Raceable Moments

Educators have a concept they call “teachable moments” –when classroom discussion takes an unexpected turn that the teacher can use to teach students about something they’re genuinely interested in. By definition, teachable moments aren’t a part of the lesson plan, and they’re not an everyday thing, but they’re an important, flexible element of an educational system that’s become increasingly rigid with the current addiction to standardized testing.

Bicycle stage racing’s become a little bit like education over the past few decades. Grand tours that used to be widely variable three-week brawls have become standardized tests, with GC contenders staying within well-established parameters for success: take time in the high mountains and in the time trials. Attack late on the last climb of the day. Race for maybe 200 kilometers, sit behind the team for the other 3,000.

But, just like education’s teachable moments, under the right circumstances, stage racing can still present opportunities for beneficial improvisation, raceable moments when GC riders have a chance to do something outside of the usual curriculum. Something that adds value and depth to the race. And I think that’s what made the 2010 Tour better than the last several editions – it presented more potential raceable moments. Some were ultimately seized and exploited, like Contador’s attack on the final climb to Mende, or Cancellara and Schleck’s rampage through the Stage 3 cobbles. Other chances, like Stage 2’s lumpy trip through the Ardennes, were passed over, but the route at least tempted GC riders to come out and play with nary a high mountain or disc wheel in sight.

It was still a far cry from the 1970s, when Merckx and the other giants of the road would occasionally club each other senseless on stages that modern GC contenders are content to leave to sprinters and breakaway artists. Racing has changed enough, and the fields are so much deeper now, that we’re unlikely to ever regain those days. But with thoughtful, innovative route planning, we can take small steps back in that direction.

In terms of raceable moments, this Tour also wasn’t yet on par with the Giri d’Italia of the last several years, which have taken GC battles to new modern-day highs with a mix of challenges, from creative mid-mountain days to throwback-length time trials. But the Tour is getting there. Last year’s tinkerings, concentrating the action in the final week at the near-total expense of the first 14 days of the race, demonstrated a well-meaning interest in shaking things up; it just didn’t work out terribly well in practice. This year, things worked out a little better, even if there was still heated debate over what, exactly, belongs in a grand tour.

After a predictable decade or two, ASO is finally starting to break the Tour out of its mold. If we’re lucky, the GC riders will follow.

  • The fact that Alberto Contador’s (Astana) winning margin ended up being 39 seconds over Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) is unfortunate, because the knee-jerk reaction inevitably has been and will continue to be to consider those "the same 39 seconds” that Contador gained in the now-infamous chain-drop attack. But they’re not the same 39 seconds, or at least not all of them are, anyway. If anyone bothered to look closely enough, a few of those seconds might turn out to be some of the 10 that Contador pulled back on Schleck on Stage 12 to Mende. Others might be leftovers from the 42 Contador put into Schleck in the prologue, or from the 31 he clawed out of the final TT. It’s hard to tell which seconds came from where, though, because they’ve long since been thrown in the pot with Schleck’s 10 from Morzine and his 73 from Arenberg, shaken up, and drawn back out, one by one. It doesn’t help that one of the damn things looks just like the next.

    Which is all a long way of saying that the final margins in a grand tour don’t come from any one day, or place, or attack. They come from three weeks of give and take, where the seconds ahead or behind on any given day contantly reshape the tactics on the road. Simply put, had Contador not taken those 39 seconds on the road to Bagnères-de-Luchon, the following stages wouldn’t have been ridden in the same way, just as, if Schleck hadn’t taken a yawning 1:13 over the cobbles, Contador’s much-debated attack might never have happened at all. To take the final margin of victory and cast it as coming from a specific time and place in the race is to completely misstate the nature of stage racing in general, and grand tours in particular.

  • At the time, people talked about Contador’s pursuit of those 10 seconds over Schleck on the climb to Mende (at the expense of a potential Vinokourov stage win) as smacking of insecurity and preemptive desperation. The drumbeat of that week was that Contador should have been content to just hold his roughly 30 second deficit to Schleck until the final TT, given his superiority in that discipline.

    Contador can’t win, can he? Had he just said, more or less, “I’m not worried about 30 seconds -- I’ll just hammer Schleck flat in the TT” he’d no doubt have his existing cocky label polished up and rehung around his neck. But when he goes on the attack to try to cut the deficit, he’s labeled as desperate and insecure. Scylla or Charybdis, take your pick.

    To my eye, Contador's move to take a little opportunistic time on the the climb up the “Col du Jalabert” smacked not of insecurity, but of a certain strategic self-awareness. Yes, based on past performance, Contador was the far-superior TT rider, but to count on (1) maintaining the same gap through the remaining Pyrenean stages when Schleck was clearly climbing well, and then (2) easily making up the time in the TT would have been pretty dismissive of not only Schleck, but also the fickle hand of fate. Thirty seconds is easily lost with a flat tire or a dragging brake, and there is no “wait for the yellow” guideline in a time trial (no matter how badly I’m sure people want there to be one). And the final TT – the one that Contador should have allegedly been content to spot Schleck half a minute in – revealed that even if the attack to Mende was a fit of desperation, Contador had his head in the right place in scrapping for seconds. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

  • On Saturday, I think we saw Schleck ride like we wished he’d ridden on Friday on the Tourmalet. Before that final mountain stage, Schleck said that he would risk losing his second place to try to win the Tour, but, while he apparently “surged” a number of times, I don’t think anyone really saw that risk-it-all philosophy materialize. On Saturday, though, the guy threw everything he had at the wall, and for a while it was looking like it might be enough. Someday, it might be.

  • In that same time trial, I’m also betting a lot of people saw Contador do the ride that they wanted to see from him – the one that made him look human. People will make a lot out of Contador’s vulnerability this year versus his invincibility last year, and read into it what they will about the great doping questions of the day. I’ll come at it from a much simpler perspective – I just like a race where everyone looks a little bit beatable more than one where they don’t.

  • There were a few minutes in Saturday’s TT, right about when Contador passed under the 10k to go banner, when I started to think that Denis Menchov (Rabobank) was going to pull off one of the sneakiest victories in Tour history. He didn’t, but with his podium finish, the Russian finally got the Tour monkey off his back. Hopefully, it’ll help him negotiate a better contract with Katusha for next year.

  • Today’s sponsorship report: After grabbing both the first and second spots on the podium, the folks from SRAM and Specialized are probably still drunk as monkeys and watering curbs throughout Paris right now.

  • RadioShack was triumphant in its allegedly dogged pursuit of the teams competition win, beating out second-placed Caisse d’Epargne. Contacted for comment as he was packing his suitcase, Caisse d’Epargne assistant director Neil Stephens responded, “We were second in the what now?”

  • Chapeau to Schleck for handling himself so well in difficult situations where it would have been very easy not to, especially for a 25-year-old. Through a combination of appearance and demeanor, Schleck always seems to come off as the perfect Boy Scout, with both the positives and negatives that title entails. It comes with a certain, perhaps accurate, connotation of naïveté, a perceived lack of the killer instinct, even when he's talking about the anger in his stomach. But there’s also an earnestness there, a focus on the job, and a steadfast refusal to be drawn into petty battles or jaded statements. On the balance, I’d call it a positive, because even if he never wins a grand tour, we could use a few more Boy Scouts in cycling (even if the first version didn’t turn out so well). I’ll say this for Bjarne Riis, he certainly puts together some of the most likeable teams in pro cycling.

  • You know, Footon-Servetto wasn’t that bad, and Rafael Valls probably earned himself a contract somewhere else and a possible return trip to the Tour in the future. Still horrible kit, though. Just horrible.

  • As I said, I thought it was a great Tour, but if you subscribe to cycling’ hero-and-villian roles as they’re currently cast, I could see where it could seem pretty dismal. That self-absorbed brat Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) nails down five stages, including his second straight on the Champs, while Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) goes home early and empty handed. The cocky, underhanded Alberto Contador bests that nice boy Andy Schleck on GC. That allegedly dirty Eye-talian playboy Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) gets the better of earnest viking Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) in the battle for green. That must be terribly frustrating for people who need their cycling cast like a John Wayne movie, replete with black and white hats.

  • Speaking of Petacchi, he’s now completed his collection of points jerseys from all three grand tours. (2004 Giro, 2005 Vuelta, 2010 Tour) Now we’ll see if it all comes crashing down around his ears before he can even get the last one framed and hung on the wall.

  • Speaking of jerseys, what of the great RadioShack wardrobe tragedy? Frankly, I wouldn’t shed too many a tear for them – contrary to appearances, I suspect the whole thing went off exactly as it was intended. If TRS really was counting on wearing the jerseys, they would have requested UCI approval, and given the stated nature of the effort, I bet they would have received it. But they didn’t take that step, choosing instead to go the six-year-old route and get more attention by acting out. With that, they also got the added bonus of getting to look persecuted one more time for the general audience.

    I found it all pretty distasteful, and not because I’m a stickler for the uniform rules. Armstrong’s previous teams wore modified uniforms onto the Champs Elysees all the time, and nobody, me included, cared a bit. I didn’t care then because they’d earned the media spotlight by winning the race, so in my mind, they were welcome to do with that Champs Elysees spotlight as they pleased, whether that was pushing Livestrong or whatever else their sponsors wanted or allowed. But this year, the spotlight wasn’t theirs to bask in, but they tried to point it at themselves anyway, when it should have been shining squarely on Contador, Schleck, Chartreau, and Petacchi. They know it, we know it.

    Finally, the whole affair kept 161 other guys - who just wanted to get the hell to Paris and be done with the whole damn thing - waiting while they huffed around with faux offense and fumbled with safety pins. That’s just rude.

  • And yes, it will sound callous, but I’m tired of cycling being the cancer sport. And yes, I say that as someone who has the obligatory family history. But I’m not going to recite that history here as some love to do in such discussions, because validity of opinions on the matter shouldn’t be decided on some chest-puffing “who’s more cancer” contest.

