Is it me, or does it seem like forever since Tom Boonen did the Roubaix/Flanders double back in April? At the time, I thought, “No one is going to top that this year.” And yet, as Ryder Hesjedal won the Giro d’Italia and Alberto Contador won the Vuelta, each time I was stunned by the beauty of the performance. Love him or hate him, Contador’s attacks on Stage 17 of his home Grand Tour to turn the GC on its head were the stuff of absolute legend.
In Italy, Hesjedal, the lanky Canadian, hung around and hung around and hung around the top of the standings until the closing time trial, in which he took back the 31 seconds Joaquim Rodriguez, held over him and became the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour. And as awesome as that time trial was for Hesjedal, the climbing he did in the final week, marking his rivals and responding to attacks, made the whole thing just that bit more special.
Some might even argue that Bradley Wiggins’ metronomic destruction of the field at the Tour was the ride of the season. Sure, his Sky team did everything just right, overwhelming the field with tempo riding in all terrains, but Wiggins had to close the deal with big climbs and winning time trials.
For me, Boonen’s April is the clear choice, but I have Classics biases. Roubaix and Flanders are both as much like wrestling matches as bike races, and in my mind, being able to dominate them as Tommeke did shows a strength unparalleled in the sport.
And still there were other big performances. This week’s Group Ride asks, what was the best pro ride of the season? Will anyone dare name Vinokourov’s gold medal? How about Philippe Gilbert’s world championship win? Name your winner and say why.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Early in the 19th Century the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge—famed for his poem Kubla Khan and laudanum—coined the term “suspension of disbelief.” It was his way of codifying the belief that a fantastic story if “infused with human interest and a semblance of truth” could be made believable. It’s what we did to our parents in high school when we lied about our whereabouts. We used the names of friends and familiar locations, places that we frequented in an effort to throw them off the scent. For me, it worked until some time in my senior year.
If my opening paragraph isn’t sufficiently obscure, give me a second. I’m now going to pull in T.S. Eliot, who coined the term “objective correlative” early in the last century. It is an image that explicitly defines something that can otherwise be difficult to describe. To that end, I submit the image above from the film “Blade Runner.” Whether you like science fiction or not, the work has widely been hailed as the finest sci-fi film ever committed to celluloid. And for reasons that may never be fully plumbed, it achieves that element crucial to all science fiction: suspension of disbelief. We don’t question that there are androids, that it never seems to stop raining or that the 21st Century’s version of the car flies, as shown above.
Let’s consider the alternative. Above is a still from the Disney film “John Carter,” arguably one of the biggest flops of this year. Post-mortems on the film have decried the wooden acting, the Swiss-cheese script and the hyperbolic special effects. I can’t say what killed the film, but I know what killed it for me. I had been excited to see the Edgar Rice Burroughs masterpiece made into a film, but was dismayed the moment I saw the first trailer and it was precisely because of John Carter’s ginormous jump contained with said trailer. I recall commenting to my wife, “Okay, I’m out.”
It was that whole suspension of disbelief thing. “John Carter” takes place on Mars and has loads of jumping in it; it’s a thing, as they say, and over there (Mars, that is) to jump is to sak. The problem is that seconds into the trailer comes this jump that looks like Evel Knievel sans motorcycle and, well, it just looks silly. So I didn’t go see it. (As a complete aside, there’s a pretty fascinating discussion of bigger-than-life jumping in the movies in a piece published on Slate, though I think it gets the conclusion exactly wrong, in part because of the dismal box-office take of “John Carter.”)
Suspension of disbelief is crucial not just to science fiction, it’s crucial to all story telling. Imagine if you didn’t think that women really talk to each other and hang out as portrayed in “Sex and the City.” Apparently lots of people believe there are women exactly like them—and why shouldn’t they?
So when Philippe Gilbert stormed to victory at the World Championship Road Race on Sunday, if you’re anything like me you felt relief, the relief of seeing a longstanding omission—the absence of Philippe Gilbert from the podium—finally corrected, and along with it you felt elation, that Dopamine spark of joy at seeing a rider you like spank the field. Gilbert is a rider whose style I like and—more importantly—whose riding I’ve been hoping is clean. But that’s a problem; for suspension of disbelief to work you have to be all-in. The moment you even ask the question about whether or not what you’re seeing or reading is real, the illusion has been busted—metaphorically and literally.
I actively want to believe that a clean rider beat a field that was partially or maybe even mostly clean. Actually, it doesn’t matter just how clean the rest of the field is, so long as Gilbert was clean. That’s the key. In winning, cycling is as clean as the winner.
Which is why I hated the Olympic Road Race outcome with a passion that I (otherwise) reserve for child molesters. Alexander Vinokourov is part of that generation of riders, guys whose knowledge of the sport is so predicated on medical assistance that I suspect they have ceased to believe they can achieve anything remotely like their doped form through clean methods. It’s a kind of worst-case-scenario for institutional memory, dysfunction that persists simply because all other ways have been forgotten. Clearly, Vinokourov’s statements following his suspension and his refusal to talk about his “dark page” and his inability to understand what this issue was when he decried that he had only engaged in the training methods used by everyone else have shown him to be a rider that cycling can do without. Seeing him win the gold medal was a moment that didn’t fill me with the slightest bit of elation. The question I asked myself was, “What are the chances that he’s clean?”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the big problem. But here’s the thing: It’s not Vino’s fault. And that I’m asking questions about guys like Gilbert and Bradley Wiggins isn’t their fault, either. The problem lies with the UCI. I have observed in other pieces that the UCI has long been a status-quo organization. Until recently, they really only ever made efforts to change the sport after colossal embarrassments. And defining those embarrassments is easy; they are any time the sport makes international headlines for a reason not connected with a win. Tom Simpson dies during the Tour de France. International headlines. Bad for business, need drug tests. A few Dutch cyclists die in their sleep because of a little-known drug that turned their blood to pudding. Not even national news? Whew; stay the course. Olympic gold medalist Fabio Casartelli dies after hitting his head in a crash. International headlines complete with color footage. Bad for business; need helmet rule. A soigneur with enough doping products to start a pharmacy is stopped at the border. More international headlines. And now, the biggest name in cycling in the last 30 years has been shown to be playing the game, well, the way it’s played.
