Last week, I began this review of 2012 with the first half of my A-to -Z reflections. Here’s the second half, including some amazing performances by three 22-year-old pros, and an almost perfect sets of results by the women’s Eddy Merckx. But let’s start with one remarkable ’cross racer….
N for Nys. It’s being said that Belgian cyclo-cross star Sven Nys, 36, could be his discipline’s greatest-ever athlete. He has already won nine events in the current season to go with his more than 300 career ’cross victories. Though he’s only won a single world title (2005), Nys has taken six World Cup championships (and is headed for a seventh crown), 11 Superprestige titles and eight Belgian national championships in his 15 pro seasons.
O for Olympics. The Games of the 30th Olympiad in London saw cycling become one of the most popular sports, with estimated crowds of a million spectators watching the men’s and women’s road races on separate days, while the track, mountain-bike and BMX events all played to full houses. The home fans were rewarded by the British team winning eight gold medals, while no other country took more than one.
P for Phinney. In 2012 at age 22, BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney shed his image as just the son of Olympic-medalist parents, and began building his own pro road palmarès. At the top of the list was his winning the opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia and defending the pink jersey until stage 4, while he came close at the London Olympics with fourth place in both the road race and time trial, before winning the final stage of the USA Pro Challenge and then taking silver medals at the worlds’ time trials (both team and individual). A sign for Phinney’s future was a promising 15th place in his debut Paris-Roubaix after working hard all day for his team leader, Alessandro Ballan, who placed third.
Q for Quintana. Another 22-year-old, Nairo Quintana, enjoyed a remarkable debut season with Movistar in the UCI WorldTour. This Colombian climber scored half a dozen wins. They included a significant stage victory in the Dauphiné at Morzine after dropping Cadel Evans, Brad Wiggins and the Team Sky armada on the Col de Joux-Plane; and a brilliant solo success in the Italian semi-classic, the Giro dell’Emilia, which finishes on the famed San Luca climb in Bologna.
R for Rodriguez. At age 33, Spanish climber Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team had his best-ever season, ending as No. 1 in the UCI WorldTour rankings for the second time in three years. His season was book-ended by classics victories at the Flèche Wallonne and Il Lombardia, while he won two stages and finished second overall at the Giro, and won three stages and placed third overall at the Vuelta.
S for Sagan. Many observers have compared Slovak prodigy Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale, still only 22, with the young Eddy Merckx. He won 16 times this year, starting with a stage of the Tour of Oman in February, and going on to win singles stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Three Days of De Panne, five stages at the Tour of California, four stages at the Tour of Switzerland and three stages of the Tour de France (along with the green jersey). Perhaps just as significant was the promise he showed in the spring classics, including fourth place at Milan-San Remo, second at Ghent-Wevelgem, fifth at the Tour of Flanders and third at the Amstel Gold Race.
T for Tiernan-Locke. Despite riding for a ProContinental team (Endura Racing) and missing several weeks of racing because of injury, Britain’s latest discovery, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, won four European stages races this year: the Mediterranean Tour and Tour du Haut Var in February, the Tour Alsace in July, and the Tour of Britain in September. All this at age 27 after missing three complete seasons because of the Epstein-Barr virus. His reward is a contract with Team Sky for 2013.
U for USADA. What could never be proven by hundreds of anti-doping tests was revealed in the testimonies of a dozen former U.S. Postal Service teammates in an investigation conducted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency: Lance Armstrong used banned drugs and blood-doped for a decade when he was clocking up all those Tour de France wins. The investigation was masterminded by USADA CEO Travis Tygart, an attorney, who homed in on America’s iconic champion after May 2010, when Armstrong’s one-time colleague Floyd Landis began to spill the beans about doping within the former U.S. team.
V for Vos. Still only 25, Dutch phenom Marianne Vos carried all before her in 2012. Not only did she win the world cyclo-cross championship for the fourth consecutive year, but she also won the UCI World Cup for a fourth time (along with three rounds of the premier women’s competition), retained her title in the women’s Giro d’Italia (including five stage wins), and then won gold in a brilliantly exciting edition of the Olympic road race. Vos capped her season with a solo victory in the world road championship—after five consecutive years of silver medals!
