Generally speaking, we try not to violate the fourth wall and directly acknowledge our work by shining a light on the fact that what we do here is write about, analyze about, obsess about cycling. That’s as obvious as sunlight. But this is one of those days. The cycling world has gone pure red state/blue state in its outrage/relief/shock/dissatisfaction with the announcement that Lance Armstrong has decided to concede game, set and match to USADA and Travis Tygart. No matter what you think of Armstrong, it’s unlikely that the outcome has left you feeling better about the sport of cycling. And that’s the real tragedy of the situation. It’s as if someone took the blue out of the sky.
Which is why the current racing in Colorado is so great. Forgetting for a moment that the event has the misfortune to have been given the generically anonymous USA Pro Cycling Challenge (they really couldn’t do better than that?), it is the perfect antidote to what ails cycling.
For starters, the event is showcasing the new generation of American riders, a crop of talent that seems united in their repudiation of a previous generation’s doping. Sure, they could be lying, but for now, there’s something in the attitude of guys like Tejay Van Garderen and Joe Dombrowski that makes the idea that they are clean easy to swallow. That Van Garderen is leading the race is perhaps the best thing to happen in American cycling this year, other than his near-podium finish at the Tour de France.
It wasn’t so many years ago that guys like Bobby Julich were racing for the U.S. National Team and telling stories of how they got into cycling as a result of seeing the Coors’ Classic pass through their town. Each generation has drawn inspiration from its homegrown riders as if passing a fledgling passion from one kid to another was as easy as handing off a torch. But inspiration has no baggage, so maybe it is.
That Van Garderen is leading the race (if only by a fraction of a second) confirms what we saw at the Tour. This kid is the real deal and we can expect to be cheering for him, getting autographs from him and thumbtacking posters of him for years to come. And honestly, one of my favorite story lines about him is how cycling was passed down to him by his father; cycling is a family sport.
Day after day we’ve seen stages result in the kinds of victories that satisfy our sense of what winning ought to be. In 1996, Chris Horner was riding for a tiny pro team that barely got invited to the Tour DuPont. Horner managed to get into a two-man breakaway with the comparative veteran Nate Reiss, riding for the U.S. Postal Service Team. In what was then seen as a total upset, Horner bested Reiss, and in doing so gave us a new champion to cheer for. Van Garderen’s win over Christian Vande Velde on stage two may not have had the surprise that Horner’s win did, but carried the same storyline of the new generation overtaking the old guard.
But if ever there was a time or a place for a wily old dog to enjoy a day in the sun, Jens Voigt’s solo breakaway on stage 4 into Beaver Creek. How it is that this German rider has become so beloved by American fans is at once obvious as the love of your mother and yet mysterious as a question from the Sphinx. To have him execute the longest solo breakaway of the race, indeed one of the longest successful breakaways of the whole season seems scripted by Hollywood. Even so, we’re as satisfied as when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. Whew.
The talent of the riders aside, and our belief that we’re viewing a remarkably clean peloton aside, the real star of this race is the state of Colorado. California boasts more bike companies, more bike races, factors more of cyclists and roads than Colorado. But the Rocky Mountain State is to bike racing in North America what the Louvre is to art—its spiritual home. It would be easy to attribute this in its entirety to the Coors’ Classic, but there’s more to it than that. Colorado is full of big spaces. Roads can run for miles with little direction change. The Rocky Mountains are photogenic in the instinctive way teenage girls are—every new view is untrained, yet memorable. And to see those roads in person … one needn’t be a cyclist to want to ride them.
But there’s more to a great race than a bunch of skinny guys turning the cranks with the speed of an electric motor. Once you’ve got the right racers and the right course, then you need fans. Colorado has turned out its populace (and borrowed from elsewhere) in a way that has impressed even the racers. No less a booster of California than Levi Leipheimer praised the fans on the Boulder stage for turning out in a manner even greater than what he’s seen at the Tour of California. I’ve noted on several occasions that huge crowds have been present, crowds easily as big as some that I’ve seen at the Tour of California, but in places that had a fraction of the warm bodies. There’s the feeling that this race is drawing out a bigger chunk of people present.
