Ryder Hesjedal takes his career as a professional bike race ultra-seriously. He trains obsessively, he never shirks from working hard for his teammates, and whenever he gets a chance to ride aggressively he grabs it without a second thought. That’s why his magnificent performance in the 95th Giro d’Italia—the first Canadian to finish on the podium of a grand tour, let alone win one—didn’t surprise those who know him well. Even if his victory shocked the European cognoscenti.
So, you may ask, why has the 31-year-old Garmin-Barracuda team man taken so long to reach the top of the cycling world?
The answer to that question is a complex one because Hesjedal has always had the talent to excel at the highest level, though we’ve only seen flashes of his capabilities in a wide range of races over the past decade. But befitting his calm and dignified manner, the British Columbian has shown infinite patience with his career and been quietly confident that one day his time would come. Now it’s here.
The Italians say that men capable of winning grand tours—they call them fuoriclasse—give hints of their great talent at an early age. Hesjedal, whose great-grandparents were farmers who emigrated from Norway in the 19th century, certainly did that. He grew up in the small rural community of Highlands, to the northwest of Victoria on Vancouver Island, where Hesjedal’s father made a meager living selling firewood that he cut in the pine forests. Dad and mom later took jobs with the municipality, while son Ryder showed a penchant for sports, excelling at baseball and lacrosse.
Everyone rode bikes in the Highlands, and young Hesjedal soon developed a love for riding his hard-tail Norco mountain bike on the single-track trails that crisscrossed this hilly region of lakes, woodlands and wilderness. The District of Highlands Web site says that its residents are “both self-reliant and cooperative.” That certainly characterizes Hesjedal, who began competitive cycling in his early teens as part of British Columbia’s booming mountain-bike scene.
Like other cycling journalists, I was first impressed by Hesjedal’s talent when he finished second in the junior men’s cross-country race behind Frenchman Julien Absalon at the 1998 world mountain bike championships at Mont-Ste-Anne in eastern Canada. Three years later, at the mountain bike worlds in Vail, Colorado, we saw the lanky Canadian again place second to Absalon, this time in the under-23 category. That same week, his fellow Victoria resident Roland Green, six years older than Hesjedal, won the pro men’s world cross-country title.
At the time, it seemed a given that Hesjedal would follow in Green’s footsteps, especially when at age 21 he won a 2002 World Cup cross-country at Les Gets in the French Alps, beating a field of champions that included off-road legend Thomas Frischknecht. But, at 6-foot-2 and 159 pounds, Hesjedal was big for a cross-country racer compared with more compact rivals such as Absalon, Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez.
Like Evans before him, Hesjedal was already integrating road racing into his schedule by signing with Rabobank’s espoirs team in 2002. He quickly showed his talent by winning the French amateur classic Paris-Mantes in April that year, making a long solo break to finish more than three minutes ahead of the field. And in September, shortly after that World Cup victory at les Gets, Hesjedal showed his stage-race strength by winning Spain’s four-day Volta a Cataluña de l’Avenir.
But mountain biking remained first on his agenda, knowing he had a chance of Olympic glory in Athens. He won the prestigious NORBA national series in 2003 (and again in ’04) and placed second in the pro men’s cross-country at the ’03 worlds in Lugano, Switzerland—only beaten by Belgian veteran Filip Meirhaeghe, who would admit to using EPO prior to the ’04 Olympics.
Hesjedal was also preparing his post-Athens career by joining Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team in 2004. So he debuted in European pro road racing that spring. I chatted with him in Bruges before the start of his first classic, the Tour of Flanders, where he told me how pleased he was to play a part in helping new teammate George Hincapie win the previous week’s Three Days of De Panne. Hesjedal didn’t finish Flanders, but a week later, in Spain, he got into the winning, eight-man breakaway at the extremely hilly Klasika Primavera in the Basque Country: He placed fifth behind winner Alejandro Valverde, and ahead of the Italian stars Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni.
That early success was almost forgotten in a year dedicated to winning an Olympic gold medal — a dream that ended when he flatted five minutes into the dusty Athens cross-country. He didn’t finish the race and dropped out of the worlds a couple of weeks later, and never started another mountain bike race.
So, in essence, Hesjedal’s road career didn’t really begin until age 24 as a domestique with Discovery Channel in 2005. He worked for Hincapie in the northern classics and, in stage racing, for Italian Paolo Savoldelli at the Tour de Romandie (placing 32nd, only two minutes behind his team leader) and at his first grand tour, the Giro, which Savoldelli won. Hesjedal valiantly did his team duty at that Giro, even after a bad crash on stage seven in the south of Italy; but he eventually pulled out (with 15 others) on a savage stage 13 over five passes in the Dolomites.
Hesjedal did enough that season to be recruited in 2006 by the ambitious Phonak team, whose leader would be Floyd Landis. I interviewed both of these North Americans at their pre-season training camp in Majorca. Hesjedal said he hadn’t given any interviews since dropping out of mountain biking, and I found him to be quietly ambitious about the year ahead. He was hoping to return to the Giro, a race he said he really liked, but Phonak put him on another program — which included taking fourth overall at May’s Volta a Cataluña (thanks to fourth place on the mountaintop finish in Andorra) and 17th overall at the Dauphiné.
His only grand tour in 2006 was the Vuelta a España, where he was lying a promising 21st before he abandoned the race on the 11th stage, with a view to riding a strong world championships in Salzburg, Austria. Perhaps he should have finished the Vuelta because he placed only 22nd in the worlds’ time trial and didn’t finish the road race, and when the doping-scandalized Phonak team folded at year’s end, Hesjedal was left without a team.
His career in limbo, he spent 2007 with HealthNet-Maxxis on the U.S. domestic scene, with 10th place at the Amgen Tour of California the highlight. The ever-optimistic Canadian didn’t give up his apartment in Girona, Spain, confident that he would be back on the Continent before too long. And that was the case. He was signed by Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin-Chipotle and so his European road career finally received its real beginning in 2008, just four years ago.
Since then, Hesjedal has improved every year, growing in confidence at the grand tours and performing at the highest level in the spring classics. The highlights have been diverse: aiding teammates Christian Vande Velde and Brad Wiggins place fourth overall in the Tours de France of 2008 and 2009 respectively; placing fifth at the 2009 Clasica San Sebastian before winning stage 12 of the Vuelta in a summit finish at Alto de Velefique; and, in 2010, placing second to Philippe Gilbert at the Amstel Gold Race, winning a stage of the Amgen Tour of California, placing sixth at the Tour de France (after team leader Vande Velde crashed out and including brilliant rides on the cobblestones of northern France and the mountaintop finish on the Tourmalet), and third at the GP de Montréal behind Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan.
His 2011 season was something of a transition year, the highlight being Garmin’s victory in the Tour de France team time trial and overall team prize, while Hesjedal rode support for sixth-place Tom Danielson. Perhaps 2012 would have seen similar results, but in the winter team manger Vaughters and new team director Allan Peiper persuaded the British Colombian to be the Garmin team leader at the Giro.
