Radio Clash

Apparently, Astana has involved itself in the team radio controversy by organizing a petition against the Tour’s plan to ban team radios on several upcoming stages. Can Astana stand to just stay out of anything? And a petition? Are we in junior high? Are you trying to get teachers to give less homework? Fighting for better food in the cafeteria? For god’s sake, we’re adults – go talk to people instead of having all your friends sign some grimy piece of notebook paper.

Anyway, none of that matters, because you’ll be delighted to know that the Service Course has solved the great professional cycling radio controversy. Don't worry, I don’t suggest going without radios altogether. As the team directors howl every time the debate resurfaces, street furniture has proliferated throughout Europe since the dawn of the team radio age, and the radios are a valuable way to warn riders of approaching hazards. The directors, desperate to keep their voices buzzing in the ears of their charges, have latched onto that “safety” aspect as the most effective argument in favor of keeping radio use intact, but frankly, I just don't see why it has to be the dulcet tones of Brian Holm, Johan Bruyneel, or Matt White telling you there’s a traffic island or a roundabout coming in four kilometers.

So, let the riders keep their receivers and earpieces, but have some neutral party from the race organization or the UCI broadcast information about breaks, gaps, course conditions, and any hazards to all the riders. After all, the directors are either repeating that information from race radio or reading it out of the race bible anyway. It's not exactly a trade secret. By going to neutral safety and race updates, we can get the directors sportif out of the riders' ears and have more interesting, less calculated racing, but still avoid the risk of half the peloton splattered on the statue of some obscure archduke as they plow their way through town. (Additional hollow selling point: “It’s more fair, since everyone has exactly the same information!” Thank me later, UCI.)

Yes, as the directors rightly argue, it probably is a little more dangerous for riders to drop back to the cars to get periodic instructions rather than simply having them beamed directly into their frontal lobes. But when those same directors aren’t constantly watching TV and fiddling with the radio mic, the caravan will be a much safer place, so maybe it all evens out. And when the riders ditch the radios and earpieces for the UCI Broadcasting Service after a few months, you’ll know it was never really about safety, anyway.

Listen, despite my griping about Astana and their petition, I do agree that the decision to ban radios for two stages of the Tour, including today’s stage, is a little silly. As usual, the UCI is demonstrating a dangerous inability to make and enforce a consistent set of rules. As the international governing body, that means deciding on one set of rules that are applied to each event – in this case, radios or no radios – not abdicating again and again to the discretion or whims of individual organizers.

I think that, whatever the ultimate decision on radios is, teams, riders, and racing will adapt. But if the rules change every weekend depending on the race, that adaptation will never occur, which will make races both with and without radios more dangerous. ASO’s decision for this year’s Tour de France – to have two sets of rules during a single event – takes that lack of consistency to even greater heights and, in that context, smacks of gimmickry. The directors are right to question the decision to conduct this experiment at the Tour, even if their chosen argument in favor of keeping radio contact with their riders is easily addressed in other ways. Hopefully, once the teams are done settling the immediate issue, they’ll realize that what’s needed is a broader and lasting solution to the issue, and work to steer the UCI away from its piecemeal and deferential approach. I like my solution, but really, I’ll settle for almost any outcome that’s fairly and consistently applied.

Pyrenean Procrastination

Why take three days to post something about the Tour de France’s trip through the Pyrenees on Stages 7, 8, and 9? Because I take weekends off, and nothing happened anyway.

When this year’s unconventional Tour route was unveiled at the usual lavish ceremony, it impressed observers with the idea that the GC would remain suspenseful until at least the Stage 18 Annecy time trial, and most likely until the vicious Stage 20 ascent of Mont Ventoux. However, between all the champagne and the flashbulbs, what most failed to note was that those two late decisive stages would result in absolutely nothing happening for the first two weeks of the race. Well, with one mountain range down, we’re all well aware of that now, aren’t we?

That’s not entirely fair, of course. While the GC contenders bided, and bided, and bided their time, three riders took outstanding stage wins, a lot of people worked their tails off, and if you ignored the GC battle, or lack thereof, there was some pretty good bike racing in there. And hey, there's always the Alps. Something might happen there, I guess.

STAGE 7: Barcelona to Arcalis

Astana on Arcalis
So, if Lance Armstrong (Astana) spots an opportunity to gain a little time on other GC contenders, teammates included, and spends a bit of his and the team’s energy to exploit that opportunity, that’s smart, heads up riding.

If Alberto Contador (Astana) spots an opportunity to gain a little time on other GC contenders, teammates included, and spends a bit of his energy to exploit that opportunity, that’s worth several interviews worth of indignant grumbling about how it assuredly wasn’t “part of the plan."

That sounds about right.

For something that took only a few minutes and netted less than 20 seconds, Contador’s little escape has drawn a lot of reactions, particularly regarding what it would "do to the team." VeloNews’ John Wilcockson called the move “showboating,” and noted that Contador lost “the respect of most of his teammates.” Bob Roll has been prattling on about the horror and betrayal of a rider attacking on the final climb after his team had ridden tempo all day to discourage other attacks (where have I seen that tactic before?). And Axel Merckx commented via twitter that it was a good attack, but that you need a team to win the Tour. Look guys, I love you all, but what team have you seen that’s riding for Contador anyway? I think he’s realized that the best that following orders will get him is a cut of someone else’s prize money, and even that’s a long shot.

Personally, I’m all for Contador having shaken things up, if only because it revealed that the Astana strategy may be to just ride tempo all the way until Stage 18, and use any energy saved to sow discord in the press and make home videos.

Maybe Adjust the Spare Bike Before You Put It On the Roof
We got to see Levi Leipheimer getting his “seat adjusted” while hanging onto the team car with about 11 kilometers to go to Arcalis, a few kilometers after he unceremoniously splayed himself on the ground along with Cavendish and a few others. Hey Levi, didn’t you get dinged for something similar two years ago? Didn’t that time penalty end up being the difference between second place and third?

The Fashion Report
I know I’m going to be going against the grain here, but I find myself really liking Ag2r’s revised jerseys. While the old jersey design was just another blue and white abomination, the new ones, together with the all-black shorts with white lettering, have a sort of understated retro flair. They're not smack-you-over-the-head retro like Ullrich's Bianchi jersey, but they wouldn’t look out of place, say, riding next to Sean Kelly at the 1986 Paris-Roubaix. That said, I have no idea what that logo is, or what it’s supposed to make me buy (or, in the new lingo, “raise awareness for”)

No, no. The Other Feillu
Way up ahead of all the Astana histrionics, Brice Feillu (Agritubel) won his first professional race on the first mountain stage of his first Tour de France in his first year as a professional. Considering the press have been hyping Remi Di Gregorio (FdJ) as the next great French climbing sensation for two years now, and he’s produced nothing, that’s not too shabby. The name Feillu is more familiar on the flat stages, where older brother Roman contends for the bunch sprints. One climber and one sprinter? Either there are some odd genetics at work in that family, or the milk man has a hell of a finishing kick. Also, now I suppose I have to apologize for calling Agritubel a charity case a few days ago. That’s just great.

STAGE 8: Andorre-la-Vieille to Saint-Girons

There’s really not terribly much to say about this one. I thought Vladimir Efimkin (Ag2r) had timed it perfectly with his late race attack of the break, but it was nice work by Luis Leon Sanchez to chase at just the right time to bring it back and then shame Sandy Casar (FdJ) in the sprint. Ag2r and Nocentini also deserve some credit for preserving his yellow jersey – there wasn’t a lot of pressure being applied, but it was sort of assumed he’d just drift off of his own accord, especially after riding in the long break the day before.

The only real GC action, in fact, came from some moderate accelerations by Andy Schleck and Saxo Bank early on. They seemed to be trying to force Astana to chase Andy, since he’s a contender, and therefore force Astana into the yellow jersey before they wanted to. That would make Astana do more work during the following days, and potentially slit each others' throats during the following nights, either of which may or may not be detrimental to their race. It didn’t work, but it was an interesting tactic, and for a few brief minutes I was excited that someone involved in the GC fight was doing something that looked like racing.

Finally, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) grabbed the green points jersey from Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) by taking intermediate sprints before the heavy climbing started. Like I said – Hushovd is savvy and experienced, which should make his green jersey duel with Cavendish’s pure speed an interesting one to watch.

STAGE 9: Saint-Gaudens to Tarbes

I couldn’t help but think that, as it passed through Lourdes at the 139 kilometer mark, this stage really should have taken a right and headed down to Hautacam for a summit finish. As it was, after the potentially crippling Aspin-Tourmalet tandem, we got a 70 kilometer downhill romp into Tarbes, which pretty much sucked any GC interest right out of the stage before it even started. Nothing says “mountain stage” like a 75-rider peloton steaming into town. I think Lance Armstrong (Astana) summed it up best when he told VeloNews, “The tempo was pretty regular as no one really attacked.” Yup.

Fortunately, Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) and Pierrick Fedrigo (BBox) made it three-for-three for the long break in the Pyrenees, and added some actual racing action to the stage by outlasting the veritable avalanche of riders pouring down at top speed from the Tourmalet. Fedrigo showed great patience and nerve when Pellizotti jumped him into the final turn at 200 meters out, calmly picking up the wheel on the exit and sitting on the Italian for a few meters before re-accelerating to take the sprint. As many have noted, the French are having a great Tour, but it’s also worth noting that this is the second win for Jean-Rene Bernaudeau’s oft-maligned Gallic-centric squad.

The other standout ride on this stage came from Rabobank’s Juan Manuel Garate, and this time he stood out because it was actually a good ride, and not just because Phil and Paul love to say “Juan Manuel Garate.” The Spaniard spent the morning in the first chase behind the break, and then spent many of the latter kilometers on the front trying to pull back Fedrigo and Pellizotti in hopes of an Oscar Friere sprint win. Most impressively, he did it all without changing facial expressions.

Slip Slidin’ Away

Mick Rogers (Columbia-HTC) can’t catch a break at the Tour de France, can he? Two years ago, Rogers, riding for T-Mobile, was leader on the road, and riding strongly in the key break of the day on the big mountain trip from Le Grand Bornand to Tignes. But when fellow breakaway David Arroyo (Caisse d’ Epargne) overcooked a turn and went over the guardrail on the high-speed descent of the Cormet de Roselend, Rogers followed, hitting the rail that Arroyo managed to avoid. Though he initially rejoined the lead group, he later abandoned from the pain of a dislocated shoulder.

The loss of Rogers that day was just one element in a disastrous day for the new-look T-Mobile squad that would morph into Columbia the next year. On the road to Tignes, the team also lost then-budding sprinter Mark Cavendish, as well as strongman Marcus Burghardt, completing a striking three-man reduction of forces in a single day. Adding insult to injury, the team’s young German hope Linus Gerdemann surrendered his yellow jersey to Michael Rassmussen (then Rabobank), who also took the stage win in Tignes.

Yesterday, riding his first grand tour since that day, Rogers again hit the deck, ending his GC chances as he finished some 13:14 down on the lead group containing all the major GC contenders. Rogers’ fall this year was certainly less spectacular, coming in a pileup on a greasy roundabout 30 kilometers from the Stage 6 finish in Barcelona.

Though it likely won’t be much consolation to Rogers right now, compared to that day in 2007, things are looking far better, if a little sore, for Bob Stapleton’s team. First and foremost, Rogers completed the stage, and took the start of the stage to Andorra Arcalis this morning. If he can ride out the Pyrenees and heal up a bit, Rogers could still manage to do something for himself later in the race, perhaps in a break on a transitional day.

More likely, however, he’ll be put back to work helping Cavendish preserve his green jersey to Paris. After Thor Hushovd’s (Cervelo) win in yesterday’s uphill sprint on the Montjuic climb, where Cavendish finished 16th, the Norwegian now sits just one point behind the Manxman in the points competition. While Cavendish undoubtedly has the quicker kick in pure fast finishes, Hushovd has experience on his side, having won green in 2005. He's diligent in picking up intermediate points, and also proved he has the resilience to win on the far side of the Tour’s mountains by winning the Champs Elysees stage in 2006. Cavendish may well have that ability as well – it’s just unproven at this point. Either way, though, Cavendish will need the help of his team to either win or eat up intermediate points and keep them out of the hands of the savvy Hushovd.

To that end, compared to the Stage 8 meltdown in 2007, the team has done well to survive a dangerous day with all nine of its men in the race. That’s important for Cavendish’s chances at green in Paris. However, it’s also important to note that, of those nine, there’s not a one of them who isn’t capable of winning a stage, particularly after the GC battle shakes out a little bit more after the first few days in the mountains.

Until Stage 6, it had been a dream Tour for Columbia-HTC, with two stage wins, a good lead in the green jersey competition, the white jersey on Tony Martin, and a stunning show of strength on Stage 3. Now, with their first remotely bad day behind them, it will be interesting to see where they go from here.

Race Radio

  • It’s irrelevant, but looking at yesterday’s finish, I couldn’t help but think that it was tailor-made for an Alejandro Valverde stage win on Spanish soil. Of course, Hushovd winning might indicate that the climb was a little bit too easy for that to have happened, but I guess we’ll never know, will we?

  • I noted a few weeks ago that Garmin has reached the point in its developmental timeline where scrappy near misses weren’t going to cut it anymore. After David Miller’s (Garmin) solo ride into Barcelona yesterday, I may have to scale that thought back a bit, though I’m not going to retract it entirely. Sure, the move came to nothing, as many such moves do, but Miller had the guts to take the reins pretty far out and kept the race interesting. If he’d been eaten up with his former breakaway companions, those kilometers between the last climb and the finish hill would have been just another run-in. Well, except for all the crashing, of course.

  • I wonder if Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) is starting to wish he’d lost that court ruling that let him start the Tour this year. He took another tumble on the way into Barcelona, and while he hasn’t experienced anything catastrophic, the number of small incidents must be wearing on him. So far, Boonen must feel like he's been getting shot with one of those beanbag guns the police use. Yeah, it doesn’t kill you, but it’ll sure piss you off and make you wish you’d just stayed home.

