As I write this, my wife is struggling to pack for vacation while dealing with a free-form morning sickness that occurs at any our of the day, indeed most hours of the day. What part of this constitutes morning is debatable. It may soon becomes mourning sickness. She needs a break, even if her hormones intend to keep her within a quick dash of the toilet. The lousiness of the nausea aside, there are two great pieces of news in that. We’re adding another team member to RKP (albeit one that won’t be putting pen to paper just yet) and we’re about to head out for a whole lot of work that people call time off.
I’m in need of a break; it’s been a year since I last had one.
I won’t be completely checking out during our week away; I’ll be checking email some, but it’s unlikely that I’ll be returning any phone calls. Along those lines, a brief note about the RKP kits: There was a hold-up on the jerseys, arm warmers and vests; they should arrive during the second week of September. In the meantime, I’ve shipped out all the bibs and knee warmers to those who ordered them. If you ordered some, they are en route to you. While I’m away, of course, I won’t be shipping any orders; that will resume after our return.
You’ll see a couple of posts from me during my absence, ones that I’m attempting to finish shortly, but I’ll be more absent with regard to the comments section. Our other features such as Live Updates with Charles Pelkey (and terrific help from Patrick O’Grady), Tuesdays with Wilcockson and Robot’s Friday Group Ride will post as usual.
Other than spending serious time with family, it’s my hope that I’ll recharge some, do some reading and maybe, just maybe, work on a book proposal that has been more back-burnered than I’d like.
Oh yeah, one other little detail: I need to add another ad sales guy the RKP’s efforts to use sponsors to keep this thing afloat. If you can sell spit to camels and want to be working in the bike industry, I’d be interested in hearing from you. Be sure to put “Have Talent” in the subject line. And speaking of those sponsors, I hope all of you will consider the way the companies who advertise with us have stepped up. In each instance we’ve signed an advertiser, they have sponsored us because they believe in the content we provide and appreciate how we’re different from the other media sites out there. It’d be terrific if from time to time you clicked on their ads just to check out where they take you; most of our advertisers have special landing pages and they’re keen to let you know about some work they are particularly proud of. We don’t sell by click-through, but they like knowing you’re paying attention.
Thanks for reading.
UPDATE: We’ve agreed to give John Wilcockson the week off as well. Hopefully, you’ve been following John’s weekly columns over at peloton as well; it’s been a long season and he’s due for a break.
Where I live it will be 95°F today, but looking to the weekend and next week the days and evenings, will be getting cooler. Already some of the leaves are starting to lose their chlorophyll, beginning to go yellow or red at the edges. The company I work for is preparing for 2013. There is brochure copy to write. The season is winding down. This might all be a beat or two early, but…
On the roads of Northern Spain, especially the steep ones, the Vuelta is at full tilt, the battle lines drawn, the GC shaking out slowly. It wasn’t long ago that many of us argued over whether Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) or Chris Froome (Team Sky) would win this race. Purito Rodriguez (Katusha) apparently isn’t a regular RKP reader. Otherwise, he might have clued us in to his intention to win his home Grand Tour.
If you have been following closely, you will know what surprises this race has offered up. You would have seen the likes of Froome clinging to wheels. You would have seen Contador attacking with his signature explosiveness but not able to close the deal. You would have seen Rodriguez ride the time trial of his life to keep the jersey on his shoulders.
Perhaps it is still early to cast judgement. The top 5, which includes Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), are all within 3 minutes of one another. How many lead changes and plot twists we have in front of us is almost impossible to tell.
But, the excitement of the Vuelta, and some recent comments about the Tour, got me thinking about just which of the Grand Tours I’ve enjoyed most this season. Ryder Hesjedal’s big Giro win was fun to watch and featured plenty of back and forth with Rodriguez as well as Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD). The Tour, by some estimations, disappointed, with Team Sky managing every last detail to perfection. Still, the Tour is the Tour, a tautology that means something to most race fans.
So, though it might be early, this week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: Which was the best Grand Tour this year? And why?
Embedded. It’s a funny term. We used to use it to refer to things inserted, usually accidentally, into something else.
I’ve got a stick embedded in my calf.
But with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it came to stand for journalists tethered to military units with all the freedom of a dog on a leash. We even came to distrust that variety of journalism because the reporters and photographers were so controlled in their movements the news came to be what the military wanted us to see and no more.
Yet embedded is a strangely appropriate word to describe Mark Johnson’s book “Argyle Armada: Behind the scenes of the pro cycling life.” I use that term with no pejorative connotation, no irony, no malice. It describes very well his relationship to the Garmin team as he worked on this book. Now, I should mention that the book’s subtitle is not meant to convey that this is in any way a broad look at pro cycling with examinations of many teams. No, it digests the moves and dramas of a single team, but in going deep within that one team it serves up Jonathan Vaughters’ creation as a synechdoche for the whole of the peloton—one operation that represents all of pro cycling.
Johnson’s achievement in this book is two-fold. First, he’s a fine photographer and yet is also a good enough writer that he can provide the whole of a book that stands equally on its photos and the story it tells. Second, as a single guy, rather than a writer/photographer team, he was able to gain the trust of seemingly everyone within the Slipstream organization and shares with the reader looks inside the machinations of a pro team that previously have been either largely imagined or left opaque.
The book is a look at a single year, an arc that covers the 2011 season, beginning with training camp and ends with the team gearing up for another season. There’s not an aspect of running a team that’s left unexamined. There are the races, the failures, the ingredients of the win, the win itself, the preparation, the backstage politics. Believe me, if it’s a piece of news that got mentioned on Cyclingnews at some point during the year, it wasn’t left out of this book, and usually the picture here is filled in with richer detail.
It’s unlikely that Johnson had absolutely free reign to go and see anything he wanted, so in that regard, embedded remains an accurate term. However, because looks this deep within the inner-workings of pro teams are essentially unknown, to the degree that Johnson was tethered and guided as he collected his stories, the reader suffers no disservice.
