At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.
Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:
Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself. In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad. And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.
Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012. But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.
American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.
Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.
Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.
As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.
Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.
Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.
Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.
But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.
Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?
Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.
Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
Let’s get the new year off on the right foot. I think fortune telling to be worth only slightly less than the word of someone working on Wall Street. And predicting the future contains all the science found in an episode of Entertainment Tonight.
So I’m going to jump in with a few predictions for this year. They may constitute wishful thinking more than actual predictions, but going into this new year, I’ve spent some time thinking about what the new season will bring.
Change will be the watchword for the year. I suspect the various changes in behavior we will see on the part of various riders, teams and companies will require lots of re-thinking. In some cases that thinking will go as deep as identity, but it could require rethinking less who you are than how you do business.
Change in Strategy: If Fabian Cancellara’s attacks at Milan-San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Paris-Roubaix were bold, expect him to be more guarded this year. Don’t be surprised if he waits until later in the race to make his move. That said, for such a strategy to work, his accelerations will have to be more ferocious. A late-race attack needs afterburners to succeed because more of the favorites are willing to burn matches to ensure their own chances. Of course, because Cancellara has one of the biggest engines in the peloton, don’t be surprised if he goes even earlier in a bid to catch competitors off guard.
Change in Goals: Of the many teams that will be invited to compete at the 2012 Tour de France, Thor Hushovd signed with the one guaranteed to prevent him from attempting to notch another stage victory at le Grand Boucle. It could be argued that Saxo Bank would similarly clip the Norwegian’s wings, but with Alberto Contador’s 2012 season a matter of much speculation and at least some doubt, it could be that he could have signed with Bjarne Riis only to arrive with plenty incentive (and direction) to get some result, any result. Hushovd will have a free hand at Roubaix, but can that really be his only goal for the season? And if he doesn’t find success there (how often does a rider achieve his sole goal for a season?), what will become his plan B? Complicating matters for him is the fact that he will share the non-Tour spotlight with Philippe Gilbert, a guy who wins more often. There’s not a team with more promise or more volatility currently licensed. Years from now we could look back on this team as the one that put La Vie Claire and Astana to shame.
Change in Mission: Omega Pharma-QuickStep is a team that will be forced to reinvent itself. Having signed Levi Leipheimer and Tony Martin, the team management will need to figure out how to support a rider at—at the very least—shorter stage races, if not a grand tour. Given the lousy year Tom Boonen had (and only a rider of his stature can win Gent-Wevelgem and still have a lousy year), it would seem unwise to hang the whole of the team’s hopes on him for their big results. To do so would mean wasting the investment on Leipheimer and Martin.
Change in Business: Electronic shifting is going to change the evolution of component groups. The move from 10 to 11 gears and from 11 to 12 will no longer require new control levers. Instead just a software update will be necessary. Riders using Di2 will be able to purchase a Dura-Ace 11-speed cassette and instantly have 11-speed Di2. Neat trick. The upshot here is that one of the traditional drivers/limiters to a new group is a redesigned control lever. If adding another cog is as easy as software code, then you have to ask just what will drive the introduction of a whole new group. The question isn’t as easy as it seems. Is weight enough of a driver? Almost certainly not. How much performance increase is enough? That’s almost impossible to quantify, but there’s a tipping point, most will agree. With this technical hurdle out of the way, we may see Shimano and Campagnolo doing more to update their groups each year and in that there’s the risk of turning off the bike-buying public. Caveat venditor.
Change in Scope: Well, Bicycle Retailer let part of the cat out of the bag, but it wasn’t all of the cat by any means. You’ll see a post regarding the other half of that story soon. A change in scope is what’s happening at RKP. I began this blog as a way to publish work that wasn’t finding a home at mainstream media outlets. Belgium Knee Warmers proved there was an audience for it and RKP gave me a way to follow my heart on subject matter and make some money, so that I could continue to do that work. My one promise to myself was that RKP would be a home to good writing. That promise has taken on a slightly more epic cast (and while the word “epic” gets overused, in my personal circumstance I get to use it this time).
We decided to do some year-end awards here at RKP, but because we don’t see much point in awarding someone “best Danish single-speed cyclocrosser with no ink”, we figured we’d give some nods to those people, events and moments most memorable. And to add to the fun, we invited Whit Yost and Jeremy Rauch from Pavé to join in the fun.
