Archive for May, 2011

Dopatissimi

May 26, 2011

Ivan Basso, Giro d’Italia 2010 by Guy Andrews

Dopatissimi

Many would have us believe that everyone deserves a second chance, and of course in principal they are quite correct. However, in giving them that second chance, the people responsible for the wellbeing of the professional sport in Italy play Russian Roulette with the livelihoods of those employed within it, and close to it. The likelihood is that the majority of cyclists are now competing without recourse to doping products. If this is the case then they, and the hundreds employed behind the scenes, their sponsors and those building the bikes on which they ride, deserve better than the Giro’s current largesse. Modern doping techniques are not only deeply injurious to the credibility of the sport but, much more importantly, to the cyclists themselves. That Italian riders, those operating within an expensively sponsored team structure at the top end of the sport here, continue to be caught cheating whilst racing abroad is the most damning of all the sport’s truths. The Giro, the great standard bearer, is well beyond the point at which it can afford to keep handing out second chances; what it needs, and what the public demands, is that it starts making examples. The future wellbeing of the sport here depends on it.

Many argue, with no little reason, that doping is as old as the sport itself. Some would still have us believe that cyclists at the highest level are compelled, presumably by some indelible genetic imprint, to dope. Whilst there is truth in the argument that 100 years of doping culture can not be overturned in a relative instant, this in itself renders the responsibility to act decisively all the more compelling, all the more immediate. Elsewhere, most notably in France, huge progress has been made, and the systemised ‘vertical’ doping of the recent past is apparently no more, which can only be a good thing. In northern Europe and America new teams are emerging with openly anti-doping policies and cultures. To many of the young riders I meet, particularly British and American, doping is simply a non-issue because they’ve never been exposed to it. Though globally cycling is doubtless a much cleaner sport than ever it was in the past, the Italian peloton, and the Giro itself, has done nothing of any great substance in the fight against doping. CONI, the Italian Olympic Committee, is stringent in its application of the WADA code, but the Giro seems intent on leaving a side door ajar for most anybody to sneak through. Sad to say, but whilst all around it bike racing is being regenerated and renewed, Italy’s great showcase simply blows hot air.

Extract from Maglia Rosa by Herbie Sykes, available here.

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You Win Again

May 19, 2011

“That Belgian, he doesn’t even leave you the crumbs, he’s a cannibal!”

Christian Raymond.

In cycle racing there have been some amazing feats; stories of comeback and of daring-do, of great victories and of great tragedy, of personal sacrifice and bad luck – and then there is the story of the greatest cyclist ever: Eddy Merckx.

This extraordinary Belgian notched his unrivalled palmares in a career that spanned a little over 13 years. No surprise then, that even his teammates nicknamed him ‘The Cannibal’. Merckx was from a different time: a time when professional cyclists raced all year round, from the cold, early season Classics, through to the hot summer Grand Tours, and on. Merckx raced long into the winter too: the indoor six-day circuit on the track and the hour record… The astonishing thing about Merckx’s ability was that it was truly all-round – he was equally at home on the velodromes of Ghent, Amsterdam and Berlin, as on the climbs of the French Alps, Spanish Pyrenees and Italian Dolomites, and equally powerful in the flatter, cobbled one-day races like Paris–Roubaix as the hillier Liège–Bastogne–Liège. These days cycle racing is very different and bike riders specialise in one event; they are either Grand Tour contenders, six-day specialists or Classics hard-cases, rarely all. Eddy Merckx was a winner at all of the major bike races and more. The cannibal was, and still is, unique.

If anyone is in any doubt then I draw your attention to RAI’s coverage of the Giro. Eddy’s been a star summeriser on their Giro show and the presenters have shown their admiration, or rather adoration, of the campione in spades. So much so that regardless of what is happening in the race they have regularly stopped their commentary just to fawn over big Ted. And behind the scenes are the tifosi, shouting: ‘Eddy, Eddy, Eddy…’  But despite this retrospective love, back when he was racing, the Cannibal had a big problem. People got bored of his dominance and the way he would smash the opposition into submission, in a way we have never seen since, and although he showed some incredible strength of character at times and no small sprinkling of panache, in the end the constant winning got boring.  If you’re not sure what I mean but recall the 1990s Tours better than the 1970s, think of Miguel Indurain. I have nothing against the five-time Tour winner – he seems like a likeable man – but boy was he boring to watch. Motivated by hanging on in the mountains and then grinding his way back through the GC against the clock, his wins at the Tour were as far away from the exploits of Merckx as you could get and eventually his wins got a bit too much, even for the Spaniard’s admirers. Cycling fans are a pretty transient bunch and eventually we want to see someone else get a chance. But how?