This book could easily have been just collection of episodes, race journalism in a hard cover. If that were the case, there would be little reason for anyone but die-hardened Argylites to purchase this book. But Johnson has been around the cycling world for long enough that he understands the larger concerns, the great themes that will define the sport for years to come. From the irritating treatment that riders can receive at the hands of doping testers to the financial backflips necessary to keep the program operating at the level of other better-funded teams, Johnson gives the reader a perspective on just how hard it is to be a pro cyclist and what a true believer you have to be to want to run a pro team.
Given the talk (here and elsewhere) of just how difficult the sponsorship situation will be in the near-term, this is an especially apropos read right now because it gives readers a clearer picture of the financial challenges a big team faces than any other book I’ve encountered.
Johnson’s writing style is present-tense, bringing the reader into the events and imparting a breathless anticipation that can build even when a conclusion—Johan Summeren’s Paris-Roubaix win, for instance—is known from memory. I really can’t stress how rare a package a guy like Johnson is. Jered Gruber may be the only other guy working in cycling right now who has the same writing chops, the same eye for action photography and the same sense for intimate portraits and sweeping landscapes—it’s that unusual.
A book like this won’t be in print forever. Do yourself a favor and pick this thing up. Alternatively, send this URL to your sweetie with the subject line: Christmas.
For more info: VeloPress
Top image: Mark Johnson
Could it ever have been any other way, with the fall of Armstrong? It seems cycling has been on a collision course with this moment for the better part of its history. From riders dosing up with brandy in the early days, to the scourge of amphetamines, to modern day blood doping, top level racers have always pushed beyond the rules in search of an advantage.
And now we have, arguably the greatest grand tour rider of all-time stripped of his titles and banned from the sport. Looking back at the great champions of the past, each of them with their own sordid side story, can we say this outcome was inevitable?
Perhaps we can forgive the modern day rider for believing that dope is simply a part of the sport. Almost everyone is willing to acknowledge that Lance Armstrong, if guilty as charged, was only doing what everyone else was doing, was only following in a long line of champions before him who had employed the dark arts to stunning effect.
How is it that, after decades of sabre rattling and bluster, an authority finally stepped to the fore to apply the rules, for better and for worse? It should be lost on no one that the UCI was not the authority in question. Perhaps this also was inevitable.
We can ask if where we are now is better or worse than where we have been. We can take issue with Lance, Johan and their cohort of co-defendants. We can impugn the motives and methods of Travis Tygart and USADA, but all of this seems to me to be beside the point.
What has happened has happened. Cycling is a sport that has been rife with dope and cheating. It has been poorly governed. We have tried to find the middle way, managing outcomes, either by the authorities turning a blind eye or by prosecuting infractions. We have tried small penalties, medium penalties and lifetime bans. We have tried selective enforcement.
Cheaters evolve. Tests develop. The rules struggle to contain them both.
Fans are upset when the rules aren’t enforced, and we are upset when the rules are enforced in ways we don’t like or don’t think will be helpful, because we hate to see the sport we love self-immolate.
But if we believe in our rules, if we really think they will produce better cycling, then don’t we have to accept their enforcement, no matter the short or even medium term consequences? It seems, when you subscribe to a plan for the sport, you have to hold firm, even if the result isn’t exactly as you would have wished it.
To be sure, the calculus will be difficult for everyone involved. Some will be able to both accept the penalties levied against Lance and his co-defendants, and still remember his (their) victories fondly. We can know what happened, at least partially, without retroactively revising our enjoyment of that era.
Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The world does not arrange itself in neat packages. Human behavior and emotion are not digital, black/white or right/wrong. We are gray creatures. We are, of necessity, ambivalent, and we should allow ourselves the latitude of inconsistency. Neither, should we fear foolishness. This is only sport, after all.
You can say that, once a rider decides to break the rules, he knows what the consequences of his actions might be. There are sanctions printed in ink in by-laws and on contracts. But this is a short-sighted reading of the decision for there are myriad consequences beyond our knowing.
I would venture that when you first decide willfully to take the wrong path, you very quickly lose control of the narrative. In your mind, there is winning. There is glory. If you are unlucky, you sit out a suspension.
In reality, you are unable to begin to parse the threads of consequence that spin themselves in every direction. Did Lance and his team imagine Travis Tygart and the role he would play? Did they imagine the myriad judgements they were letting themselves in for? Did they imagine court cases and Pat McQuaids and Hein Verbruggens? Did they think of Greg LeMond or Le Monde or l’Equipe? Do you ever race the Tour de France wondering if a plea deal will torpedo your legacy?
All the PR and litigation money can buy will shift a narrative, but clearly, in this case, couldn’t alter the eventual outcome, and that’s true for Lance and for the UCI and for USADA. The chips always fall where they may. They’re funny like that.
Now, we are in the hand-wringing phase of this particular (cycling) life event. And just as the prime players could not have known that they would arrive here, we also can’t know how what has happened over the last week, or over the last decade, will play out in years to come. Is this a death-knell for our sport? Or a birth announcement?
The answer is quite possibly: YES.
Observers at the 67th Vuelta a España may be premature in writing off the chances of Great Britain’s Chris Froome. They say that in the 11 stages that remain he won’t be able to withstand the attacks of his three Spanish rivals, former Vuelta winners Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, and this year’s Giro d’Italia runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez. Froome faces a stiff task, and history does show that it’s very difficult for a foreigner to beat the Spanish on their own turf, but if anyone can succeed it’s the talented 27-year-old Englishman raised in Kenya and South Africa.
At the 2011 Vuelta, Froome just lost to the upstart Spaniard Juanjo Cobo, who held a tiny lead over Froome, never more than 20 seconds, over the final week—partly thanks to the tacit help of the other home teams. That “assistance” was far more pronounced a quarter-century ago when the last Brit to get close to victory at the Vuelta, Scottish climber Robert Millar, was runner-up to Spanish riders in both 1985 and 1986.
