Last year, I was surprised by people who thought that Tyler Farrar was the next sprint sensation. He seemed to me to be Mister Fifth Place, Mister Always-The-Bridesmaid, a sprint contender but not a sprint dominator. Destined to play second fiddle.
Even when he won Scheldeprijs this spring, I shrugged. It’s just Scheldeprijs. People were tuning up for Roubaix. Then he came in 5th place at the Ronde, and suddenly, “Mister Fifth Place” seemed a little bit more impressive.
What turned me into a Farrar fan was the drama surrounding Stage 11 of the Tour de France this year. Mark Cavendish’s leadout man, Mark Renshaw, has been doing a pretty impressive job of putting Cav at the right spot to win stages. On Stage 11, this involved headbutting Farrar’s leadout man Julian Dean 3 times and then, after Cav launched, “closing the door” on Farrar by drifting over a lane on the road so that Farrar couldn’t pass. Farrar had to sit up, pause, and wait to sprint – he still got 3rd. Renshaw was disqualified – not from the stage, not relegated due to his sprint, but booted from the whole Tour. A bummer: I like watching him in action.
What got me was Farrar’s immediate reaction – still on the bike, between the finish line and the team bus. He is mature, articulate, and surprisingly even-keeled. He honors his opponents – “Cav can win if they ride a clean sprint” – and criticizes them without lambasting them. Without being a petulant hothead about it.
Basically, he’s not an arse.
With Renshaw sent packing, I think the likelihood of continued Cavendish Sprint Dominance is diminished. Farrar’s looking fast – he took 3rd on Stage 11 when he was put into the barriers and had to stop his sprint and re-accelerate. I think we might see him win a stage. It would be nice to see. And it would be nice comeuppance after a sprint that has sprinting heads of state in disagreement.
Last spring, at the Trexlertown Velodrome Swap Meet, I came across an unusal score – a Selle Italia Flite embroidered with a cartoon Marco Pantani’s face. It read, “The Pirate.” What was remarkable was not necessarily the rarity of this item, but the fact that my pal and colleague, Ethan (of the fine clothing company Laek House) had told me, just a day or two earlier, how long and hard he had looked for this odd end of the bike part spectrum. I, feeling generous, called him from in front of the busy vendor’s table at the swap meet and told him that I was bringing him back a present.
Today I stumbled upon a cyclingnews feature on Marco Pantani’s 1998 Bianchi race bike, the adjective-stricken “Mega Pro XL Reparto Corse” (custom, of course). That year, Pantani won the Giro d’Italia, and put nine minutes into Jan Ullrich in one stage of the Tour de France on his way to becoming the first Italian in thirtyfour years to wear the Yellow Jersey on his way into Paris.
Twelve years doesn’t seem like a particularly long time, but the article reads like a piece of paleontology – “Look at what we unearthed, signs of a forgotten people and their strange customs: alloy rear derailleurs, Campagnolo 9 speed, 1″ nonintegrated forks!” The author seems to forget that Campagnolo used square-tapered crank interfaces until only a few years ago, that a twelve-year old bike would be competitive even today, and that the thousands of dollars a rider might spend on aerodynamics wanders deep into the terrain of diminishing returns. Bikes, even racing bikes, can still be fairly simple machines.
There are unusual parts to the bike. In an era when compact geometry crept into bike design for reasons varying from “stiffer and lighter” to “fewer stock sizes, cheaper to produce,” Pantani’s bike had a remarkably traditional geometry, with a handlebar height from the era of downtube shifting. And, though you’d imagine a climbing specialist to have gears for climbing, his bike was outfitted with an 11-23 and, stunningly, a 54/44 up front. It’s easy to forget the superhuman attributes of world class athletes – even ones tattooed with track marks.
Pantani was a tragic hero – tangled up in EPO use behind the Lycra Wall of Silence (if I am the first to use this term, please, cite me), a national hero stuck between between celebrity and depression. His last great win was arguably spoiled by some big dumb Texan running his mouth about ‘giving’ Pantani the win on top of Mt Ventoux. I prefer to think that Armstrong was spent from his attack that bridged up to Pantani, and had nothing left at the end.
