Sometimes, It Is That Simple

As cyclists, we sometimes have a tendency to overstate the strategic and tactical aspects of professional cycling. Don’t feel bad about it – it’s a perfectly natural reaction to being surrounded by a general public that, at least in the United States, understands little about the intricacies of the sport we love.

On a daily basis ("daily" meaning “six times in July”), we face misguided commentary and indignant questions from those who, through no fault of their own, believe that bicycle road racing is an individual sport, that once the starter’s pistol is fired, every one of those 180 lycra-clad freaks pedals hell bent for leather to the finish line, and may the strongest man win. For those who know better, it can be tough to take.

And so we, those who’ve left skin on the road, those whose sympathetic hearts pound when the big attacks explode across the television screen, yearn to teach the lay public different. We long to open those uninitiated eyes to the all the careful thought and closely guarded knowledge that allows the racer to make most effective use of his muscle, ache to share the science that shows it’s oftentimes better to be a few men behind than boldly out in front, and dream of the chance to illuminate the topographical nuances that will dictate how and where a race will be decided.

In response to the slightest provocation from a non-cyclist, in addressing the most innocent dinner party question, we go overboard, sputtering through explanations of the roles of domestiques, the commercial concerns that drive the early break, the benefits and drawbacks of multiple team leaders, and the importance of a well-drilled lead-out train. As the inquirer begins to shift uncomfortably in their seat, we continue with increased urgency to try to impart as many of cycling's rock-paper-scissors nuances as we can before our victim feeds the family dog a chicken bone to create a diversion and facilitate an escape.

Usually, the effect of this deluge of mind-numbing detail is that the victims retain nothing at all, but if they somehow manage to digest some of our inane ramblings, they’d be likely to come away with the mistaken view that cycling is almost entirely decided by strategy and tactics. And that’s as untrue as thinking it relies solely on fitness. In fact, when it comes down to the finale of races like last Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the average oblivious man on the street might have a more accurate impression of how things work than a bunch of overanalytical bike geeks. Sometimes – maybe most times, in fact – it all really does just come down to who’s stronger.

In the Ronde, both Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) rode tactically perfect races. Each had obviously picked the right man to mark (not a hard decision after last week’s E3 Prijs). Both stayed alert during the early sortings out on the Paterberg and Koppenberg climbs. Cancellara attacked on the Molenberg with 45 kilometers remaining to the finish – marking almost exactly the point at which the magical “final hour” of a bike race begins – and set the pair up to pick up a tailwind boost as the race turned southeast. Boonen followed with so little hesitation that many press outlets seem hesitant to assign the attack to one rider or the other, instead giving dual credit, and both favorites immediately began to work to build their advantage over the rest.

Everything from the start in Brugge up to that point of attack on the Molenberg – all that work to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people? Though there’s a (high) minimum fitness level required to execute it, that’s all the tactics and teamwork of professional cycling. That’s all that stuff we like to rattle on about, entertaining each other and lulling outsiders into a dangerous state of combined boredom and loathing.

But past the Molenberg -- over the Leberg, Berendries, Tenbosse, Muur, Bosberg, and on into Meerbeke? That part of the race was all pure brute strength, the kind it doesn’t take a cyclist, a cycling fan, or a journalist to spot. Tactically, scientifically, and aerodynamically speaking, the larger group of very strong riders behind – names like Gilbert, Hincapie, Iglinsky, Langveld – should have been able to regain Boonen and Cancellara. But they couldn’t. Instead, Cancellara and Boonen continued to build their gap. And when Cancellara attacked again on the Muur, Boonen didn’t hesistate, didn’t let Cancellara go figuring his move was too far from the finish. Boonen didn’t make any sort of tactical or technical mistake, didn't misjudge or get caught asleep at the wheel – he simply couldn’t match Cancellara’s power. Nor could he recover and claw back anything on the Swiss over the Bosberg or on the flat run to the finish. From start to finish, Boonen rode a perfect race. Cancellara just rode a perfect race faster.

