There Was An Old Lady

There was an old lady who swallowed a dog,
Oh what a hog, to swallow a dog!
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don't know why she swallowed the fly. Perhaps she'll die.
-Traditional Children’s Song

In the wake of the UCI’s proclamation on lawyer tabs, one compliance solution suggested is to develop long-throw quick releases. By tweaking the cam action, you can make a quick release that opens wide enough to clear the lawyer tabs and closes farther when the lever is thrown, cutting down on any adjustment of the quick release nut. With it, pro teams could be in compliance with the fork tab rule, but still preserve quick, safe front wheel changes. Leaving aside questions of leverage and clamping force, etc., it seems a logical enough solution. But I like a good rhetorical rabbit hole, so let’s jump down this one…

Since teams cannot modify equipment, per the UCI, they wouldn’t be able to take a file to the cams or otherwise modify their existing quick releases to achieve a longer throw. Someone would have to manufacture a new lever. The manufacturer of that new lever may or may not be a team’s wheel or component sponsor. Given the situation, a little non-sponsor-correct equipment might not be the end of the world, but it’s not terribly comfortable, either. It’s one thing for a Campagnolo team to be seen using a boutique manufacturer’s quick releases to solve a problem in the near term, it’s another if they have to use Shimano.

But what manufacturer, boutique or not, is going to develop and manufacture a new, presumably high-end lever solely for a market that very much prefers to either get its equipment for free or be paid to use it? The world is rife with bad business models, but it doesn’t take much to spot that this one is not a winner. So you have to assume that whoever goes through the trouble of making long-throw levers for the pros will put them on the consumer market – capitalizing, of course, on their use in the pro peloton. Meanwhile, in response to sponsorship discomfort and be-like-the-pros consumer market pressure, Campagnolo and Shimano and SRAM and whoever else will have tweaked the throw on their quick releases, and, since making two versions of something as mundane as a quick release for pros and consumers makes little sense, long-throw quick releases will become the high-end consumer industry standard.

So, through a minor feat of engineering, we’ll have widely available quick releases that, when open, clear the lawyer tabs currently found on pro and consumer bikes alike. Problem solved. Until someone in the Reflector & Fork Tab division of some consumer protection agency realizes that the lawyer tabs on forks no longer even remotely retain the wheel when one of the new, now-standard long-throw quick releases is left open. Know what happens then?

Lawyer tabs get bigger. And then we'll need longer-throw quick releases.

I don’t know why we swallowed the fly. Perhaps we'll die.

Clearing the Decks

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

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

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

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

Bienvenidos a Calpe

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

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

Stybar to the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Might Have Been

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

Peloton Magazine

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

Damn, Watson.

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

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

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

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

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

And Away We Go

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

Killing Davey Moore

As I wrote in an earlier post, I tend to find non-riders' involvment in cycling’s myriad dope scandals more interesting than that of the riders themselves. The doctors, the directors, the sponsors, the officials, the fixers and what they knew, when they knew it, what role they played, and why – all hold more intrigue for me than rattling on about why some 26-year-old bike racer chose to be the final link in the chain. Riders’ perspectives are fairly well documented since, Willy Voet and a few others aside, they’re the only ones who ever really sing, and when they do, it’s a fairly simple song. Dope to go faster; dope to keep the job; dope to hang on one more year; dope to make more money. The part the cyclists play in the dope show is by far the most obvious. But the roles of everyone else in the sport, including you and me? Those aren’t always quite as clear, are they?

I have always wanted to write some grand, sprawling piece about how all those other parties, by demanding certain things or by ignoring others, contribute to the ongoing drug culture in the sport. About the sponsors who lean on directors for better return on investment. The director who demands better results to find a sponsor. The enthusiast media that whistles past the graveyard. The fans who cry out for ever greater performances. The officials who choose to look the other way. The riders who perpetuate a never-ending arms race that’s become just part of the job.

But I never do that piece for several reasons. Available time and citable insider knowledge are obviously two big reasons for keeping my trap shut. But the third reason I don’t go into it is simply that I know when I’m beaten. Which is to say that I would never get close to exploring the subject as well as Bob Dylan already has, and I’d eat up a hell of a lot more words trying to do it. Back in 1963, Dylan wrote and began performing a song called “Who Killed Davey Moore,” reflecting on how different parties contributed to the boxer’s death after a bout earlier that year. Yes, the song is about death and boxing, not doping and cycling, but the salient points are all there, simply and brutally, right down the unwillingness of each party to acknowledge their role in the final tragedy. There are a lot of people I’d try to out-write, but Dylan ain’t one of them, so have a read with a cyclist's eye.

Who Killed Davey Moore?
Bob Dylan, 1963

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not I,” says the referee
“Don’t point your finger at me
I could’ve stopped it in the eighth
An’ maybe kept him from his fate
But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure
At not gettin’ their money’s worth
It’s too bad he had to go
But there was a pressure on me too, you know
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not us,” says the angry crowd
Whose screams filled the arena loud
“It’s too bad he died that night
But we just like to see a fight
We didn’t mean for him t’ meet his death
We just meant to see some sweat
There ain’t nothing wrong in that
It wasn’t us that made him fall
No, you can’t blame us at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says his manager
Puffing on a big cigar
“It’s hard to say, it’s hard to tell
I always thought that he was well
It’s too bad for his wife an’ kids he’s dead
But if he was sick, he should’ve said
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the gambling man
With his ticket stub still in his hand
“It wasn’t me that knocked him down
My hands never touched him none
I didn’t commit no ugly sin
Anyway, I put money on him to win
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the boxing writer
Pounding print on his old typewriter
Sayin’, “Boxing ain’t to blame
There’s just as much danger in a football game”
Sayin’, “Fistfighting is here to stay
It’s just the old American way
It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

“Not me,” says the man whose fists
Laid him low in a cloud of mist
Who came here from Cuba’s door
Where boxing ain’t allowed no more
“I hit him, I hit him, yes, it’s true
But that’s what I am paid to do
Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’
It was destiny, it was God’s will”

Who killed Davey Moore
Why an’ what’s the reason for?

Copyright 1964, 1965, Warner Bros. ; 1992, 1993, Special Rider Music.
(And I hope they'll forgive my use here, since I encourage everyone to buy a copy of the recording immediately. Among others, it was released on the excellent The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall)


  • Kind of a long recess here on the Service Course, wasn’t it? That’s due to a lot of the usual reasons – work, other obligations, a bit of ambivalence, trying to ride a bit. And it’ll likely be slow a bit longer since I’m on vacation next week, but maybe I’ll regain some momentum with the break. We’re starting to be able to smell cyclocross season, after all.

  • That recent silence isn’t to say there’s nothing good going on right now. Quite the contrary. Sure, there’s all the transfer buzz, but this is also the time of the year that the Italians host a great series of longstanding UCI 1.HC and 1.1 races, including the “Trittico Lombardo” – the Tre Valle Varesine on Monday, Coppa Agostini yesterday, the Coppa Bernocchi today. This year, all three races were won by young guns from talented fields, with Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre) continuing the progression he’s shown the last few years by winning Agostini, and Manuel Belletti (Colnago-CSF) doing the same today in the Bernocchi. Only Irishman Dan Martin (Garmin-Transitions) prevented an Italian sweep of these fiercely provincial contests by winning Varesine from Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF) with a beautifully timed attack. I think everyone’s ready for a bit of a youth movement in the sport, no?

  • Why do I like these races so much? I don’t really know, but I’ll give it a shot. First, I love Italy and yearn to go back as soon as possible. So I’ll admit that sometimes I really just like looking at the photos, and that some of those times, I’m staring right past the riders and into the hills and palm trees and old villas. You really can’t beat the light there. Second, these littler late season races, together with the achingly beautiful Giro di Lombardia, are the yin to the early season yang of the soggy Belgian races in the spring. It’s not quite that they’re providing closure, but it’s something like that. And third, the Italian classics provide a little understated, history-laden relief from a slew of better publicized but sort of bland stage races that seem to flounder around between Tour de France and the Vuelta each year. Anyway, Italian 1.1 racing picks back up again with the Trofeo Melinda up in Trentino on Saturday, and then continues with the Giro del Veneto on the 27th. Do yourself a favor and see if you can find a grainy video feed online somewhere.

  • Anyone else feel like American cyclists’ infatuations with different European cycling cultures might be cyclical? Or maybe they're just linear right now, and will get cyclical later. Back in the days of Pedali Alpini in California, late 1960s and the 1970s, Italy seemed to be the culture that elicited the most reverence in dedicated cycling circles, and many of this country’s best headed for the boot to try their luck and talent. In the 1980s, I feel like things crossed the Alps to France, probably thanks to Greg LeMond (or maybe because of Dave Stoller’s change in loyalties in the closing scene of 1979’s Breaking Away). I’m not quite sure about the 1990s – maybe they felt a little Italian again thanks to Gewiss and Mapei, but I was in college for some of that, so it’s a little hazy. What I do know is that somewhere in the mid-2000’s, everyone decided to worship at a Belgian alter. So what’s next? Spain is noticeably missing from the rotation thus far, and Alberto Contador (Astana) is winning a hell of a lot, but somehow I don’t see that happening. (Which is kind of odd, because if there’s a second language Americans are most likely to speak, it’s Spanish.) With a good U.S. fan base and the (alleged) new team, maybe the Schlecks are making a serious play to bring the fanboy crown home to Luxembourg. Quick, everybody toss your Lion of Flanders socks and buy a pair of these! Put down those frites and start whipping up some smoked collar of pork with broad beans! That's right - Luxembourg. You heard it here first.

  • I know I just sort of slagged all the little stage races buzzing away right now, but Robbie McEwen (Katusha) is looking pretty good in the Eneco Tour right now, with a stage win yesterday and a second place behind Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia) today. After a couple of injury plagued seasons, could McEwen finally be getting back on track just in time for the sprinter’s circuit at his home-turf World Championships? Yes, with riders like Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre), Mark Cavendish and Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia), and Tyler Farrar (Garmin) all going well, a World’s win for the aging McEwen is a longshot, but he’s a pretty crafty guy.

  • Speaking of Eneco and Farrar, Garmin’s on a hell of a tear right now. It’s nice to see them get results, but you have to wonder whether they’d trade Vattenfall, the Eneco prologue, and Tre Valle Varesine all for a single Tour de France stage win. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, because I too am one of those people who loves to howl about how there’s more to cycling than the Tour de France. But for “American” cycling teams, it’s still the 600 pound gorilla, like it or not. That said, Vaughters’ sponsor roster is pretty good on the “international presence” scale, so there’s a chance the folks who pay the bills might actually appreciate the success in Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. I hope so.

  • Menchov to Geox. Man, he really must be scared of Tchmil. Probably not without reason. That guy's nails.

Headwinds for Tailwind

The Service Course will be back with, you know, “actual things about bike racing” shortly. Probably tomorrow, in fact. And frankly, the royal we will be glad to get back to that sort of thing and away from this strangely self-imposed Lance Armstrong beat. (Who the hell is the assignment editor here? I need a word with him…) But on the controversy raised yesterday regarding Lance Armstrong’s ownership stake in Tailwind Sports, it seemed to make more sense to strike while the iron was hot if I was going to note it at all. And as much as I’d like to ignore the whole damn mess, the contradictions were so blatant I really can’t help myself.

If you’re not familiar with the whole issue, Joe Lindsey’s article is a good place to get up to speed. If you don’t have time for that, I don’t know what you’re doing here, but here's the crux of the thing: Armstrong yesterday denied ever having owned a stake in Tailwind Sports, the management company that owned and operated the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, with which he won the bulk of his Tours de France. Who, exactly, was running Tailwind has important implications for the federal investigation into the doping allegations made by former USPS rider Floyd Landis, since that company would have been the entity that received and then distributed sponsorship funds from the U.S. Postal Service. Armstrong’s statements yesterday regarding his stake in the company were quickly shown to contradict earlier statements made in his 2005 SCA deposition.

