On narratives (the interludes continue)

Thanks to the kind folks at VeloPress, your author is enjoying Geoff Drake’s sweeping new book, Team 7-Eleven, niftily subtitled: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World – and Won. The book is an essential history for anyone who has ever swung a leg over the top tube of a racing bike and thus needs little in the way of introduction. Of note, though, is how gratifying the actual reading of the book has been. For a book gourmand such as your author, Drake serves up fine writing fare by the fork full.

The details of the team and its story need not preoccupy us too much here. PEZ already has a fine review, and the rest of the story is in the book itself. Of note, though, is the remarkable confluence of events and personalities that allowed the team to happen in the first place, and to be produced from the American milieu where cycling was at best a second-tier sport. In that respect it’s a fascinating story. Unfortunately, in some ways, the team’s Tour de France debut in 1986 was overshadowed by another American cycling success story – Greg LeMond.

The 7-Eleven team made a cracking debut at the 1986 Tour, with Alex Stieda (a Canadian no less) being the first North American to wear the maillot jaune and he made it even sweeter by winning all the other classification jerseys on the same day. That he lost the race lead that very afternoon, after a disastrous TTT, showed that 7-Eleven still had much to learn (although Davis Phinney later won a stage). Perhaps the most significant impact on the overall race was Doug Shapiro riding into Pedro Delgado causing the latter to crash and abandon the Tour.

Whatever excitement the team generated, however, was nothing in comparison to Greg LeMond’s race. This blog has already posted some entries on LeMond’s career, but these pale in comparison, of course, to the exhaustive analysis of the 1986 Tour by Richard Moore in his (essential) book, Slaying the Badger. It seems a remarkable historical coincidence that the 7-Eleven team would first race at the Tour the same year that an American – riding for a French team – would win the race and in such a dramatic fashion.

The 1987 Tour was a better year for 7-Eleven, even if Andy Hampsten, back on the team after his stint with La Vie Claire (and a prominent role in the 1986 Tour, including 4th place overall), struggled to reach his previous level. The Mexican climbing machine Raul Alcala won the white jersey for the best young rider. Davis Phinney took another stage win. The Norwegian rider Dag Otto Lauritzen won a mountain stage in the Pyrenees (a feat that countryman Thor Hushovd would repeat at this year’s Tour). And, finally, Jeff Pierce won the final stage on the Champs-Élysées – beating out Steve Bauer (who would later join the team after negotiations with Greg LeMond for the 1990 season fell through). But the 1987 Tour was another one for high excitement for the overall, with Stephen Roche winning a tough edition that maximized both the drama and the suffering (you can read about it on this blog right here).

What remains endearingly interesting about pro racing, especially the Grand Tours, are the layers of narrative – the number of stories that each race involves. With multiple teams and numerous riders, everyone has a story to tell. There were some absolutely fascinating editions of the Tour de France in the late 1908s (indeed the whole decade). Without the inclusion of the 7-Eleven team, they would likely still be races worthy of legend. But what Geoff Drake’s book does is to remind us that there are lesser-known stories to be told, ones that don’t grab the same limelight as the better known ones, but which are still worthy of reading. This is what keeps our sport so endlessly fascinating.

A final comment on 7-Eleven. As is well known, its parent company stopped sponsoring the team in the middle of 1990. The quintessentially American company was rescued from financial strife in 1991 by its Japanese franchise Ito-Yokado and became Seven & I Holdings Co., which continued to expand the brand worldwide. The stores are widely in evidence around the world these days and their logo continues to pop up in unexpected places related to cycling. For your author, the local east-west bike path is sponsored by the company; the classic logo signs are an ongoing reminder of a little slice of cycling history.

P.S. Your author spoke recently with Geoff Drake for a story for PEZ Cycling News, which will be published shortly.

On places (yet another interlude)

It has come to your author’s attention that there has been some lamenting of the absence of pictures on this blog. Naturally, with its literary pretensions, this absence has been largely deliberate as its preference is for long passages of text where one single image would do. But that’s not entirely true, and below you will find, dear reader, a couple of images that perhaps you haven’t seen before.

There’s always some small pleasure in finding a new source of cycling pictures, not reproduced in all the usual sources. The L’Equipe publication, Tour de France/Le Ventoux/Sommet de la Folie, is one such book recently added to your author’s collection, which features some great historical photos from the ‘madness’ racing up Mont Ventoux.

This climb is a particular favourite for le grimpeur, your author being the first of (currently) eight Kiwis to join the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux by completing the three ascents in one day (certainly not the hardest of cycling challenges, but also not that easy either). Mont Ventoux is spectacular unto itself, but the cycling history that has been written on its slopes adds another dimension to climbing it.

This says something about the role of ‘place’ in cycling. Professional racing is made all the more exciting by the routes it takes – Belgian bergs, French cobbles, the hills of the Italian Riviera, the Pyrenees and the Dolomites, and even the coastal vistas of California. Many of the climbs or descents or stretches of road take on mythical status; if enough heroic feats are performed on them, they become something larger in the mindset of the sport, more than just a piece of tarmac (or a set of cobbles).

There is thus a symbiotic relationship between cycling and place. If you’re fortunate to live somewhere with easy access to the countryside, you can probably find almost equally picturesque or challenging routes that might even equal the classic routes of pro cycling. Any ski resort access road, for example, might indeed be Tour-worthy. But without a storied history, these routes are just another place to spin one’s tyres. The varied terrain that cycling traverses gives the races their variety and excitement. As our good friend Roland Barthes has said: “…to conquer the slopes and the weight of things is to allow that man can possess the entire physical universe.” Well, perhaps that’s a bit excessive, but is it what makes races so captivating. The extra dimension is when cycling gives back to a place – it builds a history and a mythology in a particular location. When us lowly amateurs get to experience that place ourselves, we can take some small sips from the wellspring of that history and mythology.

Four faces of pain following the time trial up Mont Ventoux (L'Equipe)

The above picture is from the 1958 Tour de France, memorably won by Charly Gaul some 30 years after fellow luxembourgeois Nicolas Frantz (who led the race from start to finish) and the last rider from that country to do so. The protagonists have just completed the time trial up Mont Ventoux, 21.5 kilometres from Bedoin to the summit and Gaul (top left), despite his visage of suffering, smoked the course in 1h02’09”, taking him from 9th to 3rd overall. Vito Favero (bottom left), the Italian rider, wore the yellow jersey into the stage but was only 24th on the climb, 7’59” behind Gaul. He would go on to place second overall, though, showing incredible tenacity (and you can read more about his Tour and career in a previous post and on Pez Cycling News where he shows off his yellow jersey from this Tour).

Raphaël Géminiani (top right) also did not fare so well against Gaul, some 5’01” down in 10th place. But he had done enough to pull on the yellow jersey at Favero’s expense and held it for three stages until Gaul put paid to Géminiani’s Tour hopes with a massive attack through the Alps to Aix-les-Bains (which actually put Favero back into the lead until the final time trial, where Gaul struck again). For Jacques Anquetil (bottom right), though, it was a Tour of suffering on a grander scale. Looking enough of a fright in this picture, he abandoned before the final time trial with congestion and was also coughing up blood. Having won in 1957, Anquetil would be back, winning (of course) four more Tours.

The second picture, below, shows Bernard Thévenet on his way to victory on stage 11 from Carnon-Plage to the summit of Mont Ventoux. The years before and after this Tour were dominated by the battles between Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocaña, but Thévenet’s victory was perhaps a sign of things to come for this brilliant Frenchman as he would be the rider to prevent Merckx from his 6th Tour victory in 1975. Thévenet will be the subject of (hopefully) the first post here in 2012, the fortieth anniversary of his stage win (and another anniversary of sorts, but more on that later), as part of the ongoing series on the meaning of cycling. There will be more interludes in the interregnum before the year is out, but enjoy the pictures for now and look for ‘Mont Ventoux and memory’ in 2012.

