I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched the end of 1992′s Milan-San Remo. Sean Kelly chasing down Moreno Argentin in the closing kilometers, in the rain, is the stuff of legend, and the advent of massively multi-player online networking, i.e. the internet, has increased our access to these sorts of motivational moving pictures in a way that previous decades only promised in half-baked sci-fi films.
The internet is a magical place, where each of us can be a star/hero/goat for +/- 15 minutes if the prevailing winds are right, and we’ve done something sufficiently attention grabbing. Cheap, helmet-mounted cameras are the great equalizer, a technology of the people that takes super-rad video production out of the hands of the professionals and straps it to your head. So what if 99% of this proletarian cinema is vomit-inducingly hard to watch?
My own interest in the larger video genre we might call “action sports” has me regularly disdaining the offerings of network television for the attention deficit stoking media of the high speed interweb. I have watched strangers shred gnarly singletrack, climb boulders in South Africa, France and Australia, and descend the world’s great descents on bikes just like the ones I ride.
As an aside, how did anyone make an action sports video before dubstep came along?
This week’s Group Ride wants to know what YOUR 3 minute ride video looks like. Imagine a friend of yours is recording your exploits, or perhaps that you are motivated (and narcissistic) enough to do the job yourself. Where would you be? What would you be riding? And, what music would accompany your heroic efforts?
Image: Sean Kelly at the 1991 Nissan Classic - John Pierce, Photosport International
Working as a full-time writer and editor in cycling for more than 40 years, and having raced and trained with elite athletes in Europe before that, I was always aware of the sport’s netherworld. The place where riders decided to cut corners, imitate their peers, or accede to the desires of their team directors; the place where soigneurs, sports doctors and charlatans made it possible for those riders to use performance-enhancing drugs or methods. None of them, especially the riders, was willing to talk about that netherworld because they feared reprisals from their peers, penalties from the authorities, or loss of respect from the public.
And without true details, other than rumors or circumstantial evidence, it was impossible for journalists to write accurately on that netherworld. Like others, I did write what was possible. Over the past two editions of this column, I’ve mentioned some of the many stories I wrote about doping in cycling at a time when very little was known about the subject outside of Europe, including lengthy pieces I did for The Sunday Times of London.
I’d become that newspaper’s first ever cycling correspondent (and its sister daily, The Times) in the mid-1970s, but only after writing long and persistent query letters to the editors to plead my case. That led to those once-stodgy British publications taking cycling as a serious sport, and I began contributing daily reports from the major events (including road, track and cyclo-cross races), which heightened the editors’ and the readers’ interest in our sport.
Because I developed a good relationship with the newspapers’ sports editors, they put their trust in me to write that first long piece on the Tour de France doping scandal of 1978 (when race leader Michel Pollentier was thrown out of the race after trying to cheat the anti-doping control). That article was among the first in the English language to (slightly) lift the curtain on modern cycling’s doping culture.
As with the decade before that Tour and for five years more after it, I followed the race alone, taking lifts with journalists from Belgium, France and Spain. That experience allowed me to get their different perspectives on cycling and to learn about their general reluctance to say much about doping. From 1984 onward, I traveled in cars whose expenses were paid for by the magazines that I edited: Winning for three years, Inside Cycling for a year and VeloNews for more than two decades.
Through the years, I traveled with a lot of different sportswriters. One was Irish journalist David Walsh who first came to the race in the mid-1980s. We often shared interview opportunities, like with Sean Kelly on the evening of a stage, when the three of us sat on the curb outside Kelly’s hotel, chatting about the race. David was with Irish newspapers at first, and beside his reporting work he wrote books about Kelly (published in 1986) and the other Irish star, Stephen Roche (1988).
While driving Tour stages, we had lively discussions about developments in the race and problems in the sport. Those discussions increasingly turned to doping after David’s pro cyclist friend Paul Kimmage retired from the sport and wrote his book “Rough Ride” about his four years in the European peloton, detailing the widespread use of drugs. Not a cyclist himself, David grew more skeptical about the sport, but that didn’t stop him writing “Inside the Tour de France,” his 1994 book of interviews that included a chapter on Tour rookie Lance Armstrong.
During our Tour discussions, I was often in the minority when David and VN colleague Charles Pelkey were in the car, talking about our suspicions on which riders were or weren’t doping. I liked to give riders the benefit of the doubt, but I always listened to their arguments, and their views inevitably influenced what I’d write—especially after the disastrous “Festina Affair” Tour of 1998. By then, David was a full-time reporter for The Sunday Times covering several sports including cycling. As a result, my lengthy piece on that doping scandal was one of the last I wrote for The Sunday Times after more than 20 years as its cycling correspondent.
Like many other longtime cycling journalists, I’ve been accused of being too close to the athletes and the teams to write with detachment about doping, and as such I’ve been complicit in cycling’s doping problems. That’s a subject I want to address in a future column. For now, I want to add that we always suspected that Tour contenders and champions in the 1990s, including Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, Bjarne Riis, Tony Rominger and Jan Ullrich, were using EPO.
But there was never any evidence of that possibility until a trunkload of EPO (and other banned drugs) was discovered by the French police in Festina soigneur Willy Voet’s team station wagon on his way to the Tour in ’98. That opened everyone’s eyes to how cycling’s doping problems had escalated in the EPO era when use of the blood-boosting drug was so prevalent because it was not only very effective but also remained undetectable in lab tests for more than a decade.
I’ll continue my thoughts on doping in my next RKP column, focusing on the years when more truths started to emerge from cycling’s netherworld.
Follow me on twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Tuesdays with Wilcockson
In last week’s column, I began to trace my journey in cycling from the 1960s, first as a racer then a writer, in connection with the sport’s escalating problems with illicit drugs. This week, I’ll continue the story from where I broke off, at the 1998 Tour de France, when the French team Festina was thrown out for organized doping. What the Festina Affair revealed was the degree to which EPO had transformed cycling in the worst possible way.
