Bradley Wiggins is remaking the Tour de France in his own image. He has illustrated that there’s no such thing as an incumbent at the Tour de France, and all who hope to pull on the Golden Fleece must make their well-timed move with confidence, and after considerable preparation.
There can be little doubt about Wiggins’ preparation. In early March he won Paris-Nice, wearing the leader’s jersey for all but the prologue and opening stage, and taking out the final time trial—a mere 9.6km, but battled uphill. Next, at the end of April, he scored a win in the opening road stage of the Tour of Romandie, which allowed him to take the leader’s jersey once again. Luis Leon Sanchez did take the jersey off the Brit’s shoulders for a day, but in the final time trial Wiggins trounced Sanchez, taking back the yellow jersey and becoming only the second rider in 20 years to win Paris-Nice and Romandie in the same season.
Wiggins then confirmed that he was no spring champion with his performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Wiggins won the Dauphiné last year before crashing out of the Tour. Wiggins finished a single second down on Luke Durbridge in the brief prologue. Again, Wiggins took the leader’s yellow jersey following the opening road stage and held his one-second lead over Cadel Evans until the time trial. Of course, Wiggins killed it in the time trial; so great was his speed that he warped the space-time continuum to the point that he finished before Evans even started. Okay, not quite.
That time trial performance deserves a bit more scrutiny; we’ll get to it in a minute. Naturally, Wiggins went on to win the Critérium du Dauphiné and in so doing became the first rider in history to win Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné in the same season. Statistically, that makes him a pretty serious outlier, a less-than-1-percenter. As it is, only two riders have won both the Tour of Romandie and the Tour de France in the same season: Stephen Roche did (in 1987, natch) and Cadel Evans did it last year.
Here’s where a discussion of peak form comes into play. For Paris-Nice, Wiggins’ stiffest competition came from Lieuwe Westra, the Dutchman riding for Vacansoleil. The closest competition Wiggins had from a certified Tour de France GC contender was Andreas Klöden in 18th place, more than six minutes down.
At Romandie the Brit faced guys like Sanchez, Andrew Talansky and Rui Costa. Real Tour GC guys like Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger were showing up in the top 10, but were nearly a minute down.
At the Dauphiné Wiggins faced serious competition from guys like Michael Rogers and Cadel Evans, guys tuning up for the Tour de France. Despite giving up a few seconds to Rogers and 10 seconds to Evans on the final stage, Wiggins took the Dauphiné by 1:17, his largest margin to that point in the season. It’s possible that Wiggins wasn’t on peak form in March at Paris-Nice, but there is no doubt he was on better form than other riders with Tour aspirations. It’s hard to say he wasn’t on something approaching peak form at Romandie: he was definitely revved higher than his peers. But the Dauphiné? Few guys ever get the opportunity to show the kind of form at the Dauphiné that Wiggins displayed. How could that not be peak?
Here’s what leaves me scratching my head: The Dauphiné TT was 53km. Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans. In yesterday’s stage 9 TT, Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans, but the length of the event was only 41.5km. It shows that he is on even better form now than he was at the Dauphiné.
I’ve been thinking that Wiggins has been riding a wave of peak form dating to Romandie, the last week of April. That puts him in his 10th week of peak form. I’ve been telling people Wiggins will flame out, pointing out how no one in history has ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
That bears repeating: No one, not even the insatiable Cannibal himself, ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
Clearly, he’s not days from flaming out based on his ride in stage 9. But his form is too amazing to ignore, and by that I mean his form has been so good for so long that people are taking notice of more than just him winning. His form has crossed that threshold into being conspicuous. People are wondering if he might be doping.
It’s a shame, really. Everything we know about Sky is that the program has been, like Garmin-Sharp, at the very vanguard of clean cycling. Much of the brouhaha surrounds accusations by l’Equipe, the French sports daily known for having sourced information on positive EPO tests by Lance Armstrong. The Texan’s methods notwithstanding, l’Equipe has been just partisan enough in their reporting that it’s fair to wonder if they wouldn’t chase after any cyclist whose first language is English.
But the trajectory Wiggins is on is just the sort of physical miracle that draws attention. To use a literary term, his form has bumped up against our suspension of disbelief. And here’s a corollary to l’Equipe‘s susicion: at Romandie, Sky teammate Chris Froome finished the TT 39th, 1:45 down on Wiggins. At the Dauphiné Froome was sixth, 1:33 behind, and only 10 seconds faster than Evans. However, in stage 9 of the Tour, Froome was a stunning second, 35 seconds behind his team leader and 1:08 faster than the Tour’s defending champion.
Wiggins needs to understand that rides of that caliber don’t just suggest questions, they beg them. For my part, I sincerely hope he’s clean, because as long as he keeps winning the questions will keep coming and the quotes will be unpublishable in most locations. Hilarious, but unpublishable. His could be an unhappy tenure at the top.
If the Tour de France were raced on ergometers then Brad Wiggins would already have done enough to be declared the winner. His stage victory on Monday in the Besançon time trial over his own Sky teammate Chris Froome, with defending champion Cadel Evans 1:43 adrift, was so dominant that a power expert would tell you it’s mathematically impossible for Wiggins to lose this Tour. If he repeats the pace he rode on Monday at the second long time trial awaiting them on the final weekend, he could gain another two minutes on Evans, which means the BMC racing leader has to gain some four minutes on the remaining mountain stages, not just two minutes as has been written. And given the fact that Evans gained no time on Wiggins in the two climbing stage so far, his current handicap is impossible to overcome. On paper, at least.
Thankfully, much of the Tour is raced on French back roads over terrain that can throw out unexpected obstacles, and in weather that can suddenly change from benign to belligerent. When Spanish rider Luis Ocaña jumped to a GC lead of 9:46 in the Alps over the great Eddy Merckx midway through the 1971 Tour, nearly everyone said the race was over. But Merckx fought like crazy, took back almost two minutes on a marathon 250-kilometer-long breakaway with his teammates on a flat stage to Marseille, and then beat Ocaña by 11 seconds in a subsequent time trial at Albi.
