My choice for doing GFNY was heavy on novelty, light on challenge. No idea what to expect, would it seem like a race, a group ride, a tour, an ‘athon? There was the challenge component to it. Of course, doing well is something, and winning would be nice, but it wasn’t a reason for participating.
Looking at the numbers, it seems that novelty and tourism were high on the list of reasons to come. According to the promoter, there were 5,000 registered riders. Of that, 20% were from outside the United States, and 50% of the foreigners, or 10% of the total, were from Italy. Of the remaining 4,000 riders, about 2,000 were locals and the remaining 2,000 were from outside the NY-Metro area.
Indeed, getting to the start demonstrated the importance of tourism and novelty. To get to the start line, participants rode onto the highway access ramps to the George Washington Bridge, part of Interstate 95. Many riders stopped to capture cyclists riding on the ramps. The payoff was standing still on the bridge; looking south you see Manhattan’s skyline beginning to shimmer, looking north you see the beginning of the Hudson Valley through a gauzy fog.
When the Fondo started at 6:59am, it was suddenly a race. Speeding off the bridge was great, but hitting the first park road along the Hudson, eight miles of hills, curves, and potholes, perched between a cliff wall and a stone wall, with a pack of people who didn’t know where they were going reminded me to back off. If I had some external confidence, like licensing requirements, I think I would have been more comfortable riding along. I saw someone execute a cyclocross dismount while his rear rim was riding on a completely flat tire. Hearing people go into the red on the first five-minute hill told me to back off, climb comfortably and create my own group rather than fighting for wheels on a pockmarked road when overall time didn’t count. I let what seemed to be a big group go over the hill and hoped to form another.
Got a small group, of sufficiently friendly folk, and continued at a good, but conversational pace. Met some folks but still able to roll nicely and enjoy the views. Passed through the towns of Hudson towns Piermont and Nyack with police letting cyclists pass through the intersections without stopping. Completed the first hour at around 21mph. The group grew from behind to be huge. Eventually, we came to the first timed climb, 35 miles in, right after a rest stop, where many pulled off. The Passo Del Daino as it was dubbed by the organizers, Buckberg Mountain to the locals. It was steep enough that drafting wasn’t an issue. I figured it was roughly a five-minute hill and I gave my best five-minute effort, yo-yoing with another rider much of the way up. I took him in the final 30 seconds.
The effort led me away from the group I had been in. Then the route quickly turned onto a narrow, somewhat technical descent I knew well. Loving the curves, I bridged up to another group, something I wanted for the Montagna dell’Orso (Bear Mountain) climb; it’s shallow enough for most of the length that drafting can help. But my new companions, too, thought drilling it over a non-timed climb was the smart play. I let them go and did Bear on my own. Strikingly, the timed climb began right after another rest stop. At least this one I’d be able to visit on the way back.
For Bear, the drill was ride the four miles at my limit and then ease all the way back down, and noodle to the next appointment. I passed a few of my former companions on the way up, and only a minute or so over my goal time for the hill. It’s a climb where the end takes forever to get to, but you’re at the top before you know it. Easing down the first few miles of Bear was a bummer; the dead-end road can be good for at least the mid-40s mph and was paved relatively recently, but the fear of hitting an ascending cyclist was too great. After leaving the access road and railing the open road descent past the second rest stop, another group came from behind to join me on the next ascent. This gang was none too friendly. Arguments ensued over small things like gear selection; some definitely saw this as a 110-mile race. Why they needed to argue about what kind of cadence was appropriate was beyond me. These guys were too angry to be around. Fun, this group wasn’t, so when they attacked the next untimed climb, I let them go.
Cimb three, the Colle Andrea Pinarello, was shallow enough and long enough that drafting mattered. I started it alone, and couldn’t find a rhythm. Three guys passed me on the way up. It felt like a climb too far.
