On July 1, 2010, the 2010 Tour de France looked as if it would be one of the most competitive editions of the race in its history. Rarely has a Grand Tour had so much talent show up with winning in mind. It was as if the six best teams in the NFL took the field for the Superbowl.
This was a Tour whose closest parallel was perhaps the 1989 edition, where three former winners—Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond—took the start and were ultimately the race’s greatest protagonists. This year’s race also had three former winners toe the start line—Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Nearly as important is the fact it also had an amazing six former podium finishers—Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov—at the start, plus Denis Menchov, a three-time Grand Tour winner in his own right. It was to be The Great Showdown.
The point of a Grand Tour, of course, is to see who cracks, which riders fail under pressure, but even more importantly, which riders rise to the occasion and surprise themselves, their teams and the fans. With a field gushing talent and experience like an out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico, no one really thought there would be room for any insurgent talents, but the prospect that one of the former top-10s, such as Frank Schleck, Michael Rogers or Bradley Wiggins capturing a podium spot seemed less science fiction than the impossibility of sealing off that aforementioned well.
But here we are, nine stages into The Great Showdown and what do we have? A race of two. That is, the race will come down to Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck provided there are no race-ending crashes or other stunning tragedies that befall either rider. That said, the way this race is going, I am willing to accept the possibility that someone other than either of these two riders could win. This race has had that much bad luck.
Lance Armstrong’s good fortune seems at an end. I’ll say more on that in another post. Garmin-Transitions lost Christian Vande Velde in a crash and it’s odd to think he isn’t the only rider on that team nursing broken bones. Frank Schleck was rumored to be even stronger than brother Andy this year. And then there was Cadel Evans’ detonation. Even though this isn’t the first time he has choked under pressure, his eight-minute slide down the mountain and the standings must have caused a few jaws to hang open, mine among them.
Speaking of surprises, what of Team Astana? Last winter I wrote of the skeleton crew that had been hired just to give them enough riders to qualify for the ProTour. I was critical of the team and dinged the formation for not having the climbers necessary to defend Contador when he would most need it. Tonight’s meal will include a serving of my words.
What should we make of Alexander Vinokourov’s performance so far? The great fear was that he would go rogue and ride for himself and challenge Contador’s leadership. His performance, while good, has been erratic enough that I can’t say whether he has been riding for himself or not. There certainly have been times when his riding hasn’t seemed to be for the benefit of Contador, but then, in this race anything seems possible.
It is with the impossible in mind that arrive at Samuel Sanchez. Two podium finishes at the Vuelta are maybe on a par with a top-10 at the Tour de France, so almost no one seriously considered this guy to be a podium threat. Sure, he is the leader of Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is something like being a favorite if for no reason other than he is protected (in theory) by eight guys. But a real contender?
I’m beginning to think the battle for the last step of the podium is between Sanchez, Menchov, Gesink and Leipheimer. I think Van Den Broeck will crack, as will Basso, late in the Pyrenees. The fact that there is but one remaining time trial and it is at the end of the race will threaten a GC shuffle, and while we think the likely beneficiaries would be Contador, Menchov and Leipheimer, I refuse to bet. Anything seems possible right now.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Yesterday RKP celebrated its one-year anniversary. Your readership has made the last year possible. You’ve given us the chance to follow stories and explore perspectives that you won’t find at the other sites or magazines, which, for us, has meant getting to write content we wouldn’t have a chance to submit elsewhere.
In addition to the acceptance you’ve given the blog, the industry’s reception has been terrific as well. From the products we’ve been asked to review to the advertisers who need to be in front of you, we’ve been welcomed everywhere we go.
A brief note on my whereabouts for the last two weeks: I just finished a book on road cycling for new riders called Ride Like a Pro! Yesterday, I turned in the finished manuscript to my publisher, Menasha Ridge Press. I’ve no idea how many pages it will be, but I do know that we turned in 402 images. I’d say my relief is on the order of giving birth, but my wife would slap me; let’s just say this morning I took my first deep breath in months. Watch for it next spring.
And now, a year later, we’re at the start of the Tour de France yet again. Summer is ON. Has a more exciting Tour ever loomed? I don’t recall one. Traditionally, when the race has been called “wide open” the reason has been due to absences—missing former champions. However, this year is different.
The list of truly great riders capable of battling to victory is stunning for its depth. We have former champions Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, and all those who were counting Armstrong out in May are now curiously silent. Both Frank and Andy Schleck look capable of victory. And then there’s Cadel Evans. Evans may not have the strongest team at the Tour, but there is no question that he is the leader of a team and that he has full confidence from management.