Now, with his astounding victory in Italy, Hesjedal can truly say his career has taken off!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
I had a long discussion last week with a friend who takes just a passing interest in bike racing. He was asking me about the state of American cycling now that Lance Armstrong has retired. I told him it was going very well, that Armstrong’s peers Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer were still contesting stage races at the highest level, that U.S.-registered teams BMC Racing, Garmin-Barracuda and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek were winning the toughest races in the sport’s major league (the UCI WorldTour), and that a new generation of excellent riders was coming through.
There are some exciting prospects in this new generation. At BMC, Tejay Van Garderen is being groomed to take over the Tour de France leadership role of Cadel Evans when the Aussie retires, and Taylor Phinney is the natural successor to his veteran teammate George Hincapie. Over at Garmin, a truly homegrown squad, Peter Stetina is working toward contender status in the grand tours, starting with next month’s Giro d’Italia, and Andrew Talansky is shaping up to match him. And while Armstrong has quit RadioShack as a racer, his team is schooling such talents as U.S. road champion Matt Busche and under-23 standout Lawson Craddock.
My friend hadn’t heard any of these names, except for Leipheimer and Phinney. And that was only because Levi received great coverage in the Colorado media last August for winning the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and Taylor is the son of local sports icons and Olympic medalists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter Phinney. But if you only read the national press, listened to 99.9-percent of America’s radio stations and only watched network television, you certainly wouldn’t have heard of Leipheimer or Phinney, let alone all those other great American cyclists.
You may be thinking, this is nothing new. Cycling fans have known for decades that cycling is regarded as a second-class sport—or not even a sport—by the majority of couch-potato Americans. And we know that the only sports that register on the radar of U.S. sports editors are (American) football, baseball, basketball, (ice) hockey, golf, tennis and NASCAR.
My friend agreed that, besides cycling, the world’s other major sports—football (soccer), athletics (track and field), cricket and rugby—barely get a mention in the U.S. media. And he too was puzzled that while soccer is a far more popular participant sport in schools across the country than gridiron football, that doesn’t translate into the U.S. being a power player on the global soccer scene except, thankfully, for our women. But, then, there’s no money in women’s soccer, and it only makes the sport pages when there’s a World Cup or Olympic medals at stake.
Again, you’re probably thinking, why is Wilcockson going on about mainstream sports when he knows that cycling will never make it with the American media. The only time it does make the national news is when the words “Tour de France,” “Lance Armstrong,” and “doping” are contained in the same sentence.
Yes, I know all that, and I know how frustrating it is for journalists who discover cycling in all its majesty, beauty and history to come up against the brick wall that is the American-sports-editor establishment. All my above thoughts and feelings crashed together like cymbals this past Monday morning after I picked up our two nationally distributed newspapers, USA Today and The New York Times. Predictably, both of them headlined golf’s Masters tournament and the fairy-tale win by Florida native Bubba Watson. The sports editors were obviously relieved that in a week when Tiger Woods failed to beat par in all four rounds that the win at Augusta didn’t go to that South African guy with the unpronounceable name. Long live Bubba—who made it an even better story by invoking his Christian faith in his victory speech, à la Tim Tebow.
Okay, Bubba’s success was a great story. But I also expected that our national dailies would have some decent coverage of cycling’s biggest one-day classic, Paris-Roubaix, especially because NBC Sports had decided to broadcast it live in HD and repeated the coverage with a three-hour show at primetime. But, no, my hopes were soon dashed. USA Today didn’t even mention Paris-Roubaix, not even the result in tiny agate type. As for the Times, well, they had a paragraph in its sport-summary section under the insulting headline: “Belgian wins French race.”
Let’s admit it, American mainstream sports editors are out of touch. They propagate their views by only covering the sports that they’ve always covered. They may say that it’s too expensive or too difficult for them to put cycling on their pages — and why would anyone be interested in cycling anyway? But Web sites with a shoestring budget manage to cover cycling very well indeed, and virtually every American, like my friend, rides a bike at some point in their lives, so why wouldn’t they want to read about the heroic athletes who compete in one of the most dramatic sports ever invented?
It’s time to take those elitist sports editors out of their ivory towers and plunk them down in a frenzied crowd of fans on Mount Baldy at the Amgen Tour of Colorado, on Independence Pass at the Pro Challenge, or on the Manayunk Wall at the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship. Better still, give them a VIP package to any of these American events, or ferry them across the Atlantic and wine and dine them at the Tour or Giro — or give them a front-row seat at the worlds or any of the one-day classics. Perhaps even take them to the Forest of Arenberg or the Carrefour de l’Arbre at Paris-Roubaix to see the athletes battling (and crashing) their way over the cobblestones at speeds that only four-wheel drives or trials motorcycles can normally contemplate on such rugged roads.
It was encouraging that NBC Sports (formerly Versus, formerly OLN) devoted its time, energy and resources to broadcast the live feed of Paris-Roubaix, even if it’s a half-century since the European networks first covered the Hell of the North classic. But it’s shameful that our national press virtually ignored one of the world’s truly great sports events, especially in a year when Tom Boonen made the most brilliant performance of his phenomenal career to become only the second man in a century to win at Roubaix four times.
And outside of Boonen’s triumph, there were a dozen other stories to whet sports fans’ appetites, including the amazing debut (and top-15 finish) of Taylor Phinney at age 21, and the record-equaling 17th Paris-Roubaix finish of George Hincapie at 38. You can bet that if Samuel Abt of the Herald-Tribune hadn’t retired and was still writing for the Times that he would have given his unique take on the race, and if Sal Ruibal hadn’t been let go by USA Today he would have seen that the newspaper at least mentioned Paris-Roubaix.
So what can we do? I suggest that everyone who reads this column begins writing letters, sending emails and making phone calls to the sports editors of every newspaper they read (on-line or in-person) to make them aware that cycling is a major sport in this country, not just in the rest of the world. Keep on sending those messages and send this column to your friends to do the same. Don’t take no for an answer.
If we can’t get the media to see cycling as a major sport then riders such as Phinney, Talansky and Van Garderen will continue to be perceived as second-class sports citizens in this country. You know and I know that these guys are far superior athletes to the Bubba Watsons and Tim Tebows of the American sports establishment. Let’s start to help our young pros (and help our sport) gain the recognition they truly deserve!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Before we all (myself included) run away and hand the first three places in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders to Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Filippo Pozatto, let’s not forget that there are still 255 kilometers and about 190 other riders standing between these men and a win in one of the sport’s most prestigious monuments.
Here’s a rundown of some wild cards to consider come Sunday:
Peter Sagan – For many, Sagan’s not a wild card—he’s a favorite. But to me, his chances Sunday are bit less certain for one simple reason: his inexperience. The Ronde is a race where knowing the roads and climbs counts for a lot—knowing where to be and when to be there helps on narrow roads that crisscross the Flemish Ardennes. Sagan’s also still more of a sprinter than an attacker. While he’ll certainly be a major threat should a large group hit the line together, I wonder if he can follow the attacks of men like Boonen, Cancellara, and Van Marcke on the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Vacansoleil – Only two teams boast having a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders: Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Vacansoleil. Stijn Devolder finally looks as if he’s once again the rider who won the Ronde in 2008 and 2009. His teammate Bjorn Leukemans has finished 8th, 4th, and 7th in the last three editions, while Marco Marcato is proving himself to be a pretty handy cobbler as well. If they ride cohesively Sunday and use their underdog status to their advantage, they could easily pull-off an upset.