There was a promise of well-stocked rest areas throughout the ride. I finally stopped at one two miles before the final timed climb. It was devoid of riders and well-stocked. A cup of Coke, a gel, some Gator and I was off again. Didn’t want to be weighed down for the climb.
On the last timed climb, Colle Formaggio, on the only roads of the day I didn’t already know—a neighborhood of McMansions built during the housing boom, an odd sight in the New York region, and weird to ride through a treeless landscape after being in the woods all day–I caught a rider at the summit and we started chatting. First person I chatted up in 68 miles. 42 miles to go and nothing left to do other than roll in.
His story was rather different. My partner of the moment had been recruited to help someone do well at the event. He and, I believe, two other guys were supposed to pace their leader through the fondo, but the leader was too antsy and had them drilling the pace so hard that one rider dropped the others and didn’t realize it. The others stayed back, but without their third rider, the other two blew up, and their leader forged ahead. As we were chatting about eats, that temporary teammate who had ridden ahead caught us from behind: he had waited at a rest stop and the group passed him without him awares. He was feeling good and had an itch to chase down the leader to help him through the rest of the ride.
My partner told him that the leader was at least five minutes ahead. The guy ramped up the pace and I decided to go with, and within five or six miles, we saw his leader. He asked that I ride to the front, keep the pace high and stay away from the back, “because it’s going to be ugly.” I recognized the leader. He was a foul-tempered guy I had been with on the road from Bear Mountain and let him go rather than dealing with his anger.
I respected my new partner’s wishes, dutifully rolled to the front of the new group, just as his leader accelerated. He eventually fell back, and I kept the pace high. After a minute or two, the berating began, “Oh, the Judas!” and it went on for some time. Thankfully, it was right before the last rest area. I peeled off as they went ahead.
At the stop, I saw a riding acquaintance, asked him to wait for me to fill up my bottles. He declined; something was moving him to get going rather than waiting a minute. But as I was filling my bottles, another riding acquaintance asked the same of me. I complied. We finished up together.
We rolled south on roads we had raced north earlier in the day. At the end of these quiet roads, we were led onto a busy street, the only road that leads to the finish, and we sped up as we battled cars for position over the final miles, an anti-climatic way to end the Fondo.
At the finish in Weehawken, there was a chicane to slow everyone down, and the circuitous finish also made it possible for riders to get a finish-line pic with the New York City skyline in the background. Folks were also waiting at the finish to bestow medals upon the finishers, and give them a traditional Italian finish line kiss. The last one turned out not to be part of the official package; an old acquaintance, an Italian journalist who was covering the event for an Italian paper, was there.
The finish area was a repurposed parking lot. Windy and somewhat desolate, with a big tent and a stage set up for a party, but as an early finisher, few were there. I only wanted to eat and go, but with the promise of prizes, and the time needed to find and scarf a meal, it made sense to stick around to see how the scene built up as the afternoon went on.
It was a ride. It was a day. It would not have been the same as riding alone, or with a gaggle of friends. I don’t know if I should have done it, but I was glad to have. This year? The entry fee makes me feel as if I should try other such events, on roads I know less well. I can still ride these roads with friends and Strava the climbs.
In retrospect, I had done myself wrong. The “competition” aspect of it led me to not follow my bliss of just hammering the Fondo until I could hammer no more. Crazy as I didn’t win anything and many of the fastest finishers where from out of the country. Dumb.
This GFNY gained some accidental notoriety in the month following the event. Two riders from the day were busted for doping. Two positives out of ten tests. One was a New York City rider who seemed to be an up and comer, and the other was an Italian in town for the Fondo. That the organizers decided to have drug testing will forever keep GFNY in my good graces. Some scoffed at the thought that people would dope for a gran fondo, but it demonstrates that the event is real racing. In contrast, the real racing at Battenkill was not subject to any drug testing.
As regulated group rides go, it was a decent time. If I had treated it the way I imagined a Gran Fondo should be run, I would have had a great time.
