After another crazy week that has eliminated several pre-race favorites, the 2012 Tour de France appears to have become the two-rider battle between Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and BMC’s Cadel Evans that many expected it to be.
Or has it?
With men like Vincenzo Nibali, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Andreas Kloden, and Samuel Sanchez positioned near the top of the GC as the race hits the mountains, there are still several men capable of upsetting the apple cart. And with talented teams like Garmin-Sharp, Rabobank, and Europcar gunning for stage wins now, these mountain stages could be faster, more aggressive, and harder for teams like Sky and BMC to control.
In other words, let’s not hand the race to Wiggins and Evans—at least not yet. There’s still room for an upset.
Take Katusha’s Denis Menchov for example. The Russian is actually the most successful grand tour winner in the bunch, having won the Tour of Spain twice and the Tour of Italy once so far in his career. He’s also finished inside the Tour’s top-3 on two occasions. Physically, Menchov should have no problems with the mountains of this year’s Tour de France and he can certainly hold his own in the race’s two long time trials. And with Wiggins and Evans marking one another heavily, Menchov is perfectly poised to add the one grand tour still missing from his palmares.
He’s the perfect dark horse in a race that still contains several of them.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
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
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Ryder Hesjedal takes his career as a professional bike race ultra-seriously. He trains obsessively, he never shirks from working hard for his teammates, and whenever he gets a chance to ride aggressively he grabs it without a second thought. That’s why his magnificent performance in the 95th Giro d’Italia—the first Canadian to finish on the podium of a grand tour, let alone win one—didn’t surprise those who know him well. Even if his victory shocked the European cognoscenti.
So, you may ask, why has the 31-year-old Garmin-Barracuda team man taken so long to reach the top of the cycling world?
The answer to that question is a complex one because Hesjedal has always had the talent to excel at the highest level, though we’ve only seen flashes of his capabilities in a wide range of races over the past decade. But befitting his calm and dignified manner, the British Columbian has shown infinite patience with his career and been quietly confident that one day his time would come. Now it’s here.
The Italians say that men capable of winning grand tours—they call them fuoriclasse—give hints of their great talent at an early age. Hesjedal, whose great-grandparents were farmers who emigrated from Norway in the 19th century, certainly did that. He grew up in the small rural community of Highlands, to the northwest of Victoria on Vancouver Island, where Hesjedal’s father made a meager living selling firewood that he cut in the pine forests. Dad and mom later took jobs with the municipality, while son Ryder showed a penchant for sports, excelling at baseball and lacrosse.
Everyone rode bikes in the Highlands, and young Hesjedal soon developed a love for riding his hard-tail Norco mountain bike on the single-track trails that crisscrossed this hilly region of lakes, woodlands and wilderness. The District of Highlands Web site says that its residents are “both self-reliant and cooperative.” That certainly characterizes Hesjedal, who began competitive cycling in his early teens as part of British Columbia’s booming mountain-bike scene.
Like other cycling journalists, I was first impressed by Hesjedal’s talent when he finished second in the junior men’s cross-country race behind Frenchman Julien Absalon at the 1998 world mountain bike championships at Mont-Ste-Anne in eastern Canada. Three years later, at the mountain bike worlds in Vail, Colorado, we saw the lanky Canadian again place second to Absalon, this time in the under-23 category. That same week, his fellow Victoria resident Roland Green, six years older than Hesjedal, won the pro men’s world cross-country title.
At the time, it seemed a given that Hesjedal would follow in Green’s footsteps, especially when at age 21 he won a 2002 World Cup cross-country at Les Gets in the French Alps, beating a field of champions that included off-road legend Thomas Frischknecht. But, at 6-foot-2 and 159 pounds, Hesjedal was big for a cross-country racer compared with more compact rivals such as Absalon, Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez.
Like Evans before him, Hesjedal was already integrating road racing into his schedule by signing with Rabobank’s espoirs team in 2002. He quickly showed his talent by winning the French amateur classic Paris-Mantes in April that year, making a long solo break to finish more than three minutes ahead of the field. And in September, shortly after that World Cup victory at les Gets, Hesjedal showed his stage-race strength by winning Spain’s four-day Volta a Cataluña de l’Avenir.
But mountain biking remained first on his agenda, knowing he had a chance of Olympic glory in Athens. He won the prestigious NORBA national series in 2003 (and again in ’04) and placed second in the pro men’s cross-country at the ’03 worlds in Lugano, Switzerland—only beaten by Belgian veteran Filip Meirhaeghe, who would admit to using EPO prior to the ’04 Olympics.
Hesjedal was also preparing his post-Athens career by joining Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team in 2004. So he debuted in European pro road racing that spring. I chatted with him in Bruges before the start of his first classic, the Tour of Flanders, where he told me how pleased he was to play a part in helping new teammate George Hincapie win the previous week’s Three Days of De Panne. Hesjedal didn’t finish Flanders, but a week later, in Spain, he got into the winning, eight-man breakaway at the extremely hilly Klasika Primavera in the Basque Country: He placed fifth behind winner Alejandro Valverde, and ahead of the Italian stars Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni.
That early success was almost forgotten in a year dedicated to winning an Olympic gold medal — a dream that ended when he flatted five minutes into the dusty Athens cross-country. He didn’t finish the race and dropped out of the worlds a couple of weeks later, and never started another mountain bike race.
