Category Archives: Features

Feature length articles on cycling, normally from a more serious point of view.

Notes from a weekend in Montreal

IMG_5648

As Alberto Contador was grinding his way up the Angliru on Saturday; signing off on his career with one last win, I was rolling into Montreal. As Chris Froome was securing his place in cycling history, with his Tour-Vuelta double, I was securing a parking spot for the weekend. I missed a lot of that final weekend of the Vuelta because of this trip, though I did catch a World Tour race as compensation. And the best spectator one at that.

Continue reading Notes from a weekend in Montreal

Advertisements

Froome completes historic double

froomedouble
Final Vuelta podium has Froome on top at last, and completing an historic Tour-Vuelta double (Photo: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

Before this past weekend only two men had ever won the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España in the same year. And nobody had ever done it with the Vuelta coming after the Tour in the current calendar.

Until now.

For Chris Froome held off the opposition to secure a historic double. Since the start of the Tour and the end of the Vuelta, 72 days had past. In that time Froome raced in Grand Tours for 42 days. And of those, he has spent 32 days in the leaders jersey. It was a remarkable level of consistency of both physical endurance and mental fortitude. It was a fine achievement.

Continue reading Froome completes historic double

In defence of Froome and the 2017 Tour de France

froomesonpodium2
Froome on the podium in Paris with his son Keelan (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As Chris Froome delivered his speech in Paris on Sunday, American golfer, Jordan Spieth was doing the same 646km away at Royal Birkdale Golf Club. He had won his first Open Championship at the same moment Froome had secured his fourth Tour de France. The pair are alike in many ways. Both winners, both focused and both committed. But all too rare in athletes in this century, both are also graceful and carry themselves with class.

And yet back in the US, Spieth can look forward to high praise and a warm reception in the media. In the UK, Froome is still striving for the same. It could be a cultural thing, but it could also be a cycling thing. On the day of his victory in Paris, several articles in the British press took a more negative slant on his win. It ought to have been a moment to savour and celebrate.

Continue reading In defence of Froome and the 2017 Tour de France

Team Sky have slipped, but not fallen. A review of the ‘scandal’ as I see it

I told myself I wouldn’t bother writing about this whole Team Sky mess. Not this close to Christmas. Not with two children under four both hyper and my wife’s present still to buy. Yet here I am, rattling away on the keyboard in an attempt to squeeze in some thoughts before Christmas. After that, I’m not sure I’ll care enough. But there has been so much outrage that I wanted to give my own perspective to some degree or other.

If you’re still reading now then chances are you know the background and the details, so I’ll spare you a run down. Suffice to say, it has been an ugly year for Team Sky away from the racing. In fact, on the bike it’s been quite memorable. Another Tour victory, and their first Monument win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But the year draws to a close with their reputation on the line and a scandal at hand. One in which they have prolonged by failing to present an adequate response.

I must say though, I find it hard to call the whole mess a scandal in the traditional sense of the word. Knowing where the sport has been before, and all that.  An ugly situation for sure, but classified by your own personal perspective of it only. And that’s the difference with this one. In the old days it was a full-blown back and white objective doping scandal. This is more a subjective shade of grey; one of ethics and morals and where each individual sees the invisible ethical line in their own mind. With no violation of the rules taking place, where does Sky’s failure in ethics sit in proportion to your own standards? Or do you care about some fictional line if they haven’t broken the hard line that is the letter of the law? As such the outrage here is subjective to what you think is and isn’t wrong from a moral point of view.

Unfortunately though, Sky have created a mess far bigger than it ought to be by trying to wrangle their way out of it. As such it has now become a PR scandal. Not only an issue of Team Sky’s TUE use, the timing of that use and the jiffy-bag sideshow, but how they’ve handled the crisis. Not only a scandal about falling ethics but also about their failing transparency. Instead of being open an transparent as they promised they would be, they hoped it would all go away by dodging the questions. And no more so than with this jiffy bag. The silence of what was in it was deafening. And then on Monday, Dave Brailsford revealed it to be Fluimucil, an over the counter product not on WADA’s banned substance list. Why wait until they were in front of a Parliamentary hearing (the need for which at the expensive of the British tax payer, itself debatable) to finally come clean about something like that? The sudden reveal leaves people wondering why they didn’t say what it was to begin with? It also leaves others failing to believe them. Being pressured into it this far down the line has made it look worse. The optics are awful. And that is where this scandal is at.

Of course, that said, if this is were the benchmark for a scandal in cycling now lies, then the sport has come far. Cars full of EPO at the border, or a doctors fridge full of blood bags this is not. Still, it hasn’t been pretty and reputations are at stake.

