Monday, June 29, 2009
Believe in Hype
In his article covering the U.S. national soccer team’s unlikely win over the superpower Spanish side in the Confederation Cup, the New York Times’ George Vecsey addressed the details of that match, but also used it as a jumping-off point to discuss the state of U.S. soccer. In recounting the team’s journey to the win, Vecsey noted that the U.S. coach “was under attack in blogs in recent weeks. (Yapping about the coach is a great step forward for the United States.)”
Vecsey was talking about soccer in the U.S., of course, not cycling, but his seemingly innocuous little parenthetical hits at a much larger point that U.S. cycling fans might be advised to bear in mind. Over the past week or so, with the Tour de France looming on the horizon, there’s been an increasing amount of backlash to the saturation coverage of Astana’s internecine drama, Tom Boonen’s recreational pursuits, various court cases, and the UCI’s hamfisted approach to governance. “Enough!” the critics shout, “let’s talk about the sport, about the racing, about who‘s fast and who‘s not.” Sometimes, in my weaker and more purist moments, I find myself leaning the same way. After all, who’s not just a little tired of all dope, all the time, or, alternatively, all Armstrong all the time? But then I snap to my senses and remember that all that coverage of the various, seemingly peripheral issues of professional cycling, miscellaneous hero worship, scandals, and gratuitous pot-stirring included, is, as Vecsey put it, “a great step forward.”
Simply put, the fact that so much non-competition coverage of cycling is being produced, consumed, and discussed by the U.S. audience means that, to a certain extent, the sport has taken hold here. It means that the U.S. audience is no longer content to simply be told what happened out on the road, spoon fed who won or lost, how, and by how many seconds, all set to an insipid John Tesh soundtrack. They’ve long since learned the basics, and now, they want to know more about the personalities, about the business, and about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Why? Because it helps inform what they see when they watch the races or when they read the race coverage. And, maybe more importantly, it’s all that non-competition coverage that helps fuel, if not barroom banter, then at least post-ride coffee shop kvetching -- that “yapping about the coach” that shows that fans are involved and emotionally invested. And it’s that investment that makes professional sports appealing to sponsors, and, therefore, commercially viable.
If you look at what’s written about the two most successful “world sports” -- soccer and Formula 1 racing -- you’ll find that much of what’s reported in the vaunted pages of L’Equipe and La Gazzetta dello Sport isn’t about the nuts and bolts of what happened on the field or track; it’s about the various incidents and intrigues surrounding the sports. Was AC Milan involved in fixing matches? Will Ferrari really drop sponsorship of their legendary racing team next season? How many million pounds was that latest transfer in the English Premiership worth? Who was Ronaldo spotted cavorting on a Bali beach with? None of that stuff is really about sport, per se -- it’s not about who won or lost, or who made a great pass on the pitch or on the track. It's chatter, and a lot of times, it's trivial, or speculative, or overblown, just like some of the cycling coverage people complain about. But then again, in that respect, cycling could find worse company to be in if it's looking to sustain itself in the current economy.
Besides, there's frankly only so much you can write about the competition itself (trust me), and though some cycling fans might tell themselves otherwise, there’s only so much of “just the racing” that the public can read. Now, I’m not arguing that we really need that fifth article about Armstrong’s new girlfriend, that every time one teammate calls another an asshole needs to be reported and dissected, or that every hangnail Cadel Evans gets warrants a fresh interview. All I’m saying is, if you find yourself getting irritated by whatever you want to call this sort of reporting -- be it fluff, media hype, or muckraking -- you can also take comfort in the fact that, underneath it all, it’s a good sign for the sport, not some sort of death knell. After all, very few sports have ever died due to bad, excessive, or frivolous media coverage. They die because the fans don’t care.
Pretty quick one today, eh? We're hoping to get out an interview in two parts over the course of this week before the Tour de France frenzy kicks in this weekend. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
What Might Have Been
On Tuesday, Bicycling’s Joe Lindsey put out a great piece that uncovers several of the contingency plans that were set to go into action had the Astana team’s Kazakh backers failed to deliver the €6 million bank guarantee the UCI saddled them with. Drawing on sources from within and close to Astana, Lindsey reveals that the team was set to continue as Livestrong-Nike had the Kazakhs failed to pony up the cash, and that Alberto Contador had been in talks with Caisse d’ Epargne. Lindsey also outlines what all this dealing means to an Astana squad that will now continue with both Contador and Armstrong attached, mainly focusing on the Lemond-Hinault showdown scenario that many have been salivating over since Armstrong announced his return.
For me, though, none of those things are the headline of this story. Rather, it’s the news of the team that Contador was allegedly most serious about joining – Garmin-Slipstream. According to Astana sources cited in Lindsey’s story, negotiations had gone far enough that the squad was shipping Felt bikes to Contador and had brought on Herbalife to chip in an extra $2 million to cover Contador and an entourage including a soigneur, a mechanic, and Astana compadres Sergio Paulinho and Benjamin Noval. So why should those little facts trump all the other juicy info in the article? Because, if accurate (Garmin sources have yet to confirm), they reveal that things are getting desperate in the Garmin camp with just a week and a half left until the Tour de France.
