Anglophilic Giro

For an Italian national tour vacationing in the Netherlands, the first two stages of the Giro d’Italia had a decidedly Anglophone feel to them, no?

First, Bradley Wiggins, flying the Union Jack for defacto British national team Sky, edged out American Brent Bookwalter, riding for the Amero-Swiss BMC team, by two seconds. Just behind Bookwalter in third was his Australian teammate Cadel Evans. Three men, three differently accented takes on a single language.

But wait, there’s more. Al Vinokourov (Astana) screwed up the results, something he’s accused of doing pretty often these days, by finishing fourth and being from Kazakhstan. But after that, you have Greg Henderson (Sky), a Kiwi on a British team, Australian Richie Porte (Saxo Bank) in sixth, and David Miller (Garmin-Transitions), a Scot on an American team, in seventh. Sure, the next native English speaker, Garmin Canadian Svein Tuft, doesn’t appear until the 17th spot, but six of the top seven isn’t a bad showing for the crown and its former colonies.

That Stage 1 win also gave Wiggins the maglia rosa, an honor he steadfastly defended until he became one of the many, many riders to throw themselves to the Dutch tarmac the following day. That allowed the race’s second pink shirt to slide onto Evans's shoulders, who achieved that honor by managing to keep himself upright and in the front group after the crash that claimed Wiggins’s and Bookwalters’s hopes. Preceding Evans' arrival on the Stage 2 podium was stage winner Tyler Farrar of Garmin and the United States, meaning the English language contingent had locked up both the stage win and leader's jersey for two days.

I suspect that this shallow, early Anglo dominance of this Giro will come crashing down during today's third stage, if it hasn’t already as I write this. Evans will be unlikely to expend anything more than minimal energy to keep the maglia rosa this early in the race, and though today’s stage is suited for a bunch finish, yesterday’s crash lottery makes predicting a repeat by Farrar or damn near anything else is a risky endeavor. Add in the number of Dutch riders who will be looking to score while the race is on home turf and the number of Italians who would love to carry the leader’s jersey back onto home soil, and anything could happen. If it does come down to a reasonably intact sprint, though, Farrar and Kiwi leadout man Julian Dean, or Sky’s on-form Henderson and lead-out man Chris Sutton could well extend the English-speaking podium streak.

All of that is neither here nor there, of course. After all, we’re amalgamating the results of riders from four or five different countries, depending on how you count, based on creaky colonial relationships that haven’t been valid for hundreds of years. So I'd hardly start wagering based on which language riders reflexively swear in. Still, there seems to be a sort of shared worldview that comes from the common language and heritage, and though they’re not the isolated outsiders they used to be in professional cycling, the Anglos do still seem to stick together. They also attract English-speaking fans in a way that seems to transcend national boundries, and those fans have a lot to cheer for right now.

While many might cite Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins as a high-water mark for English-language cycling, those wins were obviously pretty well concentrated in the hands of one man. Today, the number and variety of English-speaking riders winning bike races makes it feel less like the monolithic Armstrong days and more like the arguably better and positively more diverse days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which saw Greg Lemond and Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France, Davis Phinney and Steve Bauer taking stage wins on the flats, Robert Millar winning in the mountains, Sean Kelly terrorizing classics and stage races, and Phil Anderson and Sean Yates generally making everyone look sissies.


  • Had all the contractual eye-gouging over the off-season resulted in Wiggins staying at Garmin, the squad could potentially have been celebrating wins in both the first and second stages right now. Or, maybe a pissed-off Wiggins would have raced his entire season at ¾ speed, who knows. Anyway, Wiggins did eventually end up at Sky, and due to the very public rumblings and subsequent junior high girl-style chattering about his transfer, not to mention the substantial money involved, Wiggins really needed to show something big pretty early in the season. Though it’s already had a fleeting effect on the Giro and may not prove much of anything about his prospects as a GC leader this year, that TT win had to be a huge relief for Wiggo.

  • If we wanted to factor Vinokourov into our little Stage 1 results sheet game, I suppose we could note that nobody in those top seven spots of the Stage 1 TT hails from a “traditional cycling country.” In fact, you could extend it to the top 8 under those criteria, since Gustav Erik Larsson’s Swedish homeland isn’t exactly a traditional cycling powerhouse, either. Indeed, you have to get down to Dutchman Jos Van Emden’s ninth place before cycling’s traditional power elite countries kick in. Again, that doesn't really mean anything, except that the cycling world has broadened substantially in the last 20 years or so.

  • I’m not enthusiastic about the trend towards just-over-prologue distance opening time trials, those little 8 and 9 kilometer tests that seem designed to be long enough to keep sprinters out of leader’s jerseys but short enough prevent any early buzzkilling time gaps among GC contenders. Like the ProTour system, these prolonged-logues seem to be a lingering organizational overreaction to Mario Cipollini, who’s been mostly retired for some time. Grand tours love the sprinters when they have to maintain fan interest on flat ground, but they seem loathe to give them access to a leader’s jersey for fear they’ll leave the race as soon as it gets hilly. As much as I appreciate a good stereotype, with Cipo and the absolutely leaden Ivan Quaranta retired and Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) heading towards his dotage, the era of the completely one-dimensional sprinter seems to be passing. Many of today’s top sprinters – Mark Cavendish (HTC), Farrar, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), and Danielle Benatti (Liquigas) to name a few, are capable of and willing to finish stage races, even if they have to drag themselves over the Alps, Dolomites, or Pyrenees to do it.

    So let’s stop living in fear of Cipollini and axe the prolonged-logues. They're guarding against the last decade's threat, and they just aren’t particularly satisfying from any perspective. In running, there is a reason that sprinters can be famous, marathoners can be kind of famous, but not many non-competitive runners can name a single middle-distance runner (except for Steve Prefontaine, and that’s mostly because he died young and spectacularly). Spectators like either short and fast, or a longer test of speed and endurance, but not the mushy middle ground.

  • Wait, what was that? How the hell is Mario Cipollini responsible for the ProTour? That one’s easy. Cipollini in his prime rode for Saeco, which was one of the richest and most successful teams in the peloton largely thanks to his ability to win a hell of a lot of bike races each year, and to delight photographers even when he wasn’t. Popular though he was, Tour de France organizer ASO got tired of Cipo grabbing a bunch of early stage wins and the occasional yellow jersey, only to bail out as soon as he detected the slightest elevation change. So ASO stopped inviting Saeco to the Tour, regardless of the fact that it was one of the top teams in the world, Cipo or no Cipo. That woke up all the top teams and their current and potential sponsors to the full extent to which personal or organizational whim and vendetta could control what was ostensibly a professionally run sport. So they demanded guarantees that, if they dumped enough money into the sport, they’d get invited to the biggest races, the ones that made having their name on the jersey worthwhile in the first place. Since the UCI is an end recipient of some of the sponsorship money that flows to riders, teams, and federations, the UCI has a stake in keeping the sponsors in the sport, and sponsors like knowing what they’re getting for their money. Hence, the UCI created the ProTour, which promised invitations to top events to teams that gave the UCI enough money. Unfortunately, those weren’t the UCI’s guest lists to manage, and we all know where things went from there… But anyway, that’s how Mario Cipollini created the ProTour, at least according to the Service Course.

  • While I’m complaining, I’m not too big on final day time trials’s either. Yes, yes, it was exciting in the 1989 Tour de France, 8 seconds, aerobars, ponytails, blah, blah, blah. And it was exciting at last year’s Giro too, but really only due to maglia rosa Denis Menchov’s willingness to toss himself repeatedly to the ground, ramping up the tension quotient considerably. But if the mountains have created any sort of real gaps, which is very likely during the vicious final week of this Giro, the TT can be a snoozer of a way to close out your grand tour. Nothing says "spectacular finish" like a nice, conservative time trial to cement your GC placing.

  • I feel like I should say something more about Farrar’s Stage 2 win, but I can’t quite come up with it. The guy’s a great sprinter, and he put in a great sprint and won. I guess I should say that the Garmin train seems to be a bit better at controlling things through chaos than they were last year, which bodes well for Farrar’s grand tour campaign. Though the team still has the competent Christian Vande Velde to support as its GC man, I have to wonder if Farrar will prove to be the chief beneficiary of Wiggins’ departure. Less GC hopes mean more sprinter resources.

  • As I said, Brad Wiggins needed that Stage 1 win to start to justify all the off-season blathering that was done on his behalf. You know who else needs a blathering-justifying win at the Giro? Andre Greipel (HTC-Columbia). In fact, I’d say nobody else in the peloton needs one worse. After spending the spring picking media fights with teammate and fellow sprinter Mark Cavendish over who should or shouldn’t start the Tour de France and other races, Greipel needs to come out of the Giro with at least one stage to his name, or start brushing up on his Spanish. Greipel could win every stage of the Tour of Turkey from here to eternity, but unless he can come up with goods now, Cavendish’s wishes will be HTC’s command come Tour time, and right now Cavendish wishes for no Greipel at the Tour. Like a lot of people, Greipel likes to call attention to Cavendish’s slow start, but even so, you can’t reasonably argue with Cavendish’s recent grand tour record and the associated right to be the lead sprinter come Tour time. More and more, I’m seeing Greipel in Omega Pharma-Lotto colors next year.

  • After the last few years of Giro d’Italia course safety woes, it’s tempting to shoot scolding glances at the course designers every time there’s a crash. But in yesterday’s finale, when all the unhappy crunchy sounds began, the course didn’t seem to have anything to do with it. In fact, it seemed like people were just riding off the sides of clear, straight two-lane highways and flopping over. Of course, unless the crash happens at the front, the TV punter doesn’t get a very good look at it, so maybe there was some of the Netherlands’ ubiquitous road furniture lurking just out of the shot, who knows. Various poles, curbs, and islands were certainly responsible for some of incidents earlier in the race, and those hazards reportedly could have probably been better marked. But that’s a staffing/course security issue, not a design issue – if you want to race in the Netherlands, there’s no avoiding those things altogether. As for those late-race crashes, though, they looked suspiciously like the jitters of the first road stage of the season’s first grand tour.

