Our species likes stories to be relatively straightforward and with a minimum of characters. Just think of how many movies you’ve seen with half a dozen or so speaking parts. Off the top of my head I came up with Rear Window, Castaway, Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, The Shining, My Dinner With André, The Sixth Sense and No Country for Old Men. Those are all great stories, but they are just stories.
History is different. The real world is crawling with hordes of people all with their own agendas, generally central only to one story—their own. It’s why so many films that we describe as epics—think Ben Hur, the Godfather films—are histories.
Such is Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell. Simply put, it is a history of doping in U.S. professional cycling, which is to say it is much more than just an account of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace. I’ve heard a fair number of friends of mine say they plan to pass on the book, that they know everything contained within it. I can say with some confidence that this book will contain plenty of surprises for nearly any reader.
There are questions this book doesn’t answer, such as the mechanism that caused the Justice Department to shut down its investigation into Armstrong and Tailwinds, and while it’s a question I’m desperate to have answered, the book cannot be faulted for what it didn’t do. Too often, books are criticized for not anticipating a reader’s every desire instead of attacking only what they did poorly.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice some factual inaccuracies. In defense of the authors, I’ll note that the errors I caught were minor points and not ones that ultimately skew the narrative. They’re on the order of writing that Trek is based in Minnesota, not Wisconsin.
This is a sweeping narrative, one that in film form would benefit from Cecil B. DeMille or Francis Ford Coppola. It’s that most American of stories—rags to riches—and then because we can’t abide anyone staying on a pedestal for too long, a tipping of that pedestal—with prejudice. We’ve been reading this story in bits and pieces, one small episode at a time, but now, with “Wheelmen” we get a chance to read it as one flowing epic, and because the writers know an active verb from a passive one, the book is a compelling read, difficult to put down until either nature or dinner calls.
To their credit, Albergotti and O’Connell stick with the rule not to editorialize. Believe me, this is a book with culprits by the bushel, but you’re left to decide how to apportion the blame. While there’s been plenty of ire for Trek because how how Greg LeMond was treated, I think the authors show what a no-win situation John Burke was in, or at least what a no-win situation he believed he was in. They also do much to bolster Julien Devries’ credibility as a witness to the internal workings of Tailwinds with respect to both doping and illicit payments. As a result, Nike comes off looking much worse than Trek in that they are alleged to have been actively involved in the coverup of one of Armstrong’s alleged positives. It is Oakley that comes off worst for having taken a very active role in discrediting the Andreus. To the degree that any company who protected Armstrong might be in for some backlash, Oakley is the most deserving of the bunch. (Guess they won’t be advertising with us….)
There seems to be a fair amount of lingering ire for the riders who confessed to doping while on U.S. Postal/Discovery. Now that we have a single narrative that paints a much more complete history of the top echelon of pro cycling here in the U.S., it is my hope that Thom Weisel, Steve Johnson and Jim Ochowicz receive the scrutiny they deserve. When I think of the harm done to cycling by the doping of the last 20 years, guys like George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer seem like small potatoes compared to the disservice done the sport by Weisel, Johnson and Ochowicz, and yet there’s no discussion of banning them from the sport. Justice is rarely just, huh?
The single most surprising detail contained within the book concerned not Lance Armstrong, but Jan Ullrich. To say any more would make for an epic plot spoiler, one on the order of an obscenity spewing anger that I’d richly deserve if I broke the drama by revealing it here. That one page of the book deserves a post of its own.
Because we know this story in broad strokes, it would be easy to skip this book. Don’t make that mistake. This will stand as the definitive account for American cycling during the EPO era, a documentary of how cycling’s power brokers lacked the moral compass to do that right thing, ever.
Now that Pat McQuaid has been voted out of the UCI presidency and the troubled institution is being led by Brian Cookson, there is some reasonable hope that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be formed and testimony will take place. Given how cycling has been governed since the UCI was formed, this is a turn of events so surprising and unlikely it is befitting an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
Let’s imagine it for a second: Someone will be willing to pay attention as Jesus Manzano speaks.
Consider that Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton will have an opportunity to sit down in the same room as members of the UCI, tell everything they saw and took part in while members of U.S. Postal and Phonak, and when finished Pat McQuaid won’t be there to call them “scumbags.”
Now that we have the faith that the UCI has a president who will actually do what he says, and that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will convene, we have a question to consider: How far back should the TRC look? Technically, the choice of how far to look back belongs to Cookson or whoever he charges with running the TRC, but that Cookson is president now owes much to public outcry. We do have a voice and the success of a TRC will rest on public satisfaction.
So who should testify? The TRC should do more than just listen to riders and team personnel. We should hear from as many doctors, pharmacists and lab techs as possible. Let’s include the odd motorcycle driver or two. This testimony will be key in corroborating what the riders say. Anyone watching social media has noticed that there’s some suspicion about whether George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer confessed all of their doping to USADA or not. Testimony from medical professionals and coaches will have the ability to confirm their previous testimony or demonstrate that they withheld some activity. It will also show just how fearful riders were of Travis Tygart, or not.
However, if the TRC only looks back as far as 1999, it won’t be far enough. We will have little reason to be satisfied. The TRC needs the freedom, resources and time necessary to take testimony from anyone with a heartbeat. That means we should listen to Belgian soigneurs from the 1950s. We should listen to guys like Lucien Aimar, who was a domestique for Jacques Anquetil. And yes, we should listen to Eddy Merckx.
Why go so far back? Because it will educate the sport’s governing body, riders, team staff, the public and sponsors—in short every stakeholder the sport has—on how entrenched doping and attitudes toward doping have been. Because it was ingrained at an institutional level, it will show that cycling takes doping not just more seriously than any other sport, but as seriously as one may take it. That is what will be necessary to win back sponsor and audience confidence.
The reality is that we won’t hear from everyone we would like to. We must also accept that the UCI is unlikely to allow the TRC to run for five years. They need to focus their effort, concentrate on the biggest part of the problem. To that end, I suggest that we do what we can to encourage testimony from as far back as 1990.
