Great Migrations

The Schlecks are off form, so is Gilbert, and Fleche
 Wallonne as currently structured is doomed to three minutes of sincere action. Among other things, that’s what the 2012 Ardennes classics revealed, though none of that was really news. But what the three Ardennes winners and their teams did highlight is just how much one aspect of cycling, driven by external political and economic forces, has reversed itself in the last two decades or so. 

At the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, a wave of riders old and young poured out of Soviet-controlled eastern Europe and central Asia through an increasing number of holes in the iron curtain. They experienced a great deal of success, mostly on Italian teams, though there were notable exceptions. In Italy, the red-and-white striped Alfa Lum team was the tip of the spear. Faced with the wholesale departure of its Italian riders after the 1988 season, which ended with Maurizio Fondriest winning the world title and leaving for Del Tongo, Alfa Lum management rebuilt for 1989 by importing a cadre of 15 Soviet riders.

Among those Alfa Lum Soviets were aging legend Sergei Sukhoruchenkov, winner of the 1980 Olympic road race, and four men who would define the new crop of eastern professionals in western European cycling. Dimitri Konyshev, a Russian, exploded onto the scene by taking a couple of Italian classics and finishing second (behind Greg Lemond and ahead of Sean Kelly) in the 1989 world road championship at Chambéry, France. He delivered the team a Tour de France stage the next year and went on to race professionally until he was 40.

Moldovan Andre Tchmil didn’t linger in Italy after two winless years with Alfa Lum. He headed northward to ride for Belgian squads, where he ultimately ended up at Lotto. In his eight years there, he won two editions of the E3-Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, two Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Paris-Tours, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, and a World Cup. In 1998, he traded honorary Belgian citizenship for the real thing.

Uzbek Djamolodine Abduojaparov arrived at Alfa Lum a year after Konychev and Tchmil, fresh out of the Soviet national program. He went on to become known as the Tashkent Terror for both the ferocity and pure recklessness of his sprint. In a seven year pro career cut short by a positive test at the 1997 Tour, he amassed three Tour green jerseys with 9 stage wins, points classification wins and stages at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta, and a Gent-Wevelgem victory. 

Piotr Ugrumov, a Latvian, was the lone general classification threat of the group. At Alfa Lum, he won the Vuelta Asturias, which may have led to a brief stint with the Seur team in Spain before he returned to Italy for Mercair-Ballan, predecessor to the mighty (and notorious) Gewiss-Ballan. He had his best years there, finishing second in the 1993 Giro d’Italia, second in the 1994 Tour de France, and third in the 1995 Giro. But maybe more importantly, at Gewiss, he would help guide the next generation of eastern bloc homesteaders. In 1994, blonde-haired Russian Evgeni Berzin would win both the Giro and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and contribute to the team’s infamous sweep of Fleche Wallonne, while teammate and countryman Vladislav Bobrik would close out the team’s EPO-fuelled 1994 rampage with a win at the Giro di Lombardia.

Doped or not, riders from the former Soviet Union were now firmly implanted in the European professional peloton, both in Italy and beyond. And they’d continue to come – a young Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov turned up on Casino’s doorstep 1998 with Andre Kivilev not far behind; after a few years with the Polish Mroz team Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas would hit the big time with Fassa Bortolo in 2000. Former East Germans like Erik Zabel and Jan Ullrich fuelled the success of Telekom and T-Mobile for a decade.

Released from the confines of state-supported “amateur” racing by the snowballing effects of Gorbachev’s glasnost, the products of the USSR’s extended sports machine were freed to pursue careers that went beyond Olympic success and inside-the-curtain events like the Peace Race. The partnership was a good deal for both sides. The west got riders who worked hard, delivered results, and asked for little. The riders got the better salaries, bigger opportunities, and higher standards of living that the free-market, private capital-fuelled western system offered.

But a look at Ardennes races this year shows how things have changed since the borders of the USSR and its satellites first cracked.