Finally, there’s a certain chemistry that seems to make the entire business heady, like a beguiling perfume radiating off your date. Watching the riders ride backward on the course and high-five the fans gave me chills. It was a kind of gratitude witnessed too rarely in sports, as much a payback as a benediction for all those fans whose cheers gave the riders a bump in wattage in those final kilometers. Even for the fans at home, ads like the campaign from New Belgium Brewing showing the guy riding the old cruiser and touting the line, “Enjoy the ride,” eschew transaction for bliss, an anti-consumption pitch, a reminder that we should get out there while the sun is still up.
Images: Doug Pensinger and Garrett Ellwood, Getty Images
I must admit, begrudgingly, that Colorado makes a pretty spectacular backdrop for a stage race. From the mammoth climbs, to the sprawling vistas, to the dedicated outdoor community who line the roads to cheer the riders, the US ProCycling Challenge has looked really great. And adding altitude to the test of extreme climbing gives the race a wrinkle that few others can offer.
As I’ve watched it, along with the Vuelta, it has struck me that, if the Vuelta is basically the Spanish climbing championship, then the USPCC is just the US climbing championship. They have nice symmetry that way.
But while one is a storied, if slightly under-appreciated, grand tour, first run in 1935, the other is a complete upstart. Perhaps the USPCC is merely a sign of the times. The balance of cycling power has been shifting over the last two decades. North Americans are making up a larger and larger share of both pro riders and big sponsors. The USPCC may be the culmination of that shift.
Still, if history is any sort of lesson, the likelihood that this race will still be going in ten years is low. The Coors Classic, the primogenitor of the USPCC, was a great big race that attracted top riders from the European peloton. It ran as a three day event (under the sponsorship of Celestial Seasonings) from 1975 to 1980, when Coors took over as primary sponsor and expanded it to a two week race.
By all outward indications the Coors Classic was a highly successful endeavor, generating millions in TV, merchandising and advertising revenue. But the beer company pulled out after 1988 and race organizers were unable to secure a new sponsor. This is, in brief, the story of stage races in the US (e.g. Tour of Missouri, Tour of Georgia).
USPCC has given itself a further challenge, running its inaugural event in a recession, with sponsorship dollars fleeing the sport (HTC anyone?). So there is this tremendous incongruity playing itself out on my TV screen, great racing, beautiful scenery, top talent, but little hope of long term survival. I can’t convince myself to invest in it emotionally, and I can’t convince myself to turn away.
This week’s Group Ride asks: What do you think of the US ProCycling Challenge?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
RKP isn’t really a news site, so the announcement that Amgen has renewed its contract with AEG Sports to continue its sponsorship of the Amgen Tour of California might seem odd material for a post. The reason it’s here is because this isn’t your garden-variety cycling news. This is big.
I confess, for weeks, more than a month, in fact, I’ve been writing the obituary for the Amgen Tour of California. I thought an announcement notifying cycling fans of the race’s demise was a formality, so the news that the company has renewed isn’t just a pleasant little news brief. This is big.
So why was I so down on the future of the Tour of California? Let me count the reasons.
- In the United States, races have a terrible history of folding after a sponsor’s contract is up. The Coors Classic folded up shop following the 1988 race after the race’s contract with Coors ended. Race director Michael Aisner approached Nuprin and Dodge, both of whom agreed to sponsor the race only to decline involvement at the 11th hour. The Tour de Georgia was notable for the fact that it’s the only major U.S. stage race that managed to sign three different title sponsors—Dodge, Ford and AT&T.
- Losing a race director has had dire consequences for races. When Mike Plant left the Tour DuPont at the end of the 1996 edition, the prospective next sponsor (DuPont’s contract was up) didn’t have much confidence in the new race director and ultimately the race couldn’t secure a new sponsor.
