Monday, December 29, 2008

Farmer's Tan Almanac - 2008 Edition

As we steadily careen toward the end of 2008, I thought it might be interesting (and ultimately, somewhat depressing) to take a month-by-month look back at the year’s top stories both on and off the bike. After all, if we do not learn from history, we are certainly doomed to repeat it. Are you listening to me UCI and ASO? Somehow I doubt it, but let’s crack open the almanac and see what happened in ’08 anyway.

January 2: The price of petroleum hits $100 per barrel for the first time.

January 18: After much speculation, Rock Racing announces that Mario Cipollini will return to the peloton in the Amgen Tour of California.

January 21: Stock markets around the world plunge amid growing fears of a U.S. recession, fueled by the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis.

January 22-27: Tour Down Under
Andre Greipel and the short-lived black kits of High Road do damage down under and give notice to the cycling world that they will be a force in 2008.

February 4: Iran opens its first space center and launches a rocket to space.

February 17-24: Amgen Tour of California
After being informed that Astana would not be invited to the Tour de France, Levi Leipheimer defends his 2007 victory with a convincing win in the TT.

February 19: Fidel Castro announces his resignation as President of Cuba.

March 9-16: Paris-Nice
Davide Rebellin finally wins the Race to the Sun after a stunning downhill attack which leaves young Robert Gesink on the verge of soiling himself.

March 19: An exploding star halfway across the visible universe becomes the farthest known object ever visible to the naked eye.

March 22: Milano-Sanremo
Fabian Cancellara rips away from the final group and holds on to claim yet another Classic in remarkable fashion.

April 6: Ronde van Vlaanderen/Tour of Flanders
Stijn Devolder attacks with 25k to go and does the Belgian National Champs jersey proud with a stunning solo victory.

April 9: Gent-Wevelgem
Oscar Freire proves yet again that he is a force to be reckoned with and handily takes the mid-week semi-Classic in his usual un-Spanish style.

April 13: Paris-Roubaix
Tom Boonen finds the moves and easily outsprints Cancellara and Ballan to take his second Hell of the North victory before an unfortunate night on the town.

April 20: Amstel Gold Race
Damiano Cunego wins a small bunch sprint at the end of his very first Amstel Gold Race and claims his first Spring Classic victory.

April 22: Surgeons at London's Moorfields Eye Hospital perform the first operations using bionic eyes, implanting them into two blind patients.

April 27: The Taliban attempts to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a military parade in Kabul.

April 27: Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Alejandro Valverde takes his second Liège after the Schleck Brothers and Rebellin fail to distance themselves from the Spaniard before the finish.

May 3: Over 133,000 in Burma/Myanmar are killed by Cyclone Nargis, the deadliest natural disaster since the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004.

May 10 - June 1: Giro d’Italia
Alberto Contador angrily comes off the beach to defeat a bunch of guys who would later be caught up in doping scandals and adds the maglia rosa to his growing collection of Grand Tour winners jerseys.

May 12: Over 69,000 are killed in central southwest China by the Chengdu quake, an earthquake measuring 8.0Mw. The epicenter is 90 kilometers west-northwest of the provincial capital Chengdu, Sichuan province.

June 8: Philadelphia International Championship / Philly Week
Matti Breschel wins in Philly after Metlushenko and Sevilla ride away with the early-week prizes. Teutenberg and the High Road Ladies dominate as usual.

June 8: In the Akihabara area of Tokyo, Japan, a 25-year old man stabs 7 to death and wounds 10, before being arrested.

June 8-15: Dauphine Libere
Alejandro Valverde surprisingly defeats Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer in the TT to win his first stage race outside of Spain.

June 10: Fire engulfs Sudan Airways Flight 109 after landing in Khartoum, killing 44.

July 7: A suicide-bomber drives an explosives-laden automobile into the front gates of the Indian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 58 and injuring over 150.

July 5 - 27: Tour de France
Carlos Sastre and CSC outmaneuver Cadel Evans, Christian Vande Velde and a bunch of dopers to win his first yellow jersey.

July 25: A series of seven bomb blasts rock Bangalore, India killing 2 and injuring 20 and on the next day, a series of bomb blasts in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, kills 45 and injures over 160 people.

July 27: At least 17 are killed and over 154 wounded in two blasts in Istanbul.

July 28: At least 48 are dead and over 287 injured after bombs explode in Baghdad and Kirkuk, Iraq.

August 7: The 2008 South Ossetia war begins as Georgia and Russia launch a major offensive inside the separatist region of South Ossetia after days of border skirmishes between the two sides.

August 8-24: Beijing Olympics
Sammy Sanchez and Nicole Cooke take the Road Race while Fabian Cancellara and Kristin Armstrong are the fastest in the Time Trial.

August 28 – September 7: Hurricane Hanna causes 7 deaths in the United States, and 529 in Haiti mostly due to floods and mudslides.

August 30 - September 21:
Vuelta a Espana
Alberto Contador takes revenge after being left out of the Tour and narrowly edges teammate Leipheimer to collect his third Grand Tour in as many tries.

August 31: USPRO Road Championships
Tyler Hamilton nips Blake Caldwell by centimeters to take home the Stars and Stripes jersey after a few dark years.

September 10: The proton beam is circulated for the first time in the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest and the highest-energy particle accelerator, located at CERN, near Geneva, under the Franco-Swiss border.

September 8-14: Tour of Missouri
Christian Vande Velde and the Garmin-Chipotle squad finally gets the win and fends off a ferocious Columbia team which leads Mark Cavendish to multiple easy sprint victories.

September 12: A Metrolink train collides head-on into a freight train in Los Angeles, California, killing 25 and injuring 130.

September 28: World Road Championships
Allessandro Ballan and Nicole Cooke take home the rainbow jerseys in the Road Race.

September 30: A Jodhpur temple stampede in western India kills over 224 people, and injures 400.

October 3: U.S. President George W. Bush signs the revised Emergency Economic Stabilization Act into law, creating a 700 billion dollar Treasury fund to purchase failing bank assets.

October 12: Paris-Tours
Philippe Gilbert gets it right after some near misses and foils the sprinters with a daring attack.

October 18: Giro di Lombardia
Damiano Cunego wins another Race of the Falling Leaves as the peloton begins to show signs of fatigue after a busy year.

October 21: The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is officially inaugurated. It is a collaboration of over 10,000 scientists and engineers from over 100 countries as well as hundreds of universities and laboratories.

November 1-2: Boulder Cup
Todd Wells and Tim Johnson take the Saturday and Sunday events respectively, while Georgia Gould dominates both women’s races.

November 4: In the United States presidential election, Barack Obama is elected the 44th President of the United States and Joe Biden is elected the 47th Vice President. Obama becomes the first African-American President-elect.

December 14: Cyclocross Nationals
Ryan Trebon gets his second Stars and Stripes jersey and Katie Compton makes it five of the last five National titles.

December 27: Israel initiates a series of airstrikes against the Gaza Strip, killing at least 312 (including 56 civilians) and wounding over 1,500.

Well, so there you have 2008. Ugh. I hate to end things on a bad note but hey, this is the world we live in and hopefully this type of reflection helps confirm just how good most of us who follow the sport of cycling have it. We are certainly fortunate and let’s all hope for the best in 2009. The world can use all the help it can get.

Happy New Year Everyone.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Totally Memorable Moments of 2008

What better way to reflect on a few of the most memorable moments and developments of the 2008 cycling season than by drawing some comparisons to memorable quotes from a few 80’s movies? Wait…don’t answer that. There are probably a number of better ways. Regardless, I thought such an effort might be interesting. The result follows…

“I've been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I'm no dummy. I know high school girls.” - Charles, Better Off Dead

It is safe to say that Carlos Sastre was like the older guy who used years of experience to capitalize on the opportunity hook up with the head cheerleader/Alpe d’Huez before going on to take the Prom Queen/Yellow Jersey back to the hotel/Paris and the record books.

In the end, Big Papa Sastre was the only guy in the mix who actually seemed like he had a plan and was “tranquilo” for the whole race. He was the only one who handled it all like he knew exactly what he was doing. While Evans was losing his marbles, hitting cameras and spending too much time listening to Rockwell, Menchov was hindered by bad luck and descending skills, and Vande Velde couldn’t even believe he was there with the leaders, Carlos/Charlie was no dummy, and finally got the job done in the biggest way possible. Next up, K-12.


