The Spring Classics season is over. Shit. And true to form it offered up some legend-burnishing performances (Boonen’s Flanders/Roubaix double) and some jaw-slackening surprises (Gasparotto at Amstel Gold).
The big winner, Tommeke Boonen, just put the cherry(s) on top of what has already been a peach of a season for Omega Pharma-QuickStep (OPQS). They’ve gotten wins on the road from Francesco Chicchi, Levi Leipheimer, Gerald Ciolek, Peter Velits, Michal Kwiatkowski, Julien Vermote, Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel as well; 2011 Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin hasn’t even pitched in yet, quite possibly because he had an altogether too close encounter with a car while training earlier this month.
Other big winners must include Green Edge, who put Simon Gerrans on the top step of the podium at Milan-San Remo, and Astana who took the final prize of the spring at Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Maxim Iglinskiy.
BMC showed well with Alessandro Ballan on podiums at both Flanders and Roubaix, but for a team of this caliber (and payroll) a pair of third places and a lot of anonymous rides from last year’s rider-of-the-season, Philipe Gilbert, has to be seen as an abject failure.
RadioShack-Nissan-Trek-Jingleheimer-Schmidt will also feel about as happy as kid who’s dropped his ice cream after watching Fabian Cancellara face plant in the feed zone at Flanders, shattering his collarbone and a potential rematch with Boonen over the the cobbles of le Nord. In the Ardennes, where the Schleck brothers made most favorites lists, the team fired nothing but blanks.
More could have been expected from Team Sky and perhaps Katusha also, but the Spring seldom runs to script.
This week’s Group Ride looks back wistfully at the just-done spate of races and asks: Who were your winners and losers? What did you love? And what did you hate?
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Some thoughts from Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege:
1. Maxim Iglinskiy capped a terrific week for Astana, winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege after overtaking a fading Vincenzo Nibali with a little more than one kilometer left to race. While certainly an outsider, Iglinskiy’s win wasn’t a total shock. In fact, in looking over the Kazakh’s resume, he appears to be a poor man’s Philippe Gilbert. Consistent spring contenders, (Iglinskiy is better than you might think) both riders have won the Strade Bianche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They also both won stages at the Dauphiné earlier in their careers. Of course, Gilbert’s resume is much longer and contains many more major victories, but considering Iglinsky came millions of Euros cheaper than his Belgian counterpart, Astana is doubtlessly happy with the return on its investment.
2. Iglinskiy’s win underscored a terrific team effort from Astana. Well-represented all day (their jerseys are hard to miss), the team placed two riders in the first group chasing Nibali. Enrico Gasparotto’s third-place finish put an exclamation mark on a successful day for the squad while confirming that his win in last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race was no fluke. The squad has now won two of the last three editions of Liege. (I wonder if Alexandre Vinokourov had some pre-race advice for his teammates.)
3. As for Nibali, his ride yesterday bookended his performance at Milan-San Remo, the season’s first Monument. In both races, the Liquigas rider initiated the final selection, but succumbed to a rider that few had predicted to play a dominant role in the event’s outcome. It’s been a while since we’ve had a grand tour champion prove himself to be a legitimate contender in the spring classics—let’s hope Nibali returns next year ready to contend again. Now the Italian must decide whether or not to compete in his home grand tour. While the Giro is a tempting option, he’s better suited for this year’s Tour de France.
4. Speaking of this year’s Tour de France, RadioShack’s Schleck brothers played little role in Sunday’s race. Perhaps they were tired from their efforts to have Kim Anderson reinstated in the squad’s management team for July’s Tour de France. A win Sunday would have spoken a lot louder if you ask me.
5. Back to the race: Twitter was buzzing Sunday with people complaining of boredom during the race’s final hour. At first, I felt compelled to defend the riders. The weather was horrible and the course was difficult—one must remember that these men are indeed human. But in hindsight, it seems to me that several teams with top contenders could and should have done more to make the race difficult, thereby eliminating “outsiders” like Iglinsky before they had a chance to play a role in the finale.
For example, Gilbert’s BMC squad was clearly focused on controlling the race in preparation for what it hoped would be a decisive attack by Gilbert (or someone else). Unfortunately, this kept too many riders and teams in contention after La Redoute. Without a major selection at this point in the race, there were too many men left to settle things over the remaining 30 kilometers.
7. The same can be said of Katusha. With Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno they had a reason and the manpower to make the race more selective sooner—but they chose to sit-on. Some might say that Oscar Freire’s surprising resiliency gave the team an extra card to play should the race have stayed together all the way to Liege. (But that was an unlikely result—Freire’s performance was more a product of controlled racing than anything else.)
