In our final installment, Padraig offers up his takes on the more memorable events of 2014.
The One-Trick Pony Gold Brick: Chris Froome. There’s a sense among those with a view of the Tour de France’s incredible history that the most grand of boucle has become a caricature of itself, that the only people really capable of winning the Tour are these insanely fragile climbers. There once was a time when the Tour would feature 100km individual time trials. With those gone, an overall winner needs to scale mountains the way a top fuel dragster burns up a quarter mile. It’s thrilling to watch, but it definitely is not a way to measure the most versatile rider, which is what grand tour victors used to be. Froome, by crashing his way out of the Tour even before the rain fell, proved that while gravity takes only a passing interest in his movements, he’s got fewer tricks in his bag than a boxer. Worse, the Tour’s emphasis on climbing prowess has produced a generation of riders all similarly fragile. Too bad he doesn’t have enough upper body strength to take the trophy home.
The Gorging on Your Favorite Meal Dinner Mint: Fabian Cancellara. His win at the Tour of Flanders carried, what was for me, the satisfaction that the strongest, most tactically savvy rider carried the day. So many previous editions of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix have unfolded with Cancellara playing Labrador Retriever to a phalanx of ticks that the negative racing tactics left me as disappointed with the outcome as I was with Maurizio Fondriest’s win at the ’88 World Championships. Not all victories are created equal—though the record books suggest otherwise—and Cancellara’s win scratched that itch to see the badass have his day.
The I don’t Care What the Course Looks Like, I’m Here to Race Dammit Decorative Hand-Blown Glass Thingy: Vincenzo Nibali. Once the rain stopped falling and everyone who weighed less than 140 pounds stopped whining, one thing became clear about the 2014 Tour de France. Nibali had concluded that this was his year and he was going to take the race to his competitors. I can imagine that had the Tour’s course design team sat down with him before the race, his question to them might well have been, “What else ya got?” What made Nibali’s victory in Paris satisfying was that he treated every day as if it mattered, not like some voiceover at the beginning of a movie that helps set the stage.
The Cleaning Up Cycling One Bad Decision at a Time Handkerchief: Brian Cookson. The recent renewal of Astana’s racing license almost caused us not to award this to Mr. Cookson, or anyone, for that matter, but the problem with an ocean liner headed for the shore is that they don’t turn even as quickly as a school bus. Some scraping of the hull is inevitable. Cookson has already repealed some idiotic rules, set up working groups to modify others and has wisely not undertaken the penchant of defending doped riders endemic to his predecessors. The Astana gaff proves that money still has a voice, but given the exodus of sponsorship cash, approving their license may have had more to do with the unemployment rosters than the PR problem of doping. We’ll give him a bye on that, but hope to see more progress on the doping front in 2015.
The I Gave You Everything and This Is How You Treat Me Window Sticker: Lance Armstrong. His recent interview in which he opined that golf has honor, that he’d never cheat in golf, proved that Texas’ least-favorite son still has the ability to outrage, which is something of a surprise. I’ll admit that he got my goat with that one and I had to respond to him on Twitter and note that cycling has just as much honor as you bring to it. Maybe, Lance, the problem isn’t cycling, it’s you. Be sure to pick up the sticker from the valet at the country club.
The Least Revealing Biography on Record Bookmark: George Hincapie’s “Loyal Lieutenant.” I can deal with the fact that he spun the story the way he saw it. And I can accept that he needed the help of a writer with some familiarity with the rigors of elite athletics because George himself lacked the insight necessary to compose an actual book. What bothered me about the book was the way it held the party line with Armstrong and co. He was willing to smear Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton at every turn, but when presented with the opportunity to out three riders who had either doped or considered it, he chickened out. He even outed Chris Horner. Even-handed is one thing no one can praise Hincapie for once they read the book.
The Honorary Harbormaster Hat and Coat: Jonathan Vaughters. Dan Martin’s victory at the Tour of Lombardy was better proof of the efficacy of his program than arguably any victory the team had garnered previously. Can a rider who’s ridden clean his whole career win a grand tour? We still don’t really know, but Vaughters has operated the most transparent and trustworthy program out there and it’s nice to see his team collect a win like that. Here’s to hoping he can continue to raise the tide on clean riding.
