Team Sky zero tolerance policy or how not to address reality

Team Sky has never had an active zero tolerance policy, Team Sky has always had a zero tolerance policy on doping.

Team Sky would like you to know from their statement that

“Team Sky has had a clear position on doping from the very start. We are a clean team and have shown it is possible to win clean.”

That’s a strong top line to sell, and one which is not unique to Team Sky: Garmin Sharp along with High Road Sports and Cervelo Test Team have all made that their marquee asset.

The difference here is that none of those teams actively undermined their prime asset so badly as Team Sky do in the third paragraph:

“There is no place in Team Sky for those with an involvement in doping, whether past or present. This applies to management, support staff and riders.”

When was there ever zero tolerance?

At the outset, Team Sky relied on Scott Sunderland, who had been at CSC in the Basso years. It’s no slight on Sunderland, but there must have been an astounding naivety in play during the recruitment process to ignore that he’d been part of the operation that put convicted doper Ivan Basso on the Tour de France podium in 2005, then won him the Giro in 2006 before he got the ‘tin tack’ from the 2006 Tour and CSC before the season was out and subsequently got banned for his association with Dr Fuentes.

Given that this was all current and available information at the time Sunderland was engaged, it’s hard not to suggest that ‘wilful ignorance’ might be as apposite as ‘astoundingly naive’.

At its formation it recruited Sean Yates, a rider who has an unsanctioned involvement with doping as a rider and an unproven connection through his employment on at Motorola and as a directeur sportif at Discovery Channel and Astana.  A simple search of the cycling press archives would have turned up questions about Sean Yates’ own failure to stay right side of line. It’s interesting to note that British cycling had defended him.

In 2010 it recruited Dr Gert Leinders on a freelance basis and on the quiet, hoping no one would notice his past employment at Rabobank in a period when you might run out of fingers to count the doping stories about the team. The defensive attitude to criticism and subsequent non-renewal of contract. There is nothing intelligent or appropriate about the way Sky approached this matter.

Brailsford likes to emphasise how Team Sky builds on the British Cycling values of clean sport and attention to details. In the wake of all the post-Armstrong upheaval he told William Fotheringham in The Guardian

 “The information now, the context now, is different to what it was before. I’ve read the report and found it quite shocking, the light of that will direct the discussions”

Which would be the case if most of the information and context hadn’t been freely available  in L.A. Confidentiel : Les secrets de Lance Armstrong since 2004 and latterly From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France

The great British conflict of interests

David Brailsford is British Cycling Performance Director. He is also Team Principal of Team Sky.

In a previous post on Lance Armstrong I wrote

“Take for example Emma O’Reilly’s account of effectively being asked to traffick substances across the Franco-Spanish border. It had to be taken on trust that David Walsh had got a second account corroborating events. It turns out that was Simon Lillistone, O’Reillly’s former husband (link is to £ Sunday Times site).”

Lillistone should be known to Brailsford through British Cycling. An inquiring mind with an attention to detail would have been aware of the links.

O’Reilly according to the New York Daily News has testimonials from Great Britain’s Victoria Pendleton. Here is that testimonial:

“It has been amazing to have Emma from the Body Clinic Hale as part of my wider Olympic performance team.”

Brailsford with his Great Britain hat on was OK with one of his charges receiving treatment from someone previous involved with “industrial doping”. It is not credible that as GB Performance Director he was not aware of O’Reilly’s contact with Pendleton given the precision which has so publicly been attributed to the planning of the Olympic programme .

As Michael Ashenden tells The Guardian

“They [Sky] have zero tolerance for doping. Great. But what constitutes doping according to them? Is it an anti-doping rule violation? Is it grounds for suspicion? Or are they merely relying on what the athlete tells them?”

It would seem that zero tolerance is only as strict as that which can be put in place without outside influence. As a policy it seems to have been formulated in the absence of Brailsford’s own experience.

Given The tale of David Millar, Dr Cecchini and Max Sciandri in Bad Blood: The Secret Life of the Tour de France,  do we assume then that Brailsford believes that his role in rehabilitating his friend David Millar as an international rider and selecting him for Great Britain was a past mistake that he has learned from and doesn’t wish to repeat?

Or that both Yates and Sciandri, despite questions about their past have been valuable servants of British Cycling’s current boom? There is a laughable absurdity to the fact that for years Britain’s best young riders were schooled by a protege and friend of Cecchini.

Barry, to some degree, was an open secret – questions and eyebrows were raised when he was hired by Sky given his past employers. Through his Team High Road experience, there was evidence of an attitude change and it’s hard to imagine that in the process of referencing him, Team Sky’s recruitment policy wouldn’t have had indications as to his past.

Likewise, Mick Rogers’ Ferrari connection was pretty widely discussed and a rumour that I’d certainly been aware of before he signed for Team Sky. What does that say for the quality of due diligence being undertaken by management? It’s all well and good looking at the numbers on their SRM, but that seems to have been the only thing they looked at.

