E3 K.O.?

Sporza is reporting this morning that the organizers of the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen believe that tomorrow's edition of the race is likely to be its last. If true, the impending death of the E3 it is the predictable outcome of moving Gent-Wevelgem from the Wednesday between the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix to E3's traditional weekend before Flanders. It took all of two years.

The sad irony, of course, is that Gent is doing to E3 what Roubaix was effectively doing to Gent in the years leading up to the date change. Namely, key riders, if not whole teams, are opting to sit out the lesser ranked race to keep their powder dry for the higher caliber event to follow.

It's understandable. As various iterations of the ProTour concept came in, placing more importance than ever on the top-tier races, more and more riders were giving Gent a miss to rest up (and stay injury free) for Roubaix. So Gent moved to the weekend, and promptly became the event rider rested up for, rather than skipped to rest up for something else. After a feeling-out year in 2010, this year the arrangement has effectively sucked the life out of the lesser-ranked E3's field quality. The evidence? Tom Boonen, a four-time E3 winner, is sitting it out this year in a desperate attempt to gain World Tour points for his faltering QuickStep squad. Filippo Pozzato is doing the same thing for Katusha. But at least QuickStep and Katusha will have teams there. Not so for BMC, HTC, and Sky, three teams that have factored heavily in classics racing this year. All of them are giving E3 a miss to focus on Gent.

The potential loss of E3 and smaller races like it would obviously be a great loss to racing. Not just for the many reasons that lower-tier events are important (fan access, fostering new talent, rider preparation, etc.), but also because they provide some of the best classics racing. Unlike races in the UCI's various super-league schemes with their guaranteed (and, in some cases, forced) participation rules, races like E3 only feature teams that lust for the classics. There are no grand tour-centric squads phoning it in, no herds of short-straw Basques climbing off in the first feed zone. You get a combination of hard-hitting top-tier classics teams, and, maybe more importantly, hungry second-tier squads like Landboukrediet, Topsport-Vlaanderen, and Veranda-Willems. For those teams, races like the E3 are the big races, and it shows in their aggression. But the races still need some big stars on hand to attract the sponsor dollars.

So can the E3 be saved? Possibly. First, it's worth pointing out that the organizer might be doing a bit of hand-wringing over the loss of Boonen. Yesterday's version of the E3 start list still boasted, among others, Cancellara, Hushovd, Haussler, Devolder, Nuyens, Hoste, and Langeveld. But let's assume the situation is as grave as organizer Bart Ottevaere asserts. For E3, taking Gent's former Wednesday slot is not an option. As Ottevaere rightly pointed out to Het Laatste Nieuws, E3 is not a course for a Wednesday. Unlike Gent-Wevelgem, it cuts eastward from the Flemish Ardennes, tickling the weekday arteries of the Brussels metro area. Sure, the Flemish everyman likes his bike racing, but Brussels is full of diplomats, foreign and domestic, who are likely to be far less impressed when their shiny black Benz is landlocked by the lycra set on the way to the meeting du jour.

The more workable solution would be to flip the two races on the pre-Ronde weekend, moving Gent-Wevelgem to Saturday and E3 to Sunday. The move would effectively set up a situation analogous to the Het Nieuwsblad:Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne relationship. Putting the higher ranked race first lets the big guns go into the weekend's big prize rested and ready, then ride Sunday's lower tier event with more or less intensity as they see fit. Then, they still have the same six recovery days before the Ronde, just as they will after Gent this year. Yes, E3 will invariably continue to get a lower quality field than Gent, even with the change. That's the nature of being a lower-tier event, but the swap would significantly lessen the impact of sharing a weekend with a seemingly resurgent Gent-Wevelgem. Only problem is, according to its director, Gent-Wevelgem likes the ritzy feel of Sunday, and isn't going to give it up without a fight. How quickly they forget, no?


The Service Course has had a difficult time summoning much enthusiasm for professional cycling lately, an affliction I gather is not uncommon these days. After all, the sport is beset by maladies at every level, from frame stickers to radios to doping to poor governance to outright corruption.

Distasteful as the whole mess seems at times, that's not the reason I've skipped more than two months here. Anyone who thinks I can't find material in the pettiness and stupidity of this fine sport need only check the archives. No, the lull, I assure you, has more to do with real work and other commitments, including a brutal and ongoing springtime war with my back yard.

None of that is over by a longshot -- not pro cycling's tiresome ailments nor the necessity of paying work nor the seasonal encroachment of my neighbor's bamboo crop. But I did just watch the finale of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and for the first time in months, I felt the pangs.

For the damp dirt smell that tells you're finally west of Brussels.

For the synchronized beat of car tires on stones and rotors on air.

For the batshit crazy old woman who runs the Charles Inn outside of Gent.

For kids in Lotto hats with autograph books four inches thick and old men in anoraks with cigars.

For the spot on the Molenberg where Nardello buried himself for Bartoli's Het Volk win.

For the cigarette smoke haze of the Kuurne sporthalle at sign-in.

For the backslaps and guttural exhortations of the Flemish pressroom.

For the bar at the top of the Kemmelberg and the restaurant halfway up the Oude Kwaremont.

For buckets of Leffe at midnight on the Bruges square after the Ronde.

For the cough-inducing ammonia-and-piss olfactory punch of the Wevelgem press room lavatory and the unguarded phone lines in the back room.

For the amateur crit in Compiegne the evening before Roubaix.

For the cobblestones and tractors and five-car freight trains crisscrossing the Department du Nord.

For the right turn into the velodrome.

For the faux Swiss alpine villages of Wallonia.

For the howling claustrophobia of the Mur de Huy and the Cauberg.

For high-ceiling opulence and shiny faces at the Palace Liege and trash and filthy legs in a parking lot in Ans.

For the dead, empty quiet when it's all packed and gone by sunset.

And none of that has goddamn thing to do with Pat McQuaid or Johan Bruyneel or TV rights or bodily fluids or an alphabet soup of warring tribes in blue collared shirts. It's just bike racing as I've known it, and as it continues to be when you get past the pencil-pushers and get down to it. And it's beautiful.

No Check, Mate

In the wake of Matt White’s sudden dismissal as Garmin-Cervelo’s director sportif, there’s been a lot of debate surrounding the “real reason” for the firing. Was it, as team chief Jonathan Vaughters maintains, because White sent former team rider Trent Lowe to highly suspect doctor Luis del Moral for blood tests in 2009? Or was it really because of White’s rumored links to the new Australian GreenEDGE effort and its alleged underhanded recruitment efforts?

I have no idea. What I do know is that whether it was because of del Moral, GreenEDGE, or both, firing White was the right move. So was sticking with del Moral as the stated cause.

Vaughters and White agree that sending Lowe to del Moral’s Valencia clinic for blood testing was a terrible idea. Both men have said as much, and surely recognize that even bog-standard blood testing, when performed by a man of del Moral’s reputation, can appear as damning as a used syringe in the hyper-sensitized world of professional cycling. And since the appearance of impropriety and actual impropriety are almost equally damaging, both men would recognize – now, at least – that a director should no more send his riders to del Moral for a blood test than send to Eufemiano Fuentes for a pelvic exam.