“Before EPO,” the 1988 Giro d’Italia champion Andy Hampsten told me, “we knew we were always racing against guys on drugs, but I don’t think those drugs gave them more of an advantage than the advantage we had knowing they’re gonna come crashing down. We didn’t lose energy worrying about what other people were doing; we just focused on ourselves, and we didn’t need to win every race.”
That “higher ground” attitude of Hampsten’s American team, Motorola, began to change in 1994. “There was a lot of grumbling on the team,” Hampsten said, “and we did get technical data from team doctor Massimo Testa because he’d talk to his colleagues on other teams. He was always straight with me. ‘Sure enough,’ he said, ‘if so-and-so who you raced with for eight years and you always dropped on the climbs, if that guy’s beating you now, his hematocrit is 15 points higher, and he’s gonna kill you in the mountains.’”
Because the new drug couldn’t be detected in anti-doping tests, no one knew for certain who was using EPO—and riders kept that secret to themselves. So, for the best part of a decade, until the Festina Affair, rumors were the only source of what was happening in the peloton. And rumors, without any corroborative evidence, were not things that professional journalists could write about. And when we did ask questions about doping those questions were sidestepped more often than not.
The situation began to change slightly in 1997 when the UCI mandated a maximum hematocrit level of 50 percent. Cyclists who tested above that level were not allowed to compete for at least two weeks, or until their red-blood-cell count returned to a “normal” level. But that couldn’t be translated into knowing a rider had used EPO. In any case, the new “health” regulation was a tiny deterrent because riders soon learned how to use portable centrifuges to test their own blood and keep the hematocrit level below 50—or so it was rumored.
The full extent of doping in the 1990s didn’t emerge until well after the Festina team was busted. First came the 1999 tell-all book, “Massacre à la Chaîne,” by soigneur Willy Voet who was fined and given a suspended prison sentence for his part in the Festina Affair. He wrote the book with French journalist Pierre Ballester, who worked for the Paris sports newspaper, L’Équipe, whose writers were just as shocked as everyone by the Festina Affair, the subsequent revelations in Voet’s book and the facts that later emerged in French courtrooms.
Testimonies at a December 2000 tribunal, which investigated the inner workings of the Festina team, showed that the French squad had engaged in organized doping since 1993. Prior to that year’s Tour de France, the tribunal’s report states, “the team riders who had yet to use EPO were growing impatient to get access to it several days before the start…. The main reason had to be that other teams were already administering this substance.”
Luc Leblanc, a French leader of the Festina team, admitted he used EPO in 1994 at the Vuelta a España and Tour de France, but he denied that EPO helped him win that year’s UCI world road title. But another witness, who worked for the team throughout the 1990s, testified that “all the Festina team riders at the 1994 world championships were given the same preparation: EPO with supplements. Luc did the same as everyone else.”
Riders entering the sport at that time were faced with a much more difficult decision than my racing peers had faced in the 1960s, when popping speed or getting injections of bull’s blood might have given riders a psychological edge but not much of a physical one. The dilemma in the ’90s for new professionals was to accept the use of EPO or risk never making the grade. That’s what Tyler Hamilton says made him begin doping in 1996, according to his new autobiography, “The Secret Race,” written with former Outside magazine journalist Dan Coyle.
Hamilton’s decision to use EPO coincided with his small American team, Montgomery-Bell, getting title sponsorship from the U.S. Postal Service that allowed them to start racing in Europe. By coincidence, I bumped into Hamilton on a flight back from Brussels to the U.S. in April 1996. I’d been reporting the spring classics for VeloNews, and Hamilton, then 25 and in his second year as a pro, told me about events he and the team had raced in the Netherlands, including his winning the Teleflex Toer stage race. Obviously, he didn’t say anything about EPO.
Like most other cycling journalists, I saw Hamilton—who majored in economics at the University of Colorado prior to turning pro—as part of a new generation of young riders from North America who were not polluted by Europe’s doping culture. Clean cut and quietly spoken, Hamilton seemed to be too smart to risk his health by doping, especially with the litany of dugs that appeared to be necessary to maximize the use of EPO.
As a sports journalist, you have to draw a fine line between writing about an athlete’s accomplishments and getting to know him (or her) through interviews and chats at races so that you can put those performances in perspective. Having had friendly working relationships with most of the sport’s successful modern “Anglo” riders—from pioneers Phil Anderson and Jonathan Boyer, followed by Steve Bauer, Greg LeMond, Robert Millar, Sean Kelly and Sean Yates, along with Andy Hampsten, Allan Peiper, Davis Phinney, Stephen Roche and many others—it seemed natural that I should do the same with the next wave, led by Lance Armstrong, Hamilton, George Hincapie, Chris Horner, Bobby Julich, Levi Leipheimer, Kevin Livingston, Fred Rodriguez and Christian Vande Velde.
It was difficult not to like all these guys. They were all young, intelligent and ambitious. And they were all making their mark in pro racing. When you did a one-on-one interview with those American cyclists you expected them to be truthful. That was the case in nearly all aspects of what they said about their lives, their training and their races—and you hoped it was true when they condemned doping and dopers.
Hamilton says in his book that he lied about his doping practices, even with his close friends and family. He was not the only one. I will write more about doping next week, but for now I’ll end with a quote from Brian Holm, now a highly regarded directeur sportif with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. The Dane wrote about his 13 years as a pro cyclist in his 2002 autobiography, in which he admitted to doping, just as Hamilton has today.
After Holm and many of his counterparts elaborated on their use of EPO at the Deutsche Telekom team, he said this to a Danish publication: “When I turned pro there was not that much talk about doping…and finally it was so normal that no-one thought it was illegal anymore. Many from my generation say that they were never doped, just as I said myself for a long time, because you thought that it really wasn’t doping or cheating. I actually think I could have passed a lie-detector test when I stopped my pro cycling career [in 1998], because I was convinced I was clean. It is only years later that you start realizing that it may not have been the case after all. It had become such a big part of your daily routine.”
