Friday, March 27, 2009
Yes, He is That Good
Besides collarbones, their associated maladies, and Silence-Lotto’s shocking and continued inability to win bike races, the big news this past week was Mark Cavendish’s (Columbia) allegedly unexpected win in Milan-San Remo on Saturday. The guy’s clearly the fastest sprinter out there, so the win was really only a surprise because popular wisdom dictated that Cavendish wouldn’t make it over the late climbs in any shape to unleash his remarkable sprint. After all, that much-vaunted wisdom holds that San Remo can only be won by a veteran mountain goat – you know, like Alessandro Petacchi (2005) or Mario Cipollini (2002). So much for that…
Now, I’m not claiming Cavendish has the best history when the road goes uphill, but he’s hardly another incarnation of Ivan Quaranta, that other trackie-turned-road-sprinter who continually paid homage to his roots by being unable to ascend anything with more altitude than the boards of the Vigorelli. Cavendish has never come close to that lack of climbing prowess, except for possibly his first year in the big leagues, so some of the more vocal criticisms of his climbing that circulated in the past weeks seemed a bit overstated. That said, you can’t discount Cavendish’s history in the hills entirely. He did need things to break his way to have a shot at the Milan-San Remo title, and they did – the ascents of the Cipressa and Poggio were markedly more sedate than they have been in recent years, with fewer hard-hitting attacks to unship the faster-twitch members of the group, Cavendish included. But many, if not most races are won by riders who just happened to have things fall their way. Just look at last year’s San Remo.
Despite the fact that races are always won partly by virtue of the cards dealt by others, some observers will doubtlessly use this year’s lack of aggression on the climbs to denigrate Cavendish’s San Remo win, and I’ve already seen a few instances of the “come on, is he really that good?” and “well, he’s no Boonen/ McEwen/ Cipollini/ Abdujaparov/ Kelly/ Altig/ Van Steenbergen” thrown out there. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how Cavendish got off on the wrong foot with so much of the public. Sure, he’s made some bold statements regarding his abilities, but he is, after all, 22 years old and very, very fast. And it’s tough to ignore the fact that he hasn’t made a statement yet that he hasn’t lived up to.
I do think that people, particularly older people, fail to fully or accurately account for his age when observing his off-the-bike words and deeds, which seems to weigh heavily and unfairly on their ability to judge whether he’s a good bike rider or not. Simply put, not many of us in our 30s, 40s, and beyond hang out with people just cracking open their second decade, and there’s a reason – it’s just too hard to relate. Many of the defining contexts of our lives are simply too different, and even if we could have, in our younger years, related to that person, we've long since forgotten how. So it's not surprising that he's rubbed some people the wrong way, but in the post San Remo press conference, Cavendish sounded downright reasonable, even to those of us in our dotage. I suppose some will find passing Cipollini while pedaling one-legged in the Tour of California prologue offensive, but that was last year, and c’mon, that’s pretty damn funny. Almost Cipollini-esque, if you will.
It’s too bad if old folks don’t care much for young Cavendish, because it’s that very age issue that really made Cavendish’s win on Saturday something special, not the fact that he got over the hills. At 22, he’s the third youngest winner of the race, after Ugo Agostoni in 1914 (when most people were four feet tall and only lived to be 26, anyway) and a young standout named Merckx, who first won it during the years when an iPod was called a hi-fi, and then a few times later when it was called a stereo. That young men make better sprinters than old men is no secret, so it might seem that San Remo should play to a younger demographic. But what young men don’t often do well is cross the 200k mark, that invisible line that separates stage victories and semi-classics from classics and monuments. Granted, Boonen seems to have been born with the ability to do, but Philippe Gilbert just broke through it last year at Paris-Tours, and he’s 26. Sylvain Chavanel just got there last year as well at 29. Some guys never get there. So for Cavendish to cut from stage wins and semi-classics straight to muscling through San Remo’s 298k is remarkable for such young legs.
