Why didn't you win?

By now, you’ve seen Peter Sagan’s post-Het Nieuwsblad interview with Sporza's Renaat Schotte. If you haven’t, you should. It’s pretty funny, though Schotte has my deepest sympathies as someone who has interviewed Sagan a few times. Viral goldmine aside, the interview elicited a response from some fans online that I’ve seen a few times now and always found odd.

To recap, Schotte first asked Sagan if he thought going wide in the final corner cost him the win in the three-up sprint with Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke. Van Avermaet took the inside line and won, just as he did the year before. Sagan took the turn wide and finished second, just as he did the year before. As Sagan later pointed out, “it was like copy paper from last year.”

But rather than give insight on the race in his response, Sagan gave Renaat a one-word answer—"No"—and then stood back to enjoy the uncomfortable silence he created.

Schotte regrouped, noting that Sagan had gone really wide and asking if he’d had some problems.

Sagan opened up a bit, telling Schotte, “I don’t know. Not every day I can win, right?”

Sagan then continued that he’d done a lot of work earlier, then simply didn’t have the legs to beat Van Avermaet in the final. Fair enough.

Sagan’s evasiveness, effectively stuffing Sporza’s veteran man-on-the-scene with a one-word answer, delighted fans. Rightfully so. It was funny, not the usual good-lord-willing-just-want-to-win-some-ballgames response. But then something else happened.

Perhaps because of the way Sagan answered—“not every day I can win”—Schotte’s question morphed in some fans’ minds (and on their twitter feeds) into Schotte asking Sagan why he didn’t win.

“Why didn’t you win?” would be a poorly phrased or stupid post-race question, depending on how charitable or uncharitable you felt like being. And as the video made the rounds, many fans took the opportunity to reflect on just what a stupid question it was for Schotte to ask. But that wasn’t the question. And it rarely if ever is, no matter how badly social media and cycling forums want it to be.

Schotte’s initial question—whether Sagan thought going wide had cost him a win—was perfectly valid. Small mistakes and miscalculations cost riders wins all the time. Ask Caleb Ewan. People watching the broadcast had already seen the sprint. We know Sagan didn’t win. We also know that riders can’t win every day. But it’s the reporter’s job to add detail and context to the day's winning and losing, which is exactly what Schotte was doing by asking an informed, pointed question about a very specific portion of the race. Not asking, broadly, why didn’t you win. And he was trying to get that detail and context from the only person who would know with certainty what happened in those split seconds. That’s what reporting is.

Schotte’s mistake, if you really need to find one, was phrasing his question in a way that lent itself to a yes or no answer. (Trust me. I’ve opened that door for Sagan before.) Ultimately, though painfully, Schotte did get the insight he was looking for: No, Sagan did not think that going wide in the sprint cost him the race. He did a lot of work early on, and he didn’t have the legs.

Schotte then moved on to ask Sagan if he was having a health problem, specifically if he had a stomach bug.  

Sagan: “No, I don’t think so, why?”

Schotte: “Because they told me a couple of moments ago.”

Sagan rose to the occasion, making it seem like an odd question from Schotte. “I think it’s normal for people to go on the toilet or not,” Sagan replied before going on to address the stomach bug question. “No, it’s no problem. It’s OK.”

Again, this was not Schotte asking “why didn’t you win?” He followed up on a report—given to him by the team’s press officer, per a later tweet—that the world’s best classics rider was having a health issue during the first race of the cobbled classics season. That would be news. Not big, earth-shattering news, but in the context of the bike race you just watched and those to come, it matters if the race favorite, the world champion, the guy who finished second, was shitting his pants the whole race or not. It is context. Detail. Knowing increases our understanding of what just happened, and finding out if things like that are true or not is what we pay reporters for.

While Schotte took his lumps online for his perceived why didn’t you win questioning, Sagan was dropping some of his own, turning interviewer himself during post-race studio time. Picking up the mike, he asked third-placed Vanmarcke, the weakest sprinter of the three, “Why you didn’t attack?”

This was an instant hit for any number of reasons. Because it was Sagan being Sagan. Because he was giving voice to what every fan was thinking in the last five kilometers. Because it was delivered in the Yakov Smirnoff-esque syntax and accent that Anglophones find hilarious coming from an eastern European. Because Sagan delivered it having lowered his studio chair until his chin was resting on the desk.

If a reporter had asked that, though, he’d be roasted on the straw-man spit of why didn’t you win. I’ve drafted some sample twitter responses, based on years of careful research:

  • Like it's that easy, idiot. Sagan and Van Avermaet are two of the strongest guys out there. 
  • Why didn’t he just attack?! Because he was already full gas, man. Dumb question.
  • Vanmarcke knows he couldn’t stay away from Van Avermaet + Sagan. Saving it for tomorrow. #KBK
  • When was the last time *you* rode the final of a classic?

But, honestly, it’s a legitimate question. And Vanmarcke’s response was interesting. “Because we said to go for a sprint.”

Now we know that there was, at least according to Vanmarcke, a stated agreement to keep working to stay ahead of the looming chase rather than play games, potentially be caught, and see the podium disappear. That, apparently, was the best deal Vanmarcke thought he could get with the legs he had and the situation he found himself in. We also know Sagan was apparently surprised that Vanmarcke stuck to the agreement. That’s all worth knowing.

If fans want to be overbroad in the name of throwing stones at the cycling media, then yes, I suppose every post-race interview question asked to everyone but the winner is, effectively, “Why didn’t you win?” That’s a pretty simplistic take, though.

Those questions don't always sound terribly insightful, especially when a reporter and a rider with two different native languages are trying to converse in a third. And often, the reporter already knows the answer. But the on-record answers to all those questions that get lumped under why didn’t you win—post-mortem questions about tactics, strength, health, state of mind—are what let us understand bike races more deeply than we can by just watching men and women ride bicycles on TV. They are what help us know what happened, rather than what we assume happened. If we stop asking them, or if riders stop answering them, we lose resolution.

Does all this mean I have a problem with Sagan or his post-Omloop performance? Not at all. He is a godsend for a sport that desperately needs more personalities and fewer power profiles. He also carries off most of his pokes at the media with a sly wink, one that's a contrast to the sneer that has characterized similar efforts by other riders, notably Mark Cavendish. With Sagan, there’s mischief there, but not malice. And that makes all the difference.

Allez, Walko

Last spring, VeloNews did a print feature dedicated to breakaway artists. I contributed the little piece below. It was a challenge to fit the legend of Roger Walkowiak, who died today at age 89, into the 200 or so words I had at my disposal. I have as many as I want here, and it's tempting to build out the spare account below, but I'm not going to. There will be plenty of well-done obituaries out today. I'll say this, though: Walko's win was not the fluke it's often made out to be. He had talent, brains, and tenacity, and he used all three to topple giants. What would we give for a Tour win like that today?

Walkowiak

For the peloton’s lesser lights, breakaways can net stage wins, classics, even a week long stage race. In 1956, though, unheralded Roger Walkowiak rode the breakaway to Tour de France glory.

Exiled to the regional France North-East Central team after dustups with French selectors, “Walko” was free from the yoke of national team stars André Darrigade and Gilbert Bauvin. He made the break three days running, taking chunks of time in stages 5 and 6 before banking 18 minutes in a big move on stage 7. At the finish in Angers, he pulled on yellow, still warm from Darrigade’s shoulders.

