Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Best?

Our feelings about the ASO’s rejection of Team Astana notwithstanding, the 2008 Tour de France will nonetheless be a spectacular drama. It seems a rotten shame to hold the race without the previous year’s winner, especially if he hasn’t been conclusively convicted as a doper. There were far stronger rethe ASOns to have kept Pedro Delgado out of the ’89 Tour than to keep Alberto Contador out of this year’s race.

To be fair, it seems the ASO is taking the long view on reforming cycling into a clean event. Whatever unfairness happens this year, may have happened last year … or the year before, may be tolerable in their view if it ensures the survival of the world’s largest annual sporting event.

There are two ways to look at the situation: The first is that as the pinnacle of cycling events, the Tour de France is incomplete if the previous year’s winner isn’t there for reasons other than injury or retirement. Similarly, the event is incomplete if the season’s most consistently performing team in stage races isn’t there. It seems worse still if that champion is from that team. If the best aren’t present, how can it be a true test of the best?

On the other hand, the Tour de France is a privately held business venture. It’s not unlike a restaurant. The restaurant owner has the ability to choose who is served. We’ve all seen signs that say, “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” The ASO might as well have put up a signs that says, “No dope, no suspicion of doping.”

We may not be able to fathom why the ASO cares so much about doping when there were such clear signs of it in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Patrice Clerc and company seem to want a clean race now. The only way to make sense of Astana’s non-invitation is forget about Vino, Kashechkin and the others, but rather to consider this a referendum on Johan Bruyneel; Lance Armstrong has suggested as much. And while winning the Giro bolstered the team’s argument that they are the best stage race team, the fact that Contador won the race after arriving in something other than finely tuned form only served to further the ASO’s belief that Astana races on bread and water … and a little something else.

And yet, the race will go on. The obvious GC contenders are Cadel Evans, Allejandro Valverde, Denis Menchov, and the brothers Schleck who both seem more destined to greatness than Carlos Sastre. Kim Kirchen is an unproven commodity in Grand Tours and seems unlikely to wind up on the podium. World Time Trial Champion and new Swiss National Time Trial Champion Fabian Cancellara seems bound to wear yellow for a few days.

Damiano Cunego might make a convincing run at the polka dot jersey, but to do so, he’ll have to get through Mauricio Soler first. Ricardo Ricco might provide some fireworks in the early mountain stages, but he seems rather young to make it to Paris among the leaders in his second Grand Tour of the year.

But what of the Green Jersey? With no Boonen and literally no help for McEwen, it will be interesting to see what teams have both the power and the will to marshal forces on the front to shut down breakaways while keeping the bunch strung out in the closing kilometers. It seems likely to be a battle between Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert

And the disappointment doesn’t end with no Contador, or Boonen. Levi Leipheimer, while too old to have been considered a real threat for the win would have been competitive nonetheless; this year was arguably Leipheimer’s last chance to have a strong ride. David Zabriskie is one of the only riders who could have competed head-to-head with Cancellara in the time trials and unfortunately, he’s still recovering from his crash in the Giro. And then there’s Mr. Non-selection, Tom Danielson. It’s a shame that he’s never been able to put together the form and fortitude necessary to even attend the Tour de France. Heck, at least Vaughters started it a few times.

There are absences enough from this year’s Tour to frustrate any fan. But that’s no reason not to watch. Pantani and Ullrich missed the ’99 Tour and it turned out to be a great race—even if you weren’t a fan of Armstrong’s.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International


Anonymous said...

Just what does ASO own?

The right to hold a race on public roads and sell the TV rights?

The Tour makes its money through TV rights, associated sponsorship and publicity and the money paid by towns to host. If French and International TV pulled the plug, ASO would have nothing. The Tour is essentially owned by TV and associated Media - the effective owners are the public.

Anonymous said...

Wil you get over it already? Everybody knows how you feel about Astana and their unfortunate absence. How about getting back to posts like "the bike wash", "the tan" and other classics.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the new anti-doping regulations, would that the ASO required all entering teams to have internal, transparent testing systems per Garmin, Columbia, and CSC.

In any event, the sheer spectacle of the Tour is compelling, even if one has no confidence in the GC race's integrity.

Boz said...

So far, the Tour has been just fine. I haven't missed Astana at all. I feel bad for Chris Horner, but it's his fault for signing with Astana. There must have been rumblings in the peloton about this stuff earlier than the announcement of Astana's exclusion.

Jim said...

But what of the Green Jersey

I think you make a mistake to discount Mark Cavendish this early. Thor is a heck of a rider, but Cavendish has a scorching finish and is riding on an extremely strong team that has pieced together fantasy league-like stats so far this year.