BMC can at least say they were racing to protect the chances of the defending chapion—they technically didn’t have to make the race (although that’s a slippery slope). Katusha made a mistake by basing this year’s tactics on last year’s favorite (Gilbert). Sometimes bringing the race to your competition is more effective than waiting for it to come to you.
8. Speaking of Gilbert, this spring was a minor catastrophe for the Belgian Champion. Last week I said that a win yesterday would have appeased his fans and softened his critics. Now it appears only a world championship will do the trick. Gilbert’s performance illustrates the importance of good health and good luck, while also reminding us that winning brings even loftier expectations the next time around. Hopefully Gilbert—who’s only 29, by the way—learned some valuable lessons from his experiences over the past two months. Look for him to be at his best once again next spring.
9. And if Gilbert didn’t already miss Jelle Vanendert, he certainly does now. I still can’t believe he didn’t make more of an effort to bring him along to BMC. That said, Tejay Van Garderen rode one heck of a race yesterday on behalf of Gilbert. The American now heads to Romandie before taking another crack at winning the Tour of California.
10. What a spring for Specialized and SRAM, huh?
That’s it for me—what’s on your mind?
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
So HTC-Highroad is no more. Technically, that’s not quite accurate; the team will come to an end with the close of this season. But it feels like the team might as well be mothballed now. Any wins that come will carry a certain lame duck pointlessness as they won’t have the ability to attract a sponsor or serve as confirmation that an incoming sponsor made a good choice.
How bad is Bob Stapleton’s inability to find a new title sponsor for his program? It’s the worst thing that will happen to cycling this year, perhaps for years to come. Here’s why: There’s not a single doping revelation that can confirm potential sponsors’ worst fears about the sport the way the dissolution of this team does.
We’ve already had the Tour de France champion test positive twice in the last five years. Stapleton’s failure to secure a sponsor is directly due to that. In a conference call with journalists, Stapleton admitted that doping scandals were a topic of conversation in “every negotiation.”
Compounding matters was Stapleton’s refusal to be confined to irrelevance by racing on a shrunken budget while battling Sky and Katusha—teams that each have an estimated annual budget of $20 million. After all, if part of your raison d’etre is to lead the sport into a new, cleaner era characterized by better management, you can’t do that from the back of the bus.
The end of HTC-Highroad is the corollary to the Leopard-Trek dilemma. It proves (at least for the court of public opinion) that doping is what prevented Brian Nygaard’s formation from landing a real title sponsor (or co-sponsor, for that matter). Worse, the fact that Katusha, Sky and Leopard are funded by ultra-rich businessmen who could use the tax write-off makes the sport that much less relevant. It could be argued that BMC is no better given that few people seem to believe that BMC is selling enough bikes that Andy Rihs could fund the team exclusively out of the operating capital of that one company.
If bicycle teams become the playthings of oligarchs, it will be hard to sell the public on the idea that the sport carries the moral mantle of doping-free athletic achievement. There is a general perception that billionaires play by a different set of rules than the rest of us, and the recent phone-hacking scandal in London that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and killed his play to become majority owner of bSkyb is all the proof many people need to come to the conclusion that cycling lacks a moral compass. After all, if Murdoch’s businesses will run roughshod over the most basic elements of privacy, why would anyone think his cycling team is any more ethical?
I’ve met a number of principled people in cycling. I’ve met plenty of truly ethical people in the sport as well. I don’t think I’ve ever met a smarter, more decent person in cycling than Bob Stapleton. I’ve met no one with higher aspirations for helping the sport to function in a cleaner, more transparent manner—in other words, to be its best—than Stapleton. He brought credibility that simply can’t be purchased elsewhere and served as the ever-reasonable counterbalance to the ill-considered pronouncements of the UCI. He was a sort of sanity constant.
As I mentioned before, losing Stapleton and his team isn’t just the worst thing that will happen in cycling this year. It’s the worst thing that will happen in cycling for years to come. If the sport can’t keep a man universally respected and admired, then it will be no better than the cesspool of politics because it may only draw people we’d rather not have dinner with, figures like Bernard “Dr. Mabuse” Sainz.
Sainz’ nickname comes from the Fritz Lang film of the same name. The film was a commentary on post World War I German society, a time of amoral criminality. Dr. Mabuse, “the gambler,” was a megalomaniac who ruled—via hypnosis—an organized crime syndicate of counterfeiters, thieves and murderers. I can’t think of an uglier thing for cycling to be compared.
We’ve lived through that once, or something thereabouts. If the riders don’t get the idea that they need to clean up their acts, there won’t be a sport left to employ them. But we can’t place all the responsibility on the riders. The UCI has an obligation to make sure that testing is performed in a rigorous manner and justice handed out promptly and equally. Until John Q. Public sense we’ve turned that corner, it will be hard to attract leaders like Stapleton and sponsors like HTC.
