Monday, March 31, 2008

 

Three Weeks


For many cycling fans, they are simply the best three weeks in competitive cycling. During this annual frenzy, the top riders take part in the most demanding days of racing, and a solitary victory here can make even the most benign career notable. Fans line the roadsides to eat, drink, wave flags, and cheer in a staccato chorus of French, Flemish, English, Dutch, German, Italian, and a host of other tongues. Podium girls are kissed, champagne sprayed, bad Euro-pop played, and the hands of mayors and minor administrators shaken. And it’s still three months until July.

The world at large may not come to dinner until the grandest of the grand tours, but for those who feed on the sport year round, the classics are the sacred feast. Milan-San Remo in March is the appetizer that whets the appetite for the main course, the northern classics. In the space of three glorious weeks, from the Ronde Van Vlaanderen on April 4 through Liege-Bastogne-Liege on April 27, the hardmen of the peloton do battle in the six legendary contests that ply the back roads of northern France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Then, with plates cleared, the fans sit, sipping wine and chatting with friends through the summer and the grand tours, before finally enjoying dessert, la dolce, at the Giro di Lombardia in the fall.

The stage races, the grand tours in particular, hold their sway over the casual fan for a reason. They provide viewers with a running, constantly reiterated back-story and steady, reliable entertainment for weeks. They are engaging in a “tune in tomorrow” way, fitting for a format created by a newspaperman. But they’re also prone to being mind-numbingly predictable and convoluted at the same time. The overall winner can be clear a week in advance of the finish, leaving viewers to watch as the tactical maneuverings to secure stage wins, minor GC placings, various jerseys, team classifications, and other semi-prestigious bric-a-brac become so complex and contradictory that even the teams, it can seem, get confused as to what exactly is going on.

But while the stage races are the soap operas of cycling, the classics are its cinema. Both sweepingly epic and beautifully compact, their plots are compressed into a six hour crucible, where only the strongest can bear the heat and pressure long enough to secure a coveted win. The story each classic weaves is told in virtual isolation – it begins at a single start line, and concludes when the finish is crossed. All that must be told is told within a single day. And while the modern races are captured in vivid color, there remains an air of black-and-white about them.

In the classics, there are no synergistic goals among competitors. There are no unspoken compromises to create mutually beneficial alliances, leaving one rider working for the GC and the other the stage win. There are no pantomime sprints for the cameras. In a classic, there is only one winner.

In the classics, there are no days when everyone is tired, and nobody cares to race. There are no lazy days after a mountaintop finish, no restful tempo after the long time trial. Wins are not given away to pass responsibility to another team. The break, at least any one that seems likely to go the distance, is never just allowed to go up the road so the peloton can relax.

In the classics, there are no slow-motion haymakers from the mountains, but there are the constant, wearing jabs of the bergs, cotes, and cobbles.

In the classics, yesterday’s margin of victory has no bearing, and last week’s plotlines do not affect today’s racing.

In the classics, bad weather does not temper aggression.

In the classics, the winner does not always come from the list of favorites.

In the classics, nobody disputes whether the winner is deserving.

In the classics, there is no yesterday and no tomorrow.

In the classics, there are no moral dilemmas.

In the classics, if you win, you’re right.

The Schedule
Ronde Van Vlaanderen: April 6
Gent-Wevelgem: April 9
Paris-Roubaix: April 13
Amstel Gold Race: April 20
Fleche Wallonne: April 23
Liege-Bastogne-Liege: April 27

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

 

Clean Is a Dirty Word

Today’s daily news from the fine people at cyclingnews.com casually refers to classics contender Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) as a “clean rider.” This little bit of editorial speculation – slipping “clean” into references to riders and teams – is becoming more and more commonplace in the cycling media, though usually it’s Nuyens' French teammate David Moncoutie who wears that mantle like a crown of thorns. And while looking closely at this use of “clean” is a bit of a nerdy language-geek exercise in semantics, it’s a genuinely dangerous trend for the sport.

Label anything with the word “clean” in nearly any context, and only one alternative springs to mind – dirty. So when we start going out of our way to label certain riders or teams as “clean” in purportedly objective reporting, what are we implying about the riders and teams that we don’t explicitly label as such? That they’re not clean, and hence, they’re dirty. And that’s not quite fair.

Floyd Landis, facing a fair number of clean or dirty problems himself, hinted at the same issue during a January interview with Neal Rogers, taking aim at vocally “clean” teams like High Road and Slipstream. Says Landis:

“From my point of view, the problem that is taking cycling backwards and not forwards is that it’s becoming polarized. You have teams like Team High Horse, or whatever they’re called these days, and Jonathan Vaughters’ team, and they are saying we don’t care about winning, we just want to be clean and so it’s okay with us to get whatever place we get because we’re not doping. You know what? That’s one of the most offensive things you could ever say. That immediately accuses everyone who finishes ahead you of doping. That’s hypocrisy. That’s asinine. They have to stop saying that. It’s all fine and good that they are against doping, but for them to say we’re not interested in winning, we’re just interested in being clean is an accusation of anyone that is better than them.”
I don’t know that either of those teams ever said they don’t care about winning, but bonus points to Landis for the High Road/High Horse crack – well played. I’m also not sure it “automatically accuses everyone who finishes ahead of you of doping,” but talking about your performance and flying the clean flag in proximity can certainly imply that, whether you mean it to or not. You can talk about your performance, take a breather, make some small talk, and then talk about being clean and still remain on safe ground, but mixing the two is a bit like making a bleach and ammonia cocktail – things get pretty noxious pretty quickly.

The other big problem with media types making the “clean” call in their reports is much simpler than analyzing the affects of included or omitted adjectives on people’s perceptions . Put quite simply, how the hell do they know? Nick Nuyens may well be as pure as a snowcone made from frosty angel tears and rainbows. I’d like to believe he is – he’s well spoken, fairly humble, and provides a viable Boonen/Bettini/Ballan alternative for the classics. But while he, his DS, teammates, manager, girlfriend, and/or mother may all declare that he’s clean, loudly and often, to anyone who will listen, saying it just doesn’t make it so. Just ask the UCI or WADA how hard it is to vouch for clean – unfortunately, even a negative test doesn’t do it. So basically, if a reporter is willing to declare in his column that a given rider is clean, he’s probably trusting his sources a bit too much, no matter who they are. And that can really bite you in the arse.

