Okay, so we couldn’t leave a whole week without a post. It’s been a year of stories often as fascinating as they are frustrating. Robot and I have picked our five most significant (if not favorite) story lines.
1) Fabian Cancellara’s Roubaix/ Flanders Double—Few riders are able to completely dominate their competition quite the way Fabian Cancellara can when he’s in top form. His astonishing attack on the Muur in the Ronde, while seated mind you, is a move I will never forget. Then his turn of speed at Roubaix, with main rival Tom Boonen momentarily asleep at the switch, was thrilling. To ride off the front of a group containing Boonen, Thor Hushovd, Juan Antonio Flecha and a select crew of Classics specialists, demonstrates a power and quality we seldom see. Those two wins made Cancellara’s April my top highlight of the 2010 season.
2) The Rise and Fall of Contador—The American press tried to make the 2010 Tour about the duel between Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, but Armstrong never had a chance, crashing out of contention early and then fumbling along to the finish. The real match was between Contador and Andy Schleck and that story served up all the drama and controversy of the very best Tours, with Contador standing on the top step in Paris to confirm his inheritance of the Armstrong/Indurain/Hinault/Merckx/Anquetil/Coppi legacy.
Oh, but then soaring so close to the sun, waxen wings melting in the bright light, Contador tests positive for Clenbuterol. And with this positive test, confirmed with a B sample reading, and hurled into judicial purgatory for the rest of the year, we see an abrupt end to the building legend, an end that tarnishes the futures of both the rider and the race.
3) Thor Hushovd’s World Championship—Coming off a World Championship year that saw 2009 winner Cadel Evans represent the rainbow jersey with grit, bravery and aplomb, the talismanic championship seemed open to sprinters and roleurs alike. In the end, the sprintingest roleur won the race, riding a smart tactical race with a short-handed team, only flexing his considerable muscle when it mattered most. Hushovd’s win was big for a hard-working rider, but also big for the jersey itself, as we are now almost guaranteed a second consecutive year of class from the world champ.
4) The First Biological Passport Suspensions—The UCI might have taken a more expeditious path to this stage of the fight against doping, but despite their missteps and the blundering press comments of president Pat McQuaid, the biological passport program finally produced some results in 2010. It remains to be seen how its parameters and administration will evolve as tools against cheaters, but with the first suspensions, we are finally seeing an adjunct program to in-race testing that seeks to catch the dopers who slip through the first net. Love it or hate it, the Passport must have dishonest riders worried that they’re running out of options, and that is, unquestionably, a good thing.
5) The SaxoBank Exodus/Luxembourg Project—It is hard for me to fathom how so many riders (and managers) whose careers were built and fostered by Bjarne Riis would be so willing to jump off the SaxoBank ship to join a fledgling team, regardless of the pedigree of its component parts. That Riis can be prickly, stubborn and aloof is beyond argument, but the mutiny of nearly his entire team is an outcome I never foresaw. Heap on top that insult, the injury of Contador’s doping problems, and it becomes very hard to argue that the Dane will land on his race-winning feet in 2011.
1) Cancellara’s Flanders/Roubaix Double—I have to echo Robot here. Not only were Cancellara’s back-to-back victories the wins of the year for me, I have to say that Cancellara’s attack on the Muur de Grammont—seated and spinning the 25 while Boonen looked to be standing on a 21—was absolutely the attack of the year for me. Both rides had me standing up and cheering.
That anyone would accuse the four-time time trial World Champion of using an electric motor is like asking about Kobe Bryant’s rocket boots he uses to get his jump shot. We should ignore the birthers. They’ll go away faster this way. We have real problems to contend with, as evidenced by number two.
2) The Contador Doping Case—From a standpoint of rules, I don’t see how Contador will escape a suspension due to his positive test for Clenbuterol. American rider Scott Moninger went to incredible lengths to demonstrate that what he tested positive for was as a result of supplements tainted by sloppy manufacturing. He purchased stock made in the same lot as the supplements he took and submitted sealed containers for testing. His defense was rigorously scientific … and he still got a one-year suspension due to strict liability. Contador’s defense has been far less methodical, which makes me far less sympathetic. His claims have, for me, smacked of the ‘dog ate my homework’ variety.
