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
I ache for Thomas Voeckler. I ache for Andy Schleck. I ache for the end of the Tour de France.
In a tweet today David Millar wrote that as he rode in his car back to the hotel they approached a rider in Europcar kit; they slowed and Millar turned to lock eyes with a “tired and broken” Voeckler, adding, “Tragic doesn’t come close to describe.”
The cynical among us will gouge Voeckler for hubris, for dreaming the impossible. To do so is to inject cyanide into the very notion of ambition. That he discovered immortality seemingly within his grasp and dared reach for it is to be human. I admire that he maintained humility enough to insist that he would lose the race even as it was obvious he’d mortgage his home for an extra 20 watts.
That he rode the finest time trial of his life today is, perhaps the greatest honor he could bestow on himself and the race; yes, he honored the Tour de France today with his ride. It was his greatest ride because it showed his real character. Unlike so many riders who slink to the back of the field to nurse their destroyed legs once a win slips from grasp, Voeckler did the unthinkable. He continued to ride like a contender, even when it would no longer reward him. How else do you tell the world you’ve come to believe, not just in yourself, but even that you’re a part of what may be a new cycling?
That again. Yes, I do believe that his performance says that the peloton is cleaner. Kolobnev and his new honorific aside—don’t get me started—what I hope, what I’d like to think is that for the riders who may really achieve something noteworthy, maybe they’ve gotten the message that those of us who actually care about the sport want them to do it without the drugs. Voeckler has, for my money, delivered the defining ride of this year’s Tour de France. I’ll always remember 2011 for Cadel Evans’ victory, but I hope that the years don’t fade Voeckler’s ride in yellow for me. For each of us who ever dared dream, his days in yellow and his ride today testify to what we may find within reach.
Next year, he’ll arrive with the bit between his teeth. For that, I can’t wait.
If you’d asked me yesterday how I’d feel once Evans accomplished what most of us thought was an essentially foregone conclusion, I’d have told you I’d be happy for him. He rode with confidence and authority. Who knows if the tactical genius that caused him to conserve when possible and burn any time he needed to deliver was his or his director’s. It hardly matters. His yellow jersey is our res ipsa loquitur.
What surprises me is how I view the remarkable reversal of fortune Andy Schleck has suffered. Second. Again. The comparisons to Raymond Poulidor are unavoidable now. Even if he does win someday, his record will be compared to every great rider who failed more than he succeeded. Unless, of course, this is the last of his non-wins for a while.
And while I do think he’s likely to win at some point, I’ll tell you now, unless Contador makes the same mistake again next year (if you can call victory in the Giro a mistake—and I know that’s a real stretch), the Spaniard will arrive at the start with a thirst for blood that even Eric Northman would admire. I don’t plan to bet against him.
I’ve been rough on Contador in the past. Let me say this: His ride will be a more enduring feature of this year’s race than Fränk Schleck’s was. He rode with determination and pride, even after he knew he couldn’t win. He never capitulated, and in that regard, he and Voeckler have something in common.
It’s fair to wonder if Contador will be at next year’s Tour, depending how the CAS proceeding goes. Its postponement has turned his case into a goat parade: something so stupidly slow and pointless that no one can bear to watch. Should the case against him be upheld and a suspension imposed, I say let it stand for time served. Re-writing this year’s Tour de France will be as distasteful as a shot of straight alcohol. Isopropyl, that is.
Whatever he may or may not have done last year was last year, if he doesn’t test positive this year, then let the clean result stand.
Back to Schleck the younger: I think I have some sense of his pain. The buildup to him taking the maillot jaune off Voeckler was so slow and yet seemingly assured as to be steamroller inevitable. To see him stripped of it only 24 hours later was a change in tempo that would rattle any audience. I wonder just how comfortable he allowed himself to get in that jersey. Did he sleep in it last night just so he could have it against his body for as long as possible? We can’t fault him for hoping; Voeckler taught that master class. Still, no one can be surprised by this outcome and there surely is pain in that for Schleck.
Tomorrow the Tour de France ends, and that is my biggest ache of all. For me, the end of the Tour is nearly the end of summer itself. Monday has the crushing letdown that December 26 did when I was a child. Perhaps this is what a heroin or coke addict feels when they crash. That first post-Tour ride bears an emptiness in the air. It’s as if summer itself has gone stale. I buck up after a few days, but it’s been this way for me since ’86.
Finally, cycling isn’t really known for tracking its own statistics particularly well. We roll blindly into each new season, often without any clue as to what the past tells us about it. A fair chunk of my work for peloton magazine has looked at the sport’s history and what it tells us about some of our greatest racers and races. While I think numbers can be manipulated for nefarious purposes with greased ease (just consider gasoline), the Tour has something to say about Evans’ looming win. Tomorrow afternoon, the Aussie will become—at age 34—the oldest first-time winner of the Tour de France in the modern age.
What I think this tells us is that as racers have become more disciplined about all aspects of their training, from diet to rest to number of days raced, they are extending their careers. This shouldn’t surprise us; crashes notwithstanding, this is how guys like Jens Voigt and Chris Horner remain useful—scratch that, strong—with their 40th birthday around the corner.
There may be hope for us all.
Vive le Tour.
Image: Chris Wallis, Photosport International
Author’s note: Padraig asked me if I thought there was a previous Tour edition that might have similarities to the 2011 Tour and if a look at the older race might give some insight as to what this year’s race might bring.
The 2011 Tour is a victim of Tour boss Prudhomme’s war on time trialing. With four summit finishes, yet only 42.6 km of individual time trialing and no white-road or pavé stage to lend balance to the race, it is effectively a climbing championship.
That brings to mind the 1976 Tour with it’s back-to-back eight stages of climbing plus a Puy de Dôme hilltop finish. Yes, there were 89 km of individual time trialing in 1976, but that year the mountains overwhelmed everything. Also, it featured a war between the era’s two best climbers, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien van Impe. Perhaps there is a parallel to 1976’s brutal war in the mountains in the coming match between 2011’s most prominent contenders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
Zoetemelk, the better climber that year, lost the race because of a profound tactical failure in the face of Cyrille Guimard’s brilliant management of van Impe. The only major errors that I can remember Contador committing (I’m sure RKP’s readers will remind me of others) involved his dallying in the back of the peloton and missing important moves. I doubt his new director, Bjarne Riis, will let the Spaniard sleep at the wheel in this Tour.