- The 2011 edition of the Amgen Tour of California got off to a rocky start with a stage cancellation and the start of a stage moved. Sponsors don’t like to see their events not happen as planned.
- The 2010 and 2011 editions of the race were upstaged by doping revelations that cast cycling in an unusually negative light. Landis’ and Hamilton’s revelations made much bigger news than the typical positive test. Who wants to spend millions to sponsor an ugly press conference?
- The economy still sucks. It’s why there’s no Tour of Missouri and no Tour de Georgia. Finding sponsorship money is as unlikely as winning the lottery two days in a row.
In the U.S., races come to an end. That’s the unfortunate reality. But these next two years could be key for the event’s longevity; it’s up to AEG to use the time to court (and land) a new sponsor. Make no mistake, this news is huge.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The seven-day, 600-mile long Quizno’s Pro Challenge has already landed the honorific of “the greatest bike race ever held on American soil from August 22-28, 2011.” True enough. After all, the 1996 edition of the Tour DuPont, which was 1225-miles long, was held in May. Nevermind about the 18-stage edition of the Coor’s Classic held in 1986 which was won by Bernard Hinault and was held in … August, though obviously not running from August 22-28.
We don’t know a lot about the Quizno’s Pro Challenge just yet. Aside from seven stages encompassing 600 miles of racing, we’ve been told it will feature a prologue and one individual time trial plus several mountainous stages, and just one stage suited to sprinters.
If the 2011 Giro d’Italia is any indication, stage race organizers may be starting to think about what makes for exciting racing to the viewing public. Mountain racing is exciting, whether you are watching in person or on TV. And whether you’re at the top of the climb or 5km from the top, it’s still exciting to watch. Contrast that with watching a crit two corners from the finish. Yes, watching a pack fly by at 36 mph is pretty cool, but you almost never have the feeling that you’ve watched a win in the happening. Worse, watching a crit on TV is rarely as good as a trailer-park fight on an episode of COPS.
The chance to watch 120 PROs tackle the mountains of Colorado is a siren call to any roadie. As sure bets go, it seems likely that some folks who would have traveled to see the Amgen Tour of California will, instead, head to Denver to take in some stages of this new race.
And that, dear friends, begs the question: What gets you out to watch bike racing? Have you ever built a vacation around going to watch a bike race, be it the Tour de France, the Amgen Tour of California or the Hell of the North? Further, to the degree that you would consider attending either the Amgen or Quizno’s races, which would you go to … and why?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last week cycling lost yet another home to the peloton. The Tour of Missouri which had quickly risen in the continental ranks as second only to the Tour of California, was found beaten to death this past week, pummeled by some dirty politics and back room dealings. Word on the street unfortunately has it that there are either links to the mafia or a sheep-lovers cult and the murder rises to that of a crime of the highest order. Tour organizers found the lifeless body of the Tour of Missouri outside the steps of the hill on the capitol steps, just west of the Governor’s mansion and immediately put her on life support. Diligent efforts were made to save her life, but after courageous efforts, she passed this past week on May 27.
After a seven-month negotiation with State Tourism, which included a bi-partisan state senate and house approval of $1 million in support for the Tour of Missouri sponsorship, the United States’ second biggest professional cycling event and one of the top stage races outside of Europe, will be officially cancelled should earmarked funds not be released by Tourism and the Governor, according to the board of directors of Tour of Missouri, Inc.
“This may be a win for the Missouri Tourism Commission and the Governor, but a huge loss for the state of Missouri and its citizens,” said Mike Weiss, chairman of the Tour of Missouri, Inc. “It has been an insanely complicated battle for something so beneficial, and it’s left all of us absolutely baffled.
—Tour of Missouri press release May 27, 2010
So, OK, I’m indeed bitter, pissed and sarcastic here. It seems like yet another continental racing effort that just seems to come and go. The sad reality is I can go on with a list of them that I have came to love, like loved ones in my family. The Tour DuPont, Coors Classic, Red Zinger, Tour of Georgia, and now the Tour of Missouri. What does it take to develop a race w/tradition and a heritage that is set in stone?
