Putting the Me in Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in Translation

Word was said to be leaking out of Italy over the past several days that Washington, DC, had indeed landed its longshot bid to host the start of the 2012 Giro d’ Italia. Big cycling media reports, subsequently parroted and embellished in any number of places, said that organizer RCS had made statements to the Italian press indicating it was a done deal, with the announcement to be made this morning at the Italian Embassy in DC.

Now, in the fading light of Thursday afternoon, those reports appear to be not quite so accurate, and I’m not talking about the fact that the event is going to be this evening rather than this morning. An event there will be, it seems, but rather than a triumphant victory announcement, it will be a rah-rah session held by the Italians and the Mayor in an effort to convince area businesses (and likely the rest of the DC government) that a wildly misplaced Italian bicycle race will be a financial benefit to the city. In other words, get them to cough up some dough.

That's a substantially different story from those running yesterday, though most of those stories have now been "updated", or "corrected," or "retracted," depending on how you look at it.

I have to admit, when the idea of DC hosting the Giro initially floated out, I approached it with a feeling of acute skepticism, bordering on pessimism. And frankly, even though DC’s proverbial hat seems to still be in the ring, I’m still finding it hard to shake those feelings. I support the effort – this would, after all, bring the Giro d'Italia to my backyard, or five miles from it, anyway. And it's bold, risky, and a little bit ill-advised, and I like that. But hauling a grand tour across the Atlantic is a gargantuan undertaking, fraught with a number of logistical challenges that can’t be overcome with mere enthusiasm. Some can't even be overcome with money, and that's saying something. Among the challenges, monetary and otherwise, that will have to be faced down:

  • For the past several years, the Giro has faced substantial criticism from riders about the length of the transfers between stages – and that’s when we were talking about a three-hour bus ride. Imagine the reactions to 14 hours in the air. I expect the riders’ association to weigh in.

  • Beyond the travel time, riders will be fairly resistant to sitting in a flying, germ-recirculating aluminum tube just as they're hitting some of their lowest body fat levels of the year. Twice.

  • Jetlag. Going east is worse, so expect a less-than-enthusiastic Stage 2 back in Italia.

  • During the U.S. phase of the race, there would be a six-hour time difference between the Giro's primary viewing audience in Europe and the bike race itself. Organizers would likely mitigate that problem with early starts in local time, which in turn will piss off riders, soigneurs, and mechanics.

  • Since DC would host at least a prologue and likely at least one additional stage, the cost and hassle of having to ship both a time trial bike (prologue) and a road bike (stage 1) and related equipment for each rider will have to be considered. Bike sponsors will not want to lose the time trial bike exposure of a grand tour prologue to the quaint "Eddy Merckx style" prologue rules often used for races in exotic (read: non-European) locations. This isn’t the Herald Sun Tour or Qatar. It’s the Giro.

  • The price for a second set of infrastructure required will be substantial on its own. Things like a complete set of rental cars for teams, organizers, officials, etc. And box trucks. And vans. And campers. And motorcycles. (Plus insurance.) And banners. And barriers. And radios. And 42 sets of roof racks.

  • By going transatlantic, the race would substantially increase the cost and hassle for the media and other assorted camp followers. If these outlets are forced to cut costs, coverage (and associated sponsor exposure) could suffer.

  • By exiting the bounds of the European Union, race organization and teams may spend more time than they'd like dealing with visa issues.

  • I would expect that RCS will likely incur some financial loss from the reduced value of a Giro sponsorship to Italian/European sponsors, who would receive lower exposure in their key markets for two or more days of the race, including the presentation and grand depart. Organizers would need to be able to make that up with cash from this side of the ocean, which is hard to come by these days.

  • RCS would also likely experience sponsorship value loss (and subsequent income loss) from European sponsors paying to drive a giant, rotating fiberglass sausage or something in the publicity caravan. Assuming nobody intends to fly that circus here and back, those sponsors would see about 1/10 of their days on the road eliminated. Granted, this could theoretically be mitigated by creating a second, U.S. caravan, though the concept is a little more alien here, and that could present sponsors with a pretty hefty sunk cost for 2 or 3 days of use.

  • I haven’t been able to confirm, but there were apparently issues with the National ParkService prohibition on advertising when the Tour du Pont went through Rock Creek Park awhile back, which could mean either not using the most obvious road in the city to use, or taking another hit to sponsor value by driving unlabeled vehicles on un-bannered roads, etc., for one of two days here. Again, unconfirmed, and I don't remember.

  • In trying to compensate for lost sponsor money on the Italian side with funds from U.S. backers, organizers may face potential sponsorship competition with the re-scheduled Tour of California, if it's still around in 2012. That is, potential U.S. non-endemic sponsors big enough to cut the big checks for cycling will likely have to decide whether to support the "U.S. race" or the "Italian race", both of which would be in the United States at the same time. If those potential sponsors are after warm feelings in the United States via cycling sponsorship, ToC is probably a better choice. If they're after warm feelings in Italy/Europe via cycling sponsorship, they're probably better off supporting an Italian/European race that's actually in Italy/Europe.

  • Outside of the race organizational aspects, I also suspect there will be quite a local outcry if the Mayor and City Council pony up any city money (such as police costs or road surface improvement) for some Italian bicycle race instead of paying school teachers, increasing police on the streets, feeding the poor, or addressing any of DC’s other myriad issues. And DC's usual sugardaddy, the Fed, is getting pretty strapped these days. Yes, most if not all of those costs could be recouped via economic benefit to the city as a result of the race, but few outraged citizens will get that far in their analysis once the shouting starts. Look at what happened to the San Francisco Grand Prix.

So yes, I’m skeptical. But I’m also hopeful. The people working on the bid are experienced, smart people, and they know cycling and event planning. I’m sure I haven’t listed anything above that they haven’t thought of themselves. And if they needed help, I’d sign up in an instant. Hopefully, tonight’s session at the Embassy will be another step on the road to success, even if it’s not quite the finish line people were expecting yesterday.

Big Tents, Small Media, and Other Things

Notes from Arlington

As I mentioned earlier, I provided some straight race coverage this past weekend for the Clarendon Cup NRC race and the Air Force Cycling Classic, a USA Cycling ProTour circuit race. Due to changing life circumstances over the past few years, I don’t travel to do race coverage nearly as much as I used to – as you may have noticed, I do most of my sniping from up here in the cheap seats these days. And while I’m not sure yet if, after this weekend, I’m burned out or reinvigorated, it’s always fun to be part of the circus again when it’s in town.

