Monday, January 24, 2011
No Check, Mate
In the wake of Matt White’s sudden dismissal as Garmin-Cervelo’s director sportif, there’s been a lot of debate surrounding the “real reason” for the firing. Was it, as team chief Jonathan Vaughters maintains, because White sent former team rider Trent Lowe to highly suspect doctor Luis del Moral for blood tests in 2009? Or was it really because of White’s rumored links to the new Australian GreenEDGE effort and its alleged underhanded recruitment efforts?
I have no idea. What I do know is that whether it was because of del Moral, GreenEDGE, or both, firing White was the right move. So was sticking with del Moral as the stated cause.
Vaughters and White agree that sending Lowe to del Moral’s Valencia clinic for blood testing was a terrible idea. Both men have said as much, and surely recognize that even bog-standard blood testing, when performed by a man of del Moral’s reputation, can appear as damning as a used syringe in the hyper-sensitized world of professional cycling. And since the appearance of impropriety and actual impropriety are almost equally damaging, both men would recognize – now, at least – that a director should no more send his riders to del Moral for a blood test than send to Eufemiano Fuentes for a pelvic exam.
But while del Moral’s reputation adds some spice and urgency to the story, the fact that it was Dr. del Moral to whom White referred Lowe is immaterial. Garmin-Cervelo has a strict policy against riders going to outside physicians without approval – for just this sort of reason – and by sending Lowe to del Moral, White violated that policy. [Vaughters, of course, has hinted of some misgivings about his time at U.S. Postal, where del Moral was the team physician, which may have heightened his sensitivity in this case. But in theory, that doesn’t matter.] By invoking the team’s zero-tolerance rule on a high-profile, longtime staff member, Vaughters siezed a chance to show that the team has the courage of its convictions, a quality that the sport sorely needs. So if the del Moral referral is indeed the sole cause for White’s dismissal, it’s more than enough.
If, on the other hand, GreenEDGE connections did factor into White’s firing, then that's also a perfectly justifiable case for termination, even with no other offenses in play. If Vaughters discovered – beyond the public rumor and speculation – that White’s efforts in the professional cycling world were not 100 percent aligned behind Garmin-Cervelo’s interests, or that they were, in fact, working in direct opposition to those interests, then firing is a reasonable response. Just ask Bjarne Riis about the problems that come with team staff recruiting next year’s team while working for yours. “Whitey” has always come across as a decent guy, but regardless of personality, history, or promises, anyone in a situation where they’re directing one pro team while building another is a fox in the henhouse. He might be a fox you know pretty well, but he’s still a fox.
So, individually, each potential cause for dismissal could stand on its own. But if White’s firing were due to both the del Moral and GreenEDGE issues, why wouldn’t Vaughters say so? And if he were picking one reason or the other to take to the media, why go with the seedier del Moral visit rather than the relatively sterile GreenEDGE conflict of interest? Setting aside, for a moment, Trent Lowe’s questionable threat to take the del Moral visit public, I think there are a few compelling reasons to stick with the del Moral explanation over GreenEDGE, and over citing both causes.
First, the idea that GreenEDGE was “poaching” riders is still largely in the speculation phase, at least in the media. Those allegations – of inappropriate negotiations, incentivizing UCI points – have already been the source of some public sniping between GreenEDGE, Sky, and Garmin. So while citing both del Moral and GreenEDGE as reasons for dismissal might seem to bolster Vaughters’s case, he already had one undeniably actionable cause in del Moral. By relying on that, Vaughters avoids the appearance of acting on GreenEDGE rumors or, alternatively, avoids having to publicly accuse White of engaging in nefarious activity on GreenEDGE’s behalf. So, by letting the del Moral issue do the lifting, he avoids fanning the GreenEDGE flames. As a bonus, he doesn't come out appearing as if he's piling on excuses just to prop up a flimsy one.
Finally, if GreenEDGE factored into White’s dismissal, going public with the del Moral cause alone is more advantageous for Garmin-Cervelo than publicly tying the firing to GreenEDGE. By only citing the del Moral issue, Vaughters has efficiently accomplished all he needs to. He's (1) cut the heart out of Lowe’s blackmail threat, (2) rid himself of the Cycling Australia/GreenEDGE conflict of interest, and (3) saddled CA/GreenEDGE with a newly-hired director who is now on-record as being comfortable sending riders to a “doping doctor” who he knows from his time at U.S. Postal. Essentially, White has done the damage to his reputation under Garmin-Cervelo, but CA/GreenEDGE will bear any resulting stigma, right as they’re trying to craft their public image. And by not citing GreenEDGE in ousting White, Vaughters avoids the appearance of pettiness. That's pretty good revenge for any shady recruiting that may have gone on, no?
