JP: When you look at the domestic peloton these days, what do you think about the health of the sponsorship scene?
TS: Overall, cycling is healthy. Not racing, but cycling. The numbers are there for commuters, riders, racers. It’s an aging demographic, but it works for lots of people. Most cyclists have no interest in racing. You don’t need to be in racing to be a supporter of cycling.
An advertiser can use a bike in their marketing without sponsoring racing. Racing leads to another layer of cycling which leads to people riding bikes. Making bike racing a little more user friendly or making people more aware of it and why it’s an interesting activity.
So cycling itself is very healthy. Especially in our cities where it’s used more and more as a tool. Bike racing, the sponsorship, ebbs and flows, like car racing. Is racing necessary? It goes back to human nature.
I think a lot of the sponsorships … It’s expensive to sponsor a national (level) bike team. When you look at the money and measuring the return on investment, that’s the issue. If they could get return of investment at half the cost, it would be a much easier decision. It’s hard to get an American team to get to the level of Tour of California. It’s not an inexpensive activity to be involved in. Cost is a factor.
GoDaddy chooses the Super Bowl, which costs $3 million every 30 seconds. Why that and why not cycling? Car companies want to advertise how tough their trucks are, and the Super Bowl might be an easy decision.
The brand wants to get involved in an activity their customers are involved in. When it’s the non-endemics, why do they need to be in cycling? You have to make that link. Just putting your name on the team and hoping it works is not a good use of your marketing dollars
JP: What about with the international peloton?
TS: In the European peloton, you see a lot more, you can kind of segment, you can see the sponsorship and see the segments or strategy a little clearer. There have only been a few true global brands that do cycling. Is Rabobank a Global Brand? I don’t think so, but they’re primarily a Dutch initiative. Their metrics, and they’re an example where they’re deep in Holland and deep across all cycling activities in Holland. It’s an example of a marketing plan where you see a return on investment.
Liquigas-Cannondale might be a business-to-business deal. I think Lampre, what is Lampre? The French brands have been national brands. There’s been Toshiba, an international brand. Motorola had potential, it was paid out of a variety budgets, but was a national brand. T-Mobile was an international brand. It had a German-American axis, but it was a national brand.
The day when more teams market globally, it will help the stability of the sport. In terms of the teams that have been around for a long time, they still don’t have a reason to go everywhere. I don’t think Liquigas sells in Holland. You have categories of true internationals, nationals, and business-to-business. There are teams based on a business relationship model. Not too many of those coming to mind at the moment. A business-to-business team is one that doesn’t influence consumers so much, but trying to get your dealer base or certain dealers.
JP: How about the now-departed Navigators Cycling Team (which was a pro team from 1995-2007)? Weren’t they a patron?
TS: When Navigators activated, it was business-to-business model. But to their credit, they were always trying to bring customers to entertain, even internationally.
JP: If ROI is important and Highroad had such an impressive ROI, why do you think they couldn’t land a sponsor?
TS: No matter how good your numbers are, and I believe Bob had numbers to back up their sponsorships, the people believing those numbers need to be inside those companies. The team, to be successful, they have to be people in the company, pounding their chests just as hard as the Bob Stapletons and Tom Schulers about how great sponsorship is. If you had that, the sponsorship lasts. You had it at T-Mobile and Saturn.
You can get all kinds of metrics and I wouldn’t doubt that Bob’s ROI were significant, certainly enough to justify continuing or finding a new sponsor. But the people in the company have to be touting those numbers.
He turned around a ship that was taking on a lot of water. He ran a good program, and seemed to, through Cavendish and victories, I would have put him at the top of the heap for providing a return. He’s probably had six different sponsors in there. But again, if it’s just three years, it probably didn’t work as well as they could have for the company.
JP: Do you need to find the “champions” of cycling to sponsor a professional cycling team?
TS: You need to have people inside (the company) to believe in it. It can’t be just one person. It has to be a recognition inside the company of ‘this thing works for us.’ You can’t tap someone on the head and say ‘now you’re a believer.’
