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Motivational poster 2

It’s always a bit curious how cycling manages to attract so many spectators for what, really, is a pretty difficult sport to watch. Track cycling besides, the best we can expect when we go out to watch a race is a fleeting glimpse; a blur of speed, colour and noise. Then they’re gone. And we contemplate the two days it took to fight for our position beside the road, on top of the cliff, and for that motorhome parking lot that European alpine passes become whenever a Tour is on the cards. 

So it’s no wonder that the fans try so hard to add a prologue of entertainment of their own, to string out the fun. There’s the company of fans intent on alpine peaks of inebriation; the Tour village fair, and the fun of the pre-peloton parades. Our glimpse of bikes passing by becomes just a fixed point in a much bigger day of cycling social display. 

Think of the character of roadside celebrations we can watch as the season goes on. They are at least as entertaining as the bike race to which they are attached. 

If we could imagine some kind of scale through which to measure the passions of spectator display, the far left would have to belong to the bemused, frigid indifference beside regimented Chinese roads. The Chinese tifosi  are a bit like a plague of satiated zombies just after feeding time. Here, cyclists can almost hear the sound of one hand clapping as they jostle for points. These threadbare crowds are a bit like professional mourners at the funeral of an accomplished anti-social recluse. 

Then we move on through the quiet, controlled, still bemused, but definitely curious Middle Eastern cycling crowds. Here, the officials all seem to be wearing swords! In France they just rely on Bernard Hinault’s fists for crowd control…

The Malaysian Tour of Langkawi offers more of the same but with rain forests instead of sand. It’s always fascinating to watch the roadside crowd segment itself into the order of men on one corner and women-only on the next. I always wonder how the dressed-for-modesty spectators might perceive the rather less modestly attired cyclists they have come to watch. 

And of course, at the rampaging other extreme, the Italian tifosi rule supreme. How far can you get from those unimpressed Chinese cycling fans? How far is Mars? About that far. Watching those alpine Giro ascents we get another dimension added to the race. The peloton must peak the hill. And thread itself through the raucous, screaming hysteria of the tunnel of cycling fans. Thanks to the crowd, these roads become as narrow as an economist’s perspective on the social benefits of sport. 

Italian cycling fans are the true pros of the spectator side of our sport. Their colleagues in France are slightly less rabid depending on how many drunken dutchmen have taken up possies beside the road. The Belgians are scary for the intensity of their dedication; The Spanish seem to confuse the peloton with a running of the bulls… The English are very polite when the yobbos are all off watching their football instead. 

There are deep labyrinths of social nuance and history to inform why and how the European crowds perform. This stuff is in their DNA. Have you ever watched the miraculous parting of the wall of fans as the peloton threads its way up a mountain pass? It’s as though these crowds have a collective intelligence of their own.  If you could wrap such a scene through the language of mathematical Chaos, you might win a Nobel Prize. 

But there is an emerging New World of cycling fans. Most of them are in the US of A. In California, to be exact. Until recently, they simply grafted the appearance without the substance of the European cycling scene. Nutters with horns and funny sumo suits. The emphasis seemed to be on being seen on TV rather than seeing the riders at least some came to watch. These American fans were, once, a bit like one of those American remakes of already successful European movies; like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the US rendering of The Office. All super whitened teeth with the intricacies of nuance all squashed out. 

But now I am not so sure. Something is afoot. This bear is waking up. These American fans are starting to actually understand. I mean, here we are, ready for Stage 3 and we’ve not seen one single naked American ass… Those fans with wet suits and surfboards running inland up a Cat 2 hill were making some kind of statement I’m still keen to understand… But these four with their Motivational Poster sign are showing some serious class. Now that is a sign of the times and one for the book. It’s now the wallpaper on my iPad home screen. Well done. And what a stunning landscape for a ride! I am starting to really relish this race. Actually, I am enjoying it more than the Giro that’s on at the same time…



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There’s something deeply disturbing and ugly about consumerism. Even worse is consumerism with the intent to construct an image of one’s self for others to consume. Of course, the careful construction of an image of one’s self as we would hope others will see us is a universal human condition. It’s a preoccupation and it’s the first symptom of personal suffering. Its the first symptom that our delusions of self have taken hold.

That’s why there’s such a thriving business in plastic surgery for the aged and increasingly wrinkly. That’s why hair dye exists. That’s why people buy expensive cars when a geared-up, de-bladed ride-on lawn mower is probably all they need to waddle down to the local shops.