The folly seemed over when he faltered in the Pyrenees, but he rode doggedly in the Alps, climbing with Bahamontes and limiting Gaul on their own turf. In Grenoble, he reclaimed the jersey and held it to Paris.

There, typewriters tapped out the numerous footnotes to Walkowiak’s triumph. Bobet was out with saddle sores, Robic with injuries. Bartali, Coppi, and Koblet were absent, and old. Darrigade and Bauvin sabotaged each other’s chances. The Belgians had food poisoning.

The truth though, is that Walko was a talented rider who had been on the podium at Paris-Nice and the Dauphine, and who dropped Tour winner Bobet in the Alps in 1955. And the next year, in fine breakaway style, he outsmarted them all.  

Free Advice

If you take care of your equipment, it will work better and last longer. 

That simple idea, hammered home over years spent in bike shops and at the races, has always been at the center of what we do at the Service Course. It's true for wheels and derailleurs, and it's true for bibs and jerseys, too. The longer things last, the better value they are.

That's why we introduced our new Laundry Bag this month. And in every one we've shipped so far, we've included a card with a few tips on how to make your cycling clothes last longer. We figure they're something every cyclist should know, customer or not. 

On Cyclocross and Cultural Appropriation

I wrote the piece below for the February 2014 issue of Velo magazine, where it ran as my regular Racing this Month column. If I'm totally honest, I have to admit that it's a little hypocritical. There are certain aspects of Belgian 'cross specifically, and European cycling generally, that I love and try to bring a little of to my own American life. But my point wasn't so much that we need to forsake all aspects of foreign racing culture, but rather that we need to appreciate and enhance our own, as well as be realistic about what we're emulating from other countries. Anyway, on with it.

America’s Flemish Fantasy (Velo magazine, February 2014)

A black-on-yellow Flemish flag ripples in the cold wind. Duvel flows from the taps for adults while kids in team caps chomp down on thick, steaming Liegeois waffles. Cries of “Laatste Ronde!” accompany the bell’s clanging announcement of the final lap. On any fall weekend, this is cyclocross in Belgium. And in Maryland, Colorado, Oregon, and Kentucky, too.

With its rise in popularity over the past decade, American cyclocross has come down with a severe case of Dave Stoller’s Disease. The illness’s namesake, the teenage protagonist of Breaking Away, famously idolizes Italian racers and adopts what he sees as the trappings of the culture that spawns them. He casually romanticizes the “poor, but happy” Italian life. He belts out opera to his meat-and-potatoes father, who he insists on calling Papa instead of Dad. He renames Jake, the family cat, Fellini.

The Italy Stoller imagines does not survive contact with the actual Italians who come to his town to race, sneer at him, and send him crashing out of both the race and his fantasy world. Instead of heroes, he finds humans. And yet today, 34 years after we first smiled knowingly at Stoller’s misplaced idolatry, it is safe to say that if American cyclocross had a cat, we’d be calling it Nys.

“People copying signs from Belgian mobile home companies and stuff like that, it’s funny to see,” says Raleigh-Clement’s Ben Berden of the Belgophilia on display at U.S. ‘cross races.

The Limburger notched wins and podiums on hallowed ground like Koksijde, Hooglede-Gits, and Asper-Gavere before a drug suspension, a willingness to talk about dope in big-time cyclocross, and age saw him exiled to the U.S. circuit. “I think in general ‘cross is Belgium, so that’s why people are obsessed about it.”

“I think it's natural to bring some of the current ‘motherland’ of cross to America, as long as it isn't too much,” says Jonathan Page, the U.S. national champion and the only American man committed to riding in the Belgian trenches full-time. “I like Duvel and other Belgian beers so I can't say that I would be disappointed to see that at the (U.S.) races, but the flags and catch phrases make me laugh.”

Reigning British and European women’s champion Helen Wyman, who regularly visits the U.S. circuit in the early season, also gets to see the American interpretation of the Belgian ‘cross she knows so well. “Sometimes you do see things and you just giggle and you think, ‘yeah, it’s not actually like that.’”

Like many who have spent time immersed in Belgian ‘cross, Berden, Page and Wyman’s chuckles come from knowing that the glasses through which many in America view it can be a bit rose-tinted. Yes, ‘cross is bigger, richer, and – from a sporting perspective – better in Belgium. But, they say, that doesn’t necessarily translate into more sincere passion for the sport or more respect for its participants.

“Yeah, if you see a race in Belgium, there’s 40,000 people there,” Berden says. “But 30,000 of them aren’t there for the race, they’re there for the party. In the U.S., most of the people are there for the race.”

And for the riders, that party isn’t always much fun.

“At Christmas, there are no football matches on, so the football fans go to the ‘cross races. And when you go to races over Christmas, you have incidents like the kid pouring beer on Sven Nys,” says Wyman. “They get really, really drunk and they get really lairy. They throw things at people, and if you’re in the men’s elite race and you’re going badly and you’re not in the top 30, then they say quite hurtful things about you and jeer at you.”

Underneath the mystique, the all those waving flags, and the validation of live TV coverage lies a hard world where women’s racing is often treated as a sideshow, where crowds are so partisan they cheer only for their favorite rider and stand mute for the rest, where riders are disposable, and where business, not passion, drives most of the decisions.

What is worth importing from Belgium, the pros say, isn’t the window dressing – not supporters’ jackets, snippets of Sporza-coached Flemish, or a few cases of Jupiler. Rather, it’s the harder courses, better scheduling, and the more professionalized view of race promotion that make the Belgian scene hum.

“I think we have to get in the U.S. a little more technical races, more hard races. Here you see people complain about a sand pit. In Belgium you have sand pits going down!” says Berden. “It’s wild, tricky. Even professional riders crash there. So I think we have to get off the ‘safe venue for everybody’ a bit. I think we have to go a bit more tricky, more hard, more technical.”

Pros also cite a need for a more coordinated U.S. schedule – one that doesn’t split the already small elite fields between two distant, competing UCI events – as a key to growing the pro ‘cross in the United States. It’s a suggestion that, if implemented properly, would not only make more events more competitive, but potentially lengthen the season as well, by spacing out top events.

That longer season, Berden says, could be key to giving the U.S. another key component of the Belgian big leagues – a professional class of its own, with more top riders for whom  ‘cross a primary pursuit rather than an off-season supplement to road or mountain bike racing.

The problem, of course, is that the funding model of U.S. cross is participant-driven, with entry fees from the lower categories helping bankroll the professional races. In Belgium, it’s VIP tickets and gate receipts that often pay the bills, with sponsor money and television fees further sweetening the pot. Cut out the amateur undercard in the United States, make the courses too difficult, or skew the schedule too heavily towards the pros, and the spectator and financial bases of the pro races are undercut. So until U.S. cross gets over the spectator-sport hump, the Flemish fantasy of many U.S. ‘cross fans will likely have to remain just that.

Chasing Belgium, whether it’s on course difficulty or pursuing a more professionalized, spectator-driven model, could ultimately cost U.S. cross the very things that have fueled its growth in the past decade, and which give it much of its character. And U.S. cross does have character, even if it’s sometimes obscured by a lion-of-Flanders flag. If money and difficulty are the watchwords in Belgium, in the United States, they are accessibility and community, both of which could suffer if eyes remain fixed on Europe as the model.

“Sometimes I think we are too focused on being like Belgium,” says Page. “If I see the numbers at races, in every category over in the States, I am amazed! The U.S. must be doing something right.”