Can we blame the opposition? As cyclists, we sometimes are not even unified ourselves in something we love. Some work and negotiate to make these races happen. Sometimes it may mean negotiating and developing what appears to be odd relationships. However, working with others to gain support that is more in our interest than theirs is to our benefit, i.e. Amgen and the Tour of California. Despite these benefits however, there are those who despise the corporate support of our racing ventures and cannot understand why we have such odd relationships. Others are indifferent and do nothing in support nor otherwise.
The sad reality is that it takes money and a lot of it in order to support races and events of this magnitude. Private sponsorships, mutual relationships and negotiations have got to be delicately balanced in order for us to have and enjoy something so central to us, that of big cycling events and races.
So our opposition uses this against us. They exploit this weakness and use it as an advantage. They use those who say nothing and point to them as examples that ‘most don’t really care’. The vocal opponents would rather see money used elsewhere.
The key is this: I hope for our sakes that we can unify our divergent ideas, respect our differences and recognize the single thing we have in common. The bike. Sure, we can have interesting discussions like we have here at RKP, we can even heat it up at times, we can correct one another, challenge one another, but when it comes to the outside circles that we congregate ourselves we should represent cycling well and always help it become elevated to the ranks it deserves.
As far as the Tour of Missouri goes, rest in peace my friend, it was a great ride wasn’t it?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Since my post on Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo, there have been a number of comments about how the timed century isn’t a new concept, how centuries used to be timed routinely, how one organizer is doing them even now.
New or not, the gran fondo—or cyclosportif or whatever you want to call it—gets something right that the vast majority of organized events just don’t register. As long as we deride this new wave of rides (and yes, they are coming but more on that later) for claiming to offer something old as something new, we miss the real value they offer the cycling community.
The value of a gran fondo can’t be summed up with any one detail. The timed aspect is important, yes. Timing the event gives riders a clear sense of how they stacked up against one another. Knowing the event is timed puts all entrants on notice that the event is worthy of their A game, even if there is no prize at the finish.
A corollary to that is the mass start, though. Allowing riders to start what can essentially be a five- to eight-hour time trial whenever they are ready is a little weak. The starter’s pistol recalls sporting events for more than a hundred years in dozens of sports. It brings Hitchcockian drama with it as each competitor anticipates the crack and its fuel-injected adrenal burst. Seeing other entrants wait anxiously for the start helps build a sense of camaraderie lacking in the average century; after all, the people who roll into the finish of the century with you might have started a half hour after you did, or two hours before you did. Who knows?
The course is equally important as these other factors, though. If you want more than a couple hundred people to show up for an event, you need to serve up something more than a flat, four-corner, industrial-park crit. Hell, stick a hill in it; that still won’t make it special.
As much as I love racing, when I stopped racing I did so for two reasons: First was that my work demanded too much time each week to get in the miles I needed to be as fast as I had been. Second was the fact that I was simply fed up with doing crits. I raced crits simply to be fast enough for the road races, of which I generally only did maybe six each year, strictly for lack of opportunity. At some point all those flat, four-corner crits began to run together and I began to realize that I was missing some of my group rides and the friends I’d see on them. Never mind the fact that some of the guys I loved riding with raced different categories, so even if we were both at the race, we weren’t on the course at the same time.
The course for a gran fondo is meant to be memorable, if not downright epic, by comparison. I continue to ride centuries, and have done a number of remarkable ones in the last three years and I can say each one of them would have been more fun, gone more quickly and given more people a greater sense of accomplishment if they had featured timing with a mass start. Following the self-selection of the first climb everyone can find a group with which to ride.
