Monday, June 30, 2008


What the hell?

A National Championships Review

You have to admit – even though they’re only a single race, on a single day, ridden by riders from a single nation – national championships are a high-value target in professional cycling. Win one, and you get not only a snazzy new jersey, but a dramatic increase in recognition, on-air commentator chatter, personal sponsorships, and, if your agent is any good at all, a bit of a pay raise for providing all those expanded advertising opportunities to your team.

Yes, they’re a good value per kilometer – they’re also kind of a crapshoot, as the results of this weekend’s slate of European national championships will show. Even in the most cycling-crazy countries, the national championships are a combination of a few native international superstars, big teams, and legions of B-listers who ride mostly national events with occasional wild-card opportunities to mix it up in the home country’s classic du jour. On top of throwing unfamiliar riders together, there’s the odd tactics that can ensue when the country’s home ProTour team shows up on the line with two teams worth of riders, while a countrymen who rides for a foreign team may be all on his own. How much support could CSC have given Jurgen Van Goolen in the Belgian championship, compared to the 20 riders that Silence-Lotto sent?

Yes, Silence-Lotto started the Belgian championship with an astounding 20 riders, and they still managed to miss all the breaks. But 20 guys gives you a good bit of chasing power, and in the end, one of them did win. In this case, it was neo-pro college boy Jurgen Roelandts putting the blocks to a cast that included Belgian title specialist Nico Eeckhout (Topsport Vlaanderen), Silence-Lotto’s much heralded “next Tom Boonen” Greg Van Avermaet, and Quick.Step’s “current Tom Boonen,” Tom Boonen. can tell you how.

As the article points out a near-insulting number of times, Wouter Weylant (Quick.Step) screwed up Boonen’s leadout a bit and brought some people down, which shook things up a bit in the finale. Boonen wasn’t biting on the inevitable, “would you have won if…” questions the press was feeding him though, giving young Roelandts full credit for a good win. Even after driving 180 kph and getting caught with a head full of blow, Boonen still manages to come across as a class act when he needs to. Momma must be proud.

Boonen was right in his praise for Roelandts’ win, but a look at the top 10 of this race shows how national championships can turn the expected order of things on their head a bit. Slipping in there at a solid 9th place is Iljo Keisse, who rides on the road for continental Topsport Vlaanderen, but actually makes the vast bulk of his cash on the track during the winter 6-day season, and 254 kilometers in the wind isn’t usually what those guys are all about. Another boy of winter also made good – standout cyclocross rider Sven Vanthourenhout (Sunweb Pro Job) sprinted his way through the mess to finish second, ahead of Eeckhout and the rest of the guys who make their living in the warmer months. Kevin Pauwels (Fidea), another member of Belgium’s dominating cyclocross contingent, was eighth.

The cyclocross crowd came up a tad short in Belgium, but north of the border in the Netherlands, Lars Boom, the current ‘cross world champion, showed who’s boss, probably leading to another round of the same lame “Boom Boom” headlines we had to endure after the ‘cross worlds. Though I have no idea how it went down, Boom’s win could bring up a touchy subject – collusion. Boom officially rides for the Rabobank Continental team, not to be confused with the Rabobank ProTour team. That’s been typical for Rabobank’s cyclocross riders, including superstar Sven Nys, over the past several years, as the management seems to want to keep the ProTour roster full of riders it can draw on for the road season, and the continental status fits the contractual structure of ‘cross racing just fine. Aside from playing host to the muddy set, the continental team also serves as a sort of development program to bring along young riders (think Thomas Dekker) until they’re ready for the ProTour squad.

But, at the national championships, you suddenly have the Rabobank ProTour squad, which features much of the prominent Dutch talent in the sport, riding the same race as the Rabobank Continental squad, which is technically a separate entity. From a sporting perspective, neither should be aiding or abetting the other, and they could probably be fined for doing so. (I believe the Lotto management had a problem with this around 2004 when they ran both the D1 team and the D2 Bodysol-Brustor teams, both bankrolled by Omega Pharma and both riding in the Belgian classics.) Again, whether or not any undue cooperation went down, I don’t know, because I haven’t seen any coverage I can read well enough to tell. Fifteen of the apparent 44 finishers (and god knows how many of the starters) rode for the big Dutch bank in some form, though, and you have to feel for the poor Skil-Shimano boys and all the scattered representatives of foreign teams in the face of that onslaught. In fact, I’d like to see the result if you asked everyone at the start line who had ever been a part of any Rabobank program to raise their hands -- it would probably look like a stadium wave.

Joining Belgium and the Netherlands in the “unexpected victor” category is Italy. Much of the pre-race talk there focused on Damiano Cunego (Lampre), who after winning Amstel Gold this year and a couple of Giros di Lombardia in the past was seen as a good bet for the classics-style course around Bergamo. Filippo Pozzatto (Liquigas) also rated some mentions, along with up-and-comer Giovanni Visconti (Quick.Step) and Ardennes specialist Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner). You know who wasn’t mentioned? Filippo Simeoni (Ceramiche Flaminia).

