A friend posted on Twitter the other day, “Why do I have such a hard time caring about the early-season desert races?” and I replied, “Because those are training rides the UCI has sold ads for.” Which is pretty cynical, though essentially true.
Everyone loves to throw their arms up crossing the finish line, but only the guy in first place doesn’t look like an idiot doing it. Andre Greipel won the sprint this morning at the Tour of Oman ahead of a hard-charging Peter Sagan. Marcel Kittel, the new fast German, took yesterday’s dash, and Sagan won the uphill finish the day before on the Arabian peninsula.
They are racing in earnest, even if relatively few people are watching. As much as searching for form, some riders are trying to make statements about their worth, and this is the time of year when not everyone is racing to win, when wins are available to those who really need them. But what are they worth?
In the present day, the early season is made of races like the Tour Down Under, Tour of Qatar, Volta ao Algarve, Tour de San Luis and Tour of Oman, and here are the names of some riders who have won at those races already this season: Tom Boonen (Tour de San Luis), Simon Gerrans (Tour Down Under), Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Volta ao Algarve), Alejandro Valverde (Tour Down Under). I think it’s safe to say that each of those riders has something to prove right now.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Which of these results is most significant? Who needed to throw that victory salute the most? Are there any results here that will bear on the big time races, later in the year?
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
If you had asked me where the Willunga Hill was five years ago, I’d have probably guessed New Jersey. Now I know the aforementioned topography can be found in Australia, and serves as the major climbing obstacle in the Tour Down Under, the January kick off to the pro-cycling season.
The TDU hits the Willunga Hill tomorrow and wraps up on Sunday with a circuit around Adelaide.
Shortly, the world’s top pros, the lion’s share of them Europeans, will battle head winds and dash for finish lines in Qatar. They’ll move on to Oman after that.
There is a reason to this globe-trotting rhyme having to do with climate, sponsorship and expansion of the cycling brand. While some small races (Etoile Besseges, Challenge Mallorca, et. al.) do stud the late winter calendar in Europe, the UCI has sought to jump start its season by traveling to the weather. In this context, Australia, Qatar and Oman make a lot of sense as venues.
Further, deep pocketed sponsors in those countries want pro racing. Qatar, in particular, is forcing itself into the international sporting scene, not only hosting an annual, but also securing the football World Cup for 2022. The UCI, in pursuing a more global strategy to growing the sport, are understandably happy to sanction big bike races for big money in small, wealthy nations.
But while the Tour Down Under stokes the fire of sporting passion in Australia and the burgeoning presence of Aussie riders in the pro peloton, one has to question the strategy behind events in the Middle East. With exactly zero representation on the ProTeams, Qatar and Oman are not exactly hot beds of cycling passion. Race video shows long straight stretches of dusty roadway occasionally dotted by small bands of curious onlookers.
Other than cash and carry commerce, what is the real point?
The Tour of Beijing this fall highlighted the profit-centered strategy of the UCI in stark detail. Many top teams were reluctant to participate but were then seemingly strong-armed into showing up by UCI head Pat McQuaid, who wrote a memo threatening the sponsorships of teams who failed to toe the line. The Tour of Beijing is put on by Global Cycling Productions, a for profit organization that lives within the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland and staffed by senior UCI officials.
Over the last two years the UCI has been assailed from most quarters, criticized for their stewardship of the sport in the areas of doping control, equipment standards and rider safety.
This week’s Group Ride examines the nature of globalization, its positives and negatives. Few would argue against the good of expanding cycling to a global audience, but is simply following the money the best way to do that? Without connecting top level races to roots level organizations, is the UCI actually succeeding in making cycling more popular? Or do you see the shift of the race calendar out of Europe as simply a dilution of the cycling brand, designed to enrich the governing body? What are the positives and negatives to this new paradigm?
Image: CJ Farquharson, Photosport International
Here, all that was fluffy is now slush. All that was white has gone gray. The river has freed itself from its icy cover, and sea birds cluster together and bob with the current. Those who ride their bikes evoke snorts of derision from pedestrians and motorists. They slip and slide in the frozen muck and spew it from their back wheels as they go.