Merckx’s 525 victories had me thinking. Most riders are lucky to ride that many races in a lifetime and win any at all. What has stuck with me over the last few weeks is a question that many new racing cyclists ask: how do I win a race? It’s a tricky question and one that has so many answers that it would fill several books, let alone one short blog post. Truth is there are no hard and fast ways to reach the line first, but to the uninitiated the fundamental rule is somewhat confusing: it’s not something that just involves, being fast. Eddy’s response to this question was pretty familiar. Apparently he was ‘scared’, so attacking was the best method he had of dealing with the fear – perhaps it was the fear of losing, or of not winning. Whatever. Merckx just rode as fast as he could, because that was good enough most of the time.

But not winning, in my experience, teaches you an awful lot more about road racing craft than just riding the opposition off your wheel does. Winning is such a complex business – although, granted, professional racing is as different to the amateur level as tiddlywinks is to chess – but regardless of the level you’re at, whether strong and dumb or weak and clever, winning or not is all down to timing.

So if you have ridden 500 or more races in your career and won very few, or perhaps even none, you will have a different approach to racing and one that is as unique as Merckx’s palmares. Underachieving is actually the best education you can have, as not winning races means you’ll learn an awful lot from your mistakes along the way.

John Gadret won at the Giro yesterday and in many ways this was a victory for the ‘loser’ in cycling. Not that Gadret is a loser – far from it – but he has built a career on finishing up there, but not quite there. He has been a professional since 2004, his name often features in the TV commentary when the break is ten minutes down the road, and he knows well enough by now that today probably won’t be the day. But yesterday was Gadret’s day, and the finish was text book stuff. It wasn’t the measured response to covering your rivals, or being told in your earpiece who was strong and who wasn’t. It was all about timing and no small amount of bravery, but most importantly, as the splintered break was swallowed up, he knew too well what it felt like to be caught and sensed the oh-so-slight hesitation in the chase and, as the favourites stuck together like cattle, our man jumped away for the biggest win of his career.

The emotion on the 32-year-old’s face was the whole story; the unsuccessful breaks, missed attacks and unlucky punctures. They were all written in his expression. Collecting the crumbs had been a long time coming.

Guy Andrews, Editor

Millar’s Time

May 11, 2011

Words: Ian Cleverly

I was just about finished with my piece on David Millar for the next Rouleur when things changed dramatically. The subject of my 3,500 words was on the attack at the Giro and in imminent danger of riding himself into the maglia rosa, making him the first Briton to have taken leader’s jerseys in all three Grand Tours. This would be an historic occasion. It would also require a major re-write to the end of the feature. Damn.

As we now know, Millar’s feat understandably paled into insignificance with the news that Wouter Weylandt had crashed on the Passo del Bocco and died immediately. I never had the pleasure of meeting Wouter, and feel enough has been said and written by those who have without my input. The picture I have formed is one of a determined, fun-loving, all round good guy – as are the overwhelming majority of professional cyclists I have met.

Interviewing Millar in Switzerland before the Tour of Romandie, I formed a similar opinion. We all have our preconceptions of famous people’s characters from TV soundbites and magazine interviews, yet rarely do they match the reality. Some have the gift of being utterly charming, both on and off-camera (step forward, Sir Chris Hoy). Others know how to turn it on. And some struggle to portray their true selves; are uncomfortable in the spotlight; fail to find the words to adequately express their feelings. And why shouldn’t they? Cycling’s stars are just like you and I, after all.

I had pigeonholed Millar in the latter category, based on nothing in particular – just an overall impression. A bright guy but potentially spiky, I thought, who would rather be anywhere else than talking to some cynical old journo for two hours over a coffee. I was wholly wrong, and happy to admit it.

What should have been David Millar’s great day in pink on the road to Livorno was washed away as the peloton paid tribute to Weylandt. Yet by his dignified and respectful leading of the day’s proceedings, Millar did the maglia rosa and the profession of cycling a great service. Long may he continue to do so.