But while del Moral’s reputation adds some spice and urgency to the story, the fact that it was Dr. del Moral to whom White referred Lowe is immaterial. Garmin-Cervelo has a strict policy against riders going to outside physicians without approval – for just this sort of reason – and by sending Lowe to del Moral, White violated that policy. [Vaughters, of course, has hinted of some misgivings about his time at U.S. Postal, where del Moral was the team physician, which may have heightened his sensitivity in this case. But in theory, that doesn’t matter.] By invoking the team’s zero-tolerance rule on a high-profile, longtime staff member, Vaughters siezed a chance to show that the team has the courage of its convictions, a quality that the sport sorely needs. So if the del Moral referral is indeed the sole cause for White’s dismissal, it’s more than enough.

If, on the other hand, GreenEDGE connections did factor into White’s firing, then that's also a perfectly justifiable case for termination, even with no other offenses in play. If Vaughters discovered – beyond the public rumor and speculation – that White’s efforts in the professional cycling world were not 100 percent aligned behind Garmin-Cervelo’s interests, or that they were, in fact, working in direct opposition to those interests, then firing is a reasonable response. Just ask Bjarne Riis about the problems that come with team staff recruiting next year’s team while working for yours. “Whitey” has always come across as a decent guy, but regardless of personality, history, or promises, anyone in a situation where they’re directing one pro team while building another is a fox in the henhouse. He might be a fox you know pretty well, but he’s still a fox.

So, individually, each potential cause for dismissal could stand on its own. But if White’s firing were due to both the del Moral and GreenEDGE issues, why wouldn’t Vaughters say so? And if he were picking one reason or the other to take to the media, why go with the seedier del Moral visit rather than the relatively sterile GreenEDGE conflict of interest? Setting aside, for a moment, Trent Lowe’s questionable threat to take the del Moral visit public, I think there are a few compelling reasons to stick with the del Moral explanation over GreenEDGE, and over citing both causes.

First, the idea that GreenEDGE was “poaching” riders is still largely in the speculation phase, at least in the media. Those allegations – of inappropriate negotiations, incentivizing UCI points – have already been the source of some public sniping between GreenEDGE, Sky, and Garmin. So while citing both del Moral and GreenEDGE as reasons for dismissal might seem to bolster Vaughters’s case, he already had one undeniably actionable cause in del Moral. By relying on that, Vaughters avoids the appearance of acting on GreenEDGE rumors or, alternatively, avoids having to publicly accuse White of engaging in nefarious activity on GreenEDGE’s behalf. So, by letting the del Moral issue do the lifting, he avoids fanning the GreenEDGE flames. As a bonus, he doesn't come out appearing as if he's piling on excuses just to prop up a flimsy one.

Finally, if GreenEDGE factored into White’s dismissal, going public with the del Moral cause alone is more advantageous for Garmin-Cervelo than publicly tying the firing to GreenEDGE. By only citing the del Moral issue, Vaughters has efficiently accomplished all he needs to. He's (1) cut the heart out of Lowe’s blackmail threat, (2) rid himself of the Cycling Australia/GreenEDGE conflict of interest, and (3) saddled CA/GreenEDGE with a newly-hired director who is now on-record as being comfortable sending riders to a “doping doctor” who he knows from his time at U.S. Postal. Essentially, White has done the damage to his reputation under Garmin-Cervelo, but CA/GreenEDGE will bear any resulting stigma, right as they’re trying to craft their public image. And by not citing GreenEDGE in ousting White, Vaughters avoids the appearance of pettiness. That's pretty good revenge for any shady recruiting that may have gone on, no?

Again, I have no information on White’s firing other than what you all have read as well. I certainly don’t have anything to indicate that Vaughters thought out his actions in the semi-vindictive way I outlined above. But that’s how it works out. Genius, intentional or not.

  • For his part, Trent Lowe comes out looking fairly sleazy for threatening to go public with the year-ago del Moral trip in order to get paid for December 2010 (at which point he had not ridden a race for Garmin in eight months and was already under contract to Pegasus). It's a pretty shortsighted strategy, since to have the desired threatening PR effect, Lowe would have to play up the insidious implications of visiting del Moral, with himself at the center. In other words, to damage Garmin's reputation, he'd need to damage his own reputation even more. That's an easy bluff to call, but Vaughters went one better by beating Lowe to the punch, pulling back the covers himself, outing White and Lowe’s association with the doctor, removing both men from his payroll, and coming out smelling like a rose. That has to sting. While it doesn’t justify Lowe’s behavior, I do empathize somewhat with his situation – with his new team collapsed, no pay for December, and a buyers market for sickly, underperforming climbing specialists, he’s not exactly looking at a happy new year.

  • This week in Twitter fights:
    1. Cedric Vasseur versus Jonathan Vaughters on teams representation.
    2. Radio Shack’s Johan Bruyneel versus Cofidis’s Eric Boyer on team radios. You stay classy, Johan!

  • Sorry about that post title. Really.


Thoughts on the SI Article

If you’re some hack with a website about professional cycling, then you’re kind of obligated to offer up some commentary about the highly anticipated Sports Illustrated Armstrong article by Selena Roberts and David Epstein. So here are my quick thoughts, bearing in mind that much of the article's content was previously known, and that much of the remaining intrigue comes from what might have been left out.

  • If the SI description of Don Catlin’s labwork and his interactions with the U.S. Olympic Committee are accurate, then the actions of Drs. Catlin, Brent Kay, and Arnie Baker indicate that Michele Ferrari might be the most trustworthy, sane medical professional involved in this whole extended mess. With Ferrari, at least you know what you’re getting, and that it works.

  • If the (previously known) Motorola EPO story is true, then Paul Sherwin looks like even more of a sycophantic ass for his Armstrong pandering, since he was the team’s press officer.

  • If Armstrong did gain access to HemAssist while the drug was in clinical trials, to borrow a phrase from Vice President Joe Biden, "this is a big f***ing deal.” Frankly, it's irrelevant that Lance Armstrong might have gotten ahold of it -- it’s a big problem regardless of who's involved. People have been bleating for months about why FDA would be involved in this sort of investigation. This is why. Ensuring the safety and efficacy of drugs, and the safety and legitimacy of the clinical trials used to test them, are damn close to the core of FDA’s regulatory mission. If experimental drugs are escaping from trials into the broader population, that is a very, very significant issue for them. So if they have to rile up a bunch of pencil-necked bike geeks to get to the heart of the matter, I’m guessing that suits them just fine. This is bigger than sports. For more detail on the HemAssist issue, consult Joe Lindsey.

  • If HemAssist’s class of drugs is as risky as some of the information in Lindsey’s post indicates, then “the shit that will kill them” might take on a whole different meaning.

  • If you were wondering if HemAssist, however acquired, might be OK under cycling’s rules because it’s not on the list of banned substances, then you need to read section M1 of the WADA code, Enhancement of Oxygen Transfer.

  • If SI was willing to print both the existing and new Landis allegations (i.e., the St. Moritz airport story), then I'd think the authors must have at least one other source confirming the validity of those allegations. We’ve been through a few rounds of the “Landis is a liar” defense already, and it’s been pretty effective, probably with good reason. I’m guessing a publication like SI, while it’s no scientific journal, vetted Landis’s accusations pretty thoroughly before exposing itself to that sort of risk, especially given his history.