  • After his own little dive to the pavement, Katusha’s Pippo Pozzato still looked fabulous. That's a given, though -- it’s his defining characteristic as a rider. But despite appearances, I got the feeling he was pretty rattled. As he got moving again, he very slowly, very deliberately retrieved his sunglasses from his pocket, going so far as to rest his forearms on the handlebar and use both hands to unfold them before putting them on. It may not seem like much, but for Italians like Pippo, the motions required to retrieve and don sunglasses should be as smooth, viscous, and stylish as the product that graces their tresses, and these weren't. Pippo looked labored, and that's a tell as sure as darting eyes or nervous giggling at a poker game.

  • Speaking of Pozatto and looking fabulous, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve finally ridden in my white shoes. Suffice to say that I am now just as fast and stylish as Pippo, but, fortunately, not nearly so slippery.

Lost in Translation

Word was said to be leaking out of Italy over the past several days that Washington, DC, had indeed landed its longshot bid to host the start of the 2012 Giro d’ Italia. Big cycling media reports, subsequently parroted and embellished in any number of places, said that organizer RCS had made statements to the Italian press indicating it was a done deal, with the announcement to be made this morning at the Italian Embassy in DC.

Now, in the fading light of Thursday afternoon, those reports appear to be not quite so accurate, and I’m not talking about the fact that the event is going to be this evening rather than this morning. An event there will be, it seems, but rather than a triumphant victory announcement, it will be a rah-rah session held by the Italians and the Mayor in an effort to convince area businesses (and likely the rest of the DC government) that a wildly misplaced Italian bicycle race will be a financial benefit to the city. In other words, get them to cough up some dough.

That's a substantially different story from those running yesterday, though most of those stories have now been "updated", or "corrected," or "retracted," depending on how you look at it.

I have to admit, when the idea of DC hosting the Giro initially floated out, I approached it with a feeling of acute skepticism, bordering on pessimism. And frankly, even though DC’s proverbial hat seems to still be in the ring, I’m still finding it hard to shake those feelings. I support the effort – this would, after all, bring the Giro d'Italia to my backyard, or five miles from it, anyway. And it's bold, risky, and a little bit ill-advised, and I like that. But hauling a grand tour across the Atlantic is a gargantuan undertaking, fraught with a number of logistical challenges that can’t be overcome with mere enthusiasm. Some can't even be overcome with money, and that's saying something. Among the challenges, monetary and otherwise, that will have to be faced down:

  • For the past several years, the Giro has faced substantial criticism from riders about the length of the transfers between stages – and that’s when we were talking about a three-hour bus ride. Imagine the reactions to 14 hours in the air. I expect the riders’ association to weigh in.

  • Beyond the travel time, riders will be fairly resistant to sitting in a flying, germ-recirculating aluminum tube just as they're hitting some of their lowest body fat levels of the year. Twice.

  • Jetlag. Going east is worse, so expect a less-than-enthusiastic Stage 2 back in Italia.

  • During the U.S. phase of the race, there would be a six-hour time difference between the Giro's primary viewing audience in Europe and the bike race itself. Organizers would likely mitigate that problem with early starts in local time, which in turn will piss off riders, soigneurs, and mechanics.

  • Since DC would host at least a prologue and likely at least one additional stage, the cost and hassle of having to ship both a time trial bike (prologue) and a road bike (stage 1) and related equipment for each rider will have to be considered. Bike sponsors will not want to lose the time trial bike exposure of a grand tour prologue to the quaint "Eddy Merckx style" prologue rules often used for races in exotic (read: non-European) locations. This isn’t the Herald Sun Tour or Qatar. It’s the Giro.

  • The price for a second set of infrastructure required will be substantial on its own. Things like a complete set of rental cars for teams, organizers, officials, etc. And box trucks. And vans. And campers. And motorcycles. (Plus insurance.) And banners. And barriers. And radios. And 42 sets of roof racks.

  • By going transatlantic, the race would substantially increase the cost and hassle for the media and other assorted camp followers. If these outlets are forced to cut costs, coverage (and associated sponsor exposure) could suffer.

  • By exiting the bounds of the European Union, race organization and teams may spend more time than they'd like dealing with visa issues.

  • I would expect that RCS will likely incur some financial loss from the reduced value of a Giro sponsorship to Italian/European sponsors, who would receive lower exposure in their key markets for two or more days of the race, including the presentation and grand depart. Organizers would need to be able to make that up with cash from this side of the ocean, which is hard to come by these days.

  • RCS would also likely experience sponsorship value loss (and subsequent income loss) from European sponsors paying to drive a giant, rotating fiberglass sausage or something in the publicity caravan. Assuming nobody intends to fly that circus here and back, those sponsors would see about 1/10 of their days on the road eliminated. Granted, this could theoretically be mitigated by creating a second, U.S. caravan, though the concept is a little more alien here, and that could present sponsors with a pretty hefty sunk cost for 2 or 3 days of use.

  • I haven’t been able to confirm, but there were apparently issues with the National ParkService prohibition on advertising when the Tour du Pont went through Rock Creek Park awhile back, which could mean either not using the most obvious road in the city to use, or taking another hit to sponsor value by driving unlabeled vehicles on un-bannered roads, etc., for one of two days here. Again, unconfirmed, and I don't remember.

  • In trying to compensate for lost sponsor money on the Italian side with funds from U.S. backers, organizers may face potential sponsorship competition with the re-scheduled Tour of California, if it's still around in 2012. That is, potential U.S. non-endemic sponsors big enough to cut the big checks for cycling will likely have to decide whether to support the "U.S. race" or the "Italian race", both of which would be in the United States at the same time. If those potential sponsors are after warm feelings in the United States via cycling sponsorship, ToC is probably a better choice. If they're after warm feelings in Italy/Europe via cycling sponsorship, they're probably better off supporting an Italian/European race that's actually in Italy/Europe.

  • Outside of the race organizational aspects, I also suspect there will be quite a local outcry if the Mayor and City Council pony up any city money (such as police costs or road surface improvement) for some Italian bicycle race instead of paying school teachers, increasing police on the streets, feeding the poor, or addressing any of DC’s other myriad issues. And DC's usual sugardaddy, the Fed, is getting pretty strapped these days. Yes, most if not all of those costs could be recouped via economic benefit to the city as a result of the race, but few outraged citizens will get that far in their analysis once the shouting starts. Look at what happened to the San Francisco Grand Prix.

So yes, I’m skeptical. But I’m also hopeful. The people working on the bid are experienced, smart people, and they know cycling and event planning. I’m sure I haven’t listed anything above that they haven’t thought of themselves. And if they needed help, I’d sign up in an instant. Hopefully, tonight’s session at the Embassy will be another step on the road to success, even if it’s not quite the finish line people were expecting yesterday.

Been Caught Stealing

As a sport, cycling has come a long way towards acceptance in the United States over the last 30 years or so. The accomplishments of Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong on cycling's biggest stage have had a lot to do with that acceptance, as have marquis domestic events such as the USPRO race in Philadelphia, the Red Zinger and Coors Classic, the Tour du Pont, and the Tour of California. Yes, desperate-for-attention sportswriters at half-wit newspapers around the country can and will continue to write their yearly columns about how cycling isn’t a sport since them gol’ danged, spandex-wearing, French-speaking nancy boys couldn’t hit a Roger Clemens fastball or a three-point shot if their lives depended on it, and they’ll continue to use the resulting reams of cyclist hate mail to prove their far-reaching influence to an underpaid editor who really doesn’t give a damn. But they'll be preaching to a smaller and smaller choir of likeminded souls since, aforementioned unpleasantries aside, the United States has mostly managed to grudgingly accept that riding a bicycle fast to beat other people is a legitimate athletic pursuit.

That said, I’m betting that we haven’t reached the point of cultural acceptance where during, say, the Tour of Missouri, a flock of low-ranking domestiques could run into an Exxon Tiger Mart, clear out the Snapple fridge and the beef jerky display, and run out without paying, right under the nose of the owner’s giggling daughter. Being a Virginian, I’m no expert on Missouri mini-mart justice, but I’d venture that they’d get tasered or pepper-sprayed on the way out, and that’s if they hadn’t already pulled a groin due to the famously incompatible relationship between plastic clipless pedal cleats and linoleum gas station floors. At the very least, their larcenous hijinks would make the evening news, which would undoubtedly air a security video so grainy that not even the race numbers pinned to their backs would enable authorities to identify the suspects. (As with any petty crime committed by our kind, though, you can bet the news accounts would note that the perpetrators were cyclists, as well as whether or not they were wearing helmets at the time of the offense.)

But not so in Italy, at least not in the 1970s, when a standard antic in the Giro d’Italia was for riders to descend upon a roadside store or bar and pilfer all the orange soda, San Pellegrino, and light apertifs they could carry, often with the tacit or even explicit approval of the proprietor. This two-minute clip from filmmaker Jørgen Leth’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a documentary about the 1974 Giro, shows one such raid and captures a not-so-distant past that still feels worlds away.

[Film note: That anyone would attempt to open a bottle by pounding the cap against any portion of his bicycle’s steering apparatus speaks to the bike handling confidence of the rider. I’m not sure what finishing the job off with your teeth says, but it’s something.]

“Ah, but that’s a bygone era,” you say. “People are more litigious now, and computerized inventory and ordering makes wide-scale, willy-nilly looting extremely inconvenient and less endearing for modern retailers. No store owner would tolerate that nonsense today.”