  • Boonen’s crash held up another of the Tour’s hard luck men, Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who tossed another 1:02 into the wind by day's end. I doubt that really matters to Menchov though – to be stuck behind that crash, he would have to have been riding pretty far back, like you would if, you know, you didn’t give a shit about your chances. Right now, his only chance at Tour glory is to drop enough time that he’ll be released for a stage win in the final week. And in that respect, he’s doing a bang-up job.

  • Did you see those crowds? From at least 15 kilometers out, it was at least one or two people deep on both sides of the road, and thicker on the corners and final climb. Stages outside of France always seem to do better in that respect – more of a novelty I suppose, and the locals know there’s a slim chance of the race returning any time soon. Of course, it also helps to have native sons of note in the race, as Spain does with Contador and Sastre. The Germans always turned out for Ullrich and Zabel as well.

The Perpetual Neo-Pro

Can it be that Thomas Voeckler (BBox) is really 30 years old? Voeckler turned professional in 2000 at the age of 20, but only entered the broader public consciousness with his stint in the yellow jersey during the 2004 Tour. The product of a fifth stage giveaway break with no true contenders, Voeckler’s scrappy and surprising defense of that jersey for ten days, and the white jersey for four more, made him the talk of the Tour, especially as the GC was largely believed to be a foregone conclusion. Voeckler has never been a GC contender at the Tour, a fact he likely knows better than anyone, but that’s never kept him from seeking out more modest successes in July. In 2005, he grabbed the polka-dot jersey for a day, and last year, he nabbed that jersey again, this time holding onto it for several early stages. But yesterday, Voeckler finally grabbed the prize he wanted – his first Tour de France stage win. And to be honest, he doesn’t look to have aged a day since 2004.

Since that 2004 Tour, Voeckler has taken hold of the “scrappy underdog” label he earned there and parlayed it into a career as France’s lovable little brother of the peloton, a marked cultural break from that country’s prior love affair with the far oilier visage of Richard Virenque. To play the role to perfection, Voeckler has always carefully ensured that he has his heart firmly and self-consciously tacked to his sleeve and a slightly pained, earnestly Boy Scout-ish “I’m really trying my best” expression slapped across his mug whenever the going gets remotely rough. If it weren’t for the layer of stubble that occasionally appears on his chin, a close-up of his pain face could easily be mistaken for a junior taking his first road race ass-kicking.

While the facial contortions always seemed a bit contrived to me, they've certainly seemed to help Voeckler’s public image. But I’d also argue that his image has masked what has been a solidly good – if not flashy – professional career. By the time he wore yellow, he had already won the overall and two stages at the 2003 Tour of Luxembourg as well as the 2004 French national championship, along with a few more minor races. A quiet 2005 followed his Tour breakout, but since then he’s amassed a steady stream of wins in short French stages races, including the overall at the 2006 Route du Sud, the 2007 Tour du Poitou Charentes and the KOM at Paris-Nice, the 2008 Circuit de la Sarthe, and the 2009 Tour du Haut Var and Étoile de Bessèges. He’s also racked up a few stage wins, as well as solid French Cup wins in the 2007 Grand Prix Plouay, the 2008 Grand Prix de Plumelec, and the 2009 Trophèe des Grimpeurs.

No, it’s not the palmares of a superstar, littered with monuments and grand tours, but at 30 years old and in his 10th year in the professional ranks, Thomas Voeckler is no longer the aw-shucks-just-glad-to-be-here caricature of youthful enthusiasm he used to be. He’s a guy who knows how to win bike races, wrapped in the skin of a neo-pro. But while he’s getting older, and better, his expression (a genuine one this time) at yesterday’s finish showed that he still has his enthusiasm for the Tour, and for taking a chance for the big payoff, and I’m glad he finally got it. And when he finally retires – I’m guessing at age 36, at least – it will still come as a shock, if only because we won’t want to believe we’ve aged so much since little Tommy Voeckler wore yellow.

First Cuts

OK, I’ll admit it. I didn’t fully account for how much the team time trial would shape the general classification in this year’s Tour, largely because, in a blatant and shocking display of cowardice, I’ve avoided making any GC predictions at all. But just looking at what yesterday’s throwdown did to Cadel Evans’ overall chances was enough to reawaken me to the power and influence of the TTT now that it’s no longer neutered by the fixed time gaps used in its two prior Tour appearances.

Silence-Lotto’s dismal 13th place performance has left Evans sitting in 35th position at this point, though, as always, the placings following the TTT don’t mean much. What does matter, though, is time, and Evans now finds himself 2:59 adrift from the lead, 2:36 of which were lost in yesterday’s team time trial. The big sites can calculate how far back on the true contenders he is for you, but I'll go ahead and tell you it isn't pretty, and for a guy who came second in last year’s Tour by less than a minute, that’s a pretty big blow.

Denis Menchov (Rabobank) has never struck me as a particularly emotional man, but if Evans is looking for a shoulder to cry on, Menchov might be a good place to start. The reigning Giro d’Italia champion had a fairly mediocre opening time trial, bled a few more seconds on the great stage 3 breakaway, and then threw himself to the pavement early in the TTT. With its principal motor apparently rattled, Rabobank never really seemed to recover. The team was never expected to be among the top four teams in the TTT, but it should have been fairly close – not finishing 11th and dropping 2:21 in the process, leaving Menchov a yawning 3:52 from the front of the race. Maybe it’s bad juju from having a Russian leader and a Spanish sprinter, or maybe it’s something else, but the Dutch TTT mystique of decades past seems to have finally and completely worn off. Between Rabobank’s 11th place and Skil-Shimano’s DFL, Peter Post must be ready to slap someone.

Losing a couple of minutes early in the Tour de France is, generally speaking, nothing to get terribly weepy over – it’s a long race, and there’s still all of the mountains and another TT left to come. But if you look specifically at the riders expected to fight out the overall, and their capabilities, yesterday’s TTT was likely the death knell for Evans’ and Menchov’s chances. Both riders fall solidly on the time trialist end of the climber-time trialist GC spectrum, and in losing time to riders like Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong (both Astana) in the first two races against the clock, and to the Schleck brothers (both Saxo Bank) in the TTT, their serve has effectively been broken. Now, the other contenders will enter their preferred hunting grounds in the Pyrenees and the Alps, and Menchov and Evans will likely adopt their usual “minimize the losses” mountain strategies. Unfortunately, when you’re already behind, minimizing your losses isn’t much of a strategy at all.

Race Radio
  • Rabobank’s bike sponsor Giant may be at the cutting edge of TT bike design, but after Menchov’s last-kilometer crash in the Giro and his solo flailing into the barriers yesterday, they may want to start looking into adding some sort of gyroscope inside that enormous nosecone. Either that, or make Menchov start paying for his own bikes – those things aren’t cheap, you know.

  • It was pretty clear last year that Evans would benefit from less public and media scrutiny during the Tour de France, and this year he's certainly gotten back some of the anonymity he wanted. Unfortunately, while the return of some big names takes some of the heat off, they also seem to be taking some of the top placings off as well.

  • Yesterday’s heads-up riding award goes to Silence-Lotto’s Jurgen Van den Broek, despite the fact that he wasn’t riding at all when he won it. Van den Broek touched the wheel ahead of him and went down while sitting in second-last wheel, but while sliding at 45kph flat on his back, he managed to look up at the guy behind him, see that he needed room to get through the bike-and-rider mess on the road, and calmly roll himself out toward the curb. That’s some composure while there’s a cheese grater being taken to your spine, and it was probably the highlight of the event for Silence-Lotto.

  • The heads-down riding award goes to BBox Bouygues Telecom for their en masse entry into a ditch on a high-speed right-hander, a veritable wheeled rodeo rendered even more visually spectacular by the enormous cloud of dust it generated. BBox is going to take a lot of flack for that one, but it’s probably a bit overstated. The TTT, more than any other road discipline, requires a laser-like focus on the wheel in front of you, and trust that the person guiding that wheel will pick the right line and speed. When they don’t, there’s a tendency to follow that wheel ahead right to its demise. So while someone certainly screwed up, it’s probably unfair to portray all of BBox as non-bike riding clowns. Besides, if Saxo Bank hadn’t managed to correct as they headed towards the same fate, everyone would have been blaming the course design for the crash, not Cancellara and co.

  • I was surprised to see Mark Cavendish leading Columbia-HTC across the line. At best, pure sprinters can be moderately helpful in a TTT; sometimes, they’re innocuous dead weight; and occasionally they’re just lucky to make the time cut after they’re dropped. But you don’t typically expect to see them powering on the front of a top-five team during the final kilometer. Cavendish seems to place a great deal of value on the work his teammates do for him, so maybe his hard ride yesterday was a bit of payback. While we’re at it, we should mention Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) as another sprinter who can pull his weight.

  • There were numerous falls yesterday, but worst off seems to be Skil-Shimano’s Piet Rooijakkers, who broke an arm. I just hope it wasn’t his punching arm.

Change of Winds

“To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It's always simple. There's no mystery on the street, no arch-criminal behind it all. If you got a dead guy and you think his brother did it, you're going to find out you're right.”

- Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects

As a conspiracy theorist, I’m not much good. Whether that’s due to a certain lack of creativity in analyzing the news or because I simply don’t look good in tin foil hats, I’m not quite sure. Whatever the reason though, my take on the great Columbia-instigated, Astana-fueled, Lance Armstrong-benefiting, Contador-rattling crosswind breakaway yesterday is surprisingly simple.

I don’t think, as some have postulated, that George Hincapie (Columbia-HTC) tipped off Armstrong that his team was going to drill it when they did, and if Hincapie did look to help out an old friend, he probably didn’t need to. Throughout his career, Armstrong demonstrated a well-honed ability to be in the right place at the right time, and not get stuck behind stupid field splits or crashes. Athletic ability may decline at Armstrong’s age, but, if only for my own sake, I’d like to think the mind holds on a few more years, and Armstrong’s is still sharp. On the coverage, you could see him moving rapidly up the left side some 8 kilometers before the right hand turn that took the peloton into the crosswinds.

I also don’t think that Armstrong set out that morning to shiv his Astana teammate Alberto Contador, but hey, when a prison riot breaks out, it’s a good chance to take care of some business, no? While there may not have been a plan in place to put time into Contador and make an early play for team leadership, I do think Armstrong knows an opportunity when he sees one.

The most visible evidence of exploiting that opportunity was the decision to send Astana workers Haimar Zubeldia and Yaroslav Popovytch into the rotation in the break over the last 10 km, helping preserve the gap to the rest of the field, Contador included. The less obvious sign that Armstrong was seizing an opportunity, rather than just covering a move or protecting himself, is a bit more speculative. Armstrong clearly knew enough to get himself to the front before the peloton made that right hander into the crosswinds, and he had time to get himself and two domestiques up there before the deal went down. What he seemingly did not do was get on the radio to inform the team’s top-placed GC rider to get to the front as well, which is what you would probably do if you were taking the “all for the team” approach to the race.

None of that, of course, was typical behavior of a unified team. Sure, Astana is still polling “undecided” as far as leadership duties are concerned, but Contador’s stomping opening time trial should have earned him a bit of relaxation for a few days, at least until some natural obstacle like a hill or another time trial sorted things out. But a tactical assault on what should have been a GC-irrelevant day, partially fuelled by your own team, is a little bit of a different story than the Astana party line of riding for “whoever’s strongest.” Whoever's smartest, maybe.

So, as most do, I’m willing to believe that yesterday’s shenanigans were an Armstrong play for the top spot, or at least the upper hand in the inter-team mental game. In that respect, they seem to have been reasonably effective. But I’m less inclined to imagine that there was some elaborate, premeditated plan involving blood-is-thicker-than-water and friends-are-thicker-than-teams tipoffs and whatnot. As much as people have been convinced over the years, rightly or wrongly, that every move Armstrong makes is carefully considered, thoroughly vetted, meticulously calculated, and ruthlessly executed, sometimes a bike race is just a bike race. And even without all the perceived maneuvering and head games, Armstrong is damn good at winning bike races.

In closing, and if I can at least wear a tin-foil beanie for a moment, it’s also very possible that it was just a calculated but ultimately harmless move for temporary glory, and that both Armstrong and Contador knew it at the time. With the team time trial today, and Armstrong Astana’s top placed GC rider, there’s a very good possibility that Armstrong will find himself in yellow at the end of the day. That would allow Armstrong, who, remember, will ride into the mountains as a 37-year-old former retiree, at least some token time in yellow for the masses before Contador enters his stomping grounds. Or maybe not – I think the aliens may be scrambling my thought waves.

Race Radio

  • Oh, by the way, Mark Cavendish (Columbia) won again yesterday, so good on him. Yes, the talking-on-the-phone victory salute was cheesy, but I have to give him credit for keeping his head well enough to give new sponsor and cell-phone manufacturer HTC their money shot. The kid knows who pays the bills.

  • With Bjarne Riis spending less time in the team car, has Saxo Bank lost its institutional memory? They’re about the last team I would have expected to get caught out by the whole-team crosswind acceleration, since they practically introduced it to modern cycling back at the 2005 Paris-Nice. Yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara did well to get himself into the move, but his overall chances are somewhat limited, and the Schlecks can’t afford to toss away stupid time like they did yesterday.

  • Several reports noted that Columbia-HTC was made aware of the turn into the crosswind section by Eric Zabel, who serves as a consultant to the team and coach to Cavendish. Zabel apparently rode the closing kilometers of the course and called in course conditions to the team car. It makes for a more interesting and earthy tidbit that it was the legendary Zabel that provided that key piece of information from the seat of a bicycle, but the truth is, every team sends a ton of people and equipment up to the finish of every stage, and you don’t have to be on a bike to know which way the wind blows. The other teams need to tell the soigneurs to pay attention while they’re driving from the second feed zone to the finish.

  • Skil-Shimano did well to place four men in the break, and they were up there pounding it out with Columbia for the duration. They even tried their hand with a last minute attack. I know a few people are trying to figure out what their motivation was, and again, I think it’s simple. When you’re a wild card team with no GC threat, your job is to show up and ride hard. So far, they’ve been doing a far better job of it than eternal charity case Agritubel.