It can be hard to see at times, but Vaughters and company do have reason to be nursing a fairly sweaty set of palms these days. Last year, when the team was a scrappy Pro Continental squad looking to earn some respect, Dan Martin’s hard fought third place in the Med Tour, Tyler Farrar’s Zeeland GC win and sprint win over Mark Cavendish (Columbia) at Tirreno-Adriatico, and David Millar’s top-10 at the Dauphine would have been good results. But this year, with Garmin out of the underdog slot and playing in the big leagues, things are looking a little thin in the win column, and fans don’t get nearly as enthused about near-misses from breakaways and top five finishes in time trials. Additionally, the team’s “clean team” hook has worn a bit thin, and the focus has shifted more from establishing that reputation to earning results – the team has said as much. Add in Tour GC hope Christian Vande Velde’s ill-timed injury at the Giro, David Millar’s shoulder injury, and Columbia-High Road’s Giro thumping of Garmin at its own TTT specialty, and the team’s Tour campaign – the one that could save the season – was leaning towards a letdown. Set against that backdrop, it’s not hard to see why Garmin was looking for options.
But signing a three-time grand tour winner and agreeing to take on a few of his buddies as well? Loading up a more-or-less Anglophone team with a good portion of Discovery Channel’s former Spanish Armada? For a squad that’s always carefully selected riders to ensure team cohesion and proper fit, resorting to those sort of last-minute mercenary dealings is a marked departure. Indeed, the deal seems to be a departure from many of the team’s basic principles, and may indicate a bit of a crisis of faith within the organization.
Since the team’s TIAA-Cref days, team manager Jonathan Vaughters has set out to develop young talent, and though he made some battle-proven signings to help the team build momentum last year, he’s basically stayed true to that methodology. Sure, David Millar, David Zabriskie, Magnus Backstedt, Julian Dean, and Christian Vande Velde had already been around the block a few times when Vaughters picked them up, but Vaughters hasn’t been one to pursue and sign whichever superstar came up on the auction block, and those signings were hardly flashy.
Rather, slow, steady growth has been the model, and Vaughters has relied on an ability to spot young talent and on patience, nurturing riders like Martin Maaskant, Farrar, and Martin as they make names for themselves wearing his jersey. And of course, last year’s Tour revealed Vande Velde as a reasonable GC contender – an emergence that, despite Vande Velde’s long experience, still felt like the discovery of a new rider, and one that Vaughters has justifiably been given credit for.
On an organizational level as well, Garmin has made a name for itself by running counter to many of the dusty traditions and folk remedies of European cycling, instead developing its own management concepts and the various “protocols” developed by team physiologist Allen Lim. Combined with the team’s doping stance and its patient approach to rider development, Garmin had positioned itself as a new kind of cycling team for what many fans are hoping is a new era in the sport.
But the potential Contador deal, if such a deal was indeed in the works, undermines all that in one fell swoop. Simply hiring a big gun and his stable mates, tossing aside internal development, team cohesion, and slow growth in favor of results here and now, is straight from the old days. It doesn’t matter that, in the end, the deal didn’t happen – knowing that it could have tells us what we need to know. I’d also wager that those riders who thought they were vying for a spot on Garmin’s Tour de France roster have learned a thing or two as well.
Joe Lindsey was dead on about what the dead-on-arrival Contador-Garmin deal could mean to cohesion within the shored-up Astana team, but its potential affects on Garmin could be even more disastrous.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Well, Yes and No
There are at least two sides to every story, and in cycling these days, there are always at least two answers to every question. Let’s look at four of this week’s discussion topics, and try to arrive at a simple “yes or no” based on the news of the week.
1. Is examining blood values a reliable way to catch cheaters?
Pat McQuaid and the UCI give an emphatic “yes,” based on the fact that, over the space of a week and a half, they got to nab the “list of five” for blood profile suspicions and Toni Colom (Katusha) for EPO. According to the UCI, Colom was targeted for the EPO test based on suspicious blood values, so we’re giving the UCI the benefit of the doubt and calling that a bio passport success as well. Of course, asking the UCI if blood values work is like asking a proud parent of an honor roll student if their child is really smart – they had a bit of a skewed view in the first place, and now they have the bumper sticker to prove it. Of course they’ll say yes.
In the “no” chorus we have Bernhard Kohl, whose story is, by now, over-told. But now Kohl has someone to harmonize with in newcomer Vladimir Gusev. Gusev was terminated last year by Astana for blood values that were interpreted as suspicious by well-known dope guy and Astana consultant Rasmus Damsgaard. CAS decided that maybe those values weren’t so suspicious after all, at least not suspicious enough for Astana to fire him over. In the meantime, Saxo Bank, where Bjarne Riis helped Damsgaard forge his dope-monitoring legend, has scaled back its vaunted internal testing programs citing the fact that the UCI passport program covers the same ground. So if the bio passport tests are now taking the place of some of the internal controls teams used to do, are they prone to the same problems? Only the appeals will tell, so call us in eight months or a year.
2. Does the UCI know what “targeted” means?
On June 9, the day they announced the Colom positive, the UCI seemed to have a solid grasp of what “targeted” meant. Colom’s blood values looked a little fishy, and so based on that, they gave him more tests than the average, non-suspicious rider. You know, they “targeted” him.
But that moment of clarity seems to be fading fast, as cyclingnews.com’s interview with UCI Reine de Dopage Anne Gripper reveals. Gripper comments on the list of 50 riders that the UCI has said will be extra-special tested in the run-up to the Tour de France (not to be confused with the list of five riders to be prosecuted). According to Gripper, these 50 riders aren’t being “targeted,” they’re just being subjected to additional testing based on the fact that they’re likely to do well at the Tour, either in terms of GC or stage wins. Well, that’s better – thank goodness they aren’t being targeted, you know, in the sense of being singled out for extra scrutiny based on a specific criteria or behavioral pattern. Like winning races or something.
It doesn’t really matter, of course, but I do hesitate to ask what they’ve thought “random” meant all these years.
