Archive | April, 2011

Three Stooges Syndome

5 Apr

Girona Training camp by Team Garmin-CerveloIt’s always a little uncomfortable to tell professionals in the cycling world that they’re “doing it wrong”. After all, I can sit here with limited talent and no experience and say pretty much anything I want and face no repercussions—I don’t even have to worry about offending a sponsor or future stonewalling from press agents.

That said, Garmin-Cervelo is doing it wrong.

It doesn’t have much to do with their Flanders performance. The squad has taken an inordinate amount of heat for a radio conversation that at the time made plenty of tactical sense. In fact, it even turned out to be the winning decision, just for another team—and that’s kind of my point.

Garmin-Cervelo’s strategy of “letting the road decide the leader” doesn’t really work in cycling. It’s an attractive, ego-friendly dictum, and you can find it munging things up at pretty much any level of the sport. Go to a local race, watch the team riding like nonsense, and I can all but guarantee that their “plan” going in was to “see what happened” and “let the race decide”.

At the pro level, it tends to be a mark of deep intra-squad strife, or at the very least, poor organization. I will admit that keeping two riders in decent GC shape at a three-week Grand Tour makes a bit more sense, as it can be good insurance, and also an important strategic lever.

But as the classics have no GC competition, “race-determines-leader” seldom ends well. A semi-protected lieutenant placing in the second group brings no advantage to the next race. Similarly, if your leader crashes and falls off the pace, he or she begins at square one with every other rider the next weekend. Yes, the chances are higher of disaster striking a given rider at the classics, but the numerous clean-slate restarts throughout the spring make the risk worthwhile.

Plus, there are some practical concerns. When the peloton lines-out in a classic, over narrow streets, surfaces with maybe one rideable line, and up grades where any hesitation or mishap means missing a critical selection, there’s no time to democratically work out which rider sits on and which rider pulls. There’s even less room to let “the road” determine leadership by having two teammates fight for a single opening. If both riders are strong, one should be protecting space, eating wind, or pushing the pace to the advantage of the other; otherwise, it becomes a literal case of Three Stooges Syndrome:

Finally, you only get to put eight riders on the start line at most big one-days. With three leaders, you’ve only got five support riders. With three of those riding as “bodyguards”, that leaves two guys to chase, get bottles, cover breaks, and cover all the other intangibles that make the sport so interesting. Over an au bloc 260km effort, those two domestiques simply aren’t going to get the job done.

It’s tough to claim that Garmin-Cervelo currently packs a more star-studded line-up than the Mapei or Domo Farm-Frites teams of the 90s-00s. Yet rare were the moments where Patrick Lefevere had to explain to the press why his superteam wasn’t winning. Sure, there was the occasional gripe from a slighted rider after a pre-arranged finish order, but for the most part, the order went out, the squad closed ranks, and the wins rolled in.

Patrick Lefevere at Dwars Door Vlaanderen by Cindy TrossaertThe commitment is total, as Paolo Bettini’s memories of the 2000 Liege, or scenes of a yellow-clad Victor Hugo Pena dropping back to get bottles, can attest. The director says “today, we ride for Hushovd” and everyone else, because they’re pros, says “yes, directore“. It’s a unfair system, prone to politics and unfriendly to careers, but it also wins bike races. Prize money isn’t split to reward effort; it’s done to suppress dissent.

And I think this hesitation to enforce top-down authority is at the root of Garmin-Cervelo’s problem. You’ve got JV saying things like “when you have two riders and one says he doesn’t have it, what can you do?” The answer is nuke the guy who doesn’t have it to put the guy who does in a position to win. Many pixels have been scattered about how agreeable things are between Garmin’s stars, but to my mind, that’s more reason for Vaughters to stand up and say “today, you are the man”. Set the heirarchy from the start and no one wastes time wondering whose bottles to tote.

Obviously, it’s tough to choose between riders who are all on-form, but much like barking an order over the radio, deciding a pre-race leader does not translate directly into outcome. Servais Knaven didn’t win Roubaix because he was protected—he won because Lefevere told him “get to the front or die trying so we can smash Hincapie“.

