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.
So Omega Pharma has announced it will merge with another team. L’Equipe is reporting that there will be no Belgian superteam merger with QuickStep. Rather, the merger is likely to take place with Dutch formation Vacansoleil.
Why no announcement has been forthcoming from Vacansoleil is curious. If the deal is done enough for Omega Pharma to announce that there will be a merger, one wonders why Vacansoleil needs to wait.
Regardless, the merger is unfortunate. Any team merger—such as this season’s merging of Garmin and Cervelo—invariably results in a game of musical chairs that leaves a number of people without seats. From riders to mechanics to soigneurs, there are always some good people who are left scrambling looking for paychecks when one formation ends, and that happens even if they don’t act like Trent Lowe.
The two best Belgian climbers in a generation (or two), Jelle Vanendert and Jurgen van den Broeck are said to be headed to the new Lotto formation, and that—quelle surprise (exclaimed with not even a hint of irony)—Philippe Gilbert is headed for BMC. That’s great for Gavin Chilcott, Jim Ochowicz and Andy Rihs, but I mean, dude.
I began today thinking that today’s FGR would speculate on just what formation would join forces with Omega Pharma, but with these latest revelations, the question has changed.
If you have Philippe Gilbert, who is unquestionably the finest one-day rider of this season, at your disposal, would anything short of your personal, professional and moral bankruptcy allow Gilbert to slip from your clutches? There’s no denying that Vanendert and van den Broeck are gifted climbers but nothing signs sponsors like a win, which is something Gilbert can do against anyone, any day.
And while we’re at it, you can’t help but wonder what else BMC has up their sleeve. Are BMCs selling that much faster than Cervelos that Rihs can fund a formation with some of the world’s top riders out of his pocket without suffering the same fate as the Canadian frame maker? Not to put too fine a point on it, but multiple sources told me that team nearly bankrupted the company. Do you think Rihs is really funding the team strictly out of BMC’s operations or is he feeding it with his own money?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Race to the Sun wrapped up Sunday in the pouring rain. It was the second day of wet misery in a row, and it made for a pretty excellent race. I hate to hope for bad weather races. The boys in the peloton don’t come to my office in mid-winter, throw the windows open and eat chips while I type my daily missives with chattering fingers. Still, the technical element that bad weather adds to the racing, not to mention the way it draws the hard men out of the pack, I find completely thrilling.
Having said that, here are some impressions from Paris-Nice:
1) Tony Martin is a worthy winner. I wish I had more glowing praise to heap on the German. He’s so strong. I’m just sort of bored by guys who win races on the strength of their time trialling. It’s one thing to be a strong cyclist. It’s another to find ways to win out of the pack. The $1M questions is whether young Tony can become a Grand Tour rider, or whether he’s going to have to carve his career out of winning one week races.
2) Having said that, Thomas Voekler is a total stud. Two wins, from two breakaways. The way he dropped Diego Ulissi on the descent into Nice yesterday was all class. I also loved the way he bunny-hopped the water off his rims rather than tapping his brakes.
3) Was anyone else surprised/disappointed that RadioShack couldn’t muster any sort of attack on Martin on the last day? I never expected to see Klöden on the podium, so good for them, but they seemed to go out with a a whimper, rather than a bang.
4) Vacansoleil’s performances were solid gold all week. From de Gendt wearing the yellow jersey twice to Matteo Carrera bullying guys in the final breakaway (before breaking himself), the boys in blue were fun to watch. It made me sad they even bothered to sign Riccó and Mosquera.
5) Poor Sammy Sanchez. I really thought he was going to pull off something big yesterday, but it wasn’t to be. At least he tried. There are a few other teams in the peloton that might ask themselves if they gave enough to get a result.
6) I know I said I liked watching bad weather racing, but there was NOTHING thrilling about seeing Robert Kiserlovski wedged under a truck by the side of the road. ‘Stomach turning’ is the phrase that comes to mind. That guy’s going to need some counseling before he rides a bike again.
Meanwhile, Tirreno-Adriatico has served up more great racing (my DVR is full of it), down in Italy. Stay tuned to see if Cadel Evans can close that one out, or if one of the Liquigas boys will push him off the top step.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, author Douglas Hofstadter presents readers with an unsolvable puzzle. Naturally, Hofstadter doesn’t tell the reader that the puzzle is unsolvable. The reader is given four rules and a starting point plus a solution they are supposed to reach. The experience is confounding.