What Might Have Been

Contador in Argyle?

On Tuesday, Bicycling’s Joe Lindsey put out a great piece that uncovers several of the contingency plans that were set to go into action had the Astana team’s Kazakh backers failed to deliver the €6 million bank guarantee the UCI saddled them with. Drawing on sources from within and close to Astana, Lindsey reveals that the team was set to continue as Livestrong-Nike had the Kazakhs failed to pony up the cash, and that Alberto Contador had been in talks with Caisse d’ Epargne. Lindsey also outlines what all this dealing means to an Astana squad that will now continue with both Contador and Armstrong attached, mainly focusing on the Lemond-Hinault showdown scenario that many have been salivating over since Armstrong announced his return.

For me, though, none of those things are the headline of this story. Rather, it’s the news of the team that Contador was allegedly most serious about joining – Garmin-Slipstream. According to Astana sources cited in Lindsey’s story, negotiations had gone far enough that the squad was shipping Felt bikes to Contador and had brought on Herbalife to chip in an extra $2 million to cover Contador and an entourage including a soigneur, a mechanic, and Astana compadres Sergio Paulinho and Benjamin Noval. So why should those little facts trump all the other juicy info in the article? Because, if accurate (Garmin sources have yet to confirm), they reveal that things are getting desperate in the Garmin camp with just a week and a half left until the Tour de France.

It can be hard to see at times, but Vaughters and company do have reason to be nursing a fairly sweaty set of palms these days. Last year, when the team was a scrappy Pro Continental squad looking to earn some respect, Dan Martin’s hard fought third place in the Med Tour, Tyler Farrar’s Zeeland GC win and sprint win over Mark Cavendish (Columbia) at Tirreno-Adriatico, and David Millar’s top-10 at the Dauphine would have been good results. But this year, with Garmin out of the underdog slot and playing in the big leagues, things are looking a little thin in the win column, and fans don’t get nearly as enthused about near-misses from breakaways and top five finishes in time trials. Additionally, the team’s “clean team” hook has worn a bit thin, and the focus has shifted more from establishing that reputation to earning results – the team has said as much. Add in Tour GC hope Christian Vande Velde’s ill-timed injury at the Giro, David Millar’s shoulder injury, and Columbia-High Road’s Giro thumping of Garmin at its own TTT specialty, and the team’s Tour campaign – the one that could save the season – was leaning towards a letdown. Set against that backdrop, it’s not hard to see why Garmin was looking for options.

But signing a three-time grand tour winner and agreeing to take on a few of his buddies as well? Loading up a more-or-less Anglophone team with a good portion of Discovery Channel’s former Spanish Armada? For a squad that’s always carefully selected riders to ensure team cohesion and proper fit, resorting to those sort of last-minute mercenary dealings is a marked departure. Indeed, the deal seems to be a departure from many of the team’s basic principles, and may indicate a bit of a crisis of faith within the organization.

Since the team’s TIAA-Cref days, team manager Jonathan Vaughters has set out to develop young talent, and though he made some battle-proven signings to help the team build momentum last year, he’s basically stayed true to that methodology. Sure, David Millar, David Zabriskie, Magnus Backstedt, Julian Dean, and Christian Vande Velde had already been around the block a few times when Vaughters picked them up, but Vaughters hasn’t been one to pursue and sign whichever superstar came up on the auction block, and those signings were hardly flashy.

Rather, slow, steady growth has been the model, and Vaughters has relied on an ability to spot young talent and on patience, nurturing riders like Martin Maaskant, Farrar, and Martin as they make names for themselves wearing his jersey. And of course, last year’s Tour revealed Vande Velde as a reasonable GC contender – an emergence that, despite Vande Velde’s long experience, still felt like the discovery of a new rider, and one that Vaughters has justifiably been given credit for.

On an organizational level as well, Garmin has made a name for itself by running counter to many of the dusty traditions and folk remedies of European cycling, instead developing its own management concepts and the various “protocols” developed by team physiologist Allen Lim. Combined with the team’s doping stance and its patient approach to rider development, Garmin had positioned itself as a new kind of cycling team for what many fans are hoping is a new era in the sport.

But the potential Contador deal, if such a deal was indeed in the works, undermines all that in one fell swoop. Simply hiring a big gun and his stable mates, tossing aside internal development, team cohesion, and slow growth in favor of results here and now, is straight from the old days. It doesn’t matter that, in the end, the deal didn’t happen – knowing that it could have tells us what we need to know. I’d also wager that those riders who thought they were vying for a spot on Garmin’s Tour de France roster have learned a thing or two as well.

Joe Lindsey was dead on about what the dead-on-arrival Contador-Garmin deal could mean to cohesion within the shored-up Astana team, but its potential affects on Garmin could be even more disastrous.

Well, Yes and No

Vacillating Answers to Today’s Cycling Questions

There are at least two sides to every story, and in cycling these days, there are always at least two answers to every question. Let’s look at four of this week’s discussion topics, and try to arrive at a simple “yes or no” based on the news of the week.

1. Is examining blood values a reliable way to catch cheaters?

Pat McQuaid and the UCI give an emphatic “yes,” based on the fact that, over the space of a week and a half, they got to nab the “list of five” for blood profile suspicions and Toni Colom (Katusha) for EPO. According to the UCI, Colom was targeted for the EPO test based on suspicious blood values, so we’re giving the UCI the benefit of the doubt and calling that a bio passport success as well. Of course, asking the UCI if blood values work is like asking a proud parent of an honor roll student if their child is really smart – they had a bit of a skewed view in the first place, and now they have the bumper sticker to prove it. Of course they’ll say yes.

In the “no” chorus we have Bernhard Kohl, whose story is, by now, over-told. But now Kohl has someone to harmonize with in newcomer Vladimir Gusev. Gusev was terminated last year by Astana for blood values that were interpreted as suspicious by well-known dope guy and Astana consultant Rasmus Damsgaard. CAS decided that maybe those values weren’t so suspicious after all, at least not suspicious enough for Astana to fire him over. In the meantime, Saxo Bank, where Bjarne Riis helped Damsgaard forge his dope-monitoring legend, has scaled back its vaunted internal testing programs citing the fact that the UCI passport program covers the same ground. So if the bio passport tests are now taking the place of some of the internal controls teams used to do, are they prone to the same problems? Only the appeals will tell, so call us in eight months or a year.

2. Does the UCI know what “targeted” means?

On June 9, the day they announced the Colom positive, the UCI seemed to have a solid grasp of what “targeted” meant. Colom’s blood values looked a little fishy, and so based on that, they gave him more tests than the average, non-suspicious rider. You know, they “targeted” him.

But that moment of clarity seems to be fading fast, as’s interview with UCI Reine de Dopage Anne Gripper reveals. Gripper comments on the list of 50 riders that the UCI has said will be extra-special tested in the run-up to the Tour de France (not to be confused with the list of five riders to be prosecuted). According to Gripper, these 50 riders aren’t being “targeted,” they’re just being subjected to additional testing based on the fact that they’re likely to do well at the Tour, either in terms of GC or stage wins. Well, that’s better – thank goodness they aren’t being targeted, you know, in the sense of being singled out for extra scrutiny based on a specific criteria or behavioral pattern. Like winning races or something.

It doesn’t really matter, of course, but I do hesitate to ask what they’ve thought “random” meant all these years.

3. Are Astana’s money problems solved?

Yes, apparently. Just a day or so after the UCI’s deadline officially passed, Bruyneel and the team’s Kazakh sponsors managed to come to some sort of agreement that should see everyone paid through the end of 2009.

But then we have to ask, who is everyone? Because if we go back to that Gusev story again, we see that Astana, presumably through Bruyneel’s Olympus management company, now owes the amply-chinned Russian his salary, plus damages, plus legal costs. I don’t know what his salary was, but Gusev was starting to really break through right before he got preemptively popped by the team, so damages could be considerable. So will Astana’s barely-dry check from Kazakhstan cover that little tab, or is Bruyneel going to be left to cough up the rubles himself? I don’t know, but if you think it’s hard to get the Kazakhs to pay guys who have ridden for them this year, you should see how hard it is to get them to pay the guys who haven’t.

4. Does Tom Boonen really like the marching powder as much as we think he does?

According to the testing agency and the Belgian justice system, yes. Boonen himself says he was blacked out during the night in question, and can’t rightly say either way whether he did cocaine or not. But now an independent review panel says no, Boonen didn’t actually ingest cocaine. Apparently, panel looked at a hair test, and while it does show the presence of cocaine, it doesn’t show enough coke present to indicate definitively that Boonen had any, only that he’s probably seen some in the last few months.

Before we get too excited, I’d note that the English version of the story says Boonen didn’t “ingest” cocaine. The initial Flemish versions I’ve seen say he didn’t “snort” cocaine. These are obviously two different meanings, as there are other ways to ingest besides snorting, and they affect how strongly the drug shows up in your system. While, say, eating cocaine is less efficient than sniffing it, it is still ingestion. This article sheds some light on the testing tolerances and whatnot, but frankly I’m just bored with the whole thing, and I steadfastly avoid dealing with anything measured in ng/mg.

ASO is apparently bored with the whole business too, since they’ve announced today that, for their purposes, Boonen snorted, otherwise ingested, or rolled around in the blow enough to exclude him from this year’s Tour de France. Now all we’re left to wonder about is whether the UCI will still try to come up with some “damaging the image of cycling” charge to hang him by. I suppose they could, as he’s still caused a hell of a PR fuss, but if you can get hanged in cycling for having been in proximity to drugs, there won’t be an empty gallows or a vacant tree branch in all of Europe pretty soon. (Update: No sanction for Boonen)

So for those of you keeping score, that’s a yes, a maybe, a no, and a “we’ll see” all on a single question that doesn’t have the slightest bit to do with racing a bicycle. Flattering times for the sport, indeed.

It's 6pm In Switzerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right

If Only the Sport Were That Organized

Who runs this goddamned sport? Nobody and everybody, apparently, and recent news has been coated in the sort of scatological crossfire you’d expect from that sort of diversified management structure.

CONI, the Italian federation, banned Spaniard Alejandro Valverde for his alleged involvement in a Spanish doping affair based on a blood sample taken in Italy during last year’s Tour de France. Habsburg blood may have seen less of Europe than Valverde’s, but in fairness to those kingmakers, Valverde’s ties to the papacy do look weak in comparison. Indeed, a high-priced indulgence is about the only thing that could save Valverde’s soul from a paperwork purgatory at this point, and that little absolution doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon. The Giro may have run it’s final TT through the pope’s front yard, but even an organization that feels pretty comfortable weighing on who can sleep with who, when, and what they should wear when they do so knows better than to weigh in on cycling’s regulatory orgy.

No, Benedict’s silent on Valverde, but maybe that’s only because he hasn’t been issued his gold-plated papal Colnago yet, because everyone else who’s ever seen or pedaled a bicycle has thrown their opinions into the pot. Remarkably, the only thing people seem more concerned about than Valverde’s alleged performance enhancing activities are Tom Boonen’s recreational ones, making the cycling press seem less like sports news and more like TMZ. The immediate result of all the hubbub is that either of both riders may not be able to start the Tour de France come July. Depending on who you ask, of course.

Christian Prudhomme, Grand Poobah of the Tour de France, recently announced a near theological shift in his organization’s policies, telling the media hordes that ASO will “obey the rules” when it comes to sanctioning the various sins of Boonen and Valverde. That following the rules instead of making up your own is now worthy of a press release says a little something about how we operate here in the bush leagues of professional sport, but so be it. Anyway, ASO has decided to agree with the UCI that, as sporting entities, they might not really have the authority to sanction a rider based on an unrelated, out-of-competition legal matter, like, say, blowing some lines in the piss-soaked men’s room of some godforsaken Antwerp disco.

Things aren't that easy, of course. According to the UCI, they might still be able to nab Boonen yet, but not on sporting grounds, and they can’t find the time to make up a new rule to try him under until after the Tour. So, for now at least, Boonen looks to be in the clear, at least until someone else argues their way into having jurisdiction in the matter, and trust me, that’s not far off. Who knows, maybe this is USAC’s time to shine – I’d suggest basing jurisdictional authority on either his participation in the Tour of California, or, for some real flair, his participation in the Univest Grand Prix as an amateur.

Anyway, if I’m reading it right, as another part of this year’s great reconciliation, ASO has also agreed that until the UCI gets the evidence from CONI and makes its own ruling on Valverde, a ban in Italy doesn’t really have much of anything to do Valverde racing in France, though it seems they’ll leave it up to Valverde as to whether he thinks his form is good enough to outrun the carabinieri on his own personal cannonball run when this year’s Tour dips into Italia. The kid has the rare combination of being quick in the hills and in a sprint, but I’m not sure even the Green Bullet will take that bet.

The UCI doesn’t seem to be too anxious to gather that Italian evidence, though, and why would they be? They can leave it to CONI to keep Valverde from the Tour, despite the fact that nobody’s ever adequately explained how CONI can keep an unsuspended rider with a non-Italian license from riding a race that is not held under the auspices of CONI. Yes, the Tour will go briefly into Italy, but CONI is a sporting body, not the border patrol, and other than that brief sojourn on Italian asphalt, CONI doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with the Tour de France. But that’s just the sort of easy out the UCI loves, so why look too closely at the legality of it?

But all that CONI stuff really only affects Valverde, and with everyone playing relatively nice between the UCI and ASO this year, someone has do the broader eye-gouging and overreaching, and this year the French government has stepped up to the task. Chapeau. Not satisfied that Prudhomme and ASO could simply decide what was best for their event within the rules of the sport, France’s Minister of Sport, Bernard Laporte, has seen fit to wade into what was, for a brief, shining moment a waning clusterfuck rather than a waxing one.

