Monday, January 25, 2010
Been Caught Stealing
As a sport, cycling has come a long way towards acceptance in the United States over the last 30 years or so. The accomplishments of Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong on cycling's biggest stage have had a lot to do with that acceptance, as have marquis domestic events such as the USPRO race in Philadelphia, the Red Zinger and Coors Classic, the Tour du Pont, and the Tour of California. Yes, desperate-for-attention sportswriters at half-wit newspapers around the country can and will continue to write their yearly columns about how cycling isn’t a sport since them gol’ danged, spandex-wearing, French-speaking nancy boys couldn’t hit a Roger Clemens fastball or a three-point shot if their lives depended on it, and they’ll continue to use the resulting reams of cyclist hate mail to prove their far-reaching influence to an underpaid editor who really doesn’t give a damn. But they'll be preaching to a smaller and smaller choir of likeminded souls since, aforementioned unpleasantries aside, the United States has mostly managed to grudgingly accept that riding a bicycle fast to beat other people is a legitimate athletic pursuit.
That said, I’m betting that we haven’t reached the point of cultural acceptance where during, say, the Tour of Missouri, a flock of low-ranking domestiques could run into an Exxon Tiger Mart, clear out the Snapple fridge and the beef jerky display, and run out without paying, right under the nose of the owner’s giggling daughter. Being a Virginian, I’m no expert on Missouri mini-mart justice, but I’d venture that they’d get tasered or pepper-sprayed on the way out, and that’s if they hadn’t already pulled a groin due to the famously incompatible relationship between plastic clipless pedal cleats and linoleum gas station floors. At the very least, their larcenous hijinks would make the evening news, which would undoubtedly air a security video so grainy that not even the race numbers pinned to their backs would enable authorities to identify the suspects. (As with any petty crime committed by our kind, though, you can bet the news accounts would note that the perpetrators were cyclists, as well as whether or not they were wearing helmets at the time of the offense.)
But not so in Italy, at least not in the 1970s, when a standard antic in the Giro d’Italia was for riders to descend upon a roadside store or bar and pilfer all the orange soda, San Pellegrino, and light apertifs they could carry, often with the tacit or even explicit approval of the proprietor. This two-minute clip from filmmaker Jørgen Leth’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a documentary about the 1974 Giro, shows one such raid and captures a not-so-distant past that still feels worlds away.
[Film note: That anyone would attempt to open a bottle by pounding the cap against any portion of his bicycle’s steering apparatus speaks to the bike handling confidence of the rider. I’m not sure what finishing the job off with your teeth says, but it’s something.]
“Ah, but that’s a bygone era,” you say. “People are more litigious now, and computerized inventory and ordering makes wide-scale, willy-nilly looting extremely inconvenient and less endearing for modern retailers. No store owner would tolerate that nonsense today.”
The thing is, in Italy at least, I bet they would. The love and knowledge of the sport is deeper there, the traditions more closely kept, and in the grand history of Italian cycling, the 1970s aren’t that long ago. If Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r) wanted to pilfer some Orangina during a long, hot sprint stage, I’m betting not too many storekeepers on the route would begrudge him the loot. But the modern Giro, and modern racing in general, doesn’t afford riders the same chances at levity that it used to – the media and public scrutiny are greater and the stakes and money are bigger, or at least that’s how it feels. And it’s that upping of the ante and maybe a related loss of some peloton camaraderie that put an end to the bar raid, not a suspicious eye behind the espresso machine, a Carcano under the counter, or some heightened sense of fiscal responsibility. It’s just that, damn it, nobody takes time out of a bike race to rob a European convenience store anymore, and that’s a shame.
As far as U.S. cycling goes, however, it’s probably a good thing that the practice has died out. Ivan Basso (Liquigas) getting shot for trying to pinch a Fresca at a Bakersfield, California 7-Eleven due to a tragic cultural misunderstanding isn’t the kind of press we need. We’ve come a long way stateside, but cyclists and bicycle racing haven’t quite reached that level of cultural acceptance here. But it is achievable, my friends, and other sports have done it. In fact, I’d venture that the starting defense of the Indianapolis Colts could likely leave the stadium during the upcoming Super Bowl, roll up to the local Miami Chevron, clear out the Twinkies, the Gatorade, and the cash register, and be met with nothing but applause for doing so. Someday, maybe the likes of Quick.Step, Lampre, and HTC-Columbia will have the same luxury of status. It would sure help things along if they bulked up to 250 pounds and could bench press 435, though.
- Speaking of the sport’s traditions, this article is sort of cycling’s equivalent of the swallows returning to San Juan Capastrano. When you see it each year, you know that spring is coming.