I was fortunate (if that’s the right word) to witness Millar’s unbelievable (that is the right word) loss to Spaniard Pedro Delgado at the ’85 Vuelta. Millar had ridden a great Vuelta and strong final time trial and was the solid race leader starting the final stage. My story of that sensational stage is too long to reproduce here, but it suffices to say that Delgado began that May day in the climbs north of Madrid in fifth place overall more than six minutes behind the Brit, and that a combination of bad weather in the mountains (cold rain, hail and wet snow), poor team direction, fatigued teammates, lack of time checks and a blatant coalition of Spanish teams handed the stage win to local rider José Recio and the final victory to Delgado after a long, two-man breakaway.
Race organizing, team structures and information technology have changed enormously since those days, but partisanship and collusion among friends can be just as pronounced as they were when Millar twice lost the Vuelta to intrinsically lesser riders. As Froome said on Monday’s rest day this week: “Since the start, my competitors haven’t given me any gifts and I don’t expect to get any.”
Besides the strong opposition he’s facing, Froome could be suffering from race overload after the Tour de France (where he was second to Sky teammate Brad Wiggins), and the London Olympics (where he raced to a standstill in the road race and medaled in the time trial). As evidence of his fatigue, critics point to moments of weakness that Froome experienced on each of the two summit finishes over the weekend. But a closer look at his and his three Spanish rivals’ performances through the Vuelta’s first week reveals a potentially different story.
Last week’s uphill finishes seemed sure to give an early verdict on who would be the strongest contenders, but there were other factors at play: a 100-degree heat wave blanketing northern Spain, fierce crosswinds on the plains preceding the climbs, the varying strengths of the teams at this ultra-mountainous Vuelta, and the psychological states of the top candidates for victory—notably Alberto Contador.
All of Spain is hoping that Contador can put his controversial two-year drugs ban behind him and win this first Grand Tour since his suspension ended earlier this month. With the expectation of a nation and the need to prove himself, Contador was clearly anxious on the initial summit finish last Monday. His frenetic, out-of the-saddle accelerations up the ruggedly steep 5.5-kilometer Alto de Arrate resembled his pre-suspension climbing style, but the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team leader couldn’t shake the opposition even with a half-dozen attacks.
The anxious Contador tried again the next day on the steepest (early) section of the 13-kilometer Valdezcaray climb. This time, just Froome and an ambitious Nicolas Roche were able to go with him; but it was an injudicious tactic given the unfavorable winds blowing on the upper, less-steep slopes. In the past, Contador wouldn’t have been so impetuous. He would have planned his attacks more meticulously and, on each of those stages, he would have needed just one sharp acceleration to leave the rest in his wake.
Anxiety to please the public was one part of the Spanish superstar’s failure to win on the early summit finishes, but poor team tactics and the debilitating temperatures were just as important in his significant loss to Rodriguez and Froome to the stage 6 finish at Jaca. Contador made four of his Saxo teammates race flat out on the downhill approach to Jaca, but as soon as the climb began he started cramping and realized he’d played into his rivals’ hands.
Showing immense determination, Team Sky’s two Colombian climbing prodigies, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, raced so fast on the short, switchback climb to Jaca’s ancient fortress that Valverde later described it as more like the finish of a sprint stage! When the two Colombians peeled away to launch Froome on a final-kilometer charge, neither Valverde nor Contador could follow the pace. Only Rodriguez stayed on the Brit’s wheel, and then out-sprinted him for the stage win, earning him the 12-second time bonus and the leader’s red jersey.
Froome and his Sky cohort attempted to replicate their Thursday tactics on Saturday’s much tougher stage finish on the 5,085-foot (1,550-meter) Collada de la Gallina in the Pyrenees of Andorra. At 7 kilometers, it was twice as long as the one at Jaca, but Sky’s team director for the Vuelta, Marcus Ljungqvist, gave Henao and Uran the same orders to raise the pace from the start of the climb. So when the Colombian pair had done their damage and gave way to an attack by Froome, he still had the hardest part of the climb to complete: 3 kilometers tilting up gradients as steep as 15 percent.
Froome had never seen the climb before and that lack of knowledge worked against him more than his alleged fatigue. When he accelerated, only Contador followed him, while their two rivals held back. The Katusha team’s Rodriguez is a resident of the Catalan region and spends much of his year in Andorra and knew the Gallina climb intimately; and he told his friend and Movistar team leader Valverde that the pace was too high to maintain all the way to the line.
That was confirmed when Froome couldn’t get Contador to help him and the Brit virtually sat up before the multi-time Tour winner counterattacked in his former style. Contador’s Saxo team boss Bjarne Riis believed that Contador was going to win the stage, but even the Spanish phenom struggled at the end, shifted down and tried to spin his way to the finish, only to be overtaken just before the line by the more patient and stage-savvy Valverde and Rodriguez.
Froome was the victim that day of his poor team tactics (would they have been better if Sky’s top sports director Sean Yates was present?), the work he’d done unnecessarily to help Sky sprinter Ben Swift on the flat stages, and his rivals’ connivance. “The climb was really hard,” Froome later said, “and this battle against three such strong rivals was incredible.” But does he think he’s riding against a coalition of the Spanish trio and their teams? “I don’t think about a fight against the three,” he said, “but a fight against three weeks. To do two grand tours [back to back] is a new experience for me.”
Perhaps it was not knowing his physical limits of racing constantly at such a light level, or simply not knowing the course layout, that saw Froome have a hard time staying with the front group on Sunday’s tricky stage finish above the Mediterranean port of Barcelona. Barcelona is the hometown of race leader Rodriguez, so after Contador made the mistake of jumping too early on the little Alto de Montjuic hill 4 kilometers from the line, Rodriguez waited until a steeper, narrow section to counterattack, which only BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert could answer. Those two combined forces on the fast descent and then sprinted up the final uphill kilometer (with Gilbert taking his first win of the season), nine seconds ahead of a Valverde chase group and 12 seconds ahead of the Contador-Froome peloton.
With the crucial 39.4-kilometer time trial coming up on Wednesday in Galicia, Rodriguez has a 53-second lead on Froome, a minute on Contador and 1:07 on Valverde. Those four are a minute clear of their only potential challenger, Dutchman Robert Gesink, who has his Rabobank teammates Laurens Ten Dam and Bauke Mollema for company in the top 10.