Now, my take? Look, the paper trail will say what it says – there really aren’t new facts being created, and the documentation of the existing facts is already out there. Now it’s just a matter of finding it. In light of the SCA deposition, the believability index doesn’t look favorable for Armstrong at the moment, but I’m sure his various mouthpieces will unleash a veritable maelstrom of obfuscation surrounding various timeline elements and word choices already in play. In that vein, expect to hear about when, exactly, Armstrong’s Tailwind shares were promised and/or issued vis-à-vis the transition from U.S. Postal Service sponsorship to Discovery Channel for the 2005 season, what exactly constitutes “ownership” and what “ownership” means as opposed to “equity stake,” “board member,” or “controlling interest,” and other similar issues. Expect, in short, to hear the near-Clintonian parsing of language that marks any good modern day legal battle. And expect to see a hell of a lot of paper. I remember hearing a World War II, European theater veteran say that what really shocked him about war was the amount of paper blowing around after battle, and while the printed detritus of actual war has probably been reduced by the electronic era, it certainly still litters the landscape of legal battles. Depositions, share certificates, and tax returns are about to be piled on the cashed checks, Sysmex receipts, subpoenas, and transcripts that will begin to form the foundation of the federal investigation.

Underneath all that, though, once you strip away the lawyer talk and the long, long ride down the paper trail, I don’t think there’s any question that Armstrong is being disingenuous about his role in the team. To claim, as he implicitly does in the New York Times article, that he was simply “a rider on the team” who was unaware of what was going on in management and didn't even really know the people who signed his paycheck is patently absurd. Are we honestly to believe that Armstrong had the same amount of sway in the operation of the USPS team as, say, Steffen Kjaergaard, or even Roberto Heras? Does someone who is just “a rider on the team” get to hand-select the team’s new sport director based on some vague interpersonal connection related to near death experiences? A man, Johan Bruyneel, who, at the time, was very recently removed from being a rider himself and had no team management experience? Does “just a rider” get to haul chief directors, mechanics, and soigneurs all over Europe to support their training rides? Yes, very good team leaders do get a lot of sway. But not as much as Armstrong had. Whether his management position was enshrined on paper or not, we’ll see, but it was certainly there in practice.

Leaving aside the laughable “I just work here” claim, Armstrong’s statements on Wednesday attempted to deftly throw aside an enormous body of literature – including numerous articles, books such as Dan Coyle’s Lance Armstrong’s War, and defacto authorized biographies such as John Wilcockson’s Lance – that expounds on Armstrong’s business savvy and his heavy-handed role in the management of his teams. If those portrayals are inaccurate, they’ve been known to Armstrong and repeated, yet left uncorrected, for a number of years. So, in effect, Armstrong has either been dishonest about his role in his teams for 11 years or for a single day and counting, depending on which version of events you believe. Take your pick, really, but with folks involved in the Landis allegations so quick to draw upon the elusive quality of “credibility,” the self-contradiction is probably worth noting.

Whatever finally shakes out from the investigation is still a long way down the road, but yesterday’s statements highlight an interesting element that may play out much sooner: the test of how deep the famed Armstrong loyalty really goes. Nearly all of Armstrong’s oft-cited inner circle had a finger in the Tailwind/CSE pie, and therefore all of them now stand a chance of getting burned by the filling. To extract himself from any culpability those organizations are found to have had, there’s a good chance Armstrong would have to throw the whole pie in the face of guys like Knaggs, Gorski, Stapleton, and maybe even Weisel at some point. Circling back to the root cause of this mess – allegations of doping on the USPS team – giving that group of guys the Bozo treatment could be a risky move for Armstrong, because if he was in fact part of an enormous doping operation, team affiliated or otherwise, chances are at least one those guys knows all about it. And as Landis and others have proved, once people are out of the circle, they get a lot more talkative.

What you end up with in the above scenario starts to looks a lot like the Mutually Assured Destruction principle of the Cold War – everyone has their finger on a button, but everyone’s pretty reluctant to push theirs, because as soon as they do, they other guy will push his, too. And then everyone gets burned up, or at least comes down with an acute case of radiation poisoning. The arrangement keeps everyone nice and friendly, even if they’re not exactly smiling at each other. But I don’t think either side in a hypothetical Tailwind implosion can count on that delicate balance of power keeping things in check in light of a federal investigation, in which investigators can pretty easily tip the scales by offering the appropriate sticks or carrots to one party or the other. Or both. Time will tell, of course, but if “who called the shots at U.S. Postal” becomes a lynchpin of criminal wrongdoing in the investigation, it’s hard to see the most cohesive team in all of cycling staying cohesive much longer. Races to be won has become moot; skins to be saved are the focus now. And stressful though it may be, losing the Tour de France has nothing on going to jail.

Of Miles and Shoes

Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes.
Then, when you criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.

- Ancient Proverb

The much anticipated Stage 3 cobblestones have come and gone, and with another win by Petacchi in Stage 4, a redemptive Stage 5 victory for Cavendish, and the Alps looming, all the chatter about whether or not cobblestones belong in a grand tour has died down a bit. Perusing the media just two short days on, you hear a lot less about Jens Voigt’s criticism of the organizer, about protests and apologies, about the injustice of it all. But while the peloton seems to have literally and figuratively moved on, a thousand online and group-ride debates still rage over about whether the Tour peloton were being a bunch of sissy boys about the whole thing. And wherever such debates rage, so rages the sub-debate over just who is or isn’t permitted to call them a bunch of sissy boys.

The formula, by now, is predictable: A professional cyclist speaks out in the media or in his diary or on Twitter, maybe calls a stage too hard, a competitor's move reckless, a finish too dangerous. Or maybe he’s had an off day or an off year, performance-wise. His statements or poor form become the issue of the day in one online forum or another, be it newsgroup, message board, blog, or media outlet. If a rider complains, one reader will agree, another will disagree, and yet another will disagree and call the rider a whiny little girlie-man to boot. If results are the issue, someone is sure to note that the rider is overrated if they’re feeling kind, or, if they’re not, that he sucks. And as soon as those sentiments hit the server, as if by some modern miracle of automation, the inevitable responses will spring back, “He’s a professional. What have you done in the sport? Pack fodder in a few Cat. 3 crits? If you rode with him, you’d be dropped in the first five minutes. Who are you to disagree? To criticize? What gives you the right?” And on and on and on.

And that perspective, my friends – that notion that the fans have no right to disagree with or criticize the professionals because they are not, themselves, professionals – is bullshit. Yes, they’re professional cyclists, meaning they get paid to ride a bicycle because they’re very, very good at it. They’re better than most of us could ever hope to be. But that doesn’t mean people who aren’t as good at riding a bicycle or who haven’t ridden a mile in their shoes don’t get to disagree with them or otherwise opine on the subject of bicycle racing. Professional cyclist is just what the name implies – a profession – and freedom from the criticisms of the lay public isn’t a privilege that cycling or any other profession, from paperboy to pope, gets to enjoy.

For instance, I am, on certain increasingly rare and unimportant occasions, a professional writer on cycling, as are the many people now covering the Tour de France. And occasionally, when the racers disagree with what’s been written or how it’s been written, they let that dissatisfaction be widely known, often in fairly blunt terms. Now, these men, while they are terrific cyclists one and all, are not journalists. They might not know all the intricacies of the profession or the rules that govern it, understand its daily trials and tribulations, or care about how or why certain things get written. And most of all, they might not be able to produce particularly compelling copy themselves. But they certainly feel free to see some professional journalist’s finished product and call it shit. And they should – because being able to write better than me or any other cycling hack isn’t a required qualification to critique or disagree with the work, or indeed to aim some barbs at the writer themselves. You just have to be a consumer of the product. Sometimes the rider’s opinion will be right, sometimes it’ll be wrong, sometimes it’ll be neither here nor there, but that’s not really the issue. Nobody tells them they have no right to disagree with the journalist because they are not journalists themselves.

Let’s speed this up a bit in the name of getting on with things: I don’t have to be as good as Matisse to not like a painting; I don’t have to be Secretary of State to disagree with foreign policy; I don’t have to be a better director than Coppola to think a movie is terrible; and I don’t have to be a web designer to think a site looks horrible. Why should I have to be a professional cyclist to suggest that neutralizing a stage finish wasn’t the right move, or that, contrary to Jens Voigt’s opinion, a few cobblestones might be OK in a grand tour? Participation in the debate only requires an interest and an opinion; it doesn’t require a UCI license. Or tact, intelligence, or common sense, for that matter.

You can argue, of course, about whether the opinions expressed are valid or not. In fact, I encourage you to do so, early and often, because it’s that sort of fan interest that fuels professional sports and keeps them vibrant. And frankly, I don’t know why some people spend so much time trying to quash some lively debate in cycling by holding up a given pro’s take as an unimpeachable verdict on an issue. I’m not saying people need to be rude in their criticisms of the men who make the sport what it is, or that the pros’ opinions shouldn’t carry due weight. But all that second-guessing, critiquing, and maligning of poor performances by armchair shlubs is the lifeblood of sports like professional soccer and football (yes, yes, that’s “football” and “American football” if you’re not from here). So cycling might as well embrace it, or at least not be offended by it, instead of reflexively and viciously defending the honor of a bunch of pro riders who don’t care terribly much what we’re saying anyway, and who are actually better served in the long run by the fans having the discussion, even if that discussion happens to currently center on how we think they suck and couldn’t sprint their way out of a wet paper bag.

In closing, I’ll just add that I think part of the “mile in his shoes” problem in America is that cycling is very much a participant sport here. In the U.S., if you’re a pro cycling fan, chances are you spin the pedals a bit yourself, and that somehow tends to cloud some folks’ ability to accept that what they see on TV is different from the cycling they do. And it is – even if you race every weekend, and even if you're pretty good at it. As indicated by the fact that it’s on TV, professional cycling is a spectator sport, just like football and baseball and hockey and any number of other sports where fans aren't expected to actually be a professional before voicing a contrary opinion. So when people are having a good time talking pro cycling, about who’s great and who sucks and who’s just being a wimp, it’s just not the same context as talking trash about a guy who will destroy you on the Sunday ride. In that context, a swift “well, he’ll drop your sorry ass” is a perfectly acceptable retort. In professional sports, though, it’s just not a valid part of the athlete-fan relationship.


  • Though it’s died down for now, the debate about cobbled and other “freak stages” in grand tours will re-emerge eventually, either with regard to this Tour or some future grand tour. And it’ll keep coming back, because both the pro- and anti- crowds have valid points. Yes, the cobbles make the race more of a crapshoot due to frequent mechanical problems and service access issues, and maybe it’s best not to increase the weight of fate's already heavy hand in stage racing. And yes, while the cobbles certainly don’t suit some riders, it’s equally true that the mountains don’t suit others, so why favor one group over another? It goes on and on, but whichever side you come out on, it’s hard to deny that Stage 3 was anything less than riveting. Frankly, if I wanted to show someone the visual power of bike racing, I’d show them that stage. Something about the camerawork in the finale – even after the cobbles had passed – really highlighted how hard and fast and desperate and captivating the closing kilometers of a bike race can be. You could sense the frantic speed and the pain as each group jumped out of the closing corners and drove for the finish – it was a rare and beautiful combination of the fractured, hard-hitting nature of a classic and the clawing-for-every-second pressures of stage racing. I don’t know if such a stage will happen again, or even if it should, but damn it was good.

  • In a way, the issue over the cobbles strikes me as similar to Al Gore’s recent sexual harassment troubles. Gore allegedly hired a high-priced, in-room, late-night masseuse, and then pressured her to provide the illicit services that are known to be oftentimes provided by high-priced, in-room, late-night masseuses. But, as it turns out, Gore’s late night masseuse was not that sort of late night masseuse, and was quite offended at the prospect of providing such services. Similarly, ASO called up a group of riders to ride a bike race, and then pressured them to ride over cobblestones, a service known to be oftentimes provided by professional bike riders. But, as it turns out, some of the riders ASO called are not that sort of bike rider, and were quite offended at the prospect of providing such services. Both Gore and ASO thought they’d called someone who’d be amenable to the doing the job for a given price, but in demanding what they did, experienced significant backlash. Really, the only difference is that ASO still got what they were looking for, and all Gore got was a scandal.

  • Central to the argument over the cobbles seems to be the increased risk of injury due to their inclusion. I haven’t reviewed the daily Tour dispatches, so I don’t know all the details, but I didn’t get the sense that Stage 3 actually produced any more injuries than any other randomly selected day on a grand tour. Yes, Frank Schleck’s (Saxo Bank) three-point collarbone break was fairly spectacular, and though it’s less discussed, David Le Lay (AG2r) also snapped a clavicle on the day. That’s not a great day out, but when you consider Amets Txurukka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) snapped his collarbone on Stage 4 with no help from cobbles, just as Adam Hansen (HTC-Columbia) did on Stage 1, and that Mathias Frank (BMC) and Manuel Cardoso (Footon) both augured themselves into the ground and early retirement in the prologue, Stage 3 hardly seems to have produced a disproportionate injury report.