He died of a cocaine overdose five years ago.
He is, perhaps, a tragic example of the difficult transition that cycling has been making through levels of acceptance of doping: from open acknowledgement, to pervasive but hushed, to a peloton that grimly defended its practices by shunning anybody who exposed them, through doping convictions and bans, to clean teams, and on its way to a hopefully cleaner peloton. In the intermediate stages, when everything was torn asunder, it’s no wonder that the upheaval has caused collateral damage, and it’s no great stretch to speculate that Pantani’s overdose, his depression, was linked to his controversy-stunted career. He was known as a quiet, private person; in his diary, he wrote,
For four years I’ve been in every court, I just lost my desire to be like all the other sportsmen, but cycling has paid and many youngsters have lost their faith in justice. All my colleagues have been humiliated, with TV cameras hidden in their hotel rooms to try and ruin families. How could you not hurt yourself after that?
Here’s hoping that cycling has moved past leaving victims in its wake as it pursues cleaner, more honorable competition. When I consider the need to keep heroes despite condemning doping practices (Anquetil’s comment on “mineral water” and Coppi’s crack about only doping when necessary come to mind), I wonder if perhaps what cycling needs is an amnesty, a time of truth and reconciliation that will allow former dopers to admit to past practices without shame, guilt, or punishment, before the whole sport moves forward.
Pantani’s bike, above, is from the year of the Festina Scandal.
As we bundle up in the winter and click newslinks with daydreams of spring classics still months away, here’s hoping that the pursuit of clean racing doesn’t ruin more lives.
This post started being about the odd, foreign tone of the Cyclingnews bit, but morphed into what will be, I hope, my last comments on doping for a while.
Stage 14 of the Tour was incredible to watch – well, the last 20k, which I caught after coffee and muffins – and provides plenty of fodder for us armchair jerks. Everybody’s favorite hardworking nice guy pro, George Hincapie, was the virtual yellow jersey being the best-placed rider in a break of 12. He needed to finish a little over five minutes ahead of the peloton to grab the yellow. The break of 12, with a big gap on the peloton, started attacking each other around 14k to go, and Sergie Ivanov counterattacked the son of Stephen Roche (who provides one of my favorite Tour stories) and opened a gap on the other members of the break, who looked at each other wondering who would chase. Ivanov won after a spectacular ride, and Hincapie rolled in several seconds afterward.
Garmin, the team that Hincapie’s teammate Cavendish has repeatedly badmouthed, took over pacemaking at the front from a tired yellow-defending AG2R. There was the fuss during the Giro d’Italia about how Cav thought Garmin’s focus on the TTT was disrespectful to the race. Interesting, coming from somebody who’s a part of a team that doesn’t have GC contenders for major stage races and instead seeks to just win individual stages. Isn’t that the same thing?
So, with Garmin at the front driving a pace, the peloton is brought under the red kite and after a messy little low-speed sprint, with Cavendish trying to win but trying to do so as late as possible, Hincapie winds up five seconds outside of the yellow jersey. Cavendish, meanwhile, is relegated for his sprint tactics against Thor Hushovd. From the video, he half puts Thor into the barrier; the barrier line also moves inward and Cavendish doesn’t really chop over very far.
Practically before any reporter can jam a microphone into anybody’s face, Twitter lights up about all of this. The most interesting was from Robbie McEwen, who said that sprinting tactically walks a very fine line, and “if Cav hadn’t [looked over his shoulder at Thor], he wouldn’t been DQ’d.” He also points out that it’s easy to armchair quarterback like this, but I’d lean toward saying that he knows what he’s talking about, having won the Green jersey a few times as well as lost it due to a relegation.
Meanwhile on Twitter, Lance says that Astana didn’t close the gap, Vaughters says his team wasn’t denying Hinc the yellow in retaliation for this feud between two American cycling teams (with Columbia usually coming out on top; Garmins wins in this years Grand Tours have been limited), Bruyneel raises his eyebrows at Vaughter’s defense, and Vaughters’ rider Wiggins feels sorry for Hincapie while defending himself, saying that he doesn’t make the decisions on the road.