In 2012, two teams accounted for wins at Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Astana, the Kazakh team financed largely by Kazahkstan's substantial natural resources wealth through quasi-state entities like Samruk-Kaznya, won both Amstel and Liege. For all intents and purposes, the squad is a state team, a vanity project designed to advance the image of the nation, much like those old Soviet systems but with a more progressive face.

In Liege, Astana won with home-grown Kazakh talent Maxim Iglinsky, allegedly inspired by an encouraging phone call from team godfather Vinokourov. For a team with nationalist objectives, it was perfect, much like the Russian Katusha squad’s 2009 Amstel win with native son Sergei Ivanov. What’s far more telling is that Astana won Amstel with Enrico Gasparotto, a 30-year old Italian from the Friuli region who began his career with Liquigas. Along with teammates from Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Croatia, Gasparotto was aided by two other Italians – Francesco Gavazzi and Simone Ponzi.

On the Wednesday following Gasparotto’s Amstel win, the Russian Katusha team, also running on a state-sponsored sports model with a 21st century facelift, carried off Fleche Wallonne. It did so with 32-year-old Joachin Rodriguez, a diminutive but explosive Spaniard from Barcelona who's a threat in any uphill finish. For a rider of his kind,  Fleche is one of the ultimate prizes, and for a squad like Katusha its age and prestige make it a substantial scalp, even if they have to achieve it with a little foreign help.

For much of the spring, Katusha's other prime attention getter has been Oscar Freire, the Spanish three-time world champion who gave the Amstel Gold it’s best moments of suspense with a late-race break. All told, the team counts seven Spaniards, along with a smattering of Italians, a Belgian, and a Norwegian to bolster its eastern core. Under the influence of former director Tchmil, the team has also tried its luck with western standouts like Leif Hoste, Gert Steegmans, and Pippo Pozzato. To hear most tell it, the cultural differences between Tchmil and the riders were just too much to handle. 

While today’s top teams' compositions are more diverse across the board than they were in the 1980s, one implication is clear. The great east-west rider migration that began in the late 80s has reached a certain equilibrium, or even reversed. Where former eastern bloc riders once fled crumbling Soviet economies to seek their fortunes with western trade teams, riders from traditional cycling countries like Italy, Spain and Belgium are jumping at chances to go to eastern, quasi-state run programs. They aren’t packing suitcases like the Alfa Lum recruits did and moving to Moscow or Astana, of course, but the principle is the same. They’re seeking good salaries, relative stability, and better opportunities to ride the biggest races. It’s just that, with corporate sponsorship suffering in the current economy, all those selling points are being offered by teams with government backing, and the governments that are willing to spend money on sports are in the east. It’s in their genes, and they appear to be passing those genes on. Western, “non-traditional cycling nations” like Great Britain and Australia are adopting the state-backed systems that looked like endangered species at the dawn of the 1990s. For riders like Konychev, Tchmil, Abdoujaparov, and Ugromov, who burst through the door the second they heard the key turn, the change must be astounding.

  • Yes, Astana has also notably won the Tour with Alberto Contador and employed Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Johan Bruyneel’s other standard cast of characters. I’m more-or-less disregarding that above, as that came at a time of such dope and funding related upheaval that it makes little sense in any greater context. With those collaborations behind it, the current Astana is much more true to the vision of its owners.
  • Exciting news seems to be brewing for the Service Course on the writing-about-cycling front. Being superstitious, I’ll make sure everything’s locked down before I say more.

Our Winter Doppelgangers

Long-time readers will know that I’m not a huge fan of the Olympics. The competition is great, of course; my distaste is more due to the influence the IOC exerts over the sports world and my generalized intolerance for sappy, against-all-odds athlete bio segments on TV. But despite all that, and the lamentable absence of bicycles, I do have to admit that the Winter Olympics offer a lot for a cyclist to love.