Thévenet's secret? Gallic tenacity and very stylish kit (L'Equipe)

On religion, sociology and cycling (another interlude)

Like any good religious devotees, roadies have their rituals. One such ritual is the formulaic way in which training is discussed. These discussions typically take place when greeting old acquaintances at races, notably in the springtime when racing resumes and winter training results are in the minds of many.

A typical discussion might begin with a question such as: “So, been doing much riding?” Such questions are purely rhetorical; they are not to be taken as literal, requiring an honest and detailed reply as to one’s training regime. One’s response is governed by ritual and is determined by a rather complex formula. For example, if you have been indeed doing a little riding, clocking up a few miles, then an appropriate response might be: “Yeah, a few miles when I can.”

But as the amount of training increases, the response should move exponentially in inverse proportion to the amount of training done. Therefore, a moderate training plan involving a variety of riding might be described as: “A few miles, but family commitments have made it pretty tough to get out.” Got an actual training plan, complete with interval sessions and an online coach? “Pretty much rested up over the winter with a bit of back pain from putting up the Christmas tree.” If you’ve been spending the last 2 months putting in 6 hours per day on the rollers in the 53×11 while watching endless Tour de France dvds, your response should take on the magnitude of a New Country song – your porch collapsed, the dog died, your significant other left you and took your truck with your bike in the back.

The intention of such responses is not to obfuscate one’s condition (all will be revealed on the road in due course). The point is that roadies do not have the slightest interest in discussing training; it is an arcane subject of no relevance to anything useful (as opposed to where to get the best espresso, say). In the world of the roadie, all rides are recovery rides to local coffee shops, even if what one actually does is long tempo group rides or hill intervals. But the ritual of appearing to discuss training is still important as one must at least appear to be polite.

When answering a question about training, one must never (never!) reply: “I’m in training for a Gran Fondo.”


Your author must confess to having been totally blindsided by the Gran Fondo phenomenon. On initial appraisal, your author was attracted to the idea: a long ride on a closed course, just the sort of scenic event to finish a season and put in a few extra miles. Something to train for? Well, since when does one train for a ‘fun ride’ when the distance and toughness of the course is less than, say, stringing together the local mountains in a round trip. Still, with a price tag of around $200, it had better be a good day out.

The Vancouver event (Vancouver to Whistler), having just run its second edition, attracted 7,000 riders. Far from being a fun ride, entrants are now comparing finish times and can even pay an additional fee to start with a group at the head of the pack to avoid being held up by slower riders, thus facilitating a faster finish time. Additional events are now being run in British Columbia, almost like grand tours. Needless to say, Fondo training plans (not to mention Fondo-ready bikes) are on everyone’s lips and in the pages of popular cycling publications. Gran Fondos are now, apparently, serious events with serious racing.

There would appear to be a growing disconnect between marquee events (with impeccable if somewhat pricey organization and ‘epic’ routes) and the local grassroots racing, where a weekend Masters race on quiet, country roads with no-frills organization (but usually a great bbq) might struggle to attract 100 entrants across all age categories. It would seem, as least in Vancouver, that roadies are favouring the former and that there is little crossover. Are we becoming pampered racers who prefer to drop a bundle of cash for a Gran Fondo rather than support a club-run local racing event?

On class

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the idea of cultural capital as the way members of a particular class use cultural knowledge and taste to reinforce and support their class position, particularly members of the upper class and their predilections for high bourgeois culture. Pastimes and fashion was part of this process; think of it not so much as ‘we are what we wear’ but ‘what we wear (and what we do while wearing it) is who we want others to see us as’. Being French and writing in the 1960s, Bourdieu was naturally obsessed with class and brought a particular neo-Marxist perspective to the issue. Class is a little more of a slippery idea these days. In our (supposedly) meritocratic and materialistic modern society, class does not exist in a traditional sense, but only as a function of wealth. To the extent that the more wealthy might use consumer and recreational choices as cultural capital to reinforce their identity, though, Bourdieu still has a useful idea.

Cycling now offers a pathway for consumption, upgrades and activities that can reinforce a monied identity. The industry, and indeed its promotion, is based around an upward progression of not necessarily personal performance but of equipment. Bikes are price-pointed for certain types of rider, and major publications like Bicycling neatly categorize just about everything for the aspiring rider and racer. Any wheelset over 1,800 grams is not ‘race ready’, bikes with a tiny more vertical compliance in the rear are for Gran Fondos rather than racing, and riders can choose the groupset appropriate to their ‘level’. Clothing items of unabashed luxury abound, trading on their brand identity. This builds a myth that progress in the sport also involves a progression in equipment, an ongoing, presumably endless, upgrade path. For a new entrant, this path can be daunting and only reinforces the idea that cycling is a sport that requires a substantial monetary contribution over time; a sport that is for the upwardly mobile, and not those that just like to climb hills.

A recent glance through the magazine Peloton and an article on American bikes highlights this point. The Cannondale that won the 1997 Giro retailed for $2,700; Lance Armstrong’s Trek in 2003 was $4,730; Specialized’s top-of-the-line Tarmac in 2004 was $5,500. These are a far cry for the price tags of the pro-level bikes in 2011, more like the $8,000+ range, which are available in most cases to the public in an industry that has discovered that high-end consumers are willing to pay more and more for their rides.

To that extent, cycling may indeed be – as some say – the new golf, replete with connotations of wealth and success (the leisure time to play, the cost of the top-of-the-line equipment, and the fees for the greens). If this is indeed the case, then the Gran Fondo is cycling’s equivalent of St. Andrews.

The bigger picture

What might we make of this, is it indeed true, and does it really matter? While there might appear to be a gap between the Gran Fondo crowd and those that are the old-school local racers, the bigger picture may be somewhat more complex. This year in Vancouver saw a big boost in numbers at the Tuesday night crit series (not so much the Thursday night series, though) and the Cypress hillclimb (raising money for cancer research) saw a record number of entrants (around 350 when less than a quarter of that number turned up when the event was started four years ago). It will be interesting to see if there is greater interest and turnout for some of the other race events, particularly those a little less publicized.

Motivations should never be second guessed. Your author knows what it’s like to have a busy work and family schedule, and getting one’s legs ripped off at weekend race events through the season due to lack of time for training can get tiresome. A better option might be to focus on one event, like a Gran Fondo, and work towards it at one’s leisure. Sure, that entry fee is hefty, but can be offset by less weekend or weekday racing during the season. And why get hung up on some crit placing when a personal best can be set on a closed course without having to joust with traffic and those young guns who will ride inside your line as soon as shout “braking”.

Local racing will endure as it always has. Often under-subscribed, assuredly un-glamorous, but much loved by its participants as a regular little racing fix. But it is hard not to see it becoming disconnected from the marquee events, a poorer cousin. Still, cycling is a big tent and there may well be room for all. If it takes the big money of the Gran Fondos to pull more people into cycling, and to attract them to the other local events, then this can only be a good thing. If it brings more money to local bike shops, raises awareness of cycling in the local sporting mindset and legitimizes road racing, and gives more respectability to the sport then these are all good things.

But for some, there’s something vaguely unsettling about the corporate aspects of these events. If cycling is the new golf, then one might keep in mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s criticism: “An emasculated form appeared and proved just right.” If you also find the Gran Fondo crowd just a little too carbonized, then you too have probably been blindsided by the recent growth of these events and the particular participants that they have attracted. On conspicuous consumption, though, patterns in cycling are probably more reflective of wealth in the wider society than any particular reflection of cycling itself. The rise (and now fall?) of luxury brands in cycling is inevitably tied to the position of luxury brands elsewhere – not just in sport. If 2012 sees a decline in cycling bling, it is likely to be more due to economic conditions in North America in general rather than anything to do with mindsets in cycling.

