Monday, July 26, 2010


Raceable Moments

Educators have a concept they call “teachable moments” –when classroom discussion takes an unexpected turn that the teacher can use to teach students about something they’re genuinely interested in. By definition, teachable moments aren’t a part of the lesson plan, and they’re not an everyday thing, but they’re an important, flexible element of an educational system that’s become increasingly rigid with the current addiction to standardized testing.

Bicycle stage racing’s become a little bit like education over the past few decades. Grand tours that used to be widely variable three-week brawls have become standardized tests, with GC contenders staying within well-established parameters for success: take time in the high mountains and in the time trials. Attack late on the last climb of the day. Race for maybe 200 kilometers, sit behind the team for the other 3,000.

But, just like education’s teachable moments, under the right circumstances, stage racing can still present opportunities for beneficial improvisation, raceable moments when GC riders have a chance to do something outside of the usual curriculum. Something that adds value and depth to the race. And I think that’s what made the 2010 Tour better than the last several editions – it presented more potential raceable moments. Some were ultimately seized and exploited, like Contador’s attack on the final climb to Mende, or Cancellara and Schleck’s rampage through the Stage 3 cobbles. Other chances, like Stage 2’s lumpy trip through the Ardennes, were passed over, but the route at least tempted GC riders to come out and play with nary a high mountain or disc wheel in sight.

It was still a far cry from the 1970s, when Merckx and the other giants of the road would occasionally club each other senseless on stages that modern GC contenders are content to leave to sprinters and breakaway artists. Racing has changed enough, and the fields are so much deeper now, that we’re unlikely to ever regain those days. But with thoughtful, innovative route planning, we can take small steps back in that direction.

In terms of raceable moments, this Tour also wasn’t yet on par with the Giri d’Italia of the last several years, which have taken GC battles to new modern-day highs with a mix of challenges, from creative mid-mountain days to throwback-length time trials. But the Tour is getting there. Last year’s tinkerings, concentrating the action in the final week at the near-total expense of the first 14 days of the race, demonstrated a well-meaning interest in shaking things up; it just didn’t work out terribly well in practice. This year, things worked out a little better, even if there was still heated debate over what, exactly, belongs in a grand tour.

After a predictable decade or two, ASO is finally starting to break the Tour out of its mold. If we’re lucky, the GC riders will follow.


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As one who arrived only just before the Tour, be assured I am now hooked. Despite being a bit of a Lance fan I totally respect your well expressed point of view despite at times disagreeing with it. As they say, the truth is bigger than all of us. Keep up the great work. Cheers, Oli
Thanks for the wonderful comments and for taking time out of your life to share them with us. One quick question that I'm not seeing many comments about: what happened to Levi in the last week? Some commented on the fact that Horner and Armstrong left him alone on the final mountain stage, but I think his relatively poor performance (at least for him) in the final TT is more concerning for Levi fans. Thoughts?
I'm not sure SRAM is too excited. Lenard Zinn seemed to imply that Schleck's dropped chain was a result of the SRAM design. At least that is my take-away but I found the explanation hard to follow so I might be mistaken.
I found the whole jersey thing distasteful as well. Armstrong owns yellow and cancer in much the same way that the Susan B. Komen foundation owns pink and breast cancer. There is something off-putting (to me) on how these organizations play on the victim mentality. People die for all kinds of untimely, unlucky and (sometimes) preventable reasons, but somehow cancer occupies this special niche. I feel like the amount of money that gets poured into this disease is out of proportion with it's actual occurrence and seriousness. It's not about fighting cancer, it's about giving people a cathartic experience (a la pink-festooned 3 day Walks for the Cure.)

When talking about the tour with my cycling coach, he made the comment, "They finally rode like they were human. Or at least more human." Implying that he thought there was less doping going on. I don't follow professional cycling enough to know either way.
Chapeau, mon homme. Well done.

Not sure I'm in step with the opinions on RS jersey change. Didn't Cippo and his team used to change uniforms all the time and merely be fined? Seems to me that the UCI was flexing a bit. That said, when denied, RS could have been more gracious.
Oli – Just when it seemed like the time when reasonable people could disagree had passed!

Kevin – Not sure what to think about Levi. On one hand, he really didn’t get any of the support TRS occasionally alluded to, but on the other, I have a feeling he knew the most he could expect would be a free hand for himself. I did think he’d fare better than he did in the final TT, but like all those guys, he’s not getting any younger, and in a three-week race, that hurts.

SP – You can make it through those Zinn things? Yeah, certainly not the best product placement of the year. Despite all the deep technical theories out there though, most people seem to be blowing it off with a “you can’t shift under load like that,” so maybe it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I think the current standard bearers for “as bad as it could have been” are the Mavic R-SYS failures of a couple years ago.

Lindsey – Re: marketing of catharses, agree. Re: Racing and doping and all that stuff, yeah, there seems to be some cautiously optimistic feeling out there that people weren’t quite so superhuman this year. I hope that’s the case. But people have been burned so many times before (remember people referring to 1999 as the Tour of Redemption?), I don’t know that you’ll hear anyone shouting it from the rooftops.

Big Mikey – The Cipo antics were legendary. I can think of at least three specific, team-wide jersey change occasions with Saeco: the green “Peace in Northern Ireland” version, the white and gold Caesar’s birthday version, and the striped “Legalize My Cannondale” version (which was after Cipo departed the team). I know the Peace version was worn in competition, and may have been approved. I don’t think the Caesar version ever saw competition, possibly under penalty of expulsion, but I’m not sure. Legalize My Cannondale were definitely used in competition, but I don’t know what the penalty was, if any. Cipollini also had all the other skinsuits that he got dinged for, but those weren’t team-wide.

I agree with you that the UCI was flexing and could have just fined TRS, given the fine money to cancer (as they are doing now), and come out smelling like a rose. And that TRS, when confronted, could have just said, “OK, sorry” and had a bit more crowd sympathy on its side. But in this particular matchup, I’m far from shocked that both parties have managed to come off looking like jerks.
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