May 30 2005
Consensus seems to be that Lance Armstrong’s success has been good for American cycling. And yeah, Lance has gotten a lot of otherwise oblivious people onto bikes (usually flimsy little Treks), and has opened up a few more eyes to the fact that there is a world of professional cycling out there. But Americans, being Americans, have latched onto a series of half-truths about pro cycling, it’s hurting American cycling, and it’s all Lance’s goddang fault.
Lance-related Vice #1: Hillclimbs & Time Trials. I remember one day, back before I knew anything about cycling, when I was thumbing through an issue of Sports Illustrated while waiting at the Barber Shop. It was just before or after Tour #3 for Lance, and the subject was whether or not he was he new patron. In the paragraph dedicated to summing up Lance’s tactics, the reporter wrote, “Armstrong wisely bides his time during the flat stages, saving his efforts instead for the mountains and time trials.” Definately implicit, if not stated outright, was that this was a new an brilliant tactic (of course, anyone with the latest copy of the World Almanac can tell you that Miguel Indurain did the same damn thing from 1991-1995.)
Now, I believe this leads many Americans to believe that there’s nothing to bike racing other than climbing and time trialing. Hillclimb races are everywhere, as are time trials. And just try to find a USCF road race without a hilltop finish. Those of you with more favorable power/mass ratios than I are no doubt muttering under your breath that if I could climb better, I wouldn’t be ranting about this; well, you’re wrong. I’m upset about this because it robs racing of one of it’s most challenging aspects: detente.
I like to divide bike racing into two basic states, which I describe with Euro loan words for the sake of appearing sophisticated. The first is baggare or the heat of battle, when attacks are going, people are battling hard for position, a climb kicks up, etc., and detente, or the seemingly inactive times when a break is away, or the field staying together pretty well. These states are not mutually exclusive, and some people’s detente may be others’ baggare, but I think anyone with even moderate racing experience will know what I mean.
My complaint is this: in a hill climb, TT, or shorter road race with a massive climb at the end, there’s little or no detente; no coyly leaving stronger riders in the wind to take some sting out or their legs, or watching your competition closely to see how they react to changes in tempo. Its just gun and go, with maybe (if you’re lucky) some slow riding before the real action happens. No thinking, just cranking. Dull, dull, dull. If I wanted to race Tri, I would. But I don’t. I like having about half a second to decide whether or not to hop on the wheel of a rider I feel coming up behind me. And anyone who claims to be a bike racer should, too. The tactical aspects introduced by the drafting advantage set biking apart as a sport, and the fact that half the races in America minimize or eliminate these aspects altogether really ticks me off. And like I said before, I blame Lance.