Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Tour No More

So that’s it for another year’s Tour de France, and for now, Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank) appears to be the winner. But we’ve been burned before, so let’s not go crazy until Sastre shows up for all of his post-Tour crit contracts – because we all know what it means when you don’t turn up for those cash cows. In all seriousness, though, Sastre seems as likely as anyone to remain rooted in the list of winners once all the final tests are in, so we here at the Service Course will go out on a limb and extend our congratulations to him.

I have to admit, I would have never picked Sastre as a Tour winner, but I don’t think I’m alone in that. As several media outlets have pointed out, he’s always been considered the consummate fourth place man – the kind of guy outfits like Quick.Step hire when they want to be able to claim they’ve a man for the GC. But a winner? Nah. Shows what I know.

A lot of other people have been shown what they know too, after Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) failed to bring back even half the time he needed on Sastre in the final time trial to take his much-anticipated Tour win. I have to say, I think those who were crowing that the minute and a half lead that Sastre forged over Evans on L’Alpe D’Huez wasn’t nearly enough were mislead by the media’s Tour de France hype machine. In the absence of a true five-star contender like an Armstrong or an Ullrich, someone has to get the five stars, and that was Evans, at least for the Anglophone press. Faced with a rider who is, by his own confession, not very exciting in the mountains, the press chose to build up his pretty good time trialing to Indurain proportions, which objectively it has never approached. If you were sucked in by it, don’t feel bad – Evans seems to have bought into it himself, and it may have cost him a Tour win.

The handicapping of Sastre and Evans’ respective strengths was correct on the broad level – Evans is typically better than Sastre in the time trials. In hindsight, however, it’s easy to see where things got pretty distorted in the name of making the story. Sastre was the mountain man, the spindly climber, facing off against avowed time trialist Evans. It created a battle of styles, of strategy, and with it, suspense. Would the gap be enough? But if we’d all paid a little more attention to history, it would have shown that, just as Evans is no Indurain against the clock, Sastre is no Rasmussen. Which is to say that Sastre has never been as bad at the discipline as people may have made out, and with a yellow jersey in the balance, anything is possible. Along with making a caricature of both rider’s strengths and weaknesses, many of the final week speculations also failed to take into account another pretty evident truth – that Sastre was getting better as Evans was in decline.

The Bizarro World Report

Had Evans clawed Sastre’s Alpe D’Huez gains back in the time trial and eked out a comfortable Tour win, there still wouldn’t have been much room to criticize CSC’s teamwork during the race. It was nearly flawless. But if Evans ended up with, say, a 7-second victory over Sastre, we could have looked squarely at some strange decisions on L’Alpe D’Huez. Why did Sastre sit up and celebrate when he knew he needed every second for the GC? Everyone would want a good photo of victory on that most famous mountain, but I hear the one on the take of the winner on the Champs is pretty good, too. More importantly, why did Andy Schleck, who did a phenomenal climb of the Alpe, especially considering he was mostly facing backwards, go after Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in the finale? Though he was clearly assigned to chase down anything and everything that moved, by taking off after Sanchez, he only accelerated the group of GC contenders behind, potentially eating into Sastre’s advantage. Sanchez didn’t pose a threat, and even if he did, it would be one of the other contenders that needed to chase him down long before A. Schleck did on his team’s behalf.

Of course, A. Schleck’s move was likely a last minute attempt to gain time on his white jersey rival, Roman Kreuziger (Ligquigas) who was back down the mountain a bit. It worked, and apparently it was necessary, as A. Schleck barely held that jersey after the final TT, so there’s not much point in second-guessing the team. But I bring it up just to point out that if defending white or doing the two-arm salute had cost CSC yellow, you’d be reading much different articles regarding their tactics than you are now.

The Sequined Jersey Award

As we pointed out above, Evans is no Indurain when it comes to the time trials, but the three weeks of the Tour did reveal that he’s cycling’s Zsa Zsa Gabor. The Australian’s weird and bitchy temperament made him a darling of cycling’s little corner of YouTube, where fans have graciously immortalized his journalist swatting, head butting, general complaining, and other assorted jackassery from this year’s race. Unfortunately, none of the clips seem to address his abnormal relationship with the stuffed lions given on the podium, but it’s this clip, in which he threatens to cut someone’s head off if they step on this yapping pocketbook dog, that puts him in Gabor territory.

Sure, that evidence looks pretty damning, but if you came out of the Tour thinking Evans is a total dick, you’re wrong. Cyclingnews.com notes in its own gentle way that he is, in fact, only half dick, by pointing out that his mother, Ms. Helen Cocks, was on hand for the team’s Tour afterparty. OK, that was a cheap shot.

All of Evans’ histrionics make Sastre seem like even more of a bargain. The veteran campaigner, backed by a ridiculous amount of horsepower from his CSC-Saxo Bank team, made all the right moves to win the race on his own terms, and managed to not come off as an asshole in the process. Chapeau! Maybe that’s because, while he’s always ridden at a high level, he seems to have never had people telling him he’s a star. The mindset of the veteran campaigner showed through in his interviews, as well as his final stage attire – the yellow jersey, some celebratory bar tape, and that’s about it. Just enough to do the job, without being flashy. Let’s hope his less garish fashions on the Champs return cycling a more modest time. If Mario Cipollini comes back and wins the GC, I’ll reconsider my stance against all yellow clothes, frame, and wheels, but not until then.

Parting Shots

- Good on Geert Steegmans for saving Quick.Step’s horrible Tour by winning big in the world’s biggest criterium. When his new Russian Katusha team collapses, which it almost certainly will, he can always pay the bills at SuperWeek.

- Yeah, that stage-by-stage guide to regional drinks didn’t work out too well in the end, did it? It was a last minute, seat-of-the-pants operation this year, but next year we’ll make an effort to get ahead of the game and give the people the information they so desperately need.

- We talked a bit about sponsorship in our last post, and a host of brand new sponsors have to be pretty happy with what they got. Saxo Bank will be inheriting the Tour winning team from CSC, and Garmin had a surprise GC contender for most of the race in Christian Vande Velde. Columbia? Well, for their buck, they got time in yellow, time in green, and over a quarter of the stage wins on offer.

- With Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) dominating the time trials and some shady characters accounting for a good portion of the mountain wins, it was looking like we were headed for an overall winner with no stage wins. But Sastre saved us from that with his great ride on L’Alpe D’Huez. This year’s group of contenders was pretty uninspired, but the winner having at least won a stage helps.

- Four doping positives and one team withdrawal? The way the last few years have gone, I’ll take that. Despite the bad news, everything kept rolling on. As I said before, the mainstream press seems to be starting to realize that catching people is good. If they weren’t catching onto that already, I think those writers’ upcoming trips to Beijing would be even more of an eye-opener than I believe they’re already going to be.


Thanks to all of you who’ve come to visit this site over the course of the Tour de France. We’re not a large site by any means, but we’ve seen our numbers go up a bit over the past several weeks, and frankly, we like the attention. Our posting frequency will likely go back to a couple of posts a week now that all the Tour fuss is dying down, and life will likely interrupt service every now and then, like it did during the last week of the Tour. But we hope that both our longtime readers and those of you who visited us for the first time during the Tour will continue to check in and, if you like what you read, tell a friend.

On to the fall classics, the Worlds, and cyclocross season…

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Your Name Here

About sponsorship, and some stuff about racing, too

This year’s Tour de France doping scandals look to be costing the support of at least two sponsors, Barloworld and Saunier Duval. Saunier Duval hasn’t announced a final decision, but after the Tour, Claudio Corti’s Barloworld squad will drop its title sponsor from its jersey at the company’s request. That’s bad news, but the team’s future is assured through 2009, as the South African company will fulfill its financial obligations to the team. That situation puts the team in a similar position to the Columbia squad, which lost title sponsor T-Mobile following the slew of doping confessions by the team’s former riders, including Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel, and Jan Ullrich’s connection to the Operacion Puerto affair. Still running on T-Mobile funds, the revamped team operated under its management company’s name (High Road) until the Columbia clothing company signed on just before the Tour.

It’s hard to blame sponsors for jumping ship after they’ve been associated with things most people don’t like to think much about, like syringes and bags of bodily fluids and systemic cheating. And back then, I believe Adidas joined T-Mobile and several other sponsors in bidding adieu to the team. But you know who rode it out? Giant. The squad’s bike sponsor stuck with Bob Stapleton’s squad and its promises of a brighter future, and they have to be rejoicing over that decision now. After a widely-reported new product launch just prior to the Tour de France, the now-Columbia team has ridden Giant products to four highly visible stage wins by young Mark Cavendish, and enjoyed some additional TV time with Kim Kirchen in yellow for four days, and in green for awhile as well. Through their support of the team, Giant also garnered some coverage through the Tour debut of their aesthetically questionable but functionally beautiful new TT bike. And nary a mention of the team goes by without a reference to its stringent internal dope testing system. After a few pretty mediocre Tours during the final years of its long tenure, you have to wonder if T-Mobile wishes they’d stuck with it for at least another year.

Of course, the decision to stay in the game made far more sense for Giant than it did for the non-endemic sponsors. After all, Giant makes racing bikes, and if you’re looking to sell some of those, the Tour de France is still the place to be. More so than if you’re hustling mobile phone service, anyway, although the in-car camera segments on Versus make it hard to tell which is tested more rigorously at the Tour – mobile phones or bicycles. But I digress. I stopped having any sentimental feelings about sponsorship agreements long ago, but I do think it’s good to see a sponsor who stuck it out through the dark times get some payback. With any luck, some of Barloworld's cosponsors will have a hard look at the potential costs and benefits of their sponsorship before simply pulling the plug.

