Thursday, May 27, 2010
The Service Course has had a few inquiries on how it's managed to not weigh in on last week’s Floyd Landis confessusations. Well, the fact is, between the time I heard and the time I could even think about writing anything – a period of roughly 45 minutes – everything about the whole mess had already been written six or seven times over. Sure, it was written with widely varying degrees of sanity, logic, giddiness, mouth-frothing, and spelling acumen, but it was written nonetheless, and I didn’t really have much to add to the conversation. We all read the same articles, the same denials, and the same trail of emails, didn't we? There just wasn't that much more information out there.
Not adding to the noise was one motivation for keeping silent, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that there was another reason as well: when it comes to anything Lance Armstrong-related, people are fucking nuts. I mean, have you seen the things people write on other sites and in comments sections about this thing? I can actual feel the veins on their foreheads throbbing. So, if I were looking to lead a nice, quiet life, free from people calling me names, questioning my manhood, and threatening my dog, I’d apparently be better off writing that Jesus didn’t exist than daring to wonder aloud whether Lance Armstrong might have, once upon a time, taken a little taste of the forbidden fruit.
I don’t cover the Jesus beat, though --- I write about professional cycling, so I guess I have to take what I’m handed. But this Landis/Armstrong quagmire does feel a whole lot like a religious issue sometimes, in that there’s very little I or anyone else can write that will change what each individual already believes to be true, and in that the more anyone tries to sway people's beliefs, the more pissed off those people are going to get. And, just like religion, I’m not sure I really want to change anyone’s mind, anyway. But since people keep asking me whether I "believe Landis," I’ll risk my fictional dog’s well-being and tell you what I believe:
- I believe that people can lie about something at one point in time and tell the truth about it at some other point. I believe that when they do, the lie usually comes first and the truth second.
- I believe that even if hatred, spite, or revenge is the motive, truth can still be the result.
- I believe, however, that “truth” and “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” aren’t necessarily synonymous. That’s why they ask you about each of them individually in the court oath. Notably, there’s no oath required to send an email.
- I believe that some people are getting confused about whether they’re shocked about what Landis is saying, or shocked that he’s saying it.
- I believe that where there’s smoke there’s usually fire. Or at least some burning embers. And there’s been an awful lot of smoke for an awful long time. And I can't believe I just used the "where there's smoke there's fire" cliche.
- I believe that, if Landis’s list were one notable name shorter, people would be a lot slower to dismiss his accusations.
- I believe that, yeah, Landis looks and sounds a little crazy sometimes. While we’re on the subject, I think his looks have something to do with how people perceive him. Think about it – who would “Sorry about the hookers and blow” sound less creepy coming from: Floyd Landis, or Tom Boonen?
- I believe that it's shocking how many adults think that sticking their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and shouting “liar, liar, liar, liar…” is a valuable contribution to discourse or a nuanced assessment of the situation.
- I believe it’s extremely telling that all former USPS rider and current Garmin DS Jonathan Vaughters had to say about the Landis accusations was that Garmin’s Dave Zabriskie was clean now, and that’s what really mattered. I believe it's huge that that organization is supporting its riders' full cooperation with any investigation -- because I assume that promise of continued employment extends to Vaughters himself as well as other former USPS riders Zabriskie and DS Matt White.
- I believe that Mike Barry’s next book might be titled “Under the Postal Bus.”
- I believe the non-rider names mentioned are far more important than the rider names.
- I believe that people will now be much less interested in Allen Lim’s cooling vests and rice cakes, and much more interested in any other work he might have done at Garmin.
- I believe Armstrong’s sponsors will stand by him, both because they will have shot themselves in the foot if they abandon him and this all turns out to be baseless, and because he owns a piece of most of them.
- I believe that the wording of one of the initial headlines – “Landis Confesses, Implicates Lance” – tells us a lot of what we need to know about how the balance was stacked at the outset (not that we didn’t already know). One rider is just a last name, like most athletes. The other’s our best bud, someone we call by their first name, even if it’s in a news headline in the country’s leading sports publication. At least Landis isn’t referred to by three names yet, because I believe that’s never a good thing.
- I believe that nobody is “too big to fail.” I’ve heard it said that, for better or worse, Landis should shut his trap because of the affect it could have on good work done by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. While that sort of impact may be unfortunate, if the LAF were to go down because it’s proved that Armstrong used bucketloads of dope, I’ll have a hard time finding that to be Floyd Landis’s fault. And given the current tide of public opinion, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, anyway.
- I believe it doesn’t matter a bit what we all think Landis should or shouldn’t say, because this isn’t a referendum. While it’s very true that he’s heaped much of this ill-will on himself, it’s equally true that he’s lost his job, his wife, his house, his best friend, his money, and his credibility to all of this, so if he’s not considering all possible negative consequences his actions might have for others, I can’t say I blame him.
- I believe that Landis’s best shot at credibility on this issue is for other USPS veterans to corroborate his claims, if those claims are true. Unfortunately, I also believe that those in the most likely position to do so – Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, and Manuel Beltran – would be met with the same distrust Landis has, and not without good reason. I also believe that, should riders like Frankie Andreau, or Marty Jemison, or Cedric Vasseur, or Pascal Derame, or Benjamin Noval speak out, they’ll be dismissed with the standard “disgruntled employee” label. Very few people seem to have left that team with a smile on their faces.
- I believe that no matter how many people were to corroborate Landis’s story, the fingers-in-the-ears crowd will never hear it.
- I believe that, if the fingers-in-the-ears would unplug long enough to listen to anyone’s potential corroboration, it would be George Hincapie’s. Maybe Ekimov’s. But mostly Hincapie’s.