I’d been thinking, hoping, fantasising that cycling was an oasis of retreat from egotistical matters such as this. Cycling and its more sedentary counterpart of meditation sessions at a remote buddhist retreat (where the accoutrements of the meditative life are definitely NOT for sale), are the two great oases of retreat.

I’ve been keeping a weary eye out on my cycling attentions for all these years. I ride because I love the sensations of speed, the totality of control over the instrument of my progress and the fitness to ensue. I tell myself that I don’t ride to be seen as, fortunately perhaps, no one ever sees me ride. Except the local sheep, an eagle or two and the drivers of cars (and they never ever see cyclists of any sort). Why, then, is there this need to order a new S-Works Roubaix branded riding shirt? Don’t ask such difficult questions! Cynicism is evil…

I tell myself that my indulgences in different shades of carbon are an impersonal aesthetic thing. I struggle to maintain the fancies of my mind placing too much store on the fact that my new Specialized S-Works Roubaix was the bike Tom Boonen used to win Paris-Roubaix twice in a row! Pride in ownership is ownership of an ego heading out of control. The bike’s a thing and the thing is not me. After all, Big Tom could win Paris-Roubaix on a Trek Madone if he were deluded enough to so choose (!)

The story I tell myself is that I chose this bike because if it can withstand those roads, it can withstand ours. It’s fascinating to know how a bike such as that might ride under my own control. Why then do I have a full screen desktop image from Specialized on my computer screen to celebrate their second victory at Roubaix… Could it be that I am in need of some meditative regeneration of my desired desire-free state?

That amazingly outrageous sage, Chogyam Trumpa, once said that merely knowing that you are subject to the games our egos play is the first step to enlightenment. To be reflexive of such things is to be on guard; to be on the proper pathway of life. Which means that being reflexive, I can now hop on my 2009 S-Works Roubaix and ride past and past again the local road cycling clubhouse with an insufferable smug grin…

Oh how I am suffering as I dare to remind everyone I know how my bike won yet again…

Well done Tom Boonen and well done for the Specialized S-Works Roubaix!

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I have to be very careful here, lest I end up sounding (even more) like an old living-in-the-past retro cycle nut. But you know, based on my 30 years of cycle sport watching and winning the odd club level race trophy or two, I reckon the glory days were approximately equal to the days of Eddy Merckx.

The perfect illustration of my fancies of cycling glory is captured in a single film. A Sunday in Hell: Paris-Roubaix 1976. It’s probably the most famous film about cycling ever made. Watch this 10 minute excerpt from YouTube to see what I mean:

Try this experiment. Watch A Sunday in Hell, and then watch Overcoming (a film chronicling the exploits of Team CSC over the 2004 season). Here is an excerpt from that more recent film:

Apart from the fact that the first film is nearly 30 years older than the second, what can we detect by way of difference between the two eras that are on display? Yes, of course the technology is different. Yes, the cars in the 1976 support circus are all a touch old (but I will confess that the Renault 16 so frequently displayed was indeed my first ever car…). And yes the fashions are different. Put all that aside. What’s the main more underlying difference you see?

It’s the culture of cycling that’s changed. 1976 was the era of the cycling heroes. Heroes that stopped their respective nations; compelled people in the street, compelled them to stand before public house TV’s and to sit transfixed with their transistor radios, waiting for the peloton to arrive. These nations stopped! The Belgians: Eddie Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and his arch rival Freddy Maertens. Francesco Moser to represent the patriotic fervors of Italy. The ‘eternal second’ Raymond Poulidoor and Bernard Thévenet representing the forlorn hopes of a France 20 without a victory in this, the Queen of the Classics. Yes, the hopes of these nations were riding on the outcome of this classic, historic race. You can see it in the faces of those who watched. You can certainly see it in the faces of those who raced. Hero stuff. The stuff of heroes.

Skip ahead 30 years. What do we see in Overcoming? We see a film of cycling heroes, yes indeed. But we see a film about the business of pro-cycling sport. We see riders connected by radios to their computerised mentors in cars. We see a more complex machinery of command. We see team managers with their hands on virtual bars. We hope we don’t see the things we dare not mention; we hold our breath. Is he, could he be … doping!? We see and smell Money. We see a circus of support extending out to dietitians, medical specialists, lawyers; purveyors of sponsorship spin. We see business suits! This is now a cycling made for Prime Time TV. A media event. Cyclists are now TV stars; performers. This is the era when cyclists keep us posted on twitter. Cycling’s gone shiny, polished, electronic. Space Age – cutting edge.

