Archive | March, 2011

The Promising Implications of Two-League Cycling

24 Mar

Sympathy for the Devil

Race officials looking bored by michelle658I’m not an especially big fan of the UCI, but don’t let the apparel fool you—they’re far from useless. In the past two decades, the governing body has actually made some pretty solid steps for the sport.

When I began following cycling about a decade ago, most sponsors were essentially unknown to me—small French and Italian firms like Bonjour and Pata-Chips. But a concerted effort from the UCI to entice bigger, more secure, more international backers has lead to a host of brands I’d heard of before—Columbia, HTC, Discovery Channel, T-Mobile, Skype, RadioShack, Garmin, Transitions, Chipotle, to name a few—at least dabbling in the sport since then.

The UCI’s efforts in this area have also all but eliminated the mid-season meltdowns that struck with regularity—Mercury and Coast most prominent among them. It’s not that the UCI has made things perfect (there was Astana’s brief refusal to pay, and who could forget the phony bank guarantee), but on the whole, the efforts have had a positive impact. At the ’06 Tour, Paul Kimmage—a former domestique—was struck by how much the improved funding has made things better for replaceable, also-ran riders.

The UCI has also done well to balance this sponsor attraction with improved anti-doping efforts—no, seriously. Since McQuaid’s tenure began, and efforts got underway to move toward a ProTour-like structure, we’ve seen three (counting Contador) Yellow Jerseys removed from the backs of dopers. We’ve seen guys like Rebellin, DiLuca, Ricco, Valverde, Kohl—the best of the best—busted, tried, and removed from the sport. It may seem easy to simply improve the testing and enforce the rules, but doing this while simultaneously attracting bigger money to the sport is a mighty fine tightrope to walk.

Sure, you could point to guys like Thomas Frei who (despite getting caught) say that it’s easy to beat the tests, but even with all the drama and exclusions surrounding the Festina Affair, riders looking to dope before 2005 simply didn’t face the same challenges, frequency of testing, or stringency of punishment that they do today. Raimondas Rumsas was a fish in a barrel compared to the meticulous, consistant work done to bring down Franco Pellizotti. As I’ve said before, the tests don’t have to be perfect—just good enough to make cheating not worth the risk.

Ultima Ratio Regum

Louis XIV by Hyacinthe RigaudThe problem with all this positive change, however, is that much of it comes at the expense of people and business that have supported and promoted cycling for years—in some cases, for over a century. There’s nothing wrong with this per se (the doping, wage exploitation and other problems arose on their watch, after all), but they’re understandably upset to have control over a good source of income suddenly in the hands of a very isolated, very opaque group in a mountain stronghold, a thousand kilometers away.

And herein lies the root problem: the UCI’s regulatory authority stems solely from its affiliation with the International Olympic Committee. The IOC (an organization hardly known for integrity itself) has literally “blessed” the UCI as the only governing body for the world’s cycling events. When a race organizer asks “why”, the respons is “because the IOC says we can”.

As a result, the UCI simply is not set up to represent the interests of all the shareholders in cycling. While many of their extensive rule sets do seem carefully thought out, it’s an internal process. People from outside the UCI are indeed consulted—just not the ones who are likely to disagree. For example John Lelangue was a member of the radio earpiece working group in 2010, when his BMC squad’s ProTeam status just so happened to be under consideration. Should we chalk it up to coincidence that this meeting resulted in both a radio ban and guaranteed entries to all major events for Lelangue’s team?

And it’s not just radios. The UCI has seemed unable to come to terms with other groups on any number of issues. They sparred with the AFLD over dope controls at the Tour de France, and with teams on sponsor logo color choices in a sport where everything is covered in mud anyway. They’ve taken issue with seemingly meaningless equipment distinctions, and most prominently, fought with the Grand Tour organizers over control of races.

A House Divided

The last time the UCI/Organizer Schism reared its ugly head was in 2008, ostensibly over who had the right to invite teams to events. It wasn’t a new problem—the ASO, along with Giro organizer RCS and Vuelta organizer Unipublic, previously appeared ready to break with the governing body in 2005 and 2007 over similar issues.

But while it may look like the same old discussion, this time around the situation is different. For starters, the radio issue has pushed the teams and riders away from the UCI, who they (eventually) came around to supporting in ’05-’06. The Grand Tour Cartel also has the support of some of the few notable independent race organizers, including those responsible for the Tour of California—a race which, just two years ago, seemed aimed at stripping power from the Cartel by weakening the Giro.

Despite the forces of everyone else in the sport now arrayed against them, the UCI still refuses to acknowledge that this is about more than radios. Their response, an open letter from Pat McQuaid described, in too little detail and far too late, the process through which the radio ban was born. Using the doping issue when convenient (rider protests) and ignoring it when not (German TV rights), the letter comes across as a meandering populist appeal, meant to convince the disenfranchised that a ballot filed in spirit is as good as one filled out in fact.

