At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.
Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:
Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself. In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad. And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.
Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012. But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.
American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.
Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.
Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.
As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.
Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.
Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.
Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.
But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.
Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?
Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.
Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Grinta: the hidden ingredient of great racers
The Italian word grinta has become so prevalent in cycling journalism that a Dutch-language magazine in Belgium chose Grinta for its title. Translated, it means grit, spunk, bravery, or endurance. And when European sportswriters use the word to describe an underdog’s performance in cycling’s Heroic Era of the early 20th century, they are likely thinking of all four of those nouns.
They would certainly use grinta to describe how Eugène Christophe, when leading the 1913 Tour de France, broke his forks on the descent of the Tourmalet, walked more than 10km with the bike on his shoulder, crying all the way, to reach Ste. Marie-de-Campan, where he repaired the forks at the village blacksmith’s shop, and then, despite having lost a couple of hours, carried on riding over the Aubisque and Peyresourde climbs to Luchon — and still finished that Tour in seventh overall.
Journalists would use grinta to tell the story of Fausto Coppi’s winning the Cuneo to Pinerolo stage of the 1949 Giro d’Italia in a 192km-long solo breakaway over five mountain passes … or describe the heroism of Eddy Merckx at the 1975 Tour when he battled to second place overall after being punched in the liver on one stage and breaking his jaw on another … or relate how Lance Armstrong picked himself up after being floored at the foot of Luz-Ardiden, fighting back to the lead group and then charging clear to win the stage (with a cracked frame) to clinch the 2003 Tour yellow jersey.
So how does the latest generation of pro racers shape up to those cycling legends? Do they exhibit the same levels of grinta as their predecessors?
Take reigning world champion Mark Cavendish. The man with the flashy sprint certainly has to show grit and bravery in negotiating a risk-filled mass stage finish at the Tour or Giro. But his performance that impressed me the most was when he won (with Rob Hayles) the Madison title at the 2005 track worlds in Los Angeles.
The then teen-aged Cavendish was a last-minute replacement and had never teamed with the veteran Hayles before. They overcame their lack of competitive experience together with sheer class. The pair was impressively fast in lapping the field to take the lead with 28 laps to go — and even more impressive, Cav especially, in hanging with the pack as team after team launched attacks in the closing kilometers.
At the end of that high-speed 50km contest, Cav was in tears, not only from the thrill of becoming world champion at 19 but also from the pain of racing (and beating) the world’s best trackmen. That took grinta! In an emotion-tinged interview, the young Brit said that winning a rainbow jersey was “something I’ve been waiting for all my life.”
Another young racer who has displayed enormous amounts of grinta in his so-far brief career is Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway. He needed plenty of nerve on stage 7 of the 2009 Giro to join a breakaway on a treacherously wet (and cold!) alpine descent into Chiavenna, where he easily took the sprint. Even more impressive was his victory a month earlier at Ghent-Wevelgem.
Also on a cold, rainy and windy day, Boasson Hagen wasn’t supposed to win this rugged Belgian classic. His teammate Mark Cavendish was favored, but the Brit flatted just as the race split apart. Their team director Brian Holm told me he wasn’t expecting anything from the Norwegian. After all, he explained, it was only three days after a difficult Tour of Flanders, where Boasson Hagen “had diarrhea and had to stop to go to the toilet three times…. That must have taken something out of him.”
Despite that, Boasson Hagen got into the front group at Ghent-Wevelgem with two senior teammates, both former winners of this classic, George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt. Still, no one was expecting anything from the 21-year-old Norwegian when on the final climb, the ruggedly steep, cobblestone Kemmelberg, he jumped away from the Hincapie group and bridged to lone leader Aleksandr Kuschynski of Belarus — and after pacing each other for the remaining 35km, Boasson Hagen led out the sprint from 300 meters to win easily.
Hincapie could have complained about an upstart colleague stealing the race, but realizing the scale of Boasson Hagen’s grinta, the American admiringly said, “It’s huge for Eddy … and it doesn’t get much tougher than today.”