Skip back in time again. Look at Eddy Merckx hopping off his bike – again. To adjust his seat; borrowing a spanner from a rival team car. Watch cyclists who’ve withdrawn hitch rides in spectator’s private cars. Check out the faces of the local gendarmes. They are as thrilled to be there as any other spectator. Proud to be standing in front of the crowds they are not really trying to control. This cycling show is washing right around and through the communities through which it proceeds. Check out how the riders negotiate, twice, with striking print workers holding up the road. See how polite those frenzies are. Watch the motorbikes trying to plough through a deep litter of protest literature. Watch that motorcycle support rider riding with a deer stalker hat!

Of course! I am not suggesting that modern cycling is uninteresting or without appeal. I watch every race I can see and then all the repeats. I record every scene and buy the T shirts and Team caps. Don’t bother to ring me for three weeks in July! I will be glued to my TV until Don Alegandro finally steps up to the Podium in Paris… I’ll probably be waiting for that a very long time…

All I am saying is that the character of the game has changed and that I prefer the character of those more organic, raw, heroic times when Eddie Merckx was king. Our focus then was less challenged by the glitter and distraction of cycling’s more recent abstraction into the techno-plastic of contemporary Reality TV.

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csc.jpgThere’s teams and then there are Teams. One example of a team is Silence Lotto. One example of a Team (or, if you like, a team’s Team or big ‘T’ team) is CSC. All those who are watching Le Tour 2008 know what I mean. But if for some reason you have no idea what I mean, check out the results for Stage 17, the amazing flight up Cols Lautaret, Galibier, Telegraphe, la Croix de Fer and that monumental hallowed sacred ground, L’Alpe D’Huez.

Something fairly definitive happened right at the foot of L’Alpe D’Huez. A something that has been happening since Stage 1, but, nevertheless, hit its peak, so to speak, on the sacred L’Alpe. That something is, basically, the reinvention of pro cycling.

Before Stage 17, we’d always known that the winner of Le Tour needs the support of a good team. But we have also lived through the tradition of the ‘legendary super cycling hero’ winners of the Tour de France. Coppi, Bartali, Fignon, Lemond, Anquetil, Indurain, HInault, Armstrong, Merckx; to pick on just a few. Legendary riders with usually legendary teams riding in support.

But there’s another big hero who should be on this list. His name is Bjarne Riis. He won the Tour in 1996. But that’s not why he is one of the greats. No, Bjarne is great for an entirely different reason. Bjarne, more than anyone else, has shifted cycling into a new paradigm; a new place; a new deal. And we saw the results in this year’s Stage 17.

Bjarne Riis is the boss of Team CSC; the best cycling Team, probably, of all time. If you follow the sport of pro cycling, you will know about the group training camps; the rigourous year-in year-out Team building focus of that group. CSC is a cycling Team. As opposed to the ‘little t’ team of Silence Lotto and most of the rest. CSC is about winning the Tour (and every other race) as the product of Teamwork. It’s a curious game. As there can only be one single winner of any race, the object of this team game is to attack any race as a Team and propel the Team member who is best placed at the end of the race right over the line in first place. There’s no self-evident leader of Team CSC, they are all leaders and what an astoundingly classy crew this is. We saw how this works on Stage 17. Like a Team of synchronised track cyclists, the Schleck brothers, Stewie O’Grady, Fabian Cancellara and Kurt Asle Arvesen launched their hitherto quiet and unobtrusive secret weapon, Carlos Sastre, right up the hill on the very first turn. Their game was displayed for all to see but by then far too late for others to counteract. Carlos flew and took the stage. But the game play went on all the way from there on up. With Carlos away, the rest of the Team, playing as one, defied, frustrated and thwarted Cadel Evans at every single point. They played this would-be-winner of Le Tour like a marlin on a hook.