But after the Vuelta’s one time trial, which Froome has to ace to stand a chance of winning overall, the outcome will likely rest with the relative strengths of the four leaders’ teams. Unlike that bygone era when Millar (racing for a French team) came up against an armada of Spanish riders leading Spanish teams, Froome and his British squad face Rodriguez on a Russian-sponsored team and Contador on a Danish-based outfit. Only Valverde is on a Spanish team, but with Rodriguez as a friend and Contador the most influential rider in Spain, the home forces may stop the Brit from winning the Vuelta for a second year running.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotogreporter Sirotti
The reactions to Lance Armstrong’s decision not to enter arbitration have been as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Their sheer diversity is surprising if only because of some of the emotionally charged comments on Facebook and Twitter (not to mention RKP’s comments section) are as irrational as the number i and even harder to understand. I don’t begrudge anyone their feelings about Armstrong, cycling or this case, but I think it might be helpful to keep a bit of score.
Cleaning Up Cycling
I’ve seen any number of assertions, even some by the mainstream media that this has somehow served as an important step toward cleaning up cycling. Armstrong may have been charged with participating in an organized doping program, but he was only one of the hydra’s many heads. Removing him from that operation didn’t kill it. Amended results notwithstanding, Johan Bruyneel has lost the last two Tours de France and judging from this year’s performances by Team RadioShack, the one-time master of all things grand tour seems to have lost his touch, so the point there may be moot. Even if Bruyneel is banned from the sport, his was only one of many systematic doping programs; he was less an instigator (think Ferrari) than a facilitator, a manager. One can be virtually assured that somewhere on this planet some team manager is attempting an end-run on the system.
Will cycling be cleaner after this case? It’s unlikely. No amount of punishment meted out on the Texan will likely convince any rider who is currently doping to stop the practice. Those riders look at the fact that they haven’t been caught yet and are likely to be able to continue what they do. And riders who aren’t doping, but are wrestling with whether or not to start will mostly likely view this in terms of big fish/little fish. Armstrong was a big fish, they will reason, and subjected to a great deal more scrutiny. They are, by comparison, very small fish, and in their thinking, unlikely to receive the same amount of scrutiny, allowing them to fly under the radar.
The bigger refutation to the idea that cycling will be cleaner is that the techniques being used to accomplish doping are generally not the ones that were used by Armstrong and co. A retroactively produced documentary directed by Martin Scorcese wouldn’t uncover every detail of what was done during Armstrong’s run. More specifically, while transfusions may still be in use, the methods used to mask them have certainly evolved, which brings us back to the point that this case doesn’t fix today’s doping.
Clean Cycling: 0
Knowing the Truth
Many of Lance Armstrong’s detractors have itched themselves into oozing meth sores waiting for Tygart’s inquiry to divulge the full story about Armstrong’s doping. From what was taken, to how much was paid, to the methods used to evade detection, to the bribes paid (and to whom) down to the name and Social Security number of every rider who ever doped on that team, people wanted flesh. While the fat lady hasn’t hit the stage, Armstrong’s decision to forego arbitration means we are unlikely to see full transcripts of the grand jury testimony, particularly the testimony from George Hincapie, David Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde, which has reportedly resulted in six-month suspensions they will serve after the season ends.
Again, to the degree that the merit of the outcome of this case was based on learning the truth, we’ve been denied that satisfaction. While the cycling world may be convinced that Armstrong used PEDs, there is an even larger population for whom believing Armstrong is a persecuted innocent is as easy as believing that the next Mega Millions jackpot is theirs.
I don’t want to get into a semantic argument on the nature of truth, but it’s worth asking if those who desire the truth be exposed will only be satisfied if the entire world arrives at the conclusion that Armstrong doped—an outcome that may not be possible in a world where we parse the varieties of rape. However, if they can be satisfied if only the cycling world believes Armstrong to be guilty while the prevailing story about him is that he was the victim of a witch hunt, then it’s worth asking if their desire for the full story is meant to satisfy their personal curiosity, which is a less noble motivation.
Clean Cycling: 0
Playing to Lose
There’s a lot of talk that in doping, Armstrong didn’t level the playing field because each rider responds to doping products and methods differently. While that is true, here’s another fundamental truth: Every clean rider is different. Pros have widely varying VO2 maxes, maximum and resting heart rates and lactate thresholds. You line up for a race hoping that your training has been sufficient to overcome any genetic shortcomings you might have. There is no level playing field.
There’s an oddly relevant scene early in Douglas Adams’ book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Adams describes a drinking game played by the character Ford Prefect that involved something called Old Janx Spirit and telekinetic powers. The loser of the game was forced to perform a stunt that was “usually obscenely biological.”
Then came the line, “Ford Prefect usually played to lose.”
I was a teenager when I read this and the thought that someone might want to deliberately lose a drinking game was funnier than a Monty Python movie. However, it started within me a more serious meditation on why someone might enter any contest with the intention of losing. I didn’t come up with an answer for situations that didn’t involve anything “obscenely biological” until I came to appreciate the nomination process in American politics, a place where people with neither the qualifications nor chance of becoming president will run for the office as a way to angle for a job better than the one they have. More recently, though, I’ve come to see riders who chose to race clean during the height of the EPO problem—we’re talking mid-1990s through the turn of the century—in a similar light.
Given that the vast majority of results from that era are dominated by riders who we know doped, riders who lined up for any race big enough to warrant television coverage without veins filled with rocket fuel were bringing fingernail clippers to an air strike. They were playing to lose.
The problem isn’t that they lacked ambition or a work ethic; rather, it seems that those riders brought morality into what has effectively been an amoral system. The only proven way to win during that era was to dope.