Again, I have no information on White’s firing other than what you all have read as well. I certainly don’t have anything to indicate that Vaughters thought out his actions in the semi-vindictive way I outlined above. But that’s how it works out. Genius, intentional or not.
- For his part, Trent Lowe comes out looking fairly sleazy for threatening to go public with the year-ago del Moral trip in order to get paid for December 2010 (at which point he had not ridden a race for Garmin in eight months and was already under contract to Pegasus). It's a pretty shortsighted strategy, since to have the desired threatening PR effect, Lowe would have to play up the insidious implications of visiting del Moral, with himself at the center. In other words, to damage Garmin's reputation, he'd need to damage his own reputation even more. That's an easy bluff to call, but Vaughters went one better by beating Lowe to the punch, pulling back the covers himself, outing White and Lowe’s association with the doctor, removing both men from his payroll, and coming out smelling like a rose. That has to sting. While it doesn’t justify Lowe’s behavior, I do empathize somewhat with his situation – with his new team collapsed, no pay for December, and a buyers market for sickly, underperforming climbing specialists, he’s not exactly looking at a happy new year.
- This week in Twitter fights:
1. Cedric Vasseur versus Jonathan Vaughters on teams representation.
2. Radio Shack’s Johan Bruyneel versus Cofidis’s Eric Boyer on team radios. You stay classy, Johan!
- Sorry about that post title. Really.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
If you’re some hack with a website about professional cycling, then you’re kind of obligated to offer up some commentary about the highly anticipated Sports Illustrated Armstrong article by Selena Roberts and David Epstein. So here are my quick thoughts, bearing in mind that much of the article's content was previously known, and that much of the remaining intrigue comes from what might have been left out.
- If the SI description of Don Catlin’s labwork and his interactions with the U.S. Olympic Committee are accurate, then the actions of Drs. Catlin, Brent Kay, and Arnie Baker indicate that Michele Ferrari might be the most trustworthy, sane medical professional involved in this whole extended mess. With Ferrari, at least you know what you’re getting, and that it works.
- If the (previously known) Motorola EPO story is true, then Paul Sherwin looks like even more of a sycophantic ass for his Armstrong pandering, since he was the team’s press officer.
- If Armstrong did gain access to HemAssist while the drug was in clinical trials, to borrow a phrase from Vice President Joe Biden, "this is a big f***ing deal.” Frankly, it's irrelevant that Lance Armstrong might have gotten ahold of it -- it’s a big problem regardless of who's involved. People have been bleating for months about why FDA would be involved in this sort of investigation. This is why. Ensuring the safety and efficacy of drugs, and the safety and legitimacy of the clinical trials used to test them, are damn close to the core of FDA’s regulatory mission. If experimental drugs are escaping from trials into the broader population, that is a very, very significant issue for them. So if they have to rile up a bunch of pencil-necked bike geeks to get to the heart of the matter, I’m guessing that suits them just fine. This is bigger than sports. For more detail on the HemAssist issue, consult Joe Lindsey.
- If HemAssist’s class of drugs is as risky as some of the information in Lindsey’s post indicates, then “the shit that will kill them” might take on a whole different meaning.
- If you were wondering if HemAssist, however acquired, might be OK under cycling’s rules because it’s not on the list of banned substances, then you need to read section M1 of the WADA code, Enhancement of Oxygen Transfer.
- If SI was willing to print both the existing and new Landis allegations (i.e., the St. Moritz airport story), then I'd think the authors must have at least one other source confirming the validity of those allegations. We’ve been through a few rounds of the “Landis is a liar” defense already, and it’s been pretty effective, probably with good reason. I’m guessing a publication like SI, while it’s no scientific journal, vetted Landis’s accusations pretty thoroughly before exposing itself to that sort of risk, especially given his history.
- If people are surprised that private airports are a good way to move contraband, then they’ve clearly never seen an episode of the A-Team.
- If Yaroslav Popyvych (whose house was raided, yielding drugs and evidence of continued Ferrari ties according to SI) wants to look innocent, he should get the hell off of Tenerife before issuing his denial.
- If, as has been rumored, there is damning, unpublished material regarding the misuse of Livestrong foundation funds, then that is the only thing that will ultimately shift broader public opinion. Until then, the rest of this really only matters to cycling fans. Don’t kid yourselves.
- If Livestrong does become the core of the issue, then I’m guessing you’ll see a lot more of the IRS than FDA. Tax evasion is a pretty useful charge.
- If, as rumored, there is a “strippers/hookers and blow” storyline that was also left out, then I don’t really care too much. That material would grab non-cycling eyeballs, sure, but it would also just distract further from the heart of the matter and give the true believers one more “this is irrelevant, what's the point of this?” talking point. Besides, I’ve been to college, and I’ve been around cyclists for most of my life. I’ve seen strippers and blow already.
