Most cyclists set some sort of challenge each year to give them an incentive to get into shape. For many years, my challenge has been a long ride in the Rockies west of my adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado, on my May 5 birthday. I began this now annual rite of springtime at age 50, when I mapped out a 50-mile route to ride with a couple-dozen colleagues from the office. It was a day of strong southerly winds and only half the group made it to the final loop through the foothills. I’ve been adding a mile to the ride every year since then, and now most of it is in the mountains rather than on the plains.
That’s probably the wrong way to go about this venture. Friends say, “You should be riding on flat roads.” And they ask, “What are going to do when you’re in your 80s or 90s?” So I remind them of the 100-year-old French cyclist, Robert Marchand, who set a world hour record of 24.25 kilometers for his age group on the UCI Velodrome in Switzerland back in February. My sister tells me that I should switch my ride to kilometers, and that’s a choice I do think about … but not for long. I grew up with miles, so miles it remains.
I did have a few concerns in the lead-up to this year’s birthday ride last Saturday. Although I run three times a week to stay in shape, I didn’t take my first 2012 bike ride until late March — mainly because of some hectic traveling and new work schedules. However, I did manage to get in 10 short rides before May 5, including a longest one of 30 miles that went over a climb destined for this August’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. That gave me the confidence I could again tackle my birthday ride and its 6,000 feet of climbing.
My bike, I have to admit, was in far worse shape than I was. Fortunately, I managed to get a booking with Vecchio’s Bicicletteria, the iconic Boulder bike shop, whose owner Peter Chisholm worked his magic, fitting new pedals, chain, hub bearings and cone, cable housings, inner tubes, brake pads and a bar-end stop. When I took it for a spin the night before the ride, I couldn’t believe how smoothly everything was working. Thanks, Peter!
So my bike was ready, I was ready, and I knew the two (younger) friends coming with me had been riding a lot. Even the weather was looking good: a forecast for partly cloudy skies, high-50s early in the day, high-60s in the high country and high-70s back in Boulder. As for the ride itself, I’d modified the course to include an initial loop on some of the dirt roads used in this year’s Boulder-Roubaix race.
Because cell-phone coverage is spotty in the deep canyons of the Rockies and up on the high-altitude Peak-to-Peak Highway, I knew I wouldn’t get any live coverage of Saturday’s opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia — but I was looking forward to watching the Gazzetta dello Sport video of the stage when I got home. I was of course hoping that local hero Taylor Phinney, who has trained on these Colorado roads for years, would have the form to take the 2012 Giro’s first pink jersey on this Cinco de Mayo.
Besides sharing a birthday with such diverse characters as “Monty Python” comic Michael Palin and singers Adele, Chris Brown and Tammy Wynette, I expect unusual things tend to happen on my birthday. When I did the May 5 ride in 2000 — already a dozen years ago! — I learned that morning that Gino Bartali had died at 85. Later in the day, I heard that Lance Armstrong, on a Tour de France scouting trip, crashed heavily descending a mountain pass in the Pyrenees. And, in the heavens that night 12 years ago, there was a very rare conjunction of the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon. Some day!
This year, besides the start of the Giro in Denmark, May 5 would see a “supermoon” and a meteor shower from Halley’s comet. That would come later. First, there were birthday cards to open, Facebook greetings to read and phone calls to take before I set off on another challenging ride.
My watch read 7:30 when I spotted Steve circling the road near the end of his street. We reached across to shake hands and he wished me “Happy Birthday.” We were soon on our way, heading east, when we were passed (with a quick greeting) by two spin-class coaches from Steve’s gym who were out training on their full triathlon rigs. Seeing dozens of other riders (and generally being passed by them!) became a pattern of the day. That’s because it was a Saturday. When my birthday is on a weekday, I usually ride alone and rarely see another cyclist.
This time, I wasn’t alone. Steve’s a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund and a recreational cyclist. He was wearing his Triple Bypass jersey, reminding me that every July he does the infamous 120-mile mass ride over the 11,000-foot Juniper, Loveland and Vail Passes. It helps to have a strong riding companion! And his wife Martha, who oversees my weight training most weeks, would join us where our route entered the canyons.
But first we pounded along the dirt roads through a springtime paradise of infinite green, riding past rushing creeks, open meadows and an organic farm called “Pastures of Plenty” — which seemed to sum it all up. After a brief connection with Highway 36, busy with groups of cyclists heading north in the bright sunshine, we joined Martha and started up the 16-mile climb toward the Gold Rush-era village of Ward at 9,000 feet elevation.
As my weights coach followed me up the long, long climb’s culminating double-digit grade, with me feeling like a sagging Vincenzo Nibali muscling his way up the Côte de Saint-Nicolas in last month’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I was happy to hear her tell me: “Good job!” Usually, I have the deck at the Ward village store to myself. But on this pleasantly warm Saturday morning, there was a never-ending stream of riders, most of them stopping to eat homemade cookies, pump black coffee from a Thermos and guzzle 99-cent cans of Coke. We joined them.
The three of us then climbed the last little drag up to Peak-to-Peak. I told Martha that this scenic byway was built by “unemployed” workers during the Great Depression, and it was originally planned to link Long’s Peak with Pike’s Peak, but only its northern half was completed before the war started. I’m glad this half was built, because riding the always-curving, roller-coaster road, with close-up views of snow-covered peaks and distant views of the plains, is always the highlight of my ride. Back in the 1980s, I saw the likes of Andy Hampsten and Greg LeMond doing battle on Peak-to-Peak in the Coors Classic, and this coming August their successors Tom Danielson, Tejay Van Garderen, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde will be racing up and down these hills in the USA Pro Challenge.
Martha, Steve and I flew down the last long downhill into Nederland, and continued on, riding against the wind up the dead-end valley to Eldora before returning to Ned and a leisurely al-fresco lunch at the Whistler’s Café. All that remained was a 20-mile dash back to base, descending 3,000 feet in the canyon alongside the fast-flowing Boulder Creek. It was an exhilarating ending to our ride, followed by the excitement of learning that, after two other onetime Boulder residents, Hampsten and Vande Velde, Boulder native Phinney had become only the third American to don the Giro’s maglia rosa.
Thanks, Taylor. Thanks, Peter. Thanks, Steve. Thanks Martha. Good job!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
It can be fun working as a journalist in cycling. Not only do you get to travel to distant lands, interact with different peoples and witness amazing feats, you also get to know the athletes who make cycling the most beautiful sport in the world. One of the more intriguing characters I’ve met is Bradley Wiggins, a fellow Brit, who celebrated his 32nd birthday this past weekend by winning his third major international stage race in less than a year: It was the Critérium du Dauphiné last June, Paris-Nice in March and now the Tour de Romandie.
I first interviewed Wiggo—as his countrymen like to call him—over lunch at an English pub, The Flask, near North London’s Hampstead Heath on a grey December day in 2000. The tall, pale-faced Brit was then 20 years old and still an amateur track racer. He’d already traveled the world and was dressed like an American college kid in khaki pants, dark-blue turtle-neck sweater and a baseball cap; but he gave away his Englishness with a broad, monotone London accent.