We had brand managers at Saturn come and go all the time. A new person may come in and want to look at different metrics. They’re skeptical, but they look in the field and look around. I can understand how someone who inherited a cycling team comes in not being a believer. Cycling teams are multi-dimensional in terms of what they can offer a company.
JP: When people discuss what seems to be worse and worse news for top-level teams, two concerns are repeated, one is the state of the global economy, the second is drugs in the sport. Do you think these things are scaring away sponsors or limiting what is happening?
TS: The global economy in general, the general trepidation of people to spend money and make those decisions. As tenuous as cycling sponsorship is, we’ve had the same go/no go decision rate in both good times and bad. You can say banks aren’t loaning money now, but I can’t say people aren’t considering cycling now. UHC (UnitedHealthCare) is a good contra indicator.
And drugs, I think we’re kind of, I think Stapleton alluded to it. It could be a country-by-country basis; it might not be as significant. In Germany, it could. Over there, at least, there are some pretty strong metrics in place to measure. But when you lose television coverage of your biggest event. So Bob’s comments are directed at the German market as much as anything. Has doping impacted the sponsorship we’ve gotten in America? I don’t think so. Vaughters program is working on moving out of that era, as was Stapleton’s. Wherever there’s a disaster, there’s an opportunity, too. Net-net, I’m not sure. I have to believe what Bob says when he says it has been an impact.
The public doesn’t seem to like The Cobra (Riccardo Ricco). But David Millar, guys like him are still heroes. I think at the end of the day, everyone feels that if it was my kid and that was the circumstances, I could understand it.
As cyclists, we might be bigger conspiracy theorists, and more skeptical. I agree that corporate America doesn’t care as much.
JP: What do you think teams should be doing to improve their chances to land a good sponsor?
TS: I think it’s incumbent on all the team managers to make that sponsorship as valuable to sponsors, and that’s how they can help ensure longevity. Pure impressions is one thing. If it leads to more traffic to the store, more purchases, and it’s incumbent on the managers to make things work and that will go a way to increasing the longevity of the sponsorship.
I ache for Thomas Voeckler. I ache for Andy Schleck. I ache for the end of the Tour de France.
In a tweet today David Millar wrote that as he rode in his car back to the hotel they approached a rider in Europcar kit; they slowed and Millar turned to lock eyes with a “tired and broken” Voeckler, adding, “Tragic doesn’t come close to describe.”
The cynical among us will gouge Voeckler for hubris, for dreaming the impossible. To do so is to inject cyanide into the very notion of ambition. That he discovered immortality seemingly within his grasp and dared reach for it is to be human. I admire that he maintained humility enough to insist that he would lose the race even as it was obvious he’d mortgage his home for an extra 20 watts.
That he rode the finest time trial of his life today is, perhaps the greatest honor he could bestow on himself and the race; yes, he honored the Tour de France today with his ride. It was his greatest ride because it showed his real character. Unlike so many riders who slink to the back of the field to nurse their destroyed legs once a win slips from grasp, Voeckler did the unthinkable. He continued to ride like a contender, even when it would no longer reward him. How else do you tell the world you’ve come to believe, not just in yourself, but even that you’re a part of what may be a new cycling?
That again. Yes, I do believe that his performance says that the peloton is cleaner. Kolobnev and his new honorific aside—don’t get me started—what I hope, what I’d like to think is that for the riders who may really achieve something noteworthy, maybe they’ve gotten the message that those of us who actually care about the sport want them to do it without the drugs. Voeckler has, for my money, delivered the defining ride of this year’s Tour de France. I’ll always remember 2011 for Cadel Evans’ victory, but I hope that the years don’t fade Voeckler’s ride in yellow for me. For each of us who ever dared dream, his days in yellow and his ride today testify to what we may find within reach.
Next year, he’ll arrive with the bit between his teeth. For that, I can’t wait.
If you’d asked me yesterday how I’d feel once Evans accomplished what most of us thought was an essentially foregone conclusion, I’d have told you I’d be happy for him. He rode with confidence and authority. Who knows if the tactical genius that caused him to conserve when possible and burn any time he needed to deliver was his or his director’s. It hardly matters. His yellow jersey is our res ipsa loquitur.
