Thursday, February 25, 2010
Lost in Translation
Word was said to be leaking out of Italy over the past several days that Washington, DC, had indeed landed its longshot bid to host the start of the 2012 Giro d’ Italia. Big cycling media reports, subsequently parroted and embellished in any number of places, said that organizer RCS had made statements to the Italian press indicating it was a done deal, with the announcement to be made this morning at the Italian Embassy in DC.
Now, in the fading light of Thursday afternoon, those reports appear to be not quite so accurate, and I’m not talking about the fact that the event is going to be this evening rather than this morning. An event there will be, it seems, but rather than a triumphant victory announcement, it will be a rah-rah session held by the Italians and the Mayor in an effort to convince area businesses (and likely the rest of the DC government) that a wildly misplaced Italian bicycle race will be a financial benefit to the city. In other words, get them to cough up some dough.
That's a substantially different story from those running yesterday, though most of those stories have now been "updated", or "corrected," or "retracted," depending on how you look at it.
I have to admit, when the idea of DC hosting the Giro initially floated out, I approached it with a feeling of acute skepticism, bordering on pessimism. And frankly, even though DC’s proverbial hat seems to still be in the ring, I’m still finding it hard to shake those feelings. I support the effort – this would, after all, bring the Giro d'Italia to my backyard, or five miles from it, anyway. And it's bold, risky, and a little bit ill-advised, and I like that. But hauling a grand tour across the Atlantic is a gargantuan undertaking, fraught with a number of logistical challenges that can’t be overcome with mere enthusiasm. Some can't even be overcome with money, and that's saying something. Among the challenges, monetary and otherwise, that will have to be faced down:
- For the past several years, the Giro has faced substantial criticism from riders about the length of the transfers between stages – and that’s when we were talking about a three-hour bus ride. Imagine the reactions to 14 hours in the air. I expect the riders’ association to weigh in.
- Beyond the travel time, riders will be fairly resistant to sitting in a flying, germ-recirculating aluminum tube just as they're hitting some of their lowest body fat levels of the year. Twice.
- Jetlag. Going east is worse, so expect a less-than-enthusiastic Stage 2 back in Italia.
- During the U.S. phase of the race, there would be a six-hour time difference between the Giro's primary viewing audience in Europe and the bike race itself. Organizers would likely mitigate that problem with early starts in local time, which in turn will piss off riders, soigneurs, and mechanics.
- Since DC would host at least a prologue and likely at least one additional stage, the cost and hassle of having to ship both a time trial bike (prologue) and a road bike (stage 1) and related equipment for each rider will have to be considered. Bike sponsors will not want to lose the time trial bike exposure of a grand tour prologue to the quaint "Eddy Merckx style" prologue rules often used for races in exotic (read: non-European) locations. This isn’t the Herald Sun Tour or Qatar. It’s the Giro.
- The price for a second set of infrastructure required will be substantial on its own. Things like a complete set of rental cars for teams, organizers, officials, etc. And box trucks. And vans. And campers. And motorcycles. (Plus insurance.) And banners. And barriers. And radios. And 42 sets of roof racks.
- By going transatlantic, the race would substantially increase the cost and hassle for the media and other assorted camp followers. If these outlets are forced to cut costs, coverage (and associated sponsor exposure) could suffer.
- By exiting the bounds of the European Union, race organization and teams may spend more time than they'd like dealing with visa issues.
- I would expect that RCS will likely incur some financial loss from the reduced value of a Giro sponsorship to Italian/European sponsors, who would receive lower exposure in their key markets for two or more days of the race, including the presentation and grand depart. Organizers would need to be able to make that up with cash from this side of the ocean, which is hard to come by these days.
- RCS would also likely experience sponsorship value loss (and subsequent income loss) from European sponsors paying to drive a giant, rotating fiberglass sausage or something in the publicity caravan. Assuming nobody intends to fly that circus here and back, those sponsors would see about 1/10 of their days on the road eliminated. Granted, this could theoretically be mitigated by creating a second, U.S. caravan, though the concept is a little more alien here, and that could present sponsors with a pretty hefty sunk cost for 2 or 3 days of use.