W for Wiggins. Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour de France, and he did it in the style of five-time champions Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Induráin: by winning the long time trials and defending the yellow jersey in the mountains. But the 32-year-old Brit’s 2012 season wasn’t just about the Tour. He preceded it by becoming the first man to win Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné stage races in the same year, and he capped it by winning the Olympic time trial to add to the three pursuit golds he won at previous Games and his six world track titles from his pre-road career.
X for Xu. Winner of the Chinese national road championship, the Champion System team’s Xu Gang, 28, raced from February to November in his first season as a ProContinental team rider. Besides winning his national title, Xu finished no less than 11 international stage races: the Tours of Qatar, Oman, Taiwan, Japan, Qinghai Lake, Utah, China I and China II, Beijing, Hainan and Taihu Lake! He cracked the top 20 in Taiwan, Japan and China I.
Y for Yates. British cycling Hall-of-Famer Sean Yates crowned his management career by leading Wiggins and Chris Froome to their unprecedented 1-2 finish at the Tour de France. That added to his own Tour career as a rider when he won a time trial stage in 1988 and wore the yellow jersey for a day in 1994. Yates, 52, announced his retirement from cycling in October because of health problems (he has suffered from heart irregularities for several years) and not because of Team Sky’s new zero-tolerance policy (Yates had an A-sample test positive after a Belgian race in 1989, but the B-sample was negative).
Z for Zabel. No, not Erik Zabel, the winner of six Tour de France green jerseys, four editions of Milan-San Remo and three Paris-Tours, but his 18-year-old son Rick Zabel who began his under-23 career this year with the Rabobank Continental squad. His 2012 highlights were winning the German national U23 road title and placing second to Belgian pro Kevin Claeys in the Ronde van Limburg, a 190-kilometer Belgian semi-classic with a 1.2 rating in the UCI Europe Tour.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson
Olympic image: Surrey County Council
Sagan & Wiggins images: Photoreporter Sirotti
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
Observers at the 67th Vuelta a España may be premature in writing off the chances of Great Britain’s Chris Froome. They say that in the 11 stages that remain he won’t be able to withstand the attacks of his three Spanish rivals, former Vuelta winners Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, and this year’s Giro d’Italia runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez. Froome faces a stiff task, and history does show that it’s very difficult for a foreigner to beat the Spanish on their own turf, but if anyone can succeed it’s the talented 27-year-old Englishman raised in Kenya and South Africa.
At the 2011 Vuelta, Froome just lost to the upstart Spaniard Juanjo Cobo, who held a tiny lead over Froome, never more than 20 seconds, over the final week—partly thanks to the tacit help of the other home teams. That “assistance” was far more pronounced a quarter-century ago when the last Brit to get close to victory at the Vuelta, Scottish climber Robert Millar, was runner-up to Spanish riders in both 1985 and 1986.
I was fortunate (if that’s the right word) to witness Millar’s unbelievable (that is the right word) loss to Spaniard Pedro Delgado at the ’85 Vuelta. Millar had ridden a great Vuelta and strong final time trial and was the solid race leader starting the final stage. My story of that sensational stage is too long to reproduce here, but it suffices to say that Delgado began that May day in the climbs north of Madrid in fifth place overall more than six minutes behind the Brit, and that a combination of bad weather in the mountains (cold rain, hail and wet snow), poor team direction, fatigued teammates, lack of time checks and a blatant coalition of Spanish teams handed the stage win to local rider José Recio and the final victory to Delgado after a long, two-man breakaway.
Race organizing, team structures and information technology have changed enormously since those days, but partisanship and collusion among friends can be just as pronounced as they were when Millar twice lost the Vuelta to intrinsically lesser riders. As Froome said on Monday’s rest day this week: “Since the start, my competitors haven’t given me any gifts and I don’t expect to get any.”
Besides the strong opposition he’s facing, Froome could be suffering from race overload after the Tour de France (where he was second to Sky teammate Brad Wiggins), and the London Olympics (where he raced to a standstill in the road race and medaled in the time trial). As evidence of his fatigue, critics point to moments of weakness that Froome experienced on each of the two summit finishes over the weekend. But a closer look at his and his three Spanish rivals’ performances through the Vuelta’s first week reveals a potentially different story.