  • Frank Schleck's injury is obviously unfortunate, both because it must have been tremendously painful for him and because he'd been looking like the stronger of the two Schleck brothers through the Tour de Suisse this year. That said -- and I'm sure I'll enrage legions of Jens Voigt-o-philes -- I though Voigt's reaction to Schleck's injury was a little overwraught. I respect his obviously genuine emotional reaction to his teammate's injury in the immediate aftermath, but from the way he was talking, you'd think Schleck had just shuffled off this mortal coil, rather than shuffled off to the local hospital for an x-ray.

  • So, how’d that “we'll put time into Alberto Contador (Astana) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) on the cobbles” plan work out for everybody? Both men produced stunning and unexpected rides, capitalizing on the good work of teammates Alexander Vinokourov and Fabian Cancellara, respectively. I doubt either of them will be racing the northern classics next year, but both of them knuckled down and did what they had to do with no whining. I like that.

  • Speaking of no whining, how about this year’s edition of Cadel Evans (BMC)? As a former mountain biker, classics winner, and one of the standout riders of the brutal strade biancha stage at this year’s Giro, Evans’s Stage 3 ride wasn’t as surprising as those of Contador and Schleck, but it was still impressive. Interviewed after yesterday’s stage, Schleck was dismissive of Evans’s chances for the overall, theorizing that Evans would not stay with the leader in the mountains. Schleck might turn out to be right, of course, but I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Evans. He’s been a changed man since his world championship win last season, looking more aggressive on the bike and less aggressive off of it. So far this year he’s been sharp in every terrain and in all conditions, his supporting cast at this year’s Tour is stronger than it was either in past Tours or this year’s Giro, and he’s come through a brutal first week unscathed. I think he’s less of a dark horse than some might imagine, and this is coming from someone who has a really, really good time making fun of Evans from time to time.

  • Enough about Stage 3, how about 4 and 5? Well, Stage 4 felt like a deep breath after three days of relative chaos, and the most interesting stat of the day, if we had it, might have been the number of linear feet of bandages and netting in use. Petacchi won, which you knew already, and almost immediately the talk began over whether he’d drop out prior to the Alps this weekend. With that, for a fleeting minute, it felt like the early aughts again, a time when the discussion at the end of the first week of every grand tour focused on when the Italian sprinter du jour – be it Cipollini, Quaranta, or Petacchi – would head home. Stage 5 quickly snapped us out of that semi-bygone era and back into the present epoch of Anglo sprinters, with Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) finally pulling it back together and scoring his first win of this Tour. I know there’s a lot of dislike for the guy, some deserved, some undeserved, but he’s had a tough year personally and professionally, and it showed in his emotional reaction to the win. Chapeau. Now we’ll get to see if it was a momentary return, or whether the mojo is really back. I’m betting on the latter.

  • Man, Cervelo’s Geraard Vroomen really, really talks a lot of smack about other teams in his Twitter feed. So far, he’s scolded Saxo Bank’s Bjarne Riis for being underhanded and self-serving in the Stage 2 neutralization, then called out Caisse d’Epargne for drawing out the Valverde case and then having the nerve to note that cycling’s doping scandals are making it hard to find a sponsor. I’m not saying he’s wrong, or advocating some sort of gag order on team owners airing their thoughts, but man, cycling’s a small world, and some of that might come back to bite you, either on the road or at the negotiating table.

  • I’m not that into the whole Armstrong-Contador rivalry thing, largely because I think it’s tremendously overblown, especially with regard to its effect on the outcome of this year’s Tour. However, a lot of people enjoy examination and embellishment of Armstrong’s well-publicized “mental game,” so I’ll say this: if there is indeed a mental game to speak of, I think Contador has the upper hand. Between meaningful actions like the time gained on Stage 3, and mostly meaningless actions like popping up at the RadioShack bus bearing thank-you gifts from last year’s Tour, Contador’s manage to take a few well-placed jabs at Armstrong and still come out looking like a nice guy. Impressive. I just hope Contador’s not wasting any energy thinking about it.

  • Fellow Versus watchers: is “Cenegenics” some undercover mix of HGH and testosterone? Because that’s what it sounds like from the purported benefits. If so, they’ve really spent their marketing dollars wisely.

  • Is it just me, or does Garmin-Transition’s DS Matt White look about 5 years older than last year? Maybe he should try Cenegenics.

  • Not that they need any help from me, but if you’re not reading Procycling’s Daily Dispatches on, you’re missing out on one of the more entertaining daily Tour fixes.


Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) bid adieu to the Tour de Suisse on Thursday, a departure that could have been due to any number of reasons. It was reported Wednesday morning that he would leave the race to attend his grandmother’s funeral, and it was reported on Thursday morning that he had left the race due to injuries sustained in Stage 4’s dramatic finish-straight crash. Either of those reasons would be understandable, but some observers – me included – are wondering if he was drummed out of the race a bit quicker by people calling for his head on a pike for causing the aforementioned crash. If that’s the case, I think it’s unfortunate.

Since he started winning big sprints four years ago or so, Cavendish has been called a lot of things – brash, cocky, racist, disrespectful, asshole, you name it. He’s also been called talented, an eager learner, and a good teammate, but those descriptors don’t tend to linger quite as long as the others. But even though the guy attracts epithets like Colnagos attract attorneys, the one thing I’ve never actually heard Cavendish called is “dangerous.”

Sure, he’s had occasional run-ins in sprints, as when Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) felt Cavendish squeezed him towards the barriers at last year’s Tour de France. I’m sure there have been others as well – most full-time sprinters have a few disputes to their credit – but Cavendish certainly hasn’t been tapped as the heir to Djamolidine Abdoujaparov or Graeme Brown, or any of the other sprinters who have been reflexively dubbed “kamikaze” over the years. And there are people who have that reputation for good reason – there are more photographs of René Haselbacher (Vorarlberg-Coratec) bleeding on the ground than there are of him riding a bike. In contrast to those sprinters of sometimes-ill repute, Cavendish’s biggest offenses have typically been committed in the interview tent, not in the final 200 meters. And now people are ready to burn him at the stake for a single, albeit spectacular, crash.

Did Cavendish cause that mess of carbon and flesh on the road in Wettingen? Oh, hell yes, he did. Indeed, Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo) was sprinting with his head down, which isn’t the safest move, either, but the balance of responsibility is clearly on Cavendish. His move from the right to the center of the roadway, pinching Gerald Ciolek (Milram) and colliding with Haussler was a stupid move, whether it was the result of carelessness or a poorly considered tactic (a distinction we outsiders will probably never really be able to make for sure). And his actions following the crash – allegedly spitting at competitors who dared to call him out on his actions and trying to deflect blame in interviews – are immature and reprehensible.

Which is all to say that Cavendish probably deserves the earfuls he’s received from his coworkers and the public in the days following the crash, as well as the relegation and the fine the UCI slapped on top of it. Maybe he’ll learn something from it, maybe not, but personally, I think that’s as far as the punishments need to go. I’m well aware that there are plenty of people who don’t agree with that – I’ve seen cries for a suspension; calls for a higher fine given the offender’s income; I’ve even heard suggestions that Caisse d’Epargne should “seek compensation” for Coyot’s injury.

I’d venture that the people shouting for those punishments are doing so based more on their distaste for Cavendish’s personality than on his actual riding on Stage 4 of the Tour de Suisse, or even on the career balance of his behavior on the road. Fortunately, that just isn’t the way the rules work. I’d also argue that people calling for extensive punishments are being incredibly short-sighted. Crashes happen every day in bike racing, and they’re always somebody’s fault. If you open that door to suspensions and damages for every crash, riders will be in court or in front of some UCI commission every day for the results of an unintended chop in a corner, for not spotting that traffic island in time, or for misjudging the gap between barrier and opponent. What’s adequate compensation for diving for your feed and taking down Alberto Contador two weeks before the Tour de France? What’s the right suspension for forcing a bad line into the Arenberg Forest and crashing Boonen out? And who do you want to make those decisions?

So, in the rush to hang Cavendish for what is for all intents and purposes a first offense, people are advocating introducing a godawful legal mess into a sport that’s already chock full of godawful legal messes, despite the fact that peloton enforcement for dangerous riding has taken care of itself for decades. Besides, relevant case law indicates that Claude Criquielion already went down that road once, and all it did was waste a lot of people’s time and money. So I’d recommend that fans who want more heavy-handed treatment of Cavendish just sit back and enjoy the verbal and editorial browbeating he’ll receive this week, and then move on. I’m not saying you have to like the guy, but let’s keep a little perspective here.

As for the riders’ sanctimonious “protest” yesterday? I’d ask them where they were when Paolo Bettini absolutely mauled Baden Cooke at the Giro d’Italia a few years ago, or when the great Erik Zabel balled up Stage 2 of the 2007 Tour de France. I’d venture that back then they just clutched their rosary beads, recited a few “well, that’s cyclings,” and moved on with their days because, well, everybody likes Erik and Paolo and everyone makes mistakes. But not so with Cavendish, eh?

Look, I certainly understand the anger – nobody likes to hit the deck or lose a teammate because someone else is riding like an ass – but our protesters should also remember that cycling is often a matter of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Or in layman’s terms – it could be you who cocks up tomorrow, so best keep your mouth shut. Unless everybody likes you, of course.

  • A lot of people will read the above and quickly think, “Well, he just likes Cavendish.” And they’d be right, though I think I’d have written the same about anyone except a habitual repeat offender (e.g., Haselbacher). Frankly though, I’m not sure why I like Cavendish, since I’d usually be among the first to find his smart-ass attitude irritating. Maybe it’s because, like Cavendish, I’m a member of the 5’7” team, and while we’re stacked with climbing talent, we really needed a top-notch sprinter.

  • Two posts in a row with Abdoujaparov mentions. Never would have seen that coming, but the guy’s just a useful synonym for crazy sprinting.

  • I love that AG2r stated they were part of the protest because Cavendish elbowed one of their guys at some point. For whatever reason, it just makes them sound comically oversensitive. I mean, I’ve elbowed at least three people today, and I work in an office.

  • Here’s a question for you: Based on what you saw on Tuesday, are races safer or more dangerous with Mark Cavendish in them? He obviously plays it a bit rough at times, but just like Mario Cipollini’s boys in the 1990s, the HTC-Columbia train does keep things nice and orderly in the last 40k of the sprint stages.

  • Happy 65th birthday, Eddy.

  • Hey! I started a Twitter feed. It’s at the left if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s mostly a test to see if I can make a point in less that 1,200 words.

Putting the Me in Media

I had an opportunity to do some race reporting for VeloNews last weekend at the USAF Clarendon Cup and the USAF Cycling Classic in Arlington, VA. Even though I don’t do it very often anymore, race reporting – the pure blow-by-blow accounting – is something I always welcome the opportunity to do when the circumstances are right. And “right” in this context means “right for me,” not “right for a minimally employed 25-year-old single guy with no pets.” With that in mind, it’s hard for circumstances to get more right for me than a pair of professional criteriums within eight miles of my house. Almost non-existent travel, in-and-out in a day, no time off from work, sleep in my own bed? Why not?

Since I don’t get out often, being on-site working at the races always makes me reflect a little more on life inside that travelling circus of a world, on my own bit role in it, and on cycling in general. So here’s a shotgun blast of things that crossed my mind as I roasted on the roadside over the weekend:

  • Criteriums take a lot of flack – many times from me, I’ll admit – but when you’re on the ground at a professional crit it’s easy to recognize the appeal, particularly in a country with minimal cycling heritage. On Sunday I was entertaining questions about the race from an older gentleman who lived near the course. He thought the whole short-lap idea was just fabulous, because years ago on vacation he’d spent 8 hours sitting by a French roadside and seen approximately 6 seconds of racing in return. End result -- he just didn't get it. So, until U.S. producers can master the art of filming bike races and people start actually watching them on TV, criteriums are what it’s going to be on this side of the pond. And maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. After all, most of the action in Euro racing comes in the first hour – waiting for the break to go – and in the last hour, waiting for that break to be caught and the real action to start. Criteriums are nothing but the first hour and the last hour, so it's a lot of nicely condensed action. Now if they could just include some alpine scenery...

  • All that said, I still don’t think criteriums have any place in timed stage races.

  • Logistical note: The most important part of finding a place to park at a bike race is not asking anyone where you can park.

