Tuesday, April 24, 2012
The Schlecks are off form, so is Gilbert, and Fleche Wallonne as currently structured is doomed to three minutes of sincere action. Among other things, that’s what the 2012 Ardennes classics revealed, though none of that was really news. But what the three Ardennes winners and their teams did highlight is just how much one aspect of cycling, driven by external political and economic forces, has reversed itself in the last two decades or so.
At the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, a wave of riders old and young poured out of Soviet-controlled eastern Europe and central Asia through an increasing number of holes in the iron curtain. They experienced a great deal of success, mostly on Italian teams, though there were notable exceptions. In Italy, the red-and-white striped Alfa Lum team was the tip of the spear. Faced with the wholesale departure of its Italian riders after the 1988 season, which ended with Maurizio Fondriest winning the world title and leaving for Del Tongo, Alfa Lum management rebuilt for 1989 by importing a cadre of 15 Soviet riders.
- Yes, Astana has also notably won the Tour with Alberto Contador and employed Lance Armstrong, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer and Johan Bruyneel’s other standard cast of characters. I’m more-or-less disregarding that above, as that came at a time of such dope and funding related upheaval that it makes little sense in any greater context. With those collaborations behind it, the current Astana is much more true to the vision of its owners.
- Exciting news seems to be brewing for the Service Course on the writing-about-cycling front. Being superstitious, I’ll make sure everything’s locked down before I say more.
Friday, April 13, 2012
The Ardennes classics, which kick off this year with the Amstel Gold on Sunday,* are the third stage in understanding professional road cycling.
The grand tours, and the Tour de France in particular, are cycling’s window dressing, the defacto gateways to the sport.** They're what makes the papers and sometimes TV, even in those non-traditional cycling countries the UCI's always making eyes at. From those first Tour experiences, those seeking deeper cycling fandom tend to reach toward the cobbled classics, a sort of sensory antidote to the near-unbearable beauty and sunshine of the grand tour Alpine idyll. Often cold, tinged with grey, always brutal, and run on roads that have sometimes been un-paved rather than re-paved in anticipation, they introduce many of the sport’s rougher truths, not least that of lost time that must be reclaimed immediately, not in tomorrow’s mountains or next week’s time trial. There is an appealing coarseness and urgency that comes with the cobbles, and with it a sense of appreciating beauty in something ugly and subtle that most people don’t understand. I imagine it is something like what boxing fans feel.
But appreciating the Ardennes classics? That comes later, if at all. At least over here. La Doyenne though she may be, Liege-Bastogne-Liege probably hasn’t been the lure that hooked many new cycling fans, at least not those who didn’t spend their childhoods in the wooded hills of Limburg or Wallonia. The optics, as they say, just aren’t as good as the grand tours or the stones. There’s no readily apparent sense of violence in the Ardennes, and no serialized drama to replace it. No special or one-off equipment, few behind-the-scenes photo galleries or Scandinavian documentaries to be had. No carefully orchestrated new product releases. No win-a-bike-and-a-trip sweepstakes, no co-branded bike shop promotions. Just bike racing. No tricks, no frills, no gimmicks.
But for those who stay long enough to embrace them, the Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (along with the less conveniently packaged Milan-San Remo, Giro di Lombardia, and Paris-Tours) have a lot to teach. After mapping the grand tours and cobbled classics, the tarmac classics are the crucial third point in the triangulation needed to navigate the world of bicycle road racing. They defy the generalizations and dispel the misconceptions the cobbles and tours create and which, left undisturbed, could easily decompose into accepted fact.
They teach that Belgian classics don’t all have cobbles, and that Flemish and Belgian aren’t synonyms, even in bike racing. That the classics and the northern classics aren’t interchangeable. That classics specialist doesn’t necessarily mean cobbled classics specialist. That general classification riders are capable of riding races that only last a day. That they can even win them. That there is a whole breed of classics specialist that Tour fans probably only know as stage hunters. That what it takes to ride 260k of shorter cobbled hills can take something different than riding 260k of longer paved hills. But not always. That climbers can win classics. So can sprinters. So can rouleurs. That Michele Bartoli and Paolo Bettini and Claude Criquielion are mentioned among the greats for a reason. That former eastern bloc riders do have a specialty if you look hard enough. That you don’t need bad roads or mountains to create tension and excitement.
