Philippe Gilbert has done what was truly the unthinkable. In sweeping the four races of the Ardennes Week—Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege—Gilbert has taken a quartet of victories no other rider has ever achieved. Even the triple of Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and L-B-L seemed too much to reasonably hope for, yet he went hope one further. How many riders can tell Roger De Vlaeminck, Rik Van Looy and Eddy Merckx to go suck it?
In the current issue (#3) of peloton magazine I put forward the suggestion that Gilbert is a rider cut in the mold of Rik Van Looy, the only rider to win each of the major classics. In the course of his career, Van Looy won each of the Monuments at least once, resulting in eight total wins of our greatest one-day races. What is interesting is that Gilbert’s victories in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Amstel Gold set him apart from Van Looy. The Emperor of Herentals, as he was known, never won Amstel or the Omloop Het Volk, as it was called in his day.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege marks only Gilbert’s third Monument, following his two wins at the Tour of Lombardy. Like Roger De Vlaeminck he has shown the ability to climb with the very best Grand Tour riders in a one-day race, and yet can sprint with Classics riders like Boonen. And that’s the trick.
Unlike his Belgian forebears Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem, whose sole wins in the Monuments came in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Gilbert has shown he can win south of Paris. Only a handful of riders, including De Vlaeminck and Michele Bartoli have won both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Tour of Lombardy during their careers. Of course, Merckx did that, too.
What’s most interesting about Gilbert isn’t his ability to win on any terrain, though that is certainly part of his strength and his appeal. And it isn’t the fact that he is well-poised to become the greatest one-day rider of his generation, with the potential to win a greater range of races than Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen. No, what makes Gilbert so interesting is his capacity to surprise, his sheer wily-ness.
For us, the question isn’t so much if he’ll win the Tour of Flanders, it’s which year and on which muur he’ll launch his attack. His combination of incredible strength and tactical sensibility were on full display during Liege-Bastogne-Liege. In fact, the greatest move of the race wasn’t the attack that separated Gilbert and the Schleck brothers from, well, from anything that might have mattered. The greatest move was after dumping Andy Schleck on the Côte de Saint-Nicholas; rather than try to drag brother Frank to the finish, Gilbert backed off, allowing Andy to chase back on. The effort kept Schleck the younger on the rivet and prevented him from being much of a factor in the sprint.
Had Gilbert continued, Frank wouldn’t have taken a single pull, and while it was unlikely he could have taken Gilbert in the sprint, there was no point in towing him to the finish and taking that risk. Once Andy returned to the duo, with both Schlecks present and accounted for, they were obligated to take their pulls. Tactically, Gilbert could have sat on them, yet he continued to take strong pulls to make the break work, but it was obvious from his positioning on the road that he was ever-mindful of the risk of an attack from one of the Schlecks.
With four consecutive wins, questions about the source of Gilbert’s strength threaten to spoil our enjoyment of a simple bike race. We’ve no reason to doubt he’s clean other than success and if we are to doubt a rider who wins, we are to doubt all of racing. The sport is too good for that. Let’s enjoy the day.
We’re seeing a rare rider emerge, one with the potential to win on any day. We had better keep our eyes peeled.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Cadel Evans used to be an annoying whiner, prone to piques of anger and spectacular failings of courage when courage might just have won him a race he’d later feel compelled to complain about having lost. Then he won the World Championship. Apparently, wearing the rainbow stripes has a powerful, character-improving effect on its designated bearer. Since that day in Mendrisio, Cadel has been transformed.
Or perhaps this is just what came from training with the late Aldo Sassi for the better part of a decade, and living year round in Italy. Perhaps Sassi’s ways finally took hold, once the high guru of athletic performance was diagnosed with the brain tumor that ended his life. Sassi’s restorative powers were even thought capable of purifying Ricardo Riccó, before the Cobra himself put paid to that possibility. Perhaps the change was taking place in the run up to Worlds. Regardless.
Up to that point, we were used to seeing an exceptionally strong rider who could climb, roll and time trial, a true all-rounder, but one seldom inclined to impose his will on a race. But then the inscrutable Aussie won la Fléche Wallonne, pounding up the Mur de Huy with Alberto Contador fading behind him. It was a hugely impressive win and one that marked a real re-launching of the Evans brand.