Sometimes, beaten riders subjected to press questions will cite little tactical issues that they credit with ultimately bringing about their demise – too far back on this climb, little team support here, followed the wrong wheel there. Again, it’s understandable. It is hard, and boring, to simply tell the assembled press that you just weren’t strong enough, and it’s easy and sounds more insightful to focus on all the times when a small mistake cost you. But those immediate post-race statements just tend to reinforce the poor but oft-stated metaphor that cycling is like a chess game. It isn’t. Nobody makes you get three quarters of the way through a chess game, and then arm wrestle to see who wins. So, tactics junkies, race analysts, and cocktail party bores, listen closely to what Tom Boonen had to say following his heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Cancellara:

“I was racing after him at 55 kilometers an hour, and he took a minute off me. What can I say? He was the strongest.”

Sometimes, losing is just that simple.


  • Want a second opinion on Cancellara’s strength? From Gent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel, on hearing the Cancellara/Boonen break behind him, from “I thought, I’d better let this motorbike come by, but when I turned around and looked it was Cancellara.”

  • I don’t care if you’re a ProTour team or not, if you don’t put a single rider across the finish line of a monument like Flanders, you should receive a mandatory one year exclusion from that race. No hard feelings or griping from the organizer need enter into it – it would just be a sort of automatic, single-event relegation. This year, all eight of Footon-Servetto’s starters ended up on the DNF end of the results sheet. Under my plan, they’d be excluded next year, so David Gutierrez (Footon) can stay home where he wants to be, preparing for the Tour of the Basque Country or whatever, while someone like Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis) can be at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where he wants to be. Another beneficial side effect: the second feed zone of cycling’s monuments won’t have more people looking for a ride than a goddamn Greyhound terminal on Thanksgiving weekend.

    Anyway, hot on Footon-Servetto’s dubious heels were fellow Spanish imports Caisse d’Epargne and Euskaltel-Euskadi, who each managed to send a single rider across the finish line (Joaquin Rojas in 37th and Javier Aramendia Lorente in 65th, respectively). Look, I know the classics aren’t a focus for those teams, and that only two of Footon’s riders were actually Spanish, but that’s a ridiculous attrition rate and the shared country of origin really makes it stand out. To be fair, home team Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator also finished only a single rider – Gent-Wevelgem warrior Sep Vanmarcke, in 62nd position – but they’re a second division team focused on young talent, and with a budget that makes the constantly sponsor-challenged Footon look wealthy.

  • Last week, I pointed out that if “classic specialist” ProTour teams Quick Step and Omega Pharma failed to win the Ronde, they’d be in the unenviable position of having to win Paris-Roubaix to salvage the part of the season that pays the bills for them. Well, they didn’t win the Ronde (or today's Scheldeprijs, either). That both these teams have failed to climb the top step of the podium at this year’s cobbled classics makes me wonder anew whether there is really room for such a high level of specialization at the very top of the sport these days. With teams like HTC-Columbia and Saxo Bank making an impact from February to October in classics, stage races, and grand tours, will even the most die-hard Belgian sponsor be willing to front ProTour money for two months of hit-or-miss classics specialization, followed by six months of chasing stages and glorified kermesse wins? For the sort of cash Quick Step puts up, they should at least have an Ardennes specialist that will give them a legitimate shot through late April. People wail and moan about Tour de France-centric teams like U.S. Postal/Discovery only really racing for 21 days a year, but if you count up the days of classics racing, are Quick Step and Omega Pharma (post-Cadel Evans) really far off that mark?

  • Finally, how about that Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions)? Somebody needed to start winning things for that team, and I’m glad he’s the one to do it. OK, that’s a little mean, considering David Millar’s stage and overall win in DePanne, but people have had a lot of expectations for this team for a long time, and those expectations were starting to wear pretty thin. Now that Farrar seems to be really getting his legs under him in the classics, let’s hope he’s allowed to put some energy into building on that promise, rather than spending a career getting overmatched in grand tour bunch sprints. Success (or, if not success, visibility) in grand tours means a lot to American teams in particular, so it’s understandable that Farrar gets highlighted in that capacity. And don't get me wrong, he’s very, very good in the bunch sprints – one of the best. But he could have a potentially better career as a classics man ahead of him, and I have to wonder if Garmin will be the right place to make that transition in the most effective way.