So here we go:
Rider of the Year—Despite not notching a win another monument this spring, by virtue of the fact that Fabian Cancellara finished on the podium in Milan-San Remo (2nd), Ronde van Vlaanderen (3rd) and Paris-Roubaix (2nd), he proved to be the strongest rider in this year’s spring campaign. That Cancellara was chased as if an attack from him was everyone else’s ticket to glory was unseemly. It appeared—given those who latched onto his wheel—he was chased less to prevent him winning than as a springboard to anyone else’s.
Most Valuable (Non) Player—This has to go to Francesco Moser for doing more to liven up this year’s Tour de France short of any rider other than Thomas Voeckler. By instructing the Schlecks on how to win at bike racing, Moser inspired Andy Schleck to take the single most interesting flyer at this year’s Tour. Frankly, it did much to illustrate the criticism that due to radios riders no longer know how to ride tactically. The greater lesson is just how the greats were. How about a mentoring program for today’s GC riders? The racing might get more interesting if we dusted off more GC champions from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The We-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-It Award—Thor Hushovd has easily been the peloton’s biggest crybaby for the last two seasons. Of his seemingly endless skills—honestly, has anyone else delivered more unexpected and surprising wins?—diplomacy isn’t one. He may be the only guy who could teach Bradley Wiggins a thing or two about badmouthing a previous team. That said, his cunning has proven he is more than worthy of both protection and a free hand. Maybe we should call this one the Wild Card Award. You just never know with this guy.
The Mad Ambition Award—This goes to Jim Ochowicz and the rest of the management at Team BMC. On one hand, they are geniuses for vaulting BMC to the top of the pops in just two years. Their ability to sign riders of real quality was confirmed in a royal flush back in July when Cadel Evans finally won the Tour de France. So how they managed to court and sign both Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd can’t simply be magic; it’s more like sorcery. Evans was on record saying anyone on his Tour team (and it is his Tour team) won’t freelance, won’t go for stage wins and will bury himself for the team. Somehow Gilbert and Hushovd—who between them took three stages of this year’s Tour—claimed they were okay with that. We also give this the Most Likely to End in Tears Award.
The Most Coveted Award—This has to go to Zipp for the new Firecrest 303. There’s not another set of wheels I’ve heard spoken of with a more covetous tone than the redesigned Firecrest 303. Lighter than a supermodel’s brain, more aerodynamic than a Cessna and more durable than any aluminum rim you’re riding, the only question is who doesn’t want this wheel.
The Relief Award—Bike fans breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that Campagnolo will finally begin selling its long-awaited electronic group, EPS. Though we heard that the Italian maker was working on this group back in 2002, Shimano came to market with Di2 a full two years ahead of Campagnolo. This is quite a contrast from the introduction of index shifting and integrated control levers. Shimano’s stuff may have worked better in both instances, but at least Campy had a ready response. The good news is that EPS seems to be kink-free, so this year you’ll be able to enjoy electronic shifting and 11-speeds all in the same group.
Worst News of the Year Award—The demise of HTC-Highroad. To have Bob Stapleton depart cycling is the worst news the sport will get for a long, long time.
The Textbook Courage Award—If you needed any proof of the talent at Andy Schleck’s disposal, his attack on Stage 18 from Pinerolo to the Galibier in this year’s Tour de France showed exactly what the young and often hapless Luxembourger is capable of. Down on GC and running out of road, Schleck had to do SOMETHING. What he did was one of the most courageous and awe-inspiring attacks we’ve seen this decade. First, Leopard – Trek put Joost Posthuma and Maxime Monfort into the break. Then, Schleck attacked with 60km to go, took a gap, stretched it to two minutes and then latched onto Posthuma and Monfort to stretch his lead, ending just 15 seconds out of yellow, as Tommy Voekler buried himself on the imposing slopes of the Galibier. This is the racing fans have always wanted from Schleck, but he has seldom delivered. Cautious to a fault, on this day Schleck was a legend.
The Have No Cake and Fail to Eat It Either Award—I, for one, thought it was a good idea for Zdenek Stybar to try his luck on the road, especially with a Classics-oriented squad like QuickStep. Unfortunately, Stybie flopped in his first season and has now relinquished his dominance of the Euro Cyclocross World Cup Series to Kevin Pauwels. What’s the Flemish for “Oops?”
The Straight Face Award—It’s been 18 months since Alberto Contador tested positive at the Tour de France. The saga of inaction since then is well-documented. Under WADA guidelines, it doesn’t matter how or why the “adverse analytical finding” came about, the rider should be suspended, and yet Contador has argued, with a straight face, that he deserves to ride, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has gone on as if the fleet Spaniard isn’t receiving preferential treatment. If we say up is down long enough, will we all learn to fly?