Moody and combative became mature and almost statesmanlike. Overly cautious became bold. Bitter became very nearly joyful. This was a rider finally seeming to like his job.
A Giro stage win and green jersey followed. He donned the maillot jaune at the Tour as well, if only briefly. Third at Tirreno-Adriatico. Fourth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The man did the stripes proud, not only through his results, but through the style of them and in sterling attitude.
That is why a rider, once easily dismissed as a bit part malcontent, is now revered, and it’s what made seeing him standing atop the final podium at this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico holding that ridiculous trident trophy deeply pleasing. Spraying the crowd down with his valedictory Prosecco, Evans was—at last—worthy.
That he had shed every skinny Italian climber on the road to win Stage 6 in a style entirely reminiscent of his win in Huy last year was revelatory. Rather than simply winning, Evans lit up the race.
If indeed, it was the rainbow stripes that hastened Evans’ transformation, I can think of a few other riders who might benefit from the treatment.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last week Omega Pharma-Lotto director sportif Marc Sergeant squashed conjecture concerning Philippe Gilbert’s goals for the 2011 season. In an interview with Cyclingnews Sergeant refuted the idea that Gilbert might be a contender for the 2011 Tour de France.
Sergeant indicated that in his talks with the star, Gilbert indicated that he would try for the Vuelta or the Giro before attempting the Tour.
“I know that it could be too hard to try at the Tour de France where the riders there are at the highest level and he was certainly talking about the future, not 2011,” Sergeant told Cyclingnews. “Let’s say he wins Amstel again and perhaps one day the Tour of Flanders, then he can turn around and say that he’s proved he’s one of the best one-day riders and now he’s going to try and tackle something different but we have to wait and see.”
In this, Sergeant is both right and wrong. He’s right in that should Gilbert win the Amstel Gold Race again and follow with that a win in the Tour of Flanders in a subsequent season then he will have proven that he is one of the best one-day riders around. Why he would choose to go after Amstel again rather than going after Liege-Bastogne-Liege is another matter entirely. After all, there’s prestige and then there’s prestige.
As for tackling something different following successes in Amstel and Flanders is where Sergeant’s judgement comes up short. Sergeant could use a history lesson, in fact.
Victory in either the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix actually narrows a rider’s career prospects rather than broadening them. Not that a rider will earn less than he deserves or wind up on a lousy team (though that happens often enough—it’s just not the fault of the race), what it means is that the races a rider is likely to win narrows dramatically.
It’s a stunning piece of information.
Gianni Bugno was the last rider to win both the Tour of Flanders and a Grand Tour (the Giro). He won the Giro in 1990 and Flanders in ’94. The last rider to win both Flanders and the Tour in the same year was Eddy Merckx in ’69. Before that it was Louison Bobet in ’55. Merckx is the only rider to win all three (Flanders, Giro and Tour). Rudy Altig won the Vuelta in ’62 and Flanders in ’64, making him the only rider to win both the Vuelta and Flanders, other than Merckx.
It may seem like a rider as talented as Philippe Gilbert should be able to take a season and focus his efforts on a singular goal such as the Vuelta or the Giro. However, history suggests that as riders have increased their specialization in targeting specific races a curious clumping of victories has taken place.
In short, riders who win the Northern Classics, such as the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad don’t go on to Grand Tour wins.
Recent guys to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad include Johan Museeuw, Thor Hushovd, Juan Antonio Flecha, Peter Van Petegem, and Michele Bartoli, guys who didn’t come close to winning a Grand Tour. The last guy to win both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a Grand Tour was the outlier of outliers: Eddy Merckx. He took both in 1973.
Since 1973 if you won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, one thing in your career was assured: No Grand Tour victories for you. It seems entirely counterintuitive to suggest one victory could prevent another, but victory in this semi-classic includes a dead end.
Gilbert has already won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice, in 2006 and 2008. He’s 28. By the time he was 28, Eddy Merckx had already won four Tours de France, four Giri d’Italia, the Vuelta a Espana, two World Championships, five Milan-San Remos, the Tour of Flanders, three Paris-Roubaix, four editions of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and two Tours of Lombardy, plus three editions of Paris-Nice. If Gilbert was destined to rival Merckx, the world’s number three rider would have shown more by now.