I’d been intrigued by Wiggins for some time because his dad, Gary Wiggins, was an Australian racer I’d seen compete with Falcon, a British pro team, in the mid-1970s, and later in a bunch of European six-day races that I reported. Gary had a useful sprint in both road races and on the track, but he was never more than a journeyman professional. After he married in 1979, he and his English wife Linda moved to Ghent, Belgium, where Bradley was born. But his parents split a couple of years later and their son was only five when he and his mother returned to London.
“I wasn’t in contact with me dad for 17 years really,” Wiggins said at the London pub, “but me mum always spoke about him, and has obviously got a lot of pictures and stuff. I tried [cycling] out at 12 years of age … and it went from there.”
With cycling in his blood, young Brad “tried it out” at London’s venerable Herne Hill velodrome. He learned the ropes from the other members of the Archer Road Club, the same cycling club his father joined when he arrived from Australia at age 23. As a schoolboy racer, Brad won a national championship in the points race at age 15, soon stepped up to the national junior track team, and placed fourth in the points race at the 1997 junior worlds in South Africa.
It was the following year, at age 18, that Wiggins made his true breakthrough at the junior worlds in Havana, Cuba. After qualifying fastest in the 3000-meter individual pursuit, he raced Germany’s Daniel Palicki in the final. “It was an exciting final but I was totally in control,” the confident Wiggins told me. “He was still two seconds in the lead going into the final two laps. It was just the style I rode … pulling out a sprint at the end.” That victory over Palicki by almost three seconds gave Wiggins the incentive to shoot for glory at the Sydney Olympic Games, which were two years away.
“The Olympics is what I’ve set my aim at since ’92 when I watched Chris Boardman win the [pursuit] gold in Barcelona,” he said. “I’d just started cycling, and watching that was pretty inspiring. I thought I’d love to do that. So I thought Sydney, at 20 years old, should be a realistic goal.”
Wiggins rode two events at those Games, taking fourth in the Madison with Rob Hayles and a bronze medal in the team pursuit — a disappointment after he led the British foursome to the fastest time in the qualifying round. For me, that was a reminder that at about the same age, my boyhood hero Tom Simpson also won an Olympic bronze medal in the team pursuit in Australia — at Melbourne in 1956.
As a result, after that first interview with Wiggins a dozen year ago, I wrote in VeloNews: “Not since Simpson died in 1967 has Britain produced a young rider with the potential of Wiggins. … This soft-spoken Englishman has had a start to his career that’s as every bit as precocious as Simpson’s. And besides following a similar path to the former world road champion, Wiggins even looks and races like him.”
Unlike Simpson, who went to Europe to focus on road racing and ditch track racing (other than lucrative six-day contracts), Wiggins’s goal at age 20 was to win three track gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He did win the individual pursuit, while taking silver and bronze in other events, and he stayed with the Great Britain national track program through 2008 in Beijing (where he won two more golds).
By being part of Britain’s most successful Olympic team, in any sport, Wiggins achieved domestic fame and earned enough money through the Sky-sponsored track program to buy a farmhouse in northwest England, where he lives with wife Cathy and their two children Ben and Isabella. Perhaps he needed to do that, because it helped gave him the confidence he’s now showing as the leader of Team Sky at the world’s leading stage races. But Wiggins might have followed a path similar to Simpson’s and achieved the status he now has in road racing much sooner in his career.
In the season after that 2000 interview, Wiggins raced with his national road team and won two European stage races, Luxembourg’s Flèche du Sud (where Fränk Schleck was in the field) and Spain’s Cinturon de Mallorca. He then spent six seasons with French pro teams, focusing on winning prologue time trials; but the muscle weight he put on training for track pursuits stopped him making much progress in road racing. The only road win he took (other than short time trials) came in September 2005 when he took the hilliest stage of the Tour de l’Avenir, finishing three minutes ahead of the field after a long breakaway with his then Crédit Agricole teammate Saul Raisin.
Wiggins has always been outspoken in condemning riders who dope, and when his Cofidis team withdrew from the 2007 Tour de France after one of its riders tested positive, the Englishman threatened to quit the sport. That led him to signing in 2008 with America’s Team High Road because of its fiercely anti-doping policy, and then to the equally clean team, Garmin-Slipstream, the following year.
With the Beijing Olympics behind him, Wiggins finally focused on the road and through the winter and spring of 2009 he shed 7 kilos (about 15 pounds) from his track-racer’s body. The result was the skinny bike racer we see today who has applied his former skills to his new ones—during his brilliant fourth-place finish at the 2009 Tour, Wiggins described his method of riding the mountain passes as “mentally tackling them like a pursuit.”
In switching to Team Sky in 2010 (after prolonged and sometimes painful negotiations to buy him out of his Garmin contract), Wiggins returned to the to the coaching personnel at British Cycling, led by team boss Dave Brailsford, with whom he’d trained for all those pursuit medals. It’s taken them awhile to discover the best schedule to bring Wiggins to peak form when he needs it, but by alternating high-altitude training camps in Tenerife with high-profile stage races it seems like they’ve discovered a winning formula.
After that London pub lunch back in 2000, I wrote: “You may not have heard of Bradley Wiggins, but unless something drastic halts his current progress, his name will be one that resonates through the cycling world in the upcoming decades.”
Perhaps this decade (or even this year!) will see Wiggins achieve the dream that Simpson had in the 1960s: become the first Brit to win the Tour de France.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Maxim Iglinskiy’s impressive, yet shocking victory at the 98
th Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday ended a spring classics season that lived up to current expectations: predictably unpredictable.
Last year, the wins by Matt Goss (at Milan-San Remo), Nick Nuyens (Tour of Flanders) and Johan Vansummeren (Paris-Roubaix) came out of left field, while not even Philippe Gilbert believed he could do the Amstel Gold Race-Flèche Wallonne-Liège triple. This year, the upset winners were Simon Gerrans (San Remo), Enrico Gasparotto (Amstel) and Iglinskiy, while Tom Boonen’s sweep through the cobbled classics was just as unexpected as Gilbert’s hat trick in 2011.
Most of the factors that led to the season’s upset results were present at this past weekend’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège—which is arguably the toughest of all the spring classics and usually the most predictable. Not this time. To find out who are the biggest favorites to win La Doyenne (“the Oldest One”) fans generally turn to Europe’s most respected sports newspaper, L’Équipe.
For Sunday’s race, the French publication’s list began with its hottest picks: 5 stars for defending champion Gilbert and Flèche Wallonne winner Joaquim Rodriguez; 4 stars for Olympic road champ Samuel Sanchez; 3 stars for two-time Liège winner Alejandro Valverde, three-time podium finisher Fränk Schleck and Gilbert’s former lieutenant Jelle Vanendert; two stars for Flèche Brabançonne winner Thomas Voeckler, San Remo winner Gerrans and fresh-from-the-Giro del Trentino Damiano Cunego; and, just one star for Amstel winner Enrico Gasparotto and on-form Vincenzo Nibali.
If Europe’s supposedly best-informed journalists selected 11 favorites and didn’t even name Iglinskiy as an outsider then who would have picked the Kazakh? Furthermore, their long shots, Nibali and Gasparotto, ended up in second and third places. What no one—except perhaps the wily Astana Proteam manager Giuseppe Martinelli—really considered was that (1) the Kazakh-financed squad had been racing well all week, and (2) Iglinskiy had been released from the cannon-fodder role he usually plays because veteran team captain and two-time Liège winner Alexander Vinokourov was searching for better form at the Tour of Turkey.