The Ricco Suave Award—This award is reserved for dopers who approach the rank stupidity of Ricardo Ricco in their efforts to cover their tracks and/or protest their innocence. This year’s award goes to Ezequiel Mosquera. After a positive test for hydroxyethyl starch at the 2010 Vuelta, at which he was runner-up, Mosquera cried foul. But the test for hydroxyethyl starch has been around a long time, and that substance’s use as a masking agent for doping products is well-documented. Compounding Mosquera’s guilt, one of his Xacobeo-Galicia teammates, David Garcia, also tested positive for the same substance at the same race. The Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) rewarded Mosquera’s cheating with a two year ban ON TOP of the 14 months he’s already been off the bike. The rider has said he’ll retire. Don’t do us any favors Ezequiel.
Cyclist of the year—All new cyclists. They may be annoyances right now. They might reduce our cool, bad-boy cred. They may do stupid things in the road, at lights, on the trail, etc. But they’re making the world a better place for us. Growing the sport makes the roads safer, will eventually make the public more sympathetic, and some day, some of them will be giving us their draft as they pummel us in their wake. Cycling is growing so much that some places, like New York City, are experiencing a backlash. I think the backlash will be shortlived. We’re going to win and all new cyclists are helping.
The “Why Would Anyone Need X” award:
This year saw a number of new technical innovations: some good, some bad, but all the victim of some variant of the pace-line putdown “Why would anyone need <insert component here>”. The list of what would surely be past winners is long and filled with the things we take for granted today, and would surely include clipless pedals (“Too dangerous in a crash!”), index shifting (“I don’t need click-shifting to find my gear!”), Di2 (“If I wanted to play video games, I’d just stay home and play Nintendo!”) and 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and yes, 12 speed rear clusters (“Why would anyone need more than 5/6/7/8/9/10/11 speeds?”).
2011′s award, based on the seemingly never discussions on the topic, goes to disc brakes in cyclocross. With a battle cry of “if they were good enough for De Vlaeminck*, they’re good enough to me”, the canti-devoted dismissed the disc as unnecessary – too heavy, too powerful, not hydraulic, and just plain pointless. It’s true that the disc options when using brifters are incomplete; quality cable actuated brakes like those from Avid aren’t quite as effortless as hydraulics, and the mechanical/hydraulic adapters look like a mechanical in the making. That said, any mountain biker will tell you there’s no denying the performance of discs in the muck. Wet or dry, discs just work. It’ll take a few years for vendors to come up with ideal, rather than adapted solutions to discs in cyclocross. But when they do, I suspect the naysayers will see their benefits and at the very least, wish they were on discs too. Hey, give me hydraulic brifters, and I just might be willing to move off this 9 speed setup – because really, more than 9 speeds is silly, but disc brakes are awesome.
The shut-up and ride award—By now, we’ve all seen the video of Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland getting whacked by the errant media car in Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France. Both men suffered injuries that would have sent most of us crawling into an ambulance or at least the broom wagon. What was impressive, though, is that both of them got up, finished the stage and then made it all the way to Paris nearly two weeks later. It’s a story worth bringing up next time one of your non-cycling friends tries to tell you that American football players are the toughest athletes on the planet.
The great French hope—It was fun to watch Thomas Voeckler reprise his 2004 role as the beloved – but doomed – defender of the yellow jersey. (Voeckler actually earned the jersey as part of the aforementioned break from which Hoogerland and Flecha were taken out.) Voeckler is now 32 and his years may be numbered. It was inspiring to see the entire Europcar squad rise to the occasion and protect the jersey for 10 stages … all the way up to stage 19 when another member of the team earned the spotlight and maybe even signaled the start of what would be a welcomed renaissance in French cycling. Pierre Rolland showed more than a flash of brilliance on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, out-classing Samuel Sánchez and Alberto Contador atop that storied climb. Not only did he win the stage, he grabbed the best young rider’s white jersey for good and finished the Tour in 11th on GC. Like another promising young rider in the season’s final grand tour, you have to wonder what this guy could have accomplished had he not been saddled with domestique duties for most of the race.
Maybe, just maybe, we will see an end to the French drought at the Tour, a race the hosts haven’t won since 1985.
Out of Africa―Having grown up in in Kenya and South Africa, Chris Froome showed he was more than able to meet the challenges of the European peloton in this year’s Vuelta a España. Froome finished second in the Vuelta and one can only imagine how the 26-year-old Team Sky rider would have fared had he not been obligated to ride in support of Bradley Wiggins at critical moments in that grand tour. As is the case with Rolland, I’m looking forward to seeing Froome ride without other obligations holding him back.
