Unlike amateur golf, pro cycling does not use a handicapping system to give riders of unequal talent an equal chance at winning the race. That is why, Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme deployed the “dumb ass spectator” strategy to bring the peloton down, outside the 10k banner, with Alberto Contador caught up in the resulting mess.
Oh sure, it looked like an accident, but could Prudhomme really have hoped for more? From the moment the UCI cleared Contador to ride, he was instantly installed as favorite to win. Having watched Lance Armstrong ride away with the yellow jersey in the ’00s, Prudhomme HAD to do something to take his race back.
And so, on an innocuously straight road where the pack was just ramping up the speed to set up the finish, a spectator leaned out, looking up the road for some reason, rather than back at the swarming velo mass flying by, clipped Maxim Iglinsky of Astana and sent riders tumbling like a gym full of dominoes at the end of a long college weekend. Contador wasn’t injured in the pile up, but he lost 1:20 on the stage, slightly less to the other race favorites, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Andreas Klöden, et. al.
Do not believe anyone who tells you Contador can’t overcome that deficit. He can. But that deficit is going to turn the 2011 Tour de France into a race.
Stage winner Philipe Gilbert perpetrated a half kilometer sprint to take the day. He dropped Fabian Cancellara. He gapped the entire lead group. A late breaking Cadel Evans couldn’t chase him down. It was exactly the sort of win that makes Gilbert the most exciting racer on the road today. On the podium, he pulled the yellow jersey over the Belgian champion’s jersey. That, my friends, is a bad ass maneuver.
Also, a big thumbs up for the new intermediate sprint rules. We were particularly surprised to see Mark Cavendish fall sound asleep in advance of the line, allowing both Tyler Farrar and Andre Greipel to come over top of him. Perhaps it’s true what he’s been telling the press, that he’s really only interested in stage wins.
The new set up for green jersey points turns 21 stages into 42. Sort of.
And on we go to the Stage Two Team Time Trial (TTT). I will be wearing a skin suit while watching from my couch. It’s an attempt to shave some time off the 3hr 30min live coverage that will keep the lawn from getting mowed and my children from getting parented.
Last week we made a raft of preposterous predictions for the upcoming Grand Boucle in France. It was fun. But as the actual race approached we ought to probably settle in and start the very, extremely serious work of predicting and arguing over what will really happen.
To begin with, it seems we are on the verge of watching Alberto Contador complete the Giro/Tour double, a feat last performed by Marco Pantani, likely while riding with blood thicker than Jell-O. Contador has been so dominant this year, and over the last three years, that he, like Armstrong before him, will be the pre-ordained GC favorite.
What we need to do is figure out who really has a shot at beating him. You will recall Chaingate last year, the incident in which Andy Schleck’s mechanical opened the door to 39 seconds of breathing room for the mercurial Spaniard. Though a crappy time trialist, Schleck appears to be the only one able to climb with Contador.
Cadel Evans is another possibility. He of the ever-improving public image has raced very well over the last two seasons, and might well have been in yellow in Paris last year if it hadn’t been for a broken elbow suffered at the end of the first week. Evans can climb (if in a muscular style not at all like his bird-like competition), and he can time trial. Is it possible?
VeloNews (if you’ve read their Tour preview edition) seems to believe that the RadioShack cycling team have more than one GC contender from the group comprised of Leipheimer, Klöden, Brajkovic and Horner. I believe they have none, but who am I?
More credible, in my mind, is Ivan Basso. Like Schleck, the Italian can climb with the very best, but his time trialing is poor. What Basso has going for him is a strong TTT that might help him bank some time against Contador and the rest.
Then, of course, there’s a whole cadre of talented hopefuls: Fränk Schleck, the Leopard-Trek counterpunch who we’ve seen win big races and will certainly get his brother’s support if it comes to that; Robert Gesink, the willowy, Dutch climber; Roman Kreuziger, Astana’s new hope; Christian Vande Velde who has the talent and the team, but will his health hold?; Ryder Hesjedal, last year’s Garmin surprise; Brad Wiggins, who I was ready to write off until he won the Dauphiné; and Juergen van den Broek, the Omega Pharma – Lotto man.