Tom Schuler on Team Sponsorship
Tom Schuler has been part of two of the most successful cycling teams of the modern era. He raced for the 7-Eleven team from its inception to its end (1981-1990); started as an amateur and turned pro with the team in 1985, racing the ’85 Giro d’Italia and winning the ’81 National criterium championship and ’87 USPRO road championship along the way. After retiring from competition, he first went to work as an assistant director at the Motorola team before going out on his own. He managed the Saturn Professional Cycling Team with his company Team Sports, from 1994-2003. 7-Eleven was arguably the first outside corporate sponsor to embrace American cycling in what we think of as the modern era. The Saturn team showed both a depth, with a dominating domestic men’s team and dominating international women’s team, and an integrated marketing approach that hadn’t been seen in cycling before or since. If you went to a race where a Saturn member was racing, chances are, representatives from a local Saturn dealership were also present.
Team Sports has also managed several other cycling teams including: Advantage Benefits/Bissell, Colavita, Quarq, TargetTraining, Team Type 1, Volvo/Cannondale. The company began by managing an inline skating team. They currently are managing the Timex Multi-Sport team, now in it’s 12th season, the Zoot Ultra Team, now in it’s sixth season. Team Sports also promotes events, including road racing, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, Xterras, and is the promoter behind the 2012 National Cyclocross Championships in Madison, Wisconsin.
Thanks to his experience, he’s in a great position to discuss the hows and whys of team sponsorship, which is why we sat down with him to better understand his experience and ask him about the current state of sponsorship in bike racing.
JP: Why, in your opinion, do pro cycling teams exist?
TS: Why does bicycle racing exist? The bicycle is a wonderful vehicle and people will always go faster and race each other. There’s both an individual winner, but the team supports that individual. It’s also drafting and help. Teams lend themselves well to sponsorship. The team isn’t called Alberto Contador, but Saxo Bank. You can brand a group of athletes a team and give them a name.
JP: Do sponsors lead with business or love?
TS: We’re going to talk about patrons of the sport, and sponsors. There are always patrons of the sport, people get emotional and they support that. Major league sports have patrons, like George Steinbrenner, but the people would do it regardless of business metrics. Certainly Fred Mengoni comes to mind in the US. I don’t know the patrons in Europe that well. There are patrons that have a brand and promote that brand by using something they’re passionate about. We have corporate teams like Saturn that need to show and justify their return on investment.
JP: Did you initiate the sponsorship program with Saturn?
TS: The start of Saturn started at their agency, Hal Riney Partners, in 1990. They later got absorbed by bigger and bigger agencies. He (Riney) was the voice behind Bartles and Jaymes, among other things. But he was primarily a creative guy. He was Saturn’s initial agency in 1989. They needed an activity that was doable for a new company. They looked at a lot of activities and landed on cycling. It was both youth and family, both male and female, it was affordable, and from their estimation, there wasn’t any auto company that staked a claim on cycling. Being from San Francisco, they hooked up with Warren Gibson. He ran it the first two years. He reported to Hal Riney and Saturn and switched it back to their agency in Detroit, Carlson Marketing Group. They’re a huge group based in Minneapolis, but has a Detroit division.
So, Warren ran into some problems with budgets and the typical thing there. So they looked for a different person to run it. And that’s how I ended up with it.
Simultaneously, were talking to Volvo about the new sport of mountain biking. Two car companies launching. It was a busy time for us. (For the Saturn team) We reported to Saturn and the Carlson Group.
JP: How did you come up with what the team did?
TS: They wanted the team to reflect their customers, their target audience. So, both who they are and who they want to be. Their metrics showed that cycling related to their customer base. It was split pretty evenly between male and female. That’s rare with a car company at that time. They figured cycling was practiced by women and men.
JP: So is this was why you had a strong women’s team?
