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Sanremo, Strength, and Tactics

22 Mar

Mauruzio Fondreist attacks the Poggio

Maurizio Fondreist disregards fairness
on the Poggio / Max Nicolodi, cc-by

For a guy who made obsessing over aerodynamics and other tech geek foibles into the development and marketing norm in the sport, Gerard Vroomen is surprisingly attuned to the sloppy, cut-and-run realities of professional bike racing.

After some muttering from fans following Sanremo, and some atypically direct criticism of RadioShack by Philippe Gilbert, Vroomen put together a nice little blog post on how “negative racing” is actually “bike racing”, and that pretty much everyone involved knows the score. It’s about trying to matching your strengths with your opponents weaknesses.

While I wouldn’t say I was particularly effusive in my praise of Gerrans’ Sanremo, I certainly wouldn’t say I was overly-critial of it, either. It bears mention that the riders weren’t all just kinda hanging out on the Poggio, and Gerrans thought “hey, look, Nibali is attacking. Guess I’ll jump up to him and then draft him an Cancellara to the finish”. Prior to the winning selection were nearly 300k of attacks, climbs, tight roads and sharp corners, where even a momentary lapse of focus could tail a rider of the back, or force them to make a race-killing effort to get back on.

Gerrans had been looking punchy long before the Poggio (I briefly mistook him for Cav during some smart positioning moves on the Cipressa) and, perhaps sussing out Liquigas’ climb-controlling strategy, the Aussie parked on Nibali’s wheel before Agnoli’s recapture at 7.5km to go (4:52 in the video below). While the Poggio isn’t particularly long or steep, it is narrow and raced at eye-watering speed. If you’re not in the spot you need to be, you’ll be hard-pressed to get through a-reduced-but-edgy peloton, let alone make up time plowing your own furrow up a 4% grade at 30mph.

Indeed, Cancellara may have been the only rider in the remaining peloton capable of the feat—if you watch the video, you’ll see Cancellara is heavily marked and gets the drop on no-one. The separation only occurs when the riders behind him simply can’t put out the necessary wattage to keep his wheel. Cancellara’s prodigious strength bears additional consideration in light of the perceived lack of cooperation in the final selection—even if you wanted to come around him, the drop in speed between your max and his might doom the break.

Finally, the sprint wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Cancellara isn’t exactly a pancake in the final meters, especially after a 250+km, and the final margin wasn’t huge. In fact, were Cancellara a little more inclined to close the gate, and had chosen to lead out on the opposite site of the road (both the flags and waves show a strong tailwind/crosswind from the riders’ left), the additional effort required for Gerrans to come by might have made the difference.

On a more general level, last weekend’s race highlighted what I find to be the most interesting aspect of the sport—tactics as much as strength determines who wins races.

While everyone likes to feel that a winner took the day as fairly as possible, that sort of warm, fuzzy definition for “fair” favors the most dominant, predictable winners—and dominance gets boring in a hurry. Because of finishes like Saturday’s, teams riding for guys like Cancellara have to be tricker in how they leverage their strength advantage; just powering away is only occasionally an option. Even the most impressive displays of raw power, like Cancellara’s 2010 Roubaix win, are often triggered by a brilliantly seized tactical moment—in the case of Roubaix 2010, an out-of-position rival.

I think it’s safe to say most American fans got their introduction to the sport watching US Postal at the Tour de France. And it wasn’t a bad primer for tactics at the basic level—aggressively control the race, keep your strongest rider fresh, and then put him alongside his rivals at the moments where he can make the most difference. While that’s a nice big-picture plan, it requires a rare, generally not entirely organic level of dominance, and, as I mentioned above, it’s kinda dull.

The sport is really at its most interesting when favorites and spoilers are equally reliant on cunning to get across the line first. When Liquigas can dictate terms all day, and Fabs can single-handedly fend off the charging field, and still both can come away empty-handed, it’s clear that they’ll have to go back to the drawing board in terms of execution. I’m excited to see what they come up with to chase down wins through the rest of the spring.

Saxo Bank Stress Test is a Self-Defeating Effort

14 Feb

Saxo Bank director Bjarne Riis and Alberto Contador

Don't worry, Bertie. We're still friends / DancingOnThePedals.net, 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.
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The Piti of an Unrepentant Valverde

10 Jan

“[T]hey wouldn’t even do that to a criminal. None of what they did was legal”
-Alejandro Valverde

It’s tough to imagine a doping scandal more fraught with irony than Operacion Puerto. Even before it had a name, the fantastic contradictions were there; Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes ran a doping ring where he saw his job as ensuring “that riders could put up with the physical demands being made of them”, but a client alleging his health had been ruined by the treatments was what finally blew the lid.