Some one of that group is going to have a great race. Will it be great enough?
What do you think? Who can beat Contador? How will they do it? Why is it their time?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We’re still two weeks away, but screw it, let’s start talking about the Tour de France. Of course, the easiest topic to blab about would be Alberto Contador’s presence in the race thanks entirely to delays in his doping appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. BORING!!!!!!!!!!!
The next most obvious subject would be the reprisal of the Contador v. Schleck rivalry. As I type these words, A. Schleck is storming up a hillside in Switzerland in desperate pursuit of climbing form for the Tour. BUT…since every website and magazine even tangentially related to cycling is going to be thrashing this story like an original Vision Gator skateboard, let’s leave it to them.
No, what we have in mind this week is surprises. Like Pieter Weening in the Giro, or 2006 Thomas Voekler. Like the end of the Wizard of Oz (spoiler: it was all just a crazy dream). Or like Mark Cavendish giving a measured, reasonable response to an interview question. What we want to talk about is who we think has a surprise in store at this season’s Grand Boucle.
Allow me to inch (centimeter) my way out onto the proverbial limb. I believe Cadel Evans will win the Tour de France. More than one French rider will finish in the top ten.
See how easy that was. Bold (read: stupid) predictions. That’s what we want.
It might be important to recognize that predictions are usually born of wishes, but then that might not be important at all. For instance, I pull for Cadel Evans, not because he looks like an elf/troll hybrid or because he, like me, loves his dog, but because his name (first and family) is as Welsh as male voice choirs or high quality coal, and my forebears are Welsh, too.
Thus am I able to draw a straight line between my tribal fealties and cycling nerdery. As for the French riders approaching the podium, this is simply a wish on my part for France not to get too discouraged about cycling. They had the decency to invent bicycles and then set up all these races for people from virtually everywhere else to win. We should at least let them sniff the podium, right?
Now let’s see you do the trick. Tell us which bit of unexpected we should expect to transpire and why you think it will happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Well, the 2011 Giro d’Italia is in the books, the most epic, epicness in the history of epic epics. Race director Angelo Zomegnan took a page from Tour de France founder Henri Desgranges’ playbook and turned his race into more of a survival event than a bike race, with many racers and directors saying this version was just too hard. What I think they meant is that it was just too hard for everyone who wasn’t named Alberto Contador.
Alberto Contador - He’s the elephant in the living room or, perhaps more specifically, the pistol in the peloton. He completely dominated. He never looked troubled. He never looked challenged. He seemed to attack at will, often on whim or simply through appetite (the sort that earned a certain Belgian a not-always-complimentary nickname). The Spaniard’s performance was thrilling in a way, his signature attacks both completely fluid and completely explosive.
Of course, the flip-side to Contador’s ride is the lingering doubt that he’s clean. Whether it’s the doping case that will never end, or the whirling dervish of the Armstrong affair that is tarring all of our dominant riders with a tainted brush is hard to say. Regardless, it’s hard to believe in Contador’s flavor of dominance, whether that doubt has any basis in reality/science or not.
Michelle Scarponi – It must be hard to finish second and have everyone ignore you, but of all the GC hopefuls Scarponi made the absolute best pretense of trying to stay with Contador, chasing him off the front, if only to drop back. That so much was said about Vincenzo Nibali is a good indication that the rider who topped Nibali by 46 seconds was a worthy runner up.
Vincenzo Nibali – All of Italy seemed to be pulling for the “Shark,” but he didn’t have it. Known as perhaps the best descender in the pro bunch, Nibali had almost zero pop in his legs when it came to riding up hill. What made the Liquigas rider’s Giro interesting and admirable to me was the way the constantly rode within himself. He didn’t make any suicide attacks. He stayed patient and limited his losses to a clearly superior opponent. It wasn’t always exciting to watch, but it was good, smart racing.
