One of the ongoing themes of the infinite email thread between Padraig and me is how strange life can be. The older we get and the more our families grow, the more we find ourselves in unexpected situations, both positive and negative, an ongoing confluence of circumstance that serves up surreality like Dali on amphetamines.
And so it was that I found myself rolling through this New England countryside alongside Hennie Kuiper, on a bike I’d loaned him, and me somewhat dumbstruck as he spun tales of his many, many victories. 1972 Olympic road race winner, 1975 World Champion, winner of Paris Roubaix, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Lombardia. Twice second in the Tour de France. Rival of Bernard Hinault, and part of a dominating ’70s Dutch team. Directeur Sportif to Team Telekom and Motorola. One of the true Giants of the Road.
At 64, he is still every bit the physical marvel he was in his prime. Chiseled calves. Barrel thighs. A style on the bike that comes from living there. He could clearly have dropped any of the motley crew we’d assembled for our little tour of farms and orchards. But he didn’t. He just rolled along and chatted.
How we had come to be here is still a little mysterious to me. One of Hennie’s sons lives here, in the States. His son is not a cyclist. He works, tangentially, with my neighbor, that is to say, they are not co-workers, but they are somehow professionally affiliated. This part of the connection I don’t really understand, but when I was asked if I’d like to go for a spin with a former World Champion I thought, “Yeah. I’ll do that.”
Four weeks later, I show up in Concord center to meet Hennie Kuiper.
After riding with him, I understand more clearly what it is that separates schlubs like me from legends like him. His physiognomy marks him out, even at retirement age, as something of an outlier. His musculature is just not something you see at the grocery store, or even at your local crit.
Add on top of that his own statement, made later in the day, that his talent was to be able to attack one more time, after 150km, after 200km, always one more time, a thing few of his generation, or any generation could do.
Having said all that, what most impressed me was his generosity. He never failed to answer a question, and he patiently listened to every opinion offered. He didn’t once mention how badly wrenched his loaner bike was, nor that I’d forgotten to put water bottle cages on it. His best trick was simply being just one of the guys, albeit the one who had taken gold in Munich in 1972 after a 40km solo breakaway.
So there I was on a Saturday morning, having the tale of Paris-Roubaix 1983 spun out for me, not by some historian or commentator, not by someone who’d sat in the velodrome waiting for the riders to emerge from hell, but by the guy who won the race. As a cycling fan, I found it dizzying.
He laughed as he explained how hard a grand tour is, and why he’d finished twice in the Tour but never won, how angry one of his domestiques was with him one day when he’d ridden at the back and been caught behind a crash, the seconds slipping away and the yellow jersey with them.
He said that the hardest day of his career was a long time trial early on. He knew how to go hard before that, but he suffered so much that day that something inside him changed and afterwards he could always go harder than he’d ever thought possible.
Throughout the day I drifted in and out of earshot, and each time I got close I found myself in the middle of another story. He talked about being in the car behind Andy Hampsten in the Giro, about battling with Hinault in breakaways, and all the while he asked little questions about us, our jobs, our families.
We met up with the families at a folk festival north of the city, racked the bikes and shook hands. The ride dissolved into hand shakes and kids running in circles. It could have been any group ride anywhere, ending. We had ridden with a world champion, and it was just like riding with a friend, which was extraordinary to me and that little bit surreal.
And then, a week later, just when I’d finished boring people with the story, the autographed picture above appeared at my house. I am not one for autographs. I don’t ask for them, and I don’t really understand their value. But in this instance, I took it for what it was, a sincere thanks for a ride shared, from a fellow rider. And that meant a lot to me, as I’m sure you can imagine.
Here we are again, Roubaix weekend. I can’t think about this race without hearing, in my head, the horrible rattling of the pack over those impossible “roads.” I can’t think about this race without imagining the jarring, the wishing for it to end, the ludicrous proposition of racing there, the relief of entering the velodrome.
Fabian Cancellara will win this race. He has to. It is impossible that he will not with the form he’s got, with the experience he has gathered, with his great rival, Tom Boonen, struck down. Something terrible will need to happen to the big Swiss to prevent him from sitting on a crappy plastic chair in Roubaix, a soigneur pawing at his face with a sponge glove, while the rest of the peloton limps into view.
But then, this is a race where terrible things happen. Cancellara has already crashed twice this week, once at Scheldeprijs, once on a simple recon ride. It is impossible to know his true condition, though the team has played down his injuries, calling them superficial.
