Thursday, May 28, 2009
Charlie Don’t Surf
Cyclists have as many words for minutely different types of strength as Eskimos do for different types of snow, but a professional rider’s specialty, and their success at it, often boils down to whether they’re very, very fast for a short time, or just very fast but for a longer time. To try to figure out which a rider is, you can phrase the question any number of ways: Is he a climber or a time trialist? Is he fast, or is he strong? Is he a sprinter or a classics rider? Is he a turbo, or a diesel? The questions vary slightly, depending on whether we’re in classics season or in the midst of the grand tours, but they’re all looking for the answer to the same equation – where, on the spectrum between what we’ll call “fast” and what we’ll call “strong,” does he fall?
(Yes, indeed, we’re oversimplifying, but for a reason. There are finer distinctions, of course, depending on terrain and roles – though both short and very, very fast, a sprinter’s violent acceleration is differently calibrated than a pure climber’s stabbing attack, for instance. But where a rider sits on the spectrum compared to rivals within his specialty can tell you a good bit about how a race will likely go down.)
Different specialties within the sport require different balances of power – those often vague waypoints on the fretless fast-strong continuum. And to keep things interesting, the balance points aren’t necessarily static – some riders are able to sacrifice the “jump” needed for a bunch sprint for the mystical “force” required for the cobbles, others can barter “explosiveness” in the hills for the “strength” needed for a flat 40k time trial. Sometimes it happens through training, sometimes it just seems to come with age, sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, but as every rider knows, you can’t have it all at once. Nobody knows that better than GC riders, who slide around the continuum more than most, trying to find that sweet spot that will bag them a grand tour title.
As with anything, there are limits – no rider who is naturally bent too far towards one end of the spectrum can hope to force himself very far towards the other side, no matter how hard he works at it. You can’t fight nature, and they can only seek their best achievable balance. For GC riders’, the specially tailored version of the fast-strong continuum is labeled, at either end, “attacking climber” and “time trial monster.” The reality is that mostly, GC riders are very good at both, often among the top riders in either specialty. But they’re always a little bit, or in some cases, a lot, farther towards one end or the other. The best reach a high white note of balance that lets them make and match the killing accelerations in the mountains and also slay their opponents against the clock. The names of those who achieve it are written in the recordbooks, but more numerous in those same books are the names of those who simply came closer to the balance than the competition on hand.
Which brings us to the point of today’s sermon: Leipheimer don’t jump. That, of course, is not news, and to his credit he’s always been remarkably open about it. The real question was, at what point would Leipheimer’s best attainable spot on the continuum – the one that lets him be very strong in the TTs and climb fast and steady, but not match any sort of acceleration – come to be seen not as a “vulnerability,” but as the absolute, immutable roadblock that would forever prevent him from achieving a grand tour win? I’d say that point was reached on Stage 16 of this year’s Giro d’ Italia, from Pergola to Monte Petrano. Earlier, I’d speculated that this stage would see those who could throw down sharp attacks do so, and then we’d see if a Leipheimer/Armstrong tandem could diesel their way back up in time to save their day. The first part happened, with Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) opening the attacks. Danilo DiLuca (LPR) and pink jersey Denis Menchov (Rabobank) sprang away in pursuit, preserving their GC spots from the surprising and sudden danger presented by a very sharp Sastre. Leipheimer, well, he didn’t. As he always does, he rallied a bit and rode a great tempo up the remainder of the final climb, but so did everyone else of importance. The problem was, with those opening salvos in the initial kilometers of the climb, the minutes he needed had already gone up the road, and while his climbing tempo is fast, it isn’t that fast.
Leipheimer is obviously out of contention now for the Giro, but why say that his lack of acceleration will be the roadblock to any future grand tour success? Well, for obvious reasons, I’m guessing he won’t get much of a chance at freedom in the Tour de France. And, in the unlikely event that he chooses to ride a three grand tour season, anathema to Americans, he’d just close out the year at what may be the biggest festival of acceleration you could ask for – the Vuelta. Though he’s come closer there than elsewhere, with Alberto Contador (Astana) potentially doubling up, a healthy Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) possibly back in action, and about a dozen other jumpy Spanish climbers hopping around like jackrabbits, it doesn’t seem like the best opportunity. Of course, those guys can’t usually time trial, so there you go again… But after the Vuelta, time just keeps marching on, if you know what I mean.
Leipheimer’s not the first victim of getting caught at that damning spot on the continuum, of course. Look at Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), for one. And indeed, for years of Tours de France, the point on the spectrum where both find themselves wasn’t a bad spot to be in at all. In the Armstrong era, grinding, not explosiveness, seemed to be the key to victory, or at least contention. Alex Zulle, Jan Ullrich, Joseba Beloki, Andreas Kloden? All fantastic time trialists and strong climbers, but explosive high-mountain riders were never among the true challengers, though Iban Mayo looked to be for a very short time. And in those sorts of races, Leipheimer probably would have a fair shot (critics will, rightfully, point out that he had leadership of both Rabobank and Gerolsteiner during those years and failed to produce, though I’d argue longer experience has been key to his recent successes). Now, though, the formula for Tour candidates seems to be changing, with more snappy mountain riders making bigger impressions on the overall – riders like Contador, Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), and, obviously Sastre. With his ride in the Giro, Menchov seems to be only one of the riders from the traditional mold to approach the high white note – seemingly sitting on the perfect balance of speed in the mountains and strength against the clock. Basso also had it once, whether he will again remains to be seen.
