Friday, July 31, 2009


Adventures in Rumor-Mongering

Guess what? Francisco Mancebo apparently isn’t going to ride for Caisse d’Epargne. Peter Hymas, of Bobke Strut and (more currently and relevantly) of, wrote to reveal that the inclusion of Mancebo in the Caisse d’Epargne start list for the Clasica San Sebastian was an uploading error in the site’s content management system. It seems that, in its effort to hyperlink each rider’s name to their bio page, the database failed to recognize an exact match for Francisco Perez Sanchez’s name, panicked, and sucked both Perez's and Mancebo’s names into the initial start list.

I, obviously, am crushed by this development. Not because I care terribly about where Mancebo rides, but because it marks my early departure from the number one media sport of the post-Tour season: rumor-mongering. Even though I feel like the first guy out in a game of musical chairs (or maybe the second guy out), it was a good run and I can’t complain. I’ve learned a lot from the big cycling media guns over the years regarding this particular pursuit, and put all that knowledge to work in my Mancebo-rama over the last several days. I'm still falling a little short, but since I’m moving steadily towards my dotage, I feel the need to pass along what I’ve learned so that others might take my place in the game when I've shuffled off this mortal coil.

So, we bring you the Service Course’s Guide to Creating an Effective Cycling Rumor:

  1. Make it at least marginally of believable.
    This step is the most important, because if it’s not somewhat believable, it’s not a rumor, it’s an Onion article – “Contador to Ride Next Tour as an Independent” simply won’t work. In our example, the parties involved made it pretty easy pickin's. Rock Racing tends to have a lot of strange and unscheduled turnover, as evidenced by Mario Cipollini’s arrival and departure, the departures of Chris Baldwin and Mike Creed after being involuntarily demoted to amateur status, and the recent re-arrival of Ivan Dominguez. So Mancebo's sudden departure wouldn't have been a stretch at all, and since Caisse d’Epargne has so much history with Mancebo, it was a perfect match. It isn’t always so easy to make your rumor believable, though – just look at all those folks trying to dream up legitimate reasons that Andy Schleck would want to go ride for Radio Shack.

  2. Find a catalyst that exists in the real world, outside of your own head.
    In the Internet age, people are all high and mighty about demanding a “link” for whatever you’re claiming, so it’s far more difficult to pull off a good, old fashioned “we heard that…” rumor. In this case, the San Sebastian start list was a great springboard. Granted, it was a small hook and very short-lived, but bigger news has been presaged by less in the past. Yesterday, people were citing an Andy Schleck “tweet” mentioning Armstrong and presenting it as a sign that he was really going to go to Radio Shack, proving that, like some sort of digital MacGyver, you really can just use whatever’s handy. I originally looked at the start list to find out which members of different Astana camps would be riding together at San Sebastian and see what I might be able to make out of that, but then something better floated by.

  3. Present both sides, and try to sound rational.
    If you want people to embrace your rumor, you can’t just go straight in, ranting and raving about how it's totally true, and just you wait, ‘cause it’s gonna happen. You have to show how and why it could have some validity, but you also have to mention how it could be complete bullshit. This is especially important if you’re a relatively major media outlet. In the Mancebo case, we provided the eventual undoing of the rumor right in the first post on the subject, and fleshed it out a bit more in yesterday’s post by noting again that Mancebo bears a name that’s fairly similar to someone already on Caisse d’Epargne’s roster for San Sebastian, which could easily cause a mixup on the start list. From there, though, it’s important to bury your caveat in all sorts of accepted facts that seem to reinforce your rumor, but really don’t have much to do with it at all. Sort of like how Contador proved it’s impossible to be a GC contender and ride on Armstrong’s team, but everyone still chatters on about how Andy Schleck could potentially learn from all of Armstrong’s experience if he went to Radio Shack. Seven Tours wins! And nine for Bruyneel! Improve your time trial! How could he say no?

  4. Never get into the details.
    When is Mancebo’s contract with Rock Racing up? Does he have an out clause that would let him sign for a ProTour team should the opportunity arise? Since you can’t make a roster change on a continental team after June 29 without getting an individual review, could this whole mess even have been sorted out by San Sebastian? Could Caisse d’ Epargne even hire another rider, or are they already up to the UCI’s roster limit? Who cares? You can’t let yourself get bogged down in that stuff. Just push ahead, knowing that the sport’s rules are so poorly constructed and inconsistently applied that your rumor has the same veracity regardless of the answers to any of those questions. Besides, people on message boards love to look all that stuff up, so you might as well let them do the heavy lifting. You could cover yourself, if you’re so inclined, with something breezy like, “It might not be legal, but we haven't looked into that part.”

  5. Milk it.
    If you’ve put in this much effort into developing a rumor, you need to get at least two articles out of it, preferably more, before someone who actually knows the truth steps in and puts things straight. If that means pounding away at it day after day until everyone involved has weighed in, so be it. Which brings us to…

  6. In the words of the great Hunter S. Thompson, “make the bastards deny it.”
    When you first debut a good rumor, it’s essential to be able to say you’ve contacted some of the parties involved. Note that I did not say you had to have actually reached them or talked to them. That’s something else entirely, and in fact, actual contact is downright detrimental to the rumor process. In the Mancebo case, we contacted both Rock Racing and the press agent for Caisse d’Epargne. We still haven’t heard back from either of them, which for rumor-mongering purposes is absolutely perfect. Just look at how Andy and Frank Schleck’s father/agent went and ruined all the Radio Shack fun by simply stating that the brothers had another year on their Riis Cycling contracts that they were going to honor. For our rumor, we got a surprise third-party denial, which afforded our Mancebo rumor only a short, two-day lifespan. I have to admit, I did not see that coming. Well played, Hymas.

