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Deconstructing Self-Destruction

1 Feb

I got into a little Twitter dust-up this weekend with VeloNews’ John Bradley. It wasn’t on purpose—yes, I did tweet a rebuke at him, but it was based largely on my misinterpreting something he’d written.

He responded strongly—justifiably so, I think—and I apologized, attempting to explain where I’d missed his point. I don’t know John personally, but I like what he’s done in the past, and I think he brings a skillset that really shores up some of Velo’s soft spots. I had, and continue to have, no interest in antagonizing him.

That said, I was a little disappointed by his commentary that same day on cycling’s supposed “Self-Destruction”—of which Femke Van den Driessche’s motorized bike is apparently just the latest example.

There wasn’t anything inaccurate or offensive or lacking about the piece per se (I certainly didn’t dislike it as much as some people did—though they later made up) and it certainly covered some ground every long-term fan can relate to.

But this one line sums up what I found so sour:

“Cycling is not the most corrupt of sports, but it is one that the masses don’t understand.”

Now, for contrast, here is a screenshot of the VeloNews homepage from earlier today:
Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 10.10.08 AM

(click image for big)

There isn’t a lot of what I’d refer to as content that will help people develop an understanding of racing.

I hasten to add that VN’s recap article on the men’s race was quite good, but it’s practically buried less than 24 hours later, and there’s nothing in terms of deeper analysis on a race that delivered the blend of hell-bent carnage and nail-biting tactics that should have the sport’s journal of record salivating.

If “the masses” don’t get the awesome aspects of racing on the homepage of the biggest cycling publication in the US, then where the heck are they supposed to find them? As Bradley himself notes, it’s not going to be in SBNation or the New York Times.

On the off-chance a mainstream writer gets a tip to check VeloNews, they’ll see only headline after headline on a rule-breaking DNF in the women’s U23 race, a bit on a disappointed US Champ, something about a guy being spit on, and nothing on what made #CXZolder16 awesome.

It’s not that cycling-aware writers aren’t always lurking out in the larger publishing world—Sam Abt famously brought the sport to NYT and the International Herald Tribune between copyedits. But the few out there who do get it aren’t getting paid for analysis beyond humping eyeballs for the story’s semiquaver of relevance. Only a concerted effort by the publications they reference will sway headlines from the vapid quick hit.

This isn’t meant to be a rip on Bradley or VeloNews, just a nudge that cycling fandom and reportage do not have to be cast as this hopeless cycle of self-destruction. There’s plenty I don’t know about editorial, but I’ve worked for advocacy groups and political campaigns. Messaging and framing drive the marketplace of opinion, and there’s all the more hunger for context when the optics are blandly and obviously bad.

It’s not like Velo couldn’t do this—I mean, the content exists already. Andrew Hood’s article on the evolution of the UCI’s motor checks does fantastic work putting The Femke Affair into the context general publications so desperately need, and I have reason to believe that Dan Seaton will be producing another of his striking and accessible photo essays on the World Championships (update: delivered).

But I always seem to sense this notion across the cycling press, a kind of chicken-and-egg thing, that no one understands the sport, because explanations of why it’s awesome can’t be made, because no one will read them, because no one understands the sport. And that dogma is as wrong as it is self-defeating.

I cannot tell you how many comments I get about HTRWW getting absolute n00bs into watching bike races, and c’mon—CXHairs delivers the meat of what makes people want to watch in seconds-long clips on a pretty much daily basis. The van der Haar pass requires neither background knowledge or explanation—and 1400+ Instagram users will back me up on that.

A video posted by In The Crosshairs (@cxhairs) on

So I guess the self-destructive cycle I see here isn’t so much within the sport, but in the way its covered. I mean, when a moto-cheater gets caught after years of concerted attempts at moto-cheater-catching, that feels to me like cause for minor celebration, a footnote to a marquee event that absolutely delivered.

But when literally the day after one of the best races in recent memory, the lead pieces are gear testing and mechanical doping, you can see where I stumbled into the cynical misunderstanding that started this piece: “racing is a downer, let’s be stoked about our advertisers instead”.

