Raising Awareness

Since it hit the internet on Friday afternoon, I’ve seen a variety of reactions to Bill Strickland’s Bicycling piece about Lance Armstrong and dope. Many of them, I think it’s fair to say, have been negative. That was expected given the subject at hand, Strickland’s longtime support of Armstrong, and his connections to Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel via authorship of several books. And as expected, among dedicated cycling fans, the criticism has come from both sides of the polarizing Armstrong debate. It follows familiar patterns: For those who believe Armstrong doped, the acknowledgement will never be early enough and the condemnation will never be strong enough. For those who believe in Armstrong’s innocence, there will never be enough proof. C’est la guerre.

But regardless of where you stand, or if you stand at all, I think there are a few things worth noting about the piece that many die-hard cycling fans aren’t taking into account when skewering Strickland, the piece, or both. Many of these thoughts could be summed up as “people are looking too hard at the words, and not enough at the context.” But if you want the wordier version, read on…
    It’s not about you
    It’s highly unlikely anyone who reads this website (and its colleagues, associates, and superiors), niche cycling magazines, and bad translations of L’Equipe is going to be shocked by the piece's content regarding Armstrong. But the article doesn't appear in any of those places. It appears in Bicycling magazine and on that publication’s website. By virtue of its location, the article is not for you, but for a larger, broader, more mainstream audience. For people for whom Bicycling is a main source of professional cycling information (and they are out there, I assure you), this is, if not shocking, an extremely notable change in acknowledgement of “the Armstrong issue.” It is in a sense an epitaph for the “bigger engine, fast spin, and stage reconnaissance” school of explaining Armstrong’s dominance to the masses. And the farewell is writ large on the pages of its most loyal practitioner.
      It’s not just about Strickland
      The article is largely Strickland's reflection on his personal grapples with the “did he or didn’t he” question. But the reason the piece is important isn’t because Bill Strickland’s assessment has changed – it’s important because its publication reflects a much bigger change.

      Again, the location of the article is important. It's printed in a magazine that has featured ample and presumably profitable content about Armstrong and from his associates (e.g., Chris Carmichael, Johan Bruyneel) over the years, and that draws ad revenue from heavily Armstrong-affiliated companies like CTS, Trek, and SRAM. Bicycling has helped build the Armstrong legend, and, in turn, has profited from it. And make no mistake, that legend still has value left in it. So even when you’re the editor-at-large, the choice to burn those sorts of bridges isn’t all your own. No, people farther up the chain have to be willing to strike their matches, too, and the people holding the dry tinder would know the stakes of this particular bonfire. Bicycling, after all, is not an independent magazine – it’s one title in the much larger fitness-oriented Rodale media empire. Think Men’s Health will get Armstrong to do a shoot for “Ten Great Tips on Staying Fit in Middle Age” now? Think Runners World will get an exclusive quote when triathlete Armstrong turns up at a charity 10k? Think Livestrong is going to return Prevention’s phone calls for its next testicular cancer story? Anyone who’s seen the Armstrong playbook in action knows none of those are likely.

      Yes, any good media organization keeps a firewall between the editorial and advertising departments, and I don't claim to know how Bicycling is structured or who gets a say in what’s printed. But on some level, everyone knows which side their bread is buttered on. Bicycling’s – and by extension, Rodale’s – implicit decision to give up access to one of the biggest names in fitness (and potentially the ad dollars of his loyal corporate partners) – is extremely telling. Just as Bicycling contributed to the making of the Armstrong brand in mainstream America, Bicycling’s shift on Armstrong will contribute to its downfall in mainstream America. I suspect it was not a decision taken ignorantly or lightly.

      You might know, and I might know, but Strickland has to KNOW
      Many have criticized Strickland for only now accepting what cycling’s many Twitter users and bloggers have “known” for a long time. I understand where that feeling comes from, but I believe that what we’re seeing here is someone who, whether from personal belief or professional requirement or both, holds “knowing” to a higher standard, at least when it comes to speaking bluntly and publicly as he does in his piece. And he should, because the backlash he’ll experience from it will be of a higher standard, too.

      Look, the Service Course could shout that Armstrong doped from every rooftop and social media outlet available, even though I don’t know a damn thing more about it than most of you do. On a good traffic day, or if the right person linked to it, I might get some angry emails and comments from Armstrong fans, or maybe a missive or pat on the back from someone inside the sport. And the next day, whether I was right or wrong about it, I’d go back to my real job, where my position, my company, my clients, and my coworkers would be entirely unaffected by my opinion about whether some retired lycra freak had a bit of a needle fetish.

      Strickland, on the other hand, has skin in the game. He has a boss he has to answer to if he’s wrong on doping in cycling, and especially if he’s wrong about Armstrong and doping in cycling. He has a job in the cycling industry that still requires him to still be able to talk to people in that industry to earn a paycheck. He not only has his real name on his work, and an easily identified paying agent, but also likely has his work, home, and cell numbers in Rolodexes that you and I don’t on both sides of the Atlantic.

      I’d venture to say that there’s a lot of internet bravado from the peanut gallery that would ultimately wither under the possibility of a call from Armstrong, or Bruyneel, or, more likely, from their attorneys or numerous other formal or informal cohorts, agents, and hangers-on. Or under the kill-the-messenger onslaught that invariably follows defiance of the inner circle. But the peanut gallery, even its upper echelons, the elite zonder contract of the social media world, never really faces that. Strickland will, and at close range, I'd wager. So if he thinks about it a good deal longer and requires a higher standard of evidence than the rest of us before he sets his opinions in print, I’m not going to begrudge him that. And ultimately, regardless of the substantial downsides, he chose to do it anyway. That takes conviction, and courage. Could he have done it earlier, or been a less fervent Armstrong supporter given his knowledge and position? Absolutely. But life isn’t always as simple as it looks.

      [Note: I’m not saying, in the least, that fans shouldn’t weigh in on these issues just because they’re not or never have been professional cycling journalists. Longtime readers know that’s not my way of thinking.]

      Late is still early
      Finally, let’s circle back to that oft-heard criticism of Strickland as being late to the “Armstrong Doped” party. Now, I’m not sure, and I admit to not doing my good Google diligence on the matter. But I’m thinking that Strickland may in fact be the early arrival at this particular soiree. Yes, countless members of the citizen media have long since gone on record as believing in their heart of hearts that Armstrong doped. David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, both respected, decorated members of the mainstream press have as well. But among journalists who draw a living from cycling publications, you’d be hard pressed to find an earlier statement on par with Strickland’s. From his contemporaries, there have been indicators of a souring on Armstrong, of rising skepticism: hints dropped on Twitter, markedly less laudatory articles, less favorable recountings of the accusations, and more unequivocal assessments offered in private conversations. But the sort of definitive, “I’ve seen the inside, and I think he did it” that Strickland laid out there – from a senior editor, in print, in a cycling magazine? That is a brave new world.

      No Check, Mate

      In the wake of Matt White’s sudden dismissal as Garmin-Cervelo’s director sportif, there’s been a lot of debate surrounding the “real reason” for the firing. Was it, as team chief Jonathan Vaughters maintains, because White sent former team rider Trent Lowe to highly suspect doctor Luis del Moral for blood tests in 2009? Or was it really because of White’s rumored links to the new Australian GreenEDGE effort and its alleged underhanded recruitment efforts?

      I have no idea. What I do know is that whether it was because of del Moral, GreenEDGE, or both, firing White was the right move. So was sticking with del Moral as the stated cause.

      Vaughters and White agree that sending Lowe to del Moral’s Valencia clinic for blood testing was a terrible idea. Both men have said as much, and surely recognize that even bog-standard blood testing, when performed by a man of del Moral’s reputation, can appear as damning as a used syringe in the hyper-sensitized world of professional cycling. And since the appearance of impropriety and actual impropriety are almost equally damaging, both men would recognize – now, at least – that a director should no more send his riders to del Moral for a blood test than send to Eufemiano Fuentes for a pelvic exam.

      But while del Moral’s reputation adds some spice and urgency to the story, the fact that it was Dr. del Moral to whom White referred Lowe is immaterial. Garmin-Cervelo has a strict policy against riders going to outside physicians without approval – for just this sort of reason – and by sending Lowe to del Moral, White violated that policy. [Vaughters, of course, has hinted of some misgivings about his time at U.S. Postal, where del Moral was the team physician, which may have heightened his sensitivity in this case. But in theory, that doesn’t matter.] By invoking the team’s zero-tolerance rule on a high-profile, longtime staff member, Vaughters siezed a chance to show that the team has the courage of its convictions, a quality that the sport sorely needs. So if the del Moral referral is indeed the sole cause for White’s dismissal, it’s more than enough.

      If, on the other hand, GreenEDGE connections did factor into White’s firing, then that's also a perfectly justifiable case for termination, even with no other offenses in play. If Vaughters discovered – beyond the public rumor and speculation – that White’s efforts in the professional cycling world were not 100 percent aligned behind Garmin-Cervelo’s interests, or that they were, in fact, working in direct opposition to those interests, then firing is a reasonable response. Just ask Bjarne Riis about the problems that come with team staff recruiting next year’s team while working for yours. “Whitey” has always come across as a decent guy, but regardless of personality, history, or promises, anyone in a situation where they’re directing one pro team while building another is a fox in the henhouse. He might be a fox you know pretty well, but he’s still a fox.

      So, individually, each potential cause for dismissal could stand on its own. But if White’s firing were due to both the del Moral and GreenEDGE issues, why wouldn’t Vaughters say so? And if he were picking one reason or the other to take to the media, why go with the seedier del Moral visit rather than the relatively sterile GreenEDGE conflict of interest? Setting aside, for a moment, Trent Lowe’s questionable threat to take the del Moral visit public, I think there are a few compelling reasons to stick with the del Moral explanation over GreenEDGE, and over citing both causes.

      First, the idea that GreenEDGE was “poaching” riders is still largely in the speculation phase, at least in the media. Those allegations – of inappropriate negotiations, incentivizing UCI points – have already been the source of some public sniping between GreenEDGE, Sky, and Garmin. So while citing both del Moral and GreenEDGE as reasons for dismissal might seem to bolster Vaughters’s case, he already had one undeniably actionable cause in del Moral. By relying on that, Vaughters avoids the appearance of acting on GreenEDGE rumors or, alternatively, avoids having to publicly accuse White of engaging in nefarious activity on GreenEDGE’s behalf. So, by letting the del Moral issue do the lifting, he avoids fanning the GreenEDGE flames. As a bonus, he doesn't come out appearing as if he's piling on excuses just to prop up a flimsy one.

      Finally, if GreenEDGE factored into White’s dismissal, going public with the del Moral cause alone is more advantageous for Garmin-Cervelo than publicly tying the firing to GreenEDGE. By only citing the del Moral issue, Vaughters has efficiently accomplished all he needs to. He's (1) cut the heart out of Lowe’s blackmail threat, (2) rid himself of the Cycling Australia/GreenEDGE conflict of interest, and (3) saddled CA/GreenEDGE with a newly-hired director who is now on-record as being comfortable sending riders to a “doping doctor” who he knows from his time at U.S. Postal. Essentially, White has done the damage to his reputation under Garmin-Cervelo, but CA/GreenEDGE will bear any resulting stigma, right as they’re trying to craft their public image. And by not citing GreenEDGE in ousting White, Vaughters avoids the appearance of pettiness. That's pretty good revenge for any shady recruiting that may have gone on, no?

      Again, I have no information on White’s firing other than what you all have read as well. I certainly don’t have anything to indicate that Vaughters thought out his actions in the semi-vindictive way I outlined above. But that’s how it works out. Genius, intentional or not.

      • For his part, Trent Lowe comes out looking fairly sleazy for threatening to go public with the year-ago del Moral trip in order to get paid for December 2010 (at which point he had not ridden a race for Garmin in eight months and was already under contract to Pegasus). It's a pretty shortsighted strategy, since to have the desired threatening PR effect, Lowe would have to play up the insidious implications of visiting del Moral, with himself at the center. In other words, to damage Garmin's reputation, he'd need to damage his own reputation even more. That's an easy bluff to call, but Vaughters went one better by beating Lowe to the punch, pulling back the covers himself, outing White and Lowe’s association with the doctor, removing both men from his payroll, and coming out smelling like a rose. That has to sting. While it doesn’t justify Lowe’s behavior, I do empathize somewhat with his situation – with his new team collapsed, no pay for December, and a buyers market for sickly, underperforming climbing specialists, he’s not exactly looking at a happy new year.

      • This week in Twitter fights:
        1. Cedric Vasseur versus Jonathan Vaughters on teams representation.
        2. Radio Shack’s Johan Bruyneel versus Cofidis’s Eric Boyer on team radios. You stay classy, Johan!

      • Sorry about that post title. Really.


      Thoughts on the SI Article

      If you’re some hack with a website about professional cycling, then you’re kind of obligated to offer up some commentary about the highly anticipated Sports Illustrated Armstrong article by Selena Roberts and David Epstein. So here are my quick thoughts, bearing in mind that much of the article's content was previously known, and that much of the remaining intrigue comes from what might have been left out.

      • If the SI description of Don Catlin’s labwork and his interactions with the U.S. Olympic Committee are accurate, then the actions of Drs. Catlin, Brent Kay, and Arnie Baker indicate that Michele Ferrari might be the most trustworthy, sane medical professional involved in this whole extended mess. With Ferrari, at least you know what you’re getting, and that it works.

      • If the (previously known) Motorola EPO story is true, then Paul Sherwin looks like even more of a sycophantic ass for his Armstrong pandering, since he was the team’s press officer.

      • If Armstrong did gain access to HemAssist while the drug was in clinical trials, to borrow a phrase from Vice President Joe Biden, "this is a big f***ing deal.” Frankly, it's irrelevant that Lance Armstrong might have gotten ahold of it -- it’s a big problem regardless of who's involved. People have been bleating for months about why FDA would be involved in this sort of investigation. This is why. Ensuring the safety and efficacy of drugs, and the safety and legitimacy of the clinical trials used to test them, are damn close to the core of FDA’s regulatory mission. If experimental drugs are escaping from trials into the broader population, that is a very, very significant issue for them. So if they have to rile up a bunch of pencil-necked bike geeks to get to the heart of the matter, I’m guessing that suits them just fine. This is bigger than sports. For more detail on the HemAssist issue, consult Joe Lindsey.

      • If HemAssist’s class of drugs is as risky as some of the information in Lindsey’s post indicates, then “the shit that will kill them” might take on a whole different meaning.

      • If you were wondering if HemAssist, however acquired, might be OK under cycling’s rules because it’s not on the list of banned substances, then you need to read section M1 of the WADA code, Enhancement of Oxygen Transfer.

      • If SI was willing to print both the existing and new Landis allegations (i.e., the St. Moritz airport story), then I'd think the authors must have at least one other source confirming the validity of those allegations. We’ve been through a few rounds of the “Landis is a liar” defense already, and it’s been pretty effective, probably with good reason. I’m guessing a publication like SI, while it’s no scientific journal, vetted Landis’s accusations pretty thoroughly before exposing itself to that sort of risk, especially given his history.

      • If people are surprised that private airports are a good way to move contraband, then they’ve clearly never seen an episode of the A-Team.

      • If Yaroslav Popyvych (whose house was raided, yielding drugs and evidence of continued Ferrari ties according to SI) wants to look innocent, he should get the hell off of Tenerife before issuing his denial.

      • If, as has been rumored, there is damning, unpublished material regarding the misuse of Livestrong foundation funds, then that is the only thing that will ultimately shift broader public opinion. Until then, the rest of this really only matters to cycling fans. Don’t kid yourselves.

      • If Livestrong does become the core of the issue, then I’m guessing you’ll see a lot more of the IRS than FDA. Tax evasion is a pretty useful charge.

      • If, as rumored, there is a “strippers/hookers and blow” storyline that was also left out, then I don’t really care too much. That material would grab non-cycling eyeballs, sure, but it would also just distract further from the heart of the matter and give the true believers one more “this is irrelevant, what's the point of this?” talking point. Besides, I’ve been to college, and I’ve been around cyclists for most of my life. I’ve seen strippers and blow already.

      • If Roberts and Epstein do indeed have the much-rumored additional information that was allegedly removed from their article, then I hope they pursue other outlets. For instance, any misdeeds regarding Livestrong might be a better fit for SI’s current affairs-oriented Time-Warner stablemate, Time magazine. Or, if Time-Warner lacks the stomach for it altogether, I’d suggest Der Spiegel, the Economist, or any other credible current affairs publication. Many have suggested the web as an outlet, but, like it or not, for some things you sort of need a bedrock publication to add credibility to the information. Otherwise it’ll just be attacked with the “well you can put anything on those websites” argument. But for godssake, just stay away from LeMonde and L’Equipe (or any other French publication). We know that, counter to the U.S. drumbeat of the early 2000s, they’re very credible publications. But there’s no sense in bogging down the information by inviting people to stoke up the ridiculous “French conspiracy” fires again.

      • If new information and corroborations continue to come forth, then at some point, Greg Lemond’s settlement-induced gag order will become moot, no? And at some point, somewhere in the great Midwest, I’m betting he and Betsy Andreau will meet for a cocktail.

      • If things go severely downhill for Armstrong, then I’m guessing there are only two options: stone-faced denial until the very end of his life, or burn-baby-burn and everyone goes down with him. Middle ground has never been his strong suit.

      • If you’d like some real analysis of the article, then you should consult Charles Pelkey.

      • Finally, if the pace of this whole investigation picks up, then Geox may get that Tour de France start after all.

      Killing Davey Moore

      As I wrote in an earlier post, I tend to find non-riders' involvment in cycling’s myriad dope scandals more interesting than that of the riders themselves. The doctors, the directors, the sponsors, the officials, the fixers and what they knew, when they knew it, what role they played, and why – all hold more intrigue for me than rattling on about why some 26-year-old bike racer chose to be the final link in the chain. Riders’ perspectives are fairly well documented since, Willy Voet and a few others aside, they’re the only ones who ever really sing, and when they do, it’s a fairly simple song. Dope to go faster; dope to keep the job; dope to hang on one more year; dope to make more money. The part the cyclists play in the dope show is by far the most obvious. But the roles of everyone else in the sport, including you and me? Those aren’t always quite as clear, are they?

      I have always wanted to write some grand, sprawling piece about how all those other parties, by demanding certain things or by ignoring others, contribute to the ongoing drug culture in the sport. About the sponsors who lean on directors for better return on investment. The director who demands better results to find a sponsor. The enthusiast media that whistles past the graveyard. The fans who cry out for ever greater performances. The officials who choose to look the other way. The riders who perpetuate a never-ending arms race that’s become just part of the job.

      But I never do that piece for several reasons. Available time and citable insider knowledge are obviously two big reasons for keeping my trap shut. But the third reason I don’t go into it is simply that I know when I’m beaten. Which is to say that I would never get close to exploring the subject as well as Bob Dylan already has, and I’d eat up a hell of a lot more words trying to do it. Back in 1963, Dylan wrote and began performing a song called “Who Killed Davey Moore,” reflecting on how different parties contributed to the boxer’s death after a bout earlier that year. Yes, the song is about death and boxing, not doping and cycling, but the salient points are all there, simply and brutally, right down the unwillingness of each party to acknowledge their role in the final tragedy. There are a lot of people I’d try to out-write, but Dylan ain’t one of them, so have a read with a cyclist's eye.