Oscar Freire – Freire’s best finish in the Ronde was 24th back in 2004, but the Spaniard finished 2nd at the E3 Prijs and 4th at Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend. His GW result was no surprise—it’s a sprinter’s race and the Freire’s won it before. But the E3 Prijs? That’s not the kind of race where we would expect Freire to perform well as sprinters like Freire often don’t survive the constant pace changes of the E3’s difficult route. That said, Freire’s Katusha squad is surprisingly strong and boasts a talented and experienced lieutenant in Luca Paolini. If he can stay out of trouble and some how survive a dense stretch of bergs between kilometers between kilometers 208 and 242, Freire could pull-off the one of the most surprising wins of his career.
Team Sky – Sky’s seemed to have a lost a bit of swagger since Bradley Wiggins won Paris-Nice and Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen looked as if they could go 1-2 in Milan-San Remo. They now head to the Ronde with Boasson Hagen and the Spanish cobble stalwart, Juan Antonio Flecha. Flecha hasn’t raced since breaking a bone in his hand earlier this month, but still bears watching this weekend—even if he doesn’t have the legs to be his team’s captain, he’ll certainly prove to be a valuable domestique and valuable decoy for his Norwegian teammate.
BMC – After signing Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd this past off-season, BMC had a right to expect big things at the Tour of Flanders. But with Gilbert and Hushovd out of shape (Gilbert) and recovering from illness (Hushovd), the team will likely be turning to Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, and Greg Van Avermaet in this year’s Ronde. Of those three, Ballan’s been the most impressive so far and as a former Ronde-winner, will likely be the team’s most protected rider. There’s also the poetic justice to consider: a Ronde victory from one of the team’s “original” classics stars would add an interesting twist to the team’s off-season spending-spree.
Leif Hoste – Hoste was the Ronde’s runner-up in 2006 and 2007. That was indeed a long time ago, but something tells me the Accent.jobs-Willems Verandas rider has one more high finish in him. He’s enjoyed a trouble-free build-up; he’ll have the entire team at his disposal; and he’s riding with a chip on his shoulder as his team was (justifiably) left off the list for Paris-Roubaix.
The Weather – The current forecast calls for a mostly cloudy day with only a 20-percent chance of rain and temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. Then again, this is Belgium and we’re still a few days out—things can change quickly.
The Course – Perhaps the biggest wild card of all, the Ronde’s new course will certainly throw a wrinkle into some riders’ plans. Three trips over the Kwaremont and the Paterberg (the last of which comes only 13-kilometers from the line) will certainly make tactics interesting while negating the chances, in my opinion, that we’ll see a large group sprint. Tactics will play a tremendous role and at least one favorite could be caught-off guard by being either too aggressive or too hesitant.
So while you’ll hear a lot about Boonen, Cancellara, (Vanmarcke if you listen to me), and Pozatto over the next few days, don’t forget that wild cards often play a big role in the cobbled classics. Even with a stacked field and a new course, this year might be no different.
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Last week we discussed the Men of the Hour—a rather easy-to-compile list of the men we all expect to be at forefront of the sport in 2012. But while the sport’s Men of the Hour might be easier to identify, a list of Up-and-Comers is certainly more interesting to make as it allows for more prognosticating. After all, it’s always fun to go out on a limb—especially if you turn out to be right.
Colombia – Something tells me we’re on the verge of a renaissance, as Colombians have been taking some pretty huge scalps at the U23 level over the past few seasons including the Baby Giro (now called the GiroBio), the Tour de l’Avenir, and the World Road Championship. It’s therefore no surprise that much of the country’s best talent—men such as Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Duarte, Carlos Betancur, and Sergio Henao—is now turning heads as pros. But 2012 should see an even better sign of the South American nation’s resurgence as the Colombia Coldeportes team—the first full-time, European-based Colombian squad the sport has seen in years—has already gained entry into some of Europe’s biggest races. The team’s main goal? A Tour de France invite—and they think they can get it as soon as this year.
Sep Vanmarcke – Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke burst onto the scene with a second-place ride for Topsport Vlaanderen at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, beating George Hincapie and Philippe Gilbert in the process and earning himself a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. Fast forward one year and there was Vanmarcke again at the front during the classics, this time burying himself for the sake of teammates Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, and Tyler Farrar, yet still finding the strength to finish 4th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and 20th in Paris-Roubaix. Thor’s departure bumps Sep up a rung in the squad’s cobbled hierarchy this year, and considering Farrar’s inconsistency on the pavé, Vanmarcke could easily find himself in a position to win a race for himself this spring.
Salvatore Puccio – This is more of long shot, but keep an eye on Team Sky neo-pro Salvatore Puccio, the winner of the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. Talented young Italians come a dime-a-dozen, which explains why most find themselves signing their first professional contracts with Italian squads. Not Puccio though, his impressive U23 resume turned some World Tour heads and the Italian was smart to take advantage of an opportunity to join one of the best cobbled teams in the sport. If Puccio’s decisions on the road prove to be just as savvy, expect big things.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – The losers in the Philippe Gilbert sweepstakes made smart choices on this winter’s transfer market, bolstering their stage race ranks with the additions of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, while avoiding a potential logjam at the head of their classics squad (I doubt Gilbert and Tom Boonen would have fared well together in the same team). With Martin and Leipheimer, the team now has two men ideally suited to the route of the 2012 Tour de France—and both can counted-on to win their share of stages and overall titles in smaller stage races as well. In fact, the season’s already started-off on the right foot at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with Francesco Chicchi winning two stages and Leipheimer currently leading the overall after winning the ITT. Better still, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel appear healthy, fit, and motivated. Their return to form is certainly a good sign for the spring classics—and for a team looking to be competitive all season long.
Thomas De Gendt – Another member of the Topsport Vlaanderen class of 2010, De Gendt had quite an impressive World Tour debut with Vacansoleil in 2011, winning stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. A man built for the Ardennes, De Gendt should get more chances to ride for himself in all the spring classics this year—especially if Stijn Devolder proves unable to regain his Ronde-winning form from 2008 and 2009. But while the classics remain a goal for any Belgian, I wonder if De Gendt’s destined for greater things—like grand tours. The 2011 Tour de France was the 25-year-old’s first ever 3-week event. Not only did he finish the race in his first try, he finished 6th on Alpe d’Huez and 4th in the ITT in Grenoble, Stages 19 and 20 respectively. Those are telling results, for at a time when most riders were getting weaker, the Tour rookie was getting stronger.
Rabobank’s Young Grand Tour Men – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is still only 25 and despite his poor Tour de France last year remains Holland’s best hope for grand tour success. However, with men like Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema nipping at his heels, he’ll need to do something soon (like, now) if he wants to stay relevant. In 2010, Kruijswijk finished 18th in his first Giro d’Italia—at barely 23 years of age. He bettered that result considerably last year, finishing ninth and then following it up with a stage win and third-place overall at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later—against some very tough pre-Tour competition.