The U.S. Congress Hypocrisy Tie Tack: BMC’s Jim Ochowicz. This past fall, BMC rider Peter Stetina, a resident of Santa Rosa, Calif., was in regular attendance at festivities surrounding Levi’s GranFondo. Except when it came to the big ride itself. He was on the sidelines in a barn jacket. A local confirmed that BMC management had told Stetina not to ride at Levi’s event. Weeks later, when the lineup for George Hincapie’s gran fondo was announced, not only did it include Hincapie and his old pal Lance, but it also included BMC top dog, Tejay Van Garderen. I get that there can be sticky moments for fans when they see the new, allegedly clean, generation of riders like Van Garderen and Stetina alongside the disgraced old guard of Armstrong, Hincapie and Leipheimer. I get that people might wonder about what sort of message you’re sending. But if you’re going to parade Van Garderen around with Hincapie and Armstrong, but not let a lesser rider ride a gran fondo in his adopted home alongside Leipheimer, well that’s just hypocrisy. I don’t really know if Och’ was responsible for the decision or not, but as the buck stop at the team, and the man who brought EPO to Motorola, this is a decision for which he is responsible and one that shows just how clueless the old guard is with regard to the general public’s perception.
The You Idiots Really Haven’t Learned Report Card “F”: Every team giving riders Tramadol during races. Learning about Tramadol use has been one of the more depressing developments in pro cycling in the last few years. If we consider the slippery slope that many riders experienced when they first encountered doping, Tramadol shouldn’t be considered a gray area. It’d doping, pure and simple and has been responsible for crashes, not to mention the uncomfortable position for riders like Taylor Phinney, who believes the drug should be banned, though he rides for a team that gives it to its riders. I’m outraged that BMC would sign riders like Van Garderen, Phinney and Stetina and not also completely repudiate something like Tramadol. Let’s include WADA on this list as well, for keeping the drug on its “watched” list. How’s that for a leadership fail?
David Foster Wallace Award for Pursuit of Non-Commercial Excellence: This has to go to Assos for their $520 Campionissimo bib shorts. I don’t think I’ve encountered a product on the market that is as openly superior to every competitor available and yet less desired by the masses. The nearest competitor to these bibs is also made by Assos. I try not to think of this as a thumb to the nose of people who live by budgets or bell curves, but it is definitely a product that was created with no regard for outside opinion. Whatever led the R&D team to create these bibs was a quest for something I can’t even identify. Normally, you have a benchmark that you wish to surpass, a reference point that falls short of your personal standards for reasons X, Y and Z. But the old Campionissimo bib is the second finest pair of bibs I’ve ever ridden, a pair of shorts of such superlative achievement no competitor has yet to equal them. What they are chasing is of such ephemeral distinction that I can only hope that one day, in digging through the footnotes to “Infinite Jest,” I find the phrase that set them on their way.
The Company Most Deserving of Success for Reasons Having Little To Do With Their Product Line Gold Plaque: Primal Wear. Primal is making good products, ones I have been meaning to review more of. While my personal style doesn’t go to wearing jerseys emblazoned with the crest of a branch of military service or even my alma mater’s logo, they have plenty of collection pieces that are well-made, comfortable and affordable. Those are reasons enough to merit buying their stuff, but really, what I like best about the company is that they are helping to fund the National Interscholastic Cycling Association at a level that doesn’t seem commensurate with their sales. Their high-six-figure sponsorship is going to pay the world of cycling dividends for generations to come. The real value of their contribution may not even be apparent until today’s high schoolers are parents. I don’t care which of their products you buy, but they are making an important contribution to making the world a better place, so just buy something of theirs.