I don’t know about superficial injuries. In my experience, the effects of a crash accrue over time. What seems like an innocuous spill in the moment feels like a hammer blow later, your body’s natural entropy accelerated and exacerbated as you ask it to do more and more work. Paris-Roubaix is work.
Nonetheless, with Cancellara in the race, all other horses must be dark. Sagan, Pozzato, Hushovd, Roelandts, Phinney. There. I’ve said their names. I could say more, but does any of them ring with the truth of Cancellara.
This week’s Group Ride asks, is it inevitable? Must Cancellara win? If not him, then who? Why won’t he win? What is the tactical play that overcomes his sheer strength?
Image: Vlaam – Wikimedia
UPDATE: With all the excitement (if we want to call it that) in my life of late, I haven’t been tending to the store quite as I should have. A few orders were backed up a couple of weeks; I’m sorry about that. I also meant to put the Roubaix shirt back into circulation before now. Well, it’s finally up and I’ll be filling orders today and tomorrow. If you’re nearby, there is still a chance I’ll get these to you before the race—Padraig
Paris-Roubaix is among the purest of pursuits. The cobbles cause it to instantly resonate with you, or not. There really isn’t much middle ground on this race. Either you love it or wonder, “WTF?”
The 29 stretches of pavé are each rated on a five-point scale. Not a single section receives a 1-point score. It is as if the French are suggesting that the pavé, by their very nature, are more difficult than any ordinary road.
It’s a truth no one needed to confirm for us.
And really, in this race, the road is nothing more than a pavé-delivery device. The attacks don’t go on the asphalt, they all go over the stone. If the entire race could be run over pavé, we, the fans, would be that much happier.
This shirt is intended for the former, rather than the latter. I went to Joe Yule and his recently launch apparel company Stage One Sports. Joe is responsible for the RKP logo, the kit as well as this T-shirt. Stage One will offer an a la carte collection as well as custom work for team designs coming soon to a peloton near you.
I wear a lot of T-shirts. This is the first time I’ve ever had someone design a shirt pimping my love for something. And really, when it comes down to it, as much as we love the riders who contest Paris-Roubaix, what makes the day memorable isn’t so much the racer as it is the pavé.
The pavé is the real star of Roubaix.
The shirt is a high-quality 100% cotton all-black Anvil T-shirt that should render invisible any grease stains you might pick up while working on your bike.
Order yours here.
Questions? Drop us a note.
BTW: We’d gotten complaints about the cost of shipping from a few readers. After talking with the post office, I learned of another way to do priority that brought the cost down. This should be a bit more palatable. Also, if you plan to order several items, let us know and we can bundle them in shipping and refund a bit of the cost to you.
The following post is by a contributor new to RKP readers, though he comes with quite the pedigree. August Cole is, among other things, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. One of those other things is a dedicated cyclist. We hope you enjoy this new (to us) voice—Padraig
The months of February and March reside well within winter’s confines, but still offer the passionate cyclist a visual bounty.
There is the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, where the apotheosis of frame building is on display to the merry pilgrims who can travel to Denver to seek meaning in machines.
In Northern Europe, brute paths and farm roads that for hundreds of years were the weary arterials of Western civilization begin to coat the peloton with the requisite mud and manure that precedes the professional cyclist’s ablution ahead of Holy Week – De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix.
Our eyes feast.
Yet, for many of us, our hearts are cold. Inside, winter’s bite stings. It is a deep chill, deeper than has been felt in years. Or ever.
Maybe it is midlife. Or worst fears realized. Or a sense of betrayal, the worst kind, by legends who we knew to be our physical superiors and discovered to be our moral inferiors. The sport’s elite have pushed their bodies farther than we can legally and morally abide. Yet we still clothe ourselves just like them.
Cycling is searching for its soul at the very time when the bicycle itself approaches technical perfection. We can ride perfection for less than a committed smoker spends on their annual habit. We know what we see, and we like it. The intimate hours spent online reading about the industry’s finest work attests to it. The wink of carbon weave in bright sun. Team knee warmers matched to arm warmers matched to socks. We ride perfection for less than a committed smoker spends on their annual habit.
What we are not sure is how to feel about the heart of a sport that takes so much but can give back even more. It is like the weeks after a bad crash, when the body’s deeper aches announce themselves only after the Neosporin has done its job for the skin.
If we do not know how to feel about cycling, then how do we feel about ourselves?
