Briefly, I will apologize for the FGR’s two-week hiatus. Technical difficulties kept us from sending our semi-fortnightly missive, and then a mad man on the loose on my home turf kept our minds otherwise occupied. But let’s leave behind weighty topics for a bit. All, now, seems back to normal, and so we push on with queries new and exciting.
While we were away, Classics season seems to have ended. Sadly. But as the Byrds (via Pete Seeger) sang, “…to everything, turn, turn, turn.” Grand Tour season is upon us. I call myself a Classics man, but Padraig prefers the Grand Tours. This we have hashed out in previous and ancient versions of the FGR.
And so the Giro, a race that has, arguably, been on the rise for the past decade. A confluence of great routes, closely-fought finishes and the dark star, self-destructive gravity of the Tour all coming together to the elevate the Italian affair.
As some indication of the Giro’s rise, last season’s Tour winner, Sir Bradley Wiggins, has opted to race for the Giro win rather than defend his yellow jersey. Team Sky will say that this Giro route suits Wiggins’ strengths better, while teammate Chris Froome will lead the squad in France, but it is hard not to understand the decision in the context of increased prestige for the Italian race.
Wiggins’ prime adversary is alleged to be Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, a Vuelta winner with a better burst of uphill pace and a demonic ability to descend. Ryder Hesjedal, last year’s maglia rosa, remains a dark horse, which seems a bit cruel given the talent, guile and heart he showed in winning the 2012 race.
This week’s Group Ride opens our 2013 Grand Tour discussion, which also includes our own Charles Pelkey (Live Update Guy) doing live text updates throughout the race. Be sure to check in with Charles, a far keener analyst than I can pretend to be. So…the big question this week is: Who will win and why? Is Sir Bradley the man to beat, or will Sky’s disappointing season continue to disappoint? Who have we missed? Who else can win?
Images: Fotoreporter Sirotti, RCS Sport
I need to be honest. I haven’t worn the kit from a team I wasn’t a member of in probably 15 years. Before I moved to Southern California, I and all of my friends wore any jersey or kit we thought was cool. I had team jerseys from PDM, Z, Gatorade-Chateau d’Ax and even a replica Banania-sponsored maillot jaune like Greg LeMond wore in the ’86 Tour de France. My PDM jersey was arguably my favorite jersey until I got my first UMASS team jersey. I still think the jersey that wrapped the granite bodies of Steven Rooks, Sean Kelly and Gert Jan Theunisse was as gorgeous a design as was ever raced. So why shouldn’t I have worn one?
But then I moved to SoCal. The single most image-conscious place on the planet. A place where, unlike Milan, wherein the sure sign that one is aware of the presence struck is being dressed to the proverbial three cubed, in the land where all the best parts are aftermarket—both on cars and bodies—we go to great lengths to make a sculpted appearance look accidental. What that’s about has dysfunction written all over it. However, I quickly learned on the group rides here that you do not wear the jersey of a team for which you did not ride. A simple rule, I suppose. It might have been the first cycling faux pas I ever encountered, aside from the excommunicable offense of not holding your line.
All those cool jerseys went in a container in my garage. I think they’re still there. I think. Eventually, I learned that there were exceptions, such as if you were given the jersey by someone attached to the team, especially if that someone was a rider. Fundamentally, the rule was about not reaping the reward of something you hadn’t earned. So for years, I wore only those kits from the teams that sponsored me.
So when I heard that Rapha was going to sponsor Team Sky, I hazarded a few connect-the-dot thoughts. First, I wondered what had taken to long. In a world starved for heaven-made matches, Rapha and Sky are the peanut butter and jelly of the British Isles. I mean, dude. This is cycling’s Brangelina. Next, I admit I wondered what the jersey would be, as in would it be an embroidered no-silkscreen affair. Would Rapha impose its style on the pro peloton? Alas, that didn’t happen. The new Sky kit is rather in keeping with a current trend in kits of, Just how black can we make it? If there’s one thing that does, it make the sky blue pop like a child’s balloon in a palm jungle.
What I didn’t expect was to receive said kit for review. I’ll admit, when I saw the box, I was torn. I simply don’t wear pro kits anymore. How would I say something true without dissing the pro-kit blunder? I’m certain other places don’t suffer this stricture, but my departure from the realm of cool happened when I stopped being one of the fast guys and that’s been a good 10 years. Point being, I’d like to avoid becoming any less cool ’round these parts.
So I pulled the kit out early one morning and dressed in near dark. There was no denying the quality of the kit as I pulled it on. There’s a synergy of cut and materials that occurs in those best-of-class pieces. They lack that little tug here, stretch there, of lesser garments. The jersey length was just-so—long enough to get your hand in a pocket easily enough but only long enough to reach your waist—a proper pro cut.
I headed into the bathroom for a final pit stop before heading out for the ride when I noticed the side panel I’d missed as I dressed. My name. There it was, billboard bold; my name paired with Old Glory.
I geek out on clothing with the regularity of moon phases. Occasionally, my wife will spy something and comment on how nice it looks. If she doesn’t comment, I take note. I never, ever, go racing to her and say, “Babe, you gotta check this out.” But that’s what I did with this jersey. I waited for someone on the ride to give me some grief. It seemed as inevitable as a baby barfing, which I can say with considerable authority is definitely inevitable. When it came, I simply lifted my arm and twisted a bit.
“Okay, that’s kinda cool.” Game. Set. Match.
Think back on childhood and the first sports jersey or shirt you wore with your name on it. So long as we’re not talking the plastic name tag of fast-food careers, having your name on your clothing is still cool enough to elicit a smile. When I think about it, it seems like I ought, at this point in life, to be immune to such charms. I’m not. I got stickers with my name and the RKP logo made last year, little ones to stick on top tubes, seat stays or any other place I felt compelled. (I also had a bunch made for RKP’s regular contributors.)
Rapha is rumored to have spent crazy money, Michael Jackson money, on this sponsorship, so to make it work, they need to be able to make this kit connect with the masses, and really, the best way to do that isn’t with a five-sizes, pro-cut jersey and crappy bibs. For those of you who have spent any time around Beatles memorabilia, you know how each of the Fab Four were marketed within a nose hair of their lives. And no matter who you were, there was a Beatle for everyone. So what is Rapha doing?
Rapha is offering the chance for you to order a Sky jersey with your name and flag on it. Before you suck in a deep breath and hold it, I should mention that it’s only $150. And it comes in six sizes, from XS to XXL. How it is that the brand most often derided for being over-priced is offering a truly custom jersey for only $150, I don’t currently fathom. I don’t need to. What I know is that you can spend more on a jersey that’s no better and still not have your name on it. The replica team jersey goes for $115. Rapha is also offering the national champion jerseys for Great Britain and Norway, plus a Wiggins supporter jersey , both in pro-cut a relaxed-fit version of the Sky jersey with “Wiggo” on the sides (they even do kids’ versions in both cuts). The replica jersey (pro cut) is $120 while the supporter jersey (relaxed fit) is only $65. Has to be the least expensive jersey Rapha has ever offered (save the kids’ version which is only $55. So stop complaining about how pricey their stuff is. There are 13 jerseys, two base layers, five bib shorts, three jackets (oops, two—one is already sold out), jeans, nine shirts, a belt, gloves; heck, there’s even a scarf. A proper Sky fan could remake their entire wardrobe in this stuff.