“Disturbing the peace? I got thrown out of a window! What's the f-ing charge for getting pushed out of a moving car, huh? Jaywalking?” – Axel Foley, Beverly Hills Cop

Levi Leipheimer was a mad guy at Tour of California. News had just come from ASO that LL’s Astana team would not be extended an invitation to the Tour de France and the defending champion of the ToC was all business…and some revenge too. Similar to Axel’s window experience outside Victor Maitland’s office, Levi was suddenly feeling the strong-arm of a European guy in a suit and was not about to just take it without a fight.

I was fortunate enough to be at the TT in Solvang and have never seen someone as hyped-up as LL-Cool-Heimer on the start ramp. It was kind of freaky actually. He was huffing and puffing and looked like his eyes were going to burn a hole through his Specialized sunglasses. It reminded me of how the guys from World’s Strongest Man Competition get all crazy before they pull a tractor with their teeth or something. If it weren’t for the skinsuit and 300lb weight differential, you would have thought it was Magnus Ver Magnusson up there holding off Cancellara. Millar and Vande Velde.


“I must break you.” – Ivan Drago, Rocky IV

Fabian Cancellara’s win in Milan-Sanremo was probably my favorite race of the year. I wrote about it a bit earlier, but it’s worth repeating that his move at the end of the race was as close to my vision of a perfect victory as I have ever seen in real life. You know, that sequence of events that you play in your head when you’re out on a ride and imagine yourself bursting out of the pack and holding them off over the last few desperate kilometers?

Well, F-Can just basically stepped up like Drago to the peloton’s hapless Apollo Creed in Milan-Sanremo. There was such a shocking difference in strength that normal tactics never even entered the picture and the race was over before anyone even knew what happened, with the sprinters lying unconscious, twitching on the canvas as Cancellara and Brigitte Nielsen walked away with the victory. “If he dies, he dies.”


“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Similar to Levi in California, Alberto Contador raced the entire season with a huge chip on his shoulder courtesy of ASO. This was certainly the case at the Giro d’Italia. After getting the call from Johan while chilling on the beach doing the Macarena, Bert came into Italy ready to put a whupping on the entire sport.

Substitute “father” with “relaxing vacation on the beach” in the above quote and you basically have the Spanish Spider Monkey’s repeated declaration to the rest of the field at the Giro d’Italia. Substitute “father” with “chance to repeat my Tour victory” a little later in the year and you have his war cry at the Vuelta.


“Relax, would you? We have seventy dollars and a pair of girls underpants. We're safe as kittens.” – Farmer Ted, Sixteen Candles

“Les jeux sont faits. Translation: the game is up. Your ass is mine.” – Ed Rooney, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

This sequence of quotes seems to sum up the most depressing part of the entire year - the multiple high-profile CERA-related doping cases at the Tour de France. There had to be a similar process by which Ricco, Piepoli, Schumacher, Kohl and everyone else actually thought they were going to sneak through the controls, tried to relax and enjoy the party but were ultimately nailed by Ed Rooney, Dean of Students and Dope Testing.

The parallels of these quotes and the whole doping scene are endless. For example, would Farmer Ted have had the most amazing night of his life before waking up in the back seat of a Rolls Royce with the hottest girl in school if he had not mistakenly thought that he and his dopey friends were safe from harm before they entered the party at Jake Ryan’s house?

And come to think of it, is there a better symbol of the anti-doping system than Ed Rooney? I mean, at the heart of his job is a strong desire to make sure everyone follows the rules. Nothing wrong with that, right? Right.

But unfortunately, sometimes the whole process of enforcing the rules gets a little out of hand and you occasionally end up with a guy like Rooney who turns it into a personal vendetta against those he is trying to control. This never works out well for anyone, although I would probably prefer Ed’s dog attack and subsequent beatdown by Jennifer Grey to a courtroom battle against the Anti-Doping Establishment. At least he had a brief chance against the Dirty Dancer. But if you go up against an "-ADA" of any kind, it's pretty much "Pucker up Buttercup."


“You using the whole fist, Doc?” – Irwin M. Fletcher (as Arnold Babar), Fletch

Depending on how you view Tyler Hamilton’s victory at the USPRO Championship, you may find it easier to identify with either Dr. Dolan or Fletch in this uncomfortably funny examination scene. Even though neither position is desirable at all, I guess it’s better to be the guy with pants than the guy without pants. As Seinfeld says, “Pants always beats no-pants.”

So whether you think that Tyler stuck it to everyone that has stuck it to him or not, the fact remains that he is now the guy with the Stars & Stripes jersey (pending Rock Racing actually racing in 2009) and seems to have reclaimed a more pleasant position than the one he had been in for the last few years. “Whew, you ever serve time, Doc?”


“He went from totally geek to totally chic.” – One of the Brunette girls, Can’t Buy Me Love

Even though Slipstream had some decent results in the Spring (including Maaskant’s remarkable ride in Paris-Roubaix), it wasn’t until they won the Team Time Trial at the Giro d’Italia that they really forced the media to take note and prepare for the publicity onslaught that accompanied the lead-up to the Tour.

Little did we know that the formerly overlooked Christian Vande Velde was beginning to make a Ronald Miller-esque jump in reputation and results after briefly donning la maglia rosa and going on to sit at the cool clique’s table at the Tour a few months later. Apparently he kept mowing Cindy Mancini’s lawn because the former Boulder-ite then went on to fend off a ferocious Columbia team in Missouri while Courtney Gains, the creepy red-headed friend looked sadly at the podium from the back of the crowd.


“Who put this thing together? Me, that's who! Who do I trust? Me!” – Tony Montana, Scarface

We all know that Fabian Cancellara likes to fancy himself as both Spartacus and Tony Montana but I wonder if Kristin Armstrong doesn’t have a poster of Scarface somewhere in her house as well. Regardless of film taste, the reality is that by winning gold medals in Beijing after multiple previous world titles, both Armstrong and Cancellara have clearly displayed the single-minded self-confidence to go out and master the toughest test in bike racing. It could be argued that the road Time Trial is the ultimate display of personal strength and mental fortitude, although perhaps Tony might make a case that creating a drug empire is higher on the list. Maybe we can get Dr. Fuentes’ opinion?


“There is no Dana, there is only Zuul.” – Dana Barrett, Ghost Busters

The other thing that is interesting about Cancellara is that he seems so balanced and happy off the bike, but is clearly a cold-hearted monster while on it. The same can be said for Armstrong, whom I have had the pleasure to meet a few times and is extremely nice and pleasant. I am sure that they have focused and driven personalities off the bike but both riders seem absolutely possessed when they get on it. Much like Dana (Sigourney Weaver) in Ghost Busters, it’s like they turn into Zuul the Gatekeeper when they get on those Cervelos and go after the finish line like it’s a demonic refrigerator or something.

“There are three rules that I live by: never get less than twelve hours sleep; never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; and never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body. Now you stick to that, and everything else is cream cheese.” – Coach Finstock, Teen Wolf

If Teen Wolf had been made in 2008, the final thing on Coach Finstock’s list would have been “never get into a field sprint with Mark Cavendish.” Because much as Scott Howard was unstoppable on the basketball court when he was The Wolf, Cav was not to be beaten when he got a whiff of the finish line this past year.

Although Cavendish was remarkably fast, it should be noted that he had had the distinct benefit of a much stronger team than Michael J. Fox. I mean, besides being an average of about 35 years old, the Beavers were a pretty feeble group to begin with. The 37 year-old fat guy character was even eating a sandwich during some of the games. What’s that about, Chubs? Enjoy the show man, you’re playing hoops with a freaking werewolf! And killing everyone! And no one seems to care that you have a werewolf on your team! Appreciate this while it lasts! I don’t recall Hincapie or Ciolek snacking during a lead out. Although Melanie’s husband does kind of look a little like Mick, the 33 year old guy who played for the Dragons.


“Daniel LaRusso is gonna fight?” – Official at the All-Valley Karate Tournament, Karate Kid

This was basically what I said when I heard that Lance Armstrong was going to come back to professional road racing. It was pretty much the same thought process. You know, come on man, haven’t you proved yourself enough? It’s okay, we know you competed against some bad guys and all but let’s just stay safe and spend some more time with Elizabeth Shue or whoever McConaughey brings over okay?