It is also worth keeping in mind the criticism of brand consumption put forward in an article just perused today. The author argues that what we can tell about people by what they buy is exactly nothing. To use the author’s example, there are no Android people or Apple people, just people that buy those products. This runs counter to brand marketing that seeks to establish brand identities that consumers want to buy into, but is probably quite close to the truth. In most cases, we don’t want others to judge us by our own purchases – we’re complex individuals, after all – yet that is what we often do when judging others. Unless we’re Bordieu’s cultural elite, attempting to reinforce our status position, actual consumption choices may demonstrate little.

Religion and rituals

Ultimately, there are still divergent views as to what cycling means. To stretch the religion metaphor to its breaking point, you either see cycling as hardcore Scottish Calvinism with a working-class ethic, where you accept your lowly status as an amateur of scant ability and where the only reward for suffering is more suffering; the only luxuries you allow yourself are a wool jersey that doesn’t itch and a nine-speed cassette. Or you belong to a new, flashy Pentecostalism that celebrates all that is shiny and ‘epic’, that gives immediate high-profile gratification and takes you closer to the gods of the pro peloton through Gran Fondos and the Étape du Tour; here there are no equipment luxuries but essentials (a sub-15lb bike, carbon wheels, and soon, electronic shifting).

The above discussion has been offered not so much as a criticism but as a provocation (and also a little tongue-in-cheek), an opportunity during the off season to ponder what our sport might mean, in the spirit of the ongoing series of posts being presented here. It can either be viewed through a corporatist lens, or that lens can be coloured by our efforts to find ‘meaning’ in what we do (after all, what is religion but a form of meaning), hence the rituals and rules that help give cyclists their identity. In the end, most all of us are fairly ecumenical as to how we see our cycling, but how you answer that perennial question, “Been doing much riding”, will determine which end of the cycling religious spectrum you veer towards.

In the Italian cycling trinity, if Alfredo Binda is 'the father', and Gino Bartali is 'the son', does that make Fauto Coppi 'the holy spirit'?

On fall (a short interlude)

The English writer George Eliot lived just long enough to witness the invention of the bicycle, at least its early manifestations as a velocipede, variously invented and improved in France and in England from the late 1860s. Whether she had any interest in cycling is perhaps up for debate, but she was a fan of the fall season. “Delicious autumn!” she wrote, “My very soul is wedded to it…”

Fall is the preferred season for being a roadie. The weather, at least in these parts, can be fair and settled, with crisp mornings (yet to get icy and crunchy), clear skies, and cool breezes. It is also a great time for contemplation, amid autumnal colours, for looking at the season just passed and for making wildly grandiose plans about next year.

Such is gravity
Regular followers of this blog will have noted the author’s mentions of his diminished training time this year. The training diary bares all: few rides over 3 hours, diminished miles, and most weeks consisted of one night’s crit racing (a 70 kilometre round trip, including the race) and one other short ride. A far cry from the 7-10 hours per week of training recommended by Joe Friel for even the lowest level of racing.

Still, there were compensations. Although the course differed this year, your author may have posted a new personal best for the local Cypress hillclimb race. The secret? Weighing less. Stress is a great calorie burner and having a new family addition certainly fit the bill.

Climbing faster can be achieved without detailed training plans and lung-busting intervals by shedding the pounds. Whether this is achieved by reducing bike weight (typically expensive), dropping extraneous accessories (such as ditching that second bottle), or reducing rider weight. According to Tom Compton’s excellent calculator at analyticcycling.com, for a climb like Cypress (14 kilometres, 5% gradient on average) every pound dropped is worth nearly 10 seconds of time – not a huge amount, but significant if personal bests are in play. Therefore, being out of shape and not being able to ratchet up the power numbers can be compensated for by reducing the force of gravity that has to be overcome to climb at speed. Drop a whole bunch of pounds and you can feel like you’re flying up the hills even without much prior riding.

Fall reading
If one’s fall riding schedule is not hectic, but one’s work and family one is (causing the group ride to be difficult to fit in), a relaxed solo outing can easily fit the bill and also enhance the experience of reflection.

At the café, one can linger over a macchiato instead of the usual espresso (never a latte, of course, lest one be thought of as gauche). A small notebook, retrieved from a jersey pocket, can be a repository for words of inspiration, fantastical training plans, and unrealistic equipment upgrades. Better still, a small Penguin paperback fits easily in said pocket and a few pages can do much to pass the time. Currently, your author is enjoying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Crack-Up And Other Stories’, with George Orwell and Mordecai Richler waiting in the wings.

Fall riding is about putting in some miles, keeping the pedals turning as winter – always a season of discontent – approaches, enjoying what remains of the clear weather and the fall colours, and rediscovering the joy of just riding (with some occasional reading thrown in along the way). Stay wedded to your bike and keep the soul nourished, for when the cold and the dark and the wet comes, and it will come soon enough, something will certainly be needed to keep us going.

For previous posts on winter riding, follow this link

Sport as spectacle

Our guide to all things philosophical about sport, Roland Barthes, wrote that: “[Professional] wrestling is not sport, it is a spectacle.” As Barthes has written elsewhere, though, sport always has an element of spectacle – what otherwise would so completely capture our imaginations?

Cycling, of course, is full of spectacle. The Tour de France, for example, is like the world’s largest carnival, a procession of brightly-coloured performers, attended to by a host of extraneous entertainment (the publicity caravan, the ceremonies, the podium girls, the hoards of journalists and manic fans), wowing us with feats of strength and endurance. Some see the spectacle of cycling as akin to rock ‘n’ roll, and we might call this the ‘Johnny Green’ theory of cycling, so named after the writer (and former road manager for The Clash) of the same name. Green not so much forgives the excesses of cycling but suggests that they are in keeping with a sport that is infused with a rock ‘n’ roll ethos of pushing the boundaries in all aspects.

The spectacle of cycling appeals to us at a basic emotional level. Think of Floyd Landis torching the peloton during his mountain escape in the 2006 Tour de France, possibly the greatest single-day exploit in the Tour in recent memory, or Marco Pantani sprinting in the drops up Alpe d’Huez in 1997, riding so fast that commentators were lost for superlatives. Such spectacle gives us an immediate and visceral response. Might we then tolerate the excesses of cycling (particularly doping) simply if it provides us with a spectacle? Is cycling simply rock ‘n’ roll?

The role of rules
Rock ‘n’ roll has at its heart a disdain for the rules. The best music produced in the last half-century, for example, has been typically about breaking the rules of expectations. Think of Nirvana’s album ‘Nevermind’, twenty years old this September, an album so left field of expectations that it forced the music industry to take notice simply because of its popularity. It was a spectacle created without reference to established rules and norms. In place of ‘Nevermind’, one could easily substitute a long list of albums that broke the rules, defied expectations, and became classics.

But sport, including cycling, is thick with rules. Rules and regulations are an integral part of every game or every event; they are detailed, meticulous, and might even seem restrictive or petty. But the rules give an event its context. According to the French author Paul Yonnet, one of the elements of sport is the ‘tension’ that is exacerbated by “la stricte égalité des parties”, the equality of the competitors. Rules that contribute to this equality enhance the tension. For example, we might enhance the spectacle of cycling by giving certain riders an advantage such as a lighter bike for key mountain stages, or a disadvantage by taking away a teammate from the yellow jersey wearer’s team. Surely there would be much excitement by such an intervention.