TS: There was a men’s team for the first two years. They said there was no reason we shouldn’t have a women’s team. We got a women’s team going last minute with three athletes. Jeanne Golay, Julie Young, and Jessica Grieco. Eventually we became the world’s number one women’s team.
It was a great value to have the women’s team; it cost very little.
We always presented the men’s and women’s team as equals, as one team. They don’t get any less budget, any less treatment. We presented them as we presented the men’s team.
Saturn presented themselves about the customer experience. So they wanted to be different. So they wanted one price, they were retailers not dealers. The atmosphere should be welcoming and more comfortable for women.
JP: How did you go about doing metrics?
TS: They used at least a couple of measurements. IEG, International Events Group, were commissioned to look at it. They’re engaged by clients to measure the results of sponsorship. About halfway through, they looked to determine ROI. They were investing in events as well as the team. The team was their main property in cycling. They determined that their best ROI was the team and they decided in the last few years to do it even better.
(Eventually) They wanted to hire an expert in cycling to work at Carlson as a contractor, so they hired Michael Aisner (promoter of the Coors Classic—JP). So they hired him to come up with all sorts of activation strategies, making targeted PR, placed many stories in national publications. So we were racing the same, but we were activating at a much higher level for those last few years.
JP: Did he increase ROI?
TS: Absolutely. It showed robust returns. Me coming up with the metrics myself isn’t fair.
JP: Can you share the numbers?
TS: I don’t know, but it was a multiple of their investment, and it was good to keep us going for many years. When it came time to renew, it had to make sense.
JP: Why did they pull the plug, was it not working anymore?
TS: One of the basic tenets of sponsorship, you’ve addressed the audience for a long time, they know you, so you move on to another group. So they moved on to marathoning.
JP: So success can cost you?
TS: The decision makers were told “everyone in cycling knows you” so address another group, like runners, and make sure they know Saturn.
JP: Was the Volvo sponsorship run with the same kind of vision and support?
TS: Probably not as sophisticated for marketing and activitation. They liked the involvement with Cannondale, they liked the image it produced. It was a high-end car with a high end bike. Activation-wise, they used a number of agencies, but not the same. Metrics-wise was both North American and then Europe. After the team took off in the US, the Europe side decided that it was a way to reach younger customers. And Europe was initially cold on it. They eventually took it over.
JP: How did these programs compare to the Saturn program in terms of what the sponsor wanted and what you gave them?
TS: I think by far Saturn was the most sophisticated in terms of spending on activitation and success at determining return on investment. The Colavita men’s team is now Jamis-Sutter Home, and the women’s team will get sponsorship money but not management from Colavita. TargetTraining, Rick (Spear) was a good patron of the sport. Team Type 1 always had to work for a sponsor and provide ROI. Phil Southerland is not a patron, but a manager, his sponsorship has to have a marketing return. Advantage Benefits/Endeavor/Bissell. Mark Bissell has been a patron, but does work it into their marketing mix. The Quarq team was supposed to be a marking platform for Quarq shoes. The job of the team of promoting sales should always be there, but sometimes the measuring stick is not always used the same way to connect to end sales. Connecting to sales is something sponsors all try to do at various levels.
Image: Alex Steida, Photosport International
Every week, it seems like there’s bad news on the pro team sponsorship front, a steady drumbeat that began with the announcement in August that team Highroad/HTC was unable to land a sponsor. In their wake, Leopard-Trek, the hot new team of 2010 merged with Team RadioShack. Then Team Geox, fresh of their surprise Vuelta victory lost their title sponsor. Garmin-Cervélo apparently secured and then lost a French co-sponsor, BigMat, which may or may not take a leading role on the French team FdJ. There are rumblings that Saxo Bank-Sungard (about to be Saxo Bank) isn’t on sound financial footing, but there have always been rumblings about Bjarne Riis’ formations. And Euskaltel-Euskadi, a reliable formation if there ever was one, is allegedly on shaky ground after next season.