The most poignant moment for me (as the world’s greatest fan of that other Team’s Team, Caisse D’Epargne), was that whispered word between Frank Schleck and Alejandro Valverde half way up. You could just see Alejandro ready to pounce; but, curiously, after that quick word, he seemed to take on an honorary membership of Team CSC for the remaining few km. From there on, Alejandro played the CSC game right along with the Schlecks. Poor Cadel…

Now you might say that Cadel must be a true great to be such a threat to an entire pro Team like CSC. Well, yes, but not for the reasons you might at first think. You see, Cadel is playing the old school game of Team King rather than Team player. His team is a small ‘t’ team. Given that, they’ve been all over the place since Stage 1. Hardly any help at all. The main help Cadel has had has been, perversely, from Team CSC. Cadel’s been glued to the wheels of Team CSC from the very start. The game’s become an exercise in trying to throw him off and deprive him of the collective strength that only a true Team can produce. And throw him off is what they did on L’Alpe D’Huez. Even it it took four of them to achieve that aim; just to leave Carlos Sastre in peace to take the Stage.

Now that’s how Teams play the game; it’s a wondrous thing to behold, watching the strategies of Bjarne Riis and his cohesive Team adapt seamlessly to the ever emergent complexities of the hill. Poised pacing, strategic patience, devastating impact. There’s no commercial enterprise on this earth that could not dominate with Team play like that.

So, in my view, the big result that Bjarne Riis has delivered here is transcendence from the egotistical excesses of the hero lone-cyclist to the supremacy of an all smashing, all powerful Team. This new game is the sustainable new deal our sport totally needs. With individuals working together as a real Team, the need for doping and other manifestations of the all consuming compulsions of the lone-cyclist to win alone becomes a thing of the past. A Team can adapt and react much better than any individual can. The total dependency on going-it-alone tends to encourage the stupidities of drug taking. Teams don’t need such things if they really function well. What we saw on the slopes of L’Alpe D’Huez was a clash between the old and the new school of pro cycling. And the new school won. Cadel is a remnant of the past. CSC is cycling’s future. So is Caisse D’Epargne.

Now all we need to fulfil the promise of this dream of the Team is to reintroduce the Team time trials we have missed so much these past few years. One thing is sure, if this year’s Stage 20 was a Team time trial rather than an individual time trial, Cadel would be all washed up. As it stands, with the unfortunate choice of two individual time trials in this year’s race, Cadel still has a chance. I think that’s mighty sad. For me, Team CSC has won this Tour. Caisse D’Epargne has come in second. Whatever does happen from now to the end will not diminish the real heroes of this year’s Le Tour. bravo CSC! You are all winners, one for all and all for one.

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VOIGTTOURMALET.jpgThere’s a poem of a stock horseman and his ride that has become a bedrock to the Australian mythology of heroic deeds and adventure. The Man from Snowy River by ‘Banjo’ Paterson tells the story of a young mountain lad, mounted on a small mountain pony, who rides out with the experienced stockmen in pursuit of a runaway horse. Because of his size, and the size of his pony he is first ridiculed, but when the wild bush horses take to the wild and rugged mountain tracts, his ride enters the realm of legend. When it came to the rugged hills, this unexpected, modest and unassuming bushman put on a show the likes of which had never been seen before. His wild ride redefined heroism and skill in the hills, for all time.

Does this story remind you of another legendary ride? Swap the bush hat and dungarees for a CSC jersey, the Aussie high country drawl for Germanic accent and the plucky mountain horse for a Cervelo, and I think you will soon tune to the latest telling of the grand story of a great and legendary rider and his chase.

Jens Voigt’s peloton thrashing ride up the Col du Tourmelat during Stage10 of this year’s Tour de France is a worthy update to the legendary bush rider who still, to this day, makes most Aussies swoon with adulation for the kind of heroism that only the modest and unassuming can be pushed beyond limits to provide.

It was an astonishing ride. Jens Voigt is not a climber, but he pushed himself beyond all endurance to power the front of the peloton up one of the world’s most famous climbs in a calculated move to drop all those who could threaten the ultimate chances of his friends and colleagues, Frank Schleck and Carlos Sastre to overall victory in Paris. It was an astonishing feat of noble self sacrifice. It was also a feat that paid the precise dividends that were intended. Tour GC contenders like Alejandro Valverde were effectively removed from the race from the sheer power of Jens Voigt’s ride on that day.

True to legend, our new hero remained modest and unassuming to the end. In an interview the following day, a reflective Voigt soberly reflected on the pain he had endured and on he pain he had inflicted on most others from his climb: ‘…and I get paid to hurt people, how good is that!’.

Here’s the final lines from Australia’s national poem, the myth of the heroic ride now reset on the slopes of the Col du Tourmelat:

He was right among the horses as they climbed the further hill,

And the watchers on the mountain standing mute,

Saw him ply the stockwhip fiercely, he was right among them still,

As he raced across the clearing in pursuit.

