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Dauphine Drama Can't Top The Men's Room

14 Jun

Wiggins on the Trainer by Brent BackhouseI finally got to watch some European bike racing this past weekend—a rare treat with my current schedule. But I won’t deny for a second that the big story on Sunday took place several thousand miles away, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, just outside the men’s room.

For all its storied climbs, the Dauphine has long been an exercise in posturing and one-off performance. In 1999, Jon Vaughters famously used the race to “answer some questions” about his riding abilities. In 2003, Iban Mayo lured Armstrong into a deep-dug defense of his lead at the race, and it almost cost the Texan a record-tying 5th Tour de France the following month. Most commentators saw Armstrong’s “disappointing” finish in 2004 coming a mile away.

This year, while it was good to see Brad Wiggins riding with aplomb in the hills, I can’t say that there was any less gamesmanship than previous editions. Cadel Evans, for example seemed to be a bit off, but he told the press he was happy enough with second—no surprise, considering the front wheel he rode in the TT, which would have been behind the curve in the Cat 3 fields I race. It is especially strange in light of the Super Secret Project Bike he’d been on in the prologue. And then there was the heads of state bunch sprint for second on the final day, on top of a Cat 1 climb, won (behind an uncontested late jump by Joaquim Rodriguez) by a young FdJ rider who’d been in the break essentially from the gun.

Now lets compare this to the Armstrong/Hamilton incident. At first blush, it is indeed a bit dull, but a quick glance at logistics make it a bit more interesting than “two men meeting in a toilet“. After all, news of Hamilton’s visit had been well publicized—the press even extracted a quote from local flavor Charlie Tarver, who also happens to own/operate Hub of Aspen, a bike shop and Trek dealership where Armstrong goes “to be a regular person“.

Tyler Hamilton at the Tour of California by Dan HarrelsonOn Saturday, Armstrong attended a benefit Century in Tennessee organized by Nissan. That’s probably why Hamilton thought Lance would be out of town that night. But Hamilton didn’t anticipate that Armstrong’s teammates would power through the ride at a decidedly uncharitable 25mph pace. Even with “leisurely” stops and a relatively flat parcours, that’s a pretty quick event appearance.

Now, maybe Armstrong rides that hard at most events in an effort to keep the pack around him down. Certainly the magic of the private jet would have easily allowed Armstrong to get back to Colorado by that evening after wrapping up the bike ride at noon without any special haste. And off-season Aspen is indeed a pretty small town—Tyler wouldn’t have been hard to find, and a chance meeting at one of Armstrong’s favorite eateries isn’t entirely out of the question.

But the confrontation itself went down so late in the evening—between 11 and 11:30pm—that I have a hard time believing it was a casual happenstance. Armstrong appeared at the Tennessee ride at 7am—that’s 5am Mountain Time. A long day with a century, even if he napped on the plane. Compounding the issue, reports of the meeting itself were a little scattered, to say the least. Schaffer ‘s initial tweets said Cache Cache was “crawling” with Outside Magazine staff, yet the magazine’s later blog post says most of them were across the street.

My guess? Armstrong probably got a tip after getting home that Hamilton was at Cache Cache. A quick Google search pulled up the Hamilton event announcement, and minutes later, Armstrong was on his way over, without thinking especially hard about whether this might constitute witness tampering or not. A bunch of journalists, a bit jumbled from The Pass, thin air, and whatever it is that Outside drinks, were on hand, but not quite ready to catch the meeting.

So, when you can tell me that Gilberto Simoni will jet into the TdS from the other side of Europe, intercept Damiano Cunego coming out of the bathroom of his favorite Swiss eatery, and deliver the ultimatum that he better lose the race or some long-buried positive test will be revealed, all under the noses of a gaggle of besotted writers from L’Equipe, then I’ll expect the race to be top news on every cycling site.

But if the best you can do is a daredevil descent from Peter Sagan (nothing to shrug at under normal circumstances) I’m afraid these tune-up events will continue to play second fiddle to the sort of off-course intrigue that only Lance Armstrong can deliver.

Why The Haters Hate

29 May

Let’s imagine for a second that 10/2 never happens. Armstrong—the twitchy, track-suited, wannabe frat boy captured in the video below—never gets cancer. The sniffle he has here is just a cold. He goes on to have a good career, wins some classics, buys some cars, and retires, either after catching a dope positive, or getting away scot-free—it’s up to you.

Had that been the case, you wouldn’t be reading this. The bike racing and riding public in America would be a mere shadow of its current self, and millions of cancer sufferers would still view their disease as a crippling, unrecoverable plague. If, through some luck, you did still follow cycling, you’d probably consider yourself an Armstrong fan; he’d be a lone, underachieving American hero in your obscure, European sport.