Clean Cycling: 0
I’ve seen a few people compare Lance Armstrong to Jerry Sandusky. The comparison goes like this: Lance Armstrong did more good than bad because he gave lots of people hope and sold a bunch of bikes and those people outnumber the riders he cheated out of winning by doping. Similarly, Jerry Sandusky did more good than bad by giving underprivileged kids the opportunity to participate in sports, and those kids outnumber the kids he sexually assaulted. It’s an obscene comparison because you can’t equate the soul-shattering violence of a sexual assault—an event that can destroy a person’s ability to sustain intimate relationships—with cheating. Each of Sandusky’s crimes was personal, committed one-on-one. Conversely, while there’s no doubt that riders like Christophe Bassons were harmed by Armstrong’s methods, they were victimized by more than just Armstrong—most of the peloton, actually—and they suffered more as collateral damage. Events such as Armstrong chasing down Filippo Simeoni are more serious than simple collateral damage, but even that is a light year from sexual assault.
A much greater illusion is the idea that justice has been served. Imagine you live in a neighborhood where nearly every car runs the red light between you and the corner store, making a milk run pointlessly suicidal. Suppose that the police swoop in with a huge dragnet and ticket only one driver. Granted, he drove faster than anyone else through the light, but with only one of hundreds of drivers out of the picture, justice has yet to be served because it’s still not safe to walk to the store.
Justice will be served once the peloton is essentially clean. Essentially is an important modifier here; cycling will never be quit of doping, but a mostly clean peloton is a realistic goal. Until we’re there, we don’t have justice.
Clean Cycling: 0
Following the Money
The majority of the money that floats the cycling teams competing in the world’s biggest races comes from outside the sport. For the most part, the men responsible for sponsoring these teams aren’t cycling fans. Unlike those of us who follow what’s happening in cycling on a daily basis, for them, cycling is an occasional blip on the news radar. When you look at cycling through their lens, most of the news about cycling in the last five years hasn’t been good. In the United States, nearly every occasion that has brought cycling to any sort of headline capacity has been doping. Armstrong has been making headlines lately, but before that it was Contador being stripped of a Tour de France. To give you some idea just how hard it is for cycling to make national headlines, most of the accounts I read barely made the nullification of his Giro performance a footnote. Before Contador the last time cycling made real headlines was in 2011 when Tyler Hamilton appeared on “60 Minutes” and the only reason that merited news was because of his previous relationship to Armstrong.
When you factor out Armstrong, doping and the Olympics, the national media hasn’t found an American cyclist worthy of a headline since Floyd Landis won the Tour de France. Think about that for a moment. That’s six years.
Nike has already signaled that they are standing by Armstrong. They are one of the only companies on the planet with the marketing genius in-house to figure out how to spin this into a “Lance is still the man” ad campaign. Because of their reach and the fact that they sit at the top of the pyramid of sports brands, there are few companies as well-equipped to weather such a storm. That said, don’t think they aren’t gunshy; it’s worth noting that you don’t see them lining up behind Tejay Van Garderen just yet. We may not see Nike sponsor another cyclist as long as Phil Knight lives.
I’ve spoken to people in the hunt for non-endemic (outside the industry) sponsorship for four different teams. They all reported the same challenge: the number one conversation killer is doping scandals. For many companies, the potential damage to their brand that would come as a result of a doping scandal makes the sport too great a risk. Again, these are companies that aren’t in the bike industry.
There is odd relationship at work. Bike companies don’t factor in these considerations; they are all-in as it were. Specialized isn’t about to start sponsoring sprint cars or bass fishermen. Surprisingly, when a sponsored athlete gets popped for doping, their reputation doesn’t take the sort of hit that a company like T-Mobile or Festina did, companies whose names became synonymous with doping scandals. An athlete who tests positive is still an embarrassment, but they get a bye on the image-pummelling that companies outside the industry can’t afford to face.
For all those who think that we’ve already hit the nadir for cycling sponsorship, consider that the Armstrong affair isn’t actually over. There’s still a chance that there could be civil lawsuits regarding Armstrong’s winnings and the names of the US Postal Service (an organization that really can’t afford any more bad publicity) and the Discovery Channel will be buried in more mud than can be found at a monster truck rally.
Not enough? Consider the number of teams that operated with a “this space for rent” status in the last five years: Team Columbia-High Road, Garmin-Slipstream, Cervelo Test Team and Leopard-Trek, just for starters. We can add Liquigas-Cannondale to that list because bike companies—even companies as large as Specialized and Trek—don’t have the kind of cash handy to step into a title sponsor or co-sponsor spot. When you see their names in a title-sponsor spot (e.g. Liquigas-Cannondale), it’s a sign that the team is shy of their sponsorship goals.
But wait, the problem is worse than that. Imagine how executives at Faema would be sweating if WADA decided to go back and retroactively amend the rules so that they could investigate all of that team’s riders, especially Eddy Merckx. Who would want to risk a sponsorship in a sport where you could be embarrassed decades after your sponsorship has ended? I haven’t checked eBay lately, but last I knew there were no active auctions for time bombs.
Clean Cycling: 0 (everyone loses if there’s no sponsorship)
The disparity between the way USADA pursues American athletes and the lengths that the Spanish federation goes to defend its athletes has made a mockery of the judicial process. That no American athletes have moved to Spain and taken out a Spanish license may be the best single argument currently for just how clean the American peloton is. If I were a doped cyclist, I’d have purchased an apartment in Girona and renounced my citizenship by now. It would be my insurance plan against Travis Tygart nuking my life.
While I think it’s a travesty to have a guy like Tygart, who seems to hold a hostility for cyclists, running USADA, I can say that I’d feel a bit differently if he were running WADA. Were every pro cyclist subject to his scrutiny that might help the sport as a whole. I think it would force him to reevaluate his priorities and we might see a different mission in just what he pursued. With more on his plate, I have some small degree of faith that he’d have to chase the present with more verve, which is how cycling will get cleaner.
Clean Cycling: 0
We don’t need a recap to know that clean cycling hasn’t fared well against these issues, which is why even though cycling is significantly cleaner than it has been at any point in its history, it is still easily embarrassed and as a result, underfunded. If professional cycling is going to survive and reach a place where the average member of the public is willing to believe that cycling is a clean sport, some big changes are going to need to take place.
House must be cleaned at the UCI. The organization has been part of too many alleged coverups and has shown too little leadership to hold our faith that they understand what the public and sponsors demand. Pat McQuaid needs to resign and then people who understand the importance of the fight against doping must be hired.