It can be depressing. But we’re going about it as the cycling fans, like the cyclists, we are. We’re worried about doping; we think it might be the state of the world economy. Rational responses, and concerns I share. But I can’t help but feeling that we’re sane people in the psychiatric ward. There’s comfort in feeling right in crazytown, but it probably isn’t the way to success.
I see this most strongly when looking at how we beat ourselves up over doping. And how we let the world beat cycling up over doping. I have no doubt that doping is a problem in cycling. I want to get rid of the dopers, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. At the same time, I am certain that doping is a problem across the entire spectrum of sports, and cycling is doing more to root out doping than other sports. Yet when doping in sport comes up, cycling seems to get more attention than other sports, which work mightily to sweep their doping problems under their rugs. Look at how pro baseball tipped off their players when testing was first initiated. Look at how professional football barely gave a penalty for doping, and is now backing away from their pledge to test for human growth hormone. And this is before anyone discusses what seems to be common use of cortisone in pro football, something that is supposed to be strictly limited in cycling. The notorious Dr. Fuentes of Operacion Puerto fame claims he worked with football (soccer) and tennis players, yet nothing has been heard of that.
Look at sponsors in other sports. It’s easy to see that businesses have no trouble backing tainted athletes. Tiger Woods wrecked his carefully-cultivated public persona on his own, yet most of his sponsors stood by him. Accenture didn’t, but Rolex came on board. There has been no exodus of advertisers from The Super Bowl broadcast over drug use in football. Mark McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger was caught with steroids by a reporter in his big home run chase in 1998 (the reporter who noticed it in his locker): McGwire denied it, admitted it, and is still popular and employed by the team he “disgraced.” I don’t think sponsors care about perfect actors, but a patina of cleanliness and plausible deniability.
Doping isn’t a real issue. Nor is the world economy. There’s high unemployment, but corporate profits are at record levels. Products always need to be marketed. There’s a oft-repeated story told by marketers about how going in to The Great Depression, cereal manufacturers Kellogg’s and Post were about even in market share. Post decided to cut back on marketing, while Kellogg’s increased their marketing budget. At the end of the depression, Kellogg’s was the dominant player, a position they’ve held ever since.
Companies need to advertise their goods and services. Sometimes it’s something new; sometimes it’s reminding the public of something that’s already around. Some products always have a need to be marketed. Cars, banking, insurance, telecommunications, beverages, and lotteries are some of the evergreen advertisers. Massive companies with huge operating expenses and big advertising budgets. HTC, a mobile phone company, the most recent sponsor of Highroad, doubled their profits from $20 billion to $40 billion between 2010 and 2011. Whether or not this was a result of Highroad’s success is never discussed. Their advertising budget in the United States alone was $50 million per quarter, or $200 million dollars a year, starting in 2009. It’s easy to imagine their worldwide advertising budget was over a billion dollars annually. And that would make a $10 million dollar budget, probably much more than what Highroad received, for strong ProTour team is less than 1% of HTC’s advertising budget.
Highroad’s owner, Bob Stapleton claims that his team offered an amazing Return On Investment (ROI). HTC either disagreed or didn’t care. This plays against a core belief for the cycling fan: that their demographic is valuable. Let’s assume that Highroad had impressive data that showed investing in the team yielded an incredible ROI. It wasn’t enough.
American tifosi look at the growing popularity of the Tour de France in the U.S, with daily reports in major newspapers, dominating cable TV presence, and then add in the fact that the Tour is the most-watched sporting event in the world, eclipsed only by the quadrennial events of the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, and figure that there must be advertising gold to be made out of camera time at the Tour. Mix that in with the growth of cycling both for commuting and recreation. It seems to herald a consumer who is tech savvy, spends on her health, and has plenty of disposable income.
