Friday, November 27, 2009

www.belgiumkneewarmers.com

Thanks for dropping by. After three great years here at .blogspot we have picked up and moved to a new site. Check us out in our new digs and please update your bookmarks and RSS.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

BKW 2.0

For those of you who have been checking in we appreciate the time you have spent clicking on the BKW bookmark.

A lot has happened in 2009 and it feels funny to write that in a post that will rest just above the last post dated July 15th.

As many of you of know, Patrick (Padraig) began Red Kite Prayer and has been active keeping up with all that's been cooking in the bike world while BKW has been taking an extended siesta. Many have asked what's next? Is BKW dead? The answer: NO. Quietly, we have been working to revamp the site and creating new content. Some of the new material has been years in the making - literally. We have dug into the "drafts" folders and put the finishing touches on pieces that have been percolating. It has felt great to go back and wrap them up. The plan is to continue BKW and we've invited some new folks to contribute in an effort to add additional voices to our mission.

BKW 2.0 will launch on November 25th with a new look and functionality.

We hope that you will join us for the next incarnation and maybe even add BKW to your list of bookmarks again.

See you at the end of November.

- RF

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Time Management


The season is rapidly approaching its half way point and with it comes low resting pulse rates, increased metabolisms, irate drivers, and a tan so defined it is laughable to the uninitiated. As July gets underway, the miles continue to climb and our passion for the bike and the time we spend in its presence is reaching a feverish crescendo. The cycling lifestyle is everywhere around us and, at times, all encompassing. Not only are there hours dedicated to riding and racing and talking about the sport, but with the Tour beaming worldwide we now dedicate even more of our already scarce time to cycling. With all of this time spent deep in the cycling mindset, our loved ones and friends can arrive at only one conclusion: cyclists are nuts!

Well, we agree wholeheartedly, we are a passionate bunch and to some that passion can easily be mistaken for an obsession. I mean, who in their right mind says "no" to the second piece of cake? And, yes, we know lycra ("spandex") is funny to everyone but us. With the time we spend riding our bikes, talking about bikes, preparing our bikes, or shaving our legs we could easily dig into something more substantial like solving world hunger or at the very least finishing that bathroom renovation.

Here in its simplest form is our excuse: cycling makes for a healthy body and mind (as well as alienation of those who are not indoctrinated).

So...to our friends and family, our jobs, and all the non-cycling outlets that make up our busy lives: thank you for your understanding and your patience. Thank you for affording us the additional hours to fit our 10 pounds of passion into our 5 pound days. Your investment in us insures you get us at our very best.

July is a tough month for us, trust us when we say that we miss you too and we look forward to reconnecting. August will be a quiet month, we promise.

September on the other hand...

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Laguna Cyclery

Few things complement each other as well as bikes and coffee. The crew at Laguna Cyclery have mastered this concept. However, don't show up expecting to enjoy a "mocha frappa whippeo" while bumming some Wi-Fi. Quite the contrary. Laguna Bikes is the kind of bike shop with decades of nostalgia decorating the walls and a passionate, knowledgeable, friendly staff.

More and more, the bicycle retail experience feels cookie-cutter and sterile-- a bit like a Crate and Barrel with bikes and the smell of rubber. The creative and individual shop style has been replaced with fancy counter tops and gallons of white paint. There was a time not too long ago when shops separated themselves from their competition by putting a professional foot forward presenting themselves with a streamlined appearance and miles and miles of slatwall. Somewhere between 1993 and 1999, this became the look everyone strived for and now, there's a backlash that has given the shops of yore a warmth and charm that sets them apart from the crowds.

Laguna Cyclery rests a few steps from the Pacific ocean. The golden glare of the midday sun taunts those from places east, as the sobering realization takes hold that Laguna Beach's weather is ideal for cycling 12 months a year.

When I step out of the hot western sun and into the doors of the shop, the initial sensation was that I had been whisked thousands of miles away, into a remote dry goods shop in Vermont. The charm of Laguna Cyclery's aged wood, exposed and lofty attic, and plank-covered walls give the shop the feeling of an old-world barn, a classic simplicity one would find in New England. And a feeling that is just as warm as the golden sun.

When visiting shops there is no formula that equates to bicycle retail greatness, so I look for shops that motivate me, stir memories from my cycling journey, and enlighten me to see the sport from new aspects and vantage points. In bike shops, often a great experience for me is driven by the attitude of the staff, the decorations on the wall, or the bikes and products they choose to sell.

To a cyclist, Laguna Cyclery holds hidden gems everywhere. Dig into the nooks and crannies and there before you resides a treasure trove of machines and gear from days of old, stuff that you have ridden, wished you could have ridden, or items currently residing on your "if I only had a few extra bucks" list. Look more closely and you are sure to find at least one, "I never should have sold that" item. This shop is passion from floor to ceiling, adorning the attic and atop benches. When you visit, do yourself a favor and allot ample time to take in the entire experience and completely absorb the shop's subtleties.

There is a clear PRO influence at Laguna. Their main frame lines represent the best of the best: Pinerello, Colnago, Willer, Cervelo, and Time. If you stroll through their blog, you see a smattering of each marquee built in various forms and price points...some SRAM, some Shimano (even a Di2 kit way ahead of the Shimano production schedule). When in the shop, however, the team's love for Campagnolo is undeniable.

There is no question, the gear inside the shop is top-notch and qualifies Laguna Cyclery as a PRO shop, but stopping there would only scratch the surface and highlight the superficial aspects of the shop. Need to know a great riding route? Advice on selecting a training tire? Need an opinion on SRAM vs. Shimano? The crew here has it and they will take the time needed to make sure your riding experience is better when you exit the shop than when you entered it. The entire staff in the shop is passionate about our sport and as friendly as they are approachable.

Laguna Cyclery's products are not limited to exclusive high-end kits. Laguna offers bikes at price points that suit everyone from beginner to PRO. Beyond pricing, what Laguna does so well is treat each rider, no matter the experience or budget, like a fellow cyclist. It's this approach to cycling that separates great shops from good ones and builds a wicked local riding scene that endures. Laguna has been around since 1971 and, without question, has helped shape the area's cycling scene.

I mentioned at the start of this post that I don't employ a formulaic approach when highlighting shops; however, there is one business formula that I have seen deliver success time and time again: Foster the love for cycling in all of your customers. This formula is simple and basic, but crazy when considering how often it's overlooked.

Drop by Laguna Cyclery, bring your sunscreen, and your passion for bikes. Look deep inside the shop and talk to the staff. If you are a local to the shop, drop by and buy a tube, introduce yourself, and see what the excitement is all about. If you're lucky, maybe they'll offer you an espresso while you take in the sights.



Laguna Cyclery
240 Thalia Street
Laguna Beach, CA
92651

The photos featured in this post were shot in February 2009 just prior to a massive renovation but, rest assured, the passion and the feel of the shop remain firmly in place.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Red Kite Prayer

When Radio Freddy first asked me to contribute to Belgium Knee Warmers, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his blog. It was interesting, but I wasn’t sure I had anything to add. I kept reading and eventually I saw an opportunity to contribute to what was becoming a conversation between him and the fledgling readership.

As I kept writing, I began to find my rhythm, seeing opportunities to write about topics and in ways I hadn’t for other publications. The feedback from the readership wasn’t always positive, but it was always enthusiastic and its immediacy drove me in ways I never expected. Indeed, I got more than a few reader suggestions along the way and I made notes. Who knows what I may write down the road?

But that road will be unfolding at a new URL. The time and opportunity have come to step up my efforts. Beginning today (right now, as a matter of fact) you’ll find my new posts at Red Kite Prayer. There you can find an explanation of the phrase, finally learn my identity and background and get a taste of things to come.

BKW isn’t going away; you’ll continue to see the content we compiled here. I’ve invited Radio Freddy and each of the contributors you’ve seen here to continue sharing their work with you at Red Kite Prayer.

It’s been a great ride with you. Stay tuned.

—Padraig

Friday, June 26, 2009

Loyal


Astana has released the final three names in its Tour de France roster. Sergio Paulinho, Gregory Rast and Dmitriy Muravyev have been selected to provide support on the flats for the team’s protected riders. Chris Horner was left off the roster, a detail that can be read at least two ways.

Objectively, the team has more lieutenants (or former GC contenders) than dyed-in-the-woolens domestiques. Supporting Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador are: Andreas Kloden, Levi Leiphemer, Haimar Zubledia and Yaroslav Popovych. Consider that those six riders have something in common: Every one of them has finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France. Popovych is the weakest of the bunch with only an 8th place finish to his credit.