The Sky bib shorts are very similar to the Pro Team bibs that I reviewed previously. You can read that review here. It’s the same pad, and while the Lycra of the shorts has the same weight and feel as the Pro Team bibs I have been wearing, the fabric in the Sky bibs has just a bit more stretch to it. And like the Pro Team bibs, they also go for $260.
Rapha is offering the custom jersey for a very limited time. From their release:
The order window opens on Friday 26th April 14.00 GMT and closes on Friday 10th May 15.00 GMT.
Orders should arrive in time for the Tour.
You’ll be able to order the custom jersey here. You can also see the full range of Sky offerings there as well.
I’ve got my name on a jersey. You can bet your ass I’m going to wear this. And Sky isn’t even my favorite team.
This week we have learned that Brad Wiggins won’t lead Team Sky at the 2013 Tour de France, that he’ll focus his energy on a Giro course more suited to his skills. Instead, Team Sky will give Chris Froome the leash his talents scream for, empowering him to power up the Grand Boucle’s litany of climbs.
Last year, this intra-squad conflict looked a bit different. Froome was so strong he had to be made to wait for Wiggins on one occasion, lest he strip the jersey from his captain’s shoulders. There was a real feeling he might have won the race himself, instead of finishing second. That he only managed fourth place at the Vuelta was surprising, but it’s hard to say how the miles pile up closer to the end of a season, and Sky didn’t give him anything like their best grand tour team for that race.
Now we get to see what the Kenyan/South African/Brit can do with all the prettiest horses harnessed to his ambitions at the Tour. Given the return of Alberto Contador, there are no foregone conclusions, as would be the case even if Wiggins were returning to defend his title.
Team Sky got off to a slow start in the pro peloton in 2010, Juan Antonio Flecha’s win at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad highlighting their 22 wins, but they have risen to the top in the intervening seasons, and, especially now that Mark Cavendish has moved on to a team (OPQS) more inclined to stage wins than overalls, must be seen as the pre-eminent grand tour squad in the world.
This weeks’ Group Ride asks: Can they do the double? Can Wiggins win the Giro while Froome sweeps the Tour? Is the blueprint that worked last summer, the one that saw Sky sitting on the front of the peloton day after day to grind down the pure climbers with a brazen outpouring of watts, still a winning strategy? Or is six weeks of high intensity racing too much for a team, even of Sky’s clever construction? Bonus question, now wearing Rapha, will there be any team more handsomely turned out? If so, who?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
The Facebooks and Twitters have been full of apocalyptic references thanks to the easily anticipated fail of the Mayan end-of-the-world prediction. Laughing off the prediction of a 5000-year-old calendar created by a long-extinct people seems easy enough until you think about what cycling has been through this year. Had anyone told me this time last year that Lance Armstrong would be utterly disgraced and bereft of all sponsorship to the point of being dumped by his own eponymous foundation, I’d have laughed until I threw up. Similarly, if you’d told me that half the pro continental cycling teams in the U.S. would be without sponsors for 2013, I’d have laughed, though maybe not to the point of the technicolor yawn. And if you’d told me that there was a revolutionary movement afoot to topple the UCI and replace Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen with people of actual moral fiber, I’d have asked you just which drugs you were taking—and if you’d be willing to share them with me. For cycling, at least, it does seem a bit like end times.
The reality is, this is a year unlike any other the sport of cycling has ever faced. The news has been more bad than good this year, so this year’s awards may have more snark than praise. Herewith are a few things we think are worth remembering. And for good measure, this time around, we’ve asked Patrick O’Grady to sit in with our band.
News of the decade: Even though this one isn’t over, not by a longshot, I think we can call this one now—the actual fall of Lance Armstrong. Not only does most of the rational world believe he doped—a conclusion I didn’t think we’d ever get most folks to reach—sponsors have run from him like cute girls from a leper colony. I had an easier time getting a date in eighth grade than he does finding a sponsor today. That his own foundation wouldn’t shake hands with him with rubber gloves says a lot about how badly everyone wants to distance themselves from him, that is, excepting Johan Bruyneel, Chechu Rubiera and a few other pros who don’t understand that most people see doping the way they see racism—completely unacceptable.
Most believable Grand Tour winner: Ryder Hesjedal. I don’t care what Bradley Wiggins says about how he hates dopers or how the fact that he’s not as fast as Armstrong was proves he isn’t a doper. The fact that he won stage races in March, April, May and June before winning the Tour and then revving up once more to take the ITT at the Olympic Games smells as bad as one of my son’s used diapers. I’m not going to accuse him of doping, but if the press are going to be held to a standard of expectation that we’ll speak up when we’re suspicious, well, then I have to say that Wiggins’ never-before-performed season is highly suspicious. Even Eddy Merckx never swept Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour in the same year. Hesjedal, on the other hand, was vulnerable in the Giro. His win was not the inevitable outcome that sucked the life out of watching this year’s Tour. He’s been riding for a team that I have the utmost belief in as a clean program; while I believe that cycling is probably the cleanest it has ever been, I think Garmin-Sharp has taken the best, most transparent approach to demonstrating their team is clean. Hesjedal, as a product of that team, has earned my respect and admiration.
Most clueless person in cycling: This one’s a tie between Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen. I liken them to the small-town mayors in the Southern states when the civil rights legislation was enacted. Those old boys fought integration for any number of spurious reasons, but the biggest problem with them wasn’t that they couldn’t come up with a solid, objective reason to fight equal rights for all people, it was that they failed to see how public opinion had evolved and, like those who now fight gay marriage, how their opinions were coming down on the wrong side of history. Verbruggen lost any credibility as a leader and even as an administrator once he proclaimed that it was the fans’ fault that doping had taken root, that because we wanted to see fast racing the fans had forced the riders to dope. Their mudslinging agains Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton in the wake of those two deciding to finally tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is shameful on the level of scoutmaster sex abuse. Those two can’t go quickly enough.
Best new piece of gear: I can’t not give this to Shimano for the new Dura-Ace 9000. While my full review will come in the next few weeks, let me say that this group is what we hoped for when 7900 came out a few years ago. It’s a group of such magnificent improvement it reminds me of what I thought when I first heard Metallica’s Black Album: How did I ever live without this?
Biggest mistake award: For this one we have to go back to Armstrong. If he had just been willing to set aside his ire with Floyd Landis and give him a spot on RadioShack, his life would be very different right now. I’m not bemoaning our current situation, but come on, there must have been an epic, “D’oh!” in the shower one morning.
The Commander Omertà award: This one goes to Patrick Lefevre for thanking Levi Leipheimer for confessing his previous doping by firing him. If anyone could have sent a more convincing message to the peloton to shut up, I can’t think who could have accomplished that. ‘Shh, don’t tell mom about the pot brownies.’ I’d pay money to have Lefevre retire the day we put McQuaid and Verbruggen out to pasture so that I could hold a Stevil Kinevil-style party. Hell, I’d hire Stevil to run the thing.
The JFK-style Conspiracy Theorist award: This goes to everyone who is unwilling to believe that Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, et al, told the full truth about their doping. Given that Leipheimer didn’t know what Hamilton, Zabriskie or any of the other riders who were ordered to testify before the grand jury would say, not telling the full truth about their involvement in doping was incredibly risky. If any of them were caught in a lie, they’d face prosecution for perjury and those agreements for reduced suspensions would be unwound. The pressure to be truthful was enormous. We should all be willing to take them at their word in this regard. Besides, so far as USADA and USA Cycling are concerned, this matter has been put to rest. You can second-guess it all you want, but you’re not going to get any new answers. Best just to move on.