But LA has a little Cobra Kai in him too and may have begun to miss leading chants of “Strike first, Strike hard, No Mercy, Sir!” I just hope that he learns from the trainwreck that was Karate Kid 3 and doesn’t show up looking like someone wearing a Ralph Macchio fat suit. Somehow I don’t foresee that being a concern but then again, it’s got to be tough to stay hungry when you've done it all before and have it all at your fingertips. Why do you think they had to get Hilary Swank for the 4th Karate Kid installment?

But if the 2009 season plays out anything like the final fight scene between Daniel and Johnny at the All-Valley Tournament, then you can bet I’ll be one of the people cheering like crazy from the side of the mat. Anybody but the “Put him in a body bag!” guy, that is. I always hated that guy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Reading Between The Headlines...Again

We’ll go over some fairly recent thoughts on some fairly recent headlines shortly, but in the meantime…

I attended the Garmin-Slipstream Team Presentation a few weeks ago in what I hope will become an annual tradition here in town. It was certainly a fun event but after being at the Boulder Theatre for the first Slipstream-Chipotle (keep up with the name changes, please) shindig last year, it seemed a little tame in comparison. Instead of last year's “Hey, we’re all a little/severely faded and really excited to be racing in such an interesting environment” kind of vibe, the 2009 Team Presentation was far more serious in declaring the need for more W’s in the coming year. And I don’t mean Wiggins. Wiggins's's.

Speaking B-Wiggs...I am still trying to figure him out. First of all, the guy’s haircut is so unbelievably bad that it must have cost him hundreds of dollars. It sounds kind of counter-intuitive, but I figure that the worst looking haircuts actually tend to cost the most. Think about it. I mean, there is no way that someone would walk into a Cost Cutters, get butchered and walk out looking like Bradley Wiggins without demanding their money back and thinking that their barber was drunk. But...if you go into some fancy pants Salon in London and the “Stylist” tells you that the chainsaw look is super hot right now – you (or Bradley Wiggins) probably shell out the $200 and walk out the door thinking you’re the Shiz.

Anyway, B-Could Use Some-Wiggs also failed to endear himself to the crowd during the presentation by jokingly referring to Boulder as Kansas City. Twice (Don't think I didn't catch both times). Not the best choice there, mate. It was probably a better choice than Dallas but still – I think the humor was lost on most of us when he started trying to act like Boulder was not The English Speaking Bike Mecca. Besides, Gold medals are a dime a dozen in this town Son, you better recognize. But most importantly, this is where they print your checks.

Other highlights of the evening included Dave Towle rocking the mic, Julian Dean, Matty White and David Millar all walking up into the balcony to say hi to Tyler Hamilton before the show started, DZ extolling the virtues of “The Google” and Vaughters wearing a Lucy t-shirt instead of a turtleneck sweater. Good times.

Now I will regurgitate and ramble on some recent stories circulating the cycling scene:

Fraud Factory

In financial news, it seems that the U.S. may not control the market on massive corporate evilness after all. In a stunning, yet fascinatingly Hollywood-esque turn of events, it appears that the former CEO of IT Factory (the former co-sponsor of the former CSC cycling team, former winner of the Tour de France) may have embezzled anywhere from $85-$140M from the Danish company. After mysteriously vanishing during a trip to Dubai, Stein "T" Bagger eventually showed up in Los Angeles (of course) and turned himself in to Taggart and Rosewood from Beverly Hills Cop.

Detective Axel Foley has reportedly been called in from Detroit to handle the case but said that Bagger will probably just be shipped directly to Bjarne Riis’ house – where he will almost certainly be killed.

Wii Game Apparently More Challenging Than Pro Field Sprinting

In a story that should only involve Major League Baseball players, sprinting sensation Mark Cavendish apparently injured his calf while playing a snowboarding game on his Wii recently. Upon further investigation, it was acknowledged that Cavendish had been operating the video game on the extremely dangerous “Abdujaparov-Level” despite Bob Stapleton requesting that he keep it on the far safer “Bennati-Level” during the offseason. Reports that the team has placed a bounty on Shaun White are unconfirmed.

Although similar, this story is far less noteworthy than the tragic “I Thought We Were Playing Duck Hunt” incident involving Greg LeMond and his Brother-in-Law back in 1987. Video games sure have come a long way since then.

Frank Schleck Did Not Inhale

Apparently Frank Schleck has done nothing wrong. OK. Apparently he wired many thousands of Euros to Eufemanio Fuentes a few months before winning the Amstel Gold Race out of the kindness of his heart and the desire to unload a little excess cash for a few good training tips. OK. Apparently when you pay many thousands of Euros to a drug dealer in another country, there is no legal way to determine that the money was actually for...well, anything. OK. Apparently Frank Schleck wants us to believe that he never got anything other than some training advice in return for his many, many thousands of Euros. Eh… Apparently he also thinks that we are not paying attention. And are not very smrt. Not smrt at all.

I hear Marion Barry is going to run for office in Luxembourg.

Rock Racing Will Do Whatever It Wants To Do…For A Little While

Someone may want to take the stack of jeans off of that big binder with “UCI Regulations” written on it that has been collecting dust in the back of Rock Racing’s Escalade for the last couple of years. It seems that Michael Ball may have been a little too ambitious with the roster for 2009 and the team has been forced to cut a number of racers from its Continental squad in order to meet UCI age and rider limits. D’oh! I know there are lots of big words in the Rule Book and precious little information on denim stitching but…this does not reflect well.

“Sorry guys…we were told there would be no math. Bummer that we gave all the good spots to a bunch of sketchy foreigners but have fun doing the local crit series and cheering for us at all the big races that you can’t do now. Rock On!”

I guess it’s a good thing they don’t have to keep a spot open for The Tat anymore.

Plaxico Burress vs Tom Boonen

Question: What would happen if Tom Boonen carried an illegal, loaded handgun into a club and then proceeded to accidentally shoot himself through the thigh while sitting at a table with numerous other patrons?

Answer: The entire country of Belgium would go on strike for a week, Boonen would be immediately thrown in jail, banned from cycling for the foreseeable future and his parents house would probably be burned to the ground within hours.

Question: What would happen if Plaxico Burress was caught in an out-of-competiton test for having done some recreational party drugs while at a club and had some minor traffic violations in his Lamborghini?

Answer: No one would think twice and he would be given a five-year, $27M contract extension.

Perhaps I need to write NFL vs UCI Part Deux now. Hey, does anyone know where I can score some Star Caps?

Amore & Vita signs Chad Gerlach, Amy Winehouse and Gary Busey

I had the terrible misfortune of watching a portion of Gerlach’s Intervention show a while ago and am really confused by the fact that he will be racing professionally while so many other excellent racers and more importantly, excellent human beings are going without contracts in 2009. While I respect the desire to help people overcome past problems, as it seems R-Gag and AV/McDonalds are claiming, I cannot get over some concerns that the sport would be better served by giving that roster slot to a young rider or a veteran who has made better life choices. I’m all for redemption but not at the expense of those who have been consistently positive influences on others.

Then again, maybe they were smoking crack when they designed that horrendous, white and red kit and are looking for someone to sympathize with them.

Where’s The American Beef?

In slightly sad news, Fuji-Servetto has replaced Scott-American Beef as the sponsor-driven name of the artists formerly known as Saunier Duval. The cycling world certainly did not get enough time to enjoy listening to Phil Liggett say things like “American Beef is being dropped” or “The American Beef riders are gathering at the head of the field.”

After all, nothing says bike racing like a Mexican-based meat-packing conglomerate. Alas, farewell American Beef, we hardly knew ye.

Astana The World Turns

On a final note, I am still waiting to hear back from someone in Hollywood regarding my idea for a reality show about Astana. I am also working on a script for a daily soap opera called Astana The World Turns but haven’t sold the rights yet. Maybe I should be shopping this around in Spain? Anyone? I swear it will be better than Dancing With The Stars or Flavor of Love.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mea Culpa and Post-Pura Vida Syndrome

Okay, before going over some recent cycling news events, I must apologize to Roberto Gaggioli after mistaking another driver for him a few weeks ago. Apparently, he was not the culprit on I-70. I am very sorry for the misidentification but I swear there is a Dopple-Gaggioli-Ganger in an Audi out there getting speeding tickets. Mea culpa RG.

Anyway, after spending the last few weeks driving through Costa Rica, there will be no complaining about U.S. drivers any time soon. I truly love Costa Rica and the Ticos are overwhelmingly nice and courteous people but…one could argue that the driving conditions often leave a little something to be desired.