People who get involved in spittle-whet rants about doping and cycling often make the mistake of confusing the rules of sport with the laws and rights of the criminal justice system. I certainly can’t recommend that mind-bending logic to anyone, but the cycling media would be well served in keeping the “innocent until proven guilty” adage in mind. Namely, that innocence is the default assumption in society. From there, we could just take a hint from any mainstream newspaper about how to treat the innocent. On those inky, crinkly pages, if a subject hasn’t done anything wrong, isn’t suspected of anything, and isn’t under investigation, etc., it simply goes unsaid. Nobody ever reports that, “innocent Girl Scout Debbie MacGruder didn’t poison any of her cookies.” If they did, it would kind of make you wonder about those Thin Mints and Samoas that shifty-eyed little huckster next door sold you, wouldn’t it?

So let’s see the cycling media set a new precedent for itself, and stop using the “clean rider” and “clean team” label. Let’s just talk about the rider or the team, and let the readers or viewers assume that the rider or team is clean unless we know and can tell them otherwise, or let them draw their own assumptions from the facts. It’s better for sponsors, riders, and the sport if the implied assumption isn’t that they’re all dirty, and that exceptions, if any, will be noted. And if a reporter believes a rider is clean and for some reason simply must say so, he should at least have the common sense to fish around for a quote or two to do the heavy lifting for him.

Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe we should take a different cue from the newspaper crime reports, and start labeling most riders as “allegedly clean.”

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

 

Primo Primavera



The 2008 Milan-San Remo is in the books now, with Swiss Fabian Cancellara (CSC) continuing his charge through the early season and adding La Primavera to a resume that already includes Paris-Roubaix, several Tour de France prologues and stages, and a couple of world time trial titles. Not too shabby.

The Cancellara Conundrum

The win at San Remo proved, yet again, what an unusually versatile rider Cancellara is. In short, there aren’t many riders any more that excel at both prologue and full-length time trials, yet still have the punch necessary to win the monumental classics. The efforts just aren’t tremendously similar – the time trials involve a hard but steady-state effort of maybe 40-60 kilometers. Certainly difficult, certainly painful, but not similar to riding at the front of a classic for 200-300 kilometers and maintaining the awareness and snap to make or follow the moves when it’s time. Also difficult, also painful, but different. Sean Kelly could do it, and sprint, too, but he came from a less specialized time in racing.

Where Cancellara obviously excels is in his ability to apply his time trial prowess to classics situations. Paris-Roubaix, which he won solo in 2006, is fairly good match for a natural time-trialist, since it tends to be a war of attrition with the selection from the back rather than from a succession of killing moves. It also seems that, after 200-plus kilometers, Cancellara can also call up a prologue effort to spring himself for anywhere from one to three kilometers in advance of the finish. It worked at the 2007 Tour stage into Compiegne, and it worked at Milan-San Remo.

But what makes Cancellara remarkable is his ability to respond to the repeated sharp attacks of the classics well enough to be able to hang in until those closing kilometers, where he can play to his specialties. Responding to attacks from guys like Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Phillipe Gilbert (FDJeux) takes a decidedly different skill set from that of a typical time trial specialist. It seems, from looking at his performances, if not his power meter data, that Cancellara’s little secret is just pure, unadulterated power. After his previous wins, particularly his Compiegne stage win , other teams knew very well when he would play his cards. There just wasn’t anything they could do about it.

Who Did the Course Changes Favor?

Prior to the start in Milan, many were wondering what affect, if any, the revised course would have on the results. Would this year’s slight changes to the traditional course give a Milan-San Remo that continued to favor sprinters like Alessandro Petacchi (Milram), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), and Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto)? Or would the balance of power shift to the breakaway specialists who could break free on the Poggio and hold off the thundering herd to the line?

The first change to the course seemed to clearly favor the bunch sprinters. Construction on the traditional finishing straight on the Via Roma forced the finish seaward to the Lungomare Italo Calvino. More importantly, it added an additional kilometer from the bottom of the Poggio descent to the line – giving the sprinters teams a bit more time to run down any last-minute attackers. However, that kilometer came with an additional three turns to make any coordinated chase a bit tougher.

But what construction giveth to the sprinters at the finish, it taketh away as the race turned along the coast towards San Remo. Due to road closures and blockages, organizers routed the race over the Le Manie, a five-kilometer climb just south of Savona on the coast. Le Manie slotted into the course with a nice, round 100 kilometers remaining, and gave riders just 30 kilometers from the foot of its descent to recover before hitting the traditional coastal finale: the three capi (the Mele, Cervo, and Berto) followed by the 5.7 kilometer Cipressa and the 3.7 kilometer Poggio. The climb may have cost some of the supersprinters, like McEwen and Petacchi, a bit of necessary punch as the race hit the Poggio, but the more versatile Freire was still able to make the cut come crunch time.

So did the revised course favor sprinters or attackers in the end? Cancellara’s win on Sunday could be seen as an answer, but realistically, it’s only a single data point, and there have always been successful breakaways in this “sprinters’ classic.” So only time will tell, but in the end, the changes may favor the attackers. While the finish will almost certainly return to the Via Roma when construction is complete, there’s a chance Le Manie may grow on the organizers, who have been known to add climbs in the past to avoid guaranteed bunch sprints.

A Broadcasting Note

U.S. viewers who watched the tape delayed San Remo television coverage on Versus were likely left with a few questions. The race coverage was perfectly clear – the questions surround the English voice of cycling, Phil Liggett. First of all, is Phil getting some sort of paycheck from Astana or Trek for all the on-air griping he does about Astana’s exclusion and for his plugs for the fairly ridiculous Trek-owned “Let Levi Ride” site? If not, he should, because if you’re going to scrap your integrity as a journalist, you might as well sell it rather than give it away. Granted, there’s a time and a place for editorializing, but that time isn’t “constantly” and the place isn’t during the play-by-play of a race that Astana likely wouldn’t have factored into anyway.

Bob Roll was also doing some pushing for Let Levi Ride during the Tour of California coverage, and both he and Phil continue to refer to it as a grassroots effort by Leipheimer’s fans, which it isn’t. Either Phil and Bob aren’t doing their homework, or they’re being dishonest in trying to gather support for the organization that, admittedly, has helped ensure them gainful employment for the past nine years by playing to the nationalistic hopes of the U.S. audience. Sure, personal agendas are rife in the media, but the transparency of the Versus allegiances takes away from the coverage.