Objectively speaking, there’s no way to say that the end result of the cancer, the stepped-up “preparation”, the work with Ferrari, the personality cult, and the Livestrong brand were bad things—for the sport or for the world. So why, then, is there such a groundswell in the cycling community to see Armstrong fall? Why do the haters hate?

I don’t claim to have the same motivations as everyone, but the fact is I don’t really care that Armstrong cheated. I don’t have a problem with him being a complex character, at once guilty and an inspiration. On occasion, I even think he did a pretty good job racing the bike.

But what I find a constant source of consternation and embarrassment, is that despite all the Tour wins, and millions of dollars for cancer, and other accomplishments, under it all, Armstrong still comports himself as the gel-haired bro-caricature captured in this video.

The legal battles, the past-prime comeback, nobodies on Twitter, the heckler battling, the Chair You’re Sitting In, the increasingly transparent denials, trying to “win” assembling a legal team the way he tries to “win” collecting art—for a man who should have nothing to prove, Armstrong’s inability to gracefully accept even the tiniest of slights and compulsion to continually pad his legacy is pathetic.

Had Armstrong been a lesser rider, it could be overlooked—we all have flaws. But he isn’t a lesser rider. He is the public face of cycling, and has a far larger pull than the sport itself ever will. By all accounts, Armstrong dominated almost a decade of unsustainable rule-breaking, and as the pre-eminent rider of that era, the onus is on him to simply admit what the rest of the world already knows.

The sad part is that because Lance has so fortified himself in the myth of his performance, the consequences of a confession now will likely be harsh. His legacy will be tarnished. Cancer research may suffer. He might even go to jail. And that’s not entirely fair. But celebrity is a double-edged sword, and for the hundreds of millions he’s raised on his reputation, he owes the world the courtesy of owning up to his transgressions.

So until that moment comes, I’m viewing the Fall of Fortress Armstrong with a certain satisfaction. Not with any particular malice toward the man, or for the heady glee of watching a tyrant hang, but as an audience member at an Elizabethan play. Armstrong is our tragic hero, and his fatal flaw is the monomaniacal focus that had until now served him so well. Unable to account for it, he’ll continue stacking denial upon denial, until the whole house of cards tumbles in a familiar, inescapable denoument.

A Curious List

14 May

Browsing L'Equipe by inkyIs there anything that triggers an “OMG LEAK” response more effectively than a clandestine list? Nixon’s enemies, law firm layoffs, and of course, financial information.

But the UCI’s Index of Suspicion leaked a few days ago is especially curious because all we have is metadata—scores that the UCI has made up ostensibly based on actual measurements. But L’Equipe’s intrepid journalists failed both in nailing down the specific criteria used by the UCI, or the data that were fed into these criteria to arrive at a given doping suspicion index score.

Strangely, we do have a fairly extensive set of data on what an index score of 4 might look like —and we have Lance Armstrong to thank for it. There are some hopeful assumptions in this assessment (namely, that the UCI even has an objective set of criteria, and that Lance’s ’09 data informed his ’10 score), but it’s still the best (only?) set of actual numbers we have.

And to my layman’s eyes, 4 doesn’t seem like such a bad spot to put Armstrong’s numbers. They are not especially high, but do show a stubborn consistency—perhaps even the “too normal” values that prompted the bio passport experts to propose hiding values from riders for a few months. There was also the mid-Tour hematocrit increase, much-trumpeted by amateur Internet hematologists as evidence of a transfusion.

But in many other ways, the list makes the UCI (and some teams and national governing bodies) look bad. There’s the obvious criticisms: how could this list get out in the first place, and why weren’t the highest-rated riders the most heavily tested? But more damning is efficacy of enforcement. If Popovych was the most suspicious rider at the 2010 Tour, and he’s been tied up in at least one investigation since then, how is he still riding?

As someone pointed out on Twitter (my apologies for losing the link), Alessandro Ballan has been suspended twice for investigations, is now pretty solidly linked to several transfusions, but still only rated a 5 on the UCI’s list. As more-successful-than-not Ballan likely had money to burn on medical assistance, I’m inclined the chalk this up to the skills of a good doctor, though it could just as easily be cast as a judgement on the ineffectiveness of the bio passport system.

The riders, who seemed to react the most negatively and immediately to the list, will likely be the least affected in the end. Cycling may indeed be all politics, but for the vast majority of riders—those that block the wind, carry bottles, and mark breaks—the difference between a suspicion level of zero and four, in data over a year old, will have far less impact than a reliable record of performance and a few big names willing to vouch for you .

The higher levels of suspicion—a total of 20 riders ranked 7 and above—are populated almost exclusively by almost-there contenders, and super-domestiques with a few major wins to their credit. While I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the older names had trouble landing a job in the future, the continued re-emergence of convicted dopers is a pretty straightforward indication that suspicion will never trump results.