Then they lost him for a moment, where two mountain gullies met

In the ranges, but a final glimpse reveals

On a dim and distant hillside the wild horses racing yet,

With the man from Snowy River at their heels.

And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.

He followed like a bloodhound on their track,

Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,

And alone and unassisted brought them back.

But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,

He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;

But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,

For never yet was mountain horse a cur.

And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise

Their torn and rugged battlements on high,

Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze

At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,

And where around the Overflow the reedbeds sweep and sway

To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,

The man from Snowy River is a household word to-day,

And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.

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Stage 6 of Le Tour hit the hills for the first time today. It was a fascinating, lively, visually appealing kind of stage. Something exciting happens when a grand tour leaves the flats for the hills; the entire race takes on a different, more heroic kind of appeal. I can’t help thinking that these appealing thrills are not exactly shared by the riders involved…but we get to see more, savour more, and the plot builds more slowly to a higher tide of excitement than we get from flat sprint-to-the-finish stages; at least in my view.

Until, that is, Le Tour’s organisers (ASO) decided to drop the time bonus system for this year. This has me concerned. I rather think we got a flash of things to come in the final moments of today’s ascent to Super Besse. I just can’t get the image of remora’s out of my head when I watch the efforts of Tour favourite Cadel Evans. The remora is a sucker fish; it feeds off and hitches a ride on bigger fish. On the journey to Super Besse, I think there can be no doubt about which team performed the best. Caisse D’Epargne were in warrior zen-like command of the crest of the front line wave for most of the day. Once again, that most stunningly noble of chief Lieutenants, Oscar Pereiro delivered his Don right into the fighting zone where that most elite of all cyclists do their thing: the final hill sprint. It was a wonderful demonstration of Team precision and collective talent to assert what really is the best team in the game right now.

Yes, the game was played out in real style. Ricardo Ricco (the actual stage winner, leader of the Saunier Duval team) has also delivered on his reputation for rising to a fight. I can’t say the same for the rider who came in third after Ricco and Valverde. Cadel Evans also delivered the result we have come to expect. Clinging remora-like to the wake of riders with vastly greater fighting spirit and panache, Cadel did his usual riding the slipstream show. His team imploded way way down the hill.

Which is why I am concerned about this new deal to withhold time bonuses. I think that this new policy could favour riders like Cadel Evans and encourage an overall Tour win without a single stage victory to show. Time bonuses reward stage victories in such a way as to encourage, endorse and reward those who go to that final limit of endurance to take out a win, rather than just cruise on in behind. Doing the math, Valverde’s Stage 1 victory and second placing in Stage 6 would have almost eliminated his one minute time deficit to Cadel Evans by now. But rather than that, the deficit derived only through that singular discipline of the time trial, remains completely intact. And that, quite simply, is not fair. Valverde is a vastly better rider than Cadel Evans, and has demonstrated this twice over so far in this year’s Tour. But Cadel Evans is sucker fishing himself to advantage without doing the hard yards that a true elite like Valderde is less shy to demonstrate.

I’ve heard it said that a final GC win without taking out a single stage is some kind of a demonstration of clever strategic skill; and, therefore, Cadel is playing the more skilful game. Well now, I have noting against prowess of the strategic kind. But to win only on strategic skill transforms the Grand Tour game to a game of chess. I love chess too, but chess is not a grand spectator sport! Let’s be honest here. The glorious heritage of Le Tour, and of the Giro, is one of grand heroic battles played out on the snow peaked hills; not an armchair pawn chicanery en passant affair.

I have no objection at all to Cadel taking the final win; providing he does so with at least one stage victory and more than a hint of the same attacking spirit that Valverde – and Ricco – have demonstrated to date. And please!! don’t let Cadel’s single stage victory be in the final Stage 20 time trial. If Cadel is to win over all, he needs to take out a win in the hills. Nothing else will console my disappointment not seeing Don Alejandro standing on the top podium block in Paris.

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Le Tour puts the ‘Grand’ in Grand Tour. There’s nothing quite like these 21 days in July.

