I’ve ridden a great many bike events over the years. From charity rides that were as elaborately produced as a wedding to road races marshaled by a van with half a million miles on it and industrial park crits that were as nondescript as the buildings we rode by. In that time I’ve run across one event that I really feel has gotten the formula right for producing a memorable cycling event. And it’s no secret that I think that event is Levi’s Gran Fondo.
I first went up to ride the gran fondo just because I wanted to go for an organized ride in Sonoma County. That it was to be a gran fondo—that is, a century with a mass start and controlled intersections to make it a bit more like an actual race—was more interesting to me than the ride being attached to a big pro. What interested me was doing a 100-mile ride with loads of climbing and great descents and only putting down my foot when I got to a rest stop. Not having to stop every few miles for a red light was easily worth the entry fee.
I got that experience, but I also got plenty more. I was amazed at the hordes of volunteers. There were volunteers who knew what they were doing everywhere I went. Out on the course there were police and fire officers helping to direct us and families at the end of driveways applauded us. I’d never done an event where someone cheered for me nearly every mile.
Then there was the fact that the ride had attracted licensed racers, dedicated century riders, double-century types for whom an event like this is just a good start as well as families. It was the broadest cross section of riders I’d ever encountered at a single event.
I became curious how the guys at Bike Monkey had managed to run an event through at least half a dozen different towns, on roads that are popular with tourists. I can think of a half dozen event promoters who would have looked at the proposed route, and a start and finish in the city of Santa Rosa and have pronounced it impossible.
The reason I was curious was simple: To my eye, a couple of guys in Santa Rosa had figured out how to make a single grass roots cycling event attractive to nearly anyone, everyone. When was the last time law enforcement, city governments, homeowners and cyclists all agreed on the value of a cycling event? To be sure, not everyone is in love with Levi’s Gran Fondo, but there are enough of us that the event has been happening without problems for four years.
The question that nagged at me was how. How did they do it? As it turns out, the answer is neither a secret nor impossible. Their strategy is a simple one: direct a portion of proceeds to charities. The AIDS Rides did that, but operationally, those rides were very different. They paid a cast of hundreds to work for them and they directed a tiny percentage to the actual charities meant to benefit. That strategy backfired when people learned that Pallotta Teamworks, the organizers behind the AIDS Rides, were really just a rather profitable event planner.
Bike Monkey doesn’t bill Levi’s Gran Fondo as a charity event. But the charity they do is no accident. What’s remarkable is how when 7,500 people each pay upwards of $100 to participate in a cycling event, you have some horsepower to get things done. Bike Monkey took that horsepower to a number of local charities. Among the beneficiaries of the gran fondo’s largesse are schools and fire departments along the route that the gran fondo follows. Those underfunded outposts receive checks that can make a real difference in the service they provide each year.
I shot these photos on a ride that Bike Monkey puts on the day before the fondo. It’s a chance for the top fundraisers attending the event to go on a short ride with Leipheimer and select VIPs. In addition to Levi and his wife Odessa Gunn, the very important types this year included the Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talanksy and Peter Stetina, Rebecca Rusch, Elden “Fat Cyclist” Nelson, Alison Tetrick of Team Exergy Twenty16, United Health Care’s Lucas Euser, Jeff Castelaz of the Pablove Foundation and Bissell rider Julian Kyer.
The ride went to Forget Me Not Farm on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. For those of you who haven’t seen “The Levi Effect,” Levi’s wife, Odessa, is a serious animal person and she volunteers there. Forget Me Not Farm rescues farm animals and uses them in therapy with kids who have been abused. Of course, their story is a good deal richer and more life-affirming than that, but that’s the elevator pitch. The farm is among the charities that the ride helps to support.
Attendees were served food grown at the farm and I can attest that the strawberries were as good as any I’ve had. Frankly, I didn’t think you could grow good strawberries that far north. It was a chance for people who don’t often have a chance to meet a pro cyclist to interact with a few of them, not to mention an opportunity to get an additional guided tour in while visiting Sonoma.