So, in essence, Hesjedal’s road career didn’t really begin until age 24 as a domestique with Discovery Channel in 2005. He worked for Hincapie in the northern classics and, in stage racing, for Italian Paolo Savoldelli at the Tour de Romandie (placing 32nd, only two minutes behind his team leader) and at his first grand tour, the Giro, which Savoldelli won. Hesjedal valiantly did his team duty at that Giro, even after a bad crash on stage seven in the south of Italy; but he eventually pulled out (with 15 others) on a savage stage 13 over five passes in the Dolomites.
Hesjedal did enough that season to be recruited in 2006 by the ambitious Phonak team, whose leader would be Floyd Landis. I interviewed both of these North Americans at their pre-season training camp in Majorca. Hesjedal said he hadn’t given any interviews since dropping out of mountain biking, and I found him to be quietly ambitious about the year ahead. He was hoping to return to the Giro, a race he said he really liked, but Phonak put him on another program — which included taking fourth overall at May’s Volta a Cataluña (thanks to fourth place on the mountaintop finish in Andorra) and 17th overall at the Dauphiné.
His only grand tour in 2006 was the Vuelta a España, where he was lying a promising 21st before he abandoned the race on the 11th stage, with a view to riding a strong world championships in Salzburg, Austria. Perhaps he should have finished the Vuelta because he placed only 22nd in the worlds’ time trial and didn’t finish the road race, and when the doping-scandalized Phonak team folded at year’s end, Hesjedal was left without a team.
His career in limbo, he spent 2007 with HealthNet-Maxxis on the U.S. domestic scene, with 10th place at the Amgen Tour of California the highlight. The ever-optimistic Canadian didn’t give up his apartment in Girona, Spain, confident that he would be back on the Continent before too long. And that was the case. He was signed by Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin-Chipotle and so his European road career finally received its real beginning in 2008, just four years ago.
Since then, Hesjedal has improved every year, growing in confidence at the grand tours and performing at the highest level in the spring classics. The highlights have been diverse: aiding teammates Christian Vande Velde and Brad Wiggins place fourth overall in the Tours de France of 2008 and 2009 respectively; placing fifth at the 2009 Clasica San Sebastian before winning stage 12 of the Vuelta in a summit finish at Alto de Velefique; and, in 2010, placing second to Philippe Gilbert at the Amstel Gold Race, winning a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, placing sixth at the Tour de France (after team leader Vande Velde crashed out and including brilliant rides on the cobblestones of northern France and the mountaintop finish on the Tourmalet), and third at the GP de Montréal behind Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan.
His 2011 season was something of a transition year, the highlight being Garmin’s victory in the Tour de France team time trial and overall team prize, while Hesjedal rode support for sixth-place Tom Danielson. Perhaps 2012 would have seen similar results, but in the winter team manger Vaughters and new team director Allan Peiper persuaded the British Colombian to be the Garmin team leader at the Giro.
Now, with his astounding victory in Italy, Hesjedal can truly say his career has taken off!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
The 2012 Giro d’Italia begins this Saturday in Denmark—here are 6 questions on my mind heading into this year’s first grand tour.
1. Will Taylor Phinney be the first American since Christian Vande Velde to don the Giro’s maglia rosa?
Looking over the Giro’s start list, there appear to be few riders able to defeat American Taylor Phinney in the 8.7-kilometer individual time trial that opens the race Saturday. From there, two field sprints are likely to follow, then a travel day and a team time trial once the race returns to Italy on Wednesday. Phinney’s BMC sqaud holds no GC aspirations—it’s racing simply to win stages. With the young American, Norway’s Thor Hushovd (perhaps Phinney;s greatest competition Saturday), and a supporting cast that just won the TTT at the Giro del Trentino, look for BMC to make its mark early—perhaps with Phinney leading the charge.
2. Can Tyler Farrar find his field sprint speed?
Tyler Farrar spent the first part of the season training for the classics—now he turns his attention to the Giro, hoping to regain the sprint speed that won him his first stage in the Tour de France last July. Farrar won two stages in Italy in 2010, beating men like Matthew Goss, Andre Greipel, and Alessandro Petacchi to take what were then the biggest grand tour victories of his career. This year, Farrar faces Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish at the Giro, a rider also trying to ride his way back into shape after some time away from the bike. A win would certainly be a confidence boost for the American, who is still winless on the season following his cobbled focus.
3. Will Mark Cavendish prove that his lead-out train deserves a place in Team Sky’s roster for the Tour de France?
Bradley Wiggins has won Paris-Nice and the Tour of Romandie so far this season, making him one of the top picks to win this summer’s Tour de France. So it’s only natural that some have started to wonder how the aspirations of the defending green jersey champ (and 20-time stage winner) Cavendish and an in-form Wiggins can co-exist in a squad with room for only nine riders. Sprinting is a team venture, and Cavendish needs a strong performance in Italy to prove to Team Sky management that he deserves to have his full lead-out train (with men like Danny Pate and Bernard Eisel) on the Tour’s starting line in Liege.
4. Will Damiano Cunego thwart Scarponi’s attempt to win the Giro “for real”?
With two defending champions starting the race, Lampre’s official stance is that Scarponi is going for the overall while Cunego is hunting for stage wins and fitness for the Tour de France—a race in which he finished sixth last year. But while Scarponi has progressed steadily as a Giro GC contender (he finished fourth in 2010 and then was awarded the overall title after Alberto Contador’s retroactive suspension) one has to wonder how he and Cunego will co-exist should the 2004-Giro champion feel he has the legs to race for himself. Cunego could turn out to be Scarponi’s greatest ally—or his biggest rival.