Merckx went into the Pyrénées still 7:23 behind his Spanish rival and knew he had to attack on every mountain stage if he were to catch Ocaña. On the first of those stages, the Cannibal descended the steep and winding Col de Menté like a hand-guided missile in a dramatic thunderstorm on road awash with gravel. Ocaña slid out on a switchback and as he stood up, another rider banged into him and sent him flying. Ocaña was airlifted to the hospital, and Merckx cruised the remaining week to his third consecutive yellow-jersey victory.
With a week to go in the 1987 Tour, strong French time trialist Jean-François Bernard won the uphill TT to the summit of Mont Ventoux and took a 2:34 overall lead over runner-up Stephen Roche (that gap compares with the 1:53 that Wiggins holds over Evans today). People, particularly the French, said the Tour was over and Bernard would win. But the next day, teams with leaders immediately behind Bernard on GC used brilliant tactics to make a joint attack on a semi-mountain stage. Bernard and his teammates chased for a couple of hours, holding a one-minute gap before cracking under the pressure. Bernard lost 4:18 that day and never wore yellow again.
I’m not saying Wiggins and his Team Sky henchman will crack or crash and that Evans will win this Tour, because things may well go another way. We all remember 1992. Even Wiggins. The Brit was then age 12, already bike crazy, and watching the Tour on TV. Talking after Monday’s time-trial win, the first Tour stage victory of his career, Wiggins said, “I remember seeing Induráin do this in Luxembourg in 1992. And I just did something like that.”
Yes, on stage 9 of the 1992 Tour (Wiggins’s win on Monday was also on stage 9), in a 65-kilometer circuit time trial at Luxembourg, Miguel Induráin beat his nearest rivals by more than three minutes. And though he was challenged in a monster break through the Alps by Claudio Chiappucci, the Spaniard cruised in the Pyrénées to finish in Paris 4:35 ahead of Chiappucci. Maybe Wiggins will do something similar. But it’s far from guaranteed.
In a response to a question about defending the yellow jersey through to Paris, Wiggins said Monday, “I’m only human, not a monster, and I might have a bad day … and Cadel is not going to give up.” Merckx didn’t give up in 1971. Roche didn’t give up in ’87. And Evans won’t give up in ’12.
For more of John’s work covering the Tour, drop by pelotonmagazine.com.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
I have been too hard on Andy Schleck. And though I’m sure he’s not losing much sleep over it, I’d like to take this opportunity to give him his due, because as many have pointed out to me, he IS a supremely talented rider.
He took the Young Rider classification at the 2007 Giro, and the same honor at the 2008 and 2009 Tours, before (on paper anyway) winning the 2010 Grand Boucle and finishing second last year. Between the ages of 22 and 25 he established himself as the best young GC rider in the world, without question. Turning those white jerseys yellow has been a bigger challenge, but that shouldn’t diminish what he achieved in the first phase of his career.
Looking ahead to the 2012 Tour, which rolls out of Liege tomorrow with a 6.4km prologue, it will be interesting to see who will pull on the white jersey and become the next Andy Schleck.
To me, the most intriguing possibility is Peter Sagan. The Slovakian sensation is having an incredible season, winning at will in week-long stage races like the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse. He can win in a traditional sprint. He can win in an uphill sprint. His main goal will be the green points jersey, but, because he can time trial and doesn’t slide backwards on the climbs quite like the rest of the sprinting cohort, there is the very real possibility that he can challenge for both jerseys. The odds are long, but thrilling to consider.
More traditionally, the white jersey goes to an accomplished climber though, so riders like Rein Taaramäe, Tejay van Garderen and Pierre Rolland must be favorites.
Taaramäe rides for Cofidis, a team with no realistic GC pretensions, so the young Estonian will be hunting steep stage wins. He has a string of good results behind him, and like Sagan his time-trialing is superior to most of the other white jersey hopefuls.
Van Garderen is another adept climber with good GC results. His challenge will be the weight of duty to returning champion Cadel Evans. In some cases, being first lieutenant in the mountains serves a young rider well. In others, it can completely derail a challenge.
A perfect example of a successful climbing domestique is Pierre Rolland who rode with Thomas Voekler during his fairytale stretch in the yellow jersey last year. Rolland rode away with the white jersey as a reward for his loyalty.
There are other possibilities, such as Vacansoleil-DCM’s Wout Poels or Rabobank’s Steven Kruijswijk. This week’s Group Ride, as if it wasn’t entirely obvious already, wonders: Who’s next? What are Sagan’s possibilities? Of the rest, who is most likely, and how will team chemistry and duty, play out against the back drop of the white jersey.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
There was a time, not very long ago, when the average fan’s perception of Cadel Evans was not entirely favorable. Clearly a huge talent, Evans’ demeanor suggested a lack of maturity, a tendency to whine and the distinct impression that the biggest prizes would elude him. Perhaps it was the influence of the late Aldo Sassi, perhaps it was winning a World Championship, perhaps it was getting married, but Evans finally got himself over the hump.
It was a patient and tempered effort that saw the Australian win last year’s Tour de France. Where once he might have bemoaned his bad luck or chided his teammates for not being more helpful, Evans finally assumed responsibility for his own destiny. Think back to Stage 18 of that Tour when he responded alone to the attack of Andy Schleck, dragging the Luxembourger back by sitting on the front of a chasing group, grinding out the gap and keeping Schleck in his GC sights. He neither panicked, nor asked for help. While it was the Stage 20 time trial that finally put him in yellow, it was the bravura performance on the way to the Galibier that won him the Tour.
Just how Evans transformed himself from a not-entirely-convincing contender to a worthy champion is a mystery. Somehow he dragged himself over that hump. From my perspective, the hump is as important as it is hard to define.