Another important distinction Cavendish shares with Merckx and few others is that that he won San Remo his first attempt. As numerous pros have pointed out in countless pre-race interviews over the years, experience counts in the classics. Knowing every little twist, turn, up, and down is a decided advantage, and it usually takes a few years of run-throughs at race speed to get the combination down. Again, some guys never do. There are, however, several things you can do to help mitigate a lack of experience – listening to people that have the experience to help you, and maintaining a laser-like focus on your target and what you need to do to reach it. Neither of those are activities that come naturally to the young, but according to Columbia teammate Mike Barry, Cavendish did both on his way to his first classic win. He also proved that he can keep his head when things don’t go down in clockwork bunch sprint fashion, like when Haussler (Cervelo) inadvertently gapped his own sprinter and the field, forcing Cavendish to jump a bit earlier than he usually does. All of which point to a maturity, on the bike at least, beyond his years.
So will Cavendish ever have the breadth of wins of a Sean Kelly, or ride the cobbles like Boonen? Maybe not. But if you’re talking about winning bunch sprints, which is what he’s really trying to do, there’s no better bet for your money.
Is he better than Cipollini? Better than Jalabert? Who gives a shit – they’re retired.
Does he have their style, their grit? Do you like him? Well, those are all judgment calls, and I can’t make them for you.
Is he good? That good? Yes, he is that good. Especially if you remember we’re talking about professional bicycle racing, not whether you want to have dinner and a snuggle with him.
All the above is old news, of course, and I probably should have posted it earlier in the week. Anyway, on to this weekend's Belgian fun -- the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen (a.k.a., E3 Harelbeke, a.k.a. GP E3) on Saturday and the Brabantse Pijl (a.k.a. the Brabant Arrow) on Sunday. One's on the Flemish end of things, the other's in the more neutral territory around Brussels, but they're everyone's last chance to grapple for protected status at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen on April 5. My bet's on Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) for E3 (since he doesn't look to be riding the Brabantse Pijl). I'm not sure I've ever seen someone ride as well in the spring with so little to show for it.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Flags and Emblems
Lots of people find cycling coverage available in the United States to be overly nationalistic – and with good reason. I, too, would rather read a first or second interview with a Ballan, a Chavanel, or a Gilbert rather than an eighth with Vande Velde, a tenth with Zabriskie, or a 300th with Armstrong. Extend nationalism to linguistic brotherhood, and we’re in an even deeper hole. Look, I have British and Australian friends. They’re terrific people, and after a few hours of auditory acclimatization, I can even understand them. But can we spring for a translator every now and then?
Nothing against our fellow Americans and friends from the Commonwealth, we love them dearly, but variety is good, no? Don’t get me wrong, this inward focus is not confined to our shores – read the Belgian papers, and you’ll get far more coverage of Nico Eeckhout than Fred Rodriguez. That’s just the way the world works. But there are occasions when even I would actually argue for flying the flag a little higher, and this is one of those: Cole House wins the U23 GP Waregem. (Results sheet here.)
Photo courtesy USA Cycling
That Wisconsin native House made the 20 man break in the classically Belgian (read: cobblestones, cold, wind, rain) race in the heart of Flemish bike racing country is impressive on its own. After all, of 220 starters, only 38 made it to the finish of this mess at all. House’s victory, taken in a sprint over a final selection of 13 riders, is even more notable when you look at the composition of that break. For one, he was the only non-Belgian of the bunch – for an idea of how tough a situation that can be, look at Heinrich Haussler’s plight in Dwars Doors Vlaanderen, or read Joe Parkin’s excellent A Dog in a Hat. Suffice to say we ain’t the only ones with some nationalist leanings.