Bad for business? Yeah, ya think?
Whether or not the allegations that the UCI covered up positives by Armstrong are true, it doesn’t matter. There is plenty of damning evidence that they only ever acted enough to maintain the appearance of a clean sport. Had they truly been serious about cleaning up the sport they would have gotten serious about testing for EPO in the wake of the death of Bert Oosterbosch, the first of those Dutch cyclists to die in their sleep. They wouldn’t have waited years and years to come up with the half-assed solution of testing hematocrit levels. No, had they been serious, they would have begun investigating a test for EPO before Greg LeMond retired.
But let’s take a moment to consider the situation the UCI was in. Hein Verbruggen had inherited the mantle of a sport that had been doped since the first running of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Up until the 1990s, an approach of making the sport clean enough that no one was dying had more or less worked. If there is one sin for which we should forgive him, it is that he believed he should stay the course, that staying the course was the best approach. What he didn’t anticipate was American society. What he didn’t anticipate was a world where you’re either a saint or a sinner, but never both. What he didn’t anticipate was the perfect storm of Lance Armstrong, Macchiavellian doping and ambitious American investigators.
Verbruggen’s sin, and now by extension Pat McQuaid’s, is that he claims that the sport is clean, the UCI did all it could, all it needed to, that no more could have been done than was. Which is just crazy talk. The first lesson you learn as a bike racer is that just because you won a bike race you should never, ever think that means you are the fastest guy on a bike.
And so I submit to you the de facto evidence that the UCI has not done enough: Every time someone wins a big bike race our response is not to celebrate; rather it is to wonder, to ask the question, “Was that athlete clean?” Why was Bradley Wiggins asked about his training methods at the Tour de France? Simple, because he was wearing the yellow jersey.
We have lost the suspension of disbelief. And given how hard most of us want to believe, how much we love the sport, the heartache is more than some of us can bear.
Mr. McQuaid, Mr. Verbruggen, you haven’t done enough. Not by a long shot, and if you think that suing Paul Kimmage is the answer, then you, sirs, are unfit for your respective offices.
You’re not kings and shooting the messenger is no longer a viable option. The peasantry has risen up and we will defend him.
We’ve asked you for a clean sport. You can’t seem to manage the task. And now the talk is of starting a new federation, one that understands the stakes of the game, the will of the fans. Stay tuned.
Images: Warner Bros. Pictures, Disney Pictures, Fotoreporter Sirotti
So Alberto Contador won the Tour de France by a margin slimmer than many said was possible, a margin equal to what he clawed out with the aid of Dennis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez on stage 15. We can argue about all the places each rider gained or lost time, but really, the race comes down to two fateful events: Schleck’s mis-shift on 15 and his later 39-second gap in the final time trial. The symmetry of the two events is more difficult to ignore than the economy.
And just to be ultra-clear about this, yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.
I should also point out that even though he twice went for stage wins for himself, Alexander Vinokourov proved to be both valuable and loyal to Contador in the mountain stages. Vinokourov sat on Schleck on stage 15 and never rode for himself by taking a pull at the front of the group. He’ll always be an unpredictable element in my mind, but he demonstrated his value to the Astana team repeatedly. He deserves to be recognized.
But individual performances aside, if we back up and look at the 2010 Tour de France as an elaborate chess game involving 22 players, some interesting questions emerge.
First, what the hell has Johan Bruyneel been thinking? He fielded the most experienced team in the Tour de France, sure, but it was also the oldest team by an Egyptian pharaoh. The most youthful element of the team was the management company’s formation documents. Even if we accept the possibility that the fight went out of Armstrong following his daily crashes so that by the time the time trial came around, he really wasn’t trying—which is why we didn’t see the form necessary to win the race overall anywhere in the same time zone as him—we should still ask the question: Why did no one else other than Chris Horner ride like his career was at stake?
Speaking of recognition, let’s hope that Horner feels some satisfaction and vindication at his stellar ride. It’s one of the best performances by a rider over the age of 35 ever at the Tour, and is his single best performance there. It was his misfortune to sign for a French team when he first went to Europe and his worse fortune to have his career coincide with Armstrong’s. Had he hit Europe five years earlier than he did, he could have led Motorola in its quest to do something significant in a Grand Tour. Or not. There have long been reports that Jim Ochowicz (director of Motorola and now one of the powers that be at BMC) had issues with the formerly feisty San Diegan.
Back to Bruyneel. His reputation as a kingmaker able to deliver a worthy rider to a Grand Tour victory has suffered its first setback. Even with the triple-barrel shotgun of Armstrong, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer he was unable to deliver any one of them to the top 10. Horner’s performance was the sort of showing that the French teams generally hope to luck into but can plan no better than a chimp considering retirement.
With that much talent and so little to show for it, the brass at The Shack might be understandably perturbed.
This time last year many of us were beginning to rethink what might be possible age-wise in a Grand Tour. Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.
And cast in the light of failure, Armstrong seems less ambitious, less hungry, less focused on highlighting the cause of cancer than just gluttonous, a corpulent ego.
But that’s how we play it isn’t it? When our heroes fall, we pounce.
But even if the Radio Shack board is less than thrilled, imagine what’s going on in the boardroom at Sky. Isn’t the question there whose head rolls first?