In the past, compelling arguments have been made against a divided league. But times have changed. In 2007, the sport was still reeling from the first disqualification of a Tour winner since 1904, and coming to grips with the notion that (after seven very profitable years) addressing the doping problem head-on was better than sweeping it under the rug.

Four years and dozens of “bad for cycling” positives later, the sport still exists. The doping issue, while not solved, is actively prosecuted. There is no other sport that takes anti-doping as seriously as cycling, and as a result, there are more pressing problems—foremost among them, the inability of those who make their living in the sport to have a say in its future. And I think a split league may be the only way to guarantee that right.

The UCI needs to realize that other than IOC approval, it has no trump cards. All of the races that made cycling what it is today are the property of organizations it routinely fails to represent. Full-on rider bans—as threatened in 2008—simply won’t happen because, for better or for worse, cycling is the Tour de France. If decisions are either/or between the Olympics and the Tour, even the shut-ins at Aigle know which way the scales will tip.

Competition Means a Competitive Sport

Vaughters by kwcIn my eyes, the emerging situation—if everyone digs in their heels—is two separate, non-exclusive, season-long race circuits, one run by the UCI, and the other by a committee of those currently opposing the group—and I think that has the potential to be a very good thing for cycling.

The UCI will hopefully retain enough pull with emerging international races like the Tour of Poland and the Quebec one-days that most teams still fulfill the legal and ethical obligations laid down in its bylaws to retain eligibility. On the other circuit, freedom from the UCI rulebook will allow the competing races to experiment with new equipment, new race formats, and to invite teams to races based on performance during the season, instead of politics the previous fall.

The split format would also make an ostensibly-independent WADA an obvious choice to oversee and enforce doping regulations in both leagues—a huge step up from the currently inconsistent patchwork of national federations.

Hopefully, the direct comparison will allow everyone involved with or following the sport to see what rules matter, and what rules probably don’t, as well as provide an open and democratic testing ground on issues from equipment to contract negotiations. Additionally, competition between the two circuits would accelerate the adoption of positive changes, and as well hastening the demise of outdated rules. One only has to look at the runaway commercial success of American Football to see that a string of competing leagues have been very good for business.

This could be construed as a fairly rosy prediction, and one that seems downright ingenuous given the past history of The Grand Tour Cartel. But as I noted earlier, the major change this time around is that riders and teams are now the driver, with the entrenched European media oligarchs simply along for the ride.

I can’t imagine a savvy dealmaker like Jon Vaughters would blithely trade one set of dictators for another—but it wouldn’t be the first time in history that a revolution has been duped.

It's Good Not To Be The King

10 Mar

Sanchez' finger, from Steephill.TV and ReutersI got to guest post on The Selection today, and my basic thesis was that, despite the fact it means going slower and not winning, being a mid-pack racer is kind of awesome.

Further reinforcement of that theory from today’s Paris-Nice finish: it’s several hours later and the Twitterati still can’t believe it—Sammy Sanchez lost a heads-of-state sprint. Not only did he lose it, but he lost it to Andreas Kloden, who famously lost the closest (and most gangly-limbed) finish in TdF history back in 2005.

Now, it’s not inconceivable that the famously quick Sanchez would have lost—Klodi had a good lead out, and Sanchez occasionally mistimes his final punch. But, being right up at the front in a WorldTour race means a million prying eyes are watching your every move; enter a Reuters cameraman and the discerning eye of @inrng, to catch the Spaniard appearing to use his left lever in the closing meters.

It’s tricky to imagine why he’d be doing this. Braking would seem to be out of the question. Plenty of riders, from experience in cyclocross or on motorcycles, swap the front and rear brakes, but as far as I know, there are no parts manufacturers that have shift/break bodies that are reverseable—right has to shift the rear, and left has to shift the front.

Maybe he was shifting/had just shifted between chainrings because he was worried about running out of gears or chainline, but even with top-shelf electronic parts, a front shift under any kind of power really is sticking your finger in the devil’s eye.

The other scenario (and I think the easiest to explain) is that Sanchez did hit the brakes. He could have done this because he’s a klutz (not unheard of among cyclists) or because he didn’t want the burden of race leadership (the two stages after the TT, while not obvious game-changers, have some potential to be decisive) or because there was some sort of agreement that Kloden would be allowed to win in exchange for money/future support/2012 contract/what have you.

Regardless, people have noticed, and Sanchez will probably have to conjure up some sort of acceptable explanation over the next few days. Much nicer, I think, to be competing at a lower level, or rolling in with the group, to keep any of your dabbling in cycling’s middle layer out of the prying public eye.