One of Phil’s grumblings about the Astana situation didn’t specifically cite that team, but was pretty transparent nonetheless. When Cofidis’ Tristin Valentin took a guardrail ride and crashed on the descent of the Cipressa, Phil commented on the fact that he rode for Cofidis, which “despite having drugs on the team” was invited to the Tour anyway. Well, I never! He does have a valid point buried in the harumphing, since Cofidis did have the whole doping blow-up the day before the 2004 Paris-Roubaix and did have Christian Moreni get popped at last year's Tour de France. But, like his darling Astana, Cofidis has addressed those problems, so what problem does Phil have with them besides sour grapes? Additionally, Phil’s little snipe is a bit intellectually dishonest, since one of the central figures of the Cofidis scandal of 2004 was David Millar, who he seems to enjoy quite a bit in his other commentary. Has Millar’s change of uniform confused Liggett? And without Cofidis handing out paychecks, how would he have been able to rattle on about Bradley Wiggins for stages on end during the 2007 Tour de France? After all, what TV coverage do track pursuiters get outside of grand tour prologues?

Phil’s call of Valentin’s crash also made it strikingly clear that Phil and Paul weren’t doing the San Remo commentary live. From a pretty fuzzy, overhead helicopter shot of a high-speed descent, Phil was claiming that the crashing rider “looked like the style of Valentin.” The difficult distance and camera angle, combined with the fact that Valentin basically entered the shot as a red blob and fell over, and the fact that most people, even Phil and Paul, would not know the “style” of a modest utility rider like Valentin if he rode over their toes, made it pretty obvious that the commentary team is boosting its powers of perception by pre-screening the footage at least once prior to recording. Again, it’s not a big deal, and they cover pretty well most of the time, but could we at least try to be a little discreet?

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Friday, March 21, 2008

 

A Salute to Victory Salutes

On this eve of the 2008 Milan-San Remo, the official start of the classics season, it seems appropriate to have a look at that reliable bookend of nearly every professional cycling race, the victory salute. Though it can look casual, even spontaneous, the salute is actually governed by a set of rules, passed down through generations of riders to ensure some semblance of professionalism. Or at least it should be.

Victory Salute Rule #1: Never Do it Too Early

Like Paris-Roubaix’s Arenberg Forest, the victory salute won’t win a rider the race, but it can lose it for them. It seems elementary, but this rule is forgotten surprisingly often, and by people who should know better: never, ever celebrate until you’re positive you’ve won. For instance, four short years ago, Erik Zabel (the T-Mobile, now Milram) thought he had a fifth Milan-San Remo victory sewn up and threw his arms in the air, only to see Oscar Freire (Rabobank) squirt under his right elbow on his way to a second win. That little mistake not only cost Zabel the win, but also resulted in an embarrassing finish line shot that made Zabel’s non-win look like one of Chris Horner’s actual wins.

Of course, if an experienced pro like Zabel could do it, anyone could. And they do, despite being professionals and having ridden hundreds and hundreds of races to get to even the neo-pro phase of their careers. One can only imagine what the chat with the team and the director sportif is like afterwards.

Victory Salute Rule #2: Remember the Reason

To the casual observer, the victory salute appears to be the rider’s physical manifestation of joy at adding another line to his palmares and a little bonus check to his bank account. And that’s surely true.

But the salute is also a valuable commercial commodity. The image of the rider sitting upright, arms outstretched to nicely frame the sponsor logo as he crosses the line will be the image most often used in television, web, and magazine coverage, and in the bevy of ads equipment sponsors will run in the wake of a victory. Which is odd, because the finish straight is the one part of every race that pretty much looks exactly the same no matter which race it is – some road, a white line, some barriers, a few trailers, electrical cables, and a banner. But that’s a different story.

If sponsors didn’t want that shot, they wouldn’t pay to plaster their names across the chests of jerseys in a sport where the participants spend all day hunched over (look for a future piece, "The Origins of Assvertising"). Riders who know which side their bread is buttered on always remember to give their all for this critical juncture of the race, including donning a well-rehearsed pain face if necessary.

Victory Salute Rule #3: Remember the Procedure

A proper salute doesn’t just happen, but the procedure for attaining one is fairly simple if a rider remembers all of the steps in sequence.

The unwritten exception to Rule 3 is that the rider must know when to abandon the procedure in order to preserve the win. Sponsors, in a pinch, can make due with podium shots, which have the offsetting advantages of a clean jersey and kissing girls in petrochemical knitwear. If the rider is engaged in a tight, non-arranged sprint to the finish, obviously, zipping up is secondary. If it is snowing, keeping the vest on to the finish may be a good idea. While the proliferation of radios in professional cycling is an indication that as few decisions as possible should be left to the riders, this one, due to timing, is unavoidable. Only the rider can decide when all his attention must be focused on actually winning. That’s where things tend to go bad.

Victory Salute Rule #4: Keep it Simple

There are some riders who, in the excitement of those waning kilometers, manage to remember most of Rule #3, but get a bit carried away when it’s time to execute the final step. If a victory salute has an elaborate backstory or requires props or any sort of pre-planning, it’s way too complicated. And somehow, intricate celebrations are a bit unsavory. After all, cycling, even in the 21st century, is not the NFL of the 1980s. Ickey Shuffle, anyone?

Nonetheless, cycling has had its share of infractions. Witness Juan Antonio Flecha’s (then iBanesto.com, now Rabobank) archer routine when he won Stage 11 of the 2003 Tour de France, from Narbonne to Toulouse, a play on his last name, which means "arrow" in Spanish. It’s never a good trend when people start acting out their names. Who wants to see David Millar (or Robert Miller, for that matter) making wheat-grinding gestures or Maarten Den Bakker kneading dough at a finish? What about the Italians, who are naturally expressive? I’m not sure of the direct translation of his name, but what, by god, would Crescenzo D'Amore do when crossing the finish line? I’m pretty sure I don’t want to see it. And thank heavens Mariano Friedick is retired from the U.S. domestic circuit.

Apparently, 2003 was a breakout year for the rehearsed but obtuse victory salute. Maybe it was just the intoxication of the Tour, maybe it was just Spanish riders, or maybe it had something to do with Toulouse, but a mere two days after Flecha’s Saturday Night Fever act, Carlos Sastre (CSC) one-upped his compatriot with a bizarre pacifier-nursing salute on Stage 13, from Toulouse to Plateau de Bonascre. A touching tribute to a man’s love for his daughter, sure, but fairly unsuitable for sponsor ads, since it takes a paragraph of disclaimer text to explain why your all-conquering destroyer-of-worlds is suckling a binky.

Perhaps recalling those heady days of 2003, Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) brought it all back home last year with his own bizarre salute at the finish of the 2007 road World Championship in Stuttgart, Germany. In taking his second consecutive win, Bettini fired an invisible machine gun, explaining later that his intended victims were not the crowd, but all the folks who tried to exclude him from the race for not signing one of cycling’s increasing number of blood oaths about doping. That’s all well and good, but since he had to explain just what the hell he was doing at the press conference anyway, he might as well have just made a statement there. Then, he would have had a victory photo for his wall where you could see his face.

