I was very fortunate during last year’s Tour to be unemployed. I am able to say that now, in retrospect, because after quitting a job on principle, I got the job I most wanted. At the time of course, I was nervous. Who quits a job on principle in an economy like this one?
My emergency job search turned up three good prospects, two of which I thought would be easy to get based on my qualifications and connections, the third was the job I have now, the one I really wanted. It was the long shot, and it came through. I was lucky, and as cycling teaches us over and over again, it’s better to be lucky than good.
As it turns out, I didn’t get either of the jobs I thought I was a shoe-in, because I was “overqualified.” I was too good. It’s nice to hear people think you’re good at what you do, but when you need a paycheck it’s less than cold comfort. It’s insult, and injury on top.
I bring all this up because, as I watch this year’s Tour, I see Chris Froome going through the same thing. Asked to be Bradley Wiggins’ chief lieutenant on the road, Froome has shown himself to be, on some days, even better than his boss.
First he was asked to sit up on Stage 11 when off the front with Wiggins grinding along behind. Then again today, as the Sky pair sought to overhaul a solo breakaway by Alejandro Valverde up a steep Pyrenean slope, Froome gapped his leader and had to wait.
The press have tried desperately to stir conflict within the Sky team by suggesting that Froome is resentful of having to maintain loyalty to Wiggins, while the rider’s own responses have been well measured. Clearly, Froome is doing his job, all the while reminding his bosses and everyone else that he might just be the strongest rider in France at the moment.
Without hauling out the baggage of the Hinault/LeMond intrasquad rivalry that is the template for just this situation, it should be said that pro cycling has little if any room for mutiny. Until a team leader shows himself unable to lead, as Cadel Evans has over the last few days, then a team’s total loyalty must always remain with him. The margin between victory and defeat is too fine to make any real space for freelance ambition.
So that leaves Chris Froome, quite possibly the strongest rider in the race, headed for the second step of the podium. His loyalty is admirable, but he must feel crushed not to be able to fulfill every rider’s ultimate dream, to wear yellow on the Champs Élysées.
Oh, he’ll be roundly praised, and Wiggins will pay lip service to the effort of the team. He has already made a Hinault-esque promise to help Froome win a future Tour, but it’s a bit early for the side-burned Sky captain to start playing kingmaker. Next year’s Tour promises to feature one Alberto Contador, not to mention a possibly resurgent Andy Schleck and a more-experienced Vincenzo Nibali.
On the face of it, Wiggins’ promise is generous. Beneath the surface, it is more or less worthless, almost an insult.
Chris Froome is lucky. He has a job, a good one, and a steady paycheck. He’ll be a hot property for next season as genuine grand tour GC contenders are perhaps the rarest talents in the pro peloton. Unfortunately, he’s overqualified for the job he’s got now.
His reward will be finding a new job and hoping against hope that he can arrive in France, at some point in the future, with the form it takes to win cycling’s top prize, a prize he is currently watching slip between his fingers.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
With Team Sky’s dominance of the Tour de France through the first 12 stages, the question seems not to be can Bradley Wiggins win the general classification, but rather, what other honors can this team cram into its collective palmares. Chris Froome currently sits second overall, and Mark Cavendish, relatively quiet in the points competition, no doubt with an eye on the Olympics, remains in reserve to hunt stage wins later in the race when the road flattens out again. If you think of Wiggins’ TT win, Froome’s stage 7 win, Cavendish’s Stage 3 win, plus holding the top two GC positions, any further demonstration of power would just be cruel to the other racers.
But you know, it’s a cruel sport.
Wiggins must be the favorite to win the remaining ITT and, in fact, the overall, though if someone has a clear picture of how either Cadel Evans or Vincenzo Nibali can claw back time against the side-burned Briton, I’d love to hear the scenario. The truth is, as strong as the current maillot jaune has been when necessary, it is the class of Froome, Michael Rogers and even Richie Porte that have proven the difference.
Anytime a rival dares attack, Sky has responded calmly, almost casually, with superior talent. Even when Tejay van Garderen escaped up the road to slingshot Evans, who himself made a brilliant move to get away from Wiggins’ group, Sky snuffed the move easily.
So the question, our question, remains: What else can Sky take? Can Froome stand on the second step of the podium in Paris? How will he play the loyal lieutenant and vanquish Sky’s GC rivals at the same time?