Based on everything I’ve learned about the rise of oxygen-vector doping, I think we can put a date on when doping fundamentally change in pro cycling. That date? May 18,1990. With it comes a specific location: Bari, Italy. That was the day and the location of the prologue for the 1990 Giro d’Italia, which was won by Gianni Bugno. Bugno went on to wear the pink jersey for the 19 days, all the way to the finish in Milan. It was the first time a rider had led the Giro from start to finish since Eddy Merckx did it in 1973. Because we know Bugno worked with Francesco Conconi and testing revealed a high hematocrit—for which he was sanctioned—I think it’s fair to mark this as the date when racing grand tours changed. Fair enough, that is, until we get testimony through a TRC.
Simply put, the 1990 Giro was the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO.
While EPO use changed the whole of racing, it had the greatest effect on the grand tours, where being able to stay out of the red zone thanks to extra red blood cells paid dividends as the race wore on. It was during the 1990 season that Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci stormed to prominence. A year later Miguel Indurain won his first Tour de France, and like Chiappucci and Bugno, Big Mig counted Conconi among his advisors.
The 1990 season was a turning point in that not only did it see the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO (the Giro), it also saw the last clean win in the Tour de France prior to two generations of wins tainted by oxygen-vector doping. Has there been a clean winner of the Tour since Greg LeMond’s 1990 win? Very probably, but certainly not between 1991 and 2006. The possibility of a clean winner seems to have grown more convincing with each year since 2007.
A TRC has the ability to settle this question.
Now, regarding LeMond, it’s easy enough to find comments on Facebook or Twitter from people willing to accuse him of having doped. Even without a TRC, the evidence suggests that in 1989 each of the grand tours was won without oxygen-vector doping. The Vuelta was won by Pedro Delgado, the Giro by Laurent Fignon and the Tour by LeMond. Each of those guys had won a grand tour prior to the availability of EPO. While we know that both Delgado and Fignon doped, we have reason to believe they weren’t using EPO in ’89. What’s interesting about ’89 is that this is the year Chiappucci, Bugno and Indurain began to threaten the GC. In ’89 Chiappucci finished 46th and 81st in the Giro and Tour, respectively. A year later? A remarkable 12th and 2nd. In ’88, Bugno withdrew from the Giro and finished the Tour in 62nd. In ’89 he went 23rd and 11th. In ’90, of course, he won the Giro and finished the Tour in 7th. Indurain’s rise was more gradual, less outwardly suspicious; he finished 97th in the ’87 Tour, but gradually climbed the ranks up to 47th, 17th and 10th before winning.
What makes all three of these riders of a piece is the fact that they started anonymously before rising to prominence. LeMond, Fignon, Merckx and Bernard Hinault all share in common the fact that their brilliance and potential shown early on. LeMond differs only in that he didn’t win his first Tour—he was third.
Lance Armstrong is accused of being at the center of the greatest doping program in history, the greatest sporting fraud ever perpetrated. It’s a charge we can’t really resolve. If there was a greater sporting fraud, it hasn’t been exposed. Ultimately, this isn’t a terribly important question. What the Armstrong fall has done, however, is to open the public’s eyes to the breadth of doping that has taken place. It has introduced suspicion into the cycling fan’s vocabulary. The problem before us is how to put this behind us. We may never put the genie back in the bottle, but a TRC has the ability to educate us on more than just who doped; it has the ability to clear those who did not dope.
Aside from simply dispensing the truth, a TRC will freshly frame the achievement of riders like LeMond, riders who would have accomplished more were it not for the rise of EPO. A TRC that reaches back to 1990 will give us a new way to define courage.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’ve ridden a great many bike events over the years. From charity rides that were as elaborately produced as a wedding to road races marshaled by a van with half a million miles on it and industrial park crits that were as nondescript as the buildings we rode by. In that time I’ve run across one event that I really feel has gotten the formula right for producing a memorable cycling event. And it’s no secret that I think that event is Levi’s Gran Fondo.
I first went up to ride the gran fondo just because I wanted to go for an organized ride in Sonoma County. That it was to be a gran fondo—that is, a century with a mass start and controlled intersections to make it a bit more like an actual race—was more interesting to me than the ride being attached to a big pro. What interested me was doing a 100-mile ride with loads of climbing and great descents and only putting down my foot when I got to a rest stop. Not having to stop every few miles for a red light was easily worth the entry fee.
I got that experience, but I also got plenty more. I was amazed at the hordes of volunteers. There were volunteers who knew what they were doing everywhere I went. Out on the course there were police and fire officers helping to direct us and families at the end of driveways applauded us. I’d never done an event where someone cheered for me nearly every mile.
Then there was the fact that the ride had attracted licensed racers, dedicated century riders, double-century types for whom an event like this is just a good start as well as families. It was the broadest cross section of riders I’d ever encountered at a single event.
I became curious how the guys at Bike Monkey had managed to run an event through at least half a dozen different towns, on roads that are popular with tourists. I can think of a half dozen event promoters who would have looked at the proposed route, and a start and finish in the city of Santa Rosa and have pronounced it impossible.
The reason I was curious was simple: To my eye, a couple of guys in Santa Rosa had figured out how to make a single grass roots cycling event attractive to nearly anyone, everyone. When was the last time law enforcement, city governments, homeowners and cyclists all agreed on the value of a cycling event? To be sure, not everyone is in love with Levi’s Gran Fondo, but there are enough of us that the event has been happening without problems for four years.
The question that nagged at me was how. How did they do it? As it turns out, the answer is neither a secret nor impossible. Their strategy is a simple one: direct a portion of proceeds to charities. The AIDS Rides did that, but operationally, those rides were very different. They paid a cast of hundreds to work for them and they directed a tiny percentage to the actual charities meant to benefit. That strategy backfired when people learned that Pallotta Teamworks, the organizers behind the AIDS Rides, were really just a rather profitable event planner.
Bike Monkey doesn’t bill Levi’s Gran Fondo as a charity event. But the charity they do is no accident. What’s remarkable is how when 7,500 people each pay upwards of $100 to participate in a cycling event, you have some horsepower to get things done. Bike Monkey took that horsepower to a number of local charities. Among the beneficiaries of the gran fondo’s largesse are schools and fire departments along the route that the gran fondo follows. Those underfunded outposts receive checks that can make a real difference in the service they provide each year.
I shot these photos on a ride that Bike Monkey puts on the day before the fondo. It’s a chance for the top fundraisers attending the event to go on a short ride with Leipheimer and select VIPs. In addition to Levi and his wife Odessa Gunn, the very important types this year included the Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talanksy and Peter Stetina, Rebecca Rusch, Elden “Fat Cyclist” Nelson, Alison Tetrick of Team Exergy Twenty16, United Health Care’s Lucas Euser, Jeff Castelaz of the Pablove Foundation and Bissell rider Julian Kyer.