- If Roberts and Epstein do indeed have the much-rumored additional information that was allegedly removed from their article, then I hope they pursue other outlets. For instance, any misdeeds regarding Livestrong might be a better fit for SI’s current affairs-oriented Time-Warner stablemate, Time magazine. Or, if Time-Warner lacks the stomach for it altogether, I’d suggest Der Spiegel, the Economist, or any other credible current affairs publication. Many have suggested the web as an outlet, but, like it or not, for some things you sort of need a bedrock publication to add credibility to the information. Otherwise it’ll just be attacked with the “well you can put anything on those websites” argument. But for godssake, just stay away from LeMonde and L’Equipe (or any other French publication). We know that, counter to the U.S. drumbeat of the early 2000s, they’re very credible publications. But there’s no sense in bogging down the information by inviting people to stoke up the ridiculous “French conspiracy” fires again.
- If new information and corroborations continue to come forth, then at some point, Greg Lemond’s settlement-induced gag order will become moot, no? And at some point, somewhere in the great Midwest, I’m betting he and Betsy Andreau will meet for a cocktail.
- If things go severely downhill for Armstrong, then I’m guessing there are only two options: stone-faced denial until the very end of his life, or burn-baby-burn and everyone goes down with him. Middle ground has never been his strong suit.
- If you’d like some real analysis of the article, then you should consult Charles Pelkey.
- Finally, if the pace of this whole investigation picks up, then Geox may get that Tour de France start after all.
Monday, January 17, 2011
When a National Team is Not a National Team
With the Pegasus ProTour effort not even cold in the grave, the next great Australian ProTour bid has already shot through the birth canal and now lies screaming on the scale, waiting to be weighed. Circle of life, I suppose. Going by the name GreenEDGE (which sounds suspiciously like a Billy Mays cleaning product), the new effort is headed, as predicted, by former Australian track cycling boss Shayne Bannan. And as predicted, it’s already ruffling feathers. Before the team even held its first presser, rumors surfaced that its management was engaging in rider-poaching shenanigans, offering dodgy “pre-contracts” and potentially troublesome UCI-point incentives to Australian riders on its wish list.
I’m not usually one to comment on early rumors, but Jonathan Vaughters, whose young Australian talents Cam Meyer and Jack Bobridge are reportedly on the shopping list, has already responded publicly to the reports. That would be an uncommonly brash public step for the level-headed Vaughters if he didn’t have good reason to believe that they’re true, particularly since everyone in this potential dispute speaks the same language and reads the same media. Vinokourov can probably spout whatever he wants to the Kazakh media in relative safety, but when Vaughters comments on cyclingnews.com, he has to know Bannan’s going to see it. Based on Vaughters taking that step, I have to believe there’s some credence to the story. For his part, here’s Bannan’s response to the poaching allegations.
And so, to the matters at hand…
Does any of this sound familiar: New zero-to-ProTour effort wrapped in a national flag? English-speaking? Headed by the nation’s very successful national track coach? Backed by a national federation and a reliable in-country sponsor? Disregard for the rules and/or courtesies of professional road cycling business operations? Eyeing Vaughters’s goodies?
The GreenEDGE model appears, of course, to be Team Sky all over again. That’s not a groundbreaking thought; plenty of others have said as much, said it better, and said it earlier. What I’m wondering about is to what degree the national track team background shared by Sky’s David Brailsford and GreenEDGE’s Bannan share is the root of the friction both seem to cause in the professional road scene. Simply put, have Brailsford and Bannan (hereafter B+B) tried to build professional road teams the same way they would a national track team? Let’s look at why that might not be the best way to go.
First, there’s the issue of how you approach riders. B+B come from managing federation track programs, where the most relevant information for recruitment isn’t found in a rider’s professional contract, but in his passport. Are they a confirmed Brit or Aussie? Great! Pick up the phone and give them a call! If they want to come ride for god and country, we’ll work out the schedule with their professional team somehow, right? In building their road teams, B+B seem content to continue following that methodology. Confirm the passport and dial, never mind that it’s January, or that riders are tied to multi-year contracts. You’re from the right country – we’ll work it out!
As both men are finding, the professional road scene doesn’t work like that. Though your team may be trying to become the defacto “national” ProTour team, professional road cycling is commercial, not national. Sure, for the rider, riding for the professional “home team” might have patriotic appeal, a fringe benefit like more paid trips home, appealing linguistic familiarity, or better compatibility with management. And for the team, home riders obviously have benefits from the fan interest and sponsorship perspectives. But beyond those warm feelings and on all that white paper printed with rules and contracts, nationality is fairly irrelevant in the ProTour system. (Until you get popped for doping – different story.) Shared nationality between teams and prospective riders affords no special rights and privileges beyond how employing native vs. foreign riders plays out in the applicable labor laws. In leaving the national/federation format and joining the commercial/professional one, B+B need to give up the idea that they have a constitutional right to chat up the top riders from their country, or risk being found in violation of UCI rules. Simply put, native riders like those you coached on the track are no longer “your boys” who you borrow from their road teams from time to time – they’re your competition’s employees. The relationship has changed - acknowledge it.