It’s impossible to say that Gilbert absolutely won’t win a Grand Tour in his lifetime, but I don’t think I will come up with more conclusive evidence of a finer rider who simply doesn’t have the credentials to suggest he will win a Vuelta, Giro or Tour.
There may not be a faster rider alive unable to win a Grand Tour.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Paris-Roubaix is the Angelina Jolie of bike racing. It stunning. It’s mythically proportioned. Everyone wants to win it.
And it’s batshitcrazy.
Liege-Bastogn-Liege is your spouse. It is gorgeous, smart, presentable to your family and sane enough to live with for the rest of your life.
At least, that’s my view of the races. I adore Paris-Roubaix. You don’t have to explain what makes Paris-Roubaix amazing, like you don’t have to explain why Brad Pitt left Jennifer Anniston; you just show a picture of Jolie. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a race you have to get to know. Some folks may never get it, and that’s okay.
Paris-Roubaix is the fling. The weekend you’d like to have once a year, provided you were the sort of person who had flings.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is what makes daily life rich and worth living. Truly, it’s a tough race, tougher than most people really understand, even most devout cyclists.
For starters, L-B-L is modest. Fewer than half the climbs are noted by name. No official record of the race lists its total climbing, which I’ve estimated at more than 8000 feet. There are mountain stages of the Tour de France that don’t climb that much. Not bad for a country many people think of as flat. At 258km (160 miles), it isn’t the longest race going, not by a longshot, but it is a race that very fine climbers can have trouble finishing.
When I think of the sort of riding I like to do on a routine basis, the kind of riding I can do day after day, rides that feed the soul, it’s terrain like that found at L-B-L that I want. Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and the Tour of Lombardy, there isn’t a flat spot to be found in L-B-L. Each of the other three races has long stretches of flat punctuated by climbs. L-B-L features a profile that looks as if it were constructed from the climbs of the other three races.
Below are the notable climbs of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. You are probably familiar with the stats on their length and average gradient. What you may never have seen is their elevation gain. It helps to put the climbs in a fresh light.
Cote de la Roche-en-Ardenne: 2.8 km climb, average grade of 4.9%; 449 feet
Cote de Saint Roch: 0.8 km climb, average grade of 12%; 314 ft.
Cote de Wanne: 2.7 km climb, average grade of 7%; 618 ft.
Cote de Stockeu: 1.1 km climb, average grade of 10.5%; 378 ft.
Col du Rosier: 6.4 km climb, average grade of 4%; 838 ft.
Col du Maquisard: 2.8 km climb, average grade of 4.5%; 412 ft.
Mont-Theux: 2.7 km climb, average grade of 5.2%; 460 ft.
Cote de la Redoute: 2.1 km climb, average grade of 8.4%; 577 ft.
Cote de la Roche aux Faucons: 1.5 km climb, average grade of 9.9%; 486 ft.
Cote de Saint-Nicholas: 1.0 km climb, average grade of 11.1%; 363 ft.
Elevation gain: 4895 ft.
As I previously mentioned, those 10 climbs are fewer than half the climbs your legs will note, though they do account for more than half the total altitude gain.
You’ll frequently hear riders say that Milan-San Remo is the easiest of the Monuments to finish, yet the hardest to win. You’ll also hear riders talk about how the pavé makes Paris-Roubaix the hardest race. What you don’t hear frequently, though it is said consistently, is that L-B-L is the most difficult race run over decent roads.
What I love about these John Pierce images is that as you look off in the background behind the riders, you see towns far below the riders.
These are no ordinary hills.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.
Robot has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Linger. Fester. Spread. Grow.
When you think about the words that are used in conjunction with the noun suspicion they are words used to apply action to sores, smells and cancers. And like a cancer, suspicion can spread in directions surprising and predictable at equal rates.
Alexander Vinokourov’s win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us examples of both. That suspicions linger about what sort of rider he is—that is, how he achieves his success—should surprise no one. What may have surprised you was to hear boos from the crowd as he crossed the line. No matter who’s feed you watched, the crowd’s disapproval was audible.
Was Vinokourov naive to be shocked? No. It was a crowd display that is unprecedented and stands in direct opposition to Richard Virenque’s win in Paris-Tours just months after his return to competition following his suspension for doping. The two situations couldn’t be more similar and yet, the crowd reactions couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
Virenque was hailed by the crowd as if he was a returning war hero. He was lionized in the (French) press as a true champion. He was still and again Richard the Lionhearted, the darling of France.