But the man best known for being chased down, shut up, and ordered back to the peloton by Lance Armstrong during the 2004 Tour de France came up with the goods, relegating Visconti, Pozzatto, and Rebellin to second through fourth, respectively, and delivering the best victory of his 37 years. The ugly little Armstrong incident that was Simeoni’s previous claim to fame allegedly took place because Simeoni was outspoken about drug use, with Armstrong arguing that he was simply using his yellow jersey power to enforce the will of the peloton in shutting Simeoni up. That may be true, but it’s also true that in doing so, Armstrong probably brought more attention to Simeoni’s prior comments than if he’d just let him go up the road and get dropped by the breakaway on his own, and through the media attention the incident generated, he gave Simeoni an even bigger platform to speak from. Whoops. That’s all old news, of course, but Simeoni has struggled since to find teams, and he’s always been thin on results, so it’s nice to see him get a big one that will let him retire on his own terms.

Not all national championships are upsets, weirdness, and surprises though. Frank Schleck (CSC) delivered in Luxembourg, beating fellow former title holder Benoit Joachim (Astana). Frank's brother Andy was fifth. The rest of the population of Luxembourg finished sixth through 109th. The German podium was a greatest hits list of that country's current pros, with Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) retaining his title by beating old Erik Zabel (Milram), young Gerald Ciolek (High Road/Columbia), scary Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), and respected Jens Voigt (CSC). France’s championship was hotly contested as always – unlike a lot of countries, there aren’t one or two superpower French teams to fight it out amongst themselves, just a slew of O.K. teams. It keeps their national championships interesting, but makes the Tour de France kind of sad, in a way. Anyway, Nicholas Vogondy (Agritubel) won for the second time in his career, so he’ll probably try to win the Tour stage on Bastille Day too. It’s a contractual requirement for the French jersey wearer – it’s stitched into the lining, along with a wedge of brie and a lingering sense of persecution.

And finally, there’s Spain. Oh what an electric day there – with the national soccer team facing off Sunday night against Germany in the Euro 2008 final, I’m betting the cycling championships weren’t getting terribly much airplay. After all, Spain was looking to erase decades of underperformance on the pitch, with its last major victory coming 44 years ago in the European championship. They managed to pull it off with a well-played 1-0 win. Speaking of long years of underperformance, Oscar Sevilla (Rock Racing) finished second to Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) in the Spanish road racing championships. That’s right – we came within a tick of seeing the horror of a Spanish national champion’s kit as rendered by the chief designers of Rock & Republic. So I think we should all join together and thank Valverde for saving us from that, and maybe congratulate him on his win as well.


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Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Hey Lance!

The “Hey Lance!”

I’ve gotten it before, plenty of times, and more than likely, so have you. My most recent, on Saturday, was fairly stereotypical. It was shouted from a janky early 1990s Saturn that was dragging bumper under the weight of four gold-chained Philly gym rats out for a little flexing “down the shore.” It was the second incident I’d encountered since leaving a family beach house two minutes before -- the first was some chav-envious Jersey girl nearly flattening me at an intersection that, in addition to no other traffic, also featured about a mile of dead flat, dead straight visibility in all directions. To be fair, her hoop earrings were certainly large enough to have impaired her peripheral vision, but I think the sheer tension of the ponytail would have pulled her eyes open wide enough to more than make up the difference. So, compared to that, the subsequent “Hey Lance!” (HL) from my meatheaded friends seemed downright hospitable.

After mentally patting myself on the back for a mile or so for not responding vocally or digitally to either incident, I got to thinking about the broader implications of the HL phenomenon. Like wondering whether Armstrong himself ever gets an accidental, jeering HL when he rides around Austin, or Hollywood, or wherever he hangs out these days. And if he does get the HL, does he know it’s intended to be jeering, or does he just wave? Do cyclists in Kazakhstan get the “Hey Vino!”? And do women get the HL? Seems “Hey Jeannie!” would require a depth of knowledge beyond what can be gained on an ESPN ticker and the Tonight show. And, for a woman, would being faux mistaken for Longo be more or less offensive than being faux mistaken for a man?

Why do I say faux mistaken? At a towering 5’7”, wearing last year’s club kit, and riding a bike that predates Armstrong’s first Tour de France win, I hardly resemble the man himself to anyone who knows their ass from a hole in the ground. But that has nothing to do with anything. We all know it’s not actual misidentification that prompts the HL, but rather the intent to make a cyclist feel silly by calling him by a professional’s name when he or she presumably is not a professional, but would appear to be dressed as one to the casual observer. The goal is presumably to point out some sort of inherent poseurdom, an inappropriate vanity, which may or may not be valid.

Whether or not the HL really offends as many people as intended I can’t really say. For me, it’s really only offensive because I’m not an Armstrong fan ever since he blew off my question at a press conference somewhere around 2004, and I hold a mean grudge. Not that I was an admirer before that, but it didn’t help. Then again, I was asking a dope question after five other dope questions, and he was bound to pop sometime. But the snarky greeting on the road doesn’t really bother me. The HL, and all the other usual on-the-road insults tend to roll right off, since once you’ve survived 10th grade gym class as the guy with shaved legs, you’ve pretty much heard it all before, anyway.