However, the bigger question on my mind has to do with testing for plasticizers. The detection of plasticizers in Contador’s sample suggests that officials may soon be able to prosecute riders more effectively for autologous blood transfusions. This seems to have been the preferred doping method for GC hopefuls for more than five years, but catching these riders has been less than successful. I don’t care who the rider is, if they’re transfusing, I want them caught and suspended as a result of a rigorously scientific prosecution.
3) The UCI’s Technical Criteria for Bike Approval—Bike companies have been screwed like an Ikea entertainment center by the UCI’s technical commission. Cinelli was nearly bankrupted due to the Spinacci fiasco. Their implementation of rules ahead of schedule sparked a seething rant from me that I ultimately deemed too angry to publish. I’m glad that a procedure to approve bicycles is in place. Unfortunately, the fee schedule to get a bike approved is expensive enough that some companies might think twice before submitting a design. Viewed within the larger expense of sponsoring a ProTeam team, it’s not so bad, but for companies that stretch to sponsor a Continental team, this could be a deal killer; after all, $12k is the cost of some riders. Leave it to the UCI to create a system that would scare bike companies from sponsoring a racing team. While this story will make more waves in 2011 than it did in 2010, that the criteria were decided and announced is huge. It’s an important step in the right direction.
4) The SaxoBank Exodus—Once Fabian Cancellara announced that he, too, would depart SaxoBank, I had a Sixth Sense moment. If you recall the Bruce Willis thriller, when you reach the end of the film and realize that he is the dead guy, you must reanalyze the entire picture—better yet, just watch it again. I began to wonder if all the praise riders had heaped upon Bjarne Riis was all Hollywood kiss-kiss, “Love ya, babe.” Presented with a viable option every rider worth anything jumped like passengers from the Titanic. It’s little surprise Richie Porte stayed behind; there’s nothing like watching the heirs apparent abdicate. ‘You say I’m king?! Cool!’
I can’t help but wonder what skeletons rattle in Riis’ closet.
5) The Fall of Lance Armstrong—Long before investigator Jeff Novitzky became interested in Tailwind Sports and Lance Armstrong, many cycling fans rebuked him like a banana republic reformer-cum-dictator. Allegations of doping swirled around him, proven sufficiently to some, while others simply saw the allegations as typical efforts to besmirch a hard-working athlete. Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France seems to have been more than disenfranchised Floyd Landis could bear. My read is that Landis believes he played by the same set of rules Armstrong did, won, and got a very different result. Forgetting for a moment how Landis has conducted himself (the most conclusive thing I can say is that some of his choices seem to have been based on fuzzy logic), it doesn’t seem hard to see how a man who has lost everything he worked for—wife, home, stepchild, a father-in-law, savings—decides he’ll burn the rest down. History is replete with examples of figures who refuse to go down alone, people who want others in the boat with them when the gunwales swamp.
Armstrong’s story has a lot of unfolding left to do. We knew the comeback would be a fresh chapter in the athlete’s career, but no one expected this turn. Novitzky’s reputation indicates that if he tires of his work as an investigator he could teach graduate seminars in tenacity. Armstrong is anything but convicted, but the allegations all point to a conclusion that will change the world’s opinion of him, and probably his foundation. The tragedy is that if he is convicted of charges associated with doping, most casual followers of cycling will think of Armstrong as a dirty athlete in a dirty sport and simply write off cycling as a force for good. Lost will be the story of an athlete who returned from the grave, played by the standard of the day and won the Tour de France … again and again and again and again and again and again.