So as pretty much everyone else has already pointed out, the damage from this list will fall most heavily on its creator, the UCI—just in time for them to decide that nah, one of the most historically effective national anti-doping agencies shouldn’t be allowed to operate independent testing at the Tour of California after all.

A Brief Study of Economics

3 May

Alessandro Ballan by Cindy TrossaertAh, finally—the mail server is down at work, freeing me to check in for a bit.

You’d think taking a pay cut to drive two hours a day at $4.05/gallon would find me doing something more productive than wrestling one of the more infuriating pieces of software I’ve ever used into submission. But the Panglossian infallibility of market economics being what it is, I remain certain my time could not be better spent doing anything else.

Nor could Johan Bruyneel’s, for that matter, as he heads off with to the Giro d’Italia with a fat wad of RadioShack’s money and the strongest team since Disney brought us The Big Green. In all honestly, if they called themselves “rag-tag”, it would rouse righteous indignation in Keystone Cop precincts from Bari to Bergamo—that is, assuming the continued presence of Yaroslav Popovych hasn’t done so already.

One has to wonder if this is what RadioShack executives had in mind when they ponied up for the final inflation of the Armstrong Bubble. Do they gaze enviously toward the Garmin megaplex in Olathe, Kansas, and see a company that can’t get its name out of press no matter what the results sheets say? In implosion, in victory, and above all, in intrigue, drama, and speculation, the mutton chops are ever-present.

Yes, it seems only when handily outfoxed and overpowered by a continental squad at a smaller event—as they were by Team Type 1 at the Tour of Turkey—has Garmin managed to keep out of the headlines. Press that selective makes it seem like having a name on a WorldTour jersey might just be worth $90 million dollars after all.

I suppose it all comes down to how you value the “straight to the headlines” exposure that comes from doping—with BMC’s Alessandro Ballan being the latest example. While they didn’t seem thrilled with it at the time, I can’t imagine Festina is suffering from a lasting affiliation with the events of July 1998; indeed, they still market heavily on their affiliation with the sport.

Perhaps a little criminality is a good thing—could what finally created a sales niche for Delorean return a similar reward for BMC?

Three Stooges Syndome

5 Apr

Girona Training camp by Team Garmin-CerveloIt’s always a little uncomfortable to tell professionals in the cycling world that they’re “doing it wrong”. After all, I can sit here with limited talent and no experience and say pretty much anything I want and face no repercussions—I don’t even have to worry about offending a sponsor or future stonewalling from press agents.

That said, Garmin-Cervelo is doing it wrong.

It doesn’t have much to do with their Flanders performance. The squad has taken an inordinate amount of heat for a radio conversation that at the time made plenty of tactical sense. In fact, it even turned out to be the winning decision, just for another team—and that’s kind of my point.

Garmin-Cervelo’s strategy of “letting the road decide the leader” doesn’t really work in cycling. It’s an attractive, ego-friendly dictum, and you can find it munging things up at pretty much any level of the sport. Go to a local race, watch the team riding like nonsense, and I can all but guarantee that their “plan” going in was to “see what happened” and “let the race decide”.

At the pro level, it tends to be a mark of deep intra-squad strife, or at the very least, poor organization. I will admit that keeping two riders in decent GC shape at a three-week Grand Tour makes a bit more sense, as it can be good insurance, and also an important strategic lever.

But as the classics have no GC competition, “race-determines-leader” seldom ends well. A semi-protected lieutenant placing in the second group brings no advantage to the next race. Similarly, if your leader crashes and falls off the pace, he or she begins at square one with every other rider the next weekend. Yes, the chances are higher of disaster striking a given rider at the classics, but the numerous clean-slate restarts throughout the spring make the risk worthwhile.

Plus, there are some practical concerns. When the peloton lines-out in a classic, over narrow streets, surfaces with maybe one rideable line, and up grades where any hesitation or mishap means missing a critical selection, there’s no time to democratically work out which rider sits on and which rider pulls. There’s even less room to let “the road” determine leadership by having two teammates fight for a single opening. If both riders are strong, one should be protecting space, eating wind, or pushing the pace to the advantage of the other; otherwise, it becomes a literal case of Three Stooges Syndrome:

Finally, you only get to put eight riders on the start line at most big one-days. With three leaders, you’ve only got five support riders. With three of those riding as “bodyguards”, that leaves two guys to chase, get bottles, cover breaks, and cover all the other intangibles that make the sport so interesting. Over an au bloc 260km effort, those two domestiques simply aren’t going to get the job done.

It’s tough to claim that Garmin-Cervelo currently packs a more star-studded line-up than the Mapei or Domo Farm-Frites teams of the 90s-00s. Yet rare were the moments where Patrick Lefevere had to explain to the press why his superteam wasn’t winning. Sure, there was the occasional gripe from a slighted rider after a pre-arranged finish order, but for the most part, the order went out, the squad closed ranks, and the wins rolled in.