Say Hello to Lupo Wolfie

15 Dec

The Giro d’Italia announced a new mascot today. I haven’t been graced with the accompanying PR copy, but I’d guess it’s something along the lines of “Lupo is the perfect mascot to bring this great Italian race to a world-wide audience!”

Lupo Wolfie, the new Giro Mascot

Say hello to Poochie Lupo Wolfie—the new Giro Mascot (via)

Lupo’s arrival marks the end of the road for the race’s previous mascot, Girbecco, whose demise, resurrection, and various zombie states have been a a running gag at Podium Cafe almost since his appearance on the scene in 2008.

Girbecco, the former Giro Mascot

Ah, Girbecco—you were so impenetrably Italian. (via)

Girbecco was always a bit obtuse—a mountain-goat built more like a post-retirement sprinter than a nimble ungulate, with confusing horns that were both over- and under- (compared to the real thing) sized. Not to mention the fact that they looked like Big Bird’s legs under an ever-changing array of multi-color stockings.

Girbecco was far too smoothly rendered to have been the work of “a little girl” as his origin myth states, something made all the more obvious by the old-timey spare tire wrapped around his bulging torso, and the unsubtle inclusion of “honesty” among the values the mountain goat embodies—”values,” his press release stressed “which have always been linked to the Giro”.

To say Girbecco did not translate well is an understatement. His IRL counterpart lives only in the Alps and his name (a play on “stambecco”) just doesn’t work in English—except maybe in South Africa and countries that compete against them in rugby.

But what Girbecco lacked in comprehensibility and wide appeal, he made up for in Italian-ness. The Giro’s always carried a bit of illogical flare, perhaps best exemplified by the defunct and byzantine Intergiro competition, though you could still see shades of it in the repeated neutralization polemica at this year’s event.

Girbecco was also a massive step up on his predecessor, “Ghiro”. It’s an obvious pun on the name of the race, and the common Italian name for the rodent Glis glis; despite unappealing English appellations like “fat doormouse” or “edible doormouse”, the creature itself is quite cute. Ghiro, however, came out looking like a wobbly-eyed cross between Don Corleone and Master Splinter—which, given the winners through his 2002-2008 tenure, isn’t entirely inappropriate.

Ghiro, the first Giro Mascot

“Don’ you worry, Gibo—I’m a-gonna make Savoldelli an offer he canna refuse.” (via)

Lupo Wolfie marks a distinct and meaningful break from this mascot tradition. He’s clearly a wolf, and devoid of strong-but-disorienting characteristics, with just the pink shirt to link him to the Giro. The wolf has tremendous recognition across cultures, and his name, which employes both the Latin (lupus) and Germanic (wulf) roots should be widely recognizable, too.

But for all his cute, cartoony appeal, Lupo is problematic. He’s a clear statement of the Giro’s intent to internationalize, but with that effort comes the challenge of maintaining the race’s unique character. Lupo checks all the boxes for cuddliness and comprehension, but how does he avoid, like every Olympic mascot in recent memory, becoming an amorphous blob of focus-group approval?

In many ways, the challenge of Lupo is the challenge facing all of cycling—how does the sport broaden its immediate appeal without diluting the unique character, history, and tradition, that make it so enduring?

Because John Watson Wants an Apology

11 Sep

Update 16 Sept 2014 – Watson has written up his thoughts on Cross Vegas, in which he wishes he had “handled the situation a lot differently”.

We’ve all done dumb shit before, John—especially me. Especially on the Internet, and especially while having a good party going. It’s not a character flaw. It happens, and when it happens to me, I make amends. That’s why I’m writing this—because you seem to think I’ve done something wrong and I’m addressing that. I’m just…not sure what wrong I did.

First, let’s establish the backstory. I don’t believe any of these are in dispute.

Can We Please Stop Ruining Bike Races With Electronic Shifting?