Last week’s uphill finishes seemed sure to give an early verdict on who would be the strongest contenders, but there were other factors at play: a 100-degree heat wave blanketing northern Spain, fierce crosswinds on the plains preceding the climbs, the varying strengths of the teams at this ultra-mountainous Vuelta, and the psychological states of the top candidates for victory—notably Alberto Contador.
All of Spain is hoping that Contador can put his controversial two-year drugs ban behind him and win this first Grand Tour since his suspension ended earlier this month. With the expectation of a nation and the need to prove himself, Contador was clearly anxious on the initial summit finish last Monday. His frenetic, out-of the-saddle accelerations up the ruggedly steep 5.5-kilometer Alto de Arrate resembled his pre-suspension climbing style, but the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team leader couldn’t shake the opposition even with a half-dozen attacks.
The anxious Contador tried again the next day on the steepest (early) section of the 13-kilometer Valdezcaray climb. This time, just Froome and an ambitious Nicolas Roche were able to go with him; but it was an injudicious tactic given the unfavorable winds blowing on the upper, less-steep slopes. In the past, Contador wouldn’t have been so impetuous. He would have planned his attacks more meticulously and, on each of those stages, he would have needed just one sharp acceleration to leave the rest in his wake.
Anxiety to please the public was one part of the Spanish superstar’s failure to win on the early summit finishes, but poor team tactics and the debilitating temperatures were just as important in his significant loss to Rodriguez and Froome to the stage 6 finish at Jaca. Contador made four of his Saxo teammates race flat out on the downhill approach to Jaca, but as soon as the climb began he started cramping and realized he’d played into his rivals’ hands.
Showing immense determination, Team Sky’s two Colombian climbing prodigies, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, raced so fast on the short, switchback climb to Jaca’s ancient fortress that Valverde later described it as more like the finish of a sprint stage! When the two Colombians peeled away to launch Froome on a final-kilometer charge, neither Valverde nor Contador could follow the pace. Only Rodriguez stayed on the Brit’s wheel, and then out-sprinted him for the stage win, earning him the 12-second time bonus and the leader’s red jersey.
Froome and his Sky cohort attempted to replicate their Thursday tactics on Saturday’s much tougher stage finish on the 5,085-foot (1,550-meter) Collada de la Gallina in the Pyrenees of Andorra. At 7 kilometers, it was twice as long as the one at Jaca, but Sky’s team director for the Vuelta, Marcus Ljungqvist, gave Henao and Uran the same orders to raise the pace from the start of the climb. So when the Colombian pair had done their damage and gave way to an attack by Froome, he still had the hardest part of the climb to complete: 3 kilometers tilting up gradients as steep as 15 percent.
Froome had never seen the climb before and that lack of knowledge worked against him more than his alleged fatigue. When he accelerated, only Contador followed him, while their two rivals held back. The Katusha team’s Rodriguez is a resident of the Catalan region and spends much of his year in Andorra and knew the Gallina climb intimately; and he told his friend and Movistar team leader Valverde that the pace was too high to maintain all the way to the line.
That was confirmed when Froome couldn’t get Contador to help him and the Brit virtually sat up before the multi-time Tour winner counterattacked in his former style. Contador’s Saxo team boss Bjarne Riis believed that Contador was going to win the stage, but even the Spanish phenom struggled at the end, shifted down and tried to spin his way to the finish, only to be overtaken just before the line by the more patient and stage-savvy Valverde and Rodriguez.
Froome was the victim that day of his poor team tactics (would they have been better if Sky’s top sports director Sean Yates was present?), the work he’d done unnecessarily to help Sky sprinter Ben Swift on the flat stages, and his rivals’ connivance. “The climb was really hard,” Froome later said, “and this battle against three such strong rivals was incredible.” But does he think he’s riding against a coalition of the Spanish trio and their teams? “I don’t think about a fight against the three,” he said, “but a fight against three weeks. To do two grand tours [back to back] is a new experience for me.”