Patrick Lefevere at Dwars Door Vlaanderen by Cindy TrossaertThe commitment is total, as Paolo Bettini’s memories of the 2000 Liege, or scenes of a yellow-clad Victor Hugo Pena dropping back to get bottles, can attest. The director says “today, we ride for Hushovd” and everyone else, because they’re pros, says “yes, directore“. It’s a unfair system, prone to politics and unfriendly to careers, but it also wins bike races. Prize money isn’t split to reward effort; it’s done to suppress dissent.

And I think this hesitation to enforce top-down authority is at the root of Garmin-Cervelo’s problem. You’ve got JV saying things like “when you have two riders and one says he doesn’t have it, what can you do?” The answer is nuke the guy who doesn’t have it to put the guy who does in a position to win. Many pixels have been scattered about how agreeable things are between Garmin’s stars, but to my mind, that’s more reason for Vaughters to stand up and say “today, you are the man”. Set the heirarchy from the start and no one wastes time wondering whose bottles to tote.

Obviously, it’s tough to choose between riders who are all on-form, but much like barking an order over the radio, deciding a pre-race leader does not translate directly into outcome. Servais Knaven didn’t win Roubaix because he was protected—he won because Lefevere told him “get to the front or die trying so we can smash Hincapie“.

Knaven did his job, and as luck would have it, his attack turned out to be the winning move. Similarly, Stijn Devolder’s back-to-back winning solos at Flanders were designed to take the pressure off the squad, and leave more riders to look after the real leader, Tom Boonen. Pozzato’s win at Sanremo, Burghardt’s Gent-Wevelgem—plenty of riders have had their day working to the advantage of a teammate.

On paper, Gamin-Cervelo is almost custom-tailored for Roubaix. But every time they split resources between riders, they get half as good. This Sunday, they need to pick one guy, put everything behind him, and never look back. In a sport where the road will always have its say in determining a winner, a team focus on a single leader will always be the best bet. If you don’t believe me, just ask Bjarne Riis and Nick Nuyens.

Don't Say "American" Like It's A Bad Thing

2 Apr

USA USA USA by Mingo HagenDespite—and in many ways, because of—my immersion in American culture, I am well aware of its many dislikable aspects. Conspicuous consumption. An increasingly embarrassing income gap. The wholesale embrace of opinion without the discomfort of thought on both ends of the political spectrum. But what I simply do not understand is profound toxicity of the American brand in the upper echelons of European cycling.

I get the fatigue aspect—seven Tour wins, the cynics, the comeback, chair you’re sitting on, etc. Anyone who denies a touch of eye glaze around 2004 or so clearly isn’t a cycling fan. But time after time, when one European cycling group seeks to discredit another, the American card is one of the first played.

When laying out his arguments against the ProTour back in 2005, ASO President Patrice Clerc told Cyclingnews that “The second issue on which we disagree [with the UCI – ed.] is on a sporting level. We cannot conceive that a European sports system should be founded on an American, closed model.”

As far as I can tell, Clerc’s criticism was simply about a lack of any promotion/relegation system within the nascent league. And while it’s true that no major American sports use such a system, it’s not a particularly specific description. One could just as easily interpret “American, closed model” as a profit-shared, salary-capped, free-agent system that gives even the most historically woeful squads a decent shot at a title each season.

More recently, UCI President Pat McQuaid attempted to paint a potential breakaway league with the American brush. “It is only in the American-style sports where you have professional leagues…where the money just revolves around the group of people who are involved in it,” said McQuaid, elaborating that “a certain amount of greed” was driving the split.

While more descriptive than his counterpart at the ASO, McQuaid’s additional specificity is a bit of an Achilles’ Heel. Yes, major sports leagues in the US make an obscene amount of money, and yes, most of that goes to a very small group of people. But the riches of Croesus allow a certain independence; the NFL doesn’t circle the wagons around a superstar when allegations arise. And while US sport are way, way behind on drug testing, standards, and enforcement, athlete donations still won’t suppress a positive result anytime soon.

McQuaid cites the donation of six used bicycles from each ProTour team to “developing countries” as an example of the UCI’s commitment to helping the entire sport; I find myself wondering if this is before or after they were sold for drugs.

Johan Bruyneel by Dave StromIn all seriousness, though, American sports leagues and their extremely well-compensated athletes drop massive amounts of coin on first-world and third-world problems alike. I don’t generally subscribe to the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats, but arguing that the ostensible lack of profit motive somehow makes the “European” system more altruistic than the “American” one is patently ridiculous.

