For as long as we’ve had bicycle racing, we’ve had off-the-bicycle drama. Three words: Lady in White. She nearly derailed Fausto Coppi’s career. Today we’ve got turf wars between doping agencies, tension between the UCI and manufacturers, conflicts between the UCI and race organizers, and, of course, squabbles between teams and race organizers.
This last, the issues between teams and race organizers should seemingly be the easiest to resolve. Independent of a team’s registration is the UCI’s ranking of teams based on the accumulation of points by the team’s five best riders. It’s an absolute, objective measure of just how good a team is, even if it does favor those teams with a limited number of chiefs over a team like HTC-Columbia that seemingly has the ability to keep other teams guessing about just who may take the day, provided they aren’t setting Cavendish up for a sprint.
As a race organizer trying to position your race as producing a true champion, the best of the best on that course, the self-serving answer is to invite the best two-dozen or so teams as ranked by the UCI. To do anything else is to dilute the field on paper. We know from experience, however, that giving unranked Spanish teams entry into the Vuelta can spark some exciting racing, so some discretion does seem reasonable. But how should that discretion be exercised?
Were a race organizer as partisan as the Spanish federation, it is conceivable that Unipublic could invite only Spanish teams to the Vuelta to ensure than an Italian doesn’t win next year. Though the racing might still be animated, it would lessen the importance of the Vuelta in our eyes, and rightfully so.
Chatter on the RadioShack/RCS tiff has tended to favor RCS. Given the way Big Tex has fallen from favor, we should perhaps not be too surprised. What is more surprising is the brush with which the entire team seems to be painted.
RCS obviously had a reason they didn’t want RadioShack to appear at the Tour of Lombardy. Let’s explore the possibilities:
1) They had been “snubbed” by RadioShack not racing the Giro, which may have felt like insult to injury after Armstrong didn’t toe the line for a much-anticipated appearance at Milan-San Remo.
2) They didn’t want a team facing such serious doping allegations to besmirch their race.
3) They lost the invitation.
So what’s wrong with #1? It’s petty. Teams have a right to decide what riders will race which races. The Shack deserves some criticism for not sending some squad to the Giro, though. They are a ProTour team and there is the expectation that such a team is capable of fielding two competitive squads simultaneously. It doesn’t seem to be an issue for HTC-Columbia. The fans deserve the best racing they can see and that means inviting them, even if you don’t like their choice of squad, which means sucking it up if Mr. Big Shot chooses the Tour of California over the Giro d’Italia. Just deal. Pros have been choosing to race the Dauphiné and the Tour of Switzerland instead of the Giro without retribution for years. Armstrong comes in for a little dressing down of his own, though: Don’t make noise about starting a race (Milan-San Remo) and not show unless you’re injured.
Okay, what’s wrong with #2? Not much, in fact. If you have a fear that your race will become the backdrop to a colossal doping scandal, you really shouldn’t be obligated to invite a team that is under large-scale investigation. This perspective is problematic, I admit, but at the end of the day, if all your sponsors pull out, you have no race, and the race’s survival trumps all else. Let us observe that this is a bigger concern for Unipublic than RCS. But there’s one caveat: Have the cajones to be honest. Don’t hide behind incompetence or lack of sporting results as an excuse.
And what’s wrong with #3? Everything. RCS didn’t “forget” the Radio Shack invitation; they forgot the contract. The team was snubbed by an organization with a short memory, and RCS was unwilling to admit it. This was proven when they (RCS) had to ask the UCI for a waiver that would allow them to include a 26th team in the race. Again, have some balls and be honest.
Look, I know that defending Armstrong on any level is more dangerous than unprotected sex with a lion. That said, talk that RadioShack is a shit team and didn’t deserve the invite they didn’t get to the Tour of Lombardy or the Vuelta really isn’t rational. RadioShack has been ranked as high as eighth this season and is ranked 10th as we speak. To put this in perspective, Caisse d’Epargne is ranked 11th. To all those who think Radio Shack is a bad team, I ask you this: Is Caisse d’Epargne a worse team?