“In America you guys have such great equality that I wouldn’t want to risk losing any of that by taking on stuff from Belgium,” says Wyman, who often visits the U.S. circuit in the early season. “American teams have women’s riders, the (elite women’s) events are always immediately before the men’s, and you have equal prize money at all but one race I did this year. You’re so far ahead on the equality front that sometimes if you look to Belgium you might miss that, and that would be a bad thing.”

“From what I have seen in recent years, cross in the U.S. is more like cross in Switzerland now. It's fun!” says Page. “There's camaraderie. People are supportive of cross as a whole and of all the riders. That's how you get kids and families involved, and that's how cross is going to grow even more in the States.”

Wyman sees that participation-based, family focused atmosphere as a big part of the appeal in U.S. cross.

“In America, I don’t really think you need to look to Europe to improve your racing. It’s such a lovely family-friendly environment,” Wyman says. “You can go as a family – the mom can race, the dad can race, the kids can race, you can really enjoy your weekend. It’s a safe environment as well, because you get to know everybody and everybody knows you, and the kids get to hang out together and the families know all the kids. I think you can’t really lose that, because that’s what makes ‘cross so inviting. Then they can stay and watch the pros race.”

Embracing American ‘cross for what it is, rather than trying to reimagine it as something it isn’t, might ultimately be the best cure for Dave Stoller’s Disease. After all, Stoller’s own recovery from his Italian disillusionment comes in part from embracing the weird, wonderful cycling culture unique to his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana – the Little 500. He does it by dropping his faux-Italian accent and plastering the pejorative “Cutters” across his chest. Maybe U.S. cross could start by just lowering a few Flemish flags, and raising a few American ones.

This post brought to you by Service Course Wash Kits. Lion-free since inception. 

Dank U, Soigneur

The Service Course is huge in the Netherlands.

OK, maybe just "heard of" in the Netherlands, but that's the first step to being huge, right? We're pretty excited that our wash kits are featured in the products section of the latest issue of the beautifully designed Dutch cycling magazine, Soigneur

Clearly, Bouk and his crew are men of impeccable taste. You can (and should) check out their website, where you can see more of what's in the new issue and check out some web content as well.

"Sure, that's great," you say, "but I don't speak Dutch." Well that's what Google Translate is for. Besides, you'll be grateful you practiced your Nederlands when you're watching some grainy pirate internet feed of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne next spring.

A souvenir I don't have from a race that didn't happen


I’ve been packing things up lately, part of a long running plan to declutter, put the house on the market, and change locations. Somewhere in that effort, I cleared out a neglected filing cabinet full of race coverage ephemera.

Inventory included, among other things: Two roadbooks from Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one rippled and peeling from the soaking I got after the finish as I chased second-placed Jens Voigt around the parking lot for a quote, one somehow pristine. I don’t remember why. A program from the Zesdaagse Vlaanderen-Gent, with cryptic, notated math in the margins, trying to divine six day scoring through a Hoegaarden haze. A meal ticket for a sack lunch to be picked up the morning of Gent-Wevelgem—oddly thick, slick, and durable for an ostensibly disposable product. Eight inches worth of Philadelphia International press kits, almost indistinguishable from year to year except for the bank logo in the corner and another name added to the list of winners. A thing – a picture holder? – with a flexible wire arm; it says Lotto on its plastic base and terminates in a roach clip. A yellow foam keychain from a Belgian designated driver program, marked with ballpoint pen where the bartender showed me how to cut the letters so it would read “Dick” in Flemish.

Race t-shirts are usually terrible, and my tourist town upbringing gave me an aversion to manufactured souvenirs, so these things—paper, mostly, with a few assorted oddities tossed in—are my keepsakes from an intermittent occupation of chasing bike races. There are a few other things I wish I’d brought back that I didn't, but not many. I should have grabbed a Sojasun cap from the Tour de France last year, and I would have brought back more beer glasses from the barware store in Gent if I’d known how many I’d lose to breakage over the years. But the best souvenir I didn’t get from a race I covered was the one I didn’t get from Paris-Roubaix in 2004.

I was standing at the back of the velodrome shower, maybe 15 minutes after the finish, straight in from the door on the opposite side of the room from the pull-chain showers you’ve seen pictures of. I was stalking third-placed Roger Hammond for an interview and watching wretched bodies slump into the concrete changing stalls between me and what looked like some painfully cold water, tradition or not.

Each of those little stalls, maybe four feet wide and a little over four feet tall, has a plaque with a Roubaix winner’s name on it, and the year or years they won.

They make those plaques in advance, just like the SuperBowl Champion hats and t-shirts that appear on the winning team seconds after the game clock runs out, which means that just as there are people in aid-assisted countries in Africa wearing inaccurate NFL regalia, there exist discarded little brass Roubaix shower plaques that are dead wrong. And for a split second I saw them, pulled furtively from the pocket of one of European bike racing’s ubiquitous gruff-portly-gray-haired-black-leather-jacketed-men by fingers that looked like cigars. 

Johan Museeuw
1996 2000 2002 2004

The Lion retired that day, never matching DeVlaeminck’s four wins. 

Peter Van Petegem
2003 2004

Museeuw’s foil, de Peet didn’t repeat, and never got his second Roubaix.

Stefan Wesseman
2004

He was never a legend, but Wesse’s win at the Ronde the previous Sunday and his second at Roubaix in 2002 put him on the top contenders list.

George Hincapie
2004

So close, for so many years. There were few saints back then, but it’s probably better now that it didn’t happen, anyway.

There were others I either couldn’t quite see or can’t quite remember, maybe six or so total, fanned out like a poker hand. And before I could do anything but pivot, push my way in and snap picture that didn’t turn out, they were gone, and I was chasing Wesseman’s soigneur to find out where he went. (I finally found Hammond at the Mr. Bookmaker-Palmans camper—not bus, camper—where he gave a great interview.)

Like I said, I keep roadbooks and press passes from races I’ve covered, but other than that, I don’t really collect much. There’s not much time while I’m there or space for it at home. But I’ve always regretted not finding a way to get my hands on an erroneous Roubaix plaque.

I just like what they represent, which to me is less about victories denied and more about the possibilities present on the morning of every bike race. So many potential outcomes, all but one of them incorrect, but in their way just as much a part of that day as the actual result, and just as important as the plaque they’d have to fabricate after the fact, because few saw the winner coming even well into the race.

 Magnus Backstedt
2004

Those other plaques—swiftly tucked back into that bad leather jacket and then, what? Trashed? Thrown in a box? Preserved as a behind-the-bar novelty in some wielercafe?—were a small sample of what we imagined could happen, would happen, before the race became cold, jarring reality on the roads between Compiegne and Roubaix. All anticipation and possibility, representing the most likely of two hundred and some potential results, dreamed of and wagered upon, all of them whittled away by talent and skill and luck and training until only one truth was left. And that is something worth capturing, if only to pull it from a dusty basement filing cabinet and remember for a minute what seemed possible on a start line a decade ago.

********************************
This post brought to you by Service Course Original and B.Y.O.B. Wash Kits. People like them.