It may come down to a series of drag races up France’s steepest slopes, but I’m betting that given the likely even match between the two, it will be like 1976 and again come down to the rider with the greater strategic savvy. I believe that plays to Contador’s advantage.
Like Tour father Henri Desgrange wrote, it’s head and legs.
Eddy Merckx started 1976 by winning Milan–San Remo for a seventh time. He also won the Catalonian week. But that was it for Merckx in the win column for spring in 1976. He managed a second place in the Tirreno–Adriatico stage race, but only sixth place in Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. In the Giro, he came in eighth. Not able to find his usual form and needing surgery for saddle-sores, he did not enter the 1976 Tour. There would be no rematch between Bernard Thévenet and Eddy Merckx that year.
There were plenty of other fine young cannibals, however. Bernard Thévenet went to the Tour fresh off a win in the Dauphiné Libéré. Luis Ocaña, looking for another shot at glory, had come in second in the Vuelta and fourth in Paris–Nice.
Joop Zoetemelk was the odds-on favorite. He won Flèche Wallonne and had high placings in the Dauphiné Libéré, Amstel Gold and the Tour of the Mediterranean. He had been second in the Tour in 1970 and 1971 and had never finished worse than fifth.
Every Tour is different. Each year the cast of players changes slightly as older racers retire and new young men with fresh ambitions arrive. The route changes each year as well and with differing emphasis on flat roads, time trials or mountains, different racers can find some years suit their talents more than others. The 1976 Tour was clockwise, starting on France’s west coast, circling north up to Belgium before heading south for the Alps. There the 1976 Tour departed from tradition. Normally after one of the 2 major mountain ranges is ridden there are several transition stages before the hard climbing resumes. This year there were 5 days of climbing in the east, starting in the Vosges in stage 7 and ending in stage 11. Then there was a rest day before 3 very hard days in the Pyrenees. That was 8 days in a row of mountains. If that weren’t enough, stage 20 finished at the top of the Puy de Dôme. Importantly, 5 of the mountain stages ended with hilltop finishes. This is a huge advantage to smaller riders who don’t have the power to maintain a time advantage gained on a climb through a long descent and flat roll-in to a distant finish line. No wonder Lucien van Impe announced that he would be riding this Tour for the overall win, not his usual King of the Mountains title. Van Impe’s changed circumstances involved more than just having a race itinerary that matched his talents. His previous manager was Jean Stablinski who is often credited with having one of the finer tactical minds in cycling. Stablinski was replaced with Cyrille Guimard who had mounted a real threat to Merckx in the 1972 Tour. Guimard was so recently retired that he was still the 1976 French Cyclocross Champion. In taking over the Gitane-Campagnolo team he remade the squad so that van Impe would have better support. As we’ll see in unfolding years, Guimard not only knew how to ride and win his own race, he knew how to get others to ride and win for him.
There was a new comet in the heavens. Belgian racer Freddy Maertens turned professional in 1972. His fantastic sprinting, time trialing and overall strength let him win all but the steepest races. In 1976, the first year he rode the Tour, he won 54 races including the World Pro Road Championships and the Belgian Road Championships. His erratic career was at its peak in 1976 and 1977 before it fell off to almost nothing. Then, in an astonishing act of will, he rebuilt his career and won the 1981 World Championship.
Maertens did not disappoint Belgian fans who were unhappy with the absence of Merckx. From the gun he was on fire. He won the Prologue time trial thumping a monstrous 55 x 12 gear, and then the first stage. Then he won the stage 3 time trial, beating such accomplished chrono men as Ferdi Bracke by 2 minutes, 23 seconds, Raymond Poulidor by almost 3 minutes and Bernard Thévenet by 3 minutes, 32 seconds. When the Tour entered the Vosges mountains he won stage 7. In stage 8, he managed only second to Peugeot’s ace sprinter Jacques Esclassan.
With the riders poised to begin their days in the Alps in stage 9, the General Classification stood thus:
1. Freddy Maertens
2. Michel Pollentier @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
3. Hennie Kuiper @ 3 minutes 16 seconds
4. Jean-Pierre Danguillaume @ 3 minutes 23 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 3 minutes 31 seconds
Van Impe, Zoetemelk and Thévenet were sitting at about 4 minutes behind Maertens.
Stage 9 was 258 kilometers that had the pack ascend the Luitel before finishing at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez, the first hilltop finish there since 1952. Even sprinter Freddy Maertens made it over the Luitel with the good climbers. But when Peugeot rider Raymond Delisle opened the hostilities on the Alpe, Maertens was tossed. From then on Zoetemelk and van Impe attacked and counter-attacked each other all the way to the top with Zoetemelk getting the win by 3 seconds. Poulidor, Thévenet, Baronchelli, Kuiper and the others were what a modern military man would call “collateral damage”. They were incidental victims of a relentless shooting war between the 2 best climbers of the time. The result of the day’s brawl was that van Impe was in Yellow with Zoetemelk trailing by only 8 seconds. Maertens was third, down about a minute.
The next day was another mano-a-mano climbing fight between the 2 leaders. After ascending the Lautaret, the Izoard, and the Montgenèvre, Zoetemelk was again only able to beat van Impe and Thévenet by 1 second. Zoetemelk now trailed van Impe by only 7 seconds in the Overall. The pace was so hard 7 riders were eliminated for failing to finish within the time limit.
The third mountain stage was one of those races in which the peloton just doesn’t feel like racing. They let José-Luis Viejo ride away without being chased. His final margin of victory, 22 minutes, 50 seconds, was the Tour’s largest postwar solo winning margin. The peloton was content to rest their tired legs. Indicative of the slower pace, sprinters Gerben Karstens and Freddy Maertens took second and third places.
With the Alpine stages completed, here was the General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 7 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor @ 1 minute 36 seconds
4. Bernard Thévenet @ 1 minute 48 seconds
The first stage in the Pyrenees, the fourth mountain stage, was another odd day. Van Impe and Zoetemelk were only worried about each other. They kept an eye on each other and let Raymond Delisle, an excellent but slightly aging racer, get away. Delisle was eighth in General Classification when the stage started. When it was over, Delisle was in Yellow and van Impe and Zoetemelk were almost 3 minutes behind.