What this really comes down to is that testing must improve. But how? Most of the riders out there make so little they can’t support a family on their income, so asking them to give up more of their income to fund testing is as thoughtful as asking them to give up a finger. Or two. It’s not unrealistic to tax the incomes of the top 200 riders to help pay for more testing for them. Still, that’s not a great source of funding for more testing because a sponsorship drought means that incomes for many riders are depressed. Increasing the ask for potential sponsors is unlikely to achieve the results we seek.
So who can pay? Here’s a suggestion: The Amaury Sport Organization, RCS Sport and other event organizers. They’ve got skin in the game—every time a rider tests positive at one of their races, that’s bad press for the race and the organizer is embarrassed. So far ASO and other race organizers have been intransigent on the point of sharing revenue from TV rights. While seemingly every other sport on the planet shares TV revenue, bike races have had an unusual relationship with television because they have not needed facilities owned by the teams in which to stage races—think stadiums. The use of open roads combined with a notoriously weak riders’ union has allowed ASO and others to keep millions upon millions of euro any other sport would long since have divvied up. No one else has both the pockets and the need to clean cycling up that the ASO does. No one man can do more to help reform cycling than ASO’s head, Christian Prudhomme, pictured above.
By having race organizers pay for more testing we could achieve some of the aim of revenue sharing, without making it an open-ended request for the checkbook. It would be a way to move things in the right direction.
Testing needs to be more frequent for more riders. It’s impossible to say that will fix things, but more testing and better testing will help. And if the sport has fewer doping scandals—in particular, fewer scandals at the very top—then cycling will seem like a better investment and finding sponsors won’t be as hopeless an endeavor as tilting at windmills.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Generally speaking, we try not to violate the fourth wall and directly acknowledge our work by shining a light on the fact that what we do here is write about, analyze about, obsess about cycling. That’s as obvious as sunlight. But this is one of those days. The cycling world has gone pure red state/blue state in its outrage/relief/shock/dissatisfaction with the announcement that Lance Armstrong has decided to concede game, set and match to USADA and Travis Tygart. No matter what you think of Armstrong, it’s unlikely that the outcome has left you feeling better about the sport of cycling. And that’s the real tragedy of the situation. It’s as if someone took the blue out of the sky.
Which is why the current racing in Colorado is so great. Forgetting for a moment that the event has the misfortune to have been given the generically anonymous USA Pro Cycling Challenge (they really couldn’t do better than that?), it is the perfect antidote to what ails cycling.
For starters, the event is showcasing the new generation of American riders, a crop of talent that seems united in their repudiation of a previous generation’s doping. Sure, they could be lying, but for now, there’s something in the attitude of guys like Tejay Van Garderen and Joe Dombrowski that makes the idea that they are clean easy to swallow. That Van Garderen is leading the race is perhaps the best thing to happen in American cycling this year, other than his near-podium finish at the Tour de France.
It wasn’t so many years ago that guys like Bobby Julich were racing for the U.S. National Team and telling stories of how they got into cycling as a result of seeing the Coors’ Classic pass through their town. Each generation has drawn inspiration from its homegrown riders as if passing a fledgling passion from one kid to another was as easy as handing off a torch. But inspiration has no baggage, so maybe it is.
That Van Garderen is leading the race (if only by a fraction of a second) confirms what we saw at the Tour. This kid is the real deal and we can expect to be cheering for him, getting autographs from him and thumbtacking posters of him for years to come. And honestly, one of my favorite story lines about him is how cycling was passed down to him by his father; cycling is a family sport.
Day after day we’ve seen stages result in the kinds of victories that satisfy our sense of what winning ought to be. In 1996, Chris Horner was riding for a tiny pro team that barely got invited to the Tour DuPont. Horner managed to get into a two-man breakaway with the comparative veteran Nate Reiss, riding for the U.S. Postal Service Team. In what was then seen as a total upset, Horner bested Reiss, and in doing so gave us a new champion to cheer for. Van Garderen’s win over Christian Vande Velde on stage two may not have had the surprise that Horner’s win did, but carried the same storyline of the new generation overtaking the old guard.
But if ever there was a time or a place for a wily old dog to enjoy a day in the sun, Jens Voigt’s solo breakaway on stage 4 into Beaver Creek. How it is that this German rider has become so beloved by American fans is at once obvious as the love of your mother and yet mysterious as a question from the Sphinx. To have him execute the longest solo breakaway of the race, indeed one of the longest successful breakaways of the whole season seems scripted by Hollywood. Even so, we’re as satisfied as when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. Whew.
The talent of the riders aside, and our belief that we’re viewing a remarkably clean peloton aside, the real star of this race is the state of Colorado. California boasts more bike companies, more bike races, factors more of cyclists and roads than Colorado. But the Rocky Mountain State is to bike racing in North America what the Louvre is to art—its spiritual home. It would be easy to attribute this in its entirety to the Coors’ Classic, but there’s more to it than that. Colorado is full of big spaces. Roads can run for miles with little direction change. The Rocky Mountains are photogenic in the instinctive way teenage girls are—every new view is untrained, yet memorable. And to see those roads in person … one needn’t be a cyclist to want to ride them.
But there’s more to a great race than a bunch of skinny guys turning the cranks with the speed of an electric motor. Once you’ve got the right racers and the right course, then you need fans. Colorado has turned out its populace (and borrowed from elsewhere) in a way that has impressed even the racers. No less a booster of California than Levi Leipheimer praised the fans on the Boulder stage for turning out in a manner even greater than what he’s seen at the Tour of California. I’ve noted on several occasions that huge crowds have been present, crowds easily as big as some that I’ve seen at the Tour of California, but in places that had a fraction of the warm bodies. There’s the feeling that this race is drawing out a bigger chunk of people present.