Adventures in Rumor-Mongering

Guess what? Francisco Mancebo apparently isn’t going to ride for Caisse d’Epargne. Peter Hymas, of Bobke Strut and (more currently and relevantly) of, wrote to reveal that the inclusion of Mancebo in the Caisse d’Epargne start list for the Clasica San Sebastian was an uploading error in the site’s content management system. It seems that, in its effort to hyperlink each rider’s name to their bio page, the database failed to recognize an exact match for Francisco Perez Sanchez’s name, panicked, and sucked both Perez's and Mancebo’s names into the initial start list.

I, obviously, am crushed by this development. Not because I care terribly about where Mancebo rides, but because it marks my early departure from the number one media sport of the post-Tour season: rumor-mongering. Even though I feel like the first guy out in a game of musical chairs (or maybe the second guy out), it was a good run and I can’t complain. I’ve learned a lot from the big cycling media guns over the years regarding this particular pursuit, and put all that knowledge to work in my Mancebo-rama over the last several days. I'm still falling a little short, but since I’m moving steadily towards my dotage, I feel the need to pass along what I’ve learned so that others might take my place in the game when I've shuffled off this mortal coil.

So, we bring you the Service Course’s Guide to Creating an Effective Cycling Rumor:

  1. Make it at least marginally of believable.
    This step is the most important, because if it’s not somewhat believable, it’s not a rumor, it’s an Onion article – “Contador to Ride Next Tour as an Independent” simply won’t work. In our example, the parties involved made it pretty easy pickin's. Rock Racing tends to have a lot of strange and unscheduled turnover, as evidenced by Mario Cipollini’s arrival and departure, the departures of Chris Baldwin and Mike Creed after being involuntarily demoted to amateur status, and the recent re-arrival of Ivan Dominguez. So Mancebo's sudden departure wouldn't have been a stretch at all, and since Caisse d’Epargne has so much history with Mancebo, it was a perfect match. It isn’t always so easy to make your rumor believable, though – just look at all those folks trying to dream up legitimate reasons that Andy Schleck would want to go ride for Radio Shack.

  2. Find a catalyst that exists in the real world, outside of your own head.
    In the Internet age, people are all high and mighty about demanding a “link” for whatever you’re claiming, so it’s far more difficult to pull off a good, old fashioned “we heard that…” rumor. In this case, the San Sebastian start list was a great springboard. Granted, it was a small hook and very short-lived, but bigger news has been presaged by less in the past. Yesterday, people were citing an Andy Schleck “tweet” mentioning Armstrong and presenting it as a sign that he was really going to go to Radio Shack, proving that, like some sort of digital MacGyver, you really can just use whatever’s handy. I originally looked at the start list to find out which members of different Astana camps would be riding together at San Sebastian and see what I might be able to make out of that, but then something better floated by.

  3. Present both sides, and try to sound rational.
    If you want people to embrace your rumor, you can’t just go straight in, ranting and raving about how it's totally true, and just you wait, ‘cause it’s gonna happen. You have to show how and why it could have some validity, but you also have to mention how it could be complete bullshit. This is especially important if you’re a relatively major media outlet. In the Mancebo case, we provided the eventual undoing of the rumor right in the first post on the subject, and fleshed it out a bit more in yesterday’s post by noting again that Mancebo bears a name that’s fairly similar to someone already on Caisse d’Epargne’s roster for San Sebastian, which could easily cause a mixup on the start list. From there, though, it’s important to bury your caveat in all sorts of accepted facts that seem to reinforce your rumor, but really don’t have much to do with it at all. Sort of like how Contador proved it’s impossible to be a GC contender and ride on Armstrong’s team, but everyone still chatters on about how Andy Schleck could potentially learn from all of Armstrong’s experience if he went to Radio Shack. Seven Tours wins! And nine for Bruyneel! Improve your time trial! How could he say no?

  4. Never get into the details.
    When is Mancebo’s contract with Rock Racing up? Does he have an out clause that would let him sign for a ProTour team should the opportunity arise? Since you can’t make a roster change on a continental team after June 29 without getting an individual review, could this whole mess even have been sorted out by San Sebastian? Could Caisse d’ Epargne even hire another rider, or are they already up to the UCI’s roster limit? Who cares? You can’t let yourself get bogged down in that stuff. Just push ahead, knowing that the sport’s rules are so poorly constructed and inconsistently applied that your rumor has the same veracity regardless of the answers to any of those questions. Besides, people on message boards love to look all that stuff up, so you might as well let them do the heavy lifting. You could cover yourself, if you’re so inclined, with something breezy like, “It might not be legal, but we haven't looked into that part.”