As for Mollema (who along with Gesink just extended his contract with Rabobank through 2014), his 2011 was even more impressive: tenth in Catalunya, ninth in Paris-Nice, fifth in the Tour de Suisse, and fourth at the Vuelta (along with the green points jersey and a day in the red jersey as race leader). Like Gesink, Mollema’s also a talented single-day rider who should challenge in hillier classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and il Lombardia (I’m still getting used to the new name too). And Mollema’s only 25 as well—that makes 3 super talents for Rabobank—all under the age of 26. With all three riders deservedly expecting grand tour leadership in 2012, Rabobank’s management might have a problem on its hands—then again, it’s not a bad problem to have. And in case they’re reading, here’s an easy answer: Kruijswijk gets the Giro, Gesink the Tour, and Mollema the Vuelta.
France – Yes, we’re still waiting for the true return of the French to the top steps of the sport’s most prestigious podiums—but there’s good reason to believe it’s going to happen soon. First of all, a very talented group of young French professionals is on the rise, led by men such as Pierre Rolland, Arnold Jeannesson, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s been a while since France had a rider who looked as if he could develop into a legitimate grand tour contender and now they have three.
Better yet, France has been identifying and developing young riders (juniors and espoirs) better than any country in the world, as evidenced by Frenchmen winning three of the last four junior world titles and two of the last three U23 world titles. While a rainbow jersey is never a one-way ticket to greatness, the French Federation’s run of success certainly bodes well for the future—especially since world champions aren’t the only quality riders the program is producing. And last but certainly not least, one has to expect that Thomas Voeckler’s heroic 2011 Tour de France (coupled with a terrible showing in the 2010 World Cup by the French national soccer team) has inspired at least a handful of young French boys to choose cycling over soccer that otherwise might not have. It only takes one rider to change a generation’s perception of a sport—maybe Voeckler’s stunning performance will reap greater rewards 5 to 10 years in the future.
Young Italian Sprinters – If last season is any indication, Italian fans might soon have someone other than Daniele Bennati to hang their field sprint hopes upon. Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani won a combined 29 races in 2011—and all but a few came via field sprints. The three still need to prove themselves in World Tour races (only Viviani won a race at the World level—and even that was in Beijing), and Modolo’s the only one to have started a grand tour (twice, in fact—but he failed to finish both times). But at ages 24, 22, and 22, respectively, they still have time to develop.
Project 1t4i – Even though it’s a Dutch squad, Project 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) will be led by two young Germans this year: 2011-revelation Marcel Kittel and HTC-import John Degenkolb. It goes without saying that Kittel is an up-and-comer—the 23-year-old won 17 races in 2011 (18 if you count the Amstel Race in Curacao) including four stages each at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Kittel’s biggest victory—and proof that he’s a force to be reckoned with in coming years—came at the Vuelta a Espana in September, the first of what looks to be many grand tour stage victories throughout his career.
No slouch himself, Degenkolb won six races in 2011 including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. That said, it’s clear that Degenkolb (also 23 years of age) is a future classics star—he reminds me of Matthew Goss in that he’s a talented field sprinter who shows even more potential as a classics hard man. Last year, the rookie was given a start in every spring classic that mattered from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (he finished 12th) to Paris-Roubaix (he finished 19th). With 1t4i already receiving several wild card invites to just about every cobbled race on the calendar, Degenkolb will be given new chances to impress in 2012.
So that it for my Up-and-Comers for 2012. If all goes as planned, our 2017 Men of the Hour will be a list of mostly Colombian, French, and German riders.
Who’s on your list Up-and-Comers for 2012? Come join me on the limb!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Grinta: the hidden ingredient of great racers
The Italian word grinta has become so prevalent in cycling journalism that a Dutch-language magazine in Belgium chose Grinta for its title. Translated, it means grit, spunk, bravery, or endurance. And when European sportswriters use the word to describe an underdog’s performance in cycling’s Heroic Era of the early 20th century, they are likely thinking of all four of those nouns.
They would certainly use grinta to describe how Eugène Christophe, when leading the 1913 Tour de France, broke his forks on the descent of the Tourmalet, walked more than 10km with the bike on his shoulder, crying all the way, to reach Ste. Marie-de-Campan, where he repaired the forks at the village blacksmith’s shop, and then, despite having lost a couple of hours, carried on riding over the Aubisque and Peyresourde climbs to Luchon — and still finished that Tour in seventh overall.
Journalists would use grinta to tell the story of Fausto Coppi’s winning the Cuneo to Pinerolo stage of the 1949 Giro d’Italia in a 192km-long solo breakaway over five mountain passes … or describe the heroism of Eddy Merckx at the 1975 Tour when he battled to second place overall after being punched in the liver on one stage and breaking his jaw on another … or relate how Lance Armstrong picked himself up after being floored at the foot of Luz-Ardiden, fighting back to the lead group and then charging clear to win the stage (with a cracked frame) to clinch the 2003 Tour yellow jersey.
So how does the latest generation of pro racers shape up to those cycling legends? Do they exhibit the same levels of grinta as their predecessors?
Take reigning world champion Mark Cavendish. The man with the flashy sprint certainly has to show grit and bravery in negotiating a risk-filled mass stage finish at the Tour or Giro. But his performance that impressed me the most was when he won (with Rob Hayles) the Madison title at the 2005 track worlds in Los Angeles.
The then teen-aged Cavendish was a last-minute replacement and had never teamed with the veteran Hayles before. They overcame their lack of competitive experience together with sheer class. The pair was impressively fast in lapping the field to take the lead with 28 laps to go — and even more impressive, Cav especially, in hanging with the pack as team after team launched attacks in the closing kilometers.
At the end of that high-speed 50km contest, Cav was in tears, not only from the thrill of becoming world champion at 19 but also from the pain of racing (and beating) the world’s best trackmen. That took grinta! In an emotion-tinged interview, the young Brit said that winning a rainbow jersey was “something I’ve been waiting for all my life.”
Another young racer who has displayed enormous amounts of grinta in his so-far brief career is Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway. He needed plenty of nerve on stage 7 of the 2009 Giro to join a breakaway on a treacherously wet (and cold!) alpine descent into Chiavenna, where he easily took the sprint. Even more impressive was his victory a month earlier at Ghent-Wevelgem.
Also on a cold, rainy and windy day, Boasson Hagen wasn’t supposed to win this rugged Belgian classic. His teammate Mark Cavendish was favored, but the Brit flatted just as the race split apart. Their team director Brian Holm told me he wasn’t expecting anything from the Norwegian. After all, he explained, it was only three days after a difficult Tour of Flanders, where Boasson Hagen “had diarrhea and had to stop to go to the toilet three times…. That must have taken something out of him.”