Yes, for professional teams that rely on a national identity, it can be a real downer when much of the best native talent is contractually tied down. And not having unrestricted access to the whole national talent pool must come as a shock to B+B after their success at honing their nations’ track programs. But if they could look past the horizon a bit, they’d see the upside: that it works both ways. While GreenEDGE might not be able to call home everyone’s Aussies as they please, neither will, say, Rabobank be able to come in and arbitrarily recall any Dutchmen GreenEDGE might employ. It's not a great situation when you're trying to burst out of the starting gate, but it feels a lot better a few years down the road.
On top of those issues of recruitment rules and manners, there’s the relative inexperience in recruiting at all. National track managers do occasionally need to woo riders – for instance, in trying to lure road riders like Wiggins, Cavendish, or O’Grady back to the boards for the Olympics or Commonwealth Games. But much of the time, coaches in big track cycling nations are in the very opposite, very enviable position of being team “selectors” rather than recruiters. Without a vibrant professional scene, the national team system is the only chance for many dedicated trackies to make a relative living at the sport. So for B+B, picking up riders to fill out a team has long been a buyer’s market. Now, faced with the greater competition and elaborate courtship dances of the professional road scene, and forced into the role of suitor of the top talent rather than the suited, they seem unsure of the proper way to make their advances. What’s worse, they don’t seem to care what the right way is.
That’s all just a theory, of course, but one thing is for sure. GreenEDGE’s alleged recruitment tactics might be distasteful, they may even be against the rules, but they can hardly be a surprise. The last 10 years have effectively seen “the rise of the state” in professional cycling. With federation-backed squads proliferating, team managers have to expect that Katusha will come for their Russians, Sky for their Brits, and Astana for any Kazakhs they might have kicking around. And on and on. Cycling Australia's ProTour plans have been known for some time, so if other teams' management hadn’t spoken to their Australians about this eventuality yet, they've been caught with their pants down. You could argue that shouldn't be the case, that expecting people to play by the rules shouldn't mean you're caught out. Unfortunately, in cycling, that's just not realistic.
Other GreenEDGE Notes
- The idea of paying prospective riders for UCI points they accumulate with their 2011 teams is potentially much more troublesome than trying to recruit them outside the bounds of the UCI’s signing period. The motivation to offer such a deal is clear – when GreenEDGE submits its license application, it wants to ensure it has enough collective UCI points to make it a sho-in for the first division (a la Leopard-Trek), and it’s willing to pay for that assurance. But incentivizing riders to pursue UCI points for their current teams puts those riders at the heart of a severe conflict of interest.
As we know, winning a professional bike race is about a bunch of guys sacrificing their strength and chances so that one team member can win, or try to at least try to win. If each team member is chasing their own placings and the points that go with them, the team strategy goes all to hell. In the late 1990s, or maybe it was the early 2000s, Cofidis had virtually no cohesive team strategy and the underachievement to match. Why? A significant part of their riders’ pay structure was tied to UCI points, so when things really went down on the road, it was every man for himself. But at least Cofidis was responsible for putting itself in that position. If allegations of GreenEDGE’s gladly-pay-you-Tuesday-for-a-UCI-point-today offer are true, GreenEDGE is effectively forcing Cofidis’s terrible management strategy onto other teams.
Will such an offer have any real effect on rider behavior? I wonder. I’m guessing most riders know that, in professional cycling, what goes around comes around. In what could be a 10 or 14 year career, you don’t want to become known as the guy who screws over your current team to get in the good graces of the next. A few rounds of that, and no team wants to be the next screw-ee. Further, I’d imagine that as soon as a team got the feeling a rider was engaging in that sort of behavior, the rider would be benched, thus eliminating their ability to gather any points at all. In the long-run, it’s better for riders to demonstrate their value to all prospective teams through their work, UCI points be damned, than to blow their credibility trying to collect 14th place points for a single, possibly pie-in-the-sky outfit. Also, it should be pretty easy to spot the type of rider who might be engaged in this particular effort -- they're the ones who have pet kangaroos, drink a lot of Fosters, eat deep fried onions, and carry enormous hunting knives at all times. Or so I've been led to believe. Anyway, I don’t expect to see Mark Renshaw trying to shake Mark Cavendish at 200 meters and cutting for the line anytime soon. (Just a hypothetical example – Renshaw’s under contract through 2012, I believe. Not that that matters.)
- GreenEDGE was also allegedly in pursuit of Garmin DS Matt White, but he’s since signed on to take over Neil Stephens’s position as the Australian national team road coach. He’ll be doing that in addition to his Garmin duties, so I suppose the GreenEDGE angle there is put to rest. Stephens, however, is leaving the national position to…surprise…go sign riders and be a director for GreenEDGE.