There are riders who can get away with a bit of improv -- Mario Cipollini's taunting look over the shoulder look during his Saeco days, or Robbie McEwen's running man at the 2006 Tour. But those were just small variations on the norm, not sweaty, rolling games of charades.

Victory Salute Rule #5: One Winner, One Salute

This is a recent addition to the list, and an unfortunate byproduct of the times. Cycling has long been an individual sport practiced by teams. The winner gets the flowers, of course, but those savvy to the sport always knew what the domestiques contributed, and we loved them for it. But now, in this feel-good era where everyone is a winner and trying hard is what counts, the workers are starting to get a little fed up with their lack of recognition, and have started distinguishing themselves by raising their arms in celebration of a teammate’s win while they roll in mid-pack. This of course, is done under the guise of, “my team has won, how super!” But it’s really just to show that that they, too, played a role in the victory of that puffed-up glory hound son-of-a-bitch who just happened to be the one who crossed the line first.

One particularly grievous incident is found here, with Tom Boonen, of all people, “celebrating” behind teammate Nick Nuyens, who has already won the 2005 Het Volk, while some other Quick.Step joker raises his arms in the foggy distance. For some reason, Quick.Step seems to be a prime offender for this sort of thing, despite being primarily Belgian, which usually quashes any sort of flamboyance from birth. CSC is another frequent violator of this rule, but for them, it seems more natural given all their touchy-feely teambuilding exercises and whatnot.

So, those are the rules.

I didn’t make them.

Obviously, nobody enforces them.

But they’re there for the benefit of everyone. Just ask Zabel, the poor bastards looking for a sponsor for High Road, or any professional rider whose teammates are committing assorted jackassery in the background of their finish shots.

Thanks for your compliance.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

 

An Overdue Introduction

The Service Course has been up for two weeks or so in its present form, so it seems time to offer a bit of an introduction.

First, about the author. I got into cycling around 1989, when I began racing mountain bikes as a junior and working as a shop rat at a local bike shop in Virginia Beach, Virginia (a veritable mountain bike Mecca, due to the pan-flat terrain and lack of trails). Mountain biking led to the harder stuff, as they say, and after getting the chance to see the Geneva-Chamonix stage of the 1990 Tour de France, I began to pursue road racing as well.

Though my own racing was interrupted by college and life, I maintained an interest in the sport, working in a shop during college, always riding a bit, racing here and there, and eventually chucking a paying post-collegiate job at a think-tank to go work as an intern for VeloNews in 1999. The need for gainful employment led me back east at the end of that Summer of Lance, but I’ve continued to work with the magazine and its web site as a freelance correspondent ever since.

Now, about this site. With a press pass around my neck, I’ve had the opportunity to witness some of the best of international and domestic racing from the inside and see my words about the sport in print. But, as with any such endeavor, there’s a lot of material that gets left on the cutting room floor – either the actual one or the mental one. Sometimes, that material is pretty interesting, depicting the world of competitive cycling beyond who made the early break and who got the win. My hope is that I can present some of those bits here in an engaging way, whether they come in the form of commentary, tales from the road, unpublished material, photos, interviews, or by passing on a link to something interesting elsewhere. I’m aiming for two to three posts per week.

In trying to nail down what you are, sometimes it helps to include what you aren’t. To that end, the Service Course:

Thanks for stopping into the Service Course. I hope you’ll check out what’s here now, and check back in to see what’s new.


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Monday, March 17, 2008

 

Pride of Wallonia

Philippe Gilbert (FDJeux) led Sunday’s brief rider protest at Paris-Nice, taking the podium along with first and second placeholders Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) and Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2r) to denounce the utterly inappropriate treatment of Kevin Van Impe (Quick.Step) at the hands of dope testers (see below). Spearheading such an effort is indicative of Gilbert’s recent ascendancy in the peloton, both in terms of stature among the riders as well as his prowess on the road in the five years he has been a professional. Now a two-time winner of Het Volk, Gilbert is a known threat and is among the riders to watch for a win in the upcoming cobbled classics.

What’s notable about Gilbert is not that he’s a solid classics rider from Belgium, but in which part of Belgium he’s from. Gilbert, now 25 years old, hails from Verviers, some 30 kilometers east along the E40/E42 from Liege. In other words, Gilbert is a Walloon, not a Flandrien. The French-speaking residents of Belgium’s southern sector have never shared the same love of and success at bicycle racing as their Flemish-tongued northern cousins, though the region has produced a few notable riders as well as La Doyenne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Maybe it’s the hillier terrain, or the relative lack of storied cobbled bergs that makes the Walloons more prone to soccer-playing than cycling. Or maybe it’s that the “Rooster of Wallonia” doesn’t conjure up the same heroic medieval imagery as the “Lion of Flanders” title applied to great Flemish cyclists.

During a trip to assist with VeloNews coverage of the Ardennes classics (Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege) in 2005, I sat down to chat a bit about Walloon cycling with Christophe Brandt (then Lotto-Davitamon, now Silence-Lotto), who hails from Liege, as well as his teammate Axel Merckx. The resulting article, which never ran, appears below. The information in the article has not been updated since – most notably, Merckx the younger is now retired, and Maxime Monfort now rides for Cofidis.

Le Minority Report
Liege, Belgium

When asked on one occasion whether he considered himself Flemish or a Walloon, Eddy Merckx famously answered, “I’m a Belgian,” and left it at that. In doing so, he may have avoided a civil war between Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country, and Wallonia, the French-speaking south. Both were anxious to claim the great champion, who hailed from Brussels suburb Woluwe-St. Lambert. The capital city straddles the line between the two regions and afforded Merckx his diplomatic, if ambiguous, answer.

Though of similar size geographically, Flanders dominates the deeply divided country, both economically and culturally—a dominance that has historically extended to cycling as well. Despite hosting two of the most prestigious spring classics, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, famous Walloon cyclists are hard to come by—1984 world champion Claude Criquelion was the region’s last great champion, and he retired in 1991. In fact, when most cycling fans think of Belgian cycling, the images that spring to mind are almost exclusively Flemish—the cobbled bergs, fanatic fans, black and yellow rampant lion flags, and surnames often beginning with “Van” or “De.”

With the weight of history against it, Wallonia may never surpass or even rival its northern neighbor in producing top-level cyclists. But Walloon cycling is on an upswing, both in numbers and results.