The thing is, in Italy at least, I bet they would. The love and knowledge of the sport is deeper there, the traditions more closely kept, and in the grand history of Italian cycling, the 1970s aren’t that long ago. If Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r) wanted to pilfer some Orangina during a long, hot sprint stage, I’m betting not too many storekeepers on the route would begrudge him the loot. But the modern Giro, and modern racing in general, doesn’t afford riders the same chances at levity that it used to – the media and public scrutiny are greater and the stakes and money are bigger, or at least that’s how it feels. And it’s that upping of the ante and maybe a related loss of some peloton camaraderie that put an end to the bar raid, not a suspicious eye behind the espresso machine, a Carcano under the counter, or some heightened sense of fiscal responsibility. It’s just that, damn it, nobody takes time out of a bike race to rob a European convenience store anymore, and that’s a shame.

As far as U.S. cycling goes, however, it’s probably a good thing that the practice has died out. Ivan Basso (Liquigas) getting shot for trying to pinch a Fresca at a Bakersfield, California 7-Eleven due to a tragic cultural misunderstanding isn’t the kind of press we need. We’ve come a long way stateside, but cyclists and bicycle racing haven’t quite reached that level of cultural acceptance here. But it is achievable, my friends, and other sports have done it. In fact, I’d venture that the starting defense of the Indianapolis Colts could likely leave the stadium during the upcoming Super Bowl, roll up to the local Miami Chevron, clear out the Twinkies, the Gatorade, and the cash register, and be met with nothing but applause for doing so. Someday, maybe the likes of Quick.Step, Lampre, and HTC-Columbia will have the same luxury of status. It would sure help things along if they bulked up to 250 pounds and could bench press 435, though.


- Speaking of the sport’s traditions, this article is sort of cycling’s equivalent of the swallows returning to San Juan Capastrano. When you see it each year, you know that spring is coming.

- Reports of Niels Albert’s (BKCP-Powerplus) non-contention for the upcoming cyclocross World Championship appear to have been greatly exaggerated, mostly by him. In all fairness, after getting yanked off his bike by a fan and cracking a rib at the Belgian national championship, Albert was right to be concerned about his ability to defend the rainbow stripes he’s worn this season. But after suffering through the World Cup round at Roubaix the following weekend, he roared back to win yesterday's final World Cup at Hoogerheide.

While it’s good to have Albert back, there’s no denying that World Cup overall winner Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea) is the odds-on favorite to win the World Championship on his home turf in Tabor, Czech Republic. Between his performances this year, the hometown crowd, Albert’s prediction that the Belgian team will return to being an every-man-for-himself affair, and Lars Boom’s (Rabobank) defection for the road, this has to be Stybar’s year.

- In lamenting how cyclists are treated on roads here in the United States, we often refer enviously to the perceived better treatment of cyclists in countries like Italy. Unfortunately, bad things happen there, too. Condolences to the Wilier family on the loss of its chief, Lino Gastaldello.

Charlie Don’t Surf

And Leipheimer Don’t Jump

Cyclists have as many words for minutely different types of strength as Eskimos do for different types of snow, but a professional rider’s specialty, and their success at it, often boils down to whether they’re very, very fast for a short time, or just very fast but for a longer time. To try to figure out which a rider is, you can phrase the question any number of ways: Is he a climber or a time trialist? Is he fast, or is he strong? Is he a sprinter or a classics rider? Is he a turbo, or a diesel? The questions vary slightly, depending on whether we’re in classics season or in the midst of the grand tours, but they’re all looking for the answer to the same equation – where, on the spectrum between what we’ll call “fast” and what we’ll call “strong,” does he fall?

(Yes, indeed, we’re oversimplifying, but for a reason. There are finer distinctions, of course, depending on terrain and roles – though both short and very, very fast, a sprinter’s violent acceleration is differently calibrated than a pure climber’s stabbing attack, for instance. But where a rider sits on the spectrum compared to rivals within his specialty can tell you a good bit about how a race will likely go down.)

Different specialties within the sport require different balances of power – those often vague waypoints on the fretless fast-strong continuum. And to keep things interesting, the balance points aren’t necessarily static – some riders are able to sacrifice the “jump” needed for a bunch sprint for the mystical “force” required for the cobbles, others can barter “explosiveness” in the hills for the “strength” needed for a flat 40k time trial. Sometimes it happens through training, sometimes it just seems to come with age, sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, but as every rider knows, you can’t have it all at once. Nobody knows that better than GC riders, who slide around the continuum more than most, trying to find that sweet spot that will bag them a grand tour title.

As with anything, there are limits – no rider who is naturally bent too far towards one end of the spectrum can hope to force himself very far towards the other side, no matter how hard he works at it. You can’t fight nature, and they can only seek their best achievable balance. For GC riders’, the specially tailored version of the fast-strong continuum is labeled, at either end, “attacking climber” and “time trial monster.” The reality is that mostly, GC riders are very good at both, often among the top riders in either specialty. But they’re always a little bit, or in some cases, a lot, farther towards one end or the other. The best reach a high white note of balance that lets them make and match the killing accelerations in the mountains and also slay their opponents against the clock. The names of those who achieve it are written in the recordbooks, but more numerous in those same books are the names of those who simply came closer to the balance than the competition on hand.

Which brings us to the point of today’s sermon: Leipheimer don’t jump. That, of course, is not news, and to his credit he’s always been remarkably open about it. The real question was, at what point would Leipheimer’s best attainable spot on the continuum – the one that lets him be very strong in the TTs and climb fast and steady, but not match any sort of acceleration – come to be seen not as a “vulnerability,” but as the absolute, immutable roadblock that would forever prevent him from achieving a grand tour win? I’d say that point was reached on Stage 16 of this year’s Giro d’ Italia, from Pergola to Monte Petrano. Earlier, I’d speculated that this stage would see those who could throw down sharp attacks do so, and then we’d see if a Leipheimer/Armstrong tandem could diesel their way back up in time to save their day. The first part happened, with Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) opening the attacks. Danilo DiLuca (LPR) and pink jersey Denis Menchov (Rabobank) sprang away in pursuit, preserving their GC spots from the surprising and sudden danger presented by a very sharp Sastre. Leipheimer, well, he didn’t. As he always does, he rallied a bit and rode a great tempo up the remainder of the final climb, but so did everyone else of importance. The problem was, with those opening salvos in the initial kilometers of the climb, the minutes he needed had already gone up the road, and while his climbing tempo is fast, it isn’t that fast.

Leipheimer is obviously out of contention now for the Giro, but why say that his lack of acceleration will be the roadblock to any future grand tour success? Well, for obvious reasons, I’m guessing he won’t get much of a chance at freedom in the Tour de France. And, in the unlikely event that he chooses to ride a three grand tour season, anathema to Americans, he’d just close out the year at what may be the biggest festival of acceleration you could ask for – the Vuelta. Though he’s come closer there than elsewhere, with Alberto Contador (Astana) potentially doubling up, a healthy Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) possibly back in action, and about a dozen other jumpy Spanish climbers hopping around like jackrabbits, it doesn’t seem like the best opportunity. Of course, those guys can’t usually time trial, so there you go again… But after the Vuelta, time just keeps marching on, if you know what I mean.

Leipheimer’s not the first victim of getting caught at that damning spot on the continuum, of course. Look at Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), for one. And indeed, for years of Tours de France, the point on the spectrum where both find themselves wasn’t a bad spot to be in at all. In the Armstrong era, grinding, not explosiveness, seemed to be the key to victory, or at least contention. Alex Zulle, Jan Ullrich, Joseba Beloki, Andreas Kloden? All fantastic time trialists and strong climbers, but explosive high-mountain riders were never among the true challengers, though Iban Mayo looked to be for a very short time. And in those sorts of races, Leipheimer probably would have a fair shot (critics will, rightfully, point out that he had leadership of both Rabobank and Gerolsteiner during those years and failed to produce, though I’d argue longer experience has been key to his recent successes). Now, though, the formula for Tour candidates seems to be changing, with more snappy mountain riders making bigger impressions on the overall – riders like Contador, Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), and, obviously Sastre. With his ride in the Giro, Menchov seems to be only one of the riders from the traditional mold to approach the high white note – seemingly sitting on the perfect balance of speed in the mountains and strength against the clock. Basso also had it once, whether he will again remains to be seen.

Race Radio
  1. All this coverage of the short climbing stage to Blockhaus, and not a single picture of the actual World War II German-built bunker at the top? Come on. As a former history major and the son of an architect, I was all set to combine my love of cycling with gawking at a bit of history and some early inspiration for brutalist architecture. Oh well -- I suppose the lack of photos has something to do with the top 3k or so of the climb being snowed in. The stage itself was certainly brutal for its length, with Carlos Sastre sinking again just as fast as he’d risen on Monday, Armstrong looking rough, and DiLuca making Menchov look winded for the first time in awhile. Good on Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) for winning, and for recognizing his narrow speciality – freak stages.

  2. DiLuca continues to impress with his ability to grovel for seconds wherever he can, attacking Menchov on the Blockhaus finish and grabbing himself another 13 seconds on GC. While his true chances are very slim, the way he’s riding, I’m not ready to count him out quite yet. Unrealistic? Maybe, but to put it in the typical language of non-native English speaking riders, he “likes to make a show for the fans.” I like that.

  3. Will Menchov become the first rider to be both awarded and stripped of a grand tour win as the result of a doping scandal? Unfortunately, maybe. As is our (young, ever-evolving) policy here at the SC, we’ll just keep writing about the performances like they’re real, until someone with some sort of authority tells us they’re not with some degree of credibility.

  4. You know you’re in the waning days of a grand tour when you start looking at the other jerseys. Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick.Step) and Francesco Masciarelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo) are locked in a battle for the young rider jersey, with the surprising Masciarelli only two minutes adrift. The Italian looks to be on the upswing, so tomorrow’s finish atop Vesuvio could be his chance. On the other hand, Belgium must be excited about the prospect of a new GC contender in Seeldraeyers, since things haven’t been working out too well for them on that front for the past 30 years or so. Like the battle for pink, it's a two-man game, with the next rider something like 15 minutes down.