In the new issue of VeloNews, Neal Rogers has an interesting piece about how professional cycling is covered. Or maybe it’s only interesting to people who have done the job, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a piece that many cycling journalists have probably longed to write – we’re painfully aware of how many readers like to complain about the flavor of the sausage, but lack any real comprehension of how it gets made.

In that same spirit of openness, I’ve jotted down some things below that occurred to me as I covered this weekend’s races. Not all of them are new thoughts, by far; they’re not all directly related to this weekend’s experiences; and I probably have far more than this if I really thought about it. But what the hell.

On Home Field Advantage

You’d think it would be easier to cover races that are within single digit mileage from your home, wouldn’t you? In some ways, that’s true. When the race is in your backyard, or takes place along your regular commute like this weekend’s races did for me, there’s no airports, no rental cars, no map reading, and no crappy hotels. You sleep in your own bed, and eat breakfast in the kitchen with your kids instead of at a fluorescent-lit buffet with Serge, the Ukrainian soigneur. And there’s something to be said for all that.

But there’s also something to be said for being fully committed to the task at hand, with none of the distractions that you simply can’t get away from at home, no matter how pleasant they may be. Doing race coverage for the web like this weekend, it’s not a big problem, but if I were hunting for features or sidebars or angles for print, it’s far better to be holed up in the race hotel, inside the bubble, where you can make a quick call to the front desk, be connected to someone’s room, and arrange an interview in the lobby in an hour. And the amount of off-the-record scuttlebutt you can get in a hotel bar should not be underestimated for its background value. When you drive home an hour after the finish, you miss all that.

What is Media?

Look, I’m sympathetic towards “new media.” After all, as much as I hate to admit it, you’re reading this on one of those newfangled blogs, and my last printed-in-ink byline was probably over a year ago. And I'm not the only one -- the press tent’s getting mighty crowded these last few years with the expanded roster of online outlets, and during the post-race interviews, a few more recorders are thrust between you and your subject and you feel a little bit more hot breath on the back of your neck. If that meant more widespread, diverse, and credible coverage of cycling, I’d be more than happy with a little less elbow room and a less advantageous spot on the rail. It is, literally and metaphorically, a big tent, and I think that’s great.

The problem is that, while some of these folks do good work, many of them don’t seem to be working at all, and in fact, never produce anything from the events they’ve been credentialed for. In the meantime, they’re using that credential to get in the way of the folks who are working – interrupting interviews to have their picture taken with riders and getting in the way of the working photographers at the finish line for the sake of completing their PhotoBucket galleries. As valuable to the sport as fans and amateur photographers are, that’s just not what media credentials are for.

And they keep eating all the damn donuts.

Probably the most frustrating thing, for me anyway, is the appropriation by those same people of material generated by those who WERE actually working at the event. Occasionally, it’s as inconspicuous as seeing a quote on a blog or somesuch that was in the article you wrote, and you know you were the only one who got that quote, because you were sitting in a moving team car with the rider with the windows up when you got it. That’s annoying, but the most egregious case I’ve seen was back in 2007, when someone who was very excited to have race credentials for his blog (enthusiastically posting about it prior to the race), proceeded, hours after the race, to cut and paste the entirety of my VeloNews copy to his blog. Yes, my name was still on it, but that’s still pretty far from fair use, for those who deal in such things. The kicker? He’s a professor of online journalism at a local university. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing “don’t steal material from other sites” is Week 1 material in an online journalism class, maybe Day 1, even. More bluntly and less legalistically: you were there, you had the same access I did, write your own damn story. And if you think the theft is bad for the writers, you should see what it’s like for the photographers.

Look, I don’t mean to sound like the crusty old guy here, but maybe I am, so I might as well embrace it. I’m not even suggesting that we start severely limiting access – at least not for events like last weekend’s, which generate a significant amount of local interest that’s best capitalized on by new media. All I’m asking is that, if you’re going to be there, and be all geeked out about having a credential (which is fine), then DO something with it. Write something, do some work, find an angle, produce something useful – or just stand outside the barriers like the rest of the fans and enjoy the race. There’s no shame in that. At the very least, stay out of the way and don’t steal my stuff.

Second Fiddle, Maybe Third

We saw two, good entertaining domestic bike races this weekend, probably the two biggest going on in the U.S. on those two days (note - there was a women’s World Cup in Montreal, Canada). That said, sometimes writing about races, even big domestic ones, for the bigger sites can feel like throwing words down a well. Like, say, when the events you’re covering fall on the last days of the Giro d’ Italia, where the gap between winning and losing is less than a minute, and the finale is being contested on wet cobblestones in downtown roads with aero bars.

So yes, I was not expecting, nor did I achieve, nor did I deserve, top billing on the site at any point during the weekend. For that to have happened, I think Chad Gerlach would have had to have won both the Arlington races by a minute and a half, allowing me to fully, shamelessly, and transparently work the human interest angle to the bone. That didn’t happen, but c’est la guerre. At least seeing my headlines sink rapidly down the column was not an unfamiliar sensation – the first race I covered live and in person, the 1999 Red Zinger stage race, ended on the same day Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in Paris. Talk about getting buried.

Life in the Desert – All Heat and No Water

Last weekend’s races – a flat crit and a circuit race with a bit of a hill – presented the riders with different physical challenges. You may not know this, but the two formats present the media with different challenges as well. The criterium is primarily a test of your ability to endure blazing sunlight and scorching pavement temperatures, as well as your ability to maintain riveted attention for 100 laps. Seriously, 100 laps. The circuit race, on the other hand, is primarily a test of your bladder. Sure, you’re in the shade of a car in the caravan, and you have air conditioning and a good view of the break, which is nice, but you’ve traded in access to the criterium’s port-o-johns and the associated comforts they provide. The coping mechanism is no mystery, of course – get up in the morning, and consume the absolute minimum of liquids, in my case a very small cup of coffee to get going. Then hit the port-o-johns about three or four times at the start. Then don’t drink anything until you’re done with your post-race interviews. Even then, many times, at the end of the three or four hour cruise, that lap belt is starting to feel mighty tight. It’s really not that long to go, but I think it’s more mental than physical: it’s the fact that you can’t go that makes you have to. But that first sip of water when you’re done is oh so sweet.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Among some of the regional teams this weekend, there was apparently some confusion as to who would be riding for what team, in which races, and what race number they'd be wearing, resulting in three or four different versions of the start list (which matches numbers to names and teams), depending on how you counted. Unfortunately, none of them really shed much light on the situation. Without getting too far into it, or pointing any fingers, if teams make roster or number changes and don’t inform the organizer or officials, or if they do inform them and the organizer or officials don’t communicate those changes to the media (either with revised start lists or on the fly via radio tour), don’t expect your name to be right in the reporting. Yes, if Mark Cavendish switched numbers with George Hincapie before Milan-San Remo, or Hincapie and Tom Boonen switched teams, we could probably pick up on it and sort it out on our own, but when we’re talking regional riders making their appearance in national events, we can’t always pick out the faces. We really are trying to give you your day in the sun when it’s warranted – just help a brother out with the right information.

