Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes.
Then, when you criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.
- Ancient Proverb
The much anticipated Stage 3 cobblestones have come and gone, and with another win by Petacchi in Stage 4, a redemptive Stage 5 victory for Cavendish, and the Alps looming, all the chatter about whether or not cobblestones belong in a grand tour has died down a bit. Perusing the media just two short days on, you hear a lot less about Jens Voigt’s criticism of the organizer, about protests and apologies, about the injustice of it all. But while the peloton seems to have literally and figuratively moved on, a thousand online and group-ride debates still rage over about whether the Tour peloton were being a bunch of sissy boys about the whole thing. And wherever such debates rage, so rages the sub-debate over just who is or isn’t permitted to call them a bunch of sissy boys.
The formula, by now, is predictable: A professional cyclist speaks out in the media or in his diary or on Twitter, maybe calls a stage too hard, a competitor's move reckless, a finish too dangerous. Or maybe he’s had an off day or an off year, performance-wise. His statements or poor form become the issue of the day in one online forum or another, be it newsgroup, message board, blog, or media outlet. If a rider complains, one reader will agree, another will disagree, and yet another will disagree and call the rider a whiny little girlie-man to boot. If results are the issue, someone is sure to note that the rider is overrated if they’re feeling kind, or, if they’re not, that he sucks. And as soon as those sentiments hit the server, as if by some modern miracle of automation, the inevitable responses will spring back, “He’s a professional. What have you done in the sport? Pack fodder in a few Cat. 3 crits? If you rode with him, you’d be dropped in the first five minutes. Who are you to disagree? To criticize? What gives you the right?” And on and on and on.
And that perspective, my friends – that notion that the fans have no right to disagree with or criticize the professionals because they are not, themselves, professionals – is bullshit. Yes, they’re professional cyclists, meaning they get paid to ride a bicycle because they’re very, very good at it. They’re better than most of us could ever hope to be. But that doesn’t mean people who aren’t as good at riding a bicycle or who haven’t ridden a mile in their shoes don’t get to disagree with them or otherwise opine on the subject of bicycle racing. Professional cyclist is just what the name implies – a profession – and freedom from the criticisms of the lay public isn’t a privilege that cycling or any other profession, from paperboy to pope, gets to enjoy.
For instance, I am, on certain increasingly rare and unimportant occasions, a professional writer on cycling, as are the many people now covering the Tour de France. And occasionally, when the racers disagree with what’s been written or how it’s been written, they let that dissatisfaction be widely known, often in fairly blunt terms. Now, these men, while they are terrific cyclists one and all, are not journalists. They might not know all the intricacies of the profession or the rules that govern it, understand its daily trials and tribulations, or care about how or why certain things get written. And most of all, they might not be able to produce particularly compelling copy themselves. But they certainly feel free to see some professional journalist’s finished product and call it shit. And they should – because being able to write better than me or any other cycling hack isn’t a required qualification to critique or disagree with the work, or indeed to aim some barbs at the writer themselves. You just have to be a consumer of the product. Sometimes the rider’s opinion will be right, sometimes it’ll be wrong, sometimes it’ll be neither here nor there, but that’s not really the issue. Nobody tells them they have no right to disagree with the journalist because they are not journalists themselves.
Let’s speed this up a bit in the name of getting on with things: I don’t have to be as good as Matisse to not like a painting; I don’t have to be Secretary of State to disagree with foreign policy; I don’t have to be a better director than Coppola to think a movie is terrible; and I don’t have to be a web designer to think a site looks horrible. Why should I have to be a professional cyclist to suggest that neutralizing a stage finish wasn’t the right move, or that, contrary to Jens Voigt’s opinion, a few cobblestones might be OK in a grand tour? Participation in the debate only requires an interest and an opinion; it doesn’t require a UCI license. Or tact, intelligence, or common sense, for that matter.
You can argue, of course, about whether the opinions expressed are valid or not. In fact, I encourage you to do so, early and often, because it’s that sort of fan interest that fuels professional sports and keeps them vibrant. And frankly, I don’t know why some people spend so much time trying to quash some lively debate in cycling by holding up a given pro’s take as an unimpeachable verdict on an issue. I’m not saying people need to be rude in their criticisms of the men who make the sport what it is, or that the pros’ opinions shouldn’t carry due weight. But all that second-guessing, critiquing, and maligning of poor performances by armchair shlubs is the lifeblood of sports like professional soccer and football (yes, yes, that’s “football” and “American football” if you’re not from here). So cycling might as well embrace it, or at least not be offended by it, instead of reflexively and viciously defending the honor of a bunch of pro riders who don’t care terribly much what we’re saying anyway, and who are actually better served in the long run by the fans having the discussion, even if that discussion happens to currently center on how we think they suck and couldn’t sprint their way out of a wet paper bag.