- I believe that, like Festina soigneur Willy Voet, Bruyneel’s errand boy “Duff” will be the most likely person to spend actual time in the clink for all of this.
- I believe that the Fed being involved via BALCO buster Jeff Novitzky is the only hope of anything getting done if the charges have merit. If Landis’ accusations prove legitimate, Armstrong going down on fraud charges would be cycling’s equivalent of nabbing Al Capone on tax evasion, but it’s abundantly clear that cycling’s authorities won’t be doing anything of substance. In a letter to one of those accused, John Lelangue, the UCI has already basically said, “we’re investigating, because we have to look like we’re investigating, but it’s all bullshit, so don’t worry too much about it.” Though I should add that the UCI has already diligently investigated itself and found itself innocent, they have taken the noble step of requesting that national federations investigate everyone else. Of course, they’re careful to reiterate in that request that they still think it’s all bullshit.
- I believe that, for a long time, there’s been a feeling that someone who really loves cycling would come in and be the one to clean the whole mess up. I believe that’s wrong. I believe that to clean it up, it’s going to take someone who doesn’t give a shit about cycling. (See above.)
- I believe that the Fed's success in prosecuting fraud based on USPS funds going to buy dope could depend on what their definition of “paid for” is. If there was indeed doping going on and you take the strictest interpretation, I think they'll have a tough time showing USPS sponsorship money was specifically used for dope purchases. I’d imagine sponsorship money from multiple sources is deposited in a central account, then farmed out for various purposes, so I doubt there are terribly many receipts that trace team funds from a specific sponsor source all the way through to end purchases. And I really doubt that illicit dope purchases are accounted for in that way (though Dr. Fuentes was apparently pretty meticulous in invoicing Tyler Hamilton). So even if the team was buying dope with mailman money, I’m not sure you could prove it any more than you could prove that AMD funds were specifically used to buy a new muffler for the team bus. And that’s all assuming the dope and gear was paid for by the team in some manner, and not by the riders with their own money and by their own devices. But, if you take a broader definition of “paid for” – like “USPS paid Tailwind, and Tailwind paid for dope,” or “USPS paid Tailwind, Tailwind paid riders, and riders paid for dope,” then the Fed might get somewhere. Also, while the Fed's prosecution angle seems to be primarily financial in nature and the Postal team was financially located in the United States, I do wonder if they'll run into jurisdictional issues considering how much of what’s being discussed didn’t occur on U.S. soil.
- I believe that Fred Rodriguez (Saturn-Mapei-Lotto-Rock Racing) may be the only major American Euro-pro of the Armstrong Tour de France era who isn’t somehow connected to U.S. Postal, Bruyneel, Lim, or some other party named in Landis’s emails. I suppose he rode for the national team while Ochowicz was connected to USAC, but that’s a few degrees farther removed than everyone else. I’m open to contradictions or other suggestions if you have them.
- I believe that the emails Armstrong released from Landis and Brent Kay aren’t particularly illuminating one way or the other, but they do reveal that Dr. Kay is a very strange man with some pretty delusional takes on what the future might have held for Landis. Winning the Vuelta? With RadioShack? Singing a round of Kumbaya with Lemond and Armstrong? Really?
- I believe that, if you’ve read Breaking the Chain about the 1998 Festina scandal, or Matt Rendell’s excellent Death of Marco Pantani, or any of the various books and articles detailing doping practices in professional cycling, none of what Landis has alleged so far is particularly outlandish. If anything, what’s been revealed so far strikes me as a pretty light regimen.
- I believe you should read Adam Myerson’s take on the whole mess, because I believe he gets lot of things right.
- I believe that, while the unraveling of the Landis accusations will provide me with somewhat guilty entertainment, I’ll have a hard time really caring too much how it turns out. There are negatives and positives either way, and it will be a valuable investigation from a precedent-setting perspective, but in the most immediate sense, most of these guys are old anyway, so if they all end up tossed we’re really only speeding up the timeline by a couple of years. I’m neither a doping apologist nor a doping inquisitor, though, so I’m pretty sure either end of the spectrum has stronger feelings on the outcome than I do.
- I believe that, whatever the outcome, the cycling world will not come crashing down. It can be hard to tell sometimes, particularly in this country, but I do still believe that no man is bigger than the sport. And if Landis is proved a liar (again), or if Armstrong and the others he’s named are proven to be frauds, the show will go on.
- I believe that at some point, one of those crazy guys on the streetcorner holding the sign that reads “THE END IS NEAR” is going to turn out to be right. Because at a certain point it seems sort of inevitable, doesn’t it?
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
The Unfortunate Unpredictability of the Undead
Despite all the considerable action in professional cycling over the past couple of weeks, there hasn’t been much posting here. In truth, that’s due mostly to a lack of time and a lack of anything particularly compelling to say. That said, the silence could have just as easily been paralysis from pure, heart-stopping terror.
This month’s main event, the Giro d’Italia, has had enough gory, beleaguered deaths and subsequent returns from the grave to make the average B-grade slasher flick look downright realistic by comparison. Once every few stages, or so it seems, one of the race’s dramatic leads meets some horrible fate and drops from the GC picture – presumably into an enduring hell and damnation, never to be seen again. Or at least into a permanent spot in the grupetto. At least that’s how it would go down if this were a normal grand tour, one of July's docu-dramas, perhaps, but it’s not. In this macabre Giro, the deceased routinely rise up a few stages later, maybe a little bloody, maybe a bit more vacant and hollow-eyed, but alive and breathing, sure as you or me. And without fail, they’re looking for revenge -- even if they aren't seeking a dinner of sweet, sweet brains, they are hell bent on sinking their teeth into a handful of seconds or a pink jersey.
