Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cycling Cinema - Getting Flicked

While suffering through the recent Academy Awards, it was impossible to overlook the fact that everyone has different tastes. It was also impossible to ignore my tendency to dislike most of the flavors on display. From the wardrobe choices to the actual Oscar winners, the entire event provided a broad spectrum of preferences for me to ridicule. Even though professional bike racing often leaves much to be desired from an organizational standpoint, at least it's not as foolish as Hollywood.

It is no secret that I often make stupid movie references when writing about cycling - largely because I enjoy both subjects. However, while I almost always like bike racing, I have not liked an overwhelming majority of films viewed during the course of my lifetime. I don't really count anything that I saw during my youthful "Star Wars/Muppet Movie" phase so at this point, I would put my rate of pleasant movie watching at about 20% over the last 25 years. Not a good percentage.

Not coincidentally, I haven't seen a single movie that was nominated for an Academy Award this year. And honestly, there is virtually nothing that could make me pay to watch 7 out of the 10 films up for the Oscar in 2010. When searching for entertainment, I have no desire to watch anything that will make me feel any emotions other than happiness, curiosity or excitement. Therefore, Precious and The Hurt Locker will certainly not be passing before my eyes anytime soon. I would much rather watch Enter the Dragon or Fletch for the hundredth time than put myself through five minutes of Mo'Nique screaming or people getting blown up in Afghanistan.

While cycling may not get as much play as cheesy football films with Sandra Bullock or feel-good heart-warmers about abusive mother-daughter relationships, WWII killings, and creepy blue people, it is not for a lack of effort. Regardless of my recent frustration with Hollywood, there have been some solid cycling-related films in the past. And besides, as long as they keep letting Robin Williams into these award events, we will always be one moment away from an uncomfortable “bikesexual” joke or Lance Armstrong testicle reference in the mainstream media. Thanks, Mork.

Obviously, Breaking Away and American Flyers are well known, and a few people may even think of Quicksilver as a cycling film, even though it is really more like an odd semi-Brat Pack kind of thing. I'm sort of down with the bike messenger scene (I did work in the Financial District of San Francisco after all, and watched them all hang out and smoke cigarettes at the corner of Market and Sansome as I rode to and from Marin...with gears) but for some reason I only remember Jami Gertz. The point is, there are a number of other less recognized elements of cycling in Hollywood history. In fact, although there have been a few memorable films dedicated to the sport, most of my favorite bike-related cinematic experiences have come from movies that covered different subjects.

For example, I was 9 years-old when The Karate Kid came out in theatres, and the main thing I liked about Mr. Miyagi was that he fixed Daniel-san's bike after Billy Zabka and his crew pushed him down the hillside in Reseda. I can't remember when I actually saw KK for the first time but I know that scene endeared me to Miyagi far more than him making Daniel "paint the fence" and basically just fix up his house. Any jerk can come up with chores but it takes a pretty cool guy to fix up a busted BMX bike for an Italian kid he doesn't even know and then kick the snot out of a bunch of high school dudes in the middle of the night.

On a side note, I was also always intrigued by Miyagi's willingness to let the pool turn into a swamp at the apartment building Daniel-san lived in. The guy had a full-on Japanese Tea Garden and a bunch of sweet cars at his own place but the apartment building he managed was a Katrina-level disaster. In retrospect, was Miyagi actually a slum lord or something? Regardless, I always respected him for sticking it to The Man (and John Kreese). Although The Man rarely hangs out in Reseda, CA.

A year after The Karate Kid was released, another great movie came out that had some memorable bike scenes in it. Of course, that film was Better Off Dead, starring a very young John Cusack, Winchester from M.A.S.H., the fat kid from Head Of The Class, an awesome Zabka-esque bad guy named Stalin, and the always creepy Curtis Armstrong (Lance's cousin) as the always creepy Charles DeMar. But even though skiing was the primary sport in the movie, one of the better recurring themes (aside from the AWESOME Asian dude that played the bad guy in Karate Kid II, who talks like Howard Cosell) was the bike riding paperboy who really wanted his two dollars. You know...sort of like a professional cyclist looking for a contract.

Even though I never had a paper route as a kid, I always sympathized with the paperboy in Better Off Dead. I mean, come on, the guy is putting in the miles so give him his money. Sure, he has a tendency to chuck papers through garage door windows, but there was probably not a clear "Accuracy Clause" in his contract, and you can hardly blame him for accomplishing his job with energy and vigor. Besides, I always thought it would have been much easier for Lane or Mr. Meyer (aka Winchester) to just pay the kid a couple bucks and get him off their backs. Maybe if they tipped the little dude, he wouldn't keep flinging stuff through their windows?

Anyway, I will always have a place for Breaking Away, American Flyers and all of the other documentaries and race videos in my vast media collection, but the less prominent role of cycling in numerous random movies should not be overlooked. Whether it's Elliott and his flying friends in E.T. or Ronald Miller riding over to mow Cindy Mancini's lawn in Can't Buy Me Love, the bicycle will always have a place in Hollywood. Whether that Lance movie ever gets made or not...
Wait, Precious is about a quest for the the Yellow Jersey and The Hurt Locker is another Paris-Roubaix documentary, right? Maybe I should just get Mr. Miyagi to true my wheels while I watch Rushmore again.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Man, Oman...I'm Just Saying

I often have visions of riding my bike through beautiful parts of the world. Places like Tuscany, Marin County, southern France and of course, the Middle East. Don’t get me wrong, I love lush hills and beautiful forests but nothing beats scorching hot, flat, windy terrain to really bring out the joy of riding a bicycle. Throw some hefty prize money in with the subtle scent of burning oil and you’ve got yourself a perfect location for a major professional bike race. Actually, make that two. Hello Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman, thank you for your donations.

So…basically, someone at ASO must have sniffed out a few deep pockets in the desert, because now we have over two weeks of world class bike racing taking place in countries whose monarchs are desperately trying to figure out what to do when the oil runs out. Their strategy is to stimulate tourism but admittedly, there is a not-so-subtle irony to having countries that profit immensely from fossil fuels endorsing a sport and industry that actively promotes alternative forms of transportation. Beyond ASO’s connection to golf, tennis and motorsports, there seems to be little relevance for bicycling in the Middle East outside of Eddy Merckx’s endorsement and boatloads of cash.

While this portion of the calendar may not be terribly exciting for many European and North American fans, it must be a pretty nice part of the year for the riders. In addition to awarding more than $12,000 to the overall winner of each event, both the Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman offered over $20,000 for each stage and rolled out a heavily air-conditioned red carpet for the race caravan. When it comes to wealth and the desire to show it, few hosts are as accommodating as Qatar and Oman. As such, the races have been more exciting than anticipated, and the overall sentiment from the riders has been positive.

However, I can’t help but wonder about the long-term effects of this model on cycling as a spectator sport, not to mention how it reflects the relationship between the UCI and ASO. The prize money for these events is certainly enticing but the other primary factor is that most of the “wild-card” teams are likely trying to secure favor with ASO so that they can participate in other events like Paris-Nice and the Tour de France. So basically, we have two weeks of racing in the desert with minimal spectators, lots of money, and a fleet of teams who are there in order to secure spots in later races. Again, I’m not sure how much this helps the sport in the long run.

So...just out of curiosity, I decided to do a little bit of research on Qatar and Oman. Courtesy of my good friend Wikipedia, the following tidbits may be interesting. But then again, considering that the source was Wikipedia, they also may or may not be correct. Regardless, I think there is some interesting food for thought about the countries who claim be ushering in the New Year for bike racing. History, hills and cultural significance be damned...

Qatar: OverviewBold

Qatar is an Arab emirate in the Middle East, occupying a small peninsula on the northeastern coast of the larger Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south.

Qatar is an oil- and gas-rich nation, with the third largest gas reserves and the highest GDP per capita in the world. An absolute monarchy, Qatar has been ruled by the al-Thani family since the mid-1800s and has since transformed itself from a poor British protectorate noted mainly for pearling into an independent state with significant oil and natural gas revenues.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Qatari economy was crippled by a continuous siphoning off of petroleum revenues by the Emir, who had ruled the country since 1972. His son, the current Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 1995. In 2001, Qatar resolved its longstanding border disputes with both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Since 1995, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has ruled Qatar, seizing control of the country from his father Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani while the latter vacationed in Switzerland. Under Emir Hamad, Qatar has experienced a notable amount of sociopolitical liberalization, including the endorsement of women’s suffrage or right to vote, drafting a new constitution, and the launch of Al Jazeera, a leading English and Arabic news source which operates a website and satellite television news channel.