The next stage didn’t affect the standings. The big guns held their fire. The only notable event was that stage winner Regis Ovion failed his drug test and his name was stricken from the record of that stage. Willy Teirlinck was awarded the stage.
It was stage 14, the fifth of these mountain stages, that made history.
In previous Tours, van Impe had won 3 of his eventual 6 Polka-Dot Climber’s Jerseys, in the same fashion as modern riders Laurent Jalabert or Richard Virenque have done it. They would go out early on a mountain stage and scoop up the points in all the early mountains, not always worrying about getting caught and dropped on the final climb by the men seeking overall victory. The Polka-Dot Jersey was generally van Impe’s entire ambition. In later years he has said that he regrets those years in which he turned to trying for the overall victory. He thinks he might have had 10 Climbers’ Jerseys instead of his 6.
There were 4 major climbs that day. On the second, the Portillon, Luis Ocaña attacked. Ocaña was no longer the dominating rider he had been in the early 1970s, but he was not to be ignored. Cyrille Guimard, van Impe’s director, told van Impe to go after him. Van Impe was reluctant: Guimard and van Impe did not completely agree on tactics and goals that year. Guimard told van Impe that if he didn’t go after Ocaña, he would run him off the road with his car.
Van Impe took off and caught Ocaña on the Peyresourde, the day’s penultimate climb.
Zoetemelk didn’t chase him. He may have thought van Impe was chasing some Climbers’ points and not really going after the overall lead. And surely by now Ocaña was nothing more than a shell of his former self. Instead Zoetemelk sat on the wheel of the man whose Yellow Jersey was threatened by the attack, Raymond Delisle. Normally this would be an astute strategy, forcing the leader to defend his position. It would have been astute except that Delisle could not close the gap. In fact, Delisle was exhausted and eventually lost over 12 minutes that day. Up the road, van Impe and Ocaña were flying.
Ocaña did the hard work on the flat road leading to the final climb, towing van Impe. Ocaña remembered that Zoetemelk had never helped him in his struggles with Merckx. This was a tough bit of pay-back.
On the final climb, the Pla d’Adet up to St.-Lary-Soulan, van Impe jumped away from Ocaña and won the stage and the Yellow Jersey. Zoetemelk came flying up the hill, going faster than van Impe, but it wasn’t good enough. He was 3 minutes, 12 seconds too late.
The Ocaña/van Impe/Zoetemelk attacks shattered the peloton. 45 of the remaining 93 riders finished outside the time limit. Peter Post, the manager of the Raleigh team asked on behalf of the riders that the Tour management waive the elimination rule for the stage. They did.
The new General Classification with van Impe back in Yellow:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 3 minutes 18 seconds
3. Raymond Delisle @ 9 minutes 27 seconds
4. Walter Riccomi @ 10 minutes 22 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 11 minutes 42 seconds
The final day in the Pyrenees, even with the Aspin, Tourmalet and the Aubisque, didn’t change the top of the standings. The lions had to digest their kill.
The stage 17 time trial showed that van Impe was a more rounded rider than one might expect. Ferdi Bracke won it but van Impe was able to beat Zoetemelk by more than a minute. That put Zoetemelk 4½ minutes behind the Belgian climber with only one more chance to take the Tour leadership, the stage 20 climb to the top of Puy de Dôme. Zoetemelk won the stage, beating van Impe by an unimportant 12 seconds. Impressive, but to no real effect. That moment of careful, conservative calculation on the road to St.-Lary-Soulan cost him the Tour. Zoetemelk was the better climber that year, but van Impe had the tactical genius of Guimard to give him the needed push.
Thévenet had been losing time and at stage 19 he finally abandoned, weakened by hepatitis.
Lucien van Impe won the Tour, beating Zoetemelk by 4 minutes, 14 seconds. It was his only Tour victory and he remains the last Belgian to win the Tour. To this day, he is troubled by Guimard’s remarks that van Impe would not have won the Tour without his encouragement and threats. Van Impe says that Guimard talked to him as if he were a child, and after the 1976 season, van Impe changed teams.
Freddy Maertens won 8 stages in the 1976 tour, equaling the record set by Charles Pélissier in 1930 and Merckx in 1970 and 1974.
And Raymond Poulidor? He finished third, 12 minutes, 8 seconds behind winner van Impe. This was the fourteenth and final Tour de France for the 40-year old Poulidor. He abandoned only twice and finished with 3 second and 5 third places. In all those years of riding the Tour from 1961 to 1976 he never spent a single day in Yellow, not one. Poulidor’s 8 times on the podium is a record. Zoetemelk, Hinault, Ullrich and Armstrong each accumulated 7, and Anquetil, Merckx and Garrigou 6.
Celestino Vercelli, riding with G.B. Baronchelli, Walter Riccomi and Wladimiro Panizza on the SCIC-Fiat team, talked to us about the 1976 Tour: “This was the year the Cannibal Eddy Merckx stayed home. This Tour was won by van Impe. Every stage of this Tour was very, very hard. Just to get an idea of the difficulties we faced, in Bordeaux, in incredibly hot weather, we raced 3 stages the same day. In the evening in the hotel (hotel is a big word for the place we stayed), we slept in big rooms together. I was running a high temperature, I was very tired and hot. I don’t have words for that day on the bike.
“When we were riding the Pyrenean stages, the asphalt melted. You can imagine the huge difficulties we faced riding in the mountains in the soft asphalt. In the descent the situation was better with the tires holding the soft road very well. The big problem was the difficulty in removing the asphalt from our legs in the evening.”
Final 1976 Tour de France General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe (Gitane-Campagnolo): 116 hours 22 minutes 23 seconds
2. Joop Zoetemelk (Gan-Mercier) @ 4 minutes 14 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor (Gan-Mercier) @ 12 minutes 8 seconds
4. Raymond Delisle (Peugeot) @ 12 minutes 17 seconds
5. Walter Riccomi (SCIC) @ 12 minutes 39 seconds
1. Giancarlo Bellini: 170 points
2. Lucien van Impe: 169 points
3. Joop Zoetemelk: 119 points
1. Freddy Maertens: 293 points
2. Pierino Gavazzi: 140 points
3. Jacques Esclassan: 128 points
Excerpted from Bill and Carol McGann’s The Story of the Tour de France, Volume II. You can find both volumes here.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
[Editor's note: Bill and Carol McGann recently published the first in their two-volume history of the Giro d'Italia. I haven't had time to actually read it yet, but I recall from previous conversations Bill's assertion that the Giro has been a consistently surprising race though its history. He's given us the opportunity to run an excerpt here, and for those of you unfamiliar with his previous work, this is a terrific example of his ability to connect dots to paint a portrait of the time. Herewith, we present you with the 1967 Giro in less than 3000 words.]