  • Related to the above point, I’ve had people email or ask me in person why I and others talk about the lawsuits and other negative things about Lance Armstrong, when he’s clearly an inspiration to people who can use some inspiration. I understand why they ask, and I can only answer for myself. I write a bike racing blog, so what matters about Armstrong to me, here, is the impact of his presence and actions on bike racing. To cite the most current example, yes, there might well be value in drawing attention to the number of cancer sufferers worldwide, in showing them that someone cares. But in the context of the bike race at hand, I thought it was inappropriate, so that’s what I wrote about. I write about the dope allegations because that’s relevant to bike racing; raising money for cancer is significantly less so. Plenty of other people can and do cover the cancer angle, so I’ll leave them to it.

  • Like others, I’m feeling a little lost now that the Tour is over, and I’ll miss seeing the little red light on my Tivo light up every morning just as I leave for work. It’s tempting to wish it would go on and on, but if all-you-can-eat buffets have taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be both good and unlimited.

  • Since, whether I like it or not, the Tour marks the high point of the cycling season, it’s a good time to say thanks to everyone who’s come here to read, both during this Tour and over the last few years. So thanks. And if you’re one of those who just started visiting during the Tour, I hope you’ll stick around.

  • Sometime during the past year, I’ve decided that each Tour needs to get played out the same way, so here’s this year’s version of Joe Dassin performing Aux Champs Elysees. There used to be a nice, full acoustic version out there, but it looks like it's been pulled. So, this year, we're going with the lounge lizard edition.


Brought to you by DIRK HOFMAN MOTORHOMES!*

My Tivo cut off the last several kilometers of yesterday’s stage to the top of the Col du Tourmalet. At the time, it was frustrating, and I cursed the damn thing and it’s seemingly non-existent understanding of bicycle racing, but once I was able to see the final kilometers, I realized my dear Tivo was really just trying to save me 20 minutes.

Like so many things in life, Stage 17 didn’t quite live up to the hype, at least from the heavily worked “final showdown” angle. To many, it seemed that Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) had quaffed some sort of psychotherapeutic Pepto Bismol to quell the anger in his stomach. And Alberto Contador (Astana), having keyed in on the readily apparent truth that people hate it when he attacks but love hollow dramatic gestures, holstered his pistola, made the peloton wait for Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel), and gave away a stage win. Could it be that Contador is finally getting his head around this whole PR business? Because after yesterday’s charm onslaught, if he promises lower taxes and reduced unemployment, he could be well on his way to public office.

But before we get too down on Stage 17, let’s remember that it’s been one of the first excitement deficiencies of this Tour. The start on the narrow roads of the Netherlands, the Stage 3 cobbles, and the Ardennes all lived up to their billing, one way or another. The Alps showed us the fall of Armstrong, the struggles of Evans, and the tenacity of the French; the Pyrenees brought more of the same, plus the drama of the chain drop, the last waltz, and Jens Voigt on a circus bike. Remember last year, when nothing happened for two solid weeks? Yes, this year’s battle for yellow has been, with one glaring exception, a fairly uninspiring case of waiting and waiting some more, lasting so long that now all we have to wait for is a final time trial. And let’s face it, those final time trials are only truly climactic once every 10 years, and I’m doubting that this is that year.

Which isn’t to say that the last few days of this Tour won’t feature some interesting racing. By the time this is posted, we will have seen another green jersey showdown in Bordeaux, and depending on how the sprinters have come through the mountains, the tight battle between Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) and Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) could carry all the way to the finish of the world’s greatest criterium on Sunday. And though I like to dismiss time trials, Saturday could produce some surprises as well. I think it’s a given that Denis Menchov (Rabobank) will overtake Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel) to take the third spot on the podium, provided he can keep his TT bike upright. What I’ll be interested to see is how close he can come to Schleck and a Contador who many seem to doubt will be the same as the Contador we saw in last year’s TT closer. Nearly four minutes is a huge gulf, so I don’t expect Menchov to get across it, but the final podium spread could be a lot closer than it is now. The other thing I’ll be on the lookout for is whether Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) can improve on his current 8th place standing. While 6th place Robert Gesink (Rabobank) might be too far afield at 2:37 up, 7th place Joachin Rodriguez (Katusha) might be accessible at a 2:15 advantage.

The other final question to be answered, assuming all works out as people assume it will? How gaudy will Contador's Champs Elysees bike and kit be?


  • At 32 years old, with your Rabobank contract up, young Dutch teammate Robert Gesink sitting safely inside the top-10 on GC, and countryman Vladimir Karpets failing to live up to expectations, Mr. Denis Menchov, smile and say, “Hello, Katusha!”

  • Even if the (second) Tourmalet stage didn’t have all the action fans had hoped, at least it had a lot of hairy, nearly naked dudes. Did you see Andy Schleck crack a smile right when the Borat trio fell back? He has such a Boy Scout image, it felt almost like he knew he wasn’t supposed to smile and tried his best, but he couldn’t help it.

  • I know I said we shouldn't get down on Stage 17, but damn, if that wasn't the case for bonus seconds on mountain stages in a nutshell, I don't know what is.

  • It took a long time to dawn on me, but this year’s route gave the RV people of the Tourmalet a two-fer. Watch Stage 16, hang around, drink, or ride away the rest day, then watch Stage 17 come back the other way. End result? That mountain is going to smell like urine until about a week before the next Tour comes through.

  • Halfway up the Tourmalet, Omega Pharma-Lotto still had Mario Aerts and Matthew Lloyd in the main group with Jurgen Van den Brouke. It was an astounding effort for a team whose lack of high mountain prowess was near legend during Cadel Evans’ tenure as the GC hope, and I have to wonder if it chaps him a bit that the boys seem to have a bit more bottle now that they have a Belgian leader to support. And it’s not that Omega has a drastically improved mountain roster. Some of Evans mountain support during his tenure at Whoever-Lotto? In 2007, he had Aerts and Chris Horner. In 2008, Aerts again. In 2009, he had Matthew Lloyd and Van den Brouke. If it’s been a matter of motivating the troops, I think Evans’ performance this year will serve him well in the future.

  • Sheep! And people wonder how cycling’s different from other sports…

  • A note to ASO: You successfully manage a portable city, your own air force, a mobile circus, and what I can only assume is enough bureaucratic red tape to circle the globe. So I know you can get 10 kilometers worth of metal fencing up a mountain. Don’t get me wrong, I love those tunnel-of-humanity, wall-of-sound images from the Alps and Pyrenees as much as the next guy – they can literally give me goosebumps from 3,000 miles away. But I also like it when the riders have enough room to attack in the last 5 kilometers of a mountain stage. You know, if they decide they’d like to.

  • Though he’s won the points competition at the Giro d’Italia in the past, I never thought I’d see Petacchi really contest the green jersey at the Tour de France. It’s been refreshing over the last few years to see the super-sprinters go after the green, rather than leaving it to the more versatile O’Gradys and Frieres of the peloton. I like those guys just fine, but having the top fast men in the running lends more credibility to the jersey. Too bad that Petacchi looks to be getting sucked into a new Italian doping investigation, so it may all yet implode.

  • Hats off to Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) for giving an astute and malice-free assessment of the great chain drop issue on Versus two days ago, and for, thank goodness, asking for people to stop to all the “waiting” talk. Frankly, I didn’t think he had it in him, but he did. Carlos Sastre had some similar, if more strongly worded thoughts on this year’s great ethical debates, while Hesjedal wins the Editors Award for Brevity with his assessment of the Great 2010 Waiting Debate: “If you draw your sword and drop it, you die.”

  • While everyone was focused on the whole Schleck versus Contador etiquette issue, many (except those in Ireland) missed the great Nicolas Roche (AG2r) versus John Gadret (also AG2r) issue on the same stage. Seems that on the Port de Balês climb, Roche had a front flat, and his assigned minder Gadret refused to give up his wheel, rode on, and then attacked to top it off, riding fairly obviously for the unofficial “top Frenchman” GC placing. As Roche describes, AG2r director Vincent Lavenu was screaming at Gadret – both on the radio during the stage and on the bus afterwards – that he was supposed to help Roche defend his top-15 classification spot, not leave him on the side of the road with a flat and ride for himself. Given the situation though, I have to wonder if some of Lavenu’s scolding was done for Roche’s benefit. At a French team like AG2r, it would be understandable if it were determined that “first Frenchman” was more valuable than a top-15 GC placing by an Irishman. At the same time, Roche is shaping up into quite a talent, so Lavenu can’t afford to alienate him by backing Gadret.

  • I’ve seen a few assertions that, since the French fans are booing and whistling at Contador, it’s pretty obvious he was in the wrong. Really? Why? Because they’re French people and they’re at the Tour de France? Do you assume Americans at the Super Bowl are experts on professional (American) football? While I know there are some are particularly knowledgeable French fans, remember that for the most part, the people watching the podiums and stage starts are just that – fans, probably of widely varying degrees – or curious locals, or people on vacation, just like you or I would be if we were there. Believe it or not, being French, just like (gasp!) being Belgian, does not automatically confer immense cycling wisdom on a person, nor automatically validate (or invalidate) their opinions. I'm probably preaching to the choir, though, because if you’ve found your way to my little corner of cycling, you’re probably capable of forming your own opinion.
*Not really, but something tells me Dirk Hofman doesn't mind a little free advertising from time to time.

Invisible Men and Unwritten Rules

Before we get into the trackstanding, shadowboxing, chaindropping, non-waiting shenanigans amongst the GC contenders over the last several days, let’s spare, if we can, a moment for the stage winners.

On Sunday, Christophe Riblon (AG2r), a 29 year old Frenchman, scored what’s become one of my favorite kinds of Tour victories. In attaining his dramatic win at Ax-3 Domaines, it was, of course, admirable that he struck out in the early break, persevered, and played his cards right (and had a few cards fall his way, too). It was a great ride, and it’s by far the biggest result of his five-year professional career. And I certainly enjoy all of those aspects of his win. Going beyond the feel-good story, though, I like victories like Riblon’s for a different reason. They remind us of the existence of the unseen multitudes of the peloton, those riders who aren’t stars, child prodigies, right-hand men, countrymen, or even likely winners. Most of the time, they’re doing donkey work hauling bottles for team leaders who aren’t even top contenders themselves. But every once and awhile, one of them – like Riblon – makes himself seen.