  5. Milk it.
    If you’ve put in this much effort into developing a rumor, you need to get at least two articles out of it, preferably more, before someone who actually knows the truth steps in and puts things straight. If that means pounding away at it day after day until everyone involved has weighed in, so be it. Which brings us to…

  6. In the words of the great Hunter S. Thompson, “make the bastards deny it.”
    When you first debut a good rumor, it’s essential to be able to say you’ve contacted some of the parties involved. Note that I did not say you had to have actually reached them or talked to them. That’s something else entirely, and in fact, actual contact is downright detrimental to the rumor process. In the Mancebo case, we contacted both Rock Racing and the press agent for Caisse d’Epargne. We still haven’t heard back from either of them, which for rumor-mongering purposes is absolutely perfect. Just look at how Andy and Frank Schleck’s father/agent went and ruined all the Radio Shack fun by simply stating that the brothers had another year on their Riis Cycling contracts that they were going to honor. For our rumor, we got a surprise third-party denial, which afforded our Mancebo rumor only a short, two-day lifespan. I have to admit, I did not see that coming. Well played, Hymas.

See, it’s simple. Next year, you won’t simply have to piggyback off the mainstream rumors developed by others – you have everything you need to construct your own. Or heck, have a go at it right now, there’s still a month left until September 1, when everyone’s allowed to go public with talk about transfers and ruin all the fun.

Seriously though, what’s so appealing about hammering away at the whispers and rumors every year after the Tour is over? Why do the big sites even bother, when they’re going to be wrong most of the time? Simple – it’s the perpetual pursuit of that one shining instance when you notice or overhear that little something, write about it, and then it turns out to be dead right. And you’re the first to be right about it. There’s nothing better.

So remember, if Mancebo does somehow end up at Caisse d’Epargne, you heard it here first.

Hints and Allegations

Just wanted to do a quick follow-on to yesterday’s post, which wondered, based on admittedly slim evidence, whether or not Francisco Mancebo is planning a jump from Rock Racing to Caisse d’Epargne. Having not heard back yet from either team, we still don’t know for sure whether there’s any truth to the matter or not (though the folks from Rock & Republic did pay the site a visit before ignoring the request). What we do know as of this morning is that Caisse d’ Epargne doesn’t plan to start him in the Clasica San Sebastian either way – they’ve released their roster this morning. Mancebo has also been removed from the start list at as of mid-morning.

Still, doesn’t it seem strange that Mancebo’s name would appear on the start list of Eusebio Unzué’s squad entirely without rhyme or reason? Sure, there’s the fact that his full name is Francisco Mancebo Perez, and the team also boasts a Francisco Perez Sanchez, so I suppose that could cause confusion for someone quickly typing up a start list, especially for someone who has typed most riders' names dozens of times. The problem with that is that in the earlier version of the start list, both Mancebo Perez and Perez Sanchez were listed. (Perez remains listed in Caisse’s official roster of this morning.)

Also counting against the “innocent mistake” argument is the undeniably long and fruitful association between Mancebo and Unzué’s outfits. Mancebo turned professional in 2000 with Banesto, the team with which Unzué directed Miguel Indurain to five Tour de France and two Giro d’ Italia wins. Before that, the team was known as Reynolds, with which Pedro Delgado scored his Tour de France win. In that neo-pro season, Mancebo won the white jersey of the best young rider in the 2000 Tour de France, setting his countrymen to wondering whether he would be the next great Spanish GC hope. Mancebo didn’t turn out to be an overnight Tour candidate, but he followed up that neo-pro season with a number of quality wins, staying on with Unzué as the team morphed into, Illes Balears-Banesto, and finally to Illes Balears-Caisse d’ Epargne. He also made steady progress in his GC placings, capping off his time with Unzué with a personal best 4th place in the 2005 Tour de France and a 3rd place in the Vuelta a Espana.