- GreenEDGE reportedly has the backing of Australian cycling’s sugardaddy, Gerry Ryan, head of the Jayco camper company. I, for one, am hoping that Jayco becomes the title sponsor. Then, in an homage to the RV industry, the jerseys can feature a band of wood-grain paneling and the team bus can feature moldy carpet and some rotting floorboards around the shower.
- Not to be bossy, but start reading this blog right now. Particularly the post-Peter Post post.
- How envious is Leopard-Trek that I capitalized the “EDGE” in GreenEDGE? Know why I did it? Because they didn't try to make me. It’s worth noting that the infamous list of media demands regarding presentation and pronunciation of the Leopard team name was reportedly sent out by Trek, not by the team itself. I'm guessing team manager Bryan Nygaard has enough experience as a press officer for Riis and Sky to know that dictating style and usage to the media is an uphill battle, and that it’s better to stay on their good side by not presuming to order them around. Trek Bicycles, on the other hand, has clearly come to think of the cycling media as an arm of their advertising department. More disturbing than the misconception itself is the likely chain of events that’s led them to believe that.
- Yesterday’s cyclocross World Cup from Pontchateau, France finally gave those of us in the Mid-Atlantic United States an international course that looked a little more familiar, with green grass and a blue groove replacing the deep mud and snow of the low countries. I reveled in watching those sloppy Christmas week races, but it was nice to see a fast, tactical race after the weeks of grinding. One thing’s for sure, if yesterday’s winner Kevin Pauwels (Fidea) comes to the line in a small group at the world championships in Sankt Wendel, you can’t count him out for rainbow bands. Nys and Albert have been no match for his finishing kick, though an in-form Zdenek Stybar (Fidea) would have a better shot.
- No time to get into the whole race radio debate at the moment, but I do wish all of the managers and riders would stop bleating about the 18-2 vote by the teams to keep the radios. I understand what that vote demonstrates, but the fact is, the sport isn’t a direct democracy run by the riders or the teams. Obviously, rider and team input should always factor into the sport’s decisions – both because it is the riders who ultimately place their lives on the line, and because riders and teams have been historically underrepresented in decision-making. But what would cycling in particular and pro sports in general look like if the participants made all the rules? My bet: they'd be both less safe and less marketable.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Sometime in the first two months of this season, Leopard-Trek will score its first victory on the road. When it happens, at least one headline will read, “Leopard Pounces.”
Sometime in the run-up to the Tour de France, in May or maybe even June, Leopard-Trek will sign a title sponsor, necessitating a hasty revision of all the team’s kit and materials. When it happens, at least one headline will read, “Leopard Changes Its Spots.”
Those last minute pre-Tour sponsor pickups – and the horrible headline puns that come with them – are becoming a sort of late-spring tradition. Though it would be easier on everyone’s nerves if sponsors signed on for the whole year, the late arrivals obviously aren’t a bad thing. More sponsors are better than less, and the latecomers infuse the post-Classics period with a little hint of pre-season freshness as a whole new round of kit designs and bus stickers and god-knows-what-else are unveiled. Slipstream’s done it. High Road’s done it. And you can bet your ass Leopard will do it, too.
What I’m wondering now is, when that sponsor emerges, how much will the nascent Leopard-Trek be forced to change those headline-heralded spots? If the new sponsor is a fashion-forward undertaker or Mercedes-Benz, the current look could be carried forward relatively intact. But if, say, Krylon or Lego cough up some cash, a somewhat more obvious change could be in order.
Thanks to James Huang, we know the team's present look was put together in short order once it was clear there would be no title sponsor by the time the onrushing season forced the team to go public with whatever it had. So in that sense, Leopard management may not be terribly wedded to the resulting black-blue-white spray job. But the Leopard powers that be, including its manager and noted PR man Brian Nygaard, seem to be an image-conscious (and image-controlling) bunch, so I have to wonder if sponsor-directed change might be a bit of a bitter pill if and when it comes. As it stands, the team has a very northern European composition, look, and feel, and remaking it in the visual image of something like Kelme at a sponsor’s behest might not sit too well. Obviously though, money talks, and I have every confidence that a cool $5 million would be enough to get Kim Anderson driving the team car in a lavender cordoba.
A look at the relevant case studies, the teams currently known as Garmin-Cervelo and HTC, could give hints at the approaches Leopard might take when the check clears. When Jonathan Vaughters signed Garmin to replace the name of his Slipstream ownership/management company in the team's title spot, the fashion-aware manager nevertheless retained much of Slipstream’s orange-'n-argyle branding on kits and ancillaries. With this season’s Garmin-Cervelo merger, the need to accommodate Cervelo’s established branding crowded the argyle a bit more, but it’s still there.