Sunday morning, Vinokourov, 38, called Iglinskiy, 31, at his Liège hotel, telling him it was a race he could win and advising him to be patient. “He told me to stay cool and do my best,” Iglinskiy said at his post-race press conference.
Schlecks suffer in the cold
With heavy rain and hail showers, and strong winds blowing from the southwest, the outward passage from Liège to the border town of Bastogne followed the organizers’ slowest schedule of 38 kph. None of the favored teams bothered to put a rider in the early breakaway, and an indication of how the race would play out only came when Rodriguez’s Katusha teammates increased the tempo to cut the break’s lead from 12 minutes to two by the time the first serious climbs came with 100 of the 257.5km race still to go.
On the ultra-steep Stockeu climb (where Eddy Merckx would usually start the attacks that earned him a record five wins at Liège), it looked like Fränk Schleck was going to have a good day. His brother Andy was sitting on the wheels of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek teammates Chris Horner and Jan Bakelants, making the pace high enough to shed the peloton’s weaker elements, while Maxime Montfort, who comes from this part of Belgium, was taking care of the elder Schleck.
Looks clearly deceived on this occasion, because Horner and the Schleck brothers were all suffering from the cold, wet conditions and faded from view on the windswept plateau before descending to the Ourthe Valley and the crucial climb of La Redoute. Describing the RadioShack team’s effort, Montfort said, “The key point in the race was 10km before La Redoute [when] you have to fight to be in good position. But right then it was raining and so cold it was almost snowing. We were thinking more about getting our rain jackets instead of moving up.”
Team manager Johan Bruyneel confirmed his riders’ physical (and mental) state: “[When] Fränk came back to the car [for his jacket], he was shaking, quite frozen….” As for Horner, he confirmed that he and his team leader were badly placed at that point. “I started at the back on La Redoute [and] if you start at the back on an important climb, you aren’t going to make anything happen. Today, I got too cold, so things went bad there,” Horner said on his team Web site. “It’s difficult to race when you weigh 63 kilos (139 pounds) and it’s this cold.”
With his numb hands unable to use the brake levers safely, Horner abandoned the race, along with his hard-man teammate Jens Voigt and their colleagues Joost Posthuma and Laurent Didier. At the end of the day, Andy Schleck and Bakelants would finish in a 25-man group 5:39 back, while brother Fränk was the best of the team, placing 23rd in a 20-man group with Montfort, 2:11 down.
BMC raced with honor
When the RadioShack team’s challenge disappeared, Gilbert’s BMC Racing squad fulfilled its responsibilities for the race favorite. American workhorse Brook Bookwalter pulled the peloton through the frigid weather (as low as the high-30s Fahrenheit) over the wearing climbs of the Rosier, Maquisard and Mont-Theux before his compatriot Tejay Van Garderen took over. They were riding at a high level and high pace to answer a danger posed by Europcar’s Pierre Rolland and Movistar’s Vasil Kiryienka, both strong climbers, who counterattacked over the Haute-Levée climb, with 85km to go, and quickly caught the morning’s six-man break.
“It was necessary to make the race harder to favor Thomas [Voeckler],” Rolland said, referring to his team leader. Rolland — who won the 2011 Tour de France stage at L’Alpe d’Huez — traveled to the race straight from Italy’s Trentino stage race, where he placed 10th on last Friday’s Pordoi mountaintop finish. The young Frenchman’s efforts on the climbs split the lead group apart and after La Redoute, only Kiryienka, one of Valverde’s teammates, and the Italian Dario Cataldo of Omega-Quick Step, could match him.
Ironically, while Rolland and Kiryienka were making the race hard over La Redoute, 34.5km from the finish, their team leaders were struggling on the climb’s lower slopes. First, Voeckler hit the deck: “It was raining and perhaps I skidded on a manhole cover,” he said. His teammate Cyril Gautier waited for his leader but Voeckler had to go it alone up the Redoute’s double-digit-percentage grades. It was here that Valverde, also suffering from the cold, dropped his chain and changed bikes with teammate Angel Madrazo.
Voeckler made a huge effort to make it back to the small group of leaders, still being led by Van Garderen, but Valverde would not. As for another Spanish favorite, Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, his day started badly when his best teammate Igor Anton crashed in the streets of Liège and broke his collarbone. Things got worse when Sanchez’s rear derailleur broke at the foot of the Stockeu “wall” and he had to chase for a long time when the race was heating up over the Haute-Levée and Rosier climbs. Showing his resilience (and his downhill skills on the mostly slick descents), Sanchez came through to take an eventual seventh place.
As has happened in each of the five times it has been included in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Roche aux Faucons climb saw the decisive moments of the race. In front, Rolland dropped his last companions, while Van Garderen finally pulled over after his marathon effort at the front to let teammate Santambrogio keep setting the pace for Gilbert. The American team’s impressive show left Gilbert in the place he needed to be, but when you are not on your very best form it’s impossible to fake it in a race as long and tough as this one—especially in conditions that were cold and wet one moment, and still cold and windy when the sun came out.
So Gilbert was in the ideal position going up the Faucons climb, which starts on a wide residential street and ends on a narrow rural back road between tall trees. The Belgian champion was able to follow the first attacks by Nibali and Vanendert after they passed Rolland, but he was slow to take up the chase behind Nibali when the Italian accelerated after going over the top a couple of lengths clear. Gilbert got within 30 meters of the Liquigas rider on the downhill, but that was it. Nibali was flying clear with the wind at his back.
“I tried to follow Nibali but I put myself in the red and couldn’t recuperate,” Gilbert said. “From that point on, I knew it would be difficult for me.” Indeed, when the group split in two on the uncategorized climb 2km after the Roche aux Faucons, Gilbert was in the back half.
Ahead, the chase was taken up by the three teams still with two or three riders: Astana, Katusha and Europcar. As a result, the long downhill through Seraing (where the opening road stage of the Tour de France will finish on July 1) resulted in rapid, yet tactical racing, with Rodriguez and Iglinskiy emerging as Nibali’s only challengers.
Battle on Saint-Nicolas
Working together, the little Spanish climber and the solid Kazakh team rider were faster on the crosswind sections before reaching the vicious ascent of Saint-Nicolas—which starts with a 10-percent pitch up a narrow street through this working-class neighborhood and ends with a couple of steep turns before reaching a kilometer of flatter roads high above the city of Liège.
It was on this climb where the road was exposed to the crosswinds that the race was won and lost. Gilbert fell off the pace in the chase group. The cold and distance got to Rodriguez, who could only watch as Iglinskiy rode away from him up the hill, while Garmin-Barracuda’s Dan Martin climbed past the Katusha man with Rolland on his wheel (they’d both be caught on the run-in to the finish). And Nibali struggled, his body jerking with the effort as he sat in the saddle, unable to get more speed or power into his pedals.
Over the top, with 5.5km to go, Iglinskiy had closed from a 40-second to a 15-second deficit. And his catch of the leader within sight of the one-kilometer-to-go archway was inevitable. After Iglinskiy rode clear to a 21-second victory, Nibali was close to tears following his epic yet finally heartbreaking effort. “I don’t think I made any mistakes,” he told reporters. “I just lacked a little strength in my legs in the finale. There was lots of wind on Saint-Nicolas and I left most of my strength there.”