But Who Cares?

If any or all of that makes you think didn’t enjoy working this weekend, you’d be wrong. Most of it is just part and parcel of doing the job, and you laugh about it and move on. It was a great weekend of racing, and next weekend, when the circus rolls on up to Philadelphia for the Philadelphia International Championship, I’ll definitely miss being under the big top.


Cartoon courtesy of Patrick O'Grady hizzownself.

A question came up on my club’s listserv recently about junior gear restrictions, those USA Cycling declarations from on high that theoretically prevent our young men and women from destroying their knees by limiting them to something around a 52x14 gear ratio, instead of the 58x11 they’d inevitably choose if left to their own devices. Mention of gear restrictions was jarring, as it’s been a quite awhile since I’ve had to consider such things. My own junior gears were on a 6-speed Regina freewheel, if that tells you anything, though it should be noted that I was a bit behind the technological times, even then.

Back then, our 18-and-under set accepted the USCF’s “save your knees and learn to spin” argument at face value, though not without adolescent derision and whining about the unfairness of it all. Now, with some time and distance between me and those particular regulations, it occurs to me that the gear restrictions really aren’t about saving young knees at all. That argument just doesn’t hold water. Because really, what damage is little Johnny really going to do with big boy gears that he can’t do with a 52-14 if he really puts his mind to it? If there’s anything teenagers are good at, it’s using seemingly harmless things in a harmful manner. Sure, giving them a 52-14 instead of a 53-11 is like giving them an apple instead of candy in the name of health, but being teenagers they’ll just turn around and make a bong out of the apple. I certainly can’t figure out how to cause any permanent damage with a 52-14, but I’m over 30 – find a 16-year-old with some spare time, and he’ll show you how. (And besides, USAC lets masters riders use whatever ridiculous gearing they want, and those guys should be more worried than most about their joints. You can almost smell the glucosamine on the start line.)

Nah, the gear restrictions ain’t for health reasons, and it’s my firm belief that they are, in fact, a sort of thinly veiled training program. Not a Bicycling Magazine “Get Faster In Two Easy Steps!” training program, or even a Chris Carmichael “400 Line Graphs to Your Best Season Ever” training program. Rather, the gear restrictions serve as a sort of live action procedural manual, carefully engineered by USAC to acclimate potential pro prodigies to the post-race drug testing procedures that they’ll encounter later in their careers.

To train its young charges, USAC carefully replicates most of the elements of a ProTour dope test in a less intimidating form and environment, and they hit the mark from pre-race through the testing. At the start line, there are the stern warnings from officials that tests will be conducted (even when they won’t be), and that violators will be rooted out, punished, and shamed in the media (or on district listservs, but whatever). After the races, juniors are promptly rounded up, detained by blue-shirted officials, and escorted to the testing area to ensure they don’t engage in any test-cheating shenanigans, like wheel changes or fiddling with derailleur limit screws. Then, the juniors get to sit by and practice being nervous regardless of guilt or innocence while their sample is processed by a stern man with a clipboard, badge, and indeterminate nationality. For a further air of pro authenticity, gear restrictions also provide the requisite confusion over whether you need to report for testing if you didn’t finish the race, whose responsibility it is to know, and why nobody told you.

So for the most part, it’s a complete dope test dry run, and it’s probably as accurate as USAC can get without wantonly violating Federal statutes against forcing minors to disrobe and urinate while a bunch of old men watch. And since they are still wee lads and lasses, juniors get the additional concession of an immediate B test when they turn a positive – no sense in the case of the 53-13 dragging on until they’re masters. Through this groundbreaking training program, USAC has been able to guarantee that none of its graduates will ever soil its good name by botching a dope test on procedural grounds.

Though ambitious, USAC’s plan isn’t without its hitches. For instance, gear restrictions also inadvertently introduce juniors to the type of backroom chicanery that tends to come in handy when you’re trying to fool the testers before the first mountain stage of the Giro. Sure, using the old indexed downtube cable adjusters to surreptitiously lock out your 13 cog post-race is hardly a shot of Kenacort in the arse, and juniors’ late night, self-administered rollouts and constant search for that ideal combination of chainrings, cogs, and tire size isn’t quite as insidious as pros carrying around saline drips and a hematocrit machine. Besides, cable adjuster trick aside, setting your bike up to achieve the maximum allowable rollout isn’t illegal – unlike hematocrit levels or other biological markers, the rollout measurement itself is the determining factor of guilt or innocence, and it doesn’t matter how you got there. But remember, we’re teaching broadly applicable processes and behaviors here, good or bad.

And finally, the junior gear testing regime doesn’t prepare our future stars for all the evidence compiling, questioning, groveling, and appeals that follow a positive dope test. That’s what the USAC upgrade process is for.

Shotgun with Garmin, Part 2: Epic Race, Epic Post

[part 2 of a series started here]

With the rain came the flats – plenty in the first 20 kilometers or so as we headed out on the long lap. Race radio was plenty busy trying to keep up with the service calls as the peloton approached the first sprint point, but the Garmin name was absent, and speculation in the car began as to why. Tom the mechanic theorized that, with many amateur and lower-tier professional squads in attendance, many of the teams could be riding tires that would have been retired from Garmin bikes already. Or maybe it was the effect of clinchers, with their air pressure dropped a bit to handle the slick roads, hitting the inevitable slings and arrows of Pennsylvania road surfaces. Lim’s speculation was more ethereal, citing the fact that Garmin’s tires encountered only “pure, virgin racing roads,” thereby imparting them with mysterious yet appreciated flat-prevention qualities.