Following on from last week’s Group Ride, can we ask: Is Brad Wiggins over the hump? He’s won a handful of one week stage races, including this season’s Paris-Nice and Dauphiné. He has World Championships on the track, and time trial medals from World Championships on the road. He is highly accomplished. There is no doubt. But can he win a Grand Tour?
Third at last year’s Vuelta, fourth in the 2009 Tour, he is nearly there. But the distance between third and first in Paris is more than the two foot rise from the third podium step to the first. There is a mile of luck and a bit more in experience necessary to bridge that gap.
If you look at Wiggins, tilt your head to one side and squint just right, you can imagine that all the bluster he summons in the press, the sarcasm and arrogance that some interpret as supreme confidence, is just the opposite. It is the demeanor of an elite athlete still harboring doubts about his ability to mount those last two steps and a resentment perhaps that, despite already achieving so much, he is expected to do more.
Andy Schleck, who has now withdrawn from the 2012 Tour, finds himself in the same purgatory as Wiggins. “Winner” of the 2010 Tour after Alberto Contador’s doping conviction, Schleck has never won a stage race on the road as a full professional. He has done everything but, standing on consecutive podiums, winning white jerseys, taking stage wins, but never bridging that last, narrow gap, never making it over the hump.
What’s it about? Is it an unwillingness to improve his time trialling skills? Despite hemorrhaging time to his opponents in every time trial he rides, he steadfastly refuses to do the basic work to be better, or even in some cases to pre-ride the courses to know what challenges await him. Is it maybe a reluctance to attack? How many times have we seen young Andy looking around an elite group, waiting for someone else to make a move? Or are all of these things together indicative of being stuck in second place without the maturity to accept and conquer his shortcomings?
One rider who appears to have been born over the hump is Alberto Contador. Discount him as a doper if you will, but that seems too facile when you consider the mental approach and discipline the Spaniard has taken on his way to a string of impressive, if tainted, Grand Tour wins. He has been audacious when audacity was called for, calm when when he needed to be, strong when he was under attack from within his own team and imperious when accused of cheating. He is a rider of great talent, but also of supreme self-possession, and that, in essence, is what the hump is about. To be self-possessed is to understand your own outer limits, to accept that there is no one else who can take you there, and to have the focus to get there.
Now, it will be easy to read this post and flame it, just as it was easy for me to say that the guys who’ve won the Tour are over the hump and those who haven’t aren’t. In elevating Contador, who is cooling his heals after a doping positive, I am praising the wrong man. And yet, I can’t escape this feeling that what separates Evans and Contador from Wiggins and Schleck is not physical. There is something more. It falls under the umbrella of maturity and mental toughness, of luck and tactical nous. To win the Tour de France, the stars must align, but you must also be ready for them to align.
Until then, you train in Mallorca, you screw around with your nutrition, your race schedule and your bike set up. You change teams. You change coaches. You train on feel or you devote yourself to studying power numbers. You weigh your food on a scale. You switch roommates.
All just hoping to get over the hump.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
In 2009, Bradley Wiggins finished 4th in the Tour de France. It was a revelatory result and one that suggested the Briton’s decision to switch from the track, where he was a total legend, to the road, was maybe not as ill-advised as it might have seemed.
But success can be a fickle mistress. What appeared to be a breakout performance in 2009 was made less clearly a turning point with Wiggins’ move to Team Sky for 2010. A settling-in period ensued, during which Wiggins reverted to more human results; 2011 looked better again. Wiggins won the Dauphiné and came third at Paris-Nice. At the back end of the summer he stood on the third podium step at the Vuelta a España.
This week, the gangly Englishman will win the Dauphiné again (barring something catastrophic going down), and the velo-press are falling all over themselves to install him as a firm favorite to stand atop the final GC in Paris next month. Certainly his overwhelmingly dominant performance in this week’s ITT suggests they’re not too far off.
But has he peaked too soon? Shown too many cards?
Defending champ Cadel Evans has shown strong form as well, taking a good uphill victory in Stage 1 of the Dauphiné and time-trialling as well as he always does, which was well enough to wear yellow on the Champs Élysée last year, if not quite good enough to scare Wiggins, who has all sorts of medals in the discipline.
With over 100kms of TT in the Grand Boucle this go round, are these the only two real contenders?
For a moment let’s consider Andy Schleck. He’s had a calamitous spring through injury and indolence, and his current form is probably best described as indifferent. Maybe he’s hiding his true form, but with few racing days and no discernible improvement in his TT skills, will it even matter? A running battle with team manager Johan Bruyneel may also be indicative of a star at his nadir, or else a demonstration of the enormous lengths Bruyneel will go to, to camouflage his team’s strength.
This week’s Group Ride is a real pot boiler. Let’s not go all in on maillot jaune predictions just yet. Let’s try to really evaluate the contenders instead. Other names in the hopper are: Nibali, Menchov, Valverde and Sanchez. Who else? And why?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
As I mentioned recently, I’m less interested in completely monetizing RKP to the nth degree than I am in getting stuff produced that I want to wear. It’s a selfish drive, no way around that. I like T-shirts that make cycling cool. Your run-of-the-mill century T-shirt is such a train wreck of sponsors and lousy illustrations I use them for rags. I don’t mean any disrespect to the events; I’ve invariably enjoyed myself, but those Ts are to cycling chic what back hair is to male models.
And though I self-select as an introvert, I do dig it when someone tells me that they like something I’m wearing. I had a woman come up to me and tell me she liked the back panel on the RKP bibs (the end is near). Apparently, she has a sense of humor. And I’ve had all sorts of people come up to me and comment on the Suffer T. I’ve sold a couple to non-cyclists.
Last year I wrote a feature that examined Eddy Merckx’ 1972 season for peloton magazine. I put forward the idea that it was the single greatest year of cycling any rider had ever put together—would ever put together. In winning Milan-San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Giro d’Italia (four stages along the way), the Tour de France (seven stages and the points jersey), the Tour of Lombardy and the hour record, he put together in one year what would be a fine career for any other cyclist. And if you examine all the minor stuff he won along the way you get the impression that his vocabulary didn’t include the word “peak.” He was badass on a full-time basis.