Yet, on BBC Radio 5 live Brailsford praised Barry and his attitude at Team Sky in the same breath as effectively handing him his cards, despite being a retired rider.

All change, no change

It’s surreal to hear talk that the policy hasn’t changed, never changed and has always been adherred to given Brailsford admits to talking to Neal Stephens, formerly of Festina and Liberty-Seguros and took Michael Barry on face value despite allegations that were current at the time of his hiring.

The PR campaign around this announcement is prejudicial to riders who decide not to re-sign for reasons other than doping, because already any rider who announces they are going elsewhere is open to speculation about their reasons for doing so. It may blight their career and reputation in the current climate of fear.

Will they make clear which staff are which? And does it even matter if they do?

All their policy and declaration contribute to the creeping sense of keep your mouth shut and your head down, which is precisely what led to omertà.

If was sky rider who had past issues, I would start looking for a 2014 deal and brazen it out. Because there are better places to be than where you career development is less important than Team Sky clinging on to their last vestiges of dignity in a PR battle they lost before they even started.

Posted in Doping | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

In defence of Paul Kimmage

“Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be” – Chuck D

Paul Kimmage is an exemplary journalist. A cantankerous goat he may be at times, but he is an incredible journalist with an ability to get inside an athlete’s head that makes me weep with envy.

Paul Kimmage (centre) confronts Lance Armstrong at the Tour of California

Paul Kimmage (centre) confronts Lance Armstrong at the Tour of California. © Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I’ve written before about how Kimmage changed the game in cycling journalism, not once but twice. That second game changer – releasing a verbatim transcript of his Floyd Landis interview after it was hacked to pieces by lawyers – may even have contributed to his parting with The Sunday Times.

Great journalists are consistent in their position and honest about their views. Kimmage has always been consistent in seeking out the source of an athlete’s drive, fighting artifice and deception as it is presented to him, and determined to shout for the athlete who engages in an interview or feature with honesty, regardless of what that truth may be.

Those qualities are almost certainly why Bradley Wiggins wanted him off the Team Sky bus in 2010, when by his own admission wasn’t delivering on what his role demanded. I’d hazard that Kimmage saw through the front and bluster of ‘Brad/Wiggo’ and he didn’t like it.

Those qualities are what gained the confidence of Floyd Landis, a man he had mercilessly pushed to tell the truth. They are what made him one of the few journalists to continue to stand up and ask the hard questions in press conferences. They are what made Lance Armstrong so determined to publicly defame him at the Tour of California.

It’s why, when faced by an unprecedented series of allegations against the most senior figures in the UCI, past and  present – Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid – they are chasing him in the Swiss courts for defamation.

Let’s be clear, the basis for this case includes articles and statements made in the British press, which falls within the jurisdiction of English libel law, almost universally acknowledged to be one of the most favourable to the complainant in any legal system. They have chose to make their case against Kimmage as an individual, and not against the publications (L’Equipe and The Sunday Times in particular) in a Swiss court with the use of court reporters.

This is unheard of in my experience of journalism and to my mind speaks of a suit aimed at silencing a critic whose opinion looks increasingly to be that made in good faith and supported by evidence.

NY Velocity has flagged up  a Paul Kimmage defense fund -which Digger Forum set up – which you are welcome to donate to.

If you are a Swiss lawyer with expertise in defamation law and the defence thereof and would be willing to work pro bono on Paul Kimmage’s behalf on this case, feel free to make yourself known to those mentioned above.

Posted in Opinion | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Lance Armstrong and the death of a romantic dream

Lance Armstrong speaking at SapphireNow

(Photo by Tom Raftery, used under Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons)

I watched Lance Armstrong’s first Tour de France victory through a blinding haze of alcohol, in the blazing heat of a summer of celebration in France. I was teaching English at Cavilam in Vichy, having just graduated from Manchester University, so it was a final farewell to student life.

The two summers I spent in Vichy were among the most fun of my life – I was there during France’s World Cup win in 1998 and spent a summer with my friends in the town. A young Englishman, nearly fluent after a year living there, in a provincial French town can have a lot of fun. And I did, but that’s another story.

(I may have missed a few classes due to late nights and not been the best behaved, but that was life for me then: keeping it together just enough to get by on my wits and living life to the fullest.)

It was a time of blissful ignorance, both for me and for cycling. The rude awakening of the Festina Affair had apparently just been a bad dream and then along came this implausibly perfect story that no one wanted to disbelieve.

Cycling wasn’t as important to me back then – music and cinema were my main obsessions – but I remember the pure romanticism of Armstrong’s first win. After everything that had threatened the event in 1998, it was the perfect clean start, delivered with a fresh icon that few, if any, wanted to doubt from the outset.

Like the vast majority of casual sporting fans, I didn’t follow the intricacies of cycling which gave reason to the doubt. Neither do I like to think the worst of things which I enjoy outside of work, where doubt is a compulsory skill.

The problem with doubt is that it doesn’t require want or desire to begin or to grow. And the longer a question goes unanswered truthfully, the more irresistible doubt becomes.  The details came later when I rediscovered my love of the bike in 2004.

At that point the appeal of Armstrong had extended well beyond being a simple cycling story. For anyone who entered road cycling as an activity in those years, the master narrative of the miraculous comeback, based simply on hard work and determination, was utterly compelling.

I’m usually wary of mocking people who still want to believe in that narrative. It’s hugely powerful, seductive and – for those with a fresh love of cycling – can form a huge motivation to challenge themselves to achieve.

While the weight of evidence now hangs heavy, until the publication of LA Confidentiel in 2004, the questioning was fairly spread around. It was from very reputable sources and of often of remarkable journalistic quality. But being spread around and largely confined to print rather than digital, not accessible in the way it might be now.

Even after reading and digesting all the main tracts which existed over the course of my rediscovering cycling, part of me still didn’t want to be convinced that such a fraud could be possible. Who would want something so incredible to be so tainted?

Buried deep down in that is a sense that no one wants to be taken for a mug. It’s hard to admit you might have fallen for a charade. I got motivated by a charlatan? Yep, that’s hard to accept, but yes it looks like Armstrong sold me a lemon when I got back into cycling. And if that’s how I feel as a journalist, someone who stands up stories for a living, how is everyone else meant to feel?

For an entire generation of riders, in particular the ones now being asked to comment, Armstrong’s achievements were likely a touchstone of what kept them on an upward trajectory to the professional ranks. So I can see what so many feel uncomfortable putting themselves in judgment, because to do so puts their own position and deep held beliefs about what they can achieve in question.

All that pure belief that you can overcome, gone. Can you really give that up for a soundbite, or is it too complex emotionally to surrender it for the benefit of the press?

But over the years, the more I read and the more evidence that came to light, the more convincing the questions became. The master narrative had become like soot and tallow obscuring a renaissance fresco and the questions a restoration process: Painfully slow, delicate and with immense risk, requiring painstaking attention to detail.

I think by around 2007 I had seen enough questioning evidence for my romantic view to have died.  Why did it take so long? Because the context was difficult and because the quality of debate made it almost impossible to keep moving forward. It’s frequently been noted that Lance Armstrong is one of the most divisive sporting stars in history, and the debate around the evidence on both sides reflects this.

As time has passed, the nature of the answer to the fundamental question “Is it possible Lance Armstrong won all seven Tours clean?” never really changed. Nor did the answers from both sides didn’t, entrenched immovable in their bunkered and blinkered views. Of course he did, of course he didn’t.

At the point of schism there was something strange happening. The longer the questions remained unanswered, the more it seemed that everyone was answering different questions: Morality, sporting law, xenophobia, globalisation all intruded on what should have been straightforward examination of evidence.

The evidence was slow to develop and relied on trust that papers like Le Monde, L’Equipe and The Sunday Times were still standing up stories in the proper way. Take for example Emma O’Reilly’s account of effectively being asked to traffick substances across the Franco-Spanish border. It had to be taken on trust that David Walsh had got a second account corroborating events. It turns out that was Simon Lillistone, O’Reillly’s former husband (link is to £ Sunday Times site).

By the time of Puerto then Landis, I’d resigned myself to the absurd. The question didn’t even seem to be worth asking. I think a lot of people had become resigned to it, perhaps that what he wanted.  Resignation, a sure sign of the demise of romance.

We knew that there were people out there that knew, we knew that the likelihood of someone dominating such a tainted era clean was unlikely. The romance of the sport destroyed by a continued erosion of trust.

So whatever your feelings about guilt or  innocence, unchanged as they will be by this blog post, perhaps what rankles most for me is the cynicism with which the Armstrong era has blighted the sport.

Posted in Lance Armstrong | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Why competitive sport teaches you very little

I don’t believe that focusing solely on bringing back competitive sport in schools is the answer. I believe that engaging children with high quality coaching and skills is far more important than them being able to show off their Win-Lose-Draw stats at the end of a year. One season’s results are meaningless set against longer term engagement.

I played a fair amount of sport when I was young, to what you could describe as a reasonably high standard. Actually, I played a lot of sport, so I’m going to show you my experience, which is arguably very specific but I hope illustrative.

A scholarship to a private texas defensive driving courses, Bradfield College, allowed  me – the son of a single parent NHS nurse – to get my name in Wisden for taking 15 wickets in a season (1993, under the schools cricket section) and to represent Berkshire at County-level hockey up to Under-18s (as a goalkeeper). I played sport alongside future Olympians (Dan Robinson, Great Britain Marathon runner, Beijing 2008) and against future international sportsmen (Andrew Strauss, England cricket captain, then at Radley).