The fact is that what cycling needs right now is more Americanness. Take Johan Bruyneel—Belgian, steeped in cycling, widely regarded as one of the more effective directors in recent memory. But for all his past successes, he’s a creature of embarrassing habit—he knows one way and one way alone to win a bike race, and his record at the classics—and at the 2010 Tour de France—illustrate this plainly.

When asked about his role in a possible breakaway league by the Belgian press, the Bruyneel said “Cycling is a very difficult sport for television. In the first ten stages of the Tour de France…there is just nothing to see. This is how it is.”

The chaos of the Ardennes stage at last year’s Tour? The drama over the cobbles at mini-Roubaix? “Nothing to see”. In Bruyneel’s mind, the TdF model was set in 2002: the first week will always be dull, the best rest day refill will always determine the winner.

Contrast this with Jonathan Vaughers—an American who, by his own admission, came up through the ranks getting slaughtered on teams that discouraged doping, before taking a stellar Dauphine win on Mt. Ventoux that “answered a lot of questions”.

For some reason, the obvious lesson of this experience—that doping wins bike races—was lost on the American, and he went on to build one of the better squads in the world on the lunatic notion that cyclists don’t need to do drugs. He’s currently agitating for cycling to take full advantage of its commercial potential.

It’s this willingness to reinvent that cycling needs. American sports, for all their closed, oligarchical aspects, have continually refined themselves, tweaking rules, regulations, and culture as new developments arise. Consensus attitude in Europe seems to be that things are the way they are and cannot be changed, even if it’s a matter of survival.

Decades of the status-quo “European” style oversight has given cycling a fantastic historical appeal. But the difference between classic and antique is rooted in utility—a system that no longer meets the needs of its users will invariably find itself shelved in favor of one that can. And unless the sport realizes this, and allows itself to acquire some of the aspects that have made American sports so successful, cycling will increasing find itself on the sidelines, gathering dust.

The Promising Implications of Two-League Cycling

24 Mar

Sympathy for the Devil

Race officials looking bored by michelle658I’m not an especially big fan of the UCI, but don’t let the apparel fool you—they’re far from useless. In the past two decades, the governing body has actually made some pretty solid steps for the sport.

When I began following cycling about a decade ago, most sponsors were essentially unknown to me—small French and Italian firms like Bonjour and Pata-Chips. But a concerted effort from the UCI to entice bigger, more secure, more international backers has lead to a host of brands I’d heard of before—Columbia, HTC, Discovery Channel, T-Mobile, Skype, RadioShack, Garmin, Transitions, Chipotle, to name a few—at least dabbling in the sport since then.

The UCI’s efforts in this area have also all but eliminated the mid-season meltdowns that struck with regularity—Mercury and Coast most prominent among them. It’s not that the UCI has made things perfect (there was Astana’s brief refusal to pay, and who could forget the phony bank guarantee), but on the whole, the efforts have had a positive impact. At the ’06 Tour, Paul Kimmage—a former domestique—was struck by how much the improved funding has made things better for replaceable, also-ran riders.

The UCI has also done well to balance this sponsor attraction with improved anti-doping efforts—no, seriously. Since McQuaid’s tenure began, and efforts got underway to move toward a ProTour-like structure, we’ve seen three (counting Contador) Yellow Jerseys removed from the backs of dopers. We’ve seen guys like Rebellin, DiLuca, Ricco, Valverde, Kohl—the best of the best—busted, tried, and removed from the sport. It may seem easy to simply improve the testing and enforce the rules, but doing this while simultaneously attracting bigger money to the sport is a mighty fine tightrope to walk.

Sure, you could point to guys like Thomas Frei who (despite getting caught) say that it’s easy to beat the tests, but even with all the drama and exclusions surrounding the Festina Affair, riders looking to dope before 2005 simply didn’t face the same challenges, frequency of testing, or stringency of punishment that they do today. Raimondas Rumsas was a fish in a barrel compared to the meticulous, consistant work done to bring down Franco Pellizotti. As I’ve said before, the tests don’t have to be perfect—just good enough to make cheating not worth the risk.

Ultima Ratio Regum

Louis XIV by Hyacinthe RigaudThe problem with all this positive change, however, is that much of it comes at the expense of people and business that have supported and promoted cycling for years—in some cases, for over a century. There’s nothing wrong with this per se (the doping, wage exploitation and other problems arose on their watch, after all), but they’re understandably upset to have control over a good source of income suddenly in the hands of a very isolated, very opaque group in a mountain stronghold, a thousand kilometers away.

And herein lies the root problem: the UCI’s regulatory authority stems solely from its affiliation with the International Olympic Committee. The IOC (an organization hardly known for integrity itself) has literally “blessed” the UCI as the only governing body for the world’s cycling events. When a race organizer asks “why”, the respons is “because the IOC says we can”.

