A little over a week ago I wondered aloud in a Tweet if the Amaury Sport Organization might make a preemptive move against Radio Shack and withdraw the team’s invitation to the Tour de France. It would be an incredible blow to the team, but in the wake of Floyd Landis’ accusations against Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel, Levi Leipheimer and others, were the organizers to take Landis’ accusations as credible, history suggests they might just take such action.
Responses all ran the vein of ‘dead wrong.’ And yet now we have Team Radio Shack being denied a spot in the Vuelta a Espana. Like Garmin-Transitions, Radio Shack joined the ProTour since the 2008 agreement forged between the UCI and the organizers of the Grand Tours in which the UCI and the ProTour teams acknowledged the autonomy of the organizers to select only those teams they see fit.
Selections are not made in a vacuum. To help the organizers gauge a team’s potential competitive power, each team is asked to submit a roster of riders likely to ride the event. After all, if you’re Unipublic and you learn a team will send the same nine riders who rode both the Giro and Tour (not that that has ever happened), you’d be within your rights to conclude that team would be too tired to be truly competitive. Bruyneel’s short list of riders he submitted was an all-star squad: Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner and Janez Brajkovic. Radio Shack also skipped the Giro d’Italia this year with an eye toward riding the Tour of California and just two Grand Tours.
Bruyneel says he was “speechless” when he learned of the exclusion. Representatives for Unipublic, the organizers of the Vuelta said they left Radio Shack because the team would not be competitive.
It’s true that Radio Shack has been criticized for not being more competitive this year, but let’s take a moment to measure them against the six teams that were invited to the Vuelta by wildcard and their ranking in the world according to the UCI:
Team Katusha: second
Cervelo Test Team: ninth
Sky Professional Cycling Team: 17th
Xacobeo Galicia: unranked
Radio Shack, following Brajkovic’s victory at the Criterium du Dauphiné, is ranked eighth in the world. Prior to that they were ranked 14th.
In his The History of the Tour de France, Volume I, Bill McGann writes that one of the key features that makes the Tour a better race than the other two Grand Tours is that its organizers have largely avoided petty, nationalistic spats that have hurt the other races.
I’d have to say that’s at work once again. In 2006, the ASO refused to allow nine riders to start the race due to their alleged involvement in Operacion Puerto. Because five of those riders were members of the Astana-Wurth team it fell below the minimum number to start the race, so some thirteen riders didn’t start the Tour.
It’s no secret that since the 2009 Tour Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel have been portrayed in the media as public enemy nos. 1 and 2. Whether most Spanish cycling fans feel that way is harder to say, but Marca and As have done much to foster the conflict between Contador and Bruyneel/Armstrong.
It’s impossible to say what Unipublic’s motivations are for the exclusion. No one would be surprised if the snub were as a result of the Landis allegations. It seems that most of Europe will concede both that he’s crazy and telling the truth about his drug use and the drugs he alleges Lance Armstrong took as well. However, Unipublic took a different approach saying that Radio Shack wouldn’t be competitive. I’m sorry, but you could send Chris Horner to almost any race in Europe aboard a Schwinn Varsity and he would still be competitive.
Of the six teams invited by wild card, only Team Katusha was more highly ranked in the world standings. We can objectively refute the organizer’s claims that Radio Shack would not be competitive. Put another way, as good a year as Garmin-Transitions seems to be having (Tyler Farrar is having a truly breakout season), in winning both the Tour of the Basque Country and the Criterium du Dauphiné (not to mention third at the Amgen Tour of California), Radio Shack is having a better season; at least, that’s what the UCI’s numbers say.
Had Unipublic declared that they believe Floyd Landis and harbor too many suspicions about Armstrong, Bruyneel and the rest to allow their race to be besmirched by the presence of a team under such strong suspicion, some racers, officials and many fans would have cried foul. However, such a decision is not without precedent—think 2007 Astana—and given the number of inquiries opened up into the pasts of so many former US Postal riders, many people wouldn’t have flinched at the announcement. More importantly, the decision, while presumptuous, wouldn’t have smacked of the irrational.