Speaking of bike sponsorships and the Tour de France, has anyone noticed things are decidedly more somber at local Trek dealerships than in years past? With their ProTour flagship Astana sitting this one out, and longtime Discovery cosponsor Nike planning to complete its pullout from cycling after the Olympics, the level of showroom decoration is way down this year. No strings of yellow flags; no yellow, polka dot, and green jerseys hung from the rafters; no giant vinyl photo banners in the windows. What really shows is how much of that LBS “Tour Buzz” was created by shrewd, complimentary Tour-time programs by U.S. Postal/Discovery sponsors.

All the wrenches are still glued to Versus, of course, but I have to wonder how long it will be before there’s another combination of rider and brand capable of generating that sort of marketing onslaught again. Trek obviously has the money and dealer network muscle to pull it off should the opportunity present itself again, as does Giant. Specialized and Cannondale could both give it a good run as well. A Ridley or a Felt? Maybe not so much. But the ruckus that Trek was able to create at the retail level during the Armstrong reign showed quite a few things: what a reliable quantity Armstrong really was, the absolute preeminence of the Tour for American audiences, the growth in recognition of the sport in the U.S., and the sheer marketing force Trek and their associates could generate when they put their minds to it.

Something About Racing

I know it’s hard to believe, but the Tour isn’t just about business deals and doping. There’s also a bunch of guys riding bikes, and it’s a helluva race this year, eh? After one short time trial, the Pyrenees, and the first day of the Alps, the top 6 riders were separated by less than a minute. That’s pretty tight at this stage, but the interest of this year’s race goes past the standard, “hey, close race” factor due to the makeup of that front six. It’s split half-and-half between GC riders that fall decidedly on the climber end of the spectrum in CSC pair Frank Schleck (leading) and Carlos Sastre (6th) and Gerolsteiner’s Bernhard Kohl (2nd), and riders whose best hopes come in the final time trial – Silence Lotto’s Cadel Evans (3rd), Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde (5th), and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov (4th). So in addition to wondering if the climbers will be able to gain time in the remaining two mountain stages, we’ll also be wondering if whatever advantage they can eke out will be enough to stave off the time trial crowd in the end. And, barring a total meltdown by any of the contenders, there’s no way we’ll know what “enough time” is until that final TT. Considering that we had a first week that saw the overall contenders battling from Stage 1, that’s a pretty good job of drawing out the suspense. Part of it has to do with ASO's course design, and part is due to the open field with no clear dominant rider, but it’s all come together in just the right way to produce one of the most competitive Tours in a long time.

Obviously, there are a lot of questions to be resolved at this point, and indeed some are likely getting resolved on the road as I write this. But one that stands out is whether any of the contenders will actually win a stage on the way to the overall victory. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) won Stage 1 back when he was considered a contender, but a couple of bad days in the mountains put an end to that title, so I’m not counting it. Right now, the best chances for an overall winner to come away with a stage win look to be Frank Schleck pulling a second win at L’Alpe D’Huez, or Evans or Menchov coming up big in the final long time trial, but those are far from givens. And that’s great. Aside from the European betting outlets, who doesn’t like a crazy crapshoot Tour?

Confessions of an American

We talked a bit about nationalism as it relates to cycling awhile back, and we’ve also taken more than a few cracks at Cadel Evans’ proposed Tour strategy. It’s now become extremely evident that American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle) is a follower of the exact same boring-as-hell strategy. And I’m loving it. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

I think there are a few reasons I don’t feel the compulsion to rag on Vande Velde like I do on Evans. The first feels a lot like nationalism, but on reviewing my own feelings, I’m not sure that’s the right word. It’s not that Vande Velde was born inside the same borders as I was, or that he was likely forced to race office park crits as a junior like I was, or that he knows what a Quarter Pounder with cheese is or understands why the Simpsons is a funny show. It’s more that he’s familiar – we’ve known him for a long time through national coverage, so it’s nice to see a familiar face, one you've had a close look at for years, do well. Or maybe it is because he’s American – humans are famously inadequate at assessing their own biases, so why should I be any different?

Nationalism aside, it’s also easier to put up with Vande Velde’s adoption of the follow-wheels-and-TT strategy because he’s such a surprise contender. Underdogs are meant to hang on through all sorts of abuse before using their particular strength to triumph at the very end – just watch any 1980’s movie about nerds or misfit cops or high school students and you’ll see how the story goes. So Vande Velde and his management are just using their upstart role properly, although ridiculous levels of suffering seem more likely to ensue than comic hilarity in their case.

I guess my acceptance and tacit endorsement of Vande Velde’s strategy is rooted in the fact that nobody expects him and his team to go on the attack and make the GC battle exciting – that’s what four star favorites like Evans are supposed to do. Vande Velde is making the race exciting just by the fact that he's up there at all, challenging for the win and providing one more horse to bet on, and for an upstart, that's great. But we come in expecting all that of the favorites, so they need to do a little something extra to get people talking. And not fulfilling that expectation is part of why I pick on Evans, even though he’s just doing what he has to do to win. I also think that my and other's perceptions of Evans were soured by the pre-race hype, which can burn fans out on the perceived favorite before the race even starts. And, well, the constant whining doesn't help.

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Friday, July 18, 2008


Songs of Ourselves

You know how you can tell when the public’s hunger for news exceeds the available supply? Journalists start interviewing each other. There is a bit of new news today, of course, but nothing you can build a big story on without re-using a lot of the background you already burned yesterday. Right now, it looks like Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval), winner atop Hautacam, has been fired from the team along with Riccò, and rumours are starting to circulate about whether there’s a system of institutionalized doping run and financed by the team. See, I pretty much just gave you all the new news in a single sentence.

And so, with another long sprint stage on tap and some column inches to fill, we find ourselves with some hot journalist-on-journalist action in the Tour de France pages today. VeloNews’ John Wilcockson focuses his lens on Philippe Brunel, head cycling writer for L’Equipe (which, to set the record straight, is not the crappy, muckraking rag it’s often portrayed as over here. It’s a highly respected sports paper. When people call it a “tabloid”, they’re referring to the format, not the meaning of “tabloid” we’ve adopted in the U.S.) Wilcockson notes that Brunel has long been a Riccò supporter, and seemed visibly upset at his recent fall from grace.

The article brings up an interesting point. When scandals such as Riccò’s break, fans often report feeling betrayed – that they’ve been sold a product that didn’t match the advertising copy. Fans aren’t the only ones – the journalists feel cheated as well, and what’s more, they can feel that they’ve been made an instrument of the deception. But what can you do? When you write about a sport like cycling, it’s your job to talk about the folks doing the big rides, and ending every story with caveats like “but he might be doping, so take it all with a grain of salt” would be career suicide. And it wouldn’t make for a fun assignment, either.

But when you’ve written extensively about a rider’s achievements, with the entirely justifiable aim of bringing the sport’s big stories to your readers, and that rider turns out a fake, it’s disappointing to say the least. Not just because it’s another scandal, but because, to the untrained eye, it can seem that you somehow haven’t done your job, that you should have known. There’s the lingering feeling that out there in the audience, people are saying, “he’s a fool to have bought that guy’s act, we knew it all along.” But you can’t let that get to you, and you have to be comforted by the fact that the rules of professional journalism aren’t the same as those for posting on an internet message board or blog. Brunel sums it up nicely in cyclingnews.com’s own peer-to-peer coverage:

"It was not a surprise for me. Journalists do their work, but when you don't have proof you are not able to do anything. If you write in a subjective manner, then you too become a judge or a policeman, so you have to watch everything and when the proof arrives, then you write."

I’ve never written about cycling at the same level as Brunel and Wilcockson. On a good day, I’m maybe a D3 water carrier to their ProTour superstars. But just like cyclists of all levels know what it is to suffer, we’ve all seen and written about things that don’t look as good in retrospect as they did at the time. For instance, my first on-site race coverage assignment for VeloNews was the 1999 Red Zinger Stage Race in Colorado. It was an attempt to revive the Red Zinger/Coors Classic days of old and it was, to my eye then, a pretty good race – a prologue in downtown Boulder, a road race along the Peak-to-Peak highway, an uphill time trial, a brutal stage to the 14,000 foot summit of Mount Evans, and a criterium around the Celestial Seasonings headquarters to close.

It was the only edition of the race in that format – it would evolve into the one-day Saturn Classic and disappear entirely after a couple of years. But the big news in 1999 was that Jonathan Vaughters (then U.S. Postal), who had crashed out on the Passage au Gois at the Tour, was coming home to compete on a composite team. He ended up winning the Red Zinger on the same day Armstrong took his first Tour crown in Paris, and you know, I still like the story I wrote about it. You can see the problems, though, when you look back at the Peak-to-Peak highway stage in particular. I was sitting shotgun in the Saturn car while DS Rene Wenzel slept alongside the mechanic in the back seat, so I had a good view of the race-making break ahead, which consisted of Vaughters, Scott Moninger (then Mercury), Chris Wherry (then Saturn), and Floyd Landis (then Mercury).