Most Disappointing Win: Alexander Vinokourov at the Olympic road race. Based on his statements in the media, he has neither fully confessed nor repented his sins. He harks from a generation and mindset we need behind us. His victory salute was a reminder that even if he was clean on that day, the sport needs to be ever-vigilant in its quest for clean(er) cycling. My lack of confidence that he could/would win clean is the doubt that currently undermines my love for professional cycling. This would be why Vino also gets my Most Relief-Inducing Retirement Award.
Best line in a product introduction: Back in October at the introduction of Giro’s new line of clothing we were told how it was meant to pay homage to a new direction in cycling. Giro’s PR guru, Mark Riedy, uttered the line, “No more heroes.” ‘Nuff said.
The One Fingered Salute Award – Peter Sagan. The grown ups tend not to like it so well when some young whipper-snapper gets above his raising and makes them look foolish. The effect is only exacerbated when the whipper-snapper in question does it day after day after day and with increasingly audacious celebratory flourishes. Thus it was that Sagan more or less made the Tours of both California and Switzerland his bitches, while the grown ups flogged away at their pedals somewhere behind in his dusty trail. More than anything, the shy (off the bike) Slovak announced that not only was he not intimidated in the deep end of pro racing, but that he was capable of much more, that his raw power and top-end speed were wed to a racer’s brain far more mature than his youth would suggest.
The All Business Award – Tom Boonen. When I think of Tom Boonen, I have a hard time not thinking about cocaine and under-age super models. Just as a tornado will destroy the homes of both the rich and the poor indiscriminately, Tornado Tom’s approach to his career has created as much damage off the road as on it. But in 2012, the Belgian veteran was all business and all class, owning the cobbled Classics and inching his way one step closer to the record books in a Spring campaign that left the whole racing world with their mouths slightly agape.
The No Business Award – The Schleck Brothers. Luxembourg’s favorite family act must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder placed by a darkly furred feline carpenter, because 2012 couldn’t have gone much worse for them. Chained to the sinking barge of the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team, there was the early season set to with Johann Bruyneel (remember that guy?), a fractious start to an uncertain partnership, which saw both Andy and his brother Franck underperforming in every race they entered. Eventually Andy was injured in a seemingly innocuous crash and Franck got popped for doping.
The Other Shoe Award – Bjarne Riis. In a season when it seemed to be raining shoes, the painfully serious Dane’s reputation has been called into question more often than an Italian Prime Minister’s. Having confessed to doping during his own racing career, there remain serious allegations that he also facilitated doping in his teams as a manager. Tyler Hamilton says he did. Bobby Julich says he didn’t. It seems that, in pro cycling, where there’s smoke now, there was fire a decade ago. Riis’ persistence should really be seen as the test case for what cycling wants to do with its doping past. Will the worst offenders of the ’90s find a future in the sport? Julich’s own fate (fired by Team Sky) suggests one possible answer, but when/if the other shoe drops for Riis will tell us for certain.
The Most Sleep-inducing Grand Tour: Yeah, I know. Many of my British friends will believe it’s sacrilege to suggest that the first Tour de France to see a Brit’ atop the podium in Paris would rank as the most boring of this year’s grand tours. It was more than that. It was one of the most boring Tours in history. Come on ASO, three mountain-top finishes? Thankfully, this year also offered us the Giro and Ryder Hesjedal’s surprising and impressive win over Joaquim Rodríguez and the Vuelta’s three-way battle between Rodríguez, Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde. Here’s hoping that in 2013 the “world’s greatest bicycle race” lives up to that designation.
Most well-deserved victory lap: It’s clear that most agree that the implosion of Lance Armstrong is the cycling story of the year — or as Padraig points out, the story of the decade. It’s hard to disagree, but it’s important to point out that this was far from a new story. It’s a story that Sunday Times of London journalist David Walsh has been telling since 1999. I know first-hand of Walsh’s skepticism, since I spent the ’99 and ’00 Tours with the tenacious Irishman. It was déjà vu all over again when the USADA “reasoned decision” was delivered to the UCI on October 13, 2012. Sure there was more documentation, but most of the allegations were made years ago, when Walsh and Pierre Ballester co-wrote ”L.A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong” in 2004. At the time, Walsh was demonized by the Armstrong camp — which labeled him “the F#cking Troll” — and even shunned by fellow journalists. Well, he who laughs last …. When the report was released and the UCI soon confirmed its conclusions, Walsh teamed up with Paul Kimmage, John Follain and Alex Butler and quickly released ”Lanced: The Shaming of Lance Armstrong,” on October 31st, and followed that with his own, much more personal story “Seven Deadly Sins: My pursuit of Lance Armstrong,” on December 13. I, for one, hope that “Seven Deadly Sins,” sells more than the many works of apparent fiction shilled to an unsuspecting public by writers who should have known better. Maybe he should change the title to “It’s Not About the Bullshite: The Unmaking of the World’s Greatest Sports Fraud,” eh? Quite frankly, the book should be required reading for anyone hoping to work in sports “journalism.” Without that kind of moral compass; without that tenacity and without that consequences-be-damned attitude, we’re all just – to use an old, sadly accurate term — fans with typewriters. Hats off to the “F#cking Troll.” Enjoy the moment. You deserve it, sir.
Inspiring show of support: In recent years, the aforementioned Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen found that filing lawsuits against critics in a friendly, local court could be an effective tool. They, along with the UCI itself, filed suit against former World Anti-Doping Agency head, Dick Pound, and then against Floyd Landis, after he admitted his own doping and alleged the UCI conspired to cover-up Armstrong’s own infractions. Pound issued a brilliantly word non-apology-apology. Landis pretty much blew them off and lost in a default judgment. Then they went after Paul Kimmage. Ooops. Kimmage decided to put up a fight and he soon got overwhelming support from you, the fans. The folks over at Cyclismas.com and NYVeloCity started promoting the “Paul Kimmage Defense Fund” and readers eventually kicked in more than – get this – $92,000 to help in the fight. Kimmage, laid off from the Sunday Times last year, suddenly had the resources to take on the UCI. And, sure enough, McQuaid, Verbruggen and the UCI, put their suit “on hold.” Kimmage, however, is now pursuing his own case. None of that would have been possible had you, the readers, not stepped up to lend a valuable hand.
My favorite photo of the year: This one comes from Betsy Andreu, who offered up photographic evidence of Frankie Andreu’s reaction to Tyler Hamilton’s detailed confessional, “The Secret Race.”
A personal favorite: When it comes to my work in cycling, I think the highlight of the year for me was finding out that the unique business model of LiveUpdateGuy.com actually worked. Thank you to all of those readers who offered help and support during our Live Coverage of all three grand tours. Because of your support, we may well be able to offer the same in 2013. Those, of course, will appear right here on Red Kite Prayer, as well.