But I do wonder how it affects others, and I have to wonder how often real-but-non-Armstrong pros in the United States get the HL when they’re out training. I’d imagine it has to strike them at roughly the same frequency as any recreational or amateur racing cyclist, so maybe, what, 2-3 times per year? Then again, they ride more miles than most of us, so maybe the number is somewhat greater due to their higher exposure. Regardless, it must be even more annoying for them than for the average weekend warrior, being legitimate professionals in their own right and all. Or, more likely, they’re secure enough in their own abilities that they don’t pay any attention at all. Still, try greeting your kid’s pediatrician with a mocking “Hey, Dr. Spock!” every time you see him and see what kind of service you get.

And how many times have Armstrong’s own teammates been mistaken for rabid Armstrong Superfans? They were pretty common back in the old U.S. Postal days, and it must have been hard for Tyler Hamilton, Christian Vande Velde, Jonathan Vaughters, and Kevin Livingston to ride around the block in the United States without getting a round of the HLs, and that must have been damn irritating. What else could explain Livingston signing for the fly-by-night Linda McCartney team? And for godssake, look what it’s driven Hamilton to.

But maybe Armstrong got his own, primordial version of the HL in the years before his world championship, Fleche Wallonne, and Tour de France wins – the latter being the only one of those three career highlights that stands a chance of getting you into the collective conscious of the average American, for heckling purposes or otherwise. In fact, what Armstrong had shouted at him from various motorized conveyances may well have impacted cycling history to this very day. See, back when Armstrong was riding for the U.S. national team and Montgomery-Bell, Greg Lemond was busy working towards his second world championship and the last of his three Tour de France victories, enough to land him in the mainstream U.S. media, including winning Sports Illustrated’s man of the year and landing that sweet Taco Bell TV ad. (An appearance that came back to bite Lemond in the oversized arse when he turned up overweight at the start of the following season. Lemond taco-eating jokes were so en vogue there for awhile.) So while the number of “Hey Lemond!”s received by the cycling populace back then would have been far fewer than the sheer volume of HLs we see today, the “Hey Lemond!” still enjoyed a short but annoying existence – trust me on that.

Whether or not Armstrong ever got a “Hey Lemond!” while someone winged a half-full Taco Bell cup at his noggin, I can’t say. But if he did, I can’t imagine he appreciated it, and I’d imagine it would irritate him more than most. Armstrong’s never been a Lemond fan, ever since people started asking him at an early age whether he was the next Greg Lemond. For the famously self-absorbed Armstrong, that had to be tough to take. I believe his response back then was usually a pretty restrained, “I’m the first Lance Armstrong.” If you’re reading this site, you probably read enough others to know how the relationship between the two American cycling heavyweights has devolved in the years since Armstrong first fielded those grating questions, culminating with this year’s Trek-Lemond bicycle company divorce, with Trek serving as Armstrong’s proxy.

But too many words have been spent on the relationship between those two, who in retirement only compete with each other in unsavory media hits, be it in gossip columns, courtroom brawls, or the pages of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. And that’s not what we’re about here, so let’s close this one out.

Getting my first HL in awhile also brought up the memory of a near-HL style incident that is now infamous in certain very small circles. Back during my shop rat years, a guy came into the shop in full Motorola team kit, a fabulous ensemble topped off by a Dura-Ace equipped Eddy Merckx in team paint, and asked for recommendations for good places to ride in the area. I wasn’t there at the time, but apparently, the words “poser” and “fred” were being bandied about pretty freely in the back of the shop, though in hushed tones, as we were typically a polite bunch. After all, those were the mountain bike boom years, when Zapata Espinoza was keeping plenty busy writing about how elitist all “roadies” were, and everyone knew that the keys to mountain biking’s self-professed nonconformity lay in getting anodized wheel skewers, Onza bar ends, and a set of Answer Hyperlite handlebars, just like everyone else. Road racing was for unimaginative exercise junkies with mommy issues, and dressing yourself up like some Euro-pro was just plain ridiculous.

By now, you can see where this is headed. The goofball in the shop who drank the Motorola Kook-Aid was actually Andy Hampsten, who had, of course, won the Giro d’Italia several years before. Fortunately, the shop owner – a veteran road warrior and the son of European immigrants who hoped against hope that all this mountain biking garbage would blow over soon enough – started paying attention just in time to save face by recognizing Hampsten for who he was and giving him some potential routes to ride while he was in town on vacation. As a 16-year-old junior road racer in a largely mountain bike world, I was obviously pissed that nobody called me. In fact, I’m still not sure I’ve forgiven those guys.

