Working as a full-time writer and editor in cycling for more than 40 years, and having raced and trained with elite athletes in Europe before that, I was always aware of the sport’s netherworld. The place where riders decided to cut corners, imitate their peers, or accede to the desires of their team directors; the place where soigneurs, sports doctors and charlatans made it possible for those riders to use performance-enhancing drugs or methods. None of them, especially the riders, was willing to talk about that netherworld because they feared reprisals from their peers, penalties from the authorities, or loss of respect from the public.
And without true details, other than rumors or circumstantial evidence, it was impossible for journalists to write accurately on that netherworld. Like others, I did write what was possible. Over the past two editions of this column, I’ve mentioned some of the many stories I wrote about doping in cycling at a time when very little was known about the subject outside of Europe, including lengthy pieces I did for The Sunday Times of London.
I’d become that newspaper’s first ever cycling correspondent (and its sister daily, The Times) in the mid-1970s, but only after writing long and persistent query letters to the editors to plead my case. That led to those once-stodgy British publications taking cycling as a serious sport, and I began contributing daily reports from the major events (including road, track and cyclo-cross races), which heightened the editors’ and the readers’ interest in our sport.
Because I developed a good relationship with the newspapers’ sports editors, they put their trust in me to write that first long piece on the Tour de France doping scandal of 1978 (when race leader Michel Pollentier was thrown out of the race after trying to cheat the anti-doping control). That article was among the first in the English language to (slightly) lift the curtain on modern cycling’s doping culture.
As with the decade before that Tour and for five years more after it, I followed the race alone, taking lifts with journalists from Belgium, France and Spain. That experience allowed me to get their different perspectives on cycling and to learn about their general reluctance to say much about doping. From 1984 onward, I traveled in cars whose expenses were paid for by the magazines that I edited: Winning for three years, Inside Cycling for a year and VeloNews for more than two decades.
Through the years, I traveled with a lot of different sportswriters. One was Irish journalist David Walsh who first came to the race in the mid-1980s. We often shared interview opportunities, like with Sean Kelly on the evening of a stage, when the three of us sat on the curb outside Kelly’s hotel, chatting about the race. David was with Irish newspapers at first, and beside his reporting work he wrote books about Kelly (published in 1986) and the other Irish star, Stephen Roche (1988).
While driving Tour stages, we had lively discussions about developments in the race and problems in the sport. Those discussions increasingly turned to doping after David’s pro cyclist friend Paul Kimmage retired from the sport and wrote his book “Rough Ride” about his four years in the European peloton, detailing the widespread use of drugs. Not a cyclist himself, David grew more skeptical about the sport, but that didn’t stop him writing “Inside the Tour de France,” his 1994 book of interviews that included a chapter on Tour rookie Lance Armstrong.
During our Tour discussions, I was often in the minority when David and VN colleague Charles Pelkey were in the car, talking about our suspicions on which riders were or weren’t doping. I liked to give riders the benefit of the doubt, but I always listened to their arguments, and their views inevitably influenced what I’d write—especially after the disastrous “Festina Affair” Tour of 1998. By then, David was a full-time reporter for The Sunday Times covering several sports including cycling. As a result, my lengthy piece on that doping scandal was one of the last I wrote for The Sunday Times after more than 20 years as its cycling correspondent.
Like many other longtime cycling journalists, I’ve been accused of being too close to the athletes and the teams to write with detachment about doping, and as such I’ve been complicit in cycling’s doping problems. That’s a subject I want to address in a future column. For now, I want to add that we always suspected that Tour contenders and champions in the 1990s, including Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, Bjarne Riis, Tony Rominger and Jan Ullrich, were using EPO.
But there was never any evidence of that possibility until a trunkload of EPO (and other banned drugs) was discovered by the French police in Festina soigneur Willy Voet’s team station wagon on his way to the Tour in ’98. That opened everyone’s eyes to how cycling’s doping problems had escalated in the EPO era when use of the blood-boosting drug was so prevalent because it was not only very effective but also remained undetectable in lab tests for more than a decade.
I’ll continue my thoughts on doping in my next RKP column, focusing on the years when more truths started to emerge from cycling’s netherworld.
Follow me on twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Milan-San Remo has probably weathered more controversies in its 106-year history than any other classic. Last Saturday’s race, headed by Simon Gerrans’ upset victory, was no exception. And the announcement by the organizers on Monday that they are (again) thinking of making a few modifications to the 298km course has only added fuel to the perennial arguments about the race not being hard enough to reveal a true champion. But let’s first look at this year’s edition, how some riders raced smarter than others, how misfortune played an important role, and how teams could have changed their tactics to achieve a more favorable outcome.
