Cycling News and Opinions
Unfair and Unbalanced
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January 27: Several of cycling's most visible riders have slightly re-jiggered their 2010 early season racing. Sky's Bradley Wiggins had been planning to start off in the French February 3 season opener, the Etoile de Bessèges. Instead, he'll hit the road February 7 at the Tour of Qatar. After some dental problems Mark Cavendish will also delay his start until the Qatar tour.
Lance Armstrong was going to do some racing in Spain, taking in the Tour of Catalonia in late March, where he would be sure to meet Alberto Contador. The Catalonian race has been scratched in favor of the Critérium International. The Belgian paper Het Nieusblad says that Armstrong has also decided against the riding the Tour of Valencia. From the Critérium International Armstrong will go on to ride several Spring Classics including the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold.
Ivan Basso's plans were for a season start at the late March Tour of Catalonia. His training and fitness are ahead of schedule so he'll be at the GP dell'Insubria and GP Lugano at the end of February. I'm sure Fotoreproter Sirotti will be there so we'll have results and pictures of both races.
Cycling's next big race will be the Giro della Provincia di Reggio Calabria (rated 2.1), January 30 through February 2.
January 26: Ah, this is interesting. The 2011 Tour de France will start in the Vendée region of western France. More importantly, the riders will again have to negotiate the narrow, slippery Passage du Gois. This 4-kilometer stretch of road is under water except during low tide. Worse, it is often hammered by wind, making it a challenging, dangerous moment for the riders. When it was used in 1999 Lance Armstrong was in the front group while several of his his major challengers—Alex Zulle, Ivan Gotti and Michael Boogerd—were delayed over 6 minutes by a crash on the slippery isthmus. Given that Zulle finished second to Armstrong by about 7½ minutes, that day in the Vendée was certainly race-defining.
Also notable, the 2011 Tour will not have a prologue individual time trial. The first stage will be a 180-km stage from Passage du Gois to Mont Des Alouettes. The second stage will be a 23-kilometer team time trial.
Following the Tour Down Under, the UCI released its first Pro Tour Ranking. Andre Greipel is, of course, the leading rider, HTC-Columbia the top team and Australia heads the list of nations.
The Italian Lampre squad got a late-night call from the governor. For now, Lampre won't get the chair. The UCI has said that its Pro Tour license application still isn't in order. The UCI has granted a temporary license, good until the end of March. The UCI says, "If at this date the team's situation is considered not to comply with the regulations, a renewed request for the withdrawal of the Lampre-Farnese Vini team’s licence will be submitted to the Licence Commission".
The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland has ruled against Stephan Schumacher. Schumacher had been snagged for using EPO-CERA in the Tour de France, where the racer won both individual time trials. Schumacher has been fighting the ensuing racing ban with a surprising tenacity, insisting he is innocent. The court said that the UCI's 2-year world-wide ban is valid, starting on August 28, 2008. I guess that means he'll probably be back late this summer after he finishes serving his time, if he finds a team.
January 16: Alejandro Valverde's endless Operation Puerto doping case (Puerto goes back to 2006) visited the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Valverde made a couple of denials that, uh, challenge credulity. He said he never had a dog named Piti and that he barely knew Puerto doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. I won't go into why this is at odds with what the reality community knows. I'll just cite Groucho Marx: Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?
Valverde has called for an independent test by a neutral lab of the blood bags the Italians got their hands on. The Italians matched the blood in the bags to Valverde and then banned the Spaniard from racing in Italy. It will be interesting to see if the test ever actually happens. Valverde says that a neutral lab is one outside Italy. CONI (Italian Olympic Committee), clearly not trusting others, says the bags are not leaving Italy. I assume Valverde knew from the beginning that he was making an empty gesture.
Michael Rasmussen has found a team, Continental squad Miche-Silver Cross. He's not in the Pro Tour but Miche gets invited to important Italian races. However unrepentant the man who was yanked out of the 2007 Tour while in yellow may be, he has paid his dues, and deserves a chance to earn a living. If he pulls anything else, send him to Devil's Island and don't let him come back.
This item has to scare a lot of people. In a recent press conference Alberto Contador says he's putting out more power now than he was this time last year. Yipes!
Sad to read that 2-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon is making little progress in his fight against cancer. I was moved by his brave line in an interview he gave Paris-Match, "I am not afraid to die. I just don't want to."