Following that performance, Mancebo finally left Unzué’s squad (which would become Caisse d’Epargne in 2006) for Ag2r, where he wouldn’t have to compete with an ascendant Alejandro Valverde for team leadership. Shortly after, Mancebo’s number came up in the Operacion Puerto scandal, and he was subsequently prevented from starting the 2006 Tour de France. He announced his retirement from cycling, but mounted a return the following year with the Spanish second-tier Relax-GAM before sliding to the anonymous Fercase-Paredes squad in 2008. In 2009, he signed with the often troubled U.S. Rock Racing squad, where he raced alongside other Puerto refugees Oscar Sevilla and Tyler Hamilton. He’s achieved some reasonable results in that time, including making an impression in several Spanish appearances, but Rock Racing’s continental license doesn’t allow him to compete in the biggest events.

Now, reviewing that history, does it seem like a coincidence that Mancebo’s name would pop up under the Caisse d’ Epargne name? And, does it seem that far fetched to think that, given half a chance, Mancebo wouldn’t get on a flight tomorrow to go back home and ride for a ProTour team and the director who guided him to his biggest successes? The real question lies in what such a move would solve for Unzué.

Unzué’s current leader, Valverde, is already barred from racing in Italy due to his own connections to Operacion Puerto and is now facing the very real prospect of that ban being made international. So Unzué could try to hedge his bets by bringing in an experienced and familiar GC rider. However, should he return to European racing and regain some prominence, Mancebo’s alleged involvement in Operacion Puerto could land him in much the same boat as Valverde, though most non-Italians have seen fit to move on from Puerto at this point. Additionally, if Valverde is benched, Unzué already has some other viable options for getting big results in Joachim Rodriguez and Luis Leon Sanchez, both of whom are younger than Mancebo and haven’t been several years removed from top-flight racing. So as a Valverde-substitute, Mancebo doesn’t make the most sense at this point.

The other reason for bringing back Mancebo could relate to this week’s biggest rumor mill, namely the question over where Alberto Contador (Astana) may ride next year. Should Contador jump ship, he’ll want assurances of a team that can back him up, and Mancebo could add some value to Caisse as a potential support rider in the grand tours.

Taking all that into account, it looks as if, in the event that Mancebo does land back under Unzué’s wing, the reason is likely to be more personal than sporting. Regardless of the reasoning though, Mancebo still seems to have what it takes to hold his own in Europe, and could produce a few more profitable seasons under proven leadership.

[Note: If you've read this far, please do read the followup here.]

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.

It's 6pm In Switzerland

The most underreported story of the last two days has been the fact that the UCI, not content that the Kazakh federation had caught up to its current payments to the Astana cycling team, has required the federation to deposit an additional 6 million euro bank guarantee. That amount would effectively cover the sponsor's committment through the end of the year, leaving the team to ride the rest of the season without the sort of turmoil and costume changes it's experienced so far this year.

So why does it matter what time it is in Switzerland? Because that guarantee is due at 6 pm on Tuesday (revised from 5 pm). In other words, now. If there's one thing they know in Switzerland, it's timekeeping, so if the money has failed to appear, the case goes to the UCI's licensing committee. That body could force a transfer of the license from the Kazakh federation to someone else, and I think we all know the "someone else" we're thinking of.

Though picked up the story yesterday evening, the news was in play in the Belgian and Dutch media much earlier in the day. In fact, Sportwereld posted this story early yesterday, then pulled it in favor of one with fewer details, and has now reposted it. In it, Johan Bruyneel reflects that he's still had no communication from the sponsors, though he seems pretty comfortable with that, promising that the team, whatever it may be called, will be at the Tour start in Monaco. He's so comfortable, in fact, it's almost as if he has a Plan B, eh?

Now here's the question: was Astana just waiting for this announcement before they decided whether to pay up or not? Had CAS cleared Vinokourov to ride ahead of the Tour de France start, there's a chance the money could have arrived, with one very, very hefty string attached.

CAS didn't award Vino his two-week reprieve, however, so he remains sidelined until a nice, safe July 24 (leaving Tour Poobah Christian Prudhomme free to breathe a giant sigh of relief). So now I suppose we'll never know if the Kazakhs might have been able to pass the hat for a cool 6 million to put Vinokourov directly back in the thick of things, or how Bruyneel would have reacted to the sort of strong arm tactics that the Kazakhs would have likely employed to ensure Vino his return. Compared to the oft-referenced, seldom named "cycling mafia," I'm betting the Kazakhs play just a little bit harder when the chips are down.