There are plenty of strong riders on RadioShack who have turned in terrific performances this year. There’s just no way to say they are a bad team and come across as rational. All but nine teams on the planet are worse. The team’s median age of 65 is a problem for their future, but we shouldn’t denigrate their performance this year because they have a bunch of old guys, some of whom walk under a cloud of doping controversy that maps like a hurricane.
Based on sporting results, Radio Shack deserved invites to the Vuelta and the Tour of Lombardy. Concern for another Floyd Landis press conference or an announcement from Jeff Novitzky could reasonably make a Grand Tour organizer gun shy. No matter what, great racing is dependent on inviting the strongest teams; if it weren’t so, we’d all be sticking around to watch the Cat. 4s race the local Gran Prix du Industrial Park.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Could it be that we’re Grand Tour weary? Or is it that the list of favorites for the 2010 Vuelta have done little to inspire us? Or could it be that the prospect of yet another Grand Tour podium decimated by doping scandals tastes nearly as good as cod liver oil?
Or maybe we just missed our mark with the question. To say that Frank Schleck is the favorite for the win isn’t exactly accurate. There’s currently a lot more love for Laurent Fignon than there is for Schleck the elder. Maybe we’re sentimental fools, the lot of us, but the comments (and lack thereof) has inspired in me a new question.
Could it be that we’re so tired of doping scandals and the calculus we must perform when considering a rider’s fitness vs. the odds that he might be doping that we’re weary of a season’s-worth of thinking about this stuff?
I’m beginning to watch races with a certain Zen in-the-moment perspective, just looking for good racing and trying not to worry about what will happen once WADA gets their sample from the winner. Maybe I’d be happier if Michael Mann was directing bike races the way he shoots his blockbusters, with explosions akimbo. How about you?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The final Grand Tour of the season is upon us and that can mean only one thing: You’ve planned your Labor Day Weekend. Wait, no, that’s not it. Your kids are back in school. Hmm, maybe, but still not quite right.
Oh, right, your TV is about to get monopolized.
Frank Schleck says he can win the Vuelta, but to do so, he’s going to have to go chainring-to-chainring with all of Spain, including Giro second place David Arroyo and Joaquin Rodgriguez. We’ve got Carlos Sastre, Oscar Pereiro and Carlos Barredo. Garmin-Transitions has brought Christian Vande Velde, though their actual GC guy is Tom Danielson. After Schleck, Arroyo and Rodriguez, how many of those guys really look like anything other than dark horses?
Given the current, tarnished finish on Grand Tour podiums, the real question at stake may be how long it will be before this year’s Vuelta podium is ensnared in a doping scandal. For where the Tour goes in doping scandals, the Vuelta seems to lead by a year or two. When we ask, “Who will win the Vuelta?” we mean now … and after the dust settles.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
On July 1, 2010, the 2010 Tour de France looked as if it would be one of the most competitive editions of the race in its history. Rarely has a Grand Tour had so much talent show up with winning in mind. It was as if the six best teams in the NFL took the field for the Superbowl.
This was a Tour whose closest parallel was perhaps the 1989 edition, where three former winners—Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond—took the start and were ultimately the race’s greatest protagonists. This year’s race also had three former winners toe the start line—Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Nearly as important is the fact it also had an amazing six former podium finishers—Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Alexander Vinokourov—at the start, plus Denis Menchov, a three-time Grand Tour winner in his own right. It was to be The Great Showdown.
The point of a Grand Tour, of course, is to see who cracks, which riders fail under pressure, but even more importantly, which riders rise to the occasion and surprise themselves, their teams and the fans. With a field gushing talent and experience like an out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico, no one really thought there would be room for any insurgent talents, but the prospect that one of the former top-10s, such as Frank Schleck, Michael Rogers or Bradley Wiggins capturing a podium spot seemed less science fiction than the impossibility of sealing off that aforementioned well.
