Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.
This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.
Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.
At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”
In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.
In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.
Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.
USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.
Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.
Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.
Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.
Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.
In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.
The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.
One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”
If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Grinta: the hidden ingredient of great racers
The Italian word grinta has become so prevalent in cycling journalism that a Dutch-language magazine in Belgium chose Grinta for its title. Translated, it means grit, spunk, bravery, or endurance. And when European sportswriters use the word to describe an underdog’s performance in cycling’s Heroic Era of the early 20th century, they are likely thinking of all four of those nouns.
They would certainly use grinta to describe how Eugène Christophe, when leading the 1913 Tour de France, broke his forks on the descent of the Tourmalet, walked more than 10km with the bike on his shoulder, crying all the way, to reach Ste. Marie-de-Campan, where he repaired the forks at the village blacksmith’s shop, and then, despite having lost a couple of hours, carried on riding over the Aubisque and Peyresourde climbs to Luchon — and still finished that Tour in seventh overall.
Journalists would use grinta to tell the story of Fausto Coppi’s winning the Cuneo to Pinerolo stage of the 1949 Giro d’Italia in a 192km-long solo breakaway over five mountain passes … or describe the heroism of Eddy Merckx at the 1975 Tour when he battled to second place overall after being punched in the liver on one stage and breaking his jaw on another … or relate how Lance Armstrong picked himself up after being floored at the foot of Luz-Ardiden, fighting back to the lead group and then charging clear to win the stage (with a cracked frame) to clinch the 2003 Tour yellow jersey.
So how does the latest generation of pro racers shape up to those cycling legends? Do they exhibit the same levels of grinta as their predecessors?
Take reigning world champion Mark Cavendish. The man with the flashy sprint certainly has to show grit and bravery in negotiating a risk-filled mass stage finish at the Tour or Giro. But his performance that impressed me the most was when he won (with Rob Hayles) the Madison title at the 2005 track worlds in Los Angeles.
The then teen-aged Cavendish was a last-minute replacement and had never teamed with the veteran Hayles before. They overcame their lack of competitive experience together with sheer class. The pair was impressively fast in lapping the field to take the lead with 28 laps to go — and even more impressive, Cav especially, in hanging with the pack as team after team launched attacks in the closing kilometers.
At the end of that high-speed 50km contest, Cav was in tears, not only from the thrill of becoming world champion at 19 but also from the pain of racing (and beating) the world’s best trackmen. That took grinta! In an emotion-tinged interview, the young Brit said that winning a rainbow jersey was “something I’ve been waiting for all my life.”
Another young racer who has displayed enormous amounts of grinta in his so-far brief career is Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway. He needed plenty of nerve on stage 7 of the 2009 Giro to join a breakaway on a treacherously wet (and cold!) alpine descent into Chiavenna, where he easily took the sprint. Even more impressive was his victory a month earlier at Ghent-Wevelgem.
Also on a cold, rainy and windy day, Boasson Hagen wasn’t supposed to win this rugged Belgian classic. His teammate Mark Cavendish was favored, but the Brit flatted just as the race split apart. Their team director Brian Holm told me he wasn’t expecting anything from the Norwegian. After all, he explained, it was only three days after a difficult Tour of Flanders, where Boasson Hagen “had diarrhea and had to stop to go to the toilet three times…. That must have taken something out of him.”
Despite that, Boasson Hagen got into the front group at Ghent-Wevelgem with two senior teammates, both former winners of this classic, George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt. Still, no one was expecting anything from the 21-year-old Norwegian when on the final climb, the ruggedly steep, cobblestone Kemmelberg, he jumped away from the Hincapie group and bridged to lone leader Aleksandr Kuschynski of Belarus — and after pacing each other for the remaining 35km, Boasson Hagen led out the sprint from 300 meters to win easily.
Hincapie could have complained about an upstart colleague stealing the race, but realizing the scale of Boasson Hagen’s grinta, the American admiringly said, “It’s huge for Eddy … and it doesn’t get much tougher than today.”
Like Cavendish and Boasson Hagen, the Slovak phenom Peter Sagan has quickly established himself as a rider of immense talent and grit. Only two months into his pro career, at age 20, he shocked the cycling world by taking two stage wins at the 2010 Paris-Nice in bitterly cold weather — the first by out-sprinting a select group of six that included Spanish stars Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador; the second with a solo attack on a steep climb 2km from the finish.
A few weeks later at the prologue of Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie, I witnessed his ambition first-hand. Standing beyond the finish line, with no other reporters around, I was able to talk to riders as they circled back after finishing their time trials.
Sagan raced across the line head down, riding as hard as he could, and didn’t see what time he’d done. He said he understood a little English, so I indicated that he was one second slower than the fastest rider, Italy’s Marco Pinotti. Sagan knew enough English to react to his narrow loss with: “F–k! Only one second?” And the very next day, goaded by his prologue defeat, he proved the strongest sprinter, with the most grinta, in a wild bunch finish.
Like the legends of the past, modern stars Cavendish, Boasson Hagen and Sagan all have immense talent and, even more important, that indefinable gift called grinta.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
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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