The ride went to Forget Me Not Farm on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. For those of you who haven’t seen “The Levi Effect,” Levi’s wife, Odessa, is a serious animal person and she volunteers there. Forget Me Not Farm rescues farm animals and uses them in therapy with kids who have been abused. Of course, their story is a good deal richer and more life-affirming than that, but that’s the elevator pitch. The farm is among the charities that the ride helps to support.
Attendees were served food grown at the farm and I can attest that the strawberries were as good as any I’ve had. Frankly, I didn’t think you could grow good strawberries that far north. It was a chance for people who don’t often have a chance to meet a pro cyclist to interact with a few of them, not to mention an opportunity to get an additional guided tour in while visiting Sonoma.
I am aware that some people are still hot enough about Levi Leipheimer’s doping to boil water. At some point I’m hoping we can move beyond the rage and begin to see the riders as pawns (most, if not all) in a system that was of the UCI’s making. Levi has served his suspension and no longer races; I think that should be enough to quell the anger. I’ve heard a few people say that the charity work that the gran fondo does is a chance for Levi to give something back to the community now that he’s no longer a pro. The funny thing is, that was always his intent. Those who know him have told me he shies from the limelight, that he really doesn’t want the attention. What was evident from “The Levi Effect” was how he got behind the idea of the gran fondo as a way to give back to a community that had accepted him as one of their own.
It was that vision, that desire to bring attention to the community, rather than the rider, that I think makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so very different from other events I’ve ridden. Perhaps it’s not the only one; certainly, I’ve not ridden all the rides there are, but it’s notably superior to every other ride I’ve done in its ability to deliver a stellar experience without hitch. That experience wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who are tied to the many charities to which the gran fondo donates. Think what you will of Levi for doping; whether you let go of your anger over that or not is beyond our control, but I hope you’ll bear this in mind: rather than using the event as a chance to bask in his fame, he turned the spot on the area, on something he loves and in that he gave Sonoma a boost it deserves, it needs.
We’re at an uneasy place with our heroes. Even without the benefit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the landscape of our understanding of professional bike racing in the last 20 years has fundamentally changed. For most followers of bike racing, doping went from this little problem in uncommon instances to a pervasive culture common to all but the rarest riders. While we beg for the truth about what occurred, as sporting fans, we’ve yet to embrace a single rider who confesses. As a group, we’ve yet to confer forgiveness to a single prodigal son.
Some people would like to see Leipheimer and every other confessed doper shot by firing squad, or at least expunged from the collective memory of cycling. Truly, some of the vitriol is hard to fathom. But he hasn’t gone away, nor has his eponymous event. To evidence this drop in stock value, entries for Levi’s Gran Fondo sold at a slower rate this year than they did in previous years. But they did sell out.
I’ve heard speculation that Santa Rosa wasn’t bringing the Tour of California back for a stage visit because the town was angry at Leipheimer for the shame he brought on the city and that the gran fondo wouldn’t last much longer. Really? The fact is, the city simply didn’t want to bear that expense in 2014, and if anything, due to the charitable work that Bike Monkey does, the gran fondo is more beloved than ever. While the long route sold out more slowly than it did in years past, the ride did sell out all three routes.
The staging area is almost the exact opposite of Interbike. At the trade show, I see a great many friends from the industry, such as Road Bike Action’s Zap (left) or TRUE Communications’ Mark Riedy (right), but unless I have an appointment, we’re all usually walking so quickly we don’t have a chance to say anything more than hi. In the staging area at Levi’s Gran Fondo, you’re standing around, waiting for the start, so it’s a good deal easier to actually chat with friends.
Shane Bresnyan (left) and Glenn Fant (right) are two of the faster guys in town and Glenn is the owner of NorCal Bikesport and the Bike Peddler and a significant sponsor of the gran fondo.
It was nice to see the Fat Cyclist himself, Elden Nelson and his wife, aka the Hammer.
Austin McInerny is the executive director for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and was there with a full gaggle of high school riders from the NorCal league.
Levi’s Gran Fondo always manages to pull in a number of bona fide cycling stars and at this year’s event, and this year Andrew Talansky, who finished 10th at this year’s Tour de France and lives nearby in Napa, came out to ride.
Luca Euser of United Healthcare chose to ride pretty far back in the group and could be seen pulling people from one rest stop to another. He’s got an event of his own coming up in Napa. I may need to attend that.
Saturday was one of those bluebird days that would have seemed like Indian Summer anywhere else, but because this was Sonoma County, you can get days like this late in the fall. And while the morning began down in the 40s and required riders to don arm warmers, vests or jackets and consider at least knee warmers or embrocation, most of the day carried conditions to make you wish for another week of days like this one.
The descent to the coast comes in two big drops. The first, Myers Grade, plummets with such abandon that I saw a few people walking it. I have to admit I went slower on it in past years, partly because of the people at the side of the road and partly because my confidence on fast steep terrain just hasn’t returned, even though it’s been a full year since my crash.
Just to do something a little different this year, I decided to do the climb up Willow Creek rather than the full run down the coast to Coleman Valley Road. Willow Creek starts with pavement that gives way to gravel and becomes a double-track ascent through the forest. On the climb the trees shaded the sun enough to drop the temperature more than five degrees.
It was only upon hitting the climb that I began to feel good. I’d spent the entire day, some 70 miles to this point with my legs effectively offline. My best guess is that while I had good fitness, the cold of the morning caused my lower back and left IT Band to tighten up like a suspension bridge. As a result, I found myself pedaling mile after mile at 17 mph. I felt fine otherwise, but I couldn’t generate any power and as a result, all the people I’d planned to ride with early on spun up the road as I watched group after group pass. The why of my pace wasn’t terribly important, other than it gave me something to consider for a while, but the pace itself did force me to confront a larger issue. How was I going to handle it? I’d been riding well and wanted to rip one that day.
I thought back on Tyler Hamilton’s crash at the 2004 Tour de France in which he injured his back and afterward said he left the race because while he could pedal the flats, his back wouldn’t allow him to generate any power for climbing. I didn’t understand what he meant, at least, not at the time. I fully get it now.