What surprises me is how I view the remarkable reversal of fortune Andy Schleck has suffered. Second. Again. The comparisons to Raymond Poulidor are unavoidable now. Even if he does win someday, his record will be compared to every great rider who failed more than he succeeded. Unless, of course, this is the last of his non-wins for a while.
And while I do think he’s likely to win at some point, I’ll tell you now, unless Contador makes the same mistake again next year (if you can call victory in the Giro a mistake—and I know that’s a real stretch), the Spaniard will arrive at the start with a thirst for blood that even Eric Northman would admire. I don’t plan to bet against him.
I’ve been rough on Contador in the past. Let me say this: His ride will be a more enduring feature of this year’s race than Fränk Schleck’s was. He rode with determination and pride, even after he knew he couldn’t win. He never capitulated, and in that regard, he and Voeckler have something in common.
It’s fair to wonder if Contador will be at next year’s Tour, depending how the CAS proceeding goes. Its postponement has turned his case into a goat parade: something so stupidly slow and pointless that no one can bear to watch. Should the case against him be upheld and a suspension imposed, I say let it stand for time served. Re-writing this year’s Tour de France will be as distasteful as a shot of straight alcohol. Isopropyl, that is.
Whatever he may or may not have done last year was last year, if he doesn’t test positive this year, then let the clean result stand.
Back to Schleck the younger: I think I have some sense of his pain. The buildup to him taking the maillot jaune off Voeckler was so slow and yet seemingly assured as to be steamroller inevitable. To see him stripped of it only 24 hours later was a change in tempo that would rattle any audience. I wonder just how comfortable he allowed himself to get in that jersey. Did he sleep in it last night just so he could have it against his body for as long as possible? We can’t fault him for hoping; Voeckler taught that master class. Still, no one can be surprised by this outcome and there surely is pain in that for Schleck.
Tomorrow the Tour de France ends, and that is my biggest ache of all. For me, the end of the Tour is nearly the end of summer itself. Monday has the crushing letdown that December 26 did when I was a child. Perhaps this is what a heroin or coke addict feels when they crash. That first post-Tour ride bears an emptiness in the air. It’s as if summer itself has gone stale. I buck up after a few days, but it’s been this way for me since ’86.
Finally, cycling isn’t really known for tracking its own statistics particularly well. We roll blindly into each new season, often without any clue as to what the past tells us about it. A fair chunk of my work for peloton magazine has looked at the sport’s history and what it tells us about some of our greatest racers and races. While I think numbers can be manipulated for nefarious purposes with greased ease (just consider gasoline), the Tour has something to say about Evans’ looming win. Tomorrow afternoon, the Aussie will become—at age 34—the oldest first-time winner of the Tour de France in the modern age.
What I think this tells us is that as racers have become more disciplined about all aspects of their training, from diet to rest to number of days raced, they are extending their careers. This shouldn’t surprise us; crashes notwithstanding, this is how guys like Jens Voigt and Chris Horner remain useful—scratch that, strong—with their 40th birthday around the corner.
There may be hope for us all.
Vive le Tour.
Image: Chris Wallis, Photosport International
When I was 10 or 12, my mother assembled a synergy of coupons so powerful that our local supermarket paid her nearly a buck to take home two 4-lb. jars of grape jelly. For the next two years every time I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich it was accompanied by grape jelly.
As an adult, I still eat PB&J, but in my refrigerator you’ll find preserves of strawberry, raspberry, blackberry and sometimes, even cherry. I have never purchased grape jelly.
The only thing in the world I’m as sick of as grape jelly is news of doping, so I’m going to try to keep this brief, but I need to address some recent quotes by David Millar.
I think Millar is a stand-up guy. He’s got my respect. When caught, he manned up and took his lumps. He seems to have a much less materialistic and more mature and empathetic life post-suspension. I dig that.
He speaks out about doping issues and particular dopers. I double dig that.
However, he was quoted in the Telegraphe regarding Alberto Contador’s performance at the Giro, saying things that simply don’t make sense. So nonsensical they are that I honestly have been wondering if he has some odd, covert agenda in mind. If true, it’d wreck my opinion of him. For good.
