A Quick Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cartoon courtesy of Patrick O'Grady hizzownself.

A question came up on my club’s listserv recently about junior gear restrictions, those USA Cycling declarations from on high that theoretically prevent our young men and women from destroying their knees by limiting them to something around a 52x14 gear ratio, instead of the 58x11 they’d inevitably choose if left to their own devices. Mention of gear restrictions was jarring, as it’s been a quite awhile since I’ve had to consider such things. My own junior gears were on a 6-speed Regina freewheel, if that tells you anything, though it should be noted that I was a bit behind the technological times, even then.

Back then, our 18-and-under set accepted the USCF’s “save your knees and learn to spin” argument at face value, though not without adolescent derision and whining about the unfairness of it all. Now, with some time and distance between me and those particular regulations, it occurs to me that the gear restrictions really aren’t about saving young knees at all. That argument just doesn’t hold water. Because really, what damage is little Johnny really going to do with big boy gears that he can’t do with a 52-14 if he really puts his mind to it? If there’s anything teenagers are good at, it’s using seemingly harmless things in a harmful manner. Sure, giving them a 52-14 instead of a 53-11 is like giving them an apple instead of candy in the name of health, but being teenagers they’ll just turn around and make a bong out of the apple. I certainly can’t figure out how to cause any permanent damage with a 52-14, but I’m over 30 – find a 16-year-old with some spare time, and he’ll show you how. (And besides, USAC lets masters riders use whatever ridiculous gearing they want, and those guys should be more worried than most about their joints. You can almost smell the glucosamine on the start line.)

Nah, the gear restrictions ain’t for health reasons, and it’s my firm belief that they are, in fact, a sort of thinly veiled training program. Not a Bicycling Magazine “Get Faster In Two Easy Steps!” training program, or even a Chris Carmichael “400 Line Graphs to Your Best Season Ever” training program. Rather, the gear restrictions serve as a sort of live action procedural manual, carefully engineered by USAC to acclimate potential pro prodigies to the post-race drug testing procedures that they’ll encounter later in their careers.

To train its young charges, USAC carefully replicates most of the elements of a ProTour dope test in a less intimidating form and environment, and they hit the mark from pre-race through the testing. At the start line, there are the stern warnings from officials that tests will be conducted (even when they won’t be), and that violators will be rooted out, punished, and shamed in the media (or on district listservs, but whatever). After the races, juniors are promptly rounded up, detained by blue-shirted officials, and escorted to the testing area to ensure they don’t engage in any test-cheating shenanigans, like wheel changes or fiddling with derailleur limit screws. Then, the juniors get to sit by and practice being nervous regardless of guilt or innocence while their sample is processed by a stern man with a clipboard, badge, and indeterminate nationality. For a further air of pro authenticity, gear restrictions also provide the requisite confusion over whether you need to report for testing if you didn’t finish the race, whose responsibility it is to know, and why nobody told you.

So for the most part, it’s a complete dope test dry run, and it’s probably as accurate as USAC can get without wantonly violating Federal statutes against forcing minors to disrobe and urinate while a bunch of old men watch. And since they are still wee lads and lasses, juniors get the additional concession of an immediate B test when they turn a positive – no sense in the case of the 53-13 dragging on until they’re masters. Through this groundbreaking training program, USAC has been able to guarantee that none of its graduates will ever soil its good name by botching a dope test on procedural grounds.

Though ambitious, USAC’s plan isn’t without its hitches. For instance, gear restrictions also inadvertently introduce juniors to the type of backroom chicanery that tends to come in handy when you’re trying to fool the testers before the first mountain stage of the Giro. Sure, using the old indexed downtube cable adjusters to surreptitiously lock out your 13 cog post-race is hardly a shot of Kenacort in the arse, and juniors’ late night, self-administered rollouts and constant search for that ideal combination of chainrings, cogs, and tire size isn’t quite as insidious as pros carrying around saline drips and a hematocrit machine. Besides, cable adjuster trick aside, setting your bike up to achieve the maximum allowable rollout isn’t illegal – unlike hematocrit levels or other biological markers, the rollout measurement itself is the determining factor of guilt or innocence, and it doesn’t matter how you got there. But remember, we’re teaching broadly applicable processes and behaviors here, good or bad.