So I asked myself a simple question: Why not have a killer T-shirt to celebrate that?
I contacted my old friend Bill Cass to do the illustration. For Bicycle Guide readers, his name should be familiar. We used Cass’ work any time we could dream up an opportunity. Later, when I started Asphalt I was able to recruit him to do some fun stuff for us there as well. For those who don’t know him, Bill rose through the junior ranks racing in New England, eventually racing in the senior ranks as a Cat. 2 on the Prince Superoni team. He spent most of his career as a shoe designer at Nike and spent years working personally with Lance Armstrong on Nike designs that Armstrong wore to seven Tour de France wins. These days, he’s on Whidby Island near Seattle and has a studio there doing an fascinating variety of work.
The illustration in question will also find its way into print form, but that’s a ways off. First, we need to get these T-shirts circulating. They will begin shipping the week following Sea Otter, where we’ll be next week. Because of the art involved, these will be a bit more expensive than our previous Ts.
I want this to be flat-out the coolest T-shirt in your wardrobe. I want people to ask you about it. I want you to be able to say with a straight face than the New York Yankees and Manchester United put together couldn’t have a season like this.
I have a similar issue with baseball caps. Even though I love the baseball cap I have from a friend’s winery, I’ve wanted a cap that speaks to what I’m about as a cyclist. So I had these made. I’ve been wearing the sample for a couple of weeks.
And yes, Captain Correction, I’m aware that the phrase is ordinarily “new wares.” I’m punny that way.
As some of you might have heard, I took last week off to spend a little time with my son on a short vacation to Nebraska.
Yup, Nebraska. Sure, it’s one of the states out here in the Big Empty of America and not exactly the place that tops the list of most people’s spring break destinations, but it was spectacular.
We drove to the middle of Nebraska and worked our way up and down the roads along the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island to watch the Sand Hill Cranes, who are out there fattening up before continuing on their way north for the summer. It’s quite a sight and it’s something I would recommend to anyone who has a chance to stop by that part of the country at this time of year. Like clockwork, the cranes, who spend their days picking up left-over corn from farmers’ fields, return to the river to spend the night, listening for the sounds of predators approaching through the water.
At dawn, they take off and head to the fields where they can see any threats that will send them up into the air on quick notice. Last Sunday morning, we were below a flyover that included between 60,000 and 80,000 birds. That alone made the trip worth it, even though my own photos of that spectacular event were blurry at best.
Anyway, in checking my in-box upon my return, I thought I’d tackle a couple of questions that allow me to stay true to my reluctance to constantly dive into doping issues. Just as a reminder, if you have any questions related to cycling, cyclists’ rights, legal issues faced by the two-wheeled crowd and, yes even doping, drop me a line at Charles@Pelkey.com.
Has the Internet killed the video star?
Not sure if the Explainer or someone at Red Kite Cycling could tackle this one, but I’m curious about the future of cycling on TV in the U.S.
There’s been a confusing series of mergers as Versus was swallowed up by NBC, which was then eaten by Comcast. During last year’s cycling season, I could find events on both Versus and Universal Sports channels. But now as I look at the lineup on the new NBC Sports channel, I find little or no coverage of anything cycling-related (I also miss ski racing as well).
I’ve read that Versus “Epic Cycle” brand will continue with the Tour de France, Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge. But what about all the great European classics, not to mention the Giro and the Vuelta which I watched last year on Universal? Am I doomed to real-time streaming via dodgy internet links?
I was curious about that, too, but from the looks of it the mergers-and-acquisitions have not killed cycling on American TV.
The Folks at Versus will be offering some coverage of the Criterium International on Sunday March 25, but it appears that will just be a wrap-up with highlights. According to their schedule, we can see the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Fleche-Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, California, the Dauphine, The Tour de Suisse and the biggie, the Tour de France, this season.
You will, in other words, get a full dose of Phil and Paul … assuming you light the blue touchpaper and get cable TV in time.
Notably absent on that schedule, of course, are the Giro and the Vuelta, grand tours I actually prefer over the Tour at times. For those, you may have to turn to Universal. If history is an indicator, it may be that you have no choice but to opt for streaming video, for a fee. I’ve actually long been a fan of streaming video and, yes, I agree it can be dodgy at times. Nonetheless, the quality has been improving over the years and with the 13mb connection I have, even out here in the wilds of Wyoming, I can often not tell the difference between that and regular TV.
Frankly, I am not sure what the future of cycling – or any other programming for that matter – might be on traditional television. With improving web technology and the à la carte menu of programming available on the web these days, we long ago abandoned cable TV in our house. I am not sure that’s a realistic option for all, since most traditional orb sports (football, baseball and basketball) tend to be limited to cable and broadcast TV. But since I never watch those anyway, it was an easy call for us to make.
Assuming your à la carte menu of programming includes a healthy dose of bike racing, it’s worth bookmarking Steephill.tv. The Steven Hill, the guy in charge of the site, works his tail off to provide you with a list of options available to television viewers, web watchers and even those who like to get a text feed on their phones (or the office computer during working hours). Indeed, Hill has even included a link to my own LiveUpdateGuy.com when I offer coverage.
Speaking of LUG, by the way, I will probably do some live coverage in advance of the grand tours this year. I am still working on the details and coordinating with friends, colleagues and photographers to get the necessary elements in line to do Paris-Roubaix. If we get the kinks worked out, you’ll be able to access that feed right here on Red Kite Prayer. As usual, I don’t offer much video (unless you count Monty Python’s “Bicycle Repairman!” sketch as cycling video), but I do try to keep a running update of current race details, strategies and the usual commentary that occasionally devolves into snark. Stay tuned to RKP or LiveUpdateGuy.com for further details.
What happened to civility?
Good evening Charles,
Hope all is well for you and family out in Wyoming!