The list goes on, so pay attention this week, even as you try to shake off the Holy Week hangover. The Ardennes races and the other tarmac classics (yes, even San Sebastian) give us the beautiful rebukes to all the sport’s oversimplifications. They provide a disproportionate number of cycling's excepts and buts and thoughs – he was only ever a GC rider but...a cobbled specialist except…couldn’t climb, though… – and knowing them is, somewhat paradoxically, the key to both winning trivia contests and understanding the sport more deeply.
* Yes, I’m using “Ardennes classics” to cover Amstel Gold, too, even though the traditional “Ardennes week” was only Fleche and Liege. Let’s not get technical.
**In a way (specifically, in a way that conveniently excludes consideration of money, influence, and promotion), it’s surprising that people come to the sport through the grand tours, because they’re about the most complex interpretation of road racing imaginable. And frankly, they lead a lot of new fans to overthink everything they see in the sport from then on.
Thursday, April 05, 2012
At the conclusion of Wednesday’s rain-soaked Grote Scheldeprijs race outside Antwerp, several riders hit the slick pavement just beyond the finish line. Saxo Bank's Jonathan Cantwell collided with photographer Taz Darling of Rouleur magazine, who suffered, at last report, a fractured eye socket, ruptured spleen, and a broken collarbone. Cantwell suffered a punctured lung, while the other riders involved got off more lightly.
Of all sports, cycling has one of the more intimate relationships with the weather. Unsheltered by stadiums, without rain delays and tarps, without a clock to expire and locker rooms to retreat to, road racing is exposed to the sun, wind, and precipitation like no other competitive sport. Riders survive bad weather, maybe even use it to their advantage; as fans, we embrace it.
Bad weather has been the catalyst for many of the sport’s fondest memories – Breukink and Hampsten on the Gavia in 1988, Hinault at Liege in 1980, Museeuw at the 2002 Roubaix, Evans’s strade bianche ride in the 2010 Giro d’ Italia. But those moments often come at a peril that is often under-recognized, even though part of their very value is in the danger, the risks the athletes take in pursuing victory despite the circumstances. The Scheldeprijs incident highlighted that risk, and Darling’s injury illuminated how the sport's dangers can sometimes extend beyond the riders and even beyond the finish line.
What can we do to reduce the risks? In many cases, nothing. As any U.S. amateur racer has been warned by countless pre-race releases, "bicycle racing is an inherently dangerous sport." Most so for the riders, but occasionally and unexpectedly so for support staff, media, organizers, and spectators. Darling’s injuries demonstrate that today, but there are examples to be had every year: the motorcycle crashes that punctuated last year’s snow-plagued Tour of California, the various deadly incidents that marred the long history of the Tour de France. To try to write rules around every possible circumstance that could be encountered on the open road, if this, do that, to try to bubble-wrap one of the last great daring adventures in organized sport, would hamstring races and do the sport a disservice. Rigid regulatory frameworks and road cycling have always been a poor fit.
What we need to do is encourage people – organizers, officials, teams, and media alike – to think. To make and accommodate changes based on current, on-the-ground circumstances, rather than what was planned for days, weeks, or months before. Apply relevant, accumulated knowledge to the situation at hand. Crazy, I know.
The conditions that led to the Scheldeprijs finish crash were utterly predictable. The surrounding area had been dry for weeks, leaving a substantial layer of accumulated diesel on the road, ready to be reinvigorated by those first few raindrops. The potential for slick roads was evident from the time the first clouds gathered. The amount of painted road markings near the finish was also plain to see, and anyone who’s been to a couple of rainy bike races knows what that means.
A quick review of the pancake-flat Scheldeprijs’s 100-year history will also reflect that it tends to come down to a storming bunch sprint amongst some fairly hefty (by bike racing standards) northern bruisers. It is not a mountain top finish, with 120-pound climbers twiddling across the line. The final has a certain momentum behind it. It’s also a known fact that winning professional bike races – even mid-week ones – is not easy, so it was always fairly likely that participants would be a little cross-eyed and oxygen deprived as they crossed the line.
