAI.