The New Reality

Jul 24 2012

Brad Wiggins in Yellow on Champs Elysees

There’s more to clean racing than just racing clean / by flickr user niceguysean, cc-by-nd

For better or worse, the racing in this year’s Tour de France did not offer a great deal of excitement.

There were some interesting sprints, the positive (mad watts) and negative (position, timing) confirmations of Peter Sagan’s abilities, the emergence of Tejay VanGarderen as a guy who can hold a GC place for three weeks, but as far as a battle for yellow, there just wasn’t a lot to talk about.

Sure, Evans took some shots early, and Nibali took some shots late, but as the Tour went on, the storyline became less about Brad Wiggins defending his race lead and more about Brad Wiggins defending the legitimacy of his performance.

But those performances, while convincing, just didn’t have the alarming dominance we’ve come dread. The images may have been reminiscent of US Postal, but even outside the power data and the climb times, there were a few other important differences I’ll note:

  • No transformed domestiques. None of the riders driving Team Sky up the mountains was a surprise. Riche Porte rode like a pro triathlete, setting tempo at threshold but lacking pop. EBH ground the field to the heads of state on occasion, but never had more than a minute or two at that tempo before falling off. The team rode well, but Bernie Eisel wasn’t winnowing out the group over the Aubisque or poaching the Queen Stage once the GC was wrapped up.
  • The GC contenders were beaten in the mountains. With the exception of the first mountaintop finish—the day’s single serious obstacle, and “only” a Cat 1—breakaway riders won every single mountain stage. It was occasionally close, but a hallmark of the Bad Old Days was the inevitable catch on the day’s final climb, before the fireworks really began.
  • No haymakers. I like to compare the “cycling” that went on up climbs in the 90s and 00s to the “boxing” that went on in the Rocky films. Dudes exchanging ridiculous big ring attacks and cranking out of the saddle for kilometers with the same ridiculous exaggeration as Stallone and Mr T trading haymakers. But Wiggins never showed that explosion. There were moments when Froome looked like he was ready launch an Armstrong-style charge, but one never appeared.

But the point of this post is not to defend Team Sky—in fact, I’m going to be quite critical. Not because of their performance on the racecourse, but because of their ineptitude off it.

Look through this footage from 1997, starting around 4 minutes or so. Revel in the naiveté as Phil he comments how effortlessly Ullrich moves between the team car and the leading group, or as Paul mentions Riis’ massive gearing as he glides across a gap up an 8% grade. In the final installment of his four-part epic on the previous year’s Tour, @fmk_roi states bluntly that the media was well aware of recent advances in doping, but simply felt it would be easier not to write about them.

It’s tempting to call it a different era, but even after Festina, Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras—hell, even Operacion Puerto—serious professional journalists continued to make straight-faced professional statements that blind-eyed the obvious—for instance, that George Hincapie is a Tour de France contender.

And so, we have arrived at a new reality: thanks to the failure of professionals, both in the press and in the sport’s governing body, cycling is now in the Amateur Age. There are no authoritative voices dictating opinions to a mass audience, and fans keep their own collective counsel on who they like and who they don’t.

It’s tempting to discount the vocal fanbase as a peanut gallery; this has certainly been the UCI’s approach. But so long as cycling’s teams remained pinned to an economic model that makes riders into rolling billboards, public opinion matters. Who doesn’t cringe slighly at the mere mention of Riccardo Ricco’s name? At last check, a spine-tingling shudder isn’t known to improving brand association.

Wiggins has been encouraged not to reveal his blood data, for fear of misinterpretation by “amateurs”—and I think this is entirely the wrong approach. There are always people willing to dig out the negative spin—as we say on the Internet, haters gonna hate. But the simple effort of transparency can buy you a tremendous amount of goodwill with the public.

Consider Cadel Evans—after spending half his career typecast as a good-not-great GC rider and general curmudgeon, the Aussie experienced a real brand renaissance in the late-aughts, due in no small part to the fact that his “fitness indicators” had always been open knowledge, and had always been better than the rivals who invariably out-performed him at races.

Long on record as a stoic and a realist , Evans’ wins at the ’09 Worlds (after a threatening attack from a just-unsuspended Alexandre Vinokourov) and Fleche Wallone the next spring (where he convincingly countered “Otra Pregunta” himself on the Mur de Huy) were taken as powerful symbols of a cleaner direction for the sport.