Let’s start by looking at Saturday’s cross-country skiing 30k pursuit, as well as by noting in advance that I know next to nothing about XC ski racing. For instance, I know that biting is frowned upon, but I have no idea how common tactical, team-oriented skiing is in this event. What I do know is that a recording of this year's race should be shown to beginning racing cyclists everywhere as a tactical tutorial.

Just after the mid-race transition from classic to freestyle technique (more on that later), Swede Johan Olsson worked out to a 12 second lead, with two teammates at the front of the main field covering for him as he established his gap. When a serious four-man chase formed in the final, Olsson’s teammate Marcus Hellner was there in the thick of it (but not on the front of it). As the catch was made near the last kilometer, Olsson kept driving the front, allowing Hellner to stay tucked in a bit longer before making his charge into the lead, and a gold medal, through the inside of a downhill righthander. With Hellner away, Olsson soldiered on, providing another body’s worth of distance and dissonance in the racing line between Hellner and German Tobias Angerer. Angerer finally did come around Olsson’s gritty final effort to move into the silver position, while Olsson got the bronze for his trouble.

While the vagarities of, say, ice dancing leave me a little lost, to an observing cyclist this race made perfect sense. It was a page from the textbook – send a guy up the road, make other teams bring him back, and then when they do, use his last ounces of energy to spring your ringer in the finale. Very nicely done, whether or not it was part of any pre-race plan, and it made for closing kilometers that were as exciting as the end of a classic. So, can anyone fill me/us in on how common tactical teamwork is in XC skiing? Because if it’s common, well, hey, that was still a heck of a nice example. If it’s not, the Swedes may have just changed the game.

For a cyclist, though, the television commentary may have been more interesting than either the tactics or the nail-biter finish. U.S. cycling fans would instantly recognize the voice on the NBC coverage – none other than our old Tour de France straight man, Al Trautwig. I can hear you groaning, but the Traut did work to learn a bit about cycling over his Tour tenure, and it showed on Saturday. Throughout the 30k pursuit broadcast, he and his co-announcer used cycling parallels to illustrate the concepts at work on the XC ski course to good effect, and they botched nary a one.*

(*My only real quibble was in their discussion of a potential “long break caught on the line” scenario, where they cited Paris-Roubaix as a race where you'd be likely to see it. To my knowledge, that almost never happens at Roubaix, where the early break catch and reshuffling tend to come well before the velodrome. But that’s minor.)

The Traut not misinterpreting cycling’s inner workings, though laudable, wasn’t the really interesting aspect of the commentary for me, though. Rather, it was the realization that I may have been witnessing the first time that a major U.S. television outlet has used cycling as the “more accessible sport” with which to explain a more obscure sport to an American audience. That’s a huge milestone. I want to believe that it speaks to cycling’s higher U.S. profile over the last 15 years that the commentary team didn’t stretch some ill-fitting baseball or NASCAR simile to the point of snapping in order to explain the pursuit, but rather turned to cycling as the best educational fit. That decision comes with the implied assumption that enough of the audience would understand the cycling references to make them worthwhile rather than confusing.

I am willing to admit that that’s probably an overly optimistic assessment of the decision making process, though. It’s far more likely that the designated XC ski expert on the NBC crew knows that there’s substantial XC and cycling crossover, and that most Americans watching XC skiing on a Saturday afternoon would have at least a passing familiarity with cycling. Or, it could just be that after being replaced by Craig Hummer on Versus, the Traut just wanted to roll out his accumulated cycling knowledge one more time. But what the hell, I’ll take the optimistic explanation.

In closing, what do you think of the 30k pursuit format, specifically the switching of equipment and skiing styles from classic to freestyle at the halfway mark? From a cyclists perspective, it’s odd, a bit akin to riding the first half of a classic on a fixed gear, then switching to a nice SRAM Red equipped something-or-other for the last 137 kilometers. But I suppose if we look at it from a more Olympic perspective, it’s a little akin to swimming’s individual medley, or the Alpine Super Combined, which features a downhill run and a slalom run. I doubt the format phases the competitors a bit, though, since the Olympics love to throw crazy combinations of activities at XC skiers. Shooting and XC skiing? Sure! How about an XC race and then a ski jump? Alrighty! How about a 15k classic race and then some competitive falconing? Why not?! Those Nordic skiing folks are a flexible bunch, and in the overly specialized world of professional sports, I admire that.

