On any stage of the Tour de France, a rider can be excluded from the race for not finishing within a certain percentage of the stage winner’s time. It’s a cruel way to find out your race is over, a bureaucratic broom wagon letting you know you’re done. In this year’s event, Vasil Kiryienka, William Bonnett, Denis Galimzyanov, and Björn Leukemans fell prey to the clock.
This Tour de France also called time on the career of Alexandre Vinokourov. Past his prime when he returned from a two-year doping suspension, Vino clung to the idea that he could still pull off one last, big win. The Stage 9 crash that hurled him off an embankment and broke the head off one of his femurs told the aging Kazakh everything he needed to know about his future in the cycling game.
Less dramatic in their exits from the pool of potential Tour winners were Levi Leipheimer, Ivan Basso and Christian Vande Velde. All of them strong. All of them great on their day. None of them able to put together enough good days to live the dream. Of the three, only Basso has ever actually won a grand tour, two Giri d’Italia, but will Liquigas bet on Basso for the Grand Boucle again next year, or has the home truth that a pure climber of Basso’s quality can’t win the modern Tour without being able to time trial well (Are you listening Andy?) finally sunk in? Basso will be 34. He won’t be getting faster against the clock. Perhaps the organizers of the Giro will craft a hilly, swan song course for him next year, but don’t count on it.
Leipheimer was 3rd in the ’07 Tour, and he has a pair of Vuelta podiums to his credit, but at 37 we can now stop talking about his chances to succeed Armstrong as the next American winner. Both he, and Vande Velde for that matter, likely suffered for overlapping with the Texan, never getting quite the support they might have deserved in their strongest years. Vande Velde’s best Tour finish was 4th in ’08, before crashes began robbing him of the biggest race days.
Two other riders now outside the time limit are Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre, both grand tour winners in their prime. Their Geox-TMC squad didn’t merit a Tour invite in 2011, which leaves Menchov 33 and Sastre 36, out to pasture, regardless of who is paying their salaries next year. The Tour waits for no one.
Finally I would offer, perhaps controversially, the Schleck brothers. Many people take it as a given that Andy will, one day, stand atop the podium in Paris, and anything is possible (Just ask Carlos Sastre). But, pure climbers seldom win the Tour de France, Sastre, Pantani, Van Impe, Bahamontes, Zoetemelk. There are few enough that you can name them off the top of your head and explain the odd circumstances that allowed them to win.
Sastre and Pantani stand alone in the modern era when the team concept, centered around defending and neutralizing many stages, led to an ability to win with calculated bursts of aggression rather than three weeks of strong riding. Sastre probably owes much of his ’08 win to the absence of a single dominant rider (a la Armstrong) and the tactical nous of Bjarne Riis. Pantani, a serial attacker, won in the brief space between Indurain and Armstrong, again when there was no one dominant rider to let the peloton know when to chase and when to sit in.
Today, without a strong time trial, that top step can be extremely elusive, though still possible with the right tactics. What is clear from the 2011 race though is that the Schlecks currently lack the tactical acumen to pull it off as well. It is not possible for pure climbers to sit in the pack on a long mountain stage. All applauded when Andy attacked early to put time into all his rivals on Stage 18 to the Galibier, but by then it was too late. He and his brother, who made every elite selection of climbers throughout the race, had already passed up opportunites as Superbesse, Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille.
Rather than looking around to see what Contador, Evans and the rest might be thinking, Schleck ought to have been on the attack early and often. In fact, it wasn’t until a late race consultation with Francesco Moser that Schleck the younger dared to risk showing his hand, which tells you everything you need to know. The Schlecks don’t just lack time trialling ability. They lack courage.
Think back to Liege-Bastogne-Liege when the brothers were off the front with Philippe Gilbert and couldn’t find a way to beat the mercurial Belgian. When you’re two up in the final kilometer, you have to win. Unless you just don’t know how.
To be sure, there is still time for Andy, and even Fränk, but there is a big gap in their skill sets, and time is running out.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.
Padraig has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Yesterday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us almost everything we look for from a Spring Classic, crashes, attacks, splintering chase groups, breakaways, and an unlikely winner. The name of that improbable champion was the one thing that left something to be desired in the minds of many cycling fans. You could tell from all the booing at the finish line and the wave of articles questioning the result, based on that rider’s checkered past. Despite a stunning and classy win, cycling just isn’t sure about Alexander Vinokourov.
There seem to be two strains of thought as regards the ongoing exploits of Mr. Vinokourov. There are those who view him as an unrepentant doper, a rider who cheated, never confessed and then came back at the top level to plunder anew. Then there is an admittedly smaller group who say the Kazakh has paid his dues, served his suspension and is, therefore, entitled to continue with his career.
I find myself curiously caught between the two. Ambivalent.
Certainly, I have sympathy with the skeptics. I have always been a believer that how you do something is at least as important as having done it. And so, when I ponder the growing field of convicted dopers returning from suspension, I am able to draw some distinction between David Millar, honest, contrite, outspoken and humble, and someone like Vinokourov, who has been seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of his transgressions. He has been neither contrite nor humble. Having served his time, he is back to feed at the trough. Full stop.
