It was a long, strange week in the Cycling World but I am going to do my best to fight through a wicked case of the Mondays and collect my thoughts on a few topics. Between the Tour of California reflections, Ullrich's retirement, the re-named Merced event, the beginning of the Belgian spring campaign, the ASO-UCI rift and the uniquely infuriating Versus coverage, there is a lot to cover…so let's get going.
First of all, the post-Tour of California doldrums set in pretty quick after returning to Boulder from the west coast, and were cruelly hastened by yet another snowstorm. Not nice. In any stage race of a week or more, there is a certain daily drama and interest that is unique in the sports world. With each day, there is something new and unknown to look forward to. Who will win the stage? Who are the overall leaders? Are there going to be crashes? What is the course like? The on-going and constantly changing list of players, venues and inter-race variables can create a certain obsessive addiction to the race information, not only as it is happening but long after each stage is finished as well. I know that I am not the only one to suffer from serious Post-Tour de France depression. You can't watch 4 hours of coverage and read 10-20 articles per day for three weeks and just stop immediately without some kind of withdrawal. Anyway…I miss the Tour of California.
The mood early in the week remained gloomy as Jan Ullrich announced his retirement as a professional bike racer. Sadly, the circumstances under which he went out will leave a bad taste in many mouths, mine included. Without making any kind of judgment as to his guilt with regard to the Operacion Puerto scandal, I think it speaks volumes about the problems within the sport that the career of one of the biggest stars of the past decade can be effectively terminated based on accusations and rumors. In case anyone forgot…Jan Ullrich hasn't been found guilty of anything. At least recently…but we'll give the Big German a pass on that one and the benefit of the doubt. I'll take a closer look at his career soon.
For reference, I always thought it was wildly humorous and immensely frustrating that a guy who was about 6' tall and weighed around 160 lbs was always being called "big" or "fat" by sloppy journalists. I fully understand that cycling has a slightly different frame of reference for size, but that always got to me. He may not have been a dietary maniac but still…you hardly ever heard how big he actually was. Or wasn't.
I have been trying to come up with another sports example of someone like Ullrich being so thoroughly destroyed professionally without being formally convicted and I can't think of anything comparable. It would really never happen in another sport except maybe track and field. Oh yeah, wait…maybe I actually can think of another similar example. Floyd Landis. Darn.
The sad understanding is that professional cycling, whether we want to admit it or not, does one of the worst jobs of any sport at protecting and fighting for the rights of the athletes. Now, there are obviously differing views on Unions and one could argue that, for example, it was the power of the Major League Baseball Players Union that paved the way for untested steroid use as a result of their collective bargaining agreement. But, on the other hand, the same argument could be made with regard to increased salaries and personal freedoms of non-disclosure as well. The bottom line is that there is not a strong unified body that will consistently defend the rights of the racers against attacks from outside organizations – whether it's the UCI, WADA, ASO or anyone that is not a current or former professional. And until such an organization is formed (the ICPT does not count as a rider's union), riders like Jan Ullrich, whether guilty or not, will be spit out of the sport and we will all be left wondering what could have been. More on this issue in a later rant as well.
On a happier note – bike racing returned to Merced, California in the shadows of Yosemite National Park for the newly named Merco Credit Union Cycling Classic presented by McLane Pacific. I was nervous that this event was going to get scratched from the calendar but it is good to see the people at Merco stepping up after McLane Pacific had been running the show for so long. This race has long signified the true beginning of the year for most domestic teams and the Northern California cycling community and it is good to see it sticking around. Merced is an interesting town but there is usually a good turnout for the downtown criterium and the road race is always challenging. Despite the new title sponsor, the race seemed to play out in usual fashion with a few crashes in the crit as everyone tried to notch the early-season victory and lots of wind and tough conditions out on the rolling road course. With a clearly speedy Ivan Dominguez taking out the sprint for Toyota-United in the crit on Saturday and Karl Menzies pulling off the tough-man win for HealthNet in Sunday's road race, the event once again showcased some of the best American racing for this sleepy little town.
A very long way away from California, the Belgian racing campaign began in earnest on Saturday with the running of the Omloop Het Volksemi-classic. Typically horrible conditions made for a great event that saw the admirable duo of Juan-Antonio Flecha and Stuart O'Grady off the front and animating the race near the end. As former teammates Tom Boonen and Nick Nuyens attempted to reel the leaders in, Filippo Pozzatto put in a huge move to close down all the gaps and coast to an impressive victory over the two Belgians. With Philippe Gilbert winning here last year and Pipo Pozzatto taking the victory on Saturday, this event is proving to be a showcase for some pretty classy young riders. Both riders are just in their mid-twenties, have firm leadership roles on their teams, do not seem to be intimidated by the more established names in the peloton and most importantly, seem to be able to win in a few different fashions. Anyway, after Pozzatto's surprise Milan San-Remo victory last year, it is encouraging to see him continue to improve and assume the leadershiprole at Liquigas. They should really do something about those horrendous green and blue striped kits though. Sorry Pipo.
