Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Paris-Nice a.k.a. Oops I Crapped My Pants

After tremendous fussing and gnashing of teeth, Paris-Nice (the non-UCI version) was won by Davide Rebellin, a vastly underappreciated rider who has been saddled with the curious nickname “Tin Tin.” Despite his impressive palmares and cartoonish moniker, I only started to really appreciate the Italian after I heard the guys pronounce his name as the contracted version of “rebelling” (to rebel) or “rebellin’.”

When he became “Rebel-in” (rhymes with ‘gellin’) instead of “Rebel-yeen” (per Liggett, Sherwen and Roll), he instantly became more likable. I have tended to appreciate rebels throughout history, so how can I root against a guy that is constantly rebellin’? It's sure better than Tin Tin.

Anyway, all surname silliness aside, respect should be given for the following list of events won by The Rebel Without A Consistently Pronounced Name. There are not many other riders out there right now with a resume like this:

Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2004); La Flèche Wallonne (2004, 2007); Amstel Gold Race (2004); Tirreno-Adriatico (2001); Clásica de San Sebastián (1997); Züri-Metzgete (1997); Paris-Nice (2008)

Unfortunately, the Versus “Cyclysm” contained a recap of Stages 1-6 which lasted all of about two minutes and then coverage of the final stage into Nice. Just out of curiosity, is anyone else bothered by this inequitable distribution of race footage? It’s like when the Wide World of Sports used to cram 3 weeks of the Tour de France into 20 minutes of commercial-riddled programming time. Not exactly good for getting a sense of the race.

Don’t get me wrong, the final stage through Eze into Nice was spectacularly beautiful and quite entertaining, but it would have been nice to see more than 15 seconds of the decisive climb up Mt. Ventoux. Or any good footage of The Rebel making his GC winning move on the final descent of Stage 6, although they did show Frank Schleck decking it into the mountainside. It is not often that a stage race is won by going downhill, but that’s how it played out in Paris-Nice this year. Or at least that’s what they tell me because I didn’t really see any of it.

Thankfully, the events of Stage 6 did provide a new addition to my collection of All Time Favorite Quotes courtesy of the impressive young Dutchman Robert Gesink. After losing his leader’s jersey following the descent to the finish, Gesink gave us this gem, “"I knew it was a very dangerous descent, and when I saw Frank Schleck fall in front of me I was afraid. I almost crapped in my yellow shorts."

I had the chance to meet Gesink for a brief moment before the TT at the Tour of California and he seems like a pretty cool guy. He certainly fits the Tall & Skinny mold for great Dutch riders and of course, speaks nearly perfect English. His quote from Paris-Nice actually reminded me of the old Saturday Night Live commercial for an adult diaper product called “Oops I Crapped My Pants.” For those who do not recall (I feel sorry for you), the bit ended with an older man looking into the camera and saying “Thanks, Oops I Crapped My Pants…I just did.” Classic. Perhaps Gesink has seen this sketch too, and perhaps he will not be so quick to don the yellow shorts next time.

While we are on the topic of descending (not deucing in your cycling shorts), Luis Leon Sanchez put on a clinic at the end of Stage 7. In a raw display of Spanish machismo, the Caisse d’Epargne rider shot out of the Rebellin group, caught the break, proceeded to drop the lead group and got enough time on the final descent to barely edge out a victory on the waterfront in Nice. The footage of Sanchez flying down the narrow, twisting road toward the coast was pretty impressive as he repeatedly passed the motorcycle cameras and was putting a few seconds into the chasers with every turn. Does anyone know if Luis Leon Sanchez has a nickname yet? If not, I will begin referring to him as L.L. Cool Sanchez. Or Luis Leon Spinks. Mama said knock you out.

LL Cool Sanchez’ frantic final stretch along the harbor in Nice provided great drama and actually reminded me of one of the most harrowing experiences of my entire life. Back in the day, I rented a scooter in Nice and rode up through Monaco and returned via Eze back to the city. Despite getting hollered at by a cop in Monte Carlo for not having rear-view mirrors on my rented scooter, it was an amazing day. That is, until I got back to Nice. I ended up getting turned around and kind of lost during rush-hour traffic in the city, with the clock ticking on my scooter return and immediately used up about 6 lives dodging through the maniacal French traffic on my way back to the motorcycle shop.

Considering I was only a couple weeks into what was supposed to be a “many” month trip through Europe, the last thing I needed was to get saddled with a fine for not returning my scooter on time. So in typical bike racer fashion, I started doing my best Robbie McEwen impression and managed to sneak my way through the field of vehicles to return the scooter just in the nick of time. I was literally reaching out and touching cars as I picked my way through the congestion.