Second, House was the only representative of the U.S. Development team, which wouldn’t be as much of a concern if the break wasn’t stacked by the PWS Eijssen team (four riders), Wielergroup Beveren 2000 (three riders), and a couple of guys from WC Soenens-Yawadoo. To win in that situation takes more than great legs – it takes a good, calm head, a valuable asset that’s much harder to train than power or endurance. So if House has the wherewithal to keep his head during the late-race fireworks and uncork the sprint at the right place and time, he may indeed be the next U.S. classics contender in the making, as noted in his trade team’s (US-Swiss ProContinental BMC squad) dispatch. Even better, House is only 20 years old, meaning he’s winning tough races when he’s not even in his waning years of U23-dom. BMC is understandably excited about having snapped up that prospect, especially given that they’ve recently shoved their foot firmly in the door of Paris-Roubaix, which I’m told has cobblestones and occasionally unfavorable weather.
"House's victory is a big satisfaction and it confirms all the confidence we had in him and his abilities," BMC director John Lelangue said, adding that he has a few other young’uns in the spring classics hopper as well. "I am very happy with the way Ian McKissick has been fighting to improve on the cobbles, even though it might not be his particular area of specialization. And what we have seen from Chad Beyer and Brent Bookwalter all year is also very encouraging; these three riders along with Cole House will definitely do some very good things not only in the next years, but in the next weeks."
Photo Courtesy BMC Cycling Team
Finally, House has one other thing going for him – his name is Cole. And if you have a name that could conceivably be attached to a male soap opera lead – like, say, “Lance” or “Levi” – you’ve got a good shot at making it big time.
All that said, it’s probably not a good idea to hang too many hopes on a U23 win – there are plenty of guys who have those trophies on the shelf at home, but are working in offices or painting trucks instead of winning classics and grand tour stages. But having a look down the list of previous winners at Waregem, you’ll see some pretty familiar names, like Dirk Demol (1981), Marcel Wust (1994), Stijn Devolder (2000, 2001), Leon Van Bon (2002), Andre Griepel (2003), and Wouter Weylandt (2004). For House, what will be, will be, but that's not bad company to be in now, is it?
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
"I told you once, you son of a bitch, I'm the best that's ever been."
- Charlie Daniels, Devil Went Down to Georgia
This week, Lance Armstrong once again referred to Astana teammate Alberto Contador as the “best in the world” in an interview with L’Equipe. I’m going to go ahead and assume he meant “best cyclist,” not best driver, best architect, or best lover, because simply declaring a best in any of those areas would be way too subjective, and would ignore the multitude of qualifiers and areas of specialization that would have to be considered in making any meaningful assessment of superiority. Wait a minute…
Yes, indeed, declaring a “best” in cycling is tricky business, too, what with the plethora of disciplines and even finer grains of specialization within each, all leading to a physiological diaspora so broad it’s hard to believe we call all of them cyclists. How do you compare a Contador to a Chris Hoy? Or a Chris Hoy to a Bruno Risi? Or even a Bruno Risi to a Mark Cavendish? You really can’t, and most lucid people steer clear of throwing the term around without a lot of qualifiers, save the writers of the mandatory year-end awards in web sites and magazines, organizers of let’s-all-have-a-banquet prizes like the Velo d’ Or, and the soft-minded lunatics who write them to argue about the winners.
Bests are hard to pick in this fractured little sport, even if you were to attach an irritating number of qualifiers, but there is one I feel we can all agree on: the Best at Naming the Best. This title is awarded to the entity that goes out of its way to chew our meat for us, to throw the one, true “best” into the light without the pesky shadows of nuance, and to crown from on high the bona fide kings of cycling.
For nearly a decade, the title has remained tightly in the iron grip of the long lineage of Johan Bruyneel / Lance Armstrong collaborations, from the adolescent years of U.S. Postal, into Discovery’s middle-age, and straight on through to the doting golden years of those team’s brother-from-another-mother, Astana. Year after year, regardless of scandals, transfers, retirements, un-retirements, and re-retirements, nobody picks out who’s best and lays it right out there for you like the boys from Bruyneel. Conveniently, it turns out that “the best” is usually them.