As for me, there is no doubt Sky slipped up in comparison to their own high standards, but not by enough for me to hang them. From a PR perspective they made a right mess, but this is not a PR blog and I am no PR analyst. I prefer the cycling aspect of what happened in 2012 and what has happened since. In that regard, to me, Sky remained within the physical rules. They applied for and received a TUE by the protocols in place at the time. Some suggest Bradley Wiggins did not need that TUE for health reasons and that he got it for a performance enhancing benefit. But that is speculative at best and I am not in the business of speculating without facts. He may well have needed it, though in the end it was up to the UCI to reject the application. Why they didn’t, we don’t know. Still, this is something that Sky might want to explain further themselves in a bid to help clear the air.

But let’s be clear…the idea that Sky have abused the TUE system is false. From what we currently know, their TUE use has been minimal by comparison to some. TUE use has fallen at Sky in the five years since this affair. The TUE system in general has also tightened at UCI and WADA level, though the case could be mad for tightening it further. But take Chris Froome for example, he has only applied for two TUE’s over the years and never during his three Tour de France victories. They say that mud sticks and that might be the shame in all this. But if you can look above the mud, you begin to see a difference. If there is an underlying issue within Sky, that continues to this day, then it has yet to reveal itself. And I see no evidence of it.  If the Wiggins’ TUE application sat wrong with you, you can at least admit there has not been a repeat pattern. That isn’t to say Sky are in the clear though, far from it. Questions will continue and if they want to remain on a higher ethical standard, they need to start giving more direct answers.

Applying for TUE’s at all, is enough to suggest an ethical slip to some, and on that basis even Chris Froome has taken heat. The belief being that TUE use in any regard is not good enough for a team like Sky. But the TUE system is there for a good reason; it’s the abuse of it we have to be wary of.  And if our ethics make us strict on that, then we must be wary of abuse from any team. Then to other fans, being ethical is not cheating by the letter of the rules of the sport. But as I have said, ethics are subjective.

For me, Team Sky are a clean team at their core. In applying for TUE use, even for a legitimate reason, they have proven themselves not to be beyond absolute reproach, but I have seen no evidence that Sky have gone beyond the line as I see it. If anything in 2016 they have happened to fall closer to the level of the rest.

Hemingway and cycling in France

The cycling calendar has gone quite quiet. There was only four major races in Europe this past week. A few of them, I’d never even heard of. I had heard of the four different winners however. John Degenklob won the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro in Germany, Adnaud Demare won the Binche-Chimay-Binche in Belgium, Sam Bennett won the Paris-Bourges in France, and Fernando Gaviria won the Paris-Tours.

I didn’t see any of them and haven’t got a lot to say about them. My enthusiasm draining a little; in tune with the falling temperatures outside. I’m cycling less too and so are they. The worlds are ahead and there will be plenty to write about in the days ahead. My enthusiasm isn’t helped by the ongoing drama encircling Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins. I’ve more to say about it, but I have no desire to do so just now.

In place of cycling I’ve been reading more again and just this past month I’ve taken to Ernest Hemingway. I can’t quite believe it took so many years. The first story I went to was actually an audio book. A memoir called A Moveable Feast, published after his death about his early years in Paris. It’s no secret that Hemingway was a big fan of cycling and wrote about it in several of his books. That said, I wasn’t aware the subject would come up in A Moveable Feast, but I wasn’t surprised either. It’s only a couple of paragraphs but in it he describes his memories of watching the sport in Paris, on the track. It’s a fascinating yet all too brief look at cycling in those times. His descriptions are wonderful. In no time he makes you feel as though you are there and gives you a longing to go immediately to a big track event yourself.

In the book Hemingway was spending time at horse racing tracks when a friend tells him to try track cycling. That you don’t have to bet on it for, “anything you have to bet on to get a kick isn’t worth seeing.”

Here’s what Hemingway then has to say:

I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the roads. But I will get the Velodrome d’Hiver with the smoky light of the afternoon and the high-banked wooden track and the whirring sound the tires made on the wood as the riders passed, the effort and the tactics as the riders climbed and plunged, each one a part of his machine; I will get the magic of the demi-fond, the noise of the motors with their rollers set out behind them that the entraineurs rode, wearing their heavy crash helments and leaning backward in their ponderous leather suits, to shelter the riders who followed them from the air resistance, the riders in their lighter crash helments bent low over their handlebars their legs turning the huge gear sprockets and the small front wheels touching the roller behind the machine that gave them shelter to ride in, and the duels that were more exciting than anything, the put-puting of the motorcycles and the riders elbow to elbow and wheel to wheel up and down and around at deadly speed until one man could not hold the pace and broke away and the solid wall of air that he had been sheltered against hit him.

