Monday, June 27, 2011

Beautiful Failure

Yesterday, I failed. The Los Angeles Gran Fondo for amateur cyclists rolled by, just a short walk from my home, and I missed it. Setting the alarm for 7am instead of 6:45 on Sunday morning may be understandable, but that miscalculation caused me to miss the whole thing. It got me thinking about how much failure there is the sport of professional cycling. Failure is everywhere. It’s every day. Perhaps we actually follow cycling not for the wins, but for the beautiful failures.

One rider crosses the finish line in first place, raising his arms in victory and followed by a field of also-rans. The next day, the slate is wiped clean, and yesterday’s winner is usually just another one of today’s failures. At the Tour de France, one bad hour of racing over the course of three weeks will rob a man of glory. Sometimes, it is one bad minute.

That was the case for Andy Schleck, who lost the Tour de France last year by 39 seconds to Alberto Contador. The gap occurred when Schleck’s chain jumped at a key mountain stage, and Contador was criticized for racing ahead at that moment. While the incident secured Contador’s eventual victory, the second-place Schleck was the compelling figure. We jumped out of our seats in shared frustration, unclear whether our anger was at a slip of the foot by Schleck, an unscrupulous move by Contador, or just bad luck. Schleck was more focused than we were, as he vowed to take his revenge in the mountains. Another rider taking his loss and moving forward to the next day, the next stage, the next race. It was not enough for Schleck in 2010, but there will be a great rematch in July, all the more thrilling because of last year’s heartbreaking loss.

Watching cycling’s superstars is also more interesting when it follows disappointment. One example is sprinter Mark Cavendish, a brash personality flashing colorful winner’s gestures across the finish line. In 2008 and 2009, it seemed he could not lose, but he had a mediocre season going into the 2010 Tour de France. Early in the race, four flat stages were taken by others—two by Alessandro Petacchi—and the questions were mounting. Was it all over for Cavendish? Had his team lost its touch? Was Petacchi replacing Cavendish as the fastest man in the world? Each stage was another missed opportunity, another failure. Finally, at Stage 5, Cavendish pulled out the win. On the podium, tears streamed down his face. Tears of relief. We watched the Manx Missile and remembered he was human. Thanks to those misses, we remembered he was just a 25-year-old kid who was outracing the best cyclists in the world.

The breakaway is cycling’s ultimate story of failure. One or a few riders launch off the front of the peloton and ride alone, often for the whole day. They give up the benefits of the group—protection from the wind, comraderie and motivation, a teammate to hand them a bottle of water. They take an unlikely chance that by suffering extra and alone, they will win the day. They rarely do. The peloton usually lets them suffer off the front before reeling them back in, often in the final kilometers, snatching the stage win right out from under them. All the effort by the breakaway is then for naught. The rider has lost the stage and expended extra energy, a disadvantage for the next day.

Jens Voigt says that he goes in the breakaway even though he knows there is a 99% chance it won’t work. He goes because he is driven by the remaining 1%. He will ride in the break, digging deep and suffering all the more, for that slim possibility of victory. If you don’t ride in the break, you have no chance to win, he says.

We watch the lone cyclist riding for hours in the saddle, expecting him to fail. We admire the nobility of the effort. It is the story of the underdog, the little engine that could, the ants moving the rubber tree plant, David versus Goliath. On the rare day when the breakaway actually succeeds, the win is even sweeter because of the trail of failed attempts.

Cycling has so much failure, and that makes the wins shine brighter, the effort speak louder, the resilience inspire us more. It's beautiful.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

TdF Preview: American Teams

The French cannot be thrilled about this. Once again this year, four American teams will compete in the most prestigious cycling race in the world, and only the home country of France will be better represented with a total of five teams. These American squads will not only compete, but they will be racing for wins. Watch for them in the team time trial, individual time trial, sprint stages, and overall (general classification) competition. Here is an introduction to the American teams:

BMC Racing
Launched in 2007, BMC began competing in Grand Tours last year, once they had secured prominent cyclists including Cadel Evans on their roster. Evans has been world champion and twice came in second at the Tour. The team will focus on driving the Australian to the top of the podium this year, and Evans is showing good form, with first place finishes at last month’s Tour de Romandie and the Tirreno-Adriatico in March. BMC is partly owned by legend Jim Ochowicz, who founded the 7-Eleven Cycling Team that put American cycling on the world map in the 1980’s. Fan favorite George Hincapie is also a key member of the team. He served as Lance Armstrong’s loyal teammate for all seven of the Texan’s Tour de France wins and has completed the race a remarkable fifteen times so far. Born in New York, Big George turns 38 years old this week, and while his age may slow him down, the wisdom he brings to the team will be a great asset. The remaining team members participating at the Tour include Brent Bookwalter (USA), Marcus Burghardt (GER), Amael Moinard (FRA), Steve Morabito (SUI), Manuel Quinziato (ITA), Ivan Santaromita (ITA), and Michael Shar (SUI). To follow BMC, keep an eye on the overall race.