The “Talent? We Don’t Need No Stinking Talent” Paper Certificate: Pon. If you read Bicycle Retailer and Industry News with any regularity, you will encounter stories about the gigantic holding company based in the Netherlands. In addition to owning things like Audi, they also own Derby Cycle, Gazelle, Focus and Cervelo. Pon was touted as managing in a different way, leading with talent. And then in less than six months marketing director Rick Vosper (who has contributed here) and head of engineering Damon Rinard both departed the company. Rinard is a bona fide name brand when it comes to the human databasing of bicycle engineering, one of those people who can reliably be pointed to as the smartest guy in the room. That is, unless Vosper is in the room and then you’ve got yourselves a ball game. Vosper is easily the smartest marketing director I’ve ever met, and a guy with a breadth of experience in and out of the bike industry that very few can approximate. Any bike company with those two guys on their payroll is going to kick some ass—if not today, then soon enough. Any bike company that allows them to walk out their door has little appreciation for just how hard it is for a bike company to be successful on one continent, let alone two. Corollary: If Pon understood the U.S. market, Focus would be eating Trek and Specialized for lunch. They have the resources to take what is a better spec’d and less expensive line of bikes that should be easier to sell and go head-to-head with the big boys. Instead, Focus is in Performance, which is a bit like selling wine at McDonald’s. In other news, Cannondale gets a gold star for hiring Rinard even before he’d finished packing.
The Rodney Dangerfield I-Don’t-Get-No-Respect Ribbon: Felt Bicycles. The bike industry in the early 21st century is in an interesting place. As far as the bikes being sold in specialty retailers go, you almost can’t find a bad bike. There’s nothing I know of that you actually need to be warned against. But there are scores of bikes out there that cost double and more what they are worth. In some instances, there are bikes on the market that are so packed with value people wonder if they aren’t cutting corners. Such is the case with Felt. While I laud the work that Specialized and Cervelo have done to shape what we expect from current road bikes, Felt has more quietly been doing work of equal and sometimes superior merit with a fraction of the attention. In electing not to continue their sponsorship of a Pro Tour team they elected to do what they’ve done at almost every critical juncture: pour more money into engineering and R&D and less money into marketing. As a result, at Felt’s entry point for carbon is better spec’d and uses better carbon and costs less than the similar bike from their big competitors. On the high end, they are using construction methods on their FRD-series bikes that are more advanced than any of their competitors employ. The road bikes are incredible and the rest of their line is better than most folks know.
The Hester Prynne Scarlet Letter “P”: Bike Rumor. That “P” is, of course, for plagiarist, of which they do this seemingly as part of their business strategy. I can deal with someone making a mistake and not properly attributing research cited in an article, but when confronted with a mistake, Tyler Benedict is the only man I’ve ever met who has opted not to pay the aggrieved party, but rather made a donation to a charity instead, thus giving Bicycling’s Selene Yeager the opportunity to tweet, “I stole your bike, but we’re good because I gave it to World Bicycle Relief.” It may be that Benedict has a fine sense of the absurd. What he doesn’t have is a sense of how thoroughly his colleagues detest his decision to hire a lawyer rather than just man-up.
Best Tweet of the Year Silver Birdie: Selene Yeager. Which points to just how good the writing in “Rusch to Glory” is.
The Most Important Man in Cycling Gold Beer Mug: Austin McInerny, Executive Director of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. Under McInerny’s leadership, NICA has grown to leagues in 15 states with some 5000 students under the guidance of 1800 coaches. Any attempt to quantify the dividends this will pay the larger cycling community is bound to meet with an underestimate, a failure to appreciate how pivotal a role the bicycle can play in someone’s life when they don’t dump the sport in high school. More cyclists in the world is good for all of us who ride. From increased recognition to fewer CO2 emissions and more people to ride with, a growing sport serves us all and no one is doing more on a daily basis than McInerny.
The Honey I Need to Buy a New Bike Marriage Counselor: Shimano XTR. With the merging of Shimano’s superlative XTR group with Di2 shifting, Shimano has created a drivetrain for mountain biking that is so much better than everything else on the market we are likely to see an uptick in divorce rates during the first two quarters of 2015. This is easily the biggest technical improvement in cycling this year, and that’s true even if you forget for a moment that Shimano created stratifications within XTR to allow for riders who are cross country racers versus those who are doing trail riding and the enduro huckers, proving yet again, one size does not fit all, especially at the top of the market.