2 Jul

I’m not going to claim impartiality here—if nothing else, I think electronic shifting is massively over-priced. I’ve never ridden it—I hear it shifts well and smoothly and precisely and is super-cool, and I have no reason to dispute that. But similarly, I think there’s no counter-argument to the fact that when it doesn’t shift, you are completely boned.

Goss and Greipel and bikes that don't work

The body posture conveys as much information as the drivetrains.

The photos above are cropped from the highest-def screencap I could find—a 1080i .ts files, no compression beyond what occurs prior to transmission. I can’t see exactly what’s wrong with Greipel’s and Goss’ bikes, but what I can see is a droopy chain—as in probably off the chainrings—and rear mechs that seem more or less intact—that is, not on the ground or above the chainstay.

As far as I can tell, this is the classic mode of failure for electronic shifting. The front derailleur has two programmed shift actions—one to go up, one to go down. Unlike conventional shifters, where a cable always pulls against the tension of derailleur spring, there isn’t an option to half-shift in an attempt to jimmy the chain back into place. When you’re off, you’re off. This is a fact not in dispute.

That said, one report claims Greipel’s mechanical on Sunday was a rear derailleur “smashed to bits…in the big crash that took Greipel out of the running”. This is at least partially inaccurate—he survived that big tumble, and pedaled on for several k before appearing mysteriously at the back, bike rendered non-functional in a very familiar way.

Shared from cyclocosm using Embeddlr

I’ve posted a chopper shot of what I believe to be Goss’ bike failure above. Obviously, you can’t see the chain, and honestly, I can’t even prove it’s him. But inside the final 500m an Orica-GreenEdge rider is jockeying for position, with a teammate (probably Impey) behind him him, then just stops pedaling and stands to coast, leaving the teammate with a huge gap to close. Robbie McEwen claims Goss crashed, and I guess maybe it’s possible, but only if he went down after his bike stopped working.

It’s beginning to feel a little creepy. Consensus is that electronic shifting is still a work in progress—nearly a year after noting its problems last summer, Inner Ring reported on a rash of misfires from this spring. But rather than improve (or better yet—remove) the parts, earlier this week, we got two not-quite-right stories about incidents of likely electronic shifting failures that had a definite impact on how the final results played out. I’m sure it’s all just innocent misunderstanding—on their part or on mine—but I wouldn’t want anyone get any ideas.

So before this devolves to petty subterfuge, let’s all of us—media, marketers, brand managers, riders, directors—just sit down and agree like grown-ups that pros should absolutely have the no-pressure-option of using mechanical shifting. With Greipel on Campy and Goss on Shimano, no one company will take a PR hit.

Everyone’s heard the buzz about the awesome, super-precise shifting produced by electronic levers—and the fondo set is already totally into it. But by taking away the option of historically reliable front shifting, all anyone is doing is making the high-profile failures more obvious—and alienating serious amateur racers in the process.

Let’s be honest—if watching your rider taking a win on legacy gear is a bigger marketing bummer than watching him pout at the side of the road when the latest and greatest fails, your brand’s got bigger problems a front derailleur.

On Dave Brailsford and "Innuendo"

14 Mar


Hey there Internets—as I mentioned on Monday, I’m a little cranky this week and so I figured, what with my ample amounts of free time and top shelf home production facility, I might as well turn some of that angst into entertaining multimedia web content.

So I guess I want my first rant to be me going on record that I think Dave Brailsford is so right to hit back against the “innuendo’ directed at Team Sky from the “internet”. It’s so unfair that Brailsford’s squad should face this sort of thing —why I can’t think of another cyclist or team that anyone has ever associated with doping. And as for the Internet, it’s so out-of-place that they’d expressed an unfounded, mean spirited opinion about…nah, sorry bro—I’m [expletive] with you.  

Dave, I shouldn’t have to tell you—actually, I know I don’t have to tell you, I’m just doing it so as to make you look ridiculous—that since 1995, there are only three Tour de France winners—Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans and your boy Wiggo—that haven’t been sanctioned, convicted, or through some method of due process definitively linked doping. In other words, my friend, innuendo comes with the fruitbowl.