As a result, the UCI simply is not set up to represent the interests of all the shareholders in cycling. While many of their extensive rule sets do seem carefully thought out, it’s an internal process. People from outside the UCI are indeed consulted—just not the ones who are likely to disagree. For example John Lelangue was a member of the radio earpiece working group in 2010, when his BMC squad’s ProTeam status just so happened to be under consideration. Should we chalk it up to coincidence that this meeting resulted in both a radio ban and guaranteed entries to all major events for Lelangue’s team?

And it’s not just radios. The UCI has seemed unable to come to terms with other groups on any number of issues. They sparred with the AFLD over dope controls at the Tour de France, and with teams on sponsor logo color choices in a sport where everything is covered in mud anyway. They’ve taken issue with seemingly meaningless equipment distinctions, and most prominently, fought with the Grand Tour organizers over control of races.

A House Divided

The last time the UCI/Organizer Schism reared its ugly head was in 2008, ostensibly over who had the right to invite teams to events. It wasn’t a new problem—the ASO, along with Giro organizer RCS and Vuelta organizer Unipublic, previously appeared ready to break with the governing body in 2005 and 2007 over similar issues.

But while it may look like the same old discussion, this time around the situation is different. For starters, the radio issue has pushed the teams and riders away from the UCI, who they (eventually) came around to supporting in ’05-’06. The Grand Tour Cartel also has the support of some of the few notable independent race organizers, including those responsible for the Tour of California—a race which, just two years ago, seemed aimed at stripping power from the Cartel by weakening the Giro.

Despite the forces of everyone else in the sport now arrayed against them, the UCI still refuses to acknowledge that this is about more than radios. Their response, an open letter from Pat McQuaid described, in too little detail and far too late, the process through which the radio ban was born. Using the doping issue when convenient (rider protests) and ignoring it when not (German TV rights), the letter comes across as a meandering populist appeal, meant to convince the disenfranchised that a ballot filed in spirit is as good as one filled out in fact.

In the past, compelling arguments have been made against a divided league. But times have changed. In 2007, the sport was still reeling from the first disqualification of a Tour winner since 1904, and coming to grips with the notion that (after seven very profitable years) addressing the doping problem head-on was better than sweeping it under the rug.

Four years and dozens of “bad for cycling” positives later, the sport still exists. The doping issue, while not solved, is actively prosecuted. There is no other sport that takes anti-doping as seriously as cycling, and as a result, there are more pressing problems—foremost among them, the inability of those who make their living in the sport to have a say in its future. And I think a split league may be the only way to guarantee that right.

The UCI needs to realize that other than IOC approval, it has no trump cards. All of the races that made cycling what it is today are the property of organizations it routinely fails to represent. Full-on rider bans—as threatened in 2008—simply won’t happen because, for better or for worse, cycling is the Tour de France. If decisions are either/or between the Olympics and the Tour, even the shut-ins at Aigle know which way the scales will tip.

Competition Means a Competitive Sport

Vaughters by kwcIn my eyes, the emerging situation—if everyone digs in their heels—is two separate, non-exclusive, season-long race circuits, one run by the UCI, and the other by a committee of those currently opposing the group—and I think that has the potential to be a very good thing for cycling.

The UCI will hopefully retain enough pull with emerging international races like the Tour of Poland and the Quebec one-days that most teams still fulfill the legal and ethical obligations laid down in its bylaws to retain eligibility. On the other circuit, freedom from the UCI rulebook will allow the competing races to experiment with new equipment, new race formats, and to invite teams to races based on performance during the season, instead of politics the previous fall.

The split format would also make an ostensibly-independent WADA an obvious choice to oversee and enforce doping regulations in both leagues—a huge step up from the currently inconsistent patchwork of national federations.

Hopefully, the direct comparison will allow everyone involved with or following the sport to see what rules matter, and what rules probably don’t, as well as provide an open and democratic testing ground on issues from equipment to contract negotiations. Additionally, competition between the two circuits would accelerate the adoption of positive changes, and as well hastening the demise of outdated rules. One only has to look at the runaway commercial success of American Football to see that a string of competing leagues have been very good for business.

This could be construed as a fairly rosy prediction, and one that seems downright ingenuous given the past history of The Grand Tour Cartel. But as I noted earlier, the major change this time around is that riders and teams are now the driver, with the entrenched European media oligarchs simply along for the ride.

I can’t imagine a savvy dealmaker like Jon Vaughters would blithely trade one set of dictators for another—but it wouldn’t be the first time in history that a revolution has been duped.

It's Good Not To Be The King

10 Mar

Sanchez' finger, from Steephill.TV and ReutersI got to guest post on The Selection today, and my basic thesis was that, despite the fact it means going slower and not winning, being a mid-pack racer is kind of awesome.

