Despite suspicions that the apparent turmoil at Team RadioShack-Nissan was just that, apparent, a bit of strategic misdirection from Johann Bruyneel ahead of the Tour, Andy Schleck has now pulled out of the Grand Boucle with a fractured tailbone. Bruyneel has been targeted in a USADA investigation into systematized doping, and team owner Flavio Becca has, allegedly, withheld the riders’ May salaries (via Inner Ring) to express his disappointment with overall performances.
Now the Schlecks, who have publicly fallen out with Bruyneel, are rumored to be looking for a new team, possibly a return to Bjarne Riis’ SaxoBank squad. What?
We have been here before, with the ridiculous game of musical chairs that saw the Luxembourgers leave SaxoBank to start Leopard-Trek, while Alberto Contador joined Riis and won the Tour (later to be DQ’d for doping). Both of those teams lined up against Radio Shack, then under the leadership of Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong, which subsequently merged with Leopard-Trek. All those deals were undergirded by competing sponsorship dollars from Specialized and Trek, each of whom desperately wants a TdF winner on their machines. There just weren’t enough serious Tour contenders around to support three teams after Armstrong finally quit, so that merger made some sense, except that Cadel Evans won the last Tour for Andy Rihs and BMC.
You know what, forget musical chairs. This is a freaking Russian novel with too many characters, too many plot lines and too much melodrama.
Obviously (maybe), the Schlecks can’t go back to Riis, who just re-signed Contador to a three-year deal. The other rumor is that they’ll go to Astana (the former home of Contador and Armstrong), but that will only put Vincenzo Nibali in an awkward spot. He just signed on to be their main GC man.
As with all big name/money transfers, nothing is clear this time of year. It’s our Russian novel, written with a stick, in sand, too near the tide line.
This week’s Group Ride asks a series of crazy questions: Will the Schlecks leave the Shack? If so, does it even make sense for Flavio Becca to own a cycling team with or without RadioShack also involved? And who benefits most from the chaos? Bjarne Riis and the soon-to-return Contador? Team Sky, with Bradley Wiggins coming on song at possibly the right time? Or someone else? BMC? Look into your crystal ball, get out your Russian-English dictionary, take a wild stab. How will it all play out?
What. A. Race. There were so many big moments in yesterday’s Tour of Flanders, it reminded me of a Fourth of July fireworks show. As soon as you think, “That must be it,” another big blast goes off and leaves you breathless.
First of all, Nick Nuyens. This guy has been an increasingly dark horse since some good showings in 2008. That he won the Dwar doors Vlaanderen a week-and-a-half ago might have been an indication of good form, but it took more than form to win yesterday’s Ronde. It took the perfect tactics, riding wheels, getting in the right moves, saving up, and then exploding in the last 200m to absolutely shock everyone.
Padraig: Nick Nuyens rode a terrific race and has given Bjarne Riis the right to walk around with a guilt-free smug grin for the rest of the week. And though he won, because he isn’t a rider I have feelings for one way or another and really did nothing to make the race exciting save for the fact that he won the final sprint (and let’s be honest, it is the most important move of the race), I must admit I feel slightly cheated by the outcome.
For some Nuyens’ win is disappointing. The Ronde is an emotional race, and it wants an emotional winner. Does anyone have any feelings for Nuyens? No. I didn’t think so.
At the finish I wondered, though, if Cancellara had had Riis in his ear, would the outcome have been different? More importantly, did Spartacus have the same thought? For fans, this win for Saxo can only intensify the rivalry with Leopard-Trek. Can there be any doubt who is winning?
Padraig: Spartacus was the man of the day. He may only have gotten third, but he was the carbonated water in my Coke, and a Coke without fizz is just pointless.
And if the Leopards were disappointed with third place, how must Quick Step have felt about 2nd and 4th. It looked as though QS put too much stock in the plan to win with Tom Boonen, completely disregarding, until it was too late, the obvious strength of Sylvain Chavanel on the day.
