Archive | February, 2011

The Enigma of Damiano Cunego

24 Feb

Damiano CunegoYesterday in Sardinia, Damiano Cunego took his first win in 527 days. While it may only be February, it’s still a noteworthy victory, coming over Peter Sagan, who—thanks in part to the extra-dessert-worthy efforts of his teammates—is confirming some of the form he showed at the top one-week stage races last season.

But a 500-day gap is a dishearteningly long time for a rider with Cunego’s expectations to wait for a win. It’s not that he hasn’t been slugging it out with the elites—he had some notable digs in the 2010 Tour—but for a guy who won a Giro at age 22, “among the best” is widely considered an underwhelming achievement. He’s had to defend his riding far more than any other winner of a Grand Tour and four classics, I can tell you that.

So maybe that’s why there are so many different explanations—at times, conflicting explanations—for his “sub-par” performances. His occasional spats with teammates have been well-documented: first the blow-up with Simoni at the 2004 Giro—tension from which was still palpable during a meeting at Interbike seven months later. I’d always been inclined to pin that tiff on Gibo, given his propensity to whine and the in-race support of Cunego by their Saeco teammates.

But Alessandro Ballan—who won the 2008 World Title with a major assist from a second-placed Cunego—didn’t have great things to say about the Little Prince after jumping ship from Lampre to BMC in 2010. Guiseppe Martinelli, who “discovered” Cunego describes the Italian—somewhat more politically—as “introspective”. The fact that the three-time Lombardy winner also has a big fence and closed-circuit security cameras at his house would certainly back up that appraisal.

Cunego (somewhat unsurprisingly), claims things are the other way around with Ballan, and self-effacingly criticizes his own reduced work ethic for losing the very top-end of his abilities. But I suspect—and Cunego might not deny—that his perceived decline stems from something a bit more substantive. After all, when Cunego was seemingly at the peak of his abilities, much attention was given to his supposedly natural high hematocrit.

As his performances have tailed off, Cunego has made some very interesting comments to the press, some of which seemed to carry the veiled suggestion that there are ways he could be riding better:

“My principle is this: To do what I can in the way that I should. With a conscience. The people who know you, understand you, appreciate you, esteem you, and respect you. There is a finishing order on the day, which this time has penalized me, and there is a finishing order in life, where everyone must protect himself. I am not the only one to do what I can the way I should. Therefore I keep doing it. And already I know there are certain classifications, that must be rewritten, to finished competitions, and this remains painful to me.”

Damiano Cunego Drinks a SodaWhile Cunego hasn’t lived entirely outside the realm of suspicion since downgrading from “unbeatable” to merely “great”, the connections between him and a few unsavory characters are tenuous, and unlike some other suspected riders, who vacillate between loud proclamations and gruff no-comments, he’s remained quietly vocal in his own defense.

I think the example of Danilo DiLuca shows what a rider in Cunego’s mold can do with a little push from clever chemistry. And while Cunego’s work in 2004 might have been more graceful than The Killer’s later efforts, it was carried out in a similarly emphatic fashion. Not that I consider myself a Lemondian (one who believes that doping can be sussed out entirely through performance) but Cunego’s wins since that amazing Giro certainly seem to have leaned more on canny racing and an explosive sprint.

So for all his problems, I think I might just be ok with 500-day gaps between wins. Frankly, I’d like to see more top names collect a small handful of classy, smart, hopefully clean wins—especially after so many with a similarly-sudden appearance names rose to wild, unprecedented success before tumbling down in digrace.

At the very least, the drought between victories has made Cunego a veritable steal in the Podium Cafe Virtual Directeur Sportif Competition that gets underway tomorrow.

The Trouble With Sprinting

21 Feb

Theo Bos Waves by EdnlIt’s a complicated thing to be a sprinter in this sport. Riders without that taste for risk and a talent for velocity, especially at the lower levels of the sport, seem perpetually envious of the speed merchants.

But a strong finishing kick is not the blessing that it seems. There are many factors that play into success in the closing kilometers; a few you can control, many you can’t. And there never seems to be a consensus on exactly which matter most.