Can Cavendish win another stage? Two more? Will Richie Porte or Michael Rogers be given opportunities to nab wins for themselves? If Sky are vulnerable in any way, what is it? If they are not, what is the limit of their potential success here?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Despite suspicions that the apparent turmoil at Team RadioShack-Nissan was just that, apparent, a bit of strategic misdirection from Johann Bruyneel ahead of the Tour, Andy Schleck has now pulled out of the Grand Boucle with a fractured tailbone. Bruyneel has been targeted in a USADA investigation into systematized doping, and team owner Flavio Becca has, allegedly, withheld the riders’ May salaries (via Inner Ring) to express his disappointment with overall performances.
Now the Schlecks, who have publicly fallen out with Bruyneel, are rumored to be looking for a new team, possibly a return to Bjarne Riis’ SaxoBank squad. What?
We have been here before, with the ridiculous game of musical chairs that saw the Luxembourgers leave SaxoBank to start Leopard-Trek, while Alberto Contador joined Riis and won the Tour (later to be DQ’d for doping). Both of those teams lined up against Radio Shack, then under the leadership of Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong, which subsequently merged with Leopard-Trek. All those deals were undergirded by competing sponsorship dollars from Specialized and Trek, each of whom desperately wants a TdF winner on their machines. There just weren’t enough serious Tour contenders around to support three teams after Armstrong finally quit, so that merger made some sense, except that Cadel Evans won the last Tour for Andy Rihs and BMC.
You know what, forget musical chairs. This is a freaking Russian novel with too many characters, too many plot lines and too much melodrama.
Obviously (maybe), the Schlecks can’t go back to Riis, who just re-signed Contador to a three-year deal. The other rumor is that they’ll go to Astana (the former home of Contador and Armstrong), but that will only put Vincenzo Nibali in an awkward spot. He just signed on to be their main GC man.
As with all big name/money transfers, nothing is clear this time of year. It’s our Russian novel, written with a stick, in sand, too near the tide line.
This week’s Group Ride asks a series of crazy questions: Will the Schlecks leave the Shack? If so, does it even make sense for Flavio Becca to own a cycling team with or without RadioShack also involved? And who benefits most from the chaos? Bjarne Riis and the soon-to-return Contador? Team Sky, with Bradley Wiggins coming on song at possibly the right time? Or someone else? BMC? Look into your crystal ball, get out your Russian-English dictionary, take a wild stab. How will it all play out?
The Spring Classics season is over. Shit. And true to form it offered up some legend-burnishing performances (Boonen’s Flanders/Roubaix double) and some jaw-slackening surprises (Gasparotto at Amstel Gold).
The big winner, Tommeke Boonen, just put the cherry(s) on top of what has already been a peach of a season for Omega Pharma-QuickStep (OPQS). They’ve gotten wins on the road from Francesco Chicchi, Levi Leipheimer, Gerald Ciolek, Peter Velits, Michal Kwiatkowski, Julien Vermote, Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel as well; 2011 Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin hasn’t even pitched in yet, quite possibly because he had an altogether too close encounter with a car while training earlier this month.
Other big winners must include Green Edge, who put Simon Gerrans on the top step of the podium at Milan-San Remo, and Astana who took the final prize of the spring at Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Maxim Iglinskiy.
BMC showed well with Alessandro Ballan on podiums at both Flanders and Roubaix, but for a team of this caliber (and payroll) a pair of third places and a lot of anonymous rides from last year’s rider-of-the-season, Philipe Gilbert, has to be seen as an abject failure.
RadioShack-Nissan-Trek-Jingleheimer-Schmidt will also feel about as happy as kid who’s dropped his ice cream after watching Fabian Cancellara face plant in the feed zone at Flanders, shattering his collarbone and a potential rematch with Boonen over the the cobbles of le Nord. In the Ardennes, where the Schleck brothers made most favorites lists, the team fired nothing but blanks.
More could have been expected from Team Sky and perhaps Katusha also, but the Spring seldom runs to script.
This week’s Group Ride looks back wistfully at the just-done spate of races and asks: Who were your winners and losers? What did you love? And what did you hate?
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
As teams at the fringes of the ProTour struggle to find and keep sponsors, a few super teams have risen to the top of the sport. BMC, Team Sky and RadioShack-Nissan have thrown their large budgets at cadres of the best riders, and conventional wisdom suggests these are the teams who will be vying for the lion’s share of the podium spots in the year’s biggest races.