But as someone who “writes things” on the “internet”, let me address your concerns more directly. First, this “Innuendo” as you put it, or the coy suggestion, often leveraged in the pursuit of humor, that your team might be doing so well due to the use of performance enhancing drugs is completely fair.  No one owes you taking you at your word just cuz—and frankly, you haven’t done much to engender faith in yourself.

You made a lot of noise coming  onto the scene about how you were going to do it differently, cleanly with doctors from the UK, or at least outside the european road scene. And for the most part, I think the reception was positive, if somewhat skeptical.  But you know, two years later, twenty-eleven Vuelta, you’ve hired a Geert Leinders, a career cycling doc, who probably doped one of your then-directeurs sportif, Stephen DeJongh back when they were both at Rabobank, and suddenly, some Kenyan kid no one had ever heard of outperforming your prize pig in the third biggest race in cycling. Give us a reason other than “because I said so” not to connect those dots.

And really this—THIS—is where you’ve screwed it up the most, Dave—communication. You couldn’t communicate hazing to a fratboy. When Leinders’ name started coming up last July, you didn’t immediately fire the dude. When people reminded you about him in September, you said (and I’m quoting) “I think we’re working on it”; by October, he was out the door, but you asserted that ”nothing wrong” had happened. It was not until earlier this week, practically 10 months later, that you took that one, that first step toward accountability and said that hiring the guy “was a mistake”.

But that’s ok, Dave, that’s ok. Because I’m here to help you. Believe it or not, I really like cycling, I want these rants to be as productive as they are entertaining. And most of all, I want to communicate the desires of cycling fans who actually buy the products sprawled across the jerseys of the spandex-clad denizens you command.

You want to get the Internet fanbase off your back? Follow this one rule: ask What Would Lance Armstrong Have Done, and then do the opposite.

You see, you’ve really backed yourself into this combative, us-or-them relationship with these vast groups of others “the media” “journalists” “the internet” “wankers”, and you just, you can’t hang out there. When you say “There are plenty of journalists who like to think that we’re at it”, you’re casting the very same “unfair” aspersions you decry in your online detractors. Nobody wants to think you’re “at it”; they want to think that you’re winning races because of brilliant tactics, clean, smart, training, and the best support crew money can by.

Maybe this stark dualism has the same root as your zero-tolerance policy—but I swear it really is possible to be “half-a-cheat”. Erik Zabel, for example, who mentored Mark Cavendish—winner of over half your team’s races last year—has admitted to doping early in his career and yet is otherwise known for being square and unassailable as his iconic flat-top haircut. David Millar, Damiano Cunego, essentially every American cyclist aged 30 or over—has dabbled in drugs, and managed to move on.

Some other Armstrong Manouvers you might want to cull from your playbook? Stop referencing irrelevant results—like saying 15 years leading a team to  dominance in three-minutes track events somehow equals clean Tour de France success. And hard work. Sure, it can be the difference, and sure, cycling has it’s share of Ivan Quarantas and Dario Pieris, but don’t insult your opponents work ethic and your fans intelligence by saying your rider won a race because he “wanted it more”.

So yeah—if you have any interest in improving things on the communications from, here are some next steps:

  1. explain, in detail, how an apparently dyed-in-the-wool dope doc like Leinders slipped through your extensive vetting program. You should do this with facts: how many other doctors did you consider, what criteria were used in a final decision, can anyone verify these things, etc.
  2. Ditch your zero tolerance policy. Everyone—even Wiggins—thinks its a stupid idea that perpetuates the Omerta and the sense that getting caught slash confessing is the real shame in doping, not the actual act itself. This way, you won’t have young, impressionable riders surrounded by dudes like Dario Cioni, who almost certainly has a past to talk about, but who can’t be honest for fear of losing his job.
  3. Do not take anything personally. It’s not personal. After the past 15 years, anyone in this sport thinking they’re going  get even the suggestion of the benefit of the doubt, is completely ignorant or clinically delusional. You’re going to be scathed, criticised, browbeaten, picked on, picked over and no matter how clean you are or transparent your make your process, some people will still not be convinced.