- I haven’t been able to confirm, but there were apparently issues with the National ParkService prohibition on advertising when the Tour du Pont went through Rock Creek Park awhile back, which could mean either not using the most obvious road in the city to use, or taking another hit to sponsor value by driving unlabeled vehicles on un-bannered roads, etc., for one of two days here. Again, unconfirmed, and I don't remember.
- In trying to compensate for lost sponsor money on the Italian side with funds from U.S. backers, organizers may face potential sponsorship competition with the re-scheduled Tour of California, if it's still around in 2012. That is, potential U.S. non-endemic sponsors big enough to cut the big checks for cycling will likely have to decide whether to support the "U.S. race" or the "Italian race", both of which would be in the United States at the same time. If those potential sponsors are after warm feelings in the United States via cycling sponsorship, ToC is probably a better choice. If they're after warm feelings in Italy/Europe via cycling sponsorship, they're probably better off supporting an Italian/European race that's actually in Italy/Europe.
- Outside of the race organizational aspects, I also suspect there will be quite a local outcry if the Mayor and City Council pony up any city money (such as police costs or road surface improvement) for some Italian bicycle race instead of paying school teachers, increasing police on the streets, feeding the poor, or addressing any of DC’s other myriad issues. And DC's usual sugardaddy, the Fed, is getting pretty strapped these days. Yes, most if not all of those costs could be recouped via economic benefit to the city as a result of the race, but few outraged citizens will get that far in their analysis once the shouting starts. Look at what happened to the San Francisco Grand Prix.
So yes, I’m skeptical. But I’m also hopeful. The people working on the bid are experienced, smart people, and they know cycling and event planning. I’m sure I haven’t listed anything above that they haven’t thought of themselves. And if they needed help, I’d sign up in an instant. Hopefully, tonight’s session at the Embassy will be another step on the road to success, even if it’s not quite the finish line people were expecting yesterday.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Our Winter Doppelgangers
Long-time readers will know that I’m not a huge fan of the Olympics. The competition is great, of course; my distaste is more due to the influence the IOC exerts over the sports world and my generalized intolerance for sappy, against-all-odds athlete bio segments on TV. But despite all that, and the lamentable absence of bicycles, I do have to admit that the Winter Olympics offer a lot for a cyclist to love.
Let’s start by looking at Saturday’s cross-country skiing 30k pursuit, as well as by noting in advance that I know next to nothing about XC ski racing. For instance, I know that biting is frowned upon, but I have no idea how common tactical, team-oriented skiing is in this event. What I do know is that a recording of this year's race should be shown to beginning racing cyclists everywhere as a tactical tutorial.
Just after the mid-race transition from classic to freestyle technique (more on that later), Swede Johan Olsson worked out to a 12 second lead, with two teammates at the front of the main field covering for him as he established his gap. When a serious four-man chase formed in the final, Olsson’s teammate Marcus Hellner was there in the thick of it (but not on the front of it). As the catch was made near the last kilometer, Olsson kept driving the front, allowing Hellner to stay tucked in a bit longer before making his charge into the lead, and a gold medal, through the inside of a downhill righthander. With Hellner away, Olsson soldiered on, providing another body’s worth of distance and dissonance in the racing line between Hellner and German Tobias Angerer. Angerer finally did come around Olsson’s gritty final effort to move into the silver position, while Olsson got the bronze for his trouble.
While the vagarities of, say, ice dancing leave me a little lost, to an observing cyclist this race made perfect sense. It was a page from the textbook – send a guy up the road, make other teams bring him back, and then when they do, use his last ounces of energy to spring your ringer in the finale. Very nicely done, whether or not it was part of any pre-race plan, and it made for closing kilometers that were as exciting as the end of a classic. So, can anyone fill me/us in on how common tactical teamwork is in XC skiing? Because if it’s common, well, hey, that was still a heck of a nice example. If it’s not, the Swedes may have just changed the game.