By declaring from his own little pulpit that Boonen and Valverde “are not welcome at the 2009 Tour de France,” Laporte has managed to preach exactly the opposite sermon from the UCI and ASO, deciding that, as a part of the ruling civil authority, it should slog into the affairs of a sporting event it neither owns nor regulates, based on its distaste for a legal matter in Belgium and a sporting matter in Spain (that’s been co-opted by Italy). I’m not sure what the French government generally or the Ministry of Sport specifically kicks into the Tour pot, or what their contribution would or could be besides discount prices on gendarmes, but I’m pretty damn sure they aren’t in charge of sending invitations, which is a good thing, because picking out stationary is a hell of a delicate thing, and best not left up to government bureaucrats. Either way, France as a state is known to profit considerably from the Tour, in good years and bad, so France as a state best shut its trap and let ASO do what it does best -- run an incredibly lucrative bike race. Fortunately for Boonen, and maybe Valverde, Laporte isn’t the official welcoming committee for the 2009 Tour de France. I think that’s Bernard Hinault, and he’s doing a bang-up job so far.

Even if we discount Laporte, who I might add has a name that’s a pretty good homophone for “Puerto,” if you know what I mean, things aren’t all rosy just because ASO and the UCI have decided to play by roughly the same rulebook. Lest we think that the UCI is contorting itself into some non-recognizable, even-handed caretaker of the sport, we only need to look as far as Wednesday’s news. Upping the ante in its desperate attempt to ward off derision of its biological passport program, UCI chieftan Paddy McQuaid announces that they’re ready to release the names of riders with suspicious biological passport results. McQuaid also says that the UCI will eventually open proceedings against the riders, but that even though they’re announcing the names, the riders won’t be given the customary immediate sit-down by the boys in blue. No, they’re going to leave that “up to the teams.” How magnanimous, or unbelievably cowardly, depending on how you look at it.

What, pray tell, does that magnanimity tell us about how dependable these “suspicious” findings are? It means they have all the durability of an R-Sys wheel, because this is, after all, a sport where you can be slapped with one of those provisional suspensions based on a rumor about a particularly voluminous bowel movement you may or may not have created in the team bus bathroom back in 2005. If it can’t get you suspended in cycling, even provisionally, it simply isn’t worth worrying about. And if the world governing body is going to come out and name names, and especially if they’re going to build the suspense with preliminary press releases to increase turnout at their Swiss photo op in a few days time, they damn well better have enough to evidence to take the wheels off those riders’ bikes right then and there.

And if the paper the UCI has is that good, would they leave it up to the teams to give provisional suspensions? After all, the UCI has implicitly accused many of those teams of orchestrating these ugly little affairs themselves, so why, if those teams now know the jig is up, would they sit down the very guys who should be absolutely flying right now? Nah, I say go out all guns blazing, and make the UCI spend the next two years trying desperately to finalize a single results sheet from here to the Vuelta.

Frankly, if one of my guys turned up hot, I might keep sending him out there until someone told me in no uncertain terms not to, because I’d be sick of the UCI putting me in the middle of its little spats. Last year it put the teams and riders in the middle of its tickle fight with ASO, this year it’s inserting them into their fight with the biological passport critics. Enough is enough – if you’ve got the goods, let’s see them, if not, get back to work if you want, but quit spouting off to the press. If you’re going to position yourself as the sport’s overarching enforcement arm, do the job with good evidence and confidence, and don’t try to force the teams into doing your bidding when you’re too terrified of the fallout to do it. You can have the credit and you can have the blame, but no matter how hard you try, you have to risk getting one to get the other.

Unfortunately, the message from the UCI is as transparent as it is distasteful – be a good little team, and suspend these riders like you know we want you to. Otherwise, you’ll get so much “targeted testing” from your top riders down to your soigneurs that you won’t have enough blood or piss left to fill a vial. If what we’re looking for is real, fair, and non-politicized enforcement in cycling, I’m not sure that looks like it.

Prologue to a Nap

Could someone with more sway than this website tell Versus that, while we very much appreciate their coverage of cycling, and will continue to voice our undying support of mixed martial arts fighting just to get it, using that generous 2-hour Sunday slot to air 120 minutes of Dauphiné-Libéré prologue (ahem, “opening time trial”) is just wasteful? Just like the start house pictures that heavy set gentleman was taking, prologue coverage doesn’t really tell us much other than, “hey, look who showed up!” And after 120 minutes of guys riding alone for 16 minutes, the rest of the key points of the 8-stage race, some of which may actually be interesting, will then be shoved into a subsequent 2-hour show next Sunday.

While well intentioned, in showing such a copious amount of prologues and time trials, I believe Versus isn’t giving itself enough credit. With the help of the Armstrong bounce, the station has, over the past decade or so, built up an audience for their cycling wares. Even better, that audience has finally reached a point in their cycling education where their appreciation extends beyond, “Guys on bikes! On television! I can see them!”

Look, when you’re a kid, you just like ice cream, and you’ll eat as much of it as you can get your hands on. But once you’re older and know a little bit more, you start to appreciate quality and taste over volume. Similarly, with more than a couple years of cycling now under their belts, even those much-maligned Armstrong-era fans have developed tastes that are a little more nuanced, and they’re looking for coverage of the more substantive, tactical, and interesting parts of the race. That usually doesn't include time trials, and it never includes prologues. Sure, their results can occassionally have dramatic effects on the overall, but usually it's just guys riding bikes, one at a time.

I’m not one to lob criticism out there without offering constructive solutions, of course. That’s what message boards are for. In the spirit of cooperation and improved coverage, which will no doubt net Versus tens of dollars more in advertising revenue, we humbly offer the following suggested rearrangements of the 240 minutes of Dauphiné-Libéré coverage that Versus will provide via its June 7 and June 14 Sunday broadcasts:

  1. A judiciously edited 30 minute recap show each day of the Dauphiné’s eight stages. Air it any time you want, we all TiVo it anyway, but again, in the spirit of cooperation, we promise not to tell your advertisers that.

  2. Two 60 minute shows covering key stages, and a 2-hour block next Sunday. Everybody loves that “whole stage” coverage Versus does during the Tour de France, and it is a gluttonous summer pleasure for many. But from a practical standpoint, professional racing is all about the last hour, so you really don’t need much more than 60 minutes. So take this past Sunday's alotted 120 minutes, cut them in half, and use them to show two of this week’s key stages. (Just so we don’t get confused, this does not mean one show should be dedicated to the Stage 4 ITT.) Do one hour of coverage of Stage 5 to Mont Ventoux, and one hour of Stage 6 to Briancon. Then use the 2-hour BikeGasm broadcast on June 14 to cover Stages 7 and 8. (In the first ten minutes of each show, Phil and Paul can do a quick oral summary of what’s gone on in the intervening stages, preferably using the correct names and team affiliations along the way to minimize confusion.)

  3. Five, 22 minute daily recaps Monday through Friday of this week, with a quick recap of Saturday and last stage coverage on next Sunday’s 2-hour BikeGasm broadcast. The 22 minute length does seem unwieldy, I’ll admit, but it will give longtime viewers a sense of nostalgia for the early OLN days, when broadcasts started and ended at all sorts of random times.

  4. Just blow all 4 hours on the Mont Ventoux stage. Listen, being British, Phil Liggett will be obliged to spend at least an hour of the Ventoux coverage talking about Tom Simpson and his tragic and untimely death due to drug-taking. It being Versus, Phil and/or Paul will also be required to narrate a 45 minute video retrospective of the Armstrong-Pantani Ventoux finish, and, in the interest of national security, reassure American viewers that Armstrong absolutely, definitely, positively did give Pantani the stage win, and that if he really wanted to, he’d have wiped the floor with him. Add in another 20 minutes of prattling on about Eros Poli winning a stage over the Ventoux despite being an enormous beast of a man, and a few minutes of miscellaneous poetics about the Ventoux stage of this year’s Tour de France, and we’re left with a little over an hour and a half for actual coverage. That sounds about right.

In closing, while extended prologue coverage may be the Ho-Hos of professional cycling – fattening, kind of artificial tasting, and lacking almost any sort of nutritional content – they do give you a chance to have a closeup look at the riders and equipment, largely because there is no action to distract you. Here’s what we saw before we nodded off:

  • Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) looks skinny. I couldn’t quite make out ribs through the back of his skinsuit, but I did see a few vertebrae, which should mean he’s right on track in his Tour de France preparation. The other way to gauge Evans’ form is to examine how erratic his outbursts in the press are. According to that metric, he still has some fine-tuning to do.

  • Evans was showing off his usual crazy-low TT position, but what struck me were his wrists, which were significantly below his elbows. The position seemed to form a giant scoop into his chest, leading me to wonder how aerodynamically efficient it is, or what other fit, comfort, or power factors may have led to that position. That said, I’ve sniped at people for judging aerodynamics from photos in the past, so I best shut my trap now.

  • Like Evans, Ivan Basso (Liquigas) looked to have a distinct downward slope from elbow to wrist, so for a second I was just wondering if "wrists-down" was just the "new level." Then I saw Basso yanking violently up on his extensions to pull them back into position, so I guess not. But I do hear that "torque wrenches" are the new “I go by feel.”

  • Alberto Contador (Astana) had a new prototype time trial bike with some crazy white-on-black design on it. Trek’s big names having custom painted (usually horrifically so) bikes is nothing new, with Contador, Leipheimer, and Armstrong all getting the star treatment in recent past. But I don’t think this latest example was just a show of respect and shrewd marketing on their part. The design could be seen as decorative, but it’s also very similar to the intentionally eye-confusing designs car companies use when they put new cars on the test track – it makes it really hard to tell what the bike really looks like in any detail.

  • So does Contador’s debut of the new TT bike show us that he’s achieved primacy from Trek and/or the team for testing new products? In other words, is it now Contador, rather than Armstrong, who gets “the shit that will kill them” of Coyle-book fame? It seems correct that he does, of course, given his record and his chances in July. But since Armstrong has returned to the scene, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him return to his spot as the primary recipient of new material.

  • David Miller (Garmin) was riding a regular road bike with clip-on aero bars and deep section rims instead of a disk. It was good enough to net him 10th place, but I still have to wonder what the reasoning behind the decision was. The way I see it, either Miller has had his nerves so frazzled by dropped chains, exploding disc wheels, and other time trial shenanigans that he’s sworn off TT bikes forever, or it was just a photoshoot for one of Felt’s aero road bikes. Look out for an ad shot of Miller’s ride yesterday with some variation of “Slick Enough for a ProTour Time Trial” in the Felt marketing copy.

  • Speaking of Millar and Armstrong, what is it with English speakers and handlebars so wide you could drive a bus with them? I remember one shot of Tyler Hamilton with his hands on the hoods back when he was riding for CSC – it looked like he was reaching out to hug fat Aunt Patrice at the family reunion. I don’t know – Miller, Armstrong, Hamilton – maybe it’s a generational thing rather than language-based?

  • Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) didn’t look high, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.

  • The white world championship skinsuit is not doing Bert Grabsch (Columbia) any favors. He looks like he ate last season’s Bert Grabsch, resulting in a skinsuit that is now double stuffed with Bert Grabsch-ey goodness. That’s unfair, of course – white is not slimming, and he is a big, powerful rider – but the guy still looked huge. I think that to rake in a little extra cash, for the biological passport program or whatever new quagmire they see fit, the UCI should sign on separate sponsors just for the WC jerseys. And it should be Jet Puffed Marshmallows.

Bridging the Gap

Little light on the content here these days, eh? Well, that’s because the Daughter of the Service Course was born two weeks ago, and anyone who’s done that drill knows that newborns can really cut into your casual cycling commentary time. She and I get along just fine, though, because newborns are a lot like cyclists – they’re asleep most of the time, and when they aren’t, they’re eating, pooping, or crying about something. Kidding aside, we’re all thankful that everybody’s healthy, and we’re getting enough sleep to stay relatively sane.

At this point, there’s no way we can catch up to all that’s transpired in cycling over the last couple of weeks. But as we all know, when your team’s missed the break entirely, nothing reassures the director that you really are trying like an ill-fated, half-assed bridge attempt. So here goes…

Rebellin Lights It Up

I left a comment on Pave site right after Fleche Wallonne, wondering if Davide Rebellin’s (Diquigiovanni) latest win there would finally get him the recognition he deserved as one of the finest classics riders of his (aging, mostly retired) generation. Well, maybe it would have, except for the fact that a few days later, Rebellin’s legacy took an unfortunate turn in the other direction with the news that he lit the doping lamp for CERA after his bronze medal performance at the 2008 Olympic road race. Like Johan Museeuw, he has to be regretting his decision not to have hung up his wheels just a little bit earlier. And like Museeuw, we may be in for another “in the last years of my career…to try to remain competitive…etc., etc.” half-confession that does nothing but call the entirety of a career into further doubt. Ah, well.

Schleck Finishes on Time, Race Finishes 20 Minutes Too Late

Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) took a really exciting win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, or at least he would have if the race ended shortly after he made his winning move and established his gap. But it didn’t. And as much as I love L-B-L, watching Schleck cruise alone, however speedily, up that long, wide, dead steady, dead straight climb into Ans was just excruciatingly boring. L-B-L has a lot of beautiful, dramatic climbs – the Graham Watson special in Houffalize, La Redoute – but the Cȏte de Saint-Nicholas just ain’t one of them. Coupled with Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank), to hear the press tell it, single-handedly menacing an entire herd of about 35 certified Ardennes classics threats into a total stupor, it wasn’t the best finale the race has ever seen. I mean really, nobody could attack because Frankie was there? Cunego? Valverde? Anyone? Because you really weren’t going to win with Andy up the road, anyway.

Ardennes Specialists are People, Too

Despite his recent lighting of the lamp, Rebellin won a load of big races, including his legendary sweep of the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2004. Yet when people talk about classics riders, he’s rarely mentioned with contemporaries like Michele Bartoli and the like. Why? I think the reason is two-fold. First, for whatever reason, Rebellin’s never gotten any respect – years of non-selection for the Italian World Championship team show that. I don’t know the guy, but I do know that some folks’ heads and mouths can rob them of opportunities their legs should have given them, and in a time when national coach Franco Ballerini was trying to build unity, Rebellin just didn’t seem to fit into the plan. So maybe Rebellin just rubs people the wrong way, but if he does, it’s never been in as public a way as some of his compatriots, like Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni) or Filippo Simeoni (Ceramiche Flaminia).