First of all, the roads themselves are almost always dangerously twisty and narrow. Adding to the frightening effect are strategically placed potholes as well as numerous pedestrians and dogs who are deceptively good at keeping you nervous by hiding any recognition that there is a huge metal vehicle whipping past them by inches. The fact that we were driving in a Suzuki Jimny (the smaller, wobblier successor to the old Samurai – I don’t even think they are allowed to sell them in the U.S.) which seemed on the verge of rolling over when sticking my arm out the window, let alone when swerving to avoid a group of school children or pothole, did not enhance any sense of safety.

But these things are trivial compared to the awe-inspiring madness of Costa Rican drivers. I say this out of both fear and respect because I have not been able to fully resolve the lingering psychological effects of my experiences on the road with them yet. They were at once and almost universally, life-threateningly aggressive yet oddly aware and polite, while being hyper-impatient and blissfully unconcerned with the future at the same time. Fascinating in retrospect, frightening in the moment. Oh, and it was also quickly determined that traffic laws are not really “rules” so much as mere “suggestions” about how to avoid killing yourself.

For example, it was not unusual to have a huge bus full of tourists, or an old pick-up truck, or a rusted out Datsun, or a cement truck come roaring up behind us at anywhere from 20-70kph over the speed limit and then just go right over the double-yellow lines into the oncoming lane and then back around us without even touching the brakes. Occasionally, the cars in the oncoming lanes would have to slow down or swerve to avoid the passing vehicle but amazingly, I rarely saw anyone get upset about it. In fact, after witnessing about 200 offenses that would likely result in roadside beatings back in the States, I can’t remember more than a few unsavory gestures or honks. And most of those involved me.

Basically, it seems like everyone in Costa Rica is trying to get to a fire. Speed limits and road conditions are evidently not deemed significant if they impede one from passing any and every vehicle in front of them as quickly as possible. But here’s where the Ticos trick you. Because just when you start to think that maybe the guy who darted into oncoming traffic on a blind corner before a one-lane bridge to get around you (when you are already doing 20kph over the posted speed limit) is actually responding to some kind of emergency, then he is just as likely to abruptly pull over to say a polite hello to a friend or kindly give someone a ride somewhere as if time had no significance whatsoever. Truly amazing.

Anyhow, after successfully negotiating a tire-slashing and near-mugging in San Jose, another flat on the drive from Arenal to Tamarindo, far too many unsettling miles on crazy dirt roads without a spare, a few dozen “This can’t possibly be right” utterances and a near-nervous breakdown on the highway/demolition derby outside of Escazu, I have come back to the relative weirdness of life in Boulder and some rather interesting news stories in the cycling world.

Sadly, I have come home to find that both Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl tested positive for CERA during the Tour. I had a sense that there was something Fishy about Kohl and have long been suspicious of Stoolmacher, but it was still depressing to get confirmation of their deviance from the retro-vampires.

I keep getting flashes of them, as well as Ricco and Piepoli, up on the podium, happily accepting flowers and jerseys like they had done nothing wrong. It’s pretty disturbing to imagine what was (or wasn’t) racing through their brains as they reconciled their dope-driven success. They all seemed rather pleased with themselves, although it’s hard to imagine how they could have slept at night out of both guilt and anxiety. Especially after they knew that a test had been developed for CERA. I wonder how many other riders are waiting nervously for more results to be confirmed from the Tour and the Olympics.

There is a dull sense of satisfaction that the cheaters are eventually getting caught, although one can't help but wonder how different the 2008 Tour would have been without Ricco, Piepoli, Schumacher and Kohl in the mix. It’s one thing to remove names from the record books but the reality is that the dynamic of the race is often being dictated by riders who end up getting popped later on. I wonder if there isn’t a subtle subconscious tactic of minimizing reactions to certain “suspicious” riders with the unspoken hope that they will get caught positive at some point later on.

In other news, it seems that Alberto Contador is staying with Astana for 2009. This is pretty surprising on the surface and contradicts what most followers assumed the Spaniard would do upon the confirmation of Lance Armstrong’s return to cycling. Many predicted that Contador would be too insulted to stay on board and jump ship to another team in which he would be the unquestioned leader. It’s bad enough having Levi Leipheimer nipping at your heels from inside the team bus, but can you imagine an alpha-biker battle with Lance while Bruyneel is directing? Kind of a LeMond/Hinault remake?

But as it stands now, there is question as to whether LA will even ride the Tour, perhaps opting to focus on the Giro instead. Regardless, Contador is either confident that he will be the outright leader for the Tour or he realized that he has as good a shot or better to win somehow with Astana (either with or against Armstrong) than he would on any other team anyway. It may be more awkward this way but considering his options, he probably made the right decision.

AC is the real deal athletically and has a lot of subtle psychological similarities to Lance. The whole “recovery from near-death” thing seems like a rather strong unifying force. For the record, I’m still intrigued by the possible effects of Contador’s brain surgeries on his nervous system and pain threshold. If I recall from my numerous Psych classes…brain surgeries are kind of serious (sarcasm) and often carry the potential for emotional and neuro-chemical changes in the patient. I have no idea if this is a factor for Contador in particular, but I think it is a rather interesting consideration regarding performance enhancement in general. Isn’t there a legend that Jens Voigt somehow had his pain receptors removed back in Germany when he was younger? Or was that Chuck Norris?

Anyway, with the possibility of Contador, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Kloden (pending T-Mobile revelations permitting…) and the whole fleet of mercenaries behind them, Astana is going to be rather fearsome in 2009. I am reserving any judgment on the team for the time being and will just simply try to enjoy the show. It should be entertaining at the very least. If there was ever an opportunity for HBO to chronicle a cycling team for a year – this would be it. Come on, jumping from LA to Contador to Levi to Horner to Eki to Bruyneel, it would be reality television GOLD. Gold, I tell ya. Are there any T.V. execs out there reading?

I continue to be somewhat conflicted about the return of Ivan Basso to the pro peloton. While his admission/non-admission of involvement with Fuentes and Operacion Puerto was nearly Clintonian in its boldfaced claims of misguided innocence, one cannot overlook the fact that he has served his time under the current rules and has a right to race again. I can only assume that having to wear that horrendous Liquigas kit is some kind of cosmic retribution for past deeds.

Speaking of unfortunate kits, it seems that Lampre caught fire at the end of the season with victories at the World Championships with Alessandro Ballan and the Tour of Lombardy with Damiano Cunego. Perhaps the thought of being able to wear the rainbow jersey instead of the pink and blue was all the extra motivation Ballan needed to stay away? I also wonder if Cunego had his much-publicized “I Am Doping Free” tattoo covered up with one that says “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” in honor of his Fresh Prince nickname.

Well, there were a lot of other interesting things that happened while I was living la Pura Vida and improving my road rally driving skills, but maybe we’ll save the rest of them for the Year End Review or something. It's cross season now. Te Mucho Gusto.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Vacation - La Pura Vida

Without getting too personal, many interesting developments have taken place recently which may lead to new and exciting adventures. But regardless, I'm going to be on the beach and in the rainforest for the next few weeks and will catch up later.


Until then...here's a video clip I took of the U.S.A Crit Finals held in the parking lot of Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas during Interbike. Much beer was consumed by the crowd and many pairs of shorts were ruined by the crashes which seemed to take place on nearly every lap. Now the camera will be used to film monkeys, volcanoes and some solid surf.

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And here's Phil getting interviewed by another guy. Such a cool guy. Where's Paul?

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Peace.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Interbike 2008 - Recalling The Chaos

Having recovered from my first Interbike experience, I am now emotionally ready to provide a personal account of the event. There are always a lot of tech reviews associated with Interbike but I have found very few descriptions of what it's actually like at the expo and events in Las Vegas. Well...now I know for myself. And it was way better than Vegas Vacation - which should have never happened.

First of all, it should be noted that Interbike attendees are rather conspicuous in Sin City. Generally speaking, it is rather easy to determine who is affiliated with the show from the regular Vegas folk. For example, I found myself getting a little lost after departing the shuttle at The Venetian and ended up finding a guy with expensive sunglasses and bright colored running shoes who kindly directed me through the secret Harrah's route. I was thinking about asking the elderly couple with matching velour sweat suits or the group of dangerously inebriated (at 10:30 in the morning) guys in tank tops and Tap Out shirts where Interbike was located...but I guess I made the right choice with the guy who dressed like me. Go figure.