Since that time, Wherry, god bless him, has kept his nose clean as best I can remember, and has a notable domestic career to look back on for it. The rest? Vaughters was implicated by his little IM conversation with Frankie Andreau, and though he smartly keeps mum on the details of his past, I think he’s done his penitence for any transgressions in a far more valuable manner than spending a couple years on the bench at the UCI’s behest. Moninger had a steroid positive several years later, which he claims was the result of a tainted supplement. And, well, we all know what happened to Floyd. Sort of.

So that breakaway doesn’t look quite so good in retrospect, but at the time, and based on what I knew for sure – which didn’t include what anyone there was smearing, swallowing, injecting, or sticking onto or into their bodies – it was a good story. So I wrote it like I saw it. And without a crystal ball, that’s all we can really do, isn’t it?

To be honest, I’m not really “hurt” by my little example – it was pretty straightforward race reporting, and any scandal associated with those riders would only occur or become evident much later on. But when, like Brunel and Wilcockson, you see riders whose houses you’ve visited for in-depth interviews, who you’ve shared meals with, and whose hopes and ambitions you’ve helped telegraph to the world come up positive, the sense of betrayal must be palpable. Not only because you, yourself, have been lied to, but because you’ve been used to pass those lies along. Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done about it, assuming you want to keep writing about cycling for a living. You can try to limit your exposure with due diligence, but in a sport simultaneously full of rumour and omerta, where everybody's talking but nobody's saying anything, sometimes you just have to let ‘er rip, write what you see, and hope for the best. And if and when things go south, then as Brunel said, “when the proof arrives, then you write.”

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Thursday, July 17, 2008


Riccò's Blood Confirms Rumours

OK, now it’s time to release all that pent-up Ricardo Riccò innuendo and rumour. I suggested a couple of days ago that VeloNews' Neal Rogers should have hung onto everything he included in this piece to use as background for the inevitable story when Riccò (Saunier Duval) actually tested positive. In doing so, he would have kept from looking like part of the rumour mill. See what a few days’ patience would have done?

Not that I can blame Neal. I’m pretty impatient myself. That little personality quirk has me questioning why, if Riccò tested positive on Stage 4, does he now have Stages 6 and 9 on his palmares? We all know why, of course – because the testers are busy couriering everyone’s blood and piss all over France, then probably faxing back results. (Have you ever noticed that the Europeans still love the fax machine? Love it!) So, while his precious bodily fluids took a little Tour de France of their own, Riccò was busy making hay while the sun shone.

Look, the Tour de France and the teams that ride it haul an absolutely stunning amount of crap all around the country – portable stages, a start village, dope, barriers, podium girls, and other inflatable monstrosities. Is a portable testing lab really too much to ask? Sure, it would be expensive, but once you subtract the FedEx bills and the costs of paying people to go back and amend the stage and GC results every few days, it practically pays for itself.

There are problems with that idea, I’m sure. I fully admit I’m throwing it out there without really knowing anything about the instruments necessary to conduct the tests, including their size, weight, and what it takes to keep them calibrated. That final issue would likely be the undoing, as the various testing agencies seem to have enough trouble keeping everything in order when their equipment is anchored to a nice, even cement floor that doesn’t get hauled up a couple hundred switchbacks before they use it. But still, isn’t this something we could think about? It doesn't have to be this solution - depending on how long it takes to actually do the tests and other logistical issues, it might not be feasible at all, but there has to be something that can be done to speed the process up.

On the heels of the Riccò news, Saunier Duval has withdrawn its team from the Tour, which could look bad for them, but is probably the smartest thing they could have done. If the Riccò case is indeed one of an individual acting on his own, without team knowledge, support, or endorsement, then they have no way of knowing who else, if anyone, was in on the game. So they’d be risking another positive that would make it look like a case of institutionalized doping, even if it wasn’t. If Riccò is just the first indication of institutionalized doping at Saunier Duval, they’re obviously smart to leave, as the rest of their boys won’t be able to ride 5 kilometers without a moto-mounted tester pulling up to take a sample, and those samples will come back hot. And if everyone at Saunier really is in on the act, they probably have some additional pending tests from Stages 4 through 11 that they’re dreading the results of anyways.

Reports indicate that Riccò tested positive for something new, Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator, or CERA, which is apparently a longer lasting version of good old EPO. I’m not sure yet if its detection comes as a result of a new test or not, but if it is, the testing agencies are doing a good job of coming up with tests for the latest thing without letting the teams know they’re doing it. Which is, of course, a great way to catch people. We'll call it the "They're testing for what? Oh, crap!" method. I have to wonder how many riders are shaking in their shoes now that the cat’s out of the bag -- when you took the injection a month ago, there ain't much of a way to shimmy out of the positive at this point.

The scandal is still young, of course. I’m sure we’ll get more details as the day goes on, and we’ll get to see if this third strike is what finally gets the mainstream media to jump on the annual indictments of cycling as a dirty sport. I suspect it will be. Cyclingnews/Procycling has already scored a great quick-turnaround scoop by interviewing one of the experts involved in the UCI blood passport program about Riccò’s test. He's surprised that Riccò tested positive for CERA, since there's no currently validated test to detect it. That situation, if true, is sure to raise a lot of questions as the case progresses.

But here’s a question we can think about already: Does Riccò’s positive make UCI President Pat McQuaid’s indictment of Spain more or less valid? On one hand, Riccò is Italian, not Spanish. On the other, he rides for a Spanish team. Either way, McQuaid’s latest opinion, like many of his other ones, seems like it would be best kept to himself, because the problem could be something other than what he’s thinking. That is, are the Spanish and their teams really doping more than others, or are they just worse at covering it up? In a sport that’s less and less nationality-based every year, it seems shortsighted to try to pin scandals to a single country.

Finally, as with Beltran's transgressions, I'm not going to berate Riccò for his, though they're certainly going to give the sport a hell of a hard time over the coming weeks and months. Knowing that he holds the late Marco Pantani up as his idol, I'm just going to hope that his story has a different ending.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi Vey

Evans in Yellow, Stereotypes to Attack in Alps

So, Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) is in the leader’s jersey after Monday’s stage to Hautacam. Given his wildly conservative Tour strategy, I can only guess this turn of events is attributable to technical problems. Either Evans’ brakes, his earpiece, or both must have stopped functioning, because if he’d known Frank Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) was a mere one second away from taking that yellow bullet for him, Evans would have been skidding that Ridley across the finish line hard enough to stack the whole caravan up behind him.

OK, maybe not, but despite tempering his gendarme slapping, journalist snubbing, interloper punching drama queen personality long enough to engage in some light-hearted rest day hijinks with the press, Evans still managed to work in that this was “earlier” than he wanted to take the yellow jersey. As if we needed to be reminded. I’m sure his Silence-Lotto teammates are thinking the same thing – when Evans crossed the line just in time to take the jersey, I swear I heard Dario Cioni’s voice echoing “Oh, crap” from about 8 kilometers back down the climb. Seriously, if Evans is that much of a pain-in-the-ass for the public at large, can you imagine what he’s like with his domestiques? Throw the pressure of a yellow jersey on top of that, and you have a recipe for serious coworker dissatisfaction. No worries though, I’m sure the situation will be rectified on tomorrow’s rolling stage from Lannemazan to Foix, when Schleck will feel the gentle helping hands of Cioni and Yaroslav Popovych on his lower back, urging him towards the line and his date with destiny.

John Wilcockson, godfather of VeloNews wrote this little piece about Evans’ rest day press fete, which isn’t surprising at all. He’s always been a big believer in Evans, writing at least one very flattering article about him each year and speaking well of him, but I’ve never really understood why. Maybe I’ll try to find out where his Evans enthusiasm comes from once this whole thing shakes out, one way or another. John’s been in the business a long time, and he knows his stuff, and a lot of times he sees things the rest of us don’t, but I’d really always thought he was barking up the wrong tree with Evans. His patience may finally be paying off though, if in a less exciting way than I would hope.

Obviously, I respect John and his insight. However, I’m not buying his assertion in this piece that Evans would have ridden more aggressively on Hautacam had he not taken an asphalt sample on Sunday’s stage. The way Cadel Evans rode on Hautacam was the way Cadel Evans always rides in the mountains – marking the other true GC contenders, and mentally calculating how much time he can take out of any other escapees in the time trial before doing anything rash, like going to the front. I’m sure Evans had a number in mind when Schleck went away, and when the Luxembourger's gap approached that figure, Evans finally sniffed some fresh air for a bit. It was all pretty much standard operating procedure, and other than Evans giving us his version of what might have been, there’s no reason to believe he’d have suddenly been some slash-and-burn climber on Monday if only he didn’t have a little road rash.

As I predicted, the comeback angle after the Sunday crash is certainly starting to gain some traction in numerous outlets, so maybe when we read the retrospectives 20 years from now, the “comeback” will seem more exciting than it does now in the moment. Or maybe not. But you know what else was predictable about Evans taking the jersey? That Australian stereotypes would become more invasive than cane toads, and even more toxic. I mean, the “Boxing Kangaroo?” A Men at Work soundtrack for the press conference? Did Paul Hogan crap in here or something? I’m just waiting for Bindi Irwin to hand Evans a yellow jersey and a Fosters on the podium at some point. Come to think of it, there’s another good reason to hand it over to CSC. I just can’t handle that much spunk, mate. The Australians I've had the pleasure of working with are a pretty cosmopolitan bunch, so I'd imagine that this sort of image hits them about the same way the cowboy hat, big foam #1 finger, and Big Mac image of America hits many of us.

