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Cycling’s Sponsor-Branded Teams p/b Financial Instability

11 May

I like a lot of what Vaughters says here, but the problem is that cycling can’t have a franchise system until it has actual franchises. I mean, Vaughters’ own squad—officially Slipstream Sports LLC—hasn’t ever been called by that name. Manchester United, in contrast, has remained Manchester United, whether Sharp, AIG, or Chevy is emblazoned across the chest.

This enduring team brand is a major reason why the franchise system is successful. That “I gotta see about a girl” scene in Good Will Hunting is effective because Will and Sean—a generation apart—each understand the experience of Red Sox fandom. It just wouldn’t work with US Postal Service p/b Berry Floor.

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Every Bonus Second Counts

5 Jul

The Official 2006 Tour Logo

The Official 2006 Tour Logo. Hasn’t been much tugging on the jersey this year.

We’re nearly a week into the Tour de France, and yet the race’s most obvious prize remains awarded based on a handful of seconds’ from the event’s first seven minutes. Is this any way to encourage quality racing on the sport’s biggest stage?

I understand the arguments against bonus seconds—the best example is probably Levi Leipheimer—but I think they’re too often deeply rooted in an arbitrary notion of what constitutes “fair”.

Bike racing is as sport with many facets, and if a GC contenter can mix it up in a sprint or short, sharp finish climb, that’s a skill that should count toward an overall win. It’s not like the three-week runtime of a modern Grand Tour leaves any GC contender with a shortage of opportunities to peel back that few seconds’ advantage.

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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.

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.

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.

Tour Down Undermining

24 Jan

Bernhard EiselGoing to a take a bit of a break from the drama and talk about the TdU today. After all, there’s going to be about four weeks between now and the next biggish-kinda-deal event—and that fact is in no way unrelated to my thesis.

Bernhard Eisel recently made some comments that the UCI WorldTour—the sport’s top tier of competition—lacks a lot of unifying feautres; things like a leader’s jersey, a centralized media contact, and real, season-long relevance to the WorldTour points standings—for example, using them to determine caravan order.

You’d think Eisel’s concerns would come up later in the season, when there are actually some WorldTour rankings on which to base decisions, but I’m pretty sure the subject crossed the Austrian’s mind because he realized that as it stands, there’s no reason to contest the TdU earnest passion. It’s a WorldTour race in name only, and if the UCI is to have any hope of competing with the Grand Tour organizers, they need to realize that this is a very bad thing.

It’s not that the racing has been poor at the TdU. Quite the opposite, really—as per the Roche Hypothesis, the racing has been a bit “fiercer” than you might expect for a January race. Some even went so far as to see it’s the most enthusiastically contested you’ll see until July. But just how much of that is due to the top sprinters waiting for July is a matter of no inconsequential weight.

A top tier race ought to feature top tier riders who are on form, not top tier riders who are three months and fifteen pounds away from it. While Matt Goss, Andre Greipel and a few others with Grand Tour wins in their palmares looked like they put in earnest effort, for the most part, any given rider’s contribution to the event seemed to be in inverse proportion to their appearance fee.

With TdF invites coming out earlier than ever, it might be temping to see the TdU as teams’ one shot to impress the ASO’s selection committee. But given the outcome of this year’s announcement, I think it’s pretty clear that admission to the sport’s biggest stage will continue to be awarded—as it always has been—through intrigue, favoritism, and the whimsy of a few media titans back in Paris.

The UCI has long sought to decrease the influence of The Cartel in cycling, but slapping the WorldTour logo on races like the TdU is simply the wrong way to do it. While the UCI might like the exposure and (not to mention a nice slice of the 17 million AUD that goes into putting on the event), the UCI needs to realize comes at the expense of a watered-down brand.

Adding new names to the rolodex is one of the fun parts of following the sport. But outside once-in-a-generation contenders, it just shouldn’t be happening at events that claim to be the same level of competition as the Classics and Grand Tours. The more times little-known riders win at underwhelming, UCI-backed events, the more fans, sponsors and athletes will view the competing offerings of Grand Tour organizers as the true apex of international competition.

A Tale Of The Tune-Ups

7 Jun

Lance Armstrong’s Hater-tots Served with HatersauceI’m finally getting back on my feet here. Internet connection and home network are squared away. I’ve found some good roads into and out of town, and finally renewed my USAC license. I’m even done unpacking, though I seem to have misplaced both my (latest) HRM strap and USB mic—this is why I can’t have nice things.

Anyway—the Tour of Luxembourg Skøda Tour. Lance Armstrong finished third overall, and to be fair, that’s pretty impressive, given that his last serious European work was Tour of Flanders—hardly great tune-up for a hilly stage race. Not that the Skøda Tour was particularly hilly, or even particularly stage-y, since bad weather neutralized the GC race on the final stage, but I am trying to avoid eating the hater-tots (above left).

At any rate, the Texan hasn’t been in need of any hassling. Alberto Contador, who you may remember from such soap operas as last year’s Tour, won the prologue of the significantly higher profile (reference the Periodic Table) Dauphine Libere Criterium du Dauphine. Again, in fairness to Armstrong, not much can be inferred from a prologue; however, I feel confident in saying that the Dauphine featured a better field—including a second place Tejay Van Garderen, stepping up two levels (again, see chart) from his strong multi-day performance in Turkey earlier this season.

In more news that Armstrong probably didn’t want to hear, the first road stage of the Dauphine (somewhat unusual in its own right, as a fairly select group won what is usually the token sprinters’ day of a murderous mountain week), resulted in perennially useful climber and Armstrong teammate Haimar Zubeldia breaking his wrist and suddenly looking iffy for the Tour de France.