  5. In the mountains classification, former Giro winner Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) looks to have things all sewn up, even if his country hates him for outsprinting DiLuca for second place on the Blockhaus stage (thus eating bonus seconds DiLuca could have used). Whatever – Garzelli wanted the points, and I’m glad to see he’s found something to do in his dotage. Beats playing bocce.

  6. Speaking of Garzelli’s success, is it feeling a little old in here, or is it just me? I mean, Garzelli, Sastre, DiLuca, Menchov, Leipheimer? What’s happened to riders in their late 20s, the alleged peak of grand tour prowess? Mick Rogers (Columbia), at 7:05 back isn’t flying the flag terribly high.

  7. On a non-Giro note, I’ll be providing some straight-up, button down, race coverage reportage for VeloNews for this weekend’s Air Force NRC races in Arlington, Virginia. That’s the Clarendon Cup crit (former CSC Invitational, former U.S. Postal something-or-other, and originally…the Clarendon Cup) on Saturday, and the Air Force Cycling Classic circuit race on Sunday. Say hello if you see me.

Fed Up, Knocked Down, and Dropped Out

Some Notes on the Giro

The Service Course is never really at a loss for words, but we are frequently at a loss for time. So with the (American) Memorial Day holiday weekend looming, here’s some quick fodder from the bella Italia.
  1. Ah, there’s nothing like getting what you wish for, on Christmas day, Memorial Day, or any other day, really. Less than two days after the SC suggested that Giro media not grovel at the feet of Lance Armstrong’s (or anyone's) Twitter feed, it seems they’re publishing tweets no more. The Service Course -- it’s what drives the Giro press corps.

  2. Danilo DiLuca (LPR) did indeed lose his pink leader's jersey in yesterday’s freakazoid time trial, which is obviously not the greatest shock to the cycling world. That said, he did well to not completely blow himself up, riding well enough to keep himself in the second spot behind TT winner and new pink jersey Denis Menchov (Rabobank). With some explosive stages in the hills yet to come, we may well see him back in pink at some point. Could it be for good? That's tougher, as he'd have to build back up enough cushion to see him through one more time trial.

  3. Looking like a bit of a three-horse race now isn’t it? Levi Leipheimer (Astana) is the third horse, in case you were wondering. With the aforementioned mountain stages coming up, the question will be whether diesel Leipheimer can match the accelerations of DiLuca and Menchov (to a lesser extent) well enough to keep himself in contention come the final TT. Armstrong does seem to be riding himself into shape, and should be able to help him to a point. The question is, how much? In the days of yore, Armstrong would have been the guy to be able to match those accelerations, but even if that happens, it won’t do Leipheimer a whole lot of good if he can’t follow Armstrong back to the wheel in time. We may well see another round of sharp attack versus fast-and-steady in the coming week. Iban Mayo tested this theory thoroughly against Armstrong in the 2003 Dauphine Libere, and though Armstrong eventually won the race, Mayo did a lot of damage along the way.

  4. With his win today and subsequent leadership of the Giro, will Denis Menchov finally get some buzz? Despite two Vuelta wins, you don’t hear much about Russia’s biggest GC hope for a few reasons. First, he’s just doesn’t seem to be much of a talker, trash or otherwise. He’s also not particularly flashy on a bike – a great time trialist and a good grinder in the mountains, but he doesn’t exactly shout “explosive,” though I do think he’s shown a lot more punch on the climbs in the last couple of years. Finally, one of his Vuelta wins was awarded after initial winner Roberto Heras was popped for doping. No matter how you regard victories of that nature, they certainly don’t make as big an impact as the ones where you get the kisses on the top step at the end.

  5. Speaking of Russians, if Menchov wins the Giro for Rabobank, won’t Katusha just die?

  6. Turns out the Giro time trial was just a little too crazy for multiple world TT champion Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), who woke up Thursday morning and thought, “eh, maybe not.” As it always seems to be in these situations, it was apparently always the plan for Cancellara to go home early to get ready for the Tour de France, though the "right before a stage I really didn't want to ride" was never explicitly spelled out. It also fits into Saxo Bank’s larger team plan of doing absolutely nothing in the Giro d’ Italia.

DiLuca's Pink Slip?

There seems to be some debate as to who the “favorite” is for the Giro. You have to declare someone the favorite, of course. Otherwise, how would people on internet message boards know who to love or hate? The bookies are leaning Danilo DiLuca’s (LPR) way recently, some pundits are waiting to see what Ivan Basso (Liquigas) really has in the tank these days, most people are ignoring Denis Menchov (Rabobank) as usual, the American cycling press favors Levi Leipheimer (Astana), and the American general interest media is probably still waiting for Armstrong to make his move.

What that all means, as I see it, is that nobody really knows, and that’s largely due to tomorrow’s wildcard stage. The 60 kilometer time trial is so unlike anything we’ve seen in a grand tour since any of these guys have been racing professionally, it’s anyone’s guess who will win. And then, how decisive will the time gaps be? The Giro organizers have had a few missteps of late, but they have managed to come up with a stage that is the perfect format to keep people guessing. It’s about half again as long as the average grand tour TT these days, so that alone creates the potential for some unexpected results – who knows who the best time trialist over 60k is? Last anyone checked, it was probably Bernard Hinault, but I think he’s lost a step by now.

But it’s not even a normal, ridiculously long TT. Apparently, it’s also hilly and technical. So much so that there’s lots of talk of riders forgoing TT bikes – a sign that the course may not be suited to the talents of the die-hard TT specialists like Brad Wiggins (Garmin) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank). In fact, Cancellara’s already hedging his bets by calling the course “a bit crazy,” and following up that comment by calling it a whole lot of crazy. All that said, it’s still a TT, and some folks just don’t do well against the clock, no matter how long, short, hilly, or flat the TT may be.

Picking a winner for tomorrow’s show may be too tough a task, but the over/under bet seems to be whether DiLuca will manage to keep his pink jersey. For some reason, I hope so, even if only because I have a feeling he probably won’t. I’ve gone on record in the past saying that DiLuca should focus on the classics, but after the first week of this Giro, I’m sure glad he hasn’t. Mike Barry put it best when he called the Giro more of a “collection of stages” than the Tour de France is, and as more of a puncher than most of the GC riders, the Giro’s grab bag format has played to DiLuca’s strengths. At the Giro, there’s no three-days-in-the-mountains, roll around awhile, three-more-days-in-the-mountains for the climbers to dig their teeth into their own terrain and rhythm, and no billiard-table-flat 40k TT that the usual clockers can do blindfolded.

Instead of the Tour’s predictable roadmap of killing opportunities writ large, the Giro has provided a bunch of little opportunities – deceptive little climbs, a tricky descent, finishes that favors smaller groups – that DiLuca’s been able to take advantage of. Unlike the standard GC riders, DiLuca doesn’t seem to be thinking of whether he can gain a minute on the next mountain top finish or pull a minute and a half back in the TT. Instead, he’s picking out those little chances – like that last descent in Tuesday’s stage to Pinerolo – where he can grab a few seconds at a time. And while people weren't really looking, those seconds started to add up. That scrappiness has been made more evident by DiLuca’s necessary focus on stage wins. More than the true climbers and true time trialists, DiLuca needs the time bonuses on offer to have any hope in the overall, and at this point those bonus seconds account for a significant portion of his 1:20 advantage. All told, his constant fight for seconds, bonus and otherwise, has made for some great riding in the waning kilometers.

In his two stage wins so far, it’s hard to deny that DiLuca has looked very much like a classics rider trying to win a grand tour – something I think is pretty refreshing in a time where specialties seem to be getting so narrowly defined as to border on the ridiculous. While he’s doing as well as any true all-rounder could hope so far, keeping control of the race through whatever tomorrow brings could be a bigger challenge than he’s faced so far. But if he can make it through Cinque Terre intact, he may just get enough respite to hold on as the race settles down a bit and teams without anything to show (i.e., most everyone besides Columbia and LPR) take a bit of the heat off the GC battle.


Some followup on Monday's kvetching about the media's use of Twitter quotes. Today, VeloNews’ Andrew Hood writes of complaints amongst the Giro press corps that Lance Armstrong (Astana) is inaccessible. Quelle surprise! Clinical question – if people can’t remember things that happened three years ago, is that short-term or long-term memory loss? I mean, it wasn’t yesterday, but it wasn’t 20 years ago, either. Anyway, the article notes that Armstrong has been giving the media the slip for several days now, but has been busy posting material to his Twitter page. Writes Hood: “That’s what Armstrong did following Tuesday’s electrifying 10th stage. He crossed the finish line and turned around to go directly to the team hotel, leaving journalists to pull reactions off the Twitter site.”

In a related note, in his Explainer column today, VeloNews’ Charles Pelkey answers a question received during their Live Update coverage, which simply asked, “Where’s Lance?” Part of Pelkey’s answer was that the coverage basically mentions the riders making the moves or otherwise doing something notable, and that “it’s safe to assume that if you don’t hear about Armstrong, Leipheimer, Di Luca, Sastre, Menchov or other top riders, they’re probably doing okay and riding with the peloton.”

Now, can’t we take this same attitude when it comes to post race quotes? As in, if riders want to stew in their juices and not talk to the media, can’t we all just assume they have nothing to say? It would beat the hell out of having to chase people all over the internet, journalistic dignity-wise at least. But, like rider protests, doping, and other messy issues, it would have to be one of those things where everyone agreed not to do it, lest one entity be able to claim an advantage over their rivals by breaking the pact. And we see how well those little agreements tend to turn out.

Race Radio

  1. A few different perspectives on the whole Giro-Milan protest brouhaha are floating in. A great collection of rider quotes and insanely over the top Italian editorial writing on the subject are available on ProCycling’s Dan Friebe’s BikeRadar blog. Why, oh why, will nobody pay me to write like the Italians? It seems like so much more fun. Bicycling’s Joe Lindsey gives his take on his Boulder Report blog, while Mike Barry (Columbia) uses his diary entry to give us some insight as to how a rider mulls these things over. And while Barry makes his case, Ivan Basso (Liquigas), on the other hand, has put forth a weak-kneed recant.