But the question was what I would do with my attitude. I could spend 100 miles pissed that I showed up but my legs didn’t. I could whine for 100 miles that I got a shitty hand of cards. Or I could simply go slow, check out the sights and maybe see some new things because I was going too fast in years past. All things considered, given that I was riding through some of the prettier country in Sonoma County, were I to do anything other than enjoy myself on such a superb day would mean I was as inelastic as a pane of glass, and not much brighter.
So I enjoyed myself. Which wasn’t hard to do. Having my legs finally come on line meant that my riding could be playful on the climb of Willow Creek. While most of it isn’t all that steep so that you can drill it through the gravel through long stretches, there are a couple of ultra steep sections—one was 30 percent while another hit 27 percent—that turned the riding into something more reminiscent of mountain biking.
Following the descent into Occidental the ride into Santa Rosa takes you past a few final vineyards, some farm fields and then suddenly you’re turning onto the bike path. It’s a surprisingly welcome turn and conveys the relief of being nearly finished even if you’re not across the line quite yet. Sorta like a red kite, I suppose. Rolling into the finish was a mix of relief to be finished and sadness that the day was coming to a close.
Before closing, I’d like to say thank you to Christina, Sami, Arjuno, Russell (hell, even Andrew Talansky reads RKP!) and the many other people who stopped me to say thanks for RKP. It’s difficult to put into words what it means to have people tell me personally how much they appreciate RKP. I’ve been unable to summon anything more articulate than, “No, thank you.”
If there’s a better way to spend a day, I can’t summon it. A long bike ride without a bunch of stop lights, terrain so beautiful you want to pull over just to stare, seeing old friends, making a few new ones and all on a day you wish would never end.
In refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks unwittingly ignited a revolution in how the United States treated African Americans. It was a pretty simple act of defiance as things go, but by staying seated, Parks ripped the scab off long-simmering tensions between blacks and whites in the U.S.
In the decade that followed President Lyndon Johnson signed into law what was arguably the most radical and sweeping civil rights legislation since the Nineteenth Amendment—which gave women the right to vote—was ratified in 1920. African Americans were given the right to vote, protected from discrimination based on their skin color or national heritage and protected from discrimination in housing. What gave the civil rights movement its power was a societal epiphany, a collective dawning of consciousness about the inherent wrong of discriminating against anyone for their skin color. For reasons that we may never fully understand, sufficient numbers of Americans made their voice heard, a voice that said in effect, ‘This doesn’t work; we’re not going to accept this anymore.’
Of course, the road to equal rights wasn’t smooth or easy. There were murders, boycotts, riots, more murders and deployments of the National Guard to keep the status quo when the cops couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves.
I offer that as a backdrop to the recurring themes of today’s news. A majority of the American people have concluded they’re okay with gay marriage. What they’re not okay with anymore are priests and school teachers sexually abusing minors. They’re not okay with the Boy Scouts discriminating against gays. And they don’t seem to be okay assault weapons on the streets. The public not only wants change, they see it as necessary.
In our collective rejection of this old status quo I see a parallel to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. We aren’t willing to turn a blind eye to these crimes. My sense is that we’re approaching another societal epiphany, a large-scale sea change, one that will define us as a society that rejects discrimination of any form. Naturally, I hope that this movement isn’t marked by the violence that threatened to overshadow all the progress we were making.
So what’s this got to do with cycling? That’s easy: I see cycling confronting the same issues. I now think Travis Tygart’s pursuit of Armstrong affair is the precipitating event to wake cycling fans from their complacency about the problem of doping, much the way Parks’ defiance was the precipitating event in sparking the civil rights movement. I’ll admit, it took me a long time to see the case in this light, but there can be no doubt that the public at large is now aware of just how deeply ingrained doping has been in the sport.
Most of the cycling public ignored nearly all of the accusations against Armstrong and instead chose to believe the fairytale until the release of USADA’s Reasoned Decision. Through that I hear echoes of white America’s tacit approval of segregation. Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen are little different from the Southern politicians and police chiefs who resisted the new laws, insisting they weren’t going to change how things had been done for generations. Indeed, considering how McQuaid and Verbruggen denounced both Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton once they decided to unburden their consciences by confessing the details of their doping, they are no better than Bull Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner who directed the fire and police departments to turn fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s demonstration in the spring of 1963. Connor, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, became the public face of Southern bigotry, the quintessential example of the old guard that was standing in the way of the equality we all now take for granted.
If it seems like a stretch to compare segregation with doping, consider that there was a time when seemingly reasonable people saw nothing wrong with separate facilities for blacks and whites—it was the law of the land thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Similarly, there was a time when taking performance-enhancing drugs just to get through a bike race wasn’t the least bit scandalous. Times change.
Could it be that the new generation of riders are analogous to what my generation was to the acceptance of African Americans as equals in school and on the playground? I think so. In their outspoken denunciation of doping, Taylor Phinney, Tejay Van Garderen and Mark Cavendish are a lot like the whites who linked arms with blacks and staged protests in the South. It may also be that riders like Levi Leipheimer and Thomas Dekker aren’t terribly different from Southerners who went with the flow until they recognized the tide had turned.
In shutting down the investigation by their independent commission, McQuaid and the UCI have proven to all but those with the most reptilian of brains that learning the full scope of doping in the sport has never been their primary interest. They lack the vision, the institutional spine and sufficient love for the sport to show real courage by allowing the commission to do the job they were charged with. After being booed by the crowd assembled at the recent Cyclocross World Championships, it seems impossible that McQuaid could somehow be unclear on the will of the people, yet he persists with the obstinate bearing of a smoker who won’t give up his cigarettes even after learning he has lung cancer. In that regard we can draw yet another comparison, this time to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. It was Faubus who called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. You can’t help but wonder what he was thinking as he tried to prevent school integration.
It would be obscene to suggest that the issues cycling faces are as serious as the fundamental issues of equality that the United States wrestled with 50 years ago. But because sport is aspirational, a place in which we invest our loftiest dreams, the drama unfolding as a result of doping has held many of us in a disproportionate crisis. Sport is supposed to be a realm free of the clutches of corruption.
Democracy has a way of pushing aside tyrants in favor of more reasonable forms of engaging the citizenry. History remembers Faubus and Connor as villains who stood in the way of equality for all Americans, men who clung to outdated ideas and refused to change with the times. McQuaid and Verbruggen have denied any wrongdoing during their tenures, instead pointing crooked fingers at the riders, the teams and even the fans. They are our Faubus and Connor. History will show them no quarter.