January 12: It's a start. Bjarne Riis' Team Saxo Bank has found a co-sponsor. American firm SunGard (annual revenue $5 billion U.S.), which provides software for the financial sector, has agreed to a 1-year deal with Riis' team. Saxo Bank is pulling out at the end of 2010 and the SunGard agreement doesn't solve the team's basic problem, finding a name sponsor to carry the squad from 2011 on.
Manolo Saiz, director of the ill-fated Liberty Seguros team when he was caught in the net of Operation Puerto in 2006, wants back into cycling. He says he's bitter about being excluded from cycling since the Puerto scandal broke and absolutely maintains his innocence. Yet I'm just as bitter that he was ever a part of cycling. In 1998, when the Festina scandal brought the Tour de France to its knees Saiz withdrew his ONCE team to [unprintable verb] the Tour. The guy's a jerk.
He is called a genius manager but anyone who watched his banal team tactics in important races can't help but feel that his reputation is greatly exaggerated. I have seldom seen so much fine talent used so badly.
He was a hands-on manager who closely monitored every aspect of his team. Yet, this supposedly very knowledgable racing expert was videotaped visiting the offices of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, the man at the center of the Operation Puerto doping scandal. If Saiz were indeed innocent of wrongdoing and had no idea what was going on with Fuentes, then he is an idiot and has no business running a team. I believe we still have no explanation why Saiz would visit the office of a famous doping doctor. Saiz says the 60,000 Euros he had in his briefcase when he was arrested was just the cash he needed to take to the Tour de France. You know, walking-around money.
If he knew about Fuentes, then he really has no business running a team.
Just stay away. Please, just go away and don't come back.
By the way before you send the email noting the ironic juxtaposition of a story about Riis, Mr. 60% Hematocrit, and Fuentes, I believe the cases are very different. Riis has admitted his wrongdoing. I believe in redemption. Saiz has done nothing to make me feel that the same forgiving attitude should be applied to him. I hope someday to be forced to change my mind about him.
January 9: I would guess the biggest news is Saxo Bank's ending its sponsorship of the eponymous cycling team at the end of the 2010 season. Over the years team owner Bjarne Riis has had trouble financing his squad. If memory serves me, Saxo Bank reluctantly came on board as the title sponsor and had hoped for at least a good co-sponsor to share the burden. Now Riis is looking for someone with a few million Euros jingling in his pocket. Let's hope this terrific team doesn't go the way of Fassa Bortolo after Giancarlo Ferretti couldn't find a replacement sponsor. Even the big ones can fall.
I still can't see any other way for a corporation to get such a huge world-wide exposure on television, newspapers, magazines and the web for less than the cost of a starting pitcher with a good fastball. For all of its troubles, bike racing is a good deal and makes good marketing sense.
At the Rabobank team presentation Denis Menchov said he is not going to defend his Giro title in 2010. Instead, he'll spend May preparing for the Tour de France. Menchov is a good rider but I have seen nothing in his results that leads me to believe he'll be able to handle Contador, Armstrong, the Schlecks and Wiggins when the racing heats up in July. If all four major contenders come to the Tour healthy, the rest of the peloton may end up as they did in the 1979 Tour when Zoetemelk and Hinault were so far ahead of the pack that third-place Joaquin Agostinho was almost a half-hour behind.
Dr. Christopher Thompson, the driver convicted of mayhem against bicycle riders descending Mandeville Canyon road in Brentwood, California, was sentenced to 5 years in the slammer. It gives me intense satisfaction to know that finally a driver who purposely lashed out at bike riders with his car is getting some punishment. I had a very early introduction to law enforcement's bias against cyclists. In 1963 I was riding with a friend on an overpass, on the right, as close as was practicable, at a moderate speed, when a driver pulled out from the off ramp and hit my friend's back wheel. The accident sent my friend to the hospital. The police report blamed the absolutely innocent bike rider, of course.
Many cyclists urged the judge to punish Dr. Thompson because it was necessary to send a message that bike riders' rights must be respected and if Thompson received a slap on the wrist, sociopathic drivers would know they were free to endanger cyclists. This is wrong.
No, it was necessary to punish Thompson because he was convicted of a serious crime. That's it. We shouldn't punish people because we want the world to know something. We should punish a criminal because he has been convicted of a specific crime that society has agreed has a specific penalty. It just happens that his crime was mayhem against a cyclist. It was also a coward's crime, done with a powerful car against helpless riders on two wheels. Finally the criminal justice system has recognized that this sort of criminality deserves the same treatment as other serious crime. Justice was served. Let's hope that this is a good start and other miscreants who target cyclists are forced to pay for their misdeeds.