- All this coverage of the short climbing stage to Blockhaus, and not a single picture of the actual World War II German-built bunker at the top? Come on. As a former history major and the son of an architect, I was all set to combine my love of cycling with gawking at a bit of history and some early inspiration for brutalist architecture. Oh well -- I suppose the lack of photos has something to do with the top 3k or so of the climb being snowed in. The stage itself was certainly brutal for its length, with Carlos Sastre sinking again just as fast as he’d risen on Monday, Armstrong looking rough, and DiLuca making Menchov look winded for the first time in awhile. Good on Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) for winning, and for recognizing his narrow speciality – freak stages.
- DiLuca continues to impress with his ability to grovel for seconds wherever he can, attacking Menchov on the Blockhaus finish and grabbing himself another 13 seconds on GC. While his true chances are very slim, the way he’s riding, I’m not ready to count him out quite yet. Unrealistic? Maybe, but to put it in the typical language of non-native English speaking riders, he “likes to make a show for the fans.” I like that.
- Will Menchov become the first rider to be both awarded and stripped of a grand tour win as the result of a doping scandal? Unfortunately, maybe. As is our (young, ever-evolving) policy here at the SC, we’ll just keep writing about the performances like they’re real, until someone with some sort of authority tells us they’re not with some degree of credibility.
- You know you’re in the waning days of a grand tour when you start looking at the other jerseys. Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick.Step) and Francesco Masciarelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo) are locked in a battle for the young rider jersey, with the surprising Masciarelli only two minutes adrift. The Italian looks to be on the upswing, so tomorrow’s finish atop Vesuvio could be his chance. On the other hand, Belgium must be excited about the prospect of a new GC contender in Seeldraeyers, since things haven’t been working out too well for them on that front for the past 30 years or so. Like the battle for pink, it's a two-man game, with the next rider something like 15 minutes down.
- In the mountains classification, former Giro winner Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) looks to have things all sewn up, even if his country hates him for outsprinting DiLuca for second place on the Blockhaus stage (thus eating bonus seconds DiLuca could have used). Whatever – Garzelli wanted the points, and I’m glad to see he’s found something to do in his dotage. Beats playing bocce.
- Speaking of Garzelli’s success, is it feeling a little old in here, or is it just me? I mean, Garzelli, Sastre, DiLuca, Menchov, Leipheimer? What’s happened to riders in their late 20s, the alleged peak of grand tour prowess? Mick Rogers (Columbia), at 7:05 back isn’t flying the flag terribly high.
- On a non-Giro note, I’ll be providing some straight-up, button down, race coverage reportage for VeloNews for this weekend’s Air Force NRC races in Arlington, Virginia. That’s the Clarendon Cup crit (former CSC Invitational, former U.S. Postal something-or-other, and originally…the Clarendon Cup) on Saturday, and the Air Force Cycling Classic circuit race on Sunday. Say hello if you see me.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Fed Up, Knocked Down, and Dropped Out
The Service Course is never really at a loss for words, but we are frequently at a loss for time. So with the (American) Memorial Day holiday weekend looming, here’s some quick fodder from the bella Italia.
- Ah, there’s nothing like getting what you wish for, on Christmas day, Memorial Day, or any other day, really. Less than two days after the SC suggested that Giro media not grovel at the feet of Lance Armstrong’s (or anyone's) Twitter feed, it seems they’re publishing tweets no more. The Service Course -- it’s what drives the Giro press corps.
- Danilo DiLuca (LPR) did indeed lose his pink leader's jersey in yesterday’s freakazoid time trial, which is obviously not the greatest shock to the cycling world. That said, he did well to not completely blow himself up, riding well enough to keep himself in the second spot behind TT winner and new pink jersey Denis Menchov (Rabobank). With some explosive stages in the hills yet to come, we may well see him back in pink at some point. Could it be for good? That's tougher, as he'd have to build back up enough cushion to see him through one more time trial.
- Looking like a bit of a three-horse race now isn’t it? Levi Leipheimer (Astana) is the third horse, in case you were wondering. With the aforementioned mountain stages coming up, the question will be whether diesel Leipheimer can match the accelerations of DiLuca and Menchov (to a lesser extent) well enough to keep himself in contention come the final TT. Armstrong does seem to be riding himself into shape, and should be able to help him to a point. The question is, how much? In the days of yore, Armstrong would have been the guy to be able to match those accelerations, but even if that happens, it won’t do Leipheimer a whole lot of good if he can’t follow Armstrong back to the wheel in time. We may well see another round of sharp attack versus fast-and-steady in the coming week. Iban Mayo tested this theory thoroughly against Armstrong in the 2003 Dauphine Libere, and though Armstrong eventually won the race, Mayo did a lot of damage along the way.