3. Are Astana’s money problems solved?
Yes, apparently. Just a day or so after the UCI’s deadline officially passed, Bruyneel and the team’s Kazakh sponsors managed to come to some sort of agreement that should see everyone paid through the end of 2009.
But then we have to ask, who is everyone? Because if we go back to that Gusev story again, we see that Astana, presumably through Bruyneel’s Olympus management company, now owes the amply-chinned Russian his salary, plus damages, plus legal costs. I don’t know what his salary was, but Gusev was starting to really break through right before he got preemptively popped by the team, so damages could be considerable. So will Astana’s barely-dry check from Kazakhstan cover that little tab, or is Bruyneel going to be left to cough up the rubles himself? I don’t know, but if you think it’s hard to get the Kazakhs to pay guys who have ridden for them this year, you should see how hard it is to get them to pay the guys who haven’t.
4. Does Tom Boonen really like the marching powder as much as we think he does?
According to the testing agency and the Belgian justice system, yes. Boonen himself says he was blacked out during the night in question, and can’t rightly say either way whether he did cocaine or not. But now an independent review panel says no, Boonen didn’t actually ingest cocaine. Apparently, panel looked at a hair test, and while it does show the presence of cocaine, it doesn’t show enough coke present to indicate definitively that Boonen had any, only that he’s probably seen some in the last few months.
Before we get too excited, I’d note that the English version of the story says Boonen didn’t “ingest” cocaine. The initial Flemish versions I’ve seen say he didn’t “snort” cocaine. These are obviously two different meanings, as there are other ways to ingest besides snorting, and they affect how strongly the drug shows up in your system. While, say, eating cocaine is less efficient than sniffing it, it is still ingestion. This cyclingnews.com article sheds some light on the testing tolerances and whatnot, but frankly I’m just bored with the whole thing, and I steadfastly avoid dealing with anything measured in ng/mg.
ASO is apparently bored with the whole business too, since they’ve announced today that, for their purposes, Boonen snorted, otherwise ingested, or rolled around in the blow enough to exclude him from this year’s Tour de France. Now all we’re left to wonder about is whether the UCI will still try to come up with some “damaging the image of cycling” charge to hang him by. I suppose they could, as he’s still caused a hell of a PR fuss, but if you can get hanged in cycling for having been in proximity to drugs, there won’t be an empty gallows or a vacant tree branch in all of Europe pretty soon. (Update: No sanction for Boonen)
So for those of you keeping score, that’s a yes, a maybe, a no, and a “we’ll see” all on a single question that doesn’t have the slightest bit to do with racing a bicycle. Flattering times for the sport, indeed.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
It's 6pm In Switzerland
The most underreported story of the last two days has been the fact that the UCI, not content that the Kazakh federation had caught up to its current payments to the Astana cycling team, has required the federation to deposit an additional 6 million euro bank guarantee. That amount would effectively cover the sponsor's committment through the end of the year, leaving the team to ride the rest of the season without the sort of turmoil and costume changes it's experienced so far this year.
So why does it matter what time it is in Switzerland? Because that guarantee is due at 6 pm on Tuesday (revised from 5 pm). In other words, now. If there's one thing they know in Switzerland, it's timekeeping, so if the money has failed to appear, the case goes to the UCI's licensing committee. That body could force a transfer of the license from the Kazakh federation to someone else, and I think we all know the "someone else" we're thinking of.
Though cyclingnews.com picked up the story yesterday evening, the news was in play in the Belgian and Dutch media much earlier in the day. In fact, Sportwereld posted this story early yesterday, then pulled it in favor of one with fewer details, and has now reposted it. In it, Johan Bruyneel reflects that he's still had no communication from the sponsors, though he seems pretty comfortable with that, promising that the team, whatever it may be called, will be at the Tour start in Monaco. He's so comfortable, in fact, it's almost as if he has a Plan B, eh?
Now here's the question: was Astana just waiting for this announcement before they decided whether to pay up or not? Had CAS cleared Vinokourov to ride ahead of the Tour de France start, there's a chance the money could have arrived, with one very, very hefty string attached.
CAS didn't award Vino his two-week reprieve, however, so he remains sidelined until a nice, safe July 24 (leaving Tour Poobah Christian Prudhomme free to breathe a giant sigh of relief). So now I suppose we'll never know if the Kazakhs might have been able to pass the hat for a cool 6 million to put Vinokourov directly back in the thick of things, or how Bruyneel would have reacted to the sort of strong arm tactics that the Kazakhs would have likely employed to ensure Vino his return. Compared to the oft-referenced, seldom named "cycling mafia," I'm betting the Kazakhs play just a little bit harder when the chips are down.
Now all that remains to be seen is if Astana will cough up the cash to watch some Spano-Germano-Americano quadruple threat play hero on its dime, especially now that management has benched Kazakhstan's best-performing local boy, Assan Bazayev. According to the Sportwereld article, chances of receiving that check are looking pretty slim, and I'm guessing that fits pretty well into a well-developed Plan B for the team.
UPDATE, June 17 a.m.: Though there's no official release available from the UCI yet, cyclingnews.com reports that Astana (the team) did not receive any payment from the Kazakh federation by yesterday's deadline. Apparently, the Kazakhs may try again today, but not if they follow the advice of their lawyers and their negotiator, former Dutch pro Rini Wagtmans, who feel that the UCI doesn't have the authority to ask for the extra guarantee. They may be right, but not having the authority has never stopped the UCI before, so it may not matter very much in the end. In the CN article, Wagtmans weaves a few theories about how the process may go down, but I'll be damned if I can make heads or tails of what he's envisioning. Bad translation, maybe? Also, Joe Lindsey takes his own look at the situation and provides some basic background here.