Strict equality between cyclists is impossible, of course, but it is obvious that making rules universal for all the riders does increase the tension of the competition. Doping is an affront to this goal simply because it erodes that equality. It is easy to see, looking back, that while doped-up riders provided a performance spectacle, the overall effect was one of inequality that ultimately eroded the exciting tension between relatively evenly-matched riders competing over the same course under the same rules and conditions. Physiology, training, tactics, and endurance have proved to provide more tension than the competition between pharmacology.

What makes Alpe d'Huez more than just a mountain?

How structure gives meaning
Rules can go even further than promoting equality. According to the philosopher Bernard Suits, sport (or ‘games’ as he calls it) must have three properties: a ‘pre-lusory goal’, constitutive rules, and the ‘lusory attitude’. A pre-lusory goal is the goal of the competition; in the cycling context, this is the goal of being the rider to complete the course in the fastest time. The constitutive rules are all the regulations that govern such an event and define how the goal is to be achieved (and to stop riders from achieving the goal by some other means, like taking the train). The lusory attitude is the attitude adopted by competitors and spectators alike; everyone accepts the rules because they enhance the spirit – and the meaning – of the game.

We accept the rules, and as fans we likely want the riders to accept the rules as well, because they define the sport. They give cycling meaning and context, and make some kind of order out of the chaos that the pro peloton could otherwise create. The rules create a framework for winning, for judging and comparing performances, and for making historical comparisons and maintaining the continuity of the sport. The rules and regulations keep changing to fit the temper of the times, but they are tinkered with rather than revised wholesale. The route of the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix changes from year-to-year, but there are certain conventions that are followed (the Tour loops roughly around France and includes both the Pyrenees and the Alps; Paris-Roubaix finishes in the velodrome and includes cobbles – it would not do to add bergs and smooth pavement); these give context and continuity to the races year after year.

At the individual rider level, the rules help with establishing a hierarchy that we as fans use to make sense of the results we see, of the progress of riders year over year, and of making comparisons over the decades. If we know that riders are following the rules, we can judge the relative merits of performances. We can see Mark Cavendish becoming world champion in Copenhagen as the continuation of a string of stellar rides by the sprinter of his generation; we can see Tony Martin’s time trial win at the same event as the passing of the torch; we can see Thomas Voeckler’s yellow jersey defence at the Tour as the performance of a plucky underdog; we can see Philippe Gilbert’s 2011 season as the realisation of a massive talent nurtured throughout his apprenticeship.

Which is why the era of blood doping (that is seemingly now waning) completely turned the meaning of cycling on its head. Results lost their context as previously unheralded riders raced to the top steps of the podiums, past champions sank in a miasma of mediocrity, whole teams swept races largely uncontested, and a whole generation of riders trying to ride clean struggled to make the second page of the results sheets despite their talents. There was plenty of spectacle, of that we can be sure, but the plethora of asterisks against the results from that era mean that they have no context – comparisons over time are meaningless, and even now trying to work out who actually ‘won’ a race is a frustrating and fruitless exercise.

The moral dimension
As fans, even if we adopt a devil-may-care attitude to some of the infractions of the rules in cycling, at some level we have (or need) to adopt the lusory attitude. We might support a tinkering with the regulations, in the interests of fairness, safety, or for the evolution of the sport, for example, but we support the concept of having rules in the first place. Without them the sport that we support simply becomes diluted, it reverts to a spectacle that has a short-term emotive appeal but lacks a long-term context.

Without that context, and without that tension between the riders, cycling is stripped of its morality – its uplifting properties. Therefore, the rules help transcend the basic concept of cycling – highly trained and skilled athletes competing against each other over a fixed route under certain conditions – and make it into something else. As Barthes writes: “Muscle does not make the sport… Muscle, however precious, is never anything more than raw material. It is not muscle that wins. What wins is a certain idea of man and of the world, of man in the world. This idea is that man is fully defined by his action, and man’s action is not to dominate other men, it is to dominate things.”

To follow on from Barthes’ concept, this is what we might call the moral dimension of cycling. Racers can conquer adversity, the challenges that the nature of the route throws at them, the vagaries of the wind and weather, and they can overcome self-doubt and cruel twists of fate. These are the ‘things’ that men (and women, for that matter) can dominate. The domination of the high mountains, or the cruel cobbles, or the wind-swept plains, or the steep Belgian bergs is facilitated by all the rules and regulations that govern cycle races. They make the ‘certain idea’ possible and make cycle racing what it is. This allows cycling to be something greater than the sum of racers just riding bikes, to reach beyond just spectacle. To give meaning to the mundane and the majestic.

Sometimes cycling is simply sublime

The meaning of cycling: introduction

The May issue of Bicycling magazine ran with a cover photo of a grim looking Lance Armstrong and a provocative headline: Lance retires – he’s done (but is he finished?). Inside, writer Bill Strickland penned a personal piece on Armstrong’s ‘endgame’, with the standfirst, “It’s time to stop arguing about whether Lance doped and start figuring out what it means.” In the article, Strickland details his eventual arrival at the conclusion that Armstrong did indeed dope. In doing so, he is probably the second-to-last American journalist to reach this conclusion (you can guess the last one, dear reader); he is, however, at least to your author’s knowledge, the first to say so publicly in print.

Strickland’s article brings the experience of reaching this conclusion down to the deeply personal (for more on Strickland’s writing, see here), but he also briefly touches on the history of doping in cycling, suggesting that “we live in a different age” and the meaning that we attach to Armstrong’s possible/likely/inevitable guilt will be different from earlier generations.

This is all good fodder for your author, having already touched on cycling and ‘meaning’ in earlier posts (see here, for example). What doping means in cycling goes to the very heart of what cycling, and indeed sport, is about. What priority, for example, should we accord to spectacle, to the rules, to fair play, and to the well-being of the riders?

Conceptions will likely differ. France’s favourite cycling philosopher, Roland Barthes, said: “What is sport? Sport answers this question by another question: Who is best?” So is it just about winning, and by what criteria do we determine who is the best? As the fall and winter weather approaches, your author will be pondering these questions – and others – in a series of posts on the meaning of cycling: sport as spectacle versus the context of the game; the anti-hero and the tyranny of the rules; Mont Ventoux and memory; and changing perceptions of the peloton, views from inside and out.

As always, one hopes that this endeavour will be provocative, thought provoking, and perhaps even entertaining. While establishing the ‘meaning’ of cycling may prove elusive, we may as well pause in our own quests on the bike to consider the wider context, and to perhaps get a little closer to why we follow cycling with such passion. As Barthes also asks: “Why? Why love sport?”

Pursuing goals on Cypress Mountain (Glotman Simpson pic)

A change of seasons

It was a sunset befitting the end of the season. The sky was orange like a wildfire with wisps of clouds rising like smoke above the mountains. To the east, even Mt. Baker – distant across the American border (and the venue of this year’s ‘epic’ ride for your author, thanks to the excellent team from La Bicicletta Pro Shop in Vancouver) – was visible, snow covered, receding into the dusk. For it was not even eight-thirty and already the afternoon light was rapidly disappearing. The end of a season.

Much as we might rally against it, we cyclists are seasonal creatures. Spring is the time for beginnings, summer the time for achievements, fall or autumn the time for endings, and winter either for renewal or for contemplation. For your author, summer cycling is defined by the beginning of mid-week crit racing in early May and which finishes in the last week of August, even is this does not conform to a conventional division of the seasons. It begins as the weather is usually turning for the warmer, and the evenings for the brighter, and ends when the evenings turn darker, even if the weather (potentially like this year) persists in staying warm well into the next month.

There’s no particular reason for this division; the racing is for fun and fitness, and for friendly rivalries, rather than a focal point. But it represents a rhythm for the year. Once it ends it signals the end of evening riding, a return to more conventional hours. The race bike also feels tired: the bar tape discoloured (despite regular buffing) and uneven; the chain stretched and worn; tyres dusty and festooned with nicks and cuts; mysterious creaks in the pedals, the cranks, the wheels, and who knows where else. With nothing left on the calendar the overwhelming temptation is to repair, replace, and rebuild – and then retire to storage until next year.

