At the conclusion of Wednesday’s rain-soaked Grote Scheldeprijs race outside Antwerp, several riders hit the slick pavement just beyond the finish line. Saxo Bank's Jonathan Cantwell collided with photographer Taz Darling of Rouleur magazine, who suffered, at last report, a fractured eye socket, ruptured spleen, and a broken collarbone. Cantwell suffered a punctured lung, while the other riders involved got off more lightly.

Of all sports, cycling has one of the more intimate relationships with the weather. Unsheltered by stadiums, without rain delays and tarps, without a clock to expire and locker rooms to retreat to, road racing is exposed to the sun, wind, and precipitation like no other competitive sport. Riders survive bad weather, maybe even use it to their advantage; as fans, we embrace it.

Bad weather has been the catalyst for many of the sport’s fondest memories – Breukink and Hampsten on the Gavia in 1988, Hinault at Liege in 1980, Museeuw at the 2002 Roubaix, Evans’s strade bianche ride in the 2010 Giro d’ Italia. But those moments often come at a peril that is often under-recognized, even though part of their very value is in the danger, the risks the athletes take in pursuing victory despite the circumstances. The Scheldeprijs incident highlighted that risk, and Darling’s injury illuminated how the sport's dangers can sometimes extend beyond the riders and even beyond the finish line.

What can we do to reduce the risks? In many cases, nothing. As any U.S. amateur racer has been warned by countless pre-race releases, "bicycle racing is an inherently dangerous sport." Most so for the riders, but occasionally and unexpectedly so for support staff, media, organizers, and spectators. Darling’s injuries demonstrate that today, but there are examples to be had every year: the motorcycle crashes that punctuated last year’s snow-plagued Tour of California, the various deadly incidents that marred the long history of the Tour de France. To try to write rules around every possible circumstance that could be encountered on the open road, if this, do that, to try to bubble-wrap one of the last great daring adventures in organized sport, would hamstring races and do the sport a disservice. Rigid regulatory frameworks and road cycling have always been a poor fit.

What we need to do is encourage people – organizers, officials, teams, and media alike – to think. To make and accommodate changes based on current, on-the-ground circumstances, rather than what was planned for days, weeks, or months before. Apply relevant, accumulated knowledge to the situation at hand. Crazy, I know.

The conditions that led to the Scheldeprijs finish crash were utterly predictable. The surrounding area had been dry for weeks, leaving a substantial layer of accumulated diesel on the road, ready to be reinvigorated by those first few raindrops. The potential for slick roads was evident from the time the first clouds gathered. The amount of painted road markings near the finish was also plain to see, and anyone who’s been to a couple of rainy bike races knows what that means.

A quick review of the pancake-flat Scheldeprijs’s 100-year history will also reflect that it tends to come down to a storming bunch sprint amongst some fairly hefty (by bike racing standards) northern bruisers. It is not a mountain top finish, with 120-pound climbers twiddling across the line. The final has a certain momentum behind it. It’s also a known fact that winning professional bike races – even mid-week ones – is not easy, so it was always fairly likely that participants would be a little cross-eyed and oxygen deprived as they crossed the line.

The final factor? As Bicycling’s Bill Strickland pointed out via Twitter, “Knowing Taz, bet she shot all the way to impact.” I don’t know her at all, but I’m betting that’s probably true as well. Not just because good photographers are as committed to getting the shot as sprinters are to getting the win, but also because there’s not much depth perception to be had through a zoom lens. The longer the lens gets, the more compressed the depth perspective becomes, and it gets a lot harder to tell whether the rider in the viewfinder is 50 meters away or five. I don't mention this to blame the victim, but to point out that “get out of the way” isn’t a very viable back-up plan considering the job photographers are doing and the equipment they use to do it.

Given all those factors, what should have been done at the Scheldeprijs? Granted, I’m commenting a day later from the cheap seats across the Atlantic, but the immediate action as conditions worsened should have been to move the photographers back from the line. The diagonal, offset lines that the photographers stand behind are typically marked in tape or chalk (or, sometimes, by an official holding his arms out). Moving them farther up the chute would have been maybe a 10 minute job for one or two staff members. Doing so could have mitigated the effects of riders having to brake hard and swerve to the center of a painted, greased roadway, all within microseconds of maxing out their cardiovascular systems.

Some of the photographers would have complained, but they’re mostly shooting with 300 to 400mm lenses. They’d have managed the extra distance. And I’m sorry, if you don’t either have or know how to access that equipment, chances are you shouldn’t be staring down the barrel of a professional bunch sprint to begin with. Since the photographers would still have been stacked together, the playing field would have remained level: nobody would have been out-shot by a competitor due to moving the whole mess a few meters farther back.

Would it have helped? Maybe not. Cantwell and the others might have slid out whether the photographers were where they were, further back, or not there at all. And they still may have slid into someone or something else - it's clear in the footage that wheels are coming right out from under riders at the slightest movement. But given the conditions, I’m betting a few extra meters of breathing room couldn’t have hurt.

The catch, of course, is that there was a curve to the left after the line that might have complicated moving the photographers further back. It’s hard to tell from the finish shots, and again, I wasn’t there. Sometimes finish areas are tight, crammed into medieval town centers that weren’t meant to accommodate cars, much less TV trucks, dope control trailers, scaffolding, and team buses. Things get tricky, but in the end, that’s not an acceptable response to safety issues. Work on it. Figure it out. Or find a place that can safely accommodate what you need to accommodate. Think. Adapt.


  • Risking safety – anyone’s, really – for the finish line shot seems like a poor value proposition to me. In modern cycling, it's just no longer the defining shot it once was. Everybody has one seconds after the finish, and they’re all about the same. I know many will recoil, but it seems like a good case for using one or two pool shooters provided by the organizer. They could hire one or two of the usual suspects so they know they’ll get quality, use the shot themselves (for PR) and make it available to teams (for sponsor purposes) and media outlets (for reporting). Or just let all those parties pay the shooter directly if they want the shot. But do we really need 30 people taking the same shot on the line? Look at the well-received work being done by photographers like Kristof Ramon and Jered Gruber. The photos of riders crossing a white line just aren’t the crowning achievement. Most of the compelling work is done on the roadside or off the back of a moto.

  • Please don’t take offense at me noting that the photographers would have complained at being pushed farther back. I’ve covered a few bike races as a writer, and I like to complain about things like that, too. Now where the hell is my start list?

  • If you’ve seen pictures or video of the incident, two people stand out. One is Darling, on the ground. The other is Katusha rider Maxime Vantomme, who rolled in 32nd, four seconds down, but immediately circled back to check on the photographer and signal for help. For a lot of folks, especially folks who’d just contested a few hundred wet kilometers, that could have been a “not my job” moment, but for him it wasn’t. I like that, and I suspect he earned a few fans yesterday.

  • Lastly, the Service Course wishes all involved a speedy recovery. Hopefully we’ll soon see the end what seems like a particularly large number of broken bones and other serious injuries in this still-young season.

  • …but maybe not.

We Want the Airwaves

I’ve been accused, as recently as that last post, of not being a very good conspiracy theorist. It’s true. I admit to the possibility that I lack a certain degree of insight, or that I am possessed of only limited imagination. Or maybe I just look terrible in tin foil hats. Regardless, I believe it’s important to show some effort, to rise to refute the accusations of your critics, and, in this case to strive to find ever more complex frameworks in which to place seemingly simple events. So here’s my theory on why public airing of team communications stopped being a talking point for directors sportiff and suddenly became a reality at Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen: it’s about asserting content ownership.

According to team directors, the UCI has dismissed the notion of public, auto-racing style access to team radio, an idea the teams floated in an effort to keep ahold of the communications in the face of the expanding UCI ban. But there it was, loud and proud during the RVV broadcast, and to considerable success by most accounts. Getting it done, of course, required cooperation between the broadcaster, possibly the race organizer, and obviously the teams, who provided access to their audio and had cameras mounted in their cars. And they did it all, seemingly, without a UCI finger in the pie. And I’m guessing that it’s driving the UCI nuts.

What I saw in Sunday's effort – undertaken as the radio battle between teams and the UCI rages on – was not just an earnest effort to demonstrate the idea's potential to the UCI and to anti-radio fans, though it certainly did that. I think it was – or at least, should have been – a purposeful assertion of ownership by the teams over the team communication content (i.e., everything that's said over the team radios). At the RVV, the teams arguably set a precedent that they are the ones who can permit, sell, or otherwise provide access to their communications to outside parties, whoever those parties may be. I expect you’ll see similar broadcasting in the coming months, because every time teams get the radio communications aired, it reasserts that ownership and builds the precedent.

Why is the issue of who "owns" all the chatter important? Well, due to the experiment’s apparent success on Sunday, the continued resistance to the radio ban, and the UCI’s near-slobbering envy of Formula 1, it’s entirely likely that the UCI will eventually come around to the public team communications idea. And when it does, you can bet that it will try to assert ownership of those communications, likely based on the fact that they are conducted in the course of a UCI-sanctioned race, where the UCI governs radio usage. So why, again, is this important? Why would the UCI want ownership over a stream of mostly boring drivel about upcoming roundabouts and who needs a Coke or a wee-wee break? Because it’s salable content, and the UCI would almost always rather potential income go into its coffers instead of the teams' or organizers'.

In the near-term, the rights to air those director-rider conversations could be sold to broadcasters, though I'd wager Sunday’s dose was a freebie, both to help the teams make the case for keeping radios and to win support of broadcasters, who in France have come out against radios. And I'd also guess the teams might continue to provide free access to TV broadcasters as a condition of keeping radios. But the fact that teams might be willing to provide the content without charge doesn't mean it is without monetary value. In the long-term, money-making possibilities abound. For instance, you could sell team-specific subscriptions to fans that would allow them to hear their team or teams of choice via internet or smartphone. Just 5 Euro per race, or 45 Euro for the whole year, friend. Want to get farther out there? Think product placement. Think commercials. If they maintain ownership of the communications, the teams could offer such “services” as value-adds to their sponsors and as enticements to future backers. If the UCI owns the communications, those services will go to UCI sponsors or the highest bidder, and the money will go into the UCI’s pocket.

It’ll be interesting to see what tack the UCI takes after the loudly trumpeted broadcast of team communications at the RVV. I say loudly trumpeted because the truth is, we’ve seen the same sort of in-car material before during the Tour de France and other races, and the UCI doesn't seem to give a damn. But now that the material has been re-cast as part of the radio debate, and has extended from select teams to all teams, it’s very likely to spark some sort of UCI response. Like I said, I suspect the UCI will ultimately want a piece of the action. And if it doesn’t get what it wants from the teams on the issue, I’ll be on the lookout for more rigid enforcement of rules against filming from caravan vehicles.


  • Ah, and what of the great Jonathan Vaughters “don’t work and wait for the sprint for third” kerfuffle that the RVV team communications provided us? The debate rages on. You know why it rages on? Because people are debating each other without acknowledging that they’re often arguing about two different issues.

    Supporters of the no-work order (understandably including the team) are arguing their side based on the tactical wisdom of the call. Was Vaughters’s order the right one? That’s easy to answer: yes, though admittedly not for the reasons he thought. Garmin’s two men in the front group, Tyler Farrar and Thor Hushovd, didn’t work to bring back the move, which came back anyway under the impetus of BMC and Vacansoleil. So, it might have been the wrong reason for not working, but not working was still the right call. (Though I do believe that the instructions to sit and wait for the sprint led to Garmin being too inattentive and missing the key move.)

    But in arguing tactical correctness against those critical of Vaughters’s orders, I think some folks are missing the point of what the “other side” in this fractured debate is really saying. Namely, that they just wished Vaughters's instructions to the troops had been different. In racing, there is the correct move which, as here, is often the conservative one – don’t work, sit in, follow the moves. And then there’s the popular move, the one the fans and media want to see. That move is usually the gutsy one – put your cards on the table, no prisoners, nothing to lose, risk it all. Attack, attack, attack. No, it’s not always (probably not even usually) the most tactically sound choice, but asking fans to not want it is absurd. And fans calling for the bold moves instead of the conservative strategy doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ignorant, it just means they want to see some go-for-broke racing from teams they like. Especially in the classics, which are blessedly free from the cautious we-don’t-actually-need-to-win aspects of stage racing.

    [Please note: The above point is not aimed at Jonathan Vaughters. There are few in his position more fan-savvy. It’s natural that he publicly clarified why he made the call he did and why it made sense at the time, and he’s cheerfully acknowledged that, hey, it didn’t quite go down like he thought it would, and there it was for all the world to see. That’s racing. And I don’t for a minute think he’s mystified as to why he’s taking flack for it. Further, by engaging the fans, he’s turned it into a teachable moment about the healthy, engaging debate that can come from the public being able to watch the decisions as they’re made. Well done.]

  • Bjarne Riis may have lost most of his team to Leopard, but he didn’t lose his ability to revitalize flagging careers. How does he do it? In my opinion: jersey design. Sure, the fake abs and feathers that fueled greatness at CSC are gone from the shirt, but the infamous trouser bird seems to have ably filled the inspirational void. Whatever the source of greatness, welcome back, Nick Nuyens.

  • So is that dude on the Muur going to wear that same Colnago sweater and hat every year?

  • I won’t rattle on about it, but this year’s Ronde had to be one of the best bike races I’ve seen in five years. Probably longer. What was often billed in the runup as a fairly closed race between Boonen, Cancellara and maybe Gilbert turned into a brawl between a decade’s worth of classics strongmen, from the aforementioned to Chavanel, Nuyens, Hushovd, Ballan, Langeveld, Hincapie, Leukmans, Devolder and on and on. Chapeau and thanks all.

  • Today’s obscure title reference brought to you by the Ramones.

Raising Awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      When a National Team is Not a National Team

      With the Pegasus ProTour effort not even cold in the grave, the next great Australian ProTour bid has already shot through the birth canal and now lies screaming on the scale, waiting to be weighed. Circle of life, I suppose. Going by the name GreenEDGE (which sounds suspiciously like a Billy Mays cleaning product), the new effort is headed, as predicted, by former Australian track cycling boss Shayne Bannan. And as predicted, it’s already ruffling feathers. Before the team even held its first presser, rumors surfaced that its management was engaging in rider-poaching shenanigans, offering dodgy “pre-contracts” and potentially troublesome UCI-point incentives to Australian riders on its wish list.