As the rain continued and the roads were seemingly washed off more thoroughly, the flat action tapered off. At least the actual flat action. Passing through one rural stretch of road with a strange cluster of houses built to subdivision spec, we spied a rider, who shall remain nameless, pulled 10 feet or so up the asphalt driveway, huddled over his handlebars and fiddling with the front presta valve. Judgment in the car was unanimous – somebody had had enough, and was looking for an easy way out.

I’d heard jokes about such exit strategies tossed around the amateur ranks since my junior days, like the idea of riding with a tack embedded in your glove, pointy end out. That way, if things got rough, a quick slap to the front tire could end all of your pain and suffering. But I’d never actually seen someone try to flat themselves out of a race. Lim, however, had seen it. He recounted the story of firing a rider (who again, shall remain nameless) on the Celestial Seasonings womens’ squad he managed circa 1999 for the same offense. Like our rider at the side of the road, she hadn’t considered the trail of evidence before committing the crime. Namely, the fact that if you just let the air out of your tire via the valve, your mechanic can simply re-inflate it and see that you’re full of shit. Guess they’d never heard of the tack.

The continued rain may have helped with road debris, but there was still enough accumulated oil, filth, and water on the road to make things more than a little glassy, and while Garmin avoided the flats, they couldn’t avoid the crashes. On the narrow, twisting descent following the day’s first KOM point, the team’s marquis attraction here, Tom Danielson, came off on a curve with two other riders.

By the time we’d screeched to a halt at the scene, Danielson was sitting in a folding chair surrounded by a small group of resident spectators. The houses are so close to the road that, had he missed the turn to a greater degree, he could have been lying in their living room instead of sitting in their lawn. As it was though, they were busy running inside to get him towels. The usual road rash marred his right leg, but a deep cut to his right forearm was generating quite a bit of blood.

Lim and Hopper were out of the car immediately, darting across the road to Danielson as the rest of the caravan eased through. One look at Danielson’s arm made it clear that continuing wasn’t an option – at least not in a minor, end-of-season UCI race in the middle of Pennsylvania. Lim flagged down the broom wagon to see if they could fit him in and give him a lift to the feed zone, where Garmin staff could have a closer look and transport him to the hospital if necessary.

There was a brief debate as to whether that could happen – a number of other sodden souls were already peering from the foggy windows of the minivan of broken dreams. Lim asked Danielson if he wants to jump in with us, and glancing back at the back seat full of equipment, I started thinking of how I was going to find my way to the finish when I got ejected from the passenger seat to make room for one of the squad’s bigger names. Word came back that either the broom wagon or the ambulance could transport Danielson as long as we could take his bike.

Hopper already had the Felt on the roof, so I breathed a sigh of relief and settled back into my seat. But only briefly, as I realized the car, of which I was currently the sole occupant, was moving down the hill. I grabbed at a thing that looked like a parking brake, but which in a Saab apparently is not a parking brake, before moving to the more awkward solution of leaning over the center console and depressing the foot brake long enough to put the car in park.

Leaving Danielson in the lawn chair with a jacket, Hopper and Lim jumped back in the car, and it was time for the rocket ride. Because of the crash, we were now far behind the caravan, and at the front end, a break had formed containing three Garmin riders – Tyler Farrar, Pat McCarty, and Lucas Euser. Their gap was pushing the minute mark, when team cars will be allowed to move into the gap to support their riders. The next 10 minutes were a blur -- driving at ass-puckering speeds down narrow backroads to catch the back of the caravan, Lim talking with the soigneurs on the phone about the incoming Danielson, weaving and honking our way through dropped riders and other team cars, and finally getting the nod from Comm 1 to pick our way through the peloton and rally our way to the back door of the break.

The break was working smoothly, and Lim soon received word that the team had collected Danielson and were taking him to the hospital for stitches, so things settled down a bit. If it weren’t said inside the twisted world of bike racing, Lim’s reaction to the Danielson’s situation would seem callous: he was relieved because the hospital visit was well-timed, early enough in the day that it wouldn’t delay the team’s departure for the Tour of Missouri.

With things calmed down a bit, we resumed the time-passing conversations we’d begun before things heated up. The testing of the team car passenger doesn’t stop with the initial response detailed in our first post. With Lim, it went on throughout the day. We talked about my history with VeloNews, how I got into bike racing, my educational background, common acquaintances, the usual stuff. Lim threw in some beauty contest style questions as well:

Q: Which presidential candidate will be better for cycling?
A: Neither, most cyclist issues are largely local, and the few “friends of cycling” in Congress are probably as much as we can expect on the national level, advocacy wise.

Q: What’s the future of cycling?
A: Over the next 10 years, cycling for transportation, not racing. Increases in fuel costs could put the clamps on racing on a number of levels, but as long as there are two guys with bikes anywhere near each other, there will always be bike racing in some form.

There were a few others, which I’ve forgotten now, but I chose to play the straight man no matter how absurd the question was intended to be. If I didn’t get to know exactly who I was dealing with, I figured they shouldn’t either.

So Lim and Hopper learned a little about me, and I learned a few things about me as well. Apparently, I’m not nearly as spastic as some reporters are when they’re in the team car. Lim remarked, “you have an air of calm about you,” noting that some others do not. Something I can’t recall cut the conversation short, so I’m left wondering now just what the hell other reporters are doing in the car. Fiddling with the CD player? Beatboxing over the team radio? Rifling through musettes? Don’t get me wrong, my apparent calm has nothing to do with my level of interest, excitement, or experience – I suspect it stems more from an anal-retentive attention to getting the details of the race right, which leaves me staring through the windshield and straining to hear the race radio a lot of the time.

I did get to learn a little bit about the team’s approach to this race, which, though a big deal for many involved, obviously pales in comparison to some of the others they’ve attended this year. The general take was that for the staff and the riders, it was a good chance to get some miles, keep a finger in the domestic pie, and generally hang out with each other and ride a race with far less pressure than usual. And Lim did note what many others have: at Univest, organizer John Eustice has assembled all the components of a European-style UCI race – TV coverage via helicopter, proper communication and caravan control, publicity, announcing, etc.