5. Will Frank Schleck prove what many have suspected: that he’s more of a grand tour contender than his brother?
Until Andy Schleck won Stage 18 of the Tour de France on the Galibier, pundits were wondering if Leopard-Trek management had made a mistake in not asking the younger Schleck to defer to the elder during last year’s Tour de France. With Jakob Fuglsang’s last-minute withdrawal and the subsequent addition of Frank Schleck to the roster, we will get another chance to see what Frank can do in a grand tour without worrying about his brother. 2010 was the last time we saw Frank riding for himself over the course of a three-week race. But that was at the Vuelta a Espana—at the end of a long season in which Frank broke his collarbone at the Tour de France. While a bit underprepared, Schleck’s fresher heading into the Giro. He should get stronger as the race progresses.
6. Can Basso win his third Giro without the help of Vincenzo Nibali?
Ivan Basso won his second Giro d’Italia in 2010 with much help from third-place finisher Vincenzo Nibali. This year, the two riders have swapped places from last season, with Basso leading the team at the Giro and Nibali taking the reins at the Tour. In a 3-week stage race, two heads are often better than one—especially in the mountains. This season, it seems as if Basso has abandoned more races than he’s finished, but he says he’s ready after finishing key Giro preparation events in Trentino and Romandie. Can Basso prove that two heads are not always better than one?
What are your questions for the first grand tour of 2012?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
It can be fun working as a journalist in cycling. Not only do you get to travel to distant lands, interact with different peoples and witness amazing feats, you also get to know the athletes who make cycling the most beautiful sport in the world. One of the more intriguing characters I’ve met is Bradley Wiggins, a fellow Brit, who celebrated his 32nd birthday this past weekend by winning his third major international stage race in less than a year: It was the Critérium du Dauphiné last June, Paris-Nice in March and now the Tour de Romandie.
I first interviewed Wiggo—as his countrymen like to call him—over lunch at an English pub, The Flask, near North London’s Hampstead Heath on a grey December day in 2000. The tall, pale-faced Brit was then 20 years old and still an amateur track racer. He’d already traveled the world and was dressed like an American college kid in khaki pants, dark-blue turtle-neck sweater and a baseball cap; but he gave away his Englishness with a broad, monotone London accent.
I’d been intrigued by Wiggins for some time because his dad, Gary Wiggins, was an Australian racer I’d seen compete with Falcon, a British pro team, in the mid-1970s, and later in a bunch of European six-day races that I reported. Gary had a useful sprint in both road races and on the track, but he was never more than a journeyman professional. After he married in 1979, he and his English wife Linda moved to Ghent, Belgium, where Bradley was born. But his parents split a couple of years later and their son was only five when he and his mother returned to London.
“I wasn’t in contact with me dad for 17 years really,” Wiggins said at the London pub, “but me mum always spoke about him, and has obviously got a lot of pictures and stuff. I tried [cycling] out at 12 years of age … and it went from there.”
With cycling in his blood, young Brad “tried it out” at London’s venerable Herne Hill velodrome. He learned the ropes from the other members of the Archer Road Club, the same cycling club his father joined when he arrived from Australia at age 23. As a schoolboy racer, Brad won a national championship in the points race at age 15, soon stepped up to the national junior track team, and placed fourth in the points race at the 1997 junior worlds in South Africa.
It was the following year, at age 18, that Wiggins made his true breakthrough at the junior worlds in Havana, Cuba. After qualifying fastest in the 3000-meter individual pursuit, he raced Germany’s Daniel Palicki in the final. “It was an exciting final but I was totally in control,” the confident Wiggins told me. “He was still two seconds in the lead going into the final two laps. It was just the style I rode … pulling out a sprint at the end.” That victory over Palicki by almost three seconds gave Wiggins the incentive to shoot for glory at the Sydney Olympic Games, which were two years away.
“The Olympics is what I’ve set my aim at since ’92 when I watched Chris Boardman win the [pursuit] gold in Barcelona,” he said. “I’d just started cycling, and watching that was pretty inspiring. I thought I’d love to do that. So I thought Sydney, at 20 years old, should be a realistic goal.”
Wiggins rode two events at those Games, taking fourth in the Madison with Rob Hayles and a bronze medal in the team pursuit — a disappointment after he led the British foursome to the fastest time in the qualifying round. For me, that was a reminder that at about the same age, my boyhood hero Tom Simpson also won an Olympic bronze medal in the team pursuit in Australia — at Melbourne in 1956.
As a result, after that first interview with Wiggins a dozen year ago, I wrote in VeloNews: “Not since Simpson died in 1967 has Britain produced a young rider with the potential of Wiggins. … This soft-spoken Englishman has had a start to his career that’s as every bit as precocious as Simpson’s. And besides following a similar path to the former world road champion, Wiggins even looks and races like him.”
Unlike Simpson, who went to Europe to focus on road racing and ditch track racing (other than lucrative six-day contracts), Wiggins’s goal at age 20 was to win three track gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He did win the individual pursuit, while taking silver and bronze in other events, and he stayed with the Great Britain national track program through 2008 in Beijing (where he won two more golds).
By being part of Britain’s most successful Olympic team, in any sport, Wiggins achieved domestic fame and earned enough money through the Sky-sponsored track program to buy a farmhouse in northwest England, where he lives with wife Cathy and their two children Ben and Isabella. Perhaps he needed to do that, because it helped gave him the confidence he’s now showing as the leader of Team Sky at the world’s leading stage races. But Wiggins might have followed a path similar to Simpson’s and achieved the status he now has in road racing much sooner in his career.