Some search for answers during “Holy Week” as the cobbles of Northern Europe become the transcendent place we want them to be. The days spanning the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix are filled with delicious tension. Closer to home, our local dirt tracks and potholed roads take on new springtime significance.
Others seek to imbue their handmade machines with a soulful energy that improbably comes from welded metal, made by men and women who have mastered working with fire. Others practice a mortification of the wallet and continuously lighten aerospace-grade carbon fiber bikes to better ascend.
There is no easy path. There is no single right answer.
What is most important is that we search together, on the road or off it. The best bikes, whether laid up in molds in Taiwan or welded in Watertown, Mass., are just vessels that we use to bring us closer. The camaraderie at a bike-shop Tour stage viewing matters so much more than the lead grimpeur’s VAM. When we see the peloton riding shoulder to shoulder, fighting for each extra centimeter of room on the Oude Kwaremont, we should marvel as much at their ferocity as at their proximity. The peloton binds them as it binds us.
Once winter ends and we ride together again it will be with our hearts, not with our eyes, that we see the beauty of this sport.
When I think of my hardest ever days on the bike, I can’t help but feeling I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, even now. I’ve bonked twenty miles from home. I’ve crashed in the rain, in the dark, and still had to haul my bloody corpse home. I’ve been dehydrated and injured, and I’ve just straight up ridden every last ounce of energy out of my body.
And yet, every time have one of these experiences, I look back on it after, and I think, “Well, that could have been much harder, much worse.” And I envision what could have made it that way (usually more distance), and I just wonder what another 20 miles would have felt like in the condition I was in. Could I have handled it? Where would I have quit?
I had one of those days recently, a 70 mile cross ride on one of Spring’s hotter days. I only brought one bottle, and an early crash left me dealing with some unwanted pain later in the ride. You wouldn’t have looked in from the outside and said it was going to be a super hard day, but the combination of hubris (seriously, one bottle?) and stiffening muscles (I’m not as resilient as I used to be) turned it into a suffer-fest.
Ted King, the American on Liquigas-Cannondale, had a similar day last week. Reading about it made me feel much better about my own travails.
It’s one thing to challenge yourself with a big ride. Ask anyone who raced Battenkill, or Paris-Roubaix for that matter. It’s another thing to inadvertently impose those challenges on yourself by failing to anticipate all the things that can go wrong.
Mostly, when I sign up for what will obviously be a hard effort, I do so with an idealized vision of the conditions and how I will perform. Seldom do I project reality with any accuracy, and, in return, reality usually treats me to a hearty dose of humility. Go figure.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What was your hardest day on the bike? And why? Weather? Road/trail conditions? Poor planning? Lack of fitness? Tell us your tale.
I had a long discussion last week with a friend who takes just a passing interest in bike racing. He was asking me about the state of American cycling now that Lance Armstrong has retired. I told him it was going very well, that Armstrong’s peers Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer were still contesting stage races at the highest level, that U.S.-registered teams BMC Racing, Garmin-Barracuda and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek were winning the toughest races in the sport’s major league (the UCI WorldTour), and that a new generation of excellent riders was coming through.
There are some exciting prospects in this new generation. At BMC, Tejay Van Garderen is being groomed to take over the Tour de France leadership role of Cadel Evans when the Aussie retires, and Taylor Phinney is the natural successor to his veteran teammate George Hincapie. Over at Garmin, a truly homegrown squad, Peter Stetina is working toward contender status in the grand tours, starting with next month’s Giro d’Italia, and Andrew Talansky is shaping up to match him. And while Armstrong has quit RadioShack as a racer, his team is schooling such talents as U.S. road champion Matt Busche and under-23 standout Lawson Craddock.
My friend hadn’t heard any of these names, except for Leipheimer and Phinney. And that was only because Levi received great coverage in the Colorado media last August for winning the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and Taylor is the son of local sports icons and Olympic medalists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter Phinney. But if you only read the national press, listened to 99.9-percent of America’s radio stations and only watched network television, you certainly wouldn’t have heard of Leipheimer or Phinney, let alone all those other great American cyclists.
You may be thinking, this is nothing new. Cycling fans have known for decades that cycling is regarded as a second-class sport—or not even a sport—by the majority of couch-potato Americans. And we know that the only sports that register on the radar of U.S. sports editors are (American) football, baseball, basketball, (ice) hockey, golf, tennis and NASCAR.