And let me hasten to add, this really has very little to do with Contador. Any rider who delivers a performance such as he did at the Giro and looks that fresh standing on the podium (does anyone recall how wasted LeMond always looked on the podium at the Tour?) shouldn’t expect to escape suspicion.
Here’s what Millar told the Telegraphe:
“Alberto Contador is untouchable as rider, he is a physical freak and we in the peloton have known that for a long time and respect his supreme talent. I would be very surprised if he didn’t end up as the greatest Grand Tour rider in the history of the sport. It’s a tragedy that he has got mixed up in this Clenbuterol thing but I am keeping an open mind on his case.”
“Does anybody out there seriously doubt that Contador was riding clean in the Giro d’Italia that has just finished? You don’t win the biggest races in the world with such clockwork regularity and comparative ease, and in such style, by not being the supreme talent and clean. In my experience the profile of a doper is always much more erratic and unpredictable.”
“The rest of us mere mortals have “magic days” when every so often when we can take on the world. Contador’s default setting is a “Magic day”. His only departure from the norm is when he experiences merely an average day. They are the only two levels he rides at. My strong instinct is to trust that.”
Let’s do this like a geometry problem and lay out our givens:
1) Oxygen vector drugs speed recovery and all but eliminate bad days.
2) Anabolic agents such as testosterone also speed recovery. Faster recovery = fewer bad days.
3) Gianni Bugno led the 1990 Giro start-to-finish. A strong case can be made that this was the first Grand Tour win courtesy of EPO. Pink from start to finish indicates no bad days.
4) If we assume that the various allegations against Armstrong are true, seven victories at the Tour suggest he had no bad days (except for a couple of bonks).
5) Before the age of oxygen vector doping we frequently saw riders deliver a spectacular day at a Grand Tour and follow it up with a stunning fold.
Millar has expressed doubts about Ivan Basso’s 2006 Giro d’Italia win, where he finished more than nine minutes ahead of Jose Enrique Gutiérrez. Is he suggesting that nine minutes is superhuman, but six minutes (Contador’s margin of victory) is merely mortal?
Everything we know about human physiology says that even when you’re at peak form you can’t ride around at threshold for six hours a day for three weeks. Everything we know from our own lives tells us we have bad days, even when we’re not on the bike. Bad days are a normal part of life.
It is within human nature to want to be our best on every ride. We often ride like we believe it’s possible. It’s a hell of a statement of hope. I like that. However, if someone tells you that a rider’s default setting is magic, get out your shovel. That’s not mud around your ankles.
Well it’s been one of those weekends. First, a note on RKP. The site was infected with some malware that not only took the site down for hours that felt like days, but left behind numerous other files that took hours more to delete, even once the site was fully back online. How the attack occurred is still unknown; security was seemingly tip-top and all software was up to date. Guess it was bound to happen sometime. All I can say is that Mexican drug lords are too good a fate for the people who dream this stuff up. Thanks for your patience and notes of concern.
Meanwhile, the Tour of Italy was busy touring … the Netherlands. I get how the Tour de France starts outside of France every other year. Starting in Germany or Switzerland and riding into France lends the race an elegant international feel, and everyone—even non-cyclists—gets the sense of journey that comes with finishing a ride or race in a different nation. But starting three countries away? As a sense of story goes, it’s absurd. As race planning goes, it’s even worse, as evidenced by today’s rest day, which has been selected not for the racers’ recovery—which was the days’ original purpose—but rather for a transfer that risked being derailed a volcano. You can’t dream this stuff up.
In the prologue, there was a lot of love for David Millar and fellow Brit, Bradley Wiggins. The only surprise in the day’s results was the lack of surprise that came with Wiggo’s victory. It’s funny how our perception of the import of a great ride differs when the victor is someone vying for overall victory (which we chalk up as confirmation of form) versus a bit player such as Brent Bookwalter (where we hope he has just pulled one out of his hindquarters and not a more sinister indication that something is rotten in proverbial Denmark).
And in three days of racing we’ve had three different riders wear the maglia rosa. No surprise in that, but there’s a lot of surprise in seeing three of the race’s favorites—Wiggins, Cadel Evans and Alexander Vinokourov—trade the pink jersey like baseball cards.