Team HTC has electrified the sprint competition in pro cycling. Their British superstar Mark Cavendish has won an amazing fifteen stages at the Tour de France in the last three years, crediting his success to strong team support. While cycling may seem like an individual sport with a sole cyclist earning each stage win, the role of the team is significant, as they drive the tempo of the race, protect their stars from trouble, and launch him to sprint alone to the line at the last possible moment, after allowing him to conserve his energy all day. HTC’s lead-out train on the sprint stages is legendary, and the team is considered nearly impossible to beat. In addition, there is an outside chance for German Tony Martin to do well in the general classification, but he is more likely to give fellow riders a run for their money at the individual time trial. The team time trial is another strength for HTC; they won the stage at the Giro d’Italia in May. HTC has racked up 466 wins since 2008. While it does not appear that HTC has announced their Tour de France roster, expected riders include Cavendish’s favorite lead-out man Mark Renshaw (AUS) and Bernard Eisel (AUT).

Danielson with his son
This American team may be the most well-rounded squad competing at this year’s Tour. Garmin will be shooting for the win in the individual time trial and the sprint stages, and they will be in the mix for team time trial and general classification. Colorful American David Zabriskie will be a contender for the individual time trial win, as he considered one of the best in the world at the discipline. Tyler Farrar is the squad’s great sprinter, and fans are eager for the American to best HTC’s Cavendish, something he failed to do at last year’s Tour. A challenge to Farrar’s race preparation was the death of friend and fellow cyclist Wouter Weylandt at the Giro d’Italia in May. Farrar withdrew from the competition, and it is unknown whether he is at peak form. Garmin has surprised the cycling world with unexpected performances in general classification competitors, including Ryder Hesjedal, the Canadian who finished seventh last year, and Christian Vande Velde, the American who finished fourth in 2008. The team has announced that Tom Danielson will compete in his first Tour de France but has not yet revealed the riders to accompany him. Born in Connecticut, the 33-year-old Danielson rode aggressively at the Tour de Suisse earlier this month, finishing ninth. Garmin is run by the controversial team manager Jonathan Vaughters, known for his hipster sideburns and sharp personality.

Fans of the last ten years in American cycling are likely to follow this team, launched in 2009 and co-owned by Lance Armstrong. Californian Levi Leipheimer is the team leader since Armstrong’s second retirement earlier this year. An excellent time trialer and solid in the mountains, Leipheimer will again compete for general classification results, which peaked at third place in 2007. He is 36 years old. His teammate Chris Horner is a wild card for this Tour de France. The 39-year-old from Oregon is riding high from his win at the Tour of California in May, where Leipheimer finished second. At last year’s Tour de France, Horner surprised many with his aggressive riding in the mountains, where he was tasked to assist Armstrong. Both Leipheimer and Horner have proven able to set aside their egos for the sake of the team when a stronger teammate emerges, so the pair should be an asset to the team, rather than an internal distraction or competition. Further, the German Andreas Kloden is another contender for the general classification, and the team members have a history of excellent results in the team time trial. The RadioShack sports director is Johan Bruyneel, who served that role for each Armstrong victory as well as the first win for Alberto Contador. While the team signed veteran sprinter Robbie McEwen this season, he was not included in the Tour roster. In addition to Leipheimer, Horner, and Kloden, the remaining squad members riding in France will be Janez Brajkovic (SLO), Markel Irizar (ESP), Dmitriy Muravyev (KAZ), Sergio Paulinho (POR), Yaroslav Popovych (UKR), and Haimar Zubeldia (ESP), an older group, particularly compared to the HTC roster.

With four solid teams, fans can count on American squads creating excitement at the 2011 Tour de France. In many disciplines—time trials, sprints, general classification—the U.S. teams will aim to bring home the win. So watch out, Europe. The Yankees are coming!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tour de France Teams

Roster of teams competing at the 2011 Tour de France 

Omega Pharma-Lotto
QuickStep Cycling

Saxo Bank

AG2R La Mondiale
Francaise des Jeux

Great Britain
Team Sky


Peter Sagan of Liquigas





BMC Racing

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Twitter Round-up

Who needs Twitter? Cycling fans! Updates straight from the pros revolutionized our ability to follow the sport, as we can now hear directly from the cyclists, during competition and from all over the world, despite the limited coverage by traditional media. This is especially useful when new controversies hit the fan or following a great win, as well as understanding how frequent and invasive the anti-doping tests are from the riders' perspective. The tweets will surely be flying throughout the Tour de France.

Now that dozens of riders are on Twitter, it would be a full-time job to follow them all. To hit the highlights, a good place to start is with the cyclists best known for smack talk—the sprinters.

By far, the most entertaining cyclist on Twitter is Mark Cavendish of HTC-Highroad, who introduces himself as “Professional cyclist from the Isle of Man. Fast sprinter, faster talker. Disclaimer: May cause offence.” It’s definitely not P.C. Cavendish praises teammates and countrymen and makes cracks at nearly every situation he encounters on the road, from pig races to hat hair. The only downside is the amount of time he spends talking about the beauty of his girlfriend.