And so we put the question to you: What were the biggest stories of the year in your eyes?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The end of the Tour de France gives most of us back our lives, but not Bjarne Riis. The erstwhile Dane spent much of the Tour answering media questions about his next team sponsor and what he’s going to do if (when) Fränk and Andy Schleck leave to start their own team. After announcing software giant SunGard as one of his future sponsors and confirming that he does, in fact, have a new title sponsor lined up as well, Riis goes back to trying to convince his other stars to stick with the cause.
With SaxoBank exiting the picture, we’ll have yet another iteration of the Bjarne Riis show, much the way we had 7-11, which begat Motorola, or US Postal, which begat Discovery Channel, or Reynolds, which begat Banesto, which begat Illes Balears, which begat Caisse d’Epargne, or the Rabobank team which went this way: Kwantum Hallen-Decosol-Yoko to Superconfex-Yoko to Buckler-Colnago-Decca to Wordperfect-Colnago-Decca to Novell Software-Decca to Rabobank.
Between fickle sponsors, inconsistent management and unstable rosters, one might argue (I am right now) that pro cycling teams have, at best, a loose grasp on coherent identities. We’re calling Bjarne Riis’ team SaxoBank at the moment, but we’ll call it something else next year, all the while aware that it is, at root, Bjarne Riis’ team. He is, for better AND worse, their identity.
This state of affairs stands in somewhat stark contrast to other sports where clubs or franchises maintain a consistent character for decades on end, an attribute which allows them to develop quite loyal followings based on a set of characteristics which transcends the current management, ownership and roster. It also allows them to sell a lot of merchandise.
As a result of its erratic nature, cycling is a harder sport to write about than others. So much of the shorthand that’s available to media when discussing soccer or baseball for example, just doesn’t exist for cycling. The current “rivalry” between HTC-Columbia (Team Telekom, T-Mobile, High Road, etc.) and Garmin-Transitions (Slipstream, Chipotle, Jingleheimer-Schmidt) contains a kernel of the sort of narrative that can emerge from a more stable peloton, but that kernel disappears once a title sponsor leaves and a few riders defect to other teams.
Instead of teams, cycling focusses very much on personalities, usually the transcendent riders like Merckx, Coppi, Anquetil, Hinault, Indurain, Bobet, Stablinski, Indurain, LeMond, Gimondi, Cippolini, Kelly, etc. etc. etc. For a team sport, the stories of individuals far outstrip the stories of great teams, and when we do talk about great teams, the stories are these ephemeral whispers about groups of men that came together at random, crushed all comers, and then slowly slipped away into the mists.
There are myriad reasons for the sport to have developed this way. The governors of the sport, from newspapers to private companies to the UCI and national federations, have never had a clear vision of what they wanted pro cycling to look like. Perhaps no other sport has undergone the transformations cycling has in terms of equipment, rules, team structures, and tactics. The current iteration of the Tour de France, as but one example, bears very little resemblance to the races of 30, 50 and 100 years ago.
In as much as cycling has survived and succeeded, it has done so in spite of itself. With its ever-shifting structure, the races have emerged as the true stars. If the teams have, by and large, failed to hold themselves together, to market themselves effectively, the races have, by sheer force of persistence, elevated themselves in the eyes of the fans.
We may, on a rainy, spring day, cheer on this rider or that one as they approach the velodrome in Roubaix, but none of us turns off the television when he, invariably, crashes out. The drama and spectacle of the events stands in for the tribalism of team support.
Perhaps this is at it should be. We may not have a favorite team (at least not one that lasts very long), but we have the races. You can not paint without a canvas. You can not ride without a race. And maybe, in the end, the fluid nature of a team sport dominated by individuals is best organized by the current system.
Still, as Bjarne Riis puts together the next version of his traveling circus, one has to wonder if a system based on franchises might not make more sense for pro cycling. The UCI already sells licenses for ProTour teams. The next step would be to attach some identifying characteristic to each license, a color, a name, something that would stick with the team, regardless of sponsorship. This would allow identities to form and grow. It would allow shirts to be sold, memberships offered.