Coincidentally, Wagtmans' former teammate, Eddy Merckx, has a birthday today.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right
Who runs this goddamned sport? Nobody and everybody, apparently, and recent news has been coated in the sort of scatological crossfire you’d expect from that sort of diversified management structure.
CONI, the Italian federation, banned Spaniard Alejandro Valverde for his alleged involvement in a Spanish doping affair based on a blood sample taken in Italy during last year’s Tour de France. Habsburg blood may have seen less of Europe than Valverde’s, but in fairness to those kingmakers, Valverde’s ties to the papacy do look weak in comparison. Indeed, a high-priced indulgence is about the only thing that could save Valverde’s soul from a paperwork purgatory at this point, and that little absolution doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon. The Giro may have run it’s final TT through the pope’s front yard, but even an organization that feels pretty comfortable weighing on who can sleep with who, when, and what they should wear when they do so knows better than to weigh in on cycling’s regulatory orgy.
No, Benedict’s silent on Valverde, but maybe that’s only because he hasn’t been issued his gold-plated papal Colnago yet, because everyone else who’s ever seen or pedaled a bicycle has thrown their opinions into the pot. Remarkably, the only thing people seem more concerned about than Valverde’s alleged performance enhancing activities are Tom Boonen’s recreational ones, making the cycling press seem less like sports news and more like TMZ. The immediate result of all the hubbub is that either of both riders may not be able to start the Tour de France come July. Depending on who you ask, of course.
Christian Prudhomme, Grand Poobah of the Tour de France, recently announced a near theological shift in his organization’s policies, telling the media hordes that ASO will “obey the rules” when it comes to sanctioning the various sins of Boonen and Valverde. That following the rules instead of making up your own is now worthy of a press release says a little something about how we operate here in the bush leagues of professional sport, but so be it. Anyway, ASO has decided to agree with the UCI that, as sporting entities, they might not really have the authority to sanction a rider based on an unrelated, out-of-competition legal matter, like, say, blowing some lines in the piss-soaked men’s room of some godforsaken Antwerp disco.
Things aren't that easy, of course. According to the UCI, they might still be able to nab Boonen yet, but not on sporting grounds, and they can’t find the time to make up a new rule to try him under until after the Tour. So, for now at least, Boonen looks to be in the clear, at least until someone else argues their way into having jurisdiction in the matter, and trust me, that’s not far off. Who knows, maybe this is USAC’s time to shine – I’d suggest basing jurisdictional authority on either his participation in the Tour of California, or, for some real flair, his participation in the Univest Grand Prix as an amateur.
Anyway, if I’m reading it right, as another part of this year’s great reconciliation, ASO has also agreed that until the UCI gets the evidence from CONI and makes its own ruling on Valverde, a ban in Italy doesn’t really have much of anything to do Valverde racing in France, though it seems they’ll leave it up to Valverde as to whether he thinks his form is good enough to outrun the carabinieri on his own personal cannonball run when this year’s Tour dips into Italia. The kid has the rare combination of being quick in the hills and in a sprint, but I’m not sure even the Green Bullet will take that bet.
The UCI doesn’t seem to be too anxious to gather that Italian evidence, though, and why would they be? They can leave it to CONI to keep Valverde from the Tour, despite the fact that nobody’s ever adequately explained how CONI can keep an unsuspended rider with a non-Italian license from riding a race that is not held under the auspices of CONI. Yes, the Tour will go briefly into Italy, but CONI is a sporting body, not the border patrol, and other than that brief sojourn on Italian asphalt, CONI doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with the Tour de France. But that’s just the sort of easy out the UCI loves, so why look too closely at the legality of it?
But all that CONI stuff really only affects Valverde, and with everyone playing relatively nice between the UCI and ASO this year, someone has do the broader eye-gouging and overreaching, and this year the French government has stepped up to the task. Chapeau. Not satisfied that Prudhomme and ASO could simply decide what was best for their event within the rules of the sport, France’s Minister of Sport, Bernard Laporte, has seen fit to wade into what was, for a brief, shining moment a waning clusterfuck rather than a waxing one.
By declaring from his own little pulpit that Boonen and Valverde “are not welcome at the 2009 Tour de France,” Laporte has managed to preach exactly the opposite sermon from the UCI and ASO, deciding that, as a part of the ruling civil authority, it should slog into the affairs of a sporting event it neither owns nor regulates, based on its distaste for a legal matter in Belgium and a sporting matter in Spain (that’s been co-opted by Italy). I’m not sure what the French government generally or the Ministry of Sport specifically kicks into the Tour pot, or what their contribution would or could be besides discount prices on gendarmes, but I’m pretty damn sure they aren’t in charge of sending invitations, which is a good thing, because picking out stationary is a hell of a delicate thing, and best not left up to government bureaucrats. Either way, France as a state is known to profit considerably from the Tour, in good years and bad, so France as a state best shut its trap and let ASO do what it does best -- run an incredibly lucrative bike race. Fortunately for Boonen, and maybe Valverde, Laporte isn’t the official welcoming committee for the 2009 Tour de France. I think that’s Bernard Hinault, and he’s doing a bang-up job so far.
Even if we discount Laporte, who I might add has a name that’s a pretty good homophone for “Puerto,” if you know what I mean, things aren’t all rosy just because ASO and the UCI have decided to play by roughly the same rulebook. Lest we think that the UCI is contorting itself into some non-recognizable, even-handed caretaker of the sport, we only need to look as far as Wednesday’s news. Upping the ante in its desperate attempt to ward off derision of its biological passport program, UCI chieftan Paddy McQuaid announces that they’re ready to release the names of riders with suspicious biological passport results. McQuaid also says that the UCI will eventually open proceedings against the riders, but that even though they’re announcing the names, the riders won’t be given the customary immediate sit-down by the boys in blue. No, they’re going to leave that “up to the teams.” How magnanimous, or unbelievably cowardly, depending on how you look at it.