But why anyone, alive or undead, would want that pink jersey is a mystery to me. That pastel getup has been the 2010 Giro’s equivalent of cinema's creaky tool-shed door. As each new victim approaches it, the crowd collectively fights the urge to yell out, “don’t go in there!” Brad Wiggins (Sky) was the first to be felled by the axe, daring to put on the initial maglia rosa and then getting thrown to the deck and ground up like hamburger for his hubris. Wiggins’ apparent demise dropped the cursed blouse on the shoulders of Cadel Evans (BMC), and like the hot chick in any good slasher flick, he was promptly isolated from his friends and quietly dismembered in Stage 3.
Things looked like they might have been coming to an early apocalyptic end after that, when Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) – who’s presently some people’s definition of evil incarnate – slipped the jersey onto his shoulders, a situation that many observers feared would create a consolidation of pure evil so powerful that it allow Vino to walk away with the race. But that would be too easy. Instead, Liquigas’s handsome heroes Nibali, Agnoli, and Basso stole the lead away in the TTT, seemingly throwing shovelfuls of dirt on the carcasses of Evans and Vinokourov in the process…and themselves fell victims to the curse just two days later, thrown to the tarmac en-masse on the descent of the Passo del Rospatolo. That blink-of-an-eye slaughter on the road to Montalcino allowed Evans and Vinokourov to rise muddy from the grave and re-enter the GC picture.
Learning nothing from their first gruesome deaths, on Stage 11 to L’Aquila, Evans, Vinokourov, Basso, and Nibali did the cycling equivalent of sitting around the campfire necking while a madman with a hatchet lurked in the woods beyond, letting a huge split of 50 riders walk away with 13 minutes by the end of the stage. That drunken lapse in judgment raised the corpses of both Wiggins and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), reintroducing two characters who’d been initially killed off before the opening credits were even done. Beyond that point, the whole plot got a little convoluted, with people stabbing each other in the dark willy-nilly whenever time and circumstance allowed. But now, as the race lumbers into the remote settings of the high mountains, we’re set to witness the horror epic’s crescendo, which will be a wholesale slaughter leaving only one bloodied, battered hero standing.
Until the sequel, at least.
All of that is well and good, of course, and it’s made for a hell of an exciting race, the kind that the guys who do the daily race coverage dream of. Each day, they get a new story or an easy angle served on a silver platter, some exciting development that – with even the most minimal efforts at matching nouns with verbs – will make their readers say, “damn, what a story!”
But for us more fringe types – bloggers, commentators, analysts, and other cheap-seat snipers – these kinds of races can spike the anxiety levels a bit. That’s because analysis is about trying to find the meaning of it all, looking at the past to devine the future, and trying to find the current beneath the waves, some sort of commonality or thread that makes it all make sense. And this Giro hasn’t made much sense. It’s been an unpredictable and unsettling battle of a slew of not-quite-superfavorites riding through an unending series of potential game-changer stages. There’s no real frame of reference, nothing to hang our hats on, no constants to let us figure out the variables. It’s unnerving.
Even worse, fate has been more heavy-handed than usual, threatening to pound its iron fist and make us look like fools as soon as we commit our thoughts to paper. Note that one rider is going well and this may be his year, and the next day he’ll probably be balled up on the side of the road, crying like a little girl, or be run over by an errant combine harvester. Try to narrow the GC contenders based on the most recent stage results, and the leaders will decide to eat week-old fish for breakfast and throw a twenty minute cushion in the lap of some aging champion who’s spent the rest of the race just trying to bleed enough time to be given a long leash for a stage win. It’s enough to make a writer gun-shy, for gods’ sake.
But while the prospect of writing about this Giro has been downright daunting, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of watching every gory minute of it. And so has everyone else, it seems, because while high dramas with carefully constructed plots may win the awards at Cannes, a good slasher flick will always score at the box office.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Too Late Now
Now that we’re a full six stages deep into this year’s Giro d'Italia and gaining momentum fast, it occurred to me that there are a number of things set in motion that it's simply too late to change. Here are five of them.
Too Late to Please the Home Crowd: Quick Step
Since we last checked in, Patrick Lefevere’s boys in blue have managed to pinch off two stage wins, first with Wouter Weylandt’s sprint win in Stage 3 and again with Jerome Pineau’s long raid in yesterday’s Stage 5. Both were good wins. Weylandt proved canniest in a jittery sprint that saw an increasingly frustrated Andre Greipel (HTC-Columbia) go backwards so fast it was dangerous. I guess you can never count out a Belgian when the race has been in the gutter for five hours before the sprint.
For his part, Frenchman Pineau was clearly the strongest man in the long break – at least once mountains leader Paul Voss (Milram) got the points he was looking for and threw out the anchor. In another bizarre sprint – one in which both the chasing peloton and the break seemed to simultaneously give up for two crucial seconds just under the red kite, with the break coming to its senses first – Pineau easily ditched Julien Fouchard (Cofidis) and the visibly suffering Yukira Arishiro (Bbox). It seems that, with the spring classics pressure off and few grand tour expectations to live up to, Quick Step is finally getting its house in order and starting to find its legs again.
So will pocketing two Giro stages make up for not winning on the cobbles this spring? No. No it won’t.