And finally, the junior gear testing regime doesn’t prepare our future stars for all the evidence compiling, questioning, groveling, and appeals that follow a positive dope test. That’s what the USAC upgrade process is for.

Sensation Association

When I finished up a cyclocross race on Sunday afternoon, I knew it was only a matter of time before my digestive tract reaped its revenge for the strain that I’d just put my body through. The pattern has been a constant throughout the years, and after races, when the grumbling begins, I always think back to sitting in a musty rider cabin with Freddy Stevens in Gent’s Kuipke velodrome in 2001. I was there to do a story on the Six Days of Gent, and Freddy, a “runner” for 6-day legend Etienne DeWilde, was showing me what riders typically eat during these relentless affairs. One element of that demonstration was a half-eaten bowl of what he described as “baby cereal,” about akin to cream of wheat in these parts. “Easy on the gut,” he nodded, with the typical reverence that Europeans have for their digestive experiences.

Thinking about that on Sunday reminded me that, while we’ve pointed out that brief overlap between the road cycling season and the winter cyclocross season, we hadn’t touched on the “other” winter discipline: the 6-day track race. The sixes don’t receive the coverage that we see with cyclocross and road racing, mostly because they’re a pretty fringe element of the sport, but also likely because they’re harder to relate to. There are sixes in Europe for amateurs and espoirs, but by and large, they’re a professional show, and a form of cycling that exists only in competition. And as Peter Nye’s relatively recent book chronicles, the sixes were big in the United States once, but that was a long time ago. That experiential separation from the amateur riders that make up a vast portion of cycling fans here seems to make them a bit less accessible, and a little more mysterious and foreign than road or cyclocross have come to be. And that’s what made me pitch the Gent story to VeloNews in 2001.

Once I was on the ground in Belgium, I found the reason you don’t see more coverage of the sixes here, or anywhere, for that matter. They simply don’t translate. Not to television coverage, not to written race reports. There are simple reasons why that sort of coverage would be tough — there might be 8 different races covering 4 track disciplines on a given night, with overall leaders determined by a not-terribly-complicated but not-terribly-clear points system. But those issues are far from prohibitive.

The real reason coverage of the sixes doesn’t work is that you have to be there, plain and simple. They're a total experience, and just writing about guys racing bicycles doesn’t cut it. Like learning a foreign language, immersion is really the best solution, since it’s the crowd, the noise, and even the smells that make them what they are. And what they are is just about the most fun you can have watching bicycle racing. Recognizing the difficulty of translating that experience into words gave me a great deal of apprehension in writing the article, and the hangover didn’t help either. But I had to pay the bar tab, so I gave it a shot. An edited version of the article posted below was published as part of a track cycling special in VeloNews in February 2002.

Six Days and Six Nights

It's Night 5 of the event alternately known as the Zesdaagse Van Vlaanderen-Gent to the Flemish and the Six Days of Gent to English speakers, and the can-can is blaring from the PA speakers, a signal that French Cofidis pairing Robert Sassone and Jean-Michael Tessier are about to take the track for one of the time trial events that fill the space between the madisons, miss-and-outs, and derny races.

Saturday is the last true night of the race, and probably the pick of the litter- one last raucous party that will see the enthusiasm inside the arena housing one fairly old, extremely smoky, steep and short 166 meter track mount to the fever pitch. This night is, in essence, the Fat Tuesday of the Ghent six. Sunday afternoon will see the actual final showdown, at a time convenient to and respectful of the county’s heavily Catholic population, which can roll in after church to see how the battle ends and still be in bed by nine for a good night’s sleep.

By now the show should seem routine, but even after four nights, the excitement that grips the race seems to renew itself while the spectators sleepwalk through the dreary Gent days. Each evening begins with a leisurely, rolling rider introduction at 7 or 8pm, with each two-man team coming to the front of the line as their names are announced, hugging the rail and acknowledging the applause of the crowd. Each early morning it ends with a mad, back-arching, bike-throwing dash to the line, either behind a roaring derny bike or ahead of a charging field in the final Madison.