Patrick the Other—
Donna Summer Memorial Disc-O Dance Party Platinum Rotor Medallion: To the bicycle industry for trying to hang disc brakes on everything from road bikes to stick ponies. I can understand why bike companies want to sell discs —after all, some shameless hucksters will try to sell you a rat’s asshole, telling you it’s a pinhead’s sweatband, a Chris King headset or the One Ring To Rule Them All — but I don’t understand why anyone who isn’t a pro racer with a team mechanic needs discs. And some of them don’t even need ’em (see Sven Nys, Katie Compton, et al.). If I want pointless complexity “enhancing” my cycling I’ll look to the UCI or USA Cycling for it. Speaking of which. …
The Salvatore Palumbo Good People Certificate: This honor traditionally goes to the nefarious criminal organization most hell-bent on kneecapping the sport of bicycle racing (either USA Cycling or the UCI). This year, it’s USA Cycling, which this year tried putting the squeeze on the wildly successful activities of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, once again confirming our worst fears — that our national governing body cares as much about grassroots bike racing as did Kid Sally Palumbo, organizer of the six-day bike race immortalized in “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” by Jimmy Breslin. One can practically hear USAC caporegime Kid Stevie Johnson ringing up OBRA executive director Kenji Sugahara to hiss, “You could be dead in a bomb accident.”
The Gov. William J. LePetomane Protecting Our Phony-Baloney Jobs Here Gentlemen Citation for Excellence In Oversight: UCI President Pat McQuaid. I still haven’t gotten a “Harrumph” out of that guy. But what I’d really like is an “Adios.”
Charles Foster Kane Snowglobe of Destiny: Lance Armstrong. As reporter Jerry Thompson said of Citizen Kane, Armstrong was “a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it.” We may never know what his personal Rosebud was, but a sled is a fine thing for going downhill fast, if you don’t mind the bonfire at the bottom, and Armstrong was not the first to build his Xanadu from a drug-induced dream.
Last week, I began this review of 2012 with the first half of my A-to -Z reflections. Here’s the second half, including some amazing performances by three 22-year-old pros, and an almost perfect sets of results by the women’s Eddy Merckx. But let’s start with one remarkable ’cross racer….
N for Nys. It’s being said that Belgian cyclo-cross star Sven Nys, 36, could be his discipline’s greatest-ever athlete. He has already won nine events in the current season to go with his more than 300 career ’cross victories. Though he’s only won a single world title (2005), Nys has taken six World Cup championships (and is headed for a seventh crown), 11 Superprestige titles and eight Belgian national championships in his 15 pro seasons.
O for Olympics. The Games of the 30th Olympiad in London saw cycling become one of the most popular sports, with estimated crowds of a million spectators watching the men’s and women’s road races on separate days, while the track, mountain-bike and BMX events all played to full houses. The home fans were rewarded by the British team winning eight gold medals, while no other country took more than one.
P for Phinney. In 2012 at age 22, BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney shed his image as just the son of Olympic-medalist parents, and began building his own pro road palmarès. At the top of the list was his winning the opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia and defending the pink jersey until stage 4, while he came close at the London Olympics with fourth place in both the road race and time trial, before winning the final stage of the USA Pro Challenge and then taking silver medals at the worlds’ time trials (both team and individual). A sign for Phinney’s future was a promising 15th place in his debut Paris-Roubaix after working hard all day for his team leader, Alessandro Ballan, who placed third.
Q for Quintana. Another 22-year-old, Nairo Quintana, enjoyed a remarkable debut season with Movistar in the UCI WorldTour. This Colombian climber scored half a dozen wins. They included a significant stage victory in the Dauphiné at Morzine after dropping Cadel Evans, Brad Wiggins and the Team Sky armada on the Col de Joux-Plane; and a brilliant solo success in the Italian semi-classic, the Giro dell’Emilia, which finishes on the famed San Luca climb in Bologna.
R for Rodriguez. At age 33, Spanish climber Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team had his best-ever season, ending as No. 1 in the UCI WorldTour rankings for the second time in three years. His season was book-ended by classics victories at the Flèche Wallonne and Il Lombardia, while he won two stages and finished second overall at the Giro, and won three stages and placed third overall at the Vuelta.
S for Sagan. Many observers have compared Slovak prodigy Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale, still only 22, with the young Eddy Merckx. He won 16 times this year, starting with a stage of the Tour of Oman in February, and going on to win singles stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Three Days of De Panne, five stages at the Tour of California, four stages at the Tour of Switzerland and three stages of the Tour de France (along with the green jersey). Perhaps just as significant was the promise he showed in the spring classics, including fourth place at Milan-San Remo, second at Ghent-Wevelgem, fifth at the Tour of Flanders and third at the Amstel Gold Race.
T for Tiernan-Locke. Despite riding for a ProContinental team (Endura Racing) and missing several weeks of racing because of injury, Britain’s latest discovery, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, won four European stages races this year: the Mediterranean Tour and Tour du Haut Var in February, the Tour Alsace in July, and the Tour of Britain in September. All this at age 27 after missing three complete seasons because of the Epstein-Barr virus. His reward is a contract with Team Sky for 2013.
U for USADA. What could never be proven by hundreds of anti-doping tests was revealed in the testimonies of a dozen former U.S. Postal Service teammates in an investigation conducted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency: Lance Armstrong used banned drugs and blood-doped for a decade when he was clocking up all those Tour de France wins. The investigation was masterminded by USADA CEO Travis Tygart, an attorney, who homed in on America’s iconic champion after May 2010, when Armstrong’s one-time colleague Floyd Landis began to spill the beans about doping within the former U.S. team.
V for Vos. Still only 25, Dutch phenom Marianne Vos carried all before her in 2012. Not only did she win the world cyclo-cross championship for the fourth consecutive year, but she also won the UCI World Cup for a fourth time (along with three rounds of the premier women’s competition), retained her title in the women’s Giro d’Italia (including five stage wins), and then won gold in a brilliantly exciting edition of the Olympic road race. Vos capped her season with a solo victory in the world road championship—after five consecutive years of silver medals!
W for Wiggins. Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour de France, and he did it in the style of five-time champions Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Induráin: by winning the long time trials and defending the yellow jersey in the mountains. But the 32-year-old Brit’s 2012 season wasn’t just about the Tour. He preceded it by becoming the first man to win Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné stage races in the same year, and he capped it by winning the Olympic time trial to add to the three pursuit golds he won at previous Games and his six world track titles from his pre-road career.
X for Xu. Winner of the Chinese national road championship, the Champion System team’s Xu Gang, 28, raced from February to November in his first season as a ProContinental team rider. Besides winning his national title, Xu finished no less than 11 international stage races: the Tours of Qatar, Oman, Taiwan, Japan, Qinghai Lake, Utah, China I and China II, Beijing, Hainan and Taihu Lake! He cracked the top 20 in Taiwan, Japan and China I.
Y for Yates. British cycling Hall-of-Famer Sean Yates crowned his management career by leading Wiggins and Chris Froome to their unprecedented 1-2 finish at the Tour de France. That added to his own Tour career as a rider when he won a time trial stage in 1988 and wore the yellow jersey for a day in 1994. Yates, 52, announced his retirement from cycling in October because of health problems (he has suffered from heart irregularities for several years) and not because of Team Sky’s new zero-tolerance policy (Yates had an A-sample test positive after a Belgian race in 1989, but the B-sample was negative).