Too Late to Retire Last Year: Lampre
Behind Pineau’s unlikely Stage 5 win, most of the work in the shockingly failed chase was being done by Lampre, with minimal late help from Garmin and HTC. To be honest, I was surprised Lampre got as far as they did in bringing the move back, because those chases take teamwork and Lampre’s Giro roster looks like they went recruiting on the Island of Misfit Toys.
First and most obviously, the team features Gilberto Simoni, the two-time Giro winner (2001, 2003) who signed with the team for this race only. Though he most recently rode professionally for Diquigiovanni, Simoni wanted to finish out his career at the Giro with Lampre because that’s where he won his first Giro. I sort of admire Lampre management for agreeing to do it, and I’m sure they’ll get their money’s worth in publicity, but at 38 and well past his prime, Simoni isn’t likely to add much to the race.
Blowing a single roster spot isn't the end of the world, but the fact is that Simoni’s considerable ego might not let him do donkey work for others, and something tells me he probably still expects a good helping of the royal treatment himself. If Simoni’s ego is still intact at his advanced age, he could drain resources from the squad’s other former Giro winner, Damiano Cunego. As most people remember, that particular situation won’t be the least bit unfamiliar to Cunego, who spent an awkward three weeks stomping out the aggressions of then-Saeco teammate Simoni to bag his 2004 Giro win.
All that said, there is a small chance that including Simoni might not turn out badly for Cunego. I don’t think anyone considers Cunego much of a GC threat anymore, even though he’s still just 28, but if Simoni has any PR savvy in him at all, he’ll bury himself for Cunego – happily, repeatedly, and visibly. With that done, Simoni would be able to sit back and reap the goodwill from all the glowing newspaper articles and TV recaps that will tout his good teamwork as burying the hatchet from the pair’s 2004 Giro battle. And with those good feelings still hanging weightless in the air, he’ll be able to retire as the magnanimous former champion, rather than as spiteful, mouthy little imp he was known as a few years back.
Not content to let Simoni be their only aging, oddball selection, Lampre also brought along 36-year-old sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, who has finally worked his way back into the big leagues after a doping-related exile. Though he’s won 20-something Giro stages, Petacchi’s relatively brief glory years are getting pretty hard to remember these days, even if he did manage a pair of stages last year. As if to emphasize his age and bygone era, he’s one of the last Cipolinni-style sprinters around – favoring a very long, dedicated, high-speed leadout, preferably down a four-lane highway. Unfortunately for him, since the team has already managed to acquire two theoretical GC leaders (see above), they can’t really spare the seven guys it takes to give Petacchi the leadout he needs.
So what did they do instead? Brought in another 36-year-old formerly suspended sprinter, German Danilo Hondo, to keep Petacchi company. Presumably they'll spend their long days in the saddle lamenting the current state of sprinting and reminiscing about the days when you couldn’t get close to the front of a bunch sprint unless you were six feet tall with frosted tips.
Simoni, Cunego, Petacchi, and Hondo all in the same grand tour team? Yeah, that can’t fail. Fortunately, the team is rounded out by a group of capable workers, who will have their work cut out for them, since the squad’s focus seems schizophrenic at best. Of course, that focus may be narrower after yesterday’s stage, when Petacchi noted that he’s come down with a touch of bronchitis. (Guess what, Lampre? Petacchi is always sick, and it’s always with bronchitis, which may be why he huffs enough asthma medicine to get himself suspended.) Surprisingly, Hondo seems to be picking up the slack nicely, though he’s still not winning races.
Too Late to Take It All Back: Andre Greipel
Even in the talk-laden world of professional road sprinting, Andre Greipel was generating a pretty impressive word count this spring. Some of his chatter was justified: while arguing that HTC should have left his arch-rival, teammate, and defending champion Mark Cavendish at home for Milan-San Remo would be tough, leaving the far more on-form Greipel on the bench for the one and only bunch sprint monument seems petty and short-sighted, and Greipel’s questioning of that decision was understandable (if poorly delivered). But then, perhaps finding a bit of support and encouragement on that point, Greipel kept talking, and talking, and talking, throwing around synonyms for the always dangerous phrase “I deserve,” and ramping up tension within the team.
Now, five stages into the Giro – his best opportunity to reverse his team’s decision to leave him home for the Tour – he’s produced nothing but more complaints. Yes, there have only been three road stages, and it isn’t that easy to just dial up a win on demand, but when you run your mouth that much about being the top dog, you’d better come out barking. So far, Greipel’s leadout man Matt Goss has been looking much better than his captain, which could get awkward if things continue along the same path. If Greipel is forced to cede leadership in the Giro sprints to Goss after playing second fiddle to Cavendish for two years, Greipel's head may well explode.
As for yesterday’s stage, it’s worth noting in Greipel’s defense that it’s hard for a field sprinter to win when the break doesn’t get caught. Problem is, HTC didn’t look particularly committed to that cause. Why that was is anyone’s guess, but Cavendish has opined in the past that the team is willing to work hard for him because they know he’ll finish it off for them. After the first few Giro sprints, you have to wonder if the team just isn’t feeling that motivated by Greipel.
Finally, Greipel has noted in some of this comments that, though they’re on the same team, he doesn’t have access to the same top-notch leadout train that Cavendish does. It’s a fair point. But you know what? Nobody’s going to have that train but Cavendish, regardless of what team Greipel finds himself on next year, so he’d better learn to work with what he can get.
Too Late to Switch Teams: Cadel Evans
During his years at Lotto, lack of team support was always cited as Cadel Evans’ grand tour Achilles heel. That team’s failings in three week tours were natural, everybody thought, because Lotto is a classics-focused team, not the purpose-built grand tour machine you seem to need to win these days, particularly if there’s a TTT. So, still seeking grand tour glory, Evans switched teams…to another squad that’s far better suited to the classics than the grand tours.