My friend agreed that, besides cycling, the world’s other major sports—football (soccer), athletics (track and field), cricket and rugby—barely get a mention in the U.S. media. And he too was puzzled that while soccer is a far more popular participant sport in schools across the country than gridiron football, that doesn’t translate into the U.S. being a power player on the global soccer scene except, thankfully, for our women. But, then, there’s no money in women’s soccer, and it only makes the sport pages when there’s a World Cup or Olympic medals at stake.
Again, you’re probably thinking, why is Wilcockson going on about mainstream sports when he knows that cycling will never make it with the American media. The only time it does make the national news is when the words “Tour de France,” “Lance Armstrong,” and “doping” are contained in the same sentence.
Yes, I know all that, and I know how frustrating it is for journalists who discover cycling in all its majesty, beauty and history to come up against the brick wall that is the American-sports-editor establishment. All my above thoughts and feelings crashed together like cymbals this past Monday morning after I picked up our two nationally distributed newspapers, USA Today and The New York Times. Predictably, both of them headlined golf’s Masters tournament and the fairy-tale win by Florida native Bubba Watson. The sports editors were obviously relieved that in a week when Tiger Woods failed to beat par in all four rounds that the win at Augusta didn’t go to that South African guy with the unpronounceable name. Long live Bubba—who made it an even better story by invoking his Christian faith in his victory speech, à la Tim Tebow.
Okay, Bubba’s success was a great story. But I also expected that our national dailies would have some decent coverage of cycling’s biggest one-day classic, Paris-Roubaix, especially because NBC Sports had decided to broadcast it live in HD and repeated the coverage with a three-hour show at primetime. But, no, my hopes were soon dashed. USA Today didn’t even mention Paris-Roubaix, not even the result in tiny agate type. As for the Times, well, they had a paragraph in its sport-summary section under the insulting headline: “Belgian wins French race.”
Let’s admit it, American mainstream sports editors are out of touch. They propagate their views by only covering the sports that they’ve always covered. They may say that it’s too expensive or too difficult for them to put cycling on their pages — and why would anyone be interested in cycling anyway? But Web sites with a shoestring budget manage to cover cycling very well indeed, and virtually every American, like my friend, rides a bike at some point in their lives, so why wouldn’t they want to read about the heroic athletes who compete in one of the most dramatic sports ever invented?
It’s time to take those elitist sports editors out of their ivory towers and plunk them down in a frenzied crowd of fans on Mount Baldy at the Amgen Tour of Colorado, on Independence Pass at the Pro Challenge, or on the Manayunk Wall at the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship. Better still, give them a VIP package to any of these American events, or ferry them across the Atlantic and wine and dine them at the Tour or Giro — or give them a front-row seat at the worlds or any of the one-day classics. Perhaps even take them to the Forest of Arenberg or the Carrefour de l’Arbre at Paris-Roubaix to see the athletes battling (and crashing) their way over the cobblestones at speeds that only four-wheel drives or trials motorcycles can normally contemplate on such rugged roads.
It was encouraging that NBC Sports (formerly Versus, formerly OLN) devoted its time, energy and resources to broadcast the live feed of Paris-Roubaix, even if it’s a half-century since the European networks first covered the Hell of the North classic. But it’s shameful that our national press virtually ignored one of the world’s truly great sports events, especially in a year when Tom Boonen made the most brilliant performance of his phenomenal career to become only the second man in a century to win at Roubaix four times.
And outside of Boonen’s triumph, there were a dozen other stories to whet sports fans’ appetites, including the amazing debut (and top-15 finish) of Taylor Phinney at age 21, and the record-equaling 17th Paris-Roubaix finish of George Hincapie at 38. You can bet that if Samuel Abt of the Herald-Tribune hadn’t retired and was still writing for the Times that he would have given his unique take on the race, and if Sal Ruibal hadn’t been let go by USA Today he would have seen that the newspaper at least mentioned Paris-Roubaix.
So what can we do? I suggest that everyone who reads this column begins writing letters, sending emails and making phone calls to the sports editors of every newspaper they read (on-line or in-person) to make them aware that cycling is a major sport in this country, not just in the rest of the world. Keep on sending those messages and send this column to your friends to do the same. Don’t take no for an answer.
