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
No bad guy? No bad guy? Are you guys kidding me? With no bad guy, there’s no good guy. If everyone’s a good guy, then no one is. They’re just guys. Who wants to watch a bunch of guys riding bikes? BO-RING!
I liked what Big Mikey said:
This isn’t about legal law, as both parties worked out a compromise due to the fact that GS was going to lose BW to Sky due to the (lack of) enforceability of the contract per European contract law (imagine that), this is about perception and behavior. And while Vaughters was mostly restrained, Wiggins let slip some less than exemplary behavior/comments. A very nice touch given that Garmin worked hard to support his fourth place in the TdF. They gave him the shot to focus on the tour, and he repays it by acting like an entitled brat.
If we combine what Padraig and SingleSpeedJarv had to offer, about Wiggins being unhappy at Garmin even before Sky came into the picture, then we can, to some extent, let Brailsford off the hook, though I can promise you Andrei Tchmil will NOT be letting Brailsford off the hook (for poaching Ben Swift, a Katusha rider until Brailsford turned his head). Not Tchmil’s style to forgive and forget. You can just go ahead and assume that Katusha won’t be taking any turns on the front of the peloton if Sky will benefit in anyway.
So Wiggins wanted out of the contract that suited him pretty well less than a year previously? OK. He doesn’t like the Garmin way. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sky came along at the right time with a boatload of cash to emancipate him from the servitude that all but put him on the Tour de France podium. Fortuitous, not just for Wor Bradley, but also for Jonathan Vaughters who ended up having a tantrum-throwing prima donna taken off his hands and replaced with a fat check.
All is possibly well that ends well, except that, in order to extricate himself from what was, to him, an untenable situation, young Mr. Wiggins felt it necessary to disparage Garmin in the press. There were several allusions to the team not preparing its riders properly for racing success. There was the infamous ‘I need to be at Manchester United, and currently I’m at Wigan,” line, which, for those not steeped in British football culture, basically means “Garmin is bush league, and Sky are pros,” an odd assertion to make about a team that had, at that point, not yet raced a bike in anger.
So this scribe’s personal take (in case it wasn’t obvious) is that, though all parties seem to have made out alright in the end (even though I’d bet the above-pictured Vaughters would have preferred to show up in France this summer with TWO GC threats rather than just one), Brad Wiggins acted like a first class ass hat throughout the affair.
Rather than effecting his transfer with discretion, class and bonhomie, he alienated his team manager, teammates and probably some fans, by turning a private business deal into a public spectacle. If he wins the Tour for Sky this summer, then we’ll probably all just salute his hard-headed competitiveness and forget that he acted like a jerk. If he fails to podium, then we’ll all shake our heads at yet another ego-case crashing and burning on the fumes of his own ambition. If he fails to podium and Christian Vande Velde does make it onto the hallowed steps, well, I can’t wait to see what the French press writes about that.
I’m really not sure how we’ve come this far without hashing and rehashing the Bradley Wiggins transfer until we were all sick to death of it. And so, without further ado, let’s make some hash!
What I want to know is: Who is the bad guy?
As you may well know, Bradley Wiggins had a big 2009, converting himself from track legend to Tour de France contender just by putting down the lager and coming into the season a few kilos lighter. After his surprise fourth place in France, there were rumblings and grumblings and rumors that he would move to the brand new Team Sky, under the tutelage of his British Cycling mentor Dave Brailsford. Of course, he had a contract with Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin, and most of the fall was spent determining whether having a contract meant anything in the grand scheme of things.
By now, we know that Vaughters let Wiggins go, reaping some unnamed bounty in “transfer fee” from Sky. Vaughters, while mostly keeping his powder dry, refused to get too snipey about the whole thing, but let it be known that he was “disappointed” to lose his rider. If there were other, more bitter comments, I missed them.
Wiggins, who made no secret of his desire to leave Garmin and let slip with some not-very-nice comments about the holders of his contract, got what he wanted, and so did Brailsford, who also got into some not-so-nice with Team Katusha’s Andrei Tchmil, over the transfer of Ben Swift.