There are a million possibilities, and if cycling is to go on, it will need to avail itself of some of them, for the UCI needs new ways to sell our sport in the wake of the doping era, the Age of Armstrong and the brief, wondrous life of Team SaxoBank.
So Alberto Contador won the Tour de France by a margin slimmer than many said was possible, a margin equal to what he clawed out with the aid of Dennis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez on stage 15. We can argue about all the places each rider gained or lost time, but really, the race comes down to two fateful events: Schleck’s mis-shift on 15 and his later 39-second gap in the final time trial. The symmetry of the two events is more difficult to ignore than the economy.
And just to be ultra-clear about this, yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.
I should also point out that even though he twice went for stage wins for himself, Alexander Vinokourov proved to be both valuable and loyal to Contador in the mountain stages. Vinokourov sat on Schleck on stage 15 and never rode for himself by taking a pull at the front of the group. He’ll always be an unpredictable element in my mind, but he demonstrated his value to the Astana team repeatedly. He deserves to be recognized.
But individual performances aside, if we back up and look at the 2010 Tour de France as an elaborate chess game involving 22 players, some interesting questions emerge.
First, what the hell has Johan Bruyneel been thinking? He fielded the most experienced team in the Tour de France, sure, but it was also the oldest team by an Egyptian pharaoh. The most youthful element of the team was the management company’s formation documents. Even if we accept the possibility that the fight went out of Armstrong following his daily crashes so that by the time the time trial came around, he really wasn’t trying—which is why we didn’t see the form necessary to win the race overall anywhere in the same time zone as him—we should still ask the question: Why did no one else other than Chris Horner ride like his career was at stake?
Speaking of recognition, let’s hope that Horner feels some satisfaction and vindication at his stellar ride. It’s one of the best performances by a rider over the age of 35 ever at the Tour, and is his single best performance there. It was his misfortune to sign for a French team when he first went to Europe and his worse fortune to have his career coincide with Armstrong’s. Had he hit Europe five years earlier than he did, he could have led Motorola in its quest to do something significant in a Grand Tour. Or not. There have long been reports that Jim Ochowicz (director of Motorola and now one of the powers that be at BMC) had issues with the formerly feisty San Diegan.
Back to Bruyneel. His reputation as a kingmaker able to deliver a worthy rider to a Grand Tour victory has suffered its first setback. Even with the triple-barrel shotgun of Armstrong, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer he was unable to deliver any one of them to the top 10. Horner’s performance was the sort of showing that the French teams generally hope to luck into but can plan no better than a chimp considering retirement.
With that much talent and so little to show for it, the brass at The Shack might be understandably perturbed.
This time last year many of us were beginning to rethink what might be possible age-wise in a Grand Tour. Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.
And cast in the light of failure, Armstrong seems less ambitious, less hungry, less focused on highlighting the cause of cancer than just gluttonous, a corpulent ego.
But that’s how we play it isn’t it? When our heroes fall, we pounce.
But even if the Radio Shack board is less than thrilled, imagine what’s going on in the boardroom at Sky. Isn’t the question there whose head rolls first?
Seemingly a world away, Bjarne Riis has proven that he knows how to bring the race to anyone he wants. He’s delivered Tyler Hamilton, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck all to podium finishes at Grand Tours, though his record of wins (just two) is rather slim despite the obvious strength of his team.
Yvon Sanquer, a name you may not be very familiar with even after his team’s success, is the director of Team Astana and has kept a profile nearly as high as that of newly mown grass. His previous best result as a team director was after being brought in to rescue Team Festina (not unlike what he was asked to do with Astana) and his riders (mostly Marcel Wüst) were able to take a stage of the Tour de France along with four stages of the Vuelta plus some stages at lesser stage races. Before 2010, his riders’ closest association to the winner of a Grand Tour was if they had chatted with him.
And yet, somehow Sanquer brought together what seemed to be an underpowered team and saw to it that Contador was rarely without help in the mountains.