Then the rental guy told me the gas was too low and charged me extra anyway. Sweet! I was pretty annoyed at the time but in retrospect it was worth it, because now I know what it’s like racing through the heart of Nice. Well, at least on a scooter. In rush-hour traffic.

Anyway, it remains to be seen if or how the riders and teams will be punished by the UCI for their participation in Paris-Nice but at least it was a pretty good event from a competitive standpoint. I just hope that any punishment is limited to the teams and does not fall on individual riders. Despite the fact that it was an entertaining race, if serious sanctions do arise there will likely be a sense that it was not worth it.

Unlike the gas fine for my scooter rental.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

UCI vs ASO - Negotiating For Dummies

Okay folks, fasten your seatbelts because we may run into some turbulence as I attempt to get some things off my mind. The MAN is exerting ever-increasing pressure in the Professional Real World and I have officially lost all patience for the recent tantrums and nonsense of the Professional Cycling World. It pains me to say it, but even though the sport is centuries old, it's finally time for pro cycling to grow up.
Just to recap some of the recent foolishness for those who actually follow REAL politics and global news:

- The UCI (Union Cycliste International) and ASO (Amaury Sports Organization) don't like each other.

- The UCI is the international governing body of Professional cycling, comprised of national federations, elected officials and mutually agreed upon rules and regulations. The UCI provides the only unified structure for Professional cycling competition on a global scale.

- The ASO is one component of a French media conglomerate called EPA which is owned by Phillip Amaury and Hachette Filipacchi Medias, the largest magazine publisher in the world. ASO organizes French races such as Paris-Nice, Dauphine Libere and the Tour de France. And golf tournaments, car races and other fringe sporting events.

- ASO (A BUSINE$$) does not want to play by UCI rules (which may admittedly be in need of revision) and pulled Paris-Nice from the UCI calendar of events for a number of independently motivated reasons.

- By effectively siding with the ASO by riding Paris-Nice without the consent of the UCI (or more accurately, against their will), the riders and teams have left themselves at the mercy of the ASO's financial and political (BUSINESS) interests without the support of their governing body. Additionally, they have undermined the authority of the UCI and damaged the organization’s ability to fight for rider and team rights.

- The entire sport of professional cycling is now being aggressively manipulated by an independent French race organizer, whose sole purpose is to make money off of its flagship product - the Tour de France. Despite the other races, including Paris-Nice, virtually all of the ASO’s power comes from its control of the Tour de France. Again, this is an organization that places the Event on a higher pedestal than the Riders themselves and has absolutely no responsibility to sponsors who do not benefit its singular agenda. SEE: Unibet 2007.
- Does anyone in Professional Cycling understand the concept of "market share?" I am certain that someone in the ASO ranks does. And they are maximizing theirs as we speak.
- A critical stage of psychological development is the willful denial of short-term satisfaction in an effort to achieve long-term gains. One would think that professional cyclists as a whole would have a keen understanding of this dynamic. After all, few sports require greater sacrifice for future rewards than cycling. However, it seems that those dictating the recent political course of action taken by the riders and teams may have missed the importance of this growth stage.

Now, I fully understand that the riders "just want to race" and the team managers "have a responsibility to the sponsors" but at what point do they have to get together and do what is best for the future of THE SPORT OF PROFESSIONAL CYCLING? This isn't a rhetorical question. I really would like to know.

You can say what you want about the respective qualities of the UCI and ASO, but it is difficult to understand how any "Pro Tour" team starting Paris-Nice could be considered good for the overall health of the sport. Perhaps it satisfies some immediate desires to capitalize on early season form and get some publicity for the CURRENT sponsors but the long-term result is that the riders and teams have lost virtually all leverage for future negotiations by starting this event.
What they have also failed to acknowledge is the fact that even the most basic negotiation requires a firm understanding of what you are willing to concede. And since the current crop of rider and team representatives are apparently not willing to concede a single race - even though this will almost certainly force additional concessions in the future – they have little shot at leveraging any power over the race organizers. They could have gotten off of their bikes and put their collective foot down. Instead they "chose" to enter one of many available races and lost a very rare opportunity to take a unified stand for the future of their sport.

To be fair, there is still some debate as to the unanimity of the AIGCP decision to ride. Regardless, they missed their chance.

With all due respect (to those whom it is due), it is becoming increasingly easy to take issue with the rider and team representatives. I have always claimed that I believe cyclists to be among the most intelligent of professional athletes but I have recently questioned that notion. At least when it comes to Europe.

I take virtually no issue with current riders (their jobs are hard enough), but the ex-racers who now occupy many of the top spots in the sport are in danger of ruining it completely. Come to think of it…aren’t many of these guys the ones who dragged the sport through the mud over the last few decades as well?

