The Facebooks and Twitters have been full of apocalyptic references thanks to the easily anticipated fail of the Mayan end-of-the-world prediction. Laughing off the prediction of a 5000-year-old calendar created by a long-extinct people seems easy enough until you think about what cycling has been through this year. Had anyone told me this time last year that Lance Armstrong would be utterly disgraced and bereft of all sponsorship to the point of being dumped by his own eponymous foundation, I’d have laughed until I threw up. Similarly, if you’d told me that half the pro continental cycling teams in the U.S. would be without sponsors for 2013, I’d have laughed, though maybe not to the point of the technicolor yawn. And if you’d told me that there was a revolutionary movement afoot to topple the UCI and replace Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen with people of actual moral fiber, I’d have asked you just which drugs you were taking—and if you’d be willing to share them with me. For cycling, at least, it does seem a bit like end times.
The reality is, this is a year unlike any other the sport of cycling has ever faced. The news has been more bad than good this year, so this year’s awards may have more snark than praise. Herewith are a few things we think are worth remembering. And for good measure, this time around, we’ve asked Patrick O’Grady to sit in with our band.
News of the decade: Even though this one isn’t over, not by a longshot, I think we can call this one now—the actual fall of Lance Armstrong. Not only does most of the rational world believe he doped—a conclusion I didn’t think we’d ever get most folks to reach—sponsors have run from him like cute girls from a leper colony. I had an easier time getting a date in eighth grade than he does finding a sponsor today. That his own foundation wouldn’t shake hands with him with rubber gloves says a lot about how badly everyone wants to distance themselves from him, that is, excepting Johan Bruyneel, Chechu Rubiera and a few other pros who don’t understand that most people see doping the way they see racism—completely unacceptable.
Most believable Grand Tour winner: Ryder Hesjedal. I don’t care what Bradley Wiggins says about how he hates dopers or how the fact that he’s not as fast as Armstrong was proves he isn’t a doper. The fact that he won stage races in March, April, May and June before winning the Tour and then revving up once more to take the ITT at the Olympic Games smells as bad as one of my son’s used diapers. I’m not going to accuse him of doping, but if the press are going to be held to a standard of expectation that we’ll speak up when we’re suspicious, well, then I have to say that Wiggins’ never-before-performed season is highly suspicious. Even Eddy Merckx never swept Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour in the same year. Hesjedal, on the other hand, was vulnerable in the Giro. His win was not the inevitable outcome that sucked the life out of watching this year’s Tour. He’s been riding for a team that I have the utmost belief in as a clean program; while I believe that cycling is probably the cleanest it has ever been, I think Garmin-Sharp has taken the best, most transparent approach to demonstrating their team is clean. Hesjedal, as a product of that team, has earned my respect and admiration.
Most clueless person in cycling: This one’s a tie between Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen. I liken them to the small-town mayors in the Southern states when the civil rights legislation was enacted. Those old boys fought integration for any number of spurious reasons, but the biggest problem with them wasn’t that they couldn’t come up with a solid, objective reason to fight equal rights for all people, it was that they failed to see how public opinion had evolved and, like those who now fight gay marriage, how their opinions were coming down on the wrong side of history. Verbruggen lost any credibility as a leader and even as an administrator once he proclaimed that it was the fans’ fault that doping had taken root, that because we wanted to see fast racing the fans had forced the riders to dope. Their mudslinging agains Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton in the wake of those two deciding to finally tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is shameful on the level of scoutmaster sex abuse. Those two can’t go quickly enough.
Best new piece of gear: I can’t not give this to Shimano for the new Dura-Ace 9000. While my full review will come in the next few weeks, let me say that this group is what we hoped for when 7900 came out a few years ago. It’s a group of such magnificent improvement it reminds me of what I thought when I first heard Metallica’s Black Album: How did I ever live without this?
Biggest mistake award: For this one we have to go back to Armstrong. If he had just been willing to set aside his ire with Floyd Landis and give him a spot on RadioShack, his life would be very different right now. I’m not bemoaning our current situation, but come on, there must have been an epic, “D’oh!” in the shower one morning.
The Commander Omertà award: This one goes to Patrick Lefevre for thanking Levi Leipheimer for confessing his previous doping by firing him. If anyone could have sent a more convincing message to the peloton to shut up, I can’t think who could have accomplished that. ‘Shh, don’t tell mom about the pot brownies.’ I’d pay money to have Lefevre retire the day we put McQuaid and Verbruggen out to pasture so that I could hold a Stevil Kinevil-style party. Hell, I’d hire Stevil to run the thing.