But the really tough thing for sprinters has got to be specializing in such a volatile currency. Halfway through a stage race, your career can be all but over, but a single win on the final day can suddenly restore the world’s faith. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, a separate group of riders can be contesting a sprint in a similarly difficult (UCI 2.1) event, and yet hardly a career inference is drawn.

A week from now, the sprints of Paris-Nice will render the previous two months’ flat finishes almost meaningless, and—disregarding the classics, where sprints are a different sort of animal—the Giro will do the same three months. Later. But will Tony Martin’s or Robert Gesink’s victories this past week be discounted in a similarly brusk fashion? It doesn’t feel that way to me.

For GC riders, things are more stable. A win in Oman or Algarve—or even a second-place—doesn’t seem to have the same short shelf-life as a sprint. Even for riders who’ve ridden well on tough stages but missed out on the final GC, there seems to be more to carry around in terms of reputation. Certainly, even in the early season, fifth on a tough mountain stage carries more weight at contract time than fifth in similar bunch sprint.

It seems like a strange dualism for a sport that tends to group any victory, regardless of prestige or circumstance, into a faceless tally called “wins”. Even the points system finally established with the WorldTour does little to unravel the curious differences in win value. There’s no question that a win atop Ventoux in the Tour is worth far more than sprinting to second at Vattenfalls, but in fact, the later rated three times as heavily as the former.

Call it a fact of economics, I suppose. A glut of winning opportunities makes success an ever-present possibility, but simultaneously undermines its value when luck, fitness, and skill bring you across the line first.

Seven Years After Pantani

14 Feb

Marco Pantani Memorial

“I always said that doping was generalized and you could say even democratic up to the time when they developed a test for EPO, then it became elitist. You needed cutting-edge methods to get around the tests from that point on—methods that often only the big riders and teams could access or afford.

      —Filippo Simeoni

[photo by mcalamelli]

The anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death might seem like a strange moment to talk about the progress cycling has made in the fight against doping. After all, the last man to win both the Tour and the Giro in a single year died from an overdose of one of cycling’s oldest performance enhancers. But the post-transfusion hospitalization of Riccardo Ricco just last week, brings out some important contrasts between conditions in Pantani’s heyday and cycling’s current state of affairs.

Pantani, like most of the best riders of his era, never tested positive. But unlike other big names, he left—or spent less effort covering up—an impressive trail of evidence: a then-legal 54% hematocrit value at the ’94 Giro. A whopping 60% after a crash at Milan-Turin the next year. In 1999, he became the first major post-Festina race ejection, being booted for a high hematocrit on Giro d’Italia’s penultimate stage, while leading the GC by more than five-and-half-minutes.

Most of the writing on the Italian following his death suggests that these values were indicative—or even low—for the blood thicknesses he raced at for most of his career. And yet, for all the insistance on the UCI’s part that the 50% limit was merely a “health test”, Pantani never suffered any physical problems due to his abuse of EPO (other than, one could argue, a crippling, clinical depression that lead directly to his death). The same (minus the depression) goes for Riis, Virenque and host of other trailblazers in the use of blood boosting drugs.

It’s not that EPO abuse is without risk—certainly the mystery heart attacks are well-documented—but for the most part, sudden, doping-induced medical emergencies among active pro cyclists were a rarity between 1994 and 2006. Off the top of my head, only one example comes to mind, and it was apparently unrelated to the blood-boosting drug itself.

With the advent of the EPO test in 2001, many people—Michael Ashenden, for example—think a good number of the pros switched over to blood transfusions. A cynical minority seem to believe—based largely on the statements of Thomas Frei—that EPO tests are ineffective, but the very fact that Ricco had chosen to favor transfusions over injections suggests otherwise. No reason to switch off of a successful doping regimen unless you believe it will no longer be effective.

Riccardo RiccoIndeed, what happened to Riccardo Ricco last week is an extremely rare occurrence in cycling—at least since the 1960s. He might not be quite as big a rider Simeoni is referring to in his quotation above, but certainly with Ricco’s results before his first suspension—and his fingers-in-the-nose victories since—his bankroll would have been more than sufficient to safely finance better living through chemistry at nearly any point in the past.

