A Quick Lesson

One time, after nobody had said anything for awhile, Michele Pollentier flicked four fingers outward over the top of the steering wheel and asked me why Americans don’t know how to ride their bikes through a race caravan.

I strung together some sort of response that felt diplomatic enough, maybe even accurate. About how a lot of the races over here are criteriums, so we have plenty of pits and free laps but not many caravans. How, especially back then, somewhere in the early-mid-2000s, only big professional races here had caravans at all. Those that weren’t criteriums, anyway. Pro-am races like the one we were following? Barely ever. Pretty simply, I supposed, it came down to lack of practice.

He nodded, glanced at the sideview, and adjusted the car a bit to shelter a Cat. 1 straining to return to the peloton up the left side. We were doing about 35 down some chipseal Pennsylvania road, headed to the foot of the next climb. The rider faltered somewhere around the B-pillar and sank backwards. I’m not sure if he came back or not; there was a lot of that sort of traffic.

Only after that – and after being put on the spot to explain my homeland’s shortcomings by a man who had won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Flanders, and yes, who was caught trying to cheat his dope test after winning on l’Alpe d’Huez – did I ask what gave him the impression that we, as a nation, didn’t know what we were doing in a race caravan.

“Look at the back,” he said, extending a stubby forefinger towards the bumper of the car in front of us. “Spotless!”

“OK…,” I allowed myself, thinking (too simply) that this race, the Univest Grand Prix, is a big one for a lot of these teams. Probably their biggest of the year. Regional U.S. amateur teams don’t get a TV helicopter and a crack at guys in the Rabobank program very often. Of course they washed their car. Probably twice.

“In Belgium – tock, tock, tock.” With each guttural tock, Pollentier was sighting down the edge of his right hand, which was cutting a series of vertical slashes across the width of the telltale bumper. “There would be black marks across. Rubber, from the bike tires.”

“These guys? They sit a meter off the back of the car. Too far. Then they try to come around as soon as they can. They don’t use the cars enough.”

Somehow, it came off as an observation, a friendly pointer that maybe I could pass on if I had an opportunity, not as a condemnation or even much of a criticism, really. There was no hint of the ex-pro, when-I-was-racing chest thumping or old-world cycling’s well-where-I’m-from contempt. Maybe it’s that manner, or his forthrightness about his past drug use and its effects, that explains why Pollentier is owner of a Firestone tire store in Nieuwpoort and the guiding hand of a development team rather than a yelling, car-door-slapping pro DS or a quotable curmudgeon like many of his racing contemporaries. There’s plenty to condemn in Pollentier’s past, for those who like to condemn. But sitting in the car then (and sitting here now) I wished there were more ex-pros like him.

The Unfortunate Unpredictability of the Undead

Despite all the considerable action in professional cycling over the past couple of weeks, there hasn’t been much posting here. In truth, that’s due mostly to a lack of time and a lack of anything particularly compelling to say. That said, the silence could have just as easily been paralysis from pure, heart-stopping terror.

This month’s main event, the Giro d’Italia, has had enough gory, beleaguered deaths and subsequent returns from the grave to make the average B-grade slasher flick look downright realistic by comparison. Once every few stages, or so it seems, one of the race’s dramatic leads meets some horrible fate and drops from the GC picture – presumably into an enduring hell and damnation, never to be seen again. Or at least into a permanent spot in the grupetto. At least that’s how it would go down if this were a normal grand tour, one of July's docu-dramas, perhaps, but it’s not. In this macabre Giro, the deceased routinely rise up a few stages later, maybe a little bloody, maybe a bit more vacant and hollow-eyed, but alive and breathing, sure as you or me. And without fail, they’re looking for revenge -- even if they aren't seeking a dinner of sweet, sweet brains, they are hell bent on sinking their teeth into a handful of seconds or a pink jersey.

But why anyone, alive or undead, would want that pink jersey is a mystery to me. That pastel getup has been the 2010 Giro’s equivalent of cinema's creaky tool-shed door. As each new victim approaches it, the crowd collectively fights the urge to yell out, “don’t go in there!” Brad Wiggins (Sky) was the first to be felled by the axe, daring to put on the initial maglia rosa and then getting thrown to the deck and ground up like hamburger for his hubris. Wiggins’ apparent demise dropped the cursed blouse on the shoulders of Cadel Evans (BMC), and like the hot chick in any good slasher flick, he was promptly isolated from his friends and quietly dismembered in Stage 3.