Seemingly a world away, Bjarne Riis has proven that he knows how to bring the race to anyone he wants. He’s delivered Tyler Hamilton, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck all to podium finishes at Grand Tours, though his record of wins (just two) is rather slim despite the obvious strength of his team.
Yvon Sanquer, a name you may not be very familiar with even after his team’s success, is the director of Team Astana and has kept a profile nearly as high as that of newly mown grass. His previous best result as a team director was after being brought in to rescue Team Festina (not unlike what he was asked to do with Astana) and his riders (mostly Marcel Wüst) were able to take a stage of the Tour de France along with four stages of the Vuelta plus some stages at lesser stage races. Before 2010, his riders’ closest association to the winner of a Grand Tour was if they had chatted with him.
And yet, somehow Sanquer brought together what seemed to be an underpowered team and saw to it that Contador was rarely without help in the mountains.
Despite the Astana team performing as if it were still run by Johan Bruyneel—admit it, it was an impressive performance that very few thought could truly deliver the goods as a cohesive unit this past January—I am surprised by the number of people I hear from who just plain don’t like Alberto Contador. To the degree that maybe many cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about him, it seems that even if his counter attack on stage 15 didn’t rile people, the fact that he lied about not knowing what was going on with Andy Schleck seems to have sent some fans around the bend. I’ve not been a fan of some of his tactics, and have thought some of his interviews with the Spanish media were whiny and meant to play the pity card, which strikes me as unseemly—like the Super Bowl winning team sniffling about playing hurt, but it struck me as insulting to fans everywhere for him to claim he couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with Schleck.
Which brings me to Jonathan Vaughters. Of the teams bidding for Contador’s services last year, Vaughters’ Garmin-Transitions formation was one of the teams in the running to sign the diminutive Spaniard. There are reports that after all of his efforts to leave Astana he is now considering a new contract and staying.
Contador would do well to leave, so long as he left for Vaughters. Of the many team directors at the Tour de France, Vaughters is the one that seems to have an uncanny ability to help riders achieve greatness in the GC that he never could reach on his own. In three years of competing in the Tour de France Vaughters has delivered three different riders to top-10 finishes, first with Christian Vande Velde’s fourth place, then Bradley Wiggins fourth and now Ryder Hesjedal’s seventh place. In each case the riders were uniformly believed to be talented, but no one—other than Vaughters—considered them real GC vehicles on which to pin a team’s hopes.
Sanquer’s success with Contador suggests competence, nothing more. After all, if you can’t guide a previous Tour de France winning to yet another victory, what kind of team director are you?
Bjarne Riis has consistently put together one of the strongest, most cohesive teams on the planet. That he hasn’t won more may be a question of formula more than anything else. The question seems to be, ‘Why didn’t he win?’ rather than, ‘What’s it going to take to secure another win?’
Bruyneel is the great curiosity this year. He’s ripe for criticism. How should he deflect the charge that he went with Armstrong less for career than paycheck? If he didn’t go to Radio Shack for the paycheck, then why? It’s hard for Bruyneel to charge that Vinokourov is a more tarnished rider than some he has worked with. Contador clearly has a greater future than Armstrong does. Maybe the question is just how loyal a guy is Bruyneel. Some folks are loyal to a fault. Could it be so with him?
Even if he didn’t go to Radio Shack just for a bigger paycheck that is virtually guaranteed not to dry up mid-way through the season, where does he rank his ambitions as a director? Twelve of the team’s 26 riders have had their 30th birthday. Six of them are older than 32. The only rider on the team who is showing talent and is early in his career is Janez Brajkovič. Taylor Phinney doesn’t count because he’s only a staigiaire.
How else do you wind up with that many riders in need of a retirement party than by selecting a crew that can be depended on being utterly devoted to Armstrong? Now, there’s nothing wrong with being committed to supporting your team leader, but it is fair to ask how smart it is to construct a team for a single year’s performance. Even if Leipheimer, Klöden, Horner and Rubiera plan to ride Grand Tours next year, how capable will any of them be? Horner is the only guy I’d bet on as a good support rider for the simple reason that he is obviously still proving his value and talent long after most guys have quit.
You want to make the 2011 Tour de France really interesting? Get Vaughters to sign Horner.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The last ten days have surprised me for one unusual piece of news after another. I’m not normally one to write the grab-bag post, but because so many disparate pieces of news have elicited the same reaction in me, I figured the uniformity of my reaction is enough to include them in the same post.
I’ve followed discussions about rate of ascent (VAM) on Tour climbs with some interest. While I have found some of the numbers reported troubling, I haven’t been willing to place too much faith in those numbers because it’s hard to be certain of just where the climb starts and finishes are, which can throw off the math in the calculations. And even if you trust the calculations, I haven’t yet seen an argument connecting the dots in a way that lead to an inarguable conclusion that normal biology can’t produce a particular performance. That is, I hadn’t seen one until I read this post on the Science of Sport blog. It connects the dots in a very convincing way. Because we are getting more and more information about riders as they race, in the future it will be possible to look at a rider’s performance on a climb in a very objective manner and the math that Ross Tucker provides will help us sort the fiction from the clean.
Some folks I’d prefer would shut up, have been making headlines. On their own, they don’t merit posts, but Michael Ball and Rudy Pevenage both elicited a “You’re kidding.” from me but for entirely different reasons. One wonders why Pevenage decided it was time to admit his involvement in organizing Ullrich’s trips to Spain to see Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes now, yet more curious is why he thought he needed to tell us this little factoid. It’s not much of a confession as most everyone was satisfied that Ullrich was involved in Operacion Puerto; who served as travel agent is inconsequential, and Pevenage’s moral relativism—“It was normal”—isn’t washing.
Michael Ball, ex-pricey jean entrepreneur and director of Rock Racing—the only professional cycling team to model its organization after the Bad News Bears—was served with a search warrant. Presumably, the warrant is as a result of Floyd Landis’ confession, as it was filed by investigator Jeff Novitzky, who is remembered for bringing the house of BALCO down. If Novitzky smells smoke, there’s a conflagration.