  • If people are surprised that private airports are a good way to move contraband, then they’ve clearly never seen an episode of the A-Team.

  • If Yaroslav Popyvych (whose house was raided, yielding drugs and evidence of continued Ferrari ties according to SI) wants to look innocent, he should get the hell off of Tenerife before issuing his denial.

  • If, as has been rumored, there is damning, unpublished material regarding the misuse of Livestrong foundation funds, then that is the only thing that will ultimately shift broader public opinion. Until then, the rest of this really only matters to cycling fans. Don’t kid yourselves.

  • If Livestrong does become the core of the issue, then I’m guessing you’ll see a lot more of the IRS than FDA. Tax evasion is a pretty useful charge.

  • If, as rumored, there is a “strippers/hookers and blow” storyline that was also left out, then I don’t really care too much. That material would grab non-cycling eyeballs, sure, but it would also just distract further from the heart of the matter and give the true believers one more “this is irrelevant, what's the point of this?” talking point. Besides, I’ve been to college, and I’ve been around cyclists for most of my life. I’ve seen strippers and blow already.

  • If Roberts and Epstein do indeed have the much-rumored additional information that was allegedly removed from their article, then I hope they pursue other outlets. For instance, any misdeeds regarding Livestrong might be a better fit for SI’s current affairs-oriented Time-Warner stablemate, Time magazine. Or, if Time-Warner lacks the stomach for it altogether, I’d suggest Der Spiegel, the Economist, or any other credible current affairs publication. Many have suggested the web as an outlet, but, like it or not, for some things you sort of need a bedrock publication to add credibility to the information. Otherwise it’ll just be attacked with the “well you can put anything on those websites” argument. But for godssake, just stay away from LeMonde and L’Equipe (or any other French publication). We know that, counter to the U.S. drumbeat of the early 2000s, they’re very credible publications. But there’s no sense in bogging down the information by inviting people to stoke up the ridiculous “French conspiracy” fires again.

  • If new information and corroborations continue to come forth, then at some point, Greg Lemond’s settlement-induced gag order will become moot, no? And at some point, somewhere in the great Midwest, I’m betting he and Betsy Andreau will meet for a cocktail.

  • If things go severely downhill for Armstrong, then I’m guessing there are only two options: stone-faced denial until the very end of his life, or burn-baby-burn and everyone goes down with him. Middle ground has never been his strong suit.

  • If you’d like some real analysis of the article, then you should consult Charles Pelkey.

  • Finally, if the pace of this whole investigation picks up, then Geox may get that Tour de France start after all.

When a National Team is Not a National Team

With the Pegasus ProTour effort not even cold in the grave, the next great Australian ProTour bid has already shot through the birth canal and now lies screaming on the scale, waiting to be weighed. Circle of life, I suppose. Going by the name GreenEDGE (which sounds suspiciously like a Billy Mays cleaning product), the new effort is headed, as predicted, by former Australian track cycling boss Shayne Bannan. And as predicted, it’s already ruffling feathers. Before the team even held its first presser, rumors surfaced that its management was engaging in rider-poaching shenanigans, offering dodgy “pre-contracts” and potentially troublesome UCI-point incentives to Australian riders on its wish list.

I’m not usually one to comment on early rumors, but Jonathan Vaughters, whose young Australian talents Cam Meyer and Jack Bobridge are reportedly on the shopping list, has already responded publicly to the reports. That would be an uncommonly brash public step for the level-headed Vaughters if he didn’t have good reason to believe that they’re true, particularly since everyone in this potential dispute speaks the same language and reads the same media. Vinokourov can probably spout whatever he wants to the Kazakh media in relative safety, but when Vaughters comments on cyclingnews.com, he has to know Bannan’s going to see it. Based on Vaughters taking that step, I have to believe there’s some credence to the story. For his part, here’s Bannan’s response to the poaching allegations.

And so, to the matters at hand…

Does any of this sound familiar: New zero-to-ProTour effort wrapped in a national flag? English-speaking? Headed by the nation’s very successful national track coach? Backed by a national federation and a reliable in-country sponsor? Disregard for the rules and/or courtesies of professional road cycling business operations? Eyeing Vaughters’s goodies?

The GreenEDGE model appears, of course, to be Team Sky all over again. That’s not a groundbreaking thought; plenty of others have said as much, said it better, and said it earlier. What I’m wondering about is to what degree the national track team background shared by Sky’s David Brailsford and GreenEDGE’s Bannan share is the root of the friction both seem to cause in the professional road scene. Simply put, have Brailsford and Bannan (hereafter B+B) tried to build professional road teams the same way they would a national track team? Let’s look at why that might not be the best way to go.

First, there’s the issue of how you approach riders. B+B come from managing federation track programs, where the most relevant information for recruitment isn’t found in a rider’s professional contract, but in his passport. Are they a confirmed Brit or Aussie? Great! Pick up the phone and give them a call! If they want to come ride for god and country, we’ll work out the schedule with their professional team somehow, right? In building their road teams, B+B seem content to continue following that methodology. Confirm the passport and dial, never mind that it’s January, or that riders are tied to multi-year contracts. You’re from the right country – we’ll work it out!

As both men are finding, the professional road scene doesn’t work like that. Though your team may be trying to become the defacto “national” ProTour team, professional road cycling is commercial, not national. Sure, for the rider, riding for the professional “home team” might have patriotic appeal, a fringe benefit like more paid trips home, appealing linguistic familiarity, or better compatibility with management. And for the team, home riders obviously have benefits from the fan interest and sponsorship perspectives. But beyond those warm feelings and on all that white paper printed with rules and contracts, nationality is fairly irrelevant in the ProTour system. (Until you get popped for doping – different story.) Shared nationality between teams and prospective riders affords no special rights and privileges beyond how employing native vs. foreign riders plays out in the applicable labor laws. In leaving the national/federation format and joining the commercial/professional one, B+B need to give up the idea that they have a constitutional right to chat up the top riders from their country, or risk being found in violation of UCI rules. Simply put, native riders like those you coached on the track are no longer “your boys” who you borrow from their road teams from time to time – they’re your competition’s employees. The relationship has changed - acknowledge it.

Yes, for professional teams that rely on a national identity, it can be a real downer when much of the best native talent is contractually tied down. And not having unrestricted access to the whole national talent pool must come as a shock to B+B after their success at honing their nations’ track programs. But if they could look past the horizon a bit, they’d see the upside: that it works both ways. While GreenEDGE might not be able to call home everyone’s Aussies as they please, neither will, say, Rabobank be able to come in and arbitrarily recall any Dutchmen GreenEDGE might employ. It's not a great situation when you're trying to burst out of the starting gate, but it feels a lot better a few years down the road.

On top of those issues of recruitment rules and manners, there’s the relative inexperience in recruiting at all. National track managers do occasionally need to woo riders – for instance, in trying to lure road riders like Wiggins, Cavendish, or O’Grady back to the boards for the Olympics or Commonwealth Games. But much of the time, coaches in big track cycling nations are in the very opposite, very enviable position of being team “selectors” rather than recruiters. Without a vibrant professional scene, the national team system is the only chance for many dedicated trackies to make a relative living at the sport. So for B+B, picking up riders to fill out a team has long been a buyer’s market. Now, faced with the greater competition and elaborate courtship dances of the professional road scene, and forced into the role of suitor of the top talent rather than the suited, they seem unsure of the proper way to make their advances. What’s worse, they don’t seem to care what the right way is.