1967. What a field assembled for the fiftieth Giro d’Italia! After years of being an Italian race, the Giro was once again an international competition. There was Motta with Rudi Altig and Franco Balmamion as gregari; there were Anquetil, Bitossi, Taccone, Francisco Gabica, Eddy Merckx, Ferdi Bracke, van Looy, Adorni, Gimondi (who suffered a terrible spring and had real doubts about his condition), Wladimiro Panizza, Silvano Schiavon, Zilioli, José Pérez-Francés, Vicente López-Carril and Roger Pingeon to name some of the outstanding stage racers of this or any age who assembled to start at Treviglio, south of Bergamo. There were past and future world champions Marino Basso, Jean Stablinski, van Looy, Merckx, Harm Ottenbros, and Gimondi, and future World Hour Record holders Ole Ritter, Ferdi Bracke, and Merckx.
Belgian Eddy Merckx was riding his first Grand Tour. He turned pro in 1965, just short of his twentieth birthday. He had already won 80 amateur races, including the World Road Championship (at nineteen). His first year as a pro riding for Solo-Superia with the imperious and difficult Rik van Looy was an unhappy one and in 1966 he switched to Peugeot where he would spend two years. It was in the black-and-white-checked kit of Peugeot that Merckx entered the Giro, riding with Ferdi Bracke and Roger Pingeon. Merckx’s spring was simply wonderful with wins in Milan–San Remo, Gent–Wevelgem and the Flèche Wallonne.
In 1967 Anquetil didn’t have to deal with the poisonous relations between Ford France and Ford Italy since Bic, which at that time made only pens, now sponsored him and his core of capable domestiques.
At 3,572 kilometers, the 1967 Giro was the shortest since 1960. It had 23 stages (two half stages crammed into the last day) for an average stage length of 155 kilometers, close to current Giro lengths.
Torriani had planned to kick off the Giro with a nighttime race through Milan but the stage had to be cancelled when anti-Vietnam war protestors filled the streets.
After five stages of good hard racing, the Giro arrived at Naples for a transfer to Sicily. Michele Dancelli was the leader with Pérez-Francés second at thirteen seconds. So far the best riders were sitting towards the top of the standings but no large gaps had appeared.
Stage seven, ending atop Mount Etna, broke the peloton into bits for the first time. Climbing and sprinting ace Franco Bitossi was first to the top of the volcano. Coming in about 20 seconds later, Motta was the first of the contenders, followed by Merckx, Gimondi, Zilioli, Pérez-Francés, Adorni and Pingeon. Anquetil, Altig and Balmamion were a further twenty seconds back. Dancelli remained in pink for another day.
Racing resumed on the mainland the next day, where the mountainous roads of Calabria were too much for Dancelli. He lost over five minutes, making Pérez-Francés the Pink Jersey with Aldo Moser second at just three seconds. Just three seconds, that’s gotta hurt.
The next test was the hilly stage twelve, starting at Caserta and finishing with a climb to Block Haus, an old German fortification sitting over 2,000 meters high in Abruzzo. At this point Pérez-Francés was still the leader with everyone who mattered but Anquetil within 73 seconds of the Spaniard.
At the start of the Block Haus climb the riders had already spent almost seven hours in the saddle with the Macerone, Rionero Sannitico and Roccaraso ascents behind them. The leaders were together and ascended the steep climb at a good pace. With two kilometers to go, Zilioli unleashed a devastating attack that only one rider could match, young Merckx. For Merckx, this was unknown territory. He was reaching the end of two weeks of nearly continuous racing and faced yet another week to go. Was Merckx a man for the Grand Tours or a single-day rider in van Looy’s mold? The world was learning. He said about that moment, “I still felt good. I hadn’t ridden many mountains before so I kept following, but when Italo Zilioli attacked with two kilometers to go, I felt good enough to chase.”
Yes he did. After sitting on Zilioli’s wheel for a kilometer he lit the jets and bounded for the summit with such power and speed that Merckx’s win at Block Haus in the 1967 Giro became one of the enduring legends of the Giro. It was Merckx’s first Grand Tour stage win.
Zilioli wasn’t left far behind, though. He came in at 10 seconds, Pérez-Francés (still in pink after Block Haus) at 20 and Anquetil at 23.
Merckx’s brilliant ride moved him up to third place, 30 seconds down.
For all the hard racing that had occurred, going into the 45-kilometer stage sixteen individual time trial at Verona the gaps between the riders at the top of the standings remained razor-thin:
1. José Pérez-Francés
2. Aldo Moser @ 18 seconds
3. Eddy Merckx @ 50 seconds
4. Silvano Schiavon @ 53 seconds
5. Italo Zilioli @ 1 minute 3 seconds
6. Gianni Motta @ 1 minute 13 seconds
The time trial, ridden on a cold and rainy day, was won by Danish neo-pro Ole Ritter. Ritter’s performance left Anquetil incredulous. He said that Ritter’s pace of 47.3 kilometers per hour would have been good enough to break the World Hour Record.
Indeed. Ritter would go on to break the Ferdi Bracke’s World Hour Record in 1972 and then Merckx would break Ritter’s record later that year.
The results of the stage:
1. Ole Ritter: 56 minutes 59 seconds
2. Rudi Altig @ 1 second
3. Ferdi Bracke @ 2 seconds
4. Jacques Anquetil @ 6 seconds
5. Felice Gimondi @ 38 seconds
There were three notable poor performances: Adorni was about two minutes slower than Ritter on a course that a couple of years ago would have been just right for him to crush the opposition. Merckx lost 2 minutes 49 seconds and Motta gave up 3 minutes 17 seconds. Merckx was a freshman who had never before faced the third week of a stage race and was not yet a complete rider. But Motta was the defending Giro champion and was now out of the top 10.