The JFK-style Conspiracy Theorist award: This goes to everyone who is unwilling to believe that Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, et al, told the full truth about their doping. Given that Leipheimer didn’t know what Hamilton, Zabriskie or any of the other riders who were ordered to testify before the grand jury would say, not telling the full truth about their involvement in doping was incredibly risky. If any of them were caught in a lie, they’d face prosecution for perjury and those agreements for reduced suspensions would be unwound. The pressure to be truthful was enormous. We should all be willing to take them at their word in this regard. Besides, so far as USADA and USA Cycling are concerned, this matter has been put to rest. You can second-guess it all you want, but you’re not going to get any new answers. Best just to move on.
Most Disappointing Win: Alexander Vinokourov at the Olympic road race. Based on his statements in the media, he has neither fully confessed nor repented his sins. He harks from a generation and mindset we need behind us. His victory salute was a reminder that even if he was clean on that day, the sport needs to be ever-vigilant in its quest for clean(er) cycling. My lack of confidence that he could/would win clean is the doubt that currently undermines my love for professional cycling. This would be why Vino also gets my Most Relief-Inducing Retirement Award.
Best line in a product introduction: Back in October at the introduction of Giro’s new line of clothing we were told how it was meant to pay homage to a new direction in cycling. Giro’s PR guru, Mark Riedy, uttered the line, “No more heroes.” ‘Nuff said.
The One Fingered Salute Award – Peter Sagan. The grown ups tend not to like it so well when some young whipper-snapper gets above his raising and makes them look foolish. The effect is only exacerbated when the whipper-snapper in question does it day after day after day and with increasingly audacious celebratory flourishes. Thus it was that Sagan more or less made the Tours of both California and Switzerland his bitches, while the grown ups flogged away at their pedals somewhere behind in his dusty trail. More than anything, the shy (off the bike) Slovak announced that not only was he not intimidated in the deep end of pro racing, but that he was capable of much more, that his raw power and top-end speed were wed to a racer’s brain far more mature than his youth would suggest.
The All Business Award – Tom Boonen. When I think of Tom Boonen, I have a hard time not thinking about cocaine and under-age super models. Just as a tornado will destroy the homes of both the rich and the poor indiscriminately, Tornado Tom’s approach to his career has created as much damage off the road as on it. But in 2012, the Belgian veteran was all business and all class, owning the cobbled Classics and inching his way one step closer to the record books in a Spring campaign that left the whole racing world with their mouths slightly agape.
The No Business Award – The Schleck Brothers. Luxembourg’s favorite family act must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder placed by a darkly furred feline carpenter, because 2012 couldn’t have gone much worse for them. Chained to the sinking barge of the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team, there was the early season set to with Johann Bruyneel (remember that guy?), a fractious start to an uncertain partnership, which saw both Andy and his brother Franck underperforming in every race they entered. Eventually Andy was injured in a seemingly innocuous crash and Franck got popped for doping.
The Other Shoe Award – Bjarne Riis. In a season when it seemed to be raining shoes, the painfully serious Dane’s reputation has been called into question more often than an Italian Prime Minister’s. Having confessed to doping during his own racing career, there remain serious allegations that he also facilitated doping in his teams as a manager. Tyler Hamilton says he did. Bobby Julich says he didn’t. It seems that, in pro cycling, where there’s smoke now, there was fire a decade ago. Riis’ persistence should really be seen as the test case for what cycling wants to do with its doping past. Will the worst offenders of the ’90s find a future in the sport? Julich’s own fate (fired by Team Sky) suggests one possible answer, but when/if the other shoe drops for Riis will tell us for certain.
The Most Sleep-inducing Grand Tour: Yeah, I know. Many of my British friends will believe it’s sacrilege to suggest that the first Tour de France to see a Brit’ atop the podium in Paris would rank as the most boring of this year’s grand tours. It was more than that. It was one of the most boring Tours in history. Come on ASO, three mountain-top finishes? Thankfully, this year also offered us the Giro and Ryder Hesjedal’s surprising and impressive win over Joaquim Rodríguez and the Vuelta’s three-way battle between Rodríguez, Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde. Here’s hoping that in 2013 the “world’s greatest bicycle race” lives up to that designation.