That's it for now, but here's a quick list of other things we’d have commented on, but ran out of time:

- Saunier Duval doesn’t seem to get too much respect in the coverage, despite three stage wins between Ricco and Piepoli. It seems like those two are always spoken of as individual standouts, but yesterday’s outrageous 5 hours of coverage really let you see the setup work the team does for its closers.

- 5 hours of coverage? It was almost too intimidating to tackle, but thanks, Versus, for letting us decide when to say when. Unfortunately, our judgement in such matters isn’t always too good.

- It seems the Beltran positive has gone over as smoothly as possible. Namely, the international mainstream press hasn’t used it as a launching pad to play another round of “cycling is the dirty sport.” I think that may be the biggest success yet in the doping battle. They’ve finally realized that people getting caught is a good thing.

- In other rest day news, everyone quit the ProTour. Well, that was anticlimactic. It’ll be interesting, in a boring, bureaucratic way, to see where this reshuffling leads. Is the UCI going to end up as nothing more than a rulebook publishing house? Things likely won’t go that far, but at least their little venture into race organization seems to be at a temporary end. UCI Commandant Pat McQuaid is saber-rattling about suspensions again, and everyone seems to be taking it just as seriously as they did before Paris-Nice or the Tour. No, wait, they're not even taking it that seriously.


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Monday, July 14, 2008


Bastille Day Backlog

Catching up with Beltran, Versus, Riccò, Evans, and Alcohol

Happy Bastille Day! Did I miss anything?

Oh, right, Manuel “Triki” Beltran (Liquigas) was busy testing positive right as I was posting Friday's entry, kicking off dope scandal season at this year's Tour. Woops. First of all, that’s the last time I’m calling him Triqui/Triki, because my kid likes Cookie Monster too much for me to associate that particular muppet with such scandal. U.S. Postal team legend has it that Beltran earned his nickname because he couldn’t keep his hands off the sweets in the off-season, thus piling on the pounds, but given the course of recent events you have to wonder which of his apparent appetites it really referred to.

Regardless of what we call him, he did indeed get caught with his hand in the cookie jar – for EPO no less. I’m not going to join numerous other sites in hurling f-bombs his way, if only because at 37, he’s at the tail end of the generation of guys who were likely all part of a system, and being in the front group is a tough habit to kick. That said, I don’t feel too bad for him, either. At his age, he’s old enough know that this is the Tour de France, with more testing methods than a Salem witch hunt, not some damn grand prix des chaudières where anything goes as long as you wink at the right people.

Seriously, though, EPO? So five years ago. It would have been far more stylish to go out in a blaze of late 1980’s glory, with a shot of Kenacort in his left butt cheek, some Ton-ton in the right, and a neon headband on his noggin. At least the tests for that shit are reliable now. But with the EPO test, you apparently have a pretty good chance of getting caught even if you’re not doing anything, so banging a hot shot of 1990’s technology into your arm only boosts your odds of turning up hot in an already stacked game. “Wait!” you say, "Doesn’t that mean that there’s a good chance he’s completely innocent?" Maybe, and I wish I still had that sort of optimism, but I don’t.

Take Back the Ads

Well didn’t the Beltran positive just kick that Versus “Take Back the Tour” ad in the nuts? Do they have a plan to revise those things on the fly? How long does it take to get footage of Beltran to look all cool and grainy like that? As I pointed out before, the original “riding backwards” advertisement is a poorly thought-out effort. On the broad level, it just makes it look like Versus is out to profit from doping in cycling as much as everyone else by using scandal to promote their programming, rather than making the network look like some sort of caring benefactor as they intended. But it sucks on a lot of other levels, too.

If they were looking toward a bright new future, and wanted an advertisement that made other people look toward a bright new future, how did they end up with this? The ad only re-examines the scandals of the past 5 years or so, but doesn’t offer the ray of hope that I think they think it does. Other than plastering “take back the Tour” on the end, there’s no upshot, no optimism, no sense of how we are moving or can move in another direction. Just some amorphous instruction to the viewing audience to do something that, with minor exceptions, just isn’t in its power. To top it off, they use the “rewind” trick, which really just drives home the point that they’re looking backward, not forward.

And what’s the point? Most people watching the Versus broadcast are well aware of these scandals already – we watched them unfold on their channel. For those viewers who might stumble into the coverage and not be as familiar with the sport, is this the introduction we want to give them every seven and a half minutes? Simply begging for help isn’t the best way to draw people in, even Jerry Lewis knew that, and any good panhandler will tell you the same. Not that we should sweep the past under the pavement, but maybe, if we really want people to be optimistic about a clean future, beating them over the head with the dirty past isn’t the best strategy.

Though it’s certainly dramatic, with its whiney folk strumming and computer aged footage, this sort of crap really isn’t good for the business end of the sport, either. Know why? There are sponsors printed on every one of those jerseys. Some are still in the sport, others not, but it’s pretty likely that they’re all still operating as businesses doing whatever it is they do. Those sponsors are the ones who write the big checks, and while they might tell the team management that they’d appreciate a few wins every now and then (who wouldn’t?), they ain’t typically the ones with their finger on the plunger. Nevertheless, each of those sponsors had their names dragged through the mud when their respective scandals broke – how long will they have to keep paying the PR price for their investment in cycling? Look at Bianchi, which stepped in to pay the bills for that team after Coast shat the bed. For that small kindness, Bianchi is re-connected with Ullrich’s woes repeatedly, just like Rabobank is to Rassmussen. Vinokourov and Astana? OK – that connection is going to happen for the foreseeable future regardless of what Versus does, but even they’re making an effort to move on in their own way. But thanks to scandals being used in commercials, it’s hard to get a gap.

Sure, some will cry “all publicity is good publicity,” but there are also a lot of people making big money helping brands make and manage their “images,” so balance those two ideologies in your own head as you see fit. For those sponsors that have already gone through the doping wringer, there’s not too much point in worrying about it, but the real problem is the message this re-hashing gives to potential new sponsors. Namely, that if one of their riders goes astray, the company on the jersey will be associated with it not for days or months, but for years, and years, and years. That’s some hefty risk, and don’t think those companies’ “brand image consultants” won’t raise that issue when they’re reviewing sponsorship proposals.

But these commercials aren’t just ill-conceived, they’re sloppy, too. The original version of the Versus ad featured David Millar coming out of (or going back in to, as the case may be) a TT start house. Lots of people think Millar’s been edited out because the network has allied itself so closely with Garmin-Chipotle, for whom he rides now, but I’m going the other way on this one. I think Millar was removed because in their rush to get cute, Versus’ ad department used footage of him in Saunier Duval colors, the team he joined after his suspension and alleged reform, not the Cofidis colors of the team he rode for when he decided to use EPO bottles to create some mantelpiece ambience in his Biarritz apartment. I’m guessing the Saunier Duval squad didn’t take their undeserved inclusion too kindly (no, the people at Saunier Duval probably don’t watch American television, but some people at bike sponsor Scott probably do), and responded with entirely appropriate threats.

Or maybe it is the Garmin thing. Who knows? Either way, when they started the planning for this ad, one of the many, many things they should have done differently was to define exactly what a rider needed to do to be in the ad. Test positive (Landis, Vino)? Confess (Zabel)? Be implicated in a police investigation (Ullrich)? Get pulled by your team (Rassmussen)? Does your infraction have to be at the Tour de France (Landis, Rasmussen)? Does it not (Millar, Ullrich)? Are we showing everyone who’s soiled the sport, or just some people? What’s the selection process? Where’s Moreni? Where’s Basso? Where's Riis? Right now, they’re just all over the place.

Crappiness aside, for those who get all barrel chested and teary eyed at those ads, Beltran’s incident must really suck the air out of the room. But what did they and Versus expect? That in the widely publicized most-tested Tour ever, that there would be no positives? What the hell? Everybody keeps referring to this year’s efforts by governing bodies, organizers, and teams as the “crackdown” on doping. Do people know what “crackdown” means? It doesn’t mean that everybody suddenly thinks better of their illicit activity and stops of their own accord. It means you go out and catch the people doing it and put a stop to it. And you don’t do that without a few people doing the perp walk somewhere along the way. So think ahead, people, before you start giving everything the sepia-and-acoustic treatment like it's in the past. It isn't.

Finally, I’ve criticized the ad for, among other things, offering only scandal and no real light or look forward, so I won't be totally hypocritical and not offer anything myself. Here's my concept – they should have put together a bunch of babies and young kids, with the color saturation scaled back. They’d each be wearing one of the leader’s jerseys – yellow, green, polka-dot, or white – with the color saturation scaled up. In the ad, they’d be (through the miracle of digital media) lining the streets to cheer as whoever Versus wants to bet on as a “clean rider” goes past. They can do it in slow-mo and grainy, if that’s their thing. So you have the youth, the riders and fans of the future, looking on adoringly towards the clean guys, rather than just a lazy bleating recap of the latest scandals. Sure, one of their “clean guys” could pop a positive, which would pretty much kill the whole campaign, but at least they’d limit their odds a bit. Right now, pretty much anyone, say Beltran, testing positive makes the current campaign look a little more silly than it did already.

Riccò: Good, But Not Dope Rumour Good

Ricardo Riccò (Saunier-Duval) took a nice win yesterday in the first true mountain stage, which has already sent gums flapping and keyboards tapping about whether he’s getting a little illicit help of his own. Really? A 130-pound climbing specialist who poses no real GC threat taking 1:17 out of a bunch of GC favorites who are nervously awaiting the next day’s showdown at Hautacam rises to that level? I don’t think so, and I wish VeloNews hadn’t run this particular piece.