But is that a valid distinction?
Millar and Vinokourov both cheated. Both served suspensions. Both have, theoretically, changed their behavior to that prescribed by the governors of the sport. Those are substantive changes, no matter how they’re effected.
Does it matter that Vinokourov has not become an outspoken critic of doping within the sport? If each returning rider cast himself in this role, would the gesture become hollow? And is the sword not, in fact, double-edged? Would the same people who pillory the Astana rider for not being contrite enough, call him a hypocrite if he spent too much time extolling the virtues of clean sport? Quite how Millar has turned this trick for himself is a bit of a mystery, but, by all accounts, the British rider has always been more charming than his Kazakh counterpart.
At root, are we, as fans, entitled to more bowing and scraping? Or are the sport’s laws and punishments enough?
I don’t know. I ask myself if I’m not maybe simply biased toward riders I like better on the bike. I can forgive Pantani his transgressions, to some degree, because he gave us such drama. Danilo DiLuca also falls into this category maybe. But the less emotionally compelling riders like Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde (unconvicted) or Jan Ullrich suffer a greater wrath. They cheated, AND they failed to entertain properly. This double transgression may be the real problem.
Today, Vinokourov has come forth with an open letter that seeks to address his situation more fully. It’s hard to read it and not feel an ounce of compassion for the man, who, at 36, is only trying to salvage something of a damaged career.
Would we prefer that he simply go away? For doping to go away, do the dopers all have to go, permanently? If so, we need to change our rules and procedures. Now. Before this dynamic plays itself out into absurdity.
The whole situation brings to the forefront some of the central challenges for the UCI going forward, how to reintegrate the sport’s transgressors and how to convince cycling fans that the punishments doled out are proportionate to the crimes being committed.
What we are seeing with Vinokourov is that, though the UCI has sanctioned his return, the tifosi have not, and neither have the cycling press. Perhaps these are just the consequences. You can cheat, and you can go away for two years, and you can come back, but all that will be left for you are these begrudged victories. You can stand on the podium and kiss the girls and hold the bouquet. You can even pocket the prize money, but you will never be allowed to win again.
Is that fair? I have no idea.
In every bike race there is a race, and there is a performance, a narrative of sorts that plays itself out over 130 or 150 or 212 kilometers. On occasion, the race and the performance are the same, which is to say that the driving force of the narrative is the winner of the race and the manner in which he or she has won. But then, much of the time the race and its result are distinct from the performance. In fact, sometimes the two diverge later, as when a rider wins a big race, but is later separated from the result by a doping conviction. Reading the order of finish or scanning the standings of the general classification don’t usually tell you, in any compelling way, what happened on the road.
It is this dichotomy that crept into my brain as I continued to ponder the enduring value, the legacy, of Marco Pantani, or, for that matter, Johan Museeuw, Bjarne Riis, Frank Vandenbroucke, Floyd Landis, Richard Virenque, Tom Simpson, or even riders not tainted by allegations of doping like Raymond Poulidor or Gino Bartali. The comments on my last piece here, É Andato da Solo, sent me back to the proverbial drawing board.
The thing is, it is easy to look up a rider’s palmares and think you know what his or her career was like. I do it all the time, especially for those legends of the sport I never got to see race. But then how do you explain why some riders, indeed some individual performances, remain in memory, while others do not?
Bike racing is hard. No other statement, perhaps, has been written so often, by so many, about our sport. It’s hard. Its conflicts and denouement play out at the ragged end of human capacity. It is epic, operatic and internecine.
And this narrative quality explains a lot about the way we see our past as well as our present. For example, on paper, there is no qualitative difference between the Giro, Tour and Vuelta. They are three-week stage races that include difficult climbs, time trials, beautiful scenery, etc. They all attract the very best riders in the peloton. And yet, the Tour remains the most important, I would posit, because it spins the best narrative about itself. Call it history. Call it marketing. The Tour captures the imagination more completely than the other two Grand Tours.
And though Pantani, Museeuw, VDB, Landis, Riis, Virenque, Simpson, et. al. all cheated (either by conviction or by their own admission), they also told us these amazing stories about cycling, about what happens out there at the ragged edge of things, where most of us will never get to go, and so we hang onto them.
You might even argue that the performance is more important than the result. For this reason, we can elevate a rider like Pantani above a rider like Andy Hampsten, though Hampsten is likely more worthy of our reverence. Hampsten was a great champion, but Pantani told better stories. Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi both won five Grand Tours, but we don’t talk about them as much as we talk about other riders of that caliber. Why?
Among those who are ostensibly more pure than the Pantanis and Virenques, Poulidor or Bartali for example, it is still the performance that matters. Poulidor is revered because of the efforts he made and the grace with which he lost, first to Anquetil, and then to Merckx. Bartali’s rivalry with Coppi was itself a great story, but further, the character of Bartali, the devout, working class hero, always plays well, regardless of results, though his were pretty good.
