Tuesdays with Wilcockson
In last week’s column, I began to trace my journey in cycling from the 1960s, first as a racer then a writer, in connection with the sport’s escalating problems with illicit drugs. This week, I’ll continue the story from where I broke off, at the 1998 Tour de France, when the French team Festina was thrown out for organized doping. What the Festina Affair revealed was the degree to which EPO had transformed cycling in the worst possible way.
“Before EPO,” the 1988 Giro d’Italia champion Andy Hampsten told me, “we knew we were always racing against guys on drugs, but I don’t think those drugs gave them more of an advantage than the advantage we had knowing they’re gonna come crashing down. We didn’t lose energy worrying about what other people were doing; we just focused on ourselves, and we didn’t need to win every race.”
That “higher ground” attitude of Hampsten’s American team, Motorola, began to change in 1994. “There was a lot of grumbling on the team,” Hampsten said, “and we did get technical data from team doctor Massimo Testa because he’d talk to his colleagues on other teams. He was always straight with me. ‘Sure enough,’ he said, ‘if so-and-so who you raced with for eight years and you always dropped on the climbs, if that guy’s beating you now, his hematocrit is 15 points higher, and he’s gonna kill you in the mountains.’”
Because the new drug couldn’t be detected in anti-doping tests, no one knew for certain who was using EPO—and riders kept that secret to themselves. So, for the best part of a decade, until the Festina Affair, rumors were the only source of what was happening in the peloton. And rumors, without any corroborative evidence, were not things that professional journalists could write about. And when we did ask questions about doping those questions were sidestepped more often than not.
The situation began to change slightly in 1997 when the UCI mandated a maximum hematocrit level of 50 percent. Cyclists who tested above that level were not allowed to compete for at least two weeks, or until their red-blood-cell count returned to a “normal” level. But that couldn’t be translated into knowing a rider had used EPO. In any case, the new “health” regulation was a tiny deterrent because riders soon learned how to use portable centrifuges to test their own blood and keep the hematocrit level below 50—or so it was rumored.
The full extent of doping in the 1990s didn’t emerge until well after the Festina team was busted. First came the 1999 tell-all book, “Massacre à la Chaîne,” by soigneur Willy Voet who was fined and given a suspended prison sentence for his part in the Festina Affair. He wrote the book with French journalist Pierre Ballester, who worked for the Paris sports newspaper, L’Équipe, whose writers were just as shocked as everyone by the Festina Affair, the subsequent revelations in Voet’s book and the facts that later emerged in French courtrooms.
Testimonies at a December 2000 tribunal, which investigated the inner workings of the Festina team, showed that the French squad had engaged in organized doping since 1993. Prior to that year’s Tour de France, the tribunal’s report states, “the team riders who had yet to use EPO were growing impatient to get access to it several days before the start…. The main reason had to be that other teams were already administering this substance.”
Luc Leblanc, a French leader of the Festina team, admitted he used EPO in 1994 at the Vuelta a España and Tour de France, but he denied that EPO helped him win that year’s UCI world road title. But another witness, who worked for the team throughout the 1990s, testified that “all the Festina team riders at the 1994 world championships were given the same preparation: EPO with supplements. Luc did the same as everyone else.”
Riders entering the sport at that time were faced with a much more difficult decision than my racing peers had faced in the 1960s, when popping speed or getting injections of bull’s blood might have given riders a psychological edge but not much of a physical one. The dilemma in the ’90s for new professionals was to accept the use of EPO or risk never making the grade. That’s what Tyler Hamilton says made him begin doping in 1996, according to his new autobiography, “The Secret Race,” written with former Outside magazine journalist Dan Coyle.
Hamilton’s decision to use EPO coincided with his small American team, Montgomery-Bell, getting title sponsorship from the U.S. Postal Service that allowed them to start racing in Europe. By coincidence, I bumped into Hamilton on a flight back from Brussels to the U.S. in April 1996. I’d been reporting the spring classics for VeloNews, and Hamilton, then 25 and in his second year as a pro, told me about events he and the team had raced in the Netherlands, including his winning the Teleflex Toer stage race. Obviously, he didn’t say anything about EPO.
Like most other cycling journalists, I saw Hamilton—who majored in economics at the University of Colorado prior to turning pro—as part of a new generation of young riders from North America who were not polluted by Europe’s doping culture. Clean cut and quietly spoken, Hamilton seemed to be too smart to risk his health by doping, especially with the litany of dugs that appeared to be necessary to maximize the use of EPO.
As a sports journalist, you have to draw a fine line between writing about an athlete’s accomplishments and getting to know him (or her) through interviews and chats at races so that you can put those performances in perspective. Having had friendly working relationships with most of the sport’s successful modern “Anglo” riders—from pioneers Phil Anderson and Jonathan Boyer, followed by Steve Bauer, Greg LeMond, Robert Millar, Sean Kelly and Sean Yates, along with Andy Hampsten, Allan Peiper, Davis Phinney, Stephen Roche and many others—it seemed natural that I should do the same with the next wave, led by Lance Armstrong, Hamilton, George Hincapie, Chris Horner, Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer, Kevin Livingston, Fred Rodriguez and Christian Vande Velde.
It was difficult not to like all these guys. They were all young, intelligent and ambitious. And they were all making their mark in pro racing. When you did a one-on-one interview with those American cyclists you expected them to be truthful. That was the case in nearly all aspects of what they said about their lives, their training and their races—and you hoped it was true when they condemned doping and dopers.
Hamilton says in his book that he lied about his doping practices, even with his close friends and family. He was not the only one. I will write more about doping next week, but for now I’ll end with a quote from Brian Holm, now a highly regarded directeur sportif with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. The Dane wrote about his 13 years as a pro cyclist in his 2002 autobiography, in which he admitted to doping, just as Hamilton has today.
After Holm and many of his counterparts elaborated on their use of EPO at the Deutsche Telekom team, he said this to a Danish publication: “When I turned pro there was not that much talk about doping…and finally it was so normal that no-one thought it was illegal anymore. Many from my generation say that they were never doped, just as I said myself for a long time, because you thought that it really wasn’t doping or cheating. I actually think I could have passed a lie-detector test when I stopped my pro cycling career [in 1998], because I was convinced I was clean. It is only years later that you start realizing that it may not have been the case after all. It had become such a big part of your daily routine.”
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Most cyclists set some sort of challenge each year to give them an incentive to get into shape. For many years, my challenge has been a long ride in the Rockies west of my adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado, on my May 5 birthday. I began this now annual rite of springtime at age 50, when I mapped out a 50-mile route to ride with a couple-dozen colleagues from the office. It was a day of strong southerly winds and only half the group made it to the final loop through the foothills. I’ve been adding a mile to the ride every year since then, and now most of it is in the mountains rather than on the plains.