See, it’s simple. Next year, you won’t simply have to piggyback off the mainstream rumors developed by others – you have everything you need to construct your own. Or heck, have a go at it right now, there’s still a month left until September 1, when everyone’s allowed to go public with talk about transfers and ruin all the fun.

Seriously though, what’s so appealing about hammering away at the whispers and rumors every year after the Tour is over? Why do the big sites even bother, when they’re going to be wrong most of the time? Simple – it’s the perpetual pursuit of that one shining instance when you notice or overhear that little something, write about it, and then it turns out to be dead right. And you’re the first to be right about it. There’s nothing better.

So remember, if Mancebo does somehow end up at Caisse d’Epargne, you heard it here first.


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Thursday, July 30, 2009


Hints and Allegations

Just wanted to do a quick follow-on to yesterday’s post, which wondered, based on admittedly slim evidence, whether or not Francisco Mancebo is planning a jump from Rock Racing to Caisse d’Epargne. Having not heard back yet from either team, we still don’t know for sure whether there’s any truth to the matter or not (though the folks from Rock & Republic did pay the site a visit before ignoring the request). What we do know as of this morning is that Caisse d’ Epargne doesn’t plan to start him in the Clasica San Sebastian either way – they’ve released their roster this morning. Mancebo has also been removed from the start list at as of mid-morning.

Still, doesn’t it seem strange that Mancebo’s name would appear on the start list of Eusebio Unzué’s squad entirely without rhyme or reason? Sure, there’s the fact that his full name is Francisco Mancebo Perez, and the team also boasts a Francisco Perez Sanchez, so I suppose that could cause confusion for someone quickly typing up a start list, especially for someone who has typed most riders' names dozens of times. The problem with that is that in the earlier version of the start list, both Mancebo Perez and Perez Sanchez were listed. (Perez remains listed in Caisse’s official roster of this morning.)

Also counting against the “innocent mistake” argument is the undeniably long and fruitful association between Mancebo and Unzué’s outfits. Mancebo turned professional in 2000 with Banesto, the team with which Unzué directed Miguel Indurain to five Tour de France and two Giro d’ Italia wins. Before that, the team was known as Reynolds, with which Pedro Delgado scored his Tour de France win. In that neo-pro season, Mancebo won the white jersey of the best young rider in the 2000 Tour de France, setting his countrymen to wondering whether he would be the next great Spanish GC hope. Mancebo didn’t turn out to be an overnight Tour candidate, but he followed up that neo-pro season with a number of quality wins, staying on with Unzué as the team morphed into, Illes Balears-Banesto, and finally to Illes Balears-Caisse d’ Epargne. He also made steady progress in his GC placings, capping off his time with Unzué with a personal best 4th place in the 2005 Tour de France and a 3rd place in the Vuelta a Espana.

Following that performance, Mancebo finally left Unzué’s squad (which would become Caisse d’Epargne in 2006) for Ag2r, where he wouldn’t have to compete with an ascendant Alejandro Valverde for team leadership. Shortly after, Mancebo’s number came up in the Operacion Puerto scandal, and he was subsequently prevented from starting the 2006 Tour de France. He announced his retirement from cycling, but mounted a return the following year with the Spanish second-tier Relax-GAM before sliding to the anonymous Fercase-Paredes squad in 2008. In 2009, he signed with the often troubled U.S. Rock Racing squad, where he raced alongside other Puerto refugees Oscar Sevilla and Tyler Hamilton. He’s achieved some reasonable results in that time, including making an impression in several Spanish appearances, but Rock Racing’s continental license doesn’t allow him to compete in the biggest events.

Now, reviewing that history, does it seem like a coincidence that Mancebo’s name would pop up under the Caisse d’ Epargne name? And, does it seem that far fetched to think that, given half a chance, Mancebo wouldn’t get on a flight tomorrow to go back home and ride for a ProTour team and the director who guided him to his biggest successes? The real question lies in what such a move would solve for Unzué.

Unzué’s current leader, Valverde, is already barred from racing in Italy due to his own connections to Operacion Puerto and is now facing the very real prospect of that ban being made international. So Unzué could try to hedge his bets by bringing in an experienced and familiar GC rider. However, should he return to European racing and regain some prominence, Mancebo’s alleged involvement in Operacion Puerto could land him in much the same boat as Valverde, though most non-Italians have seen fit to move on from Puerto at this point. Additionally, if Valverde is benched, Unzué already has some other viable options for getting big results in Joachim Rodriguez and Luis Leon Sanchez, both of whom are younger than Mancebo and haven’t been several years removed from top-flight racing. So as a Valverde-substitute, Mancebo doesn’t make the most sense at this point.

