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I Fight Fauxthority

12 Apr

Script

(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

So today I’m going to take aim at—god, I don’t even know what to call it. Authority? Nah, sounds too punk rock. Old fogeydom? Well, there’s nothing wrong with being an old fogey, per se—many of them are quite entertaining.  North Korean press release syndrome? Eeeeh, too topical. I’m just gonna give you some examples that’ll hopefully make it a little clearer what I’m talking about.

So this past Sunday—that’d be Paris-Roubaix for those of you out there with short memories—NBC Sports Network was all “hey, checkout our live coverage, starting at 8am, Eastern”. And you know, as much as that network and I have had our differences in the past, I’m gonna attempt to reward the effort, you know? Give credit where it’s due.  

I mean, TV is still so neanderthal that its analytics rely on magical boxes delivered to an allegedly representative cross section of the US audience that is somehow immune to response bias, so it’s not gonna make a difference one way or another whether anyone without a Nielson box watches, but hey—I am an INFLUENCER. I can still tweet an atta-boy or two, maybe polish up that NBC Sports Network Reputation just a touch.

But when I flipped on the ole’ boob tube, I got some serious deja vu. No big deal, I thought, just recapping what happened 20 minutes prior. But then I got the post-Arenberg regrouping. Then a commercial. Then more of what I’d already seen. I tweeted. They tweeted back, said they’d be live eventually, but…eh, that never happened. Didn’t apologize or correct themselves. But they did say, and I’m quoting “Can't win. Go live at 8 miss Arenberg. Everyone complains. Delay + show Arenberg then live. Everyone complains.”

Alright, numbnuts, lets game that out. People are upset either way so upsetness cancels. Option A: miss Arenburg, show the race as live. People still watch your show because it’s what’s happening right then and there on the roads of France. You’ll get eyeballs on your higher-image-quality, legitimately paid-for coverage AND commercials which I believe is kind of the point of that hulking dinosaur of a delivery medium—a keyed-in captive audience who never know when the content they want will return.  

Option B: delay the race allegedly so people can see Arenberg—but I think more accurately, so you, with a race running 25 minutes ahead of schedule, can fill the time allotted—especially because Competitive Cyclist bought the last 30 minutes of it. You’d think, after hockeygate and some not-so-commercial free finales in the past you’d have learned selling these things [blocks of commercial free coverage] by time [instead of KM] is a bad idea, but I guess not.

 But most of all, I think you thought you’d still get the audience—after all, NBCSN is showing it on TV and it’s only a 20 minute delay. Why would they ever watch a pirate stream that’s a mere 20 minutes ahead when they could still watch us?

And this is the attitude I’m getting at in this rant. This sort of authoritative obliviousness to the actual state of affairs. Information flows whether you’re willing to acknowledge it or not. Watching the NBCSN broadcast wouldn’t simply be a matter of turning off the pirate feed and seeing a few minutes of racing twice—it’d mean going offline entirely, skipping the fast-paced, sleep-deprived, overcaffeinated interactive routine we’ve been following for the previous seven Sundays. If any of us had planned to just sit there and ignore the rest of the world,  we’d have slept in and caught the 5pm show instead.

I get it NBCSN; you paid good money for the ASO’s events, and you think this entitles you to some sort of control over them. But you just don’t have the power to back it up. They days of fealty to a single flickering sybil in every living room went out with casual workplace sexual harassment and Zubaz pants. And the more you act like this lack of control doesn’t exist, the numb-er you make yourself to the the very obvious demands of you audience, the less people are going to tune in for your product.

We went through a similar thing just this week with the UCI and USA Cycling. There’s a rule that says UCI-licensed athletes can’t race in events that aren’t on national calendars. It’s been around for years, and everyone ignores it because it’s stupid. Aside from the obvious flaws in the rule—it’s impossible to define an ‘event’, it’s impossible to go to every non-calendar ‘event’ to check for UCI athletes, etc etc—it’s a pretty clear power grab. The UCI thinks it should have authority of cycling everywhere.

I try to avoid ranting about the UCI—mostly because it’s like ranting about a moth that won’t stop banging it’s stupid moth head against the glass of a street lamp—but I’ll make an exception here because it’s quick. The UCI has technical authority over cycling, but no actual power. Their nuclear option is to kick people out of all UCI events but they don’t actually own or organize any of the important races.

Pre-Team 7-11, the UCI might have had the watts to kick the US out of the international sport without igniting a firestorm of disapproval from sponsors and organizers. After all, the US presence in cycling consisted wholly of Jock Boyer, and back then riders generally were kicked around like so many heads of rotting cabbage anyway.

But now? Look, back in 2006, Pat McQuaid threatened, and I’m quoting here “Teams who participate in Paris-Nice will be thrown out of the UCI”. I realize that might not make much sense if you don’t know the backstory, but the end result was that everyone raced Paris-Nice and that no one got kicked out. And do you think
the UCI’s power over the sport has increased since early 2006? After Puerto, Landis, Rasmussen, Kohl, Ricco, Schumacher, Contador, Ricco again, Ullirch, the nullificaiton of 7 consecuive titles and a hundred-thousand dollar Sysmex machine donation. Nooooooo. it has not

For USAC, though, their fauxthority—hey, I like that. I think I’m going to go with that—their exercise of fauxthority was more duplicitous than oblivious. In the course of five days, we heard USAC say that they would “ease the transition” for non-USAC calendar events, then followed that up with the dictum that non-sanctioned events were quote “under-insuring the volunteers and/or participants” or “avoiding the USA Cycling RaceClean program”.