In the season after that 2000 interview, Wiggins raced with his national road team and won two European stage races, Luxembourg’s Flèche du Sud (where Fränk Schleck was in the field) and Spain’s Cinturon de Mallorca. He then spent six seasons with French pro teams, focusing on winning prologue time trials; but the muscle weight he put on training for track pursuits stopped him making much progress in road racing. The only road win he took (other than short time trials) came in September 2005 when he took the hilliest stage of the Tour de l’Avenir, finishing three minutes ahead of the field after a long breakaway with his then Crédit Agricole teammate Saul Raisin.
Wiggins has always been outspoken in condemning riders who dope, and when his Cofidis team withdrew from the 2007 Tour de France after one of its riders tested positive, the Englishman threatened to quit the sport. That led him to signing in 2008 with America’s Team High Road because of its fiercely anti-doping policy, and then to the equally clean team, Garmin-Slipstream, the following year.
With the Beijing Olympics behind him, Wiggins finally focused on the road and through the winter and spring of 2009 he shed 7 kilos (about 15 pounds) from his track-racer’s body. The result was the skinny bike racer we see today who has applied his former skills to his new ones—during his brilliant fourth-place finish at the 2009 Tour, Wiggins described his method of riding the mountain passes as “mentally tackling them like a pursuit.”
In switching to Team Sky in 2010 (after prolonged and sometimes painful negotiations to buy him out of his Garmin contract), Wiggins returned to the to the coaching personnel at British Cycling, led by team boss Dave Brailsford, with whom he’d trained for all those pursuit medals. It’s taken them awhile to discover the best schedule to bring Wiggins to peak form when he needs it, but by alternating high-altitude training camps in Tenerife with high-profile stage races it seems like they’ve discovered a winning formula.
After that London pub lunch back in 2000, I wrote: “You may not have heard of Bradley Wiggins, but unless something drastic halts his current progress, his name will be one that resonates through the cycling world in the upcoming decades.”
Perhaps this decade (or even this year!) will see Wiggins achieve the dream that Simpson had in the 1960s: become the first Brit to win the Tour de France.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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The wind beneath my wings
We all remember when we were kids discovering the joys of riding a bicycle. Sometimes, with friends, we’d whistle a tune or sing songs as we pedaled along. Later, when I got into racing, I found that music was a helpful ally. In a race called The Circuit of Glyndebourne, held on a rolling course through the Sussex countryside on a bright spring day, I found myself humming The Four Seasons hit, “Rag Doll.” I began pushing my pedals to the tune’s metronomic beat, which continued to pound through my head as I went on a solo break. I was pumped, and I barely felt the pain that I should have been feeling.
Music has always played a big role in European bike racing. When I first saw the Tour de France, in 1963, I was watching from a hillside in Normandy when the leading vehicle in the publicity caravan arrived. It was a box-like Peugeot van, and sitting on the roof was the iconic French accordionist, Yvette Horner, playing romantic melodies for spectators at their picnic tables — Paris café music at its best. To this Englishman, it was all so appealingly French!
Horner played her accordion at the Tour for more than a dozen years; she also presented the yellow jersey at most of the finishes before performing at evening concerts in the stage towns. I was reminded of her a few years ago at a Tour stage in the Massif Central when we watched an outdoor screening of “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” the quirky animated film that features a 1950s’ Tour and accordion music by Roberte Rivette, a Horner caricature.
Today, the Tour’s publicity caravan is filled with piped pop music and disco dancers, while the brass band that performs on one of the custom floats is not actually using its trombones and trumpets — they’re just lip-synching. But a real oom-pah band does come from the Netherlands every year, jazzing the crowds at places like Dutch Corner on L’Alpe d’Huez. That band, made up of true cycling fans, also travels to events like the road and cyclocross world championships, where they help establish the party atmosphere that plays such a defining role in this sport.
In the 1970s and ’80s, opera was an integral part of cycling in Italy. RAI television used to open its Giro d’Italia coverage with an inspirational aria, perhaps Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s “Turandot,” while showing sepia scenes of Coppi and Bartali battling over cloud-covered mountains. And the Italian version of Radio Tour would play classical music for long stretches of races when there was no real action. During quieter moments of the Tour, one of my press-car colleagues, a passionate Catalan journalist from Barcelona, Miguel Utrillo, would entertain us with his own operatic outbursts, his favorite being a made-up song about a Pyrenean stage town: “Oooo-ooh, Saint Lary!”
Another indelible memory is Sean Kelly’s phenomenal time trial between his hometown of Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel that won him the 1985 Nissan Classic; the video of his record-setting ride was later set to the hit song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” sung by Sheena Easton. The lyrics well described how the Irish regarded their Sean: “Did you ever know that you’re my hero … I could fly higher than an eagle, ’cause you are the wind beneath my wings.”
There’s also something truly uplifting about the dramatic fanfare-style refrain played before every single presentation at the Tour de France, bringing pomp and dignity to those jersey-awarding ceremonies. But the Tour’s most stirring moments come in Paris, when a military band regularly plays the winner’s national anthem.
After listening mostly to “La Marseillaise” or “La Brabançonne” through the late-1960s, ’70s and early-’80s, it was emotionally moving to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” ring out for the first time in 1986, with Greg LeMond on the top step of the podium. Ironically, there have been no more French or Belgian winners since then, replaced by 10 victories for both the Americans and Spanish, and single breakthroughs for Ireland, Denmark, Germany and Italy. And then, last year for Cadel Evans, we heard the first rendition of “Advance Australia Fair”, unusually and joyfully performed by Aussie singing star Tina Arena.