Ball, who briefly employed Pevenage in 2008, congratulated Landis on coming clean, telling the New York Daily News: “Floyd is in a better place. Someone needed to come clean who was on the inside, who had lived it.”
However, what made my jaw drop was his crazy claim that, “I was in the sport for three years and I saw what went on. But not on my team, because I wouldn’t allow it.”
Really? I assume by “what went on” he means doping. Has he already forgotten about Tyler Hamilton’s positive test? If there’s one thing we’ve learned about doping it is that those closest to the riders sometimes do not know, so for Ball to suggest he knows something about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by pro riders he didn’t sponsor means that he thinks we’re dumber than he.
Speaking of Landis, his latest accusation, this one printed in the Wall Street Journal, is that he couldn’t get an extra bike to train on because Armstrong was busy selling bikes to—gasp—buy drugs. Here’s a newsflash: Teams have sold off bikes at the end of the season for ages. That Landis expects us to believe that just because he couldn’t account for the presence of 60 bikes it means they were sold to pay for doping. In addition to claiming that that Johan Bruyneel admitted the bike sales were paying for drugs, he has also claimed he paid for the drugs he took. Unridden team bikes won’t carry any sort of multiplier with collectors, so those bikes would have gone for roughly $5k apiece. The only bikes that carry any sort of multiplier would be those ridden by the team stars and having spoken with collectors, I can say Lance’s bikes weren’t going for $20k, even with the aid of photographic provenance. Even if the accusation is proven true, it really adds nothing significant to his story, which makes us wonder why he’s talking.
Speaking of bike sales, a week ago Campagnolo announced it would begin offering industry deals to verified industry employees. For those of you who have never worked in the industry, I can tell you this is the single most surprising piece of news in this post. As a shop employee I remember checking with multiple distributors to see who had the best prices on Campy any time I needed—er—wanted to purchase new gear. The difference in price between different distributors could mean saving as much as five percent which was what passed for a discount for us wrenches. It has been my understanding that Campy USA wanted to do this for ages, but Italy finally listened and came to appreciate that having shop staff riding their components could make a difference in how often they wind up on a custom build. Bravo to Campy.
And while I’m still mystified that anyone would try to defend Mark Renshaw head-butting Julian Dean and then shutting the door hard on Tyler Farrar, we’ve continued to get other head-scratching moments every day at the Tour de France. Take Alexander Vinokourov. Let’s be honest; he has a reputation for being a rogue rider, which is why his declaration that he would dedicate his effort to supporting Astana team leader, Alberto Contador was met with at least a bit of skepticism.
So what does Vino do? He goes off on a breakaway in the final kilometers of the climb to Mende. Let’s be clear, if you’re sole mission is to support your team leader, then you’re not heading out for stage wins—that’s a big, big effort and burns more than a few matches. But once gone, why not give the guy some rope, right? But Contador chases down Joaquin Rodriguez, and then proceeds to take a very strong pull.
As I’d been saying all week, I couldn’t stifle myself from saying, “Really?”
Was Contador teaching Vinokourov a lesson? Or was he really that nervous about Andy Schleck that he felt compelled to gain every second he could? It’s fair to wonder if Rodriguez had enough gas on his own to catch Vinokourov. At the point Contador began his chase of Rodriguez he knew that he couldn’t gain all that much time, certainly not enough to gain the yellow jersey. While Vinokourov has never been my favorite rider, but Contador managed to make me feel some sympathy for the win he was denied.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get weirder, Vinokourov takes off on yet another flyer. And fortunately for his efforts, he got the win in Revel. However, after taking breakaways two days in a row, does anyone—John Lelangue especially—think that Vinokourov will really have the gas necessary to work for Contador through the Pyrenees?
If he does have the reserves to provide support to Contador, it will be an impressive piece of riding. Impressive, and for this writer, suspicious. If he doesn’t, then his pledge to support Contador will have been proven to be BS, and Contador’s chase will be hard to criticize.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
On July 1, 2010, the 2010 Tour de France looked as if it would be one of the most competitive editions of the race in its history. Rarely has a Grand Tour had so much talent show up with winning in mind. It was as if the six best teams in the NFL took the field for the Superbowl.
This was a Tour whose closest parallel was perhaps the 1989 edition, where three former winners—Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond—took the start and were ultimately the race’s greatest protagonists. This year’s race also had three former winners toe the start line—Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Nearly as important is the fact it also had an amazing six former podium finishers—Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov—at the start, plus Denis Menchov, a three-time Grand Tour winner in his own right. It was to be The Great Showdown.
The point of a Grand Tour, of course, is to see who cracks, which riders fail under pressure, but even more importantly, which riders rise to the occasion and surprise themselves, their teams and the fans. With a field gushing talent and experience like an out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico, no one really thought there would be room for any insurgent talents, but the prospect that one of the former top-10s, such as Frank Schleck, Michael Rogers or Bradley Wiggins capturing a podium spot seemed less science fiction than the impossibility of sealing off that aforementioned well.
But here we are, nine stages into The Great Showdown and what do we have? A race of two. That is, the race will come down to Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck provided there are no race-ending crashes or other stunning tragedies that befall either rider. That said, the way this race is going, I am willing to accept the possibility that someone other than either of these two riders could win. This race has had that much bad luck.
Lance Armstrong’s good fortune seems at an end. I’ll say more on that in another post. Garmin-Transitions lost Christian Vande Velde in a crash and it’s odd to think he isn’t the only rider on that team nursing broken bones. Frank Schleck was rumored to be even stronger than brother Andy this year. And then there was Cadel Evans’ detonation. Even though this isn’t the first time he has choked under pressure, his eight-minute slide down the mountain and the standings must have caused a few jaws to hang open, mine among them.