It gets cuter—the USAC suggested that riders unhappy with the rule should “contact the UCI to discuss potential rule changes”, but then, when the UCI backed down on the topic—like, as I explained above, they pretty much had to—none other than USA Cycling president Steve Johnson said “USA Cycling listened to the views expressed by the cycling community in America”.

Steve, buddy, we were all right here the whole time; we heard everything you said. You can’t be like “screw off, talk to the UCI” one moment and “we listened responsively the next” or “these jerk organizers are fraudsters” after saying you’re “helping them transition”. I mean, the whole crux of your argument, that “our insurance package is awesome but, aww shucks we can’t do anything about this UCI rule forces you to get it” C’mon man, we may have been born at night, but not last night.

What these Fauxthorities don’t seem to realize is that as of a few years ago, no statement goes unattended, and no access is exclusive. Word spreads readily among we plebeians who buy cable subscriptions or pay registration fees, and our opinions develop rapidly. We know your faults, your inconsistencies and the back-alley shortcuts to undermine your business. If the motivated and tech-savvy can engineer the ouster of a dictator supported by the strongest nation in the world, what sort challenge do you think is offered by men—and you do seem to always be men—so tenuously positioned as yourselves?

if I were you’d, I’d sharpen up, and remember at the end of the day who exactly it is that pays your bills.

Garmin: The Little Device That Doesn't

5 Apr

Script

(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

Yo, check out this new gadget I got, it’s called a Blackberry.  It’s great for taking care of stuff on the go, like a mobile computer, except that I can’t look at photos or videos or fling cartoon birds at abstractly rendered pigs or really do anything but send emails…but I think it’s pretty nifty because what else out there is better? Yeah, my Blackberry’s almost as cool as this thing I got for my bike—it’s called a Garmin.

Of course, in many ways the Blackberry comparison isn’t really apt. Because the Blackberry, as dull, graceless, and monolithic as it was, actually turned out to be pretty damn good at the one pedantic task it was designed to accomplish. The Garmin, eeeeh not so much.

There’s an old saying—or maybe there isn’t and I just made it up, and if so there should be an old saying—that the best bike part is the one you notice least. For all drool and fingerprints displays cases have caught in their name over the years, Chris King headsets or Phil Wood hubs don’t exactly make themselves known on bike. Unless you’ve been riding something worse—and recently—you’re not going to notice your bike coasts longer or steers more smoothly

But that Garmin—whoof—you better believe I’m noticing it. I’m noticing it when it sits there for three-to-five buzz-killing minutes before each ride, showing me a basically full progress bar, just trying to detect that one last satellite whose absence somehow the other twenty it’s talking to useless. I’m pretty sure, since the damn thing has a tendency to pronounce me 20 feet below sea even in the best of conditions, that that twenty-first satellite really isn’t really the difference between precise tracking and might-as-well-write-a-map-on-the-back-of-your-hand.

I’ve also noticed my Gamrin while forcing my  wrist through the cringe inducing contortions required to access it’s awkward side buttons on a ride. Like seriously—who designed this? The buttons are about two millimeters off the top of my handlebar, another two to the left of my stem bolt, and they’re coated in a relatively stiff rubber material offer nothing in the way of tactile feedback. Trying to operate them on a cold day or through a long fingered glove is like trying to work a typewriter through a the bottom of a trampoline

Of course, I could just move the Garmin from my bars to my stem, but then I’d be staring even further into my own belly-button every time I wanted to see some data from the the thing. You know about potholes, Garmin? Road debris? Curbs? Dead animals? I don’t know if you guys have ever ridden a bike, but gazing into at a glare-mottled, low-contrast screen that’s near perpendicular to my direction of travel ain’t exactly the best way to go about doing it.

Actually, I do know that you guys ride bikes because you have a part that solves this problem—a tiny piece of injected molded plastic that juts forward from the handlebar and lets you keep an eye on your data and the wheel in front of you simultaneously.  You probably should have shipped to every owner of a Garmin cycling unit with an apology card as soon as you got the first crate over from China. But no, you didn’t want to do that. Instead, you’ve decided to sell it to your long-suffering customers, as an add-on, despite the fact that cheaper and faster-to-market versions from other companies already exist.

And you know the worst part is—it’s that all that stuff I just mentioned, it isn’t the worst part. Actually, I guess that’s the SECOND worst part because the worst part is your GPS device isn’t reliable at being a GPS device. I’m not talking about drifting off course a little, or mysteriously shutting down mid-ride as sometimes happens. I’m talking about the days where you turn it on, you start it, you ride with it, it functions normally, you come home, you go through the stop/reset/off dance routine that somehow passes as “save to disk”, plug your device into your computer and suddenly the previous two, or three, or seven hours of your life are mysteriously gone.

I mean, maybe you’re so used to high-centering motorists on railroad tracks, or leading them down logging roads that no longer exist, that you think your customer base is just willing to   accept some range of error. But I don’t think you understand what these rides mean to the people using your devices to record them.  

Cyclists sweat it out in grungy basements all and cobweb-ridden attacks all winter long to for to shave two or three seconds of their favorite climb, or sustain an extra watt or two. Even people who aren’t competitive and who don’t care about the numbers still like to see where they’ve gone, and to share and compare routes with their other weird cyclist friends.

And When riders take a Garmin on their bike vacation to the Rockies or Europe or some other, even further removed locale, they’ve probably spend hours pouring over Google Terrain maps to plot that one, perfect route—because in a lot of cases, it’s a once in a lifetime visit. For us, the data we collect while riding is as integral a part of the trip as the pictures we take or the unpronounceable beers we drink. To my mind, you thinking the current failure rate is acceptably doesn’t just make you a bad company—it makes you guys [expletive].