Over at the Astana team car, where they were celebrating the squad’s second upset win in eight days, with first Gasparotto and now Iglinskiy. Their directeur sportif Guido Bontempi said, “It’s a big surprise for us. We prepared the race from Gasparotto’s perspective, but we gave carte blanche to Iglinskiy, to react according to the circumstances. And that’s what he did….”
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
The recent car-bike collisions that put both Levi Leipheimer and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Tony Martin in the hospital with broken bones emphasized the dangers every cyclist faces when training alone on the open road. Leipheimer was hit from behind a few kilometers from his team hotel in Spain while riding on the far right of the right shoulder of a busy highway. Martin was only five minutes from his home in Switzerland, riding on a bike path, when he was apparently sideswiped by a motorist.
However much we use the roads, there’s always a new lesson to be learned. I learned a few new ones last week. First off, while driving home last weekend from a hike with my wife, I stopped at a three-way intersection, entering it at a sharp angle. When I looked left I didn’t see anything on the road, but later realized that the curve of the road had hidden a bike rider from my view. After turning right, I saw the bike in my rear-view mirror, about 100 feet away, approaching me fast on the long downhill. So I immediately gunned the car to keep well clear of the rider, but I still heard a distant voice through the open car window angrily shouting, “Asshole!”
The lessons from that incident was: (a) as a driver, I should have stopped longer at the intersection because of the sharp angle and looked more carefully to the left, and (b) if I’d been on the bike, I should have ridden more defensively and expected that a car entering the road from a tight angle might not be able to see me. That evening I went for a ride up the same canyon. As I was waiting to turn left onto the road, I waited until traffic cleared from the left, and I then waited for a last car from the right to pass by before I headed for the far shoulder. But on seeing me, the driver of that last car stopped for me and waved me across the road. I put up my hand and said, “Thank you.” Nothing better than a courteous car driver!
Happily, I can say that only vary rarely in my many decades of riding a road bike have I felt like cursing at motorists for dangerous behavior … and much of my riding has been in cities such as London and New York. Like Leipheimer, I try to ride as far to the edge of the road as possible and always be aware of the location of any cars around me — whether they’re ahead, behind or to the side.
Knock on wood, I’ve had only two actual collisions with vehicles. The first was in my college days when I was riding my bike from London to join some classmates on a geology field trip to the southwest of England. I was on a major road (remember we ride on the left in the UK), descending a long hill that curved to the right. There was no shoulder, so when a big truck (they’re called lorries in England) came up from behind me, the driver moved out to his right to pass me before cutting back toward the left.
I was wearing a black wool sweater my mum had knitted for me, and as the lorry cut back in too quickly (the driver obviously misjudged my speed), the back edge of his vehicle caught a loop of my sweater and dragged me off the bike and some distance down the road. Somehow, I was not badly hurt, but the front wheel of my bike was pretzeled. The driver stopped to see if I was all right and kindly gave me a lift to the nearest town (it was Paignton in Devonshire). He dropped me off at a bike shop and paid for the repair. I was able to carry on riding to my destination and wasn’t even late for the start of the field trip. A happy ending to what could have been a very nasty accident.
The other incident happened in my hometown a few years later. I was riding one evening to a meeting of my cycling club, heading slightly downhill through a green light. Just as I headed reached the intersection, a car going the other way cut across the street right in front of me. My bike hit the car’s headlight and I flew through the air and landed face first on the hood. The only thing that broke (besides my bike’s front wheel) was a front tooth. So maybe there is a tooth fairy, after all.
The other good part of that story is the traffic light where I crashed was right outside the apartment where a club-mate lived. I rang on his doorbell. He took my bike up to his place and he gave me a ride to our club meeting in his car. Another happy ending.
There are two more lessons to be learned from these incidents. One, motorists tend not to be looking for cyclists when they make turns, and that was probably the reason why that car turned in front of me at the light and why the motorist in Switzerland sideswiped Tony Martin last week — he was knocked unconscious and didn’t remember exactly what happened. Two, motorists almost always underestimate the speed at which we ride our bikes. That was the case with the truck driver in Devon who moved in too soon and dragged me off my bike. As for Levi Leipheimer, the elderly driver that hit him from behind most likely didn’t see a cyclist — although he might also have thought the shoulder was a driving lane.
Anyway, whether you’re riding or driving on the open road, take extra care today—and every day.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
I had a long discussion last week with a friend who takes just a passing interest in bike racing. He was asking me about the state of American cycling now that Lance Armstrong has retired. I told him it was going very well, that Armstrong’s peers Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer were still contesting stage races at the highest level, that U.S.-registered teams BMC Racing, Garmin-Barracuda and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek were winning the toughest races in the sport’s major league (the UCI WorldTour), and that a new generation of excellent riders was coming through.
There are some exciting prospects in this new generation. At BMC, Tejay Van Garderen is being groomed to take over the Tour de France leadership role of Cadel Evans when the Aussie retires, and Taylor Phinney is the natural successor to his veteran teammate George Hincapie. Over at Garmin, a truly homegrown squad, Peter Stetina is working toward contender status in the grand tours, starting with next month’s Giro d’Italia, and Andrew Talansky is shaping up to match him. And while Armstrong has quit RadioShack as a racer, his team is schooling such talents as U.S. road champion Matt Busche and under-23 standout Lawson Craddock.
My friend hadn’t heard any of these names, except for Leipheimer and Phinney. And that was only because Levi received great coverage in the Colorado media last August for winning the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and Taylor is the son of local sports icons and Olympic medalists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter Phinney. But if you only read the national press, listened to 99.9-percent of America’s radio stations and only watched network television, you certainly wouldn’t have heard of Leipheimer or Phinney, let alone all those other great American cyclists.
You may be thinking, this is nothing new. Cycling fans have known for decades that cycling is regarded as a second-class sport—or not even a sport—by the majority of couch-potato Americans. And we know that the only sports that register on the radar of U.S. sports editors are (American) football, baseball, basketball, (ice) hockey, golf, tennis and NASCAR.
My friend agreed that, besides cycling, the world’s other major sports—football (soccer), athletics (track and field), cricket and rugby—barely get a mention in the U.S. media. And he too was puzzled that while soccer is a far more popular participant sport in schools across the country than gridiron football, that doesn’t translate into the U.S. being a power player on the global soccer scene except, thankfully, for our women. But, then, there’s no money in women’s soccer, and it only makes the sport pages when there’s a World Cup or Olympic medals at stake.
Again, you’re probably thinking, why is Wilcockson going on about mainstream sports when he knows that cycling will never make it with the American media. The only time it does make the national news is when the words “Tour de France,” “Lance Armstrong,” and “doping” are contained in the same sentence.
Yes, I know all that, and I know how frustrating it is for journalists who discover cycling in all its majesty, beauty and history to come up against the brick wall that is the American-sports-editor establishment. All my above thoughts and feelings crashed together like cymbals this past Monday morning after I picked up our two nationally distributed newspapers, USA Today and The New York Times. Predictably, both of them headlined golf’s Masters tournament and the fairy-tale win by Florida native Bubba Watson. The sports editors were obviously relieved that in a week when Tiger Woods failed to beat par in all four rounds that the win at Augusta didn’t go to that South African guy with the unpronounceable name. Long live Bubba—who made it an even better story by invoking his Christian faith in his victory speech, à la Tim Tebow.