Despite that, Boasson Hagen got into the front group at Ghent-Wevelgem with two senior teammates, both former winners of this classic, George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt. Still, no one was expecting anything from the 21-year-old Norwegian when on the final climb, the ruggedly steep, cobblestone Kemmelberg, he jumped away from the Hincapie group and bridged to lone leader Aleksandr Kuschynski of Belarus — and after pacing each other for the remaining 35km, Boasson Hagen led out the sprint from 300 meters to win easily.
Hincapie could have complained about an upstart colleague stealing the race, but realizing the scale of Boasson Hagen’s grinta, the American admiringly said, “It’s huge for Eddy … and it doesn’t get much tougher than today.”
Like Cavendish and Boasson Hagen, the Slovak phenom Peter Sagan has quickly established himself as a rider of immense talent and grit. Only two months into his pro career, at age 20, he shocked the cycling world by taking two stage wins at the 2010 Paris-Nice in bitterly cold weather — the first by out-sprinting a select group of six that included Spanish stars Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador; the second with a solo attack on a steep climb 2km from the finish.
A few weeks later at the prologue of Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie, I witnessed his ambition first-hand. Standing beyond the finish line, with no other reporters around, I was able to talk to riders as they circled back after finishing their time trials.
Sagan raced across the line head down, riding as hard as he could, and didn’t see what time he’d done. He said he understood a little English, so I indicated that he was one second slower than the fastest rider, Italy’s Marco Pinotti. Sagan knew enough English to react to his narrow loss with: “F–k! Only one second?” And the very next day, goaded by his prologue defeat, he proved the strongest sprinter, with the most grinta, in a wild bunch finish.
Like the legends of the past, modern stars Cavendish, Boasson Hagen and Sagan all have immense talent and, even more important, that indefinable gift called grinta.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
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For reasons unknown, this past Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on crashes in pro racing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this year’s Tour ended. Mostly because the reasons that most proffer don’t really explain what’s going on.
The Times article is here.
The biggest problem of all is that we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, and the Times is no different. The reporter gathered his anecdotes and offered them up. Ten deaths since 1995, though few mentioned because, they apparently aren’t worth mentioning. Thankfully, he does point out that no one is investigating. Seems to me that this is a matter for the UCI and the professional rider’s union (CPA) to investigate, but he doesn’t ask Pat McQuaid, nor CPA chief Gianni Bugno what they’re doing about it.
If racing my bike was my job, I’d want them investigating. At the very least, maybe an investigation of the reported crashes at the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. The three big stage races. Maybe looking at them can help point to things that might merit further research.
With the Tour, the biggest cycling stage in the world, every team has an incentive to ride aggressively, everyone wants an opportunity to get in front of the camera, everyone wants a dig at a stage win, just about every racer is probably thinking, no matter what their assignment is, if they just do one more thing, they might be able to score yellow, just for a day, and it won’t derail their team leader’s chances at his stated goal. Seems like a recipe for lots of crashes.
Stakes are highest for most riders and teams at the Tour, no doubt. But there are big crashes at the Vuelta and Giro as well, and they often take out a favorite, or two. And every year, there are crashes at the Tour, and crashes at every race. Every year at the Tour, and other big races, favorites are either caught up in the crashes and drop out or are caught behind them and are knocked out of contention before the critical stages or sectors begin. We’re not always paying attention in other races. But somehow, this year seemed different. There were lots of explanations; the most interesting I read was a cleaner peloton is both more evenly matched and more fatigued.
Maybe more evenly-matched causes some problems, but more fatigued I find hard to believe. It strikes me that such a comment assumes that every last cyclist was doping, because otherwise, the clean cyclists would probably have been more fatigued ten or fifteen years ago than they are now. Even if every last cyclist was doping, there is plenty of evidence that there are both high-responders and low-responders to doping products, EPO in particular, and the low-responders would presumable be at a greater disadvantage than they are today, assuming a cleaner peloton.
I think it’s safe to rule out road conditions as being a big problem, as road conditions are generally better today than they were in the past. I also think it’s safe to rule out “road furniture” on the transitions in and out of towns for most crashes. I know the road furniture theory is a popular one, and the awful Craig Lewis-Marco Pinotti crash at this year’s Giro has been attributed to road furniture, but even their crash deserves at least a little questioning. Was there any footage of it? I couldn’t find any. Maybe road furniture is responsible, but maybe it was just what they hit and the cause was something else. Maybe the crash would have been worse had it not been for the road furniture. I have no reason to doubt either person’s sincerity, but unless we have a better idea of what happened it seems premature to assign blame.
To me, another strike against the road furniture theory is that at this year’s crash-ridden Tour, it didn’t seem like any crashes were the result of road furniture; most of the heavily-reported crashes seemed to have happened on straight roads or in the mountains. There’s also evidence that the Tour and other big races work with local governments to remove some traffic circles and speed bumps where they think their removal will improve safety. I noticed what appeared to be traffic circle modifications during the World Championships as well. I think it’s safe to rule out narrow roads, as not only were wider roads once seen as a culprit, but narrow roads were once all the peloton used.
I’d like to offer up a few alternative explanations to the common cries.
It’s possible that crashes are as common as they’ve always been, but that broken bones are more common today than they used to be, making the crashes more serious and more frequently race-ending. As such, I think one potential culprit is osteopenia. If you haven’t heard of it, consider it osteoporosis lite: bone mineral density is lower than normal. I think it should be considered a factor in all crashes where bone breakage occurs, whether it is in training or racing. Anecdotally, there seem to be more and more stories about guys breaking bones in training crashes the past several years. Even “normal” cyclists can have reduced bone density as a result of all the miles they put in, so a Tour rider, particularly a climber who has meticulously starved himself down to his ideal race weight, probably has thinned his bones beyond what the average mileage-hound has done. I heard physiologist Allen Lim discussing hearing about crashes and thinking that every crash has the potential to break bones during a Grand Tour. When I put it to Dr. Michael Ross, a former team doctor, he unhesitatingly said, “yes.” It also could be a sign of cortico-steroid abuse, something Dr. Ross pointed out, as the result is same. Yes, these guys are racing hard, yes, they’re going fast, yes, they’re hitting the ground hard, but looking at how emaciated riders like Brad Wiggins and Chris Horner are at their Tour weight, I have to imagine their bodies catabolized bone matter to keep going. It strikes me as an evolutionary strategy that certainly helped early humans survive famines, but it also could be how crashes are breaking collarbones, ribs, pelvises, wrists, hips, and so on. For all the discussion about injuries resulting from race crashes, lots of guys seem to be breaking bones training; Dutch rider Robert Gesink had his season ended for him shortly before the World Championships when he fractured his leg while out training.
Some have suggested the culprit could be the machine itself. The bikes don’t seem to be the problem as catastrophic failures from normal riding have largely disappeared, and it’s hard to believe that a bike breaking after hitting the ground is injuring riders. Others point to stiffer wheels and too-light bikes, but I doubt those lines of thinking. I’ve seen little evidence that wheels are vertically stiffer than they used to be, which would be where the problem would lie in straight-line crashes. Tires are just about the same today as they were 25 years ago, and bikes still flex and tire pressure can be adjusted to account for stiffness. Steve Tilford speculated on his blog that some of the sketchy downhill riding was due to racers not training on their race wheels. He may be right. But I think the problem might extend to all racing. Not all carbon-fiber braking surfaces brake equally well. Some are grabby, some pulse, some give the unsettling feeing they’re not slowing down, even in the dry, some work fine in the dry but are questionable in the wet. Most pros can only ride the wheels they sponsors want them to ride, so they could be stuck between taking the risk of crashing or taking the risk of getting dropped more easily. I think many amateur racers would take the same risk, at least in the dry. People might suggest disc brakes, but I even with discs, tire traction, or lack thereof, will be a problem in the wet.