The new General Classification:
1. Jacques Anquetil
2. Felice Gimondi @ 53 seconds
3. Vittorio Adorni @ 1 minute 59 seconds
4. Eddy Merckx @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
5. José Pérez-Francés @ 2 minutes 16 seconds
There were two major consequences of this time trial. Anquetil was now in pink, and Motta’s Molteni team bosses decided to break Balmamion’s chains of servitude to the faltering Motta. Balmamion was now free to race on his own account.
The next stage came after a rest day. Balmamion got into the winning break that included Silvano Schiavon, Gabica, Panizza and Massignan. The 3 minutes 43 seconds they carved out of the peloton put Schiavon in the lead and moved Balmamion up to fifth place, only 2 minutes 29 seconds behind. He had done more with less in past Giri.
Stage nineteen left Udine for a hilltop finish at the top of the difficult Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb. The weather was dreadful that day with rain, snow and fog. At the beginning of the ascent Wladimiro Panizza was three minutes ahead of the field and he looked to be headed for the win. His director, fearing a stiff fine, did all he could to keep the tifosi from pushing the diminutive climber up the hill. Just as he closed in on the summit, Panizza was suddenly passed by a slew of riders, most of whom possessed only a fraction of his climbing skills.
How did this happen? With two kilometers to go, the chasers were struggling in miserable weather on the stiffest part of the climb. The gradient at that point was almost fourteen percent. The riders had, in a moment of collective moral failure, grabbed on to the team cars and were towed up to Panizza. Gimondi was first across the line because, as sportswriter René de Latour noted, “he had the fastest car”. Outraged, a furious Torriani wouldn’t let the fraudulent result stand and annulled the stage. La Gazzetta writer Bruno Raschi called it “le montagne del disonore”.
Bic, Anquetil’s sponsor, decided that they weren’t interested in winning the Giro. Believable reasons don’t seem to be forthcoming; non-believable ones abound. Anquetil says that his domestiques stopped getting their paychecks and understandably, most of them abandoned. Denson says that he was told that the riders were being pulled from the Giro to save them for races later in the season. Since the Tour was to be contested by national teams in 1967, this excuse really makes no sense. Another hypothesis is that this was a move to allow Anquetil to have an excuse for losing. But Anquetil wasn’t giving up, so this seems illogical as well. Nonetheless, Anquetil raced for Bic until the end of his career in 1969 which says to me that there was something terribly complicated going on behind the scenes and Anquetil took the explanation to his grave.
By the start of stage twenty Anquetil was down to only two helpers, Lucien Aimar and Jean Milesi. Fending off the combined attacks of the Italians with just these two gregari would be an extreme physical challenge. Realizing the necessity of having more legs on his side he tried to form an alliance (that means paying them money) with some of the Spanish riders. He failed, blaming it on his sponsor’s parsimony. In fact, the Spaniards had already allied themselves with the Italians, making Anquetil’s situation even more difficult.
Stage twenty was the tappone, going from Cortina d’Ampezzo to Trent taking the riders over the Falzarego, Pordoi, Rolle and Brocon ascents.
Anquetil had bad luck early in the stage, getting two flats. Next, on the descent of the Brocon, Merckx, Gimondi, Adorni and Motta got away from him. After a desperate and impressive chase (look who he was trying to catch!) he finally regained contact. Further up the road Adorni, Gimondi, Michelotto, Balmamion and Pérez-Francés managed to put about a half-minute between themselves and Merckx/Anquetil group. Still, Anquetil had done more than stave off catastrophe, he had recaptured the lead. It was a brutal day and Anquetil had gone very deep.
With two stages to go the race was still extremely tight and the General Classification now stood thus:
1. Jacques Anquetil
2. Felice Gimondi @ 34 seconds
3. Franco Balmamion @ 47 seconds
4. Vittorio Adorni @ 1 minute 40 seconds
5. José Pérez-Francés @ 1 minute 55 seconds
6. Eddy Merckx @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
Stage 21 was hilly with a major climb, the Tonale. Originally the Stelvio was the stage’s planned ascent but bad weather forced the organizers to look elsewhere. The Gavia was proposed as a replacement but it too was snowed in. The Tonale was pronounced usable and put into the race route, though the riders would still have to contend with an energy-sapping cold rain. Gimondi’s powerful team set a high pace during the ascent, and near the top, Motta and Gimondi attacked, dropping Anquetil and Merckx, now paying for his youthful expenditure of energy during the first two weeks. With the aid of teammate Aimar, one of the sport’s finest-ever descenders, Anquetil regained contact. It was here, after the Tonale, that the 1967 Giro was decided.
Marcello Mugnaini attacked and escaped first. Then Gimondi, who had Anquetil right behind him, stormed off. The Frenchman couldn’t hold his wheel. Having drawn down his reserves too far the day before, Anquetil didn’t have the strength to go with Gimondi’s powerful move.
Mugnaini won the stage, finishing in Tirano with a couple of other riders who weren’t in contention. As Mugnaini was almost a half-hour down in the General Classification, his win and time gain had no effect upon the standings.
But 62 seconds later Gimondi crossed the line, alone. It was 4 minutes 9 seconds before Willy Planckaert led in the Anquetil group. Gimondi remains proud of that masterful attack and sustained escape. It earned him the maglia rosa and pushed Anquetil into second at 3 minutes 35 seconds. The question that has been asked over the years is, why didn’t the other Italians give chase? That Anquetil was out of gas and had almost no one to help him is well understood. But why not Balmamion, who was one of the outstanding riders of the day, and given his excellent time trial in stage sixteen, was in excellent condition?
He and the other riders who were on Gimondi’s level seem to have let the man from Bergamo simply ride away with the Giro. They just let him go.
A photographer was there to catch that moment when Gimondi jumped away. There is a grim-faced Anquetil five yards off his wheel with Balmamion just behind Anquetil with Adorni to his right and Motta close by and another ten or so riders all in a small pack sitting on Anquetil and Adorni. The explanation usually given is a deal was hatched among the Italians to make sure one of their countrymen won the race and Gimondi was the chosen beneficiary of this plot. Advocates of this view also say that Anquetil was paid a significant sum of money to let someone else win. There are still whispers in Italy of a briefcase with fifty million lire used to buy the acquiescence of the santa alleanza degli italiani (holy alliance of Italians). We’ll never know.