Indeed, time spent on bicycle TLC now is not time wasted but instead a well-spent investment. Who can remember when next spring rolls around (unless meticulous records are kept) when the chain and cassette were replaced, if the seat was adjusted, if tyres felt tired, which bolts were tightened. Better to tend to all those details now, when the memories of riding are still fresh and time is plentiful, instead of in a new year when absentmindedness and the urge to ride forestall a thorough pre-season check.

But perhaps there are still a few more weeks left, or even months, as we move into fall, the time for endings when epic rides can be completed, unridden routes re-explored, or mountains climbed one last time. For soon the winter tyres or wheels, or even the cyclocross or winter bike, will come out of storage, and the rain and the cold and the dark will be upon us; distracted minds will wander to new plans for riding adventures, mystical training techniques, and fortifying tonics, looking forward to a new season of empty summer skies.

Mt. Baker in the sunset and a pretty tough climb

Samuel Sánchez has no shoulders

The Euskaltel-Euskadi boys look pleased. It’s the end of another stage race and they can board their bus, forget about their bikes for a few hours at least, and head for home. The team prize for the race is in the bag, and even the mechanics and soigneurs have an extra jauntiness about them. Samuel Sánchez leads the team on its walk from the podium back to the bus. A part-time journalist is slow in recognizing him and fumbles for his camera. But he’s too slow and Samuel Sánchez has passed him by.

Samuel Sánchez moves with the confidence and physicality of an athlete at the extreme end of the performance bell curve we all inhabit. But there is also a hesitation to his step; he is a man who spends the vast majority of his time either sleeping or riding his bike. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year. His legs are pistons for spinning the cranks, not moving his feet; pedalling is his second nature, after all this time, not walking. There is also a slight roll to his walk, as if his torso, already slightly curved from being too long in the saddle, wants to pitch forward over an invisible set of handlebars in front of him.

But most strikingly, Samuel Sánchez has no shoulders.

Official sources list his weight at around 147 pounds. No one can agree exactly how tall he is, whether 5’8″ or closer to 5’11” (published bike measurements suggest somewhere in the middle, with a stretched out riding position due to a longer stem), but conventional measurements do not apply to Samuel Sánchez. He is not correctly proportioned in the normal sense. His upper body has been pruned of all extraneous material, his legs have been curved and sharpened to a keen edge. He is shaped like a wood carver’s adze, tapering upwards, a tool whose sole purpose is to carve great slivers of tarmac from European mountain roads. Which is why when he walks past, he is easy to miss – you might even miss him if you were to pass him on the street named after him in his hometown of Oviedo; on the bike he is easy to miss, too, despite the orange of his team kit with the gold trimmings of Olympic victory. Because Samuel Sánchez rides up mountains faster than all but a handful of human beings on this planet. So unless you’re at the front of the peloton – on a bike or watching from your couch as a motorbike and cameraman struggle to keep up – you’ll probably miss him on his bike, too.

Poised for victory at Luz-Ardiden (Sirotti)

At the 2011 Tour de France, Samuel Sánchez won a stage (his first) at Luz-Ardiden, nearly won on Alpe d’Huez, and secured the mountains classification (although by just 10 points over Andy Schleck, and the less said about those polka dot shorts the better). By winning the maillot à pois, he was – arguably – the best climber at the Tour. These numbers, 1st, 14 seconds (his margin of second place to Pierre Rolland on Alpe d’Huez), and 108 points (his mountains classification total) are important. But they are also irrelevant. There are numbers on Samuel Sánchez’s power meter, but these, too, are irrelevant.*

For Samuel Sánchez is an artist. To see the numbers he produces are irrelevant compared to seeing what he does out on the road. The keen cutting edge of his talent honed by training to be razor sharp. The effigies he carves from the mountains are visages of suffering and commitment; they are the result of his genes blended with hard, hard work and single mindedness to create something that we mere spectators can only marvel at, and shake our heads in wonder. We struggle to barely understand what Samuel Sánchez can do. The frenzy of fan excitement, the almost impossible athleticism, the seeming defying of gravity, his own suffering and that of his opponents. There are rules that govern what we ourselves are able to create, but like any true artist these rules appear not to apply to Samuel Sánchez. Someone who we might pass in the street without a second glance can somehow loom so large in our psyche for what he is able to do on a bicycle.

To see Samuel Sánchez climb is to brush closely to the impossible. He is mortal – even fragile – but he redefines what the mortal can do. We should be grateful that the Basque love of cycling provides the support for  Samuel Sánchez to make bike racing his profession. We must also constantly remind ourselves that what we are seeing is in the realm of the possible, the real, but that we are witnessing something special, something privileged; that we are seeing art being created. The art of le grimpeur. From a rider with no shoulders.

In victory, proof of the thesis (Reuters)

* Sources widely credit Sanchez with the fastest time of Alpe d’Huez this year at 41:21. This is outside the sub-40 minute times posted during the 1990s and subsequently at the height of blood doping. For a more extensive discussion on the limits of performance, see here, and for climbing times on the Alpe, see here. The excellent scientists at the Science of Sport blog have discussed this extensively, and have sparked an ongoing debate about the physical limits of performance. If you want to crunch the numbers then this is the debate for you. For an old post on the Basque cooperative that makes Orbea bikes, see here.

Le grimpeur de l’année

One can scarcely imagine how the legs of Pierre Rolland must be feeling tonight. As he rests up with his Europcar team at the Ibis in Briancon, he must surely be able to take immense satisfaction from his Tour ride so far, despite his pain and suffering. He has been Thomas Voeckler’s teammate of last resort in the mountains, chasing down attacks and pacing Voeckler in defence of the maillot jaune. While Voeckler has been an inspiration, Rolland has been right there with him – finishing 6th of the Galibier today, adding to his 10th on Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille (and putting him now 12th overall and 2nd in the white jersey competition).

One can imagine that 24-year-old Rolland had ambitions of his own for the Tour, perhaps a stage win in the mountains, but surely he never thought that he would be helping to defend the race leader on the tough climbs, day after day after day. He clearly is a fine grimpeur, which your author was able to mention some years back after he won the mountains jersey at the Dauphiné Libéré in 2008. Since then, he performances have been relatively quiet. Until now.

Rolland leads Voeckler to the line at Luz-Ardiden (Sirotti)

Today’s epic stage will no doubt occupy many pages of editorial and, depending on the outcome at Alpe d’Huez, may well prove to be the defining one of this year’s Tour. Andy Schleck answered his critics, Cadel Evans rode like a man possessed, Contador cracked, and Voeckler held on to yellow for yet another day. But spare a thought for young Pierre Rolland from Orléans, having ridden himself inside out already but tonight having to face the prospect of just one more brutally hard day. Can he propel his whippet-like 6-foot 151-pound frame (no doubt a little lighter after nearly three weeks of the Tour) over the tough cols again? One suspects that he will do everything to ensure that he does. Rolland may not be under the same scrutiny and pressure as Voeckler, nor living in the limelight, but his contribution has been pivotal to animating this race and perhaps even giving France its first podium result in years. Surely Rolland is now a strong contender for climber of the year.

Update: After his exceptional win on Alpe d’Huez, the first French winner on the climb since Bernard Hinault in 1986, the question mark in the title has appropriately been removed.

Alpe d'Huez waits for the Tour

Souffrance revisited

As the GC contenders in this year’s Tour de France take their second rest day, the complaints over their edentulous attacking in the mountains so far seems to be becoming a cacophony. None other than former Tour winner Stephen Roche was reported by Bicycling as saying: “After watching the stage to Plateau de Beille, I wondered, ‘Why not just have a grand fondo until, say, the last five kilometers and then race a little bit to the top?’ Guys are lacking personality. They have ambition, but lack personality.”