What does the near-future hold? Maybe Andy Schleck will rightfully bring us Luxembourg’s “Ons Heemecht” for the first time since his countryman Charly Gaul won the Tour in 1958. Or perhaps there will be the first-ever win for a rider from eastern Europe, Africa, Asia or South America. I know that my personal collection won’t be complete until I hear the noble strains of Britain’s national anthem, “God Save The Queen,” echoing off the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées.
Did anyone say Bradley Wiggins?
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Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.
Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:
Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself. In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad. And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.
Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012. But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.
American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.
Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.
Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.
As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.
Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.
Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.
Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.
But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.
Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?
Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.
Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We decided to do some year-end awards here at RKP, but because we don’t see much point in awarding someone “best Danish single-speed cyclocrosser with no ink”, we figured we’d give some nods to those people, events and moments most memorable. And to add to the fun, we invited Whit Yost and Jeremy Rauch from Pavé to join in the fun.
So here we go:
Rider of the Year—Despite not notching a win another monument this spring, by virtue of the fact that Fabian Cancellara finished on the podium in Milan-San Remo (2nd), Ronde van Vlaanderen (3rd) and Paris-Roubaix (2nd), he proved to be the strongest rider in this year’s spring campaign. That Cancellara was chased as if an attack from him was everyone else’s ticket to glory was unseemly. It appeared—given those who latched onto his wheel—he was chased less to prevent him winning than as a springboard to anyone else’s.
Most Valuable (Non) Player—This has to go to Francesco Moser for doing more to liven up this year’s Tour de France short of any rider other than Thomas Voeckler. By instructing the Schlecks on how to win at bike racing, Moser inspired Andy Schleck to take the single most interesting flyer at this year’s Tour. Frankly, it did much to illustrate the criticism that due to radios riders no longer know how to ride tactically. The greater lesson is just how the greats were. How about a mentoring program for today’s GC riders? The racing might get more interesting if we dusted off more GC champions from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The We-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-It Award—Thor Hushovd has easily been the peloton’s biggest crybaby for the last two seasons. Of his seemingly endless skills—honestly, has anyone else delivered more unexpected and surprising wins?—diplomacy isn’t one. He may be the only guy who could teach Bradley Wiggins a thing or two about badmouthing a previous team. That said, his cunning has proven he is more than worthy of both protection and a free hand. Maybe we should call this one the Wild Card Award. You just never know with this guy.
The Mad Ambition Award—This goes to Jim Ochowicz and the rest of the management at Team BMC. On one hand, they are geniuses for vaulting BMC to the top of the pops in just two years. Their ability to sign riders of real quality was confirmed in a royal flush back in July when Cadel Evans finally won the Tour de France. So how they managed to court and sign both Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd can’t simply be magic; it’s more like sorcery. Evans was on record saying anyone on his Tour team (and it is his Tour team) won’t freelance, won’t go for stage wins and will bury himself for the team. Somehow Gilbert and Hushovd—who between them took three stages of this year’s Tour—claimed they were okay with that. We also give this the Most Likely to End in Tears Award.
The Most Coveted Award—This has to go to Zipp for the new Firecrest 303. There’s not another set of wheels I’ve heard spoken of with a more covetous tone than the redesigned Firecrest 303. Lighter than a supermodel’s brain, more aerodynamic than a Cessna and more durable than any aluminum rim you’re riding, the only question is who doesn’t want this wheel.
The Relief Award—Bike fans breathed a collective sigh of relief with the announcement that Campagnolo will finally begin selling its long-awaited electronic group, EPS. Though we heard that the Italian maker was working on this group back in 2002, Shimano came to market with Di2 a full two years ahead of Campagnolo. This is quite a contrast from the introduction of index shifting and integrated control levers. Shimano’s stuff may have worked better in both instances, but at least Campy had a ready response. The good news is that EPS seems to be kink-free, so this year you’ll be able to enjoy electronic shifting and 11-speeds all in the same group.
Worst News of the Year Award—The demise of HTC-Highroad. To have Bob Stapleton depart cycling is the worst news the sport will get for a long, long time.
The Textbook Courage Award—If you needed any proof of the talent at Andy Schleck’s disposal, his attack on Stage 18 from Pinerolo to the Galibier in this year’s Tour de France showed exactly what the young and often hapless Luxembourger is capable of. Down on GC and running out of road, Schleck had to do SOMETHING. What he did was one of the most courageous and awe-inspiring attacks we’ve seen this decade. First, Leopard – Trek put Joost Posthuma and Maxime Monfort into the break. Then, Schleck attacked with 60km to go, took a gap, stretched it to two minutes and then latched onto Posthuma and Monfort to stretch his lead, ending just 15 seconds out of yellow, as Tommy Voekler buried himself on the imposing slopes of the Galibier. This is the racing fans have always wanted from Schleck, but he has seldom delivered. Cautious to a fault, on this day Schleck was a legend.
The Have No Cake and Fail to Eat It Either Award—I, for one, thought it was a good idea for Zdenek Stybar to try his luck on the road, especially with a Classics-oriented squad like QuickStep. Unfortunately, Stybie flopped in his first season and has now relinquished his dominance of the Euro Cyclocross World Cup Series to Kevin Pauwels. What’s the Flemish for “Oops?”