The International Monetary Fund states that Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world, followed by Liechtenstein. The World Factbook ranks Qatar at second, following Liechtenstein.

Qatar served as the headquarters and one of the main launching sites of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Government and Politics

Qatar has an emirate government type, based on Islamic and civil law codes. It is a discretionary system of law controlled by the Amir, although civil codes are being implemented. Islamic law dominates family and personal matters; the country has not accepted compulsory International Court of Justice jurisdiction.


Qatar is sometimes referred to as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Qataris’ wealth and standard of living compare well with those of Western European states. With no income tax, Qatar, along with Bahrain, is one of the countries with the lowest tax rates in the world.

EnvironmentaBoldl Issues

Qatar has the highest per-capita carbon dioxide emissions, at 55.5 metric tons per person in 2005. This is almost double the next highest per-capita emitting country, Kuwait at 30.7 metric tons (2005) and three times that of the United States.

Qatar has had the highest per-capita carbon dioxide emissions for the past 18 years. These emissions are largely due to high rates of energy use include natural gas processing, water desalination and electricity production. Between 1995 and 2011 the electricity generating capacity of Qatar will have increased to six times the previous level. The fact that Qataris do not have to pay for either their water or electricity supplies is thought to contribute to their high rate of energy use. Despite being a desert state they are also one of the highest consumers of water per capita per day, using around 400 litres.


The Qatari peninsula juts 100 miles (161 km) north into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia and is slightly smaller than the state of Massachusetts, USA. Much of the country consists of a low, barren plain, covered with sand.

The highest point in Qatar is Qurayn Abu al Bawl at 103 metres (340 ft) in the Jebel Dukhan.


Expatriates form the majority of Qatar’s residents, and the petrochemical industry has attracted people from all around the world. Most of the expatriates come from South Asia and from non-oil-rich Arab states. Because a large percentage of the expatriates are male, Qatar has a heavily skewed sex ratio, with 3.46 males per female.

In July 2007, the country had a growing population of approximately 907,229 people, of whom approximately 350,000 were believed to be citizens. Qatari citizens follow the dominant Hanbali branch of Islam practiced in neighboring Saudi Arabia, therefore it is considered the culturally closest Persian Gulf state to Saudi Arabia.

The majority of the estimated 800,000 non-citizens are individuals from South and South East Asian and Arab countries working on temporary employment contracts, in most cases without their accompanying family members. Most foreign workers and their families live near the major employment centers of Doha, Al Khor, Mesaieed, and Dukhan.

Qatari Law

When contrasted with other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, for instance, Qatar has comparatively liberal laws, but is still not as liberal as some other Arab states of the Persian Gulf like UAE or Bahrain. Qatar is a civil law jurisdiction. However, Shari’a or Islamic law is applied to aspects of family law, inheritance and certain criminal acts. Women can legally drive in Qatar and there is a strong emphasis in equality and human rights brought by Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee. Qatar also has the largest fines in the world in terms of traffic violation as per the recent change in 2010.

The country has undergone a period of liberalization and modernisation during the reign of the current Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who came to power in 1995. The laws of Qatar tolerate alcohol to a certain extent. However, the few bars and nightclubs in Qatar operate only in expensive hotels and clubs, much like in the UAE. Also like in the UAE, Muslims are banned from drinking alcohol. Expatriate residents in Qatar are eligible to receive liquor permits permitting them to purchase alcohol for personal use through Qatar Distribution Company, the only importer and retailer for alcohol in Qatar. Under Qatar’s Sharia, alcohol is illegal in public.

In common with other Persian Gulf Arab countries, sponsorship laws exist in Qatar. These laws have been widely described as akin to modern-day slavery. The Sponsorship system (Kafeel or Kafala) exists throughout the GCC and means that a worker (not a tourist) may not enter the country without having a kafeel, cannot leave without the kafeel’s permission (an Exit Permit must first be awarded by the sponsor, or kafeel), and the sponsor has the right to ban the employee from entering Qatar within 2–5 years of his first departure. Many sponsors do not allow the transfer of one employee to another sponsor.

Health Care

Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) is the premier non-profit health care provider in Doha, Qatar. Established by the Emiri decree in 1979, HMC manages four highly specialised hospitals: Hamad General Hospital, Rumailah Hospital, Women’s Hospital, Psychiatric Hospital and the Primary Health Care Centres. These hospitals are quite sophisticated by the standards of the region, with most hosting advanced fMRI and other scanning machines. Most of them have many patients affected by Down syndrome and other mental illness caused by the high rate of cousin marriage in the country.

Human Rights

Qatar is a destination country for men and women from South and Southeast Asia who migrate willingly, but are subsequently trafficked into involuntary servitude as domestic workers and laborers, and, to a lesser extent, commercial sexual exploitation; the most common offence was forcing workers to accept worse contract terms than those under which they were recruited; other conditions include bonded labor, withholding of pay, restrictions on movement, arbitrary detention, and physical, mental, and sexual abuse.

According to the Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department, men and women who are lured into Qatar by promises of high wages are often forced into underpaid labor. The report states that Qatari laws against forced labour are rarely enforced and that labour laws often result in the detention of victims in deportation centres, pending the completion of legal proceedings. The report places Qatar at tier 3, as one of the countries that neither satisfies the minimum standards nor demonstrates significant efforts to come into compliance.

The government maintains that it is setting the benchmark when it comes to human rights and treatment of labourers.

International Rankings:

Institute for Economics and Peace
Global Peace Index
16 out of 144
United Nations Development Programme
Human Development Index
33 out of 182
Transparency International
Corruption Perceptions Index
22 out of 180
World Economic Forum
Global Competitiveness Report
22 out of 133

Oman: Overview

Oman is an Arab country in southwest Asia on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It borders the United Arab Emirates on the northwest, Saudi Arabia on the west and Yemen on the southwest.

The Dhofar Rebellion was launched in the province of Dhofar against the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman and Britain from 1962 to 1975. As the radical-leaning rebellion threatened to overthrow the Sultan’s rule in Dhofar and produced disorder in other parts of Oman, Sultan Said bin Taimur was deposed by his son Qaboos bin Said, who introduced major social reforms to deprive the rebellion of popular support and modernised the state’s administration. The rebellion ended with the intervention of Iranian Imperial ground forces and major offensives by the expanded Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces.


Chief of state and government is the hereditary sultān, Qaboos bin Said Al Said who appoints a cabinet called the “Diwans” to assist him. In the early 1990s, the sultan instituted an elected advisory council, the Majlis ash-Shura, though few Omanis were eligible to vote. Universal suffrage for those over 21 was instituted on 4 October 2003. Over 190,000 people (74% of those registered) voted to elect the 84 seats. Two women were elected to seats.

The country today has three women ministers Rawiyah bint Saud al Busaidiyah - Minister of Higher Education, Sharifa bint Khalfan al Yahya’eyah - Minister of Social Development and Rajiha bint Abdulamir bin Ali al Lawati - Minister of Tourism. There are no legal political parties nor, at present, any active opposition movement. As more and more young Omanis return from education abroad, it seems likely that the traditional, tribal-based political system will have to be adjusted. A State Consultative Council, established in 1981, consisted of 55 appointed representatives of government, the private sector, and regional interests.


Omani law does not provide the right of union formation. The law forbids a strike for any reason. Collective bargaining is not permitted, however there exist labour-management committees in firms with more than 50 workers. These committees are not authorized to discuss conditions of employment, including hours and wages.

The minimum working age is 13, but this provision is not enforced against the employment of children in family businesses or on family farms. The minimum wage for non-professional workers was $260 per month in 2002. However, many classes of workers (domestic servants, farmers, government employees) are not required to receive the minimum wage and the government is not consistent in its enforcement of the minimum wage law.