So what could cycling take away from skiing’s 30k pursuit format? Hell if I know, but I’ll go ahead and say that it means we should bring back Bordeaux-Paris, mostly because I want to see it. 560 kilometers or so, raced in the classic bike race style to the halfway point near Poitiers, then behind dernys for the remainder of the distance. Come on professional cyclists, you know the XC skiers would do it…

Broomwagon (Zamboni?)

  • Cycling fans watching long-track speedskating have probably seen something familiar to them other than enormous thighs and Eric Heiden. The Russian team’s skinsuits are near dead-ringers for Katusha’s kit. All hail the beautiful branding consistency of state-sponsored sports.

  • If you’ve ever watched a Madison on the velodrome, you’ll understand the team events in short-track speedskating. Though this may sound biased, I have to say I find the Madison’s handsling exchange far more dignified than the short-track ass bump technique.

  • Short-track speedskating’s version of the Madison: good. Its commitment to the bulbous helmets and terrible lycra helmet covers of cycling’s late 1980’s: unfortunate. Every sport (cycling included) has its ridiculous traditions that must be observed, though, and maybe the helmets do give the short-track the same sort of endearingly anachronistic look as Japanese keirin helmets.

  • The connection between cycling and long-track speedskating is hard to escape, of course, with crossovers like Eric Heiden, Christine Witty, and currently active Canadian Clara Hughes all raking in accolades on both skates and wheels. Beyond the demonstrable link in the physical abilities needed for success in both, though, there’s something about the feel of the sports that’s the same, in the arena or on the “open road.” Classics fans, watch this clip of the Dutch Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) race over 200k of canal ice and tell me it doesn’t speak to you.

  • The Vancouver organizing committee named the hockey arena "Canada Hockey Place"? Really? Does that sound better in French or something? This goes beyond my usual prediction comfort zone, but I will go on record now as predicting that, in a show of blatant geopolitical one-upsmanship, the Russian organizing committee will name the Sochi 2014 hockey facility “Russia Frozen Water Building".

  • The skier cross and boarder cross events have been entertaining to watch, despite giving me horrible flashbacks to writing about various forms of gated mountain bike racing – dual slalom, then dual, then four-cross, plus that Jeep KOM thing. Great fun to watch, hard to capture in the printed word. I wonder if the recent addition of the Olympics’ various “cross” events, along with short-track speed skating, reflects not just the IOC’s oft-stated quest to modernize (and up the danger quotient), but also a realization that audiences like to see actual, head-to-head competition between athletes. Until recently, there wasn’t a whole lot of that at the Winter Olympics, where the marquis events are mostly timed or scored. Think of how terrible an all time trial grand tour would be, or one that included style points. (Just so you know, if style points existed in cycling, Filippo Pozzato would win a lot more and Fernando Escartin would have never been third in the 1999 Tour de France.)

  • Skier cross and boarder cross, together with mountain bike four-cross, do prove that you can throw four people riding damn near anything down one of those courses and produce solid entertainment. In the altruistic interest of bettering Olympic viewership and profit, you know what I want to see? Bobsled cross.

  • From the style desk: Speaking of bobsleds, the all-red CCCP bobsleds of my youth were so much cooler than this year’s ornate Russian ones.

  • From the style desk II: I have to admit, it took 12 years, but Apollo Ohno has finally started to grow on me (not literally) by showing nothing but class both on the ice and in interviews. I do have to wonder, though, if he’s kicking himself for making the goatee and bandana his trademark look way back in Salt Lake City. It was already sorrowfully dated then, and it must be just torturous to have to keep it up in 2010. He’ll probably retire just so he can shave that thing and buy a hat.

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.