“Now just in Liege we have six or seven professional riders,” says Christophe Brandt, a 27-year old from Liege riding for Davitamon-Lotto. “So we try to train together, but this is the first year we have so many. There are three young guys who have just become professionals this year. I guess you can say we don’t have so many riders, but we have good quality riders.”

Brandt, together with 22-year-olds Philippe Gilbert (Francaise Des Jeux) and Maxime Monfort (Landbouwdrediet-Colnago), are part of a crop of young Walloon riders just beginning to make an impact in the professional ranks. Already in 2005, Gilbert has won the Tour du Haut Var and the second stage of the Tour of the Mediterranean, while Monfort won the first stage and placed second overall Frenchman Freddy Bichot (Cofidis) at the Etoile de Besseges. In 2004, Monfort also took the overall at the Tour of Luxembourg.

Currently, there are only 15 or so Walloons in the professional peloton, compared with over 80 for neighboring Flanders. But with Wallonia offering good roads, little traffic, and miles of rolling hills to train on, why does Flanders dominate its French-speaking countrymen, both in numbers of professionals and results?

“We have less culture of the bicycle sports. In Wallonia, we are more for football and everything like that,” explains Brandt. “If you want to become a rider in Belgium you have to go to Flanders to make the races and to learn to race.”

Brandt readily admits that the cycling-mania that grips Flanders’ fields year-round doesn’t extend to his corner of the country. “People like the big races. The little races, they aren’t so concerned with, so they only come for the big races. They only come for Fleche, Liege, and the Tour de France last year. But for the rest of the year, they don’t have so much interest in bicycling.”

Surprisingly, Brandt’s own family was no different. “The first time I went to see a race was Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I live six kilometers from the start. I come from a family that wasn’t interested in bicycles, but every year at this moment of the season, they go to see as a family Liege-Bastogne-Liege. That’s because, I don’t know, it’s something special. Every person living in Liege goes to see Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They don’t know the racers, they have no interest in racing, but they go to see the riders at Liege.”

Though he thus far lacks the victories of his younger compatriots—the high point of his palmares is a solid 14th place at the 2004 Giro D’Italia—Brandt showed this year that he may be the most likely to bring a win to the home team in the Wallonia’s Ardennes classics. Eighteenth at the Amstel Gold Race and 15th at Fleche Wallonne just prior, Brandt was clearly on good form for the race he holds above all others, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

While Gilbert would retire early, and Monfort would ride to a relatively anonymous 70th place, Brandt was active throughout. He set off with three others over the 11 percent slopes of the Cote de Saint-Roch in pursuit of a five-man break. Though that move would be brought back quickly, Brandt was active again on the Cote de Sprimont, 29 kilometers from the finish in Ans, attacking a 30-strong chase group stacked with heavy-hitters and cresting the climb third behind leaders Vinokourov and Voigt.

He arrived in Ans in 16th position, 1:04 down on the winner, but no doubt thinking of next year. Brandt is proof positive that, though the public may not be as fanatic as they are in Flanders, Walloon riders value their own native classics every bit as highly as Flemish riders do the Ronde Van Vlaanderen or the Omloop Het Volk.

“I think I can fall dead if I win Liege,” says Brandt. “I’m from Liege. If I can win this race it’s the most beautiful thing I can reach in my sport. Also, it’s not a little race, so you have to be really, really good. But if it happens, I think it’s like a dream. It’s more than a dream.”

As for the Merckx question, it remains unanswered to this day, and Eddy’s son Axel (Davitamon-Lotto) isn’t giving away any of the family secrets. “I’m from the same place—I’m from Belgium first,” says Merckx the younger. “I was born in Brussels, and I don’t think of myself as French-speaking or Flemish-speaking, I just think of myself as a Brussels guy.” The two regions remain, as they did in Eddy Merckx’s day, culturally and linguistically divided, but at the very least, they’ll both always have Eddy.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

 

Confirmation

When do you know that the hunt for dopers in professional cycling has gone beyond the edge of reason?

Now.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

 

Time and Money

Is the UCI declaring war on on-the-fly derailleur adjustments? Or should I say on-the-fly “derailleur adjustments”? Probably neither, really, but they do seem to be getting a bit slap-happy with the fines, time penalties, and relegations for riders hanging around the support cars a bit too long. Penalties doled out during races have a whiff of discipline to them, but usually amount to little more than a slap on the wrist and little, if any, consequence on the race results. In the past, officials were happy to let all but the most blatant infractions slide and rarely did a rider in contention for a win receive a significant penalty.

But over the past year or so, all of that seems to be changing. The commissaires fired the first notable shot back in July 2007. On the descent of the Cormet de Roseland during Stage 8 of the Tour de France, Levi Leipheimer (then Discovery, now Astana) dropped his chain, jamming his rear derailleur. He coasted to the bottom of the descent, where he changed bikes. In getting back up to speed, Leipheimer took a pretty standard bottle sling from his support car, then returned to dawdle alongside while the mechanic tinkered with his rear derailleur from the window. The sling and the mechanical assistance cost Leipheimer 50 Swiss francs (the official currency of the UCI) apiece. But more importantly, the bottle sling cost him 10 seconds on GC . It didn’t cost him a Tour GC win, but it did cost him a bit of elevation gain on the final podium – his gap to second-placed Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) totaled just 8 seconds.

The penalty gremlin reared its ugly head again this season at the Tour of California, and this time it did cost a rider a win. On Stage 6 of this year’s Tour of California, High Road sprinter Mark Cavendish tangled with Mario Cipollini’s Rock Racing lead out formation in the waning kilometers, bringing himself down along with Cipollini and teammates Fred Rodriguez and Doug Ollerenshaw.

Cavendish grabbed a spare bike, which he claimed was tuned for a 12 cog on the high end, rather than the 11 he needed, and which was presumably mounted on the bike. The High Road mechanics performed an on-the-fly adjustment as the car headed back towards the tail end of the peloton, which was ramping up for the finish. That repair seemed successful, as Cavendish regained the field and sprinted to victory ahead of Luciano Pagliarini (Saunier Duval). Moments after the finish, however, word came down that the officials didn’t like the progress Cavendish made while hanging onto the car. The damage? 50 Swiss francs, 20 seconds of meaningless-to-Cavendish GC time, and most importantly, relegation on the stage. The latter cost the young Brit the win, and Pagliarini mounted the podium. Cipollini was relegated for getting too much of a boost from the cars as well, but his relegation wasn't nearly so costly.