For a cyclist, though, the television commentary may have been more interesting than either the tactics or the nail-biter finish. U.S. cycling fans would instantly recognize the voice on the NBC coverage – none other than our old Tour de France straight man, Al Trautwig. I can hear you groaning, but the Traut did work to learn a bit about cycling over his Tour tenure, and it showed on Saturday. Throughout the 30k pursuit broadcast, he and his co-announcer used cycling parallels to illustrate the concepts at work on the XC ski course to good effect, and they botched nary a one.*
(*My only real quibble was in their discussion of a potential “long break caught on the line” scenario, where they cited Paris-Roubaix as a race where you'd be likely to see it. To my knowledge, that almost never happens at Roubaix, where the early break catch and reshuffling tend to come well before the velodrome. But that’s minor.)
The Traut not misinterpreting cycling’s inner workings, though laudable, wasn’t the really interesting aspect of the commentary for me, though. Rather, it was the realization that I may have been witnessing the first time that a major U.S. television outlet has used cycling as the “more accessible sport” with which to explain a more obscure sport to an American audience. That’s a huge milestone. I want to believe that it speaks to cycling’s higher U.S. profile over the last 15 years that the commentary team didn’t stretch some ill-fitting baseball or NASCAR simile to the point of snapping in order to explain the pursuit, but rather turned to cycling as the best educational fit. That decision comes with the implied assumption that enough of the audience would understand the cycling references to make them worthwhile rather than confusing.
I am willing to admit that that’s probably an overly optimistic assessment of the decision making process, though. It’s far more likely that the designated XC ski expert on the NBC crew knows that there’s substantial XC and cycling crossover, and that most Americans watching XC skiing on a Saturday afternoon would have at least a passing familiarity with cycling. Or, it could just be that after being replaced by Craig Hummer on Versus, the Traut just wanted to roll out his accumulated cycling knowledge one more time. But what the hell, I’ll take the optimistic explanation.
In closing, what do you think of the 30k pursuit format, specifically the switching of equipment and skiing styles from classic to freestyle at the halfway mark? From a cyclists perspective, it’s odd, a bit akin to riding the first half of a classic on a fixed gear, then switching to a nice SRAM Red equipped something-or-other for the last 137 kilometers. But I suppose if we look at it from a more Olympic perspective, it’s a little akin to swimming’s individual medley, or the Alpine Super Combined, which features a downhill run and a slalom run. I doubt the format phases the competitors a bit, though, since the Olympics love to throw crazy combinations of activities at XC skiers. Shooting and XC skiing? Sure! How about an XC race and then a ski jump? Alrighty! How about a 15k classic race and then some competitive falconing? Why not?! Those Nordic skiing folks are a flexible bunch, and in the overly specialized world of professional sports, I admire that.
So what could cycling take away from skiing’s 30k pursuit format? Hell if I know, but I’ll go ahead and say that it means we should bring back Bordeaux-Paris, mostly because I want to see it. 560 kilometers or so, raced in the classic bike race style to the halfway point near Poitiers, then behind dernys for the remainder of the distance. Come on professional cyclists, you know the XC skiers would do it…
- Cycling fans watching long-track speedskating have probably seen something familiar to them other than enormous thighs and Eric Heiden. The Russian team’s skinsuits are near dead-ringers for Katusha’s kit. All hail the beautiful branding consistency of state-sponsored sports.
- If you’ve ever watched a Madison on the velodrome, you’ll understand the team events in short-track speedskating. Though this may sound biased, I have to say I find the Madison’s handsling exchange far more dignified than the short-track ass bump technique.
- Short-track speedskating’s version of the Madison: good. Its commitment to the bulbous helmets and terrible lycra helmet covers of cycling’s late 1980’s: unfortunate. Every sport (cycling included) has its ridiculous traditions that must be observed, though, and maybe the helmets do give the short-track the same sort of endearingly anachronistic look as Japanese keirin helmets.
- The connection between cycling and long-track speedskating is hard to escape, of course, with crossovers like Eric Heiden, Christine Witty, and currently active Canadian Clara Hughes all raking in accolades on both skates and wheels. Beyond the demonstrable link in the physical abilities needed for success in both, though, there’s something about the feel of the sports that’s the same, in the arena or on the “open road.” Classics fans, watch this clip of the Dutch Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) race over 200k of canal ice and tell me it doesn’t speak to you.