      Who Killed Davey Moore?
      Bob Dylan, 1963

      Who killed Davey Moore
      Why an’ what’s the reason for?

      “Not I,” says the referee
      “Don’t point your finger at me
      I could’ve stopped it in the eighth
      An’ maybe kept him from his fate
      But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure
      At not gettin’ their money’s worth
      It’s too bad he had to go
      But there was a pressure on me too, you know
      It wasn’t me that made him fall
      No, you can’t blame me at all”

      Who killed Davey Moore
      Why an’ what’s the reason for?

      “Not us,” says the angry crowd
      Whose screams filled the arena loud
      “It’s too bad he died that night
      But we just like to see a fight
      We didn’t mean for him t’ meet his death
      We just meant to see some sweat
      There ain’t nothing wrong in that
      It wasn’t us that made him fall
      No, you can’t blame us at all”

      Who killed Davey Moore
      Why an’ what’s the reason for?

      “Not me,” says his manager
      Puffing on a big cigar
      “It’s hard to say, it’s hard to tell
      I always thought that he was well
      It’s too bad for his wife an’ kids he’s dead
      But if he was sick, he should’ve said
      It wasn’t me that made him fall
      No, you can’t blame me at all”

      Who killed Davey Moore
      Why an’ what’s the reason for?

      “Not me,” says the gambling man
      With his ticket stub still in his hand
      “It wasn’t me that knocked him down
      My hands never touched him none
      I didn’t commit no ugly sin
      Anyway, I put money on him to win
      It wasn’t me that made him fall
      No, you can’t blame me at all”

      Who killed Davey Moore
      Why an’ what’s the reason for?

      “Not me,” says the boxing writer
      Pounding print on his old typewriter
      Sayin’, “Boxing ain’t to blame
      There’s just as much danger in a football game”
      Sayin’, “Fistfighting is here to stay
      It’s just the old American way
      It wasn’t me that made him fall
      No, you can’t blame me at all”

      Who killed Davey Moore
      Why an’ what’s the reason for?

      “Not me,” says the man whose fists
      Laid him low in a cloud of mist
      Who came here from Cuba’s door
      Where boxing ain’t allowed no more
      “I hit him, I hit him, yes, it’s true
      But that’s what I am paid to do
      Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’
      It was destiny, it was God’s will”

      Who killed Davey Moore
      Why an’ what’s the reason for?

      Copyright 1964, 1965, Warner Bros. ; 1992, 1993, Special Rider Music.
      (And I hope they'll forgive my use here, since I encourage everyone to buy a copy of the recording immediately. Among others, it was released on the excellent The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall)


      • Kind of a long recess here on the Service Course, wasn’t it? That’s due to a lot of the usual reasons – work, other obligations, a bit of ambivalence, trying to ride a bit. And it’ll likely be slow a bit longer since I’m on vacation next week, but maybe I’ll regain some momentum with the break. We’re starting to be able to smell cyclocross season, after all.

      • That recent silence isn’t to say there’s nothing good going on right now. Quite the contrary. Sure, there’s all the transfer buzz, but this is also the time of the year that the Italians host a great series of longstanding UCI 1.HC and 1.1 races, including the “Trittico Lombardo” – the Tre Valle Varesine on Monday, Coppa Agostini yesterday, the Coppa Bernocchi today. This year, all three races were won by young guns from talented fields, with Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre) continuing the progression he’s shown the last few years by winning Agostini, and Manuel Belletti (Colnago-CSF) doing the same today in the Bernocchi. Only Irishman Dan Martin (Garmin-Transitions) prevented an Italian sweep of these fiercely provincial contests by winning Varesine from Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF) with a beautifully timed attack. I think everyone’s ready for a bit of a youth movement in the sport, no?

      • Why do I like these races so much? I don’t really know, but I’ll give it a shot. First, I love Italy and yearn to go back as soon as possible. So I’ll admit that sometimes I really just like looking at the photos, and that some of those times, I’m staring right past the riders and into the hills and palm trees and old villas. You really can’t beat the light there. Second, these littler late season races, together with the achingly beautiful Giro di Lombardia, are the yin to the early season yang of the soggy Belgian races in the spring. It’s not quite that they’re providing closure, but it’s something like that. And third, the Italian classics provide a little understated, history-laden relief from a slew of better publicized but sort of bland stage races that seem to flounder around between Tour de France and the Vuelta each year. Anyway, Italian 1.1 racing picks back up again with the Trofeo Melinda up in Trentino on Saturday, and then continues with the Giro del Veneto on the 27th. Do yourself a favor and see if you can find a grainy video feed online somewhere.

      • Anyone else feel like American cyclists’ infatuations with different European cycling cultures might be cyclical? Or maybe they're just linear right now, and will get cyclical later. Back in the days of Pedali Alpini in California, late 1960s and the 1970s, Italy seemed to be the culture that elicited the most reverence in dedicated cycling circles, and many of this country’s best headed for the boot to try their luck and talent. In the 1980s, I feel like things crossed the Alps to France, probably thanks to Greg LeMond (or maybe because of Dave Stoller’s change in loyalties in the closing scene of 1979’s Breaking Away). I’m not quite sure about the 1990s – maybe they felt a little Italian again thanks to Gewiss and Mapei, but I was in college for some of that, so it’s a little hazy. What I do know is that somewhere in the mid-2000’s, everyone decided to worship at a Belgian alter. So what’s next? Spain is noticeably missing from the rotation thus far, and Alberto Contador (Astana) is winning a hell of a lot, but somehow I don’t see that happening. (Which is kind of odd, because if there’s a second language Americans are most likely to speak, it’s Spanish.) With a good U.S. fan base and the (alleged) new team, maybe the Schlecks are making a serious play to bring the fanboy crown home to Luxembourg. Quick, everybody toss your Lion of Flanders socks and buy a pair of these! Put down those frites and start whipping up some smoked collar of pork with broad beans! That's right - Luxembourg. You heard it here first.

      • I know I just sort of slagged all the little stage races buzzing away right now, but Robbie McEwen (Katusha) is looking pretty good in the Eneco Tour right now, with a stage win yesterday and a second place behind Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia) today. After a couple of injury plagued seasons, could McEwen finally be getting back on track just in time for the sprinter’s circuit at his home-turf World Championships? Yes, with riders like Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre), Mark Cavendish and Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia), and Tyler Farrar (Garmin) all going well, a World’s win for the aging McEwen is a longshot, but he’s a pretty crafty guy.

      • Speaking of Eneco and Farrar, Garmin’s on a hell of a tear right now. It’s nice to see them get results, but you have to wonder whether they’d trade Vattenfall, the Eneco prologue, and Tre Valle Varesine all for a single Tour de France stage win. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, because I too am one of those people who loves to howl about how there’s more to cycling than the Tour de France. But for “American” cycling teams, it’s still the 600 pound gorilla, like it or not. That said, Vaughters’ sponsor roster is pretty good on the “international presence” scale, so there’s a chance the folks who pay the bills might actually appreciate the success in Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. I hope so.

      • Menchov to Geox. Man, he really must be scared of Tchmil. Probably not without reason. That guy's nails.

      Headwinds for Tailwind

      The Service Course will be back with, you know, “actual things about bike racing” shortly. Probably tomorrow, in fact. And frankly, the royal we will be glad to get back to that sort of thing and away from this strangely self-imposed Lance Armstrong beat. (Who the hell is the assignment editor here? I need a word with him…) But on the controversy raised yesterday regarding Lance Armstrong’s ownership stake in Tailwind Sports, it seemed to make more sense to strike while the iron was hot if I was going to note it at all. And as much as I’d like to ignore the whole damn mess, the contradictions were so blatant I really can’t help myself.

      If you’re not familiar with the whole issue, Joe Lindsey’s article is a good place to get up to speed. If you don’t have time for that, I don’t know what you’re doing here, but here's the crux of the thing: Armstrong yesterday denied ever having owned a stake in Tailwind Sports, the management company that owned and operated the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, with which he won the bulk of his Tours de France. Who, exactly, was running Tailwind has important implications for the federal investigation into the doping allegations made by former USPS rider Floyd Landis, since that company would have been the entity that received and then distributed sponsorship funds from the U.S. Postal Service. Armstrong’s statements yesterday regarding his stake in the company were quickly shown to contradict earlier statements made in his 2005 SCA deposition.

      Now, my take? Look, the paper trail will say what it says – there really aren’t new facts being created, and the documentation of the existing facts is already out there. Now it’s just a matter of finding it. In light of the SCA deposition, the believability index doesn’t look favorable for Armstrong at the moment, but I’m sure his various mouthpieces will unleash a veritable maelstrom of obfuscation surrounding various timeline elements and word choices already in play. In that vein, expect to hear about when, exactly, Armstrong’s Tailwind shares were promised and/or issued vis-à-vis the transition from U.S. Postal Service sponsorship to Discovery Channel for the 2005 season, what exactly constitutes “ownership” and what “ownership” means as opposed to “equity stake,” “board member,” or “controlling interest,” and other similar issues. Expect, in short, to hear the near-Clintonian parsing of language that marks any good modern day legal battle. And expect to see a hell of a lot of paper. I remember hearing a World War II, European theater veteran say that what really shocked him about war was the amount of paper blowing around after battle, and while the printed detritus of actual war has probably been reduced by the electronic era, it certainly still litters the landscape of legal battles. Depositions, share certificates, and tax returns are about to be piled on the cashed checks, Sysmex receipts, subpoenas, and transcripts that will begin to form the foundation of the federal investigation.

      Underneath all that, though, once you strip away the lawyer talk and the long, long ride down the paper trail, I don’t think there’s any question that Armstrong is being disingenuous about his role in the team. To claim, as he implicitly does in the New York Times article, that he was simply “a rider on the team” who was unaware of what was going on in management and didn't even really know the people who signed his paycheck is patently absurd. Are we honestly to believe that Armstrong had the same amount of sway in the operation of the USPS team as, say, Steffen Kjaergaard, or even Roberto Heras? Does someone who is just “a rider on the team” get to hand-select the team’s new sport director based on some vague interpersonal connection related to near death experiences? A man, Johan Bruyneel, who, at the time, was very recently removed from being a rider himself and had no team management experience? Does “just a rider” get to haul chief directors, mechanics, and soigneurs all over Europe to support their training rides? Yes, very good team leaders do get a lot of sway. But not as much as Armstrong had. Whether his management position was enshrined on paper or not, we’ll see, but it was certainly there in practice.

      Leaving aside the laughable “I just work here” claim, Armstrong’s statements on Wednesday attempted to deftly throw aside an enormous body of literature – including numerous articles, books such as Dan Coyle’s Lance Armstrong’s War, and defacto authorized biographies such as John Wilcockson’s Lance – that expounds on Armstrong’s business savvy and his heavy-handed role in the management of his teams. If those portrayals are inaccurate, they’ve been known to Armstrong and repeated, yet left uncorrected, for a number of years. So, in effect, Armstrong has either been dishonest about his role in his teams for 11 years or for a single day and counting, depending on which version of events you believe. Take your pick, really, but with folks involved in the Landis allegations so quick to draw upon the elusive quality of “credibility,” the self-contradiction is probably worth noting.

      Whatever finally shakes out from the investigation is still a long way down the road, but yesterday’s statements highlight an interesting element that may play out much sooner: the test of how deep the famed Armstrong loyalty really goes. Nearly all of Armstrong’s oft-cited inner circle had a finger in the Tailwind/CSE pie, and therefore all of them now stand a chance of getting burned by the filling. To extract himself from any culpability those organizations are found to have had, there’s a good chance Armstrong would have to throw the whole pie in the face of guys like Knaggs, Gorski, Stapleton, and maybe even Weisel at some point. Circling back to the root cause of this mess – allegations of doping on the USPS team – giving that group of guys the Bozo treatment could be a risky move for Armstrong, because if he was in fact part of an enormous doping operation, team affiliated or otherwise, chances are at least one those guys knows all about it. And as Landis and others have proved, once people are out of the circle, they get a lot more talkative.

      What you end up with in the above scenario starts to looks a lot like the Mutually Assured Destruction principle of the Cold War – everyone has their finger on a button, but everyone’s pretty reluctant to push theirs, because as soon as they do, they other guy will push his, too. And then everyone gets burned up, or at least comes down with an acute case of radiation poisoning. The arrangement keeps everyone nice and friendly, even if they’re not exactly smiling at each other. But I don’t think either side in a hypothetical Tailwind implosion can count on that delicate balance of power keeping things in check in light of a federal investigation, in which investigators can pretty easily tip the scales by offering the appropriate sticks or carrots to one party or the other. Or both. Time will tell, of course, but if “who called the shots at U.S. Postal” becomes a lynchpin of criminal wrongdoing in the investigation, it’s hard to see the most cohesive team in all of cycling staying cohesive much longer. Races to be won has become moot; skins to be saved are the focus now. And stressful though it may be, losing the Tour de France has nothing on going to jail.

      Low Country Laments

      So, who wants to place a bet on the next time you’ll see a grand tour start in the low countries once any current contractual commitments are fulfilled? I’m betting the latter half of the decade at the earliest.

      For the opening week of two grand tours in a row now, there’s been carnage predicted and carnage fulfilled on the narrow roads of the Netherlands and Belgium. Various riders have either stated or tweeted their dissatisfaction with the decisions made on starting points for this year’s Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, and if I were lying there in some under-air-conditioned hotel, glued to my sheets by my own puss and blood with 180 miserable kilometers in my legs, I’m sure I’d be inclined to agree. But in observing the events of the last couple of days from a safe and comfortable distance, I can’t help but think that many of the incidents that have left skin on the pavement in this Tour haven’t been due to the ills typically associated with northern racing – narrow roads, street furniture, and wind. While that was the case with many of the prominent Giro crashes, the northern leg of the Tour has largely featured mishaps that could have happened anywhere. (Please note, this sentiment does not apply to today’s Stage 3 to Arenberg.)

      On Stage 1, a bunch of big riders including Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), and Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack) were grounded by a dog that ran into the pack. Then, as the peloton entered the final kilometers of the stage, another group couldn’t sort out a hairpin corner and went down, sweeping riders on the outside along with them. A crash allegedly caused by a narrowing straight blocked the road entirely inside the red kite, while in the final 200 meters, Lloyd Mondory (AG2r) got a little giddy and rode himself into Tyler Farrar’s (Garmin) back wheel, taking himself down and saddling Farrar with an extra bicycle to haul around. Now, you could maybe argue about whether people should bring their dogs to the races, what the regulations for finishing straights should be, or whether the hairpin should have been included that close to the finish, but the fact is that neither the dog nor the hairpin nor the finishing straight were inherently Belgian or Dutch – they could have just as easily been in France, Italy, or anywhere else.

      On Stage 2, the trainwreck descent of the Stockeau was, again, not caused by the conditions associated with racing in Belgium, but by a combination of a road frequented by diesel vehicles, rain, and a freakish accident in which a camera bike crashed and managed to spill oil and/or gas down the descent. Yes, the road was narrow, and it was a fast descent, but if you think the same thing can’t happen in the Massif Central or the Côte d’Azur, I’d suggest you have a bit of anti-lowland bias. But like I said, if I’d just deposited most of my left asscheek on some godforsaken Wallonian hillside, I’d probably be cursing those beer-brewing, chocolate-making, lace-working bastards, too.

      (I’m just kidding, Belgium. I could never stay mad at you.)

      Broomwagon: Stage 1 Edition
      • Day late and a dollar short on this one, so I’ll keep it quick: there was a bunch of riding of the type you’d expect on a flat first stage, including the obligatory wandering dog. Then, with around five kilometers to go, everything went batshit crazy. Guys crashed in a hairpin, then in a wide open finish straight, then again about 200 yards later in the wide-open finish straight. As he did in the infamous Tour de Suisse stage, Alessandro Petacchi won, because although he’s old, he apparently has about eight eyes spaced evenly around the circumference of his head. I have to admit, I didn’t see Petacchi factoring in this year. Chapeau.

      Broomwagon: Stage 2 Edition

      • I have mixed emotions about yesterday’s general truce/regrouping called by then yellow-jersey Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank). On one hand, it seems fairly self-serving for a non-overall contender to use the rights traditionally afforded the yellow jersey to safeguard the race of their team’s actual GC contender(s). On the other hand, there were so many teams and riders affected by the Stockeau crashes that the order came close enough to being an altruistic move to pass the sniff test. And I get that after a day like that, everyone’s just kind of tired of risking their necks, regardless of why it got risky in the first place. The idea probably wasn’t a tough sell. Obviously, there were losers as a result of the decision. Cervelo Test Team was the most vocal, and had every right to be since they had both their stage contender Thor Hushovd and their GC rider Carlos Sastre in the front group. Quieter about the whole thing was Cadel Evans (BMC), who was also in the front group and in a position to gain time, having apparently overcome his tendency to be a little bit on the crash-ey side. Every bit of etiquette has winners and losers, though, because someone can always gain an advantage by not going along with it, so I suppose you just have to have faith that what goes around will come around. Along those lines, I think the regroup was a net gain, both for a beat-up peloton and for the prospects of a competitive Tour, if not for Cervelo and the soggy fans on the roadside.

      • While on the balance I’m OK with slowing down for the regrouping, I do think negotiating a non-sprint was a bit of an unnecessary flourish. Sure, the leadup speedup might have re-dropped some of the injured parties, but compared to the savings they’d already realized by the slowdown, those parties wouldn’t have had much room to complain – they’d be losing seconds instead of minutes. And, again, the finish straight was pretty dry and wide as a motorway for a considerable distance before the line, so I think they should have let Hushovd and any remaining sprinters have at it. The greatest danger would likely have been the presence of non-sprinters looking to mix it up in the diminished sprint, but you can pretty much get that on any given day.

      • I think that Phil Liggett, not surprisingly, contributed to a bit of the U.S. fans' ill will towards yesterday’s neutralized finish by repeatedly referring to it as a “protest.” Granted, I wasn’t there, but it seemed more precaution than protest. Or maybe that’s just me being hopeful, because there’s been a little too much protesting for me lately.

      • One thing about the Stage 2 slow-down is for sure: Fabian Cancellara will now forever be remembered as a gracious and magnanimous patron of the peloton, fit for a helmet topped with a laurel crown. How do I know? Because historically, Shakespeare's version of Mark Antony was dead wrong, at least when it comes to some aspects of cycling: it’s the good that men do that lives after them, while the evil is oft interred with their bones. People still remember Tyler Hamilton’s dramatic arm-waving slowdown of the front group after Armstrong hung himself up on a purse a few years back (though they’ve obviously not forgotten Hamilton’s evils just yet). They remember Armstrong waiting for Ullrich, and debate endlessly whether Ullrich waited for Armstrong a few years later. These things are etched into the chivalrous history of the sport by those who are, well, really into that stuff. The other side of the coin? The ones that are interred? Passage du Gois, 1999, anyone?

      • Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) was quick to hand over his bike to Andy Schleck during the Stockeau massacre, which doesn’t really warrant mention, since that’s sort of his job. But when you’re Matti Breschel, you never know what the hell you’re going to get from the roof rack. Come to think of it, does Breschel ever do a race where he doesn’t change bikes?