      I’m not usually one to comment on early rumors, but Jonathan Vaughters, whose young Australian talents Cam Meyer and Jack Bobridge are reportedly on the shopping list, has already responded publicly to the reports. That would be an uncommonly brash public step for the level-headed Vaughters if he didn’t have good reason to believe that they’re true, particularly since everyone in this potential dispute speaks the same language and reads the same media. Vinokourov can probably spout whatever he wants to the Kazakh media in relative safety, but when Vaughters comments on, he has to know Bannan’s going to see it. Based on Vaughters taking that step, I have to believe there’s some credence to the story. For his part, here’s Bannan’s response to the poaching allegations.

      And so, to the matters at hand…

      Does any of this sound familiar: New zero-to-ProTour effort wrapped in a national flag? English-speaking? Headed by the nation’s very successful national track coach? Backed by a national federation and a reliable in-country sponsor? Disregard for the rules and/or courtesies of professional road cycling business operations? Eyeing Vaughters’s goodies?

      The GreenEDGE model appears, of course, to be Team Sky all over again. That’s not a groundbreaking thought; plenty of others have said as much, said it better, and said it earlier. What I’m wondering about is to what degree the national track team background shared by Sky’s David Brailsford and GreenEDGE’s Bannan share is the root of the friction both seem to cause in the professional road scene. Simply put, have Brailsford and Bannan (hereafter B+B) tried to build professional road teams the same way they would a national track team? Let’s look at why that might not be the best way to go.

      First, there’s the issue of how you approach riders. B+B come from managing federation track programs, where the most relevant information for recruitment isn’t found in a rider’s professional contract, but in his passport. Are they a confirmed Brit or Aussie? Great! Pick up the phone and give them a call! If they want to come ride for god and country, we’ll work out the schedule with their professional team somehow, right? In building their road teams, B+B seem content to continue following that methodology. Confirm the passport and dial, never mind that it’s January, or that riders are tied to multi-year contracts. You’re from the right country – we’ll work it out!

      As both men are finding, the professional road scene doesn’t work like that. Though your team may be trying to become the defacto “national” ProTour team, professional road cycling is commercial, not national. Sure, for the rider, riding for the professional “home team” might have patriotic appeal, a fringe benefit like more paid trips home, appealing linguistic familiarity, or better compatibility with management. And for the team, home riders obviously have benefits from the fan interest and sponsorship perspectives. But beyond those warm feelings and on all that white paper printed with rules and contracts, nationality is fairly irrelevant in the ProTour system. (Until you get popped for doping – different story.) Shared nationality between teams and prospective riders affords no special rights and privileges beyond how employing native vs. foreign riders plays out in the applicable labor laws. In leaving the national/federation format and joining the commercial/professional one, B+B need to give up the idea that they have a constitutional right to chat up the top riders from their country, or risk being found in violation of UCI rules. Simply put, native riders like those you coached on the track are no longer “your boys” who you borrow from their road teams from time to time – they’re your competition’s employees. The relationship has changed - acknowledge it.

      Yes, for professional teams that rely on a national identity, it can be a real downer when much of the best native talent is contractually tied down. And not having unrestricted access to the whole national talent pool must come as a shock to B+B after their success at honing their nations’ track programs. But if they could look past the horizon a bit, they’d see the upside: that it works both ways. While GreenEDGE might not be able to call home everyone’s Aussies as they please, neither will, say, Rabobank be able to come in and arbitrarily recall any Dutchmen GreenEDGE might employ. It's not a great situation when you're trying to burst out of the starting gate, but it feels a lot better a few years down the road.

      On top of those issues of recruitment rules and manners, there’s the relative inexperience in recruiting at all. National track managers do occasionally need to woo riders – for instance, in trying to lure road riders like Wiggins, Cavendish, or O’Grady back to the boards for the Olympics or Commonwealth Games. But much of the time, coaches in big track cycling nations are in the very opposite, very enviable position of being team “selectors” rather than recruiters. Without a vibrant professional scene, the national team system is the only chance for many dedicated trackies to make a relative living at the sport. So for B+B, picking up riders to fill out a team has long been a buyer’s market. Now, faced with the greater competition and elaborate courtship dances of the professional road scene, and forced into the role of suitor of the top talent rather than the suited, they seem unsure of the proper way to make their advances. What’s worse, they don’t seem to care what the right way is.

      That’s all just a theory, of course, but one thing is for sure. GreenEDGE’s alleged recruitment tactics might be distasteful, they may even be against the rules, but they can hardly be a surprise. The last 10 years have effectively seen “the rise of the state” in professional cycling. With federation-backed squads proliferating, team managers have to expect that Katusha will come for their Russians, Sky for their Brits, and Astana for any Kazakhs they might have kicking around. And on and on. Cycling Australia's ProTour plans have been known for some time, so if other teams' management hadn’t spoken to their Australians about this eventuality yet, they've been caught with their pants down. You could argue that shouldn't be the case, that expecting people to play by the rules shouldn't mean you're caught out. Unfortunately, in cycling, that's just not realistic.

      Other GreenEDGE Notes
      • The idea of paying prospective riders for UCI points they accumulate with their 2011 teams is potentially much more troublesome than trying to recruit them outside the bounds of the UCI’s signing period. The motivation to offer such a deal is clear – when GreenEDGE submits its license application, it wants to ensure it has enough collective UCI points to make it a sho-in for the first division (a la Leopard-Trek), and it’s willing to pay for that assurance. But incentivizing riders to pursue UCI points for their current teams puts those riders at the heart of a severe conflict of interest.

        As we know, winning a professional bike race is about a bunch of guys sacrificing their strength and chances so that one team member can win, or try to at least try to win. If each team member is chasing their own placings and the points that go with them, the team strategy goes all to hell. In the late 1990s, or maybe it was the early 2000s, Cofidis had virtually no cohesive team strategy and the underachievement to match. Why? A significant part of their riders’ pay structure was tied to UCI points, so when things really went down on the road, it was every man for himself. But at least Cofidis was responsible for putting itself in that position. If allegations of GreenEDGE’s gladly-pay-you-Tuesday-for-a-UCI-point-today offer are true, GreenEDGE is effectively forcing Cofidis’s terrible management strategy onto other teams.

        Will such an offer have any real effect on rider behavior? I wonder. I’m guessing most riders know that, in professional cycling, what goes around comes around. In what could be a 10 or 14 year career, you don’t want to become known as the guy who screws over your current team to get in the good graces of the next. A few rounds of that, and no team wants to be the next screw-ee. Further, I’d imagine that as soon as a team got the feeling a rider was engaging in that sort of behavior, the rider would be benched, thus eliminating their ability to gather any points at all. In the long-run, it’s better for riders to demonstrate their value to all prospective teams through their work, UCI points be damned, than to blow their credibility trying to collect 14th place points for a single, possibly pie-in-the-sky outfit. Also, it should be pretty easy to spot the type of rider who might be engaged in this particular effort -- they're the ones who have pet kangaroos, drink a lot of Fosters, eat deep fried onions, and carry enormous hunting knives at all times. Or so I've been led to believe. Anyway, I don’t expect to see Mark Renshaw trying to shake Mark Cavendish at 200 meters and cutting for the line anytime soon. (Just a hypothetical example – Renshaw’s under contract through 2012, I believe. Not that that matters.)

      • GreenEDGE was also allegedly in pursuit of Garmin DS Matt White, but he’s since signed on to take over Neil Stephens’s position as the Australian national team road coach. He’ll be doing that in addition to his Garmin duties, so I suppose the GreenEDGE angle there is put to rest. Stephens, however, is leaving the national position to…surprise…go sign riders and be a director for GreenEDGE.

      • GreenEDGE reportedly has the backing of Australian cycling’s sugardaddy, Gerry Ryan, head of the Jayco camper company. I, for one, am hoping that Jayco becomes the title sponsor. Then, in an homage to the RV industry, the jerseys can feature a band of wood-grain paneling and the team bus can feature moldy carpet and some rotting floorboards around the shower.


      • Not to be bossy, but start reading this blog right now. Particularly the post-Peter Post post.

      • How envious is Leopard-Trek that I capitalized the “EDGE” in GreenEDGE? Know why I did it? Because they didn't try to make me. It’s worth noting that the infamous list of media demands regarding presentation and pronunciation of the Leopard team name was reportedly sent out by Trek, not by the team itself. I'm guessing team manager Bryan Nygaard has enough experience as a press officer for Riis and Sky to know that dictating style and usage to the media is an uphill battle, and that it’s better to stay on their good side by not presuming to order them around. Trek Bicycles, on the other hand, has clearly come to think of the cycling media as an arm of their advertising department. More disturbing than the misconception itself is the likely chain of events that’s led them to believe that.

      • Yesterday’s cyclocross World Cup from Pontchateau, France finally gave those of us in the Mid-Atlantic United States an international course that looked a little more familiar, with green grass and a blue groove replacing the deep mud and snow of the low countries. I reveled in watching those sloppy Christmas week races, but it was nice to see a fast, tactical race after the weeks of grinding. One thing’s for sure, if yesterday’s winner Kevin Pauwels (Fidea) comes to the line in a small group at the world championships in Sankt Wendel, you can’t count him out for rainbow bands. Nys and Albert have been no match for his finishing kick, though an in-form Zdenek Stybar (Fidea) would have a better shot.

      • No time to get into the whole race radio debate at the moment, but I do wish all of the managers and riders would stop bleating about the 18-2 vote by the teams to keep the radios. I understand what that vote demonstrates, but the fact is, the sport isn’t a direct democracy run by the riders or the teams. Obviously, rider and team input should always factor into the sport’s decisions – both because it is the riders who ultimately place their lives on the line, and because riders and teams have been historically underrepresented in decision-making. But what would cycling in particular and pro sports in general look like if the participants made all the rules? My bet: they'd be both less safe and less marketable.

      Clearing the Decks

      The fear, anticipation, and difficulty of doing things – no matter how benign those things may be – tends to increase the longer you put them off. As a lifelong procrastinator, I’ve learned this lesson well, though it’s worth noting that I have not adjusted my habits much as a result of that knowledge.

      Over the holiday break (judging by the timestamp on the last post, I’ve generously defined that as “from Halloween through New Year’s”), there have been quite a few things I’ve thought to write, would have liked to write, but didn’t, for any number of mundane and uninteresting reasons. Usually though, it was a matter of not having, or not thinking I had, the time to write them properly. If you’re not an experienced procrastinator, let me tell you that weasel words like “properly” are incredibly handy for putting things off. They allow you to table action nearly indefinitely – after all, there’s always a better angle in the offing, a better phrase just around the corner, maybe a bit more research you could do, and then really, shouldn’t you track down a photograph to go with all that careful writing? All in the name of doing it “properly.” And so it goes, or doesn’t go, as the case may be.

      Anyway, I refuse to call it a resolution, but one goal for 2011 here at the Service Course is to push on through all that and just post some stuff. That’s not to say I intend to just throw up any passing, poorly written crap that flies through my head – that’s what Twitter is for. But I am going to try for shorter but more frequent posts here. You know, if I get around to it.

      With that in mind, I thought a good starting point would be to knock out some things I’ve been thinking about and be done with them so I can move on. Maybe they’re not presented in the expansive, eloquent, and meticulously hand-illustrated format I’d prefer, but I suppose it’ll have to do.

      Bienvenidos a Calpe

      A while back on Twitter, I wondered about the peloton’s current fascination with Calpe, Spain. This year, it’s played host to training camps for, offhand, RadioShack, Katusha, and Quick Step, and probably some others I’m forgetting. Katusha, I believe, is headed back for a second visit. The sudden, intense interest in one fairly small, fairly random Spanish coastal town sparked my interest, mostly because of Michele Ferrari’s documented fondness for working the shores of Tenerife, which has a fairly similar description. So I cracked that Calpe must have either a pretty good tourism board, or a great damn doctor.

      In all seriousness, though, the answer to “why Calpe?” is probably pretty simple. It’s a beach town, with a beach climate, close to the highway, with flat roads along the coast for easy days and a big mountain a few kilometers inland that’s covered with switchbacks for the hard days (go to the Google Earth view, it's better but slow), and there are plenty of differing routes for a little variety. I’m guessing there’s also at least one decent hotel there (and probably many less than decent ones). Add all those up, throw in the fact that like anything in cycling, training camp locales can be very much a me-too thing, and all of a sudden, it's a hot spot. The other reason I'm thinking Calpe craze is fairly innocent is that, while folks did seem to enjoy Tenerife for the services of the good doctor, they mostly made their furtive trips there as individuals. Hauling complete squads somewhere – be it to Tenerife or Calpe – to get on the program would be idiocy laid bare.

      Stybar to the Road

      For the duration of the current cyclocross season, one looming question has been whether or not Quick Step would sign 24-year-old Czech ‘cross world champion Zdenek Stybar and put him on skinny tires. As of now, the issue is still outstanding, and Patrick Lefevere seems to have left the ball firmly in the hands of Stybar and his current employer, the specialist Fidea cyclocross team. I expect further silence until after the World Championships on January 30, at least.

      The move to Quick Step would theoretically give Stybar a path to try his hand at the classics, something he’s expressed a keen interest in doing. The question is, is it worth it? Back when he rode for Rabobank, Sven Nys had the same inklings and emitted the same sense of classics potential. But Nys never quite made his name in the races everyone assumed he would – races like Roubaix and Flanders. While I can’t recall his specific performances, the reasons Nys’s irrefutable greatness on a ‘cross bike didn’t transfer to the classics should be easy enough to spot. Classics are 6 hours long, not one, and though the cobbles are difficult, the classics are still road races, won through strength (individual and team), endurance, knowledge, and tactics, not on bike handling. If he chooses to attempt the transition, Stybar will face the same challenges and the same inherently elevated expectations Nys did. Stybar, though, will face a few additional challenges that Nys didn’t have back when he gave the cobbles his shot.