Further reinforcement of that theory from today’s Paris-Nice finish: it’s several hours later and the Twitterati still can’t believe it—Sammy Sanchez lost a heads-of-state sprint. Not only did he lose it, but he lost it to Andreas Kloden, who famously lost the closest (and most gangly-limbed) finish in TdF history back in 2005.

Now, it’s not inconceivable that the famously quick Sanchez would have lost—Klodi had a good lead out, and Sanchez occasionally mistimes his final punch. But, being right up at the front in a WorldTour race means a million prying eyes are watching your every move; enter a Reuters cameraman and the discerning eye of @inrng, to catch the Spaniard appearing to use his left lever in the closing meters.

It’s tricky to imagine why he’d be doing this. Braking would seem to be out of the question. Plenty of riders, from experience in cyclocross or on motorcycles, swap the front and rear brakes, but as far as I know, there are no parts manufacturers that have shift/break bodies that are reverseable—right has to shift the rear, and left has to shift the front.

Maybe he was shifting/had just shifted between chainrings because he was worried about running out of gears or chainline, but even with top-shelf electronic parts, a front shift under any kind of power really is sticking your finger in the devil’s eye.

The other scenario (and I think the easiest to explain) is that Sanchez did hit the brakes. He could have done this because he’s a klutz (not unheard of among cyclists) or because he didn’t want the burden of race leadership (the two stages after the TT, while not obvious game-changers, have some potential to be decisive) or because there was some sort of agreement that Kloden would be allowed to win in exchange for money/future support/2012 contract/what have you.

Regardless, people have noticed, and Sanchez will probably have to conjure up some sort of acceptable explanation over the next few days. Much nicer, I think, to be competing at a lower level, or rolling in with the group, to keep any of your dabbling in cycling’s middle layer out of the prying public eye.

Why Strade Bianche Won't Be A WorldTour Event

7 Mar

Craig Lewis by fsteele770

Craig Lewis is dead-on about the outright quality of Montepaschi Strade Bianche in his most recent Versus post. The race is sensational, but unfortunately, that’s why the UCI will likely do everything in its power to keep it out of cycling’s top tier for the foreseeable future.

Strade Bianche was founded and is organized by RCS, the Italian Media Conglomerate that owns the Giro, Milan-Senremo, Tour of Lombardy, Tirreno-Adriatico and (I believe) a few other notable Italian Races as well.

Along with their counterparts in France and Spain, RCS has been waging an on-and-off turf war with the UCI over the cycling calendar; the UCI wants less emphasis on traditionally important events and more on a season long campaign, while the Grand Tour Cartel would like to consolidate and expand its stable of established cycling events.

It’s tough to pick good-guys and bad-guys in the feud; siding with the UCI would help expand cycling beyond Europe, but they governing body has also got a habit of producing snoozy, unromantic events. The Cartel does a great job preserving the historical pillars of the sport, but at the expense of the rest of the calendar, and events in the rest of the world. Neither group is compelling as an objective, reliable central authority.

Fortunately for fans and riders, the two seem to have reached a detente. With the formation of the WorldTour, an agreement on dope testing and even—for the rest of 2011—an ongoing cease-fire on radio earpieces, things are more or less OK between the factions.

But the promotion of a Cartel-owned event (especially one as instantly charismatic as Strade Bianche) would almost certainly upset the balance of power, and the UCI is smart to keep it off the list. For the time being, RCS is content not to promote its latest creation to preserve the status (and profitability) of the events it already runs.

Raw Documents – The Verbruggen/Landis Exchange

4 Feb

When Paul Kimmage released the full transcript of his interview with Floyd Landis earlier this week, it didn’t take a PR expert to predict what the UCI’s response would be. Pat McQuaid flatly denied all allegations made in the interview, claimed that “there has never been corruption in the UCI”, and went on to take a few swipes at “bloggers and so forth”.

While it may be true that a good deal of Landis’ allegations are difficult to substantiate, paperwork obtained by Cyclocosm indicates at least one claim happens to be very well-documented: Floyd’s back-and-forth with the UCI over unpaid wages from 2001.

In that year, Landis was riding for Mercury-Viatel, an American-registered squad that had just made the jump to Division 1 in hopes of gaining entry to the Tour de France. Due to some colossal mismanagement (you can read Whit Yost‘s fantastic first-hand account here and here), the team was in serious financial difficulty by March—the same point that Landis’ paychecks stopped arriving.

