Monday, March 28, 2011
Since it hit the internet on Friday afternoon, I’ve seen a variety of reactions to Bill Strickland’s Bicycling piece about Lance Armstrong and dope. Many of them, I think it’s fair to say, have been negative. That was expected given the subject at hand, Strickland’s longtime support of Armstrong, and his connections to Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel via authorship of several books. And as expected, among dedicated cycling fans, the criticism has come from both sides of the polarizing Armstrong debate. It follows familiar patterns: For those who believe Armstrong doped, the acknowledgement will never be early enough and the condemnation will never be strong enough. For those who believe in Armstrong’s innocence, there will never be enough proof. C’est la guerre.
But regardless of where you stand, or if you stand at all, I think there are a few things worth noting about the piece that many die-hard cycling fans aren’t taking into account when skewering Strickland, the piece, or both. Many of these thoughts could be summed up as “people are looking too hard at the words, and not enough at the context.” But if you want the wordier version, read on…
It’s highly unlikely anyone who reads this website (and its colleagues, associates, and superiors), niche cycling magazines, and bad translations of L’Equipe is going to be shocked by the piece's content regarding Armstrong. But the article doesn't appear in any of those places. It appears in Bicycling magazine and on that publication’s website. By virtue of its location, the article is not for you, but for a larger, broader, more mainstream audience. For people for whom Bicycling is a main source of professional cycling information (and they are out there, I assure you), this is, if not shocking, an extremely notable change in acknowledgement of “the Armstrong issue.” It is in a sense an epitaph for the “bigger engine, fast spin, and stage reconnaissance” school of explaining Armstrong’s dominance to the masses. And the farewell is writ large on the pages of its most loyal practitioner.
The article is largely Strickland's reflection on his personal grapples with the “did he or didn’t he” question. But the reason the piece is important isn’t because Bill Strickland’s assessment has changed – it’s important because its publication reflects a much bigger change.
Again, the location of the article is important. It's printed in a magazine that has featured ample and presumably profitable content about Armstrong and from his associates (e.g., Chris Carmichael, Johan Bruyneel) over the years, and that draws ad revenue from heavily Armstrong-affiliated companies like CTS, Trek, and SRAM. Bicycling has helped build the Armstrong legend, and, in turn, has profited from it. And make no mistake, that legend still has value left in it. So even when you’re the editor-at-large, the choice to burn those sorts of bridges isn’t all your own. No, people farther up the chain have to be willing to strike their matches, too, and the people holding the dry tinder would know the stakes of this particular bonfire. Bicycling, after all, is not an independent magazine – it’s one title in the much larger fitness-oriented Rodale media empire. Think Men’s Health will get Armstrong to do a shoot for “Ten Great Tips on Staying Fit in Middle Age” now? Think Runners World will get an exclusive quote when triathlete Armstrong turns up at a charity 10k? Think Livestrong is going to return Prevention’s phone calls for its next testicular cancer story? Anyone who’s seen the Armstrong playbook in action knows none of those are likely.Yes, any good media organization keeps a firewall between the editorial and advertising departments, and I don't claim to know how Bicycling is structured or who gets a say in what’s printed. But on some level, everyone knows which side their bread is buttered on. Bicycling’s – and by extension, Rodale’s – implicit decision to give up access to one of the biggest names in fitness (and potentially the ad dollars of his loyal corporate partners) – is extremely telling. Just as Bicycling contributed to the making of the Armstrong brand in mainstream America, Bicycling’s shift on Armstrong will contribute to its downfall in mainstream America. I suspect it was not a decision taken ignorantly or lightly.
You might know, and I might know, but Strickland has to KNOW
Many have criticized Strickland for only now accepting what cycling’s many Twitter users and bloggers have “known” for a long time. I understand where that feeling comes from, but I believe that what we’re seeing here is someone who, whether from personal belief or professional requirement or both, holds “knowing” to a higher standard, at least when it comes to speaking bluntly and publicly as he does in his piece. And he should, because the backlash he’ll experience from it will be of a higher standard, too.