SC Wash Kits: Testimonials and Tips

There are a good number of

Service Course Wash Kits

out in the wild now, which I’m obviously pretty happy about. You can't really tell from the pic, but this one's in Ohio:

It’s been rewarding to watch my little team of red buckets fan out from the Mid-Atlantic to New England, the Midwest, and the Rockies, and to see some finally reach the Pacific. (Only the Pacific Northwest, though. Apparently people in California don’t wash their bikes, but I digress.) They're in the hands of cycling veterans and newcomers, coaches and shop owners. Along the way, I’ve been grateful get some feedback from a few folks (both users and non-users). Here are a few: 

Short review, it’s the best kit I’ve purchased or assembled.

It has three brushes and they are the exact number you need. No more, no less. Whatever the bristles are made of absolutely shed dirt. No problem cleaning dirty cassettes or mudded up tires, it all sheds off.

The bucket holds A LOT of water and in a secure way. Minimal splashing. Would be a great pit bucket for those days with no hoses.

Cleaning 8 wheels and 2 bikes went at least as quickly as it ever has and maybe faster. An the bikes are noticeably cleaner than they normally would be with no other change in procedures or materials beyond using the pit kit.

Well done.

-

Chris Mayhew

  Associate Coach

  JBV Coaching

Via Twitter:

The wheel brush alone is worth you buying the @SC_Cycling wash kit. Do it kids! pic.twitter.com/ZdIEmQk6tY
— Adam (@followadam) November 9, 2013

Via Facebook, from a totally unrelated Service Course:

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "//connect.facebook.net/en_US/all.js#xfbml=1"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));

Post

by

Service Course Velo

.

And, of course, the ultimate in style endorsements:

@SC_Cycling The wash kit is so rad.
— TATI Cycles (@taticycles) October 14, 2013

If you have feedback, good or bad, please get in touch via email. Or if you'd like to order one, please do visit the store.

A Note on Care and Feeding of Your Wash Kit

There isn’t much to taking care of your wash kit. Nor should there be; after all, the point is to help you to take care of your bike, not to give you something else to take care of. But if there’s one small thing I would recommend, it’s letting your brushes dry after use. 

When I say the lid of the Wash Kit is watertight, I really mean it. Water that's inside when you close it stays inside. So if you throw wet brushes in and screw down the lid, you’re going to face some unpleasantness when you unscrew it again. (Note this isn't unique to our wash kits or wash kits in general- anyone who's left their muddy kit in a plastic bag after a race knows this.)

What to do? When I’m at home, I like to shake the water out, or swipe the brush against a leg of the repair stand a few times, then let them air dry for a bit. If I'm on the road, I'll shake them out, throw them back in the bucket, and air them out when I get home.

I hope to get a post with some pics or video on wash procedures up shortly, but if I don't get a haircut and rake my lawn before I do, I'll get terrible feedback from my mom and my dad.

A Vacation Home In Boulder - UPDATED 7/20


You may be wondering how, during the biggest bike race on the planet, the Service Course has remained so silent. The truth is, I've been pumping out a decent word count, but it's all been posted over on velonews.com. As many of you know, I've done online and print work for them on a freelance basis for quite a while, and when the chance came to contribute to Tour de France coverage over there, I jumped at it. It's hell on the page hits here, but better for the bottom line.

So if you're looking for Service Course-style commentary on the Tour, just check in there. I'll keep links updated here:


July 2: Cancellara is himself, Gilbert isn't back and Cav has an eye on green
July 5: Commentary: Handing Sagan the Cannibal Curse
July 6: Commentary: Trial & tribulation for the USADA five
July 12: Analysis: Voigt & Voeckler lead the populist puncheurs
July 14: Best young rider contest is complicated for Tejay Van Garderen
July 16: Commentary: Rare malice in an open sport
July 20: What's next for Chris Froome?

I've been updating on the Service Course Facebook page and on Twitter when new work comes out. As always, thanks for reading, and hope you're enjoying the Tour.


A Quick Lesson


One time, after nobody had said anything for awhile, Michele Pollentier flicked four fingers outward over the top of the steering wheel and asked me why Americans don’t know how to ride their bikes through a race caravan.

I strung together some sort of response that felt diplomatic enough, maybe even accurate. About how a lot of the races over here are criteriums, so we have plenty of pits and free laps but not many caravans. How, especially back then, somewhere in the early-mid-2000s, only big professional races here had caravans at all. Those that weren’t criteriums, anyway. Pro-am races like the one we were following? Barely ever. Pretty simply, I supposed, it came down to lack of practice.

He nodded, glanced at the sideview, and adjusted the car a bit to shelter a Cat. 1 straining to return to the peloton up the left side. We were doing about 35 down some chipseal Pennsylvania road, headed to the foot of the next climb. The rider faltered somewhere around the B-pillar and sank backwards. I’m not sure if he came back or not; there was a lot of that sort of traffic.

Only after that – and after being put on the spot to explain my homeland’s shortcomings by a man who had won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Flanders, and yes, who was caught trying to cheat his dope test after winning on l’Alpe d’Huez – did I ask what gave him the impression that we, as a nation, didn’t know what we were doing in a race caravan.

“Look at the back,” he said, extending a stubby forefinger towards the bumper of the car in front of us. “Spotless!”

“OK…,” I allowed myself, thinking (too simply) that this race, the Univest Grand Prix, is a big one for a lot of these teams. Probably their biggest of the year. Regional U.S. amateur teams don’t get a TV helicopter and a crack at guys in the Rabobank program very often. Of course they washed their car. Probably twice.

“In Belgium – tock, tock, tock.” With each guttural tock, Pollentier was sighting down the edge of his right hand, which was cutting a series of vertical slashes across the width of the telltale bumper. “There would be black marks across. Rubber, from the bike tires.”

“These guys? They sit a meter off the back of the car. Too far. Then they try to come around as soon as they can. They don’t use the cars enough.”

Somehow, it came off as an observation, a friendly pointer that maybe I could pass on if I had an opportunity, not as a condemnation or even much of a criticism, really. There was no hint of the ex-pro, when-I-was-racing chest thumping or old-world cycling’s well-where-I’m-from contempt. Maybe it’s that manner, or his forthrightness about his past drug use and its effects, that explains why Pollentier is owner of a Firestone tire store in Nieuwpoort and the guiding hand of a development team rather than a yelling, car-door-slapping pro DS or a quotable curmudgeon like many of his racing contemporaries. There’s plenty to condemn in Pollentier’s past, for those who like to condemn. But sitting in the car then (and sitting here now) I wished there were more ex-pros like him.

Great Migrations


The Schlecks are off form, so is Gilbert, and Fleche
 Wallonne as currently structured is doomed to three minutes of sincere action. Among other things, that’s what the 2012 Ardennes classics revealed, though none of that was really news. But what the three Ardennes winners and their teams did highlight is just how much one aspect of cycling, driven by external political and economic forces, has reversed itself in the last two decades or so. 



At the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, a wave of riders old and young poured out of Soviet-controlled eastern Europe and central Asia through an increasing number of holes in the iron curtain. They experienced a great deal of success, mostly on Italian teams, though there were notable exceptions. In Italy, the red-and-white striped Alfa Lum team was the tip of the spear. Faced with the wholesale departure of its Italian riders after the 1988 season, which ended with Maurizio Fondriest winning the world title and leaving for Del Tongo, Alfa Lum management rebuilt for 1989 by importing a cadre of 15 Soviet riders.