If Cavendish was using mechanical assistance as a cover to regain the front group with a little fossil-fuel assistance, as the UCI seems to believe, it’s a pretty risky strategy. Those adjustments, with a mechanic hanging ¾ of the way out the window of a moving vehicle, trying to line up the tip of a #2 Phillips head screwdriver with the tiny screw on the back of the derailleur, while the DS does his best to warn of bad pavement and upcoming turns, make for great television. Speeding along at 50 kph, everyone, including the mechanic and the rider, I’d imagine, is waiting for what seems like the inevitable tangle, resulting in either a crash for the rider, a few missing digits for the mechanic, or both. I’ve been in a team car while one of those adjustments is going on, and it’s stressful for all involved – the driver, the rider, the mechanic, and any seemingly disinterested party who may also happen to be in the car at the time.

That leads me to believe that feigning that process in order to drag a rider back to the bunch doesn’t seem to be likely tactic in most situations, especially at a race like the Tour of California and so early in the season. From a risk management standpoint, it just doesn’t make sense. Drafting centimeters off of the bumper is downright tame by comparison.

The crackdown on caravan loitering continued at Paris-Nice on Wednesday, when Karsten Kroon (CSC) was docked 50 Swiss francs and 20 seconds for snuggling up to the caravan after being dropped from the front group. Had he not received the penalty, he would have been sitting a mere 2 seconds behind new GC leader Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis). Many would have been upset by the fall from second overall to ninth as a result of the infraction, but Kroon kept things in perspective. With the heavy climbing stage to Mont Ventoux looming the following day, the classics specialist knew that his presumptive 2 second margin to the lead would only grow, so what’s 20 more seconds?

The Leipheimer, Cavendish, and Kroon situations show that the UCI is willing to levy the penalties for what it believes to be unsavory behavior, even if it affects the outcome of the races. That’s probably the most even-handed application of the rules we’ve seen from that organization in awhile, but it could also make crashes and mechanicals a bigger factor in results as the season goes on. After all, what’s the point of having a race caravan if you can’t hop from bumper to bumper until you’re sitting on Com 1?

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

 

Out of the Shadows

A number of cycling’s stars have served apprenticeships of sorts, riding in service of established champions, if only briefly, before coming into their own as race winners. With two World Championships, two Lombardia, a Milan-San Remo, two Liege-Bastogne-Liege, an Olympic gold medal, and three World Cup overall victories now under his belt, it’s easy to forget that a young Paolo Bettini once served as an errand boy for Michelle Bartoli in the days of the Mapei superteam. It’s easier to remember Greg Lemond’s tumultuous tutelage by Bernard Hinault at La Vie Claire, a time fraught with infighting and accusations but which, for better or worse, enhanced the legends of both men. No matter how memorable, cycling is riddled with such relationships – even its grand champion, Eddy Merckx, rode for Tom Simpson in his early days.

Recently, it seems another rider is emerging from the shadow of his leader, as Gert Steegmans, one of Tom Boonen’s key Quick-Step helpers, continues a string of good performances dating back to the 2007 season. At the 2007 Tour de France, Steegmans was dutifully leading Boonen out for the sprint at the rising finish in Gent, but when Boonen was unable to come around, Steegmans closed the deal himself, and riding into his best career result and the spotlight. He followed that up with two stages and the overall at the Circuit Franco-Belge. Over the past week, he has taken advantage of riding Paris-Nice for himself by netting two stage wins, one at Nevers and a second in terrible conditions at Belleville. His current freedom comes courtesy of Boonen riding the overlapping Tirrenno-Adriatico in Italy, which Boonen and almost everyone else views as better preparation for Milan-San Remo.

Despite Steegmans’ recent emergence as his own man, the relationship between Boonen and Steegmans isn’t quite as paternal as some of those cited above. In fact, the two are eerily similar in many respects. Both Belgians, the pair were born in 1980 only 15 days and 40 kilometers apart in Flanders – Boonen in slightly more northern Mol, Steegmans in neighboring Hasselt. According to their official stats, Boonen is a mere two centimeters taller than Steegmans, though the latter is heavier by two kilograms. Both riders’ physiques, somewhat towering by cycling standards, put them squarely in the classics mold. Both excel on the cobbles and bergs of their native Flanders, and in hard sprints at the end of heavy kilometers.

Though Steegmans is actually the elder of the two, he turned professional a year later, riding another year in the amateur ranks after riding as a stagiare with the Domo-Farm Frites squad of Peter Van Petegem in 2001. While Boonen surprisingly signed his first contract with U.S. Postal back in 2002 before jumping to Quick-Step in 2003, Steegmans went straight to a home team, signing for Lotto-Domo in 2003. During four seasons at Lotto, Steegmans forged himself a reputation as a hard man, and gravitated towards the role of shepherding Lotto sprinter Robbie McEwen towards the sprints. He was so successful in his domestique role that Boonen requested him for Quick-Step, where Steegmans signed on for 2007.

Their palmares reflect the roles each of them has played over their careers. Boonen, always the star since his breakout third-place performance in the muddy 2002 Paris-Roubaix, had notched some 84 wins by the end of 2007, including three as a neo-pro. By contrast, Steegmans counted only 17 wins prior to this season, and had to wait two years before first throwing his arms in the air at a stage of the 2005 Tour of Picardie.

Tom Boonen’s star is likely still on the rise, as much as it can be said to be “rising” after already capturing two Tours of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, and the World Championship. But there’s no doubt that Steegmans is only getting better, and, given their similarities as riders, Boonen may soon face competition from his lieutenant on the northern cobbles and in the stage race sprints. Steegmans and Boonen, at 27 years old, are only now entering their prime years as classics riders, if we’ve learned anything from the careers of Johan Museeuw and Van Petegem. It’s reasonable to think that, if his year continues its current trajectory, Steegmans may look to ride in different colors than Boonen and Bettini next year, just to see what he can do for himself.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

 

Stickin’ it to the Man from Morgan Hill


In the recent VeloNews Buyers Guide print issue, Cannondale placed what may be one of the more taunting ads in recent cycling history, a two page spread in the front of the book. Most of the right-hand page is a photo of a computer screen, presumably at Cannondale’s offices, showing an email from Shannon Sakamoto, the head of Specialized Bicycle Company’s recruiting team. You can view the online version of the ad here. The email was allegedly received by three of Cannondale’s engineers, and invites them to a February Specialized recruiting event in Bethel, Connecticut, where Cannondale’s offices are headquartered. With the exception of Sakamoto’s email address and phone number (blurred out), the whole email is there, right down to the corporate address and link in the contact information.