Hampsten was fortunate enough to close out his career in the time before HL became all the rage, but he seems like a pretty calm guy, so I doubt it would have rattled him much even if he hadn’t. That the HL is still so common nearly three years after Armstrong’s retirement is a testament to his lasting impression on the American public, and though it gets a bit tiring after the 10th or 11th time you hear it, the fact that a cyclist has managed to leave that sort of impression on the average rube can’t be all bad. Nevertheless, I think we have maybe another year or two of the HL in store, maybe three for those hecklers who have long memories or read TMZ quite a bit.

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Monday, June 23, 2008


Out of Office Reply

Thanks to all of you who have continued to check this site despite a notable lack of new content. We've been away from the Service Course world headquarters for a week or so, only to return to storm damage and a car break-in to address. Rest assured we'll be back with new content on our regular irregular schedule shortly.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Crazy Train

There’s plenty of blathering online today about an extremely disturbing turn in Belgian classics star Tom Boonen’s career. That’s right: the 27-year-old Quick.Step standout has been caught holding contract negotiations with the French Bouygues Telecom squad.

He also apparently tested positive for cocaine, but as you can see, that’s the least of his problems. Sure, developing a taste for the Bolivian marching powder could potentially send his cobbled career off the rails, but signing for Bouygues is like hiring the Grateful Dead to drive your locomotive. I suspect there might be some sort of causal relationship between these two transgressions, but I’m not yet sure which way it goes: does the possibility of riding for Jean-Rene Bernaudeau’s band of loveable losers make you turn to drugs, or does bumping a few lines in the disco toilet make leaving the world’s most powerful classics squad for the basement of the ProTour suddenly seem like a good idea?

It seems that, like the cocaine issue, Boonen is not rushing to deny these vicious Bouygues negotiation charges. And that’s disappointing, because in the world of professional cycling, not issuing some sort of denial is just plain lazy. By now, some 24 hours after the news broke, any self-respecting American pro would have set up a web site that takes PayPal donations, completed a chart-filled PowerPoint presentation, started an online petition for something, and established a charity benefiting French gout victims. Where’s the work ethic?

But we can’t hold Boonen to our standards, cultural differences being what they are and all, so for now, we’ll just have to assume that he’s actually considering riding for the Tour de France’s charity of choice. That leaves us to ponder the question of why.

Money is the simplest explanation, and as some guy theorized, in so many words, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. But how much money does Bouygues have? I’d imagine that Bouygues would have to bring in additional sponsors to cover bringing Boonen over, which they might be able to do if they searched out the right (read: Belgian) ones. But then they’d also have to come up with the scratch to sign the 3-5 guys he’d likely want to bring along to secure some decent help up north in the springtime, and those guys can cost a bit more coin than, say, Erki Putsep. Sure, current Bouygues boys Stef Clement (a recent acquisition from Dutch Skil-Shimano) and even team poster-boy Thomas Voeckler can ride decently in the classics, and the team has a lot of promising young talent in that department. But they also benefit from shouldering none of the responsibility for making these races. When you sign Boonen, that all changes, and they’d need some significant, seasoned reinforcement to not be portrayed as the team that costs him victories.

Aside from money, there really doesn’t seem to be another compelling reason for Boonen to go to Bouygues Telecom. Some will probably speculate that he’s looking to foreign teams in order to escape the glare of the Belgian press, whose persistent attentions he’s had problems with ever since he came third in his first Paris-Roubaix. But that’s a hollow argument. Boonen’s big targeted races (e.g., Flanders, Roubaix, the Tour) will be the same, whether he’s riding for Bouygues or a Belgian squad, or an Italian one, for that matter. With Bouygues, he might spend more time riding French Cup races at the expense of the E3-Harelbeke or the Scheldeprijs, but it’s not going to save him much scrutiny at this point. And the pressure to perform at the Tour and Roubaix will only be higher, as both the French and Belgian fans look to him to supply results. Basically, Tom Boonen is Tom Boonen, and the media will continue to follow him around no matter what jersey he’s wearing, how bizarre he decides to make his personal life, or how distant he becomes from the talent that made him famous. Kind of like Michael Jackson.

The only other thing I can think of is that the French and Belgian governments have forced the teams enter into some sort of circuitous, NFL/MLB/NBA-style player trading scheme (you know – “we’ve traded so-and-so for these two guys, a second-round draft pick in 2011, and a box of Cheez-Its”). The signs of this system, which redistributes the wealth of Belgian classics riders, started appearing late last year, when Quick-Step (Belgian) traded Nick Nuyens to Cofidis (French). In exchange, Francaise de Jeux (French) is sending Walloon Philippe Gilbert back up north to Silence-Lotto (Belgian) next year. But Gilbert would have to be worth a hell of a lot if his return to the homeland cost Belgium Boonen’s services. That makes me suspect that Belgium has offered Boonen up to France in exchange for keeping a player to be named later -- longshot Tour de France hope Stijn Devolder (Quick.Step) -- riding for a home team. After all, Belgium’s on a bit of a dry spell in that department since Eddy retired.