Padraig: For my part it was a race of surprises. I was surprised to learn that Quick Step director Patrick Lefevre was all-in on Boonen. You’ve got Sylvain Chavanel and you won’t let him do anything more than mark Spartacus? Really? That Philippe Gilbert couldn’t stay away showed how stunningly strong the top riders were. But I think my biggest shock was when Cancellara originally attacked how easily Tomeke seemed to give up when he got caught up in traffic.
The turning point for the Quick Steps seemed to come with about 2k to go with Chavanel off the front with Spartacus and Nuyens. The Frenchman shook hands with the Swiss as if to say, “I’ve been released. We can work together now,” which is just what they did, holding off Boonen, Gilbert, Flecha, Leukemans, et. al. Where Riis got it just right, QS chief Lefevre got it just wrong.
Was anyone else screaming at the TV for Gilbert when he made his own move with 3k left? It was textbook Gilbert, but just as Cancellara’s textbook escape with 40ks left failed to break the chasers’ will, so too was Gilbert reeled in.
Special mention should go to three domestiques. First, Chavanel, who was clearly Boonen’s up the road decoy, continued to follow the plan long after Boonen was able to hold up his end of the bargain. Second, Geraint Thomas buried himself over and over to keep Flecha in amongst the leaders, and finally Big George Hincapie performed yeoman’s work towing Alessandro Ballan over cobble and dale. Even if their leaders didn’t come through, they did their jobs to perfection. Hats off.
The only item left on my agenda is a quick assessment of Garmin-Cervelo. They sucked. I suppose Farrar did well to take the bunch sprint from the peloton, but did anyone hear Haussler’s name mentioned all day? And what did Hushovd do in the rainbow jersey? He was there or thereabouts for two-thirds of the race and then faded like a pair of Levis on permanent spin cycle.
I watched the race twice. Once on the Eurosport feed (while tuned in to the Feed Zone on Pavé, and that was excellent) and then again in the afternoon on Versus. It struck me how completely different were the stories the two networks told.
What did you think of this year’s Ronde? What surprised you? And what does it all mean for next week’s tilt in the North of France?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I really hope that Bryan Nygaard, Kim Andersen and the Schleck Brothers just never announce a sponsor for their new team, so that we can go on calling it The Luxembourg Project indefinitely. Projects are neat. Think of some of history’s great projects, the Hoover Dam, the Pyramids at Giza, the Alan Parsons.
Calling themselves The Luxembourg Project also leaves open all sorts of options for businesses other than a pro-racing team. They could open a chain of restaurants specializing in Luxembourgish food. They could start a hip-hop record label featuring only Luxembourgish MCs. The sky is the limit, no pun intended.
And so now, as they complete their takeover of Bjarne Riis’ Saxo roster, and add various and sundry others to their squad, the time has come to ask a slightly more serious question about the team with no name, namely (see what I did there?) what are their goals? What are they after that they needed to leave the icy flatlands of Denmark for the rainy, cold flatlands of Luxembourg?
They’ll have the Schlecks to sprinkle over the three Grand Tour podiums, and presumably they’ll have Fabian Cancellara to break Tom Boonen’s spirit wherever the indomitable Swiss chooses to ride against the…um, domitable Belgian. They’ve also got Jakob Fuglsang, Stuart O’Grady, Jens Voigt and Dominic Klemme (also Saxo), Linus Gerdemann and Fabian Wegman (Milram), the Italian sprinter Daniele Bennati (Liquigas-Doimo), Brice Feillu (Vacansoleil), Maxime Monfort (HTC-Columbia), Joost Posthuma (Rabobank) and Robert Wagner (Skil-Shimano).
They’re stacked. They are the Pamela Anderson of pro cycling.
So this week’s Group Ride is: What will constitute success for TLP? Do they have to win a grand tour? Do they need to win more than one classic? Will it be enough to simply accumulate a number of wins equal to those of all their riders’ wins from last season? Or do they just have to win more than Team Sky did in its inaugural season?
What will it take?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Let’s do something a little different this week. Let’s start with the question: What the hell is wrong with Bjarne Riis?
It is entirely possible that, having read the question first, you already have some thoughts percolating in your head. The bald-pated Dane inspires reactions. It’s what he does. For those who don’t have any preconceived notions, allow me to elaborate a little.