We played competitive matches on up to three days of the week (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) and on the other days there was organised sport with coaching from staff, usually a session lasting an hour to two hours. I was coached during my time by:

  • Former captain of Guildford Hockey club
  • International standard hockey goalkeepers
  • Cambridge cricket Blue
  • Former Derbyshire County Cricket captain
  • Former Somerset County Cricket wicketkeeper
  • Former Wycombe Wanderers footballer

While our competitive records were good – I think in one hockey season we only conceded 2 goals in over 15 matches – they were only good because of the training. An average week of sport for me probably worked out at in excess of 20 hours training and competition. Some days you’d take part in organised sport twice a day – in the afternoon and late in the evening.

Learning good process matters more than who you compete against

What I remember most about all that training was learning the right processes – technique, tactics, structured work – which allowed me to perform to the best of my ability. Back then cycling wasn’t much of a sporting activity for me, I was cricket obsessed, no surprise given my Guyanese mother.

I remember one afternoon going out onto the cricket square to practice with Dickie Brooks, who I’m told was a former Somerset county wicketkeeper. He put a hankerchief down on the spot he wanted the spin bowlers to hit. His challenge: if you focus on technique then you should be able to lift that hankerchief clean off the ground into the wicketkeeper’s gloves. I spent the entire afternoon trying to do that.

From that I learned a whole process for visualising every delivery and discovering the physical shape and sensation that would help me to be a better bowler. I questioned what went right when I came closest to that perfect delivery and trying to eliminate the elements in my delivery that stopped me achieving that goal.

I’d studied the technique of Phil Tufnell, then England’s best slow-left armer and built my run-up to mimic his (I would have found a West Indian to model myself on but for a dearth of spin in any West Indies attack in that era). I’d done that because a coach had shown me how a consistent run-up would allow me to improve my delivery stride because I’d always be releasing the ball from the same spot.

Gradually I refined what I was doing to the point where I could bowl a consistent over of six deliveries which offered at worst one or two scoring opportunities to a batsman. That wouldn’t have happened without good quality coaching and their expertise.

I’ve not played a play slot games online of any real significance in nearly 20 years, but if you throw me a ball and show me a set of stumps I can still instinctively measure out me run up and put the ball in roughly the right place, age and injury allowing.

That I can still do that gives me great pleasure. That mastery of technique has lasted far longer than the experience of competition. It’s what Jim Cowan, writing about legacy on Inside The Games, calls “physical literacy”.

Competition only ever served to validate my mastery of skills, and even then only served to confirm that there were some who had developed better skills than mine and some who had not.

Certainly that was the only conclusion we could draw from watching Andrew Strauss and Robin Martin-Jenkins punishing display when they scored 300 runs in a little over three hours. Even in the face of that we were able to look at our performance and say honestly we hadn’t bowled badly, we had simply been outclassed.

The void of ‘getting a result’

After leaving school I continued playing hockey at university and for my local club, the latter largely because my friend Simon persuaded me. We trained once a week for a couple of hours, but never with quite the discipline we had at school.

The weekend match was the focus of the sport, alongside the social aspect. The same could be said of the occasional cricket matches I played: you might get a pasting or thrash the opposition but the quality of the food and beer was of as much significance as the result.

By then, perhaps I’d reached a level I could get by at without having to improve on what I already knew. Without the time or motivation to do any better I increasingly fell out of love with playing sport because it had become about “getting a result”. It is a horrible phrase and indicative of some of the reasons why I drifted away from being part of sports clubs in my 20s.

I feel those who carried on playing and being involved with sport did so because of a genuine love of their sport, and probably despite the other things which impinge on our time as we get older. They’re the ones coaching, volunteering their time now with juniors who are getting into the sport.

When you are doing sport solely for the desire to get a result, you stop doing the processes that made you good at it in the first place. It’s the anti-thesis of everything that makes kids fall in love with sport and physical activity.

Getting a result is what the parents heaping abuse on football referees down your local park are all about, what that outraged parent berating the commissaire on a Tuesday night are all about. It’s nothing to do with the inspiration that sport can be about and the skills it can teach.

There’s a good reason people take up challenge sports – like triathlon, swimming, marathon running, cycling sportives – it’s because they are disciplines where it is possible to focus on mastering a skill and setting a level of attainment that comes from within, not without.

When I came to cycling seriously in my late 20s, I already had the transferable skills to make cycling something I could enjoy:

  • I understood how structured training works
  • How you can progress by improving technique
  • How to set realistic goals (which frequently I set far to low if I’m honest)
  • Why it was more important to focus on enjoying the activity that winning

Why British Cycling’s success isn’t about gold medals

Competitive sport, right up to elite level, is about process not results. The golden success of  British Cycling are not the result of any focus on simply winning gold.

If you look beyond the results table, it’s not the result that matters to the athlete but the act of performing to the best of their capacity in that moment. When they are disappointed it’s generally not because they didn’t win, it’s because they failed to give a full account of their abilities.

Their ruthless selection process, demanded by funding targets, means that when they apply the processes, they know that they are working with someone who is pre-disposed to achieving an elite level of performance with a likely outcome of winning.