International Rankings:

Institute for Economics and Peace
Global Peace Index
21 out of 144
United Nations Development Programme
Human Development Index
56 out of 182
Transparency International
Corruption Perceptions Index
39 out of 180
World Economic Forum
Global Competitiveness Report
41 out of 133

Even though it is somewhat disconcerting to research these friends of ASO, there are obviously many other countries that are far less appealing than Qatar and Oman if you're looking to develop your sport. Or pad your bank account.

So there you have it. Just a nice little background story for the last few weeks of professional bike racing. It’s always good to know some history…unless you’re getting paid to ignore it. D’oh.

Or is it Doha?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Suspended Disbelief - Reality Sucks

Perhaps the culprit is old age. It may also be a result of the economy. There is no question that Winter is at least partly to blame, and the sad end of Jersey Shore on MTV is certainly a factor. Whatever the combination of reasons, I've been a bit depressed lately.

The Super Bowl was a nice distraction, and I was happy for New Orleans but the viewing experience ended up being bittersweet. The commercials almost ruined it for me. My expectations were pretty low to begin with (since I do not particularly enjoy talking babies or snack and beverage-related humor) but I was especially bummed out when Joe Montana somehow ended up on a Sketchers ad for those ridiculous-looking clubfoot sneakers. It was so bad that he didn't even show his face and only did a voice-over with his name on the screen but still. This is not something that the best quarterback of all time should have been doing. The 49ers would never have won four Super Bowls with a Sketchers-wearing QB, and you can be sure that Ronnie Lott would rather cut his whole arm off than do a commercial like that.

It was also somewhat odd to see Lance Armstrong and various other people acting like Lance Armstrong in a Michelob Ultra commercial. I didn't mind the stunt-doubles and uber-extremeness of drinking low-calorie beer but I think that they officially killed any hope of coolness by using that freaking "Woo Hoo" song by Blur (Google "Woo Hoo Song"). That song actually makes me angry at this point. But strangely, it also makes me want to consume some crappy light beer while watching stupid movies starring Denise Richards and Drew Barrymore. Seriously though, that song came out in 1997...can we get some tunes from this century on the extreme playlist?

Oh wait, I just remembered that the Halftime Show featured a band of 65 year old dudes, so...maybe 13 years isn’t that bad.

Anyway, it's not like I'm sitting in a dark room listening to Cure records or anything but I have been a bit gloomy lately, and am trying to locate the positive mojo that usually influences my demeanor. The problem is that the world is often a horribly depressing place, and it is sometimes quite difficult to remove oneself from the soul-crushing weight of reality on display in places like Haiti, the UCI, Iraq and Massachusetts.

But the problem is not really reality. Reality and I have always had a somewhat contentious relationship anyway (I did grow up in Marin and Boulder...) so its influence on my mental state is debatable at best. Like many Americans, I will always have to shield myself from reality in order to avoid oppressive feelings of guilt for being so obscenely, ridiculously lucky. Again, reality is not the problem.

The problem is that my relationship with professional athletics - the primary tool with which I have historically detached myself from reality - has been damaged to the point that I am now having trouble separating the sanctity of sports from the nasty truths of human nature and life on planet Earth. There is no escape anymore.

The sports world is largely entertainment, but it is so much more. Professional athletics allow us a rare glimpse at a world which acknowledges concrete rules of play, with exceptionally qualified performers operating in a constantly shifting and unpredictable environment. Sure, there are always people who circumvent the rules but more than most, it is a world that overwhelmingly rewards those who deserve it.

What makes sports even better is that we have access to highly quantifiable statistics of performance that confirm the value of professional worth and success. There are very few cases of nepotism in sports and no one simply inherits a career as an athlete. Regardless of circumstance, the sporting world does not tolerate notions of entitlement. Unless you are a football coach (which seems to be the only profession that appreciates Bush-level name recognition) there are very few opportunities to coast on the efforts of your relatives or the relative size of their bank accounts.

For the most part, this is a great phenomenon but it can lead to some potential problems with how we, as a culture, view professional athletes as human beings. For example, just because some guy from a tough neighborhood can catch footballs exceptionally well and endorse a line of shoes does not mean that he is necessarily an excellent person off the field. But for some reason, our culture often views world-class athletes as better human beings, not just better physical specimens. Perhaps this is why we are so often disappointed by them.

In reality, the gift of supreme athletic prowess is arguably more random and unfair than any inheritance or trust fund could ever be. Physical superiority in sports is far more rare and discriminating than any Good Old Boys Network or family business could ever be. After all, you can’t buy things like coordination, size and speed.

All of these factors have likely contributed to my appreciation for cycling, a sport in which physical gifts and family finances are important but often trumped by determination, effort and sheer force of will. All things considered, bike racing favors those who have experienced adversity and possess the character to fight through suffering, not those who were conveniently born taller or wealthier than most.

I learned early on that professional athletes and other celebrities are really just normal, flawed people who happen to have benefitted from a rare combination of luck and talent. There is no doubt that most of them are very good at what they do, and probably work very hard at certain times, but I have never been under the illusion that they are somehow better or happier than most of the more anonymous people I have met in my life. It seems that the only real difference lies in the fact that normal people don’t have a vicious pack of reporters and pundits destroying them in the national media whenever they happen to get in trouble. Such is the price of fame in 2010.

The problem is that until recently, I have been able to remove the cold reality of normal life and human nature from my blind appreciation of professional sports. I used to be able to forget that my favorite baseball players were probably on steroids or that many of the players on my favorite football team were most likely not the kind of guys I would want my little sister to go on a date with. I knew these things from the start but at least I could suspend my criticism long enough to escape into the excitement of the competition for a few hours.

I fear that I no longer have this luxury anymore, as professional sports continue to become just another tabloid media-covered minefield. Thankfully, I still believe that professional cycling has one of the highest ratios of “good guys” to “bad guys” but it’s been a long time since I thought everyone who could ride a bike fast was a decent person. With that said, I think I’d be pretty cool with my little sister dating a bike racer, especially considering my prior hope that she would hook up with a professional golfer. Yeah…not so keen on the golf guys anymore.

In an effort to maintain this depressing theme, as well as the portrayal of cyclists as a pretty decent group of people to root for, please find the following 2009/2010 sports stories that have broken down the wall between the joy of entertainment and cruelty of life below. I have tried to limit these to one sentence because this stuff should not really be news to anyone at this point.

Football - Chris Henry died after falling off the back of a pick-up truck being driven by his wife, with whom he was arguing at the time of the accident.

Basketball - Gilbert Arenas was convicted of felony gun possession charges after displaying three firearms in the Washington Wizards locker room, then verbally challenging Javaris Crittenden, with whom he had gotten into an argument over gambling debts.

Baseball - Mark McGwire finally admitted to using performance enhancing drugs during his career, including the year that he broke the homerun records of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris.

Tennis - Serena Williams was fined a record $83,500 for verbally assaulting a line official at the U.S. Open who later claimed that she feared for her life.

Soccer – John Terry, captain of the English national team, has been accused of having an affair with the wife of a former friend and teammate.

Golf - Tiger Woods got caught with his pants on the ground many, many times.

Hockey – I can’t think of many scandalous hockey stories right now but I’m pretty sure there are toothless maniacs getting into trouble somewhere.

Yeesh. There are obviously many more examples of scandalous behavior among many other athletes in many other sports but again, this should not be a surprise to anyone. At least John Edwards and Charlie Sheen don’t play sports for a living. Woo Hoo!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Santos - Australian for Bike Racing

Believe it or not, the 2010 UCI professional road racing season began in Australia this past week at the Santos Tour Down Under. In mid-January. I don't know who this Santos guy is but he is obviously not a procrastinator. I mean...I like bike racing but this just seems really early for a season that culminates in late Fall. Shouldn't pro cyclists have a longer break than professional golfers? Oh wait...maybe that is not the best example.

Actually, the TDU has historically been an Aussie-centric event in which a bunch of Southern Hemispheric (is that a real term?) dudes battle for Outback Steakhouse stocks, kangaroo pelts and crocodile vests. It was dominated by Michael J. Dundee in the mid-eighties and then Stuart O'Grady later on but has recently been shamed with victories by guys from Spain and Germany. While this cannot make Russell Crowe very happy, somewhere near Walkabout Creek a young boy who has killed multiple large reptiles is dedicating his life to reclaiming the TDU crown. Watch out Greipel.