But hey, maybe I’m being too harsh. You did step up to sponsor one of the most ostensibly progressive cycling teams in recent memory, and even five years after one of the more notable retailers in the Industry began refusing to speak your name, you’re still at it.

And to be fair, I have technically only experienced legacy devices–abeit legacy devices you still sell for the princely fee. I burnt through three(!) Edge 305s before getting bumped up to to the 500 I currently use. So maybe the new devices are better…but I doubt it. from what I’ve read, you do have front facing buttons, but reports of laggy, low-contrast screens, a janky user-interface, and a general recommendation not to upgrade if you’ve got a 500 and make me think that not much has changed. And the alleged killer feature—real-time location tracking that requires a smartphone—doesn’t make any sense . There’s already a bevy of smartphone apps that offer this feature in a cleaner, more sharable format, for free—and that don’t require a batter

-burning requiring a bluetooth connection to get the job done.

And maybe this is kinda the root of the problem. I don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel, or think outside the box or ask “What Would Steve Jobs Do?”. Honestly, I’d be willing to suffer  through all the other crap—bad buttons, ugly screen, whatever—if you could promise me a device where riders who’d ever experienced data loss were the exception rather than the rule. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask—because if you guys can’t come up with it, you can sure as hell bet that someone else will.

Improving the "Credibility" of the MPCC

29 Mar

Script

(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

What is the definition of credibility? In cycling, the term has largely become what you are not.  I am not glibly big-ringing myself to the top of Hautacam. I am not suing the living daylights out of every journalist and assistant who dares suggest that I used performance enhancing drugs.  I am not driving a car load of hormones and EPO across France for my sick mother-in-law.

I but I think it’s never a good idea to define yourself as a negative. I did not have sexual relations with that woman. I do not recall approving a shipment of Hawk missiles to Iran.  I was careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack on America.

And thus it’s somewhat alarming to be barraged by a steady stream of what cyclists are not doing—even if, for the first time in recent memory, we have fairly solid reasons to believe they actually aren’t doing it.  But more alarmingly, the one body in cycling that is focused on racing clean—instead of catching people who are racing dirty—isn’t doing a whole lot to convince the rest of the world of i’s own credibility. I am speaking, of course, about the MPCC.

It pains me, somewhat, to put this organization in my crosshairs. After all, they were anti-doping before anti-doping was cool—formed in 2007  when only two Tour de France winners had been unceremoniously stripped of their titles post-race and when Lance Armstrong had still felt bad because we didn’t believe in miracles.. And to judge from their website—the snappily-titled domain is MPCC.unblog.fr—we’re still back in mid aughts sometime.

Now get that having your own domain name can be tricky—so it’s completely fair to start your site a place like unblog or blogspot or tumblr.

But after a certain point—when you start to get a critical mass of membership, when you start soliciting donations, when you have a reasonable expectation that media sites might start using you as a resource—it’s time to step it up to a “real” website, free from anyone else’s branding. The first thing I think when I see the MPCC’s site is “these guys are a disorganized bunch of doofers”. it doesn’t help that the site is exclusively in French, but I’m going to get to that later.

Let’s start by going back to the earliest entries on this page, from 2007. Where you might expect to find some sort of founding charter, or statement of principle we instead have a list of teams—several of which have different names or longer exist,  and a reference to a previous document—a never-enacted ethical charter discussed in 2005—which…I guess I’m supposed to spend another 20 minutes googling.

Scrolling up the page, I see a word doc press release and a bunch of organziational minutes articles requiring something called a “mot de passe”. Which…I mean, are you kidding me? Rasmussen has gotten in front of a camera and given down to the day details on his doping from at this exact moment in history, and yet you still can’t be bothered to let anyone else read your  meeting minutes? If that doesn’t scream credibility, I don’t know what does.

So let’s check out the “about page and—holy crap, some English!—nice! “Noticing that the decisions, relative to the ethics of their sport, and taken unanimously, by the”—ugh, look guys, I appreciate effort, but this isn’t how the language works. Subject, verb, object, repeat, it’s very simple. Lemme see if I can parse this down…”The Managers gathered to create a movement to operate any necessary means”. Yeah, I think you’re still going to have to workshop that.

But hey—you’ve got wristbands and a snappy slogan—”le Dopage ce suffit!”. That actually sounds pretty cool. And there are english ones to—”Doping that’s enough”. Look, as Inner Ring already pointed out that’s dangerously easy to suffix— Doping that’s enough…to win the Tour de France”. “Doping that’s enough…to make it as a professional cyclist”—but more concerningly, the idiom in English really carries a connotation that there is some acceptable limit to whatever it is that you’ve done enough of.

For example, if I were pouring milk on someone’s breakfast cereal, when I got to a certain point they’d say “that’s enough milk” and I’d stop pouring. But then next morning, if I began pouring milk on their cereal again, they wouldn’t be like “whoa, what are you doing!? I told you yesterday that was enough milk.” They’d sit there and watch me pour it until they had what they considered an acceptable level, and then they’d say “that’s enough”.

And while the phrase isn’t antiquated by any means, it does sound a bit like something the father character in a 1950s family sitcom would say to a rambunctious child, perhaps while smoking a pipe and taking the evening edition of the Post from his favorite easy chair. And haven’t we already gotten enough of that parochial bullshit from the UCI?