When they do appear, it can feel as if they’ve suddenly popped up out of nowhere, like their mothers packed them into the back seat of the family Citroen that morning and dropped them off fresh at the Tour de France with a pan au chocolate in their hand and a good luck pat on the back. But we know that’s not the way it happened, and that’s part of the magic. With wins like Riblon’s on Sunday, we’re reminded that those invisible riders have, in fact, been there on the Tour all along. Though he’s probably crossed our screens hundreds of times, we never really got to see Christophe Riblon. But he was there: He rode the prologue. He descended the greasy slopes of the Stockeau. He banged over the cobbles of the north. He crossed the Alps. All in anonymity, until one revealing day on the Port de Pailhères.

So was this some sort of starting point for Riblon? Will Ax-3 Domaines be that key win that lends unstoppable momentum to some nascent morale or confidence, leading to more triumphs? Hell if I know. And back in 2004, we didn’t know how grabbing the yellow jersey for 10 days would affect little Thomas Voeckler, then the underwhelming 25-year-old champion of France. As it turned out, that little stint in the public eye – and the dogged determination he showed during it – suited Voeckler well, maybe even made him a better rider. Since becoming the spunky little brother to all of France in the 2004 Tour, he’s evolved into a capable stage winner, a hunter of mountains classifications points, and a contender in the French classics. He’s 31 now, no young pro anymore, but seeing him winning at the Tour again in the bleu-blanc-rouge today at Bagnères du Luchon was like seeing a sort of homecoming, or a flashback depending on your own personal history. I suspect it’ll feel the same if he does it again at 35, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

As for Alexander Vinokourov’s win in Revel the day before the French double header described above, I enjoyed it. When I watch Vino ride, the expression that Bostonians had for longtime Red Sox left-fielder Manny Ramirez’s sometimes questionable behavior always springs to mind: "it’s just Manny being Manny." Saturday’s ride was just Vino being Vino: impulsive, exciting, and committed. It’s something the grand tour formula of recent years has often been missing. As for those who don’t find much to love in the win given his history, I get that. The way I see it, though, the sport's governing body can set rules and demand that those caught breaking them serve suspensions as punishment. But it can’t demand remorse. I suppose fans can demand it in their own way, and in Vino’s case, a good number certainly are. But if that remorse isn’t genuine, what’s the point? Frankly, I just appreciate that he’s not bullshitting us with the daily self-flagellation of faux regret. We all know what happened – I just assume get on with it.

And now, on to debates over gentleman and scoundrels, chivalry defrocked, and traditions of the ages rent asunder. Or maybe we'll just talk about that whole dropped chain thing. I haven’t really decided yet.


  • Earlier in the Tour, I’d noted that I hoped Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) wouldn’t win a farewell Tour stage because I couldn’t face the inevitable years of “was it a gift?” debates to follow. And I have to admit, I was so focused on my fear of that debate that I was blindsided when, by noon today, I was hit by the unexpected launch of must be at least six years worth of “should he have waited?” online blather. Well that’s just great. Now we have that and global climate change to look forward to.

  • Me? I’m not terribly offended by the way things went down on the Port de Balês today. It is certainly regrettable that Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) lost time and his yellow jersey due to a mechanical problem. And yes, I said “due to a mechanical problem,” and not “due to the scurrilous treachery of that bastard, non-English speaking Spaniard, Alberto Contador” for a reason.

    Look, I understand that the whole chivalry and etiquette aspect of cycling is a dear tradition, and many of us, me included, take pride in that element of our sport. It's refreshing that ours is not a win-at-all-costs game. But it is still a sport, not a tea party, and maintaining proper manners at all times really isn’t the primary goal. Which is to say that, on occasion, I think we tend to get so caught up in our precious “unwritten rules” of cycling we forget how those rules mesh with what’s going on out on the road. We expect certain behaviors from riders in certain situations that we, as fans, have reduced to some trite phrase, like “wait for the yellow jersey.” But for riders, those situations are considerably more immediate, more complex, and more weighty. Adding to those unrealistic expectations, in the wake of events like today’s, there’s often a rush to regurgitate highlights of relevant case law and apply it to the current situation – all without considering what the situation on the road was when those gentlemen of yesteryear waited, or didn’t wait, as the case may have been. Point in the Tour, point in the stage, state of the race, parties involved, parties’ past history, time gaps at the moment – all conveniently ignored in the name of trying to find the angle that supports whatever conclusion has already been formed about the current situation. It all just creates a self-reinforcing cycle of unrealistic etiquette expectations on riders who are, after all, riding at anaerobic threshold and trying to win a goddamned grand tour.

    So where should we draw the line on etiquette, specifically on the whole “waiting for yellow” debate that seems to be all the rage? Here’s what I think. If everyone’s rolling piano down the Normandy coast and the yellow jersey flats or rides himself into a ditch with 70k to go? Yeah, ease off the pedals a bit until he’s back on, or at least don’t attack looking for some GC seconds. But if you’re 3k from the top of the final climb of the second stage in the second set of mountains, the win is on the line, and the attacks have started? I’m sorry, but at that point it’s game on and you can't expect too much courtesy. If the situation allows, it would be nice to call a little truce, but I’m not so sure there’s dishonor in not doing it when the momentum of the race has swung so drastically towards fighting out the finale. At some point, you just have to let the boys race their bikes, and stop worrying about who didn’t fold their napkin the right way before they put it back in their lap.

    Even those more lenient guidelines, of course, assume that the riders involved know enough about what the hell is going on to make a conscious decision. And that’s a big assumption. When you’re on the rivet, crosseyed and flying up some thin-aired mountainside, simultaneously looking for seconds against the guy in front of you, guarding your own seconds from the two guys behind you, and launching your next move, I’m guessing things aren’t quite so clear as they are when you’re drinking a beer and watching the eighth slow-mo replay of the incident on your trusty Tivo. Yes, yes, they have radios, da da, da da, da da, and as much as “radio not working” is often used as an excuse for inappropriate behavior, the whole television-to team director-to rider relay system isn't nearly so perfect as some like to imagine. And the riders having the relevant information doesn't always mean they'll arrive at the same decision we would.

  • You know what I think the really unfortunate part of today’s scandal-ette was? (I’ll warn you, my view won’t be the same as Andy Schleck’s.) I think it’s unfortunate that Contador gave people who’ve bought into two years of the Armstrong/Bruyneel “Contador’s a jerk” drumbeat something to grab onto. Do I believe Contador's actions today were some cheap, underhanded move? No, but if you’ve been conditioned to think he’s a cheap, underhanded guy, it was certainly close enough to confirm those beliefs, as well as sway a few folks on the fence, too.

  • Interesting to note that reaction to the incident from the sport's old hands -- riders like Bernard Thevenet, Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, and even Schleck DS Bjarne Riis -- was a decided "ehhhh...it wasn't that bad." So much for "this never would have happened in the old days."

  • SRAM has boots on the ground at the Tour de France, outfitting relevant folks on their sponsored teams with snazzy limited edition yellow-accented Red groups and doing all those other sponsor liaison types of things, I assume. In between exchanging pleasantries with the talent, however, might I suggest that they stop by the Saxo Bank mechanics' truck and start slapping some folks around? Between Cancellara and Breschel's brake rub issues at the Classics and Schleck's little issue today, they're kind of taking a beating on PR.

  • I thought I’d make a little addendum to the part way above about Riblon and invisible riders, just to acknowledge the fact that riders that are invisible in some countries may not be so invisible in others. For all I know, Riblon is the Brent Bookwalter (BMC) of France, writing an online diary or doing interviews in his regional or national press that have had people checking the paper every morning to see how he fared that day. Now that we know about Riblon, maybe we’ll hope that someday soon, Bookwalter will suddenly be revealed to the French. He certainly woke up the Italians a few months ago.

  • I have to hand it to them, Versus is nothing if not adaptable in their pandering. With their big draw Armstrong down on the standings and leaving this big attack everyone’s expecting mighty late, the American channel has quickly adopted a strategy to really focus on the teams competition, where Armstrong’s Radio Shack squad is apparently locked in a tight battle with Caisse d’Epargne. We’re not sure yet if Caisse is aware they're locked in a battle, or whether they're just trying to win a stage -- nobody's bothered to talk to them about it, preferring instead to let Bruyneel bloviate on a new topic. That's really just me being facetious, though: there's actually a pretty good chance that the Spaniards at Caisse has heard of the teams competition, and since, as Phil Liggett was fond of pointing out until just a week or so ago, it's just sort of a booby prize that only Spanish teams ever really take an interest in. Anyway, with limited RadioShack straws left to grasp at, the teams competition is suddenly the biggest thing going on Versus, including much posturing about Armstrong’s role in it. If Armstrong is seeking to play a role in an unprecedented intentional, non-Spanish assault on the teams classification, he’s been a late convert to the cause. The teams competition takes the times of the teams’ top three riders on each stage, and today’s stage marked the first time since Stage 9 that Armstrong was one of RadioShack’s top three riders on a stage. (For the record, Armstrong was RadioShack's was second man on Stage 9; eighth man on 10, sixth man on 11, fifth man on 12; seventh man on 13; fifth man on 14; and third on 15.)

  • For me, Denis Menchov (Rabobank) has been one of the unsung revelations of this Tour. Yes, he’s won three grand tours already, so it’s tough to be a revelation, but his ability to follow the sharp accelerations of riders like Contador, Schleck, and Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in this Tour feels like a new addition to the skillset of one of the more time-trial dependent GC riders. If Contador and Schleck haven’t learned anything from their absurd level of man-to-man defense the last couple of days and keep screwing around, they could well let Menchov back in the race before the time trial. The rumour mill says Contador isn’t as sharp as last year, and if that’s the case in the TT, this week’s Menchov could pull of a surprise.