I am aware that some people are still hot enough about Levi Leipheimer’s doping to boil water. At some point I’m hoping we can move beyond the rage and begin to see the riders as pawns (most, if not all) in a system that was of the UCI’s making. Levi has served his suspension and no longer races; I think that should be enough to quell the anger. I’ve heard a few people say that the charity work that the gran fondo does is a chance for Levi to give something back to the community now that he’s no longer a pro. The funny thing is, that was always his intent. Those who know him have told me he shies from the limelight, that he really doesn’t want the attention. What was evident from “The Levi Effect” was how he got behind the idea of the gran fondo as a way to give back to a community that had accepted him as one of their own.
It was that vision, that desire to bring attention to the community, rather than the rider, that I think makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so very different from other events I’ve ridden. Perhaps it’s not the only one; certainly, I’ve not ridden all the rides there are, but it’s notably superior to every other ride I’ve done in its ability to deliver a stellar experience without hitch. That experience wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who are tied to the many charities to which the gran fondo donates. Think what you will of Levi for doping; whether you let go of your anger over that or not is beyond our control, but I hope you’ll bear this in mind: rather than using the event as a chance to bask in his fame, he turned the spot on the area, on something he loves and in that he gave Sonoma a boost it deserves, it needs.
We’re at an uneasy place with our heroes. Even without the benefit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the landscape of our understanding of professional bike racing in the last 20 years has fundamentally changed. For most followers of bike racing, doping went from this little problem in uncommon instances to a pervasive culture common to all but the rarest riders. While we beg for the truth about what occurred, as sporting fans, we’ve yet to embrace a single rider who confesses. As a group, we’ve yet to confer forgiveness to a single prodigal son.
Some people would like to see Leipheimer and every other confessed doper shot by firing squad, or at least expunged from the collective memory of cycling. Truly, some of the vitriol is hard to fathom. But he hasn’t gone away, nor has his eponymous event. To evidence this drop in stock value, entries for Levi’s Gran Fondo sold at a slower rate this year than they did in previous years. But they did sell out.
I’ve heard speculation that Santa Rosa wasn’t bringing the Tour of California back for a stage visit because the town was angry at Leipheimer for the shame he brought on the city and that the gran fondo wouldn’t last much longer. Really? The fact is, the city simply didn’t want to bear that expense in 2014, and if anything, due to the charitable work that Bike Monkey does, the gran fondo is more beloved than ever. While the long route sold out more slowly than it did in years past, the ride did sell out all three routes.
The staging area is almost the exact opposite of Interbike. At the trade show, I see a great many friends from the industry, such as Road Bike Action’s Zap (left) or TRUE Communications’ Mark Riedy (right), but unless I have an appointment, we’re all usually walking so quickly we don’t have a chance to say anything more than hi. In the staging area at Levi’s Gran Fondo, you’re standing around, waiting for the start, so it’s a good deal easier to actually chat with friends.
Shane Bresnyan (left) and Glenn Fant (right) are two of the faster guys in town and Glenn is the owner of NorCal Bikesport and the Bike Peddler and a significant sponsor of the gran fondo.
It was nice to see the Fat Cyclist himself, Elden Nelson and his wife, aka the Hammer.
Austin McInerny is the executive director for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and was there with a full gaggle of high school riders from the NorCal league.
Levi’s Gran Fondo always manages to pull in a number of bona fide cycling stars and at this year’s event, and this year Andrew Talansky, who finished 10th at this year’s Tour de France and lives nearby in Napa, came out to ride.
Luca Euser of United Healthcare chose to ride pretty far back in the group and could be seen pulling people from one rest stop to another. He’s got an event of his own coming up in Napa. I may need to attend that.
Saturday was one of those bluebird days that would have seemed like Indian Summer anywhere else, but because this was Sonoma County, you can get days like this late in the fall. And while the morning began down in the 40s and required riders to don arm warmers, vests or jackets and consider at least knee warmers or embrocation, most of the day carried conditions to make you wish for another week of days like this one.
The descent to the coast comes in two big drops. The first, Myers Grade, plummets with such abandon that I saw a few people walking it. I have to admit I went slower on it in past years, partly because of the people at the side of the road and partly because my confidence on fast steep terrain just hasn’t returned, even though it’s been a full year since my crash.
