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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

And Another Thing...

What's with Europeans being so anti-hierarchical? Why can there never be a single winner at anything? Take soccer for example. I love top Euro play, especially at the national team level, even if Italy always craps out far too early. But for international play, there is the World Cup, as well as regional tournaments like the European Championships now going on, or Copa America, or the African Nations Cup, or something like that. Chunked it in Korea? No problem, you're still the holder of the Copa America, so don't sweat it. At the club level it's actually far worse. There is the league play (the regular season), which crowns a champion. And an all-inclusive tournament in most countries (FA Cup, Copa Italia, etc.) that sounds like the playoffs but actually takes place in mid-season. And if you experience success in one or the other, next season you can also expect to play in the Champions League, an international league running at the same time as the domestic leagues, made up of the best 3-4 teams from every European country; or if you're just one cut below, there's always the UEFA Cup, the NIT of international club play.

So Average Guiseppe from Milan gets all worked up about Inter Milan ... but Inter get off to a slow start in Serie A, Vieri is injured, people are bickering at the coach, and by midseason you can forget about the Scudetto (league title). However, there's still Copa Italia, which is ripe for the plucking, because teams like crosstown rivals AC Milan would rather rest their best players for the more coveted Scudetto. Also, AC Milan are the holders of the Champions Cup, and having trouble defending their title, so the Copa Italia is the least of their concerns. Roma would have been a challenger for the Copa but they are locked in a three-way dogfight for the Scudetto, and are the upstarts to Milan and Juventus; they'd rather let crosstown rivals Lazio compete for the Copa. So if you're still following me, Inter and Lazio are the top challengers for the Copa Italia. Ah, but bad luck there too, as powerhouse Juventus falls off in league play and decides to slaughter Inter in the Copa (though Juve eventually lose the Copa finals to Lazio, who placed a distant sixth for the Scudetto).

My point is, cycling is turning into soccer. Each country has its national champion, and hands out a jersey to prove it. There is also the UCI ranking, not to be confused with World Cup, which has a jersey, and not to be confused with the world championships, which has a really great jersey, even though it designates the winner of an annual bunch sprint among whoever feels like still being on a bike in October. The classics are mini-championships in and of themselves, and the three Grand Tours are essentially the pinnacles of cycling, especially le Tour. Even there, within the Tour, there is an overall winner, and 3-5 categories of sub-winners.

What is this, everyone gets a trophy day? There is the yellow jersey. All else is window dressing. Not to disrespect the traditions of Old Europe, they're pretty cool. But if you have seventy-five things to play for, will you ever experience competition at its greatest potential? American sports tend to have a single championship -- world series, super bowl, etc. -- that everyone is focused on. All but one team ends the season with nothing to show for it. But when they do finally break through, it makes it that much more special, does it not?

OK, soccer has the world cup, and cycling has the yellow jersey. Maybe the difference is that Europeans can make the subtle distinctions between lesser accomplishments and the truly great ones, and don't need the black-and-white American system to feel comfortable about what they just saw. But I do wonder sometimes...

Don't Do It

"It" being buying Outside Magazine for its Lance feature. Same goes for ESPN the Birdcage Liner. Everyone in possession of a printing press is putting a splashy yellow photo of our hero (one of them at least) on their cover in time for the TdF, but almost nobody has anything interesting to say. ESPN at least admits its failure and gives up, running a USA-Today style graphic instead of real copy. Outside goes to the trouble of having its reporter pester Lance for a day or two, and talks cycling code here and there (oblique references to Hamilton's grit), but in the end gives us too much "Lance Armstrong has won the Tour of France -- a race that involves pedaling a bicycle around the nation of France every day for three weeks -- an unprecedented five times...." If you're accustomed to the cycling press, it's clear from my review that there's nothing interesting by comparison in the mainstream press, just rehash for passive observers. Save a few trees, read them online if at all.


Peter van P asks: "Just a thought.  I noticed that a majority of the cycling national championships took place this past weekend (how old is Tom Steels?).  Are racers from other countries allowed to race in the Belgian or Italian races?  If not, then why is our national championship opened up to other countries?"

Brief research shows that there is no technical answer to this question. Nobody can say where the rule book is on this matter. However, as a practical consequence of holding all the European national road race championships on the same day, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Dutchman who skipped his home race to contend for the Spanish title. Actually, a quick perusal of the Spanish championships, won by TdF hardman Francisco Mancebo, shows no sign of Colombians or other Spanish-speaking colony types. So my guess is, if you don't have the right passport, you aren't invited.

The US Pro Championships, on the other hand, are habitually won by Canadians, Italians, members of the CSC team, etc. Just usually not an American, although if you stick around at the finish long enough, you can see who wins the prestigious US National Champions jersey. It's the game-within-the-game. Usually they aren't entirely certain and just give it to Fast Freddy.

As to why the US champs road race is open to non-Americans (even French!) and the other countries' championships appear closed, the answer is that America is a more open, tolerant society than snotty countries like Luxembourg and Spain. We celebrate our diversity, even our mediocrity, by letting B-list pros from other countries jump the field at the Manayunk Wall every June. It's what keeps us strong.

BTW, why isn't there a Basque championship road race? That one would at least be worth watching. Why? Because of the international conspiracy to destroy the Basque people, going even to the lengths of neutralizing their cycling greatness by dividing them among France and Spain, and diluting their impact. Anyway, I bet there could be a killer course and some cracking good competition. Maybe next year...