Z for Zabel. No, not Erik Zabel, the winner of six Tour de France green jerseys, four editions of Milan-San Remo and three Paris-Tours, but his 18-year-old son Rick Zabel who began his under-23 career this year with the Rabobank Continental squad. His 2012 highlights were winning the German national U23 road title and placing second to Belgian pro Kevin Claeys in the Ronde van Limburg, a 190-kilometer Belgian semi-classic with a 1.2 rating in the UCI Europe Tour.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson
Olympic image: Surrey County Council
Sagan & Wiggins images: Photoreporter Sirotti
Since I moved to the States, American friends have often asked me what I miss most about “England’s green and pleasant land.” I tell them I miss the expected things: meeting old friends for a chat at the village pub, hiking with my brother in the Surrey hills, or watching a good game of English football. But what I really miss—and only a British club cyclist would fully understand—is hill-climb season.
English hill climbs aren’t long, but they’re very, very steep! These short, intense time trials organized by cycling clubs all over the country are among the most popular events in British cycling. Maybe we should import the idea to America….
Hill-climb season happens right now, peaking around Halloween, when there’s a nip in the air, a thick mist hanging over waterlogged fields, and slick, wet leaves covering the back roads where the races take place. These hill climbs are usually two- or three-minute efforts up near-vertical, ancient roads that over the centuries have cut a trench into chalk or sandstone ridges. And the climbs have evocative names such as Horseblock Hollow, Pea Royd Lane, or The Rake.
This past Sunday, a 22-year-old club cyclist from Lancashire named Jack Pullar won the British national hill climb championship on that very hill: The Rake. It starts outside the library in the village of Ramsbottom, passes the Rose & Crown pub a short way up the climb’s easier opening half, and finishes just before another pub, the Shoulder of Mutton. Thousands of fans, most of whom arrived by bike, lined the 874-meter-long climb that averages 11 percent, and has long stretches of between 20 and 25 percent.
Competitors on Sunday had to cope with head winds and a fine drizzle, making it tough to avoid wheel spin on the steepest parts, so Pullar didn’t get closer than five seconds to the course record of 2:16.9. That time was set, remarkably, 19 years ago by Jeff Wright, who used a fixed gear of 42×19 on a good day! Fixed-gear bikes are preferred on these short, sharp ascents because of the more-direct transfer of power to the single rear cog.
Such is the intensity of “sprinting” up these rugged climbs that some riders end up zigzagging across the road or even having to stop and run. Most are in agony when they finish. After his championship-winning effort, Pullar told Cycling Weekly: “My body shut down when I finished, and even when my friends told me I’d won, I said I couldn’t have cared less.”
There are few efforts in cycling that are as demanding as a British hill climb. You quickly go into the red zone, just as you would in a kilometer time trial or individual pursuit on the track. But there’s no elevation gain riding around a velodrome! I can still remember a hill climb I did up that aforementioned Horseblock Hollow, which averages 11.4 percent for a kilometer with some of those nasty 20-percent pitches that characterize English climbs. The anaerobic effort was so excruciating that, on stopping, I lurched to the side of the road like a drunkard and threw up.
It’s because every rider has to race at his or her maximum intensity that hill climbs are so popular with spectators. The starting order in English time trials is different from those in Europe, where the fastest riders nearly always start at the end of the field. In the UK, in a field of 120 riders, the best riders are seeded from the back, but at 10-minute intervals, with bib numbers 10, 20…through to 100, 110 and 120. That keeps the crowd’s interest high throughout the event, usually with a resounding climax at the end.
Virtually all of the UK’s hill climbs take place in September and October, with the top national contenders probably riding a dozen separate races, sometimes twice on the same weekend. One of the most popular, and easily the oldest, is the Catford Classic Hill Climb, which was first held in 1886 and has been staged for the past 127 years, except for breaks during the two world wars. It’s held on a course an hour south of London. Yorks Hill, which starts at a dead-end farm lane, climbs for 646 meters (707 yards) at a 12.5-percent average gradient, with two pitches of 25 percent. Amazingly, despite advances in bike technology and training, the course record of 1:47.6 by South London rider Phil Mason has stood for 29 years!
Just a handful of Britain’s hill climbs are longer than 10 minutes, with the short, sharp ones giving fans the most excitement. And just as cyclo-cross has successfully crossed the Atlantic, perhaps UK-style hill climbs could be the next big thing for bike racing in North America, especially if they are compressed into a similar, short season in the fall.
Most of the current U.S. hill climbs, up mountain peaks such as Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Mount Evans in Colorado, and Mount Tamalpais in California, are held in the summer and are mass-start road races, not time trials. The few uphill TTs include those at Pinnacle Hill, near Albany, New York; Lookout Mountain, near Denver; and San Bruno Mountain, near San Francisco. These are all 15-minute climbs, which is at the top end of the classic UK hill-climb format.
The nearest we’ve come to a British-style event was the one raced up the Manayunk Wall in Philadelphia, which was an amateur time trial held on the Friday night prior to the Philadelphia International Championship. In 2000, that race was also contested by a number of pros, with the victory going to former U.S. pro champ Eddy Gragus, who recorded a 1:50.18 for the one-kilometer course—which had a flat opening section before reaching the 400-meter Wall and its maximum grade of 17 percent.
Many American cities have steep streets that could host hill climbs—including places such as Pittsburgh, Richmond, San Francisco or Seattle—while most experienced riders know about steep hills in their local areas. Imagine a race up Sycamore Street in Pittsburgh, which was a highlight of the Thrift Drug Classic in the 1990s; or up San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, which has seen prologues for the Coors Classic in the 1980s and the more-recent Tour of California.
Short, snappy hill climbs in the autumn are made for riders who race criteriums all summer. In fact, in the month before he started an unbeaten run in this year’s hill-climb season, new British climbing champ Pullar was doing a crit series—and now he’s talking of following in the footsteps of his countrymen Chris Froome, John Tiernan-Locke and Brad Wiggins, and heading to the Continent.
Curiously, British television has yet to embrace hill climbs, but their sudden-death format and enthusiastic crowds are compelling ingredients for great viewing. And in this country, where reality TV is king, a sports event with instant impact could even make it big. I’d love it to happen because, then, I wouldn’t get homesick in hill-climb season.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Next year’s 100th edition of the Tour de France is still more than eight months away, but we already have a good idea of what sort of race it’s going to be—even before race organizer Christian Prudhomme reveals full details of the official route on Wednesday in Paris. Some wild rumors have been circulating through the cycling world, including a nighttime stage finish on the Champs-Élysées, which indicate that it’s going to be a Tour worthy of celebration. And following Monday’s decision by the UCI razing Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour victories from the history books, the hope is that there will be total focus on the race itself and not on yet more doping rumors.
Besides the course, which promises at least 10 significant stages, what looks like being a major feature of the 2013 Tour is one of the most competitive fields in the event’s history. At least eight of the 22 likely starting teams have a strong chance of producing the eventual champion, while the course appears to be both balanced and demanding. First then, let’s take a look at the likely route of the June 29 to July 21 Tour.
TOUGH START, RUGGED FINISH
We’ve known since last year that the Tour will visit the French island of Corsica for the first time in the race’s 110-year history (the race wasn’t contested a total of 10 times through the two world wars). Corsica’s terrain is extremely mountainous, except for a coastal plain along the east coast—which will host the Tour’s first and only flat stage in Corsica, finishing in Bastia with a likely mass sprint. The second and third stages are both short (around the 150-kilometer mark) and feature significant climbs in their run-ins to Ajaccio and Calvi respectively, which will give us an initial look at the overall contenders.