So what might we expect from the future? It’s not unreasonable to conclude the UCI will be freed of the misguided leadership of McQuaid and Verbruggen following their next election. Of course, that is no more likely to put an end to doping than the civil rights movement put an end to the Ku Klux Klan. The difference is that the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t a fringe organization in the first half of the 20th Century, while today it is far outside of the mainstream of social thought. Likewise, drug use was a once widespread practice, but the day is coming when athletes will see doping for what it really is—
the most basic of lies.
Next year’s 100th edition of the Tour de France is still more than eight months away, but we already have a good idea of what sort of race it’s going to be—even before race organizer Christian Prudhomme reveals full details of the official route on Wednesday in Paris. Some wild rumors have been circulating through the cycling world, including a nighttime stage finish on the Champs-Élysées, which indicate that it’s going to be a Tour worthy of celebration. And following Monday’s decision by the UCI razing Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour victories from the history books, the hope is that there will be total focus on the race itself and not on yet more doping rumors.
Besides the course, which promises at least 10 significant stages, what looks like being a major feature of the 2013 Tour is one of the most competitive fields in the event’s history. At least eight of the 22 likely starting teams have a strong chance of producing the eventual champion, while the course appears to be both balanced and demanding. First then, let’s take a look at the likely route of the June 29 to July 21 Tour.
TOUGH START, RUGGED FINISH
We’ve known since last year that the Tour will visit the French island of Corsica for the first time in the race’s 110-year history (the race wasn’t contested a total of 10 times through the two world wars). Corsica’s terrain is extremely mountainous, except for a coastal plain along the east coast—which will host the Tour’s first and only flat stage in Corsica, finishing in Bastia with a likely mass sprint. The second and third stages are both short (around the 150-kilometer mark) and feature significant climbs in their run-ins to Ajaccio and Calvi respectively, which will give us an initial look at the overall contenders.
All the race personnel (except the riders) will take overnight ferries across the Mediterranean to gather the next afternoon in Nice for what will be a strategically decisive stage: a 20-kilometer team time trial along the waterfront. The last time an early TTT was included at the Tour, in 2011, Garmin won the stage by four seconds, while the two teams that produced the final podium (BMC Racing and RadioShack) were separated by just six seconds. But those six seconds gave eventual winner Cadel Evans a psychologically advantage over Andy and Fränk Schleck through the following 10 stages before the Tour reached the mountains.
This year, when the TTT result is added to the two difficult stages in Corsica, a firm hierarchy will exist prior to the first mountaintop stage finish—which looks like being on stage 8 at Ax-3 Domaines in the Pyrénées. Whatever the GC looks like there, it will probably be quite similar a week later when the race reaches the next summit finish, said to be Mont Ventoux, on July 14.
In the week between the two mountain ranges, the Tour will see a second (probably easier) climbing stage through the Pyrénées, a 600-kilometer transfer to northwest France for the first rest day, four sprinters’ stages and an individual time trial. This stage against the clock looks like being a specialists’ TT on a flat, probably 45-kilometer course in Normandy, finishing at the iconic island of Mont St. Michel. Whichever of the GC candidates does well there will get a nice boost in morale before the crucial stage finish atop the Ventoux, which some believe is the hardest climb longer than 20 kilometers in France.
After a second rest day, the Tour heads to Gap, the gateway to the Alps—where four tough, but different types of stages will decide the eventual outcome. This stretch opens with a very hilly individual TT, again around the 40-kilometer mark, in the foothills north of the turquoise-blue Serre-Ponçon lake. Then comes the keynote stage, one that almost happened two years ago, which climbs L’Alpe d’Huez twice—thanks to a final 50-kilometer loop over the Col de Sarenne, a narrow, rough-surfaced mountain road that is being given a new coat of tarmac, before returning to the base of the Tour’s most popular climb.
The next day sees the peloton head north, probably over the Glandon, Madeleine and Croix-Fry passes with an uphill finish in Le Grand Bornand—where Fränk Schleck and Linus Gerdemann were the last two winners. The final alpine stage appears to be an unusual one for the Tour, taking in one big, mountainous loop from the beautiful lakeside city of Annecy. Another 600-kilometer transfer takes the race to its final stage, finishing as usual on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but according to a report in this Monday’s edition of La Dépêche the final sprint could well take place at nightfall—followed by a massive firework display to commemorate the end of this 100th edition.
THE PROSPECTIVE CHAMPS
Despite the early rumors that the 2012 Tour would be a climbers’ Tour, the likelihood of a team time trial and two individual tests puts the emphasis back on those riders who are strong in the time trials and the climbs. That would mean that Team Sky’s defending champion Brad Wiggins should shoot for a second Tour title rather than, as has been mentioned, go for victories at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España next year and let teammate Chris Froome lead Sky at the Tour. Obviously, that situation will need to be decided by team management in the next couple of months.
Froome, second at this year’s Tour, is obviously strong against the clock and in mountaintop finishes—like several other probable contenders, including Saxo-Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador, BMC’s Evans and Tejay Van Garderen, and Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde. All of these men, along with the two Sky riders, will get a boost from the early team time trial.
Besides these half-dozen yellow-jersey contenders, several others will also be planning on strong challenges. These include the more specialist climbers, Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team, Vincenzo Nibali of a much-strengthened Astana squad, the 2010 default winner Andy Schleck of RadioShack-Nissan, and Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol.
Then there is the world TT champion Tony Martin, who’ll be the GC leader of the Omega-Quick Step team now that Levi Leipheimer has been sacked over his involvement in the Postal team doping scandal. Martin is somewhat of an enigma, but should he get his weight down a few kilos while keeping his unquestioned power, there’s no reason why he should lose too much time on the summit finishes—remember, he did finish second on the Ventoux stage in 2009. But the German’s challenge will be hampered by his Belgian team focusing first on racking up sprint stage wins for the newly arrived Mark Cavendish and team captain Tom Boonen.
This should be a good Tour for North Americans. Besides overall contenders Hesjedal, Vande Velde and Van Garderen, next year should see the Tour debuts of Garmin’s Andrew Talansky, a future GC player, and BMC’s Taylor Phinney, who should have a vital role for Evans and Van Garderen in the TTT and add his power to defending his team leaders’ positions in the flatter stages.