Two years later, when the scandal finally broke, the investigation proved itself an embarrassment to nearly everyone involved—Fuentes, who could have better concealed his clients’ names with a cereal box decoder ring; the Guardia Civil, who revealed their investigative skills outstripped in ineptitude only by their inability to prevent leaks; the riders themselves, caught red-handed; and the Spanish courts and anti-doping officials, for being unable to drive home a slam-dunk case.

Manolo Saiz

Is that 50,000 EUR in your pocket or are you just happy to see me? / pd, wikimedia commons

Most embarrassed of all were the ASO, organizers of the Tour de France, who now had to host a race where everyone even remotely considered a favorite had run on the front page of every sport daily from Lisbon to Kiev in a photo collage of blood bags and syringes.

The Tour’s response to Operacion Puerto was blunt and idiotic: cajole any TdF teams with riders implicated in the scandal to voluntarily withdraw them before the race. I’ve scattered ample pixels already on the inequity of this—let’s just say I found it wonderfully poetic when Floyd Landis’ late-race urine sample came up positive a few days after the Tour finish, giving the ASO the very “Tour Winner Was Actually On Drugs” headlines their pre-race purges had been conducted to avoid.

Strangely enough, Valverde could have saved the Tour organization from this embarrassment. While no one can say for certain what would have happend if the Spaniard hadn’t broken his collarbone in a mundane crash on Stage 3, Valverde had long gotten the better of Landis in the mountains, and his 5th place finish in the dead flat ’06 prologue was as brilliant as it was suspicious. It’s the opinion of this humble commentator that the 2006 Tour was Valverde’s race to lose.

Still, I hesitate to call Valverde’s crash “bad luck”. While Puerto left entire teams fluttering in the wind, Valverde healed up and battled gamely for the Vuelta title—holding the leaders jersey and taking a stage win in the process—before making the podium at the World Championships later that year. Puerto fallout continued into 2007, as investigations pinned Ullrich to hijo rudico and retirement, while Basso, accorded no other option by investigations in Italy, made the ludicrous claim that he didn’t inhale—but Valverde kept right on riding.

In fact, from the day some Spanish cop found a bag labelled “val.(piti)” to 2009, Valverde’s right-to-ride encountered only one major challenge: the Germans attempting to keep him from riding at the ’07 Worlds in Stuttgart, a prohibition summarily overturned by the CAS. When you’re riding dirty, it sure doesn’t hurt to have your national cycling federation, and indeed, your country’s entire judicial system willing to bend the rules on your behalf

For all of McQuaid’s flack about “mafia nations” it was the Italians who finally clipped Valverde’s wings, matching DNA taken from a rest day sample at the 2008 Tour to DNA in the EPO-laced Bag 18 seized at Operation Puerto. After another year of trial and appeal, the CAS concurred with the Italians, and slapped a two year ban on Valverde, backdated to the beginning of 2010.

To recap: Valverde, for a bag of blood that showed he’d been cheating in 2006, got 18 months off racing, a few results scratched from the records books, and four years of otherwise unencumbered competition, during which he amassed palmares including—but hardly limited to—a Vuelta, a Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a San Sebastien, and two Tour stages. And somehow, this is his idea of rough justice.

There have been a few interesting reactions to Valverde’s unrepentant stance. Joe Lindsey respects the blunt, twisted honesty of it, while @inrng sees holding the Armstrong line as a media management mistake and a bad example. But for me, the biggest problem of Valverde’s response is the delusional excoriation of the very system whose assumptions of innocence let him continue to ride.

Valverde’s sanction wasn’t the result of nefarious forces arrayed against him—it was the product of being extended the benefit of every doubt available. For anyone who missed Tyler Hamilton’s appearance on 60 Minutes, Valverde’s continued sense of persecution might be the best example of the insidious self-deception that is so often the byproduct of an artificially high hematocrit.

A Race is Only As Serious As the Rules it Follows

4 Jan

The appearance of a set of triple barriers on the US Cyclocross Nationals course caused some consternation on the Internets this morning. While the powers that be quickly clarified that no rules would be broken, even having the barriers for non-championship competitions sends what I think is a pretty dopey message.


I’m hardly one to bugger flies on the finer points of the UCI or USAC rulebooks, but I’m also of the opinion that the exhilaration of cyclocross stems mainly from the competitive aspects of the discipline.