Knaven did his job, and as luck would have it, his attack turned out to be the winning move. Similarly, Stijn Devolder’s back-to-back winning solos at Flanders were designed to take the pressure off the squad, and leave more riders to look after the real leader, Tom Boonen. Pozzato’s win at Sanremo, Burghardt’s Gent-Wevelgem—plenty of riders have had their day working to the advantage of a teammate.

On paper, Gamin-Cervelo is almost custom-tailored for Roubaix. But every time they split resources between riders, they get half as good. This Sunday, they need to pick one guy, put everything behind him, and never look back. In a sport where the road will always have its say in determining a winner, a team focus on a single leader will always be the best bet. If you don’t believe me, just ask Bjarne Riis and Nick Nuyens.

The Model Bike Race

4 Apr

2008-04-06-tour of flanders 059  by edward taylorThere are times—generally a non-GC stage after the first mountain/time trial battle of the Tour de France—where I’ll concede that cycling isn’t the most exciting sport in the world. But races like this year’s Tour of Flanders make the few days that drag entirely worthwhile.

While there were countless things to love, for me, the most memorable aspect of yesterday was how many situations arose in which the race could have realistically been “over”.

Before the start, prognostication on scenarios in which Cancellara would not win seemed to agree that a small group of good non-favorites could get clear while the giants marked each other—and at about 50km to go, Boassen-Hagen, Boom, Chavanel and Clarke looked poised to do just that.

When Chavanel dropped his companions over the Molenburg, and the favorites simply looked around, a few commentators saw shades of Het Nieuwsblad, where a comparatively early solo move from a smaller name ended up taking the the title, even after a catch. But when Cancellara erupted eight kilometers later, it was Superman, reborn and reducing the dreams of his opponents to dust once again.

Despite some signs of cramping and a six-man chase from BMC, most expected Cancellara to fly away for good on the Muur van Geraardsbergen. When he was instead caught on that vaunted slope, he was pronounced dead—mere seconds before accelerating though its steepest pitch and peeling off another elite group.

Over the Bosberg, Philippe Gilbert laid down as solid an attack as the race had seen, and for another brief moment, it seemed like the final chapter had been written. But a group reformed and reeled in the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider, and after a series of solid, but ineffective attacks, it seemed like Tom Boonen’s race to lose from a group sprint.

A Skill-Shimano rider gets back to his team car to talk strategy by Franklin TelloBut Cancellara—allegedly out of the race twice by this point—made one more huge effort. Chavanel was on him immediately, but Nick Nuyens, who’d attacked ineffectively a few moments earlier, suffered quite a bit to bridge the gap, and after a brief recovery, began to pull through.

Even heading into the final few hundred meters, nothing was set—Boonen took a no-hope attack around the final corner, and teammate Chavanel must have seen him bearing down as he checked over his shoulder, because seconds later, he swung back into third position behind Nuyens. If Cancellara had been a little more confident in his pop, and gotten into a debate with Nuyens over who would lead out, Boonen’s last-gasp charge might just have succeeded.

Even so, the final sprint wasn’t exactly a cut-and-dried affair. Cancellara went early in hopes of reaching a speed where the others couldn’t match without a draft. And it almost worked; Nuyens had the burst to get around Cance, but not entirely clear of him, and as the sprint tracked across the road, Chavanel, who looked to have the necessary punch for victory, found himself pinned between his two companions and the barriers.

While I’ve been lukewarm to open, NASCAR-style access to team audio, the car-and-comm coverage was the perfect accompaniment to today’s hell-bent race—and proof-positive for anyone who still needed it that guiding your team through a pro race ain’t exactly sitting down at a Playstation.

Shots of the QuickStep team car saying that Cancellara was “obviously” too strong for Chavanel to work with, and of Jon Vaughters exhorting his riders to stop working and await a sprint, showed that even when the team bosses do know what’s going on, and are able to communicate their intentions, there’s more to crafting a winning strategy than simply coming up with a good plan.

Don't Say "American" Like It's A Bad Thing

2 Apr

USA USA USA by Mingo HagenDespite—and in many ways, because of—my immersion in American culture, I am well aware of its many dislikable aspects. Conspicuous consumption. An increasingly embarrassing income gap. The wholesale embrace of opinion without the discomfort of thought on both ends of the political spectrum. But what I simply do not understand is profound toxicity of the American brand in the upper echelons of European cycling.