The No-Man-Is-an-Island Award―This last one is purely personal. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’ve hit a few rough spots over the past few months. Had you told me in January that things would have taken the turn they did in July, I would have predicted that I would just curl up in a ball and stay in bed. The darn thing, though, is that there are folks out there who just wouldn’t let that happen. Anything that I’ve accomplished or anything positive that has happened to me over the past months is purely due to the fact that people have been generous and spectacular. I have to extend my thanks to a host of people, including the gang over at NYVeloCity.com, their readers, the folks who follow me at LiveUpdateGuy.com, countless friends and family and, of course, those responsible for my new home here at Red Kite Prayer. I can’t even begin to count the ways that I have reason to be thankful. All of you gave real meaning to the words “cycling community.”
Most Disappointingly Successful Stage Race-Winning Strategy—Thanks to victories by Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, and Juan José Cobo in this season’s grand tours, it was easy to overlook a rather unexciting “trend” in the art of winning stage races. Of the eleven non-grand tour stage races on the 2011 World Tour, eight had at least one time trial. Of those eight, seven were won by men who took either only the time trial or no stage wins at all, a race-winning strategy calling to mind Miguel Indurain.
Take Bradley Wiggins for example. The Brit from Team Sky won the Criterium du Dauphiné—without winning a single stage. The same can be said of RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer at the Tour de Suisse. Both riders used top rides in individual time trials as the foundations of their victories then simply hung-on for dear life in the mountains. Of course, both victories were well deserved—after all, consistency goes a long way—but race fans can’t be blamed for wanting to see a bit more aggression from their champions. At least Germany’s Tony Martin actually won stages (both time trials, though) at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Beijing for HTC-HighRoad on his way to taking both overall victories.
What does it all mean? Not much, perhaps. But it could inspire more time trialists to find some climbing legs for a week every now and again. Or maybe a few of the sport’s aggressive riders might find themselves spending some time in the wind tunnel or behind a motor scooter, doing their best to defeat the sport’s Martin’s, Wiggo’s, and Leipheimer’s at their own game.
Then again, this is professional cycling—there are no style points. Victories bring contracts and unless your name is Thomas Voeckler, no one cares about how much excitement you generate in losing. We need to give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
It’s not every day that a bike company makes a bike that is ridden to a Grand Tour victory. And even for those that do, having the winner drop by your office is less common. It was a big day in Morgan Hill for the Specialized staff to have Alberto Contador come by for a tour of the facility. It was an occasion that gave founder Mike Sinyard a chance to address the staff in a way he seemed born to do. In his introductory remarks you could see each of those sides of the man that have made Specialized a revered and feared (detested?) competitor: He was at once a passionate bike enthusiast, a visionary business leader, a staff cheerleader and the strictest of taskmasters.
After Mike and Alberto addressed the staff, Tom Larter and crew gave Alberto and the cadre of pressies a tour of the Specialized HQ. As Alberto was being shown the first Specialized road bike, the Sequoia, Alberto spontaneously began telling the story—in broken English and sound effects—of how he removed the brake cable braze-ons from the top tube of his first road bike with a grinder and then made holes in the top tube for internal cable routing. When he lacked a verb he went with “Vvvvv-vvvv!”
I was struck by how comfortable he was telling stories of his past, that he understood his place as a champion and how those stories of a humble beginning inform a portrait of someone. While he moved with humility, he was the epitome of someone comfortable in his own skin.
Scott Holz is the head of Specialized Bicycle Component University (SBCU) and arguably one of the world’s foremost authorities on fit. His résumé includes stints at places like New York’s Signature Cycles before deciding to teach others how to fit riders. His enthusiasm for the reach Specialized has is infectious.
This is the bike cage that holds the bikes ridden by SBCU students. Each attendee gets to ride both road and mountain bikes.
I don’t even recall what Mike was talking about during this part of the tour, but what I found remarkable was how comfortable the two were with each other. So often I see deferential interplay between athletes and sponsors, sometimes the sponsor bowing to the star athlete, sometimes the athlete genuflecting before the meal ticket.
These are but two of the many show bikes (as in for Interbike) that Robert Egger and his crew have created over the years. These “Go-Go” bikes incorporated a martini mixing station which Larter is showing off, a pannier purse compartment and handlebar-mounted compact make-up case for the go-go girl on the, uh, go.