Can Wiggins replicate his form from last year? The world is full of riders who rode to fourth once, sometimes twice, but never higher. Let’s watch and wait.
What of Sastre? No matter how likable and classy he is, he doesn’t seem to have shown the form necessary to be called a favorite.
It’s been almost 20 years since a rider took the Giro/Tour double and Miguel Indurain was in his prime. Can the same really be said of Basso?
We’re told this will be Lance Armstrong’s final Tour de France. We’ve every reason to take him at his word. Many will be relieved to see his departure. I, for one, won’t be. While I’m no fanboy, I am a fan. Lance has been a fascinating, surprising figure in cycling and his insights into cycling, given in interviews have been fun to digest. The reign of Armstrong has been no cleaner than the reign of Indurain, but the interviews have been far more enjoyable.
The day following a fun birthday can be something of a let down. With the whole of the Tour de France ahead of us, it’s going to be a party every day. Thanks for reading.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
So this week the well-respected journal the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study that human growth hormone (HGH) does, in fact, improves athletic performance by helping to build fast-twitch muscle fiber. Specifically, the study found that in men HGH would improve performance by 3.9 percent—shaving .4 of a second from a 10-second sprint time in the 100-meter dash. And while sprinting performance was dramatically improved, HGH did nothing for endurance (unsurprising) or overall strength (somewhat surprising).
In cycling, an improvement of 3.9 percent isn’t the difference between steps on the podium, it is the difference between pack fodder and crushing the competition. Whether you look at the results from a Grand Tour or from one of the Monuments, a single percent range in performance can include the top-20 finishers.
Some of the men in the study also received injections of testosterone. For those men, the performance increase was a whopping 8 percent. Imagine for a second being an 8-percent-improved rider. That’s going from a 1-hour 40k time trial to a 55:12 40k time. Eight percent could turn you from a climber into a time trialist or a nobody into a god.
The study begs several questions. First, is anyone really surprised by this? There has been strong anecdotal evidence that HGH produced results for anyone looking for an illegal edge.
A bigger question is, what is the dosage size that athletes taking HGH normally use? Dr. Ken Ho, who ran the study, gave his subjects modest doses for only eight weeks, as compared to what guys like Mark McGwire were taking, which is alleged to be a much higher dosage for extended periods of time. Obviously, the gains could be more than 4 percent. Much more, perhaps.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) helped fund the study. One wonders why they wanted the results printed in a peer-reviewed journal. This would seem to be information that they wouldn’t want athletes willing to dope (or their doctors or coaches) to find out. One can safely assume that some aspect of this study will aid those who are trying to evade detection of their drug use.
The amateur athletes who participated in the study reported several side effects. The HGH caused fluid retention that resulted in some swelling as well as joint pain. One man reported that his breasts grew.
Maybe drug testing in the future should include looking for pros who are wearing jog bras.
More seriously, the media has reported the publication of this paper with a certain amount of surprise. As I read about it, I’ll admit my jaw went slack, but my expression was more “duh” that “holy cow.”
There have been whispers about who in the peloton has been using HGH, but so far, the most substantive accusation was that the entire T-Mobile team was using the stuff along with EPO. And of course, boatloads of the stuff was in Willy Voet’s Festina team car when he arrived at his fateful border stop in 1998.
I don’t want to accuse you readers of being a cynical bunch, but are any of you surprised by the results of this study, either in general or the more specific aspect of just how much performance can be improved by either HGH alone or in combination with testosterone?
And in other news … there’s this little cycling tour that’s going to take in some great sights in Italy. Disingenuousness aside, most of the cycling media outlets are saying this is the most wide-open Giro in years. That may be right. With no Menchov, no Killer, no Pellizotti and no Contador, Evans would seem to be the heir apparent; he seems to have developed a taste for actually winning instead of just showing.
Does anyone think Garzelli has something like a chance to win? Even Simoni seems to have conceded that he is over the hill and will hope for a stage win in this, his final Grand Tour.
So two questions to you all: Who will take the maglia rosa in the prologue? We’ve got stickers for the first correct answer on that. Also, who do you think will get to go home with the pink jersey once the last kilometer is ridden? Stickers to the first correct prognosticator.
I’ve got my money on Evans.
We’re featuring another tag-team pair of posts regarding doping and our views on how well sanctions are working … and what might be done to improve the situation. What follows is my post. You can find Robot’s post here.—Padraig
For reasons I can’t explain, doping has yet to kill my enthusiasm for professional bike racing. My knowledge of what takes place in private has changed my view of the sport and injected a frustration into what would otherwise be a pursuit devoid of downside. Even so, I continue to watch.