Speaking of surprises, what of Team Astana? Last winter I wrote of the skeleton crew that had been hired just to give them enough riders to qualify for the ProTour. I was critical of the team and dinged the formation for not having the climbers necessary to defend Contador when he would most need it. Tonight’s meal will include a serving of my words.
What should we make of Alexander Vinokourov’s performance so far? The great fear was that he would go rogue and ride for himself and challenge Contador’s leadership. His performance, while good, has been erratic enough that I can’t say whether he has been riding for himself or not. There certainly have been times when his riding hasn’t seemed to be for the benefit of Contador, but then, in this race anything seems possible.
It is with the impossible in mind that arrive at Samuel Sanchez. Two podium finishes at the Vuelta are maybe on a par with a top-10 at the Tour de France, so almost no one seriously considered this guy to be a podium threat. Sure, he is the leader of Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is something like being a favorite if for no reason other than he is protected (in theory) by eight guys. But a real contender?
I’m beginning to think the battle for the last step of the podium is between Sanchez, Menchov, Gesink and Leipheimer. I think Van Den Broeck will crack, as will Basso, late in the Pyrenees. The fact that there is but one remaining time trial and it is at the end of the race will threaten a GC shuffle, and while we think the likely beneficiaries would be Contador, Menchov and Leipheimer, I refuse to bet. Anything seems possible right now.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Well it’s been one of those weekends. First, a note on RKP. The site was infected with some malware that not only took the site down for hours that felt like days, but left behind numerous other files that took hours more to delete, even once the site was fully back online. How the attack occurred is still unknown; security was seemingly tip-top and all software was up to date. Guess it was bound to happen sometime. All I can say is that Mexican drug lords are too good a fate for the people who dream this stuff up. Thanks for your patience and notes of concern.
Meanwhile, the Tour of Italy was busy touring … the Netherlands. I get how the Tour de France starts outside of France every other year. Starting in Germany or Switzerland and riding into France lends the race an elegant international feel, and everyone—even non-cyclists—gets the sense of journey that comes with finishing a ride or race in a different nation. But starting three countries away? As a sense of story goes, it’s absurd. As race planning goes, it’s even worse, as evidenced by today’s rest day, which has been selected not for the racers’ recovery—which was the days’ original purpose—but rather for a transfer that risked being derailed a volcano. You can’t dream this stuff up.
In the prologue, there was a lot of love for David Millar and fellow Brit, Bradley Wiggins. The only surprise in the day’s results was the lack of surprise that came with Wiggo’s victory. It’s funny how our perception of the import of a great ride differs when the victor is someone vying for overall victory (which we chalk up as confirmation of form) versus a bit player such as Brent Bookwalter (where we hope he has just pulled one out of his hindquarters and not a more sinister indication that something is rotten in proverbial Denmark).
And in three days of racing we’ve had three different riders wear the maglia rosa. No surprise in that, but there’s a lot of surprise in seeing three of the race’s favorites—Wiggins, Cadel Evans and Alexander Vinokourov—trade the pink jersey like baseball cards.
That Wiggins, Evans and Vinokourov have all worn the leader’s jersey and not some sprinter interlopers is highly unusual. I can’t recall a Grand Tour that has unfolded this way in … ever. It speaks to just how aware this year’s favorites are that they must remain attentive and up front, just in case.
Seemingly, another character in this year’s Giro is the crashes. Amateur criteriums don’t feature this many crashes per day. Crashes have ended the hopes for Christian Vande Velde as well as Wiggins. And while Wiggins isn’t out of the race, his 4:26 deficit in a race with this much climbing means he’s unlikely to do more than take a stage win.
Of course, the majority of you who weighed in are looking for Carlos Sastre to take the overall victory. He’s a rider with a great deal of class and a willingness to attack. But will that be enough? True, his climbing talent makes him suited for this course, but we can’t forget that his Tour de France win came less due to his aggression than due to tactics that saw him ride away while Evans marked teammate Andy Schleck. If he can play riders against each other to his advantage once again, he could be formidable, just like that damn malware.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We’re featuring another tag-team pair of posts regarding doping and our views on how well sanctions are working … and what might be done to improve the situation. What follows is my post. You can find Robot’s post here.—Padraig
For reasons I can’t explain, doping has yet to kill my enthusiasm for professional bike racing. My knowledge of what takes place in private has changed my view of the sport and injected a frustration into what would otherwise be a pursuit devoid of downside. Even so, I continue to watch.
And while I temper my tongue, I admit that because I’m a connect-the-dots sort, whenever anyone crosses the line first, there’s a moment, a moment I try to reduce to something even shorter than an eye blink, but a moment I can’t wipe away. I wonder if the winner is clean.
There are people in cycling who have, following various positive tests, claimed that cycling is winning the war on doping. People in high places, such as the ASO and UCI. If by winning they mean more positive tests, well then yes, we seem to be leading the race by 10 seconds with 40k to go.
How anyone ever had the epiphany that we should declare wars on concepts such as doping, facism or terror, I’ll never know. Weirder still is the fact that too few intelligent people have observed an undeniable truth: You can’t stamp out an idea, no matter how good or bad it is.
The underlying practice of doping—the desire to gain a competitive edge over one’s rivals by any means necessary set down roots in the very nature of survival. At its most elemental, the desire to win is the very desire to live. It wasn’t so many years ago that our ancestors were competing for food and shelter on a literal basis. Today, we’re competing with SATs, GPAs, income and Fortune Magazine rankings. It still comes down to a fight for resources.
That some athletes will go to whatever length is necessary to cross the line first should not surprise us. There’s a dark side to the human condition that emboldens some people to ignore rules that society has agreed to obey. These days, most everyone can find ready examples at hand in Wall Street and oil companies.