That’s probably the wrong way to go about this venture. Friends say, “You should be riding on flat roads.” And they ask, “What are going to do when you’re in your 80s or 90s?” So I remind them of the 100-year-old French cyclist, Robert Marchand, who set a world hour record of 24.25 kilometers for his age group on the UCI Velodrome in Switzerland back in February. My sister tells me that I should switch my ride to kilometers, and that’s a choice I do think about … but not for long. I grew up with miles, so miles it remains.
I did have a few concerns in the lead-up to this year’s birthday ride last Saturday. Although I run three times a week to stay in shape, I didn’t take my first 2012 bike ride until late March — mainly because of some hectic traveling and new work schedules. However, I did manage to get in 10 short rides before May 5, including a longest one of 30 miles that went over a climb destined for this August’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. That gave me the confidence I could again tackle my birthday ride and its 6,000 feet of climbing.
My bike, I have to admit, was in far worse shape than I was. Fortunately, I managed to get a booking with Vecchio’s Bicicletteria, the iconic Boulder bike shop, whose owner Peter Chisholm worked his magic, fitting new pedals, chain, hub bearings and cone, cable housings, inner tubes, brake pads and a bar-end stop. When I took it for a spin the night before the ride, I couldn’t believe how smoothly everything was working. Thanks, Peter!
So my bike was ready, I was ready, and I knew the two (younger) friends coming with me had been riding a lot. Even the weather was looking good: a forecast for partly cloudy skies, high-50s early in the day, high-60s in the high country and high-70s back in Boulder. As for the ride itself, I’d modified the course to include an initial loop on some of the dirt roads used in this year’s Boulder-Roubaix race.
Because cell-phone coverage is spotty in the deep canyons of the Rockies and up on the high-altitude Peak-to-Peak Highway, I knew I wouldn’t get any live coverage of Saturday’s opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia — but I was looking forward to watching the Gazzetta dello Sport video of the stage when I got home. I was of course hoping that local hero Taylor Phinney, who has trained on these Colorado roads for years, would have the form to take the 2012 Giro’s first pink jersey on this Cinco de Mayo.
Besides sharing a birthday with such diverse characters as “Monty Python” comic Michael Palin and singers Adele, Chris Brown and Tammy Wynette, I expect unusual things tend to happen on my birthday. When I did the May 5 ride in 2000 — already a dozen years ago! — I learned that morning that Gino Bartali had died at 85. Later in the day, I heard that Lance Armstrong, on a Tour de France scouting trip, crashed heavily descending a mountain pass in the Pyrenees. And, in the heavens that night 12 years ago, there was a very rare conjunction of the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon. Some day!
This year, besides the start of the Giro in Denmark, May 5 would see a “supermoon” and a meteor shower from Halley’s comet. That would come later. First, there were birthday cards to open, Facebook greetings to read and phone calls to take before I set off on another challenging ride.
My watch read 7:30 when I spotted Steve circling the road near the end of his street. We reached across to shake hands and he wished me “Happy Birthday.” We were soon on our way, heading east, when we were passed (with a quick greeting) by two spin-class coaches from Steve’s gym who were out training on their full triathlon rigs. Seeing dozens of other riders (and generally being passed by them!) became a pattern of the day. That’s because it was a Saturday. When my birthday is on a weekday, I usually ride alone and rarely see another cyclist.
This time, I wasn’t alone. Steve’s a lawyer with the Native American Rights Fund and a recreational cyclist. He was wearing his Triple Bypass jersey, reminding me that every July he does the infamous 120-mile mass ride over the 11,000-foot Juniper, Loveland and Vail Passes. It helps to have a strong riding companion! And his wife Martha, who oversees my weight training most weeks, would join us where our route entered the canyons.
But first we pounded along the dirt roads through a springtime paradise of infinite green, riding past rushing creeks, open meadows and an organic farm called “Pastures of Plenty” — which seemed to sum it all up. After a brief connection with Highway 36, busy with groups of cyclists heading north in the bright sunshine, we joined Martha and started up the 16-mile climb toward the Gold Rush-era village of Ward at 9,000 feet elevation.
As my weights coach followed me up the long, long climb’s culminating double-digit grade, with me feeling like a sagging Vincenzo Nibali muscling his way up the Côte de Saint-Nicolas in last month’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, I was happy to hear her tell me: “Good job!” Usually, I have the deck at the Ward village store to myself. But on this pleasantly warm Saturday morning, there was a never-ending stream of riders, most of them stopping to eat homemade cookies, pump black coffee from a Thermos and guzzle 99-cent cans of Coke. We joined them.
The three of us then climbed the last little drag up to Peak-to-Peak. I told Martha that this scenic byway was built by “unemployed” workers during the Great Depression, and it was originally planned to link Long’s Peak with Pike’s Peak, but only its northern half was completed before the war started. I’m glad this half was built, because riding the always-curving, roller-coaster road, with close-up views of snow-covered peaks and distant views of the plains, is always the highlight of my ride. Back in the 1980s, I saw the likes of Andy Hampsten and Greg LeMond doing battle on Peak-to-Peak in the Coors Classic, and this coming August their successors Tom Danielson, Tejay Van Garderen, Levi Leipheimer and Christian Vande Velde will be racing up and down these hills in the USA Pro Challenge.
Martha, Steve and I flew down the last long downhill into Nederland, and continued on, riding against the wind up the dead-end valley to Eldora before returning to Ned and a leisurely al-fresco lunch at the Whistler’s Café. All that remained was a 20-mile dash back to base, descending 3,000 feet in the canyon alongside the fast-flowing Boulder Creek. It was an exhilarating ending to our ride, followed by the excitement of learning that, after two other onetime Boulder residents, Hampsten and Vande Velde, Boulder native Phinney had become only the third American to don the Giro’s maglia rosa.
Thanks, Taylor. Thanks, Peter. Thanks, Steve. Thanks Martha. Good job!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Why Boulder is the home of modern American cycling
Last week, I was asked to sit on the advisory board of the U. S. Cycling Monument — which will be a memorial to the sport in this country. Its goal is to raise funds to build the monument, a futuristic metal-and-stone sculpture, in the Boulder, Colorado, park that is regarded as the spiritual home of modern American cycling.
North Boulder Park is where a young Davis Phinney watched bike racing for the first time, fell in love with the sport, and later became America’s most-winning sprinter ever. It’s where a young Greg LeMond was crowned overall winner of the Coors International Bicycle Classic before he became the first American to win the Tour de France. And it’s in the center of the city where the foundations were laid for today’s major U.S. stage races, including the Amgen Tour of California and Colorado’s U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge.
The story began in the early-1970s when a 19-year-old Mo Siegel founded a small herbal tea company, Celestial Seasonings, to supply local health food stores. Siegel and his hippie friends, who handpicked herbs and wild berries for their teas, were environmentalists, and after their nascent business passed a million dollars in sales, Siegel decided he wanted to generate awareness of cycling’s environmental benefits (and also publicize the company’s best-selling tea, Red Zinger), by organizing a bike race.