There was so many kinds of racing. The straight sprints raced in heats or in match races where the two riders would balance for long seconds on their machines for the advantage of making the other rider take the lead and then the slow circling and the final plunge into the driving purity of speed. There were the programs of the team races of two hours, with a series of pure sprints in their heats to fill the afternoon, the lonely absolute speed events of one man racing an hour against the clock, the terribly dangerous and beautiful races of one hundred kilometres on the big banked wooden five-hundred-meter bowl of the Stade Buffalo, the outdoor stadium of Montrouge where they raced behind big motorcycles, Linart, the great Belgian champion that they called “the Sioux” for his profile, dropping his head to suck up cherry brandy from a rubber tube that connected with a hot water bottle under his racing shirt when he needed it toward the end as he increased his savage speed, and the championships of France behind the big motors of the six-hundred-and-sixty-meter cement track of the Parc du Prince near Auteuil, the wickedest track of all where we saw that great rider Ganay fall and heard his skull crumple under the crash helmet as you crack an hard-boiled egg against a stone to peel it on a picnic. I must write the strange world of the six-day races and the marvels of the road-racing in the mountains. French is the only language it has ever been written in properly and the terms are all French and that is what makes it hard to write. Mike was right about it, there is no need to bet. But that comes at another time in Paris.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

How interesting that he mentions that French is the only language it has ever been written in properly. That the terms are all French. You can see what he means even though there has been excellent writing on the sport in English in recent times. The terms, in many regards, are still French. I plod along here in English, but still use words like peloton, bidon and chapeau.

After listening to this book I went on two read two more of his novels. It’s a shame Hemingway didn’t feel he could take on a story based around cycling. It would have been good. That said, one of the two books I read, The Sun Also Rises, has another short section about cycling. I’ll get that one soon.

Rider of the week

Four race and four different winners. I’ve gone with Arnaud Démare. The Frenchman was first at Binche-Chimay-Binche and second in Paris-Tours finishing his season well after starting the year strong with that Milan-San Remo victory.

A word on the Wiggins/Sky TUE ‘scandal’

I wanted to ignore it, but I’ve felt obliged to put something on record. It’s not that it isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter. It does. It’s just mind numbing. It’s the racing I’d prefer to talk about. Yet I must say something. I will of course skip the who, what, when, where and why’s. If you’re still reading this come the end of the second paragraph, you’ll already know that.

Yes, I am referring to the ‘Fancy Bears’ hack of athletes private medical data. And in this case the cyclists caught up in it. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, and their Therapeutic Use Exceptions (TUEs).

Wiggins was the biggest one. If anything Froome came out looking good…two uses of a TUE, both of which we knew about anyway. He’s had none since 2013 and has done the best of his winning since then. At the 2015 Tour, Froome fell ill and should have had a TUE, but refused. He even put out a statement condemning the abuse of the medical exceptions.

Wiggins though…he’s in the hot water.

Wiggins received TUEs for corticosteroid shots because severe pollen allergies exacerbated his asthma. He received three triamcinolone acetonide jabs shortly before key grand tour races. The Tour in 2011 and 2012 (which he won) and the Giro d’Italia in 2013.

Now it isn’t the use of the TUE by Wiggins that is the problem per say. And I’d love to see the records of other top riders for I bet he’s far from the worst offender here. This drug has performance enhancing qualities, but the TUE program is there or a reason. If you’re ill, you can get help. If Wiggins needed it, then so be it. It’s the timing of the injections that raises concern. It’s that Team Sky were operating under a stricter set of self imposed rules regarding this stuff, or so we thought.

Sir Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s boss, has said they would win by going as close to the line as possible, but not over. The line being the line of cheating. But when the line becomes blurred, how do you know exactly where it is? You could say the line is where the rules say it is. But Sky never gave off the impression of pushing such boundaries. Is there such as thing as very clean, kind of clean and sort of clean without being dirty?

Of course, we must be clear that Sky’s use of TUE’s has been minimal. They have far from abused the system and must get credit for that. And this is something that happened back in their earlier days. Call them naieve but a lot of their ‘mistakes’ appear to have come about from those days. Still, it raises an alarm…or at least the need for questions to be answered.

And there in lies one of the reasons this has dragged on so long. So many questions remain unanswered. Not least about the timing of Wiggins’s treatment. Did he only need these injections before his biggest races?