  • Since the Clarendon Cup course is about ½ mile west of my office, I know it better than more distant courses – not because I rail that 90+ degree lefthander into Washington Boulevard at 30mph on my way into work, since that would be suicide on open roads – but because, like anyone who lives here, I know how and why the course arrived at its current condition. The unavoidable truth this year was that the Clarendon Cup roads were crap – filled with cracks, holes, and big, sticky, last-minute asphalt patches that only served to deepen the potholes housing water, gas, and sewer access points. Promoters fault? Nah. You go to race day with the roads you have, not the roads you wish you had. The area has been a beehive of heavy building construction for the last five years, and together with several winter blizzards and hundreds of snowplow passes by largely inexperienced operators, the tarmac hasn’t quite recovered yet. That all led to pit visits aplenty, made easier officials’ decision to let riders cut through to the pit via the pinch-point in the wasp-waisted course. Clarendon Cup winner Hilton Clarke (UnitedHealthcare) hisownself had two flats over the 100 laps, including one just before the expiration of the free lap rule. I’m told Arlington has some repaving plans in the works, so things might be a bit smoother next summer.

  • Sometimes, the things you have to keep in mind as a press hack on a near hundred-degree (F) day feel a little like the ones you have to pay attention to when you’re racing. To whit:

    - Never stand when you can sit.
    - Keep hydrating if you don’t want to be a hollow, babbling wreck when crunch time comes, which in our case is the period between the final sprint and when we hit “send” to file the story.
    - If you don’t have a good reason to be out in the elements working, hide as best you can. The press just hides from the sun instead of the wind.
    - Take comfort in the fact that, if you’re suffering, there’s probably someone else suffering worse -- like the photographers, who have to haul 40 pounds of camera crap around, wear a moto helmet, and kneel on hot pavement.
    - Sometimes, if things get hairy or hectic, you just have to yell at someone or elbow them out of the way. There's just no other way.

  • There’s a reason feed zones are (just about) always on the right side of the road. First, cycling tradition and normal rules of the road in most bike racing countries dictate that the right side is where slow-moving activity goes down – service, feeding, peeing, etc. – so that’s what most riders are used to. Also, most people are right-handed. So when you put the feed on the left-hand side, things can go a bit awry. Questionable feed location aside, good on the officials for making an exception to the no-feed rule on a day that clearly warranted it. It sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes people get so focused on strict adherence to the individual rules that they ignore the parts of the book that allow reasonable adaptation to the conditions.

  • Cycling coverage can be a hard thing to parachute into. It is, of course, easy to show up, get the story from the roadside – who was in the break, who crashed, who won – get your quotes, and get out. But getting the entire context is harder if you’re not entrenched, because the dinner-table conversations, the race hotel hallways, and the departure lounges are where you get the real background and pulse – not on news sites, blogs, or twitter.

  • A note to race promoters: There are only two fundamental things the cycling media needs from you – a start list at the start, and results at the end. The rest we can pretty much handle ourselves. Do not be surprised when we get irritated – and irritating – when we cannot obtain these things. Want coverage of your national-level event to be plastered on the website in the evening, when folks visit to read about the Dauphine and Tour de Suisse? Then cooperate. If you have media people in your organization and they’re not on top of these two things, you don’t need media people.

  • Sunday’s race featured a morning charity ride that ended just before the start of the pro men’s criterium. That left hundreds of everyday Joes and Jolenes on bikes intermingling with the finely tuned professionals around the start line, which in turn created quite a bit of contrast in nearly every measurable category: race, age, gender, income, education, hairiness, ability, body fat percentage, equipment choice...and on and on. Call it the Breakfast Club effect, but that mishmash of proverbial brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals milling around the Crystal City course did, despite outward appearances and a multitude of invisible demographic stratifications, have one common trait – they like riding bikes. Sure, the idea of so many wildly different people all going for bike rides may not be groundbreaking, revolutionary, or politically important, but any common ground is a nice thing to have these days.

  • The charity ride mentioned above also proved that people will do almost anything to be like the pros, whether that’s shaving their legs; buying $10k Pinarellos; or getting in the drops, putting their heads down, and auguring themselves into the barriers for no apparent reason. If you thought the 200-meter stylings of Djamolidine Abdoujaparov didn’t warrant imitation, you’d apparently be wrong.

  • I suppose I should make at least one note about the actual racing, so I’ll just say that United Healthcare looked damn near unstoppable this weekend. They had two men in the six-man move that lapped the field in Saturday’s Clarendon Cup, then led out the sprint handily to win with Hilton Clarke. On Sunday, they put all eight of their men on the front with around five laps remaining and never faltered on their way to sweeping the podium. Not much you can say about that.

  • With the rule changes, this is the first year in awhile that almost everyone in a pro criterium isn’t plugged into an ear piece, which is good, because it’s probably the discipline that needed them the least (in time trials, they’re useful for keeping everyone awake). The European team directors like to bloviate about how radios are necessary to warn riders of course hazards – a reasonable if overblown and easily addressed concern for the long road races they’re focused on. But that argument holds not a drop of water for criteriums, where riders can quickly and easily preview every inch of road they’ll see during the race. As for the effect of the radio ban on the tactical game, I don’t really have enough data points to say. It did seem like the fight to get a breakaway was tougher than it’s been at these races in the past, which could be down to the fact that teams can no longer let the break go 10 seconds up the road, have the director radio them the numbers, call everyone to the front to chase, and continuously monitor the time gap. The information is still there, of course, it’s just harder to get and puts more onus on the riders to organize themselves, and teams seem to be more cautious about letting moves go as a result. I will say that the lack of radios allows the interested fan to hear more of the inside game as directors now shout their instructions from the sidelines instead of mumbling them into their shirt collars.

  • One of my favorite parts of covering races is hearing the question that’s invariably asked at the conclusion of end-of-day conversations: “Where are you going next?” Obviously, it’s asked between media and the riders, but it’s also asked between riders and other riders, between directors and officials, between media and media, and between nearly every other pairing of the groups of people who show up at these events week-in week-out. Depending on where, when, and who you’re asking, obviously, the answers vary considerably – it might be to the next NRC race, to a stint with the national team in Europe, to a day job, to some stage race in the Bahamas or the far east, to the mountains to train, or to a friend’s couch halfway between here and the next race. The constant inquisition is all part of an offline, unwritten tracking system that helps connect the members of a nomadic society to each other. But to me, just hearing the question over and over in the post-race background noise highlights a reassuringly human aspect of professional cycling at a time when the sport is mired in scandal and bureaucracy, and when the idea that the names in the articles represent actual people seems to get lost in the shouting. And, in probably the most humanizing aspect of all, it’ll come as no surprise which answer is usually accompanied by the biggest smile: Home.

Belief Systems

The Service Course has had a few inquiries on how it's managed to not weigh in on last week’s Floyd Landis confessusations. Well, the fact is, between the time I heard and the time I could even think about writing anything – a period of roughly 45 minutes – everything about the whole mess had already been written six or seven times over. Sure, it was written with widely varying degrees of sanity, logic, giddiness, mouth-frothing, and spelling acumen, but it was written nonetheless, and I didn’t really have much to add to the conversation. We all read the same articles, the same denials, and the same trail of emails, didn't we? There just wasn't that much more information out there.

Not adding to the noise was one motivation for keeping silent, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that there was another reason as well: when it comes to anything Lance Armstrong-related, people are fucking nuts. I mean, have you seen the things people write on other sites and in comments sections about this thing? I can actual feel the veins on their foreheads throbbing. So, if I were looking to lead a nice, quiet life, free from people calling me names, questioning my manhood, and threatening my dog, I’d apparently be better off writing that Jesus didn’t exist than daring to wonder aloud whether Lance Armstrong might have, once upon a time, taken a little taste of the forbidden fruit.

I don’t cover the Jesus beat, though --- I write about professional cycling, so I guess I have to take what I’m handed. But this Landis/Armstrong quagmire does feel a whole lot like a religious issue sometimes, in that there’s very little I or anyone else can write that will change what each individual already believes to be true, and in that the more anyone tries to sway people's beliefs, the more pissed off those people are going to get. And, just like religion, I’m not sure I really want to change anyone’s mind, anyway. But since people keep asking me whether I "believe Landis," I’ll risk my fictional dog’s well-being and tell you what I believe:

  • I believe that people can lie about something at one point in time and tell the truth about it at some other point. I believe that when they do, the lie usually comes first and the truth second.

  • I believe that even if hatred, spite, or revenge is the motive, truth can still be the result.

  • I believe, however, that “truth” and “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” aren’t necessarily synonymous. That’s why they ask you about each of them individually in the court oath. Notably, there’s no oath required to send an email.

  • I believe that some people are getting confused about whether they’re shocked about what Landis is saying, or shocked that he’s saying it.

  • I believe that where there’s smoke there’s usually fire. Or at least some burning embers. And there’s been an awful lot of smoke for an awful long time. And I can't believe I just used the "where there's smoke there's fire" cliche.

  • I believe that, if Landis’s list were one notable name shorter, people would be a lot slower to dismiss his accusations.

  • I believe that, yeah, Landis looks and sounds a little crazy sometimes. While we’re on the subject, I think his looks have something to do with how people perceive him. Think about it – who would “Sorry about the hookers and blow” sound less creepy coming from: Floyd Landis, or Tom Boonen?

  • I believe that it's shocking how many adults think that sticking their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and shouting “liar, liar, liar, liar…” is a valuable contribution to discourse or a nuanced assessment of the situation.

  • I believe it’s extremely telling that all former USPS rider and current Garmin DS Jonathan Vaughters had to say about the Landis accusations was that Garmin’s Dave Zabriskie was clean now, and that’s what really mattered. I believe it's huge that that organization is supporting its riders' full cooperation with any investigation -- because I assume that promise of continued employment extends to Vaughters himself as well as other former USPS riders Zabriskie and DS Matt White.

  • I believe that Mike Barry’s next book might be titled “Under the Postal Bus.”

  • I believe the non-rider names mentioned are far more important than the rider names.

  • I believe that people will now be much less interested in Allen Lim’s cooling vests and rice cakes, and much more interested in any other work he might have done at Garmin.

  • I believe Armstrong’s sponsors will stand by him, both because they will have shot themselves in the foot if they abandon him and this all turns out to be baseless, and because he owns a piece of most of them.

  • I believe that the wording of one of the initial headlines – “Landis Confesses, Implicates Lance” – tells us a lot of what we need to know about how the balance was stacked at the outset (not that we didn’t already know). One rider is just a last name, like most athletes. The other’s our best bud, someone we call by their first name, even if it’s in a news headline in the country’s leading sports publication. At least Landis isn’t referred to by three names yet, because I believe that’s never a good thing.

  • I believe that nobody is “too big to fail.” I’ve heard it said that, for better or worse, Landis should shut his trap because of the affect it could have on good work done by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. While that sort of impact may be unfortunate, if the LAF were to go down because it’s proved that Armstrong used bucketloads of dope, I’ll have a hard time finding that to be Floyd Landis’s fault. And given the current tide of public opinion, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, anyway.

  • I believe it doesn’t matter a bit what we all think Landis should or shouldn’t say, because this isn’t a referendum. While it’s very true that he’s heaped much of this ill-will on himself, it’s equally true that he’s lost his job, his wife, his house, his best friend, his money, and his credibility to all of this, so if he’s not considering all possible negative consequences his actions might have for others, I can’t say I blame him.

  • I believe that Landis’s best shot at credibility on this issue is for other USPS veterans to corroborate his claims, if those claims are true. Unfortunately, I also believe that those in the most likely position to do so – Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, and Manuel Beltran – would be met with the same distrust Landis has, and not without good reason. I also believe that, should riders like Frankie Andreau, or Marty Jemison, or Cedric Vasseur, or Pascal Derame, or Benjamin Noval speak out, they’ll be dismissed with the standard “disgruntled employee” label. Very few people seem to have left that team with a smile on their faces.

  • I believe that no matter how many people were to corroborate Landis’s story, the fingers-in-the-ears crowd will never hear it.

  • I believe that, if the fingers-in-the-ears would unplug long enough to listen to anyone’s potential corroboration, it would be George Hincapie’s. Maybe Ekimov’s. But mostly Hincapie’s.

  • I believe that, like Festina soigneur Willy Voet, Bruyneel’s errand boy “Duff” will be the most likely person to spend actual time in the clink for all of this.