      • I’ve seen a few questions asking why, on the Stockeau, Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) was on the side of the road, but looked to be trying to get a Focus bike back in working order rather than the Specialized he was issued. It’s because it wasn’t Frank Schleck, as Versus commentators stated and splashed across the screen. It was Niki Terpstra of Milram, whose Dutch national champion’s jersey admittedly looks a lot like Schleck’s Luxembourg one, and who did not start Stage 3 due to illness. I point this out not to be an ass about a simple, understandable, in-the-moment misidentification by the commentary team, but to answer the question above and illustrate a broader point: When I’m doing race coverage, or writing about it here, I howl all the time about the importance of a start list matching rider numbers to riders. This is why. If it’s hard to distinguish two national champions riding in the Tour de France, what are the chances of distinguishing between the 35 unknown Australian continental team riders in an NRC crit?

      • Speaking of everyone looking like a Schleck, watching the Tour coverage I’ve been shocked, in a not shocked at all way, about the lack of regard given to Contador and some of the other GC contenders. For instance, even after building up the Armstrong/Contador rivalry, Versus can’t seem to bother to update on his whereabouts with any consistency. There is, however, a laser-like focus on the locations and sightings of various Schlecks, Vandevelde, sometimes Wiggins, and obviously Armstrong. Hey guys: Evans, Basso, Menchov. Remember them?

      • I like watching Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) ride, and I’m glad he won Stage 2, regardless of the circumstances. There were a painful few years there in the early 2000s when he was heralded as the next French Tour winner, followed by the inevitable few years when people found him to be a profound disappointment because he couldn’t carry the albatross they’d tied around his neck. The loss of those misguided GC years now seems even more unfortunate, as it’s pretty apparent he’s fantastically suited to being a classics rider and stage race aggressor. But letting bygones be bygones, I’ve enjoyed seeing his re-emergence over the last few seasons, including what seems to be a blossoming specialty in crappy condition wins.

      • Stage 2 couldn’t have been bigger for Quick Step, could it? Lost in all the chatter about the Stage 1 crashes, the Stage 3 cobbles, and the GC battle was the fact that Stage 2 was an important day for the stalwart classics squad. After the pre-Tour withdrawal of their big draw, Tom Boonen, Stage 2 was the team’s chance to make good on home soil and begin vanquishing memories of a solid but winless classics season and last year’s dismal Tour. It was Chavanel who came through bigtime, and from a publicity perspective, it couldn’t have worked out better: in a French stage race in Belgium, the Belgian home team wins with a French rider, giving press and fans in both countries have something to love, and allowing the race organizers to feel good about a French win on an otherwise dismal day. Add in fellow Frenchman Jerome Pineau’s grab of the race’s first polka dot jersey, and it would be a day that would turn around many other teams’ seasons. The sad truth though is that without that April win, even a stage win, yellow, and polka dots might not be enough to salvage Quick Step’s year.

      Broomwagon: Doping, dimwits, and other pertinent issues

      • How does the same publication that employs Bonnie Ford publish this Rick Reilly piece? It’s like a “spot the errors and distortions” puzzle. I’ll get you started: Postal wasn’t a sponsor in 2006, Discovery was, and in that year, Leipheimer rode for Gerolsteiner, not USPS/Discovery, and Armstrong did not ride the Tour. Landis complained about his bike at Postal (Trek) – he was riding a different bike by the time he was in yellow for Phonak. And on, and on. Now that you know the game, I’ll leave the rest to you…

        Seriously, someone put a fact checker on Reilly. We’re not talking about who or what he or you or I believe about the case – Reilly’s piece is theoretically just trying to recount what Landis has said along with basic indisputable timeline items. And he’s doing such a horrible job at it, it’s difficult to think he doesn’t have an agenda. Impossible, in fact.

      • For me, the most surprising aspect of the now infamous Wall Street Journal article had to do with Landis’s assertion that when he was at Phonak, he would coordinate with riders from other teams to arrange purchases and deliveries of blood and/or dope, including Levi Leipheimer. No, it’s not that I’m blown away by the idea that Leipheimer might have charged; I’m surprised by the idea that Gerolsteiner didn’t have its own organized doping program. Given the number of Gerolsteiner boys who rang the bell before the team’s related demise, you’d think something had to be going on on the team level. But I suppose it just goes to show you that Festina ’98 was kind of an anomaly, which makes sense: it’s not organized doping that typically gets you nailed, it’s disorganized doping. Maybe I was too harsh in thinking that Gerolsteiner director Hans Michael Holzer’s Sgt. Schultz “I know nothing!” act was a crock. Sorry, Mickey.

      • Speaking of Mickeys, Mike Sayers, a.k.a. Mickey Havoc, is directing at the Tour for BMC, and I’m glad to see it. When I was covering my first international race at Het Volk, Sayers was a sight for sore eyes being 1) someone I easily recognized who was 2) not surrounded by a mob and who 3) I knew spoke English. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was the warmup interview that let me get my day going. Nice to see him working at the top level of the sport.

      • Anyone notice that after eschewing the tradition/privilege for much of his Tour winning first career, Armstrong is all over the rainbow stripes on the jersey sleeves since his comeback?

      I’m told there may have been cobblestones today. More on that later. For those looking for faster turnaround missives, consult the Twitter.

      Minding the Gap

      So here we sit in that yawning chasm between the end of the Tour de Suisse and the start of the Tour de France. Everything’s gone relatively quiet – the roster selections have been made, the contenders have retreated to make their final preparations in private, and big action on the road is minimal. We read the results of the national championships as they trickle in, of course, but none of that is even real until you see the jerseys on the road.

      Staring across time towards the Tour is like watching a storm roll in across the water. You know what’s coming, but in the waiting there’s a sense of quiet and foreboding so imposing that you yearn for anything to break the silence – a passing car, a nearby conversation, a barking dog. But no matter what noises emerge to crack the muffled softness of that silence, nothing can relieve the underlying tension until the storm itself, with all its thunder and wind and force, hits shore. The rest is just distraction.

      But for the cycling press, from mighty L’Equipe down to poorly formatted blogs, distraction is kind of the main business, and these two weeks are prime season. The dead air of the pre-Tour lull is ripe for filling with predications, retrospectives, opinions and god knows what else, all seeking to fill the informational void until the Tour itself hits shore and sets the underlying energy free.

      With so much information blowing in the breeze in these pre-Tour days, it’s hard to find the common thread that would string it all together into any sort of narrative, so frankly, I quit trying. Here’s what’s struck me while watching the storm blow in.

      Sprinter Showdown

      With the exception of the politic-ed out Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia), this year’s Tour will feature a battle of the sport’s major sprint stars. In theory, at least. Though it looks like most of the fast men will make it to the start, there are plenty of questions remaining about what we’ll actually see as things barrel into the final 200 meters.

      • Will Tom Boonen (Quick Step) show up? It’s both a literal and figurative question. He’s having some knee trouble that’s putting his Tour start in doubt in the real sense. In the figurative sense, Boonen’s last several Tours haven’t exactly been spectacular. While his motivation should be high after a great but win-free classics season, he’s not the pure sprinter he used to be. Fortunately for him, a green jersey run is about more than winning the bunch kicks, so he could still be in with a chance.

      • After a slow start, can Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) live up to the expectations created by both his past performance and his present mouth? Will the ill-will of the Tour de Suisse have faded by the start in Rotterdam?

      • Will Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transistions) get his Tour stage win? He’s hot off a win at the Delta Tour Zeeland, which could indicate he’s building back up after nabbing two stages at the Giro d’Italia. If he can pull off a Tour stage, he’ll join teammate Dave Zabriskie on the list of Americans who’ve won stages of all three grand tours.

      • Which of the second line sprinters will steal some of the limelight? Saxo Bank’s rising classics star and fast man Matti Breschel? Lampre young ‘un Francesco Gavazzi? Some French guy?

      • Which leadout man is most likely to take a sneaky stage win while his leader sweeps his wheel for him – Julian Dean (Garmin-Transitions), or Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia)?

      • Robbie McEwen (Katusha) is likely staring down the barrel of his last Tour. Will he be able to go out on a good note after a year of injuries and setbacks?

      • Anyone seen Thor Hushovd lately? Anyone?

      • Will Oscar Friere (Rabobank) get one more stage? Though he doesn’t have the top end that a lot of the sprinters have, in a tricky finish run it’s hard to count him out. With his classics experience, he’s likely to be in the mix on the early northern stages, where he may be more likely to win from a small group or reduced bunch.

      Help at Last?

      For me, the big takeaway from the Tour de Suisse wasn’t the success of Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) or the Radio Shack squad’s apparent depth. It was Steve Morabito (BMC) and the BMC team. Morabito ended up fourth overall, but more importantly he finished in the contenders group three seconds back from winner Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) on the climbing stage to the Schwarzenberg, then followed that up by finishing seventh in a group :43 back from Robert Gesink (Rabobank) on stage 6 to La Punt. Add Morabito’s performance to Marcus Burghardt’s wins on two rolling stages, Mathias Frank’s wins in the KOM and intermediate sprints competitions, and solid performances from rouleurs George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan, and it starts to look like Cadel Evans could finally go into a grand tour with some legitimate support when it counts. Sure, Tour de Suisse is BMC’s defacto national tour, so you’d expect them to put some effort in, but the fact that Evans wasn’t there reveals where their real priorities very justifiably lie.

      While we’re on it, you know who else might finally have some help in the mountains? Denis Menchov (Rabobank). The oft-overlooked Russian is putting all his eggs in the Tour basket this year, and might finally have some high-mountain companionship from Robert Gesink, who’s finally starting to live up to the potential we’ve caught glimpses of in the last few years.

      How Soon They Forget

      Speaking of Evans…Armstrong, Contador, and various Schlecks are all on everyone’s lips, given the recent conclusions of the Dauphine and Suisse. But geez, doesn’t anyone remember the Giro a month back? Sure, the Dauphine and Suisse are obviously fresher in our minds, but the Giro showed us a few relevant points too, and in a fairly spectacular fashion. For prognosticating purposes, the Giro also carries the added weight of being a three-week race. A couple of Giro takeaways, lest we forget:

      • Evans is obviously a new man this year, and could find himself right in the mix if his team shows up (see above). It’s probably also worth noting that while the lack of TT kilometers in this Tour will count against him vis-à-vis challenges from the Schlecks, with his experience and his teams, he could also be a big gainer in the early stages in the low countries. It’s also important to note that Evans had some surprising standout performances on the Giro’s steep ramps, a promising sign given that the Pyrenees will play a crucial role in this year’s Tour.

      • Everybody’s banging on about Radio Shack and Saxo Banks’ depth, and with good reason, but good lord, does anyone remember how Liquigas looked in the Giro, on a course where team strength wasn’t supposed to matter? I don’t believe they’ve announced their team yet, but Liquigas looks to be just as strong for the Tour as they were for the Giro, if not stronger. While Basso’s chief Giro lieutenant/co-captain Vincenzo Nibali is taking a break after this weekend’s national championship, the team will likely bring in Czech stage race hope Roman Kreuziger, and possibly wonderboy Peter Sagan as well. Mix in Giro standouts Sylvester Szmyd, Valerio Agnoli, and Robert Kiserlovski, pick three more depending on who’s good, and you have a team that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.

      Something About Radio Shack

      Radio Shack announced its Tour de France lineup on Monday, beaming out a roster that contains few surprises but still manages to be shocking when you see it written down. Quite simply, it may be the oldest Tour de France squad in history, though I’ll leave it up to the real number crunchers to verify that.* Yes, for the first time in decades, an American team has fielded a squad that can answer that most American of questions: Where were you when Kennedy was shot?

      Overall, the team weighs in at an experienced-but-reasonable average age of 32.5, but that’s thanks to a foursome of 30 year old workhorses – Yaroslav Popovytch, Sergio Paulinho, Gregory Rast, and Dmitri Muravyev – as well as a substantial contribution from young Jani Brajkovic’s 26 years. But the RadioShack power elite – headed by Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner, and Levi Leipheimer – comes in at a whopping 36.75 years old. (If you don’t want to consider Horner and his 38 years as part of that group, fine, but eliminating him only brings the average age to 36.3.)

      With an average age like that, people will rattle on about all sorts of legitimate ways to beat RadioShack, like frequent tempo changes on the climbs or making the race hard on back-to-back days to make recovery a key issue. But that’s all bullshit. If you want to beat a team of old guys, you have to look beyond cycling for your tactics. So here’s the Service Course advice for challenging Radio Shack at this year’s tour:

      • Keep a jersey pocket full of butterscotch candies, and throw them to the side of the road on climbs. Butterscotch is like old person flypaper.

      • Start a whisper campaign aimed at getting the UCI to classify Rascal scooters as “motorized doping.”

      • Have the UCI outlaw the wearing of tall black socks with shorts. By prohibiting the time-honored old person dress code, you’re sure to disrupt their mental game.

      • Air reruns of Matlock during time trials. Late starthouse appearances will surely ensue.

      • Get Cialis listed as performance enhancing substance. The cycling kind of performance enhancing substance.

      • Switch labels on denture cream, chamois cream.

      Extremely cheap and largely hypocritical potshots aside, it’s a hell of a strong team. Just, you know, old, which as I said, isn’t shocking. So what is shocking about this team? No Spaniards. Starting in 2001, when Bruyneel began having to replace departing American climbing talents like Jonathan Vaughters, Kevin Livingston, and Tyler Hamilton, Spaniards became a mainstay of Bruyneel/Armstrong collaborations. For awhile in the early-mid 2000s, the team was probably the best Spanish team in cycling. This year, Haimar Zubeldia was the last likely Spanish hope for a Tour start, but since he’s out with a broken wrist, the Portuguese Paulinho is the lone Iberian representative on the squad. Of course, Zubeldia is a Basque, so despite his passport and the little Spanish flag next to his name on Versus, he might not consider himself any more Spanish than Paulinho. In fact, by hailing from Texas, Armstrong might be the closest thing to a native Spanish-speaker on the squad.

      * If you did want to figure out what the oldest Tour team ever was, I’d start by looking at the immediate post-WWII Tours, when lots of the pre-war stars gave it a final shot, and much of the younger generation had been, well, killed.

      The Dope Test Flap

      There’s big news this week in acronym city, where at the order of WADA, the UCI will be conducting special dope tests at ASO’s TdF at the request of AFLD. You can view a nice bulleted outline of the situation and the decision here (thanks to @cyclingfansanon for the link). While nobody enjoys an inter-agency procedural eye-gouging match as much as I do, the real news to come out of this whole kerfuffle has been insanely understated – namely that AFLD claims to have information from customs/border agents and other law enforcement that seems to justify targeted testing of certain riders at the Tour. Uhh…that could be big news. Like Willy Voet big news.

      Barry Finally Gets His Tour

      Team Sky released its Tour de France roster this morning, an affair I’m sure my UK friends will thoroughly dissect within a matter of minutes, so I’ll leave it to them and just comment on one small part of it. For me, the biggest news was the selection of Mike Barry to ride his first Tour. You already know Barry through his writing, of course. But in addition to his abilities in capturing the sport from the inside, he’s also a very capable domestique who’s been worthy of a Tour ride for years, as proven by his service at the classics and various Vueltas and Giros. But riding as he did for Bruyneel’s deep Tour-winning teams, he never quite got the call-up earlier in his career. Maybe, as a Canadian, he just didn’t speak enough Spanish, who knows.

      This year, though, he’s finally getting his shot, which is good, because it was feeling a bit like now-or-never time. I’m glad for him. Yes, I know he came up in Floyd Landis’s doping allegations, but he was also my next door neighbor in a sublet in Boulder about 11 years ago, when he was with Saturn and his wife Dede was still racing. I didn’t really know him, or her, and still don’t. I was just interning at VeloNews then, and figured the last thing I’d want to have next door if I were a pro cyclist was some cycling writer chatting me up every day when I got home. So I kept my distance. But Mike and Dede were always friendly, with a hello in the stairway or a wave as we passed coming and going on bikes. Like a lot of the people mentioned in various dope stories, they’re real people for me, and I try to remember that. The whole Landis thing will sort itself out, and we’ll all be happy or vindicated or disappointed or otherwise affected by what we find out about a lot of people. But that can wait. For now I’ll wish Barry all the best in his Tour debut. It’s about time.

      Belief Systems

      The Service Course has had a few inquiries on how it's managed to not weigh in on last week’s Floyd Landis confessusations. Well, the fact is, between the time I heard and the time I could even think about writing anything – a period of roughly 45 minutes – everything about the whole mess had already been written six or seven times over. Sure, it was written with widely varying degrees of sanity, logic, giddiness, mouth-frothing, and spelling acumen, but it was written nonetheless, and I didn’t really have much to add to the conversation. We all read the same articles, the same denials, and the same trail of emails, didn't we? There just wasn't that much more information out there.

      Not adding to the noise was one motivation for keeping silent, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that there was another reason as well: when it comes to anything Lance Armstrong-related, people are fucking nuts. I mean, have you seen the things people write on other sites and in comments sections about this thing? I can actual feel the veins on their foreheads throbbing. So, if I were looking to lead a nice, quiet life, free from people calling me names, questioning my manhood, and threatening my dog, I’d apparently be better off writing that Jesus didn’t exist than daring to wonder aloud whether Lance Armstrong might have, once upon a time, taken a little taste of the forbidden fruit.

      I don’t cover the Jesus beat, though --- I write about professional cycling, so I guess I have to take what I’m handed. But this Landis/Armstrong quagmire does feel a whole lot like a religious issue sometimes, in that there’s very little I or anyone else can write that will change what each individual already believes to be true, and in that the more anyone tries to sway people's beliefs, the more pissed off those people are going to get. And, just like religion, I’m not sure I really want to change anyone’s mind, anyway. But since people keep asking me whether I "believe Landis," I’ll risk my fictional dog’s well-being and tell you what I believe:

      • I believe that people can lie about something at one point in time and tell the truth about it at some other point. I believe that when they do, the lie usually comes first and the truth second.

      • I believe that even if hatred, spite, or revenge is the motive, truth can still be the result.

      • I believe, however, that “truth” and “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” aren’t necessarily synonymous. That’s why they ask you about each of them individually in the court oath. Notably, there’s no oath required to send an email.

      • I believe that some people are getting confused about whether they’re shocked about what Landis is saying, or shocked that he’s saying it.

      • I believe that where there’s smoke there’s usually fire. Or at least some burning embers. And there’s been an awful lot of smoke for an awful long time. And I can't believe I just used the "where there's smoke there's fire" cliche.

      • I believe that, if Landis’s list were one notable name shorter, people would be a lot slower to dismiss his accusations.

      • I believe that, yeah, Landis looks and sounds a little crazy sometimes. While we’re on the subject, I think his looks have something to do with how people perceive him. Think about it – who would “Sorry about the hookers and blow” sound less creepy coming from: Floyd Landis, or Tom Boonen?

      • I believe that it's shocking how many adults think that sticking their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and shouting “liar, liar, liar, liar…” is a valuable contribution to discourse or a nuanced assessment of the situation.

      • I believe it’s extremely telling that all former USPS rider and current Garmin DS Jonathan Vaughters had to say about the Landis accusations was that Garmin’s Dave Zabriskie was clean now, and that’s what really mattered. I believe it's huge that that organization is supporting its riders' full cooperation with any investigation -- because I assume that promise of continued employment extends to Vaughters himself as well as other former USPS riders Zabriskie and DS Matt White.