This site revisited his legendary Tour win of 1987 in a post on souffrance, the art of suffering. For recent readers, who have yet to sample some of the older posts, you can read this in full here.

A recent visitor this this site is the editor of a new blog, Patisserie Cyclisme. I think we can all agree that coffee and cake are indeed “fundamental components” of our sport. Your author is a particular fan of espresso and is always on a quest to seek out the best-pulled iterations of this essential beverage. A recent glance at the photographic archives revealed a gem from the past: espresso and cake from Mario’s in Deep Cove.

A ride is not always its own reward.

Unfortunately, Mario’s café is no longer in operation. In its time, however, it proved to be a welcome resting spot on many a long training ride and a surprising good source of coffee. Mario, if it was indeed him behind the bar, was a man of few words with a tenebrous demeanor. On most occasions he would take my order wordlessly, with barely an acknowledgment. But it was clear that he had a soft spot for espresso drinkers (we can be quite rare in Vancouver, it would seem), perhaps for cyclists as well, and would regularly slide the cup across the counter with a muted: “For you, I make a triple.”

Needless to say, a triple shot espresso was always most welcome. Deep Cove is a picturesque location, with a spectacular view of the local mountains as they plunge straight into the dark waters of this sheltered inlet. The outlook was always worth the ride, and the coffee more so. Mario is missed. But on what was perhaps the final visit, Mario was more upbeat, happy to acknowledge a familiar face and to make small talk. Perhaps he already knew he was moving on and was looking forward to new opportunities. Something had changed. It didn’t feel quite the same.

And he only made me a double.

Winning with style: an addendum

Your author will be the first to admit that the following is an entirely subjective view, lacking in all objectivity. But watching the GC contenders on stage 12 of this year’s Tour de France, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that they are somewhat lacking in, er, attacking-ness. Every move seems considered, thought out, carefully weighed against possible success and failure, all part of the big-picture plan for overall positioning. Chris Boardman called it “lacklustre” on ITV.

Yes, it was the first day in the mountains; yes, the Tour has a long way to go; yes, we don’t want a return to the ‘bad old days’ of wild, high-wire climbing. There was some improvement on stage 14, perhaps the toughest mountains day in the Tour, finishing on Plateau de Baille. The contenders showed some aggressiveness, but the two Schlecks failed to make their attacks meaningful. Sammy Sanchez made his move stick and although it was too late to catch Jelle Vanendert it was for a moment looking like he was going to take another fine, fine win in the Pyrenees. That Voeckler was still with the leading group, and looking frisky, seems to say something about the willingness of the GC contenders simply to sit in and look for gains in terms of seconds rather than minutes.

Perhaps it is all part of the strategy. For Cadel Evans, he can be comfortable just holding his ground and waiting for the final time trial. But what of the others? Stage 14 was a tough, tough day; Leopard-Trek are lacking real strength on the climbs with Jakob Fuglsang not having a good Tour so far; and with the riders obscured behind their glasses it is difficult to see just how much they might be suffering. Bernard Hinault may now be the genial host who zips up the jerseys of the winners on the podium, but in his racing days it is hard not to think that he would’ve made a petit-dejeuner of the Schlecks and then come back for Contador and the others before lunch. The feeling that the GC riders need to throw caution to the winds and put each other on the ropes (apologies for the mixed metaphor) will just not go away. Please let there be as much action among these favourites as there has been from many of the other riders in the peloton so far on this Tour.

What a relief, then, to see Thor Hushovd riding an old-school attacking race on stage 13, riskily attacking at the base of the Aubisque, holding an advantage over the climb (seemingly through sheer willpower), before a daring descent to catch David Moncoutié (who had just over a minute lead), and the tactically perfect final kilometres (dropping Moncoutié before catching Jeremy Roy, then immediately attacking again). And all the while wearing the rainbow jersey of the world champion. Scintillating racing. L’Equipe perhaps summed it up best with their race report headline: La plus belle. The best. Winning with style, indeed.

The most stylish win of the season so far? (Photo: Garmin-Cervelo)

Spare a thought, though, for Roy, caught just before the line after riding at the head of the race for so long (and having been in breaks for over 600 kilometres so far in the Tour). “Jamais arrivée d’une course n’aura été aussi cruelle pour moi,” he told L’Equipe after his third place. Yes, very cruel indeed; despite getting the le maillot à pois, he really wanted to win the stage. Given that the race finished in Lourdes, the religious metaphors were artfully deployed, with L’Equipe suggesting that Hushovd had ‘crucified’ Roy and David Millar tweeting that Hushovd had put the “fear of  God of Thunder” into the others. Still, they love Hushovd in France (given his many years with the Credit Agricole team, which included his giant visage painted on the team bus) and Roy undoubtedly still has some good racing years to go in his career.

Winning with style and honour

The Tour de France reminds us of the multiple ways that it is possible to win in pro bike racing. The possible permutations for a rider crossing the line first seem almost endless. Even supposedly specialist riders, such as Mark Cavendish, an expert at following his lead-out train to 200 metres then launching an unbeatable sprint, can surprise us with their skill, speed and resourcefulness in difficult racing situations.

The most prominent ways of winning are from the bunch sprint, or in the mountains from a select group of grimpeurs all fighting to conquer the high peaks. But the most stylish and elegant way of winning is via the breakaway.

Winning with style

At its heart, the breakaway is a doomed endeavour, an exercise in futility. A small group of riders must battle a relentless peloton that is adamant that it is controlling the race, and the group must also battle against itself. Each rider wants to ride hard enough to have the break succeed, but not too hard so as to be spent by the time the sprint comes. A breakaway might therefore be doomed by a hard-chasing peloton, or by its own infighting.

For a breakaway, the odds of success are not good. In theory, a breakaway needs a substantial gap to succeed, a minute of time for every 10 kilometres to the finish (or so goes the rule of thumb) once the peloton starts chasing in earnest. In theory, the breakaway needs to only go faster than the rider on the front of the peloton. But this is of little succour when that rider might be a time-trial machine like Fabian Cancellara, Tony Martin or Dave Zabriskie, and that the rider on the front will bury himself for a few kilometres then switch over to another hard man, and then another. As the gap gets smaller, the morale of the breakaway riders begins to suffer; and once they ease up for just a few moments, they may not have the heart to continue to fight.

A breakaway might succeed not because of the strength and tenacity of its participants, but for reasons outside of its control. The peloton may lack the enthusiasm to chase, or tactical and political decisions may be being made to ‘allow’ the breakaway to succeed. But that does not diminish the achievement if it does succeed; working in the wind is hard, time spent battling out the front is the among the toughest moments in cycling. And this is even more so the case if it is a solo breakaway – one rider against the wind, the elements, and everyone else.

No matter the number of miles on the front, winning alone is the ultimate victory – the finish line photo containing just the winner, with no other rider in sight. The ideal, perhaps, is to ride in a successful breakaway, then to ride away from the other riders with 15, 10 or 5 kilometres to go, taking advantage of a moment of hesitation from the others with a decisive show of strength, tactical savvy, and panache. These are the wins of which legends are made.

A very stylish win.

Winning with honour

According to the old sporting adage, rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen, while football/soccer is a game for gentlemen played by thugs (an adage that says as much about the class origins of those respective sports in England as it does about the games themselves). One might say that cricket is a gentlemen’s sport played by gentlemen, with its public school overtones and often arcane rules of sportsmanship and good conduct.

How, then, to classify cycling? As the Tour de France has recently reminded us, professional cycling is a brutally cruel sport that emphasizes suffering on a grand scale. In what other sport would a participant be physically ejected off the pitch and into a barbed-wire fence, then being forced to continue on while having his wounds attended to by an emergency doctor on the actual field of play?

