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.

A Salute to Victory Salutes

On this eve of the 2008 Milan-San Remo, the official start of the classics season, it seems appropriate to have a look at that reliable bookend of nearly every professional cycling race, the victory salute. Though it can look casual, even spontaneous, the salute is actually governed by a set of rules, passed down through generations of riders to ensure some semblance of professionalism. Or at least it should be.

Victory Salute Rule #1: Never Do it Too Early

Like Paris-Roubaix’s Arenberg Forest, the victory salute won’t win a rider the race, but it can lose it for them. It seems elementary, but this rule is forgotten surprisingly often, and by people who should know better: never, ever celebrate until you’re positive you’ve won. For instance, four short years ago, Erik Zabel (the T-Mobile, now Milram) thought he had a fifth Milan-San Remo victory sewn up and threw his arms in the air, only to see Oscar Freire (Rabobank) squirt under his right elbow on his way to a second win. That little mistake not only cost Zabel the win, but also resulted in an embarrassing finish line shot that made Zabel’s non-win look like one of Chris Horner’s actual wins.

Of course, if an experienced pro like Zabel could do it, anyone could. And they do, despite being professionals and having ridden hundreds and hundreds of races to get to even the neo-pro phase of their careers. One can only imagine what the chat with the team and the director sportif is like afterwards.

Victory Salute Rule #2: Remember the Reason

To the casual observer, the victory salute appears to be the rider’s physical manifestation of joy at adding another line to his palmares and a little bonus check to his bank account. And that’s surely true.

But the salute is also a valuable commercial commodity. The image of the rider sitting upright, arms outstretched to nicely frame the sponsor logo as he crosses the line will be the image most often used in television, web, and magazine coverage, and in the bevy of ads equipment sponsors will run in the wake of a victory. Which is odd, because the finish straight is the one part of every race that pretty much looks exactly the same no matter which race it is – some road, a white line, some barriers, a few trailers, electrical cables, and a banner. But that’s a different story.

If sponsors didn’t want that shot, they wouldn’t pay to plaster their names across the chests of jerseys in a sport where the participants spend all day hunched over (look for a future piece, "The Origins of Assvertising"). Riders who know which side their bread is buttered on always remember to give their all for this critical juncture of the race, including donning a well-rehearsed pain face if necessary.

Victory Salute Rule #3: Remember the Procedure

A proper salute doesn’t just happen, but the procedure for attaining one is fairly simple if a rider remembers all of the steps in sequence.

  • 10k or so prior to the finish, depending on the state of the race, remove any extra clothing obscuring the jersey (e.g., rain jacket, vest, ascot).
  • If riding solo or if victory has been pre-arranged with breakaway companions, zip jersey several hundred meters from the line. This ensures that text and logos will be unbroken and visible so that the sponsor gets the publicity, not the rider’s sweaty gold chain.
  • Double check that nobody is about to pip you for the win. I can’t stress enough how important this is.
  • Straighten jersey, adjust or remove sunglasses.
  • No more than 25 meters from the line, raise arms overhead, or extend straight out to the sides. Timing is critical -- nobody wants to watch the winner wobble around at 16kph with his arms in the air for 3 kilometers.

The unwritten exception to Rule 3 is that the rider must know when to abandon the procedure in order to preserve the win. Sponsors, in a pinch, can make due with podium shots, which have the offsetting advantages of a clean jersey and kissing girls in petrochemical knitwear. If the rider is engaged in a tight, non-arranged sprint to the finish, obviously, zipping up is secondary. If it is snowing, keeping the vest on to the finish may be a good idea. While the proliferation of radios in professional cycling is an indication that as few decisions as possible should be left to the riders, this one, due to timing, is unavoidable. Only the rider can decide when all his attention must be focused on actually winning. That’s where things tend to go bad.

