We're Getting the Band Back Together

I like to poke fun at the media circus that surrounds the Tour de France, but I have to admit that it produces a lot of additional cycling web content for a few weeks, markedly decreasing productivity at bike shops and law firms nationwide. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, and an astounding amount of it comes from Bicycling magazine.

That a magazine called Bicycling produces a healthy amount of fluff for the Tour de France isn’t surprising in itself. In fact, it’s not surprising at all, as it’s reflective of their overall strategy -- mass appeal to beginning recreational cyclists and people stuck in airports and doctor’s offices. And that crowd loves them some bike reviews, 10 Ways to Climb Faster Now!, and the Tour de France. So Bicycling provides all of them in staggering volume.

Not that Bicycling doesn’t mention racing the other 11 months of the year. Joe Lindsey’s incisive Boulder Report blog, a strange, seemingly semi-autonomous offshoot of the Bicycling site, is a great resource, and he’s expressed a desire to start asking the questions nobody wants to ask, which would be a good thing. (Joe's turned over control of the blog for the last couple days. Come back soon, Joe. Please.) But other than that, they pretty much just have James Startt over there filing reports from Paris for big events and a bit of heavy lifting from AFP. And that’s OK – as I said, covering the race scene isn’t really their bag.

But come the Tour de France, they go apeshit, 1999-style. That’s right, Bicycling has signed up both Johan Bruyneel and Chris Carmichael to provide stage-by-stage looks at the race. That lineup just makes me wonder whether Steffan Kjaergaard, Peter Meinert-Nielsen, and Pascal Derame are doing their typing and fetching their coffee. Yes, Bicycling is clinging desperately to the halcyon days of Lance, bringing in his former “brain trust” members to beef up their big time bike racing credentials.

For Bruyneel and Carmichael, it’s a good deal that goes beyond a few extra dollars in pocket money. Bruyneel has had a lot on his plate the last few years, but fortunately, he has this month off to provide some input to Bicycling and Versus and to plug his book. Or at least he seems to be taking the month off from the director sportiff role at Astana, so I suppose Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner will have to figure out their own damn tactics at the Cascade Classic. To his credit his columns have provided some good insight to how a top-notch DS views the tactical situation, helping to keep him in the American eye in his established persona as a tactical mastermind, which is probably valuable to his bike sponsor. And he’s done an admirable job steering well clear of whining about his team’s exclusion.

The benefit for Carmichael is far greater, and the product far worse. Carmichael inextricably tied himself to Lance Armstrong’s coattails despite the widespread belief within cycling that most of Armstrong’s training advice actually came from Michele Ferrari, and now that Armstrong is mostly off the scene, Carmichael is increasingly at risk of becoming irrelevant. He needs the media exposure he so relished for those seven years to continue to steer amateur racers to his eponymous training company in the face of increasing competition from a bevy of online power meter data crunchers. He does have a regular gig with the magazine, crunching out the same “climb at high cadence” Postal playbook advice we’ve heard for years, but come Tour time, he steps it up a notch, and that’s not a good thing.

Take his column on Valverde’s “old world” beliefs costing him in the time trial on Tuesday . Carmichael makes some good points and is knowledgable about a lot of things, but he's so full of shit in much of what he throws out there (through every outlet he can get his hands on) that it gets hard to take him seriously.

Carmichael states that "Valverde's performance today was hindered by Old World attitudes toward technology…While it's unfair to make sweeping generalizations, Spanish teams have historically been among the slowest to adopt new technologies, whereas American teams, Team Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle included, continue to innovate and find ways to further optimize their equipment and riding positions.

Really? Spanish teams don't use technology? Never heard of ONCE? Manolo Saiz was well known for chasing technology -- bike technology and otherwise, as it turned out. Never seen Indurain ride one of those arse ugly boom-tube Pinarello TT bikes at Banesto? I'd have to believe he has, because he's been in the sport since before his 7-11 days. As for the other Spanish teams, they're usually among the poorest funded in the top levels (think Kelme, Euskaltel), so their options are a bit more limited than some of the bigger teams. And we can talk about "historically" being the slowest to adopt new technologies all we want, but aside from disc wheels and primordial aero bars, there really wasn't a hell of a lot of worthwhile innovation in modern professional road cycling until the early 1990s.

He also states that “a rider's head position is hugely important, and lowering your head into the gap between your upper arms can help you go faster…Today we saw David Millar really lower his head...Valverde, on the other hand, rode the entire stage with his head held high.

Yes, Valverde could put his head down farther. And Armstrong should have been lower and flatter. But as Carmichael damn well knows, there are tradeoffs between comfort, power, and aerodynamics, and I doubt he knows where that balance lies for Valverde -- it's pretty hard to see from the dark recesses of Armstrong's rectal cavity. I look forward to his column about how Sean Kelly’s bike position was keeping him from winning bike races.

All that said, Carmichael is absolutely right that these days, the devil is in the details, and nobody but CSC seems to worry about details quite as much as the American teams, or at least not as publicly. The problem is that instead of just making his simple, valid points, he cloaks them in some nationalist straw man and casts them as some sort of psychological profile. Rather than making those sweeping generalizations, he should make some effort to get answers on why those decisions were made, and give more than a passing nod to the fact that sometimes, it’s really not the little details that are making the difference. He does a good job explaining the basics of bike racing in some of his other entries, and he’d be well put to sticking to that rather than trying to analyze individual riders from arm’s length.

Maybe Valverde is a little sloppy on all those anal retentive things that everyone would have us believe you absolutely must do to win, but I have to admit, I kind of like that. I can only stomach so much coverage of the most aerodynamic direction to wrap your handlebars, and I’m glad there are still some more "Old World" folks out there just riding. Because I'd rather see a dozen more pictures of Valverde time-trialing like crap than one more of Allen Lim, Carmichael, and their friggin' laptops.