The other reason for bringing back Mancebo could relate to this week’s biggest rumor mill, namely the question over where Alberto Contador (Astana) may ride next year. Should Contador jump ship, he’ll want assurances of a team that can back him up, and Mancebo could add some value to Caisse as a potential support rider in the grand tours.

Taking all that into account, it looks as if, in the event that Mancebo does land back under Unzué’s wing, the reason is likely to be more personal than sporting. Regardless of the reasoning though, Mancebo still seems to have what it takes to hold his own in Europe, and could produce a few more profitable seasons under proven leadership.

[Note: If you've read this far, please do read the followup here.]

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009


What Now?

or, Mancebo to Caisse d' Epargne?

What now? That seems to be the question this time of year, as the road cycling world tries to get its post-Tour de France feet underneath it again. The tail end of the season sort of always feels like that – as if, having peaked already for the classics and then the Tour, the sport itself is now hunting for that elusive third peak. If it hits it, through an interesting Vuelta, a great Lombardia, or a nice, hard-fought World Championships road race, the sport goes into winter on a strong note. If not, it just sort of fizzles out, and hopes to get some rest and collect itself during what’s rapidly become a three-week off season.

Time will tell how this year’s third peak goes down, but the immediate “what now” is easy to spot – the Clasica San Sebastian, the first of the late-season classics is coming up on Saturday. (We’ll save the arguments over what makes a classic, and if San Sebastian qualifies for another time. Or have we already done that one?) Overall, the San Sebastian start list is looking like an attempt to wring the last bit of usefulness out of some pretty knackered Tour riders, and I suspect we’ll see a lot of last-minute withdrawals and substitutions before the gun goes off.

Right now, though, they have Contador, some Schlecks, Evans, damn near anyone and everyone who was expected to win a stage at the Tour, and some who even managed to pull it off. But to quote the excellent aviation documentary Airplane!, “that’s not important right now.” What is important, or at least passingly interesting, is that’s start list has Francisco Mancebo starting for Caisse D’Epargne. Which is weird, because he rides for Rock Racing in the United States.

You may remember Mancebo from his head-tilted riding posture, his breakout performance in Operacion Puerto, his subsequent retirement and unretirement, or, most recently, his second-place finish behind teammate and fellow Puerto exile Oscar Sevilla in Oregon’s Cascade Classic. Obviously, a rider of Mancebo’s European palmares still has connections in Spanish cycling, and riders pass through Rock Racing like fat guys through a fast food drive-thru -- desperate, short on cash, and sometimes several times in a single day. So jumping ship to Caisse, even at this strange point in the season wouldn’t be surprising in the least. It might not be legal, but we haven't looked into that part. Before we get too excited, though, according to the Clasica San Sebastian's own start list, Mancebo’s not starting for anyone, though they do have most of Katusha listed as Team Columbia, so despite what you’d think, they hardly seem to be the last word on the matter.

Anyway, I haven’t seen any formal announcement of the sudden transfer. Who knows, maybe the team not getting an invite to the Tour of Missouri was the final straw and Mancebo went looking for teams. Or maybe word of his Tour of California Stage 1 ride trickled back through the European peloton and the Caisse boys decided it’s time to bring him in from the cold. Or maybe it’s just a mistake on CN and it's not happening at all. But this is rumor season, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to get a piece of that action. If Mancebo's move is true, though, I have one more question – does Mancebo's departure mean another former pro/current club rider will get to step back up from the Rock Racing amateur squad? Because I think they'd totally enjoy that.

We've contacted both Rock Racing and Caisse d' Epargne for comment, but haven't received any comment at this point.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009


Hors Delay

Au soleil, sous la pluie, a midi ou a minuit
Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysees
- Joe Dassin, Les Champs Elysees

By now, the morning after a veritable army of French public servants have swept and sprayed the detritus of the 2009 Tour de France from the cobbles of the Champs Elysees, you’ve probably watched, read, and heard just about all you can stand about the race. Every angle of every stage has been analyzed, every alternative outcome dreamed up and debated, every quote taken out of context and scrutinized, every over-the-top paintjob and shiny new bauble photographed, measured, and spun. I know that I, for one, feel sort of overstuffed, like I’ve put on a protective and nourishing layer of cycling-coverage blubber to feed off of until the Giro di Lombardia in October, if not longer.

That said, I still have a need for closure, or maybe it's just the need to force dessert on already bursting dinner guests, I don’t know. So without further adieu, here’s the Service Course’s parting shots from the 2009 Tour de France:

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Friday, July 24, 2009



By now, they’re holding on by the barest of threads, hollow-eyed and jittery, discolored and discomforted by knotted stomachs, blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight. They are those journalists who have written so much, so exclusively, about cycling’s doping problems that the very topic has become their addiction, their habit. Devoid of a score this spring until Toni Colom was kind enough to give them a quick taste, they came to the Tour de France desperately in need of the big fix, and it’s no secret that the Tour is the biggest open-air market in town. But so far, the village has been dry of good dope, so now they’re hunting around for whatever they can get.