John Gadret - My previous estimation of Gadret was based on his woeful lack of team spirit in supporting Nicolas Roche at the last Tour de France. I thought he was a punk, and he may well be, but in this Giro he showed a massive leap in ability, sticking with the world’s best climbers on some of the world’s toughest climbs. Maybe the French are rising again. No. Probably not.
Jose Rujano – If we turn slightly to our left, Rujano’s doping past will sit just out of our peripheral vision, and we’ll be able to view his 2011 Giro as a massively entertaining ride by a guy very few thought would ride at this level again. Perhaps he has earned himself a move up from Androni-Giacatolli to a bigger squad who can deploy him in the mountains of other grand tours.
Denis Menchov/Carlos Sastre – When Geox-TMC, the team of former grand tour winners Menchov and Sastre, weren’t invited to the Tour de France, I was one of those who thought ASO had screwed up, picking crappy French teams instead of this Spanish squad fronted by this unlikely pair. The Giro was, as a result, their everything, and the ASO is vindicated. Sastre was no where. Menchov was a shadow.
Honorable Mentions – Roman Kreuziger moved to Astana to get his chance at grand tour leadership. Liquigas was always going to go with Nibali and Ivan Basso, so that seemed like a sensible move. Kreuziger didn’t quite make the cut this time out. He remains a potential GC rider, rather than a real threat.
Christophe Le Mevel started strong, finished weak, but did Garmin-Cervelo proud, and provided another glimmer of the idea that French cyclists might be returning to grand tour podiums again one day. Maybe.
Peter Weening, the giant Dutchman, pulled a real Voekler and not only pulled on the maglia rosa in the first week, but then had the temerity to defend it.
Mark Cavendish came, saw, sprinted and then left. It’s sad to me that modern grand tour sprinters do this so often, but this is the world we live in. Specialization is king.
Final thoughts – They say the Tour de France is the biggest bike race in the world and that the Giro is the most beautiful. It would seem that Angelo Zomegnan is looking for more ways to draw even with his counterpart in France, Christian Prudhomme. They are both operating in the environment of modern cycling, which seems to be as much about which riders might be suspended as what the race route looks like. The 2011 Giro was an effort, I believe, to reassert the primacy of the race. In crushing all comers, Alberto Contador undid much of Zomegnan’s plan, and that is too bad.
(Just to be clear, I have no idea whether Contador is clean or not. I am only saying that the ongoing case related to last year’s clenbuterol positive creates doubt in the minds of many.)
Thanks to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and their geologically-timed appeals process, Zomegnan’s problem now becomes Prudhomme’s. How to keep the focus on the racing, when the racers themselves inspire such doubt. Perhaps one day we’ll look back on this time as the “Age of Asterisks,” a time when you couldn’t be sure what race you’d seen until the various governing bodies had a year or two or three to digest what happened and the lawyers had come up with acceptable compromises in Swiss conference rooms.
Regardless, this Giro d’Italia made a valiant effort at challenging the riders in unconventional ways, pushing them well outside their comfort zones. Was it too hard? Clearly, for some, it was. For the rest, it was a great race.
Big points have to go to the organizers for handling the tragic death of Wouter Weylandts with dignity and a minimum of controversy. Their modification of the stage that included the descent of Monte Crostis was another testing moment that passed with relatively few problems. These challenges are testament to the ability of a cycling organization to make good, effective decisions under time constraints.
The ASO, the UCI and the various national federations would do well to pay attention.
The Giro d’Italia starts Saturday, and this time out everything is BIG. The peloton, at 207 riders, is well beyond the normal size, as are the climbs (see Mt. Etna stage above), with seven mountain top finishes. This a race for the featherweights and survivors. Someone is probably taking odds on how many sprinters will even finish. My buddy DNF will definitely be there.
Here is my list of favorites: David Arroyo (Movistar), Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre (GEOX-TMC), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Roman Kreuziger (Astana), Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard), Tiago Machado (RadioShack), Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone), Danilo di Luca (Katusha), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), Giovanni Viscontini (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli).