I read a comment today from Jose’ Azevedo about the stage 3 debacle in Catalunya that got me wondering something. Jose’ was talking about the crash that happened 5k into the stage and said something to the effect that the peloton would usually wait for everyone to get back on their bikes. “Not anymore. There was no waiting. It’s a war out there every day and there is no solidarity. It’s unbelievable,” he said.
Was / is there a “gentlemen’s agreement” in the peloton to cover things like this? I’ve heard this bit of etiquette mentioned before as in “no attacks when the leader takes a nature break or no attacks in the feed zone.
Is chivalry truly dead?
Every few years, cycling turns its attention to the “unwritten rules of the peloton” or the “gentelmen’s agreement” not to profit from the misfortunes of others.
Most of us recall that the subject came up more than once in the 2010 Tour de France. Remember the peloton-wide neutralization that occurred on Stage 2 from Brussels to Spa in Belgium? With Sylvain Chavanel off the front, riders in the peloton were involved in as many as 60 crashes on narrow and slippery roads. Race leader Fabian Cancellara, with the support of many others in the field, moved to the front and slowed the entire peloton to what Britain’s Telegraph newspaper described as a “grandfatherly” pace.
Riders had concluded that it was both dangerous to ride on those roads at speed and that it was unfair to the many crash victims to attack at such an inopportune moment, especially that early in a three-week grand tour. Fans’ reactions were mixed, as I recall, with some applauding the decision and others suggesting the riders were either lazy or cowards (an easy critique usually offered from the comfort of a living room couch).
Flash forward two weeks later, on Stage 15 from Pamiers to Bagnères-de-Luchon, when race leader Andy Schleck famously dropped his chain as he neared the top of the Port de Bales. Denis Menchov and Alberto Contador moved past Schleck and we suddenly had what we now call “chaingate” (the “gate” element being Richard Nixon’s lasting contribution to the English language, I guess). Contador denied knowing that Schleck had suffered a mechanical and, if true, I certainly can’t fault his DS for not radioing him the news and asking him to wait. Schleck’s net loss was right around the amount of time by which he lost the overall Tour title, so the controversy has stayed alive … even now, since Schleck has since been declared the winner of that edition of the Tour (for reasons we all know).
I think another terrific example of how the “unwritten rules” come into play is the 11th stage of the 2004 Vuelta a España. As is common in the Vuelta, the day’s attacks started early that day and Dave Zabriskie (U.S. Postal) went off on his own by the fifth kilometer. Not long after he slipped away, there was a crash that took out Alejandro Valverde (Kelme), who was second on GC (behind Zabriskie’s teammate Floyd Landis) and leading the combined classification at the time. Out of respect for the injuries Valverde suffered the peloton rode the entire stage at a relatively moderate pace, while Zabriskie was off on his own, riding what turned out to be a 161km individual time trial.
Now contrast that stage and stage 2 at the 2010 Tour with the second stage of the 1999 Tour de France. Recall that the stage included the now infamous Passage du Gois. Timed to coincide with low tide, the route took riders across a rough, slippery 3km road that spends a good portion of the day under water. Sure enough there was a big crash involving dozens of riders, including GC contender Alex Zülle (Banesto), who eventually finished second overall, by a margin roughly equivalent to the time he lost that day.
Those that escaped the carnage (including that year’s overall winner) didn’t hesitate for a moment. Unwritten rules or no, they punched it and they punched it hard. Early in the Tour and the GC had already been shaken up quite seriously. Depending on your perspective, it was ungentlemanly behavior … or, as they say, “that’s bike racing.”
And that brings me to the question you raised. Is cycling more or less civilized now? The problem with “unwritten rules” and “gentlemen’s agreements” is that they’re unwritten. The behavior is dictated by tradition. There are times when tradition still plays a role. There are plenty of recent examples of when it did. Other times it won’t. There are plenty of examples when it didn’t … even in the Golden Years of cycling. Competitors in any sport face an array of pressures from directors, sponsors and fans and sometimes, that can all combine to cause some to forget the dictates of tradition.
Frankly, I don’t see a significant lessening of compliance with those unwritten rules of the peloton. The history of the sport is rife with examples dating back to its origins of riders taking advantage of others’ misfortunes to move up on GC. We tend to forget a lot of those and at times recall only those memorable incidents when our long-passed heroes of the road rode and acted under a code of cycling chivalry. I think rather than a general decline in civility, though, I can attribute much of it to our somewhat selective memories.
Photo Credit: William Walker
The Explainer is a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
Follow me on Twitter: @Charles_Pelkey
When pro team directors complain about the UCI’s almost total ban on race radios, they say that without radios they can’t get essential information to their riders, especially when the race is in a state of flux. What they rarely mention is the role played by the motorcycle-mounted blackboard man.
There’s nothing high tech about this official’s job, which has barely changed over the past 50 years. All he does [editor's note: le Tour put into action its first female ardoisier at the 2011 edition of the race] is sit on the backseat of a motorcycle, constantly writing on the blackboard the time gaps between groups, the distance covered, and the bib numbers of the riders in the breakaways. That board is shown to the riders in the peloton before the motorcyclist accelerates up to the front of the race to give the leaders the same information — which is also relayed by Radio Tour to all the team cars.
It’s up to the riders on how to react to that information. They can make a decision on their own, discuss a course of action with teammates in their group, or call up their team car to hear what their director has to say. That’s how all pro races were conducted until 20 years ago — when teams began using radio communication, which allows teammates to chat with each other via their earpieces, or the director to give his riders tactical advice without having to drive up to the head of the race convoy.
Early in my time as a cycling journalist, I often traveled on the back of a race motorcycle, filling my notebook with race information while also working as a blackboard man. My most memorable gig was doing this double duty at the world road championships when they first came to Great Britain in 1970. The course was based on the Mallory Park motor racing circuit near Leicester, England. And my driver was the highly experienced Alf Buttler, with whom I’d ridden on races all over the country.