They descended on Monaco so hopefully, with their carefully packed works –laptop, recorder, camera – ready to pull out with shaking, eager fingers if one of their connections came good, relieving the sickness and bringing them back to life. But until that happened, the gear would stay tucked safely out of sight, clean and unused. And there it still sits, despite all the other newsworth things that have gone down. That’s because, despite the veritable three-ring circus around them, like any junkie they don’t notice a damn thing that can’t somehow be connected to the score. Those things they do notice – the exceptional performance, the breakout ride, the sudden illness – will be set in that context, one that doesn’t for a second consider careful training, undiscovered talent, or hard luck, but concerns itself only with an ever-present, all-encompassing underworld where deception is the rule rather than the exception.

Ah, junkies, to be sure. Which is not to say they have no point, no purpose or no value. William Burroughs, after all, was a proud and self-confessed junkie, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t produce some groundbreaking work on the object of his addiction. So have those most famous of cycling journalism’s dope addicts – Walsh, Ballester, Kimmage, and now Lemond – produced noteworthy work on their obsession. Yet, for any number of reasons, they’re either disregarded as nutters or hailed as infallible bastions of the one, true word. As with most things, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.

Yes, they sometimes seem to have an irrational tenacity and preformed conclusions that can quickly erode their credibility. Despite those issues, however, they’ve also done some informed work that can’t be ignored simply because of their own dogged pursuit of the topic. But I’m not interested in writing some endorsement or refutation of any of their work – everybody will pretty much take what they need from it and leave the rest, anyways. I’m more interested in the how and why of journalists and former riders turning into tunnel-vision dope addicts. There are a multitude of personal reasons it can happen, of course – Kimmage’s drive seems to come from the ugliness he perceived firsthand as a rider, Walsh often cites a fundamental need for honesty embodied by his late son, Lemond seems to need continual reassurance that he was as good a rider as he believes, and Ballester, driven from a top cycling spot at L’Equipe over his pursuit of the dope issue, seemingly needs to convince himself and everyone that he was right to pursue it.

All of those are good enough reasons, I suppose, but I’m more interested in the more broadly applicable and much simpler reason that will be coming into play right now, as writers seek the right phrases to sum up the 2009 Tour de France: fear. I believe that most journalists, good ones, anyway, have an innate fear of being wrong. They dread the moment they received that “Aha!” email, letter, or phone call, telling them that yesterday’s story is wrong, erroneous, a sham, despite all the work they put into researching and writing it. They’re terrified of that one, unknown-to-them fact that might emerge just after the presses roll, changing the entire plotline, turning their story upside down, making a mockery of what they thought was the truth they were reporting. They fear looking stupid, or incompetent, or naive. That sort of fear can be positive -- it can drive hard and careful work; it can also be crippling.

For journalists covering cycling, that killer fact looming just over the horizon happens to be a little less of an unknown than is typical, and the “known unknown” of the doping spectre will have a chilling effect on some of the writing used to describe this Tour de France and its seemingly inevitable winner. Few will stray too far in their praise for him, his performances, and for those of his most vigorous challengers. And that known unknown will, as always, have a downright cynical effect on the writings of the dope junkies, who, until the cold, hard positive dope test they’re pining for comes down the pike, will have to content themselves with a simple, “it can’t be true.” It’s unfortunate, if understandable, that nothing that’s seen in cycling can be admired, believed, or even accepted, simply because the minute that test comes back from the UCI, anyone who’s put their admiration of a hard attack on paper or been impressed by a good time trial will feel they’ve been played for a fool.

But if you only write about the dope, and how it’s everywhere and everyone is doing it and nothing can be trusted, you avoid all that fear. Writing those articles is a safe bet – people may think you’re a little single-minded and fairly paranoid, but it’ll be very, very hard to ever prove you wrong. So the message becomes, “He’s doping, and you’re just all too foolish to see it. They just haven’t caught him yet.” Many times, nothing ever confirms the declarations of suspicion, leaving the “haven’t caught him yet” to quietly cover the writers' reputations in perpetuity. But on those occasions when the proof comes in a positive test, they’ll be right there with the “I told you so. How could you have believed?” The beauty is that you can keep that act up as long as you want to. Nobody, after all, is ever truly proven clean – at best, they’ve just “never tested positive.”

The fact that I’m pointing out these fears in no way means I’m immune to them – I fear the “gotcha” as much as anyone else. But I’m also steadfastly trying not to give into that fear. I’m not blind to the problems in the sport, but I refuse to let them consume every moment I watch it. I could take the guarded approach, or the cynical one, and view everything I see through that lens. It’s tempting at times. But then I realize that if I did, I’d never be wrong, but I wouldn’t enjoy the sport very much, either. So for me, I'll write what I see and think, and I'll somewhat grudgingly place my faith in the testing process. It's not a perfect approach, but it beats the alternative.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009


The Bitch(ing) is Back

In the end, the great Astana “all-behind-Alberto” unification lasted all of three days, Monday’s rest day included. And once again, the team’s young star and current race leader is drawing his team’s ire for racing his bike to win.

On yesterday’s Stage 17 to Le Grand Bornand, Contador found himself in an elite four-man group along with the brothers Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Astana teammate Andreas Kloden. Out of that two-on-two matchup, Contador had the nerve to attack with two kilometers remaining on the final climb, presumably in an attempt to gain more than the two minutes worth of padding that separated him from the other GC contenders. Contador’s brief acceleration unshipped Kloden, which (despite the fact that Contador gained time over Brad Wiggins, increased his overall lead, and finished together with his other main extra-team rivals) was enough to set the Astana chapter of the U.S. Postal Alumni Association a-grumbling to anyone who would listen.