Why Strade Bianche Won't Be A WorldTour Event

7 Mar

Craig Lewis by fsteele770

Craig Lewis is dead-on about the outright quality of Montepaschi Strade Bianche in his most recent Versus post. The race is sensational, but unfortunately, that’s why the UCI will likely do everything in its power to keep it out of cycling’s top tier for the foreseeable future.

Strade Bianche was founded and is organized by RCS, the Italian Media Conglomerate that owns the Giro, Milan-Senremo, Tour of Lombardy, Tirreno-Adriatico and (I believe) a few other notable Italian Races as well.

Along with their counterparts in France and Spain, RCS has been waging an on-and-off turf war with the UCI over the cycling calendar; the UCI wants less emphasis on traditionally important events and more on a season long campaign, while the Grand Tour Cartel would like to consolidate and expand its stable of established cycling events.

It’s tough to pick good-guys and bad-guys in the feud; siding with the UCI would help expand cycling beyond Europe, but they governing body has also got a habit of producing snoozy, unromantic events. The Cartel does a great job preserving the historical pillars of the sport, but at the expense of the rest of the calendar, and events in the rest of the world. Neither group is compelling as an objective, reliable central authority.

Fortunately for fans and riders, the two seem to have reached a detente. With the formation of the WorldTour, an agreement on dope testing and even—for the rest of 2011—an ongoing cease-fire on radio earpieces, things are more or less OK between the factions.

But the promotion of a Cartel-owned event (especially one as instantly charismatic as Strade Bianche) would almost certainly upset the balance of power, and the UCI is smart to keep it off the list. For the time being, RCS is content not to promote its latest creation to preserve the status (and profitability) of the events it already runs.

The Radio-Free Classics

1 Mar

Het Volk 2008 by nicolas_de_vijldeDespite the fact that they are not “true” classics, this past weekend’s racing at the Omloop and KBK marked the first time that (to my day-job addled knowledge) trade teams have taken each other on in a high-profile one-day event without the use of radio earpieces. And while I hesitate to view a single weekend in February as a referendum on the quality of the sport without radio earpieces, I’d have to say that if it was, the jury is very much still out.

It’s no secret I’m pro-radio. But not because I’m an ideologue in the vein of a Johan Bruyneel, or because I’m a safety geek, but because it doesn’t make much sense to me to ban something that’s kinda hard to ban for— essentially—the sake of romance. I readily concede that many of cycling’s regulations (the double diamond frame) are for the nods to tradition, but like disc brakes in cyclocross, radios are part of naturally evolving technology.

Some people think they make the racing worse; I think these people are either uninformed or watch the exclusively Tour de France and get cranky during the flat stages. Take Stijn Devolder at the Omloop—some said he was caught out, while others are reporting he had a mechanical failure, and with no radio to call up for a car and a bike change, was forced to just make it work.

While I miss the good old days when MTB riders had to race the gear they started with, road cycling has been a fully-supported sport for decades now, and I think there are very few people would would argue that’s a bad thing. For my money (if there were a way to buy bike racing coverage in this country), I want Devolder to have a functional bike under him as often as possible, so he can start stomping the living daylights out of everyone (or at least trying to) at 60km to go.

You’ll get no argument from me that Boonen and Hushovd kinda paddy-caked it on Saturday (Flecha mentioned he made his attack when he saw them cranking gears too large to respond from), or that the race as it played out was anything but entertaining, but an irascible Devolder, pumping adrenaline as he roared back on from a frantic bike change, might have made the story a bit more interesting than he did towing Chase Group 3 for the final 30k.

Stijn Devolder CaricatureSunday’s action at KBK was similarly unconvincing as far as the radio arguments go. Aside from a spectator getting creamed by a wayward Rabobank rider inside two KM to go, not much happend that might have otherwise been avoided with radio communications.

But the dashing, devil-may-care attacks, timed with precision for catches and tight sections of road—the sort of thing anti-radio folks seem to think would happen every day if not for those darn earpieces—failed time, after time, after time.

It could be argued that a “nervous” peloton were forced by their lack of communication to keep the chasers close, but (ignoring the fact that this argument “blames” radios for pretty much any type of finish) the pack hardly seemed on edge, remaining roughly egg-shaped for most of the day, except when driven by the familiar precision paceline of a well organized chase or leadout train. There was plenty of the usual bumping in tight quarters, but a relative dearth of crashes goes further toward discrediting “nervousness” due to missing radios.

All that said, the important take away from this is that the racing didn’t suffer without radios—and for me, quality of racing is what matters. Plenty of bold moves were made in both races, and while we may have have lost one or two potential players due to the radio silence, it’s no more entropy than is introduced by cobbles, crosswinds, crosswalks or any of the other chaos part and parcel in a Northern Classic. A few cartoonists had a good time, but looking back Monday, it was just another weekend in Flanders.

And that—radios or otherwise—is just fine with me.