That’s all just a theory, of course, but one thing is for sure. GreenEDGE’s alleged recruitment tactics might be distasteful, they may even be against the rules, but they can hardly be a surprise. The last 10 years have effectively seen “the rise of the state” in professional cycling. With federation-backed squads proliferating, team managers have to expect that Katusha will come for their Russians, Sky for their Brits, and Astana for any Kazakhs they might have kicking around. And on and on. Cycling Australia's ProTour plans have been known for some time, so if other teams' management hadn’t spoken to their Australians about this eventuality yet, they've been caught with their pants down. You could argue that shouldn't be the case, that expecting people to play by the rules shouldn't mean you're caught out. Unfortunately, in cycling, that's just not realistic.

Other GreenEDGE Notes
  • The idea of paying prospective riders for UCI points they accumulate with their 2011 teams is potentially much more troublesome than trying to recruit them outside the bounds of the UCI’s signing period. The motivation to offer such a deal is clear – when GreenEDGE submits its license application, it wants to ensure it has enough collective UCI points to make it a sho-in for the first division (a la Leopard-Trek), and it’s willing to pay for that assurance. But incentivizing riders to pursue UCI points for their current teams puts those riders at the heart of a severe conflict of interest.

    As we know, winning a professional bike race is about a bunch of guys sacrificing their strength and chances so that one team member can win, or try to at least try to win. If each team member is chasing their own placings and the points that go with them, the team strategy goes all to hell. In the late 1990s, or maybe it was the early 2000s, Cofidis had virtually no cohesive team strategy and the underachievement to match. Why? A significant part of their riders’ pay structure was tied to UCI points, so when things really went down on the road, it was every man for himself. But at least Cofidis was responsible for putting itself in that position. If allegations of GreenEDGE’s gladly-pay-you-Tuesday-for-a-UCI-point-today offer are true, GreenEDGE is effectively forcing Cofidis’s terrible management strategy onto other teams.

    Will such an offer have any real effect on rider behavior? I wonder. I’m guessing most riders know that, in professional cycling, what goes around comes around. In what could be a 10 or 14 year career, you don’t want to become known as the guy who screws over your current team to get in the good graces of the next. A few rounds of that, and no team wants to be the next screw-ee. Further, I’d imagine that as soon as a team got the feeling a rider was engaging in that sort of behavior, the rider would be benched, thus eliminating their ability to gather any points at all. In the long-run, it’s better for riders to demonstrate their value to all prospective teams through their work, UCI points be damned, than to blow their credibility trying to collect 14th place points for a single, possibly pie-in-the-sky outfit. Also, it should be pretty easy to spot the type of rider who might be engaged in this particular effort -- they're the ones who have pet kangaroos, drink a lot of Fosters, eat deep fried onions, and carry enormous hunting knives at all times. Or so I've been led to believe. Anyway, I don’t expect to see Mark Renshaw trying to shake Mark Cavendish at 200 meters and cutting for the line anytime soon. (Just a hypothetical example – Renshaw’s under contract through 2012, I believe. Not that that matters.)

  • GreenEDGE was also allegedly in pursuit of Garmin DS Matt White, but he’s since signed on to take over Neil Stephens’s position as the Australian national team road coach. He’ll be doing that in addition to his Garmin duties, so I suppose the GreenEDGE angle there is put to rest. Stephens, however, is leaving the national position to…surprise…go sign riders and be a director for GreenEDGE.

  • GreenEDGE reportedly has the backing of Australian cycling’s sugardaddy, Gerry Ryan, head of the Jayco camper company. I, for one, am hoping that Jayco becomes the title sponsor. Then, in an homage to the RV industry, the jerseys can feature a band of wood-grain paneling and the team bus can feature moldy carpet and some rotting floorboards around the shower.


  • Not to be bossy, but start reading this blog right now. Particularly the post-Peter Post post.

  • How envious is Leopard-Trek that I capitalized the “EDGE” in GreenEDGE? Know why I did it? Because they didn't try to make me. It’s worth noting that the infamous list of media demands regarding presentation and pronunciation of the Leopard team name was reportedly sent out by Trek, not by the team itself. I'm guessing team manager Bryan Nygaard has enough experience as a press officer for Riis and Sky to know that dictating style and usage to the media is an uphill battle, and that it’s better to stay on their good side by not presuming to order them around. Trek Bicycles, on the other hand, has clearly come to think of the cycling media as an arm of their advertising department. More disturbing than the misconception itself is the likely chain of events that’s led them to believe that.

  • Yesterday’s cyclocross World Cup from Pontchateau, France finally gave those of us in the Mid-Atlantic United States an international course that looked a little more familiar, with green grass and a blue groove replacing the deep mud and snow of the low countries. I reveled in watching those sloppy Christmas week races, but it was nice to see a fast, tactical race after the weeks of grinding. One thing’s for sure, if yesterday’s winner Kevin Pauwels (Fidea) comes to the line in a small group at the world championships in Sankt Wendel, you can’t count him out for rainbow bands. Nys and Albert have been no match for his finishing kick, though an in-form Zdenek Stybar (Fidea) would have a better shot.

  • No time to get into the whole race radio debate at the moment, but I do wish all of the managers and riders would stop bleating about the 18-2 vote by the teams to keep the radios. I understand what that vote demonstrates, but the fact is, the sport isn’t a direct democracy run by the riders or the teams. Obviously, rider and team input should always factor into the sport’s decisions – both because it is the riders who ultimately place their lives on the line, and because riders and teams have been historically underrepresented in decision-making. But what would cycling in particular and pro sports in general look like if the participants made all the rules? My bet: they'd be both less safe and less marketable.

Clearing the Decks

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

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

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

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

Bienvenidos a Calpe

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

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

Stybar to the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Might Have Been

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

Peloton Magazine

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

Damn, Watson.

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

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

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

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

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

And Away We Go

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

Fondue and Alpenhorns

It was the cowbells that got me thinking. The incessant clanging I've experienced over the last several 'cross races first had me considering how you shouldn't give your three-year-old a cowbell if you want to keep your friends or your sanity. But once I recovered from that fundamental error, I started thinking about how cowbells are a sort of a universally accepted cultural anomaly in American ‘cross.

Ask most American cyclocross aficionados what their standard reference culture for the sport is, and you’ll likely get a single answer: Belgian. And these days, that makes sense. For over a decade now, a herd of Belgians led by riders like Mario De Clercq, Sven Nys, Bart Wellens, and Erwin Vervecken have dragged the ‘cross peloton around the farm tracks of Europe by their collective knickers. From the Gazet van Antwerpen series, to the SuperPrestige, to the World Cup, to the World Championships, riders from one half of one small nation have dominated the discipline. There have been formidable challengers at the top end, of course, names like Pontoni, Groenendaal, Boom, and Stybar, but no other nation has come close to Belgium’s recent combination of strength and depth. Belgians have always been strong at ‘cross, but the last 15 years? Out of control.