      • I believe that Mike Barry’s next book might be titled “Under the Postal Bus.”

      • I believe the non-rider names mentioned are far more important than the rider names.

      • I believe that people will now be much less interested in Allen Lim’s cooling vests and rice cakes, and much more interested in any other work he might have done at Garmin.

      • I believe Armstrong’s sponsors will stand by him, both because they will have shot themselves in the foot if they abandon him and this all turns out to be baseless, and because he owns a piece of most of them.

      • I believe that the wording of one of the initial headlines – “Landis Confesses, Implicates Lance” – tells us a lot of what we need to know about how the balance was stacked at the outset (not that we didn’t already know). One rider is just a last name, like most athletes. The other’s our best bud, someone we call by their first name, even if it’s in a news headline in the country’s leading sports publication. At least Landis isn’t referred to by three names yet, because I believe that’s never a good thing.

      • I believe that nobody is “too big to fail.” I’ve heard it said that, for better or worse, Landis should shut his trap because of the affect it could have on good work done by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. While that sort of impact may be unfortunate, if the LAF were to go down because it’s proved that Armstrong used bucketloads of dope, I’ll have a hard time finding that to be Floyd Landis’s fault. And given the current tide of public opinion, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, anyway.

      • I believe it doesn’t matter a bit what we all think Landis should or shouldn’t say, because this isn’t a referendum. While it’s very true that he’s heaped much of this ill-will on himself, it’s equally true that he’s lost his job, his wife, his house, his best friend, his money, and his credibility to all of this, so if he’s not considering all possible negative consequences his actions might have for others, I can’t say I blame him.

      • I believe that Landis’s best shot at credibility on this issue is for other USPS veterans to corroborate his claims, if those claims are true. Unfortunately, I also believe that those in the most likely position to do so – Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, and Manuel Beltran – would be met with the same distrust Landis has, and not without good reason. I also believe that, should riders like Frankie Andreau, or Marty Jemison, or Cedric Vasseur, or Pascal Derame, or Benjamin Noval speak out, they’ll be dismissed with the standard “disgruntled employee” label. Very few people seem to have left that team with a smile on their faces.

      • I believe that no matter how many people were to corroborate Landis’s story, the fingers-in-the-ears crowd will never hear it.

      • I believe that, if the fingers-in-the-ears would unplug long enough to listen to anyone’s potential corroboration, it would be George Hincapie’s. Maybe Ekimov’s. But mostly Hincapie’s.

      • I believe that, like Festina soigneur Willy Voet, Bruyneel’s errand boy “Duff” will be the most likely person to spend actual time in the clink for all of this.

      • I believe that the Fed being involved via BALCO buster Jeff Novitzky is the only hope of anything getting done if the charges have merit. If Landis’ accusations prove legitimate, Armstrong going down on fraud charges would be cycling’s equivalent of nabbing Al Capone on tax evasion, but it’s abundantly clear that cycling’s authorities won’t be doing anything of substance. In a letter to one of those accused, John Lelangue, the UCI has already basically said, “we’re investigating, because we have to look like we’re investigating, but it’s all bullshit, so don’t worry too much about it.” Though I should add that the UCI has already diligently investigated itself and found itself innocent, they have taken the noble step of requesting that national federations investigate everyone else. Of course, they’re careful to reiterate in that request that they still think it’s all bullshit.

      • I believe that, for a long time, there’s been a feeling that someone who really loves cycling would come in and be the one to clean the whole mess up. I believe that’s wrong. I believe that to clean it up, it’s going to take someone who doesn’t give a shit about cycling. (See above.)

      • I believe that the Fed's success in prosecuting fraud based on USPS funds going to buy dope could depend on what their definition of “paid for” is. If there was indeed doping going on and you take the strictest interpretation, I think they'll have a tough time showing USPS sponsorship money was specifically used for dope purchases. I’d imagine sponsorship money from multiple sources is deposited in a central account, then farmed out for various purposes, so I doubt there are terribly many receipts that trace team funds from a specific sponsor source all the way through to end purchases. And I really doubt that illicit dope purchases are accounted for in that way (though Dr. Fuentes was apparently pretty meticulous in invoicing Tyler Hamilton). So even if the team was buying dope with mailman money, I’m not sure you could prove it any more than you could prove that AMD funds were specifically used to buy a new muffler for the team bus. And that’s all assuming the dope and gear was paid for by the team in some manner, and not by the riders with their own money and by their own devices. But, if you take a broader definition of “paid for” – like “USPS paid Tailwind, and Tailwind paid for dope,” or “USPS paid Tailwind, Tailwind paid riders, and riders paid for dope,” then the Fed might get somewhere. Also, while the Fed's prosecution angle seems to be primarily financial in nature and the Postal team was financially located in the United States, I do wonder if they'll run into jurisdictional issues considering how much of what’s being discussed didn’t occur on U.S. soil.

      • I believe that Fred Rodriguez (Saturn-Mapei-Lotto-Rock Racing) may be the only major American Euro-pro of the Armstrong Tour de France era who isn’t somehow connected to U.S. Postal, Bruyneel, Lim, or some other party named in Landis’s emails. I suppose he rode for the national team while Ochowicz was connected to USAC, but that’s a few degrees farther removed than everyone else. I’m open to contradictions or other suggestions if you have them.

      • I believe that the emails Armstrong released from Landis and Brent Kay aren’t particularly illuminating one way or the other, but they do reveal that Dr. Kay is a very strange man with some pretty delusional takes on what the future might have held for Landis. Winning the Vuelta? With RadioShack? Singing a round of Kumbaya with Lemond and Armstrong? Really?

      • I believe that, if you’ve read Breaking the Chain about the 1998 Festina scandal, or Matt Rendell’s excellent Death of Marco Pantani, or any of the various books and articles detailing doping practices in professional cycling, none of what Landis has alleged so far is particularly outlandish. If anything, what’s been revealed so far strikes me as a pretty light regimen.

      • I believe you should read Adam Myerson’s take on the whole mess, because I believe he gets lot of things right.

      • I believe that, while the unraveling of the Landis accusations will provide me with somewhat guilty entertainment, I’ll have a hard time really caring too much how it turns out. There are negatives and positives either way, and it will be a valuable investigation from a precedent-setting perspective, but in the most immediate sense, most of these guys are old anyway, so if they all end up tossed we’re really only speeding up the timeline by a couple of years. I’m neither a doping apologist nor a doping inquisitor, though, so I’m pretty sure either end of the spectrum has stronger feelings on the outcome than I do.

      • I believe that, whatever the outcome, the cycling world will not come crashing down. It can be hard to tell sometimes, particularly in this country, but I do still believe that no man is bigger than the sport. And if Landis is proved a liar (again), or if Armstrong and the others he’s named are proven to be frauds, the show will go on.

      • I believe that at some point, one of those crazy guys on the streetcorner holding the sign that reads “THE END IS NEAR” is going to turn out to be right. Because at a certain point it seems sort of inevitable, doesn’t it?

      Weird Als Sweep Liège

      They say that if you look hard enough around the less-traveled corners of Las Vegas and London, you can get betting odds on just about anything – life, death, and most things in between. Usually, though, when you hear about offbeat wagers, they’re talking about more mundane stuff, like betting on the opening coin toss of the Superbowl, or the time about a decade ago when David Miller’s mom put some cash down with Lloyd's on her neo-pro son winning the Tour de France by a certain date (update: she lost). But I’d guess that even the freak-wager specialists in the world’s betting capitals would take quite awhile to think out the odds on ending up with an all-Al podium at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. No matter how long the odds were, though, that’s exactly what we got, with Al Vinokourov (Astana) taking the top spot, followed by Al Kolobnev (Katusha) and Al Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), so anyone who placed that peculiar bet in time is probably still out drinking on their winnings now. I mean, really, that sort of thing hasn’t happened since Louis Armstrong outsprinted Lance Armstrong and Neil Armstrong to win the 1996 Classique des Alpes.

      If you happened to be the person trying to make those odds, though, it probably would have been the Al on top of the podium who threw off your calculations. He certainly threw off mine. On hindsight, it seems obvious that Vinokourov should have been on the collective radar more prominently than he was, particularly coming off his win at Trentino. As indicative of good form as that win was, or should have been, banging around Italy for the prior week kept Vinokourov’s name well-removed from most of the pre-Liège buildup. Unlike the vast majority of his competitors, his initial odds weren’t predicated on performances at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, then constantly revised and discussed based on Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne performances. So despite his recent success, he was still somewhat of an unknown quantity, which can be a pretty valuable asset in professional cycling.

      Despite his last minute arrival, though, Vinokourov’s performance shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise, at least once everyone realized he was there. He did, after all, win the 2005 Liege in fine style, so he kind of knew what he was doing. Remarkably, the fact that this was Vinokourov’s second Liege win went unmentioned in a number of initial reports I read, despite the fact that even the most info-anemic press packet typically includes a list of past winners. And he certainly didn’t get the pre-race previous winner treatment that Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Valverde did. Did his blood doping suspension really wash him so thoroughly from the public consciousness that not even the media pros could acknowledge that he’d taken this particular ride before?

      Regardless of the reason or intent behind that memory loss, one person who didn’t forget his previous Liège win was Vinokourov himself. In fact, he managed to duplicate the conditions of his prior win as nearly as possible without wearing T-Mobile pink. As he did in 2005, Vinokourov forged his victory from a two-up break, and just as he did then, he went with a fellow former Eastern Bloc hardman as his breakaway companion, this time swapping East German Jens Voigt for Russian Kolobnev. In both cases, after working well with his companion to establish the winning gap, Vinokourov made two late-race moves to secure the win – a first testing attack just past the 10 kilometers-to-go point, and then a final killing move well inside the red kite. I suppose when you know what works, you might as well stick with the script.

      Having the experience and the legs to win Liège is one thing, though, actually pulling it off is another. Fortunately for Vinokourov, he had an ace up his sleeve that none of his competitors did: a spare Al. Now Vino may claim up and down that he’s not doping, but really, the way things were working out on Sunday, having two Als in one team was so unfair it might as well have been illegal. For the preceding week, Vinokourov’s Astana teammate Alberto Contador had been busy soaking up all those Ardennes expectations, questions, and examinations that Vinokourov was studiously avoiding in Italy, playing the perfect decoy. And on Sunday, Contador took that decoy role from the press room to the road. Despite crowing to anyone who would listen that he was only at Liege to gain experience, when the Spaniard jumped to reach Andy Schleck and Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma) on the crucial Côte de la Roche aux Facons climb, there wasn’t a serious contender around who was going to let him go and see how things worked out. No sooner had an elite group of 10 contenders come back together around Contador than Vinokourov countered, drawing out Kolobnev as the mega-favorites – Gilbert, Cadel Evans (BMC), Valverde, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) – watched each other and Contador. And with that, two Als were off and running, and that's apparently a hard thing to stop.

      • So how did the other Als of Liège-Bastogne-Liège fare? Well, Alan Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) made the early break and held out until just prior to La Redoute before taking the backroads back to the team bus, so that’s certainly a big day out for him. But Alessandro Spezialetti (Lampre), rolling in an anonymous 89th? That guy needs to pick it up.

      • Hard to believe that late chase group couldn’t get it together, isn’t it? With Valverde, Evans, and Gilbert, they should have had the horsepower and experience to get back in the mix for the win. The only problem was that, when the trio drew to within 20 seconds or so of the leaders, only Gilbert seemed terribly interested in riding to win. Valverde, on the other hand, started skipping turns to save his energy to sprint to the third place he ultimately got, but his willingness to settle cost the group a shot at the title. For his part, Evans apparently tried to talk Valverde back into the rotation, but simply resigned his own chances when that proved ineffective rather than giving it a go himself. But, eh, that’s bike racing, and all three put in a hell of a ride regardless.

      • What the hell is going on with Saxo Bank and brake drag? Frank Schleck had to bike-jack teammate Niki Sorenson at the bottom of the Roche aux Facons due to a rubbing brake on his own bike, leaving brother Andy alone at the front at a key point in the race. A few weeks ago at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, rubbing brakes were the impetus behind the famously flubbed Matti Breschel bike change. Fabian Cancellara also changed bikes during that race due to a rubbing caliper, but fortunately he received one of the smoothest bike changes in recorded history and still came out with the win. Since I haven’t heard any complaints about SRAM Red brakes, I’m starting to wonder if there’s an issue with the interaction between the brakes and the mounting point on the team’s bikes that’s causing the brakes to slip off-center (e.g., are Saxo bolting homemade number plate holders between the brake and bridge?). But please note that I’m basing those theories on absolutely nothing. Anyway, might be worth noting that Joao Correia of Cervelo Test Team also came down with a case of brake rub recently. Maybe team mechanics just aren’t doing enough blow to stay awake anymore.

      • I suppose we have to talk about the doping angle in Vinokourov’s win, don’t we? Or maybe we don’t, because everyone else sure as hell is, and frankly, it’s exhausting. No matter how much I try to think about it, I have to confess to being a little ambivalent on the whole thing. Yes, it’s a little distasteful to have pretty unrepentant people back in the peloton and winning right after their suspensions end, especially people who are prone to referring to themselves in the third person. On the other hand, the world at large offers second chances in a lot of arenas far more important than bike racing, so I’m having a hard time getting too worked up about it. Mostly, I’m just reminded of the times following cycling’s first great purge, when Virenque, Brochard, Zulle, Moreau and company all made their way back into racing, and gradually back into big events and onto podiums. The same cries erupted then as now (though in a more muted way due to the relative infancy of the internet), but gradually, those initially vivid distastes faded more and more until Moreau became seen as a handsome, good-natured underdog again, and the Broche reestablished himself as a cult hero to mullet-loving cyclists everywhere. Virenque remained a ridiculous caricature of his ridiculous self, but there’s not much you can do about that guy. Now, the veterans of the second great purge – Miller, Basso, Vino, Ricco, Scarponi – are back, and we’ll go through those same pains again, and to much the same result, I expect. Would I rather have seen Kolobnev or Gilbert win? You bet your arse, but I don’t make those decisions.

        In the end, I think the most interesting things in all the post-Liège Vinokourov doping claptrap are the implied admissions of prior wrongdoing he's finally made in the wake of his win. In various post-race quotes, he makes references to starting fresh, proving he can win without doping. For those observers who absolutely must have a confession to move on, I think that’s as close as you’re going to get.

        Despite those confession-ettes, though, Vinokourov still seems a little confused about his message – kind of like my old dog used to get when he couldn’t remember whether he was play-growling at you or real-growling at you. Mixed in with his starting over talk were remarks about how his Liège win is great “revenge.” Apparently, he was talking about revenge on the media, who he believes treated him unfairly in the wake of his unseemly exit from the sport back in 2007. I can see being a little peeved at the people who called you names, especially when you think or know that all your coworkers are doing the same elicit things, but regardless – if you’re acknowledging that you did the crime, I’m not sure you get to have your feelings hurt by the reaction. (Also, it is notoriously hard to “get revenge” on the media – it’s part of their job to not give a shit what you think of them. The cycling media is bad at maintaining that perspective sometimes, but we still try. And whenever a subject tries to get revenge, they just provide more fodder.) The other thing Vinokourov doesn’t seem to quite be getting, judging by his open letter today, is that while he does indeed have the right to participate in and even win bicycle races, the public and the media are also perfectly within their rights not to like it, even if he's as clean and pure as a convent on wash day. That said, I do grudgingly admire the sort of self-confidence that makes people not understand why people don't like them.

      • Am I the only one who thinks the "open letter" is a whiny, brooding way to do just about anything?

      • OK, it wasn’t just lack of a doping prior that made me really want Kolobnev to win. It’s because I noted on Thursday that if the big favorites didn’t watch themselves, Kolobnev could run away with a Liege win, and I desperately wanted to be right. So I was hoping pretty hard in those last few kilometers. Obviously, it wasn't to be, but it was a darn good ride by the Russian, even if it wasn’t a particularly surprising one. Besides his good rides at Amstel and Flèche earlier in the week, a good ride was indicated for one other reason: Liège is long as hell and hard as hell, and Kolobnev loves long, hard races. He’s been second twice at the World Championships and on the podium at Lombardia, and he’s also won the Montepaschi race in Italy. If things continue on the current path, be on the lookout for Kolobnev come this year’s Lombardia.

      • If you didn’t like the podium at Liège, you really shouldn’t delve deeper into Vinokourov’s Trentino win. Top 5 on GC: Vinokourov, Ricco, Pozzovivo, Scarponi, Basso. Only Pozzovivo hasn’t spent time on the bench. You know why? Dope won’t fit in the guy. Seriously, I’m no giant, but that dude’s tiny.

      10 Things About Paris-Roubaix

      Paris-Roubaix gets more attention than any other classic on the calendar, with the assembled press examining the race from every angle -- from rider form, to bikes, to stones, to cars, to the fans and watering holes along the route. I'm about 3,800 miles too far west to examine much of anything right now, but here are 10 things I'm thinking about Roubaix:

      1. Within minutes of his victory in Wednesday's Scheldeprijs, Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) was already telling the assembled press that he wouldn’t be among his team’s protected riders for Paris-Roubaix. When asked why, he noted that the team has two proven leaders for that event – Martijn Maaskant and Johan Vansummeren. Indeed, both have done notable rides in the cobbled classics, with Maaskant finishing fourth at Roubaix on his first try in 2008, and Vansummeren doing incredible support work for Leif Hoste at Lotto. But despite those riders solid record in past years, I still have to ask again – why is Farrar not a/the protected rider for Garmin at this year’s Roubaix?

        This year, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Farrar was third. Vansummeren was 52nd and Maaskant was 121st. At Gent-Wevelgem, Farrar was ninth, Vansummeren was 21st, and Maaskant was hors delay. At the Ronde, Farrar was fifth, with Vansummeren 55th at 5:13 back and Maaskant 90th at 13:20. At all three days of DePanne, Farrar was also the top finisher of the three. Now, yes, I realize that on some of those days, particularly those most likely to end in bunch sprints, Vansummeren and Maaskant were likely doing the donkey work for Farrar, and at some point in that job, you get to pull the plug and coast in. Maybe even save a little bit for Roubaix. But if Farrar was the team's leader and top finisher for hardman’s hilly cobbled classics like Het Nieuwsblad and the Ronde, and for moderately hilly cobbled races like Gent-Wevelgem, and for flat “sprinters” races with cobbles like DePanne and Scheldeprijs, why turn around and start talking about how you have better guys for a flat, cobbled race a week later?

        Yes, Farrar has only ridden the race once before, and experience counts. But Maaskant has been given protected status for two years now based on his high placing on his maiden voyage to hell. And besides, everyone always talks about how experience counts, but then someone always comes along and proves it doesn’t matter as much as some people say it does – look at Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) at last year’s Milan-San Remo. And besides, Roubaix’s been won out of a hardman’s bunch sprint before – think Guesdon and Backstedt – and Farrar’s as good a candidate as Garmin has right now from that perspective. So unless Farrar has quietly confided to his team that his form is about to come crashing down around him, or they’re just trying to take some heat off him by saying he’s just there to help out, I’m failing to see the logic here.

      2. Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) quietly re-entered the classics peloton at the Scheldeprijs on Wednesday after having to scrap the Ronde due to illness. The Scheldeprijs doesn't really suit him, so it's hard to tell anything from his 67th place, but if he’s recovered, Pozzato should jump right back onto the favorites list for Roubaix. His gutsy ride there last year helped him shake some of the negative connotations of his carefully cultivated pretty boy image. He’s still pretty, of course, but he can take a punch, too.