What, pray tell, does that magnanimity tell us about how dependable these “suspicious” findings are? It means they have all the durability of an R-Sys wheel, because this is, after all, a sport where you can be slapped with one of those provisional suspensions based on a rumor about a particularly voluminous bowel movement you may or may not have created in the team bus bathroom back in 2005. If it can’t get you suspended in cycling, even provisionally, it simply isn’t worth worrying about. And if the world governing body is going to come out and name names, and especially if they’re going to build the suspense with preliminary press releases to increase turnout at their Swiss photo op in a few days time, they damn well better have enough to evidence to take the wheels off those riders’ bikes right then and there.
And if the paper the UCI has is that good, would they leave it up to the teams to give provisional suspensions? After all, the UCI has implicitly accused many of those teams of orchestrating these ugly little affairs themselves, so why, if those teams now know the jig is up, would they sit down the very guys who should be absolutely flying right now? Nah, I say go out all guns blazing, and make the UCI spend the next two years trying desperately to finalize a single results sheet from here to the Vuelta.
Frankly, if one of my guys turned up hot, I might keep sending him out there until someone told me in no uncertain terms not to, because I’d be sick of the UCI putting me in the middle of its little spats. Last year it put the teams and riders in the middle of its tickle fight with ASO, this year it’s inserting them into their fight with the biological passport critics. Enough is enough – if you’ve got the goods, let’s see them, if not, get back to work if you want, but quit spouting off to the press. If you’re going to position yourself as the sport’s overarching enforcement arm, do the job with good evidence and confidence, and don’t try to force the teams into doing your bidding when you’re too terrified of the fallout to do it. You can have the credit and you can have the blame, but no matter how hard you try, you have to risk getting one to get the other.
Unfortunately, the message from the UCI is as transparent as it is distasteful – be a good little team, and suspend these riders like you know we want you to. Otherwise, you’ll get so much “targeted testing” from your top riders down to your soigneurs that you won’t have enough blood or piss left to fill a vial. If what we’re looking for is real, fair, and non-politicized enforcement in cycling, I’m not sure that looks like it.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Eye for Eye
Yesterday, two arguably related stories hit the wires within hours of each other. The first involved various outlets’ extractions from Bernhard Kohl’s “tell-all” interview with L’Equipe. In that interview, the young Austrian, who won the King of the Mountains jersey at last year’s Tour de France and then promptly got popped for CERA use, put forth the idea that the UCI’s much-vaunted (by them) and much-maligned (by others) biological passport system was actually helping riders dope by giving them a constant stream of good data about their blood levels. Using that information, they were able to stay in bounds while still mucking around with their blood enough to get a good boost.
A few hours later, the UCI announced that Katusha’s Toni Colom tested positive for EPO in a test conducted on April 2, two weeks after he won the final stage of Paris-Nice. The UCI statement prominently read, “This abnormal result is the direct result of a targeted test based on information taken from his blood profile and knowledge of his competition schedule.” In other words, “We got him because of the biological passport. Take that, you bastards.”
Well, didn’t that work out nicely? Now, maybe I’ve become too cynical, but it strikes me as a bit too coincidental that the UCI finally got their Colom press release prose just the way they wanted it for release the same day the Kohl article hit the newsstands. “But aha!” you say, “the UCI release says that Colom was informed of his positive the previous day, June 8, so it couldn’t have been timed to coincide with the Kohl article.”
You raise a good point, but by June 8, the cat was already out of the bag on what Kohl had spilled to L’Equipe. Run on Saturday, June 6 on the L’Equipe web site, this story gave a hint of what was to come, and ended with the note: “La confession complète de Bernhard Kohl, à lire ce mardi, dans L'Equipe.” Or, “read the complete confession of Bernhard Kohl, Tuesday in L’Equipe.” No, the teaser doesn’t mention Kohl’s disdain for the biological passport program, but with a few days of warning, it might not have been too difficult for the UCI to find out where else the interview would be headed. As we know from past experience, the walls of many of these organizations are notoriously thin.
So what’s the big deal? The problem is that playing this sort of tit-for-tat game with riders, test results, and sanctions just undermines the credibility of the testing system. When people see that news of positive tests is being released according to an organization’s political needs, rather sporting considerations, they become suspicious, and rightfully so. The take home message becomes that the regulations and associated testing are not there to ensure as clean a sport as possible in the most expedient manner possible, but rather that the tests and their results are ammunition to be carefully stored away until someone steps out of line. Then, with the organization’s actions in question, the tests are pulled out as a defense carefully wrapped in a cloak of proactive enforcement.
Of course, like I said, I may just be too cynical, and indeed the timing of the two stories may all be a big coincidence. Still, that coincidence only highlights another lesson the UCI and its associated tangle of testers and sanctioning bodies need to learn: that the appearance of impropriety can be just as damaging as actual impropriety. If they were so suspicious of Colom, why did it take over two months to get the testing done and make the announcement? And if they were comfortable with such a lengthy timeframe despite their suspicion, which they clearly were, why not wait another day or two to make the announcement? Had they done so, they might have avoided looking like they’re engaging in a petty schoolyard game of “Is not! Is too!” with critics of the passport system. At the very least, they might not have looked as if they’re sitting on a pile of test results, waiting to throw them out like aces in a game of blackjack. As it stands, we’re just left wondering how many more of those cards they’re holding, and whose faces are on them.