I do understand that Neal Rogers is basically reporting the “village buzz” in this daily column, and that may well be the village buzz, but it’s so thin and poorly substantiated at this point, he could have just held onto it. All of it would read just fine as background in the piece that would run if Riccò actually tested positive for anything besides good timing and shitty time trialing, which along with obvious talent in the mountains are what got him into winning position yesterday. As far as we know, anyway, and that’s all we should be discussing.

Among the reasons the column lists for people being suspicious of Riccò are that he emulates Marco Pantani, uses a masseuse who was involved in doping in the past, and that he talks a lot of trash. I don’t have much time after that Versus tirade, so for now we’ll just say that these can be easily answered with: what Italian climber his age didn’t emulate Pantani, how many long-time masseuses in cycling haven’t been involved in doping, and finally, trash talking is fun. Yes, Riccò makes things hard on himself in a lot of ways, the above examples included. But until he actually lights up the dope meter, I’m inclined to hope that he’s sort of cycling’s version of the straight edge kids -- he desperately wants all the tough-guy imagery of the bad boys, but might be making some different lifestyle choices than they did. Not everyone who climbs with their hands in the drops is a criminal, just like not everyone who listens to punk is out to defile your daughter.

God Intervenes to Make Tour Interesting

Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) crashed yesterday, and though he remembers a Spanish guy crashing ahead of him and getting up from the pavement, he has no idea what the hell actually happened to him. You know who else had an incident like that? The Virgin Mary. And that, my friends, is because in both cases, depending on your belief system, God might have stepped in to try to save humanity. In the most recent case, he’s trying to save us from a horribly uninspiring Tour de France win.

Since well before the Tour, Evans has promised to stop at nothing to bore his way to victory. Before the Tour, he told us that he’s content with the Indurain Tour de France formula – taking his ticks in the time trials and hanging on like a tick in the mountains, since he’s apparently physically incapable of being exciting there. Now that we’re underway, he’s studiously occupying places 5 through 12 on the road in a valiant attempt to stay out of the yellow jersey. Now that's racing!

Yes, it was all going according to plan until yesterday: he’d made no impression whatsoever, and was on a clear path to annoy his way through the mountains, take the jersey in the final time trial, and then ride in a protective bubble into Paris, where he would unzip the plastic, don his surgical mask, and accept the polite applause of the crowd. But then God’s mighty finger apparently dumped Evans on his ass, and leg, and shoulder, and arm, and head in an effort to, you know, shake things up a bit. Even the least religious among us, probably me, thank him for throwing a little kink into the works, enough to make it a little harder for the Aussie to hang onto the more explosive Valverde in the Alps and the Pyrenees, maybe creating enough of a gap to make the last TT interesting. Or at least rattle him a bit.

Evans should be thankful, too, but I doubt he is. He’s been handed his “Tyler moment” on a silver platter – he can milk the “riding through injury” angle for all it’s worth, even though 800-year-old Tour doctor Gerard Porte says it’s only a flesh wound. If he comes out of it with a victory, Evans has the makings of a story with at least a vestigial heart, rather than a surgical removal of a Tour title. Evans predictably started milking as soon as he crossed the line, taking the prima donna act he’s been testing out into production mode by refusing to talk to reporters after the stage, then handing journalist and countryman Rupert Guiness his cracked helmet through the bus window with a bitchy “here’s your interview.

I have news for Evans – Tour favorite or not, his list of victories on the road is a bit thin for that sort of crap. And what the hell is going on? Aussies used to be hardmen who traveled thousands of miles from home to gut it out on hard European roads. Some, like Stuey O’Grady, still maintain the mystique. Evans, on the other hand, should be on the lookout for Phil Anderson standing on the roadside waiting to punch him in his purty mouth, while Allan Peiper kicks him in the ribs. All in the national interest, of course.

Booze Update

Obviously, I’ve fallen a bit behind in attempts to provide you with appropriate drinking suggestions for the most recent stages. The Unholy Rouleur, however, is right on cue with some sustenance tips. I’ll try to use tomorrow’s rest day to catch up, and get everyone prepared to liquor up until well into the Alps.

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Friday, July 11, 2008


Tivo Fever

Plus Some Recommendations and the Wine Report

Like many people, I make judicious use of Tivo while watching the Tour. Of course, it lets you skip commercials, or repeat them, if that’s your thing, but it also lets you do nerdy crap like this: I’ve identified my favorite seven minute stretch of yesterday morning’s live Versus broadcast, as referenced by that delightful little counter at the bottom of the screen.

1:00 – Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) is working his way back up through the caravan to the tail end of the field after having stopped for a piss and a bike adjustment. As he draws even with Com 1, the two gendarmes on motos move left to let Evans pass. Apparently, they didn’t do it quick enough, because as he passes several seconds later, Evans slaps the gendarme on the shoulder has he passes and angrily points to his own eyes in a “watch where the hell you’re going” gesture.

Sometimes, in racing, the motos get in the way, but they’re a necessary evil. But watching the Evans incident, I didn’t really see the interference at all – any DS worth his salt could have driven the team car through that gap, and maybe the bus as well, so getting a bike through looked to be easy. I guess that need for a three foot buffer zone is why Evans doesn’t turn up at the Tour of Flanders. As Liggett and Sherwen pointed out, Evans’s overreaction to the perceived injustice seemed to be a mark of some real nervousness on his part. I’d tend to agree – it was a Cat. IV overreaction to a common and not very threatening situation. We didn’t see if he said anything to the gendarme, but I'm pretty sure I heard him shouting, “Hold your line! On your right! Pothole! Gravel! Gravel! Gravel!” as he made his way back through the peloton.

If he’s wound that tight with an hour and a half to go to the final climb, I’m wondering how this Tour is going to shape up for him. Has anyone ever lost because their head just exploded?

1:03 – Phil Liggett is discussing the local topography a bit during an aerial shot, referencing the extinct volcanoes that dot the Massif Centrale landscape. He continues, “Some of these extinct volcanoes are 400 feet deep, and they’re perfectly symmetrical.” What? Really? Any volcanologists reading this that can explain what he might be talking about? Are volcanoes symmetrical?

1:05 – Versus cuts to an in-car cam and microphone trained on Team Columbia DS Brian Holm, who’s driving their car with Rolf Aldag sitting shotgun. As part of the intro, Liggett adds, “They know we’re listening in, so they’re going to behave themselves, I’m sure.” Still stinging from the Vaughters incident, eh? I have to wonder if they've started putting a little delay on the in-car shots.

1:07 – The peloton is riding through a town in a bit of a drizzle, and Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) is riding no-handed, unzipping his yellow jersey to stuff a sheet of plastic or paper down the front to fight off the chill. Liggett comments, “They can do anything on the bike, but I emphasize to not do this at home, because you’ll fall off and take your clubmates down and they won’t be pleased with you.”

For the sake of amateur racers everywhere, this comment should be made into a public service announcement, and aired every bit as often as those poorly-thought-out “Take Back the Tour” ads. Those ads probably won’t do much to save the Tour at all, but the “don’t try this on your group ride” announcement could save countless teeth and wheels around the country.

(As an aside, I was worried about Liggett earlier in the season, when he seemed extremely off his game during the classics. But he’s ridden himself into form nicely for the Tour, the usual verbal ticks and foibles notwithstanding.)

Helping Those Least in Need

I saw a few notable things perusing the Internets, on which this whole Tour de France lark seems to be getting quite a bit of airplay. Not that they need me to steer any traffic their way, but here are some links from the bigger guns I thought were notable:

I gave Chris Carmichael a bit of a hard time the other day about his Valverde article on Bicycling, but as I pointed out, he has some good knowledge rattling around, and when he lets it out, it’s good stuff. In this piece, he gives some good insight on the challenges of the Massif Centrale and how the Tour organizers can influence the race through route selection. And I have to hand it to him, he’s cranking out a tremendous amount of copy, writing for at least two outlets as well as his company’s Tour de France newsletter. Coming up with a couple different workable angles on a single race can be a tough grind. Trust me.

Cyclingnews is finally doing what I’ve been wishing an English-language outlet would do for years – they’re publishing diaries from big riders from non-English speaking countries on non-English speaking teams. Yes, I love to hear from our relative locals, and it can be easy to relate to our fellow Anglophones, but it’s nice to get the broader coverage as well. There have been earlier efforts, but these are the best to date.

For this Tour, they’ve landed Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) , who’s having a hell of a season now that he’s finally managed to shake the “next French Tour winner” albatross the press hung around his neck early in his career. I like his attitude in his latest entry as well, saying essentially that he’s there to make the race interesting to the fans, and if he’s gassed the next day, that’s part of the job. He did a good job of it yesterday, hanging on over the first Category 2 climb by the skin of his teeth to snatch the polka dots from Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom). He says that he’s happy to hand it back over for awhile, but I still have to wonder why Cofidis didn’t send someone up the road to grab those third place points and give him a little bit of padding over his countryman. It didn’t look like it would have been that challenging, but then again, I’m watching on TV.

They also have Stijn Devolder (Quick.Step), the closest thing Belgium has had to a contender since, I don’t know, Michele Pollentier? His entry is a bit more cut-and-dried than Chavanel’s, but we’ll see if things pick up in the mountains.