All the race personnel (except the riders) will take overnight ferries across the Mediterranean to gather the next afternoon in Nice for what will be a strategically decisive stage: a 20-kilometer team time trial along the waterfront. The last time an early TTT was included at the Tour, in 2011, Garmin won the stage by four seconds, while the two teams that produced the final podium (BMC Racing and RadioShack) were separated by just six seconds. But those six seconds gave eventual winner Cadel Evans a psychologically advantage over Andy and Fränk Schleck through the following 10 stages before the Tour reached the mountains.
This year, when the TTT result is added to the two difficult stages in Corsica, a firm hierarchy will exist prior to the first mountaintop stage finish—which looks like being on stage 8 at Ax-3 Domaines in the Pyrénées. Whatever the GC looks like there, it will probably be quite similar a week later when the race reaches the next summit finish, said to be Mont Ventoux, on July 14.
In the week between the two mountain ranges, the Tour will see a second (probably easier) climbing stage through the Pyrénées, a 600-kilometer transfer to northwest France for the first rest day, four sprinters’ stages and an individual time trial. This stage against the clock looks like being a specialists’ TT on a flat, probably 45-kilometer course in Normandy, finishing at the iconic island of Mont St. Michel. Whichever of the GC candidates does well there will get a nice boost in morale before the crucial stage finish atop the Ventoux, which some believe is the hardest climb longer than 20 kilometers in France.
After a second rest day, the Tour heads to Gap, the gateway to the Alps—where four tough, but different types of stages will decide the eventual outcome. This stretch opens with a very hilly individual TT, again around the 40-kilometer mark, in the foothills north of the turquoise-blue Serre-Ponçon lake. Then comes the keynote stage, one that almost happened two years ago, which climbs L’Alpe d’Huez twice—thanks to a final 50-kilometer loop over the Col de Sarenne, a narrow, rough-surfaced mountain road that is being given a new coat of tarmac, before returning to the base of the Tour’s most popular climb.
The next day sees the peloton head north, probably over the Glandon, Madeleine and Croix-Fry passes with an uphill finish in Le Grand Bornand—where Fränk Schleck and Linus Gerdemann were the last two winners. The final alpine stage appears to be an unusual one for the Tour, taking in one big, mountainous loop from the beautiful lakeside city of Annecy. Another 600-kilometer transfer takes the race to its final stage, finishing as usual on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but according to a report in this Monday’s edition of La Dépêche the final sprint could well take place at nightfall—followed by a massive firework display to commemorate the end of this 100th edition.
THE PROSPECTIVE CHAMPS
Despite the early rumors that the 2012 Tour would be a climbers’ Tour, the likelihood of a team time trial and two individual tests puts the emphasis back on those riders who are strong in the time trials and the climbs. That would mean that Team Sky’s defending champion Brad Wiggins should shoot for a second Tour title rather than, as has been mentioned, go for victories at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España next year and let teammate Chris Froome lead Sky at the Tour. Obviously, that situation will need to be decided by team management in the next couple of months.
Froome, second at this year’s Tour, is obviously strong against the clock and in mountaintop finishes—like several other probable contenders, including Saxo-Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador, BMC’s Evans and Tejay Van Garderen, and Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde. All of these men, along with the two Sky riders, will get a boost from the early team time trial.
Besides these half-dozen yellow-jersey contenders, several others will also be planning on strong challenges. These include the more specialist climbers, Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team, Vincenzo Nibali of a much-strengthened Astana squad, the 2010 default winner Andy Schleck of RadioShack-Nissan, and Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol.
Then there is the world TT champion Tony Martin, who’ll be the GC leader of the Omega-Quick Step team now that Levi Leipheimer has been sacked over his involvement in the Postal team doping scandal. Martin is somewhat of an enigma, but should he get his weight down a few kilos while keeping his unquestioned power, there’s no reason why he should lose too much time on the summit finishes—remember, he did finish second on the Ventoux stage in 2009. But the German’s challenge will be hampered by his Belgian team focusing first on racking up sprint stage wins for the newly arrived Mark Cavendish and team captain Tom Boonen.
This should be a good Tour for North Americans. Besides overall contenders Hesjedal, Vande Velde and Van Garderen, next year should see the Tour debuts of Garmin’s Andrew Talansky, a future GC player, and BMC’s Taylor Phinney, who should have a vital role for Evans and Van Garderen in the TTT and add his power to defending his team leaders’ positions in the flatter stages.
As always, there’s a fear of seeing a repeat of the devastating high-speed pileups that marked the opening weeks of the past two Tours and wrecked the chances, among others, of Wiggins, Van den Broeck and Contador in 2011, and Hesjedal and Vande Velde in 2012. But with a muscular opening to the 2013 Tour in Corsica, followed by the TTT, the hierarchy will be established before the race reaches the three flatter stages in opening week, and this will calm down the usual first-week tension when every team vies for stage wins.
Some critics have compared this first post-Armstrong-doping-decision Tour with the so-called Tour of Renewal in 1999, a year after the infamous Festina doping debacle. The big difference this time is that there’s no undetectable drug like EPO in existence, while the majority of riders in today’s peloton is already competing clean. Given those facts and the increased scrutiny of every rider’s blood parameters by the anti-doping authorities, the chances of seeing a worthy winner of a hard-fought and clean Tour are as strong as they’ve ever been.
Let’s hope that’s the case, and that everyone, especially the fans, can enjoy Tour No. 100’s hopefully spectacular firework display over the Arc de Triomphe next July 21.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Is it me, or does it seem like forever since Tom Boonen did the Roubaix/Flanders double back in April? At the time, I thought, “No one is going to top that this year.” And yet, as Ryder Hesjedal won the Giro d’Italia and Alberto Contador won the Vuelta, each time I was stunned by the beauty of the performance. Love him or hate him, Contador’s attacks on Stage 17 of his home Grand Tour to turn the GC on its head were the stuff of absolute legend.
In Italy, Hesjedal, the lanky Canadian, hung around and hung around and hung around the top of the standings until the closing time trial, in which he took back the 31 seconds Joaquim Rodriguez, held over him and became the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour. And as awesome as that time trial was for Hesjedal, the climbing he did in the final week, marking his rivals and responding to attacks, made the whole thing just that bit more special.
Some might even argue that Bradley Wiggins’ metronomic destruction of the field at the Tour was the ride of the season. Sure, his Sky team did everything just right, overwhelming the field with tempo riding in all terrains, but Wiggins had to close the deal with big climbs and winning time trials.
For me, Boonen’s April is the clear choice, but I have Classics biases. Roubaix and Flanders are both as much like wrestling matches as bike races, and in my mind, being able to dominate them as Tommeke did shows a strength unparalleled in the sport.
And still there were other big performances. This week’s Group Ride asks, what was the best pro ride of the season? Will anyone dare name Vinokourov’s gold medal? How about Philippe Gilbert’s world championship win? Name your winner and say why.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Early in the 19th Century the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge—famed for his poem Kubla Khan and laudanum—coined the term “suspension of disbelief.” It was his way of codifying the belief that a fantastic story if “infused with human interest and a semblance of truth” could be made believable. It’s what we did to our parents in high school when we lied about our whereabouts. We used the names of friends and familiar locations, places that we frequented in an effort to throw them off the scent. For me, it worked until some time in my senior year.