That Wiggins, Evans and Vinokourov have all worn the leader’s jersey and not some sprinter interlopers is highly unusual. I can’t recall a Grand Tour that has unfolded this way in … ever. It speaks to just how aware this year’s favorites are that they must remain attentive and up front, just in case.
Seemingly, another character in this year’s Giro is the crashes. Amateur criteriums don’t feature this many crashes per day. Crashes have ended the hopes for Christian Vande Velde as well as Wiggins. And while Wiggins isn’t out of the race, his 4:26 deficit in a race with this much climbing means he’s unlikely to do more than take a stage win.
Of course, the majority of you who weighed in are looking for Carlos Sastre to take the overall victory. He’s a rider with a great deal of class and a willingness to attack. But will that be enough? True, his climbing talent makes him suited for this course, but we can’t forget that his Tour de France win came less due to his aggression than due to tactics that saw him ride away while Evans marked teammate Andy Schleck. If he can play riders against each other to his advantage once again, he could be formidable, just like that damn malware.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
We’re featuring another tag-team pair of posts regarding doping and our views on how well sanctions are working … and what might be done to improve the situation. What follows is my post. You can find Robot’s post here.—Padraig
For reasons I can’t explain, doping has yet to kill my enthusiasm for professional bike racing. My knowledge of what takes place in private has changed my view of the sport and injected a frustration into what would otherwise be a pursuit devoid of downside. Even so, I continue to watch.
And while I temper my tongue, I admit that because I’m a connect-the-dots sort, whenever anyone crosses the line first, there’s a moment, a moment I try to reduce to something even shorter than an eye blink, but a moment I can’t wipe away. I wonder if the winner is clean.
There are people in cycling who have, following various positive tests, claimed that cycling is winning the war on doping. People in high places, such as the ASO and UCI. If by winning they mean more positive tests, well then yes, we seem to be leading the race by 10 seconds with 40k to go.
How anyone ever had the epiphany that we should declare wars on concepts such as doping, facism or terror, I’ll never know. Weirder still is the fact that too few intelligent people have observed an undeniable truth: You can’t stamp out an idea, no matter how good or bad it is.
The underlying practice of doping—the desire to gain a competitive edge over one’s rivals by any means necessary set down roots in the very nature of survival. At its most elemental, the desire to win is the very desire to live. It wasn’t so many years ago that our ancestors were competing for food and shelter on a literal basis. Today, we’re competing with SATs, GPAs, income and Fortune Magazine rankings. It still comes down to a fight for resources.
That some athletes will go to whatever length is necessary to cross the line first should not surprise us. There’s a dark side to the human condition that emboldens some people to ignore rules that society has agreed to obey. These days, most everyone can find ready examples at hand in Wall Street and oil companies.
In 1982 a researcher named Bob Goldman began asking elite athletes a question. Would they take a drug that would guarantee them an Olympic gold medal but would also result in their death within five years?More than half the athletes surveyed responded yes, they would take the drug. From 1982 to 1995 Goldman continued to survey elite athletes and the survey bore the same result each time—more than half the athletes said they would take the drug.
The question became known as the Goldman Dilemma.
Recently, a group of researchers decided to pose the Goldman Dilemma to a population of non-athletes. Some 250 people were asked the question. Only two responded that they would take the drug. That’s less than one percent of the respondents.
The British Journal of Medicine published the paper last year. One of the study’s authors, James Connor, Ph.D., summed up the findings thusly: “We were surprised. I expected 10-20 percent yes.”
His big conclusion? That “elite athletes are different from the general population, especially on desire to win.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious.
In reading the study, which was drier than sandstone, I drew two conclusions of my own. First, that doping isn’t going to go away. Ever. The drive to achieve fame, power and glory is too strong with some athletes to simply leave the result to chance. No length is too great for those athletes; stacked deck doesn’t begin to describe the lengths some would go to ensure a win. If you are willing to die prematurely to get a gold medal at the Olympics, then ordinary doping isn’t much of a threshold to cross.