And so in Wednesday’s Stage 4, despite his and his young BMC team’s best efforts, Evans lost a substantial 1:21 to GC threats Nibali and Basso (Liquigas) in the TTT. Adding to the sting, BMC dropped 35 seconds to Evans’ former team, Omega Pharma-Lotto – which, of course, no longer even had the benefit of Evans’ considerable TT strength in its lineup. That squad with Evans in it and some purpose behind it might have lost under 30 seconds, but we’ll never know.
BMC director John Lelangue and Evans have noted that the brutal final week of this Giro will likely make team strength of little importance, and they might be right. Those mountainous final days, followed by the race-closing ITT, will likely see one or more contenders crack terribly, losing minutes by the fistful. But dropping minutes here and there in the first week to guys like Basso, Nibali, and Vinokourov because your team can’t keep you within shouting distance in the TTT (Stage 4) or, perhaps more alarmingly, can't help you chase back to the front group (Stage 3) is only making that final showdown that much harder. It’s one thing to ask Evans, whose principal GT strength lies in the time trial, to hang close to the more pure climbers in the mountains. It’s another to ask him to try to haul back the two minutes they’ve thrown away on the flats.
It’s also true that Evans has a stronger supporting cast waiting in the wings for the Tour de France. Unfortunately, I think reserving that strength for July was the wrong move, and after the first five days, we’re already seeing how wrong it was. As his riding since winning the World Championship has proved, one big thing Evans requires to succeed is confidence, and nothing would build his confidence more than actually winning a grand tour. With no Leipheimer (Radio Shack), no Schlecks (Saxo Bank), and no Contador (Astana) on the start line, this Giro was Evans’ best chance, and the team should have thrown everything it has at it to make it happen. Instead, they sent four riders to the Giro who have never ridden a grand tour so that their veterans will be fresh at the Tour to watch Alberto Contador ride away.
But even if BMC throwing the kitchen sink at the Giro didn’t result in an Evans win, he could have come out of it knowing that he could count on his team to be there when he needs it. I doubt he’s feeling that now, even if he knows deep down he’ll get better support at the Tour. And even if that left the A team a little more physically tired for the Tour, I suspect it would pay off in other ways.
Too Late to Pull the Ads: Radio Shack
I watch the Giro mostly on NBC-owned Universal Sports, where the coverage features Lance Armstrong-based Radio Shack ads in heavy rotation. It’s understandable, of course – they’ve sponsored a cycling team, so why not advertise during cycling events, since people who see cycling are presumably who they’re targeting? (That ignores the outside-cycling exposure Armstrong provides, but we don’t have time to get into it.) But seeing the ads is kind of funny on some juvenile level, given that Radio Shack is conspicuously absent from the race.
That absence is either because they weren’t invited, or because they turned down their invitation, depending on who you ask and when you ask them. The original story was that Radio Shack wasn’t invited, ostensibly because they’d be sending their big guns to the Tour of California and because Armstrong pissed off Giro director Zomegnan last year over the Milan course safety issue. Following the Giro teams announcement, of course, Bruyneel and Armstrong went on a media offensive, stating that the team was not, in fact, turned down for the Giro, but had already told organizer RCS they wouldn't attend.
What is this, professional cycling or a fat girl blathering about spending prom night at home? I don’t really care whether nobody asked you or whether you didn’t really want to go anyway. All I want is for you to shut up about it, because neither arugment makes you sound particularly appealing.
OK, that’s old news, but I just had to get it out there.
Monday, May 10, 2010
For an Italian national tour vacationing in the Netherlands, the first two stages of the Giro d’Italia had a decidedly Anglophone feel to them, no?
First, Bradley Wiggins, flying the Union Jack for defacto British national team Sky, edged out American Brent Bookwalter, riding for the Amero-Swiss BMC team, by two seconds. Just behind Bookwalter in third was his Australian teammate Cadel Evans. Three men, three differently accented takes on a single language.
But wait, there’s more. Al Vinokourov (Astana) screwed up the results, something he’s accused of doing pretty often these days, by finishing fourth and being from Kazakhstan. But after that, you have Greg Henderson (Sky), a Kiwi on a British team, Australian Richie Porte (Saxo Bank) in sixth, and David Miller (Garmin-Transitions), a Scot on an American team, in seventh. Sure, the next native English speaker, Garmin Canadian Svein Tuft, doesn’t appear until the 17th spot, but six of the top seven isn’t a bad showing for the crown and its former colonies.
That Stage 1 win also gave Wiggins the maglia rosa, an honor he steadfastly defended until he became one of the many, many riders to throw themselves to the Dutch tarmac the following day. That allowed the race’s second pink shirt to slide onto Evans's shoulders, who achieved that honor by managing to keep himself upright and in the front group after the crash that claimed Wiggins’s and Bookwalters’s hopes. Preceding Evans' arrival on the Stage 2 podium was stage winner Tyler Farrar of Garmin and the United States, meaning the English language contingent had locked up both the stage win and leader's jersey for two days.
I suspect that this shallow, early Anglo dominance of this Giro will come crashing down during today's third stage, if it hasn’t already as I write this. Evans will be unlikely to expend anything more than minimal energy to keep the maglia rosa this early in the race, and though today’s stage is suited for a bunch finish, yesterday’s crash lottery makes predicting a repeat by Farrar or damn near anything else is a risky endeavor. Add in the number of Dutch riders who will be looking to score while the race is on home turf and the number of Italians who would love to carry the leader’s jersey back onto home soil, and anything could happen. If it does come down to a reasonably intact sprint, though, Farrar and Kiwi leadout man Julian Dean, or Sky’s on-form Henderson and lead-out man Chris Sutton could well extend the English-speaking podium streak.
