Archive | May, 2010

Whose Game Is It?

27 May

Giro TrophyI had initially planned to write this earlier, since yesterday’s group sprint outcome was almost a sure thing, but I take nothing for granted with this Giro.

It’s a strange situation the race finds itself in now. Arroyo’s defense of the maglia rosa has been both spirited and intelligent, and the Spaniard, if he does manage to hold on through the two hellacious remaining mountain stages, plus a final “eff-you” time trial, will have proven himself a worthy winner.

That said, he’s being pursued full-gas by Basso and Evans, who seem pretty deadlocked in terms of fitness and performance. I’ll even mention Carlos Sastre, who, while he’s lost time in every major mountain stage, has pulled off unlikelier GC wins, and showed tremendous last-week form in ’09.

The thing is, there hasn’t been a real effort that’s set any one rider apart; no audacious stamp of authority. Basso made a compelling argument on Zoncolan, but that climb isn’t really typical of the mayhem to come. Plus, after only a day’s rest, Evans managed to pull back 30 seconds in an uphill TT. After 18 stages, there’s still a power vacuum atop the Giro GC.

Figuratively speaking, I think a week after its detonation the parties involved in the “Land Grenade” drama finds themselves in a similar position. Sure, Lance has fired off his usual denials and attacks, but they haven’t been especially effective in silencing or even reducing the questions Landis’ confessions raised.

Floyd’s recent detailing of how EPO is used to mask blood transfusions went a long way toward deflecting the notion, propagated by Armstrong, that Landis is on a destructive mission of revenge. Certainly, those tasked with doing the actual monitoring of test data have appreciated it.

That said, the Landis revelations haven’t been a slam dunk, either. They’re devoid of any proof, and even after the organization’s initial response was roundly rejected as limp and ineffectual, the UCI is still mopping its brow about appearances—regardless of whether Floyd can substantiate his allegations. I think it’s pretty clear the cycling authorities won’t be the ones to make this particular race.

It might be easy to just write Floyd off as the next Jesus Manzano at this point, but consider the reponses of Jonathan Vaughters and Michael Berry. Vaughters, who is alleged to have done some IMing on the subject with Frankie Andreu, and who is a top contender for the anonymous “other Postal rider” who confessed with Frankie Andreu, didn’t exactly pull one off the denial wheel in his official statement defending Dave Zabriskie:

“I’m going to stay focused on keeping this team, and its tradition, and doing what we’ve always said we’re doing, standing for fair competition and clean racing…I think Dave is going to focus on winning this race clean, along with the rest of our team.” [source]

Not exactly, “Dave has always been clean, and Floyd is bitter and steals from innocents and wants to destroy cycling”, is it? Similarly, Michael Barry’s reply was a bit of a one-off. While he does seem to characterize Landis’ allegations in general as “completely untrue”, this part absolutely blew me away:

“I did not share or use any banned substances such as EPO when I was riding with him and am dismayed at his allegations. Landis is either lying or has mistaken me with another rider.” [source, emphasis mine]

I readily admit this is my own interpretation, but if I were looking for a way to say “yeah, there was doping during my time at Postal, but I was able to do my job without it”, that’s the sort of delivery I’d use. Treading further out onto the plank of opinion, I think these “open” denials indicate there’s something Vaughters and Barry would like to see made public, but—likely due to the hyper-political environment of cycling—they’re unwilling to do it themselves.

Floyd Landis up closeSo who’s going to make the big move to seize the proverbial Landisgate crown? Sure, any attack comes with risks—Armstrong is a herd of 600-pound gorillas outside cycling, and a veritable Berlusconi within it—but to belabor the metaphor, Armstrong comes into the closing stages with a GC lead. If someone else wants to win this, they’ll need to attack.

The media, traditional dispatcher of tyrants, may or may not make the move. VeloNews and Cyclingnews, whose pages cannot be refreshed without triggering another animated advertisement featuring the Texan, seem unlikely candidates. However, Lionel Bernie of Cycling Weekly has been putting his time since quitting Twitter to exceptionally effective use, amassing a pile of facts, and following the various threads surrounding the case until they end, with increasingly suspicious regularity, in “no comment”.

Ultimately, it may be the United States Government who decides this one. And if past experiences is any indication, those final stages will take a long, long time to play out. I’m just thankful that whatever happens in the Giro, it will be decided by lunchtime (EDT) on Sunday.

Foreigners At The Giro: An Uphill Battle

25 May

Sure, every national tour wants to see home-grown talent on the top of the podium. But I don’t think any other country tries as Italy to make that desire a reality.

An example: the chairs provided to Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso at the post-race show after today’s stage. Basso is clearly sitting on a gilded throne, while Evan’s “chair” could more aptly be described as “a stool with a back”—and this is minutes after the Aussie beat the Italian by 30 seconds!
Giro Post-Race Chairs
(via @BMCProTeam, h/t to @mmmaiko)

I should note that this is hardly the first example. As recently as two days ago, Evans recounted fans pushing Ivan Basso while instructing others spectators not to assist “the foreigner”.

Another Australian, Robbie McEwen, has had a rough time with the Giro officials. In 2003, he was stripped of a win for closing the gate on Fabio Baldato, and in 2004, was relegated again for a barely-visible hand-sling in the closing kilometers. Both sanctions were correct within the rules, but it’s tough to imagine similar punishments being handed down against Cipo’.

In the ’84 Giro, Laurent Fignon lost the overall to Francesco Moser on the final day’s TT. While Moser had the advantage of a futuristic aero machine, Fignon claimed the deciding factor was the camera helicopter, which had used its downdraft first to push the Italian, and then to impede him. It’s worth noting this was a claim Fignon did not level after losing the ’89 TdF in similar fashion.

And perhaps most notoriously, Eddy Merckx was booted from the 1969 Giro after essentially wrapping-up the GC win. The reason? A dope charge. In days where stimulant use was all but accepted, and drug testing poorly monitored, the ejection is widely considered to have been unfair, or at least suspicious. Certainly, the mostly-clean, entirely-dominant career Merckx went on to have is a vote in his favor.

So no wonder then that the Giro has seen only two foreign winners in the past 14 years, a home-court advantage at least as favorable as any other major cycling event, let alone any Grand Tour— and one that may become even more lopsided, pending the fate of Alejandro Valverde.

Dial-a-Denial, And Why The Game Might Be Up

24 May

No public figure in recent memory has been more well-managed under scrutiny than Lance Armstrong. Sure, hero status gives him a leg up, but there’s real brilliance in how his inner circle handles accusations; on every battlefield he’s fought, Armstrong has always made the issue his accusers, and not their accusations. I’ve compiled a fun little chart to illustrate the point:

(click image for larger sizes, buy a wall poster, full list of sources)

Starting at the twelve o’clock position, the Armstrong quotes run clockwise in chronological order, from his 1999 exchange with Christophe Bassons to his lastest barrage against Floyd Landis. Along the bottom of the chart, the deflection intensity is assessed using a points system for anyone interested in actually playing this as a PR game.

Perhaps the best example of The Armstrong Approach came from the ostensibly anonymous and retroactively sampled EPO “positives” from 1999. Armstrong’s response was unbelievably comprehensive, calling into question the journalistic integrity of the investigation, the scientific honesty of the lab, the legal possibility of a positive test under the rules, and even the scientific fundamentals behind the test. Armstrong managed to address every issue—except for whether or not his ’99 samples tested positive for EPO.

In reality, electrophoresis is an extremely reliable lab technique, samples are almost impossible to spike, the rules are clear that a positive test requires A/B sampling, and, at any rate, the inquiry commissioned to suss out any potential penalties had their report leaked in the Dutch press—not that it stopped Armstrong from declaring victory.

However, a great deal of the effectiveness of Armstrong’s strategy has been that it’s played so sweetly in the mainstream, English Language press. After all, plenty of ink—yes, real ink!—has been spilled by Continental publishers in books compiling the allegations against Armstong. Only when it came time to port LA Confidentiel into English did David Walsh find himself drowning in a sea of rejection letters.The Texan’s unassailable public persona is a purely American phenomenon.

And why not? Armstrong’s opponents have been transatlantic adversaries with weird names (“Jean Francois so-and-so”, as Armstrong dubbed a hypothetical lab worker) who are angry an American is so good at “their” race. They’ve relied on complicated-sounding science and byzantine testing procedures. Besides, Armstrong has never tested positive—and the possibility of a false-negative is a media non-starter.

This time, though, things may be different. There’s no tricky science. There are no strange-sounding labs. The primary accuser, Floyd Landis is an American. He’s a guy most of us cheered for, at least for a bit. And while he’s been discredited, that only gives him the ability to be redeemed—a plotline no sportswriter can pass up. And (more on this later) the arguments that he’s got an ax to grind are at best weak, and at worst fabricated.

Finally—and I think most significantly—doping cases from mainstream American sports are starting to appear and get traction. Yes, non-USADA controls are a teenage babysitter posing as a prison guard, but they’ve still managed to nab a naughty child or two. And as any cycling fan can tell you, once you get your head around the idea that one of your heros is a cheat, it’s not too tough to imagine that the rest of them might be too.

Time Gap Theory: So Far, So Good

22 May

old stopwatchSo before the chaos in Stage 11 of this year’s Giro (here are some new rider interviews on it), I posited that time gaps in the General Classification have a direct, predictable impact on the racing action.

Specifically, I claimed that there was a “sweet spot” where 1-2 minute GC gaps would reduce nervousness while prompting riders to attack, leading to what, in my biased vision, is great racing. And the Stage 11 reshuffle, while it had the unusual effect of burying a few GC favorites, still established the sort of gaps I think lead to good, aggressive racing—with the added effect of giving some of the strongest men in the race constant incentives to pull back time.

And what have we seen since Stage 11? Vino’ ripping a select group free over a climb that would have otherwise only been a test for the sprinters. Vlad Karpets slipping out of the field behind a breakaway, and Liquigas staking out a 1-2 finish by using Basso to grind the field down on the way up Monte Grappa, and sending Nibali off the front on the way back down.

Now, let’s imagine Nibali is 30 seconds down on the lead, instead of 10 minutes—you think he stays clear in a 40 mile downhill TT? Conversely, if Basso and Nibali are perched high on the GC, do you think Liquigas is willing to shoulder the load on the climb, or take the big risks on the descent?

Amgen Tour of California 2010 by Michael RisenhooverIt’s an especially sharp contrast to the Tour of California, where the GC lead was as fine as a few lines of text in the race bylaws. Yesterday’s queen stage was a visual feast, and an important moment for American racing—a real mountain stage for the first time in decades (minus narrow roads and seriously steep sections)—but it also ended in a a 20-man bunch sprint.

It’s not that riders didn’t attack (plenty of squads were active) or that the pace wasn’t hard (anytime a Schleck gets dropped and 20% of the field HDs or DNFs, you know it’s on), but its that no one was really willing to stick their necks out and go for the win. With 35 seconds separating the top 14 competitors and nary a featherweight climber in sight, the one thought on every DS’s mind is to keep their GC leader from losing time.

I suppose, with four categorized climbs and the transmission-shredding pitches of Monte Zoncolan on the menu, tomorrow’s Giro stage will be the truest test of my time gap theory. Conventional wisdom says the strongest riders will set pace and let the course do the damage, but the still-massive gaps from the overall lead—and critical 1-2 minute gaps between buried GC contenders—suggest some real initiative and risk will have to be taken for a pre-race favorite to get back to true contender status.

Meanwhile, Back In Italy

20 May

Giro d'Italia 2010Lest I fall short of my own impeccable standards, I must discuss the Giro at least once today. And there is, frankly, still a lot to talk about. Specifically, yesterday’s GC reshuffling.

The finger-pointing began as soon as the riders crossed the line. This is the juncture where I’d normally poke fun at Cadel Evans for whining, but after seeing the man’s face when he staggered across the line, that’s just not going to happen. Anytime you see riders rocking the baggy coats, it’s not for style—it’s for not freezing to death.

I’ve heard riders complain about conditions before, but never in the terms that came up yesterday. The train of haggard human wreckage that trickled across the finish line on Stage 11 was enough, at least for a few hours, to inspire faith in clean bike racing.

How’d it happen? Here’s my take—the field splits. It’s a big group. Everyone sees it and thinks “eh, they’ll never let it go.” The break gets a bigger gap, CerveloTestTeam, Sky, and SaxoBank realize the move has a chance of staying and go all-in driving it.

According to Vino’, Astana, BMC, and Acqua e Sapone did do some chasing, but 56 riders can put out a fair number of watts. Working with a reduced team on a senselessly long stage with a few KOMs, and in miserable weather, plus a looking at some upcoming stages not exactly tailored to their stengths, Astana pulled in the colors.

BMC, itself down to five riders, certainly wasn’t going to do the laundry for Vino’, and Liquigas, whose GC men Basso and Nibali seemed best placed to profit over this weekend’s misery, weren’t going to be suckered into tiring their squad out before the big event. Besides, Liquigas had two riders the breakaway—even if they missed the stage win or the maglia rosa, the completely reordered GC might just play out in their favor come Verona.