As some of you know, I spent most of last week flat on my back contemplating my robotic mortality and cursing whatever pig-robot (pigbot?) had found a way to infect me with its H1N1 virus. For the most part, during this time, I cut myself off from media. No TV. No interweb.
And yet, some time, mid-week, an email from my friend Gustavo at Embrocation Journal snuck through. What did I think, he wanted to know, of the Tour de France invites from ASO this year. More specifically, he wanted to confirm that I was as angry as he was that Vacansoleil and some of the other small teams (Skil-Shimano, Saur Sojasun) that have so animated the first months of the season failed to make ASO’s grade while underperforming pro teams coasted in on their good looks and the pre-existing agreement the UCI and ASO have to admit 16 of the ProTour teams to the Grand Boucle automatically.
Even in my weakened state, I was able to give Gustavo what he wanted, a frank and terse evaluation of some of the ProTour’s lesser lights, a caustic dismissal of ASO’s motives and a side swipe at some of the peloton’s new entrants.
And as I’m just getting back on my feet this week (or back on my pedals as the case may be), I thought I’d trot out some of my ideas and see if we can’t get some discussion going.
First, let me say I can’t contrive a reasonable argument for excluding Vacansoleil from the Tour. The small, Dutch Pro-Continental team, in just its second year on the road, has won the overall of the Tour of Qatar with Wouter Mol, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Bobbie Traksel and two stages of the Étoile de Bességes with Borut Bozic. Those are their wins, which tell only half the story. Vacansoleil’s riders have placed highly throughout the early season and pushed the big teams at every opportunity. They have done everything you would want a wild card Tour invitee to do and then a bit more.
Instead, ASO picked Garmin-Transitions, Team RadioShack, BMC Racing Team, Team Sky, Katusha and Cervelo TestTeam as their wild cards. If you run through this list, write down their major results for 2010 and then compare them to Vacansoleil, you’ll get very little in the way of difference. Some have won a little more. Some have won less. What you won’t see, but probably know, is that each of these teams has a great deal more money than the Dutch outfit. They’ve signed stars, so ASO imagines they’ll bring more attention to the Tour, as if the Tour suffers for a lack of attention.
Of the wild cards here, the one that actually rankles me most is RadioShack. The Shack have done a lot of not much this year. Every time their leader finds his way onto a television camera he is telling you why the race he’s about to ride is really just a tune up for the Tour and how he’s not going to push himself very hard or be very bothered by not getting a result. Meanwhile, his teammates wrack up no wins. Team RadioShack reminds me a bit of the Jackson’s Victory Tour, a money-spinning gallop across the globe by a former champion and his over-the-hill friends.
Ooooh, that’s harsh.
Still, the Shack’s value to ASO lies completely in the false rivalry between Armstrong and Contador. It’s a story that sells sponsorships, I suppose. And magazines. And yet, does anyone think Armstrong will get near el Pistolero in France this summer? The former champ has had a pretty poor buildup this season. He’s been sick. He’s been tired. And he’s been old. There are half-a-dozen riders or more that will finish above the marketing juggernaut come the final day in Paris.
On top of their lack of results, the Shack have gone about their business in that age-old Armstrong-Bruyneel way, i.e. with very little regard for any race that isn’t called the Tour de France. They’re not even racing the Giro! They’ve chosen the Tour of California “instead.” The ToC is a great race, an up-and-comer, a suitable rival for Paris-Nice and the other one week stage races, but one thing it is NOT is a good reason to skip the Giro d’Italia. A team with a budget like the Shack’s really ought to be able to contest both races anyway.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I don’t think the Shack deserves its Tour invite simply based on Armstrong’s legacy with the race and the money he’ll bring to its organizers. In the real world, those are entirely valid reasons for their inclusion. But from my perspective, they stink.
That brings us, rather unceremoniously, to the rest of the truth of this situation, which is that there a number of ProTour teams that just can’t pull their own weight. I’d name Team Milram, Footon-Servetto, Euskaltel-Euskadi among those. Because the UCI paved the way for guaranteed invitations to a group of ProTour squads in a 2008 accord that helped avoid a complete debacle in which ASO took its races and went home, they’re all in, but, if the ProTour had a minimum win number (say 10 races of a certain ranking per year), you’d see more licenses available for teams that win, but I am far from the first to suggest the UCI need a better system for promotion and relegation of pro teams.