The big pre-race favorite according to the European media was Team Sky’s world champion Mark Cavendish, but the Manx sprinter rode like an amateur on the challenging climb to Le Mànie, with more than two hours of racing still remaining. He was unable to hang on to the peloton being pulled by the Liquigas-Cannondale squad, and despite his Austrian teammate Bernie Eisel dropping back to pace him on the second part of the 4.7km uphill and down the twisting descent, Cavendish only returned to the back half of a divided peloton — which never caught back to the leaders.
The four Sky riders with Cavendish and Eisel in that 50-rider group chased for a long time, hoping to catch back so they could help their other team leader, Edvald Boasson Hagen. But it was already obvious when Cavendish was dropped on the Primavera’s first serious climb that he was on a bad day and he would never have been a factor on the climbs near the end. So, even though he’s the world champ and a former San Remo winner, Cavendish should have been left to his own devices. Tam Sky would then have had a chance to truly help Boasson Hagen. As it was, the Norwegian had only Swedish teammate Thomas Lövkvist for company in the front group. They finished 25th and 30th respectively, 20 seconds behind the winners, after being caught behind a crash on the descent of the last hill, the Poggio.
Besides Cavendish, the European media’s other big favorite was Vincenzo Nibali, fresh from his winning Tirreno-Adriatico. His Liquigas-Cannondale team did enjoy an almost perfect Milan-San Remo. It set the fast pace on Le Mànie to dispose of Cavendish, along with sprinters such as Alessandro Petacchi, Tyler Farrar and Gerald Ciolek. It took control again up the next-to-last climb, La Cipressa, with Valerio Agnoli and Daniel Oss pulling the peloton at a ferocious speed. And the team’s tactics did succeed in keeping its leaders Nibali and Peter Sagan out of trouble, whereas another pre-race favorite, Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, got caught up in a small pileup that prevented him contesting the finale.
But perhaps Liquigas didn’t think out their tactics perfectly. They still had four men in the front group of 50 as they hit the foot of the Poggio with 10km to go, as did Rabobank (with sprinter Mark Renshaw), while both Katusha (for three-time San Remo winner Oscar Freire) and GreenEdge (with defending champion Matt Goss and Aussie champ Gerrans) had three riders left.
Rabobank took to the front on the last climb, hoping to keep the group together on the 3.7km climb for Renshaw, before Liquigas sent Agnoli away on a solo attack. The Liquigas team rider’s short-lived move did put pressure on the other teams and allowed Nibali to follow the wheels before making his decisive acceleration a kilometer from the top, but Agnoli’s energy might well have been reserved for a different tactic.
Liquigas could have had Oss set a high pace for Nibali, with Agnoli riding shotgun on Nibali’s wheel, followed by Sagan, the sprinter. In that scenario, when Nibali jumped on the steepest, 8-percent grade, instead of having Gerrans on his wheel, Agnoli, Oss and Sagan could have let a big gap open. That would have given Nibali a chance to reach the summit alone and maybe use his renowned descending skills to stay away for the win. Instead, the attentive Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek was close enough to jump across to Nibali (and Gerrans) when the Poggio gradient eased before they began the zigzag plunge into San Remo. Of course, any different tactic by Liquigas may have favored the enormously strong Cancellara, who would probably have caught Nibali anyway.
An even more intense and uncertain finale would have resulted had misfortune not intervened. But for his fall on the Cipressa, Belgian champion Gilbert looked strong enough to be in the mix with Nibali on the Poggio. And in the first turn of the Poggio descent, the young Belgian Kris Boeckmans of Vacansoleil crashed right in front of a feisty Tom Boonen, which resulted in 30 riders getting delayed and unable to rejoin the 11 men chasing Cancellara, Gerrans and Nibali. Without that incident, a 40-man chase would almost certainly have closed the 12-second gap held by the front trio before the remaining 3km of flat roads into the finish. As it was, Gerrans sprinted to the win over Cancellara and Nibali only two seconds before Sagan led in the chase group.
Which brings us to the proposal by the organizers, RCS Sport, to move the finish line from the San Remo harbor to the Corso Cavalotti, 2km closer to the Poggio. Their goal is to avoid a field sprint and give attackers on the Poggio a better chance of staying away — especially a solo breakaway by a Nibali. A second part of their plan is to make the Cipressa climb more decisive by using an adjacent steeper road to encourage the strongest riders to create a select group of breakaways that could fight out the victory over the Poggio.
This latter scenario has been the goal at several points in the history of Milan-San Remo. After superstars Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Louison Bobet took six consecutive wins in the immediate postwar years, the Classicissima turned into a sprinters’ paradise, with the race ending in bunch gallops through the late-1950s. As a result, the Poggio was inserted in 1960 and breakaways again became the more common outcome.
By the 1970s, field sprints again became more usual, and if it hadn’t been for the seven wins by Eddy Merckx, most of them earned in late breakaways, the organizers would have already started looking for more climbs to include. They did add the Cipressa in 1982 — and breakaways again became more common, resulting in high-profile victories for Giuseppe Saronni, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon, Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci.