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Nobody's Fool

Nice turn by Ullrich to call Lance's "bluff," if that's what it was. Jan said over the weekend he's convinced Armstrong was playing possum on the Ventoux climb in this year's Dauphinee, and that Bruyneel was similarly playing the game with his follow-up comments of "surprise" at Lance's big loss to Mayo. Ullrich said he thinks Lance is in better shape than that, and that this is all a strategy to lull the opposition to sleep a bit. Nobody outside the employ of the USPS squad knows the truth of Lance's form (except maybe Sheryl?), but either way Ullrich is smart to assume the worst (for him). And it's a cheeky move in the pre-Tour cat-and-mouse, which is already reaching new levels of intrigue. Your move, Lance.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Adois Beloki

Beloki has severed ties with Brioches, on the eve of the Tour. How's this playing in Paris? A French team loses its (Spanish crybaby) star two weeks before Liege? OK, Beloki is surely disappointed by the team's sponsorship changing, but isn't he being paid -- rather handsomely, for a guy coming off major injuries? Can't he finish out the year? This all seems pretty bizarre.

Then again, even if Beloki were in top form, my guess is he wouldn't even be the top Spaniard at the Tour, let alone a real GC threat. And apparently he's a ways from top form.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Discovery going Postal?

Lance just flew back to DC for a press conference at Discovery Channel HQ in Silver Spring. Sounds like they got a new sponsor for 2005.

Monday, June 14, 2004


Last year Lance won the Tour in the TTT. OK, that's like saying bush won in Florida, when you could just as easily point to 100 other small breaks that made a difference. But there and the final climb, and Ullrich's slow day to the Alpe, were the only instances where he dusted Ullrich.

So... while everyone looks to the Alpe TT, the question is, where will this Tour really be won?

It... starts... now

Technically the Tour starts in just under three weeks, by which time even Euro 2004 will have been decided. But with the Tour de Suisse underway, the Dauphine finished, and final rosters shaping up, the subplots are exploding onto the scene. Let's face it, this is like driving to a final exam. Yes, technically it hasn't started yet, but if you aren't ready now, it's too late.

One person who won't be ready, sadly, is Vino. Nobody seems to dislike him, so I guess I don't either. And he is an impressive rider -- not consistent enough to win the Tour, maybe, but is there any type of race he can't win? Only Tyler Hamilton can call him a pussy for hanging it up, and of course Tyler is way too mild mannered for that. Anyway, Vino's got a few shots left at glory in those legs. Another missing figure will be Beloki. Poor Brioches, did anybody spend their money worse this off season? Nothing like an overpaid, wounded Spanish malcontent to liven up a talented, cash-strapped French team.

One person looking about ready is Ullrich. Not that he ever impresses much before the Tour starts, but at least his win in the first stage in Switzerland suggests he won't be dropping three minutes to Lance in week one this year. No more "don't tease me, I'm full of chocolate" jokes. And Tyler has it all together, his legs, the team, his collarbone. This may be his only shot.

Most impressive in his tuneups has been Mayo. Not much to add here; the guy can fly. Stats suggest that Lance didn't exactly lose that ride, since he matched his personal best for the Ventoux TT course; it's just that Mayo shattered the previous record. Coulda been the conditions; Hamilton beat the old record too.

The main story is the possibility that Mayo is going to kick Lance's ass. Of course, there is much to be said of Lance laying low this year, wanting his fitness to peak at the exact right moment, i.e. middle of week 2. Bruyneel and co. are about as secretive as Nixon, so all we can do is speculate. But what lesson are they applying from last year? That Lance shouldn't overdo his preparation? That he shouldn't try to win the Dauphine, it takes too much out of him? That winning the Dauphine is peaking too soon? Last year he limped in, having crashed and gotten a bit ill. He prepared in 2003 like he always had, but maybe he learned that his body was changing at last, that he had to start doing a bit less? Thinking about it, the Tour may be less than three weeks off, but there is nearly a month between the Dauphine and the Pyrenees. In terms of fitness peaks, that IS a long time. So, for now, I am buying the story that Lance is playing possum.

[Subplot: Lance loves a villain, and now he's got one in that slander book. Is this just the motivation he needs? Paul, do people over there understand that yelling "dope" will probably drive him to victory? Are his detractors and opponents cagey enough not to take this bait? Seriously, imagine if Mayo mentioned it on the eve of the AdH TT? Lance would put 3 minutes into the field. Of course, among the top riders, only McEwen is stupid enough to say something.]

As I see it, it still begins and ends with Lance. Of course, going for the magic 6 means the media will play it that way, but the riders, they don't respond to the papers, they respond to what they see on the road. Of course they'll be looking for the Patron first, see what he's got left in those legs, and hope the Tour isn't already over.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


Hm, let's see, young stud with odd body chemistry breaks out at age 22 and skates off with one of cycling's major prizes, with ridiculous ease. When have we heard this before?

When Ullrich won the tour in 97. And when Lance won the worlds in, what, 94?

I don't want to go off the deep end about Cunego, since this is his first breakout, and since the Giro is about as thin on talent as the World League of American Football. But the way he won with so little trouble, other than the pressure to show undeserved respect to Simoni, the way he won sprints and climbs, and the fact that he has a natural hematocrit of some 53%... it bodes well. Yes, his three-minute loss in the time trial shows he has a lot of work to do, and he may be more of a Heras or Pantani than a true all-round GC guy, at least when it comes to the tour. But then again, he's so young, he's got plenty of time to learn how to time-trial.

Nobody knows where this is headed, but we can at least say -- can't we? -- that this is a far more auspicious breakout than some of the other recent grand tour wins. Savoldelli won the '02 Giro on the strength of one good stage, and only after Simoni and Casagrande got tossed and Tyler broke his shoulder. Similar story for Aitor Gonzalez in that year's Vuelta (though there was at least some potential there), and nobody ever thought much of Angel Casero's win the previous year. Cunego is planning to rest for the Vuelta, so we'll find out a good deal more about him in September. Should be most interesting, as the Vueta always is.

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