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There’s been talk that an amnesty for past doping offenders is the path to a new era in clean cycling. But it’s not that easy to disperse years of pollution from a sport that is, more than ever, haunted by ghosts of doping past. An amnesty may be one step toward the goal of putting the dirty decades behind us, but it’s going to be far more difficult to purge professional cycling of its systemic sins.
We hope that the latest round of riders coming out or being outed is the start of a final phase in the cleansing process; but for it to be a truly effective process it has to be extended to the other tainted players, including team owners, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, coaches, team doctors, rider agents, event promoters, the sport’s administrators, race officials and, yes, journalists.
When I first became immersed in the European racing scene almost 50 years ago, there were no rules against using drugs in cycling (or any other sport). I raced for an amateur team in France and was aware that some teammates popped amphetamines to help them win lap primes in circuit races. I was offered the same drugs but knew that no amount of performance-enhancement would turn me into a Tour de France rider. I also knew that ex-pros with a dicey reputation worked as a mini-mafia in the same amateur races I competed in, and that top British riders I trained with were reluctant to sign for continental pro teams because of those teams’ doping cultures.
The cycling authorities didn’t legislate against performance-enhancing drugs until 1965. The very first tests were carried out at the amateurs-only Tour of Britain Milk Race, and the country was shocked when it was announced before the final stage that race leader Luis Santamarina of Spain and two others had tested positive for amphetamines and were being thrown out of the race. That shock was somewhat tempered when Britain’s Les West won the last stage by a couple of minutes and took the overall title. The fight against doping had begun….
The British public was even more shocked two years later when their former Sportsman of the Year, Tom Simpson, died at the Tour de France on the climb of Mont Ventoux. The coroner said that the amphetamine pills discovered in his racing jersey pockets were only part of the reason he died from heat exhaustion. Simpson was my cycling hero. I met him and saw him race many times, including at the foot of the Ventoux on that tragic day at the 1967 Tour. It was hard to accept that he’d doped and died.
Simpson’s death forced the Tour organizers to introduce daily drug tests, and the 1968 edition was dubbed the “Good Health Tour” by J.B. Wadley, my editor at International Cycle Sport, the magazine where I began my first full-time journalism job. Everyone was hoping that the new testing program would end doping practices, but all it did was make the riders and their teams more secretive as they found ways to elude positive tests. That was confirmed a decade later when Tour leader Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the 1978 race at L’Alpe d’Huez. The anti-doping inspector discovered under Pollentier’s shorts a rubber bulb containing clean urine, with which he’d intended to fill the test tubes at the post-stage medical control.
I was one of a half-dozen journalists who visited with Pollentier the next morning on the balcony of his hotel room. We learned that his actions weren’t much different from what many (most?) riders had been doing for years to avoid testing positive. That candid conversation on doping with the disgraced yellow jersey was the basis of a 2,000-word news story I wrote that week in 1978 for The Sunday Times of London, one of the first mainstream articles to look at the underbelly of pro cycling.
Pollentier’s transgression led to more stringent anti-doping rules, but another 10 years on, at the 1988 Tour, another race leader, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for a steroid-masking agent. He wasn’t sanctioned because the incriminating product (already banned by the International Olympic Committee) had yet to be added to the UCI’s list of proscribed drugs. We again wrote our stories about the hidden depth of cycling’s drugs problems—but when no one would talk to the press about what was actually going on inside the peloton, it was impossible to give details or to know the full extent of doping in cycling.
Yellow jersey Delgado’s escape from disqualification was the highest-profile “doping” incident in the ’80s, when the punishment for testing positive at the Tour was a cash fine plus a 10-minute time penalty. As a result, not much was made of the slap-on-the-wrists doping violations of top Dutch pros Steven Rooks, Gert-Jan Theunisse, Johan Van der Velde and Joop Zoetemelk. It was only years later that they and other Tour riders admitted to their abuse of amphetamines, steroids or testosterone.
For the few English-speaking cycling journalists who traveled to Europe in the ’80s, those were heady times. We wrote about the break-through successes of Sean Kelly, Steve Bauer and Phil Anderson in the classics, Greg LeMond’s and Stephen Roche’s victories at the worlds and Tour, and Roche’s and Andy Hampsten’s wins at the Giro d’Italia. Some skeptics said they couldn’t have achieved those successes without doping, but we never saw anything suspicious in that pre-team-bus era, even though we’d chat with the riders in the showers at Paris-Roubaix, interview them during massage sessions at the Tour, and do extensive one-on-ones at their homes.
The amazing performances of Kelly and Roche in that period made them Ireland’s biggest sporting stars, a fact that encouraged Irish sportswriter David Walsh to move to Paris with his young family to cover their stories. We became friends and followed many Tours together over the following decade or so. Walsh also made friends with journeyman Irish pro Paul Kimmage, who was then racing for a French team and shared some of the doping stories with Walsh that became the basis of Kimmage’s 1990 book, “Rough Ride.”
After that whistle-blowing book was published, Kimmage became a pariah in the European peloton, which remained highly secretive about its use of drugs. But it was clear that athletes and sports doctors had moved on from the haphazard use of amphetamines and other stimulants. I wrote an editorial in VeloNews in 1989 titled “EPO: The scourge of the 1990s?” that pointed out the dangers of the new blood-boosting hormone, which had just been approved for use with cancer patients by the Food and Drug Administration.
The speculation, unfortunately, became a fact. An early, but unconfirmed, indication of EPO use came at the 1991 Tour when, one by one, the high-profile PDM team fell sick and dropped out. The last man standing was Kelly, who a few of us, including Aussie colleague Rupert Guinness, chatted with the morning before stage 11 when he and the rest of the team flew home. Kelly said that they’d all been sick, as if they had food poisoning, though it was later confirmed it was due to injections of a badly stored nutritional supplement, Intralipid, used for recovery … though doping was still suspected.