And while I temper my tongue, I admit that because I’m a connect-the-dots sort, whenever anyone crosses the line first, there’s a moment, a moment I try to reduce to something even shorter than an eye blink, but a moment I can’t wipe away. I wonder if the winner is clean.
There are people in cycling who have, following various positive tests, claimed that cycling is winning the war on doping. People in high places, such as the ASO and UCI. If by winning they mean more positive tests, well then yes, we seem to be leading the race by 10 seconds with 40k to go.
How anyone ever had the epiphany that we should declare wars on concepts such as doping, facism or terror, I’ll never know. Weirder still is the fact that too few intelligent people have observed an undeniable truth: You can’t stamp out an idea, no matter how good or bad it is.
The underlying practice of doping—the desire to gain a competitive edge over one’s rivals by any means necessary set down roots in the very nature of survival. At its most elemental, the desire to win is the very desire to live. It wasn’t so many years ago that our ancestors were competing for food and shelter on a literal basis. Today, we’re competing with SATs, GPAs, income and Fortune Magazine rankings. It still comes down to a fight for resources.
That some athletes will go to whatever length is necessary to cross the line first should not surprise us. There’s a dark side to the human condition that emboldens some people to ignore rules that society has agreed to obey. These days, most everyone can find ready examples at hand in Wall Street and oil companies.
In 1982 a researcher named Bob Goldman began asking elite athletes a question. Would they take a drug that would guarantee them an Olympic gold medal but would also result in their death within five years?More than half the athletes surveyed responded yes, they would take the drug. From 1982 to 1995 Goldman continued to survey elite athletes and the survey bore the same result each time—more than half the athletes said they would take the drug.
The question became known as the Goldman Dilemma.
Recently, a group of researchers decided to pose the Goldman Dilemma to a population of non-athletes. Some 250 people were asked the question. Only two responded that they would take the drug. That’s less than one percent of the respondents.
The British Journal of Medicine published the paper last year. One of the study’s authors, James Connor, Ph.D., summed up the findings thusly: “We were surprised. I expected 10-20 percent yes.”
His big conclusion? That “elite athletes are different from the general population, especially on desire to win.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious.
In reading the study, which was drier than sandstone, I drew two conclusions of my own. First, that doping isn’t going to go away. Ever. The drive to achieve fame, power and glory is too strong with some athletes to simply leave the result to chance. No length is too great for those athletes; stacked deck doesn’t begin to describe the lengths some would go to ensure a win. If you are willing to die prematurely to get a gold medal at the Olympics, then ordinary doping isn’t much of a threshold to cross.
The second conclusion I drew is that this population is very, very small. If the 250 respondents are representative of society, then less than one percent of the population will show this predilection. Unfortunately, I expect that sports will draw these people to an unusual degree. But here’s where nature steps in: No amount of drive can overcome a lack of talent. Not everyone who has the drive to achieve gold will also have the requisite talent necessary to reach the elite ranks of a given sport.
Without spending too much (any) time with the statistics regarding these slices of population, I suspect that less than five percent of all the cyclists with enough talent to make it to the pro ranks will also have the amoral inclination to take any drug necessary to guarantee a win.
In his book “From Lance to Landis,” cycling journalist David Walsh divided pro cyclists into two camps, the “draggers”—those who tended to initiate doping as a means to win, and the “dragged”—those riders who were essentially coerced into doping as a means to survive.
That less than five percent are your draggers, not the dragged. Get rid of them and you can have a reasonable hope for a clean sport.
A few years ago I wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times in the wake of Bjarne Riis’ confession that he used EPO on his way to winning the 1996 Tour de France. Getting the LA Times editorial page interested in cycling is as difficult as getting a vegan interested in steak tartare. And yet somehow, they thought my idea—a truth and reconciliation commission a la South Africa to get at doping practices and doctors—had enough merit to warrant their attention.
The piece made it its way to the powers that be at the UCI.
I barely had space enough to get the idea out before I had to close the piece. It amounted to a political campaign ad—great idea with few details. It’s worth spelling out the finer points of my suggestion. Even if the UCI is as likely to listen to me now as they did in 2007.
The idea is simple. It is based on an invitation: Come tell us what you know. Tell us what you’ve done, and tell us anything you have seen with your own eyes. Give everyone until the end of 2010 to fess up with anything on their conscience. Add a little caveat: if you test positive after December 31, 2010, you will be banned from the sport for life.
For those who confess, they will be granted immunity for all past misdeeds. You did blow on a stripper’s ass in Geneva? No worries. You won a stage of the 2009 Tour de France hopped up on growth hormone and pig’s blood? Your win stays in the record books.