The Astana Team is plainly the most talented team to ever line up for the Tour de France. Two former winners and two podium finishers joined by two top-10 finishers. Bruyneel is nothing so much as a diplomat.

As for Horner … Horner has never finished in the top 10 at the Tour.

Somehow, that detail seems beside the point. While Horner has won plenty of races and proven himself to be an excellent team leader, he has proven himself to be an especially adept lieutenant—a domestique extraordinaire—getting the job done no matter what task he is assigned. Tell me you would actually choose Paulinho, Rast or Muravyev over Horner on the flats. Okay, but make me believe you.

It would be easy to attribute Horner’s exclusion to his crash at the Giro if it weren’t also true that Christian Vande Velde went down at the Giro, too and will be on the line in Monaco. Horner said he was on the form of his life at the Giro, a full five pounds lighter than normal and he even asserted that he hadn’t lost power on the flats. That’s like losing two fingers and saying your handwriting is fine. Neat trick.

So what’s the trouble? Horner has been candid, seemingly too candid, about who he would be working for at the Tour and who will really be running the team. That combined with the revelation that Contador was in talks with Team Garmin-Slipstream about moving to Vaughters’ operation should Astana fold has put Bruyneel on notice. Bruyneel really can’t afford to have Contador be completely unhappy—as I and others have observed, an intra-team rivalry could rip the team apart far worse than La Vie Claire suffered in 1986.

We may think that Horner is as loyal a teammate as you could want, on the bike. But no one else from Astana has spoken as openly concerning Armstrong's ambitions. In Bruyneel's world, this may have been a disloyal act.

There is reason to suspect that Horner’s incredible effectiveness was sacrificed in favor of a rider who isn’t as fit if only to break up what he called “the three amigos” in an interview with Road Bike Action just two days prior to the announcement of the final squad. Horner was training with Armstrong and Leipheimer in Colorado and easily turning 300 watts at altitude. In the interview he said, “There is going to be some good form at the Tour.”

Emotionally, this has got to be a sucker punch for Horner; it is for any rider expecting to get the nod who at the last minute is left home. But this must be especially tough. The dude has been a pro since 1996; he is a little long-in-the-tooth and while he might be able to find phenomenal form next year, with each passing year it will be harder and harder for him to convince a team he has the same ability to fire the rockets on demand as he did the previous season.

Finally, this is a shot across Armstrong’s bow. This is a choice that clearly favors Contador, who is the future. Even if Armstrong were to out-ride Contador this year, age is definitely on Contador’s side.

It’ll be interesting to see if Horner winds up at the Cascade Classic at the end of July. He deserves a chance to do something with his form.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Reproach


Some years ago, when I was making rent with a wrench, a woman came into the shop with a Holdsworth made from Reynolds 531. She had decided it was time for a tune-up. The bike needed a tune-up the way the starving need a cup of water. While the frame seemed to be in solid shape, the wheels were toast and the front derailleur, well, the bike had been ridden cross-geared for so long the chain had worn through all but a small span of the Nuovo Record front derailleur cage which was by this time cellophane-thin.

I was amazed and felt badly for her. Didn’t she ever hear that nasty sound of the chain grinding material off the cage?

“What sound?” she responded.

I am bewildered when I meet someone who really doesn’t seem to notice the sound an untrimmed derailleur makes. While I don’t think everyone needs to be able to maitain a bicycle, it makes sense to me that a basic awareness of the bicycle’s operation can make someone a better rider and more proactive bike shop customer, therefore helping ensure the bike lasts longer.

She didn’t seem to mind the wear to the derailleur and considered it all just the cost of having a bike. She was so relaxed about the worn-out parts and the cost of the overhaul I found myself admiring her attitude.

Years of working on bikes have made me aware of every sound my bikes make. From the tk-tk-tk of an untrimmed derailleur to the ting-ting-ting of a derailleur cage on spokes, I usually know the cause of a sound the moment I hear it.

Usually. The dreaded creak can elude even veteran wrenches from time to time. And for those of us who do our own maintenance, a creak is an embarrassment. It is the bicycle talking back, the baby crying for food, the public spat you wish could have unfolded at home.

I love the sounds a bicycle makes. The seamless sound of a chain running over a chainring and cog along a perfect chainline brings me peace. Conversely, the sound of a too-tight chain on a fixed-gear bicycle is the rising screech of a catfight. And the sound of a disc wheel on asphalt is the sound of speed itself, of inevitability. The click of a quick downshift and flawless chain movement is order itself, the way the world should always work.

But that creak. When I hear a creak I pray for the noise of the pack, for the whitewash sound of 70 other bicycles to drown out my problem child. That sound tells me I’ve been inattentive, lazy. And now my bicycle is punishing me for my neglect.

If only it were always that simple. I’ve disassembled by bicycle’s entire drivetrain and reassembled it with fresh grease and Teflon tape only to have the creak return upon exiting the driveway.

Today’s bike require greater care to assemble and maintain than those we rode 20 years ago. That’s no newsflash, but the upshot is. Maintain a bike is like training now. It requires regular attention, care, the vigilance we show our bodies.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gerlach Takes Tour de Nez Omnium

Chad Gerlach rolled boxcars at the Tour de Nez on stage 2, getting a win and following it up with a top-10 finish in the final stage to give him a win in the omnium as well.

So why is BKW bothering to report on a reformed drug addict who won an omnium in the U.S? The Tour de Nez deserves special consideration for its in-town courses and actual spectators and Gerlach deserves a nod for getting the win at a race that many riders target as the high point of the season.

One of the unfortunate realities of bicycle racing is that while we can purchase the same bikes the PROs ride and train over the same roads they ride, we can’t, generally speaking, race the same courses. Gran Fondos give us a chance to ride some of them—the Tour of Flanders event is a noticeable exception—but amateur (and Continental) racing is often characterized by lackluster race courses.

No matter how you slice it, Gerlach getting a win and the added attention it brought Tahoe’s biggest annual road event is a good thing for attracting positive attention to cycling from the public and second- and third-tier sponsors.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Redemption


Drug use in cycling is a frequent, if unpleasant, topic here at BKW. It is a cancer that has the potential to destroy the top echelon of cycling and take with it hallowed events that we await each year with the anticipation of a child looking forward to Christmas.

In the fifth season of the A&E series “Intervention” the producers profiled a former cyclist addicted to crack. Some of you may have seen episode 64 on Chad Gerlach, the one-time U.S. Postal Service rider who was booted from the team after clashing with team management.

Gerlach was crushed by his turn in fortune. Though he signed with other teams, he turned to crack and eventually stopped racing fell into a life on the street.

The once promising pro’s problem wasn’t one of performance enhancing drugs, and so it may seem his story isn’t relevant to our typical coverage of drugs in cycling. However, his story is significant in that it shines a bright light on how so many people see all drug use through the same lens; it’s all illicit to a large swath of America.

Gerlach’s family persevered in their love for him and belief in his abilities, which led to the intervention and resulted in his rehabilitation at a facility in Florida.

To the casual viewer, the dream of returning to the pro peloton could easily have seemed unrealistic, a goal so unattainable as to be a setup for relapse. Yet that promise drove Gerlach. After his release he began training again and—incredibly—returned to the pro peloton this season, riding for Lifetime Fitness.

Gerlach just gold-plated his comeback by winning the opening stage of the Tour de Nez. Four laps into the criterium Gerlach broke away with Jonathan Baker and lapped the field. At the finish, Gerlach easily outsprinted Baker to take his first pro win in more than ten years.

The philosopher in me sees simple confirmation in the power of the love of friends and family and what we can achieve when we believe in ourselves. The pragmatist in me sees a story as removed from reality as a romance novel, the very exception that proves the rule.

I know many cyclists who view the entire peloton, to a man, as almost certain dopers. They eye testing programs such as Rasmus Damsgaard’s with the wary distance reserved for used-car salesmen. They are non-plussed by David Millar’s fervor for racing clean and reason if he was lying then, then he is probably lying now.

Gerlach deserves his consideration in our thoughts for how someone can truly turn his life around. An about-face doesn’t have to mean a retreat. We shouldn’t need a lesson so stark in its drama to teach us, but we’ve been trained into suspicion by a mountain of lies. It doesn’t mean we should never believe.

In defying the odds not once, but twice, first by getting clean and then by sprinting for the V., Gerlach ditched the naysayers. We can be suspicious all we want, but what he has in his heart today even the best of us can envy.

Episode 64 of Intervention is available on iTunes.