Make no mistake, this is no individual award, nor is the title limited to Armstrong and Bruyneel. It’s a team prize, and declaring bests has become some sort of reflexive verbal tic of any and all who receive a Bruyneel-signed paycheck, from who-the-hell-is-that-guy domestiques to franchise superstars, from Australians to Americans (and probably beyond, but who interviews non-English speaking riders?). Over the years, these oracles-in-blue have identified for the gurgling, glaze-eyed masses a select group of easily digestible bests, including Armstrong and Contador (both multiple time bests), Ivan Basso (2006), and even the whole damn team (1999-2009). Here’s just a smattering of the announcements from the mutual admiration society, conferring a variety of titles (emphasis mine):
“I know Lance is a good teammate. I don’t have a lot of worries about that. People can look at it both ways, like oh, it’s bad, because now the best rider in the history of cycling comes back, and he’s on my team, and it knocks me down. But I tend to look at it the other way. If I am around the best riders, that’s going to make me the best rider I can be. And I think that is what happened to me over the last couple of years. I came to the team with the best riders in the world, with Alberto and Basso there, and it really motivated me to step it up, because there was no choice. I had to.”
- Levi Leipheimer, going for the record, VeloNews, October 6, 2008
"I think there is room for all of us on that team: myself, Alberto, Levi (Leipheimer) and (team director Johan Bruyneel), who is quite the personality himself. Alberto is the best rider on the planet right now. We have to understand that, we have to respect that."
- Lance Armstrong, stopping short of taking it intergalactic, VeloNews, September 24, 2008
"I don't see how anyone can stop me from hiring the best rider in the world. I am very happy with my decision.”
- Johan Bruyneel on Ivan Basso, the best rider in the world he signed in between best riders in the world Armstrong and Contador, VeloNews, November 18, 2006
“The Tour de Georgia is a wonderful race, but the Tour de France is another story. To beat Lance, I’m sure it would mean the same to anybody. He’s the biggest star in cycling, the best cyclist ever.”
- Floyd Landis, still instinctively towing the party line after transferring from Postal to Phonak, VeloNews, June 28, 2005
“Sure, tomorrow will be a little stressful. But I'm on the best team in the world and I'm very motivated and the team is very motivated, and we have the smartest people behind us, so we'll have to see."
- Tom Danielson, also conferring the optional and rarely seen “smartest people” award, Cyclingnews.com, April 2005
“As I have said before, if I get a chance one day I will do my best to take it. But if not, it's just great being part of the best team in the World!”
- Steve Cummings, tackling the Giro with enthusiasm, Cyclingnews.com, May 21,
Though it’s an impressive body of work, compared to most of Bruyneel’s victories, this title may ring a bit hollow. Champions, after all, are made by the quality of their competition, and over the years, serious challengers have been few. Former CSC/current Saxo Bank occasionally mounts a feeble if well-meaning effort. Others try to take up the scepter but fall short, adding as they do confusing time- or discipline-based qualifiers or tasteless, gutless multiple choice offerings. Really, the dominance of Bruyneel-led teams reflects a certain lack of commitment on the part of the competition. After all, they don’t have to actually win anything, or even believe what they’re saying. They just need to vociferously, doggedly, and mindlessly repeat that their teammate or team is the best on this godforsaken rock, and, if they’re feeling frisky, spice it up with some sort of infinity-based time element, like “ever” or “since the dawn of time.” How hard is that?
"I ride for the best team in the world and it's not usually my role to win races. You can get a bit complacent because you're in the number one team with the best rider but I've got a new attitude and I've got to do some stuff for myself as well."
- Matt White, doing the double, Cyclingnews.com, December 8, 2002
Anyway, thanks for reading. You guys are the best.
Labels: Word of the Day
Friday, March 13, 2009
Hey, That’s My Bike
At the Tour of California this year, one of the big little stories – by which I mean not important to the race, but heavily reported – was the shenanigans surrounding Columbia-High Road’s time trial bikes. The issue, at its most basic, was that the squad looked to still be riding the distinctive Giant bikes they debuted last year under that sponsorship, rather than the Scott Plasma people assumed they’d be riding under their current one.