Most well-deserved victory lap: It’s clear that most agree that the implosion of Lance Armstrong is the cycling story of the year — or as Padraig points out, the story of the decade. It’s hard to disagree, but it’s important to point out that this was far from a new story. It’s a story that Sunday Times of London journalist David Walsh has been telling since 1999. I know first-hand of Walsh’s skepticism, since I spent the ’99 and ’00 Tours with the tenacious Irishman. It was déjà vu all over again when the USADA “reasoned decision” was delivered to the UCI on October 13, 2012. Sure there was more documentation, but most of the allegations were made years ago, when Walsh and Pierre Ballester co-wrote ”L.A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong” in 2004. At the time, Walsh was demonized by the Armstrong camp — which labeled him “the F#cking Troll” — and even shunned by fellow journalists. Well, he who laughs last …. When the report was released and the UCI soon confirmed its conclusions, Walsh teamed up with Paul Kimmage, John Follain and Alex Butler and quickly released ”Lanced: The Shaming of Lance Armstrong,” on October 31st, and followed that with his own, much more personal story “Seven Deadly Sins: My pursuit of Lance Armstrong,” on December 13. I, for one, hope that “Seven Deadly Sins,” sells more than the many works of apparent fiction shilled to an unsuspecting public by writers who should have known better. Maybe he should change the title to “It’s Not About the Bullshite: The Unmaking of the World’s Greatest Sports Fraud,” eh? Quite frankly, the book should be required reading for anyone hoping to work in sports “journalism.” Without that kind of moral compass; without that tenacity and without that consequences-be-damned attitude, we’re all just – to use an old, sadly accurate term — fans with typewriters. Hats off to the “F#cking Troll.” Enjoy the moment. You deserve it, sir.
Inspiring show of support: In recent years, the aforementioned Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen found that filing lawsuits against critics in a friendly, local court could be an effective tool. They, along with the UCI itself, filed suit against former World Anti-Doping Agency head, Dick Pound, and then against Floyd Landis, after he admitted his own doping and alleged the UCI conspired to cover-up Armstrong’s own infractions. Pound issued a brilliantly word non-apology-apology. Landis pretty much blew them off and lost in a default judgment. Then they went after Paul Kimmage. Ooops. Kimmage decided to put up a fight and he soon got overwhelming support from you, the fans. The folks over at Cyclismas.com and NYVeloCity started promoting the “Paul Kimmage Defense Fund” and readers eventually kicked in more than – get this – $92,000 to help in the fight. Kimmage, laid off from the Sunday Times last year, suddenly had the resources to take on the UCI. And, sure enough, McQuaid, Verbruggen and the UCI, put their suit “on hold.” Kimmage, however, is now pursuing his own case. None of that would have been possible had you, the readers, not stepped up to lend a valuable hand.
My favorite photo of the year: This one comes from Betsy Andreu, who offered up photographic evidence of Frankie Andreu’s reaction to Tyler Hamilton’s detailed confessional, “The Secret Race.”
A personal favorite: When it comes to my work in cycling, I think the highlight of the year for me was finding out that the unique business model of LiveUpdateGuy.com actually worked. Thank you to all of those readers who offered help and support during our Live Coverage of all three grand tours. Because of your support, we may well be able to offer the same in 2013. Those, of course, will appear right here on Red Kite Prayer, as well.
Patrick the Other—
Donna Summer Memorial Disc-O Dance Party Platinum Rotor Medallion: To the bicycle industry for trying to hang disc brakes on everything from road bikes to stick ponies. I can understand why bike companies want to sell discs —after all, some shameless hucksters will try to sell you a rat’s asshole, telling you it’s a pinhead’s sweatband, a Chris King headset or the One Ring To Rule Them All — but I don’t understand why anyone who isn’t a pro racer with a team mechanic needs discs. And some of them don’t even need ’em (see Sven Nys, Katie Compton, et al.). If I want pointless complexity “enhancing” my cycling I’ll look to the UCI or USA Cycling for it. Speaking of which. …
The Salvatore Palumbo Good People Certificate: This honor traditionally goes to the nefarious criminal organization most hell-bent on kneecapping the sport of bicycle racing (either USA Cycling or the UCI). This year, it’s USA Cycling, which this year tried putting the squeeze on the wildly successful activities of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association, once again confirming our worst fears — that our national governing body cares as much about grassroots bike racing as did Kid Sally Palumbo, organizer of the six-day bike race immortalized in “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” by Jimmy Breslin. One can practically hear USAC caporegime Kid Stevie Johnson ringing up OBRA executive director Kenji Sugahara to hiss, “You could be dead in a bomb accident.”
The Gov. William J. LePetomane Protecting Our Phony-Baloney Jobs Here Gentlemen Citation for Excellence In Oversight: UCI President Pat McQuaid. I still haven’t gotten a “Harrumph” out of that guy. But what I’d really like is an “Adios.”
Charles Foster Kane Snowglobe of Destiny: Lance Armstrong. As reporter Jerry Thompson said of Citizen Kane, Armstrong was “a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it.” We may never know what his personal Rosebud was, but a sled is a fine thing for going downhill fast, if you don’t mind the bonfire at the bottom, and Armstrong was not the first to build his Xanadu from a drug-induced dream.
It can be fun working as a journalist in cycling. Not only do you get to travel to distant lands, interact with different peoples and witness amazing feats, you also get to know the athletes who make cycling the most beautiful sport in the world. One of the more intriguing characters I’ve met is Bradley Wiggins, a fellow Brit, who celebrated his 32nd birthday this past weekend by winning his third major international stage race in less than a year: It was the Critérium du Dauphiné last June, Paris-Nice in March and now the Tour de Romandie.