Just to do something a little different this year, I decided to do the climb up Willow Creek rather than the full run down the coast to Coleman Valley Road. Willow Creek starts with pavement that gives way to gravel and becomes a double-track ascent through the forest. On the climb the trees shaded the sun enough to drop the temperature more than five degrees.
It was only upon hitting the climb that I began to feel good. I’d spent the entire day, some 70 miles to this point with my legs effectively offline. My best guess is that while I had good fitness, the cold of the morning caused my lower back and left IT Band to tighten up like a suspension bridge. As a result, I found myself pedaling mile after mile at 17 mph. I felt fine otherwise, but I couldn’t generate any power and as a result, all the people I’d planned to ride with early on spun up the road as I watched group after group pass. The why of my pace wasn’t terribly important, other than it gave me something to consider for a while, but the pace itself did force me to confront a larger issue. How was I going to handle it? I’d been riding well and wanted to rip one that day.
I thought back on Tyler Hamilton’s crash at the 2004 Tour de France in which he injured his back and afterward said he left the race because while he could pedal the flats, his back wouldn’t allow him to generate any power for climbing. I didn’t understand what he meant, at least, not at the time. I fully get it now.
But the question was what I would do with my attitude. I could spend 100 miles pissed that I showed up but my legs didn’t. I could whine for 100 miles that I got a shitty hand of cards. Or I could simply go slow, check out the sights and maybe see some new things because I was going too fast in years past. All things considered, given that I was riding through some of the prettier country in Sonoma County, were I to do anything other than enjoy myself on such a superb day would mean I was as inelastic as a pane of glass, and not much brighter.
So I enjoyed myself. Which wasn’t hard to do. Having my legs finally come on line meant that my riding could be playful on the climb of Willow Creek. While most of it isn’t all that steep so that you can drill it through the gravel through long stretches, there are a couple of ultra steep sections—one was 30 percent while another hit 27 percent—that turned the riding into something more reminiscent of mountain biking.
Following the descent into Occidental the ride into Santa Rosa takes you past a few final vineyards, some farm fields and then suddenly you’re turning onto the bike path. It’s a surprisingly welcome turn and conveys the relief of being nearly finished even if you’re not across the line quite yet. Sorta like a red kite, I suppose. Rolling into the finish was a mix of relief to be finished and sadness that the day was coming to a close.
Before closing, I’d like to say thank you to Christina, Sami, Arjuno, Russell (hell, even Andrew Talansky reads RKP!) and the many other people who stopped me to say thanks for RKP. It’s difficult to put into words what it means to have people tell me personally how much they appreciate RKP. I’ve been unable to summon anything more articulate than, “No, thank you.”
If there’s a better way to spend a day, I can’t summon it. A long bike ride without a bunch of stop lights, terrain so beautiful you want to pull over just to stare, seeing old friends, making a few new ones and all on a day you wish would never end.
Next year’s 100th edition of the Tour de France is still more than eight months away, but we already have a good idea of what sort of race it’s going to be—even before race organizer Christian Prudhomme reveals full details of the official route on Wednesday in Paris. Some wild rumors have been circulating through the cycling world, including a nighttime stage finish on the Champs-Élysées, which indicate that it’s going to be a Tour worthy of celebration. And following Monday’s decision by the UCI razing Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour victories from the history books, the hope is that there will be total focus on the race itself and not on yet more doping rumors.
Besides the course, which promises at least 10 significant stages, what looks like being a major feature of the 2013 Tour is one of the most competitive fields in the event’s history. At least eight of the 22 likely starting teams have a strong chance of producing the eventual champion, while the course appears to be both balanced and demanding. First then, let’s take a look at the likely route of the June 29 to July 21 Tour.
TOUGH START, RUGGED FINISH
We’ve known since last year that the Tour will visit the French island of Corsica for the first time in the race’s 110-year history (the race wasn’t contested a total of 10 times through the two world wars). Corsica’s terrain is extremely mountainous, except for a coastal plain along the east coast—which will host the Tour’s first and only flat stage in Corsica, finishing in Bastia with a likely mass sprint. The second and third stages are both short (around the 150-kilometer mark) and feature significant climbs in their run-ins to Ajaccio and Calvi respectively, which will give us an initial look at the overall contenders.