The wheels started to come off the EPO wagon in 1998, when Belgian soigneur Willy Voet was caught with a station wagon packed with EPO, human growth hormone, artificial testosterone and amphetamines that was destined for the world No 1-ranked Festina team at the Tour. The race took a back seat as revelation after revelation emerged from the Festina camp, and when the French police intervened to arrest team officials, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc held his infamous late-night press conference in Brive to exclude the whole Festina team from the Tour.
I sat up all night to write another doping story for The Sunday Times, this one based around Festina’s Aussie team member Neil Stephens, after he spoke with companion Rupert Guinness about his criminal-like treatment at an overnight questioning session in a French jail. The subsequent riders’ strike, further police raids and a second strike, followed by mass team withdrawals almost ended the Tour—and drowned out a dramatic comeback by eventual winner Marco Pantani to beat defending champion Jan Ullrich.
The Festina Affair began a new wave on the battle against doping, a story that I’ll continue next Tuesday.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Milan-San Remo has probably weathered more controversies in its 106-year history than any other classic. Last Saturday’s race, headed by Simon Gerrans’ upset victory, was no exception. And the announcement by the organizers on Monday that they are (again) thinking of making a few modifications to the 298km course has only added fuel to the perennial arguments about the race not being hard enough to reveal a true champion. But let’s first look at this year’s edition, how some riders raced smarter than others, how misfortune played an important role, and how teams could have changed their tactics to achieve a more favorable outcome.
The big pre-race favorite according to the European media was Team Sky’s world champion Mark Cavendish, but the Manx sprinter rode like an amateur on the challenging climb to Le Mànie, with more than two hours of racing still remaining. He was unable to hang on to the peloton being pulled by the Liquigas-Cannondale squad, and despite his Austrian teammate Bernie Eisel dropping back to pace him on the second part of the 4.7km uphill and down the twisting descent, Cavendish only returned to the back half of a divided peloton — which never caught back to the leaders.
The four Sky riders with Cavendish and Eisel in that 50-rider group chased for a long time, hoping to catch back so they could help their other team leader, Edvald Boasson Hagen. But it was already obvious when Cavendish was dropped on the Primavera’s first serious climb that he was on a bad day and he would never have been a factor on the climbs near the end. So, even though he’s the world champ and a former San Remo winner, Cavendish should have been left to his own devices. Tam Sky would then have had a chance to truly help Boasson Hagen. As it was, the Norwegian had only Swedish teammate Thomas Lövkvist for company in the front group. They finished 25th and 30th respectively, 20 seconds behind the winners, after being caught behind a crash on the descent of the last hill, the Poggio.
Besides Cavendish, the European media’s other big favorite was Vincenzo Nibali, fresh from his winning Tirreno-Adriatico. His Liquigas-Cannondale team did enjoy an almost perfect Milan-San Remo. It set the fast pace on Le Mànie to dispose of Cavendish, along with sprinters such as Alessandro Petacchi, Tyler Farrar and Gerald Ciolek. It took control again up the next-to-last climb, La Cipressa, with Valerio Agnoli and Daniel Oss pulling the peloton at a ferocious speed. And the team’s tactics did succeed in keeping its leaders Nibali and Peter Sagan out of trouble, whereas another pre-race favorite, Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, got caught up in a small pileup that prevented him contesting the finale.
But perhaps Liquigas didn’t think out their tactics perfectly. They still had four men in the front group of 50 as they hit the foot of the Poggio with 10km to go, as did Rabobank (with sprinter Mark Renshaw), while both Katusha (for three-time San Remo winner Oscar Freire) and GreenEdge (with defending champion Matt Goss and Aussie champ Gerrans) had three riders left.
Rabobank took to the front on the last climb, hoping to keep the group together on the 3.7km climb for Renshaw, before Liquigas sent Agnoli away on a solo attack. The Liquigas team rider’s short-lived move did put pressure on the other teams and allowed Nibali to follow the wheels before making his decisive acceleration a kilometer from the top, but Agnoli’s energy might well have been reserved for a different tactic.
Liquigas could have had Oss set a high pace for Nibali, with Agnoli riding shotgun on Nibali’s wheel, followed by Sagan, the sprinter. In that scenario, when Nibali jumped on the steepest, 8-percent grade, instead of having Gerrans on his wheel, Agnoli, Oss and Sagan could have let a big gap open. That would have given Nibali a chance to reach the summit alone and maybe use his renowned descending skills to stay away for the win. Instead, the attentive Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek was close enough to jump across to Nibali (and Gerrans) when the Poggio gradient eased before they began the zigzag plunge into San Remo. Of course, any different tactic by Liquigas may have favored the enormously strong Cancellara, who would probably have caught Nibali anyway.
An even more intense and uncertain finale would have resulted had misfortune not intervened. But for his fall on the Cipressa, Belgian champion Gilbert looked strong enough to be in the mix with Nibali on the Poggio. And in the first turn of the Poggio descent, the young Belgian Kris Boeckmans of Vacansoleil crashed right in front of a feisty Tom Boonen, which resulted in 30 riders getting delayed and unable to rejoin the 11 men chasing Cancellara, Gerrans and Nibali. Without that incident, a 40-man chase would almost certainly have closed the 12-second gap held by the front trio before the remaining 3km of flat roads into the finish. As it was, Gerrans sprinted to the win over Cancellara and Nibali only two seconds before Sagan led in the chase group.
Which brings us to the proposal by the organizers, RCS Sport, to move the finish line from the San Remo harbor to the Corso Cavalotti, 2km closer to the Poggio. Their goal is to avoid a field sprint and give attackers on the Poggio a better chance of staying away — especially a solo breakaway by a Nibali. A second part of their plan is to make the Cipressa climb more decisive by using an adjacent steeper road to encourage the strongest riders to create a select group of breakaways that could fight out the victory over the Poggio.