VeloNews has been getting pretty heavily into the online video scene over the last year or so, and they’ve been posting video diaries from George Hincapie (Columbia) and Magnus Backstedt (Garmin-Chipotle). Probably more interesting are the on-the-spot interviews from the stage finishes, which give a good sense of what the media scrum at the finish of a big race is like. When I went to my first few, being a polite lad, I had this feeling that I should give riders a half-second to catch their breath before shoving a recorder in their face. In these clips, you can see why I had to revise my strategy pretty quickly.

Finally, and unfortunately, here we go again. And again.

So there you go, after a few days of kvetching, I’ve spread some unicorns and rainbows around. We do quite a bit of critiquing of media outlets, riders, and associated peoples here, sometimes a bit harshly for the sake of making a point or getting a chortle. But in the end, everybody’s making their contribution, and we’re glad they’re there. So don’t be mad, baby, I only hit you ‘cause I love you.

Stage 7 Booze Cruise

Just a quick one today, as the race enters the Cantal hills of the Auvergne on its way down to the Pyrenees. The Unholy Rouleur has a little writeup on Cantal cheeses to enjoy during your viewing, and a rigorous 5 minutes of Googling on my part reveals that the Beaujolais we discussed yesterday should go just fine with that selection. So assuming you picked up a bottle for yesterday’s stage, you’re all set for this evening, too. If there’s nothing left from the bottle you cracked last night, seek help.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008


Wines and Punches

Today's sixth stage of the Tour de France runs from the southern borders of the Loire Valley along a sweeping southeast arc to the resort of Super-Besse. The little community of A-frame style houses sits in the hills near the extinct Puy-de-Dôme volcano, just outside the regional center of Clermont-Ferrand. The Puy-de-Dôme is famous in cycling circles for being the spot where, in the 1975 Tour, a French spectator punched Eddy Merckx in the stomach hard enough to do some real damage. He continued, of course, only to crash three days later and fracture his cheekbone. He continued again, but eventually lost that Tour to Bernard Thevenet, which was probably the intent of the punch in the first place.

So the Puy-de-Dôme is a famous place to punch people in the gut, but apparently, that’s not all they do there. They also make wine – reds, whites, and pinks as it turns out, mostly from Gamay grapes grown on the plains outside Clermont-Ferrand. Gamay is mostly renowned for its use in the region’s Beaujolais, a young, light red wine made famous and extremely available in the United States by Georges Duboeuf (Google it, the results are overwhelming). So ambitious is old Georges’ distribution scheme that his wines are available in most normal, non-uppity supermarkets (or liquor stores, if you live in one of those states) and it’s inexpensive, about $8-12 a bottle. Look for the bottles with the distinctive flowery labels. Most people like Beaujolais slightly chilled, which is good for people who like red wine but don’t relish the thought of downing a glass of lukewarm grape syrup on a hot summer’s day.

The region makes plenty of other wines as well, various iterations of Côte d’Auvergne being the most visible. But for pure affordability and accessibility, it’s hard to beat old Georges. And spending more than $10 on a Tour-viewing bottle of wine just wouldn’t be as spiritually consistent with our table-wine swilling frères on the French roadside today, would it? But even they wouldn't drink on an empty stomach - the Unholy Rouleur has a few suggestions for snacks as the race rolls into the Massif Central.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008


We're Getting the Band Back Together

I like to poke fun at the media circus that surrounds the Tour de France, but I have to admit that it produces a lot of additional cycling web content for a few weeks, markedly decreasing productivity at bike shops and law firms nationwide. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, and an astounding amount of it comes from Bicycling magazine.

That a magazine called Bicycling produces a healthy amount of fluff for the Tour de France isn’t surprising in itself. In fact, it’s not surprising at all, as it’s reflective of their overall strategy -- mass appeal to beginning recreational cyclists and people stuck in airports and doctor’s offices. And that crowd loves them some bike reviews, 10 Ways to Climb Faster Now!, and the Tour de France. So Bicycling provides all of them in staggering volume.

Not that Bicycling doesn’t mention racing the other 11 months of the year. Joe Lindsey’s incisive Boulder Report blog, a strange, seemingly semi-autonomous offshoot of the Bicycling site, is a great resource, and he’s expressed a desire to start asking the questions nobody wants to ask, which would be a good thing. (Joe's turned over control of the blog for the last couple days. Come back soon, Joe. Please.) But other than that, they pretty much just have James Startt over there filing reports from Paris for big events and a bit of heavy lifting from AFP. And that’s OK – as I said, covering the race scene isn’t really their bag.

But come the Tour de France, they go apeshit, 1999-style. That’s right, Bicycling has signed up both Johan Bruyneel and Chris Carmichael to provide stage-by-stage looks at the race. That lineup just makes me wonder whether Steffan Kjaergaard, Peter Meinert-Nielsen, and Pascal Derame are doing their typing and fetching their coffee. Yes, Bicycling is clinging desperately to the halcyon days of Lance, bringing in his former “brain trust” members to beef up their big time bike racing credentials.

For Bruyneel and Carmichael, it’s a good deal that goes beyond a few extra dollars in pocket money. Bruyneel has had a lot on his plate the last few years, but fortunately, he has this month off to provide some input to Bicycling and Versus and to plug his book. Or at least he seems to be taking the month off from the director sportiff role at Astana, so I suppose Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner will have to figure out their own damn tactics at the Cascade Classic. To his credit his columns have provided some good insight to how a top-notch DS views the tactical situation, helping to keep him in the American eye in his established persona as a tactical mastermind, which is probably valuable to his bike sponsor. And he’s done an admirable job steering well clear of whining about his team’s exclusion.

The benefit for Carmichael is far greater, and the product far worse. Carmichael inextricably tied himself to Lance Armstrong’s coattails despite the widespread belief within cycling that most of Armstrong’s training advice actually came from Michele Ferrari, and now that Armstrong is mostly off the scene, Carmichael is increasingly at risk of becoming irrelevant. He needs the media exposure he so relished for those seven years to continue to steer amateur racers to his eponymous training company in the face of increasing competition from a bevy of online power meter data crunchers. He does have a regular gig with the magazine, crunching out the same “climb at high cadence” Postal playbook advice we’ve heard for years, but come Tour time, he steps it up a notch, and that’s not a good thing.

Take his column on Valverde’s “old world” beliefs costing him in the time trial on Tuesday . Carmichael makes some good points and is knowledgable about a lot of things, but he's so full of shit in much of what he throws out there (through every outlet he can get his hands on) that it gets hard to take him seriously.

Carmichael states that "Valverde's performance today was hindered by Old World attitudes toward technology…While it's unfair to make sweeping generalizations, Spanish teams have historically been among the slowest to adopt new technologies, whereas American teams, Team Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle included, continue to innovate and find ways to further optimize their equipment and riding positions.

Really? Spanish teams don't use technology? Never heard of ONCE? Manolo Saiz was well known for chasing technology -- bike technology and otherwise, as it turned out. Never seen Indurain ride one of those arse ugly boom-tube Pinarello TT bikes at Banesto? I'd have to believe he has, because he's been in the sport since before his 7-11 days. As for the other Spanish teams, they're usually among the poorest funded in the top levels (think Kelme, Euskaltel), so their options are a bit more limited than some of the bigger teams. And we can talk about "historically" being the slowest to adopt new technologies all we want, but aside from disc wheels and primordial aero bars, there really wasn't a hell of a lot of worthwhile innovation in modern professional road cycling until the early 1990s.

He also states that “a rider's head position is hugely important, and lowering your head into the gap between your upper arms can help you go faster…Today we saw David Millar really lower his head...Valverde, on the other hand, rode the entire stage with his head held high.

Yes, Valverde could put his head down farther. And Armstrong should have been lower and flatter. But as Carmichael damn well knows, there are tradeoffs between comfort, power, and aerodynamics, and I doubt he knows where that balance lies for Valverde -- it's pretty hard to see from the dark recesses of Armstrong's rectal cavity. I look forward to his column about how Sean Kelly’s bike position was keeping him from winning bike races.

All that said, Carmichael is absolutely right that these days, the devil is in the details, and nobody but CSC seems to worry about details quite as much as the American teams, or at least not as publicly. The problem is that instead of just making his simple, valid points, he cloaks them in some nationalist straw man and casts them as some sort of psychological profile. Rather than making those sweeping generalizations, he should make some effort to get answers on why those decisions were made, and give more than a passing nod to the fact that sometimes, it’s really not the little details that are making the difference. He does a good job explaining the basics of bike racing in some of his other entries, and he’d be well put to sticking to that rather than trying to analyze individual riders from arm’s length.

Maybe Valverde is a little sloppy on all those anal retentive things that everyone would have us believe you absolutely must do to win, but I have to admit, I kind of like that. I can only stomach so much coverage of the most aerodynamic direction to wrap your handlebars, and I’m glad there are still some more "Old World" folks out there just riding. Because I'd rather see a dozen more pictures of Valverde time-trialing like crap than one more of Allen Lim, Carmichael, and their friggin' laptops.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Good Will Tour

Thanks to the miracle of Tivo, I usually don't watch the morning Tour coverage until the evening, so little did I know that as I was mentioning Will Frischkorn (Garmin-Chipotle) in yesterday’s post, he was busy plugging away in the first successful breakaway of this year’s Tour de France. He came up just a bit short in the end, losing out to Cofidis smurf Samuel Dumoulin, but was awarded the red number of the most aggressive rider for his trouble.