Anquetil’s situation was catastrophic. What could he do now? The final stage was split into two half-stages. In the morning the Giro would climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo, the shrine of cycling, just north of Milan. It was impossible to believe an exhausted Anquetil could take four minutes out of Gimondi with his powerful Salvarani team protecting him during those 140 kilometers. In fact, it went the other way. Balmamion rode beautifully to get second place in the stage, dropping all but Aurelio González. He gained enough time to take second place in the Overall away from Anquetil.
Anquetil had said it would be 100 riders against 1. It wasn’t quite true, but with no team to defend him, he was helpless.
And long after many observers had written off Balmamion’s chances, the double Giro winner had turned in a sterling performance and might have won the race. Did he agree to let Gimondi win? Was there an agreement? Who knows? Balmamion was third in the Tour that July and became Italian Road Champion.
Merckx went on to win the World Road Championship that fall.
Final 1967 Giro d’Italia General Classification:
1. Felice Gimondi (Salvarani) 101 hours 5 minutes 34 seconds
2. Franco Balmamion (Molteni) @ 3 minutes 36 seconds
3. Jacques Anquetil (Bic) @ 3 minutes 45 seconds
4. Vittorio Adorni (Salamini-Luxor) @ 4 minutes 33 seconds
5. José Pérez-Francés (KAS) @ 5 minutes 17 seconds
6. Gianni Motta (Molteni) @ 6 minutes 21 seconds
9. Eddy Merckx (Peugeot) @ 11 minutes 41 seconds
1. Aurelio Gonzales (KAS): 630 points
2. Vittorio Adorni (Salamini-Luxor): 150
3. Wladimiro Panizza (Vittadello): 140
1. Dino Zandegù (Salvarani): 200 Points
2. Eddy Merckx (Peugeot): 178
3. Willy Planckaert (Romeo Smiths): 176
Reflecting on the 1967 Giro, Gimondi recalled, “The 1967 Giro started badly for me because I was suffering from bronchitis. At first, I had trouble staying with the main challengers, but later in the race I grew stronger. I had a great duel with Jacques Anquetil and managed to eventually drop him on the mountainous stage to Aprica [stage 21 that continued on to Tirano, the Aprica being the final major difficulty] and took the maglia rosa. It was a great Giro because of the rivalry between me and Jacques.”
About the race-fixing stories, Zilioli said, “I heard about those rumors, but as far as I know there was no pro-Gimondi alliance. I think instead that Balmamion, who was in good shape, was not careful enough. He could have followed Gimondi more closely during the race.
“Anquetil ‘played the dead rider’ and perhaps Balmamion did not sense the race strategies as they were unfolding. On the other side I also think he was not helped to become the new Italian Champion. He was never favored and he never favored anyone in his career.”
That fall Anquetil went to Milan’s Vigorelli velodrome and beat Roger Rivière’s eleven-year-old World Hour Record by 150 meters. He would have brought it to 47.493 kilometers, but he refused to submit to a drug test, so the ride was never certified by the UCI. The 1967 Giro was Anquetil’s last Grand Tour ride and he would only have two more major wins, the 1968 Baracchi Trophy with Gimondi and the 1969 Tour of the Basque Country. For fourteen years he had, like the other professionals of his era, raced about 235 days a year. It was a magnificent career in which he was the first five-time Tour winner, the first French winner of the Giro and the first man to win all three Grand Tours.
I like Tom Simpson’s explanation as to why Anquetil was such a prolific winner, “Jacques simply tries harder than anyone I have met. In a time trial you can hear him catching you, you don’t have to look round, there is this hoarse sound of breath being drawn in gulps, and then he’s past you. Then it’s like being in a thunderstorm, with the sweat simply pouring off him as he goes by.”
I’ve seen and reported on a lot of bike races over the years. Next to the Tour de France, the event I’ve most wanted to witness in person was the Giro. The reasons why are simple in my mind.
First, Italians are the masterminds of la dolce vita. No culture could be better suited to watching a bike race than the very people who invented passion. Second, the Giro, unlike Paris-Roubaix, takes place at a time well-suited to standing around outside. Watching a bike race in cold weather just isn’t quite as chummy as it is when the sun is out. Trust me on this. Third, in a world full of nationalistic pride, Italy sets the bar high and the Giro is less a celebration of bike racing than what Italians think bike racing ought to be. Ask an Italian what the Giro is and he’ll tell you it is bike racing, perfected.
I was in Italy to check out Cannondale’s new SuperSix EVO on behalf of peloton magazine. I’ll circle back to my impressions of that bike in another post on its way. The nature of press events is always one in which the host company wishes to wow the journalists as much as possible. The invites are coveted because, well, other than the workload (which is considerable in the age of the Interwebs), these shindigs are fun.
The upshot here is that we were guests of Team Liquigas in their specially cordoned-off area at the start of the team time trial beginning this year’s Giro. The protected space the team had was easily double that of any other team I saw and involved a convoy of vehicles large enough to convey most of the press corps. They had, in fact, not one, but two buses, the second being a rolling kitchen that fed, so far as I could tell, every VIP within the city and not one of the team’s riders. Understandable, really, as what they fed us was too laden with cheese to have been ideal for a pre-race meal.
Similarly, the 9.5 (say “nine dot five”) Cold Wine (a low-alcohol Prosecco) wasn’t really suitable for water bottles if you get my drift. ‘Twas delightful stuff, even if I was served my first flute of it at 11:00 in the morning. And for the record, while it may seem kinda cutesy to have an official pasta sponsor, it’s ultra-cool to have the owner of the company show up to your party with his product.
The self-propelled kitchen was fascinating, but my personal interest went to the mechanics and the gear truck. Theirs was stunningly well-stocked. However, gear is only so interesting; more interesting is how the mechanics set up the bikes.
The big thing I noticed on the Liquigas TT bikes, which I saw on no other bikes (thought it’s possible I missed it) was, truly, a very small thing. Each of the bikes had an in-line brake lever mounted on one of the aero bar extensions. The lever was connected to the front brake, giving the riders the ability to scrub speed without leaving the aero position. If you’ve ever tried to ride a paceline in aero bars then you know just how difficult it is, and just how PRO that little touch is.
Because the team is sponsored by Italian saddle manufacturer Fi’zi:k, the mechanics had every shape of Fi’zi:k saddle in the team’s signature white and lime green color scheme. The entire team could go down for a week and they’d still have saddles to spare. Ditto for Vittoria tubulars. There were enough tires to get the average Belgian team through the first half of any cobbled classic.