If my opening paragraph isn’t sufficiently obscure, give me a second. I’m now going to pull in T.S. Eliot, who coined the term “objective correlative” early in the last century. It is an image that explicitly defines something that can otherwise be difficult to describe. To that end, I submit the image above from the film “Blade Runner.” Whether you like science fiction or not, the work has widely been hailed as the finest sci-fi film ever committed to celluloid. And for reasons that may never be fully plumbed, it achieves that element crucial to all science fiction: suspension of disbelief. We don’t question that there are androids, that it never seems to stop raining or that the 21st Century’s version of the car flies, as shown above.
Let’s consider the alternative. Above is a still from the Disney film “John Carter,” arguably one of the biggest flops of this year. Post-mortems on the film have decried the wooden acting, the Swiss-cheese script and the hyperbolic special effects. I can’t say what killed the film, but I know what killed it for me. I had been excited to see the Edgar Rice Burroughs masterpiece made into a film, but was dismayed the moment I saw the first trailer and it was precisely because of John Carter’s ginormous jump contained with said trailer. I recall commenting to my wife, “Okay, I’m out.”
It was that whole suspension of disbelief thing. “John Carter” takes place on Mars and has loads of jumping in it; it’s a thing, as they say, and over there (Mars, that is) to jump is to sak. The problem is that seconds into the trailer comes this jump that looks like Evel Knievel sans motorcycle and, well, it just looks silly. So I didn’t go see it. (As a complete aside, there’s a pretty fascinating discussion of bigger-than-life jumping in the movies in a piece published on Slate, though I think it gets the conclusion exactly wrong, in part because of the dismal box-office take of “John Carter.”)
Suspension of disbelief is crucial not just to science fiction, it’s crucial to all story telling. Imagine if you didn’t think that women really talk to each other and hang out as portrayed in “Sex and the City.” Apparently lots of people believe there are women exactly like them—and why shouldn’t they?
So when Philippe Gilbert stormed to victory at the World Championship Road Race on Sunday, if you’re anything like me you felt relief, the relief of seeing a longstanding omission—the absence of Philippe Gilbert from the podium—finally corrected, and along with it you felt elation, that Dopamine spark of joy at seeing a rider you like spank the field. Gilbert is a rider whose style I like and—more importantly—whose riding I’ve been hoping is clean. But that’s a problem; for suspension of disbelief to work you have to be all-in. The moment you even ask the question about whether or not what you’re seeing or reading is real, the illusion has been busted—metaphorically and literally.
I actively want to believe that a clean rider beat a field that was partially or maybe even mostly clean. Actually, it doesn’t matter just how clean the rest of the field is, so long as Gilbert was clean. That’s the key. In winning, cycling is as clean as the winner.
Which is why I hated the Olympic Road Race outcome with a passion that I (otherwise) reserve for child molesters. Alexander Vinokourov is part of that generation of riders, guys whose knowledge of the sport is so predicated on medical assistance that I suspect they have ceased to believe they can achieve anything remotely like their doped form through clean methods. It’s a kind of worst-case-scenario for institutional memory, dysfunction that persists simply because all other ways have been forgotten. Clearly, Vinokourov’s statements following his suspension and his refusal to talk about his “dark page” and his inability to understand what this issue was when he decried that he had only engaged in the training methods used by everyone else have shown him to be a rider that cycling can do without. Seeing him win the gold medal was a moment that didn’t fill me with the slightest bit of elation. The question I asked myself was, “What are the chances that he’s clean?”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the big problem. But here’s the thing: It’s not Vino’s fault. And that I’m asking questions about guys like Gilbert and Bradley Wiggins isn’t their fault, either. The problem lies with the UCI. I have observed in other pieces that the UCI has long been a status-quo organization. Until recently, they really only ever made efforts to change the sport after colossal embarrassments. And defining those embarrassments is easy; they are any time the sport makes international headlines for a reason not connected with a win. Tom Simpson dies during the Tour de France. International headlines. Bad for business, need drug tests. A few Dutch cyclists die in their sleep because of a little-known drug that turned their blood to pudding. Not even national news? Whew; stay the course. Olympic gold medalist Fabio Casartelli dies after hitting his head in a crash. International headlines complete with color footage. Bad for business; need helmet rule. A soigneur with enough doping products to start a pharmacy is stopped at the border. More international headlines. And now, the biggest name in cycling in the last 30 years has been shown to be playing the game, well, the way it’s played.
Bad for business? Yeah, ya think?
Whether or not the allegations that the UCI covered up positives by Armstrong are true, it doesn’t matter. There is plenty of damning evidence that they only ever acted enough to maintain the appearance of a clean sport. Had they truly been serious about cleaning up the sport they would have gotten serious about testing for EPO in the wake of the death of Bert Oosterbosch, the first of those Dutch cyclists to die in their sleep. They wouldn’t have waited years and years to come up with the half-assed solution of testing hematocrit levels. No, had they been serious, they would have begun investigating a test for EPO before Greg LeMond retired.
But let’s take a moment to consider the situation the UCI was in. Hein Verbruggen had inherited the mantle of a sport that had been doped since the first running of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Up until the 1990s, an approach of making the sport clean enough that no one was dying had more or less worked. If there is one sin for which we should forgive him, it is that he believed he should stay the course, that staying the course was the best approach. What he didn’t anticipate was American society. What he didn’t anticipate was a world where you’re either a saint or a sinner, but never both. What he didn’t anticipate was the perfect storm of Lance Armstrong, Macchiavellian doping and ambitious American investigators.
Verbruggen’s sin, and now by extension Pat McQuaid’s, is that he claims that the sport is clean, the UCI did all it could, all it needed to, that no more could have been done than was. Which is just crazy talk. The first lesson you learn as a bike racer is that just because you won a bike race you should never, ever think that means you are the fastest guy on a bike.
And so I submit to you the de facto evidence that the UCI has not done enough: Every time someone wins a big bike race our response is not to celebrate; rather it is to wonder, to ask the question, “Was that athlete clean?” Why was Bradley Wiggins asked about his training methods at the Tour de France? Simple, because he was wearing the yellow jersey.
We have lost the suspension of disbelief. And given how hard most of us want to believe, how much we love the sport, the heartache is more than some of us can bear.
Mr. McQuaid, Mr. Verbruggen, you haven’t done enough. Not by a long shot, and if you think that suing Paul Kimmage is the answer, then you, sirs, are unfit for your respective offices.
You’re not kings and shooting the messenger is no longer a viable option. The peasantry has risen up and we will defend him.
We’ve asked you for a clean sport. You can’t seem to manage the task. And now the talk is of starting a new federation, one that understands the stakes of the game, the will of the fans. Stay tuned.
Images: Warner Bros. Pictures, Disney Pictures, Fotoreporter Sirotti
Observers at the 67th Vuelta a España may be premature in writing off the chances of Great Britain’s Chris Froome. They say that in the 11 stages that remain he won’t be able to withstand the attacks of his three Spanish rivals, former Vuelta winners Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, and this year’s Giro d’Italia runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez. Froome faces a stiff task, and history does show that it’s very difficult for a foreigner to beat the Spanish on their own turf, but if anyone can succeed it’s the talented 27-year-old Englishman raised in Kenya and South Africa.