If we can’t get the media to see cycling as a major sport then riders such as Phinney, Talansky and Van Garderen will continue to be perceived as second-class sports citizens in this country. You know and I know that these guys are far superior athletes to the Bubba Watsons and Tim Tebows of the American sports establishment. Let’s start to help our young pros (and help our sport) gain the recognition they truly deserve!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
The efforts to tame the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix have included everything from running lower tire pressure in 28mm tires to wrapping the handlebar with foam pipe insulation and even using cyclocross bikes. The cyclocross bikes have been a less than stellar option for a few reasons. First, they’ve been chosen because the standard race bikes from the teams’ sponsors have allowed clearance for 28mm tires; in some cases they won’t even allow 25mm tires. Second, they feature geometries that include high bottom brackets (for pedal clearance) when the average Roubaix rider wants a lower BB to make the bike easier to handle over the bumps.
Felt has taken a novel approach to meeting the needs of their sponsored riders. For this year’s Paris-Roubaix, the Argos-Shimano team rode on a special run of the company’s F1 frames. How these frames differ from a standard F1 might surprise you. Unchanged is the bike’s layup and stiffness, which many might guess would be the first concession made to the cobbles. In fact, the changes are deeper in the DNA of the machine.
Felt’s engineering team changed the geometry of the F1—giving it handling and tire clearance perfect for the cobbles—without cutting new molds. Seems like an impossible trick, huh? Let’s cover the changes to the geometry and the rationale for it and then we’ll get into just how they did it.
The F1 seen above features head and seat tube angles a full degree slacker than the stock bikes. They also have a 10mm longer front center and 13mm longer chain stays to keep the weight distribution virtually unchanged. Felt’s engineers also managed to drop the bikes’ BB height by 3mm even after the addition of 28mm tires. And of course, the modified the fork and the rear triangle to create clearance for those bigger tires.
Again, the amazing thing here is that they managed all these changes without cutting new molds for bikes that will essentially be raced once a year. So how’d they do it?
They designed new dropouts that moved the rear wheel back and up (relative to the old position) which dropped the rear end of the bike and increased the wheelbase of the bike. Up front, new dropouts raised the fork crown and increased the rake, compensating for the decrease in head tube angle to keep trail consistent. The slacker seat tube angle allows riders to sit back a bit more, shifting some weight off their upper bodies to give their hands, arms and shoulders a bit of a break.
And to compensate for the changes to the fork and rear triangle, non-series Shimano long-reach calipers handle the stopping duties.
This isn’t the first time Felt has done this. In 2008 when they were sponsoring Garmin-Chipotle, which included Magnus Backstedt pictured above, Felt produced a run of F frames for the team. Those frames also featured Felt’s “Superstiff” layup, a feature that wasn’t required this time around as the new F1 is both lighter than the previous F1 (standard layup) and stiffer than the Superstiff layup.
While Trek and Specialized realize excellent marketing benefits from putting their sponsored teams on the new Domane and established Roubaix, Felt’s approach yields a bike more purpose built to the racers’ requirements. Both the Roubaix and Domane feature more trail than their racier counterparts. What’s most surprising here is that more companies haven’t had the insight to create a second set of dropouts to give their top-flight race bikes more versatility. Maybe this will help illustrate just how bright Felt’s head of engineering, Jeff Soucek, and his team are.
Last week we discussed the Men of the Hour—a rather easy-to-compile list of the men we all expect to be at forefront of the sport in 2012. But while the sport’s Men of the Hour might be easier to identify, a list of Up-and-Comers is certainly more interesting to make as it allows for more prognosticating. After all, it’s always fun to go out on a limb—especially if you turn out to be right.
Colombia – Something tells me we’re on the verge of a renaissance, as Colombians have been taking some pretty huge scalps at the U23 level over the past few seasons including the Baby Giro (now called the GiroBio), the Tour de l’Avenir, and the World Road Championship. It’s therefore no surprise that much of the country’s best talent—men such as Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Duarte, Carlos Betancur, and Sergio Henao—is now turning heads as pros. But 2012 should see an even better sign of the South American nation’s resurgence as the Colombia Coldeportes team—the first full-time, European-based Colombian squad the sport has seen in years—has already gained entry into some of Europe’s biggest races. The team’s main goal? A Tour de France invite—and they think they can get it as soon as this year.
Sep Vanmarcke – Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke burst onto the scene with a second-place ride for Topsport Vlaanderen at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, beating George Hincapie and Philippe Gilbert in the process and earning himself a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. Fast forward one year and there was Vanmarcke again at the front during the classics, this time burying himself for the sake of teammates Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, and Tyler Farrar, yet still finding the strength to finish 4th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and 20th in Paris-Roubaix. Thor’s departure bumps Sep up a rung in the squad’s cobbled hierarchy this year, and considering Farrar’s inconsistency on the pavé, Vanmarcke could easily find himself in a position to win a race for himself this spring.