  2. Mark Cavendish (Columbia) must be happy to have bagged a full, competitive sprint stage today, just so everyone will stop jawing about his win in the trainwreck Milan stage. But really, can someone besides Columbia and LPR catch a break in this race? If Mick Rogers (Columbia) somehow pulls it together to get himself into pink tomorrow, other teams are going to start going home.

  3. This isn’t Giro related, save that he competed in it during his time on the road with Motorola, but our hearts go out to the family of Steve Larsen, who passed away way too young today at the age of 39. Here’s to a guy who could ride a bike – any bike – damn fast.

Slow Poke

I read late yesterday evening that there was a protest at yesterday’s Giro d’Italia stage in Milan. You can imagine my surprise. I only saw a few minutes of the stage before I had to go get on with my day, but at the point I saw, the peloton was somewhere around the 6 laps of the 15k downtown circuit remaining and was spread gutter to gutter, chatting. In other words, it looked exactly like I would expect a pointless, ill-conceived, pancake flat, city center circuit race to look like if you were foolish enough to place it after the hectic opening week of a grand tour. You know, like a post-Tour exhibition crit, but with less authentic action.

It turns out the slow riding was indeed a protest, however, even if the protest did look suspiciously like “what would have happened anyway.” We’ll leave the basic, fundamental ridiculousness of this stage on the back burner, for now, and have a look at this little bit of nonviolent revolution. Specifically, the riders were protesting the safety of the Milan circuit itself; some coverage hinted that riders were also more generally protesting what they view as some questionable safety decisions by the organizers throughout the first week of the race. Was the rider’s effective neutralization of the stage, with stage times tossed out the window and just the final 10k raced in earnest, justified? I’m of a bit of a split opinion on that one, leaning towards “yes,” I suppose.

The immediate concern was Sunday’s Milan circuit, which reportedly funneled riders from two lane roads into single-lane corners, took in as many of the city’s tram tracks as possible, was strewn with parked cars, and was segregated by tape rather than barriers. Adding to the potential mayhem was the fact that the course didn’t really have anything to break the field up – in other words, they’d more than likely take in all those corners, tracks, and cars as a tightly packed group, lap after lap after lap. Of course, I wasn’t there, but it does sound like a recipe for disaster, and when you’re facing a recipe for disaster, whether you’re a pro cyclist or an accountant, I do think that you have the right to say something before swan-diving into the empty pool headfirst.

To me, the fact that there were cars parked on a closed course says it all, and in and of itself gives riders ample reason to call the organizer’s entire attitude toward rider safety into question. There is, of course, the problem of riders potentially striking the parked cars on the course. There’s also the potentially more troublesome problem of the motorist getting in, starting his car, and driving it away, only to encounter Danilo DiLuca (LPR) et. al. rounding the next corner at full tilt. Now, I’ve seen cars being towed, carried, or bounced from race courses prior to jerkwater amateur crits throughout the American southeast, a region that hardly has the same affection and appreciation for bicycle racing as northern Italy. And even though it was the early 1990s and the color pink abounded on bikes and jerseys, those races were certainly no Giro d’ Italia. But they still got the cars off the damn course. So does RCS expect people to believe that there was no way the organizer of the biggest races in Italy could have worked with the city of Milan to have those cars removed in time for the city’s showcase stage? If we can agree that that scenario seems ridiculous, the only other explanation would be that RCS didn’t try to address the problem, which reflects an alarmingly negligent attitude towards race security.

The broader complaints about hairy road courses during the first week? Whether those are protestable offenses by organizer RCS is less clear cut, since what’s safe or unsafe in those cases relies a little more on rider judgement than does the Milan problem. Just as parking my car in front of my house is really dangerous if I try to slide the car in sideways at 50 miles an hour, yes, some of the Giro descents and finishes are dangerous if you try to take them at superhuman speed. And just as most normal people can park in front of my house, most normal people (at least the ones reading this site) could ride down those descents and negotiate the stage finishes. What makes these things safe or unsafe, of course, is in how fast you try to do it, and how big a game of chicken you’re willing to play while doing so. When is the course to blame, and when is it the riders' fault for not slowing down?

So where do you draw the safety/responsibility line between the riders and the course designers? Sure, if a descent is too damaged, exposed, or technical to be taken at reasonable bike race speed, then the organizer should obviously avoid it. But when an organizer eyes an otherwise suitable descent, with new pavement and beautifully cambered hairpins, does he have to factor in the thought that some headbanger who needs a contract next year will take unreasonable risks for the chance at scoring the victory, smearing himself on the retaining wall in the process?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear, and as you get farther into it, it just gets harder to determine what should be deemed “safe.” For instance, the “course design / safety / how fast can you ride it” issue is plenty visible in cyclocross, where half the trick is to see how fast you can ride whatever the organizer’s thrown at you without falling over. And in all but the most egregiously bad course design, taking the challenge at a reasonable speed for your skill level is the rider’s problem. However, you get a number of pre-ride chances to test out your theories on the ‘cross course before you go barreling into that muddy turn in competition at 30 kph; in the grand tours, riders are pretty much seeing the course for the first time as they go, and they’re going at 70 kph. Taking that into account, is any of this really safe?

Reasonable care seems to be the best riders can ask of organizers. You know, like maybe not using that 100kph blind curve leading to a sheer dropoff at kilometer 200 of a stage, or not sending the peloton barreling down the four lane autoroute into downtown, then doglegging them into some cobbled, six-foot-wide medieval back alley for the sprint. Has RCS exercised that reasonable care in planning this year’s stages? I’m sitting about 3,000 miles too far west to really know, but the people who really have to worry about it are saying that RCS hasn’t. Bike racers are a whiney bunch, of course, but as much as I'd like to disregard the complaints, you seldom hear complaints like this about safety at the Tour de France.

I will say this, though – the Italians at RCS may not be as safety-conscious as the French at ASO, but they are funnier. Giro director Angelo Zomegnan, understandably frustrated that the riders had effectively blown what should have been a big advertisement for Milan and the Giro, snapped to the AP, “This circuit was explosive, full of bursts, and required you to get your ass off the seat. But it seems like certain riders who aren’t so young anymore didn’t want to do that. Today, the riders’ legs were shorter and their tongues grew.”

Unless I’m mistaken, he just called protest figureheads DiLuca and Armstrong old, and possibly lazy. Tune in tomorrow, when unless the peloton shapes up, he may just call Damiano Cunego short and Ivan Basso’s sister fat.

Race Radio

  1. Pedro Horillo (Rabobank) fell off a cliff. Seriously, fell off a cliff. Fortunately, despite some injuries that would seem more serious if not viewed in the context of falling off a cliff, he seems to have a pretty good prognosis. When he’s feeling better, he can take comfort in the fact that he’s now become the Wim Van Est for a whole new generation.

  2. Mark Cavendish (Columbia) won Sunday’s stage, which you might expect in a flat, 10 kilometer race that ended in a sprint. Andrew Hood did an interview with him afterwards, during which he asked if the win meant that Cavendish had “worked out how to beat Petacchi.” To that, Cavendish retorted, “I don’t think I understand the question. He beat me once all year. I won in Milan-San Remo, I won in Tirreno. Today was just putting right what I messed up in the first stage.” The snappish answer was perfectly justified given the question, but I felt for Hood. There are some times during interviews when, just as you're asking the question, you realize you've phrased it totally wrong. Then you just have to shut up and wait as the line-drive answer comes hurtling back at your head.

  3. Cavendish’s win capped what’s been an obviously remarkable week for Columbia, a week that also includes wins in the previous two stages from teammates Edvald Boassen Hagen and Kanstantsin Sivtsov. Add to those wins the team time trial victory, Cavendish’s time in pink, and Thomas Lovkvist’s time in pink and the young rider’s jersey, and you couldn’t hope for a much better first week for a team without a proven GC threat. Credit the riders, of course, but also team director Bob Stapleton, who bet heavily on youth when he took over the T-Mobile squad that morphed into Columbia. Those guys are paying off now, and earlier than a lot of people expected them to, and it's nice to see a bit of a changing of the guard.

  4. Mike Barry is one guy on Columbia who isn’t young, but he is strong, and he is very nice, at least according to Cervelo’s Ted King (and a number of others, myself included). But what struck me about Barry this week was his own diary entry in VeloNews, which managed to put one difference between the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in much more succinct language than I’ve ever been able to: “While the Tour de France is formulaic in its structure, the Giro is a mishmash of stages.” I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it's true.

  5. Astana’s little jersey change didn’t really tell us much after all, did it? In the end, the new design was just the current jersey with the non-paying sponsors’ logos faded back. So in essence, Astana spend lord-knows-how-much money to effectively do the same thing we did when I was 17 and one of our club sponsors didn’t pay – black out their logo with a Sharpie marker. Of course, the idea that the new design would hint at the new sponsors was just the way I and many others read the team’s comments prior to the design's release, and it proved to be an overreaching interpretation of those comments. The new kit does, as the team promised, reflect “the significant changes that are ahead for the team.” It’s just that, contrary to what we expected, the new design only told us what we already knew – that most of the consortium that makes up the Astana sponsorship ain’t paying, and people hate not getting paid.

  6. We haven’t had a real note on the media in awhile, so here’s one for today: Can we quit with all the damn Twitter quotes yet? Yes, I realize that Twitter, like team press releases and such, can be a good source for information and can give you a basic read on what’s on riders’ minds. And at least most writers are openly stating where the quotes came from – which is better than those “news” articles I read every day that use the same quotes and copy I get in my inbox via press releases. (Although, with the prevalence of Twitter, I suppose you’d have to be a fool to try to pass off a tweet as the product of first-hand journalism.) So what’s wrong with using Twitter postings in articles? Nothing on occassion, but in overusing them, reporters are letting the subjects of their article control the message by only answering questions that nobody, save the Twitterer, has asked. After all, Twitter is nothing more than people interviewing themselves, and giving pretty superficial answers at that. Now, would anyone ever really grill themselves in a public forum, or would they only ask and answer questions that are the most advantageous to them, as both interviewer and interviewee?