Among those Alfa Lum Soviets were aging legend Sergei Sukhoruchenkov, winner of the 1980 Olympic road race, and four men who would define the new crop of eastern professionals in western European cycling. Dimitri Konyshev, a Russian, exploded onto the scene by taking a couple of Italian classics and finishing second (behind Greg Lemond and ahead of Sean Kelly) in the 1989 world road championship at Chambéry, France. He delivered the team a Tour de France stage the next year and went on to race professionally until he was 40.

Moldovan Andre Tchmil didn’t linger in Italy after two winless years with Alfa Lum. He headed northward to ride for Belgian squads, where he ultimately ended up at Lotto. In his eight years there, he won two editions of the E3-Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, two Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Paris-Tours, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, and a World Cup. In 1998, he traded honorary Belgian citizenship for the real thing.

Uzbek Djamolodine Abduojaparov arrived at Alfa Lum a year after Konychev and Tchmil, fresh out of the Soviet national program. He went on to become known as the Tashkent Terror for both the ferocity and pure recklessness of his sprint. In a seven year pro career cut short by a positive test at the 1997 Tour, he amassed three Tour green jerseys with 9 stage wins, points classification wins and stages at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta, and a Gent-Wevelgem victory. 

Piotr Ugrumov, a Latvian, was the lone general classification threat of the group. At Alfa Lum, he won the Vuelta Asturias, which may have led to a brief stint with the Seur team in Spain before he returned to Italy for Mercair-Ballan, predecessor to the mighty (and notorious) Gewiss-Ballan. He had his best years there, finishing second in the 1993 Giro d’Italia, second in the 1994 Tour de France, and third in the 1995 Giro. But maybe more importantly, at Gewiss, he would help guide the next generation of eastern bloc homesteaders. In 1994, blonde-haired Russian Evgeni Berzin would win both the Giro and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and contribute to the team’s infamous sweep of Fleche Wallonne, while teammate and countryman Vladislav Bobrik would close out the team’s EPO-fuelled 1994 rampage with a win at the Giro di Lombardia.

Doped or not, riders from the former Soviet Union were now firmly implanted in the European professional peloton, both in Italy and beyond. And they’d continue to come – a young Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov turned up on Casino’s doorstep 1998 with Andre Kivilev not far behind; after a few years with the Polish Mroz team Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas would hit the big time with Fassa Bortolo in 2000. Former East Germans like Erik Zabel and Jan Ullrich fuelled the success of Telekom and T-Mobile for a decade.

Released from the confines of state-supported “amateur” racing by the snowballing effects of Gorbachev’s glasnost, the products of the USSR’s extended sports machine were freed to pursue careers that went beyond Olympic success and inside-the-curtain events like the Peace Race. The partnership was a good deal for both sides. The west got riders who worked hard, delivered results, and asked for little. The riders got the better salaries, bigger opportunities, and higher standards of living that the free-market, private capital-fuelled western system offered.

But a look at Ardennes races this year shows how things have changed since the borders of the USSR and its satellites first cracked.

In 2012, two teams accounted for wins at Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Astana, the Kazakh team financed largely by Kazahkstan's substantial natural resources wealth through quasi-state entities like Samruk-Kaznya, won both Amstel and Liege. For all intents and purposes, the squad is a state team, a vanity project designed to advance the image of the nation, much like those old Soviet systems but with a more progressive face.

In Liege, Astana won with home-grown Kazakh talent Maxim Iglinsky, allegedly inspired by an encouraging phone call from team godfather Vinokourov. For a team with nationalist objectives, it was perfect, much like the Russian Katusha squad’s 2009 Amstel win with native son Sergei Ivanov. What’s far more telling is that Astana won Amstel with Enrico Gasparotto, a 30-year old Italian from the Friuli region who began his career with Liquigas. Along with teammates from Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Croatia, Gasparotto was aided by two other Italians – Francesco Gavazzi and Simone Ponzi.

On the Wednesday following Gasparotto’s Amstel win, the Russian Katusha team, also running on a state-sponsored sports model with a 21st century facelift, carried off Fleche Wallonne. It did so with 32-year-old Joachin Rodriguez, a diminutive but explosive Spaniard from Barcelona who's a threat in any uphill finish. For a rider of his kind,  Fleche is one of the ultimate prizes, and for a squad like Katusha its age and prestige make it a substantial scalp, even if they have to achieve it with a little foreign help.

For much of the spring, Katusha's other prime attention getter has been Oscar Freire, the Spanish three-time world champion who gave the Amstel Gold it’s best moments of suspense with a late-race break. All told, the team counts seven Spaniards, along with a smattering of Italians, a Belgian, and a Norwegian to bolster its eastern core. Under the influence of former director Tchmil, the team has also tried its luck with western standouts like Leif Hoste, Gert Steegmans, and Pippo Pozzato. To hear most tell it, the cultural differences between Tchmil and the riders were just too much to handle. 

While today’s top teams' compositions are more diverse across the board than they were in the 1980s, one implication is clear. The great east-west rider migration that began in the late 80s has reached a certain equilibrium, or even reversed. Where former eastern bloc riders once fled crumbling Soviet economies to seek their fortunes with western trade teams, riders from traditional cycling countries like Italy, Spain and Belgium are jumping at chances to go to eastern, quasi-state run programs. They aren’t packing suitcases like the Alfa Lum recruits did and moving to Moscow or Astana, of course, but the principle is the same. They’re seeking good salaries, relative stability, and better opportunities to ride the biggest races. It’s just that, with corporate sponsorship suffering in the current economy, all those selling points are being offered by teams with government backing, and the governments that are willing to spend money on sports are in the east. It’s in their genes, and they appear to be passing those genes on. Western, “non-traditional cycling nations” like Great Britain and Australia are adopting the state-backed systems that looked like endangered species at the dawn of the 1990s. For riders like Konychev, Tchmil, Abdoujaparov, and Ugromov, who burst through the door the second they heard the key turn, the change must be astounding.

Broomwagon
  • Yes, Astana has also notably won the Tour with Alberto Contador and employed Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Johan Bruyneel’s other standard cast of characters. I’m more-or-less disregarding that above, as that came at a time of such dope and funding related upheaval that it makes little sense in any greater context. With those collaborations behind it, the current Astana is much more true to the vision of its owners.
  • Exciting news seems to be brewing for the Service Course on the writing-about-cycling front. Being superstitious, I’ll make sure everything’s locked down before I say more.

Triangulation


The Ardennes classics, which kick off this year with the Amstel Gold on Sunday,
* are the third stage in understanding professional road cycling.

The grand tours, and the Tour de France in particular, are cycling’s window dressing, the defacto gateways to the sport.** They're what makes the papers and sometimes TV, even in those non-traditional cycling countries the UCI's always making eyes at. From those first Tour experiences, those seeking deeper cycling fandom tend to reach toward the cobbled classics, a sort of sensory antidote to the near-unbearable beauty and sunshine of the grand tour Alpine idyll. Often cold, tinged with grey, always brutal, and run on roads that have sometimes been un-paved rather than re-paved in anticipation, they introduce many of the sport’s rougher truths, not least that of lost time that must be reclaimed immediately, not in tomorrow’s mountains or next week’s time trial. There is an appealing coarseness and urgency that comes with the cobbles, and with it a sense of appreciating beauty in something ugly and subtle that most people don’t understand. I imagine it is something like what boxing fans feel.