And so, as cyclocross has boomed in the United States over the same period, Belgium has become the discipline’s defacto culture of record in these parts. Hit a cyclocross race on the right weekend, and you’ll see Flemish flags flying in Virginia, Leffe poured in Kansas, Sporza quoted in Oregon, and god-awful knit caps worn by fat, cigar-smoking old men in Massachusetts. That last one doesn’t really have anything to do with cyclocross, it’s just a problem I feel should be addressed. Anyway, many of the ‘cross faithful habitually try to recreate the Belgian experience, no matter how far removed from Ruddervoorde or Zogge they may be, from things as minor as dropping some faux-Flemish into pre-race chatter to more involved projects like constructing janky, cockeyed flyovers. Really, I think it’s only our more stringent open container and public urination laws that hold us back from complete authenticity.

But as the faithful, ubiquitous cowbell reminds us, or should remind us, the Belgian dominance of cyclocross wasn’t always so complete. It’s just that the era of greater parity was, perhaps, a bit before most of our times. Cowbell-as-cheering-device is, after all, a Swiss cultural phenomenon, one imported to cyclocross from Swiss ski racing culture back when its red-and-white clad riders were a dominant force on the international cyclocross scene.

After finishing second in the 1975 cyclocross world championship to Belgian classics legend Roger DeVlaeminck, Albert Zweifel won four consecutive world elite titles for Switzerland from 1976 to 1979, putting an emphatic dent in eight consecutive years of Belgian domination. The lower steps on those podiums added an exclamation point to Zweifel’s accomplishment. For his first three titles, Zweifel bested fellow Swiss Peter Frischknecht, who hailed from Uster, a town just about 10 kilometers from the longtime SuperPrestige and World Cup stop at Wetzikon. In 1976, Switzerland swept the podium, with André Wilhelm following Zweifel and Frischknecht. For his fourth title in 1979, Zweifel beat out first-year Swiss pro Gilles Blaser.

Though Zweifel’s Worlds wins and accompanying medal rides by Frischknecht, Blaser, and Wilhelm were undoubtedly the high-water mark of Swiss cyclocross, they were by no means the end of the country’s presence at the top level. Zweifel would net two Worlds silver medals behind Belgian star Roland Liboton in 1982 and 1983 before taking the title for a fifth time in 1986. And as with his first four titles, the man standing next to him on the ’86 podium was Swiss. This time, it was Pascal Richard, who would step up to take the rainbow jersey himself in 1988. When Richard pulled on his rainbow bands, he had to look all the way to the third step on the podium to find a countryman, Beat Breu. Dieter Runkel would net Switzerland’s final world title in 1995, with countryman Beat Wabel taking the bronze. Peter Frischknecht’s son, mountain bike superstar Thomas Frischknecht, returned to his cyclocross roots in 1997 to take the country’s last elite world championship medal, a silver.

Runkel, Frischknecht, and Wabel would carry the torch for Swiss ‘cross through the early years of the UCI World Cup, which began in the 1993-1994 season. After a slow start in the series’ first two seasons, during which Breu’s third place at the Eschenbach, Switzerland round was the nation’s only podium appearance, the Swiss got their legs under them again in 1995-1996, with Runkel and Wabel scoring third-place finishes at the Wangen, Germany and Variano di Basiliano, Italy rounds respectively. Runkel took the win in the fourth round in Prague en route to his Worlds win the following February. With the jersey on his shoulders, Runkel won the second round of the 1997-1998 series, again in the Czech Republic. The following season, Frischknecht would register the Swiss dynasty’s final World Cup win, scoring an upset win at the fifth round in Zeddam, Netherlands, ahead of Belgians Mario De Clercq and Marc Janssens. Wabel was fourth.

Since Frischknecht’s win on January 3, 1999, no Swiss man has climbed on any step of a World Cup elite podium, and by the end of that season, the Belgians and Dutch had nearly taken over. At the Wortegem-Petegem round of the 2001 season, all of the top 10 elite finishers were Belgian. The sport is not all World Championships and World Cups, of course, but the results of series like the SuperPrestige show much the same trend.

Despite the diminishing returns in a sport that also used to boast more French, Italian, and German contenders, Switzerland retained its depth and interest in the sport, continuing to fill out its start allotments with hopefuls and usually hosting a World Cup round. In the years following Frischknecht’s win, Switzerland was still capable of placing four riders in the top 20 of any given event, and likely at least one in the first ten. But the very tip of the spear was gone. For a decade now, the nation’s standard bearer has been the very capable Christian Heule, a remarkably consistent finisher in the top-10 range, and capable of a top-5 on his best days. He was joined for several years by Simon Zahner, an early ‘cross talent currently with the BMC road team. Zahner seemed to be on the way up before presumably choosing to concentrate on the road. In the elite ranks, twenty-five-year-old mountain biker Marcel Wildhaber (Scott-Swisspower MTB) looks to be the brightest hope for the future, putting in his time in the 20s and 30s over the last few seasons before having what could prove a breakthrough ride at this month’s Pilzen, Czech round, where he finished 12th.

So how did one of the cyclocross’s biggest legacy nations drop from prominence, leaving only the incessant dinging of cowbells behind? I won’t pretend to know. Maybe, for anyone but the Belgians, it simply makes more sense to make your money on a mountain bike or on the road, not in a niche halfway between. Maybe the lack of top Swiss road teams to pay the summer bills undercut the support system. Maybe the sanitization of international cyclocross courses since the late 1980s has reduced the value of the Swiss technical precision in the slop. Maybe something changed in the 1990s in ‘cross, too, but we’re not going to go into that now. Maybe I’ll look into it further someday.

But maybe the trend also isn’t forever. Maybe the World Cup circuit’s recent return to Aigle after the three year absence of a Swiss round will spark some interest again, boost the participant numbers and level of domestic competition enough for a few super-talents to emerge. Maybe Andy Rihs, head of the Phonak and BMC empires and Swiss cycling's patron saint, can somehow help Switzerland regain its rightful place in its onetime specialty. Or maybe they just need a little more cowbell.


  • You can see why some of the Belgian customs tend to stick over those of other cyclocross cultures. Frites and horseburgers are easy to eat on your feet in a crowd, especially compared to fondue and schnitzel. And even though they’re both cheap, Bavik is better than PBR.

  • Maybe the Swiss ‘cross decline is due to morale issues. Namely, they have to stop naming everyone “Beat.” Among Switzerland’s international ‘cross representatives: Beat Breu, Beat Wabel, Beat Blum, Beat Morf…

  • What do I mean by “sanitization of international cyclocross courses”? We give you the 1988 World Cyclocross Championship from Hägendorf, Switzerland, won by Pascal Richard, with Beat Breu in third.

  • With its longterm peformance, the current dominance of Zdenek Stybar (Fidea), and great riding by riders like Peter Dlask and the elder and younger Simuneks, the Czech Republic can rightly be called one of the top nations in cyclocross. Question is, like cowbells from the Swiss and public urination from the Belgians, what cultural artifact will the Czechs contribute to the sport?

  • So who do we blame for cowbell proliferation in the United States? Tim Johnson. OK, maybe it’s not all Tim's fault, but he’s definitely involved. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, Saturn sponsored the country’s best domestic road team, as well as a juggernaught ‘cross lineup featuring Johnson, Frank and Mark McCormack, and Bart Bowen. Somewhere in there, Saturn decided that cowbells were better marketing gewgaws than cardboardish off-brand water bottles, and the team distributed thousands of bells at road and ‘cross events to deafening result. By 2002 or so, the Mercury team (which started out wanting to be Saturn before deciding it really wanted to be TVM) also started handing out cowbells, so I suppose we can blame them, too.