As for ASO... I'm not upset with ASO. ASO doesn't pretend to be looking out for anybody's interests other than its own, and if we are to enforce anti-doping sentiments arbitrarily, a Dodge City Sheriff approach that shoots first, asks questions later, like that applied by ASO is at least an honest approach comparable to the one that cleaned up major league baseball in 1920. I respect ASO because they aren't attempting to pass themselves off as an impartial tribunal or to represent the interests of the entire sport. Moreover, as a private actor, they are within their rights to include or exclude teams. Sanctioning bodies owe a different duty to participants in the sport and are obligated, I believe, to treat all athletes equally.

Anonymous said...

ASO Critics:
As a Frenchie (born and bred) you kats are missing the boat. The TDF is a cultural phenoman for France and its people. It is much less about money then you might think. Its roots are in politics (Degranges, the man who started the tour, built the Tour in mind as a means to publicize a newspapers anti-socialist perspective) of the country and remain so today. The influx of a money, while I am sure they appreciate the higher salaries etc, has more to do with the arrival of non-French companies with super deep pockets. Until the ASO owned by an American company it will never be about the money. On this point you are wrong. The French are much more cognitive of their culture and keeping it French, than an American who is willing to sell out his soul for a piece of the American pie.

The ASO may have wrongly black balled Astana to many, but their motive comes from their wish to return to a time when French pro's were class and not 2nd rate pack filler. Festina, prior to the drug law changes which forced the French racers and teams to get clean, were a super power. And now the French don't have any true great French pro's. And those who were great after the festina affair moved to other countries (why would Jalabert move to Switzerland when taxes and the cost of living are double and he is not from the region? Why did so many of my cycling peers from the early 90's go visit "family" in Switzerland...the availability of drugs) Team managers took the approach that they rather race clean with no results, then have the specter of doping amidst the team. For many years that has been the picth of the French teams to their sponsors" "we may not win, but we are clean."

Culturally the Tour is more about the experience for the people on the side of the road than the sport itself: Chances are every Frnech person has seen the Tour go by at least once and thus it has become an identifiable universal cultural phenomenon for the people as a whole. While the French may know the names of Fignon, Hinault and Virenque, it is the festival in passing that means more to them. And that is what is at issue: The ASO wants to keep that intact rather than let it become of a sporting event that is no longer identifiable to the common man in France. They are less concerned with with who wins the Tour than the average American fan. They just want the experience of the Tour itself in their back yard to go along with the chevre and vin rouge they might be eating at the time.

bikesgonewild said...

...monsieur anonymous...excellent treatise on what the essence of le tour is & has been w/ the wonderful cultural aspects that will always remain because they are forged in the hearts of the french people, but in a changing world, i see the aso under new leadership looking to create an organization whose boundaries extend beyond the borders of france...

...i'll wager there will be revelations towards that end before the new's been building for a while now...

Anonymous said...

Cunego for poix?

It's no secret he's shooting for GC. The KOM is usually decided in breakaways. Not by GC near misses.

Ricco's there for a stage win, maybe HE could end up in dots, but my money's on DNF.

And would you please give up on the ASO. They leave out a protour team a year as a way to stand up to the UCI. Last year it was Unibet, this year Astana .It is not a stand on doping, as Cofidis and Rabo are still there. It's politics plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

I think there is little doubt that this is a much about Johan as it is about the name Astana. Why is Rabobank and Cofidis still on the start line? Rabobank had the yellow jersey holder kicked out, how much worse could that be? Like so many things with the French they have made silly of themselves while holding so strongly to this exclusion

Anonymous said...

Monsieur Anonymous-

Jesus. Fantastic comment. I really enjoyed reading your perspective. Please don't hesitate to share more in the future.

p.s. I think Cavendish will be good for at least two stages this year. Ricco will wear the spots for a bit, but not in Paris.

Anonymous said...

PRo cycling seems to have 'turned over a new leaf' on many occassions, but, this time you really feel that there is some sincerity in trying to overcome the doping problem. Hopefully people will look back and see this time as a turning point

Anonymous said...

The long winded Anon French post is insightful. Let me offer more insight...As Americans it is our manifest destiny to turn cultures all around the world into sterile strip malls. The Tour is about money and making Americans conquer at any cost and through every conceivable marketing campaign we can drum up. If I can mispronounce and name drop while sipping burnt espresso at Starbucks...I am superior. America wins, and everyone else should want to be me.

Anonymous said...