- With his win today and subsequent leadership of the Giro, will Denis Menchov finally get some buzz? Despite two Vuelta wins, you don’t hear much about Russia’s biggest GC hope for a few reasons. First, he’s just doesn’t seem to be much of a talker, trash or otherwise. He’s also not particularly flashy on a bike – a great time trialist and a good grinder in the mountains, but he doesn’t exactly shout “explosive,” though I do think he’s shown a lot more punch on the climbs in the last couple of years. Finally, one of his Vuelta wins was awarded after initial winner Roberto Heras was popped for doping. No matter how you regard victories of that nature, they certainly don’t make as big an impact as the ones where you get the kisses on the top step at the end.
- Speaking of Russians, if Menchov wins the Giro for Rabobank, won’t Katusha just die?
- Turns out the Giro time trial was just a little too crazy for multiple world TT champion Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), who woke up Thursday morning and thought, “eh, maybe not.” As it always seems to be in these situations, it was apparently always the plan for Cancellara to go home early to get ready for the Tour de France, though the "right before a stage I really didn't want to ride" was never explicitly spelled out. It also fits into Saxo Bank’s larger team plan of doing absolutely nothing in the Giro d’ Italia.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
DiLuca's Pink Slip?
There seems to be some debate as to who the “favorite” is for the Giro. You have to declare someone the favorite, of course. Otherwise, how would people on internet message boards know who to love or hate? The bookies are leaning Danilo DiLuca’s (LPR) way recently, some pundits are waiting to see what Ivan Basso (Liquigas) really has in the tank these days, most people are ignoring Denis Menchov (Rabobank) as usual, the American cycling press favors Levi Leipheimer (Astana), and the American general interest media is probably still waiting for Armstrong to make his move.
What that all means, as I see it, is that nobody really knows, and that’s largely due to tomorrow’s wildcard stage. The 60 kilometer time trial is so unlike anything we’ve seen in a grand tour since any of these guys have been racing professionally, it’s anyone’s guess who will win. And then, how decisive will the time gaps be? The Giro organizers have had a few missteps of late, but they have managed to come up with a stage that is the perfect format to keep people guessing. It’s about half again as long as the average grand tour TT these days, so that alone creates the potential for some unexpected results – who knows who the best time trialist over 60k is? Last anyone checked, it was probably Bernard Hinault, but I think he’s lost a step by now.
But it’s not even a normal, ridiculously long TT. Apparently, it’s also hilly and technical. So much so that there’s lots of talk of riders forgoing TT bikes – a sign that the course may not be suited to the talents of the die-hard TT specialists like Brad Wiggins (Garmin) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank). In fact, Cancellara’s already hedging his bets by calling the course “a bit crazy,” and following up that comment by calling it a whole lot of crazy. All that said, it’s still a TT, and some folks just don’t do well against the clock, no matter how long, short, hilly, or flat the TT may be.
Picking a winner for tomorrow’s show may be too tough a task, but the over/under bet seems to be whether DiLuca will manage to keep his pink jersey. For some reason, I hope so, even if only because I have a feeling he probably won’t. I’ve gone on record in the past saying that DiLuca should focus on the classics, but after the first week of this Giro, I’m sure glad he hasn’t. Mike Barry put it best when he called the Giro more of a “collection of stages” than the Tour de France is, and as more of a puncher than most of the GC riders, the Giro’s grab bag format has played to DiLuca’s strengths. At the Giro, there’s no three-days-in-the-mountains, roll around awhile, three-more-days-in-the-mountains for the climbers to dig their teeth into their own terrain and rhythm, and no billiard-table-flat 40k TT that the usual clockers can do blindfolded.
Instead of the Tour’s predictable roadmap of killing opportunities writ large, the Giro has provided a bunch of little opportunities – deceptive little climbs, a tricky descent, finishes that favors smaller groups – that DiLuca’s been able to take advantage of. Unlike the standard GC riders, DiLuca doesn’t seem to be thinking of whether he can gain a minute on the next mountain top finish or pull a minute and a half back in the TT. Instead, he’s picking out those little chances – like that last descent in Tuesday’s stage to Pinerolo – where he can grab a few seconds at a time. And while people weren't really looking, those seconds started to add up. That scrappiness has been made more evident by DiLuca’s necessary focus on stage wins. More than the true climbers and true time trialists, DiLuca needs the time bonuses on offer to have any hope in the overall, and at this point those bonus seconds account for a significant portion of his 1:20 advantage. All told, his constant fight for seconds, bonus and otherwise, has made for some great riding in the waning kilometers.
In his two stage wins so far, it’s hard to deny that DiLuca has looked very much like a classics rider trying to win a grand tour – something I think is pretty refreshing in a time where specialties seem to be getting so narrowly defined as to border on the ridiculous. While he’s doing as well as any true all-rounder could hope so far, keeping control of the race through whatever tomorrow brings could be a bigger challenge than he’s faced so far. But if he can make it through Cinque Terre intact, he may just get enough respite to hold on as the race settles down a bit and teams without anything to show (i.e., most everyone besides Columbia and LPR) take a bit of the heat off the GC battle.