  • The headline I finally slapped on this thing doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? And frankly, it’s a little bit too Rick Steves for me. But in starting to write a little something about cyclocross, one thing stood out: all the good headline references and puns have been taken. Gin and trombones. Mud and cowbells. Chocolate and waffles. Frites and mayo. Cyclocross. Crosshairs. Crosscheck. Cross Czech. Crosswind. Cross dressing. Cross-industry marketing opportunities. There just aren't any good 'cross references left to make. Oh, wait, there's one. Feel free to use that.

Killing Davey Moore

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

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

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

Who Killed Davey Moore?
Bob Dylan, 1963

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Happy 65th birthday, Eddy.

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

Anglophilic Giro

For an Italian national tour vacationing in the Netherlands, the first two stages of the Giro d’Italia had a decidedly Anglophone feel to them, no?

First, Bradley Wiggins, flying the Union Jack for defacto British national team Sky, edged out American Brent Bookwalter, riding for the Amero-Swiss BMC team, by two seconds. Just behind Bookwalter in third was his Australian teammate Cadel Evans. Three men, three differently accented takes on a single language.

But wait, there’s more. Al Vinokourov (Astana) screwed up the results, something he’s accused of doing pretty often these days, by finishing fourth and being from Kazakhstan. But after that, you have Greg Henderson (Sky), a Kiwi on a British team, Australian Richie Porte (Saxo Bank) in sixth, and David Miller (Garmin-Transitions), a Scot on an American team, in seventh. Sure, the next native English speaker, Garmin Canadian Svein Tuft, doesn’t appear until the 17th spot, but six of the top seven isn’t a bad showing for the crown and its former colonies.

That Stage 1 win also gave Wiggins the maglia rosa, an honor he steadfastly defended until he became one of the many, many riders to throw themselves to the Dutch tarmac the following day. That allowed the race’s second pink shirt to slide onto Evans's shoulders, who achieved that honor by managing to keep himself upright and in the front group after the crash that claimed Wiggins’s and Bookwalters’s hopes. Preceding Evans' arrival on the Stage 2 podium was stage winner Tyler Farrar of Garmin and the United States, meaning the English language contingent had locked up both the stage win and leader's jersey for two days.

I suspect that this shallow, early Anglo dominance of this Giro will come crashing down during today's third stage, if it hasn’t already as I write this. Evans will be unlikely to expend anything more than minimal energy to keep the maglia rosa this early in the race, and though today’s stage is suited for a bunch finish, yesterday’s crash lottery makes predicting a repeat by Farrar or damn near anything else is a risky endeavor. Add in the number of Dutch riders who will be looking to score while the race is on home turf and the number of Italians who would love to carry the leader’s jersey back onto home soil, and anything could happen. If it does come down to a reasonably intact sprint, though, Farrar and Kiwi leadout man Julian Dean, or Sky’s on-form Henderson and lead-out man Chris Sutton could well extend the English-speaking podium streak.

All of that is neither here nor there, of course. After all, we’re amalgamating the results of riders from four or five different countries, depending on how you count, based on creaky colonial relationships that haven’t been valid for hundreds of years. So I'd hardly start wagering based on which language riders reflexively swear in. Still, there seems to be a sort of shared worldview that comes from the common language and heritage, and though they’re not the isolated outsiders they used to be in professional cycling, the Anglos do still seem to stick together. They also attract English-speaking fans in a way that seems to transcend national boundries, and those fans have a lot to cheer for right now.

While many might cite Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins as a high-water mark for English-language cycling, those wins were obviously pretty well concentrated in the hands of one man. Today, the number and variety of English-speaking riders winning bike races makes it feel less like the monolithic Armstrong days and more like the arguably better and positively more diverse days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which saw Greg Lemond and Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France, Davis Phinney and Steve Bauer taking stage wins on the flats, Robert Millar winning in the mountains, Sean Kelly terrorizing classics and stage races, and Phil Anderson and Sean Yates generally making everyone look sissies.


  • Had all the contractual eye-gouging over the off-season resulted in Wiggins staying at Garmin, the squad could potentially have been celebrating wins in both the first and second stages right now. Or, maybe a pissed-off Wiggins would have raced his entire season at ¾ speed, who knows. Anyway, Wiggins did eventually end up at Sky, and due to the very public rumblings and subsequent junior high girl-style chattering about his transfer, not to mention the substantial money involved, Wiggins really needed to show something big pretty early in the season. Though it’s already had a fleeting effect on the Giro and may not prove much of anything about his prospects as a GC leader this year, that TT win had to be a huge relief for Wiggo.

  • If we wanted to factor Vinokourov into our little Stage 1 results sheet game, I suppose we could note that nobody in those top seven spots of the Stage 1 TT hails from a “traditional cycling country.” In fact, you could extend it to the top 8 under those criteria, since Gustav Erik Larsson’s Swedish homeland isn’t exactly a traditional cycling powerhouse, either. Indeed, you have to get down to Dutchman Jos Van Emden’s ninth place before cycling’s traditional power elite countries kick in. Again, that doesn't really mean anything, except that the cycling world has broadened substantially in the last 20 years or so.

  • I’m not enthusiastic about the trend towards just-over-prologue distance opening time trials, those little 8 and 9 kilometer tests that seem designed to be long enough to keep sprinters out of leader’s jerseys but short enough prevent any early buzzkilling time gaps among GC contenders. Like the ProTour system, these prolonged-logues seem to be a lingering organizational overreaction to Mario Cipollini, who’s been mostly retired for some time. Grand tours love the sprinters when they have to maintain fan interest on flat ground, but they seem loathe to give them access to a leader’s jersey for fear they’ll leave the race as soon as it gets hilly. As much as I appreciate a good stereotype, with Cipo and the absolutely leaden Ivan Quaranta retired and Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) heading towards his dotage, the era of the completely one-dimensional sprinter seems to be passing. Many of today’s top sprinters – Mark Cavendish (HTC), Farrar, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), and Danielle Benatti (Liquigas) to name a few, are capable of and willing to finish stage races, even if they have to drag themselves over the Alps, Dolomites, or Pyrenees to do it.

    So let’s stop living in fear of Cipollini and axe the prolonged-logues. They're guarding against the last decade's threat, and they just aren’t particularly satisfying from any perspective. In running, there is a reason that sprinters can be famous, marathoners can be kind of famous, but not many non-competitive runners can name a single middle-distance runner (except for Steve Prefontaine, and that’s mostly because he died young and spectacularly). Spectators like either short and fast, or a longer test of speed and endurance, but not the mushy middle ground.