I first interviewed Wiggo—as his countrymen like to call him—over lunch at an English pub, The Flask, near North London’s Hampstead Heath on a grey December day in 2000. The tall, pale-faced Brit was then 20 years old and still an amateur track racer. He’d already traveled the world and was dressed like an American college kid in khaki pants, dark-blue turtle-neck sweater and a baseball cap; but he gave away his Englishness with a broad, monotone London accent.
I’d been intrigued by Wiggins for some time because his dad, Gary Wiggins, was an Australian racer I’d seen compete with Falcon, a British pro team, in the mid-1970s, and later in a bunch of European six-day races that I reported. Gary had a useful sprint in both road races and on the track, but he was never more than a journeyman professional. After he married in 1979, he and his English wife Linda moved to Ghent, Belgium, where Bradley was born. But his parents split a couple of years later and their son was only five when he and his mother returned to London.
“I wasn’t in contact with me dad for 17 years really,” Wiggins said at the London pub, “but me mum always spoke about him, and has obviously got a lot of pictures and stuff. I tried [cycling] out at 12 years of age … and it went from there.”
With cycling in his blood, young Brad “tried it out” at London’s venerable Herne Hill velodrome. He learned the ropes from the other members of the Archer Road Club, the same cycling club his father joined when he arrived from Australia at age 23. As a schoolboy racer, Brad won a national championship in the points race at age 15, soon stepped up to the national junior track team, and placed fourth in the points race at the 1997 junior worlds in South Africa.
It was the following year, at age 18, that Wiggins made his true breakthrough at the junior worlds in Havana, Cuba. After qualifying fastest in the 3000-meter individual pursuit, he raced Germany’s Daniel Palicki in the final. “It was an exciting final but I was totally in control,” the confident Wiggins told me. “He was still two seconds in the lead going into the final two laps. It was just the style I rode … pulling out a sprint at the end.” That victory over Palicki by almost three seconds gave Wiggins the incentive to shoot for glory at the Sydney Olympic Games, which were two years away.
“The Olympics is what I’ve set my aim at since ’92 when I watched Chris Boardman win the [pursuit] gold in Barcelona,” he said. “I’d just started cycling, and watching that was pretty inspiring. I thought I’d love to do that. So I thought Sydney, at 20 years old, should be a realistic goal.”
Wiggins rode two events at those Games, taking fourth in the Madison with Rob Hayles and a bronze medal in the team pursuit — a disappointment after he led the British foursome to the fastest time in the qualifying round. For me, that was a reminder that at about the same age, my boyhood hero Tom Simpson also won an Olympic bronze medal in the team pursuit in Australia — at Melbourne in 1956.
As a result, after that first interview with Wiggins a dozen year ago, I wrote in VeloNews: “Not since Simpson died in 1967 has Britain produced a young rider with the potential of Wiggins. … This soft-spoken Englishman has had a start to his career that’s as every bit as precocious as Simpson’s. And besides following a similar path to the former world road champion, Wiggins even looks and races like him.”
Unlike Simpson, who went to Europe to focus on road racing and ditch track racing (other than lucrative six-day contracts), Wiggins’s goal at age 20 was to win three track gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He did win the individual pursuit, while taking silver and bronze in other events, and he stayed with the Great Britain national track program through 2008 in Beijing (where he won two more golds).
By being part of Britain’s most successful Olympic team, in any sport, Wiggins achieved domestic fame and earned enough money through the Sky-sponsored track program to buy a farmhouse in northwest England, where he lives with wife Cathy and their two children Ben and Isabella. Perhaps he needed to do that, because it helped gave him the confidence he’s now showing as the leader of Team Sky at the world’s leading stage races. But Wiggins might have followed a path similar to Simpson’s and achieved the status he now has in road racing much sooner in his career.
In the season after that 2000 interview, Wiggins raced with his national road team and won two European stage races, Luxembourg’s Flèche du Sud (where Fränk Schleck was in the field) and Spain’s Cinturon de Mallorca. He then spent six seasons with French pro teams, focusing on winning prologue time trials; but the muscle weight he put on training for track pursuits stopped him making much progress in road racing. The only road win he took (other than short time trials) came in September 2005 when he took the hilliest stage of the Tour de l’Avenir, finishing three minutes ahead of the field after a long breakaway with his then Crédit Agricole teammate Saul Raisin.
Wiggins has always been outspoken in condemning riders who dope, and when his Cofidis team withdrew from the 2007 Tour de France after one of its riders tested positive, the Englishman threatened to quit the sport. That led him to signing in 2008 with America’s Team High Road because of its fiercely anti-doping policy, and then to the equally clean team, Garmin-Slipstream, the following year.