  • Today’s Official Service Course Gerard Vroomen Twitter watch was a mixed bag, as he first took a well phrased stab at Contador: “Contador just gained a great chance to win, but he lost the chance to win greatly.” But later, he mellowed a bit, conceding, “Alberto has a tiny point: Schleck didn't wait for him after the cobblestone crash so complaints about fair play ring hollow.” Damn it, Gerard, you’re taking the fun out of it.

Door Prizes

So, where were we before that little side trip into the shady world of business dealings, paper trails, and speculation? Oh yeah: we were in the midst of the week of slamming doors at the Tour de France. After beginning in Rotterdam widely hailed as one of the “most open” Tours in recent history, and remaining more or less that way for just about a week, things have become decidedly more closed since last Sunday.

First to have the GC door closed in his face was Lance Armstrong (RadioShack), who’s unceremonious demise on Sunday’s Stage 8 to Avoriaz we’ve already addressed. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Cadel Evans (BMC) also saw his Tour hopes slammed shut the same day, despite riding his way into yellow at the end of it. The damage from his early crash went well beyond the visible grazes that he seemed to shrug off, and two days later, the chipped elbow he'd quietly sustained left him to a brave, emotional, and ultimately unsuccessful struggle on Stage 9 to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. By the finish line, his jersey was eight minutes gone.

Not that it was any consolation for Evans, but he wasn’t alone in getting locked out on Stage 9, as Alberto Contador (Astana) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) played a brief game of cat and mouse before joining forces to all but eliminate the rest of the GC contenders. From grand tour mainstays like Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), to outsiders like Brad Wiggins (Sky) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin), to upstarts like Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma), everyone got popped for a few minutes by the dynamic duo, with very few visible prospects for getting the lost time back between here and Paris. And bang, the "open Tour" became a two man race for GC, barring any surprising turn of events.

The last door slamming of the week was also the most obvious, when in the Stage 11 sprint HTC leadout man Mark Renshaw slammed the door on Garmin's Tyler Farrar so hard that I’m surprised Farrar doesn’t have a broken nose to go with his wrist. Within a half-hour of the finish, Renshaw’s move gave us a metaphorical door slamming two-fer, as the officials sent him packing from the Tour with a hearty “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”

As the saying goes though, god, or race officials, as the case may be, never close a door without opening a window, and this week’s various slammings will also open up some different opportunities in the final week. A more stable GC race could let the opportunists play a freer hand, Armstrong’s weeklong time-hemorrhaging effort may give him some breathing room for a final send-off stage win, the ejection of Mark Cavendish’s pilot fish might lend a different look to the sprints, and Contador and Schleck’s narrowing of the field sets us up for some great potential mano-a-mano battles in the Pyrenees.

  • Why the 2010 Tour was billed as an “open Tour” for GC purposes in the first place, and whether that was accurate, is debatable. From where I’m sitting, I’d say there were two contributing factors. First, it’s in everyone’s best interest to bill every Tour as “open,” because it’s hard to boost readership/viewership/enthusiasm by advertising an unabashed trouncing. (Though I suppose you could argue that Versus did just that from roughly 2000-2005.) This year, there were just enough reasonably adept GC contenders to make the label a little more believable. Second, it seemed like in the weeks leading up to the Tour, a Contador win seemed to have become such an unconscious foregone conclusion that people stopped talking about him altogether – that is, in the talk about all the possible challengers for the crown, the current wearer of it was largely forgotten. I’m not saying Contador’s a shoo-in in Paris, but the extent of his previous domination seemed to be largely forgotten during the “open Tour” buildup.

  • I made some smarmy comment awhile back about how FDJ was a long-running team because they fly their national sponsor’s flag at national French Cup races all year, every year, and not because Sandy Casar manages to bag a Tour stage every eight years or so. Well, shut my mouth…

  • Watching the scenery roll by in the Alps, instead of paying attention to the racing like I should, I’m was struck with three thoughts: 1) I need to buy an RV dealership in France. 2) Who are these people who cheer from inside their cars and RVs? If you’re not even going to get out of the damn car for the three minute span when the leaders and the peloton go by, why the hell have you been sitting on some godforsaken mountain for two days? 3) The guy inside that no-mold water bottle costume must just be dying of the heat.

  • I’m sure a lot of people saw Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne) hand fellow Spaniard Contador (Astana) a bottle as Contador and Schleck came ripping by him on Stage 9. In a sport where a lot of little favors are done along national lines, all I can say is, poor Andy Schleck. Not a lot of company from Luxembourg with his brother and Kim Kirchen on the bench and Benoit Joachim missing in action.

  • There are a lot of complaints flying about Euskaltel-Euskadi riders not knowing how to ride bikes. By and large that may be true, but Sammy Sanchez is certainly an exception.

  • In the closing kilometers of Stage 10, I was all-in for Vasil Kiryienka (Caisse d’Epargne). It’s not that I have any extensive knowledge of his abilities in that situation versus those of his breakaway companion Sergio Paulinho (Radio Shack). It’s just that I make such bets according one simple maxim: never bet against an Eastern European in the long break. Especially an Eastern European with a flowing mullet waving in the breeze. Sure, it’s wrong every once in awhile, as Paulinho proved, but on the average, it works out pretty well. I’m hoping notorious headbanger Pavel Brutt (Katusha) will put me back on even terms next week.

  • As for Nicolas Roche’s (AG2r) late move in the fairly cruise-ey Stage 10 procession behind Kiryienka and Paulinho, I have to agree with Whit – it was a little cheesy. Not illegal, not baffling, not unforgivable, just…cheesy.

  • Yeah, yeah, most people think Renshaw’s Stage 11 ejection was about the head butts. It’s a reasonable stance, especially since that’s the cause officials cited in their early quotes on the ejection. While Renshaw giving Dean the noggin was pretty damn noticeable, I’m betting he could have gotten away with it if he stopped there. Boys will be boys. But when he looked at Farrar and then rode him into the barriers, I’m guessing the balance tipped against him. Neither infraction might have been enough on its own, but together, they made a defensible case for an early exit.

  • The Renshaw ejection is obviously a hot topic, mostly on whether sending him packing was justified or not, but also regarding what the penalty system should be. As many have rightfully pointed out, relegation is irrelevant to a leadout man, so what are you left with? I’ve seen arguments from several different sources for a more formalized sort of yellow card/red card system where warnings or fines (the yellow) would precede stiffer penalties like ejection (the red). I don’t think that, or similar approaches, will work for cycling. First and most obviously, it won’t work because the system simply institutionalizes the idea that you get one “freebie” before real consequences kick in, even if that freebie costs the team some Swiss francs. That means riders would go into a race like the Tour knowing that they had one good, solid hook to throw when they decide they need it most – it becomes a tool rather than a penalty. So, let’s see, one free chop times how many guys in a leadout?

    Secondly, the soccer/football approach doesn’t really work with the nature of cycling. Yes, races have officials, but we don’t call them referees for a reason. It’s not a field sport, and you can’t just blow the whistle and stop the action to give someone a talking to, show the yellow, and then play on. Cycling is fast, linear, and kinetic, and the approach just doesn’t transfer – a guy could go from his first to his second offense in a split second. And sometimes, a warning just isn’t appropriate when someone makes a move that could potentially end the races or careers of 100 other guys. You can abuse people pretty badly on a soccer pitch, but certainly not that many at once, and not at those speeds. Cycling needs to have the nuclear option available for first offenses if they’re egregious enough to warrant it.

    Since what we’re looking for is not necessarily punishment, but a deterrent, I’d argue that the swift and, at times, seemingly random hand of justice that we saw deployed yesterday is probably best for keeping racers in line. When you draw the line too sharply, you just tempt people to get as close as possible to it without going over, but if they’re never quite sure exactly where the line is…

  • One idea that keeps popping up about the Renshaw ejection strikes me as particularly silly (even if several pros have made it): that it’s unfair that Renshaw was ejected for his actions in the sprint while Barredo and Costa were merely fined for their post race brawl a few stages ago. The two incidents are so far apart on their (de)merits I can’t believe people are drawing the comparison, but let’s put it to rest anyway: The fight was after the stage, on foot, affected only the two jackasses involved, and basically only provided a bit of comic relief at said jackasses’ expense. The actions in yesterday’s sprint, by contrast, came during the stage, at 60+ kilometers per hour, endangered about 100 people besides the jackasses involved, and potentially altered the results of the stage. The fight was an issue of “conduct unbecoming.” Renshaw’s actions in the sprint were an issue of race safety as well as of the competitive integrity of the Tour. Are we really trying to say they’re of the same caliber?

  • For those of you who might counter that Barredo-Costa Slapdown 2010 is going to ruin the image of our dear fairest cycling…have you seen other sports?

  • Off we go into the Massif Centrale, and on that topic, John Wilcockson’s finally written something I can agree with. When he’s not focused on Armstrong, he can be really good.

  • So was Brad Wiggins’s move from Garmin to Sky good or bad? If you want to argue that it was a bad choice, you’d could say that his fourth place last year proved that Vaughters and the Garmin staff knew the best way to bring him to the Tour, and that he should have stayed. If you wanted to argue that it was a good choice, you could cite the fact that by moving to Sky, Wiggins smartly netted himself a lot of cash based on a fourth-place Tour performance he wasn’t likely to repeat. Based on a loose sense of history, I’d say Wiggins has, at most, two more Tours after this one to climb back inside the final top 5 before the “podium contender” status and paychecks depart for good.

  • The Service Course’s Gerard Vroomen Twitter-watch continues, and got considerably more interesting in the wake of the Renshaw objection, when he called HTC-Columbia to the carpet for dangerous sprinting. So let’s see, that’s taking shots at Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne, HTC-Columbia, and, just after the World Cup, the entire nation of Holland. The guy’s kind of growing on me.

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.