It’s certainly ballsy for Cannondale to go ahead and lay the potential poaching of their engineers out there, and pretty clever. From this angle, it all checks out. I’ve spoken with Sakamoto personally several years ago regarding a marketing position, so she’s certainly a real person, and a pleasant one at that – the kind of person you expect to find working in HR. Additionally, the Specialized recruiting event held in Bethel in February was genuine – it’s been listed on their web site for a couple of weeks. When I initially saw the event announcement, it seemed interesting. I’m not sure what else Bethel, Connecticut is home to, but it isn’t exactly a cycling industry hotbed – Specialized’s own California home, Interbike, Taiwan, or M.I.T. all seem like likelier places to go recruiting if you’re just looking for engineers. So it was pretty clear even before the Cannondale ad came out what Specialized’s interests in visiting the area were.

The timing certainly makes sense – both for Specialized to start circling Cannondale engineers like hungry sharks, and for Cannondale to come out on the offensive in response. Cannondale was recently purchased by Dorel, the same Canadian company that owns Pacific Cycles, purveyors of crappy big box store bikes for North America. Pacific has also acquired the Schwinn and GT brands in recent years, both of which have rocky histories similar to Cannondale, and has taken both brands down-market. Schwinn has gone straight into the department stores at the bottom end with some LBS presence at the top, and GT is now a mainstay of chain shops like Performance Bicycles. The purchase by Dorel got people in the industry talking about what the future held for Cannondale, and whether we’d soon be seeing oversized aluminum hybrids gracing the shelves of Target and Wal-Mart. However, these rumors have been dismissed by Dorel since the sale.

Regardless, Specialized clearly smelled blood in the water – the same engineers designing the System Six wouldn’t likely look forward to designing a $180 price-point bike with Alivio components. Employees with itchy trigger fingers might be looking to jump ship in Bethel, and the sunny port of Morgan Hill, California might seem pretty appealing if you’re stuck in a Connecticut February sitting on an uncertain future. The first line of the email cuts right to the motivations, referencing “long term job stability,” which is presumably on a lot of minds at Cannondale these days. At least where the marketing hits the paper and the web, Cannondale’s people are staying put, and sending smartass replies to Sakamoto's advances. But you have to wonder who, if anyone, showed up under cover of night at the Bethel Holiday Inn Express when she rolled into town. It could be months before the truth comes out, and Cannondale might not be feeling so smarmy then.

Either way, this little campaign reveals some daring moves on both sides – Specialized in making a blatant play for Cannondale’s engineering department, and Cannondale in taking it public before any results of Specialized’s attempts are fully realized. It also exposes some of the normally hidden maneuvering inside the notoriously inbred cycling industry. So far, this little insurrection has only really backfired on Specialized, allowing Cannondale to trumpet how desirable their engineers are while taking a dig at their Made-In-The-USA competition. However, should Cannondale employees diverge from the marketing plan and take Specialized up on its offer, it could backfire on them as well, but likely in a much less public manner.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

 

A Race by Any Other Name

VeloNews.com reported on Tuesday that the U.S. Open Cycling Championships, which ran from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Richmond on April 13 last year, will be returning this year.

Except it’s going to be called the “U.S. Open of Cycling.”

And it’s going to be in Providence, Rhode Island, not Virginia.

And it’s going to be at the end of May instead of mid-April.

But other than that, the organization is happy to announce the return of their race. Which begs the question, what exactly is a race? Is a race’s identity tied to its calendar slot? The course? The name? The promoter? The riders? Clearly this particular organization is relying on the last two criteria, since there are precious few other unifying elements between last year’s “edition” and this year’s. By those measures, ASO actually holds Fleche Wallonne twice in a single week, it’s just that the second time they change the date and the course and call it Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Now that’s organization.

We don’t have an inside window into the Open’s situation – maybe there are sponsorship opportunities in Rhode Island that aren’t there in Virginia, maybe municipal cooperation on road use is better up north, or maybe the Providence Super 8 is offering discounts that are just too good to pass up. Certainly, the race was in trouble at the start last year, but the promoter brought in veteran race director John Eustice, who managed to pull together a good race that was made great by cold, snowy conditions and the fact that you could watch it on TV. Despite that success, it seems likely that the issues that put the Virginia version in jeopardy last year couldn’t be speedily resolved again this year, hence the changes. Since we don’t know what those issues are, we can only examine the new edition from the outside.

The Calendar

The date change is more or less of a wash in terms of improvement. There was some hope that the race could develop into a sort of U.S. spring classic with the mid-April date, but there are advantages to the change. The new date, May 31, would put the Open in the position of potentially opening “Philly Week” – the East Coast swing of big races that begin with the CSC Invitational, then moves to the Commerce Bank trio of road races that culminates with the former USPRO championship race through the streets of Philadelphia. Such grouping of races is beneficial to teams, the media, and organizers, as it cuts down on travel time and costs while helping the promoters get the big players at their events. After all, look at how well it works for the spring classics in Europe. So, the new date is good, until you combine it with…

The Location

Providence is a lovely place, and one with an undeniably good competitive cycling history, at least when it comes to cyclocross. The other undeniable thing about Providence is that it is a long way from Arlington, Virginia, 7.25 hours, according to Google. Arlington is where the CSC Invitational, a mainstay of the NRC calendar and a prized win for criterium specialists, kicks off at 12:25 pm on June 1, the day after the Open.

Now, according to Eustice on VeloNews, the Open will leave plenty of time for the teams to get down to Virginia. Technically, that’s probably correct – the number of hours between the Open finish and the CSC start should allow riders to physically be present for both events without warping the space-time continuum. The question is how good they’ll be feeling once they get there. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Open ends at 2:00 pm. Allow an optimistic hour for podium presentations, press conferences, loading the trucks, rider showers, and getting on the road. So, according to Google, everyone should be checking into an Arlington hotel around 10:30pm, if we allow for a quick bathroom break along the way.

The only problem with that scenario is that the majority of the drive is down I-95, which takes in the New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC metro areas on its way into sunny Arlington. Those with experience in that particular corridor would plan on a midnight check-in. At least the summer Jersey shore traffic won’t have kicked in yet.

Had the race used the new date for the old route (or even the old date with the new route), it would have been perfect. But with the proposed logistics, CSC Invitational goers might be seeing a lot of surly faces under the team tents. Hopefully, the new Open date won’t result in teams skipping the CSC race in favor of heading to Pennsylvania to wait for the start of the Commerce Bank series.