Like Cavendish and Boasson Hagen, the Slovak phenom Peter Sagan has quickly established himself as a rider of immense talent and grit. Only two months into his pro career, at age 20, he shocked the cycling world by taking two stage wins at the 2010 Paris-Nice in bitterly cold weather — the first by out-sprinting a select group of six that included Spanish stars Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador; the second with a solo attack on a steep climb 2km from the finish.
A few weeks later at the prologue of Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie, I witnessed his ambition first-hand. Standing beyond the finish line, with no other reporters around, I was able to talk to riders as they circled back after finishing their time trials.
Sagan raced across the line head down, riding as hard as he could, and didn’t see what time he’d done. He said he understood a little English, so I indicated that he was one second slower than the fastest rider, Italy’s Marco Pinotti. Sagan knew enough English to react to his narrow loss with: “F–k! Only one second?” And the very next day, goaded by his prologue defeat, he proved the strongest sprinter, with the most grinta, in a wild bunch finish.
Like the legends of the past, modern stars Cavendish, Boasson Hagen and Sagan all have immense talent and, even more important, that indefinable gift called grinta.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
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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.
For reasons unknown, this past Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on crashes in pro racing. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this year’s Tour ended. Mostly because the reasons that most proffer don’t really explain what’s going on.
The Times article is here.
The biggest problem of all is that we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, and the Times is no different. The reporter gathered his anecdotes and offered them up. Ten deaths since 1995, though few mentioned because, they apparently aren’t worth mentioning. Thankfully, he does point out that no one is investigating. Seems to me that this is a matter for the UCI and the professional rider’s union (CPA) to investigate, but he doesn’t ask Pat McQuaid, nor CPA chief Gianni Bugno what they’re doing about it.
If racing my bike was my job, I’d want them investigating. At the very least, maybe an investigation of the reported crashes at the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. The three big stage races. Maybe looking at them can help point to things that might merit further research.
With the Tour, the biggest cycling stage in the world, every team has an incentive to ride aggressively, everyone wants an opportunity to get in front of the camera, everyone wants a dig at a stage win, just about every racer is probably thinking, no matter what their assignment is, if they just do one more thing, they might be able to score yellow, just for a day, and it won’t derail their team leader’s chances at his stated goal. Seems like a recipe for lots of crashes.
Stakes are highest for most riders and teams at the Tour, no doubt. But there are big crashes at the Vuelta and Giro as well, and they often take out a favorite, or two. And every year, there are crashes at the Tour, and crashes at every race. Every year at the Tour, and other big races, favorites are either caught up in the crashes and drop out or are caught behind them and are knocked out of contention before the critical stages or sectors begin. We’re not always paying attention in other races. But somehow, this year seemed different. There were lots of explanations; the most interesting I read was a cleaner peloton is both more evenly matched and more fatigued.
Maybe more evenly-matched causes some problems, but more fatigued I find hard to believe. It strikes me that such a comment assumes that every last cyclist was doping, because otherwise, the clean cyclists would probably have been more fatigued ten or fifteen years ago than they are now. Even if every last cyclist was doping, there is plenty of evidence that there are both high-responders and low-responders to doping products, EPO in particular, and the low-responders would presumable be at a greater disadvantage than they are today, assuming a cleaner peloton.
I think it’s safe to rule out road conditions as being a big problem, as road conditions are generally better today than they were in the past. I also think it’s safe to rule out “road furniture” on the transitions in and out of towns for most crashes. I know the road furniture theory is a popular one, and the awful Craig Lewis-Marco Pinotti crash at this year’s Giro has been attributed to road furniture, but even their crash deserves at least a little questioning. Was there any footage of it? I couldn’t find any. Maybe road furniture is responsible, but maybe it was just what they hit and the cause was something else. Maybe the crash would have been worse had it not been for the road furniture. I have no reason to doubt either person’s sincerity, but unless we have a better idea of what happened it seems premature to assign blame.
To me, another strike against the road furniture theory is that at this year’s crash-ridden Tour, it didn’t seem like any crashes were the result of road furniture; most of the heavily-reported crashes seemed to have happened on straight roads or in the mountains. There’s also evidence that the Tour and other big races work with local governments to remove some traffic circles and speed bumps where they think their removal will improve safety. I noticed what appeared to be traffic circle modifications during the World Championships as well. I think it’s safe to rule out narrow roads, as not only were wider roads once seen as a culprit, but narrow roads were once all the peloton used.