The Distance from Les Arcs to Avoriaz

The comparisons are surely looming, if they haven’t come already, between Miguel Indurain’s dramatic collapse on the stage to Les Arcs in 1996 and Lance Armstrong’s on the road to Avoriaz yesterday. And not without reason. Both men, obviously, were the dominant Tour de France riders of their generations – one was the man most people believed would finally break the five Tour barrier, the other is the man who actually did it. And the similarities between the breakdowns in their final Tour appearances are indeed striking. Both met their downfall not deep into the race, but on the first true mountain stage – Stage 7, from Chambery to Les Arcs for Indurain, Stage 8 from Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz for Armstrong. Both stages were in the Alps, and though they occurred about 170 kilometers and 14 years apart, both men lost the same 12 minutes, give or take. And both days were remarkable in that the grand champions were not just left behind by some remarkable challenger, nor by an upstart playing the giant-killer, the David to their Goliath. They were left behind by everyone.

Given the similarities, it is almost inevitable that people will note the two days' similar look and that ultimately, both men's Tour de France Waterloos will be remembered as being much the same. There’s really no point in fighting it. But it is important that now, in the moment, we should acknowledge that they are not the same in at least a few fundamental ways. Most obviously, when Indurain finally cracked, he was still the favorite, the highest-value scalp in the race and the keystone that anchored his competitors’ tactical schemes. Armstrong, while still a valued scalp, started the race as an outsider for the win, a man understandably made mortal by the simple inevitable force of time, if nothing else.

As their spots in the competitive hierarchy differed when the big cracks came, so did the impact. While the memory has been blunted by age, Indurain’s demise was much more of a surprise at the time -- unlike Armstrong's, it wasn't preceded by a third place the previous year. But more importantly, it left a much bigger hole. Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich stepped into the vacuum in 1996, and the rest is history, as both men went on to become major forces in the sport for the next decade. Armstrong’s departure from Tour contention in 2010, by contrast, leaves no vacuum at all, except perhaps in the hearts of some cycling fans and Phil Liggett. The reason that’s so is at least partially due to the arc of Armstrong’s career, and namely the rich crop of grand tour contenders that have flourished in the three-year absence of his considerable shadow. Nothing much was able to sprout under Indurain’s continuous shade, and a lot of what was already growing – Greg Lemond, Tony Rominger, Charly Mottet – wilted over his five years of dominance.

But the most dramatic way in which Armstrong’s collapse differs from Indurain’s is that Armstrong’s was, in a sense, more voluntary, or at least a more known risk at the time it occurred. Indurain’s day at Les Arcs was simply a marked endpoint to a career – the point at which, for whatever reason, whatever it was he’d had just suddenly left him. He just rode until he didn’t have it anymore, then retired. Not so Armstrong. On his retirement in 2005, Armstrong had managed to get out of the game before that moment struck, and left the sport without giving it the sweaty-faced, fall-of-a-champion, the-king-is-dead snapshot to go with the written obituary. It was remarkable – a degree of restraint rarely seen in cycling.

As we all know by now, though, retirement didn’t take, and Armstrong returned to the sport after a three-year hiatus. He did so of his own accord, and being Armstrong, people ascribe that decision to any number of things from one end of the spectrum to the other – from charity, selflessness, and passion to jealousy, vanity, and greed. I’m not going to wade into that swamp, but one thing’s for sure: when he returned to the sport last year, Armstrong had to know he risked erasing the triumphant memory of his first departure and replacing it with this very moment from his second. And here we are.

The irony is that, after so many years of victory and that first smooth exit, it may well turn out that the dismal ride to Avoriaz was exactly what Armstrong needed to leave the sport on a high note, and I suspect he knows it. Even the early signs point to yesterday’s stage becoming the sympathetic moment in the career of a man who had, over a decade, inspired a number of emotions – among them respect, fear, love, and hate – but never anything that would likely be called “sympathy.” In the coming weeks, I suspect he’ll drive those feelings home by playing the loyal, bottle-toting teammate to Levi Leipheimer. In other sports, it might be seen as a sad or shameful slippage down the lineup, the old quarterback dropping from starter to second string. But this is bike racing, and while cycling fans love a winner, they also demand that bit of humanity and humility to go along with the accolades. Indurain had that in spades, even before that day in 1996 when the Tour suddenly passed him by. Armstrong never did, though, and you can bet that he'll seize this second opportunity for all its worth.

People often write that it’s just the French fans that like that sort of thing, but I don’t think that’s true. I should know for sure in a few weeks.


  • How else are Indurain and Armstrong’s collapses different? Well, while people might have cheered Indurain’s downfall for competitive reasons, very few cheered it at a personal level. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case with Armstrong. To be fair, though, Indurian probably didn’t have quite so many mourners, either.

  • Yes, yes, all the above completely ignores all the dope allegations and insinuations that surround both Indurain and Armstrong, as well as Riis, Ullrich, and everybody else who’s so much as touched a bicycle since the early 1990s. Doping is an important issue, but sometimes, if you want to write about some other aspect of the sport and not get completely bogged down, you just have to leave doping aside for a few minutes. It would be an absolute pleasure if doping was so rare that you could mention it every time it was warranted, but unfortunately, its pervasiveness means that if you didn’t leave it out of the equation from time to time, you’d never write anything about cycling under 10,000 words. You might well go crazy to boot.

  • I have no doubt that Armstrong’s difficulties yesterday were genuine, mostly because I’m not among the legions who like to think everything the man does is some meticulously calculated tactical ruse. I do wonder, though, if once he found himself in deep trouble, he eased back even more, hoping to dump enough GC time that he’ll be allowed a bit of leash to go for one more stage win down the road. Comments from the capos would indicate that a little complicity might not be out of the question. Honestly, I hope he doesn’t get in that position, not out of malice, but because if he gets a final stage win, I can’t face an eternity of huffy “was it a gift?” arguments.

  • I think Armstrong and Chris Horner (RadioShack) need to have a chat and get their stories straight. To his credit, Armstrong went with a pretty modest “had a bad day, and my crash was my fault.” Horner goes with an Armstrong bonk on the climb, and a pileup leading to Armstrong’s roundabout crash. If there was a bonk, I suspect Armstrong wouldn’t mention it in order to avoid the inevitable Twitter-sniping he’d receive as a result of his own infamous “much to learn” message after Contador bonked in Paris-Nice last year.

  • Speaking briefly above of the Riis/Ullrich ascendancy in 1996, I’m reminded of the fact that the Telekom team was still in its relative infancy in 1996, having only been allowed a Tour start as a composite squad with Italian outfit ZG Mobili the year before. How strange does the idea of a composite squad in the Tour sound now? I sort of miss that devil-may-care approach to team selection that came before the ProTour debacle began. Yeah, the sponsors want guarantees of what sort of race exposure they’ll get for their Euros now, and rightfully so, because they’re coughing up a lot more of them than they used to just to get their names on a shirt. But the more stringent invitation rules have strangled a lot of the offbeat team selections that added some fun to the races. Here’s hoping Colombia es Pasion gets their wish for a pro-continental license next year. I hear everything 1980s is making a comeback – why not Colombians in the Tour de France?

  • If you’ve been following the Floyd Landis accusations/investigation story, you’ve probably seen at least one of the New York Daily News stories, if not more. It’s not luck of the assignment desk draw that Nate Vinton is the guy doing the coverage, or if it is, it’s an amazing coincidence, since he used to be a VeloNews staffer. Looking at the articles he’s writing there versus what his former colleagues in the cycling press are doing is probably a good illustration of what Josh Kadis brought up in the previous post’s comments: namely, that mainstream media outlets are often more vigorous pursuing these stories than the specialty cycling press. Whether the cycling press really can’t take a harder look (due to the need for constant, ongoing access to riders and officials, as well as support from industry advertisers), just doesn’t want to, or is incapable of it, warrants examination. But not by me, or at least not right now…

  • Just saw that Vladimir Karpets (Katusha) won’t be starting Stage 9 tomorrow due to a broken hand. So, the mullet was the source of all his powers.

  • I didn’t think Andy Schleck’s victory salute was that bad, probably because I like them a little spontaneous, and he seemed refreshingly unprepared for the eventuality of a stage win. Whatever you want to call what he came up with – I’ve seen “punching the speed bag” as well as “angry chimp” – it’s a nice change from the other options: a) the over-rehearsed three-act-play that requires subsequent explanation in the media; b) the tasteful if rather staid two-hands-in-the-air; or c) variations on the always popular “arrogant prick.”

  • All this talk of Sunday’s stage, and nary a word of Cadel Evans (BMC) status as the new race leader. It’s out there, of course, but compared to the hand-waving and hand-wringing over Armstrong’s losses, Contador’s non-response to Schleck’s attack, and Schleck’s subsequent maiden Tour stage victory, Evans’s yellow jersey feels a little lost in the shuffle. Even if flying under the radar isn’t ideal for his sponsors at the moment, I’m guessing Evans is pretty happy with the low-profile. He always seems at his best when he’s not under scrutiny.

  • On a similar note – if we can just rewind to Saturday’s long-forgotten stage for a moment – how many new fans does Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) have now? When people talk about riding with guts and passion, that’s what they’re talking about. Patrick Lafevere is a fool if he hasn’t locked the guy down for two more years over the rest day.

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 cyclingnews.com, you’re missing out on one of the more entertaining daily Tour fixes.

Low Country Laments

So, who wants to place a bet on the next time you’ll see a grand tour start in the low countries once any current contractual commitments are fulfilled? I’m betting the latter half of the decade at the earliest.

For the opening week of two grand tours in a row now, there’s been carnage predicted and carnage fulfilled on the narrow roads of the Netherlands and Belgium. Various riders have either stated or tweeted their dissatisfaction with the decisions made on starting points for this year’s Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, and if I were lying there in some under-air-conditioned hotel, glued to my sheets by my own puss and blood with 180 miserable kilometers in my legs, I’m sure I’d be inclined to agree. But in observing the events of the last couple of days from a safe and comfortable distance, I can’t help but think that many of the incidents that have left skin on the pavement in this Tour haven’t been due to the ills typically associated with northern racing – narrow roads, street furniture, and wind. While that was the case with many of the prominent Giro crashes, the northern leg of the Tour has largely featured mishaps that could have happened anywhere. (Please note, this sentiment does not apply to today’s Stage 3 to Arenberg.)