Strangely, even though Andre "Bavarian Koko" Greipel won the event in convincing fashion yet again, there was a lot of interesting activity from guys we are usually accustomed to seeing at the front in July during the Tour. With names like Armstrong, Evans, Sanchez, and Valv.Piti (oh wait, he wasn't allowed in the Tour) at the front and showing form, it was a more interesting race than I have seen in previous editions.

Unfortunately, we ended up seeing some of these guys in new kits that really should have been thought out a bit more in the offseason. I continue to be perplexed by the overwhelming redness of the RadioShack and BMC offerings, Garmin seems to have given up on being cool and again, I am really just horrified by the Footon-Servetto debacle. It's bad enough to rock flesh-toned lycra but these cats are also being forced to wear yellow helmets. I wonder if they are planning on just making them wear Hot Dog On A Stick uniforms for the Tour de France.

We'll get back to the visual aspects of the Tour Down Under shortly but it seems like we need to talk about Andre Greipel a little bit first. For anyone who watched the coverage on Versus or any of the overhead shots on YouTube, it was clear that he was on a totally different level. I mean, even though he got caught out a couple of times, the guy was about 5mph faster than anyone else in the race. It was not close at all, despite what Team Sky would have you believe.

On at least two occasions, The Gorilla came from over 10 riders back and basically made everyone look like kittens. In fact, I would argue that right now, he and Cavendish are the two fastest guys in the peloton. Barring injury, I predict they will win 15 Grand Tour stages between them this year, and I put their combined over/under for the season at 43.5 wins.

But now we need to address Greipel's nickname. I don't know how many Gorillas there are in Deutschland but it seems like kind of a weird association, despite the fact that he is a pretty big guy. However, the bigger issue is that I am having difficulty determining whether to refer to him as "The Gorilla" or just simply "Gorilla." In addition to being entirely irrelevant, this is really annoying to me as a writer...and fellow primate.

Therefore, I will hereby refer to Andre Greipel as "Koko" in honor of the smartest gorilla ever to be referenced in an episode of Seinfeld. I think Koko is actually smarter than the chimpanzee that Kramer fought with (Bonus Question: What was the chimp's name? Answer below) at the zoo. Yeah, Koko...that Gorilla is alright. Besides, it was either that or "Magilla" or "Ronnie from the Jersey Shore" and "Koko" is just easier to explain. I would kind of like to see Greipel fight Ronnie though, and then Ina Yoko-Teutenberg can grapple with J-Woww. Then maybe Cavendish could throw down with The Situation?

Sticking with the highbrow sophistication of tabloid media, and understanding that my wife is currently caught up in the Red Carpet Season on the E! network, it follows that I am inclined to form my own Fashion Police for the bike racing world. And honestly, it's looking kind of grim in 2010 so far but there have been a couple of bright...well, er...less embarrassing spots that are worthy of note.

Two of the aforementioned bright spots could be seen on the feet of Lance Armstrong, who has finally made the leap to white shoes. Honestly, I thought he would have cured cancer before rocking white kicks and dishonestly, I would probably be almost as satisfied either way. Almost. I don't know if LA took my earlier words to heart and begged Nike to throw something hip together for him or not but regardless, it's good to see that he has finally come to the, Light Side of the Shoe Force. Good grief, it's about time.

Not so cool are the red RadioShack tubetops and BMC ladybug kits. Don't the team managers have any say in this process? I cannot imagine Johan Bruyneel or Jim Ochowicz advising their clothing sponsors to come up with embarrassing kits for their riders. And I am certain that Mike Sayers was not consulted prior to the authorization of that much fire engine red in the design.

Having said that, I guess the BMC kits are a little more exciting than their "Weekend Warrior" theme from the past few years. Seriously, they looked like Cat.3's last year. I like the squad and what they are doing but there has not been a more anonymous looking team in the professional ranks. And yes...I will heckle teams that are too flamboyant as well as those who are too plain. Come on, it's hard enough looking like a cyclist (tan lines, odd proportions etc) so the least we can do is minimize the damage from a wardrobe standpoint. Is that too much to ask?

Anyway, until next time...Barry and the other banana-throwing monkeys say Peace. And watch out for the ones that aren't throwing bananas. Seriously, Kramer was lucky it was only fruit. After all, Barry could have thrown a Footon-Servetto kit at him.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

2010 Pro Tour Team Preview: T-Z

Okay, this is getting a little out of hand. First of all, the UCI website is making subtle changes but doesn’t seem to be acknowledging my bigger arguments from Pro Tour Preview A-F and G-S. For the record, multiple teams do not have the proper sponsor names listed, and the rosters are lacking updated information as of January 14, 2010. For example, despite being the most talked-about rider in the offseason, apparently Bradley Wiggins is not riding for anyone this year.

And now, with the most recent UCI news update (since the first UCI race starts in two Australia) Lampre is basically just being embarrassed in public like a kid who didn’t get his homework in on time. I do not doubt that the paperwork was not properly completed (this is bike racing in Europe after all) but that does not change the fact that this stuff should have been addressed and finalized months ago. It is ridiculous for the UCI to have to hold their hands during the licensing process or make concessions to teams that cannot step up to their end of the organizational bargain.

I know that this is just bike racing, and not global finance or high technology but it would be nice if there was more than a hint of professionalism within the top-tier of this sport. Perhaps the cycling world would be better off if slacking, disorganized and marginally qualified teams were punished for being so. But then I guess the UCI wouldn’t get that big chunk of money for the Pro Tour license so…it makes sense that they are being lenient. It still makes everyone look bad though. Especially everyone wearing that ridiculous pink and blue Lampre kit.

Finally, the UCI website has switched the Sky name around a few times but, as mentioned earlier, still does not have Wiggie Smalls on the roster. They seem to be going back and forth between Team Sky and Sky Professional Cycling Team, with the latter being the most recent entry. But it was Team Sky when I started this thing, so I’m keeping them that way. Same with Saxo Bank, which is now listed as Team Saxo Bank. Good grief, it would be nice if this stuff was worked out before mid-January.

Now, from the Department of Redundancy Department, please find the "Team" teams listed below.

• Team HTC-Columbia (USA)

Team HTC-Columbia was sadly misnamed Team Columbia-HTC until very recently on the UCI website. However, I would like to give the UCI folks the benefit of the doubt and just hope that they are dyslexic instead of lazy. At this point, I would kind of like to see them get creative and put something like "Team THC-Colombia" up there, just to see if anyone notices. Now that would make for some great High Road jokes. If you can't have a sense of humor at the UCI's going to be pretty bumpy ride.

As for Bob Stapleton's crew, they basically got raided by Team Sky but were able to hang on to Mark Cavendish for at least one more year, which had to have been the only real goal this past offseason. As Wiggie Smalls proved, contracts can be broken when Rupert F-ing Murdoch is paying for your lawyers, so it was good to see Cavendish stay loyal. It says a lot about the relationship between Captain Cavman and Big Money Bob, who I still think is one of the best owners in professional sports.

As a result of the recent British Invasion and subsequent Pillaging, Team THC-Colombia (just checking if you're still paying attention) is noticeably thinner in the ranks than 2009. But the squad is still positioned to get some decent individual results and keep Cavendish where he needs to be in order to win another 20-30 races, as Andre Greipel gets more and more frustrated by only winning 10-20.

In addition to the leadout train, hopefully they will also help Cavendish think up some new finish line post-up moves. The "DZ Nuts" salute in Paso Robles was pretty creative/obscene but I have a feeling that he is still kicking himself for fumbling with his glasses a little bit in the Tour. He could have popped a wheelie on the Champs Elysees last year, so I am hoping that he starts upping the degree of difficulty somehow. Maybe take a foot out of the pedals like he did with Cipo in the Tour of California a few years ago. I still can't believe he did that, but somehow it adds to the legend in a strangely positive way. Far more positive than say...pointing at your junk in white shorts, for example.

Besides Marky Mark and his Funky Bunch sprints, it will be interesting to watch the progression of Greipel and Tony Martin in 2010. I'm still not sure what kind of rider Martin is or will be, but he has Rolf Aldag in his corner and could give German cycling fans a bit of GC hope after some painful years. For some reason I feel better about watching him and The Gorilla race than I ever did with Michael Stoolmacher.