As roads became smoother, teams stronger and riders collectively fitter and faster, Milan-San Remo again became the realm of the sprinters. From 1997 onward, there were four wins by Germany’s Erik Zabel, three by Spaniard Oscar Freire and single wins for Mario Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish, while attacks in the final kilometer were successful for Andreï Tchmil (1999), Filippo Pozzato (2006) and Cancellara (2009). There have been no successful long-distance breakaways since Gabriele Colombo won at San Remo 16 years ago.
This week’s RCS announcement has resulted in riders saying that the new finish — less than a kilometer from the end of the Poggio decent — is recipe for disaster. But few riders could go downhill faster than Cancellara did last Saturday, when the only Poggio crash happened near the top before the chasers hit top speed. As for toughening up the last third of the race, the inclusion of Le Mànie on 2008 is already having an effect (ask Cavendish!), while making the Cipressa a little harder will stretch the sprinters and perhaps encourage the attackers.
But whatever results from another set of changes to the course, Milan-San Remo will remain a classic that will always generate plenty of excitement — and controversy!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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
Last week Omega Pharma-Lotto director sportif Marc Sergeant squashed conjecture concerning Philippe Gilbert’s goals for the 2011 season. In an interview with Cyclingnews Sergeant refuted the idea that Gilbert might be a contender for the 2011 Tour de France.
Sergeant indicated that in his talks with the star, Gilbert indicated that he would try for the Vuelta or the Giro before attempting the Tour.
“I know that it could be too hard to try at the Tour de France where the riders there are at the highest level and he was certainly talking about the future, not 2011,” Sergeant told Cyclingnews. “Let’s say he wins Amstel again and perhaps one day the Tour of Flanders, then he can turn around and say that he’s proved he’s one of the best one-day riders and now he’s going to try and tackle something different but we have to wait and see.”
In this, Sergeant is both right and wrong. He’s right in that should Gilbert win the Amstel Gold Race again and follow with that a win in the Tour of Flanders in a subsequent season then he will have proven that he is one of the best one-day riders around. Why he would choose to go after Amstel again rather than going after Liege-Bastogne-Liege is another matter entirely. After all, there’s prestige and then there’s prestige.
As for tackling something different following successes in Amstel and Flanders is where Sergeant’s judgement comes up short. Sergeant could use a history lesson, in fact.
Victory in either the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix actually narrows a rider’s career prospects rather than broadening them. Not that a rider will earn less than he deserves or wind up on a lousy team (though that happens often enough—it’s just not the fault of the race), what it means is that the races a rider is likely to win narrows dramatically.
It’s a stunning piece of information.
Gianni Bugno was the last rider to win both the Tour of Flanders and a Grand Tour (the Giro). He won the Giro in 1990 and Flanders in ’94. The last rider to win both Flanders and the Tour in the same year was Eddy Merckx in ’69. Before that it was Louison Bobet in ’55. Merckx is the only rider to win all three (Flanders, Giro and Tour). Rudy Altig won the Vuelta in ’62 and Flanders in ’64, making him the only rider to win both the Vuelta and Flanders, other than Merckx.
It may seem like a rider as talented as Philippe Gilbert should be able to take a season and focus his efforts on a singular goal such as the Vuelta or the Giro. However, history suggests that as riders have increased their specialization in targeting specific races a curious clumping of victories has taken place.
In short, riders who win the Northern Classics, such as the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad don’t go on to Grand Tour wins.
Recent guys to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad include Johan Museeuw, Thor Hushovd, Juan Antonio Flecha, Peter Van Petegem, and Michele Bartoli, guys who didn’t come close to winning a Grand Tour. The last guy to win both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a Grand Tour was the outlier of outliers: Eddy Merckx. He took both in 1973.
Since 1973 if you won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, one thing in your career was assured: No Grand Tour victories for you. It seems entirely counterintuitive to suggest one victory could prevent another, but victory in this semi-classic includes a dead end.
Gilbert has already won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice, in 2006 and 2008. He’s 28. By the time he was 28, Eddy Merckx had already won four Tours de France, four Giri d’Italia, the Vuelta a Espana, two World Championships, five Milan-San Remos, the Tour of Flanders, three Paris-Roubaix, four editions of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and two Tours of Lombardy, plus three editions of Paris-Nice. If Gilbert was destined to rival Merckx, the world’s number three rider would have shown more by now.
It’s impossible to say that Gilbert absolutely won’t win a Grand Tour in his lifetime, but I don’t think I will come up with more conclusive evidence of a finer rider who simply doesn’t have the credentials to suggest he will win a Vuelta, Giro or Tour.
There may not be a faster rider alive unable to win a Grand Tour.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International