And it’s not just the website that’s the problem. Your Wikipedia page—that’s Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia that anyone can edit, hint, hint—is all of three sentences long. Jon Vaughters, one of your more actively involved managers recently couldn’t say much about your group other than it was kind of like “a religion”—not a particularly compelling statement to a fan base repeatedly burned by taking things on faith.

But the real problem here isn’t what your current internet presence says to the fanbase. It’s what it says to people who might otherwise be fans, but who are put off by the stream of cyclist-on-drugs stories they get from lazy media outlets. Or worse, what it says to lazy reporters from

those lazy media outlets attempt to paint a balanced picture of the current state of affairs. And worst of all, it’s a readymade punchline for douchebag snark merchants like Deadspin.com.

So here’s what you gotta do, MPCC:

  1. Hire a real live Anglophone to translate your site. I respect that your organization was founded by French teams at a French race after a decade of French managers and riders had suffered the “peloton at two speeds.” But your sport is international, your mission is international, and your audience is international. Crisp, comprehensible English is the best way to reach as many of these people as possible.
  2. A mission statement. Talking points. An elevator pitch, something—anything but the “we agree with this previous thing that didn’t get approved” that currently serves as your group’s raison d’etre. “Le Dopage ça suffit” at least sounds like you have the political will and marketing ability to steer yourself in that direction, though as a monoglot, I can’t really say for certain.
  3. Protect your brand. MPCC is far too ambiguous to serve as a sole identifier, and already digital properties that should be yours are already pointing elsewhere. Crediblecycling.com, for example, points to a Facebook page with similar goals as your organization, but apparently no direct affiliation. if you’re going to be the central authority on the fact that clean bicycling racing is taking place, you can’t have have this sort off-message fragmentation—Wikipedia pages included.

And just to show that I really do believe in both the mission of your organization and the viability of my suggestions, I have purchased two domain names to advance the cause: crediblecycing.org and cyclismecredible.fr—which like most French things was far more expensive and almost certainly less useful.

These domains currently point to this rant page, but I will, upon adoptation of suggestions one and two above, be happy to apply them to your shiny new, useful website,  or donate fully them to your organization to be used in any way you see fit. Just send me an email–cosmo@cyclocosm.com.

Why Americans Can't Watch Cycling "On TV"

22 Mar

Script

(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

A couple of weeks ago, Neal Rogers remarked he found it frustrating that despite the advanced technological achievements of these here United States, he still can’t watch bike racing “on TV”.

As you might guess by the tonality that offset it, I have a quarrel to pick generally with that last phrase. After all, a TV is just about $10 of RadioShack cables away from being oversized, power-hungry low resolution computer monitor—which, if the twitters and instagrams of last weekend are any indication, more and more of you are beginning to realize—and that’s a very good thing!

What is of far more concern to me are the connotations that come with TV as a medium—but I’ll get to that later. First, let’s just pretend you’ve all accepted that it doesn’t matter which screen displays your flickering images, and you’re a developing fan who wants check out today E3 Harelbeke, to see what this whole “Spring Classics” thing is about.

I suppose the first place that deserves mention is Cycling.tv, because back in 2005, I watched George Hincapie win KBK on my laptop from my bed, and it was pretty cool. To say it’s been downhill from there is an understatement, but limiting myself to the specific constraints of the scenario introduced above, you can’t watch on Cycling.TV because they don’t carry the race.

But that’s cool, y’know because I have this email in my inbox from Universal Sports, and it says “Watch Tom Boonen, Phillippe Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara & All Your Favorite Cyclists This Week”—they sent it with a picture of Brad Wiggins, but whatever—and right there, on the schedule, Gran Prix E3 Herlbeke—that’s not the name, but close enough. Gonna go to their website and check it out—and…not available for purchase?

So…just to be clear on this, you’ve secured exclusive US broadcast rights but you’re not selling the race? Forgive my lack of business school experience but isn’t the whole idea of producing a product to sell it to someone and make a profit? It’s like, I’m walking into Mellow Johnny’s bike shop, Exclusive US Dealer of Rapha, and—oh, sorry, those $800 bib shorts you want to buy? Sorry—they’re not for sale”. Are you guys on acid on something? Who told you this was a good idea—have I been struggling under the mistaken assumption that you weren’t out to deliberately piss off the fan base who, under ideal circumstances, would be giving you money

But hey—Universal Sports themselves told me on Twitter that they were outbid for US rights to RCS’s events—so that means the Giro, Lombardia, Sanremo,  it they went to…BeIN Sport? That’s a new one one me, but we can get to their website easy enough. We got news, video, TV Guide, several different soccer leagues—ok, “other sports”, I’ll just mouse over that—”volleyball, rugby, golf” nope—no cycling. Well, I’ll just go up here the search bar and a look for “cycling”; one result; “Armstrong Speaks—disgraced cyclist has agreed to appear on American talk show…well jesus, this is from five months ago. Ok, I’ll just track down BeIN’s iphone App in Google—yep, there’s the link, open in iTunes and —and there’s an alert window  “The item you've requested is not currently available in the U.S. store.”

And so, literally bereft of other options, I’m now stuck with one of a dozen or so illegal* streaming sites—procyclinglive.com, steephill.tv, fromsport.com, etc.—and in fact, if you were to Google “live cycling broadcasts” “streaming bike races” etc these pages — and not the actual legitimate rightsholders, will almost certainly dominant your results. So if you work in SEO or online marketing for one of the legitimate cycling broadcasters, please, consider yourself fired.