• Team Katusha (RUS)

I must admit that I did a double-take when Cycle Sport listed Katusha as the top team in one-day races for 2009. I guess it makes sense, considering Sergei Ivanov's win at Amstel Gold and Pipo Pozzato's Springtime wheelsucking but the scientist in me wants to come up with a better formula. Not to be critical, but it seems like Quick Step taking both Flanders and Roubaix, as well as Sylvia Chavanel's impressively consistent mediocrity, would have put them on top. I don't know, maybe I need to crunch the numbers a bit before I tick off any Russian dudes (or Cycle Sport for that matter).

In a perfect world, 2010 will mark the triumphant return of Robbie McEwen as a sprinting threat against youngsters like Cavendish and Farrar. At the very least, I would like to see more head-butting and profanity in the peloton, and Robbie Mac is the best at that kind of stuff. When I mentioned how Saxo Bank had some tough guys their team preview, I neglected to explain that Australians are actually in a separate class by themselves. Seriously, even Cadel Evans is kind of scary in a weird, unpredictable way but can you imagine having the King of Australian Badassery hollering at you?

There is no real frame of reference for this but for some reason, I have a recurring nightmare about Robbie McEwen yelling at me and using weird Aussie words that I don't really understand…although I can infer that they are not complimentary. Trust me, it's a bad dream but somehow I feel tougher for having it.

• Team Milram (GER)

For the record, I have never been a fan of the team kits that actually try to portray something about the sponsor. For example, the old Castorama overalls (similar version worn here by the one and only Laurent Brochard) were far more embarrassing for Laurent Fignon than his loss to LeMond in the '89 Tour and despite their popularity and my appreciation for Danny Van Haute's crew, the Jelly Belly kits have never been kind to my eye. Therefore, I just cannot imagine how the giant milk stains on the Milram (a dairy company) jerseys were authorized in the first place, let alone repeated in 2010. In fact, I'm not even sure if they are milk stains or if they are trying to make the riders look like skinny blue Holstein cows. At least they don't have big white splotches on the shorts too. That would be REALLY bad.

Despite the jerseys, Milram is a decent squad that will get a number of medium-to-high quality top-5 finishes with guys like Gerald Ciolek and Fabian "The Other Fabian" Wegmann. I will always think Wegmann is cool because he won the final San Francisco Grand Prix, which is my favorite event of all time. It really was a great race but I still can’t reconcile how Charles Dionne won 40% of the times it was held. Regardless, Wegmann could win something big someday and Ciolek will probably continue to have crazy head spasms which keep him from the top step. Seriously, watch him sprint with Cavendish and notice how one looks low and fast while the other looks like he may be having an epileptic seizure. It’s hard to look at sometimes.

Anyway, I have been trying to think of a clever pun about crying over spilt milk or something in an effort to make my G-Pa and Dad proud but I can’t seem to conjure up anything fit for print. Sorry guys, I feel like I let the family down.

• Team RadioShack (USA)

I really don’t know much about this team or any of its riders but I guess there are some guys who used to be on other teams, one dude who used to be an actor, and the director is a motivational book author from Belgium or something. I don’t know, it’s been hard to get much information on this organization or how they even managed to raise enough awareness and money to warrant a Pro Tour license. I mean…it’s not like they’re trying to cure cancer or something, right?

Even though I can’t say much about Team RadioShack (yet), I would like to take this opportunity to tell the primary sponsor that I still think it was messed up to charge me $36 for a new cell phone charger in 2005. That was wrong, and I will never forgive you for asking for my number and then ripping me off on the charger so that I could use my phone - which you then apparently wanted to call me on. It’s kind of funny in retrospect but I will always hold a grudge against The Shack for taking advantage of me like that. I literally felt dirty when I walked out of the strip mall.

But with that said…thanks for sponsoring this poor little bike racing team full of starry-eyed, hopeful youngsters. Really, thank you. Dare I say it’s…Shacktastic?

• Team Sky (GBR)

Team Sky is another team that seems to be having some trouble getting in the news and promoting itself lately. Either that or I have trouble understanding British people...or digesting anything from the Murdoch Empire other than The Simpsons. Actually, Arrested Development was great but Rupert’s henchmen put a premature end to that so…yeah, not too excited about Fox-related stuff on a few levels. I am aware that the News Corporation only has a 39% stake in British Sky Broadcasting but that is still a little too close to the Bill O’Reilly Zone for my conscience. Does this mean that Glenn Beck is going to start talking about bike racing? I need to stop thinking about this.

In somewhat Imperialistic, cut-throat fashion, the new British team (that we’ve known about for years) went about nabbing riders like Bradley Wiggins, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Thomas Lovkvist, and just about any other English speaking guys they could get their money-laden hands on. The Wiggins project was particularly awkward but actually made me think that bike racing is becoming a little more like a real professional sport, replete with contract disputes, lawyers and blatant lies in the media. Then again, that may not be as nice as it sounds.

So…basically, Team Sky poached a number of big name riders from American teams and is rapidly embodying the somewhat fancy, pompous reputation developed by most of the British people I know. I’m not sure what it is about the Brits, but these guys are not making a ton of friends in the peloton and they haven’t even raced yet. Perhaps George Bluth Sr. from Arrested Development was on to something when he warned Michael, “Sure, they’re polite and the men all sound gay, but they will rip your heart out, and their breath…”

Thankfully, we won’t have to wait long to see how Team Sky and all of the other Pro Tour squads (which Lampre may join eventually) fare in 2010 because the season is just about to get underway in Australia at the Tour Down Under. I can’t think of many better places to kick off the rust and sweat through some new team clothing, although I hope nobody makes Robbie McEwen or any of the other natives mad. Even the new World Champion (who is not riding for a Pro Tour team, in case you didn't hear my consternation the first time) has proven to be pretty tough. Like I said before, mess with Australians at your own risk. Just ask the management at Omega Pharma-Lotto. D'oh.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

2010 Pro Tour Team Preview: G-S

Please forgive the unavoidable delay since my last preview of Pro Tour teams A-F. It seems that the graphic and disturbing nature of the new Footon-Servetto kit has caused the FCC to consider charging the team and the UCI with Cycling-Related Crimes Against Humanity, and now journalists who have referenced them publicly are being interrogated. I had three guys in suits and sunglasses banging on my door the other day, asking me if I knew anything about the new kit design, its possible effect on school children and general notions of public decency. They then confiscated my computer for nearly a week and I just now got it back. Strangely, all references of the team have been deleted from my hard drive.

In addition to the Footon-Servetto delay, I was planning on giving the UCI a chance to kick off the vacation dust and make some changes to its website. of January 11, 2010, our leaders in Switzerland still have not gotten around to updating the Pro Tour pages to include Lampre-Fondital among the public list of licensed teams. Therefore, I guess they missed the bus, and Damiano "Fresh Prince" Cunego will have to bear the brunt of the UCI giving me extra time to think of new Carlton and Jazzy Jeff jokes.

Please find the G-S teams listed below. Again, this content is based on the UCI website so it may or may not be accurate. And again, the T's are going to be ridiculous because of the inexplicable use of "Team" as a first name. Whatever.

Garmin-Slipstream (USA)*

*Please note that the team is not yet recognized as Garmin-Transitions on the UCI website. Again...on January 11, 2010 the correct sponsor name is not listed. Sweet.

Anyway, now that brooding Brit Bradley Wiggins (aka Wiggie Smalls) has followed the pounds to Team Sky (although you wouldn't know it from the UCI lists) the team will be able to focus on helping Americans Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie and Tom Danielson in stage races throughout the season. Additonally, the emergence of Irishman Dan Martin will give Jonathan Vaughters and Matt "Lt. Jonathan Kendrick" White viable GC options in almost any kind of event throughout the year. In a strange way, I feel like each of these guys has a lot prove this year, either to confirm that they deserve the recognition or to finally make the leap to the next level. The effect of resident Mad Scientist Allen Lim's defection to RadioShack will also be interesting to watch as the season progresses.

One of the biggest hurdles to success in 2010 will be trying to solve the Cavendish Conundrum for Tyler "Farrah Fawcett" Farrar in the sprints. I don't know if the big man from Washington will be able to close the gap to the Teen Wolf of Man but it would be nice if we finally got around to consistently pronouncing his name correctly. It's hard enough to finish second a hundred times in a season, let's at least make sure to get the guy's name right as we describe his frustrating near-misses. Okay Phil and Paul?