When the Tour (and other pro events) were even more brutal, it is perhaps no surprise historically that cycling was largely a working-class sport. A day spent on the bike was perhaps no harder than a day in a coal mine or a factory or on a construction site. Henri Desgrange, in his iron-willed control of the Tour de France, wanted its working-class riders to become members of the bourgeoisie, using cycling to advance both their material fortunes and their conduct – to become gentlemen. Hence a myriad of rules and restrictions, fines and penalties, to control and reward the conduct of riders.

Bike racing, as well as society as a whole, has moved away from the class lines of its origins. While the UCI is now the Desgrange-like figure of enforcement of mind-numbing minutiae, the idea of respectability and fair play, of riding like gentlemen, has evolved as the peloton itself has established and enforced codes of conduct. There are many unwritten rules: respect for the yellow jersey, conditions under which attacking is allowed when other riders are in difficulty, when other teams should be chased down, conduct in breakaways and so on. The ultimate goal of these rules is to allow the peloton to function as an entity, safely navigating treacherous roads, as well as to give cycling a sense of fair play. That these rules are always being challenged and debated shows how the idea of fair play can evolve over time. At last year’s Tour, furious debate raged after Alberto Contador attacked Andy Schleck when the latter had a problem with his drivetrain; this year, David Millar has commented on the lack of respect shown to Thor Hushovd in the yellow jersey and that they have had to fight for position in the peloton.

Riding like gentlemen is all well and good, but the stakes in professional racing are always high. The situation is much improved from even a few decades ago when a handful of stars monopolized the contracts and the money – leaving most riders to compete for the crumbs. Riders now have guaranteed salary levels down to the pro-continental level, and a range of other protections. But pro cycling (like most pro sports) remains a precarious existence: the years of earning power are limited, performances can be fickle and lucrative contracts elusive, injuries sudden and debilitating, and the chances for most to grab high-power wins are limited. The combination of genetics, training, mentoring, motivation, and just plain old luck to get to the top of the sport is elusive to all but a small group of the absolute top-class riders.

Which is why all the riders at the Tour de France are ‘riding for keeps’ and that the racing (the first week in particular) is fast and frantic and dangerous and sometimes not very fair. Every rider is fighting for position, whether to get in a breakaway, to win the stage, or to protect a cherished team caption (who will ensure results, press coverage, and bonus payouts). The Tour is the sport’s biggest stage, and it is important to shine. And this is why Contador attacked Schleck in 2010, why Millar and Hushovd don’t get all the respect they deserve, why the bunch won’t always wait after crashes, why teams will punitively chase each other down to prevent a rival team getting media coverage, why a rider in a breakaway will sandbag on the back to increase his chances of winning a sprint, and why in those sprints that fists will sometimes fly. Fair play is one thing, but if a judicious application of race tactics will further a rider’s or a team’s fortunes, they will probably go for it. The race jury, or a jury of their peers, will assess the consequences at a later time (and that there may be consequences for a team, such as a lack of help in the peloton in response to some ‘transgression’, is what makes it so interesting).

At the amateur level, however, in the racing that you and I partake in on the weekend or during the week, there are no monetary or professional factors at play. While Cat.1-2s riding for a sizeable purse (or the possibility of advancement to the pro ranks) might have some excuse, the remainder of us in the lower categories do not. Cycling is both beautiful and brutal and we have an obligation to emphasize the former. As such, the burden of fair play and riding like a gentleman is much higher. As such, we would be wise not to follow many of the examples of our professional heroes. We would do well to adopt their style and sang-froid, but not their refrain of ruthless riding.

In its application, racing (and trying to win) with honour might involve many small concessions, such as letting another rider take the wheel in front of you if they want it, not cutting other riders off, pulling through when asked (and not yelling from back of the paceline, “someone pull through”; if you’ve enough energy to shout, pull through yourself), not chasing down every single break, taking your turn on the front instead of ‘tactically’ sitting at the back and waiting for the sprint, and not shouting and banging your handlebars when you and your $2,000 race wheels get pipped for 5th at the local Tuesday night crit by a first-timer on a cyclo-cross bike.

This is not always an easy task. We’re enthusiastic about our racing, and we delight in trying to cross the line first (and to perhaps even make a victory salute). If you’ve ever zipped up your jersey just before the sprint, you’ve probably been bitten by the racing bug. Sometimes we see the ‘racing line’ down the outside or through the inside that isn’t actually there. And we make excuses to ourselves for sitting on the back: “I’ve been too busy working/child raising/carousing to train; I rode for 90 minutes to get to the race; I really need to win this $5 prime…” (and your author has made some of these excuses himself).

Our obligation in amateur racing is to ride fast and to ride fair, to ride as much as we can with style and aplomb. Our obligation is to ride like gentlemen. As Graeme Fife might say, the bicycle is a “beautiful machine”. So bike racing is thus a beautiful sport. For us amateurs, this is a total truism. So next time you race, resist squeezing through the smallest gaps, let someone in, launch a doomed attack, take your turn on the front and ride hard, and smile and chat and enjoy the racing. And you might be surprised just how fun it is to race (and maybe win) with honour.

A beautiful sport, but never easy.

Italian cycling: a long, inevitable decline?

This year’s Giro d’Italia will unfortunately be remembered for the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt. But it is difficult not to see the race of symptomatic of the long, inevitable decline of Italian cycling, if not only the Giro itself.

The final indignity was the playing of the wrong national anthem for Alberto Contador, and it seemed liked director Angelo Zomegnan had been on the defensive for the entire race, over the difficulty of the race and the extreme descent from the Crostis climb on stage 14. “On one side there are cowards and on the other side ineptitude,” Zomegnan was reported saying.

The route was indeed extreme, likened to a battle for survival, which saw many of the top pro riders staying away in favour of gentler preparations for the Tour de France. Zomegnan has criticized riders for using the Giro as a training race in the past, but may have gone too far in making the Giro stand alone. There always seems to be pressure to make each subsequent edition tougher than the previous, which is clearly not a sustainable strategy. Exhausted riders do not make for much of a race.

Still, Contador made the race look easy. One’s impressions of the Giro might therefore rest on whether one finds the spectacle of Contador, waiting for the conclusion of the judicial process for his doping infraction, apparently easily winning the toughest edition in years to be a triumph or a travesty.

Italian riders rounded out the podium but with so many big names absent, this was supposed to be Italy’s, and Vincenzo Nibali’s, year for winning the race. To have done so would have broken an embarrassing drought for a lack of decent Italian results this season. Italy had four riders in the top ten at Milan-San Remo to start the year – but no one in the top three – and this, sadly, looks like the best result for the season so far.

Doping, again
Let’s play a quick game: can you name one current French rider not under investigation for doping or having been suspended for doping? Easy, huh! Can you do the same for an Italian rider. A little bit more difficult, eh.

One might also wonder as to the general state of Italian cycling with so many ex-dopers and suspected dopers currently riding in the peloton. The Italian Cycling Federation recently announced that it would restrict the participation of formerly suspended riders in the upcoming national championship, a move that would exclude Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi, Stefano Garzelli, Ricardo Ricco, Alessandro Petacchi, Danilo Di Luca, Davide Rebellin, and Emanuele Sella (although the proposal was amended with a cut-off date, allowing Basso, Scarponi and Garzelli to ride). Franco Pellizotti and Pietro Caucchioli are currently under suspension following biological passport irregularities.

Allesandro Ballan’s status is still uncertain, with the former world champ under investigation for doping along with 32 others, including Lampre-ISD team manager Giuseppe Saronni. The investigation was led by public prosecutor Antonino Condorelli and reportedly centred around the sale and use of prohibited substances including EPO, ephedrine, testosterone and corticoids. According to reports, also among the 32 people risking trial include directeurs sportif Fabrizio Bontempi and Maurizio Piovani.