Finally, there’s a certain chemistry that seems to make the entire business heady, like a beguiling perfume radiating off your date. Watching the riders ride backward on the course and high-five the fans gave me chills. It was a kind of gratitude witnessed too rarely in sports, as much a payback as a benediction for all those fans whose cheers gave the riders a bump in wattage in those final kilometers. Even for the fans at home, ads like the campaign from New Belgium Brewing showing the guy riding the old cruiser and touting the line, “Enjoy the ride,” eschew transaction for bliss, an anti-consumption pitch, a reminder that we should get out there while the sun is still up.
Images: Doug Pensinger and Garrett Ellwood, Getty Images
Lately, keeping up with all my cycling interests (the former pro whose name I dare not mention notwithstanding) feels like drinking from the fire hose. There is so much to read, watch, ride and think about. Was there ever a time when I was on top of it all? Or was I previously just unaware of how much was out there?
I’m a race fan, so I watch races. If I can’t watch, then I read the reports and the commentaries. Then I review the standings looking for riders and teams I like. Right now, that means trying to follow Live Update Guy’s Vuelta feed while I work in the morning. If anyone can instruct me in the proper method for both following the feed AND getting work done, I will pay you for the lesson. Mostly, I can do one or the other.
By the afternoon, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is on. Oh, and I have a morning’s incomplete work to catch up on. Meanwhile, the various cycling sites are pumping out things I want to read. I want to read Stevil Kinevil’s blog, and that leads to about a dozen other blogs. I can save those for the evening after the kids are in bed and the wife is watching So You Think You Can Dance? I know I can’t dance.
If I spend my whole night reading blogs, then I haven’t read any of the three books, all cycling biographies, that are weighing down my nightstand. I also haven’t spent an hour at the stand in the garage, tuning a current ride or building up a project bike. I’m a crappy wrench, so a portion of that time is actually invested in watching videos of more capable hands doing the job I’m attempting.
Wait, a new magazine came. Most of these get relegated to the back of the toilet if I’m honest, but a few come up to the bedroom, the good ones. I want to devour them right away, but there is no more ‘right away’ available to me.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What do you pay attention to? With so much information, meditation, review, instruction, inspiration, etc. flying at you from every corner of the velo-verse, what takes priority? What is worth looking at? And why?
There comes a point in most chess games where the outcome is essentially assured. Even though the victory has yet to take place by way of checkmate, there are so few pieces left on the board, so few choices left to the trailing player that each remaining move is but a formality. In signaling that he will not engage USADA in arbitration, Lance Armstrong has essentially conceded defeat in his protracted match against Travis Tygart.
Make no mistake, to view this case as anything other than a mano a mano battle of Tygart v. Armstrong requires a willful blindness to ego. The strategies employed by Armstrong’s legal team, which were rebuffed repeatedly for lacking any legal basis, seemed to coast on the idea that somehow the sheer fact that this was, after all, Lance Armstrong, would be enough to shut down the legal process. It wasn’t. And Tygart’s pursuit of the case has left many to wonder if maybe there weren’t more pressing fires.
While Armstrong has not yet been stripped of his wins, his decision not to pursue arbitration means that USADA can follow that course of action, unimpeded by Armstrong or his defenders. In his statement announcing his decision not to continue his defense Armstrong gains two small benefits. First, he gets the chance to play martyr, as evidenced by his “Enough is enough” quote from his announcement. He’ll receive plenty of sympathy from those who have been unswayed by the evidence against him. Second, he avoids what would be a truly bloody melee had he pursued the arbitration. The sure knowledge that some of his most loyal friends would have been pitted against him must have cut to the core.
But what of USADA? What have they gained?
“It’s a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes,” said Tygart. “It’s yet another heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe and honest competition.”
Tygart’s devotion to this case makes his claim that this is a sad day ring more hollow than a drum. He claims that the win-at-all costs culture has the ability to eclipse fair, safe and honest competition. In that regard, he’s right. And that conditional—”if left unchecked”—that checks and balances system, how well is that working?
It’s that part of the process that I believe is most broken. Armstrong isn’t the problem. It’s that the sport’s testing has been woefully inadequate. The UCI was so derelict in its duty that once EPO infiltrated the peloton riders were faced with the choice of either being pack fodder or cheats. It’s a hell of a choice and for those who find it so easy to condemn those who buckled to the coercion, sometimes explicit, always implicit, please let us know how life in a glass house is working out.
If any good is to come of this situation it is that the UCI may be exposed for efforts to quash one or more positive tests by the seven-time Tour de France winner. And while the worst of the UCI’s alleged questionable choices happened before Pat McQuaid took over as boss, the fact that he instigated the jurisdictional fight with USADA as regards the Armstrong case means he is equally complicit in any previous coverup by attempting to quash a thorough investigation. Exposing the UCI as a body unfit to police bicycle racing is quite possibly the only helpful thing that could come from this. At least then, if the UCI were dismantled and replaced by a new governing body, we might gain some fresh confidence—a confidence we currently lack—that racing might be properly policed.
Again, what have we gained? Doping is a present-tense problem. If Johan Bruyneel is actively managing a doping program for some of his riders, then he should be banned from the sport, but this outcome doesn’t yet assure that. And those doctors? Their names are tarnished enough that it seems unlikely a team would hire them, though it would surprise few if they turned up in, say, swimming. A ban for them seems warranted.
Once the procedure this announcement sets in motion has run its full course, here’s what the Tour de France results will look like:
1999: 1. Alex Zulle 2. Fernando Escartin 3. Laurent Dufaux
2000: 1. Jan Ullrich 2. Joseba Beloki 3. Christophe Moreau
2001: 1. Jan Ullrich 2. Joseba Beloki 3. Andrei Kivilev
2002: 1. Joseba Beloki 2. Raimondas Rumsas 3. Santiago Botero
2003: 1. Jan Ullrich 2. Alexandre Vinokourov 3. Tyler Hamilton
2004: 1. Andreas Klöden 2. Ivan Basso 3. Jan Ullrich
2005: 1. Ivan Basso 2.
Jan Ullrich Francisco Mancebo 3. Alexandre Vinokourov
Take a moment to consider the names that were elevated in Armstrong’s absence. With the exception of Andrei Kivilev, during their careers each of those riders tested positive for doping, confessed to doping in the Festina scandal or were strongly implicated in Operacion Puerto. Be not confused: This is not a fix for one simple reason: It does nothing to solve the doping occurring today.