The personality part of the equation is likely to remain a mystery, to non-Italian speakers at least. Besides, the second reason Rebellin isn’t regarded as a classics legend is much more broadly applicable and more important anyway: the misplaced perception that classics = cobblestones. Some classics do, of course, have plenty of cobbles, and the stones do add a certain something to the feel of the race and the legends of the men who thrive on them. But plenty of big classics are held over smooth roads as well – races like San Remo, Liege, Fleche, Amstel, Lombardy, and Paris-Tours. Despite that, it seems that unless someone wins Roubaix or Flanders, they aren’t dubbed a great classics rider, and that’s unfortunate. Sure, grand tour guys snap up some of the Liege wins, and if you win Paris-Tours or San Remo, they’ll probably still just call you a sprinter. But there has to be a place for guys like Rebellin in the classics pantheon, doesn’t there? Maybe if there were, guys who are clearly cut from the same mold as Rebellin, like Damiano Cunego, Alejandro Valverde, and Danilo Diluca, would stop chasing slim chances at grand tour wins and focus on the asphalt classics where their talents really shine. That said, they’d be stupid to ignore the financial incentive of the grand tours vs. classics equation if they have a reasonable chance of success over three weeks, so I can’t say I blame them.

Actually, It’s Three Blows

Speaking of cobbled classics, Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) has made a habit of winning them, and unfortunately, he seems to also have made a habit of knocking back some Bolivian marching powder afterwards. The news is everywhere you’d care to look, of course, including Monday’s revelation on that this is actually Boonen’s third cocaine positive, not the second. News coverage is great and all, but the week’s best contribution to the hubbub comes from this article, where Lance Armstrong comments on the situation with a fantastic double entendre:

“It’s a blow for him, a blow for Quick Step, a blow for their sponsors and Belgian cycling.”

Well played, Armstrong, well played.

Pick a Winner

Hey, wait a minute! That last article we cited also noted that the Giro d'Italia has started, and admitted that there are people besides Armstrong riding it. I’ll be damned. Other than some arguably more spectacular scenery, what does the Giro have over the Tour de France? A shitload of former winners on the start line. Stefano Garzelli (2000), Gilberto Simoni (2001, 2003), Damiano Cunego (2004), Ivan Basso (2006), and Danilo Diluca (2007) are all in the mix this year. Why does the Giro seem to always have so many former winners on the line, when the Tour sometimes struggles to have even one?

The simple answer is that the last 30 or 40 years of the Tour have been dominated by a host of multiple time winners. In fact, from 1968 to 2008, only 19 men have won a Tour de France. When a few guys account for anywhere from three to seven wins within a ten year block, there just isn’t a hell of a lot of room to stack up a host of former winners on the line. Armstrong’s tenure alone saw pretty much every other active Tour winner retire or die.

The Giro’s recent history, however, has been dominated by fierce competition among the natives, hence this year’s presence of all those still active former pink jersies with surnames ending in vowels. Not all of them have a good shot at winning by any stretch of the imagination, but they all still have enough kick to make things interesting on those notorious uphill Giro finishes.

Thinking about the presence of former winners at the Giro got me wondering – does the Tour, by virtue of its status as the “premier” Grand Tour, just lend itself to dominance by standout riders more than the Giro? The answer is, in the last 40 years, as the Tour has risen to greater prominence and specialization has increased, yes. But comparing the Giro to the Tour over their histories shows less of a disparity. In 91 editions, the Giro has had 58 winners, for an average of 1.56 wins per victor. Over 95 editions, the Tour has had 56 distinct winners, for an only slightly chunkier average of 1.69 wins per victor.


Like a lot of people, I like the Giro because, well, it’s not the Tour. It doesn’t have that same over-scrubbed, made for television polish added to it to appeal to the uninitiated. It still manages to maintain the image that it’s about bike racing more than the “event” or the brand. The Italian fans, the tifosi, are, of course, already a legendary part of that feel, and you’ll see it again this year when the race hits the hills. But lest you think that the insanity you see at the tops of the climbs today is new, some sort of depraved reflection of the over-the-top society we live in today, watch this clip of the 1974 climb of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.

And turn the sound on, so you can hear the thump when the motorcycle hits people.

Welcome Back, Kimmage

A few weeks ago, during the Tour, reader Ken asked what I thought of an article written by Paul Kimmage of the Times of London about Allen Lim, Slipstream-Chipotle’s team doctor/physiotherapist/nutritionist/power guy/guru. I replied that I didn’t think much of it, since it was more about Kimmage’s personal baggage than it was about its alleged subject. In that, it fit the mold of many of his other cycling articles. It’s not that Kimmage is a bad writer, or a bad interviewer, it’s that his first-hand experience as a professional cyclist in the 1980s left him with such a sour taste in his mouth that he’s been unable to create an even remotely objective story about the sport since he hung up his wheels in favor of a typewriter.

Kimmage’s career transition began promisingly, for both the sport and the man, when his book Rough Ride (which I highly recommend) was released in 1990. That book detailed the ills of professional cycling through the telling of Kimmage’s own experiences, and though he never explicitly named others who used drugs, the implications were strong enough to effectively blackball him from the sport. Back then, eighteen years ago, the book told cycling devotees what the rest of the world would learn in 1998 with the Festina scandal – that the sport was rife with doping. But back then, nobody was listening, and Kimmage was dismissed as a disgruntled never-was.

In the years since its publication, Kimmage has parlayed both the success of Rough Ride and the resulting ill-will into a steady career of being, along with compatriot David Walsh, one of the premier doping curmudgeons covering cycling. He reports on a variety of other sports for the Times as well, but he’s always saved most of his venom for cycling. As they say, it’s the ones you love that hurt you the most, and the stark reality he witnessed as an ‘80s pro, together with the sport's subsequent scandals, placed him squarely in the “they’re all doping, it’s a sham of a sport” camp.

Despite his distaste for the sport, he was drawn back to this year’s Tour de France by the “clean” claims of Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Chipotle team - claims that, like many but more than most, he greeted with a healthy share of skepticism. He arranged to be a sort of “embedded reporter” with the squad, getting unrestricted access to the team and its staff, including inner-sanctum locales like the bus and bedrooms at any time he pleased. The articles that resulted were in many ways vintage Kimmage, taking every opportunity to delve into any sort of questionable past members of the team had, putting them through the doping wringer with regularity, and inserting a good bit of his own trademark editorializing.

And that’s what made his final installation so surprising. In it, Kimmage, almost confessional, describes how the Garmin-Chipotle squad, from its manager to its riders to its doctor to its guru, have restored some of his faith in the sport he’d written off long ago, and even made him a fan again. If you’d like to restore a bit of your own faith, you should read it yourself, but this paragraph sums it up well:

“I’ve spent a good portion of my past 20 years enraged by dopers such as Virenque, Riis, Ivan Basso and Hamilton and seized every opportunity to expose them. No apologies. They deserve our contempt . . . but not as much as the guys who are trying to compete clean deserve our support. I’d lost sight of that. To David Millar, Christian Vande Velde, Ryder Hesjedal, Will Frischkorn, Danny Pate, Julian Dean, Martijn Maaskant, Trent Lowe and Magnus Backstedt, thanks for the reminder."

Do I care that Paul Kimmage has had his faith in cycling restored? No, not really. It’s a good thing, of course, because he has a loud voice about the sport in certain circles, but he’s still just one man among many who became disillusioned by all the scandals the sport has put itself through over the last 20 years. There are a lot of people still out in the cold. But that’s what’s important about Kimmage’s piece – it proves that the sport and its image among fans and potential fans is still salvageable. Things can change, the sport can change, and even the most steadfast detractors can change their minds if they’re given a reason.

As Kimmage’s "I'd lost sight of that" epiphany in the quoted paragraph suggests, people can come back to the sport, but it’s going to take some leaps of faith by a lot of different players to do so. Jonathan Vaughters took one by granting unrestricted access to one of the sports biggest and most well-versed detractors, a move that could have easily backfired even if nothing shady were uncovered. Kimmage took one by choosing to believe that, over the course of his three weeks, he’d seen enough of the Garmin-Chipotle squad to publicly declare his trust in them.

Those leaps paid off big for both of them. Kimmage got to experience cycling as a joy again rather than a seedy underworld populated by cheaters and pushers. Vaughters got what might be the most surprising and valuable media endorsement of the last several years for his team - one that could lead many to be less skeptical of its claims. The result of the experiment, you could argue, is indeed the renewed enthusiasm of just one man, but looking more broadly, if more people involved in the sport are willing to take the big risks, as Vaughters and Kimmage have, the sport may yet be able to bring people back, bring people in, and turn the page.

Tour No More

So that’s it for another year’s Tour de France, and for now, Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank) appears to be the winner. But we’ve been burned before, so let’s not go crazy until Sastre shows up for all of his post-Tour crit contracts – because we all know what it means when you don’t turn up for those cash cows. In all seriousness, though, Sastre seems as likely as anyone to remain rooted in the list of winners once all the final tests are in, so we here at the Service Course will go out on a limb and extend our congratulations to him.

I have to admit, I would have never picked Sastre as a Tour winner, but I don’t think I’m alone in that. As several media outlets have pointed out, he’s always been considered the consummate fourth place man – the kind of guy outfits like Quick.Step hire when they want to be able to claim they’ve a man for the GC. But a winner? Nah. Shows what I know.

A lot of other people have been shown what they know too, after Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) failed to bring back even half the time he needed on Sastre in the final time trial to take his much-anticipated Tour win. I have to say, I think those who were crowing that the minute and a half lead that Sastre forged over Evans on L’Alpe D’Huez wasn’t nearly enough were mislead by the media’s Tour de France hype machine. In the absence of a true five-star contender like an Armstrong or an Ullrich, someone has to get the five stars, and that was Evans, at least for the Anglophone press. Faced with a rider who is, by his own confession, not very exciting in the mountains, the press chose to build up his pretty good time trialing to Indurain proportions, which objectively it has never approached. If you were sucked in by it, don’t feel bad – Evans seems to have bought into it himself, and it may have cost him a Tour win.

The handicapping of Sastre and Evans’ respective strengths was correct on the broad level – Evans is typically better than Sastre in the time trials. In hindsight, however, it’s easy to see where things got pretty distorted in the name of making the story. Sastre was the mountain man, the spindly climber, facing off against avowed time trialist Evans. It created a battle of styles, of strategy, and with it, suspense. Would the gap be enough? But if we’d all paid a little more attention to history, it would have shown that, just as Evans is no Indurain against the clock, Sastre is no Rasmussen. Which is to say that Sastre has never been as bad at the discipline as people may have made out, and with a yellow jersey in the balance, anything is possible. Along with making a caricature of both rider’s strengths and weaknesses, many of the final week speculations also failed to take into account another pretty evident truth – that Sastre was getting better as Evans was in decline.

The Bizarro World Report

Had Evans clawed Sastre’s Alpe D’Huez gains back in the time trial and eked out a comfortable Tour win, there still wouldn’t have been much room to criticize CSC’s teamwork during the race. It was nearly flawless. But if Evans ended up with, say, a 7-second victory over Sastre, we could have looked squarely at some strange decisions on L’Alpe D’Huez. Why did Sastre sit up and celebrate when he knew he needed every second for the GC? Everyone would want a good photo of victory on that most famous mountain, but I hear the one on the take of the winner on the Champs is pretty good, too. More importantly, why did Andy Schleck, who did a phenomenal climb of the Alpe, especially considering he was mostly facing backwards, go after Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in the finale? Though he was clearly assigned to chase down anything and everything that moved, by taking off after Sanchez, he only accelerated the group of GC contenders behind, potentially eating into Sastre’s advantage. Sanchez didn’t pose a threat, and even if he did, it would be one of the other contenders that needed to chase him down long before A. Schleck did on his team’s behalf.

Of course, A. Schleck’s move was likely a last minute attempt to gain time on his white jersey rival, Roman Kreuziger (Ligquigas) who was back down the mountain a bit. It worked, and apparently it was necessary, as A. Schleck barely held that jersey after the final TT, so there’s not much point in second-guessing the team. But I bring it up just to point out that if defending white or doing the two-arm salute had cost CSC yellow, you’d be reading much different articles regarding their tactics than you are now.

The Sequined Jersey Award

As we pointed out above, Evans is no Indurain when it comes to the time trials, but the three weeks of the Tour did reveal that he’s cycling’s Zsa Zsa Gabor. The Australian’s weird and bitchy temperament made him a darling of cycling’s little corner of YouTube, where fans have graciously immortalized his journalist swatting, head butting, general complaining, and other assorted jackassery from this year’s race. Unfortunately, none of the clips seem to address his abnormal relationship with the stuffed lions given on the podium, but it’s this clip, in which he threatens to cut someone’s head off if they step on this yapping pocketbook dog, that puts him in Gabor territory.

Sure, that evidence looks pretty damning, but if you came out of the Tour thinking Evans is a total dick, you’re wrong. notes in its own gentle way that he is, in fact, only half dick, by pointing out that his mother, Ms. Helen Cocks, was on hand for the team’s Tour afterparty. OK, that was a cheap shot.

All of Evans’ histrionics make Sastre seem like even more of a bargain. The veteran campaigner, backed by a ridiculous amount of horsepower from his CSC-Saxo Bank team, made all the right moves to win the race on his own terms, and managed to not come off as an asshole in the process. Chapeau! Maybe that’s because, while he’s always ridden at a high level, he seems to have never had people telling him he’s a star. The mindset of the veteran campaigner showed through in his interviews, as well as his final stage attire – the yellow jersey, some celebratory bar tape, and that’s about it. Just enough to do the job, without being flashy. Let’s hope his less garish fashions on the Champs return cycling a more modest time. If Mario Cipollini comes back and wins the GC, I’ll reconsider my stance against all yellow clothes, frame, and wheels, but not until then.

Parting Shots

- Good on Geert Steegmans for saving Quick.Step’s horrible Tour by winning big in the world’s biggest criterium. When his new Russian Katusha team collapses, which it almost certainly will, he can always pay the bills at SuperWeek.