On Stage 1, a bunch of big riders including Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), and Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack) were grounded by a dog that ran into the pack. Then, as the peloton entered the final kilometers of the stage, another group couldn’t sort out a hairpin corner and went down, sweeping riders on the outside along with them. A crash allegedly caused by a narrowing straight blocked the road entirely inside the red kite, while in the final 200 meters, Lloyd Mondory (AG2r) got a little giddy and rode himself into Tyler Farrar’s (Garmin) back wheel, taking himself down and saddling Farrar with an extra bicycle to haul around. Now, you could maybe argue about whether people should bring their dogs to the races, what the regulations for finishing straights should be, or whether the hairpin should have been included that close to the finish, but the fact is that neither the dog nor the hairpin nor the finishing straight were inherently Belgian or Dutch – they could have just as easily been in France, Italy, or anywhere else.

On Stage 2, the trainwreck descent of the Stockeau was, again, not caused by the conditions associated with racing in Belgium, but by a combination of a road frequented by diesel vehicles, rain, and a freakish accident in which a camera bike crashed and managed to spill oil and/or gas down the descent. Yes, the road was narrow, and it was a fast descent, but if you think the same thing can’t happen in the Massif Central or the Côte d’Azur, I’d suggest you have a bit of anti-lowland bias. But like I said, if I’d just deposited most of my left asscheek on some godforsaken Wallonian hillside, I’d probably be cursing those beer-brewing, chocolate-making, lace-working bastards, too.

(I’m just kidding, Belgium. I could never stay mad at you.)

Broomwagon: Stage 1 Edition
  • Day late and a dollar short on this one, so I’ll keep it quick: there was a bunch of riding of the type you’d expect on a flat first stage, including the obligatory wandering dog. Then, with around five kilometers to go, everything went batshit crazy. Guys crashed in a hairpin, then in a wide open finish straight, then again about 200 yards later in the wide-open finish straight. As he did in the infamous Tour de Suisse stage, Alessandro Petacchi won, because although he’s old, he apparently has about eight eyes spaced evenly around the circumference of his head. I have to admit, I didn’t see Petacchi factoring in this year. Chapeau.

Broomwagon: Stage 2 Edition

  • I have mixed emotions about yesterday’s general truce/regrouping called by then yellow-jersey Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank). On one hand, it seems fairly self-serving for a non-overall contender to use the rights traditionally afforded the yellow jersey to safeguard the race of their team’s actual GC contender(s). On the other hand, there were so many teams and riders affected by the Stockeau crashes that the order came close enough to being an altruistic move to pass the sniff test. And I get that after a day like that, everyone’s just kind of tired of risking their necks, regardless of why it got risky in the first place. The idea probably wasn’t a tough sell. Obviously, there were losers as a result of the decision. Cervelo Test Team was the most vocal, and had every right to be since they had both their stage contender Thor Hushovd and their GC rider Carlos Sastre in the front group. Quieter about the whole thing was Cadel Evans (BMC), who was also in the front group and in a position to gain time, having apparently overcome his tendency to be a little bit on the crash-ey side. Every bit of etiquette has winners and losers, though, because someone can always gain an advantage by not going along with it, so I suppose you just have to have faith that what goes around will come around. Along those lines, I think the regroup was a net gain, both for a beat-up peloton and for the prospects of a competitive Tour, if not for Cervelo and the soggy fans on the roadside.

  • While on the balance I’m OK with slowing down for the regrouping, I do think negotiating a non-sprint was a bit of an unnecessary flourish. Sure, the leadup speedup might have re-dropped some of the injured parties, but compared to the savings they’d already realized by the slowdown, those parties wouldn’t have had much room to complain – they’d be losing seconds instead of minutes. And, again, the finish straight was pretty dry and wide as a motorway for a considerable distance before the line, so I think they should have let Hushovd and any remaining sprinters have at it. The greatest danger would likely have been the presence of non-sprinters looking to mix it up in the diminished sprint, but you can pretty much get that on any given day.

  • I think that Phil Liggett, not surprisingly, contributed to a bit of the U.S. fans' ill will towards yesterday’s neutralized finish by repeatedly referring to it as a “protest.” Granted, I wasn’t there, but it seemed more precaution than protest. Or maybe that’s just me being hopeful, because there’s been a little too much protesting for me lately.

  • One thing about the Stage 2 slow-down is for sure: Fabian Cancellara will now forever be remembered as a gracious and magnanimous patron of the peloton, fit for a helmet topped with a laurel crown. How do I know? Because historically, Shakespeare's version of Mark Antony was dead wrong, at least when it comes to some aspects of cycling: it’s the good that men do that lives after them, while the evil is oft interred with their bones. People still remember Tyler Hamilton’s dramatic arm-waving slowdown of the front group after Armstrong hung himself up on a purse a few years back (though they’ve obviously not forgotten Hamilton’s evils just yet). They remember Armstrong waiting for Ullrich, and debate endlessly whether Ullrich waited for Armstrong a few years later. These things are etched into the chivalrous history of the sport by those who are, well, really into that stuff. The other side of the coin? The ones that are interred? Passage du Gois, 1999, anyone?

  • Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) was quick to hand over his bike to Andy Schleck during the Stockeau massacre, which doesn’t really warrant mention, since that’s sort of his job. But when you’re Matti Breschel, you never know what the hell you’re going to get from the roof rack. Come to think of it, does Breschel ever do a race where he doesn’t change bikes?

  • I’ve seen a few questions asking why, on the Stockeau, Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) was on the side of the road, but looked to be trying to get a Focus bike back in working order rather than the Specialized he was issued. It’s because it wasn’t Frank Schleck, as Versus commentators stated and splashed across the screen. It was Niki Terpstra of Milram, whose Dutch national champion’s jersey admittedly looks a lot like Schleck’s Luxembourg one, and who did not start Stage 3 due to illness. I point this out not to be an ass about a simple, understandable, in-the-moment misidentification by the commentary team, but to answer the question above and illustrate a broader point: When I’m doing race coverage, or writing about it here, I howl all the time about the importance of a start list matching rider numbers to riders. This is why. If it’s hard to distinguish two national champions riding in the Tour de France, what are the chances of distinguishing between the 35 unknown Australian continental team riders in an NRC crit?

  • Speaking of everyone looking like a Schleck, watching the Tour coverage I’ve been shocked, in a not shocked at all way, about the lack of regard given to Contador and some of the other GC contenders. For instance, even after building up the Armstrong/Contador rivalry, Versus can’t seem to bother to update on his whereabouts with any consistency. There is, however, a laser-like focus on the locations and sightings of various Schlecks, Vandevelde, sometimes Wiggins, and obviously Armstrong. Hey guys: Evans, Basso, Menchov. Remember them?

  • I like watching Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) ride, and I’m glad he won Stage 2, regardless of the circumstances. There were a painful few years there in the early 2000s when he was heralded as the next French Tour winner, followed by the inevitable few years when people found him to be a profound disappointment because he couldn’t carry the albatross they’d tied around his neck. The loss of those misguided GC years now seems even more unfortunate, as it’s pretty apparent he’s fantastically suited to being a classics rider and stage race aggressor. But letting bygones be bygones, I’ve enjoyed seeing his re-emergence over the last few seasons, including what seems to be a blossoming specialty in crappy condition wins.

  • Stage 2 couldn’t have been bigger for Quick Step, could it? Lost in all the chatter about the Stage 1 crashes, the Stage 3 cobbles, and the GC battle was the fact that Stage 2 was an important day for the stalwart classics squad. After the pre-Tour withdrawal of their big draw, Tom Boonen, Stage 2 was the team’s chance to make good on home soil and begin vanquishing memories of a solid but winless classics season and last year’s dismal Tour. It was Chavanel who came through bigtime, and from a publicity perspective, it couldn’t have worked out better: in a French stage race in Belgium, the Belgian home team wins with a French rider, giving press and fans in both countries have something to love, and allowing the race organizers to feel good about a French win on an otherwise dismal day. Add in fellow Frenchman Jerome Pineau’s grab of the race’s first polka dot jersey, and it would be a day that would turn around many other teams’ seasons. The sad truth though is that without that April win, even a stage win, yellow, and polka dots might not be enough to salvage Quick Step’s year.

Broomwagon: Doping, dimwits, and other pertinent issues

  • How does the same publication that employs Bonnie Ford publish this Rick Reilly piece? It’s like a “spot the errors and distortions” puzzle. I’ll get you started: Postal wasn’t a sponsor in 2006, Discovery was, and in that year, Leipheimer rode for Gerolsteiner, not USPS/Discovery, and Armstrong did not ride the Tour. Landis complained about his bike at Postal (Trek) – he was riding a different bike by the time he was in yellow for Phonak. And on, and on. Now that you know the game, I’ll leave the rest to you…

    Seriously, someone put a fact checker on Reilly. We’re not talking about who or what he or you or I believe about the case – Reilly’s piece is theoretically just trying to recount what Landis has said along with basic indisputable timeline items. And he’s doing such a horrible job at it, it’s difficult to think he doesn’t have an agenda. Impossible, in fact.

  • For me, the most surprising aspect of the now infamous Wall Street Journal article had to do with Landis’s assertion that when he was at Phonak, he would coordinate with riders from other teams to arrange purchases and deliveries of blood and/or dope, including Levi Leipheimer. No, it’s not that I’m blown away by the idea that Leipheimer might have charged; I’m surprised by the idea that Gerolsteiner didn’t have its own organized doping program. Given the number of Gerolsteiner boys who rang the bell before the team’s related demise, you’d think something had to be going on on the team level. But I suppose it just goes to show you that Festina ’98 was kind of an anomaly, which makes sense: it’s not organized doping that typically gets you nailed, it’s disorganized doping. Maybe I was too harsh in thinking that Gerolsteiner director Hans Michael Holzer’s Sgt. Schultz “I know nothing!” act was a crock. Sorry, Mickey.