Imagine someone tells you to draw a car route from any location in the United States to the town of Palmer, Alaska. You are given a set of reasonable rules: that cars can be driven on roads, that roads lead from any location in the United States to the state of Alaska, that Palmer is a town in Alaska. Define a route to Palmer. You’d think you could do it, right? Just one problem: Palmer is landlocked; though it has roads, none lead into or out of the town. The only way to reach it is by air or ferry. A route cannot be drawn from anywhere in North American to Palmer. Such is the problem of Hofstadter’s puzzle.
Hofstadter’s treatise on the nature of intelligence won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and turned the field of computer science concerned with artificial intelligence on its head. The lesson of Hofstadter’s puzzle isn’t to defy the reader; rather it’s to teach the reader to think critically … in some applications, it could even be called suspiciously.
When I tried to solve the puzzle I struggled with it for an hour, then I tried to back from the conclusion to the beginning, attempting to reverse-engineer the problem and still couldn’t get from B to A. Only then did I begin to think that a solution wasn’t possible. Such an epiphany is Hofstadter’s introduction to the nature of recursive thought, an ability peculiar to human beings in which, put simply, we think about thinking.
I cite Hoftstadter’s book because reading it was a landmark in my education and taught me the value of thinking critically about information. I began to evaluate statements based not just on the value of the information they contained, but also on the likelihood that the statement was true or false.
I offer that as a backdrop to the revelation by Riccardo Ricco that his illness came as the likely result of a self-administered transfusion.
When Ricco returned to the pro peloton, I was apprehensive. I’m not going to quote him chapter and verse, but the body of his statements previously struck me as those of a person unrepentant in action. I wasn’t the only person to struggle with that issue; Mark Cavendish spoke forcefully of Ricco’s unrepentant nature. Let’s remember, Ricco claimed to Cyclingnews, “When I was found positive, I confessed everything. I was honest.”
Initially, he told RAI, “They searched my bags but only found some vitamins that we all use and so they decided to let me go home.”
Just a few weeks ago Ricco said “And yes, winning the Giro without doping is possible. To do that, you have to work and do your job properly.”
Okay, so we know he didn’t (do his job properly), but the stunner is that as he said that he was sitting on a bag of his own blood, so-to-speak.
This fall, coach Aldo Sassi took Ricco under his wing. Sassi is the man who famously paraphrased the bible passage on Nineveh in which he promised that we could have faith that seven cyclists were clean—his clients. Just two weeks later he added an eighth client: Riccardo Ricco.
If we take Ricco at his word—which ought to be a tenuous proposition at best, but deathbed confessions often seem to lack a certain editor—then the autologous blood transfusion he performed used blood that was just 25 days old. Perhaps this was his first autologous transfusion since re-entering the sport. Surely Sassi’s death was a blow. Perhaps he only returned to doping after Sassi died.
However, Ricco has been winning ever since his return, and this is where my experience with Gödel, Escher, Bach comes to bear: Given how he won prior to his suspension, is it reasonable for us to believe that since his return from his suspension that the only time he doped was in 2011? If we know one detail of cyclists who dope, the pattern of behavior is that those who do it, do it repeatedly. There aren’t many guys who have cleaned up as convincingly as David Millar.
There’s no way to know how tainted Ricco’s results at the Tour of Austria are; there is no just mechanism or reason to strip him of his wins, but his recent off-the-rails transfusion dulls them, but that isn’t the biggest problem with Ricco’s kidney failure.
For those of us who ponder implications, a natural question emerges: If Ricco has been doping all along (and that isn’t implausible), could Sassi have known about it?
Everything we know of Sassi’s career tells us that he coached athletes to succeed without the aid of doping. He was outspoken and principled about his dealings with athletes. Surely, he doesn’t deserve to have his reputation tarnished by Ricco, especially considering that he is unable to rise from the grave to defend himself.
And that’s the problem with Ricco; his doping leaves victims in his wake. The Saunier Duval team imploded following the expulsions of Ricco and teammate Leonardo Piepoli from the 2008 Tour de France, leaving riders and staff unemployed.
What will happen to Vacansoleil? Surely the sponsor won’t be happy about a doping controversy, even if the rider in question did help the team secure entry into the ProTeam division. One wonders just how Ricco thinks or if he considers how his actions could affect others. His seeming inability to consider the harm his actions might bring others fits the definition of sociopath.
Ricco needs to be banned from the sport for life, not because he’s likely to dope again and steal wins from deserving riders, but because another positive test has the ability to wreck careers beyond his own. We may not be able to protect him from his own stupidity, but the UCI has a duty to protect others from it.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
As some of you know, I spent most of last week flat on my back contemplating my robotic mortality and cursing whatever pig-robot (pigbot?) had found a way to infect me with its H1N1 virus. For the most part, during this time, I cut myself off from media. No TV. No interweb.