Kidding aside, I have to wonder how serious these negotiations between Boonen and Bouygues might have been. After all, Bernaudeau’s teams (Bonjour and Brioches La Boulangere before Bouygues) have long had a stated mission of developing young, French talent. Though they have signed a few foreigners of late, bringing in big, seasoned, Belgian talent is pretty drastic departure their usual M.O., and that’s the M.O. that will guarantee them a Tour de France slot long after the imminent demise of the ProTour system. Time will tell, of course, and again, all kidding aside, here’s hoping that Boonen gets his personal act together and comes back stronger for it. It looks like he’ll have the time to do so – as I write this, ASO has announced that he is no longer welcome at the Tour de France.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Letter from Philadelphia

I went up to the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship on Sunday, more to look for feature story inspiration and catch up with some contacts than to do any on-the-scene reporting, though I did grab some quotes here and there for use by other parties. But by far my most surprising and sort of scary contact came well away from the press tent.

A couple of laps in, I decided to pay a visit to Strawberry Hill, the course’s neglected hill, which sits between the ascents of the Manayunk Wall, the party hill, and Lemon Hill, the race connoisseurs’ hill. Trying to stay in the shade as much as possible, I was having a look at the long, wide-open descent that takes riders off Strawberry and back down to Kelly Drive, the main artery of the course. I was the only person there until a middle-aged man and his two young sons came from the opposite direction. The kids were water bottle hunting, so I tossed them a couple from my side of the road. The father thanked me in a thick Australian accent and, spotting the badge around my neck, asked me my affiliation. I told him, and we fell into talking about where we were from, the race, the heat, and assorted other pleasantries.

He explained that he lives in the area, and that through various twists and turns he’d become familiar with High Road assistant director Andrzej Bek. We talked about the team being a class act, and he noted how Bek was so friendly he had just called him during the race to try to arrange a meet-up. And then he dropped the bomb: “And they’ve rented my RV from me for the week.

Here I was, in an isolated area, with no witnesses, face-to-face with a man whose recreational vehicle I’d openly mocked on this site for my own self-glorification just days ago. A hundred thousand people at this race, and this is who I run into? I wasn’t sure whether to scream and run away or go buy a lottery ticket. Being a pretty good distance from anywhere, and neither a runner nor a gambler, I decided to just act casual.

But Philly is a long race, and that was just one of any number of semi-notable things. Here are a few more.


Perusing the full results back in the comfort and air-conditioning of my own home, the final accounting was striking in two ways. The first was the number of finishers – 81 out of 180 starters. Yes, that’s less than half of the starters making it to the far end, but given temperatures that started around 80 degrees at the 9:00am start and rose to over 95 degrees by the finish, coupled with high humidity, I went in expecting maybe 40 or so finishers. Granted, it was one of the slowest editions of the race, with plenty of riders being more cautious than usual with their efforts due to the heat, but that’s still a hell of a crowd after 156 miles, however you cut it. Remember when Manayunk was a race-shattering climb? Now, not so much.

The second striking aspect of the results came in the less auspicious section below the final finisher (for the record, David Guttenplan of Time at 14:41 back) in the DNF section. Every team was represented down there, and the guys watching the finish from the sidelines included notable names like former winner Henk Vogels (Toyota-United), Paris-Roubaix champions Servais Knaven (High Road) and Magnus Backstedt (Slipstream), and Giro points jersey winner Danielle Bennati (Liquigas). But that wasn’t the interesting part – after all, everybody has a job to do, and anyone can have an off day.

The interesting part was that two teams – Jittery Joe’s and Rite Aid – managed to lose their entire 8-man squads. With 81 guys making it to the finish, it has to be pretty hard to explain why not-a-one of yours could get there, heat or no heat. It also has to make you wonder about next year’s invitation – without the Philadelphia race serving as the USPRO championship, a spot in the lineup isn’t as safe as it used to be.

Coping Strategies

Who can blame those Rite Aid and Jittery Joe’s boys for packing it in, though? It was hot out there. Damn hot. Africa hot. So teams were making a special effort to make sure their riders kept cool enough to go for the win, or at least not die. For water bottle and musette hunters, it was a banner day, and thank god for them, because if it hadn’t been for the scavengers, we’d have been wading knee-deep in bottles by the midpoint.

But giving more liquids is basic, and this sort of heat and humidity called for a bit more effort. Soigneurs in the team tents were busy all day, stuffing ice in ziplock bags and team socks to hand up to riders, who would stuff them down the back of their jersies. It seems to me there are upsides and downsides to that method – on one hand, you’ve got a bag of ice down your back. On the other, you have to zip up the front of your jersey to hold it there.

I don’t know if it’s because they didn’t pack any spare socks or plastic baggies, or just a preference, but the Symmetrics riders seem to disproportionately prefer the full chest unzip in comparison to the rest of the peloton, and if you paid attention you could see why. Those Canadians are damn hairy.

Another minor notable was that Toyota-United and some other squads were using oversized water bottles. They’re commonplace in amateur racing, of course, where you’re more-or-less on your own for your feeding needs, but in the pro ranks they’re rarely seen. At that level, caravan vehicles passing up bottles and competent feed zone help eliminate some of the need, and the small bottles weigh less are less apt to bounce out of the cages. But on a day like Sunday, those few ounces of extra capacity were likely well worth any associated negatives.