Coming into this year, Wiggo had a similar sheen—he had been a 4km trackie when blood-boosting ruled the hills; a late-comer to the road with some promising results, burned in the past by dopers, and even an alum of the Slipstream organization that won over Paul Kimmage, the sharpest and most pessimistic (ok, second-most-pessimistic) critic on doping in the sport.

But while I take no personal offense at being called a bone-idle wanker, it was alarming to see this former firebrand for clean sport tee off on an imbecilic, baited question (“what do you say to the cynics…”) and launch into a rant against his supposed detractors.

From calling out critics’ intentions to citing his own hard work, it was a step-for-step set piece from the Armstrong playbook. Even as the controversy raged, Wiggo continued to echo the Texan, right down to dredging up his impressive-but-irrelevant palmares.

Wiggins’ attempt to smooth things out with a direct-to-the-public blog in the Guardian offered lukewarm comfort. The assertion that he’d rather be stacking shelves at Tesco than doping was very similar to what I’ve heard from domestic riders with decidedly abbreviated stints in Europe on their resume; then again, the section on the sport not being worth his life was much less reassuringly resonant.

Believe it or not, I like Brad Wiggins. Sure, I took issue with his testing data a few years ago, but I stressed then that I think he’s racing clean about as much as I think anyone is racing clean. I really wish I could say the same thing today.

Kimmage’s post-Tour piece in the Daily Mail pins it down exactly—while Brad Wiggins’ racing performance may not have varied much, his public persona most certainly has. Moreover, he’s not the only piper at Sky to change his tune. Dave Brailsford’s formerly uncompromising stance has become similarly wobbly—quite the contrast to Garmin’s Jon Vaughters firing a very good DS for referring a rider to a now-banned doctor.

Add to these mealy-mouthed declarations the reputation of Brand Murdoch, and in a few short weeks, Sky has allowed its greatest success to transform it from a premier member of a newer, cleaner generation of cycling outfits to one with more than a few questions to answer, and a definite reluctance toward answering them.

This Amateur Age will hopefully never reach the point where winning becomes a positive test, but I think success should and does carry an expectation of defensible credibility. As fans have no official authority, riders are free to ignore this expectation, but as long as sponsors still need customers to buy GPS devices and cell phones and lottery tickets, it’s an expectation they discount at their peril.

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16 Responses to “The New Reality”

  1. Lebelweg July 24, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    Apart from the last paragraph, didn’t really understand what that text was about…Impressive amount of hyperlinks in the text though.

  2. colin July 24, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    Sky has allowed its greatest success to transform it from a premier member of a newer, cleaner generation of cycling outfits to one with more than a few questions to answer, and a definite reluctance toward answering them.

    Nailed it.

  3. Evan July 24, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    how were Froome’s emergence and Rogers’s resurgence not transformative? Prior to the 2011 Vuelta Froome was nobody. Rogers’s claims to fame came during a time of such rampant doping that it’s naive to think he could have accomplished world titles cleanly. Both also happen to be using the same excuse to justify their prior weakness (oh, lucky me, I just overcame my perennial illness just on time. Damn these sky doctors are good).

    The haymakers came during the time trials. It’s hard or impossible to guesstimate w/kg on a tt, so let it rip. Froome (who?) and Wiggins both tore Cancellara and the rest of the world-class field a new one in a TT dominance from a GC man not seen since Armstrong? Indurain? Ullrich?

    Wiggins was a couple prologue seconds off from holding yellow for 100% of the race. Who was it who once said “how doth a GC contender come into such fearful ten minute power”? Yea, I know, Wiggins was a pursuiter. WAS. He can’t be both at the same time.

  4. Sean July 24, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    Ah, you feel the same way as I do. Or vice versa.

    I quite like Wiggins attitude, but his responses to doping questions are … unnerving. Was he really implying that anyone Sky couldn’t ride down must be blood-boosting when he said:

    When we were riding on the front at 450 watts or whatever, someone would attack and Mick Rogers would say ‘just leave him, he can’t sustain it.’

    Someone is going to have to sustain 500 watts over 20 minutes of a climb to stay away which is not possible anymore unless you’ve got a couple of extra litres of blood. That’s the reality of it. It really is.

  5. Steve July 24, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    Surprised there was no mention of Wiggins’ press conferences post the Guardian blog being publshed? Thought he came across as human, emotional and spoke out very strongly against doping,

    I’d give him the benefit of the doubt for a few comments early in the Tour when he was clearly under more stress from taking over the lead for the first time.