Money Laundry

Or Laundry Money, Whichever

The 2008 Tour de France exclusion. The Armstrong comeback. The non-payment issues. The Kazaks abandoning ship. May 31 deadlines. Think Alberto Contador is starting to wish he’d signed somewhere else yet?

Anyway, the team currently known as Astana seems all set to change sponsors, promising to debut some modified “our current sponsors are going down the crapper” kit over the next several days of the Giro d’Italia. The new clothes are said to retain the current sponsors, but give a teaser as to who the new sponsors will be. Like most, I’m speculating that the new sponsor package – which is an amazing feat in itself in this economy and at this point in the season – is a heavily Armstrong-linked affair, and will have something to do with the Livestrong cancer non-profit.

Some people are crying that the Livestrong team scenario isn’t possible, because a non-profit entity can’t own a for-profit bike team. I believe they’re overcomplicating the issue. Or maybe they’re undercomplicating it. I haven’t decided yet. So with no training or experience in the relevant laws and accounting regulations, I’ll obviously wade right into the issue...

There are any number of ways I can see getting around this roadblock, or maybe I’m just proposing that the roadblock doesn’t really exist. First, ownership and sponsorship are two different things – they’re just more combined under Astana than they usually are due to the Kazak national ties. Same deal with Katusha, but these sorts of state-sponsored, pseudo-Soviet arrangements aren’t really the norm. For instance, Riis Cycling owns the team known as Saxo Bank, but Saxo Bank is the sponsor, not Riis. Likewise, a company called Tailwind Sports owned the U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel teams, not the semi-public mail service or the TV channel. Just as in those arrangements, there’s really no reasonable scenario in which Livestrong itself would actually “buy the team,” which is how a lot of people seem to be imagining this deal going down. So Livestrong wouldn't actually “own” anything.

Sponsorship, on the other hand, is really just advertising by another name, and non-profits certainly advertise all the time, though they usually call it "fundraising" instead. In fact, I’ve built a small fort in my living room out of Salvation Army mailers, lashed together with Easter Seals return address labels and roofed with Children’s Hospital glossy postcards. So, Bruyneel, Armstrong, or damn near anyone else could buy out Astana’s ProTour license, contracts, and infrastructure (the “team”), and Livestrong could sign on as a sponsor.

If Livestrong just shelled out the regular “title sponsor” rate, though, it could result in a pretty ugly balance sheet for a charity, considerably lessening the ratio of dollars per charitable contribution that go directly to the root charitable purpose. That would lower the charity’s efficiency rating, which could spell disaster for donations, especially in a bad economy. So a traditional title sponsor arrangement still doesn’t seem likely, even if it is legal.

Another option is that someone, including Armstrong and/or Bruyneel, could buy the team/license, and that entity, someone else, or a group of people (people like Thom Wiesel) could sign on as the “title sponsor,” but not in the traditional sense. We usually think of a title sponsor as a company that pays to advertise its services on the team’s stuff, but really if you have a few million dollars they’ll put damn near whatever you want on there. If the Service Course gave some team (I’m thinking something in a nice second division Belgian squad) enough money, I could decide that I want them to ride around all year with one of my kid's doodles on their backs instead of my logo. And they’d like it. So this theoretical sponsor group could decide that they just happen to want the Livestrong logo on the jerseys, maybe in addition to their own logos, and Livestrong could agree to let the team use their logo for that purpose. Sort of an in-kind donation of space, if you will. Remember those little yellow bands on the Discovery Channel jerseys? Think bigger.

A third scenario is that Livestrong serves as sort of a “collecting sponsor.” The charity would have some representation on the jersey, likely in the form of its signature black and yellow color scheme and some logo placement, but it would pay little or nothing for it. Instead, it would serve as a cause umbrella to sign up sponsors like Glaxo-SmithKline, Amgen, Merck (yes, Merck, not Merckx), or other cancer treatment-related companies, like for-profit health systems or equipment manufacturers. Essentially the same thing as Team Type 1 does for diabetes.

Finally, there’s one scenario that people don’t seem to be considering – a cycling team doesn't necessarily need to be a for-profit venture, and if the Livestrong Foundation really felt the perverse, inexplicable desire to actually own a cycling team, I suppose they could go that route. Non-profit doesn’t mean volunteer, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean charity. It just means that you somehow “serve the public benefit,” and that you don’t make a profit. For instance, National Geographic is a non-profit, but over the years they’ve certainly made plenty of cash selling magazines and Jacques Cousteau TV shows and slapping that yellow square logo on damn near anything. But at the end of the year, there’s nary an extra cent to be found - they just happen to have, from what I’ve read, extremely nice lunchrooms and generous benefit packages. Make no mistake, under a non-profit scenario, Bruyneel, Contador, Leipheimer, Horner, et al would still very much be getting paid, it’s just that at the end of the year, the company that owns the team would have to have appropriately spent or reinvested all its money. That shouldn’t be too hard with a good accountant. And call me crazy, but I think that Armstrong’s foundation probably has a good enough reputation and good enough lawyers to make the case to the feds that the team should qualify as a non-profit .

Of course, I could be wrong about all of that. Maybe the new sponsor is Lego, who knows? What I’m saying is don’t write off the Livestrong thing based on one line out of the reams of rules regarding non-profits. And never underestimate the number of gaping loopholes in the tax code.

Bridging the Gap

Little light on the content here these days, eh? Well, that’s because the Daughter of the Service Course was born two weeks ago, and anyone who’s done that drill knows that newborns can really cut into your casual cycling commentary time. She and I get along just fine, though, because newborns are a lot like cyclists – they’re asleep most of the time, and when they aren’t, they’re eating, pooping, or crying about something. Kidding aside, we’re all thankful that everybody’s healthy, and we’re getting enough sleep to stay relatively sane.

At this point, there’s no way we can catch up to all that’s transpired in cycling over the last couple of weeks. But as we all know, when your team’s missed the break entirely, nothing reassures the director that you really are trying like an ill-fated, half-assed bridge attempt. So here goes…

Rebellin Lights It Up

I left a comment on Pave site right after Fleche Wallonne, wondering if Davide Rebellin’s (Diquigiovanni) latest win there would finally get him the recognition he deserved as one of the finest classics riders of his (aging, mostly retired) generation. Well, maybe it would have, except for the fact that a few days later, Rebellin’s legacy took an unfortunate turn in the other direction with the news that he lit the doping lamp for CERA after his bronze medal performance at the 2008 Olympic road race. Like Johan Museeuw, he has to be regretting his decision not to have hung up his wheels just a little bit earlier. And like Museeuw, we may be in for another “in the last years of my career…to try to remain competitive…etc., etc.” half-confession that does nothing but call the entirety of a career into further doubt. Ah, well.

Schleck Finishes on Time, Race Finishes 20 Minutes Too Late

Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) took a really exciting win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, or at least he would have if the race ended shortly after he made his winning move and established his gap. But it didn’t. And as much as I love L-B-L, watching Schleck cruise alone, however speedily, up that long, wide, dead steady, dead straight climb into Ans was just excruciatingly boring. L-B-L has a lot of beautiful, dramatic climbs – the Graham Watson special in Houffalize, La Redoute – but the Cȏte de Saint-Nicholas just ain’t one of them. Coupled with Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank), to hear the press tell it, single-handedly menacing an entire herd of about 35 certified Ardennes classics threats into a total stupor, it wasn’t the best finale the race has ever seen. I mean really, nobody could attack because Frankie was there? Cunego? Valverde? Anyone? Because you really weren’t going to win with Andy up the road, anyway.

Ardennes Specialists are People, Too

Despite his recent lighting of the lamp, Rebellin won a load of big races, including his legendary sweep of the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2004. Yet when people talk about classics riders, he’s rarely mentioned with contemporaries like Michele Bartoli and the like. Why? I think the reason is two-fold. First, for whatever reason, Rebellin’s never gotten any respect – years of non-selection for the Italian World Championship team show that. I don’t know the guy, but I do know that some folks’ heads and mouths can rob them of opportunities their legs should have given them, and in a time when national coach Franco Ballerini was trying to build unity, Rebellin just didn’t seem to fit into the plan. So maybe Rebellin just rubs people the wrong way, but if he does, it’s never been in as public a way as some of his compatriots, like Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) or Filippo Simeoni (Ceramiche Flaminia).

The personality part of the equation is likely to remain a mystery, to non-Italian speakers at least. Besides, the second reason Rebellin isn’t regarded as a classics legend is much more broadly applicable and more important anyway: the misplaced perception that classics = cobblestones. Some classics do, of course, have plenty of cobbles, and the stones do add a certain something to the feel of the race and the legends of the men who thrive on them. But plenty of big classics are held over smooth roads as well – races like San Remo, Liege, Fleche, Amstel, Lombardy, and Paris-Tours. Despite that, it seems that unless someone wins Roubaix or Flanders, they aren’t dubbed a great classics rider, and that’s unfortunate. Sure, grand tour guys snap up some of the Liege wins, and if you win Paris-Tours or San Remo, they’ll probably still just call you a sprinter. But there has to be a place for guys like Rebellin in the classics pantheon, doesn’t there? Maybe if there were, guys who are clearly cut from the same mold as Rebellin, like Damiano Cunego, Alejandro Valverde, and Danilo Diluca, would stop chasing slim chances at grand tour wins and focus on the asphalt classics where their talents really shine. That said, they’d be stupid to ignore the financial incentive of the grand tours vs. classics equation if they have a reasonable chance of success over three weeks, so I can’t say I blame them.