Within the Morgan Hill facility lies a fully-functional Specialized Concept Store to give the big red “S” a chance to showcase what it believes best practices to be. It’s accurate down to the last detail, even including other brands where Specialized thinks the best fit is. Alberto stopped to check out a photo of him with Sinyard and the Giro trophy following his win earlier that year.
Following the tour we went out for the lunch ride, of which you’ve already seen photos. Afterward we grabbed lunch and then did a final press conference interview before heading for airports. Rather than rehash the entire interview here, I’ve selected some highlights.
On the responsibility of team leadership: ”I am the leader of my team. I need to movtivate all my teammates for victory.”
Regarding BMC and its many acquisitions: ”If you’re going to look at the entire season, they might get a lot of great results, with a good program. If you look at the Tour de France, I don’t think all those new riders are going to make a great team.”
On the difficulty of the Giro: “There should be a little more control. This year there was a stage that was 7.5 hours. That day went a bit over. We climbed the Giau and Marmolada; it was just too much. I think with shorter stages the race is more beautiful because the riders are fresher at the finish.
On PR: “I believe it is very important to come here to meet with the sponsor and to interact with the fans. Social networking, like Facebook, is very important.
On Team Sky: “For sure, it is a very strong team and they will have a great roll in the Tour de France. But considering the overall win, there are teams that are better than Sky. BMC, RadioShack, Saxo Bank (laughs).”
On being beatable: “There is nobody in the world who is unbeatable. Everyone prepares for the win, but there are many factors, many variables that a rider can’t control, so no one is unbeatable.”
On his relationship with Specialized: “I definitely feel very lucky to have good companies to support me. For sure I feel that Specialized is the one that is more in touch with me and more follow my demands and inputs.
On Lance: ”With Lance, we both had the same objective. I respect that he was a great champion and that he had this ambition of winning. I would have thought that our relationship would have been closer. I believe that if we were to meet now, our relationship would be very different.”
On Bruyneel: “I perfectly understand it [his relationship with Lance]. Like many people say, Lance and Bruyneel are one person. They made history together. The relationship they had—we couldn’t build up in one year. He was staying more with Lance; even though I understood it, it was difficult at times.
I don’t ride with PROs too often. And when I do they are usually of the genus domesticus; they are rarely of the genus vincere. So when I got the invitation from Specialized asking if I wanted to go for a ride with Alberto Contador, the answer was an immediate yes.
I’ve not been Contador’s biggest fan. Truth be told, there have been plenty of occasions where his demeanor in the press has turned me off. But I saw something in this year’s Tour de France that opened my eyes to another side of him, reserves that gave me new respect for the six-time Grand Tour winner. Put plain, I liked that even when he realized he couldn’t win this year’s Tour, he took the race to the others, making himself one of the factors of selection. It was a courageous ride and one that—to me—spoke volumes about self-respect.
Off the bike, Alberto Contador was calm, quiet, polite and patient. Not a rock star. But he wasn’t a withering lily either; he carried himself with low-key confidence. Even though his spoke in low volume, when he spoke he never felt a need to raise his voice to be heard; he trusted others would lean in to hear, and we did.
The first of the three rides I did with him was meant to be a press-only event. The idea was to give Michael Robertson of VeloDramatic a chance to get images of him riding with the likes of Brian Holcomb of Velo, Laura Weislo of Cyclingnews, Jen See of Bicycling, Neil Shirley of Road Bike Action and Dillon Clapp of Road. Et moi, aussi. But because if you tell someone’s fans that a big star will arrive at noon, they will begin arriving at 10:30, when we rolled out, despite a couple of requests from Specialized for folks to stay behind, a dozen or so riders rolled out with us.
As we pedaled through Sausalito, riders coming over from San Francisco frequently saw us and simply made a U-turn to join the group. I spent some time near the front getting shots of Alberto and then knowing others wanted the chance to say hi, I slid back. Once we began the climb up the Marin Headlands Neil Shirley (an actual PRO until very recently) put in an acceleration that dispatched most of us, including me. Ah, to climb well.
The descent went well; riders stayed single file and picked reasonable lines on our way back down. Good thing; it was ever-so-slightly damp. As we rolled back through Sausalito, I found myself next to Alberto’s brother and agent, Fran. He told me it was his first time visiting California and he was very excited to see San Francisco. All of his favorite movies featured either New York or San Francisco as their setting. I was about to ask if that meant he was a fan of Hitchcock, but we rolled up to Mike’s Bikes just then. Mike’s is a huge Specialized dealer, with nine locations in the Bay Area. They are a first-rate retailer, and I’ve given them some of my business when I’ve been in the area.