Another potential culprit is the training schedules of racers. At one time, pros probably raced much, much more before showing up to the Tour—the Tour came after both the Vuelta and the Giro and racers typically raced from February into June with smaller training blocs in between. Yes, they might not have been as fast as racers today, their training and nutrition wasn’t as precise, but by racing, they were training themselves to be more skilled in the peloton. And now the peloton is bigger. Riding in a pack takes skill, a skill that is honed by practice, unless there are some Wii games I don’t know about. Some weekend warriors in the US race more than Tour contenders between the start of their season and the Tour. Consider that this year, Chris Horner didn’t race at all between his victory at the Tour of California in May and the start of the Tour. Alberto Contador didn’t race at all between his Giro victory and the Spanish nationals, where he raced the time trial and road race, and then came to the Tour.
Or maybe the converse is true. Cadel Evans barely raced all spring and seemed to be able to race his few races with no crashing issues, though his preference is to race at the front. Maybe the pack as a whole are better bike handlers today and more comfortable riding closer to one another which makes it easier to crash several riders at once when one thing goes wrong.
The biggest issue is probably randomness, volume, and the nature of riding in the peloton. Just take an assembled group of cyclists, 189 riders is 21 teams worth, and have them ride an average of 100 miles a day for three weeks. Even if they were all riding solo, there would be crashes. Knowing how many riders go down in training and how frequently would be interesting to know, and something to compare to all the race crashes.
Some point to the packs being bigger as a culprit in crashes. There could be something to this, though the phenomenon of large fields began in 1986 when 210 riders started. And this time probably is when the super-large fields started occurring at the top races throughout cycling. Previous to this, it seems that races were in the range of 30-50% smaller and largely composed of teams racing in their home country—the Tour with French riders on French teams, the Vuelta with Spanish riders, the Giro with Italian and so on.
For riders, racing is their job and they owe it to themselves to demand research to determine what the real issues and culprits are. At the same time, they probably shouldn’t push for any changes until serious research is done. As a response to the extreme length of the 1987 Tour (22 teams of nine riders apiece riding 25 stages totaling 4231km), there was a movement to standardize the lengths of Grand Tours and shorten stages. This was seen as doing, among other things, reducing the incentive to dope. We know how that worked out.
Race radios are sure to come up as a safety thing. There’s no easy answer with them. Yes, directors can alert their riders to dangers up ahead, but there are downsides to trusting the voice in your ear. What if the director is wrong? What if riders interpret silence to mean everything is safe ahead? When hard helmets were first mandated by the USCF in the 1986, there was an argument that people would take more risks because they knew their head was safe. That never made sense. But I read a story about Erik Zabel’s role for the HTC-Highroad team. Supposedly he’d preview the stage finish and then relay what he saw to the team car, and Ralf Aldag or Brian Holm would then tell the riders. He apparently saw a turn that looked tricky but was convinced the leadout train could take it without braking. Hincapie lead through, didn’t touch his brakes, and Cavendish won the stage. Did this make for safer racing? The first guys made it through and probably so did the entire field. But what if he had been wrong? Is it good for the riders to trust such judgements?
It’s situations like these when I’m glad I’m not a pro bike racer. But it also makes me wonder how safe conditions are for all bike racing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Every now and then the stars align and a brand will rise from relative obscurity to consummate “it” brand of the day. BMC bikes have been around for years, but when the company began sponsoring a team with a heavy American contingent, stateside sales took off like a Bugatti Veyron in the hands of a 16-year-old.
The Swiss brand didn’t overhaul its line to appeal to Americans. All they did was hire George Hincapie, Cadel Evans and a few other Anglo-revered riders. Those riders mount either the company’s top-of-the-line Impec or the Team Machine. The Race Machine comes from the same molds as the Team Machine. The two models are differentiated by weight and rear triangle stiffness, with the Team Machine getting the more compliant version of the stays. Like many of the company’s previous designs the Team and Race Machines feature tubes with a great many angular profiles, chamfers and bevels. The frame looks like something out of a 1990s sci-fi film.
But while I couldn’t make sense of the tube shapes early on, I was hearing from a number of friends who had purchased one of the various BMC models just how much they enjoyed the bikes. Depending on the build, the bikes I was seeing weighed in the 15- to 16-lb. range—not ultra light, but not beastly, either.
The roots of this review began with a brief test ride of a Team Machine at Interbike last fall. My sense then was that the handling was sharp but not to the point of twitchy and the road feel of the bike was muted, taking the sting out of the road surface without feeling dead.
My 57cm Race Machine weighed in at 15.5 lbs. It was spec’d with a SRAM Red group (complete except for Force brakes) and Easton EA70 wheels, plus Easton EC70 carbon bar and EA70 alloy stem. The frame demands a proprietary carbon fiber seatpost. I didn’t have a chance to weigh the frame alone, but given the bike’s overall weight and the fact that it would be easy to shave weight with a lighter set of wheels, lighter bar and stem, plus a few other minor touches, I think one could break 15 lbs. without any drastic acts.
According to my contact at the company, the Race Machine is meant for riders who aren’t spending six hours in the saddle day after day. Not a bad idea given that describes … most of us. Their reasoning is that shorter group rides and racing criteriums demands a bike that will deliver the utmost in performance (rhymes with stiffness) when accelerations can’t be compromised by comfort.
On the road, I expected a bike that was going to beat me up. I’ve been on some stiff bikes and if this was their stiffest bike, a frame so stiff that guys like George Hincapie were choosing a more compliant bike for their racing, I figured I might lose a filling or two.
I’m pleased to report that I have yet to schedule a meeting with my dentist. Yes, the bike is stiff, but on rides between 70 and 80 miles, it wasn’t so stiff that I regretted taking it out. It’s probably not the choice for anyone doing double centuries and the like, but how many bikes are?
The Race Machine had some surprises for me, though. The geometry really wasn’t what I expected. As bike companies have come to embrace the idea that road bikes can come in more flavors than just racing and time trial, many have sharpened the handling of their most race-oriented bike in order to make room for a grand touring bike. BMC has not done this.
On paper, the Race Machine (and by extension, the Team Machine, as they share molds) may be one of my favorite all-around road bikes. My 57cm frame featured a 57.5cm top tube, a slackish 72.5-degree head-tube angle, a 40mm-rake fork, a steepish 73.5-degree seat-tube angle and an 18.8cm head tube. On paper, it’s one of the better-fitting frames on the market for me. A pinched nerve in my neck doesn’t permit me to achieve pursuiter-like positioning anymore and while I’ve had some concerns about keeping enough weight on the front wheel for descending, I’ve managed the transition to the higher bar position with few challenges. With a head tube this long, I end up with fewer spacers between the top cap and the stem (it’s possible that I could ride this with no spacers between the top cap and stem). The top tube length was nearly ideal for me, as was the steeper-than-usual seat tube; my femurs are half the length of my leg and I usually end up with a saddle fairly forward on the rails, especially if the seatpost features a lot of setback—a lot in my case being anything more than a single centimeter.
