I don’t know whether my belief that only Peter Sagan can win this weekend’s Milan -San Remo comes from my unabashed admiration for his swashbuckling style, or from an accurate analysis of the race and the current form of the top favorites. The guys here at the office pointed out for me that completely writing off Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert, not to mention Matt Goss, is the work of a fan boy, not a commentator.
So sue me.
Let me tell you what I think. Mark Cavendish is still the fastest man on two wheels, despite Sagan beating him to the line in Stage 3 at Tirreno-Adriatico just last week. But the Cipressa and the Poggio will put paid to Cavendish’s hopes of sprinting for this one. Sagan and his Liquigas cohort are too smart not to push the pace high enough to eliminate the Manxman early.
Fabian Cancellara is the fast man in the world on any stretch of flat road, and he’s got a good sprint on him. But he doesn’t have Sagan’s top end speed. If the two come to the line together, the Slovak wins every time.
Philippe Gilbert, current World Champion, shares Sagan’s love of punchy uphill racing, but like Cancellara, who both Sagan and Gilbert can drop on the Poggio, Gilbert won’t beat Sagan in a sprint. He’ll have to get away earlier…but won’t.
That leaves Matt Goss. Matt Goss is maybe the third fastest guy mentioned in this post. He’s a canny racer and a worthy contender, but he doesn’t have the team to manage the end of this race successfully.
Sagan will win this race because he can climb with anyone and sprint with the best, but also because he has a great team, who could, if Sagan falters or is over-marked, put Moreno Moser on the top step of the podium instead.
This week’s Group Ride dares you to disagree with me. If not Sagan, then who will win 2013 Milan – San Remo? Explain your reasoning. How will they win? Or why will Sagan lose?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
When I think of my hardest ever days on the bike, I can’t help but feeling I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, even now. I’ve bonked twenty miles from home. I’ve crashed in the rain, in the dark, and still had to haul my bloody corpse home. I’ve been dehydrated and injured, and I’ve just straight up ridden every last ounce of energy out of my body.
And yet, every time have one of these experiences, I look back on it after, and I think, “Well, that could have been much harder, much worse.” And I envision what could have made it that way (usually more distance), and I just wonder what another 20 miles would have felt like in the condition I was in. Could I have handled it? Where would I have quit?
I had one of those days recently, a 70 mile cross ride on one of Spring’s hotter days. I only brought one bottle, and an early crash left me dealing with some unwanted pain later in the ride. You wouldn’t have looked in from the outside and said it was going to be a super hard day, but the combination of hubris (seriously, one bottle?) and stiffening muscles (I’m not as resilient as I used to be) turned it into a suffer-fest.
Ted King, the American on Liquigas-Cannondale, had a similar day last week. Reading about it made me feel much better about my own travails.
It’s one thing to challenge yourself with a big ride. Ask anyone who raced Battenkill, or Paris-Roubaix for that matter. It’s another thing to inadvertently impose those challenges on yourself by failing to anticipate all the things that can go wrong.
Mostly, when I sign up for what will obviously be a hard effort, I do so with an idealized vision of the conditions and how I will perform. Seldom do I project reality with any accuracy, and, in return, reality usually treats me to a hearty dose of humility. Go figure.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What was your hardest day on the bike? And why? Weather? Road/trail conditions? Poor planning? Lack of fitness? Tell us your tale.
JP: When you look at the domestic peloton these days, what do you think about the health of the sponsorship scene?
TS: Overall, cycling is healthy. Not racing, but cycling. The numbers are there for commuters, riders, racers. It’s an aging demographic, but it works for lots of people. Most cyclists have no interest in racing. You don’t need to be in racing to be a supporter of cycling.
An advertiser can use a bike in their marketing without sponsoring racing. Racing leads to another layer of cycling which leads to people riding bikes. Making bike racing a little more user friendly or making people more aware of it and why it’s an interesting activity.
So cycling itself is very healthy. Especially in our cities where it’s used more and more as a tool. Bike racing, the sponsorship, ebbs and flows, like car racing. Is racing necessary? It goes back to human nature.
I think a lot of the sponsorships … It’s expensive to sponsor a national (level) bike team. When you look at the money and measuring the return on investment, that’s the issue. If they could get return of investment at half the cost, it would be a much easier decision. It’s hard to get an American team to get to the level of Tour of California. It’s not an inexpensive activity to be involved in. Cost is a factor.