Having finished 3rd in Het Volk, Tom Boonen was not about to go without a "W" for the homeland fans in Belgium and rather calmly won Sunday's edition of Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne. The 2005 World Champion got some good team support from Gert Steegmans and Peter Van Petegem and was easily the fastest finisher in the race. Sometimes when Boonen wins, you kind of get the sense that it is almost pre-determined and the other riders really don't even think they can win. There just seem to be some races where, if he's on form and stays out of trouble, there is almost nothing anyone can do to beat him. He's virtually impossible to drop and he will beat you in the sprint 99 out of 100 times so…yeah, good luck with that everybody. Whether his team is firing for him or he's out there slugging breakaway companions on his own, the guy is just so much more imposing than most other bike racers. For some reason he kind of reminds me of Tom Brady. Maybe it's just the initials but there's that underlying confidence that is rare and comes from having been clutch your entire life. I'll go out on a limb and say that Boonen wins a couple more races this year. Don't say I didn't tell you.
Reluctantly, I feel that I must address the ASO-UCI conflict. Honestly, I can see both points of view but it is obvious that there needs to be a spirit of compromise for the best interest of both parties. While neither is willing to budge much from their stance, it seems that there would have to be recognition of the fact that pursuing a divergent path will not serve either entity and may contribute to a further decline in the overall popularity of both the events and the sport as a whole. Sadly, I don't get the sense that either the UCI or the ASO really understand or respect the long-term damage this could do to cycling.
For example…what would you be thinking right now as a budding junior racer who wanted to join the Pro Tour someday? The drug issues are one thing…but that's a personal choice and something that can be worked through cleanly. The biggest issue for me (putting myself back in that position) would be the lack of security and support provided by the sport's governing bodies. I doubt that any Juniors are thinking about that right now but if I were raising a son or daughter that wanted to be a professional bike racer, I would have some serious questions about the legitimacy and foundation of the sport due to conflicts like this that do not even seem to recognize the interests of the riders themselves.
You know what though? At the end of the day this is about money and nothing else. People are coming up with a lot of other reasons for this on-going issue but it really just boils down to the flow of money. And the worst part about it is that the riders, who have the most to gain or lose professionally, seem to have the weakest voice and most limited means in this whole fiasco. How is the best interest of the sport going to ever be served by those that do not directly represent the riders themselves? It would be like Major League Baseball having a meeting with the Stadium Owners about whether or not to have a season and not inviting anyone from the Players Association to contribute to the conversation.
And speaking of not contributing to the conversation…did anyone else happen to catch the Al Trautwig Cycling Show on Versus Sunday evening? If you did, I am sorry. I hope that you have had a chance to recover and did not break anything valuable. If you did not see this display, let me take a moment to fill you in on what you missed. Not much, other than Trautwig repeatedly calling the UCI the "ICU" among other offenses. Sweet, way to do your research there big guy. I mean, it's only the largest organization in one of the most popular sports in the world. THAT YOU'RE BEING PAID TO TALK ABOUT!!!!!!!!! Pick up a freaking magazine or talk with your co-workers on the show before taping next time huh? That might be a good idea.
I am going to rant here because I find this really difficult to take. First of all, shouldn't the host of a show about cycling actually know something about the sport? And even more importantly, shouldn't said host actually like the sport and not demean it at every turn? How they decided that Al "I don't give a crap about cycling but I'll talk about any sport as long as the check clears" Trautwig was the best resource to intelligently and respectfully moderate a discussion about the current condition of the sport is beyond me. Note to Versus – This guy is LOSING fans for you. He is exactly what most cycling aficionados HATE about mainstream media coverage of the sport. And it doesn't get any more mainstream that Al Trautwig.
To be blunt…the guy is an expert on nothing and has repeatedly diminished the quality of OLN/Versus cycling programming for the last few years. Most of his career has been made on broadcasting marginalized sports – and hopefully deferring to his color guys for insightful and interesting commentary. As a source of information he is, for lack of a better term, worthless. He has never added anything of value to the broadcast and has consistently minimized the expertise of Phil, Paul, Bob and Robbie - all of whom have forgotten more about cycling in the last week than Trautwig has ever known - by interrupting them and being generally arrogant and rude.
Anyway, it's one thing when he hosts race coverage because he's not on the air that much and it is easier to overlook his condescending remarks and insulting jokes about Phil, Paul and Bob. But when they are in the studio and Mr. Trautwig pulls out a performance like the one witnessed on Sunday, it can make the limited coverage of cycling seem like too much, even for a die-hard fan.
Honestly, I was angry after watching the so-called "Season Preview" on Sunday. The "ICU" comments when referring to the UCI were humorous at first, but after the fourth time he used the wrong acronym, I started to lose it. To make matters worse, the rest of the crew didn't even bother to correct him. Throughout the entire hour-long program, there was not one accurate reference made toward the UCI other than when McQuaid gave his little speech about how the ASO is greedy and they put the little UCI graphic under his name. I was hoping Paul or Bob would sack up and call him on it but that never happened. I know that there is a protocol for stepping on people's toes in front of the camera but…they all lost a lot of respect among cycling fans yesterday by not defending the accuracy of the report. This sport has been the victim of misinformation on a regular basis recently and Trautwig's blunders and rudeness only further cloud the accuracy of Versus' coverage and status as a resource for quality reporting.