  • Speaking of Mickeys, Mike Sayers, a.k.a. Mickey Havoc, is directing at the Tour for BMC, and I’m glad to see it. When I was covering my first international race at Het Volk, Sayers was a sight for sore eyes being 1) someone I easily recognized who was 2) not surrounded by a mob and who 3) I knew spoke English. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was the warmup interview that let me get my day going. Nice to see him working at the top level of the sport.

  • Anyone notice that after eschewing the tradition/privilege for much of his Tour winning first career, Armstrong is all over the rainbow stripes on the jersey sleeves since his comeback?

I’m told there may have been cobblestones today. More on that later. For those looking for faster turnaround missives, consult the Twitter.

Bank Heist

“My daddy was a bank robber,
But he never hurt nobody.
He just loved to live that way,
And he loved to steal your money.”
- The Clash
Daddy Was a Bank Robber

For the second time in two years, Bjarne Riis’ team is at the business end of a holdup, and this time it’s an inside job. As has been widely reported and confirmed by Riis himself, longtime Riis DS Kim Anderson is taking Andy and Frank Schleck and constructing a Luxembourg-based team around them for 2011. With no sponsor lined up for next year and the defacto rider-release deadline of the Tour de France upon us, Riis seems resigned to shrugging his shoulders and emptying the drawers.

In 2009, when the startup Cervelo Test Team burst through the front door of Riis Cycling and lifted, among other things, reining Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre, DS Scott Sunderland, and bike sponsor Cervelo, Riis could comfort himself with the fact that, while they grabbed a lot of loot from behind the counter, they didn’t get into the vault. And behind that sturdy door, Riis still had the core of his squad safely intact. When Cervelo and CSC departed, Andy and Frank Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, Jacob Fuglsang, and Jens Voigt were more than enough to bring on Specialized and Saxo Bank to foot the bills.

This time, though, Anderson came in with the combination to the safe tucked in his back pocket, and now the door is swinging wide open and the shelves are quickly being picked clean. Yes, only the Schlecks have been linked so far. Fabian Cancellara has remained notably silent, and Jacob Fuglsang and Matti Breschel have stated that they’d like to stay with Riis, but also that they’d really like to get paid next year. Obviously, losing his two biggest grand tour names when he’s headed into the Tour de France with no sponsor locked down for next year puts Riis in a hell of a difficult position.

I’ve heard talk that the Schleck’s departure would give Riis the room – both funding-wise and team leadership-wise – to pursue someone like an Alberto Contador. I don’t think that’s quite the right way of looking at it, though I admire the optimism. I think that the truth is that Riis now finds himself in a Catch-22, where he doesn’t have the funding to promise a GC star, and he doesn’t have a GC star to promise the funders. It could be worked out – more difficult circumstances have certainly been resolved – but someone would have to take a pretty big leap of faith, and in a tight sponsorship climate, I don’t see riders or sponsors being terribly anxious to risk next year’s profits just to help Bjarne out of a jam. In effect, with no sponsor and no Schlecks, Riis is stuck with two variables, when he desperately needs a constant to solve the equation.

Ah, but what of Cancellara, you say? Motorized bike or not, he’s been one of the stories of the last half-decade. A multi-classic winner, the dominant TT rider of his generation, versatile, handsome and intelligent, and, as of today, current yellow jersey wearer in the Tour de France – he’s a sponsor’s dream. If Tom Boonen, with a supporting cast like Stijn Devolder and Wouter Weylandt, can justify the existence of Quick Step, why shouldn’t Cancellara, backed by Breschel, Fuglsang, and the rest be able to drum up some funding for Riis?

There’s a couple of answers to that question. The first one is easy – because for the last six months, Riis has offered sponsors those names plus the Schlecks, and the sponsors haven’t bitten. I doubt the absence of the Schlecks will increase sponsor interest. The second answer to why Cancellara probably isn’t enough to shoulder a team as Boonen does? A Swiss star winning Belgian races for a Danish team, good as he may be, just doesn’t attract the national pride funding that a Belgian superstar riding the big Belgian races for a Belgian team does.

There are, of course, fairly big teams built on less – AG2r and Lampre spring to mind. But those teams – like the aforementioned Quick Step – also campaign heavily on their national calendars. They’re active national teams at home that also happen to operate at the ProTour level, and as a result they’re appealing to national companies with sponsorship dollars. While it’s often one of Riis’s teams’ greatest assets, when it comes to the sponsor hunt, the internationalism of his squads can also hurt them. At the same time his squads belong to many countries, they also belong to none. Sure, Riis’s squads have always been committed to contesting Danish races, but compared to the Italian calendar or the French Cup series, there’s not a lot there – race wise or exposure wise – to base a sponsorship on. So to bankroll his top-flight, United Nations of a team, Riis needs a sponsor with international interests and deep pockets, and a lot of those companies aren’t feeling too flush right now. Or are feeling like they shouldn’t be looking too flush right now. Reality or perception, the result is the same.

Why do Riis’ squads seem to invite such raids? If you follow the broken window theory that floats around law enforcement, you might look for the broken window or the cracked tailpipe, that little tell-tale sign to would-be thieves that indicates a likely target. From where I sit on the outside, I don’t see that broken pane in Riis’ squads – his stars have, with a couple exceptions, almost always been PR dreams come true, and the team’s image is one of camaraderie, teamwork, and mutual admiration. There’s been precious little whining from riders about management, and little public scolding of riders by management. The most vocal rider gripe about the organization has been Matti Breschel’s exasperation at the inability to get a working bike at the Tour of Flanders.

What goes on behind closed doors, or what gets whispered in the hallways of team hotels, I have no idea, but to me, it seems that Riis’ teams are ripe for this sort of thing for a nearly opposite reason – everything works pretty well. The reason it works well is the people, and when people are successful, they tend to have options. Riis has capable and ambitious riders and staff, so it’s natural that from time to time they have big ideas of their own, and they pursue them. His riders, in turn, have been instilled with a team-player mentality, which makes them attractive targets for acquisition, as does the fact that Riis’ boys never seem to light up the doping lamp (no, not even Basso). They’re rarely trouble makers – not fight pickers or dirty sprinters or party boys. And, of course, they’re talented, and talent is ultimately the money in the bank or professional cycling. So when that bank gets robbed from time to time, it’s no surprise. Hell, it may even be flattering, though I’m not sure Riis sees it that way at the moment.


  • Wait a minute, what the hell was that? The Tour de France started today, and the Service Course is talking about last week’s Saxo Bank/Schleck thing? Indeed I am. What can I say, it was a busy week, and though I started this post earlier in the week, I didn’t quite get it done for Friday. And yes, that’s partly because I got to be one of the cool kids and go to the opening of the Rapha Cycle Club in New York on Thursday night. (I’m just kidding – I will never be one of the cool kids. But I did go to the opening, and it's a nice little place. If I lived in the NYC vicinity, I’d definitely stop by to have an espresso and check out a Tour stage with like-minded people. I’d probably also put some more fingerprints on their H van, for that matter. If you're apprehensive about going due to whatever you believe Rapha to be, don’t be afraid – you don’t turn sepia-toned when you walk in, and nobody makes you write essays about suffering. I checked.)

  • When deciding to further fragment the former CSC, current Saxo Bank, doesn’t anyone think of poor Phil Ligget? The guy had enough trouble keeping Cervelo and Saxo Bank straight after the split – going so far as to check in with Cervelo DS Alex Sans Vega on the condition of the injuried Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) in a live, on air interview during last years’ Tour. If Riis pulls it together and there are three branches to the former-CSC family tree next year, Ligget’s head may finally explode.

  • I’m happy that the Tour is finally underway, but longtime readers will know I have trouble mustering much to say about prologues. In all but the most egregious cases, the gains achieved are superficial and the losses trivial, and while prologue results might often correlate pretty well with final podiums, I still don’t feel that one has a whole lot to do with the other. I guess it's the thousands of miles and two mountain ranges in between the two, but whatever, that's just me. The next few days, though? I’ll be loving it, and with pieces of Paris-Brussels, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Paris-Roubaix scattered throughout the route, I’m betting Cancellara will be loving it, too. There really couldn’t be better terrain for him to potentially win a stage in yellow.

  • You know who else will be loving this Tour? SRAM. For the (relatively) new player on the block, there’s no denying those guys have put their money in all the right places.

  • As for all this Wall Street Journal article brouhaha, somebody better be working on a good conspiracy video or article about how WSJ is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Sky Broadcasting, which bankrolls the Sky team of Bradley Wiggins, and therefore it’s obvious that Murdoch is paying Landis to spout this stuff and using his paper to lend credibility to it, all with the intent of bringing down Armstrong and aiding Wiggins’ Tour chances. Because if nobody’s on that yet, the Armstrong army is really falling down on the job.

Minding the Gap

So here we sit in that yawning chasm between the end of the Tour de Suisse and the start of the Tour de France. Everything’s gone relatively quiet – the roster selections have been made, the contenders have retreated to make their final preparations in private, and big action on the road is minimal. We read the results of the national championships as they trickle in, of course, but none of that is even real until you see the jerseys on the road.

Staring across time towards the Tour is like watching a storm roll in across the water. You know what’s coming, but in the waiting there’s a sense of quiet and foreboding so imposing that you yearn for anything to break the silence – a passing car, a nearby conversation, a barking dog. But no matter what noises emerge to crack the muffled softness of that silence, nothing can relieve the underlying tension until the storm itself, with all its thunder and wind and force, hits shore. The rest is just distraction.

But for the cycling press, from mighty L’Equipe down to poorly formatted blogs, distraction is kind of the main business, and these two weeks are prime season. The dead air of the pre-Tour lull is ripe for filling with predications, retrospectives, opinions and god knows what else, all seeking to fill the informational void until the Tour itself hits shore and sets the underlying energy free.

With so much information blowing in the breeze in these pre-Tour days, it’s hard to find the common thread that would string it all together into any sort of narrative, so frankly, I quit trying. Here’s what’s struck me while watching the storm blow in.