It’s a splendiferous amalgam of virtual armchair tourism through some of the world’s most spectacular places, high octane sporting excitement, high drama, humour, frustration, anger; you name it. Then there’s the curiously unique and somehow harmonious merging of high tech and human physical endurance. I don’t know about you but when I do a 100km ride, I’m ready for a feets up for a while. But Le Tour is on a vastly higher plane. 200km per day over 21 days! At full racing speed. No, at maxed-out record breakingl racing speed; this is the place where the speed records are continually reset. Yes, It’s all here. Le Tour is also something of a laterally reconfigured game of chess. There’s some serious tactical chicanery going on here.

Perhaps it was just my sleep deprived over enthusiastic devotion to my all time favourite team – Caisse D’Epargne; but I could have sworn that these boys are playing a game to make a world chess grand master blush in a frenzy of awe. I do know that the Caisse D’Epargne brains trust is pretty profound. Directeur Sportif, José Miguel Echavarri García has some of the best credentials around and is a fitting tactician for a team with a history that includes 5-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain, 2-time winner of Vuelta a España Alex Zülle and legendary climber José Maria Jiménez. A team with 7 Tour de France victories, two Vuelta’s and lots of victories in the great one day classics. So with this heritage at hand, perhaps their 2008 Le Tour campaign really is as clever as it seems.

For starters, you must have noticed team leader Allejandro Valverde’s bike. It is hard to miss. Check out the picture. And the colour of Alejandro’s kit; red, black and yellow to remind all those who would need no reminders at all that Alejandro is fresh from victory in the Spanish nationals and victory in the Dauphine Libre (the great warm up ride for the Tour de France). All this announced and embellished Don Alejandro’s Stage 1 Victory and immediate assumption of the yellow jersey. You could hear the doubters scoff; he’s going too soon; he’ll burn out. But no, you’ve got to recall that with time bonuses out of the game this year, every single victory counts. And then there was the way the Caisse boys kept the pressure on that breakaway on Stage 3; never too close but definitely not too far away. It was a piece of precision engineering.

So how does one read Alejandro’s apparent blow out in the first individual time trial (Stage 4)? He came in 23rd place, a minute down on who we assume to be his chief rival, Cadel Evans. Surely this is a statement that Don Alejandro’s grand parade is at its end. Perhaps. But I wonder. We know he can time trial quite well; better than Cadel as he showed in the Dauphine Libre a few weeks ago. Is this a bluff to overexcite the Silence (Cadel’s) Team? Is it to take the pressure off a team now biding its time for the hills? And what about the (unaccountably unheralded) performance of Oscar Pereiro (Alejandro’s right hand man)? He out spun Alejandro in the time trial and in the next day’s flat Stage 5. Don’t forget that Oscar’s invisibility was key to yielding him overall victory in 2006. Is Oscar a main man again here? Never underestimate Oscar Pereiro; he is a rider with interesting depths.

So, there’s all sorts of plots going on here; ranging from psychological mind games to pawn-bishop swaps across the Caisse front line. I tell you what; this one has me enthralled.

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firstrace.jpgThis picture flags an extraordinarily interesting moment in history. The date was November 7, 1869. The picture celebrates the successful completion of the most ambitious large scale test of the bicycle ever undertaken. Earlier in the day that the picture marks, thousands gathered at the Arch de Triomphe in Paris to celebrate the start of the longest and highest profile cycling race to be held since the dawn of the bicycle some ten years before. The race was from Paris to Rouen. Virtually all the world’s top racers were at the start; from a starting group of more than 100 velocepedeists, 30 finished. The race winner, after ten and a half hours, was James Moore (right in the picture) and the runner up was Andre Castre (left).

Look more deeply. Victor Moore is riding a bike that pressed the boundaries of race legal innovation for the time. His rear wheel is half the size of that at the front, to push the limit of wood wheeled technology that peaked at around 40 inches. This was a moment in time that marked the end of the wooden wheel; metal wheels with wire spokes were about to lift the size limits that wood could sustain. This was the dawn of the ‘high wheeler’ era. Moore’s end of-its-era wooden wheels also supported the very beginning of the next era of rubber banded rims; very comfortable compared with bare wood on the bumpy dirt roads of the time. These wheels were truly straddling a transition point in the state of the art!

In those days of no gears, the bigger the wheel that is pedalled, the more speed one got from each circle of the legs. Pushing the wooden rim out to 40 inches was the greatest technological answer to more speed. A year after this inaugural Paris to Rouen race, metal wheels replaced wood and cyclists pedalled ever higher off the ground. Then many people could regularly achieve speeds greater than the records of only a few months past. This picture is poised, then, on the transition of one era to the next. But note the wonderful attire as well. How many cyclists wear ties when racing today? And nice woollen overcoats. And not to mention fashionable hats.