Contador’s presence at the Italian race, for the first time since he won it in 2008, shakes up the general classification. 2010 champion Ivan Basso skips this Giro to focus on the Tour, so that leave his Liquigas teammate Nibali to battle with the Spaniard. 2009 winner Denis Menchov will hope that his Geox-TMC squad has the gas to keep him in contention. Will a rapidly aging Carlos Sastre be able to help?
Astana’s Roman Kreuziger, finally given a grand tour leader’s role, has a lot of questions to answer about his true top end capabilities, and the pack of skinny Italians who might normally crowd the podium (di Luca, Grazelli, Viscontini and Scarponi) will likely struggle to keep pace with Contador and Nibali.
While most observers ooh and aah over the total number of climbs in the race, the real issue will likely be recovery. It is one thing to climb strong for a week. It is quite another to do so consistently day after day. There will be no safety for the maglia rosa, as the course just provides far too many opportunities for rivals to put in attacks.
Patience and consistency, consistency and patience. And luck. Don’t forget luck.
Of course, it is far too early to begin picking an overall winner, but let’s try something different for this week’s Group Ride. Stage One is a Team Time Trial. Who will win it? AND…who will be in the pink jersey on the first rest day?
Stickers for correct pickers.
Cadel Evans used to be an annoying whiner, prone to piques of anger and spectacular failings of courage when courage might just have won him a race he’d later feel compelled to complain about having lost. Then he won the World Championship. Apparently, wearing the rainbow stripes has a powerful, character-improving effect on its designated bearer. Since that day in Mendrisio, Cadel has been transformed.
Or perhaps this is just what came from training with the late Aldo Sassi for the better part of a decade, and living year round in Italy. Perhaps Sassi’s ways finally took hold, once the high guru of athletic performance was diagnosed with the brain tumor that ended his life. Sassi’s restorative powers were even thought capable of purifying Ricardo Riccó, before the Cobra himself put paid to that possibility. Perhaps the change was taking place in the run up to Worlds. Regardless.
Up to that point, we were used to seeing an exceptionally strong rider who could climb, roll and time trial, a true all-rounder, but one seldom inclined to impose his will on a race. But then the inscrutable Aussie won la Fléche Wallonne, pounding up the Mur de Huy with Alberto Contador fading behind him. It was a hugely impressive win and one that marked a real re-launching of the Evans brand.
Moody and combative became mature and almost statesmanlike. Overly cautious became bold. Bitter became very nearly joyful. This was a rider finally seeming to like his job.
A Giro stage win and green jersey followed. He donned the maillot jaune at the Tour as well, if only briefly. Third at Tirreno-Adriatico. Fourth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The man did the stripes proud, not only through his results, but through the style of them and in sterling attitude.
That is why a rider, once easily dismissed as a bit part malcontent, is now revered, and it’s what made seeing him standing atop the final podium at this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico holding that ridiculous trident trophy deeply pleasing. Spraying the crowd down with his valedictory Prosecco, Evans was—at last—worthy.
That he had shed every skinny Italian climber on the road to win Stage 6 in a style entirely reminiscent of his win in Huy last year was revelatory. Rather than simply winning, Evans lit up the race.
If indeed, it was the rainbow stripes that hastened Evans’ transformation, I can think of a few other riders who might benefit from the treatment.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I don’t know about you, but I was excited for the Omloop/K-B-K weekend. Despite all the races that come before those two, in my mind the season really begins on those crappy weathered, Belgian roads. These are minor races, diminished further by the proliferation of warm-weather rides that take place in January and February. They’re not classics, by any stretch, but to me, they are, in fact, classic.
One new race, and the one we’re talking about today, that I find fully worthy of spring classics season is the Montepaschi – Strade Bianchi, or L’Eroica, a rambling race over technical terrain that includes many kilometers over the famed white gravel roads of Tuscany. This is a race that serves up the same kind of riders-spattered-with-mud photographs that we all love from the actual spring classics.
Also interestingly, MSB is a race that almost immediately captured the imaginations of the pro riders themselves. Inaugurated in 2007, MSB draws a very impressive field and boasts some big name former winners, including Fabian Cancellara (2008).
