I just had breakfast with Scott Moninger at a Boulder diner. The 45-year-old Colorado resident is probably the greatest American bike racer who never rode the Tour de France—but he is going to his first Tour this week. Not as a racer, but as a television commentator to work with Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll in the NBC Sports “studio” at every stage finish for the next three weeks And judging by our conversation over eggs and French toast on Monday, Moninger will make a great addition to the team.
In a pro career that lasted almost two decades, Moninger raced for teams such as Coors Light, Mercury, HealthNet and BMC Racing. He won 275 races. Not bad for a climber! His palmarès lists some 30 overall wins in stage races, including Australia’s Herald-Sun Tour, the Redlands Classic and Tour of Utah, along with multiple victories in the Mount Evans Hill Climb and Nevada City Classic. In other words, Moninger knows quite a bit about bike racing!
Since ending his pro racing career in 2007, Moninger has remained in the sport, first as a team director with Toyota-United, and presently as a coach with Peaks Coaching, and as a national brand ambassador for Speedplay pedals. But it’s his knowledge as a bike racer, along with his calm, confident voice and solid demeanor, that should make him a perfect foil for Roll’s wacky style. “And they wanted an American,” Moninger emphasized, referring to NBC Sports.
Moninger’s presence will add an extra degree of knowledge to Tour coverage on network television. He may not have ridden the Tour, but he raced with or against many of the men who competed in Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this spring, including Tom Danielson, Cadel Evans, JJ Haedo, Greg Henderson, Ryder Hesjedal, George Hincapie, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Dave Zabriskie. That personal connection will help give viewers an inside perspective on the peloton, while Moninger’s up-to-the-minute knowledge of training and tactics will add considerable depth to the NBC team’s daily analysis of the Tour.
Moninger doesn’t have the experience of his three veteran co-commentators (Liggett will be calling the race for the 40th time this year!), “but they wanted someone with a fresh voice,” Moninger told me. He may not be a seasoned TV “talent” but I’m sure he’ll be that fresh voice NBC Sports producer David Michaels is seeking.
I don’t want to give away any secrets, but Moninger, who said he has diligently watched the Tour on TV for the past 20 years, shared many fine insights on the Tour over breakfast. We talked about all the contenders, their teams, the likely strategies, the unusual layout of this year’s Tour, and the Olympic road race that follows a week after the Tour.
Moninger can also talk knowledgably about any doping topics that surface because, as most people remember, he was a victim of the anti-doping rules a decade ago. He tested positive for the prohibited steroid 19-norandrosterone at Colorado’s Saturn Cycling Classic in August 2002, and he was given a two-year suspension, which, on appeal to a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency tribunal, was reduced to one year.
Moninger explained at his hearing that a month before the Colorado race, when he couldn’t buy the amino-acid supplement he’d been using for years, he switched to another brand—and though no prohibited substances were listed in the ingredients, an analysis later showed there were some unknown anabolic elements in the supplement.
The appeals panel didn’t accept that explanation, but they did cut Moninger’s sentence because of a provision in the anti-doping rules that allows a panel to modify a suspension because of the “character, age and experience of the transgressor.” They also recognized that this was his first positive result in more than 100 drug tests he’d undertaken in his then 12 seasons as a professional cyclist. In its verdict, the USADA panel wrote that “the evidence clearly indicates that he is one of the most respected and trusted members of the American cycling community.”
That experience wasn’t something he wanted, but it certainly gives Moninger an insider’s knowledge of the anti-doping process, and that knowledge could be of great value over the course of a Tour. Although no one wants another doping scandal to scar the sport, Moninger will be able to expertly discuss subjects like Alberto Contador’s current suspension and USADA’s ongoing investigation of the alleged “doping conspiracy” in teams led by Lance Armstrong that is keeping Johan Bruyneel from directing his RadioShack-Nissan team at the Tour.
Moninger, and the rest of the NBC viewers, would much rather discuss the promise of a new Tour, where Evans and Brad Wiggins may be the favorites but, as we discussed at breakfast, there will be some great challenges from the likes of Hesjedal, Horner, Leipheimer and half-a-dozen others. So it should be a good first Tour for a popular American seeking to be the new voice of cycling.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
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
All the big teams have had their presentations for the 2010 season. The season’s goals have been laid out, some publicly, some not as. So what’s likely to happen?