  • Wait, what was that? How the hell is Mario Cipollini responsible for the ProTour? That one’s easy. Cipollini in his prime rode for Saeco, which was one of the richest and most successful teams in the peloton largely thanks to his ability to win a hell of a lot of bike races each year, and to delight photographers even when he wasn’t. Popular though he was, Tour de France organizer ASO got tired of Cipo grabbing a bunch of early stage wins and the occasional yellow jersey, only to bail out as soon as he detected the slightest elevation change. So ASO stopped inviting Saeco to the Tour, regardless of the fact that it was one of the top teams in the world, Cipo or no Cipo. That woke up all the top teams and their current and potential sponsors to the full extent to which personal or organizational whim and vendetta could control what was ostensibly a professionally run sport. So they demanded guarantees that, if they dumped enough money into the sport, they’d get invited to the biggest races, the ones that made having their name on the jersey worthwhile in the first place. Since the UCI is an end recipient of some of the sponsorship money that flows to riders, teams, and federations, the UCI has a stake in keeping the sponsors in the sport, and sponsors like knowing what they’re getting for their money. Hence, the UCI created the ProTour, which promised invitations to top events to teams that gave the UCI enough money. Unfortunately, those weren’t the UCI’s guest lists to manage, and we all know where things went from there… But anyway, that’s how Mario Cipollini created the ProTour, at least according to the Service Course.

  • While I’m complaining, I’m not too big on final day time trials’s either. Yes, yes, it was exciting in the 1989 Tour de France, 8 seconds, aerobars, ponytails, blah, blah, blah. And it was exciting at last year’s Giro too, but really only due to maglia rosa Denis Menchov’s willingness to toss himself repeatedly to the ground, ramping up the tension quotient considerably. But if the mountains have created any sort of real gaps, which is very likely during the vicious final week of this Giro, the TT can be a snoozer of a way to close out your grand tour. Nothing says "spectacular finish" like a nice, conservative time trial to cement your GC placing.

  • I feel like I should say something more about Farrar’s Stage 2 win, but I can’t quite come up with it. The guy’s a great sprinter, and he put in a great sprint and won. I guess I should say that the Garmin train seems to be a bit better at controlling things through chaos than they were last year, which bodes well for Farrar’s grand tour campaign. Though the team still has the competent Christian Vande Velde to support as its GC man, I have to wonder if Farrar will prove to be the chief beneficiary of Wiggins’ departure. Less GC hopes mean more sprinter resources.

  • As I said, Brad Wiggins needed that Stage 1 win to start to justify all the off-season blathering that was done on his behalf. You know who else needs a blathering-justifying win at the Giro? Andre Greipel (HTC-Columbia). In fact, I’d say nobody else in the peloton needs one worse. After spending the spring picking media fights with teammate and fellow sprinter Mark Cavendish over who should or shouldn’t start the Tour de France and other races, Greipel needs to come out of the Giro with at least one stage to his name, or start brushing up on his Spanish. Greipel could win every stage of the Tour of Turkey from here to eternity, but unless he can come up with goods now, Cavendish’s wishes will be HTC’s command come Tour time, and right now Cavendish wishes for no Greipel at the Tour. Like a lot of people, Greipel likes to call attention to Cavendish’s slow start, but even so, you can’t reasonably argue with Cavendish’s recent grand tour record and the associated right to be the lead sprinter come Tour time. More and more, I’m seeing Greipel in Omega Pharma-Lotto colors next year.

  • After the last few years of Giro d’Italia course safety woes, it’s tempting to shoot scolding glances at the course designers every time there’s a crash. But in yesterday’s finale, when all the unhappy crunchy sounds began, the course didn’t seem to have anything to do with it. In fact, it seemed like people were just riding off the sides of clear, straight two-lane highways and flopping over. Of course, unless the crash happens at the front, the TV punter doesn’t get a very good look at it, so maybe there was some of the Netherlands’ ubiquitous road furniture lurking just out of the shot, who knows. Various poles, curbs, and islands were certainly responsible for some of incidents earlier in the race, and those hazards reportedly could have probably been better marked. But that’s a staffing/course security issue, not a design issue – if you want to race in the Netherlands, there’s no avoiding those things altogether. As for those late-race crashes, though, they looked suspiciously like the jitters of the first road stage of the season’s first grand tour.

  • After his own little dive to the pavement, Katusha’s Pippo Pozzato still looked fabulous. That's a given, though -- it’s his defining characteristic as a rider. But despite appearances, I got the feeling he was pretty rattled. As he got moving again, he very slowly, very deliberately retrieved his sunglasses from his pocket, going so far as to rest his forearms on the handlebar and use both hands to unfold them before putting them on. It may not seem like much, but for Italians like Pippo, the motions required to retrieve and don sunglasses should be as smooth, viscous, and stylish as the product that graces their tresses, and these weren't. Pippo looked labored, and that's a tell as sure as darting eyes or nervous giggling at a poker game.

  • Speaking of Pozatto and looking fabulous, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve finally ridden in my white shoes. Suffice to say that I am now just as fast and stylish as Pippo, but, fortunately, not nearly so slippery.

Weird Als Sweep Liège

They say that if you look hard enough around the less-traveled corners of Las Vegas and London, you can get betting odds on just about anything – life, death, and most things in between. Usually, though, when you hear about offbeat wagers, they’re talking about more mundane stuff, like betting on the opening coin toss of the Superbowl, or the time about a decade ago when David Miller’s mom put some cash down with Lloyd's on her neo-pro son winning the Tour de France by a certain date (update: she lost). But I’d guess that even the freak-wager specialists in the world’s betting capitals would take quite awhile to think out the odds on ending up with an all-Al podium at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. No matter how long the odds were, though, that’s exactly what we got, with Al Vinokourov (Astana) taking the top spot, followed by Al Kolobnev (Katusha) and Al Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), so anyone who placed that peculiar bet in time is probably still out drinking on their winnings now. I mean, really, that sort of thing hasn’t happened since Louis Armstrong outsprinted Lance Armstrong and Neil Armstrong to win the 1996 Classique des Alpes.

If you happened to be the person trying to make those odds, though, it probably would have been the Al on top of the podium who threw off your calculations. He certainly threw off mine. On hindsight, it seems obvious that Vinokourov should have been on the collective radar more prominently than he was, particularly coming off his win at Trentino. As indicative of good form as that win was, or should have been, banging around Italy for the prior week kept Vinokourov’s name well-removed from most of the pre-Liège buildup. Unlike the vast majority of his competitors, his initial odds weren’t predicated on performances at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, then constantly revised and discussed based on Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne performances. So despite his recent success, he was still somewhat of an unknown quantity, which can be a pretty valuable asset in professional cycling.

Despite his last minute arrival, though, Vinokourov’s performance shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise, at least once everyone realized he was there. He did, after all, win the 2005 Liege in fine style, so he kind of knew what he was doing. Remarkably, the fact that this was Vinokourov’s second Liege win went unmentioned in a number of initial reports I read, despite the fact that even the most info-anemic press packet typically includes a list of past winners. And he certainly didn’t get the pre-race previous winner treatment that Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Valverde did. Did his blood doping suspension really wash him so thoroughly from the public consciousness that not even the media pros could acknowledge that he’d taken this particular ride before?

Regardless of the reason or intent behind that memory loss, one person who didn’t forget his previous Liège win was Vinokourov himself. In fact, he managed to duplicate the conditions of his prior win as nearly as possible without wearing T-Mobile pink. As he did in 2005, Vinokourov forged his victory from a two-up break, and just as he did then, he went with a fellow former Eastern Bloc hardman as his breakaway companion, this time swapping East German Jens Voigt for Russian Kolobnev. In both cases, after working well with his companion to establish the winning gap, Vinokourov made two late-race moves to secure the win – a first testing attack just past the 10 kilometers-to-go point, and then a final killing move well inside the red kite. I suppose when you know what works, you might as well stick with the script.