But given the still-radioactive fallout left over from the alternative, I don’t see how you can say that that’s not a very good thing.

Cycling Organization Press Release Generator

30 Jan

I had some thoughts on cycling—on the honest-to-goodness racing of bicycles—earlier this week. But dang if I didn’t get a little distracted by the bellowing and harrumphing of bands of lawyers as they debated, at a micrometer level, whose client had the more impressive virile organ.

And you know, it could almost be passable fodder for drama if the various parties involved weren’t so irretrievably bad at finding engaging, creative ways to tell each other to screw off. Their press releases are routinely so terrible that there isn’t a cycling fan left who hasn’t thought “man, even I could do this better”.

Well, now you can: introducing the Cycling Organization Press Release Generator. Chose your combatant, craft a headline and press release, and get your very own, permalinked article displayed—in very convincing fashion, I might add—for the whole Internet to see. I’ve put together one or two, to demonstrate the potential lulz.

Convince the irritating robot to like you:

Feeding the Trollstrong Foundation

9 Jan

you freds are drafting in a troll echcelon

No explanation needed

The jokes, dear reader, have already been made.

I’m sure you think you’ve got some clever new gibe to add, some original snark to spin-off that will raise the bar that little bit higher—and in some cases, I might even believe you. But in humor, as in all things, there is a point of diminishing return, and we have long-since passed it.

Or perhaps your intentions are noble. Perhaps you feel this story is so big, the celebrity status involved in it so outsized, and whichever side you disagree with so clearly idiotic and unjustifiable, that it’s totally worth your continued effort to try and reason your opposition into an inevitable concession. If history is any indicator, that just isn’t going to happen.

Rabobank Brings the Fight to Aigle

25 Oct

“We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future.”

Rabobank, on their departure as a professional cycling sponsor

Rabobank team car

We’ll be seeing you later…or will we? / by Gerard Stolk, cc-by-nc

That about sums it up.

As someone who has advocated, and continues to advocate, that cycling is getting better when it comes to drugs, it’s slightly painful to agree with that statement. Maybe this is how Fatty felt when he finally faced the music. Regardless, I can’t find any fault with Rabobank’s assessment—and I’m the sort who believes there’s no such thing as bad press.

Since my last post, I’ve been trying to come up with something else to say. Something that wasn’t furious, or venting, or profanity-laced; something constructive, beyond retreading the obvious and occasionally malevolent ineptitude at the top of the sport, and the deception and chaos this has wrought below. And I think Rabobank beat me to it.

The only way cycling can begin to restore credibility is through more sponsors following Rabobank’s lead.

I don’t mean sponsors should simply bail from cycling. Quite the opposite, really—Rabobank’s exit was a tactical masterpiece. Cessations of cycling sponsorships have historically been messy, catastrophic affairs—a phony check, a sea of rumors, riders high and dry. Rabobank’s staged withdrawl, which continues to pay existing contracts without brand representation, is the antithesis of these historical collapses.

More tellingly, Rabobank is continuing to remain connected to its cycling initiatives unencumbered by the UCI—amateur squads, development, and youth programs. The sound bite at the heart of its press release even targets the UCI in the most-certain terms possible (“international professional world of cycling”) without risking any undue attention from Aigle’s notoriously busy legal team. The message here is clearly “Pro-cycling, anti-UCI”.

While painful and heavy-handed, this approach leverages the rest of the world’s only representation in Aigle’s kangaroo court: money. By writ, the UCI is beholden only to the IOC, but as they’ve shown in their dust-ups with teams over radios and the Tour of Beijing, and with the Grand Tours over TV rights, their pocketbook can be a useful pain point.

The UCI is Useless Shirt

Remember back when this (still available) shirt was produced in jest? Click through to learn more.