Still other teams were handing up ice-water soaked kitchen sponges, which now cover a colorful 5 mile stretch of Philly riverfront. So be on the lookout for extra-clean homeless people storing their urine in Slipstream-Chipotle bottles in the coming weeks. If any of the teams had gone truly retro and used damp cabbage leaves under their helmets, they could have had a meal as well.

Get it Right

At the finish of the Liberty Classic, the women’s race that does four laps of the full course, the announcers were going apeshit about the late solo move by U.S. champion Mara Abbott (High Road) on Lemon Hill. She held her small gap all the way to the line for the win. I must have heard her name at 100 decibels at least 10 times in the seconds it took the race to pass the press tent, loop around Logan Circle, and get back to the line, including a great big “MARA ABBOTT WINS THE LIBERTY CLASSIC!” as she crossed the line with arms raised.

The only problem was it wasn’t Mara Abbott. And everyone who knew a bit about bike racing knew it wasn’t. The announcers apologized to Chantal Beltman, the young Dutchwoman who’d actually delivered High Road the win, several minutes later. They blamed the mix-up on a last minute switch in numbering within the team that wasn’t noted on their start sheet.

Is it easy to innocently misidentify riders in bike racing? Yes, it is. Just ask Phil Liggett. Does the press occasionally get a start sheet that’s less than accurate? Absolutely. But a few things make this incident especially troublesome. First and foremost, it’s pretty easy to pick Abbott out from her teammates – as the announcers noted, she’s the U.S. road champion. Meaning she has a different kit from the rest of the team, including Beltman. Second, I picked up my start sheet a good hour and a half before the start, and Beltman was number 4, plain as day, just as she was at the finish, so somebody wasn’t doing their due diligence. Furthermore, this was no tight bunch sprint – Beltman’s number was clearly visible at the head of the race from Lemon Hill onward, ample time to figure things out. And even if their start sheet was actually wrong, they should have known it wasn’t Abbott by the jersey alone. It’s just sloppy, and this race is better than that.

It’s Not A Car Show

Finally, a safety note. Every year, the organizers find a way to let some Philly gearheads drive whatever overpowered creation they happen to own at the tail end of the race caravan. This year, it was one guy in whatever the new version of the Porsche 911 body style is, and a guy in an Acura NSX. The organizer, Threshold Sports, should give some real consideration to whether this is in everyone’s best interests, including their own.

Both vehicles were covered in some slipshod vinyl graphics, so I have to believe Threshold got some relatively small amount of money or in-kind services from those represented companies in exchange for the relatively minor logo placement. Even without knowing the value of those ads, I’m going to go ahead and tell Threshold it’s not worth it.

Race caravans themselves are dangerous, but they’re also loud, spend most of their time at 25 miles per hour, and due to generally good organization at Philly, you damn well know when its coming towards you. And the guys driving in the caravan are typically experienced and know the patterns and implied rules of the road during a bike race.

Not so with the gold-chain and wife-beater crowd piloting these extra vehicles. These guys were occasionally dropping well off the back of the race, then goosing it to about 60 mph up Kelly Drive. It would be bad enough if they hit a rider, a moto, or a mechanic stopped for service or a crash. But it will be even worse when they run over some kid who, with the peloton and caravan well past, steps out in the road to retrieve that High Road musette they’d been eyeballing since it left the rider's hand.

In addition to the primary concern of injury or death, trust me, after that happens, there will be no more Philly race, 24 years of history or no, and anyone trying to run any other race on public roads will face a lot of questions. Whatever they’re getting from the companies plastered on those cars – whether it’s money or services – the mighty Threshold Sports can acquire it some other way, or find a safer way to provide the same exposure value. A few hundred bucks saved won’t mean much if the scenario above comes to pass.

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Friday, June 06, 2008


Reading Reading (or Vice-Versa)

I did not see that coming.

Oscar Sevilla (Rock Racing) won the second race of Philly Week, giving his polarizing domestic team what has to be the biggest victory of its short existence. While the Reading, PA course does feature a substantial climb in the last three laps, it’s hardly one that would look to favor a guy who made his name by riding well in the high mountains of European stage races and by having the face of an eternal 13 year old. As the two previous winners, Bernhard Eisel (then T-Mobile, now High Road) and Greg Henderson (then HealthNet, now High Road) would indicate, it tends to favor strongmen who can ride the hill as a power climb and still sprint afterwards. But according to reports, the little Spaniard not only read the race and timed his move perfectly, but was also just plain stronger than everyone else. That’s a hard combination to beat.