The Red Zinger Classic started out as a modest two-day, three-stage event, with a short time trial, a hilly road race through Colorado’s Front Range, and a criterium in North Boulder Park. It had a tiny budget of $50,000 but heaps of enthusiasm from Siegel’s Boulder employees and local volunteers. The inaugural edition, in 1975, was the one that attracted Phinney to the sport. It did the same two years later for Michael Aisner, a journalism student at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, who was moonlighting as a DJ for a Denver radio station and stumbled into a career as a promoter. It happened like this….
When Aisner saw a public service ad by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in 1976, asking for signatures to stop the killing of baby seals in Canada, he talked about it on his Denver radio show and garnered some 20,000 names for the petition. Impressed, the IFAW offered him a marketing job, and Aisner organized a trip by French movie-star campaigners Yvette Mimieux and Brigitte Bardot to witness the seal hunt in February 1977.
The subsequent story in Time magazine was read by Siegel, who contacted Aisner and invited him to lunch. “At the end of the lunch,” Aisner recalled, “Mo said, ‘So, you’re obviously good at PR. Would you mind doing PR for the bike race?’ I’d never even seen one before, but … I’m a curious guy, so I said, ‘I may as well do it.’”
Aisner produced documentaries of the race in his three-year stint as PR director, getting the film shown as a B-feature in cinemas all over the West. By 1978, the Zinger had expanded to seven stages, but the higher budget and extra working hours it now demanded became too much for the tea company. As a result, Siegel sold the event for one dollar to Aisner, who obtained the Adolph Coors Company as title sponsor and re-launched it in 1980 as the Coors International Bicycle Classic, adding stages in the Colorado ski resorts of Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen, and eventually extending it to California and even Hawaii over its two-week span.
The Coors, as it became known, had a glorious nine-year run, with the peak coming in the mid-1980s. Discussing those races, two-time Coors winner Dale Stetina told me, “I loved the Coors Classic because often, in the later days, the European pros would come over. They thought, because it was the U.S., they wouldn’t have a problem and it would be a cakewalk. They would come over, confident to race us at altitude on our home turf, and we would usually stomp ’em to pieces.”
That didn’t happen in 1985-86, when five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault came to Colorado with his La Vie Claire team. The French star helped teammate LeMond win the Coors in ’85 and won it himself the following year. Reporting the race as the editor of a European-based cycling magazine, I became so intrigued with the event and enraptured by Boulder that I moved to the city in 1987.
The 1985 race began in San Francisco, with a prologue up Telegraph Hill (which the Amgen Tour adopted two decades later) and a criterium on Fisherman’s Wharf. Everyone was impressed by the size of the California crowds — but they were just as big for the finale in North Boulder Park. That year, the last day’s circuit was extended from a short criterium loop to a hilly circuit of 1.65 miles, and Canadian star Steve Bauer won the stage with a remarkable solo break over the final 11 laps. At the following year’s race, just prior to the ’86 world championships in nearby Colorado Springs, the Boulder stage was again taken in a solo break, this time by local man Ron Kiefel. But my lasting memory of that day was Italian classics star Moreno Argentin making a searing, mid-race attack on the hill up Balsam to Fourth Street. Two weeks later, Argentin won the worlds.
Besides the Boulder-raised Phinney and Denver-born Kiefel, Boulder soon saw other pro cyclists move to the area, attracted by the mountain terrain, 5,430-foot elevation (with local roads climbing to 9,500 feet) and dry weather (with sunshine 300 days a year). The 1988 Giro d’Italia winner Andy Hampsten has a house at the foot of the Flatirons, the iconic rock outcroppings above the city, as does today’s top U.S. climber Tom Danielson. Danielson’s Garmin-Barracuda teammate Peter Stetina was born here after his dad, Dale Stetina, moved to Boulder.
“It was natural to come and settle here as soon as I stopped racing,” Dale Stetina told me. “In fact, when I first came to Boulder and looked up at the Flatirons and the mountains, I said I feel like I’m home. Being able to spend hours riding up in the mountains and down the canyons next to beautiful mountain streams, enjoying good weather, that’s as close to Nirvana, I guess, as I would get as a cycling enthusiast.”
Besides the athletes, some of the people who worked on the Coors Classic have remained in the sport. They include Jim Birrell, managing partner of Medalist Sports, which today organizes U.S. cycling’s major stage races in California, Utah and Colorado.
Over the past four decades, a whole cycling culture has taken root in Boulder. Its bike-race-related reputation and the number of cyclists settling here are the reasons that it now has an indoor velodrome, a custom-built cyclocross /mountain bike park and more than 300 miles of dedicated bike routes. It’s the home of advocacy groups such as Bikes Belong, Growth Cycle and the International Mountain Bicycling Association. And among the business that have settled here are CatEye, Dean Titanium Bicycles, Dual Eyewear, Optibike, Panache Cyclewear, Pearl Izumi, Recofit Compression, Slipstream Sports (owner of UCI ProTeam Garmin-Barracuda), TrainingPeaks, Velo magazine, VeloPress books and Vredestein tires.
A 2011 survey estimated that bike shops and associated business in the city accounted for more than 300 jobs and sales north of $50 million; but Boulder’s influence on American cycling is immeasurable in terms of prestige and legacy. Few would argue about its status as the country’s premier bike-racing community.
The city has donated a site in North Boulder Park for the U. S. Cycling Monument, which to date has raised about 25 percent of the $215,000 needed to build the structure. The symbolic sculpture, designed by local artist Kimmerjae Johnson, will include a 50-foot-long spiraling aluminum ribbon (which represents the racers and the looping course) linking a high, monolithic sandstone archway with a monumental element to be known as the Talking Stone.
Appropriate plantings around the monument will symbolize the waves of spectators that once packed the park’s criterium circuit. Later this year, the Boulder fans should be lining the climb up past the Flatirons for the defining stage of Colorado’s new race, the Pro Challenge. And should the fundraising be successful, Boulder’s grand monument to cycling in America will be in place.
To be part of the U. S. Cycling Monument go here.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Hailstones, snowstorms and survivors
I was taken aback last week when I heard about a field of pro racers coming to a halt during the opening stage of Argentina’s Tour de San Luis. It wasn’t because they had to stop for a train rumbling through a rail crossing; no, they stopped to seek shelter from a storm, one of heavy rain and hail.
Wait, I thought, aren’t bike racers supposed to carry on whatever the conditions, rain or shine? Next, they’ll be stopping because it’s too hot, or too cold, or maybe too windy! It wasn’t always so….