  6. Cosmic Osmo July 24, 2012 at 11:04 pm #

    Can you comment on the claims of Froome threatening Wiggan’s lead? Velonews (a dreadful publication) made quite a huff about the somewhat invited rivalry between them. Its as if they wanted Hinault and LeMond again. I just didnt see it that way though. Obviously I cant say how Froome thought but he certainly didnt look like he could make up those three minutes in the mountains.

  7. Jeff July 25, 2012 at 7:51 am #

    Obviously the battle for the yellow jersey was pretty boring with Wiggins holding it from the first ITT onwards, but if you expand your scope a bit you would have noticed some exciting racing:

    While it only lasted a few stages, the battle for the Polka Dot jersey was pretty awesome, especially because it was won by Thomas Voeckler…not only does he make the best faces in the Pro Peloton, he doesn’t ride with a race radio, heart rate monitor, power meter, or even a simple computer for speed/distance/time…he races by feel only, which is bad ass. Plus, he’s French and been around forever…which was good for the race in general.

    Jens Voigt on the attack almost every day was awesome because he Jens…and the only thing positive to come out of the RadioShack/Nissan/Trek PR disaster that was Frank Schleck.

    Peter Sagan’s awesome victory salutes. Also, him winning the green jersey wasn’t even a contest in the end, which was impressive for a 22-year old.

    Chris Anker Sorensen attacking on every mountain and rolling stage only to be defeated by Voeckler….not surprised he won most combative but the best is when he got a newspaper stuck in his front wheel, tried to rip it out and got his fingers sliced up by front spokes…he battled on through the stage with a bloody, bandaged hand which takes some serious balls.

    Wiggins leading out Cav on the Champs-Élysées was pretty classy. Don’t think you’ve ever seen a tour winner do that for a teammate on the final day.

    Jimmy Engoulvent won the Lanterne Rouge…3:57:36 behind Wiggins, so obviously he got the best value in the race…more racing for the money.

    The battle for the yellow jersey is interesting I guess, but I’m always more interested in the smaller battles going on in the race and would argue what make the Tour an exciting event.

  8. Lebelweg July 25, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    “Jimmy Engoulvent won the Lanterne Rouge…3:57:36 behind Wiggins, so obviously he got the best value in the race…more racing for the money”

    Ha, this is priceless. I love it. For us amateurs, I feel that your assessment is totally true. I think the next time I’m shot out the back of the pack I’ll look at things this way. However, as a pro, seeing as he was paid as opposed to was paying to enter, I think he got the worst deal: more work, same pay :(

    Good banter!

  9. TDog July 25, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    Haven’t seen a Yellow Jersey holding team asphyxiate a race the way Sky did since the days of Big Tex and the Disco Boys. It makes you wonder when guys like Szmyd, Basso and Leipheimer, guys who can grind steady/hard tempo climbs, are getting shelled out the back by the “tempo” of the number 3 or 4 domestique of Sky.

    It was a boring race. So much so that I still have the last two mountain stages on my DVR unwatched. Save them for a cold, Fall turbo session in the pain cave while I dream of holding 450 watts.

  10. velomonkey July 25, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    This years tour – bore, bore and bore. Greipel, Sagan and Cav was the best show.

    Tyler getting played like a punk trying to move a no-name Belgium out of his path and then getting slammed to the ground like pee wee football player going against tank johnson – priceless. Even better, we got to see and hear Piper telling Tyler “get to the front at 3k” which an hour later was right where he got played. Classic.

    The Greipel “bike throw” and then Greipel having his bike at a 45degree angle at 40mph, revering and winning the stage.

    Tommy V did some good rides and then sucked the next day – the way one should.

    Overall, it sucked. Man, I miss spring classics.

  11. Larry T. July 25, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    Nailed it! I look forward to some ‘splaining by the SKY Team…but won’t be holding my breath.

  12. cosmo July 25, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    @Evan: You bring up some good points. I disagree with you for the most part, but not enough to tell you you’re wrong. Here’s how I read the trouble spots you point out:

    I agree that Froome’s emergence has been…abrupt. Still, TrainingPeaks had him all wired up at last year’s Vuelta, and the numbers are strong, but not superhuman: http://teamsky.cyclingnews.com/tech-features/trainingpeaks-analysis-chris-froome%E2%80%99s-vuelta-breakthrough/. As to how he got faster…let’s just say it’d be nice to see a straighter line from mid-pack GT finishes to head of state.

    I don’t see much to question in Rogers performance. He did shred the field on Stage 12, upping the pace as VanGarderen and Evans took off, but went way red in the process, losing 17 minutes by the end of the day. In fact, was in second/third groups as often as he was there to help the leaders. He did suck last year, and he did blame mono, but he’s had steady podium performances on GC in stage races throughout the aughts.

