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.
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One of my all-time favorite science fiction novels is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It takes a very provocative look at aspects of Western Civilization that are critical to how we function, such as our notion of citizenship and what entitles us to suffrage. Mind you, I don’t read a lot of science fiction because it has so much in common with the banana—when a banana is good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad, it’s terrible and I toss it in the trash with all possible haste.
Forgetting for a moment Paul Verhoeven’s awful film depiction of Heinlein’s meisterwerk, I still marvel at how Heinlein took ordinary characters, some of them certainly not as bright as the author and placed them in extraordinary circumstances to create a futuristic society. It’s the same basic device that creates farce, which is normal people in odd circumstances—think “Gilligan’s Island”—as opposed to comedy, which is funny people in normal circumstances—think “Seinfeld.” Yet, in Heinlein’s hands, we get a fresh take on Western Civilization, complete with its own slang.
Of these, my clear favorite is “on the bounce,” the phrase used by the starship troopers to allude to both how the soldiers move in their powered armor space suits and when they do things, a kind of “on the move” for the 22nd century.
Recently, I’ve taken to paraphrasing the saying into a cycling-specific version: on the drop. It entered my angst-ridden head recently while I was on a climb and because I wasn’t climbing particularly well (the legs had gone into shutdown mode with 2k left to climb) and I was concerned that the boys wouldn’t be waiting for me at the top. I thought to myself, “I’ll get them on the drop.”
Without time to sit around at the top and finish a bottle, eat a bite or two, pull my armwarmers up and take my glasses off my helmet and put them back on my face, I knew I’d have to do them all on the drop. But that was the beauty of the road turning down; with gravity on my side, I had the opportunity to eat and make up ground at the same time.
Sure, you can drink on a climb. You can pull down armwarmers on a climb. Some riders can even sit up, no hands, and take off a vest or jacket. And sure, there are climbs that are so long you’ve got to keep fueling as you move just to keep the bonk at bay, but the question I often ask myself is when the best time is to GSD*.
Racing has taught me there is a simple answer: the best time to do anything that isn’t in and of racing, is on the drop. Even if the opportunity is only slightly downhill, I know I can relax my pedaling a bit and gravity’s finite pull will do the rest and allow me to ditch a vest, pull food from my pockets, empty a bottle or stuff armwarmers into my jersey pockets.
There was a long period when I thought that descending was descending and downhill was too serious a concern to gum it up with something so frivolous as eating. Then I remembered something I saw while in a Mavic neutral vehicle on a mountain stage of the 1996 Tour DuPont.
Near the top of the biggest climb of the day, a Category 1 mafia-style enforcer, Frankie Andreu lost contact with the second group. Over the final kilometer up to the pass, he lost more than 20 seconds; the group was out of sight. Group three wasn’t far behind and that was as much a concern for us in a Taurus wagon as it was for him.
On the drop, Frankie got into a head-over-stem, butt-in-air full tuck, not one of those crazy Marco Pantani rodeo-style tucks. He grabbed his bottle and tipped it into his mouth with his fingertips while resting the heel of his hand against the handlebar. And he dropped down an intestinal stretch of asphalt through turns I thought surely would require brakes.
We were doing 50 mph just to keep up with him. Those turns I thought would require brakes we were drifting through with all four tires grabbing the pavement with the stunned desperation of a child’s hand for the string of a balloon.
At one point, hearing the car engine race and the roar of rubber on asphalt, Frankie sat up and turned around to look at us. (I asked him about it the next morning and he said he was afraid we were going over the cliff.) Then he put his head back down and before the bottom of the descent, he rejoined group two. Might as well have been the stage win I was so impressed.
Joe Parkin told me a story he has since blogged about a bit. After returning to the United States and joining Coors Light, Joe was at a race and his team leader told him he wanted a Coke. He got the Coke from the team car. Easy enough, right?
The rider wanted it in a water bottle.
Joe sat up, opened the Coke, opened the bottle and while descending he poured the Coke into the bottle. Even Joe was impressed with the move.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of doing things on the drop is what it says of your knowledge of the bike and the degree to which you can control it with just your hips if necessary. So much of cycling comes down to trust—trusting our bodies, our fellow riders, traffic and, yes, the bike—and few of us really trust our bike to do what it is most inclined. Once above 15 mph, it wants to stay upright and the imperative of physics only increases with speed.
Yet, for all its beautiful utility, and any tool properly used is beautiful, what I most love isn’t the GSD*, it’s knowing that anything you might need to accomplish during your ride or race you really needn’t stop, that riding can be as seamless as breathing.
*Get shit done
Growing up, I spent several summers in Vermont. For all its difference to west Tennessee, it might as well have been a different country. The local foods were different, the smells were different, the speech patterns and colloquialisms different but most of all, the landscape and climate were utterly foreign.
Family roots kept us returning to central Vermont, placing us in the shadow of the Green Mountains and the Vermont spur of the Appalachian Trail. We hiked sections of the trail and drove to lookouts. However, my favorite outings were our visits to Killington Ski Area, where we would take the Gondola to the top of Killington and view other peaks, the valleys below, distant lakes and forests of other states as they shrank to hazy horizon.
I was just beginning to ride “10-speeds” and saw in the twisting mountain roads fun waiting to be had. On drives I would press my forehead to the passenger window watching each bend and asphalt wrinkle like a kid nose to glass with a toy store’s Christmas toy display.
When I returned to the area in my 20s, Killington had become home to a stage race held over Labor Day Weekend. While the month of August is the seventh inning stretch to the PROs, for American-based amateurs, it is a cooling ember. In many areas of the country the race calendar is dead. But New Englanders know a good thing when they’ve got it. You race through the August heat because the winter is harder than any sprint.
A stage race over the Labor Day Weekend struck me as the proper send-off to the racing season. There were always a few more crits afterward, but Killington was the last big hurrah. And it wasn’t your typical road race/TT/crit stage rage, either. There was an uphill TT prologue followed by two road races, a downtown crit and a final road race. The five days of racing left everyone spent, no matter what category you raced.
The pictures here are from the first time I saw the race, in 1990. Some of my UMASS teammates were racing with their club teams and I loaded up my touring bike and rode the 120-odd miles up from my apartment to stay with them at a ski house near the race. It was the heyday of the 7-Eleven/Coors Light battle and the only real question on anyone’s mind was whether 7-Eleven could dislodge Greg Oravetz from the lead. (No.)
The first time I did the race I packed on the miles in August, inspired by that year’s Tour de France. Racing the closed roads, climbing through spectators cheering us into debt, flying down the serpentine mountain roads, it was better than I had imagined. Much better. It was also significantly harder.
It’s easy to be nostalgic about your childhood or your college days. What I find myself missing are those big climbing days in 90 degree heat, day upon day of abject suffering as I would train for the biggest race of the season. Labor Day is last call at the bar. Each year as I drove home from the race, I could see the first color in the trees and the cool in the air we felt when we stopped for dinner was a shivering portent of things to come.