In closing, I’ll just add that I think part of the “mile in his shoes” problem in America is that cycling is very much a participant sport here. In the U.S., if you’re a pro cycling fan, chances are you spin the pedals a bit yourself, and that somehow tends to cloud some folks’ ability to accept that what they see on TV is different from the cycling they do. And it is – even if you race every weekend, and even if you're pretty good at it. As indicated by the fact that it’s on TV, professional cycling is a spectator sport, just like football and baseball and hockey and any number of other sports where fans aren't expected to actually be a professional before voicing a contrary opinion. So when people are having a good time talking pro cycling, about who’s great and who sucks and who’s just being a wimp, it’s just not the same context as talking trash about a guy who will destroy you on the Sunday ride. In that context, a swift “well, he’ll drop your sorry ass” is a perfectly acceptable retort. In professional sports, though, it’s just not a valid part of the athlete-fan relationship.
- Though it’s died down for now, the debate about cobbled and other “freak stages” in grand tours will re-emerge eventually, either with regard to this Tour or some future grand tour. And it’ll keep coming back, because both the pro- and anti- crowds have valid points. Yes, the cobbles make the race more of a crapshoot due to frequent mechanical problems and service access issues, and maybe it’s best not to increase the weight of fate's already heavy hand in stage racing. And yes, while the cobbles certainly don’t suit some riders, it’s equally true that the mountains don’t suit others, so why favor one group over another? It goes on and on, but whichever side you come out on, it’s hard to deny that Stage 3 was anything less than riveting. Frankly, if I wanted to show someone the visual power of bike racing, I’d show them that stage. Something about the camerawork in the finale – even after the cobbles had passed – really highlighted how hard and fast and desperate and captivating the closing kilometers of a bike race can be. You could sense the frantic speed and the pain as each group jumped out of the closing corners and drove for the finish – it was a rare and beautiful combination of the fractured, hard-hitting nature of a classic and the clawing-for-every-second pressures of stage racing. I don’t know if such a stage will happen again, or even if it should, but damn it was good.
- In a way, the issue over the cobbles strikes me as similar to Al Gore’s recent sexual harassment troubles. Gore allegedly hired a high-priced, in-room, late-night masseuse, and then pressured her to provide the illicit services that are known to be oftentimes provided by high-priced, in-room, late-night masseuses. But, as it turns out, Gore’s late night masseuse was not that sort of late night masseuse, and was quite offended at the prospect of providing such services. Similarly, ASO called up a group of riders to ride a bike race, and then pressured them to ride over cobblestones, a service known to be oftentimes provided by professional bike riders. But, as it turns out, some of the riders ASO called are not that sort of bike rider, and were quite offended at the prospect of providing such services. Both Gore and ASO thought they’d called someone who’d be amenable to the doing the job for a given price, but in demanding what they did, experienced significant backlash. Really, the only difference is that ASO still got what they were looking for, and all Gore got was a scandal.
- Central to the argument over the cobbles seems to be the increased risk of injury due to their inclusion. I haven’t reviewed the daily Tour dispatches, so I don’t know all the details, but I didn’t get the sense that Stage 3 actually produced any more injuries than any other randomly selected day on a grand tour. Yes, Frank Schleck’s (Saxo Bank) three-point collarbone break was fairly spectacular, and though it’s less discussed, David Le Lay (AG2r) also snapped a clavicle on the day. That’s not a great day out, but when you consider Amets Txurukka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) snapped his collarbone on Stage 4 with no help from cobbles, just as Adam Hansen (HTC-Columbia) did on Stage 1, and that Mathias Frank (BMC) and Manuel Cardoso (Footon) both augured themselves into the ground and early retirement in the prologue, Stage 3 hardly seems to have produced a disproportionate injury report.