- The Vancouver organizing committee named the hockey arena "Canada Hockey Place"? Really? Does that sound better in French or something? This goes beyond my usual prediction comfort zone, but I will go on record now as predicting that, in a show of blatant geopolitical one-upsmanship, the Russian organizing committee will name the Sochi 2014 hockey facility “Russia Frozen Water Building".
- The skier cross and boarder cross events have been entertaining to watch, despite giving me horrible flashbacks to writing about various forms of gated mountain bike racing – dual slalom, then dual, then four-cross, plus that Jeep KOM thing. Great fun to watch, hard to capture in the printed word. I wonder if the recent addition of the Olympics’ various “cross” events, along with short-track speed skating, reflects not just the IOC’s oft-stated quest to modernize (and up the danger quotient), but also a realization that audiences like to see actual, head-to-head competition between athletes. Until recently, there wasn’t a whole lot of that at the Winter Olympics, where the marquis events are mostly timed or scored. Think of how terrible an all time trial grand tour would be, or one that included style points. (Just so you know, if style points existed in cycling, Filippo Pozzato would win a lot more and Fernando Escartin would have never been third in the 1999 Tour de France.)
- Skier cross and boarder cross, together with mountain bike four-cross, do prove that you can throw four people riding damn near anything down one of those courses and produce solid entertainment. In the altruistic interest of bettering Olympic viewership and profit, you know what I want to see? Bobsled cross.
- From the style desk: Speaking of bobsleds, the all-red CCCP bobsleds of my youth were so much cooler than this year’s ornate Russian ones.
- From the style desk II: I have to admit, it took 12 years, but Apollo Ohno has finally started to grow on me (not literally) by showing nothing but class both on the ice and in interviews. I do have to wonder, though, if he’s kicking himself for making the goatee and bandana his trademark look way back in Salt Lake City. It was already sorrowfully dated then, and it must be just torturous to have to keep it up in 2010. He’ll probably retire just so he can shave that thing and buy a hat.
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
Waffle House Party
The UCI announced on January 29 that Louisville, Kentucky will play host to the 2013 World Cyclocross Championships, the first time the event will be held outside of Europe. Many insiders would have predicted the United States’ first major international ‘cross event would be held at one of the sport’s traditional stateside hotbeds – like New England, or Katie Compton’s parents’ house. But making the transatlantic leap could already pose such a mental hurdle for Europe-based athletes that it seems the UCI placed a premium on making everyone more comfortable with the unorthodox trip. So, in vetting the Louisville venue, I can only assume that the UCI considered such important ‘cross-related questions as:
UCI: Does your city have ample facilities for serving waffles to drunks?
Louisville: Yes, yes it does.
UCI: Everyone really likes the horsemeat when we hold the Worlds in Belgium. Do you have good horsemeat?
Louisville: Um, in a manner of speaking. You probably don’t want to eat it if you’re going to dope control, though.
UCI: You know, Tabor (2010) has Budvar, St. Wendel (2011) has Karlsberg, and we can only assume that Koksijde (2012) will have the usual Belgian pils and jenever smorgasbord. Do you have some sort of signature local drink that we can use to get well and truly schnakered?
Louisville: Why, yessuh! I say, I say, we DO!
And after one sip of sweet, sweet bourbon, I can only assume the decision was made. Now that I think about it, Louisville is practically just northern Europe transplanted. Kidding aside, congratulations, thank you, and good luck to the folks who made it happen – Bruce Fina and Joan Hanscome, who also bring you (or people like you) the USGP; and the city of Louisville, which is throwing a lot of support behind the event and ‘cross in general.
Anyway, we have three years to chew on this whole deal, but here are a few quick holeshot thoughts:
- In the USAC release, head honcho Steve Johnson states, “After more than a decade of working closely with American promoters and the UCI to grow our international calendar of cyclo-cross events, Louisville’s winning bid is a testament to the success of those efforts and to the extraordinary quality of ‘cross racing in the U.S.”