With the Beijing Olympics behind him, Wiggins finally focused on the road and through the winter and spring of 2009 he shed 7 kilos (about 15 pounds) from his track-racer’s body. The result was the skinny bike racer we see today who has applied his former skills to his new ones—during his brilliant fourth-place finish at the 2009 Tour, Wiggins described his method of riding the mountain passes as “mentally tackling them like a pursuit.”
In switching to Team Sky in 2010 (after prolonged and sometimes painful negotiations to buy him out of his Garmin contract), Wiggins returned to the to the coaching personnel at British Cycling, led by team boss Dave Brailsford, with whom he’d trained for all those pursuit medals. It’s taken them awhile to discover the best schedule to bring Wiggins to peak form when he needs it, but by alternating high-altitude training camps in Tenerife with high-profile stage races it seems like they’ve discovered a winning formula.
After that London pub lunch back in 2000, I wrote: “You may not have heard of Bradley Wiggins, but unless something drastic halts his current progress, his name will be one that resonates through the cycling world in the upcoming decades.”
Perhaps this decade (or even this year!) will see Wiggins achieve the dream that Simpson had in the 1960s: become the first Brit to win the Tour de France.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
It’s tough to boil down allegiances to teams, to isolate love for a formation independent of its riders and it showed in your answers. No matter how much we might want to identify a team’s personality with precepts of management, director style or strength in a set of races, we still track back to the names flying the colors.
To this end: Were Quick Step not the dominant team in the Northern Classics, they wouldn’t have made this list. At all. Their lack of native English-speaking riders loses them the jingo vote and without an ongoing streak of wins on cobbles, there wouldn’t be much to love. Let’s not be too surprised. We love them precisely because they kick ass.
The revelation was your love for Team BMC. By signing Big George (media outlets are contractually bound to use the adjective “big” before any mention of Lance Armstrong’s former lieutenant), Alessandro Ballan and—more important—Cadel Evans, BMC led the voting nearly three to one. What?
Reader Blue summed it up best when he called BMC an “underdog supergroup.” I’m still trying to get my head around that image. It’s like pairing John Paul Jones (everyone’s favorite invisible bassist) with David Gilmour (the world’s most impressive withdrawn guitarist), Anthony Kiedis (a truly underrated singer and songwriter) and Pete Thomas (who modestly backed up Elvis Costello on album after great album). An underrated supergroup. God, I’d buy that album without ever hearing a single song. Asia wouldn’t stand a chance.
Cervelo Test team got the next most votes and that illustrated a curious point: This underdog love thing isn’t just talk. The two teams that got the greatest number of points are both Pro Continental teams, not ProTour teams. How weird is that?
The strange corollary to this point is that only two teams, Radio Shack and HTC-Columbia got some negative votes. Consider these the hanging chads of the cycling world. HTC-Columbia is so dominant in field sprints that a win by them has the ability to downright disappoint some of you. Worse yet, there’s some noticeable backlash against Team Radio Shack before the first European race has ever been run. (Especially strange was how one reader disliked a team composed of old guys, but still digs Jens Voigt. Perhaps it’s a good thing the German powerhouse didn’t join an American team for his final season).
Garmin-Slipstream would almost certainly have faired better had they not joined the ProTour, but they scored as well as Quick Step, The Shack, Sky and HTC-Columbia, unless you figure in The Shack’s negative votes, and then they don’t fare so well.
If RKP had the ability to control race outcomes just to keep you folks happy, we would do well to make sure that Saxo Bank wins every tenth race that BMC or Cervelo doesn’t win. Settling the Grand Tours could be hard, but in this scenario, neither Astana nor Radio Shack would have a chance.
Sky may have bought themselves a world class team, but they have yet to buy your love.
Image courtesy BMC Cycling Team
The Astana team was the single most interesting story at this year’s Tour de France because it was really the only story of the 2009 Tour de France. Without Astana, Saxo Bank would have all but raced away from the rest of the field. During the Tour the conflict emanated from Lance Armstrong’s and Alberto Contador’s dual desires to win the Tour de France. That conflict produced a lot of collateral damage; top was Contador’s relationship with team director Johan Bruyneel. Additionally, rider relationships suffered and even tension emerged between some of the riders and support staff.
Things got weirder even before the Tour ended. Bruyneel had made it known that Alexander Vinokourov wasn’t exactly welcome at Astana. Bruyneel’s lack of interest in working with Astana’s raison d’etre is understandable; he has enough trouble projecting the image that Astana is a team of clean riders without accepting into the fold a rider coming back from a two-year suspension. As a result, Vinokourov issued the classic ultimatum: him or me. So Bruyneel announced his departure and told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, “The reason for my leaving is that Vinokourov is back riding with Astana.”