I get the fatigue aspect—seven Tour wins, the cynics, the comeback, chair you’re sitting on, etc. Anyone who denies a touch of eye glaze around 2004 or so clearly isn’t a cycling fan. But time after time, when one European cycling group seeks to discredit another, the American card is one of the first played.

When laying out his arguments against the ProTour back in 2005, ASO President Patrice Clerc told Cyclingnews that “The second issue on which we disagree [with the UCI – ed.] is on a sporting level. We cannot conceive that a European sports system should be founded on an American, closed model.”

As far as I can tell, Clerc’s criticism was simply about a lack of any promotion/relegation system within the nascent league. And while it’s true that no major American sports use such a system, it’s not a particularly specific description. One could just as easily interpret “American, closed model” as a profit-shared, salary-capped, free-agent system that gives even the most historically woeful squads a decent shot at a title each season.

More recently, UCI President Pat McQuaid attempted to paint a potential breakaway league with the American brush. “It is only in the American-style sports where you have professional leagues…where the money just revolves around the group of people who are involved in it,” said McQuaid, elaborating that “a certain amount of greed” was driving the split.

While more descriptive than his counterpart at the ASO, McQuaid’s additional specificity is a bit of an Achilles’ Heel. Yes, major sports leagues in the US make an obscene amount of money, and yes, most of that goes to a very small group of people. But the riches of Croesus allow a certain independence; the NFL doesn’t circle the wagons around a superstar when allegations arise. And while US sport are way, way behind on drug testing, standards, and enforcement, athlete donations still won’t suppress a positive result anytime soon.

McQuaid cites the donation of six used bicycles from each ProTour team to “developing countries” as an example of the UCI’s commitment to helping the entire sport; I find myself wondering if this is before or after they were sold for drugs.

Johan Bruyneel by Dave StromIn all seriousness, though, American sports leagues and their extremely well-compensated athletes drop massive amounts of coin on first-world and third-world problems alike. I don’t generally subscribe to the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats, but arguing that the ostensible lack of profit motive somehow makes the “European” system more altruistic than the “American” one is patently ridiculous.

The fact is that what cycling needs right now is more Americanness. Take Johan Bruyneel—Belgian, steeped in cycling, widely regarded as one of the more effective directors in recent memory. But for all his past successes, he’s a creature of embarrassing habit—he knows one way and one way alone to win a bike race, and his record at the classics—and at the 2010 Tour de France—illustrate this plainly.

When asked about his role in a possible breakaway league by the Belgian press, the Bruyneel said “Cycling is a very difficult sport for television. In the first ten stages of the Tour de France…there is just nothing to see. This is how it is.”

The chaos of the Ardennes stage at last year’s Tour? The drama over the cobbles at mini-Roubaix? “Nothing to see”. In Bruyneel’s mind, the TdF model was set in 2002: the first week will always be dull, the best rest day refill will always determine the winner.

Contrast this with Jonathan Vaughers—an American who, by his own admission, came up through the ranks getting slaughtered on teams that discouraged doping, before taking a stellar Dauphine win on Mt. Ventoux that “answered a lot of questions”.

For some reason, the obvious lesson of this experience—that doping wins bike races—was lost on the American, and he went on to build one of the better squads in the world on the lunatic notion that cyclists don’t need to do drugs. He’s currently agitating for cycling to take full advantage of its commercial potential.

It’s this willingness to reinvent that cycling needs. American sports, for all their closed, oligarchical aspects, have continually refined themselves, tweaking rules, regulations, and culture as new developments arise. Consensus attitude in Europe seems to be that things are the way they are and cannot be changed, even if it’s a matter of survival.

Decades of the status-quo “European” style oversight has given cycling a fantastic historical appeal. But the difference between classic and antique is rooted in utility—a system that no longer meets the needs of its users will invariably find itself shelved in favor of one that can. And unless the sport realizes this, and allows itself to acquire some of the aspects that have made American sports so successful, cycling will increasing find itself on the sidelines, gathering dust.