  • I believe that the Fed being involved via BALCO buster Jeff Novitzky is the only hope of anything getting done if the charges have merit. If Landis’ accusations prove legitimate, Armstrong going down on fraud charges would be cycling’s equivalent of nabbing Al Capone on tax evasion, but it’s abundantly clear that cycling’s authorities won’t be doing anything of substance. In a letter to one of those accused, John Lelangue, the UCI has already basically said, “we’re investigating, because we have to look like we’re investigating, but it’s all bullshit, so don’t worry too much about it.” Though I should add that the UCI has already diligently investigated itself and found itself innocent, they have taken the noble step of requesting that national federations investigate everyone else. Of course, they’re careful to reiterate in that request that they still think it’s all bullshit.

  • I believe that, for a long time, there’s been a feeling that someone who really loves cycling would come in and be the one to clean the whole mess up. I believe that’s wrong. I believe that to clean it up, it’s going to take someone who doesn’t give a shit about cycling. (See above.)

  • I believe that the Fed's success in prosecuting fraud based on USPS funds going to buy dope could depend on what their definition of “paid for” is. If there was indeed doping going on and you take the strictest interpretation, I think they'll have a tough time showing USPS sponsorship money was specifically used for dope purchases. I’d imagine sponsorship money from multiple sources is deposited in a central account, then farmed out for various purposes, so I doubt there are terribly many receipts that trace team funds from a specific sponsor source all the way through to end purchases. And I really doubt that illicit dope purchases are accounted for in that way (though Dr. Fuentes was apparently pretty meticulous in invoicing Tyler Hamilton). So even if the team was buying dope with mailman money, I’m not sure you could prove it any more than you could prove that AMD funds were specifically used to buy a new muffler for the team bus. And that’s all assuming the dope and gear was paid for by the team in some manner, and not by the riders with their own money and by their own devices. But, if you take a broader definition of “paid for” – like “USPS paid Tailwind, and Tailwind paid for dope,” or “USPS paid Tailwind, Tailwind paid riders, and riders paid for dope,” then the Fed might get somewhere. Also, while the Fed's prosecution angle seems to be primarily financial in nature and the Postal team was financially located in the United States, I do wonder if they'll run into jurisdictional issues considering how much of what’s being discussed didn’t occur on U.S. soil.

  • I believe that Fred Rodriguez (Saturn-Mapei-Lotto-Rock Racing) may be the only major American Euro-pro of the Armstrong Tour de France era who isn’t somehow connected to U.S. Postal, Bruyneel, Lim, or some other party named in Landis’s emails. I suppose he rode for the national team while Ochowicz was connected to USAC, but that’s a few degrees farther removed than everyone else. I’m open to contradictions or other suggestions if you have them.

  • I believe that the emails Armstrong released from Landis and Brent Kay aren’t particularly illuminating one way or the other, but they do reveal that Dr. Kay is a very strange man with some pretty delusional takes on what the future might have held for Landis. Winning the Vuelta? With RadioShack? Singing a round of Kumbaya with Lemond and Armstrong? Really?

  • I believe that, if you’ve read Breaking the Chain about the 1998 Festina scandal, or Matt Rendell’s excellent Death of Marco Pantani, or any of the various books and articles detailing doping practices in professional cycling, none of what Landis has alleged so far is particularly outlandish. If anything, what’s been revealed so far strikes me as a pretty light regimen.

  • I believe you should read Adam Myerson’s take on the whole mess, because I believe he gets lot of things right.

  • I believe that, while the unraveling of the Landis accusations will provide me with somewhat guilty entertainment, I’ll have a hard time really caring too much how it turns out. There are negatives and positives either way, and it will be a valuable investigation from a precedent-setting perspective, but in the most immediate sense, most of these guys are old anyway, so if they all end up tossed we’re really only speeding up the timeline by a couple of years. I’m neither a doping apologist nor a doping inquisitor, though, so I’m pretty sure either end of the spectrum has stronger feelings on the outcome than I do.

  • I believe that, whatever the outcome, the cycling world will not come crashing down. It can be hard to tell sometimes, particularly in this country, but I do still believe that no man is bigger than the sport. And if Landis is proved a liar (again), or if Armstrong and the others he’s named are proven to be frauds, the show will go on.

  • I believe that at some point, one of those crazy guys on the streetcorner holding the sign that reads “THE END IS NEAR” is going to turn out to be right. Because at a certain point it seems sort of inevitable, doesn’t it?

The Unfortunate Unpredictability of the Undead

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

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

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

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

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

Until the sequel, at least.

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

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

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

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

New Screws and White Shoes

It will surprise approximately none of my readers to learn that I'm not what you'd call an “early adopter” of cycling technologies. It’s not any sort of distaste or distrust of new equipment that makes that so, nor is it due to some studiously cultivated and tediously repeated longing for the largely mythical, more technologically quaint days-gone-by. I just tend to use things for a long time, buy things that will allow for that, and have a hard time replacing things that don’t need to be replaced. Maybe that means I’m just cheap, I don’t know, but the result is that much of my cycling equipment would fall into the “proven” category if you’re being kind, or the “old” category if you’re not. Most people are not.

Anyway, those tendencies are how I recently came to be shopping for a new set of Look Delta cleats – the kind that fit nearly every Look pedal made from the time the company debuted its clipless systems in 1983 until they introduced the Keo platform in 2004. Shimano also licensed the Look pedal design for a number of years, which means that a set of $20 Deltas every few years allows me to keep using both the Shimano pedals I bought around 1989 and the Look pedals that came on an early 1990s Trek on my fixed gear and road bike, respectively.

Like most cyclists, I don’t really give a lot of thought to cleats unless something goes drastically wrong with them, but my recent cleat replacement awoke me to few things about Look that I hadn’t really considered. First, the fact that you can still easily walk into a bike shop and buy Delta cleats speaks volumes about the sheer number of pedals they must have sold on that platform over the years. But a closer look at the cleats themselves reveals a bit about the company’s almost bizarre commitment to product support. Why bizarre? Because not only is Look still making Delta cleats – they’ve actually continued to improve them despite no longer making pedals that use them.

The company has actually tinkered with the Delta design throughout its existence. Early Delta cleats were black and held your foot in a fixed position, without the slightest nod to the “float” that became a near obsession for cyclists by the early 2000s. That float issue was the catalyst for the earliest change to the cleat, when Look introduced a red version that allowed for the desired movement rather than sending customers to the shop for new pedals. Even better, even after float became all the rage, Look kept making both the red float and black fixed versions.

From there, subsequent revisions were more modest. What started as pretty basic molded blocks of hard plastic first sprouted rubber inserts to give a modest bit of traction on slick coffee shop floors. A few years later, the Deltas got a white layer of plastic molded into their middle, designed to both reduce the infamous "Look squeak" and make it more evident to the user when cleat wear had become excessive. My most recent purchase of Deltas last week, long after Look stopped producing compatible pedals, revealed two more recent tweaks. The three bolts used to hold each cleat to the shoe, which originally used a slotted head and then a combo slot/phillips head, now feature a hex head fitting at the center of the slot, freeing us at last from the last remaining use for a slotted screwdriver in the bicycle world. Even better though, Look also incorporated their “memory clip,” a feature of its newer Keo cleat, into the Delta cleat. Once mounted to the shoe, the clip allows you to replace the cleat itself in an identical position without having to check the position repeatedly. Just remove the old cleat, slap the new one into position over the clip, bolt it down, and you’re done.

All of those improvements, of course, add not a lick of actual function to the cleat itself, and you could argue that the white plastic layer and the easy-replacement widget are just blatant ploys to convince people to buy new cleats more often. And you’d probably be right. But those features are also pretty useful to the consumer, because, speaking from experience, I always avoid replacing cleats until they’re dangerously worn because (1) I don’t pay attention; and (2) it was a pain to get the new ones in an identical position. So Look probably will sell a few more cleats by removing those barriers to replacement, but the move is hardly indicative of heartless corporate greed. In fact, I’d argue it’s the opposite.

You see, Look could have just as easily reserved those improvements for their current Keo line, where they also appear, leaving people who wanted those features to buy a whole new set of pedals. Or, they could have gotten away with ceasing Delta production altogether, forcing riders with Delta-compatible pedals back into the pedal-buying market, arguably a more shrewd financial move. But they didn’t. Instead, they offer new features and continued support, for $20, to people like me, who still ride pedals over a decade and a half old. I like that.

The funny thing is, when you first see a set of Deltas hanging on the slatwall at the bike shop, you wouldn’t suspect they’d changed at all in 20 years. While Look has improved the product, they seem to be banking on product recognition over style by continuing to use the same Tron-meets-Mondrian packaging design they used back when Greg Lemond was better known as a puncheur than a punch line. Along with the techie grey-on-grey grid pattern and late-80s hi-tech fonts on the cardboard backer, Look has managed to source a special type of plastic shrink wrap that manages to look dusty and shopworn even when it's brand new out of the box. One look at that package is enough to give me instant flashbacks to Wilfried Nilissen and Laurent Jalabert bleeding on the tarmac in Armentières. Chapeau.

I have to admit, my purchase of another set of Delta cleats wasn’t just because my current ones are ridiculously worn, though they certainly are. No, it was because after 10 years or so with my current shoes, I finally got a new pair, even before the old ones had holes in them. Doesn’t that sort of replacement without need run counter to everything I was rambling about way back at the beginning of this post? Normally, yes, but I won the new pair in a writing contest Sidi’s new American arm held a few months ago, so I don’t think it should count against me. For sending in a 350-word-or-less “Sidi story” and landing in the top 50 submissions – a forgivingly low bar for victory – I got to pick the Sidis of my choice.

Obviously I opted for the top-of-the-line Ergo 2s, which feature roughly 100 percent more buckles, adjusters, colors, bells, and whistles than any shoes and most cars I’ve ever owned. And though every fiber of my “these will need to last awhile” being was screaming at me to go with my usual unaffected-by-fashion black color choice, I finally decided that reason and practicality should have no role when selecting the free schwag fruits of minimal labor. So on the next sunny day I actually get to ride my bike, I’ll be rolling out for the first time on something utterly and impractically fashionable, at least in cycling – shiny white shoes. I’m not sure yet how I feel about it. Like the episode of Seinfeld when Jerry wonders if participating in an orgy will mean he has to get all new orgy clothes, a selection of lotions and oils, and new orgy friends, I wonder if I’ll have to get a whole new set of white shoe friends, the kind who apply hair gel before rides, roll up their jersey sleeves when it’s sunny, and seem to somehow repel road dirt.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little frightening, but at least I’ll still have those black Delta cleats to comfort me.


  • Did I just write about 1,000 words about cleats? Damn. Don't worry, with the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of California coming up, I'm sure we'll be back to writing about racing soon enough. Post-Liege just felt like a good time to take a break.

  • Cadel Evans (BMC) is being touted, at least in the English language cycling press, as a big favorite for the Giro win. No doubt he's on good form, but as much as I like BMC, I'm not seeing a very strong supporting cast. That said, the choppier nature of the Giro seems to make the team much less of a factor than it is in the Tour. Paolo Salvoldelli's winning Discovery Channel team, for instance, was certainly no barn burner. But team or no team, with no Contadors or Schlecks in the mix at this Giro, Evans better sieze this chance to bag that elusive grand tour win.

  • If people were sawed off by Alexander Vinokourov's (Astana) Liege win, how irate will they be if he wins the Giro? Especially when they've had Alejandro Valverde's (Caisse d'Epargne) Tour de Romandie win to keep them frothing in the interim. Like it or not, Vinokourov is certainly back, and he'll have some decent riders supporting him in Italy. He is old, though, so it will be interesting to see how he recovers day-to-day as the Giro wears on.

  • Regardless of who wins, or how you feel about riders coming back from suspensions or doping in general, let's hope we can get through the next year without 2/3 of the Giro podium getting popped one way or another. I know it's a tall order, but what the hell, let's aim high.

  • I'm going to try to make some visual changes to the site sometime soon, so if you stop by and see something different, or the layout is even more screwed up than usual, that's what's going on.

From Pave to Pavement

I’ve never really been a “season” person. You know – some people are “winter people,” full of talk about snow and brisk air and the smell of wood smoke, and others are “summer people,” constantly pining for warmth, long days, and short sleeves. Not me. By the time the end of any given season is near, I’m ready for it to be over – tired of freezing, tired of sweating, or tired of being in between the two. I’m not sure what that says about me, or my ability to dress properly for the conditions, but that’s how it is.