Kohl’s point raises another question about both the biological passport, and the various longitudinal tests teams are conducting internally. Kohl and others point out that supplying riders with their own data effectively provides them with a blood monitoring service, allowing them to manipulate their blood more carefully and stay within the rules. Put like that, giving them all that data sounds like a bad idea, eh?
On the other hand, most people, bike riders included, take it as a given that they have a right to access their own medical data. They do so first because, well, it’s theirs, and second because it gives them some means to identify and defend themselves against inaccuracies in the system. Finally, as we saw with the Armstrong/Caitlin testing fiasco, and with various similar testing programs put forth by teams such as Garmin, CSC, and Columbia, the public seems convinced that absolute transparency is the way to a clean sport. They want people’s blood values, damn it, online and in real time, and if a team does anything less, they must be hiding something. But of course, it’s kind of hard to give the world at large all the facts without the riders logging on for a peek, and using it however they see fit.
So which’ll it be? Transparency for all, or keep the blood data secret, thus placing blind faith in the hands of the testers? The first is certainly dangerous, if what Kohl claims is true. The second, unfortunately, is probably even worse.
One final note: It took us awhile, but the Service Course has finally made it to 100 posts. It’s too bad it had to be one about dope, but oh well, you work with whatever material's on hand.
Monday, June 08, 2009
Prologue to a Nap
Could someone with more sway than this website tell Versus that, while we very much appreciate their coverage of cycling, and will continue to voice our undying support of mixed martial arts fighting just to get it, using that generous 2-hour Sunday slot to air 120 minutes of Dauphiné-Libéré prologue (ahem, “opening time trial”) is just wasteful? Just like the start house pictures that heavy set gentleman was taking, prologue coverage doesn’t really tell us much other than, “hey, look who showed up!” And after 120 minutes of guys riding alone for 16 minutes, the rest of the key points of the 8-stage race, some of which may actually be interesting, will then be shoved into a subsequent 2-hour show next Sunday.
While well intentioned, in showing such a copious amount of prologues and time trials, I believe Versus isn’t giving itself enough credit. With the help of the Armstrong bounce, the station has, over the past decade or so, built up an audience for their cycling wares. Even better, that audience has finally reached a point in their cycling education where their appreciation extends beyond, “Guys on bikes! On television! I can see them!”
Look, when you’re a kid, you just like ice cream, and you’ll eat as much of it as you can get your hands on. But once you’re older and know a little bit more, you start to appreciate quality and taste over volume. Similarly, with more than a couple years of cycling now under their belts, even those much-maligned Armstrong-era fans have developed tastes that are a little more nuanced, and they’re looking for coverage of the more substantive, tactical, and interesting parts of the race. That usually doesn't include time trials, and it never includes prologues. Sure, their results can occassionally have dramatic effects on the overall, but usually it's just guys riding bikes, one at a time.
I’m not one to lob criticism out there without offering constructive solutions, of course. That’s what message boards are for. In the spirit of cooperation and improved coverage, which will no doubt net Versus tens of dollars more in advertising revenue, we humbly offer the following suggested rearrangements of the 240 minutes of Dauphiné-Libéré coverage that Versus will provide via its June 7 and June 14 Sunday broadcasts:
- A judiciously edited 30 minute recap show each day of the Dauphiné’s eight stages. Air it any time you want, we all TiVo it anyway, but again, in the spirit of cooperation, we promise not to tell your advertisers that.
- Two 60 minute shows covering key stages, and a 2-hour block next Sunday. Everybody loves that “whole stage” coverage Versus does during the Tour de France, and it is a gluttonous summer pleasure for many. But from a practical standpoint, professional racing is all about the last hour, so you really don’t need much more than 60 minutes. So take this past Sunday's alotted 120 minutes, cut them in half, and use them to show two of this week’s key stages. (Just so we don’t get confused, this does not mean one show should be dedicated to the Stage 4 ITT.) Do one hour of coverage of Stage 5 to Mont Ventoux, and one hour of Stage 6 to Briancon. Then use the 2-hour BikeGasm broadcast on June 14 to cover Stages 7 and 8. (In the first ten minutes of each show, Phil and Paul can do a quick oral summary of what’s gone on in the intervening stages, preferably using the correct names and team affiliations along the way to minimize confusion.)
- Five, 22 minute daily recaps Monday through Friday of this week, with a quick recap of Saturday and last stage coverage on next Sunday’s 2-hour BikeGasm broadcast. The 22 minute length does seem unwieldy, I’ll admit, but it will give longtime viewers a sense of nostalgia for the early OLN days, when broadcasts started and ended at all sorts of random times.
- Just blow all 4 hours on the Mont Ventoux stage. Listen, being British, Phil Liggett will be obliged to spend at least an hour of the Ventoux coverage talking about Tom Simpson and his tragic and untimely death due to drug-taking. It being Versus, Phil and/or Paul will also be required to narrate a 45 minute video retrospective of the Armstrong-Pantani Ventoux finish, and, in the interest of national security, reassure American viewers that Armstrong absolutely, definitely, positively did give Pantani the stage win, and that if he really wanted to, he’d have wiped the floor with him. Add in another 20 minutes of prattling on about Eros Poli winning a stage over the Ventoux despite being an enormous beast of a man, and a few minutes of miscellaneous poetics about the Ventoux stage of this year’s Tour de France, and we’re left with a little over an hour and a half for actual coverage. That sounds about right.