Now all that remains to be seen is if Astana will cough up the cash to watch some Spano-Germano-Americano quadruple threat play hero on its dime, especially now that management has benched Kazakhstan's best-performing local boy, Assan Bazayev. According to the Sportwereld article, chances of receiving that check are looking pretty slim, and I'm guessing that fits pretty well into a well-developed Plan B for the team.

UPDATE, June 17 a.m.: Though there's no official release available from the UCI yet, reports that Astana (the team) did not receive any payment from the Kazakh federation by yesterday's deadline. Apparently, the Kazakhs may try again today, but not if they follow the advice of their lawyers and their negotiator, former Dutch pro Rini Wagtmans, who feel that the UCI doesn't have the authority to ask for the extra guarantee. They may be right, but not having the authority has never stopped the UCI before, so it may not matter very much in the end. In the CN article, Wagtmans weaves a few theories about how the process may go down, but I'll be damned if I can make heads or tails of what he's envisioning. Bad translation, maybe? Also, Joe Lindsey takes his own look at the situation and provides some basic background here.

Coincidentally, Wagtmans' former teammate, Eddy Merckx, has a birthday today.

Hey Lance!

The “Hey Lance!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crazy Train

There’s plenty of blathering online today about an extremely disturbing turn in Belgian classics star Tom Boonen’s career. That’s right: the 27-year-old Quick.Step standout has been caught holding contract negotiations with the French Bouygues Telecom squad.

He also apparently tested positive for cocaine, but as you can see, that’s the least of his problems. Sure, developing a taste for the Bolivian marching powder could potentially send his cobbled career off the rails, but signing for Bouygues is like hiring the Grateful Dead to drive your locomotive. I suspect there might be some sort of causal relationship between these two transgressions, but I’m not yet sure which way it goes: does the possibility of riding for Jean-Rene Bernaudeau’s band of loveable losers make you turn to drugs, or does bumping a few lines in the disco toilet make leaving the world’s most powerful classics squad for the basement of the ProTour suddenly seem like a good idea?

It seems that, like the cocaine issue, Boonen is not rushing to deny these vicious Bouygues negotiation charges. And that’s disappointing, because in the world of professional cycling, not issuing some sort of denial is just plain lazy. By now, some 24 hours after the news broke, any self-respecting American pro would have set up a web site that takes PayPal donations, completed a chart-filled PowerPoint presentation, started an online petition for something, and established a charity benefiting French gout victims. Where’s the work ethic?

But we can’t hold Boonen to our standards, cultural differences being what they are and all, so for now, we’ll just have to assume that he’s actually considering riding for the Tour de France’s charity of choice. That leaves us to ponder the question of why.

Money is the simplest explanation, and as some guy theorized, in so many words, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. But how much money does Bouygues have? I’d imagine that Bouygues would have to bring in additional sponsors to cover bringing Boonen over, which they might be able to do if they searched out the right (read: Belgian) ones. But then they’d also have to come up with the scratch to sign the 3-5 guys he’d likely want to bring along to secure some decent help up north in the springtime, and those guys can cost a bit more coin than, say, Erki Putsep. Sure, current Bouygues boys Stef Clement (a recent acquisition from Dutch Skil-Shimano) and even team poster-boy Thomas Voeckler can ride decently in the classics, and the team has a lot of promising young talent in that department. But they also benefit from shouldering none of the responsibility for making these races. When you sign Boonen, that all changes, and they’d need some significant, seasoned reinforcement to not be portrayed as the team that costs him victories.

Aside from money, there really doesn’t seem to be another compelling reason for Boonen to go to Bouygues Telecom. Some will probably speculate that he’s looking to foreign teams in order to escape the glare of the Belgian press, whose persistent attentions he’s had problems with ever since he came third in his first Paris-Roubaix. But that’s a hollow argument. Boonen’s big targeted races (e.g., Flanders, Roubaix, the Tour) will be the same, whether he’s riding for Bouygues or a Belgian squad, or an Italian one, for that matter. With Bouygues, he might spend more time riding French Cup races at the expense of the E3-Harelbeke or the Scheldeprijs, but it’s not going to save him much scrutiny at this point. And the pressure to perform at the Tour and Roubaix will only be higher, as both the French and Belgian fans look to him to supply results. Basically, Tom Boonen is Tom Boonen, and the media will continue to follow him around no matter what jersey he’s wearing, how bizarre he decides to make his personal life, or how distant he becomes from the talent that made him famous. Kind of like Michael Jackson.