Chris Hoy did not become the athlete he is simply by pointing himself in the direction of the podium and gritting his teeth. He has had to change direction several times and each time, close examination reveals that he achieved gold by mastering processes, mastering skills and becoming entirely literate in what he needed to do to achieve his best. Like a science experiment, Hoy’s preparation for the Olympics is far more insightful than the actual result.

How did Hoy win the Keirin? He knew that from his hours of training, practice and repetition he would be able to accelerate through the bend while keeping his bike below the red line. It was a move that wasn’t born of competition, it was a move born of experience and understanding. It’s the tactic that you don’t use often in competition, because you shouldn’t need to use it if all the other processes work. But Hoy knew – from his hours behind a motorbike on the Manchester velodrome, the coaching, the analysis, the support – that he had that there in his ability.

Competitive sport didn’t teach him how to do that, structured training, top level coaching and support did. The competitive element is a final validation of a way of working that is not about results but about processes that deliver results.

Hoy was not the gold medalist simply because of a competitive sense of “wanting it more” on the day. He was the gold medalist because he had wanted to improve himself as an athlete every day in training.

Like everything else of value in life, the appreciation of skill and learning is what makes the results worthwhile, not the results themselves. And that’s why competitive sport on its own will teach you very little of note.

Posted in Opinion | Tagged | 2 Comments

Why winning bike races can make you unpopular with the public

A lot of flak is hovering around the Team Sky bus right now with questions about transparency, employees and results going off all over.

Bradley Wiggins is the most obvious target of much of the incoming fire, in particular over his hotheaded outburst in a press conference and his perceived indifference to the question of doping now that he is leading the Tour de France.

Richard Moore, writing for Cycle Sport, asks what has changed? Wiggins’ reply is as illuminating as it has been ignored:

“I suppose as I’ve got more successful, I’ve almost got to the point where I don’t care about [doping] any more. Because what I’m doing is so time consuming and intense, I can’t be worrying about all that other stuff.”

Part of what Dr Steve Peters has instilled in every sporting star he has worked with is the need to remove ‘negative’ influence and the associated doubts from the competitive mindset.

What we’re seeing with Wiggins now is nothing more than this. The blocking of people who raise questions or criticise him? That’s just removing doubt and uncertainty from his mind and allowing him to focus on winning the Tour.

I’ve heard this from other athletes who have been the “go to” person on a topic or who have rung the bell for change: there comes a point when it becomes mentally exhausting to the point of detriment.

Ultimately, he is avoiding wasting energy on the questioning of his own achievements. This is as negative externally as it is internally reassuring for the athlete.

You can see it reflected in another reply he gave a couple of days later:

“I’m not some shit rider who has just came from nowhere. I’ve been three times Olympic champion on the track. People have to realise what kind of engine you need to win an Olympic gold medal as an individual pursuiter.”

Think of it this way: there are times when as a parent (not that I am one) you need to ignore the kids shouting “Mum/Dad can I have a lolly?” on infinite loop and concentrate on not putting the car in the ditch.

There may be lots of things that Sky can do to diffuse the transparency timebomb that is ticking underneath them:

  • Bernie Eisel having a massage video
  • Christian Knees nobbly knees photo diary (a different face on each knee every day)
  • E-Bo-A-Go-Go: the secret life of Edvald as a podium dancer
  • Chris Froome sings The Lion Sleeps Tonight with Richie Porte and Mick Rogers doing the a-wim-ba-we bits

But to expect divert significant energy to answering questions about Wiggins track record or career progress is not something they will want to do.

Now that might not endear them to fans or journalists, but honestly, if you were in their shoes, would you waste a single breath on anything that didn’t win you the race?

Come Paris, if they’re still not willing to talk, then it becomes a real issue.

Posted in 2012 | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

3 things from 3 Tour de France stages

1. Team Sky have not become self-aware

For all their dominance in the run-up to the Tour, they seem to be lacking the confidence to place Wiggins in the posh seats at the front. Sending back multiple riders to try and bring Froome back up as Plan B showed their hand far too early.

On Stage 3, Froome ended up in the barriers and Wiggins was slowed by a stack. What’s notable is that, bar Denis Menchov, almost all the other big GC contenders were the right side of that incident.

They’ve had poor luck with punctures if you want to be generous. Now with Sivtsov out, they are a man down. Handsome Bernie Eisel is going to have to get his Classics legs out the box and start filling that hole at some point.

Cavendish will find himself fully freelance, and don’t be surprised if he puts in shifts. He’s nothing if not a committed team player and knows that there’s potential gold at the end of the rainbow.

2. Watching BMC’s engine room of Hincapie, Quinziato and Burghardt at work is a joy

By contrast, BMC have been class so far in placing Cadel Evans in the box seat. George Hincapie seems to be in charge of putting him where he needs to be in the last 5km, while Manuel Quinziato and Marcus Burghardt – with others – do the ugly work in the last 30km when it’s on like Donkey Kong.