      3. With Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) taking the weekend off to reload for the Ardennes classics in his native Wallonia, Leif Hoste takes over leadership duties for Omega Pharma, which – as we’ve already beaten to death – really, really needs a classics win right now. I have mixed feelings about Hoste. I’ve had pleasant conversations with him at a team launch. I’ve also seen him shove a race official against a crowd barrier before the start of Philly for having the nerve to brush him as he went past. But that’s personality, which doesn’t matter very much at Roubaix, and I respect the hell out of his riding and his toughness. In addition to strong rides at Roubaix, he’s been a bridesmaid several times over at his native Ronde, which can draw you some criticism from the native press. One of the most memorable, steely-eyed responses I’ve witnessed was when a reporter asked him, after the 2004 Ronde, how he could dare chase down fellow Belgian Dave Bruylandts (then with Marlux) in the finale, bringing eventual German winner Stefan Wesseman (then T-Mobile) with him. Hoste’s response, paraphrased: “This isn’t the world championship. I get paid to ride for Lotto. Not for Belgium.” It wasn’t a popular answer given the venue, but it was delivered with such unflinching conviction and force, I don’t think anyone held it against him.

        Hoste has been fairly quiet this spring, mostly riding in Gilbert's shadow, but his form appears good and he's done his best rides when he hasn't been the center of attention.

      4. Roubaix organizer ASO announced on Tuesday that 100 gendarmes will be posted at the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobble sector to clamp down on the hooliganism that went on there last year. In addition to widespread littering, drunkenness, and I have to imagine ample public urination, spectators sector spit at and poured beer on competitors and pounded on and threw rocks at team cars and other race vehicles. So good on the neighboring towns and organizer for doing something to address it this year --- the only problem is that they’ve announced their clampdown way too early.

        Look, those people are coming to this race no matter what, and organizers would have been far better off rolling their security force into the Carrefour unannounced on Saturday and Sunday. That way, they’d have most of the crazies in one spot where they could keep an eye on them, and the delinquents wouldn’t have had time to plan evasive action. But now that ASO's told them the plan on Tuesday, the hooligan crowd will know that the Carrefour won’t be the party it was last year, so they’ll move on. Yes, originally the Carrefour was popular because it’s the last decisive sector of the race at just 14k to the finish, but the racing ceased to be the primary focus for the undesirable crowd a few years ago. So I suspect they’ll easily abandon the Carrefour and move upstream to somewhere like Mons-en-Pevele. It’s still a 5-star sector and still within the decisive final 40 kilometers for those that have maintained some interest in the race, and at a yawning 3,000 meters long, it’ll be tough as hell to patrol. And even better, they'll already know most of the gendarmes will be hanging out at the Carrefour.

      5. With wholesale Ronde DNF-ers Footon-Servetto not invited to Roubaix, which team is going to take the dubious prize of finishing the least number of riders? My money’s on Euskaltel. Sure, Caisse d'Epargne and Milram don't seem to have much of a taste for making the finale either, but for totally mismatched affinities, it's hard to beat a bunch of Basques on cobblestones.

        But let’s circle back to that Footon non-invite for a second. In the midst of all the recent kvetching about ASO’s Tour de France invites – which include the fairly unimpressive Footon – ASO's treatment of Footon at its classics shows just how much the organization is just grudgingly abiding by the 2008 agreement to invite then-ProTour teams to the Tour through 2010. While that document got Footon an invite to the big ball, that's as far as their love with ASO goes -- they won’t be attending Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne, or Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I have to admit, while it’s unfortunate that Footon is going to the Tour in a spot that could otherwise be used by more interesting teams, I’m glad that parties involved in the whole UCI/ASO ProTour dustup are finally bothering to read the agreements they’ve signed, and then go a step further and abide by them. What's next, reading contracts before we sign them?

      6. With the jaunt down into France from Belgium, the overall flavor of the peloton changes a bit, even if the basic cobbled classic game stays the same. Gone will be the Belgian second division teams, like Topsport Vlaanderen and Landboukredeit, and in come the French second division teams, like Cofidis and Saur-Sojasun. With swaps like that being made along (understandable) national lines, it speaks to the strength of the Dutch Vacansoleil squad that they’ve stayed on the roster as the action’s moved south. Of course, so has BMC, but thus far they’ve done so with recruiting rather than results.

      7. New observers of the Paris-Roubaix experience often have one of two reactions. Let’s address them right now.

        The first common reaction is, “Some of the roads I ride are bad like that! Why, after this bad winter, there are tons of potholes, and a bunch of gravel at the edges, too!” I get where you’re coming from, but no, your roads are not bad like that. It is not like riding a potholed road. Or a road with frost heaves. Or a gravel road. Or chipseal. Or your neighbor’s cobbled front walk. And chances are, you aren’t riding those roads at 45kph, so even if the road was the same, the experience really isn't. No doubt your roads are bad, but they are not like the ones at Roubaix. Have your Roubaix fantasies as you ride those roads – it’s fun – but don’t confuse them with reality.

        The second common reaction is, “Those roads are terrible. You know, they should use mountain bikes/suspension/bigger tires etc., etc., etc.” Yes, the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are horrible – more horrible than those in all the other cobbled classics, as a matter of fact. But there are also only 53 kilometers of them. The other 200 or so kilometers of Paris-Roubaix are paved, and that makes a lot of the equipment suggestions from the peanut gallery pretty inefficient. There was a time in the 1990s when mountain bike technology made some inroads at Roubaix, when Duclos Lasalle was winning on a RockShox Ruby and Johan Museeuw started the race on a horrific dual suspension Bianchi, but that anodized nightmare died out pretty quickly. Now, we’re back to the adaptations that have been a constant since the 1970s and 1980s – slightly bigger tires and clearance for them, a bit of extra padding here and there, and wheels that can take a pounding. Though cycling is painfully and detrimentally resistant to change at times, these equipment choices have stayed constant for a reason – they help you a bit on the cobbles, and don’t punish you for the other 200k.

      8. If you lurk around race caravans a bit, you get to see all the crap that gets taped to the team car dashboard to help directors and mechanics get their jobs done. Some are constants – start lists, kilometer numbers for climbs or cobbled sectors – but one of the less common ones is a diagram, usually hand drawn, noting where each rider's spare bike is on the roof of the car. For Sunday, Saxo Bank should look into that.

      9. Want to know one reason I like Paris-Roubaix? Since the race’s name comes from two cities, English language cycling publications aren’t tempted to translate it. For some reason, English speakers have some contrary and irrepressible urge to both translate foreign race names into our own language, and give our own races foreign names (Tour de Georgia, anyone?). And in translating foreign language race names, we’re terribly inconsistent, which only makes matters worse. Why do we talk about the Tour of Flanders, but the Giro d’ Italia? For that matter, why the Giro d’Italia, but the Tour of Lombardy? I once read a sider in a popular American cycling magazine that discussed someone’s win in the Across Flanders Race. I had to spend a minute clearing my head of images of head-strap wearing RAAM riders before I could figure out they were talking about Dwars door Vlaanderen. Even city-based race names aren’t immune from the desire to translate – after all, there’s the perverse need to put an “h” in Gent for Gent-Wevelgem, despite how the Belgians like to spell it on their maps.

        But Paris-Roubaix? Nice and clean.

        So what’s the worse race-name mangling I’ve ever seen? A few years back, in some Armstrong-centric series on Versus (Road to Paris, Stalking Lance, etc.), they had a segment on the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But on the segment intro -- a nice white letters on black screen divider -- what spelling did we get? Not the native Ronde van Vlaanderen. Not the Americanized Tour of Flanders. Not the French Tour des Flandres. We got, instead: Tour de Flanders. Some mongrel mix of French and English, all slapped together for a Flemish race. Well done.

        That said, my hypocrisy knows no bounds – in this very post I mentioned Milan-San Remo, not Milano-San Remo. But the Italians write about Parigi-Roubaix, so serves them right.

      10. Finally, disappointing to hear about Alessandro Ballan’s (BMC) provisional suspension by the team for his involvement in the latest blossoming Italian doping investigation, but good for the BMC management for acting quickly. There’s no sense in having things that happened while Ballan was at Lampre spill into their camp – they already have enough lingering baggage with the whole Phonak connection. At this point, I have to wonder at this point if Lampre will be at the start of Roubaix come Sunday. At just about this very time six years ago, Cofidis was busy packing up their things and slinking out of Compiegne as quietly as possible in the midst of a gathering dope storm. That scandal would cost David Millar (now Garmin-Transitions) two years on the bench. We’ll see where this one lands Ballan, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and the rest of the parties in question.

      Dutch Treat

      Will 2010 be the year that marks the true revival of Dutch cycling? Though the start of the season creeps earlier each year, making it seem like mid-season by mid-March, the 2010 season is still barely in its infancy, so it’s still difficult to tell just where everything is going. [So intense is the battle for “season opener” status, in fact, that the 2011 GP Marseillaise will actually be held just prior to the 2010 Giro di Lombardia.] But so far, with the pre-season races over with, it’s looking like Dutch cycling may just be making a comeback after a decade in the relative wilderness.

      Let’s start with a little history…

      In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Ti-Raleigh squad under legendary DS Peter Post [unstated motto: “I’d rather be feared than loved”] won damn near everything that mattered with riders like Hennie Kuiper, Jan Raas, Gerrie Knetemann, Joop Zoetemelk, and Leo Van Vliet. From 1974 to 1983, the team bagged a Tour de France (and 10 stages in the 1978 edition alone), Tour de Suisse, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Het Volk, Paris-Tours, Paris-Brussels, Paris-Nice…some of those multiple times.

      In 1984, one of Post’s key riders, fellow Dutch hardass Raas, tired of Post’s rule at Ti-Raleigh and led a group of defectors to form Kwantum, where Raas briefly stayed on as a rider before slipping into the driver’s seat. Through a number of sponsorship and management twists and turns, that team would eventually become Rabobank in 1996 and continue through the present. For his part, Post continued to head the former Ti-Raleigh structure, now rebranded as Panasonic, which led a long and fruitful life through 1992.

      Riding a wave of success fueled by that history, by 1989 there were four top-flight Dutch teams in the peloton – Panasonic and Kwantum heir Superconfex, TVM, and PDM. Though the influence of Dutch riders in the peloton may have dwindled a bit since the Ti-Raleigh days, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these four teams gave Dutch cycling plenty of visibility, whether their success came with native riders or foreigners like Eddy Planckaert, Edwig Van Hooydonck, and Sean Kelly. Nationalistic hopes rested mostly on GC threat Eric Breukink, sprinter Jean Paul Van Poppel, and a trio of climbers, Stephen Rooks, Gert Jan Theunisse, and the aging Peter Winnen. Each of those three tasted success on Alpe d’Huez., and to this day, that mountain still boasts an unofficial “Dutch corner” in their honor.]

      So What Happened?

      While Theunisse, Rooks, and Winnen occupied the pinnacle of Dutch cycling for a time, they also embodied the problems that would ultimately reduce Dutch cycling to a single major team in the peloton for the 2000s. Theunisse was busted outright for testosterone use in 1988, and again in 1990. Rooks and Winnen would confess to testosterone and amphetamine use after ending their careers, but that was only confirmation of what most of the world already knew. Rooks later fessed up to EPO use as well.

      In 1991, the entire PDM team dropped out of the Tour de France, citing food poisoning from a team dinner. It was later revealed that the squad had a bad reaction to poorly-stored dope. The team pulled the plug the next year.

      When the Festina Affair at the 1998 Tour de France brought EPO use into the spotlight, TVM was a major player, despite Festina getting naming rights to the scandal. TVM officials including DS Cees Priem and the team doctor were taken into police custody, and evidence of doping was found in the team’s hotel. Investigations and court cases followed; who knows when, how, or if they ever ended. A revamped version of the team soldiered on for two more years before exiting, though they did win the 1999 Ronde with Belgian Peter Van Petegem. As sponsors drifted off, only Rabobank was left, and in the absence of other big Dutch teams, it became the 800 pound gorilla of Dutch cycling.

      Throughout the 2000s, the Dutch had a number of solid performers but few standouts, with most of the country’s expectations borne by Rabobank and its dynamic duo of Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker. Both fantastic riders, no doubt, but both often fell short of wins in the biggest classics, and Boogerd faced unfortunate pressure to become a grand tour rider during his prime years, which may have distracted him from the classics he was better suited for. With only one top team standing, retirements of Boogerd and Dekker, and careers of other mainstays like Servais Knaven and Leon Van Bon winding down, many were left asking what was next for Dutch cycling.

      Back to the Present

      As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and the 2010 early season sees many signs that Dutch cycling may again be on an upswing. First, there was Bobby Traksel’s (Vacansoleil) gritty win in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne ahead of countryman Rick Flens (Rabobank), followed quickly by the very promising Lars Boom’s (Rabobank) win and initial leaders’ jersey in Paris-Nice, and several more good results from Traksel. Sure, a couple of early wins isn’t much to go on – but they’re one part of a renewed visibility for the Dutch on cycling’s world stage.

      More than any individual rider, that renewed visibility is being spearheaded by a trio of teams that have placed themselves firmly at the top tier of the sport in the eyes of organizers. There is Rabobank, of course, which is reaping the benefits of its long running U23 development squad as the riders it’s nurtured move up to its ProTour team, bringing the average age down a notch from the Boogerd/Dekker era. But while Rabobank is a given at the top of the sport, the addition of pro continental squads Skil-Shimano and Vacansoleil to the top of the wild-card invite list is a more recent phenomena. Even better, all three are fairly well-stocked with home-grown talent.

      [And to give credit where credit is due, the rest of the peloton is reaping the benefits of Rabobank’s U23 development program, too. In addition to helping fill out their Dutch rivals’ rosters, Rabo alums grace Garmin (Huub Duyn and Martijn Maaskant) and HTC-Columbia (American Tejay Van Garderen) among others.]

      Skil-Shimano broke through by putting in a strong spring 2009 campaign that led to a Tour de France invite, where they animated the breakaways and generally proved they deserved their spot. While the team isn’t heavy in the win column, they always seem to make the news, either by going in the long break, or with Piet Rooijakkers doing something newsworthy, like punching people or breaking his arm. Anything for a laugh, that guy.

      Vacansoleil, a merger of a long lineage of Hilaire van der Schueren-led teams (tracing a line through Mr. Bookmaker, to the ill-fated Unibet team, to Collstrop) and the small Dutch P3Transfer-Batavus squad, has also settled into the top of the wildcard heap. Critics will point out that they’ve done so mainly by signing French brothers Roman and Brice Feillu (the latter of whom had a breakout performance at the 2009 Tour de France riding with Agritubel) in a blatant attempt to catch the eye of Tour organizers ASO. Those critics would be right, if a bit intentionally naïve, but whether they like it or not, Vacansoleil’s personel moves and its riding are working: along with Skil-Shimano (and obviously Rabobank), they’ve just received an invite to Paris-Roubiax .

      Given the fact that Roubaix is an ASO property, it’s well accepted that invitations to these early season races are try-outs to see which of the smaller teams will have what it takes to make the cut for the Tour de France, which, even if you’re a straight up classics team, is still the golden ticket in cycling. At first, picking Tour teams on the basis of spring classics performance, of course, seems to make about as much sense as picking the best field goal kicker to be your starting quarterback. For the bigger, more specialized teams, it would be particularly non-sensical – for instance, let’s look at what Quick Step brought to the classics last season versus what it did at the Tour, and also at what Astana did at the classics versus what it brought to the Tour. But those teams all get automatically selected to the Tour (or at least, they’re supposed to), and are so deep that the Tour squad and classics squad may have little overlap at all. The tryout system makes a little more sense for smaller teams for which it's intended – which are typically less specialized in their rider selection – to show what they might bring to the Tour. We (and they) know from the outset that they’re not likely to win either Roubaix or the Tour, but what they can show is fighting spirit, an ability to keep the crowds engaged, rise to the pressure on a big stage, and hopefully an ability to keep their noses clean.

      So while Brice Feillu certainly won’t do Vacansoleil any good at all at Roubiax, his chances of riding the Tour will depend on his teammates' performances there. He has reason to be confident -- the team has a hell of a solid classics team on hand, including Dutchmen Traksel, Jimmy Hoogerland, Matthe Pronk, and Wouter Mol, as well as Belgian Bjorn Leukemans and Uzbek Sergey Lagutin. But Skil-Shimano is no slouch in the classics department either, with a young squad likely to be led by Kenny van Hummel, supported by fellow Dutchmen Koen de Kort, Roy Curvers, and Tom Veelers and Belgian Dominique Cornu.

      Either squad could easily get the upper hand in competing for what’s likely to be only a single Dutch wild-card spot in the Tour de France. And even though Skil-Shimano and Vacansoleil both swear up and down they’re not out to just neutralize each other at ASO events like Paris-Nice and Paris-Roubaix, it’s worth watching out for the race-within-the-race at Roubaix. [And if both teams don’t make the early break, they will have already failed in one of their goals.] The week after, we’ll get to watch as Rabobank, Skil-Shimano, and Vacansoleil all claw each others’ eyes out for the home win at the Netherlands’ biggest classic, the Amstel Gold race.

      So -- a few results, some new talent, three teams, two likely Tour slots -- what does it all mean? As in the glory days of Dutch cycling in the early 1980’s we’re witnessing an expansion from one dominant Dutch team to several as the talent on hand becomes too much to manage within a single squad. That's a good thing. And with more teams in the biggest events, both the sponsorship climate and the athlete draw in the Netherlands is likely to improve, hopefully building to an even brighter future. It may not be a full revival, and a lot has changed in the sport since the last glory years, but after years of dope scandals, loss of sponsors, and dwindling wins, the Dutch seem to be reemerging on the world cycling stage.

      • If we believe Dutch cycling is on the comeback, and that it's in a cycle where success by homegrown talent breeds proliferation of big teams and a period of more success, followed by a partially doping-related decline and subsequent revival fuelled by new homegrown talent, then maybe Germany has something to look forward to. Because they're clearly at the bottom of the same cycle, though they seem to have compressed the whole timeline by a decade or so.

      • OK, enough about the Dutch. What else is up with the Roubaix start list? Well, Astana’s not invited. We could rattle on and on about that, but really, is it that shocking for Astana not to get invited to an ASO event anymore? You could argue that they don’t have the chops for the big classics, but that’s a hard argument to make when they’re stocked with Eastern Europeans and Euskaltel is on the start list. More politics, I suppose, but who has time to unravel all the overlapping and conflicting motivations at this point?

      • You know who did get a Roubaix invite? Androni-Giacottoli. I’m sure they’re nice enough fellows, but the selection seems like an odd one. First, Italy was well represented already with Lampre and Liquigas, not to mention Pippo Pozzato at Katusha. Italy is a deep cycling country, obviously, so adding another team wasn’t out of the question, and Acqua e Sapone was a fine choice – they’re a mainstay player in the slew of Italian one-day races we talked about last week. But Androni? A look at the roster shows you that, with their standout riders being Michele Scarponi and Jose Serpa, they’re far more cut out for week-long stage races and a shot at the Giro d’Italia than they are for cobblestones. But, what the hell, maybe they’ll surprise. One thing I do know for sure, though, is that for a team sponsored by a European toy company, with all the jazzy fonts and graphics that come with that, they could have had a much better jersey design.