Things looked like they might have been coming to an early apocalyptic end after that, when Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) – who’s presently some people’s definition of evil incarnate – slipped the jersey onto his shoulders, a situation that many observers feared would create a consolidation of pure evil so powerful that it allow Vino to walk away with the race. But that would be too easy. Instead, Liquigas’s handsome heroes Nibali, Agnoli, and Basso stole the lead away in the TTT, seemingly throwing shovelfuls of dirt on the carcasses of Evans and Vinokourov in the process…and themselves fell victims to the curse just two days later, thrown to the tarmac en-masse on the descent of the Passo del Rospatolo. That blink-of-an-eye slaughter on the road to Montalcino allowed Evans and Vinokourov to rise muddy from the grave and re-enter the GC picture.

Learning nothing from their first gruesome deaths, on Stage 11 to L’Aquila, Evans, Vinokourov, Basso, and Nibali did the cycling equivalent of sitting around the campfire necking while a madman with a hatchet lurked in the woods beyond, letting a huge split of 50 riders walk away with 13 minutes by the end of the stage. That drunken lapse in judgment raised the corpses of both Wiggins and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), reintroducing two characters who’d been initially killed off before the opening credits were even done. Beyond that point, the whole plot got a little convoluted, with people stabbing each other in the dark willy-nilly whenever time and circumstance allowed. But now, as the race lumbers into the remote settings of the high mountains, we’re set to witness the horror epic’s crescendo, which will be a wholesale slaughter leaving only one bloodied, battered hero standing.

Until the sequel, at least.

All of that is well and good, of course, and it’s made for a hell of an exciting race, the kind that the guys who do the daily race coverage dream of. Each day, they get a new story or an easy angle served on a silver platter, some exciting development that – with even the most minimal efforts at matching nouns with verbs – will make their readers say, “damn, what a story!”

But for us more fringe types – bloggers, commentators, analysts, and other cheap-seat snipers – these kinds of races can spike the anxiety levels a bit. That’s because analysis is about trying to find the meaning of it all, looking at the past to devine the future, and trying to find the current beneath the waves, some sort of commonality or thread that makes it all make sense. And this Giro hasn’t made much sense. It’s been an unpredictable and unsettling battle of a slew of not-quite-superfavorites riding through an unending series of potential game-changer stages. There’s no real frame of reference, nothing to hang our hats on, no constants to let us figure out the variables. It’s unnerving.

Even worse, fate has been more heavy-handed than usual, threatening to pound its iron fist and make us look like fools as soon as we commit our thoughts to paper. Note that one rider is going well and this may be his year, and the next day he’ll probably be balled up on the side of the road, crying like a little girl, or be run over by an errant combine harvester. Try to narrow the GC contenders based on the most recent stage results, and the leaders will decide to eat week-old fish for breakfast and throw a twenty minute cushion in the lap of some aging champion who’s spent the rest of the race just trying to bleed enough time to be given a long leash for a stage win. It’s enough to make a writer gun-shy, for gods’ sake.

But while the prospect of writing about this Giro has been downright daunting, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of watching every gory minute of it. And so has everyone else, it seems, because while high dramas with carefully constructed plots may win the awards at Cannes, a good slasher flick will always score at the box office.

Too Late Now

Now that we’re a full six stages deep into this year’s Giro d'Italia and gaining momentum fast, it occurred to me that there are a number of things set in motion that it's simply too late to change. Here are five of them.

Too Late to Please the Home Crowd: Quick Step

Since we last checked in, Patrick Lefevere’s boys in blue have managed to pinch off two stage wins, first with Wouter Weylandt’s sprint win in Stage 3 and again with Jerome Pineau’s long raid in yesterday’s Stage 5. Both were good wins. Weylandt proved canniest in a jittery sprint that saw an increasingly frustrated Andre Greipel (HTC-Columbia) go backwards so fast it was dangerous. I guess you can never count out a Belgian when the race has been in the gutter for five hours before the sprint.

For his part, Frenchman Pineau was clearly the strongest man in the long break – at least once mountains leader Paul Voss (Milram) got the points he was looking for and threw out the anchor. In another bizarre sprint – one in which both the chasing peloton and the break seemed to simultaneously give up for two crucial seconds just under the red kite, with the break coming to its senses first – Pineau easily ditched Julien Fouchard (Cofidis) and the visibly suffering Yukira Arishiro (Bbox). It seems that, with the spring classics pressure off and few grand tour expectations to live up to, Quick Step is finally getting its house in order and starting to find its legs again.

So will pocketing two Giro stages make up for not winning on the cobbles this spring? No. No it won’t.