Indications are that Bruyneel and Vinokourov have reached an uneasy truce by keeping their distance; Bruyneel hasn’t been seen at races Vinokourov in which has competed. It seemed a reasonable solution—avoid each other until Bruyneel’s exit to The Shack.
Which brings up the exodus. Armstrong’s exit was quick and easy; because he was unpaid he never had a contract—boom, he’s gone. Contador wants out but as been reported ad infinitum, he’s got another year on his contract and Astana hasn’t wanted to allow him to buy out his contract. Team Radio Shack has signed Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Yaroslav Popovych, Haimar Zubeldia, Gregory Rast, Thomas Vaitkus and Sergio Paulinho. Swiss riders Steve Morabito and Michael Schar are leaving for BMC. That’s 11 of 28 riders leaving only four riders (Contador, Vinokourov, Dmitriy Muravyev and José Luis Rubiera) who have competed in the Tour de France.
Not so fast. Astana management have noticed the shrinking team and have put the kibosh on the departures of Kloden, Popovych, Zubeldia and Rast. Normally, a support rider buying out his contract is as eventful as purchasing batteries at Radio Shack, but while Astana’s management may have trouble making payroll (the final $2 million installment for the 2009 season has not yet been paid), they can do the math: If the Kazakhstan government loses the sport’s most successful director and every rider who wants to leave, the only veteran left from this year’s Tour de France team will be the beneficiary of Kazakhstan’s version of Affirmative Action: Dmitriy Muravyev. Were all these departures to take place, there’s no way the team would keep its ProTour license which would make it largely irrelevant as an international statement of cycling prowess.
The surprise here is that Astana’s management hasn’t done more to bolster the team by replacing those who have left or want to leave. If you consider just those riders who have definitely left—Armstrong, Leipheimer, Horner, Paulinho, Vaitkus, Morabito and Schar—the team is decimated and needs some serious recruiting. So why isn’t this happening?
The answer may lie in Contador’s woes. He has reported that each time he has a meeting with Astana management that meeting is followed by another meeting in which the new team representative discredits the previous team representative. Contador’s brother and agent, Fran, has refused to negotiate further until team leadership is clarified. If there’s no clear management structure in place (and that seems a reasonable conclusion) then it isn’t terribly surprising what little management there is agrees every rider who can be retained should be.
As a management strategy, it’s very short sighted. Riders can be expected to assist each other at key race times because they will want to have something for their palmarés when it’s time to negotiate with another team. However, morale will suffer and performances will suffer and that will hurt their value, which is why its imperative for Kloden and the rest to get out now. Bruyneel could sit on his hands for the year and The Shack would still want him for 2011; he’d be wanted anywhere.
There’s still time for a happy ending, though not much and perhaps not quite everyone.
Without any new signings, Astana will fall below the 25-rider minimum that the ProTour requires. Without 25 riders the team loses its ProTour status (one can imagine a last-ditch effort by the Kazakhstan government to give a license to any citizen who has won a bike race). With the team’s loss of its ProTour license, Contador could invoke a clause in his contract that grants his release should the team lose its ProTour status. This is one problem a new sponsor’s money can’t solve.
How many teams would have the funds to pay Contador at such a late date? It could be a stretch for Caisse d’Epargne and Contador isn’t likely to accept a cut in pay. However, word is Jonathan Vaughters has a sponsor waiting in the wings; should he land Contador, Garmin-Slipstream becomes Garmin-Somethingelse and Contador gets paid what he’s worth. That might finally give Vaughters reason enough to let Wiggins out of his contract so he can ride for Team Sky, which has more than enough budget to pay him what he’s worth as well as give him unquestioned leadership. A confidential source familiar with the team tells me Wiggins hates the management at Garmin-Slipstream and is desperate to leave.
Were Contador to finally escape Astana a new question would arise. What then of Bruyneel, Kloden, Zubeldia, Popovych and Rast? There’s no word on whether the five have similar ProTour requirement clauses in their contracts. Even if Astana management held them hostage for a year, it is unlikely the team could accomplish much. But after all the turmoil the great irony would be to see Bruyneel manage a decimated Astana led by Vinokourov—the only two people who stated publicly they would never work together, bound to the same team.
As October begins to blow leaves from the trees and the European season winds down, there are two big races left in 2009. The first is Paris-Tours. The second is the race to pry Alberto Contador out of his Astana contract. This is a race with a number of riders, all hoping to cross the line with 2010’s presumptive Tour de France favorite on their roster.
First, Contador has a year left on his Astana contract, so Astana have to be favorites to keep the mercurial Spaniard. This is technically true. But if the Kazahks lose their ProTour license, and UCI head Pat McQuaid has indicated that the governing body is evaluating Astana’s licensure, they might be inclined to cash out their assets (i.e. Contador) and pull out altogether.