In closing, while extended prologue coverage may be the Ho-Hos of professional cycling – fattening, kind of artificial tasting, and lacking almost any sort of nutritional content – they do give you a chance to have a closeup look at the riders and equipment, largely because there is no action to distract you. Here’s what we saw before we nodded off:
- Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) looks skinny. I couldn’t quite make out ribs through the back of his skinsuit, but I did see a few vertebrae, which should mean he’s right on track in his Tour de France preparation. The other way to gauge Evans’ form is to examine how erratic his outbursts in the press are. According to that metric, he still has some fine-tuning to do.
- Evans was showing off his usual crazy-low TT position, but what struck me were his wrists, which were significantly below his elbows. The position seemed to form a giant scoop into his chest, leading me to wonder how aerodynamically efficient it is, or what other fit, comfort, or power factors may have led to that position. That said, I’ve sniped at people for judging aerodynamics from photos in the past, so I best shut my trap now.
- Like Evans, Ivan Basso (Liquigas) looked to have a distinct downward slope from elbow to wrist, so for a second I was just wondering if "wrists-down" was just the "new level." Then I saw Basso yanking violently up on his extensions to pull them back into position, so I guess not. But I do hear that "torque wrenches" are the new “I go by feel.”
- Alberto Contador (Astana) had a new prototype time trial bike with some crazy white-on-black design on it. Trek’s big names having custom painted (usually horrifically so) bikes is nothing new, with Contador, Leipheimer, and Armstrong all getting the star treatment in recent past. But I don’t think this latest example was just a show of respect and shrewd marketing on their part. The design could be seen as decorative, but it’s also very similar to the intentionally eye-confusing designs car companies use when they put new cars on the test track – it makes it really hard to tell what the bike really looks like in any detail.
- So does Contador’s debut of the new TT bike show us that he’s achieved primacy from Trek and/or the team for testing new products? In other words, is it now Contador, rather than Armstrong, who gets “the shit that will kill them” of Coyle-book fame? It seems correct that he does, of course, given his record and his chances in July. But since Armstrong has returned to the scene, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him return to his spot as the primary recipient of new material.
- David Miller (Garmin) was riding a regular road bike with clip-on aero bars and deep section rims instead of a disk. It was good enough to net him 10th place, but I still have to wonder what the reasoning behind the decision was. The way I see it, either Miller has had his nerves so frazzled by dropped chains, exploding disc wheels, and other time trial shenanigans that he’s sworn off TT bikes forever, or it was just a photoshoot for one of Felt’s aero road bikes. Look out for an ad shot of Miller’s ride yesterday with some variation of “Slick Enough for a ProTour Time Trial” in the Felt marketing copy.
- Speaking of Millar and Armstrong, what is it with English speakers and handlebars so wide you could drive a bus with them? I remember one shot of Tyler Hamilton with his hands on the hoods back when he was riding for CSC – it looked like he was reaching out to hug fat Aunt Patrice at the family reunion. I don’t know – Miller, Armstrong, Hamilton – maybe it’s a generational thing rather than language-based?
- Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) didn’t look high, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.
- The white world championship skinsuit is not doing Bert Grabsch (Columbia) any favors. He looks like he ate last season’s Bert Grabsch, resulting in a skinsuit that is now double stuffed with Bert Grabsch-ey goodness. That’s unfair, of course – white is not slimming, and he is a big, powerful rider – but the guy still looked huge. I think that to rake in a little extra cash, for the biological passport program or whatever new quagmire they see fit, the UCI should sign on separate sponsors just for the WC jerseys. And it should be Jet Puffed Marshmallows.
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
Big Tents, Small Media, and Other Things
As I mentioned earlier, I provided some straight race coverage this past weekend for the Clarendon Cup NRC race and the Air Force Cycling Classic, a USA Cycling ProTour circuit race. Due to changing life circumstances over the past few years, I don’t travel to do race coverage nearly as much as I used to – as you may have noticed, I do most of my sniping from up here in the cheap seats these days. And while I’m not sure yet if, after this weekend, I’m burned out or reinvigorated, it’s always fun to be part of the circus again when it’s in town.
In the new issue of VeloNews, Neal Rogers has an interesting piece about how professional cycling is covered. Or maybe it’s only interesting to people who have done the job, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a piece that many cycling journalists have probably longed to write – we’re painfully aware of how many readers like to complain about the flavor of the sausage, but lack any real comprehension of how it gets made.
In that same spirit of openness, I’ve jotted down some things below that occurred to me as I covered this weekend’s races. Not all of them are new thoughts, by far; they’re not all directly related to this weekend’s experiences; and I probably have far more than this if I really thought about it. But what the hell.
On Home Field Advantage
You’d think it would be easier to cover races that are within single digit mileage from your home, wouldn’t you? In some ways, that’s true. When the race is in your backyard, or takes place along your regular commute like this weekend’s races did for me, there’s no airports, no rental cars, no map reading, and no crappy hotels. You sleep in your own bed, and eat breakfast in the kitchen with your kids instead of at a fluorescent-lit buffet with Serge, the Ukrainian soigneur. And there’s something to be said for all that.
But there’s also something to be said for being fully committed to the task at hand, with none of the distractions that you simply can’t get away from at home, no matter how pleasant they may be. Doing race coverage for the web like this weekend, it’s not a big problem, but if I were hunting for features or sidebars or angles for print, it’s far better to be holed up in the race hotel, inside the bubble, where you can make a quick call to the front desk, be connected to someone’s room, and arrange an interview in the lobby in an hour. And the amount of off-the-record scuttlebutt you can get in a hotel bar should not be underestimated for its background value. When you drive home an hour after the finish, you miss all that.
What is Media?