As always, there’s a fear of seeing a repeat of the devastating high-speed pileups that marked the opening weeks of the past two Tours and wrecked the chances, among others, of Wiggins, Van den Broeck and Contador in 2011, and Hesjedal and Vande Velde in 2012. But with a muscular opening to the 2013 Tour in Corsica, followed by the TTT, the hierarchy will be established before the race reaches the three flatter stages in opening week, and this will calm down the usual first-week tension when every team vies for stage wins.
Some critics have compared this first post-Armstrong-doping-decision Tour with the so-called Tour of Renewal in 1999, a year after the infamous Festina doping debacle. The big difference this time is that there’s no undetectable drug like EPO in existence, while the majority of riders in today’s peloton is already competing clean. Given those facts and the increased scrutiny of every rider’s blood parameters by the anti-doping authorities, the chances of seeing a worthy winner of a hard-fought and clean Tour are as strong as they’ve ever been.
Let’s hope that’s the case, and that everyone, especially the fans, can enjoy Tour No. 100’s hopefully spectacular firework display over the Arc de Triomphe next July 21.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I was a boy, I had a thing for Porsche. I thought their cars were sexy in ways almost nothing other than lingerie models can achieve. I loved their engineering, their racing success, their emphasis on driver experience. At some point in high school I was confronted with a documentary that went into genetic detail on how companies like Porsche, BMW and Mercedes enriched themselves through their contracts with the Third Reich.
I found myself struggling with how I could admire a company that had prospered as a supplier to an empire that killed more than 10 million people. It had been my dream to one day buy a Porsche of some variety—a desire that has never left me—but that desire was upended with the moral dilemma that they had (perhaps unwittingly) aided and abetted the Third Reich as they did their best to exterminate all the Jews in Europe. How could I support that?
Fortunately, I’ve never had the cash at hand to force the question. I’ve told myself that more than 50 years have passed, that whatever punishment was theirs has been meted. Still, I’ve contemplated buying a used BMW wagon and the question bumped elbows with my conscience. It wasn’t comfortable.
I offer that as a prelude to the nuclear winter we are now entering following the release of USADA’s “reasoned decision.” The initial casualties were all the riders whose doping activity was detailed in the voluminous files released by USADA. They are tantamount to the initial deaths caused by a nuclear blast. Now, the fallout.
Already I’m seeing people bringing up the issue of boycotts of brands. Nike, because of their ongoing support of Lance Armstrong in the face of the allegations was coming off worst. Then, the news this morning that Nike has dumped Armstrong, at least publicly. Still, there’s the allegation reported by the NY Daily News that Kathy LeMond was told by ex-Postal mechanic Julien Devries that he heard that Nike paid $500,000 to hush up Armstrong’s 1999 positive for corticosteroids, that the money was wired not to the UCI, but to Hein Verbruggen himself.
It is the most damning allegation against Verbruggen ever, a charge that weighs like murder on the long rap sheet of an otherwise petty criminal. However, even though Mrs. LeMond testified to this under oath, she was not an eyewitness to the allegation, the way Tyler Hamilton was an eyewitness to Armstrong receiving transfusions. Put another way, her testimony qualifies as hearsay, something that is routinely stricken from testimony in court rooms. It’s not an allegation that appears to have been investigated by Novitzky or Tygart, at least, not based on the released documents.
The trouble for Nike is that the allegation comes sliding down a pile of so many other proven charges that many are willing to believe almost any bad deed claimed to have been perpetrated by Armstrong or his backers. Led by ex-pro and one-time Armstrong teammate Paul Willerton, people are mobilizing for a boycott of Nike; it remains to be seen if it will still go forward now that they’ve severed ties with the former seven-time Tour victor. Whether or not they’ve tossed Armstrong overboard, this could turn out to be the biggest PR black eye they have suffered in decades.
Also announced this morning, Armstrong has stepped down from Livestrong as its chairman. This is an obvious and understandable effort to save the charity; who knows if it will work?
As it turns out, Armstrong himself is proving to be radioactive. For better or worse, he’s poisoning everything he touched.
But the fallout doesn’t end with Livestrong. It extends to Trek. Riders are contemplating a boycott of Trek as a result of their unwavering support for Armstrong. I doubt that a boycott would be particularly visible, but I can see the possibility that some people simply won’t buy a Trek when they go to buy a bike. It might be enough to allow Specialized to finally retake that spot as the #1-selling bike brand.
The fallout also extends to George Hincapie and his company Hincapie Sportswear. People are wondering how they feel about doing business with his company, a company that wouldn’t be as big or popular without his success riding alongside Armstrong.
Then there’s Allen Lim, who Floyd Landis outed as having aided his and Levi Leipheimer’s doping efforts. Back when Landis was believed to be a lunatic running through the streets complaining that he was being chased by a purple unicorn, he was easy to dismiss, at least for those who wanted to dismiss him. Some of us didn’t dismiss him.
Lim denied Landis’ charges at the time and at that time, the weight of innocence was on his side. But USADA’s report has demonstrated that essentially everything contained in Landis’ confession was true; we have learned there were purple unicorns aplenty. It may not have proven every statement he has made was true, but I’m unaware that any of his assertions has been proven demonstrably false. And that’s the gray netherworld in which Lim’s denial resides. Nothing in the USADA documents addresses this and the affidavits by Landis and Leipheimer make not mention of Lim, so his ongoing denials are not rebutted by sworn testimony.
Conversely, people are asking questions about Chris Carmichael’s coaching company, Carmichael Training Systems, and whether or not they should support a company that was really only a cover for Armstrong. The charge is that Carmichael didn’t actually coach him. The objection here is that CTS’ greatest testimonial is built on a lie, even if it’s a lie of a different sort.
Of course, we need to consider bicycle racing’s retailer: USA Cycling. The sport’s governing body here in the U.S. has had a long and cozy history with Thom Weisel and his Champions’ Club, not to mention Tailwind Sports, the owners of the US Postal team. Indeed, two of Weisel’s cronies continue to sit on the USA Cycling board, David Helfrich and Matt Barger, who are both Development Foundation Representatives. Should they be immune?
It is likely that no company benefitted more from Armstrong’s meteoric rise to the top of the cycling heap than Trek, not Nike, not Oakley, not Powerbar, FRS or (more recently) Honey Stinger. They have the most to lose now. In a world where people vote with their dollars, they may well see a falloff in sales that registers in the fourth quarter of 2012.