But Unipublic didn’t do that. They claimed that Radio Shack wasn’t competitive enough. That’s like saying Los Angeles doesn’t have enough roads. Everyone knows that’s crazy talk, and unfortunately the damage it does is three-fold. Radio Shack loses an opportunity to try to win a second Grand Tour in a season. Racing fans lose an opportunity to see racing influenced by what would be almost surely a dominant team, and Unipublic loses some of the respect we reserve for events whose integrity we believe helps to elevate sport beyond mere entertainment.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
When Jonathan Vaughters’ fledgling PRO team first went to Europe, all who watched closely enough to care asked a single question: Will they win? It’s an unsurprising question. Any time a team ventures from any Anglophone country to Europe to race, fans wonder what races they might win.
However, in the case of what was then Slipstream Sports, the question had a subtext. What people wondered wasn’t so much whether a predominantly American team run by the single most dapper director in the sport could beat the Euros at their own game. No, the question was whether a team that was so conspicuously, laboriously clean could win a bike race.
Slipstream, in other words, was a crucible. As the most believably clean program in the sport, if they won, it would be proof that it was possible to race at the ProTour level and win clean. If they failed, then winning clean was doomed as an ideal. Kill that hope, and you might well be killing the sport for many.
Of all the criticisms I’ve heard of the Garmin-Transitions team—and I’ve heard many—the one I’ve heard most often was that they don’t win. They don’t win big stuff; they don’t win decisively. Sure, there are criticisms that Millar has never returned to his form of old, that Danielson will never fulfill the promise of his gifts, but they have just been scapegoats for the program’s larger lack of high-profile wins to shut the doubters up.
I think, maybe, the time has come to give Vaughters his due.
In a single day, Garmin-Transitions swept the stages of the two biggest bike races going on in the world.
In stage 10 of the Giro d’Italia, Tyler Farrar won the stage following a burned-rubber lead out from teammate Julian Dean. He out-sprinted Robbie McEwen, a notoriously proficient freelancer who can pirate anyone else’s lead out train to his benefit. He also bested Andre Greipel, Robert Forster and Danilo Hondo. At this point, just about the only guy Farrar hasn’t beaten in a head-to-head sprint is Mark Cavendish. He also leads the points competition. In short, anyone with any remaining doubts about Farrar’s real talent can sit down.
Less than nine hours later the unthinkable happened. David Zabriskie, one of the most talented time trialists to ever wear the stars and bars, a guy so known for his prowess on a second-by-second basis that he has been almost completely written off as a road racer, surprised everyone by jumping hard—not to mention insanely early—and held off Levi Leipheimer and Michael Rogers for the stage win in Santa Cruz. Zabriskie donned the leader’s jersey, climbing to the top of the general classification for the first time ever in the Tour of California. Though he twice finished the race in second place overall (2006 and 2009), it didn’t seem that too many media outlets (or fans) took him seriously as a real contender for the win.
His win in stage three seems to have made people re-think his potential.
One day, two wins, two jerseys. ProTour teams are supposed to have depth enough to be competitive at two races at once, but to sweep the day’s racing isn’t just good, we usually call it dominant.
The Monuments—capital M—are supposed to be more than just bike races. They are the kings of the Spring Classics, races that transcend the riders who contest them. They are the days that we hope for mythic battles, crucibles that illustrate the constants of the universe, like how you never show your hand before the call.
Done right, the Monuments pit the very finest riders of the peloton against one another in a battle that kills off all the pretenders before the plus-size gal hits the stage. Occasionally, an interloper steals the show, and while that may seem to spoil the fun, it’s the grape seed that gives the wine its body.
Witness Jacky Durand’s victory at Flanders in 1992. His early escape was the mandatory suicide break meant to get Castorama some TV time, no more. Somehow, the plucky Frenchman stuck the break and rolled to the finish screaming, “Je gagne! Je gagne!” (I won! I won!) in one of the great displays of utter disbelief.
It is just such a win by Durand that made the 2010 Ronde Van Vlaanderen one for the ages. On the one hand we had two-time victor Tom Boonen coming off a very fine second place at Milan-San Remo and showing a renewed focus to his craft. On the other was the man who seems to be ticking off world-beating accomplishments like a grocery list: World Championship (2), check. Olympic Gold Medal, check. Paris-Roubaix, check. Milan-San Remo, check. Next up: the Tour of Flanders.
Fabian Cancellara came into the race declaring that if he won only a single race this year, he wanted Flanders. Those who witnessed Cancellara’s stage 3 victory in the 2007 Tour de France or his stunning descent to catch the breakaway in the Olympic road race that led to his bronze medal are familiar with the will power of the man they call Spartacus.