This is the first place to look when controversy hits the headlines. The Australian veteran on Team Radioshack tells you how he sees it, nothing less, plus he brings some wisdom to his zingers. Even though it was just announced he will not ride the Tour de France, McEwen can still be counted on for colorful commentary.

Other sprinters are infrequent on Twitter, such as Thor Hushovd (thorhushovd), or apparently absent, as with Tyler Farrar. (If I’m wrong on this one, please let me know.)

The team leaders and general classification riders are usually more restrained than the sprinters, though fans enjoy hearing the stage by stage progress to the overall win (or loss). Language is an issue in following cyclists such as Ivan Basso (ivanbasso), who writes mostly in Italian, and Alberto Contador (albertocontador), who tweets in Spanish.

Levi plays it pretty straight, in line with his kind, focused vibe. He keeps it to cycling and a bit of humor here and there, such as “Send me all your bald guys on Mt Baldy jokes.” The Californian rides for Radioshack.

Christian Vande Velde
Christian Vande Velde:
His tweets sound like him—relaxed, positive, non-pretentious. It’s like hearing from your buddy. “Signed one of my old bikes for a speed skier here in Swiss. He races over 150mph! Insanity....ok, we went 65 down the Nuffenpass yesterday.” Originally from Illinois, Vande Velde races for Garmin-Cervelo.

Nice, sarcastic British humor is what we can count on from Wiggins of Team Sky. For example: “Got caught with me pants down today, fortunately my Team rocks and nothing was inserted into the hole of death.”

Sweet, positive, occasional messages from the Brothers Schleck. Lots of congratulatory messages and thanks to the team. Nice Luxembourg boys riding for Leopard-Trek. Very nice.

The Australian leading team BMC mostly sends re-Tweets and directs fans to his web site, which features an interesting diary ( He posts a few paragraphs on nearly every stage of important races, including opinions on competitors, relationships with his teammates, and his charity work.

Chris Horner:!/hornerakg
Like Evans, Horner supplements his tweets with an excellent blog, now posted at His lengthy and detailed descriptions of last year’s Tour stages were a real insider’s view of the pain and the glory. The Oregonian rides with Levi for Radioshack.

Check out a few other wild card Tweeters.

A man of few words, the American veteran on BMC is soft-spoken in life and Twitter. But when he speaks, it means something. Example: When he lost the US Road Race Championship to youngin’ Matthew Busche by the width of a tire, he posted: “Very tough loss today. Gave it all I had. Bike racing. Got to love it.. Congrats to Mathew.” We love Big George!

From another planet. Just how we like the wild man on Garmin-Cervelo. For example: “Feels good to get the win today...podium girls are onto my antics...they handed me champagne and ran like hell.” Another day: “Delayed in looking for yin yang twins.  Thor wants his hammer...I want my's Johnny!”

Check this out just to see Fabulous Cancellara’s headshot. The Swiss time trial specialist is a bad speller with mediocre Twitter English, but his updates are concise and descriptive. He was made for Twitter. Rides for Leopard-Trek.

Funny frat-boy humor from the 28-year-old American on Liquigas.

These few Twitter recommendations are just the tip of the iceberg, not including teams, managers, photographers, and all sorts of cycling-focused tweeters. An interesting way to explore is to check out who your favorite rider is following. In the meantime, my home page will remain with the sport’s Twitter pioneer: Lance Armstrong.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Blood Sweat + Gears

As we await the U.S. release of David Millar’s book Racing Through the Dark, the film “Blood Sweat + Gears” gives us a preview of his story as a cyclist and the first year of the team now known as Garmin-Cervelo. The documentary follows then-Garmin-Chipotle for the 2008 racing season, from the Tour of Qatar through the Tour de France. It provides team manager Jonathan Vaughters a platform for his views on cycling, the team, and the riders, as well as an introduction to the personal experiences of cyclists including Millar, Christian Vande Velde, and Magnus Backstedt.

Garmin-Cervelo at 2011 Tour of California
A Tour de France stage winner, Millar was caught doping, served a two-year ban, and admitted to cheating, an unusual move even for those cyclists caught red-handed. The Brit briefly discusses his downward spiral, instead focusing on his assumed role as leader of the new Garmin team and personal disappointment at the 2008 Tour. While billed as the story of building a team free of doping, the movie does not share much more on the topic. It certainly does not differentiate Garmin’s efforts from those of other teams to race clean.

The highlight of “Blood Sweat + Gears” is the insight into the lives of the featured cyclists. It takes us onto the team bus and at the team breakfast table, and without a narrator, the players speak for themselves. For Vande Velde, this includes his pride and growing ambition following his surprisingly good performance at the Tour de France, where he finished fifth. (His final standing was later raised to fourth when another rider was disqualified for doping.) The counterpoint is Millar’s mixed feelings as his chances for success evaporated but he was consoled by the focus on his teammate’s prospects.