- Frank Schleck's injury is obviously unfortunate, both because it must have been tremendously painful for him and because he'd been looking like the stronger of the two Schleck brothers through the Tour de Suisse this year. That said -- and I'm sure I'll enrage legions of Jens Voigt-o-philes -- I though Voigt's reaction to Schleck's injury was a little overwraught. I respect his obviously genuine emotional reaction to his teammate's injury in the immediate aftermath, but from the way he was talking, you'd think Schleck had just shuffled off this mortal coil, rather than shuffled off to the local hospital for an x-ray.
- So, how’d that “we'll put time into Alberto Contador (Astana) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) on the cobbles” plan work out for everybody? Both men produced stunning and unexpected rides, capitalizing on the good work of teammates Alexander Vinokourov and Fabian Cancellara, respectively. I doubt either of them will be racing the northern classics next year, but both of them knuckled down and did what they had to do with no whining. I like that.
- Speaking of no whining, how about this year’s edition of Cadel Evans (BMC)? As a former mountain biker, classics winner, and one of the standout riders of the brutal strade biancha stage at this year’s Giro, Evans’s Stage 3 ride wasn’t as surprising as those of Contador and Schleck, but it was still impressive. Interviewed after yesterday’s stage, Schleck was dismissive of Evans’s chances for the overall, theorizing that Evans would not stay with the leader in the mountains. Schleck might turn out to be right, of course, but I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Evans. He’s been a changed man since his world championship win last season, looking more aggressive on the bike and less aggressive off of it. So far this year he’s been sharp in every terrain and in all conditions, his supporting cast at this year’s Tour is stronger than it was either in past Tours or this year’s Giro, and he’s come through a brutal first week unscathed. I think he’s less of a dark horse than some might imagine, and this is coming from someone who has a really, really good time making fun of Evans from time to time.
- Enough about Stage 3, how about 4 and 5? Well, Stage 4 felt like a deep breath after three days of relative chaos, and the most interesting stat of the day, if we had it, might have been the number of linear feet of bandages and netting in use. Petacchi won, which you knew already, and almost immediately the talk began over whether he’d drop out prior to the Alps this weekend. With that, for a fleeting minute, it felt like the early aughts again, a time when the discussion at the end of the first week of every grand tour focused on when the Italian sprinter du jour – be it Cipollini, Quaranta, or Petacchi – would head home. Stage 5 quickly snapped us out of that semi-bygone era and back into the present epoch of Anglo sprinters, with Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) finally pulling it back together and scoring his first win of this Tour. I know there’s a lot of dislike for the guy, some deserved, some undeserved, but he’s had a tough year personally and professionally, and it showed in his emotional reaction to the win. Chapeau. Now we’ll get to see if it was a momentary return, or whether the mojo is really back. I’m betting on the latter.
- Man, Cervelo’s Geraard Vroomen really, really talks a lot of smack about other teams in his Twitter feed. So far, he’s scolded Saxo Bank’s Bjarne Riis for being underhanded and self-serving in the Stage 2 neutralization, then called out Caisse d’Epargne for drawing out the Valverde case and then having the nerve to note that cycling’s doping scandals are making it hard to find a sponsor. I’m not saying he’s wrong, or advocating some sort of gag order on team owners airing their thoughts, but man, cycling’s a small world, and some of that might come back to bite you, either on the road or at the negotiating table.
- I’m not that into the whole Armstrong-Contador rivalry thing, largely because I think it’s tremendously overblown, especially with regard to its effect on the outcome of this year’s Tour. However, a lot of people enjoy examination and embellishment of Armstrong’s well-publicized “mental game,” so I’ll say this: if there is indeed a mental game to speak of, I think Contador has the upper hand. Between meaningful actions like the time gained on Stage 3, and mostly meaningless actions like popping up at the RadioShack bus bearing thank-you gifts from last year’s Tour, Contador’s manage to take a few well-placed jabs at Armstrong and still come out looking like a nice guy. Impressive. I just hope Contador’s not wasting any energy thinking about it.
- Fellow Versus watchers: is “Cenegenics” some undercover mix of HGH and testosterone? Because that’s what it sounds like from the purported benefits. If so, they’ve really spent their marketing dollars wisely.
- Is it just me, or does Garmin-Transition’s DS Matt White look about 5 years older than last year? Maybe he should try Cenegenics.
- Not that they need any help from me, but if you’re not reading Procycling’s Daily Dispatches on cyclingnews.com, you’re missing out on one of the more entertaining daily Tour fixes.