Vino? Not so much.
To be booed must have hurt. How could it not? That’s got to be defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. And then to be questioned by the press as much about his past vis-a-vis doping as the circumstances that led to his win was obviously infuriating, so much so that he took the unusual step of writing an open letter to the cycling world. You’ve probably seen it, but if not, you can read it here.
Vinokourov asks a fair question: Why can he line up for a race, but not win it? Indeed, the boos took the sweetness of victory from him more certainly than the UCI ever could. Why roll across the line first if you won’t be granted the crowd’s adulation?
Many writers have contrasted Vinokourov with David Millar and wondered why we accept the Scot, but not the Kazakh. It’s a fair comparison and could serve as a very teachable moment for Vinokourov.
So Millar’s apartment in Biarritz is raided by police and they find a syringe with traces of EPO. Millar responds by confessing. He told us not only that he had used EPO, he told authorities exactly how long he had used the drug and how using it weighed on him.
As doping confessions in cycling go, it’s the single best example out there.
Richard Virenque denied, denied, denied and then confessed—tearily—in court at the sharp end of a prosecutor. It worked for the French but anyone without a Gallic soul was left adrift by it.
Bernard Kohl conducted interviews on a monthly basis with German media, teasing out details of his past and his knowledge of doping in what seemed to be a calculated effort to keep his name in the headlines. In the end, it seemed self-serving.
Kayle Leogrande confessed in confidence to soigneur Susanne Sonye and after she testified about what he told her he sued her. That suit was ruled a SLAP and tossed out of court, but not until another cyclist, lawyer Tom Fitzgibbon, came to her rescue. Leogrande? Persona non grata to the cycling world.
Four confessions. Four very different results.
Vinkourov has confessed virtually nothing. We remain suspicious. We suspect much about his past. And because he has done things recently—such as train in Tenerife (the current haunt of doping docs Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes), a place nearly as out-of-the-way as Mexico when considered from the Continent—that smack of present doping practices, we suspect there is more to the story.
In his letter he refers to “the dark years of my career.”
Imagine that on the evening Vinokourov was ejected from the Tour in 2007 he had given a press conference. And suppose that during the press conference he had said, “Yes, I used a clinic in (insert name of German town here) to conduct blood doping. Earlier, when I was at T-Mobile, we used EPO and our system was organized by (insert name of dirtbag here). My first drug use was in 199x and that season I won X, Y and Z with its help.
We wouldn’t like the news, but at least we’d know. His suspension, in the wake of a confession could serve as a sort of penance for all of his past doping.
Vinokourov was suspended for a single infraction—not years of drug use—and to this day has confessed nothing directly. He says, “I don’t think cycling needs to reconsider all these dirty stories to move forward.”
Wrong. Worse yet, he adds, “I have nothing to hide.”
Again, he has confessed nothing, though he has referred obliquely to years of drug use, so it is impossible for this one suspension to serve as penance for years of standard practice. He is still hiding much.
Let’s consider how the courts would view this. For pleading guilty and confessing the full extent of the crime(s), a person is almost always rewarded with a reduced sentence. And then there’s the plea bargain, in which the criminal signs a full and complete confession and in exchange is charged with a lesser crime. Very often, it’s a trade to avoid being convicted of a felony. In the United States, the punishment for a felony conviction lasts long after any prison time has been served and any fine paid. The felon cannot vote and will forever have ‘splaining to do in job interviews.
It would seem that Vinokourov is suffering the sort of moral equivalent to a felony conviction. He won the race, but not in the hearts of many present.
In closing his letter he writes, “I can’t do more than what the sport regulations ask me, to prove my honesty. Today, I only wish to be respected as I respect everyone, my colleagues in the peloton as the journalists. I don’t want to be the only and too easy target for all the ills of cycling.”
In this, he misses the point entirely. He has never proven his honesty. Sure, he’s testing clean now, and while we should applaud him for that much, because we don’t know the full extent of his past, we struggle to trust him in the present.
And is he the “only and too easy target”? Not by a long shot. Now would be exactly the wrong moment for him to play the persecution card.