And yet, some time, mid-week, an email from my friend Gustavo at Embrocation Journal snuck through. What did I think, he wanted to know, of the Tour de France invites from ASO this year. More specifically, he wanted to confirm that I was as angry as he was that Vacansoleil and some of the other small teams (Skil-Shimano, Saur Sojasun) that have so animated the first months of the season failed to make ASO’s grade while underperforming pro teams coasted in on their good looks and the pre-existing agreement the UCI and ASO have to admit 16 of the ProTour teams to the Grand Boucle automatically.
Even in my weakened state, I was able to give Gustavo what he wanted, a frank and terse evaluation of some of the ProTour’s lesser lights, a caustic dismissal of ASO’s motives and a side swipe at some of the peloton’s new entrants.
And as I’m just getting back on my feet this week (or back on my pedals as the case may be), I thought I’d trot out some of my ideas and see if we can’t get some discussion going.
First, let me say I can’t contrive a reasonable argument for excluding Vacansoleil from the Tour. The small, Dutch Pro-Continental team, in just its second year on the road, has won the overall of the Tour of Qatar with Wouter Mol, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Bobbie Traksel and two stages of the Étoile de Bességes with Borut Bozic. Those are their wins, which tell only half the story. Vacansoleil’s riders have placed highly throughout the early season and pushed the big teams at every opportunity. They have done everything you would want a wild card Tour invitee to do and then a bit more.
Instead, ASO picked Garmin-Transitions, Team RadioShack, BMC Racing Team, Team Sky, Katusha and Cervelo TestTeam as their wild cards. If you run through this list, write down their major results for 2010 and then compare them to Vacansoleil, you’ll get very little in the way of difference. Some have won a little more. Some have won less. What you won’t see, but probably know, is that each of these teams has a great deal more money than the Dutch outfit. They’ve signed stars, so ASO imagines they’ll bring more attention to the Tour, as if the Tour suffers for a lack of attention.
Of the wild cards here, the one that actually rankles me most is RadioShack. The Shack have done a lot of not much this year. Every time their leader finds his way onto a television camera he is telling you why the race he’s about to ride is really just a tune up for the Tour and how he’s not going to push himself very hard or be very bothered by not getting a result. Meanwhile, his teammates wrack up no wins. Team RadioShack reminds me a bit of the Jackson’s Victory Tour, a money-spinning gallop across the globe by a former champion and his over-the-hill friends.
Ooooh, that’s harsh.
Still, the Shack’s value to ASO lies completely in the false rivalry between Armstrong and Contador. It’s a story that sells sponsorships, I suppose. And magazines. And yet, does anyone think Armstrong will get near el Pistolero in France this summer? The former champ has had a pretty poor buildup this season. He’s been sick. He’s been tired. And he’s been old. There are half-a-dozen riders or more that will finish above the marketing juggernaut come the final day in Paris.
On top of their lack of results, the Shack have gone about their business in that age-old Armstrong-Bruyneel way, i.e. with very little regard for any race that isn’t called the Tour de France. They’re not even racing the Giro! They’ve chosen the Tour of California “instead.” The ToC is a great race, an up-and-comer, a suitable rival for Paris-Nice and the other one week stage races, but one thing it is NOT is a good reason to skip the Giro d’Italia. A team with a budget like the Shack’s really ought to be able to contest both races anyway.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I don’t think the Shack deserves its Tour invite simply based on Armstrong’s legacy with the race and the money he’ll bring to its organizers. In the real world, those are entirely valid reasons for their inclusion. But from my perspective, they stink.
That brings us, rather unceremoniously, to the rest of the truth of this situation, which is that there a number of ProTour teams that just can’t pull their own weight. I’d name Team Milram, Footon-Servetto, Euskaltel-Euskadi among those. Because the UCI paved the way for guaranteed invitations to a group of ProTour squads in a 2008 accord that helped avoid a complete debacle in which ASO took its races and went home, they’re all in, but, if the ProTour had a minimum win number (say 10 races of a certain ranking per year), you’d see more licenses available for teams that win, but I am far from the first to suggest the UCI need a better system for promotion and relegation of pro teams.
Starting in 2011, only the first 17 teams in the UCI rankings at the end of 2010 will get guaranteed Tour invites, with the rest filled at ASO’s discretion. This may be a more equitable way of slicing the Tour pie, but, by and large, what you will end up with is still a race full of the wealthiest rather than the fastest teams. The rest can, perhaps, call Vacansoleil and book one of those summer holidays they sell when they’re not riding bicycles.