The second conclusion I drew is that this population is very, very small. If the 250 respondents are representative of society, then less than one percent of the population will show this predilection. Unfortunately, I expect that sports will draw these people to an unusual degree. But here’s where nature steps in: No amount of drive can overcome a lack of talent. Not everyone who has the drive to achieve gold will also have the requisite talent necessary to reach the elite ranks of a given sport.
Without spending too much (any) time with the statistics regarding these slices of population, I suspect that less than five percent of all the cyclists with enough talent to make it to the pro ranks will also have the amoral inclination to take any drug necessary to guarantee a win.
In his book “From Lance to Landis,” cycling journalist David Walsh divided pro cyclists into two camps, the “draggers”—those who tended to initiate doping as a means to win, and the “dragged”—those riders who were essentially coerced into doping as a means to survive.
That less than five percent are your draggers, not the dragged. Get rid of them and you can have a reasonable hope for a clean sport.
A few years ago I wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times in the wake of Bjarne Riis’ confession that he used EPO on his way to winning the 1996 Tour de France. Getting the LA Times editorial page interested in cycling is as difficult as getting a vegan interested in steak tartare. And yet somehow, they thought my idea—a truth and reconciliation commission a la South Africa to get at doping practices and doctors—had enough merit to warrant their attention.
The piece made it its way to the powers that be at the UCI.
I barely had space enough to get the idea out before I had to close the piece. It amounted to a political campaign ad—great idea with few details. It’s worth spelling out the finer points of my suggestion. Even if the UCI is as likely to listen to me now as they did in 2007.
The idea is simple. It is based on an invitation: Come tell us what you know. Tell us what you’ve done, and tell us anything you have seen with your own eyes. Give everyone until the end of 2010 to fess up with anything on their conscience. Add a little caveat: if you test positive after December 31, 2010, you will be banned from the sport for life.
For those who confess, they will be granted immunity for all past misdeeds. You did blow on a stripper’s ass in Geneva? No worries. You won a stage of the 2009 Tour de France hopped up on growth hormone and pig’s blood? Your win stays in the record books.
However, for the confession to count, you have to tell everything you know to the tribunal on the spot. You can’t hold monthly press conferences and tease out details like kite string in a weak wind as Bernard Kohl did with the German media.
What’s more, I’d add yet another incentive. For every rider who tested positive sometime in the past, if they didn’t tell the full story and divulge everything they knew, were they to confess their full knowledge, they could get their salary reinstated for the term of the previous suspension. Back pay.
If the UCI pursued such a course of action, here’s what I think would happen: All the riders of the ilk of David Millar and Tyler Hamilton—guys who undoubtedly doped, but would be counted among Walsh’s dragged—would fess up before Thanksgiving. A few guys would weigh the odds and confess by Christmas. And there would be at least one bombshell as everyone was about to pop New Year’s Eve bubbly.
After that, each doctor implicated by a rider could confess his part and agree to cooperate with the UCI and WADA or face losing his medical license.
But the guys we would most like to catch, the ones who ultimately coerce the rest of the peloton—either implicitly by being faster or explicitly by telling them they need to step up and deliver for the team—won’t say a word.
Would we hear from Vinokourov, from Basso, from Ricco? Don’t hold your breath. Would Ullrich speak up if he knew the truth could restore some of his tarnished reputation?
So could this be a one-time house-cleaning? Not likely. It is something the UCI would almost certainly have to bring back at irregular intervals (say three to five years depending on how fast the racing is) just to find out what the latest bunch of doctors have cooked up. In nabbing the doctors there would be a reasonable hope of plowing that field under for a few seasons.
If we are lucky, years from now we will remember Bjarne Riis as a heroic figure not for his incredible talent for managing a team of talented riders and encouraging them to work together, nor for his Tour de France win. If we are lucky, he will be remembered as a hero, the first rider to have the courage to stand up and tell the truth without first being caught.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.
Robot has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Linger. Fester. Spread. Grow.
When you think about the words that are used in conjunction with the noun suspicion they are words used to apply action to sores, smells and cancers. And like a cancer, suspicion can spread in directions surprising and predictable at equal rates.
Alexander Vinokourov’s win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us examples of both. That suspicions linger about what sort of rider he is—that is, how he achieves his success—should surprise no one. What may have surprised you was to hear boos from the crowd as he crossed the line. No matter who’s feed you watched, the crowd’s disapproval was audible.