There was a moment when the three of them lost Evans on their way to the front on Stage 2. The looks they gave each other told you how important it is to them to get the job done, and get it done properly.

3. There’s some right miserable buggers out there 

Yes you Robbie Hunter, and a section of the viewing public. Peter Sagan isn’t being arrogant, he’s smashing stage wins and enjoying it. God forbid he should enjoy that moment or express that in a way which might entertain.

When you win in the world’s biggest race, against the world’s best riders, you can bloody well Can-Can across the line for all I care.

I, however, will not be truly happy with the boy Sagan until I see a full “Big fish, little fish, cardboard box” celebration. A hand-jive might suffice if it’s a bit tight for room.

Posted in 2012, Tour de France | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

We need to talk about Frank

There’s been widespread questioning of Andy Schleck’s ability to be competitive at the Tour de France 2012 after a disastrous Dauphiné which saw him abandon, succumbing to the effects of a crash in the time trial. The Dauphin, dethroned at the Dauphiné, if you will.

(I managed to type that entire passage with a straight face)

Meanwhile, Frank Schleck decided he had a point to prove and attacked on the first mountain finish of the Tour of Switzerland. A point somewhat undermined when he was beaten to the line by Rui Costa of Movistar.

Having been as unwilling a participant as an eager deserter of the Giro d’Italia, is the elder Schleck suddenly in danger of stealing his brother’s moment at the Tour?

Radishhack-Nissen Hut are standing by their man like a politician’s wife, issuing a press release  in which they state:

“The original plans will still be followed. When the condition of Andy Schleck improves in the coming days, he will do his training camps in the Pyrenees and the Alps to get that final shape for the Tour.”

Which is a brave face coming between this from Johan Bruyneel:

“Andy’s situation is not a good sign for his Tour preparation, especially if you look now at the level of his competitors. For the moment there is not much we can do. It is a difficult situation.”

And this from Andy:

“The good thing is that I have done six stages. Some people will say ‘It is only three weeks till the Tour’ but you can also say it is ‘still’ three weeks to the start in Liège. You can do a lot in three weeks. That is my strength. I’ve shown it in the last years. I was not good in the Tour de Suisse but I was in the Tour de France. I won’t stop believing in it.  I’ve worked hard for this.”

Frank is the dutiful elder brother, indeed he has always been the first to support his brother’s claim. Viewed as a dynastic power struggle, the most obvious reading may not be the most true.

Wise counsel to the Prince

There is an unconfirmed account that round about the time that Lance Armstrong was eyeing the exit door from Tailwind Sport’s Discovery Channel incarnation, there was a strong indication of interest in signing Andy Schleck, already tipped by Cyrille Guimard for greatness. The failure of this deal is said to reside in his immature insistence on bringing Frank with him.

Given the Schleck family’s long history in the sport – and that at this point Frank had already started to establish his career – where was the counsel from within the camp to consider such an offer more seriously? Or was Bjarne Riis more pragmatic in his bidding for his CSC team, prepared to give short term position to Frank in return for the riches that might follow?

It seems odd to me that Frank would not want to assert his position at CSC as  the inheritor elect to Carlos Sastre as protected Grand Tour rider. Or did he see that by keeping his brother’s talent close, he would be able to better protect his position as an effective regent and then counsel?

Dethroned without a coronation

Frank’s Amstel Gold win in 2006 meant that he wouldn’t go wanting for a contract. He dodged the Puerto stampede for the exit at the Tour that year – despite later admitting to a clear financial association with Fuentes for which he received no sanction – and won on Alpe d’Huez with one of the most preposterous victory expressions ever seen in cycling.

Then Andy turned up and came second behind Danilo di Luca at the 2007 Giro, apparently without really planning to do so. In one of the most climber friendly Tours of recent times Frank was conspicuously quiet, albeit shackled to the service of Carlos Sastre, who had been third in 2006.

In 2008 Frank was leading the Tour de France, when Sastre was sent up the road to draw out Cadel Evans on Alpe d’Huez, in a great display of the power of a good team and strong tactics. In those 14 kilometres, Frank’s opportunity to seize the crown faded and his fate as prince but never king was apparently sealed.

The next year, Andy would emerge as the only rider capable of matching Alberto Contador at the Tour, while Frank would be reduced to relying on his brother’s surges to chase the podium before succumbing to a sixth place finish.

I take the castle  

The frustration in the Schleck camp was evident after they watched the Tour win ride away from them in 2008. The genesis of the Leopard-Trek can be seen in that moment.

The assumption has always been that the project was at its origin primarily a vehicle for Andy to win the Tour, following disillusion with Riis. Yet Andy was drawing closer to Contador under the Dane’s guidance at Saxo Bank, which had a strong and established structure and reputation.

Frank was lead conspirator in the mutiny that led to Team Schleck, the ship on which a Schleck would sail to Tour victory and lasting greatness in the sport. That was assumed to mean Andy.