Jason Sumner’s VeloNews report can give you all the details, as can Mark Zalewski’s on, but basically, Sevilla had a free hand to play, which he did to great effect in the final two laps. Had that failed, the team was banking on Fred Rodriguez to take out the field sprint. Simple as it was, that little tactical discussion was somehow striking. I haven’t exactly been scavenging the media for the latest Rock Racing news, but it's hard to avoid, and it seems to me that the contents of those two articles are probably the most in-depth discussion of cycling tactics and actual racing to have occurred in relation to that particular team. Amidst all the discussion about persecution, Cipollini, lawsuits, tattoos, chrome rims, and fashion, it’s easy to forget that there’s an actual group of guys out there racing. And the team knows it. Director Mariano Friedick told VN post race, “No matter what other people may think, we are just a bike racing team trying to win bike races.”

But it’s hard to deny that the team has given people plenty to talk about besides winning bike races. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to do so. And, like it or not, this victory will continue to fan some of those flames, because it involves Sevilla. While I don’t have the time – as in, “enough time left on this Earth” – to recount the ins and outs of the whole Operation Puerto affair, suffice it to say that Sevilla was implicated, but never officially sanctioned, unless you count exclusion from the Tour of California as being sanctioned. So there will certainly be people both deep inside the sport and on the spectator level who will complain about his victory and the “message” it sends, despite the fact that he’s always held a valid UCI license.

I won’t be among them though. Why? Not because I don’t think Sevilla was involved in at least some of the illicit practices at the center of Puerto. I’m no fan of guilt by association, because if that were the norm, I probably wouldn’t be a free man today, but Sevilla’s resume is a listing of the teams of the damned: Kelme (1998-2003), Phonak (2004), and T-Mobile (2005-2006) take him up through the Puerto case, after which he rode for Relax-Gam before landing stateside with Rock Racing. But in the years since that whole mess blew up, the acronym soup that claims to govern world cycling has failed to work in concert to do anything about it, other than point fingers at various cyclists and each other. In the meantime various riders, including Sevilla, have been caught in purgatory, and for someone just trying to get on with their life, that’s a pretty stiff punishment. At least when you get sent to heaven or hell, you know what you’re in for.

So while Sevilla would have likely sat out a couple of years had various people pulled their acts together, the time for the UCI and all other Puerto concerned parties to fish or cut bait has long since passed, and at this point they're stuck firmly below deck hacking the heads off a tub of shad until the next boat comes along. Or at least they should be, but most of these parties have never been constrained by the pursuit of a proper course of action. Maybe you can blame Sevilla and all of the other Puerto riders (including Sevilla’s teammates Tyler Hamilton and Santiago Botero) for not fessing up if you think they’re guilty, and that’s fair enough, but it’s the governing bodies’ job to police this stuff, and they failed miserably. At some point, in the absence of any credible sporting or legal process, we all have to move on, and I'm trying to do my part. Which is not to say that we shouldn't look to improve the processes -- clearly, there's plenty of work to be done. But we need to do so by using the past as a lesson, not by dwelling in it and letting it siphon off resources that could be used to improve the future.

Though it’s not directly related to Puerto, which has been pretty quiet of late, there’s ample evidence of the sport’s mismanagement floating around these days anyway. If you want to dig into the depth of just how bad it is, check out VeloNews Editorial Director John Wilcockson’s interview with UCI boss Pat McQuaid. The primary subject is the UCI vs. ASO issue hovering noisily over the upcoming Tour de France, but it’s pretty indicative of the state of the sport as a whole. It’s also pretty dense stuff, and frankly, it made my head hurt. But despite the pain, it reveals some disturbing issues, like the fact that the McQuaid interprets (at his convenience) requests made by a confounding number of (sometimes redundant, sometimes conflicting) teams associations to the UCI as steadfast rules to be applied to races, and that the UCI is both the enforcer of and at the mercy of those same rules. My headache comes back just thinking about it.

Though this particular interview only gives a peep into the UCI’s absurd mental gymnastics, the ASO really isn’t contributing any better logic on their side. In fact, it would be sweet relief if there were anybody involved in the whole UCI vs. Grand Tours flap who was more-or-less right. But there isn’t, and the fact that they’re all making a mess of things in their own unique way is just plain frustrating – there’s really no interest in creating a unified, cohesive structure for the sport, only in forwarding the individual goals of a slew of organizations. I don’t claim to have the answers to all of the overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities and ambitions that are hog-tying the sport, but then again, it isn’t my full-time well-compensated job to think about such things. It’s my part-time, poorly compensated job to bitch about them sometimes, though, so there you go.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Haves and Have Nots

Here in the United States, we’re one race into what’s affectionately known as “Philly Week.” I believe it’s officially dubbed the “Pro Cycling Tour” by promoter Threshold Sports, because there aren’t already enough permutations of “pro,” “cycling,” and “tour” in circulation. (Interestingly, I was going to link to the UCI ProTour rankings back there, but mentions of the allegedly prestigious series and its snazzy logo seem to have gone missing from their site. But that’s another story.)