If you follow domestic racing, you probably already know Frischkorn. It’s hard to believe that he’s still just 27 years old, because it feels like he’s been around forever – he turned professional with the powerhouse domestic Mercury team when he was just 19 years old. That team’s DS, John Wordin, had his share of troublesome issues, but spotting talent wasn’t one of them. Wordin also signed a young Baden Cooke, plucked Floyd Landis from the obscurity mid-pack NORBA racing, brought Henk Vogels to the U.S., and helped relaunch Chris Horner’s career after his failed early career stint with Francaise de Jeux. Wordin managed to do all that before the team absolutely imploded in a flurry of lawsuits after failing to get an invitation to the 2001 Tour de France. That mess, largely of Wordin's making, left the team’s later star signings like Peter Van Petegem and Leon Van Bon looking for other teams and suing the Wordin for wages, an ugly situation that contributed to the salary guarantee that ProTour teams have to pay at the beginning of the season.

But I digress. Frischkorn survived that debacle, and rode for the Saturn and Colavita domestic teams before signing with Vaughter’s TIAA-CREF development team in 2004. That team would later morph into today’s Garmin-Chipotle with the signings of big European names like Backstedt and Millar, along with U.S. ProTour vets Dave Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde. With that transformation, many were wondering how much of the team’s old guard (or young guard, as the case may be) would remain. Cuts were made, to be sure, but Frischkorn – originally brought to the team to help mentor younger developing riders – found his way through, and later onto the Tour team. Vaughters must be pleased with that choice now, with Frischkorn getting a lot of airplay during this year’s Versus coverage, whether in those close-up segments, through his epic break at this year’s Milan-San Remo, or during yesterday’s exploit on the road to Nantes.

What else can you say about Will? Neal Rogers pretty well covers it.

Frischkorn aside, I also made a quick reference yesterday to Brittany native, five time Tour winner, winner of damn near everything else, and all around cycling tough guy Bernard Hinault, likening him to Chuck Norris. When I wrote that, I was thinking of his legendary toughness, as well as his feisty personality. In particular, I was thinking of the timeworn story of Hinault, on encountering a road-blocking workers’ protest during a long-ago Paris-Nice, simply riding into them full bore and jumping off his bike with fists flying. After all, he had a job to do, and they were in his way. It was things like that that earned him the nickname “the Badger,” and yesterday, the Badger, now in his 50s, struck again. See the VeloNews report (and, more importantly, the photo) here, and remember – if Hinault is in the vicinity, you best keep your protestin’ to yourself.

Time Checks

Did everyone catch Garmin DS Jonathan Vaughters’ F-bomb during the ridealong for Millar’s time trial today? Liggett and Sherwen threw it to Robbie Ventura, who was riding shotgun with Vaughters with a lipstick cam on him, Vaughters, and Allen Lim in the backseat. Lim seemed to be disguised as a British DJ, but that’s a different story. Between Vaughters encouraging Millar over the radio, Ventura asks, “So how’s this going for you?” Vaughters, as usual, had been giving fantastically composed answers in all the previous segments, but, having just learned about Stefan Schumacher’s insane splits, he kicked off this answer with “Fuck, man…”

Ventura’s been doing a pretty good job on the coverage for a relative broadcasting newcomer, but he just plain doesn’t have the experience to just blow on through something like that on live television. He just froze with the “I can’t believe you just did that” look on his face – mouth open, eyes straining to the left, scanning to see if Vaughters has realized what had gone down. It was actually the same expression one of my college housemates had when he came plowing into my room on evening yelling “Where the fuck are we drinking tonight?” only to find my parents sitting on the bed. Fortunately, Pete was pretty used to getting himself in those situations, uttered a quick “Oh, I see your parents are here” and just turned and left the room. Though it wasn’t his faux pas, I got the feeling that Ventura would have jumped for it if Millar had slowed down enough to give him a shot at a good tuck-and-roll. Personally, I think it was Vaughters' calculated revenge after Ventura referred to their ride as the "Team Discovery car" earlier in the show.

Millar finished damn near the top after that little 29.5k jaunt – yellow jersey Romain Feillu (Agritubel) not so much. Feillu finished 168th, dropping 4:59 to Schumacher and falling from first to 40th on GC. Not that we had any right to expect Feillu to turn in some spectacular effort after being in the long break yesterday. And besides, he’s a utility rider who went in the right break, not a TT specialist or GC contender. Though legend has it that the yellow jersey gives you even bigger wings than a case of Red Bull, I’m sure Feillu wasn’t under any illusions of stardom either.

Still, I felt for Feillu during his ride today. Many riders who grab the jersey the way he did get to enjoy a nice start to the day in the peloton, getting pats on the back and a bit of the star treatment before the real racing begins. If they’re lucky, they can sit in the field and preserve enough of their lead to keep it for another day. If not, the camera will hang back with them for a minute or two as they slip off the back, and they can go back to being just another rider. Not so for poor Feillu, who landed the jersey before the first showdown ITT stage of this Tour. For his efforts, he got to have his solitary suffering documented for a whole 35 minutes, while the television timer documented just how much time he was hemorrhaging at every checkpoint. Nothing like having a camera trained on your every move as you step out, all alone, to well and truly kiss your yellow jersey goodbye. Nevertheless, I’m sure he wouldn’t trade his admittedly rough day in yellow for the world, and at 24 years old, he’ll be able to milk it for a good long time.

Now Feillu’s been replaced by Schumacher, who handed out some serious punishment to actual time trialists. I’m not going to go back and scan all his results, and Cancellara says he’s done some good TT’s in the past, so I guess I’ll just roll with it. But Schumacher’s never been a big TT hitter – certainly not like the specialists (Cancellara, Zabriskie, or countryman Fothen) or the GC guys, even in a post Armstrong and Ullrich world. He’s certainly a talented one-day racer, especially in the hillier classics, Worlds Championships, and the like, but I’d sort of always thought of him as an uglier but otherwise interchangeable version of Fabian Wegmann, not a monster against the clock.

Stage 5 Serving Suggestions

Why no drink suggestions for today's stage? Because time trials are to be endured, not enjoyed, and that goes double for spectators. But not so tomorrow. Stage 5 from Cholet to Châteauroux is the longest of the Tour at 232 kilometers, but it’s worth it. The stage cuts through the heart of the Loire Valley wine region, so choosing something nice to drink during the evening coverage is like shooting fish in a barrel. Also, the scenery is stunning in that area, which along with the wine should help make up for the lethargy that’s bound to set in during a long stage following a time trial.

Though choices from the region abound, the weather here at the Service Course is well into the stifling range, so we’re going to go with a nice chilled Sancerre, a dry white wine made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. We’re going with Sancerre not only because it suits the weather, but also because the appellation falls on the eastern end of the Loire Valley, close to the finish town of Châteauroux. Recommended vintages are 2003 and 2005, but really, we’re not that fussy. And if you’re looking for a fromage accompaniment, check with the Unholy Rouleur, who has some race-related cheese suggestions on tap.

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Monday, July 07, 2008


Of Brittany, Booze, Brits and Bruyneel

Weekend Tour de France coverage? Well, my friends, that’s what the big sites get paid for, and here at the Service Course, we’re a non-profit. Not in the “helping people with diseases” or “relentlessly lobbying Congress” or “laundering money” senses of non-profit, but non-profit in the sense that we’re actually not making any money. So until major cycling brands, outdoor “lifestyle” companies, and maybe state-run oil monopolies start mailing us envelopes padded with crisp, clean Euros, we’ll probably keep taking the weekends off.

But our stringent no-weekends policy leaves us a bit behind today, as we’ve skipped right over the first two stages of the Tour de France, which along with today’s Stage 3 ran through the cycling hotbed of Brittany. (By “hotbed” we mean that Bernard Hinault is from there, which is really all you need to qualify for the descriptor. If you don't know who he is, suffice to say he's cycling's Chuck Norris.) Rather than talking about Alejandro Valverde’s (Caisse D’Epargne) win in the boxing match that was the Stage 1 finale, or why Quick.Step, of all teams, doesn’t know what wind and hills can do to your leadout, we’re going a different direction.

Just before the Independence Day holiday, the Unholy Rouleur (friend of the Service Course, prolific commenter, and prized wheel in a paceline) contacted us to suggest that we make a joint effort to bring our gentle readers a bit of relevant French culture during this annual three week romp. Since we’re both crap pétanque players, and we’re not much on impressionist painting, we decided to concentrate on food and booze, which both of us encounter far more often.

So we’re getting a late start, but taking a page from the Tour riders of old and Jan Ullrich, we’re going to ride ourselves into shape as the race goes on in hopes of a strong second place finish on the Champs. While the Rouleur looks into the gastronomic delicacies native to or popular in the locales each stage passes through, I’ll be doing the same for the liquid end of the spectrum, starting with Brittany.

I should start by saying that I don’t believe I’ve ever been to Brittany, though there was a family vacation over there when I was in high school that I’m still a little foggy on, so maybe I have. Anyway, my uninformed impression of France’s westernmost province, just across the English Channel from the U.K., is that it’s full of hearty, slightly cranky people who wear wool sweaters year round, and that it always feels kind of like fall there. And in that way, it’s a lot like upstate New York, with which I’m far more familiar. What else do these two kindred regions have in common you ask? Apples. Shitloads of apples.