Salvatore Puccio – This is more of long shot, but keep an eye on Team Sky neo-pro Salvatore Puccio, the winner of the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. Talented young Italians come a dime-a-dozen, which explains why most find themselves signing their first professional contracts with Italian squads. Not Puccio though, his impressive U23 resume turned some World Tour heads and the Italian was smart to take advantage of an opportunity to join one of the best cobbled teams in the sport. If Puccio’s decisions on the road prove to be just as savvy, expect big things.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – The losers in the Philippe Gilbert sweepstakes made smart choices on this winter’s transfer market, bolstering their stage race ranks with the additions of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, while avoiding a potential logjam at the head of their classics squad (I doubt Gilbert and Tom Boonen would have fared well together in the same team). With Martin and Leipheimer, the team now has two men ideally suited to the route of the 2012 Tour de France—and both can counted-on to win their share of stages and overall titles in smaller stage races as well. In fact, the season’s already started-off on the right foot at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with Francesco Chicchi winning two stages and Leipheimer currently leading the overall after winning the ITT. Better still, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel appear healthy, fit, and motivated. Their return to form is certainly a good sign for the spring classics—and for a team looking to be competitive all season long.
Thomas De Gendt – Another member of the Topsport Vlaanderen class of 2010, De Gendt had quite an impressive World Tour debut with Vacansoleil in 2011, winning stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. A man built for the Ardennes, De Gendt should get more chances to ride for himself in all the spring classics this year—especially if Stijn Devolder proves unable to regain his Ronde-winning form from 2008 and 2009. But while the classics remain a goal for any Belgian, I wonder if De Gendt’s destined for greater things—like grand tours. The 2011 Tour de France was the 25-year-old’s first ever 3-week event. Not only did he finish the race in his first try, he finished 6th on Alpe d’Huez and 4th in the ITT in Grenoble, Stages 19 and 20 respectively. Those are telling results, for at a time when most riders were getting weaker, the Tour rookie was getting stronger.
Rabobank’s Young Grand Tour Men – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is still only 25 and despite his poor Tour de France last year remains Holland’s best hope for grand tour success. However, with men like Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema nipping at his heels, he’ll need to do something soon (like, now) if he wants to stay relevant. In 2010, Kruijswijk finished 18th in his first Giro d’Italia—at barely 23 years of age. He bettered that result considerably last year, finishing ninth and then following it up with a stage win and third-place overall at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later—against some very tough pre-Tour competition.
As for Mollema (who along with Gesink just extended his contract with Rabobank through 2014), his 2011 was even more impressive: tenth in Catalunya, ninth in Paris-Nice, fifth in the Tour de Suisse, and fourth at the Vuelta (along with the green points jersey and a day in the red jersey as race leader). Like Gesink, Mollema’s also a talented single-day rider who should challenge in hillier classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and il Lombardia (I’m still getting used to the new name too). And Mollema’s only 25 as well—that makes 3 super talents for Rabobank—all under the age of 26. With all three riders deservedly expecting grand tour leadership in 2012, Rabobank’s management might have a problem on its hands—then again, it’s not a bad problem to have. And in case they’re reading, here’s an easy answer: Kruijswijk gets the Giro, Gesink the Tour, and Mollema the Vuelta.
France – Yes, we’re still waiting for the true return of the French to the top steps of the sport’s most prestigious podiums—but there’s good reason to believe it’s going to happen soon. First of all, a very talented group of young French professionals is on the rise, led by men such as Pierre Rolland, Arnold Jeannesson, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s been a while since France had a rider who looked as if he could develop into a legitimate grand tour contender and now they have three.
Better yet, France has been identifying and developing young riders (juniors and espoirs) better than any country in the world, as evidenced by Frenchmen winning three of the last four junior world titles and two of the last three U23 world titles. While a rainbow jersey is never a one-way ticket to greatness, the French Federation’s run of success certainly bodes well for the future—especially since world champions aren’t the only quality riders the program is producing. And last but certainly not least, one has to expect that Thomas Voeckler’s heroic 2011 Tour de France (coupled with a terrible showing in the 2010 World Cup by the French national soccer team) has inspired at least a handful of young French boys to choose cycling over soccer that otherwise might not have. It only takes one rider to change a generation’s perception of a sport—maybe Voeckler’s stunning performance will reap greater rewards 5 to 10 years in the future.