So...after navigating the bowels of The Sands Expo Center and gathering my "media" pass from CZ at MissingSaddle.com, it was up the staircase to Ground Zero of the Biker Sensory Overload Zone. The lobby of the event had a number of pro bikes on display which only served as a brief teaser of the overwhelming two-wheeled coolness which would be experienced on the other side of the doors.

According to the event guide, Interbike had "over 1,000 brands" but it seemed like there were twice that many. Regardless, it was actually bigger than I had anticipated. There is a premium on marketing within the cycling industry and it was clear that many companies were making significant efforts to portray themselves well at his event - as were many of the other attendees with expensive glasses and bright shoes.

It was particularly interesting to note the unique charactersitics of the various factions within the industry. For example, the BMX and Downhill companies probably didn't use the same marketing consultant as Campagnolo or Cervelo. I also don't see a Campy trucker hat or line of punk-soundtracked crash videos coming anytime soon. I can't think of many sports that have such demographic diversity.

One of the cool things about Interbike is that it provides an opportunity to see not only sweet gear but also a number of high (and low) profile current and former riders as well. There are few sports which provide as many post-career possibilities for athletes as cycling. However, if the above photo of Maurizio Fondriest is any indication, he'd probably rather be riding that limited edition bike than conducting business in Las Vegas.

While there is certainly a focus on product, it is clear that Interbike serves largely as a business and networking opportunity. There were over 10,000 registered "buyers" at the event which makes for an interesting commercial dynamic between the exhibitors and most of the attendees. There is also a corresponding spectrum of activity ranging from the hustle and bustle of the Shimano Sector to the relative calm of the Taiwanese handlebar tassle and bell maker. It takes all kinds at Interbike.

Speaking of doing business, there are rumors that Rock Racing has begun talks with Johan Museeuw as a Director for 2009. I did not make that assumption when I took this photo of Fast Freddie and the Belgian but...somehow it seems to fit in an odd way. Regardless, I think Rodriguez scored himself a nice frame during the conversation.

I first saw Museeuw in the Media Center lounge and it actually took me a second to recognize him. It's interesting that I can pick out riders moving in a pack at 30 mph but can hardly recognize the same guys in street clothes. One would think that glasses and a helmet actually serve to diguise one's identity but it doesn't work that way in cycling. Combine that with the fact that most of the people in the road cycling industry actually look and dress like professional racers...and it becomes even harder to determine who people are in an off-the-bike setting like Interbike.

There were obviously a lot of amazing bikes on display but I found myself drawn to the "race-ridden" rigs such as Bradley Wiggins' Dolan pictured above. It is interesting to see how the bikes are set up and to get a better sense of how they are positioned. I was very surprised when looking at Santiago Botero's Rock Racing Fuji to see that he rides almost the same size bike as Tyler Hamilton.

One of the hardest things about Interbike is trying to stay focused. I kept trying to develop a plan, looking at the exhibitor list and map, picking out people or things I wanted to see. But I would inevitably get sidetracked by something bright or shiny, change directions and end up walking around like I was in a labyrinth. I know some of the exhibitors must have thought I was stalking them as I wandered past their booth over and over again, feebly attempting to make my way to another location without getting distracted. Easier said than done.

While wandering the isles, Interbike provides attendees with an opportunity to confirm or challenge some preconceived notions about style and technology. For example, in addition to determining that I like steel bikes more than anything, I was also able to verify that Valverde's "Don Alejandro" Pinarello may have been an admirable concept but is flat-out ugly in real life. I knew that from earlier photos and video but it was nice to have physical confirmation of its heinousness.

On a related side-note, I was disappointed in the amount of Italian steel frames on display. I understand that there is value in the development of carbon fiber, but there is simply nothing sweeter to my eye than an elaborately lugged steel racing bicycle. There were some token track bikes and stuff but the coolest steel frames are now being made by smaller builders and not the old Italian classics. In fact, the Anniversary edition, chrome-lugged Schwinn Paramount may have been my favorite bike in the whole place. Who knew?

Another pro bike on display was Damiano Cunego's Wilier shown above. Again, I was startled by how tiny it was but pleased that it was an understated black-and-white rig, thankfully devoid of any Lampre pink or blue. The rep saw me checking the bike out, walks over and goes, "Damiano Cunego's Control."

To which I laughed and responded, "Ms. Cunego if you're nasty."

After realizing that he was not as familiar with Janet Jackson as I had assumed, I politely thanked him for his time and walked away covering the name on my show badge. In retrospect, I should have kept that one on the inside. Maybe a Fresh Prince joke would have been better.

I could go on about what it was like to attend Interbike...so I guess I will. Just not right now. The next installment will hopefully include some video of the rather fascinating Mandalay Bay Parking Lot Criterium which took place on Thursday evening. Good times...unless you were racing.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Caution: Biker Behind The Wheel

Recently Recounted Random Tale You May Or May Not Find Interesting:

A couple weeks ago C-Mac and I decided to cruise up to Glenwood Springs to do a little canyon riding. As we’re heading west through the Rockies, this little, scraggly-haired guy in an Audi with two bikes in the back comes tearing up the slow lane on I-70 at about 100mph, only to maniacally swerve within 5 feet of my front bumper and back into the left lane when his path was cut by a truck going 50.

After a rare F-Bomb by yours truly, C-Mac (in an even rarer display of disgust) goes, "What a Bleep."

To which I immediately respond, "I think that was Roberto Gaggioli. I knew he was kind of crazy but...wow. I bet he gets pulled over. I guess he drives like he used to race."

After a couple more choice exchanges, I then educated C-Mac on R-Gag's career and how he was one of the first Italians I could recall that came over and feasted on American Crits back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Rocking red shoes and looking more like the lead singer for RATT than a professional bike racer, R-Gag tore it up back in the day. No question about that.

I then recounted my memories of him winning in San Rafael when I was 12 years old, over the likes of Eric Heiden, Tom Schuler (the reigning USPRO Champ) and the rest of Team Slurpee and Team Tooth (Crest). On a side note, I recall Marianne Berglund winning the women’s event that day – and gaining many male fans in Marin along the way. I also remembered something about a rather shocking post-race assault later in Gag’s career as well. Oops. Dude, it’s all fun and games until someone gets assaulted with a wooden two-by-four.

Anyway, no more than a mile down after we got through the Eisenhower Tunnel, we see the Red and Blue Flash behind that very same Audi that nearly swept my front wheel back in Georgetown. NAILED.
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I guess some people never stop shooting the gaps. Or getting involved with Five-O for being reckless. Or nearly killing me and my fiancé by driving like there is a cash prime at the next exit. I clapped louder when I saw that cop than I did back in San Rafael twenty years ago. Risking lives to get ahead is not cool – in a bike race, after a bike race or on the highway.

Not to preach too much, but I believe that how you drive is a clear reflection of your respect for life. Your own and those of everyone else out there with you. It’s not Pole Position and the risks of driving like a moron always outweigh the benefits. There is rarely a prize for being the fastest guy on the highway. Just an increased probability of a speeding ticket at best and a vehicular manslaughter conviction at the worst. Thankfully, R-Gag only has to deal with the former and not the latter – this time.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Wayback Machine - 1999

Time is relative. For many, 1999 may seem like it was just yesterday. For others, such as myself, 1999 feels like ancient history. In an effort to place Lance Armstrong’s pending comeback in a context relative to his first Tour victory, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and re-educate ourselves on what life was like before we all realized that Y2K was just a massive practical joke.

So…we all know that 1999 was the first year that Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France. But Prince’s favorite year also brought us a plethora of interesting headlines in both the Real World and the Cycling World.

Now let’s rev up the Flux Capacitor and look back at the following noteworthy events (at least for me) which took place in the year 1999:

- Gary Coleman filed for bankruptcy. Sadly, the primary reason I thought this was interesting was that I figured Arnold had been forced to do this much earlier. What you talkin’ ‘bout IRS?

1999 was just a bad year for the Diff’rent Strokes family altogether, as it marked the passing of Dana Plato as well. Generally remembered for her portrayal of Kimberly Drummond, I tend to recall her post-Strokes cameo on Growing Pains as the Madonna-esque, virginity-preying girlfriend of young Mike Seaver. But that’s just me…

- Ivan Gotti won the Giro d’Italia after Marco Pantani was disqualified for an excessive Hemocrit level prior to stage 21. Rumors that Ivan’s American cousin, notorious Mafioso John Gotti, was seen lurking in the Anti-Doping tent prior to the ejection have not been verified. I’m not sayin’…I’m just sayin’.