Perhaps it was not knowing his physical limits of racing constantly at such a light level, or simply not knowing the course layout, that saw Froome have a hard time staying with the front group on Sunday’s tricky stage finish above the Mediterranean port of Barcelona. Barcelona is the hometown of race leader Rodriguez, so after Contador made the mistake of jumping too early on the little Alto de Montjuic hill 4 kilometers from the line, Rodriguez waited until a steeper, narrow section to counterattack, which only BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert could answer. Those two combined forces on the fast descent and then sprinted up the final uphill kilometer (with Gilbert taking his first win of the season), nine seconds ahead of a Valverde chase group and 12 seconds ahead of the Contador-Froome peloton.
With the crucial 39.4-kilometer time trial coming up on Wednesday in Galicia, Rodriguez has a 53-second lead on Froome, a minute on Contador and 1:07 on Valverde. Those four are a minute clear of their only potential challenger, Dutchman Robert Gesink, who has his Rabobank teammates Laurens Ten Dam and Bauke Mollema for company in the top 10.
But after the Vuelta’s one time trial, which Froome has to ace to stand a chance of winning overall, the outcome will likely rest with the relative strengths of the four leaders’ teams. Unlike that bygone era when Millar (racing for a French team) came up against an armada of Spanish riders leading Spanish teams, Froome and his British squad face Rodriguez on a Russian-sponsored team and Contador on a Danish-based outfit. Only Valverde is on a Spanish team, but with Rodriguez as a friend and Contador the most influential rider in Spain, the home forces may stop the Brit from winning the Vuelta for a second year running.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotogreporter Sirotti
For most of the last 40-odd years I’ve been on the planet my mother has asked me for a Christmas wish list. I’ve obliged each and every year, though the results have not always been satisfying. My mom has this belief that if I received everything on my list, the experience would be dissatisfying, a Christmas-day letdown due to the utter lack of surprise. Naturally, I took exception with this, “Let me find out how dissatisfied I’d be.”
As an adult, most of the things I really want I don’t expect my parents to provide for me at Christmas, so my requests don’t have the urgency you would expect to find in a 14-year-old wishing for a slot-car track.
Even now, I still have my wishes. I don’t expect most of these to take place, but as this is the season of wanting, I figured I’d get these out of the way before I go shopping for toys for my son that I think will be fun.
I want YouTube clips of Champion riding in the Triplets of Belleville.
I want a 13-lb. steel bike that is reliable and turns heads the way a Ferrari does.
I want a Richard Sachs. Now.
I want a week of riding and wine in Sonoma County.
I want to climb all the 2000-meter cols in France. Then Italy.
I want to ride la Marmotte and l’Eroica.
I want a contract with Chronicle Books.
I want Dick Pound to shut up.
I want to climb 6-percent grades in my 53×19 like I used to.
I want to go for a ride with Eddy Merckx.
I want to hug Paolo Bettini’s mama.
I want to have a conversation in French with Bernard Hinault.
I want a 2-ounce camera with a Leica lens that shoots 20 megapixel images to take on rides. And a strap that makes it impossible to drop.
I want to drive to races in a Citroen 2CV that can’t break down.
I want to retire in the Cote d’Azur.
I want to know which drugs Jan Ullrich didn’t take.
I want to descend like Sean Yates did.
I want a chain I don’t have to clean.
I want 320tpi tubulars that don’t flat.
I want Alberto Contador to come clean.
I want 26 hours in a day and the ability to multi-task effectively so that I can work more hours each and play with my son while concentrating as I write a new post for RKP.
I want to wear PRO-style long socks and not get an effed-up tan line.
I want to race Killington again.
I want the metabolism of a 14 year old.
I want a responsible organization to replace the UCI.
I want a time machine so I can be 25 again, but this time I would train seriously.
I want to win a mountain stage of the Tour de France.
Oh hell, I want to be the greatest cyclist ever.
I’ve spent the last four days looking at the Giro route for 2011, attempting to digest it like a 40-oz. steak—something larger than can be tackled at a single sitting. Looking back at previous editions of both the Giro and the Tour, I have never encountered a Grand Tour more deliberately designed to do nothing so much as find the world’s finest climber.
