The New Reality

Jul 24 2012

Brad Wiggins in Yellow on Champs Elysees

There’s more to clean racing than just racing clean / by flickr user niceguysean, cc-by-nd

For better or worse, the racing in this year’s Tour de France did not offer a great deal of excitement.

There were some interesting sprints, the positive (mad watts) and negative (position, timing) confirmations of Peter Sagan’s abilities, the emergence of Tejay VanGarderen as a guy who can hold a GC place for three weeks, but as far as a battle for yellow, there just wasn’t a lot to talk about.

Sure, Evans took some shots early, and Nibali took some shots late, but as the Tour went on, the storyline became less about Brad Wiggins defending his race lead and more about Brad Wiggins defending the legitimacy of his performance.

But those performances, while convincing, just didn’t have the alarming dominance we’ve come dread. The images may have been reminiscent of US Postal, but even outside the power data and the climb times, there were a few other important differences I’ll note:

  • No transformed domestiques. None of the riders driving Team Sky up the mountains was a surprise. Riche Porte rode like a pro triathlete, setting tempo at threshold but lacking pop. EBH ground the field to the heads of state on occasion, but never had more than a minute or two at that tempo before falling off. The team rode well, but Bernie Eisel wasn’t winnowing out the group over the Aubisque or poaching the Queen Stage once the GC was wrapped up.
  • The GC contenders were beaten in the mountains. With the exception of the first mountaintop finish—the day’s single serious obstacle, and “only” a Cat 1—breakaway riders won every single mountain stage. It was occasionally close, but a hallmark of the Bad Old Days was the inevitable catch on the day’s final climb, before the fireworks really began.
  • No haymakers. I like to compare the “cycling” that went on up climbs in the 90s and 00s to the “boxing” that went on in the Rocky films. Dudes exchanging ridiculous big ring attacks and cranking out of the saddle for kilometers with the same ridiculous exaggeration as Stallone and Mr T trading haymakers. But Wiggins never showed that explosion. There were moments when Froome looked like he was ready launch an Armstrong-style charge, but one never appeared.

But the point of this post is not to defend Team Sky—in fact, I’m going to be quite critical. Not because of their performance on the racecourse, but because of their ineptitude off it.

Look through this footage from 1997, starting around 4 minutes or so. Revel in the naiveté as Phil he comments how effortlessly Ullrich moves between the team car and the leading group, or as Paul mentions Riis’ massive gearing as he glides across a gap up an 8% grade. In the final installment of his four-part epic on the previous year’s Tour, @fmk_roi states bluntly that the media was well aware of recent advances in doping, but simply felt it would be easier not to write about them.

It’s tempting to call it a different era, but even after Festina, Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras—hell, even Operacion Puerto—serious professional journalists continued to make straight-faced professional statements that blind-eyed the obvious—for instance, that George Hincapie is a Tour de France contender.

And so, we have arrived at a new reality: thanks to the failure of professionals, both in the press and in the sport’s governing body, cycling is now in the Amateur Age. There are no authoritative voices dictating opinions to a mass audience, and fans keep their own collective counsel on who they like and who they don’t.

It’s tempting to discount the vocal fanbase as a peanut gallery; this has certainly been the UCI’s approach. But so long as cycling’s teams remained pinned to an economic model that makes riders into rolling billboards, public opinion matters. Who doesn’t cringe slighly at the mere mention of Riccardo Ricco’s name? At last check, a spine-tingling shudder isn’t known to improving brand association.

Wiggins has been encouraged not to reveal his blood data, for fear of misinterpretation by “amateurs”—and I think this is entirely the wrong approach. There are always people willing to dig out the negative spin—as we say on the Internet, haters gonna hate. But the simple effort of transparency can buy you a tremendous amount of goodwill with the public.

Consider Cadel Evans—after spending half his career typecast as a good-not-great GC rider and general curmudgeon, the Aussie experienced a real brand renaissance in the late-aughts, due in no small part to the fact that his “fitness indicators” had always been open knowledge, and had always been better than the rivals who invariably out-performed him at races.

Long on record as a stoic and a realist , Evans’ wins at the ’09 Worlds (after a threatening attack from a just-unsuspended Alexandre Vinokourov) and Fleche Wallone the next spring (where he convincingly countered “Otra Pregunta” himself on the Mur de Huy) were taken as powerful symbols of a cleaner direction for the sport.

Coming into this year, Wiggo had a similar sheen—he had been a 4km trackie when blood-boosting ruled the hills; a late-comer to the road with some promising results, burned in the past by dopers, and even an alum of the Slipstream organization that won over Paul Kimmage, the sharpest and most pessimistic (ok, second-most-pessimistic) critic on doping in the sport.

But while I take no personal offense at being called a bone-idle wanker, it was alarming to see this former firebrand for clean sport tee off on an imbecilic, baited question (“what do you say to the cynics…”) and launch into a rant against his supposed detractors.

From calling out critics’ intentions to citing his own hard work, it was a step-for-step set piece from the Armstrong playbook. Even as the controversy raged, Wiggo continued to echo the Texan, right down to dredging up his impressive-but-irrelevant palmares.

Wiggins’ attempt to smooth things out with a direct-to-the-public blog in the Guardian offered lukewarm comfort. The assertion that he’d rather be stacking shelves at Tesco than doping was very similar to what I’ve heard from domestic riders with decidedly abbreviated stints in Europe on their resume; then again, the section on the sport not being worth his life was much less reassuringly resonant.

Believe it or not, I like Brad Wiggins. Sure, I took issue with his testing data a few years ago, but I stressed then that I think he’s racing clean about as much as I think anyone is racing clean. I really wish I could say the same thing today.

Kimmage’s post-Tour piece in the Daily Mail pins it down exactly—while Brad Wiggins’ racing performance may not have varied much, his public persona most certainly has. Moreover, he’s not the only piper at Sky to change his tune. Dave Brailsford’s formerly uncompromising stance has become similarly wobbly—quite the contrast to Garmin’s Jon Vaughters firing a very good DS for referring a rider to a now-banned doctor.

Add to these mealy-mouthed declarations the reputation of Brand Murdoch, and in a few short weeks, Sky has allowed its greatest success to transform it from a premier member of a newer, cleaner generation of cycling outfits to one with more than a few questions to answer, and a definite reluctance toward answering them.

This Amateur Age will hopefully never reach the point where winning becomes a positive test, but I think success should and does carry an expectation of defensible credibility. As fans have no official authority, riders are free to ignore this expectation, but as long as sponsors still need customers to buy GPS devices and cell phones and lottery tickets, it’s an expectation they discount at their peril.

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