- The Denver Broncos won their second consecutive Super Bowl over the horrendous Atlanta Falcons and their unforgivable Dirty Bird routine. This event was important because it created a number of highly frustrating debates with Donkey fans about whether they were as good a franchise as my beloved San Francisco 49ers. Obviously I won all of these arguments with well-crafted (albeit obvious) statistical analysis but I generally just responded with, “Seriously? Please.”

- Andrea Tafi won Paris-Roubaix as the Mapei team swept the top three places. This was a watershed event as it provided the cycling world with some of the ugliest podium photos of all time.

- The Euro was introduced as a unifying form of European currency. Elsewhere the Dollar was quoted as saying, “Uh oh.”

- Jan Ullrich won the Vuelta a Espana. Many people overlook this result when reflecting on Ze German’s palmares but in retrospect, I believe this victory is best understood as irrefutable evidence of Spain’s sub-par pastry industry.

- The World population reached 6 Billion people. The U.N. reported that number 6,000,000,000 was born in Sarajevo then quietly asked, “We don’t actually have to prove that, do we?” Then they all had a good laugh.

- Jakob Piil won the USPRO Championship in Philly but Marty Jemison took the Stars and Stripes as the first American across the line. Despite recent events, it should be noted that Jemison did not punch any doctors in the face after the awards ceremony.

- Napster made its debut. I remember thinking that the whole MP3 thing was a fad as I tried to reconcile the many thousands of dollars I had already spent on crappy CD’s with one or two good songs on them.

- Oscar Freire won the first of his World Championships. Shortly after his victory officials requested verification of his nationality since many within the cycling community believed that a Spanish Sprinter was a mythological creature from the past – like Unicorns or a French Tour de France winner.

- Boris Yeltsin resigned as President of Russia. I don’t recall this being terribly important to me at the time but in retrospect, I find it curious that this event seems to make 1999 seem like a very long time ago. At least physically, Yeltsin always reminded me of Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson. Okay, I’m starting to run out of events now…

- Frank Vandenbroucke won Liege-Bastogne-Liege. The Belgian hero then proceeded to fall victim to a number of scandals and catapulted himself into The Mike Tyson Zone, at which point nothing he did seemed too outrageous. How this guy is still making headlines in 2008 is beyond me, but then again, we still see Iron Mike in the news from time to time as well. When Frankie starts getting face tattoos and biting people’s ears during races, then it’s officially over.

Interestingly, when researching the events of 1999 I have come to find that a number of high profile deaths occurred. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Plato, the passing of Walter Payton, John F. Kennedy Jr., Payne Stewart, Charlie Byrd, Grover Washington Jr., Curtis Mayfield and George C. Scott all took place that year. But perhaps most significantly, the legendary Wilt Chamberlain (the greatest record-holder ever) hung up his shorts for the last time in 1999 – thus putting the final touch on a lifetime of truly remarkable endurance which will never be matched. Not even if Lance wins number 8.

Man, 1999 seems like a long time ago…

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Act Like You Know - Or Don't

Knowledge is Power. Ignorance is Bliss.

Would you prefer to be powerful or blissful?

To be clear, I am not talking about wattage output or that first ride on a new race bike here. Although this is a good indication that the answer to the above question is obviously dependent on one’s definition of the terms involved.

To be more specific, would you rather have prestige and influence or complete happiness? See, now the question takes on a little different meaning.

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” - Confucius

All beings have knowledge thrust upon them simply as a function of experience. What we choose to do with this knowledge varies but we all come to know the world in which we live through actions both willfully taken and begrudgingly endured. Therefore, we are all inherently ignorant (happy) and only come to obtain knowledge (prestige and influence) as a result of the overwhelmingly random circumstances by which our lives are dictated.

Well, yeah. No duh. What’s your point?

In keeping with this theme, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I have been thinking a lot lately about how “knowledge” and “ignorance” can radically influence our experience as sports fans. Unfortunately, the two qualities are not mutually exclusive and the followers of professional cycling, in particular, must often weigh the powerful benefits of knowing about the sport against the ignorant bliss of appreciation without skepticism or awareness of past transgressions.

For example, I have been fascinated by the response to Tyler Hamilton’s USPRO Championship victory and the resulting emotions it has stirred within the cycling community. All greater issues of penance and punishment aside, the uproar created by his recent success shows how the assumption of knowledge can cloud the possibility of ignorance and illustrates the depths to which people internalize their own subjective version of the truth. This is truly fascinating stuff from a perch on the Ivory Tower but not so pretty from road-level.

“Better to know nothing than half-know many things.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

It is clear that many will simply never forgive Hamilton for having tested positive and steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. These individuals have taken their “knowledge” of various events and have come to the conclusion that he is undeserving of their admiration as a human being, let alone as a bike racer. They are unable or unwilling to overcome the baggage of past headlines and are thus prevented from appreciating the value of current performances. This is not meant as a judgment on these people, it is simply a fact proven by comments and behavior in this context.

But if one were ignorant of Hamilton’s past and took his victory on face value alone, it would be a remarkable example of determination, strength and courage to overcome the odds. He was woefully outnumbered by the Garmin-Chipotle riders but was still able to find a way to win – despite the many challenges that he faced that day. He played his tactics to near-perfection and still had enough left in the tank to win the final sprint, despite having to do most of the work to stay away over the final kilometers. I would argue that if anyone but Hamilton had won the Stars and Stripes jersey in the same fashion, he would be universally praised. But unfortunately for Tyler, his Rock Racing kit will always be stained with the scarlet letter of a “convicted doper” for many within the cycling community.

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” – Albert Einstein

Now, it is certainly not my intention to get into a debate about Hamilton’s past guilt or innocence. Regardless of the data presented by both sides, the reality is that very few people will ever know the full story. Perhaps thankfully, I am not one of those people. But the position I find myself in as a follower of cycling is one of choosing to find pleasure and value in the present or allowing my so-called “knowledge” of the sport to damage my appreciation of it. At this point it is impossible to be completely ignorant and blissful but sometimes I wish I could stop being so skeptical and critical as a result of my not-very powerful knowledge.

But then again…

“If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.” – Isaac Asimov

The reality of the situation – or at least what my experience allows me to assume – is that we are all fallible. Our actions are not always pure and our knowledge is not always correct. We go through life rationalizing our own decisions while criticizing those of others. Like all animals, we are often jealous and spiteful and unforgiving. Thankfully, as human beings we have been given the gift of self-reflection and have ample opportunities to prove that the human condition is not as nasty as history would lead us to believe.

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” – Mark Twain

Or perhaps it is even nastier. History clearly illustrates that Power is a corrupting force so maybe Ignorance isn’t so bad after all.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Beijing Olympics - Where 13 Is The New 16

Okay, first of all…when did Bob Costas start imitating Johnny Carson? Is it the late night programming or what? If it weren’t for the mysterious absence of ANY gray hair (can you say “Just For Men”?), you would think it was JC, not BC, up there doing scripted monologues and interviewing people on couches. Where’s Ed McMahon when you need him? I hear he could probably use the work. “Heeeere’s Bobby!”

I really do like The Games though, even if I have to reconcile some serious issues with the host country, Al Trautwig, and the IOC in an effort to truly appreciate the athletes. Part of me just can’t help but be skeptical of a few performances but for the most part, the Olympics provide an opportunity to see the best of the best - often competing in events that hardly anyone will care about for another 3 years and 60 some-odd days. “Hello Badminton, my name is Field Hockey. Have you met Synchronized Diving? Didn’t think so.”

In cycling news, our often marginalized sport (but still better than Archery) did its best to distinguish itself by providing the first positive doping test of the Games. Which was nice. Way to go Spain - between this and the Basketball photos (seriously…?), you’re really the life of the party. It’s only the Olympics – no one’s watching anyway. Except, of course, many of the people who would rather see Checkers or some other weak “sport” replace anything with two wheels. See: WADA. Sweet timing.

The most interesting part about this doping story is that Moreno bugged out prior to the race and never even made the start, blaming her withdrawal on an “anxiety attack” after being tested on the first day of her arrival in Beijing. Yeah, I’d probably be a little anxious too – especially if I knew I was cheating and had a good chance of getting popped in both pre and post-race tests. Perhaps it could have been called an “anxiety/conscience attack.” That voice in your head can get pretty loud sometimes. Too bad she didn’t listen to it earlier.