      • Longtime readers know I like Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia), either because of or in spite of his mouth, I haven’t decided which. But now it looks like his mouth is costing him a good shot at a Milan-San Remo repeat, as he was sidelined for much of the early season with what are being described as “severe dental problems.” And as sorry as I am that Cav will be a bit behind on form tomorrow, when a British rider is sidelined with dental problems, that’s a stereotype so good I can’t resist pointing it out. To our British readers who are scrapping me from their feeds right now, I kid because I love. After all, it’s not like the United States has never had a rider fall prey to a stereotypical American malady, like, say, being shot, or becoming a crack addict.

      • Finally, Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis). Wow. West Vlaanderen, GP Samyn, and the Nokere-Koerse all in a row, all at 21 years old. It’ll be interesting to see how he does at Roubaix, but unfortunately, after falling out of the top tier and losing reliable names like Chavanel and Nuyens, Cofidis isn’t getting much love north of the border, so we won’t get to see how he stacks up to the Ronde and Gent-Wevelgem.

      You Can Call Me Al(exandre)

      “I need a photo opportunity,
      I want a shot at redemption,
      Don’t want to end up a cartoon
      In a cartoon graveyard.”

      - Paul Simon, You Can Call Me Al

      So the Vuelta a Espana has arrived, and after a protracted and toothless debate about whether the team would take him back, Alexandre Vinokourov has arrived at the start with Astana colors on his back. Who’d have guessed? Outside of denying the doping charges that landed him a two-year suspension, it’s probably the most predictable move the famously impulsive rider has ever made. And so, in riding his first grand tour since getting tossed from the 2007 Tour de France, Vino jumps headfirst into the ever-expanding ranks of the post-dope comebacks. The goal of such comebacks certainly seems understandable enough – you make a grand re-entry, clear your name, prove you really were that good, dope or no dope. To some observers, the comeback can even seem admirable, with disgraced riders summoning the courage to show their faces again in hopes of making amends. Others just think that the return of dopers is in poor taste. But whether or not they’re understandable, admirable, distasteful or anything else, the fact of the matter is that comebacks are very rarely successful.

      Naming one top-flight grand tour rider who has come back from a dope suspension and recaptured his former glory is dead easy. Naming two is considerably more difficult.* Eddy Merckx, of course, managed to go on to a fairly handy career after his little incident at the 1969 Giro d’ Italia. But in accomplishing that feat so thoroughly, Merckx was an anomaly, a category of one (as is the case with many of his achievements in cycling). In the 40 years since Eddy left the Giro in tears, precious few riders have managed to shake off some time on the bench with the same success.

      Michel Pollentier, for instance, won the 1977 Giro d’ Italia before getting nailed with a condom full of clean urine nestled snugly his armpit during a 1978 dope test. On the day he was caught, he’d just won on Alpe d’Huez and assumed the Tour de France’s yellow jersey, a shirt he’d never wear again. Though he won the 1980 Ronde van Vlaanderen and came second at the 1982 Vuelta, after the Alpe, the palmares of the one-time Tour contender mostly read like a schedule for the Flemish kermesse circuit.

      But that was all in the amphetamine era, a substantially different game from the last 20 years or so of professional cycling. Once dope got really effective and suspensions got longer, the chances of making it back to the top of the grand tour heap after a positive became even more dismal. Thirty years after Merckx, Marco Pantani was also booted from the Giro d’ Italia, but unlike the hearty Belgian, the unstable Italian would never recover from the scandal, personally or professionally. To be fair, Pantani never officially tested positive – he was given a two-week sit-down for “health reasons” due to a high hematocrit level in the days before EPO testing – but the writing was on the wall.

      Tyler Hamilton, a perennial dark horse before his 2004 blood doping positive, made a brief return to Europe with the mildly sketchy Tinkoff team before returning to the United States to ride for the mildly sketchy Rock Racing team. After a surprising win at the U.S. professional championships last year, Hamilton tested positive again in 2009 and retired from the sport citing troubles with depression. Others cited the 8-year suspension he was given.

      Unlike Pantani and Hamilton, Floyd Landis, who barely stepped off the podium of the 2006 Tour de France before being stripped of his yellow jersey, is still alive and pedaling a bicycle for money. You just wouldn’t know it from the results. To put it kindly, Landis’ return to the sport has been a low-profile one, and it will be surprising if he is at the start of next year’s Tour of California, much less a grand tour.

      While other comebacks have fizzled out on the road, Michael Rasmussen’s return has barely even made it far enough to do that. Yanked from the 2007 Tour de France while in yellow for lying on his UCI whereabouts forms, the Danish climber hasn’t been able to find a team that will hire him. Instead, he’s been riding a few open races in Denmark, wearing the colors of the bike shop he owns in Italy. He’s doing well in the races he does, but it’s hard to rake in the UCI points riding open races for a shop team, even if it’s Mellow Johnny’s.

      Through all their outsized denials, the righteous indignation, and the stumbling, unsuccessful, and abortive attempts to return to past glory, all these riders have, to varying degrees, ended up as Paul Simon's proverbial cartoons in a cartoon graveyard. All bluster, ego, and grand plans, only to be put in the ground by the falling anvil of reality.

      Set against that backdrop, Vinokourov’s chances of returning to the front of a grand tour seem slim, and his cocksure return to the sport wearing a Vino-4-Ever jersey seems like the perfect setup for an embarrassing flop. But he seems to grasp that history is against him. He’s hedged his bets, saying that he’s not at the Vuelta for the win, but maybe to try for a stage and prepare for the World Championships. But somewhere in the back of his mind, the 35-year-old must be wondering if he still has the stuff to go three weeks with real ambitions. If history is our guide, he doesn’t.

      Vinokourov isn’t the only rider in this Vuelta seeking to avoid the headstone being laid over his career, though. For company, he has Ivan Basso (Liquigas) who, despite having already ridden this year’s Giro d’ Italia, is making his first grand tour appearance with any intention of riding for the GC. Frankly, Basso’s chances of making a successful comeback seem better than both his predecessors and contemporaries. Better than Pantani, better than Hamilton, Landis, and Rasumussen, and now, better than Vinokourov. Not because he’s younger or has more talent or anything else, but because he admitted to doing something wrong. No, he certainly didn’t fess up willingly, and his half-assed “intent to dope” confession-ette was laughable. But of all the recent returns from the wilderness, he’s the only one who has ever unburdened himself of any of the weight of his infractions. The rest of them chose to keep shouldering that weight. In grand tours, they always talk about everything counting – every bit of body weight, every extra minute of rest, every watt of energy saved or used. A marginally lighter conscious has to be worth something, no?

      *So who has made the most respectable comeback after a suspension in the modern era? I’d go with Christophe Moreau (Festina, 1998). I suppose you could argue for Richard Virenque as well, but that whole thing was just embarrassing for everyone.


      By now, they’re holding on by the barest of threads, hollow-eyed and jittery, discolored and discomforted by knotted stomachs, blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight. They are those journalists who have written so much, so exclusively, about cycling’s doping problems that the very topic has become their addiction, their habit. Devoid of a score this spring until Toni Colom was kind enough to give them a quick taste, they came to the Tour de France desperately in need of the big fix, and it’s no secret that the Tour is the biggest open-air market in town. But so far, the village has been dry of good dope, so now they’re hunting around for whatever they can get.

      They descended on Monaco so hopefully, with their carefully packed works –laptop, recorder, camera – ready to pull out with shaking, eager fingers if one of their connections came good, relieving the sickness and bringing them back to life. But until that happened, the gear would stay tucked safely out of sight, clean and unused. And there it still sits, despite all the other newsworth things that have gone down. That’s because, despite the veritable three-ring circus around them, like any junkie they don’t notice a damn thing that can’t somehow be connected to the score. Those things they do notice – the exceptional performance, the breakout ride, the sudden illness – will be set in that context, one that doesn’t for a second consider careful training, undiscovered talent, or hard luck, but concerns itself only with an ever-present, all-encompassing underworld where deception is the rule rather than the exception.

      Ah, junkies, to be sure. Which is not to say they have no point, no purpose or no value. William Burroughs, after all, was a proud and self-confessed junkie, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t produce some groundbreaking work on the object of his addiction. So have those most famous of cycling journalism’s dope addicts – Walsh, Ballester, Kimmage, and now Lemond – produced noteworthy work on their obsession. Yet, for any number of reasons, they’re either disregarded as nutters or hailed as infallible bastions of the one, true word. As with most things, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.

      Yes, they sometimes seem to have an irrational tenacity and preformed conclusions that can quickly erode their credibility. Despite those issues, however, they’ve also done some informed work that can’t be ignored simply because of their own dogged pursuit of the topic. But I’m not interested in writing some endorsement or refutation of any of their work – everybody will pretty much take what they need from it and leave the rest, anyways. I’m more interested in the how and why of journalists and former riders turning into tunnel-vision dope addicts. There are a multitude of personal reasons it can happen, of course – Kimmage’s drive seems to come from the ugliness he perceived firsthand as a rider, Walsh often cites a fundamental need for honesty embodied by his late son, Lemond seems to need continual reassurance that he was as good a rider as he believes, and Ballester, driven from a top cycling spot at L’Equipe over his pursuit of the dope issue, seemingly needs to convince himself and everyone that he was right to pursue it.

      All of those are good enough reasons, I suppose, but I’m more interested in the more broadly applicable and much simpler reason that will be coming into play right now, as writers seek the right phrases to sum up the 2009 Tour de France: fear. I believe that most journalists, good ones, anyway, have an innate fear of being wrong. They dread the moment they received that “Aha!” email, letter, or phone call, telling them that yesterday’s story is wrong, erroneous, a sham, despite all the work they put into researching and writing it. They’re terrified of that one, unknown-to-them fact that might emerge just after the presses roll, changing the entire plotline, turning their story upside down, making a mockery of what they thought was the truth they were reporting. They fear looking stupid, or incompetent, or naive. That sort of fear can be positive -- it can drive hard and careful work; it can also be crippling.

      For journalists covering cycling, that killer fact looming just over the horizon happens to be a little less of an unknown than is typical, and the “known unknown” of the doping spectre will have a chilling effect on some of the writing used to describe this Tour de France and its seemingly inevitable winner. Few will stray too far in their praise for him, his performances, and for those of his most vigorous challengers. And that known unknown will, as always, have a downright cynical effect on the writings of the dope junkies, who, until the cold, hard positive dope test they’re pining for comes down the pike, will have to content themselves with a simple, “it can’t be true.” It’s unfortunate, if understandable, that nothing that’s seen in cycling can be admired, believed, or even accepted, simply because the minute that test comes back from the UCI, anyone who’s put their admiration of a hard attack on paper or been impressed by a good time trial will feel they’ve been played for a fool.

      But if you only write about the dope, and how it’s everywhere and everyone is doing it and nothing can be trusted, you avoid all that fear. Writing those articles is a safe bet – people may think you’re a little single-minded and fairly paranoid, but it’ll be very, very hard to ever prove you wrong. So the message becomes, “He’s doping, and you’re just all too foolish to see it. They just haven’t caught him yet.” Many times, nothing ever confirms the declarations of suspicion, leaving the “haven’t caught him yet” to quietly cover the writers' reputations in perpetuity. But on those occasions when the proof comes in a positive test, they’ll be right there with the “I told you so. How could you have believed?” The beauty is that you can keep that act up as long as you want to. Nobody, after all, is ever truly proven clean – at best, they’ve just “never tested positive.”

      The fact that I’m pointing out these fears in no way means I’m immune to them – I fear the “gotcha” as much as anyone else. But I’m also steadfastly trying not to give into that fear. I’m not blind to the problems in the sport, but I refuse to let them consume every moment I watch it. I could take the guarded approach, or the cynical one, and view everything I see through that lens. It’s tempting at times. But then I realize that if I did, I’d never be wrong, but I wouldn’t enjoy the sport very much, either. So for me, I'll write what I see and think, and I'll somewhat grudgingly place my faith in the testing process. It's not a perfect approach, but it beats the alternative.

      Race Radio
      • Not much in this post about yesterday’s Stage 18 time trial, was there? Unless you read between the lines, I suppose, and those lines are pretty far apart. Anyway, long time readers will know that I don’t have a terribly long attention span for time trials, so I'll leave you to find most of what you need to know in the results or, if you’re really into it, in the time splits.

      • Many are decrying Contador’s refusal to answer dope questions from LeMonde at yesterday’s press conference. Having read the questions, I don’t blame him a bit. First, there’s no satisfying answer to “explain, you dirty bastard, how you can be so good” – whatever he could have answered, people who wanted to believe him would, and people who didn’t want to believe him wouldn’t. As for the VO2 max question, related to the questionable physiological/topographical theories Greg Lemond’s been writing in LeMonde, there’s no good answer to that one either. If Contador’s number is too low to fit Lemond’s calculation for how fast he believes a person should be able to go, it’s because Contador is doping. If Contador gives a number that would make his performance believable according to Lemond’s equation, well, I’m pretty sure that would somehow be because he’s doping, too, or lying, or both. So there’s all that, and then there’s the risk of providing answers that will be subsequently dissected, endlessly scrutinized, and variously interpreted – all after being translated on the spot into a dozen languages other than the one you answered in, which is also different from the language it was asked in. If I were Contador, I wouldn’t like those odds either, even if the strongest thing I’d ingested all year was a glass of iced tea.

      • As predicted, the battle for the podium seems to be the best thing going with the Ventoux roaring up tomorrow. Contador (Astana) and A. Schleck (Saxo Bank) are looking pretty secure, climbing as they are. What will be interesting will be the Armstrong (Astana), Wiggins (Garmin), F. Schleck (Saxo Bank) battle for the final step. There are so many variables in play that it’s hard to know where to start. While Wiggins suffered on the multi-pass day on Wednesday vis a vis Armstrong, the Ventoux is only a single peak, and Wiggins looked OK on a similar day at Arcalis. Of course, Arcalis was not the airless, exposed slope of the Ventoux, either. Armstrong had stated that if he had a single second over F. Schleck after the time trial, he’d feel secure against him on the Ventoux. I thought that to be optimistic, and he has more than that one second in hand, but I’m still not sure the older Schleck is out of the picture. And while I railed against the mechanics of the Astana 1-2-3 scenario yesterday, there is a chance that Astana could use a now-secure Contador to help Armstrong get the Ventoux win he’s missing. That, of course, brings up yet another variable – the prestige of a Ventoux win in the Tour, which could introduce the influence of non-GC stage threats like Kreuziger, Nibali, and Pellizoti into the GC battle.

      • Yesterday was a pretty good site traffic day, thanks in part to someone posting a link to yesterday’s post on a cycling message board in Finland. Unfortunately, I don’t speak the language, so I can’t tell if there are a few hundred Finns who think I’m brilliant, or a few hundred Finns who are laughing at the raving American moron. Judging by how the whole Contador/Astana issue is polling in English, I’m guessing it’s actually about half-and-half. Anyway, hello Finland!

      Well, Yes and No

      Vacillating Answers to Today’s Cycling Questions

      There are at least two sides to every story, and in cycling these days, there are always at least two answers to every question. Let’s look at four of this week’s discussion topics, and try to arrive at a simple “yes or no” based on the news of the week.

      1. Is examining blood values a reliable way to catch cheaters?

      Pat McQuaid and the UCI give an emphatic “yes,” based on the fact that, over the space of a week and a half, they got to nab the “list of five” for blood profile suspicions and Toni Colom (Katusha) for EPO. According to the UCI, Colom was targeted for the EPO test based on suspicious blood values, so we’re giving the UCI the benefit of the doubt and calling that a bio passport success as well. Of course, asking the UCI if blood values work is like asking a proud parent of an honor roll student if their child is really smart – they had a bit of a skewed view in the first place, and now they have the bumper sticker to prove it. Of course they’ll say yes.

      In the “no” chorus we have Bernhard Kohl, whose story is, by now, over-told. But now Kohl has someone to harmonize with in newcomer Vladimir Gusev. Gusev was terminated last year by Astana for blood values that were interpreted as suspicious by well-known dope guy and Astana consultant Rasmus Damsgaard. CAS decided that maybe those values weren’t so suspicious after all, at least not suspicious enough for Astana to fire him over. In the meantime, Saxo Bank, where Bjarne Riis helped Damsgaard forge his dope-monitoring legend, has scaled back its vaunted internal testing programs citing the fact that the UCI passport program covers the same ground. So if the bio passport tests are now taking the place of some of the internal controls teams used to do, are they prone to the same problems? Only the appeals will tell, so call us in eight months or a year.

      2. Does the UCI know what “targeted” means?

      On June 9, the day they announced the Colom positive, the UCI seemed to have a solid grasp of what “targeted” meant. Colom’s blood values looked a little fishy, and so based on that, they gave him more tests than the average, non-suspicious rider. You know, they “targeted” him.

      But that moment of clarity seems to be fading fast, as cyclingnews.com’s interview with UCI Reine de Dopage Anne Gripper reveals. Gripper comments on the list of 50 riders that the UCI has said will be extra-special tested in the run-up to the Tour de France (not to be confused with the list of five riders to be prosecuted). According to Gripper, these 50 riders aren’t being “targeted,” they’re just being subjected to additional testing based on the fact that they’re likely to do well at the Tour, either in terms of GC or stage wins. Well, that’s better – thank goodness they aren’t being targeted, you know, in the sense of being singled out for extra scrutiny based on a specific criteria or behavioral pattern. Like winning races or something.

      It doesn’t really matter, of course, but I do hesitate to ask what they’ve thought “random” meant all these years.

      3. Are Astana’s money problems solved?

      Yes, apparently. Just a day or so after the UCI’s deadline officially passed, Bruyneel and the team’s Kazakh sponsors managed to come to some sort of agreement that should see everyone paid through the end of 2009.

      But then we have to ask, who is everyone? Because if we go back to that Gusev story again, we see that Astana, presumably through Bruyneel’s Olympus management company, now owes the amply-chinned Russian his salary, plus damages, plus legal costs. I don’t know what his salary was, but Gusev was starting to really break through right before he got preemptively popped by the team, so damages could be considerable. So will Astana’s barely-dry check from Kazakhstan cover that little tab, or is Bruyneel going to be left to cough up the rubles himself? I don’t know, but if you think it’s hard to get the Kazakhs to pay guys who have ridden for them this year, you should see how hard it is to get them to pay the guys who haven’t.

      4. Does Tom Boonen really like the marching powder as much as we think he does?

      According to the testing agency and the Belgian justice system, yes. Boonen himself says he was blacked out during the night in question, and can’t rightly say either way whether he did cocaine or not. But now an independent review panel says no, Boonen didn’t actually ingest cocaine. Apparently, panel looked at a hair test, and while it does show the presence of cocaine, it doesn’t show enough coke present to indicate definitively that Boonen had any, only that he’s probably seen some in the last few months.

      Before we get too excited, I’d note that the English version of the story says Boonen didn’t “ingest” cocaine. The initial Flemish versions I’ve seen say he didn’t “snort” cocaine. These are obviously two different meanings, as there are other ways to ingest besides snorting, and they affect how strongly the drug shows up in your system. While, say, eating cocaine is less efficient than sniffing it, it is still ingestion. This cyclingnews.com article sheds some light on the testing tolerances and whatnot, but frankly I’m just bored with the whole thing, and I steadfastly avoid dealing with anything measured in ng/mg.