Who will win? Tell us. Win RKP stickers.
Of course, Strade Bianchi is a Saturday race. On Sunday, Paris-Nice rolls out of Houdan, south of Paris for those of us who still like stage races. The Race to the Sun is usually a big event on the calendar, that intersection sort of race where both grand tour riders and strong one day racers mix it up.
Defending champion Alberto Contador has chosen to ride elsewhere, so look for riders like Peter Sagan, looking to cement his status as a big, young star, Fränk Schleck, Luis Leon-Sanchez and Heinrich Haussler to ride strong, but really there a dozen or more potential winners this year. With a longer time trial and some more difficult climbing, the odds are probably more with an experienced stage racer than someone who is simply strong over this sort of terrain.
That’ll make it much harder to predict, but go ahead and try.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It’s not Alberto’s fault. He peed in a cup. His pee went to Germany. Some Germans found things in the pee that ought not be in pee. It was bad pee … you know … as pee goes. And so, chaos ensued.
Let us not rehash the chaos in full, but let me provide you this brief synopsis: pee>adverse analytical finding>consternation>press leak>rumors>sanctions>bureaucracy>more bureaucracy>politics (i.e. more bureaucracy)>interminable wait>proposed suspension>acquittal.
Since the acquittal, which is provisional in as much as there are still periods of appeal and counter-appeal to be slogged through, Alberto’s name has been closely associated with, depending on your viewpoint, cheating and/or justice. He has been much maligned, and also much revered.
But Alberto and his pee, such as they are, aren’t really that important to the story. They are only the messenger.
The story is really about everything that’s wrong with professional cycling. The truth is that some professional cyclists take prohibited drugs to improve their performances. The system in place to stop them from doing that doesn’t work very well. The authorities charged with enforcing the rules are incompetent or complicit. Interests are conflicted. The federations, teams, sponsors and riders can’t get together on solutions. Enforcement varies wildly depending on the country you happen to be from. The processes are slow, plodding and interminable. Even the semblance of fairness does not exist.
This is the story. It is a sad one. It’ll even make you angry, if you let it. This story will go on and on and on. Like a classic Russian novel, the names of the characters will change. Allegiances will shift. Alliances will form and break. All the foibles and failings of this human species will find expression at some point. Count on it.
Right now, Alberto is only the messenger. He is just one character for better AND for worse. Don’t shoot him. It won’t help anyone.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Today, there is only one cyclist on planet Earth, and he’s suspended. Unless you’re dead, you’ve read the story. The Spanish cycling federation has proposed a one-year suspension for Alberto Contador, subsequent to his positive clenbuterol test from last summer’s Tour de France. The rider can appeal the proposal, though who knows what that means, and he has vowed, through his spokesman to fight any sanction.
This week’s Group Ride asks the obvious question: Has Contador been treated fairly?
David Garcia received a two year suspension for an EPO positive at the Vuelta, as the rules stipulate he must. Assuming Contador is guilty (which the UCI and Spanish federation must believe he is) is Garcia’s offense worse than Contador’s?
Of course, EPO isn’t found in beef, as a matter of course, but the anti-doping codes don’t seem to differentiate between substances an athlete has to buy on the black martket versus substances that might be ingested in food or supplements.
Callum Priestley, a young English hurdler, was recently suspended for two years on the back of a Clenbuterol positive. Like Contador, he blamed tainted meat, consumed in South Africa, for his adverse finding. The English didn’t care.
And of course, there’s Li Fuyu, the Radio Shack rider who was suspended for Clenbuterol in the spring of 2010. He too claimed contamination. The UCI didn’t care. He’s out for two years.
On the other side of the ledger, Italian Alessandro Colo of the ISD-Neri team, also tested positive for the stimulant at last year’s Vuelta a Mexico, and he attributed his positive to eating contaminated meat in Mexico. Italian officials gave Colo a reduced, one-year sentence.
To my mind, Contador’s actual guilt seems secondary to the discussion. At this stage, it can seemingly neither be proved or disproved. What remains are the positive tests and the rules governing them.
