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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What's your take on Paul Kimmage's profile of Allen Lim? If you can get past the doping innuendo (a big ask), then what emerges is a profile of a fascinating, brilliant dude. But I'm getting pretty pissed at all of the unsubstantiated rumor mongering posing as journalism.
Hey Ken-

First, I should say that I loved Kimmage's book, Rough Ride, for the peek behind the curtain it provided.

My reaction to the Lim article? Meh. Like most of Paul Kimmage's cycling journalism, it's far more about Paul Kimmage than whoever the subject happens to be. How smart Paul Kimmage is, how incisive Paul Kimmage is, how Paul Kimmage can read people...but most of all about Paul Kimmage's baggage. Rough Ride was a book about him, so it was OK there, but journalism is supposed to be about the subject.

This article didn't tell me much about Lim at all, given what seemed to be a marathon contact between the two. And the last paragraph just killed anything he'd built -- he even failed to carry out his innuendo very well, so it kind of came out of nowhere.

But that's just my opinion.
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