I’d like to offer up a few alternative explanations to the common cries.
It’s possible that crashes are as common as they’ve always been, but that broken bones are more common today than they used to be, making the crashes more serious and more frequently race-ending. As such, I think one potential culprit is osteopenia. If you haven’t heard of it, consider it osteoporosis lite: bone mineral density is lower than normal. I think it should be considered a factor in all crashes where bone breakage occurs, whether it is in training or racing. Anecdotally, there seem to be more and more stories about guys breaking bones in training crashes the past several years. Even “normal” cyclists can have reduced bone density as a result of all the miles they put in, so a Tour rider, particularly a climber who has meticulously starved himself down to his ideal race weight, probably has thinned his bones beyond what the average mileage-hound has done. I heard physiologist Allen Lim discussing hearing about crashes and thinking that every crash has the potential to break bones during a Grand Tour. When I put it to Dr. Michael Ross, a former team doctor, he unhesitatingly said, “yes.” It also could be a sign of cortico-steroid abuse, something Dr. Ross pointed out, as the result is same. Yes, these guys are racing hard, yes, they’re going fast, yes, they’re hitting the ground hard, but looking at how emaciated riders like Brad Wiggins and Chris Horner are at their Tour weight, I have to imagine their bodies catabolized bone matter to keep going. It strikes me as an evolutionary strategy that certainly helped early humans survive famines, but it also could be how crashes are breaking collarbones, ribs, pelvises, wrists, hips, and so on. For all the discussion about injuries resulting from race crashes, lots of guys seem to be breaking bones training; Dutch rider Robert Gesink had his season ended for him shortly before the World Championships when he fractured his leg while out training.
Some have suggested the culprit could be the machine itself. The bikes don’t seem to be the problem as catastrophic failures from normal riding have largely disappeared, and it’s hard to believe that a bike breaking after hitting the ground is injuring riders. Others point to stiffer wheels and too-light bikes, but I doubt those lines of thinking. I’ve seen little evidence that wheels are vertically stiffer than they used to be, which would be where the problem would lie in straight-line crashes. Tires are just about the same today as they were 25 years ago, and bikes still flex and tire pressure can be adjusted to account for stiffness. Steve Tilford speculated on his blog that some of the sketchy downhill riding was due to racers not training on their race wheels. He may be right. But I think the problem might extend to all racing. Not all carbon-fiber braking surfaces brake equally well. Some are grabby, some pulse, some give the unsettling feeing they’re not slowing down, even in the dry, some work fine in the dry but are questionable in the wet. Most pros can only ride the wheels they sponsors want them to ride, so they could be stuck between taking the risk of crashing or taking the risk of getting dropped more easily. I think many amateur racers would take the same risk, at least in the dry. People might suggest disc brakes, but I even with discs, tire traction, or lack thereof, will be a problem in the wet.
Another potential culprit is the training schedules of racers. At one time, pros probably raced much, much more before showing up to the Tour—the Tour came after both the Vuelta and the Giro and racers typically raced from February into June with smaller training blocs in between. Yes, they might not have been as fast as racers today, their training and nutrition wasn’t as precise, but by racing, they were training themselves to be more skilled in the peloton. And now the peloton is bigger. Riding in a pack takes skill, a skill that is honed by practice, unless there are some Wii games I don’t know about. Some weekend warriors in the US race more than Tour contenders between the start of their season and the Tour. Consider that this year, Chris Horner didn’t race at all between his victory at the Tour of California in May and the start of the Tour. Alberto Contador didn’t race at all between his Giro victory and the Spanish nationals, where he raced the time trial and road race, and then came to the Tour.
Or maybe the converse is true. Cadel Evans barely raced all spring and seemed to be able to race his few races with no crashing issues, though his preference is to race at the front. Maybe the pack as a whole are better bike handlers today and more comfortable riding closer to one another which makes it easier to crash several riders at once when one thing goes wrong.