As it has been each night has been since Thursday, when the weekend began for University of Gent students, it is difficult to tell that a sellout crowd is in attendance. At the six, the spectators, like the riders, are in constant motion about the arena — a vacant seat is not necessarily an empty one. Cafés line the outside circumference of the track, doing a land office business in a bit of coffee and a lot of the fermented staples of the Belgian bars — Jupiler, Stella Artois, and Hoogegarten wheat beer, as well as pricier champagne for the more distinguished corporate clientele who shuffle back and forth from the VIP areas. In total, Gent boasts roughly twice as many meters of bar frontage as bicycle track, including the octagonal center bar serving another local favorite — straight shots of regular or flavored gin.

“So this is our culture. What do you think?” asks Bart, a cycling writer for the local paper who has emerged from the Delhaize Supermarket-sponsored café for a bratwurst at one of the food stands before hitting the trackside seats. “The food, it’s all bad for you. We don’t really care. These races are just a lot of fun. You come, have some beers, talk to people. Maybe watch some bike racing.” Underscoring his point, he nods toward Nico Eeckhout (Lotto-Adecco) who is lounging against a column chatting with Jose DeCauwer, the Belgian national team coach. A few feet away, shaved-headed Geert Van Bondt, liberated from the Mercury debacle by a contract with home team Domo, stands a few feet away sipping an off-season beer with friends.

The transition from the relatively subdued conversation of the café and expo-area, through the tunnel under the track and into the Middenplien is striking. Here, in the proverbial cheap seats, it is 90 degrees and standing room only, all on top of a thin layer of discarded plastic cups, and it is the place to be for those who come for the racing. Perhaps as a result of that same floor debris, the spectators down on the floor tend towards the less subdued than those in the seats on the outside. A giant black on yellow “Lion of Flanders” flag swings from a constantly swaying pole passed between a flock of equally swaying Etienne DeWilde fans, who proudly and noisily sport their man’s Deschacht team colors on hats, sashes and jerseys. Whenever a Belgian makes a good move or takes a lap, be it DeWilde taking a flyer in a Madison or young Nicky Vermeersche’s remarkable effort to take a lap in a derny race, the infield erupts into the nation’s wailing, swaying soccer anthem, followed by “we’ve go the best damn team…in the land,” to the tune of “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

Part of the charm of the six is that, for nearly every knowledgeable old-timer Flanders native on the infield, there are folks like Natasha Robertson from “just south of London,” who are there to take things in. As Belgian Lorenzo Lapage follows the wheel of derny driver Joop Zijlaard through traffic on his way to a close and much needed win in the 75 lap derny race, Natasha is ignoring the rushing wind and head splitting motor buzz to check out the infield action from the rail. “My mate’s really into the racing. I just came along,” she confides, nodding towards the cabins, “There’s good beer, and fit men in tights getting massages. It’s not a bad time, really. I‘m actually really starting to enjoy racing as well.”

To be able to look past the spectacle of the derny races takes a certain dedication of its own, as six competitors a time follow mostly portly middle-aged Belgians and Dutchmen astride what amount to reinforced, powered beach cruisers whose unmuffled 5hp booster engines and 80-12 fixed gearing combinations allow their pilots to provide a remarkably high-speed, untiring draft for their riders.

“You get to know the riders, what they can do.” says Bruno Walraaje, the man the other derny drivers call “the captain” for his 30 years as a professional. “Some you can do a sprint with at the end, others need to come around more steadily. The directors assign us our partners, but they know who we usually work well with.” As if to prove his point, Walraaje takes his regular partner Jimi Madsen, who he describes as, “a very strong rider, but not a sprinter,” to the victory in the last derny of the event on Sunday afternoon, leaving a final blue cloud of diesel to dissipate into the haze of cigar and cigarette smoke that pervades the arena.