These were critical times in the emergence of the bicycle. From the initial fury of boulevard promenading dandies prancing to the ladies on their foot pushing velocepede’s of the early 1860’s, trough to the onset of fad fade five years later, the cycling scene needed something inspirational to restore the public faith. The game virtually died out in Europe by 1869. Patent wars killed the fervour in the USA. The velocipede seemed to perpetually evade an attraction to those classes more used to work than play. The prices were too high. But the science of the making was innovating too; well before the era of the automobile production line innovations of Henry Ford, some bicycle makers in France were getting very close (the Compagnie Parisienne was the first major manufacturer to explore economies of scale, but never of economies of management; which is why it failed by the time our photo was taken).

Of greatest moment of all, this photo marks the event that catalysed the renewal of the bicycle from its status as a Parisian toy to the instrument of sport and popular regard. This was the turning point when the adventure of cycle sport catalysed popular respect; sowing the seed of admiration and a wide ambition to be involved. Racing cyclists became the heroes of the day. Heroes inspire emulation and so the next great popular swell of bicycle fervour began.

It’s not been a completely steady incline, needless to say. Bicycles have never been completely shielded from the peaks and troughs of cultural shifts, but the core this first race inspired has largely remained intact. It was a metamorphosis of an event. The Velocipede became the bicycle. The bicycle became a vehicle of the road rather than of the park. While cyclists like Merckx, Armstrong and Contador have inspired the generations that followed, Moore and Castre were the first to catalyse the romance of the bike and the possibilities it can sustain.

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CIPO.jpgSponsorship of pro-cycling teams comes and goes. The names linger on long after the sponsor’s money disappeared. Remember Festina (the watch company). Discovery Channel? US Postal? How about Once, Kelme, Saeco, Banesto, Fassa Bortolo…

All part of the pattern of cycling history.

Teams come and go and change their sponsorship deals. But the pace of change we are seeing right now is extraordinary. From last season into this we have lost Discovery (team gone), Unibet (team gone), T Mobile (sponsor disappeared in disgust), Quick Step (to disappear at the end of this year), Phonak (team gone), CSC (sponsor pulling the plug at the end of the year).

In parallel with this exit of disenchanted sponsors comes a (less than fully compensating) influx of ‘new clean image’ teams hell bent on reinvention and distance from the bad old days of doped-up cycling. Slipstream is an interesting response in this regard. They are like a team of anti-doping evangelists led by chief hymn singer David Miller (born again anti-doping crusader). Other teams are trying to re-invent themselves as cleaner than clean. High Road (the residual name for the team that was once T Mobile), AG2R and Francaise des Jeux are all anti-doping evangelists these days. It is as though there are now two pro tour competitions running at the same time these days. One to do with racing and the other to do with who is cleaner than everyone else; kind of like a saint-hood shoot-out.

But I wonder, is this new found competitiveness to proclaim ever higher levels of anti-doping zealousness the real culture shifting exercise that will, in time, redefine pro cycling and reclaim the popularity of the sport?

I don’t think so. The reason being is that these new ‘saints of cycling’ seem purpose built to remind us all of the doping culture that they are seeking to abandon. No one like to keep on being reminded of the mistakes from the past. Over and over and over again. If a team seeks to define itself as being clean, we can only understand that quest if we recall what it was like to be dirty.

No, I detect a culture shift in pro cycling that is vastly more interesting and left field. I rather think that there is an experiment going on right now that might announce a new character for pro cycling a few years from now. That experiment is being trail blazed by Rock Racing (and to a lesser degree, by Team Tinkoff).