- Reports of Niels Albert’s (BKCP-Powerplus) non-contention for the upcoming cyclocross World Championship appear to have been greatly exaggerated, mostly by him. In all fairness, after getting yanked off his bike by a fan and cracking a rib at the Belgian national championship, Albert was right to be concerned about his ability to defend the rainbow stripes he’s worn this season. But after suffering through the World Cup round at Roubaix the following weekend, he roared back to win yesterday's final World Cup at Hoogerheide.
While it’s good to have Albert back, there’s no denying that World Cup overall winner Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea) is the odds-on favorite to win the World Championship on his home turf in Tabor, Czech Republic. Between his performances this year, the hometown crowd, Albert’s prediction that the Belgian team will return to being an every-man-for-himself affair, and Lars Boom’s (Rabobank) defection for the road, this has to be Stybar’s year.
- In lamenting how cyclists are treated on roads here in the United States, we often refer enviously to the perceived better treatment of cyclists in countries like Italy. Unfortunately, bad things happen there, too. Condolences to the Wilier family on the loss of its chief, Lino Gastaldello.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Media outlets being in the tank for sports teams or individual athletes is nothing new, and it’s certainly not limited to professional cycling. In fact, just last week the Washington City Paper detailed the long, mutually profitable relationship between longtime NBC affiliate sports reporter George Michael and the Washington Redskins NFL franchise. It’s an interesting piece, but a little anti-climactic, both because Michael recently passed away, and because his Redskins bootlicking was so obvious you pretty much knew he had to be getting something out of it. Nobody would do that for free.
But unlike National Football League teams, cycling teams don’t typically have much cold, hard cash to throw at reporters to produce fawning infomercials about them. (At least I don’t think they do, though last year’s Versus Tour de France coverage occasionally made me question that theory.) Nor do most cycling publications have the resources or, thankfully, the ethical flexibility to pay riders for interviews (well, mostly). Nah, the currency that’s passed between the cycling media and its subjects isn’t cash, but rather the easily exchanged commodities of access and good press.
Once the initial contact and sniffing out between the reporter and rider are done, the access half of the equation follows a simple formula – write nice things (or wave your hands at the camera and mispronounce nice things) and we’ll keep talking with you. Disagree publicly, and we won’t. Do me an extra-special favor when I really need one, and maybe you’ll get that exclusive interview or insider tidbit later. Down the line, those interviews and tidbits get converted to attention-grabbing items that increase newsstand purchases, subscriptions, or page hits, thereby providing the media outlet with…cash.
In exchange, the media member that’s granted that extra level of access – the kind of access that goes well beyond dishing out a few post-race trivialities to the assembled finish line hoard or sitting for a 10 minute pre-season interview at camp – is expected to use their available pulpit to tell the rider’s side of whatever the story may be, and righteously defend him from his enemies when need be. Or at least not stir the pot in the other direction. Down the line, that lopsided coverage, if it’s done right, will result in a better and higher-profile image for the rider, which will lead to better sponsorships, endorsements, and other deals, thereby providing the rider or team with…cash.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like these arrangements hinge on some tedious written agreement that’s hashed out by contract attorneys. It’s a little more organic than that, and some outlets’ overtures towards riders are fairly aspirational – floating that over-positive story out in hopes it’ll be noticed and become the launching point for a closer relationship. It’s also worth noting that what a rider needs to grant access varies considerably. For some, just not being patently offensive to them is enough, and as long as you don’t remark repeatedly on how unattractive their mother is or the lack of intellectual prowess displayed by their girlfriend, they’ll be happy to talk. Others have to actually know and/or like you, and still others likely have to know in no uncertain terms what you’re planning to write. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out how those degrees of scrutiny typically correlate to the rider’s pay grade.
Beneficial as it is for both reporter and rider, if not for the media consumer, it’s an understandable arrangement. That doesn’t make it palatable, of course, but frankly, no matter whether you like the flavor or not, it’s unlikely to change any time soon. You can do bare-bones race reporting without much rider access, because that just takes an understanding of the game, a view of the TV, and a seat in the audience at the winner’s press conference if you want to go deluxe. But actual for-profit web sites, newspapers, and magazines need more than that – they need the inside skinny, the big interview when things are falling apart, that photo shoot of a superstar’s bike room, the ride-along during the final TT of a grand tour. In the age of streaming, on-demand video of races, that stuff is what sells magazines and gets hits on web articles, not telling the public who made the early break in the stage they all watched yesterday. So they get it how they can.
Like the City Paper, though, cycling’s media consumers are pretty willing to call the media out when they hop the border between press and press agent, only we're willing to do it while the reporter is still alive. Last year, the SC was critical of what I thought was a too-cozy and one-sided handling of Lance Armstrong by the VeloNews editorial department, and Patrick Brady of Red Kite Prayer is currently taking a bit of a beating for the same perceived offense in the comments section of this article on the “Contador bought his own wheels” scandalette. In the course of that piece, Brady, in turn, insinuates that Spanish daily Marca is deeply and irretrievably immersed in Alberto Contador’s bathtub. And he’s probably right. After all, if media outlets didn’t need to say nice things to assure continued access to their target markets’ top dogs, why else would cyclingnews.com have touted Michael Rogers as a Tour hope all those years?