The list, therefore, is a who’s-who of Italian pros. Many have served suspensions and are thus free to ride, but the numbers involved are surely symptomatic of a wider problem: Italian cycling has not gotten the message that the game has changed, that the peloton is moving on from the widespread doping of the 2000s and that this is new, cleaner era. The situation is analogous to French cycling a decade ago, post-Festina, when the message finally got through. Does Italian cycling need to start over?

A wider decline?
The infamous tifosi bring their unique Italian passion to the Giro, but are they in a state of willful denial over the problems in Italian cycling? And are those problems part of a wider Italian malaise?

Zomegnan admitted that perhaps this year’s Giro tried to cover too much territory, 17 regions, part of his efforts to take the race far and wide for the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. Supposedly an occasion for celebration, the anniversary itself proved to be a controversial issue with political parties from different regions unable to agree on how the occasion should be celebrated – with the north of Italy particularly critical of unification itself. A planned week-long celebration was scotched in favour of a tepid, partial public holiday. Even now, the norther regions are pushing for more autonomy (notably over finances) from Rome.

The economy is in trouble and Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is beset by personal scandals of entirely his own making, but is attempting to use his stranglehold on the media to fight his way out. Recent books with titles like, “The Failure of Italian Nationhood” and “Italy Today: The Sick Man oF Europe” take a pessimistic look at the country’s problems, and other commentators have piled on with their own stories of endemic corruption and tax evasion (with Davide Rebellin allegedly dabbling in the latter).

So, do we have a Giro that is being increasingly marginalized, a decadent Italian pro peloton mired in its doping past, and a country beset by economic and political calamity?

Some perspective
We can be quick to point out the woes of others. Here in North America, the US and Canada are hardly free of unique political and economic problems, so criticizing other countries is easy. Making linkages between wider issues in Italy, and the problems in its cycling, is an interesting exercise, but potentially misleading. As well, many quirky characteristics – at least to us Anglophones – is what makes countries like Italy unique. Perhaps we can’t have their charms without their peccadilloes?

The Giro has always operated in the shadow of the Tour de France. “The Tour is the Tour” as they say and the top riders will always make a choice whether to ride it based on their aspirations for the wider season, and this has always been the case. That it may become a race favoured by a certain type of rider (more pure climbers?) and be uniquely tough – a different type of race from the Tour – is not necessarily a negative, and every edition of the grand tours will have their own controversies.

That Italian riders have struggled to get results is not a new phenomena, just as the French have continued to struggle in recent years. The diversity of competition in the peloton is broader now, and country comparisons potentially meaningless. Better to focus, perhaps, on the calibre of the overall level of riding, and the spirit of competition, rather than the numbers on the results sheet.

That said, the doping problem appears to be unique. If the ongoing investigations prove to be accurate in the conclusions we have seen reported so far, there is indeed endemic and entrenched doping in many Italian teams and it may extend well down into the lower ranks. On this issue, it seems clear that Italian cycling needs to press the reset button and start over. Doing so will require conviction and courage.

Matt Rendell, author of “The Death of Marco Pantani”, once said in an interview that he could not get his book published in Italy because of all the doping revelations against Pantani and others that it contained. The tifosi were apparently not ready for the hard truth behind the tragedy. One can only hope that they are more ready now, and that we can look forward to a more triumphant and cleaner Italian cycling in the future.

Vincenzo Nibali: Italy's best hope for the future and a Giro win?

The week that was, on Tuesday

It was a good day for your author on the bike today, a nice ride with Richard out to Port Moody for an (excellent) double-espresso at our favourite local. The weather has proven to be most uncooperative is helping to add some tan lines, but we remain optimistic.

The return ride was spoiled somewhat by a puncture (putting a nasty split in a relatively new tyre), ending my run of puncture-free rides that seems to have only been a few months. The support car was nowhere in sight, unfortunately, so spare wheels were not available. Richard later suggested that the new Road Holland ‘Westy’ would have been most welcome, as indeed it would have been.

Destined to be a classic (Road Holland pic.)

It has been a strange week in pro cycling, hence this brief post ahead of some more lengthy efforts (promises, promises). The events have made for some good ride and coffee discussions, but hardly gratifying ones. In Italy, Alberto Contador is carving his opponents into filet mignon (or an Italian equivalent – pancetta perhaps?) at the Giro. Admittedly, the field is not a particularly strong one for the overall, although this was meant to be Vincenzo Nibali’s year. After the mountain time trial, La Gazzetta dello Sport was calling Contador a ‘cannibal’ – an obvious reference to his Merckx-like dominance so far. David Harmon on Eurosport suggested that Contador was a “classy rider”, whatever we might think of his attendance at the race. One might suggest the following menu to describe his participation: travesty, unfortunate but fair, fully justified.

The Giro has already been marked by tragedy and from elsewhere we get the news of Movistar’s star climber Xavier Tondo killed in a tragic accident with a garage door. Tondo was already gaining headlines for his honesty over approaches made to him with doping products earlier in the year, buttressing his status as a ‘clean’ rider that we could all support. He was also letting his legs do some talking as well, and looking strong on the climbs in the early season. Wouter Weylandt’s death reminded us of the dangers of pro racing, but Tondo’s circumstances can only but leave one puzzling over the bizarre turns that events sometimes take.

And, finally, in what many expected but still found surprising, Tyler Hamilton confessed to his doping past, and his deceit, and then aired the finer details of his grand jury testimony for public consumption. Those who suggested that he was “doing it for the money” may wish to ponder just how much is up for grabs in a yet-to-be-announced ‘book publishing deal’ (it’s only former US presidents who get those multi-million dollar advances) versus Hamilton’s anguish at having to confess to his friends and supporters as well as the rather strict penalties for telling lies to a federal grand jury. Most of us have probably already formed some fairly strong opinions surrounding what Hamilton had to say, but it may well turn out that this is just the beginning of an even uglier process of revelations.

Working out what it all means will certainly be the basis for many further ride and coffee discussions – and hopefully some extended ruminations here on this blog as well.

Xavier Tondo Volpini, 1978-2011 (Barbosa pic.)

A quick note

One is always reluctant to make promises on this blog, to build up reader expectations and then fail to deliver. Shortly, though, your author will be in Copenhagen (on non-cycling business) for a time and so some foreshadowing of posts to come seems appropriate. (There will hopefully be time to investigate the course for the Worlds in Copenhagen, so there will be a little cycling time.)

The pro racing so far this season has been superb, even with team radios in full use (UCI take note). But there are two other issues that this blog will be shortly commenting upon. The first is the broader issue of ‘what is cycling’, particularly with possibly substantial historical doping revelations looming. Some have claimed that it is merely entertainment, but the case can be made that cycling, and sport, is indeed something else – even larger and with wider meaning.

The second issue is the apparent crisis in Italian cycling, not just an absence of wins but a deeper malaise that, unfortunately, again has doping right at its heart. It is hard not to see some parallels between Italy’s cycling fortunes and the state of the entire country, gripped with controversy over its 150-year anniversary of unification. With two major books on the Giro having just been published, it seems timely to look at its trials.

The Badger at the Giro in '85 (Photo: Cycle Sport)

For your author, the slow realization that only four hours per week on the bike does not a training programme make, continues to sink in. But sunnier skies, weekday crit racing, and (hopefully) some better form awaits. In the interim, the Road Holland jersey continues to perform impressively and provides some superb comfort with its traditional cut. Well worth checking out. The jersey features on Bikes, Books and Beers, which also includes some reading recommendations for when you are unable to make it out on the bike and want to keep the passion for cycling burning.

Road Holland (Photo: www.roadholland.com)