The biggest issue is probably randomness, volume, and the nature of riding in the peloton. Just take an assembled group of cyclists, 189 riders is 21 teams worth, and have them ride an average of 100 miles a day for three weeks. Even if they were all riding solo, there would be crashes. Knowing how many riders go down in training and how frequently would be interesting to know, and something to compare to all the race crashes.
Some point to the packs being bigger as a culprit in crashes. There could be something to this, though the phenomenon of large fields began in 1986 when 210 riders started. And this time probably is when the super-large fields started occurring at the top races throughout cycling. Previous to this, it seems that races were in the range of 30-50% smaller and largely composed of teams racing in their home country—the Tour with French riders on French teams, the Vuelta with Spanish riders, the Giro with Italian and so on.
For riders, racing is their job and they owe it to themselves to demand research to determine what the real issues and culprits are. At the same time, they probably shouldn’t push for any changes until serious research is done. As a response to the extreme length of the 1987 Tour (22 teams of nine riders apiece riding 25 stages totaling 4231km), there was a movement to standardize the lengths of Grand Tours and shorten stages. This was seen as doing, among other things, reducing the incentive to dope. We know how that worked out.
Race radios are sure to come up as a safety thing. There’s no easy answer with them. Yes, directors can alert their riders to dangers up ahead, but there are downsides to trusting the voice in your ear. What if the director is wrong? What if riders interpret silence to mean everything is safe ahead? When hard helmets were first mandated by the USCF in the 1986, there was an argument that people would take more risks because they knew their head was safe. That never made sense. But I read a story about Erik Zabel’s role for the HTC-Highroad team. Supposedly he’d preview the stage finish and then relay what he saw to the team car, and Ralf Aldag or Brian Holm would then tell the riders. He apparently saw a turn that looked tricky but was convinced the leadout train could take it without braking. Hincapie lead through, didn’t touch his brakes, and Cavendish won the stage. Did this make for safer racing? The first guys made it through and probably so did the entire field. But what if he had been wrong? Is it good for the riders to trust such judgements?
It’s situations like these when I’m glad I’m not a pro bike racer. But it also makes me wonder how safe conditions are for all bike racing.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
If you’d asked me before the Tour started to list ten things that might happen during this year’s race, I don’t think the list would have included Alberto Contador losing time on multiple stages. I wouldn’t have suggested Andy Schleck would pull up timid on a rainy Alpine descent and brake his way out of contention. And I certainly wouldn’t have listed an assertive ride by a yellow-jersey-wearing Thomas Voeckler as perhaps the best single piece of evidence that the peloton is cleaner than it once was. God knows I wouldn’t have envisioned Thor Hushovd winning two mountain stages.
Nope, I wouldn’t have considered any of those as even remotely possible. But every one has come to pass.
With his ride in stage 16 Contador has proven that to count him out is to define foolhardy. I’m doubtful of his chances to win, but one can afford to be nonchalant in his presence the way one can be nonchalant around a cobra. Even if he can manage 15 or 20 seconds on all his rivals over the three remaining mountain stages and the time trial, that won’t be enough to boost him onto the podium.
One wonders whose ambition it was to even dream Contador could sweep all three Grand Tours this year. Was it Contador himself or was it Bjarne Riis? And if it was Riis, what will the repercussions be should Pistolero not pull a rabbit out of his hat before Paris? If Contador can’t pull off this victory, the age of the Giro-Tour double will truly have passed.
With the piece of descending we saw Schleck exhibit on the drop into Gap, the timidity that resulted in him losing 1:09 to Cadel Evans and 1:06 to Contador probably dashed his hopes to win this Tour. Frankly, his riding was so un-PRO that he doesn’t deserve the podium.
Darwin wrote that the story of the world was one of adaptation, descent with modification. Faced with obsolescence at the legs of Mark Cavendish, Hushovd has reinvented himself more thoroughly than any rider since Laurent Jalabert’s phoenix act in the 1990s. I consider him one of the three smartest riders in the race. He is the embodiment of the adage, “le tete et le jambs.”
As to Voeckler, he was already on what is arguably the best season he has ever enjoyed even before arriving at the Tour. So we must grant that he’s a better rider than he was in 2004, the first time he took the yellow jersey at the Tour. That said, in the era of Armstrong et al, sheer combativeness and tenacity weren’t enough to hold on to yellow. To suggest that will alone is enough is to believe that you really can stop a bullet by putting your finger in the barrel of a gun.