Some followup on Monday's kvetching about the media's use of Twitter quotes. Today, VeloNews’ Andrew Hood writes of complaints amongst the Giro press corps that Lance Armstrong (Astana) is inaccessible. Quelle surprise! Clinical question – if people can’t remember things that happened three years ago, is that short-term or long-term memory loss? I mean, it wasn’t yesterday, but it wasn’t 20 years ago, either. Anyway, the article notes that Armstrong has been giving the media the slip for several days now, but has been busy posting material to his Twitter page. Writes Hood: “That’s what Armstrong did following Tuesday’s electrifying 10th stage. He crossed the finish line and turned around to go directly to the team hotel, leaving journalists to pull reactions off the Twitter site.”
In a related note, in his Explainer column today, VeloNews’ Charles Pelkey answers a question received during their Live Update coverage, which simply asked, “Where’s Lance?” Part of Pelkey’s answer was that the coverage basically mentions the riders making the moves or otherwise doing something notable, and that “it’s safe to assume that if you don’t hear about Armstrong, Leipheimer, Di Luca, Sastre, Menchov or other top riders, they’re probably doing okay and riding with the peloton.”
Now, can’t we take this same attitude when it comes to post race quotes? As in, if riders want to stew in their juices and not talk to the media, can’t we all just assume they have nothing to say? It would beat the hell out of having to chase people all over the internet, journalistic dignity-wise at least. But, like rider protests, doping, and other messy issues, it would have to be one of those things where everyone agreed not to do it, lest one entity be able to claim an advantage over their rivals by breaking the pact. And we see how well those little agreements tend to turn out.
- A few different perspectives on the whole Giro-Milan protest brouhaha are floating in. A great collection of rider quotes and insanely over the top Italian editorial writing on the subject are available on ProCycling’s Dan Friebe’s BikeRadar blog. Why, oh why, will nobody pay me to write like the Italians? It seems like so much more fun. Bicycling’s Joe Lindsey gives his take on his Boulder Report blog, while Mike Barry (Columbia) uses his diary entry to give us some insight as to how a rider mulls these things over. And while Barry makes his case, Ivan Basso (Liquigas), on the other hand, has put forth a weak-kneed recant.
- Mark Cavendish (Columbia) must be happy to have bagged a full, competitive sprint stage today, just so everyone will stop jawing about his win in the trainwreck Milan stage. But really, can someone besides Columbia and LPR catch a break in this race? If Mick Rogers (Columbia) somehow pulls it together to get himself into pink tomorrow, other teams are going to start going home.
- This isn’t Giro related, save that he competed in it during his time on the road with Motorola, but our hearts go out to the family of Steve Larsen, who passed away way too young today at the age of 39. Here’s to a guy who could ride a bike – any bike – damn fast.
Monday, May 18, 2009
I read late yesterday evening that there was a protest at yesterday’s Giro d’Italia stage in Milan. You can imagine my surprise. I only saw a few minutes of the stage before I had to go get on with my day, but at the point I saw, the peloton was somewhere around the 6 laps of the 15k downtown circuit remaining and was spread gutter to gutter, chatting. In other words, it looked exactly like I would expect a pointless, ill-conceived, pancake flat, city center circuit race to look like if you were foolish enough to place it after the hectic opening week of a grand tour. You know, like a post-Tour exhibition crit, but with less authentic action.
It turns out the slow riding was indeed a protest, however, even if the protest did look suspiciously like “what would have happened anyway.” We’ll leave the basic, fundamental ridiculousness of this stage on the back burner, for now, and have a look at this little bit of nonviolent revolution. Specifically, the riders were protesting the safety of the Milan circuit itself; some coverage hinted that riders were also more generally protesting what they view as some questionable safety decisions by the organizers throughout the first week of the race. Was the rider’s effective neutralization of the stage, with stage times tossed out the window and just the final 10k raced in earnest, justified? I’m of a bit of a split opinion on that one, leaning towards “yes,” I suppose.
The immediate concern was Sunday’s Milan circuit, which reportedly funneled riders from two lane roads into single-lane corners, took in as many of the city’s tram tracks as possible, was strewn with parked cars, and was segregated by tape rather than barriers. Adding to the potential mayhem was the fact that the course didn’t really have anything to break the field up – in other words, they’d more than likely take in all those corners, tracks, and cars as a tightly packed group, lap after lap after lap. Of course, I wasn’t there, but it does sound like a recipe for disaster, and when you’re facing a recipe for disaster, whether you’re a pro cyclist or an accountant, I do think that you have the right to say something before swan-diving into the empty pool headfirst.