In 1982 a researcher named Bob Goldman began asking elite athletes a question. Would they take a drug that would guarantee them an Olympic gold medal but would also result in their death within five years?More than half the athletes surveyed responded yes, they would take the drug. From 1982 to 1995 Goldman continued to survey elite athletes and the survey bore the same result each time—more than half the athletes said they would take the drug.
The question became known as the Goldman Dilemma.
Recently, a group of researchers decided to pose the Goldman Dilemma to a population of non-athletes. Some 250 people were asked the question. Only two responded that they would take the drug. That’s less than one percent of the respondents.
The British Journal of Medicine published the paper last year. One of the study’s authors, James Connor, Ph.D., summed up the findings thusly: “We were surprised. I expected 10-20 percent yes.”
His big conclusion? That “elite athletes are different from the general population, especially on desire to win.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious.
In reading the study, which was drier than sandstone, I drew two conclusions of my own. First, that doping isn’t going to go away. Ever. The drive to achieve fame, power and glory is too strong with some athletes to simply leave the result to chance. No length is too great for those athletes; stacked deck doesn’t begin to describe the lengths some would go to ensure a win. If you are willing to die prematurely to get a gold medal at the Olympics, then ordinary doping isn’t much of a threshold to cross.
The second conclusion I drew is that this population is very, very small. If the 250 respondents are representative of society, then less than one percent of the population will show this predilection. Unfortunately, I expect that sports will draw these people to an unusual degree. But here’s where nature steps in: No amount of drive can overcome a lack of talent. Not everyone who has the drive to achieve gold will also have the requisite talent necessary to reach the elite ranks of a given sport.
Without spending too much (any) time with the statistics regarding these slices of population, I suspect that less than five percent of all the cyclists with enough talent to make it to the pro ranks will also have the amoral inclination to take any drug necessary to guarantee a win.
In his book “From Lance to Landis,” cycling journalist David Walsh divided pro cyclists into two camps, the “draggers”—those who tended to initiate doping as a means to win, and the “dragged”—those riders who were essentially coerced into doping as a means to survive.
That less than five percent are your draggers, not the dragged. Get rid of them and you can have a reasonable hope for a clean sport.
A few years ago I wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times in the wake of Bjarne Riis’ confession that he used EPO on his way to winning the 1996 Tour de France. Getting the LA Times editorial page interested in cycling is as difficult as getting a vegan interested in steak tartare. And yet somehow, they thought my idea—a truth and reconciliation commission a la South Africa to get at doping practices and doctors—had enough merit to warrant their attention.
The piece made it its way to the powers that be at the UCI.
I barely had space enough to get the idea out before I had to close the piece. It amounted to a political campaign ad—great idea with few details. It’s worth spelling out the finer points of my suggestion. Even if the UCI is as likely to listen to me now as they did in 2007.
The idea is simple. It is based on an invitation: Come tell us what you know. Tell us what you’ve done, and tell us anything you have seen with your own eyes. Give everyone until the end of 2010 to fess up with anything on their conscience. Add a little caveat: if you test positive after December 31, 2010, you will be banned from the sport for life.
For those who confess, they will be granted immunity for all past misdeeds. You did blow on a stripper’s ass in Geneva? No worries. You won a stage of the 2009 Tour de France hopped up on growth hormone and pig’s blood? Your win stays in the record books.
However, for the confession to count, you have to tell everything you know to the tribunal on the spot. You can’t hold monthly press conferences and tease out details like kite string in a weak wind as Bernard Kohl did with the German media.
What’s more, I’d add yet another incentive. For every rider who tested positive sometime in the past, if they didn’t tell the full story and divulge everything they knew, were they to confess their full knowledge, they could get their salary reinstated for the term of the previous suspension. Back pay.
If the UCI pursued such a course of action, here’s what I think would happen: All the riders of the ilk of David Millar and Tyler Hamilton—guys who undoubtedly doped, but would be counted among Walsh’s dragged—would fess up before Thanksgiving. A few guys would weigh the odds and confess by Christmas. And there would be at least one bombshell as everyone was about to pop New Year’s Eve bubbly.
After that, each doctor implicated by a rider could confess his part and agree to cooperate with the UCI and WADA or face losing his medical license.
But the guys we would most like to catch, the ones who ultimately coerce the rest of the peloton—either implicitly by being faster or explicitly by telling them they need to step up and deliver for the team—won’t say a word.
Would we hear from Vinokourov, from Basso, from Ricco? Don’t hold your breath. Would Ullrich speak up if he knew the truth could restore some of his tarnished reputation?
So could this be a one-time house-cleaning? Not likely. It is something the UCI would almost certainly have to bring back at irregular intervals (say three to five years depending on how fast the racing is) just to find out what the latest bunch of doctors have cooked up. In nabbing the doctors there would be a reasonable hope of plowing that field under for a few seasons.
If we are lucky, years from now we will remember Bjarne Riis as a heroic figure not for his incredible talent for managing a team of talented riders and encouraging them to work together, nor for his Tour de France win. If we are lucky, he will be remembered as a hero, the first rider to have the courage to stand up and tell the truth without first being caught.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.
Robot has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Linger. Fester. Spread. Grow.
When you think about the words that are used in conjunction with the noun suspicion they are words used to apply action to sores, smells and cancers. And like a cancer, suspicion can spread in directions surprising and predictable at equal rates.
Alexander Vinokourov’s win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us examples of both. That suspicions linger about what sort of rider he is—that is, how he achieves his success—should surprise no one. What may have surprised you was to hear boos from the crowd as he crossed the line. No matter who’s feed you watched, the crowd’s disapproval was audible.