The final factor? As Bicycling’s Bill Strickland pointed out via Twitter, “Knowing Taz, bet she shot all the way to impact.” I don’t know her at all, but I’m betting that’s probably true as well. Not just because good photographers are as committed to getting the shot as sprinters are to getting the win, but also because there’s not much depth perception to be had through a zoom lens. The longer the lens gets, the more compressed the depth perspective becomes, and it gets a lot harder to tell whether the rider in the viewfinder is 50 meters away or five. I don't mention this to blame the victim, but to point out that “get out of the way” isn’t a very viable back-up plan considering the job photographers are doing and the equipment they use to do it.
Given all those factors, what should have been done at the Scheldeprijs? Granted, I’m commenting a day later from the cheap seats across the Atlantic, but the immediate action as conditions worsened should have been to move the photographers back from the line. The diagonal, offset lines that the photographers stand behind are typically marked in tape or chalk (or, sometimes, by an official holding his arms out). Moving them farther up the chute would have been maybe a 10 minute job for one or two staff members. Doing so could have mitigated the effects of riders having to brake hard and swerve to the center of a painted, greased roadway, all within microseconds of maxing out their cardiovascular systems.
Some of the photographers would have complained, but they’re mostly shooting with 300 to 400mm lenses. They’d have managed the extra distance. And I’m sorry, if you don’t either have or know how to access that equipment, chances are you shouldn’t be staring down the barrel of a professional bunch sprint to begin with. Since the photographers would still have been stacked together, the playing field would have remained level: nobody would have been out-shot by a competitor due to moving the whole mess a few meters farther back.
Would it have helped? Maybe not. Cantwell and the others might have slid out whether the photographers were where they were, further back, or not there at all. And they still may have slid into someone or something else - it's clear in the footage that wheels are coming right out from under riders at the slightest movement. But given the conditions, I’m betting a few extra meters of breathing room couldn’t have hurt.
The catch, of course, is that there was a curve to the left after the line that might have complicated moving the photographers further back. It’s hard to tell from the finish shots, and again, I wasn’t there. Sometimes finish areas are tight, crammed into medieval town centers that weren’t meant to accommodate cars, much less TV trucks, dope control trailers, scaffolding, and team buses. Things get tricky, but in the end, that’s not an acceptable response to safety issues. Work on it. Figure it out. Or find a place that can safely accommodate what you need to accommodate. Think. Adapt.
- Risking safety – anyone’s, really – for the finish line shot seems like a poor value proposition to me. In modern cycling, it's just no longer the defining shot it once was. Everybody has one seconds after the finish, and they’re all about the same. I know many will recoil, but it seems like a good case for using one or two pool shooters provided by the organizer. They could hire one or two of the usual suspects so they know they’ll get quality, use the shot themselves (for PR) and make it available to teams (for sponsor purposes) and media outlets (for reporting). Or just let all those parties pay the shooter directly if they want the shot. But do we really need 30 people taking the same shot on the line? Look at the well-received work being done by photographers like Kristof Ramon and Jered Gruber. The photos of riders crossing a white line just aren’t the crowning achievement. Most of the compelling work is done on the roadside or off the back of a moto.
- Please don’t take offense at me noting that the photographers would have complained at being pushed farther back. I’ve covered a few bike races as a writer, and I like to complain about things like that, too. Now where the hell is my start list?
- If you’ve seen pictures or video of the incident, two people stand out. One is Darling, on the ground. The other is Katusha rider Maxime Vantomme, who rolled in 32nd, four seconds down, but immediately circled back to check on the photographer and signal for help. For a lot of folks, especially folks who’d just contested a few hundred wet kilometers, that could have been a “not my job” moment, but for him it wasn’t. I like that, and I suspect he earned a few fans yesterday.
- Lastly, the Service Course wishes all involved a speedy recovery. Hopefully we’ll soon see the end what seems like a particularly large number of broken bones and other serious injuries in this still-young season.
- …but maybe not.