- Yeah, that stage-by-stage guide to regional drinks didn’t work out too well in the end, did it? It was a last minute, seat-of-the-pants operation this year, but next year we’ll make an effort to get ahead of the game and give the people the information they so desperately need.

- We talked a bit about sponsorship in our last post, and a host of brand new sponsors have to be pretty happy with what they got. Saxo Bank will be inheriting the Tour winning team from CSC, and Garmin had a surprise GC contender for most of the race in Christian Vande Velde. Columbia? Well, for their buck, they got time in yellow, time in green, and over a quarter of the stage wins on offer.

- With Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) dominating the time trials and some shady characters accounting for a good portion of the mountain wins, it was looking like we were headed for an overall winner with no stage wins. But Sastre saved us from that with his great ride on L’Alpe D’Huez. This year’s group of contenders was pretty uninspired, but the winner having at least won a stage helps.

- Four doping positives and one team withdrawal? The way the last few years have gone, I’ll take that. Despite the bad news, everything kept rolling on. As I said before, the mainstream press seems to be starting to realize that catching people is good. If they weren’t catching onto that already, I think those writers’ upcoming trips to Beijing would be even more of an eye-opener than I believe they’re already going to be.


Thanks to all of you who’ve come to visit this site over the course of the Tour de France. We’re not a large site by any means, but we’ve seen our numbers go up a bit over the past several weeks, and frankly, we like the attention. Our posting frequency will likely go back to a couple of posts a week now that all the Tour fuss is dying down, and life will likely interrupt service every now and then, like it did during the last week of the Tour. But we hope that both our longtime readers and those of you who visited us for the first time during the Tour will continue to check in and, if you like what you read, tell a friend.

On to the fall classics, the Worlds, and cyclocross season…

Your Name Here

About sponsorship, and some stuff about racing, too

This year’s Tour de France doping scandals look to be costing the support of at least two sponsors, Barloworld and Saunier Duval. Saunier Duval hasn’t announced a final decision, but after the Tour, Claudio Corti’s Barloworld squad will drop its title sponsor from its jersey at the company’s request. That’s bad news, but the team’s future is assured through 2009, as the South African company will fulfill its financial obligations to the team. That situation puts the team in a similar position to the Columbia squad, which lost title sponsor T-Mobile following the slew of doping confessions by the team’s former riders, including Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel, and Jan Ullrich’s connection to the Operacion Puerto affair. Still running on T-Mobile funds, the revamped team operated under its management company’s name (High Road) until the Columbia clothing company signed on just before the Tour.

It’s hard to blame sponsors for jumping ship after they’ve been associated with things most people don’t like to think much about, like syringes and bags of bodily fluids and systemic cheating. And back then, I believe Adidas joined T-Mobile and several other sponsors in bidding adieu to the team. But you know who rode it out? Giant. The squad’s bike sponsor stuck with Bob Stapleton’s squad and its promises of a brighter future, and they have to be rejoicing over that decision now. After a widely-reported new product launch just prior to the Tour de France, the now-Columbia team has ridden Giant products to four highly visible stage wins by young Mark Cavendish, and enjoyed some additional TV time with Kim Kirchen in yellow for four days, and in green for awhile as well. Through their support of the team, Giant also garnered some coverage through the Tour debut of their aesthetically questionable but functionally beautiful new TT bike. And nary a mention of the team goes by without a reference to its stringent internal dope testing system. After a few pretty mediocre Tours during the final years of its long tenure, you have to wonder if T-Mobile wishes they’d stuck with it for at least another year.

Of course, the decision to stay in the game made far more sense for Giant than it did for the non-endemic sponsors. After all, Giant makes racing bikes, and if you’re looking to sell some of those, the Tour de France is still the place to be. More so than if you’re hustling mobile phone service, anyway, although the in-car camera segments on Versus make it hard to tell which is tested more rigorously at the Tour – mobile phones or bicycles. But I digress. I stopped having any sentimental feelings about sponsorship agreements long ago, but I do think it’s good to see a sponsor who stuck it out through the dark times get some payback. With any luck, some of Barloworld's cosponsors will have a hard look at the potential costs and benefits of their sponsorship before simply pulling the plug.

Speaking of bike sponsorships and the Tour de France, has anyone noticed things are decidedly more somber at local Trek dealerships than in years past? With their ProTour flagship Astana sitting this one out, and longtime Discovery cosponsor Nike planning to complete its pullout from cycling after the Olympics, the level of showroom decoration is way down this year. No strings of yellow flags; no yellow, polka dot, and green jerseys hung from the rafters; no giant vinyl photo banners in the windows. What really shows is how much of that LBS “Tour Buzz” was created by shrewd, complimentary Tour-time programs by U.S. Postal/Discovery sponsors.

All the wrenches are still glued to Versus, of course, but I have to wonder how long it will be before there’s another combination of rider and brand capable of generating that sort of marketing onslaught again. Trek obviously has the money and dealer network muscle to pull it off should the opportunity present itself again, as does Giant. Specialized and Cannondale could both give it a good run as well. A Ridley or a Felt? Maybe not so much. But the ruckus that Trek was able to create at the retail level during the Armstrong reign showed quite a few things: what a reliable quantity Armstrong really was, the absolute preeminence of the Tour for American audiences, the growth in recognition of the sport in the U.S., and the sheer marketing force Trek and their associates could generate when they put their minds to it.

Something About Racing

I know it’s hard to believe, but the Tour isn’t just about business deals and doping. There’s also a bunch of guys riding bikes, and it’s a helluva race this year, eh? After one short time trial, the Pyrenees, and the first day of the Alps, the top 6 riders were separated by less than a minute. That’s pretty tight at this stage, but the interest of this year’s race goes past the standard, “hey, close race” factor due to the makeup of that front six. It’s split half-and-half between GC riders that fall decidedly on the climber end of the spectrum in CSC pair Frank Schleck (leading) and Carlos Sastre (6th) and Gerolsteiner’s Bernhard Kohl (2nd), and riders whose best hopes come in the final time trial – Silence Lotto’s Cadel Evans (3rd), Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde (5th), and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov (4th). So in addition to wondering if the climbers will be able to gain time in the remaining two mountain stages, we’ll also be wondering if whatever advantage they can eke out will be enough to stave off the time trial crowd in the end. And, barring a total meltdown by any of the contenders, there’s no way we’ll know what “enough time” is until that final TT. Considering that we had a first week that saw the overall contenders battling from Stage 1, that’s a pretty good job of drawing out the suspense. Part of it has to do with ASO's course design, and part is due to the open field with no clear dominant rider, but it’s all come together in just the right way to produce one of the most competitive Tours in a long time.

Obviously, there are a lot of questions to be resolved at this point, and indeed some are likely getting resolved on the road as I write this. But one that stands out is whether any of the contenders will actually win a stage on the way to the overall victory. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) won Stage 1 back when he was considered a contender, but a couple of bad days in the mountains put an end to that title, so I’m not counting it. Right now, the best chances for an overall winner to come away with a stage win look to be Frank Schleck pulling a second win at L’Alpe D’Huez, or Evans or Menchov coming up big in the final long time trial, but those are far from givens. And that’s great. Aside from the European betting outlets, who doesn’t like a crazy crapshoot Tour?

Confessions of an American

We talked a bit about nationalism as it relates to cycling awhile back, and we’ve also taken more than a few cracks at Cadel Evans’ proposed Tour strategy. It’s now become extremely evident that American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle) is a follower of the exact same boring-as-hell strategy. And I’m loving it. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

I think there are a few reasons I don’t feel the compulsion to rag on Vande Velde like I do on Evans. The first feels a lot like nationalism, but on reviewing my own feelings, I’m not sure that’s the right word. It’s not that Vande Velde was born inside the same borders as I was, or that he was likely forced to race office park crits as a junior like I was, or that he knows what a Quarter Pounder with cheese is or understands why the Simpsons is a funny show. It’s more that he’s familiar – we’ve known him for a long time through national coverage, so it’s nice to see a familiar face, one you've had a close look at for years, do well. Or maybe it is because he’s American – humans are famously inadequate at assessing their own biases, so why should I be any different?

Nationalism aside, it’s also easier to put up with Vande Velde’s adoption of the follow-wheels-and-TT strategy because he’s such a surprise contender. Underdogs are meant to hang on through all sorts of abuse before using their particular strength to triumph at the very end – just watch any 1980’s movie about nerds or misfit cops or high school students and you’ll see how the story goes. So Vande Velde and his management are just using their upstart role properly, although ridiculous levels of suffering seem more likely to ensue than comic hilarity in their case.

I guess my acceptance and tacit endorsement of Vande Velde’s strategy is rooted in the fact that nobody expects him and his team to go on the attack and make the GC battle exciting – that’s what four star favorites like Evans are supposed to do. Vande Velde is making the race exciting just by the fact that he's up there at all, challenging for the win and providing one more horse to bet on, and for an upstart, that's great. But we come in expecting all that of the favorites, so they need to do a little something extra to get people talking. And not fulfilling that expectation is part of why I pick on Evans, even though he’s just doing what he has to do to win. I also think that my and other's perceptions of Evans were soured by the pre-race hype, which can burn fans out on the perceived favorite before the race even starts. And, well, the constant whining doesn't help.

Songs of Ourselves

You know how you can tell when the public’s hunger for news exceeds the available supply? Journalists start interviewing each other. There is a bit of new news today, of course, but nothing you can build a big story on without re-using a lot of the background you already burned yesterday. Right now, it looks like Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval), winner atop Hautacam, has been fired from the team along with Riccò, and rumours are starting to circulate about whether there’s a system of institutionalized doping run and financed by the team. See, I pretty much just gave you all the new news in a single sentence.

And so, with another long sprint stage on tap and some column inches to fill, we find ourselves with some hot journalist-on-journalist action in the Tour de France pages today. VeloNews’ John Wilcockson focuses his lens on Philippe Brunel, head cycling writer for L’Equipe (which, to set the record straight, is not the crappy, muckraking rag it’s often portrayed as over here. It’s a highly respected sports paper. When people call it a “tabloid”, they’re referring to the format, not the meaning of “tabloid” we’ve adopted in the U.S.) Wilcockson notes that Brunel has long been a Riccò supporter, and seemed visibly upset at his recent fall from grace.

The article brings up an interesting point. When scandals such as Riccò’s break, fans often report feeling betrayed – that they’ve been sold a product that didn’t match the advertising copy. Fans aren’t the only ones – the journalists feel cheated as well, and what’s more, they can feel that they’ve been made an instrument of the deception. But what can you do? When you write about a sport like cycling, it’s your job to talk about the folks doing the big rides, and ending every story with caveats like “but he might be doping, so take it all with a grain of salt” would be career suicide. And it wouldn’t make for a fun assignment, either.

But when you’ve written extensively about a rider’s achievements, with the entirely justifiable aim of bringing the sport’s big stories to your readers, and that rider turns out a fake, it’s disappointing to say the least. Not just because it’s another scandal, but because, to the untrained eye, it can seem that you somehow haven’t done your job, that you should have known. There’s the lingering feeling that out there in the audience, people are saying, “he’s a fool to have bought that guy’s act, we knew it all along.” But you can’t let that get to you, and you have to be comforted by the fact that the rules of professional journalism aren’t the same as those for posting on an internet message board or blog. Brunel sums it up nicely in’s own peer-to-peer coverage:

"It was not a surprise for me. Journalists do their work, but when you don't have proof you are not able to do anything. If you write in a subjective manner, then you too become a judge or a policeman, so you have to watch everything and when the proof arrives, then you write."

I’ve never written about cycling at the same level as Brunel and Wilcockson. On a good day, I’m maybe a D3 water carrier to their ProTour superstars. But just like cyclists of all levels know what it is to suffer, we’ve all seen and written about things that don’t look as good in retrospect as they did at the time. For instance, my first on-site race coverage assignment for VeloNews was the 1999 Red Zinger Stage Race in Colorado. It was an attempt to revive the Red Zinger/Coors Classic days of old and it was, to my eye then, a pretty good race – a prologue in downtown Boulder, a road race along the Peak-to-Peak highway, an uphill time trial, a brutal stage to the 14,000 foot summit of Mount Evans, and a criterium around the Celestial Seasonings headquarters to close.

It was the only edition of the race in that format – it would evolve into the one-day Saturn Classic and disappear entirely after a couple of years. But the big news in 1999 was that Jonathan Vaughters (then U.S. Postal), who had crashed out on the Passage au Gois at the Tour, was coming home to compete on a composite team. He ended up winning the Red Zinger on the same day Armstrong took his first Tour crown in Paris, and you know, I still like the story I wrote about it. You can see the problems, though, when you look back at the Peak-to-Peak highway stage in particular. I was sitting shotgun in the Saturn car while DS Rene Wenzel slept alongside the mechanic in the back seat, so I had a good view of the race-making break ahead, which consisted of Vaughters, Scott Moninger (then Mercury), Chris Wherry (then Saturn), and Floyd Landis (then Mercury).

Since that time, Wherry, god bless him, has kept his nose clean as best I can remember, and has a notable domestic career to look back on for it. The rest? Vaughters was implicated by his little IM conversation with Frankie Andreau, and though he smartly keeps mum on the details of his past, I think he’s done his penitence for any transgressions in a far more valuable manner than spending a couple years on the bench at the UCI’s behest. Moninger had a steroid positive several years later, which he claims was the result of a tainted supplement. And, well, we all know what happened to Floyd. Sort of.

So that breakaway doesn’t look quite so good in retrospect, but at the time, and based on what I knew for sure – which didn’t include what anyone there was smearing, swallowing, injecting, or sticking onto or into their bodies – it was a good story. So I wrote it like I saw it. And without a crystal ball, that’s all we can really do, isn’t it?

To be honest, I’m not really “hurt” by my little example – it was pretty straightforward race reporting, and any scandal associated with those riders would only occur or become evident much later on. But when, like Brunel and Wilcockson, you see riders whose houses you’ve visited for in-depth interviews, who you’ve shared meals with, and whose hopes and ambitions you’ve helped telegraph to the world come up positive, the sense of betrayal must be palpable. Not only because you, yourself, have been lied to, but because you’ve been used to pass those lies along. Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done about it, assuming you want to keep writing about cycling for a living. You can try to limit your exposure with due diligence, but in a sport simultaneously full of rumour and omerta, where everybody's talking but nobody's saying anything, sometimes you just have to let ‘er rip, write what you see, and hope for the best. And if and when things go south, then as Brunel said, “when the proof arrives, then you write.”