Team owner Bob Stapleton insisted that the bike in question was in fact not a Giant, but merely Giant-looking, telling Cyclingnews.com’s James Huang, “As you know, Giant was our bike manufacturer last year and the Giant TT bike that we raced last year was developed in conjunction with Giant, some external experts, as well as engineers within our own team. So this year we're racing a bike made by a company that I can't disclose that's had engineering input from many of those same people and is a different bike. As you can see it's branded ‘Highroad Techdev'.”
Ah, the "in sticker veritas" defense. Clever.
Basically, it sounds like High Road is claiming at least partial ownership of the design developed during the Giant sponsorship, and from either actual documentation or memory had a different factory recreate the bike. Whether that’s really the case or they just had last year’s Giant bikes repainted is sort of inconsequential, since the serious ownership issues reside in the design and not the actual plastic. (Though there is a certain irony to having a Giant design built at another factory, given how many brands Giant builds bikes for.)
The quote continues, but in fairness to James, you should really just read his article, since he did the legwork. I will reveal that Giant’s response to Stapleton’s claims, in both that article and from a source of our own is, in summary, “bullshit.”
Various forms of rebranding, from actual manufacturing contracts to plain old sticker engineering are nothing new in cycling, of course, but this particular instance raises some important underlying questions about the sponsor-team relationship. Yes, I’m sure Columbia-High Road did help Giant develop the bike last year – by making suggestions, testing prototypes, providing feedback, and serving as wind tunnel test subjects. But access to those services is one reason industry sponsors sign on to sponsor teams in the first place (the other reason being pure, unadulterated advertising). It’s part of the deal, and when those relationships end, as they inevitably do, I can’t think of another team ownership that has dared to try to lay claim to the intellectual property created during the sponsorship. If that’s the way things are going to work, all those Cervelo Test Team co-sponsors better watch themselves, or at the end of the year, Gerard Vroomen is going to own the rights to all their shit.
Who knows, maybe whatever “High Road TechDev” is did exist before the Tour of California. Maybe High Road’s people did work long, lonely hours with the Giant boys, analyzing the properties of different carbon layups, conducing airflow modeling, rethinking steering component design, and, in the nascent half-light hours of early morn, secretly engaging in inter-corporate romantic dalliances straight out of late night Cinemax. When High Road can produce a single engineer then on their payroll with the credentials to help design that bike, or even better, enough of them to warrant the annoyingly nerdy “TechDev” name and sticker set, I’ll be more willing to buy into their claim on the design. That said, it’s probably unfair to assume that Stapleton is stretching the truth when he says that he has a team of engineers working directly for his cycling team – I certainly don’t have any evidence either way. It’s just that, if he does, it's very, very strange.
But until more facts come to light, which seems unlikely now that there’s real racing going on, I don’t know why we’re even discussing the implications of this slap fight, since nobody seemed to be buying Stapleton’s story. The real question is, why even put this ridiculous scenario out there in the public? Teams riding poorly camouflaged, non-sponsor equipment doesn’t surprise many people anymore, and with designs becoming more distinctive and recognizable in recent years, its not even as fun a game to try to spot them as it was in the olden days, when all the bikes pretty much looked alike except for the lug points and seatstay treatment. In effect, every manufacturer has some version of the Hetchins curly stays now, some little do-dad that will identify their work regardless of stickers and paint. So now, spotting rebranded equipment isn't a major ah-ha moment, and usually just results in a little sidebar, a quotable if hollow denial from the team, and a sense of Where’s Waldo satisfaction for the spotter. Then everyone moves on.
In this case, though, all the claims and counterclaims have blown it way out of proportion, and the most remarkable thing is that the party with the most at stake in this dustup has been the most forthcoming. Scott, which currently sponsors Columbia and whose bike the team should theoretically be riding (and, therefore, advertising and selling) had no problem relaying where they stand on the issue in this VeloNews article. In it, the Scott rep simply states that they didn’t have a ProTour quality TT bike ready, and that they’re working on it. (Note to Scott: Be explicit about who owns the resulting design. Maybe write it down and get it signed and notarized.) Scott also provides a perfectly good business justification for not having a TT bike to hand over – nobody buys them, a fact Giant also notes in its telling of their bike’s story. Sensibly, Scott designed their Plasma model for the triathlon market, where people love talking about and actually purchasing aero bikes, so it has some design choices that are less than optimal for regular cycling time trials – the kind where you’re not sandy and overexposed.