The only other thing I can think of is that the French and Belgian governments have forced the teams enter into some sort of circuitous, NFL/MLB/NBA-style player trading scheme (you know – “we’ve traded so-and-so for these two guys, a second-round draft pick in 2011, and a box of Cheez-Its”). The signs of this system, which redistributes the wealth of Belgian classics riders, started appearing late last year, when Quick-Step (Belgian) traded Nick Nuyens to Cofidis (French). In exchange, Francaise de Jeux (French) is sending Walloon Philippe Gilbert back up north to Silence-Lotto (Belgian) next year. But Gilbert would have to be worth a hell of a lot if his return to the homeland cost Belgium Boonen’s services. That makes me suspect that Belgium has offered Boonen up to France in exchange for keeping a player to be named later -- longshot Tour de France hope Stijn Devolder (Quick.Step) -- riding for a home team. After all, Belgium’s on a bit of a dry spell in that department since Eddy retired.

Kidding aside, I have to wonder how serious these negotiations between Boonen and Bouygues might have been. After all, Bernaudeau’s teams (Bonjour and Brioches La Boulangere before Bouygues) have long had a stated mission of developing young, French talent. Though they have signed a few foreigners of late, bringing in big, seasoned, Belgian talent is pretty drastic departure their usual M.O., and that’s the M.O. that will guarantee them a Tour de France slot long after the imminent demise of the ProTour system. Time will tell, of course, and again, all kidding aside, here’s hoping that Boonen gets his personal act together and comes back stronger for it. It looks like he’ll have the time to do so – as I write this, ASO has announced that he is no longer welcome at the Tour de France.

Hey Rube!

There was a time not so long ago when many cyclists wished on shooting stars that their beloved sport would become more mainstream, mostly for the TV coverage and so that they wouldn’t have to explain the leg shaving and lycra quite so often. It seems that now we’ve all been cursed by their selfish wishes. An ever-growing flock of write-by-numbers articles have been appearing in mainstream publications, heralding the arrival of cycling as “the new golf.” Just to be clear, by the “new golf” they don't mean that cycling is an engaging form of moderate exercise, but rather that it is an activity that allows well-off people to "network” when they should just “work” and on which they can spend boatloads of money for shiny equipment and executive trinkets.

Well, that’s just great.

Along with all of the other jackasserey that comes along with being the new golf, there are the inevitable follow-up articles about the stupid amounts of money people will spend on various aspects of the sport, be it on travel, engaging in Walter Mitty ride-alongs with the stars, or buying bicycles that cost more than Toyotas. These articles typically involve at least one comparison to a custom suit and/or a reference to Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, or, for the more global thinkers, Milan.

So it’s not surprising to see the latest New York Times contribution to the genre, because nobody writes about pompous people buying shit for three-to-ten times what its worth like the Gray Lady. This latest round, irritatingly titled “Cycling Success Measured in Frequent Flyer Miles” focuses on people who travel absurd distances to buy their bicycles simply to get a buying experience that makes the Mercedes dealership seem like the DMV. Don’t get me wrong, people should spend their money on what they want, provided they actually have the money. If what they want is bike stuff, that’s good for the industry that I’m extremely peripherally involved in. And I certainly don’t subscribe to the popular notion that nice equipment needs to be somehow “earned.” But let’s not pretend the social posturing accompanying this alleged trend isn’t ridiculous.

To whit, the coverboy for this particular piece, Dr. Jason Newland, traveled from his home in suburban Kansas City, Kansas to Waitsfield, Vermont to buy his new Serotta at the Vermont Fit Werx (chapeau for the transparently BMW use of the “e” rather than an "o" in Werx - very Euro). Dr. Newland is shown proudly holding his new Legend Ti over his shoulder while sporting pleated khakis and a crisp starched shirt. Many crueler writers would make jokes about this pose being the primary use for this particular bicycle, but I’m not going to go down that path. In fact, I have a lot of empathy for Dr. Newland, a triathlete who set about his noble quest in order to get a bicycle more suitable for his sport(s) than the Cannondale road bike he had. You know, more aero.