Was Vinokourov naive to be shocked? No. It was a crowd display that is unprecedented and stands in direct opposition to Richard Virenque’s win in Paris-Tours just months after his return to competition following his suspension for doping. The two situations couldn’t be more similar and yet, the crowd reactions couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
Virenque was hailed by the crowd as if he was a returning war hero. He was lionized in the (French) press as a true champion. He was still and again Richard the Lionhearted, the darling of France.
Vino? Not so much.
To be booed must have hurt. How could it not? That’s got to be defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. And then to be questioned by the press as much about his past vis-a-vis doping as the circumstances that led to his win was obviously infuriating, so much so that he took the unusual step of writing an open letter to the cycling world. You’ve probably seen it, but if not, you can read it here.
Vinokourov asks a fair question: Why can he line up for a race, but not win it? Indeed, the boos took the sweetness of victory from him more certainly than the UCI ever could. Why roll across the line first if you won’t be granted the crowd’s adulation?
Many writers have contrasted Vinokourov with David Millar and wondered why we accept the Scot, but not the Kazakh. It’s a fair comparison and could serve as a very teachable moment for Vinokourov.
So Millar’s apartment in Biarritz is raided by police and they find a syringe with traces of EPO. Millar responds by confessing. He told us not only that he had used EPO, he told authorities exactly how long he had used the drug and how using it weighed on him.
As doping confessions in cycling go, it’s the single best example out there.
Richard Virenque denied, denied, denied and then confessed—tearily—in court at the sharp end of a prosecutor. It worked for the French but anyone without a Gallic soul was left adrift by it.
Bernard Kohl conducted interviews on a monthly basis with German media, teasing out details of his past and his knowledge of doping in what seemed to be a calculated effort to keep his name in the headlines. In the end, it seemed self-serving.
Kayle Leogrande confessed in confidence to soigneur Susanne Sonye and after she testified about what he told her he sued her. That suit was ruled a SLAP and tossed out of court, but not until another cyclist, lawyer Tom Fitzgibbon, came to her rescue. Leogrande? Persona non grata to the cycling world.
Four confessions. Four very different results.
Vinkourov has confessed virtually nothing. We remain suspicious. We suspect much about his past. And because he has done things recently—such as train in Tenerife (the current haunt of doping docs Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes), a place nearly as out-of-the-way as Mexico when considered from the Continent—that smack of present doping practices, we suspect there is more to the story.
In his letter he refers to “the dark years of my career.”
Imagine that on the evening Vinokourov was ejected from the Tour in 2007 he had given a press conference. And suppose that during the press conference he had said, “Yes, I used a clinic in (insert name of German town here) to conduct blood doping. Earlier, when I was at T-Mobile, we used EPO and our system was organized by (insert name of dirtbag here). My first drug use was in 199x and that season I won X, Y and Z with its help.
We wouldn’t like the news, but at least we’d know. His suspension, in the wake of a confession could serve as a sort of penance for all of his past doping.
Vinokourov was suspended for a single infraction—not years of drug use—and to this day has confessed nothing directly. He says, “I don’t think cycling needs to reconsider all these dirty stories to move forward.”
Wrong. Worse yet, he adds, “I have nothing to hide.”
Again, he has confessed nothing, though he has referred obliquely to years of drug use, so it is impossible for this one suspension to serve as penance for years of standard practice. He is still hiding much.
Let’s consider how the courts would view this. For pleading guilty and confessing the full extent of the crime(s), a person is almost always rewarded with a reduced sentence. And then there’s the plea bargain, in which the criminal signs a full and complete confession and in exchange is charged with a lesser crime. Very often, it’s a trade to avoid being convicted of a felony. In the United States, the punishment for a felony conviction lasts long after any prison time has been served and any fine paid. The felon cannot vote and will forever have ‘splaining to do in job interviews.
It would seem that Vinokourov is suffering the sort of moral equivalent to a felony conviction. He won the race, but not in the hearts of many present.