All the race personnel (except the riders) will take overnight ferries across the Mediterranean to gather the next afternoon in Nice for what will be a strategically decisive stage: a 20-kilometer team time trial along the waterfront. The last time an early TTT was included at the Tour, in 2011, Garmin won the stage by four seconds, while the two teams that produced the final podium (BMC Racing and RadioShack) were separated by just six seconds. But those six seconds gave eventual winner Cadel Evans a psychologically advantage over Andy and Fränk Schleck through the following 10 stages before the Tour reached the mountains.
This year, when the TTT result is added to the two difficult stages in Corsica, a firm hierarchy will exist prior to the first mountaintop stage finish—which looks like being on stage 8 at Ax-3 Domaines in the Pyrénées. Whatever the GC looks like there, it will probably be quite similar a week later when the race reaches the next summit finish, said to be Mont Ventoux, on July 14.
In the week between the two mountain ranges, the Tour will see a second (probably easier) climbing stage through the Pyrénées, a 600-kilometer transfer to northwest France for the first rest day, four sprinters’ stages and an individual time trial. This stage against the clock looks like being a specialists’ TT on a flat, probably 45-kilometer course in Normandy, finishing at the iconic island of Mont St. Michel. Whichever of the GC candidates does well there will get a nice boost in morale before the crucial stage finish atop the Ventoux, which some believe is the hardest climb longer than 20 kilometers in France.
After a second rest day, the Tour heads to Gap, the gateway to the Alps—where four tough, but different types of stages will decide the eventual outcome. This stretch opens with a very hilly individual TT, again around the 40-kilometer mark, in the foothills north of the turquoise-blue Serre-Ponçon lake. Then comes the keynote stage, one that almost happened two years ago, which climbs L’Alpe d’Huez twice—thanks to a final 50-kilometer loop over the Col de Sarenne, a narrow, rough-surfaced mountain road that is being given a new coat of tarmac, before returning to the base of the Tour’s most popular climb.
The next day sees the peloton head north, probably over the Glandon, Madeleine and Croix-Fry passes with an uphill finish in Le Grand Bornand—where Fränk Schleck and Linus Gerdemann were the last two winners. The final alpine stage appears to be an unusual one for the Tour, taking in one big, mountainous loop from the beautiful lakeside city of Annecy. Another 600-kilometer transfer takes the race to its final stage, finishing as usual on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but according to a report in this Monday’s edition of La Dépêche the final sprint could well take place at nightfall—followed by a massive firework display to commemorate the end of this 100th edition.
THE PROSPECTIVE CHAMPS
Despite the early rumors that the 2012 Tour would be a climbers’ Tour, the likelihood of a team time trial and two individual tests puts the emphasis back on those riders who are strong in the time trials and the climbs. That would mean that Team Sky’s defending champion Brad Wiggins should shoot for a second Tour title rather than, as has been mentioned, go for victories at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España next year and let teammate Chris Froome lead Sky at the Tour. Obviously, that situation will need to be decided by team management in the next couple of months.
Froome, second at this year’s Tour, is obviously strong against the clock and in mountaintop finishes—like several other probable contenders, including Saxo-Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador, BMC’s Evans and Tejay Van Garderen, and Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde. All of these men, along with the two Sky riders, will get a boost from the early team time trial.
Besides these half-dozen yellow-jersey contenders, several others will also be planning on strong challenges. These include the more specialist climbers, Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team, Vincenzo Nibali of a much-strengthened Astana squad, the 2010 default winner Andy Schleck of RadioShack-Nissan, and Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol.
Then there is the world TT champion Tony Martin, who’ll be the GC leader of the Omega-Quick Step team now that Levi Leipheimer has been sacked over his involvement in the Postal team doping scandal. Martin is somewhat of an enigma, but should he get his weight down a few kilos while keeping his unquestioned power, there’s no reason why he should lose too much time on the summit finishes—remember, he did finish second on the Ventoux stage in 2009. But the German’s challenge will be hampered by his Belgian team focusing first on racking up sprint stage wins for the newly arrived Mark Cavendish and team captain Tom Boonen.