Okay, Bubba’s success was a great story. But I also expected that our national dailies would have some decent coverage of cycling’s biggest one-day classic, Paris-Roubaix, especially because NBC Sports had decided to broadcast it live in HD and repeated the coverage with a three-hour show at primetime. But, no, my hopes were soon dashed. USA Today didn’t even mention Paris-Roubaix, not even the result in tiny agate type. As for the Times, well, they had a paragraph in its sport-summary section under the insulting headline: “Belgian wins French race.”
Let’s admit it, American mainstream sports editors are out of touch. They propagate their views by only covering the sports that they’ve always covered. They may say that it’s too expensive or too difficult for them to put cycling on their pages — and why would anyone be interested in cycling anyway? But Web sites with a shoestring budget manage to cover cycling very well indeed, and virtually every American, like my friend, rides a bike at some point in their lives, so why wouldn’t they want to read about the heroic athletes who compete in one of the most dramatic sports ever invented?
It’s time to take those elitist sports editors out of their ivory towers and plunk them down in a frenzied crowd of fans on Mount Baldy at the Amgen Tour of Colorado, on Independence Pass at the Pro Challenge, or on the Manayunk Wall at the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship. Better still, give them a VIP package to any of these American events, or ferry them across the Atlantic and wine and dine them at the Tour or Giro — or give them a front-row seat at the worlds or any of the one-day classics. Perhaps even take them to the Forest of Arenberg or the Carrefour de l’Arbre at Paris-Roubaix to see the athletes battling (and crashing) their way over the cobblestones at speeds that only four-wheel drives or trials motorcycles can normally contemplate on such rugged roads.
It was encouraging that NBC Sports (formerly Versus, formerly OLN) devoted its time, energy and resources to broadcast the live feed of Paris-Roubaix, even if it’s a half-century since the European networks first covered the Hell of the North classic. But it’s shameful that our national press virtually ignored one of the world’s truly great sports events, especially in a year when Tom Boonen made the most brilliant performance of his phenomenal career to become only the second man in a century to win at Roubaix four times.
And outside of Boonen’s triumph, there were a dozen other stories to whet sports fans’ appetites, including the amazing debut (and top-15 finish) of Taylor Phinney at age 21, and the record-equaling 17th Paris-Roubaix finish of George Hincapie at 38. You can bet that if Samuel Abt of the Herald-Tribune hadn’t retired and was still writing for the Times that he would have given his unique take on the race, and if Sal Ruibal hadn’t been let go by USA Today he would have seen that the newspaper at least mentioned Paris-Roubaix.
So what can we do? I suggest that everyone who reads this column begins writing letters, sending emails and making phone calls to the sports editors of every newspaper they read (on-line or in-person) to make them aware that cycling is a major sport in this country, not just in the rest of the world. Keep on sending those messages and send this column to your friends to do the same. Don’t take no for an answer.
If we can’t get the media to see cycling as a major sport then riders such as Phinney, Talansky and Van Garderen will continue to be perceived as second-class sports citizens in this country. You know and I know that these guys are far superior athletes to the Bubba Watsons and Tim Tebows of the American sports establishment. Let’s start to help our young pros (and help our sport) gain the recognition they truly deserve!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Two big events took place this past weekend. Saturday was my daughter Emma’s birthday, and Sunday saw a radical rebirth of the Tour of Flanders. The two events may seem unrelated but, as I’ll show later, there was a significant connection.
Let’s start with Flanders, or the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Classics purists weren’t happy when the promoters moved the finish to Oudenaarde, cut out the iconic Mur de Grammont (the “Muur”), and included instead three loops over the cobbled climbs of the Old Kwaremont and Paterberg. So for the first time in its 100-year history, the Ronde didn’t have a true point-to-point course. It was point-to-spiral.
However, at a time when races are getting more complicated and more expensive to put on, maybe the Belgian organizers were right to get an extra return on investment by setting up massive spectator areas with beer tents on the Kwaremont, where thousands of fans hung out all day, spending money. There, they witnessed the key attacks of the race by Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato, and then watched on big-screen TVs as their national treasure Tom Boonen out-sprinted the two Italians to win the race.
It was quite a show but, the purists questioned, was it worthy of one of cycling’s five monuments to have the race circle back time after time to climb the Kwaremont and Paterberg? Of course it was, say the organizers, Flanders Classics NV—which owns six of Belgium’s one-day events, including last week’s Ghent-Wevelgem and this week’s Scheldeprijs. There’s an economy of scale in putting on six spring races (along with women’s versions of Ghent-Wevelgem and the Ronde), while concession sales add a healthy revenue stream to the traditional formula of sponsorship from newspapers, banks or local regions, along with possible broadcast rights fees.
Would the purists prefer classic races that struggle to survive—as did Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne before they were rescued by ASO, the well-capitalized promoter of the Tour de France? Would they prefer that more events disappear from the calendar—as a dozen Spanish races have done over the past six years (see item below)? Or would they be open to modifications to races like the ones made by the Tour of Flanders organizers this past weekend?
Four more major Spanish events were in danger of being cancelled this season until the UCI stepped in to give the international federation’s backing to seek new financial support. That was the case with this week’s Tour of the Basque Country, which was in jeopardy because of a $210,000 shortfall in its $1.3 million budget. After the UCI’s intervention, a private Spanish bank, Sabadell Guipuzcoana, signed a two-year sponsorship deal with the Basque organizers and the race went ahead.
A major problem with Spanish events has been the organizers’ traditional reliance on regional governments and their tourism departments to fund their races—and in a country that’s now lurching from one financial crisis to another, and with current unemployment levels at more than 20 percent, there is no extra budget to support sports events. And with no end in sight to the recession in Europe, organizers will have to seek alternative sources of income, including the ones that the Flanders Classics organization has begun to exploit.
Naturally, there’s reluctance from cycling fans to pay to watch races. North American promoters have realized this for some time, and events such as the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship, Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge sell corporate VIP packages that give access to finish-line hospitality compounds. But it’s harder to convince traditionalists in Europe that “admission fees” are a necessary part of race budgets.
There has been an outcry from the cycling community in Britain over the proposal by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) to sell 15,000 tickets to spectators to watch the 2012 Olympic road race on the prime viewing areas of Box Hill—which the field will climb nine times on a 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the 250-kilometer course. Confirmation of LOCOG’s plan is expected later this month, but the days are numbered when we can continue watching bike races for free.
For the Box Hill section of the Olympic race, for example, the organizers have to provide extensive parking areas, crowd barriers, concession areas, public-address systems and Jumbotrons. Should all that be free? Also, the road itself has to be resurfaced—just as the California state parks department is spending $100,000 to fix a privately owned access road to enable the Amgen Tour peloton to climb Mount Diablo next month.
I mentioned earlier my daughter’s birthday because talking to her Saturday night jogged my memory about a road trip we took across Europe in the 1980s. She was a teen and we played a certain tape over and over again on the car radio: the Dire Straits album, “Brothers in Arms.” The track “Money for Nothing” includes one line, “Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it,” and another “Money for nothin’ and chicks for free.”