Doing the worlds was a big responsibility, of course, but it was also a personal thrill to be showing the blackboard to a field that included Tour de France winners Felice Gimondi and Eddy Merckx. At one point, a couple of 15km laps from the finish, Merckx whistled to Alf from the peloton, so we slowed down to give the Belgian superstar enough time to study the list of riders in a breakaway that had just formed. He saw that his Italian rival Gimondi was up there, but so was his talented young teammate Jean-Pierre Monseré — who was Belgium’s latest phenom, having won the Tour of Lombardy classic in his rookie season of 1969 — along with Leif Mortensen of Denmark, Charly Rouxel of France and Britain’s Les West.
Merckx could probably have jumped across to the break on the rolling course, but with star teammates such as Walter Godefroot, Frans Verbeeck, Roger De Vlaeminck and Herman Vanspringel still in the pack with him, he knew that his team had more than enough power to close the break down if they needed to. And he was confident that the 21-year-old Monseré had the talent to beat Gimondi and the others in the small breakaway group.
Both Alf and I were hoping that the “unknown” rider in that move, British national champ West, could surprise the others with one of his hallmark late attacks. We could see he was itching to try something, despite this being the longest race (272km) he’d ever ridden. We had the best seat in the house, shuttling between break and bunch, first showing the leaders the board, then stopping to take a time check with my stopwatch (this was long before GPS was invented!), writing the new information on the board before moving back alongside the riders in the peloton, and finally accelerating back to the break.
The leaders did stay away. West did make a late attack — but was caught in the final straight and came in fourth. And Monseré did win the final sprint to take the rainbow jersey, with Merckx coming home in 29th. (Monseré was expected to be one of cycling’s great classics riders, but the following spring, in a small Belgian race, he tragically died after a collision with a private car that had wandered onto the course.)
All of this happened long before radio communication first came to the peloton in the early 1990s and became ubiquitous by the early 2000s. Two-way communication between riders and their directors is regarded as essential by most teams, but the UCI management committee felt that the radios were taking away the element of surprise in racing, and that racers were simply following orders and losing the tactical expertise that had always been a key component of a winning rider’s arsenal.
A phased-in ban on race radios was started three years ago and led to an emotionally charged debate between the UCI and ProTeam directors through 2010 and much of 2011. Last September, the proposed complete ban on radio communication was put on hold until the end of 2012 as both sides of the argument are examined. The teams would like intra-team radio communication to be restored to all pro races, while the UCI wants them banned completely.
At present, radios are only permitted in UCI WorldTour races, including this coming week’s Paris-Nice. The team managers say that radios make the racing safer because they can warn riders instantly of any hazards on the road ahead. UCI management argues that racing is more predictable and less interesting when team directors pull the strings and riders stop thinking for themselves.
There may be a practical solution. Instead of just one blackboard man, major races could have two or even three such officials riding alongside the different groups. And rather than blackboards, they could carry iPad-type boards that could display warnings of upcoming road hazards along with the basic race updates.
Using such technology, the teams would know that their riders were not only getting the race information they needed, as Merckx and his teammates did at the 1970 worlds, but also learning of any safety concerns. Meanwhile, the UCI would know that riders were having to think for themselves again and not being treated like robots.
And all of us can get to see what happens in races this spring. Will the non-radio races, such as this coming Saturday’s Strade Bianche classic in Italy, be more exciting than the with-radio WorldTour events? Will the WorldTour races be safer because of radio communication? The debate is on … and maybe high-tech blackboards are the solution.
Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWilcockson
So far we’ve covered Men of the Hour and Up-and-Comers as part of our 2012 Season Preview; now it’s time for a list of the riders and teams who find themselves “on the hot seat” heading into the 2012 season.
Andy Schleck—It’s rarely a good thing when you’re being compared to Joop Zoetemelk. But that’s just the awkward place in which Radio Shack-Nissan’s Andy Schleck finds himself heading into the 2012 season. Schleck has now finished as runner-up at the Tour de France four times*. The good news: Contador’s not racing and Schleck will find himself leading a stronger squad with nine-time Tour de France winning DS Johan Bruyneel driving the team car. The bad news: he’s running out of excuses. And with a 2012 Tour route that emphasizes time trialing over climbing, Schleck could soon find himself one race away from equaling Zoetemelk’s record of six second-place finishes. Then again, even Joop won the race once.
(*Andy’s not counting 2010 as a victory, and neither am I.)
Janez Brajkovic—Two seasons ago Slovenia’s Janez Brajkovic won the Criterium du Dauphiné for Team RadioShack with an impressive mix of climbing and time trialing; at the time he looked to be Johan Bruyneel’s next grand tour champion. But cycling’s a cruel sport and a year later Brajkovic found himself lying on the side of the road during Stage 5 of the 2011 Tour de France; his injuries sent him home less than a week into the Tour. The 28-year-old now rides for Astana, a squad that will welcome another GC contender to ride alongside Roman Kreuziger. Assuming Kreuziger targets the 2012 Giro d’Italia (a race in which he finished sixth last year), Brajkovic might find little stands between him and another chance at Tour leadership.
BMC—Earlier I included BMC on my list of Men of the Hour—and they deserve the distinction. But they also find themselves on the Hot Seat—here’s why:
- Philippe Gilbert, Cadel Evans, and Thor Hushovd will draw intense scrutiny after their 2011 exploits. The only feat more impressive than Gilbert’s 2011 season would be repeating the feat in 2012. As for Evans, he’ll soon find that winning a Tour is one thing, while defending the title is an entirely different proposition (just ask Carlos Sastre and history’s other 1-time winners). And Thor? Well, he did a quite bit of talking in 2011 about how unhappy he was at Garmin-Cervelo. Now he gets to show us what he can do while riding for a team where he feels his “leadership” is safe and secure.
- America’s great young hopes—Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen—need to show some progression in 2012. Phinney needs to turn his lessons from 2011 into results in 2012 while Van Garderen needs to win a week-long stage race—Paris-Nice would be a fantastic start.