Vino, you have nothing in common with Job.
Let us hear him say, “I did X. I was wrong. I am sorry,” and that, sports fans, truly is a game changer.
Were Vinokourov to hold a press conference on the eve of the Giro d’Italia and finally confess everything he did and knew, I truly believe he could win the prologue the next day and be applauded.
His career is a matter of reputation, something only he can restore.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Okay, so this is a bit more like the Saturday Group Ride, which is to say it was hard and fast and your guide for the day yo-yoed off the back like something produced by the Duncan corporation. No walking the dog here.
It’s been a week of hard rides for the PROs what with the Fleche-Wallonne and recon rides for Liege-Bastogne-Liege. And frankly, closer to home there have been some monsters as well.
Recovery is on my mind. I wonder how after such an amazingly difficult race on Wednesday these guys can be ready for L-B-L. It’s not a novel question, but even after all these years it still elicits wonder on the order of seeing Disney Land for the first time.
So question #1 is: What are your super-secret recovery tricks?
Easily the best feature of this week’s Fleche-Wallonne was seeing the rematch of a resurgent Cadel Evans against Alberto Contador. Aside from the fact that they are stylish riders, even more enjoyable was the obvious turning back of the clock to a time when the Grand Tour contenders didn’t spend the spring hiding like ground hogs.
Chris Horner seems to be on form that requires a deal with Dorian Gray’s portrait artist. I’ve had a man-crush on him since I first met him in ’96 when he told me at the Tour DuPont, “Yeah, this win definitely sets my career in motion.” He’s had some tough, tough breaks. To think he might win L-B-L is as foolish as hoping that Goldman Sachs really had everyone else’s best interests at heart, but I would love for that guy to have the legs of his life tomorrow.
Is Contador taking a page from the Lance Armstrong book of head-game BS by saying he’s just riding L-B-L for reconnaissance? Should we believe him? I prefer to think he’s lying through his very bright pearly whites. And I like it.
It’s not a stretch to think he could take it. He gets my vote. Who do you think will take the V? First correct guess gets stickers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There have been entirely too many doping storylines in cycling lately. We’ve had the Alejandro Valverde problem, the Danilo DiLuca suspension and Ricardo Ricco’s imminent return to the sport. His girlfriend, Vania Rossi, tested positive for the same drug—CERA—for which he was suspended, and he subsequently dumped her, months after she gave birth to their child. Bernard Kohl has opened a bike shop and seemingly ended his monthly interviews that teased out details of his doping regimen like bread crumbs for birds. Stefan Schumacher continues to fight his suspension.
And today we mark six years since the lonely death of Marco Pantani. Like Pantani, Jose Maria Jimenez was a once-talented climber who, according to circumstantial evidence, became addicted to cocaine and ultimately overdosed on the drug, cutting short a life that should have been full of promise, even after ending his career as a racer. It’s little wonder that so many cyclists reacted with horror at the news of Tom Boonen’s flirtations with the nose candy.
The constant parade of doping stories has made many cyclists weary of ProTour racing, but worse, it has changed our understanding and perception of racing in the past. We now accept Fausto Coppi’s statement about always doping when he raced, rather than discount it, which is certainly what I did when I first read the statement in the 1980s.
And while many of us took Eddy Merckx at his word when he insisted he had used nothing out of the ordinary when he was ejected from the 1969 Giro d’Italia, we have come to see that event was but one of three positive tests he gave in his career. Certainly questions abound to this day about that Giro test, such as no counter-analysis and questionable chain of custody, it’s easy to see the positive as a not uncommon occurrence in an era ripe with amphetamine usage. Why should Merckx be any different; after all, he ranks as the most successful cyclist of all time. Are we to think he was the only clean champion of his generation?
Looking back on riders I have admired—Greg LeMond, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, Andy Hampsten, Richard Virenque, Marco Pantani, Johan Museeuw, Moreno Argentin, Frank Vandenbroucke, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Alejandro Valverde, Danilo DiLuca and plenty more, what strikes me is that only two of these names have never been broadly accused or convicted of doping—LeMond and Hampsten. Were we to take every doping allegation out there as fact (save anything Armstrong has said to or about LeMond), we might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Hampsten’s win in the Giro was the last by a clean rider, as was LeMond’s last win at the Tour.