Too Late to Retire Last Year: Lampre

Behind Pineau’s unlikely Stage 5 win, most of the work in the shockingly failed chase was being done by Lampre, with minimal late help from Garmin and HTC. To be honest, I was surprised Lampre got as far as they did in bringing the move back, because those chases take teamwork and Lampre’s Giro roster looks like they went recruiting on the Island of Misfit Toys.

First and most obviously, the team features Gilberto Simoni, the two-time Giro winner (2001, 2003) who signed with the team for this race only. Though he most recently rode professionally for Diquigiovanni, Simoni wanted to finish out his career at the Giro with Lampre because that’s where he won his first Giro. I sort of admire Lampre management for agreeing to do it, and I’m sure they’ll get their money’s worth in publicity, but at 38 and well past his prime, Simoni isn’t likely to add much to the race.

Blowing a single roster spot isn't the end of the world, but the fact is that Simoni’s considerable ego might not let him do donkey work for others, and something tells me he probably still expects a good helping of the royal treatment himself. If Simoni’s ego is still intact at his advanced age, he could drain resources from the squad’s other former Giro winner, Damiano Cunego. As most people remember, that particular situation won’t be the least bit unfamiliar to Cunego, who spent an awkward three weeks stomping out the aggressions of then-Saeco teammate Simoni to bag his 2004 Giro win.

All that said, there is a small chance that including Simoni might not turn out badly for Cunego. I don’t think anyone considers Cunego much of a GC threat anymore, even though he’s still just 28, but if Simoni has any PR savvy in him at all, he’ll bury himself for Cunego – happily, repeatedly, and visibly. With that done, Simoni would be able to sit back and reap the goodwill from all the glowing newspaper articles and TV recaps that will tout his good teamwork as burying the hatchet from the pair’s 2004 Giro battle. And with those good feelings still hanging weightless in the air, he’ll be able to retire as the magnanimous former champion, rather than as spiteful, mouthy little imp he was known as a few years back.

Not content to let Simoni be their only aging, oddball selection, Lampre also brought along 36-year-old sprinter Alessandro Petacchi, who has finally worked his way back into the big leagues after a doping-related exile. Though he’s won 20-something Giro stages, Petacchi’s relatively brief glory years are getting pretty hard to remember these days, even if he did manage a pair of stages last year. As if to emphasize his age and bygone era, he’s one of the last Cipolinni-style sprinters around – favoring a very long, dedicated, high-speed leadout, preferably down a four-lane highway. Unfortunately for him, since the team has already managed to acquire two theoretical GC leaders (see above), they can’t really spare the seven guys it takes to give Petacchi the leadout he needs.

So what did they do instead? Brought in another 36-year-old formerly suspended sprinter, German Danilo Hondo, to keep Petacchi company. Presumably they'll spend their long days in the saddle lamenting the current state of sprinting and reminiscing about the days when you couldn’t get close to the front of a bunch sprint unless you were six feet tall with frosted tips.

Simoni, Cunego, Petacchi, and Hondo all in the same grand tour team? Yeah, that can’t fail. Fortunately, the team is rounded out by a group of capable workers, who will have their work cut out for them, since the squad’s focus seems schizophrenic at best. Of course, that focus may be narrower after yesterday’s stage, when Petacchi noted that he’s come down with a touch of bronchitis. (Guess what, Lampre? Petacchi is always sick, and it’s always with bronchitis, which may be why he huffs enough asthma medicine to get himself suspended.) Surprisingly, Hondo seems to be picking up the slack nicely, though he’s still not winning races.

Too Late to Take It All Back: Andre Greipel

Even in the talk-laden world of professional road sprinting, Andre Greipel was generating a pretty impressive word count this spring. Some of his chatter was justified: while arguing that HTC should have left his arch-rival, teammate, and defending champion Mark Cavendish at home for Milan-San Remo would be tough, leaving the far more on-form Greipel on the bench for the one and only bunch sprint monument seems petty and short-sighted, and Greipel’s questioning of that decision was understandable (if poorly delivered). But then, perhaps finding a bit of support and encouragement on that point, Greipel kept talking, and talking, and talking, throwing around synonyms for the always dangerous phrase “I deserve,” and ramping up tension within the team.

Now, five stages into the Giro – his best opportunity to reverse his team’s decision to leave him home for the Tour – he’s produced nothing but more complaints. Yes, there have only been three road stages, and it isn’t that easy to just dial up a win on demand, but when you run your mouth that much about being the top dog, you’d better come out barking. So far, Greipel’s leadout man Matt Goss has been looking much better than his captain, which could get awkward if things continue along the same path. If Greipel is forced to cede leadership in the Giro sprints to Goss after playing second fiddle to Cavendish for two years, Greipel's head may well explode.