Young Italian Sprinters – If last season is any indication, Italian fans might soon have someone other than Daniele Bennati to hang their field sprint hopes upon. Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani won a combined 29 races in 2011—and all but a few came via field sprints. The three still need to prove themselves in World Tour races (only Viviani won a race at the World level—and even that was in Beijing), and Modolo’s the only one to have started a grand tour (twice, in fact—but he failed to finish both times). But at ages 24, 22, and 22, respectively, they still have time to develop.
Project 1t4i – Even though it’s a Dutch squad, Project 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) will be led by two young Germans this year: 2011-revelation Marcel Kittel and HTC-import John Degenkolb. It goes without saying that Kittel is an up-and-comer—the 23-year-old won 17 races in 2011 (18 if you count the Amstel Race in Curacao) including four stages each at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Kittel’s biggest victory—and proof that he’s a force to be reckoned with in coming years—came at the Vuelta a Espana in September, the first of what looks to be many grand tour stage victories throughout his career.
No slouch himself, Degenkolb won six races in 2011 including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. That said, it’s clear that Degenkolb (also 23 years of age) is a future classics star—he reminds me of Matthew Goss in that he’s a talented field sprinter who shows even more potential as a classics hard man. Last year, the rookie was given a start in every spring classic that mattered from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (he finished 12th) to Paris-Roubaix (he finished 19th). With 1t4i already receiving several wild card invites to just about every cobbled race on the calendar, Degenkolb will be given new chances to impress in 2012.
So that it for my Up-and-Comers for 2012. If all goes as planned, our 2017 Men of the Hour will be a list of mostly Colombian, French, and German riders.
Who’s on your list Up-and-Comers for 2012? Come join me on the limb!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The typewriter … and other machines
The French reporter was sweating profusely as he pushed the telephone into an acoustic coupler, one of those slow-speed, low-tech contraptions we used to transmit stories before sleek laptops and Wi-Fi were developed. He hit the “go” button over and over, but nothing was passing through the modem to his newspaper in Paris. It looked like his story on Jeannie Longo’s silver medal at the 1992 Olympics was going to miss its deadline.
As he let forth a stream of “merde, alors” and “mon dieu”s, he tweaked the cables and forced the old-fashioned phone harder and harder into the coupler’s rubber receptacles, hoping the line would eventually stay clear long enough to work. His curses didn’t bother us, the few writers left in the makeshift pressroom at a Spanish elementary school; we’d all had similar experiences with inefficient technology. After countless tries, the French scribe’s rudimentary computer finally gave a satisfying “ping” to signal that the transmission was successful. He wiped his brow and breathed a sigh of relief.
The stories I was writing that day had later deadlines, but even back at the Olympic press village, my Tandy word processor and the Spanish phone lines had a connectivity problem. The words would slowly flow across the Tandy’s tiny screen and then cut off, only partway through the transmission. After a couple of hours of trying I gave up for the time being, and thought to myself: “I wish I had a typewriter.”
In the first 25 years of my writing career, I loved using a typewriter. There was something inspiring about winding a clean piece of paper onto the platen, the black cylinder at the heart of the machine, banging down on indestructible keys and seeing your story grow line by line in printed form. In fact, filmmaker Woody Allen likes the typewriter so much that he still writes on the same German-built Olympia portable he bought when he was in high school.
Before I discovered the charms of typewriters, journalists had been using them for a century. And coincidentally, the world’s first viable typewriter was invented the same year, 1868, that the first velocipede races were held in Paris and the world’s first cycling magazine, Vélocipède, was founded in eastern France.
It was on the typewriter that cycling journalists began writing dramatic tales of races that excited the public and brought the sport alive, at a time when newspapers were the only source of mass communication. The first long-distance bike races, initially for amateurs only, were Bordeaux-Paris and Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891, followed by Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1892 and Paris-Roubaix in 1896. Some were organized by cycling magazines, giving their readers an inside feel for the races and the athletes.
New sports publications proliferated in that era, especially in France, where a turf battle between the two leading titles gave birth to the Tour de France in 1903. The first director of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, was also the editor of L’Auto, as was his successor Jacques Goddet. Their stories helped L’Auto (whose title was changed to L’Équipe after World War II) become the world’s biggest sports newspaper; and their daily opinion pieces during the Tour, along with the reports and feature stories of their contemporaries, helped create a rich fabric of cycling history.