There may have been less pressure than at the Tour de France or the preceding weekend’s national championship, but Garmin wasn’t soft pedaling at Univest. I won’t recount all the race details here – that’s what this article was all about -- so I’ll just cut to the point where Garmin had Euser in the winning break with Frederik Eriksson (CykelCity), the defacto big Swede in the peloton since Garmin didn’t bring the peloton’s primary big Swede, Magnus Backstedt. By then, we were on the last couple of finishing circuits, and driving through a blinding downpour. Even with the windshield wipers going full tilt and the headlights on, it was getting harder to pick out Euser’s small body and now-grey jersey through the mess.

But we could hear him. Race radio chatter picked up significantly in those closing laps, with Farrar radioing in that the remnants of the break, where he and McCarty were playing guard dog, were demoralized, and questioning whether the organizers really needed them to ride all the circuits. Lim was urging Euser on with calm but forceful encouragement, breaking form with one slightly more colorful plea to Euser to attack the used-up Eriksson and leave him for dead – “Life’s not fair, Lucas, and right now you’re the one holding the machine gun!”

For his part, Euser was feeling confident, yelling back “tell [Farrar and McCarty] not to chase. I want this one” during one of the early finishing circuits. But several laps later, with Lim again urging him to drop Eriksson and avoid a sprint, Euser responded with a more modest “I don’t have too much left in the tank.” It wasn’t panic that ensued in the car, but there was certainly concern. The gap between Euser and Eriksson was enough that one of them was nearly assured of the win regardless of anything McCarty and Farrar could do in the chase. The team had committed to Euser’s move, but the last statement wasn’t inspiring confidence in the decision.

It didn’t matter. With a single attack about three kilometers from the line, Euser dutifully pulled away from Eriksson and soloed in for his first professional win. After the finish, I asked him about the “not much in the tank” remark and the consternation it caused in the car. The real story? He and Eriksson had already chatted – Eriksson was cramping with several laps to go, and just wanted to make it to the finish. Euser may not have had much in the tank, but he knew it was enough.

There’s a lot of hubbub that follows a bike race, at least for those who are involved in riding it or writing about it. Riders have to find soigneurs and directors, get changed, do podium presentations, go to dope control. Writers have to chase them down during all of that and interview them before they wander off. It’s a little bit like herding cats. As I staked out Euser, who was up on the podium, I chatted with his USADA escort, a woman of maybe 60 years old. “The poor thing really has to pee, he’s ready, and they keep dragging him away for more awards and things,” she told me.

Univest has more awards than your average one-day race – things like best team, best American rider, best haircut – to the point that Eriksson asked me if this is normal in the United States. They’ve cut back in recent years, but it’s still quite a few, so Euser, perhaps at that time the world’s most willing urine donor, was just going to have to hold it for awhile. After his appearance for the win, he was called back up for the team award, and then to receive a leader’s gold jersey. (Univest is technically a two-day omnium, though Garmin wasn’t sticking around to contest the next day’s criterium.) You could sense his disappointment when race organizers asked for the jersey back after he’d left the stage. “You keep podium jerseys?” the woman asked him. Though he argued that yes, people typically do, and that it was his first big win, he still came away with only his team jersey and promptly hustled off to the Univest bank building to pee in a cup. Though I doubt he’d trade a quicker trip to the urinal for the spoils of his first professional win, he seemed relieved to be headed that way.

In closing, I have to say that while it’s my job to be objective, I was happy for Garmin to win Univest. But it was for my own reasons. Since I starting doing this stuff, I’ve never, ever been in the car of the team that won the race. Not even with teams that were fairly dominant in their time, like Saturn, or Mercury, or Health Net. I was starting to feel like a curse, but now the burden has been lifted. People will be begging to give me a ride now, I tell you.

Shotgun with Garmin, Part 1: Lesbians

“I don’t know. Tom and I were planning on talking about lesbians the whole time.”

That was the answer to the first question I’d ever asked Allen Lim, the man behind many of the Garmin-Chipotle squad’s widely publicized processes and procedures. Lim: team physiologist, inventor of ice vests, proponent of large vats of waterless hand sanitizer, chronicler of power curves, and author of down-to-the-second TT warm-up routines. Apparent connoisseur of lesbians.

When the subject came up, I was standing outside the driver’s side door of Garmin’s idling Saab team car a few minutes before the start of the 2008 Univest Grand Prix, which I was covering for VeloNews.com. I’d just asked Lim, the acting DS for Garmin’s five-man lineup here, if I could hitch a ride with him and mechanic Tom Hopper as the race headed out for a long loop through the Pennsylvania countryside and back into Souderton for 11 finishing circuits.

Approaching Lim was a last ditch attempt on my part – I hadn’t prepared very well in the days ahead of the race, and hadn’t pre-arranged a caravan ride in a SRAM, commissaire, or team car. With the promised drenching rains from tropical storm Hanna likely to derail the live TV coverage that usually provides a decent remote view of the race, caravan seats had apparently filled up quickly with hacks and VIPs of various stripes, and I was more or less on my own hunting for a spot as the clouds gathered. I kept passing by Lim’s car as I cruised up and down the caravan looking for a seat without success. The Garmin car seemed the least likely place to find shelter from the storm at this late hour – Garmin had the heaviest hitters in the race, was the only “Tour de France team" in attendance, and was the team of defending champion Will Frischkorn, though he didn’t take the start due to reported tendonitis. There was no doubt in my mind that particular passenger seat had been “called,” junior-high style, first thing this morning, if not weeks ago.

But with four minutes to the start, I could see that the seat next to Lim was being filled with nothing but the team-issue Blackberry and a rain jacket, and there didn’t seem to be any other media types loitering about, so I went for it. If you’re shocked or somehow offended by Lim’s answer to my request, don’t be. It comes in many forms, but the “test answer” to the “can I catch a ride” question is always meant in jest, and it's a near constant in these sorts of dealings:

“OK, but we take off our pants after the neutral zone.”

“Be our guest, but my mechanic has terrible gas.”

“Yes, please – ride in the front seat. It’s her first time driving in a caravan, and we need someone to absorb the impact.”