Image courtesy Lifetime Fitness.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Tao of Framebuilding


There was a time when an advertisement told a story in words. You’d see a picture of the product and below some copy would talk about the product, the company, the views of its founder and a request to consider their products for your next purchase.

It was all very above board. Any emotional pull on your heartstrings was there, in black and white. There were no efforts to short-circuit your decision making with sexy models or fantasies of Darwinian superiority.

Richard Sachs has produced a limited edition run of posters written in his inimitable style. It has the look and feel of a 1960s ad and contains little Sachs pearls that folks will be quoting for years to come.

It is fitting that he should match his old-world craft with old-world advertising. Everything old is new again, right? Even if you don’t need this poster hanging in your bike room/garage/closet, it is a fun read.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hamilton, Finished


USADA has handed down an eight-year suspension for Tyler Hamilton. The Rock Racing rider tested positive in February tested positive for testosterone or its precursors in February. When the announcement for the non-negative result was announced, Hamilton declined the B sample test and immediately admitted he had taken the steroid DHEA as an alternative to prescription antidepressants in an effort to combat depression.

Hamilton retired immediately. As noted by USADA’s CEO Travis Tygart, Hamilton’s eight-year penalty is effectively a lifetime ban for the 38-year old cyclist.

For his part, Hamilton said he was disappointed by the ban, “The eight-year suspension is unfortunate and disheartening. At this time, however, my focus remains on my mother, my family, battling my depression and getting better. This has been an extremely difficult and trying period, but I am determined to get through it.”

The length of the ban is irrelevant to all but those closest to him. Even if the planets had aligned to dismiss consideration for the principle of strict liability, he would likely still have received a ban of two years. Did Hamilton really think he would have had the legs of Joop Zoetemelk or even Kent Bostick at 40?

"Although we believe the sanction is exceptionally harsh and completely disproportional to the transgression, Tyler has chosen to focus on getting better instead of fighting a pointless battle against the anti-doping regime," said Chris Manderson, Hamilton’s counsel.

Hindsight is blah, blah, blah. If we set aside the anger we felt when we heard he tested positive—the first time—and apply honesty to our recollections of Hamilton’s career, most of us will recall the jubilation and shock we felt when we heard that an American had won the Gold Medal in the ITT at the 2004 Summer Olympics. When we learned it was Hamilton, surprise was added to our jubilation.

Hamilton gave the United States its first victory in a Monument—Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Who can forget his performance in the 2003 Tour de France following his broken collarbone, not to mention his epic breakaway through the Pyrenees on his way to winning stage 16 in Bayonne? And what of his second place and stage win at the 2002 Giro d’Italia, despite a broken shoulder?

Should we excuse his doping? No. The wheels of justice have turned and by at least one objective measure things are as they should be. Should we turn our backs on his earlier results? Depends on your point of view. Most cycling fans will admit that at his best, Hamilton was surrounded by other riders who were engaged in similar levels of doping and so he was most probably playing on a relatively level field. And if that sounds like a tacit acceptance of his doping on some level, then consider this: Even after throwing out his results you are left with a guy who rode through broken bones and molars ground to expose nerves. In the annals of hard men, those stories earned him a permanent seat at the bar.

Hamilton’s end as a rider is sad and ignominious. But given what we know of the time in which he competed on the international stage, he did achieve memorable results. The inspiration we felt to see his courage is worth remembering.

Image courtesy of John Pierce, Photosport International.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

House Divided


La Gazzetta dello Sport has gotten the admission of the year. Alberto Contador has declared that in addition to the Schleck brothers, Carlos Sastre, Denis Menchov and, of course, Cadel Evans, he will have to face down his own teammates, Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong.

"I will have to deal with [Denis] Menchov, [Cadel] Evans, the Schleck brothers, [Carlos] Sastre and my teammates Armstrong and Leipheimer," he told the legendary pink rag.

It’s a stunning setback for Bruyneel and for Contador, too. One of the most important keys to Bruyneel’s success in Grand Tours has been his ability to unite nine riders with a single mission: first place in general classification. He never brought sprinters or time trialists with individual goals for stage wins.

With the admission that not only is Armstrong a rival, but Leipheimer as well, Contador has shown his hand before betting has started. He has revealed exactly how threatened he was by Leipheimer at last year’s Vuelta and he has also shown the rest of the peloton that Astana won’t be nine musketeers, but instead six trying to work out for whom they will work.

How many riders will work for Armstrong rather than Contador? What of Leipheimer? Can he expect any riders to side with him? At least when La Vie Claire faced the Hinault/LeMond rivalry they were a team of 10.

Hinault understood an important lesson about rivals that Armstrong learned well and Contador doesn’t remotely understand. Make your rivals doubt. Make them doubt themselves. Make them doubt each other. Make them doubt your words.

Hinault never said he considered LeMond his rival, but he raced the ’86 Tour as if no other guy could beat him. And while Armstrong would acknowledge each of the favorites for overall victory at the Tour, he always pointed to one primary rival—usually Jan Ullrich—as the rider to beat. What it told the other riders was that they must not only beat him, they must beat Ullrich as well. He sowed doubt to cause most riders to believe they could finish no better than third.

So now Sastre, Evans, Menchov and the Schlecks all know an important truth: Astana is divided. Armstrong can tell the world that he will ride for the strongest rider all day long, but Contador doesn’t believe he can count on him or Leipheimer for support.

Where does that leave Andreas Kloden? As a former second-place finisher, Kloden deserves as much respect as the Schlecks or Menchov. Can he be counted on to serve as a loyal lieutenant or could he go rogue as well?

Horner is Astana's smartest rider, tactically speaking. He knows where his bread is buttered and can be counted on to do whatever Bruyneel tells him, but if he can credibly ride in support of Contador and Armstrong, such as by making pace on a climb, he’ll do whatever he can to serve the team’s best interest.

What’s the worst thing you could tell your opponent on the start line? I’m scared. Contador has done just this. If he had kept up the charade, at least the other teams would have been left guessing. Now, each rider and director knows if Armstrong goes up the road Contador is as likely to chase as anyone else.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Passing the Buck


I can’t let this one go. The UCI has declared that they can’t complete disciplinary proceedings against Tom Boonen in relation to his second cocaine positive in time for the Tour de France. As a result, they have declared that Boonen is permitted to race the Tour de France.

They can’t complete it in time? What? This isn’t the restoration of a 1968 Camaro or the design of a web site. It’s a disciplinary proceeding. And the relevant facts are known. Hasn’t anyone heard of midnight oil?

No matter what your personal feelings on Boonen’s positive are, this is the wrong message to send. When I was in third grade, we would have called this wishy-washy. Is the UCI uniformly hard on drug use or not? If they don’t really see a problem with recreational drugs out of competition, that’s their choice, but they shouldn’t have made a fuss last time.

Given that most of the world can’t differentiate between performance-enhancing and recreational—which is like not being able to tell the difference between the Space Shuttle and Disneyland—a firm stance against recreational drugs would be understandable for the UCI and WADA. To most folks, drugs are either medicine or illicit. And anything that isn’t medicine isn’t tolerated in lots of places, The Netherlands notwithstanding.

What is so surprising in this is that the UCI didn’t like the Amaury Sport Organization deciding independently which teams and riders could and could not compete in the Tour. And yet, by delaying any action on Boonen, they are in effect forcing ASO’s hand, asking Prudhomme et al, to decide what the race is willing to accept.

Meanwhile, Bernard Kohl is passing the buck as well; he is concocting fictions that would make for a promising Hollywood script. He says he was cooperative from the outset, but CyclingNews reported October 15, 2008 Kohl wanted his B sample tested.

Worse yet, he asserted that the entire Top-10 of the Tour de France general classification must have doped, only to retract the statement and say l’Equipe invented the entire interview. Right. Shaun Palmer did the same thing years ago when Specialized wasn’t thrilled after he told a journalist he did recreational drugs and watched porn. The French rider’s union, CPA, has decided to sue Kohl. As Cedric Vasseur said, "He might think everybody else was doped as well but he has to prove it."

Kohl’s idea of cooperation is suspect. The one thing he has said—retracted or not—that is truly helpful is his insight into how sophisticated dopers would use the information found in positive tests to guide their manipulation of blood and the biological passport.

If Kohl were truly a man of substance, he’d admit his part and wouldn’t try to accuse everyone else of doping as a means of excusing his poor decision.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bruyneel the Magician


The ongoing turmoil at Astana has, surprisingly, overshadowed the Tour de France dress rehearsal race Dauphiné Libéré. The battle for supremacy in Provence is a repeat of the ’07 Tour showdown between three-time Grand Tour champion Alberto Contador and no-time Grand Tour champion Cadel Evans.