While the can-can signals the arrival of the French, and for some unknown reason the Chicken Dance announces Dutch duo Robert Slippens and Danny Stam, Gerd Dorich, the big-jawed German rider, has heard his signature tune — the modern, thumping dance version of the traditional Austrian folk song “Anton aus Tirol,” — played all too little since Wednesday night, when partner Luc De Duytsche abandoned with an infection. Despite being out of the race unless another abandon left him with a new partner, he settles into a role which gets Anton some airtime regardless — band leader for the Supersprint. It is an odd name for an event that is not heavily contested and nets the winner only 5 points on the overall, but the Supersprint does get all 23 riders on the track in a single line behind Dorich. There, he conducts a hand-waving invitation to crowd participation as he leads the line through no-handed, swooping, and diving lines up and down the banks. Smiles cross the riders faces as bodies are bent low over bars, and then lifted in sequence in a rolling wave as the crowd follows along in the stands. For 18 laps, it’s a dance party between the riders and the crowd, before the pressure starts to build from the back, and a two lap scramble for position ends in a bunch sprint. This time, South African Jean-Pierre Van Zyl takes the first place points as a small consolation for an otherwise anonymous performance.

On Sunday, the afternoon program and impending end bring a bit of sobriety and desperation to the proceedings, as the final push to pick up or safeguard placings comes to a head. During the final Madison, bolstered for the finale by an extra 15 minutes and points sprints during the closing laps, local boy DeWilde continually hurls himself off the front in desperate attempts to gain a lap on first placed pairing Matthew Gilmore and Scott McGrory and Swiss duo Bruno Risi and Kurt Betschart. The stakes are high for DeWilde, as the 43 year old legend of Belgian cycling is racing his last “home” six day at the Ghent track before returning here a final time to end a career that has spanned generations of other riders. The roar of the crowd at his every acceleration is deafening, and for once everyone has returned from the bars and cafés to fill the seats and see firsthand if he can make it an even ten wins in Ghent. There is something sad in the effort, as DeWilde, seemingly running on pure desire, continually rips open gaps which his partner Andreas Kappes cannot help him hold or advance. Ultimately, they will settle for the same third spot he started the Madison with, but DeWilde, somewhat tellingly, is handed the microphone before the winners on the podium.

Unlike road stage races which often end in a whimper, the Ghent Six comes to a close with three stacatto bangs from a .35 caliber pistol, signaling the final end with ringing ears and a puff of gunpowder smoke. “It’s a tough track,” says a tired but victorious Scott McGrory, who with partner Matthew Gilmore used strong, consistent Madison riding and blinding efforts in the time trials to take the race going away. “The short laps make it easier to take a lap, but for the same reason, it’s always attacking, attacking, attacking here.”

“In Germany,” he continues, “there are all of these oompah bands and entertainment and you get a break. But here, it’s just on-the-track-off-the-track-on-the-track all night long. Endurance and experience pays in the six day here.” As he says so, the crowds are filing out, past the hordes of Belgian press surrounding his partner Matthew Gilmore. And at that Sunday evening moment, it ceases to be the swansong of the 76th "Workingman's Six" and becomes 24 hours until the workingmen appear in Zurich to start the show all over again.

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 cyclingnews.com’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.”

Hey Lance!

The “Hey Lance!”

I’ve gotten it before, plenty of times, and more than likely, so have you. My most recent, on Saturday, was fairly stereotypical. It was shouted from a janky early 1990s Saturn that was dragging bumper under the weight of four gold-chained Philly gym rats out for a little flexing “down the shore.” It was the second incident I’d encountered since leaving a family beach house two minutes before -- the first was some chav-envious Jersey girl nearly flattening me at an intersection that, in addition to no other traffic, also featured about a mile of dead flat, dead straight visibility in all directions. To be fair, her hoop earrings were certainly large enough to have impaired her peripheral vision, but I think the sheer tension of the ponytail would have pulled her eyes open wide enough to more than make up the difference. So, compared to that, the subsequent “Hey Lance!” (HL) from my meatheaded friends seemed downright hospitable.