But things seldom go to script in top level racing. Despite the financial clout wielded by the super teams, talented racers from other squads will certainly muscle their way into the spotlight.
For example, BMC have Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd for the Spring Classics. Fabian Cancellara rides for RadioShack-Nissan. Those three riders will go on every favorite’s list for each of the big spring flings. But OmegaPharma-Quickstep believe their one-two punch of Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel can pull off big results, surrounded as they are by northern European strong men.
No conclusion is forgone, unless of course the Schlecks are involved in a two-up sprint against my grandmother, in which case grammy is going to need some help shaking up that magnum of champagne.
All kidding aside, there are dark horses that aren’t so dark. Who are they?
It would be ridiculous to call Alberto Contador a dark horse, but, assuming he’s not suspended, he’s the prohibitive favorite to win the Tour de France this summer. BMC’s Cadel Evans, RS-N’s Schleck brothers and Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins will have their work more than cut out for them, and that is pro cycling’s top prize.
If Boonen were to take either Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders, or as last year, Garmin-Baracuda were to pull of the tactical coup they executed at Roubaix last season, that would take another shiny bauble off the table.
Mark Cavendish will be the favorite for Milan-San Remo glory, but does anyone think Matt Goss and Greenedge won’t be there to contest? This week’s Group Ride asks: Who are the riders who will ruin the party for the super teams? Who are the dark horses? And where will they win?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
So HTC-Highroad is no more. Technically, that’s not quite accurate; the team will come to an end with the close of this season. But it feels like the team might as well be mothballed now. Any wins that come will carry a certain lame duck pointlessness as they won’t have the ability to attract a sponsor or serve as confirmation that an incoming sponsor made a good choice.
How bad is Bob Stapleton’s inability to find a new title sponsor for his program? It’s the worst thing that will happen to cycling this year, perhaps for years to come. Here’s why: There’s not a single doping revelation that can confirm potential sponsors’ worst fears about the sport the way the dissolution of this team does.
We’ve already had the Tour de France champion test positive twice in the last five years. Stapleton’s failure to secure a sponsor is directly due to that. In a conference call with journalists, Stapleton admitted that doping scandals were a topic of conversation in “every negotiation.”
Compounding matters was Stapleton’s refusal to be confined to irrelevance by racing on a shrunken budget while battling Sky and Katusha—teams that each have an estimated annual budget of $20 million. After all, if part of your raison d’etre is to lead the sport into a new, cleaner era characterized by better management, you can’t do that from the back of the bus.
The end of HTC-Highroad is the corollary to the Leopard-Trek dilemma. It proves (at least for the court of public opinion) that doping is what prevented Brian Nygaard’s formation from landing a real title sponsor (or co-sponsor, for that matter). Worse, the fact that Katusha, Sky and Leopard are funded by ultra-rich businessmen who could use the tax write-off makes the sport that much less relevant. It could be argued that BMC is no better given that few people seem to believe that BMC is selling enough bikes that Andy Rihs could fund the team exclusively out of the operating capital of that one company.
If bicycle teams become the playthings of oligarchs, it will be hard to sell the public on the idea that the sport carries the moral mantle of doping-free athletic achievement. There is a general perception that billionaires play by a different set of rules than the rest of us, and the recent phone-hacking scandal in London that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and killed his play to become majority owner of bSkyb is all the proof many people need to come to the conclusion that cycling lacks a moral compass. After all, if Murdoch’s businesses will run roughshod over the most basic elements of privacy, why would anyone think his cycling team is any more ethical?
I’ve met a number of principled people in cycling. I’ve met plenty of truly ethical people in the sport as well. I don’t think I’ve ever met a smarter, more decent person in cycling than Bob Stapleton. I’ve met no one with higher aspirations for helping the sport to function in a cleaner, more transparent manner—in other words, to be its best—than Stapleton. He brought credibility that simply can’t be purchased elsewhere and served as the ever-reasonable counterbalance to the ill-considered pronouncements of the UCI. He was a sort of sanity constant.
As I mentioned before, losing Stapleton and his team isn’t just the worst thing that will happen in cycling this year. It’s the worst thing that will happen in cycling for years to come. If the sport can’t keep a man universally respected and admired, then it will be no better than the cesspool of politics because it may only draw people we’d rather not have dinner with, figures like Bernard “Dr. Mabuse” Sainz.