Even if Evans wins the Dauphiné Libéré it won’t spell any great portent for the Tour. To stand on the podium again Evans will have to face Contador, Armstrong, two Schlecks and a Sastre with more confidence than he had this time last year. Cough.

While Evans is busy sizing up his competition, Johan Bruyneel is sizing up his team and the course, the same as he does every year. Bruyneel has never raced the competition. He races the course with the whole of his team, the way a chess Grand Master uses every piece on the board to apply pressure on his competition; the guy who plays only his queen never gets far.

Bruyneel’s challenge is to reach July 4 with a serene and happy team. Does he need to choose a leader? Not by a longshot. He just needs Contador and Armstrong content in the belief that if they have the form, the troops will rally behind them. Bruyneel can’t buy Contador off to serve Armstrong the way he bought Roberto Heras. Heras was hired to work for Armstrong expressly because they didn’t want to have to race him at the Tour.

Of course, Bruyneel is having to fight another battle within his team and this one won’t be won through pure diplomacy. He needs a sponsor. Astana is paid up enough on its guarantees to race the Tour. It isn’t paid through the end of the year. What’s more, the fact that it is no longer in arrears can be credited to a defacto new co-sponsor. While speculation is running high, all that has been announced so far is that the payment was made by an American company doing business in Kazakhstan; such a revelation was meant to do nothing so much as titillate.

Here’s what’s important about that payment: It is very likely that it was simply a down-payment on a cycling team. Why bail out a cycling team sponsored by a nearly insolvent Asian country? What could there be to gain?

Now, what if “an American Company Doing Business in Kazakhstan” simply threw down some cash to make sure the team doesn’t get suspended while it takes its time to negotiate a contract, get kits, vehicles, web site, etc. designed and put in place a team liaison. That way it doesn’t have to rush its preparation and sponsorship announcement. My money says that “an American Company Doing Business in Kazakhstan” will very likely be the team’s sponsor come July 4.

After a quick re-reading of Machiavelli, here’s the supposition I find most intriguing: What if Bruyneel and Armstrong’s plan following the 2005 Tour was always for Armstrong to take some time off, take a break from competition, let the doping scandals blow over, fold Tailwind Sports so that there would be no existing entity to investigate, while Bruyneel set up shop with a new team so that Armstrong could return from competition with a more conspicuously demonstrated commitment to racing clean? Bruyneel got a few different offers after Discovery closed up shop; is it possible he deliberately selected a team that he knew would be ripe for picking once Armstrong returned from competition?

Even if Armstrong hasn’t got the chops to win a Grand Tour again (and remember Hinault proved in ’85 you can win the Tour and not be the strongest rider there), he remains the most useful rider Bruneel has in his stable. Can Contador attract a multi-national as a sponsor? As if. Armstrong could be backed up by a team of Troll dolls and still pull sponsors at top dollar. And as evidenced by the way Danilo Di Luca chased Armstrong on a descent at the Giro d’Italia, Armstrong is respected and feared enough that the other riders aren’t willing to give him much room to wiggle.

To most of us, Astana looks like a pretty chaotic scene. Unknown leadership, unpaid riders, no clear plan (other than to win), questionable sponsor future, not to mention a good old-fashioned whiff of controversy give the appearance of an operation in disarray. Were I to bet, I’d say Bruyneel has a sponsor signed. Signed. Contador has been assured the team will ride for him. And Armstrong has a long leash. Prove he’s stronger and the team will back him to the finish.

Pulling a rabbit out of a hat used to wow audiences. If Bruyneel pulls a Tour de France win out of a team that ought to be imploding, it will be a far more impressive trick.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Crossing the Line to Success


By now you’ve heard that Team Katusha’s Antonio Colom is the second rider from the Russian team to test positive for EPO. Christian Pfannberger tested positive earlier this year. The situation reminds me of the fine backwoods-residing gentlemen from southeastern United States who try to outrun the cops in their pickup trucks after running across a spike strip. Escape is really only an option when you are smarter than those in pursuit of you.

For as long as I’ve covered pro cycling the Union Cycliste Internationale has found ever-evolving ways to come up with decisions and procedures that seem arbitrary, illogical and just wrong-headed. And I’ve been critical of those decisions whenever I’ve had the chance to speak up.

For instance, it doesn’t sound like the UCI informed Colom’s team through the proper channels or in a timely manner. We must take it on faith that the lab that did the testing performed to standard as Colom is unlikely to have the Euro to mount a real challenge of the result. He will probably ask that his B result be tested, but confirmation is no assurance that the first result is correct. Ultimately, it is unfortunate that not everyone has unwavering faith in the UCI’s ability to act in a logical and unbiased manner.

At its heart, the UCI is a bureaucracy and for all that Europe does well, their bureaucracies suck harder than a Hoover powered by a V8 on aircraft fuel. While I detest rule-following for rule-following’s sake, that organization needs a measure of discipline to bolster our faith in its best initiatives. That said, I need to offer the same measure of praise for this catch.

Colom didn’t just happen to test positive. He was caught precisely because his biological passport showed some irregularities. The UCI calculated when he would be likely to dose with EPO by examining his racing schedule. Working back from his next appointment, the UCI elected to target the Paris-Nice stage winner on April 2, 2009.

Bingo!

I decided to check in with Jonathan Vaughters to see what he would have to say about the UCI’s methods. Here’s his response:

“There are 2 ways the passport can work:

1. The blood values are irregular enough to cause a positive on their own right. This hasn't happened yet, but will, soon.

2. Even when the values don't bounce around enough to cause a proprietary positive, they can bounce enough to cause suspicion and LOTS of extra out-of-comp and surpise urine analysis. This is how Colom got caught.

Either one is a magnificent use of the passport system. We're just now seeing the fruits of this massive effort, as it takes awhile to have enough data points to be able to see 'irregular'...

I'm happy to be in a sport willing to take it on the chin for true and fair competition. Glad to see the progress and I'm sure there is more to come.”

The biological passport has been criticized by many, among the critics have been scientists who say it is only as good as the first test; if the baseline is doped, more dope just looks normal. The challenge is that because it is imperfect, the longitudinal testing is pointless. It’s the same sort of criticism that has been leveled at the Toyota Prius. The argument goes that because it is not perfectly green it is a failure. The batteries contain nasty chemicals, it still uses gas, most of its materials can’t be recycled, blah, blah, blah. But the real world isn’t binary like football where you either win or lose. High school exit exams aren’t given to third-graders for a reason: a 10-year-old is a work in progress. And so is the biological passport. The UCI could do nothing worse in the name of clean sport than to throw up its collective hands and cry out, “We can’t catch them all so we give up! Uncle!”

I don’t like the idea of the UCI finding suspicious any rider who wins. Such a cynicism poisons the person who holds the view, not those viewed. I’ve seen it in plenty of fans who have turned away from the sport because they suspect all the riders are doped up. However, using objective methods to target riders for further attention is exactly the step the sport has needed.

Highly is the likelihood that some riders are doping and still evading detection. If we are to enjoy professional cycling as spectators, then we need the assurance that someone competent is on the case. If the record books get corrected six months, a year down the line with an asterisk, so be it. What the sport doesn’t need is to see a guy raise his arms at the line and have the TV audience suspect immediately he will test positive.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

The Astana Question


Not since the La Vie Claire team of 1986 has there been a more curious cycling team than the 2009 Astana team. Last winter I wrote a piece for Road Bike Action in which I compared the two teams and the problems that both teams had/have in leadership.

Naturally, the article’s greatest concern was how to keep piece between Contador and Armstrong and give each rider something to consider the season a success. The best best-case-scenario I could come up with was the Giro for Armstrong, the Tour for Contador and the Vuelta for Leipheimer. In January it was conceivable that Bruyneel could lead Astana to a sweep of the three Grand Tours. Maybe not likely, but definitely conceivable.

But the landscape has changed significantly since that article hit the newsstand.

Let’s refresh ourselves on the factors that will ultimately affect the team when it arrives in Monte Carlo at the beginning of July.

1. Levi Leipheimer won the Tour of California in February, the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in March and finished 6th at the Giro d’Italia in May.
2. Lance Armstrong broke his collarbone, throwing off his Giro preparation.
3. Astana is so far behind in its payment of riders that the team is riding in “scrubbed” jerseys with no mention of the sponsor.
4. Astana is paid up enough to race through the finish of the Dauphine Libere, but no further.
5. If a new sponsor wants to take over the team, each contract with each rider will have to be negotiated anew.