The Straight Face Award—It’s been 18 months since Alberto Contador tested positive at the Tour de France. The saga of inaction since then is well-documented. Under WADA guidelines, it doesn’t matter how or why the “adverse analytical finding” came about, the rider should be suspended, and yet Contador has argued, with a straight face, that he deserves to ride, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has gone on as if the fleet Spaniard isn’t receiving preferential treatment. If we say up is down long enough, will we all learn to fly?
The Ricco Suave Award—This award is reserved for dopers who approach the rank stupidity of Ricardo Ricco in their efforts to cover their tracks and/or protest their innocence. This year’s award goes to Ezequiel Mosquera. After a positive test for hydroxyethyl starch at the 2010 Vuelta, at which he was runner-up, Mosquera cried foul. But the test for hydroxyethyl starch has been around a long time, and that substance’s use as a masking agent for doping products is well-documented. Compounding Mosquera’s guilt, one of his Xacobeo-Galicia teammates, David Garcia, also tested positive for the same substance at the same race. The Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) rewarded Mosquera’s cheating with a two year ban ON TOP of the 14 months he’s already been off the bike. The rider has said he’ll retire. Don’t do us any favors Ezequiel.
Cyclist of the year—All new cyclists. They may be annoyances right now. They might reduce our cool, bad-boy cred. They may do stupid things in the road, at lights, on the trail, etc. But they’re making the world a better place for us. Growing the sport makes the roads safer, will eventually make the public more sympathetic, and some day, some of them will be giving us their draft as they pummel us in their wake. Cycling is growing so much that some places, like New York City, are experiencing a backlash. I think the backlash will be shortlived. We’re going to win and all new cyclists are helping.
The “Why Would Anyone Need X” award:
This year saw a number of new technical innovations: some good, some bad, but all the victim of some variant of the pace-line putdown “Why would anyone need <insert component here>”. The list of what would surely be past winners is long and filled with the things we take for granted today, and would surely include clipless pedals (“Too dangerous in a crash!”), index shifting (“I don’t need click-shifting to find my gear!”), Di2 (“If I wanted to play video games, I’d just stay home and play Nintendo!”) and 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and yes, 12 speed rear clusters (“Why would anyone need more than 5/6/7/8/9/10/11 speeds?”).
2011′s award, based on the seemingly never discussions on the topic, goes to disc brakes in cyclocross. With a battle cry of “if they were good enough for De Vlaeminck*, they’re good enough to me”, the canti-devoted dismissed the disc as unnecessary – too heavy, too powerful, not hydraulic, and just plain pointless. It’s true that the disc options when using brifters are incomplete; quality cable actuated brakes like those from Avid aren’t quite as effortless as hydraulics, and the mechanical/hydraulic adapters look like a mechanical in the making. That said, any mountain biker will tell you there’s no denying the performance of discs in the muck. Wet or dry, discs just work. It’ll take a few years for vendors to come up with ideal, rather than adapted solutions to discs in cyclocross. But when they do, I suspect the naysayers will see their benefits and at the very least, wish they were on discs too. Hey, give me hydraulic brifters, and I just might be willing to move off this 9 speed setup – because really, more than 9 speeds is silly, but disc brakes are awesome.
The shut-up and ride award—By now, we’ve all seen the video of Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland getting whacked by the errant media car in Stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France. Both men suffered injuries that would have sent most of us crawling into an ambulance or at least the broom wagon. What was impressive, though, is that both of them got up, finished the stage and then made it all the way to Paris nearly two weeks later. It’s a story worth bringing up next time one of your non-cycling friends tries to tell you that American football players are the toughest athletes on the planet.
The great French hope—It was fun to watch Thomas Voeckler reprise his 2004 role as the beloved – but doomed – defender of the yellow jersey. (Voeckler actually earned the jersey as part of the aforementioned break from which Hoogerland and Flecha were taken out.) Voeckler is now 32 and his years may be numbered. It was inspiring to see the entire Europcar squad rise to the occasion and protect the jersey for 10 stages … all the way up to stage 19 when another member of the team earned the spotlight and maybe even signaled the start of what would be a welcomed renaissance in French cycling. Pierre Rolland showed more than a flash of brilliance on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez, out-classing Samuel Sánchez and Alberto Contador atop that storied climb. Not only did he win the stage, he grabbed the best young rider’s white jersey for good and finished the Tour in 11th on GC. Like another promising young rider in the season’s final grand tour, you have to wonder what this guy could have accomplished had he not been saddled with domestique duties for most of the race.
Maybe, just maybe, we will see an end to the French drought at the Tour, a race the hosts haven’t won since 1985.
Out of Africa―Having grown up in in Kenya and South Africa, Chris Froome showed he was more than able to meet the challenges of the European peloton in this year’s Vuelta a España. Froome finished second in the Vuelta and one can only imagine how the 26-year-old Team Sky rider would have fared had he not been obligated to ride in support of Bradley Wiggins at critical moments in that grand tour. As is the case with Rolland, I’m looking forward to seeing Froome ride without other obligations holding him back.
The No-Man-Is-an-Island Award―This last one is purely personal. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’ve hit a few rough spots over the past few months. Had you told me in January that things would have taken the turn they did in July, I would have predicted that I would just curl up in a ball and stay in bed. The darn thing, though, is that there are folks out there who just wouldn’t let that happen. Anything that I’ve accomplished or anything positive that has happened to me over the past months is purely due to the fact that people have been generous and spectacular. I have to extend my thanks to a host of people, including the gang over at NYVeloCity.com, their readers, the folks who follow me at LiveUpdateGuy.com, countless friends and family and, of course, those responsible for my new home here at Red Kite Prayer. I can’t even begin to count the ways that I have reason to be thankful. All of you gave real meaning to the words “cycling community.”