Michael Ball’s Rock Racing Team has announced itself as a group of distinctive difference. They are taking their queues from the world of pop/rock culture and the world of cultural bling. It’s not exactly subtle. Take their team kit. Or their opening gambit with the reincarnation (re-birthing?) Mario Cipollini. That was poignant. Cippo’s unique iconoclastic, outrageous and charismatic overindulgence is exactly the style that Rock Racking is seeking to embed. It made sense for Rock Racing to take Cipollini on during the Tour of California. The fact that he has now parted company with the team is irrelevant. The image was set. And with this team, image is all! Rock Racing is exciting and newsworthy; and not just for their racing prowess. Much of this also applies to Team Tinkoff (Tinkoff Credit Systems). Starting out, seemingly, as a home for ex-convicted doping offenders, they have a style way out of the ordinary as well. They too can’t break into stodgy old UCI racing programmes. They too will not be getting invites from arch conservative French sporting organisation, ASO, into their Tours of France, Italy or lots of one day classics. But if Rock Racing can ride the crest of popular adulation, they will turn the tide of public enthusiasm for pro cycling in directions that, perhaps, few could anticipate from the main fields of conventional wisdom. That same wisdom that has largely self-imploded via utterly non-sustainable, bureaucracy heavy big-buck corporate-linked conventional mainstreaming now teetering on the crest of a mighty tipping point into overbloated oblivion. A bit like the oil culture that gave us global warming. These mighty fortresses usually fall and their tyre-blowout decline is usually all the more spectacular the more they are pumped…tinkoff.jpg

Which is not to say that the adulation for this new side-line of Rock culture cycling teams is universal! Or that the hype Rock Racing is getting is deserved or for all the right reasons. Or that this new dimension of bling for cycling is going to do much for the feats of cycling that we have so admired in the past. One only has to read the sometimes hysterical reactions from the cycling cognoscenti and tsunami’s of distress from the cycling blogosphere to note that this will not be a painless transition. What I am saying is that Rock Racing is a force for change. It’s a catalyst to something. It’s that something to which we need to stay tuned. It certainly won’t be boring.

So I am following Rock Racing and Team Tinkoff with extraordinary fascination.

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Maurice GarinNo doubt you have noticed, if not contributed to, a flurry of irate letters to the editors of cycling journals, newspapers and news sites on the general theme of a pro cycling scene in drug induced self-imploding chaos. The common theme is …’I am so depressed by all the doping controversies in the pro peloton that I am no longer watching cycle racing…’ or, “I am not going to follow the Tours anymore because all these pro cyclists are cheats!’ And so on. And then we have the sanctimoious outpourings from sponsors and even governments over the need for pro cycling to clean up its act. Remember the decision by a major German TV station to can its coverage of the 2007 Tour de France mid race? And of that consortium of Kazak sponsors intent on pulling the plug on Astana and Phonak’s decision to kill its support for its namesake team.

What a bunch of wowsers!

When did it become manditatory for us all to declare our total incapacity to tolerate anything less than virtuous human perfection within the pro peloton? Has cycling become some kind of whipping boy through which to assert blessings on our own assumed virtues? It seems that political correctness is measured by the degree to which we each declare shock and despair at the antics of a few dodgy pro cyclists. Gimme a break!
As usual, history helps. Wind the clock back to 1904. The scene is the second ever Tour de France. Here’s a quote from a bueat new book, Vive le Tour! – Amazing Tales of the Tour de France by Nick Brownlee, Robson Books, 2007 (p. 12):

Four months after the race, the four top riders in the General Classification (including Maurice Garin, the race winner) were thrown out following the revelation of a catalogue of skulduggery including…

itching powder in the riders’ shorts, spiked drinks, sabotaged bike frames and nails and broken glass scattered across the road. Road favourite Hippolyte Acouturier, himself a victim of a spiked drink in 1903, was spotted taking a tow from a car by means of a string attached to a cork which he gripped between his teeth. Garin bribed Geo Lefevre [race deputy organiser] to given him an illegal feed. He and rival Pierre Chevallier were also rumoured to have made up lost time by gtting a lift in a car when darkenss fell. And all this was just in stage 1!

And then consider the riot when a hundred supporters of local rider Antoine Faure blocked the road and set about the riders with cudgels while their man sped off up the road. The mob dispersed only when Lefevre fired his revolver into the air….

Well, you couldn’t do that these days…you might hit a helicopter with your gun!

Isn’t this a great reality check? If things were that bad back in 1904, claims that cycling is slipping into a ditch these days are a little far fetched.

It’s all just a human thing. Some people are less dedicated to honesty than others. That is the same in all walks (runs, jumps, and politics) of life. Do you really want to be casting the first stone?

I simply advocate taking a reality pill (aka good hard fast ride up some really really steep hills until you get it out of your system), chilling out and relaxing back into the stupendous joy of watching and participating in cycle sport. Yes, weed out the bad ‘uns. But pleeeeeze can all those do-gooder cycling pundits constrain all their shouting and sanctimonious screaming. It’s giving me a headache.

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