The Philly Week races are sponsored by Commerce Bank, so some people – mostly from the Commerce Bank PR department – call it the "Commerce Bank Triple Crown of Cycling." Long before Commerce took over the sponsorship, no doubt encouraged by irritating spokesperson and deadly lead-out man Regis Philbin, the races were sponsored by CoreStates, another bank. Those were long and memorable years, so some people still call it the CoreStates series as well. But they’re usually old, and still wearing stretched-out lycra from that era, so they’re easy to spot. Wachovia took over for a few years there in the middle, but I don’t think anyone calls it the Wachovia series. At some point, Thrift Drug was in there as a sponsor as well, but at this point, that seems like a poor pairing with the sport. Anyway, that’s all confusing and a bit obtuse, so let’s just go with Philly Week. I’m sure that’s what the sponsors would want.

One of the big selling points for Philly Week has always been that a number of European squads make the trip over to race, which was far more rare before the rise of the Tour of California and Tour de Georgia. Sometimes the trip is for sponsorship reasons – Bjarne Riis’s CSC team has been a mainstay over the past several years, feting bigwigs from the government contractor in huge hospitality tents, and Liquigas is making the trip this year, likely at the behest of bike sponsor Cannondale. (Saeco also made several appearances during their long Cannondale tenure, with Stefano Zanini winning in 2003.) Suanier-Duval has made a few trips recently as well, giving then-cosponsor Prodir pens top billing on some special jerseys as they made a push in the U.S. market. (Full disclosure: All us media hacks got free pens that year. Ah, the perks.) Back when Philly was the USPRO championship race, some of the Euros came to support a U.S. title contender in their ranks, as Mapei, Domo and various Lotto permutations did for Fred Rodriguez over the years, while for U.S.-registered but European-focused squads, it’s a good chance to stoke the affections of the home crowd. Still other teams just come for the appearance money, a free stay in a nice Philly hotel, shopping, and maybe some prize money if they’re feeling frisky.

The arrival of the overseas teams, particularly the big budget ones, can lead to a bit of role reversal. Suddenly, it’s the traditionally hardscrabble domestic continental teams that are better equipped and on their home turf, while the usually pampered ProTour teams have to work out of rented Ryder box trucks instead of the custom-built DAF rigs they’re used to. Sure, Ryder can arrange to get you shipping blankets and a dolly, but they’re sure as hell not going to install a washer/dryer and a mini-fridge for you. And just try to find good muesli and Extran in Fishtown.

But between those extremes – the suddenly posh-looking continental squads and the rental-car driving European ProTour teams – there is some middle ground. The U.S.-registered squads like ProTour High Road and pro continental Slipstream-Chipotle keep a bit of heavy equipment over in the states, enough to look professional when they hit the bigger domestic races, but still lacking all the comforts of a safe European home. Slipstream has a nicely appointed and appropriately Euro Sprinter van, as well as a nice BMW wagon to terrorize the caravan with. But when you’re ProTour, like High Road, people expect a bit more, and you can’t just go turning up to the races without a team bus.

As evidenced by these (poor) shots taken at the CSC Invitational in Arlington, VA on Sunday, the High Road lads are a resourceful bunch. Shipping buses overseas is apparently crazy expensive, so they’ve suckered some Florida-bound Pennsylvania retirees into lending them one heavily armed recreational vehicle for the week, including an inspirational airbrushed mural on the back.

“Rocking Years” indeed. I mean, have you seen the number of wins these guys have racked up this season? Little do Bob and Janet Kowalski (retired and loving it!) of Phoenixville, PA, know, but that thing is going to reek of embrocation and ham when they get it back.

Though they’re one scant stop short of an “I’m Spending My Kid’s Inheritance” bumper sticker on the team bus side of the equation, the High Road boys pull it all back home with the caravan vehicles. While most stateside teams are content to piece together a suitable Yakima or Thule system for hauling bikes, High Road goes for the pure Euro solution – custom welding and hydraulics. No, not the kind of hydraulics that probably grace the undercarriage of the Rock Racing Escalades, allowing a range of suspension motion that would make the late Tupac blush, but roof rack hydraulics, which let everything fold down nice and tidy and flat when you want it to:

After all, if you think gas is expensive here, you should go to Europe. What’s more, they have the extra-special Y-shaped spare wheel mounts that let you hang nearly twice as many spare wheels off the back of a Passat (or a Skoda, or an Audi, or any other VAG product). Given the choice of vehicles, the fact that it’s U-bolted to the factory rack, and the limited supply of such fixtures in the U.S., I have to wonder if this is the exact same system that used to grace the roof of the VWs that Discovery Channel used stateside during their tenure.

Recycling of that sort is actually pretty common, both in Europe and here in the United States. For instance, Team Type 1’s flashy equipment truck was originally purchased by Tom Schuler for the powerhouse domestic Saturn squad of the day. When Saturn shut it’s doors, it was sold to Discovery Channel for domestic use during their tenure. With Discovery out, and Schuler back in the sport and managing Team Type 1, he repurchased the idle rig and, $6,000 worth of vinyl graphics later, she’s back. I’m headed up to Philadelphia on Sunday, so we’ll see what else we see there, on these and other life-and-death, thrill-of-victory-or-agony-of-defeat issues. In the meantime, I’ll try to throw out some other cutting-room floor material from CSC last weekend.

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