In my first multi-day race, the Easter Three-day on the Isle of Wight in southern England, we raced through a violent hailstorm. Within 10 minutes of hailstones hitting our bare arms, legs and heads (we didn’t wear helmets back then), the intact pack was reduced to about a dozen. That was perhaps the most unusual way I’ve ever gotten into a breakaway!
A couple of years after that, I took my bike to Italy to report the Tour of Sardinia, an early-season race that Tour de France champions Jacques Anquetil, Lucien Aimar and Jan Janssen were riding. They would all survive a true winter tempest of lightning, rain, hail and snow on a mountainside of that sparsely beautiful Mediterranean island. British rider Derek Harrison told me the peloton was slowed when an intense part of the storm covered the road an inch deep in golf-ball-sized hailstones, and Tour winner Janssen stopped several times to wipe his glasses clean and another time to scrounge a pair of woolen gloves.
That day, I climbed just ahead of the race to the 4,000-foot summit of the Arcu Correboi pass, where a well-muffled spectator gave me two swigs from a flask of Cognac before the riders arrived. As the hail turned to snow, a white blanket covered the bumpy road. And after the peloton passed, I began the steep descent, where the wind-blown snow stung my face. In order to see, I had to close one eye, leave the other half open and screw my head around at an angle.
My feet, hands and face were slowly freezing when suddenly a great booming sound came from behind, and a high wall of metal loomed into my peripheral vision. It was a snowplow. The driver waved me over, stopped, put my bike in the back of his truck and helped me into the heated cab. He dropped me off 10 miles later in the remote mountain town of Fonni, where a group of villagers crowded around this still-shivering stranger, and one of them took me and my bike into a bar to treat me to another tot of brandy!
I had a more frightening snowstorm experience in the mid-1980s after reporting the Étoile de Bessèges, a February stage race in southern France — where rookie American pro Thurlow Rogers from Southern California was shocked one day when the water in his bottles turned to ice. I covered the race by bike. The next day, I headed east on a back road through the Cévennes. As I gained elevation, the light snow grew in intensity, and fell so deep on the road that I had to dismount and push my luggage-laden bike as best I could; I’d gone too far to turn back.
There were no houses on that desolate plateau, and I hadn’t seen any vehicles since early in the day. I was having trouble navigating in the whiteout, and I was getting colder and colder, despite putting on all the extra clothing I could find in my panniers. What should have been a pleasant two-hour ride was turning into a never-ending trudge … perhaps I wouldn’t even make it.
The snow kept falling. And when the road began dropping toward a far valley, I hopped onto one pedal, scooting the bike, in the hope of getting to a village before I collapsed with hypothermia—well, that’s what was going through my mind after all those hours of plodding alone in that bleak, silent, snow-covered landscape.
Just as I was despairing of ever reaching civilization I spotted a truck moving in the far distance. It didn’t come my way, but when I reached where it had been, I found the road had been partially plowed. I was able to start riding (very slowly) again … and I did reach a village, where I stuffed myself with cookies and hot tea before continuing to a real town. I checked into a small inn and soaked in a hot, deep bathtub. Bliss.
As for the most memorable day of bad-weather bike racing I’ve witnessed, that came in 1988 at the Giro d’Italia — and I don’t think anyone told the peloton to stop racing when heavy rain turned to snow on the Passo di Gavia. I know how cold it was because the French journalist I was traveling with stopped his car on the 8,600-foot summit. We stood in snow being driven horizontally by fierce crosswinds and watched the racers climbing laboriously, one by one, through the blizzard.
I’ve written about that (truly) epic day many times: how first-man-to-the-top Johan Van der Velde was so cold he stopped and climbed into his team car, and stayed there for many long minutes, warming up and changing into dry clothes before continuing; how second-man-to-the-summit Andy Hampsten donned ski gloves and a balaclava before tracking a solo path through snow and fog on the treacherous, dirt-road descent, risking frostbite, before claiming the leader’s maglia rosa in the valley; how several riders went hypothermic; and how only a handful actually quit the race.
Bob Roll, who was one of the survivors, wrote a piece titled “The Day the Big Men Cried” for one of his books. Those big men weren’t stopped by a little hailstorm — as their counterparts were last week in Argentina.
That’s a somewhat harsh verdict on today’s peloton, so I was pleased to see a couple of tweets this past Sunday from pros training on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Former U.S national champion Ben King of RadioShack-Nissan wrote: “Miserable training! 4 degrees C, windy, pouring rain and hail, 2 hrs was the max that [we] could face … and I’m still numb.” World champ Mark Cavendish of Team Sky added: “My cheeks are red and stinging from a hail storm….” Yes. But better that than red from embarrassment.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
When I first interviewed for a position at Bicycle Guide part of my screening hinged on my interest in writing how-to articles aimed at beginners. The powers-that-be had determined that the magazine needed to do more to embrace entry level riders, though there was no move afoot to turn the magazine entirely mainstream, a la Bicycling.
Some months later Joe Lindsey (these days of Bicycling and “The Boulder Report”) and I commented to each other that those article should be collected in a book. After all, once each issue went off the newsstand, there was no way for a new rider to find that material. It was gone. Imagine text books that self-destructed like those tapes on Mission Impossible.
It was then that I began concocting the idea of a reference text to roadies. It’s obvious purpose would be to educate new riders, but done right, I thought it could have the ability to offer rich background material that would interest even the dedicated roadie.
Creating an outline for a book isn’t that hard. Putting together a proposal that will interest a publisher is another matter entirely. Because my idea fell outside of the traditional how-to manuals that teach riders either how to be fast or how to fix a bike many people I talked to didn’t see the need for it. Of course, none of those people I talked to had ever joined in a group ride. Fortunately for me, the people at Menasha Ridge Press saw the value in taking a total newbie through what is essentially Road Cycling 101.
Between writing the proposal, then the text, and, later, the editing, I’ve devoted a fair chunk of the last five years of my life to this book. Greg Page, the photographer responsible for most of the photos illustrating the text is the only man I know with the knowledge of the sport, the skill as a shooter and the patience necessary to work with me to have made the book as visually instructive as it is. His contribution cannot be overstated. Greg and I spent the better part of a year just on the photo shoots the book required. Honestly, writing this book was tougher than finishing graduate school.
For dedicated readers of RKP, there is, admittedly, a fair amount of information that will be rudimentary to the point of obvious. It’s likely that in chapters like the ones on group riding, advanced skills, materials and construction and geometry (as well as others) that you’ll find information that will be novel to you. The chapter on professional racing can serve you as a handy cheat sheet—’Wait, did Merckx win 525 or 535 times?’ ‘Did Bernard Hinault win more Grand Tours than Lance?’
I’ve written The No-Drop Zone not as a reflection of my experiences and beliefs, but rather as a compendium of all those who taught me over the years. I am hopeful that even the most experienced would find it an enjoyable and even illuminating read.