The whole thing revolves around what contracts are worth, how riders should conduct themselves, whether cycling should be prone to the same transfer sagas that rule the football (soccer) world and whether, to modify a phrase, “money makes right.”
The question I put to you this week is: Who is the bad guy and why?
D) None of the above
E) Lance Armstrong
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Oh, ye of little faith. The status quo arises to dampen future hope. But in that dragon of a peloton, slinking and slithering across the countryside, there is ALWAYS one who thinks he’s fast, who will test himself against the dragon’s might.
What am I talking about? No. Me neither. No clue.
So most of you expect Mssr. Cavendish to continue to blow the wheels off the competition, and you know, that’s probably a safe bet. He’s young. He’s hungry. He’s got things to prove.
I hold out hope that an angry Hushovd is a strong Hushovd, and that once Cavendish first sought to rattle the bars of that Cervelo Test cage, it was wholly and fully on. I also believe that Tyler Farrar will mature. Quite what that means for a guy who puts his head down and pedals like his ass is on fire, I’m not sure, but I think he’ll win more races this season.
What many of you pointed out was that a certain measure of the Manxman’s might is in his lead out train, and that without Big George Hincapie ®, the Columbia train will be somehow less strong. Further, it’s difficult at this early juncture to gauge the strength and organization of the Sky set up. It stands to reason that they’ll be good, but how good is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps Mr. Brailsford of Team Sky will force young Cavendish to leave Columbia-HTC by denying him the easy victories he must have grown accustomed to in 2009.
And finally, let me just address the contention that sprint stages are boring. They are. That’s my opinion. I often ask myself what the point of riding 170kms was if they were just going to finish in a humping, writhing mass at the end anyway. Without a hill of any sort, a flat stage abhors a breakway. I’d rather they just gathered at the race start and had a 400m drag race, myself.
Oh, I know, there’s more to it than that. Heinrich Haussler and Philippe Gilbert showed us that, but there are exceptions, and there are rules. Let the lead out begin.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I am watching the Tour Down Under and having a hell of a hard time bending my tiny brain around the idea of it being summer somewhere on this big, blue marble we live on. Intellectually, I get it, but like that water-spinning-the-other-way-down-the-drain kind of way, I just can’t quite believe it.
The other thing I’m having trouble with, as I do at this time every year, is figuring out which team is which in their new kits. BMC looks sharp in their black and red. Radio Shack look like a team of fax machines. Sky look like tubes of toothpaste. And of course, they’ve played musical chairs in the offseason, too. This guy is with that team now. That guy is over there. Confusing, despite keeping up 24/7 on this ever present Interweb®.
So, as I reconfigure my notions of what each team is about, I am wondering who you’re supporting this year. Not what rider. What team? Who are you pulling for and why? Is one rider enough to bring your loyalty to a whole team? Is national origin important? Is it style? Is it substance?
Enlighten me. Help me choose my own home team. Make your case.
Well, this was sort of a lay up, wasn’t it? What sort of a pessimist would say the coming season wasn’t going to be as good as last? Who could sell the future out so early in the year?
It’s curious to me that so many people, in stating that 2010 would be better, cited the coming Tour de France battle between Armstrong and Contador. Is it that the TdF is the biggest race of the year, and so, on some level, the single biggest arbiter of the season’s quality, or is it rather that this is the main Euro race people book time to sit down and watch?
Personally, I am really interested to see how the new super teams do, Sky, the Shack, BMC. They take to the battle alongside other fairly new squads like Cervelo Test Team and Katusha. I wonder if we’re not entering a new era, where sponsors with more global vision join the sport. For every behemoth like Sky that joins the fray, we seem to lose a quixotic contributor like Milram.
And how will today’s young superstars like Cavendish, Contador, Schleck, Boasson-Hagen, Martin, Nibali, et. al. plot their career paths? Will some of them follow the Armstrong/Bruyneel model, prepping and training for one big event each year, whether it’s the Tour or a single Classic? Or will they seek to flesh out their palmares a bit more, a la Merckx, Hinault, et. al.
So many questions. I guess this is what the weeks before the season begins are supposed to be like, full of frenzied anticipation. Or maybe I just need to drink less coffee.