Bob Stapleton’s High Road formation has proved a bit more malleable. After T-Mobile’s pullout (but still temporarily running on T-Mobile money), the team debuted in black and white livery stamped with High Road, the name of Stapleton’s ownership entity. It was a blank-slate, your-name-here approach that allowed the team to easily adapt when Stapleton landed Columbia Sportswear as a headliner during the pre-Tour bargain sale. The team went first to blue jersies, retaining its black shorts, then shifted towards its current yellow-black-white look that’s survived through the addition and ascent of HTC and Columbia’s departure. The High Road logo, though, has remained, not across the chest, granted, but always present.
Though both teams have thankfully found steady corporate backers, it’s worth noting that both retained either logos or subtle branding elements that keep their management companies – traditionally anonymous and anonymously-named entities – very much in the public eye. The same could be said of Riis Cycling, made evident on this year’s Saxo Bank kit by the infamous trouser bird. I expect that the Leopard name and some aspect of its branding, like those of High Road and Slipstream, will remain prominent as the team moves forward, regardless of any evolving sponsor situation. Why? It’s good business.
The increasingly visible role of management companies in cycling provides the entities we think of as “teams” with a consistent business identity in an unpredictable sponsorship environment. It makes it easier for team ownership to present potential sponsors with a unified story of value that the company has accumulated under an array of different sponsors, different sports directors, and different riders. The company name – Slipstream, High Road, Riis, Leopard – unites all of the organization's history, reputation, structure, and operating procedures into a convenient, easy-to-understand package. The corporate approach also helps avoid the pitfalls of gathering sponsors through cults of personality, Giancarlo Ferretti-style. In making themselves high-visibility cycling companies, High Road is not just selling Bob Stapleton to sponsors, and Slipstream is not just selling Jon Vaughters (though those figureheads’ skills undoubtedly drive their companies’ successes). Thus, when and if something changes regarding the individual's involvement, there’s a better chance that the whole thing won’t simply crumble in their absence. For potential sponsors, particularly those educated in cycling's long string of team failures, any reassurance is valuable.
- What’s the inverse of the pre-Tour sponsor infusion? Why, the post Tour dope scandal sponsor exodus, of course. Easy come, easy go.
- Is Leopard-Trek a greatest hits album of “new team” initiatives? The staff and riders of CSC/Saxo Bank. The videos of Cervelo Test Team. The on-bike fashion sensibility and media strategy of Sky. The natty team presentation stylings of Garmin. That’s all well and good – now show me the development team or the women’s team.
- Some folks have a problem with Kim Anderson (and his extensive and arguably landmark doping history) being in team management for Leopard. I don’t. Because if I were a Leopard rider looking for doping guidance, Kim Anderson is about the last person I’d ask for advice. He clearly wasn't very good at it. What I do find interesting about the minor Anderson uproar is that he’s been working for Riis for years with little fuss. Guess working under a guy nicknamed “Mr. 60 Percent” and who confessed to winning the Tour doped up provides a pretty good diversion.
- Twitter sponsors Radio Shack. So many potential jokes my head hurts. I'm content to chuckle to myself rather than make you all suffer, but in keeping with the initial paragraphs of this post, I will predict that “Failwhale” will appear in at least one Shack-related article this season, as will the phrase “character-limited.”
Friday, January 07, 2011
Clearing the Decks
The fear, anticipation, and difficulty of doing things – no matter how benign those things may be – tends to increase the longer you put them off. As a lifelong procrastinator, I’ve learned this lesson well, though it’s worth noting that I have not adjusted my habits much as a result of that knowledge.
Over the holiday break (judging by the timestamp on the last post, I’ve generously defined that as “from Halloween through New Year’s”), there have been quite a few things I’ve thought to write, would have liked to write, but didn’t, for any number of mundane and uninteresting reasons. Usually though, it was a matter of not having, or not thinking I had, the time to write them properly. If you’re not an experienced procrastinator, let me tell you that weasel words like “properly” are incredibly handy for putting things off. They allow you to table action nearly indefinitely – after all, there’s always a better angle in the offing, a better phrase just around the corner, maybe a bit more research you could do, and then really, shouldn’t you track down a photograph to go with all that careful writing? All in the name of doing it “properly.” And so it goes, or doesn’t go, as the case may be.
Anyway, I refuse to call it a resolution, but one goal for 2011 here at the Service Course is to push on through all that and just post some stuff. That’s not to say I intend to just throw up any passing, poorly written crap that flies through my head – that’s what Twitter is for. But I am going to try for shorter but more frequent posts here. You know, if I get around to it.
With that in mind, I thought a good starting point would be to knock out some things I’ve been thinking about and be done with them so I can move on. Maybe they’re not presented in the expansive, eloquent, and meticulously hand-illustrated format I’d prefer, but I suppose it’ll have to do.