Was Vinokourov naive to be shocked? No. It was a crowd display that is unprecedented and stands in direct opposition to Richard Virenque’s win in Paris-Tours just months after his return to competition following his suspension for doping. The two situations couldn’t be more similar and yet, the crowd reactions couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
Virenque was hailed by the crowd as if he was a returning war hero. He was lionized in the (French) press as a true champion. He was still and again Richard the Lionhearted, the darling of France.
Vino? Not so much.
To be booed must have hurt. How could it not? That’s got to be defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. And then to be questioned by the press as much about his past vis-a-vis doping as the circumstances that led to his win was obviously infuriating, so much so that he took the unusual step of writing an open letter to the cycling world. You’ve probably seen it, but if not, you can read it here.
Vinokourov asks a fair question: Why can he line up for a race, but not win it? Indeed, the boos took the sweetness of victory from him more certainly than the UCI ever could. Why roll across the line first if you won’t be granted the crowd’s adulation?
Many writers have contrasted Vinokourov with David Millar and wondered why we accept the Scot, but not the Kazakh. It’s a fair comparison and could serve as a very teachable moment for Vinokourov.
So Millar’s apartment in Biarritz is raided by police and they find a syringe with traces of EPO. Millar responds by confessing. He told us not only that he had used EPO, he told authorities exactly how long he had used the drug and how using it weighed on him.
As doping confessions in cycling go, it’s the single best example out there.
Richard Virenque denied, denied, denied and then confessed—tearily—in court at the sharp end of a prosecutor. It worked for the French but anyone without a Gallic soul was left adrift by it.
Bernard Kohl conducted interviews on a monthly basis with German media, teasing out details of his past and his knowledge of doping in what seemed to be a calculated effort to keep his name in the headlines. In the end, it seemed self-serving.
Kayle Leogrande confessed in confidence to soigneur Susanne Sonye and after she testified about what he told her he sued her. That suit was ruled a SLAP and tossed out of court, but not until another cyclist, lawyer Tom Fitzgibbon, came to her rescue. Leogrande? Persona non grata to the cycling world.
Four confessions. Four very different results.
Vinkourov has confessed virtually nothing. We remain suspicious. We suspect much about his past. And because he has done things recently—such as train in Tenerife (the current haunt of doping docs Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes), a place nearly as out-of-the-way as Mexico when considered from the Continent—that smack of present doping practices, we suspect there is more to the story.
In his letter he refers to “the dark years of my career.”
Imagine that on the evening Vinokourov was ejected from the Tour in 2007 he had given a press conference. And suppose that during the press conference he had said, “Yes, I used a clinic in (insert name of German town here) to conduct blood doping. Earlier, when I was at T-Mobile, we used EPO and our system was organized by (insert name of dirtbag here). My first drug use was in 199x and that season I won X, Y and Z with its help.
We wouldn’t like the news, but at least we’d know. His suspension, in the wake of a confession could serve as a sort of penance for all of his past doping.
Vinokourov was suspended for a single infraction—not years of drug use—and to this day has confessed nothing directly. He says, “I don’t think cycling needs to reconsider all these dirty stories to move forward.”
Wrong. Worse yet, he adds, “I have nothing to hide.”
Again, he has confessed nothing, though he has referred obliquely to years of drug use, so it is impossible for this one suspension to serve as penance for years of standard practice. He is still hiding much.
Let’s consider how the courts would view this. For pleading guilty and confessing the full extent of the crime(s), a person is almost always rewarded with a reduced sentence. And then there’s the plea bargain, in which the criminal signs a full and complete confession and in exchange is charged with a lesser crime. Very often, it’s a trade to avoid being convicted of a felony. In the United States, the punishment for a felony conviction lasts long after any prison time has been served and any fine paid. The felon cannot vote and will forever have ‘splaining to do in job interviews.
It would seem that Vinokourov is suffering the sort of moral equivalent to a felony conviction. He won the race, but not in the hearts of many present.
In closing his letter he writes, “I can’t do more than what the sport regulations ask me, to prove my honesty. Today, I only wish to be respected as I respect everyone, my colleagues in the peloton as the journalists. I don’t want to be the only and too easy target for all the ills of cycling.”
In this, he misses the point entirely. He has never proven his honesty. Sure, he’s testing clean now, and while we should applaud him for that much, because we don’t know the full extent of his past, we struggle to trust him in the present.
And is he the “only and too easy target”? Not by a long shot. Now would be exactly the wrong moment for him to play the persecution card.
Vino, you have nothing in common with Job.
Let us hear him say, “I did X. I was wrong. I am sorry,” and that, sports fans, truly is a game changer.
Were Vinokourov to hold a press conference on the eve of the Giro d’Italia and finally confess everything he did and knew, I truly believe he could win the prologue the next day and be applauded.
His career is a matter of reputation, something only he can restore.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Alexander Vinokourov has struck out at critics of his recent victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He released this letter to the media as a rebuttal to the boos he heard at the finish line and the questions he was asked after the race about his doping past.
“While reading the press comments regarding my last victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège I was deeply saddened. I don’t understand this persecution against me.
“I can’t do anything against the doubts hanging over me since the 2007 case, but I reject all the accusations brought against me today, without any evidence.
“Since my return in August, I have always been honest with the press, I responded to all requests for interviews, I have hidden nothing. Ironically, my victory in Liège seems to revive old jealousies for which I am not responsible.
“The media comments contrast with the hundreds of congratulatory messages from fans that I keep getting on my website and my Facebook page. I don’t understand this discrepancy. As if I had to be forbidden of success on my bike to leave everyone with a clear conscience.
“In which sport are we allowed to be at the start of a competition without the right to win? I love cycling, it gave me everything and I want to give it good things in return.
“I paid two years on suspension for the dark years of my career. If I repeated that I didn’t want to talk about it, it’s only for the sake of my sport. I don’t think cycling needs to reconsider all these dirty stories to move forward.