This should be a good Tour for North Americans. Besides overall contenders Hesjedal, Vande Velde and Van Garderen, next year should see the Tour debuts of Garmin’s Andrew Talansky, a future GC player, and BMC’s Taylor Phinney, who should have a vital role for Evans and Van Garderen in the TTT and add his power to defending his team leaders’ positions in the flatter stages.
As always, there’s a fear of seeing a repeat of the devastating high-speed pileups that marked the opening weeks of the past two Tours and wrecked the chances, among others, of Wiggins, Van den Broeck and Contador in 2011, and Hesjedal and Vande Velde in 2012. But with a muscular opening to the 2013 Tour in Corsica, followed by the TTT, the hierarchy will be established before the race reaches the three flatter stages in opening week, and this will calm down the usual first-week tension when every team vies for stage wins.
Some critics have compared this first post-Armstrong-doping-decision Tour with the so-called Tour of Renewal in 1999, a year after the infamous Festina doping debacle. The big difference this time is that there’s no undetectable drug like EPO in existence, while the majority of riders in today’s peloton is already competing clean. Given those facts and the increased scrutiny of every rider’s blood parameters by the anti-doping authorities, the chances of seeing a worthy winner of a hard-fought and clean Tour are as strong as they’ve ever been.
Let’s hope that’s the case, and that everyone, especially the fans, can enjoy Tour No. 100’s hopefully spectacular firework display over the Arc de Triomphe next July 21.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Bradley Wiggins is remaking the Tour de France in his own image. He has illustrated that there’s no such thing as an incumbent at the Tour de France, and all who hope to pull on the Golden Fleece must make their well-timed move with confidence, and after considerable preparation.
There can be little doubt about Wiggins’ preparation. In early March he won Paris-Nice, wearing the leader’s jersey for all but the prologue and opening stage, and taking out the final time trial—a mere 9.6km, but battled uphill. Next, at the end of April, he scored a win in the opening road stage of the Tour of Romandie, which allowed him to take the leader’s jersey once again. Luis Leon Sanchez did take the jersey off the Brit’s shoulders for a day, but in the final time trial Wiggins trounced Sanchez, taking back the yellow jersey and becoming only the second rider in 20 years to win Paris-Nice and Romandie in the same season.
Wiggins then confirmed that he was no spring champion with his performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Wiggins won the Dauphiné last year before crashing out of the Tour. Wiggins finished a single second down on Luke Durbridge in the brief prologue. Again, Wiggins took the leader’s yellow jersey following the opening road stage and held his one-second lead over Cadel Evans until the time trial. Of course, Wiggins killed it in the time trial; so great was his speed that he warped the space-time continuum to the point that he finished before Evans even started. Okay, not quite.
That time trial performance deserves a bit more scrutiny; we’ll get to it in a minute. Naturally, Wiggins went on to win the Critérium du Dauphiné and in so doing became the first rider in history to win Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné in the same season. Statistically, that makes him a pretty serious outlier, a less-than-1-percenter. As it is, only two riders have won both the Tour of Romandie and the Tour de France in the same season: Stephen Roche did (in 1987, natch) and Cadel Evans did it last year.
Here’s where a discussion of peak form comes into play. For Paris-Nice, Wiggins’ stiffest competition came from Lieuwe Westra, the Dutchman riding for Vacansoleil. The closest competition Wiggins had from a certified Tour de France GC contender was Andreas Klöden in 18th place, more than six minutes down.
At Romandie the Brit faced guys like Sanchez, Andrew Talansky and Rui Costa. Real Tour GC guys like Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger were showing up in the top 10, but were nearly a minute down.
At the Dauphiné Wiggins faced serious competition from guys like Michael Rogers and Cadel Evans, guys tuning up for the Tour de France. Despite giving up a few seconds to Rogers and 10 seconds to Evans on the final stage, Wiggins took the Dauphiné by 1:17, his largest margin to that point in the season. It’s possible that Wiggins wasn’t on peak form in March at Paris-Nice, but there is no doubt he was on better form than other riders with Tour aspirations. It’s hard to say he wasn’t on something approaching peak form at Romandie: he was definitely revved higher than his peers. But the Dauphiné? Few guys ever get the opportunity to show the kind of form at the Dauphiné that Wiggins displayed. How could that not be peak?