We pulled up to an enormous throng of people. Estimates from a few people present were that we had 200 to 250 riders. Counting heads isn’t my strong suit, so I don’t have an estimate of my own, but what I can tell you is that I’ve started races with 120 guys, and this group was way larger. Way. Riders filled the parking lot and encircled the entire building. Some were already waiting on the bike path on which we’d roll out.
The bike path was eight or ten feet wide with fine, hard-pack gravel on either side. Almost immediately we had riders sprinting up the gravel and bunny hopping back onto the bike path so they could take photos of Alberto. As we headed into Tiburon, I’d like to say we had a great time with riders rotating through to give everyone a chance to ride alongside one of cycling’s biggest stars.
The reality is that things got sketchy. Riders were taking crazy risks just to get close to Alberto for a picture. I saw riders going into oncoming traffic to move up and more iPhones in hands than you’d see at an Apple store. Compounding the problem was that once close to Alberto, several Spanish-speaking riders simply stayed put. One rider commented to me about the perceived sense of entitlement of the native Spanish speakers. I cared less about that than just keeping everyone upright.
To his credit, Alberto stayed calm and didn’t allow himself to slip out of the front dozen riders. Once we rolled around to Paradise Cove and the road got twisty, several riders put in a huge acceleration to break the group up. Once into Corte Madera we took in the climb up Camino Alto, a tree-shrouded, serpentine climb with some surprisingly steep ramps. It was only once we were back on the bike path into Sausalito that I had the sense we were truly safe.
The next day Alberto and Fran joined the Specialized lunch ride, which is the fastest group ride I’ve ever encountered other than the old Boulder Bus Stop ride. Before rolling out, Specialized founder Mike Sinyard said with a wink, “Anyone who crashes Alberto is fired.”
This ride was both faster and better behaved than the other rides we did. Out on the rolling country roads west of Morgan Hill there was very little traffic and Alberto took some time to slide back through the group and say hi to people. Shortly before we reached one of the longer hills, Mike told Alberto we were approaching a climb he’d want to be on the front for. Next thing I knew, Sinyard was sprinting up the left side of the pack with a Saxo Bank jersey on his wheel.
I can’t report on what happened at the top nor in the final sprint; my legs were just too tired from the previous efforts going back to last weekend’s gran fondo. After rolling back to the Specialized HQ, we caught showers and lunch before a final interview.
Specialized brought Alberto Contador to the U.S. for a truly whirlwind tour. We did a ride on Tuesday out of Mike’s Bikes in Sausalito, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. Afterward, we attended a press conference with him. These posts are slightly out of order; I’m doing the interview first because, well, it’s ready and the post on the ride needs more work.
Q: Would you have planned your season any differently had your arbitration been set November all along?
AC: I’m very happy with the results I achieved at the Giro. My intention was to tdo the Giro anyway. I wanted to use it for prep for the Tour. But I realized that the Giro was tough, very tough when I got there. I didn’t expect the Giro to be so hard.
Q: How do you feel about doing the Giro-Tour double in the future?
AC: I believe it’s possible. There are many factors that are very important. The course has to be perfect (for me). Same thing at the Tour. A super-strong team that can help me with the protection I need.
Q: Are you doing anything to beef up the team for next year?
AC: I am speaking daily with Bjarne. He’s working pretty hard to improve the level of the team. It’s clear that Bjarne has the responsibility to sign the riders, but before signing a rider, he talks to me.
Q: Pat McQuaid has said he’d like to move to an independent tribunal. Is that appropriate?
AC: If there is a high level of objectivity that would be really good. It could be faster but there would need to be the control of an external organization.
Q: (to Fran, Contador’s brother) What do you remember of Alberto as a teenager riding bikes?
FC: I remember one day when he was young where we did 60-70km, and Alberto was wearing a lightweight trainer jacket and it filled up with air like the Michelin Man. When we got back the other riders were surprised he was able to stay with us despite his jacket. They realized, ‘Wow, he must really be strong.’
Q: No one beats CAS. Are you confident?
AC: I’m very confident. Because of all the controls, the scientific facts support my case. I’m confident because of all the experts who are supporting my case. I think there will be a favorable resolution.
Q: Does it affect you when you race?
AC: When I race I don’t think about it.
Q: Does the decision by WADA not to impose limits on clenbuterol strike you as fair?
