Saxo Bank Stress Test is a Self-Defeating Effort

Feb 14 2012

Saxo Bank director Bjarne Riis and Alberto Contador

Don't worry, Bertie. We're still friends /, cc-by-nd

It’s a welcome change each February to watch the lead stories in cycling move from the minutia of law and bio-pharmacology to the nuance and verve of actual bicycle racing. The wild line-changing leading into a bunch sprint, fading desperation of the second echelon, and poker-playing as a break pulls itself appart before the finish are the sort of nuanced, dynamic things that make bike racing an interesting sport.

You’d think that an organization entrusted with the management of such a sport would strive to cultivate an appreciation of these things. But the UCI seems to see the situation differently. In even holding court over whether or not Saxo Bank should retain its World Tour license, the UCI is essentially saying that only the winner of a WorldTour bike race should receive credit for the victory.

I don’t think the UCI needs it explained that no matter how doped up the winner might be, his triumph is but the closing movement in a complex choreography of wind-dodging, gap-closing, tactics, and tribulation. Mere dope doesn’t win bike races—the peloton of ’90s and early ’00s was arguably the most chemically well-prepared group of athletes in the history of mankind, and plenty of those guys never made the podium.

Arnaud Demare’s Stage 6 victory at Qatar provides further insight of how just how many factors beyond peak wattage and astronomical VO2 max can come into play in a win. I’d hardly call the rising French star and reigning U23 World Champ a scrub, but fact is that his campaign at Qatar had, up to the final stage, been a good-not-great mix of missed splits and steps-off-the-podium sprints. It was tactics (Tom Boonen securely in the GC lead) and fortune (an unlucky a touch of wheels for Cav) that finally put him in a position to win.

I’m not so naive as to think the UCI’s decision would be based purely on logic. Governing bodies like to send a message with their decisions, regardless of how little sense they might make. But I think there’s an equitable solution that will allow the UCI (if it is indeed hell-bent on taking a chunk out of Saxo’s hide) to proceed without implying that bike races might just as well be contested by a weigh-in and 60 minute threshold session on the trainer.

Returning to the example of Demare, note the the Frenchman is quick to praise his teammates. And with good cause—sprinters can’t lay down a minute at 670 watts 3k before launching a stage-winning burst. Nor, for that matter, can climbers lead themselves to the front group before paring the field down to heads of state, and still expect to gain places on GC.

Even the seemingly mundane tasks of providing a safe, steady wheel in an ever-shifting peloton so a leader never has to accelerate, or crushing fat kid watts at the front of field of 5 hours constitute unquestionably remarkable efforts. And while they may never cross the line first, I—and the portions of prize money parceled out after the race—would make an unequivocal claim these less glamorous players have a more than equal stake in the win.

So, if the argument is that 68% of Saxo Bank’s points came from Contador (471 of 696), let’s keep with that, but assign those points a weight equal to Contador’s contribution. Split ten ways—nine riders and the director—and doubling Contador’s share (a nod the marketing value of the win), the banned Spaniard’s points contribution drops to 13.53%. While the resulting points total (601) knocks Saxo back a few places, at 13th of 18, and with solid 25% margin on the next squad, it’s hardly a relegation-worthy performance.

Aside from actually reflecting the realities of how races are won, taking this tack would also provide some much-needed hand-holding for wary sponsors, who could bank on a squad not being barred from cycling’s largest events for the wayward actions of a single star rider. Likewise, it would provide an incentive for teams to keep their worker bees from doping—each rider that turned up positive, regardless of palmares, would take the team that much closer to exclusion from the top tier.

Of course, I maintain that the ideal outcome is to not have this reassessment process in the first place. I don’t seem to recall teams’ statuses at the highest level of the sport questioned after season-ending injuries or retirements. While a roster change due to doping is unfortunate, the impact on the team’s competitiveness is essentially the same. In fact, in the case of Contador, the comparison is far less apt, since he’ll be back racing again before the end of the season.

And, of course, one less step in the legal repercussions from his doping conviction is one less headline taken away from actual racing.

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