After mentally patting myself on the back for a mile or so for not responding vocally or digitally to either incident, I got to thinking about the broader implications of the HL phenomenon. Like wondering whether Armstrong himself ever gets an accidental, jeering HL when he rides around Austin, or Hollywood, or wherever he hangs out these days. And if he does get the HL, does he know it’s intended to be jeering, or does he just wave? Do cyclists in Kazakhstan get the “Hey Vino!”? And do women get the HL? Seems “Hey Jeannie!” would require a depth of knowledge beyond what can be gained on an ESPN ticker and the Tonight show. And, for a woman, would being faux mistaken for Longo be more or less offensive than being faux mistaken for a man?

Why do I say faux mistaken? At a towering 5’7”, wearing last year’s club kit, and riding a bike that predates Armstrong’s first Tour de France win, I hardly resemble the man himself to anyone who knows their ass from a hole in the ground. But that has nothing to do with anything. We all know it’s not actual misidentification that prompts the HL, but rather the intent to make a cyclist feel silly by calling him by a professional’s name when he or she presumably is not a professional, but would appear to be dressed as one to the casual observer. The goal is presumably to point out some sort of inherent poseurdom, an inappropriate vanity, which may or may not be valid.

Whether or not the HL really offends as many people as intended I can’t really say. For me, it’s really only offensive because I’m not an Armstrong fan ever since he blew off my question at a press conference somewhere around 2004, and I hold a mean grudge. Not that I was an admirer before that, but it didn’t help. Then again, I was asking a dope question after five other dope questions, and he was bound to pop sometime. But the snarky greeting on the road doesn’t really bother me. The HL, and all the other usual on-the-road insults tend to roll right off, since once you’ve survived 10th grade gym class as the guy with shaved legs, you’ve pretty much heard it all before, anyway.

But I do wonder how it affects others, and I have to wonder how often real-but-non-Armstrong pros in the United States get the HL when they’re out training. I’d imagine it has to strike them at roughly the same frequency as any recreational or amateur racing cyclist, so maybe, what, 2-3 times per year? Then again, they ride more miles than most of us, so maybe the number is somewhat greater due to their higher exposure. Regardless, it must be even more annoying for them than for the average weekend warrior, being legitimate professionals in their own right and all. Or, more likely, they’re secure enough in their own abilities that they don’t pay any attention at all. Still, try greeting your kid’s pediatrician with a mocking “Hey, Dr. Spock!” every time you see him and see what kind of service you get.

And how many times have Armstrong’s own teammates been mistaken for rabid Armstrong Superfans? They were pretty common back in the old U.S. Postal days, and it must have been hard for Tyler Hamilton, Christian Vande Velde, Jonathan Vaughters, and Kevin Livingston to ride around the block in the United States without getting a round of the HLs, and that must have been damn irritating. What else could explain Livingston signing for the fly-by-night Linda McCartney team? And for godssake, look what it’s driven Hamilton to.

But maybe Armstrong got his own, primordial version of the HL in the years before his world championship, Fleche Wallonne, and Tour de France wins – the latter being the only one of those three career highlights that stands a chance of getting you into the collective conscious of the average American, for heckling purposes or otherwise. In fact, what Armstrong had shouted at him from various motorized conveyances may well have impacted cycling history to this very day. See, back when Armstrong was riding for the U.S. national team and Montgomery-Bell, Greg Lemond was busy working towards his second world championship and the last of his three Tour de France victories, enough to land him in the mainstream U.S. media, including winning Sports Illustrated’s man of the year and landing that sweet Taco Bell TV ad. (An appearance that came back to bite Lemond in the oversized arse when he turned up overweight at the start of the following season. Lemond taco-eating jokes were so en vogue there for awhile.) So while the number of “Hey Lemond!”s received by the cycling populace back then would have been far fewer than the sheer volume of HLs we see today, the “Hey Lemond!” still enjoyed a short but annoying existence – trust me on that.