But what of companies like Hincapie Sportswear and Skratch Labs? Should they take a hit? Their growth, their popularity, their products have hinged less on endorsement by Armstrong than their founders’ association with him. Should not those companies fair the storm better than Trek?
What each of these companies has in common—other than an association with Armstrong—is a product that is good by any objective measure. From good reviews to races won while using these products, not to mention the voluminous testimonials from Carmichael’s thousands of clients, each of these companies sells something that has been borne out in the market. However, there is a fundamental difference between the culpability of companies like CTS, Hincapie Sportswear and Skratch Labs (which didn’t even exist until well after Armstrong’s comeback began) and that of Nike and Trek.
In helping to build the Armstrong brand and support the US Postal team, Nike and Trek exerted considerable might. Without them, without their support, the Postal machine would have had fewer resources and may not have attained the level of success they did. In a way, what they did was help build a nuclear weapon. The more direct a participant’s knowledge of the situation, the closer they were to the blast. Those who worked for companies that benefited from Armstrong’s success are going to be in for a rough ride. And what of the riders who walked away from US Postal rather than cheat? They simply found the minimum safe distance. There are no winners in nuclear war, only losers.
Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.
This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.
Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.
At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”
In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.
In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.
Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.
USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.
Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.
Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.
Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.
Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.
In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.
The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.
One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”
If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There was a moment on Friday night when I had a rather minor, if sheepish epiphany. It came as I watched the premiere of “The Levi Effect” during an interview with Levi and he spoke of how the gran fondo was a way for him to give back to Santa Rosa, a way to say thank you to a community that had welcomed him as a native son.
Before I go any further, I need to back up a second and tell you that last winter my wife and I decided to do whatever was necessary to move our family to Santa Rosa. Our love for the region began with our honeymoon, during which we visited Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. I kid that after two days my wife was ready to cancel the rest of the trip, drive home and start packing. In reality, that’s not far off. The kicker for us has been going back to Santa Rosa on an annual basis for Levi’s Gran Fondo. With each successive visit we fall a bit more in love with the community in specific and the region in general.
Santa Rosa is a place like very few I’ve visited; it hurts to leave.
And so as I sat in the dark theater, it occurred to me that Levi Leipheimer is a big part of why I want to move to Santa Rosa. I need to hasten to add that I’m not a Levi fanboy; I’m not dying to go on his training rides, if only for the simple reason that I’d be embarrassed that I’d be holding them up or in the way. I’ll ad that I had a rather surreal introduction to him during the Tour of California. He was about to leave the Omega Pharma-Quickstep dinner I had attended and as he began to say his goodbyes, as it happened we found ourselves standing together. So he did the thing polite guys do: He turned to me and said, “Hi, I’m Levi.”
In a normal world, I would have responded, “Hi, I’m Patrick Brady.” Actually, that is what I said, which is normal enough, huh? But his response was what threw me off.
“Oh, you’re from Santa Rosa, right?”
I tried to explain in 50 words or less that I wasn’t yet, but I was trying. Honestly, I can’t say which part of that is weirdest to me. As much as I want my work to be known, I don’t actually want to be known. I’d like to have a big readership for RKP, but anonymity for me is how I view the natural order for the universe. It taught me a few things: the cycling community in Santa Rosa is tight-freaking-knit, Levi pays attention, oh, and he’s a genuinely decent guy. I was beyond embarrassed that he took a moment for me when I thought the spotlight should be anywhere other than on me.
So when Levi says several times in the course of the film that he wanted to use his celebrity to bring attention to just how special Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are, please take him at his word. It’s that special a place.
Now, concerning the ride itself for this year, the first thing to mention is just how much more sane the start was this year. Last year we may have had a bit more of the full width of the road and a great many riders were desperate to get to the very front. It was nervous and unpleasant, but for reasons I can’t explain, this year was entirely calmer.
There are more and more events out there calling themselves gran fondos and while I haven’t done most of them, what I keep hearing from readers and friends is just how many don’t have a unified start and don’t control intersections to speed riders’ passage. Well, I’m here to tell you, that unless the organizers provide those two elements, it’s not a gran fondo; it’s just a century and calling the event a gran fondo is an insult to the name.
It’s impossible to overstate the incredible amount of work that goes into putting on Levi’s Gran Fondo; the army of volunteers alone is larger than some events’ total ridership. That work has a tangible bottom line, making the experience of speeding out of Santa Rosa, through Sebastopol and toward Occidental an occasion with all the thrill of the opening miles of a bike race. And better than any race I ever participated in, the road is lined with families and volunteers cheering us on as if each of us—to a rider—actually mattered. Those opening miles are a kind of commerce, with the locals cheering riders because they know what’s in store, and in a way cheering for themselves.
Yes, cheering for themselves. A very big component to the gran fondo is charity work. One scene in “The Levi Effect” shows Carlos Perez handing off a check to one of the small communities the ride passes through. With 7,500 people ponying up a C-note, there’s some wealth to spread around.
The day started cool with a bit of mist; it was my first occasion to wear arm warmers this fall and while those opening climbs were through damp forest, once on King Ridge we rode out of the forest and into 360-degree views of the golden hills of Sonoma County. We shed our arm warmers and looked around with stunned expressions and exclamations of hyperbolic superlatives.
“Does it get better than this?”
I was lucky enough to ride for a while with Scot Nicol of Ibis. Scot’s a favorite son of Santa Rosa and all-around nice guy. I think he was going easy this year because normally he comes roaring by me on the opening pitch of King Ridge and this year we actually rode together for a good chunk of the day. The gent on his wheel is Don Winkle, the general counsel for the gran fondo, and part of Scot’s ongoing ride posse. Must be fun.
The combination of broken forest, golden hills and ordered vineyards gave the panaorama a view that changed with each new bend in the road. For sheer variety of view, there aren’t many places that can match this, though the Alps and Tuscany can hold their own.
Being greeted at a rest stop by a guy handing out sandwiches was an occasion of such sheer surprise it reminded me of the scene at the end of “Pretty in Pink” where the hot girl smiles at Ducky and he mouthes, “Moi?”
At heart, I’m a peasant and such a level of service was nearly more than my feeble brain could process.