In closing his letter he writes, “I can’t do more than what the sport regulations ask me, to prove my honesty. Today, I only wish to be respected as I respect everyone, my colleagues in the peloton as the journalists. I don’t want to be the only and too easy target for all the ills of cycling.”
In this, he misses the point entirely. He has never proven his honesty. Sure, he’s testing clean now, and while we should applaud him for that much, because we don’t know the full extent of his past, we struggle to trust him in the present.
And is he the “only and too easy target”? Not by a long shot. Now would be exactly the wrong moment for him to play the persecution card.
Vino, you have nothing in common with Job.
Let us hear him say, “I did X. I was wrong. I am sorry,” and that, sports fans, truly is a game changer.
Were Vinokourov to hold a press conference on the eve of the Giro d’Italia and finally confess everything he did and knew, I truly believe he could win the prologue the next day and be applauded.
His career is a matter of reputation, something only he can restore.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Monuments—capital M—are supposed to be more than just bike races. They are the kings of the Spring Classics, races that transcend the riders who contest them. They are the days that we hope for mythic battles, crucibles that illustrate the constants of the universe, like how you never show your hand before the call.
Done right, the Monuments pit the very finest riders of the peloton against one another in a battle that kills off all the pretenders before the plus-size gal hits the stage. Occasionally, an interloper steals the show, and while that may seem to spoil the fun, it’s the grape seed that gives the wine its body.
Witness Jacky Durand’s victory at Flanders in 1992. His early escape was the mandatory suicide break meant to get Castorama some TV time, no more. Somehow, the plucky Frenchman stuck the break and rolled to the finish screaming, “Je gagne! Je gagne!” (I won! I won!) in one of the great displays of utter disbelief.
It is just such a win by Durand that made the 2010 Ronde Van Vlaanderen one for the ages. On the one hand we had two-time victor Tom Boonen coming off a very fine second place at Milan-San Remo and showing a renewed focus to his craft. On the other was the man who seems to be ticking off world-beating accomplishments like a grocery list: World Championship (2), check. Olympic Gold Medal, check. Paris-Roubaix, check. Milan-San Remo, check. Next up: the Tour of Flanders.
Fabian Cancellara came into the race declaring that if he won only a single race this year, he wanted Flanders. Those who witnessed Cancellara’s stage 3 victory in the 2007 Tour de France or his stunning descent to catch the breakaway in the Olympic road race that led to his bronze medal are familiar with the will power of the man they call Spartacus.
This one was the quintessential battle—McLaren vs. Ferrari. Say what you want about Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar, Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert, even the unexpected performance of Bjorn Leukemans of Vacansoleil or the brief shining light of Farrar’s teammate David Millar—they were all pretenders on the day.
We got a number of great comments, but the one that struck me as the most eerily true was Lachlan’s observation that the average group ride more closely mimics Flanders and Roubaix than they do actual amateur races. He’s onto something with that. It explains to a great degree my decision to stop racing, and is yet another insight into why the Gran Fondo experience is increasingly attractive to riders.
I’ve seen a few different numbers bandied about for Cancellara’s two attacks and whether he was turning 550 watts or more than 600 watts isn’t even close to the point. If you were to compare the average amateur racer to a V6 engine, Cancellara was a V12.
My absolute favorite quote on the day came from runner-up Tom Boonen who was nothing but complimentary of Cancellara’s victory and put the winner’s success into perspective by saying, “I was riding 55kph and I wasn’t getting any closer.”
What of our other predictions and hopes? While I thought it a pipe dream that any English-speaking rider might win Flanders, U.S. riders had, arguably, the best day they’ve ever had at Flanders by placing both fifth (Farrar) and sixth (Hincapie). And let’s give Vacansoleil rider Bjorn Leukemans big props for pulling out just the sort of ride that can embarrass the ASO; no one said anything about a Vacansoleil rider even finishing the race, let alone being part of a three-man break that dumped David Millar on the muur. Nice piece of work, that.
As for the other big names: Flecha, Hushovd, Devolder, they just weren’t in the class of Cancellara and Boonen.
So what do these performances do for Roubaix? Well the odds makers have taken note. Maybe Boonen won’t be so quick to say, “When you race me, you race for second.”
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International