Maybe cycling traditionalists believe that paying to watch bike races is “money for nothing,” but if the present system “ain’t working,” then what the Flanders organizers are doing is probably “the way you do it.” I’m not sure about the other line though; perhaps it should be “money for nothing and kicks for free.” After all, if you pay for it or not, pro bike racing remains one of the most thrilling sports around.
SPANISH RACE CRISIS
Financial problems in 2012: Volta a Catalunya, Tour of the Basque Country, GP Miguel Induráin, Clasica San Sebastian, GP Valladolid (women).
Reduced number of racing days in 2012: Mallorca Challenge (from five to four days), Vuelta a Castilla y León (four to three days), Vuelta a Murcia (three to two days), Vuelta a Rioja (two to one day).
Races cancelled in past six years: GP Llodo (cancelled 2012), Subida al Naranco (merged into Vuelta a Asturias 2011), Vuelta a Galicia (converted from pro to amateur race), Subida Urkiola (cancelled 2010), Bicicleta Vasca (combined with Basque Country tour in 2009), Clasica Alcobendas (cancelled 2009), Clasica a Los Puertos (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Valencia (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Aragon (cancelled 2007), Montjuich hill climb (cancelled 2007), Trofeo Luis Puig (cancelled 2006), Semana Catalana (combined with Volta a Catalunya in 2006).
I ended my column on the water bottle last week with the words, “If it’s dropped on the road or falls into a wheel … the bidon will still do some damage!” Unfortunately, it was another loose water bottle in a feed zone that did damage at the Tour of Flanders, with pre-race favorite Fabian Cancellara hitting a bidon and crashing out of the race after breaking his clavicle in four places. Perhaps riders can start thinking where they’re throwing empty bottles before they throw them. We want cycling to be safer as well as exciting.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Of all things, the water bottle has been in the news this past week. First came the loose bottle on the ground at a feed zone that caused Volta a Catalunya favorite Alejandro Valverde to crash and later pull out of the race. In Belgium, world champion Mark Cavendish accused a Katusha team rider of throwing a bottle into his wheel and making him crash near the end of the Across Flanders race. And then there was a pronouncement from the UCI that, among other new regulations, the world’s governing body will soon be banning aerodynamically shaped bottles.
This is all a far cry from the origins of racers carrying drinks on their bikes. A century ago, they’d either have a small flask in a jersey pocket or a bottle stuffed into a small bag strapped to their handlebars. The next innovation, just before World War I, was a metal cage fixed to the front of the bars that had room for two aluminum water bottles (or bidons, as they’re called in French).
Water wasn’t the only thing that bike racers kept in their bidons, of course. Some liked tea or coffee, others even carried wine or beer with them. And a hip flask in a pocket might contain whiskey, brandy … or more suspicious potions. The first big scandal involving a bidon, at least at the Tour de France, came in 1911.
Frenchman Paul Duboc was challenging Tour leader Émile Georget after winning the first of two stages in the Pyrenees. Duboc then attacked from the start of the second one, a 326-kilometer trek through the mountains from Luchon to Bayonne. Georget stayed with Duboc over the first two climbs, but couldn’t hold his wheel over the mighty Col du Tourmalet. Then, starting the next climb, with Duboc holding a commanding lead, disaster struck.
Race director Henri Desgrange later described how he came around a turn to find Duboc sitting at the side of the road “in a terrible state, struck with nausea that had turned him green, and suffering from terrible diarrhea and painful vomiting.” The rider had just drunk something handed to him at the feed zone in Argelès. Desgrange continued: “I smelled a bidon at his side and it didn’t appear to me to have the odor of tea.” A former Tour rider (probably with a grudge) was later identified as handing Duboc a drink laced with something poisonous in the feed zone.
My own first memories of water bottles date from the time my father was getting ready to ride a 24-hour time trial in England. He was mixing a concoction of food supplements including a wheat-based one called Froment, which he poured into his aluminum bottles. It didn’t smell too good, and it certainly didn’t make me want to take up bike racing!
Perhaps the strongest ingredient placed into a bottle was the lead shot that that the French team manager Léon Le Calvez inserted into an aluminum bidon for his star climber (and former Tour de France winner) Jean Robic at the 1953 Tour. Robic was lightweight, even for a cyclist, and Le Calvez reasoned that adding 20 pounds to Robic’s bike for the downhills would help him descend much faster. They would attempt the experiment on a Pyrenean stage heading to Luchon.
Robic, who was already leading the stage by a minute after climbing the Tourmalet, stopped so his mechanic could run up and fix an apparent problem, but unseen by the commissaires he’d secreted the heavy bidon in his coveralls and placed it in Robic’s bottle cage. It was potentially a great plan, but Robic couldn’t control his unbalanced bike on the short uphill stretch to the summit and toppled over, with the lead bidon tipping out on the side of the road. Robic continued without it, and despite his light build he stayed clear of the chasers and won the stage and took over the yellow jersey.
Perhaps it was poetic justice that, two days later, Robic crashed when he touched the wheel of the rider ahead of him on a fast descent. He was knocked out and ended up in the back group, losing 38 minutes and any chance he had of winning a second Tour. In any case, Robic’s “heavy bidon” was banned before it was ever used, and it would have been an unlikely scheme when aluminum was replaced by the plastic bidon in the mid-’50s.
However, a couple of plastic bidons filled with water is still heavy enough to help a light rider go faster downhill. Maybe the UCI should ban that idea, too! But at least one rider has been disqualified from the Tour de France for illegal use of a water bottle. This happened on stage 6 of the 1997 Tour, when Belgian national champion Tom Steels got incensed when he had to stop pedaling in a chaotic, mass-sprint finish, pulled a bidon from his down-tube bottle cage and threw it at French sprinter Frédéric Moncassin. The commissaires didn’t like that and threw Steels out of the race.
Bidons have become a hot souvenir item, particular for fans who position themselves at the end of feed zones. They’re hoping that riders jettison their empty bottles before replacing them with new ones from the musette bags handed up by their team soigneurs at the feed zone.
Keeping riders fueled has become one of a team’s major tasks, with sophisticated energy drinks, gels and other race food replacing those odd concoctions like my dad used in his 24-hour time trials. I’m glad that by the time I began racing, there were plastic bidons that kept water fresher than the aluminum ones. Today, there are even insulated bidons, with double-wall construction and a reflective foil layer, which keep your drinks cooler for longer.
But, reading the latest UCI regulation on bottles that comes into effect next year, such bottles may not conform to the new standard bidon size of between 4 and 10 centimeters diameter. But whatever the size, if it’s dropped on the road, falls into a wheel, is filled with poison or lead, or thrown at a rival sprinter, the bidon will still do some damage!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
As far as I know, Maurice De Muer and Jerry Casale never met. But these two men, one French, the other American, shared a love for cycling in very different ways, and each was a mentor to countless numbers of young cyclists. They both died last week.
De Muer, 90, passed away after a short illness. He was best known as a successful directeur sportif from the 1960s through the ’80s. Casale, who lost a long battle with prostate cancer at age 70, was a co-founder of Philadelphia’s CoreStates USPRO Championship (now the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship).
Casale was born in the Chestnut Hill suburb of Philadelphia, where his dad, Gerald F. Casale Sr, owned a bike store, Hill Cycle Shop on Germantown Avenue, which he opened in 1929. Father and son worked together at the shop for some four decades. The Casales saw their business as a place where riders could gather and soak up their atmosphere created by true cycling enthusiasts. One of the teenagers who came to the shop was Dave Chauner, who became one of the country’s best racers before turning to race promotion.