While journalists can’t get enough of cataloguing the sordid demise of their own profession, the successful method for selling content online is pretty much a closed case. Create an easy, immediate point of sale, charge a relatively painless price for small bits of your content, and then watch the money roll in. This isn’t a new idea—iTunes and the App store are pretty irrefutable examples; and if you’re a diligent Googler can find me applying the concept to cycling in a Podium Cafe comment from three years ago.

The fact that such an option continues to not exist at any of the legitimate outlets for watching cycling induces the sort of apoplexy that I generally reserve for Pat McQuaid quotes and Lance Armstrong denials. Cycling TV has no excuse—their attempt to sell quarterly and yearly packages with a schedule full of more holes than a LADA jersey is at best ingenuous and at worst an actionable example of bait and switch—especially when the overwhelming majority of their coverage consists of two-minute recaps.

But—and this is where I get back to the problem of  TV as a medium—BeIN and Universal Sports both want to insist that they are TV channels. And the problem with that is that TV is really, [expletive] expensive. In my occasional interactions with actual staff Universal/VS/ON, I’ve been quoted absurd numbers for producing a televised broadcast. $30,000 in transmission fees alone, paychecks for cameramen, studio time—and here’s the kicker—a fat four-million-dollar flat fee for TV and internet rights for the ASO’s 6 major events.

It will not surprise you, then, that these cycling operations almost invariably operate at a loss. TVs expense means it is inherently aimed a massive, captive audiences bringing tens of millions of eyeballs—which makes cycling, whose US audience for the Tour de France is barely in the hundreds of thousands, an extremely unappealing target for advertisers. Simply put, TV as it currently exist cannot meet the needs of its audience, and couldn’t turn a profit at all except for the way that cable television is sold in the united states.

If you read the FAQ at Universal Sports, you’ll see that you can, in fact, watch their races online—you just need to have a cable or satellite package that already carries their TV channel. This is because they can make way more money milking cab

le companies for network fees than they can selling your eyeballs, and these providers can in turn milk their customers on the high-priced cable or satellite packages they’d need to get nosebleed channels like Universal or BeIN in the first place

In short, the system works for everyone but the fans. Race organizers can charge broadcast license fees that the viewership doesn’t warrant, small channels can leverage this exclusive access to remain profitable even while overspending and under-delivering on niche content, and cable companies can continue to pay the outlandish network—so long as chumps like us, and other consumers of said hard-to-find content remain obsessed with seeing it “on TV”

But there is, dear listener, one hope—however faint. His name is Michele Aquarone, and in a few short years as the chief of RCS sports, he’s gained a reputation for creativity and progressiveness nearly unheard of in the archaic and byzantine apparatus that drives this sport. After a particularly brutal Tirreno-Adriatico stage, where fully a third of the field dropped out, he volunteered that as a race organizer he had gone too far—showing compassion for the riders that in previous generations, would have be written off as part of the business.

If there were some way to convey to him the sheer misery of feed-hopping at 8am on a Sunday, frantically closing popups, squinting at jumpy, over-compressed images, and struggling to pick out rider names in languages you don’t understand, he might just realize that it’s unreasonable to expect any sort of fanbase to develop when they consistently have to Taylor Phinney their way through such adversity. he might—maybe—look into a buyer with an actual interest in delivering Americans a proper viewing experience for his races.

It just so happens that Michele Acquarone is on twitter—@micacquarone-that’s m-i-c-a-c-q-u-a-r-o-n-e. Next time you can’t seem to find an enjoyable, legitimate source for one of his races, maybe you should drop him a line.

*(In strict terms, these sites themselves are not “illegal”; they provide links to the Russian (if the Cyrillic dialog boxes that occasionally pop-up in the feeds are any indication) hackers who re-broadcast European bike races. I also hasten to add that I don’t use the termn “illegal” as any sort of condemnation—without these sites, watching bike racing in the US would be even more difficult than it already is.)

On Dave Brailsford and "Innuendo"

14 Mar

Transcript

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.

The Amgen Tour of Confused Californian Branding

13 May

Eight Days of Epicly Poor Branding

Eight Days of Epicly Poor Branding

The Tour of California has an image problem. Mercifully, it’s nothing to with jersey zips—it’s more that the race’s marketing material is absolutely incomprehensible.

Let’s overlook the fact that “Eight Days of Epic” uses the most cored marketing term in recent memory (it’s been a joke on Archer for crying out loud)—the Tour of California is anything but. The race has struggled to find hilltop finishes that don’t end in a bunch sprints and Phil Liggett once described the peloton as “lost at sea” on the state’s enormous swathes of tarmac. There have been some interesting crashes, but beyond that, not a whole lot of drama—unless you count hockeygate.

And to use what appears to be the image of Mario Cipollini? While Cipo’ may have had his share of deep-dug, gritty wins, the man spent his career cultivating his image as an effortless winner who abhorred suffering: being literally towed to the start line in a chariot, flamboyant wardrobe changes up to three times a day at press events—heck, in 2003, Domina Vacanze bought his entire team to use the Italian’s reputation for getting in the beach time in their advertising. To grit him up and label him “epic” is almost insulting.

I won’t deny that there was a time when the ToC could have branded itself like this (and did). At its inception, the race was an early-season tune-up, complete with miserable early-season weather. But it offered riders way to suffer through the rust, torch those last few pounds, and get in some valuable race miles, all with the creature comforts of wide American roads, reasonably well-equipped, American-sized hotel rooms each evening, and the support of racing-starved American fans.