- Aging and former stars such as George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan will fight to stay relevant just within their own squad. I’m still holding out hope that Thor’s arrival will give Hincapie the leash he needs to win Roubaix. As for Ballan, his continued presence on the roster surprises me considering his lack of results and the continued investigation of his role in the Mantova doping case.
- Last, but not least: chemistry. It takes a lot to manage the egos and aspirations of a professional cycling team, let alone a squad with so many high-profile stars. Evans, Gilbert, and Hushovd have all had moments where they appeared unable to play well with others—or at least unable to do so while keeping their mouths shut about it. Jim Ochowicz and the rest of BMC’s management will need to anticipate flare-ups before they happen and work quickly to extinguish problems before they spread.
Mark Cavendish—British rider, British team, World Champion, London Olympics—assuming he makes it through the Tour unscathed, Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish will likely face more Olympic pressure than any rider has ever known. With two stage wins in Qatar, at least he’s off to a good start.
Riders with Names Ending in “-ov”—In particular, I’m thinking of Alexandre Vinokourov, Alexandr Kolobnev, and Denis Menchov. As for Vino, he’s trying to end his career with some measure of respect at Astana, while putting behind him the “allegations” that he bought the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege from Alexandr Kolobnev (who’s been provisionally suspended for testing positive for masking agents at the 2011 Tour de France). Denis Menchov made a major career mistake when he transferred from Rabobank to Geox-TMC after a 2010 season that saw him finish third in the Tour de France. Unfortuantely, the supposed skeletons in the closets of Geox’s management meant there would be no Tour de France for the Spanish squad, so Menchov found himself sitting at home in July; he finished 8th in the Giro and 5tht in the Vuelta, but failed to make a major impact in either race. This year he finds himself riding for Katusha and should get another crack at leading a team the Tour. Believe it or not, the parcours suits him quite well, and another podium shot is certainly well within his reach.
Italy—Italians won 102 races in 2011, but few of any import. Worse still, the country’s grand tour riders came up empty after winning the Giro and the Vuelta in 2010. So it should come as no surprise that changes are in store for 2012. First, Liquigas rider Ivan Basso seems to have given-up on his Tour de France dreams; the 34-year-old has instead set his sights on winning his third Giro d’Italia. As for Vincenzo Nibali, the Tour de France was supposed to be his big goal for 2012; he finished 7tht in 2009 and has learned how to win and lose a grand tour in the two seasons since his breakthrough. That said, Nibali hasn’t ruled-out the Giro d’Italia either, an interesting proposition considering his toughest rival might also be his teammate.
In the classics, another poor season for Filippo Pozzato lost him his World Tour ride; he now leads Farnese-Vini, a team whose prospects—and race invitations—seemed to be improving until the charismatic,but frustrating, Italian “star” broke his collarbone. More weeks of training down the drain. Damiano Cunego still seems years away from his former race-winning self and Alessandro Ballan? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
But of all the Italians feeling pressure to perform in 2012, national team coach Paolo Bettini is likely to be feeling it the most. He’ll have two chances to redeem himself in 2012: the Olympics and Worlds. If he can’t do it, look for a change at the helm of the federation’s national squad.
Thomas Voeckler—Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler will be hard-pressed to re-create his Tour de France heroics from 2011. Let’s hope he doesn’t really take his Tour prospects seriously enough to sacrifice his chances in other races, as he’s one of the sport’s most exciting stars.
Monument Race Organizations—Changing the route or the date of a Monument is never a popular decision, but in 2012 we’ll see significant alterations to two of the sport’s oldest and most prestigious races. First off, the organizers of April’s Tour of Flanders have decided that the traditional Muur/Bosberg finale is too…predictable? Easy? Boring? To be honest, I’m not really sure what they were thinking, but if this year’s “new and improved” set of finishing circuits doesn’t lead to a spectacular win for either Philippe Gilbert or Tom Boonen, there will be hell to pay in Oudenaarde.
As for Italy’s “Race of the Falling Leaves”, il Lombardia (a name I’m still getting used to saying), a move to September means the leaves won’t be falling anymore. The UCI is hoping that an earlier date will see more in-form riders contest the late-season event, even if the scenery proves to be a less spectacular. The switch has a better chance of producing a more exciting race than the changes to Flanders do, but the sport’s purists are still shaking their heads.
Campagnolo—With more and more teams choosing Shimano or SRAM for their components, Campagnolo has to be feeling some pressure to remain relevant. Of the 18 teams in this year’s World Tour, only three (Lotto-Belisol, Lampre-ISD, and Movistar) will be riding the Italian groupsets in 2012 (Team Europcar, one of the sport’s better Professional Continental squads, will be racing Campy as well). The company’s new EPS electronic group was beginning to generate a bit of buzz—and then SRAM introduced its new Red grouppo and stole most of the spotlight. Campy’s still relying on decades of cachet to drive sales, but one has to wonder if they can keep up.
Team NetApp—They won one race last year—the time trial at the 2.2 Tour Gallipoli. They barely made a ripple at last year’s Amgen Tour of California—one of the biggest events on their calendar. Now they’re riding the Giro d’Italia? If the Giro had a Super PAC, Net App would have just made a significant donation.
Bjarne Riis—Even with a suspension and the loss of two grand tour titles, Alberto Contador will be just fine. As for Bjarne Riis and Team Saxo Bank-Sunguard? Well, that’s another issue entirely. It seems that Riis is almost always struggling to find new sponsors to help his team survive from one season to the next; now he faces six months without his Spanish star and the possible loss of his team’s World Team license. There were rumors circulating that Stefano Garzelli might sign with Saxo Bank after his Acqua & Sapone squad was not invited to the Giro d’Italia. Given Garzelli’s track record at the Italian grand tour, that might not be a bad option for the Danish general manager.
Who’s on your Hot Seat? Share your comments below.