The bike industry has been extremely supportive of this book. Andy Hampsten lent his insight to the foreword, and authorities no less auspicious than Mike Sinyard of Specialized, Fatty of Fat Cyclist, Brad Roe of peloton and Joe Parkin at Paved have lent their expertise and endorsements. Heck, recent silver medalist at the World Championships, Dotsie Bausch, gave me considerable assistance with the chapter devoted to women’s issues.
I’m hoping that each of you will pick up a copy of The No-Drop Zone for the simple reason that nothing will sell this book as well as a recommendation from an experienced cyclist, like you, the readers of RKP.
I’m learning that pre-orders for a book online can have a profound effect if bricks-and-mortar stores stock a given book. Naturally, having this book in every Barnes & Noble around the country would do me a world of good and provide more availability to cyclists who like to shop retail. If you’re interested in this book, I hope you’ll go to the bn.com site and place an order for it. We’re probably five or six weeks from shipping the books out, but your pre-orders could have a powerful role in that chain’s decision to stock it in all of their locations. You can find the book here.
When you think of great cyclists from North America, Steve Bauer is one of those guys whose name immediately comes to mind. Most famous for his rides at the ’88 Tour de France and ’90 Paris-Roubaix, he was also the silver medalist at the ’84 Olympic Road Race. Just before the Tour of California RKP sat down with him for a chat about his racing past and his career post-racing.
RKP: Of all the editions of the Tour de France, the 1986 battle between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault seems to generate more interest and more unanswered questions than any other edition. Just how tense were things?
SB: I think it started out to be really amicable. In the back of my mind I was thinking it was Greg’s turn to win the tour he was definitely on form to win it. And I think the previous year going back bernard crashed hard he was injured the jersey was under a bit challenge from Roche. Greg had to hold back his chances on Luz Ardiden. So I was okay thinking Greg did his job, he basically worked for Hinault he sat on Roche’s wheel he didn’t attack and he didn’t try to take advantage of the situation. And because he could have.
The preamble in ’85 sort of led me to believe it was Greg’s turn. But bike racing doesn’t work like that. And when you have two guys on the same team that can win the Tour de France it’s a rare occasion such as with Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault.
Bernard was saying to himself and everyone else, ‘The best guy’s gonna win.’ And he probably had that vision in his mind. So we’re gonna race and we’re gonna see who the best guy is. Right? So he took some pretty interesting strategies in the beginning of the race and attacked when our team was in control of the race, which was very brilliant, actually. He took the lead and then Greg, fortunately, was able to fight back due to Bernard’s I would say machoism or trying to do too much. He attacked on the Tourmalet with 100km to go to Superbagneres and he died, right? And Greg took advantage of that and basically he took back the time that he lost. Otherwise he might have lost the Tour de France. If Bernard hadn’t tried to do the double—
RKP: It was an audacious move!
SB: Right! Now we’re in a situation where it was even Steven pretty much and it was really a true battle. The Alpe d’Huez day everybody remembers it to be Greg, Hinault, Greg, Hinault going up the climb. Greg was afraid people would take him down. Bernard said, ‘I’ll lead the climb.’ And they both say afterwards they could have dropped each other. But Greg thought it was pretty much over after that day. He thought, ‘Okay, it’s over, things are good,’ and then in the press conference Bernard says well it’s not over until after the time trial. And Greg flipped. He flipped! So then it got really tense. It sort of seemed to be okay until then and then from Alpe d’Huez to Paris was not.
I roomed with Greg that night. He was furious! He was so angry that Hinault would actually say would keep racing and not help him win the Tour de France when he was in the lead. So it got really tense. The big day that I remember the most was the race to St. Etienne where Greg was in front first over the top of the Col and Bernard was helping the Panasonic team chase Greg. Then Greg got caught and a counterattack went and Hinault went down the road and our team was chasing Hinault (laughing). At least, the Anglophones. It was just crazy. Bernard chasing Greg and us chasing Bernard.
RKP: Hampsten said that was one of the worst days of bike racing he ever had.
SB: Yeah. It was just insane. It was like, what were we doing? So the team was split, obviously. Hampsten, myself and the English speakers obviously helping Greg, and then the French boys were helping Bernard. It was definitely split alliances based on what we felt or who we thought deserved to win the race. And that was it. Then it went to the time trial and after the time trial it was over. I remember seeing Greg after the finish and he was just like pushed to the absolute limits. Completely. And Hinault would say well that’s the way it should be. I pushed him to his limits and now he knows that he won it being the best guy. That’s what Hinault would say; okay you gotta honor that.
RKP: At the end of the day there was a certain logic to what he had to say.
SB: Yeah (laughing).
RKP: If he wanted Greg to prove he was the strongest rider, it would seem that he did so.
RKP: It sounds like it was a lot of stress to put the riders through.
SB: Koechli [Paul Koechli was the team’s DS] was a really good manager. He kept a really good balance, even keel. It must have been really difficult for him as well as director but he seemed to be the right man for that job. To keep the team on track and there were no fisticuffs. I mean, there could have been.
RKP: Okay, on to another great race: 1990 Paris-Roubaix. I recently heard someone say the whole reason you didn’t win was parallax, that the angle of the camera captured the finish line wrong. And it was the first time I’d ever heard anything like that. I wasn’t there; I don’t know, but it sounds crazy. What I’ve always heard was that you were riding into the setting sun, it was hard to see and difficult to judge just where the finish line was. What’s your take on that finish?
SB: Well, I mean, it’s kind of interesting if I reflect on the sprint that—my track experience, because I came from a track background, my track experience actually failed me there because the size of the Roubaix velodrome puts the finish line more before the banking, where most tracks put it down like two-thirds of the stretch. And in the effort, we were just going flat out for the line, I’m expecting the line to be about five meters further. You’re sprinting almost in a blackout you’re going so hard. And in the photo obviously we hadn’t thrown our bikes yet.
RKP: From the photos I’ve seen it looks like Planckaert had thrown his but you hadn’t thrown yours yet.
SB: Well, you look at the photo and Planckaert’s thinking about throwing his bike. He was starting, but he missed it too. He was starting to initiate it, but he didn’t beat me with the bike throw. It was like I hadn’t started the bike throw and he had sort of initiated a bit but he wasn’t going past me with a throw, you know? And that’s just it. I just thought the line was another few meters, so I was ready to throw the bike, I crossed the line and a flash went off and I went ‘shit’ and we’re already past the line. The flash goes off and you’re like ‘awwww, damn it.’
But, like I said, with my track experience you almost sense the line is coming into the banking just as the banking starts to turn and there’s the finish line. But Roubaix is a 400 meter velodrome. Call it a mistake or whatever; other than that I rode a perfect race. That’s what it is.
The photo? Who knows. I saw a photo where he beat me after the finish but maybe I should have had more scrutiny on the judges or the photo or the photo finish. I don’t know. Hindsight. It’s a long time ago. Not really worth digging it up now.