This isn’t to say that the Wellie-clad fanbase lining the bergs and cobbles in Belgium each spring is any less enthusiastic than its American counterpart, but yo-yoing at the back of a lined out field and trying not to swallow too much pig dung while fully-tuned classics specialists trade haymakers appeals to a relatively small segment of the peloton. The first Tours of California offered suffering, but on a much more sensible scale for anyone seeking peak fitness in July.

But the fact is, the Tour of Cali is no longer a boots-and-rain-cape affair. After a few rainy seasons, the race has grown up, taking a mid-season place in the cycling calendar where it fills a vital niche rebooting the campaigns of weather-beaten classics riders coming off rest, and providing a vital step in the training of Tour contenders who don’t want the full-on physical beatdown of the Giro. It’s a warm-weather, safe, comfortable retool, and—without intending the slightest disrespect—it’s about as non-epic as you can get.

And frankly, going whole-hog on that “glamor race” branding would be a perfect fit. It’s California, after all—land of movie stars, palm trees, sunny days, and legislative indulgence. I’m not denying that there are some awesome stages planned for this year’s race, or that there’s no glory in winning them. But no one with their eye on the Champs Elysees is going to make a redline effort to secure the Tour of California title.

Tour of California banner

Riding for Frodo, apparently.

I suppose the website banners and the San Jose poster almost have a sense of what I’m getting at; though the gleam-and-gradient on the lettering is a little more Las Vegas than Los Angeles, there’s at least some attempt to portray glamor. But the rest of the poster—a bunched peloton riding through a landscape that looks more like Mount Doom than the Pacific Coast Highway, falls back into the “epic” trap.

All that said, I do understand what the ToC organizers are going for with their “Eight Days of Epic”. But the fact is, it still doesn’t quite work. It’s a half-measure. And it doesn’t have quite enough mass appeal for the passive fan. So I’ve whipped up a little something that should snag the eyeballs they’re targeting with aplomb, all while trying to maintain the questionably-intended imagery they’ve chosen for themselves.

Cyclocross: Cycling's George W. Bush

19 Dec

Man drinking beer on bikeAh, Cyclocross—scruffy, fun-loving younger brother of road cycling. None of the endless training and expense, all of the fun, dirt, and beer handups, right? Surely this is the most populist of all sports, is it not?

No, actually—not even close. Not since a third-generation Yalie picked up a Texas accent and ran for President as a Washington Outsider has a brand been so obviously out of sync with its own reality. Cyclocross, while thrilling and fantastically enjoyable, is also the most expensive cycling discipline for those with an actual desire to be competitive, and the least friendly to the common racer stepping up to give it a shot.

On the road, race-able bikes start at around $1000 and, without swapping a single part, can be trained on and raced competitively for at least one season. That’s certainly how I got started, and I remember the winning selections of collegiate B and C races stocked with Dura-Ace and Sora in roughly equal proportions. All due respect to the high-gloss fields I currently run with, but thanks to some impressive raw talents and a general lack of any tactical know-how, those collegiate events remain some of the fastest, hardest-fought races I’ve ever had the pleasure of contesting.

Manufacturers can wage nerd war til the cows come home, but road races aren’t won and lost at the bike shop. Zipp and Cervelo will remind you of Cancellara’s amazing charge at the ’07 Tour, but his on-the-hoods, out-of-the-saddle position on that particular rampage more than negated any aerodynamic advantage of his wheelset. Road cycling isn’t contested by torso-less robots on trainers in wind tunnels; it’s a game of canny, back-biting, and subterfuge, and 99 times out of 100, you’ll do better to poach another rider’s aerodynamic advantage than to invest in your own.

By comparison, gear in cyclocross actually matters—specifically, tires. While entry-level CX bikes often offer a lower price, what you get for the money is also drastically reduced. I’ll overlook the downgrade from Ultegra to Tiagra (as I mentioned above, if the gears shift, you’re good to go); I’m complaining about the “cyclocross” tube and tire setup that has no place on any respectable race course.

After a few seasons of attempting to race ‘cross on clinchers, I’ve arrived at the conclusion—one that ought to be plastered in bold-face at the beginning of any article on cyclocross—that attempting to actually race cyclocross with clinchers and innerubes is an often pointless endeavor. Maybe if you’ve got the mad handling skillz and mimized downforce of, say, Rudy, you can venture out past the fringe of the greens on your local golf course. Otherwise, the tire pressures you need to run come with a DNF rate (via pinch flat) of about 1 in 4.

Tubulars fix this problem, of course, but they’re astronomically expensive. The tires start at 70 dollars, and even Williams Cycling’s much heralded “affordable” $369 cross wheelset represents an outlay as large as I’ve ever made on a pair of road wheels. To me, “affordable” applies to <$150 wheelsets, like the Maddux F20 I put 6000 miles into over the past two years.

Another reason competitive cyclocross all but requires tubulars is that, without free laps or follow trucks, you’ve got to be able to get to the pit on your own—much tougher on a flat clincher than a flat tubular. And once you get to the pit, you’ll need something to put on your bike; tack on another $470 for a second wheelset. And patching that tubular tire back up after the race…let’s just hope your puncture solution is a simple as an injection of Caffelatex.

But as anyone who’s been to a muddy Verge Series race knows, the only really competitive support is to have a second cyclocross bike at the ready in the pits. ($800 + $470) x 2 = $2,540, or better than twice the up-front investment of a raceable road bike. And keep in mind, these ‘cross figures are still for Tiagra level parts, while a similar road rig ships with Ultegra gear that’s good for at least few seasons to come. Much as I appreciate the functionality of Shimano’s low end parts, an ill-timed spill in the sand pit might be all she wrote for that budget shifter.