If we tell ourselves that only the results obtained in perfect honesty matter, we retain only a few threadbare icons. Many of us will, however, choose to perform the complex calculus of weighting the manner of cheating against the quality of the performance. Merckx is legend, perhaps, because his use of amphetamines is gauged less egregious than blood-doping AND his performances were bravura, dominating, crushing and relentless. The recently deceased Frank Vandenbroucke was a blatant cheater, but his brilliance on the stage was, perhaps, equally blatant.
It is difficult to express the creation of a legend mathematically. Each of us gives different weight to the performance versus the result, but we all most certainly do it. We have to. In cycling, because of the evolving manner of cheating, a simple asterisk won’t serve to differentiate the pure from the chaste. Our cheating exists on a continuum that starts with a bidon full of brandy and spans the illicit universe to include, in the present day, bags full of oxygenated blood. Shall we create a code to denote all the forms of illegality to which a rider has prescribed? Their names might trail strings of alphanumeric characters, like pscyho-pharmaceutical periodontists with legal degrees.
It is good and right to acknowledge those who have done things the right way, the aforementioned Andy Hampsten, for one. Riders like him deserve a special reverence. Greg LeMond too. But we can’t factor out the quality of the performance either. The opera is full of overblown characters, usually heavyset men and women with lungs like…well…like cyclists. Some of them are good and some are villains.
I love them both.
Valentine’s Day marked the 6th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. And in light of Padraig’s recent post “Reclaiming Our Past” and a tweet forwarded by Joe Parkin questioning why some idolize Pantani while reviling other dopers, I wanted to do a little writing. That’s how I think through a question like that. It is interesting how we process our cycling idols (not just their performances) after we know they were cheaters, and Pantani occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart, so…
First of all, let’s be entirely clear. Marco Pantani cheated. He did it systematically, repeatedly and seemingly without remorse. As cheaters go, Pantani laid the blueprint for how not to do it. Through this prism, perhaps David Millar lends the best example of how to cheat well, i.e. with subsequent apology, outspokenness and openness, but that’s another post. Not only did Pantani dope, but he also led a rider’s strike at the ’98 Tour to protest police raids on team hotels aimed at rooting out the dope. Bold. Brazen. Shameful. Full stop.
So, on some level, Pantani was a bad guy. He dazzled on the bicycle, thrilling us with monster mountain breakaways executed with panache and merciless cruelty toward fellow racers, but it was all a lie. Here was this improbable, little guy with a pirate’s beard and kerchief crushing the legs of all comers. He was a star, if an awkward one, that would eventually burn out.
We all know the story by now. Pantani was broken by the revelations of his cheating. He retreated into drug-use and the resulting paranoia. He isolated himself, one last breakaway, in a hotel room, and did cocaine until his heart refused to go on.
How do you idolize a man like that?
The answer is: I don’t. I think making heroes of people is cruel. It puts them up on a pedestal they will eventually fall from. Pantani fell hard. He died, and don’t think the fame and shame didn’t play a part. I think it’s fair to ask: Did Pantani kill cycling, or did cycling kill Pantani? The answer, to both questions, is probably yes.
So then, backing away from idol worship, what is it that endears a rider and a person like Pantani to a rider and a person like me?
Well, like me, Marco Pantani was an addict. I empathize with that trajectory of self-importance to deep shame to self-destructiveness. His highs were high (winning the Giro and the Tour), and his lows were low (six-feet below sea level to be exact). He did amazing things, but remained all too human. He could never win enough or do enough coke to quite escape that doomed trajectory. Here was a master of the sport to whom I could relate directly.
As I climbed in the mountains of Southern Vermont, I thought of Pantani. I tried (and failed) to dance in the pedals like the little Italian. When I got off the bike, I had nothing further to live up to. To me, Pantani is and was just a man, with all the frailty and failings attendant thereto. Unlike the untouchable idols of pelotons past, Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and LeMond, Marco Pantani didn’t ever demand more of me than I could provide. He let me ride and be who I am, not more, not less.
I believe there is a flawed genius in each of us. If you tick back through that list of bike racing heroes, you will be able to hang faults on each of them. Coppi and Anquetil doped. So did Merckx. Hinault is an asshole, a graceless winner, a poor loser, and a lout. LeMond, for all his charm in victory, has been an unhappy legend, a dour presence in the cycling universe. None of this makes them unworthy winners in my mind. It just makes them men. Like you. Like me.
When we talk about the legacy of our sport, doping is one of the unavoidable subjects. It may be the one thing that keeps us from getting too carried away with idol worship, and that is, in my humble judgement, probably a good thing. I don’t mean that as an absolution for dopers or an acceptance that doping goes on and is ok. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, and where riders are systematically cheating and by extension tearing the sport down, that is clearly a bad thing. But, and this is important to me, it is just a sport, and we are just riders.
Image: Spray paint on canvas board by the author, inspired by this AP photo.