No sooner had the Astana boys settled in for their massages than Armstrong was Twittering snarky messages about being allegedly vexed by the move: “Getting lots of question why AC attacked and dropped Kloden. I still haven't figured it out either. Oh well.” Not to be outdone, DS Johan Bruyneel wasted no time in airing the team’s dirty laundry, telling reporters that he told Contador not to attack, but that he did anyway.

For what it’s worth, Contador told a slightly different story, noting that he checked with Bruyneel on whether or not to attack, and Bruyneel told him to ask Kloden, who gave the green light. (Kloden, for his part, comes off looking the best for simply saying nothing at all.) Now, I’m not claiming Contador’s was the most brilliant move, since it ultimately left him isolated against two Saxo Bank riders (though there was little they could have accomplished at that point, and from the looks of it, Kloden wasn't likely to be much help). No, the move wasn't without its problems, but the problems with his team’s reactions to it are far more serious.

Problem 1: No Manners

What happened to even the barest semblance of being on the same team? Of sticking up for your guy, or at least not tearing him down in public? You don’t do it because you like him, or because you’re friends, or even because you want him to win – you do it because you’re on the same team, and right now, it’s supposed to be your team versus the rest of them. It’s part of the job you get paid to do, and part of being a professional is keeping gripes you have about your teammates internal, not airing them to the media or taking them directly to your fans. Everyone slips up on that now and then, but none seem to do so as regularly, pointedly, and maliciously as Astana. For a group that’s rattled on so much about respect over the years, they’re showing precious little of it now that someone else is deserving of it.

Problem 2: Not Reading the Job Descriptions

They’re mad at the race leader for dropping his domestiques? Are we really making this argument again? Listen, Kloden is a high-functioning domestique, but make no mistake, when he’s riding with Contador or Armstrong, that’s his role. Getting dropped is what domestiques are there for, and we have to get over this notion that Contador should be waiting for his at every fork in the road. You don’t hear anyone complaining about how Mark Cavendish (Columbia) rudely dumps Mark Renshaw at the finish of every sprint. Or how Armstrong should have waited up for little Ty-Ty in all those early Tour de France wins. Complaining that your leader, in the yellow jersey, is making it too tough for the help to keep up is like complaining about the Apollo capsule dropping the Saturn V rocket on the way to the moon. It’s absurd.

Problem 3: The Podium Sweep Delusion

Bruyneel’s criticism of Contador (this time) largely consisted of the questionable assertion that Contador ruined the team’s chance at a podium sweep by dropping Kloden before the Schlecks got a chance to. Let’s start with the fact that regardless of how tight a leash they manage to put on Contador, that just wasn’t going to happen. While he’s rapidly proving himself to be the most professional guy in the Astana outfit, Kloden isn’t going to go anywhere in the mountains without a Schleck or two getting there two minutes before him, all things being equal. Yes, the man can time trial, and the Schlecks are indeed kind of terrible at it, but after the Annecy time trial the Schlecks still have the Ventoux to take what they need out of Kloden, and they’ll have the advantage of not having to haul Armstrong up the mountain. And even if Kloden gets the job done while serving both Contador and Armstrong, the sweep scenario still assumes that Armstrong can also get the job done, which is still up in the air after a few hard days in the mountains. If he can't, will that be Contador’s fault, too?

In addition to being a plan destined to fail, screwing around trying to execute the podium sweep delusion could potentially cost the team the outright victory. Look, typically there isn’t much I can tell a director who’s won 12 or so grand tours, but today is an exception to that. So to Bruyneel, I say this: don’t get cute. Yes, I know you’re Belgian, so you probably get cold sweats just thinking about those podium-sweep finishes that Patrick Lefevere used to engineer in the northern classics. But this is the Tour, not the classics, and there are a lot more competing goals in the Tour that could roll right in and make a mess of your carefully orchestrated plan. And regardless of the reputation you’ve forged and all you've accomplished, there is really only so much you can plan for and control, so you better focus on the primary goal.

In his efforts to keep all his ducks lined up neatly in a row, Bruyneel is in danger of ignoring the need to solidify Contador’s less-than-secure margin and blowing the whole thing. At the start of yesterday’s stage, Contador sat 1:46 ahead of Wiggins and 2:26 ahead of Andy Schleck. Two minutes is forgetting to drink in today’s time trial. Two minutes is a bit of inattention on Friday’s transitional stage. Two minutes is a bad patch on Saturday’s Ventoux. It would be a real shame to sacrifice the final yellow jersey because you held Contador back in order to set Armstrong and Kloden up for the podium.

There’s one final disconcerting element to Bruyneel’s sweep idea: if he’s really so confident of his own abilities and those of his aging riders that he thinks he can successfully stage-manage a 1-2-3 finish in the midst of the biggest crapshoot finale the Tour de France has ever seen, he’s truly gone around the bend. But I don’t really think he has. With the announcements of new teams and sponsors, Armstrong at the Tour in 2010, Bruyneel’s separation from Astana, and the rumors of Contador’s Formula One sugar daddy, I think Bruyneel’s just starting next year’s round of screwing with Contador a bit early. I also think he knows damn well he couldn’t have a podium sweep, but that’s not going to stop him from blaming Contador for ruining it.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009


What's Up, Doc?