In other news, the Men’s Road Race looked pretty rough from the 10 minutes of footage I was fortunate enough to catch over the course of about 17 hours of programming. I really liked how they showed the first clip of the start at like 9:30 in the morning, had three or four 60 second clips between then and noon, and then showed a whole 6 minutes of the finale at 11:00 at night. That was rad. Okay, it may not have been that strung out, but I do have a completely used 6-hour tape that supposedly has the race on it – I just can’t seem to find it amid the excitement of Beach Volleyball, Knitting and Toad Licking or some other crap. Thanks NBC – now I hate peacocks.

Anyway, the race played out as most people thought it would, with the field gradually succumbing to the course and conditions, thus allowing the big names to fight for the medals. Andy Schleck appeared to be the strongest on the day but was completely marked by Slammin Sammy Sanchez and Davide Rebellin. Everyone thought that there would be an Italian and a Spaniard fighting for the win but most eyes were on Bettini and Valverde, thus giving their less notorious teammates a chance at Gold. The best move of the day was certainly the effort of Fabulous Cancellara, who rode everyone in the chase group off his wheel, bridged up past Rogers and Kolobnev to the leaders and then grabbed the bronze ahead of a fading Schleck.

If it weren’t for the bronze medal that The Mayor of Santa Rosa brought back to the Golden State from the TT, I may have had to comment on the footage of Levi seemingly marking Fab-Can’s move and then looking around and sitting up. Oh wait, I guess I just did. Now…it would be rather foolish to suggest that anyone in the world could have gone with The Swiss Cheese at that point but man…it would have been nice if LL Cool Heimer could have held that wheel and been able to contest the final climb with the leaders. Oh well…11th in the RR and Bronze in the TT has to be regarded as a great week.

So…to the surprise of virtually no one, Nicole Cooke and a Spanish guy won the Road Race while Cancellara and Kristin Armstrong took Gold in the Time Trial. I think we saw those results coming. It’s pretty cool that AAA Armstrong has her own Cervelo commercial though. I can’t recall many female cyclists getting that kind of publicity – and she certainly deserves it. Amazingly, her result was the first Road Gold (not to be confused with Rold Gold – “These pretzels are making me thirsty!”) medal for the U.S. since 1984. Wow. Would it be too early to start putting Armstrong near the top of the list for U.S. women all time? Actually, the World Championship already did that so I guess we’re probably already past that point. Super nice lady too – way to go KA.

Speaking of famous female cyclists (Connie is still Numero Uno for those who don’t know), The Phinney Family logged some good airtime as Taylor slugged it out on the track in the newly renamed Bradley Wiggins Pursuit and Davis continued to inspire all Parkinson’s sufferers. I vividly remember DP telling me that he was trying to convince Mini-Phinney to race the Pursuit a little over a year ago and that he had an outside chance at the Olympics. I didn’t think too much of it at the time but in retrospect, I am amazed at how it has all unfolded and the wisdom of Davis’ prediction. Understanding that NBC was going to broadcast the event sometime on Saturday, I happily watched the Points Race on the USA network and was momentarily thankful that multiple cycling events were going to be on TV that day. Nice.

This brief state of pleasure was subsequently shattered upon flipping back to NBC and realizing that I had missed the beginning of the Pursuit coverage because it was being broadcast at THE SAME TIME as the Points Race. Then my head exploded as I tried to come to grips with the fact that the Donkeys in charge of Olympic programming had decided to basically screw those of us who actually thought we were going to be able to watch all of the events without the need for multiple television sets.

Honestly, have they done that with ANY other sports so far? I don’t recall having seen gymnastics or swimming literally competing for viewers on multiple channels at the same time. They couldn’t have staggered the airtime by 30 minutes so we could watch both? Really? Everything is tape-delayed anyway – so what was the problem? There has been some seriously heinous stuff going on at The Games but for me…the programming has been the most problematic by far. Well…maybe not by far.

Every time I start to get excited about watching an event, they inevitably cut to something that I could not possibly care less about. I am still recovering from the small brain hemorrhage I suffered the other night as they repeatedly tempted me with the possibility of 400m coverage and then force-fed me an hour of diving and gymnastics as an unwanted appetizer.

Thankfully, I did get to see my peeps Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt cruise to ridiculously easy 44’s in their 400 meter qualifiers and then reflected on some good memories of not running nearly that fast back in my School Days. Sadly though, I also watched Sanya Richards basically choke on her “accessories” in the Women’s Final, and get third in a disturbingly slow race. Honestly, did anyone else take issue with the amount of crap she had on during that race? The ridiculous arm warmers (style is not THAT important), the absolutely incomprehensible leg warmers (which were comically bagged up around her ankles as she flailed down the final straight), not to mention the 5 pound engagement ring from her NFL fiancée and half-dozen earrings and necklaces? Not to be too critical but…I ran those times as an 8th grader. But then again, all I had on was a track kit and not the entire contents of my Mom’s jewelry box.

I’ve always wondered about the jewelry/accessories thing in cycling as well. How many dudes will drill holes in their derailleur cages and then wear a huge watch or necklace while they race. Huh? Am I missing something here? I know that there is a weight limit for the bikes but don’t the pounds you carry on your body have something to do with the end result as well?

Anyway…Here are some final thoughts on the Olympics so far:

- How frustrating must it have been as an American swimmer this year? “Hey, you just won an Olympic medal so…what’s it like to see Michael Phelps win eight gold ones?” or “Good job setting that World Record in the relay…what would you have felt like if you had lost the gold medal for Michael Phelps?” or “Congratulations on being one of the best swimmers in the world…can you get me Michael Phelps’ autograph since he is so much better than you?”

Honestly, I couldn’t believe how dismissive many of the interviews were toward the other swimmers. Especially the relays - where they would have all four guys standing there after the race answering questions about Michael Phelps. I felt bad for the other guys but I also felt bad for Phelps. Somehow I think he’ll come out of it okay (the $100 million earnings projection will help) but it’s got to be difficult being on a “team” when the focus is so squarely on one person. But until he wins gold by swimming all four legs of the relay – let’s maintain some appreciation for the other athletes okay?

- Usain Bolt is a scary guy. He’s 6’5” and has a beautifully athletic running style but I am very nervous about him. Well, I should actually say that I am nervous about almost all Caribbean sprinters as they dance away with an overwhelming majority of the speed-related hardware – with nary an off-season drug test to disrupt their preparation or celebration.

But Bolt in particular is terrifying. The ease with which he mocked the 100m World Record was eerily reminiscent of a young Italian athlete who did some shocking things in the Tour de France a month or so ago. What was his name again…Ricky something? Anyway, the Lightning Bolt then proceeded to crush the 200meter World Record and immediately occupied a place atop my “I don’t know about this guy” list by dethroning my main man Michael Johnson in the record book and displacing Carl Lewis as the most recent 100 and 200 winner. Sorry man, I hope you’re clean but you just punked two of my favorite athletes of all time so…let’s just say my curiosity has been piqued.

Plus – the showboating and post-race foolishness (seriously, who poses like that? Tyra?), combined with an apparent total lack of humility or respect for any other athletes (past or present) has been a bit difficult to tolerate and has not exactly endeared the young man to my particular tastes. Or Jacques Rogge’s for that matter. When the notoriously lenient IOC Chief starts dissing you in public – perhaps you’ve stretched the boundaries of sportsmanship a little too far.

Maybe the wounds inflicted by the Ricco Show at the Tour are still too fresh, but anytime someone makes it look too easy and is exceedingly arrogant in doing so (like they KNOW that they have an extra advantage), I can’t help but get suspicious. Unless, of course, the athlete is named Michael Phelps and is incapable of human error - as the U.S. media would seemingly have us believe. At least he was respectful of Mark Spitz and the other swimmers though. Ugh…I don’t know anymore.

Anyway, as the shocking paperwork declaring all of the Chinese gymnasts over 16 years of age seems to indicate…perhaps not all is as it seems at these Olympic Games. Oh…you think so Doctor? Whatever, I’m off to go put on some Marley and crack open a Red Stripe in honor of the fastest country in the world. Let the chips – medals and World Records – fall where they may.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fanning The Flames Of Fanaticism

For various reasons, I have taken some time recently to contemplate the psychological components of being a professional sports fan and specifically, an American fan of pro cycling. While I have not conducted any clinical research, I consider myself a 30+ year-old, passionate case study and am fairly confident in the validity of my conclusions. I will begin by examining some concrete traits and then move on to the more intangible elements of perception. And we all know that perception is reality, right?