It’s not that hurdling barriers in a dog suit or executing a clockwork-perfect beer handup isn’t freakin’ awesome; it’s that tightroping against your lactate threshold while trading elbows for a clean line through half-frozen, off-camber bends is much more so. And rules—specific, unfeeling, inflexible rules—are critical for the integrity of the competition that provides this thrill.

That’s not to say there aren’t rules with gray areas, or that there shouldn’t be races with costumes, smoke grenades, and shaving cream, but having a few arbitrary, black-and-white dictums along the lines of “no flat bars” or “no triple barriers” lets the participants know—like a dress code that bars hoodies and sneakers—exactly what kind of party this is going to be.

This is important because no one flies halfway across the country to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin in the few precious weeks most cyclists reserve for dark beers and second helpings for a catch-as-catch-can goat rodeo. They do it to race a serious, well-organized, tightly-run, national-level competition, and to test their mettle against other freds on the same course that the pros use.

As innovation crushing and counter-productive as the standards of the sport’s governing bodies might be, they are also what makes a top-level ‘cross race top-level—as integral to the experience as immaculately prepped course tape, a well-ordered starting grid, and 1970s boxing analogies from Richard Fries.

While he may have been teasing just a bit when he said it, Cycleboredom pretty much hit the nail on the head:


How The Race Was Bought

8 Dec

Back in the spring of 2010, when a short bike commute meant I still had time to make videos, I had the distinct pleasure of defending Alexander Vinokourov’s performance in what I thought was a very cannily raced Liege-Bastogne-Liege. While a host of riders may have been stronger, Vino’ leveraged timing and infighting among the favorites to get away for a his second win at the the sport’s oldest currently-running race.

Now that allegations have surfaced that Vino’ may have bought the win, I’ve gotten a few messages asking me how I feel about it. And after re-watching the video, I don’t feel all that different. Certainly, as far as the racing goes, I stand by everything I said—especially the parts about Vino’ intentionally waiting up for Kolobnev, and about how Vino’s final separation from the Russian seemed “downright pedestrian”.

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VeloNews Dead Link Article Finder

1 Dec

Enter a dead Velonews URL:

What, you thought I was just blowing hot air? For all its *ahem* foibles, Velonews.com is one of the oldest and richest cycling resources on the Internet. The Wayback Machine has snapshots dating from late 1997, and the current incarnation of the site contains at least a few stories that are over a decade old.

However, the interceding years have not been kind to this article collection—buyouts, a series of redesigns, and staff cutbacks have created an accumulated dead-link problem that’s made accessing old content almost impossible. It’s not that the books are missing—it’s just that someone’s burned the card catalogue.

Because Cyclocosm likely has more dead links heading back to the Journal of Competitive Cycling than any other single website, I decided I might as well cook up a solution. When you encounter the dreaded “Not Found” page, just copy the bad Velonews URL, come to this page, and then paste it into the text box above. You should be magically transported to the content you wanted to find.

I know of a few things that won’t work—including most of the third-party video player content, so “What Game Playremains lost to the ages it’s back! it’s down again!—but if you come across anything else that doesn’t work or find something other than what you were looking for, let me know about it. There’s a chance I could track it down manually, and the info will help me improve this solution / build a better one in the future.

"A Sprint that will be Talked About"

27 Nov

If you missed yesterday’s World Cup Cyclocross race in Koksijde, consider yourself unlucky. Aside from the usual train of heinous sand sections, this year’s Elite Men’s Race finished with a two-up sprint, won very controversially by Sven Nys.

As someone who’s watched a lot of road sprints, it seemed like a pretty obvious case of Nys closing the gate on Pauwels—and I certainly wasn’t the only one who thought so. On the road, Nys would have been relegated to second at best, and likely full-on disqualified, but after a protest and some deliberation (“a sprint that will be talked about” was how Nys’ Sporza interviewer styled it in English) the result was left unchanged.

The UCI’s official explanation of the decision—that Pauwels wouldn’t have been strong enough to get by—is…well, the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from the UCI over the years. Aside from the fact that it’s essentially impossible to assess exactly how strong a blocked rider might be, it also makes the counterproductive implication that it’s totally OK to cut people off, so long as they wouldn’t have beaten you anyway.

But as nonsensical as the “official” announcements of race directors can be, they also tend to reveal certain implied rules of the sport. When Mark Renshaw was kicked out of the 2010 Tour for headbutting (generally just a relegation) it wasn’t his actions that got him bounced—it was the fact that his teammate, Mark Cavendish, went on to win the stage. The officials couldn’t punish Cavendish–he’d done nothing wrong—but relegating the Australian would be essentially no punishment, since he hadn’t been riding for a result anyway. The message: don’t use dodgy riding to give your teammate an advantage.