This one was the quintessential battle—McLaren vs. Ferrari. Say what you want about Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar, Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert, even the unexpected performance of Bjorn Leukemans of Vacansoleil or the brief shining light of Farrar’s teammate David Millar—they were all pretenders on the day.
We got a number of great comments, but the one that struck me as the most eerily true was Lachlan’s observation that the average group ride more closely mimics Flanders and Roubaix than they do actual amateur races. He’s onto something with that. It explains to a great degree my decision to stop racing, and is yet another insight into why the Gran Fondo experience is increasingly attractive to riders.
I’ve seen a few different numbers bandied about for Cancellara’s two attacks and whether he was turning 550 watts or more than 600 watts isn’t even close to the point. If you were to compare the average amateur racer to a V6 engine, Cancellara was a V12.
My absolute favorite quote on the day came from runner-up Tom Boonen who was nothing but complimentary of Cancellara’s victory and put the winner’s success into perspective by saying, “I was riding 55kph and I wasn’t getting any closer.”
What of our other predictions and hopes? While I thought it a pipe dream that any English-speaking rider might win Flanders, U.S. riders had, arguably, the best day they’ve ever had at Flanders by placing both fifth (Farrar) and sixth (Hincapie). And let’s give Vacansoleil rider Bjorn Leukemans big props for pulling out just the sort of ride that can embarrass the ASO; no one said anything about a Vacansoleil rider even finishing the race, let alone being part of a three-man break that dumped David Millar on the muur. Nice piece of work, that.
As for the other big names: Flecha, Hushovd, Devolder, they just weren’t in the class of Cancellara and Boonen.
So what do these performances do for Roubaix? Well the odds makers have taken note. Maybe Boonen won’t be so quick to say, “When you race me, you race for second.”
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Among American cycling fans Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Slipstream formation has enjoyed the loyal love afforded a hometown team. That love has been based more on the team being “American” than on having actually kicked a lot of ass.
Of course, it isn’t the only ProTour team registered in the U.S., as Bob Stapleton’s Columbia-HTC team is based in San Luis Obispo, California. However, despite an American owner and one of two title sponsors being American, most cycling fans still perceive the team as European for two simple reasons: Most of its sport directors came from the former T-Mobile team and it has almost no American riders.
Critics of the team have noted a dissonance between the amount of media attention Garmin garners wherever it goes, and its results. The undercurrent being—the team really hasn’t earned its status.
Many of the headlines the team has generated have come as a result of its outspoken anti-doping stance. On paper there are several teams with anti-doping programs as stringent as Garmin’s, but Jonathan Vaughters is the media’s go-to guy for quotes on how to run a clean cycling team. To be fair, no one else is as articulate on the challenges a pro cyclist faces or the mixed signals a rider might receive when trying to balance the need to produce results with the need to recover.
Until recently, most of the team’s wins have come in stages of smaller stage races and four national championships. A stage win and the leader’s pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia were all it claim for Grand Tour performances beyond a host of top-five finishes in stages and general classification.
But in less than a week two different riders, Tyler Farrar and Ryder Hesjedal, won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, giving the team its first Grand Tour stage wins. Back home, the team defended its title at the Tour of Missouri with David Zabriskie’s time trial win that culminated in overall victory. It was the first stage race victory for the talented time trialist.
Unless you’ve been sleeping through September, you know all that. Why bother to note this? There are a great many teams with little ability to win outside of their star rider. Garmin-Slipstream won stages in two different stage races—meaning two different squads—despite the fact that Christian Vande Velde had to withdraw from the Tour of Missouri.
It’s been easy to slag on Tom Danielson for his failed promise. A probably top-10 at the Vuelta doesn’t measure up to the promises that he would be America’s next Tour de France winner, after Lance Armstrong, of course. That said, until he was struck with a virus, he was lying fourth on the general classification. Even so, he stands to give his team its second top-10 finish in a Grand Tour this year. That may seem an achievement of dubious value but consider that Cofidis, AG2R La Mondiale, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Columbia-HTC won’t post two Grand Tour top-tens and Quick Step won’t even post one.
Tyler Farrar’s three stage wins at the Eneco Tour of Benelux are significant more for what they taught Farrar and his teammates and as a confidence-building exercise than for the wins themselves. Those wins were an imperative step toward winning his first Grand Tour stage.
For a team in only its first year of the ProTour, Garmin-Slipstream deserves recognition for the team’s rise to earned prominence. Still a darling of the media, the team has results to justify the interviews and TV time.
Photo: John Pierce, Photosport International