As always, there is room for interpretation in this process and while I have attempted to maintain a certain level of objectivity, it should be acknowledged that my personal feelings on this subject have been developed over many years of informal data collection. I say informal because I was rarely graded or paid for my efforts, but in reality I have pursued knowledge of the sport with equal or greater vigor than any educational or occupational pursuits. Additionally, since the overwhelming majority of my experience with this subject has taken place within the United States, it is also important to note that my conclusions are based on the unique experience of following a largely European sport from an American cultural perspective.

One of the primary elements of the typical American cycling fan or “U.S. Cycle Racing Advocates and Zealots for Entertainment and Excitement (U.S.C.R.A.Z.E.E.)” is the physical connection to the racers. This is important when distinguishing an “average” European fan versus the typical American fan for a number of reasons. Due to the widespread cultural importance of cycling in many European countries, there is a level of interest which transcends the boundaries of individual participation and extends into the general public far more so than in the United States. In the U.S., the majority of fans are cyclists themselves and have an inherent appreciation for the act of cycling. As such, there is a strong identification with the riders as like-minded people with similar interests and behavioral patterns.

Danish National Cyclocross Champion Joaquim Parbo recently commented on this phenomenon after having spent the last few seasons in Boulder and participating in many U.S. events. Essentially, Parbo claimed that while there may be more spectators at European races, the fans of cycling in the States are far more respectful and understanding of the riders because they are often cyclists as well. He followed this statement with stories of wading through cigarette smoke, beer, hecklers and the more “average” sports fans at European events. Sound familiar to anyone?

In this respect, the typical European cycling fan may be more similar to the typical American Football fan who probably never even played the game but is able to find entertainment in the sport in a more “common” fashion. Anyone who has been to a major professional sporting event in the U.S. can infer what I mean here but for clarity – I am not exactly praising the motives, vocabulary and hygiene of the “common” American sports fan. Is there a European equivalent to the Oakland Raider Nation?

Anyway, at this point it will be helpful to identify the basic reasons that people become fans of a sport to begin with. The driving forces that make people sports fans, have been studied by psychologists, such as Dan Wann at Murray State University and they generally attribute people becoming fans to the following factors:

Entertainment - Sports spectatorship is a form of leisure. “Except for all the Donkeys who run alongside the riders in the Mountains. That’s got to be pretty hard when you’re that drunk.”

Escapism - Being a fan gives one an excuse to yell at something, an activity that may be constrained in other areas of one's life. “What other sport allows drunken spectators to yell and spit right in the face of the athletes as they perform nearly inhuman feats of strength and endurance?”

Euphoria/Stress - Fans experience euphoria during moments when play is going well for their team, and stress when play is going against their team. This generates pleasure. “Two of the happiest days of my life were when LeMond beat Fignon in 1989 and when Landis made his comeback in 2006. Two of the saddest were when Hamilton got popped in the Vuelta and when Floyd cracked in the yellow jersey. Don’t even get me started on the Giants and Niners.”

Aesthetics - Some people are fans simply because they appreciate the aesthetics of the game, such as the precision or skill of play. “Bike racing may be a little hard for some people to appreciate but generally speaking, guys like things that go fast and crash a lot and ladies like hairless dudes in tight shorts. There is obviously a lot more to it than that – but we are talking about Americans here.”

Family Bonding - Fans going on a family outing to watch a sports event form a psychological bond with one another as a family. “This is where the future of cycling in America is going to come from. People who grew up in the LeMond/7-Eleven/Armstrong eras are starting to have lots of kids. And many of them have a lot of money to spend. Would you rather have a child that races bikes or plays football?”

Self-esteem - Fans identify with their teams to the extent that they consider themselves successful when their teams have been successful. “I have always been fascinated by the strength of this phenomenon and am certain that much of the Lance Armstrong Effect was purely a result of his dominance in the Tour as a proud, flag-waving American. Regardless, there is a palpable confidence which comes from supporting a winner. Unless, of course, you happen to be from France.”

It is clear from this academic analysis that actual physical participation in the sport itself is not high on the list of motivating forces for becoming a fan. Interestingly, professional bicycle racing provides all of the driving factors listed above but has not grown in popularity to the extent that it has been able to draw in casual American sports fans. The Lance Armstrong Effect was the closest we have come to having non-cyclists comprise a significant portion of American cycling fans but since his retirement, many of these followers have left the sport behind largely because they were following a personal interest story rather than bike racing.

And here is where the perceptual element of being a cycling fan in America gets tricky. If you are like me, the L.A. Effect was appreciated for its presentation of the sport to an audience that would otherwise never have taken an interest but at the same time, it generated a mild resentment for the occasionally blatant “Band Wagon” followers. I wrote an article about this a while back that kind of sums up my thoughts on the whole deal.

In this respect, bicycle racing in the United States is kind of like your favorite band or TV show that hasn’t really gotten popular yet. There is a certain sense of pride that we are among the few individuals sophisticated enough to follow this marginalized sport/band/program without it being crammed down our throats by the mainstream media. As such, there is often a resulting desire to determine the “real” fans from those who have hopped on the Band Wagon of rising popularity. For example, I loved the first couple Black Eyed Peas albums but after they started getting popular, I moved on and let the Fergie Generation have them.

The L.A. Effect was a perfect example of this phenomenon as the development of the New Lance Fans began to overshadow the Old Cycling Fans in both visibility and commercial value. No matter how good that NRC race or early season Semi-Classic was, it just can’t match the broad marketability of a group of cancer survivors on a charity ride. And just like Bridging The Gaps is a far better song, My Humps is the one that made the BEP’s millions of dollars.

There is no denying that the Lance Armstrong Effect took the sport of cycling in the U.S. to a point of cultural importance which it likely would not have reached otherwise. For this, I believe most fans are truly grateful – despite the fact that we now have a former bike racer as tabloid fodder. But here lies the problem as well.

Cycling fans in the United States have historically been part of a small but extremely passionate group. When the sport grew in popularity (albeit somewhat artificially inflated by the L.A. Effect) during the Texas Occupation of France, many of the long-term followers rebelled against the resulting spotlight. I cannot speak for everyone, but it seems that many fans had difficulty accepting that their beloved sport had “sold out” to a certain extent. Perhaps those fans forgot about the old Taco Bell ads that Greg LeMond did, but still, it was odd recognizing that the sport had grown beyond the confines of VeloNews and into the realm of US Weekly.

At this point, I feel it may be necessary to acknowledge that the average cycling fan in the U.S. identifies with the riders – not necessarily other fans. This is important in that it is almost entirely opposite of the experience of average fans in other sports. The next time you go to a Football, Baseball or Basketball game, take a look around see how many people have absolutely no interest in the action taking place in the competition. There is a social component to the typical American sports fan which often elevates camaraderie (and inebriation) over competition and the sport itself.

It is also far easier for the average cycling fan to identify with Christian Vande Velde or Carlos Sastre than it is for Joe Sports Fan to identify with LeBron James or Tom Brady. Most of us are not 6’9” and even fewer of us have dated Giselle Bundschen. Therefore, many cycling fans are almost over-protective of many professionals because there is a sense of kinship that does not exist in many other sports. The life of pro football, baseball and basketball players is so foreign to most of us – both physically and financially – that they almost cease to be human. As a result, the treatment of these athletes by their fanbase can range from complete idol-worship to complete disdain and criticism.

This final point is worth looking into in greater detail and I will expand on this premise shortly. But in the meantime, I will offer a few internal dilemmas:

I want cycling to grow in popularity. But…I want it to be popular with people I like and respect. Unfortunately, I often do not like or respect many of my fellow Americans.

I want cycling to get to a point where it can be discussed intelligently and critically, similar to the broad range of coverage styles of “ESPN-level” sports, where there is little concern about offending the hyper-sensitivities of any particular fanbase. But…I also want to continue defending the sport as a whole. This may seem contradictory but I feel that by both defending and criticizing the sport of cycling, there is an opportunity to promote the sport and make it more intellectually stimulating as well.

I want cycling to be given the respect it deserves in the United States for making headway in the Fight Against Doping while all of the other sports have stuck their heads in the sand. But…I also want the topic of cheating to remove itself from all of the mainstream coverage of the sport. Even though cycling has been more proactive against doping than any other sport, it will continue to be cast as a venue for cheaters simply because efforts are being made to successfully catch them.

Again, I will delve more into these issues in the future. Now…off to Beijing where cycling is a big fish compared to events like synchronized swimming and archery. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.