All of that is neither here nor there, of course. After all, we’re amalgamating the results of riders from four or five different countries, depending on how you count, based on creaky colonial relationships that haven’t been valid for hundreds of years. So I'd hardly start wagering based on which language riders reflexively swear in. Still, there seems to be a sort of shared worldview that comes from the common language and heritage, and though they’re not the isolated outsiders they used to be in professional cycling, the Anglos do still seem to stick together. They also attract English-speaking fans in a way that seems to transcend national boundries, and those fans have a lot to cheer for right now.
While many might cite Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins as a high-water mark for English-language cycling, those wins were obviously pretty well concentrated in the hands of one man. Today, the number and variety of English-speaking riders winning bike races makes it feel less like the monolithic Armstrong days and more like the arguably better and positively more diverse days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which saw Greg Lemond and Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France, Davis Phinney and Steve Bauer taking stage wins on the flats, Robert Millar winning in the mountains, Sean Kelly terrorizing classics and stage races, and Phil Anderson and Sean Yates generally making everyone look sissies.
- Had all the contractual eye-gouging over the off-season resulted in Wiggins staying at Garmin, the squad could potentially have been celebrating wins in both the first and second stages right now. Or, maybe a pissed-off Wiggins would have raced his entire season at ¾ speed, who knows. Anyway, Wiggins did eventually end up at Sky, and due to the very public rumblings and subsequent junior high girl-style chattering about his transfer, not to mention the substantial money involved, Wiggins really needed to show something big pretty early in the season. Though it’s already had a fleeting effect on the Giro and may not prove much of anything about his prospects as a GC leader this year, that TT win had to be a huge relief for Wiggo.
- If we wanted to factor Vinokourov into our little Stage 1 results sheet game, I suppose we could note that nobody in those top seven spots of the Stage 1 TT hails from a “traditional cycling country.” In fact, you could extend it to the top 8 under those criteria, since Gustav Erik Larsson’s Swedish homeland isn’t exactly a traditional cycling powerhouse, either. Indeed, you have to get down to Dutchman Jos Van Emden’s ninth place before cycling’s traditional power elite countries kick in. Again, that doesn't really mean anything, except that the cycling world has broadened substantially in the last 20 years or so.
- I’m not enthusiastic about the trend towards just-over-prologue distance opening time trials, those little 8 and 9 kilometer tests that seem designed to be long enough to keep sprinters out of leader’s jerseys but short enough prevent any early buzzkilling time gaps among GC contenders. Like the ProTour system, these prolonged-logues seem to be a lingering organizational overreaction to Mario Cipollini, who’s been mostly retired for some time. Grand tours love the sprinters when they have to maintain fan interest on flat ground, but they seem loathe to give them access to a leader’s jersey for fear they’ll leave the race as soon as it gets hilly. As much as I appreciate a good stereotype, with Cipo and the absolutely leaden Ivan Quaranta retired and Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) heading towards his dotage, the era of the completely one-dimensional sprinter seems to be passing. Many of today’s top sprinters – Mark Cavendish (HTC), Farrar, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), and Danielle Benatti (Liquigas) to name a few, are capable of and willing to finish stage races, even if they have to drag themselves over the Alps, Dolomites, or Pyrenees to do it.
So let’s stop living in fear of Cipollini and axe the prolonged-logues. They're guarding against the last decade's threat, and they just aren’t particularly satisfying from any perspective. In running, there is a reason that sprinters can be famous, marathoners can be kind of famous, but not many non-competitive runners can name a single middle-distance runner (except for Steve Prefontaine, and that’s mostly because he died young and spectacularly). Spectators like either short and fast, or a longer test of speed and endurance, but not the mushy middle ground.
- Wait, what was that? How the hell is Mario Cipollini responsible for the ProTour? That one’s easy. Cipollini in his prime rode for Saeco, which was one of the richest and most successful teams in the peloton largely thanks to his ability to win a hell of a lot of bike races each year, and to delight photographers even when he wasn’t. Popular though he was, Tour de France organizer ASO got tired of Cipo grabbing a bunch of early stage wins and the occasional yellow jersey, only to bail out as soon as he detected the slightest elevation change. So ASO stopped inviting Saeco to the Tour, regardless of the fact that it was one of the top teams in the world, Cipo or no Cipo. That woke up all the top teams and their current and potential sponsors to the full extent to which personal or organizational whim and vendetta could control what was ostensibly a professionally run sport. So they demanded guarantees that, if they dumped enough money into the sport, they’d get invited to the biggest races, the ones that made having their name on the jersey worthwhile in the first place. Since the UCI is an end recipient of some of the sponsorship money that flows to riders, teams, and federations, the UCI has a stake in keeping the sponsors in the sport, and sponsors like knowing what they’re getting for their money. Hence, the UCI created the ProTour, which promised invitations to top events to teams that gave the UCI enough money. Unfortunately, those weren’t the UCI’s guest lists to manage, and we all know where things went from there… But anyway, that’s how Mario Cipollini created the ProTour, at least according to the Service Course.
- While I’m complaining, I’m not too big on final day time trials’s either. Yes, yes, it was exciting in the 1989 Tour de France, 8 seconds, aerobars, ponytails, blah, blah, blah. And it was exciting at last year’s Giro too, but really only due to maglia rosa Denis Menchov’s willingness to toss himself repeatedly to the ground, ramping up the tension quotient considerably. But if the mountains have created any sort of real gaps, which is very likely during the vicious final week of this Giro, the TT can be a snoozer of a way to close out your grand tour. Nothing says "spectacular finish" like a nice, conservative time trial to cement your GC placing.