      ASO is apparently bored with the whole business too, since they’ve announced today that, for their purposes, Boonen snorted, otherwise ingested, or rolled around in the blow enough to exclude him from this year’s Tour de France. Now all we’re left to wonder about is whether the UCI will still try to come up with some “damaging the image of cycling” charge to hang him by. I suppose they could, as he’s still caused a hell of a PR fuss, but if you can get hanged in cycling for having been in proximity to drugs, there won’t be an empty gallows or a vacant tree branch in all of Europe pretty soon. (Update: No sanction for Boonen)

      So for those of you keeping score, that’s a yes, a maybe, a no, and a “we’ll see” all on a single question that doesn’t have the slightest bit to do with racing a bicycle. Flattering times for the sport, indeed.

      Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right

      If Only the Sport Were That Organized

      Who runs this goddamned sport? Nobody and everybody, apparently, and recent news has been coated in the sort of scatological crossfire you’d expect from that sort of diversified management structure.

      CONI, the Italian federation, banned Spaniard Alejandro Valverde for his alleged involvement in a Spanish doping affair based on a blood sample taken in Italy during last year’s Tour de France. Habsburg blood may have seen less of Europe than Valverde’s, but in fairness to those kingmakers, Valverde’s ties to the papacy do look weak in comparison. Indeed, a high-priced indulgence is about the only thing that could save Valverde’s soul from a paperwork purgatory at this point, and that little absolution doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon. The Giro may have run it’s final TT through the pope’s front yard, but even an organization that feels pretty comfortable weighing on who can sleep with who, when, and what they should wear when they do so knows better than to weigh in on cycling’s regulatory orgy.

      No, Benedict’s silent on Valverde, but maybe that’s only because he hasn’t been issued his gold-plated papal Colnago yet, because everyone else who’s ever seen or pedaled a bicycle has thrown their opinions into the pot. Remarkably, the only thing people seem more concerned about than Valverde’s alleged performance enhancing activities are Tom Boonen’s recreational ones, making the cycling press seem less like sports news and more like TMZ. The immediate result of all the hubbub is that either of both riders may not be able to start the Tour de France come July. Depending on who you ask, of course.

      Christian Prudhomme, Grand Poobah of the Tour de France, recently announced a near theological shift in his organization’s policies, telling the media hordes that ASO will “obey the rules” when it comes to sanctioning the various sins of Boonen and Valverde. That following the rules instead of making up your own is now worthy of a press release says a little something about how we operate here in the bush leagues of professional sport, but so be it. Anyway, ASO has decided to agree with the UCI that, as sporting entities, they might not really have the authority to sanction a rider based on an unrelated, out-of-competition legal matter, like, say, blowing some lines in the piss-soaked men’s room of some godforsaken Antwerp disco.

      Things aren't that easy, of course. According to the UCI, they might still be able to nab Boonen yet, but not on sporting grounds, and they can’t find the time to make up a new rule to try him under until after the Tour. So, for now at least, Boonen looks to be in the clear, at least until someone else argues their way into having jurisdiction in the matter, and trust me, that’s not far off. Who knows, maybe this is USAC’s time to shine – I’d suggest basing jurisdictional authority on either his participation in the Tour of California, or, for some real flair, his participation in the Univest Grand Prix as an amateur.

      Anyway, if I’m reading it right, as another part of this year’s great reconciliation, ASO has also agreed that until the UCI gets the evidence from CONI and makes its own ruling on Valverde, a ban in Italy doesn’t really have much of anything to do Valverde racing in France, though it seems they’ll leave it up to Valverde as to whether he thinks his form is good enough to outrun the carabinieri on his own personal cannonball run when this year’s Tour dips into Italia. The kid has the rare combination of being quick in the hills and in a sprint, but I’m not sure even the Green Bullet will take that bet.

      The UCI doesn’t seem to be too anxious to gather that Italian evidence, though, and why would they be? They can leave it to CONI to keep Valverde from the Tour, despite the fact that nobody’s ever adequately explained how CONI can keep an unsuspended rider with a non-Italian license from riding a race that is not held under the auspices of CONI. Yes, the Tour will go briefly into Italy, but CONI is a sporting body, not the border patrol, and other than that brief sojourn on Italian asphalt, CONI doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with the Tour de France. But that’s just the sort of easy out the UCI loves, so why look too closely at the legality of it?

      But all that CONI stuff really only affects Valverde, and with everyone playing relatively nice between the UCI and ASO this year, someone has do the broader eye-gouging and overreaching, and this year the French government has stepped up to the task. Chapeau. Not satisfied that Prudhomme and ASO could simply decide what was best for their event within the rules of the sport, France’s Minister of Sport, Bernard Laporte, has seen fit to wade into what was, for a brief, shining moment a waning clusterfuck rather than a waxing one.

      By declaring from his own little pulpit that Boonen and Valverde “are not welcome at the 2009 Tour de France,” Laporte has managed to preach exactly the opposite sermon from the UCI and ASO, deciding that, as a part of the ruling civil authority, it should slog into the affairs of a sporting event it neither owns nor regulates, based on its distaste for a legal matter in Belgium and a sporting matter in Spain (that’s been co-opted by Italy). I’m not sure what the French government generally or the Ministry of Sport specifically kicks into the Tour pot, or what their contribution would or could be besides discount prices on gendarmes, but I’m pretty damn sure they aren’t in charge of sending invitations, which is a good thing, because picking out stationary is a hell of a delicate thing, and best not left up to government bureaucrats. Either way, France as a state is known to profit considerably from the Tour, in good years and bad, so France as a state best shut its trap and let ASO do what it does best -- run an incredibly lucrative bike race. Fortunately for Boonen, and maybe Valverde, Laporte isn’t the official welcoming committee for the 2009 Tour de France. I think that’s Bernard Hinault, and he’s doing a bang-up job so far.

      Even if we discount Laporte, who I might add has a name that’s a pretty good homophone for “Puerto,” if you know what I mean, things aren’t all rosy just because ASO and the UCI have decided to play by roughly the same rulebook. Lest we think that the UCI is contorting itself into some non-recognizable, even-handed caretaker of the sport, we only need to look as far as Wednesday’s news. Upping the ante in its desperate attempt to ward off derision of its biological passport program, UCI chieftan Paddy McQuaid announces that they’re ready to release the names of riders with suspicious biological passport results. McQuaid also says that the UCI will eventually open proceedings against the riders, but that even though they’re announcing the names, the riders won’t be given the customary immediate sit-down by the boys in blue. No, they’re going to leave that “up to the teams.” How magnanimous, or unbelievably cowardly, depending on how you look at it.

      What, pray tell, does that magnanimity tell us about how dependable these “suspicious” findings are? It means they have all the durability of an R-Sys wheel, because this is, after all, a sport where you can be slapped with one of those provisional suspensions based on a rumor about a particularly voluminous bowel movement you may or may not have created in the team bus bathroom back in 2005. If it can’t get you suspended in cycling, even provisionally, it simply isn’t worth worrying about. And if the world governing body is going to come out and name names, and especially if they’re going to build the suspense with preliminary press releases to increase turnout at their Swiss photo op in a few days time, they damn well better have enough to evidence to take the wheels off those riders’ bikes right then and there.

      And if the paper the UCI has is that good, would they leave it up to the teams to give provisional suspensions? After all, the UCI has implicitly accused many of those teams of orchestrating these ugly little affairs themselves, so why, if those teams now know the jig is up, would they sit down the very guys who should be absolutely flying right now? Nah, I say go out all guns blazing, and make the UCI spend the next two years trying desperately to finalize a single results sheet from here to the Vuelta.

      Frankly, if one of my guys turned up hot, I might keep sending him out there until someone told me in no uncertain terms not to, because I’d be sick of the UCI putting me in the middle of its little spats. Last year it put the teams and riders in the middle of its tickle fight with ASO, this year it’s inserting them into their fight with the biological passport critics. Enough is enough – if you’ve got the goods, let’s see them, if not, get back to work if you want, but quit spouting off to the press. If you’re going to position yourself as the sport’s overarching enforcement arm, do the job with good evidence and confidence, and don’t try to force the teams into doing your bidding when you’re too terrified of the fallout to do it. You can have the credit and you can have the blame, but no matter how hard you try, you have to risk getting one to get the other.

      Unfortunately, the message from the UCI is as transparent as it is distasteful – be a good little team, and suspend these riders like you know we want you to. Otherwise, you’ll get so much “targeted testing” from your top riders down to your soigneurs that you won’t have enough blood or piss left to fill a vial. If what we’re looking for is real, fair, and non-politicized enforcement in cycling, I’m not sure that looks like it.

      Eye for Eye

      Yesterday, two arguably related stories hit the wires within hours of each other. The first involved various outlets’ extractions from Bernhard Kohl’s “tell-all” interview with L’Equipe. In that interview, the young Austrian, who won the King of the Mountains jersey at last year’s Tour de France and then promptly got popped for CERA use, put forth the idea that the UCI’s much-vaunted (by them) and much-maligned (by others) biological passport system was actually helping riders dope by giving them a constant stream of good data about their blood levels. Using that information, they were able to stay in bounds while still mucking around with their blood enough to get a good boost.

      A few hours later, the UCI announced that Katusha’s Toni Colom tested positive for EPO in a test conducted on April 2, two weeks after he won the final stage of Paris-Nice. The UCI statement prominently read, “This abnormal result is the direct result of a targeted test based on information taken from his blood profile and knowledge of his competition schedule.” In other words, “We got him because of the biological passport. Take that, you bastards.”

      Well, didn’t that work out nicely? Now, maybe I’ve become too cynical, but it strikes me as a bit too coincidental that the UCI finally got their Colom press release prose just the way they wanted it for release the same day the Kohl article hit the newsstands. “But aha!” you say, “the UCI release says that Colom was informed of his positive the previous day, June 8, so it couldn’t have been timed to coincide with the Kohl article.”

      You raise a good point, but by June 8, the cat was already out of the bag on what Kohl had spilled to L’Equipe. Run on Saturday, June 6 on the L’Equipe web site, this story gave a hint of what was to come, and ended with the note: “La confession complète de Bernhard Kohl, à lire ce mardi, dans L'Equipe.” Or, “read the complete confession of Bernhard Kohl, Tuesday in L’Equipe.” No, the teaser doesn’t mention Kohl’s disdain for the biological passport program, but with a few days of warning, it might not have been too difficult for the UCI to find out where else the interview would be headed. As we know from past experience, the walls of many of these organizations are notoriously thin.

      So what’s the big deal? The problem is that playing this sort of tit-for-tat game with riders, test results, and sanctions just undermines the credibility of the testing system. When people see that news of positive tests is being released according to an organization’s political needs, rather sporting considerations, they become suspicious, and rightfully so. The take home message becomes that the regulations and associated testing are not there to ensure as clean a sport as possible in the most expedient manner possible, but rather that the tests and their results are ammunition to be carefully stored away until someone steps out of line. Then, with the organization’s actions in question, the tests are pulled out as a defense carefully wrapped in a cloak of proactive enforcement.

      Of course, like I said, I may just be too cynical, and indeed the timing of the two stories may all be a big coincidence. Still, that coincidence only highlights another lesson the UCI and its associated tangle of testers and sanctioning bodies need to learn: that the appearance of impropriety can be just as damaging as actual impropriety. If they were so suspicious of Colom, why did it take over two months to get the testing done and make the announcement? And if they were comfortable with such a lengthy timeframe despite their suspicion, which they clearly were, why not wait another day or two to make the announcement? Had they done so, they might have avoided looking like they’re engaging in a petty schoolyard game of “Is not! Is too!” with critics of the passport system. At the very least, they might not have looked as if they’re sitting on a pile of test results, waiting to throw them out like aces in a game of blackjack. As it stands, we’re just left wondering how many more of those cards they’re holding, and whose faces are on them.


      Kohl’s point raises another question about both the biological passport, and the various longitudinal tests teams are conducting internally. Kohl and others point out that supplying riders with their own data effectively provides them with a blood monitoring service, allowing them to manipulate their blood more carefully and stay within the rules. Put like that, giving them all that data sounds like a bad idea, eh?

      On the other hand, most people, bike riders included, take it as a given that they have a right to access their own medical data. They do so first because, well, it’s theirs, and second because it gives them some means to identify and defend themselves against inaccuracies in the system. Finally, as we saw with the Armstrong/Caitlin testing fiasco, and with various similar testing programs put forth by teams such as Garmin, CSC, and Columbia, the public seems convinced that absolute transparency is the way to a clean sport. They want people’s blood values, damn it, online and in real time, and if a team does anything less, they must be hiding something. But of course, it’s kind of hard to give the world at large all the facts without the riders logging on for a peek, and using it however they see fit.

      So which’ll it be? Transparency for all, or keep the blood data secret, thus placing blind faith in the hands of the testers? The first is certainly dangerous, if what Kohl claims is true. The second, unfortunately, is probably even worse.


      One final note: It took us awhile, but the Service Course has finally made it to 100 posts. It’s too bad it had to be one about dope, but oh well, you work with whatever material's on hand.

      The Dope Show

      With news of Tyler Hamilton ringing the doping bell for a second time all over the front pages today, it seemed like a good time to drag out the dope-related piece below. Why? Because just rehashing the Hamilton saga wouldn’t be any fun, and I’m confident that any number of sources will be able to fill that void in your informational needs. But doping is going to be the topic of the day whether I like it or not, and I'm not strong enough to swim directly against that rip current. So I'm swimming sideways, just like they tell you to. Onward...

      Back in January of 2008, a fellow club member (and writer for a serious, newsy publication) was looking for sources that knew the ins-and-outs of the doping world, since she’d been assigned to cover the Major League Baseball hearings on Capitol Hill. So she put the question out to our listserv. Since we travel in some overlapping circles, and I’ve never been one to resist a snarky reply, I channeled my alter ego to warn her of the dangers of what she was asking – namely, asking cyclists for nearly any sort of input on doping matters, cycling or otherwise. If she had any doubts as to the wisdom of that course, I believe the response, pasted below, cleared it right up.

      I should caution you that my alter ego is not a stickler for strict presentation of “the facts,” which should never be allowed to get in the way of making a point. Also, he’s usually a little drunk.


      Dear Mme. [Name Withheld]-

      Welcome to the dope show.

      I suggest that you get in touch with your friend and mine, Mr. [Name Withheld] lately of Boulder, Colorado. He’s been sniffing around the back end of that dog since 1999, at least, and he hasn’t let it bite him yet. The astute minds of NPR call on him each July to speak on the issue, as he has a voice for radio, with a face to match, as he’d no doubt point out, ha ha, hee hee… The MLB crowd isn’t his game, but he’s likely kept up with the issues.

      But before telephoning and getting down into the dirt of the assignment, I advise you to consume a minimum of one pint cheap whiskey, open all the windows and put a needle the live version of Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” preferably at maximum volume and distortion. I stress that it must be out loud and analog, at least at the output end – none of that digital file and earbud shit your generation has an affinity for.

      “I’m going to try
      For the kingdom, if I can
      Because it makes me feel like I’m a man
      When I put a spike into my vein
      Aw, honey, things aren’t quite the same…”

      Ah, things aren’t quite the same. Indeed. And that's the problem. Talking to lycra-clad freaks about doping in the American big leagues is a dangerous proposition. For starters, they’re so radicalized through years of cycling’s “unfair” media browbeating that their spittle-whet rants about American major league sports are nearly nonsensical. But more than that, their tirades are virtually irrelevant, as the sewer of dope regulations running beneath cycling's roads is much deeper and has far more tributaries than the shallow ditch that runs straight past the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL headquarters and out to their ample parking lots. For that crowd, being a federally regulated monopoly has its drags, like providing health insurance and wearing a tie for congressional hearings, but strict rules against the hot sauce ain’t among them.

      But not so with cycling, my friend. We have plenty of those little sticky wicket dope rules, and we did it to ourselves. Rather, Hein Verbruggen did it to us back in 1992, when the UCI reunited its FIAC (amateur) and FICP (professional) arms and wrapped them lovingly around the busty chest of the IOC in a ploy to get at the roll of cash tucked neatly into her décolletage. That clumsy groping opened the door for professional cyclists in the Olympics, that quadrennial feel-good sham that for some reason continues to intoxicate the advertisers.

      And what did we get for it? The goofiest son of a bitch to ever hold a Swiss passport, geezer Pascal Richard, wins the 1996 Atlanta road race and starts an unfortunate trend by putting his remedial art skills to work designing himself a commemorative jersey. Compare that to 1992 in Barcelona, when quiet, young, and beautiful Fabio Casartelli, clad in a sponsor-free Squadra Azurri jersey, single-handedly Hindenburged the USCF-funded Lance Armstrong publicity dirigible that was floating over the NBC coverage. Armstrong got other chances, of course, but Casartelli not so much. He died way too early and way too publicly on the Portet d’Aspet, and we’re left with a Telekom Cerberus negotiating the medals on the road in Sydney 2000, Paolo Bettini riding in gold shoes, and at least one other pro race every four years guaranteed to be as fucked up as the World Championships. But that’s not the worst of it.

      In exchange for sipping complimentary Coca-Cola in some luxury trailer on a humid Atlanta streetcorner, then flying off to the next round of bid cities to check out their race courses, liquors, and prostitutes, collecting as much as he could in cash and prizes along the way, Verbruggen ceded dope regulation of professional cycling to the rules of the IOC, with all the integrity that implies, and subsequently to its WADA minions. That lot and their accredited labs have joined the national cycling federations, national Olympic committees, and some attention-starved police forces and magistrates to form some sort of babel-tongued Greek chorus, chanting for heads on plates wherever they can find them. When they can’t find the plates, they settle for the heads, and then fight amongst themselves over who gets the ear and who the tongue. The rest is all written down.

      But that doesn’t have anything to do with baseball. Because the professional stick-and-ball crowd has the goddamned good sense to stick to the culture they know and the rules they make and enforce themselves, instead of handing the keys to the kingdom to some Swiss milkmaid in a labcoat just to gain entry to an event their audience doesn’t give a rat’s ass about. They’ve got a good thing going, and they’re not about to screw it up by hopping in the sack with a bunch of guys in Prada sunglasses sipping thimblefuls of coffee in Lausanne cafes.

      Those guys may have a lot of Euros lining their pockets, but baseball is content with the pile of greenbacks it has, an extra large from Dunkin Donuts, and getting hauled in front of a congressional panel every now and then. Why? Because they’re smart enough to know that baseball is about the pennant, the World Series, and money, not the Olympics, just like cycling is about the Tour, the Classics, and money, not the Olympics. And that you’re far better off running your own show. The Olympics are a cold-war relic more suitable for Greco-Roman wrestlers, ice dancers, and eastern-bloc gymnasts than for sports with more than a couple of bucks in hand and other things to do with them, and you’re far better off without the IOC’s hand in your particular cookie jar. But cycling failed to recognize that. Fortunately for professional baseball, it did, and its dog-and-pony hearings will go as scheduled: superficially tough questions pitched to bit players, marble-mouthed non-answers from the low seats, the ceremonial ousting of several “bad seeds,” then business as usual. Cycling used to have that luxury, but we sold it for a soft-focus interview with Bob Costas.