Here’s what leaves me scratching my head: The Dauphiné TT was 53km. Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans. In yesterday’s stage 9 TT, Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans, but the length of the event was only 41.5km. It shows that he is on even better form now than he was at the Dauphiné.
I’ve been thinking that Wiggins has been riding a wave of peak form dating to Romandie, the last week of April. That puts him in his 10th week of peak form. I’ve been telling people Wiggins will flame out, pointing out how no one in history has ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
That bears repeating: No one, not even the insatiable Cannibal himself, ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
Clearly, he’s not days from flaming out based on his ride in stage 9. But his form is too amazing to ignore, and by that I mean his form has been so good for so long that people are taking notice of more than just him winning. His form has crossed that threshold into being conspicuous. People are wondering if he might be doping.
It’s a shame, really. Everything we know about Sky is that the program has been, like Garmin-Sharp, at the very vanguard of clean cycling. Much of the brouhaha surrounds accusations by l’Equipe, the French sports daily known for having sourced information on positive EPO tests by Lance Armstrong. The Texan’s methods notwithstanding, l’Equipe has been just partisan enough in their reporting that it’s fair to wonder if they wouldn’t chase after any cyclist whose first language is English.
But the trajectory Wiggins is on is just the sort of physical miracle that draws attention. To use a literary term, his form has bumped up against our suspension of disbelief. And here’s a corollary to l’Equipe‘s susicion: at Romandie, Sky teammate Chris Froome finished the TT 39th, 1:45 down on Wiggins. At the Dauphiné Froome was sixth, 1:33 behind, and only 10 seconds faster than Evans. However, in stage 9 of the Tour, Froome was a stunning second, 35 seconds behind his team leader and 1:08 faster than the Tour’s defending champion.
Wiggins needs to understand that rides of that caliber don’t just suggest questions, they beg them. For my part, I sincerely hope he’s clean, because as long as he keeps winning the questions will keep coming and the quotes will be unpublishable in most locations. Hilarious, but unpublishable. His could be an unhappy tenure at the top.
I had a long discussion last week with a friend who takes just a passing interest in bike racing. He was asking me about the state of American cycling now that Lance Armstrong has retired. I told him it was going very well, that Armstrong’s peers Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer were still contesting stage races at the highest level, that U.S.-registered teams BMC Racing, Garmin-Barracuda and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek were winning the toughest races in the sport’s major league (the UCI WorldTour), and that a new generation of excellent riders was coming through.
There are some exciting prospects in this new generation. At BMC, Tejay Van Garderen is being groomed to take over the Tour de France leadership role of Cadel Evans when the Aussie retires, and Taylor Phinney is the natural successor to his veteran teammate George Hincapie. Over at Garmin, a truly homegrown squad, Peter Stetina is working toward contender status in the grand tours, starting with next month’s Giro d’Italia, and Andrew Talansky is shaping up to match him. And while Armstrong has quit RadioShack as a racer, his team is schooling such talents as U.S. road champion Matt Busche and under-23 standout Lawson Craddock.
My friend hadn’t heard any of these names, except for Leipheimer and Phinney. And that was only because Levi received great coverage in the Colorado media last August for winning the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and Taylor is the son of local sports icons and Olympic medalists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter Phinney. But if you only read the national press, listened to 99.9-percent of America’s radio stations and only watched network television, you certainly wouldn’t have heard of Leipheimer or Phinney, let alone all those other great American cyclists.
You may be thinking, this is nothing new. Cycling fans have known for decades that cycling is regarded as a second-class sport—or not even a sport—by the majority of couch-potato Americans. And we know that the only sports that register on the radar of U.S. sports editors are (American) football, baseball, basketball, (ice) hockey, golf, tennis and NASCAR.
My friend agreed that, besides cycling, the world’s other major sports—football (soccer), athletics (track and field), cricket and rugby—barely get a mention in the U.S. media. And he too was puzzled that while soccer is a far more popular participant sport in schools across the country than gridiron football, that doesn’t translate into the U.S. being a power player on the global soccer scene except, thankfully, for our women. But, then, there’s no money in women’s soccer, and it only makes the sport pages when there’s a World Cup or Olympic medals at stake.