      Nys’s Rabobank deal (prior to the ProTour rejiggering that put him on the Rabo continental team) allowed him to easily float back and forth between the team’s top flight road formation and its top flight cyclocross program. Quick Step has no such dual presence. Presumably, Stybar would have a clause with Quick Step that would allow him to continue to race 'cross in some capacity, but signing for the team would leave him without the dedicated ‘cross support he receives from Fidea and without a management whose primary interest is off-road. In contrast, wherever Nys found his calling, road or fields, Rabobank could be happy – starting him at Roubaix was a low-risk, potentially high-reward venture, both for the team and Nys.

      The nature of Stybar’s road attempt, on the other hand, requires a substantial, longterm, and potentially costly change in program, with a good chance that neither side will be quite happy with the result. If the road doesn’t pan out, Quick Step may well be happy to have a top ‘cross rider on its roster, but they really haven’t shown any interest in the discipline in the past. For his part, Stybar would be left without the support he’s enjoyed for ‘cross seasons past and would have to start negotiating contracts to get back into the ‘cross world full time, and would likely have to negotiate one that started mid-cross season due to the road-cross misalignment. He’ll find one, of course -- he's very good at what he does -- but that doesn’t make it a fun process.

      Finally, when Nys took his shot at the road with Rabobank, he truly had a shot. At least in the cobbled classics, Rabobank was not a particularly heavy hitter (no offense to Michael Boogerd, Marc Wauters, and Eric Dekker). At the cobbled departs, at least, Nys was probably as likely a shot as anyone, and that comes with a certain freedom. Should he sign with Lefevere, Stybar is entering a formation that already features Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, and Geert Steegmans. Don’t get me wrong, Quick Step is not as crowded as it once was, and it’s a far more unpredictable animal than it was in its heyday, but Stybar will still have to do some clawing for his chance. When you’re already a world champion in another discipline, that can be a tough hurdle.

      Ah that's all well and good, you say, but Lars Boom has made the switch far more recently than Nys, and it’s going swimmingly for him. But who does Boom ride for again?

      What Might Have Been

      Big thanks to the folks at, who gave me links to streaming coverage of big ‘cross races all season, and to the folks at all the Belgian stations who provided the feeds. It was awesome to be able to really follow the GvA, SuperPrestige, and World Cup series, reliably, all season long. The only depressing thing about it? Access to those feeds reminded me of how good we could have it during the classics season if people would stop buying the U.S. rights to air the races and then screwing it up. If you’re going to do it, do it right, or let my people watch Sporza.

      Peloton Magazine

      Back when I did a little review of the first issue of the new Paved magazine, I promised I’d do a review of the other then-looming release, Peloton magazine, when it hit the Barnes and Noble. I did indeed get a copy of Issue 1, but I haven’t done the review yet. So what gives? I did read it, and while it has the best cover for a cycling magazine in recent memory, overall I was underwhelmed. That said, the vast, vast, vast (that's three vasts) majority of feedback I’ve seen about Issue 1 indicates that people think it’s fantastic, so I have to wonder whether I’m (a) just missing something or (b) just being a dick. I’m willing to admit that either one is completely within the realm of possibility, so I’ve decided to wait until I can read Issue 2 before I weigh in.

      Damn, Watson.

      Did we all catch the latest Graham Watson Twitter kerfuffle? Everyone’s favorite Anglophone pro cycling photographer found himself on the outs again this week, this time for stating that he just couldn’t see 80 women taking on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Many observers took that to be a disparaging remark about women’s racing, which in turn was taken as an indicator that Watson is a sexist jerk. Watson subsequently did a pretty poor job refuting that impression.

      I have to think that at least some of the vocal reaction to his comments wasn’t entirely due to the current dustup, but rather with what's becoming his greater body of work. Simply put, Watson has a pretty broad public presence between Twitter, his own site/blog, and his writing engagements for various magazines, and lately he’s using the first two to tickle his tonsils with his toes at every opportunity. Let’s review:

      Late last year, there was the incident in which photos on Watson’s site were discovered to have labeled Greg LeMond “fool” where every other rider was listed by name. Outcry ensued, and the response from Watson was a fairly unconvincing “Huh, I’ll look into it.” That, inexplicably, was followed up by an even more damaging pseudo-apology from Watson, in which he stated that, sure, Lemond was a great champion, but one who should learn to keep his mouth shut. Presumably that was a comment regarding Lemond’s very public anti-doping stance, and people didn't take terribly kindly to it.

      Also late last year, Watson mused that he’d like to dump all his images of Alberto Contador in response to the Spaniard’s pending doping case, and then PhotoShop a yellow jersey onto Andy Schleck in the pictures of the 2010 Tour de France. Some took issue with the dumping idea, complaining that Watson was passing judgment on Contador before he’s been given his proverbial day in court. I really don’t have a problem with that – we all have inklings as to Contador’s guilt or innocence, ones that very likely won’t be changed by the verdict one way or another, so I can’t fault Watson for his. If Watson worked for CAS, expressing that view would be a problem, but he doesn’t. But I found the idea – however lighthearted – of painting yellow onto Schleck more disconcerting. A bent towards revisionist history is not a desirable trait in the chroniclers of our times.

      So, add those two flaps to the women/cobbles issue, as well as his sycophantic slobbering over Lance Armstrong’s every move, and it seems Watson is suffering a bit of an image problem these days, at least among people who care in the U.S. That, granted, may not be a large enough population to worry about, but Watson’s image here certainly seems to be travelling from pioneer and bon vivant to oblivious, arse-kissing, sexist, omerta-endorser mighty quick. That’s not to say the trend is irreversible, and Watson has a lot of built-up goodwill as the guy who provided many of our first impressions of the sport through his work in English-language pubs like Winning, Bicycle Guide, VeloNews, and CycleSport. Maybe that’s good for something. Also in his favor is the deep-seated but conveniently unspoken knowledge that we all probably have some thought, belief, or inkling that if expressed in its raw and unadorned form, would render us fairly unpopular with swaths of the population. The catch is that most of us have the common sense to not express whatever that potentially distasteful thing is, at least not to an undefined audience. But Watson doesn’t seem to have that sense, or the ability to stay off the hot-button issues on Twitter, and in the social media days, you only get so many strikes.

      And Away We Go

      Lots of folks are heralding the coming Tour Down Under, the big season opener for international cycling. That’s understandable. But – and this is nothing against the event, an important one for a nation that will be a prime player in the next decade of cycling – I’m just not feeling it. And I’m guessing the Tour of Oman and the Tour of Qatar won’t do it for me either. I’m not old, but maybe I’m getting there, because for me, it takes news of the GP Marseilles, Het Nieuwsblad/it’ll-always-be-Het Volk-to-me, and Milan-San Remo to really feel like we’re moving again. Like I said above, every one of us probably has some non-politically correct inkling, and that’s mine. It’s backwards looking, provincial, and mired in my personal experience versus irrefutable facts at hand – like the calendar, for instance. But there you go.

      Paved Perceptions

      In A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his génération perdue days in inter-war Paris, Ernest Hemingway suggests to a talentless, advice-seeking writer that he become a literary critic instead of foisting his own questionable prose on an innocent public. While I hope criticism never becomes my primary written product (at least not for that reason), I thought a quick review of Paved, the newest U.S. road cycling magazine, might be a good way to shake off the cobwebs that have gathered here at the Service Course.

      Created by the editors and publisher of the venerable Bike magazine, Paved was something to look forward to from the outset. High production values, pursuit of offbeat topics, and good, thoughtful writing had always been hallmarks of the organization’s fat-tired publication, and there was every reason to believe those qualities would carry over to its skinny-tire venture. That initial anticipation was bolstered when ex-pro-turned-Bike-editor Joe Parkin revealed on his (defunct?) blog that he was venturing back to his old Flemish stomping grounds to gather material for the debut issue.

      So how did the reality line up with the early, lofty expectations? I’d say pretty well for a first effort. As expected, the photography was terrific, and it’s printed on paper that feels substantial in your hand – a nice, affordable compromise between mainstream magazines and more boutique offerings like Embrocation and Rouleur. The writing is up to snuff, and, in an unfortunately significant step for a cycling publication, it’s been thoroughly copyedited. (By contrast, the first issue of the now-capable Road was a festival of misspellings, run-ons, and incomplete sentences, most notably in then-editor Esteban Cortina’s opening column.)

      In terms of content selection, Paved was a bit of a mixed bag. Parkin’s photo-saturated return to Belgium sets the tone for the magazine, with photographer Stephan Vanfleteren’s subsequent black-and-white photo spreads continuing the bleak-skies-and-hardmen theme. For riders wanting to mimic the high-kilometer or high-mountain challenges their heroes face, cycling journalism veterans Patrick Brady and Bruce Hildenbrand contribute solid pieces on gran fondos and the Dolomites, respectively. Short photoessays on the bootleg Red Hook criterium and other topics bring in some of Bike’s sense of both the grassroots and universal aspects of the sport.

      Given the tone of those pieces and the target demographic they hint at, Vernon Felton’s article on doping in the pro peloton seemed a bit off the mark. I’d expect that most of those picking up an issue of Paved would be familiar with the reality of doping in cycling, and that they wouldn’t require an explanation of what EPO is and what it does. While the piece is well-written, it is a survey course where I would have expected at least a 200-level class or an insider view.

      Similarly, I have to admit I was a little surprised and put off by the Lance Armstrong cover. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an understandable choice, probably even the right one for a new publication. No matter what the current tide of public opinion may be, Armstrong pulls the layman eyes on the newsstand. And it’s a great photo – one that captures the grit-and-pavé feel I think Paved was aiming for while still drawing on Armstrong’s transcendent marketability. But, as a new publication, I can’t help but feel that Paved squandered a rare opportunity to not be that magazine. If I’m reading it right, Paved’s intended audience isn’t one that’s desperately searching for one more picture of Armstrong.

      The feeling the cover gave me was reinforced when I read Gary Boulanger’s American pioneers piece inside. Of the five profiles – Ben Serotta, Steve Hed, Gary Erickson, Chris Carmichael, and Jim Ochowitz – three stray into discussions of Armstrong. It’s not that I’m inherently against any Armstrong content. I’m not. Regardless of how you feel about the guy, he’s a central figure in American cycling, and pointedly ignoring him is as obviously skewed as featuring him on every other page. That said, if you’re trying to create something new, exploring some less travelled stories and figures might be preferable to highlighting the same social circle that’s dominated the literature for 15 years. Anyone have a number for Mike Neel or Jock Boyer?

      (Others will undoubtedly point out that, with the debatable exception of Ochowitz, all of the “pioneers” interviewees are trying to sell you something, be it frames, wheels, food, or training plans. And then they’ll speculate on how that choice of subject matter jives with the nascent magazine’s advertising sales. To that, I’d say: People, it’s cycling. Everyone’s trying to sell you something. Cut out anyone with a brand to push, and you’d be hard pressed to find an interview.)

      Lastly, following an entire issue of racing, hardman, and big-ride content, the unintroduced {showcase: bikes} section on “street bikes” like the Electra Ticino is a non sequitur. Paved ("celebrating the raw passion of riding on the road") has positioned itself to feature those sorts of bikes and the urban riding they’re intended for, but the piece would have been better placed with a more extensive package of city riding content. If the bike showcase is a regular section, this particular issue cried out for road machines from brands like Merckx, Ridley, Colnago, and DeRosa.

      All of that might seem like quite a bit of criticism, but in the context of a first outing, they’re pretty minor quibbles. And make no mistake, I’ll be grabbing issue #2 when it hits the shelf. The contributing writers are top notch, the photography is excellent, and the editorial vision will solidify as time goes on. That’s a strong foundation, and I think it’s still reasonable to expect great things.

      NOTE: These are boom times for the cycling magazine aficionado. The flock of cycling magazines at my local Barnes & Noble is now nearly as large as the neighboring gaggle of women’s beauty pubs and is getting almost as pretty as the surfing journals. Paved is already on shelves there, and another publication, Peloton, is set to debut on November 16. I’ll do a writeup on that one too when it’s available. Or, if they’d like, they could, you know, just send me one…

      Tanking Up

      Media outlets being in the tank for sports teams or individual athletes is nothing new, and it’s certainly not limited to professional cycling. In fact, just last week the Washington City Paper detailed the long, mutually profitable relationship between longtime NBC affiliate sports reporter George Michael and the Washington Redskins NFL franchise. It’s an interesting piece, but a little anti-climactic, both because Michael recently passed away, and because his Redskins bootlicking was so obvious you pretty much knew he had to be getting something out of it. Nobody would do that for free.

      But unlike National Football League teams, cycling teams don’t typically have much cold, hard cash to throw at reporters to produce fawning infomercials about them. (At least I don’t think they do, though last year’s Versus Tour de France coverage occasionally made me question that theory.) Nor do most cycling publications have the resources or, thankfully, the ethical flexibility to pay riders for interviews (well, mostly). Nah, the currency that’s passed between the cycling media and its subjects isn’t cash, but rather the easily exchanged commodities of access and good press.

      Once the initial contact and sniffing out between the reporter and rider are done, the access half of the equation follows a simple formula – write nice things (or wave your hands at the camera and mispronounce nice things) and we’ll keep talking with you. Disagree publicly, and we won’t. Do me an extra-special favor when I really need one, and maybe you’ll get that exclusive interview or insider tidbit later. Down the line, those interviews and tidbits get converted to attention-grabbing items that increase newsstand purchases, subscriptions, or page hits, thereby providing the media outlet with…cash.

      In exchange, the media member that’s granted that extra level of access – the kind of access that goes well beyond dishing out a few post-race trivialities to the assembled finish line hoard or sitting for a 10 minute pre-season interview at camp – is expected to use their available pulpit to tell the rider’s side of whatever the story may be, and righteously defend him from his enemies when need be. Or at least not stir the pot in the other direction. Down the line, that lopsided coverage, if it’s done right, will result in a better and higher-profile image for the rider, which will lead to better sponsorships, endorsements, and other deals, thereby providing the rider or team with…cash.

      Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like these arrangements hinge on some tedious written agreement that’s hashed out by contract attorneys. It’s a little more organic than that, and some outlets’ overtures towards riders are fairly aspirational – floating that over-positive story out in hopes it’ll be noticed and become the launching point for a closer relationship. It’s also worth noting that what a rider needs to grant access varies considerably. For some, just not being patently offensive to them is enough, and as long as you don’t remark repeatedly on how unattractive their mother is or the lack of intellectual prowess displayed by their girlfriend, they’ll be happy to talk. Others have to actually know and/or like you, and still others likely have to know in no uncertain terms what you’re planning to write. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out how those degrees of scrutiny typically correlate to the rider’s pay grade.

      Beneficial as it is for both reporter and rider, if not for the media consumer, it’s an understandable arrangement. That doesn’t make it palatable, of course, but frankly, no matter whether you like the flavor or not, it’s unlikely to change any time soon. You can do bare-bones race reporting without much rider access, because that just takes an understanding of the game, a view of the TV, and a seat in the audience at the winner’s press conference if you want to go deluxe. But actual for-profit web sites, newspapers, and magazines need more than that – they need the inside skinny, the big interview when things are falling apart, that photo shoot of a superstar’s bike room, the ride-along during the final TT of a grand tour. In the age of streaming, on-demand video of races, that stuff is what sells magazines and gets hits on web articles, not telling the public who made the early break in the stage they all watched yesterday. So they get it how they can.

      Like the City Paper, though, cycling’s media consumers are pretty willing to call the media out when they hop the border between press and press agent, only we're willing to do it while the reporter is still alive. Last year, the SC was critical of what I thought was a too-cozy and one-sided handling of Lance Armstrong by the VeloNews editorial department, and Patrick Brady of Red Kite Prayer is currently taking a bit of a beating for the same perceived offense in the comments section of this article on the “Contador bought his own wheels” scandalette. In the course of that piece, Brady, in turn, insinuates that Spanish daily Marca is deeply and irretrievably immersed in Alberto Contador’s bathtub. And he’s probably right. After all, if media outlets didn’t need to say nice things to assure continued access to their target markets’ top dogs, why else would have touted Michael Rogers as a Tour hope all those years?

      Anyway, since we seem to be stuck with it, I say that media and pseudo-media outlets should band together to make the best of the inevitable game of media-rider kissy face. On the cusp of a new season, what we need to do first is expand our horizons a bit, go for the less obvious partnerships. Really, where’s the fun if we’re all in the Armstrong tank, or the Contador tank, or the Boonen or Nys tank? For godssake, someone snuggle up to some of these other guys: let’s pick a neo-pro and lock him in young, rock the sport with some unrelenting and unapologetic coverage of Frederic Guesdon, or sign up to be the official undercover media mouthpiece of anyone on Footon-Servetto. That way, readers can get some balance in coverage, even if they have to visit 16 separate sites to get it.

      And media members, once you pick your tank, remember: no matter what salacious or despicable act your rider may commit, no matter how big the tactical blunder, no matter how apparent the lack of fitness may be, you must vigorously defend and even promote his position and interests to the public. You must, despite any well-reasoned and fully-cited arguments against him, despite any amount – mountain or molehill – of damning evidence that comes to light, rise to protect your selected rider from the slings and arrows of an obviously fickle, ill-informed, and ignorant public. And when called upon, you must refute, point by point, the arguments made by his accusers, slanderers, and various other malcontents.

      What the hell, I’ll take Filippo Pozzato.


      - Does Cadel Evans even have a tank? If so, who’s in it?

      - Credit Peter Hymas, formerly of the excellent Bobke Strut and lately of the much larger but less endearing, for starting the unconventional tank trend by forsaking other more talented and visually appealing riders and throwing his love behind Ag2r’s hairless spider monkey, John Gadret. That’s the spirit.

      - I know I said above that I’d take up Pozzato’s cause, especially with the coming Boonen-mania of the spring classics, but Liquigas is practically advertising opportunities to jump in their tank, and a trip to San Pelligrino sounds mighty good. I hear the water there is terrific.

      - Somewhere in the cited RKP article above, Brady flatly states as truth that it is “standard practice” that riders are all provided the same equipment by sponsors, noting that Trek confirmed for him that that was the case at Astana last year. In the broad sense, it’s true that all riders on a given team do receive the same equipment (e.g., you all get a Felt with Dura-Ace and Mavic wheels), but let’s not pretend that the stars don’t get special toys, which is the matter at hand in the article. For instance, Trek famously developed a special extra-narrow TT bike for Armstrong during his Tour run. He didn’t like it, and Ekimov eventually ended up riding it, but as far as I know, not everyone in the team rank-and-file had access to one. Similarly, in 2007, Tom Boonen was issued a custom aluminum version of Specialized’s usually-carbon Tarmac to correct a fit problem he was having, and more recently had custom carbon bikes made up for his spring classics campaign. In 2004, after winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Stefan Wesemann showed up the next weekend for Paris-Roubaix riding a custom Giant carbon road bike with extra clearances and cantilever brakes. Nobody else on T-Mobile had one, and there were all of two made, or at least that’s what he told me. And those are just cases where the equipment actually came from sponsors – the big guns also tend to get away with playing it a little looser with the sponsor equipment rules. So, standard practice maybe, but with some considerable and relevant exceptions.

      Believe in Hype

      In his article covering the U.S. national soccer team’s unlikely win over the superpower Spanish side in the Confederation Cup, the New York Times’ George Vecsey addressed the details of that match, but also used it as a jumping-off point to discuss the state of U.S. soccer. In recounting the team’s journey to the win, Vecsey noted that the U.S. coach “was under attack in blogs in recent weeks. (Yapping about the coach is a great step forward for the United States.)”

      Vecsey was talking about soccer in the U.S., of course, not cycling, but his seemingly innocuous little parenthetical hits at a much larger point that U.S. cycling fans might be advised to bear in mind. Over the past week or so, with the Tour de France looming on the horizon, there’s been an increasing amount of backlash to the saturation coverage of Astana’s internecine drama, Tom Boonen’s recreational pursuits, various court cases, and the UCI’s hamfisted approach to governance. “Enough!” the critics shout, “let’s talk about the sport, about the racing, about who‘s fast and who‘s not.” Sometimes, in my weaker and more purist moments, I find myself leaning the same way. After all, who’s not just a little tired of all dope, all the time, or, alternatively, all Armstrong all the time? But then I snap to my senses and remember that all that coverage of the various, seemingly peripheral issues of professional cycling, miscellaneous hero worship, scandals, and gratuitous pot-stirring included, is, as Vecsey put it, “a great step forward.”

      Simply put, the fact that so much non-competition coverage of cycling is being produced, consumed, and discussed by the U.S. audience means that, to a certain extent, the sport has taken hold here. It means that the U.S. audience is no longer content to simply be told what happened out on the road, spoon fed who won or lost, how, and by how many seconds, all set to an insipid John Tesh soundtrack. They’ve long since learned the basics, and now, they want to know more about the personalities, about the business, and about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Why? Because it helps inform what they see when they watch the races or when they read the race coverage. And, maybe more importantly, it’s all that non-competition coverage that helps fuel, if not barroom banter, then at least post-ride coffee shop kvetching -- that “yapping about the coach” that shows that fans are involved and emotionally invested. And it’s that investment that makes professional sports appealing to sponsors, and, therefore, commercially viable.

      If you look at what’s written about the two most successful “world sports” -- soccer and Formula 1 racing -- you’ll find that much of what’s reported in the vaunted pages of L’Equipe and La Gazzetta dello Sport isn’t about the nuts and bolts of what happened on the field or track; it’s about the various incidents and intrigues surrounding the sports. Was AC Milan involved in fixing matches? Will Ferrari really drop sponsorship of their legendary racing team next season? How many million pounds was that latest transfer in the English Premiership worth? Who was Ronaldo spotted cavorting on a Bali beach with? None of that stuff is really about sport, per se -- it’s not about who won or lost, or who made a great pass on the pitch or on the track. It's chatter, and a lot of times, it's trivial, or speculative, or overblown, just like some of the cycling coverage people complain about. But then again, in that respect, cycling could find worse company to be in if it's looking to sustain itself in the current economy.

      Besides, there's frankly only so much you can write about the competition itself (trust me), and though some cycling fans might tell themselves otherwise, there’s only so much of “just the racing” that the public can read. Now, I’m not arguing that we really need that fifth article about Armstrong’s new girlfriend, that every time one teammate calls another an asshole needs to be reported and dissected, or that every hangnail Cadel Evans gets warrants a fresh interview. All I’m saying is, if you find yourself getting irritated by whatever you want to call this sort of reporting -- be it fluff, media hype, or muckraking -- you can also take comfort in the fact that, underneath it all, it’s a good sign for the sport, not some sort of death knell. After all, very few sports have ever died due to bad, excessive, or frivolous media coverage. They die because the fans don’t care.


      Pretty quick one today, eh? We're hoping to get out an interview in two parts over the course of this week before the Tour de France frenzy kicks in this weekend. Stay tuned.

      Prologue to a Nap

      Could someone with more sway than this website tell Versus that, while we very much appreciate their coverage of cycling, and will continue to voice our undying support of mixed martial arts fighting just to get it, using that generous 2-hour Sunday slot to air 120 minutes of Dauphiné-Libéré prologue (ahem, “opening time trial”) is just wasteful? Just like the start house pictures that heavy set gentleman was taking, prologue coverage doesn’t really tell us much other than, “hey, look who showed up!” And after 120 minutes of guys riding alone for 16 minutes, the rest of the key points of the 8-stage race, some of which may actually be interesting, will then be shoved into a subsequent 2-hour show next Sunday.

      While well intentioned, in showing such a copious amount of prologues and time trials, I believe Versus isn’t giving itself enough credit. With the help of the Armstrong bounce, the station has, over the past decade or so, built up an audience for their cycling wares. Even better, that audience has finally reached a point in their cycling education where their appreciation extends beyond, “Guys on bikes! On television! I can see them!”

      Look, when you’re a kid, you just like ice cream, and you’ll eat as much of it as you can get your hands on. But once you’re older and know a little bit more, you start to appreciate quality and taste over volume. Similarly, with more than a couple years of cycling now under their belts, even those much-maligned Armstrong-era fans have developed tastes that are a little more nuanced, and they’re looking for coverage of the more substantive, tactical, and interesting parts of the race. That usually doesn't include time trials, and it never includes prologues. Sure, their results can occassionally have dramatic effects on the overall, but usually it's just guys riding bikes, one at a time.

      I’m not one to lob criticism out there without offering constructive solutions, of course. That’s what message boards are for. In the spirit of cooperation and improved coverage, which will no doubt net Versus tens of dollars more in advertising revenue, we humbly offer the following suggested rearrangements of the 240 minutes of Dauphiné-Libéré coverage that Versus will provide via its June 7 and June 14 Sunday broadcasts:

      1. A judiciously edited 30 minute recap show each day of the Dauphiné’s eight stages. Air it any time you want, we all TiVo it anyway, but again, in the spirit of cooperation, we promise not to tell your advertisers that.

      2. Two 60 minute shows covering key stages, and a 2-hour block next Sunday. Everybody loves that “whole stage” coverage Versus does during the Tour de France, and it is a gluttonous summer pleasure for many. But from a practical standpoint, professional racing is all about the last hour, so you really don’t need much more than 60 minutes. So take this past Sunday's alotted 120 minutes, cut them in half, and use them to show two of this week’s key stages. (Just so we don’t get confused, this does not mean one show should be dedicated to the Stage 4 ITT.) Do one hour of coverage of Stage 5 to Mont Ventoux, and one hour of Stage 6 to Briancon. Then use the 2-hour BikeGasm broadcast on June 14 to cover Stages 7 and 8. (In the first ten minutes of each show, Phil and Paul can do a quick oral summary of what’s gone on in the intervening stages, preferably using the correct names and team affiliations along the way to minimize confusion.)

      3. Five, 22 minute daily recaps Monday through Friday of this week, with a quick recap of Saturday and last stage coverage on next Sunday’s 2-hour BikeGasm broadcast. The 22 minute length does seem unwieldy, I’ll admit, but it will give longtime viewers a sense of nostalgia for the early OLN days, when broadcasts started and ended at all sorts of random times.

      4. Just blow all 4 hours on the Mont Ventoux stage. Listen, being British, Phil Liggett will be obliged to spend at least an hour of the Ventoux coverage talking about Tom Simpson and his tragic and untimely death due to drug-taking. It being Versus, Phil and/or Paul will also be required to narrate a 45 minute video retrospective of the Armstrong-Pantani Ventoux finish, and, in the interest of national security, reassure American viewers that Armstrong absolutely, definitely, positively did give Pantani the stage win, and that if he really wanted to, he’d have wiped the floor with him. Add in another 20 minutes of prattling on about Eros Poli winning a stage over the Ventoux despite being an enormous beast of a man, and a few minutes of miscellaneous poetics about the Ventoux stage of this year’s Tour de France, and we’re left with a little over an hour and a half for actual coverage. That sounds about right.

      In closing, while extended prologue coverage may be the Ho-Hos of professional cycling – fattening, kind of artificial tasting, and lacking almost any sort of nutritional content – they do give you a chance to have a closeup look at the riders and equipment, largely because there is no action to distract you. Here’s what we saw before we nodded off:

      • Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) looks skinny. I couldn’t quite make out ribs through the back of his skinsuit, but I did see a few vertebrae, which should mean he’s right on track in his Tour de France preparation. The other way to gauge Evans’ form is to examine how erratic his outbursts in the press are. According to that metric, he still has some fine-tuning to do.

      • Evans was showing off his usual crazy-low TT position, but what struck me were his wrists, which were significantly below his elbows. The position seemed to form a giant scoop into his chest, leading me to wonder how aerodynamically efficient it is, or what other fit, comfort, or power factors may have led to that position. That said, I’ve sniped at people for judging aerodynamics from photos in the past, so I best shut my trap now.