The Casales ran and sponsored Team Hill, an amateur squad that helped young riders get started in the sport. And the younger Casale’s skills as a mechanic saw he make trips to European races. One trip was as chief mechanic for the small U.S. pro team, headed by Greg LeMond, at the 1984 world championship in Barcelona, Spain, and that’s where he had the idea for creating a major road race in his hometown.
Casale said the impressive boulevard at the foot of the Barcelona circuit’s Montjuich hill reminded him of Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway — which is where he and Chauner decided to put the start/finish for the Philadelphia race. They also needed a climb. They “discovered” it in the Manayunk neighborhood, on the route Chauner took to ride from his home to Hill Cycle. Chauner named it The Wall because it climbs at a vicious 17-percent grade up a street of row houses that wouldn’t look out of place in a European classic.
The race was an immediate success and became this country’s biggest one-day classic, where stars such as Davis Phinney, Lance Armstrong, Mark Cavendish and Matt Goss have done battle over the past 28 years. Casale, who closed the bike store after his dad died in 1993, became a fulltime race-operations director with Chauner, who was the smooth-talking promoter. Together, they put on some 200 bike races all over the country, including, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and West Virginia.
I’ve attended nearly every edition of the Philly race, so my indelible memory of Casale is watching him — a short, broad-chested, balding figure, usually dressed in black — doing what he did best: helping other people however many different duties he had on race day. But most of his work was done well before the race, making sure that the logistics were always in place.
According to his official obituary, Gerald F. Casale II is survived by his wife of almost 50 years, Philomena “Cookie” Casale, their three sons Gerald F. Casale III, Nicholas and Joseph, and six grandchildren.
* * *
While Casale helped pro cycling get established in a country that had no heritage for road racing, De Muer came from a land that fomented the sport. Born in Normandy in 1920, De Muer grew up in le Nord (the North), the French region made famous by the cobblestone roads of Paris-Roubaix. He became a racer at the end of World War II, and embarked on a nine-year career with the Peugeot-Dunlop team. His best results came in 1944, a victory at the Paris-Camembert semi-classic, and 1946, second place behind Italian Fermo Camellini at Paris-Nice.
After retiring as a pro, De Muer became a dealer for Peugeot bikes in le Nord, but stayed in touch with his former teammates, who included 1950 Tour de France winner Ferdi Kübler. De Muer returned to the sport by starting a small regional team in 1950 for a rival bike manufacturer, Sauvage-Lejeune, The team went pro in 1961 with title sponsorship from Pelforth, a beer marketed by the local Pélican brewery.
The Pelforth-Sauvage-Lejeune team earned its fame at the Tour de France, and De Muer signed top riders such as Henry Anglade, the brothers Joseph and Georges Groussard and Jan Janssen. In 1969 De Muer moved to the powerful Bic team, following the accidental death of its directeur sportif Raymond Louviot. It was with Bic that De Muer guided French-based Spanish rider Luis Ocaña to victory at the 1973 Tour de France.
But De Muer’s most successful tenure was back with his original team, Peugeot, where he directed Bernard Thévenet to Tour titles in 1975 and ’77. Talking about De Muer, Thévenet said last week: “I remember a man passionate for cycling, having a strong desire for results … whether it was a stage of the Tour de France or the GP de Peymenade in February.” De Muer also directed a new generation of English-speaking riders at Peugeot, including Australian Phil Anderson, Scotsman Robert Millar and Irishman Stephen Roche — all of whom went on to become Tour de France stars.
For all the sport’s current sophistication, De Muer worked in an old-school era, where he and his peers turned a blind-eye to drug-taking and where he worked with his wife Jacqueline to trace race routes on a Michelin map to decide the best places for his team to attack. After retirement, De Muer lived in Seillans, in Provence, the small hilltop town where he took his Peugeot team for training camps in the 1970s.
He was still making daily rides until recently, but after a fire burned down his Seillans house last fall he moved to a nearby retirement home, where he died. Former Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc, who turned pro with De Muer with the Pelforth team, told Reuters, “He was a little tired in recent months, but he was one of cycling’s great personalities.”
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Stage-race organizers love a suspenseful final day. If that finale also incorporates a spectacular location amid beautiful scenery, so much the better. And should it happen to be a time trial, then that’s best of all.
A finish incorporating all three of those elements has been chosen by French race promoter Christian Prudhomme of ASO to end Paris-Nice this coming Sunday. The once iconic time trial up the Col d’Eze — a 9.6km climb on the spectacular Haute Corniche road from the villas of Nice to a 1,644-foot summit high above the Mediterranean — was last used to conclude the race in 1995. So perhaps this revival can return Paris-Nice to the glories it enjoyed in the winning years of stars such as Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche.
The Col d’Eze was first used for a Paris-Nice time trial in 1969 when the race was organized by longtime French cycling journalist, Jean Leulliot, who wanted a more suspenseful finish than a field sprint down by the beach. The uphill-time-trial experiment was a gift to Merckx, who won this final stage and the overall title three consecutive times.
The Cannibal was expected to win again in 1972. And going into the final stage, Merckx led second-placed Poulidor by 16 seconds. Everyone expected an easy win for the Belgian superstar, probably with a ride that bettered his Col d’Eze record of 20:14, set two years before. Some French reporters had even written their final race stories and taken an early train home.
At 36, French veteran Poulidor was thought to be past his best, and he didn’t look like posing a threat when Merckx was leading by a few seconds at the first time check, on pace to beating his own course record. But as the gradient eased on the higher parts of the climb, the French veteran got a second wind, and even though he appeared to be struggling, he was moving faster than the smooth-looking Merckx.
Amazingly, Poulidor stopped the clock atop the climb at 20:04, a new course record. All eyes then turned down the hill toward Merckx, who was still looking strong, though he later said his back was hurting from a crash earlier in the week. Even so, the Belgian was close to the record, too, but he was 22 seconds slower than Poulidor and so he lost that Paris-Nice by six seconds. What a dramatic finish!
Poulidor’s course record held up for 14 years, until Sean Kelly won the fifth of his record seven consecutive victories in Paris-Nice, improving the record for the 9.5km climb to 19:45. In his phenomenal win streak, Kelly twice lost the Col d’Eze time trial, both times to his compatriot Stephen Roche — losing by one second in 1985 and 10 seconds in ’87. Neither effort was good enough for Roche to overtake Kelly on overall time, and the younger Irishman never repeated the overall Paris-Nice victory he scored in his rookie season of 1981.
No rookies will win Paris-Nice this coming Sunday, but the Col d’Eze time trial should provide a brilliant showdown between the men who’ve already emerged at the top of this stage race’s overall standings: British road champion Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky, American veteran Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step and third-year U.S. pro Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing. Shaping up to be another contender is Spain’s former world No. 1, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who should continue picking up time-bonus seconds in the uphill stage finishes before Sunday.
It will also be of great interest to see how close the protagonists come to (or by how much they beat) Kelly’s 1986 course record of 19:45. Even though this Sunday’s climb is tagged at 9.6km, it looks like the same course as the 9.5km one 26 years ago; distance measurements were usually rounded to the closest half-kilometer in the 1980s.