If you’re like many Americans my age, your initial image of the Alps, and of the Saint Bernard region and its associated dog breed in particular, was formed by Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Pepe Le Pew, Elmer Fudd and the like. In those documentaries, clever heroes and hapless villains wearing feathered green felt hats were constantly buried in ill-timed avalanches, only to be thawed out by a Saint Bernard with a cask of brandy strapped under its chin. Occasionally, having sampled the goods en route, the dog was already drunk and hiccupping by the time he arrived to make the rescue, leaving only a single drop brandy for the frozen victim. There was usually some sort of yodeling or an alpenhorn involved, too. You know – quality children’s entertainment.

Kids’ cartoons have gone steadily downhill in the intervening years, and now they’re a half hour long, computer animated, and find less hilarity in attempted homicide, drunkenness, and bombings than they did back then. Over that same time period, my interest in cycling and subsequent Tour de France and Giro d’ Italia viewing have changed that early impression of the Alps somewhat. Now, when I think of the Alps, I think of summer instead of snow, pop-top VW campers instead of skis, and semi-malicious, sweaty drunks instead of kindly-if-overindulgent rescue dogs.

Every once in awhile, though, the Tour does give me flashbacks to those early Looney Tunes impressions of the Alps, like when riders who look like Elmer Fudd are competing, when people get shot to no lasting effect, or when, on Monday, they awarded Alberto Contador (Astana) an actual living Saint Bernard. Yesterday’s Stage 16 from Martigny to Bourg-Saint-Maurice had an air of Looney Tunes about it as well, in that a bunch of things happened, some of the action was frantic, some people were harassed, some were hurt, and in the end, everything was pretty much right back where it started. So, let’s all picture Levi Leipheimer tootling on an alpenhorn as we go over yesterday’s madcap action.

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Monday, July 20, 2009


After the Flood

For weeks it’s been a struggle to identify what’s been interesting in this Tour de France, and now, after three short days, we’re left such an abundance of material it’s hard to know where to start. However, after witnessing, and indeed participating in the chorus of fan griping about this year’s signature Delayed Gratification route, I’m not going to risk drawing that sort of heat. So we’ll start with yesterday’s splashy stage to Verbiers, and work our way back to Friday’s fairly uneventful stage to Colmar. That way, this post can mirror the Tour de France we’ve all wanted – one that starts with all sorts of sound and fury, then gradually fizzles out until nobody really cares how it ends, only that it does.

Race Radio

Stage 15 to Verbiers

Enough about all that though. As I said, the fact that Armstrong couldn’t match Contador and some others yesterday isn’t terribly surprising to anyone who didn’t have their head up their ass. How did everyone else do?

Stage 14 to Bescanon

Stage 13 to Colmar

Thanks for reading – I think the lesson I’ve learned this year is that I can’t take the weekends off during the Tour de France. On a weekend like this past one, there’s just too much to catch up with come Monday to do it justice, but hey, we gave it a shot. Now that I’m caught up, though, I’m looking forward to seeing if the sting in the tail of this Tour will make all the waiting of the last few weeks worth it.

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Friday, July 17, 2009


Some Nerve

You know how there are some days on the Tour, like this past Tuesday, where even though it’s not really a rest day, everyone’s tired and sort of just soft-pedals it anyway? That’s kind of how I’m feeling at this point in the Tour – a little stiff, a little drowsy, and not quite feeling it. Besides, with a rain and wind scheduled for an already tough stage through the Vosges today, shouldn’t we all be resting up?

But we still have to keep up with the race, don’t we, and Thursday’s Stage 12 turned out to be a pretty good one, with Nicki Sorensen (Saxo Bank) taking the win from the long break. Sorensen put on a clinic in smart riding and good, if unconventional timing. He cut the lead group of seven down to a more nimble two – himself and Sylvain Calzati (Agritubel) – as the race hit the final 20 kilometers into the finish. Earlier than most would expect, but it certainly never looked like he didn’t have the legs to pull it off. He was also smart enough to realize with 5 kilometers to go that Calzati was becoming dead weight and got rid of him before Calzati could accidentally drag them both back into the chase. But you’ve either watched the stage on TV or read about all that by now.

What I thought was interesting was the message that Columbia sent on Stage 12. As they again faced other teams’ unwillingness to help run down the break(only to be mugged by Mark Cavendish at the line), Columbia gave an ultimatum of sorts: put your men in the chase, or we’ll leave the move out there and your sprinter will have no chance at all. They had vocalized and demonstrated the sentiment earlier in the Tour, notably on Stage 3, but today the team showed just how strong their will was. As the break rolled closer and closer to the finish, all eyes were on the boys in yellow and white, waiting for them to acquiesce, get to the front, and do what everyone expected them to.

But they didn’t. And neither did anyone else. And while Cavendish didn’t win, neither did Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Danielle Bennati (Liquigas), or Tyler Farrar (Garmin). Sure, sprinting against Cav is a tough proposition, but your odds of winning are still better sprinting against him than if there’s a break up the road. More importantly, all of those guys could use the win more than Cavendish and Columbia, and there’s precious few stages left to do it in.