RKP: Certainly, but people remain curious because it was an epic day of racing.
SB: Yeah, yeah, it was that close for sure. I did a perfect race. That’s what I feel about it anyway. That’s one of those days—you do a perfect race and lose by an inch. Or less. Actually it was less than an inch (laughs).
RKP: It made it memorable. Perhaps the best second-place finish ever at that race.
Check back next week for Part II.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
There have been entirely too many doping storylines in cycling lately. We’ve had the Alejandro Valverde problem, the Danilo DiLuca suspension and Ricardo Ricco’s imminent return to the sport. His girlfriend, Vania Rossi, tested positive for the same drug—CERA—for which he was suspended, and he subsequently dumped her, months after she gave birth to their child. Bernard Kohl has opened a bike shop and seemingly ended his monthly interviews that teased out details of his doping regimen like bread crumbs for birds. Stefan Schumacher continues to fight his suspension.
And today we mark six years since the lonely death of Marco Pantani. Like Pantani, Jose Maria Jimenez was a once-talented climber who, according to circumstantial evidence, became addicted to cocaine and ultimately overdosed on the drug, cutting short a life that should have been full of promise, even after ending his career as a racer. It’s little wonder that so many cyclists reacted with horror at the news of Tom Boonen’s flirtations with the nose candy.
The constant parade of doping stories has made many cyclists weary of ProTour racing, but worse, it has changed our understanding and perception of racing in the past. We now accept Fausto Coppi’s statement about always doping when he raced, rather than discount it, which is certainly what I did when I first read the statement in the 1980s.
And while many of us took Eddy Merckx at his word when he insisted he had used nothing out of the ordinary when he was ejected from the 1969 Giro d’Italia, we have come to see that event was but one of three positive tests he gave in his career. Certainly questions abound to this day about that Giro test, such as no counter-analysis and questionable chain of custody, it’s easy to see the positive as a not uncommon occurrence in an era ripe with amphetamine usage. Why should Merckx be any different; after all, he ranks as the most successful cyclist of all time. Are we to think he was the only clean champion of his generation?
Looking back on riders I have admired—Greg LeMond, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, Andy Hampsten, Richard Virenque, Marco Pantani, Johan Museeuw, Moreno Argentin, Frank Vandenbroucke, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Alejandro Valverde, Danilo DiLuca and plenty more, what strikes me is that only two of these names have never been broadly accused or convicted of doping—LeMond and Hampsten. Were we to take every doping allegation out there as fact (save anything Armstrong has said to or about LeMond), we might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Hampsten’s win in the Giro was the last by a clean rider, as was LeMond’s last win at the Tour.
I admit, every time a new rider comes thundering onto the scene, I have moments (roughly one for every win) when I wonder, “Is this guy clean?” Even without a single positive test to implicate the rider, I can’t help but wonder if some new phenom is our next Riccardo Ricco or Bernard Kohl. To wonder such a thing is reputation assassination, even if I don’t share it with anyone else.
But this youngest generation of riders, riders who came onto the scene after the EPO problem had been identified, after the test had been devised, those are the guys who scare and upset me. It’s little wonder to me that any rider still in the game now who was there for the rise of EPO and the team podium sweeps of the ’94 Fleche Wallonne (Gewiss-Ballan) and the ’96 Paris-Roubaix (Mapie-GB) might still not be conforming to the memo. But what really troubles me are the new riders who still pursue EPO and its newer variant, CERA. Just as we think we’re making progress in doping thanks to programs such as those run by Bjarne Riis and Jonathan Vaughters, some new rider gets suspended for a drug that we have come to believe is easy to catch.
As a result, many of us have turned our backs on past performances that gave us chills, left us cheering at the TV and maybe even caused us to put up a poster of the rider in our dorm room or garage. Those were the days.
Museeuw’s win at Roubaix in ’96 came at the end of arguably the most dominant ride by any team in the history of the Hell of the North. Now we know that it was EPO that gave their performance the appearance of a Ferrari racing a Yugo.
In comments here at RKP, we’ve seen how many of your have turned against not just Lance Armstrong, but other riders we know to have doped: Marco Pantani, Frank Vandebroucke, Tyler Hamilton and more.
I realized not too long ago that if I disavow every performance that involved doping, I’d be stripped of almost every race that I ever cared about. I’d even be stripped of LeMond’s last-minute win at the 1990 Tour de France because the guy he beat—Claudio Chiappucci—was on EPO. Without him and that drug, LeMond’s win would have been much more dominant. And don’t get me started about 1991.
Despite the lies, the doping, the inability to know who was truly the best on the day, I don’t want to lose the wonder and awe I felt when I saw those performances. If I turn my back on every one of those performances in bitterness, it’s tantamount to saying of your ex, “I never really liked her.”
Those experiences, the wonder I felt at watching Richard Virenque or Floyd Landis winning in Morzine in 2003, the jubilation I felt at Tyler Hamilton’s win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, my astonishment at Armstrong’s win at the Tour in ’99 or my awe at any of Johan Museeuw’s wins at Paris-Roubaix were experiences of genuine and honest emotion on my part. While I have a different understanding of those performances today, and my feelings for those racers may have changed somewhat, I’ve decided I won’t let anyone, any new revelations, change how I remember those performances.
I can’t tell anyone else how to feel about those performances. The bitterness some of you feel at the betrayal of learning some win was doped is as valid an emotional experience as any jubilation I’ve felt for the same performance.
But for those of you who have felt frustration and confusion with each new revelation, I offer my perspective as a different way to process your feelings. I’m not suggesting we capitulate and just give in to enjoying doped riding; like each of you, I want a clean sport, full stop.
Society changes and what we tolerate changes as well. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. I can’t endorse his ownership of a person, but that act shouldn’t erase the work he did in establishing the United States’ democracy.
I truly believe cycling is changing for the better and that doping is on the decline. It is a scourge, though, that we should not fool ourselves into thinking will ever be eradicated. We should not accept the doped performances of the past out of inevitability and resignation, but rather because they inspired us in our own riding. And if we rode with honesty and conviction, then some good came from those tarnished wins.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Back in July, Team Astana was clearly not only the strongest team in the 2009 Tour de France peloton, but also one of the most powerful teams that had been put together in recent years. La Gazzetta dello Sport called it “Fortress Astana”. This caused Padraig to ponder about which team might be the best Tour de France squad of all time. He suggested the 1986 La Vie Claire team of Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten, Steve Bauer and Jean-François Bernard as the greatest.
I offered the 1908 Peugeot squad, which won all 14 stages in the 1908 Tour and took the top four GC places as the finest Tour de France team ever. I still hold by that view.
So who is number two on my list? Team France between 1930 and 1934.
