All the big teams have had their presentations for the 2010 season. The season’s goals have been laid out, some publicly, some not as. So what’s likely to happen?
I got to thinking about what I’d like to happen. There are probably a great many of you who think I’ll be at the prologue of the Tour with sniper rifle trained on Alberto Contador. My equipment will be loaded, to be sure, but only with a 2 gig memory card.
Would it be interesting to see Cav win Milan San-Remo going away from the field? Sure. Would it be amazing to see Tomeke equal Roger DeVlaeminck’s record at Paris-Roubaix? Absolutely. Would it be great to see Contador battle Armstrong and Schleck until the field quit in submission? Truly, it would be riveting.
There’s just one problem. Not one of these outcomes would be surprising. Even those of you who hate Armstrong with the level of detestation ordinarily reserved for the intestinal flu must admit that an Armstrong victory is a possibility, no matter how damnable you think that version of the future might be.
And so, with five hours of me, a bike and an average heartrate lower than the speeds I drove as an irresponsible youth, I thought about the coming season.
Obsessed may be more like it.
I asked myself how I’d feel about Cav winning in San-Remo. Blah. Tomeke enter the velodrome in Roubaix alone? Equal parts thrilled and bored. Contador in yellow in Paris? Less ennui than I felt when Indurain won his third, if pleased to see him equal Thevenet’s and LeMond’s record. What if Armstrong stood atop the podium. Stunned. Plain damn stunned. Can you think of another rider that more teams will be riding against at the Tour? Has there ever been another rider that more teams will have deliberately ridden against? Did Merckx inspire that kind of opposition in anyone other than DeVlaeminck?
The answer, in my case, is that I just want some surprises. I don’t really mean of the Dirk Demol or Jean-Marie Wampers variety, you know a guy who doesn’t even get named as a dark horse, but rather, a guy who is a 10 to 1 or a 20 to 1.
It means seeing a break succeed at Milan-San Remo or—better yet—a tactical checkmate that leaves Quick Step chasing all the way to Roubaix—and off the podium. Not that I’ve got anything against them, I just want some finishes that I would never have guessed. And given the enormous limitations of my memory and creativity, it really shouldn’t be that hard.
So what would it require? Well, here’s the thing that occurred to me somewhere around Hollywood’s coastal outpost, better known as the Colony: Race outcomes were more uncertain—say it with me, people—before race radios.
There is plenty of dislike for race radios among the RKP readership as it is. I’ve straddled the line. Those of you who have been readers of VeloNews for a long time may recall Bob Roll’s account of riding the Giro d’Italia in the 1980s and entering an unlit tunnel only to plow into a pile of bricks in the middle of the road and fall in a puddle of diesel. Race radios might have helped him. They have done much to help team directors alert riders of coming course difficulties. On the other hand, the race courses are generally better scouted and selected today.
What of TVs in the cars? Honestly, I think these are as much a problem as the race radios. Do you suppose the team directors would be ordering their riders to the front to pedal hard quite as often if they couldn’t see live feeds of the race on TV in their cars?
So back to the old question. Should race radios be banned? If the team directors had less information about exactly what was happening from one moment to the next they might not bark quite so many instructions to their riders, ordering them to the front to ride.
Had radios been in use in ’88 and ’89 it is highly unlikely Dirk Demol and Jean-Marie Wampers would have stayed away to win Paris-Roubaix, and while I was non-plussed that a rider I had never heard of won Paris-Roubaix in ’89, I’d be grateful to see more uncertainty injected back into the racing.
So one thing is certain: At the very least, the TVs ought to be outlawed, even if the radios persist. It’s a miracle, if minor, that some DS, apoplectic over his riders’ inaction in the face of an attack, hasn’t crashed his car while glued to the feed.
Meh. So there it is, I’ve come around to wanting race radios banned from the peloton. I want the TVs yanked out of the cars, the radios left at home and team staff forbidden from watching TV at some hotel and calling the DS to update him on just what’s on the tube. So maybe the cell phones should go—just during the race, mind you—as well.