Enough of this “Woe is me, we just want to race” junk. Sorry, but that sounds like a cop out from people who are unwilling or unable to demand professional respect. It is time for an educated ex-rider or someone with some kind of business and legal expertise to take the reins of this sport and make those demands. Someone without past doping and political baggage – who wants to see this beautiful sport regain some semblance of respectability.

From a business perspective, it seems fairly obvious that Eric Boyer, Francesco Moser and the current crop of influential representatives of professional cycling may not be the best candidates for these positions. How about someone with actual business and legal expertise? All doping and transfusion jokes aside, isn’t it time for the sport to get some NEW BLOOD?

It can be argued that the Major League Baseball Players Association would never have made the strides it did for athlete rights without Marvin Miller (from the United Steelworkers of America, no less) as the executive director. So why does Professional Cycling have to entrust these critical positions to people who have spent most of their lives racing bikes? Professional cycling is a business, right? I’m just saying…I doubt ASO has a bunch of former professional cyclists making their decisions for them.

I keep hearing people mention that the sport of cycling is going through some kind of “cultural change” with regard to doping but quite frankly, I fear that a failure to establish a proper balance of power between the UCI, Race Organizers and Riders is a far greater threat. Doping is largely individual but with the sport in its current hierarchy, we are headed down the path of institutionalized inequality.

The ASO has no concern for the global sport of cycling and (as a BUSINESS with no obligation to riders or sponsors) operates only with its own best interests in mind. It’s frustrating enough that so many people believe that the Tour de France is the only important bike race in the world. But unless the riders and teams stand up to the ASO, this may be the case.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

McQuaid and Me

In light of all the UCI vs ASO jibber jabber, I thought now might be a good time to recount a quick tale from my recent trip to the Amgen Tour of California. I have been waiting to comment on this whole Paris-Nice fiasco since the stories change on a daily basis, but it seems that we are getting nowhere fast and I wanted to post something relevant. If I had a humorous and somewhat awkward story to tell about Eric Boyer or Patrice Clerc, I certainly would. But I don't, so the following story will have to suffice.

Okay...I'm cruising around the staging area of the Time Trial in Solvang and I notice Pat McQuaid and Jim Ochowicz walking a few feet behind me. I rarely ask for a picture with people at bike races but it's not often that you have immediate opportunities with the President of the UCI and the one and only "Och" so I quickly asked if my Father could take a picture of me with "two of the biggest guys in cycling."

McQuaid chuckled, grabbed his belly and responded, "Well, I guess I am getting pretty big."

We all laughed and I amended my statement to, "Okay, maybe that was unfair. How about 'most influential' guys in cycling?"

We took the shot and parted ways as I wished McQuaid luck in his many battles and Ochowicz in his many financial opportunities. I tend to look somewhat longingly at those who occupy upper-level positions in professional cycling, but I wouldn’t wish the UCI President's job description on my worst enemy right now. In fact, I really feel sorry for McQuaid relative to the position he occupies between the teams and the organizers.

As a side note, does it concern anyone out there that Hein Verbruggen is still a Vice-President of the UCI? It could be argued that this is the guy who instigated the development of the ProTour as well as much of the on-going conflict with the ASO. He is well-known for being exceedingly stubborn and I am quite sure, still has significant influence over how the sport of professional cycling is run. I'm just not sure it helps pave the way for a positive future when there is so much old, bad blood still pulling strings in both the UCI and ASO. McQuaid and Prudhomme are like sons that inherit their Father's battles.

Or like Sato's nephew in Karate Kid II, for example. If you recall, the angry nephew hated Daniel-san because Miyagi had snaked off with Sato's girlfriend back in the day. See the similarities? Of course you do. Everyone can relate to the overwhelming wisdom of the Karate Kid Trilogy.

Maybe all we need is for the riders to stand in front of the UCI and ASO and start banging those little drums like they did in Okinawa to stop the nephew from murdering the rapidly aging Ralph Macchio. Anything is worth a shot at this point. For reference, I think the UCI is currently being represented by Daniel-san in this analogy.

Anyway, I crossed paths with the Irishman again before the start in Santa Barbara. He recognized me this time and I jokingly asked him to give me odds for Astana making it to the Tour de France this year. He chuckled and then looked me dead in the eye and said, "I wouldn't give any."


It was a good thing that one of the many Levi-supporters didn't overhear us because Pat was deadly serious when he responded to me. Then it got kind of awkward, I again wished him luck and we finally parted ways.

I thought about asking, "Can't we all just get along?" but I wasn't sure if he would get the Rodney King reference and didn't want to press my luck. He is a pretty big guy after all. Er…I mean, influential.

Actually, I think that the enduring message of Mr. King's plea is applicable to the UCI/ASO feud as well. But until the interested parties actually commit to resolving this conflict in a mutually satisfactory fashion and actually realize they must compromise for their own future benefit, the riders and fans will still be left asking the same question.

Can't We All Just Get Along?