So, 1,400 Gold Card airline miles and $7,000 (not including travel costs, as the NYT article carefully notes) later, what has he acquired in his search for speed against the clock? A road bike with aero bars. Not, mind you, a Serotta triathlon/tt bike. Not that object of aero-geek lust, the Cervelo P3 Carbon. Not some overpriced semi-exotic eye-candy Euro-pro time trial bike, like a Colnago, or Pinarello, or Wilier. Not even a run-of-the-mill swoopy carbon TT bike, like a Jamis.

A road bike with aero bars. And Ksyriums.

I’m sure the folks at VFW did a bang-up job with the bike fit and set him up at the bed and breakfast with the fluffiest pillows and best damn pancakes in Vermont, but I can’t help but wonder if VFW took a little bit of advantage of Herr Doktor. There’s a lot of value in a good fit, no doubt. But if Dr. Newland’s motivation was really to get a more aerodynamic bicycle, as described in the first paragraph of the article, then he could have gotten just as aero by hitting the closest decent shop in his local Kansas City area and dropping a modest few hundred dollars for some bars, barcons, and snazzy reverse levers for the Cannondale. Because other than the bars and possibly the fit, there’s not a whole lot about his new bike that screams aero or time trial. It says expensive, yes, but not aero, which makes it pretty clear what the real goal was. If he’d spent a bit more of that $7,000 (not including travel costs) in a bike shop instead of on Expedia, he could have also floated himself a set of wheels with an aerodynamic signature better than a Cuisinart. (I’m assuming if VFW set him up with some high-zoot aero wheels, they would have been in the photo. After all, if you don’t run your Corimas in the Style section, where do you use them?)

Of course, people who have worked in shops know that there are any number of factors that could have led to Dr. Newland getting the bicycle he did. These include personal fit considerations, the unbendable desires of the client, or the strong, inexplicable magnetism between doctors and ti-carbon Serottas. So it’s probably not fair to imply that VFW took him for the metaphorical kind of ride, rather than the touchy-feely one to “gauge his riding style and position.” And we all know that if you’re really looking to fleece someone, selling them an actual time trial bike is a damn good place to start, and VFW clearly resisted that urge. But the marketing bullshit from VFW and its brethren that made it into the NYT piece makes it hard to resist pinning it on them. Here’s a sample:

VFW: “It’s a bit of a concierge service here.” Not too bad on its own, but it follows a delightful anecdote about the staff sharing leftover pizza and wine with a customer during a scrumptiously rainy afternoon. One wonders what delicious romantic dalliances might have ensued.

Cadence: “[Customers] want to scratch all their itches.” This one was in reference to customers making the purchasing trip part of a broader vacation. It’s also a bit creepy, in that I’m pretty sure they’re implying that, in addition to providing excellent bicycle-related services, they could arrange for a hooker (no, TT nerds, not that Hooker). That’ll give you an itch you need to scratch all right, but I’m sure the on-call doctor they no doubt employ could write you a script for some cream that’ll clear it right up.

SBR Multisports: “The wife wants to shop on Fifth Avenue, and the gentleman wants to shop at SBR.” At last, there’s our Fifth Avenue reference. Bonus points for the butler/tailor/waiter usage of “the gentleman,” instead of the more proletarian “husband” that would usually correspond to “wife.”

Regardless of who’s to blame for Dr. Newland accidentally buying a $7,000 (not including travel costs) butchered road bike instead of the $7,000 (not including travel costs) triathlon bike he set out to buy, I can’t help but feel that the NYT is the real villain here. The whole article just seems cruel. As we all know, the NYT usually sticks to talking about its own battle-hardened New Yorkers when it comes to reveling in the excesses of conspicuous consumption. But this article is a departure from those usual celebrations of absurd spending, and an unsavory one at that, because it dwells upon the mal-spending of a well-meaning rube from Kansas, inviting us all to have a knowing chuckle at his considerable expense. They’ve searched out an earnest Midwesterner, a simple pediatric infectious disease physician, exposed his monetary de-pantsing for all the world to see, and supplemented the humiliation with ridiculous quotes and associated prose highlighting the jackassedness of the entire enterprise. That’s just wrong, and I won’t stand for it.