But appreciating the Ardennes classics? That comes later, if at all. At least over here. La Doyenne though she may be, Liege-Bastogne-Liege probably hasn’t been the lure that hooked many new cycling fans, at least not those who didn’t spend their childhoods in the wooded hills of Limburg or Wallonia. The optics, as they say, just aren’t as good as the grand tours or the stones. There’s no readily apparent sense of violence in the Ardennes, and no serialized drama to replace it. No special or one-off equipment, few behind-the-scenes photo galleries or Scandinavian documentaries to be had. No carefully orchestrated new product releases. No win-a-bike-and-a-trip sweepstakes, no co-branded bike shop promotions. Just bike racing. No tricks, no frills, no gimmicks.

But for those who stay long enough to embrace them, the Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (along with the less conveniently packaged Milan-San Remo, Giro di Lombardia, and Paris-Tours) have a lot to teach. After mapping the grand tours and cobbled classics, the tarmac classics are the crucial third point in the triangulation needed to navigate the world of bicycle road racing. They defy the generalizations and dispel the misconceptions the cobbles and tours create and which, left undisturbed, could easily decompose into accepted fact.

They teach that Belgian classics don’t all have cobbles, and that Flemish and Belgian aren’t synonyms, even in bike racing. That the classics and the northern classics aren’t interchangeable. That classics specialist doesn’t necessarily mean cobbled classics specialist. That general classification riders are capable of riding races that only last a day. That they can even win them. That there is a whole breed of classics specialist that Tour fans probably only know as stage hunters. That what it takes to ride 260k of shorter cobbled hills can take something different than riding 260k of longer paved hills. But not always. That climbers can win classics. So can sprinters. So can rouleurs. That Michele Bartoli and Paolo Bettini and Claude Criquielion are mentioned among the greats for a reason. That former eastern bloc riders do have a specialty if you look hard enough. That you don’t need bad roads or mountains to create tension and excitement.

The list goes on, so pay attention this week, even as you try to shake off the Holy Week hangover. The Ardennes races and the other tarmac classics (yes, even San Sebastian) give us the beautiful rebukes to all the sport’s oversimplifications. They provide a disproportionate number of cycling's excepts and buts and thoughs – he was only ever a GC rider but...a cobbled specialist except…couldn’t climb, though… – and knowing them is, somewhat paradoxically, the key to both winning trivia contests and understanding the sport more deeply.

* Yes, I’m using “Ardennes classics” to cover Amstel Gold, too, even though the traditional “Ardennes week” was only Fleche and Liege. Let’s not get technical.

**In a way (specifically, in a way that conveniently excludes consideration of money, influence, and promotion), it’s surprising that people come to the sport through the grand tours, because they’re about the most complex interpretation of road racing imaginable. And frankly, they lead a lot of new fans to overthink everything they see in the sport from then on.

Adapt


At the conclusion of Wednesday’s rain-soaked Grote Scheldeprijs race outside Antwerp, several riders hit the slick pavement just beyond the finish line. Saxo Bank's Jonathan Cantwell collided with photographer Taz Darling of Rouleur magazine, who suffered, at last report, a fractured eye socket, ruptured spleen, and a broken collarbone. Cantwell suffered a punctured lung, while the other riders involved got off more lightly.

Of all sports, cycling has one of the more intimate relationships with the weather. Unsheltered by stadiums, without rain delays and tarps, without a clock to expire and locker rooms to retreat to, road racing is exposed to the sun, wind, and precipitation like no other competitive sport. Riders survive bad weather, maybe even use it to their advantage; as fans, we embrace it.

Bad weather has been the catalyst for many of the sport’s fondest memories – Breukink and Hampsten on the Gavia in 1988, Hinault at Liege in 1980, Museeuw at the 2002 Roubaix, Evans’s strade bianche ride in the 2010 Giro d’ Italia. But those moments often come at a peril that is often under-recognized, even though part of their very value is in the danger, the risks the athletes take in pursuing victory despite the circumstances. The Scheldeprijs incident highlighted that risk, and Darling’s injury illuminated how the sport's dangers can sometimes extend beyond the riders and even beyond the finish line.

What can we do to reduce the risks? In many cases, nothing. As any U.S. amateur racer has been warned by countless pre-race releases, "bicycle racing is an inherently dangerous sport." Most so for the riders, but occasionally and unexpectedly so for support staff, media, organizers, and spectators. Darling’s injuries demonstrate that today, but there are examples to be had every year: the motorcycle crashes that punctuated last year’s snow-plagued Tour of California, the various deadly incidents that marred the long history of the Tour de France. To try to write rules around every possible circumstance that could be encountered on the open road, if this, do that, to try to bubble-wrap one of the last great daring adventures in organized sport, would hamstring races and do the sport a disservice. Rigid regulatory frameworks and road cycling have always been a poor fit.

What we need to do is encourage people – organizers, officials, teams, and media alike – to think. To make and accommodate changes based on current, on-the-ground circumstances, rather than what was planned for days, weeks, or months before. Apply relevant, accumulated knowledge to the situation at hand. Crazy, I know.

The conditions that led to the Scheldeprijs finish crash were utterly predictable. The surrounding area had been dry for weeks, leaving a substantial layer of accumulated diesel on the road, ready to be reinvigorated by those first few raindrops. The potential for slick roads was evident from the time the first clouds gathered. The amount of painted road markings near the finish was also plain to see, and anyone who’s been to a couple of rainy bike races knows what that means.

A quick review of the pancake-flat Scheldeprijs’s 100-year history will also reflect that it tends to come down to a storming bunch sprint amongst some fairly hefty (by bike racing standards) northern bruisers. It is not a mountain top finish, with 120-pound climbers twiddling across the line. The final has a certain momentum behind it. It’s also a known fact that winning professional bike races – even mid-week ones – is not easy, so it was always fairly likely that participants would be a little cross-eyed and oxygen deprived as they crossed the line.

The final factor? As Bicycling’s Bill Strickland pointed out via Twitter, “Knowing Taz, bet she shot all the way to impact.” I don’t know her at all, but I’m betting that’s probably true as well. Not just because good photographers are as committed to getting the shot as sprinters are to getting the win, but also because there’s not much depth perception to be had through a zoom lens. The longer the lens gets, the more compressed the depth perspective becomes, and it gets a lot harder to tell whether the rider in the viewfinder is 50 meters away or five. I don't mention this to blame the victim, but to point out that “get out of the way” isn’t a very viable back-up plan considering the job photographers are doing and the equipment they use to do it.

Given all those factors, what should have been done at the Scheldeprijs? Granted, I’m commenting a day later from the cheap seats across the Atlantic, but the immediate action as conditions worsened should have been to move the photographers back from the line. The diagonal, offset lines that the photographers stand behind are typically marked in tape or chalk (or, sometimes, by an official holding his arms out). Moving them farther up the chute would have been maybe a 10 minute job for one or two staff members. Doing so could have mitigated the effects of riders having to brake hard and swerve to the center of a painted, greased roadway, all within microseconds of maxing out their cardiovascular systems.

Some of the photographers would have complained, but they’re mostly shooting with 300 to 400mm lenses. They’d have managed the extra distance. And I’m sorry, if you don’t either have or know how to access that equipment, chances are you shouldn’t be staring down the barrel of a professional bunch sprint to begin with. Since the photographers would still have been stacked together, the playing field would have remained level: nobody would have been out-shot by a competitor due to moving the whole mess a few meters farther back.

Would it have helped? Maybe not. Cantwell and the others might have slid out whether the photographers were where they were, further back, or not there at all. And they still may have slid into someone or something else - it's clear in the footage that wheels are coming right out from under riders at the slightest movement. But given the conditions, I’m betting a few extra meters of breathing room couldn’t have hurt.