French cycling has been very nearly the laughingstock of the peloton since the Festina Affair. I’ve wondered if French athletes didn’t take some lesson from the incident to heart. Following the confessions that came as a result of the Festina Affair only six French athletes have tested positive (many countries have had two dozen or more), and the only one of them who was a notable GC rider was Pascal Hervé (yes, he of the Festina Affair), and that was in 2001.
I’ve often thought the fact that there has been only one prominent French GC rider (Christophe Moreau) in the last 10 years and the fact that French cycling has been curiously devoid of doping scandals weren’t just coincidences. I see it as cause and effect.
There’s an arc to this story. French riders were late to the EPO wagon; the Netherlands and Italy led the way, but they caught up, and in a big way, which is why Richard Virenque was one of the most feared climbers in the peloton during that time. And then we get Willy Voet’s ill-fated border crossing and Virenque’s teary confession in front of a judge.
To me, that past, those details and now Voeckler’s performance en jaune are of a piece. If you’re at your limit because the peloton rides at two speeds, then there’s no way for you to respond to an acceleration by a certified contender like Ivan Basso. That is, not unless everyone’s on the same program.
This is guesswork on my part; educated, but still guesswork. Still, it leads me to say that I find it easier to believe that Basso and Contador are clean than Voeckler is dirty. If we can have guilt by association, then maybe we can have innocence by association, too.
After all the scandals, the mudslinging, the unsubstantiated accusations and crazy revelations, the best possible thing that could happen for cycling right now is for Thomas Voeckler to arrive in Paris, clad in yellow. I’m not willing to put five bucks on that happening just yet, but it’s an outcome I’d cheer for, just the way I cheered in 1999.
Image, John Pierce, Photosport International
Let me just put out a list of potential Milan-San Remo winners first: Phillipe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar, Heinrich Haussler, JJ Haedo, Peter Sagan, Oscar Freire, Michelle Scarponi, Damiano Cunego, Alessandro Ballan, Giovanni Viscontini, Matt Goss, Filippo Pozzato, Alessandro Petacchi, Andre Greipel, Alan Davis, Tom Boonen, Ed Bo Hagen, Fabian Cancellara.
That’s 20 names. And there were some I left out, just because I thought them unlikely winners. I don’t see any of the above as dark horses.
Of course, it really depends on what sort of race gets run. Last year I remember waiting for the climb of the Cipressa and thinking “someone’s got to attack here,” but then they didn’t, and it all came back together. Oscar Freire won out of the sprint in his typical out-of-nowhere style.
History suggests that the Cipressa and Poggio seldom serve as effective springboards for non-sprinting winners, so you can probably cross of names like Scarponi, Cunego, Ballan and Viscontini, but who wouldn’t love to see SOMEONE spring a surprise and stay away? Scarponi is in such wicked form, you can just about see him pulling it off.
In the end, it will come down to who is hungriest.
So this week’s Group Ride asks the question: Who is, in fact, hungriest? Who’s going to win the 2011 Classica de la Primavera, the 102nd Milan-San Remo?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, author Douglas Hofstadter presents readers with an unsolvable puzzle. Naturally, Hofstadter doesn’t tell the reader that the puzzle is unsolvable. The reader is given four rules and a starting point plus a solution they are supposed to reach. The experience is confounding.
Imagine someone tells you to draw a car route from any location in the United States to the town of Palmer, Alaska. You are given a set of reasonable rules: that cars can be driven on roads, that roads lead from any location in the United States to the state of Alaska, that Palmer is a town in Alaska. Define a route to Palmer. You’d think you could do it, right? Just one problem: Palmer is landlocked; though it has roads, none lead into or out of the town. The only way to reach it is by air or ferry. A route cannot be drawn from anywhere in North American to Palmer. Such is the problem of Hofstadter’s puzzle.
Hofstadter’s treatise on the nature of intelligence won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and turned the field of computer science concerned with artificial intelligence on its head. The lesson of Hofstadter’s puzzle isn’t to defy the reader; rather it’s to teach the reader to think critically … in some applications, it could even be called suspiciously.
