If you are a top pro rider, and you have not met any of your season objectives, it is now officially time to panic. Of all weeks of the year this, the last week of the Tour, especially when the GC is sewn up and so many pretenders to the thrown have crashed out, this is the week when a rider knows whether he’s set for next season or whether he needs to pull some result, any result, out of his ass in the closing months of the campaign.
Riders like Thor Hushovd, on a monster contract at BMC and with little to show for his efforts, must be thinking about what form is salvageable over the coming weeks and what results he might realistically target in order to justify his pay packet. His teammate Philipe Gilbert is probably in that boat as well.
Those guys have contracts though. Their paychecks are secure, even if their status, within their teams and also in the larger peloton, are not quite as assured as they’d like. They’ll be racing for pride as much as to maintain their values.
Then there are guys like Andy Schleck (I won’t even mention his brother), who have had really disastrous campaigns and will probably also need to change teams. Schleck is carrying enough baggage at this point that he’ll need to rent a cart and hail a sky cap at the airport. An undeniable talent, especially when the road turns up, Schleck might now be classified as something of an attitude problem. Whether his troubles are of his own making or derive from poor management at Radio Shack-Nissan almost doesn’t matter. The young Luxembourger would be well-advised to get himself in top form for the Vuelta.
Another rider who has underwhelmed, at least by his own very lofty standards, is Fabian Cancellara. Will there be a hotter property on the transfer market than the big Swiss?
In “When Autumn Comes” Sam Abt wrote:
Out in the countryside of France, the fields are brown and barren, their corn long harvested and the stalks chopped down for fodder. Until the stubble is plowed under when winter wheat is planted, the landscape is bleak and the air full of despair.
For professional bicycle riders, April is not the cruelest month. Far from it. In April, hopes for a successful season are as green as the shoots just then starting to push through the fields that the riders pass in their early races. The cruelest month is really October, when the nine-month racing season ends and the riders finally know what they have failed to accomplish.
I would argue that the cruelty of October is presaged in this final week of the Tour. The riders are already thinking of the end of the season and what they’ll have failed to accomplish. Behind the scenes of the grueling race, business negotiations are at fever pitch. In fact, the Schlecks have reportedly been chatting with Astana just in the last few days. In business terms, next season has already begun.
This week’s Group Ride asks: Which of the peloton’s stars most need results in the run-in to October? What are realistic goals for guys like Hushovd, Gilbert and Schleck? And which teams will benefit by picking up big talents at deflated prices?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
Pornography gets a bad rap. Pictures meant to excite and titillate really aren’t such bad things, unless you happen to behave badly afterward.
The Spring Classics, published in English by VeloPress, is one such book that may cause readers to behave badly after a thorough reading. You could call it racing porn. It is essentially a pictorial history of one-day races. Yes, the title is a bit misleading, as it includes all of the Monuments, including the Tour of Lombardy, as well as Paris-Tours and other non-Spring races such as the Classica San Sebastian.
The inaccurate title is truly the book’s only fault, and as faults go, the inclusion of more races than the title promises is to be celebrated. Where else in our lives does anyone over-deliver?
The Spring Classics was written by Philippe Bouvet, Philippe Brunel, Pierre Callewaert, Jean-Luc Gatellier and Serge Laget, the same team behind the recent Paris-Roubaix book. Translated expertly by Sam Abt, the book’s great achievement is to bring a lifetime of photographic work to an audience that doesn’t routinely read l’Equipe and other European papers, which is to say the book isn’t yet another retrospective of Graham Watson’s archives.
The Spring Classics is more than 200 pages of images you’ve never seen. Were the writing and translation terrible, I could still recommend this book without reservation—the photos are that good. The histories detailed are truly fascinating, but the images … the images gave me chills.
By presenting the work of so many different photographers in a single volume the reader is rewarded with perspectives and compositions that aren’t the carbon copies one inevitably sees when one photographer stands next to another at the finish line. The scenics are breathtaking and the portraits of riders like Eddy Merckx (clad in the black and white of Peugeot) and Rik Van Looy (with the sinew of a lean, young rider still in his ascendancy) are better than a time machine.
After reading it, you’ll be inspired to ride from your heart, ignoring the pleas from your legs and friends alike. Just remember, though: Bad behavior is defined by those closest to you.
Summer is a time for reading, and I’ve spent most of it working my way through a tall pile of cycling tomes. I read Bernard Hinault’s Memories of the Peloton and Tim Moore’s French Revolutions and Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike and Ralph Hurne’s The Yellow Jersey and William Fotheringham’s Searching for Tom Simpson and Sam Abt’s Breakaway: On the Road with the Tour de France. There are maybe more, but you get the idea. Cycling? You’re soaking in it.
This week’s Group Ride is about favorite cycling books. Mine include some of the above, but also books by Matt Rendell and Tim Krabbé.
What are your favorites, and why?
There are a slew of training books out there, of course. I tend not to read them, because training seems like a good way to ruin a ride, but I’m open to the crazy idea that some of them are good and useful. I await your sage guidance.
While I have dedicated some good portion of the last few years to getting cyclo-educated, there are still so many books I’ve not read. You would think that for a voracious reader, a narrow genre like ours would be easy enough to conquer in short order, but I’m not finding that to be the case.
If I spoke French the problem would only be worse. Please do not hesitate to name works in foreign languages that you think are superlative. Maybe I’ll sell my wife’s car, buy the US publication rights and get filthy rich off the royalties. Or at least buy said book and hope to learn its mother tongue during my lifetime, so I can read it.
I’m also interested in hearing about some books I’ve not read, but are on the short list for end of summer consumption. Among those is Jean Bobet’s Tomorrow We Ride and Laurent Fignon’s autobiography We Were Young and Carefree. Your reviews greatly appreciated.