Frankly, I doubt even Bernard Tapie had the cojones to bluff his way through this one. Judging from le Blaireau’s latest pronouncements, he would have used such upset and unrest to demoralize any who doubted his leadership, but such bullying could have run down the entire team.

So what can we surmise from the current situation? First, Leipheimer shouldn’t be at the Tour. His legs are done for the time being. The Giro wasn’t originally on his calendar, so now the Tour should come off of it. While it might seem that this could take some pressure off the Armstrong/Contador leadership question, it would, instead, focus even more attention on it, by taking a pretender to the throne out of the equation. He is still named to Astana short team for the Tour, so maybe reason won’t win. If Leipheimer does wind up at the Tour, it will 86 any chance he might have had of going to the Vuelta properly prepared for his likely last shot at winning a Grand Tour as undisputed leader.

Next, we can be assured that right now, as you read this, Bruyneel and Armstrong are in discussions with a new sponsor. This team can’t not go to the Tour. All eyes will be on Bruyneel for yet another Tour win. To bet against him is to taunt the gods. Bruyneel is doing what he can to get Astana to deliver them to the Tour’s doorstep, but beyond that the team will need a sponsor to provide properly for the team on a go-forward basis. There’s not much time for the sales pitch as it takes time to design and make new kits, rewrap all the vehicles, oh, and negotiate those contracts.

So who could they sign? The LiveStrong Foundation has already been mentioned and they are sure to be a co-sponsor. Nike’s longtime support of Armstrong would be a likely bet as well. The other great candidate is Bristol-Meyers Squibb. Considering that Armstrong’s primary focus on racing is to bring attention to cancer—finding cures, the plight of sufferers and its toll on healthcare and families alike—a partnership with BMS seems almost inevitable.

Which brings us to Contador. As much as he can impress on the bike, he’s whiney off it. He’s grumbled about Leipheimer, and while he’s saying all the right things right now—“Armstrong is just another teammate”—he has grumbled about Armstrong’s presence on the team. There are several Spanish teams that would love to sign Contador should his contract be voided, but honestly, there are only two operations savvy enough to put the financing together to sign him for what he’s worth and support him properly when the race gets underway, and they are both based in America. If nothing else, Contador is at least smart enough to see that.

Then there’s Lance. Most watchers of this year’s Giro seem to be content to attribute his lack of victory to the collarbone break, rather than his age. Compared to the comebacks of riders (Landis, Hamilton, Sevilla, Botero) who were suspended for doping infractions, Armstrong’s return to competition has been impressive. Ivan Basso is the only rider among convicted dopers to have put up as impressive a performance since his return, and truly, from a results perspective, Basso’s return has been more impressive thus far.

So what’s the concern? The leader of the Astana team is unknown. Armstrong has been unwavering in his assertion that the strongest rider will lead Astana at the Tour. That’s fine so long as Armstrong believes Contador is the strongest. Certainly he has said that Contador is the strongest rider in the world; he also said Jan Ullrich was the favorite to win the Tour de France how many times?

Bruyneel must have a plan for the Tour, but what it is hasn’t been communicated adequately to the riders. Take for instance, Chris Horner’s recent quote about what he anticipates his roll will be at the Tour: “I expect to be at the Tour de France, to help Contador or Lance win the race.”

Absent in all the discussion about Armstrong has been any mention of his once legendary restraint. There was a time when Armstrong was known to only selective redline his engine prior to the start of the Tour de France. That’s not to say he wouldn’t make big efforts; he did. The difference is that he was reported not to go all out until the occasion matched his training’s needs.

Contador may be second overall at the Dauphiné Libéré, but I submit that with the possible exception of Stage 19 of the Giro, we likely have not seen an all-out effort from Armstrong … this year.

It’s unlikely that even Bruyneel knows who will be faster on July 4. If ever there was going to be a rematch of Hinault and LeMond, this will be it. The difference is that Armstrong may be Contador’s equal over the three weeks of the Tour de France but is definitely his superior when it comes to rallying the troops to ride for him.

However, if we want to see a real battle of athleticism and not an expression of Macchiavelli’s The Prince at 185 bpm, Bruyneel needs to land a new sponsor which will break Contador’s contract and give him the opportunity to sign elsewhere. The Tour de France, after all, should be a battle of riders and teams, not riders within teams.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Victor


Viewers of the 2009 Giro d’Italia who followed the race in its entirety can be forgiven for thinking the final outcome was a foregone conclusion following the Cinque Terre time trial.

Let me rephrase: I’m giving myself permission to say that I believed the race would end with an unsurprising Menchov Grand Tour win. He’d stand on the dais, get his trophy, smile, wave, yadda, yadda, yadda.

His forceful show of emotion at the finish—triumph after snatching possible defeat from the slick road left me slackjawed. In earlier stages, his ability to sit impassively on Di Luca’s wheel despite the firebrand’s attacks conjured Miguel Indurain’s uninspiring performances at the Giro and Tour more than 15 years ago.

It reminded me of the race it most logically evokes: the 1989 Tour de France, which, as you well know, ended with a Greg LeMond victory on the final time trial. Menchov’s 21-second gap over Di Luca gave him a 41-second margin of victory, and though that may be larger than LeMond’s was, the Russian’s jubilation was no less dramatic.

It’s hard, if not impossible to be excited for Menchov in the face of such jubilation. My previous assertion that Di Luca was the race’s moral victor was based in part on the utter granite-faced presence that Menchov cast. To see him yell and throw his arms was a fitting substitute for the traditional winner’s victory salute thrown at the line of a Classic.

I’ll spare you the anthropologic deconstruction that accompanied Michael Phelps’ whoop following his team’s victory in the relay at the Beijing Olympics. We get it: that dude is a badass.

I’d ask the question, ‘How can you not like a guy who shows such emotion in the face of victory?’ but it’s a big, weird world and someone will dislike him precisely because of his show of emotion. Instead, I’ll offer this: The surge of emotion that accompanies an uncertain victory can surprise even the victor and in surprise the revelation is what winning is all about.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Winner

How many races can you think back on where the performance you remember isn’t the rider who won, but the rider who animated the race? Was in every significant move. Shed the slackers, the pretenders. Chewed up worthy winners. And rolled in second or third.

Walter Benjamin wrote that history is told by the victor. It’s a truth as unfortunate as taxes or paparazzi. The history books don’t include a box for the legs that detonated the race.

But those performances are remembered by those who suffered. Nothing is remembered so well as suffering.

Most watchers of this year’s Giro d’Italia who know anything about Grand Tours will tell you that Danilo DiLuca has waged an excellent battle against Dennis Menchov, and for that matter, the entire field in this year’s Giro d’Italia. That said, they’ll also tell you that while the time gap to Menchov is close, the chances of him picking up the time necessary to overcome him by the end of the crewcut-short time trial range between supermodel and black hole.

It’s a shame. As an Italian who has focused his entire season on vanquishing all comers at this country’s equivalent to the World Series, his never-say-die attitude has kept the racing as active as a toddler on espresso. Think back on all the Grand Tours that ended with the ultimate yellow/pink/gold jersey wearer going unchallenged for the last three or four stages. And how often did you find the victor less-than-worthy because he went unchallenged. Put another way, how often didn’t we like a guy through no fault of his own?

The 2009 Giro is anything but over. But knowing Menchov’s strength in time trials, his superiority to Di Luca in the race of truth and the fact that he has a cushion of time—no matter how small—makes the probably victor Russian. The time gap is likely to be less than a minute, but we all know Menchov only needs a single second, and not even all of it at that, to win the Giro. But sitting on Di Luca’s wheel? It may be an intelligent calculation, but it does little to fill the ranks of the fan club.

And while we all think bi-partisan lawmaking more likely than an eventual Di Luca victory, we’re fortunate that his attacks aren’t based on American Idol-like audience voting. Our sense of the inevitable would have made the racing much less interesting.

That Di Luca keeps attacking could be the act of a clueless boy, the twit who doesn’t know when to quit. But with a previous victory under his belt, and as the most recent Giro-winner present, he possesses self-knowledge that most of the others can scarcely guess.

Di Luca’s ongoing attacks are nothing short of the voice of hope. As a former winner, he’s no dope. He knows that a second shy of victory is a loss as much as being 2:00 down. Losing is nothing other than losing. And he knows the math better than we do. He knows what the best-case-scenario is for a seconds-per-kilometer gain in the final TT. He also knows how many seconds he is more likely to lose each kilometer in the TT. And yet, he persists.