All in all, I see Team Sky's cherrypicking of Pro Tour talent as the best thing that could have happened to Garmin-Transitions in 2010. With the diminished Columbia train, not to mention the removal of Wiggie Smalls and his snotty aloofness (seriously, why call out Armstrong and tick off most of your primary competition in the off-season?), I see the Argyle Armada being a more focused crew who will be better prepared to fight with Cavendish and support VDV, DZ and Tommy D in the stage races. My hunch is that 2010 will be the most successful year in the history of this team. I would also like a job with them...but I swear that has nothing to do with my prediction.

Liquigas-Doimo (ITA)

It sounds weird but...Liquigas is freaking stacked. I really don't know how else to say it. A quick glance at the roster shows names like Bennati, Chicchi, Kreuziger, Nibali, Pellizotti, and Basso, not to mention a bunch of other intensely greased up and cologned Italian dudes. I can't point to much hope for the Spring Classics (even though Quinziato stepped up last year) but Kermit the Frog's favorite team looks pretty decent in both the sprints and the GC for 2010. As Italian cycling slowly fades in to the past, the Gas Face crew is keeping the torch lit for a little while.

Perhaps the most intriguing component of the lime green gang is the established rivalry amongst Franco "Soul Glow" Pellizotti, Roman "Holiday" Kreuziger, Vincenzo "Nibbles" Nibali, and Ivan "The Terrible" Basso. As far as I can tell, none of these guys really like each other and they all seem to be equally good and flawed at the same time. It's like they stocked up on a bunch of cats who probably can't win a Grand Tour but will certainly be fighting each other for spots in the Top 10. I don't know if this is a strategic benefit or not but the drama in 2010 could be Astana-esque.

My only other thought is that they really, really need to do something about those kits. Enough is enough. It's time to leave the 1989 Kawasaki theme in the closet, where it belongs. With that many narcissistic Italians on the team, you would think they'd have switched to something a little cooler by now.

Omega Pharma-Lotto (BEL)

Having lost Cadel Evans almost immediately after winning the World Championship, the Omega Pharma-Lotto team basically gets no reward for years of near-misses by the snippy Australian. Without placing blame on anyone, I wonder how many times in recent history a new World Champ has bolted for a team that, at least on the surface, is in an inferior league. BMC may be stronger than OP-Lotto on paper, but the fact remains that a Pro Tour team lost the rainbow jersey to a Pro Continental team that has virtually no guaranteed starts in the biggest Pro Tour events. One could argue that Evans' salary is probably less than the cost of entry into the Pro Tour, and yet his presence guarantees BMC entry into the best Pro Tour events. So...why are these other teams spending millions of dollars to get a UCI Pro Tour license again? Good grief, I think my head is going to explode.

Anyway, Leif Hoste will probably finish second in excrutiating fashion during some big races this Spring but at least he won't be crashing with Johan Van Summeren anymore. That's a good thing, I guess. Now he can just crash and lose on his own.

Philippe Gilbert will probably continue to win late-season races while the rest of the field except Cunego and Sammy Sanchez are recovering from the Spring Classics, Giro and the Tour. I know it puts some pressure on, but seriously, why wouldn't you just target late-season events like the Vuelta and Lombardy with the understanding that half of the best guys in the world are basically on vacation or getting ready for the off-season? Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like more guys target the Spring and Summer than the Fall. After numerous dismal starts, maybe Gilbert and Omega-Pharma Lotto are just good at playing the odds. It sure worked in 2009.

Quick Step (BEL)

Barring yet another cocaine bust, Quick Step seems like they are fading from the spotlight, not to mention the ranks of the power teams. With the exception of Tom Boonen, the biggest name on this team is the Patrick LeFevere (or Lefevre..or LeFavre) who is essentially a prototype of the typically arrogant and self-serving Belgian director. How many times has LeFevere been involved in disputes with riders over the last few years? Honestly, I don't even know...but I'm pretty sure it's more than any other Pro Tour figurehead. Sadly, it is turning out that Quick Step represents the old guard of Belgian "Goombah" mentality more than any other organization, and they had better hope the Spring turns out well or else it's going to be ugly in 2010.

If I could bet my entire life savings on something, I would (maybe) put everything on the odds that Quick Step does NOT win either Flanders or Roubaix in 2010. After so many years of dominance, this feels like the year that it all falls apart for the historically successful Belgian team. Sorry Tomeke, but I can't envision good fortune for your team, let alone for anyone who wears socks that combine the World Championship stripes and the Autobot logo (see above photo). Seriously, that is totally unacceptable. You only missed the "Transformer's Are Cool" bus by about 20 years there Big Guy. Besides, everyone knows that the Decepticons were way better than the Autobots. Come on, Bumblebee or Sound Wave? No contest.

Rabobank (NED)

Does anyone really root for Denis Menchov? Honestly, I don't know. Has there been anyone in the history of professional cycling who has won as many Grand Tours and gets less credit or publicity? Again, I can't think of anyone who has been more successful and less popular. Is it just a function of sucking in the Tour? Really? By results alone, he is one of the best riders in the last 20 years but you'd be hard pressed to get anyone to mention the guy's name in the same sentence as Pantani or Ullrich, or even Basso. Arguably, only Armstrong and Indurain have been more successful since 1990, so it must be the fact that he crashes so much, thus allowing slow, fat journalists to fool themsleves into thinking that he's not that good.

It would be nice to see Oscar Freire win something again but we really need to get Robert Gesink some help. He seems to be following the Menchov formula of being exceptionally strong but strangely prone to decking it at the worst possible time. It's not even like he crashes in groups or anything, he just flies off the road for no reason. I am beginning to wonder if the Rabobank team is cursed, after watching Rasmussen, Menchov, Horillo, Flecha and now Gensink flailing across the road and into the bushes so many times. I know that Flecha has gone to Sky but he was another example of a guy who just couldn't manage to stay on his Rabobank team bike. Maybe if they change their boring kits, they will have better luck. Wishful thinking...

Saxo Bank (DEN)

As usual, the Saxo Bank empire is built on the combined "Hard Man" foundation of Bjarne Riis, Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara. I always laugh when I think of bike racers fighting but honestly, are there three other dudes in the sport who you think could take The Bald Eagle, Chuck Norris and Tony Montana in a street fight? I don't think so. But I would pay just about anything for the Pay Per View if someone wants to set up a tag-team match in the Octagon.

This actually brings up another question: Is hitting the deck at 40 miles per hour more painful than getting punched in the face or kicked in the ribs?
Although I have never been punched in the face (yet) or kicked in the ribs (yet) I would have to assume that crashing on a bike is WAY worse. If some tatooed donkey clocks me in the jaw, I figure I fall down and curl up like a child while someone comes over, stops the fight and takes the other idiot off to jail for a few hours. But you can't take the easy way out in bike racing; bad things are going to happen if you crash at any speed and they are probably more gruesome and painful than taking a fist in the mouth. Therefore...I think Jens Voigt will beat up Kimbo Slice and will win the MMA title in a few months. Then he will win the Criterium International while wearing the championship belt around his waist...just to show that he can.

Interestingly, the Schleck Brothers (aka Schlecks N Effect) are going to probably get more media attention than anyone else on the team in 2010. For some reason, people think that Andy can beat Contador (which he can't) and that somehow the siblings are strengthened by each other (which they aren't). After all, if the 2009 stage to Ventoux was any example, there is nothing to be gained by Frank having anything more than a Lieutenant role in the GC of any Grand Tour. The bottom line is that unless they can do a "Face Off" style surgery that allows Fabian Cancellara to time trial for Andy, the Saxo Bank crew will not get to the top step of the Tour any time soon. Sorry Luxembourg.

With that said, Bjarne's Army will again challenge for the title of the best team in the world, after having given up that claim to Columbia and Astana for the past few years. Especially with recent news that Saxo Bank will be pulling its sponsorship at the end of 2010, you can bet that B. Riis will have everyone's feet firmly in the flames all year.