Having the experience and the legs to win Liège is one thing, though, actually pulling it off is another. Fortunately for Vinokourov, he had an ace up his sleeve that none of his competitors did: a spare Al. Now Vino may claim up and down that he’s not doping, but really, the way things were working out on Sunday, having two Als in one team was so unfair it might as well have been illegal. For the preceding week, Vinokourov’s Astana teammate Alberto Contador had been busy soaking up all those Ardennes expectations, questions, and examinations that Vinokourov was studiously avoiding in Italy, playing the perfect decoy. And on Sunday, Contador took that decoy role from the press room to the road. Despite crowing to anyone who would listen that he was only at Liege to gain experience, when the Spaniard jumped to reach Andy Schleck and Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma) on the crucial Côte de la Roche aux Facons climb, there wasn’t a serious contender around who was going to let him go and see how things worked out. No sooner had an elite group of 10 contenders come back together around Contador than Vinokourov countered, drawing out Kolobnev as the mega-favorites – Gilbert, Cadel Evans (BMC), Valverde, Damiano Cunego (Lampre) – watched each other and Contador. And with that, two Als were off and running, and that's apparently a hard thing to stop.

  • So how did the other Als of Liège-Bastogne-Liège fare? Well, Alan Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) made the early break and held out until just prior to La Redoute before taking the backroads back to the team bus, so that’s certainly a big day out for him. But Alessandro Spezialetti (Lampre), rolling in an anonymous 89th? That guy needs to pick it up.

  • Hard to believe that late chase group couldn’t get it together, isn’t it? With Valverde, Evans, and Gilbert, they should have had the horsepower and experience to get back in the mix for the win. The only problem was that, when the trio drew to within 20 seconds or so of the leaders, only Gilbert seemed terribly interested in riding to win. Valverde, on the other hand, started skipping turns to save his energy to sprint to the third place he ultimately got, but his willingness to settle cost the group a shot at the title. For his part, Evans apparently tried to talk Valverde back into the rotation, but simply resigned his own chances when that proved ineffective rather than giving it a go himself. But, eh, that’s bike racing, and all three put in a hell of a ride regardless.

  • What the hell is going on with Saxo Bank and brake drag? Frank Schleck had to bike-jack teammate Niki Sorenson at the bottom of the Roche aux Facons due to a rubbing brake on his own bike, leaving brother Andy alone at the front at a key point in the race. A few weeks ago at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, rubbing brakes were the impetus behind the famously flubbed Matti Breschel bike change. Fabian Cancellara also changed bikes during that race due to a rubbing caliper, but fortunately he received one of the smoothest bike changes in recorded history and still came out with the win. Since I haven’t heard any complaints about SRAM Red brakes, I’m starting to wonder if there’s an issue with the interaction between the brakes and the mounting point on the team’s bikes that’s causing the brakes to slip off-center (e.g., are Saxo bolting homemade number plate holders between the brake and bridge?). But please note that I’m basing those theories on absolutely nothing. Anyway, might be worth noting that Joao Correia of Cervelo Test Team also came down with a case of brake rub recently. Maybe team mechanics just aren’t doing enough blow to stay awake anymore.

  • I suppose we have to talk about the doping angle in Vinokourov’s win, don’t we? Or maybe we don’t, because everyone else sure as hell is, and frankly, it’s exhausting. No matter how much I try to think about it, I have to confess to being a little ambivalent on the whole thing. Yes, it’s a little distasteful to have pretty unrepentant people back in the peloton and winning right after their suspensions end, especially people who are prone to referring to themselves in the third person. On the other hand, the world at large offers second chances in a lot of arenas far more important than bike racing, so I’m having a hard time getting too worked up about it. Mostly, I’m just reminded of the times following cycling’s first great purge, when Virenque, Brochard, Zulle, Moreau and company all made their way back into racing, and gradually back into big events and onto podiums. The same cries erupted then as now (though in a more muted way due to the relative infancy of the internet), but gradually, those initially vivid distastes faded more and more until Moreau became seen as a handsome, good-natured underdog again, and the Broche reestablished himself as a cult hero to mullet-loving cyclists everywhere. Virenque remained a ridiculous caricature of his ridiculous self, but there’s not much you can do about that guy. Now, the veterans of the second great purge – Miller, Basso, Vino, Ricco, Scarponi – are back, and we’ll go through those same pains again, and to much the same result, I expect. Would I rather have seen Kolobnev or Gilbert win? You bet your arse, but I don’t make those decisions.

    In the end, I think the most interesting things in all the post-Liège Vinokourov doping claptrap are the implied admissions of prior wrongdoing he's finally made in the wake of his win. In various post-race quotes, he makes references to starting fresh, proving he can win without doping. For those observers who absolutely must have a confession to move on, I think that’s as close as you’re going to get.

    Despite those confession-ettes, though, Vinokourov still seems a little confused about his message – kind of like my old dog used to get when he couldn’t remember whether he was play-growling at you or real-growling at you. Mixed in with his starting over talk were remarks about how his Liège win is great “revenge.” Apparently, he was talking about revenge on the media, who he believes treated him unfairly in the wake of his unseemly exit from the sport back in 2007. I can see being a little peeved at the people who called you names, especially when you think or know that all your coworkers are doing the same elicit things, but regardless – if you’re acknowledging that you did the crime, I’m not sure you get to have your feelings hurt by the reaction. (Also, it is notoriously hard to “get revenge” on the media – it’s part of their job to not give a shit what you think of them. The cycling media is bad at maintaining that perspective sometimes, but we still try. And whenever a subject tries to get revenge, they just provide more fodder.) The other thing Vinokourov doesn’t seem to quite be getting, judging by his open letter today, is that while he does indeed have the right to participate in and even win bicycle races, the public and the media are also perfectly within their rights not to like it, even if he's as clean and pure as a convent on wash day. That said, I do grudgingly admire the sort of self-confidence that makes people not understand why people don't like them.

  • Am I the only one who thinks the "open letter" is a whiny, brooding way to do just about anything?

  • OK, it wasn’t just lack of a doping prior that made me really want Kolobnev to win. It’s because I noted on Thursday that if the big favorites didn’t watch themselves, Kolobnev could run away with a Liege win, and I desperately wanted to be right. So I was hoping pretty hard in those last few kilometers. Obviously, it wasn't to be, but it was a darn good ride by the Russian, even if it wasn’t a particularly surprising one. Besides his good rides at Amstel and Flèche earlier in the week, a good ride was indicated for one other reason: Liège is long as hell and hard as hell, and Kolobnev loves long, hard races. He’s been second twice at the World Championships and on the podium at Lombardia, and he’s also won the Montepaschi race in Italy. If things continue on the current path, be on the lookout for Kolobnev come this year’s Lombardia.

  • If you didn’t like the podium at Liège, you really shouldn’t delve deeper into Vinokourov’s Trentino win. Top 5 on GC: Vinokourov, Ricco, Pozzovivo, Scarponi, Basso. Only Pozzovivo hasn’t spent time on the bench. You know why? Dope won’t fit in the guy. Seriously, I’m no giant, but that dude’s tiny.