What does a champion do, other than try to win to his dying breath? Years from now, I hope that Di Luca is remembered as the moral victor of the 2009 Giro—the guy who actually raced every day, every stage, a guy who attacked even when no one believed he could gain enough to make a difference. That heart made all the difference.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Draft Horse


Since my earliest days of racing, I found the role of domestique oddly sexy. The nearly behind-the-scenes efforts of a leadout rider to ensure the team’s success was a part I was born to play. Watching stylish riders like Ron Kiefel and Sean Yates do their work with pride made those silent efforts even cooler.

In watching other riders play the role of draft horse, I was filled with a sense of nationalistic pride; as if taking a bullet at the front of the field was an act of patriotism. The more ignominious the finish, the more self-confident and solid the ride was. Seeing a rider finish five or ten minutes down on the field, but roll in relaxed, without the frantic pedaling of someone showing off for the cameras is large-scale PRO. Soft pedaling across the line means you are secure you’ve done your job well, very well.

There is a flip side to the role, though. There are those episodes when the rider is treated more lame mule than valued draft hose. It might be something that I alone am sensitive to, but I took it as a point of pride that when I rolled up to a rider with pockets full of bottles, I had one ready to hand off. If a rider grabbed a bottle out of my pocket, I was a mule.

Similarly, I loved nothing more than finding my team leader buried in the field and giving a tap on the ass to say, ‘Hop on, I’ll take you back up front.’ If someone tapped me on my butt to say, ‘Take me to the front,’ I wasn’t really doing my job.

Being asked to do the role of a domestique diminishes that role. The value of a great domestique is the ability to read the race and watch the time. Providing bottles on a schedule, keeping the boss out of the wind, fed, hydrated and near the front is the job. Do that without someone asking and you’re valuable. It’s not much different from the jobs we all do by day: The most valuable employees are the ones who know how to jump in without instructions. It’s what made Radar O’Reilly’s character on M*A*S*H* so funny: He had paperwork filled out before the colonel asked for it. The best domestiques are as strong as two men and smell need like bees smell fear.

The height of PRO is watching a rider kill it at the front with the team leader sitting on his wheel, mouth closed—both relaxed and silent. Silence is the truest test of a great domestique; the best one is the guy no one needs to talk to.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Levi Question

Levi Leipheimer's record of three Grand Tour podium finishes is the best of any current rider who has yet to win a Grand Tour. Considering his incredible time trialing, strong climbing and the simple fact that his wings had been clipped in each of his three previous podium finishes, it was reasonable to think that were he to achieve undisputed team leadership at a Grand Tour he would seal the deal.

That is, until Stage 16 of the 2009 Giro d'Italia. Maybe he had a bad day; many riders do during the course of a Grand Tour. Or maybe he lost his rhythm after the mechanical that forced his bike change. Maybe he choked under the pressure of team leadership at a Grand Tour. Or maybe he just isn't as fit as the other riders. While the first two options are damning, they aren't as damning as the latter two. The one question regarding Levi Leipheimer going into this season, especially once Lance announced his return to competition, was when or if Levi would get a chance to lead Astana at a Grand Tour. He's already led both Rabobank and Gerolsteiner at Grand Tours (lest anyone forget) and had finishes that, while good, seem a bit like the blueprint for this one.

Cycling fans may have understandably thought that under Bruyneel's tutelage Leipheimer might realize his full potential at this Giro. After all, each of his Grand Tour podium finishes have come at the guidance of Johan. Given that Johan knows how to win a Giro and at the time neither Rabobank nor Gerolsteiner had achieved a win in a three-week tour, many watchers thought that the man who has already guided three riders to eleven Grand Tour wins might be the missing ingredient.

The (Astana) team's strategy looked great on paper. Send Popovych up the road to await Levi's attack and then tow him for as long as possible until the inevitable detonation.

But Levi just couldn't follow the accelerations of Basso and the other riders. Had his only problem been the bike change, he would have likely rejoined the group rather quickly. That he had great difficulty closing the gap and ultimately had to be paced by Armstrong said as much about Lance's improving form as Levi's lack of it.

Perhaps more surprising than Carlos Sastre's gutsy attack that deja vued his race-winning acceleration on l'Alpe d'Huez is the simple statistic Leipheimer has added to Bruyneel's resume: the first team leader lying in the top-three overall of a Grand Tour who couldn't don the leader's jersey and win the race overall.

Back to Sastre: It was nice to see him attack without Bjarne Riis in his earpiece, but had he really expected to make up enough time to ride into the maglia rosa, he should have known he'd need to attack at the foot of the climb, just as he did on l'Alpe d'Huez.

Menchov's 39-second lead may not be much, but with one individual time trial remaining, it seems unlikely Di Luca can put enough time into him in the two final mountain stages to overcome what he'll lose in the final, short, TT.

This will likely go down as Levi's best chance ever to win a Grand Tour due to his age and the presence of two other, stronger, leaders. He won't get another chance this season whether Contador stays or not. If Contador leaves, Levi will have to work for Lance at the Tour and then be too tired to lead at the Vuelta. If Contador stays, he will still lead at the Vuelta regardless of the outcome of the Tour and Levi will be left to support him there if granted the chance to skip the Tour to build his form back up following a long season already.

It's a shame, but Levi's largest ambitions for the season just got iced.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Amore di Giro

It seems that every year the Giro organizers come under fire for some aspect of race logistics. Last year, it was the crazy and lengthy transfers and a climb that required swapping out cassettes for something larger than a 25. This year, riders found the narrow roads with tight turns objectionable enough to protest. And then Fabian Cancellara called the stage 12 time trial a cyclotourist event and left the race for a few days rest before an appointment with the Tour de Suisse.

Some of the criticism is understandable. Following a murderous six hours in the saddle the last thing anyone needs is to be cooped up in the back of a station wagon moving through stop-and-go traffic. Dinner after 10:00 is perhaps okay if you’ve had a siesta and planned your evening (and the next morning) accordingly. Similarly, roads narrower than some minds are an understandable cause for the peloton’s concern. It’s one thing to expect guys on a group ride to single up for a tight turn, but at the Giro? For crying out loud it is a bike race—guys will ride seven abreast on a two-meter-wide strip of tarmac and just pray that they don’t crash.

Can a climb be too steep for a Grand Tour? Only if you can’t get traction to ride up it. Does every road need to be paved like a new boulevard in a subdivision? Not if you like drama. Can a time trial be too long or too hard? Isn’t this bike racing?

If this perspective seems a little extreme, consider the logical endpoint for restricting the climbing and road quality. Any criteria used to judge a climb as too steep are subjective and ever more subjective criteria can be applied. If 20 percent is too steep, then 19 percent can be too steep as well. If a poorly paved road is too rough, then a patched road can be too rough. At some point you end up rejecting everything that isn’t the Daytona tri-oval.

Stage 12’s mountainous time trial was one of the most exciting stages I’ve seen in a Grand Tour in the last five years. The course was breathtakingly gorgeous and over roads any cyclist would kill to ride on as a closed course. Shouldn’t the course of a Grand Tour take in roads that are at once challenging, thrilling and precarious? Certainly we don’t wish harm to come to the riders (e.g. Pedro Horillo), but roller races aren’t nearly as fun to watch.

Because it took the competitors out of their comfort zone—a traditional flat time trial—the outcome couldn’t be guessed. Commentators and fans were divided on DiLuca’s chances for victory and the final outcome was satisfying because it yielded a victor we know to be a contender for the overall.

The tragedy is that Cancellara’s departure deprived the tifosi of what would have been an interesting performance. Even though he was unlikely to win, he could still have turned in a great performance given his descending ability; consider that a pure climber didn’t take the day. And while Cancellara is one of our favorite riders here at BKW, leaving a Grand Tour because the time trial doesn’t suit your specific abilities isn’t exactly PRO. We love our champions more when they play their hand even when holding a pair of deuces.

The Giro organizers may need a better rider advocate to help them judge certain technical aspects such as when a road or turn is too narrow for the peloton to negotiate at full cry, but they deserve a righteous toast for taking the opportunity to make the longest time trial run in a Grand Tour in 12 years a mountainous and technically challenging trial to reveal a truly complete rider.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Ride of Silence


When a cyclist dies it tears the fabric of our world. While some drivers may erroneously think that bicyclists are inconsequential to the business of the road, we know riders in their greater context as coworkers, friends, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers and mothers. Yesterday, thousands of cyclists took to the road to remember family and friends who had been injured or killed in accidents with cars while out on roads. More than 280 rides were held in 48 states and 16 countries around the world.