      • Like Evans, Ivan Basso (Liquigas) looked to have a distinct downward slope from elbow to wrist, so for a second I was just wondering if "wrists-down" was just the "new level." Then I saw Basso yanking violently up on his extensions to pull them back into position, so I guess not. But I do hear that "torque wrenches" are the new “I go by feel.”

      • Alberto Contador (Astana) had a new prototype time trial bike with some crazy white-on-black design on it. Trek’s big names having custom painted (usually horrifically so) bikes is nothing new, with Contador, Leipheimer, and Armstrong all getting the star treatment in recent past. But I don’t think this latest example was just a show of respect and shrewd marketing on their part. The design could be seen as decorative, but it’s also very similar to the intentionally eye-confusing designs car companies use when they put new cars on the test track – it makes it really hard to tell what the bike really looks like in any detail.

      • So does Contador’s debut of the new TT bike show us that he’s achieved primacy from Trek and/or the team for testing new products? In other words, is it now Contador, rather than Armstrong, who gets “the shit that will kill them” of Coyle-book fame? It seems correct that he does, of course, given his record and his chances in July. But since Armstrong has returned to the scene, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him return to his spot as the primary recipient of new material.

      • David Miller (Garmin) was riding a regular road bike with clip-on aero bars and deep section rims instead of a disk. It was good enough to net him 10th place, but I still have to wonder what the reasoning behind the decision was. The way I see it, either Miller has had his nerves so frazzled by dropped chains, exploding disc wheels, and other time trial shenanigans that he’s sworn off TT bikes forever, or it was just a photoshoot for one of Felt’s aero road bikes. Look out for an ad shot of Miller’s ride yesterday with some variation of “Slick Enough for a ProTour Time Trial” in the Felt marketing copy.

      • Speaking of Millar and Armstrong, what is it with English speakers and handlebars so wide you could drive a bus with them? I remember one shot of Tyler Hamilton with his hands on the hoods back when he was riding for CSC – it looked like he was reaching out to hug fat Aunt Patrice at the family reunion. I don’t know – Miller, Armstrong, Hamilton – maybe it’s a generational thing rather than language-based?

      • Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) didn’t look high, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.

      • The white world championship skinsuit is not doing Bert Grabsch (Columbia) any favors. He looks like he ate last season’s Bert Grabsch, resulting in a skinsuit that is now double stuffed with Bert Grabsch-ey goodness. That’s unfair, of course – white is not slimming, and he is a big, powerful rider – but the guy still looked huge. I think that to rake in a little extra cash, for the biological passport program or whatever new quagmire they see fit, the UCI should sign on separate sponsors just for the WC jerseys. And it should be Jet Puffed Marshmallows.

      Big Tents, Small Media, and Other Things

      Notes from Arlington

      As I mentioned earlier, I provided some straight race coverage this past weekend for the Clarendon Cup NRC race and the Air Force Cycling Classic, a USA Cycling ProTour circuit race. Due to changing life circumstances over the past few years, I don’t travel to do race coverage nearly as much as I used to – as you may have noticed, I do most of my sniping from up here in the cheap seats these days. And while I’m not sure yet if, after this weekend, I’m burned out or reinvigorated, it’s always fun to be part of the circus again when it’s in town.

      In the new issue of VeloNews, Neal Rogers has an interesting piece about how professional cycling is covered. Or maybe it’s only interesting to people who have done the job, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a piece that many cycling journalists have probably longed to write – we’re painfully aware of how many readers like to complain about the flavor of the sausage, but lack any real comprehension of how it gets made.

      In that same spirit of openness, I’ve jotted down some things below that occurred to me as I covered this weekend’s races. Not all of them are new thoughts, by far; they’re not all directly related to this weekend’s experiences; and I probably have far more than this if I really thought about it. But what the hell.

      On Home Field Advantage

      You’d think it would be easier to cover races that are within single digit mileage from your home, wouldn’t you? In some ways, that’s true. When the race is in your backyard, or takes place along your regular commute like this weekend’s races did for me, there’s no airports, no rental cars, no map reading, and no crappy hotels. You sleep in your own bed, and eat breakfast in the kitchen with your kids instead of at a fluorescent-lit buffet with Serge, the Ukrainian soigneur. And there’s something to be said for all that.

      But there’s also something to be said for being fully committed to the task at hand, with none of the distractions that you simply can’t get away from at home, no matter how pleasant they may be. Doing race coverage for the web like this weekend, it’s not a big problem, but if I were hunting for features or sidebars or angles for print, it’s far better to be holed up in the race hotel, inside the bubble, where you can make a quick call to the front desk, be connected to someone’s room, and arrange an interview in the lobby in an hour. And the amount of off-the-record scuttlebutt you can get in a hotel bar should not be underestimated for its background value. When you drive home an hour after the finish, you miss all that.

      What is Media?

      Look, I’m sympathetic towards “new media.” After all, as much as I hate to admit it, you’re reading this on one of those newfangled blogs, and my last printed-in-ink byline was probably over a year ago. And I'm not the only one -- the press tent’s getting mighty crowded these last few years with the expanded roster of online outlets, and during the post-race interviews, a few more recorders are thrust between you and your subject and you feel a little bit more hot breath on the back of your neck. If that meant more widespread, diverse, and credible coverage of cycling, I’d be more than happy with a little less elbow room and a less advantageous spot on the rail. It is, literally and metaphorically, a big tent, and I think that’s great.

      The problem is that, while some of these folks do good work, many of them don’t seem to be working at all, and in fact, never produce anything from the events they’ve been credentialed for. In the meantime, they’re using that credential to get in the way of the folks who are working – interrupting interviews to have their picture taken with riders and getting in the way of the working photographers at the finish line for the sake of completing their PhotoBucket galleries. As valuable to the sport as fans and amateur photographers are, that’s just not what media credentials are for.

      And they keep eating all the damn donuts.

      Probably the most frustrating thing, for me anyway, is the appropriation by those same people of material generated by those who WERE actually working at the event. Occasionally, it’s as inconspicuous as seeing a quote on a blog or somesuch that was in the article you wrote, and you know you were the only one who got that quote, because you were sitting in a moving team car with the rider with the windows up when you got it. That’s annoying, but the most egregious case I’ve seen was back in 2007, when someone who was very excited to have race credentials for his blog (enthusiastically posting about it prior to the race), proceeded, hours after the race, to cut and paste the entirety of my VeloNews copy to his blog. Yes, my name was still on it, but that’s still pretty far from fair use, for those who deal in such things. The kicker? He’s a professor of online journalism at a local university. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing “don’t steal material from other sites” is Week 1 material in an online journalism class, maybe Day 1, even. More bluntly and less legalistically: you were there, you had the same access I did, write your own damn story. And if you think the theft is bad for the writers, you should see what it’s like for the photographers.

      Look, I don’t mean to sound like the crusty old guy here, but maybe I am, so I might as well embrace it. I’m not even suggesting that we start severely limiting access – at least not for events like last weekend’s, which generate a significant amount of local interest that’s best capitalized on by new media. All I’m asking is that, if you’re going to be there, and be all geeked out about having a credential (which is fine), then DO something with it. Write something, do some work, find an angle, produce something useful – or just stand outside the barriers like the rest of the fans and enjoy the race. There’s no shame in that. At the very least, stay out of the way and don’t steal my stuff.

      Second Fiddle, Maybe Third

      We saw two, good entertaining domestic bike races this weekend, probably the two biggest going on in the U.S. on those two days (note - there was a women’s World Cup in Montreal, Canada). That said, sometimes writing about races, even big domestic ones, for the bigger sites can feel like throwing words down a well. Like, say, when the events you’re covering fall on the last days of the Giro d’ Italia, where the gap between winning and losing is less than a minute, and the finale is being contested on wet cobblestones in downtown roads with aero bars.

      So yes, I was not expecting, nor did I achieve, nor did I deserve, top billing on the site at any point during the weekend. For that to have happened, I think Chad Gerlach would have had to have won both the Arlington races by a minute and a half, allowing me to fully, shamelessly, and transparently work the human interest angle to the bone. That didn’t happen, but c’est la guerre. At least seeing my headlines sink rapidly down the column was not an unfamiliar sensation – the first race I covered live and in person, the 1999 Red Zinger stage race, ended on the same day Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in Paris. Talk about getting buried.

      Life in the Desert – All Heat and No Water

      Last weekend’s races – a flat crit and a circuit race with a bit of a hill – presented the riders with different physical challenges. You may not know this, but the two formats present the media with different challenges as well. The criterium is primarily a test of your ability to endure blazing sunlight and scorching pavement temperatures, as well as your ability to maintain riveted attention for 100 laps. Seriously, 100 laps. The circuit race, on the other hand, is primarily a test of your bladder. Sure, you’re in the shade of a car in the caravan, and you have air conditioning and a good view of the break, which is nice, but you’ve traded in access to the criterium’s port-o-johns and the associated comforts they provide. The coping mechanism is no mystery, of course – get up in the morning, and consume the absolute minimum of liquids, in my case a very small cup of coffee to get going. Then hit the port-o-johns about three or four times at the start. Then don’t drink anything until you’re done with your post-race interviews. Even then, many times, at the end of the three or four hour cruise, that lap belt is starting to feel mighty tight. It’s really not that long to go, but I think it’s more mental than physical: it’s the fact that you can’t go that makes you have to. But that first sip of water when you’re done is oh so sweet.

      Garbage In, Garbage Out

      Among some of the regional teams this weekend, there was apparently some confusion as to who would be riding for what team, in which races, and what race number they'd be wearing, resulting in three or four different versions of the start list (which matches numbers to names and teams), depending on how you counted. Unfortunately, none of them really shed much light on the situation. Without getting too far into it, or pointing any fingers, if teams make roster or number changes and don’t inform the organizer or officials, or if they do inform them and the organizer or officials don’t communicate those changes to the media (either with revised start lists or on the fly via radio tour), don’t expect your name to be right in the reporting. Yes, if Mark Cavendish switched numbers with George Hincapie before Milan-San Remo, or Hincapie and Tom Boonen switched teams, we could probably pick up on it and sort it out on our own, but when we’re talking regional riders making their appearance in national events, we can’t always pick out the faces. We really are trying to give you your day in the sun when it’s warranted – just help a brother out with the right information.

      But Who Cares?

      If any or all of that makes you think didn’t enjoy working this weekend, you’d be wrong. Most of it is just part and parcel of doing the job, and you laugh about it and move on. It was a great weekend of racing, and next weekend, when the circus rolls on up to Philadelphia for the Philadelphia International Championship, I’ll definitely miss being under the big top.

      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.

      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?

      Chain Reactions

      Or, The Downside of Sponsorship

      On Monday, I wrote a little bit about how Fabian Cancellara’s (Saxo Bank) showmanship over his broken chain during the Tour of Flanders might impact new team sponsor SRAM, which manufactures chains. Lest you think that these little incidents fail to make an impression on the viewing (and buying) public, we bring you the Top 15 search terms used to reach one very, very small cycling web site:

      1. Cancellara koppenberg
      2. koppenberg cancellara
      3. cancellara broken chain
      4. broken chain on the koppenberg
      5. cancellara chain break
      6. cancellara chain flanders
      7. cancellara fabian chain break
      8. cancellara koppenberg 2009
      9. cancellara koppenberg chain
      10. cancellara sram chain around neck
      11. course gent wevelgem
      12. fabian cancellara broken chain
      13. koppenberg cancellara chain
      14. koppenberg chain race
      15. koppenberg sram

      As you can see, not all publicity really is good publicity, and if people are reaching this site using those terms, chances are they’re reading accounts of it on every major cycling site and more than a few minor ones as well. So while it’s still just a single broken chain, the story is bound to take on greater weight due to sheer exposure, repetition, and drama.

      There’s plenty of precedent for high-visibility product failures haunting companies, of course. And within cycling, there’s even plenty of precedent for high-profile broken chains. Julio Perez Cuapio (then with Panaria) famously broke his chain during a promising breakaway in the 2001 Giro. I can still see him in that orange jersey by the side of the road, but I can’t for the life of me remember what kind of chain it was. I did look it up, though - Shimano, 9-speed. (Remarkably, Perez Cuapio smashed his teeth in on a guard rail a couple days later, then won a stage a few days after that. Tough guy.)

      Compared with Perez Cuapio’s high-profile but relatively brand-anonymous failure, the intriguing thing about Cancellara’s is its close association with the SRAM name. In this case, it seems that the PR fallout was likely made much worse by the temporal proximity of the sponsorship announcement to the failure. Saxo Bank – a formidable team that famously resisted component sponsors because they wanted the freedom to use what they wanted – is a big get for SRAM, and the company talked it up accordingly. Given how persnickety director Bjarne Riis has been about equipment, signing SRAM as a sponsor registered as a bigger product endorsement than pay-to-play sponsorship deals usually do. Then, hot on the heels of that well-received press release, advertising that the team is riding their products, one of their new star riders suffers a race-ending failure of one of their core products in the first major event since the announcement. You could almost feel the sales and marketing guys cringing. Imagine if Colnago took over sponsorship of Astana, and Levi Leipheimer snapped a frame on the first day of the Giro.

      Maybe I’m too soft, but what I’ve seen of the reaction feels a little strong to me. Yes, you certainly don’t want a chain snapping on you, and it does seem to be becoming a more common failure with thinner chains. But this tempest seems to have taken on more significance than it deserves due to an unfortunate pair of conditions – bad timing regarding the sponsorship announcement, and the fact that it occurred on the Koppenberg. The breakage probably wouldn’t have even been race-ending had it not occurred on that famous 600 meter stretch of cobbles, where team car access is restricted and poor position over the top is punished severely. And had it occurred nearly anywhere but the Koppenberg or the Muur van Geraardsbergen it surely wouldn’t have been subject to so much photography. As I noted Monday, Cancellara’s histrionics sure didn’t help things, but after the season the guy’s had, I also can’t begrudge him a little in-the-moment frustration.