That last one has an air of truth to it (Univest GP 2005, I believe, Mavic 2 car – nobody died), but you get the idea. Roll with whatever the response is, and you’re good. Recoil or stammer, and you’ll probably still get a ride, but you’ll be treated a bit more warily. So roll I did, and Lim cleared the debris from the passenger seat to make room. To say getting that particular ride was lucky would be an understatement. Garmin would go on to force every major selection of the race, and with each successive whittling down, we'd sidle up behind the break again as the key players' voices crackled over the team radio. But that's later.

Though I knew how to treat the initial response from Lim, I’d be lying if I said that reading him was easy. As we made small talk and awaited the caravan roll-out, Lim suddenly turned to me and delivered a very deadpan, “We’re happy to have you. Use his hand sanitizer now, do not touch anything in the car, do not touch me, do not touch my mechanic. Do not sneeze, do not cough.” I took the hand sanitizer he offered, remembering all those Tour de France pieces about the team’s concerted efforts to prevent illness – methods considered over-the-top in a sport that already sets a pretty high bar for germ paranoia. Through whatever vocal or body language clues Lim may have given, or maybe for my own peace of mind, I chose to take the rest as a joke playing on the team’s well-known reputation. I think I got it right, since somewhere around kilometer 70 I had an uncontrollable coughing fit, to which Lim was sympathetic and a bit amused: “I’ll stop the car if you need to throw up – we’d do that for you, man.”

The presence of outsiders in the car can lead to plenty of discomfort on the part of the team staff, especially when the role of that outsider is to write down and then publish what’s happening. Tongues can initially be held in check, and though everyone’s usually perfectly polite, you can tell the environment in the car is different because of your presence. If you’re lucky, everyone just relaxes a bit as things get underway, or something happens that helps to break down the barrier -- you stumble on a common bond, your knowledge of the sport is deemed acceptable, or you somehow prove you’re more than dead weight. Make no mistake – you'll still be an outsider, and the atmosphere in the car will still be different than if you weren't there, but the tension level comes down a bit, and everyone can get on with playing their role during the bike race without worrying so much about each other.

In this case, the happening that broke the barrier was the failure of the team to pick up the organizer-issued race radio – the one that lets the team cars and support vehicles hear commissaires’ instructions, time checks, breakaway numbers, calls for service, road hazard warnings, crash announcements, and random dope control numbers. Without one, you’re effectively deaf and mostly blind, and though you still have the radio connecting the car to the riders, you’re left with very little to tell them. We were about to roll under the start banner when the lack of a race radio in the car was noted. Fortunately, I had stuffed my scanner into my bag on a whim, and the Univest GP, god bless it, uses actual radio frequencies like the European races, not the janky Nextel walkie-talkie bullshit that’s the bane of the Philly Week experience. Even better, John Eustice’s crew had the foresight to publish the frequency in the race bible, so after a few minutes of fiddling, we were back in the loop, I had earned my spot in the car, and everybody settled in for a four-hour jaunt through the Pennsylvania hills.

The rain started a few minutes later.

[I’ll continue with a second installment, which might have to do with actual racing, as soon as time permits. Thanks for your patience.]

Yesterday's News

I did some writing of the paying kind this past Saturday, covering the Univest Grand Prix up in Pennsylvania for VeloNews. With Tropical Storm Hanna sweeping through the area, it was a hell of a show. You can read the details of what went down here.

I owe a big round of thanks to Garmin-Chipotle team doctor and DS for the day, Allen Lim, and mechanic Tom Hopper for spotting me a seat in their team car. Given that the team initiated every major split and took the race firmly in hand, it was a front row seat for a great performance. It was also dry in there, and on Saturday, there was something to be said for that.

I’ll try to post a bit later this week with some inside-the-car perspectives on the race.

Reading Reading (or Vice-Versa)

I did not see that coming.

Oscar Sevilla (Rock Racing) won the second race of Philly Week, giving his polarizing domestic team what has to be the biggest victory of its short existence. While the Reading, PA course does feature a substantial climb in the last three laps, it’s hardly one that would look to favor a guy who made his name by riding well in the high mountains of European stage races and by having the face of an eternal 13 year old. As the two previous winners, Bernhard Eisel (then T-Mobile, now High Road) and Greg Henderson (then HealthNet, now High Road) would indicate, it tends to favor strongmen who can ride the hill as a power climb and still sprint afterwards. But according to reports, the little Spaniard not only read the race and timed his move perfectly, but was also just plain stronger than everyone else. That’s a hard combination to beat.

Jason Sumner’s VeloNews report can give you all the details, as can Mark Zalewski’s on cyclingnews.com, but basically, Sevilla had a free hand to play, which he did to great effect in the final two laps. Had that failed, the team was banking on Fred Rodriguez to take out the field sprint. Simple as it was, that little tactical discussion was somehow striking. I haven’t exactly been scavenging the media for the latest Rock Racing news, but it's hard to avoid, and it seems to me that the contents of those two articles are probably the most in-depth discussion of cycling tactics and actual racing to have occurred in relation to that particular team. Amidst all the discussion about persecution, Cipollini, lawsuits, tattoos, chrome rims, and fashion, it’s easy to forget that there’s an actual group of guys out there racing. And the team knows it. Director Mariano Friedick told VN post race, “No matter what other people may think, we are just a bike racing team trying to win bike races.”

But it’s hard to deny that the team has given people plenty to talk about besides winning bike races. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to do so. And, like it or not, this victory will continue to fan some of those flames, because it involves Sevilla. While I don’t have the time – as in, “enough time left on this Earth” – to recount the ins and outs of the whole Operation Puerto affair, suffice it to say that Sevilla was implicated, but never officially sanctioned, unless you count exclusion from the Tour of California as being sanctioned. So there will certainly be people both deep inside the sport and on the spectator level who will complain about his victory and the “message” it sends, despite the fact that he’s always held a valid UCI license.

I won’t be among them though. Why? Not because I don’t think Sevilla was involved in at least some of the illicit practices at the center of Puerto. I’m no fan of guilt by association, because if that were the norm, I probably wouldn’t be a free man today, but Sevilla’s resume is a listing of the teams of the damned: Kelme (1998-2003), Phonak (2004), and T-Mobile (2005-2006) take him up through the Puerto case, after which he rode for Relax-Gam before landing stateside with Rock Racing. But in the years since that whole mess blew up, the acronym soup that claims to govern world cycling has failed to work in concert to do anything about it, other than point fingers at various cyclists and each other. In the meantime various riders, including Sevilla, have been caught in purgatory, and for someone just trying to get on with their life, that’s a pretty stiff punishment. At least when you get sent to heaven or hell, you know what you’re in for.