Anyway, since we seem to be stuck with it, I say that media and pseudo-media outlets should band together to make the best of the inevitable game of media-rider kissy face. On the cusp of a new season, what we need to do first is expand our horizons a bit, go for the less obvious partnerships. Really, where’s the fun if we’re all in the Armstrong tank, or the Contador tank, or the Boonen or Nys tank? For godssake, someone snuggle up to some of these other guys: let’s pick a neo-pro and lock him in young, rock the sport with some unrelenting and unapologetic coverage of Frederic Guesdon, or sign up to be the official undercover media mouthpiece of anyone on Footon-Servetto. That way, readers can get some balance in coverage, even if they have to visit 16 separate sites to get it.
And media members, once you pick your tank, remember: no matter what salacious or despicable act your rider may commit, no matter how big the tactical blunder, no matter how apparent the lack of fitness may be, you must vigorously defend and even promote his position and interests to the public. You must, despite any well-reasoned and fully-cited arguments against him, despite any amount – mountain or molehill – of damning evidence that comes to light, rise to protect your selected rider from the slings and arrows of an obviously fickle, ill-informed, and ignorant public. And when called upon, you must refute, point by point, the arguments made by his accusers, slanderers, and various other malcontents.
What the hell, I’ll take Filippo Pozzato.
- Does Cadel Evans even have a tank? If so, who’s in it?
- Credit Peter Hymas, formerly of the excellent Bobke Strut and lately of the much larger but less endearing cyclingnews.com, for starting the unconventional tank trend by forsaking other more talented and visually appealing riders and throwing his love behind Ag2r’s hairless spider monkey, John Gadret. That’s the spirit.
- I know I said above that I’d take up Pozzato’s cause, especially with the coming Boonen-mania of the spring classics, but Liquigas is practically advertising opportunities to jump in their tank, and a trip to San Pelligrino sounds mighty good. I hear the water there is terrific.
- Somewhere in the cited RKP article above, Brady flatly states as truth that it is “standard practice” that riders are all provided the same equipment by sponsors, noting that Trek confirmed for him that that was the case at Astana last year. In the broad sense, it’s true that all riders on a given team do receive the same equipment (e.g., you all get a Felt with Dura-Ace and Mavic wheels), but let’s not pretend that the stars don’t get special toys, which is the matter at hand in the article. For instance, Trek famously developed a special extra-narrow TT bike for Armstrong during his Tour run. He didn’t like it, and Ekimov eventually ended up riding it, but as far as I know, not everyone in the team rank-and-file had access to one. Similarly, in 2007, Tom Boonen was issued a custom aluminum version of Specialized’s usually-carbon Tarmac to correct a fit problem he was having, and more recently had custom carbon bikes made up for his spring classics campaign. In 2004, after winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Stefan Wesemann showed up the next weekend for Paris-Roubaix riding a custom Giant carbon road bike with extra clearances and cantilever brakes. Nobody else on T-Mobile had one, and there were all of two made, or at least that’s what he told me. And those are just cases where the equipment actually came from sponsors – the big guns also tend to get away with playing it a little looser with the sponsor equipment rules. So, standard practice maybe, but with some considerable and relevant exceptions.
Tuesday, January 05, 2010
Used Car Lot
On January 23, British auction house Bonhams will be putting a suite of classic automobiles and other associated “automobilia” on the block at its Automobiles d'Exception à Rétromobile auction in Paris.
So what the hell does that have to do with professional cycling? If we’re going to rattle on about pretty metal things on display, accessible for purchase only by the fabulously wealthy, shouldn’t we at least be talking about the upcoming North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond, Virginia, and not cars?
But in the course of looking for something else (cycling related, I assure you), I came across this blog post from Hemmings Motor News, which features seven Tour de France publicity caravan vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s sold at last year's auction. In it, Hemmings manages to capture some of the flavor of the Tour’s vaunted "pastis and accordion" era through photos, some pretty good snarky commentary, and plenty of auto-gearhead details and historical notes from the auction brochure. And there's not even the obligatory lycra joke that car publications are required to make when bicycling is mentioned. Who'd have thought?
Final selling prices ran a fairly modest gamut, from under €6,000 for a 1959 Hoover vacuum-mobile, since made over as a circus promo, to just over €40,000 for a creepy 1951 candy-mobile straight out of Beetlejuice. I don’t see any Tour caravan vehicles listed for this year's auction though, which is unfortunate, since I was just starting to picture myself driving a 1973 giant sausage on a Citroen chassis down I-95 to the handbuilt bike show.