When I tried to solve the puzzle I struggled with it for an hour, then I tried to back from the conclusion to the beginning, attempting to reverse-engineer the problem and still couldn’t get from B to A. Only then did I begin to think that a solution wasn’t possible. Such an epiphany is Hofstadter’s introduction to the nature of recursive thought, an ability peculiar to human beings in which, put simply, we think about thinking.
I cite Hoftstadter’s book because reading it was a landmark in my education and taught me the value of thinking critically about information. I began to evaluate statements based not just on the value of the information they contained, but also on the likelihood that the statement was true or false.
I offer that as a backdrop to the revelation by Riccardo Ricco that his illness came as the likely result of a self-administered transfusion.
When Ricco returned to the pro peloton, I was apprehensive. I’m not going to quote him chapter and verse, but the body of his statements previously struck me as those of a person unrepentant in action. I wasn’t the only person to struggle with that issue; Mark Cavendish spoke forcefully of Ricco’s unrepentant nature. Let’s remember, Ricco claimed to Cyclingnews, “When I was found positive, I confessed everything. I was honest.”
Initially, he told RAI, “They searched my bags but only found some vitamins that we all use and so they decided to let me go home.”
Just a few weeks ago Ricco said “And yes, winning the Giro without doping is possible. To do that, you have to work and do your job properly.”
Okay, so we know he didn’t (do his job properly), but the stunner is that as he said that he was sitting on a bag of his own blood, so-to-speak.
This fall, coach Aldo Sassi took Ricco under his wing. Sassi is the man who famously paraphrased the bible passage on Nineveh in which he promised that we could have faith that seven cyclists were clean—his clients. Just two weeks later he added an eighth client: Riccardo Ricco.
If we take Ricco at his word—which ought to be a tenuous proposition at best, but deathbed confessions often seem to lack a certain editor—then the autologous blood transfusion he performed used blood that was just 25 days old. Perhaps this was his first autologous transfusion since re-entering the sport. Surely Sassi’s death was a blow. Perhaps he only returned to doping after Sassi died.
However, Ricco has been winning ever since his return, and this is where my experience with Gödel, Escher, Bach comes to bear: Given how he won prior to his suspension, is it reasonable for us to believe that since his return from his suspension that the only time he doped was in 2011? If we know one detail of cyclists who dope, the pattern of behavior is that those who do it, do it repeatedly. There aren’t many guys who have cleaned up as convincingly as David Millar.
There’s no way to know how tainted Ricco’s results at the Tour of Austria are; there is no just mechanism or reason to strip him of his wins, but his recent off-the-rails transfusion dulls them, but that isn’t the biggest problem with Ricco’s kidney failure.
For those of us who ponder implications, a natural question emerges: If Ricco has been doping all along (and that isn’t implausible), could Sassi have known about it?
Everything we know of Sassi’s career tells us that he coached athletes to succeed without the aid of doping. He was outspoken and principled about his dealings with athletes. Surely, he doesn’t deserve to have his reputation tarnished by Ricco, especially considering that he is unable to rise from the grave to defend himself.
And that’s the problem with Ricco; his doping leaves victims in his wake. The Saunier Duval team imploded following the expulsions of Ricco and teammate Leonardo Piepoli from the 2008 Tour de France, leaving riders and staff unemployed.
What will happen to Vacansoleil? Surely the sponsor won’t be happy about a doping controversy, even if the rider in question did help the team secure entry into the ProTeam division. One wonders just how Ricco thinks or if he considers how his actions could affect others. His seeming inability to consider the harm his actions might bring others fits the definition of sociopath.
Ricco needs to be banned from the sport for life, not because he’s likely to dope again and steal wins from deserving riders, but because another positive test has the ability to wreck careers beyond his own. We may not be able to protect him from his own stupidity, but the UCI has a duty to protect others from it.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Here, all that was fluffy is now slush. All that was white has gone gray. The river has freed itself from its icy cover, and sea birds cluster together and bob with the current. Those who ride their bikes evoke snorts of derision from pedestrians and motorists. They slip and slide in the frozen muck and spew it from their back wheels as they go.