So while Sevilla would have likely sat out a couple of years had various people pulled their acts together, the time for the UCI and all other Puerto concerned parties to fish or cut bait has long since passed, and at this point they're stuck firmly below deck hacking the heads off a tub of shad until the next boat comes along. Or at least they should be, but most of these parties have never been constrained by the pursuit of a proper course of action. Maybe you can blame Sevilla and all of the other Puerto riders (including Sevilla’s teammates Tyler Hamilton and Santiago Botero) for not fessing up if you think they’re guilty, and that’s fair enough, but it’s the governing bodies’ job to police this stuff, and they failed miserably. At some point, in the absence of any credible sporting or legal process, we all have to move on, and I'm trying to do my part. Which is not to say that we shouldn't look to improve the processes -- clearly, there's plenty of work to be done. But we need to do so by using the past as a lesson, not by dwelling in it and letting it siphon off resources that could be used to improve the future.

Though it’s not directly related to Puerto, which has been pretty quiet of late, there’s ample evidence of the sport’s mismanagement floating around these days anyway. If you want to dig into the depth of just how bad it is, check out VeloNews Editorial Director John Wilcockson’s interview with UCI boss Pat McQuaid. The primary subject is the UCI vs. ASO issue hovering noisily over the upcoming Tour de France, but it’s pretty indicative of the state of the sport as a whole. It’s also pretty dense stuff, and frankly, it made my head hurt. But despite the pain, it reveals some disturbing issues, like the fact that the McQuaid interprets (at his convenience) requests made by a confounding number of (sometimes redundant, sometimes conflicting) teams associations to the UCI as steadfast rules to be applied to races, and that the UCI is both the enforcer of and at the mercy of those same rules. My headache comes back just thinking about it.

Though this particular interview only gives a peep into the UCI’s absurd mental gymnastics, the ASO really isn’t contributing any better logic on their side. In fact, it would be sweet relief if there were anybody involved in the whole UCI vs. Grand Tours flap who was more-or-less right. But there isn’t, and the fact that they’re all making a mess of things in their own unique way is just plain frustrating – there’s really no interest in creating a unified, cohesive structure for the sport, only in forwarding the individual goals of a slew of organizations. I don’t claim to have the answers to all of the overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities and ambitions that are hog-tying the sport, but then again, it isn’t my full-time well-compensated job to think about such things. It’s my part-time, poorly compensated job to bitch about them sometimes, though, so there you go.

Classics Interlude Update

With the cobbled classics in the books and the Ardennes classics yet to begin, it seems like a good time to look back at the last month here at the Service Course and see how some of the subjects we’ve explored have developed.

On March 21, we took a look at victory salutes, and pointed out that rule number one was to never, ever raise your arms until you were absolutely sure you’d won. Clearly, Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) did not read that particular article, because at this morning’s Scheldeprijs (a.k.a. the Grand Prix de l'Escaut), Tornado Tom threw the guns in the air just a bit early, allowing Mark Cavendish (High Road) to squirt by him. Feeling a bit invincible after Paris-Roubaix, are we?

Even further back on March 10, the Service Course discussed the industry spat du jour, the Cannondale versus Specialized war of words, which played out in a highly discussed Cannondale advertisement. People seem to enjoy a bit of industry polemics, and the dispute gave us hits from a number of people Googling things like “Shannon Sakamoto Specialized” and “Specialized stealing Cannondale engineers,” so the ad did have some effect in raising awareness if not necessarily swaying any loyalties. That was all quite awhile ago now, but apparently the hurt feelings have yet to heal. Evidence comes in the form of this article on the Bicycle Retailer and Industry News site today. I say less whining, more designing.

Speaking of Google-y ways people get to this site, the most interesting search to lead to a hit last month was undoubtedly “Museeuw hair piece.” I don’t believe the Lion of Flanders’ follicular status has been addressed here, but I guess we had enough of the terms to make that little aberration happen. And if that wayward reader happens to stop back by, I’m pretty sure Johan has plugs, not a piece. The installation of said plugs may have lead to the regrettable do-rag incident at the 2000 Paris-Roubaix. Or maybe not, but it’s hard to imagine a classics specialist embracing Marco Pantani as his style maven unless there were extenuating circumstances. And besides, he’s retired – leave the poor man’s hairline be.

March also found us wondering if, after changing the name, the location, and the date of a race, you can still claim that it’s the same event. And on April 11, we got our answer: it doesn’t matter, because there’s not going to be a race anyway. Yes, the U.S. Open of Cycling, previously slated for late May in Rhode Island (previously known as the U.S. Open Cycling Championship held in April in Virginia) won’t be held anywhere, at any time, under any name in 2008. But we look forward to hearing the plan for 2009.

In a more recent entry discussing the plight of Spanish classics riders in the wake of Oscar Freire’s (Rabobank) Gent-Wevelgem win, I speculated that part of the reason Spain doesn’t turn out a great many such riders is that, after they’re forced out to foreign teams, the Spanish media doesn’t report much about their exploits. Freire’s teammate and fellow expat Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) reinforced that theory the very next day in this little snippet on cyclingnews.com. Seems that his podium place at Flanders getting footnote billing under the daily results from Pais Vasco miffed Flecha a bit. After getting left for dead by his team at Paris-Roubaix, he’s not in any better mood a week later.

Finally, just prior to the start of the cobbled classics, I offered some suggestions on what to drink as you enjoyed whatever coverage you could squeeze out of the internet and Versus. There was some wiggle room in those suggestions, depending on whether you wanted to go for an authentic spectator experience or go a bit more upscale. With the coming of the first Ardennes classic, there is really no choice. It is, after all, the Amstel Gold Race. But apparently those wily Dutch don’t think that Americans will tolerate a fully caloried beer, so unfortunately, our only choice stateside is the ubiquitious Amstel Light. I’m not sure if that means that news of the American obesity epidemic doesn’t make it to CNN International, or that it does, and the Dutch are trying to do us a favor. Either way, the combination of a beer sponsorship and a race route that looks like it was laid out by a drunk trying to find his house after last call just feels right.

A Race by Any Other Name

VeloNews.com reported on Tuesday that the U.S. Open Cycling Championships, which ran from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Richmond on April 13 last year, will be returning this year.