Whether or not Armstrong ever got a “Hey Lemond!” while someone winged a half-full Taco Bell cup at his noggin, I can’t say. But if he did, I can’t imagine he appreciated it, and I’d imagine it would irritate him more than most. Armstrong’s never been a Lemond fan, ever since people started asking him at an early age whether he was the next Greg Lemond. For the famously self-absorbed Armstrong, that had to be tough to take. I believe his response back then was usually a pretty restrained, “I’m the first Lance Armstrong.” If you’re reading this site, you probably read enough others to know how the relationship between the two American cycling heavyweights has devolved in the years since Armstrong first fielded those grating questions, culminating with this year’s Trek-Lemond bicycle company divorce, with Trek serving as Armstrong’s proxy.

But too many words have been spent on the relationship between those two, who in retirement only compete with each other in unsavory media hits, be it in gossip columns, courtroom brawls, or the pages of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. And that’s not what we’re about here, so let’s close this one out.

Getting my first HL in awhile also brought up the memory of a near-HL style incident that is now infamous in certain very small circles. Back during my shop rat years, a guy came into the shop in full Motorola team kit, a fabulous ensemble topped off by a Dura-Ace equipped Eddy Merckx in team paint, and asked for recommendations for good places to ride in the area. I wasn’t there at the time, but apparently, the words “poser” and “fred” were being bandied about pretty freely in the back of the shop, though in hushed tones, as we were typically a polite bunch. After all, those were the mountain bike boom years, when Zapata Espinoza was keeping plenty busy writing about how elitist all “roadies” were, and everyone knew that the keys to mountain biking’s self-professed nonconformity lay in getting anodized wheel skewers, Onza bar ends, and a set of Answer Hyperlite handlebars, just like everyone else. Road racing was for unimaginative exercise junkies with mommy issues, and dressing yourself up like some Euro-pro was just plain ridiculous.

By now, you can see where this is headed. The goofball in the shop who drank the Motorola Kook-Aid was actually Andy Hampsten, who had, of course, won the Giro d’Italia several years before. Fortunately, the shop owner – a veteran road warrior and the son of European immigrants who hoped against hope that all this mountain biking garbage would blow over soon enough – started paying attention just in time to save face by recognizing Hampsten for who he was and giving him some potential routes to ride while he was in town on vacation. As a 16-year-old junior road racer in a largely mountain bike world, I was obviously pissed that nobody called me. In fact, I’m still not sure I’ve forgiven those guys.

Hampsten was fortunate enough to close out his career in the time before HL became all the rage, but he seems like a pretty calm guy, so I doubt it would have rattled him much even if he hadn’t. That the HL is still so common nearly three years after Armstrong’s retirement is a testament to his lasting impression on the American public, and though it gets a bit tiring after the 10th or 11th time you hear it, the fact that a cyclist has managed to leave that sort of impression on the average rube can’t be all bad. Nevertheless, I think we have maybe another year or two of the HL in store, maybe three for those hecklers who have long memories or read TMZ quite a bit.

Amstel Gold: The Italian Dilemma

Watching the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday morning gave me a bit of deja vu, somehow sucking me right back to 2005. It wasn’t just the race that triggered the flashbacks, but rather the combination of watching the familiar scenes around Maastricht and stepping out briefly into the weather outside my own front door.

Here in the mid-Atlantic United States, it was one of those grey spring days with twilight from dawn to dusk and drenching rain showers blowing through every hour. Even in those interludes when it didn’t look to be raining, I was greeted by those huge, soaking rogue drops that make me look above for a dripping tree, only to get a clear view of a cloudy sky hovering like a low ceiling over the horizon. They were the type of clouds you could have ridden up into if there were a decent hill around, but standing in the flatlands, you could only peer out through the mist sandwiched between them and soaked ground.

With the rain pounding the orange tulips flat out in the lawn and the scenes of the Cauberg playing out on the computer screen, it was easy to make the mental leap back to the grey Amstel of 2005. Back then, I was perched shivering on top of that nasty little hill in a press room located in a white, corrugated steel building. Sitting in a metal building on a wet 50 degree day is a bit chilly, but the facilities were a lesson in effective truck-based service provision. Out one side of the building, a pink and black T-Mobile truck was pumping out the wi-fi signal necessary to get text and pictures out of the Ardennes hills, while a trailer on the other side housed what must have been one of the world’s finest port-o-johns. It had everything: urinals, stalls, toilet paper, running water, soap, flowers, and a 60-year-old woman who would hop up off her stool in the corner to wipe down the urinal as soon as you stepped away, making you feel somehow guilty even if you’d been exceptionally careful. And, of course, there was the Amstel truck, keeping the assembled press in good spirits by continually restocking the in-suite bar. I’m not really sure where the sandwiches and coffee were coming from, but I was certainly glad they were there.