I risk seeming a Luddite. I’m not against technology, but what I want to avoid is the near constant feedback that tells the pack they are bearing down on the breakaway. The GPS data that reveals what the gap to the break is—5:10, 5:05, 5:03, etc.—is tantamount to the live TV feed. While it’s great for the home audience, I’d like to see anything that can give precise enough feedback to let the pack know the gap is coming down 10 seconds per kilometer find its way to Salvation Army.
After all, shouldn’t part of racing be based on your ability to do math when you’re at or above your lactate threshold?
So what’s going to happen? The call for radios to be banned will grow louder, that is what’s going to happen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Perhaps the luckiest rider on the entire U.S. Postal Service Team was Kenny Labbe. Having given up full-time racing 12 years ago after a promising junior career, Labbe took a job with the Postal Service as a letter carrier. Each day after doing his route in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, Kenny trained for the local racing scene. When The Postal Service began to sponsor a team in 1995, Labbe thought it a great coincidence that his employer was involved with pro cycling, and felt this would be his only shot at his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.
“He e-mailed me every day for about two years,” team director Bruyneel explained. “Kenny kept me up to date on all the races he rode in the American mid-west. He told me how he trained and what an honor it would be to just be at a training camp with the team.” Bruyneel shook his head in disbelief. “ He was willing to take vacation time and even pay his own way to the camp in Santa Barbara last year.”
When the First Union Grand Prix series rolled around last spring, Labbe was called on by the team to help out with some of the chores of professional racing. “I’m a big boy,” Labbe crows, “If I can do one thing to help the team, it’s to offer a big draft for some of the guys. I’ll give up a wheel, or shag bottles all day if I have too. This is just a dream come true for me.”
There is a fine line between dreams and nightmares. On the hilliest day of camp, the team crisscrossed some of the highest mountains in southern Spain. Being built like a linebacker can help the team out in an American criterium, but on a day such as this, it was all about suffering for Labbe. All of the other riders’ remarks at the dinner table about his size and how much he eats must have been ringing in his ears as he labored over category one climbs used in past years of the Vuelta a Espana. At times taking turns with Bill hanging onto the team car, Labbe decided over one summit it was time to lead the team down the mountain.
Unfortunately, just as he sprinted past the group, fresh from hanging onto the car, the road pointed back up towards the winter sky. Hincapie jumped as Kenny went by and got the good draft. As gravity took its toll, Kenny slowed while the team raced past him. All the riders swept around him at a speed so fast, he was unable to get back into the draft of the pace line. When he looked over his shoulder for the team car, he found Dirk DeMol had swung the car into the opposite lane, forcing Labbe to dig within and fight to get back up to the group. He chased for quite sometime down the treacherous descent and along the valley floor.
After that same descent, Bill admitted that he was done. “We were going about 60 mph for the longest time,” he said wide-eyed. “Then we’d hit the brakes HARD going into the turns. I kept looking over the edge of the cliff and thought, ‘this isn’t even racing; this is just fun for these guys!’” He shook his head in disbelief of how casually the team put their lives on the line every day. “They all rode the same line down the mountains, all 21 of them in a single line. At the back there’s a lot less thinking of how to take the turns, but geez, I thought about my wife … and my baby … and my job; it was crazy. I ache from going down just as much as going up the mountains!”
As I suspected, the week went by faster than I thought. Bill and I were packing for our early morning departure home when Dylan walked into our room. He was dressed in his team-issue athletic pants, sandals and a soccer-style jersey with the Postal Service logo. His floppy Air Jordan hat covered his entire head, and he could barely see in front of him as he talked on his cell phone to his girlfriend back home.
For a second I flashed back to the days Dylan and I drove across the country as amateurs, sleeping in dive motels when we could afford to and in the back of his car most of the time. He smiled at me then nodded in amazement, “ Who would have thought we’d be here in Spain riding our bikes?”