Unless you have the incredible fortune to live in the promised land (France, Italy, Belgium, Spain or The Netherlands), there’s a good chance that cycling where you live doesn’t get the respect that you think it deserves. Forgetting for a moment the hostility one can experience on the roads, the larger issue is just how sexy bicycle racing appears to non-cyclists. The sexiness of cycling seems to grow in direct proportion to the size of the races in that area.
While I’ve encountered rude drivers in both France and Italy, easily the kindest, most considerate drivers I’ve encountered were in those two countries. Some of them made me enjoy having cars in close proximity. It was rather like swimming with whales.
It’s my personal opinion that every time an industrial park crit is held, not as a mid-week training race, but as a weekend, main-event, $25-entry, upgrade-points-verified-here race, the organizer has just done the sport of bike racing an incredible disservice. The problem isn’t that those races give non-cyclists the idea that cycling deserves to be confined to back roads; it doesn’t actually do that. Most average folks aren’t aware those bike races even happen, so what it does is help make bicycle racing invisible.
I chalk up those races to laziness. Yes, it’s hard to find sponsors and it’s hard to recruit volunteers and it’s hard to get a town to approve a course and the bigger the event, the more time it takes to organize, but once you analyze the impact an industrial park crit has, I’m not so sure that a tiny race is better than no race at all.
Those events provide one thing only: An opportunity for racers to get their fix. You don’t see many wives or girlfriends out there and certainly the town doesn’t come out to greet the winner. And they do nothing to inspire new generations of cyclists the way the Tour does for thousands of children each year or the way the Coors Classic did for many notable American PROs during its heyday.
When you send a mass of cyclists down a town’s main drag, you make the cyclists feel special and cycling cool to everyone who isn’t on a bike.
Of course, there’s always the proof of the über geek—the objective correlative. Sure, you may get some fields to fill in a criterium, especially if there is no other racing nearby that weekend, but a good turnout for a bike race in the United States is usually on the order of 700 racers. Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo filled. It sold out all 3500 spots. Santa Rosa loves it some cycling.
Bottom line: Timing isn’t the key. The course isn’t the key. A big star isn’t the key. Mass-start isn’t the key. Big sponsorship isn’t the key. But they are all important. Give riders something memorable and non-cyclists will remember it too. And that will do more to strengthen the cycling community and cycling’s place in the mainstream than all the advocacy organizations combined.
Rather than beat around the bush and try to build a case for why I think Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo was incredible, I’ll just tell you straight out: This was the prettiest organized ride I’ve done in the United States.
I’ve done organized rides all over the country. My barometer for beauty demands one basic feature—elevation change. Without it, you don’t get many thrilling vistas. As a result, most of my top 10 prettiest events are held in California.
Previously, my top three were the Tour of the Unknown Coast in Humboldt County, the Tour of the California Alps (also known as the Markleeville Death Ride) outside of Lake Tahoe, and the Mulholland Challenge in Malibu, in that order. They’ve been bumped down a notch now.
More than 20 years ago, the increasingly ambitious Coor’s Classic expanded to California. One of the roads it used was King Ridge Road in western Sonoma County. It’s a road that has been consistently cited as one of California’s gems, but talk of Sonoma County cycling usually fails to mention just how challenging the road is.
King Ridge Road may have been the crown jewel in a stunning ride, but it was only one road. The descent into Jenner was the most beautiful seaside descent I’ve done.
I had a succession of flats that day (something I’ll address in another post) and so any hope I had of turning a fast time got dashed. As a result, I gave myself permission to stop for photos from time to time, rather than just shooting from the saddle.
With 3500 riders on the road at once, there were riders in view at all times, and despite getting in to the last two rest stops on the later side, they were still well stocked. Nearly as impressive as the ride itself was the number of volunteers who turned out to help. Police manned each and every intersection, ensuring everyone turned the correct direction and allowing safe passage to the riders free of traffic.
The concept of a timed century has been slow to catch on in the United States, despite its incredible popularity in Europe. Its time has come. If Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo is any indication, racers are beginning to see the value in a timed century as opposed to yet another industrial park crit.
This is one ride I’ll definitely be back for.