Actually, It’s Three Blows

Speaking of cobbled classics, Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) has made a habit of winning them, and unfortunately, he seems to also have made a habit of knocking back some Bolivian marching powder afterwards. The news is everywhere you’d care to look, of course, including Monday’s revelation on that this is actually Boonen’s third cocaine positive, not the second. News coverage is great and all, but the week’s best contribution to the hubbub comes from this article, where Lance Armstrong comments on the situation with a fantastic double entendre:

“It’s a blow for him, a blow for Quick Step, a blow for their sponsors and Belgian cycling.”

Well played, Armstrong, well played.

Pick a Winner

Hey, wait a minute! That last article we cited also noted that the Giro d'Italia has started, and admitted that there are people besides Armstrong riding it. I’ll be damned. Other than some arguably more spectacular scenery, what does the Giro have over the Tour de France? A shitload of former winners on the start line. Stefano Garzelli (2000), Gilberto Simoni (2001, 2003), Damiano Cunego (2004), Ivan Basso (2006), and Danilo Diluca (2007) are all in the mix this year. Why does the Giro seem to always have so many former winners on the line, when the Tour sometimes struggles to have even one?

The simple answer is that the last 30 or 40 years of the Tour have been dominated by a host of multiple time winners. In fact, from 1968 to 2008, only 19 men have won a Tour de France. When a few guys account for anywhere from three to seven wins within a ten year block, there just isn’t a hell of a lot of room to stack up a host of former winners on the line. Armstrong’s tenure alone saw pretty much every other active Tour winner retire or die.

The Giro’s recent history, however, has been dominated by fierce competition among the natives, hence this year’s presence of all those still active former pink jersies with surnames ending in vowels. Not all of them have a good shot at winning by any stretch of the imagination, but they all still have enough kick to make things interesting on those notorious uphill Giro finishes.

Thinking about the presence of former winners at the Giro got me wondering – does the Tour, by virtue of its status as the “premier” Grand Tour, just lend itself to dominance by standout riders more than the Giro? The answer is, in the last 40 years, as the Tour has risen to greater prominence and specialization has increased, yes. But comparing the Giro to the Tour over their histories shows less of a disparity. In 91 editions, the Giro has had 58 winners, for an average of 1.56 wins per victor. Over 95 editions, the Tour has had 56 distinct winners, for an only slightly chunkier average of 1.69 wins per victor.


Like a lot of people, I like the Giro because, well, it’s not the Tour. It doesn’t have that same over-scrubbed, made for television polish added to it to appeal to the uninitiated. It still manages to maintain the image that it’s about bike racing more than the “event” or the brand. The Italian fans, the tifosi, are, of course, already a legendary part of that feel, and you’ll see it again this year when the race hits the hills. But lest you think that the insanity you see at the tops of the climbs today is new, some sort of depraved reflection of the over-the-top society we live in today, watch this clip of the 1974 climb of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.

And turn the sound on, so you can hear the thump when the motorcycle hits people.

Open for Business

Sports Illustrated has the “cover curse.” Here at the Service Course, we have the “blog blessing.”

A pattern seems to be developing, whereby if I poke a little fun at a rider, he will stand on the top step of the podium in a matter of days. Make a few snide comments about Spanish classics riders, and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) wins Gent-Wevelgem. Imply that mighty Jens Voigt (CSC) is a little girly man, and he takes out a gutsy Giro stage win a couple of days later. And sure, Mark Cavendish (High Road), who I may or may not have accused of being the heir to David Millar’s whiney-limey throne, tried to ruin my streak by gifting a sure stage win to teammate André Greipel, but I’m counting that one anyway. I can only do so much for the guy – if he wants to throw the fruits of my largesse back in my face like that, it’s his business.

Based on this scientifically peer-reviewed and undeniable correlation, hang on to your goofy backwards hats, Slipstream fans, because David Millar is about to bag a stage. Maybe the final TT? And congratulations Gilberto Simoni, you’re about to win your third Giro d’Italia.

I know the media is supposed to be unbiased, but to hell with that. As of this post, I’ll be accepting payments from any riders who wish to be made fun of on this site in the name of securing a victory in short order. Prices will correspond to the magnitude of the victory desired. A win at this weekend’s CSC Invitational criterium will be relatively affordable, even for a domestic pro. Obviously, a Giro di Lombardia win will cost a healthy bit more. Just shoot me a line though, I’m willing to negotiate.

On that note, I’ll be doing some coverage work at the CSC Invitational this weekend in Arlington, VA. Say hello if you make it out there, which I recommend doing if you’re in the vicinity – it’s always a good time, and there are some interesting names on the start list. Otherwise, enjoy the finale of the Giro, and after you have, check out Joe Lindsey’s feelings on the race. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his points, but he’s a voice that warrants substantial consideration. He takes a good look at some of the unfortunate issues that are surrounding the sport these days, subjectively as well as from a straight governance standpoint.

David Millar is Contagious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuck Inside of Florence with the Giro Blues Again

Back in the very early days of 2006, my wife’s parents invited us to join them on a trip to Italy in May, along with one of my wife’s many sisters and her husband. Her parents would be renting an apartment in the center of Florence, and our room and board would be taken care of in exchange for services rendered as tour guides and travel planners. (We’d been to Florence on our honeymoon, and the two of us had long since proven our ability to travel internationally without major, life-ending, limb-rending incident. I guess that made us qualified.) After five days or so in Florence, everyone would go their separate ways – my wife and I headed to Bellagio on Lago di Como, her parents down to Rome, and her sister and husband back to Tennessee. Back then, when booking a flight gave you at least a 50-50 shot of getting to your destination, who would pass up that offer ?

Of course, you mention “May” and “Italy” to a cyclist, and their eyes roll back, their vision goes pink, and their mind jumps to thoughts of somehow working a couple of stages of the Giro d’ Italia into even the most family-oriented of itineraries. And I’m no different. What fun-loving spouse wouldn’t want to spend 8 hours sitting by the side of some godforsaken road to see 39 seconds of action? What 33-year-old wouldn't want some snack food thrown from a truck?

I tried, I really did. I studied calendars and routes, scrawled out revised itineraries and hatched plans for daring solo escapes by train. And I am not a person who enjoys planning. I knew my sainted wife would understand, if not enthuse, and if I played my cards right, I could even make it pay by writing a little something for one of the usual cycling media suspects. But I ran into one undeniable, immutable obstacle: the 2006 Giro d’ Italia, the Tour of Italy, would be spending its first days in Belgium during our stay in Italia. A little dejected, I sat back to begin the process of accepting a May trip to Italy that would not result in the obtainment of a pink T-shirt.

And then I remembered that graceful acceptance of defeat is not a part of cycling. If there’s one thing amateur racing teaches you, it’s that if you’re getting beaten, you just haven’t found the right category yet. With that in mind, I started looking for that different category that would allow an on-vacation hack like me to achieve victory. And like any one of a number of cut-rate Italian pros, I came to realize that even though I might never make it to Il Grande Giro, that was no reason to surrender my dreams. After all, there were still a slew of available races once you got that idea of bagging stage wins and GC glory out of your head. They’re just a little more…quaint.

In the end, I settled on the Giro della Toscana, a one-day Italian semi-classic that precedes the Giro d’ Italia start by a week and cuts through the heart of the Chianti wine country outside Florence. Still jetlagged and hazy on the day following our arrival, I drove to the start, got my press pass just as registration was shutting down, slapped the “Stampa” stickers on my rental car, and headed for the race’s biggest climb. What I found at the start, the finish, and at the top of the Badia Coltibuono was a race that will never, ever, ever be shown on Versus, but which was every bit as much a piece of the world of bike racing as a stage of the Giro d’ Italia. The result of that trip was the piece below. An edited version ran in VeloNews’s At the Back column in May 2006.

Il Piccolo Giro
Arezzo, Italy

If there’s one element that sums up the Giro della Toscana, it’s the publicity caravan. The little UCI 1.1 race through Tuscany’s Chianti wine region does have one, but there are none of the Giro d’Italia’s giant iced tea cups and motorized fiberglass contraptions. Instead, there’s a more reasonable fleet of four Fiat Punto hatchbacks, black, each fitted with a roof-mounted PA system. When the caravan reaches a group of spectators on the road – and a group could be defined as “five or more people” – a driver stops to deliver a brief promotional speech at top volume and maximum distortion, despite the proximity of his audience. Small green backpacks and umbrellas are then handed off to the newly deaf, and the Punto sets off for the next group of punters.

That’s the story of the Giro della Toscana, and a host of races like it across Europe each season. In many obvious ways—color, competition, sound—they’re very much like cycling’s major events, but just a little bit more modest, a little closer to the bone. The Giro della Toscana isn’t an important race anymore, though its list of 79 winners features the likes of Girardengo, Binda, Bartali, Coppi, Altig, DeVlaeminck, and Moser. These days, schedule conflicts with the Tour de Romandie and a slew of national races across Europe guarantee a field that is far from star-studded. But in an era defined by slickly marketed events with major sponsorship money at stake, Toscana feels refreshing for its lack of production values.

At the tiny start town of Terranuova-Bracciolini, it’s immediately apparent that this is no ProTour event, not “Il Grande Giro,” which is set to start in Belgium in a week’s time. The team area isn’t a maze of custom VanHool team buses, but rather a mish-mash of hastily parked team cars, with fans wandering between bumpers and bikes. The smaller Italian continental teams that make up the bulk of the field likely can’t afford much more, and Lampre and Liquigas’ rigs are up north at the big races. Only Acqua & Sapone and Naturino, medium-sized squads for whom these are the big races, have their wheeled homes on hand. The result is a start area that feels a bit more like the big races some 15 years ago, when even the most famous names had to greet their public and the press as the soigneur oiled their legs on the bumper of the team car rather than behind the curtains of the bus.