For better or worse, perception plays a big part in determining value. Almost a decade ago, the ABC television network was poised to bring Late Night with David Letterman to their channel, which would have meant canceling Nightline. Funny thing was, Nightline had more viewers, but they were seen as less important than the Letterman viewers. And Nightline viewers made more money. They were deemed less important because they were older. Cycling could be suffering from a similar problem. Maybe cycling eyeballs aren’t important enough. Frustratingly, they will remain probably not important enough until they are.
But the reason our eyeballs might not be important enough is that ProTour-level racing has grown to cost sponsors something. It’s not nothing, but it’s not big money like a Formula One team (probably over $100 million) or an ad buy at the Super Bowl ($3 million every 30 seconds). This could put sponsoring a ProTour team out of reach for a passionate company chief, who might have sway in terms of how his company’s marketing budget is used, but not to the tune of several million dollars. At the same time, $10 million might be too small for the biggest companies to consider, as the impact might be hard to see, and consequently measure, as making a difference.
This could be why at least half the ProTeam organizations seems to have angel investors backing them. It also could be why many Pro Continental outfits have their jerseys littered NASCAR-style with small sponsors, many of whom get a benefit out of sponsorship, but the benefit is tied up with seeing themselves as good citizens or promoting their passion. These sponsors like the ROI, but it probably isn’t what drew them to get involved, nor is it what’s keeping them involved.
And this is the big place where being the rational person in the psych ward cannot only be counter-productive but self-defeating. We’re providing data that proves investing in a cycling team is a smart business decision. It makes us feel good that we can prove the value of bike racing. But in so doing, we’re giving out a means for potential sponsors to not only turn us down, but dismiss us. We’re telling potential sponsors we’re good for them, like we’re telling them to eat vegetables when they want to be sold on the idea that it’s a juicy steak.
While I’m sure there’s data demonstrating to potential sponsors of big time sport in the U.S. the value of sponsoring commercials during baseball games and the benefits of having a company name next to the scoreboard or any number of proposals involving businesses putting money into sports, I doubt the data is what sells the companies on putting their dollars behind a sport. I bet they’re sold on the passion, and yes, they have the data.
They way we’ve dealt with this reminds me of how cyclists advocate for cycling in the U.S. It makes sense on an environmental level, on a health level, on an economic level, and most cyclists are happy about that. Then a non-cyclist points out that a person riding a bike might get sweaty and the discussion is over.
We’ve tried rational. Rational doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe it’s time to roll out crazy, an attractive crazy, and start focusing on that.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
For reasons unknown, this past Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on crashes in pro racing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this year’s Tour ended. Mostly because the reasons that most proffer don’t really explain what’s going on.
The Times article is here.
The biggest problem of all is that we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, and the Times is no different. The reporter gathered his anecdotes and offered them up. Ten deaths since 1995, though few mentioned because, they apparently aren’t worth mentioning. Thankfully, he does point out that no one is investigating. Seems to me that this is a matter for the UCI and the professional rider’s union (CPA) to investigate, but he doesn’t ask Pat McQuaid, nor CPA chief Gianni Bugno what they’re doing about it.
If racing my bike was my job, I’d want them investigating. At the very least, maybe an investigation of the reported crashes at the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. The three big stage races. Maybe looking at them can help point to things that might merit further research.
With the Tour, the biggest cycling stage in the world, every team has an incentive to ride aggressively, everyone wants an opportunity to get in front of the camera, everyone wants a dig at a stage win, just about every racer is probably thinking, no matter what their assignment is, if they just do one more thing, they might be able to score yellow, just for a day, and it won’t derail their team leader’s chances at his stated goal. Seems like a recipe for lots of crashes.
Stakes are highest for most riders and teams at the Tour, no doubt. But there are big crashes at the Vuelta and Giro as well, and they often take out a favorite, or two. And every year, there are crashes at the Tour, and crashes at every race. Every year at the Tour, and other big races, favorites are either caught up in the crashes and drop out or are caught behind them and are knocked out of contention before the critical stages or sectors begin. We’re not always paying attention in other races. But somehow, this year seemed different. There were lots of explanations; the most interesting I read was a cleaner peloton is both more evenly matched and more fatigued.