In Australia, a pack of ludicrously skinny men are pedaling their bicycles through the Southern summer, racing each other, while those of us on this side of the planet cling for warmth to burgeoning body fat.
If your boots aren’t waterproof or you’ve opted for style over substance, you are likely sitting at your desk in sodden socks contemplating hypothermia. You raise your eyes to the horizon, looking for some sign of spring, but lower them again. We’re not even close.
For me, the Tour Down Under is a potentially great race. Picking up from our last Group Ride, Australia is a sports mad country. It offers beautiful countryside and friendly people. The Aussie contingent of the pro peloton is growing and growing. The TDU is everything the UCI’s globalization plan seeks to achieve, planting the seed of cycling passion in fertile ground and tending it carefully.
If we tilt our heads to one side and squint just the right way, maybe we can see the first tendrils of the new cycling season pushing through the earth. It’s a trick of perception and imagination, and one we need desperately to pull off, while our socks are drying.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’m just young enough that the movie and television Westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s escaped me. Even when Daniel Boone, Bonanza and other shows of the genre went into reruns, I never got the bug. I didn’t play cowboys and Indians; my friends and I were the third-grade equivalent of WWII re-enactors.
However, my father was a big fan of the Westerns and a few years ago we visited the Gene Autry Museum. It was a curious place to me. I find 10-gallon hats odd in the same way most folks think cycling shorts are strange. Among the things we encountered was a display with Autry’s Cowboy Code. I knew nothing of Autry’s reputation as the gentleman cowboy and on first reading, I found the code to be quaint.
Here’s Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code:
1) The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2) He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3) He must always tell the truth.
4) He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
5) He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6) He must help people in distress.
7) He must be a good worker.
8) He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
9) He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
10) The Cowboy is a patriot.
The opportunities for ridicule and comedy are just too plentiful and easy. See rule 1.
I read it a second time and was reminded of the Boy Scouts’ Laws (trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent … yes, I still remember them).
As I considered them further, I began to see that the code reflected many of my views on how I believe I should behave on group rides. As I’m only slightly more exemplary a citizen than Rod Blagojevich, let me say this is what I aspire to.
We’ll take them as a David Letterman-style top-10 list:
10) The rider is a patriot. I take this to mean representing my team well. I’m not going out swaddled in stars and stripes on each ride, but I think I do have a responsibility to try not to be a d@#$ (always), especially when I’m in my team’s kit.
9) He must respect women, parents and his nation’s laws. While most of the women riders I know I’ve been riding with for at least 10 years (and the last thing they want from me is pity masquerading as chivalry), every now and then a new woman shows up. I do what I can to helpful. Parents? Still don’t know where that one fits, but respecting my nation’s laws I translate as sticking with the group’s etiquette. This means not blowing a red light if the group is stopping, and it also means not stopping at the stop sign if the group is rolling and there are riders behind me.
8) He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits. There is little hope for my thoughts, so we’ll just move along. As for speech, this is one I have to work on. Once, at the turnaround for a TTT, my teammate leading into the turn stood up and sprinted away from us and the rest of us were still rounding the cone. I unleashed a shotgun spray of expletives intended to slow him down; all it did was come within a couple of quarks of getting us disqualified. How clean are my actions and personal habits? I’m not doing anything that could be construed as doping. No problems there.
7) He must be a good worker. This one is obvious isn’t it? Get to the front and do your turn. That’s been harder of late, but I’ve never been one to shirk my pull. I’ll kill myself for a teammate. Love that stuff.
6) He must help people in distress. I usually stop for riders in my group who flat, but admit there are times when something else short-circuits me and I don’t pull over. I always feel embarrassed later. I often stop for riders I don’t know, though on one occasion I was with a friend and we asked a guy if he had everything. He responded, “If I did, do you think I’d be standing here?” As smart-ass goes, it was pretty funny, and we decided he should get the chance to use the line on some other folks. Maybe not the best choice.
5) He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas. ‘Nuff said. That stuff doesn’t play well anywhere.