To me, the fact that there were cars parked on a closed course says it all, and in and of itself gives riders ample reason to call the organizer’s entire attitude toward rider safety into question. There is, of course, the problem of riders potentially striking the parked cars on the course. There’s also the potentially more troublesome problem of the motorist getting in, starting his car, and driving it away, only to encounter Danilo DiLuca (LPR) et. al. rounding the next corner at full tilt. Now, I’ve seen cars being towed, carried, or bounced from race courses prior to jerkwater amateur crits throughout the American southeast, a region that hardly has the same affection and appreciation for bicycle racing as northern Italy. And even though it was the early 1990s and the color pink abounded on bikes and jerseys, those races were certainly no Giro d’ Italia. But they still got the cars off the damn course. So does RCS expect people to believe that there was no way the organizer of the biggest races in Italy could have worked with the city of Milan to have those cars removed in time for the city’s showcase stage? If we can agree that that scenario seems ridiculous, the only other explanation would be that RCS didn’t try to address the problem, which reflects an alarmingly negligent attitude towards race security.
The broader complaints about hairy road courses during the first week? Whether those are protestable offenses by organizer RCS is less clear cut, since what’s safe or unsafe in those cases relies a little more on rider judgement than does the Milan problem. Just as parking my car in front of my house is really dangerous if I try to slide the car in sideways at 50 miles an hour, yes, some of the Giro descents and finishes are dangerous if you try to take them at superhuman speed. And just as most normal people can park in front of my house, most normal people (at least the ones reading this site) could ride down those descents and negotiate the stage finishes. What makes these things safe or unsafe, of course, is in how fast you try to do it, and how big a game of chicken you’re willing to play while doing so. When is the course to blame, and when is it the riders' fault for not slowing down?
So where do you draw the safety/responsibility line between the riders and the course designers? Sure, if a descent is too damaged, exposed, or technical to be taken at reasonable bike race speed, then the organizer should obviously avoid it. But when an organizer eyes an otherwise suitable descent, with new pavement and beautifully cambered hairpins, does he have to factor in the thought that some headbanger who needs a contract next year will take unreasonable risks for the chance at scoring the victory, smearing himself on the retaining wall in the process?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear, and as you get farther into it, it just gets harder to determine what should be deemed “safe.” For instance, the “course design / safety / how fast can you ride it” issue is plenty visible in cyclocross, where half the trick is to see how fast you can ride whatever the organizer’s thrown at you without falling over. And in all but the most egregiously bad course design, taking the challenge at a reasonable speed for your skill level is the rider’s problem. However, you get a number of pre-ride chances to test out your theories on the ‘cross course before you go barreling into that muddy turn in competition at 30 kph; in the grand tours, riders are pretty much seeing the course for the first time as they go, and they’re going at 70 kph. Taking that into account, is any of this really safe?
Reasonable care seems to be the best riders can ask of organizers. You know, like maybe not using that 100kph blind curve leading to a sheer dropoff at kilometer 200 of a stage, or not sending the peloton barreling down the four lane autoroute into downtown, then doglegging them into some cobbled, six-foot-wide medieval back alley for the sprint. Has RCS exercised that reasonable care in planning this year’s stages? I’m sitting about 3,000 miles too far west to really know, but the people who really have to worry about it are saying that RCS hasn’t. Bike racers are a whiney bunch, of course, but as much as I'd like to disregard the complaints, you seldom hear complaints like this about safety at the Tour de France.
I will say this, though – the Italians at RCS may not be as safety-conscious as the French at ASO, but they are funnier. Giro director Angelo Zomegnan, understandably frustrated that the riders had effectively blown what should have been a big advertisement for Milan and the Giro, snapped to the AP, “This circuit was explosive, full of bursts, and required you to get your ass off the seat. But it seems like certain riders who aren’t so young anymore didn’t want to do that. Today, the riders’ legs were shorter and their tongues grew.”
Unless I’m mistaken, he just called protest figureheads DiLuca and Armstrong old, and possibly lazy. Tune in tomorrow, when unless the peloton shapes up, he may just call Damiano Cunego short and Ivan Basso’s sister fat.
- Pedro Horillo (Rabobank) fell off a cliff. Seriously, fell off a cliff. Fortunately, despite some injuries that would seem more serious if not viewed in the context of falling off a cliff, he seems to have a pretty good prognosis. When he’s feeling better, he can take comfort in the fact that he’s now become the Wim Van Est for a whole new generation.
- Mark Cavendish (Columbia) won Sunday’s stage, which you might expect in a flat, 10 kilometer race that ended in a sprint. Andrew Hood did an interview with him afterwards, during which he asked if the win meant that Cavendish had “worked out how to beat Petacchi.” To that, Cavendish retorted, “I don’t think I understand the question. He beat me once all year. I won in Milan-San Remo, I won in Tirreno. Today was just putting right what I messed up in the first stage.” The snappish answer was perfectly justified given the question, but I felt for Hood. There are some times during interviews when, just as you're asking the question, you realize you've phrased it totally wrong. Then you just have to shut up and wait as the line-drive answer comes hurtling back at your head.