The catch, of course, is that there was a curve to the left after the line that might have complicated moving the photographers further back. It’s hard to tell from the finish shots, and again, I wasn’t there. Sometimes finish areas are tight, crammed into medieval town centers that weren’t meant to accommodate cars, much less TV trucks, dope control trailers, scaffolding, and team buses. Things get tricky, but in the end, that’s not an acceptable response to safety issues. Work on it. Figure it out. Or find a place that can safely accommodate what you need to accommodate. Think. Adapt.

Broomwagon

  • Risking safety – anyone’s, really – for the finish line shot seems like a poor value proposition to me. In modern cycling, it's just no longer the defining shot it once was. Everybody has one seconds after the finish, and they’re all about the same. I know many will recoil, but it seems like a good case for using one or two pool shooters provided by the organizer. They could hire one or two of the usual suspects so they know they’ll get quality, use the shot themselves (for PR) and make it available to teams (for sponsor purposes) and media outlets (for reporting). Or just let all those parties pay the shooter directly if they want the shot. But do we really need 30 people taking the same shot on the line? Look at the well-received work being done by photographers like Kristof Ramon and Jered Gruber. The photos of riders crossing a white line just aren’t the crowning achievement. Most of the compelling work is done on the roadside or off the back of a moto.

  • Please don’t take offense at me noting that the photographers would have complained at being pushed farther back. I’ve covered a few bike races as a writer, and I like to complain about things like that, too. Now where the hell is my start list?

  • If you’ve seen pictures or video of the incident, two people stand out. One is Darling, on the ground. The other is Katusha rider Maxime Vantomme, who rolled in 32nd, four seconds down, but immediately circled back to check on the photographer and signal for help. For a lot of folks, especially folks who’d just contested a few hundred wet kilometers, that could have been a “not my job” moment, but for him it wasn’t. I like that, and I suspect he earned a few fans yesterday.

  • Lastly, the Service Course wishes all involved a speedy recovery. Hopefully we’ll soon see the end what seems like a particularly large number of broken bones and other serious injuries in this still-young season.

  • …but maybe not.

Monumental Shift?


If we put aside the hand-wringing over the loss of the Muur and Bosberg, there’s a more significant change evident in this year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen parcours.

Hilltops and cobbled sectors have always come and gone, and come back again: witness the legendary Koppenberg’s lengthy layoff and eventual return. The Muur and the Bosberg will be back someday, too, maybe not in the crucial final hour where they’ve sat for decades now, but somewhere. Like the Koppenberg (or the Arenberg forest, or the Cote de Stockeau), they’re ultimately irresistible to route planners. Over the Ronde's 96 editions, plenty has changed, even start and finish towns, and despite it all it's always remained the Ronde, the serpentine tour of some of cycling’s most hallowed ground.

So I don’t weep for the Muur. Not yet, anyway. The momentary absence of a few hills is not a profound change against the accumulated weight of 99 years. But with this year’s route, the Ronde breaks strongly from its already malleable mold, and from the traditional format of the super-classics. This year’s Ronde route will make it the only one of cycling's five monuments – Milan-San Remo, the Ronde, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Giro di Lombardia – to repeat a significant course feature during the race.

Gent-Wevelgem scales its signature Monteberg/Kemmelberg combination twice, Fleche Wallonne does a recon pass of the mighty Mur de Huy before the final showdown on its slopes, and the Amstel Gold Race grinds up the Cauberg twice before returning again to finish on its crest. All are formidable races, career-makers by some standards. But they are not monuments.

Monuments are, by tradition if not definition, point-to-point, through-and-gone affairs. Paris-Roubaix doesn't spin the compass needle to traverse the same cobbles twice on its way to the velodrome, and Lombardia makes only one annual pilgrimage to the Ghisallo. Liege makes a single yearly pass at La Redoute, despite the opportunities for repetition its more or less out-and-back route presents.

In contrast, this year’s Ronde has adopted, if not a literal circuit-race format, something similar in spirit. During a series of three progressively tightening loops through the Flemish Ardennes, riders will climb the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg tandem three times at ever-closer intervals before centrifugal force spins them out towards the finish in Oudenaarde.

The reasons for the route changes are no secret, and organizers of circuit races on both sides of the Atlantic can recite the advantages of looped courses in their sleep. Multiple passes through the same location invite spectators to gather en masse, where they’re more easily exposed to event sponsors and contracted vending. Through readily accessible on-site food and beverage service, porta-johns, and jumbotrons, organizers can keep fans engaged for an entire day, all while they're esconced in a sea of vendor and sponsor banners, premes, and product. Those gathered crowds look great on the TV coverage, too, moreso since the TV stations can position multiple stationary cameras there all day.

All of that is just for the average spectator. There’s more revenue to be generated offering the hospitality services Americans typically associate with the corporate suites of large stadiums. For the VIP crowd – think race sponsors, team sponsors, corporations looking to entertain clients – there are tents to be rented, catering, wifi, and television service to be contracted and paid for. Champagne in a heated tent just feet from the storied stones of the Kwaremont, and a guaranteed spot on the fence when you hear the rotors overhead. Three times. As VIP services go, it beats sitting on metal bleachers on main street Meerbeke watching 99.9% of the race on a blurry jumbotron.

More fan engagement, increased sponsor exposure and value, better TV images, and – since we haven’t mentioned it – potentially amazing racing in the final. Aside from concerns that the brutal last hour will stifle aggression for the first 220 kilometers, it’s hard to see the downside of multiple loops over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. And unfortunately, I can’t articulate that downside very well, even though I know it's there.

The feeling isn’t rational, certainly no more rational than feeling like it’s not really the Ronde without the Muur de Geraardsbergen. But in my inner, non-objective estimation of what should and shouldn’t be in professional cycling, monuments don’t loop, don’t backtrack. They can meander, criss-cross, intersect, and even overlap a bit to get from here to there. But they don’t take a key course feature and run laps around it. Not in a monument. As I wrote in 2008, despite the name, the monuments are living organisms, not time capsules, and they've have always changed with cycling and the world around them. New hills and roads are added, others are lost to time, and some rotate in and out. But that basic, root-level format, from-A-to-B, full speed ahead? That's always been a steady undercurrent, an enduring connection to a century of road racing. It's a holdover from a time when transport and communication weren't so easy as they are now, and the races had to be taken to the people, even if only for a few minutes. That element might be missing from a lot of other races that were created in different eras or that were forced to modernize for sporting or commercial reasons, but it's always been there in the monuments. And for some reason, I’m afraid of losing that.

Don’t get me wrong. This year’s Ronde will be fine, maybe even great. The riders will always make or break the race, and there’s a showdown brewing. What I fear, I suppose, is that the Ronde's new formula may prove successful, and soon there will be finishing laps on the Via Roma and two passes of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. If, down the road, that’s what it takes to save one or all of the monuments from a financial or sporting perspective, I’m OK with that. But I don’t think we’re there yet.

Broomwagon

  • I have to admit that the aversion to the circuit-izing of the monuments might be partially out of empathy for the folks doing race coverage. Writing play-by-play of circuit races, especially those like Philadelphia International or the Univest Grand Prix in the United States, which have long laps followed by short laps composed of parts of the long lap, can be brutal. The fourth ascent of this, the fifth long lap, the eighth ascent of the same hill but on the third short lap…painful. A nice point-to-point, though? Every action has a specific place connected to it.