4) He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals. For me, this refers to the care I take when I’m riding on the bike path or through residential and retail areas where there are people about. Charging down the bike path in my big ring at noon ranks on the morality scale way ahead of Goldman Sachs partner, but it still isn’t cool.
3) He must always tell the truth. I’ve been known to tell a fib or two (per day), but for me, this one, again, resonates with doping. Not really a problem where group rides are concerned, but because this is aspirational and my aspirations key on the PROs, that’s how my sense of truth in cycling is tuned.
2) He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him. I suck at this. It’s not that I can’t be taken in confidence, the problem is when I say I’ll show up on a ride, what I mean is that I intend to be there. A lousy night of sleep for me, my wife or the little guy can derail my plans like a toy train swatted by a cat. Diseases go double. I mean to be there, even when I’m glad I’m not rolling out of the garage.
1) The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage. Okay, there are exceptions to everything and this is no … nevermind. If you don’t attack first, then you have, at best, counter attacked. Now, I see hitting a smaller man in more metaphoric terms; I see this in terms of hitting the ill-equipped: Don’t attack a newcomer or Fred. In other words, don’t bring a gun to a knife fight.
As for the last element, the admonition not to take an unfair advantage, I see this as the ultimate gentleman litmus test. If you hear the sound of people crashing, do you attack? I have to admit when I was a new racer, I’d drill it when I heard grinding metal. I soon realized that once I really knew my competition I wanted to make sure that if we didn’t all get to the finish together it needed to be for sporting reasons. On those occasions the riders most likely to finish ahead of me flatted out, I discounted my performance in my head.
Opinions varied wildly about Alberto Contador’s counter attack to Andy Schleck’s attack during stage 15 of the Tour, and the incident is a subtext to this post that can be scarcely avoided. On a training ride, attacking when another rider has crashed strikes me as inexcusable. In racing, when a career is on the line, I can understand that someone might not choose to wait. Waiting is nothing short of classy, but racing rarely rewards class. But what is more PRO than class?
Still, if Tyler Farrar wins a sprint, I will cheer more if he comes off Mark Cavendish’s wheel, rather than if Mark Cavendish’s wheel comes off.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
One got the sense from watching the finish of Stage 12, the extended confrontation between Julian Dean and Mark Renshaw and the subsequent reaction of the commissaires, that TdF officials were more embarrassed and angry than anything else. The ouster of Renshaw from the race seemed more of an emotional reaction than a calmly reasoned one. “How could you sully our race with this behavior?” might have been the question. The answer was an emphatic, “Ce n’est pas possible. (It’s not possible).”
No one that I’ve spoken with believes relegating Renshaw was uncalled for. His expulsion is another thing. Many respondents thought Dean also should have been relegated, and a case could probably be made, except that Dean’s actions (leaning and pushing) were probably just this side of the line, whereas Renshaw’s were pretty clearly over.
Common sense wanted the race jury to vacate the result of the sprint, to take Mark Cavendish’s win as a punishment for Renshaw, but the rules don’t allow for that sort of remedy. Riders are individuals, except when they’re not.
They probably ought to have relegated Cavendish as well. While Cavendish isn’t responsible for his lead out, he does benefit. Sprinting confers individual glory, but it’s a team pursuit. The winnings that come along with a victory get distributed. The net effect of Renshaw’s cheating was his teammate’s win. As when a defender’s error in soccer (football) gets punished with a penalty kick, the sanction applies to the whole team. Did race officials consider that relegating Cavendish would have disproportionately affected the green jersey competition? Maybe.
To lose Renshaw from the race is a shame. The Australian is a great rider and a good teammate, and as fans we would have benefited from more battles between him and Dean. For the sake of posterity, Cavendish won the bunch sprint in Stage 13, pegging back those (like yours truly) who believed he was neutered without Renshaw’s pull. It must have been a hammer blow, psychologically, for Dean and his Garmin team who lost Tyler Farrar to injury the same day.
The further question of how to react to such a sanction is difficult. Rolf Aldag’s assertion that Renshaw was the victim rang hollow. Impugning Dean at that point was pointless. What Cavendish did in the next day’s bunch sprint seemed a much better retort.
Now about Andy Schleck’s chain…?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International