With such an abundance of the forbidden fruit itself, it follows that the typical fermented drink of the Breton is apple cider, which sources tell us is available in a number of permutations – sparkling, still, sweet, or dry, and with levels of alcohol ranging from a modest 3% (I believe in France this is called “baby food”) on up to skull-cracking levels. It’s apparently served cold in a distinctive earthenware bowl, which should make absolute authenticity in serve-ware even more difficult than finding a correctly branded Belgian beer glass. Maybe your kid can make you one in art class, or there’s always French Ebay.

There are certainly a number of different brands of Breton cider, including some that are apparently available in Canada, because when it comes to French stuff, those guys have connections. I can’t for the life of me tell if any are available here in the United States though, so if you’re watching TiVo-ed coverage of today’s stage this evening, you might have to settle for a bottle of Woodchuck and call it good, though it may taste more like you’re trying to get an American high school girl drunk than watching a French bike race.

Of course, abundance breeds ingenuity, and like Americans with corn, the Bretons will apparently try to do damn near anything with their cider, like using it for chain lube, cooking chicken in it, or making it into powerful brandies (though it should be noted that the most famous apple brandy, Calvados, is usually identified with the Normandy region south of Brittany, also big cider country). We don’t know if you can do any of that with Woodchuck, though, so if you have tips on where to score some genuine, apple-based fermented Breton products in the United States, give us a shout. At least we can be prepared for next year, and if Tom Danielson and the cycling press have taught us anything, it’s that it’s never too early to start preparing for next year’s Tour.

The Versus Report

Just a quick timing note: six minutes. That’s how long the trusty TiVo counter tells me it took for the Versus commentary team (via Paul Sherwen) to bring up the Astana exclusion during the Stage 1 pre-race show. (Looking at prior postings, it seems like we can officially dub the six minute mark of the Versus broadcasts “Astana Time.”) I shouldn’t complain too much though – unlike their on-air griping about it during the spring classics, that dead horse now has at least some relevance to the race at hand. It is funny though, given all of Versus’ carefully crafted “Take Back the Tour” branding of this year’s race, that the Astana situation seems to be one instance where the commentary team blows right past the “new cycling” party line to support several well-entrenched members of the old system. The other instance is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on Erik Zabel, who is featured on the "Take Back the Tour" rewind-of-shame advertisement, but spoken of adoringly by the coverage team.

I guess Bruyneel and co. paid the Versus bills for long enough to earn some loyalty, moreso than Landis and Ullrich, anyway. But now the tables have turned, and Versus is giving Bruyneel a little payback, in the literal sense – apparently, he’ll be providing some sort of commentary on their coverage over the last couple weeks of the Tour. Sherwen, at least, is very excited. And I agree, it should be great – we’ve been missing those “with Lance we blah, blah…” and “like Lance, Contador is blah, blah, blah” comments for the past year, and it will be great to hear them vigorously applied to a race that none of those people are involved in. Seriously, if this special guest star gig is going to work out, he’s going to have to come up with some new material.

You know what else the Versus crowd is loudly and repeatedly excited about? TWO AMERICAN TEAMS! Indeed, according to everyone’s license and registration, that’s certainly the case, with both Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia maintaining a reliable forwarding address in the United States. Sure, there are only four American riders among those two American teams, and indeed in the whole Tour, but who’s counting? Yay, America! Yes indeed, the U.S. nationalism, coming as it does from a couple of royal subjects with heavy ties to Africa, can be a bit forced, and it’s laid on way too thick, but I’m going to go out on a limb and not be bothered by it.

Cyclists, who along with their oppressed spouses and captive children, make up most of Versus’ Tour viewing audience these days, tend to be a studiously iconoclastic bunch – typically not a good target for the “root for the home team!” mentality that Versus adopted during the Armstrong era and continues to push (and which I’m sure is straight out of the NBC Olympic coverage playbook). But it also feels like sometimes, we as cyclists doth protest too much. It’s only a bike race, not a trade embargo or a war, and if you want to root for a team because they’re registered here, or because they ride a bike you have or like, or because you like their kit’s combination of blue and white better than every other team’s combination of blue and white, I say have at it. It doesn’t make you uncultured or a redneck – those suave but passionate Italians we cyclists admire so much are busy doing the same damn thing. So maybe it’s just the lingering Fourth of July beers talking, but there are worse things in the world than flying the flag over a bike race.

Do I think it’s necessary to interview Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle) after every stage? No, probably not, but he’s a good rider, and pretty well spoken, so what’s the harm? And Will Frischkorn (Garmin-Chipotle) went from winning the Univest Grand Prix in Pennsylvania last year to riding the Tour de France this year, and that’s not too shabby a transition to make, so I don’t mind hearing from him either. After all, the media always needs an angle, and no matter how oblique it is, you’ll sure notice it’s absence if they stop trying to find it. That said, if they could stop constantly referencing Lance Armstrong every time George Hincapie (Columbia) appears on screen, I’d be much obliged. Not because I’m unpatriotic or don’t like Hincapie, but because it just gets really, really old, and after 14 Tours, George deserves to have his name mentioned in a sentence of its very own.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008


The Grand Inevitable

It’s Tour de France time again, and cycling web site regulations indicate that I should be flooding this site with facts, figures, opinions, trivia, and speculation about the upcoming circus. If my research is correct, I should probably also be searching desperately for a distinctive term to refer to the race that makes me appear to be in the know, like “the show,” “the Grand Boucle,” or at least “le Tour.” But nah, I’ll just go with “the Tour” and risk sounding average.

I have to admit, I usually ignore most of the Tour talk until somewhere around the time the 63rd guy heads down the prologue start ramp, but since there’s no prologue this year, I’ve decided to turn over a new leaf and start paying attention today. New leaf or no, though, it always takes me a long time to warm up to the idea of the Tour, and this year is no different.

Each year, I look forward to the spring classics, and when they’re over, I usually feel like the cycling season has peaked, and it’s all downhill until the Giro di Lombardia gives that nice little finishing kick to the season. So mid-April is kind of depressing. But then the Giro d’ Italia comes along, with all its Italian idiosyncrasies and infighting and dramatic hand gestures. After a few weeks in the post-classics doldrums, the Giro always manages to soften the blow and remind me that there are riders worth watching in summer, too.

The Giro also serves to reawaken me to the fact that grand tours don’t necessarily have to be mind-numbingly boring; the Tour just makes it seem that way sometimes. That said, the Giro and the Tour are different animals. The Giro remains endearing somehow, still more of a local-boy-made-good than international superstar. The Tour used to be like that, too, until the mid-1990s or so. The Tour got big then, on the strength of business globalization, the Internet, and the backs of a few dominating repeat winners who, through clockwork consistency, made the event easier for new fans to grasp and follow. Along with the popularity boost, the Tour got slicker, more organized, and more profitable, and while all of that may be good for cycling in a lot of ways, you lose some of the old flavor in the transaction. It became like following a corporation instead of a bike race, and it lost a little something for me.

So I’m not one of those people who gets all jazzed for the Tour for months on end, scanning the results of the Mallorca Challenge in February to try to predict a winner in July and nervously muttering “but he’s only there for training…” under my breath while reading the results of week-long Spanish stage races in May. I just don’t or can’t see all racing as being connected to the Tour, no matter how badly ASO wants me to. Not that there’s anything wrong with being enthusiastic about the sport’s 800-pound gorilla, and plenty of people are, including the media. And who can blame them? The Tour is the three week period when the bicycle industry blows out its advertising budget, and when other industries grudgingly agree to hand over a portion of theirs, and the media has to put some content next to all those ads, don’t they? Not cashing in on that opportunity would be business suicide, so it’s in everyone’s best interests to buy into the hype. Cynicism aside, though, I do eventually come around, and now, several days before the start of the 2008 Tour, I’m finally looking forward to it.

But what can the Service Course add to the annual Tour de France media roar? Not a lot, to be honest. There were previews of previews starting with the release of the route last October, followed by the previews, and the revised previews as team selections were made and riders’ current form became more relevant. In the coming weeks, there will be rider diaries, tech features, video clips, expert opinions from retired professionals, stage reports, rest day recaps, and interviews with everyone from GC leaders to gendarmes to bus drivers.

That’s tough to compete with, so I’ll just stick to the usual snarky commentary and this last personal view. It’s a minor one, but it’s the one that allows me to get excited about the Tour despite the over-the-top hype: the Tour is a little bit like a pufferfish. It can look very large (especially when threatened), but underneath all the posturing, it’s a pretty small thing, and when you look at it from that level, it can become endearing again. Take away the buzz, the dope show, the podium girls, the media, the team cars, the publicity caravan, the product releases, and the rest of the sideshow, and at its roots, the Tour is really about a scant 180 guys racing bicycles around France, seeing who can cover the total distance the fastest or grab some glory on a single day. Just like it’s always been. There’s a certain simple beauty and engaging storyline in that which doesn’t need all of the ancillary bullshit and manufactured drama to make it compelling. That simplicity can be difficult to make out in the frantic run-in to the start on Saturday, hidden as it is in all the “big show” noise, but once the wheels start turning, the actual race on the road can still be a beautiful thing.

Besides, the Tour de France is coming whether I want it to or not, and it’s the one grand tour that’s easily viewable (meaning “on my television” and not "through a janky online interface") every day here in the United States, so I might as well have some affordable table wine and enjoy it. (Frequent readers will know that I aim for beverage authenticity in my cycling viewing.) And despite all the gripes that will likely appear on this and other sites over the next three weeks, I hope you enjoy it as well.


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