The heartbreaker is Lara Pate, wife of cyclist Danny Pate. She shares her frustration with life on the road over 300 days a year and the self-centered focus of athletes. She seems at the end of her rope. While the film does reveal these personal struggles, it is just a glimpse, not at all prurient.

A shortcoming of “Blood Sweat + Gears” is that it is not always clear who is talking, and as a result, some interesting comments are less interesting because we do not know who said them. Also, Vaughters openly criticizes his riders, such as calling Mike Friedman “dumb” and repeatedly criticizing Vande Velde for shortening his rest day ride at the Tour de France. It is uncomfortable to hear the team manager zinging his riders this way, as it feels more like gossip than professional critique. Yet Vaughters is known for his haughty confidence, so this should not come as a surprise.

Overall, the film is a kind introduction to the cyclist life, on and off the bike. I wish we could have a film like this made of each team for each season.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

UCI's Disgrace writer Bonnie D. Ford says it all in her Tweet today: "Dear UCI: YOU'RE asking US to "show the utmost sense of responsibility"? Hahahahahahahahaha. Good one.

Do view the link to the VeloNews article. When will the double standards end? Time for some good statistics to expose the true extent of the bias.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pacing the Time Trial

All alone, grinding the pedals, just you against the clock. An empty road lies ahead. The spectators cheer. Now try harder. Push yourself, try harder, keep pushing forward on that empty road…

The individual time trial is called the Race of Truth. It is dramatically different than other cycling disciplines, a solitary effort demanding internal motivation without the usual interplay with teammates and competitors. At the Tour of California, I got a taste of the pro’s view of the competition. I bought one of the VIP experiences offered by race organizers to ride in a car following a cyclist at the Solvang stage. Once in my life, I thought, I would like to see it from the rider’s view—the crowds, the turns, the effort.

Six months ago, I booked this ride and plotted whom I would follow. The organizers said they could not promise a particular rider but would consider requests. Armstrong? Yeah right, me and the rest of California. Cavendish? Slim chance, he’s the most interesting rider out there right now. Cancellara? He’s the best time trialer and would be fighting for the win. But somebody will ride behind these guys. Might it be me?

All this daydreaming would end up a useless exercise when none of those cyclists would actually participate in the Tour of California. Time to reset my expectations. In the end, I request an early rider on the HTC-Highroad team. With an early ride, I will be back to see all the general classification contenders, who start later in the afternoon. I choose HTC as a fan of this California-based team, plus I had met the participants at a pre-race event in Santa Monica. My request is benign enough for the organizers to accommodate.

“I’ve changed my mind,” I tease the ride coordinator. “I want to ride behind Levi.” We both laugh at the idea. The Radioshack CEO will ride behind Leipheimer, who sits only behind his teammate Chris Horner in the overall standings.

Time to get to the car. Winding through the crowds, we meet the driver, a former pro cyclist. I will be in one of two cars following Matt Goss. The other passengers are in The Biz. Two are Specialized dealers, one is also a former cycling pro with his lady friend, and a pair of girls work for the race’s PR company. Their rides are favors or perks. I am the only one who has paid for this, and believe me, I have blocked out from my memory how much I paid. Not a king’s ransom, but pricey enough to make this once in a lifetime. For this reason, Former Pro and his lady let me sit in the front seat. This is old hat for them.

Earlier that afternoon, the last man in the overall standings started first of the 133 riders, and the rest follow at one minute intervals, until the final thirteen riders, who start at two minute intervals. Goss is the 52nd to start. He rolls out of the gate and disappears around the first bend. HTC sports director Brian Holm follows in the team car, then we zip in right behind. Lots of kids pack the enthusiastic crowds, waving homemade signs and foam fingers.

With the rush of the race start, it suddenly feels like the rider is going in slow motion, as the first long stretch features quite an incline. This is cruel, says the Former Pro passenger. The guys are itching to get some speed going and then they have to face this. Slightly frustrated, we agree and settle in for the 24 kilometer course. The first turn indicates the speed at which the cyclists ride. Our driver hits the gas to keep up, bearing right, and I hang on. This is pretty fast.

A few turns left and right, and Goss leads us in a long straight stretch. Former Pro’s early sympathy switches to criticism. He’s not trying at all, he says. I can tell when a rider is sand-bagging it. He’s barely turning the pedals.

Huh? We’re not in the car behind a time trial specialist. We are following sprinter Matt Goss. He excels at short bursts of speed and power, after hours of working with his teammates and responding to the moves of his competitors. This solo effort against the clock is very different. I suspect Former Pro is showing off a bit with his comments, wanting to give us the insider’s insight, like a film producer’s assistant who nit-picks each movie he sees. But I can’t let it slide.

Wouldn’t it be a mistake for him to push it? I ask Former Pro. He has zero chance of winning today and has to conserve his energy. The next day the Tour of California faces its most challenging mountain stage ever, another discipline that pains the sprinters. Plus, Goss will have his eye on the flat route at the Thousand Oaks finale. That will be his chance for a win, so he should save as much energy for that stage as possible. There are so many races within a bike race, and this time trial is not the one for Goss.