Until 1930, the Tour as contested by trade teams, as it is today. Alcyon-Dunlop, Alleluia-Wolber and Lucifer-Hutchinson were the Cofidis’, Columbia-HTCs and Garmin-Transitions of their time. But, not surprisingly, loyalties could cross trade team lines and riders from a country could unite to help a fellow compatriot. Also, trade teams could combine to try to bring about an outcome that had been decided in a hotel room. Of course, this still goes on today.
At that time the Tour was run by its founder, an iron-fisted dictator named Henri Desgrange, who wanted his race to be a pure test of an athlete’s will and power. He made the race stupefyingly hard, even forcing the riders to perform their own repairs. As late as 1929 riders still had to fix their own flat tires. Desgrange loathed trade teams and felt they corrupted his race. Since the race’s inception he had tried to negate the effect of teams and domestiques (a term Desgrange invented) but in the end he had to surrender to the fact that massed-start bicycle road racing is a sport contested by teams and won by individuals.
It all came to a head in the 1929 Tour. Maurice Dewaele took the Yellow Jersey after the 323-kilometer stage 10 trip through the Pyrenees. His lead of nearly 15 minutes looked nearly unassailable. But as the Alps loomed, Dewaele fell ill. He was so sick that at one point he couldn’t eat solid food. He was pushed and dragged over the remaining stages by his teammates. More importantly, it seemed that a fix was in. Dewaele in his fragile state was extremely vulnerable to the attacks that never came. Astonishingly, he arrived in Paris still in yellow.
“A corpse has won,” lamented a miserable Desgrange who was convinced that something had to be done to protect the fundamental honesty of the Tour.
What he did was extraordinary. He dispensed with the detested trade teams and instead, put the riders in national squads. There was a French team, an Italian team, one for Belgium, etc. Since the bike makers had a 3-week publicity blackout, they refused to pay the substantial expenses of housing, feeding and transporting the riders. Again, Desgrange did the unexpected. He came up with the publicity caravan. Companies would pay the Tour for the privilege of driving their logo’d trucks and cars in front of the race. The national teams are gone, but the publicity caravan remains.
The effect of this realignment was huge. Instead of being scattered among many teams, the best French riders were now on one team. In 1930, the best stage racers in the world were the French, with the Belgians and Italians formidable but on a slightly lower level.
The early 1930s Team France has to be considered one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. They won 5 straight Tours with 3 different riders. That is a bench with depth. In 1930, the national team format’s first year, they not only won the Tour, they put 6 riders in the top ten in the overall, and team member Charles Pélissier won 8 stages.
Here’s the core of the team:
André Leducq: He won 5 stages in the 1929 Tour and went on to win a total of 25 stages. That remained the record until Merckx won 34. He won the Tour in 1930 and 1932. This was a man with talent. He had been world amateur champion and had won Paris-Roubaix in 1928 and would take Paris-Tours in 1931.
Antonin Magne: He won the tour in 1931 and 1934. Magne was the world pro road champion in 1936 and won the Grand Prix des Nations, then the unofficial world time trial championship, in 1934, ’35, an ’36.
Charles Pélissier: Charles was brother to 1923 Tour winner Henri and the capable but not outstanding Francis (who found later that he was a far better team manager than racer). Pélissier won those 8 stages in the 1930 Tour, which included the final 4 legs of the race. In 1931 he won 4 stages. Pélissier wasn’t part of the 1932 team (he would return in 1933) but Georges Speicher was. Speicher won the Tour and the world road championship in 1933 as well as the 1936 Paris-Roubaix. Also a member of the 1932 squad was Roger Lapébie. He won 5 stages in the 1934 Tour before going of to win the 1937 edition.
We can’t forget some of the other French team members:
Maurice Archambaud: magnificent against the clock but too heavy to win the Tour. He wore yellow but could never seal the deal, losing too much time in the high mountains. Nevertheless, he was an important contributor to the team’s success.
René Vietto: His story of giving up his wheel to allow Magne to win in 1934 when Vietto might very well have won the race himself is one of the legends of the Tour. This was a team that acted as one for a common goal. Vietto ended up wearing Yellow more than any man who didn’t win the Tour. He was one of the greatest climbers in the history of the sport, but both his knees and his time trialing would let him down when it mattered.
The French team was not only talented, it had a magnificent esprit de corps. When Leducq crashed descending the Galibier and thought his chances of winning the 1930 Tour were over, they rallied his spirits and dragged him up to the leaders and led him out for the stage win.
1934 was Team France’s last year of glory when it won 19 of the 23 stages. That is dominance writ large.
Cycling historian Jean-Paul Ollivier thinks the 1933 French team was the greatest assemblage of pre-war cycling talent ever. I think one could pick any or all of the 1930’s Tour teams as the best, and with the exception of the 1908 Peugeot team, one could hardly go wrong.
And then the magic ended. In 1935 Magne crashed out of the Tour and although Pélissier raced the 1935 edition, it was as an independent rider, not part of Team France. With the absence of the leadership these two riders gave the team, the magnificent cohesion that had allowed the French to steamroller their opposition evaporated. Romain Maes of Belgium mercilessly took the French and the rest of the peloton apart. Second-place Ambrogio Morelli of Italy finished almost 18 minutes behind. The best-placed French rider was Speicher, at 54 minutes and 29 seconds.
The only time the French would win the Tour again before the war was in 1937, and the tainted officiating in favor of the French and Lapébie still smells.
The French would come back to dominate the Tour de France during golden age of racing, the 1950s (and beyond), with Louison Bobet ( winner in 1953, ’54, ’55), Roger Walkowiak (1956) and Jacques Anquetil (1957, ’61, ’62, ’63 and ’64).
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In Part II of my interview with Steve Hampsten I get Steve to talk about several of his big loves in equipment: 650B wheels, the constructeur movement and Columbus MAX tubing. His perspective isn’t what I’d call mainstream, but his rationale is so clear that the alternative he offers is truly compelling.
PB—You’ve been at ground zero for the constructeur movement and 650B wheels. What is it about those that interests you and what practical value do you think they offer the average cyclist?
SH—Constructeur bikes—which I’ll define as a made-to-order frame and fork designed to work with dedicated lights, fenders, and (usually) a front bag and rack—have become pretty popular of late. I think they’re an attempt at creating a bicycle that will work well in the real world in terms of being usable in varying types of weather and lighting conditions, and when carrying more than just a spare tube and a gel. As a designer with a hands-on approach, I find integrating the racks, lights, tires, and fenders of these bikes to be both challenging and rewarding—each one is just a little different.
650B wheels are interesting and becoming more so each year. A 650B x 38mm tire offers roughly the same outside diameter as a 700c x 23mm tire—so it’s essentially the same wheel size that most of us are used to but with a much larger volume of air. They’re nice when riding on really rough roads, when carrying a heavy load, when you want that certain Frenchy je ne sais quois—or when you want all three. Currently I have three 650B flat-bar bikes in the works: all three designed as shopping bikes but each is taking a different approach in one form or another.