Despite the Astana team performing as if it were still run by Johan Bruyneel—admit it, it was an impressive performance that very few thought could truly deliver the goods as a cohesive unit this past January—I am surprised by the number of people I hear from who just plain don’t like Alberto Contador. To the degree that maybe many cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about him, it seems that even if his counter attack on stage 15 didn’t rile people, the fact that he lied about not knowing what was going on with Andy Schleck seems to have sent some fans around the bend. I’ve not been a fan of some of his tactics, and have thought some of his interviews with the Spanish media were whiny and meant to play the pity card, which strikes me as unseemly—like the Super Bowl winning team sniffling about playing hurt, but it struck me as insulting to fans everywhere for him to claim he couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with Schleck.
Which brings me to Jonathan Vaughters. Of the teams bidding for Contador’s services last year, Vaughters’ Garmin-Transitions formation was one of the teams in the running to sign the diminutive Spaniard. There are reports that after all of his efforts to leave Astana he is now considering a new contract and staying.
Contador would do well to leave, so long as he left for Vaughters. Of the many team directors at the Tour de France, Vaughters is the one that seems to have an uncanny ability to help riders achieve greatness in the GC that he never could reach on his own. In three years of competing in the Tour de France Vaughters has delivered three different riders to top-10 finishes, first with Christian Vande Velde’s fourth place, then Bradley Wiggins fourth and now Ryder Hesjedal’s seventh place. In each case the riders were uniformly believed to be talented, but no one—other than Vaughters—considered them real GC vehicles on which to pin a team’s hopes.
Sanquer’s success with Contador suggests competence, nothing more. After all, if you can’t guide a previous Tour de France winning to yet another victory, what kind of team director are you?
Bjarne Riis has consistently put together one of the strongest, most cohesive teams on the planet. That he hasn’t won more may be a question of formula more than anything else. The question seems to be, ‘Why didn’t he win?’ rather than, ‘What’s it going to take to secure another win?’
Bruyneel is the great curiosity this year. He’s ripe for criticism. How should he deflect the charge that he went with Armstrong less for career than paycheck? If he didn’t go to Radio Shack for the paycheck, then why? It’s hard for Bruyneel to charge that Vinokourov is a more tarnished rider than some he has worked with. Contador clearly has a greater future than Armstrong does. Maybe the question is just how loyal a guy is Bruyneel. Some folks are loyal to a fault. Could it be so with him?
Even if he didn’t go to Radio Shack just for a bigger paycheck that is virtually guaranteed not to dry up mid-way through the season, where does he rank his ambitions as a director? Twelve of the team’s 26 riders have had their 30th birthday. Six of them are older than 32. The only rider on the team who is showing talent and is early in his career is Janez Brajkovič. Taylor Phinney doesn’t count because he’s only a staigiaire.
How else do you wind up with that many riders in need of a retirement party than by selecting a crew that can be depended on being utterly devoted to Armstrong? Now, there’s nothing wrong with being committed to supporting your team leader, but it is fair to ask how smart it is to construct a team for a single year’s performance. Even if Leipheimer, Klöden, Horner and Rubiera plan to ride Grand Tours next year, how capable will any of them be? Horner is the only guy I’d bet on as a good support rider for the simple reason that he is obviously still proving his value and talent long after most guys have quit.
You want to make the 2011 Tour de France really interesting? Get Vaughters to sign Horner.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
I’ve got Vince Guaraldi playing, the boy is wearing a onesie that says “Not an Elf” and every blog in America has posted a Christmas gift guide … ‘cept this one. Time to get with the program.
The vast majority of all books on cycling are simply information delivery systems. Whether they are training manuals, repair manuals, accounts of racing or biographies of racers, the vast majority of all cycling titles out there deliver little more than facts. Finding a truly gripping story can be kinda hard.
I’ve known Bill and Carol McGann for more than a dozen years. It might seem odd to see two authors listed on a volume, but to meet Bill and Carol is to see their intertwined talents and inseparable efforts. Bill is an ever-rational Don Quixote, easily inspired into new quests, and Carol is his Sancho Panza, the master of logistics and details. And while I have summed up their roles tidily here, the truth is that except for physically, it’s hard to tell where Bill’s efforts stop and Carol’s efforts begin; their professional efforts are that seamless.