Follow me on Twitter: @WhitYost
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
This seems to be the week of doping news. First, Armstrong’s investigation is dropped. Then Contador’s case is overturned and the rider is suspended and stripped of wins he accrued while apparently riding clean. Moments ago it was announced that Jeannie Longo Ciprelli’s home was the subject of a doping raid. And what will tomorrow bring? Well, the proverbial other shoe will finally drop in the Jan Ullrich case. Ullrich? Remember him?
Whether you believe Lance Armstrong raced on bread and water or was as supercharged as a Corvette, the case wound to a close with nothing like a conclusion. What we’re faced with is a succession of doping scandals with finishes that can’t be called resolutions. No matter whose side you’re on in any of these cases, you’re probably not happy with the outcome.
In any discussion of doping and cycling the conversation seems to take an inevitable turn. “What if there were no rules against doping?” It’s impossible to discuss the toping without something electing to remove the moral implications of cheating and just asking the obvious question of what the ramifications might be if we simply allowed professional cyclists to take oxygen-vector drugs, anabolic agents, amphetamines, pain killers and—holy cow—even cortisone.
It’s the ultimate parallel universe fantasy for cyclists. No ethical dilemmas. No charges of morally repugnant cheating, just a scenario in which the absolute fastest guy is the winner.
Allow me a brief digression if you will. While I consider myself an athlete and someone interested in many forms of physical fitness, body building has always creeped me out in the same way that shows on surgery do. I’m fascinated at some visceral level, but before I can examine anything truly interesting I get so grossed out I have to flip the channel.
Some years ago I found myself in the curious circumstance of dating someone who worked for a bodybuilder in his 60s. Yes, you read that right. Body builder. Sixties. He could have bench pressed me for an hour, maybe two. He, and his numerous friends, were “naturals.” No, don’t think hippy commune; he and his friends used no anabolic agents. And the funny thing was that they didn’t need testing to tell the difference. It was readily apparent in the physiques of competitors. The “naturals” didn’t have the crazily herniated muscles that seemed to bulge to the point of an unprotected astronaut’s head in outer space. Pop!
Here’s what surprised me, I found the physiques of the naturals interesting to behold. They had arguably done the same amount of work to get to the competition and for the guys in the open categories, you’d see someone rather Incredible Hulk looking alongside a guy who wouldn’t frighten children. It was a juxtaposition on the order of eagle and pterodactyl. Yep, both birds, but….
I could identify with the naturals at some elemental level. I suspect looking at the juiced up guys had the same effect on me that looking at kiddie porn would. It just felt wrong, not something I wanted to continue to gaze at.
Okay, with that out of the way, let me pose a scenario: Suppose that two different Tours de France were run in 2013. Let’s imagine that WADA folds and Pat McQuaid throws in the towel and allows the rise of a top-fuel category. On July 1 there are two different pelotons ready to roll. Both have adequate TV coverage ensured for the three weeks of the race.
And let’s pose yet another hypothetical: Suppose for an instant that you had time enough in your day to watch as much of both different races as you wanted. Say four hours or more.
Would you really watch all of both races? Or would you favor one over the other?
I know what I would watch.
Sure, I’d tune in to the top-fuel race. But I’d do it for the prologue, a couple of sprints and then the odd mountain stage. At a certain level it would be kind of like watching top-fuel dragsters. It’s cool at first, but after a while that straight track gets boring. I find grand prix and touring car racing much more interesting. And World Rally Championship? Whoo-ee! Put real-world challenges in a race and that has a big effect on my interest level.
So, I’d be glued to the natural race. I can identify with those guys. They are me with more talent and discipline. I understand the choices they’ve made. The guys in the natural race have a similar, if not the same, moral compass I do. That matters to me.
You see, I don’t think you can ever completely repeal the taint of doping. There will always be a threshold you’ll have to voluntarily cross. Some of those willing to cross it never saw it in the first place. To some, cheating is a semantic point, a distinction of no great import. Racing, after all, is about winning and losing. Right?
Let’s try this a different way: I couldn’t ride with a guy who was a bike thief. Similarly, someone who will do anything possible to be as fast as possible isn’t someone I understand. That inability to see how respecting a social contract is an important part of how a community derives strength by creating bonds between people means that he and I simply won’t connect. If that part of the social contract is meaningless, then what about the other bits? Is my car safe? Is he going to try to seduce my wife? Where does it end?
So those guys in the top-fuel division? I’ll never really understand that thinking and as a result, I’ll never really understand those riders. But understanding them isn’t even really the issue.
Drug testing, after all, was a response to a PR nightmare that makes the current flaps over Armstrong and Contador seem like spelling bee cheating. The major events that have led to overhauls in drug testing were deaths. No scandal is worse for the sport than a death. One need look back no further than the 2011 death of Wouter Weylandt at the Giro; there wasn’t a news outlet that didn’t cover the tragedy that day. Instantly, our non-cycling friends asked us why we participated in such a dangerous sport.
And that’s the rub. Any time an athlete dies—no matter the cause—sport is scrutinized. This isn’t specific to cycling. In a world where all doping is okay, rider deaths would surely increase. Given the blind eye and lip service Hein Verbruggen paid to the heart-attack deaths of Dutch cyclists in the early 1990s due to EPO, it’s unlikely the UCI would feel any great motivation to address the issue. That leaves the audience, teams and sponsors to deal with the fallout.
When you consider the devastation that a rider’s death plows in his family, his team and through the company personnel at each of his team’s sponsors, it wouldn’t take long before family, fans and sponsors would begin to cry out for an end to the deaths. But as we know from the studies performed by researcher Bob Goldman, more than 50 percent of Olympic athletes have said they would take a drug that would ensure they would win a gold medal—even if it was guaranteed to kill them within five years of taking it.
While we don’t know if you can transpose those results 100 percent to the pro peloton, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that if that drug was available something like half of our living Tour de France champions would be dead today.
Hannah Arendt wrote, “No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes.” And if death is not a punishment, then nothing is. We can’t depend on the athletes to choose sanity, so we must do it for them.