Been Caught Stealing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

God is Dood

I learned of Frank Vandenbroucke’s death this evening, just after I’d gotten my infant daughter ready for bed and handed her to my wife. I sat back down to finish dinner while my son played on the floor behind me, checked on my phone, and saw the headline. Vandenbroucke was 34. So am I.

Maybe it’s that shared age that made Vandenbroucke seem sort of like that friend everyone has from college – the one who, while everyone else has settled down, gotten married, and had kids, still always has a new insane story of a night out gone radically wrong (or right, depending on how you look at it). With VDB, it always seemed like another madcap misadventure – a dramatic fight with a girlfriend, racing in Italy with a license bearing a fake name and Tom Boonen’s picture – was always just around the corner. Sure, there would always be consequences for Frank, but nothing serious.

For me, that image somehow managed to coexist with the readily apparent and much darker truths behind all those incidents, as well as the common assumption that, like Marco Pantani before him, Vandenbroucke’s early demise was a foregone conclusion. The public scrutiny, the personal strife, the doping allegations, the substance abuse – all the signs of his ongoing personal destruction were just as plainly evident as his talent on a bike. But just as it was with Pantani, knowing ahead of time that Vandenbroucke wouldn’t be around forever didn’t do a bit to blunt the news.

By the time you get to this site, you’ll likely have already read the career recaps – the wins at Paris-Nice, Het Volk, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Vuelta. With any luck, the tales of those performances will be at least as prominent as the summaries of the various police actions, doping incidents, suicide threats, and abortive comebacks that have come to define his public life. I’ll leave it up to the big sites to do that work, and to the message boards and other blogs to either posthumously deify him as a dashing antihero, or vilify him as a cheater. As usual, the truth likely lies somewhere in between, but I wouldn't know.

Instead, I’ll share the one time I saw Vandenbroucke race firsthand, at the cobbled classics in 2004. If I hadn’t been looking for him, like everyone else, I’m not sure I would have seen him – racing for Fassa Bortolo, he was 44th at Flanders, didn’t start Gent-Wevelgem, and started but didn’t finish Paris-Roubaix. It wasn’t the performance anticipated by the Flemish fans who, encouraged by VDB’s second place at the previous year’s Ronde, enthusiastically splashed the message “God is Terug” (God Is Back) across roads, bedsheet banners, and newspaper headlines. And it certainly wasn’t the glory of 1999, with wins at Het Volk and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. That 1999 Vandenbroucke was exceptional; this one was just common. But in that spring of 2004, VDB was still in the big leagues, on a top team, in the biggest races. He looked good, even if he wasn't, and a different future still seemed possible. Unfortunately, he would never reach even those heights again. No, it wasn’t the VDB of 1999 that I saw, but it was a hell of a lot better than where we find ourselves five short years later.

Looking again at the list of headlines, topped by the Vandenbroucke news, I also see, just below, news of Chad Gerlach’s renewed struggle with addiction and homelessness, and an update on David Clinger’s battle with addiction and depression. Knowing of the wars that riders including Vandenbroucke, Pantani, and Jose Maria Jimenez have fought with substance abuse, and how those lives ended, I can only hope that Gerlach's and Clinger's stories turn out differently.

DiLuca's Pink Slip?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Race Radio

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

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

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