“This is my personal vision of this problem, everybody is not obliged to share it. Obviously my attitude that I consider the most correct and most respectful way possible is one more time misinterpreted. I’m sorry. Again, I have nothing to hide.
“Since my comeback I have been the subject of more than 30 doping tests, all negatives, including 21 in the context of the ADAMS. This allows me to validate my biological passport and therefore to race.
“In Tenerife, where I had my recent training before the Tour of Trentino that raised the indignation of some journalists, I was subject to two unannounced blood and urine tests in two weeks.
“I can’t do more than what the sport regulations ask me, to prove my honesty. Today, I only wish to be respected as I respect everyone, my colleagues in the peloton as the journalists. I don’t want to be the only and too easy target for all the ills of cycling. “
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Astana team was the single most interesting story at this year’s Tour de France because it was really the only story of the 2009 Tour de France. Without Astana, Saxo Bank would have all but raced away from the rest of the field. During the Tour the conflict emanated from Lance Armstrong’s and Alberto Contador’s dual desires to win the Tour de France. That conflict produced a lot of collateral damage; top was Contador’s relationship with team director Johan Bruyneel. Additionally, rider relationships suffered and even tension emerged between some of the riders and support staff.
Things got weirder even before the Tour ended. Bruyneel had made it known that Alexander Vinokourov wasn’t exactly welcome at Astana. Bruyneel’s lack of interest in working with Astana’s raison d’etre is understandable; he has enough trouble projecting the image that Astana is a team of clean riders without accepting into the fold a rider coming back from a two-year suspension. As a result, Vinokourov issued the classic ultimatum: him or me. So Bruyneel announced his departure and told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, “The reason for my leaving is that Vinokourov is back riding with Astana.”
Indications are that Bruyneel and Vinokourov have reached an uneasy truce by keeping their distance; Bruyneel hasn’t been seen at races Vinokourov in which has competed. It seemed a reasonable solution—avoid each other until Bruyneel’s exit to The Shack.
Which brings up the exodus. Armstrong’s exit was quick and easy; because he was unpaid he never had a contract—boom, he’s gone. Contador wants out but as been reported ad infinitum, he’s got another year on his contract and Astana hasn’t wanted to allow him to buy out his contract. Team Radio Shack has signed Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaroslav Popovych, Haimar Zubeldia, Gregory Rast, Thomas Vaitkus and Sergio Paulinho. Swiss riders Steve Morabito and Michael Schar are leaving for BMC. That’s 11 of 28 riders leaving only four riders (Contador, Vinokourov, Dmitriy Muravyev and José Luis Rubiera) who have competed in the Tour de France.
Not so fast. Astana management have noticed the shrinking team and have put the kibosh on the departures of Kloden, Popovych, Zubeldia and Rast. Normally, a support rider buying out his contract is as eventful as purchasing batteries at Radio Shack, but while Astana’s management may have trouble making payroll (the final $2 million installment for the 2009 season has not yet been paid), they can do the math: If the Kazakhstan government loses the sport’s most successful director and every rider who wants to leave, the only veteran left from this year’s Tour de France team will be the beneficiary of Kazakhstan’s version of Affirmative Action: Dmitriy Muravyev. Were all these departures to take place, there’s no way the team would keep its ProTour license which would make it largely irrelevant as an international statement of cycling prowess.
The surprise here is that Astana’s management hasn’t done more to bolster the team by replacing those who have left or want to leave. If you consider just those riders who have definitely left—Armstrong, Leipheimer, Horner, Paulinho, Vaitkus, Morabito and Schar—the team is decimated and needs some serious recruiting. So why isn’t this happening?
The answer may lie in Contador’s woes. He has reported that each time he has a meeting with Astana management that meeting is followed by another meeting in which the new team representative discredits the previous team representative. Contador’s brother and agent, Fran, has refused to negotiate further until team leadership is clarified. If there’s no clear management structure in place (and that seems a reasonable conclusion) then it isn’t terribly surprising what little management there is agrees every rider who can be retained should be.
As a management strategy, it’s very short sighted. Riders can be expected to assist each other at key race times because they will want to have something for their palmarés when it’s time to negotiate with another team. However, morale will suffer and performances will suffer and that will hurt their value, which is why its imperative for Kloden and the rest to get out now. Bruyneel could sit on his hands for the year and The Shack would still want him for 2011; he’d be wanted anywhere.
There’s still time for a happy ending, though not much and perhaps not quite everyone.
Without any new signings, Astana will fall below the 25-rider minimum that the ProTour requires. Without 25 riders the team loses its ProTour status (one can imagine a last-ditch effort by the Kazakhstan government to give a license to any citizen who has won a bike race). With the team’s loss of its ProTour license, Contador could invoke a clause in his contract that grants his release should the team lose its ProTour status. This is one problem a new sponsor’s money can’t solve.
How many teams would have the funds to pay Contador at such a late date? It could be a stretch for Caisse d’Epargne and Contador isn’t likely to accept a cut in pay. However, word is Jonathan Vaughters has a sponsor waiting in the wings; should he land Contador, Garmin-Slipstream becomes Garmin-Somethingelse and Contador gets paid what he’s worth. That might finally give Vaughters reason enough to let Wiggins out of his contract so he can ride for Team Sky, which has more than enough budget to pay him what he’s worth as well as give him unquestioned leadership. A confidential source familiar with the team tells me Wiggins hates the management at Garmin-Slipstream and is desperate to leave.
Were Contador to finally escape Astana a new question would arise. What then of Bruyneel, Kloden, Zubeldia, Popovych and Rast? There’s no word on whether the five have similar ProTour requirement clauses in their contracts. Even if Astana management held them hostage for a year, it is unlikely the team could accomplish much. But after all the turmoil the great irony would be to see Bruyneel manage a decimated Astana led by Vinokourov—the only two people who stated publicly they would never work together, bound to the same team.