No one in pro cycling has had the up and down year that Bjarne Riis has. On the up side, his riders won the Dwars door Vlaanderen (Breschel), the E3 Prijs, Paris-Roubaix, and Ronde von Vlaanderen (Cancellara), Stage 8 of the Giro (Anker Sorensen), finished second in the Tour de France (A. Schleck), won the Tour du Suisse (F. Schleck), four Tour stages (Cancellara 2x, A. Shleck 2x), as well as high placings in big races from the beginning to the end of the season. Saxo Bank finished the season as the top-ranked UCI ProTour team, and they deserved it.
My erstwhile editor, Padraig, had this to say: “Normally riders flood into a team ranked at the top of the UCI standings, not flee it. For all the talk of team unity that Riis’ wintertime team-building expeditions have legendarily engendered, that currency seems to have run out. I can think of only one other occasion in history where a rider at the top of his game—Fabian Cancellara—has walked away from the director who led him to the podium and that was Miguel Indurain’s departure from Banesto following team directors’ (José Miguel Echavarri and Eusebio Unzue) insistence that he ride the 1995 Tour of Spain when he said he wanted to rest. In an eerie echo, following Cancellara’s win at Roubaix, Riis suggested that Cancellara keep going with an eye to Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Amstel Gold. Cancellara flat-out refused.”
In fact, it’s not just Cancellara walking away. They’ve all sodded off to Luxembourg to join “The Team with No Sponsor,” the Schlecks, Jens Voigt, and more.
Padraig said, “Perhaps a bigger question isn’t why the riders are leaving. It’s why this Luxembourg sponsor wasn’t united with Riis. Someone there wants a team, and Riis needed a sponsor when that began brewing. No less than seven of Riis’ best riders are leaving the team for the Luxembourg project … when does a rider decide that the sponsor is more important than the director? By now doesn’t everyone understand that money can’t buy victory?”
“The biggest question of all,” says Padraig, “is what riders see when they look at Bjarne Riis. As cycling fans, we see what seems to be a very gifted team director. For a rider like Andy Schleck to believe he could better achieve his goals elsewhere, surely he can’t see the Bjarne Riis we see. Just what does he see?”
These are good questions, but they might not still be worth asking given that Saxo Bank reupped with Riis after he was able to replace his Tour contender, Schleck the younger, with the current Tour champion, Alberto Contador. But then, just when you thought the cat had landed on its feet, Contador got busted for doping, dragging the whole stinking project back down into the crapper.
I’m not exactly sure who is left at the Riis Racing Offices at his point. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Bjarne himself was considering a move, such has been the turnover. If it’s just Riis and Contador, should they maybe change their name to Team Pariah?
For a guy who has been so good at putting his riders on podiums for the last decade, Riis is suddenly the boss no one wants to ride for. What is going on? He has always had a reputation for being overly serious, and his management style has been characterized as “corporate,” with all the positive and negative connotations that word inspires, but the guy wins. He is tactically brilliant, and his legendary obsession with the latest technology has meant that riders like Cancellara have benefited enormously from riding the best bicycles available for any conditions Mother Nature can contrive.
It is, perhaps, a mark of the this time of year that Padraig’s post about rim tape should garner more interest and passion than an open debate about the transfer market. It seems our minds have wandered away from the pros and onto the very serious subject of how to best ride the end of the summer (except for you Aussie and South American readers, of course).
Sophrosune brought up an excellent question, a topic for another Group Ride, which is, “What constitutes success for a pro team?”
Looking at recent transfers, it’s hard for me to believe that Riis Racing won’t succeed next year. Master Bjarne has replaced a Tour de France runner up with a winner, and, thus far anyway, retained last year’s Paris-Roubaix/Ronde von Flanderen winner. Does he have the two top riders in the peloton? I would say so.
Ryderider brought up Liquigas, which I failed to mention in my Group Ride intro, though the Italian squad boasts Basso, Nibali, Kreuzier, Kiserlovski and Sagan. One gets the distinct impression that, organized properly around a designated leader, they have the team to take a grand tour. Having lost Francesco Chicchi to Quick Step, they only have Daniele Bennati for the sprints, which will pull some wins off the table. You have to ask though, will winning the Giro be enough for Liquigas in 2011? Or do they need to make a serious assault on the Tour, given they have nothing for the Classics?