Filippo Pozzato And so 56 riders pulled clear, and most buried themselves the for the cause, before a handful of gut-wrenchingly exhausted attacks and counters—the most painful-looking since Ian Stannard’s ill-fated moves toward the end of Gent-Wevelgem—sent Evgeni Petrov across the line. 46 minutes later, the last bunch rolled in, leaving us with one of the most upended Grand Tours since Jens and Oscar flew the coop in 2006—and we all how that one turned out.

After all that, today was custom-tailored be a classic piano-style stage, but while you might have gotten a different impression from Robbie McEwen, it still refused to follow the script. Vino’ sensed weakness and made a dash for time with 12km to go. While it put Cadel back into BEAST MODE, Vino’ only managed to gain ten seconds, and his manuoever ended up giving Italy a reason to celebrate, and the rest of us a welcome antidote to the big story of the day.

You can read up/watch up on more of yesterday’s Giro action over at Podium Cafe, where they had some great feet-on-the-ground coverage.

Too Little, Too Late

20 May

You’ve probably heard by now that Floyd Landis has confessed.

Sadly, There isn’t a whole lot of data in the Landis emails. Floyd doesn’t really say anything that people haven’t been saying for years in late-night IM conversations and court depositions. I was hoping at least to get a photo of the vaunted refrigerated motorcycle panniers, but no such luck.

I think it’s great that Floyd has cleared his conscience, but the time for that was four years ago. Before the trial, the fund raising, the poorly-received book. Floyd spent over two million dollars unsuccessfully trying to undermine the scientific basis of the testing he now derides as a “charade”. Anyone else see a problem with that?

I’m not mad that Floyd has called these people out. Honestly, in all his accusations, the only surprising name for me is Leipheimer, who hangs tough in the Grand Tours, but tends to fade in the later stages—as if he’d been doing 200km a day for two weeks running. Hincapie, at 6′ 3″, 170, is a poor candidate for mountaintop stages. Zabriskie did have a bit of a purple patch a few years back, and as for Lance and Johan—well, that should be a surprise to no one.

No, my real beef with Floyd is that this is an essentially masturbatory effort on his part. People’s faith in Lance Armstrong borders on religious, and Floyd should know that anything short of hard evidence against his former teammate would be blown off as sour grapes.

Of course, the media will decide to pay attention, heaping more ignominy on the sport smack dab in the middle of the biggest American race—but hey, as long as your conscience feels better, right?

Even if every one of Floyd’s accusations is true, they’re all painfully easy to deny. Since there’s no incentive for athletes or officials to confess, anything that can be denied will be, and another round of denials only slims the chances that people who’ve cheated in the past will come clean.

Short of an amnesty—and good luck getting WADA to let go of their 8-year window of prosecution—nothing’s going to come of Floyd’s allegations beyond a few angry pixels. In fact, in many ways, Landis’ “confession” does more to hurt the cleanliness of cycling than it does to promote it.

Five Years Ago Today

19 May

Five years ago today I wrote my first real post on this blog during my lunch break, at Dos Gringos Burritos in scenic Carbondale, CO, in the shadow of Mount Sopris (at left). I believe Ute City Cycles, the shop I worked for at the time, has since moved to Aspen.

Quite an anniversary gift from the Giro this year, eh? And I thought it was a good race back in 2005.

Pascal the Mechanic

17 May

We’re all familiar with Chris Anker Sorenson’s fantastic pain management skills. But when you’re 1.5km from the top of a mountain-top finish in a Grand Tour, and Xabier Tondo has just been let off the leash to run you down, even he needs a little extra help. That’s when SaxoBank calls in Pascal:

“On the last three kilometres I am in the car with goosebumps all over my body and inches away from being a nervous wreck screaming out the window, then screaming into the steering wheel while Pascal is hanging out the sunroof rooting for Chris.” [source]

Pascal the Mechanic
[Pascal is roughly 1000kb and may take a moment to load.]
[Here’s a small version for forum posts/headshots.]

A Stage For the Grandkids

15 May

Pippo Pozzato gets a new nickname after today’s stage: Cassandra. He predicted the action pretty much to the letter (Evans winning, Sastre, Basso losing time) but was unable to do anything about it himself—possibly, some have suggested, because the weather was too grim. At any rate, the nickname is certainly inline with scope of the stage, which drew Gavia comparisons pretty much from the word go.