Let’s take a moment to look at the profiles of the pivotal mountain stages:
Only two short years ago the Giro featured seven mountain stages, the same as what is claimed for the 2011 Giro. However, in 2009, only four stages finished on mountain tops, whereas in 2011 all seven will finish atop mountains. By any estimation, this will be the hardest Giro in a generation.
Chances are, what you most recall about the route announcement is hardman Sean Yates’ oft-quoted pronouncement that the Giro route is “savage.” I hadn’t previously considered Yates’ gift for understatement.
Let’s put this in perspective: The Giro route, at 3498km, spends almost two thirds of its kilometers—2199 of them—on courses that are anything but flat. More mass-start stages finish uphill than on flat courses. And while the route has generally been reported to have seven mountain-top finishes, the uphill time trial from Belluno to Nevegal really can’t be called anything other than a mountain stage.
But wait, there’s more! In addition to the Ginsu knife you get stages such as the Giro’s longest stage, some 246km from Feltre to Sondrio. While this little jaunt is called a “mixed stage” or in Tour terminology it would be known as a medium mountain stage, it features roughly as much climbing as the Tour of Lombardy.
Eight of the final nine stages are mountainous. Four stages in a row finish uphill, the last of those being the time trial up Nevegal. The only non-mountain stage of those final nine stages is the individual time trial that ends the race in Milan. Think about it: after eight days in the mountains interrupted by only one rest day, the race finishes with an individual time trial. Fully 10 days with no chance to hide.
Seriously, though, calling the 2011 Giro d’Italia “savage” is like saying war is a messy business. Savage doesn’t begin to get at just how incomprehensibly difficult this Grand Tour will be. Truly, this one can be called cruel. If the time limits are enforced to the letter of the law, cumulative fatigue could easily see two-thirds of the field eliminated. Add in crashes and illness and this Giro could see fewer than 50 finishers.
For those who want exciting racing, this Giro is likely to do one of two things: Either it will feature daily detonations that see pink jersey wearers and wannabes crushed like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or some of the best riders in the world will ride so conservatively that we see what amounts to a recovery ride up Monte Zoncolan.
There are plenty cycling fans will take this route as evidence that the Giro is the better, tougher, more inventive race. In the Tour’s defense, we should note that being #1 always confers a degree of conservatism with it. Overcoming being #2 requires both ambition and invention, which is why we see a greater willingness for RCS to mess with the formula of the Giro.
You may recall that in some quarters a suggestion has been made that the Grand Tours are too difficult, that the courses of the Grand Tours are so difficult that riders are effectively forced to dope just to survive. While we may not be open to this criticism if it comes out of Pat McQuaid’s mouth, it is no less worth considering.
Those of you who followed the Grand Tours before the age of EPO may recall the stories that riders like Bob Roll would tell about how the first four hours of a stage would be ridden piano, and then when the TV helicopters arrived, the riders would crank up the pace to make a show for the viewers for the final hour of racing.
Let’s be honest about what we want. We want to see riders go out and crush it on each of the mountain stages. We want to see guys attacking at threshold, other guys detonating in floods of lactic acid and in every instance a small group of favorites sprinting for the finish. The last thing in the world we want is for the peloton to ride the first two climbs of a three climb day in their 39x25s and passing bidons like a flask of Jack Daniels at a Cowboys’ game.
Addition is to last year’s course what calculus is to this year’s course. Even suggesting a course like this is to invite speculation about what might be too difficult, too demanding. But that’s not the issue, not directly. The real issue is that a course such as this invites doping, does it not? While even the garden-variety PRO is orders of magnitude stronger than the best amateur racer, knowing what we know of the practices and the requirements involved in doping, can anyone reasonably suggest that the winner of this race would be above suspicion for doping? Heck, wouldn’t you venture to think that anyone who even finishes this race would be on something stronger than ox blood? There isn’t enough Red Bull in Europe to get a guy through this course.
I wish wrapping handlebars was easier or that I was less lazy. There. It’s out. Now I can begin recovery. I’m such a nerd for ergonomics and comfort that if adjusting handlebar and lever position was anywhere near as simple as say, adjusting saddle position, I could spend whole weekends playing with lever and bar position.
In truth, while I do a very pro job of wrapping a bar, once I have taped the cables in place, I really don’t want to make any further adjustments. Like I said, I’m lazy and it’s too much work.