That still may not be the whole story, though, since Scott produced a custom version of the Plasma for David Miller in 2007 when he rode for Saunier Duval – a design that corrected some of the bike’s tri-specific foibles. Why not just do that again? The easy speculation is that, even if they correct the angles and such, the reworked Plasma might not be as aerodynamically slippery as the Giant design, or might be deficient in some other way, and Columbia just wants to use the best tools to win races. Only problem is, pro cycling’s financial model is built on sponsorship, not prize money, and winning on a bike that is blatantly and publicly not your sponsor’s isn’t doing that sponsor much good. That could lead to some sour aftertastes and bad reputations down the road, though I’m sure their other sponsors don’t mind at all. Of course, Scott admittedly is not trying to sell TT bikes to cyclists right now, so they might really not give a damn, or maybe everyone’s decided it’s just best for pro cyclists not to ride around on something called “Plasma” these days. I don’t know.
Anyway, that’s all kind of old news, and I probably wouldn’t have dragged it back up if I hadn’t come across this strangely timed (for most sites, anyway) Pez story. It’s not notable for providing any new information (kind of like this post) – it’s mostly just photos of Columbia’s Addict road bikes and Plasma TT bikes from the team’s press shindig in Mallorca a few months ago. It is remarkable for noting that they saw the bikes again at the Tour of California (where, indeed, nearly every team showed up with bicycles), while failing to note any of the TT bike flap at that event, or the fact that some Columbia riders are still using the Giant design at Paris-Nice. But, like everything in cycling, sometimes it’s just better to please the sponsors, even if it means ignoring the obvious.
Saturday, March 07, 2009
There have been a couple of notable insights into our namesake, the service course, on the internet lately, both of which are enlightening in their own way.
The first is a nice little video on the Garmin-Slipstream site featuring Ryder Hesjedal giving a tour of the team’s service course in Girona, Spain. Even if you’re not a fan of the particular equipment the team rides, it would be hard to claim that Garmin’s facility is anything less than a racing cyclist’s candy store. In fact, it makes your garage’s lack of a custom 40 foot bus, dedicated staff, stock of carbon wheels, and an espresso machine seem downright criminal. Add to that the fact that some of the most prized training grounds in Europe lie just outside those giant rollup doors, and there’s some pretty good fodder for envy there. But please, look, admire, but don’t get caught up in some sort of wild-eyed equipment frenzy, wondering if you’ll really be able to get through this season with just the six wheelsets you have. It’s not good for you, and it annoys the crap out of your friends.
Other than providing one of the best looks I’ve seen inside the inner sanctum, how else is this post from Garmin enlightening? Well, if you’ve ever read the year-old “About” blurb over there on the left side of your screen, then Garmin’s word choice in defining what a service course is may look familiar. Of course, that makes me wonder if the guys have actually looked at this site, and, if they have, if Allen Lim will ever give me a ride again.
The second service course-related piece comes courtesy of the Belgium Knee Warmers site, which certainly doesn’t need any traffic help from me, but what the hell. At the Tour of California, BKW seized the opportunity to have a look inside BMC’s equipment truck and grab a few words from veteran team mechanic Vincent Gee. Granted, a truck is not a service course, but it’s close enough for now. The article doesn’t get into too many specifics about the truck (which is not a criticism – I mean, it’s a truck), but I found the interview revealing in an unexpected way. Specifically, this series of questions regarding stage race routine caught my eye:
-Do you change the [handlebar] tape daily?
-Do you replace chains on a scheduled interval?
-Any special equipment for AToC?
-Any special tires for the rain?
-Are you gluing tires on a schedule?