As for those famous names, there aren’t many here. The field is mostly solid Italian journeymen and a healthy complement of the Eastern Europeans that have continued to flock to Italian squads since the fall of the iron curtain. Dane Bo Hamburger plays the role of the old timer in decline, riding now for the modest Miche squad and a long way from his days of Fleche Wallonne and Tour de France stage wins. The lone bonafide star on the start list is Damiano Cunego, here for a final race ahead of the Giro d’Italia. In that great European cycling tradition of towns awarding riders they like with random things, he’s presented a matching pearl necklace and bracelet set at the sign-in.

Which is not to say that the other riders here lack their fans. In fact, they’re here in droves, but not because they’ve read about these riders in magazines or watched interviews with them on RAI. There are a healthy number of girlfriends and family members lingering, and plenty more familiar handshakes, slaps on the back from neighbors, and pokes in the ribs from amateur training partners. Those not personally connected aren’t here to see stars of world sport or be part of an event, they’re just here to see a bike race.

But maybe Toscana isn’t so different from the grander Giro after all, because any race that has RV people can’t be all that small. Granted, there’s only one RV rather than hundreds at the top of day’s principal obstacle, the twisting 20 kilometer climb of the Badio Coltibuono, but they’re there, and they’re cooking and drinking wine, waiting at the spot where they know the selection will be made.

On a signpost just beyond the RV crowd is evidence of the other way that Toscana directly channels the Giro d’ Italia—the route markers. They’re the same familiar black arrows on a Gazzetta-pink background—literally. A bit faded and battered from their use on last years Giro d’Italia, they’ve been efficiently spruced up with a red Giro della Toscana sticker to cover up their Giro d’ Italia markings. A few Euros saved, no doubt, and a few more to tack onto the day’s prize list.

The crowd on the Coltibuono grows steadily as the race approaches, eventually reaching some 40 or so, including the carabinieri, two nuns eating lunch in a Fiat, several families, and members of the Deux Chaveaux car club who have been trapped while trying to visit the monastery perched on top of the hill. A well-fed and painted blonde woman is working the crowd, singing the praises of local boy and 2003 Toscana winner Rinaldo Nocentini, “Vincitore del Giro dell’Appennino! Vincitore del Giro della Toscana!” She’s on the verge of explosion when her man comes over the top in a strong group of 25 that will decide the finish amongst themselves.

Nocentini is still in with a shot when the nine man remains of the break roll into Arezzo to complete two local laps before the finish, and the pace and the fervor of the crowd ratchets up as the candidates turn the screws for the win. The spectators, some familiar from the Coltibuono, grab their children’s heads and swivel them as they point out their local heroes in the peloton. In the peloton a minute down, Cunego makes his only mark on the race on the first circuit, throwing a theatrical arm up in futility and pulling out with a smile on his face.

With a just kilometer remaining and a downpour on the way, Przemyslaw Niemiec breaks free and holds off Giuliano Figueras and the rest of the break by a slim two seconds for the win. Though he’s not Italian, a result that’s somewhat of an aberration in the Toscana’s 79 year history, he’s still a popular winner. A Pole by birth, he rides for Miche, a squad based back at the start town of Terranuova, so he’s a nice local boy after all. Monday morning, his victory will only warrant about 300 words in the Gazzetta dello Sport, but for the people of Chianti, he’ll do just fine.

Ace of Spades

You know I'm born to lose,

and gambling's for fools,
But that's the way I like it baby,
I don't wanna live forever

- Ace of Spades, Motorhead

They’re known in some cycling circles as headbangers, those lords of the long break, the kings of kilometer zero, so maybe it’s fitting that Lemmy and the lads recorded the anthem that seems to speak for them so well. That the fatalistic lyrics of a blue-collar British metal band could fit a bunch of skinny, shaved-legged professional athletes so well seems odd, but when you stare at it for long enough, the reason they do becomes more clear. Like many of the down-and-out fans that song was aimed at, riders in the early break are often the cannon fodder of their own dirty little corner of the world, and that situation tends to change your perspective on risk a bit.

Of course, being cannon fodder, cycling or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily mean you have no purpose – as unkind teachers often point out, the world needs ditch diggers, too. Cycling teams don’t need shovelers per se, but they do need a sacrificial lamb to save the rest of the team from chasing, to bridge up to when the heavy climbs start, and to fly the flag at the front when those TV cameras click on with 2 hours to go. Hence, the long move.

Sometimes, initiating or covering that move is just an assignment, a good teammate’s given role for the day. Might be the same thing tomorrow, might be different. Whatever the DS says. But for some riders, going away in the first 40 kilometers becomes a specialty, every bit as much as climbing or sprinting. Unlike those more glamorous skills, though, the long raid rarely brings it's practitioners victory, and usually the only real suspense in watching it comes from the ghoulish delight of trying to predict just how the break will meet its demise. Will cooperation fail as the finish creeps closer? Will they succumb to a chase, or just crumble under the weight of a hundred kilometers of fatigue? Will they go quietly, or struggle on awkwardly until the field rushes past and spits them out the back? Will defeat come with 5 kilometers remaining, or right on the line?

Regardless of how or when, it’s fairly certain that defeat will come. So why keep doing it? What’s the motivation? That’s where the true breakaway specialists distinguish themselves from their obedient coworkers and snuggle over towards the compulsive gambler end of the spectrum. They keep doing it not because they think victory is likely, but simply because they know it’s possible. There’s a chance, however minute, despite team radios and perfectly timed chases and GC battles and odds. For them, that’s enough.

And like the poker players and slot jockeys that haunt Atlantic City and Vegas, they know the big payoff is possible because they’ve seen it done. Jacky Durand, probably the sport’s best known headbanger, made a career out of it after parlaying an early move (at 42 kilometers) into victory at the 1992 Tour of Flanders. That little taste was enough to hook the Frenchman, and for the next 12 years, you could mark the point where the neutral zone ended by when Du-Du made his move. Durand is a legend, but if the headbangers have a patron saint, it’s Eros Poli, the Italian leadout man who, at 6’4” and 180+ pounds used a 170 kilometer solo escape to score an unlikely win on Stage 15 of the 1994 Tour de France, which passed over the fearsome Mont Ventoux. He got to the bottom of the Giant of Provence with 22 minutes in hand, and was still over three minutes to the good when he plowed across the line in Carpentras ahead of Virenque and Pantani. There are actual saints who’ve suffered less.

While Poli and Durand are gone from the peloton, a new generation of gamblers is sitting down at the table, hoping that if they play enough hands, they’ll get dealt the right cards eventually. One of the best is Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff), a 25-year-old Russian who seems to be in the early move of practically every race his second division team gets an invitation to. All those kilometers off the front haven’t provided Brutt with even the slightest hint of a tan, giving him even more common ground with British metalheads we started out with, but they did gain him a good win on Stage 5 the Giro d’ Italia on Wednesday. He out-rode and out-bluffed the rest of the 12 man move he’d been away with for almost 180 kilometers. You can read all about it here, but that's old news by now and besides, another early move has already managed to reshape the race since then. What’s more important about the Stage 5 article than nitty gritty race details are Brutt’s comments from the post-race press conference, which provide some good insight into the mindset of a pure, unadulterated headbanger:

“I didn’t believe we’d make it to the finish, but then I was with some very strong guys and it made the difference to pull clear. I like to go into breakaways. That’s my best chance and I’ve done a lot of them. I do that as often as possible.”

Brutt knows that, without a killer sprint or serious high-mountain chops, his odds of bagging stage wins are slim, so he plays the cards he dealt and gambles on the long move. He knows that 99 percent of the time, he’s not going to win, and he’ll be wasted for the next few days. But because a 1 percent chance is better than nothing, he does it anyway. Frequently and wholeheartedly. And there's something endearing in that. After all, who wants to live forever?

Italian Graffiti

The 2008 Giro d’ Italia is underway, marking not only the start of the grand tour season, but also the beginning of prime road graffiti season. For whatever reason, this quaint chalk-and-housepaint element of road racing culture has never migrated north to the spring classics in a big way, save the sterile, municipally-stenciled string of “Huy”s on the final climb of the Fleche Wallonne and the surprisingly prolific writings of the Phil Gilbert fan club on the climbs just outside of Liege. Yes, the pavement décor is a little sparse up north in the chilly early spring, but as the professional caravan motors south to the boot of Europe for the Giro, the blossoming of the graffiti marks another sure sign of seasonal transition.

The Italians have made an art out of road graffiti, just like they have made an art of clothing, automobiles, living, bicycle racing, and, well, art. From simple block-letter names to heartfelt scrawlings to carefully planned and proportioned works, and with sentiments ranging from the poetic to the profane, Italians lead the way in truly inspired race course paint. (In fact, maybe it’s the descendants of all of the immigrant Italian miners in the Belgian Ardennes who account for the street painting present in those classics but lacking in the Flemish races. Maybe the urge to roll paint onto asphalt is something in their blood that hasn’t been totally bred out by living in that French-speaking land for a hundred years. Or maybe paint just doesn’t stick to wet cobbles very well.)

Sure, in July the Tour de France will bring about grand and international gestures of support for riders, teams, or entire nationalities, played out in paint and chalk, banners and flags, and paper mache and hay bale sculptures. But like the Tour de France and nearly everything associated with it, those displays often go a bit too far in their quest to be a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. And as a result, any sentiment they’re intended to convey seems to ring a bit hollow.

The Giro d’ Italia, on the other hand, is certainly a spectacle, but it is a spectacle because of its focus on bicycle racing, not because it is achingly desperate to be the center of attention. The same applies to those messages to nobody and everybody that the race’s tifosi apply to the streets of Tuscan towns and high alpine passes. Like the Giro that inspires it, the beauty of its road graffiti lies in its relative simplicity, its authenticity.

In fact, so endearing are the roadway decorations of the tifosi that they’re apparently spreading beyond the realm of cycling and making their way into general Italian culture, as American ex-pat writer and photographer James Martin describes here. It's like a bizarre ode to simplicity: some people use instant messages, the Italians just paint it on the road.