Look, I’m sympathetic towards “new media.” After all, as much as I hate to admit it, you’re reading this on one of those newfangled blogs, and my last printed-in-ink byline was probably over a year ago. And I'm not the only one -- the press tent’s getting mighty crowded these last few years with the expanded roster of online outlets, and during the post-race interviews, a few more recorders are thrust between you and your subject and you feel a little bit more hot breath on the back of your neck. If that meant more widespread, diverse, and credible coverage of cycling, I’d be more than happy with a little less elbow room and a less advantageous spot on the rail. It is, literally and metaphorically, a big tent, and I think that’s great.
The problem is that, while some of these folks do good work, many of them don’t seem to be working at all, and in fact, never produce anything from the events they’ve been credentialed for. In the meantime, they’re using that credential to get in the way of the folks who are working – interrupting interviews to have their picture taken with riders and getting in the way of the working photographers at the finish line for the sake of completing their PhotoBucket galleries. As valuable to the sport as fans and amateur photographers are, that’s just not what media credentials are for.
And they keep eating all the damn donuts.
Probably the most frustrating thing, for me anyway, is the appropriation by those same people of material generated by those who WERE actually working at the event. Occasionally, it’s as inconspicuous as seeing a quote on a blog or somesuch that was in the article you wrote, and you know you were the only one who got that quote, because you were sitting in a moving team car with the rider with the windows up when you got it. That’s annoying, but the most egregious case I’ve seen was back in 2007, when someone who was very excited to have race credentials for his blog (enthusiastically posting about it prior to the race), proceeded, hours after the race, to cut and paste the entirety of my VeloNews copy to his blog. Yes, my name was still on it, but that’s still pretty far from fair use, for those who deal in such things. The kicker? He’s a professor of online journalism at a local university. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing “don’t steal material from other sites” is Week 1 material in an online journalism class, maybe Day 1, even. More bluntly and less legalistically: you were there, you had the same access I did, write your own damn story. And if you think the theft is bad for the writers, you should see what it’s like for the photographers.
Look, I don’t mean to sound like the crusty old guy here, but maybe I am, so I might as well embrace it. I’m not even suggesting that we start severely limiting access – at least not for events like last weekend’s, which generate a significant amount of local interest that’s best capitalized on by new media. All I’m asking is that, if you’re going to be there, and be all geeked out about having a credential (which is fine), then DO something with it. Write something, do some work, find an angle, produce something useful – or just stand outside the barriers like the rest of the fans and enjoy the race. There’s no shame in that. At the very least, stay out of the way and don’t steal my stuff.
Second Fiddle, Maybe Third
We saw two, good entertaining domestic bike races this weekend, probably the two biggest going on in the U.S. on those two days (note - there was a women’s World Cup in Montreal, Canada). That said, sometimes writing about races, even big domestic ones, for the bigger sites can feel like throwing words down a well. Like, say, when the events you’re covering fall on the last days of the Giro d’ Italia, where the gap between winning and losing is less than a minute, and the finale is being contested on wet cobblestones in downtown roads with aero bars.
So yes, I was not expecting, nor did I achieve, nor did I deserve, top billing on the site at any point during the weekend. For that to have happened, I think Chad Gerlach would have had to have won both the Arlington races by a minute and a half, allowing me to fully, shamelessly, and transparently work the human interest angle to the bone. That didn’t happen, but c’est la guerre. At least seeing my headlines sink rapidly down the column was not an unfamiliar sensation – the first race I covered live and in person, the 1999 Red Zinger stage race, ended on the same day Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in Paris. Talk about getting buried.
Life in the Desert – All Heat and No Water
Last weekend’s races – a flat crit and a circuit race with a bit of a hill – presented the riders with different physical challenges. You may not know this, but the two formats present the media with different challenges as well. The criterium is primarily a test of your ability to endure blazing sunlight and scorching pavement temperatures, as well as your ability to maintain riveted attention for 100 laps. Seriously, 100 laps. The circuit race, on the other hand, is primarily a test of your bladder. Sure, you’re in the shade of a car in the caravan, and you have air conditioning and a good view of the break, which is nice, but you’ve traded in access to the criterium’s port-o-johns and the associated comforts they provide. The coping mechanism is no mystery, of course – get up in the morning, and consume the absolute minimum of liquids, in my case a very small cup of coffee to get going. Then hit the port-o-johns about three or four times at the start. Then don’t drink anything until you’re done with your post-race interviews. Even then, many times, at the end of the three or four hour cruise, that lap belt is starting to feel mighty tight. It’s really not that long to go, but I think it’s more mental than physical: it’s the fact that you can’t go that makes you have to. But that first sip of water when you’re done is oh so sweet.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Among some of the regional teams this weekend, there was apparently some confusion as to who would be riding for what team, in which races, and what race number they'd be wearing, resulting in three or four different versions of the start list (which matches numbers to names and teams), depending on how you counted. Unfortunately, none of them really shed much light on the situation. Without getting too far into it, or pointing any fingers, if teams make roster or number changes and don’t inform the organizer or officials, or if they do inform them and the organizer or officials don’t communicate those changes to the media (either with revised start lists or on the fly via radio tour), don’t expect your name to be right in the reporting. Yes, if Mark Cavendish switched numbers with George Hincapie before Milan-San Remo, or Hincapie and Tom Boonen switched teams, we could probably pick up on it and sort it out on our own, but when we’re talking regional riders making their appearance in national events, we can’t always pick out the faces. We really are trying to give you your day in the sun when it’s warranted – just help a brother out with the right information.
But Who Cares?
If any or all of that makes you think didn’t enjoy working this weekend, you’d be wrong. Most of it is just part and parcel of doing the job, and you laugh about it and move on. It was a great weekend of racing, and next weekend, when the circus rolls on up to Philadelphia for the Philadelphia International Championship, I’ll definitely miss being under the big top.