There’s talk that Wiggins took the shots because he didn’t want his allergies hampering his performance. But should TUE’s be awarded for preventative measures rather than only once you are sick? Did Sky weigh this up and go ahead with it anyway?

With these questions still up in the air, the saga rumbles on. This should have been put to bed and the attention should now be on how to improve the TUE process. Indeed, that’s another discussion that needs to be had. Things have improved, of course, since the Wiggins days. It’s a three man panel now who accesses whether a rider deserves one rather than one-man before. Still, there is no doubt more can be done, the regulations can be tightened further perhaps.

That all said. There are positives to take from this whole thing. By historic cycling standards of scandal, this is a storm in a tea cup. It isn’t pretty, but nor is it on the EPO or blood doping Richter scale of yesteryear. In that sense, this little hullabaloo shows how far cycling has come. If this is the best the hackers could come up with, then we’re not in the worst shape. And believe me, the hackers would have loved to have had greater dirt. Their modus operandi was to seek revenge for Russian athletes banned from Rio. The reaction of the Russians was to say this proved everyone else was at it too. As though TUE use was on a scale of systematic doping,  threats, intimidation, and switching samples through a hole in the wall of the lab in Sochi.

If this is it…if this constitutes a cycling scandal in 2016 then we’re not too bad off.

Elsewhere

It’s been a busy couple of weeks of cycling news from an actual racing angle. A number of one day races in Italy and Belgium as well as the Eneco Tour in the later nation. Peter Sagan stood out, winning two races at Eneco, finishing 3rd overall and winning the European road title. It’s been a heck of a month for the Slovak in his return to road racing from the mountain bike.

This coming weekend is another big one. The final monument of the season: Il Lombardia. Vincenzo Nibali won’t be fit enough in time to defend his title and the list of contenders is long. As wide open a field as we’ve seen in a while. My pick is Romain Bardet. The young Frencham is in good form and is due a big one-day victory. An outside tip might be Greg Van Avermaet. The Belgian showed his new found pedigree on hilly circuits at Rio and in Montreal and could find a way to shine. It will be a good watch.

Rider of the week (last week):

I missed last week. There was various 1.1 ranked races with various winners. Italians done well on home soil. Sagan won the European road championships. Jonathan Castroveijo won the European time-trial title. But I went with Rendon Gaviria who took a 2nd and a 1st over two days in one-day races in Belgium.

Rider of the week (this week):

The Enco Tour dominated the schedule this week; won by Niki Terpstra. But he didn’t win any stages on the way. Peter Sagan did though. He won two and was 3rd, 6th and 8th in three of the four others. He finished third in GC, losing out on the final day. He gets the prize.

Rest day 2 musings: Chris Froome and ugly bias he fights against

It’s a day of rest at the Tour, but as we know all too well, there’s no such thing really. The riders won’t even get a day away from the saddle…a couple of hours spin is required to keep the legs turning over, to ensure they’re ready to go once the racing begins again in earnest tomorrow. And begin again in earnest it will surely do as they head into the high Alps.

They need only look back to the day after the last rest day when on the first climb of the Tour, into the Pyrenees, Chris Froome came out swinging and many were caught stiff. As a result many contenders seen their Tour hopes die that day and it’s left Froome in complete control. Indeed, many believe his victory in this years Tour is now a formality.

Still, while Froome’s fight on the road may be under control with just five days to go, off the bike, against accusations in the media, condemnation on corners of Twitter, and abuse at the sides of the road, the fight has never been more intense.

Just two days ago things sunk to a new low on stage 15 when it was alleged by Chris Froome himself that a spectator (let’s not call him fan) threw a cup of urine in his face. That Froome didn’t put his race on hold to climb off and beat this imbecile senseless is all the credit to his restraint, composure and focus on the race itself. Whoever it was, I hope they find him, arrest him and block his anonymous Twitter account! It was nothing short of disgusting.

Froome himself has laid some of the blame at the feet of the media, in particular the French press. Not that they were directly responsible, but that indirectly their accusations and innuendos about his performances have led to a discontent amongst a small collection of people at the roadside.

Of course, it’s important to remember that this is just a small collection of idiots on Twitter and a smaller collection on the road sides of France amongst the hundreds of thousands that line the route and the millions that follow from home. Still, its the noise of the few and the actions of the several that appear to make the headlines and direct the narative.

They are influenced from somewhere, and so Froome is likely correct when he points the finger at elements within the media. When the likes of Laurent Jalabert is making the accusations you cannot help but feel the hypocrisy. This is a man who has doped himself, who is no more so or less so a cheat than Lance Armstrong, and yet it is only the American, and not Jalabert who sits in the commentary box, who has been told he is not welcome at the Tour when he showed up a few days ago to ride a charity event one day ahead of the race.