This latter scenario has been the goal at several points in the history of Milan-San Remo. After superstars Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali and Louison Bobet took six consecutive wins in the immediate postwar years, the Classicissima turned into a sprinters’ paradise, with the race ending in bunch gallops through the late-1950s. As a result, the Poggio was inserted in 1960 and breakaways again became the more common outcome.
By the 1970s, field sprints again became more usual, and if it hadn’t been for the seven wins by Eddy Merckx, most of them earned in late breakaways, the organizers would have already started looking for more climbs to include. They did add the Cipressa in 1982 — and breakaways again became more common, resulting in high-profile victories for Giuseppe Saronni, Francesco Moser, Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon, Gianni Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci.
As roads became smoother, teams stronger and riders collectively fitter and faster, Milan-San Remo again became the realm of the sprinters. From 1997 onward, there were four wins by Germany’s Erik Zabel, three by Spaniard Oscar Freire and single wins for Mario Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish, while attacks in the final kilometer were successful for Andreï Tchmil (1999), Filippo Pozzato (2006) and Cancellara (2009). There have been no successful long-distance breakaways since Gabriele Colombo won at San Remo 16 years ago.
This week’s RCS announcement has resulted in riders saying that the new finish — less than a kilometer from the end of the Poggio decent — is recipe for disaster. But few riders could go downhill faster than Cancellara did last Saturday, when the only Poggio crash happened near the top before the chasers hit top speed. As for toughening up the last third of the race, the inclusion of Le Mànie on 2008 is already having an effect (ask Cavendish!), while making the Cipressa a little harder will stretch the sprinters and perhaps encourage the attackers.
But whatever results from another set of changes to the course, Milan-San Remo will remain a classic that will always generate plenty of excitement — and controversy!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Stage-race organizers love a suspenseful final day. If that finale also incorporates a spectacular location amid beautiful scenery, so much the better. And should it happen to be a time trial, then that’s best of all.
A finish incorporating all three of those elements has been chosen by French race promoter Christian Prudhomme of ASO to end Paris-Nice this coming Sunday. The once iconic time trial up the Col d’Eze — a 9.6km climb on the spectacular Haute Corniche road from the villas of Nice to a 1,644-foot summit high above the Mediterranean — was last used to conclude the race in 1995. So perhaps this revival can return Paris-Nice to the glories it enjoyed in the winning years of stars such as Eddy Merckx, Raymond Poulidor, Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche.
The Col d’Eze was first used for a Paris-Nice time trial in 1969 when the race was organized by longtime French cycling journalist, Jean Leulliot, who wanted a more suspenseful finish than a field sprint down by the beach. The uphill-time-trial experiment was a gift to Merckx, who won this final stage and the overall title three consecutive times.
The Cannibal was expected to win again in 1972. And going into the final stage, Merckx led second-placed Poulidor by 16 seconds. Everyone expected an easy win for the Belgian superstar, probably with a ride that bettered his Col d’Eze record of 20:14, set two years before. Some French reporters had even written their final race stories and taken an early train home.
At 36, French veteran Poulidor was thought to be past his best, and he didn’t look like posing a threat when Merckx was leading by a few seconds at the first time check, on pace to beating his own course record. But as the gradient eased on the higher parts of the climb, the French veteran got a second wind, and even though he appeared to be struggling, he was moving faster than the smooth-looking Merckx.
Amazingly, Poulidor stopped the clock atop the climb at 20:04, a new course record. All eyes then turned down the hill toward Merckx, who was still looking strong, though he later said his back was hurting from a crash earlier in the week. Even so, the Belgian was close to the record, too, but he was 22 seconds slower than Poulidor and so he lost that Paris-Nice by six seconds. What a dramatic finish!
Poulidor’s course record held up for 14 years, until Sean Kelly won the fifth of his record seven consecutive victories in Paris-Nice, improving the record for the 9.5km climb to 19:45. In his phenomenal win streak, Kelly twice lost the Col d’Eze time trial, both times to his compatriot Stephen Roche — losing by one second in 1985 and 10 seconds in ’87. Neither effort was good enough for Roche to overtake Kelly on overall time, and the younger Irishman never repeated the overall Paris-Nice victory he scored in his rookie season of 1981.
No rookies will win Paris-Nice this coming Sunday, but the Col d’Eze time trial should provide a brilliant showdown between the men who’ve already emerged at the top of this stage race’s overall standings: British road champion Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky, American veteran Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step and third-year U.S. pro Tejay Van Garderen of BMC Racing. Shaping up to be another contender is Spain’s former world No. 1, Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who should continue picking up time-bonus seconds in the uphill stage finishes before Sunday.
It will also be of great interest to see how close the protagonists come to (or by how much they beat) Kelly’s 1986 course record of 19:45. Even though this Sunday’s climb is tagged at 9.6km, it looks like the same course as the 9.5km one 26 years ago; distance measurements were usually rounded to the closest half-kilometer in the 1980s.
In 1986, Kelly raced a regular aluminum-framed Vitus road bike, which was light for its time but about 3 pounds heavier than today’s carbon creations; and Kelly didn’t use disc wheels or anything aero. So the chances are that Wiggins, Leipheimer or Van Garderen will break the Irish legend’s old course record by at least a minute, perhaps more.
More important than the record, of course, is the overall victory in Paris-Nice, the second of this year’s UCI WorldTour races. Should it be a three-way race up the hill out of Nice, then Wiggins can be seen as the Kelly of the race, Leipheimer as the Poulidor, and Van Garderen as the upstart Roche. And perhaps Valverde, should he continue to collect time bonuses, will be the wild card.
As for the climb, though much lower in elevation, the Col d’Eze is similar to the last 10km of Colorado’s Old Vail Pass, which was used for the decisive time trial in last year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Van Garderen lost 51 seconds that day to stage winner Leipheimer, who took back his GC lead.
Leipheimer has also done well on other similar courses. One that comes to mind is the 2008 Vuelta a España’s last time trial up the Alto de Navacerrada, which the American won by beating overall winner Alberto Contador by 31 seconds, with a certain Valverde in third! Today, Leipheimer is 38 and as youthful as Poulidor, then 36, was in defeating Merckx on the Col d’Eze in 1972.