Not everything functioned as well as the press room in 2005 though. Unlike this year’s edition, that one was held in the same eternal twilight, chilly air, and rain that blanketed the mid-Atlantic yesterday, as well as an intense fog that grounded the TV helicopters, preventing the camera motos from transmitting any live television signals. By the time the fixed position cameras on the Cauberg kicked in, we were running from the press room to that bridge you can see in the coverage to see what the race looked like, since we’d only have three chances all day.

Yes, indeed, despite the similarities in weather, there were several differences between my Amstel Gold 2005 and 2008 experiences. I saw more of the race this year, made my own coffee, and the wi-fi signal was Verizon instead of T-Mobile. The plumbing is inside the house, and if there’s a need for wiping down the toilet, I’ll likely be told in no uncertain terms to do it my damn self. But as far as the winners, there were some similarities to be had.

In 2005, the winner was Danilo Diluca (then Liguigas, now LPR), an Italian who despite his classics success always dreamed of winning the Giro d’Italia. He went on to take Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, but came up short at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, thus failing to repeat the incredible Ardennes sweep that countryman Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) had achieved the year before. Though he failed to complete the triple that year, Diluca would return in 2007 to take his Liege before going on to realize his Giro d’Italia win, snapping closed the mouths of people like me, who always thought (and sometimes said) that he was just kidding himself.

Diluca’s Giro goal was easy to dismiss, if only because several other Italians with similar profiles and better results – Michele Bartoli, Paolo Bettini, and Davide Rebellin – had previously chased the same dream and failed. Further, once they finally cast off the shackles of grand tour expectations and surrendered to the idea that they were classics riders, and great ones at that, their careers leapt forward. Sure, we were dismissive, but we were just acting in Diluca’s best interests.

Despite the weight of history being against him, Diluca somehow (and many people continue to question just how) made it work, as has 2008 winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre), who now boasts the same Giro d’ Italia/Giro di Lombardia/Amstel Gold lines on his resume as Diluca. The difference between Cunego’s grand tour/classic equation, Diluca’s, and Bettini, Bartoli, and Rebellin’s, however, is that he’s approached it from opposite direction. Unlike his countrymen, who all notched classics before getting grand tour ideas, Cunego tasted his first big success at the 2004 Giro d’Italia, where he won four stages and the overall, and succeeded in pissing off Gilberto Simoni to no end (the former being much more difficult than the latter). He went on to take the first of his two Giro di Lombardia titles that fall, which capped off a year that also saw him win the Giro del Trentino and a host of Italian semi-classics: the GP Industria & Artigianato-Larciano, Giro dell’Appennino, GP Nobili Rubinetterie, and the GP Fred Mengoni.

But promising classics results be damned – you win a grand tour at 23, and you’ll hear only one whisper in your ear, the one that says “Tour de France.” Cunego did manage to capture the white jersey of the best young rider at that event last summer, but for someone with a three-year-old maglia rosa hanging on their wall already, that’s a bit of a hollow victory. He’s tried to recapture the magic at the Giro d’Italia several times as well, but to no avail.

So now more than ever, the whisperers are starting to go the other way on Cunego, telling him that, hey, maybe he’s a classics rider after all. And that’s really pissing him off, according to this post-Amstel article by VeloNews’ Andrew Hood. Frankly, Cunego can be irritated all he wants, but when you’re a 5’4” Italian with a good little kick, a pair of Lombardias and an Ardennes win under your belt, you start looking a hell of a lot more like Paolo Bettini than Paolo Savoldelli.