Whether we speak of the 2012 Tour de France, the Gran Fondo New York or masters track nationals, there is plenty of doping going on right now, some of which—particularly the events open to amateur athletes—that has the ability to turn people away from the sport altogether.
When I think of the biggest problems that cycling faces, Lance Armstrong doesn’t make the list. Even if you despise him, on balance, he’s done more good than bad. He isn’t, as Greg LeMond would have you think, “the greatest fraud.” Bernie Madoff’s victims would laugh that out of any court you choose. Hope can’t really be cheated and he gave a great many people hope when they might otherwise have had none. And the bike industry has plenty to be grateful for. The increase in new road cyclists that began in 1999 is still paying dividends. I worked for the only all-road publication in the U.S. in 1998 and it died an emaciated, withering death even before Marco Pantani rode down the Champs Elysees clad in the maillot jaune. Today there are four different road-specific print publications; I have no doubt their emergence would not have happened without Armstrong’s victories.
The public wants cycling that is free of doping, full stop. The challenge we face is one of leadership. Adjudicating the past won’t fix today and attempts to cover up the past, no matter by what method, undermine the moral platform from which a governing body operates. More testing is required and better testing is required. To achieve those, cycling must be better funded. Given that the majority of cycling’s funding comes from outside sources, a dearth of sponsorship won’t get us there. And the public execution of Lance Armstrong has ensured one thing: That tens of millions of dollars that could have gone to sponsoring racers and races will go to some sport that’s less embarrassing to be a part of. A cleaner sport. Say, football or baseball.
Thanks Travis, we’ll take it from here.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We drove out in a rain storm, eyes tilted skyward, half in fear, half in silent prayer, but the sky cleared as we rolled into the meadow, the white registration tent like a beacon in a stormy sea. The field where we parked our car was fresh cut and the smell of earth and of farming hung in the air. We padded across to the tent, got our packets, and then returned to the car to pin numbers and pull on kits, mostly in silence.
As usual, the start of D2R2 is soft, which is to say, no gun goes off, no pack of riders spills into the road. What happens is you leave.
And not so long after you leave, you begin asking questions. There are obvious questions like, “Where is the next turn?” Some combination of GPS technology, cue sheet scrutiny and just following a rider in front of you will provide an answer. Other questions like, “Is this the top?” and “Are you sure this is the way?” and “Is that even a road?” come up also. Quick answers: “No. This is not the top. No, I am not sure this is the way, but it is a dirt path between two trees and the cue sheet says…and no, this is not a road,” but sometimes the way is not a road, but it is all beautiful, so keep your head up and keep pedaling.
And even if you have ridden D2R2 before, at some point not too far along you will ask: “Why am I doing this?”
Holy shit! What a question?!?!
Because on the face of it, it makes no sense. There you are grinding your way up a wet dirt track in the woods. Your lungs hollow out as you labor up and up and up. Sweat burns at the corner of your eyes and your quads scream up at you, and you wonder if you will make it to a place where the road no longer goes up, or at the very least stops going up like a kid’s party balloon, carelessly held.
Of course, even in your abject state there are many answers to the question. First, you are doing this because you have never ridden your bike in such beautiful places, places you will never go by car or by foot. Every time you lift your eyes from your front wheel you are struck by your surroundings, narrow lanes through primeval forest, farms perched on the edge of sky top meadows, old tracks that ribbon along rivers and brooks. It is high and low and various and sundry but also uniformly gorgeous and always worth the effort of getting there.
Second, you are doing it, because all year you think of doing a ride like this, an epic (yes, epic) assault on the hinterlands, a gravel-grinding, soul-chewing exploit of a ride. In reality, however, very few humans have the will to force themselves to do anything so hard. Few of us have the clarity of purpose to scout, map and execute such a thing, so we pay our money and ride out with our friends and wonder at the suffering and beauty that greet us along the way.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, we ride this ride to know ourselves better. At RKP we say ‘to suffer is to learn,’ and D2R2 affords us that suffering in large and creative doses. D2R2 will tell you how good a climber you are. It will tell you how good a bike handler you are. It will break you down into your component parts and lay bare the truth of your riding.
It will teach you that you need to have an awful lot of food in your jersey pocket when lunch is 65 miles away. It will teach you that, though you feel strong and fast, it is best to keep your powder dry, because every ounce of that strength can be wrung out of your bones in a ten-minute struggle against a hill that has no name. You will find out that it is best to stick together and take care of your friends, because in ten miles they will be taking care of you. You, who normally eschew too-sweet sodas, will find that swilling a cold Coke at the top of a rise, with a smiling volunteer asking you how your day is going, will restore a humanity you didn’t even know you’d lost on that last dusty stretch of road.
Finally, you ride D2R2 to show yourself that you can. What a whopping large dose of self-doubt you can swallow after you do a thing like this. If you can ride D2R2, what can’t you ride? You are unstoppable.
We had a good day, my friends and I. Despite an early crash, one of our number soldiered bravely on to the finish, through double leg cramps and the creeping ache that comes from hitting the ground hard and then putting your body on permanent shake and grind for 60 miles. I felt as happy for him as I did for myself as the white tent hove back into sight after a full day on the course.
And, we met a lot of cool people as you will on a randonnee, riding together, helping with mechanicals, group-sourcing navigational duties. Next year I will look for the guys from New Hampshire whose buddy broke a spoke up on a nowhere hill in Southern Vermont, the young guys from Brooklyn who ground out the longest, hardest, meanest hill of the day with us, and all the volunteers who smilingly packed our faces with calories at each of the stops.
Safely back under the tent in the evening, the smell of pulled pork in the air, someone’s voice on a PA competing with the general din, I looked around the table at my friends and I felt happy, and I almost never wanted to move from that place. The air grew cool and the mosquitoes went away, and I sunk a Rice Krispies treat and washed it down with a ginger ale.
Finally, we stood before our legs seized and the plastic chairs ruined our backs. And then we drove home in the quiet car.
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