Sainz’ nickname comes from the Fritz Lang film of the same name. The film was a commentary on post World War I German society, a time of amoral criminality. Dr. Mabuse, “the gambler,” was a megalomaniac who ruled—via hypnosis—an organized crime syndicate of counterfeiters, thieves and murderers. I can’t think of an uglier thing for cycling to be compared.
We’ve lived through that once, or something thereabouts. If the riders don’t get the idea that they need to clean up their acts, there won’t be a sport left to employ them. But we can’t place all the responsibility on the riders. The UCI has an obligation to make sure that testing is performed in a rigorous manner and justice handed out promptly and equally. Until John Q. Public sense we’ve turned that corner, it will be hard to attract leaders like Stapleton and sponsors like HTC.
The question is not whether or not Alberto Contador is the favorite for the upcoming Tour de France. The question is who will challenge him and how?
Because there is only one ITT in this year’s Grand Boucle, it could be argued that Andy Schleck’s inherent disadvantage is not as great as last year’s. Will it be enough to cut the 4 minutes 11 seconds he lost to Contador in 2009? Maybe, maybe not. What will certainly be key to Schleck’s ascendancy is brother Fränk’s ability to break Contador’s rhythm in the high mountains. Still, Astana has proven themselves capable of competing in the big races, and el Pistolero will have help from Alexandre Vinokourov in July.
Lance Armstrong’s Radio Shack squad will have added incentive to top the podium next month. First of all, their captain isn’t getting any younger. This is quite probably his last crack at the maillot jaune. Second, having been snubbed by Unipublic for the Vuelta, the Shack has no reason to hold back Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner and Andreas Kloeden in France. All three of those riders have the ability to climb at the pointy end of things, giving the Lance every advantage against Contador, especially if he can get his time trialing on line. Of course, so far he has sucked this season. Is he sandbagging or just getting old?
According to my friend Jarvis, Team Sky, Dave Brailsford and Bradley Wiggins don’t really think they can win the Tour this go round. Jarvis’s ears are closer to the ground in the UK, so let’s assume he’s right. Wiggins probably doesn’t have the form or the support to equal his fourth place from ’09 anyway.
That leaves us with the Italians, and Liquigas may well have the best chance against Contador and the Astanas. Ivan Basso, Roman Kreuziger, Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan, Robert Kiserlovski et. al. come into the Tour brimming with confidence. Basso seems back to top form after his Giro victory. Sagan has been the young revelation of the season, and Nibali has shown himself capable of riding with the best GC riders in the world. Will Basso turn super domestique for Nibali? Does Sagan have any more gas in the tank to help out? Liquigas have, thus far, shown that they can ride as a team, which, in the end, may be their best asset.
Here at Red Kite Prayer, we enjoy pro racing. If the Tour plays out as we all expect it to, it will be the best summer entertainment on offer. Having said that, RKP celebrates the survival of the breakaway. May we all hope for a dark horse, or whole herd of dark horses, to stampede the French countryside next month.
The middle of June. The precipice. The brink. Just a few weeks left to tune up for the Tour de France, which means that all the “just riding this race as training” is almost over. Top Tour contenders will be getting in their last minute collarbone fractures at the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse. Aerodynamic positions are set. The UCI is getting its crack Reject-a-Bike squad ready for the time trials, and the AFLD and UCI are ratcheting up their those-guys-don’t-know-what-they’re-doing rhetoric in anticipation of some really wearisome l’Equipe headlines.
At this stage we are beginning to draw up our list of favorites, a list that must begin with Alberto Contador and include Andy Schleck, but from that point breaks off and meanders through the peloton with a lot of maybes and possiblys.
From last year’s podium there is Lance Armstrong to consider. The now 38-year-old former champion and globe-trotting cancer fighter has had an early season to forget, one in which he made the biggest news by being accused of serial doping. Again. Between injuries, illnesses and general lack of form, you have to wonder if the Lance v. Alberto narrative we’re bound to have crammed down our collective throats is even worth spinning in the first place.
Then there’s Bradley Wiggins. Team Sky’s million dollar baby has thus far flattered to deceive in the black and blue of his new squad. With a nose for the controversial headline, Mr. Wiggins’ 2010 has been remarkable for an utter lack of remarkableness. He can’t possibly sneak up on the competition this year, but could expectations for the Brit be any lower?
And what of the Italians? Ivan Basso won the Giro going away, but could he possibly be strong enough to do the double? Or will he turn super domestique for Vincenzo Nibali, the young talent who served him so well on their native roads?