      So anyway, yeah, call [Name Withheld]. He’s probably wondering what you’re up to anyway.


      Welcome Back, Kimmage

      A few weeks ago, during the Tour, reader Ken asked what I thought of an article written by Paul Kimmage of the Times of London about Allen Lim, Slipstream-Chipotle’s team doctor/physiotherapist/nutritionist/power guy/guru. I replied that I didn’t think much of it, since it was more about Kimmage’s personal baggage than it was about its alleged subject. In that, it fit the mold of many of his other cycling articles. It’s not that Kimmage is a bad writer, or a bad interviewer, it’s that his first-hand experience as a professional cyclist in the 1980s left him with such a sour taste in his mouth that he’s been unable to create an even remotely objective story about the sport since he hung up his wheels in favor of a typewriter.

      Kimmage’s career transition began promisingly, for both the sport and the man, when his book Rough Ride (which I highly recommend) was released in 1990. That book detailed the ills of professional cycling through the telling of Kimmage’s own experiences, and though he never explicitly named others who used drugs, the implications were strong enough to effectively blackball him from the sport. Back then, eighteen years ago, the book told cycling devotees what the rest of the world would learn in 1998 with the Festina scandal – that the sport was rife with doping. But back then, nobody was listening, and Kimmage was dismissed as a disgruntled never-was.

      In the years since its publication, Kimmage has parlayed both the success of Rough Ride and the resulting ill-will into a steady career of being, along with compatriot David Walsh, one of the premier doping curmudgeons covering cycling. He reports on a variety of other sports for the Times as well, but he’s always saved most of his venom for cycling. As they say, it’s the ones you love that hurt you the most, and the stark reality he witnessed as an ‘80s pro, together with the sport's subsequent scandals, placed him squarely in the “they’re all doping, it’s a sham of a sport” camp.

      Despite his distaste for the sport, he was drawn back to this year’s Tour de France by the “clean” claims of Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Chipotle team - claims that, like many but more than most, he greeted with a healthy share of skepticism. He arranged to be a sort of “embedded reporter” with the squad, getting unrestricted access to the team and its staff, including inner-sanctum locales like the bus and bedrooms at any time he pleased. The articles that resulted were in many ways vintage Kimmage, taking every opportunity to delve into any sort of questionable past members of the team had, putting them through the doping wringer with regularity, and inserting a good bit of his own trademark editorializing.

      And that’s what made his final installation so surprising. In it, Kimmage, almost confessional, describes how the Garmin-Chipotle squad, from its manager to its riders to its doctor to its guru, have restored some of his faith in the sport he’d written off long ago, and even made him a fan again. If you’d like to restore a bit of your own faith, you should read it yourself, but this paragraph sums it up well:

      “I’ve spent a good portion of my past 20 years enraged by dopers such as Virenque, Riis, Ivan Basso and Hamilton and seized every opportunity to expose them. No apologies. They deserve our contempt . . . but not as much as the guys who are trying to compete clean deserve our support. I’d lost sight of that. To David Millar, Christian Vande Velde, Ryder Hesjedal, Will Frischkorn, Danny Pate, Julian Dean, Martijn Maaskant, Trent Lowe and Magnus Backstedt, thanks for the reminder."

      Do I care that Paul Kimmage has had his faith in cycling restored? No, not really. It’s a good thing, of course, because he has a loud voice about the sport in certain circles, but he’s still just one man among many who became disillusioned by all the scandals the sport has put itself through over the last 20 years. There are a lot of people still out in the cold. But that’s what’s important about Kimmage’s piece – it proves that the sport and its image among fans and potential fans is still salvageable. Things can change, the sport can change, and even the most steadfast detractors can change their minds if they’re given a reason.

      As Kimmage’s "I'd lost sight of that" epiphany in the quoted paragraph suggests, people can come back to the sport, but it’s going to take some leaps of faith by a lot of different players to do so. Jonathan Vaughters took one by granting unrestricted access to one of the sports biggest and most well-versed detractors, a move that could have easily backfired even if nothing shady were uncovered. Kimmage took one by choosing to believe that, over the course of his three weeks, he’d seen enough of the Garmin-Chipotle squad to publicly declare his trust in them.

      Those leaps paid off big for both of them. Kimmage got to experience cycling as a joy again rather than a seedy underworld populated by cheaters and pushers. Vaughters got what might be the most surprising and valuable media endorsement of the last several years for his team - one that could lead many to be less skeptical of its claims. The result of the experiment, you could argue, is indeed the renewed enthusiasm of just one man, but looking more broadly, if more people involved in the sport are willing to take the big risks, as Vaughters and Kimmage have, the sport may yet be able to bring people back, bring people in, and turn the page.

      Tour No More

      So that’s it for another year’s Tour de France, and for now, Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank) appears to be the winner. But we’ve been burned before, so let’s not go crazy until Sastre shows up for all of his post-Tour crit contracts – because we all know what it means when you don’t turn up for those cash cows. In all seriousness, though, Sastre seems as likely as anyone to remain rooted in the list of winners once all the final tests are in, so we here at the Service Course will go out on a limb and extend our congratulations to him.

      I have to admit, I would have never picked Sastre as a Tour winner, but I don’t think I’m alone in that. As several media outlets have pointed out, he’s always been considered the consummate fourth place man – the kind of guy outfits like Quick.Step hire when they want to be able to claim they’ve a man for the GC. But a winner? Nah. Shows what I know.

      A lot of other people have been shown what they know too, after Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) failed to bring back even half the time he needed on Sastre in the final time trial to take his much-anticipated Tour win. I have to say, I think those who were crowing that the minute and a half lead that Sastre forged over Evans on L’Alpe D’Huez wasn’t nearly enough were mislead by the media’s Tour de France hype machine. In the absence of a true five-star contender like an Armstrong or an Ullrich, someone has to get the five stars, and that was Evans, at least for the Anglophone press. Faced with a rider who is, by his own confession, not very exciting in the mountains, the press chose to build up his pretty good time trialing to Indurain proportions, which objectively it has never approached. If you were sucked in by it, don’t feel bad – Evans seems to have bought into it himself, and it may have cost him a Tour win.

      The handicapping of Sastre and Evans’ respective strengths was correct on the broad level – Evans is typically better than Sastre in the time trials. In hindsight, however, it’s easy to see where things got pretty distorted in the name of making the story. Sastre was the mountain man, the spindly climber, facing off against avowed time trialist Evans. It created a battle of styles, of strategy, and with it, suspense. Would the gap be enough? But if we’d all paid a little more attention to history, it would have shown that, just as Evans is no Indurain against the clock, Sastre is no Rasmussen. Which is to say that Sastre has never been as bad at the discipline as people may have made out, and with a yellow jersey in the balance, anything is possible. Along with making a caricature of both rider’s strengths and weaknesses, many of the final week speculations also failed to take into account another pretty evident truth – that Sastre was getting better as Evans was in decline.

      The Bizarro World Report

      Had Evans clawed Sastre’s Alpe D’Huez gains back in the time trial and eked out a comfortable Tour win, there still wouldn’t have been much room to criticize CSC’s teamwork during the race. It was nearly flawless. But if Evans ended up with, say, a 7-second victory over Sastre, we could have looked squarely at some strange decisions on L’Alpe D’Huez. Why did Sastre sit up and celebrate when he knew he needed every second for the GC? Everyone would want a good photo of victory on that most famous mountain, but I hear the one on the take of the winner on the Champs is pretty good, too. More importantly, why did Andy Schleck, who did a phenomenal climb of the Alpe, especially considering he was mostly facing backwards, go after Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in the finale? Though he was clearly assigned to chase down anything and everything that moved, by taking off after Sanchez, he only accelerated the group of GC contenders behind, potentially eating into Sastre’s advantage. Sanchez didn’t pose a threat, and even if he did, it would be one of the other contenders that needed to chase him down long before A. Schleck did on his team’s behalf.

      Of course, A. Schleck’s move was likely a last minute attempt to gain time on his white jersey rival, Roman Kreuziger (Ligquigas) who was back down the mountain a bit. It worked, and apparently it was necessary, as A. Schleck barely held that jersey after the final TT, so there’s not much point in second-guessing the team. But I bring it up just to point out that if defending white or doing the two-arm salute had cost CSC yellow, you’d be reading much different articles regarding their tactics than you are now.

      The Sequined Jersey Award

      As we pointed out above, Evans is no Indurain when it comes to the time trials, but the three weeks of the Tour did reveal that he’s cycling’s Zsa Zsa Gabor. The Australian’s weird and bitchy temperament made him a darling of cycling’s little corner of YouTube, where fans have graciously immortalized his journalist swatting, head butting, general complaining, and other assorted jackassery from this year’s race. Unfortunately, none of the clips seem to address his abnormal relationship with the stuffed lions given on the podium, but it’s this clip, in which he threatens to cut someone’s head off if they step on this yapping pocketbook dog, that puts him in Gabor territory.

      Sure, that evidence looks pretty damning, but if you came out of the Tour thinking Evans is a total dick, you’re wrong. Cyclingnews.com notes in its own gentle way that he is, in fact, only half dick, by pointing out that his mother, Ms. Helen Cocks, was on hand for the team’s Tour afterparty. OK, that was a cheap shot.

      All of Evans’ histrionics make Sastre seem like even more of a bargain. The veteran campaigner, backed by a ridiculous amount of horsepower from his CSC-Saxo Bank team, made all the right moves to win the race on his own terms, and managed to not come off as an asshole in the process. Chapeau! Maybe that’s because, while he’s always ridden at a high level, he seems to have never had people telling him he’s a star. The mindset of the veteran campaigner showed through in his interviews, as well as his final stage attire – the yellow jersey, some celebratory bar tape, and that’s about it. Just enough to do the job, without being flashy. Let’s hope his less garish fashions on the Champs return cycling a more modest time. If Mario Cipollini comes back and wins the GC, I’ll reconsider my stance against all yellow clothes, frame, and wheels, but not until then.

      Parting Shots

      - Good on Geert Steegmans for saving Quick.Step’s horrible Tour by winning big in the world’s biggest criterium. When his new Russian Katusha team collapses, which it almost certainly will, he can always pay the bills at SuperWeek.

      - Yeah, that stage-by-stage guide to regional drinks didn’t work out too well in the end, did it? It was a last minute, seat-of-the-pants operation this year, but next year we’ll make an effort to get ahead of the game and give the people the information they so desperately need.

      - We talked a bit about sponsorship in our last post, and a host of brand new sponsors have to be pretty happy with what they got. Saxo Bank will be inheriting the Tour winning team from CSC, and Garmin had a surprise GC contender for most of the race in Christian Vande Velde. Columbia? Well, for their buck, they got time in yellow, time in green, and over a quarter of the stage wins on offer.

      - With Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) dominating the time trials and some shady characters accounting for a good portion of the mountain wins, it was looking like we were headed for an overall winner with no stage wins. But Sastre saved us from that with his great ride on L’Alpe D’Huez. This year’s group of contenders was pretty uninspired, but the winner having at least won a stage helps.

      - Four doping positives and one team withdrawal? The way the last few years have gone, I’ll take that. Despite the bad news, everything kept rolling on. As I said before, the mainstream press seems to be starting to realize that catching people is good. If they weren’t catching onto that already, I think those writers’ upcoming trips to Beijing would be even more of an eye-opener than I believe they’re already going to be.


      Thanks to all of you who’ve come to visit this site over the course of the Tour de France. We’re not a large site by any means, but we’ve seen our numbers go up a bit over the past several weeks, and frankly, we like the attention. Our posting frequency will likely go back to a couple of posts a week now that all the Tour fuss is dying down, and life will likely interrupt service every now and then, like it did during the last week of the Tour. But we hope that both our longtime readers and those of you who visited us for the first time during the Tour will continue to check in and, if you like what you read, tell a friend.

      On to the fall classics, the Worlds, and cyclocross season…

      Your Name Here

      About sponsorship, and some stuff about racing, too

      This year’s Tour de France doping scandals look to be costing the support of at least two sponsors, Barloworld and Saunier Duval. Saunier Duval hasn’t announced a final decision, but after the Tour, Claudio Corti’s Barloworld squad will drop its title sponsor from its jersey at the company’s request. That’s bad news, but the team’s future is assured through 2009, as the South African company will fulfill its financial obligations to the team. That situation puts the team in a similar position to the Columbia squad, which lost title sponsor T-Mobile following the slew of doping confessions by the team’s former riders, including Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel, and Jan Ullrich’s connection to the Operacion Puerto affair. Still running on T-Mobile funds, the revamped team operated under its management company’s name (High Road) until the Columbia clothing company signed on just before the Tour.

      It’s hard to blame sponsors for jumping ship after they’ve been associated with things most people don’t like to think much about, like syringes and bags of bodily fluids and systemic cheating. And back then, I believe Adidas joined T-Mobile and several other sponsors in bidding adieu to the team. But you know who rode it out? Giant. The squad’s bike sponsor stuck with Bob Stapleton’s squad and its promises of a brighter future, and they have to be rejoicing over that decision now. After a widely-reported new product launch just prior to the Tour de France, the now-Columbia team has ridden Giant products to four highly visible stage wins by young Mark Cavendish, and enjoyed some additional TV time with Kim Kirchen in yellow for four days, and in green for awhile as well. Through their support of the team, Giant also garnered some coverage through the Tour debut of their aesthetically questionable but functionally beautiful new TT bike. And nary a mention of the team goes by without a reference to its stringent internal dope testing system. After a few pretty mediocre Tours during the final years of its long tenure, you have to wonder if T-Mobile wishes they’d stuck with it for at least another year.

      Of course, the decision to stay in the game made far more sense for Giant than it did for the non-endemic sponsors. After all, Giant makes racing bikes, and if you’re looking to sell some of those, the Tour de France is still the place to be. More so than if you’re hustling mobile phone service, anyway, although the in-car camera segments on Versus make it hard to tell which is tested more rigorously at the Tour – mobile phones or bicycles. But I digress. I stopped having any sentimental feelings about sponsorship agreements long ago, but I do think it’s good to see a sponsor who stuck it out through the dark times get some payback. With any luck, some of Barloworld's cosponsors will have a hard look at the potential costs and benefits of their sponsorship before simply pulling the plug.

      Speaking of bike sponsorships and the Tour de France, has anyone noticed things are decidedly more somber at local Trek dealerships than in years past? With their ProTour flagship Astana sitting this one out, and longtime Discovery cosponsor Nike planning to complete its pullout from cycling after the Olympics, the level of showroom decoration is way down this year. No strings of yellow flags; no yellow, polka dot, and green jerseys hung from the rafters; no giant vinyl photo banners in the windows. What really shows is how much of that LBS “Tour Buzz” was created by shrewd, complimentary Tour-time programs by U.S. Postal/Discovery sponsors.

      All the wrenches are still glued to Versus, of course, but I have to wonder how long it will be before there’s another combination of rider and brand capable of generating that sort of marketing onslaught again. Trek obviously has the money and dealer network muscle to pull it off should the opportunity present itself again, as does Giant. Specialized and Cannondale could both give it a good run as well. A Ridley or a Felt? Maybe not so much. But the ruckus that Trek was able to create at the retail level during the Armstrong reign showed quite a few things: what a reliable quantity Armstrong really was, the absolute preeminence of the Tour for American audiences, the growth in recognition of the sport in the U.S., and the sheer marketing force Trek and their associates could generate when they put their minds to it.

      Something About Racing

      I know it’s hard to believe, but the Tour isn’t just about business deals and doping. There’s also a bunch of guys riding bikes, and it’s a helluva race this year, eh? After one short time trial, the Pyrenees, and the first day of the Alps, the top 6 riders were separated by less than a minute. That’s pretty tight at this stage, but the interest of this year’s race goes past the standard, “hey, close race” factor due to the makeup of that front six. It’s split half-and-half between GC riders that fall decidedly on the climber end of the spectrum in CSC pair Frank Schleck (leading) and Carlos Sastre (6th) and Gerolsteiner’s Bernhard Kohl (2nd), and riders whose best hopes come in the final time trial – Silence Lotto’s Cadel Evans (3rd), Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde (5th), and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov (4th). So in addition to wondering if the climbers will be able to gain time in the remaining two mountain stages, we’ll also be wondering if whatever advantage they can eke out will be enough to stave off the time trial crowd in the end. And, barring a total meltdown by any of the contenders, there’s no way we’ll know what “enough time” is until that final TT. Considering that we had a first week that saw the overall contenders battling from Stage 1, that’s a pretty good job of drawing out the suspense. Part of it has to do with ASO's course design, and part is due to the open field with no clear dominant rider, but it’s all come together in just the right way to produce one of the most competitive Tours in a long time.

      Obviously, there are a lot of questions to be resolved at this point, and indeed some are likely getting resolved on the road as I write this. But one that stands out is whether any of the contenders will actually win a stage on the way to the overall victory. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) won Stage 1 back when he was considered a contender, but a couple of bad days in the mountains put an end to that title, so I’m not counting it. Right now, the best chances for an overall winner to come away with a stage win look to be Frank Schleck pulling a second win at L’Alpe D’Huez, or Evans or Menchov coming up big in the final long time trial, but those are far from givens. And that’s great. Aside from the European betting outlets, who doesn’t like a crazy crapshoot Tour?

      Confessions of an American

      We talked a bit about nationalism as it relates to cycling awhile back, and we’ve also taken more than a few cracks at Cadel Evans’ proposed Tour strategy. It’s now become extremely evident that American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle) is a follower of the exact same boring-as-hell strategy. And I’m loving it. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

      I think there are a few reasons I don’t feel the compulsion to rag on Vande Velde like I do on Evans. The first feels a lot like nationalism, but on reviewing my own feelings, I’m not sure that’s the right word. It’s not that Vande Velde was born inside the same borders as I was, or that he was likely forced to race office park crits as a junior like I was, or that he knows what a Quarter Pounder with cheese is or understands why the Simpsons is a funny show. It’s more that he’s familiar – we’ve known him for a long time through national coverage, so it’s nice to see a familiar face, one you've had a close look at for years, do well. Or maybe it is because he’s American – humans are famously inadequate at assessing their own biases, so why should I be any different?

      Nationalism aside, it’s also easier to put up with Vande Velde’s adoption of the follow-wheels-and-TT strategy because he’s such a surprise contender. Underdogs are meant to hang on through all sorts of abuse before using their particular strength to triumph at the very end – just watch any 1980’s movie about nerds or misfit cops or high school students and you’ll see how the story goes. So Vande Velde and his management are just using their upstart role properly, although ridiculous levels of suffering seem more likely to ensue than comic hilarity in their case.

      I guess my acceptance and tacit endorsement of Vande Velde’s strategy is rooted in the fact that nobody expects him and his team to go on the attack and make the GC battle exciting – that’s what four star favorites like Evans are supposed to do. Vande Velde is making the race exciting just by the fact that he's up there at all, challenging for the win and providing one more horse to bet on, and for an upstart, that's great. But we come in expecting all that of the favorites, so they need to do a little something extra to get people talking. And not fulfilling that expectation is part of why I pick on Evans, even though he’s just doing what he has to do to win. I also think that my and other's perceptions of Evans were soured by the pre-race hype, which can burn fans out on the perceived favorite before the race even starts. And, well, the constant whining doesn't help.