And as it is with the calendar year, so it is with the cycling year. I love the cobbled classics with all my heart, but after the crescendo of the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, it’s time for something else. Something a little less bleak. Something to appeal to the other parts of our psyche and that, when it’s done its turn in the limelight, will leave us yearning for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad again come February. After all, even Christmas would lose its appeal if we had it all year round. So, I don’t mourn the yearly passing of the cobbles.

That said, we can’t just leap straight from the cold, flattish, and brutal affairs we’ve just witnessed to warm Italian sunshine, rolled-up jersey sleeves, and grand tour stages barreling up winding mountain roads. That would be far too jarring a change for any normal person, and perhaps more so for those with fragile cyclist sensibilities. So to ease us gently into the days to come, professional cycling, too, has its transitional period – its own weeklong spring – the Ardennes classics.

The grand tour riders start to pop out at the Amstel Gold Race like the first buds on barren trees, lending a bit of fresh foliage to the last damp remnants of the cobbled classics squads and creating hybrid lineups that likely won’t been seen again until this time next year. Rabobank, for instance, adds the willowy Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam to tiring Flanders mainstays Boom, Langeveld, Nuyens, and Tankink. While some team’s grand tour squads will just be showing their first green shoots at Amstel, Saxo Bank will almost be in full bloom, replacing its entire cobbled roster with a fresh one that contains at least half of their likely Tour de France lineup, complete with two Schlecks, a Voigt, and a Fuglsang. As the week wears on into Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and the next Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the last dried out husks of the cobbled specialists will fall away, replaced with riders more suited to the longer côtes of Wallonia than the sharp cobbled bergs of Flanders. And once that’s done, there we’ll be, staring squarely at the first grand tour of the season. Though they’ve already ridden myriad weeklong stage races since January, the GC riders’ appearance in Belgium is as sure a sign of the approaching Giro d’Italia as the replacement of Nemesis rims with deep section carbon.

All of that isn’t to say that the coming Ardennes classics – in which we’re including the Amstel Gold for convenience sake – are simply some temporal bridge to be crossed between Roubaix and the Giro d’Italia. Far from it.

For whatever reasons, the Ardennes classics just don’t get the respect the cobbled ones do in the United States. Maybe it’s because the cobblestones deal out much more obvious and dramatic punishment than their more evenly tarmac-ed brethren to the east. Maybe it’s because of the extent to which the fetishized Flemish cycling culture seems to dominate one-day racing, or it could be some lingering cross-cultural confusion over why they speak French in Liege, even though it’s only a half-hour drive from Maastricht and in the same country as Gent. Or maybe it’s because, as we discussed above, the Ardennes classics draw so many of those faces we hear about all through July. And with so many familiar players, maybe the Ardennes just don’t feel as special or different as the cobbled races, so they don’t attract quite the same cult following. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not totally off the radar here – I’m sure there are Americans who have made special pilgrimages to visit the Ardennes classics. But I also bet those who do have already been to see the Ronde or Roubaix.

Not getting respect and not deserving it are two different things, though. A look at the saw-tooth profile of Amstel’s 31 climbs, one drive up Flèche Wallonne’s iconic Muur de Huy, or a read down the list of men who have won the 95 editions of Liege will show that, though the roads may not be quite so endearingly crappy as those in Flanders, the Ardennes hold their own unique spot in cycling history, present their own unique challenges, and create their own champions. And they are very, very hard. So, classics lovers, I say, rather than lamenting the passing of early spring cobbles, look forward to this week's soft transition to the pursuits of summer.

  • Ronde/Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) politely declined director Bjarne Riis’s public invitation to try to stretch his scorching form through Liege. Did you hear the giant sigh of relief coming out of Luxembourg?

  • Sebastian Rosseler (Radio Shack) salvaged a small bit of Belgian pride by winning Wednesday’s Brabanste Pijl, held on the smooth roads just south of Brussels. After a rough classics season for the home public, it’s no Ronde win, but it’s something. Of course, that’s still no consolation for his former team, Quick Step, or the still scoreless Omega Pharma. In fact, it may just make things worse.

  • Speaking of Rosseler, he’s about to get to race on his home turf as one of a rare breed of riders – the non-Flemish Belgian professional cyclist. Rosseler hails from Verviers, just a bit southeast of Liege, as does Omega Pharma’s big hope for the week, Philippe Gilbert. Gilbert will get support from Liege-born veteran Christophe Brandt; meanwhile, HTC-Columbia’s Maxime Monfort hails from the southern turnaround of the LBL course, Bastogne. Be on the lookout for inspired -- if not ultimately victorious -- rides from the locals in Flèche and Liege.

  • And speaking of Gilbert, together with 2009 Amstel winner Sergei Ivanov, he’s one of a select few riders with good chances in both the cobbled and tarmac classics. (Ben Delaney has a piece on just that in the most recent VeloNews, so I was fairly and squarely beaten to the punch on that. Damn you, Delaney.) To that list of potential pave-to-pavement crossovers, I’d add Ivanov’s teammate Filippo Pozzato, who may have some form to use after sitting out the Ronde due to illness; Oscar Freire, who sat out Roubaix due to common sense, and who is always a threat at Amstel for home-team Rabobank; and Quick Step’s Carlos Barredo, who does donkey work for Boonen and co. in March before getting more of a free hand for himself in the Ardennes.

  • It’s a matter of alphabetical fate that Lars Boom as been assigned the 121 number plate for Rabobank in the preliminary Amstel start list, but it could just as easily be the cosmos pointing Rabobank towards its future. With memories of Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker factoring in seemingly every Amstel finale fading fast, the Netherlands’ defacto national team needed a new homegrown hope for its homebrewed classic, and Boom seems to be making the transition from ‘cross just in time to step into the role. While everyone tends to assume cyclocross riders will make great cobbled classics riders, Boom’s early successes on the road could indicate that he’ll be more of a threat in the Ardennes than in Flanders. It’ll be hard to tell for a few more years, but with his ample and flexible talents, could Boom be the next Adri van der Poel – winning on the cobbles, on tarmac, and in the mud? The Dutch have to be hoping so.

  • Finally, in a nod to our namesake, here’s a link to’s tour of the Team Sky service course in Mechelen, Belgium. The photo gallery will be interesting to bike geeks and fans of luxury motorcoaches, as well as Nutella fetishists such as myself.

Branding Iron

As the native son of an affordably priced beach resort town, I appreciate the thought and craftsmanship that goes into a good screen-printed t-shirt. It starts with the basic graphic design elements like the colors and style of the design, which have to mesh with broader branding elements like an attractive, easily recognizable logo and a clever, catchy, and commercially desirable motto or catch phrase. Laid over (or underneath) all of that, there are the considerations of shirt colors, fabric weights, cuts, and quality. Between the art itself and the cotton canvas that hosts it, there’s plenty to appreciate for a true enthusiast of the medium. So, you could imagine my delight at the variety and volume of stunning shirt-craft on offer at the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show, where seemingly every booth had something delightful in ink and cotton for sale. But this was no ordinary t-shirt show – there were some bicycles scattered about, too.

I'm kidding, of course. Fantastic handbuilt bikes were obviously and overwhelmingly the centerpiece of NAHBS, and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, you’ve probably already combed through a dizzying number of web sites and Flickr galleries to get your fix. But there were a hell of a lot of shirts on offer, too, and a good number of socks and hats as well. And though it might have created confusion as to what the real product was at times, the swift soft goods trade made sense for several reasons.

First, compared to selling the merits of marginally different $1,200+ custom frames, moving $20 t-shirts is easy money, and they pretty much sell themselves. Hang one up or throw a stack on the table, and if people like it enough, they’ll buy it. You’d don’t have to take the time to explain why your just-so seatstay treatment is better, or why getting just the right axle-to-crown length is crucial to executing your creative vision. It’s a t-shirt. People get it. And if you have a good design and sell enough of them, you can help mitigate the cost of getting to the show, at least.

Second, every good luxury brand – and most of the exhibitors at NAHBS could be considered luxury brands in cycling – knows that while most people can’t afford a $2,500 purse, they can afford a $40 t-shirt bearing the logo of a brand whose goods they admire. Most shirts at the show seemed to slot in at around $20, but the aspirational aspects of the marketing are the same.

Finally, if you have a reasonably attractive t-shirt design, people will actually pay you for a chance to advertise your brand. What could be better if you’re a small company looking to raise your profile? This concept is already well-trodden ground in cycling, though, so I won’t go any farther than that. (Except to point out that just because I’m noting that t-shirts give companies cheaper-than-free advertising doesn’t mean I’m one of those people who hangs around cycling message boards harrumphing about how I stripped all the logos from my frame and ride in a plain blue jersey because those bastards don’t pay me to advertise their stuff dontchaknowit. Who has the time?)

The Bicycle Trend Report

But enough about t-shirts -- you're probably wondering what was notable about the show for non-shirt enthusiasts. I’d say it was the move away from the over-the-top commuter/utility bikes of the past few years, and back towards what I’ll call sport bikes. By sport bikes, I mean road bikes designed for lively riding, but which will accommodate a greater range of fitness and flexibility levels than racing bikes, accept a 28c tire, fenders, and maybe a rack, and hopefully handle a bit of abuse without complaint. If you’re over 40, you probably call them sport-tourers, and if you’re over 40 and particularly crotchety you’ll probably rattle on about how Nishiki used to build a perfectly fine one and it didn’t cost two grand.

Given the emphasis on that genre, it was also refreshing to see that the interpretations of sport bikes were not radical, stylized overreactions to the exaggerated deficiencies people like to broadly assign to racing bikes. By and large, they didn’t have 700x98c tires to “smooth out rough roads”, or disc brakes, or handlebars so high that they would gently nuzzle your bearded chin, or self-consciously retro builds. They were just very nice bikes for people to take their normal rides on, without trying to oversell the buyer on some underlying, all-encompassing riding philosophy. And that’s progress, people. (So what's the next step on the road to universal cycling enlightenment? People who should and do know better will stop crowing about how racing bikes are uncomfortable in their marketing materials. Horses for courses, and for people who race, who ride long and fast, and who are used to them, racing bikes are shockingly comfortable.)

Anyway, from a market perspective, the move to sport bikes from uber-commuters makes sense. Almost too much sense for the bike industry. I’d venture there are far more people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle for recreation -- something comfortable and fun to ride with friends or on a Backroads tour of the Sonoma wine country -- than there are people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle to ride to the Safeway for deodorant and cheese and then lock to the parking meter outside the office. And since they’re already fighting for a tiny segment of overall bicycle consumption, builders are well served in providing what the greatest number of consumers want to buy, not what builders wish they wanted to buy. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have statistics to back any of that last part up.

The whole commuter-centric feel that pervaded the past few years’ shows gave off a bit of a racing-is-passé vibe, at least for someone reading the coverage from a distance. But while it would be foolish for NAHBS-type builders to focus heavily on a racing market dominated by big production, big marketing, and high margins, there was still a lot for someone involved in competitive cycling to like at the show. For instance, two of the last great European shadow-builders were present – Dario Pegorretti and Cyfac. Together, those two outfits account for quite a few high-profile professional racing results – it’s just that their frames were buried under someone else’s name at the time. With uniquely sculpted and easily identifiable (read: branded) carbon now the universal norm at the professional level, it’s tougher to pull off a good rebadging, so both companies have had to build their own brands in recent years, both to considerable success.

Further highlighting the changes in how bike builders and pro cycling teams interact was Italian builder Tiziano Zullo, based in Castelnuovo del Garda. Under its own name, Zullo sponsored the powerful Dutch TVM squad in the early 1990s, netting the final stage of the 1991 Tour de France under Dmitri Konyshev for the brand. Zullo’s production? About 200 frames per year. Compare that with the financial and production capacity needed to sponsor a top team today, and you see why there’s less diversity on the downtubes of the pro peloton these days.