That all got me wondering if there’s a dual purpose in the other teams’ willingness to play an increasingly intense and self-destructive game of chicken to get Columbia on the front. Obviously, if you can wear out their team day after day, there’s a better chance they’ll either slow down or make a mistake in a finale, coughing up a sprint stage win in the process. But as we noted yesterday, Columbia has a number of dangerous riders serving as Cavendish’s leadout men rather than of an anonymous crew of drones who you’ll never need to deal with on other stages. So, if you can con them into working harder on Cavendish’s behalf, there’s a better chance of wearing out guys like white jersey-holder Tony Martin, or guys who could pick up a mid-mountain or transitional stage, like Kim Kirchen, George Hincapie, or Maxime Monfort. Basically, if you can force Columbia to the front, it’s a twofer – increase your chances of beating Cavendish, and wear out the rest of their team for the stages where Cavendish won’t be a factor. Of course, since Columbia has already mopped up four stage wins, they’re holding a better hand than most teams, and as they demonstrated today, they’re not in a position to be pushed around.

Race Radio

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Thursday, July 16, 2009


Repetition is the Mother of Learning

Repetition is the mother of learning. That’s what my Russian teacher used to say when he made us repeat basic phrases again, and again, and again. Except he said it in Russian. I don’t speak any Russian anymore, and I’m betting Mark Cavendish (Columbia) doesn’t either, but that’s not stopping him from using repetition to teach his competitors a lasting lesson or two. The first lesson, already driven home by the time Wednesday’s stage rolled out, is that he is undoubtedly the dominant sprinter of the season. The second lesson, reinforced yet again by his Stage 11 victory, is that he’s no longer the guy who goes shooting backwards whenever there’s any sort of elevation gain.

It’s a popular theory, of course, the one that says that any hill in a key spot will be Cavendish’s undoing, his Achilles heel. It does have some basis in the history of his early career, and he’s certainly not a proven sprinter on uphill finishes like Oscar Freire (Rabobank), but the notion is becoming more and more dated as the season presses on. In Milan-San Remo, plenty doubted that he’d make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio, but he did, with flying colors, and won on the other side. That performance proved that he can get over the hills on the way to a flat sprint, but still, they wondered, could he actually sprint on an uphill?

Nobody seemed to really know coming into largely flat today’s stage from Vatan to Saint-Fargeau whether Cavendish’s legs could handle the incline. While few would flat-out bet against the man from Man, many sprinters were seeing the little rise to the line as the key to breaking the stranglehold Cavendish has held on the sprint stages. After all, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) and Freire had fought out the victory on the twisting uphill grind into Barcelona, where Cavendish was nowhere to be found. That performance spoke more to the versatility of that pair than the abilities of a pure sprinter, however, and Wednesday’s finish was nowhere near as extreme. Deep down, I’m sure they knew their chances on Stage 11 were still slim, but when you’re being manhandled the way the other sprinters have this Tour, you have to try to find hope where you can get it. A little bit of that hope must have died when Cavendish timed it all right and took his fourth stage win – on the uphill.

Despite all that, I have no doubt that the next time there’s a stage with a little hill near the finish, or with a haul to the line that’s not billiard table flat, the “Cavendish can’t go up” idea will emerge again. Sometimes, it takes a few repetitions to really get it.

Today’s sprint also showed that, while much is made of Cavendish’s kick, his elbows are pretty good, too. Hushovd was kind enough to leave Cavendish a little room as he came around, but Cavendish bought himself a few more inches with a well-timed bump just as he began to move out of Renshaw’s shadow. Considering the difference in mass between the two riders, Hushovd seemed surprisingly willing to yield the space, and I’m surprised he didn’t work a little harder to box Cavendish in behind Renshaw and against the fence.

That said, if Hushovd had pinched Cavendish off, I still don’t think he would have won the stage. In the finale, Tyler Farrar (Garmin) easily came around Hushovd, despite the fact that he had to practically ride sideways as the sprint began to get around a fanned-out Renshaw-Cavendish-Hushovd line. That took him to the left side of the road, just as the road took the last right-hand bend, leaving Farrar to ride all the way back across the road to make the turn. If you reduced the number of riders he had to ride around by even one, the reduction in side-to-side riding distance might have been enough to finally get Farrar across the line first. Unfortunately for him, that’s just me speculating, and not what actually happened. Even without a win, though, this Tour has been a breakout for Farrar.

Race Radio

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Clockwork and Clock-Watchers

Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) delivered another sprint win today, but that faint noise you heard wasn’t the tick, tick, tick of his clockwork reliability in the sprints. It was the click, click, click of fans changing the channel or moving on to the next Web site out of absolute, mind-numbing boredom. With any luck, a few of them will tune back in by the time the race hits the Alps in a week’s time.

Viewed in isolation, Tuesday’s Stage 10 was just one of those things that happens in almost every grand tour, that day when nobody feels like racing and other motivations, like GC, are lacking. Granted, a decent portion of the peloton had a bit of a bee in their bonnets about the ASO/UCI team radio ban, but word was that there was no coordinated slow-down in place. And if you’re protesting but won’t admit it, it’s not a terribly effective protest. Regardless of motivation, yesterday’s stage was one of those that makes you question your will to live, or at least your will to watch bicycle racing on television. It happens.