For a site that is centered on digging into the details of the pro experience, they’re perfectly reasonable questions to ask. But they made me wonder how much people's notions of team operations have been affected by the image projected by a few superteams – particularly the Postal/Discovery and Astana operations headed by Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong. That is, have those teams’ highly publicized methods and procedures – microscopic attention to detail; constant not-so-secret testing of double-secret new crap; stage-specific tires, bikes, gears, and wheels; decades-long tire gluing procedures – skewed our view of how most professional cycling teams really operate?
The quick answer, I’d argue, is yes. In the United States, the tightly focused media blitz that surrounds those Bruyneel/Armstrong collaborations has made it seem like the resource-intensive way they handle things for the Tour de France is just the way most cycling teams operate all the time. Which is ironic, because the teams put all of that information out there in the press in an attempt to look unique.
(It would be unfair to Bruyneel and co. to not mention that Garmin-Slipstream, with all of its much-discussed “protocols” and Blackberry-love has also emerged as a standard bearer for this image.)
But in reality, there are very few teams, maybe five or six in any given year, with the sort of budget, sponsors, and organization to support that lifestyle – teams like ONCE, Mapei, CSC, Quick.Step, and T-Mobile for instance – but beyond that top tier things get a leaner pretty quickly. Yes, changing chains and bar tape frequently, for example, doesn’t seem likely to break any team’s budget, but the fact is, you’re paying folks to do that work when they could be attending to more pressing things, and you’re chewing through a limited number of units the sponsor has provided. And that’s all money going out the door.
But all of the media attention on those superteam habits – on Versus, in magazines, on the web – has created a mindset in which it's perfectly normal to ask if a second division team is changing bar tape daily during a week-long February stage race, if they have rigid protocols for changing chains and gluing tires, and if they’re using special chainrings for pretty ordinary climbs.
That’s what made Gee’s answers so refreshing, and valuable to readers. At a time when a lot of people are fascinated with the more wasteful aspects of professional cycling – the one-race-and-replace-it, bigger-bus-is-a-better-team image – Gee revealed that no, they just don’t do all that stuff. Despite the years he spent as a wrench with Discovery, at BMC Gee changes the tape when it needs to be changed, replaces chains when they’re worn, and glues tires when the old ones are worn or flat.
That all seems too reasonable, though, and gluing up tires as needed just doesn’t create that same no-detail-too-small pro image that Julien Devries’ legendary 90-step tire gluing process does. And using bike shop-available equipment doesn’t lend that Formula 1, money sport image like talking casually about the ridculously expensive narrow BB time trail bike Armstrong decided he didn’t like. Most of all, though, the conservative approach just does't make for flashy copy or video. But, for the vast majority of teams – even good, well-funded ones like BMC – that’s the reality: conserving what you can, when you can, without unnecessarily risking a good result. In fact, I’d wager that a lot of fans who have watched every episode of Road to Paris and worn the ink off of four year’s worth of Procycling would be surprised at just how much use even the wealthiest teams get out of equipment before they toss it. Remember that Garmin video way back up at the top? Yeah, those cobbled classic bikes Hesjedal pointed out are stored in there for a reason – reuse.
Monday, March 02, 2009
As an invalid, I’ve been able to take in quite a bit of Tivo’ed Tour of California coverage over the past week – far more, in fact, than anyone who is not heavily medicated should be allowed to endure. Through the haze, mine mental and the race’s meteorological, it seems like a nice little race they have going there – right spot on the calendar, good course, exceptional organization, and a strong field. But as much as I want to see the ToC continue to thrive (and avoid the ambition overdose that kills so many good events), it’ll still always be a preseason game to me, because on my calendar, the road season begins with Het Volk.