As for Van Garderen, his career bears similarities to that of the young Roche. The Irish prodigy won Paris-Nice in his rookie season, whereas the American, as a neo-pro in 2010, came in third at the Dauphiné, only a minute behind Contador; that demanding race in the Alps opened with a prologue time trial that featured a stiff climb, with Van Garderen placing second, only two seconds down on Contador.
Despite the two Americans’ challenges, Wiggins could be the Kelly of the 2012 Paris-Nice. We know the tall Brit is one of the sport’s top three time trialists, along with current world champion Tony Martin (who is riding for teammate Leipheimer at this race) and four-time champ Fabian Cancellara (who is competing in Tirreno-Adriatico this week). And we know that Wiggins has a steady climbing style, which he displayed in winning last year’s Dauphiné and placing third at the Vuelta a España. But will the Team Sky leader be able to put those two qualities together in an explosive time trial that lasts for some 18 minutes?
ASO race promoter Christian Prudhomme is probably asking the same question, and hoping, like his onetime predecessor Jean Leulliot did in 1969, that Paris-Nice will give him the spectacular finish he’s looking for.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The wind beneath my wings
We all remember when we were kids discovering the joys of riding a bicycle. Sometimes, with friends, we’d whistle a tune or sing songs as we pedaled along. Later, when I got into racing, I found that music was a helpful ally. In a race called The Circuit of Glyndebourne, held on a rolling course through the Sussex countryside on a bright spring day, I found myself humming The Four Seasons hit, “Rag Doll.” I began pushing my pedals to the tune’s metronomic beat, which continued to pound through my head as I went on a solo break. I was pumped, and I barely felt the pain that I should have been feeling.
Music has always played a big role in European bike racing. When I first saw the Tour de France, in 1963, I was watching from a hillside in Normandy when the leading vehicle in the publicity caravan arrived. It was a box-like Peugeot van, and sitting on the roof was the iconic French accordionist, Yvette Horner, playing romantic melodies for spectators at their picnic tables — Paris café music at its best. To this Englishman, it was all so appealingly French!
Horner played her accordion at the Tour for more than a dozen years; she also presented the yellow jersey at most of the finishes before performing at evening concerts in the stage towns. I was reminded of her a few years ago at a Tour stage in the Massif Central when we watched an outdoor screening of “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” the quirky animated film that features a 1950s’ Tour and accordion music by Roberte Rivette, a Horner caricature.
Today, the Tour’s publicity caravan is filled with piped pop music and disco dancers, while the brass band that performs on one of the custom floats is not actually using its trombones and trumpets — they’re just lip-synching. But a real oom-pah band does come from the Netherlands every year, jazzing the crowds at places like Dutch Corner on L’Alpe d’Huez. That band, made up of true cycling fans, also travels to events like the road and cyclocross world championships, where they help establish the party atmosphere that plays such a defining role in this sport.
In the 1970s and ’80s, opera was an integral part of cycling in Italy. RAI television used to open its Giro d’Italia coverage with an inspirational aria, perhaps Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s “Turandot,” while showing sepia scenes of Coppi and Bartali battling over cloud-covered mountains. And the Italian version of Radio Tour would play classical music for long stretches of races when there was no real action. During quieter moments of the Tour, one of my press-car colleagues, a passionate Catalan journalist from Barcelona, Miguel Utrillo, would entertain us with his own operatic outbursts, his favorite being a made-up song about a Pyrenean stage town: “Oooo-ooh, Saint Lary!”
Another indelible memory is Sean Kelly’s phenomenal time trial between his hometown of Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel that won him the 1985 Nissan Classic; the video of his record-setting ride was later set to the hit song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” sung by Sheena Easton. The lyrics well described how the Irish regarded their Sean: “Did you ever know that you’re my hero … I could fly higher than an eagle, ’cause you are the wind beneath my wings.”
There’s also something truly uplifting about the dramatic fanfare-style refrain played before every single presentation at the Tour de France, bringing pomp and dignity to those jersey-awarding ceremonies. But the Tour’s most stirring moments come in Paris, when a military band regularly plays the winner’s national anthem.
After listening mostly to “La Marseillaise” or “La Brabançonne” through the late-1960s, ’70s and early-’80s, it was emotionally moving to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” ring out for the first time in 1986, with Greg LeMond on the top step of the podium. Ironically, there have been no more French or Belgian winners since then, replaced by 10 victories for both the Americans and Spanish, and single breakthroughs for Ireland, Denmark, Germany and Italy. And then, last year for Cadel Evans, we heard the first rendition of “Advance Australia Fair”, unusually and joyfully performed by Aussie singing star Tina Arena.
What does the near-future hold? Maybe Andy Schleck will rightfully bring us Luxembourg’s “Ons Heemecht” for the first time since his countryman Charly Gaul won the Tour in 1958. Or perhaps there will be the first-ever win for a rider from eastern Europe, Africa, Asia or South America. I know that my personal collection won’t be complete until I hear the noble strains of Britain’s national anthem, “God Save The Queen,” echoing off the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées.
Did anyone say Bradley Wiggins?
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
I didn’t take up cycling to learn anything. I didn’t take it up to get fit, to prove that I was faster, stronger or smarter than anyone else, that I was special. I didn’t take it up as a means of self-expression.
I took it up because it was fun. Oh, and I dig bikes.
It’s true; I like the mechanical-ness of bikes. If we are stored energy, they are the expression of it, a noun to our verb. They move as if they are equations describing the very action of human potential, gravity, the laws of physics.
I didn’t take up cycling to learn anything. But learn I did.
At first, the lessons revolved around equipment and learning that being a cyclist meant more than having a bike. There were the shorts, the pump, the shoes, the seat bag, jersey, water bottle, computer, even the non-dorky helmet. Next came the education in how to care for the bike and all that gear.