- Cavendish’s win capped what’s been an obviously remarkable week for Columbia, a week that also includes wins in the previous two stages from teammates Edvald Boassen Hagen and Kanstantsin Sivtsov. Add to those wins the team time trial victory, Cavendish’s time in pink, and Thomas Lovkvist’s time in pink and the young rider’s jersey, and you couldn’t hope for a much better first week for a team without a proven GC threat. Credit the riders, of course, but also team director Bob Stapleton, who bet heavily on youth when he took over the T-Mobile squad that morphed into Columbia. Those guys are paying off now, and earlier than a lot of people expected them to, and it's nice to see a bit of a changing of the guard.
- Mike Barry is one guy on Columbia who isn’t young, but he is strong, and he is very nice, at least according to Cervelo’s Ted King (and a number of others, myself included). But what struck me about Barry this week was his own diary entry in VeloNews, which managed to put one difference between the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in much more succinct language than I’ve ever been able to: “While the Tour de France is formulaic in its structure, the Giro is a mishmash of stages.” I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it's true.
- Astana’s little jersey change didn’t really tell us much after all, did it? In the end, the new design was just the current jersey with the non-paying sponsors’ logos faded back. So in essence, Astana spend lord-knows-how-much money to effectively do the same thing we did when I was 17 and one of our club sponsors didn’t pay – black out their logo with a Sharpie marker. Of course, the idea that the new design would hint at the new sponsors was just the way I and many others read the team’s comments prior to the design's release, and it proved to be an overreaching interpretation of those comments. The new kit does, as the team promised, reflect “the significant changes that are ahead for the team.” It’s just that, contrary to what we expected, the new design only told us what we already knew – that most of the consortium that makes up the Astana sponsorship ain’t paying, and people hate not getting paid.
- We haven’t had a real note on the media in awhile, so here’s one for today: Can we quit with all the damn Twitter quotes yet? Yes, I realize that Twitter, like team press releases and such, can be a good source for information and can give you a basic read on what’s on riders’ minds. And at least most writers are openly stating where the quotes came from – which is better than those “news” articles I read every day that use the same quotes and copy I get in my inbox via press releases. (Although, with the prevalence of Twitter, I suppose you’d have to be a fool to try to pass off a tweet as the product of first-hand journalism.) So what’s wrong with using Twitter postings in articles? Nothing on occassion, but in overusing them, reporters are letting the subjects of their article control the message by only answering questions that nobody, save the Twitterer, has asked. After all, Twitter is nothing more than people interviewing themselves, and giving pretty superficial answers at that. Now, would anyone ever really grill themselves in a public forum, or would they only ask and answer questions that are the most advantageous to them, as both interviewer and interviewee?
Thursday, May 14, 2009
The 2008 Tour de France exclusion. The Armstrong comeback. The non-payment issues. The Kazaks abandoning ship. May 31 deadlines. Think Alberto Contador is starting to wish he’d signed somewhere else yet?
Anyway, the team currently known as Astana seems all set to change sponsors, promising to debut some modified “our current sponsors are going down the crapper” kit over the next several days of the Giro d’Italia. The new clothes are said to retain the current sponsors, but give a teaser as to who the new sponsors will be. Like most, I’m speculating that the new sponsor package – which is an amazing feat in itself in this economy and at this point in the season – is a heavily Armstrong-linked affair, and will have something to do with the Livestrong cancer non-profit.
Some people are crying that the Livestrong team scenario isn’t possible, because a non-profit entity can’t own a for-profit bike team. I believe they’re overcomplicating the issue. Or maybe they’re undercomplicating it. I haven’t decided yet. So with no training or experience in the relevant laws and accounting regulations, I’ll obviously wade right into the issue...
There are any number of ways I can see getting around this roadblock, or maybe I’m just proposing that the roadblock doesn’t really exist. First, ownership and sponsorship are two different things – they’re just more combined under Astana than they usually are due to the Kazak national ties. Same deal with Katusha, but these sorts of state-sponsored, pseudo-Soviet arrangements aren’t really the norm. For instance, Riis Cycling owns the team known as Saxo Bank, but Saxo Bank is the sponsor, not Riis. Likewise, a company called Tailwind Sports owned the U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel teams, not the semi-public mail service or the TV channel. Just as in those arrangements, there’s really no reasonable scenario in which Livestrong itself would actually “buy the team,” which is how a lot of people seem to be imagining this deal going down. So Livestrong wouldn't actually “own” anything.
Sponsorship, on the other hand, is really just advertising by another name, and non-profits certainly advertise all the time, though they usually call it "fundraising" instead. In fact, I’ve built a small fort in my living room out of Salvation Army mailers, lashed together with Easter Seals return address labels and roofed with Children’s Hospital glossy postcards. So, Bruyneel, Armstrong, or damn near anyone else could buy out Astana’s ProTour license, contracts, and infrastructure (the “team”), and Livestrong could sign on as a sponsor.
If Livestrong just shelled out the regular “title sponsor” rate, though, it could result in a pretty ugly balance sheet for a charity, considerably lessening the ratio of dollars per charitable contribution that go directly to the root charitable purpose. That would lower the charity’s efficiency rating, which could spell disaster for donations, especially in a bad economy. So a traditional title sponsor arrangement still doesn’t seem likely, even if it is legal.