Both buzz-inducing moves – Garmin taking the necessary seconds from Hinc and denying him the yellow and Cavendish’s half-chop of Hushovd – could go either way, in my opinion. Cavendish’s move was far from flagrant, and yeah, Garmin’s nibbling at the seconds is all part of racing, petty as it may appear to be.
But the real question is, when the hell did Twitter become the gossip-y medium of choice for the pro peloton?
And now it’s time for the mountains.
Yesterday, during my day of avoiding any Stage 3 spoilers on the internet (and before I headed down to Lakeside Lounge to watch the two-hour replay during happy hour), I started drafting a post with a list of things I want to see during this year’s Tour de France. It’s a list of things I’ll be watching out for and pulling for, in the name of an exciting tour. I had no idea that I’d see some of it on Stage 3.
That evening, with a crispy Hoegaarden in my hand and a Neighburrito in my belly, I watched Columbia split the field in a stunning manner and with eight of their nine racers represented, drive a huge, late breakaway, and set up Cavendish for the win. The exciting part, however, is that Lance Armstrong was in it and Contador was stuck napping in the peloton forty seconds back. Everybody is speculating about Astana team dynamics and drawing comparisons to La Vie Clair in 1987. Will Armstrong and Contador be riding against each other? For this to happen, Armstrong needs to be a credible GC threat.
The most boring scenario, of course, would be that Armstrong winds up not being a GC threat by the time the race gets particularly difficult, Contador is the only Astana contendor, and the race plods along with a handful of climbers marking each other, racing conservatively, riding up some mountains and then into Paris. Yawn.
But if Armstrong could win the Tour, what would happen then?
Which brings us to yesterday’s stage – too early in the Tour to draw any conclusions, but ripe for questioning. Why did Columbia drive the pace from 30k out when they’ve got the fastest sprinter setting up? Did Armstrong know to be at the front, perhaps thanks to a word from his former faithful domestique and New York City our-boy Big George Hincapie? Rumor has it that Contador let the initial gap open up. Here’s a new angle – Armstrong is a master of confounding doubletalk (Belgium Knee Warmers had a great bit on this a while back, but I can’t find it now), and Bruyneel is a master tactician. What if all this stuff about it being Contador’s year is just smoke? What if Contador let that gap open to give Lance a boost in the GC prior to today’s TTT? What if other GC riders mark Contador later in the race only to have Lance fire off on an attack?
Now, as you’ll see on the list below, I’m also hoping that thie Tour de France will also feature somebody who’s not Lance Armstrong. I can’t stand the constant Lance check-ins, I can’t stand his faux-nice-guy demeanor. Maybe I’d be able to if they didn’t happen every ten minutes, if every other article were somehow about him. There are 179 other people in the race, after all. And here I am departing from my own wishes, but for a good reason: Lance Armstrong, throw down or shut up. You said you were coming back to win the Tour de France. All this nonsense is for naught if you don’t make a good show of it.
And so, here’s my list of hopes and dreams for this year’s Tour:
1: An exciting, dynamic bunch of shaking-up of the General Classification, since there are enough people who can compete with each other. Hopefully this will be assisted by,
2: Lance Armstrong doing pretty well. I mean, for all his fake-humble words, he did say he was going to come back and win the Tour de France. If he challenges it, it could lead to,
3: Interesting Astana intra-team dynamics, with Armstrong and Contador both potential GC threats. Maximum drama probably won’t ensue, but you never know!
But more importantly,
4: Occasional TV and news coverage of somebody who’s not Lance Armstrong.
5. Lots of George Hincapie leading out Mark Cavendish, but also,
6. That Cavendish gets soundly beaten in a few sprints.
7. That the two radio-free stages go so well that maybe everybody thinks that going radio-free would be a decent idea. Cyclocosm has a good bit on why people who clamor for radio-free racing are missing the point, and Sprinter Della Casa has a good bit on both sides, but coming down against race radios.
Your thoughts on the whole affair?
See you at Lakeside…