The UCI has a set of regulations concerning pro teams, and one of them involves a sizable bank guarantee, to be opened by the UCI to pay riders and staff in the event the team cannot make payments. Despite repeated requests, the UCI refused to draw from the guarantee to pay Landis, and after two more months, he hired a lawyer. This is where our paper trail begins:

First Document – 30 Jul 2001: An email from Michael P Rutherford, a lawyer representing both Chris Horner (Floyd’s teammate on Mercury) and Floyd Landis, to the UCI. It is addressed “Dear Sirs” but mentions prior conversations with “Mr. Rumpf” and “Mr. Verbiest” [most likely Alain Rumpf, the current director of the UCI ProTour, and Philippe Verbiest, a lawyer for the UCI, who threatened legal action against Landis after his confessions last year].

The message expresses Rutherford’s concern at his inability to contact the correct parties at the UCI regarding the bank guarantee (“I was told there was no one who can tell me the current situation”), and states firmly but politely that the rule obligates the UCI to pay (“the rule is quite clear that the UCI is required to draw upon the bank guarantee”). The letter concludes with a “request that the UCI contact me immediately”. [download document].

Second Document – 9 Aug 2001: A fax from Rutherford to Christian Varin, former UCI anti-doping co-ordinator. The message acknowledges a fax sent from Varin the previous day, presumably about the bank guarantee.

In this second document, Rutherford’s wording is more direct (“Therefore I once again demand that the UCI draw on the bank guarantee”), and details are discussed in greater depth. Mercury-Viatel manager John Wordin has apparently revealed his inability to pay to Horner and Landis, as well as the UCI, and “therefore it is continuing negligence of the UCI” to not draw on the bank guarantee.

Rutherford mentions that Wordin and Verbiest are attempting to forge “an alternative solution” with the riders, but forcefully insists that “Mr. Horner and Mr. Landis will not agree to the arrangement”, and thus the guarantee must be drawn on. Failure to do so, Rutherford reiterates, “is therefore subjecting the UCI to possible liability”; he goes on to question whether the bank guarantee even exists, and requests “satisfactory proof” of it immediately.

The fax’s final paragraph begins with an appeal to mercy (“Mr. Horner had to have a garage sale to pay his monthly bills and feed his children this month”), rolls into a cataloguing of the treachery of Wordin (he “continues to spend what money he has left on his personal bills and proposition new riders for the year 2002 while he simultaneously tells his riders to stick by him and he will provide them with jobs…”), before closing by asking the UCI to see that riders “will be taking care of [sic] rather than being further victimized”. [download document]

Final Document – 10 Aug 2001 A fax from UCI President Hein Verbruggen to Rutherford, insisting that Rutherford’s “aggressive approach might perhaps work in the USA, but it does not in Europe, and most definitely, not with me”. Verbruggen maintains that the UCI legal department has “explicitly followed the rules”.

The fax goes on to suggest that the amount of money involved is too small to worry about (“Your aggressiveness is not at all justified by a claim of $6,666.66”), and that because of the legal action implied by the letter, the UCI will now drag its feet on the claim (“I have given order to our legal department to take the tone of your approach into account when it comes to following up on your request”). [download document]

These documents reveal a UCI that isn’t as beyond reproach as McQuaid insists. Rutherford’s letters, for all their rambling, typo-rich freneticism, are hardly what most people would consider “aggressive” in stance, suggesting “possible” liability, and making no explicit threat of further action. The opacity Rutherford complains about is as frustrating as ever, and his most serious allegation—that the UCI might not actually have a valid bank guarantee—turns out not to be so crazy.

In fact, the legal standing of Landis’ complaint might be among the least-compelling things brought up in this exchange. I believe that this portion of the UCI rulebook currently lays out the protocol for drawing on a bank guarantee. With a decade of potential changes between this case and today, it’s tough to tell, but the immediacy with which the UCI must pay up doesn’t seem to be specified.

What’s definitely not present in the statute, however, is any clause saying that creditors will be paid by the UCI based on their attitude toward the governing body. While I’ll stop short of calling Verbruggen’s actions “corruption”, they certainly don’t inspire faith in the integrity of the organization—especially after that line about how this “might work in the USA”. In case you’d forgotten, this isn’t the first time Verbruggen’s used a comparison with the United States as means of derision.

Furthermore, Verbruggen’s reply fails to address any of the rather pertinent issues in Rutherford’s letters. While I admire the effort to mediate the Mercury disaster, that’s a matter for Wordin’s lawyers, not the UCI’s. The continued wheeling-and-dealing of an admittedly destitute team manager is just the sort of thing the UCI should be aiming to squelch. Is it any wonder that Landis took the UCI’s behavior in this case as a sign that it had no intentions of following through on its own guidelines?

Aside from starkly refuting the picture of the UCI presented by its president, these documents also go a good way toward restoring a bit of Landis’ battered credibility. His recollection of the events described run very close to the facts, and even Verbruggen’s mean-spirited reply does not seem to have been unduly slanted. While I wouldn’t interpret it as proof for his full battery of allegations, it certainly takes the “Floyd has zero credibility” rebuttal off the table.