Most Disappointingly Successful Stage Race-Winning Strategy—Thanks to victories by Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, and Juan José Cobo in this season’s grand tours, it was easy to overlook a rather unexciting “trend” in the art of winning stage races. Of the eleven non-grand tour stage races on the 2011 World Tour, eight had at least one time trial. Of those eight, seven were won by men who took either only the time trial or no stage wins at all, a race-winning strategy calling to mind Miguel Indurain.
Take Bradley Wiggins for example. The Brit from Team Sky won the Criterium du Dauphiné—without winning a single stage. The same can be said of RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer at the Tour de Suisse. Both riders used top rides in individual time trials as the foundations of their victories then simply hung-on for dear life in the mountains. Of course, both victories were well deserved—after all, consistency goes a long way—but race fans can’t be blamed for wanting to see a bit more aggression from their champions. At least Germany’s Tony Martin actually won stages (both time trials, though) at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Beijing for HTC-HighRoad on his way to taking both overall victories.
What does it all mean? Not much, perhaps. But it could inspire more time trialists to find some climbing legs for a week every now and again. Or maybe a few of the sport’s aggressive riders might find themselves spending some time in the wind tunnel or behind a motor scooter, doing their best to defeat the sport’s Martin’s, Wiggo’s, and Leipheimer’s at their own game.
Then again, this is professional cycling—there are no style points. Victories bring contracts and unless your name is Thomas Voeckler, no one cares about how much excitement you generate in losing. We need to give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
For reasons unknown, this past Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on crashes in pro racing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this year’s Tour ended. Mostly because the reasons that most proffer don’t really explain what’s going on.
The Times article is here.
The biggest problem of all is that we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, and the Times is no different. The reporter gathered his anecdotes and offered them up. Ten deaths since 1995, though few mentioned because, they apparently aren’t worth mentioning. Thankfully, he does point out that no one is investigating. Seems to me that this is a matter for the UCI and the professional rider’s union (CPA) to investigate, but he doesn’t ask Pat McQuaid, nor CPA chief Gianni Bugno what they’re doing about it.
If racing my bike was my job, I’d want them investigating. At the very least, maybe an investigation of the reported crashes at the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. The three big stage races. Maybe looking at them can help point to things that might merit further research.
With the Tour, the biggest cycling stage in the world, every team has an incentive to ride aggressively, everyone wants an opportunity to get in front of the camera, everyone wants a dig at a stage win, just about every racer is probably thinking, no matter what their assignment is, if they just do one more thing, they might be able to score yellow, just for a day, and it won’t derail their team leader’s chances at his stated goal. Seems like a recipe for lots of crashes.
Stakes are highest for most riders and teams at the Tour, no doubt. But there are big crashes at the Vuelta and Giro as well, and they often take out a favorite, or two. And every year, there are crashes at the Tour, and crashes at every race. Every year at the Tour, and other big races, favorites are either caught up in the crashes and drop out or are caught behind them and are knocked out of contention before the critical stages or sectors begin. We’re not always paying attention in other races. But somehow, this year seemed different. There were lots of explanations; the most interesting I read was a cleaner peloton is both more evenly matched and more fatigued.
Maybe more evenly-matched causes some problems, but more fatigued I find hard to believe. It strikes me that such a comment assumes that every last cyclist was doping, because otherwise, the clean cyclists would probably have been more fatigued ten or fifteen years ago than they are now. Even if every last cyclist was doping, there is plenty of evidence that there are both high-responders and low-responders to doping products, EPO in particular, and the low-responders would presumable be at a greater disadvantage than they are today, assuming a cleaner peloton.
I think it’s safe to rule out road conditions as being a big problem, as road conditions are generally better today than they were in the past. I also think it’s safe to rule out “road furniture” on the transitions in and out of towns for most crashes. I know the road furniture theory is a popular one, and the awful Craig Lewis-Marco Pinotti crash at this year’s Giro has been attributed to road furniture, but even their crash deserves at least a little questioning. Was there any footage of it? I couldn’t find any. Maybe road furniture is responsible, but maybe it was just what they hit and the cause was something else. Maybe the crash would have been worse had it not been for the road furniture. I have no reason to doubt either person’s sincerity, but unless we have a better idea of what happened it seems premature to assign blame.
To me, another strike against the road furniture theory is that at this year’s crash-ridden Tour, it didn’t seem like any crashes were the result of road furniture; most of the heavily-reported crashes seemed to have happened on straight roads or in the mountains. There’s also evidence that the Tour and other big races work with local governments to remove some traffic circles and speed bumps where they think their removal will improve safety. I noticed what appeared to be traffic circle modifications during the World Championships as well. I think it’s safe to rule out narrow roads, as not only were wider roads once seen as a culprit, but narrow roads were once all the peloton used.
I’d like to offer up a few alternative explanations to the common cries.