- I feel like I should say something more about Farrar’s Stage 2 win, but I can’t quite come up with it. The guy’s a great sprinter, and he put in a great sprint and won. I guess I should say that the Garmin train seems to be a bit better at controlling things through chaos than they were last year, which bodes well for Farrar’s grand tour campaign. Though the team still has the competent Christian Vande Velde to support as its GC man, I have to wonder if Farrar will prove to be the chief beneficiary of Wiggins’ departure. Less GC hopes mean more sprinter resources.
- As I said, Brad Wiggins needed that Stage 1 win to start to justify all the off-season blathering that was done on his behalf. You know who else needs a blathering-justifying win at the Giro? Andre Greipel (HTC-Columbia). In fact, I’d say nobody else in the peloton needs one worse. After spending the spring picking media fights with teammate and fellow sprinter Mark Cavendish over who should or shouldn’t start the Tour de France and other races, Greipel needs to come out of the Giro with at least one stage to his name, or start brushing up on his Spanish. Greipel could win every stage of the Tour of Turkey from here to eternity, but unless he can come up with goods now, Cavendish’s wishes will be HTC’s command come Tour time, and right now Cavendish wishes for no Greipel at the Tour. Like a lot of people, Greipel likes to call attention to Cavendish’s slow start, but even so, you can’t reasonably argue with Cavendish’s recent grand tour record and the associated right to be the lead sprinter come Tour time. More and more, I’m seeing Greipel in Omega Pharma-Lotto colors next year.
- After the last few years of Giro d’Italia course safety woes, it’s tempting to shoot scolding glances at the course designers every time there’s a crash. But in yesterday’s finale, when all the unhappy crunchy sounds began, the course didn’t seem to have anything to do with it. In fact, it seemed like people were just riding off the sides of clear, straight two-lane highways and flopping over. Of course, unless the crash happens at the front, the TV punter doesn’t get a very good look at it, so maybe there was some of the Netherlands’ ubiquitous road furniture lurking just out of the shot, who knows. Various poles, curbs, and islands were certainly responsible for some of incidents earlier in the race, and those hazards reportedly could have probably been better marked. But that’s a staffing/course security issue, not a design issue – if you want to race in the Netherlands, there’s no avoiding those things altogether. As for those late-race crashes, though, they looked suspiciously like the jitters of the first road stage of the season’s first grand tour.
- After his own little dive to the pavement, Katusha’s Pippo Pozzato still looked fabulous. That's a given, though -- it’s his defining characteristic as a rider. But despite appearances, I got the feeling he was pretty rattled. As he got moving again, he very slowly, very deliberately retrieved his sunglasses from his pocket, going so far as to rest his forearms on the handlebar and use both hands to unfold them before putting them on. It may not seem like much, but for Italians like Pippo, the motions required to retrieve and don sunglasses should be as smooth, viscous, and stylish as the product that graces their tresses, and these weren't. Pippo looked labored, and that's a tell as sure as darting eyes or nervous giggling at a poker game.
- Speaking of Pozatto and looking fabulous, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve finally ridden in my white shoes. Suffice to say that I am now just as fast and stylish as Pippo, but, fortunately, not nearly so slippery.
Thursday, May 06, 2010
New Screws and White Shoes
It will surprise approximately none of my readers to learn that I'm not what you'd call an “early adopter” of cycling technologies. It’s not any sort of distaste or distrust of new equipment that makes that so, nor is it due to some studiously cultivated and tediously repeated longing for the largely mythical, more technologically quaint days-gone-by. I just tend to use things for a long time, buy things that will allow for that, and have a hard time replacing things that don’t need to be replaced. Maybe that means I’m just cheap, I don’t know, but the result is that much of my cycling equipment would fall into the “proven” category if you’re being kind, or the “old” category if you’re not. Most people are not.
Anyway, those tendencies are how I recently came to be shopping for a new set of Look Delta cleats – the kind that fit nearly every Look pedal made from the time the company debuted its clipless systems in 1983 until they introduced the Keo platform in 2004. Shimano also licensed the Look pedal design for a number of years, which means that a set of $20 Deltas every few years allows me to keep using both the Shimano pedals I bought around 1989 and the Look pedals that came on an early 1990s Trek on my fixed gear and road bike, respectively.
Like most cyclists, I don’t really give a lot of thought to cleats unless something goes drastically wrong with them, but my recent cleat replacement awoke me to few things about Look that I hadn’t really considered. First, the fact that you can still easily walk into a bike shop and buy Delta cleats speaks volumes about the sheer number of pedals they must have sold on that platform over the years. But a closer look at the cleats themselves reveals a bit about the company’s almost bizarre commitment to product support. Why bizarre? Because not only is Look still making Delta cleats – they’ve actually continued to improve them despite no longer making pedals that use them.
The company has actually tinkered with the Delta design throughout its existence. Early Delta cleats were black and held your foot in a fixed position, without the slightest nod to the “float” that became a near obsession for cyclists by the early 2000s. That float issue was the catalyst for the earliest change to the cleat, when Look introduced a red version that allowed for the desired movement rather than sending customers to the shop for new pedals. Even better, even after float became all the rage, Look kept making both the red float and black fixed versions.