Except it’s going to be called the “U.S. Open of Cycling.”

And it’s going to be in Providence, Rhode Island, not Virginia.

And it’s going to be at the end of May instead of mid-April.

But other than that, the organization is happy to announce the return of their race. Which begs the question, what exactly is a race? Is a race’s identity tied to its calendar slot? The course? The name? The promoter? The riders? Clearly this particular organization is relying on the last two criteria, since there are precious few other unifying elements between last year’s “edition” and this year’s. By those measures, ASO actually holds Fleche Wallonne twice in a single week, it’s just that the second time they change the date and the course and call it Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Now that’s organization.

We don’t have an inside window into the Open’s situation – maybe there are sponsorship opportunities in Rhode Island that aren’t there in Virginia, maybe municipal cooperation on road use is better up north, or maybe the Providence Super 8 is offering discounts that are just too good to pass up. Certainly, the race was in trouble at the start last year, but the promoter brought in veteran race director John Eustice, who managed to pull together a good race that was made great by cold, snowy conditions and the fact that you could watch it on TV. Despite that success, it seems likely that the issues that put the Virginia version in jeopardy last year couldn’t be speedily resolved again this year, hence the changes. Since we don’t know what those issues are, we can only examine the new edition from the outside.

The Calendar

The date change is more or less of a wash in terms of improvement. There was some hope that the race could develop into a sort of U.S. spring classic with the mid-April date, but there are advantages to the change. The new date, May 31, would put the Open in the position of potentially opening “Philly Week” – the East Coast swing of big races that begin with the CSC Invitational, then moves to the Commerce Bank trio of road races that culminates with the former USPRO championship race through the streets of Philadelphia. Such grouping of races is beneficial to teams, the media, and organizers, as it cuts down on travel time and costs while helping the promoters get the big players at their events. After all, look at how well it works for the spring classics in Europe. So, the new date is good, until you combine it with…

The Location

Providence is a lovely place, and one with an undeniably good competitive cycling history, at least when it comes to cyclocross. The other undeniable thing about Providence is that it is a long way from Arlington, Virginia, 7.25 hours, according to Google. Arlington is where the CSC Invitational, a mainstay of the NRC calendar and a prized win for criterium specialists, kicks off at 12:25 pm on June 1, the day after the Open.

Now, according to Eustice on VeloNews, the Open will leave plenty of time for the teams to get down to Virginia. Technically, that’s probably correct – the number of hours between the Open finish and the CSC start should allow riders to physically be present for both events without warping the space-time continuum. The question is how good they’ll be feeling once they get there. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Open ends at 2:00 pm. Allow an optimistic hour for podium presentations, press conferences, loading the trucks, rider showers, and getting on the road. So, according to Google, everyone should be checking into an Arlington hotel around 10:30pm, if we allow for a quick bathroom break along the way.

The only problem with that scenario is that the majority of the drive is down I-95, which takes in the New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC metro areas on its way into sunny Arlington. Those with experience in that particular corridor would plan on a midnight check-in. At least the summer Jersey shore traffic won’t have kicked in yet.

Had the race used the new date for the old route (or even the old date with the new route), it would have been perfect. But with the proposed logistics, CSC Invitational goers might be seeing a lot of surly faces under the team tents. Hopefully, the new Open date won’t result in teams skipping the CSC race in favor of heading to Pennsylvania to wait for the start of the Commerce Bank series.

The Format

No change here. The format for the Open is a straight John Eustice special – one large loop of 50 or 60 miles, then a bunch of finishing laps on a 4-5 mile circuit in town. It’s a model that Eustice has been using for years at the Univest Grand Prix, and which he modified for last year’s Open, substituting a point-to-point route for the initial loop.

The motivation behind the format is hard to argue with – you get the open roads and varied terrain of a road race, and some of the spectator-friendliness of a crit. However, last year’s Univest revealed chinks in the armor. When a break arrived at the finishing circuits so far ahead of the field that it had already completed a lap by the time the peloton approached, officials were forced to pull the field to avoid chaos. But even that didn’t work, as riders on different laps mixed in, got confused, and then didn’t chase guys they needed to chase. The resulting mess took an hour to sort out after the finish, and reshuffled all of the standings with the exception of the winner, Will Frischkorn (Slipstream).

There’s a reason the limitations of the format only emerged at Univest last year. Until then, Univest was run as an elite amateur race, and amateurs are notorious for keeping a tight leash on even the earliest of breakaways. So, in the race’s previous nine runnings, the peloton had always entered the finishing circuit on the same lap as the leaders, since they were always within 10 minutes of each other. With professionals now competing at Univest, the dynamic has changed – the finishing circuits make up nearly half of the total race length, and the professionals are more than happy to let the early break skewer itself far beyond the halfway point before bringing it back. Needless to say, there was an air of surprise when the field found itself pulled with around 40 miles remaining, as the break was still well in hand.

Hopefully, Eustice has found a way to avoid a similar mess at the Open, which will most certainly include professionals and their associated racing dynamics. It all worked out at last year’s Open, so there’s hope. One option would be to extend the initial long loop and cut back the number of finishing circuits so that they fall later in the race. At the very least, the teams should be warned ahead of time, so that they can bring the break back to, say, eight minutes or so before hitting the finishing circuit.

All that aside, can you really call it a finishing circuit when it accounts for 40 percent of the race?

The Name

There’s no doubt the change from “U.S. Open Cycling Championship” to the “U.S. Open of Cycling” is a good one, though the name still leaves something to be desired. The original name was ridiculous, as the race isn’t a U.S. championship of any kind. That sort of absurd naming convention is right up there with promoters putting “de” in the names of American races, and every race with a 10 meter stretch of poor pavement putting “Roubaix” in its name. Tarting up a race name with European linguistic knick-knacks or calling an event a championship when it isn’t is not befitting of truly professional events.

All things considered, the bland name has worked out well for the Open promoters – after all, it would have been even harder to claim that the 2008 event is the same race as the 2007 one if they were forced to run “Williamsburg-Richmond” or the “Tour de Virginia” on the roads around the Providence reservoir. Maybe, with such a versatile name, the U.S. Open can become like the (rightfully named) World Championships – same name, same format, different city every year.

Wherever it may roam, whenever it may be held, and whatever it may be called, SC wishes the U.S. Open of Cycling the best.