I know, I know – last Saturday’s Belgian season opener isn’t called Het Volk anymore. The sponsoring newspaper that gave the event that name struggled for a few years before finally stopping the presses for good in 2008. Het Volk (the paper) was already a property of Het Nieuwsblad, the paper whose name now adorns the race, so the transfer was seamless and the race itself never appeared to be in any danger. In today’s sponsorship climate, that sort of security is a rare thing indeed – the bank shenanigans in the U.S. have already shrunk “Philly Week” to “just Philly,” and the newspaper business isn’t exactly the picture of health these days, either. Of course, Het Nieuwsblad also publishes Sportwereld, the Flemish sports paper that naturally has a heavy cycling bent, so Het Nieuwsblad coming in and killing off the region’s revered season opener wouldn’t have been the most sound business move, regardless of the sponsorship financials. Good will counts a lot sometimes.
While last year’s Het Volk was the last to be run under that historic name, that edition also marked a return of one of the race’s fundamental elements – the finish in the center of Gent. From the inaugural edition in 1945 until 1995, the race started in Gent and looped south through the hellingen of the Flemish Ardennes before returning north to finish in Gent (logically, the alternate name for the race was always Gent-Gent). In 1995, the organization moved the finish to Lokeren, a small town 19 kilometers northeast of Gent. Usually, organizers make changes like that to combat issues like increasing frequency of bunch sprints (we looked at Milan-San Remo’s battle with the bunch back here). I don’t know the details of all those pre-1996 Het Volk finishes well enough to know if that’s what sparked the move to Lokeren, but a cursory look at the list of winners shows a good number of notably fast finishers. However, it really could have been anything – maybe the Lokeren chamber of commerce was handing out more cash, or maybe Het Volk’s accounting department was located there, I don’t know. But if you’ve been to both Lokeren and Gent, you know they didn’t switch for the ambiance.
That said, if trying to move the finish closer to key selection points – hills and cobbles – was the goal of the Lokeren move, then the organizers seem to have achieved an even greater victory to that end with the move back to Gent. Using the 2001 course as a representative of the Lokeren years, we can make a few comparisons to this year’s course. Both courses use the Molenberg, a nasty 463 meter climb with 300 meters of cobblestones and a max gradient of 14.2%, as the final climb before the stampede to the finish. (The 2009 edition also featured 11 climbs to 2001’s nine. However, the inclusion or exclusion of climbs in the hill zone has little to do with the finish location.) Measured from the top of the Molenberg, the distance to the finish line shrunk by 18 kilometers, from 57 to 39 kilometers, theoretically giving a well-established breakaway a better shot at survival.
Though shorter than before, the new final dash squeezes in 400 more meters of cobblestones than the 2001 version. The new course also serves up the stones in larger helpings, dishing out its 7,100 meters over 5 sections, whereas 2001 chopped its 6,700 meters into 7 portions. Cobbles aside, the final 15 kilometers in 2009 also presented additional difficulties to riders compared to 2001 – the approach to Lokeren was a wide, straight speedway, but the run-in to Gent is significantly more technical, weaving in and out of the city’s myriad street furniture and tram tracks as it snakes toward the town center. Finally, the new finish straight on Charles de Kerchovelaan street features a tough uphill grunt, a marked contrast to the pannenkoek-flat Lokeren straight.
So, has the objectively harder finale thinned the herd coming to the line? Not really. In 2001, a break of 11 (helped by a well-timed freight train) came to the line, with Michele Bartoli (then Mapei) taking the win. This year, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) led home an 18-man front group, with the bulk of the field arriving 45 seconds later. On the other hand, Philippe Gilbert (then FDJ, now Lotto) soloed in for the win in Gent last year. So while some careful course planning can certainly help shape outcomes, as the saying goes, it’s the riders (and sometimes the weather) that make the race.
But really, whether the win comes from a big sprint like this year or a great late race solo move, Het Volk/Het Nieuwsblad is always a great race, because it’s the first real race of the year – for me. Why Het Volk? Why not the Tour Down Under way back in January? Or the GP Marseillaise in France, or the Trofeo Laigueglia in Italy, big one-day races that both precede Het Volk on the calendar? Pure personal bias, that’s why. Because I love the classics, and in the spring that means Belgium. And because, in 2001, when Bartoli rolled across the line, I was there, floundering my way through my first international assignment. So for me, it starts with Het Volk.