The Format

No change here. The format for the Open is a straight John Eustice special – one large loop of 50 or 60 miles, then a bunch of finishing laps on a 4-5 mile circuit in town. It’s a model that Eustice has been using for years at the Univest Grand Prix, and which he modified for last year’s Open, substituting a point-to-point route for the initial loop.

The motivation behind the format is hard to argue with – you get the open roads and varied terrain of a road race, and some of the spectator-friendliness of a crit. However, last year’s Univest revealed chinks in the armor. When a break arrived at the finishing circuits so far ahead of the field that it had already completed a lap by the time the peloton approached, officials were forced to pull the field to avoid chaos. But even that didn’t work, as riders on different laps mixed in, got confused, and then didn’t chase guys they needed to chase. The resulting mess took an hour to sort out after the finish, and reshuffled all of the standings with the exception of the winner, Will Frischkorn (Slipstream).

There’s a reason the limitations of the format only emerged at Univest last year. Until then, Univest was run as an elite amateur race, and amateurs are notorious for keeping a tight leash on even the earliest of breakaways. So, in the race’s previous nine runnings, the peloton had always entered the finishing circuit on the same lap as the leaders, since they were always within 10 minutes of each other. With professionals now competing at Univest, the dynamic has changed – the finishing circuits make up nearly half of the total race length, and the professionals are more than happy to let the early break skewer itself far beyond the halfway point before bringing it back. Needless to say, there was an air of surprise when the field found itself pulled with around 40 miles remaining, as the break was still well in hand.

Hopefully, Eustice has found a way to avoid a similar mess at the Open, which will most certainly include professionals and their associated racing dynamics. It all worked out at last year’s Open, so there’s hope. One option would be to extend the initial long loop and cut back the number of finishing circuits so that they fall later in the race. At the very least, the teams should be warned ahead of time, so that they can bring the break back to, say, eight minutes or so before hitting the finishing circuit.

All that aside, can you really call it a finishing circuit when it accounts for 40 percent of the race?

The Name

There’s no doubt the change from “U.S. Open Cycling Championship” to the “U.S. Open of Cycling” is a good one, though the name still leaves something to be desired. The original name was ridiculous, as the race isn’t a U.S. championship of any kind. That sort of absurd naming convention is right up there with promoters putting “de” in the names of American races, and every race with a 10 meter stretch of poor pavement putting “Roubaix” in its name. Tarting up a race name with European linguistic knick-knacks or calling an event a championship when it isn’t is not befitting of truly professional events.

All things considered, the bland name has worked out well for the Open promoters – after all, it would have been even harder to claim that the 2008 event is the same race as the 2007 one if they were forced to run “Williamsburg-Richmond” or the “Tour de Virginia” on the roads around the Providence reservoir. Maybe, with such a versatile name, the U.S. Open can become like the (rightfully named) World Championships – same name, same format, different city every year.

Wherever it may roam, whenever it may be held, and whatever it may be called, SC wishes the U.S. Open of Cycling the best.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

 

Dueling Acronyms Threaten Paris-Nice

The hot topic in professional cycling these days is the ASO vs. UCI brawl that, for the second year running, is threatening to bring Paris-Nice to its knees. As of Wednesday evening, the UCI is threatening to suspend and fine participating riders and teams, while ASO is more or less telling the UCI to go to hell and organizing their race under the auspices of the French federation, and the teams are caught in the middle. Though Paris-Nice is the race in immediate danger, the implications of this little spat will extend far beyond the “race to the sun.” But there’s already been far too much written about the conflict as a whole, and much of what’s out there only seems to cloud the issues. So let’s concentrate on how simple this little spat really is.

On cyclingnews.com, an unattributed ASO source provides the clearest view yet of what ASO wants – for Paris-Nice to remain a prominent race, and to be able to decide who gets into the races it owns. The UCI, on the other hand, wants ASO to adhere to the ProTour system it signed up for and invite all of the ProTour teams. Otherwise, it will not sanction the race. Simple.

Of course, that simple disagreement gets muddied by the underlying struggle for control of the sport, ASO’s ownership of some of the sport’s hottest properties, and the UCI’s ham-handed dealings in licensing, drug testing, the Olympics, and the world championships. In other words, everybody has threats to make, and valuable assets they can withhold. But at the root, the conflict is simple, and it all has to do with the ill-fated ProTour.

So why is the UCI still shouting from the wheelhouse of the sinking ProTour ship? One guess is that, having taken large sums of money from teams for admittance to the ProTour clubhouse, the UCI is now in serious jeopardy of having to issue some big refund checks. In essence, they promised something that they didn’t have the authority to deliver – guaranteed entry into the sport’s biggest events. It was a clumsy power grab, sort of a power grope, which ultimately didn’t work. Another, simpler theory is that the UCI just doesn’t want to admit what an overambitious and underplanned boondoggle the ProTour really is.

But whether or not the ProTour was a sound idea, ASO agreed to it, and now they’re not willing to pay the piper. Like they did last year with Unibet, ASO has chosen one team as a sacrificial lamb to bait the hook for the UCI. Since Unibet folded, ASO is trolling with Astana this year, and it looks like the UCI has swallowed the whole rig and is thrashing about helplessly at the end of the line. It’s hard to say exactly what ASO’s big picture goal is, but it isn’t keeping Astana from racing the Criterium International. Regardless of its motivation, by testing the UCI’s resolve using races like the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege as bargaining chips, ASO is coming as close as anyone to breaking the UCI’s authority over the sport.

Meanwhile, as the UCI and ASO battle on mountaintops for the soul of the sport, the defecation rolsl downhill, and the teams and riders have been caught at the bottom of that very slippery slope. Both combatants are looking for support from the folks who actually make the magic happen, while the teams just want to race the big events and get their sponsors some press. Now, whatever action the teams choose will be construed, mistakenly, as an endorsement of one side or the other. But while the UCI and ASO prepare their press releases, the teams are busy reexamining their Paris-Nice lineups, wondering if anyone who dares toe the start line will be on the bench for the remainder of the season. For riders, racing Paris-Nice used to mean you could be in store for great things later in the season; this year it may just mean you’re expendable.

None of that seems quite fair to the teams and the riders, but few things in life are fair. And that’s why we have contracts, which seem to be the missing element in all of the discussion about this dispute. Again, beneath all the bluster, the issues are simple, and the solution – at least in the short term – is also simple. In the short term, dig out those contracts that both parties signed regarding their participation in the ProTour, and have everyone do what the contracts say they're supposed to do. The long-term solution isn’t as simple, but it should start with deciding on a time to declare the current ProTour contracts null and begin designing a system that the UCI, organizers, and teams can all live with. Preferably before next March.

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