In the late 1990s Bill told me he wanted to put together a comprehensive history of the Tour de France for English-speaking folk. I couldn’t deny his passion, but the guy owned a bike company—Torelli Imports—not a publishing house. It seemed just a little hare-brained a scheme, but I was more than happy to play along. I loaned him every book I had on the Tour in case it was any use.
Three years ago the first volume was released, encompassing the years 1903 to 1964. What unfolded in its pages was an unexpected treat. I was suddenly embarrassed that I’d ever wondered what sort of work they’d produce.
The McGanns are keen students of history. They can discuss Renaissance art and architecture, the satire of Al Capp, or any edition of the Tour de France, all with equal ease. Carol lets Bill take lead, but it’s apparent during his occasional silences that she’s as well-versed as he.
When I confessed in a phone call that I had some trouble identifying with the pre-WWII riders and wondered how it was he found racing in such different circumstances so compelling, he was aghast. “Those guys were going bloody hard!” If I can testify to nothing else, I can say Bill knows a thing or two about going “bloody hard.” And he loves it.
What surprised me in reading both of his volumes was his use of novelistic techniques to tell the stories of these great riders. He can kill off a rider’s relevance—indeed, his whole career—as fast as Flaubert killed off the first Madame Bovary. He uses foreshadowing to build drama and hint at coming tragedy in a way that reminded me of Stephen King.
Asked who his literary heroes are, he cites Homer and Tolstoy. Perfect. Stick the two in a blender and you get a sweeping epic that crushes lives, spans generations, rattles politicians, shapes culture. Sounds a lot like the Tour de France itself.
This account isn’t an account of each stage won and passage of the yellow jersey from one rider to the next. No, it’s a big-picture view; the McGanns mine each year for themes of treachery, transcendent efforts, unchecked ego and Sisyphean heartache. In his telling Icarus falls as often as Oedipus gets the girl. (Ew.)
Here’s a classic example of the storytelling in the books. This is from the 1996 Tour:
It took Riis 11 years as a pro to attain this level. It was a performance the 32-year-old would not repeat. Since that Tour victory, Riis has been dogged by accusations of EPO use, accusations that Riis steadfastly denied until 2007. Riis’ confession was an important part of the dramatic events that rocked the 2007 Tour. We’ll save the details of that episode for later. His young charge, Ullrich, became the first German since Kurt Stoepel in 1932 to make the Tour’s podium.
Whew, I feel like Billy Pilgrim—unstuck in time.
Were you to read every word published on every Tour in l’Auto and l’Equipe and someone were to ask you to sum up the events, what your takeaway was, this would be it. With these two volumes you get perspective, a la Leonardo Da Vinci. Off in the distance each of the lines representing the careers of these riders converge and the McGanns are more than happy to tell you what badasses they were.
The books are available through Amazon or from the Bike Race Info website here.
The Tour de France first controlled for drugs in its 1966 edition. It has taken the better part of 40 years for the UCI to convince both the riders and the public that they mean business about making the sport clean.
Truly, that rather inauspicious day back in 1966 was a turning point. Without the Tour de France being controlled, the sport was essentially uncontrolled because by the 1960s, it was the one event other than the World Championships that was virtually guaranteed to feature a truly international field.
Interestingly, the first test—Raymond Poulidor’s famously lax urine sample that resulted in a protest the next day—didn’t occur during the prologue or even stage 1, it was taken following stage 8. That Poulidor was the first controlled rider demonstrates that officials had some sense impartiality. Through those first eight stages German rider Rudi Altig wore the yellow jersey following his victory in the prologue and not a single French rider had won a stage. Or were they afraid to catch a real doper?