With Cunego mounting an all-out bid for the Tour this year, going so far in his mission as to buck the Italian dogma and forgo the Giro, July could hold all the answers for the 26-year-old. If he meets with success there, he’ll no doubt start developing insidious habits like showing up in low-speed wind tunnels and spending perfectly good spring classics seasons riding deserted Tour de France climbs with an unmarked car and a film crew behind him. He also will have pulled off something pretty unique in modern cycling – going from grand tour winner, to classics star, and back to grand tour winner. So far, even Diluca has only gone in one direction.

All of that, of course, would be phenomenal, and would make for a career profile not seen since Bernard Hinault (no, various combinations of Vueltas and Clasicas San Sebastian don’t count for entrance to the grand tour/classic pantheon). But if Cunego falls a bit too short in his Tour bid, that bit of failure could open up the door to a set of classics palmares that, with a good 10 more years yet to develop could put many of his predecessors to shame.

Parting Shots

  • I watched Sunday’s race courtesy of free service on cycling.tv. The picture was pretty good, and the commentary has come a long way over the years – they’re no longer giving shoutouts to fans while the crucial attacks are going down. Chapeau. I’m not sure whether Amstel was supposed to be free, or whether they just opened up the feed as a result of the same subscriber login problems they had last Sunday for Paris-Roubaix. Obviously, as a non-subscriber, the free access works great for me. But if I had paid $100 for a subscription to access races that are now being aired for free, I’d be fairly irritated, to say the least. I wonder if they’re getting significant blowback along those lines or whether, in a state of lowered expectations, subscribers are just happy to be able to see the feed at all?

  • During the final sprint, and well after it, the commentators were getting all riled up because they thought the caravan diversion along the left side of the straight was confusing for riders and affecting the final sprint. They were looking at the moto shot at the time and got themselves in such a fluff that they missed the overhead shot, which showed that Cunego, Schleck, and Valverde never really came close to going that way, and that the guys waving them the right direction were actually spread out over 100 meters or so. Easy to forget how the moto shot foreshortens everything, eh? I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure the diversion has been there for awhile – places to cut off on top of the Cauberg aren’t exactly plentiful.

  • The shot capturing the left turn onto the Keutenberg on the last lap was pretty good. For me, that climb was perhaps the most shocking during a drive of the course. From a fairly main road, you turn onto one a hair wider than a golf cart path, more poorly maintained, and which tilts upwards like the driveway to Uncle Zeke’s mountain hideaway. When you hit the top, it’s still narrow, but dead flat and completely exposed to any hint of a breeze that may be stirring in the greater Netherlands/Germany/Belgium corridor, and the shoulders are mucky ruts. Fun stuff.

  • It’s been noted elsewhere that this is the first time Cunego has ridden the Amstel Gold. That makes his victory more impressive, since making it to the finish line without getting lost is a viable goal for your first year here. There are actually points on the course with arrows pointing one direction, a second set pointing the other direction, and a third set below that pointing back in the first direction. Sure, it’s decipherable if you’re studying the map and moving at Florida-retiree-in-a-Cadillac pace, but when you’ve got other things on your mind, like racing your bike or getting to the press room to pee, things can get confusing in a hurry.

  • I’d give the “know thyself” awards for Amstel go to Frank Schleck (CSC) and Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner). For differing reasons, both of them knew they wouldn’t be able to win a drag race up the Cauberg with Cunego and Valverde, and took their chances with attacks in the lead up. Schleck even managed to save enough to give it a go with Cunego in the sprint (though it turns out that was an order from the car), but the result would likely have been the same even if he’d tempered his aggression earlier on. It’s nice to see riders not just waiting for the bottom of the Cauberg and hoping for the best.

  • Thomas Dekker put in a credible ride to finish in the break for home team Rabobank, which is always itchy for a victory in the only Dutch classic. But Dekker clearly wasn’t in the hunt for victory, a fact confirmed by the outstanding if unsuccessful ride put in by his young teammate Robert Gesink, who pulled extremely hard for a long time trying to get Oscar Freire into position for a Cauberg sprint. The look of effort on Gesink’s face was priceless.