Conventional wisdom is that this puts pressure on Armstrong for some big finish or other at the Tour de Suisse—which thankfully hasn’t changed it’s name, though could rightly be called the Tour de Convalescents for all the injured riders and adjusted schedules packing its roster. However, while Armstrong’s Tour prep is legendary, he’s also no stranger to the soft-launch/playing possum approach. Speculation is fun, but I’m not putting out any predictions for Lance’s performances until he rolls out of the start gate come July.

It’s also interesting to note that Ivan Basso will be gunning at the Tour this summer with essentially no racing between the two events. Liquigas was convincingly the best team at this year’s Giro, and I think, should Contador come to grief, Basso might just be the TdF favorite. Carlos Sastre, while out of contention for the bis on account of not winning the Giro, also looks like he’ll be making a shot at the Tour—he’s either racing or has been asked to race, depending on who you listen to.

One guy you won’t be seeing in Rotterdam? Skøda Tour winner Matteo Carrara, whose Vacansoleil squad continues to blow smoke in the eyes of the TdF selection committee—and the UCI clowns who put such also-rans as Footon-Servetto and Francais de Jeux in their ProTour “rump”—for not getting a starting slot at this year’s Tour.

Wait—There's A ProTour Race? In January?

21 Jan

So it’s mid January. I had been, throughout my previous half-decade of running this blog, under the impression that this time of year was the “off season”. But apparently this opinion is not shared by a cabal of very old, very white men in Aigle, Switzerland.

Yes, while all reasonable cyclists are just digging out the trainer/building base Jens Factor-style, a few select sprinters—actually, just Andre Gripel so far—are profiting immensely from the UCI ProTour’s attempt to outflank the owners of the biggest bike races on Earth.

I’ve seen 1:45 of Versus’ highlights (they don’t have Stage 2 posted yet), and all I can really say is that final run into the line seemed to have a bit of a hill on it. Andre Griepel, for being a giant sack of hamburger, seemed to shoot up it pretty quickly. Willunga Hill might be too much for him, but if he figures out how to ride cobblestones (he can’t yet, can he?) this could be an exciting spring.

Observations beyond that: Footon-Servetto kits don’t look so awful when the riders are actually moving on the bike; it’s going to be a very red peloton this year and (thanks, Chris!) Lance Armstrong seems to have misplaced his rainbow stripes.

Le Monde Kicks Off The Holiday Re-Gifting

23 Dec

bloodbagNothing like a little holiday regifting to shake the wintertime rust off things in the cycling world. Today’s gently reheated offering is the Astana transfusion case, courtesy of French daily Le Monde. It’s a story that will sound extremely familiar because since its last incarnation in early October, that facts of the case remain completely unchanged—only the confirmation of a French investigation has returned it to the headlines.

To be honest, I think the story is something of a dog. As plenty of people have pointed out, dumping your doping gear in the trash would be all kinds of idiotic, since anyone with determination and the ability ignore strong odors has access to it; indeed, French journalists have made great sport of dumpster diving in the past.

Then there’s the fact that WADA only kinda bans [pdf] IV equipment—language on the “management of…medical emergencies” could easily be applied to dehydration, exhaustion, electrolyte imbalance, muscle cramping or any number of other side effects from racing a Grand Tour.

And let’s not forget the ongoing political battle between the UCI and the ASO. More than one observer has noted that we could really speed this nonsense along by comparing DNA in the bags to DNA from the riders, but guess who won’t release that information? To me, nothing says “investigational integrity” like a jurisdictional turf war.

But dog or no dog, the case is back in the headlines—and why shouldn’t it be? The holidays are known as a time of recycled news, and this year, the cycling world seems particularly focused on doping. Ricardo Ricco has apparently graced the cover of the latest Pro Cycling, while another Future Publishing property, Cyclingnews.com, has run a story on Christian Moreni’s return to the sport.

I, however, in an attempt to anticipate Astana/RadioShack’s response, prefer direct your attention to the dangers of tap dancing around technicalities in the doping rules with this Sam Abt article from 1991.

Do Not Feed The Trolls

5 Oct

102899225_c125435ae6_bRule #14 of the Internet—according to one respected count—is to never argue with the trolls. Cycling, being a sport consumed and appreciated largely via the Internet, should be no exception.

So I’m not going to talk about Bernard Kohl, or his recent whining in the press. If he wanted not to manage his weight, he should have taken up soccer. And frankly, a quarter litre of vodka just isn’t that much—I’m not volunteering to consume it, but I wouldn’t say it’s anything out of place for an initiation ritual—especially if a Kazakh named “Vino” is doing the initiating.

I’m also not going to talk about AFLD Chair Pierre Bordry, who was apparently unsatisfied with the media hits he got from retesting some 2008 Tour samples, or claiming—without presenting any evidence, other than “alarming” thinness—that two new substances were being used in the peloton.

And I’m definitely not going to talk about how AFLD then dredged up an old story of an inappropriate coffee stop, and spun it into accusing the UCI of testing Astana last throughout the Tour. I wish the UCI would just rise above this sort of thing—Anne’s got the idea, but the rest of the Aigle crew seems more than happy to dive right in there with the pig.

Best to stick to the positive stories—like Farrar continuing his tear through the second half of the season. I will confess to being kinda excited to see what happens during the one-days next spring, though I might steer clear of San-Remo and wait for the Northern Classics instead.

And to add more significance to the otherwise-forgettable Circuit Franco-Belge, Whit Yost has recently been recounting his time behind the wheel there in the sunset days of Team Mercury in Embrocation. Just wish I had a better idea when Part 2 will be coming out.