Food was plentiful like beer at a frat house. I had to walk around the lunch stop just to make sure that I wasn’t missing out on something special—Nutter Butters? Are you serious?! It was only after I’d made the rounds the first time that I looked up and noticed how there were all these incredibly helpful signs that if you weren’t locked in your own little time zone could direct you to your ultimate refuel. It’s a small touch, but it’s yet another great example of how Bike Monkey goes the extra mile at every turn.
A proper Sonoma County day is one in which you extra clothing to tackle changing conditions. A typical day can see 30-degree temperature swings. At the start we were mere degrees above the need for a vest; I did see plenty of people with wind breakers and vests. I went with a bit of Rapha embro and arm warmers, plus one of my heavier base layers. Following the stellar sun and warmth on top of King Ridge, we could see the blanket of clouds that signaled the drop down Meyer’s Grade to Jenner and the Sonoma Coast, land of amazing Pinot Noir. Be sure to click on the image to see it in a larger size; this tiny display doesn’t do the view justice.
The Northern California coast bears nothing in common with Southern California’s sand beaches. It’s a place of drama, real nature in action and so overloaded with fascinating scenes it’s hard not to soft pedal and take in the beauty.
Shane Bresnyan and Glenn Fant of the Bike Peddler and NorCal Bike Sport. Check a Strava segment anywhere in Sonoma County, off-road or on it and you’ll see their names in the top 10. By the time I rolled into the finish Shane and Glenn were showered, fed and relaxing with friends. Neat trick.
Tom Danielson was a great addition to the gran fondo this year. He was every bit as friendly and gracious as Levi himself and proved to be a huge draw for young riders.
There’s going to come a day when I take my son to Levi’s Gran Fondo. I expect that first edition will be piccolo, but the ride will nearly be beside the point. Pro cycling may be a mess right now, but the ugly story lines are lost, thankfully, on the sport’s youngest practitioners. Meeting a big-time pro has the power to be a transformative experience. I’m looking forward to sharing an amazing day with my little peddler.
The weekend was a whirlwind. Driving, fueling (both me and the car), riding, shooting, writing, more writing and talking. Talking, talking and more talking; after all, that’s what happens, even to an introvert, when he bumps into scores of terrific people. I feel as if much of the weekend went by too quickly to properly record it all on my gray matter memory stick, but I did what I could to let it all soak in.
But wait a sec. I should point out that the weekend of Levi’s Gran Fondo, okay more properly, Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo (a name like some pure-bred dog’s) is the most unlikely of events. Unlikely not because it is a cycling event that takes place in a smaller community (at roughly 170,000 you can’t really call Santa Rosa a small town), but because the town’s population swells by a good six or seven percent—enough to be fill every hotel and motel for 20 miles—cycling takes center stage and it’s a rare occasion when cycling becomes cool. Cool by any measure. It feels like what high school would have been like had I been cool back then. Of course, that’s purely conjecture on my part as I was as far from cool as Boise is from Miami.
Friday night was the premiere of the documentary about Leipheimer called “The Levi Effect.” The event saw a crowd lined up down the street for a good city block. Inside it took over several of the theaters, at least three by my count. Before the movie started Leipheimer spoke for a few moments and told the assembled crowd (and there was a video feed to stream his comments into the other theaters) how the only way he had been willing to agree to a documentary was that if it didn’t focus exclusively on him. Everyone laughed; clearly the notion that you could have a documentary titled “The Levi Effect” and not focus it on Levi Leipheimer seemed funny, but he was serious. He talked about how he wanted the documentary to focus on the way the cycling gave him Santa Rosa and how the gran fondo was his way to say thank you to Santa Rosa.
The documentary itself was a delight. I doubt there’s another film in existence that can sell Santa Rosa or even Sonoma County the was this film does, but I’ll save the review for another occasion. Following the film there was a panel discussion with Leipheimer, Tom Danielson and the filmmakers. Danielson stole the show with some incredibly funny remarks: “What’s it like to race with Levi?”
“He kind of a dick.” Danielson has a great command of irony.
If there’s one thing that Levi’s Gran Fondo lacks, it’s a Jumbotron. They need to position one about 100 yards from the start for the many riders who, once queued up, can’t see the stars being interviewed. Patrick Dempsey, above, was the only genuine A-lister I saw this year, though last year I did bump into Erika Christensen in the VIP tent. Danielson made a stop by Dave Towle, also known as the voice of the Amgen Tour of California, as did Olympic Gold Medalist Kristin Armstrong and, of course, Levi.
The man behind the scenes who never gets enough credit: Carlos Perez. This is Carlos with his wife Cheryce and their daughter Zoie. Carlos is the CEO of Bike Monkey and the man who is really the force behind Levi’s Gran Fondo and a great many other terrific events that happen in and around Santa Rosa. He was also the executive producer of “The Levi Effect.” If you ever want to say thank you to someone, this is the guy.
I met Shane Bresnyan on the Specialized Ride to Vegas last year. On our opening ride I’d gotten concerned about a gap that had opened and decided I should jump across to what I thought were the fast guys. I was half way across a 10 second gap on a false flat when he and NorCal BikeSport owner Glenn Fant came by me as if I was getting dropped.
Oh. Huh? Wow.
Shane is one of Levi’s training buds when he’s home. I think that covers it. Oh, wait, he’s also stunningly nice.
Levi took a lot of time to wander through the VIP area at the start and personally say hi to as many riders as possible. This is Levi with Glenn Fant. Fant has served as Levi’s personal mechanic at the Amgen Tour of California, the Criterium du Dauphiné and even the Tour de France. He’s also, perhaps, the only rider in Sonoma County who speaks even less than Levi does.
Specialized honch Mike Sinyard. Mike loves a good, hard ride.
Elden, Fatty, Nelson with Bike Monkey Brand Ambassador (and scribe) Yuri Hauswald.
So what happens when bloggers meet? Pictures, of course.
I’ve been to a lot of bike events in the last 25 years. Races, rides, charity events, you name it, I’ve gone. I can say that the electricity at the start of Levi’s Gran Fondo was unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere, save last year at … Levi’s Gran Fondo.
This is the Church Marching Band performing the National Anthem. They are a 13-piece street band (though they were only eight or nine on this morning) I bumped into this spring at the opening stage of the Tour of California in Santa Rosa. They do everything from Dixieland to Klezmer and I dare say all points between. I’ll say that their rendition of the National Anthem was played with enough love that I got choked up. Hell of a way to start my favorite ride.