Strickland, on the other hand, has skin in the game. He has a boss he has to answer to if he’s wrong on doping in cycling, and especially if he’s wrong about Armstrong and doping in cycling. He has a job in the cycling industry that still requires him to still be able to talk to people in that industry to earn a paycheck. He not only has his real name on his work, and an easily identified paying agent, but also likely has his work, home, and cell numbers in Rolodexes that you and I don’t on both sides of the Atlantic.I’d venture to say that there’s a lot of internet bravado from the peanut gallery that would ultimately wither under the possibility of a call from Armstrong, or Bruyneel, or, more likely, from their attorneys or numerous other formal or informal cohorts, agents, and hangers-on. Or under the kill-the-messenger onslaught that invariably follows defiance of the inner circle. But the peanut gallery, even its upper echelons, the elite zonder contract of the social media world, never really faces that. Strickland will, and at close range, I'd wager. So if he thinks about it a good deal longer and requires a higher standard of evidence than the rest of us before he sets his opinions in print, I’m not going to begrudge him that. And ultimately, regardless of the substantial downsides, he chose to do it anyway. That takes conviction, and courage. Could he have done it earlier, or been a less fervent Armstrong supporter given his knowledge and position? Absolutely. But life isn’t always as simple as it looks.
[Note: I’m not saying, in the least, that fans shouldn’t weigh in on these issues just because they’re not or never have been professional cycling journalists. Longtime readers know that’s not my way of thinking.]
Late is still early
Finally, let’s circle back to that oft-heard criticism of Strickland as being late to the “Armstrong Doped” party. Now, I’m not sure, and I admit to not doing my good Google diligence on the matter. But I’m thinking that Strickland may in fact be the early arrival at this particular soiree. Yes, countless members of the citizen media have long since gone on record as believing in their heart of hearts that Armstrong doped. David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, both respected, decorated members of the mainstream press have as well. But among journalists who draw a living from cycling publications, you’d be hard pressed to find an earlier statement on par with Strickland’s. From his contemporaries, there have been indicators of a souring on Armstrong, of rising skepticism: hints dropped on Twitter, markedly less laudatory articles, less favorable recountings of the accusations, and more unequivocal assessments offered in private conversations. But the sort of definitive, “I’ve seen the inside, and I think he did it” that Strickland laid out there – from a senior editor, in print, in a cycling magazine? That is a brave new world.
Friday, March 25, 2011
Sporza is reporting this morning that the organizers of the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen believe that tomorrow's edition of the race is likely to be its last. If true, the impending death of the E3 it is the predictable outcome of moving Gent-Wevelgem from the Wednesday between the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix to E3's traditional weekend before Flanders. It took all of two years.
The sad irony, of course, is that Gent is doing to E3 what Roubaix was effectively doing to Gent in the years leading up to the date change. Namely, key riders, if not whole teams, are opting to sit out the lesser ranked race to keep their powder dry for the higher caliber event to follow.
It's understandable. As various iterations of the ProTour concept came in, placing more importance than ever on the top-tier races, more and more riders were giving Gent a miss to rest up (and stay injury free) for Roubaix. So Gent moved to the weekend, and promptly became the event rider rested up for, rather than skipped to rest up for something else. After a feeling-out year in 2010, this year the arrangement has effectively sucked the life out of the lesser-ranked E3's field quality. The evidence? Tom Boonen, a four-time E3 winner, is sitting it out this year in a desperate attempt to gain World Tour points for his faltering QuickStep squad. Filippo Pozzato is doing the same thing for Katusha. But at least QuickStep and Katusha will have teams there. Not so for BMC, HTC, and Sky, three teams that have factored heavily in classics racing this year. All of them are giving E3 a miss to focus on Gent.
The potential loss of E3 and smaller races like it would obviously be a great loss to racing. Not just for the many reasons that lower-tier events are important (fan access, fostering new talent, rider preparation, etc.), but also because they provide some of the best classics racing. Unlike races in the UCI's various super-league schemes with their guaranteed (and, in some cases, forced) participation rules, races like E3 only feature teams that lust for the classics. There are no grand tour-centric squads phoning it in, no herds of short-straw Basques climbing off in the first feed zone. You get a combination of hard-hitting top-tier classics teams, and, maybe more importantly, hungry second-tier squads like Landboukrediet, Topsport-Vlaanderen, and Veranda-Willems. For those teams, races like the E3 are the big races, and it shows in their aggression. But the races still need some big stars on hand to attract the sponsor dollars.