When ITV challenged Jalabert on his past and his remarks about Froome, the French hero scrambled for the sanctuary of the French studio, refusing to answer the questions. Which in itself only highlights the man he is when you see Froome at the press conferences answering any questions asked of him. Jalabert, when he broaches this subject and is then called out on it, reminds us that he is merely relic that belongs to a past generation and not a bastion for questioning the ethics of the Yellow jersey in 2015.

Indeed, Jalaberts reaction to ITV compared to that of Froome to the media hoards reminds us how much cycling has changed in recent years and in a funny way actually stands Froome in good light.

That said, I can’t help but ask the question of whether Chris Froome is the most persecuted man in sport? A man of which there is zero evidence against. In what other sport is someone condemned daily while going about his winning? Can you imagine the likes of Roger Federer, Rory McIlroy, Lionel Messi, LeBron James or Lewis Hamilton being criticised so heavily, having people continually condemn them on social media and have spectators throw urine or spit at them in passing? It doesn’t happen. And remember that while cycling has a dark history it has done a lot more in the fight to clean itself up than any of these other fine athletes respective sports.

Now that isn’t to say Froome deserves a free ride. I use the words ‘condemn’ and ‘insinuate’ a lot here for a reason. It’s important to draw the distinction between condemnation and questioning. Media asking Froome questions about doping or his performances are a by-product of cycling’s history, something Froome accepts is his cross to bare thanks to the likes of Armstrong, but rather than listen to his answers and look at the lack of a positive test, a covered up test, a backdated TUE, or a disgruntled former employee or rider (of which Sky has plenty) to perhaps give him the benefit of the doubt, some people simply ignore what he has to say because their minds are made up. Or, are being made up by the way the likes of Jalabert and other so-called ‘experts’ on Twitter project Froome.

You don’t have to go far on social media to find those who are desperate for Froome to be cheating; their entire existence is based on the need for it to be so. They don’t want to question him, they’re beyond skepticism, even past cynicism and into that realm of downright condemnation. It’s as though the downfall of Lance was the worst thing that could have happened as it ended their reason for being and as such they’re looking for someone else to fill the void. Froome is that someone else despite the back story not being remotely the same.

While Froome is dodging spit and urine and taking a beating on social media, the likes of Contador and Valverde are getting a free ride. That isn’t to say people should be spitting at them, of course not, but they get cheered and there’s little in the way of pseudo-science-analysis of their power data, speculation of their heart-rates and body weights, each and every day. Should Quintana go out and beat Froome on an Alpine stage, will we see the same level of speculation into his data? I can almost bet you that we will not. And don’t tell me this is just because Froome is in Yellow, because it’s not. At the Giro this year, which Contador won, he was nowhere near under the same scrutiny as Froome. Indeed, even though he came second to Contador in last years Vuelta, the heavy questions were still reserved for the Brit. You can say, well ‘the Tour is the Tour’, but even Nibali got a free pass in comparison to Froome in 2015.

Sadly, it leaves me asking the question I wish I didn’t have to contemplate: If Froome wasn’t British riding for a (wealthy) British team, would he still be treated this way? Evidence suggests not.

The simple fact is, Froome has had to deal with more than he deserves. I’m not ashamed to say I like Froome. He comes across as a classy individual off the bike and a fine athlete on it, and in recent years I’ve have become somewhat of a fan (though I found myself in a conflict of interests when last week himself and Nibali had a spat as I too am a fan of the Italian and wish he could have pushed Froome closer this year!)

I was hoping for a competitive third week of this Tour in which his rivals put him under pressure and made a race of it all the way up to the top of Alpe d’Huez but now, after what’s been going on, I would quite like to see Froome rip the rest of this race apart and annoy those that are, unashamedly, biased against him just that little bit more. Or indeed, to sit on the wheels and mark the moves and end any drama left.

Of course, that won’t happen. Froome has an ability to forget about it once he leaves the media scrums; his focus so single minded on the task at hand which is to win the Tour. This steely determination and focus was nevermore so highlighted than by his ability to ride on without missing a beat after that cup of urine was thrown in his face.

While I bring attention to the issue in this blog post it is once again worth highlighting that those taking the agenda against Froome to the extreme on the road sides and to obsession on social media are in the minority, thankfully. Hundreds of Thousands on the road and millions at home watch and enjoy and question with common sense and as such I likely won’t put a lot more energy into the ‘agenda against Froome’ subject between now and Paris.

It is meant to be a day of rest, after all.