AC: I don’t believe this decision will affect my case. I strongly believe there will be a change in the acceptable level of Clenbuterol in the future. Probably right after my case is resolved.
Q: The way you rode at the Tour, you may have captured the hearts of Americans more?
AC: Even though I live far away from here I have received a lot of support from people here.
Q: Is it possible to win all year with the super teams like Radio Shack, BMC, etc?
AC: I believe it will be difficult, but I also believe it’s possible, because it’s all the same riders winning the other races.
Q: What races haven’t you won that you’d most like to achieve a victory in?
AC: I’d like to win some Classics. Fleche Wallonne or Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The problem is that it’s not the best training program for my larger objectives. I’d like to win Tirreno-Adriatico. There aren’t many others, but the World Championship is one.
Simoni (translator) added, “He wants to win all year. He wanted to win at the Tour of Algarve.”
Q: Do you plan on racing in the U.S?
AC: I would love to race the Tour of California. I feel that cycling is getting bigger and bigger here. Right now the US is getting more and more important in world cycling. The reason I didn’t come here the last two years is because of the new date and the fact it conflicted with the Giro. I believe the Tour of California could change my chances at the Tour de France for the worse. If I come to the Tour of California I’m not coming to ride, I’m coming to win.
Q: And Colorado?
AC: This year was the first year, but in the future I’ll have to look at the dates to see if it conflicts with the Vuelta a Espana. If the Tour of California moves back to February, then I’ll come, for sure.
Q: Will you compete in the Olympics in 2012?
AC: I’m not sure the course is difficult enough. I would like to ride the TT.
Q: About the bikes: Having time on the Tarmac SL4, what’s your feedback?
AC: It’s less harsh than the SL3. So such a change in a bike at the last minute is very difficult to assimilate at the last minute. (Which is why he rode the SL3 at the Tour de France.)
Q: How much input did you have into the new bike?
AC: One of the reasons that I am here is because of the objective Specialized and I have for making things better. Specialized is a brand that is dedicated to making things better. I wanted a certain kind of time trial bike. It’s very difficult to find a company that can give you the right equipment. There are many other brands that have tried to go other ways. No one has ever reached the level of Specialized.
Q: On vacation where would you like to ride?
AC: If it’s a real vacation the bike will stay at home.
Once the interview was over, the subject of the pistolero salute came up. Rather than Simoni translating, Alberto made the effort to respond himself. What he told us (and his accent is thick, so I couldn’t be certain of every word he uttered) is that the salute is meant as an expression to his family, that he carries his family in his heart when he rides, and that the salute isn’t so much about firing a gun. Rather, it is a reminder that he is thinking of his family.
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
I ache for Thomas Voeckler. I ache for Andy Schleck. I ache for the end of the Tour de France.
In a tweet today David Millar wrote that as he rode in his car back to the hotel they approached a rider in Europcar kit; they slowed and Millar turned to lock eyes with a “tired and broken” Voeckler, adding, “Tragic doesn’t come close to describe.”
The cynical among us will gouge Voeckler for hubris, for dreaming the impossible. To do so is to inject cyanide into the very notion of ambition. That he discovered immortality seemingly within his grasp and dared reach for it is to be human. I admire that he maintained humility enough to insist that he would lose the race even as it was obvious he’d mortgage his home for an extra 20 watts.
That he rode the finest time trial of his life today is, perhaps the greatest honor he could bestow on himself and the race; yes, he honored the Tour de France today with his ride. It was his greatest ride because it showed his real character. Unlike so many riders who slink to the back of the field to nurse their destroyed legs once a win slips from grasp, Voeckler did the unthinkable. He continued to ride like a contender, even when it would no longer reward him. How else do you tell the world you’ve come to believe, not just in yourself, but even that you’re a part of what may be a new cycling?
That again. Yes, I do believe that his performance says that the peloton is cleaner. Kolobnev and his new honorific aside—don’t get me started—what I hope, what I’d like to think is that for the riders who may really achieve something noteworthy, maybe they’ve gotten the message that those of us who actually care about the sport want them to do it without the drugs. Voeckler has, for my money, delivered the defining ride of this year’s Tour de France. I’ll always remember 2011 for Cadel Evans’ victory, but I hope that the years don’t fade Voeckler’s ride in yellow for me. For each of us who ever dared dream, his days in yellow and his ride today testify to what we may find within reach.
Next year, he’ll arrive with the bit between his teeth. For that, I can’t wait.