In 1986, Kelly raced a regular aluminum-framed Vitus road bike, which was light for its time but about 3 pounds heavier than today’s carbon creations; and Kelly didn’t use disc wheels or anything aero. So the chances are that Wiggins, Leipheimer or Van Garderen will break the Irish legend’s old course record by at least a minute, perhaps more.
More important than the record, of course, is the overall victory in Paris-Nice, the second of this year’s UCI WorldTour races. Should it be a three-way race up the hill out of Nice, then Wiggins can be seen as the Kelly of the race, Leipheimer as the Poulidor, and Van Garderen as the upstart Roche. And perhaps Valverde, should he continue to collect time bonuses, will be the wild card.
As for the climb, though much lower in elevation, the Col d’Eze is similar to the last 10km of Colorado’s Old Vail Pass, which was used for the decisive time trial in last year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Van Garderen lost 51 seconds that day to stage winner Leipheimer, who took back his GC lead.
Leipheimer has also done well on other similar courses. One that comes to mind is the 2008 Vuelta a España’s last time trial up the Alto de Navacerrada, which the American won by beating overall winner Alberto Contador by 31 seconds, with a certain Valverde in third! Today, Leipheimer is 38 and as youthful as Poulidor, then 36, was in defeating Merckx on the Col d’Eze in 1972.
As for Van Garderen, his career bears similarities to that of the young Roche. The Irish prodigy won Paris-Nice in his rookie season, whereas the American, as a neo-pro in 2010, came in third at the Dauphiné, only a minute behind Contador; that demanding race in the Alps opened with a prologue time trial that featured a stiff climb, with Van Garderen placing second, only two seconds down on Contador.
Despite the two Americans’ challenges, Wiggins could be the Kelly of the 2012 Paris-Nice. We know the tall Brit is one of the sport’s top three time trialists, along with current world champion Tony Martin (who is riding for teammate Leipheimer at this race) and four-time champ Fabian Cancellara (who is competing in Tirreno-Adriatico this week). And we know that Wiggins has a steady climbing style, which he displayed in winning last year’s Dauphiné and placing third at the Vuelta a España. But will the Team Sky leader be able to put those two qualities together in an explosive time trial that lasts for some 18 minutes?
ASO race promoter Christian Prudhomme is probably asking the same question, and hoping, like his onetime predecessor Jean Leulliot did in 1969, that Paris-Nice will give him the spectacular finish he’s looking for.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When pro team directors complain about the UCI’s almost total ban on race radios, they say that without radios they can’t get essential information to their riders, especially when the race is in a state of flux. What they rarely mention is the role played by the motorcycle-mounted blackboard man.
There’s nothing high tech about this official’s job, which has barely changed over the past 50 years. All he does [editor's note: le Tour put into action its first female ardoisier at the 2011 edition of the race] is sit on the backseat of a motorcycle, constantly writing on the blackboard the time gaps between groups, the distance covered, and the bib numbers of the riders in the breakaways. That board is shown to the riders in the peloton before the motorcyclist accelerates up to the front of the race to give the leaders the same information — which is also relayed by Radio Tour to all the team cars.
It’s up to the riders on how to react to that information. They can make a decision on their own, discuss a course of action with teammates in their group, or call up their team car to hear what their director has to say. That’s how all pro races were conducted until 20 years ago — when teams began using radio communication, which allows teammates to chat with each other via their earpieces, or the director to give his riders tactical advice without having to drive up to the head of the race convoy.
Early in my time as a cycling journalist, I often traveled on the back of a race motorcycle, filling my notebook with race information while also working as a blackboard man. My most memorable gig was doing this double duty at the world road championships when they first came to Great Britain in 1970. The course was based on the Mallory Park motor racing circuit near Leicester, England. And my driver was the highly experienced Alf Buttler, with whom I’d ridden on races all over the country.
Doing the worlds was a big responsibility, of course, but it was also a personal thrill to be showing the blackboard to a field that included Tour de France winners Felice Gimondi and Eddy Merckx. At one point, a couple of 15km laps from the finish, Merckx whistled to Alf from the peloton, so we slowed down to give the Belgian superstar enough time to study the list of riders in a breakaway that had just formed. He saw that his Italian rival Gimondi was up there, but so was his talented young teammate Jean-Pierre Monseré — who was Belgium’s latest phenom, having won the Tour of Lombardy classic in his rookie season of 1969 — along with Leif Mortensen of Denmark, Charly Rouxel of France and Britain’s Les West.
Merckx could probably have jumped across to the break on the rolling course, but with star teammates such as Walter Godefroot, Frans Verbeeck, Roger De Vlaeminck and Herman Vanspringel still in the pack with him, he knew that his team had more than enough power to close the break down if they needed to. And he was confident that the 21-year-old Monseré had the talent to beat Gimondi and the others in the small breakaway group.
Both Alf and I were hoping that the “unknown” rider in that move, British national champ West, could surprise the others with one of his hallmark late attacks. We could see he was itching to try something, despite this being the longest race (272km) he’d ever ridden. We had the best seat in the house, shuttling between break and bunch, first showing the leaders the board, then stopping to take a time check with my stopwatch (this was long before GPS was invented!), writing the new information on the board before moving back alongside the riders in the peloton, and finally accelerating back to the break.
The leaders did stay away. West did make a late attack — but was caught in the final straight and came in fourth. And Monseré did win the final sprint to take the rainbow jersey, with Merckx coming home in 29th. (Monseré was expected to be one of cycling’s great classics riders, but the following spring, in a small Belgian race, he tragically died after a collision with a private car that had wandered onto the course.)
All of this happened long before radio communication first came to the peloton in the early 1990s and became ubiquitous by the early 2000s. Two-way communication between riders and their directors is regarded as essential by most teams, but the UCI management committee felt that the radios were taking away the element of surprise in racing, and that racers were simply following orders and losing the tactical expertise that had always been a key component of a winning rider’s arsenal.
A phased-in ban on race radios was started three years ago and led to an emotionally charged debate between the UCI and ProTeam directors through 2010 and much of 2011. Last September, the proposed complete ban on radio communication was put on hold until the end of 2012 as both sides of the argument are examined. The teams would like intra-team radio communication to be restored to all pro races, while the UCI wants them banned completely.
At present, radios are only permitted in UCI WorldTour races, including this coming week’s Paris-Nice. The team managers say that radios make the racing safer because they can warn riders instantly of any hazards on the road ahead. UCI management argues that racing is more predictable and less interesting when team directors pull the strings and riders stop thinking for themselves.
There may be a practical solution. Instead of just one blackboard man, major races could have two or even three such officials riding alongside the different groups. And rather than blackboards, they could carry iPad-type boards that could display warnings of upcoming road hazards along with the basic race updates.
Using such technology, the teams would know that their riders were not only getting the race information they needed, as Merckx and his teammates did at the 1970 worlds, but also learning of any safety concerns. Meanwhile, the UCI would know that riders were having to think for themselves again and not being treated like robots.
And all of us can get to see what happens in races this spring. Will the non-radio races, such as this coming Saturday’s Strade Bianche classic in Italy, be more exciting than the with-radio WorldTour events? Will the WorldTour races be safer because of radio communication? The debate is on … and maybe high-tech blackboards are the solution.
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