Riccò's Blood Confirms Rumours

OK, now it’s time to release all that pent-up Ricardo Riccò innuendo and rumour. I suggested a couple of days ago that VeloNews' Neal Rogers should have hung onto everything he included in this piece to use as background for the inevitable story when Riccò (Saunier Duval) actually tested positive. In doing so, he would have kept from looking like part of the rumour mill. See what a few days’ patience would have done?

Not that I can blame Neal. I’m pretty impatient myself. That little personality quirk has me questioning why, if Riccò tested positive on Stage 4, does he now have Stages 6 and 9 on his palmares? We all know why, of course – because the testers are busy couriering everyone’s blood and piss all over France, then probably faxing back results. (Have you ever noticed that the Europeans still love the fax machine? Love it!) So, while his precious bodily fluids took a little Tour de France of their own, Riccò was busy making hay while the sun shone.

Look, the Tour de France and the teams that ride it haul an absolutely stunning amount of crap all around the country – portable stages, a start village, dope, barriers, podium girls, and other inflatable monstrosities. Is a portable testing lab really too much to ask? Sure, it would be expensive, but once you subtract the FedEx bills and the costs of paying people to go back and amend the stage and GC results every few days, it practically pays for itself.

There are problems with that idea, I’m sure. I fully admit I’m throwing it out there without really knowing anything about the instruments necessary to conduct the tests, including their size, weight, and what it takes to keep them calibrated. That final issue would likely be the undoing, as the various testing agencies seem to have enough trouble keeping everything in order when their equipment is anchored to a nice, even cement floor that doesn’t get hauled up a couple hundred switchbacks before they use it. But still, isn’t this something we could think about? It doesn't have to be this solution - depending on how long it takes to actually do the tests and other logistical issues, it might not be feasible at all, but there has to be something that can be done to speed the process up.

On the heels of the Riccò news, Saunier Duval has withdrawn its team from the Tour, which could look bad for them, but is probably the smartest thing they could have done. If the Riccò case is indeed one of an individual acting on his own, without team knowledge, support, or endorsement, then they have no way of knowing who else, if anyone, was in on the game. So they’d be risking another positive that would make it look like a case of institutionalized doping, even if it wasn’t. If Riccò is just the first indication of institutionalized doping at Saunier Duval, they’re obviously smart to leave, as the rest of their boys won’t be able to ride 5 kilometers without a moto-mounted tester pulling up to take a sample, and those samples will come back hot. And if everyone at Saunier really is in on the act, they probably have some additional pending tests from Stages 4 through 11 that they’re dreading the results of anyways.

Reports indicate that Riccò tested positive for something new, Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator, or CERA, which is apparently a longer lasting version of good old EPO. I’m not sure yet if its detection comes as a result of a new test or not, but if it is, the testing agencies are doing a good job of coming up with tests for the latest thing without letting the teams know they’re doing it. Which is, of course, a great way to catch people. We'll call it the "They're testing for what? Oh, crap!" method. I have to wonder how many riders are shaking in their shoes now that the cat’s out of the bag -- when you took the injection a month ago, there ain't much of a way to shimmy out of the positive at this point.

The scandal is still young, of course. I’m sure we’ll get more details as the day goes on, and we’ll get to see if this third strike is what finally gets the mainstream media to jump on the annual indictments of cycling as a dirty sport. I suspect it will be. Cyclingnews/Procycling has already scored a great quick-turnaround scoop by interviewing one of the experts involved in the UCI blood passport program about Riccò’s test. He's surprised that Riccò tested positive for CERA, since there's no currently validated test to detect it. That situation, if true, is sure to raise a lot of questions as the case progresses.

But here’s a question we can think about already: Does Riccò’s positive make UCI President Pat McQuaid’s indictment of Spain more or less valid? On one hand, Riccò is Italian, not Spanish. On the other, he rides for a Spanish team. Either way, McQuaid’s latest opinion, like many of his other ones, seems like it would be best kept to himself, because the problem could be something other than what he’s thinking. That is, are the Spanish and their teams really doping more than others, or are they just worse at covering it up? In a sport that’s less and less nationality-based every year, it seems shortsighted to try to pin scandals to a single country.

Finally, as with Beltran's transgressions, I'm not going to berate Riccò for his, though they're certainly going to give the sport a hell of a hard time over the coming weeks and months. Knowing that he holds the late Marco Pantani up as his idol, I'm just going to hope that his story has a different ending.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi Vey

Evans in Yellow, Stereotypes to Attack in Alps

So, Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) is in the leader’s jersey after Monday’s stage to Hautacam. Given his wildly conservative Tour strategy, I can only guess this turn of events is attributable to technical problems. Either Evans’ brakes, his earpiece, or both must have stopped functioning, because if he’d known Frank Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) was a mere one second away from taking that yellow bullet for him, Evans would have been skidding that Ridley across the finish line hard enough to stack the whole caravan up behind him.

OK, maybe not, but despite tempering his gendarme slapping, journalist snubbing, interloper punching drama queen personality long enough to engage in some light-hearted rest day hijinks with the press, Evans still managed to work in that this was “earlier” than he wanted to take the yellow jersey. As if we needed to be reminded. I’m sure his Silence-Lotto teammates are thinking the same thing – when Evans crossed the line just in time to take the jersey, I swear I heard Dario Cioni’s voice echoing “Oh, crap” from about 8 kilometers back down the climb. Seriously, if Evans is that much of a pain-in-the-ass for the public at large, can you imagine what he’s like with his domestiques? Throw the pressure of a yellow jersey on top of that, and you have a recipe for serious coworker dissatisfaction. No worries though, I’m sure the situation will be rectified on tomorrow’s rolling stage from Lannemazan to Foix, when Schleck will feel the gentle helping hands of Cioni and Yaroslav Popovych on his lower back, urging him towards the line and his date with destiny.

John Wilcockson, godfather of VeloNews wrote this little piece about Evans’ rest day press fete, which isn’t surprising at all. He’s always been a big believer in Evans, writing at least one very flattering article about him each year and speaking well of him, but I’ve never really understood why. Maybe I’ll try to find out where his Evans enthusiasm comes from once this whole thing shakes out, one way or another. John’s been in the business a long time, and he knows his stuff, and a lot of times he sees things the rest of us don’t, but I’d really always thought he was barking up the wrong tree with Evans. His patience may finally be paying off though, if in a less exciting way than I would hope.

Obviously, I respect John and his insight. However, I’m not buying his assertion in this piece that Evans would have ridden more aggressively on Hautacam had he not taken an asphalt sample on Sunday’s stage. The way Cadel Evans rode on Hautacam was the way Cadel Evans always rides in the mountains – marking the other true GC contenders, and mentally calculating how much time he can take out of any other escapees in the time trial before doing anything rash, like going to the front. I’m sure Evans had a number in mind when Schleck went away, and when the Luxembourger's gap approached that figure, Evans finally sniffed some fresh air for a bit. It was all pretty much standard operating procedure, and other than Evans giving us his version of what might have been, there’s no reason to believe he’d have suddenly been some slash-and-burn climber on Monday if only he didn’t have a little road rash.

As I predicted, the comeback angle after the Sunday crash is certainly starting to gain some traction in numerous outlets, so maybe when we read the retrospectives 20 years from now, the “comeback” will seem more exciting than it does now in the moment. Or maybe not. But you know what else was predictable about Evans taking the jersey? That Australian stereotypes would become more invasive than cane toads, and even more toxic. I mean, the “Boxing Kangaroo?” A Men at Work soundtrack for the press conference? Did Paul Hogan crap in here or something? I’m just waiting for Bindi Irwin to hand Evans a yellow jersey and a Fosters on the podium at some point. Come to think of it, there’s another good reason to hand it over to CSC. I just can’t handle that much spunk, mate. The Australians I've had the pleasure of working with are a pretty cosmopolitan bunch, so I'd imagine that this sort of image hits them about the same way the cowboy hat, big foam #1 finger, and Big Mac image of America hits many of us.

That's it for now, but here's a quick list of other things we’d have commented on, but ran out of time:

- Saunier Duval doesn’t seem to get too much respect in the coverage, despite three stage wins between Ricco and Piepoli. It seems like those two are always spoken of as individual standouts, but yesterday’s outrageous 5 hours of coverage really let you see the setup work the team does for its closers.

- 5 hours of coverage? It was almost too intimidating to tackle, but thanks, Versus, for letting us decide when to say when. Unfortunately, our judgement in such matters isn’t always too good.

- It seems the Beltran positive has gone over as smoothly as possible. Namely, the international mainstream press hasn’t used it as a launching pad to play another round of “cycling is the dirty sport.” I think that may be the biggest success yet in the doping battle. They’ve finally realized that people getting caught is a good thing.

- In other rest day news, everyone quit the ProTour. Well, that was anticlimactic. It’ll be interesting, in a boring, bureaucratic way, to see where this reshuffling leads. Is the UCI going to end up as nothing more than a rulebook publishing house? Things likely won’t go that far, but at least their little venture into race organization seems to be at a temporary end. UCI Commandant Pat McQuaid is saber-rattling about suspensions again, and everyone seems to be taking it just as seriously as they did before Paris-Nice or the Tour. No, wait, they're not even taking it that seriously.

Bastille Day Backlog

Catching up with Beltran, Versus, Riccò, Evans, and Alcohol

Happy Bastille Day! Did I miss anything?

Oh, right, Manuel “Triki” Beltran (Liquigas) was busy testing positive right as I was posting Friday's entry, kicking off dope scandal season at this year's Tour. Woops. First of all, that’s the last time I’m calling him Triqui/Triki, because my kid likes Cookie Monster too much for me to associate that particular muppet with such scandal. U.S. Postal team legend has it that Beltran earned his nickname because he couldn’t keep his hands off the sweets in the off-season, thus piling on the pounds, but given the course of recent events you have to wonder which of his apparent appetites it really referred to.

Regardless of what we call him, he did indeed get caught with his hand in the cookie jar – for EPO no less. I’m not going to join numerous other sites in hurling f-bombs his way, if only because at 37, he’s at the tail end of the generation of guys who were likely all part of a system, and being in the front group is a tough habit to kick. That said, I don’t feel too bad for him, either. At his age, he’s old enough know that this is the Tour de France, with more testing methods than a Salem witch hunt, not some damn grand prix des chaudières where anything goes as long as you wink at the right people.

Seriously, though, EPO? So five years ago. It would have been far more stylish to go out in a blaze of late 1980’s glory, with a shot of Kenacort in his left butt cheek, some Ton-ton in the right, and a neon headband on his noggin. At least the tests for that shit are reliable now. But with the EPO test, you apparently have a pretty good chance of getting caught even if you’re not doing anything, so banging a hot shot of 1990’s technology into your arm only boosts your odds of turning up hot in an already stacked game. “Wait!” you say, "Doesn’t that mean that there’s a good chance he’s completely innocent?" Maybe, and I wish I still had that sort of optimism, but I don’t.

Take Back the Ads

Well didn’t the Beltran positive just kick that Versus “Take Back the Tour” ad in the nuts? Do they have a plan to revise those things on the fly? How long does it take to get footage of Beltran to look all cool and grainy like that? As I pointed out before, the original “riding backwards” advertisement is a poorly thought-out effort. On the broad level, it just makes it look like Versus is out to profit from doping in cycling as much as everyone else by using scandal to promote their programming, rather than making the network look like some sort of caring benefactor as they intended. But it sucks on a lot of other levels, too.

If they were looking toward a bright new future, and wanted an advertisement that made other people look toward a bright new future, how did they end up with this? The ad only re-examines the scandals of the past 5 years or so, but doesn’t offer the ray of hope that I think they think it does. Other than plastering “take back the Tour” on the end, there’s no upshot, no optimism, no sense of how we are moving or can move in another direction. Just some amorphous instruction to the viewing audience to do something that, with minor exceptions, just isn’t in its power. To top it off, they use the “rewind” trick, which really just drives home the point that they’re looking backward, not forward.

And what’s the point? Most people watching the Versus broadcast are well aware of these scandals already – we watched them unfold on their channel. For those viewers who might stumble into the coverage and not be as familiar with the sport, is this the introduction we want to give them every seven and a half minutes? Simply begging for help isn’t the best way to draw people in, even Jerry Lewis knew that, and any good panhandler will tell you the same. Not that we should sweep the past under the pavement, but maybe, if we really want people to be optimistic about a clean future, beating them over the head with the dirty past isn’t the best strategy.

Though it’s certainly dramatic, with its whiney folk strumming and computer aged footage, this sort of crap really isn’t good for the business end of the sport, either. Know why? There are sponsors printed on every one of those jerseys. Some are still in the sport, others not, but it’s pretty likely that they’re all still operating as businesses doing whatever it is they do. Those sponsors are the ones who write the big checks, and while they might tell the team management that they’d appreciate a few wins every now and then (who wouldn’t?), they ain’t typically the ones with their finger on the plunger. Nevertheless, each of those sponsors had their names dragged through the mud when their respective scandals broke – how long will they have to keep paying the PR price for their investment in cycling? Look at Bianchi, which stepped in to pay the bills for that team after Coast shat the bed. For that small kindness, Bianchi is re-connected with Ullrich’s woes repeatedly, just like Rabobank is to Rassmussen. Vinokourov and Astana? OK – that connection is going to happen for the foreseeable future regardless of what Versus does, but even they’re making an effort to move on in their own way. But thanks to scandals being used in commercials, it’s hard to get a gap.

Sure, some will cry “all publicity is good publicity,” but there are also a lot of people making big money helping brands make and manage their “images,” so balance those two ideologies in your own head as you see fit. For those sponsors that have already gone through the doping wringer, there’s not too much point in worrying about it, but the real problem is the message this re-hashing gives to potential new sponsors. Namely, that if one of their riders goes astray, the company on the jersey will be associated with it not for days or months, but for years, and years, and years. That’s some hefty risk, and don’t think those companies’ “brand image consultants” won’t raise that issue when they’re reviewing sponsorship proposals.