While I took in today’s action in a slightly atypical fashion, I’ve got to say, I was thrilled with what I saw. GC riders and stage contenders took chances throughout the day: Dario Cioni made an ambitious first move, then Linus Gerdmann came through with an aggressive climb-and-descent attack, during which a dreaded spike in PSL took out race leader Vincenzo Nibali, who was in a fairly select pack pursuing the break.

Nibali was slow to remount and lost time on the day, ceding the GC lead back to Alexandre Vinokourov. This lead to some criticism of Vino’s post-crash aggression in the press. While I may have been watching in non-ideal conditions, my visibility wasn’t cataract poor by any means, and it’s my assertion that Evans drove the race as much, if not more, than Vinokourov.

In fact, Evans’ rainbow-clad dictation of the closing kilometers was one of the high points of the race for me. In a very tricky final climb, descent, and narrow, cobbled, uphill sprint, the World Champ went to the front and essentially said “If you want it, you’re gonna have to take it from me.” Watching him stomp away from Damiano Cunego—no slouch at this sort of finish—and calmly point to his jersey after finishing with a three-second gap was a pretty class effort, and only added to the enjoyment of a stage I won’t soon forget.

The day was not without its detractors, though—Vinokourov, despite his successes over the take-no-prisoners parcours, questioned whether stages like this should be in Grand Tours, calling it “harder than Paris-Roubax“. I think think, despite the rough conditions, that the stage’s single DNF barely puts it in the same sport as Roubaix, let alone the same league.

As a racer, stages like today’s (scaled down to my humble abilities, anyway) are the races I love the most—all the more so if the weather’s bad. Granted, I’m not firing them off for twenty days running, but if the tweets of most of the riders I follow are any indication, it was a rough day at the office, but hardly unbearable one. It’s rumored that some may even haveenjoyed themselves.

Maybe All Grand Tours Should Start in the Netherlands

10 May

So for those of you scoring at home, that’s two consecutive Grand Tour starts in the Netherlands, and two consecutive Grand Tours marked by huge crowds, active racing, and scenes of epic carnage in the early going.

If the pattern continues, this year’s TdF depart in Rotterdam might just be that rapturous moment in which casual cycling fans finally dissociate “flat” from “boring” in their appreciation of the sport—unless, of course, Lance Armstrong crashes or misses a split. Then they’ll howl about how it’s not fair.

Regardless of the collective opinion of the sunburnt masses, I think a little chaos in the early going is a very good thing for Grand Tour racing, and for the sport in general. Too often—thanks especially to some over-zealous marketers of training plans and aero equipment—cycling competitions are cast as simple mathematical equations: watts/kg @ threshold, coefficient of drag x velocity^2, etc.

But off the trainer, in real-world wind tunnels, cycling’s as much about Spider Sense as anything else. Finding your way onto the right wheel; anticipating nervous moments and getting a good position before the battle starts; knowing which splits will take care of themselves and which you should bury yourself closing—these are the elements that get Grand Tour champions through the first week.

Some are tempted to credit these skills to the director and the radio; these people need to spend more time racing. The time scale of swerves and wheel touches is a fraction of the cognitive lag involved in any verbal communication, let alone one taking place over the radio. While directors can yell at their riders to move up, no amount of haranguing can impart the balance and know-how to make progress in a shoulder-to-shoulder peloton.

Cadel Evans pretty much hit the nail on the head with yesterday’s post-race tweet, though he was significantly less philosophical to see the Jersey leave his shoulders in the same fashion. While it may send the vehement anti-dopers into an emo funk, it should come as a surprise to no one that a canny veteran like Vino’ would end up in pink after another chaotic day.

Even if you hate the action and can’t stand the outcome, first-week chaos should at least be viewed as an investment in the quality of future stages. When the favorites are all clustered at the front of the GC, no one takes chances.

You think the podium places would have plodded up Ventoux if Contador had lost four minutes instead of 40 seconds in the early going at last Year’s TdF? For that matter, would Stefano Garzelli have put on such a show chasing KOM points at last year’s Giro if his squad hadn’t essentially lost the race for him in the opening day’s TTT?

Obviously, the current level of action isn’t sustainable, and probably not very fun for the riders—hopefully, the team time trial later this week take the nervousness out of pack. I think there’s a sweet spot for Grand Tours where the time gaps among the favorites are established enough that a touch of wheels won’t prove decisive, but where a big effort by a few teams could still alter the GC race.

With a little luck the TTT results will hit that sweet spot, and we’ll stay there until the final time trial in Verona.