But was Frank who stood to benefit most. Committed to either heroic fraternal sacrifice or unexpected glory, his claim on the title would be seen as neither plotted or avaricious.

As the reserve force, he would be able to avoid the attritional effects of being in the vanguard but could sweep in and claim the glory, should the battle unfold in that manner. In the event of a collapse, he would not be to blame, but could bravely support his brother through his difficulties.

Let’s put this into a practical reading, the Tour de France 2011. This helpful chart from wikipedia plots relative positions on the overall.

Tour de France 2011 GC positions

The key point here is around stage 18, the day of Andy’s long-range attack ahead of the Galibier. It’s been described as a “bold” move, but it was also a desperate one.

Frank’s role was to follow Evans and counter if Andy was brought back. Andy being a minute back, Evans could let him swing out front and close him down late on.

Which is exactly what he did, managing the gap so that the pressure in the following stages would always be with the Schlecks. Evans didn’t need or want to bring back Andy because that opened him up to a counter from Frank.

Put it in that context and the attack becomes less about Andy winning the Tour and more about him being used as a feint to put Frank in a stronger position. I believe Evans read the move well and turned the divided intent of the Schlecks against them, in military terms  keeping the forces divided to weaken their impact.

Now ask yourself, is it Andy whose desire to win the Tour runs deepest, or is it Frank who, behind the curtain, has shaped his brother’s career for his own ends?

Posted in Andy Schleck, Professional, Tour de France | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Some recommended cycling reading

I’ve not had much time to write recently so, in lieu of silence or half-baked wittering from me, here’s some recommended reading to fill your time with. I’ve skipped twitter and obvious blogs, as well as magazines. This is a short list of some of the places I like to visit on my interwebs wanderings.

Rock and rouleur – When he’s not bike-bothering, Perry finds time to hold down a day job as the guitarist in Pendulum, touring the world and getting to perform in front of thousands of baying fans. Follow his bike jaunts and guitar adventures. Also, he’s so Welsh even Geraint Thomas and Nicole Cooke feel a bit inferior next to him.

Jo Rowsell’s blog posts – In among the News updates, Jo’s blog posts are a great insight into what it’s like to go from being a top-level cyclist aiming for the Olympics to one of the most in-demand Team GB athletes going to London 2012. Her latest post, on going from World Record setting to the Daybreak sofa is a million miles from the usual fare of professional cycling.

The Cycling Lawyer – The junction between cycling and the law is the most important barometer of how cyclists are considered as road users. As a QC, Martin Porter provides some of the most thorough and informed commentary on cycling and the law in the UK. Martin Porter is another friend of mine: we’ve raced together for years and ridden the Etape together (he somewhat quicker than me).

Cycling Inquisition – One of the few blogs that never fails to deliver something interesting and different. Passionately and – despite its own protests – well written, it brings a very personal perspective on the sport, with its delicious insights into Colombian cycling. It’s always a joy to read about the world beyond the European scene, especially given that Colombia is a sleeping giant of the sport, slowly being roused from its slumbers through the 1990s.

Big Ring Riding – Like an insane drunk with a large cowbell, equal parts hilarious and just a bit scary. Big Ring Riding comes to praise, the riders who bury themselves in search of glory.

Women’s Cycling Tumblr – If I need to find out something about women’s cycling, I go to Sarah’s blog. She knows as much as anyone writing and someone needs to hire her to do so. Quick note: It’s WOMEN’S cycling, not Ladies or Girls. No one says Gentlemen’s or Boys about the Men’s racing.

Posted in Blogs | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Bad habits in the Benelux – the wayward learning of Andy Schleck

Andy Schleck has probably forgotten more about bike riding than most of us will ever learn. but the one thing he is yet to learn is perhaps the lesson he most needs: Success begets success.


Image by Jean Pierre Belot on Flickr

(Having typed that, I’m suddenly doubtful. Most of us can: get down a hill without soiling our nappy; change gear without coming to a grinding halt; work out that a bike on which we can barely reach the drops of the handlebars probably isn’t the right fit; accept that you don’t win by riding for someone else when you should be attacking.)

But here’s a simple test if you think I’m being unfair: Not including the Tour de France 2010, which he won by default, can you name the last multi-stage race in which Andy Schleck won the overall classification. And for a bonus point what was the last race which Andy Schleck won. * (what I think are the answers at the bottom of this post)

The more consistent I become in gaining world-class results the less doubt there is in my mind.  – Bradley Wiggins, on winning Paris-Nice

There’s plenty of knockers for Wiggo – some of them with so little point to what they’re saying you could barely push your way through the skin on a custard with them – but one thing you can’t knock him for is understanding that if you want to win big you have to start winning often.

Look at Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans: when they turn up to race, they don’t turn up just to get round or maybe test their legs on one climb on one stage. They turn up and give the tree a shake because they know that the confidence you gain from a good result is worth far more than another winter spent in the wind tunnel trying to make yourself less like a square rigged sail on a time trial bike.