Another option is that someone, including Armstrong and/or Bruyneel, could buy the team/license, and that entity, someone else, or a group of people (people like Thom Wiesel) could sign on as the “title sponsor,” but not in the traditional sense. We usually think of a title sponsor as a company that pays to advertise its services on the team’s stuff, but really if you have a few million dollars they’ll put damn near whatever you want on there. If the Service Course gave some team (I’m thinking something in a nice second division Belgian squad) enough money, I could decide that I want them to ride around all year with one of my kid's doodles on their backs instead of my logo. And they’d like it. So this theoretical sponsor group could decide that they just happen to want the Livestrong logo on the jerseys, maybe in addition to their own logos, and Livestrong could agree to let the team use their logo for that purpose. Sort of an in-kind donation of space, if you will. Remember those little yellow bands on the Discovery Channel jerseys? Think bigger.
A third scenario is that Livestrong serves as sort of a “collecting sponsor.” The charity would have some representation on the jersey, likely in the form of its signature black and yellow color scheme and some logo placement, but it would pay little or nothing for it. Instead, it would serve as a cause umbrella to sign up sponsors like Glaxo-SmithKline, Amgen, Merck (yes, Merck, not Merckx), or other cancer treatment-related companies, like for-profit health systems or equipment manufacturers. Essentially the same thing as Team Type 1 does for diabetes.
Finally, there’s one scenario that people don’t seem to be considering – a cycling team doesn't necessarily need to be a for-profit venture, and if the Livestrong Foundation really felt the perverse, inexplicable desire to actually own a cycling team, I suppose they could go that route. Non-profit doesn’t mean volunteer, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean charity. It just means that you somehow “serve the public benefit,” and that you don’t make a profit. For instance, National Geographic is a non-profit, but over the years they’ve certainly made plenty of cash selling magazines and Jacques Cousteau TV shows and slapping that yellow square logo on damn near anything. But at the end of the year, there’s nary an extra cent to be found - they just happen to have, from what I’ve read, extremely nice lunchrooms and generous benefit packages. Make no mistake, under a non-profit scenario, Bruyneel, Contador, Leipheimer, Horner, et al would still very much be getting paid, it’s just that at the end of the year, the company that owns the team would have to have appropriately spent or reinvested all its money. That shouldn’t be too hard with a good accountant. And call me crazy, but I think that Armstrong’s foundation probably has a good enough reputation and good enough lawyers to make the case to the feds that the team should qualify as a non-profit .
Of course, I could be wrong about all of that. Maybe the new sponsor is Lego, who knows? What I’m saying is don’t write off the Livestrong thing based on one line out of the reams of rules regarding non-profits. And never underestimate the number of gaping loopholes in the tax code.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Bridging the Gap
Little light on the content here these days, eh? Well, that’s because the Daughter of the Service Course was born two weeks ago, and anyone who’s done that drill knows that newborns can really cut into your casual cycling commentary time. She and I get along just fine, though, because newborns are a lot like cyclists – they’re asleep most of the time, and when they aren’t, they’re eating, pooping, or crying about something. Kidding aside, we’re all thankful that everybody’s healthy, and we’re getting enough sleep to stay relatively sane.
At this point, there’s no way we can catch up to all that’s transpired in cycling over the last couple of weeks. But as we all know, when your team’s missed the break entirely, nothing reassures the director that you really are trying like an ill-fated, half-assed bridge attempt. So here goes…
Rebellin Lights It Up
I left a comment on Pave site right after Fleche Wallonne, wondering if Davide Rebellin’s (Diquigiovanni) latest win there would finally get him the recognition he deserved as one of the finest classics riders of his (aging, mostly retired) generation. Well, maybe it would have, except for the fact that a few days later, Rebellin’s legacy took an unfortunate turn in the other direction with the news that he lit the doping lamp for CERA after his bronze medal performance at the 2008 Olympic road race. Like Johan Museeuw, he has to be regretting his decision not to have hung up his wheels just a little bit earlier. And like Museeuw, we may be in for another “in the last years of my career…to try to remain competitive…etc., etc.” half-confession that does nothing but call the entirety of a career into further doubt. Ah, well.
Schleck Finishes on Time, Race Finishes 20 Minutes Too Late
Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) took a really exciting win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, or at least he would have if the race ended shortly after he made his winning move and established his gap. But it didn’t. And as much as I love L-B-L, watching Schleck cruise alone, however speedily, up that long, wide, dead steady, dead straight climb into Ans was just excruciatingly boring. L-B-L has a lot of beautiful, dramatic climbs – the Graham Watson special in Houffalize, La Redoute – but the Cȏte de Saint-Nicholas just ain’t one of them. Coupled with Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank), to hear the press tell it, single-handedly menacing an entire herd of about 35 certified Ardennes classics threats into a total stupor, it wasn’t the best finale the race has ever seen. I mean really, nobody could attack because Frankie was there? Cunego? Valverde? Anyone? Because you really weren’t going to win with Andy up the road, anyway.