Until fairly recently, doping control has been a fairly hit or miss affair. Due to the rate at which riders who have been known to dope have evaded detection, even targeting a particular rider for additional tests often didn’t result in a positive test. But there has been enough of a correlation between positive tests following great performances that we now associate success with the specter of doping. It’s unfortunate, but that is the promise of doping: You go faster and win races.
But with that understanding comes a dangerous corollary: We have begun to suspect that any rider who wins is probably—if not certainly—doped. Bicycling Magazine’s Joe Lindsey put forth an idea a few years ago that uses a sort of Keatsian negative capability to make sense of the pro peloton and help put a lid on overactive suspicion. In effect, Lindsey said, we must accept the peloton is doped to the gills. However, each of the riders deserves the presumption of innocence.
This is where the principles of American jurisprudence can inform the rest of the world. Without actual proof of an infraction, we should presume each individual to be innocent.
The average cycling fan can say what he or she wants about any pro and the slight is, well, slight. But once members of the media, even ones as fringe as bloggers, start couching their concerns as actual allegations, at that point a racer’s reputation can be harmed.
There’s been a perception by some readers that I have it in for Greg LeMond and that the only altar I kneel at has a picture of Lance Armstrong hanging above it. My personal feelings for both riders aren’t really important. I have a duty, however, to be very careful what I publish about Lance Armstrong’s alleged doping—or any other rider’s alleged doping. Yes, there is some very incriminating evidence that would suggest he engaged in tactics common to riders of his generation. But he has the presumption of innocence on the side of his reputation as he hasn’t been convicted of an infraction. Open, shut.
As a writer and cycling fan, my opposition to LeMond pursuing Armstrong as a doper is simple. It’s simply not his job. He’s overstepping bounds in a big way and unfortunately, to many people who follow cycling, his single-mindedness about Armstrong eliminates the even-handed justice that would be on his side if he offered to work with the UCI to use his incredible knowledge to help them refine the profile for suspicious riders. In short, LeMond is not an enforcement apparatus and needs to understand that.
That said, if it is true that Armstrong said to LeMond, ‘I could find 10 people that will say you took EPO,’ it is one of the uglier statements he is reported to have made. I’ve got no place in any mudslinging that takes place between these two, but because Armstrong’s statement seems to have raised questions about LeMond using EPO, I’m going on the record to say that I don’t believe we have any reason to suspect LeMond took EPO.
There is much to suggest that the spread of EPO at the Tour in 1991 was LeMond’s downfall. LeMond has said of ’91 that the racing was faster and attacks more frequent than in previous years. We know Claudio Chiappucci, who finished third that year, was on EPO. It’s easy to be suspicious and just say that from 1991 on, everyone was on EPO, but the situation isn’t that simple.
Conspiracy theorists like to point to how LeMond managed to get in shape just in time for the Tour as evidence that he must have been on EPO. While LeMond and Ullrich might have had getting fat over the winter in common, the only other thing they had in common was phenomenal talent. The real mark of EPO is better evidenced by the example of Bjarne Riis who raced both with and without EPO.
Bjarne Riis finished the 1991 Tour in 107th place, more than two hours down on the yellow jersey; he had yet to discover the miracle elixir. Back then, he was riding for Castorama in support of Laurent Fignon. Only two years later he finished in fifth place while riding for Gewiss-Ballan, a team that was later revealed to have had an organized program. In his press release in which he admitted his “mistakes,” Riis pointed to the years ’93-’98 as the years in which used EPO, human growth hormone and corticosteroids. His results seem to bear this out.
LeMond and Fignon (who finished sixth in ’91) were Grand Tour riders who won the Tour prior to the advent of EPO. Had LeMond been on EPO in 1991, he would likely have won the Tour that year. However, he was riding for the French team Z and the spread of EPO as administered by teams started with Italian and Dutch formations; the French teams didn’t catch on to “the program” for a few years.
As a writer, I’m unwilling to point a finger at a rider who hasn’t been convicted of doping and call him out; there are basic ethical rules against this. The flipside is different. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that LeMond was an unusually clean racer for his time.
Image by John Pierce, Photosport International