January 7: ASO is arguably the biggest organizer of important bicycle races today. While the company that owns La Gazzetta dello Sport, RCS Sport, has the Giro, Milan-San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico, Monte Paschi, Giro di Lombardia to name the big ones, look at the races ASO (Amaury Sport Organization) owns or runs:
- Tour de France
- 1/2 interest in the Vuelta a España
- Critérium International
- Fleche Wallonne
- Tour of Qatar
- Tour de l'Avenir
Now ASO, which is owned in turn by Éditions Philippe Amaury (publisher of l'Équipe sports newspaper) is going to take over the running of the Dauphiné Libéré, the mid-June race that many Tour contenders use to both do a final tune-up on their race fitness and get a handle on the coming Tour climbs. That's because the Dauphiné will use many of the same climbs as a given upcoming Tour.
The Dauphiné was originated and has been run by the French paper named... Dauphiné Libéré. In the last few years the race has been a money loser for the paper so they have asked ASO to take over its management. ASO will probably end up owning the race. This should drive those American cycling fans crazy who see an ongoing French/ASO conspiracy against certain American racers. As I write this I fear for what some chat rooms and forums will have posted.
Speaking about American racers, I was certainly tickled to see that Lance Armstrong is indeed going to contest some northern European Classics, including the earlier posted (see Jan. 4 below) Amstel Gold Race as well as the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Armstrong is a superb 1-day racer. That rainbow jersey he got in Norway before he needed to shave (2nd or 3rd youngest world champion ever, I can't remember which), is ample evidence of that talent. It'll be good to see him trying to add these wonderful old races to his list of wins.
Larry Theobald of CycleItalia sent me a note about something I had missed. Quick Step is going to black shorts. Might this be the just the start? Black shorts, Armstrong in the Classics and the race radios banned: That would be a good year.
January 4: It looks like Lance Armstrong is going to give the Amstel Gold Race another shot in 2010. Twice, in 1999 and 2001 he's come in second in 2-up breaks. I'm sure he wants to put that demon to bed at last.
Team Sky has put up its web site and presented the 2010 team. I'll let the site do the talking. It looks as professional as you'd expect a site to be that was sponsored by a very rich media company. Clearly these guys have been given a bunch of 'ol Rupe Murdoch's dough.
It's been 50 years since Fausto Coppi's tragic death from an undiagnosed case of malaria. The Italian newspaper Il Giornale has an editorial that tries to put Coppi's accomplishments into perspective. The writer believes that the adoration the tifosi have for Coppi clouds their minds and blinds them to Merckx's superiority. To prove this the writer cites Merckx's far greater list of wins. This, of course, ignores the fact that Coppi's (and Gino Bartali's) best years were during the Second World War.
But the writer misses a more important point. No one can deny that Eddy Merckx was the greatest cyclist ever. He was a Nietzschian siege engine of pure will who battered his competitors into submission, as did Coppi contemporary Fiorenzo Magni. I'm sure Merckx's more than 500 victories will remain the all-time record as long as I live.
But while Coppi was not the greatest, he was the finest racer to have lived. The two adjectives are not the same, just as while Voltaire was the finest writer to have lived, Shakespeare (and/or Homer or Tolstoy depending upon your personal taste) was greater.
Tour historian Pierre Chany noted that between 1946 and 1954, once Coppi had broken away from a peloton, the peloton never caught him. That is extraordinary. To the best of my knowledge, that can be said of no other rider. Coppi rode his bike with an ease and style that was not equaled until Jacques Anquetil and Roger Pingeon.
Raphaël Géminiani, who raced with and managed Coppi and also observed Merckx agreed that Coppi was finer. Granted, Coppi and "Gem" were friends, but his assessment is correct nonetheless. Geminiani said that Coppi was far ahead of other racers in his scientific approach to diet, training and teamwork. He shunned the "big steak before a race" diet adding vegetables and carbohydrates years before that was normal for riders. He did race-specific training with intervals. Géminiani also says, and I think this is true, that Coppi raced against more formidable opponents. The late 1940s and early 1950s were the high point of the popularity of bicycle racing. The 1947 Milan bike show still has the record for attendance. Coppi dominated other champions.
His Achilles Heel was his fragile morale. He was easily discouraged and needed constant encouragement. One could never accuse Merckx of that failing. In the 1975 Tour, riding with a broken jaw, filled with painkillers and blood thinners, Merckx still came in second, less than 3 minutes behind Bernard Thévenet.
Merckx is the greatest, but Coppi was the finest.