I read magazines by the pound. At first, I read them because they took me places that I couldn’t go on my own rides: the Rocky Mountains, California, France. As I read more I began to decode the language of the dedicated. I learned about sew-ups, intervals, the wonder of titanium. References to a guy with a misspelled first name (who spells Eddie with a “y”?) peppered talk of the great races, greatest racers.
I was no student, yet I learned.
There were other lessons that came unbidden, lessons for which there was no guide. My first bonk was an event of such supreme impact on my body I could have confused it with a mystical experience. I arrived back at my dorm room and gradually pieced together my state, a drunk fitting the house key in the tumbler.
There came a turn. Just when, just where, I’ve no idea. However, I began to understand that I, like Plato, knew nothing. All the knowledge I’d collected didn’t add up to an understanding of the sport. I didn’t understand what fast really was. I rode everywhere at the hardest pace I could sustain. I arrived anywhere I went by bike leaking sweat. I was as unaware of what fast really was as what slow meant.
I began riding with a group. They showed me pacelines, drafting, how to hold my line. They taught me how and when to eat. I’d arrive home as tired from from absorbing all the skills as from the riding.
I became a student of speed. I entered races. Glued tubulars. Pinned numbers on. Learned to pin them on the right way—out of the wind and so you can get to your food.
Yet even once I chose to learn, became a student, I continued to learn lessons that were unexpected, surprising. Some, like road rash, were unwanted. Others, like being second into the final turn of a crit only to get 10th, were mystifying. At some point I experienced an epiphany. My entire conception of cycling had changed. When I started, riding a bike was fun. Nothing more and certainly not less. But in my application of self to the body of knowledge that is cycling, riding a bike had taken on a personality. The sport had moods.
Suffering dominated my days. There was the pain of the interval, but I came to understand how legs can hurt following a ride, sometimes waking you up from sleep. There was the calm of the recovery ride, a serene meditation of the pedal stroke. Once I moved to a land with mountains, ecstasy entered the sport. Icarus had it wrong; the drop held life itself.
As the years river their way through my life, the desire to learn continues, an appetite that can never be sated. What surprised me is how what cycling now gives me isn’t cycling, it’s the world.
I’d never have studied French were it not for cycling. I’d never have wanted to visit the country. I’d never have discovered lavender or the way a ton of any fresh-cut herb will fog the air with a perfume to beguile your consciousness, drugging you with reality itself.
In a twist of irony only a cyclist could appreciate, cycling gave me wine. As a racer, I’d all but sworn off alcohol. I drank alcohol less often than Sean Kelly had sex. I’d turned my back on micro-brewed beers and never considered what I was missing. That is, until I was touring through Provence and my glass was graced with a single ounce of Chateauneuf du Pape. That one sip contained within it more tones than an orchestra, more words than a Pynchon novel.
I faced a choice: reject wine, or surrender some speed. I chose wine. As a result, I’ve traveled from Napa to Nice and ridden the roads between the rows.
Cycling was making my world bigger.
The strangest, most unexpected lesson is the one now unfolding before me, how to age, how to slow down, how to share the sport with others. I won’t be the guy winning national championships in the masters races, and I’m more than okay with that. For me, the prize is striking that balance between fit, fun and family. I haven’t learned how to do it just yet, but if cycling has taught my anything it is faith, that an answer, like fitness, comes when I do the work, and I trust the sport holds a lesson or two more.
The end of the season is well and truly here with tomorrow’s Tour of Lombardy. As the fifth and final Monument of the season, this is a PRO’s last real chance to score a win of note and either capitalize on a great season or hope to rescue a lousy one.
Unlike Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the winner of Lombardy, the race of the falling leaves, is often a man of the Grand Tours, but not in the way you think. It’s true that the roll of winners included Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly and Tony Rominger, but the majority of winners have been riders who aspired to do well at the Grand Tours, but rarely put together the form for a win. What more of them have in common is a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Indeed, in the last 20 years, only two riders have put together a Grand Tour win and success at Lombardy in the same year. Three-time winner Damiano Cunego did it back in 2004 when he won the Giro d’Italia, and sustained his form all the way from May to October. Prior to that Tony Rominger did it in ’92 following his win in the Vuelta a Espana when it was still held in April.
And while it may seem that a rider should be able to capitalize on great form from World’s, so far, only Paolo Bettini has been able to cross the finish line at Lombardy in the arc-en-ciel.
Clearly, Lombardy is not a race for Thor Hushovd, but Cadel Evans seems to be both hungry and going well. However, following his win in the Tour of the Piedmont, Philippe Gilbert seems to be on track to repeat in Lombardy. Clearly, Matti Breschel and Filippo Pozzato will have something to say about who wins.
I say Gilbert will be too heavily marked to win. I’m going with Evans.
What say you?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In part II of our talk with Steve Bauer we ask him about his best day ever, the ’88 Tour de France where he finished fourth and his decision to become a team director. You can read part I here.
RKP: What about when you look back on your career—your best day. What’s the day you look back on with greatest pride or most satisfaction?
SB: I think the best day, the best one-day race I did was in the world championships in Chambery where Greg won [ed. note: 1989]. I punctured at the top. I was on really top form and I just won the Championship of Zurich the week before. It was a very difficult course that maybe I wouldn’t put myself as one of the favorites, but I was just so strong I rode an excellent race. I was patient, I waited for the attacks and the last lap I was there with all the best and over the top and the break was right there. Greg had just bridged across and I was coming across and I got a flat tire. So you know … I was on, and Kelly was under-geared. He only had like a 13 on and I had the right gear. Who knows if I had done a stupid attack or not done something right. I’m thinking to myself if Greg had led me out for 300 meters (laughing)—which he did. You watch the tape—like Fignon goes and Greg chases him down, he turns the bend and down the straight. He’s on the front for a long time and nobody can come by him. Konyshev was in the break all day.