It’s possible that crashes are as common as they’ve always been, but that broken bones are more common today than they used to be, making the crashes more serious and more frequently race-ending. As such, I think one potential culprit is osteopenia. If you haven’t heard of it, consider it osteoporosis lite: bone mineral density is lower than normal. I think it should be considered a factor in all crashes where bone breakage occurs, whether it is in training or racing. Anecdotally, there seem to be more and more stories about guys breaking bones in training crashes the past several years. Even “normal” cyclists can have reduced bone density as a result of all the miles they put in, so a Tour rider, particularly a climber who has meticulously starved himself down to his ideal race weight, probably has thinned his bones beyond what the average mileage-hound has done. I heard physiologist Allen Lim discussing hearing about crashes and thinking that every crash has the potential to break bones during a Grand Tour. When I put it to Dr. Michael Ross, a former team doctor, he unhesitatingly said, “yes.” It also could be a sign of cortico-steroid abuse, something Dr. Ross pointed out, as the result is same. Yes, these guys are racing hard, yes, they’re going fast, yes, they’re hitting the ground hard, but looking at how emaciated riders like Brad Wiggins and Chris Horner are at their Tour weight, I have to imagine their bodies catabolized bone matter to keep going. It strikes me as an evolutionary strategy that certainly helped early humans survive famines, but it also could be how crashes are breaking collarbones, ribs, pelvises, wrists, hips, and so on. For all the discussion about injuries resulting from race crashes, lots of guys seem to be breaking bones training; Dutch rider Robert Gesink had his season ended for him shortly before the World Championships when he fractured his leg while out training.
Some have suggested the culprit could be the machine itself. The bikes don’t seem to be the problem as catastrophic failures from normal riding have largely disappeared, and it’s hard to believe that a bike breaking after hitting the ground is injuring riders. Others point to stiffer wheels and too-light bikes, but I doubt those lines of thinking. I’ve seen little evidence that wheels are vertically stiffer than they used to be, which would be where the problem would lie in straight-line crashes. Tires are just about the same today as they were 25 years ago, and bikes still flex and tire pressure can be adjusted to account for stiffness. Steve Tilford speculated on his blog that some of the sketchy downhill riding was due to racers not training on their race wheels. He may be right. But I think the problem might extend to all racing. Not all carbon-fiber braking surfaces brake equally well. Some are grabby, some pulse, some give the unsettling feeing they’re not slowing down, even in the dry, some work fine in the dry but are questionable in the wet. Most pros can only ride the wheels they sponsors want them to ride, so they could be stuck between taking the risk of crashing or taking the risk of getting dropped more easily. I think many amateur racers would take the same risk, at least in the dry. People might suggest disc brakes, but I even with discs, tire traction, or lack thereof, will be a problem in the wet.
Another potential culprit is the training schedules of racers. At one time, pros probably raced much, much more before showing up to the Tour—the Tour came after both the Vuelta and the Giro and racers typically raced from February into June with smaller training blocs in between. Yes, they might not have been as fast as racers today, their training and nutrition wasn’t as precise, but by racing, they were training themselves to be more skilled in the peloton. And now the peloton is bigger. Riding in a pack takes skill, a skill that is honed by practice, unless there are some Wii games I don’t know about. Some weekend warriors in the US race more than Tour contenders between the start of their season and the Tour. Consider that this year, Chris Horner didn’t race at all between his victory at the Tour of California in May and the start of the Tour. Alberto Contador didn’t race at all between his Giro victory and the Spanish nationals, where he raced the time trial and road race, and then came to the Tour.
Or maybe the converse is true. Cadel Evans barely raced all spring and seemed to be able to race his few races with no crashing issues, though his preference is to race at the front. Maybe the pack as a whole are better bike handlers today and more comfortable riding closer to one another which makes it easier to crash several riders at once when one thing goes wrong.
The biggest issue is probably randomness, volume, and the nature of riding in the peloton. Just take an assembled group of cyclists, 189 riders is 21 teams worth, and have them ride an average of 100 miles a day for three weeks. Even if they were all riding solo, there would be crashes. Knowing how many riders go down in training and how frequently would be interesting to know, and something to compare to all the race crashes.
Some point to the packs being bigger as a culprit in crashes. There could be something to this, though the phenomenon of large fields began in 1986 when 210 riders started. And this time probably is when the super-large fields started occurring at the top races throughout cycling. Previous to this, it seems that races were in the range of 30-50% smaller and largely composed of teams racing in their home country—the Tour with French riders on French teams, the Vuelta with Spanish riders, the Giro with Italian and so on.
For riders, racing is their job and they owe it to themselves to demand research to determine what the real issues and culprits are. At the same time, they probably shouldn’t push for any changes until serious research is done. As a response to the extreme length of the 1987 Tour (22 teams of nine riders apiece riding 25 stages totaling 4231km), there was a movement to standardize the lengths of Grand Tours and shorten stages. This was seen as doing, among other things, reducing the incentive to dope. We know how that worked out.
Race radios are sure to come up as a safety thing. There’s no easy answer with them. Yes, directors can alert their riders to dangers up ahead, but there are downsides to trusting the voice in your ear. What if the director is wrong? What if riders interpret silence to mean everything is safe ahead? When hard helmets were first mandated by the USCF in the 1986, there was an argument that people would take more risks because they knew their head was safe. That never made sense. But I read a story about Erik Zabel’s role for the HTC-Highroad team. Supposedly he’d preview the stage finish and then relay what he saw to the team car, and Ralf Aldag or Brian Holm would then tell the riders. He apparently saw a turn that looked tricky but was convinced the leadout train could take it without braking. Hincapie lead through, didn’t touch his brakes, and Cavendish won the stage. Did this make for safer racing? The first guys made it through and probably so did the entire field. But what if he had been wrong? Is it good for the riders to trust such judgements?
It’s situations like these when I’m glad I’m not a pro bike racer. But it also makes me wonder how safe conditions are for all bike racing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International