Whatever posturing Alexander Vinokourov has done in his comeback from a two-year doping ban is just that, posturing. No one is going to run a pro team on the back of a 36-year-old unrepentant doper. If they’re daft enough to soldier on, and remember they’ll need to sign a full roster of riders after the Lance walked off all the strongest riders for his new RadioShack team, they’ll do so knowing they’re not likely to get invited to the Tour de France, both because of Vinokourov’s past and they’re own dearth of quality riders.
Next in line is Caisse d’Epargne, and they don’t need Contador unless they believe Alejandro Valverde’s troubles with the doping authorities aren’t going away. They’ll want a horse in the Grand Tour GC race in that case. I suppose they might think of sweeping the Tours with Valverde and Contador doing the podium tap dance. That would be a good trick, but does anyone think they have the support team to do that? No. I don’t either.
Garmin-Slipstream, who won’t talk about signing Contador except to say how awesome that would be, don’t need Contador either, unless they think Bradley Wiggins is going to force his way out of the team and into a Team Sky uniform. Sky is a British team. Wiggins is British. They can offer him a uniform that doesn’t look like a preppy car accident. You can see why Wiggins would want that. In the event of Wiggo’s defection, then Jonathan Vaughters might do worse than picking up Contador as a replacement.
Then there’s Quick Step. Now this one really makes sense to me. Packed full of talent for one-day Classics, the Belgian squad only needs to add a real GC man to strike bowel-clenching fear into the rest of the peloton. Signing Contador will cost money Quick Step doesn’t have, but the Spaniard is a bankable asset. Perhaps the Belgian floor maker can secure an additional loan to do a deal. Patrick Lefevre, the team’s manager, has even promised to hold five roster spots open to hire support riders just for Contador. Really, it’s shameless.
Finally, there has been talk of Contador forming his own team, but with the Shack and Team Sky entering the fray, the ProTour simply won’t support a third brand new team, even if Contador and his handlers could pull together a passable roster in time, which they can’t. So forget about it.
These are the moving pieces: Astana’s license, Alejandro Valverde’s DNA, Bradley Wiggins’ sense of national pride, Jonathan Vaughter’s argyle sweater vest, Quick Step’s line of credit.
Everything depends on Astana. Allegedly they’ve made all the financial guarantees necessary through the end of 2010, so there oughtn’t be a repeat of 2009’s bounced paychecks. But between 2009’s foibles, the return of the pariah, Vinokourov, and the loss of so many top-riders, it might be too big an ask for the Kazakh’s to go on. Once the door is open for Contador to leave, and believe me it will be, then it’s race on.
If the Kazakh consortium behind Astana is smart, they’ll let Contador’s price rise over the next month before doing a deal. As the holiday lights go up, what Astana can hope to get in return for their prize pony will dwindle. Teams will have to finalize rosters, make out budgets and firm up plans. Astana will be seen as desperate if they hold on too long.
It may well be that Garmin and Caisse d’Epargne are just waiting to see what happens with Wiggins and Valverde before tabling their best offers. Quick Step’s best bet is to make a deal before one of those other dominoes falls, because they likely don’t have the cash to compete otherwise.
Until now there has been an expectation that so goes the team, so goes the bike industry sponsor. As evidenced by comments on this and other blogs, at least some members of the cycling public have viewed a bike sponsor’s lack of repudiation of the team of a convicted doper as a tacit approval of their doping.
Unfortunately, a sponsor such as Trek hasn’t got the ability to elect to sponsor, say, Formula 1 if they decide cycling is just too tarnished by doping. Liberty Seguros’ next sponsorship stop in sports could be golf, but that’s not possible for Specialized or SRAM.
Faust could appreciate such a dilemma.
So Shimano has announced that it will pull its sponsorship of a team if anyone in its management is found to be guiding a doping program for its riders. If a rider is caught doping, Shimano wants an explanation and a future containment plan to prevent a repeat. A second event is grounds for termination of the sponsorship.
Termination would be catastrophic to any team. A return of all Shimano equipment would leave riders unable to train or race until new equipment could be purchased, which could easily take a week or more and could cost upwards of six figures, an amount few ProTour teams (and no Pro Continental or Continental teams) would have lying around.
But let’s be real. While it is possible and maybe even likely that some directors have at least suspicions—if not outright knowledge—of his team members’ activities, the Festina Affair ended any large-scale participation by team management in its riders’ doping. We now have plausible deniability.
Unfortunately, a complete lack of knowledge of riders’ medical programs has a nasty consequence: the director appears clueless. Hans-Michael Holczer’s shock over Bernard Kohl’s and Stefan Schumacher’s positive tests made him look ineffectual.
But what of positive tests by individual riders? The number of teams that have had more than one positive inside of three months is perhaps surprising. Just yesterday the UCI announced the suspension of three riders (three!) riders from Liberty Seguros. Saunier Duval, Phonak and Astana are but three other names that come to mind.