Omega Pharma – Lotto is the other team that sticks out for me. Living in QuickStep’s shadow for the last few seasons, things looked bad for Belgium’s other team when Cadel Evans left, but Phillipe Gilbert has kept their profile high with stellar end of season riding, and now they’ve signed Andrei Greipel who will, undoubtedly, add to their win total, and give them a proper presence at any grand tour they run him in.
The Spanish teams, Movistar and Geox,are the big question marks. What will money do for Spanish cycling? If Team Sky is any indication, not much, but their results may vary.
And now…back to rim strips!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
As the transfer season churns and boils, riders lining up new teams and new plans for 2011, the landscape and traditional power centers seem to be shifting. Omega Pharma – Lotto’s paltry four wins in 2010 will surely be bolstered by the addition of German sprinter Andrei Greipel. The merger of Garmin – Transitions with Cervelo Test Team gives the already opportunistic boys in argyle even more strong horses in more races, the only piece missing a real grand tour GC threat. Movistar’s take over and cash infusion with the current Caisse d’Epargne team promises a bright new day for Spanish cycling, not to mention Geox’s takeover of Footon-Servetto.
Along with the advent of the Schleck’s new Luxembourg-based team and Bjarne Riis’ capture of Alberto Contador to replace Schleck, this may be the most active off-season in recent memory.
The question for this week’s Group Ride is: Who will come out of this battle royale with the strongest team? Who is on the rise, and who is on the wane?
You don’t get any points for predicting the slow demise of Team Radio Shack, but I am curious to hear what we think of the moves made by the Belgian teams, Quick Step and Omega Pharma – Lotto. The rain in Spain is also mainly on the plain with a group of teams, once looking on the verge of collapse, blundering into new pots of money. Which team will emerge as the new Iberian powerhouse? And is there any hope for the French?
No. Probably not.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I believe that Bjarne Riis holds the keys to the future of professional road racing in continental Europe [Cue the sounds of a needle scratching a record/glass shattering/monkey's rioting at the banana packing plant].
For years we’ve been talking about the impact that each new doping scandal would have on the sport’s ability to attract sponsors able to support teams on the financial level necessary to race the UCI’s evolving, global race calendar. And, certainly, sponsors have dropped out after prolonged exposure to the negative publicity of having their athletes frog-marched out of the Grand Tours, heads hung in shame. What brand benefits from having their name associated with a bunch of anorexic junkies?
And yet, every time we lost a stalwart sponsor like T-Mobile, we gained a Garmin or a Columbia. Even the recent emergence of teams like RadioShack, Sky and BMC suggest that there are still deep-pocketed brands who believe in cycling. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the Shack is built specifically to support Lance Armstrong, a marketing juggernaut independent of cycling. Sky comes out of the British Cycling Federation’s successful track tradition, a group without doping-related baggage to carry around on tour with them. Among those three, only BMC, formerly Phonak, has struggled through years of dope-conjured setbacks, specifically with Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Oscar Camenzind and others. Their survival can be put down, completely, to the iron will of owner Andy Rihs, who loves cycling, perhaps to his own detriment.
On the European continent, things have not gone so well. Formerly dominant Italian teams have self-destructed or soldiered on, shadows of their former selves. Spanish sponsors have fled nearly wholesale, and the French, well, they seem to be underachieving on every front. Milram, the only ProTour team in Germany, will end their sponsorship commitment at the end of this season. Doom? You’re soaking in it.
That brings us back to Bjarne Riis and his Saxo Bank team. Among the ProTour horde, Saxo Bank stands out. They have dominated the Spring Classics through Fabian Cancellara, a rider who will also bring them Grand Tour stage wins in any race against the clock. They also have the Schleck brothers, Andy and Franck, who, in addition to contending for GC honors in the Tours, also represent the fresh, young face of cycling. Few teams bring to the ProTour what Saxo Bank brings, and much of that is down to their owner and manager, Riis.