However, for the confession to count, you have to tell everything you know to the tribunal on the spot. You can’t hold monthly press conferences and tease out details like kite string in a weak wind as Bernard Kohl did with the German media.
What’s more, I’d add yet another incentive. For every rider who tested positive sometime in the past, if they didn’t tell the full story and divulge everything they knew, were they to confess their full knowledge, they could get their salary reinstated for the term of the previous suspension. Back pay.
If the UCI pursued such a course of action, here’s what I think would happen: All the riders of the ilk of David Millar and Tyler Hamilton—guys who undoubtedly doped, but would be counted among Walsh’s dragged—would fess up before Thanksgiving. A few guys would weigh the odds and confess by Christmas. And there would be at least one bombshell as everyone was about to pop New Year’s Eve bubbly.
After that, each doctor implicated by a rider could confess his part and agree to cooperate with the UCI and WADA or face losing his medical license.
But the guys we would most like to catch, the ones who ultimately coerce the rest of the peloton—either implicitly by being faster or explicitly by telling them they need to step up and deliver for the team—won’t say a word.
Would we hear from Vinokourov, from Basso, from Ricco? Don’t hold your breath. Would Ullrich speak up if he knew the truth could restore some of his tarnished reputation?
So could this be a one-time house-cleaning? Not likely. It is something the UCI would almost certainly have to bring back at irregular intervals (say three to five years depending on how fast the racing is) just to find out what the latest bunch of doctors have cooked up. In nabbing the doctors there would be a reasonable hope of plowing that field under for a few seasons.
If we are lucky, years from now we will remember Bjarne Riis as a heroic figure not for his incredible talent for managing a team of talented riders and encouraging them to work together, nor for his Tour de France win. If we are lucky, he will be remembered as a hero, the first rider to have the courage to stand up and tell the truth without first being caught.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
The 2010 Tour of Italy route has been announced and as is typical of the Giro, it is an adventurous route that will keep competition going until the pink jersey crosses the line on the last stage.
For only the ninth time in its history, the Giro will start outside Italy, beginning in Amsterdam and then contesting three stages in the Netherlands before heading south.
Here’s where La Gazzetta dello Sport’s understanding of drama differs from that of the Amaury Sport Organization: the race’s queen stage is the race’s next-to-last stage. That stage, from Bormio to the mountain top finish on the Passo del Tonale, goes over the Passo di Gavia as the race’s Cima Coppi—the highest point the race passes each year and named for the great Fausto Coppi—as the next-to-last mountain pass.
As if that weren’t enough, the race’s final stage, once again, is a time trial, and though it will only be 15.3km, it could erupt in unexpected heart-tripping developments, as this year’s race did following Dennis Menchov’s fall near the finish.
Were that not enough, the race features 10 mountain stages—five medium mountain stages and five high mountain stages and six of them—six!—end in mountain top finishes. Other mountains that will be used in the race include the Mortirolo, a brutally steep ascent exceeded in tortuous difficulty only by Monte Zoncolan, unless, of course, you count the Plan de Corones, which also makes an appearance. In hard numbers, the Zoncolan hits 22 percent and the Corones hits a whopping 24 percent.
Johan Bruyneel once complained of the unreasonable nature of asking racers to ascend a climb too steep to climb in a 39×25 gear. The willingness of organizers to ascend slopes better suited to skis is one of the things that makes the Giro as interesting as it is. How boring would the season be if all three Grand Tours were designed with the same guidelines?
Wait, don’t answer.
With only 36km total of individual time trials, the 2010 Giro will place less emphasis on the clock than any Giro in the last five years or more. While this edition won’t include something as fascinating as this year’s Cinque Terre time trial, there will be a 32.5km team time trial. The TTT won’t be as technically challenging as this year’s, but it will be gradually uphill the whole way. It should place the climbers on a more even footing with the rouleurs and give teams with a bevy of climbers a better finish.
Were the competition between the race courses and not between the racers, I’d have to say the Giro is superior to the Tour. It’s certainly the more interesting course, with more opportunities for dramatic finishes that might blow the GC apart.
Add in the fact that the first rest day comes only four days into the event and is essentially a transfer day to get racers back to Italy from the Netherlands, it means racers will have 12 consecutive days of racing before receiving a second rest day. Ouch.
So who will the favorites be going into the 2010 Giro? Given the reduction in ITTs, Menchov’s chances will suffer. Danilo DiLuca is unlikely to attend. It is this year’s third place, Franco Pellizotti whose stock may rise most. He has already offered to support teammate Ivan Basso at the Tour de France if Basso will support him at the Giro.
The fireworks begin May 8.