This spring, Southern California cyclist Eric Little was struck by a truck while on a lunch time ride. Road rash was the least of his problems. The force of the impact was so violent his helmet was crushed, and resulted in a brain injury. Several ribs were broken as well. The road rash is gone and the ribs are pretty well healed at this point. But his sense of taste has been reduced to sour and salty (no bitter or sweet tastes) and his sense of smell, doctors say, may never return. And this isn't the first time Eric has been hit by a car.

Suffice it to say Eric got motivated. Laying in his hospital bed he thought, "What if we got an American team, heck all the American teams, to wear black armbands on May 20th, during the Giro's 11th stage?" So after he was released from the hospital Eric contacted media relations people at Garmin-Slipstream, Columbia-Highroad and (while not an American team just yet) Astana.


If you noticed that Columbia-Highroad riders were wearing blue ribbons safety-pinned to their left shoulders yesterday, that's why. According to Team Columbia-Highroad's Ellen Cohune, "Team Columbia-Highroad riders were enthusiastic to support the Ride of Silence. Many of our men and women feel strongly about helping to raise awareness of safe road sharing. The blue ribbons were worn because we wanted to gain attention for the Ride of Silence cause, and some of the riders felt that the black armband was a little too morbid. The ribbons sparked interest in the peloton, as well as before and after the race. Ultimately, the Ride of Silence message finished on the top of the podium!"

Eric was asked to speak to the crowd that assembled at the start of his local ride in Irvine. He told them, "I want to go
home. I want to see my kids get a hit at their baseball game. I want to see their first pedal strokes without training wheels. I want to watch my daughter's dance recital. I want to enjoy their smiles as they proudly show me a school report card. And I want to hear them scream "Daddy!" when I walk in the door after work. At the same time, I want to ride as I love the sport. I should not have to choose between the two because we as humans can not safely share the road."

He later added, "Whether it was black armbands or blue ribbons, Columbia-Highroad's efforts carried my thoughts and concerns with those of thousands of others around the globe."

In a tragic coincidence, race organizers held a minute of silence at the start of the Stage 11 to remember veteran moto driver Fabio Saccani. Known as Roberto Bettini's ace motorcycle driver, Saccani was killed in a traffic accident on his way to the start of the Giro's 11th stage in Cuneo and had an accident in the town of Bra. This was Saccani's 33rd Giro.

Of Saccani's death Bettini said, "Today I lost a friend, someone who was more than a friend, a signore on two wheels. Fabio has taken me to the summit of the high mountains and down the most dangerous descents, always with the greatest care. Perhaps that care wasn't enough to avoid being struck by a murderous truck that in an instant took his life. Ciao, Fabio, you will always be with me."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In Memoriam: Steve Larsen


The cycling and multisport world got a shock today when the unexpected death of Steve Larsen was announced. The 39-year-old Bend, Oregon, athlete and real estate broker was in the middle of a running workout on the track when he collapsed. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Unlike most athletes who are remembered for a particular win, Larsen is best remembered for his incredible breadth as an athlete. Often called an endurance athlete, he competed in events both short and long. Larsen represented the U.S. at the World Championships in four events, competing as a cyclist as a cyclist on the track, the road, off-road and in cyclocross. As a pro, raced for Motorola and counted Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie as teammates.

After a career in cycling that included racing the Giro d’Italia and two national NORBA championships in mountain biking (1998 and 2000), Larsen turned to triathlon in 2001. In his first year in the sport he qualified for the Hawaiian Ironman World Championship and finished 9th. He went on to take the Xterra National Championship and win Ironman Lake Placid.

Larsen was known as a fierce and outspoken competitor, unafraid to go his own way. And no matter which discipline he raced, he was respected by teammates and competitors alike.

After retiring from full-time competition, he opened a bike shop in Davis, California , before selling it to start a boutique commercial real estate brokerage in Bend, Oregon. Even while growing his business he managed to stay competitive, even finishing 70th at Kona in 2008.

Larsen leaves behind a legacy of hard work. Dan Empfield at
Slowtwitch.com quoted him saying, “I have learned that it is the work you put in over the long haul.” His example should remind us all what we can achieve with focus and dedication.

It’s easy to joke about how we want to go doing our favorite thing. But 39 is a life interrupted. Larsen leaves his wife Carrie and five children. On behalf of everyone at BKW, we extend our profound condolences for their loss.

Photo courtesy Chris Hipp/Labor Power

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Routine


I live in a place where I can ride most mornings. And such is my life that if I don’t get my ride in during the morning, it will get harder to fit that ride in with each progressing hour. I share with a few friends a classification of training days called the O.B.E.—Overtaken By Events. If you say, “O.B.E.” it may have been a good day, but it wasn’t a day with a ride. Your real peers get it.

That said, if I have too many of those days for any reason—flu, injury, work, a sick cat—I miss more than just the ride.

The fact is, the routine of getting ready for the ride itself is the calm before the storm. Being the first up, grabbing some food, mixing a bottle, getting dressed, picking the ride, pumping up the tires, the sound of the garage door and rolling out is as peaceful a start to the morning as I get.

The best part, though, is getting to the start of the ride, waiting for the others to arrive and then rolling out. The warmup gives friends a chance to chat, to catch up, congratulate teammates on recent placings and even goof off a bit.

These lighthearted moments that I miss most when I haven’t been able to ride. It seems odd, but the days of hard training run together so that one performance on a long straight may be indistinguishable from another; I can go weeks at a time getting to the top of a hill with the same five guys nearby. But those connections with other riders that I make when my heartrate isn’t in triple digits are an important part of what makes me a rider.

Of course, there’s another side to the routine. When I hit the door upon returning from the ride, I’ve got my actions scheduled to the minute, from warming the shower while I undress to pushing on my shoes as I run my fingers through my hair. Frankly, if I did intervals with this kind of precision I’d still be winning races.

That thought really doesn’t bother me, though. As I move through my day, knowing that I’ve had a ride and connected with other riders is enough to remind me that there’s more to my life than just a job and bills. No matter how bad a day gets, if I got a ride in, it can’t be a bad day.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The River


Ever since Lance Armstrong announced his return to the pro peloton, he has made known his intention to race the Giro d’Italia. And in a way that few others have managed, he has conveyed his interest in winning the event without saying point blank that he’s going to kick large-scale ass.

And that’s always been one of Armstrong’s greatest strengths. He is the Zen master of smack talk, inflicting doubt in other competitors and all the while claiming that anyone else is the favorite. No rider since Eddy Merckx has inflicted such doubt in his competition and certainly no greater champion has ever done more to deflect his favorite status.

It’s a trick that a Wallenda would pay money to watch.

But then Armstrong broke his collarbone. And now many people think he won’t have the fitness necessary to truly contest the GC at the Giro. That broken collarbone has been called—by most media outlets to cover the event—Armstrong’s first significant injury. That’s both right and wrong. It’s his first significant injury to come during a race. However, it’s not his first significant injury.

In 2000, while preparing for the Tour de France in the Pyrenees, Armstrong crashed hard enough to wind up in the hospital overnight. He went on to win his second Tour weeks later.

At the start of the Giro, Armstrong, wearing the team leader’s number (21), said that the team leader is Levi Leipheimer. Pointing to Leipheimer’s dominance at the Tour of California … and every other stage race he has entered this year, he said Leipheimer is the man to beat. It’s true enough; Leipheimer is on screaming form. Between his climbing at the Gila and his time trialing all year long, he is complete enough to reasonably expect to command a team at a Grand Tour. Just one hitch: He’s Lance Armstrong’s teammate.

Let’s ask a simple question: When was the last time Lance Armstrong rode in support of another rider at a Grand Tour? Here’s a hint: Bill Clinton was in office.

There’s only one reason to ask who’s in charge; Armstrong is a world-class poker player. He proved it on Stage 10 of the 2001 Tour de France in which he faked the Telekom Team to drill the pace at the front in the false belief he was on the ropes before dropping Ullrich for a nearly 2:00 gap. While everyone remembers “the look,” the stage should be more properly remembered for the hours of bluffing that preceded his explosive attack.

Despite the fact that Danilo Di Luca, Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego are on great form, Astana has three riders in the top 10. When push comes to shove, Astana’s best-placed rider, Yaroslav Popovych works for Armstrong, not Leipheimer. Armstrong has lost 15 seconds to Leipheimer but remains within two seconds of him overall. And given his history of uncorking his biggest rides the day before a rest day, it doesn’t seem a big deal that he has given up a few seconds early in the first week.