Right on, Steve. Does this big payoff from all USAC’s “efforts” mean the fed will do something more for the 2013 cyclocross “national team” than give them a jersey and a slightly uncomfortable pat on the ass? Because you know, even most bike shop teams manage to get you a discount on tubes or something. I mean, I know it’s been hard, or apparently impossible, to scrape together the cash to buy riders coach-class tickets to exotic vacation destinations like Flanders and the Czech Republic right at the height of their bleakest-depths-of-winter high seasons, and those new baggage fees are a bear. But if you can’t manage to do better when the Worlds are in Louisville, on three years’ warning, then that’s pretty depressing.
Look, it’s one thing to stiff the pro/elite folks, who actually make (some) money racing bikes and whose sponsors will help out since they’re in a position to capitalize on their athletes’ Worlds participation. But for the juniors and even the U23s? Come on, if you want to call it a “national team,” strip people of their committed year-long sponsors' clothes, and wrap them in the flag for a day, at least pick up the tab. If you really want results, those folks need to be training, racing, resting, or doing schoolwork in the months leading up to the race, not hosting bake sales and car washes to fund a ticket and a hotel room, only to have you issue another self-congratulatory press release if they manage to turn in a good performance.
- Folks have been working on bringing a ‘cross World Cup stop here for awhile, and recent thinking has trended towards building Cross Vegas into that event, which makes a lot of sense. It’s so early in the season the travel wouldn’t present as much of a problem, and the potential sponsor pressure for riders to show at both the race and Interbike could persuade more recalcitrant riders to make the trip. But bringing the World Championships here is far better, and not just for the obvious reason that “it’s the friggin’ World Championships, man.” With the World Championship, by virtue of the late-season timing as well as the prestige, you’re basically guaranteed a turnout of the top stars, and they’ll be shooting for top form. In contrast, if you’re simply the first stop (by weeks) in the World Cup, you’re likely to get a much smaller turnout if a good portion of the top talent chooses to collectively wait it out and start their seasons one race later and 3,000 miles closer to home. And even if you get a few of the heavy hitters at the top, the overall depth of the field tends to get watered down a bit – look at the results of North American MTB World Cups for examples.
This is not to say U.S. interests shouldn’t continue to pursue a World Cup here – it’s an admirable goal, and I hope they achieve it. While the Louisville Worlds will provide a huge one-time impact, a recurring yearly World Cup stop would be a significant long-term asset. As the VeloNews article linked above cites, championship venues are typically tested with a World Cup first, but there are still some funding humps to work out for a stateside World Cup stop since 15,000 people won’t pay $20 a head to watch a cross race here. However, if there still isn’t a U.S. World Cup prior to Louisville in 2013, a good promoter/federation performance there could potentially help shake some sort of solution loose and set the U.S. up for some recurring role in top-shelf 'cross racing.
- In email chatter since the announcement, I’ve already heard some half-joking worry about the arrival of plane loads of drunken, abusive Belgian fans. I’m more worried about their inevitable drunken, abusive American imitators -- if you’ve raced ‘cross, you know they’re out there. I’m always wary of imitators, of course. No matter how unsavory you may find their antics, at least the originals are well practiced and know what they’re doing. As for their inadvertent and overenthusiastic spawn, let’s just say I’d rather have Didi “the Devil” Senft on my roadside, legendary B.O. and all, than some local who thought Didi’s brand of schtick looked pretty damn appealing, and I’d much sooner take fashion advice from a real member of Gwar than some guy at an Oakland Raider game. So please, I beg of you, though 2013 is a long way off – if you go, be yourself, whatever that is, and don’t try to cop to someone else’s act in the name of some ersatz cyclocross “authenticity.” If Americans waving Lion of Flanders flags in Louisville strikes someone as authentic, they're in need of a dictionary. Drink what you want, act like you normally would, speak your own language, and enjoy the racing. For more information, please consult Joe Parkin.
- I was glad to see through the various releases that the U.K.’s Simon Burney was on the UCI technical committee involved in selecting Louisville. I don’t know him, but like many riders in the United States (where, pre-internet, English language ‘cross info was scarce for a long time), older editions of his Cyclocross: Training and Technique book served as a valuable reference and introduction to the sport. So that’s two we owe him, I guess.