And of course, no detonation of this populist facade would be complete without pointing out how thoroughly cyclocross kowtows to the elite. A sponsored rider has to worry about almost none of the things I’ve listed above—no entry fees, a guaranteed spot on the line, free pit bikes, boatloads of swag, and a retirement account’s worth of wheelsets, making an unexpected snowstorm as manageable as a wheel swap.

Zdenek Stybar racing I hasten to add that there’s nothing “wrong” with this—good riders are fantastic marketing exposure, and with the salaries (or lack thereof) offered to the pros, the people who are actually good at ‘cross need as much help as they can get (see #livingthedream).

At the end of the day, though, what road racing does that cyclocross doesn’t is routinely turn out Frederick Vuechelens, Bobbie Traksels, Frederic Guesdons and host of other one-off winners who saw an opening, read a race, or were otherwise crazy enough to pull off the unlikeliest of upsets over the most elite of fields.

In road racing, there’s a sense that any rider with the skills to hold position, the watts the get free, and the stones to give it shot is guaranteed an opportunity to make a race-winning move. Most times, it doesn’t work—heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get attempted—but the option is there for any rider who would lay claim to it. Drop Zdneck Stybar into the first lottery spot at a World Cup and I don’t think he’d enjoy that same opportunity.

The point of all this isn’t that cyclocross needs to be somehow “fixed”. Obviously, I wouldn’t mind if the industry turned out more ~$1000 CX bikes that weren’t built to sit in the garage, but ‘cross racing is just fine in its current incarnation. Adam Myerson’s fantastic piece on CX racing rings as true for the guy in first as it does for the guy in 101st—I would know, having found myself riding in both positions at various moments over the past three years.

What bothers me is this position cyclocross seems to enjoy in the popular imagination of cycling fans as a, blue-collar, working (wo)man’s sport, as if mud, beer, tents, and Belgian country music were proof positive that it’s a somehow purer competition, geared to the common rider. Make no mistake about it, cyclocross rewards privilege—both in terms of income and talent—above almost anything else.

Poor Communication On Either Side Of The Atlantic

4 Nov

Communication is highly underrated. Take my recent dust-up with The Atlantic over a deleted comment on their not-initially-so-accurate history of blood doping.

With no direct contact emails for authors and editors, a reluctance to respond to @replies or Tumblr inquiries, and a Memory Hole-esque contact form as the only institutional recourse, that magazine makes it very hard to open any sort of communication channel. Whether you take this to be intentional or not depends on your level of cynicism—certainly, it’s no way to endear yourself to a blogger.

I did finally manage to get in touch with the author, who actually talked with me to smooth out the wrinkles in the piece, and revealed that—as predicted— the comment had been deleted due to the number of links in it.

While I could question the wisdom of not documenting this anti-spam feature, or of attempting to block commenters who bother to cite their sources, I’ll instead stick with the message that, had the magazine simply been easier to contact, my flaming would have been far less intense, and the article would have been improved a whole lot sooner.

Multiply the difficulty of communicating with The Atlantic by about a billion, and you’ll get roughly the challenge presented by any sort of communication with the UCI. I really do appreciate Michael Ashenden’s NYVelocity interviews, but he shouldn’t be “taken aback by how poorly” both a scientist and a leading cycling publication understand the finer points of the Biological Passport; the UCI has done nothing to communicate them.

The governing body’s own documentation on the project is scattered, nearly illegible (gray on gray!), and hardly detailed. A sparse FAQ, and an in-depth WADA outline for a generic bio passport program leave a lot to be desired. Such total disregard toward informing anyone outside the process (riders, fans, media, researchers for The Atlantic, etc.) is no way to win support for a controversial program, and it probably doesn’t help in the courtroom, either.

UCI President Pat McQuaid awarding something to someoneSure, the UCI isn’t awash in cash. But what would it cost them to hire a freelance writer to untangle that rat’s nest of an FAQ? The RadioShack jersey fine alone would pay for a microsite and a decent design team to create an informative, user-friendly interface for the entire Bio Passport operation, plus a couple of nice infographics to help this pill of a program go down.

In fact, if the UCI had any sort of communications savvy, it would be making the entire program—statistical formulae included—completely open for scrutiny and re-use. The AFLD has apparentlyburied the hatchet in its dispute with the UCI, and they’re the only group I could imagine “stealing” a doping suspicion algorithm and setting up a competing project. If the UCI’s blood passport algorithm were made open by design, and then adopted by other sports, the UCI would have an ironclad talking point that cycling was leading the way in the fight against doping.

But sadly, communication is not an art form well-respected in the backhalls of Aigle, where top-down management is fetishized to a point that might just make Josef Stalin blush. One almost gets the feeling that negative user feedback only stiffens the UCI’s resolve to maintain the status quo, if for no other reason than to remind the world that they—and not the athletes, organizers, or fans they allegedly serve—are the real authority around here.

I’d love to attribute this non-communicative stubbornness to the entrenched attitude of privilege inherent in many European governing bodies, but sadly, it seems to pop up wherever a self-conscious authority feels threatened—on either side of The Atlantic.

Why Cycling Really Is Making Progress

9 Oct

LA Confidentiel CoverDavid Walsh, author of the infamous LA Confidentiel and one of the most notable contemporary voices against doping, was quoted in Cyclingnews a few days ago, commenting on the high-profile positives of the past month. “You’ve now got Contador and Mosquera both in trouble” sighed the Irishman, “and you have to think that this sport is going nowhere.”