The group in the car agrees, and again we settle down. Goss is our little white rabbit, and we follow him down the course. Along an empty stretch, it feels like a casual Sunday drive. There are no spectators, and Goss pedals on solo. Our driver pulls up alongside the HTC team car. Want to meet Brian Holm? the driver asks me. Of course! Holm and team manager Rolf Aldag were a hilarious Hans-and-Frans-style duo revealed by the 2010 documentary “Chasing Legends.” Holm greets us warmly and laughs at how he has been teasing Goss. We’re chatting and laughing from car to car, and it’s a beautiful day. Seems like everyone in cycling is friendly and upbeat. We’re rolling past the small farms and charming homes with white horses out front. Bike race? Are we in the middle of a professional bike race?

A flash of red reminds us that we are. Goss is catching up to Ken Hanson, the Jelly Belly rider who started the course one minute earlier. Now he’s turning on the gas, says the Former Pro. He can’t help but chase this guy. The Former Pro is antsy, maybe itching to take a shot at the chase himself. Goss has a target to focus on, and this is no longer a solitary ride. He gets closer and closer.

Hanson is all alone, no team car following. His domestic team cannot afford to follow each cyclist. Hanson is trying to hang on, trying to keep ahead of Goss. Former Pro is getting excited. Look at him, he says. Jelly Belly is taking the turn on the outside! A rookie mistake! Instead of cutting through the inside, he takes the long way around the bend, adding to his time. Perhaps he forgot he’s on a closed course, I offer. Poor guy, we agree. Just wasted time and energy.

Goss passes Hanson, then Hanson pulls ahead. This repeats a few times. Even the HTC car must hang back to give this race within a race some room. The speed picks up as we hit a downhill section of the course, and the driver of our car stays alert as we take one turn and another. He ignores the brake and pushing the gas again and again. I would never drive a car this fast on this remote road, which narrows and then heads up at Ballard Canyon.

The spectators fill the roadsides here, spilling onto the course and running alongside each rider. Pale men in fluorescent speedos, guys dressed in costumes, amateur cyclists and photographers roar at Goss, then Hanson. Our own Alpe D’Huez, jokes Former Pro, referring to a famous Tour de France mountain finish always lined with rabid fans. Here in Solvang, the cyclists only face a Category 4 climb, the least difficult categorized climb, but it still poses a challenge. Goss takes it on.

Past the top of the climb, the course is a series of rolling hills. Looks like we will be leaving Hanson behind for good. But wait, Goss is not yet on his own. In the last 2K, a third rider comes from behind. Martin Mortensen of the Leopard-Trek squad is driving forward and threatens to pass Goss. Mortensen started two minutes behind Goss, and shortly after passing under the 1K banner, he passes the HTC rider. This is not an easy day at the office for Matt Goss, but he plows forward to the line.

As we near the last 500 meters of the course circuit, the cars pull of the route, leaving the riders to make the final push to the finish on their own. Goss is out of sight. Dropped off by our driver, we head in different directions to watch the rest of the field. I cheer on Zabriskie, Hincapie, Van Gardaren. Then Hesjedal and Schleck. Finally Leipheimer comes in for a heartbreaker, finishing second for the stage. Horner rides well and preserves his overall race lead. One of the best time trailers in the world, David Zabriskie wins the day. A Matthew Modine look-a-like, he struts to the podium. Nice ride, Dave. He flashes a sly smile.

Fast forward two days, and we are in Thousand Oaks for the finale. The crowd is buzzing that Ben Swift is likely to win the stage. No, I think Matt Goss will win it. He’s hungry. After following him at the time trial, I am rooting for the guy. Sure enough, Aussie Gossy brings home the win. He kept enough gas in his tank for the sprint stage. Smart man. That’s a good day at the office.

And hey, I got to follow three riders at the time trial for the price of one.

Solvang Time Trial Results:
1st place:          David Zabriskie, 30:35
28th place:        Martin Mortensen, 32:23
90th place:        Matthew Goss, 34:26
127th place:      Ken Hanson, 35:52
Complete stage results online.

Thousand Oaks Stage Results:
1st place:          Matthew Goss
8th place:          Ken Hanson
95th place:        Martin Mortensen
101st place:      David Zabriskie
Complete stage results online

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Week for the Brits

British cycling sure had a good week. Bradley Wiggins won the Criterium du Dauphine in France, and Mark Cavendish was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire, just the latest highlights in the story of UK cycling which is growing in number and reputation.

Despite last minute attacks, Wiggins beat out rivals Cadel Evans and Alexander Vinokourov with a steady defense of his lead through the final three mountain stages. The 31-year-old just missed the stage win at the individual time trial in Grenoble, coming in second, but won the general classification on Sunday with the lowest cumulative time over the 8-day race.