If you’d asked me yesterday how I’d feel once Evans accomplished what most of us thought was an essentially foregone conclusion, I’d have told you I’d be happy for him. He rode with confidence and authority. Who knows if the tactical genius that caused him to conserve when possible and burn any time he needed to deliver was his or his director’s. It hardly matters. His yellow jersey is our res ipsa loquitur.
What surprises me is how I view the remarkable reversal of fortune Andy Schleck has suffered. Second. Again. The comparisons to Raymond Poulidor are unavoidable now. Even if he does win someday, his record will be compared to every great rider who failed more than he succeeded. Unless, of course, this is the last of his non-wins for a while.
And while I do think he’s likely to win at some point, I’ll tell you now, unless Contador makes the same mistake again next year (if you can call victory in the Giro a mistake—and I know that’s a real stretch), the Spaniard will arrive at the start with a thirst for blood that even Eric Northman would admire. I don’t plan to bet against him.
I’ve been rough on Contador in the past. Let me say this: His ride will be a more enduring feature of this year’s race than Fränk Schleck’s was. He rode with determination and pride, even after he knew he couldn’t win. He never capitulated, and in that regard, he and Voeckler have something in common.
It’s fair to wonder if Contador will be at next year’s Tour, depending how the CAS proceeding goes. Its postponement has turned his case into a goat parade: something so stupidly slow and pointless that no one can bear to watch. Should the case against him be upheld and a suspension imposed, I say let it stand for time served. Re-writing this year’s Tour de France will be as distasteful as a shot of straight alcohol. Isopropyl, that is.
Whatever he may or may not have done last year was last year, if he doesn’t test positive this year, then let the clean result stand.
Back to Schleck the younger: I think I have some sense of his pain. The buildup to him taking the maillot jaune off Voeckler was so slow and yet seemingly assured as to be steamroller inevitable. To see him stripped of it only 24 hours later was a change in tempo that would rattle any audience. I wonder just how comfortable he allowed himself to get in that jersey. Did he sleep in it last night just so he could have it against his body for as long as possible? We can’t fault him for hoping; Voeckler taught that master class. Still, no one can be surprised by this outcome and there surely is pain in that for Schleck.
Tomorrow the Tour de France ends, and that is my biggest ache of all. For me, the end of the Tour is nearly the end of summer itself. Monday has the crushing letdown that December 26 did when I was a child. Perhaps this is what a heroin or coke addict feels when they crash. That first post-Tour ride bears an emptiness in the air. It’s as if summer itself has gone stale. I buck up after a few days, but it’s been this way for me since ’86.
Finally, cycling isn’t really known for tracking its own statistics particularly well. We roll blindly into each new season, often without any clue as to what the past tells us about it. A fair chunk of my work for peloton magazine has looked at the sport’s history and what it tells us about some of our greatest racers and races. While I think numbers can be manipulated for nefarious purposes with greased ease (just consider gasoline), the Tour has something to say about Evans’ looming win. Tomorrow afternoon, the Aussie will become—at age 34—the oldest first-time winner of the Tour de France in the modern age.
What I think this tells us is that as racers have become more disciplined about all aspects of their training, from diet to rest to number of days raced, they are extending their careers. This shouldn’t surprise us; crashes notwithstanding, this is how guys like Jens Voigt and Chris Horner remain useful—scratch that, strong—with their 40th birthday around the corner.
There may be hope for us all.
Vive le Tour.
Image: Chris Wallis, Photosport International
There’s only one question we can ask on a day like today and it’s the question you’ve been waiting for:
Who will don the yellow jersey in Paris?
We didn’t ask before now because we knew that it would take this long for the question to either be worth asking or pointless in asking.
Though three riders (Schlecks 1 & 2 and Cadel Evans) are separated by less time than it takes for the average man to answer the call of nature, it seems fair to call this a two-man race: Andy and Evans. Fränk will have to pedal for all he’s worth as well to try and preserve a second place he’s likely to lose to Evans, but it seems unlikely he’ll overhaul his brother for the win. In fact, the most likely scenario for Fränk to keep his second place is if Andy has a collapse on the road (figurative rather than literal) and Evans leapfrogs the brothers into the lead.
But what do we know? We were wringing our hands at the prospect of Alberto Contador making this race less than exciting. He did precisely the opposite, though for reasons he’s probably not wild about.
Also, do you think Thomas Voeckler has any chance of ascending the podium?
And just to make this interesting, if someone can guess the top three and their final GC time gaps +/- five seconds, you’ll get an RKP cycling cap. Make sure to post your comment before the start of stage 20.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International