“Who would have thought,” I answered back, equally amazed.
Heading towards the first small hill of our first day, I was talking with new team member Tony Cruz. As we caught up on each other’s lives since racing against each other as juniors, I had to excuse myself for not answering his questions. I apologized, in a ragged voice, that after reaching the top of the hill I would resume our conversation. He played down the fact that while I was suffering, the team was climbing at a casual 20 mph! A hole in the pace line opened and he excused himself as he closed the gap. This left Bill and me to wallow in lactic acid as we shook our heads at how calmly these guys flew over the undulating Spanish countryside.
The big news for the Postal Service this year is the signing of Roberto Heras to the team. He was 2001’s mountain revelation in the Tour de France and winner of the Vuelta a Espana, Heras brought much needed strength to help Lance in the mountains of the Tour that year.
The magnitude of Heras’ signing did not hit me until we were rolling through a town early on during a training ride. The whole team went under a pedestrian overpass just as about 100 children crossed the bridge. Dressed in school uniforms and matching backpacks, the children went wild as they stopped in their tracks to watch us pass beneath them. Screaming and yelling out, “Andale-Roberto Heras, Lance Armstrong, Arriba, Arriba!” Bill and I looked at each other dumbfounded by the children’s enthusiasm as the team didn’t miss a beat tearing through traffic and into a large roundabout in downtown Carpe at a mellow 25 mph.
Bill and I were absolutely wasted after only three days of riding with the team. We awoke to aching, dead-tired muscles on the fourth day of camp. Lying motionless, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the other to attempt getting out of bed, Bill broke the silence, “Isn’t it amazing how much more fit these guys are? They are on a whole ‘nother planet. Did you see how Cedric and Benoit just coasted through those little towns, looking sideways at each other and chatting as if we were standing still? If people tried that on the club rides or even in the Cat. II races, bodies would be everywhere!” I nodded my head then winced; even my neck was sore from being in the drops for so long the previous day.
“And going up the hills,” Bill went on, “Heras and Rubiera just kept talking and cruising along like it was no big deal. Did you see that? I think that was right before you got dropped.”
I remembered the moment vividly. I cracked and slowed down before grabbing onto the team car. Dirk DeMol was driving and leaned over the passenger seat, to say to me, “We were wondering who would come off first? Your friend, he looks like a sprinter, but you … you surprised us. We thought you would be the climber!” As my lungs failed to adequately get oxygen to my muscles, or brain for that matter, I had no response. My 5’-8” frame and 150 lb. body seemed fit for a part time racer, but riding alongside the best pro cyclists in the world, I looked and felt like a chunk.
Over the top of one particular mountain, Bill had been gripping the car’s door and chatting with Alan the head mechanic when George Hincapie slipped back to grab some food and full bottles. Wanting to stay out of the way and feeling revived from the respite of the car, Bill let go and rode in the car’s draft.
As Hincapie came alongside the car, we were heading into the descent and the team was riding at around 30mph through some tight turns. He, in a word, was smooth. Every move I saw this guy make over the course of a week was like water. He flowed. From waiting for the elevator after dinner, to hopping off his bike at the end of a seven-hour ride, Hincapie was as graceful as Gene Kelly.
So the car heads into the first turn, a pretty tight one, and Hincapie has his left arm in the window and his right hand on the brake hood. He’s not gripping the hood, just resting his hand on it. He grabs some bottles but is not yet finished when he’s interrupted by the winding road. Staying glued to the car—and without a single unnecessary movement—he slides right through the tight right bend at about a sixty-degree angle, all the while his elbow still rests in the doorframe. Then he puts some food wrapped in foil into his jersey pocket, stands up out of the saddle, and bridges the gap from the car, not just to the back of the group, but all the way to the front, so as to lead the charge down the mountain.
“It’s hard enough just hanging onto the car going straight, much less a stunt like that,” Steve Swartzendruber, the Trek representative to the team, pointed out at dinner after Bill told us the story.