      As a result of all that, articles mentioning the breakage abound, but really, we’re still talking about one failure, for one very strong guy, on one very brutal hill. As much as I love you all, let’s not kid ourselves about our ability to replicate those conditions in our own riding. Even if we could all crank out the watts like Cancellara, anecdotal information indicates that most chain failures can be attributed to faulty installation – very few people actually break a sideplate or pull out a previously untouched pin. In other words, a failure of your mechanic's head and hands is far more likely to break your chain than the strength of your thighs. Or a manufacturing error, for that matter.

      How many of those keyword searches above are SRAM looking to assess the damage, and how many are consumers trying to find out what happened? I have no idea. But I have to say, I haven’t seen that much keyword consistency since I wrote something a year ago that included the name of Specialized’s HR maven, Shannon Sakamoto. I don’t know what else she has going on, but someone Googles that woman at least once or twice a week. If SRAM has any luck at all, their little hubbub will die out a little more quickly than that.

      In other news, you may have noticed that sneaking in up there at number 11 on the list is “course gent wevelgem.” That fine semi-classic was run this morning, of course, and we’ll try to get to that later.


      There have been a couple of notable insights into our namesake, the service course, on the internet lately, both of which are enlightening in their own way.

      The first is a nice little video on the Garmin-Slipstream site featuring Ryder Hesjedal giving a tour of the team’s service course in Girona, Spain. Even if you’re not a fan of the particular equipment the team rides, it would be hard to claim that Garmin’s facility is anything less than a racing cyclist’s candy store. In fact, it makes your garage’s lack of a custom 40 foot bus, dedicated staff, stock of carbon wheels, and an espresso machine seem downright criminal. Add to that the fact that some of the most prized training grounds in Europe lie just outside those giant rollup doors, and there’s some pretty good fodder for envy there. But please, look, admire, but don’t get caught up in some sort of wild-eyed equipment frenzy, wondering if you’ll really be able to get through this season with just the six wheelsets you have. It’s not good for you, and it annoys the crap out of your friends.

      Other than providing one of the best looks I’ve seen inside the inner sanctum, how else is this post from Garmin enlightening? Well, if you’ve ever read the year-old “About” blurb over there on the left side of your screen, then Garmin’s word choice in defining what a service course is may look familiar. Of course, that makes me wonder if the guys have actually looked at this site, and, if they have, if Allen Lim will ever give me a ride again.

      The second service course-related piece comes courtesy of the Belgium Knee Warmers site, which certainly doesn’t need any traffic help from me, but what the hell. At the Tour of California, BKW seized the opportunity to have a look inside BMC’s equipment truck and grab a few words from veteran team mechanic Vincent Gee. Granted, a truck is not a service course, but it’s close enough for now. The article doesn’t get into too many specifics about the truck (which is not a criticism – I mean, it’s a truck), but I found the interview revealing in an unexpected way. Specifically, this series of questions regarding stage race routine caught my eye:

      -Do you change the [handlebar] tape daily?
      -Do you replace chains on a scheduled interval?
      -Any special equipment for AToC?
      -39/53 chainrings?
      -Any special tires for the rain?
      -Are you gluing tires on a schedule?

      For a site that is centered on digging into the details of the pro experience, they’re perfectly reasonable questions to ask. But they made me wonder how much people's notions of team operations have been affected by the image projected by a few superteams – particularly the Postal/Discovery and Astana operations headed by Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong. That is, have those teams’ highly publicized methods and procedures – microscopic attention to detail; constant not-so-secret testing of double-secret new crap; stage-specific tires, bikes, gears, and wheels; decades-long tire gluing procedures – skewed our view of how most professional cycling teams really operate?

      The quick answer, I’d argue, is yes. In the United States, the tightly focused media blitz that surrounds those Bruyneel/Armstrong collaborations has made it seem like the resource-intensive way they handle things for the Tour de France is just the way most cycling teams operate all the time. Which is ironic, because the teams put all of that information out there in the press in an attempt to look unique.

      (It would be unfair to Bruyneel and co. to not mention that Garmin-Slipstream, with all of its much-discussed “protocols” and Blackberry-love has also emerged as a standard bearer for this image.)

      But in reality, there are very few teams, maybe five or six in any given year, with the sort of budget, sponsors, and organization to support that lifestyle – teams like ONCE, Mapei, CSC, Quick.Step, and T-Mobile for instance – but beyond that top tier things get a leaner pretty quickly. Yes, changing chains and bar tape frequently, for example, doesn’t seem likely to break any team’s budget, but the fact is, you’re paying folks to do that work when they could be attending to more pressing things, and you’re chewing through a limited number of units the sponsor has provided. And that’s all money going out the door.

      But all of the media attention on those superteam habits – on Versus, in magazines, on the web – has created a mindset in which it's perfectly normal to ask if a second division team is changing bar tape daily during a week-long February stage race, if they have rigid protocols for changing chains and gluing tires, and if they’re using special chainrings for pretty ordinary climbs.

      That’s what made Gee’s answers so refreshing, and valuable to readers. At a time when a lot of people are fascinated with the more wasteful aspects of professional cycling – the one-race-and-replace-it, bigger-bus-is-a-better-team image – Gee revealed that no, they just don’t do all that stuff. Despite the years he spent as a wrench with Discovery, at BMC Gee changes the tape when it needs to be changed, replaces chains when they’re worn, and glues tires when the old ones are worn or flat.

      That all seems too reasonable, though, and gluing up tires as needed just doesn’t create that same no-detail-too-small pro image that Julien Devries’ legendary 90-step tire gluing process does. And using bike shop-available equipment doesn’t lend that Formula 1, money sport image like talking casually about the ridculously expensive narrow BB time trail bike Armstrong decided he didn’t like. Most of all, though, the conservative approach just does't make for flashy copy or video. But, for the vast majority of teams – even good, well-funded ones like BMC – that’s the reality: conserving what you can, when you can, without unnecessarily risking a good result. In fact, I’d wager that a lot of fans who have watched every episode of Road to Paris and worn the ink off of four year’s worth of Procycling would be surprised at just how much use even the wealthiest teams get out of equipment before they toss it. Remember that Garmin video way back up at the top? Yeah, those cobbled classic bikes Hesjedal pointed out are stored in there for a reason – reuse.

      Cycling Indicators

      “So where the hell have you been?”

      It’s a question I get a good bit, from people who read this sometimes intermittent site and from the guys I (occasionally) ride bicycles with. The answer, for the past few weeks, has been simple – working. I know it’s hard to believe, but the financial rainmaker that is the Service Course doesn’t quite pay the bills, so I do a little work on the side – about 40 to 60 hours a week worth. To be more specific, I work for what some people call a “government contractor,” and some call a “consulting firm,” which in the Washington, DC area is far from a distinguishing personal trait. It makes me, as a character in Saving Private Ryan put it, “a needle in a stack of needles.”

      But I’m a needle with a twisted interest in cycling, and sometimes my hobby and my career come together in a more meaningful way than me showing up at the office in lycra. One such intersection occurred with the receipt of last week’s August 25 issue of Time magazine, which has a section about the first week or so of the Olympics, which were held in China, if you haven’t heard. (I should state here that I have no idea why our household receives Time magazine. We have never, to our knowledge, ordered it, nor paid for it. So thanks, Time, for making our postman think we’re informed about world affairs.)

      In an little sider entitled, “Pollution’s Effect? It’s Unclear,” Time discusses the notoriously poor Beijing air quality, the topic of great pre-Olympic discussion and speculation. To illustrate how poor air quality was affecting the games, Time states that, “There have been casualties already: more than a third of the cyclists competing in the 152-mile (245 km) men’s road race Aug. 9 dropped out, in part because of conditions so stifling that one rider compared it with racing at 10,000 ft. (about 3,000 m) – on a course that topped out at 1,083 ft. (330 m).” That little bit of data-wrangling, backed up by a single rider’s anecdotal assessment of the conditions, woke up the professional guy in me. He held a quick conversation with my bike dork side, and they subsequently issued this joint statement: what a bunch of bullshit.

      Here’s the nut. For lo these past four years, I’ve been working on a government report that uses “environmental indicators” to help define the status of and trends in the U.S. environment. “Indicators” is basically a fancy word for “measurements” that you use to provide insight into something else. For example, the Fed uses measures of new housing starts and durable goods purchases as indicators of the country’s economic health. Those are economic indicators, I work mostly with environmental ones, but the concept is pretty common.

      Indicators can be handy for defining the status and trends, but you have to be careful how you use them. In the report I’m working on for the government, there’s been rigorous internal and external peer-review to make sure that indicators aren’t being used improperly – that we’re not saying that a certain set of measurements tells us things it really might not tell us at all. And that’s where the Time article about the Olympic air quality falls short.

      Time uses the fact that 1/3 of the men’s Olympic road race field did not finish the race as a defacto indicator that the Beijing air quality was/is poor. I’m not disputing that the air quality was indeed poor on the day the race was held, but the magazine has improperly used the DNF rate of the road race as an indicator of air quality. That they did so isn’t surprising – it’s a simple, if glaring, misunderstanding of the sport.

      Man, it took me a lot of words to get to that thesis, didn’t it? Fortunately, the rest of the argument is short and simple. You can’t say that 1/3 of the field not finishing is an indicator of particularly bad Beijing air quality on the day, because, simply put, that’s a pretty normal attrition rate for a major, professional, single-day cycling race, regardless of air quality. If anything, it’s a pretty high starters-to-finishers ratio, likely for the simple fact that many riders holding no victory ambitions came to Beijing with the simple goal of finishing the damn race.

      Let’s look at a few examples of long, one-day road races to see what I mean. I haven’t looked at NOx, ozone, and PM2.5 emissions or concentrations (common measures of poor air quality – this is what they’re measuring when the news tells you your city has a “code orange” day for air quality) for any of the areas these races are held in, but I don’t believe they’re notorious poor air-quality hotspots.

      The 2008 Tour of Flanders, held in April in Belgium, had 200 starters and 100 classified finishers, giving us a nice, tidy 50 percent attrition rate. I’ve been to that one, though in a different year, and while there’s a healthy tinge of cow manure and beer fumes in the air, springtime in Belgium isn’t exactly an air-quality nightmare, at least in the countryside.

      The 2007 Tour of Lombardy, won by Damiano Cunego (Lampre), featured 104 classified finishers from 180 starters, giving it a 43 percent drop-out rate, better than Flanders, but still more than the 1/3 Olympic road race attrition rate Time believes is a marker of poor air quality. I can guarantee you that the air around Lake Como in October is pretty damn fresh. It might actually be the definition of “fresh air.”

      Of course, Flanders and Lombardy are beginning and end-of-season races, respectively, and not typically subject to the heat that summertime Beijing has. Late spring and summer are dominated by the Giro and the Tour, which give riders extra incentive to not drop out, because, well, they’re stage races, and that’s the game. So let’s throw a summer one-day race in here to give an even better view into how stilted Time’s view of road race finishing rates is. This year’s Clasica San Sebastian, run in the stinking heat of Spain in August, and won by Alejandro Valverde, featured just 45 finishers out of 152 starters, a 70 percent DNF rate that should, by their methods, have Time magazine publishing a wailing expose about rural Basque air quality in a matter of weeks.

      Indeed, then, a 1/3 DNF rate at the Olympic road race tells us absolutely nothing about Beijing air quality, no matter how many times Time tries to apply it in that context. What it does tell us is that Time has a fundamental misunderstanding of how professional road cycling works. Again, that’s not surprising – there’s a reason I don’t head straight to Time to find analysis of Paris-Roubaix. What is surprising is that, for a magazine that covers a broad range of topics, for which they can’t possibly have in-house experts on each, they’ve made no effort to find out that a 1/3 attrition rate is normal if not exceptionally low for a major one-day race. Taking it a step farther, they’ve turned that little piece of perfectly unremarkable data into an air quality indicator.

      So, Time, here are a few things you need to know about cycling:

      - Cycling is a team sport. The object is to get one guy from your team into winning position, not for everyone to finish like it’s some sort of 10k charity fun run. If your job is to blow yourself up in the first 100k, you do it, and then you put your legs up and think about the next race.

      - Cycling is not like other sports. If you’re playing like crap in a game of soccer, which I did many times in my earlier days, at least you’re still on the field where the game is. In road racing, if you’re riding like crap, the game actually leaves you behind. You are no longer on the playing field, and once you’re behind the caravan, you’re not even in the stadium anymore. By sticking around and trying to finish, you’re just making it harder to reopen the roads.

      - It’s not really a timed event – results are based on finishing order, and the competition is rooted in tactical dynamics, not raw speed. Nobody’s staying in the race hoping for a “personal best.”

      Not that Time was concerned with it, but the Olympics do complicate the usual road-racing formula a bit. The talent pool is a little more, ummm, diverse – ranging from decorated monsters like Bettini, Rebellin, Schumacher, and Cancellara on one end, to guys you’ve never heard of at the other (Ahmed Belgasem of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, I’m looking at you). Then you throw in the pressure of “representing your country” rather than just “earning a paycheck for doing your job,” and things can go a little funky.

      If you look at the results, you see many of the ProTour riders among the DNF’s, while many of the lesser knowns are in the results, no matter how far down. I have a few dubious theories about that – for the ProTour guys, it’s still the Olympics, with all the baggage that comes with it, but they have a number of other fish to fry over the course of a season. Not finishing isn’t ideal, but it won’t ruin four years’ worth of work and their only shot at recognition in their home country. For the lesser riders, however, this is the biggest race they’ll ride this year, and possibly in their entire career. There’s no Tour de France, Flanders, or Lombardy in the works for them, so if their contribution to this race is just sitting in and grinding it out, so be it.

      But that’s just my theory. I’ll fully admit I’m making it up as I go along. What I’m not doing is trying to use some irrelevant piece of data and the whiney estimations of a single, unnamed cyclist to back it up, knowing my readership probably won’t know better. After all, we can’t all be Time magazine.

      Wait, What?

      Professional cycling gets a little slow in these lazy days following the Tour de France. Sure, there’s the Clasica San Sebastian, the Spanish one-day race that lets Ardennes classics specialists feel good again after their directors convinced them they’re GC contenders and sent them out to get trounced in the grand tours all summer. But other than that, not a whole lot of high profile shenanigans go on until the Tour of Lombardy and the World Championships. Unless you count the Vuelta, and it's fine with me if you do, but don’t expect me to buy into it.