Starting in 2011, only the first 17 teams in the UCI rankings at the end of 2010 will get guaranteed Tour invites, with the rest filled at ASO’s discretion. This may be a more equitable way of slicing the Tour pie, but, by and large, what you will end up with is still a race full of the wealthiest rather than the fastest teams. The rest can, perhaps, call Vacansoleil and book one of those summer holidays they sell when they’re not riding bicycles.
No bad guy? No bad guy? Are you guys kidding me? With no bad guy, there’s no good guy. If everyone’s a good guy, then no one is. They’re just guys. Who wants to watch a bunch of guys riding bikes? BO-RING!
I liked what Big Mikey said:
This isn’t about legal law, as both parties worked out a compromise due to the fact that GS was going to lose BW to Sky due to the (lack of) enforceability of the contract per European contract law (imagine that), this is about perception and behavior. And while Vaughters was mostly restrained, Wiggins let slip some less than exemplary behavior/comments. A very nice touch given that Garmin worked hard to support his fourth place in the TdF. They gave him the shot to focus on the tour, and he repays it by acting like an entitled brat.
If we combine what Padraig and SingleSpeedJarv had to offer, about Wiggins being unhappy at Garmin even before Sky came into the picture, then we can, to some extent, let Brailsford off the hook, though I can promise you Andrei Tchmil will NOT be letting Brailsford off the hook (for poaching Ben Swift, a Katusha rider until Brailsford turned his head). Not Tchmil’s style to forgive and forget. You can just go ahead and assume that Katusha won’t be taking any turns on the front of the peloton if Sky will benefit in anyway.
So Wiggins wanted out of the contract that suited him pretty well less than a year previously? OK. He doesn’t like the Garmin way. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sky came along at the right time with a boatload of cash to emancipate him from the servitude that all but put him on the Tour de France podium. Fortuitous, not just for Wor Bradley, but also for Jonathan Vaughters who ended up having a tantrum-throwing prima donna taken off his hands and replaced with a fat check.
All is possibly well that ends well, except that, in order to extricate himself from what was, to him, an untenable situation, young Mr. Wiggins felt it necessary to disparage Garmin in the press. There were several allusions to the team not preparing its riders properly for racing success. There was the infamous ‘I need to be at Manchester United, and currently I’m at Wigan,” line, which, for those not steeped in British football culture, basically means “Garmin is bush league, and Sky are pros,” an odd assertion to make about a team that had, at that point, not yet raced a bike in anger.
So this scribe’s personal take (in case it wasn’t obvious) is that, though all parties seem to have made out alright in the end (even though I’d bet the above-pictured Vaughters would have preferred to show up in France this summer with TWO GC threats rather than just one), Brad Wiggins acted like a first class ass hat throughout the affair.
Rather than effecting his transfer with discretion, class and bonhomie, he alienated his team manager, teammates and probably some fans, by turning a private business deal into a public spectacle. If he wins the Tour for Sky this summer, then we’ll probably all just salute his hard-headed competitiveness and forget that he acted like a jerk. If he fails to podium, then we’ll all shake our heads at yet another ego-case crashing and burning on the fumes of his own ambition. If he fails to podium and Christian Vande Velde does make it onto the hallowed steps, well, I can’t wait to see what the French press writes about that.
I’m really not sure how we’ve come this far without hashing and rehashing the Bradley Wiggins transfer until we were all sick to death of it. And so, without further ado, let’s make some hash!
What I want to know is: Who is the bad guy?
As you may well know, Bradley Wiggins had a big 2009, converting himself from track legend to Tour de France contender just by putting down the lager and coming into the season a few kilos lighter. After his surprise fourth place in France, there were rumblings and grumblings and rumors that he would move to the brand new Team Sky, under the tutelage of his British Cycling mentor Dave Brailsford. Of course, he had a contract with Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin, and most of the fall was spent determining whether having a contract meant anything in the grand scheme of things.
By now, we know that Vaughters let Wiggins go, reaping some unnamed bounty in “transfer fee” from Sky. Vaughters, while mostly keeping his powder dry, refused to get too snipey about the whole thing, but let it be known that he was “disappointed” to lose his rider. If there were other, more bitter comments, I missed them.
Wiggins, who made no secret of his desire to leave Garmin and let slip with some not-very-nice comments about the holders of his contract, got what he wanted, and so did Brailsford, who also got into some not-so-nice with Team Katusha’s Andrei Tchmil, over the transfer of Ben Swift.
The whole thing revolves around what contracts are worth, how riders should conduct themselves, whether cycling should be prone to the same transfer sagas that rule the football (soccer) world and whether, to modify a phrase, “money makes right.”
The question I put to you this week is: Who is the bad guy and why?
D) None of the above
E) Lance Armstrong
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International