Stay tuned for the 2010 Pro Tour Preview: T-Z coming soon...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2010 Pro Tour Team Preview: A-F

As of January 5th 2010, the most recent Pro Tour team information on the UCI website is from late November 2009. Sweet. The website lists 17 Pro Tour teams although there has been news that Lampre was granted the 18th Pro Tour license. Unfortunately, the UCI apparently takes the entire month of December off, and has not bothered to post this information on their website. But that's okay, I'm sure this makes it easier for everyone to line up sponsors and funding when you don't even know which races you will be eligible for until January.

Can you imagine if we didn't know which teams were going to be playing in the NFL, NBA or MLB just a few months before the season? Oh, the Giants are going to be a Minor League team this year? Really? I know cycling is a unique business and there must be some kind of rationale for such tardiness and ambiguity in the licensing process but I am consistently amazed by how shabby professional cycling looks in relation to other sports. Reading the UCI website is a rather fascinating, and oddly depressing endeavor.

In spite of this unfortunate circumstance, I will attempt to provide a brief overview of the 17 Pro Tour teams listed on the UCI website as of early January 2010. It should be noted that the teams are listed alphabetically, although many of them actually have the term "Team" as the first name (Team Columbia-HTC, Team Milram, etc) so there will be an inordinate amount of "T" listings. Again, I am basing this off of published information from the UCI so don't blame me for the confusion. There will be further analysis upon completion of this list but this will have to do for the time being.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2010 UCI Pro Tour Team Pre Preview:

AG2R La Mondiale (FRA)

AG2R La Mondial 2009 is remembered for Rinaldo Nocentini’s run in the yellow jersey during the Tour de France, but they are also notorious for orchestrating one of the strangest mid-season kit changes in recent memory. Not really having any household names on their roster after the departure of Christophe Moreau, the French squad went about their pre-Tour business somewhat anonymously in a somewhat boring blue and white design. However, the team underwent a curious fashion transformation which somehow led to the inexplicable vision of the yellow jersey accompanied by brown cycling shorts. How this happened is still a mystery. A crazy French murder mystery. Brown shorts are better than white or yellow, but the whole thing just seemed awkward. Although strangely, I ended up thinking the splotchy white and blue jersey with the brown shorts was kind of cool.

Besides Nocentini and his Franco-Italian soul-patch, the squad is built around the Efemkin twins (I think Vladimir and Evgeni are the Russian names for Mary Kate and Ashley), the future of Nicholas Roche (and history of his father) and the ghost of Cyril Dessel’s yellow jersey from 2006. Sadly, the main thing I think of with Dessel is how many times his name was pronounced "Cereal" by the OLN announcers. We'll see if the brown shorts come back in 2010 because I'm not sure if I see another yellow jersey run in the near future.

Astana (KAZ)

What do you get when you combine the government of Kazakhstan, the best bike racer in the world, the worst Tour champion ever, and a sketchy super-freak nicknamed after wine? You get Astana 2010, that’s what.

The UCI Pro Tour website continues to recognize them by the same name but this Astana team is a shell of the 2009 version and sadly, continues to keep the horrible baby blue and yellow kits. The only significant difference is the inclusion of a few large red Specialized logos which look like stickers.

Contador could probably finish on the podium of the Tour by himself but it will be interesting to see how he and Vinokourov share the load over the course of the year. Lance and Johan were going to leave and do their own thing anyway but they clearly realized that Astana is Vino’s team, the result being a severely weakened 2010 squad in almost every respect. The addition of Oscar Pereiro seems like a PR move, cashing in on his tainted Tour win yet again. Unless he crashes in spectacular fashion (yet again) I doubt he will be of much interest. He's like a guy who won the lottery but still needs to work. The motivation just isn't the same. It will be interesting to see if this attitude creeps into the rest of the team as well, especially Contador, who almost seemed ready to take 2010 off if Astana didn't come up with the dough.

Caisse d’Epargne (ESP)

The Spanish team of Spanish riders won the 2009 Tour of Spain, which was good for them (but horribly bad for those who think that the Italian ban on Valverde should be enforced worldwide) and theoretically good for the country. I don't know though. Spain's reputation has not been enhanced by anything stained with Operacion Puerto blood and unfortunately, Caisse d'Epargne won the Vuelta with a guy who seems to be clearly involved. Unfortunately for cycling fans, he also happens to be really good and just won a Grand Tour while banned from racing in another country. This is not what the sport, or Spain's reputation for that matter, needs right now.

All Valverde issues aside, CdE does have other riders who deserve positive attention. Luis Leon-Spinks Sanchez is one of the sharpest and exciting young talents in the peloton and it will very interesting to see if he can continue his progression as a stage racer. After all, he is basically the only guy to beat Contador in the last few years with his victory in Paris-Nice. His tactical sense and time trialling are stronger than Valv.Piti's and he could be in a position to benefit from lying slightly off the main radar in a Grand Tour.

The signing of La Chien, Christophe Moreau was curious, but at the end of the day (and beginning of 2010) Valverde remains the gigantic elephant in the CdE bus.

Euskaltel-Euskadi (ESP)

We knew Samuel Sanchez was good (2008 Olympic Champion - in case you couldn't tell from his gold-highlighted helmet and bike) but his performance in the 2009 Vuelta was quite impressive, and showed that he may be a Grand Tour contender as well. He just better hope that there are no more team time trials ever again because his stubbornly Basque team is stubbornly one of the most insignificant squads in the Pro Tour. I am beginning to think that their biggest contribution to most races is providing a nice splash of bright orange in Graham Watson photos.

After Landaluze tested positive, it is difficult to name many of the riders on Euskaltel-Euskadi. This is not because I don't know who they are, it's because their names are literally hard to pronounce. They are just a massive jumble of x's and t's and k's, with vowels in odd places (see Amets Txurruka, etc). He may not admit it but I am certain that this is Phil Liggett's least favorite team.

Footon-Servetto (ESP)

Even though 2009 was a barren, meager year for Fuji-Servetto, at least they got another sponsor with an "F" name for 2010. That was pretty convenient, and I can't wait for my spellcheck to suggest calling them "Futon" throughout the season. That will be fun.

After losing Juan Jose Cobo and his shinguards/socks to CdE, this team is pretty unremarkable. So unremarkable that I really can't think of anything significant they did last year or are likely to do this year. Personally, I will consider Footon-Servetto's season a success if they manage to be mentioned in North American cycling media more than five times the entire season.

Française des Jeux (FRA)

The best thing that I can say about FdJ is that they are really loyal to their original jersey design. Other than having one of the most familiar kits in the sport, there is really not much else to say about this French team. Seriously, I really wish I had more to say about these guys but with the exception of Sandy Casar’s occasional stage win, there are very few big results to be seen.

While still maintaining their image as a French development team, two of the more intriguing riders are Wesley Sulzberger from Australia and Jussi Veikkanen from Finland. If nothing else, they have great names and are actually pretty decent finishers as well. I would really like to hear the name “Juicy” on the PA at a big event. Whenever you can get the title of a Notorious BIG song pronounced in your name, you are destined for good things. This is why I always thought that Yaroslav Popyvich should have changed his name to Big Popo, but that is another story.

Stay tuned for more shortly...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 Road Season Recap - Good Riddance

As far as I am concerned, 2009 was a truly lame year on almost every level. It may seem myopic to cast such judgment on the last 365 or so days of history but for me and almost everyone I ever speak with or listen to, this is a fairly common sentiment. For nearly everyone except Mark Cavendish and people who like vampires, the past year pretty much sucked and there seems to be a general sense of relief that the first decade of the 21st century (don't get started on the semantics of this statement, you know what I mean) is coming to a close. Besides, according to the Mayans, Nostradamus and the History Channel, we only have a few more years before it’s all over anyway so hopefully 2010 will make up for the last year of lameness. After all, it would be nice to enjoy the final years of human existence.

On that positive note, let’s look back on 2009 in a semi-chronological, semi-freestyle manner, since excessive research is certain to be excessively depressing. Here we go:

January: The most historic event of the year (sorry Lance) takes place as Barack Obama is inaugurated President of the United States of America. Unfortunately, he inherits a rat’s nest of domestic and international problems that even exceeds Pat McQuaid taking over the UCI from Hein Verbruggen. Perhaps Barack and Pat should have a pint sometime and discuss how impossible their respective jobs are. Who would want those positions? I almost feel sorry for them. Almost.