A sad day for cycling in many respects, yet a moving and uplifting one at the same time.

Duva Days

May 4, 2011

Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Gerard Brown

Ned is upset. His trusty steel steed has been scrutinised, lifted and commented on, with sucking of teeth and shaking of heads. “It’s a bit heavy, isn’t it?” is the general consensus.

We are in Majorca for the two-day Duva International sportive and surrounded by expensive, top of the range machinery. Cervelos and Pinarellos abound. Sportivists take their equipment very seriously, as we have just discovered. Ned also takes his equipment seriously – he thought long and hard, weighing up all the options, before choosing his new frame. It’s just that his priorities lay elsewhere. Shaving a pound or two off the weight of a bike by shelling out several thousand pounds seems an unnecessary extravagance when you can shave a few pounds from your own frame by buying less biscuits and beer. As economic models go, Ned’s approach is sound, although verging on the Thatcherite. Let others stimulate the economy while he keeps a tight rein on the purse strings.

'Lance'

Circulating the bunch on the opening day’s mountainous 140km stage uncovered some interesting variants on the lightweight theme. One chap sported what appeared to be a rear view mirror from a 1960s Mini mounted on his downtube. This, he assured me, was not due to excessive facial growth necessitating a mid-ride shave, but to keep abreast of what was happening astern. No bad thing, I suppose.

Another young man was commonly referred to in the bunch as Lance. He took accessorising to new levels, with a gleaming Trek Madone matched with head-to-toe Radioshack-issue clothing and accoutrements, including the obligatory yellow wristband. “It’s in the detail,” he said. He wasn’t kidding. Appearing the following day in full GB kit, he was promptly re-christened Chris Newton, but the lack of matching bike was something of a disappointment after the preceding effort. Must try harder…

Pushing on the pedals - with sandals...

Not all here are so equipment obsessed. Let loose on the 5km opening climb of the Orient, I settled into a good rhythm once the fast boys had shot off the front, perfectly content to save the legs for later in the day. It was a good little taster for things to come and I was perfectly pleased with my progress, until a huge man wearing size 14 Jesus sandals on wide platform pedals hammered past out of the saddle. Never has a bubble been so effectively burst. Apparently, size 14 cycling shoes would have taken up most of the room in his hand luggage, so he went for the multi-purpose Jesus sandals. My incredibly expensive carbon-soled, lightweight Giros in gleaming white suddenly seemed superfluous. Chapeau to the big fella.

The next equipment-related observation regards the proliferation of GPS gizmos mounted to practically every bike but mine. Ned christened this phenomenon ‘Garmin-isation’, a movement I have hitherto been dead set against. Even the computer has been banished from my bars. Getting lost is part and parcel of discovering the island. How many miles have been covered, what the average speed was, where I have been, how many calories have been consumed, what I am having for tea: none of this information is of interest. Besides, Ned tells me all this the moment we stop riding, whether I want to hear it or not…

Majorcan sportives take a bit of getting used to. Half a dozen guardia civil trafico on gleaming BMW’s and a pair of following ambulances make for a smooth passage and a reassuring presence on the rolling road closure course, but speed is dictated by the slowest member of the peloton, making for a slightly frustrating ride for the posse of fit fellas champing at the bit behind the lead car.

But the whole set-up is rather civilised once you relax and accept that passing the motorcycle cops is a strict no-no. And, every so often, there will be a timed section where you can really let rip. The 14km climb of Puig Major saw the lead car pull away and it was every man or woman for themself. A tasty-looking half-a-dozen or so riders pressed on so I hung in there as long as possible before getting shelled out halfway up the mountain. No riders in sight astern (damn, why haven’t I got one of those shaving mirrors?) so it was just a matter of hanging on for about seven kilometres to be 7th finisher at the top.

The trouble was, having no computer (or Garmin, for that matter), made seven kilometres hard to gauge. The thought of getting it wrong and blowing before the top – when it was impossible to say where the top was – forced me to keep it steady.

Three riders sped past unannounced in close order, absolutely flat out, and there was the finish line. I had been well and truly jumped. How did they know we were about to round a corner and cross the line, I inquired? They checked their Garmins, obviously…

So mirrors certainly have their uses. ‘Garmin-isation’ should probably be embraced, despite my reservations. I may draw the line at Jesus sandals, however.

Huge thanks to Wheels in Wheels for hosting.