Maybe more evenly-matched causes some problems, but more fatigued I find hard to believe. It strikes me that such a comment assumes that every last cyclist was doping, because otherwise, the clean cyclists would probably have been more fatigued ten or fifteen years ago than they are now. Even if every last cyclist was doping, there is plenty of evidence that there are both high-responders and low-responders to doping products, EPO in particular, and the low-responders would presumable be at a greater disadvantage than they are today, assuming a cleaner peloton.
I think it’s safe to rule out road conditions as being a big problem, as road conditions are generally better today than they were in the past. I also think it’s safe to rule out “road furniture” on the transitions in and out of towns for most crashes. I know the road furniture theory is a popular one, and the awful Craig Lewis-Marco Pinotti crash at this year’s Giro has been attributed to road furniture, but even their crash deserves at least a little questioning. Was there any footage of it? I couldn’t find any. Maybe road furniture is responsible, but maybe it was just what they hit and the cause was something else. Maybe the crash would have been worse had it not been for the road furniture. I have no reason to doubt either person’s sincerity, but unless we have a better idea of what happened it seems premature to assign blame.
To me, another strike against the road furniture theory is that at this year’s crash-ridden Tour, it didn’t seem like any crashes were the result of road furniture; most of the heavily-reported crashes seemed to have happened on straight roads or in the mountains. There’s also evidence that the Tour and other big races work with local governments to remove some traffic circles and speed bumps where they think their removal will improve safety. I noticed what appeared to be traffic circle modifications during the World Championships as well. I think it’s safe to rule out narrow roads, as not only were wider roads once seen as a culprit, but narrow roads were once all the peloton used.
I’d like to offer up a few alternative explanations to the common cries.
It’s possible that crashes are as common as they’ve always been, but that broken bones are more common today than they used to be, making the crashes more serious and more frequently race-ending. As such, I think one potential culprit is osteopenia. If you haven’t heard of it, consider it osteoporosis lite: bone mineral density is lower than normal. I think it should be considered a factor in all crashes where bone breakage occurs, whether it is in training or racing. Anecdotally, there seem to be more and more stories about guys breaking bones in training crashes the past several years. Even “normal” cyclists can have reduced bone density as a result of all the miles they put in, so a Tour rider, particularly a climber who has meticulously starved himself down to his ideal race weight, probably has thinned his bones beyond what the average mileage-hound has done. I heard physiologist Allen Lim discussing hearing about crashes and thinking that every crash has the potential to break bones during a Grand Tour. When I put it to Dr. Michael Ross, a former team doctor, he unhesitatingly said, “yes.” It also could be a sign of cortico-steroid abuse, something Dr. Ross pointed out, as the result is same. Yes, these guys are racing hard, yes, they’re going fast, yes, they’re hitting the ground hard, but looking at how emaciated riders like Brad Wiggins and Chris Horner are at their Tour weight, I have to imagine their bodies catabolized bone matter to keep going. It strikes me as an evolutionary strategy that certainly helped early humans survive famines, but it also could be how crashes are breaking collarbones, ribs, pelvises, wrists, hips, and so on. For all the discussion about injuries resulting from race crashes, lots of guys seem to be breaking bones training; Dutch rider Robert Gesink had his season ended for him shortly before the World Championships when he fractured his leg while out training.