So assuming the UCI officials aren’t crazy—or, as Mario De Clerq gamely suggests, swayed by Sven Nys’ position as one of the greatest ‘cross racers of all time, and a member of the UCI cyclocross commission to boot—what’s the major difference between road and cyclocross sprinting that sees Nys keep his result while, say, Giuseppe Calcaterra gets relegated?

First of all, the final sprint in cyclocross just an entirely different animal than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing from the modern road peloton. In flat stages at the Tour de France, the final kilometers are the battle ground of some dozen sprinters who’ve been keeping themselves rested and fresh all day long, before slingshotting off megawatt trains of domestiques to top speed for a final, all-out, all-or-nothing burst.

Behind them, nearly 200 others, often exhausted and essentially blind, cling desperately to the wheels in front of them just hoping to make it to the next day of racing without losing time. The bunches are huge, the speeds are incredible, and the collateral damage from a split-second mistake can be enormous.

A cyclocross sprint, on the other hand, comes following an hour-long, non-stop, full-on effort, punctuated by dozens of unsustainable surges as riders try to put daylight behind their rear wheel or draw back their rivals. Technical course features open gaps, and it’s rare to see more than a handful of riders contest a final charge. When they do, it’s a low-speed, nearly-cooked effort, on a short, straight-line finishing stretch. There’s room to manoever, plenty of road for everyone, and in the event that disaster does strike, the fallout is limited.

But I think it’s the very reality of a cyclocross race, rather than any consideration for safety, that plays the largest role in sustaining a result like yesterday’s. While position and line selection is important in road racing, in cyclocross it’s a constant consideration—as soon as you exit one corner, you’ve got to be mentally assembling your approach to the next.

The focus on where you’re putting your bike is relentless—it is as important as wattage in preserving your position, closing the gap to the riders ahead of you, and—most relevantly—denying the riders behind you an opportunity to pass. To suddenly apply the stricter (if somewhat more capriciously enforced) rules of the road sprint to cyclocross would be to suddenly alter this equation, turning the tables away from the very unique set of skills that are the essence of ‘cross.

In his post-race interview (or at least the English portion of it) Nys was unambiguous about saying he’d gone to the opposite of the road specifically to get in Pauwels’ way. What made it legal, Nys contends, is that Pauwels wasn’t yet alongside him.

The implication seems to be that Pauwels’ attempt to ride though a not-quite-wide-enough opening along the barriers was the Sunweb rider’s own poorly-calculated decision, same as if he’d tried to dive for the inside line through a corner earlier on the course, and gotten stuffed by riders ahead of him who’d set up more sensibly.

Of course, Pauwels had a different story, claiming that Nys’s knee banged into his front wheel and handlebars as the Landbouwkredit rider drove him from one side of the road to the other, before pinning him against the barrier. And if that’s true, by Nys’ own admission, he ought to be punished.

Sadly, without the all-determining helicopter camera shot, there’s no way to determine exactly how the barrier-to-barrier dance between Nys and Pauwels went down. Pauwels’ body English certainly suggests contact, but there isn’t anything definitive in the photos and videos I’ve seen. If nothing else, the last few seconds of the race are a great example of how, in cyclocross, leading out a sprint early can actually play to your advantage.

An Open Letter to The Internet about That Guy

9 Nov

That Guy

That Guy, way back when he was news
/ by Ciclismoaldia, pd

Dear Internet,

Let’s all stop talking about That Guy.

While the phrase “that guy” has a coloquial meaning (and That Guy has most certainly gone out of his way to be “that guy”) I’m actually referring to a specific person, here. A former cyclist. You know the one I’m talking about, probably because Cyclingnews ran an article about him yesterday. That Guy is a polarizing figure, and once that article was published, the Twitters (self included), and a few notable blogs rose up, with disappointing predictability and fervor, to take the bait.

Regardless of your opinion on That Guy, that was the wrong response.

(more…)

Put the Sharpie Down and Back Away from the Sidewall

8 Nov

Dugast Sidewall

In its natural state / by Brian Ellin cc-nc-sa

Occasionally, people ask me why I don’t more actively seek out work in the cycling industry. Aside from the fact that it’s an insider’s game and I’ve got the schmoozing skills of a dyspeptic orangutan, there’s just no way I could bring myself to participate in the absolute nonsense the positions tend to require—all the more so when that nonsense runs contrary to the interests of the company I would hypothetically be supporting.