I admit, every time a new rider comes thundering onto the scene, I have moments (roughly one for every win) when I wonder, “Is this guy clean?” Even without a single positive test to implicate the rider, I can’t help but wonder if some new phenom is our next Riccardo Ricco or Bernard Kohl. To wonder such a thing is reputation assassination, even if I don’t share it with anyone else.
But this youngest generation of riders, riders who came onto the scene after the EPO problem had been identified, after the test had been devised, those are the guys who scare and upset me. It’s little wonder to me that any rider still in the game now who was there for the rise of EPO and the team podium sweeps of the ’94 Fleche Wallonne (Gewiss-Ballan) and the ’96 Paris-Roubaix (Mapie-GB) might still not be conforming to the memo. But what really troubles me are the new riders who still pursue EPO and its newer variant, CERA. Just as we think we’re making progress in doping thanks to programs such as those run by Bjarne Riis and Jonathan Vaughters, some new rider gets suspended for a drug that we have come to believe is easy to catch.
As a result, many of us have turned our backs on past performances that gave us chills, left us cheering at the TV and maybe even caused us to put up a poster of the rider in our dorm room or garage. Those were the days.
Museeuw’s win at Roubaix in ’96 came at the end of arguably the most dominant ride by any team in the history of the Hell of the North. Now we know that it was EPO that gave their performance the appearance of a Ferrari racing a Yugo.
In comments here at RKP, we’ve seen how many of your have turned against not just Lance Armstrong, but other riders we know to have doped: Marco Pantani, Frank Vandebroucke, Tyler Hamilton and more.
I realized not too long ago that if I disavow every performance that involved doping, I’d be stripped of almost every race that I ever cared about. I’d even be stripped of LeMond’s last-minute win at the 1990 Tour de France because the guy he beat—Claudio Chiappucci—was on EPO. Without him and that drug, LeMond’s win would have been much more dominant. And don’t get me started about 1991.
Despite the lies, the doping, the inability to know who was truly the best on the day, I don’t want to lose the wonder and awe I felt when I saw those performances. If I turn my back on every one of those performances in bitterness, it’s tantamount to saying of your ex, “I never really liked her.”
Those experiences, the wonder I felt at watching Richard Virenque or Floyd Landis winning in Morzine in 2003, the jubilation I felt at Tyler Hamilton’s win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, my astonishment at Armstrong’s win at the Tour in ’99 or my awe at any of Johan Museeuw’s wins at Paris-Roubaix were experiences of genuine and honest emotion on my part. While I have a different understanding of those performances today, and my feelings for those racers may have changed somewhat, I’ve decided I won’t let anyone, any new revelations, change how I remember those performances.
I can’t tell anyone else how to feel about those performances. The bitterness some of you feel at the betrayal of learning some win was doped is as valid an emotional experience as any jubilation I’ve felt for the same performance.
But for those of you who have felt frustration and confusion with each new revelation, I offer my perspective as a different way to process your feelings. I’m not suggesting we capitulate and just give in to enjoying doped riding; like each of you, I want a clean sport, full stop.
Society changes and what we tolerate changes as well. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. I can’t endorse his ownership of a person, but that act shouldn’t erase the work he did in establishing the United States’ democracy.
I truly believe cycling is changing for the better and that doping is on the decline. It is a scourge, though, that we should not fool ourselves into thinking will ever be eradicated. We should not accept the doped performances of the past out of inevitability and resignation, but rather because they inspired us in our own riding. And if we rode with honesty and conviction, then some good came from those tarnished wins.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Agence France Presse has reported the death of Frank Vandenbroucke. The one-time great Belgian cyclist who scored 51 wins in his career was on vacation in Senegal when he died. Preliminary reports are that he died of a pulmonary embolism.
Most recently, Vandenbroucke had been riding for the Cinelli-Down Under team and had been a columnist for the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. A byline had appeared as recently as last week.
Readers of RKP are well aware of Vandenbroucke’s troubled past. Following a stellar season in 1999 when he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Omloop Het Volk and two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, Vandenbroucke’s career spun out of control following an initial drug bust in 1999. His additional drug busts, DUI and suicide attempt are well documented and reducing his troubles to a handful of nouns is a disservice.