Again, you’re probably thinking, why is Wilcockson going on about mainstream sports when he knows that cycling will never make it with the American media. The only time it does make the national news is when the words “Tour de France,” “Lance Armstrong,” and “doping” are contained in the same sentence.
Yes, I know all that, and I know how frustrating it is for journalists who discover cycling in all its majesty, beauty and history to come up against the brick wall that is the American-sports-editor establishment. All my above thoughts and feelings crashed together like cymbals this past Monday morning after I picked up our two nationally distributed newspapers, USA Today and The New York Times. Predictably, both of them headlined golf’s Masters tournament and the fairy-tale win by Florida native Bubba Watson. The sports editors were obviously relieved that in a week when Tiger Woods failed to beat par in all four rounds that the win at Augusta didn’t go to that South African guy with the unpronounceable name. Long live Bubba—who made it an even better story by invoking his Christian faith in his victory speech, à la Tim Tebow.
Okay, Bubba’s success was a great story. But I also expected that our national dailies would have some decent coverage of cycling’s biggest one-day classic, Paris-Roubaix, especially because NBC Sports had decided to broadcast it live in HD and repeated the coverage with a three-hour show at primetime. But, no, my hopes were soon dashed. USA Today didn’t even mention Paris-Roubaix, not even the result in tiny agate type. As for the Times, well, they had a paragraph in its sport-summary section under the insulting headline: “Belgian wins French race.”
Let’s admit it, American mainstream sports editors are out of touch. They propagate their views by only covering the sports that they’ve always covered. They may say that it’s too expensive or too difficult for them to put cycling on their pages — and why would anyone be interested in cycling anyway? But Web sites with a shoestring budget manage to cover cycling very well indeed, and virtually every American, like my friend, rides a bike at some point in their lives, so why wouldn’t they want to read about the heroic athletes who compete in one of the most dramatic sports ever invented?
It’s time to take those elitist sports editors out of their ivory towers and plunk them down in a frenzied crowd of fans on Mount Baldy at the Amgen Tour of Colorado, on Independence Pass at the Pro Challenge, or on the Manayunk Wall at the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship. Better still, give them a VIP package to any of these American events, or ferry them across the Atlantic and wine and dine them at the Tour or Giro — or give them a front-row seat at the worlds or any of the one-day classics. Perhaps even take them to the Forest of Arenberg or the Carrefour de l’Arbre at Paris-Roubaix to see the athletes battling (and crashing) their way over the cobblestones at speeds that only four-wheel drives or trials motorcycles can normally contemplate on such rugged roads.
It was encouraging that NBC Sports (formerly Versus, formerly OLN) devoted its time, energy and resources to broadcast the live feed of Paris-Roubaix, even if it’s a half-century since the European networks first covered the Hell of the North classic. But it’s shameful that our national press virtually ignored one of the world’s truly great sports events, especially in a year when Tom Boonen made the most brilliant performance of his phenomenal career to become only the second man in a century to win at Roubaix four times.
And outside of Boonen’s triumph, there were a dozen other stories to whet sports fans’ appetites, including the amazing debut (and top-15 finish) of Taylor Phinney at age 21, and the record-equaling 17th Paris-Roubaix finish of George Hincapie at 38. You can bet that if Samuel Abt of the Herald-Tribune hadn’t retired and was still writing for the Times that he would have given his unique take on the race, and if Sal Ruibal hadn’t been let go by USA Today he would have seen that the newspaper at least mentioned Paris-Roubaix.
So what can we do? I suggest that everyone who reads this column begins writing letters, sending emails and making phone calls to the sports editors of every newspaper they read (on-line or in-person) to make them aware that cycling is a major sport in this country, not just in the rest of the world. Keep on sending those messages and send this column to your friends to do the same. Don’t take no for an answer.
If we can’t get the media to see cycling as a major sport then riders such as Phinney, Talansky and Van Garderen will continue to be perceived as second-class sports citizens in this country. You know and I know that these guys are far superior athletes to the Bubba Watsons and Tim Tebows of the American sports establishment. Let’s start to help our young pros (and help our sport) gain the recognition they truly deserve!
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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