World Champion Cadel Evans can’t be discounted entirely, but the Giro might have proven that BMC don’t have the riders to support a Grand Tour winner. Evans has done the rainbow stripes proud, but the last time the World Champ won the Tour was Bernard Hinault in 1981, nearly thirty years ago.
You’ve also got riders like Denis Menchov, last season’s Giro winner, moving his focus to the Tour in an attempt to round out his palmares. In a similar situation to Evans, you have to wonder if Rabobank have the riders to deliver Menchov to the top step. The Russian also has an amusing habit of falling off his bike, which is usually a bad idea in July in France. Ask Joseba Beloki.
This week’s Group Ride looks at the favorites for the maillot jaune and wonders who is in the best form and why? Is it one of the riders mentioned above or is there an outsider you think has the goods? Has Contador done too much with wins in Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice and Vuelta a Castilla y León, not to mention his current escapades at the Dauphiné? Will Andy Schleck’s knee be strong enough to let him dual with Contador in the high mountains? Let the pre-race chatter begin.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I already have Grand Tour hangover, that malaise that settles in when there isn’t a daily race to follow by television/live web feed or text updates. This just-finished Giro d’Italia was simply the best three-week tour in my memory. Constant lead changes, ferocious crashes, valiant and successful breakaways, the GC boys spinning away at the steepest climbs in Europe—these are the things that cycling fans want to see, and this year’s Giro delivered them all in spades.
Ivan Basso, he of the curiously rehabilitated reputation, earned what had to feel like a highly redemptive maglia rosa. Between a wishy-washy half acknowledgment that his previous approach to high-end racing had left something to be desired and signing up with Dr. Aldo Sassi, the hottest trainer in the pro peloton, Basso is back in a big way, not to mention his Liquigas squad, who came in as contenders and rode away as champions, with Basso on the top step and Vincenzo Nibali in third. Basso danced in the pedals when he had to, but his team also did an excellent job of sheltering him from wind and the predations of three weeks in the saddle.
Nibali and Basso showed that having multiple captains can work on the road, and also that the younger rider will, eventually, win a Grand Tour, perhaps with Basso as his super domestique. Stranger things have happened on teams not called Astana.
Pre-race favorite Cadel Evans fared not so well, ending in 5th place in the general classification, though he consoled himself with the points jersey. Evans did the World Champion’s jersey proud by racing strong, attacking when he could and generally behaving as though he belonged on the front of the pack. Unfortunately, his BMC squad was nowhere when Evans needed them most. Evans’ former Lotto team perfected that trick. BMC just picked up where they left off. You have to wonder what might have been for the scrappy Australian had he been paced into the big climbs as Basso was.
Other talents also announced themselves. Young Richie Porte of Saxo Bank and Matthew Lloyd of Omega Pharma-Lotto, both Australians, forced themselves onto the scene with some daring rides and some stiff defenses of colored jerseys. This writer really enjoyed watching them ride and make names for themselves over the withering efforts of older riders like Alexandre Vinokourov and … um … well … I’m just glad Vinokourov didn’t win anything.
Mention must be made, finally, of David Arroyo. The 30-year-old from Caisse d’Epargne emerged from the shadows of his better known teammates to take the biggest prize of his career, a second place in a Grand Tour. The Spaniard was gutsy all through the Giro, and dug deep to defend the maglia rosa when he had it. In the end, Basso was too much for him, but Arroyo has laid down a marker with team management, now that Alejandro Valverde has been consigned to a two-year ban.
As regards the questions floated in the Group Ride, let me just float some opinions on questions not already addressed above. First, Italian podium girls are not hotter than French ones. They are equally hot. If my VO2 Max wasn’t closer to my shoe size than to the population of your favorite restaurant on a Friday night, either one would serve as ample motivation to earn a post-race peck.
The Tour of California, for me, detracted from the Giro, which is deeply unfortunate because the ToC is a great race. Still, what if George Hincapie had been riding for Cadel Evans instead of riding loops around downtown LA? A concurrent ToC forces the big teams to make decisions that hurt cycling fans. Scheduling fail.
Andre Greipel definitely deserves to ride the Tour de France. Just not for HTC-Columbia. For sale, one rather large, scary-looking German dude. Real fast on a bike. Somewhat whiny. All serious offers considered.