Next up: Part II.
On a day when there were fireworks at both the Giro d’Italia and the Amgen Tour of California, the biggest news in cycling came from neither event. CBS News announced that George Hincapie admitted he used EPO and testosterone. Not only that but at times he got both drugs from Lance Armstrong. At other times, Armstrong got both drugs from him.
At first blush, it appears that Hincapie has taken former teammate Tyler Hamilton’s lead and made a public confession. But that’s not what happened. Hincapie’s grand jury testimony was leaked to CBS News. You may recall that when called before the grand jury Hincapie switched attorneys after his initial visit. Conjecture at the time was that he began by stonewalling and when confronted with the testimony others provided, he decided to come clean, to use a turn of phrase, and confess his full knowledge. If what CBS News reports is accurate, Hincapie did indeed make an about-face.
So where does this leave us?
As a witness, no person is more damming to Armstrong’s story than Hincapie. His name and reputation in the sport are sterling. People will fight for the opportunity to discredit either Hamilton or Floyd Landis. But with Hincapie, the opposite is true: People will fight for the opportunity to defend him.
Armstrong spokesman Mark Fabiani has taken a measured approach to the Hincapie revelation, saying they won’t comment on what happened with the grand jury. It’s a punt because if they attack Hincapie, he’ll do what he should be doing right now.
Which is telling the whole of cycling all that he did, all that he knows.
Reached by Cyclingnews, VeloNews, Velonation, etc., Hincapie has steadfastly (Isn’t that how he does everything?) refused to comment on the Novitzky investigation, his testimony or his past. He told the Telegraphe, “I want the focus on the future of the sport, what it’s done to clean itself up. I believe in cycling and want to support it.”
I’m sorry, George, but where doping and cycling are concerned, that’s not really an option.
He has an additional motivation not to confess anything publicly: Unemployment. Even if he only confesses acts that are seven years or more old, a public admission is very likely going to end with him being dismissed from Team BMC.
This is the very problem I wrote about for the LA Times four years ago. If we want to learn the full extent of doping, we must offer those involved (riders, coaches, managers, soigneurs) an incentive. Unemployment doesn’t qualify.
There will always be riders who dope, people whose narcissism and insecurity in their ability, or lack thereof, will drive them to take any step necessary to win. They are in the minority. The bulk of the peloton says they prefer clean racing.
It’s impossible to surmise what Novitzky’s endgame is. Most of the obvious charges against Armstrong are kaput thanks to the statute of limitations. It may be that all Novitzky has left is a smear campaign against Armstrong. After all, who else would leak that testimony? Who else has the motivation? And while a smear might sound childish, the combination of Hincapie’s and Hamilton’s confessions may be all that’s necessary to dry up donations to the LiveStrong foundation. And if LiveStrong folds up shop, we award game, set and match to Novitzky.
Hamilton returned his gold medal to USADA. What’s next? Do we march a goon squad into Armstrong’s place in Austin and start packing up trophies? Rewriting the record books is no solution. I don’t write that because I was a fan of Hamilton or Armstrong when they won, I write that because even riders I didn’t like—Bernard Kohl, for instance—are part of our memory of those events. They are still in the pictures.
Hincapie is right that the sport has done a lot to clean itself up. He could be instrumental in even more progress.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
A love of gear is an expansive love. And it’s not a love that blooms in isolation. It grows from our infatuation with an activity and the gear is nothing more than the physical manifestation of that activity.
I won’t say that cyclists love cycling more than runners love running, but the devotion seems different, and—naturally—to our eyes, more enjoyable.
It should be no surprise that our love for the bicycle itself extends to the stores that sell them. If the bicycle is a good time waiting to happen, then a shop is countless adventures yet to unfold. In each of those bicycles—even the ones we wouldn’t buy—we see our lives as we want them to be: The excitement of dressing for a five-hour ride with friends every day of the week.
And yet, we love bike shops not because of what they are, but in spite of what they are. Few of us have the sort of shop we dream of in our backyard. Even when our buying experience isn’t what we’d like, or as good as we believe it ought to be, we continue to love bike shops at least as a concept.
I’ve been in plenty of shops that were professional enough, but seemed empty of passion and that seems to be where I draw the line. Unless a shop is doing something to excite me about my sport and make me feel like my riding life is important to them, I won’t really go in for more than chains and cables.
I think that may be why operations like Mill Valley’s Above Category and Studio Velo engender such fanatical love. They are to cycling what Miracle-Gro is to roses. Ah, to live in Marin County. Slurp.
So why don’t we love the average bike shop the way we did back in the 1980s? My memory of shops back then was that they were cool the way Fonzie was cool to me when I was in second grade.
Once I take off the rose-colored glasses, I can see that a retailer had a much easier job in 1986 than they do today.
The number of bike categories they had to address was much less. The shop I dealt with had road bikes, a few mountain bikes and at Christmas they’d get a few kids’ bikes. One or two of the bikes were touring models and the rest were traditional road racers.
Replacement parts held in stock mostly amounted to freewheels, cables, brake shoes, a headset or two and five sizes of ball bearings. Aftermarket upgrades amounted to one or two groups, a few choices in pedals, a couple of rear derailleurs and a saddle or two.
In all honesty, the clothing selection was lousy.
I don’t recall anyone angling for a discount back then. Of course, the most expensive bike my shop carried didn’t cost 10% of the annual income of its more affluent customers, either. Even college students could come up with $1000 to purchase a Campy-equipped Torpado.
All of the decoration around the shop involved photos of PROs riding the bikes the shop carried.
Retailing is a much tougher business today. Online competitors and deal-shopping consumers squeeze profits like a kid with a ketchup bottle. The number of models a brand offers has in many cases tripled or quadrupled and retailers are rewarded better pricing based on just how much they stock. The array of replacement parts a shop is expected to stock has multiplied with the ferocity of cockroaches in a dirty kitchen. And while a frameset could hang on a wall for three or four years without losing its relevance or value, the same cannot be said today.
So who’s to blame? Well, this is one of those occasions, like the economy, where there’s plenty of blame to go around. Consumers (us) can be faulted for wanting deals that ultimately undermine the service we get when we visit a shop. As they shave their margins, they shave their ability to sit on large amounts of stock and their ability to pay livable wages to their staff, which hurts their ability to keep employees who talk like Competitive Cyclist copy.
The shops can be faulted for caving to every request for a deal. If they all held firm like unionized workers, we’d all be paying list prices. Some can also be faulted for running their shops like sidewalk lemonade stands and not really knowing basic statistics that are key indicator’s for their business’ health or how to connect with consumers on an emotional level.