      Anyway, a lack of big events doesn’t mean that absolutely nothing’s going on in cycling. Au contraire. The last few weeks have seen some strange days in the sport, and to make them even stranger, this year we have the forced pleasures of the Olympic games and their dangerously warped worldview to add to the late summer proceedings. Wait, am I allowed to say “Olympic” without paying licensing fees? I am so screwed. Anyway, here’s a roundup of some bizarre crap that’s happened since the Tour ended.

      Ricco and Sella Come Clean on Being Dirty

      The pair of diminutive climbers were busted for CERA use at the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia respectively, to nobody’s surprise but their own. What is surprising is that both have fessed up, with Ricco at least going so far as to name his supplier. Are they not familiar with the Italian climber’s playbook? They’re supposed to be denying like mad, dreaming up conspiracy theories, becoming recluses, or at least trying to secure bonus-based contracts with more obscure teams.

      That they’re not doing the usual dance is a good thing, though, particularly for Ricco. At 23, he still has plenty of time left on the clock, and the Marco Pantani fetish that made many observers nervous before he turned up positive only became more ominous after the bust. Fortunately, it looks like Ricco stands a good shot of not going down the path his idol did after his high hematocrit exclusion at Madonna di Campiglio in the 1999 Giro, which sent Pantani into a self-destructive spiral that culminated with his death by cocaine overdose. That Ricco seems to be going his own way now is certainly good news.

      Speaking of Pantani, I’m currently reading Matt Rendell’s excellent Pantani bio, The Death of Marco Pantani. It’s very well researched and written, especially so for a cycling book, and if you want to know the story behind one of the sport’s enigmas and get a feel for the landscape of Italian cycling in the 1990s, it’s a must read. If you know how it turns out, don’t tell me, I’m not done yet…

      Evans and his Damn Knee

      Ever since the Tour finish on the Champs Elysees, we’ve been forced to follow the saga of Cadel Evan’s knee. I, for one, am sick of that damn joint, no matter how useful it may be to him. I don’t quite get Evans' hangup with this particular injury. Since the day after Silence-Lotto’s apparent humdinger of a post-Tour party, we’ve been hearing distorted reports of Evan’s apparent slip-and-fall, with a number of revisions to the story and associated scheduling changes. Here’s a timeline of how one man’s clumsiness has ravaged the cycling pages for weeks now:

      July 28, Champs Elysees + 1: Evans dismisses reports that he’s hurt his knee in a party accident as “unfounded rumour.” Call it the John Edwards defense. Or the Monty Python Black Knight defense.

      July 29, Champs Elysees + 2: Evans pulls out of a post-Tour crit (for which promoters pay large appearance fees to riders in order to draw paying crowds) citing, surprise, a knee injury sustained at a post-Tour party. So much for those unfounded rumours the evil press keeps publishing about him. What’s so shameful about hurting yourself that you need to lie about it, except for the fact that you’ve injured yourself in a manner more common to 19-year-old sorority girls than to professional athletes?

      July 31, Champs Elysees + 4: Evans withdraws from his Olympic time trial slot, citing his previously non-existent, then minor, now slighly more significant rumoured knee injury. Mick Rogers (Columbia) is slated to fill in. At this point, Evans reports being undecided as to whether he’ll contest the Olympic road race, which is four days earlier, much longer, and requires punchier accelerations. This odd announcement further illuminates the fact that Evans M.O. makes absolutely no sense.

      August 5, Champs Elysees + 9: Evans confirms that he will indeed start the Olympic road race, but is still unsure of starting the time trial, which must be pissing Mick Rogers off to no end. However, the UCI helps ease Rogers' mind by somehow managing to award an additional “wild-card” slot for the Olympic TT to Australia and Evans in the event that he decides to grace us with his presence, thus pissing off just about every country that had to play by the selection rules. Cadel – is your damn knee hurt or isn’t it?

      August 9, Champs Elysees + 13: Evans finishes 15th in the Olympic road race.

      August 10, Champs Elysees + 14: After the Olympic road race, which saw him “on the brink of making the winning selection,” Evans is reportedly recovering from what is again a “minor knee injury” well enough to consider maybe possibly riding the Olympic time trial on Wednesday, August 13. But he'll be sure to let us know.

      August 13, Champs Elysees + 17: Evans finishes 5th in the Olympic time trial. On doing so, he reveals that he “spent several days on crutches and had extensive rehabilitation work” after his beer puddle slip. But now he says that the knee and another slew of other post-dated problems will absolutely, positively prevent him from starting the World Championships. Really? Will they? Or are we just waiting to see if the UCI will grant Australia some extra start slots based on your schedule of the day?

      Seriously, you banged your knee, to some greater or lesser extent than we may ever know. Why all the cloak-and-dagger crap? People complained for years when certain Tour riders would just hang up their wheels after the Tour rather than riding other races, but if this is what we had to look forward to, it was a blessing in disguise.

      A Bitter Pill

      Contrary to what Evan’s continual knee updates would indicate, the Aussies aren’t all about pointless deception and whining. They’re also about deep-bowel core sampling. Apparently, in the lead-up to Beijing, Mick Rogers took one for the team and swallowed some sort of capsule designed to monitor his core temperature via the stomach, intestines, and colon and provide downloadable data. By doing so, the Aussie team hoped to see just how much the heat will affect riders and design appropriate “cooling strategies.” There’s no mention of the capsule retrieval method, but let’s just go with “eeewwww.” Really, messing with blood and urine all the time wasn’t enough for professional cycling? We had to start messing with poop, too? And really, that’s a lot of effort, science, discomfort, and scatology at work just to tell you to put a sock full of ice down the back of your neck.

      Longo Starts 18th Olympic Games

      OK, it’s really only her 8th Olympic games, but once you’ve clocked, say, 20 years worth of these quadrennial feel goods, who’s really counting anymore? The eternal frenchwoman finished a respectable 24th in the road race and an impressive 4th in the time trial. All I can say is thank goodness Nicole Cooke and Kristin Armstrong won the road race and time trial respectively, because if a 49-year-old had beaten the best women cyclists in the world, they’d have had to just shut women’s cycling down.

      Levi Leipheimer: One-Day Superstar

      Among the strangest pre-Olympic news items were those billing Levi Leipheimer (Astana) as a favorite for the road race. Seriously? Don’t get me wrong, Leipheimer was certainly a threat for the time trial, where he finished a very respectable 3rd for the bronze, but the jagged road race? Not exactly the place to shine for a stage-race specialist who, by his own admission, lacks the punch to make the sharp accelerations on the hills. I’d say I don’t get it, but I do. Nothing brings out nationalism and hype quite like the Olympics, and if you can somehow bill your country’s (and hence, your readers'/viewers') guy as a “favorite” with an almost straight face, you go for it.

      Who was that masked man? And why did he apologize?

      Of course, we can’t talk about the Olympics and cycling without mentioning the infamous masks, which the U.S. track squad wore on exiting their flight at the Beijing airport. I believe it has to have been the most mainstream coverage given to cycling at an Olympics, ever. Since I’m sure you’ve seen the AP story parroted just about everywhere, we’ll skip the details, except to say that the riders were issued the air filtration masks by their governing body, and later apologized for any trouble they caused by actually wearing them. The apology, we're told, was all their own. Come on, does anyone believe that their apology wasn’t coerced or at least “strongly recommended” by either the USOC or USA Cycling?

      Mike “Meatball” Friedman (Garmin-Chipotle), one of the alleged offenders, said it best when he pointed out that athletes have gone to great lengths to address every detail in their preparation, so doing something to try to mitigate the horrible air quality seemed perfectly reasonable. And it is, no matter how silly it looks or how much it might “offend” the host or the IOC. For photographic evidence on just how “offensive” the masks really are, visit the Unholy Rouleur.

      Ladies? On Dope? Well, I never!

      Spain’s Maria Moreno tested positive for EPO just hours after arriving in Beijing for the women’s road race, which was kind of surprising, and kind of not. The truth is, for all of men’s professional cycling’s doping ills, the women usually have little to report in the way of scandal. Sure, there are a few here and there, like Paola Pezzo’s nandrolone “tainted beef” incident, and that little run-in Amber Neben had with something awhile back, both of which I’m too lazy to find links for. But by and large, the women seem to just go about their business with little scandal. By doing so, the women’s peloton has become a favorite citation for people who like to babble on internet message boards about how the lack of money on the women’s side leads to a purer version of the sport, where everyone’s just out to test their personal limits, play clean, and trade recipes. Which is stupid. Lack of money probably does mean less dope in women’s cycling, but mostly it just means less testing. Hell, the men’s side of the sport can barely afford the tests. That’s why it takes the financial might of the Olympics to actually turn a positive on the women’s side.

      Financial and moral analyses aside, Moreno’s story is almost comical at the base level. She arrives in Beijing on July 30, a healthy week plus ahead of the road race, gets tested the very next day, and freaks out and flies home before her urine’s even cold in the jar. Awesome.

      Unfortunately, the positive has led to the usual WADA vs. UCI saber rattling, which, as usual, will likely come to absolutely nothing.

      Something About Swimming

      So the swimming world records are falling like tired similes in Beijing, and I just can’t help but look at the coverage of those performances and think what lucky bastards the chlorine and Speedo set are. Why? Between the new Speedo speed suits and the meter-deeper, turbulence reducing Beijing pool, the sport has created enough technological background noise to keep the doping bugaboo mostly at bay in the media. For a sport that’s been almost blissfully technology free for a long time, it’s a godsend that it’s there now to help explain this year’s performances, which are knocking whole seconds off of previous world record times.

      Unfortunately for swimming, that background noise eventually fades away and people start asking the uglier questions, justified or not. Cycling proves that. For years, people looked at phenomenal cycling performances and discussed how training had improved with heart rate monitors and then power meters, and how the bikes had gotten lighter, stiffer, and more aerodynamic. But as we know, despite all that, much of what we’ve seen in the last decades was fuelled by medical technology rather than electronics, wind tunnels, and carbon fiber. Here’s hoping that for swimming, the difference really is just in the suits, the pool, and the lungs and muscles of the athletes.

      Welcome Back, Kimmage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Tour No More

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

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

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

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

      The Bizarro World Report

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

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

      The Sequined Jersey Award

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

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

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

      Parting Shots

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

      Songs of Ourselves

      You know how you can tell when the public’s hunger for news exceeds the available supply? Journalists start interviewing each other. There is a bit of new news today, of course, but nothing you can build a big story on without re-using a lot of the background you already burned yesterday. Right now, it looks like Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval), winner atop Hautacam, has been fired from the team along with Riccò, and rumours are starting to circulate about whether there’s a system of institutionalized doping run and financed by the team. See, I pretty much just gave you all the new news in a single sentence.

      And so, with another long sprint stage on tap and some column inches to fill, we find ourselves with some hot journalist-on-journalist action in the Tour de France pages today. VeloNews’ John Wilcockson focuses his lens on Philippe Brunel, head cycling writer for L’Equipe (which, to set the record straight, is not the crappy, muckraking rag it’s often portrayed as over here. It’s a highly respected sports paper. When people call it a “tabloid”, they’re referring to the format, not the meaning of “tabloid” we’ve adopted in the U.S.) Wilcockson notes that Brunel has long been a Riccò supporter, and seemed visibly upset at his recent fall from grace.

      The article brings up an interesting point. When scandals such as Riccò’s break, fans often report feeling betrayed – that they’ve been sold a product that didn’t match the advertising copy. Fans aren’t the only ones – the journalists feel cheated as well, and what’s more, they can feel that they’ve been made an instrument of the deception. But what can you do? When you write about a sport like cycling, it’s your job to talk about the folks doing the big rides, and ending every story with caveats like “but he might be doping, so take it all with a grain of salt” would be career suicide. And it wouldn’t make for a fun assignment, either.

      But when you’ve written extensively about a rider’s achievements, with the entirely justifiable aim of bringing the sport’s big stories to your readers, and that rider turns out a fake, it’s disappointing to say the least. Not just because it’s another scandal, but because, to the untrained eye, it can seem that you somehow haven’t done your job, that you should have known. There’s the lingering feeling that out there in the audience, people are saying, “he’s a fool to have bought that guy’s act, we knew it all along.” But you can’t let that get to you, and you have to be comforted by the fact that the rules of professional journalism aren’t the same as those for posting on an internet message board or blog. Brunel sums it up nicely in’s own peer-to-peer coverage:

      "It was not a surprise for me. Journalists do their work, but when you don't have proof you are not able to do anything. If you write in a subjective manner, then you too become a judge or a policeman, so you have to watch everything and when the proof arrives, then you write."

      I’ve never written about cycling at the same level as Brunel and Wilcockson. On a good day, I’m maybe a D3 water carrier to their ProTour superstars. But just like cyclists of all levels know what it is to suffer, we’ve all seen and written about things that don’t look as good in retrospect as they did at the time. For instance, my first on-site race coverage assignment for VeloNews was the 1999 Red Zinger Stage Race in Colorado. It was an attempt to revive the Red Zinger/Coors Classic days of old and it was, to my eye then, a pretty good race – a prologue in downtown Boulder, a road race along the Peak-to-Peak highway, an uphill time trial, a brutal stage to the 14,000 foot summit of Mount Evans, and a criterium around the Celestial Seasonings headquarters to close.

      It was the only edition of the race in that format – it would evolve into the one-day Saturn Classic and disappear entirely after a couple of years. But the big news in 1999 was that Jonathan Vaughters (then U.S. Postal), who had crashed out on the Passage au Gois at the Tour, was coming home to compete on a composite team. He ended up winning the Red Zinger on the same day Armstrong took his first Tour crown in Paris, and you know, I still like the story I wrote about it. You can see the problems, though, when you look back at the Peak-to-Peak highway stage in particular. I was sitting shotgun in the Saturn car while DS Rene Wenzel slept alongside the mechanic in the back seat, so I had a good view of the race-making break ahead, which consisted of Vaughters, Scott Moninger (then Mercury), Chris Wherry (then Saturn), and Floyd Landis (then Mercury).