But here we are, nine stages into The Great Showdown and what do we have? A race of two. That is, the race will come down to Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck provided there are no race-ending crashes or other stunning tragedies that befall either rider. That said, the way this race is going, I am willing to accept the possibility that someone other than either of these two riders could win. This race has had that much bad luck.
Lance Armstrong’s good fortune seems at an end. I’ll say more on that in another post. Garmin-Transitions lost Christian Vande Velde in a crash and it’s odd to think he isn’t the only rider on that team nursing broken bones. Frank Schleck was rumored to be even stronger than brother Andy this year. And then there was Cadel Evans’ detonation. Even though this isn’t the first time he has choked under pressure, his eight-minute slide down the mountain and the standings must have caused a few jaws to hang open, mine among them.
Speaking of surprises, what of Team Astana? Last winter I wrote of the skeleton crew that had been hired just to give them enough riders to qualify for the ProTour. I was critical of the team and dinged the formation for not having the climbers necessary to defend Contador when he would most need it. Tonight’s meal will include a serving of my words.
What should we make of Alexander Vinokourov’s performance so far? The great fear was that he would go rogue and ride for himself and challenge Contador’s leadership. His performance, while good, has been erratic enough that I can’t say whether he has been riding for himself or not. There certainly have been times when his riding hasn’t seemed to be for the benefit of Contador, but then, in this race anything seems possible.
It is with the impossible in mind that arrive at Samuel Sanchez. Two podium finishes at the Vuelta are maybe on a par with a top-10 at the Tour de France, so almost no one seriously considered this guy to be a podium threat. Sure, he is the leader of Euskaltel-Euskadi, which is something like being a favorite if for no reason other than he is protected (in theory) by eight guys. But a real contender?
I’m beginning to think the battle for the last step of the podium is between Sanchez, Menchov, Gesink and Leipheimer. I think Van Den Broeck will crack, as will Basso, late in the Pyrenees. The fact that there is but one remaining time trial and it is at the end of the race will threaten a GC shuffle, and while we think the likely beneficiaries would be Contador, Menchov and Leipheimer, I refuse to bet. Anything seems possible right now.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
Agence France Presse has reported the death of Frank Vandenbroucke. The one-time great Belgian cyclist who scored 51 wins in his career was on vacation in Senegal when he died. Preliminary reports are that he died of a pulmonary embolism.
Most recently, Vandenbroucke had been riding for the Cinelli-Down Under team and had been a columnist for the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. A byline had appeared as recently as last week.
Readers of RKP are well aware of Vandenbroucke’s troubled past. Following a stellar season in 1999 when he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Omloop Het Volk and two stages of the Vuelta a Espana, Vandenbroucke’s career spun out of control following an initial drug bust in 1999. His additional drug busts, DUI and suicide attempt are well documented and reducing his troubles to a handful of nouns is a disservice.
Vandenbroucke’s descent into depression and further drug use is eerily similar to that of Marco Pantani. It would be easy to reduce his story to a cautionary tale: Kids, don’t do drugs!
However, the reality is much more shocking. Our body of knowledge about the use of performance-enhancing drugs really hasn’t included the assumption that top-ranked cyclists busted for drugs will turn to recreational drugs and a plummet into depression. Following his bust, Vandenbroucke teammate David Millar says he fell into a terrible depression he buried in alcohol, but somehow he turned it around.
Could it be a pattern is emerging? Indications are Marco Pantani turned to recreational drugs following his bust for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Same for Jan Ullrich. We know Tyler Hamilton battled depression following his suspension for a positive test.
What do we have to expect from Mr. Full Disclosure, Bernard Kohl? (I’ll address his ongoing monthly interviews with new revelations in another post.)
I’ve made my peace with Vandenbroucke and the riders who won the Classics and Grand Tours of the 1990s. Given the circumstances, he was truly one of the better riders of his generation and deserves an extra measure of panache in our memories for announcing—before the race—on which hill he would attack at the ’99 L-B-L. The shot above of him at the finish has defined for many the hard-man style the Belgians are known for: the legs coated with embrocation, the shoe covers and arm warmers pushed to the wrists; only a man for the Classics can make 55 degrees look like a bright summer day.