This startling difference in short-term outcome—podium vs. hospital bed—between the illicit ventures of Pantani and Ricco speaks volumes as to how things have changed in the interceding decade. But the general reaction to their respective falls from grace is a sharper contrast still. The report from a nascent on Pantani’s ’99 expulsion suggests a general sadness, combined with just a hint of conspiracy theory. The most telling part might be the embarrassing lengths Hein Verbruggen goes to to avoid suggesting doping.

Certainly a contrast to the reactions Ricco received to either of his dope-related suspensions. Granted, Ricco didn’t exactly endear himself to anyone, but the blowback from last week’s medical emergency was hardly sympathetic, hedged, or ambiguous. One can only hope things end up better for Ricco than they did for rider he had always hoped to emulate.

The Real Pre-Season Begins

8 Feb

Tom BoonenTom Boonen, Heinrich Haussler, Tyler Farrar—all names you’ve heard of before. And all names you’ve seen taking wins at the bevy of tune-up races filling space underneath this week’s doping headlines.

Even the Etoile Besseges—the second peloton’s tune-up race—you’ll catch a glimpse of a few names who’ve stolen a Tour stage, or at least featured in some post-stage drama on the sport’s biggest stage.

Yes, say what you will about the goofball photography and technical mishaps, but Qatar, and the more mountainous Tour of Oman are serious races, and not only because they’re must-air components of the multi-million dollar broadcast rights package that the UCI uses to sell the Tour de France.

The furor over Urinegate last year, and the fact that wins routinely come, like Boonen’s Stage 1 triumph, out of small, select, big-name groups really attest that the preseason has arrived. While some of the courses may be even less inspired than their Australian counterparts at the Tour Down Under, the teams and riders more than make up the difference.

I’m sure that as space opened up between the elite echelon and the rest of the field on Monday, plenty of racers pulled in the flag early, reasoning that Qatar wasn’t worth the sort of all-in, protracted effort that just isn’ sustainable for months at a time.

But with intensity work just a touch below that level an important part of the training plan for anyone hoping to be on form for the Classics—that is, essentially the entire peloton—you’re got 100+ riders going at a reasonable approximation of full gas, something you can’t always say about the TdU.

Raw Documents – The Verbruggen/Landis Exchange

4 Feb

When Paul Kimmage released the full transcript of his interview with Floyd Landis earlier this week, it didn’t take a PR expert to predict what the UCI’s response would be. Pat McQuaid flatly denied all allegations made in the interview, claimed that “there has never been corruption in the UCI”, and went on to take a few swipes at “bloggers and so forth”.

While it may be true that a good deal of Landis’ allegations are difficult to substantiate, paperwork obtained by Cyclocosm indicates at least one claim happens to be very well-documented: Floyd’s back-and-forth with the UCI over unpaid wages from 2001.

In that year, Landis was riding for Mercury-Viatel, an American-registered squad that had just made the jump to Division 1 in hopes of gaining entry to the Tour de France. Due to some colossal mismanagement (you can read Whit Yost‘s fantastic first-hand account here and here), the team was in serious financial difficulty by March—the same point that Landis’ paychecks stopped arriving.

The UCI has a set of regulations concerning pro teams, and one of them involves a sizable bank guarantee, to be opened by the UCI to pay riders and staff in the event the team cannot make payments. Despite repeated requests, the UCI refused to draw from the guarantee to pay Landis, and after two more months, he hired a lawyer. This is where our paper trail begins:

First Document – 30 Jul 2001: An email from Michael P Rutherford, a lawyer representing both Chris Horner (Floyd’s teammate on Mercury) and Floyd Landis, to the UCI. It is addressed “Dear Sirs” but mentions prior conversations with “Mr. Rumpf” and “Mr. Verbiest” [most likely Alain Rumpf, the current director of the UCI ProTour, and Philippe Verbiest, a lawyer for the UCI, who threatened legal action against Landis after his confessions last year].

The message expresses Rutherford’s concern at his inability to contact the correct parties at the UCI regarding the bank guarantee (“I was told there was no one who can tell me the current situation”), and states firmly but politely that the rule obligates the UCI to pay (“the rule is quite clear that the UCI is required to draw upon the bank guarantee”). The letter concludes with a “request that the UCI contact me immediately”. [download document].