For all the interest that the race itself holds, the biggest question about the Giro’s GC is who, really, is in charge on the Astana team. And while Armstrong may be able to hold his cards to his chest, his coach, not-so-much. Chris Carmichael recently divulged that based on his training data, Lance would, “surprise some.”

The strategy of Grand Tours is endlessly fascinating; one day’s ride influences the next so that no one day can be ridden like a Spring Classic. However, Astana has added a layer of complexity to the equation by calling into question who really leads the team in Italy.

Word on the street was the deal Armstrong struck with Contador and Leipheimer was California for Leipheimer, Italy for Armstrong and France for Contador. Sounds like a game of "Risk." Could Leipheimer truly be gifted with both California and Italy? If so, what does Armstrong get? He’s not so magnanimous that there won’t be some quid pro quo.

A final thought: Every time Armstrong said Ullrich was the most talented cyclist in the world and the favorite to win the Tour, Armstrong ultimately stood atop the podium. Either Armstrong is a poor judge of his ability or he can’t be trusted to tell the truth. Exciting, huh?

Image by Doc Roman.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Laissez-Faire


Recreational drug use is one of those subjects (and activities) that evokes reactions as diverse as politics does. It’s easy to find folks who see recreational drug use as an utterly harmless way to blow off steam. Others see it as a forgivable indiscretion of youth. And we’re well aware that millions see it as a crime that can only be corrected with incarceration.

I offer that as a backdrop to Tom Boonen’s current trouble. Many cycling fans are ready to forgive him for doing something stupid so that he can get back to racing in time for the Tour de France. Plenty others see nothing that requires forgiveness. There are likely many others who want his license pulled, possibly even for good.

So cocaine isn’t illegal outside of competition. It’s a drug that carries a double-standard, and that is where the problem lies. If it’s use outside of competition isn’t illegal, then why do out-of-competition tests screen for it? They don’t test of aspirin and alcohol. The bigger question is why a rider can test positive for a substance that authorities shouldn’t be screening.

The answer is easy.

As individuals we’re all entitled to our views about how Boonen should be addressed. But our personal views are irrelevant, unfortunately. Here’s why: Our sport exists at the PRO level because of sponsors. Sponsor dollars are the gas the peloton runs on. They make the races possible, the teams possible and TV coverage possible. Without them, many of these guys would be working the fields.

Consider some of the organizations that no longer exist because of sponsor departures: the Motorola team, the Midi Libre race, Team ONCE, the San Francisco Grand Prix, Festina, the Tour DuPont, ad nauseum.

There is perhaps too little forgiveness in most of our lives and that at least some cycling fans are ready to say, “He deserves time off to enjoy himself; he’s not a monk,” is a kind and laudable response. Forgiveness from cyclists who see a difference between recreational drug use and doping may be nice, but it does nothing to assuage the concerns of those who see all drug use as criminal behavior. And those are the people whose opinions sponsors are concerned about.

It’s clear that the UCI and WADA have a zero-tolerance policy regarding all drugs that anyone might deem unacceptable. And while WADA’s handling of Boonen’s case raises ethical questions—why are they announcing a positive test for a substance that isn’t illegal out of competition—they do have a clear understanding of the morality of the average cycling fan.

As long as the casual follower of cycling believes all drug use to be roughly equal, or as long as the average sponsor believes casual followers believe this, then two actions are likely: Sponsors will be reluctant to sign cyclists with any sort of doping taint, or worse, they will leave the sport entirely.

It may be that serious cyclists don’t see cocaine as a gateway drug to PEDs. But the average viewer out in TV land doesn’t agree and this is, like most things, a battle of numbers. Whatever more people believe wins; just consider elections.

Just as Boonen’s drug use may be held to a double-standard, he himself is held to a different standard than other riders. If a nobody with no results is caught doping, then he’s just an idiot, but with Boonen, because he’s a champion, he’s a cheater and a bad example. Is it fair? Not much. Is it typical? Ever watched TMZ?

The average follower of cycling seems to accept that Boonen did actually test positive. Should we also accept the assessment that he has a drug problem that deserves treatment? That seems a bit much. The latest Hollywood real-life script is that after getting caught using drugs the best response is to cry mea culpa and to enter treatment. It makes for great public relations, but how appropriate a response would treatment be? How many people really think that Boonen, with two known positive tests for cocaine, is an addict? Probably mostly folks who think cocaine is a gateway drug to PEDs.

From 1999 to 2005 Lance Armstrong lived an ascetic life that revolved around his training. Even so he faces accusations of doping, correct or not. His asceticism is an example that ought to serve as a blueprint for PROs. Boonen seems to be getting the job done, just as Jacques Anquetil got the job done. But times have changed and the average viewer isn’t willing to turn a blind eye to drug use of any variety.

Fair or not, Boonen faces a choice: He can party like a "Lost" star, or he can be a god of Flanders. Turns out, even his sponsor thinks he can’t be both. But that won't matter if he winds up incarcerated; in prison he can't do either.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tornado Tom ... Indeed II


Look, we at BKW love this guy. Love him. He's the hardest of hard men. But a positive test for cocaine can derail his hopes for going back to the Tour de France for a second year in a row. We want him racing for the green jersey, so while it would be nice if he weren't embarrassing the sport for recreational drug use, what we really need is him clean enough to go to the Tour. The competition for the greeen jersey won't be as interesting without him going head-to-head with Cavendish.

I've said my piece already. Ibid.

Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stelvio Pass, 1953 Giro d'Italia

In honor of the upcoming start of the first Grand Tour of the season. Submitted for your appreciation, the great Fausto Coppi.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Torque Touch: the Effetto Mariposa Giustaforza Torque Wrench


Chances are your very first bike tool was a 4, 5 and 6mm Park Y-Allen wrench. It was mine, purchased the same day as my Silca floor pump, both of which I still have. I spent slightly less than $40, which seemed an extravagance given that neither item could be ridden. As a relatively new cyclist I had a lot to learn about what constituted necessary.

The bikes most of us ride have changed a lot in the last 10 years, let alone the last 20 years. Some of these changes—better-made clothing, improved hood and saddle shapes and more sophisticated shifting systems—have made incremental changes to our riding experience, but other changes—namely carbon fiber—has changed the cost of bikes and the care required to maintain them immeasurably.

As evidence, I offer exhibit A: the Effetto Mariposa Giustaforza bicycle torque wrench. It wasn’t that long ago that a $185 tool was strictly the domain of bike shops. My truing stand didn’t break three figures. But with the number of riders riding carbon fiber frames, seatposts and (most especially) handlebars, far too many user-errors have been called defective products.

I recently did a little checking and realized that every product I’ve come in contact with in the last year came with torque ratings. For this, I’m glad. However, I also found myself profoundly frustrated; most of the torque wrenches out there don’t offer particularly detailed readings in the range bicycle parts require. Tighten a bolt to 6.2Nm? On some wrenches it can be difficult to tell the difference between 6 and 8Nm. While the Effetto Mariposa Giustaforza may not offer decimal-point gradation, the scale is far easier to read than most of its competitors’ wrenches. Dial in the desired torque and tighten until the head of the wrench twists sideway with a loud click, indication the desire torque has been reached.

With its 17-bit tool selection, the only bolt on a bike I haven’t been able to tighten with this thing is the 10mm bolt on the Campy Ultra-Torque crankset. I’ve found myself under-adjusting the torque at times just to make sure I bring up the torque gradually.

The shame of this product is that its price tag is so much higher than the average cost of normal home bike tools that many riders may balk at investing this much in a torque wrench. The reality is that every rider who has a carbon fiber frame, fork, seatpost, stem or handlebar (which is virtually every rider who owns a bike equipped with Dura-Ace, Record, Ultegra or Chorus) needs to purchase one of these, even if they aren’t prone to doing much maintenance on their own. Save a floor pump, I can’t think of another tool more necessary for today’s bikes than this thing.

Our bikes are becoming more complicated, fragile and high performance. It’s an inevitable nexus in our quest for speed. The good news is that we still have the ability to ride bikes just as good as the pros are on; that simply isn’t the case in most other sports. In the case of cycling and some of the UCI Continental teams in Europe, many of us are on bikes better than they are racing.

While it’s PRO to have a trick bike, what’s even more PRO is having a tool that will allow you to do no wrong. That it’s small enough to travel in checked luggage is just icing on the cake. Given what many of us have spent on our bikes, the cost of this tool is a small investment in peace of mind.