And now that Saxo Bank is ready to end its sponsorship of the team, it is Riis scrambling around to find funding for what is, arguably, the best team on the continent. The irony is that Riis himself is a repentant former doper, who confessed, without coercion, to having won the 1996 Tour de France with the help of the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO), even offering to give back the yellow jersey he won that year.
A polarizing figure in cycling, Riis is clearly at the forefront of modern team managers, bringing new training techniques and technical innovations to the table more aggressively than any other. Many cycling fans are ambivalent about his influence though, disgusted with his participation in the drug culture of the late ’90s peloton, but intrigued by the performance and tactics of his team. Never a particularly warm presence, Riis has managed his team in the same ruthless way he raced. It wins races, if not always fans.
So now it’s down to this man to find a title sponsor for his team. It’s a proposition that tests the very premises of continental racing. Can a former doper with the best squad on two-wheels secure the funds? There is probably not a more valuable commodity than Team Saxo Bank, not a better end product to sell. But Riis may well be his own albatross. The deal maker might just be the deal breaker.
And this dilemma is not peculiar to this team. Every continental team has baggage to contend with when talking to sponsors. That is what makes Saxo Bank such a clear litmus test for the ProTour.
Let’s not be too dramatic. Pro cycling will not die. Where teams fail, others will spring up, but the new shoots of growth might come from unexpected sources, Australia or Japan maybe. The UCI has undertaken a globalization project for the sport. This can be looked at as either an effort to grow into new markets, or a tacit admission that the peloton has simply poisoned the well in mainland Europe.
Let’s hope this isn’t the case. Whether we like him or not, let’s hope that Bjarne Riis can present a business plan that overcomes the trepidation that must come from shaking hands with a former cheat.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Was it thrilling? Were you thrilled? Were you surprised to see Cancellara ride away with the race for the second weekend running? Were you pulling for Tommeke to reel the big Swiss back in? Did you think Hincapie was going to make something of his good mid-race position? Was Pozzato disappointing? What of Flecha and Hushovd, who seemed to wait for the Champion of Belgium to ride himself out in the chase, before dropping him in advance of the velodrome?
From my perspective, this year’s Paris-Roubaix was a bit of a let down. I successfully avoided learning the results all day in anticipation of the Versus coverage with Liggett and Sherwen (It’s the curse of residing on this side of the Atlantic that you can’t see these great races live), and then plopped myself down on the couch after reading my boys some rivetting bedtime stories about bears and mice having tea together, only to witness a decidedly subdued Hell of the North.
The French police barred spectators from drinking in the Arenberg Forest (above), and so there were far fewer at cobble-side, and thus less crashes. In fact, this version of the Queen of the Classics was just too short of mayhem for my tastes, an opinion not at all backed up by the fact that 85 riders had DNF next to their names at the end of the day.
The favorites rode to the front and stayed there. The usual attrition, the pummeling of the pavé, thinned the race down. And then Fabian Cancellara crushed the rest of the strong men, who scrabbled around in his dust, literally, leaving Tom Boonen alone to put up a fight. Quite how the nine of them couldn’t conjure any sort of meaningful paceline to at least limit their losses underlines how much stronger Cancellara was, physically AND mentally.
This was another aspect I found disappointing, the lack of fight from the guys who were supposed to fight.
After the race, as I noted in comments, Saxo Bank owner/manager Bjarne Riis took credit for his rider’s race-winning move. Apparently he commanded his giant Swiss-bot to attack at just the moment he saw Boonen napping at the back of the group. I’d pay 100 Francs to sit next to Bernhard Hinault while he read that interview and then went off on a profanity-laced tirade about modern riders all being a bunch of gigolos attached to Game Boys, but I’m like that. I love the drama. And badgers.
Getting to our little prediction contest…what’s wrong with you guys? You came up with really every permutation of Cancellara, Flecha, Hushovd, Boonen, Hincapie, etc., etc., et. al., PhD, MBA, PDQ, EXCEPT the right one. How did you do that? Well, now you know how Tom Boonen feels. Good effort, but no prize.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
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.