We should see at least two new 650B x 38mm tires this year—the size many feel is ideal for this wheel—and I think they’ll be better quality than anything we’ve seen previously. It’s maybe not the ideal go-fast tire size but it is comfortable, grippy, and elegantly classic-looking.
PB—How would you compare/contrast the use of 650B wheels to the newish road bike category of endurance bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, Trek Pilot and Felt Z-series which share a longer wheelbase, slacker head tube angle, more fork rake and longer head tube resulting in a higher bar position?
SH—I wouldn’t really compare them at all. The three you mention are closer to our own Strada Bianca and to the Moots Mootour/IF Club Racer/ Co-Mo Nor’wester than they are to a 650B bike like the Rivendell Saluki or Tournesol Pavé. I think most 700C bikes are good for moving a rider and (maybe) a small load over a variety of road surfaces but as the load increases—or the surface becomes less smooth—then smaller wheels with bigger tires start to make more sense. But I like that bigger companies are offering bikes that aren’t simply dumbed-down Pro Tour race bikes, that they’re entertaining the idea there might be more riding experiences to be had than simply hammering along a road in mad pursuit of … what?
PB—Let’s talk a practical consideration: For better or worse, most riders on most group rides are running a 23mm tire at 8 bar (and some guys are running pressure much higher than that). Rolling resistance is much lower than running a 28mm tire at 7 bar or less. That’s some noticeable extra wattage you have to put out to maintain pace with the ride. Do you maintain that these bikes are appropriate for most roadies?
SH—Well Patrick, I’ll have to disagree here with you here: I don’t think that skinny tires pumped hard roll much faster than fatter tires run slightly softer. I agree they FEEL faster because you’re getting more feedback from the road surface and you’re bouncing over all the little bumps and most folks think that feels like speed. I like my skinny tires for some riding and I like the fatties for other rides. I do notice the larger tires seem a little more sluggish to accelerate, which they should as it’s more weight to get moving. But on gravel or on a bumpy road, I’ll take the bigger tire as they feel smoother when rolling and more planted in corners. Horses for courses, as they say.
PB—If you could only ride one bike, a bike that needed to be versatile enough to do your favorite group rides and more, what would that bike be? What size wheels would it have? What would the geo be? What frame material? And heck, what parts would you put on it?
SH—It’d be a welded steel frame from light tubing, probably with a steel fork and for 57mm-reach calipers, same as our Classic model. 700c x 25 or 28mm tires for the day-to-day stuff, maybe 24mm Vittoria Pavé with fenders for the six damp months a year up here, 33.3mm tires for the epic rides. 73 X 72.8, 46mm rake, 70mm BB drop, chainstays at 420mm. I like handbuilt wheels, anything from the Chris King catalog, and SRAM Force is my current favorite kit. Thomson, Fi’zi:k, Deda Zero100 bars, King Cages … bliss.
PB—How many people actually work for Hampsten? Tell us a bit more, if you would, about Max and Martin.
SH—Hampsten is me as the only full-time employee. I have a part-time mechanic, Chris Boedecker, who helps with assembly, repairs, and wheelbuilding as needed. Max does the in-house welded frames and has been building our custom racks, Martin does all of our lugged frames/forks and makes our extra brazed forks as needed.
Max Kullaway started at Rhygin, then moved over to Merlin where he learned to weld – this was back in their days in MA – then worked at Seven until moving out here a couple of years ago. He’s working at a local metal fabrication outfit and also welding titanium frames for Davidson. He and fellow ex-Sevenite, Bernard Georges, have started their own framebuilding gig called 333fab—say “triple-three-fab”—building steel and ti frames for both road and cyclocross. In his spare time Max welds some frames for me, here at my shop – he’s a busy lad!
Martin Tweedy took the framebuilding class at UBI back in 1996 or so then became the first employee at Match Bicycle Company where he brazed several hundred lugged frames for Schwinn Paramount, Beckman, and Rivendell. When Match closed up he worked for Dave Levy at Ti Cycles doing Dave’s brazed frames as well as helping with the Hampsten frames then coming out of Dave’s shop. He had his own line of “Palmares”-badged lugged frames and he has built almost all of the lugged Hampsten frames since 2001. Martin is credited with creating the Hampsten Gran Paradiso/Race geometry back when we worked together at Match; Dave Levy gets most of the credit for the Strada Bianca geometry.
PB—How important is frame material to you? Do you have a preferred frame material?
SH—I like materials that can be welded or brazed. Currently I’m loving my steel frames for their springy resilience but I’m also looking forward to putting some miles in on my aluminum winter bike—I think having a light, stiff bike makes me go a little harder on the hills and maybe slows the fitness degeneration as the days get colder and darker. Titanium feels good too but I just haven’t been grabbing my ti bike as much this year. But overall I’ll take frame fit and design over material choice—I think a good frame can be built from any of the materials out there. (As a footnote: I sure liked all my carbon bikes from Parlee and I can’t imagine that anyone could do carbon better. But Parlee’s pricing moved to a point where I didn’t feel comfortable offering their frames and we parted ways amicably.)
PB—You’ve been getting into building with Columbus MAX. If there’s a stiffer ferrous tubeset on the market, I haven’t ridden it. It’s stiffer than almost every aluminum frame I’ve ridden. Is MAX strictly the domain of the big man, or does it have other applications?
SH—It’s not the tubeset that’s overly stiff, it’s what you do with it that determines how the frame will ride. We’re talking about a top tube that is 31.8mm, bi-axially ovalized, butts are .7/.4/.7mm, and the down tube is 35mm with .8/.5/.8, also ovalized on opposing axes. The seat tube is pretty standard, we don’t use the MAX seatstays, and the chainstays are tall but not crazy heavy. Overall I’d say the wall thicknesses are what we would typically use on many of our steel frames but the MAX diameters are increased by almost 10% which should give an increase in stiffness of about 20%. We don’t use the MAX forks and we save some weight by welding rather than using the MAX lugs and BB shell.
So I could take that tubing and build you a really stiff, short wheel-based race bike and we could pair it with some tall rims and skinny tires pumped hard and we could make it ride like crap—stiff enough to rattle your fillings.
Or we could lengthen the wheelbase, slacken the angles, and orient the top tube so that the oval section was flexing at the head tube, and combine with a carbon or light steel fork. I’d use some lighter seat stays, possibly replace the chainstays with something smaller, put you on some hand-built 3-cross wheels with 28mm tires pumped to 85-90psi and make sure there was enough dirt, cobbles, and/or gravel on the ride to get your attention – then you would see the beauty of the MAX tubeset.
I think it helps to be at or above 180 pounds and to not be too hung up on the weight of the bike but I think MAX is a good example of older technology that still works great today. More on MAX here.