At the 2011 Vuelta, Froome just lost to the upstart Spaniard Juanjo Cobo, who held a tiny lead over Froome, never more than 20 seconds, over the final week—partly thanks to the tacit help of the other home teams. That “assistance” was far more pronounced a quarter-century ago when the last Brit to get close to victory at the Vuelta, Scottish climber Robert Millar, was runner-up to Spanish riders in both 1985 and 1986.
I was fortunate (if that’s the right word) to witness Millar’s unbelievable (that is the right word) loss to Spaniard Pedro Delgado at the ’85 Vuelta. Millar had ridden a great Vuelta and strong final time trial and was the solid race leader starting the final stage. My story of that sensational stage is too long to reproduce here, but it suffices to say that Delgado began that May day in the climbs north of Madrid in fifth place overall more than six minutes behind the Brit, and that a combination of bad weather in the mountains (cold rain, hail and wet snow), poor team direction, fatigued teammates, lack of time checks and a blatant coalition of Spanish teams handed the stage win to local rider José Recio and the final victory to Delgado after a long, two-man breakaway.
Race organizing, team structures and information technology have changed enormously since those days, but partisanship and collusion among friends can be just as pronounced as they were when Millar twice lost the Vuelta to intrinsically lesser riders. As Froome said on Monday’s rest day this week: “Since the start, my competitors haven’t given me any gifts and I don’t expect to get any.”
Besides the strong opposition he’s facing, Froome could be suffering from race overload after the Tour de France (where he was second to Sky teammate Brad Wiggins), and the London Olympics (where he raced to a standstill in the road race and medaled in the time trial). As evidence of his fatigue, critics point to moments of weakness that Froome experienced on each of the two summit finishes over the weekend. But a closer look at his and his three Spanish rivals’ performances through the Vuelta’s first week reveals a potentially different story.
Last week’s uphill finishes seemed sure to give an early verdict on who would be the strongest contenders, but there were other factors at play: a 100-degree heat wave blanketing northern Spain, fierce crosswinds on the plains preceding the climbs, the varying strengths of the teams at this ultra-mountainous Vuelta, and the psychological states of the top candidates for victory—notably Alberto Contador.
All of Spain is hoping that Contador can put his controversial two-year drugs ban behind him and win this first Grand Tour since his suspension ended earlier this month. With the expectation of a nation and the need to prove himself, Contador was clearly anxious on the initial summit finish last Monday. His frenetic, out-of the-saddle accelerations up the ruggedly steep 5.5-kilometer Alto de Arrate resembled his pre-suspension climbing style, but the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team leader couldn’t shake the opposition even with a half-dozen attacks.
The anxious Contador tried again the next day on the steepest (early) section of the 13-kilometer Valdezcaray climb. This time, just Froome and an ambitious Nicolas Roche were able to go with him; but it was an injudicious tactic given the unfavorable winds blowing on the upper, less-steep slopes. In the past, Contador wouldn’t have been so impetuous. He would have planned his attacks more meticulously and, on each of those stages, he would have needed just one sharp acceleration to leave the rest in his wake.
Anxiety to please the public was one part of the Spanish superstar’s failure to win on the early summit finishes, but poor team tactics and the debilitating temperatures were just as important in his significant loss to Rodriguez and Froome to the stage 6 finish at Jaca. Contador made four of his Saxo teammates race flat out on the downhill approach to Jaca, but as soon as the climb began he started cramping and realized he’d played into his rivals’ hands.
Showing immense determination, Team Sky’s two Colombian climbing prodigies, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, raced so fast on the short, switchback climb to Jaca’s ancient fortress that Valverde later described it as more like the finish of a sprint stage! When the two Colombians peeled away to launch Froome on a final-kilometer charge, neither Valverde nor Contador could follow the pace. Only Rodriguez stayed on the Brit’s wheel, and then out-sprinted him for the stage win, earning him the 12-second time bonus and the leader’s red jersey.
Froome and his Sky cohort attempted to replicate their Thursday tactics on Saturday’s much tougher stage finish on the 5,085-foot (1,550-meter) Collada de la Gallina in the Pyrenees of Andorra. At 7 kilometers, it was twice as long as the one at Jaca, but Sky’s team director for the Vuelta, Marcus Ljungqvist, gave Henao and Uran the same orders to raise the pace from the start of the climb. So when the Colombian pair had done their damage and gave way to an attack by Froome, he still had the hardest part of the climb to complete: 3 kilometers tilting up gradients as steep as 15 percent.
Froome had never seen the climb before and that lack of knowledge worked against him more than his alleged fatigue. When he accelerated, only Contador followed him, while their two rivals held back. The Katusha team’s Rodriguez is a resident of the Catalan region and spends much of his year in Andorra and knew the Gallina climb intimately; and he told his friend and Movistar team leader Valverde that the pace was too high to maintain all the way to the line.
That was confirmed when Froome couldn’t get Contador to help him and the Brit virtually sat up before the multi-time Tour winner counterattacked in his former style. Contador’s Saxo team boss Bjarne Riis believed that Contador was going to win the stage, but even the Spanish phenom struggled at the end, shifted down and tried to spin his way to the finish, only to be overtaken just before the line by the more patient and stage-savvy Valverde and Rodriguez.
Froome was the victim that day of his poor team tactics (would they have been better if Sky’s top sports director Sean Yates was present?), the work he’d done unnecessarily to help Sky sprinter Ben Swift on the flat stages, and his rivals’ connivance. “The climb was really hard,” Froome later said, “and this battle against three such strong rivals was incredible.” But does he think he’s riding against a coalition of the Spanish trio and their teams? “I don’t think about a fight against the three,” he said, “but a fight against three weeks. To do two grand tours [back to back] is a new experience for me.”
Perhaps it was not knowing his physical limits of racing constantly at such a light level, or simply not knowing the course layout, that saw Froome have a hard time staying with the front group on Sunday’s tricky stage finish above the Mediterranean port of Barcelona. Barcelona is the hometown of race leader Rodriguez, so after Contador made the mistake of jumping too early on the little Alto de Montjuic hill 4 kilometers from the line, Rodriguez waited until a steeper, narrow section to counterattack, which only BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert could answer. Those two combined forces on the fast descent and then sprinted up the final uphill kilometer (with Gilbert taking his first win of the season), nine seconds ahead of a Valverde chase group and 12 seconds ahead of the Contador-Froome peloton.
With the crucial 39.4-kilometer time trial coming up on Wednesday in Galicia, Rodriguez has a 53-second lead on Froome, a minute on Contador and 1:07 on Valverde. Those four are a minute clear of their only potential challenger, Dutchman Robert Gesink, who has his Rabobank teammates Laurens Ten Dam and Bauke Mollema for company in the top 10.
But after the Vuelta’s one time trial, which Froome has to ace to stand a chance of winning overall, the outcome will likely rest with the relative strengths of the four leaders’ teams. Unlike that bygone era when Millar (racing for a French team) came up against an armada of Spanish riders leading Spanish teams, Froome and his British squad face Rodriguez on a Russian-sponsored team and Contador on a Danish-based outfit. Only Valverde is on a Spanish team, but with Rodriguez as a friend and Contador the most influential rider in Spain, the home forces may stop the Brit from winning the Vuelta for a second year running.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotogreporter Sirotti