As I wandered the streets near the start ramp, every single team used rope, cellophane tape or those stands with the retractable polyester webbing (like you see in banks) to keep the fans back from the riders. Even so, Italian fans would slip under and plead “Che passione!” to see if they would be allowed to hang out.
No matter. The riders had to leave and the most popular among them (e.g. Danilo DiLuca) would have a train of fans chasing them down the street, paparazzi style. See what I mean? The Italians have a word for the crazed fans that chase stars with their cameras.
It was a day to celebrate cycling and the singular achievement that is bike racing. Simple times. A simpler day.
In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, author Douglas Hofstadter presents readers with an unsolvable puzzle. Naturally, Hofstadter doesn’t tell the reader that the puzzle is unsolvable. The reader is given four rules and a starting point plus a solution they are supposed to reach. The experience is confounding.
Imagine someone tells you to draw a car route from any location in the United States to the town of Palmer, Alaska. You are given a set of reasonable rules: that cars can be driven on roads, that roads lead from any location in the United States to the state of Alaska, that Palmer is a town in Alaska. Define a route to Palmer. You’d think you could do it, right? Just one problem: Palmer is landlocked; though it has roads, none lead into or out of the town. The only way to reach it is by air or ferry. A route cannot be drawn from anywhere in North American to Palmer. Such is the problem of Hofstadter’s puzzle.
Hofstadter’s treatise on the nature of intelligence won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and turned the field of computer science concerned with artificial intelligence on its head. The lesson of Hofstadter’s puzzle isn’t to defy the reader; rather it’s to teach the reader to think critically … in some applications, it could even be called suspiciously.
When I tried to solve the puzzle I struggled with it for an hour, then I tried to back from the conclusion to the beginning, attempting to reverse-engineer the problem and still couldn’t get from B to A. Only then did I begin to think that a solution wasn’t possible. Such an epiphany is Hofstadter’s introduction to the nature of recursive thought, an ability peculiar to human beings in which, put simply, we think about thinking.
I cite Hoftstadter’s book because reading it was a landmark in my education and taught me the value of thinking critically about information. I began to evaluate statements based not just on the value of the information they contained, but also on the likelihood that the statement was true or false.
I offer that as a backdrop to the revelation by Riccardo Ricco that his illness came as the likely result of a self-administered transfusion.
When Ricco returned to the pro peloton, I was apprehensive. I’m not going to quote him chapter and verse, but the body of his statements previously struck me as those of a person unrepentant in action. I wasn’t the only person to struggle with that issue; Mark Cavendish spoke forcefully of Ricco’s unrepentant nature. Let’s remember, Ricco claimed to Cyclingnews, “When I was found positive, I confessed everything. I was honest.”
Initially, he told RAI, “They searched my bags but only found some vitamins that we all use and so they decided to let me go home.”
Just a few weeks ago Ricco said “And yes, winning the Giro without doping is possible. To do that, you have to work and do your job properly.”
Okay, so we know he didn’t (do his job properly), but the stunner is that as he said that he was sitting on a bag of his own blood, so-to-speak.
This fall, coach Aldo Sassi took Ricco under his wing. Sassi is the man who famously paraphrased the bible passage on Nineveh in which he promised that we could have faith that seven cyclists were clean—his clients. Just two weeks later he added an eighth client: Riccardo Ricco.
If we take Ricco at his word—which ought to be a tenuous proposition at best, but deathbed confessions often seem to lack a certain editor—then the autologous blood transfusion he performed used blood that was just 25 days old. Perhaps this was his first autologous transfusion since re-entering the sport. Surely Sassi’s death was a blow. Perhaps he only returned to doping after Sassi died.
However, Ricco has been winning ever since his return, and this is where my experience with Gödel, Escher, Bach comes to bear: Given how he won prior to his suspension, is it reasonable for us to believe that since his return from his suspension that the only time he doped was in 2011? If we know one detail of cyclists who dope, the pattern of behavior is that those who do it, do it repeatedly. There aren’t many guys who have cleaned up as convincingly as David Millar.
There’s no way to know how tainted Ricco’s results at the Tour of Austria are; there is no just mechanism or reason to strip him of his wins, but his recent off-the-rails transfusion dulls them, but that isn’t the biggest problem with Ricco’s kidney failure.
For those of us who ponder implications, a natural question emerges: If Ricco has been doping all along (and that isn’t implausible), could Sassi have known about it?
Everything we know of Sassi’s career tells us that he coached athletes to succeed without the aid of doping. He was outspoken and principled about his dealings with athletes. Surely, he doesn’t deserve to have his reputation tarnished by Ricco, especially considering that he is unable to rise from the grave to defend himself.
And that’s the problem with Ricco; his doping leaves victims in his wake. The Saunier Duval team imploded following the expulsions of Ricco and teammate Leonardo Piepoli from the 2008 Tour de France, leaving riders and staff unemployed.
What will happen to Vacansoleil? Surely the sponsor won’t be happy about a doping controversy, even if the rider in question did help the team secure entry into the ProTeam division. One wonders just how Ricco thinks or if he considers how his actions could affect others. His seeming inability to consider the harm his actions might bring others fits the definition of sociopath.
Ricco needs to be banned from the sport for life, not because he’s likely to dope again and steal wins from deserving riders, but because another positive test has the ability to wreck careers beyond his own. We may not be able to protect him from his own stupidity, but the UCI has a duty to protect others from it.
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
The seven-day, 600-mile long Quizno’s Pro Challenge has already landed the honorific of “the greatest bike race ever held on American soil from August 22-28, 2011.” True enough. After all, the 1996 edition of the Tour DuPont, which was 1225-miles long, was held in May. Nevermind about the 18-stage edition of the Coor’s Classic held in 1986 which was won by Bernard Hinault and was held in … August, though obviously not running from August 22-28.
We don’t know a lot about the Quizno’s Pro Challenge just yet. Aside from seven stages encompassing 600 miles of racing, we’ve been told it will feature a prologue and one individual time trial plus several mountainous stages, and just one stage suited to sprinters.