Case in point—the sidewalls of the pro cyclocross bikes making the rounds on cycling news websites the past few weeks. While I applaud the spirit of whichever mechanic or press agent decided to turn Ryan Trebon’s sidewalls into a massive, garish Clement ad, it’s pretty clear no one was fooled by the effort. And while I’m sure the people at QBP smiled warmly at James Huang’s insistance that the uproariously camouflaged Dugast was merely a placeholder, it sure doesn’t look like the Typhoon has been cut from Treefarm’s arsenal. (more…)

Has The 2011 Tour de France Really Been More Dangerous?

10 Jul

As Stage 9 brought in another handful of dramatic tumbles and sent out another handful of top names, the most compelling storyline at this year’s Tour de France continues to be the crashes. Everything from the weather, to “muppets” to too many bikes has been blamed, but I can’t help but wonder if this year has actually been any more dangerous than the others.

After all, so much attention has gone to crashes this year because so many GC riders have been taken out. But is there really an increase in overall riders down? It’s rare that more than a passing nod is given to a tumble that takes out a few domestiques, but as far as overall safety is concerned, I think one rider’s abandon is as good (or bad) as any other’s.

So I’ve compiled some data for all the Tours de France since 1997 (cyclingnews.com doesn’t go back any further), looking at the percentage of riders who’ve gone home after nine stages. Obviously, it’s not a comprehensive study—early climbs and drug scandals have also played a role in thinning the pack, and not all crashes result in abandons—but I think it’s a decent ballpark metric.

Year

Starters

Stage 9 Finishers

% Attrition

1997

198

179

9.60

1998

198

168

15.15

1999

180

167

7.22

2000

180

171

5.00

2001

189

173

8.47

2002

189

182

3.70

2003

198

172

13.13

2004

189

172

8.99

2005

189

175

7.41

2006

180

170

5.56

2007

189*

171

9.52*

2008

180

170

5.56

2009

180

171

5.00

2010

198

181

8.59

2011

198

180

9.09

Avg Attrition: 8.13%*
Avg Attrition w/198: 11.11%*
Avg Attrition w/180: 5.67%
Std Dv: 3.10%*
+1 Std Dv: 11.23%*
(higher rates in red)
-1 Std Dv: 5.04%* (lower rates in green)

The numbers say some interesting things. The first is larger fields definitely increase the number of abandons—the rate of attrition by the 9th stage in a 198-rider field is almost a full standard deviation above the average since 1997, while 180-rider fields fall almost a full standard deviation below it.

As much as I’d like to see as many teams as possible contesting the sport’s biggest prize, it might just make for a better race if a few more people stayed home. Perhaps the 8-rider-teams solution floated by Craig Lewis might be a good way to get as many sponsors involved in the Tour while maximizing rider safety.

The second big takeaway is that this years race hasn’t been as brutal as you might expect in terms of sending riders home. Through nine stages, 2011 is just a touch above the 15-year-average, and well below what you’d expect for such a full field. Certainly the GC contenders have been overrepresented in the early departures, but that higher visibility doesn’t necessarily reflect a more destructive event.

The third thing that stands out to me is that—and I readily confess to falling back on the TREND(); function here—there is a slight trend toward lower attrition rates over the past 15 years (through nine stages, not correcting for field size*):
Rider attrition rate through stage 9 1997-2011

While I wouldn’t say that the ASO has ever been a tremendous advocate for rider safety, I believe this trend reflects the increasing level of sanity they’ve applied to routing each year’s Grand Boucle. Continuing in a direction that began with the end of split stages, organizers have promoted shorter routes as a way to stave off doping, while extending the “safe” zones at the end of flat stages to preserve the campaigns of GC riders caught behind crashes.

The end result of these changes has been—statistically speaking, anyway—a less destructive race, and 2011, for all the carnage we’ve seen out on the roads thus far, has been yet another step in that trend. It’s certainly felt like a more dangerous race, and viewer reactions (mine included) have helped foster that sense. But looking at the numbers, it’s pretty clear that reaction is not reflective of a greater number of crashes, but more a result of a greater public awareness of and affection for the athletes involved.

This post initially misreported the number of starters at the 2007 Tour as 198. Dossards 1-9 were omitted that year, making for only 189 starters, despite dossard 219 being the highest awarded. Numbers and figures marked (*) have been corrected from their initially reported values; the conclusions of the post remain largely unchanged.