Ardennes Specialists are People, Too
Despite his recent lighting of the lamp, Rebellin won a load of big races, including his legendary sweep of the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2004. Yet when people talk about classics riders, he’s rarely mentioned with contemporaries like Michele Bartoli and the like. Why? I think the reason is two-fold. First, for whatever reason, Rebellin’s never gotten any respect – years of non-selection for the Italian World Championship team show that. I don’t know the guy, but I do know that some folks’ heads and mouths can rob them of opportunities their legs should have given them, and in a time when national coach Franco Ballerini was trying to build unity, Rebellin just didn’t seem to fit into the plan. So maybe Rebellin just rubs people the wrong way, but if he does, it’s never been in as public a way as some of his compatriots, like Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) or Filippo Simeoni (Ceramiche Flaminia).
The personality part of the equation is likely to remain a mystery, to non-Italian speakers at least. Besides, the second reason Rebellin isn’t regarded as a classics legend is much more broadly applicable and more important anyway: the misplaced perception that classics = cobblestones. Some classics do, of course, have plenty of cobbles, and the stones do add a certain something to the feel of the race and the legends of the men who thrive on them. But plenty of big classics are held over smooth roads as well – races like San Remo, Liege, Fleche, Amstel, Lombardy, and Paris-Tours. Despite that, it seems that unless someone wins Roubaix or Flanders, they aren’t dubbed a great classics rider, and that’s unfortunate. Sure, grand tour guys snap up some of the Liege wins, and if you win Paris-Tours or San Remo, they’ll probably still just call you a sprinter. But there has to be a place for guys like Rebellin in the classics pantheon, doesn’t there? Maybe if there were, guys who are clearly cut from the same mold as Rebellin, like Damiano Cunego, Alejandro Valverde, and Danilo Diluca, would stop chasing slim chances at grand tour wins and focus on the asphalt classics where their talents really shine. That said, they’d be stupid to ignore the financial incentive of the grand tours vs. classics equation if they have a reasonable chance of success over three weeks, so I can’t say I blame them.
Actually, It’s Three Blows
Speaking of cobbled classics, Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) has made a habit of winning them, and unfortunately, he seems to also have made a habit of knocking back some Bolivian marching powder afterwards. The news is everywhere you’d care to look, of course, including Monday’s revelation on cyclingnews.com that this is actually Boonen’s third cocaine positive, not the second. News coverage is great and all, but the week’s best contribution to the hubbub comes from this VeloNews.com article, where Lance Armstrong comments on the situation with a fantastic double entendre:
“It’s a blow for him, a blow for Quick Step, a blow for their sponsors and Belgian cycling.”
Well played, Armstrong, well played.
Pick a Winner
Hey, wait a minute! That last article we cited also noted that the Giro d'Italia has started, and admitted that there are people besides Armstrong riding it. I’ll be damned. Other than some arguably more spectacular scenery, what does the Giro have over the Tour de France? A shitload of former winners on the start line. Stefano Garzelli (2000), Gilberto Simoni (2001, 2003), Damiano Cunego (2004), Ivan Basso (2006), and Danilo Diluca (2007) are all in the mix this year. Why does the Giro seem to always have so many former winners on the line, when the Tour sometimes struggles to have even one?
The simple answer is that the last 30 or 40 years of the Tour have been dominated by a host of multiple time winners. In fact, from 1968 to 2008, only 19 men have won a Tour de France. When a few guys account for anywhere from three to seven wins within a ten year block, there just isn’t a hell of a lot of room to stack up a host of former winners on the line. Armstrong’s tenure alone saw pretty much every other active Tour winner retire or die.
The Giro’s recent history, however, has been dominated by fierce competition among the natives, hence this year’s presence of all those still active former pink jersies with surnames ending in vowels. Not all of them have a good shot at winning by any stretch of the imagination, but they all still have enough kick to make things interesting on those notorious uphill Giro finishes.
Thinking about the presence of former winners at the Giro got me wondering – does the Tour, by virtue of its status as the “premier” Grand Tour, just lend itself to dominance by standout riders more than the Giro? The answer is, in the last 40 years, as the Tour has risen to greater prominence and specialization has increased, yes. But comparing the Giro to the Tour over their histories shows less of a disparity. In 91 editions, the Giro has had 58 winners, for an average of 1.56 wins per victor. Over 95 editions, the Tour has had 56 distinct winners, for an only slightly chunkier average of 1.69 wins per victor.
Like a lot of people, I like the Giro because, well, it’s not the Tour. It doesn’t have that same over-scrubbed, made for television polish added to it to appeal to the uninitiated. It still manages to maintain the image that it’s about bike racing more than the “event” or the brand. The Italian fans, the tifosi, are, of course, already a legendary part of that feel, and you’ll see it again this year when the race hits the hills. But lest you think that the insanity you see at the tops of the climbs today is new, some sort of depraved reflection of the over-the-top society we live in today, watch this clip of the 1974 climb of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
And turn the sound on, so you can hear the thump when the motorcycle hits people.