Vandenbroucke’s descent into depression and further drug use is eerily similar to that of Marco Pantani. It would be easy to reduce his story to a cautionary tale: Kids, don’t do drugs!
However, the reality is much more shocking. Our body of knowledge about the use of performance-enhancing drugs really hasn’t included the assumption that top-ranked cyclists busted for drugs will turn to recreational drugs and a plummet into depression. Following his bust, Vandenbroucke teammate David Millar says he fell into a terrible depression he buried in alcohol, but somehow he turned it around.
Could it be a pattern is emerging? Indications are Marco Pantani turned to recreational drugs following his bust for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Same for Jan Ullrich. We know Tyler Hamilton battled depression following his suspension for a positive test.
What do we have to expect from Mr. Full Disclosure, Bernard Kohl? (I’ll address his ongoing monthly interviews with new revelations in another post.)
I’ve made my peace with Vandenbroucke and the riders who won the Classics and Grand Tours of the 1990s. Given the circumstances, he was truly one of the better riders of his generation and deserves an extra measure of panache in our memories for announcing—before the race—on which hill he would attack at the ’99 L-B-L. The shot above of him at the finish has defined for many the hard-man style the Belgians are known for: the legs coated with embrocation, the shoe covers and arm warmers pushed to the wrists; only a man for the Classics can make 55 degrees look like a bright summer day.
Despite flashes of brilliance (what else would you call his second place at the 2003 Tour of Flanders), VdB never returned to his winning ways following his first bust.
Even if you hated Vandenbroucke for his drug use, I hope you can lament his death and the loss that means for cycling. He was, after all, one of our own, a guy who loved to go fast, a hard man who understood style, had a heart for the red line, and a family man who leaves behind both his parents and a daughter.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When I was introduced to my first arm warmers, they seemed like the punchline to a lousy joke. At the time, I lived in a place where temperatures at the start of a ride weren’t often terribly different from those at the finish. A cool day that deserved a long-sleeve jersey for even a minute, almost always did so for the whole of the day.
Those armwarmers I saw friends wear on late spring and early fall days did little to sell the concept, either. All black and usually made from Lycra with a bit too much stretch. Safety pins did the job of gripper elastic. Who in their right mind would choose armwarmers over a long-sleeve jersey that carried a design down each sleeve?
In the twenty-plus years since our introduction, I’ve moved, learned a thing or two and armwarmers have come a long, long way. They are now an indispensable part of my wardrobe and the reasons why are almost innumerable.
The first, biggest, reason is that I live in a place where your arms must be covered during morning rides at least eight months of the year. Many days, if you are on the bike long enough, the temperature can be counted on to rise 10 degrees or more, making clothing adjustments more than necessary.
Thermal Lycra with sublimated designs, improved fit (and less stretch) and gripper elastic have vastly improved the garments’ usability. And I love the look of an asymetric jersey design carried through long sleeves; who can forget the look of the red and blue Motorola jersey? The practicality and flexibility of armwarmers may have made them a necessary part of my wardrobe, but it doesn’t account for my affection for them.
To me, they are the visible embodiment of hard-man style. Their form-following fit befits the hardened physiques of the PROs and the aerodynamic requirement for speed. When I see a bulky long sleeve it makes me think of the countless base miles Euro PROs will accumulate in thermal jackets.
They are to arms what Belgian knee warmers are to the legs. It telegraphs the cold, the early start to the day, the hope for rising temperatures during spring and fall days. For reasons I don’t understand, they are rarely used on mountain stages in Grand Tours, so their appearance to me always spells a Classic.
I took my cues on how to wear armwarmers from the PROs I saw in photos from John Pierce and Graham Watson. Studying photos, I learned to put them on before my jersey so the sleeve came down over the cuff of the armwarmer, rather than pulling them over the sleeves.
Properly fitted armwarmers don’t budge, so when I see the exposed skin of an arm, what I see is a day with changing conditions—fresh rain, a cold wind blowing in. The best, though, are the shots that come from races like Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy, where the riders have pushed the armwarmers down to their wrists. As it’s not hard to take an armwarmer off, what I see in such shots is an indicator of just how hard the day is, how tactical the racing is and how other than for drinking an eating, the race hangs in too precarious a balance to take a hand off the bar for anything else.
I’m noticing a nip in the air on those early morning rides. It won’t be long now.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International