Some have suggested the culprit could be the machine itself. The bikes don’t seem to be the problem as catastrophic failures from normal riding have largely disappeared, and it’s hard to believe that a bike breaking after hitting the ground is injuring riders. Others point to stiffer wheels and too-light bikes, but I doubt those lines of thinking. I’ve seen little evidence that wheels are vertically stiffer than they used to be, which would be where the problem would lie in straight-line crashes. Tires are just about the same today as they were 25 years ago, and bikes still flex and tire pressure can be adjusted to account for stiffness. Steve Tilford speculated on his blog that some of the sketchy downhill riding was due to racers not training on their race wheels. He may be right. But I think the problem might extend to all racing. Not all carbon-fiber braking surfaces brake equally well. Some are grabby, some pulse, some give the unsettling feeing they’re not slowing down, even in the dry, some work fine in the dry but are questionable in the wet. Most pros can only ride the wheels they sponsors want them to ride, so they could be stuck between taking the risk of crashing or taking the risk of getting dropped more easily. I think many amateur racers would take the same risk, at least in the dry. People might suggest disc brakes, but I even with discs, tire traction, or lack thereof, will be a problem in the wet.
Another potential culprit is the training schedules of racers. At one time, pros probably raced much, much more before showing up to the Tour—the Tour came after both the Vuelta and the Giro and racers typically raced from February into June with smaller training blocs in between. Yes, they might not have been as fast as racers today, their training and nutrition wasn’t as precise, but by racing, they were training themselves to be more skilled in the peloton. And now the peloton is bigger. Riding in a pack takes skill, a skill that is honed by practice, unless there are some Wii games I don’t know about. Some weekend warriors in the US race more than Tour contenders between the start of their season and the Tour. Consider that this year, Chris Horner didn’t race at all between his victory at the Tour of California in May and the start of the Tour. Alberto Contador didn’t race at all between his Giro victory and the Spanish nationals, where he raced the time trial and road race, and then came to the Tour.
Or maybe the converse is true. Cadel Evans barely raced all spring and seemed to be able to race his few races with no crashing issues, though his preference is to race at the front. Maybe the pack as a whole are better bike handlers today and more comfortable riding closer to one another which makes it easier to crash several riders at once when one thing goes wrong.
The biggest issue is probably randomness, volume, and the nature of riding in the peloton. Just take an assembled group of cyclists, 189 riders is 21 teams worth, and have them ride an average of 100 miles a day for three weeks. Even if they were all riding solo, there would be crashes. Knowing how many riders go down in training and how frequently would be interesting to know, and something to compare to all the race crashes.
Some point to the packs being bigger as a culprit in crashes. There could be something to this, though the phenomenon of large fields began in 1986 when 210 riders started. And this time probably is when the super-large fields started occurring at the top races throughout cycling. Previous to this, it seems that races were in the range of 30-50% smaller and largely composed of teams racing in their home country—the Tour with French riders on French teams, the Vuelta with Spanish riders, the Giro with Italian and so on.
For riders, racing is their job and they owe it to themselves to demand research to determine what the real issues and culprits are. At the same time, they probably shouldn’t push for any changes until serious research is done. As a response to the extreme length of the 1987 Tour (22 teams of nine riders apiece riding 25 stages totaling 4231km), there was a movement to standardize the lengths of Grand Tours and shorten stages. This was seen as doing, among other things, reducing the incentive to dope. We know how that worked out.
Race radios are sure to come up as a safety thing. There’s no easy answer with them. Yes, directors can alert their riders to dangers up ahead, but there are downsides to trusting the voice in your ear. What if the director is wrong? What if riders interpret silence to mean everything is safe ahead? When hard helmets were first mandated by the USCF in the 1986, there was an argument that people would take more risks because they knew their head was safe. That never made sense. But I read a story about Erik Zabel’s role for the HTC-Highroad team. Supposedly he’d preview the stage finish and then relay what he saw to the team car, and Ralf Aldag or Brian Holm would then tell the riders. He apparently saw a turn that looked tricky but was convinced the leadout train could take it without braking. Hincapie lead through, didn’t touch his brakes, and Cavendish won the stage. Did this make for safer racing? The first guys made it through and probably so did the entire field. But what if he had been wrong? Is it good for the riders to trust such judgements?
It’s situations like these when I’m glad I’m not a pro bike racer. But it also makes me wonder how safe conditions are for all bike racing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International