But these commercials aren’t just ill-conceived, they’re sloppy, too. The original version of the Versus ad featured David Millar coming out of (or going back in to, as the case may be) a TT start house. Lots of people think Millar’s been edited out because the network has allied itself so closely with Garmin-Chipotle, for whom he rides now, but I’m going the other way on this one. I think Millar was removed because in their rush to get cute, Versus’ ad department used footage of him in Saunier Duval colors, the team he joined after his suspension and alleged reform, not the Cofidis colors of the team he rode for when he decided to use EPO bottles to create some mantelpiece ambience in his Biarritz apartment. I’m guessing the Saunier Duval squad didn’t take their undeserved inclusion too kindly (no, the people at Saunier Duval probably don’t watch American television, but some people at bike sponsor Scott probably do), and responded with entirely appropriate threats.

Or maybe it is the Garmin thing. Who knows? Either way, when they started the planning for this ad, one of the many, many things they should have done differently was to define exactly what a rider needed to do to be in the ad. Test positive (Landis, Vino)? Confess (Zabel)? Be implicated in a police investigation (Ullrich)? Get pulled by your team (Rassmussen)? Does your infraction have to be at the Tour de France (Landis, Rasmussen)? Does it not (Millar, Ullrich)? Are we showing everyone who’s soiled the sport, or just some people? What’s the selection process? Where’s Moreni? Where’s Basso? Where's Riis? Right now, they’re just all over the place.

Crappiness aside, for those who get all barrel chested and teary eyed at those ads, Beltran’s incident must really suck the air out of the room. But what did they and Versus expect? That in the widely publicized most-tested Tour ever, that there would be no positives? What the hell? Everybody keeps referring to this year’s efforts by governing bodies, organizers, and teams as the “crackdown” on doping. Do people know what “crackdown” means? It doesn’t mean that everybody suddenly thinks better of their illicit activity and stops of their own accord. It means you go out and catch the people doing it and put a stop to it. And you don’t do that without a few people doing the perp walk somewhere along the way. So think ahead, people, before you start giving everything the sepia-and-acoustic treatment like it's in the past. It isn't.

Finally, I’ve criticized the ad for, among other things, offering only scandal and no real light or look forward, so I won't be totally hypocritical and not offer anything myself. Here's my concept – they should have put together a bunch of babies and young kids, with the color saturation scaled back. They’d each be wearing one of the leader’s jerseys – yellow, green, polka-dot, or white – with the color saturation scaled up. In the ad, they’d be (through the miracle of digital media) lining the streets to cheer as whoever Versus wants to bet on as a “clean rider” goes past. They can do it in slow-mo and grainy, if that’s their thing. So you have the youth, the riders and fans of the future, looking on adoringly towards the clean guys, rather than just a lazy bleating recap of the latest scandals. Sure, one of their “clean guys” could pop a positive, which would pretty much kill the whole campaign, but at least they’d limit their odds a bit. Right now, pretty much anyone, say Beltran, testing positive makes the current campaign look a little more silly than it did already.

Riccò: Good, But Not Dope Rumour Good

Ricardo Riccò (Saunier-Duval) took a nice win yesterday in the first true mountain stage, which has already sent gums flapping and keyboards tapping about whether he’s getting a little illicit help of his own. Really? A 130-pound climbing specialist who poses no real GC threat taking 1:17 out of a bunch of GC favorites who are nervously awaiting the next day’s showdown at Hautacam rises to that level? I don’t think so, and I wish VeloNews hadn’t run this particular piece.

I do understand that Neal Rogers is basically reporting the “village buzz” in this daily column, and that may well be the village buzz, but it’s so thin and poorly substantiated at this point, he could have just held onto it. All of it would read just fine as background in the piece that would run if Riccò actually tested positive for anything besides good timing and shitty time trialing, which along with obvious talent in the mountains are what got him into winning position yesterday. As far as we know, anyway, and that’s all we should be discussing.

Among the reasons the column lists for people being suspicious of Riccò are that he emulates Marco Pantani, uses a masseuse who was involved in doping in the past, and that he talks a lot of trash. I don’t have much time after that Versus tirade, so for now we’ll just say that these can be easily answered with: what Italian climber his age didn’t emulate Pantani, how many long-time masseuses in cycling haven’t been involved in doping, and finally, trash talking is fun. Yes, Riccò makes things hard on himself in a lot of ways, the above examples included. But until he actually lights up the dope meter, I’m inclined to hope that he’s sort of cycling’s version of the straight edge kids -- he desperately wants all the tough-guy imagery of the bad boys, but might be making some different lifestyle choices than they did. Not everyone who climbs with their hands in the drops is a criminal, just like not everyone who listens to punk is out to defile your daughter.

God Intervenes to Make Tour Interesting

Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) crashed yesterday, and though he remembers a Spanish guy crashing ahead of him and getting up from the pavement, he has no idea what the hell actually happened to him. You know who else had an incident like that? The Virgin Mary. And that, my friends, is because in both cases, depending on your belief system, God might have stepped in to try to save humanity. In the most recent case, he’s trying to save us from a horribly uninspiring Tour de France win.

Since well before the Tour, Evans has promised to stop at nothing to bore his way to victory. Before the Tour, he told us that he’s content with the Indurain Tour de France formula – taking his ticks in the time trials and hanging on like a tick in the mountains, since he’s apparently physically incapable of being exciting there. Now that we’re underway, he’s studiously occupying places 5 through 12 on the road in a valiant attempt to stay out of the yellow jersey. Now that's racing!

Yes, it was all going according to plan until yesterday: he’d made no impression whatsoever, and was on a clear path to annoy his way through the mountains, take the jersey in the final time trial, and then ride in a protective bubble into Paris, where he would unzip the plastic, don his surgical mask, and accept the polite applause of the crowd. But then God’s mighty finger apparently dumped Evans on his ass, and leg, and shoulder, and arm, and head in an effort to, you know, shake things up a bit. Even the least religious among us, probably me, thank him for throwing a little kink into the works, enough to make it a little harder for the Aussie to hang onto the more explosive Valverde in the Alps and the Pyrenees, maybe creating enough of a gap to make the last TT interesting. Or at least rattle him a bit.

Evans should be thankful, too, but I doubt he is. He’s been handed his “Tyler moment” on a silver platter – he can milk the “riding through injury” angle for all it’s worth, even though 800-year-old Tour doctor Gerard Porte says it’s only a flesh wound. If he comes out of it with a victory, Evans has the makings of a story with at least a vestigial heart, rather than a surgical removal of a Tour title. Evans predictably started milking as soon as he crossed the line, taking the prima donna act he’s been testing out into production mode by refusing to talk to reporters after the stage, then handing journalist and countryman Rupert Guiness his cracked helmet through the bus window with a bitchy “here’s your interview.

I have news for Evans – Tour favorite or not, his list of victories on the road is a bit thin for that sort of crap. And what the hell is going on? Aussies used to be hardmen who traveled thousands of miles from home to gut it out on hard European roads. Some, like Stuey O’Grady, still maintain the mystique. Evans, on the other hand, should be on the lookout for Phil Anderson standing on the roadside waiting to punch him in his purty mouth, while Allan Peiper kicks him in the ribs. All in the national interest, of course.

Booze Update

Obviously, I’ve fallen a bit behind in attempts to provide you with appropriate drinking suggestions for the most recent stages. The Unholy Rouleur, however, is right on cue with some sustenance tips. I’ll try to use tomorrow’s rest day to catch up, and get everyone prepared to liquor up until well into the Alps.

Tivo Fever

Plus Some Recommendations and the Wine Report

Like many people, I make judicious use of Tivo while watching the Tour. Of course, it lets you skip commercials, or repeat them, if that’s your thing, but it also lets you do nerdy crap like this: I’ve identified my favorite seven minute stretch of yesterday morning’s live Versus broadcast, as referenced by that delightful little counter at the bottom of the screen.

1:00 – Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) is working his way back up through the caravan to the tail end of the field after having stopped for a piss and a bike adjustment. As he draws even with Com 1, the two gendarmes on motos move left to let Evans pass. Apparently, they didn’t do it quick enough, because as he passes several seconds later, Evans slaps the gendarme on the shoulder has he passes and angrily points to his own eyes in a “watch where the hell you’re going” gesture.

Sometimes, in racing, the motos get in the way, but they’re a necessary evil. But watching the Evans incident, I didn’t really see the interference at all – any DS worth his salt could have driven the team car through that gap, and maybe the bus as well, so getting a bike through looked to be easy. I guess that need for a three foot buffer zone is why Evans doesn’t turn up at the Tour of Flanders. As Liggett and Sherwen pointed out, Evans’s overreaction to the perceived injustice seemed to be a mark of some real nervousness on his part. I’d tend to agree – it was a Cat. IV overreaction to a common and not very threatening situation. We didn’t see if he said anything to the gendarme, but I'm pretty sure I heard him shouting, “Hold your line! On your right! Pothole! Gravel! Gravel! Gravel!” as he made his way back through the peloton.

If he’s wound that tight with an hour and a half to go to the final climb, I’m wondering how this Tour is going to shape up for him. Has anyone ever lost because their head just exploded?

1:03 – Phil Liggett is discussing the local topography a bit during an aerial shot, referencing the extinct volcanoes that dot the Massif Centrale landscape. He continues, “Some of these extinct volcanoes are 400 feet deep, and they’re perfectly symmetrical.” What? Really? Any volcanologists reading this that can explain what he might be talking about? Are volcanoes symmetrical?

1:05 – Versus cuts to an in-car cam and microphone trained on Team Columbia DS Brian Holm, who’s driving their car with Rolf Aldag sitting shotgun. As part of the intro, Liggett adds, “They know we’re listening in, so they’re going to behave themselves, I’m sure.” Still stinging from the Vaughters incident, eh? I have to wonder if they've started putting a little delay on the in-car shots.

1:07 – The peloton is riding through a town in a bit of a drizzle, and Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) is riding no-handed, unzipping his yellow jersey to stuff a sheet of plastic or paper down the front to fight off the chill. Liggett comments, “They can do anything on the bike, but I emphasize to not do this at home, because you’ll fall off and take your clubmates down and they won’t be pleased with you.”

For the sake of amateur racers everywhere, this comment should be made into a public service announcement, and aired every bit as often as those poorly-thought-out “Take Back the Tour” ads. Those ads probably won’t do much to save the Tour at all, but the “don’t try this on your group ride” announcement could save countless teeth and wheels around the country.

(As an aside, I was worried about Liggett earlier in the season, when he seemed extremely off his game during the classics. But he’s ridden himself into form nicely for the Tour, the usual verbal ticks and foibles notwithstanding.)

Helping Those Least in Need

I saw a few notable things perusing the Internets, on which this whole Tour de France lark seems to be getting quite a bit of airplay. Not that they need me to steer any traffic their way, but here are some links from the bigger guns I thought were notable:

I gave Chris Carmichael a bit of a hard time the other day about his Valverde article on Bicycling, but as I pointed out, he has some good knowledge rattling around, and when he lets it out, it’s good stuff. In this piece, he gives some good insight on the challenges of the Massif Centrale and how the Tour organizers can influence the race through route selection. And I have to hand it to him, he’s cranking out a tremendous amount of copy, writing for at least two outlets as well as his company’s Tour de France newsletter. Coming up with a couple different workable angles on a single race can be a tough grind. Trust me.

Cyclingnews is finally doing what I’ve been wishing an English-language outlet would do for years – they’re publishing diaries from big riders from non-English speaking countries on non-English speaking teams. Yes, I love to hear from our relative locals, and it can be easy to relate to our fellow Anglophones, but it’s nice to get the broader coverage as well. There have been earlier efforts, but these are the best to date.

For this Tour, they’ve landed Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) , who’s having a hell of a season now that he’s finally managed to shake the “next French Tour winner” albatross the press hung around his neck early in his career. I like his attitude in his latest entry as well, saying essentially that he’s there to make the race interesting to the fans, and if he’s gassed the next day, that’s part of the job. He did a good job of it yesterday, hanging on over the first Category 2 climb by the skin of his teeth to snatch the polka dots from Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom). He says that he’s happy to hand it back over for awhile, but I still have to wonder why Cofidis didn’t send someone up the road to grab those third place points and give him a little bit of padding over his countryman. It didn’t look like it would have been that challenging, but then again, I’m watching on TV.

They also have Stijn Devolder (Quick.Step), the closest thing Belgium has had to a contender since, I don’t know, Michele Pollentier? His entry is a bit more cut-and-dried than Chavanel’s, but we’ll see if things pick up in the mountains.

VeloNews has been getting pretty heavily into the online video scene over the last year or so, and they’ve been posting video diaries from George Hincapie (Columbia) and Magnus Backstedt (Garmin-Chipotle). Probably more interesting are the on-the-spot interviews from the stage finishes, which give a good sense of what the media scrum at the finish of a big race is like. When I went to my first few, being a polite lad, I had this feeling that I should give riders a half-second to catch their breath before shoving a recorder in their face. In these clips, you can see why I had to revise my strategy pretty quickly.

Finally, and unfortunately, here we go again. And again.

So there you go, after a few days of kvetching, I’ve spread some unicorns and rainbows around. We do quite a bit of critiquing of media outlets, riders, and associated peoples here, sometimes a bit harshly for the sake of making a point or getting a chortle. But in the end, everybody’s making their contribution, and we’re glad they’re there. So don’t be mad, baby, I only hit you ‘cause I love you.

Stage 7 Booze Cruise

Just a quick one today, as the race enters the Cantal hills of the Auvergne on its way down to the Pyrenees. The Unholy Rouleur has a little writeup on Cantal cheeses to enjoy during your viewing, and a rigorous 5 minutes of Googling on my part reveals that the Beaujolais we discussed yesterday should go just fine with that selection. So assuming you picked up a bottle for yesterday’s stage, you’re all set for this evening, too. If there’s nothing left from the bottle you cracked last night, seek help.