I got to thinking about what I’d like to happen. There are probably a great many of you who think I’ll be at the prologue of the Tour with sniper rifle trained on Alberto Contador. My equipment will be loaded, to be sure, but only with a 2 gig memory card.
Would it be interesting to see Cav win Milan San-Remo going away from the field? Sure. Would it be amazing to see Tomeke equal Roger DeVlaeminck’s record at Paris-Roubaix? Absolutely. Would it be great to see Contador battle Armstrong and Schleck until the field quit in submission? Truly, it would be riveting.
There’s just one problem. Not one of these outcomes would be surprising. Even those of you who hate Armstrong with the level of detestation ordinarily reserved for the intestinal flu must admit that an Armstrong victory is a possibility, no matter how damnable you think that version of the future might be.
And so, with five hours of me, a bike and an average heartrate lower than the speeds I drove as an irresponsible youth, I thought about the coming season.
Obsessed may be more like it.
I asked myself how I’d feel about Cav winning in San-Remo. Blah. Tomeke enter the velodrome in Roubaix alone? Equal parts thrilled and bored. Contador in yellow in Paris? Less ennui than I felt when Indurain won his third, if pleased to see him equal Thevenet’s and LeMond’s record. What if Armstrong stood atop the podium. Stunned. Plain damn stunned. Can you think of another rider that more teams will be riding against at the Tour? Has there ever been another rider that more teams will have deliberately ridden against? Did Merckx inspire that kind of opposition in anyone other than DeVlaeminck?
The answer, in my case, is that I just want some surprises. I don’t really mean of the Dirk Demol or Jean-Marie Wampers variety, you know a guy who doesn’t even get named as a dark horse, but rather, a guy who is a 10 to 1 or a 20 to 1.
It means seeing a break succeed at Milan-San Remo or—better yet—a tactical checkmate that leaves Quick Step chasing all the way to Roubaix—and off the podium. Not that I’ve got anything against them, I just want some finishes that I would never have guessed. And given the enormous limitations of my memory and creativity, it really shouldn’t be that hard.
So what would it require? Well, here’s the thing that occurred to me somewhere around Hollywood’s coastal outpost, better known as the Colony: Race outcomes were more uncertain—say it with me, people—before race radios.
There is plenty of dislike for race radios among the RKP readership as it is. I’ve straddled the line. Those of you who have been readers of VeloNews for a long time may recall Bob Roll’s account of riding the Giro d’Italia in the 1980s and entering an unlit tunnel only to plow into a pile of bricks in the middle of the road and fall in a puddle of diesel. Race radios might have helped him. They have done much to help team directors alert riders of coming course difficulties. On the other hand, the race courses are generally better scouted and selected today.
What of TVs in the cars? Honestly, I think these are as much a problem as the race radios. Do you suppose the team directors would be ordering their riders to the front to pedal hard quite as often if they couldn’t see live feeds of the race on TV in their cars?
So back to the old question. Should race radios be banned? If the team directors had less information about exactly what was happening from one moment to the next they might not bark quite so many instructions to their riders, ordering them to the front to ride.
Had radios been in use in ’88 and ’89 it is highly unlikely Dirk Demol and Jean-Marie Wampers would have stayed away to win Paris-Roubaix, and while I was non-plussed that a rider I had never heard of won Paris-Roubaix in ’89, I’d be grateful to see more uncertainty injected back into the racing.
So one thing is certain: At the very least, the TVs ought to be outlawed, even if the radios persist. It’s a miracle, if minor, that some DS, apoplectic over his riders’ inaction in the face of an attack, hasn’t crashed his car while glued to the feed.
Meh. So there it is, I’ve come around to wanting race radios banned from the peloton. I want the TVs yanked out of the cars, the radios left at home and team staff forbidden from watching TV at some hotel and calling the DS to update him on just what’s on the tube. So maybe the cell phones should go—just during the race, mind you—as well.
I risk seeming a Luddite. I’m not against technology, but what I want to avoid is the near constant feedback that tells the pack they are bearing down on the breakaway. The GPS data that reveals what the gap to the break is—5:10, 5:05, 5:03, etc.—is tantamount to the live TV feed. While it’s great for the home audience, I’d like to see anything that can give precise enough feedback to let the pack know the gap is coming down 10 seconds per kilometer find its way to Salvation Army.
After all, shouldn’t part of racing be based on your ability to do math when you’re at or above your lactate threshold?
So what’s going to happen? The call for radios to be banned will grow louder, that is what’s going to happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International