The Cultural Trend Report

The success of the NAHBS over the past several years fits with what I see as a trend that goes beyond cycling. In a nation that traded its ability to manufacture much of anything for cheap product and the vaunted service economy (which is, in turn, being outsourced), there had been growing acceptance that material goods are things that are made by machines somewhere overseas, not by people here with ideas and families and houses. But in response to that alienation from the goods we consume, there now seems to be a growing fascination with people who can actually MAKE things – quality things – using knowledge, skill, and their own two hands. You can see it at NAHBS, of course, where I ran into people who already had bikes on order with builders, but who made the trip down just to meet the person making their bike face-to-face. But maybe more importantly for culture at large, you can see returned interest in production and origin in more moneyed industries than cycling. On television, there are any number of cable shows highlight the work of carpenters doing home remodels; show how, where, and by whom consumer items are made; and espouse the benefits of cooking real food. Grocery stores that note where, how, and by whom the food you’re buying was produced are doing better than ever, despite their higher prices. Foreign car manufacturers trumpet the fact that many of their cars are actually made in the United States by American workers. In short, people are starting to care again about where things came from and how they’re made, and that’s important. Beats not giving a damn, anyway.

  • Did I really just refer to it as the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show up there? Yes, I did. Sponsors keep cycling’s collective show on the air, so when it’s reasonable, I try to keep their names associated with the events and teams they’re bankrolling. When is it not reasonable? When people name their team something like “ShipCrap International Logistics Company Professional Cycling Team presented by Stinky Puppy Coffee Company – Put Some Pup in Your Cup.” In print, that sort of branding diarrhea eats up your word count. Online, it just annoys me.

  • Sports – particularly the vaguely defined category of “outdoor sports” like cycling, running, surfing, and skateboarding – have always been a t-shirt rich environment. We’ve been over brand shirts already, but then you’ve got your participant shirts, your souvenir shirts, your one-off novelty shirts, your cause shirts, your tribute shirts, you name it. For godssake, you’d think cyclists didn’t know how to use buttons.

  • Several of the display booth designs at NAHBS really stood out. Vanilla’s booth, with a series of large crates depicting phases of frame production and others housing bike-display dioramas, was well done down to the last detail, as was Bilenky's full-scale reproduction of its workshop. I also liked Rapha’s mini-mart themed booth, since it reminded me of a travelling companion from my junior days who used long drives to expound at length on the virtues of well-stocked marts and their undeniable value to cyclists.

  • The big-time booths were nice, but one of the most intriguing areas of the show was the back right corner, where the ultra-small builders had their space. One man, one bike, and a folding table. It doesn’t get more grassroots than that.

  • No, I didn’t buy any t-shirts.

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.

Tanking Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell, I’ll take Filippo Pozzato.


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

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

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

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

You Can Call Me Al(exandre)

“I need a photo opportunity,
I want a shot at redemption,
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard.”

- Paul Simon, You Can Call Me Al

So the Vuelta a Espana has arrived, and after a protracted and toothless debate about whether the team would take him back, Alexandre Vinokourov has arrived at the start with Astana colors on his back. Who’d have guessed? Outside of denying the doping charges that landed him a two-year suspension, it’s probably the most predictable move the famously impulsive rider has ever made. And so, in riding his first grand tour since getting tossed from the 2007 Tour de France, Vino jumps headfirst into the ever-expanding ranks of the post-dope comebacks. The goal of such comebacks certainly seems understandable enough – you make a grand re-entry, clear your name, prove you really were that good, dope or no dope. To some observers, the comeback can even seem admirable, with disgraced riders summoning the courage to show their faces again in hopes of making amends. Others just think that the return of dopers is in poor taste. But whether or not they’re understandable, admirable, distasteful or anything else, the fact of the matter is that comebacks are very rarely successful.

Naming one top-flight grand tour rider who has come back from a dope suspension and recaptured his former glory is dead easy. Naming two is considerably more difficult.* Eddy Merckx, of course, managed to go on to a fairly handy career after his little incident at the 1969 Giro d’ Italia. But in accomplishing that feat so thoroughly, Merckx was an anomaly, a category of one (as is the case with many of his achievements in cycling). In the 40 years since Eddy left the Giro in tears, precious few riders have managed to shake off some time on the bench with the same success.

Michel Pollentier, for instance, won the 1977 Giro d’ Italia before getting nailed with a condom full of clean urine nestled snugly his armpit during a 1978 dope test. On the day he was caught, he’d just won on Alpe d’Huez and assumed the Tour de France’s yellow jersey, a shirt he’d never wear again. Though he won the 1980 Ronde van Vlaanderen and came second at the 1982 Vuelta, after the Alpe, the palmares of the one-time Tour contender mostly read like a schedule for the Flemish kermesse circuit.

But that was all in the amphetamine era, a substantially different game from the last 20 years or so of professional cycling. Once dope got really effective and suspensions got longer, the chances of making it back to the top of the grand tour heap after a positive became even more dismal. Thirty years after Merckx, Marco Pantani was also booted from the Giro d’ Italia, but unlike the hearty Belgian, the unstable Italian would never recover from the scandal, personally or professionally. To be fair, Pantani never officially tested positive – he was given a two-week sit-down for “health reasons” due to a high hematocrit level in the days before EPO testing – but the writing was on the wall.

Tyler Hamilton, a perennial dark horse before his 2004 blood doping positive, made a brief return to Europe with the mildly sketchy Tinkoff team before returning to the United States to ride for the mildly sketchy Rock Racing team. After a surprising win at the U.S. professional championships last year, Hamilton tested positive again in 2009 and retired from the sport citing troubles with depression. Others cited the 8-year suspension he was given.

Unlike Pantani and Hamilton, Floyd Landis, who barely stepped off the podium of the 2006 Tour de France before being stripped of his yellow jersey, is still alive and pedaling a bicycle for money. You just wouldn’t know it from the results. To put it kindly, Landis’ return to the sport has been a low-profile one, and it will be surprising if he is at the start of next year’s Tour of California, much less a grand tour.

While other comebacks have fizzled out on the road, Michael Rasmussen’s return has barely even made it far enough to do that. Yanked from the 2007 Tour de France while in yellow for lying on his UCI whereabouts forms, the Danish climber hasn’t been able to find a team that will hire him. Instead, he’s been riding a few open races in Denmark, wearing the colors of the bike shop he owns in Italy. He’s doing well in the races he does, but it’s hard to rake in the UCI points riding open races for a shop team, even if it’s Mellow Johnny’s.

Through all their outsized denials, the righteous indignation, and the stumbling, unsuccessful, and abortive attempts to return to past glory, all these riders have, to varying degrees, ended up as Paul Simon's proverbial cartoons in a cartoon graveyard. All bluster, ego, and grand plans, only to be put in the ground by the falling anvil of reality.

Set against that backdrop, Vinokourov’s chances of returning to the front of a grand tour seem slim, and his cocksure return to the sport wearing a Vino-4-Ever jersey seems like the perfect setup for an embarrassing flop. But he seems to grasp that history is against him. He’s hedged his bets, saying that he’s not at the Vuelta for the win, but maybe to try for a stage and prepare for the World Championships. But somewhere in the back of his mind, the 35-year-old must be wondering if he still has the stuff to go three weeks with real ambitions. If history is our guide, he doesn’t.

Vinokourov isn’t the only rider in this Vuelta seeking to avoid the headstone being laid over his career, though. For company, he has Ivan Basso (Liquigas) who, despite having already ridden this year’s Giro d’ Italia, is making his first grand tour appearance with any intention of riding for the GC. Frankly, Basso’s chances of making a successful comeback seem better than both his predecessors and contemporaries. Better than Pantani, better than Hamilton, Landis, and Rasumussen, and now, better than Vinokourov. Not because he’s younger or has more talent or anything else, but because he admitted to doing something wrong. No, he certainly didn’t fess up willingly, and his half-assed “intent to dope” confession-ette was laughable. But of all the recent returns from the wilderness, he’s the only one who has ever unburdened himself of any of the weight of his infractions. The rest of them chose to keep shouldering that weight. In grand tours, they always talk about everything counting – every bit of body weight, every extra minute of rest, every watt of energy saved or used. A marginally lighter conscious has to be worth something, no?

*So who has made the most respectable comeback after a suspension in the modern era? I’d go with Christophe Moreau (Festina, 1998). I suppose you could argue for Richard Virenque as well, but that whole thing was just embarrassing for everyone.

What Now?

or, Mancebo to Caisse d' Epargne?

What now? That seems to be the question this time of year, as the road cycling world tries to get its post-Tour de France feet underneath it again. The tail end of the season sort of always feels like that – as if, having peaked already for the classics and then the Tour, the sport itself is now hunting for that elusive third peak. If it hits it, through an interesting Vuelta, a great Lombardia, or a nice, hard-fought World Championships road race, the sport goes into winter on a strong note. If not, it just sort of fizzles out, and hopes to get some rest and collect itself during what’s rapidly become a three-week off season.

Time will tell how this year’s third peak goes down, but the immediate “what now” is easy to spot – the Clasica San Sebastian, the first of the late-season classics is coming up on Saturday. (We’ll save the arguments over what makes a classic, and if San Sebastian qualifies for another time. Or have we already done that one?) Overall, the San Sebastian start list is looking like an attempt to wring the last bit of usefulness out of some pretty knackered Tour riders, and I suspect we’ll see a lot of last-minute withdrawals and substitutions before the gun goes off.

Right now, though, they have Contador, some Schlecks, Evans, damn near anyone and everyone who was expected to win a stage at the Tour, and some who even managed to pull it off. But to quote the excellent aviation documentary Airplane!, “that’s not important right now.” What is important, or at least passingly interesting, is that’s start list has Francisco Mancebo starting for Caisse D’Epargne. Which is weird, because he rides for Rock Racing in the United States.

You may remember Mancebo from his head-tilted riding posture, his breakout performance in Operacion Puerto, his subsequent retirement and unretirement, or, most recently, his second-place finish behind teammate and fellow Puerto exile Oscar Sevilla in Oregon’s Cascade Classic. Obviously, a rider of Mancebo’s European palmares still has connections in Spanish cycling, and riders pass through Rock Racing like fat guys through a fast food drive-thru -- desperate, short on cash, and sometimes several times in a single day. So jumping ship to Caisse, even at this strange point in the season wouldn’t be surprising in the least. It might not be legal, but we haven't looked into that part. Before we get too excited, though, according to the Clasica San Sebastian's own start list, Mancebo’s not starting for anyone, though they do have most of Katusha listed as Team Columbia, so despite what you’d think, they hardly seem to be the last word on the matter.

Anyway, I haven’t seen any formal announcement of the sudden transfer. Who knows, maybe the team not getting an invite to the Tour of Missouri was the final straw and Mancebo went looking for teams. Or maybe word of his Tour of California Stage 1 ride trickled back through the European peloton and the Caisse boys decided it’s time to bring him in from the cold. Or maybe it’s just a mistake on CN and it's not happening at all. But this is rumor season, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to get a piece of that action. If Mancebo's move is true, though, I have one more question – does Mancebo's departure mean another former pro/current club rider will get to step back up from the Rock Racing amateur squad? Because I think they'd totally enjoy that.

We've contacted both Rock Racing and Caisse d' Epargne for comment, but haven't received any comment at this point.

Believe in Hype

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

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

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

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

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


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

Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right

If Only the Sport Were That Organized

Who runs this goddamned sport? Nobody and everybody, apparently, and recent news has been coated in the sort of scatological crossfire you’d expect from that sort of diversified management structure.

CONI, the Italian federation, banned Spaniard Alejandro Valverde for his alleged involvement in a Spanish doping affair based on a blood sample taken in Italy during last year’s Tour de France. Habsburg blood may have seen less of Europe than Valverde’s, but in fairness to those kingmakers, Valverde’s ties to the papacy do look weak in comparison. Indeed, a high-priced indulgence is about the only thing that could save Valverde’s soul from a paperwork purgatory at this point, and that little absolution doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon. The Giro may have run it’s final TT through the pope’s front yard, but even an organization that feels pretty comfortable weighing on who can sleep with who, when, and what they should wear when they do so knows better than to weigh in on cycling’s regulatory orgy.

No, Benedict’s silent on Valverde, but maybe that’s only because he hasn’t been issued his gold-plated papal Colnago yet, because everyone else who’s ever seen or pedaled a bicycle has thrown their opinions into the pot. Remarkably, the only thing people seem more concerned about than Valverde’s alleged performance enhancing activities are Tom Boonen’s recreational ones, making the cycling press seem less like sports news and more like TMZ. The immediate result of all the hubbub is that either of both riders may not be able to start the Tour de France come July. Depending on who you ask, of course.