I don’t know what happened to Team Sky under the blazing Tuscan sun (and rain). Bradley Wiggins pulled a real Sastre on this one, disappearing almost before he’d even really announced his presence. Perhaps the couch cushions on the super plush Sky bus are just a bit too comfy. Perhaps their espresso maker went on the fritz. Or perhaps they really were just out on a training ride. Doubt it though. I think they just sucked.
That brings me to old Charlie Sastre, who I maligned in the last paragraph. I like Charlie. He just keeps riding and riding, and yeah, that Tour de France win was probably as good as it gets for him, but damn it, you gotta respect a guy who can finish 21 Grand Tours. You just gotta.
And with that, I officially turn the page on the Giro and begin to stare out of windows wondering how in hell Christian Prudhomme can possibly put on a TdF better than what we’ve just seen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I believe that Bjarne Riis holds the keys to the future of professional road racing in continental Europe [Cue the sounds of a needle scratching a record/glass shattering/monkey's rioting at the banana packing plant].
For years we’ve been talking about the impact that each new doping scandal would have on the sport’s ability to attract sponsors able to support teams on the financial level necessary to race the UCI’s evolving, global race calendar. And, certainly, sponsors have dropped out after prolonged exposure to the negative publicity of having their athletes frog-marched out of the Grand Tours, heads hung in shame. What brand benefits from having their name associated with a bunch of anorexic junkies?
And yet, every time we lost a stalwart sponsor like T-Mobile, we gained a Garmin or a Columbia. Even the recent emergence of teams like RadioShack, Sky and BMC suggest that there are still deep-pocketed brands who believe in cycling. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the Shack is built specifically to support Lance Armstrong, a marketing juggernaut independent of cycling. Sky comes out of the British Cycling Federation’s successful track tradition, a group without doping-related baggage to carry around on tour with them. Among those three, only BMC, formerly Phonak, has struggled through years of dope-conjured setbacks, specifically with Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Oscar Camenzind and others. Their survival can be put down, completely, to the iron will of owner Andy Rihs, who loves cycling, perhaps to his own detriment.
On the European continent, things have not gone so well. Formerly dominant Italian teams have self-destructed or soldiered on, shadows of their former selves. Spanish sponsors have fled nearly wholesale, and the French, well, they seem to be underachieving on every front. Milram, the only ProTour team in Germany, will end their sponsorship commitment at the end of this season. Doom? You’re soaking in it.
That brings us back to Bjarne Riis and his Saxo Bank team. Among the ProTour horde, Saxo Bank stands out. They have dominated the Spring Classics through Fabian Cancellara, a rider who will also bring them Grand Tour stage wins in any race against the clock. They also have the Schleck brothers, Andy and Franck, who, in addition to contending for GC honors in the Tours, also represent the fresh, young face of cycling. Few teams bring to the ProTour what Saxo Bank brings, and much of that is down to their owner and manager, Riis.
And now that Saxo Bank is ready to end its sponsorship of the team, it is Riis scrambling around to find funding for what is, arguably, the best team on the continent. The irony is that Riis himself is a repentant former doper, who confessed, without coercion, to having won the 1996 Tour de France with the help of the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO), even offering to give back the yellow jersey he won that year.
A polarizing figure in cycling, Riis is clearly at the forefront of modern team managers, bringing new training techniques and technical innovations to the table more aggressively than any other. Many cycling fans are ambivalent about his influence though, disgusted with his participation in the drug culture of the late ’90s peloton, but intrigued by the performance and tactics of his team. Never a particularly warm presence, Riis has managed his team in the same ruthless way he raced. It wins races, if not always fans.
So now it’s down to this man to find a title sponsor for his team. It’s a proposition that tests the very premises of continental racing. Can a former doper with the best squad on two-wheels secure the funds? There is probably not a more valuable commodity than Team Saxo Bank, not a better end product to sell. But Riis may well be his own albatross. The deal maker might just be the deal breaker.
And this dilemma is not peculiar to this team. Every continental team has baggage to contend with when talking to sponsors. That is what makes Saxo Bank such a clear litmus test for the ProTour.
Let’s not be too dramatic. Pro cycling will not die. Where teams fail, others will spring up, but the new shoots of growth might come from unexpected sources, Australia or Japan maybe. The UCI has undertaken a globalization project for the sport. This can be looked at as either an effort to grow into new markets, or a tacit admission that the peloton has simply poisoned the well in mainland Europe.
Let’s hope this isn’t the case. Whether we like him or not, let’s hope that Bjarne Riis can present a business plan that overcomes the trepidation that must come from shaking hands with a former cheat.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International