Victory Salute Rule #4: Keep it Simple

There are some riders who, in the excitement of those waning kilometers, manage to remember most of Rule #3, but get a bit carried away when it’s time to execute the final step. If a victory salute has an elaborate backstory or requires props or any sort of pre-planning, it’s way too complicated. And somehow, intricate celebrations are a bit unsavory. After all, cycling, even in the 21st century, is not the NFL of the 1980s. Ickey Shuffle, anyone?

Nonetheless, cycling has had its share of infractions. Witness Juan Antonio Flecha’s (then, now Rabobank) archer routine when he won Stage 11 of the 2003 Tour de France, from Narbonne to Toulouse, a play on his last name, which means "arrow" in Spanish. It’s never a good trend when people start acting out their names. Who wants to see David Millar (or Robert Miller, for that matter) making wheat-grinding gestures or Maarten Den Bakker kneading dough at a finish? What about the Italians, who are naturally expressive? I’m not sure of the direct translation of his name, but what, by god, would Crescenzo D'Amore do when crossing the finish line? I’m pretty sure I don’t want to see it. And thank heavens Mariano Friedick is retired from the U.S. domestic circuit.

Apparently, 2003 was a breakout year for the rehearsed but obtuse victory salute. Maybe it was just the intoxication of the Tour, maybe it was just Spanish riders, or maybe it had something to do with Toulouse, but a mere two days after Flecha’s Saturday Night Fever act, Carlos Sastre (CSC) one-upped his compatriot with a bizarre pacifier-nursing salute on Stage 13, from Toulouse to Plateau de Bonascre. A touching tribute to a man’s love for his daughter, sure, but fairly unsuitable for sponsor ads, since it takes a paragraph of disclaimer text to explain why your all-conquering destroyer-of-worlds is suckling a binky.

Perhaps recalling those heady days of 2003, Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) brought it all back home last year with his own bizarre salute at the finish of the 2007 road World Championship in Stuttgart, Germany. In taking his second consecutive win, Bettini fired an invisible machine gun, explaining later that his intended victims were not the crowd, but all the folks who tried to exclude him from the race for not signing one of cycling’s increasing number of blood oaths about doping. That’s all well and good, but since he had to explain just what the hell he was doing at the press conference anyway, he might as well have just made a statement there. Then, he would have had a victory photo for his wall where you could see his face.

There are riders who can get away with a bit of improv -- Mario Cipollini's taunting look over the shoulder look during his Saeco days, or Robbie McEwen's running man at the 2006 Tour. But those were just small variations on the norm, not sweaty, rolling games of charades.

Victory Salute Rule #5: One Winner, One Salute

This is a recent addition to the list, and an unfortunate byproduct of the times. Cycling has long been an individual sport practiced by teams. The winner gets the flowers, of course, but those savvy to the sport always knew what the domestiques contributed, and we loved them for it. But now, in this feel-good era where everyone is a winner and trying hard is what counts, the workers are starting to get a little fed up with their lack of recognition, and have started distinguishing themselves by raising their arms in celebration of a teammate’s win while they roll in mid-pack. This of course, is done under the guise of, “my team has won, how super!” But it’s really just to show that that they, too, played a role in the victory of that puffed-up glory hound son-of-a-bitch who just happened to be the one who crossed the line first.

One particularly grievous incident is found here, with Tom Boonen, of all people, “celebrating” behind teammate Nick Nuyens, who has already won the 2005 Het Volk, while some other Quick.Step joker raises his arms in the foggy distance. For some reason, Quick.Step seems to be a prime offender for this sort of thing, despite being primarily Belgian, which usually quashes any sort of flamboyance from birth. CSC is another frequent violator of this rule, but for them, it seems more natural given all their touchy-feely teambuilding exercises and whatnot.

So, those are the rules.

I didn’t make them.

Obviously, nobody enforces them.

But they’re there for the benefit of everyone. Just ask Zabel, the poor bastards looking for a sponsor for High Road, or any professional rider whose teammates are committing assorted jackassery in the background of their finish shots.

Thanks for your compliance.