  • The big question for Sunday, of course, is where Fabian Cancellara (RadioSchack) will make his first bike change. I think he’s averaging .76 bike swaps per classic for the last few years. Another year of that and he’ll have a smoother remount than Sven Nys.

  • Want a real outside pick? Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). You have to figure Quick Step will try to make it a team battle – it’s Cancellara’s weakness, and the course cries out for it. If you figure Chavanel goes long as usual and gets brought back at the start of the finale, Terpstra’s a logical next card to play. If he’s brought back, its Boonen’s turn, if not, Terpstra has the chops to take it to the line. Lefevere’s no stranger to that sort of finale – have a look in Servais Knaven's or Stijn Devolder's trophy cabinets.

  • I know a lot of you will be following the race with a Belgian ale and maybe a waffle or frites in hand. But if you lack the time, cooking skills, and/or budget for that, remember, a room temperature ham sandwich and a cold, cheap Pilsner from a can is every bit as authentic. But I covered all this in 2008. Vicarious Spectator’s Guide, Part 1 (Beer) and Part II (Frites).

UCI Leaves Women’s Cycling Unsupported

But Not in the Usual Way

Much has been made of the UCI’s artfully titled “Check of the equipment and position in competition,” the recent set of new rules, reiterations, and clarifications that, among other things, famously requires professional teams to
retain the factory lawyer tabs on their forks and limits the height of riders’ socks.

Most observers seem to agree that the latter rule, which limits sock height to half the distance between ankle and knee, is aimed at discouraging use of compression socks in competition. It’s a benevolent gesture if ever the UCI has made one: it saves cyclists from feeling compelled to don knee-highs for competitive purposes, thereby paying the considerable price of looking like either a triathlete or my Uncle Ned on a day at the beach. But while the wailings of sock-height fashionistas have focused attention on the sock aspect of the compression issue, the UCI’s battle against cyclists squeezing themselves is much broader than that.

Slide 36 of the UCI’s masterwork, Clothing Material, expressly forbids wearing clothing “designed to influence the performances of a rider such as reducing air resistance or modifying the body of the rider (compression, stretching, support).” I’m with them on the aerodynamics part and on the spirit of the modifying the body part. Since the document also forbids Frank Schleck’s belly-mounted hydration system (Slide 40), we can’t have him showing up in a skinsuit that squeezes his emaciated pectorals into some sort of aerodynamically advantageous bird chest.

But let’s read that particular edict again, this time thinking more of Marianne Vos and Emma Johansson, and less of Schleck(s), Boonen, Cancellara and the rest of the boys. That’s right, the UCI has forbidden any garment worn exclusively to change the shape of the body or provide support, and in doing so, has apparently outlawed…the sports bra. Really, does nobody at the UCI think to explore the potential unintended ramifications of their rules before they release them?

I would hope a formal exception or more precise language will be forthcoming from the UCI to allow women cyclists to continue to wear what I’m sure most would argue is an essential piece of athletic equipment. Otherwise, there could be some pretty uncomfortable pre-race checks for the pro women’s peloton this year. Though I suppose once we crossed the Rubicon of appointing people to watch other people pee, pre-race underwear checks were sort of inevitable.

Broomwagon

  • Do I think the UCI meant to issue a ruling affecting sports bras? No. Do I think they intend to enforce it? No. But I do think they're exceptionally careless in how they construct, consider, and release their rules. And I think that they don't consider for a minute how any of their rules might affect women's cycling differently than they do men's.

  • You can view the whole UCI document, courtesy of Cycling South Africa.

  • Big hat tip to reader Lionel for sending the link to the presentation and noting the UCI appears to be regulating lingerie. He also noted that the UCI standards in the presentation will be applied to Masters track nationals, thereby rendering his custom track machines illegal. As a smaller rider, his bikes violate the provisions on Slide 43, which indicate that the distance from the center of the pedal axle to the rear edge of the front tire must be greater than 89mm. This could obviously be a problem for riders who need a short top tube, particularly on track bikes with their steep front-end geometry. Again, when we consider top tube length as a function of torso length, and the typically shorter torsos in the female population, the women’s professional peloton could be most severely affected by such a blanket standard.

  • I’ll go ahead and issue a similar notice to the one that was necessary during the sock-height dustup: The UCI does not hold much sway over the vast majority of cyclists' daily lives, male or female. So by all means, please feel free to keep wearing bras. Or not. Whatever works for you.

  • I do look forward to the UCI's inevitable bra inspection and approval process. Please note: all bras bearing the UCI seal of approval will have safety tabs to prevent accidental release. These are not to be removed.

  • Where have you gone, Paola Pezzo? Cycling turns its lonely eyes to you.

  • Thirty-plus years of lycra, and now we’re going to get fussy about how cyclists squeeze themselves into their clothes? How tight is too tight? And no support? I fear any regulatory body that would have us hit the Arenberg trench in boxer shorts.

There Was An Old Lady


There was an old lady who swallowed a dog,
Oh what a hog, to swallow a dog!
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don't know why she swallowed the fly. Perhaps she'll die.
-Traditional Children’s Song

In the wake of the UCI’s proclamation on lawyer tabs, one compliance solution suggested is to develop long-throw quick releases. By tweaking the cam action, you can make a quick release that opens wide enough to clear the lawyer tabs and closes farther when the lever is thrown, cutting down on any adjustment of the quick release nut. With it, pro teams could be in compliance with the fork tab rule, but still preserve quick, safe front wheel changes. Leaving aside questions of leverage and clamping force, etc., it seems a logical enough solution. But I like a good rhetorical rabbit hole, so let’s jump down this one…

Since teams cannot modify equipment, per the UCI, they wouldn’t be able to take a file to the cams or otherwise modify their existing quick releases to achieve a longer throw. Someone would have to manufacture a new lever. The manufacturer of that new lever may or may not be a team’s wheel or component sponsor. Given the situation, a little non-sponsor-correct equipment might not be the end of the world, but it’s not terribly comfortable, either. It’s one thing for a Campagnolo team to be seen using a boutique manufacturer’s quick releases to solve a problem in the near term, it’s another if they have to use Shimano.

But what manufacturer, boutique or not, is going to develop and manufacture a new, presumably high-end lever solely for a market that very much prefers to either get its equipment for free or be paid to use it? The world is rife with bad business models, but it doesn’t take much to spot that this one is not a winner. So you have to assume that whoever goes through the trouble of making long-throw levers for the pros will put them on the consumer market – capitalizing, of course, on their use in the pro peloton. Meanwhile, in response to sponsorship discomfort and be-like-the-pros consumer market pressure, Campagnolo and Shimano and SRAM and whoever else will have tweaked the throw on their quick releases, and, since making two versions of something as mundane as a quick release for pros and consumers makes little sense, long-throw quick releases will become the high-end consumer industry standard.

So, through a minor feat of engineering, we’ll have widely available quick releases that, when open, clear the lawyer tabs currently found on pro and consumer bikes alike. Problem solved. Until someone in the Reflector & Fork Tab division of some consumer protection agency realizes that the lawyer tabs on forks no longer even remotely retain the wheel when one of the new, now-standard long-throw quick releases is left open. Know what happens then?

Lawyer tabs get bigger. And then we'll need longer-throw quick releases.

I don’t know why we swallowed the fly. Perhaps we'll die.