While I respect the man’s opinion, I think his statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Even as I type this, the allegations made in his book are flushing out the foundation of a federal case against Lance Armstrong and the former US Postal Service Team. A deposition prompted by Walsh’s investigation has already caught the seven-time Tour winner in an obvious contradiction, and for those eager to see the Texan’s head on a platter, the best may be yet to come.

But cycling’s steps toward a cleaner sport over the past few years go well beyond exposing les secrets de Lance Armstrong. Though the progress has been slow, and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture with each new positive test, the long-term trend has been turning solidly and inexorably against the dopers.

Consider 2004, the year in which LA Confidentiel made its debut. That fall, Tyler Hamilton recorded the first positive sample under new testing for homologous blood transfusions (the re-injection of someone else’s blood). Aside from proving the efficacy of the new test, the Hamilton case also revealed to exactly what extent the anti-doping authorities were able to monitor the blood samples they took; thanks to Hamilton’s rigorous legal battle, the scientific validity of this testing was thoroughly established.

This detailed monitoring—which would eventually become the UCI biological passport program—sent the message that successfully-executed doping would now be a full-time job, requiring careful dosing, refrigeration, planning, and support from medical professionals: none of which come cheaply or easily. Even the deep-pocketed Hamilton, whose doping program was extensive and well-planned, still hadn’t been able to dodge the vampires or beat the rap.

Manolo Saiz2004 was also the year of Jesus Manzano’s revelations about the pervasiveness of doping within the cycling world. Manzano, a middling Spanish rider, opened up to the Spanish press with a flood of allegations, which were categorically denied and dismissed by cycling’s establishment. But the maligned Spaniard’s work with authorities bore fruit in a 2006 raid on the offices of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.

Despite massive interference from the Spanish government, the Opercion Puerto case lead directly to the accusation and punishment of countless riders, including three serious TdF contenders: Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and Alejandro Valverde. While the case was never as far reaching as it should have been, and progressed with interminable slowness, the actual sanction of top-tier TdF finishers was a first since the cycling “owned up” to the extent of oxygen vector drug abuse in 1998.

Between 1998 and 2005, there were no major changes in the UCI rules—EPO and blood doping were just as illegal as they are today. But before the Hamilton positive and Puerto raid, efficacy of testing and enforcement had been decidedly lacking. Both homologous doping and EPO lacked a good tests for years, and early positives were met with skepticism and short suspensions. At some points, authorities may even have turned a blind eye to higher-profile positives.

Consider the Tours since the Puerto raid, and I think you’ll see a definite change. In ’06, Landis was caught after a miraculous, ride-away-from-everyone Tour win, just days after the Tour ended. In ’07, Vinokourov was caught re-injecting someone else’s blood and booted mid-race. Later that same year, Michael Rasmussen was voluntarily pulled by his team while wearing the Yellow Jersey, after his violations of the UCI’s whereabouts policy were revealed.

In 2008, a few riders, riding high on the general classification and throwing back stage wins like energy gels thinking they’d discovered an undetectable new drug, were caught and very visibly ejected, along with a handful of other names sanctioned after the fact. And now, in 2010, we have Alberto Contador caught shortly after the Tour with nearly-undetectable levels of a drug, and chemical substances that, while not sanctionable yet, strongly suggest re-injected blood.

If those previous two paragraphs don’t represent a remarkable increase in testing effectiveness, I don’t know what does. And it’s really just the continuation of a longer-term trend. Consider the Tour podiums from 1999-2005. While it is glaring that the most successful rider of that era remains at least technically innocent, it’s difficult to find another Head of State from the period with whom justice has not caught up. When compared with the soft or non-existant sanctions placed on riders in the Festina era, even those slow-moving cases mark a dramatic improvement.

Bernhard KohlThe initial reaction when inundated by news of positive tests—as Walsh and Ettore Torri have recently voiced—is to throw up your hands and say that everyone’s on drugs and that nothing is improving. But natural though that instinct may be, it’s also highly irrational.

Positive tests mean riders are getting caught. While the confessions of some riders make test evasion seem trivially easy, their own positives contradict that suggestion. There’s no argument to be made that an effective doping program isn’t a massive undertaking today, especially compared with the casual EPO needlesticks of a decade ago.

While the UCI may at times seem to be doing everything in its power to erode public faith in the sport, the fact remains that cycling’s progress in rooting out dopers has been commendable, and the improvements are continuing. Bernhard Kohl’s well-worn quip that you cannot win the Tour without doping may indeed still be true, but the cost, complexity, and risks involved in dosing up are exponentially higher than just a few years ago—as his own downfall reflects. If testing continues to improve, in the very near future, it may no longer be worth the reward.

The dream of a sport—any sport—with no doping is an attractive fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. As long as there is competition, people will cheat to gain an extra edge, and those hunting the cheats will always be playing catch-up. The best a rational fan can hope is that those running the sport make cheating as unattractive a proposition as possible, through consistent, effective testing, and firm, swift sanctions.

And in that regard, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a sport going in a better direction than professional cycling.

How The Race Was Won – Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2010

28 Apr

Vino’s excellent comeback win, though presented more as a Rant than the traditional Fun Stuff. It’s a bit late, and frankly, a bit angry—especially now that most people’s Vino’ angst has left the news cycle. But I think this needed to be said. Plenty of good questions a have been raised in response to the Vino’ news stories; this is where I think the answer lies.


[right-click for iTunes-compatible download, tap for iPad/iPhone]

(Contains many photos, most of which are public domain or licensed for free use, and footage from Eurosport and NOS Sport.)

Oh, also, my mic’s owner needed it back this weekend, so I was left shouting into the built-in. Doesn’t sound great, I’m afraid.