I have long thought that the best French riders (that stayed in France) were getting a raw deal because they were riding clean. Christophe Moreau, for instance, might well have been a very serious GC contender in cleaner times.

Now the Germans are going clean too, as well as the new American teams.

If only we can get the Italians and Spaniards on board (Are Valverde and Cunego clean? I have my doubts), the playing field with be level in the grand tours.

Anonymous said...

The Tour was, is, and will always be much bigger than any rider or team. Mega Kudos to the ASO for taking back what belong to them and to FRANCE!

El Herbo

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous French guy,

The ASO is a business all about generating profit, don't kid yourself. The Tour may have started out as a political statement, but it surely has transformed into a world wide business venture for all to profit from. For you to state that the ASO is doing what they do not for the money is laughable. The ASO just signed a 5 year deal with public-service broadcaster French Televisions for $23 million euros. “We are sending out a strong message to the market,” said Daniel Bilalian, head of sport for France Televisions. If that quote does not sum up what the Tour really is about, then I don't know what will. It's all about money to the companies that run and compete in the Tour.

On the point about how the French people want to keep their race their own and see a Frenchman win, I ask how do you intend on doing this? The Tour has become global. It is no longer simply a French race, as the Boston marathon is no longer a Bostonian race. Should the organizers of the Boston Marathon somehow exclude the African nations from competing because an African has won, and not a Bostonian, for the last 18 years?

Let's get real about what the ASO is doing: looking out for their own financial best interest. Not mine, not yours, not the French people, certainly not the PRO riders, but only for themselves and those with a financial stake in all of it.

Anonymous said...

To Mr. Anon @July 8, 2008 7:59:00 :

First and foremost, my post was not a bash on America, or American Consumerism and its influence. I love America, the cheeseburger and cherry coke. In re-reading it I realized that might have been the tone. I hope no one took it that way.

You must be American because you misquote and misunderstand:
“We are sending out a strong message to the market,” said Daniel Bilalian, head of sport for France Televisions". Daniel works for French Television NOT Le Tour. had the ASO said that it would be a different story. The message is that there is cohesion. 23 million Euros was universally seen as gift for French public TV. Much of French media covered this in the press. Put into context that Murdoch sold German (just Germany mind you) television soccer rights for 104 million a season back in 2001, which is a much smaller market fiscally, your point is well off the mark. And that was back in 2001 when the economy was weak. As they say in investing: do your due diligence.

Globalization: On this point you are wrong again. The race is a French race culturally just as baseball is an American experience. The ASO is wielding its power and influence as they want, so that they keep it that way. They want to keep it French, just as if a giant mega Far East corporation snapped up MLB baseball and tried to institute no hot dogs on game night and substitute sushi instead. The French want their race with hot dogs, just as Americans would balk at sushi on game night. I know I would. The exclusion of Astana and the feud with the UCI comes down to wanting to keep the flavor of the race French by having French teams in the Tour. Just like the Giro and the Vuelta: People like the home town hero.

It might be hard for Americans to understand, as America is the land of consumption and the trappings of success (that might be the reason I am here), but France is more about the experience of life and not the mass collection of belongings. The pace is slower (painful for business owners), the pay off for success is much less than here and your peers care less about the mentality of "keeping up with the Jones".

Simplistic way to think about it: Why do you think there is so much vacation time in France compared to the 2 weeks given here in the states?

I invite you to take a visit to a village (not Paris) in the south west France(typical French living) and spend a month there and you will learn more about Le Tour than any amount of American television coverage will give you. It will give a better sense of the nature and the rhythym. Watching the Tour in California does not give you much insight to the race. It just gives you the black and white of who won the race.

Anonymous said...

Black and white? I've got plasma digital big screen with HD and surround sound with a second monitor hooked up to my computrainer with virtual Tour routes and a cup holder next to my Litespeed holding a chilled 64oz diet pepsi while I ride along with Hincapie this a.m watching Le Tour on the west coast. How much more real can it get?

Anonymous said...

The Best ?

Illustrating the comment with a picture of the guy, that was handed his TdF trophy, as opposed to winning it, after being clearly defeated.

The more irrelevant we get, the more righteous we feel.

Anonymous said...

I stand corrected by the results of the first TT. Clearly, Cunego and Valverde are NOT doping.

The only semi-surprise was Shumacher. But, the course was well suited to him and he is not going to be a GC contender.

In sum, I think (or hope and pray) that the Tour is clean this year thanks to the ASO and no thanks to the UCI.

Anonymous said...

Well, it looks like the Italians and Spanish federations have some house cleaning to do. They've got all the positives so far!