Wiggins’ victory was a double win for Britain, as his squad—Team Sky—is the country’s sole player on the Pro Tour. Wiggins helped launch the team last year, and the Dauphine demonstrated the strength of their roster. Teammates such as Edvald Boassen Hagen successfully shepherded their leader throughout the race, indicating that they may improve their Tour de France results this year.

Sprinter Cavendish was given the MBE as part of the 2011 Queen's Birthday Honours List made public Friday. Known as the Manx Missile, Cavendish holds the most stage wins by a Britain at the Tour de France with 15 to date. The 26-year-old rides for the American team HTC-Highroad and is a lively tweeter. His daily messages typically include toilet humor (literally), fawning over his girlfriend, and non-PC cursing. Looks like the Queen focused on his professional accomplishments.

Cheers, boys! You make the Empire proud.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Waiting for Garmin

Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters
What happened to Garmin-Cervelo? At Stage 4 of the Dauphine, the team was driving at the front to bring back two riders from an early breakaway. The squad of black and blue led the peloton to give American sprinter Tyler Farrar the final opportunity for a stage win at this race. Yet in the last 7 kilometers, Garmin all but disappeared. In the final kilometer, Garmin had a few riders out front, but they were quickly surrounded by a number of other teams including Team Sky. In the end, phenom John Degenkolb was on his own to edge out Sky’s Edvald Boassen Hagen for the win. “I had the punch today,” said HTC’s Degenkolb, landing his sixth win of the year. Farrar finished sixth.

We are depending on Farrar and his team to play the foil to Mark Cavendish and HTC in the sprint finishes at the Tour de France. Yet so far this season, Farrar has not proven he can fill the role. Sadly, his opportunities at the Giro d’Italia last month were cut short, when his friend Wouter Weylandt died and Farrar pulled out of the race. Hopefully the two missed sprint stages at the Criterium du Dauphine have served as a solid training ground for him and his lead-out train.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tony Triumphs

Tony Martin taught us another life lesson today at the Criterium du Dauphine. Coming into the race as a general classification contender, the German was the great hope of Team HTC-Highroad until his poor performance on the first three days knocked him out of contention. Yet in cycling, as in life, each day brings new opportunities. Martin won the individual time trial in Grenoble at Stage 3, turning around his disappointing results, jumping about 40 places in the overall standings, and securing the second consecutive stage win for the California team. He is wearing that boyish, wide-eyed smile once again.

What will tomorrow bring? We'll see what who captures the next opportunity.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dauphine: Tasty Appetizer

As the Criterium du Dauphine rolled into Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, Stage 2 of the 8-day race was in the books. The unexpected excitement today included several general classification contenders caught behind the break when the peloton split due to wind. Cadel Evans of BMC and Bradley Wiggins and Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky spent precious energy catching up to the front, a reminder that cyclists can also have a bad day at the office. Race leader Alexander Vinokourov of Astana took advantage of his sleepy competitors, gaining several seconds of time on them. Perhaps this is another example of riders like Vino making their own luck by paying attention and riding hard all day.

The surprise stage win came from HTC-Highroad’s John Degenkolb, a 22-year-old in his first year in the pro circuit. This was his fifth win of the season, and the most significant thus far. Degenkolb snuck in through the final meters, besting veterans such as Thomas Voeckler of Europcar. He also had an unexpectedly good performance at the prologue individual time trial on Sunday, when he came in fourth, just six seconds behind stage winner Lars Boom of Rabobank.

While an inclined finish, today’s stage was considered one of two possibilities for the sprinters at the 2011 Dauphine. Garmin-Cervelo drove at the front to make the most of the split for a possible sprint win for Tyler Farrar, but he was nowhere to be seen at the line. Perhaps the next flat stage will be a better opportunity for Farrar, who is the most reliable competitor to Mark Cavendish. A win at the Dauphine, where Cavendish is not competing, would be a tasty appetizer for Farrar, proof of good form and a hint of vigorous competition at the Tour de France next month.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Got Luck?

Cadel Evans is riding into pique form at the Criterium du Dauphine this week, as the Tour de France is looming. After two second-place finishes at the Tour, the Australian is again aiming to win this July. Despite his career successes as world champion and in other races, Evans has been called “The Bridesmaid” for coming close, but not close enough for a Grand Tour win. Why hasn’t he won? Is it bad luck?

The Evans conundrum raises a broader question of why cyclists win and why they lose. It is a dynamic puzzle that starts with the athletes themselves. Physique, age, training, and experience all play a part, of course. State of mind and mental toughness are fuzzier factors. Mark Cavendish and Lance Armstrong have both reported being successfully driven by anger at times. Yet wouldn’t being called a bridesmaid make Evans pretty darn mad? How about coming in second?

The role of the team is clearly important—the operations, management, scheduling. Members of Team Sky say it’s everything, but then again, Contador won his second Tour title when the Astana team was in such a mess that riders were not getting paid on time. Even more crucial are the strategy and composition of the team, and this is especially true for general classification contenders like Evans. They need teammates who have the capacity to shepherd them through the race and the commitment of the team to use resources for that purpose. Cadel supposedly had a better team with BMC last year, with teammates like George Hincapie and smart operations led by manager Jim Ochowicz, but following a crash and injury, his final standing at the Tour was 26th place.