The question is whether Shimano would actually revoke the sponsorship should the possibility come to pass and which teams are actually threatened by such action. Columbia-HTC, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Française des Jeux, Garmin-Slipstream, Rabobank and Skil-Shimano are the ProTour and Pro Continental teams Shimano sponsors. Of these, two (Euskaltel and Rabobank) have had high-profile doping issues in the last few seasons.
While it is fairly certain that most bike industry sponsors have some language in their contracts that allow the termination of a sponsorship as a result of a doping offense, Shimano is unusual in taking such a public stand. Perhaps other companies will have the courage to take a similar stand.
Shimano’s Statement in full:
With this statement, Shimano would like to make clear to all parties involved that we would like to strive for a fair and drugs free sport to protect the future of cycling for next generations. Besides the bad impact to the reputation of the sport, we all know Doping and Drugs are damaging and destroying the health and image of especially young people in and outside of the sport. Therefore we are taking a firm stand against doping in general and in the cycling sport in particular.
Basic guidelines in Shimano’s anti doping policy:
• All our contracts and sponsorship-relations are made under the condition and in the belief that there is no doping involved in the particular team or with the individual athletes.
• If the team management of one of our sponsored teams (no matter in which cycling discipline) is involved in any doping affair, we will stop our sponsorship of this team immediately.
• If an individual rider is involved in any doping affair without the knowledge of the team management, the team will be given the chance to give a clear explanation and a future improvement & control plan to Shimano, upon that it will be decided to continue the sponsoring or not. If another doping incident occurs within the same team, we will keep the option of terminating our sponsorship contract
• Terminating a sponsorship contract means return of all Shimano materials or other contributions that have been supplied to the concerned team immediately. This anti doping policy is already stated in our ongoing sponsorship contracts but Shimano feels it is valuable to emphasize this ones more to make it clear for everybody what is our opinion about the use of doping in sport. For all our future sponsorship negotiations it is essential for us that the teams show us their anti doping policy in advance.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Among American cycling fans Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Slipstream formation has enjoyed the loyal love afforded a hometown team. That love has been based more on the team being “American” than on having actually kicked a lot of ass.
Of course, it isn’t the only ProTour team registered in the U.S., as Bob Stapleton’s Columbia-HTC team is based in San Luis Obispo, California. However, despite an American owner and one of two title sponsors being American, most cycling fans still perceive the team as European for two simple reasons: Most of its sport directors came from the former T-Mobile team and it has almost no American riders.
Critics of the team have noted a dissonance between the amount of media attention Garmin garners wherever it goes, and its results. The undercurrent being—the team really hasn’t earned its status.
Many of the headlines the team has generated have come as a result of its outspoken anti-doping stance. On paper there are several teams with anti-doping programs as stringent as Garmin’s, but Jonathan Vaughters is the media’s go-to guy for quotes on how to run a clean cycling team. To be fair, no one else is as articulate on the challenges a pro cyclist faces or the mixed signals a rider might receive when trying to balance the need to produce results with the need to recover.
Until recently, most of the team’s wins have come in stages of smaller stage races and four national championships. A stage win and the leader’s pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia were all it claim for Grand Tour performances beyond a host of top-five finishes in stages and general classification.
But in less than a week two different riders, Tyler Farrar and Ryder Hesjedal, won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, giving the team its first Grand Tour stage wins. Back home, the team defended its title at the Tour of Missouri with David Zabriskie’s time trial win that culminated in overall victory. It was the first stage race victory for the talented time trialist.
Unless you’ve been sleeping through September, you know all that. Why bother to note this? There are a great many teams with little ability to win outside of their star rider. Garmin-Slipstream won stages in two different stage races—meaning two different squads—despite the fact that Christian Vande Velde had to withdraw from the Tour of Missouri.
It’s been easy to slag on Tom Danielson for his failed promise. A probably top-10 at the Vuelta doesn’t measure up to the promises that he would be America’s next Tour de France winner, after Lance Armstrong, of course. That said, until he was struck with a virus, he was lying fourth on the general classification. Even so, he stands to give his team its second top-10 finish in a Grand Tour this year. That may seem an achievement of dubious value but consider that Cofidis, AG2R La Mondiale, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Columbia-HTC won’t post two Grand Tour top-tens and Quick Step won’t even post one.
Tyler Farrar’s three stage wins at the Eneco Tour of Benelux are significant more for what they taught Farrar and his teammates and as a confidence-building exercise than for the wins themselves. Those wins were an imperative step toward winning his first Grand Tour stage.
For a team in only its first year of the ProTour, Garmin-Slipstream deserves recognition for the team’s rise to earned prominence. Still a darling of the media, the team has results to justify the interviews and TV time.
Photo: John Pierce, Photosport International