David Millar is Contagious

Winning clean in Europe? Taking a second division team to grand tour success? Making the hipsterized dandy look all the rage in director sportif fashion? No, these are not the criteria by which the success or failure of Slipstream-Chipotle director Jonathan Vaughters will be measured. Rather, his impact will be defined by whether he can break David Millar of being such a whining sissy-boy.

With two straight days in the Dolomites followed by an uphill time-trial on the unpaved Plan de Corones climb, you could almost feel Millar’s dyspeptic ramblings approaching from a distance, like a looming thunderstorm or a slow-moving sneeze. The anticipation was palpable. So when VeloNews’s Andrew Hood sidled up to the tall Scot after the TT stage, he had to know he was about to hit paydirt. And he did, according to his article:

“This race is just insane!” said Slipstream’s David Millar as he climbed into a cable car to take him down the mountain. “Taken individually it’s a good idea, but on a total, it’s not a good thing after the two mental days we’ve just had and the two hard weeks we’ve had before that. This race is just ridiculous.”

Maybe it’s unfair to pick on Millar. If the press are looking for an overdramatic quote to emphasize how hard a stage is, they know damn well who to go to. It’s the press that opens the door; who can blame Millar for throwing a bicycle through it? Well, I can, because it’s so predictable and so frequent and because he’s getting a little old to play the role of the brash Brit upstart who whines about everything. I’m not sure Millar has heard, but Mark Cavendish (High Road) has assumed that mantle, and he’s doing a damn fine job of it.

I suppose Millar should be further exonerated by the fact that many other Giro riders are reportedly whining about the difficulty of the stage. But to that I’d add that this is Italy, with a largely Italian peloton, so finding someone to gesticulate wildly and complain ain’t exactly backbreaking work. Asking an Italian if the stage is hard is like asking Gilberto Simoni if the world is out to get him. Of course it is.

So what’s a reporter to do to get the real story? Well, to try to get some balance, why not talk to legendary tough guy Jens Voigt? Surely the veteran German will slide seamlessly into the old Udo Bolts role, telling the peloton to “suffer, you sow!” just as Bolts did to a young and whiney Jan Ullrich. But after years of gaining a reputation (and legions of fans) as a hardman and long-break specialist, it seems Voigt’s ovaries are finally starting to hurt. As told to Hood:

“It’s a stupid race - I don’t like it! We are at a ski area! Leave it to the mountain bikers!” said an angry Voigt. “I don't want to sound like an old grand-mother, because I know cycling is hard. But this Giro is too much. It’s like a machine that missing some oil and needs a tune-up. With a few small details, it would be so sweet. But today, for 45 minutes of racing, I have to miss an entire day. And tomorrow is four-hour transfer. Where is the time for recovery?”

That’s a lot of material, so let’s parse it out a bit.

“We are at a ski area.” A ski area? No shit!? What will those crazy Italians think of next? I mean, what respectable race would run a mountain stage to a ski station like Plan de Corones? Or Sestriere? Or Alpe d’ Huez? Or Superbagneres? Or La Mongie? Or Ax 3 Domaines? Or Plateau de Beille? Or Courchevel? Yeah, that’s mountain biker crap alright, and best left with the fat tire set, if you ask me.

“But today, for 45 minutes of racing, I have to miss an entire day.” Miss an entire day of what? Vacation? Yardwork? Time at the office filling out TPR reports? Hey Jens, missing a whole day for a 45 minute time trial, a road race over 5 mountian passes, or even a crappy criterium in some godforsaken backwater burg is your job. It’s what you’re supposed to plan on doing the entire day.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, angry Jens fans, what he means is he’s missing time for recovery. Says it right in the last sentence of the quote, and don’t think I missed it. To answer Voigt's question about time for recovery, let’s have a look at this handy schedule. Today, the very day after Plan de Corones, is apparently reserved for "riposo," or some such nonsense. Yes, a rest day, just like the one last week, which makes a grand total of two, just like the Tour de France. Yes, there’s a four-hour transfer, just like there is on some Tour rest days, or at the Vuelta. No, driving four hours isn’t a great way to recover, that is if you’re actually driving or are stacked 3 wide in the back seat of your clubmate’s 1987 Honda hatchback. But here’s a tip for the ProTour boys: don’t let the soigneurs talk you into driving - it's their job, and the clever wretches are just trying to pawn it off on you. Ride in the team bus. It’s nicer than most of the hotel rooms you stay in anyway – air conditioning, recliners, a TV, and probably an espresso maker. Sure, there are fewer opportunities to shop for brightly colored athletic shoes and casual sunglasses on the bus than in town, but we all have to suffer for our art, whatever our art happens to be.

Am I denying that this Giro seems to have some pretty apparent problems? No. And Voigt’s little rant does include some veiled compliments and a certain objectivity that befits his senior status in the peloton. The well-documented transfer difficulties (particularly between Sicily and the mainland) are ridiculous, and better planning and execution in a number of areas are certainly called for. As he said, a bit of oil and you’d have a beautiful race for the riders, as well as for the fans, who seem to be enjoying it quite a bit.

As it is, the Giro is a little less slick, less mechanized than an ASO production, but that’s part of what creates a different and more engaging feel to the racing at the Giro. One that's less sanitized and closer to the tifosi. Unfortunately, that same earthiness shines through in some other aspects, like how long it takes to get riders away from the finish and on to dinner and a massage. Those things can sound trivial to those of us who have to cook our own dinners and almost never get a massage, but they are important at this level of bike racing, and organizers have to factor them in if everyone’s going to stay happy. On the other hand, the Giro awards actual cycling jerseys on the podium, not the ridiculously baggy, zipper-up-the-back evening gowns the Tour seems to have taken a shine to, and that’s worth a lot of hassle for the riders in my book. That’s details though, and there’s no arguing that, beneath the veneer of the mid-pack-amateur-esque post-race complaining, the distinguished gentleman from Germany has a point.

That said, some of the reason for the logistical rocky road this Giro is travelling is that the organizers are trying something different: they’re trying to make stage racing interesting again. Different stage formats, different climbs, and a less formulaic approach give this Giro a fresh feel (for spectators, at least), especially compared to the traditional grand tour role model, the Tour de France. Someone has to try to bring life back to a format where the principle tongue-wagger in recent years has been scandal rather than racing, and so far, it’s been the Vuelta (which debuted shorter stages several years ago) and the Giro that have stepped forward to give it a try. Meanwhile, ASO seems content to rearrange the ascents of the Telegraph, Galibier, and Marie Blanc each year and call it a new route. And will it be the Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez this year? Oh, the suspense. So if the Giro trying something a little different in the name of engaging spectators disrupts the flow a little bit for the insiders, maybe that’s worth it. Because without engaging those spectators, there won’t be anything for them to be inside of.

Anyways, maybe that Tour-like predictability is what Millar and Voigt want (who doesn’t like some stability in their workplace?) or maybe it isn’t; I have no idea. But you know what? Even though I've picked on Millar and Voigt for their comments after the Plan de Corones stage, I can forgive and forget the whinging. And I’d suggest that everyone else do so as well, at least until Millar has another relapse. I understand where they’re coming from, particularly when they’re just stepping off their bikes after a tough day like that. Some days my job is pretty unpleasant, and I certainly moan and complain about it when I get home. And yes, I even whine about the things that are well within the bounds of my job description. The difference is that right after I walk out of the office nobody asks me about my workday, except maybe my wife, and even then, she doesn’t record my answers and write a little article about it. Or maybe she does, and I just haven’t found the web site yet.