The equipment manufacturers would also argue that their gear sets the riders up for more wins, and race routes compliment different riders. There may be a thousand variables that determine a win or a loss. But what about luck?

Some say that riders make their own luck. That is why winners normally ride at the front of the peloton, to minimize the chance of running into crashes. Yet surely, some of it cannot be avoided. Some of it is just plain chance. Weather, crowds, a key teammate’s injury, a dog in the road, a dirty lettuce leaf in last night’s dinner, a split second hesitation for any reason, and it’s all over.

In the US Road Race Championships last week, veteran George Hincapie lost to up-and-comer Matthew Busche by the width of a tire. Was that because George is 37 years old? Was it because Radioshack drove harder than BMC? Or along that course, was it just a bit of good luck for Matt, or a bit of bad luck for Big George?

It would be fascinating to have a crystal ball to see what really is bad luck and what is the responsibility of the rider, team, or other factor. What really happened to Armstrong at the 2010 Tour de France? Romantics may wish to see his performance as a string of bad luck that finally caught up to a long-lucky guy. Yet his age weakened him, perhaps enough to let the bad luck catch up. What happened to George at the championships last week? Why is Cadel Evans ever the bridesmaid and never the bride? Is it on him, or is it luck?

Until we get that crystal ball, it will be a mystery—that dynamic puzzle of factors that come together to determine success or failure, first place or second. But that won’t stop us from wondering and encouraging Evans to keep trying.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Yellow Wristbands

Why do people wear the yellow wristbands? You don’t see them as much anymore, and it prompts me to wonder: what are the reasons behind the wearers of yellow wristbands today? You see them on Senator John Kerry, Lakers star Derek Fisher, a number of professional cyclists. My cousins wear them now. They are a family of baseball players, and they didn’t used to wear the bands when they first came out. So why now? What does it mean to them?

The rubber bracelets were a stroke of genius—an effective fundraiser and promotional symbol for the Livestrong Foundation founded by Lance Armstrong to support those facing cancer. In the foundation’s partnership with Nike, over $80 million has been raised, largely from the sale of over 70 million bands. So a lot of that was $1 at a time.

I got my wristband on the Champs Elysees in 2004. It was my second trip to the Tour de France, and on several stages of the Tour, I had seen cheerful young people in Livestrong t-shirts selling them for one euro each. Usually, I am a sucker for souvenirs from a big event like the Tour, but I thought the bracelets looked cheap and goofy. Yet as I strolled the Champs Elysees on the day of the grand finale, I noticed many people in the gathering crowds were wearing them and standing in line to buy more. Nearly all of the American fans had them on. It started looking like the bands were a symbol of respect for Lance, his triumph over cancer, and remarkable fifth Tour victory.

With that, I was sold, so I stopped the next cheerful Livestrong girl and bought three yellow wristbands. I promptly put on a band, joined a group of guys in Texas hats (though they turned out to be British), and watched Lance and the peloton ride their victory laps. Over my final days in Paris, spotting another passerby wearing a wristband was spotting a like-minded cycling fan, or even more so a Lance fan. When I got back home, I gave one of the bracelets to a co-worker and sent another to a friend in Chicago.  The wristband trend was just starting to break, and people couldn’t even get a hold of them. My Chicago friend told me he was in a corporate meeting when an exec asked him where he managed to get his band. From a friend, he replied with pride, direct from the Champs Elysees.

I developed some strong superstitions about my yellow wristband. While I wanted to wear it everyday, I was afraid that it would be damaged by the elements. I limited my band-wearing to the cycling season, when I kept it on religiously (except when showering—again, damage from the elements). As a Lance fan, sporting the bracelet was my way of sending him some moral support, good wishes in the atmosphere, positive thoughts for his success. If he was competing, I was wearing my bracelet.

I had a cancer scare, and Lance’s success was personally meaningful to me. The yellow wristband was a precious reminder that I was okay, that Lance was inspiring me with amazing athletic achievements, that I had traveled the world, that I had been in Paris for Lance’s fifth win when I bought that band. If I ever lost it, I would be devastated. It is so special to me.

My yellow wristband was carefully tucked away when Lance retired and pulled back out for the Comeback 2.0. Now Lance has retired again, and I am wearing it in support of pro cycling as a whole. The good guys in the sport need some good wishes, particularly with another round of doping dramas in the headlines. I also continue to support Lance. He remains a hero to me until proven otherwise, and regardless of his athletic victories, he has achieved greater worldwide recognition for the needs of cancer patients than any other public figure through smart, hard work. That is why I wear the yellow wristband now—for Lance and for the sport of cycling.

Why the others? A little research reveals John Kerry had prostate cancer while his wife was treated for breast cancer. Derek Fisher’s young daughter faced cancer of the retina. I will have to ask my cousins why they were the bands, though it makes sense that the bracelets are worn by cancer survivors and their families. There are 28 million people living with cancer worldwide, and I know that thanks to the Livestrong Foundation and their yellow wristbands. 