Finally, the bike companies get a buffet-sized helping of blame for their ever-increasing number of SKUs. Let’s ask the question: How many price points do you really need to hit?
Speaking of connecting with consumers on an emotional—even visceral level—I’ve got to ask why none of the bike companies out there have resorted to enticing men with sex. You know, busty babes? I’m guessing that shots of Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie stand in for traditional hard bodies for most women (well, if not, it works for my wife), so why not use the Bay Watch approach to luring more men into the sport?
I don’t mean to trivialize the issue, but a great many very large, very successful multi-national corporations resort to sex as a means to short-circuit men into purchasing their widgets. Given how ubiquitous the approach is, isn’t it fair to point out that the approach continues to be used because, well, because it works? Wouldn’t photos of Heidi Klum astride a Specialized Amira bring some new consumers into the sport, riders who won’t expect Dura-Ace at 105 prices?
I don’t really think sex is the answer, but it is such an obvious tactic that if bike companies and retailers are missing this one, I can’t help but wonder what else they are missing.
And yet, like the faults we find in our best friends, we’ll never stop loving bike shops. Around every corner, in nooks and basements, they never fail in their ability to fascinate and excite.
What a difference four years makes. Had Floyd Landis woken up on July 28, 2006, and called a press conference to announce to the world all the things he detailed in his e-mail to USA Cycling’s Steve Johnson, we might have hailed him as a sort of fallen hero.
An Icarus of the pedals.
As fate would have it, Landis’ non-negative result for was synthetic testosterone, essentially the one drug he claims, now, not to have taken in 2006. So he believed what almost anyone else would have believed—that he could beat the rap.
He didn’t count on a few details. First, he didn’t count on the Machiavellian nature of USADA, which pursued the case with a ‘win at all cost’ mentality. As I wrote in my BKW post “At All Cost,” had this case been tried in the American judicial system, Landis would have won the case because the lab performing the work did such a lousy job. However, USADA’s zero-tolerance policy toward doping also happens to be a zero-loss policy as well, and clearly Landis didn’t understand that actual innocence didn’t matter.
He also didn’t count on the details of a phone conversation he had with Greg LeMond would become public. LeMond’s recounting of the conversation will seem entirely more believable for anyone who previously doubted his testimony. Four years hence, one wonders if Landis comes up with a different answer to the rhetorical question he put to LeMond when urged to confess. He asked, “What would it matter?”
While we don’t know the exact details of what Landis confessed to Johnson and the UCI, we have the substance in broad strokes.
1) He did drugs, lots of them, beginning in 2002.
2) Lance Armstrong did more drugs and told him who to work with.
3) George Hincapie did all the same drugs.
4) Former roommate David Zabriskie did drugs.
5) Levi Leipheimer did drugs.
6) He has no proof.
7) Those closest to him didn’t know what he was up to.
8) He confessed to his mom.
We should note that Landis has only implicated American riders. One wonders why he has implicated only Americans. Could his full and complete confession be leaving something out?
After four years of his strenuous denial and seven-figure defense that was, in part, paid for by fans who believed his innocent plea, for him to come out now and say, ‘Okay, now I’m telling the truth,’ credulity strains. UCI President Pat McQuaid said Landis’ statements were “scandalous and mischievous.”
Even if we believe everything his says lock-stock-and-barrel, in this case, his truth-telling comes a little late. As a means to restore respect and reputation, his confession is a failure. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen. On this point, McQuaid has it wrong.
“These guys coming out now with things like this from the past is only damaging the sport,” McQuaid told The Associated Press. “If they’ve any love for the sport they wouldn’t do it.”
Come again? We don’t want dopers to confess? Please tell us you’re kidding.
I’ve heard from several sources that Landis has been drinking heavily, heavily enough to affect his fitness and relationships. It’s a tragic turn of events given what he has already experienced. It’s easy to connect the drinking with the events he says he is now confessing, the truth he needs to get off his chest. In 12-Step programs, you are directed to confess your wrongs, but there follows quickly one caveat: except when to do so would hurt others.
Which brings us to the meat of his confession. Most of what he has confessed involves others. To clear his conscience, he need only to confess his own deeds. Whatever motivation he has to tell what he says Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie have done, it isn’t his conscience; it sounds more like retribution—‘If my ship is going down, I’m taking yours with me.’
Backing this up is the fact that Landis pointed out the eight-year statute of limitations, which is due to run out on some of the alleged acts, as a motivating factor to come forward.
“Now we’ve come to the point where the statute of limitations on the things I know is going to run out or start to run out next month,” Landis said. “If I don’t say something now, then it’s pointless to ever say it.”
He wants cases opened into the acts of Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie while there’s still time, which means his confession is less about his acts than the acts of others. He wants to see others punished.
But he says he has no proof. Naturally, Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie will have to defend themselves and because Landis detailed them in e-mails, meaning they were written, not spoken, they rise from slander to libel. Because these are public figures, the odds are against any of them meeting with success in a court room following a civil suit.
Landis may have a tougher time defending himself than they do.
Federal investigator Jeff Novitzky, the man who headed the investigation into Victory Conte and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) is one of the investigators involved in checking out Landis’ claims.
One of the first questions Novitzky and other investigators will have for Lanids will be who his sources were. Where did he buy his stuff? His suppliers may have sales records. If they have sales records that can substantiate his claim that he was a customer, then it is also possible they would have sales records detailing their relationship with other clients, and it’s a safe bet that if it is true Landis was taking his cues from others, then he was probably shopping at the same market, so-to-speak.
Armstrong has pulled out of the Tour of California following what sounds like a minor crash. Cynics will probably surmise that it was a strategic decision to avoid media scrutiny.
And what of Landis’ actual confession? That is, what of what he claims he did? These would be new infractions worthy of their own case. While I have advocated a truth and reconciliation commission to encourage athletes to come forward and tell what they know, this case is ugly and really perverts the way you hope justice will work.
Should Landis get a slap on the wrist in exchange for his cooperation? Or should he get the proverbial book thrown at him yet again? It may be that he has already come to the conclusion that his return to the pro ranks won’t be what he had hoped and that he is ready to depart.
If that’s the case, then his confession is 200-proof revenge.
This case may well make it to a grand jury, which will be much more likely to result in actual justice than any action USADA takes. Getting at the real truth should be the goal, rather than just handing out punishment.
But what of Landis’ original case? He was within his right to defend himself and we should never forget that. However, his defense built a sham identity that wasn’t enough to escape conviction. Hopefully, that will be a sobering thought to the new generation of dopers, a la Bernard Kohl and Riccardo Ricco. However, Landis’ defense turned into the most costly prosecution ever for USADA. In mounting such an expansive defense he cheated not just those who contributed to the Floyd Fairness Fund, but all those of us who follow cycling and depend on the anti-doping authorities to uncover and prosecute doping. One wonders who escaped prosecution because USADA was mired in a more than year-long case with Landis.
I have often thought that there will come a day where we look back on the EPO era with different eyes. We should never condone doping, but there may come a point when we understand that during the time when EPO use was rampant, there were no heroes and very, very few villains, that these men were flawed, like all of us, and a product of their time.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International