Despite flashes of brilliance (what else would you call his second place at the 2003 Tour of Flanders), VdB never returned to his winning ways following his first bust.
Even if you hated Vandenbroucke for his drug use, I hope you can lament his death and the loss that means for cycling. He was, after all, one of our own, a guy who loved to go fast, a hard man who understood style, had a heart for the red line, and a family man who leaves behind both his parents and a daughter.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Perhaps the luckiest rider on the entire U.S. Postal Service Team was Kenny Labbe. Having given up full-time racing 12 years ago after a promising junior career, Labbe took a job with the Postal Service as a letter carrier. Each day after doing his route in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, Kenny trained for the local racing scene. When The Postal Service began to sponsor a team in 1995, Labbe thought it a great coincidence that his employer was involved with pro cycling, and felt this would be his only shot at his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.
“He e-mailed me every day for about two years,” team director Bruyneel explained. “Kenny kept me up to date on all the races he rode in the American mid-west. He told me how he trained and what an honor it would be to just be at a training camp with the team.” Bruyneel shook his head in disbelief. “ He was willing to take vacation time and even pay his own way to the camp in Santa Barbara last year.”
When the First Union Grand Prix series rolled around last spring, Labbe was called on by the team to help out with some of the chores of professional racing. “I’m a big boy,” Labbe crows, “If I can do one thing to help the team, it’s to offer a big draft for some of the guys. I’ll give up a wheel, or shag bottles all day if I have too. This is just a dream come true for me.”
There is a fine line between dreams and nightmares. On the hilliest day of camp, the team crisscrossed some of the highest mountains in southern Spain. Being built like a linebacker can help the team out in an American criterium, but on a day such as this, it was all about suffering for Labbe. All of the other riders’ remarks at the dinner table about his size and how much he eats must have been ringing in his ears as he labored over category one climbs used in past years of the Vuelta a Espana. At times taking turns with Bill hanging onto the team car, Labbe decided over one summit it was time to lead the team down the mountain.
Unfortunately, just as he sprinted past the group, fresh from hanging onto the car, the road pointed back up towards the winter sky. Hincapie jumped as Kenny went by and got the good draft. As gravity took its toll, Kenny slowed while the team raced past him. All the riders swept around him at a speed so fast, he was unable to get back into the draft of the pace line. When he looked over his shoulder for the team car, he found Dirk DeMol had swung the car into the opposite lane, forcing Labbe to dig within and fight to get back up to the group. He chased for quite sometime down the treacherous descent and along the valley floor.
After that same descent, Bill admitted that he was done. “We were going about 60 mph for the longest time,” he said wide-eyed. “Then we’d hit the brakes HARD going into the turns. I kept looking over the edge of the cliff and thought, ‘this isn’t even racing; this is just fun for these guys!’” He shook his head in disbelief of how casually the team put their lives on the line every day. “They all rode the same line down the mountains, all 21 of them in a single line. At the back there’s a lot less thinking of how to take the turns, but geez, I thought about my wife … and my baby … and my job; it was crazy. I ache from going down just as much as going up the mountains!”
As I suspected, the week went by faster than I thought. Bill and I were packing for our early morning departure home when Dylan walked into our room. He was dressed in his team-issue athletic pants, sandals and a soccer-style jersey with the Postal Service logo. His floppy Air Jordan hat covered his entire head, and he could barely see in front of him as he talked on his cell phone to his girlfriend back home.
For a second I flashed back to the days Dylan and I drove across the country as amateurs, sleeping in dive motels when we could afford to and in the back of his car most of the time. He smiled at me then nodded in amazement, “ Who would have thought we’d be here in Spain riding our bikes?”
“Who would have thought,” I answered back, equally amazed.