We might argue that the rules could/should be changed, but that doesn’t get to the issue of whether or not Contador has had a fair shake. Clearly, the process that has brought us to this point in the story has been drawn out in a singular way. None of the other suspended athletes named here had so long to mount a defense or were given the option to respond to a “proposed” ban.
One might believe, however, that the protracted nature of proceedings has actually hurt Contador worse than an expeditious ban.
We leave that all to you though.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In light of the reports regarding Alberto Contador’s imminent, one-year vacation, we’re thinking double extra hard about different ways to clean up the sport. The other day we discussed the need for greater decisiveness from the UCI and more draconian application of the rules.
Who really has the power in pro cycling? It’s an imprecise question. It yields some obtuse answer about the various parties involved, the UCI, the state federations, the Pro and Pro Continental teams, the sponsors and the race organizers. Assign percentages. Divide and debate.
A more precise question is: Where’s the money?
It is true that the UCI, federations, teams and sponsors all have an interest in clean racing, but it is also true that each of those stake holders has some motive for winning, regardless of the methods. The UCI needs champions in order to grow the sport. More than that, they need spectacle and drama. They need superhumanity. Obviously, doping scandals hurt their brand, but what weapons have they got? We’ve already talked about how ineffective their current approach has been, suspend and litigate.
The federations also want champions, riders from their countries standing atop podiums. They want clean athletes, but they only really need their athletes to be cleaner than the others. They also have no real power, just a smaller player in the suspend and litigate system.
The teams are the most compromised. They need to appear to be clean, but if they don’t win races, it doesn’t matter much whether they’re clean or dirty as a dormant coal mine. They lose sponsorship either way.
The sponsors have money, it’s true, but they’re in the same boat with the teams. They want the publicity that comes from winning races. They want a spot in the Tour caravan. Doping scandals may or may not hurt them. Festina reported selling more watches in the year following their team’s expulsion from the 1998 Tour.
That brings us to the race organizers. It brings us to the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO).
As most folks know, the ASO runs the Tour de France, the biggest cash cow in the sport. What they may not know is that they also own and/or operate the Tour of Qatar, Tour of Oman, Paris-Nice, Critérium International, Paris-Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Vuelta España, Tour de l’Avenir and Paris-Tours. In short, ASO is the gatekeeper. More than anyone else, they have the power.
So what if the ASO implemented its own anti-doping policy, some more clearly stated variation on what they do now. Yes, Tour director Christian Prudhomme has been sending the teams messages for years. Embarrass the Tour and you become persona non grata in France, in July. But the rules aren’t written, and they’re not hard or fast.
If the ASO made the simple policy of barring riders who had tested positive from competing in any other of their races, it would send a shock wave through the peloton. Gone would be David Millar, Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, et. al. It would be a loss, but it would be a tolerable one to get our sport back from middle pages of scandal-addicted newspapers.
Not being able to race in ASO races would decrease even the most talented rider’s value so significantly as to virtually end their careers. Am I really going to pay Vinokourov’s salary only to have him compete in the Giro and some subsection of the rest of the season? And what if Giro director Angelo Zomegnan buys into this approach? To borrow and phrase from another sport, game, set, match. Over.
I am sure that the deal hammered-out between the UCI and race organizers to guarantee selection to the biggest races for the entire list of ProTeams contains some provision for teams who harbor convicted dopers. I would argue that there is almost no way, under law, for the ASO to be compelled to allow the participation of riders whose presence might devalue their primary assets.
The ASO could make this happen. But will they?
Over the last decade, the ASO has acquired a number of big races, expanding their cycling portfolio to its current size, and glancing down the list you will see three of the seven spring classics, two of the three grand tours, the most prestigious one week stage race (Paris-Nice) and one of the big fall classics (Paris-Tours). How many more races would they need before they could effectively take cycling private, marginalize the UCI, and run their own show? It seems outlandish, but … outlandish is what cycling does, isn’t it? Perhaps it will take a paradigm shift like this, a breakaway if you will, to win the race against doping. Perhaps this is our last, best hope.