GoDaddy chooses the Super Bowl, which costs $3 million every 30 seconds. Why that and why not cycling? Car companies want to advertise how tough their trucks are, and the Super Bowl might be an easy decision.
The brand wants to get involved in an activity their customers are involved in. When it’s the non-endemics, why do they need to be in cycling? You have to make that link. Just putting your name on the team and hoping it works is not a good use of your marketing dollars
JP: What about with the international peloton?
TS: In the European peloton, you see a lot more, you can kind of segment, you can see the sponsorship and see the segments or strategy a little clearer. There have only been a few true global brands that do cycling. Is Rabobank a Global Brand? I don’t think so, but they’re primarily a Dutch initiative. Their metrics, and they’re an example where they’re deep in Holland and deep across all cycling activities in Holland. It’s an example of a marketing plan where you see a return on investment.
Liquigas-Cannondale might be a business-to-business deal. I think Lampre, what is Lampre? The French brands have been national brands. There’s been Toshiba, an international brand. Motorola had potential, it was paid out of a variety budgets, but was a national brand. T-Mobile was an international brand. It had a German-American axis, but it was a national brand.
The day when more teams market globally, it will help the stability of the sport. In terms of the teams that have been around for a long time, they still don’t have a reason to go everywhere. I don’t think Liquigas sells in Holland. You have categories of true internationals, nationals, and business-to-business. There are teams based on a business relationship model. Not too many of those coming to mind at the moment. A business-to-business team is one that doesn’t influence consumers so much, but trying to get your dealer base or certain dealers.
JP: How about the now-departed Navigators Cycling Team (which was a pro team from 1995-2007)? Weren’t they a patron?
TS: When Navigators activated, it was business-to-business model. But to their credit, they were always trying to bring customers to entertain, even internationally.
JP: If ROI is important and Highroad had such an impressive ROI, why do you think they couldn’t land a sponsor?
TS: No matter how good your numbers are, and I believe Bob had numbers to back up their sponsorships, the people believing those numbers need to be inside those companies. The team, to be successful, they have to be people in the company, pounding their chests just as hard as the Bob Stapletons and Tom Schulers about how great sponsorship is. If you had that, the sponsorship lasts. You had it at T-Mobile and Saturn.
You can get all kinds of metrics and I wouldn’t doubt that Bob’s ROI were significant, certainly enough to justify continuing or finding a new sponsor. But the people in the company have to be touting those numbers.
He turned around a ship that was taking on a lot of water. He ran a good program, and seemed to, through Cavendish and victories, I would have put him at the top of the heap for providing a return. He’s probably had six different sponsors in there. But again, if it’s just three years, it probably didn’t work as well as they could have for the company.
JP: Do you need to find the “champions” of cycling to sponsor a professional cycling team?
TS: You need to have people inside (the company) to believe in it. It can’t be just one person. It has to be a recognition inside the company of ‘this thing works for us.’ You can’t tap someone on the head and say ‘now you’re a believer.’
We had brand managers at Saturn come and go all the time. A new person may come in and want to look at different metrics. They’re skeptical, but they look in the field and look around. I can understand how someone who inherited a cycling team comes in not being a believer. Cycling teams are multi-dimensional in terms of what they can offer a company.
JP: When people discuss what seems to be worse and worse news for top-level teams, two concerns are repeated, one is the state of the global economy, the second is drugs in the sport. Do you think these things are scaring away sponsors or limiting what is happening?
TS: The global economy in general, the general trepidation of people to spend money and make those decisions. As tenuous as cycling sponsorship is, we’ve had the same go/no go decision rate in both good times and bad. You can say banks aren’t loaning money now, but I can’t say people aren’t considering cycling now. UHC (UnitedHealthCare) is a good contra indicator.
And drugs, I think we’re kind of, I think Stapleton alluded to it. It could be a country-by-country basis; it might not be as significant. In Germany, it could. Over there, at least, there are some pretty strong metrics in place to measure. But when you lose television coverage of your biggest event. So Bob’s comments are directed at the German market as much as anything. Has doping impacted the sponsorship we’ve gotten in America? I don’t think so. Vaughters program is working on moving out of that era, as was Stapleton’s. Wherever there’s a disaster, there’s an opportunity, too. Net-net, I’m not sure. I have to believe what Bob says when he says it has been an impact.