Sprinter Showdown

With the exception of the politic-ed out Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia), this year’s Tour will feature a battle of the sport’s major sprint stars. In theory, at least. Though it looks like most of the fast men will make it to the start, there are plenty of questions remaining about what we’ll actually see as things barrel into the final 200 meters.

  • Will Tom Boonen (Quick Step) show up? It’s both a literal and figurative question. He’s having some knee trouble that’s putting his Tour start in doubt in the real sense. In the figurative sense, Boonen’s last several Tours haven’t exactly been spectacular. While his motivation should be high after a great but win-free classics season, he’s not the pure sprinter he used to be. Fortunately for him, a green jersey run is about more than winning the bunch kicks, so he could still be in with a chance.

  • After a slow start, can Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) live up to the expectations created by both his past performance and his present mouth? Will the ill-will of the Tour de Suisse have faded by the start in Rotterdam?

  • Will Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transistions) get his Tour stage win? He’s hot off a win at the Delta Tour Zeeland, which could indicate he’s building back up after nabbing two stages at the Giro d’Italia. If he can pull off a Tour stage, he’ll join teammate Dave Zabriskie on the list of Americans who’ve won stages of all three grand tours.

  • Which of the second line sprinters will steal some of the limelight? Saxo Bank’s rising classics star and fast man Matti Breschel? Lampre young ‘un Francesco Gavazzi? Some French guy?

  • Which leadout man is most likely to take a sneaky stage win while his leader sweeps his wheel for him – Julian Dean (Garmin-Transitions), or Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia)?

  • Robbie McEwen (Katusha) is likely staring down the barrel of his last Tour. Will he be able to go out on a good note after a year of injuries and setbacks?

  • Anyone seen Thor Hushovd lately? Anyone?

  • Will Oscar Friere (Rabobank) get one more stage? Though he doesn’t have the top end that a lot of the sprinters have, in a tricky finish run it’s hard to count him out. With his classics experience, he’s likely to be in the mix on the early northern stages, where he may be more likely to win from a small group or reduced bunch.

Help at Last?

For me, the big takeaway from the Tour de Suisse wasn’t the success of Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) or the Radio Shack squad’s apparent depth. It was Steve Morabito (BMC) and the BMC team. Morabito ended up fourth overall, but more importantly he finished in the contenders group three seconds back from winner Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) on the climbing stage to the Schwarzenberg, then followed that up by finishing seventh in a group :43 back from Robert Gesink (Rabobank) on stage 6 to La Punt. Add Morabito’s performance to Marcus Burghardt’s wins on two rolling stages, Mathias Frank’s wins in the KOM and intermediate sprints competitions, and solid performances from rouleurs George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan, and it starts to look like Cadel Evans could finally go into a grand tour with some legitimate support when it counts. Sure, Tour de Suisse is BMC’s defacto national tour, so you’d expect them to put some effort in, but the fact that Evans wasn’t there reveals where their real priorities very justifiably lie.

While we’re on it, you know who else might finally have some help in the mountains? Denis Menchov (Rabobank). The oft-overlooked Russian is putting all his eggs in the Tour basket this year, and might finally have some high-mountain companionship from Robert Gesink, who’s finally starting to live up to the potential we’ve caught glimpses of in the last few years.

How Soon They Forget

Speaking of Evans…Armstrong, Contador, and various Schlecks are all on everyone’s lips, given the recent conclusions of the Dauphine and Suisse. But geez, doesn’t anyone remember the Giro a month back? Sure, the Dauphine and Suisse are obviously fresher in our minds, but the Giro showed us a few relevant points too, and in a fairly spectacular fashion. For prognosticating purposes, the Giro also carries the added weight of being a three-week race. A couple of Giro takeaways, lest we forget:

  • Evans is obviously a new man this year, and could find himself right in the mix if his team shows up (see above). It’s probably also worth noting that while the lack of TT kilometers in this Tour will count against him vis-à-vis challenges from the Schlecks, with his experience and his teams, he could also be a big gainer in the early stages in the low countries. It’s also important to note that Evans had some surprising standout performances on the Giro’s steep ramps, a promising sign given that the Pyrenees will play a crucial role in this year’s Tour.

  • Everybody’s banging on about Radio Shack and Saxo Banks’ depth, and with good reason, but good lord, does anyone remember how Liquigas looked in the Giro, on a course where team strength wasn’t supposed to matter? I don’t believe they’ve announced their team yet, but Liquigas looks to be just as strong for the Tour as they were for the Giro, if not stronger. While Basso’s chief Giro lieutenant/co-captain Vincenzo Nibali is taking a break after this weekend’s national championship, the team will likely bring in Czech stage race hope Roman Kreuziger, and possibly wonderboy Peter Sagan as well. Mix in Giro standouts Sylvester Szmyd, Valerio Agnoli, and Robert Kiserlovski, pick three more depending on who’s good, and you have a team that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Something About Radio Shack

Radio Shack announced its Tour de France lineup on Monday, beaming out a roster that contains few surprises but still manages to be shocking when you see it written down. Quite simply, it may be the oldest Tour de France squad in history, though I’ll leave it up to the real number crunchers to verify that.* Yes, for the first time in decades, an American team has fielded a squad that can answer that most American of questions: Where were you when Kennedy was shot?

Overall, the team weighs in at an experienced-but-reasonable average age of 32.5, but that’s thanks to a foursome of 30 year old workhorses – Yaroslav Popovytch, Sergio Paulinho, Gregory Rast, and Dmitri Muravyev – as well as a substantial contribution from young Jani Brajkovic’s 26 years. But the RadioShack power elite – headed by Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner, and Levi Leipheimer – comes in at a whopping 36.75 years old. (If you don’t want to consider Horner and his 38 years as part of that group, fine, but eliminating him only brings the average age to 36.3.)

With an average age like that, people will rattle on about all sorts of legitimate ways to beat RadioShack, like frequent tempo changes on the climbs or making the race hard on back-to-back days to make recovery a key issue. But that’s all bullshit. If you want to beat a team of old guys, you have to look beyond cycling for your tactics. So here’s the Service Course advice for challenging Radio Shack at this year’s tour:

  • Keep a jersey pocket full of butterscotch candies, and throw them to the side of the road on climbs. Butterscotch is like old person flypaper.

  • Start a whisper campaign aimed at getting the UCI to classify Rascal scooters as “motorized doping.”

  • Have the UCI outlaw the wearing of tall black socks with shorts. By prohibiting the time-honored old person dress code, you’re sure to disrupt their mental game.

  • Air reruns of Matlock during time trials. Late starthouse appearances will surely ensue.

  • Get Cialis listed as performance enhancing substance. The cycling kind of performance enhancing substance.

  • Switch labels on denture cream, chamois cream.

Extremely cheap and largely hypocritical potshots aside, it’s a hell of a strong team. Just, you know, old, which as I said, isn’t shocking. So what is shocking about this team? No Spaniards. Starting in 2001, when Bruyneel began having to replace departing American climbing talents like Jonathan Vaughters, Kevin Livingston, and Tyler Hamilton, Spaniards became a mainstay of Bruyneel/Armstrong collaborations. For awhile in the early-mid 2000s, the team was probably the best Spanish team in cycling. This year, Haimar Zubeldia was the last likely Spanish hope for a Tour start, but since he’s out with a broken wrist, the Portuguese Paulinho is the lone Iberian representative on the squad. Of course, Zubeldia is a Basque, so despite his passport and the little Spanish flag next to his name on Versus, he might not consider himself any more Spanish than Paulinho. In fact, by hailing from Texas, Armstrong might be the closest thing to a native Spanish-speaker on the squad.

* If you did want to figure out what the oldest Tour team ever was, I’d start by looking at the immediate post-WWII Tours, when lots of the pre-war stars gave it a final shot, and much of the younger generation had been, well, killed.

The Dope Test Flap

There’s big news this week in acronym city, where at the order of WADA, the UCI will be conducting special dope tests at ASO’s TdF at the request of AFLD. You can view a nice bulleted outline of the situation and the decision here (thanks to @cyclingfansanon for the link). While nobody enjoys an inter-agency procedural eye-gouging match as much as I do, the real news to come out of this whole kerfuffle has been insanely understated – namely that AFLD claims to have information from customs/border agents and other law enforcement that seems to justify targeted testing of certain riders at the Tour. Uhh…that could be big news. Like Willy Voet big news.

Barry Finally Gets His Tour

Team Sky released its Tour de France roster this morning, an affair I’m sure my UK friends will thoroughly dissect within a matter of minutes, so I’ll leave it to them and just comment on one small part of it. For me, the biggest news was the selection of Mike Barry to ride his first Tour. You already know Barry through his writing, of course. But in addition to his abilities in capturing the sport from the inside, he’s also a very capable domestique who’s been worthy of a Tour ride for years, as proven by his service at the classics and various Vueltas and Giros. But riding as he did for Bruyneel’s deep Tour-winning teams, he never quite got the call-up earlier in his career. Maybe, as a Canadian, he just didn’t speak enough Spanish, who knows.

This year, though, he’s finally getting his shot, which is good, because it was feeling a bit like now-or-never time. I’m glad for him. Yes, I know he came up in Floyd Landis’s doping allegations, but he was also my next door neighbor in a sublet in Boulder about 11 years ago, when he was with Saturn and his wife Dede was still racing. I didn’t really know him, or her, and still don’t. I was just interning at VeloNews then, and figured the last thing I’d want to have next door if I were a pro cyclist was some cycling writer chatting me up every day when I got home. So I kept my distance. But Mike and Dede were always friendly, with a hello in the stairway or a wave as we passed coming and going on bikes. Like a lot of the people mentioned in various dope stories, they’re real people for me, and I try to remember that. The whole Landis thing will sort itself out, and we’ll all be happy or vindicated or disappointed or otherwise affected by what we find out about a lot of people. But that can wait. For now I’ll wish Barry all the best in his Tour debut. It’s about time.