So can the E3 be saved? Possibly. First, it's worth pointing out that the organizer might be doing a bit of hand-wringing over the loss of Boonen. Yesterday's version of the E3 start list still boasted, among others, Cancellara, Hushovd, Haussler, Devolder, Nuyens, Hoste, and Langeveld. But let's assume the situation is as grave as organizer Bart Ottevaere asserts. For E3, taking Gent's former Wednesday slot is not an option. As Ottevaere rightly pointed out to Het Laatste Nieuws, E3 is not a course for a Wednesday. Unlike Gent-Wevelgem, it cuts eastward from the Flemish Ardennes, tickling the weekday arteries of the Brussels metro area. Sure, the Flemish everyman likes his bike racing, but Brussels is full of diplomats, foreign and domestic, who are likely to be far less impressed when their shiny black Benz is landlocked by the lycra set on the way to the meeting du jour.
The more workable solution would be to flip the two races on the pre-Ronde weekend, moving Gent-Wevelgem to Saturday and E3 to Sunday. The move would effectively set up a situation analogous to the Het Nieuwsblad:Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne relationship. Putting the higher ranked race first lets the big guns go into the weekend's big prize rested and ready, then ride Sunday's lower tier event with more or less intensity as they see fit. Then, they still have the same six recovery days before the Ronde, just as they will after Gent this year. Yes, E3 will invariably continue to get a lower quality field than Gent, even with the change. That's the nature of being a lower-tier event, but the swap would significantly lessen the impact of sharing a weekend with a seemingly resurgent Gent-Wevelgem. Only problem is, according to its director, Gent-Wevelgem likes the ritzy feel of Sunday, and isn't going to give it up without a fight. How quickly they forget, no?
Thursday, March 24, 2011
The Service Course has had a difficult time summoning much enthusiasm for professional cycling lately, an affliction I gather is not uncommon these days. After all, the sport is beset by maladies at every level, from frame stickers to radios to doping to poor governance to outright corruption.
Distasteful as the whole mess seems at times, that's not the reason I've skipped more than two months here. Anyone who thinks I can't find material in the pettiness and stupidity of this fine sport need only check the archives. No, the lull, I assure you, has more to do with real work and other commitments, including a brutal and ongoing springtime war with my back yard.
None of that is over by a longshot -- not pro cycling's tiresome ailments nor the necessity of paying work nor the seasonal encroachment of my neighbor's bamboo crop. But I did just watch the finale of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and for the first time in months, I felt the pangs.
For the damp dirt smell that tells you're finally west of Brussels.
For the synchronized beat of car tires on stones and rotors on air.
For the batshit crazy old woman who runs the Charles Inn outside of Gent.
For kids in Lotto hats with autograph books four inches thick and old men in anoraks with cigars.
For the spot on the Molenberg where Nardello buried himself for Bartoli's Het Volk win.
For the cigarette smoke haze of the Kuurne sporthalle at sign-in.
For the backslaps and guttural exhortations of the Flemish pressroom.
For the bar at the top of the Kemmelberg and the restaurant halfway up the Oude Kwaremont.
For buckets of Leffe at midnight on the Bruges square after the Ronde.
For the cough-inducing ammonia-and-piss olfactory punch of the Wevelgem press room lavatory and the unguarded phone lines in the back room.
For the amateur crit in Compiegne the evening before Roubaix.
For the cobblestones and tractors and five-car freight trains crisscrossing the Department du Nord.
For the right turn into the velodrome.
For the faux Swiss alpine villages of Wallonia.
For the howling claustrophobia of the Mur de Huy and the Cauberg.
For high-ceiling opulence and shiny faces at the Palace Liege and trash and filthy legs in a parking lot in Ans.
For the dead, empty quiet when it's all packed and gone by sunset.
And none of that has goddamn thing to do with Pat McQuaid or Johan Bruyneel or TV rights or bodily fluids or an alphabet soup of warring tribes in blue collared shirts. It's just bike racing as I've known it, and as it continues to be when you get past the pencil-pushers and get down to it. And it's beautiful.