    I agree that TTs are tougher to prognosticate upon, but I don’t think Cancellara was at full strength for a long TT coming off his collarbone. He was only 9″ up on VanGarderen over 52 minutes, which is not his usual performance standard. Cancellara was also more dominant in the prologue than you imply He was seven seconds clear of Wiggins; the next seven seconds saw 8 riders (incl. 2 other GC contenders) stop the clock.

    You’re right that isn’t Wiggins a pursuiter anymore, but there’s no reason to expect the base talent in that area to disappear entirely. Before his hunting accident, Greg LeMond used to routinely finish Top 10 in group sprints, simply because he had the speed and enjoyed it. And while I questioned Armstrong consistant prologues, it isn’t that unheard of—Hinault (who also enjoyed a good sprint) routinely won them.

    But while Hinault was no slouch in the mountains, Fignon, Robert Millar, and the Columbians generally had the better of him. What really stuck me about Armstrong was that, in a more specialized era, he put it to people in the prologue, and he put to people in the hills. Wiggins climbed very well this year, but I’d characterize it more as hanging on than putting time into his rivals.

    But yes. While finding your evidence less compelling, I acknowledge it and am concerned by it. And as I say in the post, Sky really ought to do more to address those concerns.

  13. cosmo July 25, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

    @cosmic osmo: This is the great unanswerable. At times, it looked like Froome “had his fingers in his nose” as the Euros say. Three minutes is a long time. But its also one less set of legs stitching things back together for Wiggins. With a little luck, we might get a better picture next year…

    @TDog: tightest stranglehold since Postal, but still a world of difference. Do some YouTubing of Armstrong’s wins and you’ll see what I mean. Doesn’t mean it’s clean, I admit, but it’s certainly less obvious.

    @velomonkey: It’s important, too, to note that Voeckler’s up/down days weren’t “try to stick with GC guys and get shelled” / “crush everyone from GC group”. It was get in break, ride tactical, win sprint and/or drop break. Then, on the off days, it was rest up, ride to finish.

  14. TDog July 27, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Perversely fun to to watch Postal/Disco 1. string out the pelton all day with withering tempo, 2. have its hired gun climbers thrash the GC guys on the final climb while Tex stretches his back and, finally, 3. Armstrong unleash the ultra-violence on the few poor souls that remain. The only mystery was how bad the beat down.

    Kind of how Hannibal must have crossed the Alps.

    Loved the July 19th video in your Tumblr sidebar. Exciting racing. Every single one a doper or accused doper.

  15. Evan July 28, 2012 at 2:07 am #

    yes, Wiggins “hung on” in the climbs, riding away from Nibali, VDB, Evans, et al on multiple occasions, never once being dropped.

    Finishing 17 minutes back doesn’t show weakness, it shows tactics. Nothing to be gained from using the energy required to finish just 2 minutes back instead of 17. That’s one reasonable explanation. My preferred interpretation goes back to Belles Filles: pundits explained that Sky domestiques could grind top climbers into dust because their finish line came 4 or 5km from the top while GC hopefuls had to conserve and pace themselves up. Only Porte and Rogers forgot the charade, and never sat up, beating most everybody to the line anyway. They didn’t make that mistake again.

  16. Sebastian August 11, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    I’ve been thinking about this post a bit, and I’m not quite sure I agree that a lack of haymakers would logically be the first result of a cleaner Tour. Wiggins’ “boring” style of winning the time trials and riding a high sit-down tempo in the mountains is, after all, modeled on that of Miguel Indurain, a rider who by accounts was using whatever it was guys used back in 1994. And there certainly was no lack of high-mountains slopperknockers back in the days of Luis Ocana or Lucien Van Impe. As far as I can tell, the main effect of EPO on racing was to make riders more consistent, whatever their style. Races unfolded much more predictably as favorites had fewer bad days and were generally able to hold the same form day in and day out. What made this Tour look more “clean” to me — or at least more like a pre-90s Tour — was that in the mountains the peloton broke up into multiple smaller groups earlier on; guys would yo-yo back and forth between groups; or they’d drop off early and then find their way back to the favorites. Back when Armstrong was winning, you usually only had to watch the last 30 minutes of a mountain stage to see the result; this year, major plot twists were occurring on the first and second climbs. I guess that’s what felt different for me: the racing got unpredictable much earlier in the day than it had for a while.

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