I think to myself, if he’d led me out like that I don’t think he would have held me off, that’s how good I felt. It’s just bad luck. But I wasn’t there in the sprint because I had punctured, so who knows what would have happened. If I would have changed up or if I had waited for the sprint or if I’d attacked, who knows? You just never know ‘cause I wasn’t there.
RKP: The ’88 Tour. Going into the Tour that year. What were your expectations, how it unfolded. Did you see yourself stepping into such a major role?
SB: You know what? I don’t think so. Maybe I didn’t believe enough in myself. It was one of those Tours where it was extremely hot. A lot of guys were dropping out, or had trouble. Fignon was dropping out. There’s sort of a lot of favorites who weren’t there. Greg wasn’t there. That’s not to say it was a totally soft Tour because some of the guys were out, but I think the conditions that year suited me really well. I would say I was on the peak, the peak of my career so I was on super form. I can’t say I expected to be so close to the podium, but that’s the way it evolved. I just found myself climbing well and just in super condition. That’s what it’s all about, you know? Being at the top of your form.
RKP: So now you’re involved with Team Spidertech presented by Planet Energy. How did that come about?
SB: That was kind of interesting. I’ve been asked a lot—well, more than a few times—to be a director for a pro team. As far back as Jim Ochowicz asked me when I moved on to Saturn Cycling Team in 1996, if I would continue on as director with Motorola. I said, ‘Nah, Och, I want to race another year.’ So that was kinda the first time. And then the same year the Postal Service was starting and Mark Gorski asked me if I was interested in racing for their team, but they wanted me to continue on as a director afterward, sort of like double value. He was interested; I can’t say negotiations went very far.
And then I got into the bike touring thing because that’s sort of what happened to finish the career. Wanted to race, got into the Olympics, looked at alternatives, then started doing the bike touring thing. I was about two years into that and Lance asked me if I wanted to direct the team. So that was when they were looking for a new director and, uh, history has it they took Johan Bruyneel. Because I said no. And the reason I said no was the timing wasn’t good for me in my life; I just wasn’t ready to do it. And over the years there’s been other asks, so when this came along, the chance to go back to grass roots in Canada—I saw the Canadian racing scene had evolved, there were some good riders, obviously have more riders on the ProTour now. the sport’s evolved competitively in Canada, I thought, ‘You know what, there’s some good riders here, maybe we can work with some of them and build something.’
That felt right. I don’t know why, but it just sort of felt right. Why Lance would ask me and I wouldn’t go with Lance and start our own thing—I don’t really evaluate it that much, but that’s what happened. It feels good but it’s a lot of work. It feels like the right thing to do. To be back in the game, in a special way, it feels good.
RKP: Is it fair to say that because it meant developing primarily Canadian riders that it had a greater attraction for you?
SB: That was a hot button. Working with Canadian partners … the Canadian theme is definitely strong within our mandate but I don’t know if that’s the principal reason. I think taking ownership of something that you build is intriguing; it’s a lot more work obviously, but we set our own destiny so to speak. That’s sort of been my life in cycling. I haven’t really worked for anybody else. I’m not saying that’s the pure reason either, but sometimes timing makes the difference for everything.
RKP: In terms of objectives, what are the big races you are hoping to get into and what are the big performances you’d love to see?
SB: Well, I think in two short years we’ve evolved nicely. You always want to grow quicker, win bigger races, but I think our evolution is on track. We have a stronger team this year than we did last year. We have a little bit of experience behind us now—we won some nice races and we have the potential to win more. I think winning a stage of Missouri last fall was a fantastic opportunity and proved that we have some pretty talented boys on the squad.
RKP: It was a very high-profile performance.
SB: Yeah, you don’t go by the fastest guys in the world every day. But, you know, it just shows our focus was right and we were there to win a bike race and not just to be part of the show, and show that we could go on the attack. We did some of that too, but we also won a bike race, which is what it’s all about.
This year our fingers are crossed for an invite to the Tour of California. We believe that we’re going to get that opportunity. It’s a much tougher race than Missouri and obviously the competition will be deeper and we’ll be well prepared, but the opportunity—if it arises—we have some pretty fast guys and you never know. You get a little bit of luck, the right chance and it’s within our grasp to win a stage. I’m not saying I think that’s a dream, I think it’s possible. We might not even get top 10 in a stage, but there’s guys on this team that are capable. We won’t get many chances. You know what I mean? There’s 16 teams and there’s only eight stages. And most of them don’t really suit our team well. So, if we got one shot at a final sprint, we might have an opportunity. Even a podium or top five would be pretty cool.
Philadelphia is a big goal because it’s totally within our grasp to win that bike race, and that’s a big focus.
Then the rest of the season we’ll move through our regular goals of the Tour de Beauce and the Canadian Nationals, and then in the fall we have the big ProTour events in Canada, which we’ll compete in as a national team. We have a wild card as a national team. Spidertech will be a part of that and our infrastructure and our riders will be, too, but we won’t fill the whole roster, because that would be a little bit too bold to expect all our riders could fill a national team. There are some other good boys on other North American continental teams that are pretty good that would supplement our guys pretty well. We’re looking forward to that and we’ll need to do some pretty tough races to get our guys prepared, because those are going to be tough one-day races—up and down, climbing, perfect classic bike races.
RKP: Are there any plans to go to Europe this year?
SB: We’d like to go to Europe in August. We’re aiming to do one or two stage races in the middle of August to prepare for the ProTour events in September. We’d like to have more bike races in North America, but we might need to go to Europe for a few weeks—two or three weeks max.
RKP: That should be educational for the guys.
SB: Yeah, some guys have been there; actually, in year one we went over to Belgium and showed them a little bit of the toughness of the Belgian one-day races there. We got beat up pretty good and guys got sick and the whole nine yards. It was probably a little early in our evolution, but the thing is there are no bike races here in March. There’s not much going on, it’s too bad. We need more stuff in February, like the old Tour of Texas; I don’t remember just when it was, but it was early. I remember racing against 7-Eleven back then.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International