If the Group Ride were an actual race, and Padraig was the RKP DS, then I’d be climbing up the stairs of our lavishly appointed bus right now and apologizing for letting the team down on the opening day of the race season (in Belgium). Clearly, I mistimed my attack, launching the Het Nieuwsblad prediction thread only a few short hours before the race rolled out of Ghent, leaving almost no time for you, the peloton, to chase it down. Don’t worry. I’ll round into form as the season goes on.
Having said that, what a great weekend of racing. Juan Antonio Flecha busts one off with 20km to go and makes it to the line, ALONE IN PHOTO, the best way to finish. Heinrich Haussler, that yapping terrier of a rider, broke the tape second, ahead of a sprint won by Tyler Farrar, for third place.
Gee, that’s funny, no Belgians in the top three. How embarrassing.
I wonder if it has anything to do with all those Flemish hardmen spinning their wheels in the South of Spain in advance of the season, instead of in the wind and cold of their native land. Ironic, then, to be beaten by a Spaniard.
Flecha was all class, not only in winning, but also in paying tribute to his fallen friend Frank Vandenbroucke, a cheater, yes, but a cheater with a flare for the dramatic and a heart of fool’s gold.
Of course, Sunday held the survival race-themed, 2010 running of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the weather in Belgium turning from “good” to “hellish” overnight. The storm that tore across the northern lands even had a name, “Xythia,” straight out of the Chronicles of Narnia. 195 riders were on the start list. 26 finished. That’s 13% of the peloton you might call “tough.”
Apparently, temperatures in the 40s with wind gusts to 60kph are too much for the pros. Having commuted in those conditions I can confirm that they’re sub-optimal, but really boys, aren’t you being paid to race?
Bobbie Traksel (WHO?) raced and won for Vacansoleil, the Pro Continental squad’s second big win of the year after Wouter Mol took the GC in the Tour of Qatar. Kinda makes you think the smaller investment sponsorship in a Pro Con team might make more sense than the big money Pro Tour ticket, since, to this point, the top purveyor of European camping vacations has garnered more positive press than most, if not all, of the lower level Pro Tour teams.
RKP props to Thor Hushovd and Sylvain Chavanel who were among the few big names who bothered to finish K-B-K. Will it take a Norwegian and a Frenchman to teach the Belgians what it means to be hard again?
There is, of course, time for redemption. We’ve only just begun. Are you listening Tom Boonen?
Qatar rhymes with afar, which is where it is. The Tour of this tiny, wealthy, Arab emirate has slowly but surely planted itself on the ProTour calendar as an early season race worth watching, if for no other reason than to see the guys who didn’t ride in the Tour Down Under for the first time in the new year.
The question was, does the Tour of Qatar mean anything, or is it merely a warm-up for the stürm und drang of the spring? The answer you folks seem to have come up with is: yes. Both. For some it’s a way to put miles under wheels in preparation for the real races. For others, it’s the first chance to notch up wins. While some whiled away their time in the pack, chatting and acclimating to the flow of the peloton again, others sprinted in real anger, storming for the sandy line like it was the last chicken wing on the buffet.
Small teams, like GC winners Vacansoleil, have to take their wins where they can get them, and this registers as a big win for them. The sprinters who aren’t named Cavendish or Greipel took every stage, bar the opening TTT, as a chance to get their trains sorted out and their final bursts in order. Do NOT tell me that Tyler Farrar wasn’t disappointed not to take a stage. Do NOT tell me that Tom Boonen was just toying with his opposition like so many mice on the doorstep.
And so it’s a real race, for some, if not for others, but other than the Tour and Worlds, what real race is not?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The thing about Qatar, even though they don’t have any mountains (the highest point in the country is 340ft above sea level), is that it’s windy. Head winds. Tail winds. Cross winds. And they have massive air pollution from carbon dioxide emissions that come from electricity generation, sea water desalination, etc. So, despite not fitting the Euro profile for an epic race, the Tour of Qatar presents it’s own sort of challenges to the pro peloton.
Think of it as a prep for the winds of Northern Europe and the heat of Southern Spain, with all the lung choking charm of riding full tilt through Roman rush hour.
But what does the Tour of Qatar really tell us about the coming season? Tommeke Boonen took two stages there. Does that mean he’s on for the best season of his career? And who is Francesco Chicchi? The Liquigas sprinter notched two wins there as well, which is close to the average season win total for his career. Don’t even start me on the overall win for Wouter Mol (probably not his real name), who puts Pro Contintental team Vacansoleil on track to outpace a number of the Pro Tour’s lesser lights. Milram, that means you.
Or is this like preseason basketball/football/baseball/tetherball/curling/pinochle where the results mean nothing?