Christian Prudhomme, Grand Poobah of the Tour de France, recently announced a near theological shift in his organization’s policies, telling the media hordes that ASO will “obey the rules” when it comes to sanctioning the various sins of Boonen and Valverde. That following the rules instead of making up your own is now worthy of a press release says a little something about how we operate here in the bush leagues of professional sport, but so be it. Anyway, ASO has decided to agree with the UCI that, as sporting entities, they might not really have the authority to sanction a rider based on an unrelated, out-of-competition legal matter, like, say, blowing some lines in the piss-soaked men’s room of some godforsaken Antwerp disco.

Things aren't that easy, of course. According to the UCI, they might still be able to nab Boonen yet, but not on sporting grounds, and they can’t find the time to make up a new rule to try him under until after the Tour. So, for now at least, Boonen looks to be in the clear, at least until someone else argues their way into having jurisdiction in the matter, and trust me, that’s not far off. Who knows, maybe this is USAC’s time to shine – I’d suggest basing jurisdictional authority on either his participation in the Tour of California, or, for some real flair, his participation in the Univest Grand Prix as an amateur.

Anyway, if I’m reading it right, as another part of this year’s great reconciliation, ASO has also agreed that until the UCI gets the evidence from CONI and makes its own ruling on Valverde, a ban in Italy doesn’t really have much of anything to do Valverde racing in France, though it seems they’ll leave it up to Valverde as to whether he thinks his form is good enough to outrun the carabinieri on his own personal cannonball run when this year’s Tour dips into Italia. The kid has the rare combination of being quick in the hills and in a sprint, but I’m not sure even the Green Bullet will take that bet.

The UCI doesn’t seem to be too anxious to gather that Italian evidence, though, and why would they be? They can leave it to CONI to keep Valverde from the Tour, despite the fact that nobody’s ever adequately explained how CONI can keep an unsuspended rider with a non-Italian license from riding a race that is not held under the auspices of CONI. Yes, the Tour will go briefly into Italy, but CONI is a sporting body, not the border patrol, and other than that brief sojourn on Italian asphalt, CONI doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with the Tour de France. But that’s just the sort of easy out the UCI loves, so why look too closely at the legality of it?

But all that CONI stuff really only affects Valverde, and with everyone playing relatively nice between the UCI and ASO this year, someone has do the broader eye-gouging and overreaching, and this year the French government has stepped up to the task. Chapeau. Not satisfied that Prudhomme and ASO could simply decide what was best for their event within the rules of the sport, France’s Minister of Sport, Bernard Laporte, has seen fit to wade into what was, for a brief, shining moment a waning clusterfuck rather than a waxing one.

By declaring from his own little pulpit that Boonen and Valverde “are not welcome at the 2009 Tour de France,” Laporte has managed to preach exactly the opposite sermon from the UCI and ASO, deciding that, as a part of the ruling civil authority, it should slog into the affairs of a sporting event it neither owns nor regulates, based on its distaste for a legal matter in Belgium and a sporting matter in Spain (that’s been co-opted by Italy). I’m not sure what the French government generally or the Ministry of Sport specifically kicks into the Tour pot, or what their contribution would or could be besides discount prices on gendarmes, but I’m pretty damn sure they aren’t in charge of sending invitations, which is a good thing, because picking out stationary is a hell of a delicate thing, and best not left up to government bureaucrats. Either way, France as a state is known to profit considerably from the Tour, in good years and bad, so France as a state best shut its trap and let ASO do what it does best -- run an incredibly lucrative bike race. Fortunately for Boonen, and maybe Valverde, Laporte isn’t the official welcoming committee for the 2009 Tour de France. I think that’s Bernard Hinault, and he’s doing a bang-up job so far.

Even if we discount Laporte, who I might add has a name that’s a pretty good homophone for “Puerto,” if you know what I mean, things aren’t all rosy just because ASO and the UCI have decided to play by roughly the same rulebook. Lest we think that the UCI is contorting itself into some non-recognizable, even-handed caretaker of the sport, we only need to look as far as Wednesday’s news. Upping the ante in its desperate attempt to ward off derision of its biological passport program, UCI chieftan Paddy McQuaid announces that they’re ready to release the names of riders with suspicious biological passport results. McQuaid also says that the UCI will eventually open proceedings against the riders, but that even though they’re announcing the names, the riders won’t be given the customary immediate sit-down by the boys in blue. No, they’re going to leave that “up to the teams.” How magnanimous, or unbelievably cowardly, depending on how you look at it.

What, pray tell, does that magnanimity tell us about how dependable these “suspicious” findings are? It means they have all the durability of an R-Sys wheel, because this is, after all, a sport where you can be slapped with one of those provisional suspensions based on a rumor about a particularly voluminous bowel movement you may or may not have created in the team bus bathroom back in 2005. If it can’t get you suspended in cycling, even provisionally, it simply isn’t worth worrying about. And if the world governing body is going to come out and name names, and especially if they’re going to build the suspense with preliminary press releases to increase turnout at their Swiss photo op in a few days time, they damn well better have enough to evidence to take the wheels off those riders’ bikes right then and there.

And if the paper the UCI has is that good, would they leave it up to the teams to give provisional suspensions? After all, the UCI has implicitly accused many of those teams of orchestrating these ugly little affairs themselves, so why, if those teams now know the jig is up, would they sit down the very guys who should be absolutely flying right now? Nah, I say go out all guns blazing, and make the UCI spend the next two years trying desperately to finalize a single results sheet from here to the Vuelta.

Frankly, if one of my guys turned up hot, I might keep sending him out there until someone told me in no uncertain terms not to, because I’d be sick of the UCI putting me in the middle of its little spats. Last year it put the teams and riders in the middle of its tickle fight with ASO, this year it’s inserting them into their fight with the biological passport critics. Enough is enough – if you’ve got the goods, let’s see them, if not, get back to work if you want, but quit spouting off to the press. If you’re going to position yourself as the sport’s overarching enforcement arm, do the job with good evidence and confidence, and don’t try to force the teams into doing your bidding when you’re too terrified of the fallout to do it. You can have the credit and you can have the blame, but no matter how hard you try, you have to risk getting one to get the other.

Unfortunately, the message from the UCI is as transparent as it is distasteful – be a good little team, and suspend these riders like you know we want you to. Otherwise, you’ll get so much “targeted testing” from your top riders down to your soigneurs that you won’t have enough blood or piss left to fill a vial. If what we’re looking for is real, fair, and non-politicized enforcement in cycling, I’m not sure that looks like it.

The Dope Show

With news of Tyler Hamilton ringing the doping bell for a second time all over the front pages today, it seemed like a good time to drag out the dope-related piece below. Why? Because just rehashing the Hamilton saga wouldn’t be any fun, and I’m confident that any number of sources will be able to fill that void in your informational needs. But doping is going to be the topic of the day whether I like it or not, and I'm not strong enough to swim directly against that rip current. So I'm swimming sideways, just like they tell you to. Onward...

Back in January of 2008, a fellow club member (and writer for a serious, newsy publication) was looking for sources that knew the ins-and-outs of the doping world, since she’d been assigned to cover the Major League Baseball hearings on Capitol Hill. So she put the question out to our listserv. Since we travel in some overlapping circles, and I’ve never been one to resist a snarky reply, I channeled my alter ego to warn her of the dangers of what she was asking – namely, asking cyclists for nearly any sort of input on doping matters, cycling or otherwise. If she had any doubts as to the wisdom of that course, I believe the response, pasted below, cleared it right up.

I should caution you that my alter ego is not a stickler for strict presentation of “the facts,” which should never be allowed to get in the way of making a point. Also, he’s usually a little drunk.


Dear Mme. [Name Withheld]-

Welcome to the dope show.

I suggest that you get in touch with your friend and mine, Mr. [Name Withheld] lately of Boulder, Colorado. He’s been sniffing around the back end of that dog since 1999, at least, and he hasn’t let it bite him yet. The astute minds of NPR call on him each July to speak on the issue, as he has a voice for radio, with a face to match, as he’d no doubt point out, ha ha, hee hee… The MLB crowd isn’t his game, but he’s likely kept up with the issues.

But before telephoning and getting down into the dirt of the assignment, I advise you to consume a minimum of one pint cheap whiskey, open all the windows and put a needle the live version of Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” preferably at maximum volume and distortion. I stress that it must be out loud and analog, at least at the output end – none of that digital file and earbud shit your generation has an affinity for.

“I’m going to try
For the kingdom, if I can
Because it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
Aw, honey, things aren’t quite the same…”

Ah, things aren’t quite the same. Indeed. And that's the problem. Talking to lycra-clad freaks about doping in the American big leagues is a dangerous proposition. For starters, they’re so radicalized through years of cycling’s “unfair” media browbeating that their spittle-whet rants about American major league sports are nearly nonsensical. But more than that, their tirades are virtually irrelevant, as the sewer of dope regulations running beneath cycling's roads is much deeper and has far more tributaries than the shallow ditch that runs straight past the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL headquarters and out to their ample parking lots. For that crowd, being a federally regulated monopoly has its drags, like providing health insurance and wearing a tie for congressional hearings, but strict rules against the hot sauce ain’t among them.

But not so with cycling, my friend. We have plenty of those little sticky wicket dope rules, and we did it to ourselves. Rather, Hein Verbruggen did it to us back in 1992, when the UCI reunited its FIAC (amateur) and FICP (professional) arms and wrapped them lovingly around the busty chest of the IOC in a ploy to get at the roll of cash tucked neatly into her décolletage. That clumsy groping opened the door for professional cyclists in the Olympics, that quadrennial feel-good sham that for some reason continues to intoxicate the advertisers.

And what did we get for it? The goofiest son of a bitch to ever hold a Swiss passport, geezer Pascal Richard, wins the 1996 Atlanta road race and starts an unfortunate trend by putting his remedial art skills to work designing himself a commemorative jersey. Compare that to 1992 in Barcelona, when quiet, young, and beautiful Fabio Casartelli, clad in a sponsor-free Squadra Azurri jersey, single-handedly Hindenburged the USCF-funded Lance Armstrong publicity dirigible that was floating over the NBC coverage. Armstrong got other chances, of course, but Casartelli not so much. He died way too early and way too publicly on the Portet d’Aspet, and we’re left with a Telekom Cerberus negotiating the medals on the road in Sydney 2000, Paolo Bettini riding in gold shoes, and at least one other pro race every four years guaranteed to be as fucked up as the World Championships. But that’s not the worst of it.

In exchange for sipping complimentary Coca-Cola in some luxury trailer on a humid Atlanta streetcorner, then flying off to the next round of bid cities to check out their race courses, liquors, and prostitutes, collecting as much as he could in cash and prizes along the way, Verbruggen ceded dope regulation of professional cycling to the rules of the IOC, with all the integrity that implies, and subsequently to its WADA minions. That lot and their accredited labs have joined the national cycling federations, national Olympic committees, and some attention-starved police forces and magistrates to form some sort of babel-tongued Greek chorus, chanting for heads on plates wherever they can find them. When they can’t find the plates, they settle for the heads, and then fight amongst themselves over who gets the ear and who the tongue. The rest is all written down.

But that doesn’t have anything to do with baseball. Because the professional stick-and-ball crowd has the goddamned good sense to stick to the culture they know and the rules they make and enforce themselves, instead of handing the keys to the kingdom to some Swiss milkmaid in a labcoat just to gain entry to an event their audience doesn’t give a rat’s ass about. They’ve got a good thing going, and they’re not about to screw it up by hopping in the sack with a bunch of guys in Prada sunglasses sipping thimblefuls of coffee in Lausanne cafes.

Those guys may have a lot of Euros lining their pockets, but baseball is content with the pile of greenbacks it has, an extra large from Dunkin Donuts, and getting hauled in front of a congressional panel every now and then. Why? Because they’re smart enough to know that baseball is about the pennant, the World Series, and money, not the Olympics, just like cycling is about the Tour, the Classics, and money, not the Olympics. And that you’re far better off running your own show. The Olympics are a cold-war relic more suitable for Greco-Roman wrestlers, ice dancers, and eastern-bloc gymnasts than for sports with more than a couple of bucks in hand and other things to do with them, and you’re far better off without the IOC’s hand in your particular cookie jar. But cycling failed to recognize that. Fortunately for professional baseball, it did, and its dog-and-pony hearings will go as scheduled: superficially tough questions pitched to bit players, marble-mouthed non-answers from the low seats, the ceremonial ousting of several “bad seeds,” then business as usual. Cycling used to have that luxury, but we sold it for a soft-focus interview with Bob Costas.

So anyway, yeah, call [Name Withheld]. He’s probably wondering what you’re up to anyway.