Bienvenidos a Calpe
A while back on Twitter, I wondered about the peloton’s current fascination with Calpe, Spain. This year, it’s played host to training camps for, offhand, RadioShack, Katusha, and Quick Step, and probably some others I’m forgetting. Katusha, I believe, is headed back for a second visit. The sudden, intense interest in one fairly small, fairly random Spanish coastal town sparked my interest, mostly because of Michele Ferrari’s documented fondness for working the shores of Tenerife, which has a fairly similar description. So I cracked that Calpe must have either a pretty good tourism board, or a great damn doctor.
In all seriousness, though, the answer to “why Calpe?” is probably pretty simple. It’s a beach town, with a beach climate, close to the highway, with flat roads along the coast for easy days and a big mountain a few kilometers inland that’s covered with switchbacks for the hard days (go to the Google Earth view, it's better but slow), and there are plenty of differing routes for a little variety. I’m guessing there’s also at least one decent hotel there (and probably many less than decent ones). Add all those up, throw in the fact that like anything in cycling, training camp locales can be very much a me-too thing, and all of a sudden, it's a hot spot. The other reason I'm thinking Calpe craze is fairly innocent is that, while folks did seem to enjoy Tenerife for the services of the good doctor, they mostly made their furtive trips there as individuals. Hauling complete squads somewhere – be it to Tenerife or Calpe – to get on the program would be idiocy laid bare.
Stybar to the Road
For the duration of the current cyclocross season, one looming question has been whether or not Quick Step would sign 24-year-old Czech ‘cross world champion Zdenek Stybar and put him on skinny tires. As of now, the issue is still outstanding, and Patrick Lefevere seems to have left the ball firmly in the hands of Stybar and his current employer, the specialist Fidea cyclocross team. I expect further silence until after the World Championships on January 30, at least.
The move to Quick Step would theoretically give Stybar a path to try his hand at the classics, something he’s expressed a keen interest in doing. The question is, is it worth it? Back when he rode for Rabobank, Sven Nys had the same inklings and emitted the same sense of classics potential. But Nys never quite made his name in the races everyone assumed he would – races like Roubaix and Flanders. While I can’t recall his specific performances, the reasons Nys’s irrefutable greatness on a ‘cross bike didn’t transfer to the classics should be easy enough to spot. Classics are 6 hours long, not one, and though the cobbles are difficult, the classics are still road races, won through strength (individual and team), endurance, knowledge, and tactics, not on bike handling. If he chooses to attempt the transition, Stybar will face the same challenges and the same inherently elevated expectations Nys did. Stybar, though, will face a few additional challenges that Nys didn’t have back when he gave the cobbles his shot.
Nys’s Rabobank deal (prior to the ProTour rejiggering that put him on the Rabo continental team) allowed him to easily float back and forth between the team’s top flight road formation and its top flight cyclocross program. Quick Step has no such dual presence. Presumably, Stybar would have a clause with Quick Step that would allow him to continue to race 'cross in some capacity, but signing for the team would leave him without the dedicated ‘cross support he receives from Fidea and without a management whose primary interest is off-road. In contrast, wherever Nys found his calling, road or fields, Rabobank could be happy – starting him at Roubaix was a low-risk, potentially high-reward venture, both for the team and Nys.
The nature of Stybar’s road attempt, on the other hand, requires a substantial, longterm, and potentially costly change in program, with a good chance that neither side will be quite happy with the result. If the road doesn’t pan out, Quick Step may well be happy to have a top ‘cross rider on its roster, but they really haven’t shown any interest in the discipline in the past. For his part, Stybar would be left without the support he’s enjoyed for ‘cross seasons past and would have to start negotiating contracts to get back into the ‘cross world full time, and would likely have to negotiate one that started mid-cross season due to the road-cross misalignment. He’ll find one, of course -- he's very good at what he does -- but that doesn’t make it a fun process.
Finally, when Nys took his shot at the road with Rabobank, he truly had a shot. At least in the cobbled classics, Rabobank was not a particularly heavy hitter (no offense to Michael Boogerd, Marc Wauters, and Eric Dekker). At the cobbled departs, at least, Nys was probably as likely a shot as anyone, and that comes with a certain freedom. Should he sign with Lefevere, Stybar is entering a formation that already features Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, and Geert Steegmans. Don’t get me wrong, Quick Step is not as crowded as it once was, and it’s a far more unpredictable animal than it was in its heyday, but Stybar will still have to do some clawing for his chance. When you’re already a world champion in another discipline, that can be a tough hurdle.
Ah that's all well and good, you say, but Lars Boom has made the switch far more recently than Nys, and it’s going swimmingly for him. But who does Boom ride for again?