From there, subsequent revisions were more modest. What started as pretty basic molded blocks of hard plastic first sprouted rubber inserts to give a modest bit of traction on slick coffee shop floors. A few years later, the Deltas got a white layer of plastic molded into their middle, designed to both reduce the infamous "Look squeak" and make it more evident to the user when cleat wear had become excessive. My most recent purchase of Deltas last week, long after Look stopped producing compatible pedals, revealed two more recent tweaks. The three bolts used to hold each cleat to the shoe, which originally used a slotted head and then a combo slot/phillips head, now feature a hex head fitting at the center of the slot, freeing us at last from the last remaining use for a slotted screwdriver in the bicycle world. Even better though, Look also incorporated their “memory clip,” a feature of its newer Keo cleat, into the Delta cleat. Once mounted to the shoe, the clip allows you to replace the cleat itself in an identical position without having to check the position repeatedly. Just remove the old cleat, slap the new one into position over the clip, bolt it down, and you’re done.
All of those improvements, of course, add not a lick of actual function to the cleat itself, and you could argue that the white plastic layer and the easy-replacement widget are just blatant ploys to convince people to buy new cleats more often. And you’d probably be right. But those features are also pretty useful to the consumer, because, speaking from experience, I always avoid replacing cleats until they’re dangerously worn because (1) I don’t pay attention; and (2) it was a pain to get the new ones in an identical position. So Look probably will sell a few more cleats by removing those barriers to replacement, but the move is hardly indicative of heartless corporate greed. In fact, I’d argue it’s the opposite.
You see, Look could have just as easily reserved those improvements for their current Keo line, where they also appear, leaving people who wanted those features to buy a whole new set of pedals. Or, they could have gotten away with ceasing Delta production altogether, forcing riders with Delta-compatible pedals back into the pedal-buying market, arguably a more shrewd financial move. But they didn’t. Instead, they offer new features and continued support, for $20, to people like me, who still ride pedals over a decade and a half old. I like that.
The funny thing is, when you first see a set of Deltas hanging on the slatwall at the bike shop, you wouldn’t suspect they’d changed at all in 20 years. While Look has improved the product, they seem to be banking on product recognition over style by continuing to use the same Tron-meets-Mondrian packaging design they used back when Greg Lemond was better known as a puncheur than a punch line. Along with the techie grey-on-grey grid pattern and late-80s hi-tech fonts on the cardboard backer, Look has managed to source a special type of plastic shrink wrap that manages to look dusty and shopworn even when it's brand new out of the box. One look at that package is enough to give me instant flashbacks to Wilfried Nilissen and Laurent Jalabert bleeding on the tarmac in Armentières. Chapeau.
I have to admit, my purchase of another set of Delta cleats wasn’t just because my current ones are ridiculously worn, though they certainly are. No, it was because after 10 years or so with my current shoes, I finally got a new pair, even before the old ones had holes in them. Doesn’t that sort of replacement without need run counter to everything I was rambling about way back at the beginning of this post? Normally, yes, but I won the new pair in a writing contest Sidi’s new American arm held a few months ago, so I don’t think it should count against me. For sending in a 350-word-or-less “Sidi story” and landing in the top 50 submissions – a forgivingly low bar for victory – I got to pick the Sidis of my choice.
Obviously I opted for the top-of-the-line Ergo 2s, which feature roughly 100 percent more buckles, adjusters, colors, bells, and whistles than any shoes and most cars I’ve ever owned. And though every fiber of my “these will need to last awhile” being was screaming at me to go with my usual unaffected-by-fashion black color choice, I finally decided that reason and practicality should have no role when selecting the free schwag fruits of minimal labor. So on the next sunny day I actually get to ride my bike, I’ll be rolling out for the first time on something utterly and impractically fashionable, at least in cycling – shiny white shoes. I’m not sure yet how I feel about it. Like the episode of Seinfeld when Jerry wonders if participating in an orgy will mean he has to get all new orgy clothes, a selection of lotions and oils, and new orgy friends, I wonder if I’ll have to get a whole new set of white shoe friends, the kind who apply hair gel before rides, roll up their jersey sleeves when it’s sunny, and seem to somehow repel road dirt.
Frankly, the whole thing is a little frightening, but at least I’ll still have those black Delta cleats to comfort me.
- Did I just write about 1,000 words about cleats? Damn. Don't worry, with the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of California coming up, I'm sure we'll be back to writing about racing soon enough. Post-Liege just felt like a good time to take a break.
- Cadel Evans (BMC) is being touted, at least in the English language cycling press, as a big favorite for the Giro win. No doubt he's on good form, but as much as I like BMC, I'm not seeing a very strong supporting cast. That said, the choppier nature of the Giro seems to make the team much less of a factor than it is in the Tour. Paolo Salvoldelli's winning Discovery Channel team, for instance, was certainly no barn burner. But team or no team, with no Contadors or Schlecks in the mix at this Giro, Evans better sieze this chance to bag that elusive grand tour win.
- If people were sawed off by Alexander Vinokourov's (Astana) Liege win, how irate will they be if he wins the Giro? Especially when they've had Alejandro Valverde's (Caisse d'Epargne) Tour de Romandie win to keep them frothing in the interim. Like it or not, Vinokourov is certainly back, and he'll have some decent riders supporting him in Italy. He is old, though, so it will be interesting to see how he recovers day-to-day as the Giro wears on.
- Regardless of who wins, or how you feel about riders coming back from suspensions or doping in general, let's hope we can get through the next year without 2/3 of the Giro podium getting popped one way or another. I know it's a tall order, but what the hell, let's aim high.
- I'm going to try to make some visual changes to the site sometime soon, so if you stop by and see something different, or the layout is even more screwed up than usual, that's what's going on.