If I were a major sponsor, or even a man with access to funding and an inclination to support the sport—not to name names, but someone along the lines of @dbrogan or @holowesko—I might go so far as to place some very public hunks of cash into a trust fund, to be invested in a UCI team upon the resignation or removal of Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen from the governing body.

Because, frankly, it is impossible to believe there will be any change while the current regime in Aigle is in charge. McQuaid’s recent sentiments declare whistleblowers to be “scumbags”, and have effectively said that if we can’t detect doping, then it’s OK not to catch dopers. It’s the same blind-eyed (how many positives would a 53% HCT limit really return?), kill-the-messenger (study the UCI reaction to Jesus Manzano in 2005) approach that’s worked the sport into this ugly little quagmire.

It won’t take long for there to be an impact—another two or three sponsors or potential sponsors, of the big, multi-national sort that the ProTour was invented to attract—will make it clear that professional cycling cannot be financially tenable until the UCI cleans house. But until sponsors start voting with their checkbooks, the UCI can continue to insist that they, as guardians of this sport, have nothing to atone for.

"No Comment" is the New Doping

30 Aug

Lance Armstrong looking grumpy at the start of a TT

Fine—I’ll just do non-ITU Triathlons / by Kevin Saunders, cc-by-nd

There’s an easy way to make a million people agree with you—present an argument that’s both simple and entirely compatible with their existing values.

An example: A man is suspected of burglary. He has left fingerprints near, but not at, a number of crime scenes, 11 friends are willing to testify against him, but the suspect has never been caught in the act of robbing a house. Should the state press charges?

It’s hardly a moral dilemma, and you’d certainly be hard-up to find many people who’d call it unjust. And yet, last Thursday a suspected burglar convicted doper effectively pled “no contest” after the authorities brought just such a charge, and in the process convinced millions that not only was this slam-dunk of a case a witch hunt, it was somehow “#unconstitutional” as well.


How the Race was Ripped-Off

31 Mar

I think I may have surprised some people by not flying into an Internet rage yesterday when VeloNews launched a familiar-looking video feature with a not entirely unique name.

htrww title card

In happier times.

My magnanimous response not withstanding, I should clarify that I’m not psyched about the development. Indeed, there was a time when I would have let fly the dogs of Internet War over such a slight—and that time was two years ago. I lived in Boston, had my own apartment, could pedal office-to-doorstep in about 20 minutes, got paid enough to buy decent computer hardware, and could reliably turn out sharply-edited video recaps of European bike races 24-48 hours after they wrapped up.

But it’s not 2010 anymore. I got word of the VeloNews post this morning where I spend most of my mornings these days—in a car, on an Interstate, trying not to think about how much longer I have to drive, or the fact that pretty soon, I’d have to turn around and head back the other way. It’s not a routine I’m particularly fond of, but as things stand, it’s the life I wake up to every morning. Suffice it to say, it isn’t getting any videos made.

And that’s the important thing, here—there are tactically focused race-recap videos in production again. They might not be as nifty as mine, but they’re covering races that happened in the past two weeks—I haven’t done anything in the past two years.

While it may well be that biting the style, name, and idea of someone else’s work without so much as a hat-tip is a dick thing to do (you certainly wouldn’t get any argument form me on that point), it is far more of a dick move to pitch a fit because someone else decided they wanted to revive or reuse something cool that you created, but for whatever reason, aren’t pursuing to the fullest.

In fact, one of the most maddening aspects of doing How the Race Was Won came about 12-24 hours after posting each new video, when some minion of the ASO would invariably file a takedown request with YouTube because he or she felt like my reusing two minutes of one six-hour stage of a 21-day race without kissing their pinky ring was somehow doing them wrong.

In an ideal world, there’s no doubt in my mind that I could do (and have done) a sharper, funnier HTRWW than currently exists. But the fact is that right now, I can’t. And as irascible as I tend to be, I just can’t justify venting any of that rage toward people who can. The best I can hope for is that sometime in the future, I’ll get the chance to remind everyone else exactly how it’s supposed to be done.