If the 2011 Giro d’Italia is any indication, stage race organizers may be starting to think about what makes for exciting racing to the viewing public. Mountain racing is exciting, whether you are watching in person or on TV. And whether you’re at the top of the climb or 5km from the top, it’s still exciting to watch. Contrast that with watching a crit two corners from the finish. Yes, watching a pack fly by at 36 mph is pretty cool, but you almost never have the feeling that you’ve watched a win in the happening. Worse, watching a crit on TV is rarely as good as a trailer-park fight on an episode of COPS.
The chance to watch 120 PROs tackle the mountains of Colorado is a siren call to any roadie. As sure bets go, it seems likely that some folks who would have traveled to see the Amgen Tour of California will, instead, head to Denver to take in some stages of this new race.
And that, dear friends, begs the question: What gets you out to watch bike racing? Have you ever built a vacation around going to watch a bike race, be it the Tour de France, the Amgen Tour of California or the Hell of the North? Further, to the degree that you would consider attending either the Amgen or Quizno’s races, which would you go to … and why?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’ve spent the last four days looking at the Giro route for 2011, attempting to digest it like a 40-oz. steak—something larger than can be tackled at a single sitting. Looking back at previous editions of both the Giro and the Tour, I have never encountered a Grand Tour more deliberately designed to do nothing so much as find the world’s finest climber.
Let’s take a moment to look at the profiles of the pivotal mountain stages:
Only two short years ago the Giro featured seven mountain stages, the same as what is claimed for the 2011 Giro. However, in 2009, only four stages finished on mountain tops, whereas in 2011 all seven will finish atop mountains. By any estimation, this will be the hardest Giro in a generation.
Chances are, what you most recall about the route announcement is hardman Sean Yates’ oft-quoted pronouncement that the Giro route is “savage.” I hadn’t previously considered Yates’ gift for understatement.
Let’s put this in perspective: The Giro route, at 3498km, spends almost two thirds of its kilometers—2199 of them—on courses that are anything but flat. More mass-start stages finish uphill than on flat courses. And while the route has generally been reported to have seven mountain-top finishes, the uphill time trial from Belluno to Nevegal really can’t be called anything other than a mountain stage.
But wait, there’s more! In addition to the Ginsu knife you get stages such as the Giro’s longest stage, some 246km from Feltre to Sondrio. While this little jaunt is called a “mixed stage” or in Tour terminology it would be known as a medium mountain stage, it features roughly as much climbing as the Tour of Lombardy.
Eight of the final nine stages are mountainous. Four stages in a row finish uphill, the last of those being the time trial up Nevegal. The only non-mountain stage of those final nine stages is the individual time trial that ends the race in Milan. Think about it: after eight days in the mountains interrupted by only one rest day, the race finishes with an individual time trial. Fully 10 days with no chance to hide.
Seriously, though, calling the 2011 Giro d’Italia “savage” is like saying war is a messy business. Savage doesn’t begin to get at just how incomprehensibly difficult this Grand Tour will be. Truly, this one can be called cruel. If the time limits are enforced to the letter of the law, cumulative fatigue could easily see two-thirds of the field eliminated. Add in crashes and illness and this Giro could see fewer than 50 finishers.
For those who want exciting racing, this Giro is likely to do one of two things: Either it will feature daily detonations that see pink jersey wearers and wannabes crushed like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or some of the best riders in the world will ride so conservatively that we see what amounts to a recovery ride up Monte Zoncolan.
There are plenty cycling fans will take this route as evidence that the Giro is the better, tougher, more inventive race. In the Tour’s defense, we should note that being #1 always confers a degree of conservatism with it. Overcoming being #2 requires both ambition and invention, which is why we see a greater willingness for RCS to mess with the formula of the Giro.
You may recall that in some quarters a suggestion has been made that the Grand Tours are too difficult, that the courses of the Grand Tours are so difficult that riders are effectively forced to dope just to survive. While we may not be open to this criticism if it comes out of Pat McQuaid’s mouth, it is no less worth considering.
Those of you who followed the Grand Tours before the age of EPO may recall the stories that riders like Bob Roll would tell about how the first four hours of a stage would be ridden piano, and then when the TV helicopters arrived, the riders would crank up the pace to make a show for the viewers for the final hour of racing.
Let’s be honest about what we want. We want to see riders go out and crush it on each of the mountain stages. We want to see guys attacking at threshold, other guys detonating in floods of lactic acid and in every instance a small group of favorites sprinting for the finish. The last thing in the world we want is for the peloton to ride the first two climbs of a three climb day in their 39x25s and passing bidons like a flask of Jack Daniels at a Cowboys’ game.
Addition is to last year’s course what calculus is to this year’s course. Even suggesting a course like this is to invite speculation about what might be too difficult, too demanding. But that’s not the issue, not directly. The real issue is that a course such as this invites doping, does it not? While even the garden-variety PRO is orders of magnitude stronger than the best amateur racer, knowing what we know of the practices and the requirements involved in doping, can anyone reasonably suggest that the winner of this race would be above suspicion for doping? Heck, wouldn’t you venture to think that anyone who even finishes this race would be on something stronger than ox blood? There isn’t enough Red Bull in Europe to get a guy through this course.
The end of the season is well and truly here with tomorrow’s Tour of Lombardy. As the fifth and final Monument of the season, this is a PRO’s last real chance to score a win of note and either capitalize on a great season or hope to rescue a lousy one.
Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the winner of Lombardy, the race of the falling leaves, is often a man of the Grand Tours, but not in the way you think. It’s true that the roll of winners included Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly and Tony Rominger, but the majority of winners have been riders who aspired to do well at the Grand Tours, but rarely put together the form for a win. What more of them have in common is a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Indeed, in the last 20 years, only two riders have put together a Grand Tour win and success at Lombardy in the same year. Three-time winner Damiano Cunego did it back in 2004 when he won the Giro d’Italia, and sustained his form all the way from May to October. Prior to that Tony Rominger did it in ’92 following his win in the Vuelta a Espana when it was still held in April.
And while it may seem that a rider should be able to capitalize on great form from World’s, so far, only Paolo Bettini has been able to cross the finish line at Lombardy in the arc-en-ciel.
Clearly, Lombardy is not a race for Thor Hushovd, but Cadel Evans seems to be both hungry and going well. However, following his win in the Tour of the Piedmont, Philippe Gilbert seems to be on track to repeat in Lombardy. Clearly, Matti Breschel and Filippo Pozzato will have something to say about who wins.
I say Gilbert will be too heavily marked to win. I’m going with Evans.
What say you?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International