What Might Have Been
Big thanks to the folks at cyclingfans.com, who gave me links to streaming coverage of big ‘cross races all season, and to the folks at all the Belgian stations who provided the feeds. It was awesome to be able to really follow the GvA, SuperPrestige, and World Cup series, reliably, all season long. The only depressing thing about it? Access to those feeds reminded me of how good we could have it during the classics season if people would stop buying the U.S. rights to air the races and then screwing it up. If you’re going to do it, do it right, or let my people watch Sporza.
Back when I did a little review of the first issue of the new Paved magazine, I promised I’d do a review of the other then-looming release, Peloton magazine, when it hit the Barnes and Noble. I did indeed get a copy of Issue 1, but I haven’t done the review yet. So what gives? I did read it, and while it has the best cover for a cycling magazine in recent memory, overall I was underwhelmed. That said, the vast, vast, vast (that's three vasts) majority of feedback I’ve seen about Issue 1 indicates that people think it’s fantastic, so I have to wonder whether I’m (a) just missing something or (b) just being a dick. I’m willing to admit that either one is completely within the realm of possibility, so I’ve decided to wait until I can read Issue 2 before I weigh in.
Did we all catch the latest Graham Watson Twitter kerfuffle? Everyone’s favorite Anglophone pro cycling photographer found himself on the outs again this week, this time for stating that he just couldn’t see 80 women taking on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Many observers took that to be a disparaging remark about women’s racing, which in turn was taken as an indicator that Watson is a sexist jerk. Watson subsequently did a pretty poor job refuting that impression.
I have to think that at least some of the vocal reaction to his comments wasn’t entirely due to the current dustup, but rather with what's becoming his greater body of work. Simply put, Watson has a pretty broad public presence between Twitter, his own site/blog, and his writing engagements for various magazines, and lately he’s using the first two to tickle his tonsils with his toes at every opportunity. Let’s review:
Late last year, there was the incident in which photos on Watson’s site were discovered to have labeled Greg LeMond “fool” where every other rider was listed by name. Outcry ensued, and the response from Watson was a fairly unconvincing “Huh, I’ll look into it.” That, inexplicably, was followed up by an even more damaging pseudo-apology from Watson, in which he stated that, sure, Lemond was a great champion, but one who should learn to keep his mouth shut. Presumably that was a comment regarding Lemond’s very public anti-doping stance, and people didn't take terribly kindly to it.
Also late last year, Watson mused that he’d like to dump all his images of Alberto Contador in response to the Spaniard’s pending doping case, and then PhotoShop a yellow jersey onto Andy Schleck in the pictures of the 2010 Tour de France. Some took issue with the dumping idea, complaining that Watson was passing judgment on Contador before he’s been given his proverbial day in court. I really don’t have a problem with that – we all have inklings as to Contador’s guilt or innocence, ones that very likely won’t be changed by the verdict one way or another, so I can’t fault Watson for his. If Watson worked for CAS, expressing that view would be a problem, but he doesn’t. But I found the idea – however lighthearted – of painting yellow onto Schleck more disconcerting. A bent towards revisionist history is not a desirable trait in the chroniclers of our times.
So, add those two flaps to the women/cobbles issue, as well as his sycophantic slobbering over Lance Armstrong’s every move, and it seems Watson is suffering a bit of an image problem these days, at least among people who care in the U.S. That, granted, may not be a large enough population to worry about, but Watson’s image here certainly seems to be travelling from pioneer and bon vivant to oblivious, arse-kissing, sexist, omerta-endorser mighty quick. That’s not to say the trend is irreversible, and Watson has a lot of built-up goodwill as the guy who provided many of our first impressions of the sport through his work in English-language pubs like Winning, Bicycle Guide, VeloNews, and CycleSport. Maybe that’s good for something. Also in his favor is the deep-seated but conveniently unspoken knowledge that we all probably have some thought, belief, or inkling that if expressed in its raw and unadorned form, would render us fairly unpopular with swaths of the population. The catch is that most of us have the common sense to not express whatever that potentially distasteful thing is, at least not to an undefined audience. But Watson doesn’t seem to have that sense, or the ability to stay off the hot-button issues on Twitter, and in the social media days, you only get so many strikes.
And Away We Go
Lots of folks are heralding the coming Tour Down Under, the big season opener for international cycling. That’s understandable. But – and this is nothing against the event, an important one for a nation that will be a prime player in the next decade of cycling – I’m just not feeling it. And I’m guessing the Tour of Oman and the Tour of Qatar won’t do it for me either. I’m not old, but maybe I’m getting there, because for me, it takes news of the GP Marseilles, Het Nieuwsblad/it’ll-always-be-Het Volk-to-me, and Milan-San Remo to really feel like we’re moving again. Like I said above, every one of us probably has some non-politically correct inkling, and that’s mine. It’s backwards looking, provincial, and mired in my personal experience versus irrefutable facts at hand – like the calendar, for instance. But there you go.