      Since that time, Wherry, god bless him, has kept his nose clean as best I can remember, and has a notable domestic career to look back on for it. The rest? Vaughters was implicated by his little IM conversation with Frankie Andreau, and though he smartly keeps mum on the details of his past, I think he’s done his penitence for any transgressions in a far more valuable manner than spending a couple years on the bench at the UCI’s behest. Moninger had a steroid positive several years later, which he claims was the result of a tainted supplement. And, well, we all know what happened to Floyd. Sort of.

      So that breakaway doesn’t look quite so good in retrospect, but at the time, and based on what I knew for sure – which didn’t include what anyone there was smearing, swallowing, injecting, or sticking onto or into their bodies – it was a good story. So I wrote it like I saw it. And without a crystal ball, that’s all we can really do, isn’t it?

      To be honest, I’m not really “hurt” by my little example – it was pretty straightforward race reporting, and any scandal associated with those riders would only occur or become evident much later on. But when, like Brunel and Wilcockson, you see riders whose houses you’ve visited for in-depth interviews, who you’ve shared meals with, and whose hopes and ambitions you’ve helped telegraph to the world come up positive, the sense of betrayal must be palpable. Not only because you, yourself, have been lied to, but because you’ve been used to pass those lies along. Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done about it, assuming you want to keep writing about cycling for a living. You can try to limit your exposure with due diligence, but in a sport simultaneously full of rumour and omerta, where everybody's talking but nobody's saying anything, sometimes you just have to let ‘er rip, write what you see, and hope for the best. And if and when things go south, then as Brunel said, “when the proof arrives, then you write.”

      Bastille Day Backlog

      Catching up with Beltran, Versus, Riccò, Evans, and Alcohol

      Happy Bastille Day! Did I miss anything?

      Oh, right, Manuel “Triki” Beltran (Liquigas) was busy testing positive right as I was posting Friday's entry, kicking off dope scandal season at this year's Tour. Woops. First of all, that’s the last time I’m calling him Triqui/Triki, because my kid likes Cookie Monster too much for me to associate that particular muppet with such scandal. U.S. Postal team legend has it that Beltran earned his nickname because he couldn’t keep his hands off the sweets in the off-season, thus piling on the pounds, but given the course of recent events you have to wonder which of his apparent appetites it really referred to.

      Regardless of what we call him, he did indeed get caught with his hand in the cookie jar – for EPO no less. I’m not going to join numerous other sites in hurling f-bombs his way, if only because at 37, he’s at the tail end of the generation of guys who were likely all part of a system, and being in the front group is a tough habit to kick. That said, I don’t feel too bad for him, either. At his age, he’s old enough know that this is the Tour de France, with more testing methods than a Salem witch hunt, not some damn grand prix des chaudières where anything goes as long as you wink at the right people.

      Seriously, though, EPO? So five years ago. It would have been far more stylish to go out in a blaze of late 1980’s glory, with a shot of Kenacort in his left butt cheek, some Ton-ton in the right, and a neon headband on his noggin. At least the tests for that shit are reliable now. But with the EPO test, you apparently have a pretty good chance of getting caught even if you’re not doing anything, so banging a hot shot of 1990’s technology into your arm only boosts your odds of turning up hot in an already stacked game. “Wait!” you say, "Doesn’t that mean that there’s a good chance he’s completely innocent?" Maybe, and I wish I still had that sort of optimism, but I don’t.

      Take Back the Ads

      Well didn’t the Beltran positive just kick that Versus “Take Back the Tour” ad in the nuts? Do they have a plan to revise those things on the fly? How long does it take to get footage of Beltran to look all cool and grainy like that? As I pointed out before, the original “riding backwards” advertisement is a poorly thought-out effort. On the broad level, it just makes it look like Versus is out to profit from doping in cycling as much as everyone else by using scandal to promote their programming, rather than making the network look like some sort of caring benefactor as they intended. But it sucks on a lot of other levels, too.

      If they were looking toward a bright new future, and wanted an advertisement that made other people look toward a bright new future, how did they end up with this? The ad only re-examines the scandals of the past 5 years or so, but doesn’t offer the ray of hope that I think they think it does. Other than plastering “take back the Tour” on the end, there’s no upshot, no optimism, no sense of how we are moving or can move in another direction. Just some amorphous instruction to the viewing audience to do something that, with minor exceptions, just isn’t in its power. To top it off, they use the “rewind” trick, which really just drives home the point that they’re looking backward, not forward.

      And what’s the point? Most people watching the Versus broadcast are well aware of these scandals already – we watched them unfold on their channel. For those viewers who might stumble into the coverage and not be as familiar with the sport, is this the introduction we want to give them every seven and a half minutes? Simply begging for help isn’t the best way to draw people in, even Jerry Lewis knew that, and any good panhandler will tell you the same. Not that we should sweep the past under the pavement, but maybe, if we really want people to be optimistic about a clean future, beating them over the head with the dirty past isn’t the best strategy.

      Though it’s certainly dramatic, with its whiney folk strumming and computer aged footage, this sort of crap really isn’t good for the business end of the sport, either. Know why? There are sponsors printed on every one of those jerseys. Some are still in the sport, others not, but it’s pretty likely that they’re all still operating as businesses doing whatever it is they do. Those sponsors are the ones who write the big checks, and while they might tell the team management that they’d appreciate a few wins every now and then (who wouldn’t?), they ain’t typically the ones with their finger on the plunger. Nevertheless, each of those sponsors had their names dragged through the mud when their respective scandals broke – how long will they have to keep paying the PR price for their investment in cycling? Look at Bianchi, which stepped in to pay the bills for that team after Coast shat the bed. For that small kindness, Bianchi is re-connected with Ullrich’s woes repeatedly, just like Rabobank is to Rassmussen. Vinokourov and Astana? OK – that connection is going to happen for the foreseeable future regardless of what Versus does, but even they’re making an effort to move on in their own way. But thanks to scandals being used in commercials, it’s hard to get a gap.

      Sure, some will cry “all publicity is good publicity,” but there are also a lot of people making big money helping brands make and manage their “images,” so balance those two ideologies in your own head as you see fit. For those sponsors that have already gone through the doping wringer, there’s not too much point in worrying about it, but the real problem is the message this re-hashing gives to potential new sponsors. Namely, that if one of their riders goes astray, the company on the jersey will be associated with it not for days or months, but for years, and years, and years. That’s some hefty risk, and don’t think those companies’ “brand image consultants” won’t raise that issue when they’re reviewing sponsorship proposals.

      But these commercials aren’t just ill-conceived, they’re sloppy, too. The original version of the Versus ad featured David Millar coming out of (or going back in to, as the case may be) a TT start house. Lots of people think Millar’s been edited out because the network has allied itself so closely with Garmin-Chipotle, for whom he rides now, but I’m going the other way on this one. I think Millar was removed because in their rush to get cute, Versus’ ad department used footage of him in Saunier Duval colors, the team he joined after his suspension and alleged reform, not the Cofidis colors of the team he rode for when he decided to use EPO bottles to create some mantelpiece ambience in his Biarritz apartment. I’m guessing the Saunier Duval squad didn’t take their undeserved inclusion too kindly (no, the people at Saunier Duval probably don’t watch American television, but some people at bike sponsor Scott probably do), and responded with entirely appropriate threats.

      Or maybe it is the Garmin thing. Who knows? Either way, when they started the planning for this ad, one of the many, many things they should have done differently was to define exactly what a rider needed to do to be in the ad. Test positive (Landis, Vino)? Confess (Zabel)? Be implicated in a police investigation (Ullrich)? Get pulled by your team (Rassmussen)? Does your infraction have to be at the Tour de France (Landis, Rasmussen)? Does it not (Millar, Ullrich)? Are we showing everyone who’s soiled the sport, or just some people? What’s the selection process? Where’s Moreni? Where’s Basso? Where's Riis? Right now, they’re just all over the place.

      Crappiness aside, for those who get all barrel chested and teary eyed at those ads, Beltran’s incident must really suck the air out of the room. But what did they and Versus expect? That in the widely publicized most-tested Tour ever, that there would be no positives? What the hell? Everybody keeps referring to this year’s efforts by governing bodies, organizers, and teams as the “crackdown” on doping. Do people know what “crackdown” means? It doesn’t mean that everybody suddenly thinks better of their illicit activity and stops of their own accord. It means you go out and catch the people doing it and put a stop to it. And you don’t do that without a few people doing the perp walk somewhere along the way. So think ahead, people, before you start giving everything the sepia-and-acoustic treatment like it's in the past. It isn't.

      Finally, I’ve criticized the ad for, among other things, offering only scandal and no real light or look forward, so I won't be totally hypocritical and not offer anything myself. Here's my concept – they should have put together a bunch of babies and young kids, with the color saturation scaled back. They’d each be wearing one of the leader’s jerseys – yellow, green, polka-dot, or white – with the color saturation scaled up. In the ad, they’d be (through the miracle of digital media) lining the streets to cheer as whoever Versus wants to bet on as a “clean rider” goes past. They can do it in slow-mo and grainy, if that’s their thing. So you have the youth, the riders and fans of the future, looking on adoringly towards the clean guys, rather than just a lazy bleating recap of the latest scandals. Sure, one of their “clean guys” could pop a positive, which would pretty much kill the whole campaign, but at least they’d limit their odds a bit. Right now, pretty much anyone, say Beltran, testing positive makes the current campaign look a little more silly than it did already.

      Riccò: Good, But Not Dope Rumour Good

      Ricardo Riccò (Saunier-Duval) took a nice win yesterday in the first true mountain stage, which has already sent gums flapping and keyboards tapping about whether he’s getting a little illicit help of his own. Really? A 130-pound climbing specialist who poses no real GC threat taking 1:17 out of a bunch of GC favorites who are nervously awaiting the next day’s showdown at Hautacam rises to that level? I don’t think so, and I wish VeloNews hadn’t run this particular piece.

      I do understand that Neal Rogers is basically reporting the “village buzz” in this daily column, and that may well be the village buzz, but it’s so thin and poorly substantiated at this point, he could have just held onto it. All of it would read just fine as background in the piece that would run if Riccò actually tested positive for anything besides good timing and shitty time trialing, which along with obvious talent in the mountains are what got him into winning position yesterday. As far as we know, anyway, and that’s all we should be discussing.

      Among the reasons the column lists for people being suspicious of Riccò are that he emulates Marco Pantani, uses a masseuse who was involved in doping in the past, and that he talks a lot of trash. I don’t have much time after that Versus tirade, so for now we’ll just say that these can be easily answered with: what Italian climber his age didn’t emulate Pantani, how many long-time masseuses in cycling haven’t been involved in doping, and finally, trash talking is fun. Yes, Riccò makes things hard on himself in a lot of ways, the above examples included. But until he actually lights up the dope meter, I’m inclined to hope that he’s sort of cycling’s version of the straight edge kids -- he desperately wants all the tough-guy imagery of the bad boys, but might be making some different lifestyle choices than they did. Not everyone who climbs with their hands in the drops is a criminal, just like not everyone who listens to punk is out to defile your daughter.

      God Intervenes to Make Tour Interesting

      Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) crashed yesterday, and though he remembers a Spanish guy crashing ahead of him and getting up from the pavement, he has no idea what the hell actually happened to him. You know who else had an incident like that? The Virgin Mary. And that, my friends, is because in both cases, depending on your belief system, God might have stepped in to try to save humanity. In the most recent case, he’s trying to save us from a horribly uninspiring Tour de France win.

      Since well before the Tour, Evans has promised to stop at nothing to bore his way to victory. Before the Tour, he told us that he’s content with the Indurain Tour de France formula – taking his ticks in the time trials and hanging on like a tick in the mountains, since he’s apparently physically incapable of being exciting there. Now that we’re underway, he’s studiously occupying places 5 through 12 on the road in a valiant attempt to stay out of the yellow jersey. Now that's racing!

      Yes, it was all going according to plan until yesterday: he’d made no impression whatsoever, and was on a clear path to annoy his way through the mountains, take the jersey in the final time trial, and then ride in a protective bubble into Paris, where he would unzip the plastic, don his surgical mask, and accept the polite applause of the crowd. But then God’s mighty finger apparently dumped Evans on his ass, and leg, and shoulder, and arm, and head in an effort to, you know, shake things up a bit. Even the least religious among us, probably me, thank him for throwing a little kink into the works, enough to make it a little harder for the Aussie to hang onto the more explosive Valverde in the Alps and the Pyrenees, maybe creating enough of a gap to make the last TT interesting. Or at least rattle him a bit.

      Evans should be thankful, too, but I doubt he is. He’s been handed his “Tyler moment” on a silver platter – he can milk the “riding through injury” angle for all it’s worth, even though 800-year-old Tour doctor Gerard Porte says it’s only a flesh wound. If he comes out of it with a victory, Evans has the makings of a story with at least a vestigial heart, rather than a surgical removal of a Tour title. Evans predictably started milking as soon as he crossed the line, taking the prima donna act he’s been testing out into production mode by refusing to talk to reporters after the stage, then handing journalist and countryman Rupert Guiness his cracked helmet through the bus window with a bitchy “here’s your interview.

      I have news for Evans – Tour favorite or not, his list of victories on the road is a bit thin for that sort of crap. And what the hell is going on? Aussies used to be hardmen who traveled thousands of miles from home to gut it out on hard European roads. Some, like Stuey O’Grady, still maintain the mystique. Evans, on the other hand, should be on the lookout for Phil Anderson standing on the roadside waiting to punch him in his purty mouth, while Allan Peiper kicks him in the ribs. All in the national interest, of course.

      Booze Update

      Obviously, I’ve fallen a bit behind in attempts to provide you with appropriate drinking suggestions for the most recent stages. The Unholy Rouleur, however, is right on cue with some sustenance tips. I’ll try to use tomorrow’s rest day to catch up, and get everyone prepared to liquor up until well into the Alps.