The public doesn’t seem to like The Cobra (Riccardo Ricco). But David Millar, guys like him are still heroes. I think at the end of the day, everyone feels that if it was my kid and that was the circumstances, I could understand it.
As cyclists, we might be bigger conspiracy theorists, and more skeptical. I agree that corporate America doesn’t care as much.
JP: What do you think teams should be doing to improve their chances to land a good sponsor?
TS: I think it’s incumbent on all the team managers to make that sponsorship as valuable to sponsors, and that’s how they can help ensure longevity. Pure impressions is one thing. If it leads to more traffic to the store, more purchases, and it’s incumbent on the managers to make things work and that will go a way to increasing the longevity of the sponsorship.
Every cycling site on the planet has postulated some theory about just which rider could conceivably beat Alberto Contador. Naturally, almost no one places much stock in their theories because all indications are that Contador will spend the next three weeks riding at an endurance pace and then making the odd acceleration to dust off his legs … and the competition. As foregone conclusions go, this harkens back to the time of Miguel Indurain when it felt like the other guys rolled up for the prologue hoping, at best, for second. Despite his ongoing dominance, it felt like there was more fight in the air as Lance Armstrong was winning.
Currently, Radio Shack is the only team showing up with anything like a strategy. Their stated game plan of four general classification riders is the right idea. Rather than sending them all up the road in a single shotgun blast, repeated attacks by each of their protected riders has the potential to put a strong rider on the defensive. It’s not possible for one guy to respond to each attack by a group of peers. Eventually you either crack or have to let someone go. Unless you’re Contador. The trouble I see here is that Radio Shack simply isn’t strong enough to deliver enough knockout blows to dislodge Contador from the lead group. Certainly, Contador will get smart to the sequence of attacks and his propensity to launch his own, withering, attack that has the ability to make previous attacks look like accidental surges could easily negate the whole of the Radio Shack team.
To make the us against him strategy work, a combine of teams will be necessary. That’s because even though Leopard-Trek will have two of the strongest riders in the race, the Schleck’s brotherly love will see them try to leave the field together, rather than truly alternate attacks. Their inability to take Philippe Gilbert at Liege-Bastogne-Liege showed their lack of tactical genius necessary to use their numbers to optimal advantage.
To beat Contador, Leopard will have to join with Liquigas and BMC and Euskaltel. This is a climbing Tour and Andy Schleck will have to choose whether he wants to ride for second or see Contador beaten. That’s the choice; for any of the GC favorites, the options are to work with other teams to collectively defeat Contador or resign yourself to racing for, at best, second. Even if the teams come together, the odds that a protected GC rider will win the overall don’t improve any. That’s why such a strategy is unlikely to succeed or even last the whole of the race.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that Contador has overplayed his fitness and won’t be as sharp in the third week as he needs to be. These days, very few riders can be fit enough to win the Giro and then go on to win the Tour. But Contador is at the height of his powers. Still, holding peak form for two months is like creating a balanced government budget—easier said than done. Adding yet another unusual wrinkle to all this is the embattled Spaniard’s decision to go vegetarian for the Tour. We must suppose that his chef has the ability to deliver the balanced diet necessary for Contador to ride well. Still, that does not ensure that his body will necessarily agree with said diet. It’s a big change to make so close to the race. The new diet is conceivably the greatest obstacle he faces.
As a total aside, Contador’s new diet is absolutely his best argument for his innocence I’ve heard. It should have no bearing on the case before CAS, but from the standpoint of a gut-check reaction to the individual, I’m chastened by his declaration.
What I see before us is a mouse smarter than the mouse trap. No one can attack with the paint-peeling acceleration he has and only Andy Schleck has the ability to accelerate as many times in 10k as Contador can. In my mind’s eye I see a flurry of attacks with accelerations that impress us, but followed by a counter-attack by Contador that casts his competitors as Mustangs compared to his Ferrari. “You thought that was fast? Check this out.” We’re all going to need neck braces to deal with his head-tossing speed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International