Do you wear one? Why?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Scorecasting Pro Cycling

Cycling fans need some Freakonomics-style help. Other sports have gotten their myths debunked in Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games, an analytical look at a number of sports myths published earlier this year and written by Tobias Moskowitz, professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and L. Jon Wertheim, senior writer at Sports Illustrated. However, the authors missed a great opportunity to clear up some hot controversies in the sport of pro cycling.

Some of the interesting conclusions made in Scorecasting are that home field advantage is largely due to referee calls, a team needs a good offense or a good defense but not both, and that coaches continue to follow common but failing strategies in order to keep their jobs. In their analyses, they sought out statistics where variables could be isolated one by one. For example, in analyzing the home advantage, they looked at whether basketball players sink more free throw shots at home or away and found that they shoot at basically the same rates. In the end, after reviewing multiple statistics across multiple sports, they found that referees appear to be unconsciously influenced by the home crowd, accounting for most of the home team advantage numbers.

While sports fans often criticize individual referee calls, potential bias by cycling officials appears significant and systematic. For example, stripped of his Tour de France title for a failed doping test, Floyd Landis could argue that Alberto Contador received favorable treatment for a similar failed test, including retention of his 2010 title. Also, Mark Cavendish has criticized officials for penalizing him for sprint finish tactics while allowing other cyclists to proceed without consequence for the same behavior, such as in Stage 2 of this year’s Giro d’Italia.

The question is, how could the Scorecasting authors get to the bottom of the issue of officials bias in cycling? What statistics are kept that could prove or disprove it? Who holds these numbers and are they available to the public? What complicating factors may affect the numbers?

In cycling, it would stand to reason that the anti-doping system would be full of juicy stats ready for analysis. However, it is unclear who holds the information—the UCI, national sports federations, cyclist unions, teams, individual athletes—and whether it is available to the public. If is not publicly available, that in itself is the appearance of impropriety. Further, as discussed here before, a vigorous statistical analysis would include testing, analysis, judgment, and disciplinary actions, looking for any unusual trends based on cyclist profiles, teams, races, federations, and so on.

Beyond doping, possible official bias may be investigated in the imposition of penalties, such as for illegal drafting and blocking other riders in sprint finishes. The difficulty here would be in that statistics are not kept regarding calls not made by officials, so one step would be to figure out what the available statistics are able to clarify. The relegating of wins may be meaningful, as it is an extreme measure used rarely by officials and may reveal unusual trends in who is on the receiving end of those decisions. On the other hand, as the Scorecasting authors note, it is important to consider that athletes may receive this harsh penalty as a result of their unusually aggressive behavior rather than any bias. As with all statistics, the variables must be isolated for proper analysis.

Moreover, it would be interesting to address the accusation that race organizers are biased. This issue was raised when the team time trial was eliminated during the Lance Armstrong years in the Tour de France and critics said it was intentionally done to hamper Armstrong. A starting point might be to look at the performance of general classification winners at individual or team time trials at Grand Tours, how much those stages were changed the following year, and unusual trends. However, even with the long histories of these cycling events, they are annual events, unlike hundreds of pro football or basketball games held each year. As such, the numbers on route selections for Grand Tours are not statistically significant and are unlikely to provide a reliable, objective answer on their own.

Much more fun would be the Scorecasting approach to age-old cycling debates. When is it worth it to send riders into the breakaway? Jens Voigt says there is only a 1% chance that being in the break is worth it (though that is good enough for him to go for it). A statistical analysis could test Voigt’s estimate and reveal just how often the break does work and in what circumstances. For example, is it important if the break goes early or late, the number of riders in the break, the length of the stage, or the stage in the race?

Another question is, how important is it to have a star player on the team? In basketball, it is nearly impossible for a team with zero stars (as outlined by the Scorecasting authors) to win the championship. With the addition of each star, the likelihood of going to the playoff and the finals increases significantly. Does this hold true for cycling teams? Is Andy Schleck more likely to win the Tour de France with Fabian Cancellara on his team, such as two stars on one team, or is he less likely? Is the team energy divided? The definition of cycling stars would be key in this investigation. Would time trial champ Cancellara be considered a star, making two stars on Leopard-Trek? Or would stars just be general classification contenders? Would California champions Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer be considered stars, given their Tour de France performances?

Cycling may pose unique challenges for analysis as found in Scorecasting. For example, the issue of home team advantage is less clear than for soccer, baseball, or hockey. Teams change sponsors frequently, and the nationalities of the individual cyclists may be more significant. For example, does a Spanish rider on a Belgian team have home team advantage at the Vuelta?

Beating the odds in a breakaway is one of the great moments of cycling and sport. An objective statistical analysis would add an interesting wrinkle to team strategies, but most importantly, it might provide the long-sought answers to suspicions and accusations among the athletes, teams, organizers, and officials.