In consecutive years, on the final climb of the Tour de France, Andy Schleck has turned to them and begged like a child for them to help him or to attack. They in turn have looked back at him with eyes full of the knowledge and confidence that they’ve learned how good a win feels and quite like where they are sitting in his wheel.

Andy seems content to carry on giving isolated stages a bang in the Tours of Switzerland and California while ignoring opportunities to ride the exact route of the decisive stage of the Tour de France in race conditions.

As I look at today’s results, Andy Schleck finished 2 minutes back on stage two of the Volta a Catalunya, back with the crash victims and domestiques. Up in the front group: Wiggins, Gesink, Van den Broeck, Leipheimer.  Now that could be simple bad luck, but then again misfortune has a habit of finding easy victims.

His opponents see every race as a chance to start building the trust in colleagues and establish when they need to rely on themselves; to figure out the logistics and interlinking skills needed in a three-week race; to find their voice as a leader and how to motivate their team.

Every race is about practicing good habits, building momentum, learning how to improve your weaker areas and figuring out your rivals. Andy seems to view them as a minor inconvenience to be endured until July and the Tour de France comes round.

Cyrille Guimard who shaped him at VC Roubaix compared his talent to some of his previous charges such as Greg Lemond, Bernard Hinault and the late and much missed Laurent Fignon.

Andy Schleck is 26, an age at which Fignon had two Tours de France to his name and, but for an errant helicopter,  should have also had a Giro d’Italia. It’s all very well point to his young rider’s classification jerseys, but as the leading rider of his age by a margin, they aren’t really enough of a return on his talent. Raymond Poulidor may have become mythologised as the eternal second, but he won plenty in his time. Andy Schleck hasn’t won a great deal.

Finally, let’s talk about the Galibier stage of the Tour de France 2011. It’s easy to focus on the attack on the Col d’Izoard and the 2’15” between him and Cadel Evans at the finish. But take a look at that final kilometre to the finish: Evans took 45 seconds back on Schleck. At 5km to go, the gap was 3’15”, at 11km it was 4’15” according to the Cyclingnews account of the stage.

Those 45 seconds made a world of difference the next day when Evans sat tight less than a minute behind Schleck, and the day after that, when he started the time trial with one minute to take back on a course he knew rather than the thick end of two.

* By my reckoning, the last time Andy Schleck won a stage race was the Fleche du Sud in 2004 as an 18-year-old amateur. The last professional race in which he finished first was Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2009.

Posted in Andy Schleck, Professional | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hi-Viz yellow, a blot and a blight on the landscape

Sky Ride Southampton_11-08-14_054

(Just imagine how much nicer the picture above would be if the bottom half weren’t obliterated by eye-gouging yellow)

Hi-Viz yellow is a blot and a blight on the British landscape. Like the increasingly common “daylight” LED headlights, it is a solution that creates as many problems as it solves.

The ubiquity of the heavy yellow fabric, inevitably stained with grime up the back, disheartens me on a daily basis. It’s lazy, ugly and  depressing, the antithesis of everything riding a bike should be.

I was once told a story of a watercolour painter who found that he found it increasingly hard to paint the glorious landscapes of Dartmoor on account of the eye-bleeding distraction of luminous yellow trooping across the Tors. Looking at the picture at the top of this post, I know how that painter feels.

I’m not totally opposed to bright colours. I wear a very bright pink Rapha gilet on occasion and at the right time of day or night, I’m a big fan of reflective materials to catch the eye of other road users. I’m a fan of eye-catching colours when the light is flat or there’s mist or fog – like this morning when I wore my Liquigas lime green gilet – which reduce visibility, but there are many more colours than simply yellow.

Hi-Viz yellow is symptomatic of a passive state in which that the wearer has been made safer simply by putting on the garment, rather than actively seeking to be safer by using lights, observation and other elements of roadcraft. That’s all before it’s often hidden behind a bag or rucksack.

Under sodium orange glare of street lighting I find that it tends to bleed into the background, rendering it no safer than anything other colour. Only things like the reflective panelling on Respro’s hump  really stand out in those conditions.

More than anything it seems to be a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon obsession. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it making the same visual dent in the landscape of France, Italy, the Netherlands or Denmark, or the usually cautious Germany.

On clear day there is no justification for claiming that a cyclist is any harder to spot than a pedestrian crossing a road. No one has ever suggested in all seriousness that pedestrians should all wear yellow tabards for crossing the road as a matter of course.

But a significant proportion of British cyclists default to yellow rather than exploring the spectrum of opportunity, from the brightest of peacock blues to bold purples and glorious reds. Go out my readers and ride away from the boring, dare to push away from lazy choices.

Cycling should be about moving as part of your landscape, the sensation of oneness with the terrain around you, not gouging a visual tear in the landscape.

If tomorrow you burn your hi-Viz jacket or bib, then you will have done something to restore a little bit of beauty to the experience of cycling.

Posted in Clothing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment