The Tour’s current status as a wealthy, far-reaching business enterprise that is the heart of the professional racing calender is huge reversal of fortune. There are teams who argue that without a trip to the Tour their sponsors will abandon them. It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s there was talk that because of its precarious financial position, the Tour might have to be nationalized and teams sometimes had to be begged to enter the Tour. Félix Lévitan, who was then responsible for the financial side of the Tour, used many small sponsors to pay the Tour’s expenses. Prizes were sometimes in kind rather than cash. At one point there were twelve classifications the riders could compete for and the awards ceremonies were endless. It was all a bit tawdry. In the 1990s Jean-Marie Leblanc cut the number of sponsors in order to make the race “comprehensible”. The result was a gusher of money for the Tour and its current prosperity. In spite of this fabulous success, there is reason to be concerned.
The question of the Tour’s importance, cost and relevance is one Les Woodland dealt with in the concluding chapter of Tourmen: The Men Who Made the Tour de France.—Bill McGann
The most serious of Sunday papers is Le Journal du Dimanche, which means “The Sunday Paper.” It began, like L’Équipe, after the war. Since then its analytical approach has earned it a place in serious-thinking France. Its opinion surveys are conducted by Ifop, the Institut Français d’Opinion Publique, founded after a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris met the pollster George Gallup in the USA. Ifop has become the heavyweight of French polling organizations and its assessments of politicians and policies are taken seriously. This underlines the worth of the survey in 2007, for the Journal du Dimanche, of how the French view their Tour. And the French, it seemed, line the road with few illusions. The paper summarized: “78 percent of them doubt the honesty of a victory, whether it’s in the Tour de France or any other race.”
Do you, personally, like the Tour de France?
|Total (%)||Men (%)||Women (%)|
Today, when a rider wins a stage of the Tour de France or another cycling race, do you doubt the honesty of the victory?
Which of these opinions fits you better?
|The fight against doping in cycling should be conducted even more severely and cheats should be excluded from races, even if they are stars||80|
|Doping is now widespread in cycling; that should be recognized and it should be handled medically||19|
The Journal du Dimanche said the worry was that “only 36 percent of those younger than 35 say they like the Tour; it is older people who have kept their affection: 64 percent of those older than 50, 70 percent of those aged more than 65. Probably because this generation grew interested before the era of suspicion, whether it was individual (Pedro Delgado, contested winner in 1988) or generalized (starting with the Festina affair in 1998). Perhaps, too, because you have to go back two decades to find the last French riders in yellow in Paris, Laurent Fignon (1983) and Bernard Hinault (1985).”
Why? What does this mean? What else is there?
• • •
Graeme Fife spoke of divisions of cycle racing: “The men who concentrate on the Tour and nothing else and the real pros who honor the tradition of the sport.” The last great stars to ride a whole season, with heart as well as legs, were Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. The first not to, he reckoned, was Greg LeMond. And he was speaking before Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and others.
The result of specialization parallels Mario Cipollini. He rode a seven-day Tour when everyone else rode a month. Those who concentrate on the Tour ride the same race but a different season. They hardly start from the same place. More than that, they force others to do the same, for there’s no point in starting if you don’t hope to win or have your leader win. The result is that even classics are becoming preparation for the Tour. And more and more specialists aren’t riding those either.
The specialization rumbles more disastrously further down. The classics and Tours make up the visible part of the year. It would be disastrous if the classics lost their luster. But padding out the calendar and therefore the living of professionals in general are the little races, the Tours of this-that-and-the-other put on by clubs which every year scrape together the money. The more the stars, the more easily can be collected the money. But there are standing costs and a minimum prize list and so the price doesn’t fall proportionately with the quality of the field. When sponsors lose interest in minnows, they keep their money in their wallet or choose another sport.
In France, the best of the rest are banded into a season-long competition called the Coupe de France. The hope is to create excitement and maintain interest. But, for all that the races are open to everyone, the field is almost all French with a handful from across the border if the race is near Belgium and a sprinkling of foreigners obliged to ride because they are in French teams. They are good races but…who cares?
Some of it is that no French rider has won the Tour de France in decades. The last was Bernard Hinault in 1986, ending a period in which Frenchmen won 20 of the 39 Tours since the war. An immediate fall from a success rate of almost 50 percent to exactly zero doesn’t go unquestioned. And France asks the question over and over.
If you’re not French, of course, it doesn’t matter. You don’t notice it. But there are concerns for all. The more Americans have won the Tour, the more the sport has succeeded in America. Belgium never had more new riders than when Eddy Merckx won five Tours. Even Britain, never better than fourth, was wonderfully happy when it happened, and its success on the track—including what one French commentator called un holdup at the Olympics—turned the British Cycling Federation from a damp rag to an organization with more members than ever.
Success breeds success. And defeat encourages defeat. Hinault’s club in Yffiniac, brimming in his day, has half a dozen members now. Jacques Anquetil’s club at Sotteville, across the river from Rouen, all but vanished when he vanished. French cycling is in a dreadful state. And while we may not know the reason, the consequences could be worrying.
The Tour takes place on public roads. It is subsidized at public expense. It pays for police to escort it but there is local expense as towns and cities lay on start and finish lines. There is no guarantee they will make a profit and, when they do, it can only be guessed how much business the race has brought. Along the way, a hundred communities a day are disrupted by having their thoroughfare closed, access to shops and bars and filling stations with it, not just while the riders pass but for hours before it. People can’t get in and out of where they live. Nobody can drive across what becomes a wall across the country, moving on a little each day. It’s all very well knowing that Gaston in the village bar is selling more beer than usual but that counts little when you’re stopped from your daily life without recompense.
On Mont Ventoux, taxpayers pay to have eight tons of litter shifted every summer, most, says the mayor, from cyclists and their followers. The Tour is an expense to many more towns and communes than it is a profit for others. Sponsorship may cover the main costs but they overlook all the incidental ones: the disruption, litter, damage, loss of trade, minor road improvements, signposting of road closures, expenses for planning meetings, medical care and much else.
The crowds for the Tour grow year by year, sometimes dropping, always making up what they lost. Nobody knows for sure because they can’t be counted—claims for places like the Alpe d’Huez are preposterous because there just isn’t that much room beside the road—but nobody denies they are a lot. The crowds turn the Tour into a national occasion, a month-long street party. But…
What happens when a politician questions, as one will, what right the sport has to clog up the roads of France in summer when only foreigners win? The logic isn’t complete but the sentiment appeals. And it appeals to the many, as the Journal du Dimanche’s survey showed, who have no interest in the Tour. For the moment nobody has said it. But it would take only an analysis of the cost of disruption to start the questioning.
To question the Tour would be politically risky. Not everyone in France is a Tour fan—most are no more than generally interested—but there are enough that they’re best left unprovoked when votes are at stake. To call off the Tour, therefore, is improbable. But what would it take for the government to say “Gentlemen, we lend you the roads of France at the expense of the French, but we get little back in national pride. You run a commercial company and you exist to make a profit. Perhaps the time has come to give back to France some of what it has given you. You can’t, we know, guarantee a French winner. But let’s say that we will give you the roads again each summer if you at least give us a French team. Please, go away, do what Henri Desgrange did in 1930 and give us something to cheer for.”
Old Dezzie must be chuckling in his slumber.
Back in the 1990s Mario Cipollini was getting fined by the UCI with the frequency Cristiano Ronaldo seems to be fouled. The Lion King couldn’t just show up to a stage of a grand tour and ride it. No, he had to put on a show and when Cannondale became the sponsor of Cipollini’s Team Saeco, in them he found a willing partner to make an entry spashy enough for Milan or Paris.
Leading the Tour of Italy? Let’s do a pink kit and bike to match. Leading the Tour de France? How about a yellow kit and a matching yellow bike? Celebrating the Fourth of July? Why not wear some stars and stripes shorts?
Cipo may be gone, but Cannondale’s sense of style is intact. We received these photos from Cannondale of a special bike they whipped up for the Tour of California.
Sprinter Francesco Chicchi of Team Liquigas took two stages at last year’s Tour of Missourri, the stages into St. Louis and St. Joseph. Following his win in St. Louis—the gateway to the West—Chicchi declared his love of American western movies and the folks at Cannondale decided to have a bit of fun.
Cannondale presented Chicchi with this bike upon his return to the U.S. for the Tour of California and with the bike comes a nickname: Frank the Sheriff.
Cannondale worked with an Italian design company called Artech to give the bike its wild-west-themed look. Artech is no stranger to the bike industry. This isn’t the first time they have worked with Cannondale, and they were also responsible for the custom paint jobs you may have seen on some of Cinelli’s Ram integrated bar and stem combination.
Liquigas saddle sponsor Fi:zi’k even got into the act with a custom Arione saddle with the central leather strip replaced with one of cowhide. They also provided him with leather bar tape.
“I hope the day comes this week when I can fire off another shot and win here in California. Then they can say that the new sheriff is in town, named Frank!” Chicchi said when he was presented with the bike.
Two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix, Franco Ballerini, has died as a result of injuries sustained in a rally car event. He was 45.
A professional from 1986 to 2001, Ballerini won Paris-Roubaix in 1995 and 1998. The Hell of the North was also his last race as a professional in 2001.
Other significant victories include Paris-Brussels and the Omloop Het Volk. In 1993 he was second to Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle on the line at the Roubaix velodrome.
Ballerini was serving as the co-driver (navigator) for driver Alessandro Ciardi at an event in the municipality of Larciano. The vehicle left the road and crashed. Ballerini and Ciardi were rushed to the nearest hospital, in Pistoia, but despite doctors’ efforts, Ballerini died soon after.
After retirement, Ballerini became the coach of the Italian national team, guiding the Squadra Azzurra to victory at the world championship in his first year, 2002. He was able to rally the team to support Mario Cipollini, giving the team its first victory since 1992. He was universally praised for managing to unite a team whose infighting had resulted in years of silvers and bronzes.
Following Cipollini’s win, the team would go on to support Paolo Bettini to win gold at the 2004 Olympics plus two rainbow jerseys—in 2006 and 2007. The next year Alessandro Ballan made it three years in a row for Italy.
Ballerini leaves a wife and two children.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Mark Cavendish is as entertaining a sprinter as we’ve had since Mario Cipollini retired from the sport. As small as a Cooper S and just as fast, he’s as interesting on the road as off. Unafraid to talk a little smack before a stage, you can be certain he’ll back it up with an acceleration befitting a top-fuel dragster.
Just one problem, his mouth cost him the green jersey. No matter what you thought of the bunch sprint on stage 14 (it seemed no worse to me than many I’ve seen), Thor Hushovd thought Columbia-HTC’s Cavendish interfered with his progress and filed a protest. The race judges agreed and relegated Cavendish to the back of the group.
Had the result stood, Cavendish would have gained 13 points in the green jersey competition and Hushovd would have picked up 12. Instead, Cavendish got no points and Hushovd picked up 13.
Afterward, Cavendish said that if Hushovd were to win the green jersey of the points competition when the race finishes in Paris, it would be because of the relegation, suggesting that Hushovd might not be a worthy victor. Hushovd answered him on stage 17 by entering an early breakaway and taking the 12 points available in the first two intermediate sprints.
It was a gutsy move. It was real racing, apart from the larger considerations of the yellow jersey and even the inevitability of the stage victory by a climber. Even if Cavendish hadn’t been relegated, Hushovd would have increased his lead in the Green Jersey competition from 4 points to 16.
Had the relegation not occurred, and Cavendish kept his mouth shut, he would have gone into the final stage of the Tour just 4 points down on Hushovd. A victory on his part would have given him the Green Jersey for keeps. Without the stage victory, Hushovd would only need to finish a place behind him to keep the jersey,
But because Cavendish suggested that Hushovd could only win the jersey with the points gained due to the relegation, Hushovd got mad and, as the proverbial “they” say, he went on a tear. With the 12 points he gained during his breakaway he was 25 points ahead of Cavendish going into the final stage. The only way he could win the final Points Classification was if he won the stage and Hushovd finished in 15th place or lower. Oops.
History will show Hushovd won the Green Jersey by 10 points, two fewer than he gained on his breakaway on stage 17. Without those 12 points, Cavendish would have taken the Green Jersey off of Hushovd at the finish line in Paris.
Cavendish’s off-the-bike statements have animated the race as much as his legs have, making him arguably the most entertaining rider at the 2009 Tour de France, but I wonder if watching the Green Jersey slip away due to one remark might make him think more before speaking. We have to hope not; the race already has too many guys making guarded statements. The race is more fun if Cavendish speaks like he sprints.
Photo: John Pierce, Photosport International
There are as many reasons for wins as there are riders in the peloton. It’s rare that you can look at a win and pinpoint the exact reason behind it, beyond that of hard work. Thomas Voekler’s win in the fifth stage of the Tour de France is one rare occasion where the cause is obvious as bump in Michael Jackson’s record sales.
Sure, Voekler of Bbox Bouygues Telecom had to drop breakaway companions Anthony Geslin and Yauheni Hutarovich (Francaise des Jeux), Marcin Sapa (Lampre), Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano), but that’s not why he won.
He won because 19 teams said, ‘We’re not chasing.’
It’s an odd day when 19 teams decide not to work hard enough to bring a breakaway back. You can’t say they didn’t work, but we all know there’s a big difference between walking the halls and playing warden to the escapees’ convict. And riding tempo for a whole stage is a tantamount to buying a lottery ticket and refusing to look at it.
But what could cause so many teams to unite? Aside from almost nothing, believing someone else will eat the fish you just hooked might do it. It’s interesting to note that the rider’s union is notorious for being perhaps the weakest in professional sports. It’s not really a distinction you want, so seeing something unite such an easily fractured bunch is memorable.
Columbia-HTC brought them together. Now, this was no kumbaya-singing-‘round-the-campfire fellowship. No, this was a genuine Us vs. Them. The question on the minds of 19 teams was, ‘Why should we work to bring a breakaway back if the net result will be us getting beaten in the sprint by Mark Cavendish?’
It seems that Cav’s two consecutive wins inspired a case of mass ennui powerful enough to allow a breakaway to stay away and take the stage, ensuring yet another day of no victory for 15 teams.
Mark Cavendish certainly isn’t the first rider to win back-to-back stages of the Tour de France. After all, Mario Cipollini won four stages in a row in 1999. Those wins came on the heels of Tom Steels taking two stages. If the peloton had ideas the way it did today, we’ll never know; the next day was the Metz time trial, which Armstrong put his name on. As a side note, the 1999 Tour de France is significant in modern Tour history because only 12 men won stages. Four riders accounted for all but six stage wins. Ouch.
Then, in 2004, Lance Armstrong won five stages in seven days, including three in a row. And yet the peloton didn’t give up. Why? Well, for one, the stages Armstrong scored could only have been won by a select few riders. For the average Tour rider, those stages were already beyond reach and Armstrong’s supremacy was a known fact.
But something is different with Cav. Something about him seems unstoppable and in the world of sprinting, that impression is distasteful and unusual, if not entirely foreign.
But what if those teams had really turned on the steam and brought the breakaway back, say with 5km to go? What then? We would have been cheated out of seeing Voekler drop his companions and put his head down.
Flat Tour de France stages are a special the way bachelor parties are special. For most riders, such an opportunity to break loose comes along maybe once per year, much like friends getting married. It’s a legendary day, full of efforts you really wouldn’t want to repeat on a daily basis. They make for great memories, even if the big prize isn’t yours.
But winning one is like the wedding. For the average rider, this chance may only come once in a lifetime. You’ve done everything right and now all eyes are on you making good on your promise to work hard.
What I saw in Voekler’s salute echoed that feeling, that the kisses he blew were a thanks to the crowd for their support, an acknowledgement that his place in such a grand spectacle was ordinarily very small and he was grateful to have a chance to be on stage.