In Australia, a pack of ludicrously skinny men are pedaling their bicycles through the Southern summer, racing each other, while those of us on this side of the planet cling for warmth to burgeoning body fat.
If your boots aren’t waterproof or you’ve opted for style over substance, you are likely sitting at your desk in sodden socks contemplating hypothermia. You raise your eyes to the horizon, looking for some sign of spring, but lower them again. We’re not even close.
For me, the Tour Down Under is a potentially great race. Picking up from our last Group Ride, Australia is a sports mad country. It offers beautiful countryside and friendly people. The Aussie contingent of the pro peloton is growing and growing. The TDU is everything the UCI’s globalization plan seeks to achieve, planting the seed of cycling passion in fertile ground and tending it carefully.
If we tilt our heads to one side and squint just the right way, maybe we can see the first tendrils of the new cycling season pushing through the earth. It’s a trick of perception and imagination, and one we need desperately to pull off, while our socks are drying.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
It is the sad state of geo-cultural reality that leaves most non-Australians with Crocodile Dundee, Dingo Ate My Baby, Yahoo Serious and Foster’s Lager as the enduring symbols of the Land Down Under. Oh, sure. We all love a shrimp on the barbie, and who can resist a little Mad Max on late night television? But, the truth is Australia is a sports lover’s paradise.
Cricket, rugby, Aussie rules, swimming, football, and on an on. Our southern hemispheric friends love to compete. They love to watch, and they know how to throw a party.
This is a long and not-at-all concise lead in to a discussion of the upcoming Tour Down Under (January 18th – 23rd), a race that has become, by virtue of its early start date, the de facto kick off of the pro road cycling season.
This year the TDU carries the withering storyline of Lance Armstrong’s final pro level road race. Allegedly. Possibly. Hopefully.
Additionally, many riders who saw their 2010 blighted by injuries will pop back up on the bottom side of the globe to try to get themselves sorted out for 2011.
It’s a race that gives us first glimpses at new teams and often new riders. You might remember Peter Sagan and Xavier Tondo standing out in last year’s event.
In fact, if anything holds this race back, it’s a lack of real climbing action, the Willunga Hill serving up some uphill, but nothing on the order of the Alps, Pyrenees or even California’s Sierra Nevada.
This week’s Group Ride addresses the following: Is the TDU an important race? Is it a big race? Is it a good race? Do you look forward to it? Or, is it a warm up? An exhibition? Where is its proper place in the cycling universe?
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.
Another week, another Group Ride. This one seemed closer to real life than usual for me. In other words, I only had a vague idea of the route, and once folks got going I got dropped pretty quickly.
It’s a tough topic to address cogently, because it resists the categories I’d like to assign. There are new races that are good. Most agree TDU, underway now, is one of them. And then there are races that are not as good. Tour of Qatar might be one of those. Equally, the early season Euro races whose hold on the imagination has dwindled have this great historical flavor, but when the rubber meets the road, they sorta suck.
We seem split between those who believe the pro peloton should suffer through the European winter/spring, and those who think it’s a good idea to warm up in the, um, warm.
Of course this is all pretty fantastical as no one entity, not even the UCI, or particularly not the UCI, controls the races. They are privately owned events, as much at the whim of groups like ASO, as vulnerable to our vain wishes.
Phil Liggett, to whom I’m wont to defer in most of these situations, says the season is on. Versus is showing racing on my TV. Eurosport may be doing the same on yours.
And the peloton rides on.
All week, as pro riders have been tweeting from the Land Down Under, and fans have been moistening their chamois (What actually is the plural of chamois?) in anticipation of the coming season, I’ve heard a small but distinct contingent of cycling purists who are lamenting the rise of such races as the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Qatar, etc., the so-called “new races,” that seem to be supplanting old races like the Etoile de Bességes and Paris-Troyes and the traditional season-openers in Western Europe, like the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium.
So this week’s Ride examines the value of tradition in cycling, versus the value of innovation.
Do you like the newer races? Or prefer the old? Why? And regardless of your preference, do you think the new races are better for cycling, spread out as they are, or do you think the future of cycling is going back to its roots?
There are echoes of this debate throughout the sport, as in the UCI radio ban and even in the use of certain performance enhancers, but for now, with the TDU nigh, let’s focus on the races.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International