February: The fourth edition of the Tour of California takes place, marking the return of Lance Armstrong to the U.S. peloton after a few years of running around with Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. Alright, alright, alright. Despite having his bike stolen and hitting the deck a few times, LA proves that he is serious (duh) and helps Levi Leipheimer take his third consecutive victory in the Amgen ToC. Perhaps the most intriguing result is captured by Tom Peterson, the young American hopeful who hangs with LL and takes the stage win into Santa Cruz ahead of some big names.

March: The European season begins in earnest with Paris-Nice and the beginning of the Armstrong-Contador rivalry on Twitter. Contador bonks and loses to Luis Leon-Spinks Sanchez which prompts LA to publicly heckle his own teammate and show the first sign of his true resentment toward the Spaniard. Go Team!

Tirreno-Adriatico provides some early season sprints, climbs and TT’s as well as a podium of sketchiness in Scarponi, Garzelli and Kloden. Tyler Farrar manages to surprise a distracted Mark Cavendish and beats the Manxman to the line, thereby allowing the American media to fool itself into thinking he might do it again. Understandably, Cavendish holds a grudge and goes on to frustrate the American for the rest of the year.

Milan-Sanremo is perhaps my favorite race, and the 2009 edition of the event confirms its reputation as a Classic. The biggest question is always who can get over the final climbs in good position for the finish although it seems that the sprinters have little difficulty handling them these days. This is again evidenced by Mark Cavendish having enough energy to burst from the pack in the closing meters to nip a courageous Heinrich Haussler in a photo finish after nearly 300 kilometers. If you listen closely, you can hear all of the other sprinters emitting a collective groan as they realize MC is only 23 years old.

April: The Tour of Flanders is an amazingly complex and difficult race, which makes it somewhat odd that the 2009 edition plays out almost exactly the same as the prior year. Similar to 2008, everyone follows Tom Boonen and ends up watching Stijn Devolder ride away with the race. Good for Belgium, not so good for Filippo Pozzato, who confirms his status as Boonen’s Spring shadow.

Norwegians are cool and Ghent-Wevelgem gives a glimpse at the future of Nordic bike racing goodness. Despite the truly bothersome phonetics of his name, Edvald Boasson Hagen is going to be a good one for the Classics and the sprints in years to come. He’s like a younger, Scandinavian Tom Boonen. The only thing that is unfortunate is his apparent ignorance of cycling history. And his haircut.

Later, in Paris-Roubaix Pozzato again plays the role of greasy-haired follower as Boonen rides steadily away from a bunch of people who can’t manage to stay on their bikes. Thor Hushovd is in a great position to get into the Roubaix velodrome with Boonen but decks it into the crowd as the Belgian rides away for his third win.

In the hilly classics, a Russian guy with the most Russian name ever (Sergei Ivanov) wins Amstel Gold for a Russian team, an apparent cheater nicknamed after a cartoon character (Tin-Tin) wins Fleche-Wallone, and Andy Schleck rights the wrongs of the 2008 Liege-Bastogne-Liege with an impressive win in La Doyenne.

May: The Giro d’Italia becomes a farce as Danilo DiLuca defies all rational thought and actually contends for the overall victory. Despite the semi-obvious ridiculousness of DiLuca and his drug-ridden performance, Denis Menchov proves too strong and too robotic to beat, securing his third Grand Tour victory ahead of names like Basso, Armstrong and Sastre. As usual, Menchov crashes in the final time trial, perhaps just to remind us that he is not a cyborg. One would think that robots would be better bike handlers.

June: The Dauphine-Libere again proves to be a strange event as Alejandro Valverde wins for the second year in a row. Perhaps Valv.Piti is more motivated than his competitors since he is not allowed to race in Italy and is prohibited from competing in the upcoming Tour de France. Interestingly, Alberto Contador seems more than willing to let his compatriot take the victory, perhaps hinting that he will rely on Spanish support during the Tour.

In Switzerland, Fabian Cancellara wins a Tour de Suisse that could not be more suited to his capabilities. Nevertheless, after a mediocre Spring campaign Fab-Can shows that he will be a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the season.

July: For anyone really paying attention, the Tour de France is a formality as Alberto Contador proves, yet again, that he is on another level. Despite media efforts to create competitive tension, the race is essentially over the moment Contador finishes the prologue in Monaco. Nobody is going to beat Cancellara for the first yellow jersey but the Spaniard is faster than Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and a full 22 seconds in front of Armstrong after only 15 kilometers. No one can drop him (or even stay with him) in the mountains, and Contador goes on to win the final time trial as well, raising eyebrows and crushing dreams along the route around Lake Annecy.

Understanding that Contador is going to win unless Lance is willing to stick a pump in his spokes, the remainder of the Tour is an open audition for the future 2nd and 3rd place finishers over the next few years of Spanish spider monkey-style dominance. Andy Schleck seems to be a contender in the mountains but will have to get a lot better in the TT’s while Wiggins holds his own on the climbs but will have to prove that he is truly deserving of recognition as a future contender to Contador’s throne. If anything, the 2009 Tour de France proves that AC is not quick to back down and may have as much inner fury as his pseudo-teammate from Texas. This is scary.

Also scary is the fact that Mark Cavendish is virtually unbeatable in bunch sprints. Never before in my experience has someone dominated finishes the way that Columbia and Cavendish did in 2009. As such, the final stage on the Champs Elysees is the most impressive victory of the entire Tour, as George Hincapie crushes the run-in on a broken collarbone (almost single-handedly destroying the Garmin train) and sets up Mark Renshaw and Cavendish for the easiest and most convincing sprint finish I have ever seen. On the biggest stage possible.

August: Despite many near-misses throughout the year, Tyler Farrar finally catches a bit of momentum with an impressive win at Vattenfalls and a near-sweep of the Eneco Tour. Unfortunately, very few people have ever heard of these races.

Back in the States, Big George Hincapie uses his post-Tour, post-broken collarbone fitness to ride away with a third USPRO Championship in his hometown. After getting jobbed by Garmin-Slipstream during the Tour, Melanie’s husband gets a popular win in the Road Race as Dave Zabriskie saves face for the Argyle Armada and takes home yet another Captain America skinsuit in the Time Trial.

September: Despite Pat McQuaid’s prayers and ongoing battles regarding Operacion Puerto, Alejandro Valverde actually rides an intelligent race and wins the Vuelta Espana. Cadel Evans suffers extremely bad luck and Tom Danielson continues to subject the world to flashes of brilliance followed by painful disappointment. As screwed up as it seems, very few people are surprised by any of this. On the positive side, Tyler Farrar, Ryder Hesjedal and David Millar all win stages for Garmin-Slipstream, continuing a solid late-season rush that they all wish would have happened a couple months earlier.

In the Show Me State, Dave Zabriskie time trials his way to victory in the Tour of Missouri. Interestingly, the win is the first for DZ in a stage race and he is put under intense pressure for the final days of the event, despite the generally false assumption that Missouri is flat.

The World Championships are held in Switzerland and Fabian Cancellara comes very close to pulling off a truly amazing TT/RR double-gold performance. After destroying everyone in the TT, Fab-Can seems to be the strongest in the Road Race but falls victim to a late attack by Cadel Evans who goes on to a solo victory. No one argues that Evans is not worthy of the win but I have to wonder if we will ever witness someone come that close to wearing both professional rainbow jerseys.

October: Philippe Gilbert corners the market on late-season form and goes on a tear, winning four post-Worlds races in a row. The biggest win comes in the Giro di Lombardia as the Belgian shows his all-around skill by hanging with Sammy Sanchez on the final climb and descent before handling the Olympic champion in the final sprint. It remains to be seen whether Gilbert can keep his momentum through the offseason and challenge for some of the Spring Classics but if the final weeks of the 2009 season are any indication, he will be a confident challenger in 2010, despite his weird shoe design.

All in all, 2009 was a pretty entertaining year in the cycling world. Sure, there were many things that I did not recall in this process and there are many reasons that the aforementioned events stuck out to me, good and bad. But at the end of the day (or year), bike racing continued to provide a welcome diversion from the mundanity of my existence and yet again confirmed my optimism for the upcoming season. I can only hope that 2010 turns out better than 2009 on every level. Especially for Chris Horner.