As for yesterday’s stage, it’s worth noting in Greipel’s defense that it’s hard for a field sprinter to win when the break doesn’t get caught. Problem is, HTC didn’t look particularly committed to that cause. Why that was is anyone’s guess, but Cavendish has opined in the past that the team is willing to work hard for him because they know he’ll finish it off for them. After the first few Giro sprints, you have to wonder if the team just isn’t feeling that motivated by Greipel.

Finally, Greipel has noted in some of this comments that, though they’re on the same team, he doesn’t have access to the same top-notch leadout train that Cavendish does. It’s a fair point. But you know what? Nobody’s going to have that train but Cavendish, regardless of what team Greipel finds himself on next year, so he’d better learn to work with what he can get.

Too Late to Switch Teams: Cadel Evans

During his years at Lotto, lack of team support was always cited as Cadel Evans’ grand tour Achilles heel. That team’s failings in three week tours were natural, everybody thought, because Lotto is a classics-focused team, not the purpose-built grand tour machine you seem to need to win these days, particularly if there’s a TTT. So, still seeking grand tour glory, Evans switched teams…to another squad that’s far better suited to the classics than the grand tours.

And so in Wednesday’s Stage 4, despite his and his young BMC team’s best efforts, Evans lost a substantial 1:21 to GC threats Nibali and Basso (Liquigas) in the TTT. Adding to the sting, BMC dropped 35 seconds to Evans’ former team, Omega Pharma-Lotto – which, of course, no longer even had the benefit of Evans’ considerable TT strength in its lineup. That squad with Evans in it and some purpose behind it might have lost under 30 seconds, but we’ll never know.

BMC director John Lelangue and Evans have noted that the brutal final week of this Giro will likely make team strength of little importance, and they might be right. Those mountainous final days, followed by the race-closing ITT, will likely see one or more contenders crack terribly, losing minutes by the fistful. But dropping minutes here and there in the first week to guys like Basso, Nibali, and Vinokourov because your team can’t keep you within shouting distance in the TTT (Stage 4) or, perhaps more alarmingly, can't help you chase back to the front group (Stage 3) is only making that final showdown that much harder. It’s one thing to ask Evans, whose principal GT strength lies in the time trial, to hang close to the more pure climbers in the mountains. It’s another to ask him to try to haul back the two minutes they’ve thrown away on the flats.

It’s also true that Evans has a stronger supporting cast waiting in the wings for the Tour de France. Unfortunately, I think reserving that strength for July was the wrong move, and after the first five days, we’re already seeing how wrong it was. As his riding since winning the World Championship has proved, one big thing Evans requires to succeed is confidence, and nothing would build his confidence more than actually winning a grand tour. With no Leipheimer (Radio Shack), no Schlecks (Saxo Bank), and no Contador (Astana) on the start line, this Giro was Evans’ best chance, and the team should have thrown everything it has at it to make it happen. Instead, they sent four riders to the Giro who have never ridden a grand tour so that their veterans will be fresh at the Tour to watch Alberto Contador ride away.

But even if BMC throwing the kitchen sink at the Giro didn’t result in an Evans win, he could have come out of it knowing that he could count on his team to be there when he needs it. I doubt he’s feeling that now, even if he knows deep down he’ll get better support at the Tour. And even if that left the A team a little more physically tired for the Tour, I suspect it would pay off in other ways.

Too Late to Pull the Ads: Radio Shack

I watch the Giro mostly on NBC-owned Universal Sports, where the coverage features Lance Armstrong-based Radio Shack ads in heavy rotation. It’s understandable, of course – they’ve sponsored a cycling team, so why not advertise during cycling events, since people who see cycling are presumably who they’re targeting? (That ignores the outside-cycling exposure Armstrong provides, but we don’t have time to get into it.) But seeing the ads is kind of funny on some juvenile level, given that Radio Shack is conspicuously absent from the race.

That absence is either because they weren’t invited, or because they turned down their invitation, depending on who you ask and when you ask them. The original story was that Radio Shack wasn’t invited, ostensibly because they’d be sending their big guns to the Tour of California and because Armstrong pissed off Giro director Zomegnan last year over the Milan course safety issue. Following the Giro teams announcement, of course, Bruyneel and Armstrong went on a media offensive, stating that the team was not, in fact, turned down for the Giro, but had already told organizer RCS they wouldn't attend.

What is this, professional cycling or a fat girl blathering about spending prom night at home? I don’t really care whether nobody asked you or whether you didn’t really want to go anyway. All I want is for you to shut up about it, because neither arugment makes you sound particularly appealing.

OK, that’s old news, but I just had to get it out there.