Seriously, can you imagine a program about football or baseball where the host could actually get away with calling the leading sports organization by the wrong name? Yeah, I sure am tired of all this mumbo jumbo with the FLN and LMB. I know that the Union Cycliste International is a little confusing because it translates differently in English, but to call it the ICU on no fewer than four occasions was inexcusable. Where were the producers? Where were Paul, Bob and Robbie Ventura to correct him? Did they think the viewers wouldn't notice? HOW WAS THAT EVEN REMOTELY ACCEPTABLE?!?! I'm getting angry just thinking about it.
Now, I'm really not a negative guy and I would much rather commend someone for a good performance than bash someone for a bad one but…I have to give the entire Versus crew a big thumbs down for the broadcast on Sunday. Paul seemed to show the most pride and stood up for himself and the sport on a few occasions but for the most part, it was a pretty sad display of cycling commentary.
Even though I am a big Bob Roll fan and think he has one of the more interesting takes on the sport, unfortunately, I have to question his summary of Floyd Landis' defense by claiming that cyclists should not be required to speak eloquently about the sport. It has been my longtime contention that cyclists are among the most intelligent and well-spoken athletes in the world but maybe I'm wrong about that. A legal team making comments for Floyd at this point would be worthless. It's his fight and his name…who would you rather hear from?
As a public personality and author, Bob's assertion that cyclists are not good public speakers was unfortunate and undermines the intelligent voices such as Voigt, Rubiera and many others. If the cyclists that are being the most severely affected cannot make coherent, factual statements, then why would I be inclined to want to hear from anyone else? Ask Mark McGwire how the whole deferment of answers strategy works in the court of public opinion. My guess is "not well."
All in all, the biggest lemon should be tossed at Al Trautwig though. In particular, he made a number of comments directly to Robbie Ventura that would have made a more volatile person stand up and walk off the set. It is a testament to Robbie's class that he didn't rip into Trautwig on a number of occasions. Initially, after the segment on Floyd and his defense, Al asked Robbie, "So how come, all of the sudden, his defense is that his testosterone levels were okay. Why is this just coming out now?" Robbie was polite and started talking about the testing procedure but I started screaming at the television, "He has been saying this for months now!! This is nothing new!! If you read about the case or knew what the hell you were talking about, you would know that this was one of the first things to come out. The T/Eis a ratio…not an absolute value. That's what the T over the E stands for, Merlin. As in T divided by E…in other words…a
Paul then chimed in that he has a degree in Chemistry (I did not know that) and tried to clarify that the numbers were difficult to interpret but…Al was really snotty about the whole Floyd thing. He even introduced the segment by saying something to the effect of, "This is what [Floyd] thinks his defense is." For reference Al, he doesn't THINK it's his defense, it IS his defense…and it's actually a pretty good one if you took the time to educate yourself on it.
The most offensive thing Trautwig said came after a piece on the doping scandals that included a number of rider comments. He started the conversation by stating, "Robbie, part of what you do as far as doping goes is be involved with Floyd Landis" and then went into a question of what "temptations" riders have to cheat. I think Ventura was caught completely offguard. It was just a horrible insinuation and I have to hope that RV had some words with Al after the show. I literally got up off the couch when he said that. That's a lot of nerve right there. And if he was trying be "hard hitting" he needs to recognize that he's likely angering much of his audience and that there is a difference between setting the table for a difficult discussion and making snide comments that lead into a negative question. He's been around long enough to know that.
My primary question to Versus is, "What is gained by using this guy?" I cannot imagine that his presence brings any casual fans to the network and I have yet to meet a single follower of the sport that has anything good to say about him. It was tolerable when he was learning about bike racing and asking some "novice" questions but at this point, he has an attitude and air of knowledge that is terribly misplaced and has begun to openly antagonize the sport and his fellow on-air co-workers. How is this helping? As always, I appreciate the effort by Versus to bring this programming to cycling fans but I cannot fathom how Al Trautwig is helping to bring people to the sport - or retain the viewers that have picked up on it recently.
One of my biggest goals is to increase the amount of people that appreciate the sport of bicycle racing and the many positive attributes of the noblest invention. Therefore I cannot sit idly by while an individual who seemingly has little respect for cycling, repeatedly disrespects it in one of the most visible platforms for the sport in this country. Cycling is in a tough enough Public Relations position right now anyway, the last thing we need is some negative and condescending talking head perpetuating the belief that the sport is a laughing stock.
On second thought, the sentiments that Trautwig has been spouting may be more representative of the Versus viewership than I care to believe. Maybe he's just toeing the company line and catering to all the hunters and bull riders out there who watch the network when they're not trying to run cyclists off the road in their pick 'em up trucks.
Cycling needs intelligent, strong voices that demand respect. Otherwise the hunters and bull riders will win every time and there will be even less cycling coverage on TV. That would be a shame.