Second Document – 9 Aug 2001: A fax from Rutherford to Christian Varin, former UCI anti-doping co-ordinator. The message acknowledges a fax sent from Varin the previous day, presumably about the bank guarantee.

In this second document, Rutherford’s wording is more direct (“Therefore I once again demand that the UCI draw on the bank guarantee”), and details are discussed in greater depth. Mercury-Viatel manager John Wordin has apparently revealed his inability to pay to Horner and Landis, as well as the UCI, and “therefore it is continuing negligence of the UCI” to not draw on the bank guarantee.

Rutherford mentions that Wordin and Verbiest are attempting to forge “an alternative solution” with the riders, but forcefully insists that “Mr. Horner and Mr. Landis will not agree to the arrangement”, and thus the guarantee must be drawn on. Failure to do so, Rutherford reiterates, “is therefore subjecting the UCI to possible liability”; he goes on to question whether the bank guarantee even exists, and requests “satisfactory proof” of it immediately.

The fax’s final paragraph begins with an appeal to mercy (“Mr. Horner had to have a garage sale to pay his monthly bills and feed his children this month”), rolls into a cataloguing of the treachery of Wordin (he “continues to spend what money he has left on his personal bills and proposition new riders for the year 2002 while he simultaneously tells his riders to stick by him and he will provide them with jobs…”), before closing by asking the UCI to see that riders “will be taking care of [sic] rather than being further victimized”. [download document]

Final Document – 10 Aug 2001 A fax from UCI President Hein Verbruggen to Rutherford, insisting that Rutherford’s “aggressive approach might perhaps work in the USA, but it does not in Europe, and most definitely, not with me”. Verbruggen maintains that the UCI legal department has “explicitly followed the rules”.

The fax goes on to suggest that the amount of money involved is too small to worry about (“Your aggressiveness is not at all justified by a claim of $6,666.66”), and that because of the legal action implied by the letter, the UCI will now drag its feet on the claim (“I have given order to our legal department to take the tone of your approach into account when it comes to following up on your request”). [download document]

These documents reveal a UCI that isn’t as beyond reproach as McQuaid insists. Rutherford’s letters, for all their rambling, typo-rich freneticism, are hardly what most people would consider “aggressive” in stance, suggesting “possible” liability, and making no explicit threat of further action. The opacity Rutherford complains about is as frustrating as ever, and his most serious allegation—that the UCI might not actually have a valid bank guarantee—turns out not to be so crazy.

In fact, the legal standing of Landis’ complaint might be among the least-compelling things brought up in this exchange. I believe that this portion of the UCI rulebook currently lays out the protocol for drawing on a bank guarantee. With a decade of potential changes between this case and today, it’s tough to tell, but the immediacy with which the UCI must pay up doesn’t seem to be specified.

What’s definitely not present in the statute, however, is any clause saying that creditors will be paid by the UCI based on their attitude toward the governing body. While I’ll stop short of calling Verbruggen’s actions “corruption”, they certainly don’t inspire faith in the integrity of the organization—especially after that line about how this “might work in the USA”. In case you’d forgotten, this isn’t the first time Verbruggen’s used a comparison with the United States as means of derision.

Furthermore, Verbruggen’s reply fails to address any of the rather pertinent issues in Rutherford’s letters. While I admire the effort to mediate the Mercury disaster, that’s a matter for Wordin’s lawyers, not the UCI’s. The continued wheeling-and-dealing of an admittedly destitute team manager is just the sort of thing the UCI should be aiming to squelch. Is it any wonder that Landis took the UCI’s behavior in this case as a sign that it had no intentions of following through on its own guidelines?

Aside from starkly refuting the picture of the UCI presented by its president, these documents also go a good way toward restoring a bit of Landis’ battered credibility. His recollection of the events described run very close to the facts, and even Verbruggen’s mean-spirited reply does not seem to have been unduly slanted. While I wouldn’t interpret it as proof for his full battery of allegations, it certainly takes the “Floyd has zero credibility” rebuttal off the table.