During my early years in the Tour pressroom, I often sat next to two legendary French writers: L’Équipe’s senior cycling correspondent Pierre Chany and the novelist Antoine Blondin. They traveled together, almost always stopping for an extended lunch and a bottle or two of wine before driving to the finish, while listening to Radio Tour as they discussed the strategies for their respective stories.
Chany was the specialist. He not only analyzed tactics better than most journalists, but he also established a close relationship with the riders, notably Jacques Anquetil, and that enabled him to bring extra weight to his pieces (this was before the era of post-stage press conferences). Chany worked hard at crafting his daily report, gently striking the keys of his typewriter, usually under a plume of tobacco smoke, with a pack of Gitanes at his side.
Blondin, a friend of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote a short, literary column for L’Équipe, starting with a title that was almost always a play on words. He contemplated every phrase before slowly setting pen to paper in perfect script. No, Blondin didn’t use a typewriter, but he was the exception that proved the rule.
Sometimes, I broke that rule too. At the 1978 world road championships in Germany’s Nürburgring, the early deadline I had for The Sunday Times coincided with the estimated finish time of the amateur road race. After dictating the early part of my report, written on the typewriter, to the copy-taker in London, I stayed on the phone, looked through a doorway toward the finish and ad-libbed the end of my piece as the racers sprinted for the line — headed by Gilbert Glaus of Switzerland.
A half-dozen years later, at the Tour, I had a little longer to write my piece after Scottish climber Robert Millar scored a stage win at Guzet-Neige in the Pyrénées. But the pressroom (and a telephone!) was 40km away in St. Girons. I sat in the back of our press car tapping away on the typewriter — but there were so many twists on the mountain road that I’d find myself typing on the same spot of paper as each turn sent the platen shooting from one side of the machine to the other. Still, with persistence, the story of Millar’s big victory did get written and dictated on time.
Now and then I would follow races by bike, with my portable typewriter tucked away in the panniers. One spring, I followed Paris-Nice that way (using trains to overcome long transfers between stages), and arrived at the pressroom each day in time to watch the finish, get some quotes and write my newspaper story. Since I had official press accreditation, I didn’t have a problem riding my bike along the race route — except once, at St. Etienne.
I was descending into the city about a half-hour ahead of the race, moving at a fair clip, when an over-zealous gendarme spotted me coming toward him. Assuming I had no right to be on the course, he dived out from the roadside to wrestle me and my bike to the ground, as if he were a rugby player making a game-saving tackle.
I was bruised and grazed, but more concerned about the health of my typewriter. Luckily, its case just cracked a little; there was nothing wrong with the keys. And no, I didn’t get arrested. The gendarme escorted me to his capitaine, who inspected my press credential and admonished his subordinate before sending me on my way.
Typewriters are sturdy machines, and I’d still be using one if Wi-Fi hadn’t taken us out of the dark ages in transmitting copy. Nonetheless, I keep my old Olympia Traveller de luxe portable in a closet, just in case an outage ever puts my laptop out of commission. That typewriter weighs 11½ pounds, more than twice the weight of my Apple MacBook, and it still works perfectly. Computers need replacing every few years, unlike the typewriter — as Woody Allen well knows.
Another retro wordsmith is Italian sportswriter Gianni Mura. Just as Blondin was an anomaly in the 1960s and’70s, navigating with a pen in a sea of typewriters, so Mura is a 21st century hold-out. The clip-clop of his 1960s Olivetti Lettera 32 often drowns out the quieter clatter of computer keys in our Tour pressrooms. And because he’s a smoker, like Chany and Blondin, Mura usually sets up shop outdoors. “I can concentrate better out here,” he tells you. Yet even Mura bows to modern technology: When he calls his copy through to La Repubblica in Milan, he uses a mobile phone.
Before cell phones came into general use, we used to search for payphones when driving between stage towns. You’d think that was a pretty safe method of communicating with our editors back in the office. Not always. One day at a Tour in the late-’80s, Gilles Goetghebuer of Cyclisme Internationale was standing in an all-glass French phone booth talking to his office when the line suddenly went dead. The reason? A passing car lost control and smashed into the phone booth, knocking it over, along with Gilles!
In today’s instant world, when we can watch live images of nearly every major bike race on laptops, tablets or smart phones, it’s easy to forget that for most of its history, cycling was reported on the typewriter. And there are days — say, my computer crashes or there’s no Internet access or I’m just feeling nostalgic — when, like that cursing French reporter at the ’92 Olympics, I wish the pre-laptop days of Anquetil, Blondin and Chany were still here.
Images of Robert Millar: John Pierce, Photosport International