But in the context of this tour, Stage 10 may just be the straw that broke the camel’s back for fans who were on the fence about whether they wanted to follow the race closely or not. Faced with a GC battle that’s gone nearly nowhere for the entire first half of the race, fans had just about convinced themselves that they could seek solace in enjoying the individual stages. Until yesterday. The fact is, individual stages will never hold the excitement of a one-day race, because, well, there’s always tomorrow to try again, and the long-term motivations of a grand tour will always continue to influence – and often deaden – the action on the road. The really troubling thing about yesterday’s stage, though, is that the race isn’t likely to get much better until the race hits the Alps next Tuesday, and another week of rolling around, even considering what could be some decent transitional stages, is a bit too long. Sure, this Tour’s final week could be a real barn-burner, but will anyone still be awake to notice the flames?

There will be, of course, those that claim yesterday’s action, or inaction, was not just a normal, slow day, but rather the result of the decision to suspend use of team radios for the day. They’ll argue that since teams had slower access to information, they gave the break almost no leash in order to play things safe, and that this, surely, will be the shape of things to go if radios are eliminated for good. But those people would be wrong.

A single-day experiment like yesterday’s, particularly on a flat stage with no natural selection points, was just something to be endured, not any indication of what would happen if radios were permanently eliminated. Teams could just sit in and relax, keep the break close, and play it safe, secure in the knowledge that everything would be back to normal tomorrow. Like I said yesterday, if radios axed for good, racing would undergo an uncomfortable adjustment period, where many races could indeed look like yesterday’s. But after that, after everyone realizes that only sprinters will win if the break never goes away (and only a few teams have sprinters that can win), after they realize that riding to keep the race together over hilly terrain will kill everyone by the 80th kilometer, and after they realize that fans will only tolerate slow racing for so long, the sport will adapt. After all, 20 years ago, there was some good, tactical racing, and despite the absence of radios, they never decided to just all hang out together and keep it at 38 kilometers per hour. Once riders are used to racing without radios, with the slightly different techniques and tactics that requires, they’ll go back to racing again.

Race Radio

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Radio Clash

Apparently, Astana has involved itself in the team radio controversy by organizing a petition against the Tour’s plan to ban team radios on several upcoming stages. Can Astana stand to just stay out of anything? And a petition? Are we in junior high? Are you trying to get teachers to give less homework? Fighting for better food in the cafeteria? For god’s sake, we’re adults – go talk to people instead of having all your friends sign some grimy piece of notebook paper.

Anyway, none of that matters, because you’ll be delighted to know that the Service Course has solved the great professional cycling radio controversy. Don't worry, I don’t suggest going without radios altogether. As the team directors howl every time the debate resurfaces, street furniture has proliferated throughout Europe since the dawn of the team radio age, and the radios are a valuable way to warn riders of approaching hazards. The directors, desperate to keep their voices buzzing in the ears of their charges, have latched onto that “safety” aspect as the most effective argument in favor of keeping radio use intact, but frankly, I just don't see why it has to be the dulcet tones of Brian Holm, Johan Bruyneel, or Matt White telling you there’s a traffic island or a roundabout coming in four kilometers.

So, let the riders keep their receivers and earpieces, but have some neutral party from the race organization or the UCI broadcast information about breaks, gaps, course conditions, and any hazards to all the riders. After all, the directors are either repeating that information from race radio or reading it out of the race bible anyway. It's not exactly a trade secret. By going to neutral safety and race updates, we can get the directors sportif out of the riders' ears and have more interesting, less calculated racing, but still avoid the risk of half the peloton splattered on the statue of some obscure archduke as they plow their way through town. (Additional hollow selling point: “It’s more fair, since everyone has exactly the same information!” Thank me later, UCI.)

Yes, as the directors rightly argue, it probably is a little more dangerous for riders to drop back to the cars to get periodic instructions rather than simply having them beamed directly into their frontal lobes. But when those same directors aren’t constantly watching TV and fiddling with the radio mic, the caravan will be a much safer place, so maybe it all evens out. And when the riders ditch the radios and earpieces for the UCI Broadcasting Service after a few months, you’ll know it was never really about safety, anyway.

Listen, despite my griping about Astana and their petition, I do agree that the decision to ban radios for two stages of the Tour, including today’s stage, is a little silly. As usual, the UCI is demonstrating a dangerous inability to make and enforce a consistent set of rules. As the international governing body, that means deciding on one set of rules that are applied to each event – in this case, radios or no radios – not abdicating again and again to the discretion or whims of individual organizers.

I think that, whatever the ultimate decision on radios is, teams, riders, and racing will adapt. But if the rules change every weekend depending on the race, that adaptation will never occur, which will make races both with and without radios more dangerous. ASO’s decision for this year’s Tour de France – to have two sets of rules during a single event – takes that lack of consistency to even greater heights and, in that context, smacks of gimmickry. The directors are right to question the decision to conduct this experiment at the Tour, even if their chosen argument in favor of keeping radio contact with their riders is easily addressed in other ways. Hopefully, once the teams are done settling the immediate issue, they’ll realize that what’s needed is a broader and lasting solution to the issue, and work to steer the UCI away from its piecemeal and deferential approach. I like my solution, but really, I’ll settle for almost any outcome that’s fairly and consistently applied.

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