I’ll mount a bar, position the levers where I think they need to be and then go ride around my neighborhood for a minute with the cable housing flapping in the wind. When I roll back to the garage I might adjust the roll of the bar or the height of the levers, but once I tape down the cable housing, those levers aren’t moving another millimeter.
I love to look at how the pros set up their bars; I’ve seen some pretty surprising stuff. It used to be that the bottom edge of a lever was in plane with the bottom of a bar. Always. And the bottom of the bar was parallel to the ground. When I first learned to ride and work on bikes, I saw countless bikes set up just like Richard Virenque’s is above. It would be more than 20 years before I considered that other positions might increase my comfort. Eventually, you started seeing guys like Lance Armstrong roll the traditional bend bar up just a bit.
In the mid-1990s I saw Sean Yates’ bar rolled down. It seemed physically impossible for him to put his hands on the levers the way they were positioned. Later, in 2002, Johan Musseuw’s bar was positioned crazy low and the levers were rolled up so high they seemed just as impossible to put your hands on the hoods. Then I noticed how when he did place his hands on the hoods, there was no bend at the wrist. The combination of how bar and relatively short reach made the lever position workable.
The new Ritchey Logic WCS Carbon Curve bar gave me a chance to experiment with just what works best for me with a compact bar. The short/shallow bar is to the 2010s what the anatomic bar was to the 1990s. I haven’t been super-sold on the new shape for a few reasons.
My first reservation is the mindset that led to the bar’s design. It came about from riders getting rid of all the spacers between the headset and the stem and then realizing that riding in the drops wasn’t too comfortable. The solution? Give the bar less drop.
Many years ago some very experienced riders taught me that if you run a deep-drop bar fairly high you can maintain a flat back when in the drops and still enjoy a rather upright position for maximum climbing power when on the bar top. It’s one of the reasons I like the FSA K-Wing bar so much. But enough of that.
Little known fact: The compact bars on the market almost all feature a 128mm drop. Traditional bend bars, which to me are as comfortable as trying to wear a child’s shoes, are still surprisingly prevalent in the pro peloton and feature a 130mm drop—just 2mm difference. Reach on traditional bend bars is usually in the 87-88mm range, about 3mm more than most compact bars. So, on paper they don’t seem to different, but in practice, the difference in curve makes the difference in fit and comfort dramatic.
The Ritchey Logic WCS Carbon Curve bar I reviewed had a 31.8mm clamping diameter and a 42cm (c-c) width. Advertised weight is 206g and my bar weighed in at 208g. Pretty stinkin’ close.
To try to squeeze a little extra reach out of compact bars and to position my hand in the flattest portion of the drop, I roll them out until the reach is parallel to the ground. This seems to be a fairly common way to position based on what I’ve seen in the pro peloton.
Little known fact #2: Fabian Cancellara rode a compact bar on his bike in both Flanders and Roubaix. Go figure. Had I not seen it, I’d have assumed he would ride a deep drop bar, in part just because he’s so flexible.
For those of you who are still riding aluminum bars I can’t stress just how much a carbon fiber bar increases comfort for the hands by damping vibration that would otherwise travel through an aluminum bar. I really don’t ever want to have to ride an aluminum bar ever again. Which means I need to do something about the bar on my ‘cross bike.
In reviewing this Ritchey bar I realized that I’ve ridden at least four different compact bars and while I thought that the shape of the drop was virtually identical from manufacturer to manufacturer (at least, it was really close on the first three), the decreasing radius bend (the bend gets tighter the closer you get to the levers) of the bar is more comfortable to my hand than any of the others I’ve tried. The lesson: Not all compact bars are created equal.
The stunning spread of carbon fiber to nearly every component on the bike and its accordant inflation of the cost of every single bike component in which it is used is nothing to cheer about. It’s how we went from $5000 bikes to $10,000 bikes in 10 years. So while I’m not wild about spending $284.95 for a bar, the Carbon Curve is lighter, stiffer, stronger and more comfortable than an aluminum bar. It is an F1 car competing against a Jeep Cherokee.
Virenque image: John Pierce, Photosport International